Word Count 1985
Every Soul Has A Body
El Ferrol, prison bedroom
Last night he had said ‘we could bathe you.’and he had watched Archie smile. It had been a new smile, a thin smile, stretched tight over the bones beneath, but it had been real.
Horatio had taken water and heated it carefully. He had used the softest cleanest cloth he could find. And he had built the fire up, hot as he could make it. Archie had had to lean on his arm to cross the room. His hand, as it closed on Horatio’s had been icy.
He had helped Archie undress. And Horatio had felt his heart break all over again. This was his fault, the dirt, the sores, the places where chains had rested and galled the skin beneath. He had thought himself prepared, he had schooled his face to be still. But Archie knew anyway. And Horatio had seen the way that Archie’s mouth compressed, the way his eyes flickered away.
Kneeling there, beside the chair, he had pushed the sorrow down. He would be damned before he spoke of it. He would not task Archie with the blame or the forgiveness. Not now, when Archie was breathless just crossing the room. Maybe not ever— the blame was Horatio’s entirely.
That had been last night, the light of the fire and the gentlest touch of soap and water. He had started at the top, careful over the brow and cheekbones, When he reached the chest and abdomen he heard Archie sigh, Gentle down the sides he had gone, and over the abdomen. Archie had taken his hand. There had been one kiss. That had been last night.
Horatio had made sure the bed was kind and warm, The candle out then with a pinch to save the wax. The room was dim but the light not entirely gone. He was sleepy himself. Outside the window some Spanish insect was buzzing, the rising trill of summer days ending.
“Horatio?” Archie’s voice was small.
“W-would you stay a little while?
“Of course if you like. Sleep, I’ll be right here.”
This around a racking yawn. Curled with his back to the wall, facing into the room, Archie made only a little shape under the blankets. Horatio stretched his legs out, and settled back into the chair. He heard Archie move a little, yawn again. Horatio yawned in return.
The lizards had gone to bed. Not that lizards had beds. He had never seen one sleep. They did have eyelids though. They blinked at him sometimes, one eye at a time, deliberate as cats. Amanda the snake had not had eyelids. So long ago. She must be quite elderly in snake years. He wondered if she missed him. He had meant to show her to Archie, but Archie had said he didn’t like snakes. He could hear Archie’s breathing, not loud. Horatio counted it against his own. Slower now, slower was better. The fever had been down this afternoon. Often they came up with the evening. Maybe in Spain they were different somehow. He yawned again.
He had wakened at midnight. Somewhere a clock was striking. The room was black and silver. Archie was turned away, cool and sleeping quietly. Horatio sought his own cold bed.
That had been last night.
Now the morning with the strange sharp light that came here, all at once. This day was warm, and he dressed quickly under the jeweled eyes of the Spanish lizards. He had captured one, when he first came here, and held it gently in his fist to look at up close. It had blustered at him, puffing up like a bullfrog with comical threat. It had twisted itself in his hand, to bite, toothless but willing to make the threat good anyhow. It had been strange, so alive but so cold in his hand. It had still looked angry when he gently put it down. It had puffed and snapped one final time, and run away into a crack in the plaster.
Now Horatio hurried. Hunter was still asleep, but he could hear Matthews distributing food to the men of the division. There was time, if little.
He made it to the kitchens and cajoled the cook. Archie had always been the one who was good at this, securing the best food aboard, knowing just what to say, how to smile. Horatio knew himself charmless, too stiff, too awkward. But today he did his poor best. He came away with soft fruit, hot porridge, and a mild white cheese.
The little room was bright and already almost hot. Archie had pushed the blankets down. The skin of his chest was flushed, and his hair was clumped and dark with sweat. Horatio stepped as quietly as he could, but he must have broken into Archie’s dreams nevertheless. Archie muttered something unknowable. The sounds of the words slid oddly though, and Horatio realized that Archie must be dreaming in French.
Then the dream changed. Horatio watched his head twist on the pillow, and his eyes moved beneath the lids.
“No,” Archie whispered. “No, no.”
It was enough.
“Wake up Archie- wake up, you are dreaming. It is morning.”
Horatio knew how to do this. Waking Archie up had been a thing he had had to learn. Back on Justinian Archie had come awake with a striking fist sometimes, or a shriek. In those days Horatio had been wary, ready to dodge the blow. Now he would allow the strike. He deserved it, after all. Deserved it for letting Archie float away when they took the Papillon. Deserved it for not telling Archie yesterday how the fault was his own. I will wait until he is well, Horatio had told himself. And he knew himself, again, a coward.
Kneeling now, again beside the bed. He had put the dish on the chair. He made his touch very gentle, pushed back the hair that stuck to Archie’s cheek and mouth. Under his hand Archie burned with fever. It had come up again with the daylight.
“H’ratio?” His voice was rough with sleep.
“Yes.I brought you some breakfast.”
“I have water too.” Horatio held out the cup.
Archie took the cup. His eyes closed as he drank
“God that’s good.”
“Are you hungry?.”
“Not really. Hot.”
“Let’s get this off you. It is soaked anyway.”
The borrowed nightshirt was wet with fever sweat. And the day was warm enough now to do without it. Archie nodded and put his arms up like a child to be helped out of it. His eyes were wide and glassy. Horatio wanted to say ‘you have to eat well and get strong so we can get out of here.’ But Archie had a mulish look about the mouth that Horatio remembered well. So He didn’t start with any of that. Instead he reached out again to feel the fever. He was kneeling so close, it was easy. He moved slowly, putting the back of his hand against Archie’s flushed cheek.
“Oh. That’s good.” Archie sounded breathless. He pushed into the hand and his eyes closed, shutting away the glitter of fever. And maybe Horatio had taken fever himself, he was breathless and hot too, pressed against the bed-frame, kneeling on the floor. Archie’s hand came up quite slowly to cover his own.
“Archie, I—” He was not sure what he had been going to say. His vision was blurring and wobbling. His throat closed.
“I thought you were dead.I thought you were dead, and it was my fault, and I wanted to die too, I was so lonely.”
The words came out against all reason, as water does from an overturned bucket. They were nothing that Horatio could stop.
Archie stopped them. There had been a kiss yesterday, but it was not like this one. Archie’s mouth was soft and hot, his lips dry. This first touch was hesitant, careful. Horatio’s eyes had closed, but he felt Archie pull back a moment, and the weight of his gaze.
The mouth came again with the flicker of Archie’s tongue against his own now, the taste of sleep and memory and joy.
“I would never blame you if someone else—
“No. Never. I would never—”
It was Horatio pushing close now, nosing and nipping at Archie’s face and neck. He was the one trembling, smeared with tears and his nose running. Archie didn’t care, Archie’s hand holding him close, half on the bed now. Archie’s skin smelled the same as ever, if Horatio shut his eyes he could imagine that they were somewhere safe and had never been parted. So he did that, and felt the earth whirl around him.
“You smell the same,” Archie said. His nose sounded clogged now too. “God, Horatio.”
Archie had never been fat. Food on Justinian had been adequate, when they could keep Simpson from taking theirs as well as his own. Even so they were always a little hungry. It was the lot of midshipmen to be so. They were expected to turn out in all weathers, climb to the tops to learn from the older men. They were expected to move with alacrity, which meant to trot if not actually run. And Archie, like Horatio, at 17 had still been growing. No, he had never been fat, but he had had solid muscle then, and the grace that comes with strength.
It was different now. Horatio could feel bones. Here were Archie’s clavicles, jutting wings, just under the skin. Horatio kissed them. And the ribs below them down the sides, each distinct as Archie drew a deep breath.
“Can I do this? Is it still all right?”
“Yes. Anything.” Archie’s eyes were dark and his breath was rapid.
Last night Horatio had bathed Archie, all of him. And Archie had sighed with pleasure at the gentle touch, but that was all. It was different now. Archie was still sick, but he was kissing Horatio with focused attention. He was pulling Horatio close, and Archie’s cock was insistently lifting the blanket. Horatio was hard himself, and he reached down briefly to squeeze at the ache of it.
Then he brought both hands up, and that was better, touching Archie’s skin,was always better. He was hot and damp, still ill, but alive. Alive and breathing, and moving under the kissing mouth. His hands were in Horatio’s hair, his pelvis lifting now as Horatio pushed the blanket back.
There was a new scar here, thick and jagged. He had missed it last night in the dim of the candle, Here in the Spanish sunlight it was clear. It went from the crest of the hipbone around and down, to the margin of Archie’s rough curls. And Horatio kept his hands and kisses away from there, scars were tricky and this one was still pink. Someday he would ask, someday he would have the time to hate whoever had done this. He had never been good at hate, but he thought that he could learn.
But right now was better. Right now was Archie pushing up under the stroke of Horatio’s hand, and Archie’s hand in Horatio’s hair, and Archie growling, whining, gasping.
And then it was over, and time for gentleness again, he dipped the tail of the nightshirt in the water cup, wiped Archie’s abdomen. And the water was not cold, not really. It had sat long in the bucket since the well. But Archie’s skin was still fever hot and the water made him gasp.
“Sorry,” Horatio said.
“Cold.” And Horatio pulled the blanket up.
“Is that better?”
“Y-yes—” This around a wide yawn.
“Can you stay a little, as you did before Horatio? Or must you rush off?”
“I can stay.” Everything else could wait.
“Will you climb in with me?”
“Oh Yes.” And Horatio did.