They keep the sea to their left sides, and they walk.
The goal is to walk until they end up in the exact same spot, or find a road, or something that suggests there’s civilization here.
(Though here has never felt so indefinable a concept to Burr as it does now.)
Burr’s legs feel heavy, still sore from bracing in the boat. He lost his boots somewhere in the turmoil, so he walks barefoot. Hamilton had kept one shoe, but had taken it off before they disembarked on their scouting expedition, left it on the beach like some odd totem.
They walk on the wet, firm sand. Hamilton walks ahead of him, more energized than Burr, who is more used to scouting from the back of a horse than on foot. It’s hot already, and sweat begins to trickle down the back of his neck. Burr tries to keep a lookout as he walks, but there’s a dizzying sameness to this place – the blue of the ocean, a white strip of sand, then a vivid green of the foliage. It’s beautiful, really, the kind of tropical paradise Burr had read about in books, but up close it’s almost too much to bear.
He walks with the same sort of mechanical steadiness he employed on those cold, endless marches in the army. The kind where he does not think about walking.
He’s aware of someone beside him. Hamilton has slowed so he’s now walking beside Burr, in the wetter stretch of sand. Hamilton’s quiet, but Burr can practically hear him buzzing, the words zipping around inside him like a swarm of flies.
“Yes?” he says.
“Are you okay?”
Burr laughs, a short bark that’s devoid of any real humor.
“I’m shipwrecked, I haven’t seen anything other than the fucking ocean in two days, my legs hurt, I’m fucking hungry…should I go on?”
“Do you want to stop and rest?”
Burr does, but if he stops - if he so much as pauses - he isn’t sure his legs will move again.
“A few more hours, then we’ll make camp for the night, okay?”
Burr nods. Hamilton speeds up again, and soon extends his lead over Burr. Burr can hear sounds drifting back, and realizes Hamilton is singing something, low, and he can’t quite make out the words.
Burr's legs have begun to protest despite his efforts to ignore them, so he changes tactics. Instead, he tells himself it’s just ten steps. When he reaches ten, he starts over. Just ten steps. Just ten.
He stops when he feels a hand on his arm, and his name, repeated.
He’d zoned out, lost in the counting. He stops, and that was a mistake – he’s suddenly aware his legs are burning. His feet feel shrunken, wrinkled by the occasional wave and damp sand. His skin feels hot all over, wind-chafed.
“I said, I think we should stop for the night,” Hamilton says. He looks tired, too – there’s dark circles under his eyes. They move towards the trees. Burr stumbles in the loose sand, and Hamilton grabs his arm to steady him.
They drink coconut water and split the coconuts open so Hamilton can carve out pieces of the white flesh. Burr only eats a few pieces, despite Hamilton’s protests. Instead, he sits with his back to a tree, knees drawn up and elbows resting on them. Burr lowers his head into that space. He hears distant rustling as Hamilton moves off deeper into the woods, but doesn’t bother looking up.
He must have dozed off after that, because suddenly he’s being shaken awake – and none too kindly, either – and Hamilton’s kneeling beside him.
He doesn’t mean to snap, but he’s tired.
“I found these, look.”
Hamilton picks up a yellow fruit that looks almost like an apple, but is more oval.
“Mangoes! I haven’t had these in years. Have you had them?”
Mango – Burr doesn’t know that he’s heard the word before. It sounds odd. He certainly hasn’t seen these fruits. He watches with curiosity as Hamilton slices off a piece. When Burr takes it, it’s slippery in his hands and he almost drops it. He tastes it, cautious, and a rich sweetness explodes across his tongue. The fruit is like a dessert, almost unbearably sweet, delicious. Burr finishes the rest of his piece, a bit of the juice dribbling down his chin. He’s aware of Hamilton watching him.
“I take it you like it,” Hamilton says, carving off his own piece, then another for Burr. The second piece is as delicious as the first.
“It’s wonderful,” Burr says. The sugar in the fruit works wonders, as does having something that’s not a damn coconut. He feels more energetic, less tired.
“There’s several trees not far off. We’ll eat what we can tonight and tomorrow morning, carry a few with us. Hopefully if they grow here, they’ll grow all over this…place.”
He doesn’t say island. Neither of them do. Because naming things, well, it gives them power. It makes them real.
It doesn’t rain that night, which Burr considers a small miracle. He wakes stiff and sore, but he’s dry. They eat more mangoes for breakfast, and when they set off again, the ocean to their left side, they walk side by side.
“Is this what your home was like?” Burr asks.
“Kind of,” Hamilton says, “I don’t recognize all the plants. But people planted things more, cultivated them, so I don’t know what was wild and what was brought in. And I didn’t spend much time out in nature after…after mom died. I was busy.”
Burr is quiet, and grateful when Hamilton soldiers on. He’s never been the best at dealing with other’s tragedy, it makes him uncomfortable, unsure what to say.
“It was beautiful, though. There was a bay you could go to, at night, and the water looked like it was glowing, like light was just shining up through the water. Mom would take me and James, sometimes. She told us they were spirits of the dead.”
Hamilton has a wistful smile on his face.
“I don’t know if I believed that, but I still went back once, after she died. Said I missed her. Just in case. But mostly, I thought it was magic. I still do, really.”
“It wasn’t a trick of the light?”
“No, it was…it was a light coming from within. Glowing creatures in the water, I think.”
Hamilton laughs, and nods.
“Yes, or magic.”
The land curves a bit more, and suddenly the landscape changes, but not in the way Burr had hoped. The beach gives way to a rocky outcropping, the waves turning to madcap froth between them. It’s like a gash amidst the tropical beach, a disturbance, and the rocks offer no more signs of civilization than the beach had. They curve inland, towards the foliage, and blaze a trail through the edge of the jungle. It’s loud, the sound of waves crashing against the rocks and Burr’s own huffing breath as he tries to snap branches out of his way.
As suddenly as it had come the rocky outcropping gives way to the white beach again, and they resume their walk on the shoreline.
“What about you?” Hamilton asks.
“Hmm?” Burr had been looking out, at a dark shape that had appeared for a moment out on the waves. He blinks, and it’s gone, if it had ever been there at all.
“Did you ever visit the beach?”
“Nothing like this. There was a lake, though, and we’d spend summers there. It’s where I learned to swim. And row.”
“Thank god you did.”
Burr laughs, though it’s not really funny. The beach stretches on, but with Hamilton beside him, a distraction, there’s no need to count steps.
A few hours later, they’re back to where they started – a trampled beach, the remains of a fire, and one shoe jutting out from the sand.
It’s a fucking island.
All the strength drains from Burr’s legs and he falls to his knees in the sand, slams one useless fist against the earth. He’d been able to push some of the feeling aside, hidden it away with the hope that they would find a road, that the beach would suddenly end in some small town, but now, back where they’d started, the realization that they are really truly shipwrecked hits him like a sledgehammer.
“Fuck!” he yells. A common theme of this adventure, it seems.
“Start gathering rocks,” Hamilton says.
“Rocks. As big as you can carry. Unless you’d rather stay here and punch the beach.”
Burr flushes, and stands up. The outburst was not his proudest moment, but surely it was understandable.
“Might I inquire why?”
“Tide’s coming in soon. We’re going fishing.”
Hamilton grins. Burr still doesn’t see the correlation - are they going to be dropping rocks on the fish? - but obliges.
Burr gathers rocks, and Hamilton constructs them into a V shape, the tip of the V pointing out into the ocean. When it’s done, Hamilton steps back, admires his work.
“When the tide comes in, it’ll cover the rocks, right?”
Already, the water’s splashing into the rock-enclosed area Hamilton has created.
“Fish come in with the tide, too. Hopefully a few will get penned in there when the tide goes back out. I’ll work on making a spear or something. You wade to those rocks, look for mussels.”
Hamilton gestures at a small outcropping of rocks, where Burr can see their uneven surfaces, things jutting out from the rocks at odd angles.
Hamilton disappears into the woods and emerges with a small stick that he sets to sharpening into a spear with his knife. Burr walks down the beach, closer to the outcropping of rocks that extend out above the sea about twenty feet out, and pauses. He’ll have to wade out – the water’s not deep, but the waves keep their own chaos. Burr rolls his pants up, resigned to the fact they’ll likely get drenched, anyway. He considers disrobing again, but the water’s too shallow to cover him, and the idea of wading out to the rocks nude while Hamilton sits on the shore and watching is one Burr finds unnerving.
The rocks are covered in mussels, black slick things that jut out in clusters from the damp rocks. Burr pries them off, has a handful before realizing he has no real way to carry them. He glances around, looking for something to place them in – a habit sprung from civilization, for of course here there is nothing but water and rocks. Sighing, Burr pulls off his shirt, arranges it into a sort of rucksack, and begins to fill it. The shirt works well enough as a vessel, and he fills it with as many mussels as he can, and only loses a few as he wades back to the shore.
Hamilton has laid aside a crudely carved spear and has gone to work making space for a fire, laying out tinder and larger pieces of wood. By the time Burr comes up to him, carrying his salvage, Hamilton is on his stomach, trying to coax a flame from the pieces of wood he’s working. Nothing happens, not even smoke, and Burr thinks he can see where Hamilton’s gone wrong – he’s not keeping the sticks snug enough, not generating the right amount of friction.
“Let me,” he says, and expects a fight - he always expects a fight, from Hamilton - but the man surprises him, and yields his tools over to Burr.
It takes Burr maybe ten minutes - which feels like an eternity, with Hamilton watching - but eventually there’s a spark that catches on the coconut husks they’ve laid below Burr’s fire making setup. Burr breathes this into a flame, and soon they have a small fire. The heat’s unnecessary - it’s been plenty warm here - but Burr enjoys the feeling of drying as the fire bakes the seawater from his limbs.
Cooking is a bit of a disaster - they try cooking the mussels in a coconut shell, which catches fire so suddenly that Burr shouts and drops it into the fire. Eventually, they place rocks on either side of the fire, balance a somewhat flat rock on top over the flames, and spread out the mussels. It’s a precarious setup, and it seems to take the mussels forever to cook this way. The mussels finally open and Burr consumes them greedily (burning his fingertips in the process). The mussels are gritty and have a strangely earthy taste, having not been cleaned or left to sit in water. They split one of the mangoes Hamilton had carried for dessert, and it is somehow one of the most delicious meals Burr’s ever had.
“Tomorrow,” Hamilton says, “we’ll scout out a more permanent place to stay, see where the stream goes.”
“Sounds good,” says Burr, although at that word - permanent - a childish part of him wants to scream in denial, wants to ignore the fact that they are shipwrecked, that they are on some godforsaken island, and that no one, thanks to Preble’s idiocy and greed, likely has the slightest idea of where they are.
That night it rains again, and although their fronds dissipate some of the rain, it is still all too miserable. Burr curls around Hamilton, for warmth more than comfort (he tells himself). Laying there, awake and miserable, Burr finds himself missing his bunk on the Pickering, missing the hard (but gloriously dry) mattress. Burr stays awake for too long, his stomach rumbling despite the mussels he'd had earlier, thinking of all the things they don't have – containers, more knives, actual shelter. Thinking of all the odds stacked against them.
The next morning all signs of rain are gone, and the day is bright and hot. They head down to check Hamilton's trap, and much to Burr’s surprise there are honest to God fish in there, trapped by the makeshift walls. Not many - five or six that he can see, and small, the kind most fishermen would throw back – but still. Actual fish. Hamilton grabs the spear he'd made yesterday, and starts trying to pierce the fish. Unfortunately, the spear is not as sharp as they needed, or perhaps Hamilton's movements are simply too slow. Burr tries, too, but his attempts are even worse than Hamilton’s, stabbing into empty space where the fish had been moments ago. They end up scooping the fish out with hollowed coconut shells, emptying them out onto a large outspread leaf that Hamilton finds. Burr somehow finds this horribly, incredibly, cruel, and he has to look away as the fish flop there, slowly suffocating in a world that is not meant for them.
They cook the fish in the same awkward manner that they had the mussels, and the overall result is fairly disgusting in theory, with the fish being alternately burnt or nearly raw. Still, Burr thinks they are delicious, and eats every bit of his share. It is comforting, he supposes, to know that they likely won't starve: they have fish, mussels, coconuts, and whatever else the foliage may yield. They have water, too, and Burr supposes that they should count themselves lucky, that they have washed up on this rather paradise-like island instead of some barren strip of beach. Lucky that they washed up anywhere at all, when by all rights they should have drowned under a yellow sky.
Strange, the thoughts of the shipwrecked: we were lucky.
They follow the stream, and it turns out Hamilton was right (it seems to often turn out that way, a fact Burr both admires and begrudges). The stream does lead to a larger water source, a pond that is rather small compared to the lakes and oceans Burr grew up knowing, but here, it seems like an oasis, impossibly huge and beautiful.
Better still is what Hamilton finds nearby - a small cave created by tumbled rocks. The interior is cramped, only a bit larger than their old quarters on the ship, but it will no doubt provide better shelter than a few smashed-together palm fronds, will keep them dry on rainy nights.
“We can clear out the space in front of it,” Hamilton says, already pacing the area, “dig a fire pit. We’ll build a bigger trap for the fish, maybe figure out how to build some other traps…”
Hamilton continues on, laying out plans for their camp, for their survival. Burr is slowly accepting the reality of it: that they have no idea when, or even if, rescue will come, that they are alone in this strange world. They are the only ones responsible for their survival.
They’re able to wash their clothes in the stream, rinse some of the sand from them without the tinge of salt. They lay them out to dry over rocks, and he and Hamilton move into the larger pond. It’s deep, in the center, deep enough that Burr’s feet can’t touch the ground. Hamilton swims like a fish, easy, keeps diving under. He bursts up next to Burr, an explosion of water, drops flying off his loose hair.
“Feels good, doesn’t it?” Hamilton asks, and Burr agrees. The pond is cooler than the ocean, and when Burr gets out his skin breaks out into gooseflesh. Hamilton seems to stay in forever, at first dipping and diving and then just dog paddling, moving aimlessly as Burr dresses. His clothes are still damp, but he’s been naked long enough, remaining unclothed outside of the water makes him feel far too vulnerable, too exposed.
They return to the beach for their things - a laughable word, considering that their things consist of a few empty coconut shells and the flat rock they’ve used for cooking. Burr wades out to gather more mussels (re-staining his arms and legs with salt, he knows, but his growling belly overrides his desire to be clean). He gathers bunches of them, wants a feast tonight. He returns with so many he can barely carry them all, and Hamilton just laughs, and takes off his own shirt so that they can split the bounty in two as they return to their new campsite.
This time, Hamilton shows Burr how to prepare the mussels properly. They let them sit in freshwater for an hour, allowing them to eject the grit and sand. While the mussels soak, they dig out a fire pit which they surround with rocks. They are even able to carry over embers from their old fire by the beach, and soon enough they have a fire going here and begin to cook they meager bounty.
The mussels taste much less like sand and grit this time, and Burr feels less starving, and can actually taste the flavors of them, the brininess. They’re painstaking to eat without proper utensils, but Burr has managed his way through a good amount before he notices Hamilton isn’t eating, is shifting restlessly like a child.
“Are you okay?” Burr asks, mouth full. He figures manners matter less here.
“I’m sorry,” Hamilton says. Burr stares. He isn’t sure what Hamilton’s apologizing for. Or maybe it’s a preemptive apology, maybe Hamilton’s planning something he knows he will need to apologize for.
“Sorry for what?”
“For leaving you alone to save us.”
Ah. That quiet paralysis, that dead-man’s stare. Burr hadn’t been sure how much Hamilton even remembered of their awful escape.
“It doesn’t--” Burr begins, but Hamilton cuts him off.
“It does matter, Aaron. I froze up. I felt like I was floating, watching us, but I couldn’t make my body move, I couldn’t even fucking speak. Because it felt like I was also back home, I was watching—watching it all fall apart, waiting to die, because I should have died when I was seventeen, and I should have died on that boat, and I just--”
Hamilton inhales, a piercing noise that sounds a hair’s breadth from a sob.
“Hey,” says Burr, “it’s okay. I got you off the boat, but you saved us on here. I don’t know how to catch fish. I didn’t bring a knife. I didn’t even know you could drink coconuts. Your debt’s paid.”
“It’s not,” says Hamilton, his voice quieter, “you should have left me there. Most people would have. You don’t even like me that much.”
Burr looks at him, startled.
“I’ve never said that.”
“You never needed to.”
“I don’t dislike you, Alex, I’m just…” Burr pauses, considers how to put it into words – considers how much he wants to put into words, “you come in like a hurricane – pardon the pun – and suddenly you’re Washington’s right hand man, you’re engaged to a Schuyler, you’re this darling of the revolution…and I’m not. Washington ignores if not outright dislikes me, I’ve no engagements -”
(He thinks, pained, of Theodosia.)
“- and even though I did everything right, I led my troops to victory after victory, Washington doesn’t seem to notice. It’s why I took this position. I need Washington’s favor.”
Burr breathes. It’s more than he’d meant to share, but it’s like opening a festering wound, and he lets it spill.
Hamilton’s dark eyes are unreadable.
“So…you’re jealous of me?”
“Not you. Of what you have. Of what you were given.”
At that, Hamilton’s eyes flash and his expression turns tense.
“I wasn’t given a fucking thing, Aaron. I lost everything back in St. Croix, I came here with nothing, and I earned my place with Washington, just as I earned this job.”
Funny, that they both still speak about the job as if any day now they’ll appear in France.
“You’re right,” Burr admits, “I shouldn’t have put it that way.”
“I earned those things,” Hamilton repeats, as much to himself as to Burr.
“I know, Alex. You’re right.”
Hamilton settles, placated for a moment before speaking again.
“So you don’t dislike me, then.”
“Wouldn’t have saved you if I disliked you.”
“Indirect way of saying ‘I do like you, Alex.’”
Hamilton’s smiling, and teasing now – the former gravity of his apology gone – and the smile does something to Burr’s stomach. Or maybe it’s just the mussels.
Burr’s stomach still feels a little strange after his conversation with Hamilton - damn mussels - so after supper he heads back to the beach, intending to take a walk, try to settle the strange uneasiness. But when the treeline breaks and he steps out onto the sand, he looks up - really looks - and almost gasps aloud.
The sky is a frenzy of stars, the night cloudless, allowing them their full glory. The moon, nearly full, casts an ethereal light. He’s overwhelmed at this, the glut of stars above him, the alternating colors in the sky. He takes a few steps further out, then sits, neck still craning up, trying to make sense of the celestial display before him.
“It’s easier if you lay on your back,” says a voice, and Burr jumps before recognizing Hamilton - of course it’s Hamilton, they’re the only two people here, aren’t they?
Without waiting for a response, Hamilton sits beside him, settles backward until he’s flat on his back in the sand, looking skyward. Burr, tentative, settles beside him. The sand is still warm, cradling the earlier afternoon’s heat, and it’s more comfortable than he’d have imagined.
“Gorgeous, isn’t it?” Hamilton says, and Burr murmurs an assent.
“I don’t recall there being so many,” he says. Hamilton laughs, and Burr feels the subtle shift in the sands at the action. Hamilton’s close, shoulders almost touching, and Burr can feel that heat, too, a different sort than the one offered by the sand. His stomach is acting up again, fluttery and strange.
“There are,” Hamilton says, “some are more visible here than at home. How often did you really look , Aaron?”
Burr’s embarrassed to find he can’t actually recall - he’s never given much thought to the stars, has only appreciated their beauty in a passing fashion.
“Not often,” he admits.
“When we get home,” Hamilton says, and Burr is stupidly glad that he says when and not if , “take a moment. Notice the stars. Especially there --”
Hamilton points, fingers moving in the sign of a cross, and for a moment Burr can’t tell which of the hundred million stars he’s pointing at, and then suddenly it’s obvious - a set of stars closer than the rest, brighter.
“Southern Crux,” Hamilton says, voice sounding wistful, “see how it makes a cross? We can’t see it, at home - too far North - but mom showed it to me, when I was a kid. Sailors use it to find their way.”
“Guiding people home,” Burr murmurs, “if only we could follow.”
“Gotta learn to walk on water, first,” Hamilton doesn’t engage with Burr’s melancholy, but he shifts closer, and Burr feels the brush of his skin against his shoulder. He waits for Hamilton to move again, but he doesn’t. Neither does Burr.
“And there’s Centarus -” Hamilton continues, tracing a haphazard pattern above the Crux, one Burr cannot make sense of. He stares until his vision blurs, then closes his eyes for a moment, trying to refocus. When he opens them again, the constellation still seems nonexistent. It’s all chaos.
“I don’t see it,” he admits, and Hamilton shifts, takes Burr’s arm, points it at a sequence of stars.
“There’s the head,” he says, shifting Burr’s arm back, tracing, “the arms, the forelegs. The back, the tail. Sitting right over the Crux.”
For a moment more the sky holds back its mysteries, and then suddenly the scales fall from his eyes and he sees the shape Hamilton had been describing. A centaur.
“Oh!” he exclaims, suddenly delighted. The pattern is so obvious now. He wonders what else the universe holds.
“There’s tons more,” Hamilton says, as if reading Burr’s mind, “more than I know.”
“We can make up our own,” Burr says. Hamilton had released his arm, but their shoulders still touch. Despite the chill of the night, Burr feels warm. Almost comfortable.
Almost like home.
They find a sort of cautious rhythm in the days. They build a larger fish trap, and more of them, marking out segments of the beach. Hamilton gets better at spearing them. They find other plants which Hamilton deems edible, plants he remembers from childhood, though Burr still waits and watches Hamilton eat them first.
It’s not exactly enjoyable, but it’s more pleasant than Burr had ever thought being shipwrecked (especially shipwrecked with Alexander Hamilton, of all people) could be.
They mark the days with notches in a tree. The notches build up until one day Burr looks at them and realizes they’ve been here for two weeks, which seems both an impossibly short and impossibly long time.
He and Hamilton are getting along, too, which Burr finds almost as miraculous as the fact they have food, water, and shelter. It strikes Burr one night, as they sit near the fire, laughing over some stupid joke Hamilton told, that they have become friends.
They awake one day to the sound of pounding rain against the cave they’ve made into their quarters, and a wet mist blown in from the entrance. This is unlike the rains they’re used to, the gentler rains that leave things wet but not soaked; this is a storm, a raging, wild thing.
“We gotta cover up the fire!” Hamilton says, and Burr scrambles up. They’ve been able to keep the embers alive most nights, which has kept them from repeating the painstaking process of remaking fire with almost no tools each night.
They rush out and Burr is immediately smacked with a wall of rain – cold rain, at that. He and Hamilton cover up the pit with fronds as best they can, and then they both run back into the cave as lightning splits the sky and thunder rolls in afterward, a boom that momentarily eclipses all other sounds.
The cave that is not meant to linger in; they’ve used it as sleeping quarters and little else. It was too small to bring fire into, too small to store much in other than a few essentials. They’d covered the floor in fronds, made a thicker pile for sleeping.
It’s dark in the cave, too, the light that usually shines in from the entrance made dim by the storm. Burr can see his hands in front of his face but not much else, finds his way to the bed by feel, hands out in front of him, hunched over awkwardly to avoid hitting his head on the low ceiling.
Burr settles onto their makeshift bed, back against the rock wall. He considers trying to nap, but he’d slept all night, and adrenaline still pumps through his body from running out in the storm.
There’s a grunt and the press of Hamilton’s shoulders as Hamilton sits beside him.
“I’m freezing,” Hamilton says, “we’re on a tropical island, and I’m freezing.”
Hamilton leans into him, shivering in a way Burr is pretty sure is manufactured, only to pull back abruptly.
“You’re soaked, Aaron. Let your shirt dry, at least.”
Burr looks over, realizes Hamilton’s taken off his. Burr debates, but only for a moment – the wet fabric clings to him, cold, and it’s glad to be divested of it. Once he’s laid it out Hamilton’s arm presses against him again, bare skin to bare skin, and Burr’s heart speeds up for a moment. But Hamilton’s warm (despite his protests to the contrary), so they stay there like that, listening to rain.
For all of maybe five minutes.
And then Hamilton’s shifting, restless. The more enclosed the space, the more restless Hamilton is, Burr has realized – when they’re out on the island, gathering fruits and tubers or laying traps, Hamilton is energetic, but in a controlled way. In these confined spaces, dammed in by a rainstorm, the energy has nowhere to go and Burr is left trapped with it.
“Settle down,” he tells Hamilton, who has cracked what seems like every joint in his body, who’s shifting constantly.
“I’m fucking bored,” Hamilton complains, his voice plaintive.
Burr sighs. Being confined with an awake Hamilton is like being confined with a child.
“Question or command?” he asks.
“Question or command…?”
“Still don’t understand.”
“The game? We played it in school, usually as a way to get the girls to kiss you. You pick if you want to answer a question, or obey a command.”
That surprises Burr. He’d thought Hamilton would have picked command, for sure.
“Uh…what happened with your engagement to, ah, Eliza?”
Burr regrets the question almost immediately, but the darkness seems to encourage this kind of talk, and the game has lain ground and reasoning for the question to present itself.
“Ah,” Hamilton says, and Burr is getting ready to say you don’t have to tell me when Hamilton speaks, “I asked for her hand shortly before Washington offered me this position. I offered to elope with her, take her with me, but at the news I was leaving for France her father reneged on his permission for our engagement. I think she might still have left with me, but when I stopped by the next day, the house was empty…”
“Shit,” says Burr.
“Yeah.” A pause. “Your turn. Question or command?”
“Question,” Burr says.
“Who was the woman you were seeing before we left?”
“I wasn’t--” Burr protests – it comes naturally – but Hamilton cuts him off.
“We know there was someone, Aaron. Besides, who am I gonna tell?”
He has a point.
“Her name was Theodosia,” Burr says, and realizes a beat too late, that he’d spoken of her in past tense – was – as if she were dead, “and she was married. With children.”
“Married to a British officer.”
At that, Hamilton laughs, his shoulder shaking against Burr, a strange friction.
Still laughing. Burr joins in.
“I can’t decide if that’s helping us win the revolution, or just giving them more cause to attack.”
Hamilton’s laughter fills the cave, and it feels nice, like this, and Burr realizes he’s no longer cold.
“Question or command?”
“I command you to, ah…” Burr’s mind goes blank for a moment. The games of this type he’d played in school had been largely centered on the girls, “run out in the rain and get me a coconut.”
Hamilton groans, but gets up, crosses the short expanse of the cave and ducks out into the downpour. He’s back in less than thirty seconds and rolls the coconut towards Burr, but misses in the dark, and Burr hears it strike the wall nearby.
“I hate this game,” Hamilton says, but he sits back beside Burr, pressing his wet skin to Burr, and then shakes his head, sending water flying everywhere.
“Fuck!” Burr says, out of surprise more than anything else. He wipes over his face with a palm, “bastard.”
“Got that right,” Hamilton says – cheerier, now that he has made Burr share in his discomfort, “question or command?”
“Command,” Burr says. He figures fair’s fair. He expects to be sent back out into the rain.
“I command you to kiss me.”
Burr’s silent, then, aware of his breathing, of his heart (which has sped up in his chest – why?).
“You said it’s why you played, to get the girls, you don’t--” Hamilton is stumbling a little, and Burr doesn’t think, he just leans over, touches his lips to Hamilton briefly, long enough to feel a slight scratch of beard and the softness of Hamilton’s lips and then he pulls back, glad for the darkness, glad Hamilton can’t see the way his cheeks have flushed.
Hamilton’s silent, too, and Burr expects some smart-aleck comment but there’s nothing and that’s worse, and Burr’s suddenly sure he crossed some line, over played some joke, when Hamilton gets up.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” he says, and goes back out into the storm, moving hunched over as to not hit his head on the cave’s ceiling, leaving Burr with his bare back pressed against the wall, replaying the moment, preparing his apology. Not that he should have to – Hamilton’s the one who issued the command, even if it had been a joke.
Burr licks his lips and tastes rainwater.
When Hamilton finally returns, wet and strangely quiet, Burr falls over himself apologizing.
“It was a joke; I was just following the command, I’m sorry, Alex…”
“It’s fine,” says Hamilton, although his voice sounds odd, somehow thick, “it was a joke.”
The game is over, and Burr turns to face the wall, pretends to sleep, and Hamilton lets him.
Just a joke.
Burr lays there on the ground, feeling the cold of Hamilton’s absence – he doesn’t think about it, but they’re often close at night or when the temperature drops, sitting beside one another or sleeping like spoons in a drawer, back to chest, each man using the other’s body heat in lieu of the blankets they lacked. It was a simple survival tactic, one they never discussed because it never needed to be discussed.
Burr hopes things won’t change. He’s cold here, alone.
The storm abates, finally, and as soon as the rain lets up Hamilton’s gone again. He doesn’t tell Burr where he’s going, which is strange. They’re rarely far apart, here, and Burr has some childish fear that they will become separated, lost from one another. He considers following Hamilton, for a moment, but decides against it – the man obviously wants to be alone. And besides, Burr is no tracker, Hamilton would spot him a mile away and then Burr would be left trying to explain himself. So instead he busies himself near their small camp, clears up debris, restacks their now-soaked firewood. Burr goes back into the cave. There’s not room inside the cave for much, but they keep a few pieces of wood and tinder in there so they can rebuild their fire after especially rainy nights. Burr grabs these, goes to work outside remaking their fire. He has a moderate flame when Hamilton returns, looking flushed and disheveled, hauling two massive pieces of wood.
“What is that?” Burr asks.
“Washed up on the beach,” Hamilton replies, “thought they’d come in handy. Was planning to go scout for more. Wanna come?”
And just like that, Burr feels forgiven for his stupid transgression in the cave.
The beach is full of detritus. Burr finds a conch shell, a large white one streaked with red that he picks up and carries with him, aware it’s impractical but besotted by its elegant shape.
They find more boards, some whole, and some splintered. Burr notes what looks like a knife-gouge in one, and it’s only then that he thinks to question their origin.
“Alex, do you think these are from the Pickering?”
“Probably,” Hamilton says, “that, or some other unlucky ship nearby. You saved us, Aaron.”
Burr doesn’t feel like a savior, he feels sick. He hasn’t thought too much about the ship’s fate, because there were really only two, and neither good.
Number one: the Pickering weathered the storm, and they were fools to leave.
Number two: the Pickering sank, and everyone they knew on board was now dead.
Burr thinks of William, of his bright eyes and quick hands, feels another pang. He doesn’t care about the captain, and hadn’t known the other sailors too well, but he had liked William – had, perhaps, seen some of himself in the boy.
(Hell, but for the grace of god Burr could have been William, had he been orphaned by poor parents instead of rich ones.)
They bring their bounty back to the camp – several boards of various sizes. Burr is unsure what they can do with them – they don’t have a hammer, or nails, or any building supplies. They end of using one of the larger ones to create a sort of precarious bench by balancing it across two rocks. The others they set aside, a stack to be utilized later. It feels strange, having this piece of civilization with them when Burr has become almost accustomed to wilderness. The boards feel strange, out of place.
Everything feels out of place.
Burr places his conch shell atop the stack of boards, looks at the juxtaposition: their civilized life, and their island life. He supposes that might be a bit dramatic, but it feels that way. He’s watched the notches grow on the trees, worked with Hamilton as they made their place more and more permanent, the making of their own odd civilization.