He sees, as if through a fog, a streamlined grey bullet racing towards his chest. He can almost hear it whistle, he thinks, as it impacts. It doesn’t feel like anything at first, and as he topples slowly from his horse, bringing his hands close to him as he falls and covering them with his blood, he apologizes.
I’m sorry, Martha, for ruining your life when you were too young and never coming back.
I’m sorry, Frances, that I never bothered to meet you. You don’t deserve someone as worthless as me.
I’m sorry, Alexander, I promised I’d come back and I was wrong. I’ll see you on the other side.
He feels himself disassociate with his body as its form hits the ground and crumples, limbs flailing a little before they still, blood spurting from the wound in his raggedly gasping form. He’s already gone.
His eyes flutter open. He’s in a white, foggy place. What is he doing here? Isn’t he dead?
Someone is cupping his head with their hands. He tries to tilt up his chin to look at them through his lashes.
“Thank goodness you’re awake.”
The familiar voice makes him blink fully awake. He sits up, twisting to look at them before wincing and flopping back down on the ground. He feels like he knew them once but can’t identify them right now. “Who are you?”
They stare back at him, traces of hurt and worry evident on their face. “You don’t remember me?”
He racks his mind. Everything still feels fuzzy, of sorts. It’s an odd sensation, like he can’t control his mind and it’s off catching butterflies. He knows he ought to remember the person, but his memories are floating just out of his grasp. The person apparently takes his silence as confirmation; they stand and arch their back, gently cushioning his head back on the ground. He’s content looking up right now: The sun is a bit off to the side, too bright for him to look at, and there aren’t any clouds. He pats around him. Maybe he’s lying on a cloud.
A small boy scampers up behind him. He tries to turn around, but a spike of pain stabs through his head and he groans, settling back onto the ground. The person whispers something to the boy, who makes a sound of affirmation and races off. He takes a closer look at the person. He can see enough of them to determine that they appear to be a woman, short and maternal-looking.
She shifts a little, awkwardly, watching him. He can see her much more clearly now. Wait -
“Mom.” It’s a statement, not a question, but he still hears his voice lilt up at the end, the way it always did when he was young and running into the kitchen to ask her something.
The woman - his mother - exhales a long breath, shoulders slumping in relief. “Thank the Lord, Jacky. I was starting to worry… Not that your, ah, passing was particularly different from many of the young men coming through these days, but. But. I’m still your mother.” He cracks a smile. He and his mother always had an easygoing relationship, didn’t they? Lord , but he’d missed her when she’d died.
Abruptly, he realizes that his memories are slowly sifting back into his mind.
“It was your moral obligation to worry about me, as my mother?” he supplies. She laughs, crows’-feet embedding themselves deeper into the lines of her face. That was another thing he’d loved about her, that she laughed so easily.
It was partly what made his father fall in love with her. After her death, he’d hardened emotionally, and suddenly he was forcing John to go to school in London and be a lawyer, and then -
He didn’t want to think about that right now.
He forces himself to look back up at his mother, who is wearing an entirely too all-knowing expression. He props himself up on his elbows, pulls an unconvincing face of sarcastic curiosity. “So, what is it that you do up here?”
Thankfully, she understands that he wants to change the subject. She holds out a hand for him to take. He grabs it and heaves himself up, letting her take the majority of his weight. She grunts. “You’ve gotten lighter since I last saw you.”
“‘T’was the revolution. No food.” Once he’s fully standing and not dizzy, he embraces her tightly. “I missed you.”
“I know.” But she rests her head on his shoulder anyway. She’s always been shorter than him. There’s a suspicious dampness on the side of his neck that he’s not going to mention, not least because his teardrops are landing on her clothes too.
Eventually, he peels himself off of her - they’re both now just kind of damp from each other’s tears, eyes a little red and swollen, but mirroring each others’ grins. She beckons to the little boy from earlier. He comes closer more timidly than before, probably because John and his mother had just been crying on each other for a good ten minutes. “Jacky?”
John knows that voice, hears it in his nightmares as the little boy falls, over and over. Hears it echoing through his head despairingly as he tosses and turns in bed, unable to escape.
He takes a moment to compose himself before talking. “Jemmy.”
The boy smiles tentatively, dimpling just like he used to when he was alive. “Hey.”
Suddenly, he’s taking large steps towards his brother, engulfing him in a giant hug. “Jemmy Jemmy Jemmy Jemmy Jemmy -” he’s vaguely aware that he’s bordering on hysterical, yes, but what of it? After all, it was his fault that Jemmy was here right now, wasn’t it?
That’s what his dad had said, at least, while he was beating him.
Everything was his fault, he’d killed his younger brother, why couldn’t he like girls, why didn’t he want to be a lawyer, why couldn’t he just die and leave and everyone would be so much happier without him -
James pulls back and studies his face, and John feels that he’s prying into his mind, scarily perceptive for someone who was ten when they died. “Hm. You know it wasn’t your fault, right?”
He steps away, hugs himself as a pillar of the core of his being shatters, leaving him feeling lopsided and off balance. Of course it was his fault. He’d been the one not watching Jemmy that one day… If he’d been more careful. If he’d said no to Jemmy’s begging face. If he’d jumped off after him.
He wasn’t quite sure what the last one would’ve done to help, but it would’ve made him feel better.
Jemmy follows him, eyebrows furrowed. “It really wasn’t. It was an accident, and you couldn’t have controlled it any better than anyone else. And I was a little mad when I first came up here - I didn’t even get to say ‘bye to all my friends, Jack - but you know, I’ve gotten over it. This place is cool. You can do whatever you like and no one will tell you no. I’ve spent a whole week walking around wearing a dress and no one even looked at me funny!”
It’s the last one that catches his attention. He turns back. “What?”
James shrinks a little bit. He curses himself for being the cause of it. “Well, one day I decided that I wanted to try on a dress, so I did.”
“Where’d you get the dress?”
Jemmy flushes a little bit. “I just, well, I’ve been here for a few years, so I made some friends, and they let me borrow their clothes. I think you can just think up whatever you want, but I wanted it to look real, so I traded clothes. I think she really liked not having to wear skirts all the time, she said she was finally able to climb trees like she’d wanted to when she was alive.”
John mulls it over, nods. Maybe he’ll try it someday. It does look interesting, and it seems that he’ll have a lot of time here.
He turns back to his mother. “Is there a way to… see what everyone is doing, back home?”
“This is home now. You can’t leave,” his brother pipes up, but his mother shushes him and pulls him over to a gap in the whitish, cottony stuff they’d been standing on.
“Here. You can focus on specific people you want to see, and it should show them. Otherwise it just floats around, showing random scenes all over the world. It’s good to watch when you’re bored.”
“Can I visit anyone?”
She shakes her head. “The closest you can get is zooming in, I think.”
He can deal with that. This is better than he expected already.
He sticks his face into the hole in the cloud. Never having had much patience, he concentrates on Alex first. Screw all that save the best for last, he thinks defiantly as the image swoops and spirals before him. Finally, it stops moving.
It’s nighttime: Alex and Eliza are quietly talking, necks bent towards each other attentively and postures clearly outlining the love they felt for each other. A prick of jealousy prods at the back of his mind, but he shoves it away in favor of looking back at the domestic image. Eliza’s hair is loose and curling in fronds around her face as she gently rocks a crib where their infant son, Philip, is clearly resting; Alex’s hair pulled back in a messy ponytail as he gestures, eyes lit afire the way they usually are. He wonders if they’ve gotten notice of his death yet.
He crouches there for a long time, stabs of envy filling his mind until he can’t bear it any longer. Despite the fact that he died in an attack that he’d known wasn’t necessary…
He can’t help it. He regrets his choice. He misses life.
He switches to watching Martha. God, but he regrets that too. He never really felt attracted to women in general (something that his father would always remind him of when they were fighting), and Martha - and their daughter, Frances - was one huge mistake in that area. A mistake born of too much alcohol and a little bit of persuasion.
Martha is asleep right now; it’s the middle of the night for her. She’s curled up on a dingy bed with her daughter, each wrapped firmly in the other’s limbs. At least they still have each other. Frances is… five, if the math he just did was correct, and she’s a tiny girl for her age. Freckled and curly-haired just like him. She looks cheerful and innocent asleep, but his wife has entirely too many wrinkles for her twenty-five years. He’d been a terrible father, hadn’t he, barely sending them enough money to survive. He wonders now what Martha was doing to help them stay afloat and curses himself for being so negligent. He knows it’s hard, growing up without a father: Alexander has told him as much, many times over. The fight they’d had when Alex discovered that he had a daughter across the sea who he’d never met… he shudders just thinking about it.
Eventually, he tires of watching the people he cares about still living life while he’s stuck here. That’s his fault too, that he’s here and they’re there. Only after his death did he realize that life is a gift, one that he shouldn’t throw away.
But he’d hated his life, so.
He thinks that if he had the option to do it again, he might not. Now that he knows how it’s infinitely more painful watching your loved ones still on Earth, still living, when all you can do is see all that they accomplish and what you could’ve done had you had that chance. Eternal comparisons.
Over the next few days, he starts to let go of his mortal life and shapes a world for himself in the clouds. He still checks up on everyone, but at least he’s not glued to the gaps in the clouds anymore. He does what his younger brother suggests and tries wearing a dress; he likes it alright but prefers leggings in general. They’re much more versatile. He discovers that people hold schools here, where debates between the newly passed and the old scholars happen regularly and people have the chance to learn what they never were allowed to in their lives. There are so many women that take the chance offered them, for instance, and go to university to learn alongside men.
It’s a little funny, actually, because it’s clearly obvious which time period everyone is from: People tend to wear the same type of clothing as they did when they were alive, so there are togas to imperial gowns to breeches, like what he has.
He takes the opportunity to start learning medicine with the greatest doctors throughout history: He’d wanted to, back when he was alive and in London, but his father had forced him into law and he’d never quite been able to stand up to him.
And then one day, he’s watching Alexander again, writing at a desk with the adorable furrow between his eyebrows that John used to rub at with his thumb until it relaxed, when they were in bed together. Eliza walks in, her usually happy face worried. He can’t hear them, but he watches her lips intently and thinks he can make out what they’re saying.
“Alexander, there’s a letter for you.”
Alex looks up briefly, lowering his glasses for a moment. “It’s from John Laurens,” he can recognize his name on Alexander’s lips easily, “I’ll read it later.”
Eliza shakes her head, an emotion - grief? - flashing across her expressive face. “No. It’s from his father.”
“His father?” Alex echoes, taking off his glasses and giving Eliza his full attention. He stands, stretching a little. “Will you read it?” he asks.
“They’ll tell the story of tonight,” John whispers, remembering an old song they used to sing. This is it, the story of tonight. The night when Alex discovers that John had left him for good. The night when Alex knows that John betrayed him in a useless skirmish on the outskirts of the war.
Eliza unfolds the letter carefully, smoothing out the corners. “On Tuesday the 27th, my son was killed in a gunfight against British troops retreating from South Carolina. The war was already over. As you know, John dreamed of emancipating and recruiting 3,000 men for the first all-black military regiment.”
He holds his breath as she inhales shakily, close to tears.
“His dream of freedom for these men dies with him.”
“Tomorrow there’ll be more of us,” he adds, wistfully. Remembers the line he would always sing after Alexander had echoed the previous verse. Remembers Mulligan, tall and lumbering, with a surprisingly good voice. Remembers Lafayette, who would always laugh too hard with stars in his eyes.
How could he have done this to himself, to all of them?
He focuses back on the image before him to see Eliza worriedly placing a hand on Alex’s shoulder. “Alexander. Are you alright?”
His Alexander breathes once, breathes twice, breathes a third time and exhales deeply. He looks up resignedly, directly at John, who startles before remembering that Alex can’t see him. His gaze is piercing enough that he can almost imagine it.
Alex is still looking up when he says, slowly and clearly, enunciating it enough that John can almost hear him, “I have so much work to do.”
Twenty years pass.
He watches Alexander work himself almost to death, writing non-stop like he would back when they were soldiers, writing and writing until there was ink splattering across his nose like freckles and the candle had burned out. He watches Alexander as he struggles to balance his family and his writing, turning Angelica and Eliza away when they try to get him to take a break. He watches Alexander as he meets Maria Reynolds and cringes when they kiss.
Alexander’s lips are, if not John’s, then at least only for him and Eliza.
He winces when he sees Alexander start to undress for Maria, pulling his head out of the gap in the cloud and stumbling away, trying desperately not to cry.
He watches Alexander as he makes decision after bad decision, as he talks to George Washington in hopes of convincing him to stay, as he supports Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr. He doesn’t really understand either of their relationships; Alexander has always been overly flirtatious and passionate, and he applies that to both men.
He sees Aaron Burr bring his thoughts to a slow boil as he stews in anger. He understands the man, at least a little. Alexander has always hated Jefferson, and supporting him over Burr? That was the final straw, wasn’t it?
In between all this, he’s still meeting other people as they come through. When his father dies, he shakes his hand once as a greeting and walks away, still angry. His sister Mary passes through as well.
Really, there aren’t very many people he has to wait for.
Only Alexander. His Alexander.
He watches in horror as Burr raises his gun and points it directly at Alexander, who’s too busy making sure his gun is aimed far away from his enemy.
When Alex is shot, his chest throbs, like the musket ball that embedded itself in his flesh is empathizing with Alex’s. He keeps his eyes on the scene, as Alexander raises up on his toes and writhes a little, falling too slowly. It’s too much like his own death.
He watches as Alexander fades, slowly, while Eliza and Angelica hover over him and try to ease his agony. It’s a terrible thing, watching one’s loved one die slowly and in pain, and he relearns this all over again with Alex.
Alex breathes out and doesn’t inhale again.
He pulls his head out of the hole again. Behind him, there’s a slight shimmer in the air. Others start to gather around the shimmer: deaths happen frequently, but they’re still good to watch when one is bored. Morbid as that might be.
The air shimmers again and thickens a little; he feels a pull in his chest and knows.
This is Alexander.
Other people are pulled forwards, inexorably; the crowd parts for them. They all know that the pull means that it’s someone that they were close to in their life. No one can explain it, but it ensures that the person’s arrival is easier, that they have people who loved them to help them adjust.
The light seems to solidify, and with a slight thump, Alexander - his Alexander - collapses on the ground, eyes closed. This part can take a little while, as the rest of the spirit frees itself from the body and comes through.
But he can wait. For once in his life, he can wait.
Because this is for his Alexander.