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The world itself

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The world itself

“Styles,” Archie nodded in greeting when he stepped into the captain’s cabin.

Styles hurried to rise from the chair he had been occupying for the better part of the last week and knuckled his forehead. “Good evening, sir. Anything I can do for you?”

Archie glanced at Horatio’s sleeping form and swallowed hard.

“No,” he said quietly, shaking his head. He forced his gaze away from Horatio’s pale face and met Styles’ kind eyes once more. “I just wanted to sit with him for a while.”

Understanding, almost unbearable in its honesty, softened Styles’s features. “Right you are, sir. Just holler for me if you want to get some rest, aye?”

Despite the graveness of the situation and the heaviness in his heart, Archie managed a small smile. “I will. Thank you, Styles. For – for everything.”

Styles gave an uncharacteristically shy, one-shouldered shrug. “It’s really nothing, sir. Captain Hornblower would do the same for any of us.”

And wasn’t that the truth? Archie knew better than most how much Horatio cared, how far he was willing to go to save the lives of those he held dear. El Ferrol especially came to his mind. And here Archie was, not even able to sit at his bedside for more than a stolen hour or two in the middle of the night because he had a ship to run and simply couldn’t spare the time. He knew Horatio would never blame him for his absence or think him careless – back when Horatio had been promoted they had both agreed the ship and crew always had to come first, no matter what – but that didn’t stop the guilt from churning in Archie’s stomach.

With a heavy sigh, he pulled Styles’ recently vacated chair closer to Horatio’s bed and sat down. He closed his eyes for a second, feeling exhausted – both physically and mentally. Sleep hadn’t come easily to him since Horatio had taken ill and whatever few hours he had managed to catch over the last few days had been filled with dark visions of a future Archie desperately hoped would never come to pass.

He took in Horatio’s face – sickly pale except for the two bright spots of feverish colour high on his cheeks – and felt his throat close up. Horatio’s brows were furrowed in muted distress and his breaths came in shallow, wheezy gasps that sounded weak and painful. He seemed worse than he had yesterday when Archie had seen him last.

Archie’s heart sank.

“You have to hold on,” he choked out. “Do you hear me, Horatio? You have to fight.”

Horatio did not react. He rarely reacted to anything nowadays, and Archie would be lying if he said Styles’s daily reports on Horatio’s condition, shorter and bleaker every day, weren’t making it increasingly difficult to hold onto hope. Horatio had been ill for so very long long now. Some nights, Archie wondered if he would ever hear his voice again. He tried to remember the last thing Horatio had said to him and found he couldn’t. It would have likely been an order – “You have the quarterdeck, Mr. Kennedy.” – but Archie couldn’t recall the exact words or the tone in which they had been spoken, and it broke his heart.

He reached for Horatio’s hand, cold and unresponsive, and held it tightly, desperately, between his own as the bitter reality of the situation hit him once again.

“Please,” he whispered. “Come back to me.”

His vision blurred and he blinked hard against the building tears.

It was a losing battle.

Defeated, Archie bowed his head, rested his forehead against his and Horatio’s still clasped hands and sucked in one shaky breath. His heart ached for warm brown eyes, a gentle smile and the sound of a fond yet slightly exasperated voice telling him, “Really, Archie. There’s no need for that. I am quite alright.”

But Horatio wasn’t alright – hadn’t been since that awful cough turned from bad to worse and he’d crumbled to the quarterdeck with fever burning through his veins and shivers wrecking his body. Archie didn’t remember screaming for help, didn’t remember the hurried walk to sickbay with Matthews and Styles or anything the ship’s surgeon had said except, “There’s nothing further I can do. His fate now rests in God’s hands.”

But he did remember the horrible sinking feeling in his stomach as he realized how many things he had left unspoken over the years – things Horatio deserved to know: how grateful Archie was to him for saving his life not only in Spain but years later in Kingston as well, how much he valued Horatio’s friendship above everything else in the world, including his own life, how he loved

Archie choked down a sob and pressed his lips fiercely against the back of Horatio’s hand.

“Please don’t go,” he begged.

It was the only way he could show Horatio how he felt, even now, here in the safety and privacy of a midnight moment locked away in the captain’s cabin. It didn’t feel like enough, and it wasn’t. It was the coward’s way out and Archie hated himself for not plainly saying what was on his mind and in his heart, and had been for so many years: I love you.

Some part of him hoped Horatio already knew. They had been friends for so long now – sticking together through thick and thin, fighting side by side against enemies from both within and without, having each other’s backs at all times. Their bond went beyond mere companionship and brotherhood. Everyone could see it, even Admiral Pellew. Archie still remembered the amused smile on the admiral’s face when he had promoted Horatio to captain and Horatio’s first words, after he had profusely shown his gratitude, had been, “Sir, if I may be so bold – I would like to have Mr. Kennedy with me as my first lieutenant.”

“Lieutenant Kennedy’s transfer has already been arranged alongside yours, Captain,” Admiral Pellew had said with a twinkle in his eye. He had glanced between them knowingly and Archie had felt his face flush. Never before had he felt so seen.

And yet Horatio had never let on that he was aware of Archie’s feelings for him, or might actually share them. Archie had believed himself to be content with that, with loving Horatio from afar, but now, sitting in his cabin and feeling the heat radiate from Horatio’s skin, he was not so sure he could continue to shackle his heart like this. He was tired of hiding how he felt, tired of lying to Horatio every single day and surviving on a few stolen glances here or an accidental touch there. He wanted more, wanted to stop wondering if Horatio’s smiles held a deeper meaning like he sometimes thought they did; wanted to know if he was the only one looking forward to the dinners where it was just the two of them sitting at the table; wanted to see if Horatio felt the same pain in his heart every time they lost sight of each other in a battle.

Tightening his hold on Horatio’s clammy hands, Archie pressed another fierce, lingering kiss against his fingers.

“I cannot bear to live without you,” he confessed, almost helplessly. “I am lost, Horatio. Bitterly lost. For where thou art, there is the world itself, and where thou art not, desolation.”

He squeezed his eyes shut and muffled his grief against their clasped hands, hoping, praying for a miracle that would let him see those beautifulk brown eyes once more and give him the chance to admit aloud the feelings he had locked away in his heart for far too long. 

Don’t leave, he silently begged. Please don’t leave.