Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me"
-Loreena McKennitt, "Dante's Prayer"
The first time they failed to come together, it was because of Jack Simpson.
Horatio did not know that at the time. At the time, he scarcely knew his own name, so befuddled was he by the seeming endless rounds of drinks Archie had bought for him and insisted he consume in the common room of the Lamb. "We're headed for the Ind...the Inda... the Indy." Archie threw an arm around Horatio's shoulders. "That deserves a celebration."
Horatio wasn't so sure, but Archie's excitement was contagious. The more Horatio thought about it, the more he liked the idea of a new, well-run ship, one more along the lines of what he'd expected from His Majesty's Navy. In addition, being reassigned would relieve them both of the distasteful specter of Simpson, a bully, a coward and a thoroughly dishonourable man. Horatio had no time for any of that. Horatio was, however, quickly discovering he had a great deal of time indeed for Midshipman Archie Kennedy.
When Archie seemed finally to have drunk his fill, they tottered upstairs to their room. Horatio hadn't planned to stay ashore overnight, but Archie had paid for the room in advance. Horatio believed him when he said he had secured permission from Captain Keene to spent the night on land. The captain did not seem to particularly care where his men lay their heads. He did not even seem aware he had a crew at times, he was so dosed up on laudanum and liquor.
"It's a treat for the both of us," Archie told Horatio. "I know you still aren't used to the movements of the ship." It seemed rude to spurn such a thoughtful gift, just as it seemed rude to push him away when Archie slammed the bedroom door shut, grasped Horatio's jacket in his hands and pulled Horatio's mouth down to meet his.
"Archie, what on Earth..." Horatio gasped, when Archie at last moved back enough to let him breathe. Horatio's heart pounded in his breast.
"I'm sorry, Horatio." Archie sounded as breathless as Horatio felt. There was a touch of shame to his words. "I'm just so happy to be getting out of there."
"As well you should be." Horatio nodded. There was no reason for Archie to be ashamed of his excitement. Horatio didn't want Archie to be ashamed of anything when they were together. Not of his fits, not of his feelings, not of his past. Not of anything. There was no need for it.
Before he could explain all this to Archie, Horatio's body overtook his mind. He watched, detached and fascinated, as he leaned down and again brought Archie into his arms. This time, Archie gasped and clutched at Horatio, one hand clinging to Horatio's shoulder and the other twining in Horatio's hair. When Archie pressed up against him, Horatio felt a pulsing hardness akin to his own. He found it strangely reassuring to know that whatever this was, they were at least in it together.
"Wait." When Archie pulled away again, there was something unreadable in his expression. "We can't do this."
"I know." The Articles forbade it. Horatio knew that full well, but when Archie pressed in close, he found that the Articles meant about as much to him as a catalogue of lady's hats. "Archie..."
"I cannot." Archie blinked. "Please, Horatio. I'm so sorry." Horatio felt as if he were looking at a complex mathematical equation. There was an answer somewhere in Archie's eyes, an important answer to some unknown but important question. It would come clear at once, if only Horatio could reason this out.
Archie did not give him the chance. He turned away and climbed into the bed, turning his back on Horatio. Horatio, suddenly beset by a wave of malaise, leaned over and voided the contents of his stomach into the chamber pot.
The second time they failed to come together, it was because of Don Masaredo.
Horatio never expected Archie to return to prison with him. Archie had not given his parole to the don. Indeed, Archie had spent most of his tenure trying to escape from this place. Once Archie was free at last, Horatio had been certain wild horses would not drag his friend back behind bars. He was wrong, and not a day that went by that he was not grateful for that.
"Do you wish to read tonight?" Archie came back into their cell. The don had been remarkably gracious since their voluntary return, even Archie admitted it. The quality of their food had increased dramatically and the don lent them new books to read almost on a daily basis. This gesture was not wasted. Archie consumed the volumes as voraciously as he consumed the fresh fruit, the beef and and even the occasional beaker of wine delivered by the guards.
"You could read to me," Horatio turned onto his side.
Archie smiled. "What are you in the mood to hear? A volume of sentimental poetry perhaps? Or would you prefer something more swashbuckling and adventurous?"
"Whatever you like," Horatio answered amenably. He had been feeling unusually amenable since their return to prison. He was honour-bound not to plot an escape, but Horatio would have expected himself to at least yearn for his freedom. He didn't. As preposterous as it seemed, Horatio was content here.
Archie selected a book from their makeshift shelf beneath the window. He sat on the grimy floor beside Horatio's bed, his back against the bed frame. From that angle, it would have been easy for Horatio to reach out and touch his friend's golden hair, but he kept his hands to himself. He closed his eyes as Archie began to read, incomprehensible Spanish syllables dropping like notes of music from his lips. Archie read the way other men painted pictures. He was an artist of words.
Horatio was so caught up in this symphonic masterpiece that he felt bereft when Archie stopped suddenly. Horatio opened his eyes to see that Archie had turned and was looking at him. "This is us."
"What?" Horatio blinked. The sun had just begun to set, casting long shadows into the cell.
"I'm the Sancho Panza to your Don Quixote."
Horatio was a dunce at literature, Spanish or otherwise, but he knew enough to know what that meant. "You are not, Archie." He was fairly certain it was a jest, but Horatio couldn't risk it. He had pledged he would never again permit Archie to feel so utterly hopeless that he would make another attempt on his life. Horatio would not survive without him. "We are equals and you know it. Besides, what would that say about me? Don Quixote was an utter fool."
"He was foolishly brave and ridiculously noble," Archie replied, a strange wistful tone to his voice. "But if you would rather someone else, then perhaps we could be Beatrice and Benedict."
Archie was teasing him. He'd begun it almost as soon as they returned to prison. Horatio was so thrilled to see his friend's good humour returning that he put up with it, even encouraged it. "Too quarrelsome," Horatio replied.
"Romeo and Juliet?"
"Too tragic." Horatio kept his voice light. Archie did not seem to draw any parallels between the suicide in that play and what he had nearly done to himself.
"Katharine and Petruchio, then. You're always telling me to mind my tongue."
That was true at least. Archie had a rebellious streak that caused Horatio no end of worry. "If you like." Horatio turned onto his back and smiled up at the bottom of the bunk above him. He was dimly aware of Archie shifting beside him. After a moment, he glanced up and saw Archie looking back at him, his eyes wide and bright.
"What if I did like?"
Horatio swallowed, his skin tingling at the sudden nearness of his friend.
It would have been disingenuous to say Horatio's thoughts had not strayed once or twice in that direction. It had been such a blessed relief to see Archie again, Horatio's initial impulse had been to take him in his arms and kiss him the way they had not since that evening in the Lamb two long, lonely years previously. It was impossible, of course. Once Horatio realized how ill Archie was, in body and in mind, he felt like a cad for even thinking of it.
But Archie was ill no longer. They were not aboard ship, and they would not be for the foreseeable future. They were alone together, far from prying eyes. Horatio was certain there must be some sensible reason for them not to do this, but at the moment, nothing sprang to mind.
Archie's lips were barely a breath away from his own when someone rattled at the door. Archie sprang back. Horatio sat up so fast, he hit his head on the upper bunk. Stars floated before his eyes as the cell door swung open and a Spanish guard appeared. "Don Masaredo say you go free," the man said. "Your ship come soon." He left, leaving the door open behind him.
"Well." Archie's face was red. "That is good news, isn't it, Horatio?"
"It is indeed, Archie. The best." Horatio put his hand to his head, where a goose egg was already beginning to swell.
The final time they failed to come together, it was because of Captain Sawyer.
At first, Horatio had not wanted to believe the man was out of his wits. Captain Sawyer was a hero, one of Nelson's own. The greatest of men had their quirks, and for a long time Horatio strenuously maintained that Captain Sawyer was nothing more than mildly eccentric.
Then the captain had stood in front of him with a pistol in his hand and begged his lieutenant to put him out of his misery. Those were not the actions of a mere eccentric. Horatio was shaken to his very core by that act, the belief he'd fought so hard to maintain utterly shattered. Sawyer was mad. There was no other word for it.
Tears welled in Horatio's eyes for a long time after the doctor led Captain Sawyer away. Whether they were from fear, pity, shock or mere exhaustion, he didn't know. He wiped them away on his sleeve when Archie sat down beside him.
He didn't want to talk about it, and Archie didn't ask. He knew, of course. He'd known before any of them, long before Horatio was prepared to admit it. "The man's bedevilled," Archie had said, and Horatio now agreed that was a very apt statement.
They sat in silence for a long while, their shoulders pressed together. It was cold and Horatio was so tired after his hours of continuous watch that he could barely keep his eyes open. He was almost drifting off when Archie placed a hand on his knee.
Horatio jerked awake in an instant. Archie looked at him, his eyes unreadable in the dark. "I have a bad feeling about this ship," he said. "It won't end well, I know it. We're as good as dead already."
"Archie..." Horatio began, but he could not in good conscience reassure Archie otherwise. Horatio had a similar ominous feeling himself.
The hand squeezed, and Archie looked at Horatio's mouth. Archie might as well have been speaking Spanish for all the sense Horatio could make out of this. For an insane moment, Horatio worried the captain's madness was contagious, and Archie was going to do something rash. Archie did nothing except squeeze his knee again. "Get some sleep," Archie said. "I'll keep watch for you." It was a kind offer. Before Horatio could take advantage of it, Matthews appeared and asked why Horatio had sent Randall to fetch him.
When they came together, it was because of Archie.
"I love him." Horatio's words echoed in the quiet bedchamber. He did not turn to look at the man sweating by his side, but rather stared up at the ceiling beams. They were in an anonymous inn in some anonymous corner of London, far away from Mrs. Mason's boarding house and Mrs. Mason's prying eyes.
William Bush turned to look at him. His hair was damp from their recent exertions, and his bare chest shone in the candlelight. He did not ask who Horatio was talking about. He merely said, "I know."
Horatio shook his head. "I did not." The words were like ashes on his tongue. "Or rather, I did not recognize it for what it was until it was too late." Until a moment after Archie breathed his last in that Jamaican infirmary, in fact. Horatio had clung to Archie's hand then, kissed it, and declared his love over and over until they came to take the body away. Horatio did not wish to think how things might have been different if he'd come to his realization sooner.
"He was a good man," Bush replied. "Very good."
"Too good for me." Horatio had not deserved Archie's friendship—his love, if he could be so bold as to assume it—and he wasn't worthy of Archie's sacrifice.
"Too good for us," Bush corrected. "But I think you and I are eminently well suited to one another."
"Perhaps." Horatio felt nothing for Bush, not even shame at what they had just done together. He felt nothing at all anymore, except for the occasional brief glimmer of excitement when he won a hand at the card table. "Did I ever tell you about the time Archie and I saved a crew of Spaniards from the sea?"
Bush propped a hand beneath his head. "Tell me now."
Horatio did so, describing the scene until he could almost imagine Archie's body warm and solid beside him, looking over his shoulder and smiling along with Bush as he listened to the tale.