A Life of Duty: Archie
by Sarah B.
Archie packed the bloodstained shirt away and didn't think about anything.
It was late, long past nightfall. It had been a long day, and Archie was exhausted, but he didn't feel like sleeping. No, he could do that later, plenty of time, there was so much to do first...
The young man turned around in the small space that had been Horatio's cabin, looking to see what else needed to go into the chest that would be sent to Dr. Hornblower's home. Yes, so much to do yet...let's see, most of the clothes are packed, what about his shoes...
Yes, a long day, but strangely enough for Archie not as hard as he'd thought it would be. There had been pain, at first - the terror of that raid on the signal tower, the mind-numbing fear he'd felt before he'd taken it, the rush of excitement on the way back to the Indie and then -
Then what? Archie didn't remember.
He paused, looked around the small cabin with his hands on his hips and scratched his head. He really didn't remember. It was as if a gauze curtain had been drawn over his memory once they'd gotten back on the ship. He remembered it hurt. Pellew's question, where is Mr. Hornblower?, his own anxious curiosity as he looked around thinking, hm that's funny, well he's got to be around somewhere. Then Cleveland had cleared his throat and said...
Archie took a deep breath, held the surge of panic back, but let the memory through. He could think the words, it wasn't so bad then.
Sir, I regret to inform you that Lieutenant Hornblower is dead.
The curtain became heavier then. Archie barely recalled Captain Pellew saying something to him, remembered the next couple of hours but it was as if he'd left his own body and nothing registered anymore. It was as if someone else, not him, had stood in Pellew's cabin and answered questions that were strange and disjointed, two sleepwalkers talking to each other. And someone else walking back on deck and overhearing Cleveland say Horatio was still on the beach, that he'd been left there.
And surely - surely it was someone else who at once arranged a boat to bring Horatio home.
Papers. Did Horatio have any papers? Archie turned around, winced and put one hand on his bandaged shoulder. In his desk, that's where they'd be...
He'd injured his shoulder during the fight to bring Horatio home. Those damn Frogs were all over the beach, but it was easy to see where Horatio was still lying, his white shirt a silent, fluttering beacon on the dark sands. Archie had only four men with him, had in fact gone without orders, but how could he just leave Horatio there, all alone in the dark and in enemy hands? It couldn't happen, not while Archie could draw breath to prevent it. No, Horatio would come home. Matthews went with him, and Styles and Oldroyd. He didn't even have to ask, they moved as if with one soul.
It hadn't been easy. The Frogs saw them, shot one man down in the surf, gotten him in the shoulder, but Archie had made it to the beach and then -
And then what? Archie shook his head; the curtain was closed over that scene, perhaps would always be. He must have gotten to Horatio, must have somehow lifted him back to the boat, but the next clear memory Archie had was being almost dragged over the side of the Indie by Pellew after they'd gotten back. Pellew was screaming ragged words about Archie getting himself killed and had he no sense and the next time you go asea without my word I swear you'll run the ruddy gauntlet for it sir!
It was strange, Archie knew Pellew was furious with him, was red-faced and almost weeping with anger, but it made no impact. No impact at all. And before he'd had such a fear of loud noises.
They'd borne Horatio away, readied him, and sometime after daylight committed him to the sea. Morning, afternoon, Archie didn't recall that either, but that was all right. He really was holding together all right, certainly better than Pellew. Archie grinned a little as he picked up a handful of Horatio's papers, thought, I certainly never thought I'd see the day when I was keeping a more level head than our commander! Things had certainly been turned around, all right. Funny world...
Archie continued to clean out the desk, humming to himself as he did so. Yes, it was a funny world when you saw ghosts and your captain declares you fit to take the lieutenant's exam all in the same day. The exhaustion crept a little closer, and Archie shook his head to clear it, thought, lieutenant, me. And Horatio's ghost.
It seemed so real. If Archie closed his eyes, he swore he could still feel Horatio there, in that cabin, as solid as he'd been at the beach, his arm round Archie's shoulder, speaking encouraging words that had been a balm to his troubled soul. Horatio always knew what to say, Archie thought. He knew all he had to do was tell me blowing that damn tower was my duty, and I'd do it. But it couldn't have been real, he was - Cleveland said he'd been -
Archie looked down, saw that his hand was shaking as it gripped the last of the papers from Horatio's desk. He swallowed hard, and fought to control it. It couldn't have been real. Horatio was dead.
For a long moment Archie stood there, staring at the papers in his hand. Horatio was dead. His best friend - the only real friend he'd ever had - was dead. No card game tonight, no skylarking on the topdeck tomorrow, no one to confess to that he was terrified of taking the lieutenant's exam. Horatio was -
Stop it. For the love of Christ, stop it and get on with things.
With great effort, Archie pushed the horrible feelings down and continued his work, but he was starting to feel uneasy, edgy. He put the papers in the chest, slowly as if they might spring back on him, and turned around in the cabin once more. What else? Archie wanted to sleep, he was so tired, but he couldn't sleep. Not tonight. Get this done first.
Archie blinked, focused his eyes. Books.
There was a stack of books under Horatio's desk, and Archie reached down and began to stack them into the chest. They were small, most of them, and Archie recognized one as a collection of Shakespeare's sonnets that he'd lent Horatio - reluctantly, he recalled with a smile. Horatio didn't really like Shakespeare, but had taken the book anyway, Archie wasn't sure why. Perhaps he was simply being polite. Well, I've got it back now I suppose Archie thought aimlessly, and tossed the book onto the bunk to take back to his quarters. it landed there with a soft thud and fell onto its side, a small dark rectangle in the dim lantern light.
And Archie glanced at the book, sitting by itself on the carefully made bed, and for no reason he could think of began to cry.
Stop it, stop it, he commanded himself, feeling the hot tears slide down his cheeks to wet his collar. Something was hurting, was screaming to get out, but Archie knew he didn't dare let it out because if he did it would never stop, and there was no one left to help him, so Archie quickly set the remaining books in the box, closed his eyes, and took a deep, shuddering breath. That's it, another one. Lieutenants don't cry you fool, one more. You're on your own now, so you'd better get used to it. One more.
It hurt. Archie hurt, pushing the pain and the loneliness and the paralyzing fear down into himself hurt, but what else could he do? I'm just not used to it, Archie thought as he sniffed loudly and took another shaky breath, more books to pack yet. God, I used to be so good at just acting like nothing mattered, back on the Justinian it was so effortless. The curtain used to be in place all the time there, I never felt anything. I need to be there again. I need to feel nothing again. I wonder if I can still do it?
For a moment Archie paused, and tried. He thought of those days, but could only call up their ghosts. It was encouraging - he saw Simpson's face and felt only a detached numbness, his usual state on that ship. The numbness encircled him, and Archie crawled into it, absently picked up a book as he realized, I can still do it. God, it feels so - comfortable almost. Horatio's dead, and it doesn't matter. I was on that beach, and let him die, and...it doesn't matter. Nothing matters. Nothing matters.
Oh, dear God.
It was as if Horatio had never existed. The familiar detachment Archie had once depended on for survival returned, and he cast his eyes on the bed, the chest, the bloodstained shirt that lay like an incrimination at the bottom, and felt nothing.
I can get through this, Archie realized as he continued to pack Horatio's things. They're all expecting me to crumble, I know, but I'll get through this, I won't even shed any more tears. I'll miss Horatio, but - but - well, he's dead, and dissolving like a girl into a pool of tears won't bring him back, will it? No, it's best to forget. It worked before. Forget.
And Archie might have forgotten, might have escaped that cabin with his soul locked away but his composure intact, except for one bundle of books, the last ones he reached for. Archie wasn't even looking at them as he stared sightlessly into the chest, just reached for them with one groping hand. Then he tried to pick them up, and stopped.
They were tied together with twine, one small pile of books. Archie blinked, frowned, picked them all up together and set them in the box. There. He was finished.
Except - wait - what was that folded piece of paper stuck beneath the twine? It had his name on it. Curious in a flat sort of way, Archie pulled the paper out and unfolded it. It was Horatio's handwriting, neat and precise, and it said:
No, this is not a revenge for the Shakespeare. Neither is it poetry or plays, but I must insist you study these books and commit them to heart, for I refuse to rise in the ranks without you. H.
Even before his reluctant eyes focused on the bundled books, Archie knew what they were. Horatio had told him they'd been his companions on a plague ship, on the Indie, in his bunk in the early morning hours. They were the books he'd studied before taking the examination for lieutenant. Horatio had put them together to give to Archie, to help him. Horatio had thought to help him. Horatio was being his friend.
And Horatio was dead.
Archie dropped the paper onto the bed, didn't even notice how violently his hands were shaking. He sat down, his back against the bunk, and began to breathe very hard, and something within him screamed no, don't let it out, but it was too late, far too late. Everything within him gave way at once, and leaning his head into his hands Archie closed his eyes and wept as if his heart would break.
Oh God - oh God - Horatio was dead - he couldn't be, men like that didn't die a useless death, shot through the heart for a worthless hunk of rocks and sand but he was and God! God! It hurt -
Archie sobbed louder, and he curled into himself, felt himself slipping into a hellish oblivion as his mind fought to form words. Christ! Horatio dead! I could have stopped it, I should have been there, God Horatio I would have taken that bullet, no one would have mourned for me - Jesus I'm so sorry so sorry God I didn't run fast enough this time - someone should have saved you - God I'm so sorry -
Then the words ceased to come, and Archie felt only a raging shame and anger wrapped in all-consuming anguish, and he knew if he screamed his torment no one would come, but he was no longer sure if he was screaming, or crying, or in his body at all. Nothing existed but a painful world of red ache, no feeling but the hard wooden floor beneath his head and the horrible spasms that began to wrack his defenseless body as his soul surrendered to the relentless crush of grief and loneliness. Oh God, it might kill him this time - if only it would - oh God -
Through the whitehot mists Archie heard a beloved voice whispering his name, felt strong arms wrap around him and place a steadying hand on his burning brow. Oh God it couldn't be -
"Archie, it's all right, it's all right - "
Archie felt someone pull him off the floor and into a strong embrace, and without thinking Archie leaned into it and sobbed as the tremors continued, then eased, then ceased. Still there was the cool hand on his brow, still the arms that had always been stronger than his holding him up. It was impossible, Archie knew it and accepted it. And took the comfort that lay within.
After what seemed like a lifetime Archie felt himself being leaned gently back against the side of the bed, and found a little strength with which to open his eyes. There in the low lamplight, looking at him with openly concerned brown eyes, sat Horatio. Of course.
Archie reached up and wiped the tears from his face. "Oh, God."
Horatio put a hand on Archie's unbandaged shoulder "You all right?"
Archie squeezed his eyes closed. "No. I think I've finally gone mad."
He heard Horatio laugh a little. "Don't get up for a while. You've taken too much onto yourself."
"Look who's talking." Archie opened his eyes again, fought the tears as he looked into the transparent face of his best friend. "Horatio, what were you thinking? Why didn't you - what - "
Horatio raised his eyebrows. "I was thinking of my duty, of my men, just like any good officer. As you yourself will learn."
"No," Archie said automatically, swallowing hard and casting his eyes on the floor. "If becoming an officer is what compelled you to die, then I damn the word, just as I damn myself for not being there to die in your stead."
Both hands were on Archie's shoulders now, the right one low on his damaged arm, and Archie found he could not escape that earnest gaze. "Stop it, Archie, I'll have none of that talk. You did what was necessary, you did your duty." He leaned back a little, and a smile played on his lips. "And you did it splendidly, I might add."
Archie's eyes widened. Of course - had he ever doubted that Horatio was there? Then he thought a little and shook his head and whispered, "I was so frightened, Horatio. I'm still frightened, of all that lies unknown in front of me."
Horatio sat back on his heels and nodded. "I know, Archie, but your heart is so much stronger than your fears. I know it is, I've seen it."
Archie took a deep breath and nodded, unable to argue.
Horatio tilted his head down and said seriously, "And now you must use the strength in that great heart of yours to help the Captain."
Shocked, Archie stared at Horatio open-mouthed. "Help the captain? Horatio - "
Horatio nodded. "We've dark seas ahead, Archie, and Captain Pellew's soul is as laden as yours. The burden of his trust was once mine, and as such I may lay it at any door I choose. But I can only truly trust it to you."
Archie's mind reeled, and he shook his head. "God, Horatio, I could never be your equal in the captain's eyes. Not after the Papillon. I'm only - "
"You're my dearest friend," Horatio said, never taking his calm eyes from the stricken blue ones that faced him. "and my worthiest successor. Archie, I would not burden you with this bequest if I had not already seen that you could do it."
Archie ran one hand through his hair, stared at Horatio. "You don't mean - you can - "
Horatio smiled gently. "See into the future? I hardly need that gift to remember the strong arms that guided me over the bridge at Muzillac, or the clear voice that volunteered to return to a Spanish prison to honor my word."
Archie looked down at the floor again,unsure.
"The choice is always yours," Horatio said quietly, standing slowly until he was a silver outline against the cabin walls. "And I shall always hold you in my heart, no matter your decision. I only ask that you - "
"Think about it?" Archie suddenly returned with a cockeyed smile, his eyes glittering as he looked up at his friend.
Horatio returned the smile. "You remember my words at the beach."
"How could I forget," Archie rejoined as he stood up with a grunt. "Thanks to that inspiring speech I found myself streaking across enemy territory like a madman."
Horatio shook his head and said admiringly, "Like an Englishman."
Archie cocked an eyebrow, but stood silent. For a long, sad moment stood silent and somehow knew this was goodbye. Clearing his throat he said, "I'll miss you, Horatio."
The spirit wavered a bit, sparkled like mist in sunlight. But the smile remained strong. "We'll sail together again, Archie. Someday."
Archie took a deep breath, closed his eyes and ran one hand through his hair. He felt something warm wrap around his soul, just for a moment, a final embrace of peace and friendship. And then he was alone.
Alone? Archie blinked, opened his eyes and looked around the cabin. It was quiet, still, as if nothing remarkable had passed there at all. Above his head, Archie heard the sailors shouting to each other, heard the creaking of the timbers and the heavy sound of running feet, all of the normal noises of shipboard life. And around him, Horatio's belongings still lay neatly piled in the chest, including one small stack that still sat bound in twine, waiting for hands to open them and embrace the world.
Alone - Archie peeked into the box, felt his heart sink for a moment. Damn it, how did Horatio always know just what words would spur his reluctant heart to action? For his own sake, Archie didn't care if he ever made lieutenant. For himself, he didn't care if he ever stood at a captain's side and felt the burden of responsibility. And he certainly didn't care if he never felt the exhilarating pride of doing more than he ever thought he'd dare, and succeeding beyond his wildest dreams. No, not for himself. But for Horatio, whose life on this earth had ended with his work undone ... for Horatio, who had lifted and carried Archie from the doors of death itself, and who now had a precious burden of his own that needed to be lifted up and carried...for Horatio...
Archie sat down on the bunk, untied the bundle, and carefully began to read.