Salus
by Victoria

Kennedy didn't have long.

Lieutenant Bush could hear the rhythm of his breathing across the
cell, indeed, had listened to it steadily for the better part of a
week. It wasn't as though there was much else that he would care to
listen to, really. Neither of them felt particularly inclined to
speak, for words brought pain, deep and thick and throbbing through
the body like cannon fire through the hull of a ship. The heavy
tropical air carried other sounds that were strange, almost unreal,
like the calling of the vivid nightmare-colored birds and the
rustling of unseen animals in the underbrush. The flies buzzed
relentlessly, but that was the sound of mortality, of death and
decay, and thus the sound he least wanted to hear. So the sound he
listened to - the only sound he was willing to acknowledge hearing -
was the steady, pained inhalation and exhalation from the other cot.

The question, though, was how much longer that rhythm would
continue. Bush refused to allow the comforting illusion that it
would be indefinite, and he doubted even Kennedy himself would
harbour such easy, ridiculous lies. No, Kennedy knew better than he,
better than Dr. Clive even the harsh realities of his wound. His
breathing was more shallow, the tiny hitches from pain more frequent,
the ominous buzzing of the flies louder. Kennedy had to know, just
as Bush knew, that the pistol ball had not wounded him. It had
killed him.

Even now, there was a definite change in the sound of his breathing.
It was slower, more deliberate, as if he were gathering up a last few
lungfuls of air. Was he preparing to finally let go? There was the
rustle of movement against the sweaty sheets, and Bush turned his
head, surprised. Until now, the only times Kennedy had moved more
than his head were when the Doctor told him to, or when Mr.
Hornblower came.

The younger man held his body rigidly, his back straight, his palms
pressed flat into the mattress beside him. His lips were thin and
white, his eyes squeezed tightly shut as his chin jutted towards the
ceiling. Air slipped between his lips with remarkable steadiness, and
Bush slowly turned away again. Clearly, Kennedy was fighting the
inevitable, but it he knew it would be futile. Best to let the poor
lad die in peace.

There was one more breath, deep and slow, but Kennedy did not fall
silent. Instead, he spoke. His voice was weak and low, but the words
were clear. "Mr. Bushwill you please call Dr. Cliveand ask him to
bring my uniform."

"Your uniform?" Unable to believe his ears, he pushed himself up on
one elbow, ignoring the cry of protest from his own wounds.

Kennedy still lay motionless, his face still resolutely towards the
ceiling, eyes still clamped shut. "My dress uniform, if you would,
please. I would ask myself, but I fearI fear I lackvolume."

"Why in God's name do you need a uniform?"

As suddenly as if a noose had been tightened, the youthful face
snapped to the side, staring straight at him. The intensity, the
sheer animal desperation in the blue eyes was like a physical blow,
and Bush drew back. "Just ask. Please. My uniform. My dress
uniform." A droplet of sweat rolled down one pallid, fever-patched
cheek, as though his face were weeping what his eyes refused.

He nodded carefully, unable to quite believe the mysterious
conviction he was facing. "All right, Mr. Kennedy, don't exhaust
yourself."

There was a sigh, and Kennedy suddenly relaxed, sinking deep into the
mattress, his eyes closing again as his body seemed to fold in on
itself. Perhaps he had fainted, or even fallen into a fevered sleep,
but somehow Bush didn't think so. He was simply saving himself,
saving himself for whatever he wanted to do with his uniform. Did he
simply want to die in it? He had heard of similar things, of retired
soldiers and sailors asking to be buried in their old uniforms.
Possibly Kennedy sensed himself dying and wanted to depart fully
appointed as a Lieutenant in His Majesty's Royal Navy. Surely, there
was nothing wrong with that.

He pushed himself to a sitting position, "Marine!" The guard's face
appeared at the door, and Bush assumed his most commanding
tone. "Fetch Dr. Clive at once, and instruct him to bring Mr.
Kennedy's dress uniform. Tell him that it is extremely important.
Go!" The face vanished. He waited a moment to make sure that the
guard had obeyed his instructions, but his chest throbbed wickedly,
and the room began to swim before his eyes.

Slowly, trying not to aggravate the slashes any further, he lowered
himself back to the bed, breathing hard. He blinked twice,
swallowing hard to belay the sense of nausea that was beginning to
threaten. Sitting up had been well enough. He had done that before -
if carefully attended, it didn't pull too hard on the stitching -
but shouting was more than he should have done, and his body was
reminding him of it in no uncertain terms.

"Thank you, Mr. Bush."

He didn't turn. "You are welcome." Then there was silence again,
broken only by the buzz of the flies and the sounds of two men
breathing - one evenly and almost too slowly, the other clipped and
hard. He wasn't certain how long they lay there before the footsteps
sounded down the corridor, accompanied by Clive's rugged tones
demanding that the young guard explain exactly why Mr. Bush would
have made such an odd request.

Taking care not to anger his wounds again, Bush sat up to greet the
Doctor, who, thankfully, carried a bundle of dark blue and white wool
over one arm. His face was set in angry confusion, and Bush could
already see a slight flush to his cheeks that seemed to have nothing
to do with the Kingston heat. The stress of the trial must have
called him to the flask early. "Dr. Clive."

"What's going on, Mr. Bush? Mr. Kennedy?" He scanned the room, as if
expecting an ambush from the two wounded men. Bush almost laughed at
the suspicion in the old man's eyes. Like this, away from Sawyer's
maddened authority, it seemed rather silly.

"I require my uniform, Doctor." The strength of Kennedy's voice
surprised him. It was clear now what he had been saving his energy
for, and Bush had to admit that it was a truly masterful
performance. The young Lieutenant raised himself up on his elbows
without the slightest waver, staring steadily at the Doctor, his
voice clear and full. "I will be attending the trial today."

For a few seconds, they locked eyes, then Clive turned away, moving
brusquely towards the door. "You'll do no such thing. I'm getting you
some more medicine, boy, you're delirious."

"Do you really hate him that much, Doctor? Does he deserve to die?"
The words froze Clive in his tracks. Kennedy was sitting fully
upright now, the short, panting rhythm to his breathing the only sign
of the pain that must have been raging at the movement. "There were
four men in that hold. Don't you think at least one should survive?"

Bloody hell. Bush felt as though someone had just tipped a bucket of
ice over his head. Kennedy wanted to do it. He was going to take
the blame and hang for it.

The thought was staggering, though the question of guilt or innocence
never crossed his mind. It didn't matter, really. The tribunal had
its scapegoat already in Hornblower, and they would not be deprived
of their blood sport. Someone would hang for what they had all
done. For a moment, he was tempted to protest, but he realized that
through his own morbid logic, Kennedy had found the only solution to
this black mess. Too many had died - all good men - and if a dying
man could manage a single survivor out of the tragedy of the Renown,
it was an act to be saluted, not prohibited.

Clive did not turn, said nothing, but the gray-wigged head bowed
slightly, and Kennedy pressed on. "I'm not asking you to say
anything. Just give me my uniform, and come with me" Now Clive did
turn, blunt refusal in his eyes, but the Lieutenant didn't pause. "
as I fear that I may need your assistance when I am finished. I have
limited strength."

There was a long pause. Kennedy did not back down, but Bush could see
that it was wearing on him. Was Clive simply intending to wait until
the younger man collapsed? Finally, he moved, slowly setting the
bundle of clothing on the very end of the cot. "I will wait outside,
Mr. Kennedy." Then he left.

The two remaining men stared at the uniform as though it were some
strange foreign animal. The cruel challenge was clear. Though Clive
was not brutal enough to directly condemn Kennedy, he would not help,
basing his hopes on the frailty of a mortally wounded man. Hoping,
perhaps even, that Kennedy would kill himself with the exertion and
be done with it. Pure cowardice.

He would not let it succeed.

Bush stood, steadying himself for a moment on the wall before moving
as quickly as he could over to the other cot. Kennedy was still
sitting upright, as if unsure or unable to move either backwards or
forwards. His tangled hair tumbled discordantly over his shoulders,
and Bush gathered it up in his hand, yanking the ribbon from his own
hair and wrapping it around the queue to secure it. The result
wasn't pretty, but it was neat. He took two more steps to the foot
of the bed and picked up the kerchief, turning to face Kennedy, who
stared at him in stunned disbelief. "What are you doing?"

The wounds were burning badly now. He needed to move quickly before
he tore them open again. If that happened, he knew he might pass out
from the pain and shock. "I heard stories about you, Mr. KennedyMr.
Hornblower, as well." He looped the black fabric around Kennedy's
neck. The other man brought his hands up slowly, tying the knot
himself as Bush reached back to the pile and fetched out the
vest. "That you were broken in a Spanish prison. That you tried to
die. I didn't think I could respect a man who'd had his spirit
broken. I thought such things were beyond mending, and I had
concerns about serving with you." Kennedy made a sound that seemed
half a laugh, half a choking bleat of pain, and he continued
quickly. "But my fears were ill-founded. You and Mr. Hornblower are
the two bravest men with whom I have ever been privileged to serve."

"Spirits are like bones, Mr. Bush." A thin smile appeared on
Kennedy's lips as he gingerly slipped his arms through the holes of
the vest, gasping in pain when Bush pulled it together to button the
brightly polished buttons. A red stain appeared on the white fabric
of the vest, and he averted his eyes. He didn't want to think about
it. "Badly healed, they're never the same. Well attended, I like to
believe they mend stronger than before."

Bush lifted the dark blue Lieutenant's jacket, not so much as the
next piece of the uniform, but to hide the blood spreading scarlet on
the white. "Yours was clearly attended by an expert, sir."

He could see Kennedy's arm trembling as he lifted it towards the
sleeve, and he took the wrist in his hand, supporting and guiding
it. The pulse fluttered under his fingers, and he looked into
Kennedy's face again, expecting to see him on the verge of collapse.
Instead, his expression seemed calm, even bemused. Only the tension
at the edges of the eyes and the sweat running rivulets down the
flushed skin spoke of pain or exertion. "The son of a doctor, I'm
told."

"Is that why you" He took the other hand, guiding it around to the
second sleeve while trying to avoid brushing the bright stain that
marked Kennedy's wound.

"No." The word split the air like a whip. That hellish intensity had
returned to Kennedy's usually soft blue eyes, and he froze Bush with
his gaze, drilling the words through the back of his skull. "It has
to be done."

He finished dressing Kennedy in silence. Jacket. Stockings.
Breeches. Belt. Shoes. They both needed to conserve their strength
for what lay ahead, and by the time Bush had buckled the silver
buckles on the shoes, both men were clearly feeling the strain. Bush
wanted badly just to lie down and breathe easy for a few minutes. A
few minutes would be all it would take for the two cuts across his
chest and belly to calm, to allow him easy movement again that
wasn't accompanied by this breath-snatching fire.

Yet he couldn't stop. He couldn't stop as long as Kennedy kept
going, and despite the tremours of pain that were shuddering through
him with greater and greater frequency, and despite the dark, wet
patch that had subtly stained his uniform jacket, he showed no signs
of giving in. Indeed, Kennedy seemed to be tapping some inner
reservoir of strength that seemed almost inhumana reserve of pure
willpower that was overtaking the weakness of his body by the moment,
rendering him stronger as his final task drew near.

Fully uniformed at last, Kennedy closed his eyes, then planted both
hands solidly beside himself on the mattress and rose smoothly to his
feet, standing without any sign of unsteadiness. Bush fought the
urge to shake his head and dispel the dream. Surely this couldn't be
the man whose last breaths he was counting a few minutes prior. This
fine young officer, with the strong jaw and golden hair, with eyes
flashing determination and broad shoulders held back and even, feet
planted firm as oaks upon the floorthis couldn't be a dying man.

But it was, and he knew it, and by the desperation thinly visible in
his eyes, Kennedy knew it too. Despite the outward solidity of his
stance, Bush knew that his fellow Lieutenant was masking what had to
be excruciating pain, and he bit his lip, ignoring the fire in his
own ribs as he slung one arm across Kennedy's shoulders for support.
He would be set right with a few minutes rest. It would be
ridiculous to give in to his own relatively minor injury in the face
of this.

Together, they moved towards the door, but there Kennedy shrugged off
the aid, turning to him with an expression that, more eloquently than
any words, offered thanks yet refused further assistance. He then
turned to the barred entrance to their cell and spoke in a voice
that - had he not known better - Bush would have taken as belonging
to a completely healthy man. "Dr. CliveI am ready."

The Doctor didn't come to the door, which Bush felt a pity. He would
have liked to see the look on the old man's face when he found
Kennedy in full uniform, nearly glowing with pure force of will and
ready to give his life, his name, and his honor for his friend.
Instead of Clive, it was the young marine who opened the door, but
even his face registered shock at the sight before him, the eerie
wraith-like quality of a dead man waiting patiently.

The door opened, and Kennedy took a step to leave. Bush took a deep
breath, pulling himself up to parade attention. "Mr. Kennedy" he
paused, faltered, hesitant to use the other man's Christian name, yet
hating the cold formality of the name by which the hangman would
address him. "Archie."

Slowly, Kennedy turned, his face expressionless, but a calm curiosity
apparent in his eyes. Bush met those eyes evenly, his back
straightened still further, his shoulders drew back, and his heels
pulled together as he nodded a simple salute. "Godspeed."

To his amazement, a smile broke across Kennedy's face, bright and
boyish and seeming to verge on laughter itself. "Thank you, Mr.
Bush."

He allowed a slight smile of his own. "It must be done."

The smile broadened further, and Kennedy seemed almost joyful as he
turned again. "So it must." With a deep breath that was half a sigh,
he stepped through the doorway and left to die.

The pain seemed to have given up its protests - shamed, he thought -
and it was with a sense of numbness that Bush returned to his cot,
settling himself into the lumpy mattress. It was strangely quiet
without the sound of Kennedy's breathing, but he knew he would have
to grow accustomed to it, accustomed to the fact that he would never
come to know the courageous and quick-witted Lieutenant as a friend
and comrade, and that Hornblower would lose a man with whom it was
said he had crossed the gates into hell and back.

But it wasn't a surprise. He had known that death was coming for days
now, ever since Clive stopped commenting on the state of Kennedy's
wound. The unexpected visits of death's black hand were all too
common among the Royal Navy, touching the young and the old, the
brave and the cowardly with equal readiness, and he should have been
ready for it. Archie Kennedy was dying, that couldn't be helped, but
what he had chosen to do with his last hours would cheat death of a
second victim.

Kennedy didn't have long.

But he had long enough.

THE END

"Greater love hath no man than he who lays down his life for a
friend."
John 13:15