General Washington calls her by her first name. That’s how she knows something is wrong.
She can think of exactly two times that Washington has called her ‘Eliza’. The first was on her wedding day; the second when he called her from the ICU to tell her that her Alexander had been in a car crash on his way to work.
“Eliza. Have you seen the news yet this morning?”
She kisses James and John on the forehead and watches them jog towards the school bus, idling impatiently on the corner. “Not yet. Has something happened to Alexander?”
“No, Eliza. Hamilton is fine.” The bottom of her stomach feels unpleasantly hollow, and she presses a hand against the door frame. “Would you come and have breakfast with Martha and I today? I need to speak to you.”
There’s sweat between her palm and the wood of the door. She has to close her eyes before she can manage a reply. “Of course, General. I’d be delighted.”
The general lets out a slow breath on the other end of the line. “Thank you. Please, come as soon as you can.” She’s already toeing into her shoes and looking around for her purse when George says, “And Eliza?”
She is breathing very deliberately, holding down panic by the skin of her teeth. “Yes?”
“Don’t check the news.”
She doesn’t. But, somewhere on the drive between the Hamilton’s house the Washingtons’ apartment just outside the city, she turns on the radio.
“The Reynolds Post! Have you read this?”
“The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds -”
“ - My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife -”
“Have you read this?”
“I had frequent meetings with her - most of them in my own house - Mrs. Hamilton with our children being absent on a visit to her father.”
“Have you read this?!”
Gravel goes flying under her tires as she jerks the car onto the side of the road. Her knuckles on the steering wheel are livid white, a distant thing that has nothing to do with her. These are not her hands, this is not her car; this is not her life, and that is not her husband on the radio, confessing to an affair - an affair -
She calls Washington.
“You checked the news,” he says, his voice achingly soft, that bass rumble that she had always so admired.
“It was on the radio,” she tells him, slurs a bit between the last two words. Her lips are numb - these are not her lips, that kissed the man that fucked Maria Reynolds, these are not her lips, that is not her husband, this is not her life— “Did you know?”
“Not until he posted it this morning.” A pause, and then, very clearly and carefully, “Eliza, if you would like to come spend some time with us, Martha and I would— “
Her hand tightens on the steering wheel. A slow trickle of red works its way down the inside of her wrist. Her fingernail has punctured her own palm. She can’t feel it. “I am not leaving my own house.”
(Most of them in his own house.)
“Not over something like this,” she finishes. The leather steering wheel is slick with her own blood. In a moment it will dry into a tacky mess; it will hurt to peel her hand away. She flexes her fingers, once or twice, finds them numb and slow to respond.
“Of course,” Washington says. His voice is deep and heavy through the phone; for a moment she almost relents. Martha would make something southern, with too much butter and just the right amount of vinegar. If she asked, they would take her back to their estate in Mount Vernon; she could sit with Washington in his garden. He would talk to her in that deep voice, and the children would love Virginia, the heat and the clean air.
For just a moment, she considers it; she can almost smell the tobacco growing over the fields, feel the heavy sunshine on the back of her neck.
“Well, not that I’m defending his behavior, but you must admit, at least the financials all check out - the accusations that Jefferson and Madison were making are clearly unfounded - so, if nothing else, at least he was honest with his money… ”
She slams the radio off so quickly she actually breaks the button.
And that - suddenly that’s too much.
She’s eight months pregnant on the side of a two-lane New York highway, and her husband had an affair. She’s going to have to make a statement to the press; she’s going to have to explain to the children. She’s going to have to stand up in front of the American people and tell them about her marriage and her sex life, and her husband had an affair. She’s going to have to look her employees in the eye; she has to still smile and charm investors and pray that they don’t ask her about being a jilted wife; she’s going to have to call Angelica, and her husband had an affair. Oh god, she’s going to have to do a million things, and her husband had an affair, and the damn button on the damn radio in her stupid god-damned car is broken, and she’s going to have to get it fixed, and, and, and.
Luckily, she remembers to hang up the call before she starts sobbing.
(Thirty minutes later, she calls the general back, and apologizes for the call dropping. She got lost on the way, she says, and lost cell service on a back road somewhere. Unfortunately it’s far too late for breakfast now; she really must be getting back, she still has to go into work today. She is so grateful for all his kindness. She hopes she will be able to visit him soon.
George finds Martha in the wine cellar, picking out bottles.
“Go get that wine cooler from the silver collection,” she tells him, when he wraps his arms around her and kisses the back of her head. “If anything can help in this situation, it’s wine.”
They send her the wine cooler, along with six of their best bottles, and a note reminding her in only the gentlest language that their door was always open, and they had plenty of spare rooms at the house in Mount Vernon.)
When he comes home that night, she’s sitting in front of the fireplace.
“Eliza,” he starts, and he thought about this conversation a hundred thousand times over the course of the day, he had planned and drafted and re-written and edited in his head, and she’s sitting in a chair in front of the fire and she won’t look at him.
Her hair shifts, enough that he knows she’s moved her head slightly. He can’t see anything past the curtain of her hair between them. If he walked across the room and stood between her and the fire, he could see her face - he could throw himself at her feet - he could -
“I had the bed moved into your office,” She says. Her voice is thin and toneless, the exact same voice she would use to ask her GPS for directions. He’s heard her order a latte with more warmth. “You can sleep there.”
“Eliza,” he tries again, and he’s almost certain he doesn’t imagine the twitch of her shoulder. That’s what gives him the confidence to come closer, to walk to her side. She’s holding something on her knees, out in front of her swollen stomach. He walks around her, giving her a wide berth as he approaches, and then he sees the stack of papers, crumpled and mismatched and folded and well worn, and he realizes -
She’d thought it was romantic exactly as much as she hated it - his letters the only thing he could consistently get out of a war zone, when cell service was sparse and a good internet connection few and far between. But letters and packages came and went, not always on time, but eventually. She sent him food and books, sweaters upon hats upon scarves for his poor Caribbean constitution in the northeast. In return she got letters, and letters, and letters - sometimes multiple in a day, when he’d written in the morning and then thought of more to say before night. She told him about her father, about Congress, about Angelica and Peggy; he had told her about her hair and her eyes, her sweet soft skin, her indescribable smile. She had told him about her dreams, her hopes for the world after the revolution, her own ideas for the new nation they were dragging into the world; he told her about the Caribbean and his mother, hurricanes and clerking and the blackness of a fever in his bed.
(She’d told him, years later, with her head on his shoulder and his sweat cooling on her skin, that those were the letters that made her decide she was going to marry him. He had kissed her hair and held her tighter against him, tucked his thumb under her chin until she turned her head and he could kiss the smile off her lips. And when she was soft and sighing against him, he had put his mouth to the corner of her jaw, the column of her throat, the small dip of her abdomen. The inside of her legs had been slick with sweat when he pulled them over his shoulders, when he ran his cheek against her thigh to watch the way she shivered at the rasp of his stubble on her skin. And she had sighed his name, all four syllables in a single bone-deep exhale, Alexander, and put her fingers into his hair until he bowed his head and went to work.)
It was all they’d had, for a while, him and her and those letters. He’d written her too many, he knew - got maybe one letter in response to three that he sent - but it had been the only thing keeping him alive, sometimes. The writing and the writing and the agonizing wait for her reply, those minutes when he could clear his brain of troops and supplies and tactics and the ever-struggling revolution they were trying to drag into reality.
That was how they fell in love: in print, on paper, a tentative line of ink connecting them across a war zone. And she’d kept them, all of his letters and all of hers that he had managed to bring home after the war, kept them safe and treasured through seventeen years of marriage. Every once in a while he would find her with the box out, carefully rereading one letter or another. Invariably, within minutes they’d be in bed, over a table, against a wall, her skin hot against his mouth and her fingernails breaking his skin, and he never got tired of it, not after one year or seventeen.
Carefully, without looking at him, Eliza drops another letter into the fireplace. He watches as the edges of the page blacken and curl, and has to turn away before he throws up on their living room carpet.
He can’t touch her - that was a right he was sure he had lost, his once-welcomed hands on her skin - even though there was nothing more he wanted in the world than to take her hand before she could feed any more of their history to the fire. Slowly, slowly he eases himself down onto his knees by the arm of her chair, puts his fingers on the armrest, just a few inches from her elbow. She doesn’t look at him. She watches his letters burn, unblinking.
“Betsey, please,” he says, the last card he has to play. “Please, let me—”
She reaches over his shoulder and drops the rest of the stack of letters into the fire. It roars higher, thriving on the sudden burst of fuel, making sweat break out between his shoulders. All the breath goes out of him like a punch.
Eliza has to use the arms of the chair to lever herself up, the swell of her stomach making her cumbersome and heavy on her feet. He had always loved her like this - full and round and aching, her breasts swollen and her back sore. They’d had sex three days before, the last time he had gotten home before midnight, and she’d been hypersensitive and impatient. On her hands and knees, his chest smeared against her back, his mouth on the back of her neck and one of his hands between her legs, his fingers slow and teasing on her clit while she said oh and yes and Alexander.
It hadn’t occurred to him at the time that might be the last time he ever touched his wife. He might’ve - what? Gone slower? Taken longer? Put his tongue on her clit and begged her a thousand times over, please let me stay. Please don’t let this be the last time. Please forgive me. Please.
She turns away from the fire, one hand on her stomach and the other in the small of her back, balancing herself. He can see the deep breath she takes, the rigid line of her shoulders. He wants to touch her - he wants to touch her so badly his palms are burning. He could put his thumbs at the base of her neck and dig the tension out of her spine. He could put his tongue on her ear and make her shiver. He could, he could, he could - except he can’t. Not anymore.
It’s probably the hardest thing he’s ever said when he asks, “Do you want me to leave?”
Her spine grows, impossibly, stiffer. Slowly and clearly, with a careful enunciation like she wants to make sure he hears every syllable, she says, “You sleep in your office.”
With that, she walks away, careful heavy steps up the stairs to their bedroom.
Alex stays by the fire for a very long time.
He thinks about trying to retrieve some of his letters from the fireplace, but can’t make himself stick his hand into the flames. Instead, he watches them burn until long after the ashes are cold. When he finally follows Eliza upstairs, he finds their - her - bedroom door locked.
He sleeps in his office.
He writes her a letter -
I can’t think of any way to begin except to say I’m sorry. I don’t expect you will forgive me right away. In fact I doubt you will ever forgive me, but what else can I do, but say again and again how sorry I am? You owe me nothing, of course, but if you would do me the favor of allowing me to explain myself, hopefully understanding could prove more useful than endless apologies? Eliza, my love, let me explain, please. I -
When he wakes up - jolted awake by the silence of his office, the absence of a warm sleeping wife beside him, the sudden striking feeling that Eliza isn’t here, something is horribly wrong - it’s something like five or six in the morning, a few hours after he finished his letter to her and tucked himself into their - his - bed. He dresses quietly, in the dark, trying to be mindful of his still-sleeping children. Eliza probably isn’t awake yet, probably hasn’t found the letter that he slid under their - her - door, and he tries to keep calm, to not work himself up into hopes that she’ll reply quickly, that she might wake up and come downstairs and smile at him again -
When he opens his office door, he finds a small, tidy pile of ashes in front of his threshold.
He sweeps up as best he can. Decides to vacuum, later, when the sound won’t wake the sleeping kids. He slinks downstairs and out the front door, as quietly as he can.
In the warm New York morning, he walks to his office.
A flight from London to New York is about eight and a half hours. If anything, he should be surprised it takes Angelica a full day to arrive.
He’s in a meeting with a client when his assistant pokes her head in to tell him his sister-in-law is here for him. As quickly and politely as he can, he finishes the meeting - all but kicks his client out the door - and goes out to meet her.
What he’s expecting, he doesn’t know. He and Angelica were always alike, two of a kind, an unstable cocktail of arrogance and an overabundance of intelligence. Angelica had always been the one, the only one, who pushed him as hard as he pushed himself, who expected greater and better and more. When Burr had told him to sit the hell down, when Washington had ordered him to be calm and still, when Eliza had begged him to stop for just a moment - Angelica was the one who urged him to keep going, get louder, to write and yell and write until somebody listened.
They were too alike, he and Angelica. In another life, maybe, it would have been him and her. In another world, where she didn’t have a sister, and he had more to offer an heiress.
He doesn’t know what he’s expecting, when he opens the door to his office and finds her standing in the lobby. She’s in sweatpants and a tee shirt, the suitcase by her feet telling him she came straight from the airport to his door. Her thunderous black curls are tied back away from her face, a storm cloud behind her when she whips around at the sound of the door opening.
He’s looking at her hair, her face, the red-rimmed lines of her eyes - he doesn’t see the whip-fast arc of her hand until it makes contact with his face.
His cheek stings, and his mouth fills with the taste of blood before he realizes he bit down on his tongue. He presses the heel of his hand to the side of his face, his skin hot to the touch of his own fingers. Angelica looks down at him, her lip curled just so, like he’s something uniquely disgusting that got stuck to her shoe.
“Angelica,” he says, and her hand flies back like she’s about to slap him again. He closes his eyes, clenches his jaw so he won’t bite his tongue a second time, and waits for it to come.
He hears her pick up her bag, opens his eyes hesitantly. She’s still looking at him, but her mouth has lost some of its jagged edge, taken on a deeper frown.
“I’m here for her, not for you,” she tells him, and he nods dumbly. Of course, of course - they were the Schuyler sisters, first and foremost, before they were anyone’s wife or friend or daughter. She nods back at him, carefully, and turns to leave.
The door half-open, one foot outside and already leaving, she says, “God, I hope you’re satisfied.”
Then she’s gone, the door slamming behind her, a blast of hot air in his face.
I’m not, he thinks bleakly, hopelessly. I’m not, I never have been, and now I never will be -
He goes back to his office and shuts the door behind him.
“In other news: more than twenty-four hours after her husband published his instantly viral Reynolds Post, Eliza Hamilton is at last breaking her silence. An official statement from her company, released just moments ago, reads: “Van Rensselaer-Schuyler Corporations and Mrs. Hamilton will not be issuing any comment on the Reynolds Post or the state of Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton’s marriage. Any further questions should be directed towards Mr. Hamilton himself.” The statement was released by a spokesperson for Van Rensselaer-Schuyler. Mrs. Hamilton herself has not spoken to the press since the Post was released yesterday morning, but sources have confirmed that she has been in to work today, as usual.”
“Well, Melinda, that’s an impressively reserved response from the scorned wife.”
“I’m sure that Mrs. Hamilton is just doing her best to keep her private affairs private, Bill.”
“I suppose we should just be impressed that a woman at eight months pregnant is still working at all. I certainly hope that once the baby is born she stays home to be a mother instead of a businesswoman. I hate to say it, but I’m not exactly surprised—“
“And up next is Greg with the weather! Looks like it’s heating up out there, Greg!”
Philip is the first of his children to speak to him, after. His firstborn, his oldest son, who of course has no reservations about shoving open his office door and telling him, “Dad, Angel won’t come out of her room.”
Angel had always been - not fragile, but not exactly stable, either. There were times, like this, when nothing could get her out of her bed, let alone out of her room. Philip, almost always, was the cure for his younger sister’s ills - a couple hours, at most a day or two locked in her room with her, and she would emerge blinking into the hallways, hesitantly eating breakfast with the younger children, almost completely recuperated after a few hours out in the sunlight.
But here was Philip, leaning against the door of Alex’s study, looking at the too-large bed instead of his father, telling him, “She won’t talk to me. I think she wants Mom, but she’s at work and not answering her cell, so you should talk to her.”
For a moment his mouth works, empty. There are too many things he wants to say, should say, definitely shouldn’t say. His oldest son is sixteen and strapping and too much like him, and his chest feels a few sizes too small for everything he’s trying to keep inside of it. “Philip,” he starts, and Phil kicks at the doorframe, not meeting his father’s eyes.
“You don’t have to say anything, Dad,” he says, scuffs his foot against the wall. “I read it.”
The blood drains out of Alex, quick as water. “I didn’t mean for you to do that. I was hoping that you wouldn’t.”
“Yeah, well. Maybe you shouldn’t have put in on the internet, then.”
If Alex’s heart is still beating, he can’t feel it. He’s suddenly lightheaded, swaying in his seat. “And your sister, did she…?”
Phil nods, and Alex’s chest caves in. “Junior, too. And I had to explain to James, but I didn’t let him or John read it.”
Jesus. Alex puts his fingers in his hair, grinds the heels of his hands against his aching eyes. This is his own doing, he reminds himself. He has no one else to blame for this. “Maybe we should read it to the baby, too. Not being born yet shouldn’t stop him from getting in on the fun.”
Philip snorts through his nose, the closest thing to a laugh that he’s heard in three days. It’s enough to get him standing, one hand braced on his desk. “Phil, I know this is hard—”
“Papá,” Phil says, barreling over him. “If you keep talking, I’m going to punch you in the face.”
Alex laughs, just a little, and it hurts his throat. “Your aunt beat you to it, I’m afraid.”
Something approximating a smile curls the corner of Philip’s mouth. He ducks his head to hide it, and Alex hurts all over again. “Go talk to Angel,” Phil reminds him, and leaves his office.
“Angelica, mi ángel, open the door, please.”
“I don’t want to talk to you!” she screams. Alex leans his head against her door, closes his eyes and breathes carefully through his nose.
(Eliza taught him this, when they first got married. In through his nose, une-deux-trois-quatre-cinq, out through his mouth, six-sept-huit-neuf. She would put her hands on his shoulders and count it for him, help him breathe until he was calmer, until the words in his head untangled into strings that made sense, until he could think beyond the screaming in his ears. Eliza would make him tea and help him breathe and taught him how to do it himself. He didn’t pay too much attention to her lessons. He didn’t think he’d ever have to do it without her help.)
“Angel, please. Philip is very worried. Your mother will be home soon, and you know she’ll worry as well. This isn’t a good time for her to be under stress, mami, you know that—“
“How fucking dare you!”
The door rips open, so fast he almost falls forward into her room because he was still leaning on it. His daughter is on the other side, and she is furious, the spitting image of her aunt. Her hair is a massive tangle of curls, surrounding her head like a storm cloud; her eyes are red and swollen, and there are shining lines of tears still wet on her cheeks.
“How dare you,” she yells, screaming up at him as he uses her doorframe to push himself up. “Don’t you dare make this my fault, like I’m the reason Mom is stressed, like everything that’s happening isn’t all your fault! You cheated on her, you cheated on Mom and you told everyone about it, you put it on the internet, and now Mom is sad and everyone’s upset all the time and it’s all your fault!”
She ducks her head, puts her hands against her face and he knows she’s trying to keep him from seeing her cry. And that’s - he’s watched her cry for fifteen years. When she was born, she cried so loud and it was the most painful and the most beautiful sound, his healthy baby girl. She was colicky as a newborn, cried all through the night and ran him and Eliza ragged, trying to keep her calm and keep their nerves intact. He’d seen her cry over everything from a skinned knee to a misguided crush, and now she was crying, because of him, and she wouldn’t let him see.
Philip appears suddenly, summoned by his sister’s voice, and wraps her in a hug. He murmurs to her, too low for Alex to hear, and herds her back into her room. He kicks the door shut behind them, so hard Alex can feel the wind of it on his face. The slam hits him like a slap, and he can almost taste blood in his mouth again.
Alex Junior is peering out of his room, James clinging to the leg of his brother’s pants. It takes conscious effort for Alex to rearrange the muscles of his face into something like a comforting smile. “Sorry, Junior,” he says, and walks over to put his hand on his son’s head. “Angel’s not in a very good mood with me right now.”
Junior scowls at him, but he doesn’t move away from his hand. “No one is, Dad.”
A quick knife between the ribs. Alex’s smile, if it ever looked natural, fractures at the edges. “Go get John and come on downstairs. I’ll make you pancakes. Angel and Phil are going to be hungry when they come out.”
Junior looks skeptical, but he obeys, James trailing along behind. Alex is pouring the second batch of pancakes into the pan when Philip and Angel emerge, lured by the smell of food. Angel’s eyes are still ringed in red, but there are no fresh tears on her cheeks. She doesn’t look at him, and she stays close by Philip’s shoulder. Still, when he sprinkles some chocolate chips into one of the pancakes and slides it carefully across the counter in front of her, she even smiles down at her plate.
He’s showing off a little, flipping pancakes high into the air to make James and John clap, when Eliza walks into the door.
Like a criminal, caught red-handed, he freezes while she surveys the scene. Her eyes sweep the room, face expressionless, carefully taking in each of their children gathered around the table in various stages of eating. For a long second, the entire room holds its breath.
Her smile, when it comes, is slow and wide and gentle, and Alex’s heart rips in his chest.
She kisses each child individually, wet smacks for John and James and Junior, a gentle press to Angel, extra-long for Philip when he tries to squirm out of it. She never once looks at Alex.
Just like that, he is an intruder in his own kitchen. He cleans the pan and the batter bowl as quietly and unobtrusively as he can, and sneaks out of the room while Eliza settles into a chair and begins to ask the children about their day.
Alex goes back to his office.
(Angel and Philip sneak into his office, later. He’s hunched over his laptop, glasses on, typing viciously fast. Angel looks to her brother, who puts a gentle hand on her shoulder and gives her a small nod.
“Hey, Dad,” she says, and Alex nearly jumps out of his seat.
He turns, rips his glasses off too fast. “Kids! Hey, hi. It’s late, shouldn’t you be asleep? Is something wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Philip says. Angel steps away from him, further into the office. She stops in front of her father, leans very carefully forward to wrap her arms around his shoulders.
“Thanks for the pancakes, Papá.”
Alex’s hands flutter wildly on the armrests of his chair. Should he hug her back? Is he allowed? Can he touch her hair, that thundercloud of curls that he had brushed and braided and styled for years, until she was old enough to do it herself? Can he -
While he’s still trying to figure it out, Angel pulls back. He swallows, turns his head away.
“The two of you should be asleep. Go back to bed, kids.”
Phil leads Angel out of the room. Alex makes himself count out ten, twenty, thirty seconds after he hears the door close. Only then does he put his head on his desk and sob.)
A month after he publishes his Post, his son is born.
He wants to be ashamed at how grateful he is that she still calls for him, but the shame just doesn’t come. He’d been there for every one - every one of his children, all five of their children, even Philip, when he was barely back from the war and still only just getting by at his law practice - and he’s been sick with worry, sitting in his office with his head in his hands wondering if he was going to hear about the birth of his sixth child from Eliza’s assistant, or the hospital, or fucking Twitter -
(Look, he’s not stupid, he knows - he knows that’s how he made her hear it, that she heard it from a damn radio show instead of from him. He gets it, okay, that’s exactly why - if he couldn’t even bother to tell her about the affair, about the money and the extortion and the accusations - if he made her hear about Maria Reynolds from a radio talk show host, then why should he expect -
why shouldn’t he have to hear about the birth of his sixth child from the Van Rensselaer-Schuyler Corporation press release?)
But Angelica calls him, thank god, and tells him Eliza’s in labor; she said you would want to be here -
And he’s out the door, he’s gone, he barely takes the time to yell over his shoulder at Fatima to clear his schedule, Eliza’s giving birth. He can’t bear a taxi, not for this, so he sprints the distance from his office to the hospital, almost gets hit by at least three different cars and only avoids a fistfight with a taxi driver when he yells my son is being born! in the guy’s face. Does he look happy, he wonders wildly, does he look like a delighted father running to see his child? He almost feels like one again. He made this exact run, sixteen years ago, and back then it was Philip and he was younger and his knees didn’t hurt after the first few blocks; he didn’t run out of breath quite so quickly, back then.
He was running for joy, back then.
Angelica’s the one who meets him in the hallway, while he’s yelling at the nurses at the check-in trying to figure out what room they’ve put her in.
“Stop screaming,” she tells him, “You’re being ridiculous.”
“Angelica,” he says. At least one Schuyler in the world will still acknowledge he exists. “How is she? What room is she in? How far along is she - I haven’t missed it, have I? They won’t tell me what room she’s in, which is a preposterous atrocity that I intend to fully address when other matters are not so pressing, because what kind of healthcare system do we have, Angelica, that will not let people visit their loved ones without providing government-issued identification? This is an absurdity, of course, I will have to write an editorial, but - Angelica, where’s Eliza? How is she doing? How’s the baby?”
“She’s doing fine. The baby isn’t here yet.”
He should know better. He really should know better; he is forty-two years old and he has known Angelica for eighteen of those years and he should really know better, when he sees the look on her face. He should know better; people have been telling him to shut up since he could talk, but he still opens his big stupid mouth and asks, “Can I see her?”
Angelica’s mouth flattens into a vicious line, her lip curling upwards as her nose wrinkles, like she’s smelled something particularly unpleasant. “She doesn’t want you in the room.”
The bottom goes out of his stomach. “But...you called me. You asked me to come, you told me that she said—”
Her mouth twists again - this time it almost looks something like sympathy. “She thought you would want to be here. But she doesn’t want you inside the room.”
His knees are made of rubber. The run catches up with him all at once - he collapses against the wall, the breath gone out of him.
Alex has a scar, on his left hand, where the edge of his wedding band sits. That had been from Philip; she had been scared and he had been scared and both of them so young and new to this, and she had been squeezing his hand so hard that she cut him with his own ring. Neither of them had noticed until the nurse tried to hand Eliza the baby, laughing at the momentary panic to clean them both and stop the bleeding so they could hold their child. He had made a big production the next time, whether he should take his ring off or leave it on, and she had tried to make him bleed again, just on principle.
He’d been there for every one. She had squeezed his hand when the contractions rippled through her; he had put his mouth against her sweaty forehead and whispered push, push in her ear. He hadn’t gone to any of the classes with her, but he’d tried to help her breathe when she started to scream. And he had always been there, when the baby was placed in his wife’s arms, to wrap his arms around her and touch his child’s cheeks and cry into her hair while she lay exhausted against his chest.
He hadn’t always been the best husband, but he was good at this, this one thing he could always do; let her squeeze his hand until he bled, while she screamed and wept and tore herself open for their children.
She didn’t want him inside the room.
Maybe Angelica knows; maybe it’s just clear on his face, because there’s something very like pity in her eyes when she takes his hand between hers. “Come on,” she tells him, in the gentlest voice he’d heard her use in the last month. “You can wait outside. I’ll take you there.”
She leads him like that, by the hand, down the fluorescent-lit hallways. She sits him down in a chair of grey plastic and cheap padding outside the door of a room. He can hear Eliza screaming through the door.
She’s screaming, and he should be in there with her - he should be in there letting her grip his hands, he should be in there to let her swear and curse and smile at him, he should be in there with her. She had always wanted him in there, to hold and yell and panic with her; she liked that he had cried when the doctor first placed Philip in his arms.
For some unknowable reason she hasn’t divorced him, hasn’t even made him leave the house, but their bedroom is irrefutably off-limits to him. She cooks and eats with the children and even if she doesn’t refuse to include him on those rare occasions he appears for meals, she never asks him to come, either. And now, she’ll allow him to be in the hospital, outside her room - but she doesn’t want him inside while she labors and sweats and struggles to bring their child into the world.
After seventeen years of marriage, after everything he has done, finally, she simply doesn’t want him anymore.
He puts his head in his hands and listens to his wife screaming through the hospital door.
Angelica finds him like that, hours later, and tells him his son has just been born.
For almost three blissful minutes, he forgets.
They let him into the room and the doctor puts his son in his arms and - and - and -
“Oh, Eliza, look at him,” he says, gently moves his thumb over the baby’s soft black hair, holds him just a little tighter. “He’s perfect, Betsey, you magnificent, exemplary - he’s got hair already, how amazing is - my god, he’s so small.” Distantly, he is aware his cheeks hurt from smiling. It’s been so long since he was this happy, this full-to-bursting swell of joy in his chest. He’s probably crying again, but he can’t feel it. “Betsey, he’s perfect. You did so wonderfully, you did such an excellent job—“
He looks up from the small, soft face of his son and everyone in the room is staring at him. Angelica is giving him a look of such pity that defensive anger flares up, quick and instinctive, before he looks at Eliza. She is slumped into her pillows, sweat sticking her hair to her forehead. There is still a flush of exertion in her cheeks; she looks exhausted. Instinctively he wants to go to her, to put his arm around her and let her rest her head on his shoulder. He could hold their child between them so she could touch his cheeks; he could press kisses to her sweat-dampened temple and whisper praises directly into her ear. He could do these things, he knows, because he always has, and she has always let him take some of her weight with a smile, just for him.
She’s looking at him like -
He can’t put it into words. Like he’s a war wound. Like he’s an enemy combatant. Like he’s a stranger who walked into her delivery room and picked up her baby.
Like he’s her husband who fucked another woman and still thinks he has some kind of right -
He hands the baby to Angelica rather than come too close to Eliza. With his cuffs, he wipes the tear tracks from his cheeks. “I’m going to go get the children from school,” he tells them. “They’re all going to want to meet their new brother.”
Alex flees the room more than he leaves it. He collects the children from their various schools, drops them off at the front door of the hospital and tells them how to find their mother’s room. Unfortunately, he tells them, he’s going to have to work late tonight.
Eliza names the baby while he’s on his way back to work.
He doesn’t sleep for a week.
His belt tells him first, when he runs out of holes in the leather and his pants are still slipping on his hips. Burr, of all the fucking people, notices next, when they run into each other in court.
He gives Burr a nod, and Burr nods back, looks at him with that folded brow like something’s worrying him - but something is worrying Burr just about always, so he doesn’t really pay it any mind until there’s a hand on his arm, jerking him to a stop.
“Hamilton,” Burr says, “Are you feeling all right?”
It takes a full five seconds for that to process in Alex’s brain. Of all the stupid questions to ask. “Of course. I’m fine. Why?”
Burr looks him up and down, slow, and Alex shrinks in his skin in a way he hasn’t since he was nineteen and had holes in his shoes. “You...look like you’ve lost some weight.”
Alex shrugs. “As much as I appreciate your concern for my figure, Burr, I’ve got a case that’s starting in about five minutes, so unless there’s something else?”
The hand drops off his arm. “No, that’s...that’s all.” Burr searches his face for something, doesn’t seem to find it. “Just take care of yourself, Hamilton.”
Alex snorts a breath through his nose before he walks away. Of course he’s taking care of himself. He always has.
It comes into focus that night, when he wakes up with his face on his keyboard and about three pages’ worth of mush in the middle of his essay. Sitting up makes him lightheaded, the luminous screen smearing into a blur of light in front of his eyes, and when he tries to straighten his back his stomach cramps badly enough to make him double over.
And he thinks - when did he eat last? Not dinner, because he came home after everyone else had already gone to bed, not up to another family dinner of awkward silence and the skeptical stares of his children. And he’d been working on a case brief through his normal lunch hour, and breakfast - had he eaten breakfast? He vaguely recalls waking up on his desk the morning before, already late for a hundred things, running out the door. But surely dinner the night before? No, Eliza had been cooking, something with chorizo and onion that smelled like home and the sway of her hair had made him dizzy and heartsick, so he had locked himself in his office.
After a few minutes of trying, he realizes he can’t actually remember the last time he ate.
The clock above the microwave dutifully informs him that it is thirteen minutes past four in the morning when he stumbles into the kitchen. He pulls open the door to the refrigerator and finds - a lot of food, really, vegetables of every variety and meat neatly wrapped in brown butcher paper, and -
She had always saved a plate for him.
When she couldn’t drag him the twenty yards down from his office to the dining room table, when the children couldn’t pry his hands from his keyboard long enough to fit fork and knife in them instead, she had always left a plate for him - carefully portioned, wrapped in saran wrap - in the fridge for whenever he was ready to eat. She would visit him on her way to bed and bring him coffee, or sometimes a drink, or the plate of food itself if she deemed it too long since he’d had any nutritional intake. There had been times, because he was stubborn, that she would seat herself on the corner of his desk, slide along the length of it until she shoved his keyboard aside with her thigh, until her back was pressed to his monitor. She would put a mug or a plate or a bowl in his hands and she would run her fingers over his cheek, under his jaw, and tell him, Enough, Alexander.
He stares at the shelves of the fridge, well stocked with food, glaringly empty of a plate of leftovers left for a well-loved, absentee husband.
She had always been taking care of him.
He microwaves two eggs, eats them unseasoned and overcooked while his stomach growls and protests the sudden influx of solid food. It hurts, and the resulting cramps are the only reason his chest aches and he has trouble breathing. He tells himself this, very quietly, leaning against the counter in his own kitchen and thinking how he would rather do anything than go back to his office and sleep alone.
He washes his bowl, puts it away. Goes back to his office and closes the door behind himself.
The stomach cramps keep him awake through the night.
(After three months, Eliza calls Lafayette.
“Was he like this before? I can’t know, what he was like back before we met, but maybe -”
“Elizabeth, mon ami, Alex is not clever enough to do this. If you are concerned that he is faking this to arouse sympathy—”
She doesn’t know her grip strength or the structural integrity of her phone. She opts for digging her fingers into the flesh of her knee instead. “Gil, I’m not trying to say he’s faking it - it’s just - was he always this bad at taking care of himself? I swear, he doesn’t eat, he only sleeps when he passes out on top of something, he never—“
“Mon chérie, this is how he is, our friend. Self awareness is not among Alex’s talents.” Lafayette sounds tired, and it occurs to her she has no idea what time it is in Paris. She hopes she didn’t wake him up, but can’t bring herself to ask. “I would think it far more likely he has grown accustomed to married life, and has simply forgotten - mon ami, if you would perhaps—“
Anger flares up, hot and instantaneous. “Gil, if you’re trying to tell me that I have to - that I have some sort of obligation—“
“No, no, chérie, bien sûr que non. It is only that he is accustomed to your assistance. In its absence, he may perhaps...flounder. This is only to be expected.”
She puts her fingers to her forehead, pinches her brows between forefinger and thumb. “Yeah, well, I was accustomed to faithfulness.”
There is a moment of silence. “Of course, mon chérie.”
Her fingers carefully spread, as if she can dispel her headache with the sweep of her fingers. “Enough, Gil. How is Adrienne? What about Georges? I haven’t seen a new picture for a whole week, I was worried he had died.”
“C’est impossible! Do not say this, you will bring bad luck upon my beautiful son. He is exemplary, Elizabeth, he has only this week brought home full marks on another exam…”)
After four months, he gets sick.
Anyone could have seen it coming - Eliza did see it coming, months before it happened - but he hasn’t been eating and he hasn’t been sleeping and when the annual winter cold sweeps through the children, it takes him with a vengeance.
Alex, being Alex, takes a full three days to notice, and it isn’t until he very nearly faints in court that he admits something might be wrong. He has to sit down in the middle of his closing remarks, passes his notes off to his co-counsel and begs out of the remainder of the trial. He goes back to his office, intent on working on something less strenuous, like an essay on the newest mockery of a bill that Burr and Madison and Jefferson are trying to push through Congress, and then wakes up three hours later to vomit in the trash can next to his desk, his face on fire.
Fatima must hear the noise, because she cracks the door to his office, takes one look at him, and calls Eliza.
He’s just coherent enough to beg her not to, but he’s unconscious again long before his wife arrives.
When he wakes up again, his head is on something soft, and he is on fire.
He rolls onto his side and fumbles blindly over the edge of the bed, thanking god and several saints when he finds something like a bin to vomit into. His stomach is empty, and the best he can do is heave painful gulps of air and mouthfuls of bile into the trash can, press his forehead against its blessedly cool rim.
A voice, female and achingly soft, says Oh, Alexander.
His name is too long, it occurs to him, something that he has often thought but never adequately taken the time to ruminate on. Four syllables, after a Macedonian conqueror or any one of eight Popes or most likely a distant relation, and what did he ever do to earn such a name? Establish a bank and ruin his own life, he thinks, almost as bitter as the taste of bile in his mouth. He was always Alex, or Ham (the very occasional and much-protested Hammy), or at the most formal Hamilton; there were exactly two people in his memory who ever had the indulgence, the articulate tongue, the inexhaustible patience to call him by his full name. One of them hates him. He hasn’t heard her say his name for months now, the way her mouth stretched around the a, purred around the last r, the way she could say it all in one breath like a sigh, or a prayer, just for him, Alexander.
He hasn’t seen the other in more than twenty years - but he turns his hot and aching face, his cramping stomach, the taste of vomit in his mouth and a weakness shaking his arms, and he is twelve years old and curled against his mother as she burns and coughs and tells him, bebe este, Alexander; está bien, Alexander; debes ser fuerte ahora, Alexander.
“Mamá,” he says, and reaches out blind until she takes his hand in hers. “Ayúdame, Mamá.”
“Alexander,” his mother says, and puts her cold cold hands on his cheeks, his chin, his burning forehead. “Alexander, can you hear me?”
“Sí,” he says, turns his face into her cool palms - which, no, his mother’s skin was as hot as his, until she went cold against him, while he tried to fight his way out of her stiffening arms, while he ripped his throat open trying to call for someone to help her. “Sí, Madre, estoy aquí. ¿Dónde estás? Te extrañe.”
When he tries to sit up, she pushes him back down, presses something cold to his head. His mouth is full of bile and heat, and when he licks his lips they are cracked and taste of salt. The cool against his skin feels like a blessing, and it occurs to him then—“Mamá, necesitamos un sacerdote. Un sacerdote, necesitamos confesar antes de morir, Mamá— “
She shoves him down again. The pillows are cold, and damp with his own sweat. He cannot recall ever having had so many pillows in his life. Feathers are expensive, cloth is expensive - they do not have the money for this. Even if they survive, he will be working off the debt of this sickness for the rest of his life.
“I can’t understand you. Please, Alexander, I don’t know what you’re saying. ”
Only now, he realizes his eyes have been closed. He forces them open, the lids sticking together, and - was his mother’s hair always so straight? Were her eyes always so soft and angled, her skin so pale, her mouth so light and small? Yes, this is his mother, because she is beautiful, the most beautiful woman in the world, always. Except there was another, there was one other more beautiful, and he needed a priest, he needed to confess, he needed -
“Mamá,” he says, clarity shooting through him like a bullet. “¿Mamá, y si me muero sin perdón?”
He watches her mouth twist, vicious, and she says “You’re going to be fine,” like a commandment, and he feels her cold fingers in his hair, on his scalp, a moment before her soft cool mouth presses against his forehead, a communion. He can feel her lips moving on his sweat-sticky skin, the flats of her teeth when she whispers, “Please. Get better, Alexander. For me.”
Her cold mouth is still against his burning forehead when unconsciousness takes him again, before he can ask -
And he falls asleep in the sweat-soaked pillows he cannot afford, and dreams about cold hands on him, and does not wake again until his fever breaks, two days later.
He wakes up in the bed, in his office, and he is alone.
His office is at one end of the hallway, her bedroom at the other. The children’s rooms are spread between, the nursery in the middle. The hall is a demilitarized zone, as oppressive and tense as any border, but it is neutral territory nonetheless. The children’s rooms are holy ground, kept out of the conflict by unspoken and inviolable law.
William’s nursery is clean in the middle, absolutely untouchable. Sacrosanct.
It’s something like three-thirty in the morning; Alex is awake, writing, when he hears the first hiccups of a wail from his son down the hall. It’s a small sound for the moment, the early whimperings building up to a proper cry, and Alex yanks his glasses off and hurries down the hall, tries to catch him before he works himself into a full-on scream.
Five months old, and he’s getting to be able to move a little on his own. He’s kicking and crying in his crib, squirming unhappily when Alex reaches in to lift him out. Alex changes his diaper without turning on the light, muttering quiet nonsense as his son continues to cry. He’s trying to keep the disturbance to a minimum, walking back and forth and whispering to the baby in the dark, rubbing his back and pressing his cheek to the side of the his head. The crying doesn’t get any louder but it doesn’t stop either, and Alex is almost resolved to spending the rest of the night pacing slow circles around the nursery with his son when the door creaks open.
He turns carefully, still gently bouncing William, and Eliza is standing in the doorway. She’s in a half-pulled on robe, one shoulder slipping off, just a camisole and underwear underneath. The moonlight coming through the window edges her dark hair in tousled silver, and she’s rubbing at her sleep-swollen eyes, one hip cocked against the doorframe. His mouth is suddenly dry, his throat aching.
There was a time, he thinks, when he could have crossed that room and put one of his hands in her mussed hair. (There was a time he would have been the cause of her mussed hair.) He could have kissed her mouth while it was still soft with sleep; they could have put the baby to bed together and he would have taken her back to their room. Her breasts are still swollen and tender, her body slow and muted with the exhaustion that comes along with every newborn. But he could have kissed her, and crawled down her body and put his mouth on her thighs, the wings of her hipbones, buried his nose in the dark hair between her legs. She would have been slow to respond and soft when she did, her fingers threading through his hair without any strength to her grip, her sighs shallow and soundless, her legs trembling instead of clenching around his head and shoulders. He could have made her come, just like that, soft and slow and breathless, until she fell asleep shaking against him.
But here they are.
She rubs her eyes and blinks at him, heavy and slow. He swallows, and the first thing he can think to say is, “I’m sorry.”
“I thought you’d be working.”
He squints at her, his eyes too overworked to make out the minutiae of her expression in the dark. “I was. I heard - he was crying. I was hoping he hadn’t woken you.”
Eliza sighs, shoves her hair out of her face. “He’s probably hungry. Give him here.”
He carries their son over to her, and it occurs to him this may be the closest he’s been to her in six months. She takes Will from him, walks to the cushioned rocking chair in the corner of the room.
(He bought it for her, sixteen years ago, when she was nursing Philip. Phil had been a hard first baby, crying at all hours, constantly hungry and fussy. The chair had been a splurge, back then, but it was enormous and overstuffed and it was the perfect rhythm for rocking their baby to sleep. They’d both spent so many nights in that chair, with Philip and then with Angelica, Alex Jr. and James and John, falling asleep with a child cradled against their chest or in their lap, exhausted and over-comfortable. He’d kissed her in that chair, when he found her sleeping there in the mornings; he’d fucked her in that chair, when the nursery was empty and he was whispering in her ear wouldn’t she like to see it occupied again, wouldn’t she like to feel their child growing inside her again, wouldn’t she like one more, always one more, one more child one more kiss one more time -
He can’t tell her this, but he thanks god and every saint he knows, silently, that Maria Reynolds never once sat in that chair.)
Lost in thought, he realizes he’s missed his chance to leave now, and Eliza’s already in the chair, tugging her robe and camisole off of one shoulder. He turns his back, feels uncomfortably like a voyeur. He can hear as William suckles noisily, and Eliza sighs, just a little. Something tugs at Alex, a sharp bright pain between his ribs. There’s a bitter taste on the backs of his teeth.
“I - I’ll go. I’m sorry.”
Behind him, Eliza sighs again, louder and deeper, less content and more frustrated. She’s given him that sigh a hundred thousand times over their marriage - it makes the corner of his mouth twitch and his chest ache again, so agonizingly familiar. Her voice, when it comes, is as soft and fragile as he has ever heard it. He thinks he could shatter it with a touch, with the wrong word, this infinitely delicate midnight truce.
“You can stay, if you want.”
He turns very carefully, very slowly, giving her time to stop him if she changes her mind. She’s looking out the window instead of at him, and her skin is snow-blue in the moonlight, William at her breast with her arms folded around his small body. Alex isn’t a painter, but if he could he would paint this: his wife with her hair frizzing and tangled, the soft vulnerable curve of her shoulder in the blue moonlight, her fingers slim and graceful in the thin dark curls at the back of their son’s head. All the words in the world couldn’t be enough to describe how beautiful she is, in that moment.
He can’t think the last time he slept.
“I do - I will - I want to stay. I want to stay,” he tells her, stumbling over the words, and it hurts his throat to speak. Her jaw moves, a twitch or a swallow. “I’m - it’s still just me, Eliza.”
Her mouth twists, and she ducks her head to look at William, still nursing happily. She softens again, not into a smile, but a less severe frown. Mostly, she looks tired. “I know who you are.”
His chest caves in a little, his ribs cracking. “Betsey,” he starts, and she makes a sharp hiss through her teeth, cutting him off. The baby’s teething, Alex thinks; he probably bit her.
“Stop talking,” she says, without unclenching her teeth. “You can stop talking or you can leave.”
“I’ll be quiet,” he tells her quickly. “I’ll be quiet, I swear.” He goes to his knees, slinks across the floor slow and graceless, sits near her feet and leans his back against the armrest of the chair. His spine stretches and flexes as she rocks back and forth, and she doesn’t put her hand in his hair like she would have before. But he can press his pinky finger to the outside of her foot, and he can look up at the line of her jaw and see her face while she nurses their son, achingly soft. She doesn’t say anything when he leans his head against the side of her knee, and when he presses, just a little, the jut of her bone pushes into the indent of his temple and eases the perpetual ache in his head.
He tilts his head up to look at her, drinks her in like a long swallow of cold water. He hasn’t been able to look at her in so long. Religion comes rarely and sporadically to Alex, but this is an icon he could worship, holy as any saint, as beautiful as the Virgin Mary. A new Pieta, more cold and remote than marble, every bit as untouchable.
Angelica and Peggy take after their father, but Eliza follows after her mother - pale and almond-eyed and her hair a long dark sheet. Her face is as round and soft as moonlight, painfully tender as she looks down at the child at her breast. Her hair draws a dark line from throat to collarbone to sternum, and he can see the curve of her breast behind his child’s head. And she won’t hold Alex, she won’t even look at him, but she holds his son and nurses him and still looks at him like he’s the most precious thing in the world.
If Alex is very quiet and very still, maybe she will forget he’s there, on the ground at her feet. Maybe she’ll smile down at their son; maybe she will let him stay. It’s the longest they’ve been in the same room together for six months. Right now, it’s enough - it’s more than enough.
He doesn’t go back to his office that night.
(Angelica finds them in the morning, Eliza with her face smushed into the side of the chair and William cradled in her lap, Alex slumped against his wife’s knees, his neck at an angle he’ll regret as soon as he wakes up. The morning light is starting to filter through the windows; elsewhere in the house, the children are beginning to stir. William is just waking up, starting to squirm a little and fuss in Eliza’s hands.
Carefully, without disturbing her sister, Angelica takes Will from Eliza’s lap. When she steps back, rocking her nephew in her arms, she finds Alex’s eyes open, staring up at her.
He doesn’t move his head from its uncomfortable angle, or shift his weight from where he’s leaning against Eliza. But he licks his lips, carefully, and croaks at her:
“Please don’t make me leave.”
Angelica shakes her head, bounces Will a little. He burbles happily, settles cheerfully against his aunt’s chest. “I’m not here for you,” she reminds Alex, and leaves the room.
She’ll take the children out to breakfast, she decides, and hums a little as she walks down the hall.)
They spend Christmas with the Washingtons in Mount Vernon. Martha, true to Eliza’s expectations, makes as much southern food as she can force the New Yorkers to eat. Gil flies in from France with Adrienne and Georges, delights in the authentic American food like the most ridiculous and loveable tourist. Philip and Angelica try to hold halting conversations with Georges in French, which usually devolve into teaching each other swear words in their native languages. Eliza drinks maybe a little bit too much wine, watches from the sidelines as Alexander and Gil play with the younger children, smiles more than she has in months.
They’ve been staying with the Washingtons for a week before Eliza realizes she’s being played.
The farm is enormous, and beautiful - the general takes her on endless walks, shows her the strawberry plants, the tobacco fields, Martha’s meticulously tended flower gardens. As soon as they get back she’s invited to tea with Martha and Adrienne, which turns into drinks with Martha and Adrienne as five o'clock rolls around. Martha teaches her how to make fried chicken over a bottle of zinfandel; Adrienne seduces her into playing the piano with sauvignon blanc. And as soon as dinner’s done, the general invites her to see this field or that hill, which is at its most beautiful only at sunset, or to sit and have a cup of tea with him on the porch and teach him to pick out the constellations in the clear cold sky. The next morning Gil absolutely needs to brush up her French, or Adrienne must have someone to sit with her and edit her newest poetry, and then lunch rolls around and wouldn’t she like to come see the east barns with the general after they eat, the lambs are just starting to get their winter coats -
“You can stop with the kid gloves, you know,” she tells him, leaning on the metal fence of the ewes’ pen. “I won’t have a breakdown if you all leave me alone for five minutes.” The lambs really are very cute.
The general looks at her, a long appraising stare. Age has done nothing to bend him; he stands as imposing as ever, a tall solid wall of a man. Eliza has always been fairly certain that, if necessary, George Washington could be used as a lodestone for a compass, a point of reference on a map. A hurricane couldn’t move him, if he chose to stand; there was no one else so steady on the continent. “Is that what you think we’re doing?” he asks, and his face is inscrutable. Sometimes she can’t understand how the general ever worked with her husband; Alexander, who can’t stop talking or moving or writing for ten seconds at a time, Alexander who shows his emotions like they’re printed on his face in capital letters.
“Aren’t you?” She challenges, grips the railing a little tighter. “I haven’t been alone for an hour since we got here.” She hasn’t been alone in a room with Alexander for even a minute, but she doesn’t need to say that. The general knows that.
He takes a few steps closer to her, very deliberately covers one of her hands with his own. His palm is warm, and rough, and so big it swallows her hand up, hides the trembling of her fingers under his. Something wells up in her throat, hot and fast and choking; whatever it was she had expected, it wasn’t this. “Eliza, everyone here loves you.”
Her eyes are burning, all of a sudden. She wonders if she’s having an allergic reaction to the wool. “I know that,” she says, her voice thick in her throat. She hears her own breath hitch, far away.
Washington’s other hand comes up to the back of her head, pulls her slowly into his chest. She presses her face into his coat. He’s solid as stone beneath the fabric; this, she thinks, is a man who could bear the unendurable weight of her and remain unbowed. Her hands are trembling, but she wraps her arms around him. “Everyone here loves you,” he tells her again, and she shakes her head against him, rubbing her burning eyes against his jacket. Her breath catches again, and Washington rubs one hand up and down her back, slow and soothing. “Ssh, now,” he hushes, when a sob seizes her, forces its way out against her will. “It’s all right, Eliza.”
And just like that, she’s sobbing, soaking the front of the general’s coat with her tears and creasing the back with her fingers digging in. She hides her face against his chest, because it’s ugly, she knows, her mouth open and gasping for air, her face swollen and wet and flushed bright red. He murmurs into her hair as she cries, nonsense sounds and quiet platitudes, the way she would soothe a small and frightened child. And he stands, as immovable as marble, one hand holding her head against his chest and the other moving slow and rhythmic up and down her spine, helping her remember how to breathe. A hurricane couldn’t move him, she had thought, and now here she is, a typhoon of grief and rage and pain, breaking her thunderheads against his bedrock.
Eventually, the storm passes out of her.
She wipes the last of her tears on her sleeves, her eyes sore and her head aching slightly, all at once embarrassed, realizing suddenly that she just bawled her eyes out on top of General George Washington, the former President, the most powerful man in America. His jacket is damp against her cheek - she’ll probably have to pay for the dry cleaning, at least, if not get him a new one entirely - somehow she has to smooth this over, undo it, make it so it never happened and she can look him in the eye tomorrow -
His hand moves over her hair, his thumb coming to push it away from her forehead. So gently it makes her ache, he cups her jaw in his hand, looks down at her with his thumb smoothing back and forth over her cheek. He searches her face, and his eyes are so kind it makes her want to hide her expression in the front of his jacket again.
“Better?” he asks, his voice very low. She’s surprised, somehow, to find that she is. Her breathing is easier, her shoulders aching less - she feels lighter, like she had been carrying the weight of all her tears inside her, building them up for the last six months.
She nods, her head moving up and down in his hand, and the general smiles down at her, so fondly it makes her cheeks hurt. He bends to kiss her forehead, and she closes her eyes to draw out this moment, this sense of absolute safety, the sudden and unbearable lightness in her chest. “Good,” he says, and runs his hand over her hair one more time before stepping away.
“Come along, then,” he says, opens the door to the barn, letting in the winter air. “I think there may be one bottle left in our wine cellar that Martha hasn’t opened yet. She’ll be wanting to remedy that.”
A laugh bubbles out of Eliza, sudden and bright, and she almost chokes on it in her surprise. She wraps her hand around the arm George offers her, and they walk back to the house that way, arm in arm, shoulders brushing.
(Two days later, on Christmas Eve, Alex corners Washington in his study, while Eliza is safely trapped in the kitchen making pies with Martha and Adrienne.
“What did you say to her, sir?”
Washington had been sitting at his desk, painstakingly filling out by hand some ledger or another - crop yields maybe, or animals born, or dollars spent on meat and potatoes and wine for Alex and his overly large family. It’s been years and years, and he’s never been able to stand in front of the general without feeling like something of a disappointing son. Washington takes his reading glasses off, folds them neatly and sets them off to the side of his desk.
“I’ve had a word with President Adams,” the general says. “You’re to be appointed Inspector-General of the army.”
Scratch that - Alex feels like a very disappointing son.
“Sir,” he says, and sits when Washington indicates the chair in front of his desk. “My law practice is doing just fine, Sir, if you’re worried about my financial situation. And Eliza’s taking a break right now with the baby, but she’ll be back at work before too long, so we’re really not having financial troubles in the slightest, at least not at the moment. I appreciate it, Sir, I really do, but it wasn’t really necessary for you to call in a favor with Adams just on my behalf, that is, please tell me you didn’t actually have to call in a favor with that ridiculous -”
“Hamilton,” Washington says, and Alex screeches to a halt. “You should be at home.”
It takes every ounce of Alex’s very limited self-control to not squirm in his seat. Diverting, he tries to stay focused on why he came in here in the first place. “What did you say to Eliza, sir? You took her out to see the baby sheep two days ago and then when you came back she was -” His hand flutters off into the air, helpless. How does he describe it? That ever since that day, his wife had spoken to him twice? Twice in two days, when he’d gone a full month without hearing her voice before they came here? That she had come back from the barns and smiled at Angel teaching Georges how to swear in Spanish, and hadn’t stopped smiling since? That, at dinner, she had lifted her eyes over their heads of the children and looked him full in the face, held his eyes for one moment, for two, for so long that he started to ache between the ribs, holding his breath?
These aren’t things he ever wanted the general to know. The general probably already knows all of them.
Washington puts a hand on his shoulder. Alex hadn’t even noticed him getting up from his chair.
“Take the appointment,” he says, and Alex ducks his head, nods. It wasn’t as if he was ever really going to refuse it - not if the general had really called in a favor to get it for him. “And Hamilton?”
Alex looks up. The general is so tall - Alex is a decent medium height, he’s always thought, except for when he’s standing next to Washington feeling like he’s not even half of what he dreamed himself to be - and he’s looking down at Alex, his dark eyes sympathetic.
“Go home, son. That’s an order from your commander.”
His throat hurts. He doesn’t think he can bear to look at the general’s face any longer. How is he supposed to walk out of this room and face his wife? How is he supposed to take a new job, and all the changes that come with it; how is he supposed to do all of this without Washington leading him?
Without Eliza helping him?
It gets a little easier, after they get back.
She still can’t always quite look him in the eyes, but - she can talk to him, most days. If she can’t be pleasant, exactly, she can be cordial. When he sits across the table from her at breakfast, she doesn’t flinch every time her eyes have to pass over him to look at their children.
The kids notice - of course they do, because her children are so brilliant it causes her physical pain, sometimes - and the whole house breathes a bit more freely, now. She can actually speak to Alexander enough that they can coordinate the children’s schedules again, and she starts going to Junior’s soccer games, Angelica’s piano recitals, Phil’s poetry readings. She’s so proud of them she thinks she might burst, and now she can look across the table at Alexander and see the same swelling joy in him when John brings home a perfect spelling quiz, when James builds a baking soda and vinegar volcano, when William says his first burbling mama.
This, this was where he had always excelled - patiently looking over Philip’s homework, picking at the weak points in his essays with scrawled notes in the margins; cheering like an idiot from the sidelines of Junior’s soccer game, wearing a beanie and the team jersey and American flag sweatpants, looking objectively ridiculous; sitting on the couch with Angelica nodding off against his shoulder, quietly reading her Spanish poetry so she wouldn’t forget the language her father grew up speaking. In all his flaws and his imperfections, he was always a wonderful father, doting and adoring; she could see their children blossoming under his attention, the way their faces turned towards him, like sunflowers seeking out the light.
Angelica moves out of the Hamiltons’ house, finds herself an apartment in the city and claims she’s on sabbatical, researching the development of a new democracy. Eliza goes back to work, now that William’s nursing less. She spends her days on the phone, cajoling and coaxing and conning donations out of people even wealthier than her parents, planning enormous fundraiser dinners and galas. Dinner gowns and cocktail dresses and smart business suits emerge from the back of her closet, where they had lurked unhappily as pregnancy forced her into elastic pants and empire-waisted shirts. She paces around ballrooms in dresses made of silk and absurdly itchy sequins, uses a smile and a compliment and all the etiquette that forty years of high society life could teach her to funnel money out of the pockets of rich people and into orphanages, women’s shelters, war memorials and veteran’s hospitals.
After a few weeks back at work, she remembers this is what it’s like to feel like she’s good at something. That night, she sits on her bed and rubs her feet, aching from three hours pinched into stiletto heels, and smiles to herself. When Alexander passes by her open door, she tells him good night without feeling like the words would strangle her on their way out.
Philip takes Burr’s daughter, Theodosia, to junior prom. If she’s not exactly happy about it - that marriage-ruining motherfucker - at least she does her best to keep it to herself, and Phil doesn’t seem to notice. It’s only junior prom, not a wedding, and he looks painfully handsome in his rented tux, all his curls pulled back away from his face. Her son is taller than her, he has been for a year or two now, but it strikes her all of a sudden when he hugs her goodbye, his boutonniere crinkling next to her ear. He hugs his father, too, jogs to his car and waves as he drives away, and suddenly Eliza feels like crying.
When she looks at Alexander, his eyes are bright, one hand over his mouth like he can keep everything inside by force. A long moment goes by, him looking at her looking at him, both of them on the verge of tears, on the verge of something that’s been growing inside of them for sixteen years.
She turns away before any tears can fall, goes upstairs to call Peggy, who shrieks appropriately at every single photograph Eliza sends her, and promises to be there for his senior prom next year.
It’s a little bit easier. She’s managing.
(It gets a little bit easier, after that.
She talks to him now, sometimes. Mostly out of necessity, to tell him that one of the children needs to be picked up or dropped off, or that she has a fundraiser that night and won’t be home for dinner. But she talks to him, and even looks at him once in a while, and most days that’s enough - the quiet, level tones of her voice, the occasional glimpse of her eyes through her hair, dark and sharp and wary, like a wild animal that hasn’t quite decided if it’s going to bite.
Meals get to be less oppressive, and he can sit across from her and talk to the children and occasionally even say please pass the salt and have her hand it down to him. He doesn’t feel quite so much like an interloper in his own kitchen, so he comes to meals more, tries to make it a point to be at at least one a day, two if he can manage it. He eats more than he has since - since it, and puts back on some of the weight that he had lost. His ribs disappear back beneath his skin. It doesn’t escape his notice that the routine seems to help settle his body, and he starts sleeping more nights than he doesn’t, occasionally gets as much as four or five hours in a night. Some nights he’s still pacing his office, hunched over an essay or a brief or an editorial when the sun comes up, but almost as often he wakes up in the bed and can actually remember when he laid down in it.
He’s healthier than he has been in more than half a year. His children are breathing easier, starting to talk to him like they used to before. His wife speaks to him, usually at least once a week.
Most days, it’s enough.)
On the hottest day of the year, half of New York City loses power.
They get the children out of the city quickly, Eliza packing them all into a car to go upstate with their grandparents and Aunt Peggy, while Alex calls every person he knows in public works, trying to figure out what’s gone wrong and when it’s going to get fixed and if yelling at someone over the phone will get it fixed faster. He tries to leverage his rank exactly once, but when all he gets is a very unimpressed employee snapping her gum in his ear and asking, “Wait, Hamilton, as in the guy from the Reynolds Post?” he hangs up and doesn’t try it again.
After a few hours, he badgers and argues his way into a reassurance from whoever seems to be in charge of this fiasco, promising that the power should be back up early tomorrow. It’s the best he’s going to get, at least for the moment. He tries to work for a while - writing by hand for the first time in ages, trying to save the precious few hours left in his laptop battery - but the words don’t come, his thoughts ever-interrupted by the slow trickle of sweat down his back, his forehead, his shoulderblades. Eventually, he strips off shirt and pants and works in his underwear, his damp skin sticking to the back of his chair.
He laughs at himself, just a little. Twenty years ago he would have killed for weather like this, wouldn’t have sweated a drop or bemoaned the lack of air conditioning. New York had been perpetually freezing to him, in his poorly made clothes and his Caribbean skin. He’d been in hotter weather, in a worse-ventilated house, wearing warmer clothes, and he’d worked just fine - fourteen, poring over ledgers and tally sheets; seventeen and dripping sweat onto his landlord’s paperwork, his own roughshod poetry. What a difference the years could make, that now he couldn’t even bear a little New York summer.
The sweat on his chest is shame, maybe. He gets the feeling that he could sweat everything bad about himself right out of his skin, wring himself out until he was young and vicious and proud again, hanging off the front of a boat, everything in the world ahead of him.
He’s jolted out of his thoughts - which had wandered away from his work again, goddammit - by the sound of the front door opening. He shoves his tee shirt back on in a hurry, because if he has to fight a burglar he at least doesn’t want to do it in his underwear. But when he creeps down the stairs, he finds Eliza in the kitchen, setting her purse on the counter and fanning at her neck with one hand.
“I thought you were going to stay with the kids,” he says dumbly, feels immediately bad when she jumps, clearly as startled to see him as he is to see her.
She stops fanning herself for a second, her fingers curling against her collarbone as if she’s not sure what to do with her hand. “I came back to watch the house, until they get the electricity back up. I thought you’d be at work.”
He shakes his head. “I called around. Power should be back on tomorrow morning.” Eliza’s head drops back in frustration, her hair sticking sweat-damp to her cheeks and throat. He tries not to look straight at her. “You could go back to your father’s, if you want. I can stay and wait for the repairs.”
Leaning her cheek against the cool metal of the fridge, Eliza closes her eyes. “No, I’ll stay. You might get called into work.”
She’s not technically wrong - his schedule is less packed, but also less predictable, now that he’s back in government instead of law practice, but even so, it’s pretty unlikely that an urgent new threat to national security is going to arise between this afternoon and tomorrow morning. But he doesn’t want to argue the point, not when she’s leaning against the fridge with her hair frizzing in the humidity and sweat shining on the tops of her breasts.
(He’d fucked her against the fridge more than once, loved the way she hissed at the cold metal against her back, the way it heated up as her skin did. There’s a small dent in the stainless steel door, just about eye level, that she made with the back of her head when he had put three of his fingers inside of her and pressed his teeth against her clit. For weeks, she had flushed any time she had to open that door.)
“Okay,” he says, very quietly, and looks at the wood floor instead of at her. “I just, I don’t want you to be uncomfortable. If you don’t have to be. That’s all.”
He doesn’t look up to see if she’s looking at him, or if she’s going to reply. Instead, he flees before she can say anything, half-runs back to his office and his unfinished, scatterbrained work. But he leaves the door open. Just in case.
Night, when it comes, does nothing to abate the heat. He tries working and sleeping by turns, meets with little success at either. He squints at his own handwriting in the dark, can’t bear the heat of lighting a candle to read by. For a while, he writes with a flashlight tucked under his chin, until his neck cramps so badly that he falls out of his chair.
Stripped down to boxer-briefs, and still dampness gathers under his arms, in the hair at his temples, down the groove of his spine. He climbs on top of all the covers and tries for sleep again, but his own skin makes the pillows unbearably hot and damp. His office is muggy, the air thick and oppressive, and he feels like he’s swimming in it. It takes him back, unpleasantly, to the Caribbean again, and the nights spent lying awake in his sweat because they didn’t have the money for air conditioning, the nights spent lying awake in his sweat and his mother’s equally damp arms, sick and hot with fever -
He gives up eventually, pads down to the kitchen in bare feet and underwear. He gets a glass of water from the sink, stands in the middle of the kitchen drinking it and staring at the dent in the fridge door.
His whole house is a minefield. Everything in it is a reminder of him and her, of what they used to be. It’s been a year since he was with his wife, but it’s not like he can forget. The dent in the fridge door, the scar of his wedding band on his finger, the sound of their children running up and down the halls - eighteen years of marriage, soaked into the walls of this house. She chose the furniture, the art on the walls, the window dressings. This whole house is full of her, her taste and her ideas and the lingering scent of her hair. It’s impossibly heavy, indescribably precious. If she never looks at him again, if she never speaks to him again, if he never puts his hands on her again, at least he is still in this house, the trace elements of their marriage all around him.
It’s hard to breathe. The air is thick and burns the insides of his lungs. He cracks the fridge for the first time all day, finds the inside is still blessedly cool. He finds a few bottles of beer - some local microbrew, Eliza’s refined tastes seeping into everything - and opens one, drinks half of it in one long pull. It burns down his throat, impossibly cold, makes him feel the sweat on his temples all over again. He finishes the first bottle and cracks a second, drinks this one slower. For a while, he simply stands in the middle of the kitchen, nursing his beer, staring at the fridge door and debating if he could curl up small enough to fit himself inside.
Jefferson’s hotel probably still has power, that asshole. If he asked, Tom might even let Eliza and him stay there just to laugh at them.
He doesn’t know how long he’s been standing there, debating between opening the fridge and ruining everything inside just so he can get a few breaths of cold air, or calling Jefferson and having to deal with that insufferable prick. Or, most likely, sweating himself to death in his kitchen trying to decide between the two. A noise behind him startles him out of his debate, and he turns to see Eliza padding into the kitchen. She’s dressed in a white tank top, a pair of underwear, and nothing else. Sweat makes the fabric of her shirt stick to her breasts as she breathes. Alex’s mouth is suddenly very dry, and the air is all at once impossibly thicker and hotter than it was a moment before.
“Hey,” he says. He pitches his voice low, even though there’s no one else at home to wake up. It’s been almost a year since they were alone in this house together. “Couldn’t sleep?”
She shakes her head, one hand pushing her hair off the back of her neck. “Too hot,” she tells him, and tilts her chin at the bottle in his hand. “Are those still cold?”
He fumbles in his rush to get another bottle out of the fridge for her. She takes it from him, tilts her head back and takes a few long swallows. Her lips make a wet pop when she lowers the bottle, gives a little sigh of relief.
Alex is fine. He has everything completely under control. He finishes his own beer in another two gulps.
Cracking the fridge again, he grabs one more bottle, brings it to Eliza. She looks up at him, nursing the last few swallows of her drink, her dark eyes expressionless as he walks over to her. He holds it out, an olive branch or a white flag, as he approaches. “Here,” he says, voice cracking and barely above a whisper. “Let me?”
With his barest fingertips, he pushes a few hairs off the back of her sweaty neck. Her hand comes up to comb through her hair again, gathering it all over her shoulder. She doesn’t stop him.
Lightly, he presses the side of the bottle, already dripping condensation, to the back of her neck. She inhales sharply through her nose, shivers at the cold contact. On instinct his other hand comes up to her arm, holding her steady. Her shoulder is small and soft under his hand. His palm is on fire. He hasn’t touched her in so long.
Slowly, he rolls the bottle up and down her spine, doing his best not to react to her small squeaks and sighs at the cold touch. Goosebumps spring up on her arms; he rubs his hand from elbow to shoulder, briskly, trying to clear them away.
They stay that way a few long minutes, his hand on her shoulder and her back to him, as he moves the cold bottle over her neck, her collarbones, the backs of her shoulders. Eventually, the glass starts to warm between his hand and her skin and the oppressive heat in the room. Alex’s breath is short and thick in his chest, and he tries to make his heartbeat
silent, keeps rolling the bottle against her, anything to make this moment, this inexplicable armistice, last just a little longer.
But eventually, her hand comes up to stop him, her pale fingers curling around his wrist. He moves the bottle away from her, sets it aside on the counter. She hasn’t stepped away from him yet.
He takes his hand - numb and condensation-damp from holding the beer so long - and puts it on the back of her neck, just above the knob of her spine. A shiver rips through her, a violent convulsion from her shoulders down to her toes. His fingers curl around the base of her skull; the pad of his thumb fits perfectly behind her ear, and her pulse is racing, a wild thing.
He doesn’t - he doesn’t know what he’s allowed. He doesn’t know what she wants or what he wants or how to ask for any of it - this is already so much more than he expected, than he ever allowed himself to hope -
Her fingers touch his jaw, and he bites down on his own tongue, shocked. She skims over his cheek with her fingertips, scrapes the shell of his ear with her nails. He shivers, helpless, spellbound; she hasn’t touched him of her own free will in a year.
Her palm slips around his neck, just below his ear, her fingers curling around the base of his skull. She tucks her fingertips into his hair, her nails scratching lightly at his scalp. His skin is on fire. The air in the room is as thick as syrup, he can’t get enough into his lungs to breathe, and her nails feel so good against his skin, thin lines of pressure-almost-pain. Her head is against his shoulder, she’s leaning back into him, tilting her head up and her eyes are already closed and her fingers are putting just a bit of weight on the back of his neck, pulling him down to her and it’s the easiest, most natural thing in the world, to lean down and put his mouth on hers.
And he’s kissing her, oh god, they’re only kissing but it’s been so long - it’s been so long, and her mouth is soft and wet and she tastes like classy beer. She opens her mouth for him when he presses his tongue to her bottom lip, just like she always has, he still remembers how to do this after all this time, and she tastes just like he remembers, except it’s so much better. One of his hands is on her hip and his arm is wrapped tight around her shoulders and he’s tugging her back into him and she’s leaning against him, letting him take her weight and hold her like he hasn’t for a year, for a year, her shoulder blades pushing into his chest and her mouth so so sweet.
Her nails are scratching at his scalp just behind his ear and her mouth is on his, his arms are tight around her chest and his tongue is in her mouth and oh, oh god, she’s everything he ever wanted. He was made for this, he thinks wildly, if ever he was designed for a purpose then it was to do this, to kiss her in their kitchen, and everything else he ever wrote or did or built was incidental. He presses his tongue against hers, sweeps his hand from her hip to skim the outside of her breast, and she melts, gasping open-mouthed against his lips, pressing the sweet curve of her hip into him. Betsey, he says, and then ohgodplease all in one breath, and he drops his arms from around her to turn her around until they’re pressed together, as close as they can get, all the way from neck to knees. He puts his hands on either side of her face and kisses her as deeply as he can, her fingernails digging half-moons into his shoulders.
And then she’s shoving him away, and he stumbles back and slams into the wall before he can catch his balance, breathing heavy and hard in his boxer-briefs. Her back is turned to him again, and he can see her shoulders shaking, her hands trembling as she covers her face.
“Betsey,” he says, and she convulses again. He sees her thighs press together, the way her shoulders hunch, like she’s trying to make herself smaller.
“Get out,” she tells him. She’s trembling, and the man he used to be would never have left her like that, alone in the kitchen in her underwear and shaking like she’s going to fall apart. But when he stretches a hand out to her she jerks away from him, and her hair is hiding her face in long dark sheets, and she won’t look at him.
“Please get out,” she repeats. “Leave me alone. Please.”
She said please. She doesn’t want him. What else could he do?
He goes back to his office and lies down, sweating and hard, and doesn’t sleep.
(She wants him. She wants him. She wants him so bad she thinks she might die of it, the wanting.
She wants him inside of her and she cannot bear to have him inside of her, her husband who fucked another woman. Standing in their kitchen, pressing her thighs together as if that will keep the wetness inside of her, as if she can push her desire down out of sheer force of will. She hasn’t had sex in a year, and she’s aching to be touched, for the weight of him on top of her and his fingers against her and his tongue on her and his cock inside her. She forgot how to want anyone but him.
That’s part of it - some of the sting. There were boys before him, sure, flirtations and kisses with all the best New York society sons, but -
She knows, okay, she knows what he’s like, who she married. She’s met Martha’s cat, the feral tom named after Alexander; she knows she wasn’t the first, or the second, or the third. She knows that the night they met, he tried to pick up Angelica. If her older sister had been a little less sensible, a little more selfish, it might have been Alexander and Angelica, instead of her. And then there’s - Laurens, the name that he still can barely bring himself to say, and he told her a thousand times that was before I met you, it was before I met you, and she knew and she never begrudged him any of it. It was how he was, it was his nature - she couldn’t hold any of it against him.
But it stings, now, after everything, because - there was no one for her but him. She couldn’t even really remember what it was like to want someone other than him, to put her fingers to her clit and not picture his hands on her, his hair between her fingers. There have been times she tried, imagining it was - Gil, maybe, with his wide smile and his dense curls, or even Hercules with his broad shoulders and booming voice, or whoever was People magazine’s sexiest man alive that year, or just an anonymous face and fingers and cock. But it never - she couldn’t - it was always him in the end, his eyes that she held in her mind when she trembled and shook and fell apart, always his name on her mouth when she went over the edge.
She wants him. She wants him, and he wants her, sure, but he wants Maria Reynolds and Angelica and his dead boyfriend, too; he wants a national bank and a strong central democracy and a goddamned legacy. He wants a hundred thousand things and he gets most of them, and she won’t -
She won’t be just another thing that he gets.
When she hears his office door close, she stumbles upstairs, weak-kneed and shaking and damp between the legs, sweat and slick dripping down the insides of her thighs. She locks her bedroom door behind her and drops face-first into her sheets, shoves her fingers into her underwear, grinds down hard against her own hands. Her skin is fever-hot, her head full of the way he pushed his tongue into her mouth, the firebrand of his fingers on her hip, her stomach, the side of her breast, the way he had pressed himself against her and said please.
Her fingers move frantic over her own skin, the way his would when he was too close, too desperate, terrified of coming before her or leaving her unsatisfied, when every thought was driven out of his ever-working mind except the frantic need to make her come as fast and as hard as he possibly could. He would bite down on her neck, her shoulder, her breast - anywhere he could reach, shove his fingers harder and faster against her, just this side of too much, just this side of pain, and she would press down into it, just as desperate, straining for it, every cell in her screaming yes yes yes -
Betsey, he would call her - had called her, in their kitchen, hard against her hip, five minutes ago - and he would say come for me, I need it, I need it with his unrelenting fingers, harder faster more more more while she panted into his shoulder and clutched at his hair and shook and shook until he begged please, Betsey, please -
She comes on her own fingers, her face shoved into the pillows to muffle the way she screams his name.
It’s not enough.
She lies, sweat-soaked and face-down on top of all her covers. The sun is rising in her window before sleep finds her.
It’s not enough.)
And just like that, it’s as bad as it ever was.
She doesn’t look at him. She doesn’t speak to him. The last thing he heard her say was please, telling him to get away from her, after he had put his mouth on her without asking, with his cold hand on her neck.
He stops sleeping.
He works, he writes - he goes for long runs around the neighborhood at four in the morning. Anything to get out of the house, because he can’t stop feeling like an interloper in his own home, a foreign invader on holy ground. The children aren’t happy about it - Angel hasn’t spoken to him in a week, and Philip very nearly yelled at him over breakfast a few days back. He’d stopped coming to meals, after that.
The interns at work start ducking whenever he walks into a room. He drinks enough coffee that his hands shake and writes a twenty thousand-word essay on the ridiculous lack of funding for the New York public works infrastructure that led to a power outage for half the city. He honest-to-god faints at his desk, passes out because he hasn’t eaten in three days, and only wakes up because Jefferson happened to be in the building that day and started trying to toss popcorn into his open mouth. He eats the popcorn, because it’s in his mouth already and it seems to freak Jefferson out, glaring through the glass walls of his office; he picks at the salad that Fatima sets in front of him because she puts her hands on her hips and glares until he does, because she’s wearing the fucking American flag-printed hijab that he bought her as a joke after she’d been his assistant for a year.
(He honestly had never intended for her to wear the thing. But she does, and he kind of adores her for it. She once broke someone’s nose because she and Alex were trying to shove their way through a crowd of paparazzi and the guy had yanked her hijab off; she didn’t even stop reading Alex his appointments to do it.)
He works through the night on an exceptionally eloquent statement about women and the selective service, and Fatima comes in at five the next morning and drags him out of his office by his collar, throws him into a taxi and tells him go home and get some damned sleep.
He goes home. Stumbles into his office and falls into bed, fully dressed. He’s asleep before he hits the mattress.
Three weeks after he put his hands on his wife in their kitchen, he wakes up in his bed, on top of all the covers and still dressed, his shoes still on. His eyes feel like they’re stuck shut with glue; he can feel that his shirt is sticking to his chest, his hair gummy at the back of his neck. He honestly can’t remember the last time he showered.
Pulling himself out of the bed feels like extracting himself from quicksand, a herculean effort that’s only worth it once he’s standing underneath the spray of his shower, letting the hot water wash what feel like a lifetime’s worth of sweat and dust off his skin. By the time he gets out of the shower, he feels like something approximating a human being again. His phone tells him that it’s just after noon - he slept for a solid six hours, more than he has in weeks - and a text from Fatima tells him that security has been given explicit orders to not let him back into the building until tomorrow morning.
The kids are upstate for one last visit before the school year starts in. Eliza, he assumes, is at work. His house feels oddly empty, hollow without the sounds of activity echoing around from somewhere. The silence is unsettling; all at once his office feels too-small, oppressive, bearing down on him. He pulls on a pair of mostly clean jeans and goes to find something to eat.
When he steps out into the hall, Eliza’s there.
He, with his hand still on the doorjamb, halfway out of his office; she with her fingers curled around the knob of her bedroom door, hovering over the threshold. All at once he feels naked, conscious of his shirtless chest, his damp hair still dripping onto his shoulders, his bare feet underneath his pants. She’s in dark jeans and a tee shirt, as plain as she ever dresses; her hair is loose in long dark sheets. A few strands are stuck to her cheek. Her mouth is very slightly open, the beginnings of a word hanging unfinished on her soft pink lips.
He wonders, mind racing ahead of sense, if he dreamed her up in a fever. Just as quickly, he discards the thought - he could never have created her, in all her intricacies and her silent depths. He’s been staring at her too long. Her eyes are so dark, bottomless pools of black. They haven’t looked each other in the face since - since - since -
(Since she stood in their kitchen and opened her mouth for his tongue; since she had pushed her hips back into his, leaned back against his shoulder and gave him all the weight of her to hold; since she had kissed him, and she had made the most beautiful noise in the world when he had said please - )
Want roars through him, gale-force winds, this wild chaotic feeling that he’s becoming all too familiar with - the sense of storms outside the walls, and the two of them trapped in the perfect stillness of the eye. If a hurricane ripped across New York right now, this hallway would remain undisturbed; the dust motes in the air between them, her fingers curled over the doorknob, the roaring ache in his chest, like hunger, like starvation.
Water drips from his hair onto his shoulders, makes him shiver. Her fingers twitch on the doorknob like a reflex. He swallows - his throat is choking him.
“Eliza,” he says, can barely force it out past the lump in his throat. Her eyes close, and her hand flexes on the doorknob again.
The hallway is lit, softly, by the sunlight coming in through the windows. She’s going to close the door. She’s going to step into her bedroom that used to be their bedroom, and she’s going to close the door and lock it, she’s going to lock him out of the room and he’s going to go downstairs and eat alone, because that’s what they’ve been doing for more than a year, because that is what he deserves, that’s more than he deserves -
She takes her hand off the doorknob.
Something twists in his chest, tearing at the insides of him. He can hear the hurricane winds on the walls. “Betsey,” he says, and he can hear the wreckage in his own voice, the shrapnel caught inside his chest.
But she takes her hand off the doorknob.
And she’s walking towards him, long fast steps until she’s half-running down the hall and he’s bracing his knees and clenching his teeth for a slap or a punch or anything, and she -
wraps her arms around his neck -
grips his hair in her small strong fingers -
tugs him down and kisses him, vicious, splitting his lip open on her teeth.
There’s blood in his mouth and it’s good, it’s so good. It’s like kissing a thunderstorm, her nails raking lines of pain down his scalp and her teeth on his lip and her tongue in his mouth, and he can take it, he can take all of it, this is what he’s been missing for so long. He takes it all and gives it back, pushes his tongue between her lips and grips her by the waist, pulls her against him until they’re flush, her heaving chest pushing against his, driving all the air out of his head.
He puts his hands on her cheeks so he can kiss her deeper, tilt her head and give it to her just how she likes, and she makes a small, high-pitched moan and crumples against him, and oh thank god he still remembers how to do this. Her hands drop out of his hair, curl into his belt loops to tug him closer, drags him with her when she turns and puts her back against the wall. And Alex might be slow, but he can be taught - he presses her against the wall, caught between the unyielding wood and his skin, and she moans again, longer, deeper.
Eliza whines unhappily when he takes his mouth from hers, but he doesn’t go far, kisses her cheek, the corner of her jaw, up and down the long pale line of her throat. He runs his chin over her neck to see the red scrape his stubble leaves behind; she shivers, squeaks undaintily, tightens her fingers in his belt loops and yanks his hips into her. He pulls her shirt aside so he can suck at the soft skin where her neck meets her shoulder, bites down to feel the way she spasms and digs her nails into his back. Oh god, he’s hard in his jeans and she’s right here, right here under his mouth and hands and letting him - oh god, letting him -
Alex reels back, almost loses all willpower at the miserable sound she makes, the way her hands go out after him when he pulls out of her arms. He presses himself against the opposite wall, and it’s not enough space, their feet still overlapping on the floor, and he’s sweating and breathing heavy and he’s hard, so hard it hurts, and he hasn’t been inside her for a year. She’s staring at him, actually honest to god looking him in the face with her pupils so blown he can’t distinguish them from the blacks of her irises, and there’s sweat on her face and a blush on her cheeks and the red marks of his mouth on her neck.
“Betsey,” he says, and she shivers. He wants, he wants, and it takes all the breath in his chest to say, but he has to say it, he has to be sure—“Betsey, you have to tell me.”
(It wasn’t any one thing in particular.
She didn’t wake up that morning and decide that today was the day she was going to fuck her husband again. It’s just -
She just wants him.
It’s already been a long day by eleven am, and she can feel the beginnings of a headache coming on before noon; she hasn’t slept more than four hours in a night ever since - ever since - that night when the power was out. And the kids are upstate with their grandfather, out of her sight, which she never likes; baby Will has a cough that Peggy promised her was nothing but still hasn’t gone away, and she has three prospective clients begging her to take their accounts and she really, honestly, only has the staff for two. Philip has been working on college applications and she almost forgot to attend a fundraiser she organized herself, for fuck’s sake, because she can’t sleep and she wakes up hot and flushed and she puts her hands between her legs and it’s not enough, it’s never enough, and she can’t, she can’t, she can’t -
And ever since that night, that night, the one where the power went out, Alexander’s been gone.
God, she misses him.
She misses his attention, his voice, his hands on her - she misses him, she wants him, almost twenty years of marriage and the worst betrayal he could have committed like a brick wall between them and still she wants, inconsolably, like a starving thing.
It’s been so long since she felt like this, the swell of something ravenous and ugly inside of her; it hasn’t happened much since they got married. But she looks at him, a year and an affair and a thousand miles of distance between them, and it uncurls in her chest, stretching, purring - a terrible kind of possessiveness, like a dragon brooding over the hoard. She remembers this, from all that time ago when he was a hundred miles away, writing her letters from a war zone, pages and pages and all of them for her, hundreds and thousands of words and all of them a promise that he was all for her.
Everything that he was, everything that he had to give, every thought in his terrifying, unceasing mind, every word scratched out beneath his ink-stained fingers or yelled from between his sharp teeth, all of them - hers.
And there it was, that old and twisted want, wanting to fuck him, wanting to be him, wanting to own him, a maelstrom of hideous things inside of her and never knowing which one of them she was feeling at any one time. Helpless, she had said, because she had grown up with a genius and she had never once been jealous, she had never looked at Angelica and begrudged her that vicious mind. But she had seen Alexander from across a bar, the hunger-tight lines of his face, the quiet strength of his fingers, his eyes like America, and she just -
And so she left work early, because it’s been a long day before noon, a long week and it’s only Monday, it’s just been a long goddamn year, and she went home so she could try to get some sleep, and she was halfway into her bedroom when he opened the door at the opposite end of the hall and - there he is.
Half-naked and hair dripping, off-guard and more at ease than she’s seen him in a year, and she can see the lean muscles in his arms, the sparse hair on his chest, the endless reaches of his smooth brown skin. She meets his eyes and she can see his mind working behind them, all the cogs and gears of his head going top speed, staring at her like he’s dying of thirst and she’s the only water left in the world.
She still hates him. She still can’t bear to think of those eyes on Maria Reynolds, of that mouth on her, of him inside her, of the hands that wrote the words that ruined their lives. She still can’t risk letting him speak. He’s terrible, he’s the worst, he’s her unfaithful, untrustworthy, godforsaken husband, and she -
She wants him.)
She closes the space of the hall between them, puts her feet between his feet, curls her fingers into the waistband of his jeans. He’s not breathing, trembling under her fingers, his palms flat on the wall; every inch of him is a live wire, but then, that’s how he’s always been. Eliza pushes herself against him, like a cat begging for attention, glutting herself on the feel of his skin under her cheek, against her chest. It’s exactly what she’s been missing for so long.
She can hear it when he swallows, a thick and gasping thing that almost chokes him on its way down. She wraps her arms around him and he sucks in a rattling breath, his hands fluttering on the wall, lifting up and slamming back down in a series of aborted half-caresses.
“Betsey, please,” he says into her hair, and he’s just openly begging now; she likes that, she hates that. “Please, oh god, you have to tell me what you want. I can’t do this. You have to tell me. Please—“
She kisses him, mostly so he’ll stop talking. Her name gets smeared between their mouths, more felt than heard, and his lip still tastes faintly like blood where she split it with her teeth. When she pulls back, his mouth is swollen, stained red, and his eyes are wild. His hands are still on the wall.
“Betsey,” he says again. She can feel the word in his chest, pressed against hers. She wants to blush, to turn her head away and bite her lip, like she would have when she was twenty-two and doing this for the first time. She rolls up on her toes and bites at his mouth, instead.
“Shut up,” she says, and she can feel his breath on her lips, his eyes open and staring less than an inch away from her face. “Shut up, and fuck me.”
And just like that, he’s on her, his mouth hot as a firebrand, his jaw working her teeth open so he can shove his tongue inside. She feels his hands land, stinging, on the backs of her thighs, just this side of a slap in his haste. She takes it for the hint it is, jumps just a little bit so she can get her legs around his waist, his hands on her ass holding her up, and he won’t let go of her mouth or come up for air.
She’s drowning. There’s so much built up inside of her, all this hurt and pain and want and she wants to carve it out of his skin, and everything she gives him he gives back twice again. He puts her up against a wall with a force that half drives the breath out of her, leaves her sucking for air open-mouthed against his cheek.
“Sorry,” he says against her jaw, and she’s pretty sure he means it, and then he shoves his hips against her and she’s not sure about anything except that he needs to do that again, immediately, right now. His mouth is on her throat again, sucking, biting, and oh, she’s going to have marks tomorrow, everyone is going to be able to look at her and know what happened, know that she let him fuck her again after what he did -
She doesn’t want to think.
Eliza grabs him by the hair, too-rough, jerks him away from her neck, and he looks up at her with his eyes so blown she can’t even see the brown of his irises. He’s still thinking, a thousand miles a minute behind his eyes, even with his neck cricked back and his teeth clenched on a hiss and her hand a fist in his hair.
She doesn’t have as much leverage as she’d like, pinned between the wall and his body, but she can arch against the wall and work her hips on him, stare down at him and watch his eyes go unfocused and his mouth slack. She can feel him, unbearably hard through his jeans and hers, and it’s been so long, so long, and the only thing she can think is how good he would feel inside her, right now, right now right now.
He kicks open the door to her bedroom, drops her into her bed. She bounces a little, the mattress soft but not as much as she would like, because Alexander can’t sleep on anything too soft after a lifetime of poverty and military service, and she hated herself even when she was buying the damn thing, that she still bought a bed that would be comfortable for them both when he was never going to be allowed in it -
He’s kneeling at the foot of the bed, undoing the zipper on her jeans, his fingers tucked into the waistband of pants and underwear both, trying to work them down her legs. She finally gets with the program, lifts her hips so he can pull them off her, sits back up and rips her tee shirt over her head while he tugs her pants free from her feet, throwing them still tangled up with her underwear somewhere into the abyss of her room.
They moan in sync when he puts his mouth on her ankle. Her hands are shaking too hard to undo the clasp on her bra and she ends up just shoving it over her head to get it off; Alexander’s lips are on the inside of her knee, his tongue on her thigh, his fingers under her back so he can lift her hips and get her legs over his shoulders.
She’s so wet. She’s so wet she can feel it on her thighs, a smear on his lips when he drags his open mouth from the top of her leg to her knee and back again, his beard leaving red lines on her skin.
“Oh my god,” she says, blind, and throws her head back into the sheets, arching up to get closer to him, to get some friction, to get fucking anything where she needs it.
His swallow is a twitch she can feel in her thigh, his arms under her legs spreading her open for him, and he groans low in his chest just looking at her. She can feel his stare on her, and he’s still fucking thinking, so she bends one leg and digs her heel between his shoulderblades, trying to pull him forward. “Come on, come on,” she’s muttering, almost without intending to, “Come on, what are you waiting for, come on -”
“Betsey,” he says, in that voice like there’s broken glass in his throat, and puts his tongue on her clit.
He’s good at this - he’s still so good at this, broad flat strokes of his tongue over her clit and then suction, soft and deep in his throat, and he lets go of one of her legs so he can press a finger inside of her, adds a second when she arches up into it, rubbing herself against his face, shameless. She’s tossing her head against the sheets, insensate, both of her hands in his hair tugging him closer even though he’s not teasing, not playing coy, just giving her exactly what she needs.
She can’t look down at him. If she does, if she sees his dark head between her legs and his long fingers digging into her thigh, if god forbid he’s looking up at her with his black hot eyes, she’ll come right away, and she never wants this to end, this moment with his tongue moving on her clit and his fingers inside her, curled just right to catch that spot she likes best. He’s relentless, devoted, the pressure of his mouth almost too much, his fingers pressing inside her continuously, not giving her a space to breathe, she can’t get enough air, one of her heels digging too hard into his back and the other foot arched into the air, helpless, shaking.
He sucks at her, crooks his fingers inside of her just so, and she sobs, rakes her fingernails against his scalp and he groans against her, the vibration making her shake and arch. She gasps and he moans, an endless escalating cycle, and she couldn’t stop it if she wanted to, but she doesn’t, she doesn’t ever want this to stop.
He adds a third finger.
She curls in on herself with a silent, breathless cry, because it’s been such a long time and she’s tight, stretching to fit what she once took so easy, everything wound too tense and too tight and his fingers aren’t so much thicker than hers but he’s knuckle-deep inside her, fucking her on his fingers, and it’s too deep, too good, all of it too much for her to bear.
She looks down at him and oh god, he’s staring up at her, his eyes so dark and he’s looking at her, he’s only looking at her -
His fingers curl - he sucks her clit hard against his teeth - he’s looking at her, and it’s too much it’s too much it’s too much.
She comes, mouth open and working silently, dropping back down into the covers and her hips thrusting up, shoving against his face helplessly. He’s so good, just holds her as still as he can and works her through it, his tongue soft but unrelenting, never letting her all the way down.
She slows, gathers enough presence of mind to loosen her fingers in his hair, takes deep sucking gasps until she can catch her breath. One of her hands pets over Alexander’s hair, gently, trying to tell him something she has no words for. Finally, finally he takes his mouth off her, smears her slick on her thigh with a kiss, never breaking eye contact. He doesn’t pull his fingers out.
“Okay?” he asks, quietly, with his mouth on her thigh. His fingers flutter, just a little; she feels them all, one-two-three, tap against that spot inside her, leave her breathless for a moment. All she can do is nod helplessly, swallow to keep down a squeal.
“Okay,” she agrees, smoothes her hand over his hair again. His eyes are so dark, so soft, his beard chafing on her skin. She’s oversensitive and hyperaware, and he won’t take his goddamn fingers out of her.
“Oh thank god,” he says, and puts his mouth back on her.
She screams - she really just screams. It’s too much, too soon, it’s more than she can take. It’s so good.
It’s faster this time; he finds a rhythm that works for her and just goes, his tongue working her over and his fingers a constant pressure against that spot inside her, setting her on fire, driving her out of her mind. She’s thrashing against him, riding his face more than anything else, and he has one hand wrapped around her hip, pulling her as close as she can get, and she can feel the way he moans against her, like this is the only thing he wants in the world.
She comes a second time, like that, finding enough friction and pressure somewhere, her slick all over his face and his fingers so deep inside her she can’t see, screaming blind into the dark.
This time he lets her go when she collapses to the mattress, sweaty and breathing hard. It stings when his fingers slip out of her, smearing her wet on her skin as he works his way up her body, pressing shaky kisses to her stomach, over her sternum, against her breasts. He’s trembling all over, the tips of his fingers down to his shoulders, like he’s not even aware of it, like he couldn’t stop if he tried. She pets his hair, opens her thighs so he can settle his hips between hers, hissing at the scrape of his jeans over her sensitized skin.
Alexander lifts his head, startled. She’s pretty sure he forgot he was wearing pants. She sits up, pushes him back until they’re both on their knees and she can undo the button of his jeans, drag his fly down and get her hand inside.
He sighs when she cups him through his boxer-briefs, drops his head to her shoulder and groans helplessly when she curls her fingers around him. Her fingers dip into the waistband of his underwear, and he’s hard and leaking at the tip, his hips making short little thrusts up into her hand while she strokes him, slowly, too loose, teasing.
His breath is ragged on her shoulder, pressing random open-mouthed kisses to her collarbone, her throat, the corner of her jaw. She tightens her fingers on him and he chokes, grabs her wrist and holds when she tries to keep moving against his grip. “Stop, stop, wait,” he’s saying, kisses her jaw, her cheek, her ear. “I don’t want to come yet, not like this - Betsey—“
Alexander climbs off the bed, shucks out of his pants and underwear quickly. Looking directly at him hurts her eyes, like staring into the sun. The shift of the muscles in his shoulders as he shoves his pants off is hypnotic; his twisting skin still shows his ribs at the right angle. She watches his legs when he climbs back onto the bed, the long muscles of his thighs, mouth dry and impossibly desperate, as if she hadn’t come screaming not two minutes ago. It’s so much easier like this, watching him move, wanting him, so much easier than looking at his face.
She’s still staring at his thighs, unblinking, eyes burning, when his hands come into her field of vision. Palms up, fingers spread, still a little sticky from being inside of her. There’s an ink stain on the pad of his right middle finger. She loves his hands. She’s missed them so much it feels like a physical pain, a hurt that she didn’t know was there until she puts her hands in his and it’s gone.
“C’mere,” he asks, his voice low and soft and rough, this sudden gentle tone that he only ever uses in bed. His hands pull her forward until she’s straddling his lap, her knees on either side of his hips. His mouth is on her breasts while she settles herself over him, a groan smeared against her collarbone when she lowers her weight down onto him, rubs her aching sex against the firm pressure of his cock.
“Christ,” he swears, bites down on her nipple, makes her cry out. Her hips are working against him, almost without her permission, riding the sweet pressure of him, the ache already building hot and fast in her again. She’s too sensitive and his teeth on her breast are too sharp to bear, every nerve in her firing at once and she never wanted anything so badly in her life.
Alexander unclenches his teeth from her nipple, soothes the ache left behind with the soft pressure of his tongue. “Betsey,” he says, and he sounds destroyed, his hips pushing up against hers in little half-thrusts to match her pressing down on him. Already he’s rambling, his hands on her hips, staring up at her face and looking for something she doesn’t know how to give. “Please, I need to be inside you. Oh god, are you okay, is it too soon, can you - oh, fuck - please, please can I fuck you, Betsey, please—“
She kisses him, open-mouthed, less a kiss and more shared breath, the taste of herself hot and thick on his tongue. He’s shaking again, his hands trembling on her waist, helpless. The head of his cock bumps against her clit when she lifts up, shocking a high-pitched noise out of her, and she would be embarrassed but for the answering groan that rips through Alexander’s chest. Panting into her mouth, his hands are vise-tight on her hips and he can’t seem to move them, so she’s the one who reaches between them to take him in hand and guide him inside of her.
It’s been so long, so fucking long, and even as wet as she is, fucked open on his fingers, it’s tight. She wants to take all of him in one stroke but she can’t, she can’t, her thighs shaking as she works her way down, his hands bruising tight on her waist, helping her take it. All at once she’s furious, tears pricking at the corners of her eyes, because she’s been doing this for eighteen years, goddammit, she knows how to ride her husband’s fucking dick.
She wants it, she wants him, she wants everything. Even if she breaks she’s going to take all that he has to give.
Alexander is pulling her hips down - she arches her back and shoves - and finally, finally she bottoms out, her ass resting on his thighs, her legs shaking uncontrollably around him and she’s gasping openly into his hair but she did it, she took it all. She’s okay, she knows she’s going to be okay because Alexander is here, he’s right here.
He puts his palms on her cheeks, stretches up to kiss her chin, her nose, her forehead. He says, “Betsey, Betsey, talk to me, are you all right? Is it too much? Tell me, please, just talk to me.”
Belatedly, she realizes that she’s crying, tears slipping over Alexander’s fingers, he’s looking up at her and halfway panicked already, so she shakes her head, her throat still too full to speak. There’s just so much inside of her, too much for her to process - she can’t even tell if it’s good or bad. She’s full to bursting and she just wants more.
Alexander makes a sound, frustrated, terrified. “Betsey, please, tell me what you want, anything you want, just tell me—“
She shoves two of her fingers in his mouth.
“Quiet,” she says, while he sucks her fingers, while she spreads her thighs so he slips a little deeper, while she lifts herself up, eases back down.
Her vision goes white. All she can hear is Alexander, moaning like he’s been gutted, the wet sound of their bodies coming together. She rides him slow, devastating, won’t speed up or slow down or change her pace for any power on heaven and earth. His hands are flat on her back, running up and down her spine, matching her pace, the relentless roll of her hips, like thunder.
She takes her hand out of his mouth once he’s stopped trying to talk around her fingers, wraps her arms around him and puts her fingers in his hair. He’s fucking up into her now, thrusting up to match her when she comes down, skin meeting with a mortifying wet slap, every thrust hitting her deep and hard, he has one hand on her cheek and the other on her back and he feels - so fucking good -
Orgasm builds, white-hot inside of her, making her thighs shake and her pace falter, until she can’t, she can’t lift herself up again, collapses with her face on Alexander’s shoulder, dropping all her weight on him. She needs to move, she needs it but she can’t, her legs trembling violently, too close to the edge and powerless to get herself over it.
Alexander’s arm comes around her waist and he rolls them, slipping out of her, and she wails, piteously, she was so close, so close -
“Sorry,” Alexander pants, breathless, and thrusts back inside.
She screams, arching, one leg curled around his waist and the other stretched up over his shoulder, his hand on her calf, and he’s so deep like this, every single thrust so deep it makes her teeth hurt. Her leg slips off his shoulder when he leans forward, gathers her wrists in one hand and stretches them above her head, pins her down. His other hand is on her hip, tugging her up into his thrusts, forcing his way deeper, shoving all coherent thought out of her head. It’s too hard, too much, it hurts and he took all the control away, it hurts so good and she hates him -
“Please say my name.”
She arches up, fighting his grip on her hands, pressing her breasts against his chest. His hips slam into her, unfaltering, relentless. Her head tosses - she can’t think - she has to, she has to think of something but she can’t - think -
“Please, please say my name, I haven’t heard you say it for a year, please, Betsey, just this one thing, one thing for me. Just say my name when you come.”
She’s not breathing. She’s not breathing but he hasn’t stopped thrusting, and she can’t - it’s so good - she’s going to come, everything happening too fast and she can’t think and he won’t stop talking and she’s going to come -
He’s looking at her, so close she can feel his breath on her face, she can’t see anything but his hot dark eyes and he’s looking at her he’s looking at her and she’s so close it’s too much she can’t -
“My name, Betsey, please, say my name, please—“
“Alexander,” she says, and comes.
Everything inside her goes supernova. It goes on forever, until she loses time, wonders wildly if she’ll ever come down.
But eventually she does, down and down and down until she’s in her body again, Alexander desperate and sweating above her, talking non-stop, his thrusts gone erratic and frantic, he’s so close.
“Oh, fuck, Betsey, thank you, thank you, that was perfect, oh god, oh fuck, Betsey, I love you.”
She doesn’t know when he let go of her hands, but she curls one around the back of his head, pulls him up to her, his chest sweat-slick against hers. He’s thrusting in short, fast jerks, no rhythm or grace to it, mindlessly seeking friction. His eyes are closed, brow knitted up and mouth twisted like he’s in pain.
“Alexander,” she says again, kisses him. His frantic Iloveyou gets lost in her mouth, and for just a moment, he goes perfectly still inside her when he comes.
(They had their first real date a month after they met, the soonest he could get a couple days of leave to get back to the city. He’d written her more than a dozen letters.
He took her on the best date he could manage, all over New York, the little shop on the corner that served the closest thing to real Caribbean food in the city, the cheap seats in an off-Broadway play, the quiet secret places in the best parks, where he could lean her up against a tree and kiss her carefully, see her blush by the light of a streetlamp.
She had asked, actually asked him to take her back to the shitty little hotel he was staying in, her voice so quiet and hesitant like she was worried he was going to say no. She had said please.
And for a while they had just laid on top of the plasticy comforter and let the ancient tv run infomercials on mute, talking about nothing and everything, eating microwave popcorn and candy from the bodega around the corner. And he’d been - so happy, almost delirious with it, waiting to wake up from this dream, waiting for her to wake up and realize she was lying on dingy sheets in a cheap hotel with a poor Puerto Rican soldier boy whose life savings consisted of a crumpled ten dollar bill in his wallet.
But she hadn’t. She had taken the popcorn out of his shaking hands and crawled into his lap, put his hands on her hips and said Alexander, please.
And he had kissed her, just like that, again and again until he was dizzy with it, the taste of her lip gloss long lost between their mouths, her cheeks pink, punch-drunk. He had run his palms over her hair, her shoulders, the smooth planes of her back, and said, “You have to tell me, okay? We’ll only - only as much as you want, if it’s more than what you want or if - if I hurt you, or do something wrong, or if you’re even a little uncomfortable, you tell me you want to stop and we will, okay? Whatever you want, Eliza, anything you want, you just have to tell me.”
She had laughed a little, and kissed him when he couldn’t make himself stop talking. Pushed her hands into his hair - and it had been short then, that military-issue clip that gave her nothing to grab onto, that he grew out as soon as he possibly could - and tilted his head back and kissed him senseless, his hands frantic disjointed things, trying to touch her everywhere, anything to get her a little bit closer when they were already pressed so tight together.
His mouth was on her throat, trying to make her sigh again, when she said, “And what if it’s more than what you want?” and her voice was so soft, so tremulous, that he had to bury his face in her shirt in case he accidentally cried for joy.
“Eliza,” he had said, with his teeth on her collarbone and a fire inside his chest, making him desperate and needy and helpless, “Eliza, there’s no such thing.”)
For a while, Alex can do nothing but lay, his face buried in Eliza’s throat, softening rapidly inside her.
The noise in his head is silent for the first time in so long, reduced from a scream down to a single breath of silence. There is nothing in the world, right now, but the crush of Eliza’s breasts against his chest, the sweat-and-flowers scent of her hair at the nape of her neck, the soft wet heat of her around his cock.
A note jars, discordant, at the back of his mind. “Am I too heavy?” He asks, and tries to get his hands underneath him to take his weight off her.
With his face against her throat, he feels her shake her head. Her legs, still hooked around his waist, tighten, keeping him inside her; her fingers drag through his hair, tugging at his sensitive scalp. “No,” she murmurs, barely more than a whisper, a hum in her chest. “Stay.”
He can do that. Slowly, he lowers his weight down onto her again. She sighs, deep, at the way his chest presses down at hers, and runs her fingers through his hair again. It feels so good, soothing, starting a slow ache down the length of his spine. His scalp is more than halfway sore, stinging from the way she had gripped at him while his head was between her legs, while he put his tongue on her clit, his fingers inside her all the way to the knuckle -
This feeling isn’t new to him; he’s become all the more familiar with it, as age has started to creep up on him. Still, it had happened even when he was twenty-five and in his best condition - the way his desire could outstrip his own endurance, leave him soft and sated and desperately unsatisfied. Not five minutes down from fucking his wife so thoroughly he can barely lift himself off her, and already he wants to have her again. He wants to crawl down her body and taste the way his come mixes with her wetness; he wants to stay inside her and see if he can make her come with his mouth on her breasts and his fingers on her clit; he wants to arch up and kiss her until she sighs and says his name again.
He has more than thirteen months to make up for. He could spend the next year making love to her and still not be satisfied.
“Eliza,” he says, hoarse, and kisses the spot where her neck meets her shoulder. She shivers, sensitive - most of the side of her neck is bitten and scraped and sucked red. It’s almost shocking to see, even knowing it was his mouth that did it.
She shushes him, one long slow breath. “Don’t talk,” she whispers. It’s so quiet he can barely hear her. If his head wasn’t on her chest to feel the vibration of her voice, he might have missed it. “Not now.”
She pulls her fingers out of his hair. Alex takes it for a hint and stops kissing her neck, lays his temple against her shoulder and closes his eyes. He can do this - lay here and listen to her breathing, try to relearn the smell of her, memorize the way she feels under him and around him, and think of absolutely nothing else. He wants to do this, his head his empty for the first time in a year and he just wants to enjoy it, the silence, for as long as it lasts. It’s been so long, so long, he wants to make this last as long as possible, this rare and fragile peace and his wife right here with him -
Someday, he’ll learn. Someday age will temper him enough to make him wise; someday, he’ll actually learn from his endless, stupid mistakes. But today, today, instead of lying still and silent the way she literally just told him to, he opens his stupid mouth and says, “You don’t want me to talk.”
She goes stiff under him. With his skin against hers, he is intimately aware of the way her breath stops in her chest, like her lungs have turned to stone. If he didn’t know better, he would swear that her body temperature drops a few degrees.
He sits up a little, on his elbows, and this time she doesn’t stop him. She has one hand draped over her face, so that he can’t see her expression. Separated from the heat of Eliza’s body, the air conditioning makes the sweat drying on his chest go cold. Something, he knows, has gone horribly wrong.
“Eliza,” he starts again, and she jerks, but doesn’t move the hand that covers her eyes. “Why don’t you want me to talk?”
She shakes her head. For a moment, Alex is distracted by the dark spray of her hair across the pillow; he wants to put his hands in it and feel the way her hair tangles around his fingers. He wants to kiss her again.
Carefully, he reaches down and peels her hand away from her face. She doesn’t fight him, her wrist limp in his fingers.
She stares up at him, and there are fresh tears on her cheeks.
“Oh, Betsey, no,” he begs, and she gives him a glare that makes something curl low and wounded in his stomach.
“I hate you,” she says. Quietly, with teeth. A secret she’s been keeping for a year. “I hate you so much.”
(Alex had been shot, back in the war - a bullet straight into his side, just above his right hip. It had hurt so much he had thrown up, and the vomiting had pulled at the wound and made it hurt worse. Hercules had had to drag him off the field, screaming the whole way; he was never quite sure why he couldn’t faint from the pain. There hadn’t been enough anesthetic for anyone in those days, definitely not for poor immigrant orphan boys who enlisted straight out of college. Two hours of digging through his soft tissue later and Alex still hadn’t passed out, but the doctor got the bullet out of him. He’d lost six inches of his small intestine. It took three days for him to be able to sit up without screaming.
He would take the gunshot again in a heartbeat.
She hates him.)
Here he is: lying in bed with his wife, holding his own guts in his hands and waiting to pass out from the pain. This can’t possibly be real. He’s still inside her.
He hears his own voice from the other side of a war zone -
“So tell me to leave.”
Eliza rolls her eyes at him, snorts through her nose once. “Fuck you,” she spits, the most vicious thing he’s heard her say in eighteen years of marriage.
“You just did,” he blurts, because it’s the only thing he can think of - she just fucked him, straddled his hips and rode him senseless, fucked every thought right out of his head, and now she’s furious at him and he’s scrambling for scraps of coherent thought, trying to hold his intestines inside with his bare hands, and she hates him -
she hates him -
Her legs finally unwrap from around his hips; she shoves at his chest, just a little. “Get off me,” she says, and Alex snaps to obey, pulls out too quickly, winces at the friction on too-sensitive flesh. Eliza cries out, quietly, covers herself with her hands and curls into a fetal position, still halfway underneath him. She probably wants him gone (she hates him), but he can’t make himself leave her, not like this. He presses himself against her spine, kisses the back of her shoulder and wraps one arm around her to put his hand over hers, crushed between her thighs. Not stroking or caressing, just resting there, a little bit of pressure to calm her hypersensitive skin, until she comes all the way down. He kisses her shoulder, the back of her neck, the jut of her vertebra, whispering nonsense soothing noises.
(she hates him)
“Ssh, you’re okay,” he murmurs, squeezes her just a little. “You’re okay, Betsey, you’re gonna be fine, everything’s going to be okay.”
“Fuck you,” she says again, her voice breaking halfway through. “It’s not okay, it’s not, and whose fault is that.” She takes her hands from between her legs, Alex’s hand still on top of hers. His fingers clenched around hers, she gropes for his other hand underneath her, wraps his arms around her chest until he holds her tight. She’s curled up, Alex pressed against her all the way from her ankles to the back of her neck, gripping his hands so tight he feels a knuckle pop.
“Eliza,” he says, teeth against her spine. She hasn’t stopped shaking. “Please, please let me fix this. Let me apologize, at least, you never even let me say -”
“Haven’t you said enough,” she snaps, her voice rising almost to a yell. “Was eleven thousand words not enough for you? What detail did you leave out? What do you think you’re going to say that’s going to make any of this okay?”
He didn’t think he had anything left in him to injure, but that stings, like a knife between the ribs. “Eliza, I -”
“Don’t answer that,” she says. “I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to hear anything you have to say.”
She lets go of his hands, shoves her way out of his arms. Her back still to him, she slides away, to the edge of the bed. He watches, helpless, as she sits up, hypnotized by the movement of her vertebrae under her skin.
How had it all gone so wrong so fast? Five minutes ago he had been lying with her fingers in his hair and his mouth on her throat. Fifteen minutes ago he’d been so deep inside her he thought he’d go blind. And here he is, lying in bed - her bed, a bed he’d never been allowed in - watching her hair spilling down her naked back as she turns away from him.
She hates him.
“Eliza,” he says, quick, before she can cut him off.
Eliza turns, just a little. He can see the delicate shell of her ear, the curve of her cheekbone, the feather-light brush of her eyelashes against her cheek. He wants, more than anything, to reach out and touch her, just to see if she’s real. Maybe he dreamed all this up. Maybe he’s finally lost his mind.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” he begs.
She doesn’t look at him. He stares at the movement of her jaw when she speaks, and thinks that he would take a hundred bullets to the gut, thinks that he would gladly die if he could just kiss her one more time.
“Nothing,” she says, calmly. “Nothing at all.”
(She takes a shower. She can’t bear the smell of him on her skin; she looks at herself in the mirror and sees her hair rucked up and tangled from his hands, and she can’t look at herself too long.
Her skin is on fire; the water stings wherever it touches her. Her wrists are pink and sensitive where he gripped them. The left side of her neck aches, and when she wipes the condensation from the mirror she can see the bruises that run purple-and-black almost from chin to collarbone. She can feel the marks of his teeth in her shoulder.
She can feel, even after her shower, the slow filthy trickle of his come down the inside of her leg.
It’s a very, very long time before she steels herself enough to wrap on a robe and walk back out into her bedroom. By the time she does, Alexander is gone, his clothes collected from the floor.
At the opposite end of the hallway, she can see the light on under his office door.)
That night, she barricades herself in her room like she’s preparing for a war. She shoves a chair under the doorknob as if she were a teenager trying to keep out her parents - and even as she’s doing it she knows it’s pointless, because a chair and a door and a lock will never be enough to stop Alexander, not if he wants to get inside. If nothing else, he’ll stand out in the hall and yell through the door. The children are upstate for another two weeks; there’s no one around that they have to pretend to be functional adults for.
Getting undressed feels too risky; she doesn’t want to have this fight in her underwear, or even her pajamas. She doesn’t want to run the risk of wearing something that could be pulled off too easily.
(The sheets still smell like him, like sex, like them.)
So she sits on top of the covers fully dressed. The only concessions she can bring herself to make are her shoes, kicked over the side of the bed so she can tuck her feet under her thighs and keep her spine straight and face the door. She breathes, very carefully. Une-deux-trois-quatre-cinq.
By the time she moves from the middle of the bed, every muscle in her legs is asleep and her back cramps as soon as she steps on the floor. When she checks the time, her phone impassively informs her that it’s past four in the morning. She’d been waiting for more than five hours.
For a while, all she can do is stare down at her phone. The clock must be wrong, she concludes. Maybe it’s spring forward, and the clocks have lost an hour, and no one told her. Maybe she fell asleep, and missed Alexander when he came.
He wouldn’t just not come.
Eliza knows Alexander better than - anyone, really, as arrogant as it sounds to say, but there are some privileges that come with eighteen years of marriage. And maybe it was Washington that he worked with, or Angelica that he argued politics with, but for eighteen years - with the exception of the last year, with the exception of the three months that he spent fucking another woman - it was Eliza that he came home to. Eliza who he crawled into bed next to, Eliza who he woke up to in the morning, Eliza who he loved.
Eliza has watched Alexander fight battles, both military and political, for eighteen years; he’s never been merciful enough to spare a weak point. And now she’s given him ground; she’s shown him the chinks in her armor. It’s not in Alexander’s nature to not exploit a weakness. He can’t help himself. He wants to win.
He wouldn’t just not come.
She watches as the minutes slowly, implacably tick by on her phone. It takes immeasurable effort to climb off the bed, pull the chair out from underneath the door handle, and peer into the hall. If some part of her expects him to be sitting in the hall, just waiting for her to open the door so that he can explain, or apologize, or maybe just kiss her again - well. That part of her gets sorely disappointed.
From the other end of the hall, she can see the light coming from underneath Alexander’s office door. She can’t hear the sounds of typing, but - the light is on. He’s here. And he didn’t come to her.
Her eyes are dry and itching with sleeplessness. She closes the door, locks it, shoves the chair back underneath the knob. Something curls, sharp and coiling and cruel, in the pit of her stomach.
She spends the rest of the night awake, staring at the door, waiting for a knock that never comes.
Eliza puts on makeup heavy enough to hide the dark circles under her eyes, wraps a scarf around the hickeys on her neck, and goes to work.
She ends up taking all three of the clients that she had been deliberating between, even though she still only has the staff for two of them. She makes up for the deficit herself, does grunt work like she hasn’t in years, making cold calls to potential donors and harassing venue staff, caterers, decorators. Half a ream of paper gets spread out over her desk and she makes seating charts the old-fashioned way, by hand, tiny scribbled names and assorted important facts on scraps of paper. She calls the same caterer three times to make sure that the entree for her next fundraising dinner will be vegan, then calls them a fourth time to consider adding a meat dish to the menu. She agrees to appear at a charity ball, then thirty minutes later tells her assistant that she can’t go. Two hours later she decides she should attend after all, but Song-Yi is on break and by the time she comes back, Eliza’s on the phone with HR, the charity ball long forgotten.
On her lunch break, she calls her children up in Albany instead of eating. Philip has somehow gotten a tan since the last time she called; James and John both proudly display scraped palms and knees from scrambling over rocks. Angel still has wet hair from the lake. Daddy looks healthier than he has in months, and Peggy definitely notices the deep blue bruising peeking out from under Eliza’s unseasonable scarf, but miraculously says nothing.
On the whole, Eliza is enormously proud of herself for getting through the entire call without crying.
The next time she looks up from her computer, half of her staff have gone home for the day; the other half are sneaking looks at her out of the corners of their eyes, weighing if it’s appropriate to leave before their boss. She sends the last of the stragglers home, turns out most of the lights behind them. She calls the caterer one more time and tells them to forget the meat dish. She makes sure to personally delete her own name from the list of guests attending the charity ball.
For a while, she contemplates calling her grandmother, just because they haven’t talked in so long. She only stops herself when she realizes she has no idea what time it is in Beijing - has no idea what time it is in New York, for that matter - and she can’t bear the thought of accidentally waking lӑolao by calling in the middle of the night. She gets as far as unlocking her phone, thumb hovering over the call button, before she forces herself to put it down.
Staring down at the blue-white glow of her screen in the dark of her office, Eliza puts her head in her hands.
It’s full dark outside by the time she makes herself leave for home.
She buys three bottles of wine on her way.
Eliza’s mother had given Alexander and Eliza a complete set of flatware and glasses as a wedding gift. The wine glasses were crystal, and painfully beautiful. They were still Eliza’s favorite set, eighteen years later, even though one glass had been lost to Junior’s soccer ball on a stray path through the kitchen.
She leaves them in the cabinet, and drinks straight from the bottle.
It takes her less than half an hour to finish the first bottle that way, standing in the kitchen, staring at their stainless steel fridge with the dent in the door from her head. (Alexander had been terrified, later, that she’d given herself a concussion. She’d had to talk him out of driving her to the emergency room before they’d even started putting their clothes back on.) It takes her almost as long to uncork the second bottle; full command of the corkscrew, as well as her hands, eludes her for the moment. She almost resents how drunk she is. She had bought three bottles, sure, but she hadn’t intended to drink all three by herself. The plan was to share, to get sloppy drunk with her husband until she could decide if she wanted to scream at him or fuck him, and then do whichever seemed more appealing at the time. And she hasn’t exactly been quiet since she came home; if Alexander’s upstairs, he must have heard her by now.
She knows he’s here. His keys are on the counter, right next to where she keeps hers; his running shoes are still in the hall closet. He’s upstairs, he’s in his damn office, she knows he is. He’s here, and he can hear her, and he won’t come downstairs and face what he’s done.
Eliza refuses to go upstairs as a matter of principle. Also because, halfway through her second bottle of wine, the stairs might prove more of a challenge than she’s currently up to. So she won’t go upstairs; she won’t go to him. No, if Alexander wants to see her (wants to kiss her wants to fuck her wants to love her) then he will have to come down to her.
“I know you can hear me,” she yells. She listens for the sound of his feet moving on the floor above her, for his office door opening. Silence greets her; for whatever reason, he won’t answer. He won’t even leave his office. “I know you’re here!”
The neck of the bottle, held loosely in her fingers, slips and shatters across the cold wood floor.
Eliza stands in her kitchen, in the middle of a spray of glass shards, and sobs. She’s too goddamn drunk for this.
For a full minute, she considers just dropping, slamming her knees into the broken glass to see if she bleeds. This, she is almost certain, could pull Alexander out of his office - her bleeding in their kitchen, with glass embedded in her joints, trembling and helpless and needing him. He could never bear to see her hurt. He wouldn’t stand for that - he’d come down to her, if she were bleeding.
She is almost certain.
(She’s not sure what she would do if she found out she was wrong.)
And she can’t get the third bottle of wine open.
She’s too drunk to work a corkscrew, not drunk enough to pass out. Her kitchen floor is covered in spilt wine and shards of glass, and if she doesn’t clean it up the baby will cut himself on it - one of the older kids will step on it - Alexander might hurt himself with it.
She has to sober up, because she took all three of those clients that she shouldn’t have taken and she can’t afford to miss work tomorrow. She has to go up to bed and try to sleep, because she didn’t get any sleep the night before, and the world is starting to blur around the edges
(but that might just be the wine, and she can’t remember when it started.)
She has to shower, because she smells like wine and New York summer sweat; she has clients to handle and rich people to schmooze. She has to call Peggy and Daddy to find out when the children are coming back from Albany. She has to clean the broken glass off the floor.
One by one, she uncurls her fingers from the neck of the last bottle.
Cabernet sauvignon. Some unremarkable vintage that she can’t remember. It shatters purple-black on her perfect wood floors, the glass flying. The wine stains her shoes, the hems of her well-pressed slacks.
(The wood was her choice. They had the kitchen redone a few years after they bought this house - an anniversary gift, from Alexander to Eliza. The shoes are not new, and not old. She bought them to wear with her favorite dress, the one that matches all of Alexander’s awful green suits, that makes him swallow every time he sees her in it.)
Seven hundred and fifty milliliters of liquid is a lot, spread out on her kitchen floor like a bloodstain, the scene of a crime. The urge takes her to go get James’ chalk from the playroom and outline it in white like a corpse in a police procedural.
Here lies a bottle of cabernet sauvignon, date unknown, taken from us far too soon. Had so much left to give.
Here lies Alexander and Eliza’s marriage. Eighteen years old.
Taken from us far too soon.
Had so much left to give.
Eliza curls herself into the corner of the cabinets, tucks her stained shoes close, as far away from the spreading puddle of wine and glass shards as she can, and cries until she can’t breathe.
(And Alexander doesn’t come.)
Morning comes, implacable. Eliza’s hair is tangled in the hinges of the cabinet; she’s not sure if she slept.
She throws up twice, takes four advil, and puts a cold washcloth over her swollen eyes. It’s already too late for a shower, but she combs her hair and puts on fresh deodorant, even remembers to change her clothes before she goes to work.
She leaves the wreck of shattered glass and drying wine on the kitchen floor.
Let Alexander clean up her mess for a change.
It takes the last of Eliza’s patience to ignore the interns whispering when she walks in the door. Even Song-Yi, Eliza’s unfailingly cavalier assistant, grabs her by the arm and hisses, very quietly, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Eliza jerks her arm free a little too roughly. Song-Yi’s fingers curl into the empty air for an agonizingly long moment before her mouth flattens into a line and she hands Eliza her schedule for the day.
“Thank you,” Eliza remembers to say, but Song-Yi has already turned her back. When Eliza steps into her office, she closes the door behind herself.
Work gets done. Work always has to get done.
She does as much as she can from within her office, shutters the blinds to keep out the hellish New York summer sun and answers every email in her inbox, harangues venue managers over the phone, does payroll and cuts everyone a slightly-too-generous overtime check as an apology for the extra work. She’ll have to add a little to the holiday bonuses, too. She shouldn’t have done this to them. Her employees deserve better than this.
At noon, her cell phone rings in her pocket. The children are calling from their grandparents’; they like to chat with her on her lunch break, and they’ll be getting tired of Albany. Forests and lakes and their youngest aunt can only entertain five children and a baby for so long - they’ll want to know when they’re coming home.
Her thumb refuses to press the “ignore” button. She holds her phone, tight, while it rings through to voicemail. The vibrations go all the way up her arm, until it feels like her bones don’t fit together quite right. The screen lights up one last time, tells her that they left her a message.
Eliza locks her phone and puts it in her purse, where she can’t feel it vibrate. She takes another two advil. Work gets done.
The shuttered blinds turn her office into misty twilight, no matter the time of day. After the children call, she stops looking at the clock. Time loses meaning, stretches into something unrecognizable. Eliza starts counting her breaths. Une-deux-trois-quatre-cinq-six-sept-huit-neuf.
Song-Yi opens her office door, and Eliza blinks mildly into the office lighting outside her door.
“It’s nearly ten,” Song-Yi tells her. Her expression is openly scathing, raking over Eliza, hiding in her office and barely coherent, swaying in her seat. Song-Yi is blunt at best, outright rude at worst, and spends half her salary on designer shoes and purses. Eliza adores her. “Everyone else left hours ago.”
“Oh,” Eliza says numbly. She can’t quite feel her lips, carefully blinks her still-swollen eyes. “Okay.”
Song-Yi rolls her eyes, very pointedly adjusts her purse strap on her shoulder. “I’m going home too,” she says, “If that’s okay with you, of course.”
“Oh,” Eliza says again, comprehension dawning. “Yeah. Yes. Sorry, Song-Yi, thank you for all your work today.”
Again, Song-Yi rolls her eyes, but there’s a smile at the corner of her mouth this time. “There’s a call for you on the line. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Before Eliza can speak, the door slams shut behind her assistant, plunging her into the twilight again.
For a few long, slow breaths, Eliza stares at the blinking red light on her desk phone. Her children have probably grown tired of waiting and called her work phone - they have the number, even if she’s told them to only use it in emergencies.
For a long minute, she considers not answering. She doesn’t want to have to talk to her children; her headache is coming back and the taste of vomit has never really left her mouth. Glass shards on the kitchen floor are still fresh in her mind. The red light of the waiting line blinks at her, inconsolable, unavoidable in the grey shadows of her office.
In the end, she picks it up.
“This is Eliza Hamilton,” she says, braces herself for the sound of six children trying to talk all at once.
“About time,” a voice snaps, frayed at the edges. “Hold for the president.”
The line crackles, beeps petulantly, and at last connects, flooding with the faint static of an empty room and someone’s breathing. Eliza scrambles pointlessly, tucks her hair behind her ears and sits up straighter, as if this matters. “Mr. President,” she says, clears her throat when she hears the creak in her own voice. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Mrs. Hamilton,” Adams begins, and Eliza has to take a slow breath through her nose. “I already know that your husband has no respect for me or the esteemed office which I hold -”
Jesus Christ, Eliza blasphemes once, silently. “Mr. President, I assure you that Alexander has the highest respect -”
“I was not finished, Mrs. Hamilton, if you please!” Eliza bites her tongue on a less-than-diplomatic reply, says nothing. “While I know that your husband has no respect for me, my office, or indeed the democratic government of our new nation, as an official within this administration it is inexcusable and indeed borderline treasonous for him to engage in this kind of shirking of his duties, which I bestowed upon him at the request of General Washington in all good faith -”
“Mr. President,” Eliza cuts, before Adams can ramble any farther. “I am afraid I have no idea what you could be referring to.”
Adams’s sigh through the phone line makes a reflexive wave of nausea ripple up her throat. “Mrs. Hamilton, while your wifely commitment to defending your husband - despite his numerous and severe faults - is indeed admirable, you cannot deny reality. And the reality, Mrs. Hamilton, is that your husband has been flagrantly neglecting his office for the last three days. One might even call him absent without leave, as his is a military post, and it would be such a shame to see a court martial brought against the highest official in our army.”
The phone cord, wrapped tight around Eliza’s fingers, is beginning to cut off her circulation. Her fingertips are just slightly numb. “I don’t understand. Has Alexander done something wrong?”
For a long moment, the other end of the line is silent. When Adams begins, and he sounds almost gentle. “General Hamilton has not been in to work since his secretary sent him home Monday morning. He has not replied to numerous emails, text messages, and phone calls. Mrs. Hamilton, no one has heard from your husband for nearly three days.”
Eliza stops breathing.
The air has turned to ice in her lungs. She gasps against it, windless, her chest constricting into a cold vise. She can feel her ribs cracking, like so much brittle stone.
She can’t breathe.
Faintly, over the rush of winter winds in her ears, she can still hear Adams talking on the other end of the line. With numb, nerveless fingers, she lowers her phone back into the cradle.
Her head is full of thick and numbing fog. She can’t get a breath in. It takes her two tries to get her cell out of her purse, and another three tries to get her passcode in correctly. She can’t feel her fingertips. These are not her hands.
Alexander’s number, after a year of disuse, still sits first on her list of favorites. She presses the phone against the side of her face to keep from dropping it.
It rings, once, twice, a third time. She chews her fingernails, doesn’t notice when she bites too hard and breaks skin.
“Alexander Hamilton. Leave a message.”
“Fuck,” Eliza whispers, just once. The fingers on her left hand are bleeding. Her lungs are made of ice and stone.
She can’t breathe.
Under her desk, she kicks off her heels.
And she starts to run.
This was stupid.
She still can’t get a breath, but now her chest is on fire; she’s gasping for air and her sides are cramping and she’s still so far from home. Her phone is slipping in her fingers, against her sweat-slick cheek.
You are forty years old. You can’t run this far. A cab would have been faster.
A cab probably would have been faster, damn it. She very nearly shoves a group of tourists into the street when they don’t have the sense to get out of her way. The phone rings through to voicemail again. Without the breath to swear, Eliza redials.
You should have left your heels on. You didn’t have to do this barefoot.
She hadn’t even been wearing hose. The sidewalks are burning her; she doesn’t want to even think about what debris might be embedded in the soles of her feet now. There’s a wet slap every time her feet hit the sidewalk, not quite drowned out by the hurricane of her breathing. She can’t turn to check, but she’s pretty sure she’s leaving a trail of red footprints behind her. The phone rings to voicemail, and Eliza redials.
He won’t be at home.
But he’s not at work. Alexander doesn’t miss work. The last time had been - when he had the fever, last fall, when Fatima had called Eliza because he’d fainted on his desk and thrown up in his trash can. And even then, as soon as he could stand without falling over he’d been back at his office again. It took at least life-threatening illness to get him away from his desk. Alexander does not just miss work.
The phone goes through to voicemail.
He’s probably with her.
Eliza redials. She’s sweating like hell and sucking for air; her legs are burning, her feet screaming. She can see her house. Their house. She’s almost there.
She’s almost home.
The door, thank goodness, is unlocked - her keys are in the bottom of her purse, neatly tucked underneath her desk in her office two miles away. She runs through the entryway, into the kitchen. His keys are still on the counter, just where they should be.
“Alexander?!” she screams.
Her feet are burning. She can feel wetness under her soles when she runs up the stairs, slipping a little in the slick. It almost takes her feet from under her more than once, but she makes it to the end of the hall.
“Alexander,” she shouts again, slams her fist into his office door. “Open the door, Alexander!”
Silence. She hits the door, again, again. “Open the goddamn door, Alexander!”
There’s a master key, somewhere. Downstairs? In a drawer, in the kitchen, she thinks she used to keep it in the drawer underneath the cheap plates and the kids’ cups. She hasn’t used it in so long, the children don’t usually lock their doors, the doors are usually unlocked -
She puts her hand on the doorknob and twists. Smooth as silk, it turns and swings inward.
Eliza has less than a second to wonder how she could have been so stupid before -
The room is - covered, really covered, every inch of the floor and every available surface, in paper. And that would be extreme, yes, but not unprecedented, not unimaginable, except -
It’s blank. Every piece of paper, some of them crumpled, some pristine - some college ruled, some blank printer paper, even heavy cardstock for official documents - thrown into every corner of the room like the aftermath of a natural disaster, and every sheet of it blank.
And Alexander -
Alexander is face-down on his desk, nose crushed against a pile of eight-by-eleven printer paper. His laptop sits open at his elbow, a single new document open, the cursor blinking inexorably on the first line of a blank page.
“Alexander,” Eliza screams again, so loud it stings her ears in the confines of his office, and he doesn’t even move.
She drops to her knees next to him, grabs his wrist to find his skin clammy and grey, cold to the touch. “Alexander, please, can you hear me, say something, say anything -” She scrambles to get her fingers placed on his wrist, looking for a pulse, babbling nonsense all the while. His pulse under her fingers is racing, thin and hyperfast; he’s breathing quick and shallow, panting with his eyes closed and limp on his desk. “Alexander, wake up, you have to wake up, you’re all right, tell me you’re all right.” Hauling him backwards off his desk, she shakes him by the shoulders, frantic, and his head falls back and forth.
He doesn’t stir.
She slaps him.
Finally, he moves, fingers fluttering on the arms of his chair, eyes rolling underneath his lids like they’re trying to open. Eliza shakes him again.
“Can you hear me? You have to wake up, please, please wake up, come on, Alexander, please - ”
He slumps back into the chair, gone again.
(Alex is dreaming about the hurricane.
Twenty-five years have taken some of the finer details from his memory. He’s lost the exact rhythm of the rain striking the shelter walls, the precise sound that the power lines made, plucked like guitar strings by the wind. He can’t remember the details of the paperwork he had been struggling over that morning - some of it shoved in his pockets when he finally ran for the shelter, as if he’d work on forms and ledgers while the storm raged outside.
There had been a girl, who sat next to him inside the shelter. Her skin was so dark that she turned into a shadow in the unlit shelter, her teeth a flash of brilliant white in her face when she tried to smile at Alex. Her hair was twisted into braids so long they brushed her elbows. She had clutched at his hand, when the thunder started, and hadn’t let go.
There had been a boy, in front of him - the shelter so closely packed with people that his feet overlapped with Alex’s, their knees brushing as they breathed. He’d had curls, clipped close to his cheeks, and spent most of the time slumped over, arms folded on his knees, head resting on his arms. He’d been barefoot.
Alex can’t remember their names. Or if he ever learned them.
He can’t remember -
The rain as loud as thunder on the shelter walls, the thunder even louder, so loud it shakes his bones inside him. Shivering through his shirt, the rainwater seeping through the cracks in the shelter, sitting in an inch-deep pool of it, the sweat between his shoulderblades as cold as ice. Outside the wrenching, rending screech of metal torn from wood, of brick ripped from stone, as the storm rips apart everything he ever loved.
He knows, with paperwork in his pockets and water lapping at his feet, that he will never recover from this. Even if he survives, he will spend the rest of his life trying to repair the damage of this storm.
In the middle of the hurricane winds, there is a sudden, terrible silence.
His first thought is that he’s gone deaf.
His second thought is that he can’t breathe.
The atmosphere has gone wrong. The air itself is pressure on his back, trying to bend him, make him bow. Like he’s trying to breathe water, sucking it into his lungs with every breath, forcing his chest to expand and contract until his stomach aches.
Somewhere in the shelter, a baby is crying.
He’s going to throw up.
Through the tiny plastic window of the shelter, he can see the sky, sickly-yellow, like fire. Like disease. Like the bile, dripping from the corner of his mother’s mouth as she coughs, as she begs him, respira, Alexander, que necesita para respirar -
And he can’t breathe.
He can’t breathe.
He can’t breathe.
He’s never been religious, not really.
But Alexander believes in Hell. He’s been there once already.
He’s just been waiting to go back.)
When Alexander wakes up, Eliza is there.
She’s holding his hand. That’s good, too.
He used to have better words for these things, a mouth full of three- and four-syllable words and the will to say them. He used to have better ways to say this. He used to be better than this.
Eliza’s head is resting on his hip, her hair a dark spill across his stomach, down his thigh. Even after everything, his stomach tightens a little, a hard-wired sense memory to the sight of her hair between his legs. He wants to lift a hand, stroke the back of her head just to see if she’s real.
She’s holding his hand in both of hers, safe, and her eyes are open.
He swallows, and chokes on his own throat. Sensation catches up with him all at once, the inside of his mouth as dry as bone, his throat sandpapered raw. For a moment all he can do is cough, struggle for breath even as tears well up in the corners of his eyes, it hurts so bad. If he moves his head too much, the world swims at the edges. It burns him just to breathe.
By the time he gets a breath in, Eliza’s sitting up, her head out of his lap. Wildly, he wants to apologize, to stop his breath in his chest if it means she’ll put her head back down on his hip, rest her head on him and ground him to the earth with the weight of her.
But she’s still holding his hand.
His Betsey looks - well, beautiful, because there is no universe in which Eliza is not beautiful to him - but she looks wrecked. The circles under her eyes are as dark as his ever were, her skin sickly pale, her hair a tangled and frizzing mess. He thinks she might have lost weight. Her sweet soft fingers, curled vise-tight around his, are shaking. The side of her neck is still shaded in blues and purples, the leftover marks of his mouth on her. She’s been crying.
As he watches, she closes her eyes. Very carefully, she brings his hand to her mouth. Kisses his knuckles, so hard he can feel her teeth, for one breath, for two, for so long that he thinks she’ll never let go.
His eyes burn, but the tears can’t seem to come.
Betsey, he tries to say, but the word turns into a desiccated cough on its way up his ruined throat. Eliza drops his hand like it’s burned her, reaches over his shoulder. Alex finally turns his head to see the IV drip hanging by his head, the monitor displaying his treacherous heartbeat, the call button that Eliza presses while Alex struggles to get his bearings.
“General Hamilton.” The doctor sweeps in, a blur of white coat and blue scrubs and clipboard. “I’m glad to see you’re awake. You gave us quite the scare, sir.”
Alex wants to reply, instead makes a deathly rattling noise. He puts one hand to his throat, feels the tug of the IV needle in his arm. Next to him, Eliza sits up a little straighter, pours a glass of water from the plastic pitcher by his bed. Alex takes it from her, almost pathetically grateful, and drinks.
Clear, cold water pours down his throat, wets his sandpaper-dry tongue. He’s never tasted anything so good.
The doctor looks up at him over his charts. “Not too much,” she warns. “You’ll make yourself sick.” Even so, when the cup is empty, Eliza pours him another. It doesn’t escape his notice that she doesn’t fill it as full. Alex bristles a little, makes a slightly wet rattle, and tries to drink the second cup slower.
“General Hamilton,” the doctor begins, flipping his charts closed. “Can you tell me the last time you had something to eat or drink?”
Alex doesn’t want to think too hard about the past couple days. His mind elides over it, like a stone skipping over still water. He shrugs his shoulders, takes another sip of water.
The doctor’s mouth purses just a little, fighting what Alex imagines is a disapproving frown. “You were in stage three hypovolemic shock,” she informs him, in a tone of carefully studied neutrality. “You were so dehydrated that you had lost more than thirty percent of your blood volume. As far as we can guess from what your wife told us, you hadn’t had anything to drink or eat for about three days.”
Alex is not thinking about the last few days.
“Frankly, General, you’re very lucky that your wife found you when you did. A few hours more and there might have been nothing we could do to help.” When he turns, Eliza is not looking at him. He can see the shell of her ear through her hair, has to bite down the near-compulsive urge to reach out and touch it.
Alex apparently having been scolded enough, the doctor turns to Eliza. “Mrs. Hamilton, you’re in good shape. I’m going to write you a prescription for some pain medication, but after that you should be all set to check out and go home.”
Alex drops his water into his lap. This time, his half-shouted rasp comes out as mostly recognizable words: “Pain medication?” He yells, and tastes blood in the back of his throat. “What for?”
For all her virtues, Eliza has never been any good at lying. Her eyes flick downwards and back, almost too fast for Alex to catch. Alex sits up, fighting the hand she puts out to keep him lying back, so he can peer over the edge of the bed. A thick layer of clean white gauze encases his wife’s feet, like a pair of particularly ugly shoes. When he looks up at her, Eliza won’t meet his eyes, her face hidden behind the curtain of her hair. Her fingertips tangle together in her lap, picking at her nails. “I stepped on some glass,” she tells her hands.
The doctor’s face twitches again, another crack in that perfectly professional mask. “She ran almost three miles through Manhattan, barefoot, when she realized you were sick.”
Something has reached into Alex’s chest and torn a great ragged hole in him. He used to have the words for this.
He stretches a hand out, but can’t quite make himself touch her.
“General Hamilton,” the doctor says, and it takes Alex physical effort to pull his eyes off Eliza, the curve of her shoulder and the silent sheet of her hair. “We’ve given you a transfusion to help restore your blood volume, and right now we’re also keeping you on a protein drip to raise your serum protein levels. I understand you have a history of kidney problems?”
Alex can’t speak - something has climbed out of the hole in his chest and is choking him. From behind her hair, he hears Eliza say, very quietly. “Kidney stones. He’s had kidney stones. And we think - his father had gout. We don’t - we aren’t quite sure.”
For a long moment, the only sound in the room is the scratch of the doctor’s pen over Alex’s chart. Shame curls hot and tight in his throat, clenches his jaw. His spilled cup of water is soaking into the bed around his thighs.
Finally, the doctor sets her pen down, looks over her chart at Alex. “The good news is that you’re out of immediate danger. That being said, I’d prefer to keep you overnight so that we can monitor you. Since you have had problems with kidney function in the past, it would be best to wait and make sure your kidneys recover fully before we release you. Just to be safe.”
The words still won’t come. Alex wants another glass of water, but he can’t reach the pitcher by himself. He wants to go home, doesn’t want to spend the night in a cold hospital bed wondering if his wife will still be there when he comes home. He wants to tell the doctor that he hates hospitals, that he’s crawling out of his skin at the sterile smell of his sheets, that maybe if thirty years ago they’d had the money for someone to monitor his mother overnight, maybe he wouldn’t be choking on a scream right now -
He only notices his hands - trembling, curled into fists in his sheets - when Eliza reaches out to cover one.
All at once, everything stops. All he can do is stare at her small pale fingers curled over his knuckles, squeezing so tight he can feel the bite of her nails. She grips his hand until a knuckle pops, until he stops shaking and unclenches his fingers, one by one.
She’s still not looking at him. He stares at her hair and squeezes her fingers back, just as tight. His throat is too full to speak.
Very quietly, Eliza says, “We’d like to go home.”
“Congratulations,” Angelica snaps from the front seat. “You two have invented a new kind of stupid.”
“Angelica,” Eliza sighs, too exhausted for more.
“No, no, I’m not done,” Angelica barrels over her, voice steadily rising to a fever pitch. “This is a truly unprecedented level of stupid. A new and exciting innovation in the field of stupid. A goddamned biblical revelation in the new testament of stupid!”
A taxi tries to cut in front of Angelica’s car. Angelica slams on the horn, blaring through the Manhattan morning, and shoves past the taxi. Forehead pressed to the window, Eliza watches the driver go by, screaming red-faced as they pass.
Finally, Angelica lets the horn go. It beeps once more, weakly, as Angelica drops her head onto the steering wheel.
“I hate traffic so much,” she groans. “I cannot believe I am driving in Manhattan traffic because of you idiots.”
“Sorry,” is the only thing Eliza can say. Apparently it was the wrong thing, because Angelica grits her teeth and is suddenly, terribly silent.
For the rest of the drive to Alexander and Eliza’s house, there is only the harsh sound of Angelica’s breathing, the general din of New York outside of the car. Eliza watches Alexander’s reflection in the window, unwilling to look directly at him. He’s staring at nothing, his head against the glass and his eyes unfocused. She wishes he would talk. She wishes he would do anything.
By the time they get home, Angelica is white-knuckled on the wheel, and Eliza can see the muscle popping in her jaw from the back seat. She digs her fingernails into the leather of Angelica’s car seats, and says nothing. She could get out of the car, but she sits, counting the seconds. Une-deux-trois-quatre-cinq-six-sept-huit-neuf.
Finally, Angelica lets go of the steering wheel. Her long, perfect fingers curl against her thighs, against the back of the headrest when she twists to look at Alexander and Eliza in the backseat.
“Enough,” she says. Like it’s as simple as that.
Eliza starts, “Angelica -”
“Enough!’ Angelica screams. It echoes in the car, making Eliza flinch. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Alexander do the same. Accusatory, Angelica levels her eyes on them. “Whatever this thing is, it is killing you both. You look like shit, you’re missing work, your kids are scared half to death because they keep waiting for one of their parents to fucking die.”
Guilt twists deep inside Eliza, like someone plucking at her intestines. She can taste bitter shame on the back of her tongue. Angelica’s dark eyes are clear and sharp, her voice as crisp as a thunderclap.
“You have to fix it,” she commands. “Fix it, or end it, because whatever you’ve been doing? It’s not fucking working. For anyone.”
Without a word, Alexander opens the car door and climbs out, stumbling up the steps to their front door.
Eliza stares after him, momentarily dumbstruck. Angelica is speechless with rage, her mouth hanging open as she stares and Alexander’s retreating back.
Sighing, Eliza opens her door.
“Eliza,” Angelica says, reaches out to grab her sister’s hand. The cold fury has melted out of her, replaced by a kind of bewildered softness, an aching helplessness. “Come home with me. Or - let’s go upstate, okay? We can go get your kids from Mom and Dad’s. Or we can just get Peggy, and we’ll go - anywhere, just the three of us. Like we used to, yeah? You don’t have to stay here.”
Eliza stares at her fingers, pale against her sister’s dark skin, and says nothing.
“Tell me how to help you,” Angelica begs. “I put a Wonder Woman bandaid on your knee the first time you fell off your bike, remember? Just talk to me, baby. Tell me how to fix this.”
(She does remember. Angelica had kissed the scrape and told her that Wonder Woman’s powers would soak in through the bandaid and make Eliza stronger. She had helped Eliza get back on the bike the next day.)
For just a moment, she considers it. The car smells like coconut oil and cocoa butter, the familiar smell of her big sister. They could grab Peggy from Albany and drive anywhere in the world, and things would be simple again, like back when they were young and revolutionary and none of them had ever heard the name Alexander Hamilton.
Through the car window, she can see the steps up to her house, the lights flicking on inside the front windows. She thinks of the smell of ink and paper, of cologne lingering in her sheets. She thinks of the wine on the kitchen floor, the dent in the refrigerator door, the old bed in Alexander’s office, the rocking chair in the nursery.
It hurts so bad. She has to close her eyes against the pain, a bright cold burn behind her ribs.
Eliza gives Angelica’s hand a single long squeeze. “I’ll be okay,” she says, and watches Angelica’s face fall, a fleeting hope dashed. It takes effort, but Eliza manages a small, reassuring smile. “I’m Wonder Woman.”
Angelica squeezes Eliza’s fingers back, comforting, before she lets her go. “I already knew that,” she replies. “I was just waiting for you to catch on, little sister.”
He tries to close his office door.
Eliza catches it, curls her fingers between the door and the frame, so that he can’t close it without crushing her hand. For a long moment, Alexander stares at her in silence. The bags under his eyes are wine-dark, as deep as bruises. He’s still dangerously pale, sallow under his golden skin.
Eventually, she shifts, dancing her weight from foot to foot. “I’d like to sit down,” she tells him. “My feet hurt.”
That startles him into motion, sends him scrambling. He throws the door open, stumbles back and slips in his haste to get out of her way. Hands clumsy, he shoves half a ream of paper out of his desk chair so that she can sit. Eliza waits in the doorway, watches his arm twitch, a half-formed gesture to help her across the paper-slick floor and into the chair before his hand snaps back to his side.
Careful of her gauze-thick feet, Eliza pads across the room, eases down into his chair. She’d bought it for him - cushioned armrests and good lumbar support and all. He spent so much time in this office, in this chair. She’d wanted him to be comfortable.
For a moment, Alexander dithers helplessly in the middle of the room, his hands twitching, papers crumpling under his feet. Eliza puts one toe on the ground, gently pushes herself from side to side. The motion calms her, takes the sharpest edge off her tension. She turns a slow circle, surveying the room, the paper crumpled on every surface, the carnage of her bloody feet on the white pages, twelve long hours drying the red stain to a rusted smear. Eliza spins, one full circuit of the room to take it all in, and stops with her eyes on Alexander.
Alexander goggles at her for a while, dumbstruck. His chapped mouth opens and closes a few times, like a fish gasping out of water. Patient, Eliza waits.
His swallow is a dry click that she can hear from across the room. It must hurt him. She can feel her fingers tighten on the arms of the chair, an involuntary twitch. She holds herself very still.
Finally, in a voice still thick and ravaged by dehydration, he chokes out, “I was writing you a letter.”
A laugh, halfway to hysteria, bubbles up Eliza’s throat. “All this,” she asks, one sweep of her arm encompassing the wreckage of his office, her bandaged feet, the last twelve hours in a hospital bed. “For one letter?”
Alexander’s hands curl into slow fists, his shoulders clenched up around his ears. Eliza is reminded, viscerally, of her young Colonel Hamilton, twenty-five and ill-fitted in his own skin, in his worn-out shoes and his cheap army uniform. She remembers him, young and proud, insecure and cocksure all at once. Her chest aches terribly, swollen full of something hot and burning.
“I couldn’t,” Alexander says at last.
Stone weight settles in Eliza’s stomach. “You couldn’t?” In all the time that she had known him, Alexander had never once had writer’s block. An overabundance of words, yes. Garbled, mangled passages that needed heavy editing to even be readable, of course. But never had her husband sat, pen in hand, and been unable to put words to paper.
Alexander hangs his head. It looks remarkably like shame.
“I—” he begins, stops again. His hands flutter again, shoving his hair out of his face with directionless agitation. Finally, he sits, collapsing on to the bed in a crunch of paper crushed underneath him. The heels of his palms scrub against his eyes, teeth clenched so hard Eliza can hear them grinding. She squeezes the arms of the chair again, and focuses on staying in place.
With his head still in his hands, Alexander says, almost too quiet to be heard, “You burned it.”
Alexander shakes his head, his hair curling around his wrists. “I - wrote you a letter. Slipped it under your door. And you - you left the ashes outside my door. You burned my letter.”
Comprehension dawns, a cold realization. “That first night,” Eliza says. “A year ago.”
At last, Alexander looks up, shoves his hair out of his face. His dark eyes are glassy, red at the edges, black and swollen with exhaustion. Something lurches in Eliza’s chest, a vicious tug below her ribs. She digs her nails into the leather of the armrests and does not move.
“How could I get you to read it?” He whispers, hoarse, like it hurts. “How could I even start? What if you burned it without even opening it? I could write something on the outside, but you could still throw it away without even reading that. Even if I could get you to read it, how could I start? What words would get you to open the letter, to even look past your name? Eliza is too ordinary, Betsey is too intimate, I’m not even sure you want to be Mrs. Hamilton anymore. Do I start, Dear Eliza, or am I not allowed to call you dear anymore? I -” With visible effort, he cuts himself off, biting the rest of the sentence off in a thick sound.
Eliza digs her teeth into her lower lip, forces herself to wait him out.
At last, through his teeth: “I write. It’s what I do. It’s all I do. If I couldn’t even get you to read what I wrote -” He holds up his hands, opens his palms; empty, supplicant. “If I can’t write - I have nothing.”
Eliza’s teeth slice into her lip, flooding her mouth with the bitter taste of copper. Pain thuds, bright and hot, underneath her ribs. She closes her eyes against it, the wind knocked out of her for a moment, and tries to breathe.
“You have nothing,” she says, just once.
Alexander stares at her. He doesn’t speak, doesn’t even nod, but holds out his open palms; look, his hands seem to say, look, and see that I am empty.
Very carefully, Eliza draws one long breath through her nose. Something has settled, a hot burning coal of fury in her stomach, corroding her insides. “You should lie down,” She says. “You’re supposed to be resting.”
The look on his face is bewildered, but Alexander obeys, starts clearing scattered paper off the bed so that he can get under the covers. While he scrambles, Eliza opens his laptop, still sitting idle on his desk.
For a long minute, the room is silent but for the quiet shuffling of paper, the click of the laptop keys. Eliza gathers a stack of paper from the ruin of his desk, loads it into the printer and begins to print. Alexander climbs under the sheets, never taking his eyes off Eliza. She doesn’t look at him, watches the printer as it continues, page after page, stacking up like falling snow.
At long last, the printer stops. Eliza picks up the stack of sheets, still warm, and ruffles the pages gently.
“You used to read to me,” she says. Alexander sits up against his pillows, mercifully says nothing. “I remember once, I was sick and couldn’t get out of bed, and you read me recipes out of my grandmother’s cookbook, because it was the only thing on my bedside table, and you wouldn’t even leave the room to get another book.” Quick, she swipes a tear from the corner of her eye before it can fall.
Very quietly, from the bed, Alexander whispers: “Eliza.”
She coughs, once, to clear the rough edge of a sob from her voice. “I wonder,” she says, “If I might read to you this time.”
“Anything,” he says, so fast he trips over the word, starts himself coughing again. Eliza wishes she had remembered to get water before she sat down.
“The spirit of Jacobinism,” she begins, reading from her freshly printed pages. “If not entirely a new spirit, has at least been clothed with a more gigantic body and armed with more powerful weapons than it ever before possessed.” She pauses, looks over the top of her papers to Alexander.
Guiltily, her stomach twists in pleasure at the look of abject horror on his face. Her toes curl in their bandages, just a little; her fingernails rake the papers in her hand. She presses her thighs together against the sudden, horrible rush of warmth.
“Betsey,” he begs. “Don’t do this.”
“You said anything,” she reminds him.
This is unfair. This is cruel. She’s holding his guts in her hands and twisting. There is a warm black flare that feels uncomfortably like delight in the pit of her stomach.
Alexander closes his eyes, swallows so hard she can see it clutch his throat. A tear slips from the corner of his eye, tracks down the outside of his cheek. Very slowly, he nods.
Although he can’t see, Eliza nods in return. She straightens her papers, clears her throat. Continues.
“The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper pecuniary speculation. My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife, for a considerable time with his privity and connivance…”
It takes a long time for her to read the whole post. Alexander sits in silence throughout. She cannot look at him very often, but he opens his eyes at some point, watches her while she reads. Eliza keeps her eyes on the paper, and does not look at him. She can feel him staring at her, his eyes as dark and hot as burning coal. She will not look up. She does not stop reading.
“I can never cease to condemn myself for the pang which it may inflict in a bosom eminently entitled to all my gratitude, fidelity, and love.”
It takes a long time. More than an hour, and a while longer yet. Eliza’s voice thins and cracks, runs dry and she wishes again for water. More than once, she chokes on a sob, bites out words through her teeth. At times, her hands shake so badly she almost drops the pages.
“And especially no man, tender of the happiness of an excellent wife, could without extreme pain look forward to the affliction which she might endure from the disclosure, especially a public disclosure, of the fact. Those best acquainted with the interior of my domestic life will best appreciate the force of such a consideration upon me.”
It takes a very long time, before it’s finished.
By the time she finishes, Alexander has closed his eyes again. His chapped lips are pressed together, his face perfectly still. Pale and silent, he almost could be mistaken for a corpse.
Eliza straightens the pages of her copy of the Reynolds Post, folds her hands in her lap. “Twenty pages,” she says. “Eleven thousand words. Anything to add?”
Very slowly, Alexander opens his eyes. He stares straight ahead, and does not look at her. Instead, he lifts his hands again, closes them into fists and then opens them, once, twice, a third time.
“She was very beautiful,” he says at last. “And I wanted her. I thought about you, while it was happening. I don’t know if that’s better or worse, but - I thought about you. How you would look at me. What you would say.”
The sound of paper being crushed betrays Eliza’s tightening hands, the pages wrinkling in her fingers. She forces herself to relax, smoothes the paper as if that will undo the creases, erase the damage that’s been done.
“It’s too long,” she says at last. “And the tone is a mess. It’s too graphic for a political piece, and too political for a scandal. And you mixed up a few of your footnotes.” Alexander turns to look at her. His mouth hangs open, a sort of senseless bewilderment, and Eliza grits her teeth. “You needed someone to help you edit it.”
Comprehension is actually visible as it washes over him. His jaw snaps shut; he seems to stop breathing out of sheer surprise. Still, he says nothing, just hangs his head silently. Eliza lays the copy of the post on Alexander’s desk, very carefully. Her hand lingers over it, as if she can’t quite make herself let it go. The very tips of her fingers seem stuck to its edge; she is bonded forever with this piece, this thing that haunts her life, stalks her every move, lives in the back of her mind with every breath she takes.
Her voice barely above a whisper, she asks, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
The silence stretches out, bowstring-tense. For once in his life, Alexander says nothing at all.
“I would have helped you edit it,” Eliza says. The Reynolds Post is warm under her hand, like a living thing, burning with fever. “I would have listened to your rough draft, and made sure you got the footnotes right. I would have stood next to you at every damn press conference and listened to you tell the world how you cheated on me. I would’ve worn a sensible dress that matched your suit, and smiled for every camera.”
Vomit swells in the back of her throat, hot and bitter; tears bite at the corner of her eyes. Her stomach is a whirlwind of black and hot and terrible things. She opens her mouth, and for a moment is absolutely certain that she’s going to throw up, right here in Alexander’s office, right in the bed that he fucked Maria Reynolds in. Instead, as violent as retching and just as bitter, she yells:
“Why didn’t you tell me?!”
The last two words end in a choke, and Eliza has time for one sucking inhale and then she’s sobbing, great heaving things, mouth open and screaming, wailing like a child. Tears coat her cheeks, her eyes sore and stinging and overwrought, her body shaking, too exhausted to hold it in. The terrible thing in her stomach is trying to rip its way out.
It hurts. It just hurts. It’s going to tear her apart.
Reality comes back slowly: the pressure of Alexander’s hands on her hot swollen cheeks, shaking, pushing her hair uselessly out of her face. His voice, desperate and wretched, begging, “Please, Betsey, I’m sorry, please don’t, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” again and again, senselessly. Her husband, on his knees in front of her when he should be resting, he’s supposed to be in bed, she wants to tell him to get back into bed but she can’t breathe, she can’t get anything past the sobs threatening to rip her in half.
“Breathe, Betsey, please breathe. I know you can, just breathe. It’s all right. You’re all right. Just breathe. Please. Breathe.”
She covers Alexander’s hands with hers, clutches them to her breast. She can feel the rise and fall of her chest in her knuckles, tries to bring it under her control again. She times her breath to the sound of Alexander rambling, gasps for an inhale whenever he does, tries to make her exhales as long as his words.
The black spots clear from her vision, eventually. She can feel Alexander’s pulse in her palms, the creak of his knuckles in her fingers. She presses the back of his hand to her cheek, blessedly cold against her flushed face.
“I thought you would leave me,” Alexander whispers, wretched.
Eliza opens her eyes to look at him. His mouth is open, trembling, searching for words.
“I was so tired,” he says. “The first time, I hadn’t slept in a week, and I was so tired, and I thought - and then it was over, it was done. I could never undo it, never take it back. It was the worst thing I could have ever done to you.”
His hands are limp in hers, Eliza doing all the holding for the both of them.
“It was all I could do, try to cover it up, pay Reynolds to not tell you. Every day, every second that I was still married to you, was like - living on borrowed time. When Jefferson and Madison came to expose me, it was almost a relief. I could stop lying, stop wondering when you’d find out. When you’d guess. When you would leave.”
Alexander puts his head on her knee. She thinks, terribly, of that night half a year ago, in Will’s nursery. The way he had looked up at her, nursing their son. The way he had whispered, so desperately: I want to stay.
“I couldn’t undo what I’d done,” he says. His voice is quiet, raw; the desiccated sound of rock bottom. “I couldn’t keep you. But I could save my works, my reputation. I could save my legacy. And you could leave me,” he finishes, and at last falls silent.
Eliza is still holding his hands.
All the way down to her marrow, she’s exhausted. Her chest aches from sobbing; her eyes sting from too many tears. Alexander’s hands are cold and rough and strong in hers.
She’s always loved his hands.
“You took everything away from me,” she says.
He lifts his head to look at her. His cheeks are dry, his eyes empty. He looks exactly as tired as she feels.
“I had no options.” She runs her thumbs across his knuckles, the bones of his soldier’s hands, his writer’s hands. “You wrote the narrative; you had all the control. It wasn’t even my life anymore. It was just your story.” Alexander opens his mouth, ready to speak, but she continues over him. “You didn’t just let Maria Reynolds into our bed, you let the whole world in, and I - I just didn’t want to be a part of this. I agreed to marry you, not the whole American public, and I just. I didn’t want to be part of this narrative. Not anymore.”
Eliza lets go of his hands.
“I didn’t want to leave you. I wanted to undo everything. I wanted to have never been married to you. To have never been in love with you. I wanted to never have known you at all.”
Very slowly, Alexander’s eyes flutter closed.
His hands lie in his lap, open, motionless. His face is deathly pale, like she’d slipped a knife between his ribs. Like a mortal wound.
Eventually, Eliza pushes the chair back, stands on her shaky feet. Kneeling in piles of torn paper, in the ruin of his office, Alexander doesn’t move. Doesn’t even open his eyes.
Paper, white as clean snow, crumples under Eliza’s feet when she walks out of the room.
Alex tries to remember what she taught him. How to count his breaths, in and out. Une-deux-trois-quatre-cinq-six-sept-huit-neuf.
It’s just that he’s not breathing. It’s just that the atmosphere is somehow wrong. Like the air itself is rejecting him. Like he is seventeen again, and looking up at the yellow sky, looking out at the wreckage of his life. He looks at his hands, pale and limp in his lap. Ink-stained. Useless.
(Alexander believes in Hell. He’s just been waiting to go back.)
The rustle of paper, crushed underfoot, is as loud as thunder, as shocking as a bolt of lightning. The sound of the eyewall hitting the shelter doors.
Eliza stands over him, a shoebox held in her hands. Looking up at her, Alex’s heart swells into his throat, strangling him. Her eyes are red and puffy from sobbing, her whole face swollen; she’s pale and thin, exhaustion plain in every part of her. She probably hasn’t slept or showered for days.
She is as beautiful as she was the very first time he saw her.
She sinks to her knees - not in the chair still standing nearby, but on the floor, next to him. Sitting is a slow and careful thing, so as not to put pressure on her injured feet. Alex wants to reach out and help, give her a balance, a support, but his hands seem to have stopped obeying his commands.
Finally, Eliza stills, as comfortable as she can be on a carpet of crumpled paper. Silently, she holds the shoebox out to Alex.
Alex’s hands move to take the box from her without his conscious permission. He watches them, like a movie on a very distant screen. They shake so badly he can barely take the box from his wife.
He almost rips the first page that he lifts. The paper is old, age-worn and soft in his fingers, the ink faded and indistinct. It takes him both hands to hold it steady enough that he can read.
My dearest girl, it begins. I wrote you a hasty letter two days ago, since which I have had the happiness of hearing you were well by Colonel Webb and did not forget me when he was coming away. Every moment of my stay here becomes more and more irksome; but I hope two or three days will put an end to it.
It’s not possible. He looks up to Eliza with no idea of the expression on his face. She stares back at him, unsmiling, but not quite frowning either.
In the sick wretched ruin of his heart, he feels the first traitorous flutterings of hope.
At random, he grabs another sheet, reads: The illusion will not always soothe; my heart every now and then cries: you are separated from the lovely partner of your life; four long months must elapse before this separation ends; your sweet girl with nothing to engage or divert her attention is perhaps suffering the keenest anxiety for the situation of her lover not only absent from her but exposed to a thousand imaginary dangers.
And then another: My heart overflows with every thing for you that admiration, esteem, and love can inspire. I would this moment give the world to be near you only to kiss your sweet hand. Believe what I say to be truth and imagine what are my feelings when I say it. Let it awake your sympathy and let our hearts melt in a prayer to be soon united, never more to be separated.
By the end of the third he’s crying again, cradling the box to his chest like a child, like it’s the most precious thing he’s ever held.
“My letters,” he manages, between gasps. “The letters I wrote you.”
“Yes,” she whispers, very quietly.
A sob wracks him, shakes him from stomach to shoulders. “You burned them,” he says. “I saw you burn them.”
Eliza shakes her head. “I burned mine,” she tells him. “All the ones I wrote to you. But I couldn’t - I couldn’t burn yours.”
Alex is ruined. Light, golden and searing, floods the inside of his chest, stinging at a year’s worth of wounds. Scarring them over.
For perhaps the first time since he put his mouth on Maria Reynolds’, he can see the end of the storm. “Why?” he whispers.
At first, Eliza says nothing. The silence stretches on for so long that Alex begins to wonder if she didn’t hear him, if he was insensible in his sobbing. Hope, a candle in hurricane winds, begins to gutter inside his chest.
She takes his hand.
“I love you,” she says. “I always have.”
Sunlight burns away the storm clouds.
It’s a very long time before either of them speaks.
“I’m tired,” Eliza says, very quietly. “And you’re supposed to be resting.”
Alexander squeezes her hand, puts her knuckles against his lips. His mouth is warm, achingly soft. He kisses her hand once, twice, then rests his cheek on her fingers.
“Your feet,” he whispers, hoarse and raw. “Let me carry you.”
Eliza considers him, for a moment. Only a few inches taller than her, Alexander had never really been able to carry her easily. Naturally, he made a point to do so as often as she would allow: swinging her across the threshold on their wedding day, sweeping her off her aching feet after a night in heels, lifting her off her toes and slamming her against a wall, his mouth hot on hers and his hands on her thighs, burning burning burning.
He sounds different, she thinks. Rough and dehydrated still, but a little more like himself. Like something that had broken inside his spine a year ago had finally straightened back out. Like, if she pushed, he might not bend.
She wants, wickedly, to push him.
“You’re supposed to be resting,” she repeats, watching him carefully.
Quick and familiar, his shoulders hunch up, like a dog hackling to a fight. His hand tightens on hers before he remembers himself. He moves his cheek against her hand, so she can feel the ridge of his cheekbone across her knuckles. His beard, overgrown and unkempt, scratches at the backs of her fingers.
Alexander looks up at her. He stares at her, openly, without ducking his eyes or looking away. Still puffy and red, his eyes are dark and calm as the deep still ocean.
“I can carry you,” he says.
Something goes singing, golden and sweet, up Eliza’s spine. She nods. “Okay,” she says. “Don’t drop me.”
The corner of Alexander’s mouth curls up, almost a smile.
They get off to a bumpy start. Alexander can’t seem to make himself let go of her shoebox full of letters. For a moment, Eliza’s afraid she’s going to have to pry it away from him.
“I’ll keep it safe,” she whispers, and at last he lets it go. As if in substitute, he puts his hands on her instead. His palms come up over her arms, her shoulders. He leans close, but when he doesn’t pull her closer Eliza moves in herself, puts her cheek on his shoulder and breathes him in. His cheek comes to rest on the top of her head. She can feel his fingertips on her shoulderblades.
In one careful motion, he bends and sweeps her into his arms. Eliza wraps an arm around his neck, clutches the letters close to her chest, and closes her eyes. Alexander staggers a bit, has to brace his shoulder against the wall for balance, but his arms never waver.
“I’m not going to drop you,” he says, instantly defensive.
Very lightly, Eliza touches her fingers to the back of his neck, just to feel the way he shivers. “I know,” she says, and that’s the last of it.
Alexander carries her down the hall, his breathing carefully measured. Eliza has to balance the shoebox on her stomach so she can reach down and twist the knob of their bedroom door.
“Thanks,” Alexander says, and his voice is only a little strained. Instead of replying, Eliza puts her nose to his throat and breathes him in, the smell of a fresh sweat breaking out on his neck.
“We need to call the kids,” Eliza says, a realization filtering through her exhaustion far too late, plucking strings of guilt inside her.
“Okay,” Alexander replies, absentminded, and sets her on the bed.
“And Adams,” she adds, less a statement and more a reluctant groan, sets the box of letters carefully on her nightstand. “He was threatening to court-martial you, you know.”
Alexander snorts through his nose, tugging the sheets down. “Okay,” he says again, and starts to fold the sheets up over her.
Eliza shifts unhappily, rebelling against the covers. She has to get up; she has to call the children, call Adams - god, she doesn’t think the glass in kitchen has been cleaned up yet -
With one hand on her shoulder, Alexander pushes her back down into the pillows.
“I can do it,” he says.
“It’s fine, I can handle it -”
“Betsey.” Eliza stops in her tracks. His voice is calm and strong, but there’s a raw edge hidden somewhere underneath. Like internal bleeding. “You need to sleep. Just - let me put you to bed. Please.”
She considers him again, while he goes back to fussing over tucking her in. Her bed is wonderful, and soft, and she hasn’t been in it for what feels like a month, and it still smells, just like she knew it would, like her and Alexander, the two of them, together. Experimentally, she relaxes back into the pillows. Almost instantly, sleep blurs the world black at the edges.
“Jesus.” Bolting upright, Eliza blinks furiously against the sudden weight of her eyelids. Her brain feels loose and sloshing, heavy inside her skull. Her body protests dully, wanting to collapse back into the pillows.
One of Alexander’s hands comes to cup the side of her face, tucking her hair back behind her ear. She tips her cheek into his palm, letting him hold the weight of her head a little. His thumb rasps over her cheek, rough and soothing. “You’re exhausted,” he says, low and quiet. She closes her eyes into the sound, lulled by his voice. “Let me take care of things for once.”
Eliza smiles, so soft it makes her face ache. Blind, she twists her head to kiss his palm. His fingers twitch against her cheek, a sense reflex. He’s supposed to be resting, the doctor told her to make him get bed rest if he wouldn’t stay in the hospital. She wants to tell him to get into bed, that she’ll take care of everything herself.
She wants, with the wild senseless desperation of exhaustion, to sleep for three days straight, and wake up to find the world had solved all her problems.
With a sigh, she covers the back of Alexander’s hand with her palm.
“Come back to bed when you’re done,” she tells him.
He lays her down into the pillows, very gently. Through the black wave of sleep already lapping at the edges of her mind, she feels his lips on her forehead.
“Go to sleep, Betsey,” he whispers.
Black waters close over Eliza’s head.
Sleep is an ocean: warm, black, and deep. It ebbs and flows with currents and tides; from a long way off, Alexander’s voice draws her closer up to the surface.
“You call my wife to threaten to court-martial me for taking a few sick days, you ridiculous, pompous fuck -”
Without opening her eyes, Eliza smiles. Sleep swells up and tugs her under again, soothed by the sweet familiar sound of Alexander cursing at someone.
The next time she stirs, it’s at the dip of the bed next to her, the shift in her weight.
“Hey,” Alexander says, low and hoarse. He pets her hair, his thumb brushing it away from her temple. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“‘S okay,” Eliza mumbles. She fumbles blindly in the direction that the bed’s tilting in, manages to find his knee in the dark behind her eyelids. She pats it awkwardly, too sleep-muddled to do more. Alexander huffs out a laugh, more breath than sound. His thumb is a rough scrape over her hairline, his well-worn calluses so familiar it makes her ache.
This is right. This is just as it ought to be; sleepy and warm, Alexander coming to bed far too late, but coming to bed nonetheless, coming back to her.
“Come back to sleep,” she sighs into her pillow, grabs his wrist where he’s stroking her hair and tugs.
Dimly, she feels Alexander stop moving. His thumb halts its slow scrape along her hairline; even his breathing, the soft shifting of the bed, pauses.
“Okay,” he says, so quietly she almost misses it. And again, “Okay.”
The bed shifts again. The covers are lifted, and Eliza flinches unhappily as cold air hits her back. “Sorry, sorry,” Alexander mutters, and the sheets cover her shoulders once more.
He’s so far away, she notices, bleary and miserable. He let the cold into the bed and now he’s so far away from her, not even a hand touching hers. Discontented, she rolls blindly, arms out, seeking.
She finds him, stiff and tense on the other half of the bed, his half of the bed. His breath is unsteady in his chest, his hands fists, but he’s warm, so warm, always. Eliza wraps herself around him, all clinging arms, tangles an ankle around his and tucks her head underneath his chin.
His breathing is a gentle rumble, a roll of distant thunder that sings her to sleep. Something wet touches the top of her head; a tear, maybe, or a kiss.
Either way, the water is deep and black and warm.
Eliza watches the snow pile up outside the window.
She’d almost forgotten what this house could sound like, when it was quiet, the snow like a muffler piling up on the windows. It’s been so long, the house has been so full, bursting at every corner with sound and light; their children and her sisters, his colleagues and their friends, never quiet, never empty.
(When the kids come back from Albany, she stands on the front step and clutches at Alexander’s hand like a lifeline, watching their children climb out of Peggy’s minivan one by one. He kisses her hair and smiles at her, and when she smiles back her heart is too big for her chest, swollen and pressing at the inside of her ribcage until she can hear the creak of straining bone.
And then her children are coming up the steps to their house, her children are in her arms, her children are home, home, home.)
It’s movement in the window that catches her eye, a flutter of light that her mind takes a moment too long to comprehend. Behind her, Alexander pauses in the doorway, one shoulder pressed against the frame. His tie hangs undone around his neck, his jacket unbuttoned, half-undone formality. Eliza is in much the same state; hair untwisted from an overly complicated updo but still in her gown and four-inch heels. They weren’t the best choice for a three-hour Christmas Eve charity ball, the whole time spent on her feet, smiling and shaking hands and working the room, cutting like a knife to Alexander’s side whenever she heard his voice spiking to a yell on the other side of the room.
Eliza watches his reflection in the window. Looking directly at him is just too much, sometimes, like staring straight at an eclipse. The glass of the window is ice-cold when she presses her cheek to it, cools the sudden feverish flush in her face.
“Hey,” Alexander says, and Eliza’s laugh clouds the window with fog. Her smile doesn’t hurt like it would have a year ago, the muscles in her cheeks no longer sore with disuse.
“Hey yourself,” she replies, and just the reflection of his grin warms the winter cold out of her fingers.
(“So are you and Alex fucking again, or what?” Peggy says around a mouthful of waffle.
Eliza chokes on her drink, coughing and spluttering, fighting not to snort some through her nose. Across the table, Angelica sips at her mimosa, delicately, with a single raised eyebrow.
“What a question,” Eliza says wildly, when she can be sure of speaking without liquid pouring out her nose.
Peggy snorts, steals a strawberry off Angelica’s plate. “I just need to know if we have to be nice to him now. ‘Cause I’m just saying, I had just found a really good place to hide a body -”
“Mercy,” Eliza cuts in. “We’re not killing him.”
“Damn.” Peggy cuts into her waffle viciously. “What a waste.”
Reaching across the table, Angelica pats the back of Peggy’s hand. “Don’t worry, Pegs, we’ll find someone for you to kill.”
Eliza’s cheeks ache. When she touches her own face, she finds a smile so wide it stretches her mouth at the corners. She feels hysteric, punch-drunk. One breath away from laughing until she cries.
“Look, Pegs,” Angelica says, openly staring. “We broke Eliza.”
“Good lord.” Peggy takes advantage of the distraction to steal another two of Angelica’s strawberries.
Eliza shakes her head. The wind blows across the restaurant patio, touches her cheeks with the first cool breath of fall. The breeze moves Angelica’s hair, carrying with it the smell of cocoa butter and coconut. Everything smells alive again.
“You can’t break me,” she says, and reaches across the table for Angelica’s hand. “I’m Wonder Woman.”)
He crosses the room without a sound, the fall of his bare feet muffled in the carpet.
He folds into the window easily, puts his back to the glass and sits on the sill. He stares back into the room while Eliza stares out at the street, his body angled towards her, each of them looking just over the other’s shoulder. It leaves Eliza temporarily taller than him, in her four-inch formal heels.
“We did good, I think,” he says, and braces his hands against the windowsill. “Hit all your fundraising goals, at least. And I think I made it through most of the night without offending any ambassadors.” Eliza huffs a laugh at that, rolls her cheek against the window so she’s turned towards him. If she dropped her hand, she could touch his shoulder.
“We make a good team,” she tells him, and means it.
“The best,” Alexander agrees. For a moment, his fingers flex on the windowsill, considering, before he reaches up to take her hand.
(“Mister President,” Eliza says, and grips Adams’ outstretched hand with both of hers. “Thank you so much for all your understanding. It’s been - it’s been such a blessing, through this trial.”
Adams babbles helplessly, thrown wildly off-kilter. Over his shoulder, Jefferson narrows his eyes at her. “Mrs. Hamilton, I - well, I merely - General Hamilton did -”
“And just think,” she continues, as if she hadn’t even heard Adams speak. “How lucky he was that our nation’s military sees fit to give him enough sick leave to recover from his illness. We are truly blessed, Mister President, when so many who are less fortunate would have been forced to return to work without fully recovering first.”
Adams is slowly turning an alarming shade of red. “Well, it is of course in the interest of all government institutions to model the behavior we would wish to see reflected in our private sector -”
Jefferson elbows Adams out of the way, cutting him off mid-sentence. “Alright, now, hold up, y’all.” While he looms over Eliza, all long limbs and hair, she blinks up at him, dewy-eyed. “This is cute and all, but Hamilton can’t just -”
“Mister Vice President,” she cuts him, gentle as a knife. “I wonder if you have heard that my sister is in New York.”
Something strange and vulnerable twists in Jefferson’s face. All at once, he seems much shorter. “Angelica?”
Eliza reaches out, curls her fingers around his forearm. For a second, he almost flinches. “She has been helping us, while my husband was sick. She’s so grateful for all your kindness and understanding towards our Alexander.”
Blankly, Jefferson stares at her fingers on his arm, pats them awkwardly. “Of course,” he says at last. “Yeah, of course. Tell her - tell her I said hi? And that I’m in town? Yeah?”
Smiling as sweetly as she possibly can, Eliza gives his arm a final squeeze. “I will. She’ll be so happy to hear it.”
Jefferson smiles like a convulsion, half-dazed.
Over Jefferson’s shoulder, through the glass wall of his office, Alexander stares at her in open-mouthed amazement.
Eliza grins, all teeth, and gives him a wink when Jefferson looks the other way.)
They have a flight tomorrow, a Christmas Eve non-stop from LaGuardia to Virginia. The children are waiting in Mount Vernon with the Washingtons already, along with both their aunts; Lafayette and Adrienne and Georges flew in two days before from France; even Mulligan has been pried out of his tailor’s shop and dragged down to Virginia by his wife. Martha will be cooking something southern, with too much butter and the perfect amount of hot sauce. The lambs will just be getting their winter coats.
But tonight, outside the window, snow is falling on New York City, and the house is silent.
And Alexander is holding her hand.
(He cuts off his hair.
When he leaves the house to take the boys for haircuts, his hair is touching his shoulders, long enough that it brushes his collarbones. When he comes back, it’s clipped down to almost nothing, shorter on the sides, long on top. Just long enough that she could run her fingers through it, that she could grab hold and pull -
She drops a plate, when he walks in the door.
“Jesus,” Alexander chuckles, while he helps her pick up the shards. “Is it that bad?”
Her throat is suddenly, impossibly dry. She has to swallow twice, before she can speak.
“No,” she says at last, and Alexander stares at her with his terrible dark eyes. “Not bad at all.”)
Finally, Eliza stops watching the snow fall outside the window, and turns to him.
His eyes are dark, warm all the way down. Something flexes inside Eliza, some long-atrophied muscle, the sweet ache of blood flowing back into an unused limb. Her toes curl inside her shoes, and she winces a little at the reminder of her aching feet.
Alexander jumps up, standing in one smooth ripple. One hand holding hers, the other on her elbow, he turns her, eases her down to sit on the windowsill where he had rested a moment ago.
“Here,” he says, his voice rough at the edges, soft enough to sing. “Let me.”
His knees make no sound when they hit the carpet.
“Oh,” Eliza says, and then he lifts up the edge of her dress, just a little. His fingers are on her ankle.
“I like these shoes,” Alexander says, pleasantly, like he isn’t on his knees in front of her with his hand under the hem of her dress, like this is something they do all the time now, like it hasn’t been six months since they last had sex -
But he tugs the shoe off her heel, so gently, lifts it off her toe and puts his palm to the sole of her foot and Eliza melts, just a little, into his hands. His fingertips ghost over the inside of her foot and Eliza shivers. Alexander shakes himself slightly, pulls off her other heel and sets them aside, neatly. Hesitantly, he puts his fingers on her ankle. The glass is ice-cold on Eliza’s shoulders when she leans back. She trembles.
The silk of her dress pools around his wrist, like dark water; green where the light hits it, black in the shadows. Blue, where it shifts. His hand moves further up her leg, his thumb scraping along the bone of her shin, his fingers curling around her calf. He stops just below her knee, his fingertips tucked into the soft dark place at the back of her thigh.
Eliza’s can hear her own breathing, can feel the thunder of her pulse in her skin. She knows he must feel it, he must, but he won’t look up, and he won’t move his hand. Her fingernails scrape along the windowsill. The cold touches the backs of her shoulders, her skin alight. She finds that, after a year and a half, she has at last grown tired of his silence.
“Alexander,” she whispers, and his fingers twitch on her skin like he’s been shocked. “Talk to me.”
“This is enough,” he says, too-quickly, and moves his thumb across the inside of her knee.
It floors Eliza, baffles her. Alexander lies to her so rarely. It takes her a moment to find words again, stunned into silence. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she snaps, and he flinches.
“This is enough,” he insists, with his head still bowed. The touch of his fingers tightens into a grip, hard enough to ache. “I don’t want to pressure you, just because we’re - doing better, doing this, that doesn’t mean that you have to. We don’t have to. You don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to do. Fuck.”
The room spins around Eliza, suddenly impossible. She feels lightheaded. This can’t be real. “You are absurd,” she says, baffled, and puts one of her hands in his hair.
Under her hand, his head snaps up at last. Something sparks in his eyes, a fragile sort of heat. “I am trying,” he says. “To do the right thing here.”
Eliza tightens her fingers in his hair until his head twists back, until the cords of his neck stand out with strain. A flush creeps up his cheeks, and Eliza watches his mouth open, an almost silent gasp.
“So am I,” she says, and kisses him.
She loves kissing Alexander. She loves kissing Alexander, the way he tastes and the sounds he makes, the raw desperation hiding on the backs of his teeth. He’s fighting against her hand in his hair, trying to get at more of her mouth, pulling so hard it must hurt him. But she won’t let him, holds him just at arm’s length and nips at his lips, soft butterfly kisses so that he chases after her.
Alexander’s fingers dig into her knee, hard enough to make her gasp, open-mouthed against his lips. His mouth is open and panting, just brushing hers, and his tongue catches at the inside of her top lip.
“Christ,” he says, and his breath is a hot wind on her skin, scalding her. His dark eyes are open and staring, roving wildly like he’s trying to take her whole face in at once. “What do you want from me,” he begs, and strains against her grip in his hair to kiss her again. “Just tell me, whatever you want, however you want it, I will give you anything.”
Eliza overheats, mind racing ahead of her. It’s been so long, so long, they haven’t had sex since that last disastrous time, when she left him in bed and bleeding. There’s so much she wants to do, so much she’s missed, so much time to make up for. She wants him, insensate, every part of him. She wants to ride him until he begs her to stop. She wants to get as many of his fingers inside of her as she can take. She wants to sit on his face and let him eat her out until neither of them can breathe. She wants -
“Everything,” Eliza says, and “You,” and “Alexander.”
All at once, he stops pulling against her. Rocks back on his heels, far enough that he can look at her clearly. The look on his face is a perfect blank, struck dumb. Eliza lets go of his hair. Her hand falls, limp, to rest on his shoulder. It shifts, ever so slightly, as he breathes.
Slowly, slowly, he reaches up to cover her hand with his. “Okay, Betsey,” he says at last. “I can do that.”
(“I’m gonna go talk to him.”
Eliza tries to shriek and swallow her drink at the same time. Merciless, Peggy cackles as Eliza flails after Angelica, scrambling to catch her sister’s hand. “No no no,” she says, when she finally manages to swallow. “Don’t you dare.”
Angelica turns back, just barely, and boops Eliza’s nose with the tip of one elegant finger. “My love, while your beautiful face is a force to be reckoned with, it does not have the power to summon young men from across a bar with nary a word.”
A flush creeps up Eliza’s neck, blurs into the warmth already burning across her cheeks. “It might,” she says sullenly. “We haven’t tested it enough yet.”
Angelica’s sigh is the ancient, primordial sigh of long-suffering elder sisters. “Peggy?” Angelica says, peering over Eliza’s shoulder. “Hold her.”
One slender arm curls around Eliza’s waist and squeezes. Behind her, Peggy takes a long, slow slurp of her drink. “Aye aye, Captain.”
Eliza’s hissed Angelica is lost in the thundering bass of the club’s music; her grasping hands fall short of Angelica’s sequined hemline, Peggy’s astonishingly strong arm locked tight around her hips. “Are you working out in secret or something?” Eliza wonders, tugging at Peggy’s arm. “You’re a bodybuilder.”
Over her shoulder, Peggy is applying a new coat of lip gloss, replacing what’s been smudged onto the straw of her drink. She smacks her lips loud enough that Eliza hears it over the music, satisfied. “I’m outrageous,” she says, and kisses Eliza’s cheek wetly.
“Mercy,” Eliza begs, and Peggy finally sets her free. Decisively, she puts her back to Angelica and the boy, picking her drink up from the bar for a long swallow. “I can’t watch this.”
“What,” Peggy says cheerfully, openly spying over Eliza’s shoulder. “What could possibly go so wrong?”
With another long pull, Eliza downs the last of her drink. “Angelica is wearing orange lipstick, Margarita,” she says, as if this should explain everything. “She’s getting a law degree in and applying for doctoral programs and journals are actually fighting over who gets to publish her thesis and three of her professors have already offered her jobs and she is wearing orange lipstick.”
“Don’t call me Margarita unless you’re buying me one,” Peggy warns, and pinches Eliza’s cheek. Alcohol burns behind Eliza’s breastbone, sets her face aflame. “Do you want orange lipstick? I can get it out of her bag.”
“It doesn’t suit me.” It comes out more sullen than Eliza intends, so she turns towards the bar and sets herself to flagging down the bartender for another round. Next to her, Peggy perches delicately on a stool and sucks at the remains of her long island iced tea through a straw, still peering intently past Eliza.
Eliza can’t get a bartender to pay attention to her. She’s hanging over the bar, debating the various merits of pulling her neckline down a little to try to catch someone’s eye, when Peggy says her name. “Hm?” Eliza turns, and Peggy catches her by the chin, holding her face steadily in place. For a long moment, Eliza stares at her patiently, waiting for some forthcoming explanation.
Peggy blinks up at her, the picture of innocence. At long last, Eliza asks, “Did you want something?”
“Yeah,” Peggy says, and grins with all her teeth. “I wanted you to look this way.”
Through the thudding bass of the music, Eliza hears her sister’s voice:
“I’m about to change your life.”
Eliza’s stomach seizes, a cold stone of panic. She narrows her eyes at Peggy, accusatory. “You are,” she says, poking her little sister’s nose, “The worst sister.”
Peggy’s grin is massive, mischievous delight hiding in the corners of her cheeks. With a little shake, she releases Eliza’s chin, puts slim hands on her shoulders. “Love you too, big sis,” she says, and spins her around.
For a second the world is music and light, a whirl of neon going by too fast for her eyes to take in, a song too loud for her ears to understand, a maelstrom of sight and sound that’s too big for her to take, too much for her to handle all at once -
His eyes are brown. Which ordinarily wouldn’t strike her, except that his eyes are on fire, his eyes are a brown so dark they’re shadowed black in the low light of the bar. His eyes are brown-almost-black, like good rich earth, soft welcoming loam. For a moment, wildly, she thinks that she could grow anything in those eyes. And he’s looking at her.
Through the roaring in her ears, she’s pretty sure Angelica is speaking. Probably introducing them, and Eliza can’t understand a word for the life of her, can’t think of what to say, so twenty-odd years of social manners take over on autopilot, and she holds out a hand to shake. “Elizabeth Schuyler,” she says with a smile, in what she desperately hopes is a normal voice. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“My sister,” Angelica’s voice breaks through the noise at last. Her orange-painted lips are smiling, her teeth a brilliant white. “He’s a Colonel in the Continental Army,” she provides helpfully, with an encouraging smile to Eliza.
“Thank you for all your service,” Eliza blurts automatically, as he reaches out to take her hand.
He smiles at that, and oh, Eliza is gone, Eliza is lost, somewhere in the space between his smile and the strength of his hands. “If it takes fighting a war for us to meet, it will have been worth it,” he says, and instead of shaking her hand he bends and presses his mouth to the back of her knuckles.
Something goes liquid and hot in Eliza’s stomach. Behind her, she hears the barely-stifled snort of Peggy’s laugh. Angelica rolls her eyes, reaches out to take Peggy by the elbow with a pointed look. “I’m going to see if there’s a bartender in this place that will make us a drink,” she says, neatly herding Peggy away down the bar. “We’ll leave you to it.”
His eyes haven’t left Eliza’s face, even though she hasn’t said anything remotely intelligent, even though Angelica is walking away and any sane man would probably be chasing her sister down right now.
He hasn’t let go of her hand.
Eliza can feel her heartbeat in her chest, hear it louder than the beat of the music in her ears. She hopes, suddenly and fiercely, that her palm isn’t sweating. When she tightens her fingers, just a little, he squeezes back with a smile.
“I don’t think I caught your name,” she admits. His smile deepens into a grin, and Eliza is helpless.
“Alexander Hamilton,” he says. “My name is Alexander Hamilton.” His eyes are still on her face. He’s still holding her hand. She looks down at their fingers, hers small and pale against his, darker and stained with ink.
It’s probably the alcohol talking, or the music going to her head. It’s probably that strange fire in his eyes, the sort of light that tears down empires, builds countries out of earth and ink and blood. It’s probably the sudden feeling in her chest, like something’s filled the inside of her ribcage with bright golden light, lifting her just slightly off of the ground.
But she curls her fingers tighter around his, and he grips hers back until his knuckles turn white, and something dark and bottomless unfurls in her stomach, like hunger.
And Eliza thinks - just to herself, just for a moment -
This one’s mine.)