Unfurl the Sails
by Sarah B.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is a deathfic, just so you know.
"Master's coming up the walk."
The butler made the proclamation in his gruff voice, alerting the household staff before taking his customary place beside the large white front door of the huge Victorian mansion. The other maids and servants scurried to their places, and lastly a short white-haired woman came to stand next to the butler, pausing only to smooth her dark dress. The butler glanced at her with a small smile, then leaned forward and quickly opened the door.
"Welcome back, sir," he said congenially to the cloaked figure that stepped out of the darkness and pouring rain into the dry warmth of the large foyer. "Beast of a night."
In an instant a manservant appeared to whisk off the dripping-wet cloak, and the butler looked into the sad brown eyes of his master, 86-year-old Commodore Horatio Hornblower.
The butler smiled. "There's a fire going in your room, sir, and dry clothes laid out."
"Thank you, Robert." the commodore said in his usual low whisper, and headed for the ornate staircase without a second glance.
The white-haired woman glanced at the butler, then stepped forward just as the commodore hit the first step. "Was it an enjoyable evening for you, sir?"
The commodore paused, one hand on the intricately carved balustrade, his lined face hidden in shadow. He looked down, his voice almost a whisper as he said, "Yes, Mrs. Brown, it was very...enlightening." He paused only another moment, then made his way up the stairs and into the dimly lit hall beyond.
The manservant holding the wet coat shook his head and said to the butler, "He should know better than to go out in this weather. He'll catch his death of cold, and then where will we be?"
The butler scowled at him. "And who asked your opinion,eh? You just tend to the commodore's cloak before it ruins the flooring. Off with you."
The manservant blinked, but knew better than to argue and scampered off. The butler sighed and looked again at the dark staircase where his master had been, and didn't have to look to know that Mrs. Brown was at his elbow, regarding the same scene.
"He's right, you know," She said softly as they both gazed up the staircase. "The commodore's not a young man anymore."
"Aye," Robert replied, rubbing his chin, "But it's better that he should be out there with people than stuck away in his room with just his memories. Besides, I don't think there's a misery around that would have the nerve to settle on such a one as him."
Mrs. Brown nodded. "Still, it must be hard on him, musn't it? To be this age, and be alone."
Robert sighed again, and turned away to tend to his duties. "Yes, but then from what I hear he's always been a solitary man. It's possible he doesn't even notice."
Horatio finally made it to his bedroom, slowly walked inside and shut the door, his mind consumed by the thought: I'm alone.
It wasn't a self-pitying, or even a melancholy thought. Just the mundane realization: I'm alone.
The lights were low in the large room, a fire burning in the fireplace the chief source of light. In that flickering glow Horatio saw that a fresh suit was lying on the double bed, a brandy sitting on his bookstand by the two wingback chairs that sat invitingly before the fireplace. But Horatio was not ready to sit down and drink; not yet.
He made his way across the room, unbuttoning the brass fasteners on his wet uniform as he did so. He felt tired, but not unnaturally so; at eighty-six Horatio was used to the aches and pains of old age, used to the fact his eyes, once so keen, didn't focus the way they used to; used to the sad reality that he could no longer smell the salt air, or hear the waves as they met the shore some distance from the balcony of his bedroom. Yes, Horatio took old age as he'd taken everything else in life: in stride and with total acceptance.
I don't feel old, Horatio mused, pausing to study himself in the bureau mirror as he made his slow way past it. He was still slender, still somewhat boyish-looking, although the wrinkles that came with years on the sea took away from that image somewhat. His hair was still abundant and wavy, and now fell in snow-white curls over his forehead. And it seems so short, Horatio thought, reaching up one hand to brush the hairs on the back of his head. It does sometimes feel...odd.
Horatio sighed, tried to shake the melancholy off. I shouldn't have gone to that dinner tonight, he thought sourly as he took off the damp jacket, I knew they'd be talking about the war in America. Knew they'd be talking about the latest news. And knew it would make me feel like a bloody old dinosaur. And I was right.
It was an amiable enough evening, some naval officers together, just to see each other. Horatio had gotten a lot of respect, of course, but still there was a gleam of - something - in that captain's eye when halfway through the dinner he'd turned to Horatio and said, I suppose you've heard about the big sea battle in America? The one between the Ironclads? Fancy that's a far league from your days, eh, commodore?
Horatio only hoped that his congenial smile belied the way the captain's words had sliced through his heart. Because it was a far league from those days, and Horatio knew it. And hated it.
Ironclads, Horatio thought dimly, putting the wet jacket on the bed but not picking up the dry clothes. Instead, he sat down on the bed and stared at the flames in the fireplace. Slowly, his dark eyes traveled to the large oil painting that hung above the mantel. It was a beautiful canvas of two frigates engaged in battle, all smoke and fire and billowed sails. Horatio stared at it, could hear in his mind the bellow of the cannon, the screech and crack of splintering wood, the groaning of the timbers as the great ships came about and faced each other.
Great ships. The ships of the line. The Indefatigable.
Horatio sighed and ran a hand over his face. The years had dulled him somewhat, but at the remembrance of that name it was as if he was standing on the deck again, a callow youth of seventeen, determined to do his duty and fulfill whatever destiny awaited him. He'd been a boy still, rough and raw in many ways, but thank goodness Captain Pellew didn't throw him overboard for his mistakes; saw great promise in him, in fact. Said so himself, while the two of them were standing in the sunlight and the wind was singing through the rigging. Horatio sighed again, felt an ache in his heart. All these years later, and I can still hear the wind in the rigging. Remarkable.
The ironclads would change that, of course. Yes, that's a new way of fighting all right, the captain had said at dinner. No more of your lumbering frigates firing great holes in wooden planking. No more praying for the right wind, and enough of it, to get where you want to go. Sleek, modern, and fast, that's the way of it these days. Quite an improvement, eh, gentlemen?
Horatio had smiled with the others, and agreed. But as he gazed at the dancing flames, he knew it wasn't so. And lamented that the great ships of the line must turn to dust also, and never be seen again. Like the dinosaurs. And myself...
Now there you go, getting all depressed again, Horatio chided himself as he rose from the bed and walked toward the fireplace. You knew when you were a young man that the ways of the sea would change and improve, as mankind did. You with your keen mathematical mind, how did you turn into such a damned romantic?
Horatio settled himself into one of the wingback chairs, and knew he didn't have an answer. He simply missed the days of the Indefatigable.
They seemed so close sometimes, Horatio thought as he picked up the brandy glass. Sometimes if he closed his eyes, he could hear the creaking of that great ship of the line as she pitched and bobbed in the water, the sunlight gleaming off her sails, the wind whistling through the rigging as she plied the high seas. The tang of the sea air, the rush of water as it slapped against her broad hull - he could sense it, feel it, live it as if he had only to open his eyes, and it would be before him once again.
Even though he knew it wasn't. The ironclads had come, and his world was now a curious history.
Horatio took a sip of brandy, leaned back in the wingchair and closed his eyes. It took a little reaching, to be sure, but the brandy helped, and after a moment the rain outside became the chill downpour of a gray afternoon, and he could feel the rocking of the jollyboat that was taking him to his first ship, the Justinian. Him, Horatio Hornblower, seventeen, shivering, and minutes away from being seasick all over the lower deck. The sorriest midshipman in the navy.
The boat was rocking, he could feel the rain slicing into his face. Oh, it was cold, but it was adventure, and he would make the most of it. He would make his father proud -
"Shore boat ahoy!"
Horatio stirred in his chair at that voice, the first voice that had reached his ears as he neared the ship. He was looking up, up the rain-slicked hull of the Justinian to the broadhatted figure in the rain tarpaulin, who was standing alone at the entry way looking at him expectantly, smiling in welcome.
Archie. It was Archie Kennedy, seventeen again like him. And smiling. Dear God.
The rain was so cold and fierce, and once again Horatio felt the fear that had gripped him, the uncertainly as he'd stood in that unsteady little boat, bobbing beside the huge ship with no idea what to do.
And there was Archie, leaning over the side, nodding reassurance.
"Jump! You'll be all right!"
Horatio had jumped. And it had been all right.
Of course, Horatio had no idea that the helpful midshipman who gave him a hand aboard the Justinian would become his dearest friend. No, he was too busy being miserable and seasick to do much with Archie's kindness other than follow it. Yes, Archie had been a real help at the beginning, all cheerfulness and chatty conversation, until -
- no. No need to recall those memories. Leave them be.
Horatio opened his eyes, saw that the fire was still burning bright and the rain was still sparkling against the set of French doors that stood next to the fireplace. They led to the balcony beyond; when he had designed the house, Horatio had built that bedroom with the balcony for a purpose, for the balcony overlooked the harbour and he enjoyed watching the ships come and go, even after he no longer sailed on them. But no ships would be sailing tonight. And soon, the ships in the harbour would be iron ones...
...a far league away. Indeed.
Sighing, Horatio swirled the brandy in his glass and gazed at the burgundy patterns the firelight made in the red liqour. What had he been thinking about again? Archie. Horatio glanced up, looked at the other wingback chair and felt a flutter of pain sear him inside. Archie.
Archie had only ever made lieutenant, but that was good enough for the young man whose every decision seemed to be a painful struggle. Horatio had risen in rank, made other friends, achieved his share of fame - whatever that was - but damned if it didn't all dissolve whenever he and Archie got together. Then the years would fade, and they were a pair of coltish teenagers again. Even when they were both old men.
There were several times, Horatio knew, that if fate had gone a different way they would never have become old men. He shuddered as a black night came to his memory, him sitting like a bird far above the deck of the Papillon, peering into the night to see an untethered jollyboat drifting too far away...
Then pain, dizziness, horrible anger -
- No. That's over.
And then, some time later, a miraculous reunion in a Spanish prison. But Archie was weak, demoralized, irrationally determined not to hinder Horatio's escape no matter what the cost. Horatio shook his head. He may have said some convincing words -
"Archie, I won't survive if you don't help me."
-but it was Archie who had made the decision to live, under what temptation to die Horatio could only guess at. Guess at, but never really want to know. Not really.
Then, a while later, the scales of life and death tipped once again, this time for himself. Horatio took another drink, thought of Muzillac. Of Mariette, and the darkness that was drawn across his heart when she left. When she was -
Horatio shut his eyes. It was almost too painful.
But there was Archie again, again telling him to jump, that it would be all right. Pulling him back to life, urging him to run. Looking after him.
They talked about it sometimes, later. Much later, when Archie would pay him a visit at the mansion and they would sit in front of the fire and talk, sometimes the conversation would turn to those adventures, and they would laugh at the fear they had known, laugh at it and conquer it. I was certain I'd buried my career the day I panicked on the bridge, Archie would chuckle in his soft tones, the firelight blending his aged face into shades of ruddy youth, and turning his now-white hair blond once again. I would have given my oath on it, Horatio. I thought I was done for.
And Horatio would look at his friend and not say anything, only marvel that after all this time Archie's voice still held the tenor of surprise in it, as if he'd had no idea he possessed the courage to run across that bridge, do that heroic deed, and other heroic deeds after. Then after a pause Horatio would shrug and say with a smile, well, it looks like you would have made a very inexpert fortune teller, Lieutenant Kennedy. And they would both laugh.
Horatio sighed and glanced again at the empty chair next to him, felt older suddenly and out of place. It was so quiet, now that Archie was gone.
He had passed on just the year before. It had not been unexpected; on the contrary, Horatio had known for some time that his friend was ill. Archie knew it too, but they never talked about his increasing tiredness, or dizzy spells, or the frequent minor colds and fevers he'd fallen prey too. Instead, in that last year, Archie had been over nearly every night, as if he knew what Horatio knew, and could not bear to face.
There was yet another bridge to cross. And this time it could only be crossed alone.
So they had talked a lot that last year, always about their days on the Indie, when they were both young and had their whole lives before them. Archie would ask Horatio to tell him the story about the rice ships and Mr. Tapling, even though he'd heard it a million times. And Horatio would always oblige. Together they would remember their first real fight, the terror and the sheer exhilerating thrill of it, and always that reminiscence would end in Horatio's light question, how many Frenchmen did you kill, Archie? Always the answer was the same: Two. Well, one certainly. You should have been there, Horatio. You should have been there.
A few brandies later, the fire would die down some and the talk would get mellower. They would talk about Captain Pellew, who was a surrogate father to them both but especially to Horatio. He really looked after you, you know, Archie would say softly. Horatio wouldn't deny it; it would have been politic to say Pellew looked after all his crew, but Horatio knew Archie well enough to know that lie wasn't needed. Horatio had through his life continually thanked God that He'd seen fit to choose as champion to an awkward, uncertain boy the grandest lion the British Navy had ever been graced with. Without his guidance I would have been blighted many times over, Horatio would remark, unashamed when his voice broke and there was silence thereafter. Then amid the quiet crackle of the flame's Archie's quiet voice would say: Captain Pellew was quite an officer. We both owe our lives to him. And they would both gaze at the fire, and miss him.
Then the melancholy would threaten to be oppressive, and Archie would smile and say, didn't you tell me that Styles almost came to blows with you once over a chicken? Then Horatio would laugh, and they would talk about the crew again. Styles and Matthews and Oldroyd, and Finch too. Horatio would groan over when he'd become their leader, and gone belowdecks to find them engaged in a rat-killing contest. Horatio would laugh and say, I swear, Archie, at that moment I would have given a year's pay to be anyone else on the ship but the head of that crew. But they were good men, Archie would point out as he sipped his brandy. Good men.
They were good men. Matthews was a kind of uncle, never hesitating to give Horatio his advice but wise enough to know when to give the youth free rein. And Styles had his opinions, but when the time came to do the job he did it. With only a little complaining, Archie said once with a smile. Finch unfortunately died too soon, but not before he was made a hero in Horatio's eyes, and Archie's as well. He saved my life, Horatio would say in wonder, and shake his head. Oldroyd was the youngest, and made the most mistakes, but that was all right. He pulled with the others once the moths had been cleared from his head, and in the end they were all the crew Horatio could have wanted. More. Then the brandy would be poured again, and the talk would continue.
Sometimes it would drift to the other officers, Bracegirdle and Eccleston. Occasionally they would laugh over their first impressions of Lord Edrington - "I know I should have been respectful, Horatio, but I really did think at first he was a horse's ass!" - or talk about the actress Kitty Cobham. Then a good-natured argument would ensue in which Archie would crow that if he had not frequented Drury Lane as a youth, Horatio would have never known Kitty wasn't really a duchess. Oh, I would have figured it out, Horatio would counter, and the banter would go on like that for a few minutes until the friends were tired of it and called it a draw.
Once or twice Clayton's name came up, but Horatio knew Archie didn't like to talk about those days much and didn't pursue the subject at length. Clayton was missed by both men, but the reasons surrounding his too-soon death threatened to break through the peaceful air of the evening and recall things best left buried. So Clayton was not discussed much, or Captain Keene, or the Justinian.
And there was one name that never came up at all.
It still haunts him, Horatio realized one night when there was a lull in the conversation and he glanced at Archie's eyes as he sat staring at the glowing fire. Sixty years later, how many adventures, love, trials, triumphs, and still there is that trace of sadness in his eyes, the slightest hint of fear that never went away, not completely.
Jack Simpson had been rotting in hell for sixty years. And Horatio knew sixty thousand more would not begin to pay the debt, or replace what had been stolen from his friend's eyes, and his heart. I would have paid that debt myself, if I could, Horatio thought. But it would never be enough.
Not that Archie had not been happy. He'd fought alongside Horatio, become a lieutenant, even fallen in love, although it had scared him to death. Trudy Whitehall was the daughter of one of Horatio's father's friends, and Horatio had always thought that it was his father's idea to invite her to the dinner celebrating his ascendance to the captaincy. She was a lovely girl, fierce and independant, and a good head shorter than he, and it might have gone his father's way if Trudy hadn't been accosted by that drunken officer in the courtyard just as Archie was passing by...
And to think I almost didn't go to that party, Archie marvelled later. Horatio knew Archie didn't like parties, didn't like crowds and noise, but still it was something honoring Horatio, so Archie went. And had become sufficiently flustered by the huge crowd to seek a moment's peace in the courtyard, and come to the aid of a fiesty slip of a girl who was having a rough time of it with a man twice her size.
Bold as you please, Trudy told Horatio later that night when she'd sought him out, I'm fighting old Bacchus off and from out of nowhere come this voice, bold as you please, get away from her it says. Like Stentor himself. Well, the drunken lout who's after me stands up so I took the opportunity to use some of those principles of physics I learned from father's books.
Horatio had been puzzled and said, what's that?
Trudy had laughed and said, I hooked one leg behind his knee and pushed him over backward.
They both laughed, then Trudy looked up at Horatio with those huge brown eyes and said, then the strange thing is I look around for my Hercules and he's nowhere to be found. Instead I see these two blue eyes as scared as I was, and this regular mortal being asks if I'm all right. He's scarce as tall as I am, Horatio, and that drunken bully could have flattened him right off. What made him think he'd want to risk a broken neck to save me from a few unwanted kisses?
Horatio had paused, and shrugged. If you knew Mr. Kennedy, Trudy, you wouldn't have to ask.
Oh, Trudy had said, and Horatio could tell from her eyes that the future had already been written. What's his name again?
And that was how Archie had met his wife.
She was good for him, Trudy was. She had always been strong, always been a fighter, had never wanted to shrink or hide from the dangers of the world. Archie saw her strength, drew toward it like a flower toward the sun, but he was afraid of it too, at first. What do I do, Horatio? He'd asked one night after they'd had a few ales in his father's cellar.
Do you like her? Horatio asked.
Archie didn't answer, took another drink of ale. The look in Archie's eyes was answer enough for Horatio, who'd seen terror in those light blue depths. This was terror too, of a different kind; if it had been bullying or a beating or a cowardly attack, Horatio knew he would see only sad acceptance in his friend's face. Those were things Archie understood. But affection - kindness - love - baffled that fragile soul, terrified it with their unfamiliarity. Archie was being offered real love for the first time in his life, and he was scared to death.
Thank God Trudy didn't run away. Many other girls would, would mistake that timidness for weakness, that fear for cowardice, and found another suitor with more experience in the ways of courtship. But not Trudy. She merely placed herself where Archie could find her - at teas, on the docks visiting Horatio, strolling in the Hornblower gardens at convenient times - and gradually drew him to her. He was rather like a shy colt, she told Horatio later. All he needed to know was that I meant him no harm.
She didn't understand Archie's shyness at that time, of course. She didn't ask why he seemed ready to flinch sometimes, or why he would jump if she opened the door without knocking first. Horatio waited for her to ask, in fact had an answer prepared that would tell her what she needed to know without embarrassing Archie or bringing up that hated name more often than necessary. But the courtship went on, and while she and Horatio talked at length about a lot of things, Archie's peculiar timidity never came up.
What days those were for Archie! He accepted Horatio's laughter at his combination of bewilderment and joy, and once boldened seemed to glow like a lantern whenever Trudy was around. Horatio spent a lot of time with them when he could, and heard all about it from one or the other of them when he was away. He marvelled at how Trudy seemed to place herself between Archie and the world without Archie ever knowing it. He needs me, her brown eyes said, and Horatio knew it was true. So of course they became engaged, and then married. And Horatio had the honor of toasting their continued happiness.
And they were happy, for their entire lives. There was sadness, of course. Trudy wanted children, and although Archie was petrified of fatherhood one long night's discussion with Horatio seemed to ease his fears. But Trudy had miscarried, first once, then again, and nearly died, and Horatio's father sadly advised that trying for more children might be too dangerous to consider. So Trudy became a favorite aunt and mother to the orphans of the town instead, and after Archie left the navy they became parents to the little ones no one else wanted. It seemed to satisfy them both.
Then there was that awful night, a few years after Archie and Trudy were married. They were all home on leave when Archie had been struck with a fever. Horatio and Trudy had both sat by his bedside, and Horatio could not help but think of another bedside, another time, and felt the same fear, experienced the same horrible thought: Archie might die.
He didn't die, thank God, but the fever had been long and exhausting on him, and weakened him terribly. Horatio's father did what he could, and Horatio visited, sometimes staying into the night just to reassure himself that everything was all right. And he really thought it was, until that black night when he was having some bread and cheese in the kitchen and Trudy appeared in the doorway, walked calmly to the table, sat down, and said four words that chilled Horatio to the very heart:
Horatio, who's Jack Simpson?
Horatio hadn't expected the question just then, and had completely forgotten the answer he'd so carefully prepared, but that didn't matter because Trudy put her hand over his, fixed him with her brown eyes and said, he cries the name at night, Horatio. He's scared of it. And now, when he's ill, he flinches when I touch him and sobs the name like a wounded child. I want to know why.
So what he could, Horatio told her. It was the only hope Archie had.
Horatio never knew what Trudy did with the tales he told her, never knew how she kept Archie's demons at bay, but she did. When Archie recovered, he seemed fitter, stronger, as if Trudy had given some of her iron will to him and asked nothing in return. Horatio never asked - that would have been improper - but thanked God daily that Trudy had come into Archie's life, and saved it in a way Horatio never could, not even if he'd dragged his friend out of a hundred prisons and talked platitudes until he was blue in the face. Archie marvelled at it, told Horatio countless times he was the luckiest man on earth, and showed Trudy every possible moment how happy he truly was. And finally, after they'd spent a lifetime together, he fell asleep in her arms with Horatio at his side, and crossed the final bridge alone.
Come on, Horatio - Let's go -
Horatio blinked, looked at the fire, thought he'd dozed off. What had he been thinking about? Archie. Trudy. He stretched, winced as the old bones and muscles protested, glanced through the French doors to see that it was still raining outside. Probably time to get to bed.
Horatio set the brandy glass on the stand, looked once more at the vacant chair beside him. You were the last one who knew, he thought sadly as he watched the firelight make patterns on the worn fabric, over the arms and the back. I can talk about the old days, Archie, but you were the last one who knew what I meant when I talked about Pellew and Styles and that glorious moment when we stood on the topmast of the Indie, with the world at our feet and the wind in our hair. People are kind, but they don't know. And the topmasts are gone, Archie, their mighty sails furled forever. Their fine English wood is iron now...
It really was time to go to bed, but the fire was warm and Horatio was comfortable and drowsy with brandy, so he closed his eyes again and drifted with his bittersweet mood. Yes, the topmasts are gone ...and the sails, and the fine fighting vessels we knew. Oh, the ships are still here, but they are so many antiques now, so many museum pieces. Captain Pellew, I know you were a modern man fond of whatever would win the battle with the lowest cost in lives, but you always stood so tall and proud on the Indie, staring over the decks with the sails flaring above you and the great ship plowing the waves like Moses parting the Red Sea. You were not made for these new ships, sir. I fancy I was not, either. Perhaps the young men of today were. We'll see.
But they'll never see the likes of the Indie. She was a grand ship, wasn't she? How I should like to see her under sail again. How I should like to sail her to the ends of the earth. It would be grand indeed...
The next thing Horatio knew the light of day was shining on his closed eyelids, although it took him a moment to understand it. Damn, I did fall asleep, he thought, and reckoned that Robert would be up in a few moments to chastise him about the cold he'd catch from sleeping in wet clothes. Well, let him do his worst, Horatio decided. I'm eighty-six and a commodore, I can do what I want.
The sunlight in the room was warm, and Horatio found himself in no hurry to open his eyes. In fact, he felt quite well and rested, and thought as he stirred in the chair that despite Robert's misgivings, sleeping in the chair had not been half-bad for him. He hadn't felt this good in years...
A voice in the room, and not Robert's. Horatio started a little, but wasn't afraid, merely rubbed his eyes open and blinked. A figure was standing a few feet from him, where the open French door led out onto the sundrenched balcony. The light was so bright Horatio had to squint, but before his eyes had performed that reflex he knew who it was, and before he could stop himself he said quietly, "Archie?"
It was indeed Archie, or, Horatio amended to himself as the figure smiled at him, his memory of Archie as a young man, dressed in his blue-jacketed lieutenant's uniform. Well, why not - he had been thinking about those days before he'd fallen asleep, had he not? Logical then to dream of old friends now gone, and see them again. It was only a temporary respite from the realities of a world gone beyond him, but Horatio decided to play the vision out, and see where it led him. An old man's adventure, the only one left. Last of the dinosaurs...
Archie took a step forward, still smiling, the brilliant sun outside shining off his blond hair and dancing in his light blue eyes. He looked fit, well, young and eager again, and Horatio smiled and said, "Come to live in an old man's dreams, Archie? I would think you'd prefer wandering the Elysian fields with Trudy."
Archie grinned and put his hands in the pockets of his trousers - a gesture that was very much his own, and Horatio was shocked to see it again; he'd forgotten that mannerism entirely. Was that common in dreams? With a slight chuckle Archie said, "What do you think I've *been* doing? But there's time enough for that after; I've been given a mission, you see, and one I would not refuse for the world."
Horatio looked at his friend, still half-hidden in the golden sunlight, and sadly shook his head as his eyes went to the oil painting above the fireplace. "There are no more missions, Archie, not for the likes of you and me. The Indie is gone, and with her all the old seafaring ways. The world has no more need of us."
"But there are other worlds, Horatio!" Archie exclaimed, and Horatio looked at him and wondered at the enthusiasm in that voice, the light happiness that would have none of his downhearted pessimism. Feeling somehow affronted, Horatio stood to argue with this apparition when two things happened that made him pause, then stand dumb with amazement.
The first was the mere act of standing itself. He had expected the usual fight that his arthritic limbs gave him, and so was unprepared for being able to get to his feet so easily - no groaning joints, no mighty effort. He just...stood.
The second event was that Archie came out of the blinding sunlight and took two steps toward him, and for the first time Horatio saw his eyes.
There was peace there, such total peace that Horatio stared at it, felt a shiver run through him and thought, this is not a dream. He knew he did not have the imagination to conjure the calm that shone from Archie's blue eyes, nor the childlike joy that was radiating from that once-haunted face. Horatio knew suddenly that what had been stolen from Archie's heart so long ago had somehow been returned, returned a thousand times over, and his eyes looked so different, so brilliantly alive that Horatio found himself murmuring in a kind of shock, "Archie... what is it?"
His friend took a half-step back, beamed at him happily and said, "Come on, Horatio. Come and take a look."
Archie stepped back toward the French doors then, and paused in that warm light, waiting. Horatio frowned and followed, then realized something and brought his hand up to the back of his head. Felt his hair, not short anymore but long and tied back, just as Archie's was. Just as it used to be.
Archie saw his puzzled expression, nodded his head toward the door and smiled at Horatio as if the answers to his question lay out there. So Horatio walked to the door, into that warm sunshine, and looked. Then stared.
The harbour was ablaze with light, a light that seemed to pervade and encompass everything around it, a light so powerful it seemed to sing in the very air it brightened. And there, in the glistening waters and gleaming with a light all its own, sat the mighty frigate Indefatigable, its sails fully unfurled and its banners waving greetings in the wind.
Horatio stared at the ship, forty years removed from his sight, drank in the glowing timbers, the shining masts, the pristine sails. She was there again, there and whole, her glorious tall masts reaching to a perfect blue sky. Horatio felt numb, light, suddenly seventeen again. He gaped at the grand ship, the beginning of his dreams, and wiped his eyes. It was like coming home.
Archie was at his side, put a hand on his shoulder. "She's a grand sight, isn't she?"
Horatio had lost his voice, could only nod. There were people on the decks, all looking in his direction, some of them waving. He recognized most of them, then all of them, and felt the tears in his eyes begin to slide down his cheeks. He knew what was happening, now.
"It's my mother, Archie - " He mumbled, not minding the emotion that swelled through his voice. "My father - "
Archie nodded, patted his friend's shoulder. "They're here to see you home, Horatio."
Another figure appeared, at the forecastle of the ship, made his way to the railing and gave Horatio a very serious salute. Then he smiled.
Horatio's jaw dropped. "My God."
"No," Archie said wryly, his calm blue eyes twinkling, "But you're not *very* far off."
Horatio kept staring. Captain Pellew, alive and young again. My God.
The sweet wind billowed in the sails, flowed through the sunshine, and Horatio breathed deeply of it and felt refreshed. The world would continue with its ironclads and what came after, but he... he smelled the salt in the air, felt the sea flow through his being and fill it with new life.
He would sail to a new world.
Horatio turned to Archie then, and saw that his friend was smiling, a smile that was dazzling, happy, and full of the unfettered joy of homecoming.
"Come on, Commodore Horatio Hornblower," Archie said as he once more put a hand on Horatio's shoulder. "It's time to set sail."
Horatio gave him a smile that was no less elated. "Aye aye, Lieutenant Kennedy."
And they departed the balcony together, one final time, to board the tall bright ship that was waiting to take them home.