Title, On Going Home, Chapter 22
Word Count 2490
Disclaimer I did not invent them
On Going Home, Chapter 22
As the post-chase rattled along through the dust of late August, Horatio leaned back into the corner formed by the back and sides. It was awkward , he had to stretch his legs out forward to balance against the swaying and bumps in the road. But this physical attitude allowed him to wrap his arms around Archie. That is what he wanted most to do.
It was strange, seeing from the outside. Horatio had always had a delicate stomach. It had shamed him for years. He knew very well the misery that comes with helpless public vomiting. . His skin still crawled with the memory of his first night on Justinian. (“Seasick, at Spithead!”) He had had that awful moment w hen he knew it was inevitable, hopeless to struggle more. And beyond the sound of his pitiful heaving he had heard Cleveland and Hether laughing at him. But Clayton had been kind. And Archie. Archie had never laughed at him for anything ever.
“I'm disgusting.” Archie had whispered. But of course he was not. Horatio realized now that after this week, nothing of Archie could be disgusting, or foreign, or unwanted. He was precious from his toenails to the ends of his hair. Horatio wanted all, from Archie's thoughts, to his most distant future. But this was too deep to say. He would not know where to begin. So he contented himself with drawing Archie close, and wiping away the horrid cold sweat, with kissing his closed eyes, with inducing him to doze a little.
The time to think was not unwelcome anyway.
For years Horatio's life had moved at walking pace. He marked the time, to himself, by the things he learned. He added year by year to the house of his mind and it became bigger. Each book he loved, each experience, made it more livable, and furnished. He loved that process, with a grasping delight in new acquisition. But there was an sameness to it all. He was always himself. He was the being he had always been, since earliest awareness. He just became bigger in his knowledge and soul, somehow, as he became bigger in body.
He had assumed that it was so for all aware beings. He had assumed it would always be so. He had talked of it, a little as a child, with his father. His father seemed to understand.
But now...the little home of his soul, the one that had always and only been his, was utterly changed, as if by earthquake. Whole sections seemed to have been tilted strangely. New knowledge had pushed them into barely recognizable forms.
The small brown cottage of Horatio had sprouted entire new wings to wander through. There were strange crenelated towers, new furnishings he had yet to use, there were hallways hung with nude art, and there were pits full of killing spikes. It was exhilarating. It scared him.
He stroked Archie's hair and face as he thought. Archie's eyes were shut. But there was a pinched look to them that Horatio did not like. Archie's sweet mouth was clenched somewhat. Horatio did not think he was asleep. He had been oddly quiet all morning.
Horatio knew that even with Simpson gone, Justinian was a place of pain for Archie. Much of the agony there had been inflicted prior to Horatio's arrival. Archie had been alone, frightened and young and ashamed. No one had stepped forward to help or defend him. Thinking of it made Horatio shiver with rage.
He had cause to blame himself too. He had been blind, self-occupied. There had been harm done after his arrival, that a better man could have prevented. Archie had suffered from Horatio's cowardice.
He himself had mixed feelings about returning to Justinian, even if it was for less than a week. And the frigate that Archie seemed to look forward to with so much glee, was frightening to think of. He did not think Archie was afraid of it. But Archie knew so much more. Sometimes Archie forgot – and in his mercy allowed Horatio to forget – Horatio's ignorance. Horatio could not.
Archie was braver than he, more informed, quick in action, decisive. Horatio was well aware that his own shortcomings and ignorance could get someone killed on a frigate.
His hand, twisted gently in Archie's hair, had fallen still. He looked down, for the joy of seeing it there, and found the blue eyes open watching him.
“How do you feel?”
“Better,” Archie said. “My mouth tastes horrible though.”
Horatio fished in the basket with his free hand. He kept his other hand entwined in Archie's hair. He didn't want Archie to get up yet.
“Here.” Mary had packed two little flasks full of cider.
Archie drank from his lazing position, tidily without spilling a drop. “Oh that is much better.” He said, wiping his mouth. “ But I think eels may be ruined forever for me,” He said.
“Well, that is no great loss.” Horatio said.
“I suppose not.”
Archie was still lying in his lap, still too pale for Horatio's liking. He didn't want to press. Archie's pride was a prickly thing. It was enough for now to rock along the road with his hand in Archie's silky hair, and the flicking of the dusty sun in his eyes.
He let the time slide by over and around them. Archie was heavy and warm against him, not asleep, but the next thing to it. He let his own head rest back. It bounced unpleasantly as they jogged along. His hair fell down into his eyes. Really, he thought, how could anyone sleep? He slept.
When Horatio emerged from sleep, the light had changed. His mouth was sticky, and his back was sore. His breeches were bunched oddly and unpleasantly. Archie was sitting up, reading. His gut recovered quickly, obviously. Horatio still did not dare read on a coach.
“You've been out for hours.” Archie said. “We're almost into Portsmouth. There is an apple pie for you in the basket. I've had mine already.” He smiled. “I cannot believe you ate like that, all through childhood. I've never eaten so well, in all my life. I don't understand why you are not the size of a barn.”
“Must be my famous restraint and self-control.”
“Ha, ha.” That was better. The color was back in Archie's cheeks now. He looked much more like himself.
“Really, Archie. I am famous for self-control.” Horatio asserted.
“Maybe to some. But I know you better.” Archie said. And there was no way to argue with that.
“At least it's not raining now.” Horatio said, his mouth was indistinct with pie.
“Oh, I don't know. I liked the rain on the way here.” Archie said. “Crouching under that shirt gave me a reason to touch you.” He said this in a very light tone, and his smile was a good thing to see.
“I had been wanting a reason.”
“Me too.” Horatio said, and his own voice was quiet and hoarse.
“Well, we can be more honest now. With each other, I mean, if not the rest of the world.”
“Hmmm.” Archie put his book down. He reached with one hand to close the curtain, and with the other he drew Horatio close for a kiss.
The kiss led to more kisses, to sighs and delicious nips, and the renewal of the gasped promises of the night before. Archie tasted nothing like eels, or coffee or anything unwholesome. He simply tasted of Archie.
Kissing became more difficult as they crossed from the dirt track to the cobbles of the city. It was worth persisting, between giggles, as they jounced into town.
“Do you think we have time for dinner before we must go?” Horatio asked
“Oh, probably, yes.” Archie was looking at his watch. Horatio loved Archie's watch. It seemed to suit Archie perfectly. it was a golden confection, dense, and complicated. It was heavy and filled the the hand. It shone in the sun, and it was always warm from Archie's body. Horatio had smelled it once, when Archie was not in the room. He had imagined it might smell of him, but it smelled of gold instead. It had a sweet chime, and a robust tick that was good to hear. Archie's father had given it him at age 12. It was engraved with Archie's names, in intricate flowing script. Horatio suspected that it cost more than Dr. Hornblower made in a year. Horatio didn't have a watch. But it was just fine. He didn't need one on the ship. And he didn't need one when he was with Archie.
It was strange to walk over the mud and cobbles, after sitting all day. Horatio found himself breathing deeply of the salty air. The smell of the sea would be gone within hours, for him he knew. One never noticed it on a ship. He had learned this already, he thought wryly, and Justinian never went anywhere.
The inn was dim and full of smoke. Stepping in, from the light outside, Horatio could see only outlines of the people. He blinked rapidly to bring them into focus in the cozy gloom. He could feel the solid heat of Archie standing beside him, doing the same.
They secured a table by the door, dim and warm. It was strangely intimate. They were shrouded in shadow, against the wall. The laughter and noise cocooned them. Horatio had the pleasant sensation of being able to watch without being seen, and to talk (if a little loudly,) without being heard.
Archie ordered them ale and a solid dinner. Horatio knew, to his shame, that Archie would reach into his pocket, and pay without question. Archie had money, Horatio didn't. So Archie paid for everything, because Horatio couldn't. Archie, in his goodness, saw it simple as that. Horatio was the one hurt by it. Protesting served nothing, Archie had money, Horatio did not. And protesting would hurt Archie too. Horatio thought on these things as he ate his dinner.
The door creaked open, the light outside was almost gone.
“Look,” said Archie “It's Cleveland.” With a sink in his gut, Horatio saw that he was right. Archie didn't seem to mind Cleveland, but Horatio found his company wearing.
“Hey, Cleveland.” Archie waved a hand.
Cleveland came over. He looked pinker and cleaner than usual. His uniform was clean, and his side whiskers were quite restored.
“Join us for dinner?” Archie offered.
Cleveland shook his head. “Just here for a drink.” He said. “My mother expects me home tonight. We have until morning you know. Eccleston told me. Two bells in the morning watch. We report then.”
Archie nodded. He took a deep breath. His face was pale.
“Have you heard any news of, of Simpson?” He asked.
Cleveland replied carefully. Cleveland had no love of Simpson, Horatio knew. He was afraid of him. Everyone was. Even still, Horatio would never forget Cleveland's sweaty hands on his, forcing Horatio down, so Simpson could abuse and beat him. He heard Simpson again in memory shouting “I'm not done with you yet...I'll flay you alive.”
“He's alive, I know that much.” Cleveland replied. “Still in the hospital, recovering. He's to remain on Justinian.”
Cleveland said a few more things, and went up to the bar. Horatio hardly heard him. His entire being was focused on Archie. This was it. Hopes dashed. Horatio had allowed himself to hope that Simpson had died. He could see that Archie had done the same.
“Take a walk.” Archie muttered. He threw a handful of coins on the table, and stalked out.
Horatio hurried after him.
Archie was standing in the shadows against the wall of the inn. He was pale as milk, and gasping. He looked as if his legs were going to give out.
“Such a fool. I was such a fool.” Archie whispered. “I had come to believe he was dead. I wanted it so badly. I made myself believe it. Oh God...”
Horatio drew him close. If anyone asked he could always say “My friend is ill.” It was true enough.
Archie's breath rasped rough on Horatio's shoulder. He was shaking. Horatio drew back enough to see Archie's face. Archie's eyes were despairing pools. His mouth was drawn.
“Come, Archie.” Horatio said. “We have tonight. Lets get a room.” God knows they could not stay where they were. Horatio had a terrible awareness of their exposure.
“Come, Archie.” He said again. Archie clenched his teeth and nodded. They went in to rent a room.
There was a floor and a bed. It was enough. One last night, of peace and privacy. More than Horatio had hoped for. It was enough. It would have to be.
Horatio closed the door behind them. Archie stood immobile. His teeth were clamped on his lip. Horatio had the sense that this moment had been looming over the horizon since morning.
He eased Archie over to the bed, sat beside him.
“All right, so he's not dead.” Horatio said. “We still may never see him again.” Archie was leaning against Horatio, his mouth was open, his breath rasped.
Archie nodded. His face was buried against Horatio's chest.
“Stay with me Archie.” Horatio whispered. “Stay with me tonight. I want you here with me.” He eased Archie's coat off. And pushed him back far enough to kiss his immobile face. Archie's eyes had that flat blankness that Horatio had come to dread. Even more than the fits, he dreaded this. He hated this withdrawing that only Archie seemed able to do. Horatio had never seen or heard of anyone else doing it. It reminded Horatio of old foolish stories, of magic and men stolen away to fairy-land.
Archie was gone, wherever he went, at such times. Horatio could only wait. He set himself to rubbing small circles on Archie's shirted back. Archie's breath was shuddering. This was as close as he came to weeping. His face was dry and blank. Archie never wept. Horatio held his face, and kissed his brow. It did not seem right to want more when Archie was somehow not home. He did want more, however. He could not help it. He stroked his hand under Archie's hair. “Please come back to me, please please come back now.”
And, with great, unspeakable relief, he felt Archie return.
“Oh Horatio.” Archie said quietly. And Horatio felt the blessed heat of him, and the beat of his heart. It was what they had. And it would have to be enough.