Spirit of the Retribution
by Maryanne

Part One


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Lieutenant William Bush didn't like it. He had never
considered himself to be the best person at insighting
something in another person's character, but he had been
around long enough to notice when a man began acting
differently than he had for the past month. Perhaps I'm just
jumping the gun, he thought to himself, his lips pressed
together in a line of thought. But he found his eyes
straying over to Commander Horatio Hornblower as he thought,
and shook his head. No, there was definitely something
different there. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but
something had changed between Hornblower's nightmare and
breakfast, something had altered the balance of normality.
But he had only been out of the room for ten minutes!
Bush sighed wearily. Too much thinking, too early in the
morning. Whatever change had occurred in Hornblower could
only be for the better. He hadn't been himself since the
death of Lieutenant Archie Kennedy. Bush had a feeling he
didn't know the true depth of what their friendship had been,
but he had always seen that they had been close. Since
Archie's death, Horatio had stepped back into withdrawal and
refused to eat. He had barely spoken ten words on the voyage
back to Plymouth from Kingston, Jamaica, and that had worried
Bush a great deal. To see that perhaps there was a slight
chance of recovery for him was a relief indeed, a glimmer of
hope in the dark depression Hornblower had somehow managed to
sink into.
Hornblower and Bush were standing on the busy pier, awaiting
the arrival of the jollyboat that would row them out to where
the Retribution lay at anchor. The sun was warm and bright,
beaming down and glinting off the sprakling waters in the
bay. A warm, salty sea breeze whirled through the ships that
were anchored around them in the port, breathing life to the
sails. Bush could hear the familiar creaking of the rigging,
flapping of the sails, shouts from the botswains. He had
heard these familiar sounds for years, and had grown to
accept them as normal.
There was only one thing that now appeared queer to him, and
that was his new commander. It was not as though his
decision to join the land of the living was bad. Quite the
opposite. But it seemed so sudden. Horatio had been
awakened from what appeared to be a nightmare about Kennedy.
Later, Bush had overheard him weeping from outside their
door, and hadn't had the heart to interrupt. So, he had
retired restlessly to breakfast. Ten minutes later, however,
Hornblower had come to breakfast for the first time in over a
week. But it wasn't that that was itching at Bush. It was
that confounded smile on Horatio's face! Oh, he had probably
thought that it wasn't obvious, but William hadn't been born
yesterday. Even past the carefully kept straight face, it
was Hornblower's eyes that gave it away. They shone, the
same way they had shone when Archie had defied authority to
save Horatio's life.
Bush tapped his foot impatiently on the wooden pier for a
few seconds, fidgeting for little reason other than
frustration. He glanced over at Horatio, who was pacing the
length between supplies evenly. He sighed. His blue eyes
flicked down to his sea chest which was solidly planted
beside him. He checked the latch, made sure everything was
just as it should be -- as he had at least a dozen times
before that very morning.
Calm yourself, William, he told himself. It's not like you
to lose your head. He took a deep breath, and began to
concentrate on watching for the jollyboat. Something still
nagged at the back of his mind, though. He tried to ignore
it, but somehow he found his eyes drifting back to
Hornblower, who had taken a break in his calm pacing and was
now staring out at the sea wistfully, longingly. His eyes,
though they weren't actually in Bush's direction, shone with
excitement, relief, and a youthful fire that Bush hadn't seen
ever since it had died in young Archie Kennedy's eyes. And
he had never seen it in Horatio's, never, even since the day
Bush had been commissioned to the Renown. It was... soft.
And elated, as though someone, somehow, some way had set him
free from his prison of pain. Blast it all, something
definitely wasn't right.
He pulled his thoughts away from that depth, unwilling to
believe anything dark nor queer about his new commander and
friend. No, likely he was making a commotion and stewing
over nothing. Horatio was a fine man, as brilliant a
commander in his men's eyes as perhaps Admiral Nelson
himself. And as sharp as the tip of his sword. No, he would
not become mentally unstable over the loss of a good friend,
as close as he and Kennedy had become. Hornblower was
strong, Bush had always caught that about him since that one
strange night in the Renown's cargo holds when he had met
Bush's eyes with the coolest of expressions, fully on the top
of his game.
Bush sighed and shook his head. I'm being unjust to him, he
thought. Perhaps later, if Horatio continued acting too
strangely, he would speak to him about it or bring it up to
the ship doctor's notice. But for now, he would let it rest
and concentrate on settling all matters on board the
Retribution in place before going underway. A great number
of things had to be settled before they would pull up the
anchor and sail out to foreign seas.
On this thought, Bush put his hand absentmindedly over the
bulk of the dispatches underneath the coat of his uniform.
They were to be delivered to Commander Hornblower by his
first lieutenant once the two men were on board the
Retribution. He smiled slightly, knowing that underneath his
hand were the written words that would govern whatever
battles in which they would be engaged and, in a way, the men
who would die.
Don't think about death, Mr. Bush, he ordered himself, as
the name Kennedy flashed in the fore of his mind. The sight
that caught his attention just then, came as a wonderful
distraction for his mind. He smiled, his mood suddenly
elevated. "Ah, Mr. Hornblower, sir! I believe our boat has
arrived," he announced to the young commander.
Horatio was, once more, the perfect example of a calm, naval
officer. He turned, an expression of mild but pleased
surprise on his angular face. He left the end of the pier
and strode briskly over to stand beside Bush as the jollyboat
came closer. "Very good, Mr. Bush. I trust all is ready to
go on board?" he answered calmly.
"Aye, sir."
There was a pause, a brief flicker of something sad in
Horatio's eyes. Then he quirked a small, reassuring smile.
"Carry on, then," he said. It wasn't spoken in the brusque
manner of most officers when giving orders. It was quieter,
somewhat softer, as though his own words brought forth
memories from his past. There was also the quiet, but
obvious, anticipation for action in his eyes, one that hadn't
died completely in his youth. It was the anticipation of a
man who was sick of the land and ready to go back to sea once
more. Bush recognized it immediately.
William ran the tip of his tongue over his dry lower lip,
his hands clasped behind his back as he stared straight ahead
at the approaching small boat. He was trying to find a
simple way to say it, for as much as he had tried to convince
himself that all was well, it still itched in the back of his
mind. "I..." He felt Horatio's gaze snap over to him and
that made him all the more uncomfortable. Bush cleared his
throat and started again. "I -- trust you'll be alright,
sir?" he asked in a low voice so as not to let his words
carry any further than Horatio Hornblower's ears.
Horatio's eyes glanced away and down, saddened. It was
slight, but there; a flicker of the deep, wrenching emotion
that he hadn't taken the pains to hide before now. He was
hiding his deeper thoughts and, Bush noted, he was doing an
admirable job. But there was something... else that was in
those eyes, as slight as the sadness. Bush couldn't quite
place that feeling, but it wasn't normal. Horatio's dark
eyes quickly glanced up to meet his after a few short
seconds. "Yes, I'll be fine," he answered softly with a
sigh. Then a barely concealed smile twitched at the corners
of his mouth, his eyes distant. Bush felt himself beginning
to wonder again about him.
After a few more seconds of concerned study, Bush pulled his
own eyes away and shook his thoughts from his mind, allowing
himself to feel as normally amiable as usual. The jollyboat
was now nearly touching the docks and one of the two men
inside it reached out to loop a short rope around the post on
the pier while the other pulled the oars up into the sides of
the small boat. Bush smiled, pleased at the world, and
secretly even more pleased that the boat had come at this
moment to distract him. I'm really not great at being
philisophical. Any more thinking, and I just might get a
headache, he thought to himself.
Beside him, Horatio smiled satisfactorily as well. "Carry
on, Mr. Bush," he repeated and Bush began to supervise the
loading of their belongings. Then he and Horatio stepped
down into the boat and the seamen began rowing them toward
the small, but beautiful ship ahead who lay at anchor. The
Retribution.

 

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It was a handsome, comfortable cabin, quite nicer than what
Horatio was used to. So, initially, it caught him by
pleasant surprise. But it wasn't wholly unexpected; it was
the captain's quarters after all. The cabin was rather
nicely furnished, small, yes, in reference to rooms in houses
on land. But it was fairly comfortable in relation to the
many other places Horatio had been given to sleep during his
career as an officer in the British Navy. A set of
ornamental windows let the light shine from the sparkling
waters of the bay into the room, dancing a reflection of
light off the waves across the somewhat low ceiling. The
scent of sweet tobacco lightly filled the air, much as the
doctor's cabin had back aboard the old Indefatigable several
years ago. It held a touch of nostalgia for him, bringing
back faint memories of the simplest of things, back when his
life hadn't been quite so complicated.
He didn't really wish to be back there. Horatio was proud
to be here, to have been given this command. He captained
his own ship now, just as Archie had always said he would,
just like in his own dreams. That one thought alone was a
hint more bittersweet. Archie. Somehow, in Horatio's
dreams, he had always pictured Archie standing beside him,
gently teasing him, or just giving him the reassurance of his
warm smile. Archie being there to stand with him through
whatever happened as his first lieutenant. But it was Bush
who was standing behind him now, not the warmth that radiated
from Archie whenever they had been alone.
Archie wasn't gone, he knew that, and had felt more
exhilarated from that than anything else nearly in his life.
It still wasn't quite the same; but life, as he had learned
to realize, never quite turned out as planned. One just had
to take life and go on. And it was truly far better than he
had imagined. Archie would never be a casualty, he would
never leave again. Horatio would never feel alone again, to
and beyond the day he died. Archie had promised that. But
yet he missed the young blond's presence now more than ever,
though they had only temporarily parted. Somehow this cabin
felt so lonely.
Horatio swallowed and, realizing that he had been standing
in the doorway unmoving for several minutes, took a few
hesitant steps forward into the cabin, his eyes traveling
across the details of the smooth wood paneling and the
ornamental, small, wine-red carpet on the floor. This ship
had been a Spanish ship, captured by the Renown herself. Her
name had been Galitana, before she had been renamed. And she
was beautiful for a such a small vessel. This cabin
testified to that as much as everything else about her.
He took another hesitant step and halted in the center of
the cabin, ignoring everything else but his thoughts. As his
gaze studied each detail, his mind was away, calling out
wistfully to the presence that he had felt with him back at
the inn above the tavern barely two hours earlier. But he
felt nothing brush him in return. Where was Archie?
"Would you like me to leave you, sir?" Bush spoke up
suddenly from the doorway behind him, startling Horatio out
of his thoughts with a voice that, though it wasn't
particularly loud, seemed to boom through the complete
silence. He hadn't even been aware that Bush had been there.
Gathering his scattered thoughts, Horatio nodded and cleared
his throat, trying to bring himself back down to reality. "I
would, yes. Thank you, Mr. Bush," he managed, stuttering at
first. Bush gave him a small, sympathetic smile and Horatio
felt something angry flare up inside his chest. Blast the
man! He didn't want sympathy! Hornblower fought to spare
Bush his fiery glare. He didn't need anyone's sympathy. It
always had bothered him that the whole world felt sorry for
him over losing Archie. But it really irritated him now,
with the knowledge that Archie truly wasn't gone. But, he
had to keep himself from speaking what he felt. Who would
believe that Archie was a ghost without seeing him
themselves? That would automatically place the label of
insanity on his forehead and he would, likely, be relieved of
command and put into an asylum. And those who did believe
him would be superstitious enough as to munity. All-in-all,
better to act as though he were still grieving.
Bush gave him a single, acknowleging nod, and closed the
cabin door behind himself, leaving Horatio alone in the
center of the small room. He stood silently, eyes up towards
heaven. He sighed, after nearly a minute of thoughtful
silence, and finally walked slowly over to the desk-like
mahogany table. He ran his fingers across the polished wood,
his mind far, far away. Though he had never even truly
traveled on the Retribution, it already held so many memories
for him. As he felt the smooth surface glide underneath his
fingertips, he remembered back to lying awake below decks,
watching the lamps sway as he felt that something was wrong.
And something had been desperately wrong on the Renown. But,
he recalled, his thoughts had been, even then, foremost of
Archie -- alone on the Renown with a tyrannical, insane
captain, no-one to talk to, and as poor an excuse for an
acting captain as any ship in the navy had ever seen. Oh, it
must have been ghastly for Archie that day!
Horatio remembered as though he were recalling something
that had happened years ago, though it had been truly barely
even two weeks earlier. But it felt like years. He felt as
though he had aged a century those last few days of the
voyage and trial. Archie's troubles hadn't ended that one
afternoon either. Horatio remembered rushing up on deck to
see where the shots had been coming from, and catching sight
of the fight that had broken out aboard the Renown. And,
later that same day, unbuttoning Archie's jacket to reveal a
wound and a chest soaked with blood. He had never felt more
frightened, helpless, and sick in his whole life, not even
back in the Spanish prison.
Then there had come the last morning of the trial. Before
the sun had barely even risen. Walking into the jail and
seeing Archie gone, then running to the courtroom and rushing
in just as Archie took the blame to set Horatio free of
something no one was truly guilty of.
Horatio drew in a shaky breath, feeling the moisture of
fresh tears stinging his eyes. They remained unshed, but
just glistened in his brown eyes as he stared out to sea.
The ache that had been inside of him ever since that day had
suddenly reappeared and was crying out for release. "Oh,
Archie," he whispered into the silence of the cabin, the
unshed tears evident in his voice.
Yes, Horatio? He gasped, startled by the voice in his mind
as he instantly recognized it. He turned, meeting the bright
blue eyes in the face of Lieutenant Kennedy, who's grin lit
up the cabin. Archie wasn't quite human or normal but he was
visible, in that peculiar transition stage between mist and
man when his skin and hair shone like gold, a gilded tone
radiating from his entire being. And, as strange as it was
to say about another man, he was beautiful.
"Archie!" Horatio greeted warmly, his face lighting up in a
smile. The blond's grin widened. "I thought-"
"Thought that perhaps I wasn't coming? That perhaps I had
changed my mind and disappeared forever? Oh H'ratio,
H'ratio, I'm ashamed of you!" Archie cut in, a gentle teasing
glint sparkling in bright cobalt blue eyes, his countenance
otherwise relatively calm. As he spoke, the golden glow
disappeared from his skin and clothing until he stood in the
center of the room with his hands resting on his hips, as
apparently human as Horatio himself.
Horatio flushed a deep red. "That -- wasn't exactly what I
meant," he stammered.
Archie's features softened into a smile again, his brilliant
blue eyes shining softly as they met his friend's. He
shrugged. "I know." He closed the distance and perched
himself on the edge of the table the way he had always loved
to do back in the Renown's wardroom. "I had to keep Mr. Bush
from suspecting. I figured the best way to do that was to
keep myself hidden from you as well," he answered Horatio's
unspoken question.
The dark-haired young officer's face took on a quizzical
expression. "I thought he couldn't see you," he pointed out.
Archie shook his head slightly, casually. "He can't. But
he might feel a little more suspicious of you, were I there
to distract you." Horatio could see the surprising logic in
that. He shook his head, in turn, in wonderment. He had
always known Archie to be the one to ask questions. But the
truth was, he had every bit as much intelligence and common
sense as Horatio had, he had just always chosen to use it at
different times.
A knock sounded suddenly on the door of the captain's cabin
and both young officers whirled together to stare at it.
Then Archie and Horatio looked at each other, exchanging
startled, uncertain expressions. After a moment, Horatio
spoke. "Enter," he called.
The latch clicked open. Mr. Bush stood there, oblivious.
He glanced around the room, then smiled a little bit
nervously. "I am sorry, sir, for interrupting your quiet
thoughts-" he started, trying to be as courteous as an
officer should be toward his captain.
"Yes, what is it, Mr. Bush?" Horatio queried, daring a
glance over at Archie through the corners of his eyes. He
had to keep telling his mind that Archie was only a ghost,
and couldn't be seen at this moment as he sat casually over
there on the table, grinning like the devil, a mischievous
glint shining in his bright blue eyes. He half-listened to
the answer, half-wondered if Bush even sensed Archie's
bright, golden presence in the room even the slightest bit.
The whole thing was nervously upsetting, and yet Horatio felt
something almost making him want to laugh as he could see
Bush's oblivion to the true situation at hand. It was
utterly ridiculous and hard to describe but he felt
practically giddy.
"Horatio, you had better stop looking at me or our friend is
going to wonder about you," Archie warned, a little more
serious than before. But the smile was still there, gleaming
in his brilliant blue eyes and touching the corners of his
mouth just enough to see it. Mostly what Horatio saw, it was
like he hardly saw it at all. He... he felt it. Since the
moment when Archie had appeared, golden and beautiful, in his
room above the tavern, he had felt more than he ever had
before. He felt so much of the world. He felt happy, he
felt sadness when it swept over a room. He felt life. He
only partially listened to Bush, uplifted and wrapped up in
so many unusual swirling feelings that he couldn't describe.
He knew that the moods he sensed in the room were Archie's.
They were somehow empathically connected. And the emotions
of friendship that bound them were stronger now than ever
before. Even invisible, Archie was alive and would never die
again. He would never fall prey to violent beatings, or be
captured and spend years in a Spanish prison, or be shot
trying to defend his country.
I wonder... I wonder how long he'll stay, he wondered
quietly, pleading to know and dreading any answer.
As long as you'll need me, a familiar soft tenor echoed in
his head and he glanced over at Archie, who lowered his gaze
to the ground so as to hide something there. The words in
themselves were reassuring, even uplifting. But the way the
words were silently spoken made him hesitate. There was
something hidden in his voice that unnerved him, and a
carefully hidden tint of sadness that appeared in the
atmosphere for merely a split-second. The words weren't said
softly, gently. They were... almost hollow. An alarm bell
inside Horatio flared. Archie didn't tend to hide things
from his best friend. Though he had been doing a little too
much of that lately for the dark-haired young commander's
comfort. So there must be something major that he he was
hiding for a reason... And Horatio wasn't quite sure that he
wanted to know what it was.
Something about the way Bush's voice went up at the end made
its way to his subconscious mind and his mind screamed out
one word to him. Question! Immediately, the question broke
Horatio out of his thoughts and back to his other reality.
He shook his head slightly, trying to quickly sort his
thoughts back into a reasonable line.
"Sir?" Bush stifled an amused laugh. "Are you listening to
me, sir? I asked you whether you wanted your things taken to
your cabin now, sir."
Horatio stuttered, trying to find his voice. "Uh, oh, uh
--yes." He paused, letting his stuttering phase die away.
"Yes, every word," he lied, then cringed slightly at the
theatrical grimace Archie made from over across the room.
"And I would appreciate that, Mr. Bush." He paused again,
sending Archie a sharp glare that ordered his silence. The
young blond covered his mouth his one hand but didn't even
attempt to quell the laughter that shone in his eyes.
Horatio's eyes fell back on Bush, as he met a completely
different set of blue eyes. He nodded to Bush. "Carry on,"
he finished with the professional flair that he needed to
repair his peculiar and downright unusual conduct.
Bush's brow furrowed as he studied his commanding officer,
then he sighed and nodded. "Aye aye, sir," he replied
absentmindedly and closed the door behind himself as he left.
Horatio was motionless for precisely three seconds, then he
spun and shot Archie a wounded, protesting look. "I --
you... That -- that was just horrid, Archie!" he finally
managed when he'd found his voice.
The ghost-man sitting before him slid off the table on which
he was perched and shrugged as he paced to the ornamental
window that overlooked the waters below. "You see now, my
reason for disappearing earlier," he said simply.
"Yes, and we have to do something about it," Horatio
continued. "You can't keep having to disappear each time I
speak with someone. In all likelihood, I would see less of
you with me than when you are gone."
Archie was silent and chewed on his lower lip, thinking.
His back was pressed against the window and he was watching
Horatio as he paced restlessly. Finally, he sighed, very
softly. "You have a valid point, H'ratio," he admitted. His
next words sounded but as the barest soft whisper. "What do
you propose we do, then, ëCommander'."
Horatio flinched; that was unmistakably a barbed statement,
the use of his rank as sharp and pointed as it was soft. He
could hardly bear to admit it, however the answer slipped
from his lips before he could draw enough of his mind to the
present to stop it. "I don't know..." He carefully
swallowed the thickness tightenening in uncertainty in his
throat, his eyes flickering silently to the wooden planks
beneath his feet. After another moment of thought, his eyes
rose, his lips tightening together in the intense displeasure
of his mind's logic being temporarily impaired as it had been
ever since he had awakened that morning. "One thing is for
certain, we will have to resolve our minor problem before six
bells, for then we set sail." He watched from across the
cabin as softly, subtlely, the young ghost man's eyes fell to
the floor, his lashes chading the light familiar blue. He
remained silent, and eventually, Horatio attempted yet again.
"Archie?"
The crystal sapphire eyes rose, glinting still with an
unmistakable gold hint that softened the entire being of his
friend before his eyes just slightly enough to remain a
constant reminder to the burning, painful memories still so
fresh in his memory. They widened in calm, almost boyish
question. "Mmm?" he responded softly.
He drew in a slow, cleansing breath and released it in a
sigh, clasping his hands behind his back as he took the few
paces thoughtfully to the wall. "What do you suppose'll
happen if the men catch wind of a ghost on the Retibution?"
he inquired firmly.
He caught a shifting motion out of the corners of his eyes
as his spirit-friend's shoulders lifted in a minimal shrug.
After another moment, he spoke, the subtle wince there
twisting his features slightly. "I... suppose they'd claim
the ship to be a ëbloody ghost ship'."
Horatio turned directly toward the blond, his mind flashing
through a series of thoughts rapidly. "Exactly. But as it
seems, the only logical and capable solution to our problem
is for me to simply pretend that you are not here."
"I'd dearly love to see you attempt that," a soft, warm
voice jested, a twinkle of good-natured humor in his
brilliant blue eyes.
The older young officer's eyes flashed slightly in
annoyance, though he couldn't help the slight, genuine smile
twitching on his lips as he saw clearly once more just how
well Archie had come to know him through the years. It was
almost unnerving. Could he be that easily read nowadays?
After another moment, the twitch at the corners of his mouth
widened a little into a small smile, though a little bit
patient and he released a quiet, deep sigh. "You're right,
Archie. And I suppose you know it too." The last was a bit
of a pointed statement, but not without its element of
fondness. The younger man's eyes twinkled briefly.
Suddenly, yet another thought occurred to Hornblower.
"Unless..." he began slowly, his mind fathoming all of the
possibilities.
Archie's eyebrows rose a little, before his features warmed
in amusement. Or rather, the expression only barely showed
in his eyes, and yet Horatio could sense the feelings in the
atmosphere surrounding him, affecting his own moods as well.
He felt the tint of curiosity break him from the amazed
trance. He cocked his head, his eyes open in interest.
"Horatio Hornblower, I'm losing you again," he teased.
Horatio flushed slightly, and cleared his throat, growing
more uncomfortable. "My apologies." Then he drew his mind
back to the question he pondered. "Archie...? Can anyone
else see you, do you suppose? Or am I the only one?" His
eyes carefully watched his friend, not straying as they
studied him.
The young blond was quiet for several moments, nearly a
minute, as he slid from his playful perch on the window's
edge to his feet and stepped slowly away, his eyes trained on
the floor. His words were soft, quiet, hollow and distant in
tone as they had been for another moment only minutes before.
"I... I don't know." He shook his head, and turned toward
the wall, hiding his face from Horatio's fastened gaze.
"Maybe... It would seem to depend on how much they believe I
am dead. There's no simple way to tell." His words trailed
off in a distant whisper, and Horatio tried to fight the urge
to demand what that hollow, disconcerting tone was. He
didn't like the feeling behind it, the cool disappearing
sense, laced by heartfelt sadness. He turned then, his eyes
wider than normal, almost begging but very carefully hidden.
"Now enough about me. We'll find a way. Let's get our minds
to the more important task at hand here," he urged, swiftly
changing the topic.
**I just can't get over the fact that you're here,** Horatio
thought to himself, though another part of his mind was
already devoting itself to the command. "Right. I haven't
seen what our assignment is yet, as Mr. Bush hasn't been good
enough as to give me the dispatches just yet."
"Ah." Kennedy nodded slightly, the word soft.
With each moment, though there were so many things Horatio
found himself wishing to say that he wouldn't, lest he make a
ghastly fool of himself, and they made him increasingly more
uncomfortable than he already was. Eventually, he released a
sigh and glanced up, miraculously the same soft instant out
of time that golden eyelashes lifted to reveal quiet, almost
haunted blue eyes, holding an incredible depths he hadn't
seen there but once, whenever his friend has climbed aboard
the royal mast high above the ship and the seas, with the
wild blowing strands of flaxen hair loose from the smooth
queue, and the sunlight dancing in his eyes... After a
moment, Horatio's mind slipped back to reality from the
memory, his eyes transfixed upon this being he still had yet
to fully believe with his mind existed. But his heart knew.
He could feel Archie's presence, but it seemed different,
misted... it reminded him thoughtfully of the salty sea wind
his friend had always loved so much. It still astounded him
how much all the tortures that had happened to him hadn't
really broken the free sprit now. *That* was what had
changed. Archie was truly free now, for the first time in
his life.
**I can hear your thoughts, Horatio,** a soft voice spoke
quietly into his mind, startling him with a surprised chill
down his spine at the mental intrusion as it always did
whenever Archie spoke mentally.
Horatio fixed his friend with a slightly reprimanding
expression. "I do wish you would stop that, Archie," he
petitioned, met by a thrill of feeling rippling through the
cabin, one he had recognized as quiet mirth. His frown
deepened, as he attempted to hide the smile that wanted to
twitch up the corners of his mouth at the blond's mischievous
side. "Neither do I see what is so amusing!"
Finally, the trill of feeling dissipated into open, audible
laughted, stifled back with a grin. "Really, my friend. You
must have acquired some sense of humor somewhere," Archie
teased aloud, still quietly, likely to avoid being overheard.
Horatio parted his lips slightly to respond, but was
interrupted as the young ghost-man continued. "And pray,
*don't* give me that same old ridiculous speech about
responsibilities and no time for impractical jokes, I beg
you!" he laughed, and this time Horatio couldn't help the
genuine smile in response. As much as he had always denied
it, Archie did know how to touch his meager sense of humor,
mostly in his charming, less logical and more emotional ways
that were so unlike his own. He had always been a bit of
sunshine, which had never ceased to amaze him as surely
Archie, who had been abused nearly all of his painfully young
life, would be the one to be bitter.
Yet he found laughter when none of the others could, and
likely had been the one to keep Horatio's sanity, despite how
the young commander was reluctant to admit it. He offered a
hand of acceptance, a bit of apology in his hazel brown eyes.
"Welcome aboard, Archie," he accepted warmly, his eyes
gleaming bright.
Something melted, he could feel it around him, radiating
from the being of his friend. It shone like the warmth of
sunshine and spring through the cabin, as a hint of gold
appeared for a moment around Archie again. Horatio's eyes
never left his friend's, but he found a familiar hand warmly
in his, almost lingering. How could it be that Archie felt
so human, when it was at the same time so clear that he
wasn't mortal anymore? Archie smiled slightly, but
wholeheartedly as he replied. "Very pleased to be aboard,
sir." His whisper sounded soft, faint, but warm.
Horatio dropped his eyes, admittedly uncomfortable when
suddenly placed in the midst of so much emotion as men were
never completely emotional beings in the first place. After
a moment, he released the hand, clearing his throat
carefully. "Would you care for me to show you the ship,
then?"
Somehow, something flitted elusively by, a feeling.
Acceptance and understanding, he believed it was, as the
younger man nodded, the glow falling from his skin and hair
once more. "Yes, I'd like that, H'ratio," he replied simply,
almost too simple. The fond shortening of his name somehow
sounded clipped, not soft in it's normal little lilt.
Horatio attempted to ignore it as he beckoned his friend with
him out the cabin door, careful to appear once they had left
the cabin's safe confines as though he were alone. He tried
not to think about his inner fears and worries, if only to
keep Archie from reading his thoughts. At this rate, how
could he ever think safely again...?

 

 

Dinner was light, though satisfying any pangs of hunger
Horatio might feel. He supposed that was a fickle thought;
he hadn't eaten much recently at any time since Archie's
death. That thought panged and he paused for a moment, his
mind straying to the glint of gold he would occasionally
capture a glimpse of up atop the astounding height of the
mainmast in the darkness outside the window behind the small
captain's table. He could hear absently how Bush spoke
amiably, relating important information that he chastised
himself not to be listening to. He couldn't help, however,
but notice that distant feeling, like a cool mist, that
radiated from far away, replacing the warmth Archie's
ghost-company had brought throughout the day. The
Retribution had set sail hours ago, and now it sailed in the
cool darkness towards an unknown destination to anyone but
Hornblower himself, Lt. Bush, and of course, Archie. There
would be nothing on this ship his friend wouldn't be watching
over now, as he had nothing else to do.
He supposed that was, if only a bit, unfair to Archie when
he had practically begged for his presence to accompany them
on the Retribution. The young blond had easily, perhaps even
excitedly, given his consent, but the feelings he felt now,
so easily misted and evasive, more than slightly alarmed
Horatio. **I know I shouldn't brood upon it,** he told
himself firmly. He could feel... very faint, a response,
before Archie's presence again withdrew from his ever sensing
it. It appeared the ghost-man of his friend could show
affection, feelings, or be completely hidden away and silent
at will. That was a strange thought, the one and only thing
that kept his mind from willfully forgetting that his friend
had died and wasn't really a man anymore. And it was a
painful reminder, as aching as it was constant.
Horatio tuned into the conversation at hand, realizing with
a hot flush that he had been terribly unkind in ignoring
Bush. He interrupted quietly the other man's words. "I... I
apologize, Mr. Bush. Forgive me for my rudeness. I confess,
I didn't catch that," he apologized softly.
The first lieutenant's brow creased in a frown. "I'm... not
sure I understand you, Mr. Hornblower. What didn't you
catch?" he inquired, pausing in the middle of the meager meal
of ship rations. Of rations, they had the nicer ones, he
knew, but they were still terribly rotten as food went.
Though, by now his insides had grown accustomed to them, able
to eat scrap metal, as Archie had once jested. He flinched
slightly. Any thought of the difference in Archie still
stung.
Horatio managed a slight, tired smile, faint. "Absolutely
none of it, Mr. Bush."
Bush paused for a moment, appearing to want to say
something, then shook his head with a quiet chuckle and sigh.
"Tired?" His eyes were a little friendly, but not quite
fond, and not amused as Archie's always were whenever he
found the perfect moment to tease him. Their banter
generally started that way. Bush continued, before Horatio
could move or utter a single word. "Of course, I'd
understand if you were. Can't be putting too much stress on
you just yet, I suppose," he mused thoughtfully.
Horatio fixed Bush with a blandly irritated expression, his
eyes firm. "Don't you be concerned about the strain I carry.
It is not so great a strain. I'm..." He groped for words.
"Just tired. I need to rest for a little while," he simply
explained. He was tired and stressed, true, but he would not
be having anyone sympathize or feel sorry for him, least of
all Lieutenant Bush. This was a man fit perfectly for the
British Navy, and one of the best men Horatio had ever known,
he had to admit, once he had gotten to know him a little
more. But he couldn't feel quite comfortable in Bush's
presence, not like he used to with Kennedy. Perhaps that
would change in the future, but that was the truth for now.
"You'll have to excuse me, Mr. Bush. Have the summarization
of what you told me given to me tomorrow, if you please,"
Horatio pardoned himself, stepping away and ducking down as
he entered the captain's private sleeping cubicle, closing
the door behind himself.
Once inside, Horatio let himself fall back wearily on the
hammock, swaying to the gentle familiar rocking of the ship
and listening to the soft rush of waves brushing against the
Retribution's flanks. This was such a familiar cubicle, the
same one where he had dreamed, just bare minutes before
Archie had been shot... He closed his eyes against the
impending headache, his mind replaying yet again those events
that had so effectively nearly torn his world apart. First
he recalled once more the uneasy dreams, then coming up on
deck and talking with Matthews. When suddenly a fight had
broken out aboard the Renown. He remembered that sickening
nausea, that helpless feeling for a split-second when there
was nothing he could do. He had done anyway, and the crew
had commended him for bravery.
But then had come that moment. The lie, the blood, seeping
in droplets almost a stream, like a pulsing river, from the
wound under his hands... Hot... Horatio shuddered, forcing
his eyes open again to fight the trembles of the still
horribly fresh memories from not so long ago. He had known
even then, as Archie had lost consciousness, that despite his
hopes, Archie wouldn't have lived. But then he had hung on
anyway, refusing to let him let go. Archie was stubborn, a
fighter, and he always had been, despite the blond man's low
opinion of himself. Then he had begun a terribly,
gut-wrenching road back to recovery.
Then had come the trial in Kingston. In a moment, a few
swift words whispered from Archie's lips, condemning him to a
death he could have avoided if he hadn't been so idiotically
stubborn! Horatio clamped his emotions and thoughts tight,
refusing to allow the tears of anger and regret misting his
vison any chance to show. He closed his eyes, whispering,
pain in his words. "If you'd have only given me a chance to
find another way..."
He could sense the response to that in the background,
almost brushing him, though the presence was still distant.
No words were spoken, but a slight feeling, like a single
note struck of sadness, but not of regret in the slightest.
Suddenly, as swift as the full gale billowing and flapping
through the sail above in the darkness, the familiar
ghost-man form of his friend appeared, however Archie
remained only half-human, glowing golden light. His voice
was as familiarly warm and gently chastising as ever. "Stop
it, Horatio. I don't want to hear it. You know just as well
as I, there *was* no other way," Archie defended stubbornly.
Horatio sat bolt upright, turning and resting his feet to
the wood underneath them. His eyes flashed in wounded
obstinacy, as he openly showed all of his angers and the
wrongs taking toll on him. "I could have found one! Wasn't
it *you* once, back in that stinking prison cell, at El
Ferrol, who told *me* that there's always a way?!" he
shouted, forgetting to keep his voice in check for a few
moments.
Archie paused, now in human form, his eyes falling in
silence. "I-" The response was a whisper, cut off quickly,
determinedly.
"It was you!" Horatio slid out of his hammock and took
Archie's hands in his own, not caring how strangely cool they
felt or misted. He met his eyes fervently, not willing to
give in until he could make this point. "You had nearly
given up, and then I was in the oubliette and you took care
of me until I recovered. You told me then, when I had lost
hope instead of you, that there is *always* a way out of
trouble." He broke off in a whisper and had to pause,
clearing his constricted throat. "So why did you do it?"
Tears shimmered in his eyes though he fought them to keep his
image and composure. "*Why*..?"
Archie pulled his gaze away, and slipped from his hands,
half-misting until Horatio couldn't grasp him even if he
tried. He literally shifted away, blowing on a soft, created
breeze. He stood there, close to the window, his eyes cast
down. Slowly, Archie shook his head, whispering softer than
Horatio had ever heard before. "I am sorry, Horatio...
Sorry that I caused so much grief. But as you know, it's
already too late to make a difference..." He trailed off,
swallowing hard as Horatio studied his friend. At the
moment, though he felt things, Archie's thoughts and feelings
were very expertly walled away where the young commander
would never see them. The next words caught him by surprise.
"You should lay down, H'ratio. And rest..."
Horatio wanted to argue that there was something they could
do, but he more than knew that was a lie, a deception that
would be wonderful. He nodded, admittedly defeated and the
argument had only increased the ache behind his eyes. He
laid back down silently on the hammock, his eyes still fixed
on the spirit before them. "What about you?"
One corner of Archie's mouth lifted in a small smile. "I'll
be around..." Horatio watched as suddenly, before he could
speak another word, the young blond disappeared in a brief
flashing glow of gold blowing away on a self-created wind.

 

 

********************************************************************

 

Archie slipped up, high above the Retribution on the wings
of soft, swift wind, swirling up to glide amongst the
silver-lined moonlit clouds tracing in the otherwise clear
dark night. Barely anything but his natural golden presence,
he curled and spun down to soar thoughtfully a path
underneath the crescent moon. I curled and twisted in a free
spiral, still amazed at his new abilities he had found of
freedom, finally released from the confines of being human.
There was only one looming problem now; it felt so impossibly
lonely... He slowed underneath the soft starlight, glancing
up to the belts of shimmery fairy dust and diamonds sparkling
like crystals on a velvety black canvas. It was so majestic,
so beautiful... he could truly look at the world through
different eyes now, softer eyes, eyes of mist yet clear, as
though every once solid object were now transluscent just as
he was.
After another moment, Archie let himself drift down on the
real wind, gliding and floating like a soft, breathless dream
through the darkness. All it took was merely the thought of
the ship in the distance, riding the dancing, silver-tipped
waves of black and suddenly he twisted and curled, no longer
human, down toward the billowing white shadowed sails. He
lighted silently on the topmast, his eyes soft as they beheld
the men below. The familiar old grizzled face of Matthews
there in the deepened shadows of such a dark night, were he
not as he were, he could never have spotted the old friend of
his.
How Archie longed he could be down there, talking to him, or
at least brush him for an instant to tell the man that he did
indeed still exist. But he couldn't; the risk was far too
great. Should his presence, even slightly, be discovered, it
would be ghastly and terribly painful for Horatio. Archie
had sworn to himself silently the moment only minutes ago in
that cabin Horatio's eyes had met his, that he would never
hurt his friend so deeply again. He had already grieved him,
and he had known he would the moment of his decision what
seemed like an eternity ago.
His eyes softened further as he perched there, whispered
about by the wind yet remaining in place. In thoughtful
silence, he carefully reached out his hand to brush the
splintered, weathered yet strong wood up at that top. His
hand softly melted into the surface, as though it didn't
exist. He did and he didn't, he knew, but he could find no
words to describe to Horatio how different his world had
become now. For a moment, he paused, his eyes distant as he
reached a part of himself to watch over his friend. Horatio
had drifted into a restless, dreamless sleep and Archie
released a soft whisper of a sigh, the sound only a glimmer
of sweet wind above the sails. He wished there could be a
way to help him, a way to show him or make him see what he
felt so strongly inside his own heart. It was a precious
thought that he held secret, the way he cared. It was not in
the slightest way romantic, yet it was a sort of love, a
bond-love that bound only the closest of friends in spirit.
That had been why he had given his life. Couldn't Horatio
see? His life had nearly been over, but Horatio had so much
to do, so much to *life* to have died for a lie... And it
hadn't been Horatio's fault for that blasted accident such a
long time ago, in a strange, twisted way it had been his and
he knew it. He was aware that he alone knew the true story
of what had happened to Captain sawyer, and yet it was still
a blue, like a nightmare they could never slip awake from.
He knew this was no dream, and that his entire grasp of
reality had somehow, mystifyingly, changed.
A pang of regret, cold, touched his soul, as he stood there,
the strong yet soft wind tossing strands of his
golden-lighted blond hair across his forehead in the
darkness. He wished there could have been another way, he
supposed. Not because he didn't like being here, but because
there was only one truth he knew of his existence here in the
slipstream world between mortal and spirit... And whether he
could still exist all depended on Horatio. What would happen
if his friend stopped believing? Archie shuddered at the
thought, wishing there had been some way he could be with
Horatio always. But for now, he would keep it a secret.
He offered soft words, whispers, to the darkness. "Rest
well, Horatio..." Then he disappeared silently into the
night.