"Mr. Kennedy . . . Look after him, will you?"
Archie smiled wistfully, remembering. No one had to tell him to make sure his friend was all right. He would. He did anyway--it had become a part of his life, of his way of being. Horatio was his friend. He would always look after him.
This last experience had been so hard. The God-forsaken expedition in Muzillac had worn them all down. It had certainly taken its toll on Horatio. Over the course of their friendship, Archie had seen Horatio's passion for the mission, his pain when men were lost. He had witnessed his anger at injustice and his compassion for his friends. But this time, Horatio was grieving to the depth of his being. Archie knew that he grieved for the futility of his efforts on behalf of the this campaign and the bloodshed among the French. And he knew that Horatio grieved for Mariette. Archie hadn't asked him about her. Horatio would tell him more later--maybe when he understood it himself. A girl he had known for scarcely a week, yet he had lost his heart to her. How could he explain that? He wouldn't have to. Archie would be there to listen, but would never insist that he pour his heart out.
The voyage home had been quiet compared to the usual liveliness of on the Indefatigable. After the celebration of rescue had abated, the crew settled into a respectful silence. It was disconcerting to see their leaders struggling in the aftermath of the French campaign. They quickly realized that Pellew was best avoided. The generally even-tempered captain had a short-fuse these days. Lieutenant Hornblower had withdrawn to his quarters below deck. He performed the duties required of him, but otherwise repaired to his room. The crew had given the officers a wide berth, and when the Indy put into port this morning, the men had secured her quickly and dispersed into the town. All except for Archie.
Instinctively Archie had been acting as a buffer for Horatio, keeping would-be well-wishers at bay, rarely leaving his friend's side. He supposed that Horatio hadn't ever had to grieve like this before. Maybe now that they were finally in port, Horatio could begin to put this episode behind him. Archie hoped so. He hated to see his friend suffer so.
Horatio dozed in the hammock across from him. He really did look like a leader--strong features, strong brows, dashing figure. Even sleeping he was strong. Archie couldn't have explained it, but it was true.
Archie envied that. He wished that the night wasn't an enemy to him--that for once he could sleep without dreaming.
Horatio rarely stirred at all when he slept. He would fall asleep easily and awaken refreshed. Perhaps that was the reward of being a good man--peaceful sleep. Horatio had a conscience devoid of demons, a heart free of shame. He would always know a hero's sleep. Even though he had lost sleep in the most recent campaign, the time he did spend sleeping had been remarkably sound. Archie was glad his friend was getting a chance to rest a bit. The last few days had been especially hard on him and the last few months exhausting. Now that the Indy was in port, he could catch up on the lost hours of sleep.
Sleep well, my friend.
Archie lay back in his own hammock and pulled out the book Horatio had given him. A Complete History of Naval Combat Strategies. Archie read voraciously, determined to become the kind of leader that Pellew and Horatio would want him to be. He pored over every detail, making notes and studying. Horatio would quiz him when they had time to talk. And Archie's answers improved every time. He didn't remember when his eyes closed and he drifted to sleep . . .
Groaning. Mumbling. Writhing.
Archie awoke, startled. He had been sleeping soundly. He glanced around, trying to get his bearings straight. What was . . .
Archie jumped up and made it to his friend's side in one step. Horatio was tossing and gasping in his sleep. Archie reached up and held his arms.
"Horatio . . ." Archie kept his voice soothing, so as not to startle him. "Easy now. You're all right."
"No . . ." Horatio was saying then he mumbled something Archie couldn't quite catch. The midshipman reached a hand up to his friend's forehead. No fever. Horatio was having one hell of a nightmare. But why now? Why after all the nights since Muzillac was Horatio having a nightmare? Maybe because the mission was officially over? Maybe because he didn't want to go ashore? Archie's brows creased in concern and he let his hand rest on the side of Horatio's face. He spoke to him constantly, but Horatio became more and more upset.
"GOD, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!" Horatio sat bolt upright, screaming, gasping. Without hesitation, Archie took Horatio's face in his hands and forced him to look at him.
"Horatio!" Archie said sharply.
"No . . . "
"Horatio! Look at me!"
It took a long moment, but finally their eyes met and Horatio saw his friend clearly.
"Archie . . ." The lieutenant looked bewildered.
"It's all right. You were dreaming, Horatio." Archie's voice was softer now--soothing. "You're all right." Archie gently released him, but left his hand on his friend's shoulder.
Horatio's eyes widened. "Oh, God . . ." he whispered.
"It's all right."
"I couldn't save her . . . "
"I couldn't save her. I . . .I told her I'd get her out--that I'd take her away from all of this, but I . . . " His voice faltered as he searched for the difficult word. ". . . failed her." He looked into Archie's eyes for some confirmation of what he was saying. "I failed her."
"No, Horatio, you didn't." Archie smiled sadly. "What you did was gave her a reason to hope."
Horatio looked at him, his eyes glistening with unshed tears. "It wasn't enough."
Archie thought carefully before he said, "Sometimes hope is all we can give one another."
The silence that followed was comfortable between the two friends. Archie waited a long moment before he withdrew his hand from Horatio's shoulder. Then he looked up at the low wooden ceiling--seeking the right word? There was no right word.
"Maybe . . . " Archie looked back down, but kept his eyes away from Horatio's.
He started again. "I think maybe she would rather have died running free . . . than to have lived in slavery serving her captors."
Horatio squeezed his eyes closed and his hands tightened into fists.
"Why did I make her come with me? Why did I take her out on that bridge?"
"You didn't 'make' her do anything. She must've loved you. She must've wanted to spend the rest of her life with you."
A frightening coldness came into Horatio's voice. "And so she did."
Archie started to counter, but Horatio scooted back toward the wall, into the shadows--away from his friend.
"She was so very beautiful, Archie. Her eyes, her mouth . . ." Horatio didn't try to stop the sob that choked him. ". . . Her heart. Oh, God. . . She was hurt. She . . . hurt her ankle when she jumped. I should have stayed there with her. I shouldn't have let her try to make it across the bridge. We should have stayed behind. At least she would have had a chance."
But *you* wouldn't have, Archie thought.
"She might have made it."
"It was her choice, Horatio. She knew the risks."
"She didn't want to die!!" Horatio stayed in the safety of the shadows and let his grief rush him. "I felt . . . her body . . . jerk . . . beside me and suddenly . . . she just fell. She just dropped and I could hardly move quickly enough to lower her to the ground. She was so still. So still . . . " There was a long ragged breath. "I felt the life . . . leave her. . . It was as though everything around me was millions of miles away--the gunfire, the yelling, the fighting. All I could see . . . was Mariette." Horatio paused and leaned forward from the shadows. Gradually, a realization came to him and grabbed his friend's arm. "I never would've made it off of that bridge without you, Archie." Archie looked into his friend's pained eyes then, out of respect, he looked away. He hated hearing Horatio berate himself. "You could have been killed and it would have been my fault."
"It was my choice to run out there, Horatio."
'There was no way you would have risked your life if I wasn't out there risking mine. Risking hers. Oh God . . . "
Archie couldn't let his friend do this to himself. He jerked away and walked over the the door. His tone of voice was uncharacteristically harsh. "How dare you think that you can take responsibility for my life. And for Mariette's. You didn't make her run onto that bridge. And you didn't make me either." Archie turned back around. "Damn it, Horatio. You are a brilliant leader. But you are not God. There are some things you can't prevent."
Voices. Lumbering feet. Laughter. Fists pounding on the door. Archie stormed back over to the door. Horatio swung his feet to the floor and sat there, head hanging.
"What?!" Archie asked sharply, blocking the view of the quarters with his body.
Stiles was taken aback and he face fell. "Beg y' pardon, Sir." He ducked his head, embarrassed, and glanced back at the others before speaking. Keeping his gaze lower this time, he turned back to Archie. "The men and I were wondering--well, if you and Lieutenant Hornblower would care to join us at the . . . pub, Sir. We are going to the Peddlar's Pig and thought that you could use the night out."
Archie's expression softened and he nodded to the crewmen. "Thank you, Stiles. Maybe later."
"Aye," Stiles couldn't retreat quickly enough. "Sorry to have disturbed."
"Nonsense, Stiles." The voice came from inside the quarters, and Archie felt Horatio's presence behind him. Horatio clapped a hand on his friend's shoulder and pulled him away from the door so he could see his men. "A fine idea, indeed." Horatio looked at Archie, his expression sober. "You should go with them, Archie."
Archie faltered a moment. "Not just yet." He smiled at the odd assortment of men before him. "I'll be along shortly."
"Aye, Sir. We'll look for you then." The men left hurriedly and far more quietly than they had been on their approach.
"Why didn't you go with them?" Horatio asked, very irritated this time. He walked back over to his hammock.
"Are you gonna be all right?"
"I can handle this, Archie. I don't need you to watch over me!"
Immediately he regretted his words. Archie looked like he'd been slapped. He opened his mouth to say something to Horatio, but nothing would come. He turned and picked up his coat. He felt a strong grip on his arm.
"Archie, I . . . "
"It's all right, Horatio." Archie clapped his hand over his friend's. "I know. . . "
And Archie left the cabin to catch up with his friends.