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Doubt is Fled / Mid-Watch

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Seven bells. Horatio had not quite pulled up from the depths of sleep when his hammock was shoved hard, spilling him abruptly onto the decking in a painful clatter, his bedding twisted about him. Hether's dry bark of laughter from the next sling was quickly echoed by other chuckles and the curses of men prematurely shaken from their own precious hours of rest.

A few lanterns were being lit for the change of watch, and Horatio looked up just in time to see Mr. Simpson's rangy swagger heading away toward the aft hatch. He gritted his teeth and reminded himself for the hundredth time that this was no worse really than being a fag at public school. Yanking himself upright, Horatio began putting his bed and person together. If he did not hurry, he would miss his chance at a cup of coffee before beginning the middle watch.

Eight bells. Horatio met Archie on the forward gundeck ladder. He had made a rule of using the forward-most hatches whenever possible, ever since Kennedy had mentioned that most officers used the aft. As a consequence, all their meaningful conversations of late were had there, snatched between one going down and the other up to the next duty. Tonight though, Archie was not in much mood for words.

"It is bitter cold up there, Mr. Hornblower." That combined with the abrupt hands on his great coat buttons was his only greeting. Horatio was growing used to Kennedy's mercurial attitude toward his person. Sometimes, as now, the mid seemed so casual as to assume Horatio an extension of Archie's own body. Other times, the boy was so distant as to edge away even from a friendly clap on the back. Since the mid was apt to turn snappish and sullen if advances were refused, Horatio just smiled with good humor, and without protest let the other boy half undress him, wrap a thick wool scarf, warm with body heat, about his neck, and then tuck and fuss and button him back up again.

"Thank you, Mr. Kennedy. There is tea tonight in the mess, why don't you head below before it cools?" Archie was fond of the substance, though Horatio found it insufficiently bracing for the demands of naval life. He dared to chafe Kennedy's chilled fingers between his own gloved palms, and was rewarded when Archie did not snatch them back, but the mid would not smile for him, nor even meet his gaze. "Go on, then."

Instead, Kennedy collapsed against him, tucking in with a butt of the head, so that Horatio instinctively put an arm about the other, and held Archie close. They stayed like that only a few moments before he felt the smaller boy sigh into his side, and pull free again. Kennedy looked up finally, wearing a grim, faraway weariness that worried him. Archie touched a still cold fingertip to Horatio's face, to a new bruise apparently, from the tenderness of his cheekbone. "Be careful up on deck, Mr. Hornblower. The ice is treacherous." Then the mid was gone down, and Horatio had to pull his balance back together, and go up to his station.

First bell. Horatio paced, sometimes quietly, sometimes heavily, between the decks. Shielded lantern in hand, he was about the hourly task of checking to be sure no unwarranted light had been lit. At sea, a glint too near a gunport on a clear night could betray them to the enemy, but at anchor in an old and dry-rotting ship it was the candle itself, tipped over in a wave, or forgotten and left to burn down to a puddle, that was the danger.

He moved quickly, hoping to steal a minute or two to check on Archie. Those nights when he had this duty, Horatio often found himself in the midshipman's berth at the last. There he might take Archie's hand, and in the silent communication of touch, share a bit of companionship. Or if Archie had drifted quickly into sleep, at least reassure himself through the even workings of breath, that that the mid was well.

It was Archie, of course, who had taught him the fastest way to walk the ship. Claiming one night an inability to sleep as excuse, the mid had paced beside him through the labyrinth of berths and ladders until Horatio knew the pattern and no longer got lost, even in the dark. Archie had shown him, too, all the common nooks where a rating might take a light and a woman. Or a book one supposed, though Horatio had never yet caught another man in illicit paper congress, though he had been tempted to engage in it himself.

Kennedy hadn't shared every secret, though. Horatio paused at the empty hammock, wondering how he had missed the other mid during his patrol. But he had learned his lesson about trying to find Kennedy when he did not wish to be found. Kennedy's business was not his concern, and he had been too long below already, coaxing an unhappy volunteer out of the cable tiers. Unsettled, Horatio ghosted his hand over the unused blanket, and forced himself to venture up again into the cold.

Two bells. Horatio changed placed with Hether. It was somehow colder on the forecastle than it had been up on the poop, some oddity of the breeze. Even the lights of Portsmouth looked dull and distant. The ice was worse here, and he paced cautiously, but continuously in an effort to stay warm. From the bow, first back along the starboard carronades, across the deck to the belfry, then a figure-eight around foremast and galley chimney---regrettably not in use at this hour---then back up along the larboard carronades to begin again.

His jaw was beginning to hurt from clenching to prevent the chattering of his teeth. Pausing at the bow, after completing another round of the forecastle, he carefully put the mast between himself and the belfry sentry and, thus shrouded, hugged himself tight. He was trying to squeeze some last bit of warmth from clothes and flesh, but instead discovered that he had something in his great-coat pocket. The unexpected lumps proved to be two tiny apples, winter-withered, and a handful of perfectly shelled nuts.

How the kind gift had found its way into his coat was not in question. He had too few friends to make it much of a mystery and Clayton was not so indirect. Besides, Archie had made rather a production out of fiddling with his clothes.

He  couldn't help smiling, thinking of those sturdy hands carefully prising apart the shells to pull the nutmeat out intact. It was just like the odd creature, so often careless, to waste the precision of those clever fingers on this. Horatio had to swallow against the sudden lump in his throat. It must be that he was so cold and tired, to be overwrought at such a simple thing.

He shared one of the apples with the belfry sentry, who was beyond grateful, more for the warmth that the act of eating seemed to impart than the satisfaction of true hunger. But the nuts he saved for himself. At the end of each long trek about the deck, Horatio paused in the shadow of the foremast and popped one rich little treasure into his mouth.

Three bells. The hooded lantern cast just enough of a glow to glimmer off the golden top of Archie's head.

Sleep stole years from Archie's face. Unguarded, without the shield of a sardonic smirk, or wicked grin, or proud sneer, or the dozen different expressions Archie hid behind, there was nothing but the child left. Round cheeks, ridiculous stub of a nose, all the lines of pain erased, and looking so small, curled in a ball beneath the covers. It made Horatio feel the elder, made him want to protect that innocence, and hope to see it in the light of day.

Simpson had been almost unbearable lately. Split across watches as they were, Horatio should hardly have seen Jack, yet the man was always there, jostling, tripping, rifling through his sea chest, or making some crude joke about his mother that turned Horatio's blood to molten earth. The worse, Simpson kept Kennedy under Horatio's eye as often as possible, where he could not miss the mid's constant humiliations.

Kennedy was run ragged with the man's errands and chores, always beside Jack at mess, or being shouted for, above and below. The story of catching Kennedy in the orlop with a whore had been the unsuitable accompaniment to more than one meal, and he never saw Kennedy without some new injury. Even now, the dim light showed a swollen lip he did not remember from dinner.

Horatio's own suffering at Jack's hands was no better. Beyond the daily contribution to his catalog of bruises, the ruination of his Euclid in particular was still painful enough to sting his eyes just thinking about it. Yet far more difficult was to see his friend tormented, worse because Kennedy would not defend himself and had forbidden Horatio to act either. It made Horatio think the less of them both.

Not that standing up to Simpson had much success. Jack had laid into two other midshipmen, new men who had not wanted to give up their shirts or spirits or to dance for Jack's amusement. They'd been ambushed separately, Simpson emerging each time without any marks. Jack had then reported them for fighting each other, a tale for some reason corroborated by a volunteer. When they had denied the charge, they were both flogged over the gun for fighting and given a second set of stripes for lying about it. One was still in sick berth.

It wasn't fear that kept Horatio silent, though he could admit to himself that he was scared of Jack, and what he might have to do, or witness, or endure. Rather it was tactics. Simpson knew the game, and Horatio was still trying to find a loophole large enough to save Archie and himself together. Until then, they would simply have to endure.

In the wave of exhaustion the thought prompted in him, Horatio found himself troubled by the urge to stroke that tangle of amber hair, the high, wide brow, as if he could steal by touch some measure of the boy's awful patience. He was restrained by the knowledge that, except right after a fit, Archie was a devilish light sleeper. Horatio was certain he'd woken the boy once just by watching too intently. With that reminder, he became aware of how long he had been standing there, and clasping hands securely behind his back, forced himself on, to return to the quarterdeck.

Four bells. The wind died down just enough to make the night less of a misery. Under the lieutenant's wink, the mids had all gathered in the shelter of the poop deck, near the wheel. Clayton was generously passing around his flask.

Ashore earlier that day, Clayton had managed to top up with something better than the usual watery gin. From the flushed cheeks and careful way the older mid negotiated the gangway during rounds, Horatio gauged that it wasn't only the flask that had been filled in port. He considered the prudence of drinking on duty, but cold persuaded him to take his share. He spent the next ten minutes coughing, to the amusement of everyone on the watch, and learned a valuable lesson about brandy and being cautious when drinking anything Clayton handed him. By the time he had managed to stop gasping, he did at least feel warmer.

Most of the ratings were huddled in the waist, doing a better job of avoiding the cold than their officers, though apparently partial to Clayton's method. Alas, one of the men, called up to attend to a sail broken loose from its ties, misjudged the footing on the icy ladder. The sailor fell with a sickening thud, then began to scream. It was a bad break, shin bone poking through the skin, and the man was quickly but carefully carried below to the surgeon. The incident sobered them all immediately. Even Clayton put away the bottle, and made himself scarce at the bow.

Five bells. The heat of the berth deck was heavenly, and Horatio moved slowly, lantern cracked only enough to keep him from stumbling into hammocks. It was the part of the night where all movement stops, and after checking on the injured man, there was nothing else out of place to tarry over, until he arrived back on the gundeck, and heard the soft moans.

The first few moments were the most disturbing, before he could tell if it was a nightmare, or the start of a fit. Archie was twitching from side to side, head shaking back and forth with abortive little hand movements. When Horatio brushed the boy's face, though, Archie started, gasped, and began to plead with him. The words themselves were too mumbled for sense, but the desperate tone rattled him and Horatio clasped the boy tightly, as he would have been afraid to do if it were a seizure.

"Hush, Archie, please, all is well," he whispered anxiously in the boy's ear. "You are all right, hush now." Hoping to avoid waking the rest of the berth, particularly Simpson, Horatio covered the mid's mouth, muffling the sound but causing Kennedy to thrash harder. Whatever the nightmare had been, it had unsettled Archie worse than Horatio could remember seeing. He was a little afraid he could not restrain the boy much longer. Kennedy was stronger than delicate build would suggest, even muddled with sleep.

"It's Horatio, Archie. You are safe. It was just a dream, but please," he couldn't help pleading, "be quiet." He gave a little shake, and finally the mid stopped fighting and fell silent again. Horatio let the other go, searching Archie's face as carefully as he could in the dim light. Quiet now, Kennedy did not seem aware of his presence, instead laying motionless aside from a heaving chest.

It had happened once before like that, an ill dream turned suddenly to a violent fit, when Horatio had thought the danger past. They both still wore the bruises from it, and the dead inward stare frightened him, as he felt Kennedy slipping away. Some fragment of childhood memory awoke in him suddenly, of a mother's arms, and a mother's lips, luring him away from the dark of a nightmare. Without any conscious intention, Horatio found himself awkwardly kissing Archie, pressing first against the other's open mouth, then the sweat-damp forehead, temple, cheek, "Just a dream, Archie. I am here."

He felt horribly foolish, and knew that he would be embarrassed later. But Horatio did not mind, because even as the mid jerked away, those wide pale eyes had turned on him, not whatever unhappy image lay behind them. Kennedy scrubbed the back of one hand hard against cold-chapped lips, and Horatio winced at the faintly outraged expression the other boy adopted. "All right then, Archie?" He tried to smile, to act as if waking the boy with a kiss was merely a bit of a joke. In truth, it was just the sort of trick he would expect Kennedy to try, no doubt with some flippant quote from play or fable.

Kennedy's expression did not lighten, however, in fact there was considerable suspicion in that Atlantic gaze. "I have to go," he explained finally, unnerved by the cold stare and continued silence. "Try to go back to sleep, you've more than an hour before your watch." He tried to take Archie's hand then, to press it gently, but Kennedy pulled away, an unmistakable signal that Horatio had violated some rule of the moment in Kennedy's capricious estimation. He tried not to take offense, offering another reassuring smile as he picked up the lantern again, and left almost as quickly as Kennedy might desire.

Six bells. The temperature had taken another plunge, and as the most junior, Horatio found himself up top, while the other mids scattered themselves about the quarterdeck, to find some nook or corner to shelter in.

It was a quiet night. They all were, with the fleet at anchor, and it made this watch the longest, when there was nothing, no boats on the water, no work on deck, to occupy the attention. But the cold had driven all of them on the poop to huddle into their greatcoats, until it was something like solitude. So Horatio did not mind the crackle of ice as he paced back and forth across his allotted space. He had plenty to think on.

Solitary, his father had written to the captain, but if he was, it was as his father wanted him to be. Dr. Hornblower did not approve of attachments and distrusted affection. Horatio had not been allowed to visit his old nursemaid, or to play with the village boys, particularly when he might be at his books. Even when he was at last sent away to school, it was with the strong caution to avoid entanglements with his fellow students, who might lead him into idleness, or gambling, or lewd behavior.

His father's warnings had seldom been tested. Horatio supposed he was too serious, too cautious, to be sought after, with no talent for japes or tricks or stories. He had never found a place, not with the bored and frivolous young lords, nor with the venal and ambitious sons of clerks. Horatio had been at school because he wanted to learn, to understand the world through the eyes of proofs and theorems, not base experience. He had fancied that a captain needed a broader view than could be gained in the tame duties of a peacetime navy.

Yet he was now in his proper life, the career he had chosen, beginning the second part of his education. He ought to be at home here, in the company of other men who cared more about honor and country than wealth and comfort. The roughness of the ratings was to be expected, but his fellow officers should have been men of a different sort, educated, insightful, philosophical.

The sad reality made him laugh at himself. Another disillusionment to go with the crushing monotony of shipboard routines, the brutal lack of justice, the blind neglect of his superiors. When measured against the far more visceral and immediate pains of life on Justinian, Horatio found he could bear the lack of suitable company with equanimity. And unlikely as it might seem, he had not been lonely.

How ill his father would think of his closest friend, as prone to drink and debauch as the rest, when not inexplicably nervous and silent, or cutting at him with a sarcastic tongue. At school Horatio would have avoided Archie religiously, fearing distraction from the boy's irreverent speech, bad morals, and unpredictable temper. How had he found himself marking the hours by whether he might catch a glimpse of bright hair, and hurrying through his duties just to listen to the quiet breath of sleep?

There was no comfortable answer to that. Only the sensation that perhaps here, in the form of a profane little flibbertigibbet, was the antidote to the terrible doubts that consumed him regarding his vocation. The intimacy---the very physical intimacy, of cramped messes and narrow passageways and twenty-eight inches of space to call his own---forced Horatio past reservations he hadn't fully known he possessed. Naval life required a camaraderie of the flesh. No matter how disparate one's mind, one's character, might be, he must join in that dance, must at times see his men, his fellow officers, as extensions of his own form.

A solitary boy no longer, Horatio realized he found a curious pleasure in being just one of many bodies moving in unison to a shared purpose, in limbs pressed together at a gathering to break bread, in sleep-slowed hands helping with queue and stock and buttons. In desperate fingers holding tight for a moment of understanding in the long, cold dark.

Seven bells. He passed through the walkways with his lantern shining bright and an accompanying chorus of groans and protests. Men slipped from their hammocks, stretched, and swore, and scratched and spat, some snatching extra minutes of sleep, others resigned to starting their day, nevermind that it would be much like the last, and the one before that. Horatio had never woken easily, and seldom felt human before his cup of coffee and a bell or two. This seemed now an unforgivable weakness, and he resolved himself to be more like the men who simply rolled free and began to dress, to shave, to get about the business of the morning with dignity.

At the last, of course, Horatio found himself beside the familiar hammock, still occupied. Though the owner's eyes were wide open, Kennedy made no acknowledgment of the growing bustle, or the nervous mid standing nearby. He had just begun to move on, not wanting to draw attention to them, when Archie offered up a hand, warm, long-fingered, and compact. Horatio slipped a glove to take it, to feel the calluses, the faint ridging of scars over the knuckles, the hidden strength. There was no time for more than a quick play of fingertips, but it was enough.

Eight bells. He stumbled down the forward hatchway, taking it on faith that he still had feet, and not blocks of ice. He had gone forward only by habit. Kennedy was often cold and distant after a dream, even when Horatio had not made a fool of himself. So he was surprised when a shadow peeled off to bar his path.

"How now, Horatio, you tremble and look pale." From the rhythm of it, the vigorous timbre of the delivery, he knew Archie was quoting something. There was no better assurance that they would be well, that he was forgiven for offending Archie's dignity with his childish busses, than Kennedy jesting at him. He answered the jab with what was likely an idiot's smile, but could not help himself.

"Shiver at least, but the wind is dying, I think you'll have a warmer watch than I." Remembering his borrowed scarf, he started to shuck his gloves and attend to his coat buttons, when he was stopped by Archie moving in to take over the task.

"Allow me, Hornblower, I expect you can hardly feel your fingers." Archie made quick work of peeling open his clothes and retrieving the object with a hard tug that half choked Horatio. Flashing a little smirk, the other boy donned the scarf, and began to hastily button up, rattling the meanwhile some nonsense about taking on water from an iceberg, and men who had gotten so cold, fingers had snapped clean away when the poor souls tried to take off their gloves. Horatio, almost certain this was a fish story, attended instead to Kennedy's working hands and the bright-cheeked grin as the boy told the ghoulish tale.

It had felt so very comforting to be cared for, even in so small a matter as doing up a scarf and buttons, that Horatio was disappointed to lose his turn at cosseting. It seemed unfair that Archie could always do exactly as the mid liked, while Horatio was forever awkward and uncertain how to handle his prickly friend. But he had forced enough amiable attention on Archie for one night, and so he simply stood and watched, and warmed himself on Archie's renewed spirits, until it was time for them to part.

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