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I Will Not Sleep

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I Will Not Sleep

But if this medicine, love, which cures all sorrow
With more, not only be no quintessence,
But mix'd of all stuffs, vexing soul, or sense,
And of the sun his active vigour borrow,
Love's not so pure, and abstract as they use
To say, which have no mistress but their Muse ;
But as all else, being elemented too,
Love sometimes would contemplate, sometimes do.

Horatio never quite forgets what it means, this little caught moment of peace in Kingston from which he will sail. It means that everything he feared was taken from him, leaving him almost helpless in the wake of something worse than drowning, leaving him almost aghast at what so nearly was.

He traces the rapidly-healing scar on Archie's side, obsessive and still gentle, still waiting for all of it to have been a dream and the wound to re-open, gangrenous and so deep and so irreparable, and to be back at that prison bedside, stuck for words and longing to have them. Still hearing those terrible attempts at jokes and the more terrible truth.

Poor Horatio. So quick to give, so slow to receive the simplest gift.

Still hearing his own desire to howl out negation and love and feeling his impotence, able to do no more than choke back tears that were no fitting last sight for a friend and a beloved and a lover and his world's centre, and to give his own rare smile and terrible humour that no-one save Archie had ever found even slightly funny, in return.

A man who can't swim and a man who's afraid of heights....

But Archie was always the one to jump. He knows that, now more than ever, even when he was the one told to do so in that rain-sodden moment of their first meeting, he knows that.

I can't do this without you....

He can't, not any of it, his one true weakness, the one Hunter saw long before he knew it to be an absolute and mocked before he could claim it as his own. It is not weakness, or not weakness only, it is part of him, integral, his love and his need and his strength that forces him on, they are all one and this weakness is his heart's core.

He is afraid to sleep, in case this is the dream now, that instead of the nightmares he deserves, he has been given this as a new hell in their place, afraid to close his eyes and fall into the deep dark of surrendered rest, in case when he wakes, he will wake to an empty bed and the knowledge of a corpse despised and dishonoured and a grave to be fought for. That, after all, makes more sense than the truth of it, for Pellew could not, would not, will not and should not, never in the grim life that he and Horatio know so well, dismiss the confession as fevered ramblings and called and still call the court-martial a farce. It must be a dream, to have such hope -

And yet it can not be, either, for Horatio knows what had been done, what had to be done, he had, after all, been there, watching, as lethal little knives and rasps and even once, let God forgive them all for that one, a saw, brutalised Archie's shattered ribs to find the tiny poison of a bullet.

He knows, even in the midst of mist-and dream-bound fear, what had been done. And truly, that had been and can be no dream, not born of his mind. Not even his terror can produce those memories as a consolation....

*

He had learned, in the brief time while a desperate Clive had sought to redeem his name, the true meaning of Archie's feverish words, words sent to a dead queen and a living actress and meaning nothing to him then except that Archie had said them -

The crown of the earth doth melt - my Lord!

My lord, my love, my reason -

And the garland of war was indeed withered, because if this was the cost then it was too great....

I can't do this without you....

Watching Clive and his wicked instruments, the both of them thinking it futile, even when Archie lay upon the surgeon's table like a corpse, the beat of his heart visible through his fragile ribcage, in the tender hollow of his throat that belonged to kissing and love and snatched joy, and never to death, and all the more eerie and obscene for Horatio's knowing that. They had both known despair, he and the forsworn doctor, and then Clive had, at the last, when flesh was cut away and the damage exposed, picked up a smaller instrument, almost like a thick needle, and cut with small, quick strokes, almost as if he were flicking the blade at the injury, his deft, blunt fingers clearing the wound as he worked. As the ragged edges of muscle were cleared away, Clive had caught his breath, seeing for the first time the extent of the damage. About ten centimetres of the fifth rib going towards the front of the chest had been shattered by the bullet, leaving the opening made by the bullet through the lining of the inside of the chest clearly visible.

"Good and bad," muttered Clive. "At least I have a clear view of what I'm doing…"

He reached for a slightly thicker form of scalpel, and began to trim away fragments of the rib that were still hanging to its lining. Then, to Horatio's complete disbelief, he had reached for what looked like a small file. That it was exactly what it looked like became obvious, as Clive, with those strange flickering movements, began to smooth off the ragged ends of the rib. After his initial horror had passed, Horatio saw the reason for the quick upward movements. They were designed to keep as much of the bone dust away from the wound as possible. Horatio could only hope that it was working.

The opening left after the fragments had been removed meant that Clive was able to explore the pleural cavity. What he found made him turn away, swearing profusely.

"Bloody little fool!" he spat, when he had regained coherency. "He should never have walked in there, damn him! Whywouldn't he let me do this sooner…"

"What's wrong?" Frantic, past caring how he might appear, Horatio had looked over his shoulder at what seemed nothing more than open carnage.

"The bloody bullet's gone into his bloody lung is what's wrong!" Clive had snarled back at him, no longer even caring about the intrusion.

"Then he'll die." Horatio had dropped his head wearily. O God, O God, all this butchery, and for nothing…

"No." Clive had clenched his jaw. "Not if I have anything to do with it. This is salvageable. It has to be. I've seen this done, in Zurich, years ago. It can be done. If only I…"

"What? Clive, if there's any way I can help, I -"

"Just keep him still."

Clive had taken a deep breath, the tremors in his hands now having nothing to do with the alcohol-induced wreckage of his nervous system. As calmly as he could, he had begun to inspect the damage.

The middle lobe of the lung had been lacerated by the further movement of the bullet, which was clearly visible, surrounded by clotted blood. Clive had reached for a pair of pincers, and delicately removed it, placing it on a piece of cloth beside him. Taking a wad of cotton, he had then placed that between the pincers' jaws, and begun, slowly and painstakingly, to swab away the blood. As soon as the cotton was even partly stained, he replaced it, littering the floor around him with scarcely touched wads. His lined face had been drawn, streaming with the sweat of concentration as he worked. Horatio then glanced at the clock. Clive had been working now, with no break other than his flash of anger, for over two hours.

It was another forty minutes before Clive had finished cleaning out the wound, and by then, he was standing in a sea of cotton wads, and his shoulders were trembling from strain.

He had stepped back, taking a deep breath, and looked over at Horatio.

"Check his pulse," he had said, and reached for the water bottle, almost draining it with his first few gulps.

"Fast," had been Horatio's reply, after a few faltering minutes in which he was uncertain whose pulse it was, his or Archie's, the same halting blood seemingly running through them both. But it had been Archie's, and he could next say, with relief, "But strong."

"Christ," Clive had said, in what sounded like admiration. "You keep fighting, laddie. Keep right on with whatever you're doing in there, because by God it's working."

He had threaded a needle with catgut, and bent back to his task.

"You're going to sew his lung up?" Hornblower was amazed.

"That's what they did in Zurich," Clive had murmured absently. "And the man lived. Still alive ten years later. So God knows why, Hornblower, but this should work…"

Twenty minutes later, he was beginning to close the incision in the chest wall muscles, when blank, blue-grey eyes shot wide open, and Kennedy had drawn in a ragged gasp of pain, his hands flying to the long cut that ran almost completely up his ribs.

"Jesus!" Horatio had gasped, gripping Kennedy's wrists and holding them above his head. Clive, without missing a beat, had simply grabbed the bottle of laudanum, pinched Kennedy's nostrils closed, and poured a good half of the bottle down his throat. The lieutenant had choked, swallowed, and become abruptly still, only the rise and fall of his chest showing he still lived.

"I - he didn't - " Horatio had been stuttering with shock.

"He was out for too long," Clive had whispered, oddly apologetic in the midst of a miracle. "I should have kept an eye on the time, or warned you that might happen…still. He's back out of it now."

"Will he remember?"

Clive had sighed, and rethreaded his needle with black silk, preparing to close the skin.

"I hope not."

*

I hope not. So had Horatio, but Archie did remember, and was grateful for that remembering, and in remembering had broken down the last of the walls between them.

You love me that much? I never thought -

"My dear friend," Horatio had said then, thinking to begin a speech prepared for a dying man and knowing it, even as he mouthed the words, to have been rendered all useless in the naked face of Archie's honesty and continued existence and by his life, oh Christ, by his life that beat on strongly and remained part of the warp and weft of Horatio's allotted tapestry. He had wanted to say how dear, how much love, how he believed in miracles, even wrought by Clive, but instead he had wept, burying his face in the thin covers as the unforgiving heat of Kingston beat down upon his neck and upon Archie's fumbled hand, clumsily touching the side of his face, offering impossible absolution.

And Hornblower now, lying beside the living proof of divine intervention, can only continue those things he had wanted to say and had failed to manage to enunciate with touch. He lays his hand over the scar, learns it, learns it with his palm and his fingertips, understands the latitude and longtitude and gravity of it with his whole hand, presses his own wrist-pulse to the redness and tries to beat his own strength into that skin-near proof of evaded death.

He kisses it, warms that thickened line with his mouth, learns its heavy nature with his tongue, the feel of it and the beat of it and the almost-loss of it. He takes it into his body, and wishes he could take it away as profoundly and utterly as he is glad he is learning it for his own.

"Your obsessions will be the death of me, I swear to God," Archie mutters, still half asleep and not best pleased at his waking. Horatio thinks of the years ahead of them both in which he can be complained at, in which he can try to explain, in which, one day, he may explain, and can only smile.

"They say there may be peace, when we get home," he whispers, knowing it to be the death-knell of his ambition and the beginning of a new world, all in some scrawled signatures on paper, waiting only for the sand and the drying to them for officiality.

Archie looks down at him with eyes as blue and changing and swift to darken as the Kingston sky outside, and whispers –

"I desire no more than what I have here."

Horatio, who does not either, takes his hands and mouth away from their terrible almost, and reaches up to take Archie's face between them, and take away his fears with an entirely different kiss.

Archie smiles into it, kisses back, and says – "Should I almost die more often, then, and make sure you never leave?"

"It only needed the once." Horatio's voice is cracked, but he cannot care. "Archie. Only the once. Never again. I would – I would not survive another –"

Archie's hands are in his hair, tangled and strong, pulling and threatening pain and making him look up, making Horatio see the strength and the burning life of him, the joy that he is in every fibre of being, the undiminished lust and love.

"No," he says softly. "No. I promise, peace or war, my soul, you will never have to."

You're the bravest man I know, Horatio thinks, as he is pulled back down into a second kiss. And you - "I love you," he says against Archie's mouth, and the words are curled around by Archie's tongue, swallowed down into him, to be held forever as their truth.

"Clive brought me back to life," Archie says after a few moments. "But you give it to me each time you say –"

"I will never close my teeth over it again," Horatio says, his own vow, his own confession, his own reconciliation to what he knows can now be.

"Then we're agreed." Archie's smile is all of summer and delight and confident promise, and Horatio, helpless and content to be so, can do no more than give it back.

"A rarity," he says solemnly, and Archie's delighted, sputtering laughter chases away the last fears of dreaming.

For what man could dream this fortune? What man could begin to create such a wonder, even for his own feverish soothing? Archie is real, and alive, and loves him with all the fervour that can have nothing to do with Horatio's imagination because it bears no resemblance to any of his thoughts. Archie, laughing and breathing and warm, is in Horatio's arms, and there will be a future for them, whatever it may hold, there is a future to grasp or to fear or to change in its entirety, their very own Newfoundland, and this new life and this doubly-professed love are real, and Horatio knows for a certainty that whatever changes come, he will remember this as the time when he woke, and came to believe the gift he had been granted, the time when dreams could never match reality, the time when he finally accepts what he should have always known. Not love, terrifying though that emotion is to him, perhaps will always be, but a far more absolute fact, the source of any hope.

He knows that he and Archie have escaped the gallows in every way.

Do his hurts reach me? doth my worth decay?
Or do they reach his judging mind, that he
Should now love less, what he did love to see?
That which in him was fair and delicate,
Was but the milk, which in love's childish state
Did nurse it ; who now is grown strong enough
To feed on that, which to weak tastes seems tough.

FIN