Ship of the Damned, Epilogue
by Sue N.


Horatio sat in his customary place at Archie's side, cradling a bowl
in his hands and trying to persuade him to eat. Some two weeks had
passed, and he was gradually regaining his strength. But with that
strength came his stubbornness, which Horatio was now finding a
confounded nuisance.

"Archie, you must eat," he insisted for what had to be the tenth
time. "It is the only way you will get better!"

Archie eyed the bowl -- and its wholly unappetizing contents -- with
deep disgust. "That swill could not possibly make me better!"

Horatio sighed with a strained patience. "Now, look here," he said
slowly, carefully measuring his words, "this 'swill' is all you are
capable of eating at present--"

"What makes you think anyone could ever be capable of eating THAT?"
Archie demanded. "Have you tried?"

Horatio pursed his lips, counted to ten, then said, "I am not the one
who is ill--"

"Coward," Archie accused, his blue eyes bright in his pale face.

"Archie--"

"You haven't tasted it, have you?"

"ARCHIE--"

"Go on. I will eat it, if you will join me."

Horatio stared at his friend in frustration. "I could order you--"

"You could," he agreed, with a maddening smile. "But you won't.
Because you know I'm right."

Horatio clenched his teeth and exhaled sharply. "I know nothing of
the kind--"

"Then taste it," Archie challenged. "Prove to me I am wrong."

Horatio ran a hand over his face, but knew he had no choice. Archie
had taken four bites so far, and had refused to take a single one
more. He was still so weak, and needed nourishment to recover--

But, damn, he was stubborn!

"Oh, very well!" he agreed impatiently, reaching to retrieve the fork
from his own empty plate. "Just to prove you wrong!" With grim
determination, he plunged the fork into the thick, whitish stuff and
brought a bite into his mouth, certain it could not be as bad as
Archie made out. The moment it passed his lips and hit his tongue,
however, his face gave him away, and Archie broke into triumphant
laughter.

"There, you see?" he crowed, his blue eyes alight with glee. "I was
right-- Oh!" he groaned, clutching at his stomach as he laughed. "It
hurts--" Horatio could neither swallow nor, in dignity, spit it out,
and Archie laughed all the harder at his friend's predicament. "And
you would inflict that on a sick man? Oh, God, Horatio, do SOMETHING
with it! Your face-- It hurts too much to laugh!"

Heedless now of his dignity, Horatio leaned over and spat the foul
stuff out, convinced the cook had reached a new low with this latest
effort. "God, that IS awful!" he rasped. He wiped his mouth, but
could not get the terrible taste out of his mouth. "All right, you
win! If I bring you something else, will you eat?"

Archie lay back and eyed him warily. "Possibly."

"Please?" Horatio wheedled, desperate to get something -- anything --
down his stubborn friend.

"If it is half decent," he sighed, feeling a resurence of the deep
weariness that was never long absent, "I will try."

Horatio smiled in relief. "I will see what the officers' mess has
left. Meanwhile," he studied the lines of weariness etched into that
wan face, "try to rest, will you? I will not be long, I promise."

Archie nodded, his eyes already closing, his frail strength ebbing.
If only he weren't always so tired...

Horatio watched as sleep claimed him, then rose to his feet, carrying
his empty plate and the bowl he would throw over the side as quickly
as he could. He owed Archie an apology for that one...

Archie's sleep was a light, dreamless one, and he was roused from it
by the quiet scraping of the stool against the deck. Supposing that
Horatio had returned, he opened his eyes and turned his head, and was
surprised to see Captain Pellew in Horatio's place. Instinctively, he
started to rise.

"No, no, Mr. Kennedy," Pellew said quickly, reaching out to place a
gentle, restraining hand on the young man's shoulder, "at your ease."

"Sir," Archie breathed. "I'm sorry, I thought--"

"That I was Mr. Hornblower, I would imagine." At Kennedy's startled
expression, Pellew laughed quietly. "I met him on my way down. He
explained about your... meal."

"Oh, God, sir, it was awful!" Archie said with a grimace. "I mean, I
know we are not supposed to complain about our rations, but--"

"Nonsense," Pellew contradicted, his dark eyes gleaming with humour.
"It is the immortal custom of the Navy to complain about the food.
And I must admit, that particular dish appeared, well, quite
deserving of complaint. Any idea what it was?"

"None, sir," Archie answered, smiling slightly, his blue eyes filled
with mischief. "And it seemed rather cruel to inflict it upon a sick
man, then claim it was for his own good!"

"Hm, yes," Pellew agreed. "Rather like the tonics their nurse at home
gives my children. My oldest son regularly insists he would rather
have the sickness than the cure!"

Archie laughed, then stiffened and inhaled sharply as another twinge
of pain shot through him. The wounds in his stomach were proving the
slowest to heal.

Still, despite the pain it clearly caused him, Pellew was deeply
grateful to hear the young man laughing again. He had feared the
horrors of Resolute and the mutiny would permanently scar and darken
Kennedy's spirit, and was immensely relieved they had not. Yet he
could not help but marvel at the resilience of that spirit, knew it
would stand the lad in good stead in the difficult days that still
lay ahead.

"We are perhaps a week from Gibraltar," he said, watching Kennedy
closely. The blue eyes perhaps darkened a bit, but, otherwise, the
young man appeared composed. "You know there will be an enquiry
into... what happened."

"You mean the mutiny, sir," Archie said softly, managing not to
flinch at the word. But his eyes were wide, and his face seemed to
grow paler still. That night had become a fixture in his dreams...

Pellew felt a rush of sympathy at the young man's obvious distress.
"I know it will be difficult for you," he said quietly, "and I wish I
could spare you. But I cannot."

"I know, sir," Archie whispered, bowing his head and staring fixedly
at his hands. "It is my duty. What they did... cannot be condoned...
They will hang, won't they, sir?"

Pellew sighed and frowned deeply. "Some will, undoubtedly," he
answered in a low voice. "And some undoubtedly deserve to, for what
they did. You should know that better than anyone."

Archie swallowed and nodded tightly, still staring unblinkingly at
his hands. "And yet I cannot bring myself to hate them," he murmured.

Pellew regarded the young man for long moments, saw the sick pallor
that still clung to him, the bandages that still swathed his body,
the deep bruises that only now were fading, and remembered how he had
looked when first they had brought him out of that ship, how thin had
been the thread that held him to this life.

"Then, Mr. Kennedy," he said quietly, "you are a better man than
most. And I admire you for it."

Archie looked up sharply at that, shocked, his eyes wide. "Sir?"

Pellew smiled slightly, sadly at him. "Yours was an impossible task,
Mr. Kennedy. Resolute was lost from the start, I know that now. I
only wish I had known it before I sent you into her."

"You did not send me, sir," Archie reminded him. "I agreed to go."

"True," Pellew agreed. "And I remember thinking at the time what a
remarkable decision it was. Yet now I see it was all of a piece with
the character you showed in Resolute." He collected Kennedy's
startled gaze with his own and held it, refusing to let the lad look
away. "Your conduct in that ship, sir," he said softly, fervently,
"was as honourable and as courageous as any I have ever known! It
showed us all what it means to be an officer in His Majesty's Navy,
and I am honoured, deeply honoured, Mr. Kennedy, to count you among
my officers."

Archie's throat constricted sharply at that, and his heart hammered
heavily against his ribs. He could not speak for long moments, and
was horrified to feel tears sting his eyes.

"For a brief moment," Pellew went on, his voice still soft, still
deep with feeling, "those poor men had an officer who truly cared
about them, who was prepared to sacrifice everything for them. And I
pray God those who do not hang will remember what that was like, and
will profit from it. It is a rare thing, indeed."

"And yet we have it here, sir," Archie breathed as a single tear slid
down his cheek. "In you." He wiped at the tear with his good hand,
gazing all the while at his captain. "I have been told what you did
for me when-- when Mr. Thorne-- tried to kill me. It cannot have been
easy for you, and I am in your debt."

Pellew arched two brows. "Given the choice between killing Mr. Thorne
or allowing him to kill you," he said, "it was quite easy. I regret
that I had to do it, that matters came to such a deplorable pass, but
I do not for a moment regret what I did." He leaned forward, his
intense dark gaze again capturing Kennedy's. "You are far too
valuable an officer to lose, Mr. Kennedy," he said firmly. "I know
you harbour doubts about yourself, about your abilities, and I know
you sometimes consider yourself... impaired... by a certain...
disorder..."

Archie turned his head away and closed his eyes tightly, gripped by a
sudden, sick hurt. This was the closest the captain had ever come to
admitting he knew about the fits, and it shamed him almost beyond
bearing.

Grieved by the young man's pain and humiliation, Pellew reached out
and placed a gentle, fatherly hand under his chin, turning his head.
At that touch, Kennedy's eyes flew open in instinctive alarm, and
Pellew smiled into them. "I want you to listen to me," he instructed
quietly, speaking almost as he would to one of his own sons. "You
have nothing for which to reproach yourself, no cause to feel
ashamed. What you did in Resolute should certainly lay to rest any
doubts you might have about your abilities as an officer." He saw a
shadow of disbelief in those eyes, and sighed. "We all have our flaws
and our failings, Mr. Kennedy, our weaknesses, whether in mind, soul
or body. We are, God help us, none of us perfect. And yet, it is most
often in our struggles to overcome those weaknesses, those flaws,
that we show our greatest strengths. And whatever weaknesses plague
you, sir, I can honestly say they are not to be found in your
character. And that is, I believe, an officer's greatest asset."

Archie stared hard at Pellew, clutching those words tightly to him,
wanting desperately to believe him. But it was so hard...

Pellew dropped his hand and sat back, still with that slight,
comforting smile. "You have come a long way, Mr. Kennedy, and endured
much along that way. And while what happened in Resolute should never
have been added to the crosses you have had to bear, it has, and we
cannot change that. But I see in you the strength to overcome that,
as you have overcome so much else. If you will only give yourself the
time, and the patience, I believe you may see it, too. I
underestimated you once before, and for that I apologize. But I
assure you, sir, it will not happen again. You are a fine young man,
Lieutenant Kennedy, and a credit to this ship, and to the Service."

"Thank you, sir," Archie whispered, both awed and humbled by the
words. "I shall... certainly endeavour not to disappoint you."

"I am glad to hear it." His gaze swept again over the pale and
obviously exhausted young man, and his paternal instincts rose to the
fore. Reaching out, he gently pulled the blankets up and tucked them
about him. "For now, though," he said quietly, "merely rest, and let
yourself recover. We have another week until Gibraltar. Take the time
to let yourself heal."

Archie nodded and tried to speak. But his eyes were closing of their
own accord, and weariness drowned out his voice. Before he knew it,
before he could help it, he was asleep.

Pellew watched him a while longer, wanting to be sure he slept. Then,
when satisfied, he rose to his feet and walked quietly away. Only
when he was certain Kennedy would not be disturbed did he turn and
murmur, "Rest well, lad."

Archie did. And, for the first time in weeks, the shadow of Resolute
did not come to darken his dreams.

*****THE END*****