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The Midnight Oil
by Maryanne

 

He looks so fragile, so pale. So unlike the man I know who can stand against anyone who dares to defy justice. And yet here he lies on a cot in the sick berth, bathed in the soft, gentle golden glow of the slow-burning oil lamps. The shadows flicker across his face, playing out across his features. I smile as I study my friend's features. A face so unlike my own, just as everything is between us. Neither one of us have anything in common, really. Yet here I am, sitting beside his cot, waiting for his fever to break and patiently trying to think of any way I can help him. He means so much to me. So very much...
I swallow a lump in my throat and stifle back a yawn for the hour is late and the night is growing deeper still. I know I must look terrible. My body feels familiarly worn and physically tired. My eyes feel raw and ready to burst from the pressure building behind them of too much stress and too few hours of sleep. But I can't sleep, not as long as this fever remains. I sigh and rub my temples gingerly. As I close my eyes, I can feel myself drifting slightly toward the tempting bliss of uninterrupted sleep. I almost want to succumb to it -- but I can't. Not quite. I need to be reassured that he's alright before I can truly rest.
I smile slightly, ruefully. I know were Horatio awake, he would reprimand me for staying up beside him this late. Then he would practically order me to go to bed and rest, in order to have a fresh start in the morning so that I may pass my lieutenant's exam. And, in a way, he would have a point, I muse. I have been long awaiting this test with great anticipation, preparing myself over the past month. Lord! Who can guess the countless hours I've spent studying for this exam, only to find out that my friend has been struck down by a small epidemic that we picked up back off the coast of Normandy.
He isn't the only one, either. More than twenty-five men and ten boys on board have been struck down by this same sickness. They are recovering fairly well, under Dr. Sebastian's very capable hands. Save one of the boys and two of the particularly serious cases from the crew. But, thankfully, Horatio isn't among the particularly serious cases. Still... I can't rest knowing that he's lying here like this in an uneasy sleep, a slight sheen of sweat glistening on his skin.
I snort suddenly, softly. Another smile pulls at the corners of my mouth as a wry but amusing thought occurs to me. It's astounding. After all the things Horatio has been through -- the Justinian, captaining prize ships, leading attack forces, commanding the plague ship, spending several months in a Spanish prison, losing his love, and nearly his life, at Muzillac -- he still falls prey to the simplest of things. Such as this epidemic, definitely not the worst the men of the Indefatigable have ever seen. He never ceases to amaze me.
I try to stifle another yawn and shake my head, trying to keep myself alert. But, oh, my eyes hurt. And I have the makings of a headache that would split open the world... I sigh tiredly and rest my eyes in my hands for a minute. I find my thoughts drifting back to my lieutenant's exam which I will be taking early tomorrow morning, hardly past the sun's rising. The admirals will be there. Admiral Lyon, Admiral Charleston. Sigh. Admiral Hammond.
I'm going to hate this. I'm dreading it already.
And what of all those hours under the lamplight in our cabin when Horatio would practically pepper me with questions for my test until my head would swim, demanding the right answers somehow, and expecting nothing less than perfection from me. I turn my gaze to study Horatio's face again, smiling fondly. If he had done as well in his exam as he expects me to do, I wonder why he had to take the test twice. He knows me, how hard I try to keep up to him. I shake my head. He tries so hard to make me see something in myself that isn't really there. Somehow he sees an Archie Kennedy who is courageous, strong, and a good officer.
If only he could see that I'm none of those things. No, he's truly the ideal officer, a perfect example to us all. I can't live up to that. Sometimes I have to wonder what he sees in me, what he always has seen in me. How can I tell him that he is wrong? I am not the man that he thinks I am. Just to look at me, my past. It was not bravery that made me cower to Simpson and let him walk all over me. I had given up fighting Jack until Horatio came to the Justinian. But he didn't give up. Not like me. And it wasn't anything wonderful about me that made me suddenly throw a fit in one of the most crucial battles of my commission and force my friend to knock me over the head to shut me up. I believe I shall live with that shameful experience for the rest of my life.
The watch bells chime in the distance, from above on the deck. I sit silently, listening for a moment to the pattern. It was the first round of the bells now, and three bells chiming in afterward, which told me that the time was approximately one-thirty in the morning. Lord, no wonder I'm tired! It's so late...
I take in a deep breath and let it out in a heaving, tired sigh. I am completely exhausted, but I have stayed the night up before, and I will again if necessary, until Horatio's fever breaks. I rest my face in my hands for another few minutes, closing my tired eyes for a short time, hopefully until they feel at least little better. Barely a minute later, I force my eyes open again at a slight sound from behind me in the sick berth. I turn to see where the sound is coming from. Barely a second later, I see one of the other sick men turn fitfully in his hammock.
Another thought occurs to me. Around so many sick men isn't the ideal place to spend the evening -- or early morning is fairly more accurate -- before taking the most important exam of my career thus far. I would really rather not become a carrier for an illness. Standard procedure for an epidemic is quarantine, but I have been in the midst of sick men ever since dinner this evening, when I was given permission to check on Horatio. And I am due to be in the midst of men who have likely never been exposed come sunrise tomorrow morning. As for myself, I am safe. I was exposed to and afflicted by a similar epidemic when I was quite young, so I am immune to it. Otherwise, Dr. Sebastian might not have allowed me to come and care for Horatio.
I know perhaps I'm thinking selfishly, for there are over twenty men in the sick berth now, sleeping fitfully under the watchful eye of the British navy's most talented doctor and the flickering, dim glow of the lamps. But, honestly, the only one who really concerns me is Horatio. I've heard of men who have never been exposed who have become fatally ill.
I turn back to study Horatio once more. He is lying, unmoving, on the cot, his face glinting with the sheen of perspiration that always marks a fever. A single, thick blanket is tucked up to his shoulders, and the look on his face is so very worn, yet not peaceful. I know only one normal blanket is usually issued for patients, there aren't that many in stock aboard the Indefatigable. But I happen to have a warm blanket that I had tucked away in my sea chest that I use in the winter when it snows at sea. I figure I couldn't have found a better way to use it. The blanket he had had before my visit to the sick berth I gave to one young boy who had been shivering, on top of his other one. He was one of the worse victims of the fever.
Slowly, gently, I reach out my hand to almost brush Horatio's forehead. Yet I can't quite find the strength in myself to touch him. He looks so tired, so physically worn, and I don't want to disturb him. I pause for another moment, a tender smile touching my lips, then gently brush back that one familiar lock of curly dark hair from his forehead, the one that seems never to turn out combed, no matter what he does to it. My fingers stroke lightly over his forehead, feeling for the temperature. I so hope, wishfully, that his fever will die down. The longer it stays, the more it worries me.
But as my fingertips touch his skin, it feels... cooler. It is still warm, as the room is quite warm tonight, but he himself feels cool, reassuringly so. I touch his throat now, then his prominent cheekbones, both still a little warm, but far more improved than they had been. I close my eyes and let out a sigh of relief, letting my fingers fiddle with the smooth, silver charm on the ribbon in my other palm and whispering a prayer to a God that I'm not always sure exists but somehow seems to perform miracles for me.
The adrenaline that comes after exhaustion when going without sleep is beginning to trickle into my system. I am feeling slightly more awake now. Still tired and ready to fall asleep where I sit, but awake enough to think straight. I let my eyes remain closed for several minutes, one hand resting on the edge of Horatio's cot, the other playing with the medal. I just run my thumb over the smooth surface, feeling it cool and somehow comforting in my hand. It is a religious medal, Catholic. Dr. Sebastian gave it to me almost four months ago. It's comfortably sized, its ovoid shape polished smooth. A picture is etched delicately into the silver, the portrait of a beautiful woman saint. St. Adelaide.
A hand lightly touches mine, and my thoughts are lost. My eyes snap open in sudden startlement and I turn to look down at Horatio on the cot beside me, his hand over mine. I blink in surprise, then I can feel my features soften in a smile. I meet a pair of warm, tiredly blurred, dark brown eyes and he manages a fragile smile back at me. He has never appeared more tired, yet strong to me. Words come before I even think about them. "How are you feeling?"
Horatio closes his eyes and smiles a little more genuinely this time. "Tired," he says to me softly. The warm brown eyes open to meet mine again. "But better. How did you come in here? The men in a sick area are under quarantine regulations."
I snort quietly, not suppressing my rueful amusement. "Hang regulations. I was worried about you," I tell him in my down-to-the-point way. He smiles gently, a soft light suddenly appearing in his eyes. I can see it in him.
"That always was your way, to place lives in front of regulation. I suppose it's my way as well," he notes thoughtfully, yet sounding sleepy at the same time. As am I. "What time is it?" he asks me suddenly, and I hesitate.
"First two bells," I whisper back after several moments of silence.
"Day?"
"Monday -- no, Tuesday. Now hush and please try to rest." I have to protest at the questions with which he is peppering me. It is not as though I am not sympathetic, (for even I am always asking the time and date whenever I wake up in the sick berth) but this early in the morning is really hardly the time to be awake and thinking on such things.
Horatio relaxes and closes his eyes, his hand still resting on mine. "Archie, it's too late for you to be up. Go to bed, I'm fine." I give him my classic stubborn look, and he knows better than to try and convince a Kennedy. Or, I would imagine that he knows better. Apparently not. "You have your lieutenant's exam tomorrow, don't you?" he continues. I have to give him credit for his tenacity, even when he is tired.
I can't hold back a yawn and nod slowly. The urge to go back to our cabin and take what precious few hours of sleep I can is quite tempting. At least Horatio's fever went down, that's reassuring to know. I sigh and nod slowly. "You're right," I admit and cover my aching eyes with my hand again tiredly. Then my head comes up to look at him again. "I suppose you'll last the night without me. The fever's almost gone."
Clutching the silver medallion in my palm, I rise to my feet and wince as I try to stretch out the cramps that sitting in the same chair for that many hours never fails to give me. I reach over and meet Horatio's eyes one last time as we trade smiles. Then I walk to the door and halt before opening it. His voice stops me, soft and barely audible and I turn.
"Goodnight, Archie," he whispers.
I never know exactly how much or what I want to say at a moment such as this. I hear my own words escaping my lips before I even think about them. "Goodnight, H'ratio."
"Archie?"
"Yes?"
There is a pause then, "What are the navigational plotting methods of sailing to the British Isles?" Horatio quizzes me, sounding barely even awake. I grin, fully satisfied, and I give him the answer.

THE END