Dreams of Renown
He had rolled into his hammock so eager for sleep. He just wanted a few hours of the black behind the eyes, with no-dreams-for-me-please.
But, not finding sleep, Archie composed his limbs into some sort of repose. Time to think was another luxury. He would take what he could get of it. He could feel the muscles in his back, neck, and jaw, burning as they began to unclench. The duties of a fourth lieutenant were not difficult. Certainly they were not beyond his abilities. But the Renown was an unhappy ship Archie had spent the last six months tied in knots, trying to keep things smooth and safe. An explosion was coming. He could not prevent it. But maybe with vigilance, Archie could protect some. Please God he could deflect the storm from those in his charge, from the boys, from Horatio.
Archie was also trying his damned best to avoid the notice of Captain Sawyer. The mad calculations in those filmy eyes made Archie's neck crawl.
Buckland, another gaze to avoid. A weak man, made complicit in tyranny. Archie had seen his sort before. The sort of man who held you immobile while ---- Archie choked that thought off before it could get any more form to it.
Bush, the new man, seemed all right. He shared the small cabin with Horatio and Archie. Off duty he was quiet, tidy, reserved. He didn't pry, and he didn't smell bad. (Archie had been 10 years at sea now, and it amused him that he found these qualities essential.) Bush, working the deck, had other good qualities. He was a blistering force, loud, precise, and unrelenting. A good man, Bush. Someday maybe even a friend. But not yet. Archie was slow to trust. He did not trust William Bush, not even close.
Trust. Friend. Horatio. All the best thoughts led back to him. Archie let his heavy eyes rest on the dark shape of Horatio in his hammock. When Archie thought back over his own life he knew his weak places. There were so many. Many and many times his virtue, his honor, his courage had failed him. But Horatio saw some other Archie. Horatio saw, had always seen, someone clothed in goodness, someone brave and dear, and who was the deserving recipient of Horatio's caresses, his secrets, his trust, and the bright dark puzzle of his friendship. There was no resolving it, Archie knew. He could only accept Horatio's love, and return it with a life-time of astonished joy.
Feeling, perhaps the weight of regard, Horatio gave a sleepy wuffle, and turned over. Archie grimaced. Horatio Hornblower was the only person over the age of 10, that could sleep belly-down in a canvas hammock. Archie had seen Horatio spend half the night in a reverse u shape, and wake refreshed. It was disgusting.
Still, if Archie looked too long Horatio would wake. Better to see with the mind's eye only: Horatio swimming, Horatio laughing, the way he chewed his lip when he was reading, the dear speckled area behind his left ear... Archie smiled, in the dark. He let his eyes shut as his good thoughts unspooled and loosened. He slept.
The sound did not wake him at first. It insinuated into his thoughts, lifting him groggily to waking awareness. The sound was pitiful, halting, unpracticed. Horatio was weeping.
Archie crossed the room in two steps. The tiny window was dark. The third hammock, still triced up, empty. Bush was still on watch. Horatio was tossing, whining. His face was hot and wet. Horatio was dreaming.
“Horatio, hey, 'Ratio, wake up.” Archie knelt, by the canvas edge, He had a strange feeling of unreality. How many times had Horatio crossed dark spaces to wake him? It was so strange to feel the positions reversed. Gently, he stroked Horatio's hair back. “Wake up. It's all right. You've been dreaming. Hey --” Horatio's eyes opened, he shuddered awake.
“Archie. I was. I was sleeping?” His voice was hoarse, strangely young.
“You had a bad dream Horatio. Thats all. It's over now.”
Oh God.” Horatio swung around to a sit. He rubbed his face.
Archie said nothing, letting the silence, and the quiet breathing speak. “Did I say anything?” Horatio asked.
“No, not really.” Archie moved to sit more comfortably, letting his hand rub small circles behind Horatio's knee. Horatio moved the knee over to rest against Archie's temple.
“It's this damn ship Archie. I can't keep... I can't keep everything going right.”
“Tell me the dream so it won't come back.”
“I wu-wasn't aware that it works that way.”
“All right.” Horatio drew a shuddering breath. “It may take a while. “
“We have time. It's just gone two bells.”
“Well.” Horatio composed himself. “It's always the same. I've had it before, you know. It's about chickens.”
Archie's reply was soft in the dark. He planted a kiss on the pale round of knee-cap. “Chickens. All right.”
“My father kept chickens when I was a boy. And a goat. We used the milk and eggs of course, but he also used the egg whites as a binder for certain medicines.”
“Mmhmm.” . He could feel the fear-sweat on Horatio's skin. Keep him talking, and the other world would fade, at least for tonight. It was a bitter thing that Archie could not take his own good council. His own dreams had to be grappled in shivering silence. To speak the unspeakable was to give it power and form.
“They had their own little house. We let them out in the morning, locked them in at night. It was my task to feed them, every day, collect the eggs.” Horatio's voice faltered. Archie let it go, kept a hand on him, a killick, to keep him in the now. Archie let his fingers travel, the arch of the foot, the bone of the calf. His to protect, this the vessel that held his Horatio.
Horatio was talking again, hands knotting, head low. Archie could picture it so clearly. He could almost touch the pinched shoulder blades of the dream-boy. Dream-Horatio, walked just out of reach, at 6, at 10, at 12, carrying the egg basket, reaching under the warmly protesting hens. So far the dream seemed benign, even comical. But the misery here was real.
“My father got rid of them after I left. He didn't need so many eggs, I suppose. But in my dream, I am back there, and I am me, I mean now, I'm wearing my lieutenant's coat, Archie.” Archie made a small noise of assent. They were closing on the center now.
“I am walking the path to the chicken house, it is evening, getting dark, and winter too, the air is cold, the trees are bare. And I am hurrying, to finish up before the light goes. I have my own food waiting you see. And I am thinking of foolish things idle things that don't matter. And then I realize, I'm in my uniform, and I'm not a child. And I know that the chickens have been waiting for me, locked in the dark, with no food, and no water, for – for years!” Horatio's voice broke high. “I went away, went to sea, and forgot them. And they waited, all that time. And when I remember I want to be sick. I start, running, as if that could make a difference. And my shoes are sliding on the path, and I can't move forward right.” Archie nodded silent, he knew about running in dreams.
“And all that I can pray is that they are dead long ago, but I know that they are not. I know that they are there, they've been waiting all these years, for me to come and feed them, and I just forgot! And I get to the door of their little house, and I open it, and there they are, looking up at me. They trusted me the whole time.”
The worst was out. Archie gave a tug, and Horatio came willing to the cabin deck. Archie rolled them backwards together, easier this way than two in a damn hammock. He soothed the shoulders, still thin, beneath his hand, as those of the long-ago boy. Horatio's voice was muffled now, against Archie's chest. He was still speaking. “My fault, my fault, my fault.”
“Hush, shh, just a dream...” It didn't matter what he said, Archie knew. The burr of his voice was conducted by bone, to the damp and quivering ear, resting on his chest, that was enough.
Hands could say more. He let them speak. Horatio burrowed against him, half-asleep now, already. Archie pulled down a blanket to cover them both. He could see the little cabin window. He could hear the bell from here. This much, he could keep safe. He would take this watch.