Compassion
by Archer's Aim

It was a nice room, Horatio Hornblower thought drunkenly. Really, a very nice room. Nice paper on the walls ­ even though he wasn't that partial to flowers. A nice comfortable bed ­ that didn't move when you were in it. Pretty drapes ­ blue was such a nice color. And a nice thick carpet and nice warm fire and two very nice cozy chairs in front of it . . .

And of course, that most excellent brandy that Barbara's brother had sent to him recently. A very nice brandy. Was this still the first bottle ­ or the second? Shrugging, he reached out and poured another glassful.

He hadn't been this drunk in years. Not through Admiralty dinners, all-night whist games and that really awful dinner party a few years ago with all the politicians. No, the last time he had been this far gone was Portsmouth . . .

He gulped the entire glass down, gasped at the burning pain in his chest, grabbed the bottle once more. And tried to forget, to deny, what he'd done.

He'd ruined things. He really had. This time, it'd be more than he could fix. Barbara would never forgive him. He'd betrayed her ­ made a mockery of her trust, her honor and her loyalty.

All for something that meant absolutely nothing to him.

She'd confronted him early that morning, asked for an explanation. And he'd had none. He still had no idea why he'd done ­ what he'd done. After minutes of silence, with her simply standing there waiting patiently for his response, that hurt look in her eyes ­ he'd turned. And run.

Yes, Horatio thought drunkenly, run. Me. The great Hornblower. Out of the room, the house ­ damn near out of the county. He'd never realized there were so many roads and fields to wander through near his home.

When he'd finally come back to the house hours later, exhausted, heart pounding from the unaccustomed exertion, he'd found his belongings moved to one of the guest bedrooms.

Horatio had stared blindly at the butler, then asked that the brandy be brought up to ­ his room. Where he'd remained, through tea, supper, past the retirement of every servant. Draining the bottle, then opening another, feeling the pain growing with every hour . . .

A day of firsts, Horatio mused drunkenly. First he ran, then he gave up a fight before it even started, then he drank himself into a stupor, and now ­ now he wished he could talk to a friend, ask someone for advice.

Although who did he have to ask? The great Hornblower wasn't supposed to need advice. Barbara had been the only one to whom he had turned in recent years. There was no one else. Horatio ­ didn't have many friends. Never had. Most of the people around him were there only for the advantage his name and position could give them. Those who really cared ­ were no more. Pellew ­ retired, distant from his protegee. Bracegirdle, long gone. Poor Matthews, dead two years. William . . . well, William had known him for so many years, but even he couldn't have helped.

There was only one person who could have understood, would have understood. Someone even closer than a brother, who always knew what he was thinking, understood what he couldn't always express.

And that someone too wasn't there, because of him.

Damnit, he needed him. Desperately needed someone, anyone, who could help fix this . . .

Closing his eyes, he took another deep drink. It was too late now, for himself and Barbara, for his friend, for so many things . . .

"It's not too late, Horatio."

Damn, he really had had too much to drink. Hearing voices now.

"You're not hearing voices."

Which meant the stress and the guilt were getting to him, and now he was ­

"Not going crazy either."

He really wished his brain would stop contradicting him.

Whack!

The force of the pillow hitting his head left him a bit dizzy.

"Damn, I knew you were prone to self-recrimination, but this is ridiculous."

Huh?

Slowly looking up, Horatio saw a figure standing before him. A compact form, dressed in a familiar lieutenant's uniform, topped with golden hair and a cheerful face. Lively blue eyes beamed down at him.

His mouth gaped open, but nothing came out.

"Horatio?"

It couldn't be.

"Horatio!"

It was.

"Archie?"

"That's right, Horatio," and the apparition smiled, gently.

"You're not real."

"The hell I'm not," the apparition declared in a defiant voice, a frown crossing its face as it leaned over him.

"You're ­ you're here?"

"Obviously," the apparition said wryly, "as I'm standing right before you."

Horatio raised a trembling hand to touch that face ­ that warm, beloved, face. "Oh dear god, you're alive!"

"Not exactly," an amused look accompanied by a crooked grin appeared on Archie's face.

And Horatio abruptly remembered . . . .

 

"Archie, I . . . I'm honored to have served with you."

"And I, to have known you."

That same look, same grin, answered the tentative smile on Horatio's face.

"You see? Better already."

Then a grimace of pain, a few gasps for breath and ­ nothing. Stillness on a face that was never blank, emptiness in eyes that never lacked emotion . . .

 

Horatio exploded out of his chair, grabbing the 'Archie's' arms in a viselike grip.

"Who the damn hell are you!"

"Horatio!" yelped Archie, trying vainly to pull Horatio's hands off his arms. "Let go of me ­ and it IS me!"

"This isn't funny, who put you up to this, you son of a -- "

WHACK!

Groaning, Horatio shook his head, trying to keep the brandy from dripping into his eyes. Confused, he looked down to see both his hands still firmly fastened to a now-fuming Archie's arms ­ and the remains of his glass lying at his feet.

"How?!"

"I can ­ manage to do some things now Horatio, that aren't exactly ­ normal."

"Wha--" Horatio gaped at Archie ­ who had, for a moment there, appeared to be glowing.

"Oh hell, I'm dead and a ghost and that means I don't have to touch things to move them," Archie said, having obviously decided that blurting out the facts just might stand a chance of getting Horatio to believe them.

"How?"

"I said -- "

"There are no such things as ghosts," Horatio interrupted, a wild look in his eyes. "Therefore, you are not a ghost and I repeat my original question which was WHO THE HELL ARE YOU!"

"Keep it down!" hissed Archie. "You want to wake the whole house up?"

"YES! If it'll get some answers as to who would dare --"

"Damn," Archie muttered, "you didn't used to be this thick." Then, realizing that Horatio had stopped speaking, and was staring at him in horror, "Uh, Horatio?"

Horatio didn't answer. He couldn't.

His eyes couldn't move from Archie's stomach, where the outline of a bloodstained bandage could be seen through the now-diaphanous uniform coat and shirt . . .

"Horatio, Horatio ­ breath!" Archie urged, pushing his unresisting friend back into the chair. The brandy bottle floated to his hand and he forced Horatio to drink.

"You're ­ really dead," Horatio said after a minute, clutching the bottle in one hand ­ and Archie's arm in the other, still staring at Archie's stomach, where the bandages had disappeared beneath a now-solid uniform.

"Yes, Horatio," Archie said softly, his eyes fixed on Horatio's face. After a moment, Horatio nodded, shifted his eyes to stare at the fire, tilted the bottle back up to his lips and drank deeply. Sighing, he lowered the bottle.

"Why didn't you come to me before, Archie?" Horatio said quietly, still gazing at the carpet. "I've been so alone, I needed you so much ­ I've made so many mistakes ­ not just the normal ones I make," which caused something that sounded like a snort of amusement from Archie, "but ­ I've hurt so many people. Barbara. Maria. My children ­ did you know I had children? And William ­ ah, damnit Archie, I got him killed just like --" Horatio's words abruptly ground to a halt, his eyes darting back to Archie's face.

"Like me," Archie said gently, settling down into the chair next to Horatio. "Only you didn't, Horatio. I know that now ­ " and he held up a hand to stop Horatio's objections. "Yes, I got in the way of the Capitan shooting you, my friend. But one of the nice things about being dead is ­ well, you understand the way some things are meant to happen. I was meant to be separated from you at that point Horatio ­ please believe me when I say that there are a lot worse things that could have happened to me had I not died. And I'm not referring to being hung for that confession." Seeing Horatio's face, Archie smiled and said, "You'll just have to trust me on this one, my friend."

"But then why now, Archie?" Horatio asked, trying through the fog of alcohol to understand. "Why after all this time can I suddenly see you?"

"Ah, well," Archie, uncharacteristically, stammered, refused to meet Horatio's eyes.

And Horatio suddenly remembered that growing pain he'd felt throughout the day . . .

"Oh, damn," Horatio said mournfully, "I'm dead, aren't I?"

To be continued . . .