I can feel... are you there?
Yes, I am here. I'll always be here.
Archie... Is that really you?
Oh, H'ratio, my friend. You can hear me.
Oh my-- how is this happening? How can this be! You died, I was there when they buried you.
Yes, my body died. But my soul will never die. I'm at peace, H'ratio! I am free!
Then why can I hear you?
Because I am here. Inside of you. When I died to everyone else, your dreams of me keep me alive with you.
So this was your choice?
Absolutely and wholeheartedly, just as it was my choice to take the blame of Captain Sawyer's accident. I don't regret it for a moment.
Oh, Archie...! (sob)
Shhhh. Please, don't be sad over me.
How can I not? I feel so empty, so hurt, so... It's like having my heart ripped out until my chest is empty. I feel like I'm only half alive without you.
(Sigh) And it grieves me to see you cry. You've always been the strong one, use some of that strength now.
Every strong tower has to have a support. (Pause) I have been given a command now and orders to take it. She's a beauty, they call her Retribution.
Yes, I know. And I'm very proud of you, H'ratio. I always knew you'd make command someday.
But it's so different. Somehow I always imagined you would go with me.
But, H'ratio, I am with you! Look down deep inside yourself. Can't you feel it? Like a kindling flame. That's me, I will always live there until the day your soul is set free to go with me.
It's not the same, Archie. I can't see your smile, or look upon your laughing blue eyes. I can't stand there beside you on the deck, talking about the stupid weather or pretending to hate drama when you beg me to go to the theatre... It just wouldn't be the same.
I know. I knew the price when I made my choice. But, please don't grieve. It didn't hurt, you know. I wasn't lying when I told you that. And it is better now.
Look at it past your point of view, Horatio. You're name's been cleared, you've been made a commander, you get to work with Bush, and a fine man he is you'll learn, and I'm free. Simpson does not hold me bound by anything. I am free, free of pain, free of nightmares, free of the fits. And, best of all, we will always be together now.
Can I see you?
Not yet, you aren't ready for that.
Now you are my voice of reason, I suppose.
If you needed that, H'ratio, I certainly wouldn't be the one to come to.
A feeling, from a distant and painful world. Rough hands. Shaking. Losing the mental connection.
H'ratio! H'ratio, what's wrong!
No -- I can't stay with you. I'm floating. I'm drifting away...
I will not leave you.
No, Archie, you're... I can't feel you anymore! Archie! Where are you?!
The shaking became more gripping and rough, more real to his senses. He fought with every shred in himself to cling to the bare thread of light, Archie's presence.
No, please, please... (sob)
"Mr. Hornblower? Mr. Hornblower, snap out of it!"
Horatio's senses became more alert and he could feel his heart
pounding hard in his chest. He was covered in sweat and he could
feel the tears streaming out of his eyes. More shaking. "Mr.
Hornblower, it's me. Bush! Wake up."
Horatio groaned, feeling the hot tears trickling down the sides of his face. "Archie!" he cried softly, voice broken.
"Wake up, it's alright. It's just a nightmare that's all. Just a dream," Bush said soothingly, bringing back every sense of reality in Horatio's aching body.
Horatio shook his head, eyes still closed. "No," he whispered in denial. "It was no nightmare." He knew Bush didn't understand, how could he? And it would be so easy to dismiss it as a dream. Yet it wasn't a dream... was it? He took a deep but shaky breath and looked up to meet Bush's eyes. Then it hit him. They were blue, just like Archie's were, only not quite as bright, and didn't hold nearly the same meaning for Horatio.
Bush appeared suddenly uncomfortable and tried to change the subject. "Well, I hope your dreams haven't affected your appetite too much. I came to wake you, you're half an hour late for breakfast and Emma's pancakes taste best hot," he said cheerfully. He made his way to the other side of the room, where he kept his stuff.
Then Hornblower realized that he was no longer in his private cubicle in the Renown's wardroom, nor was he in his familiar shared cabin back on the Indefatigable. For a moment, he had hoped that this was all a dream, that all was well, that Archie hadn't taken that bullet. But, no. He recognized the room now. It was one of the cozy rooms in the inn above the tavern. He remembered, suddenly, everything that had changed. He wasn't even in Jamaica anymore. He barely even remembered the four days voyage back to Plymouth, Horatio couldn't help but feel numb to the world.
He laid back onto his pillow and watched the other man in the room with mild interest. His thoughts were mostly preoccupied with whoever or whatever he had felt, before his forcefully rude awakening. He recalled the feeling of the warmth inside him, the tingling sensation he had felt at the soul's touch. Was it real? Was Archie really there? Horatio walled back the tears that came from a million different emotions. He had never before felt so much... yet so little. He was flooded with grief, joy, numbness, wishing, and dreading all at once. Yet at the same time, he had lost half of his soul, and he could feel the near-physical ache that tightened in his chest. Even through his efforts, tears leaked out of the corners of his eyes.
Bush was making himself busy, cleaning up his things and arranging them in his sea chest. Archie used to do the same thing, whenever the morning dawned on leave from the ship. Only there had been a laughter and a joy in those days, when Horatio used to tease his friend about last-minute packing. Usually he would receive a playful punch for his efforts, or a tickle and, as only Archie really knew, Horatio was very ticklish. He couldn't help the slight hint of a smile that touched his lips at the memory. But any mention or memory of Archie Kennedy was... bittersweet. And it sent a sharp spear of pain to the already constant ache inside him.
Oh, God, why did You let this happen in the first place?! he cried silently, pulling his knees up to his chest and burying his face in his arms to hide the tears that now streamed down his cheeks. Bush wouldn't understand, he never would understand. The man was trying to be a friend, and that in itself was touching. But it was not the same bond that he had shared with Archie, the feeling of being connected by heart to a bright, pure light.
That was when Horatio broke down. His walls crashed, and he sat there in bed, with his face buried in the blankets, and he just cried. Thankfully, Bush was no longer present in the room. But even if he had been, Horatio wouldn't have even cared. He just wanted to run, to be away from the outside world. Oh, if I could sit one more time on the yardarm of the Indy with you. To see you laugh, to see you cry, to just be with... you. He felt the deep sobs come, but he didn't try to stop them. For the first time in his life, he didn't care.
"Oh, my friend," he whispered brokenly. "How can I command the Retribution if you aren't there?"
But, H'ratio, I am with you, Archie's soft words from Horatio's dream echoed back. Was it a dream? Or was it a vision of something real, something true. Yet at the same time, it all seemed surreal, beyond just real.
Grand! Now I'm going insane, like Captain Sawyer, he reprimanded himself. They were strong words, but no words could describe the pain-filled feelings that his own thoughts had made burst inside him. Horatio set his jaw in determination, and brushed tears from his cheeks with the back of his hand. It would be shameful if anyone walked in and saw him, an officer, crying so uncontrollably. And Archie would have hated to see him this way, Horatio had always been his strength.
But it's because of you that I am like this! Because of your stupid choice and your blasted logic in the situation, he snapped inside his head, glaring into space. He felt about ready to throw something.
Logic had nothing to do with it.
Horatio stopped and held his breath. His head came up and he glanced around the room, wiping more tears away with the back of his hand. "W-who's here? Who said that?" he demanded quietly, trying very hard to keep his voice even but not managing very well.
There were several seconds of absolute silence then, Haven't you figured out yet that my intellect doesn't motivate me? It wasn't logic, H'ratio, it was love. Horatio gasped and shook his head in wonderment. He knew that voice, he knew that feeling of bright warmth, Archie's presence.
"Oh my... Archie?" he breathed, leaping with all he had in him inwardly toward the light inside him that was his friend. He suddenly had to stop, he couldn't go any further toward his friend. More tears formed but didn't fall. He reached out his 'hand' toward the warm presence. At the same moment, a tendril of light touched it, sending a shiver of joy, excitement, love, and pleasure through Horatio. It engulfed his hand, bringing him closer to whatever burned alive inside himself. He lost his self control and gasped for breath. "Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh! Archie, it is you, isn't it?" he cried, ignoring the tears of joy that filled his eyes.
The presence shifted somewhat and Horatio thought he could almost see something, a face. But he could feel the smile, the warmth that washed over his torn soul. Yes, Horatio. Yes.
Horatio swallowed the lump in his throat and brushed his tears away with his hand. Inwardly, he was clinging to every touch, every hint of Archie's presence. It was like reaching for the light at the bottom of a dark pit, though the light was only barely there, it somehow send a ray of hope to the chill of grief and hopelessness. "I can't... Archie, how can this be? How in the world is this happening?!" he wondered in disbelief out loud. He felt like jumping, crying, and laughing all at the same time. Never had so many emotions coursed through him together. He found himself almost grinning and weeping. Please, get a grip on yourself, Horatio Hornblower! he ordered himself mentally, what he was truly doing remaining subconcious until a trickle of something sparkling shivered through him. The feeling took him by surprise, and it took him several moments to place it.
It dawned on him as laughter, the laughter that filled his friend's voice. Oh, H'ratio! Still trying to be the strong one for me, even though I'm dead! Archie berated him gently, sounding somehow softer than he ever had at the softest moments of his life. Horatio's accompanying chuckle was suddenly cut short when he heard those last words and he felt a deep pang stab his heart. He inhaled sharply and bit his lip, walling back the fresh wave of tears that wanted so badly to appear in his dark eyes. He fought the urge hard. Archie caught himself sharply, suddenly seeming to realize his mistake. He was quiet, tone pleadingly apologetic. Oh... Oh, gosh, H'ratio, I'm sorry. I let my tongue slip away from me-
No! Horatio cut in defensively. No, I'm just... It was hard for me, Archie, to watch you die. Somehow, I'm still not sure this is real. I feel like I'll start believing it only to just be roused from an uneasy dream by Mr. Bush.
Archie was silent for a moment. I... guess it does take some getting used to, he admitted quietly. Horatio could almost feel his blue eyes looking down and away, though he saw nothing. He hadn't even noticed when the tears had subsided back into the dull ache that somehow seemed less real than before. All he could feel was the familiar self of the young man who had somehow become his best friend, his helper, his brother, his laughter, and his life. How he had become those things, Horatio didn't quite know. It had taken time, had grown gradually, but now he could see just how much this man -- or ghost -- or whatever he was, meant to him. And it amazed him.
"I don't know, Archie. It would be a lot easier for me -- if I could see you," he whispered aloud.
Archie fell silent for a long time. After several long seconds, he began to wathdraw his 'hand' from Horatio. Horatio gasped and couldn't stifle the pitiful sounding cry that voiced itself quickly from his own throat, groping and leaping frantically for the retreating warmth. No! Noooooooo! Don't leave me, please..! He wasn't sure if he'd voiced those words out loud or not and, frankly, he didn't care. The further away Archie's presence drifted, the more a panic began to fill Horatio. "No, don't go!" he pleaded, nearly crying and feeling so stupid for needing this contact so much. But the gaping hole in his heart had begun to mend in the glow of his friend's spirit. He wasn't ready to lose that, not yet.
Don't worry, I won't go far. I'm not leaving you, Archie coaxed, the sound of his voice a mere shadow of what it had been, as though he were being heard from across the bay.
They broke contact.
For a moment, Hornblower sat there in bed, stunned at the sudden lonliness of his own thoughts. For a moment, he was disoriented, then managed to collect his thoughts and bring himself back into reality.
Suddenly, a gentle whisper of something rushed through the room like a spring breeze. Horatio glanced over at the windows, expecting to see one of them partially opened, as it would be on such a fine summer morning in Plymouth. Realization dawned when his brown eyes noticed every single latch locked down tight. Somehow longing and dreading what was to come, he turned slowly to the wispyish light that appeared like florescent blue mist in the middle of the room. Horatio sat, mystified and utterly spellbound as the misty light took on a vaguely human shape in a matter of seconds. Then, suddenly, he found his eyes meeting those of Archie Kennedy.
Archie paused for a fleeting moment, then quirked a small amused smile. For the next few seconds, he seemed to glow as though he were sunshine itself. Then the golden light in his long blond hair and lightly tanned skin subsided and there stood his best friend, as real and as apparently human as Horatio himself. At his friend's dumbfounded expression, Archie's smile widened to a grin. And it was amazing how dazzling that grin suddenly seemed to Horatio, played out across those handsomely boyish features. It was a grin he thought he should never see again.
Horatio opened his mouth to say something, but no words would come. Finally he managed one word, in a wondering whisper. "How?"
Archie closed the distance between them and perched himself on the edge of Horatio's mattress. He took a deep breath and exhaled in a sigh. A feeling of something... thoughtfulness, it felt like, trickled from him and shifted the atmosphere in the room. His bright cobalt blue eyes swept down, then over, and met Horatio's. Horatio lost track of time, he had no idea of whether they were silent for moments or hours. He was lost in the gaze of a man he had never thought he would ever see again.
"I'm..." Archie was groping for words. "When I died," he paused, speaking very carefully with a softness in his voice, "I was missed, I know. But only you really grieved. Until you almost died from withdrawal. But, H'ratio, it was that memory inside you, that burning need that kept me here. It's like I told you before, I'm alive inside you." He spoke firmly, his eyes blazing with the fire of truth. Horatio didn't know what to think, he wasn't quite sure that he was even working on rational thought. But he believed Archie. He always had.
Horatio sat there in bed marveling at Kennedy's physical presence. Archie looked different from the last time he had seen him. Instead of the feverish, dying young man, here sat an Archie Kennedy who was perfectly healthy and beaming in youth. Where his face had been pained and pale on the sickbed, it was now golden and almost glowing in health. Horatio thought he had never seen his best friend looking so well. The truth was, Archie had likely never looked so alive ever since his first step aboard the Justinian. He now knew what he had meant earlier in his dreams about being free.
Without even realizing it, Horatio found himself wanting to ask another question. "Why wouldn't you appear to me until now?" It was almost a demand, but asked very softly.
Archie sighed and looked away out toward the window. It was several seconds before he broke the silence. "I was afraid that you... wouldn't take seeing me very well. I mean, now that I've... left your world," he answered quietly. It was just barely above a whisper and wouldn't have even been audible except for the silence of the room. He turned back to Horatio, eyes shining almost unnaturally. "I didn't want you to hurt any more than you already are."
There it was, simplistically said and true. And it hit Horatio between the eyes. He gave up his very life for me, and he's still trying to keep me from hurting. A friend, even beyond death, he thought, stunned. Then he met Archie's bright blue eyes. He could feel emotion tugging at him, wanting to come free. Archie, what did I ever do to deserve a friend like you? he asked, holding back the urge to cry. But that was over, he had cried enough tears for one morning.
Horatio wasn't sure whether his spirit friend had heard his thoughts or not, but Archie smiled just then. After another few seconds, his expression turned playful. "You'd better not let me distract you, H'ratio. Bush is probably going to storm the door down wondering why you aren't showing up for breakfast," he told him.
Horatio snorted and grinned, without even realizing it. It was the first time he had felt so lighthearted ever since Buckland had given him command of the Spanish prize ship from the fort. "Archie, I could spend all day here with you. I'm not thinking about breakfast," he countered.
The blond young officer in front of him laughed, eyes sparkling with merriment. Horatio knew that look, the one that meant Archie was in the mood to tease. "Is that what your stomach tells you?" he asked pointedly. Hornblower went silent, feeling a rumble that he hadn't even noticed before in his middle and feeling suddenly extremely hungry.
He mock-glared at his friend, unable to completely suppress his smile. After a minute, he sighed and chuckled softly. "Alright, you win."
Archie stood and offered a hand to the dark haired officer. Horatio stared, unsure, at the hand for a moment. As real as he appeared, somewhere in the back of Horatio's mind, Archie was still a ghost. Slowly, he reached out his own hand and very carefully, lightly brushed his friend's fingers. He gasped when he felt his skin against human flesh as solid as his own. Archie gripped his hand firmly and half-pulled him out of bed and to his feet.
Their hands parted, and Horatio studied his own long fingers for a few seconds.
Archie frowned slightly. "Is something wrong?" he asked.
Horatio shook his head, brushing away his thoughts. "...Nothing. I just... I didn't realize that you were so-"
It was a soft word, spoken quietly. Archie met his eyes with blue ones that held a quiet understanding. It had been second nature for him to finish Horatio's sentence, he had always done that when they worked together on the Indefatigable and Renown. But that one word conveyed more wordless understanding than Horatio even knew his best friend had.
Horatio nodded slightly. "No offense?" he cut in quickly.
One corner of Archie's mouth lifted in a dismissive half-smile. "None taken," he reassured him.
Horatio untangled himself from his blankets and walked over to his chest. He knelt down, opened the chest, and began rummaging for clean clothes. He watched Archie out of the corner of one eye. Archie casually perched himself on the bed again, this time on the footboard. To Horatio it seemed almost as though nothing had changed. As though Archie hadn't taken the shot, and the trial in Jamaica had never taken place. Except that Horatio was in Plymouth now, awaiting the official command that was to be given him.
"Archie?" Horatio suddenly started.
Kennedy turned, an eyebrow raised in quiet question. His blue eyes were widely innocent for several seconds, as they always were when his attention had been distracted and had been suddenly caught. "Hmmm?"
He chose his next words as carefully as he could. "I am..." he began hesitantly, then just let himself blurt out what was truly on his mind. He stood and took his friend's hand firmly, meeting Archie's brilliant blue regard. "I am to be commander of the Retribution, and I would like you to come with me, please?" he asked quickly, feeling ridiculously like he was begging.
Archie opened his mouth slightly to say something, but Horatio continued, cutting him off. "You don't have to, but I can't stand the thought of going without you again. Oh, gosh, I never noticed it before, but I need you!"
"H'ratio--" It was said very softly, tenderly.
Horatio went on, ignoring him. He was pacing now across the floor space, on a tangent. He had never felt like this before, but it now seemed so important to get it out of him now. "I mean, you don't have to even speak to me, but I couldn't stand losing you again!" he went on, trying to keep his voice from shaking. He knew what he was doing, everything he was feeling, wasn't manly, but he didn't care. Never before had he told anything about this to Archie, but he needed to realize just how much he relied on him.
"Horatio--" A little louder this time, but still gentle.
"Look, I know I'm acting like an idiot, and I know that you've never seen me this way. But I haven't felt like myself ever since that trial. By golly, I may be going crazy like Captain Sawyer, but however you were able to come back... I'll cling to it," He finished, his mind awhirl. There. He had said it. Oh, stow it, Horatio! he ordered himself. You're acting like a child--
Hornblower stopped and felt his mind clear for the next few seconds. Then he realized all that he had just blurted to the world, and he felt a blush burning on his cheeks and ears. He tried to look down and away, but Archie caught his gaze in his own.
The young blond jumped agilely off the footboard of the bed, and closed the distance between them. He took his friend's hands in his own, and Horatio could feel the coolness of them. Archie held Horatio's gaze, speaking a thousand things without a single word. After several moments, he smiled gently, eyes shining. "Horatio Hornblower, I would be honored to travel with you on your journey," he said.
Horatio was silent for almost a minute. He studied Archie's cobalt blue eyes, saw the friendship there. And the love. The quiet love of a man who would, and had, given his life for his best friend. And he found himself grinning. After several more moments of hesitation, he simply took a step forward and embraced Archie, not caring how unmanly or unprofessional it looked. Archie was his friend, and that was all that mattered.
He pulled back suddenly from their warm hug, and smiled. Then Archie grinned playfully and gave a quick salute. "Lead the way, Mr. Hornblower," he said curtly.
Horatio bowed quickly. "Aye, aye, Mr. Kennedy."
They left the room, together once again. And the world began to feel right to Horatio once more. He knew, as a commander, this day and all the other days ahead, would be trying. But somehow, he knew he could take whatever would come, as long as he had his best friend with him, encouraging his great potential. Archie had been right the day he had died. Everything was better now. Horatio smiled as he descended the stairs and went to eat breakfast. Maybe he could handle a stack of Emma's pancakes after all...
THE END... OF THE NEW BEGINNING!
(A sequel to be written soon. Have any comments, please tell
me. But be gentle, please. This is my first fanfic.)