Title: The Bread of Days Past
Word Count 1715
Disclaimer I did not make them up
The Bread of Days Past
Horatio leaned back in the chair. He stretched his long legs out under the tavern table. He watched the moisture form and drip on the outside of his glass. The beer was refreshing and cool, but he was ready to put it aside. Archie was late.
Archie and Cleveland had accepted the surrender of the Gazelle. Archie had come back to the Indy only to change his blood soaked shirt. “Not my blood,” he had said shorty, and he had rushed off. Horatio had come onto the deck, to watch Archie go. Archie had leaped, lightly to the other ship, he had poised, sitting on the rail, a moment, with his back to the Indy, and then slid away, away to set his feet on the alien deck
And, in the event, Archie had been ordered to pilot the prize ship to Portsmouth. He would rendezvous with the Indy in three days. The Indy was in for a repair and resupply. Thus the tavern. And Horatio had bespoke a room with a door that shut, and a bed. And Archie was late.
Horatio drew a finger down the side of the beer glass, thinking. He remembered Archie's careful lightness of tone when Horatio took the Marie Gallant. So long ago now. Well. Horatio had fucked that up, no doubt about it. It was down to dumb luck that he had come through alive. Dumb luck, and Matthews.
“Hullo, Horatio.” The hand, warm and heavy on his shoulder. Archie at last.
“Ah, Mr Kennedy, lately the Captain of His Majesties ship Gazelle.” Horatio bowed in place.
Archie grinned. There was a new scatter of freckles across his nose.
Horatio slid the beer across. His eyes could not stop looking, taking Archie in, from his hair to his hands, to where the rest of him disappeared under the edge of the table. The blue eyes were devouring him right back. Neither of them could stop looking.
“'S good.” Archie set the glass down empty. He leaned back in the chair, “Portsmouth looks the same.”
He said. Archie had not moved his eyes from Horatio.
“You aren't looking at Portsmouth.”
“Seen it already.”
Food came, as ordered, and two more beers.
“What was it like?”
“You should know.” Archie shrugged.
“I would hardly count my experience as a success, Archie. They lied to my face, and I believed them, my ship sank, I was just lucky.” Archie looked down. When he spoke again it was in the light and brittle tone that Horatio had come to dread.
“Lucky. So. I have wondered what you call it. What about the fire ship?”
“The fire ship was on fire. Anyone would have done the same.”
Archie shook his head.
“No, Horatio. That is where you go wrong. 'Anyone' would not have done the same. I think you are doomed to be a hero.”
Archie's smile was bitter. He ate with precision and speed. He was looking at his plate now. Horatio felt his stomach roll. Archie was angry with him, but he could not see what he had done wrong.
“Archie.” Horatio could hear the plea in his own voice.
“Sorry.” Archie flapped the hand not holding his fork. “I found the experience...regrettable. And I'm just tired, I guess.”
“I got us a room.”
“Let's go.” Archie threw down his napkin.
The room was small, and smelled of old wood. It has a window, with wooden shutters, and a low soft bed. The bed had a red wool cover, worn but trying for cheerful. It was narrow, but narrow was just fine. At least, Horatio hoped that it was fine. Archie still looked rather forbidding.
“What do you mean 'regrettable?” Horatio could hear something inside him, warning of shoals, but he had to ask. Archie should be proud. This moment, at least, untroubled. So, Horatio had to to ask.
“Oh, it went all right. Nothing too ugly.” Archie was beginning on his shirt buttons. Horatio did not come forward to help.
“They fought a little, the Captain gave over his sword. Didn't seem real. Cleveland bandaged some of them up a little. They seemed pleased by that. It was, I don't know, I thought I would feel some – I guess I thought it would make things more even for what was done – for my time in France. I'd been dreaming of the moment when I would have them so. Ugly dreams, Horatio. I'd be shamed to have you know them. But, the French captain, was just a man. He was afraid. And I realized that there will never be an end to it. I will never get clean.”
Archie stood up, Horatio stepped forward, and drew him in close. He drew his hand down soft over Archie's back.
“Scars,” Archie said. “Shame and guilt and regret.”
“No.” Horatio was kissing now, nuzzling close into the good smell of Archie's skin. “You have nothing to reproach yourself for. You are so --- God, I missed you so much.”
And Archie was in his arms at least, and not angry at him after all. The rest made little sense.
“Just being alive, Horatio, is cause enough for guilt.” The blue eyes came up, soft and sad and loving.
“I don't understand.”
“I know. I pray God you never do.”
Archie gave a long sigh, like a man setting down a heavy stone. He gave a small dry laugh.
“Lie down with me, Honeybee. I'll tell you a story.”
So they were naked together, on the red coverlet, Horatio curled onto his side, nestled into Archie's arm. Archie did not meet his eyes, but stared at the low inn ceiling.
“It was worse at the end.” Archie said. “I kept trying to get away, you see. By the end, when I came to the Biche. I was down as a malefactor. I was in the lowest level, under the ground. I was chained hand and foot. They gave me just enough play to stand, when they ordered me to do so. They gave us straw, but never enough. And it got dirty. You understand?”
Horatio had his face buried in Archie's arm. He nodded, and tightened his embrace. He did not trust his own face. He could feel Archie's heart, under his hand. He spread his hand, as if to hold that heart.
“We could tell, when they ran low on food. The soup got thinner and thinner. They laughed. They called it soupe de rien, nothing soup. I stopped speaking, Horatio. They were going to do what they wanted to do, and I was chained like a beast. There was nothing to say. Sometimes they fed us, sometimes they forgot. Sometimes they beat us. There was no way to tell what was coming next.”
Archie took a deep shuddering breath. Horatio caressed slowly, belly, chest. He had asked for this, asked to be told. He had to bear the hearing of it.
“One day they gave us bread, a little piece for each of us. It was amazing. We had not had bread in so long. It was hard and a little moldy but oh, it was so good..” Horatio could see Archie's eyes still fixed on the ceiling, his mouth pulled back in a grin, most unlike his real smile. Horatio shivered.
“There was an older man, chained next to me. Old like Matthews. He had talked in the beginning, but after a while he stopped too. But he wept sometimes. It was always dark, but I could see him. I could hear him, could smell him. They handed out the bread, and I ate mine, fast as I could. It scratched, going down, and my gums bled, but it was so good. But the old man didn't eat his bread. He held it in his hand, and he wept. He just looked at it, and he made a noise like a grizzling baby.. I could just reach him, at the limit of my chains, but Horatio, I didn't move. I didn't do anything. And—and then they came, and they beat him with rifle-buts. They were tired of his noise. They beat him until his head was all bloody and he didn't have a face anymore. And he was still. And then they left. And I sat there, and the blood ran in the straw next to me, and I didn't move. He breathed for a while, but not right. He breathed slow, slow, fast fast, and then hardly at all, he just – he gurgled a little. And I waited. I waited, and then Horatio --- I took his piece of bread.”
Archie turned his head and looked at Horatio directly. Just for a moment. Then he flicked his eyes away again.
Horatio said nothing, kept his hands in motion, loving, gentle. He raised Archie's near hand to his mouth. Unfolded the hand along his own cheek.
Archie was far away in memory, shivering now, his face contracted with pain.
“Horatio, I sat there, and I did nothing. I took and ate his bread.” Archie's voice sank to a whisper. “it had his blood on it.”
Now it was time to speak. Archie was empty.
“You could not have saved him.” Horatio said.
“I know. I do know that. But I'm here, I didn't die in there, forgotten.”
“Never forgotten. Never that.”
Horatio drew Archie close, faced the blue eyes directly, but he found after all that he did not know what to say. He could only draw Archie in for a kiss, ferociously gentle, against the pain. Archie gave a huff of something like surprise. He returned the kiss, his lips and tongue moving hesitantly, as if questioning.
After a moment, they stopped. Horatio was half sprawled over Archie, skin warm where they touched. Horatio could feel Archie's heart, beating on alone, steady, behind its bone enclosure. He could not feel his own, but he knew Archie could. He could only hope it would be enough.