James Madison rested in the cozy drawing room where he’d been led by one of Jefferson’s servants. He blew lightly over the surface of his teacup and sipped at it. The man hadn’t joined him yet, but he was making the most of the few quiet moments to collect his thoughts. Watching through the large plate-glass window, he could see the sun begin to dip under the horizon. It was a beautiful sight, streaking the sky above the orchard with red and orange, and he sighed, knowing he would likely have to draw the curtain for the comfort of his host.
Just as the last rays of sunlight blazed through the window, there was a knock at the oak door.
“Just a moment,” James called, rising to pull the deep purple curtain across the scene. The room was now only lit by a few oil lamps, as well as the low fire, and it cast grim flickering shadows across the room. With a few steps, he approached the door, opening it to reveal his host, who smiled genuinely at him.
“James! It’s so good to see you.” He offered a hand to shake, and James obliged. “I haven’t seen much of you since I got back from France.”
“To be fair,” Madison drawled, “no one’s seen much of you since you got back from France.”
Jefferson’s smile faltered a bit. “Ah. I suppose that’s what you’ve been wanting to talk about.”
“I said as much in my letters.” Gesturing to the chairs, he returned to his seat and resumed sipping at his tea. Rather than grill the man, he simply chose to be patient. He would get the truth out of him eventually.
Thomas sat down in the chair beside his, a low end table between them. He gazed listlessly at the cups of tea set out for them, but did not move to take one. “I’m sure I know what they’re saying.”
“They know I met your boat after dusk.”
He sighed, a long, weary breath. “I don’t know what will happen to me now.”
Madison paused, then returned his cup and saucer to the table. “Tell me what happened in France.”
Thomas still wouldn’t meet his eye.
“Thomas, if I know what’s going on, I can help you.”
“Not even God could help me now.” His face set grimly, Thomas rested his elbows on his knees. James regarded the man he’d known for many years, brought so low. His skin was still as dark as ever, but there was an ashen tint to it - the blood no longer flowed through his veins.
“We can mitigate it. We can’t let Hamilton get ahead, he’ll pull his own ideas through. Someone has to keep the American promise.” Jefferson looked up at him, shocked.
“I can’t do anything in this state! I’ve been cursed!”
Madison pursed his lips. “Curse or not, there’s work to do. Congressional meetings are held indoors, and you can wear a veil between there and your carriage. There are ways around it.”
Thomas chuckled darkly. “Do you have such a simple solution for my mortal soul?”
Sighing, James picked up his cup and saucer once more. “You’ve always been far too dramatic.”
They remained like that in silence for a few minutes, watching the fire dim. Jefferson stood, grabbing for a poker, but with a cry of pain he sent it clattering to the floor. “God damn!”
James was by his side in a moment. “What happened?” he asked, pushing the poker safely out of arm’s reach. He reached for Thomas’ arm, drawing it to him to examine the hand. The skin seemed to have instantly blistered, causing a gruesome red stripe across his palm.
“It’s the curse,” Thomas whispered, almost stunned. When James glanced up at his face, though, he could see the familiar glint of scientific curiosity flit across it.
Rising, James crossed the room and cracked the door open. “I need a bandage and salve for Mr. Jefferson,” he called, and a servant answered “Right away, sir!”
“They can’t know.” James turned back to see the look of panic on his friend’s face. “None of them can know. I’d be far too vulnerable.”
“And you aren’t vulnerable as a human being? If anything, I’d say you’re far more formidable than you were before.”
“If anyone finds out, I’ll have a mob after my head.”
Madison shook his head. “It’s only an old fable. Rumors are one thing, but no sane man will believe it.”
“And what of the witch trials? Too many women lost their lives on the pains of superstition alone.”
“That was nearly a hundred years ago, Jefferson. I’d like to think we’re a bit more enlightened, especially after the Revolution. People have bigger problems than what lurks behind closed doors.”
There was a knock. “Mr. Madison, I have the salve for Mr. Jefferson. Shall I call for a doctor?”
“No, there’s no need,” James reassures the servant, opening the door enough to take the salve and cloth from her. “Please see that we are not disturbed this evening.”
“Of course, sir.” The servant curtsied and hurried off to resume her duties.
Returning to Thomas, he knelt down and gently brought his hand up. The blisters were still an angry red, and he frowned. “Perhaps the iron has done it?” He dipped two fingers into the salve and gently touched them to the far edge of the injury. Thomas hissed, trying to jerk his hand back, but Madison held it gently in place. “You can feel pain. You are at least that human.”
The remark made Jefferson’s shoulders sag, and he stopped fighting James’ touch. They remained in silence, working in the light of the fading fire, until the blisters were soothed by the salve. James rested Thomas’ hand in his lap so he could reach over and grab the cloth bandage. “You will have to keep it wrapped for a while, and keep the bandages clean and changed,” he remarked lightly.
“James,” Thomas breathed, but James gave him no response. Taking Jefferson’s hand in his once more, he raised it and began wrapping it firmly. “God damn that hurts. What are you trying to do to me? You don’t make a very good nursemaid,” he whined playfully, keeping his voice low.
“You may have to deal with me for a while,” James told him, tucking the end of the bandage into itself. “We can use the time to draft a response to Hamilton’s financial plan.”
Thomas shook his head slowly. “I don’t see how you can be so damn calm.”
Holding the hand for a moment longer before releasing it, James sighed. “There’s no good in panicking. We must just move on with our lives.” Though it was definitely a delicate situation, Madison knew it must not change his opinion of his friend. Much had changed between them already over the years since Jefferson’s departure.
Thomas must have seen something in his face, because he raised his left hand and tucked the fingers lightly under James’ chin. “It’s good to see you again,” he admitted. “I lived to read your letters.”
“You lived to help France,” James shut him down brusquely. Thomas began to shake his head, opened his mouth to object, but James stood, brushing off his hand. “I’m going for a walk in the orchard. I need some fresh air.” He was out the door before Thomas could say anything, leaving the man staring after him.
Strolling down paths he was all too familiar with, James breathed in the cooling night air. It was a blessed reprieve after the heat of the day. The only lights around were the stars in the sky and his own lantern, obtained from a concerned servant. He peered up into the leaves, glimpsing apples almost ready for the fall harvest. Setting his lantern down, he reached up, plucking one from a branch with a quiet rustle. He brought it close to his mouth, inhaling the fresh scent, and sunk his teeth into it. It was almost too large a bite, and he struggled at it for a moment before tearing off the chunk, relishing the juice that dripped down his chin and into his beard.
The enjoyment was short-lived, however, because it brought a precious memory back up to the surface: this very orchard, in mid-summer, with golden light filling every shadow of the fields and every corner of his heart. They had walked side-by-side, then, and Thomas had taken his hand, pulled him forwards to point out a small blue flower growing at the base of a tree. He’d reached upwards, seeming to not even notice his grip on James’ hand, and brought down an early apple. When he turned to James, he’d smiled, then faltered, and James had burned unexpectedly under his gaze. Though he doesn’t remember the words exchanged between them that day - and there were many - it was that quiet moment he recalled the most clearly.
James shuddered. He knew what came next in the scene, and it was almost too painful now. Thomas had offered him the apple, and James, almost unthinkingly, had grabbed Thomas’ wrist in his free hand to bite into it. He licked his lips, drawing away, and felt the sweet stickiness of the juice drip down out of his mouth like a child. When he glanced up at Thomas, the man’s mouth had dropped open, mesmerized. Thomas’ eyes had not left him as he chewed and swallowed.
Before he’d had the chance to apologize, excuse himself, and maybe run far, far away, Thomas had swooped down to kiss him. They shared the taste of the apple, as Thomas kissed it off his face tenderly. There had been no heat or urgency in those moments, just a simple peace, and it felt as if that day would never end. Thomas had led him to a private corner of the grove and laid him down, and they spent the summer’s day lying in each other’s arms, laughing like teenage sweethearts.
But they hadn’t been young even then, and they were years older now. There would be no more summer days between them, no more stolen kisses. James almost choked as he remembered the gentle press of Thomas’ hand between his thighs, spreading him open, the way their innocent kisses had burned into something deeper, their breaths coming hard against each other. He couldn’t hold a corpse.
A breeze rustled through the branches, and James froze. He did not turn round. “So you decided to join me after all.”
The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he heard Thomas step closer to him. “You didn’t give me the chance.”
“I’ve given you far too many chances.” He kept his voice steady, trying to sound cold, but Thomas grabbed his hand from behind, wrapping his long fingers around the apple. There was no warmth in it, only a firm pressure to indicate he was even there. He could hear Thomas inhaling and exhaling, but no breath brushed across the back of his neck. It was probably just a leftover reflex, and even that would be gone in time.
“James, I can’t stay away from you.”
James trembled. He could bluff all he wanted, but there was no denying that Thomas could easily overpower him.
“I’m sure,” he snapped. Anything they had was long gone. Thomas saw him only as prey now, and in his mind, the awed look warped into the hungry eyes of a wolf, the open mouth drooling with hunger.
Thomas must have felt the tension, because he grabbed at James’ upper arms with both hands, hissing a bit from the pain of his fresh injury. He made no move to force James to look at him, though.
“No, it’s more than that. It’s you . I can’t stay away from you.”
“You had no problem going off to France for several years. Tell me, how are Marie and Susan, or Therese, or Angela?” He clenched his fists, feeling the juice from the apple flow between his fingers. He was no longer trembling with fear, but with deep, painful rage.
“I was trying to run. I admit it. And yet here we are.”
James didn’t give him the pleasure of an answer. He shut his eyes, resting them, blocking out the image of the orchard where they had stood so long ago.
“I can’t live knowing you’ll die.” Thomas despaired. “I can’t go on living and watch you get sicker and sicker. I knew, hell, even before France, I knew. I probably knew from that first day I kissed you and you were so perfect . Even if I’m cursed to never taste food again, even if everything turns to dust on my tongue, I’m going to live forever remembering the sweet taste of you.” He squeezed James’ arms.
Despite his quickly closing throat, James tried to spit his words out, to spit out the taste of apple that still lingered on his tongue. “You’re very poetic,” he snapped, but his voice broke unmistakably.
Suddenly, the pressure was gone. “You should run,” Jefferson told him, but it didn’t sound like a threat. “If you run, I won’t chase after you. Run, goddammit!”
James could hear a quiet, choked sob behind him. With dawning horror, he realized exactly what Thomas was warning him about. Jefferson wanted to drag him down into the curse with him. Wanted to make sure James never died. Wanted him.
He tried to argue that Thomas was a beast now, that all his pretty words were a strange seduction to trap an easy target.
He tried to argue that at least one of them needed to stay human, to manage everything, to cover up this disaster as much as possible.
He tried to move his legs, telling himself that despite his health, he could probably get as far as the next farmhouse.
He didn’t move.
Thomas breathed hard behind him, stepping forwards again. “You are a damn fool, Madison.” Clutching at James’ arms again, he paused.
“If we’re going to do this, at least call me James.”
Cold fingers brushed the back of his neck, hooking under the fabric of his cravat. “James,” Thomas whispered, pressing a kiss to the nape of his neck. Their bodies were pressed together now, back-to-front, as Thomas reached up to untie the cravat. The silk slid against his skin and disappeared. Thomas’ hands returned to him, pushing his collar down and exposing him to the cooling night air.
The first kiss landed at the base of his neck, right at the curve of his shoulder. “James,” Thomas whispered into it, and he repeated it like a prayer as he covered the right side of James’ neck in wet kisses. With a shudder, James realized that it was serving to numb the area, and his skin tingled until he couldn’t even feel the press of Thomas’ lips.
Thomas’ hands found James’ hips, sliding around to press against his chest, holding James hard against him. The only warning he got was Thomas’ little hum before there was a sharp pinch low on the side of his neck, like the prick of a sewing needle.
James opened his eyes once more, gazing up at the stars that were now out in full force. There was still a little light from the candle in his lantern, but it was dim, and darkness crowded around the edges of his vision. He relaxed slowly into Thomas’ grip, allowing the taller man to hold him up. He could hear a sick slurping noise right beside his ear, and Thomas’ little moans, but they were becoming more distant by the moment. James laid his head back against the man’s chest, and as he felt his legs finally give way he sucked in a deep, gasping breath that very well could have been his last.
The first thing James noticed was his heartbeat. He had floated in nothingness and darkness for eternity, for longer than forever, and it was the first thing he had ever heard. Somehow, he knew right away that it was his , which didn’t quite make sense, because he didn’t have a body. How could he have a heartbeat without a body?
He felt around and realized he could do that now. It turned out he did have a body after all, and nerves to go with it, or else he couldn’t be in so much pain. Things that hurt: his neck, his legs, his back, his head, in descending order. And if that really was the order, it seemed impossible that anything could hurt worse than his head.
He tried to see if he had eyes, but the moment he tried, he nearly flipped over. He still needed a sense of gravity before he could face having eyes.
Trying a different tactic, he decided to feel the mattress beneath him. Sure enough, there was one. There also seemed to be blankets above him. Alright, now he had a “beneath” and an “above.” He knew he was lying on his back. As everything seemed to stabilize around him, he heard a shuffling of fabric to his left, but no sensation. That was new. Something had moved, and he hadn’t moved it.
A person, his brain suggested. A person outside of himself. The person was making more noises, he realized, and had been making noises the whole time. The noises didn’t really connect to anything yet, but the sound of it was nice.
Existing was exhausting, so James let himself float back into the nothing. He could try again some other time.
“And now I have the boy, I will undo this hateful imperfection of her eyes. And, gentle Pick - Puck, take this transformed scalp from off the head of this Athenian swain; that he awaking with - when all the others… dammit. That he awaking when the other do, may all to Athens back again repair.” The voice sighed wistfully and continued.
Shakespeare, James’ brain suggested. He wasn’t sure what a Shakespeare was, but he knew who the voice belonged to. It belonged to a person, a person whose name was Thomas Jefferson.
“Thomas,” he attempted, and the voice stopped. Unfortunately, all he’d managed was a wispy groan, barely more than a breath.
“I’m right here,” Thomas reassured him, as if he’d understood. “Just sleep as long as you need to.”
After a few breaths, during which James did not attempt to speak again, he went back to reading. “Let’s see… all to Athens back again repair, and think no more of this night’s accidents but as the fierce vexation of a dream. But first I will release the fairy queen. Be as thou once - as thou wast wont to be; see as thou wast wont to see: Dian’s bud over Cupid’s flower hath such force and blessed power.”
“You…” James croaked, and he heard a sudden gasp.
“James?” There was a huge amount of sound - the book shutting, the creak of the chair, the swish of Thomas’ suit as he rushed to the bedside. James felt his hand being grasped in both of Thomas’. One hand remained wrapped in the bandage, and the fabric was rough. He used the pressure of Thomas’ hands as an anchor, squeezed it gently, and held onto it like a shattered plank of wood after a shipwreck. Though he still couldn’t open his eyes, he heard Thomas choke back a sob, clutching tighter around James’ hand. “James, I am so sorry.”
James made what he hoped was a questioning noise. His chest felt weak, as though it could collapse in on itself at any moment.
“I didn’t… I couldn’t finish it. James, I’m so sorry.”
Well, if he was so upset about not being able to finish his book, he could go back and read it.
That didn’t really seem relevant to the conversation. James’ brow furrowed, and a wave of nausea pushed through him. Of course he’d collapsed, otherwise he wouldn’t be in bed.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated, and James sighed. He kind of wanted the Shakespeare back. But his head was reeling, and something awful was pushing at his gullet -
He threw himself to the side like a ship listing in a violent storm. His head flipped in every direction at once, and he heard Thomas’ panicked shout as the soothing hands disappeared.
Once everything was emptied from his body, James realized slowly that his eyes were open.
“Okay, I kind of deserved that,” Thomas groaned from somewhere above him.
Through the waves of dizziness, James could pick out ridges and roads, swirling like a stream beneath him. Of course, there was also an awful lot of sick beneath him as well, and the stench made him gag again.
The strong, soothing hands were back on him, one rubbing circles into his back and the other supporting his chest so that he didn’t topple completely over.
“Let’s get you back into bed,” Thomas encouraged. “Then I can change. I hope you don’t mind if I get into my bedclothes? I’ve been wearing suits for days so I could look alright when you woke up. I wanted to make a good impression.”
James tried to nod at the barrage of words, but mainly succeeded in rolling his head wildly, causing the roads and whorls to spin. The hand at his front pressed up, pushing him back onto the bed, where he collapsed again. Now that his eyes were open, though, he didn’t want to close them again, for fear of falling back into unconsciousness.
He heard Thomas shuffling, and dropped his head to the side. Thomas was rummaging in a chest of drawers, and it dawned on him that he was in Thomas’ room, rather than one of the several guest rooms in the house. Thomas had brought him back to his own room.
The man stripped off his coat, then his breeches, setting the stained garment to the side to be washed. Half-naked, he stepped over to the washbowl, cleaning his own hands of the sick. James watched him lazily, admiring the toned muscles of his bare legs, the slight hint of cheek below his shirt.
“I was reading Midsummer’s Night, ” Thomas remarked, turning back to the bedclothes he’d set out. “I started with Hamlet , actually, although I know it’s a bit morbid, but I did want something familiar to you. Maybe it would bring you back.” He reached one hand behind his back and tugged off the shirt, giving Madison a full view of his back and shoulders. Despite being in his forties, he really was still beautiful, fit and slim, with smooth dark skin to rival the cocoa beans from the Southern continent. The only trouble with it was the ashen tint the curse had given him, making it look dull and faded instead of the warmth James used to find such comfort in.
Looking back over his shoulder, he caught James staring at him and smiled warmly. “I’m glad you’ve come back around. I’ll have someone bring up some light dinner, if you’re up for it. You haven’t eaten at all.”
James hummed. “How long was I out?” he croaked, watching Thomas pull on a nightshirt.
“Nearly two weeks.” Thomas’ voice was grim. “We’ve been trying to keep water down you, which is a bit difficult considering you’ve been unconscious most of the time.”
Two weeks. James’ eyes widened in horror. “The doctor-”
“Is a close friend of mine,” Thomas reassured him. “He bandaged your neck and treated you well. I’ve been by your side the whole time.” He sighed, turning back to the sick man. “He was not very happy with me, to be perfectly honest.”
“I’m sure.” The bed really was so warm, and as the slow memories of what they’d done in this same room before came back to him, James felt his face heating up. He tried to keep his breathing steady, not wanting to excite his heart any further if he really was so weak.
James sucked in another breath, and, sure enough, the warm dry air filled his lungs and expelled, just as expected. He paused, and his heart beat loud in his ears.
“Thomas!” If he could have shouted, he would have. “Thomas, I can breathe!”
Thomas returned to his side, concern showing on his face. “I should hope so.”
“No…” James’ face fell, and he sagged. “No, this isn’t right.”
Sighing, Thomas sat on the edge of his bed, causing it to dip slightly. “It is right.”
“No, this wasn’t supposed to happen, Thomas!” The heart - the traitorous heart, that still beat in his chest - rushed faster, and he gasped.
“James.” Thomas placed a steadying hand over it. “It’s alright. I know.”
James stared at the guilty man, his eyes widening. Thomas looked pained, but he was smiling, even despite the horrific news. “It didn’t work.”
“I don’t know if it would have worked. I stopped.”
“You-” His head reeled again, and he dropped back down to his pillow. “You stopped.”
Thomas’ fingers curled over James’ chest. “You collapsed under me. I realized then, when I was… kissing you, that if I stopped that, I’d never forgive myself. How warm you were under me, the sound and feel of your heartbeat… I couldn’t lose that.”
James raised his hand and gripped Thomas’. “And what about me?”
There was a pause, a silence in the air, as Thomas seemed to process the question. The only sound was the familiar crackling of the fireplace on the far side of the room.
“I…” Thomas started again, then faltered, his gaze dropping to where their hands met. “I remembered how cold I was. I remembered knowing I was going to die, alone in an alley, an ocean away from home.”
He was sure Thomas could feel his gasp from where their hands met. “In an alley? He attacked you?”
Pursing his lips, Thomas looked away, his eyes landing on the warmth of the fire. Its reflection almost seemed to bring life back into the man’s eyes, despite the grim look on his face.
“Someone attacked me. But that wasn’t what did it.”
There was another pause. James remained silent, wanting to give his friend - his lover - as much time as he needed.
“Lafayette found me. I don’t know how he did it, but he found me, and brought me back to his home.”
“Lafayette’s -” It didn’t make sense. He remembered the Marquis, and how he’d fought so valiantly for the Rebels, day or night.
Thomas inclined his head slightly, a whisper of a nod. “He saved my life, James.”
“He killed you.” He didn’t mean it, couldn’t mean it, but the words were out before he could stop them. He felt Thomas tense, and clutched harder at his hand to stop him from pulling away.
“He saved my life,” Thomas repeated through gritted teeth. “I would have died there.”
Something dawned on James in horror. “Did he even ask?” he whispered.
“As much as he could, with me being half-dead already.” Thomas dropped his eyes to the floor, and the light went out from them again. James wondered if Thomas could feel his heart ache.
There wasn’t anything more to say, he realized. There were no comforting words he could give.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, simply listening to the crackle of the fire. James kept his eyes on Thomas: on the tight curls that fell around his shoulders, the high cheekbones that made him so attractive to every woman who met him, the downward slope of his nose. The color may have been gone from beneath his cheeks, but the shape of him was still there. Even as he stared on him in profile, he could see the deep brown pools of his eyes that he’d fallen into so quickly and so willingly, like finding a pond deep in the forest on a sweltering summer’s day.
James sighed, releasing a breath he hadn’t even known he was holding. “Come lay with me.”
In an instant, Thomas’ eyes were back on his, and he burned under them just as he had before. Thomas swallowed reflexively, and stood, tugging his hand from James’ grip and pulling back the covers. “It’ll be cold,” he warned, almost as though he was asking James to retract the invitation.
James shivered from the sudden chill in the air. “I’ll have to warm the both of us, then.” He smiled lightly, trying to breathe around the ache in his chest. He was still weak, practically on the brink of starvation, but he felt that this was all he needed.
The mattress dipped as Thomas crawled beneath the covers, turning to face him. It seemed as though Thomas was trying not to touch him, but James was so close to the edge of the bed that it was impossible to keep away.
“You’re hogging the bed,” Thomas joked, and James attempted to shuffle backwards. “No, hold on.”
James made a frustrated noise as Thomas left his side, but the man was back again in a moment, pressing up behind him. “Better?”
James just made a contented hum in response. He leaned back into Thomas’ chest.
There was no heartbeat to hear and fall asleep to. There was no calming rise and fall of each breath, no warm air on the back of his neck. Thomas touched his lips to the back of James’ hair, and he could feel the movement. Reaching back, James took hold of Thomas’ arm, as cool as wood, and wrapped it around himself.
“Can you - can you breathe?” he asked, gently.
In response, Thomas’ chest expanded, and he blew a cold stream of air across James’ skin, raising goosebumps where it hit. “It’s all muscles,” he explained. “No blood to bring life to, but there’s air.”
“Do that for a bit,” James whispered to him, and Thomas obliged.
They stilled, lying together for a few more minutes, but James’ mind was still crowded over with horrors and worries.
“I feel a bit like a moaning corpse,” Thomas joked, and James frowned, stiffening.
“Don’t,” he snapped, and felt Thomas flinch.
James only sighed. The combination of the blankets and his own body heat were warming the body around his, and he pulled closer. Feeling Thomas blow another chilling breath against him, he shivered, and shut his eyes. Thomas’ existence was a mockery of life, but their love had only been a mockery of romance, a perversion in much the same way as Thomas ‘breathed.’
They could stay like this, until the cold light of day, when all this act would be shown to be as it was - just smoke and mirrors. Until then, he would immerse himself in the performance, in this folly of life and love and devotion, with Thomas by his side.