A Life of Duty - Cleveland, alone
by Sue N.

Cleveland had no idea what was driving him below, except that, after
so many weeks of having endured the resentful, accusing glances of
his shipmates, the kindness in Mr. Bracegirdle's eyes had been too
painful to bear. Too much a reminder of what he had once had, of what
he had lost...

Yet now he had no idea where to go. To the midshipmen's mess? No,
still too many lads there,, and doubtless that dreadful silence when
he entered... And it would be the same in the gunroom...

Hardly knowing he did so, he made his way to the wardroom,
instinctively knowing it would be empty. Mr. Bracegirdle and Bowles
were above, and Archie...

A hard, sharp twinge gripped his gut at that. Archie. God, his had to
be the most unbearable gaze, the most accusing presence, of all! Not
that he had ever said anything. He wouldn't. Not Actin'-Leftenant,
son-of-an-earl, Horatio's-best-friend Kennedy. It wouldn't be proper.
But he didn't have to say anything; not in words. Not when his eyes,
themselves like wounds, said it for him...

He dropped wearily onto the bench and propped one elbow on the table,
cupping his chin in his hand and staring morosely at nothing. And,
try as he might, he could not free himself of the image of two dark
blue eyes boring into him, staring holes through him, blaming him,
damning him...

Hating him.

Cleveland grimaced deeply and covered his eyes with a hand. There had
been a time, once, when he would have considered it impossible for
Kennedy to hate anyone. In their very earliest days together in
Justinian, when they had all been boys, children really, puffed up
with their own importance as midshipmen and full of the high-spirits
of youth. They had all laughed so freely back then, had beenñ
friends?

No, his mind whispered, not friends. Not really. The differences
between them were far too great, too deep, even for youthful
enthusiasm to bridge. Kennedy was an earl's son, born of wealth and
privilege, and it told in everything from his conversation to the way
he cut his meat. He had never been wholly comfortable with the
rougher ways of a mate whose father had worked in a counting house
and whose mum had taken in sewing to help bring in money, and who had
no more notion of a night at the theatre or opera than he had of an
evening at court.

No, they had never been friends. Not really. At best, they were
cordial. And even that had grown strained when Jack had begun playing
hell with their lives...

But, God! what had given Kennedy, his little lordship, the right to
sit in judgment upon him? Cleveland smacked the table with two hands,
then thrust himself to his feet and began pacing as the old anger
boiled up once again. Yes, he had laughed at Jack's jokes; yes, he
had assisted the bastard in those vile "inquisitions" of his; yes, he
had gone along with deeds that made him squeamish just to remember.
But how could he not? Jack had held the power of life and death, of
heaven or hell, over them all. And life was much easier as one of the
Devil's minions than as one of his victims. They'd all seen what
happened to those who dared cross Jack, and they'd all learned their
lessons well.

Except for Kennedy. Cleveland scowled and shook his head tightly. No,
Kennedy had been too good for that sort of thing, hadn't wanted to
dirty those elegant hands. And what had it gotten him? Nights spent
whimpering like a child, huddling and sobbing brokenly in shadows,
awakening screaming from nightmares or waking them all with one of
those damned fitsñ

Those fits. Cleveland felt a faint twinge of the old disgust and
tried to smother it, but could not. He had heard it was those fits
that had got Kennedy exiled to the Navy, that his father had wanted
nothing to do with a son who had fits. A flaw in the breeding, some
taint in the bloodline. And a weakness that made his little lordship
a bit less grand than he would have liked. What place in the Navy was
there for an officer who had fits?

But Kennedy had made a place. Or a place had been made for him. Mr.
Midshipman Kennedy was now Actin'-Leftenant Kennedy. Cleveland's lip
curled in resentment. God, how had that happened? Because he was an
earl's son? Or because he was Horatio's best friend? The best friend
of the favoured son. Wasn't that how things worked in the Navy?
Interest, influence, ties. Everyone knew how Pellew felt about
Hornblower, and everybody knew how Hornblower felt about Kennedy.

What did it matter that he'd had a fit on that cutting-out mission
and put them all at risk? What did it matter that he'd been captured,
thrown in prison and left to rot there for two years? It was said he
was nearly mad when Horatio had found him, that he'd even tried to
kill himself. And still he had those damned fits...

How did a man, a weakling, like that rate being made
acting-lieutenant? He'd been gone, in prison, for two years, while
others... while he, Cleveland... had been right here, doing his duty,
carrying out every order, waiting patiently for someone to notice...

But how could anyone get noticed with Horatio always there, always
outshining the rest, always brilliant, always perfect, always the
favoured son...

Horatio...

He flinched violently and bowed his head, closing his eyes tightly,
trying not to see Hornblower's body jerk, then fall, trying not to
see the blood running into the wet sand, trying not to know it should
have been him, and not Horatio, to have stayed behind on that beach...

To have stayed, or been left? "You left him there?"

He still wasn't certain whether Kennedy had actually voiced the
question, the accusation, or if had only been shouted by his eyes. He
exhaled unsteadily and covered his own eyes with a trembling hand. He
had left him... But what else could he have done? He had a duty to his
men, was responsible for getting them back to the ship alive...

"You left him there?"

Bloody hell, yes, I left him there! He was dead! DEAD! And I...

...was not...

And so Kennedy had gone back for him. Wounded himself, and now
wounded in a way no one else could possibly understand, he had gone
back to that beach for a dead man. To bring the favoured son home...
The weakling earl's son who had nightmares and fits and who still
jumped at shadows had gone back to the beach, had knelt in his best
friend's blood...

...and had brought him home. At what cost? Another piece of his soul?
How much could he have left, now? And what good could he possibly be
without Horatio? Everyone knew it was only because of Horatio that he
was still alive, still sane, if sane he could be called. Horatio's
friendship had been like a line thrown to a drowning man. With that
line severed, how much longer could Kennedy stay afloat?

And when he went under, how many of them would he take with him?

Cleveland lifted his head and ran a hand over his face. Horatio's
death had hurt them all, but it had crippled Kennedy. Was he the only
one who could see that? He, at least, was whole. So why should they
shun him and keep the cripple in their midst? Was it out of loyalty
to Horatio?

But Horatio is dead and I...

"You left him there?"

...am not...

"You left him there?"

Oh, God...

"Sir, I regret to inform you..."

"You left him there?"

"...Leftenant Hornblower..."

Merciful God...

"You left him there?"

"...is dead..."

He collapsed onto the bench and fell, sobbing, against the table.

"You left him there?"

"...is dead..."

Sweet Jesus, why couldn't it have been me?