The Unhappy Return (Halloween Fic)
by Sarah B.
The streets of Jamaica were dark, and that suited Horatio Hornblower just fine.
He was pacing the dock slowly, first one way and then the other, the sound of the sea loud in his ears. The wind was warm, he wore no hat or cloak; and there was no one about to note his presence, only a few curious sea animals and the full moon that shone indifferently overhead. The tropical breeze sifted through his dark curls and caressed his angular face, as if seeking to smooth away the haggard lines and shadows that clung to it like a shroud. But Horatio was stubborn; he lowered his head and continued to pace, his hands behind his back and his lips set in a hard, impenetrable line. He would not be comforted or caressed tonight, and there was no balm for his troubled soul.
At length footsteps approached, and Horatio stopped and looked up. It was second lieutenant Bush, and he looked worried and out of breath.
"There you are," Bush said in a mixture of relief and anger. "Why the devil didn't you tell the innkeeper where you were going? I've been looking half the night for you."
Horatio shrugged, and kept pacing.
He knew Bush was watching; was not surprised when he heard the words behind him, soft and understanding. "It won't bring Mr. Kennedy back, you know."
Horatio stopped and looked at the sea.
"It was his choice, I've told you before. I hated to see it happen too, but what's done is done. Mr. Kennedy knew he was dying, and he wanted his last act to be saving your life...perhaps all of our lives. You must let it rest, Mr. Hornblower."
Horatio gritted his teeth and would not look at his former superior officer, and friend. "Easy words."
"Are they?" Horatio heard Bush step closer. "With all due respect, sir, I don't think so. They are damned *hard* words, but you have to accept them. For the men's sake as well as your own."
"The men..." Horatio half turned toward Bush at those words.
"Aye. They've seen it, as I have. You're not eating, not sleeping, you're killing yourself, and for what purpose? It won't bring Kennedy back. And I refuse to lose you as well."
Horatio pursed his lips, and looked down at his boots. He could not trust himself to speak for a few moments; then, after taking a few deep breaths, he said slowly, "Mr. Kennedy was my dearest friend for five years. He overcame adversities that would have laid me in my grave long ago. And now he lies in an unmarked grave far away from his home and when we return to England his name - " he choked suddenly, and had to take another deep breath before continuing. " - his name will be slandered forever, and I am responsible. I am already lost, Mr. Bush. I will carry this regret until my dying day."
There was a few moments' silence; then: "I've come to give you this. It's a draft on our prize money, a hundred pounds each. If you'll join me in a glass, there are many hours till daylight."
The sound of paper being rustled, and Horatio felt something thrust into his hand. He looked down and saw the note, but it felt like cold winter leaves in his grip. He screwed his eyes shut and shook his head. "Thank you, Mr. Bush, but I have no mind for conversation. If you don't mind, I should like to walk alone for a while."
"No, by your leave, I don't like it. You shouldn't be alone, not with your mind in such a state. At least come back to the fire at the inn."
Horatio managed a frigid smile and looked at Bush with deadened eyes. "My mind will be in this state for quite a while, Mr. Bush, so you had better get used to it. I - I only wish to remain here with my thoughts for a little while longer, then I shall return to the Inn directly."
Bush pulled out his timepiece and checked it. "Half an hour then?"
Horatio's eyes went to the moon and he nodded.
Bush replaced his timepiece reluctantly and regarded Horatio with sympathetic eyes. "We all miss him, Mr. Hornblower. If I could give this hundred pounds to fetch him back, I would."
Horatio nodded again, and looked at the sandy ground beneath their feet. Bush laid a hand on his arm briefly, then turned and walked away, leaving Horatio in silence once more.
"Only a hundred pounds?" Horatio whispered after Bush had left, and regarded the note in his hand bitterly. "I would give much more than that, Mr. Bush. I would give everything I have."
Despite his melancholy, Horatio knew he must honor his word and be back at the inn in half an hour. He paced the docks for another ten, then sadly turned his steps through Kingston's streets, hoping he would not be recognized or spoken to. His wish was granted.
The streets were mostly quiet, given the lateness of the hour. Here and there a cantina was still open, or a few ragged prostitutes were plying their wares. He did not know why; he did hear one of them whisper that he looked like a devil, and guessed that he really did look as haggard as Bush had said. He didn't care.
At length he came to a deserted street, a ramshackle collection of abandoned houses and crumbling steps, and sank down on them with a tired sigh. Knowing he was unseen, he buried his face in his hands and gave way to the unrelenting loneliness he had been feeling ever since Archie's death. A huge knot had been building in him, and he had pushed it back for the sake of the men, the Navy, his own reputation. For several horrible days he had stemmed that tide, but it would hold no longer. Knowing he was alone and unobserved, Horatio wept for the death of his friend.
Archie was dead. God, he was gone! All the promise, the youth, the hope that his future held was destroyed, snuffed out, and Horatio knew it was all his doing. If he had been faster, he could have stopped the confession. If he had been cannier, he would have found a way to stop the court martial, or testify earlier. He would have confessed himself - a hundred times! - if he had known what Archie was thinking of. But it was too late.
Too late, and now Archie was dead. Dead and buried in an unmarked grave, unmourned and forgotten. Tomorrow they would sail back to England, where Archie's name would be vilified as a traitor and a villain, and then disregarded for the rest of history. His name would be spat on and cursed, and back in Kingston there would be no flowers on his grave, no remembrance for that bright happy life that joked and sallied and knew - always knew - when Horatio was depressed and needed cheering up. No, there would be no commemoration for his sacrifice, only long untended weeds to mark his final resting place, and a wildly embellished story to entertain the curious. Archie would be abandoned by everyone, and pass into the darkness alone, while Horatio lived.
And *he* could have prevented it! Horatio gripped his hair with both hands. Why hadn't he done so? That Hornblower luck that Archie was always joking about, the dauntless courage that had won Horatio such respect from his men and superiors, why had it abandoned him then? He would have gladly surrendered any triumph, any victory, ALL victories, just to have the opportunity to save Archie's life. Why had it not been granted him? Horatio's mind had become dull with grief and pain, and he simply shook his head. He did not know the answer, only knew that the years that now stretched ahead of him seemed terrible and bleak without Archie's friendship, and he did not know how to remedy that. There was no way out...
"Read your palm, mister?"
Horatio started and looked up, terrified. A brightly dressed Jamaican woman was standing in front of him, gazing at him in curiosity.
"Oh - sorry, mister," the woman said, her voice heavily accented, "Thought you were just drunk." She began to back away.
Horatio blinked, and wiped at his face, embarrassment warring with despair in his brain. He took a deep, shuddering breath and put one hand on the steps to push himself up.
"Say," the voice said.
Horatio looked up again. The woman was inching her way back.
"I know you. Lieutenant from dat ship?"
Gulping, Horatio nodded and looked away.
"That bad, what happen there. You know dead man?"
Dead man...Archie? Horatio squinted at the woman.
She regarded him coolly. "You want know anything? I can find out for you."
Horatio struggled to his feet. He felt exhausted, and before he could stop himself blurted, "I want to know how to stop it."
The woman put her hands on his hips. "Stop what? The dying?"
Horatio shook his head, then shrugged. "No - I mean - if you'll pardon me, I must return to the Inn..."
The woman looked down at Horatio's hand, and her eyes became huge. Horatio followed her gaze and saw that the draft for a hundred pounds was still clutched in his fist.
There was a long silence. Then the woman said, "There are people on this island that know things, things that can help you. For what you have, I can stop the dying."
"What do you mean?" Horatio's mouth had gone dry, and his head was spinning. What this woman was saying did not make sense.
"Come with me," the woman replied, and lightly touched Horatio's arm. "It is not far; and I will show you."
He should not go, Horatio knew that much. And certainly this woman could not bring Archie back, no one could do that. But perhaps she had a drug he could take, or some herbs that would dull his agonizing grief. In any case, it sounded more promising then going back to the inn, and the desperate loneliness there...Horatio nodded, and allowed this mysterious woman to lead him away.
As she promised, the journey was not far. Down a few streets that Horatio knew, up one that he didn't, and suddenly they were at a small door covered not with a door but a curtain, and inside a candlelit scene the likes of which Horatio had never seen before.
The room was dark, and felt sinister. Beaded curtains covered the walls, and tablets with strange incantations lay strewn about in some sort of chaotic order. Bowls of bones - animals' bones, Horatio hoped - sat in the corners, and there were more symbols drawn on the coal-etched ceiling. Horatio shivered.
The woman, however, simply sat down on one of the many cushions that dotted the floor and placed a bowl in front of her. Frowning she said, "First I will need that money you have."
Horatio clutched the draft tighter and sat down opposite her. "For what, madam?"
She leveled her black-eyed gaze at him. "What do you want, lieutenant?"
I want to see Archie again, Horatio thought, then looked down at his hands and tried to control his thoughts. This was madness - but surely this woman had figured out why he was weeping, and was simply trying to take advantage of his distress to trick him out of his money.
"You think I am tricking you." The woman said abruptly.
Stunned, Horatio raised his head to look at her with widened eyes. Had she read his mind? "N-no, I just - "
"Why not? I would think the same, if I were you. Your kind..." she gestured around the strange-looking room, "You English, this is not your world. You think everything is fixed, set, unchangeable. Here, we know different. We have voodoo, we have spells. It frightens you, yes? But it is not as impossible as you think."
This is wrong, Horatio thought automatically. He rubbed the paper in his hand and asked, "What are you offering?"
"You want your friend alive," the woman offered bluntly, picking up some jars and pulling things out of them that Horatio didn't want to know about. "He has not been in the other world long, so I can do this. But it is a powerful spell, very expensive. That's why I need your money."
"Alive? You don't mean like one of those...those..." Horatio struggled to remember the word he had heard a native say while they were ashore.
The woman grinned. "Zombie?"
"No, not like that. I know what you want, lieutenant, and it will be granted to you. You may kill me if it does not work."
Horatio regarded the note once more. Of course, if he gave this woman the money and nothing happened, Bush would never stop laughing at him. The woman would be long gone, and he would be penniless. He should just stand up and leave right now...
"I will make a bargain with you," the woman said as she began mixing the potion in the bowl. "I will begin the spell, and if when it ends you do not believe I can do what I have promised, you may leave with your note and I will not stop you. But I think you will give me what I want."
Horatio thought about this. Well, why not? At the very least, he would have a story to tell Bush when he got back to the inn. He nodded.
The woman smiled, her face distorted and sinister above the fire she had lit beneath the bowl. She bowed her head and began to incant.
Horatio began to shiver again, and hugged himself. He felt foolish and wrong, as if he was disobeying orders somehow by being here. The symbols, the bones, the incense - none of this was familiar to him, and he thought he must be mad to even consent to come to this place. What if there were robbers hiding in this house, waiting to pounce upon him? What if the incense was some sort of drug, and this woman a thief and murderess? Good heavens, he might be dead in the next ten minutes! What if -
**Good Lord, Horatio, you're beginning to think like ME!**
Horatio started and gasped. "Archie?"
"Sh!" the woman hissed, glaring at him. She resumed her incantation.
His senses heightened, Horatio looked around the candlelit room, amazed. It was impossible, but - but it felt as if Archie was *there*, in tiny bits like shafts of moonlight, scattered but coming together somewhere above their heads. He could sense it, the way one senses an old and familiar presence without having to be told it was there. Horatio held his breath; it felt like Archie was right beside him...
Then, just as suddenly, it was gone.
The woman clapped three times and quickly doused the flames beneath the pot. Looking at Horatio in the dimmed room she said, "You believe me?"
"It's gone," Horatio blurted, "He's - I felt something, but - "
"Is he buried someplace?"
"Yes, an unmarked grave, but - "
"You better hurry. He gonna be mighty confused."
It took a moment for those words to have meaning, but as soon as they sunk in Horatio leapt to his feet. No, it couldn't be - it was some sort of trick, but -
He had *felt* it. Archie, his friend, was -
He tossed the draft to the woman, whose name he still did not know, and ran out the door into the street.
Thank God for the full moon, Horatio thought as he ran toward the church at the edge of town. It was getting very late, and most of the lanterns on the street had long been extinguished. This left only the silver-blue light of the moon, but it was enough. Enough that Horatio could run, and he did run, against all the logic he had ever held and all the knowledge that this could not be real, because people did not die and then come back to life -
- still, he ran. Because through the impossibility of reason, he knew that Archie was back among the living.
It made no sense, yet he knew it was true. The void, the emptiness he had felt since Archie's death was lifted, and he felt as if he could breathe again. If the woman was true to her word - if what he felt was reality - then it would be all right. He had time again, he could go to Commodore Pellew and tell what he knew, and Archie would not have to sacrifice his honor for him. They could all go back to England and celebrate, and there would be years, oh *years* to talk about what had happened. And it was not so strange after all, for a man to be thought dead and then not be dead at all...it had happened, once or twice. It could happen again.
Everything was going to be all right.
Horatio saw the bleached steeple of the church and slowed down. Behind the church was the pauper's field, where Archie had been buried. Horatio took his breath in deep, great strides, wonderin against his logical mind what would happen next. The cemetery was dark, of course, but the trees in that area were sparse, so no lantern would be needed...but what would he see? What would he *say*? What would...
...before he knew it, Horatio was in the pauper's field, and all of his thoughts skittered away like leaves in the wind.
The field was quiet, eerie. Horatio walked through it stealthily, knowing that if he was caught by the local constabulary - or worse, by the Commodore or Bush - that it would be very embarrassing indeed. Well, perhaps not much - he could always say he was visiting Archie's grave, which was true, but Bush would lecture him again and that would be a trial in and of itself. Archie's grave...
Horatio swallowed his heart, which had worked up to his throat. His eyes scanned the field, wondering if he could find the freshly dug mound of earth in the moonlit dark. He turned his head, but the patches all looked the same, and there was nothing to distinguish earth from rock. Nothing -
Then suddenly there was no ground beneath him, and Horatio tottered over with a strangled oath.
Oh, but it hurt! Horatio shook his head and found loosened dirt raining into his eyes. Hissing curses to himself, he looked around and found that he had fallen into a hole, not a deep one thankfully, but deep enough to make the shoulder he had landed on very, very sore. Horatio hiked himself up, feeling with aching hands for the side of the hole so he could hoist himself out. The hole was full of loose dirt, as if someone had dug a grave and then decided to fill it in again, and as he worked his way out Horatio wondered why in the world the workers hadn't packed the soil hard enough to prevent such an accident. Why, he could have been -
- been -
Like a bolt of lightning, Horatio vaulted himself out of the hole and sat next to it, panting. He stared at it with wide, terrified eyes because he knew, he remembered, that wasn't a hole. It was - it had been -
- Archie's grave.
Shivering uncontrollably, Horatio looked around himself, wanting to shout Archie's name. He thought that possibly nothing had happened, that some horrid person had stolen Archie's body, but the dirt of the grave was imploded, not dug out, and it was insane but it had to be true - had to be true -
Oh Christ, Archie was alive!
But where was he? Horatio cast wild, unbelieving eyes around
him and finally hissed, "Archie? Archie!"
His heart was pounding in his ears; the night was painfully still. There was no movement in that accursed field, and Horatio knew he would have to get up and find Archie himself. Trembling, he stood on uneasy legs.
Christ. Archie was alive.
He took a few uncertain steps, trying to think of what state Archie would be in, and could think of nothing. Good Lord, what if he had wandered back into town? "Archie?"
He looked around himself again, willing his eyes to see in the darkness. He had to find his friend...
Then, miraculously, he did.
Horatio almost missed him, so subtle was the spot of white against the corner of the church. Horatio took a step forward, unsure of what he had seen, and looked again. There, against the dark pink of the church wall, someone was huddled, someone wearing a dark jacket and white pants.
Archie had been buried in his uniform.
For a moment Horatio hesitated, unsure of how to proceed; then he noticed Archie was clutching his arms and shivering, and his sense of responsibility overcame his initial fears. Slowly, he walked to where Archie was crouched.
As he drew closer, Horatio studied his friend cautiously. Archie had been laid to rest in only a shroud, with no coffin to keep the dirt from him; his uniform was streaked and clotted with soil, which also colored his hair a dark and matted brown. His skin held the pinkness of life, however, and when Horatio was close enough to see Archie's face he saw no madness or decay there; but there was a numbness, and fear.
Scarcely believing what he was seeing, Horatio advanced on his friend carefully and cleared his throat. He walked to face Archie, but the other man was staring at the earth and he didn't see him. Very softly Horatio said, "Archie?"
Archie started and raised his head. Horatio saw that he was shivering violently, and Archie squinted at Horatio as if he was scorched with sunlight. When he spoke, it was in a husky whisper. "H-horatio?"
Horatio nodded, his heart leaping within him. He resisted a sudden shameless urge to run forward and embrace his friend; instead he came forward very gently and knelt down in front of him. "Yes, it's me. Don't be afraid."
Archie stared at Horatio with huge, uncomprehending eyes, and cast his eyes about him as if petrified. "W-where am I? What's happened? Did I - did I do something wrong?"
Horatio frowned. "Wrong? No - Archie, do you remember the trial?"
Archie blinked, a long, slow blink, and nodded vaguely. "Yes, but that was before. That was..." his eyes widened suddenly, and he looked at Horatio in horror. "Oh, no. Oh, no, Horatio..." he reached out one shaking hand and touched Horatio's arm. The horrified look deepened, and Horatio saw Archie turn completely white. "Oh, God, I'm back."
Horatio was puzzled; this was not the reaction he was expecting. Taking Archie's arm he tried to put on a reassuring smile. "Yes, Archie, but everything will be fine. I have a plan now, I've ransomed you. Come on and get cleaned up, and we'll - "
Archie wrenched away from Horatio's grasp and fell backwards onto the grass. He put his hands on the ground and began to edge away, a look of total terror on his dirt-smudged face.
"Oh, no," he whispered, his voice so frightened that Horatio was momentarily shocked. "No, Horatio, please don't touch me again. Oh, God, not - I thought I would never - I'm back in Kingston! Oh God! I can't - "
And then, before Horatio could give his resurrected friend any more reassurance, Archie curled onto the sandy ground and passed out cold.
The next few hours found Horatio at a loss. For a few moments he thought that Archie might have had a fit, but there had been no symptoms; he then decided that the best thing to do was get Archie out of the cemetery, and think of a logical reason for his sudden recovery.
There were a few blankets in the church, which was unlocked, and Horatio bundled Archie's unconscious form in one of them and with a little difficulty carried him to one of the abandoned buildings nearby the church. His own lieutenant's jacket made a serviceable pillow for Archie's head, and after a little finagling Horatio was satisfied that his friend was comfortable. After sending a local peasant to the Inn with a note saying he was all right but detained for the night, Horatio set himself against a wall to think about what would happen next.
Archie was alive! It was remarkable. A discreet examination showed Horatio that the bullet wound that had felled his friend was gone, replaced by a nicely healed scar. That woman was genuine, her talents worth the hundreds pounds that were now lost...and everything else besides.
Archie was alive! Horatio smiled as he pictured Bush's reaction. It would be very difficult to explain, of course, but Horatio had worked up a very plausible theory that would discourage anyone from looking too closely into Mr. Kennedy's resumption of life. After all, it was not completely unheard of for someone to be thought dead, but not be dead at all. His own father had patients who were afraid that they would be thought dead, and revive in their graves. They had asked for the strangest things - to be beheaded, or have their hearts taken out - to avoid awakening in a coffin beneath the earth. So it would not seem so strange that Archie would be thought dead, only to be alive, especially in the confusion following his confession at the trial. So, that could be got over.
The trial...that was another problem. Horatio shifted against the cold stone wall and thought. Archie had confessed to pushing Sawyer, and that 'confession' would still stand, which by English law would mean that Archie would hang. But surely - surely there was a way to prevent that! Horatio was too late before, but now he had time, time to convince Archie that his new life could be lived to old age, and another way to end the trial could be found. There had to be a way...
There *would* be a way. This was how it was supposed to be, Archie alive and all of them bound for England on the morrow. The old future - with Archie dead and his world in ruins - seemed an eternity away. Horatio smiled that everything had been set right, and closed his eyes to sleep.
The next time he opened his eyes, the pale first rays of morning were slanting through the broken windows of the abandoned building. Horatio stirred, his joints aching in protest at being forced to sleep in such an awkward position, and as soon as he was aware of his surroundings Horatio looked at Archie, thinking perhaps he had stumbled into the room and dreamt the whole thing.
He hadn't. Archie was still there, his back to Horatio, still sound asleep. Horatio sighed in relief.
Then he looked again, and realized that Archie wasn't asleep; his shoulders were shaking. "Archie?"
"Oh!" Archie started, "Horatio, you - you startled me."
Horatio's mind was flung back to another time, in the prison in Spain when he had first come upon Archie in the prison cell. The same tears were in his friend's voice now. "I'm sorry, Archie. Are you..." The question sounded unforgivably foolish. He didn't finish it.
"Am I all right?" Archie sniffed, turning over onto his back. The clots of dirt were still in his hair, and in the thin morning sunlight his face looked terribly pale and gaunt. The tracks of fresh tears shone through the grime on his cheeks. "I suppose for a man who awakened in the earth and had to dig his way out, I could be said to be tolerable well, but I..." he stared at the ceiling, puzzled, and turned querulous blue eye to Horatio. "Why were you in the cemetery last night? How did you know I wasn't dead?"
Erk, Horatio thought. Instinctively he responded, "I didn't. That is I - I hoped you weren't, actually."
Archie frowned slowly, absorbing this. He continued to stare at the ceiling and after a moment said, "No, I *was*. I was, I..." he closed his eyes and wiped one hand over them. "Horatio, I don't think I'm supposed to be here."
Softly, Horatio cautioned himself. "What do you mean, Archie?"
"I died," Archie said, wonder in his voice. "I remember...lying in the bed in the prison, looking at the ceiling, hearing your voice and then..."
Curiosity got the better of Horatio. "Then what?"
Tears came to Archie's eyes again, but they didn't seem to be tears of pain. He opened his mouth, closed it again and shook his head. His entire face gleamed with a peculiar amazement. "I'm sorry, Horatio, I can't possibly describe it. Colors - music - *peace*, such peace as I've never known in my entire life. Like being in the warmest embrace, but it doesn't end. And I was - free of every pain, every sorrow, every scar. It was..." he blinked again, and one tear trailed down his cheek. "It was Heaven, Horatio. I know it was."
Horatio put his head down, incredulous. He did not understand the look in Archie's eyes, and wondered if he was suffering some delusion caused by his experience.
Of course, Archie caught on to this immediately. "You don't believe me, do you?"
Horatio looked up quickly, and shrugged. "I cannot argue with you on that point, Archie."
"No, you cannot." Archie said firmly. He smiled in a drowsy way and hugged himself. "You and your analytical mind, I could never convince you, but I pray someday you'll see it, Horatio. God, it was like...floating through an endless starlit sea with the warm wind in your hair, knowing that everything that ever worried you was over, that the wearisome life you knew was done and what was beginning - what was beyond was so full of joy and...and *completeness* you were like to burst from the happiness of knowing it." He blinked, and another tear splashed down his dusty cheek. "I can never give voice to it, Horatio, but I felt whole, and well, and loved. So loved..."
Horatio stared at his friend, wondering at the glow Archie's face had taken on as he talked about his adventure. A sudden, leaden realization struck him that whatever bliss Archie thought in his delusion that he had known, he was responsible for ending it.
"You were happy, and I brought you out of it," Horatio said, the guilt overwhelming him. "God, I'm sorry, Archie."
Archie's eyes snapped to attention, and when he looked at Horatio his gaze was sharp. "*You* brought me out of it? What do you mean?"
Too late, Horatio realized what he had said. He swallowed quickly and stammered, "I meant, you were brought out of it...um."
Very slowly, Archie propped himself up on one elbow and looked
at Horatio sternly. "Horatio, tell me honestly. Did you
find someone in the Black Arts to bring me back from the dead?"
"No. That is - I don't think she knows the Black Arts."
Archie laid back with a groan and covered his eyes again.
Feeling a stab of dread, Horatio asked, "Archie, what are the Black Arts?"
"Oh, *splendid*," Archie moaned, pinching his nose with a grimace. "Horatio, why couldn't you just leave it alone?"
"You know the answer to that, I should think. You died disgraced, Archie, on *my* account. I could not bear it."
"Better that two should suffer, eh?"
"That's not what I meant, and you know it!"
"Horatio, you don't understand," Archie took his hands away from his face slowly and gestured with them. "The people here, the things they know...it's not natural, and it's not for good. You can get into a lot of trouble dealing with them."
"The Black Arts, you mean?"
"Well, the woman I talked to didn't say a word about such things," Horatio retorted, beginning to feel defensive. "So possibly the magic she does is something else entirely."
Archie sat up slowly and shook his head. "I know you meant well, Horatio, but there is an evil bent to this, trust me."
"Well, you're alive and well again, and we have a way of clearing your name before Retribution sails, so if there's evil in this I can't find it."
"Before *what* sails?"
"Oh - the Gaditana. That's right, you were...um...they've refitted her, named her Retribution. I'm to sail her this afternoon."
"*You* are? Then you've made commander? My congratulations."
"Yes." Horatio looked at the dirt floor and cleared his throat. "It meant nothing to me, Archie. Everything I've worked for for five years was given to me by Pellew himself, and it meant nothing because you had died. Reviving you was a selfish act I suppose, but perhaps once you've forgiven me I can make amends by offering you a post on my ship. I would be honored to have you sail with me."
Archie's face was unreadable. "I know how you felt, Horatio, and I would be honored to sail with you again, but...this feels wrong. I cannot agree to anything at the moment. I can barely accept that I am *here.*"
"Well, let's get you back to the Inn where I can tell everyone of the dreadful mistake that's been made," Horatio said, rising with a smile. He felt the same uneasiness that Archie did, but damned if he'd give voice to it. This was - not a miracle, but damned good fortune, and he wasn't about to waste it. "And once your name is cleared, we will see about the rest."
Archie nodded numbly, but Horatio could see the deep disturbance in his countenance. He did not rise, but stayed seated as he said, "I'm afraid for you, Horatio. Afraid of what you've done. These are dark powers you're contending with, and they do not give freely."
"Well, they already have, so there's your answer, Mr. Kennedy." Horatio said, forcing as much cheer as he could into the words. He reached out a hand to help Archie to his feet. "How is it you know of these things, anyway?"
Archie took Horatio's hand, and his grip was strong and icy with fear. When he looked at Horatio there was no peace or happiness in those familiar blue eyes, only crushing weariness and an old, nameless dread.
"Simpson used to traffic in the Black Arts," he said.
The sun had only just risen as Horatio helped Archie out of the abandoned building and out onto the street; even so, the day had a shadowless, overcast look to it. He had hoped, for Archie's sake, that they would not attract notice, since his friend was still bleary and would not handle close scrutiny well. Fortunately, they were not noticed at all, and as they walked Horatio noticed that Archie was gaining strength with every step.
Strength, but not appearance, unfortunately. Despite their combined efforts Archie's hair was still matted and thick with dirt, and his uniform looked like he had rolled downhill in it during a thunderstorm. Thick dark dirt was visible under his fingernails.
For all of this, Archie did not seem self-conscious, only scanned the nearly-deserted streets with a wary stare. "I don't like this, Horatio."
"So you've said," Horatio retorted, unsure what to make of his friend's lack of gratitude. "Don't worry, as soon as we've seen Commodore Pellew you'll see, everything will be fine. For all we know, you really didn't die, Archie."
"No," Archie said firmly, and stopped in his tracks. When Horatio faced him, his face was set in determined lines. "We both know that isn't true. This is *not* some freak case of mistaken rigor mortis, Mr. Hornblower, I was gone from this world. Do not deny me that reality and ask me to accept this one with blithe indifference."
Horatio opened his mouth to argue, but stopped himself. Feeling a pang of regret he said softly, "Of course, Mr. Kennedy. Please - forgive my impertinence."
Archie looked Horatio up and down and give him a small grin. "Poor Horatio. Only believing in what he can see and touch. One day you will see, and you will understand why I don't want to stay in this world if I don't belong here."
"I - hope so," Horatio replied, but was not certain he meant it. It was difficult enough having to contend with the notion that Archie had been somewhere else, and happy, and Horatio had unwittingly drawn him from it. To cause Archie pain was the last thing Horatio wanted. "Well, shall we hasten to the Inn? You seem to be attracting dirt as we go."
"Say, isn't that your ship?"
Horatio looked up, in the direction of Kennedy's pointing finger. The dock was before them, and in the harbor beyond sat the Retribution, with boats busily sailing to and fro from her. Not far away Horatio saw Bush talking with Matthews.
"Oh - so it is," Horatio smiled. "Would you like to say hello to Lieutenant Bush?"
Archie did not seem to be catching on to Horatio's humor. "I don't know, Horatio, he looks fairly occupied. And I've already told you how wrong this all feels to me."
"Oh, for heaven's sake," Horatio said, tugging Archie along, "For once, Archie, accept what has happened without thinking it to death! We have a stroke of good fortune here and we should use it, and Mr. Bush will be as happy to see you as I was, I assure you."
Archie trudged along silently, his eyes downcast. He really takes this Black Arts thing seriously, Horatio thought, and wondered guiltily if his suspicions were founded. Well, of course they weren't. Everything had turned out all right, hadn't it?
Bush was just a few yards ahead now, and Horatio stopped, throwing Archie a conspiratorial smile. Bush was busy going over some papers with Matthews, and Horatio stood patiently, waiting to be noticed.
Archie spoke first. "Horatio?"
"I thought you said you are commanding Retribution."
"I am. Why?"
"Then why is Mr. Bush wearing a commander's epaulet?"
Horatio looked. It was true; Bush had a gold epaulet on his jacket, the sign of a commander.
Horatio frowned. "He must have been given command of another ship."
Archie shot him an uncertain look. Horatio shrugged; he could think of no other explanation.
Bush had still not noticed them yet. As Horatio waited, he listened to the conversation Bush was having with Matthews.
"The outfitting of Retribution will be done by this afternoon, sir," Matthews was saying, "And then the last of the provisions will come on board, and you can take her out."
"Very good, Matthews," Bush said quietly. Horatio noticed he looked tired and downcast and thought, he *is* commanding my ship. What the devil...
Matthews seemed to notice it too, and looked down at the ground. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"
Bush sighed. "There's no need to, Matthews, you've said it a thousand times before."
"Yes, sir, only it don't seem to soaking in, if you get my drift."
Bush sighed again, and raised his head to look at the sea. "I was the senior officer, Matthews. It was my responsibility to take the blame for what happened in the hold."
Horatio frowned. He had never heard this argument before.
"Beggin' your pardon, sir, but you couldn't stop what happened. Nobody could have stopped that."
Bush nodded. "I could have. I could have stalled Hornblower, kept him from going to the courtroom."
"You and what army, sir? Beggin' your pardon again, but once he knew what Mr. Kennedy was up to wild horses couldn't have kept 'im still. They were thick as thieves, them two."
"Yes, but - " Bush looked around, still not seeing Horatio or Archie, then pitched his voice lower. "If I had thought of something - if I had been a more able commander I would have seen what Hornblower was capable of and beat him to it. I could walk, after all. Blast it!"
Matthews shook his head. "He did what he did to save Mr. Kennedy, and you, sir. It had to happen."
"Horatio..." Archie's voice had a warning in it. Horatio waved him into silence.
"But for what?" Bush took his hat off and wiped his brow. "They're both gone now. I should have stopped it."
"Mr. Kennedy was dyin' from the time 'e was shot," Matthews soothed, "An' Mr. 'ornblower, 'e was savin' us all. I'm sure he'd say so if he was here to talk to us now."
"But I AM here, damn it!" Horatio shouted, too exasperated to stay quiet a moment longer. "Mr. Bush, what is this nonsense? Matthews - "
"Well, thank you, Mr. Matthews," Bush said, ignoring Horatio completely, "I'll be back this afternoon to take her out. Commodore Pellew is writing a letter he wishes me to take to Mr. Hornblower's father, telling him what he feels *really* happened, despite his confession. He hopes it will take some of the disgrace off, at least."
"HoRAtio!" Archie hissed.
"Shh!" Horatio replied, but he had gone numb. What the hell were they talking about? They were talking as if he was - as if he was -
"Very good, sir," Matthews said, and turned away. "He'll feel better, knowin' it come from the Commodore."
"But it will never take the stink away," Bush lamented as he replaced his hat. He looked right in Horatio and Archie's direction without blinking. "For the rest of his life, the doctor will have to live with the fact that his son confessed to trying to kill his captain. It won't matter that he did it to save his best friend from dying in disgrace."
Horatio's mouth fell open.
Bush walked away.
"Oh my God," Archie breathed. When Horatio turned to him, he had gone pale as the sand. "Horatio - when you asked to have me brought back - what were the conditions?"
Horatio's mouth went dry. "Conditions? None, that I am aware of. She asked what I wanted, and I remember thinking I wanted to see you again."
"Oh, no. Horatio...she tricked you. She gave you what you wanted but...not the way you asked for it."
Horatio narrowed his eyes, but could not ignore the cold feeling creeping up his bones. "Archie - "
Archie shook his head solemnly. "I told you, Horatio, these are black forces you are dealing with, and they do not give easily. I am not living - we are both in limbo. Horatio - we are both dead!"
Horatio stood there, stunned. No, he thought stubbornly, that was impossible! Licking his lips which had suddenly gone very dry he whispered, "Archie, don't be absurd. I don't feel dead in the least and you - "
"No, Horatio, listen to me," Archie voice carried a frightened urgency in it, "Bush, Matthews, neither of them noticed us and they looked right at us! And the sky, Horatio, look at the sky."
Horatio did. It was overcast, just as it had been before. No, wait, it was something else...the sky looked smooth, gray, as if covered with a fog or haze. But there was no fog to be seen on the ground.
"We're not in their world," Archie said, and rushed to take Horatio's sleeve, "Daylight, shadows, they do not exist for us. Horatio - "
"Mr. Kennedy, compose yourself!" Horatio barked, and shook himself free from Archie's grip. His friend was not making sense, and the sooner an end to this mystery could be found the better. Limbo, indeed. He started walking toward Bush, who was standing near the edge of the dock.
"Horatio, no!" Archie cried, grabbing Horatio's sleeve once again, "Horatio, we have to get back to the church. We need protection - Horatio!"
"I am NOT dead, Archie!" Horatio snapped, and as soon as he was close to Bush filled his lungs called out, "Mr. Bush! Mr. Bush, sir!"
Nothing. Bush was not an arm's length from him, and nothing.
Has he gone deaf? Horatio wondered. But no, he was talking to Matthews and - blast, this wasn't making sense at all!
Then, suddenly, the sky went black.
"Good Lord!" Horatio exclaimed, and stared up at the sky. Archie was gripping his sleeve very tightly and whispering some prayer, doubtless one Dr. Sebastian had taught him.
"Come on, Horatio!" Archie pleaded, and pulled Horatio away from Bush's side. Horatio stared, for Bush and all the daylight objects around them had taken on a silvery glow, as if they had become transparent. The sea beyond them shimmered blackness as if it was a moonlit night, but there was no moon. There was nothing.
"The church, Horatio, hurry!" Archie yanked Horatio almost off his feet, and with his logical world in pieces at his feet, Horatio did the only thing he could do. He ran.
"Get in, Horatio!" Archie was almost pushing Horatio along, and as they both tumbled into the church Horatio wondered where his friend had suddenly gotten such strength. Terrified and confused, Horatio pressed himself against the wall and looked around, his eyes wide to take in what meager light he could.
It was like night; a black starless night, with all the earthly objects lit from within by a pale white fire. Only he and Archie still seemed solid, still seemed a part of the world - but what world? Good God, what -
Suddenly Archie was kneeling in front of him, one hand on his shoulder and those familiar blue eyes boring into his. Archie was taking very deep breaths, one, two, then another.
Finally he said, "Horatio? Are you with me?"
Horatio nodded. "Archie, do you know what's happening?"
Archie squinted toward the window, which was letting in a strange, ghost-gray light. He nodded to himself, and then turned to look at Horatio with the most serious expression Horatio had ever seen cross his face. "Stay here."
"Archie, you're not going out there!" Horatio said, half rising even though his legs felt like jelly.
"Stay HERE, Horatio!" Archie said sternly, and pushed Horatio back down. "I have to know. You're safe here, and I shall return shortly."
Before Horatio could stop him, Archie slipped out of the church and into that unnatural night.
Horatio watched him go, and blinked in confusion. What the devil was going on? Had he fallen asleep somewhere, and hit his head? Or perhaps it was the water...it was known to make men ill. How else to explain this extraordinary dream, Archie back from the dead and telling him HE was among the deceased! When in fact, Horatio had never felt better in his life.
I should go after him, Horatio thought, but considered that Archie might be retrieving something from his grave and desired the privacy. Horatio's logical mind was very busy conjuring up reasonable explanations for everything, and Archie's erratic behavior fit right in.
First off, Archie very obviously had not really died. Of course - that made perfect sense. The Jamaican woman knew this, and had merely played on Horatio's naive nature to rob him of his hundred pounds. Perhaps she had even seen Archie coming out of his grave. Yes. Perfect sense.
So, Archie had really been alive all along. Clearly his near-dead state had caused some fanciful flights of imagination, but he seemed happy to keep them, so Horatio decided not to press that point.
But what about the dock? Bush and Matthews, babbling on about Horatio dying? Horatio did not think his friend much on the way of pranks, but it was possible that he had decided to goad Horatio out of his melancholy by ignoring him; and Matthews was just enough of a follower to go along with it. That they had not remarked on Archie's reappearance was unusual, but perhaps they already knew he was not dead. It was possible - even likely - that Archie was in on it the entire time!
Now that thought made Horatio sit up. Yes, Archie was enough of a prankster that he could very easily have convinced them to assist in this charade, and Horatio had fallen for it. As for the darkness - an eclipse, perhaps? Who could say how they affected this part of the world? And it would certainly be in Archie's nature to tweak Horatio's nose for his ignorance!
Horatio stood up, angry now. This entire thing had been a joke, and at his expense! And now Archie was gone, no doubt on his way back to the Inn to share a laugh with Bush over Horatio's gullibility. Horatio's mind, near to being completely undone by the things he had witnessed, grasped this scenario the way a drowning man would grasp at the thinnest branch, and determined to put an end to this he set his hat upon his head, and stalked out of the church.
The strange, silvery light was still over everything, but Horatio's anger was such that he ignored it. He looked around for Archie, noticing as he did so that the area looked deserted, abandoned. Even the air was still, quiet the way the country is quiet after the snow falls. It made him feel uneasy.
He walked around the back of the church, and finally spied Archie down in the weeds on the edge of the pauper's field. Horatio knew that Archie's grave had been nearer the church; what in the world was he doing? Working his way through the untended grass Horatio called out, "Archie?"
There was no answer. As he drew closer Horatio noticed that his friend was bent over, kneeling in the grass, and moaning as if he was ill. Suddenly concerned, Horatio walked a little faster.
Closer now, and Horatio realized that Archie's moans were in fact words, low pleading words that he could not completely make out. He was rocking back and forth in the pale grass, clutching something in his hands.
"Archie?" Horatio whispered. He wondered if his friend's trials had made him lose his mind.
Archie did not seem to be heeding him. "Oh God, help us," he was almost sobbing, and Horatio had to strain to catch the words. "God, if you can hear me, please *please* - "
Horatio was nearly at Archie's side now, and saw that he was kneeling next to another plot of earth, nearly as shallow as his own grave had been. Horatio frowned, and was about to ask Archie what he was doing when he looked up at the head of the plot, and stopped cold.
Archie's hands were covered in dirt, and Horatio saw that a white, gaping hole in the earth where Archie had clawed at the mound, tearing it away. Beneath, just showing through, was a patch of skin, someone's neck and face, but so mottled and distorted as to be unrecognizable. The neck was bruised and black and the face, still mercifully half-hidden by dirt, was purple and swollen and horrible to look at.
Then, suddenly, Horatio recognized that face and let out a strangled scream.
Archie's head came up, and somewhere far away Horatio heard him call his name and felt him almost throw himself into Horatio, to shield him from that sight. But it was too late, Horatio stared at the shallow grave in wide-eyed horror, was still staring even after Archie had dragged him back into the church and swiftly but gently sat him down against the altar. He could not believe what he had seen; but it was impossible to contradict.
"Horatio?" Archie's voice was a little closer, almost begging. "Oh, God! Horatio, can you hear me?"
Horatio blinked, realized he was not outside anymore, and saw Archie's concerned face hovering close to his. Frantically he grasped at Archie's dirt-covered jacket and gasped, "Oh - Archie, I - I'm -"
"Horatio, why did you follow me?" Archie seemed to be near tears. "I didn't want you to see - Horatio, look at me!"
Horatio did. As soon as his eyes made contact with Archie's he said the first thing that came to his mind. "Archie, I'm - I'm dead."
"No," Archie was shaking his head fiercely, "No, Horatio, I won't let this happen, do you hear me? God, help us!" Archie pushed himself away and brought both fisted hands to his face, sitting against the altar with a look of fervent devotion on his face.
"I...I don't understand," Horatio shook his head. "I'm dead, I'm hanged, but I don't remember it. I remember you dying, Archie. I remember being alive till this moment!"
"I know," Archie opened his eyes and stared desperately into the dim air. "Oh, Horatio, how I wish you understood! We are toys to those who delve into the Black Arts, playthings for their amusement. You wished me to live, to be undisgraced, and this - this is the result!" Archie squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his hands into his forehead. "I lived, but only because you confessed first. They hanged you for a traitor, and I died of my wounds afterwards, as I knew I would. She saw it as a game, Horatio, but you had no way to know. None."
"What can be done?" Horatio asked, utterly at a loss.
Archie opened up his hand, and held something aloft, something that glinted in the night air. Horatio made out an oval form with a woman's figure within it.
"This," Archie said reverently, "My St. Adelaide's medal. It is all we have, but it's enough. I'm praying - with every fiber of my soul, I'm praying that God can find us in this night and release us to where we belong. Everything must be the way it was, oh God, I hope You can hear us!" Archie pressed the medallion to his lips and whispered, "Please restore things to the way they were. Oh, God, please - "
"Archie, no!" Horatio cried, and jumped to hold Archie's hands in his, suddenly frightened. "Archie, you're asking to go back to the grave! Ask to live instead."
Archie lowered the medallion, slowly. He gazed at Horatio with tear-tinged eyes full of an understanding Horatio saw only as mystery.
"We're safe here, Horatio," Archie said, swallowing hard. "I have given every prayer I know, every spiritual beacon so that a kind God might find us here."
Horatio looked around at the reality he could no longer deny, the silvery-light outlines of the pews and the sky beyond the windows. He shivered. "What do we do now?"
Archie leaned back against the altar and closed his eyes. "We wait."
For several long minutes they waited in silence. Horatio crossed his legs and arms and shuddered, trying very hard not to think of the predicament they were in. Every so often he glanced at Archie, who was rubbing the medallion slowly in his hands and praying in an even, earnest voice.
Finally, Horatio rose and started pacing. He paced the length of the church and back again, shivering as he remembered standing on the dock just a few hours before, pacing, and why? Because he was mourning Archie. Because he was missing his friend, missing his life, wanting them both back dreadfully and now he was on the verge of losing them again. For if Archie's prayer worked, they would be freed of this - this limbo, but then Archie would be dead again and he would be faced with the same long, friendless future.
But that would concede defeat. Surrender. Horatio huffed against it.
Finally he sat down again opposite Archie, crossing his long legs beneath him. Archie was still holding the medallion and whispering, his face drawn with worry and exhaustion. Horatio cast his eyes about the eerie, otherworldly scene around him and hoped that whatever his friend was doing, it would at least end this nightmare. For Horatio knew of no other way to solve their predicament.
At length Archie sighed and leaned his head back against the altar, as if gathering strength. After a few moments he opened his eyes and looked at Horatio with an expression of infinite sadness.
Horatio felt an overwhelming need to say something, anything. "Did you - did it work?"
Archie shook his head a bit. "I don't know. I hope so." The look of sadness deepened. "Why did you do this, Horatio?"
Horatio was not expecting the heartbreaking sorrow in his friend's voice, and found it almost impossible to put his reasoning into words. Finally he looked at his hands and said, "Your death was wrong, Archie. Your name - everything you had worked for was gone, and I could not bear it. I was offered an opportunity to remedy that injustice and I - I took it."
"You mean you hurried headlong into a situation you couldn't possibly understand. I'm touched but - surprised. It's not like you, Horatio."
Horatio's heart stabbed at him; there was disappointment in Archie's tone, and a curious sort of fatigue. "I know. But - I suppose Mr. Bush would say I have not been myself since your death. I've - I've missed you, Archie. The loss of your friendship was quite..." Horatio paused, and pursed his lips. "...quite hard to bear."
Archie frowned in sympathy. "Horatio, I'm sorry. I had no time to prepare you for what I had to do. I had little enough time to think for myself! But you have to listen to me, and accept what has happened. I am gone."
"Horatio - "
"Archie," Horatio rejoined angrily. "You cannot expect me to accept such a gross injustice. I refuse to do it. Your life was not meant to end in a prison in Kingston."
"My life..." Archie murmured thoughtfully, and leaning his head back half-closed his eyes. "If not for certain miracles, my life could have ended in any number of meaningless, tragic ways a dozen times before now. Think of it, Horatio. Torn apart by some cannonball during an enemy action. Felled by some putrid fever while in dock. Bleeding to death when there was no one who cared to stop it."
"Archie, please," Horatio said, chagrined that he had led Archie into a fit of melancholy. "I know what you are saying, but the benevolent God you pray to must surely see what bounty your life may yet hold. You can live until old age on the sea, under my command, or on land with your own estate, a wife, children!"
But Archie was shaking his head. "Horatio, you do not understand. What you are fighting against I accepted long before I gave up my name at the trial. My life is over."
"Yes," Archie's eyes held a peaceful serenity as he smiled. "Horatio, some men are destined to live long lives, scattering their great deeds among the years like seeds in a furrow. But my life - for so long it was wasted, wasted in fear and want and I knew if I could just end it with one act - one brilliant, defiant deed that would make the whole painful, rotten mess worthwhile, it would be a song that would last a thousand years. And it was, Horatio. Tell me it was."
Horatio opened his mouth, but was forced to look away before he answered. "Archie, no one has ever given me such a gift. If I live to be a hundred I can never pay it back."
There was a pause, then Archie's voice. "Then I am content. God gave me my life so that I might save yours. And I would do it again in a heartbeat." He smiled a bit. "If anything, it was worth it just to see the look upon Hammond's face when I confessed!"
There was enough of Archie's old humor in those words to bring tears to Horatio's eyes, and when he faced his friend he made no effort to hide them. "Archie, you cannot say you did not want a long life."
"I wanted a *life*, long or short made little difference. Fate chose to put the bullet in me; I chose what became of my life after. But I am not meant to be in the world after Kingston, Horatio,and the author of that decision bears no contradictions. I'm sorry."
Horatio heard the quiet acceptance in those words, and envied it. "Your life had such promise, Archie..."
"Yes, and all that promise I have passed on to *you*!" Archie leaned forward, his expression intense. "Horatio, my time on earth is done, but you can live for me and I now charge you to do so!"
Horatio shook his head sadly. "How can I do so without your friendship? I am a solitary soul, Archie, even my father said so. No one else is even interested in sharing whatever thoughts I have, or cares to humor my moods."
"There's where you're wrong," Archie said seriously. "Horatio, listen to me carefully. If I had control of the stars I could erase all of our sadnesses, every wrong that has ever been done. I would live for a hundred years, then a hundred more, and if you could share that journey with me I would be the happiest wizened old man in England! But the sands of my hourglass have run out, and in the coming years, your heroics and moments of doubt will not find me there. But you should not remain alone."
"That is what I meant, Archie!" Horatio said in exasperation. "I have the devil's own time making friends, and you were the only true one I had. Who else would even put up with me?"
"Mr. Bush," Archie said confidently. "He was jealous of our friendship, you know, and I could almost see how delighted he was to be counted as a comrade. His is a solitary soul too, Horatio. You can trust him to look after you."
"I will look after myself."
"No," Archie said, a sliver of fear in those blue eyes, "Horatio, please, for my memory, don't close yourself off. I've been in those dark and lonely rooms, and there is only needless misery there. You need someone to catch you when you beat yourself, to trick you out of those black moods. Mr. Bush has that skill. And he's seen your temper!"
Horatio glared at him.
Archie just grinned. "Yes, that's just the one I mean!"
"Archie..." Horatio muttered, but was grinning back in spite of himself. He rubbed his face in his hands. "This has all gone so wrong, and all I wanted...all I wanted was for you to have the life I knew you deserved, your name undefiled and your steadfast support beside me on Retribution!"
"I have had the life I deserved, Mr. Hornblower," Archie replied with a confident smile. "I lived it as best I could, and died a richer man than the King of England himself. As for my name..please don't worry about that, Horatio. It is not defiled where I am dwelling now."
Horatio bit his lip. The delusion again? Archie seemed so sure...but it was not in Horatio's nature to believe in heavens, or hells, or in anything he could not experience. But Archie believed it, and that was enough.
"As for the support you mentioned," Archie continued, looking at Horatio with absolute certainty, "Only let Mr. Bush stand beside you, and I shall live through him in every adventure you have, from here to the hills of China. My life is over, Horatio, but yours is just beginning. Accept that I am gone, and honor my memory by living unafraid. Please."
Horatio felt his heart lurch, and shook his head. "I will still mourn you, Archie - "
"And I will mourn you," Archie nodded, taking Horatio's arm with tears in his eyes, "As I have since I knew I was dying. It's all right, Horatio, mourn that we were not fated to sail the Retribution together, to stand at each others' weddings and pass through the Admiralty arches as comfortable old men. Weep that we must part, but know that we will meet again, and until that time I will be safe and happy, and waiting for your return. And then, the stories we will share, Horatio! The Duchess herself will have never seen such entertainment."
Archie was smiling encouragement, but Horatio looked down at the floor, his emotions in a turmoil he had seldom experienced before. The dull pain of Archie's death, the numb surprise of his promotion, everything he had been through in the past week roiled to the surface, and he closed his eyes. He found himself trembling, and couldn't speak.
Everything he had wanted to grasp with both hands, he was being asked to let go. Everything he wanted, childish and selfish though it was, he realized he could not have. The dream he thought he could achieve without sacrifice, he was now discovering was a harsh reality that had its price.
But if his friend was telling the truth, then the price once paid would yield a reward he could not even imagine.
For what seemed an eternity Horatio curled within himself, trying to find the courage to face whatever would come. Then Archie's arm was around him, strong and supporting as it had always been, and Archie's gentle voice saying, "Horatio, look."
Horatio opened his eyes. The darkness was fading. A shaft of pale sunlight was shining through the church window.
Horatio found himself shaking again, for another reason. "Does this mean we are free?"
"I - I think so," Archie smiled, "Horatio, the things I've said - think about them. Please."
Horatio's mind was whirling. He nodded.
"And don't be alone. Promise me. Don't hoard yourself."
"I won't," Horatio said, and smiled to bolster his own faltering courage. "You have my promise, Mr. Kennedy."
"That's the Horatio I know!" Archie exulted, and as the room brightened he gazed at the medallion with an expression close to rapture. Slowly he stood, and Horatio stood with him. "It's going to be all right. He heard us, Horatio - Oh, it's - it feels so..."
As Horatio watched, Archie paused and put a hand to his chest with a puzzled expression. He drew a shuddering breath and said, "Well, it - it seems the time has come to part, Mr. Hornblower."
Horatio shivered, realizing what his friend was saying. Already he felt warmer, more substantial, and the church around them was fading into a gauzy filminess. Clutching to his remaining composure he said, "So it - so it would seem, Mr. Kennedy. I wish - I wish you...oh, blast, Archie!"
"It's not forever!" Archie replied urgently, reaching to grasp Horatio's hand in a last gesture of friendship. "Horatio, please believe me. Your life will be long, and full, and I'll be so proud to tell everyone I know you! And then one day, we'll sail together again. My word on it."
Horatio felt that iron grip on his, strong but growing fainter. He swallowed hard. "I'll hold you to that, Archie Kennedy. It would be the greatest honor of my life."
Archie smiled, and Horatio saw a radiance there, a transcendence that was troubling because it did not seem to be a product of Archie's imagination. The entire room began to glow brighter, and brighter still, until Horatio found himself swallowed up in a majestic brilliance that swirled around them, and still Archie was standing there, laughing with tears of purest happiness in his eyes as the light seemed to flow through him, and the very air cascaded in a kaleidoscope of indescribable light and color and song until Horatio found himself nearly blinded but unable to look away and then -
"Read your palm, mister?"
Horatio raised his head with a start.
My God, he thought, it's so DARK! And quiet. He realized he was back on the street, on the steps, the wet feel of tears still on his face. Instinctively his hand went to his throat and he thought, I'm not dead - I didn't hang -
Horatio blinked, looked up. The Jamaican woman. He was back to when they met.
She tilted her head at him. "You want your palm read? Or sometin' else maybe?"
Something else. No, nothing else. He had made a promise. Slowly, Horatio rose and smoothed his hair. "No, ma'am. Excuse me."
"I know what you want," the woman insisted. "For what's in your hand I can get it for you. The people here, they know how to do things."
Horatio looked down at his hand; he still held the hundred-pound draft. For that he had tried to buy Archie's soul back from the grave. He looked at the note, puzzled. Had he dreamed it? Was it a hallucination? He could still have Archie back...
Horatio clutched the note in his hand and shook his head, walking away from the woman without another word. He continued walking, and as he walked he felt tears slipping down his cheeks, not the hot helpless tears of frustration but cleansing tears, tears that mourned for a life ended too soon but not without purpose, and the future that would not know its comradeship and felt that loss. But there was no selfish wish in those tears, for Horatio knew that time was done, and his childhood was over; and more than anything, he wanted to make Archie proud of him.
While he was still a short distance away from the Inn Horatio stopped at a water trough to splash his face and make himself presentable. His mind was still full of silver shadows and brilliant light, and he knew he could never speak of it, but somewhere in his heart he also knew it was not a dream, or a hallucination.
It had happened. And he had been given a charge that he would perform for his own good, and the good of his men. He would...
He would make a friend.
The Inn stood just ahead, its glowing windows an echo of the glorious light Horatio had seen, but not understood. He glanced overhead, and saw that the sky above him was blanketed with stars; he had never had much imagination, but Horatio could almost see Archie sitting among them, waving him impatiently onward, that goading grin on his face.
*I will be safe and happy, and wait for your return.*
Horatio looked around; there was only the warm Jamaican wind and the rustle of the trees, but in his exhausted state he could almost fancy there was something else there. Something...
*Live for me, Horatio. And don't be alone.*
...asking for acceptance.
Clearing his throat, Horatio straightened his jacket and his hat, and with the firm resolution of one determined to get on with life, to honor those who could no longer share it, he walked with determined steps toward the Inn. He would never claim to understand completely everything that had happened to him that night; but he knew the gift he had been given, and what he had almost lost. He had made a promise not to lose it again.
And he meant to keep it.