Word Count 1883
Disclaimer I did not invent them
On Going Home, Chapter 26
Ships are never still. Even moored. Even in the darkest part of night. Lines creak, things slap. Water chuckles and purls, inside and out. Because, ships leak.
Justinian, being old and in poor condition, leaked more than most.
It was deep night. The dark in the midshipman's berthing had a tactile quality almost unknown in the land-living world.
The ship was not, of course, airtight. Fresher air did blunder in, and, when it blundered out again, it served to carry away some of the fuggy exhalations of the 800 men aboard. Most of the men were asleep. Not, of course, all. Never all.
Captain Keane was not asleep. It was not the burden of command that kept his eyes open, and boring into the dark. It was the burning heaviness in his chest. When Keane had been young he had never had any trouble sleeping. He never had to resort to counting sheep or counting anything else. Now he lay awake, and his chest burned, and he struggled not to count his breaths. He knew they were already numbered.
Midshipman Hether was not asleep. His fever had risen again, he was shivering hot, his head hurt so badly, even the darkness hurt. His legs ached. He was 19 now. He was too old to weep of course, too old to want his mother. So he wasn't doing that. But it was dark, and he was thirsty, and he wanted to go home.
In the cot beside him, Dr Hepplewhite dozed. You could not really call it sleep. He had 40 minutes to go before he could dose Hether again. He was tired.
Archie Kennedy was not asleep. He was floating. His hammock swung gently, and he smiled as he wriggled down under blankets that seemed more soft and warm than they had even half an hour ago. . He was warm and soft himself. Horatio was asleep, not a foot away. Horatio did not snore exactly, but he breathed in sleep, with a series of huffs. It seemed to Archie to be the sound that a soft nesting bird might make, something like an owl, speaking only to itself, as it burrowed into its own feathers.
In the space of six months, Horatio had changed everything. Changed Archie.
When Archie had come into Justinian, he had been fourteen. He had been saucy, and smiling, confident of his place in the world, and the love of his family. He had missed them, of course, wept over them, alone in his hammock sometimes. He had been a child. Three days later Simpson beat him senseless. Simpson had done more. That had been the end of childhood. No more weeping, ever. Four years of darkness followed. Archie learned how to go away. He had spent a lot of time away, high and to starboard of his own body. It hurt less there, watching from the outside.
When Horatio had come, Archie tried to dislike him, at least. He had not wanted to see the cold come into those eyes, when Horatio learned Archie's place in things. Hopeless. Those eyes had been so hesitant, so eager. Archie had been in love by the time Horatio puked all over him.
Listening to Horatio's owl sounds, Archie felt a surge of tenderness. The urge to touch was always there, even with satiated lust dormant between his legs. Archie wanted to touch Horatio forever. In there hammocks they had 14 inches of space each. They were close as bedmates. Still, Horatio was sweet in sleep, and Archie did not want to wake him. Tomorrow night, he would touch Horatio again. Tomorrow night, on a new ship. A frigate, a new world. Finally a chance to do something that mattered. And they would be together. They would have that much, even if the new ship was a horror. They would face it together. Sleep together in the dark. Close as bedmates. Archie keep Horatio safe...he would make sure....
Archie's thoughts loosened, floated loose like a ribbon in the wind of dreams. He slept. The ship breathed through the night, like a living thing.
Even in bright morning, ships berthing is dim. Morning comes by bell and habit, more than by a change of light.
Justinian took a deep collective breath, and stumbled into day. Horatio's eyes were sandy and gummy. His nose felt clogged. His first thoughts were of coffee. He levered himself to sit up, letting his legs dangle over the side of his hammock. The edge dug into the backs of his knees this way, but it functioned as a sort of chair. Archie could sit for hours in his hammock, legs crossed, balancing effortlessly, reading. It was a little like watching someone cross legged reading on the back of a horse. Archie, Horatio reflected wryly, could probably do that too.
Archie was already up. He was wearing one stocking and a pair of under-drawers. He had his neckerchief loose around his neck. His hair was wild brass down his back. His cheeks were flushed with sleep. He was irritated about something Horatio could tell by the sharpness of his moving hands.. He was pawing through his sea-chest, the diffuse and dusty sunlight was speckling his shoulders with gold. He looked delicious, edible, like some food so good that the wicked world did not deserve it yet.
“Have either of you seen my other stocking? I have been saving a clean pair for today, and I can only find one.” Archie pushed his hair back, in the manner of the truly aggravated. Horatio, halfway through a yawn did not answer. Cleveland, tying his neckerchief, looked around sheepishly.
“Yes... Sorry about that. I have it. Here.”
“What have you done with it Cleveland? The toe is all – eew, what is inside it, it feels like – “ Archie gave the stocking a squeeze and something cold and viscous oozed out a small hole in the toe. Archie looked both angry and alarmed. Cleveland looked rather apprehensive.
“About that... What if I just keep this one. You can have one of mine instead.” Archie looked forbidding. “Err, you can have two of mine.”
“What if you just tell me what you've been doing with my stocking.”
Cleveland reached under his blankets and felt around vaguely.
“I'll show you.”
He brought something out from under the blankets, Archie and Horatio stepped forward in the dim light. Cupped in Cleveland's hand, mewling weakly, was the smallest kitten Horatio had ever seen.
It's eyes were still shut, and it's tiny legs swam unconvincingly.
“I found her in the cable tiers.” Cleveland said. “No mother.”
Archie reached out with one finger to pet kitten. It opened its tiny mouth and made a tiny mew. Archie smiled. “Still doesn't explain my stocking.” He said.
“I've been feeding her sea-biscuit mush. I mix in bargemen to with it. She likes that. I took your stocking off the wash line. There was already a hole in the toe, Arch. I can sort of squeeze it into her mouth, like. She's too little to really eat yet.” Cleveland lifted the tiny thing close to his face. “I'm going to take her with me to the Indy. I've named her Mittens.” Cleveland's round face was a mixture of defiance and apprehension.
“Can I see her?” Horatio asked. Cleveland handed the kitten over. Horatio upended it, gently. It weighed no more than a letter form home,
“This kitten is male, Cleveland,” he said authoritatively. “And all gray, or he will be when his hair comes in better. Are you sure you want to name him 'Mittens?'”
Archie crowded forward. “Are you sure, Horatio?” Archie's brows drew down. “He hasn't any balls.”
“They'll come later.” Horatio said. “He's a boy, definitely. You can tell by the distance between his --”
“Give him back.” Cleveland said. “He doesn't like that.”
Cleveland handed Archie the socks, tucked Mittens into his pocket, and left the berthing.
“Well, damn.” Said Archie.
Outside, on deck, the day was bright and windy. Small clouds, scudded by Northerly. It felt like fall. Breakfast was over. It had been exactly as usual. Scotch coffee and all. Horatio tried to feel awakened by it. Mustered on deck, next to Archie, Horatio he did feel a trickle of something like excitement. Archie was smiling broadly already.
In a half an hour they would be on the Indy, a frigate. A new captain, a new life. Keane was limping before them now, speaking to the men who were going to Indy.
Keane's hand was fragile in Horatio's, Horatio could feel the swollen veins in the back of it, and the fragile skin. He was peculiarly aware of the callous on his own hand now, of his own strength. Keane said something, with a gasp and smile. Horatio smiled too. Keane nodded and moved on to Archie. Horatio stood, rigidly correct. Eyes front.
Horatio could see Cleveland's pocket heaving. It was also mewing. Luckily Captain Keane was somewhat deaf in his near ear.
Keane was speaking in his gasping voice, shaking hands with each, all the way down the line, from Eccleston on down, through the midshipmen and beyond. He knew each man's name, even the ratings. He knew some little personal detail about most of them too.
Time seemed to slide and telescope in the strangest way. They were in the jolly-boats, moving out of Justinian's shadow. The water was bright, and slightly choppy. The wind was much more evident now, on the surface of the water.
Horatio let the hope tug his mouth up a little. He felt apprehensive nausea. He pushed it down. Not again. Never again. He could feel Archie beside him. Archie had given himself over to it, as he gave in to love, to all that was good. Nothing in Archie resisted this. He was pressed against Horatio, shoulder to knee, and his happiness was shaking them both.
The new world was heaving up before them, glowing black and yellow, above the blue water.
They clambered up, saluted the new quarterdeck. They mustered on the new deck. The new captain, Pellew, stood above them, the sun was at his back. Horatio could see him, silvery and indistinct. He was tall and broad. His voice was strong. It floated out on the wind.
“My name is Captain Sir Edward Pellew. And I am here to tell you: your days of idling are over.”
Horatio was hardly breathing. He could hear the other men cheering beside him. He thought he could even hear Mittens, mewing. But this joy was an oddly sober thing, like church, like dawn. Something in his chest, new and strange. Horatio did not cheer. He was looking up, into the sun, trying to understand. He did not understand. But Archie's voice was in his ear, shouting in joy, completely given over. It was like that. Archie was first, as usual.
There would be time to figure it out. Today he could only feel it. Horatio got his hat off, in time to shout, with the others, “God save the King.”