A Life of Duty: Styles
by Sue N.

WARNING: DEATHFIC! He's dead, Jim! You get his phaser, I'll get his
wallet! Oh, sorry, wrong show... But, yes, someone is dead. And it's
probably the last person you'd expect to die! (Just remember, I'm not
the one who killed him. File all complaints with Fubsycations)



He sat alone in the maintop, silent and unmoving, and stared blindly at
the vast, black expanse of star-flecked sky, his heart gone dead within
him.

No, not dead, for that would imply there was no pain, when pain there
was, and it very nearly unbearable.

"Sir. I regret to inform you that Lieutenant Hornblower is dead." Again
-- and again and again -- Mr. Cleveland's halting words in that torn
voice came back to him, plunging the blade into his soul once more.
Lieutenant Hornblower is dead...

Ah, God, how could he be dead? his mind groaned in anguish. I saw him,
talked with him -- he was there, with me, every bit as much alive as I!

Except that he hadn't been, because I saw him dead... washed the blood
from his breast... helped the lads dress him and sew him into that
sheet...

Lieutenant Hornblower is dead.

"Nooo!" The word tore from in a harsh cry of raw and primal pain, a cry
that had its start in his clenching gut and twisted upward in a
wrenching wave of torment, wringing at his soul before finally pouring
from him in a ragged, shapeless howl. His face, untouched by them for
so many years, was now wet with tears that he was powerless to stop,
and his powerful body shook with heavy, convulsive sobs. No, it
couldn't be; it couldn't! But it was...

And for what? Had that damned signal tower been worth the price? The
Frogs, God damn them, would have it rebuilt soon enough. Would someone
else be sent in to bring it down? How many times, how many men...

Lieutenant Hornblower is dead.

The words scourged his mind and lacerated his soul, dealing a more
crippling agony than any cat-o'-nine could. Floggings, he'd known;
floggings aplenty. But never anything like this! And why? Why? WHY?

In all the years since he'd been pressed -- how many, now? ten?
fifteen? too many to remember -- he'd known officers, aye, known his
share, good ones and bad ones and all in between. There'd been more
than a few not worth puking on, some he'd've gladly killed if he had
thought he could do it and escape hanging--

Mr. Simpson. Aye, he'd been a rare, bloody bastard, vicious and cruel,
with mind and heart as black as pitch. He'd taken pleasure in torturing
the other mids on Justinian, and had forced the men of his division to
help. And after so long under Mr. Simpson's command, Styles himself had
grown too calloused -- too deadened -- to care.

"You're a brute, Styles," Simpson had once sneered at him, "a stupid,
hulking animal that serves no useful purpose unless I choose to give
you one. So do as I say, and you will have an easier time of it.
Disobey me, and I shall see you hang."

And so he'd allowed the bastard to drain the last dregs of his pride,
his humanity, and make him into the animal Simpson had said he was. And
why not? What did it matter? So long as he did as he was told, that's
all the officers cared about. Until Mr. Hornblower had come along...

Lieutenant Hornblower is dead.

He groaned harshly and dropped his head into large, shaking hands,
closing his eyes tightly and covering his ears as if to block out those
hideous words. How could Mr. Hornblower be dead, and himself, here,
still alive, when it was Mr. Hornblower who had given him this life?
For the first time, an officer had treated him as a man rather than an
animal, a man who could think and learn and do, a man who had measure
and merit and worth-- Oh, God, how could that be gone, and him not be
gone with it? He had finally found an officer, a man, worth following,
worth trusting worth caring about, and now... now...

Lieutenant Hornblower is dead.

The sobs tore from him in hard, harsh gasps, shaking his entire body
with their force. He no longer cared who might hear, might see, no
longer cared about anything except the young man they had pitched into
the sea. Oh, God, it should have been him!

"No, Styles," said a quiet voice behind him. "All is as it was meant to
be."

The voice quieted his sobs as nothing else could have, sent a hard jolt
through him. Sniffing and wiping a sleeve across his wet face, he
turned slowly about and looked up, blinking at the tall, thin figure
framed in the moonlight. He was hard to see, at first, little more than
a trick of the light, but slowly his form became clearer. His hair --
familiar mop of curls and long queue -- was utterly still despite the
wind, his white shirt marked by a dark stain at his breast, one
translucent hand curled lightly about the mast. He was utterly at ease
up here, something he'd never been before, his deep, dark eyes
tranquil, his wide mouth smiling slightly.

"Sir? Mr. 'ornblower?" Styles whispered unsteadily, rising slowly to
his feet. "I-- I don't-- Oh, sir, you shouldn't 'ave left us!"

"I never wanted to, Styles, I assure you," Hornblower said gently. "But
we all have certain duties to perform, and we cannot shirk them simply
because they are not what we wanted. You should know that as well as
I."

Styles shook his head slowly, his damp, scarred face contorting into a
mask of pain. "I don't want no part of it-- "

"I don't believe that," the young man said, his gaze never wavering
from the man in front of him. "You cannot go back to what you were
before, Styles. You can never go back. That man is gone forever. You
have learned far too much to go back that way again."

Styles let his gaze drift toward the star-strewn sky. "I can't-- "

"You must! That is why I am here. There is one more duty I require of
you."

He dragged his gaze back to that ghostly figure and shuddered in spite
of himself. "Please, sir, don't-- don't order me-- "

"I am not ordering," Hornblower said quietly. "I am asking. I cannot
give you orders, now. You must decide for yourself."

"Decide what?" he whispered, strangely calmed by the familiar presence,
as he had been so many times before.

"I want you to look after Mr. Kennedy for me," Hornblower said. "I want
you to help him become the officer we both know he can be."

Styles frowned, confused. "Me? Why me, sir? Why not-- "

"Matthews?" Hornblower smiled. "Oh, he will do his part, I have no
doubt. He cannot help it. He has a teacher's soul. But I want you to
help him in particular because you are so much alike."

Styles laughed aloud at the ridiculous statement. "I thought you were
shot in the 'eart, not the 'ead! Mr. Kennedy and me-- we're not at all
alike-- "

"Yes, you are," Hornblower said with a quiet assurance. "You both know
what it is to be counted out, to be treated as less than you are, to be
considered risks and worse. You both know what it is to fall, to fail,
and to struggle with getting up again when it would be so much easier
simply to stay down. But most of all, Styles, he needs to be trusted,
and you need to trust. Neither of you has much experience at either."

"Sir-- "

"Help him, Styles, please! And let him help you. You are good men, and
I have been so proud of both of you! And I have learned so much from
both of you. Please, Styles, will you do this for me? Will you help Mr.
Kennedy become the lieutenant, the officer, he can and wants to be?
Will you look after him for me?"

A slight smile touched Styles' mouth. "I threw 'orse shït on 'is boots
at Muzillac."

Hornblower laughed softly, and it was the sound of the sighing wind.
"And he's forgiven you. He's survived far worse than that, you know."

"I know, sir. Because you 'elped íim-- "

"No. Because he helped himself. Just as you have helped yourself. I've
only lent a hand here and there. It's the two of you who've done the
hard work. You are both stronger and better than you know. I merely
want you to help each other see that."

"'e's a good man," Styles said with a shrug. "I mean, 'e's not like
you-- "

"You are not like Matthews. Yet the Indy -- and Archie -- needs you
both."

Styles grinned. "Well, at least 'is jokes are better than yours. No
offense, sir!"

Hornblower grinned in return. "None taken."

Styles again wiped his sleeve across his face, then placed his hands on
his hips and nodded. "I'll see what I can do, sir."

Hornblower nodded and smiled. "Good. I knew I could depend upon you. As
I always have. You're a good man, Styles. It has been an honour to
serve with you."

Styles drew himself up a bit straighter, then raised a knuckle to his
forehead. "It's been an honour AND a pleasure, sir. And don't worry
about Mr. Kennedy -- I'll look after 'im for you-- Sir?î

He took a step forward, frowning deeply. Between one moment and the
next, the figure before him turned and then vanished, a brief gleam of
light gone dark. Styles was tempted to reach out, but knew better.
There would be nothing there.

Lieutenant Hornblower was dead.

And he, Styles, was alive.

And Mr. Kennedy was waiting.

The End