Horatio sighed, rubbing his head and looking down at the book in his hands. He’d been on the same page for half-an-hour, and had made no progress. Not for a lack of trying, of course; he was enjoying the book, and ordinarily he would have turned the page by now. But every time he seemed to be making progress, he found himself interrupted. And what made it even more irritating was that it was always the same interruption.
He arrived at a new sentence, got halfway through it, then started counting down in his head. Five…four…three…two…
“Ksst! Ksst! Ksst!”
Horatio sighed again, more heavily this time. “Bless you, Archie.”
Archie sniffed and grinned sheepishly, rubbing his nose with a handkerchief. “Thank you. Sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Horatio answered, although this was rapidly becoming untrue, “I know you can’t help it.”
“I can’t explain it!” Archie said for the hundredth time, “It just came on!”
“But you’re sure you’re not sick?”
“Positive! I feel perfectly fine. Other than this itch, of course. Besides, no one else on board is sick, as far as I know, so where could I have picked up an illness?”
Horatio shrugged noncommittally and returned to his book, starting at the top of the page once more. He’d had this conversation plenty of times already today, and it was getting as repetitive as the words on the page. He was concerned by Archie’s continuous sneezing, of course, as any friend would be, but there was no denying that it was also a little, well…frustrating.
“I wonder if it’s hayfever.” Archie said suddenly, startling Horatio out of his reading. Gratified that it was at least a fairly new topic, Horatio looked at Archie over the top of his book.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Archie. We’ve been at sea for months, miles away from any flowering plants. Besides, it’s almost winter. How could it possibly be hayfever?”
“Well, I don’t mean hayfever exactly…” Archie said, biting his lip as he tried to come up with the right words, “It’s like hayfever, only it’s not, if that makes any sense.”
“Not really.” Horatio said bluntly.
"All right, it’s like this. Hayfever makes people sneeze for no good reason, correct?”
“Among other things, yes.”
“Well, what if…what if other things do that too?”
“You’re going to have to be more specific.”
“H-hang on…” Archie said, lifting the handkerchief to his face. “Ksst! Ksst! Ksst!”
“Bless you.” Horatio said automatically.
Archie nodded his thanks, then continued along his original line of thought. “It’s like this. You know how sometimes, when I dust out our cabin, you start sneezing?”
“Yes,” Horatio said, flushing a little at the thought of it, “Damned inconvenient, that.”
“Why do you think it makes you sneeze?”
“I just assumed that the dust irritated my nose.”
“Yes, but why? It never makes me sneeze.”
“I’ve noticed that,” Horatio said, “Drives me crazy half the time, wondering why I’m suffering and you’re not.”
“Well, maybe it’s because you’re more…sensitive to it then I am. Not everyone has hayfever either, after all.”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is, maybe people have random sensitivities to things that most people don’t even think about. Yours is dust, and maybe I’ve just discovered mine.”
“And what would that be?”
“I have no idea! That’s the mystery of it! I haven’t done anything today that I haven’t done a hundred times before.”
Horatio marked his place in his book (He needed a break from reading the same page anyway) and got out of his chair. “Why don’t I help you find it? It’ll put both of our minds to rest to know.”
“Thank you, Horatio,” Archie said gratefully, “I know this must be driving you mad.”
Unsure how obvious his irritation had been, Horatio just cleared his throat and looked around the room, seeing if he could pinpoint the source of Archie’s sneezing. “Can you think of anything at all that might have been causing this…reaction?”
“No. As I said, I haven’t done anything out of my normal routine.”
Horatio ran a finger along the edge of the desk, looking for traces of dust. “Maybe you’ve developed a sensitivity to dust as well?”
“No. I’ve just cleaned the place.”
“Indeed,” Horatio said, noting that there wasn’t much residue on his finger, “When did you start sneezing?”
“Since I came off my watch. It’s cold out there,” Archie hastened to add, seeing the light in Horatio’s eyes, “But it’s not cold enough to make me sneeze like this. Besides, I’ve warmed up, yet I’ve been sneezing for…”
“Five hours,” Horatio finished curtly, “As I believe we are both well aware. Then it must be something inside the room.”
Archie took this opportunity to sneeze again. “Ksst! Ksst! Ksst!”
Horatio blessed him absently, now poking around their hammocks, looking for some rip or tear that could have released feathers or some other irritant. But as far as he could tell, all was in order. “Have you opened your seachest since you’ve been inside?”
Archie shook his head. “And you’ve been reading since I came in, so it’s nothing in your chest either.”
Horatio, loath as he was to admit it, realized that he was at a loss. “In that case, I have no idea what could be causing it.”
“Maybe it’s you.”
The words had been said jokingly, but they made Horatio’s blood run cold. “What?”
“If there’s no other explanation, maybe you’re the one making me sneeze.” Archie grinned at him, eyes flashing with amusement, apparently unaware of the panic rising in Horatio’s chest. “Of course, that’s utter non…”
Horatio crossed the room in two steps and stood in front of Archie. “How do you feel now?”
Archie had the absolute gall to laugh at him. “You weren’t taking me seriously, were you? We’ve been bunkmates for months!”
“Maybe it just…came on.” Horatio insisted, feeling himself go red.
“Stuff and nonsense, Horatio. Don’t lose your head over it.”
It was at this moment, of course, that Archie started sneezing again. And to Horatio’s growing horror, it was worse than before. Up to now, it had been fairly predictable; three quick, small sneezes that came every five minutes or so. But now, the sneezing was almost continuous, with little time for Archie to draw breath in-between.
“Ishh! Shh! Ekshh! Psst! Tchh! Heh…Heh-chht!”
Horatio immediately jumped backwards and retreated to the farthest corner of the room, laying himself flat against the wall. “God, I’m so sorry, Archie!”
Archie waved a hand at him to wait as he cupped the handkerchief over his mouth to stifle the last few sneezes. “Nxt! Knnk! Txxt!” When he lowered the cloth, he shook his head affectionately. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this high-strung before. How much coffee did you drink today?”
“How can you possibly joke about this?”
“Easily,” Archie said, laughing a little, “God, you’re so serious sometimes, Horatio. Not to mention a bit irrational at times. I sincerely doubt that it’s you personally that’s making me sneeze. Perhaps I should start asking a few questions of you.”
“Like?” Horatio said, both nettled and relieved by Archie’s current train of thought.
“Like what exactly you got up to before you came in off your watch.”
“Nothing unusual. I did my rounds, spoke with some of the hands, and passed a message on for the captain.”
Archie lifted his head at that. “Now that’s a little different. What was that message?”
“Oh, I just happened to be passing by his cabin at the time, so he chose me for the task. It seems he’ll be having dinner and cards with the lieutenants tonight, so he wanted me to ask the cook to check our supplies.”
Archie rubbed at his nose. “And what, pray tell, are they having?”
“A bit of beef, some sort of egg dish, and jugged hare. I guess Captain Pellew really wants to make a night of it.”
“Hare?” Archie repeated, “I didn’t even know we had rabbits on board.”
“Neither did I,” Horatio admitted, “I rarely have need to go into the store rooms. But the cook showed them to me. Getting a bit scrawny at this point, but they’re interesting to watch.”
Archie sat up suddenly. “Horatio, come over here.”
“I know what I’m doing. Come here.”
Swallowing, Horatio approached him. When he was standing in front of Archie, he was surprised to see Archie take his arm and examine the sleeve. A minute later, he jerked his head violently to the side. “Heh-ISSHEW!”
“Bless you!” Horatio said, nearly yelping out the word. Archie grinned triumphantly. “Found it, Horatio!”
Horatio was nonplussed. Archie took pity on him and explained. “I’m not reacting to you; I’m reacting to the rabbit fur on your coat. Look closely and you’ll see some white hairs that most certainly did not come from you.”
Horatio squinted, seeing that Archie was right. “I’m sorry, Archie,” he said immediately, pulling off the jacket and tossing it across the room to keep Archie from sneezing further, “The cook asked me to carry one of them to the galley so he could get started on the Captain’s dinner. I should have remembered that.”
Archie shook his head. “Calm yourself, Horatio. It’s no harm done. And now we’ve figured out the source of the problem, so we can avoid it in the future. Shake the coat out overboard and perhaps give it a wash, and I’ll be fine.”
“I’ll do that,” Horatio said with a smile, “I can do that now, if you’d like.”
“No need,” Archie said, getting up, “I’m due for my next watch. Just shake it out before I get back, and all will be well. Ta for now!”
With a salute, he dusted himself off and went back outside, tucking his handkerchief away as he went. Horatio sat back in his own seat, allowing his heart to slow to its regular pace. He would never admit it out loud, of course, but the thought of potentially losing his closest friend had taken several weeks off his life. And to think, all that fuss over a bit of rabbit fur…!
Shaking his head, he picked up his book again. He had enough time to finish the chapter before he tended to his coat. He sat back and began to read, smiling a little when he, at last, managed to turn the page.