Title: On Going Home, Chapter 24
Rating This one is so G it will make your teeth ache
Word Count 1415
Disclaimer I didn't invent them
On Going Home, Chapter 24
The sun was on his back, and the dawn air humid and empty. Overhead the gulls were gray against a gray sky. The warming air lifted them to another day of shrieking strife. Horatio felt the water slide glassily under the jolly boat, and they came up on Justinian very fast. He did not feel any inclination at all to vomit.
Archie and Cleveland sat to either side of him. Both were sleepily silent. Archie looked pale around the mouth. His lips were compressed as if he were getting ready to drink something bitter. Horatio was exquisitely aware of the length of Archie's thigh. It was perfectly correct to have it pressed against his own that way, after all, how else were they to sit? No one else knew how firm it felt, or how welcome. Cleveland was just as close on the other side, and that meant nothing. Had there been any wind or spray, in fact Cleveland would have blocked it better than Archie.
But Horatio knew what Archie was feeling now, he could feel Archie's emotions leaking from his body, tumbling like storm clouds, palpable as sleet. Horatio felt as if they were filling all of Spithead. Cleveland, by contrast, just felt sleepy.
They clattered aboard. Eccleston greeted them without surprise. The dim below decks, and the smell of close humanity swept Horatio with force again. It was the smell of that dreadful first day. He had not noticed the smell once after that. Now it was more complicated. Horatio realized that in years to come, it would be a palimpsest of sorts, layers, imperfectly scraped, a return to memory, changed each time, the smell of coming home.
They had just gotten their dunnage stowed, when Keane sent for him.
Horatio took the scroll picture with him, and climbed out of the dark, toward the captains cabin.
“Midshipman Hornblower. You sent for me, Sir?”
Keane looked up, pale and wheezing. There was a smell here, too. It was different from below, which smelled quite a lot like feet. This little room, with its painted wood, and sunlight, was considerably less pleasant to be in. Something vital in Horatio recoiled from it. It smelled of being alone and old.
“Hornblower, yes. Sit down boy, I can't see you over there.”
“Aye, Sir.” Hornblower sat.
Keane took a deep breath. Horatio could see him thinking how best to use it.
“So, Mr Hornblower, you are back from your father's house. He is well, I trust.”
“Yes, Sir. Thank you Sir.”
“And you took Mr Kennedy with you.”
His voice must have betrayed some surprise, because Keane gave a brief twitch of a smile.
“A captain is supposed to know everything that happens on his ship. I do not claim to be omniscient, Mr Hornblower, but I strive to know what I can. I trust your leave was...restorative?”
“Well, that is well. I want to speak now of something less pleasant. Mr Simpson remains in the hospital. You will be pleased to hear, I am sure, that his recovery continues well.” Keane sounded completely sincere, but his voice was so cracked and gasping it was hard to tell for certain. He gave Horatio a searching look. He did not seem to be waiting for an answer, but Horatio found himself muttering “Yes, Sir,” anyway.
“I have seen many duels in my time.” Keane continued. “As I get older, I find I like them less. I am aware of the value of young men's lives. We are entering into a war now. Young lives will be lost. Some will be spent for good cause. They will be mourned nonetheless. And, Mr Hornblower, some young lives will be wasted. Waste is a sin. Dueling is wasteful. I hope you never fight another.”
“No, Sir.” Horatio could feel his hands winding together, under the table. Keane could not see into his heart. He clenched his fists at his sides. He could feel them sweat.
“I want to have you and Mr Kennedy, and Mr Cleveland off my ship before Mr Simpson returns. Therefore, I am transferring you three the day after tomorrow. You have the next two days to make ready. I believe, you will have no duties until then. Lt. Eccleston will have the details.”
Keane, leaned slightly back in his chair. Horatio had the sense that he was not reclining in high-ranking leisure, but shifting in discomfort. He caught sight of the scroll.
“What have you there?” He asked.
“I am to give this to you Sir.” Horatio said. “It is a gift from my father.”
“Aye?” Keane raised an eyebrow. He polished his spectacles on his coat sleeve, resettled them, and gently unrolled the crackling paper.
One old hand came up to cover his smiling mouth, as he took in the drawing.
“Well, look at that.” His voice was soft and marveling. He shook his head wonderingly.
“My father found it among his papers. He said – said it was the two of you.” It seemed improper to say this, to his captain.
Keane smiled. “Hard to believe, for me too, Mr Hornblower. Time makes fools of us all.” He brushed his hand lightly over the two little ink boys.
“Your father has changed somewhat as well I believe.”
“Indeed yes.” Keane nodded.
Horatio sat quietly. Keane's face was soft with memory. It seemed intrusive to see it.
After a moment. He cleared his throat.
“Well, Mr Hornblower, this seems a good time for gifts. I have one for you as well. You may keep it, or pass it on, as you choose.”
He rose, and moved to his glass covered bookcase. He unhooked the glass, and slid it back with a practiced hand. He took out a small book, covered with calfskin.
“Look through this in your own time. It belonged to your mother, briefly. She returned it to me when she and your father married.”
Horatio took the book, with a deep sense of unreality. “Are you sure Sir?”
Keane waved impatiently. “Yes, yes go on. And send Mr Kennedy in.”
Horatio sat quietly. His back was resting against warm wood. The deck shifted slightly under him. It was afternoon. The little book was warm in his hand. It was his, as much as anything ever was. But there was a way to keep it near him. He had spent the morning looking at it. He knew what he wanted to do. There was a little inscription in the front. He had not written it.
He had added his initials at the bottom. It was what he wanted to do.
He felt, rather than heard, Archie settling down to sit next to him.
“Captain Keane gave me this” Horatio said. “He said that I could do what I liked with it. I want to give it to you, Archie.”
Horatio held the little book out. His heart was pounding, just as it had, when Archie said he could kiss when he wished. He wanted to kiss now, but on this day, and days to come, this would have to do.
“Oh Honeybee.” Archie said very quietly. Nobody was near enough to hear. He took the little book with great care. He raised it to his nose. Horatio gave a nervous chuckle. Archie had a tremendous urge to smell books.
Archie opened the little book. His mouth dropped open. He looked up at Horatio with burning eyes.
“Shakespeare's sonnets? Oh Horatio.”
Archie turned to the inscription page. His jaw clenched. He gazed out over the water for a long moment. Horatio held his breath. Maybe this was not right. After all, maybe Archie would feel--
But no. The eyes that came back from the study of the flat blue water, were wide with joy.
“Yes, that is right.” Archie said. His voice was too low for anyone else to hear. But Horatio heard. He would remember, on colder days, all his long life.
Archie pointed to the inscription. The writing in Keane's hand was faded with age. Horatio's initials were firm and black.
“It is an ever fixed mark. HH”