The first time Horatio came down with a cold, Archie didn’t really notice anything amiss. Even though he’d only known the new midshipman for a few months, he had enough of a sense of Horatio’s personality to extrapolate how he would react to a minor inconvenience. The first step, of course, was stubbornness. While he never outright denied being ill, he certainly insisted on going about his duties as though nothing was amiss. Never mind the fact that he was bent double coughing for half his watch, he would assure anyone who inquired that he was fine. When Captain Pellew finally ordered him to the doctor, the second phase kicked in; resignation. As it was just a mild cold, he wasn’t confined to quarters, but his watches were cut back and it was “suggested” that he use the spare time to stay in his hammock and rest. Horatio obeyed, but he was clearly restless, pacing around the Middies berth and checking his watch every five minutes. Archie wasn’t sure why Horatio insisted on wearing himself out, but it wasn’t his place to inquire, and left it be.
There was one odd incident, however. When the berth became too dull for Horatio, he would take a walk through the ship, just to get some fresh air in his lungs and to stretch his legs. During one of these walks, Archie happened to come down below for a drink to find Horatio crouched down, holding out a hand and making little whispering noises to Cellie, the ship’s cat. Cellie was regarding him with deep suspicion, but was nevertheless inching closer to him. Archie stayed where he was, afraid of startling either of them—besides, he was curious to see how this would play out. After a good five minutes, Cellie finally reached Horatio’s outstretched hand and sniffed it. Then she rubbed up against him, giving a little purr. Horatio actually smiled and started stroking her back. Then his back stiffened, his free hand groping in his coat pocket. He withdrew a handkerchief and held it to his face. “Esshh!”
“Bless you.” Archie said mildly.
He couldn’t help being amused when Horatio literally jumped (his heels involuntarily lifted off the floor). Cellie was less skittish, and gave a cheerful mew at the sound of Archie’s voice. Horatio’s face was flushed as he said “Wh-what are you doing here?”
“I just came to get a drink,” Archie said, opening the water cask to prove his point, “How are you feeling?”
“A…little better,” Horatio said, sounding sincere, “The coughing seems to have abated for now.”
Cellie bumped her head into Horatio’s leg, demanding more attention. Horatio started scratching behind her ears, and Archie smiled. “I see you’re making friends with Cellie. Although…I thought you said cats made you sneeze, so you tried to avoid them?”
“I did,” Horatio agreed, unable to stop himself from sniffling, “But considering I’ll be sneezing anyway, I decided to assure that she won’t see me as an enemy in the future. I had a feeling she didn’t trust me since I normally try to avoid her. Hitchh!” The sneeze surprised him, and he barely managed to clap the cloth to his face.
“Bless you,” Archie grinned, “I’ll leave you to the rapprochement, then. But you might want to return to the berth when you’ve finished; your strength looks like its ebbing.” And he quickly took a drink and returned to duty so as not to embarrass Horatio further.
Afterwards, once Horatio was well enough to return to full duty, he returned to his normal practice of keeping a distance between him and Cellie. However, he did toss her scraps of his meat from time to time, and acknowledged her presence when she trotted by. It seemed that they’d come to some sort of understanding, and Archie assumed whatever Horatio had done that day had worked.
The second time Archie saw Horatio sick was when Horatio was recovering from his stint in the El Ferrol pit. Considering the barbaric conditions down there, it was no wonder that Horatio came down sick. He got off relatively easy, really; the physician Don Massaredo sent in assured them all that once the fever broke, the symptoms would be no worse than a typical cold. Watching Horatio toss and turn in the grip of the fever, Archie wondered if this is how he had looked to his cell mates when they first arrived, and tried to push the unpleasant memories away.
Horatio had no time to go through his stubborn phase when he woke up, instead going straight for resignation. It was a bit of a moot point, though, as his legs were so weak that they made walking difficult. He still insisted on standing up a few times a day to help them recover, but otherwise accepted that he’d have to stay in bed. Archie kept his eye on him, lending him a supporting shoulder if he staggered and making sure he got plenty to eat and drink, and Horatio was an obliging patient.
Nothing out of the ordinary occurred for the rest of his convalescence, except for one strange little thing. Archie had gone outside with Hunter to help with his injured leg, leaving Horatio behind. Horatio hadn’t minded, saying he’d take advantage of the quiet to get a little rest. Fifteen minutes later, Archie had returned to fetch something—a book or a cup, he couldn’t remember what—and found Horatio curled in on himself, asleep. He couldn’t help but smile at the sight of the normally stoic Horatio looking a little more relaxed. As he reached to get the item, something caught his eye. He’d thought Horatio was just lying askew on the pillow, but now that he looked closer, Horatio had actually pulled the pillow down to be level with his neck, and had one arm draped around it, as though it was a pet dog. Archie cocked his head for a minute, wondering how the devil Horatio had managed to get himself in that position. Then he shrugged and went out to rejoin Hunter.
He didn’t say anything to Horatio when he finally woke up. Partly because he didn’t want Hunter to be privy to it, partly because he knew Horatio would blush and stammer and vehemently deny doing such a thing, but mostly because Horatio sounded so congested and miserable when he spoke that Archie saw no reason to make him feel any worse. Instead, he shook his head affectionately at the thought and let it fade from his mind. A few days later, Horatio’s strength started coming back, and he rejoined them in the courtyard. Now the time had come to start planning out a proper escape.
It was the third time that Horatio got sick that Archie finally started to suspect something was going on. He certainly admired Horatio’s strength of will; despite everything that Captain Sawyer had put him through, he had managed not to succumb to exhaustion until the madman was finally in a straightjacket. Archie suspected it was that bath on deck, subsequent naked stint in a damp hold, and several more soakings that finally brought down the last of Horatio’s reserves. Shortly after Sawyer was confined to quarters, Horatio was heard coughing throughout a set of gun drills, and was shivering even under the hot sun. Knowing that they couldn’t rely on Dr. Clive for a proper diagnosis and treatment, Archie and Lieutenant Bush convinced Lieutenant Buckland, as acting-captain, to give Horatio a few days off, on the grounds that he’d saved their lives and had been under the most pressure from Sawyer. Buckland had agreed, and although Horatio, of course, protested that he would be fine, he allowed himself to be dragged to his quarters and shoved towards his hammock with an order to “get into bed and stay there!” Archie peeked in on him every hour or so to make sure he wasn’t attempting to escape, but the illness and continuous watch had taken their toll, and Horatio spent the first day of his recuperation asleep.
It started when Archie came in that evening, balancing two plates of food and two mugs. “Thought you’d appreciate some dinner and company,” he said, handing a plate to Horatio, “And even if you don’t have much of an appetite, a few bites of food will do you good.”
Horatio accepted the food with a murmur of thanks. “How are you feeling?” Archie asked, deciding to risk a baleful glance.
Surprisingly, Horatio just shrugged. “I’ve been better,” he said, as he broke apart a biscuit, “But I don’t feel utterly wretched.”
Archie begged to differ. A Horatio Hornblower who acknowledged his illness with no prompting must have been worse off than he was letting on. “You’re sure? Not too chilled?”
“Actually,” Horatio said, his eyes glittering at the mention, “I’d be much obliged if you could hand me my jacket. And…” he blushed a little, “if you wouldn’t mind going to my trunk and fetching me a few handkerchiefs as well.”
Archie nodded and set down his own meal, wanting to take advantage of Horatio’s mild mood. He located a few handkerchiefs and passed them over to Horatio, then snagged Horatio’s coat from off a hook and laid it over Horatio’s legs. “There we are. Anything else?”
“This is fine. Thank you, Archie.” Horatio gave him a half-smile and bit into the biscuit.
They ate and talked for a few minutes, occasionally punctuated by a cough or embarrassed sniff from Horatio. Then Archie noticed that Horatio was still in his shirtsleeves. “Aren’t you going to put on your coat?” he asked, “It’ll help with your chills.”
Horatio started, a flush coming to his cheek. “Oh, of course,” he said, pulling the coat towards him and nestling it in his lap, “I just feel a little warmer thanks to dinner. I don’t really need it at the moment, but it’s handy to keep close by.”
Archie raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything. They continued with dinner, and although Horatio tried to keep a level tone of voice, it was clear he was deteriorating. He now had a handkerchief tucked into his sleeve, and was pulling it out to rub at his nose with more and more frequency. And yet the coat remained in his lap. Even stranger, Archie could swear Horatio was using his free hand to pet the coat, running his hand over it as though it was the ship’s cat. He knew it would do him no good to point this out, and just kept talking.
It was only when Horatio sneezed that he decided enough was enough. “I think it’s high time you got some rest. Besides, your plate’s almost empty. I’ll look in on you if I can spare a moment on my watch. Shall I take your plate?”
Horatio nodded and handed it over. “Thank you, Archie. You didn’t have to do all this.”
“You’ve done the same for me,” Archie demurred, “I feel it’s only fair.”
Horatio sniffed and lay down in the hammock, still not bothering to put on the coat. Archie, puzzled but knowing better than to ask, left him be. When he looked in an hour later, Horatio was asleep, his nose a brighter shade of pink than when Archie had left. But what really caught Archie’s attention was the fact that both of Horatio’s arms were clearly wrapped around his coat, his cheek resting against the fabric in a way that didn’t seem accidental. The memory of the pillow at El Ferrol floated back to Archie’s mind, and then Horatio’s strange desire to make friends with Cellie on the Indy. As he silently closed the door and returned to his watch, he tried to sort things out in his head, and finally could only come up with one possibility. It was a strange one, and seemed so very unlike Horatio, but all the signs pointed that way. Archie had to laugh at it all. Well, no need to bring it out in the open and embarrass Horatio now. He’d wait until Horatio fell ill again to make sure of it. And if he was right, he might be able to give his friend a bit of a surprise…
“Bless you, Horatio,” Archie said faintly, gingerly sitting up in bed and getting a shock of pain for his trouble, “That’s the third time you’ve sneezed in ten minutes. You’re ill.”
“It’s just a few sneezes.” Horatio protested.
“You rarely sneeze that frequently. Unless someone brought a cat or a large quantity of flowers into the infirmary, the only possible conclusion is that you’ve fallen ill.”
Horatio looked down at his book, but Archie could see the blush rising on his face. “I’d been hoping you wouldn’t notice,” he said at last, “You have your own health to see to, without fussing over me.”
“Horatio, the danger’s passed for me. It’s just a matter of waiting for my chest to heal. You’ve been sitting up beside me ever since the inquiry ended, you know better than anyone what the doctor said. You could have dropped to a daily visit and saved yourself the worry; that’s probably what’s made you sick.”
“I felt responsible for you,” Horatio said awkwardly, “Despite the incredible pain you were in, you testified at the inquiry and gave enough information that the board agreed that Sawyer had indeed gone mad. If you hadn’t…they’d have tried to pin it on me. I just want to make sure you’ll be all right.”
Archie shook his head affectionately. “Now that’s in keeping with the Horatio I know. Listen, I’ll be fine here. Go get some sleep in a proper bed and come back when you’re feeling better. I promise you, if my condition should change, I’ll insist the doctor send someone to tell you.”
Horatio sighed and stood up. “Oh, very well, Archie, if you…Hishh! insist.”
He tucked the book under his arm and shivered a little, hugging himself as he did so. That was when it all came back to Archie, and he couldn’t repress a smirk. “Wait, Horatio.”
Horatio turned back curiously. Archie beckoned him over with a finger. “What were you planning to use this time? A support beam? A spare blanket? That book?”
“Archie, what are you talking about?”
“When you share a ship with someone, and especially if you’re friends with said someone, you start to notice their odd habits. And whenever I’ve seen you ill, I’ve also seen you develop the strange tendency to…hug things.”
“Oh God…” Horatio went scarlet in the face, “I tried to be discreet about it.”
“Oh, it was fairly subtle,” Archie assured him, “But you probably shouldn’t have asked me for your coat and then refused to put it on. Otherwise it would have taken me longer to put the pieces together.”
Horatio sat down heavily on the foot of the bed and buried his face in his hands. Archie knew his body would protest if he tried to lean forward, so he settled for nudging Horatio with his foot. “It’s not that embarrassing, Horatio. If anything, it’s endearing. It proves that Horatio Hornblower isn’t totally devoid of affection.”
“I just…” Horatio finally raised his head, looking desperate to explain himself, “I’ve always tried not to let illness slow me down. When I was young, illness meant being poked and prodded by my father, or missing an interesting lesson at school. But at the same time, I genuinely felt awful and wanted some sort of reassurance that I would eventually recover and feel less wretched. But you can’t just come out and ask for that without giving yourself away. So I found excuses to give hugs to people. My parents, the cook, neighborhood dogs…and when they weren’t available, I found other things to wrap my arms around. As I got older, I tried to repress that instinct as well; it struck me as unbecoming. But it had become ingrained in me. The best I could do was try not to be obvious about it.” He sighed, which turned into a sneeze midway through. “Has anyone else noticed?”
“Not that I know of,” Archie said, “I certainly haven’t told anyone.”
“Thank you.” Horatio said softly, before clearing his throat, “Well, I’ll just…return to the inn and try to get some proper rest, shall I?”
“Hold on a minute,” Archie protested, as Horatio made to stand up, “You’re ill, correct?” Horatio, understandably non-plussed, nodded. “And sick people stay in an infirmary,” Archie continued, “So naturally, you should stay here.”
Horatio’s lips quirked upwards. “Should I ask the doctor to prepare a bed for me?”
“No need to trouble him,” Archie said, patting the bed beside him, “One’s already available.”
The blush came back full force. “No, Archie, I couldn’t. What will the doctor say?”
“Nothing, if things go properly. He won’t be looking in on me until later tonight. That gives you about three hours to get some sleep…and some proper reassurance.”
Horatio’s eyes widened. “Are you suggesting I…”
“Of course!” Archie said, “I don’t like seeing my friends miserable. If I can help them out, I will.” He patted the bed again. “Now come on, you haven’t had a proper sleep in days. The rest will do you good.”
Horatio hesitated, glancing towards the door. Then he took a deep breath and moved around to the free side of the bed. He gingerly lay on top of the bed, resting his head against the wall. Archie rolled his eyes. “Oh, come here!”
He grabbed Horatio’s lapel and tugged him downwards until his head was flush against Archie’s shoulder. “There we are. Now lie still. All I ask is you try not to use me as a handkerchief.”
Apparently Horatio was too stunned to protest, because he gave a nod and shifted his body so his head wasn’t at an awkward angle. Archie carefully started stroking Horatio’s curls, remembering how comforting that had been when he was young and ill. Horatio closed his eyes, leaning into the touch. Archie smiled and kept it up. A few minutes later, he realized that Horatio had pressed against him, one hand wrapped around the bedcovers over Archie’s midriff. He smiled and moved his hand to Horatio’s back, rubbing in slow circles. He could hear Horatio’s breathing starting to change and knew his friend was relaxed enough to fall asleep. Saying anything risked waking him up, so Archie merely squeezed Horatio’s shoulder. With his free hand, he groped for the book and pocketwatch on the bedside table. Since he couldn’t risk falling asleep himself, he’d just get some reading done until it was time for the doctor to make his rounds. With any luck, Horatio would wake up feeling a little better, and perhaps a lot more relaxed.