Title: Strong to Save
Word Count 1700
Disclaimer Not mine
Strong to Save
“Global warming,” said Archie.
Horatio's voice was faint and distant. He had not opened his eyes to the morning yet. He did not want the day. He wanted only to lie very still. Archie's hand was doing something exquisite.
“Something I read somewhere. Some fellow who thought that the whole planet is growing more mild in temperature. Something to do with the increase in coal fires. He said it causes storms.”
“Is it raining again?”
“Not yet. Will later though.”
“You really should get up, slug-a-bed. The day has begun.” Archie gave him an encouraging nip on the chin.
“I can't get up when you've got me by the balls.” Horatio adopted a logical tone, only somewhat undermined by his slow pleased squirming.
“ Well, do you want me to let go of them?” Archie caressed, slowly with the pad of his thumb.
But the day came on anyway, as days will do. Archie could not cup that beloved heat forever. The clock on the landing spoke.
Horatio rolled loose of the blankets, and reached for his clothes. The light from the little window sullen, the wind was pulsing in the trees and turning the leaves dull side up,
“Hunter will be expecting me after breakfast,” Horatio said. “That leg will be aching him, this weather.”
“ So. Our Mr. Hunter won't be his usual charming self?” Archie grinned.
“No,” Horatio said, sourly.
Archie wiggled, absorbing the last of the bed's enfolding warmth. There was such luxury in watching Horatio dress, while he himself reclined. He would rush around, in another minute, and get properly dressed himself: but not just yet.
In truth, there was not much that either of them could do. Horatio walked the beach, each day, to regain his strength. His time in the Don's pit had not broken his health as it had Archie's, but it had made him less strong. Archie was not convinced that the beach-walks helped, but Horatio seemed to like them. What Horatio emphatically did not like, was Mr Hunter's strengthening regime. Hunter's leg was healing, but each day he needed to stretch it, and walk on it. It hurt. All three of them knew it hurt. And they knew why.
There was no need to speak of it, no need to blame with words. Hunter's misery was thick around him as choking smoke.
“I'll do it today, Horatio.”
“After breakfast, you go for your walk. I'll walk with Hunter in the courtyard.”
Horatio looked up and smiled.
“You had better get up and get dressed then, Archie,” he said, “You can't go like that.” And he leaned against the door-frame to watch.
Hunter's arm was rigid over Archie's supporting one. Hunter's mouth was tight. He looked, as always, like a shabby lion just risen from a bed of straw. He smelled like a man working hard, through pain.
They crossed the courtyard together three times. Hunter was sweating in the cold. The small rain was starting again, sideways in the wind. They stopped, leaning against the rough brick, to let the leg rest.
“Seems a little better today.” Archie said.
'Yes,” Hunter was breathless. “It cramps, when I step.” He said. “But its improving.”
Hunter lifted his face to the wind and rain. He let it wash his hair back. “Hornblower must be aloft like a kite, this weather.” Hunter said. He gave a teeth baring grin. “Stand here, Kennedy,” he said, “I'll have a go by myself.”
Hunter made three more circuits. When he stopped to pant and lean, Archie could see the ovals of sweat under the arms of the blue jacket.
There was something different about Hunter today. He had never been one who invited others close. But the misery in him had been easy to see, when one looked. Hunter had worn despair like a dirty coat, always, since Archie had known him. There had been blame and resentment there too, and loneliness. But today, Archie thought, he seemed more settled, as if he had somehow become more easy in his mind. The lonely was still there, but the rest of the brew was...different, lessened.
“Hunter,” Archie began, “Have you---”
That was when Horatio, burst through the gate. He was pale, disheveled and heaving for air.
“Spanish ship,” He gasped “Wrecked, Devils Teeth! Come Mr Kennedy. Some can be saved!” He turned on his heel, rasping “The men have gone for a fishing boat.”
Archie was at the gate when Hunter grasped his arm.
“Please.” Hunter said, “Let me help.”
“If you can keep up Hunter,” Horatio said, shortly, “We won't turn you away.”
They pounded down the beach. The sand was firmer by the water's edge, but they were soaked head to toe in moments. Archie remembered all his life, how long it took to reach the men with the fishing boat. His eyes were dim and streaming with water, he could not see the desperate Spanish at the reef . But the sound of them was carried by a trick of wind and fog. Their cries were quite horrifyingly clear.
It was strange for Archie, in the middle of the gasping and rushing, to feel the scrape of the sand against wood, and the resistance of the waves. It was acting lieutenant Hornblower, soaked to the skin, in the bow, and Mr Midshipman Kennedy, like one awake from a long dream, at the tiller. Hunter at the port gunwale, was arched in effort. His lion teeth bared into the wind. He could not run, but he was rowing like hell.
The fishing boat slapped into the waves, bucking and slewing. The wood creaked under his hand. He kept his touch easy, allowing as much play as he dared, lest the rudder break. It was cold now, and loud. Archie could taste the salt water on his lips, and an old fear cold in his belly, but he was grinning into the wind, and it felt like coming home.
Horatio clawed his hair back with numb hands. “We cannot get close.” He bawled. “Jump!”
One by one, they pulled the men into the boat. They came in, gasping, streaming, alien as giant fish. Horatio took the weight of them, hauled them in, to flap and gasp underfoot. The third flailing swimmer was lighter. He felt only distant shock when he realized it was Miss Cobham. She clawed her own hair back. “The captain is still aboard.” She shrieked. “I don't think he can swim far.”
“I'll go Sir.” Hunter lunged over the side. Horatio lost sight of his head instantly, but Hunter was back within a few gasped breaths. He had the Spanish Captain with him. Pushing and pulling, between them they heaved the man in to flop and puke.
When the man was safe, Horatio turned to Hunter.
“All right,” He said. “Hold fast, I've got you.”
And Horatio reached out and down. It would have been easy to take his hand. He was prepared to take all the weight if Hunter was too numb to help. It should have been easy. But Mr Hunter shook his head. Horatio saw that clearly. Hunter gave a smile, as he let go. There was no hesitation at all, and no doubt in his face. He released the gunwale. He pushed off, and sank beneath the waves.
There was no question of heading for shore. The storm blew them out and away, and land out of sight. The little boat rocked, the humans shivered in the rain. Oldroyed bailed. Sometime after midnight the wind dropped. By dawn, most of them were sleeping. Horatio kept watch. So much was gone wrong. They were far out to sea now, and some unknown distance down the coast. The Spanish Captain was badly injured. Everyone was beyond fatigue. Horatio could not bring himself yet to think of how he had failed Mr Hunter. But, he smiled a little nonetheless. There was Archie in the stem, with the tiller under his arm, Archie, alive and safe.
“It is an ever fixed mark.” Horatio muttered.
“Hmm?” Miss Cobham stirred beneath his arm. She had nestled close to him right off. Her body was small against him, but not so very alien, after all. She was warm against his side, and he could feel her heart. She reminded Horatio of a hen. Dr. Hornblower had kept hens, and Horatio, as a boy, had reached under them nightly to find the eggs. He remembered the softness of them, and bright eyes watching. And he remembered the sense of the strength hidden by the foolish feathers.
“Nothing Miss,” he said “go back to sleep, if you can.” He had quite forgotten she was supposed to be a Duchess.
Miss Cobham looked up at Horatio. “I knew it was you,” she said. “I saw that help was coming and I said to myself 'I'm safe now, there is my Mr Aitch.” She smiled up at him, and snuggled closer into their meager shared heat. He tightened his arm around her.
By afternoon, Horatio slept. Archie watched. The sea was glassy now, and they were hungry. There was rainwater, only slightly mixed with salt, in the dirty belly of the boat. They drank it. One of the Spaniards had had a few soggy ships biscuits in his pocket. They shared them out. Soggy, they were easy to divide and eat at least.
Horatio came up out of dreams. The little boat had rocked them all to sleep again, except for Archie, heavy eyed, in the stern. Horatio was smiling at him, about to speak, when Archie's face changed.
“Look!” He pointed, “It's a ship!”
Then they were all awake, rowing and shouting, and waving. The ship came toward them. And it was Oldroyd, his voice breaking with excitement who said: “Sir, It's the bloody Indy!”