by linaerys

"Yet one more, O ye Laurels, and once more
Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sear,
I com to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,
And with forc'd fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due:
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer . . ."
--Lycidas, Milton

Horatio had a tutor once, a slim, sickly young man, scarcely older than Horatio himself, who loved Milton. His thin reedy voice grew thick and deep with emotion when he recited, and Horatio, with a boy's admiration, learned a short poem off by heart, to impress the tutor. Now unbidden he heard the lines of it march their relentless dirge across his mind, "But O the heavy change, now thou art gon, Now thou are gon, and never must return!" Horatio sat up as the bell tolled in the distance, a tinny cheap sound, an unfit harmonic for the deep somber gong he felt in his chest. Sleep was elusive that night, the second night since . . . the second night of true, bone-deep loneliness since his friend left.

It was time to rise. In his glass Horatio saw, as he knew he would, dark circles painted deeper than before in the hollows of his eyes, and smudges beginning below his cheekbones. A few more nights like this, he thought with grim humor, and I will look like Archie in the Spanish prison. He flinched, always--always being two days now--when he thought Archie's name. God bless our formality, so that everyone refers to him as Lieutenant Kennedy; I don't think I could bear it if another said his name now.

Horatio dressed and shaved, automatically smoothing and smartening his uniform. A dab of spit on a handkerchief, a quick rub, and buckles stood a little brighter. He stepped outside, down the steps of the inn. Already, the day shone too bright and sere, and he longed for the misty cool of the ocean, or of England. Longing for home, he thought. Those who think a sailor is a rootless wanderer are mistaken, for we find our homes together, in duty and honor and brotherhood.

Horatio walked to The Retribution;every step felt like he trod through hip deep water, and he hugged his jacket around himself, feeling a chill even in the hot Jamaican air. Ambition, he thought sourly, that's what they accused me of. And now many of them will feel vindicated. Who in the admiralty does not believe I let Archie take the fall for me? That I knew he was going to die anyway, and asked him to take the burden of the captain's fall from me? True honor is so far from their day-to-day lives, a small, twisted part of him whispered. He dismissed the thought as unworthy, but still, it persisted. They were more concerned with a scapegoat, he knew, all save Commodore Pellew. More concerned with the appearance of honor than honor's self. Horatio tried to muster some more anger, to shake the heavy haze of grief over his thoughts.

This command was bought too dear, he thought again, settling his belongings in the captain's cabin, his cabin. He turned his thoughts dutifully to his orders. He needed to take stock of his crew; many of the newcomers from Kingston were Spanish and French conscripts, who might prove difficult. He took out his ledger and did the complex sums necessary to decide how much food, water and rum the frigate required. He took pleasure in the simple mental exercise, in the feel of the pen between his deft fingers, in the methodical dipping and blotting for a good clean hand.

For a moment he thought himself back doing nautical extrapolations for Captain Pellew as a midshipman. He looked up hoping to catch Archie's eye, to see the small smile that played on his lips, that gentle, irrepressible good humor on his face, only to see the bare confines of his cabin.

Mercifully, a noise on board attracted his attention. He went out onto the main deck to see Matthews and Styles efficiently directing the new sailors belowdecks and midshipmen to their cabin. Horatio smiled, feeling like himself briefly, feeling the satisfied, competent smile he had for work progressing well. Matthews was his rock, steady and solid, while Styles was all fire and passion, acting first and thinking later, and Horatio always tried to balance himself between the two.

Then the emptiness slid back into his gut, and the smile faded. Archie is gone, he lamented, my love, my friend, the first person I wanted to see every morning, and the last every night! Every slim-built officer he saw in Kingston wore Archie's face for a moment before the inevitable realization that he was someone else. And the worst part, he thought, the very worst part, is how, even now, sometimes I am happy. How can I be?

"Under the opening eye-lids of the morn,/ We drove afield, and both together heard/ What time the Gray-fly winds her sultry horn . . ." Even now, Styles was good naturedly cuffing some Spanish lout, and joking so the whole crew laughed. Before, Horatio would have looked at Archie with a little smile and the joke would have been that much brighter for being shared. Now he was captain, and shouldn't laugh, even if he wanted to.

Even through his haze of self-pity, Horatio could see that his sailors were treating him with more deference. He knew he would miss some of the ready camaraderie he enjoyed before, but he was ready to be captain; this kind of loneliness was expected and even hoped for.

Later, sailors worked at bringing stores on board. He knew he could trust Matthews to keep a good eye on things, but he wanted to take the measure of his new lieutenants and midshipmen, and see just how raw a hand the admiralty dealt him with this new crew. Some were vile louts to be sure, but he detected promise even among some of the Spanish sailors. The Jamaican blacks, about whom, after San Domingo, Horatio was leery, seemed to be pulling their weight, causing little difficulty so far. They smiled rarely, but their low voices were a calming thread through the rhythms of bangs and cursing exclamations that accompanied the frigate's provisioning.

"They're not a bad lot, Matthews," Horatio said, trying to force his old, jovial tone. It sounded strange to his ears, as if it came from another world, but no one seemed to notice.

"Aye, not bad, Sir," Matthews replied, concentrating on a large bundle the sailors were lowering into the hold.

"Carry on," Horatio added, getting another "Aye." Some of the lieutenants seemed a bit under trained, and another was what Captain Sawyer would call an "Ancient Lieutenant" possibly twice Horatio's age, tired, but competent. His command had little fire, but long practice, and he wore his uniform like an aged footman wears his livery; no longer proud, nor uncomfortable, and likely to be the clothes he dies in. Like the clothes the bullet killed Archie in. My fool heroic ideas, Horatio thought, from which I walk away untouched, and for which he pays and pays.

Horatio stayed up as late as he could that night, going over the orders, poring over maps and charts, plotting their path down to the smallest detail, even as he knew that winds and fate would play a larger role than any possible plan. Finally sleep overtook him at his desk. He felt free and light and his mind drifted to his favorite moments of Archie without pain, for the first time.

"Welcome to Purgatory!" were Archie's first words to him. How he could be cheery even as Simpson was killing him, Horatio would never understand, but Archie's quicksilver moods kept him alive, when Horatio knew he himself would fail. Archie was the reed that would bend but never break. Like a ghost walking through walls of time and space, Horatio saw Archie again, and remembered the feeling of tenderness and relief seeing his friend even in the nadir of despair in the Spanish prison. That moment, Horatio finally exhaled a breath he didn't even know he had been holding since Archie was lost. Horatio remembered his feeling of almost-pleasure when he was placed in that hideous oubliette. At least, he thought then, I will experience something of what you did.

Some memories made him blush, even now, in his sleep. Nights of firsts, stolen in inns, exploring the world that existed between their bodies. A first tentative kiss, just a brush of lips. The first time Horatio woke up with Archie's soft, so soft, hair pillowed on his shoulder, their first fight, every moment of ecstasy together, these memories mingled with lasts, the last night spent together, limbs tangled, breathing the same air, the last kiss, the last soft words, words of brotherhood and honor, and love, always love. "Where were ye Nymphs when the remorseless deep/ Clos'd o're the head of your lov'd Lycidas?"

And then it seemed he sat with Archie in a tavern, ale already drunk warming him and blurring his vision, ale yet to be drunk sitting on the table. Archie's nimble fingers clasped a mug, he head cocked just so, his smile like a cat in the cream, all silky self-sufficiency. Horatio heard himself telling stories of the sailors he couldn't save, Bunting, who forced Horatio to kill him to avoid hanging, Clayton, the midshipman who died dueling Simpson, and Hunter who ran headlong toward doom in the Spanish prison. "Why couldn't I save them, Archie?" he asked plaintively.

"Oh bold and brave, Horatio," Archie intoned, "so good and daring that men must live and die by your command. Some men want to die," he continued, "some find the right time, and choose to leave honorably. Men make their own decisions, and they must live or die by them." Sleep shredded away then, and Archie, golden hair lit by the tavern fire, faded into lantern light.

"Sails sighted, Sir," said the breathless midshipman. Horatio stood, and looked at the boy, wondering when he had ever been so young. His orders were to make full sail for Bristol, but a taking a prize, provided it were done quickly, would not be amiss. Horatio lifted the glass to his eye, and could make out, through clouds and through the mist saw a flash of white sail, but then the clouds engulfed it. He collapsed the glass, and bowed his head briefly.

"Keep careful watch in that direction," he told the boy, "but I don't expect we'll see her again. This mist is closing in." Horatio took a circuit of the deck and found Matthews on the prow, looking out over the ocean.

"Do you see anything?" Horatio asked.

"No, sir, just looking for that ship again," Matthews said, seeming a bit embarrassed to be caught at a moment's leisure. Horatio bowed his head again, and saw the dark waves, slipping quietly by.

"We all miss him too, sir," Matthews said quietly, "things were always just a bit more jolly, with him around." Horatio looked briefly at Matthews and smiled, not his usual smile, broad and self-satisfied, but something softer, sadder and more inward looking.

"Yes, they were," Horatio, said, then paused, looking out again, then made his voice brisk and businesslike again. "Very good, Matthews, have someone wake me if you see sail again. And get some sleep. It's early yet for night watches."

"Aye aye, sir," said Matthews. He saluted, knuckles touching forehead briefly, and walked away. "But the fair Guerdon [prize] when we hope to find,/ And think to burst out into sudden blaze,/ Comes the blink Fury with th' abhorred shears,/ And slits the thin-spun life."

Horatio took one more automatic look around, drawing himself up straight, feeling back and spine pull up him up sharply into his perfect naval posture. He circled the deck once more, looking approvingly on the midshipman standing watch, listening to the susurrus of voices from below, accents and dialect mingled together unintelligibly. Horatio felt the wind in the sails above him, and the motion of the sea in the planks under his feet. You always went ahead of me, Archie, he thought, showing me the way. Someday I will catch up, and tell you all your gift has bought.

"So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high,/ Through the dear might of him that walk'd the waves. . . /And now the Sun has stretch'd out all the hills,/ And now was dropt into the Western bay;/ At last he rose, and twitch'd his Mantle blew:/ To morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new."

"Tomorrow, my friend," whispered Horatio to the waves, "all tomorrows belong to you."


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