Exaggeration and Blank Verse

Lives and Deaths of Archie Kennedy
(Five Things That Never Happened)

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1. Laudanum
"You've given him laudanum, haven't you?" Horatio snapped, gladly turning his gaze from the miserable shell of a once-great man-- God, that one of Nelson's own should fall so far-- to glare at the doctor.

"What business is it of yours?" Clive sneered, and Horatio felt his lip curl at the reek of stale liquor coming off the man. Even without thinking of Sawyer, God have mercy on all of them, that a ship of His Majesty's Navy should be brought to this. "I'm his doctor."

"One does not have to be a doctor to recognize the effects of an opiate- " Horatio said hotly, breaking off as he felt Archie's hand close around his wrist. His friend shook his head slightly, glancing at Sawyer and then looking into Horatio's eyes. Hornblower stared at him in confusion for a moment before the silent communication they'd developed over long years of mutual service sorted itself out.

Yes, as he was, they could not know if Sawyer was fit for command-- but that meant that there was no risk of him reassuming that command. It was not entirely proper, but it was eminently safe, and when they reached Jamaica, the burden of the decision could be written off as a medical prerogative.

Horatio looked at Clive and thought that might be a burden the man could handle, even through the layers of bitterness and drink.

"Of course, Dr. Clive," Archie said a bit too loudly, his fingers still tight around Horatio's wrist in warning. "We must defer to your medical judgement."

Horatio looked at Archie with sheer frustration, then turned again to Sawyer. His instinctive protests faded under a wave of unhappy realization. At that moment, the captain posed no threat to himself or the Renown's crew. Perhaps that was more important in the long run than observation of propriety. The very thought went against everything he'd ordered his life around, but necessity was a bitter brew at times.

He nodded slightly, and Archie's hand dropped away. "Of course you must do as you think best, Dr. Clive," Horatio muttered. Buckland and Bush quickly concurred.

As they left the wardroom, Archie stepped close enough to his friend to speak in a whisper. "It's the right thing to do, Horatio. The only thing to do."

"I pray you're right." Over the years, trusting Archie had rarely proven to be in error. There was no reason to think that this was time for that to change.

2. Hatchway
"Sir..." Archie said, holding out his hands-- empty; let no one claim he'd threatened the man-- and taking another slow step forward. He fixed his eyes on the open hatchway behind Sawyer's feet. Just a few steps more. The poor devil was so blinded by visions of mutineers, he didn't even notice an open grate.

Sawyer clutched at his pistol and kept shouting, telling Archie to stay back, to leave him alone. The great James Sawyer, reduced nearly to tears of hysteria and terror. Archie took another step. The man could not be allowed to go on like this. He put every soul on Renoun at risk...every man and boy among them...

He felt his face set with grim determination. "Sir..." He took another step. This must be done.

A distant part of his mind wondered what had become of the other lieutenants, and Mr. Wellard-- if they'd made it to safety above decks and concocted a story for the marines. It wouldn't matter for much longer. There'd be no reason to worry about phantom mutineers after another step...

He took the step. The crack of Sawyer's pistol was desperately loud in the darkness. He would probably hear its echo in his mind for the rest of his life...however may hours or days that might be.

He looked up from the hole to see Horatio standing on the other side, staring at him with a look of horror. "Archie, what have you done?"

"He fell," a dull and alien voice said through Archie's lips. "I didn't touch him."

"You didn't catch him, either," Lieutenant Bush said, stepping out of the shadows behind Horatio. Archie looked from one face to the other-- one pale with bewilderment and shock, the other rapidly settling into a stony mask of outrage-- and swallowed. He held his hands out silently as the marines clattered down the ladder. He stared at Horatio and silently begged his friend to understand.

"Put him in irons," Bush said in a voice that made Archie's blood go cold. "And clear a space on the yardarm."

3. Orders
Pellew had called them to his cabin separately, which effectively told the news before the solemn paper packets from the Admiralty were even opened. Horatio cooled his heels outside in the passageway while Archie met with their captain-- now theirs no more, but off to take up the rank of Commodore in the Admiralty and ships elsewhere.

He rested his fingertips on one of the heavy, well-known and loved beams at the heart of the Indy, and only hoped her new crew and captain would treat her with the respect and pride she'd more than earned. She was a grand old girl, and would be better than ever after her refit...

Archie stepped out of the cabin and closed the door. He glanced at Horatio and smiled, and only through the lens of a friendship as tested and true as theirs would the strain behind that expression be clear. "Well, Mr. Kennedy?" he asked, cursing the sudden dry choke of his throat and the odd heat in his eyes.

"I'm for the Renown," Archie said, clasping his hands behindhim and tucking his chin, every inch the proper young lieutenant. "Captain Sawyer. It is indeed a great honor."

"Yes," Horatio said, staring at the beam under his fingers and cursing this tightness in his throat. "He's a legend. Three French frigates in a single morning, I believe..."

"And you, Horatio?" Archie asked, his voice barely above a whisper. "Where are you to be stationed?"

He found that his mouth had gone too dry to speak for a moment. "The Resolution," he said at last. "Under Captain Alexander."

"A fine vessel," Archie said, nodding slowly. His gaze seemed unable to settle upon anything. He blinked frantically. "A great captain...you'll learn much from him."

"I would consider myself fortunate..." Horatio let his voice trail off to nothing, suddenly too exhausted to bear the weight of formality. Archie glanced at him, then quickly looked away again.

"Captain Pellew has given us the night," Archie said after a moment. "He said we should go into Portsmouth, celebreate out good fortune."

"Celebrate." The word was foreign, hollow, appalling in his mouth. "Yes, of course."

"We always knew the day would come, Horatio." Archie's voice had gone low and urgent, anger blending with the frustration there. "It's the way of the Navy, there's no dodging it and no point--"

"Archie." It felt as if he were moving a great weight a great distance simply to touch his friend's shoulder. "Could we not...speak of it. Not yet."

Blue eyes met his own, and for a silent moment they shared their unhappiness. Then Archie coughed and moved away. "I know just the tavern to begin our...celebration," he muttered.

Horatio followed him up the ladder, to the jollyboat, and through the streets in silence. They moved with grim determination, with purpose-- to drown their farewell in an ocean of brew. Tonight they would drink Portsmouth dry.

4. El Ferrol
Every breath was an outrage, an agony, a reminder of yet another failure on his part. Couldn't even manage to kill himself properly. Lacked the courage to act, to make a decisive stroke, instead he'd tried to let apathy do the job, and of course it failed. Weakling. Coward.

He drew another hated breath and wondered what it was going to take for him to die. Action, at the very least; starvation had been no more successful than goading the guards into shooting him, so to hell with passivity. Horatio kept insisting that somewhere within this wasted body lingered strength and courage. Horatio was many things, and among them was a great, bloody, magnificent fool. Now if only his foolishness could infect Archie long enough for him to do what he must.

The sickroom door swung open and Horatio hurried inside, smiling faintly and carrying a small bundle in his hands. "Good morning, Archie!" he said, with that damnedable cheer he affected of late when speaking to Kennedy, which served to make him feel even more exhausted and detached from his miserable existence. "Hunter suggested you might like a shave. They allow us, in the yard, you know-- the guards said I could bring the razor to you, on account of my good rapport with the Don." He rolled his eyes at that, playing it off as a grand joke, and Archie was torn between wanting to laugh and wanting to hit him. Brilliant blind Horatio, the last honorable man in a world of rogues.

"Hunter?" Archie said, a bit unsteadily, and Horatio glanced sideways at him as he set the shaving supplies out on the bedside table.

"Yes, the very same-- I suppose he must finally be coming to his senses." He could not quite keep the hint of triumph out of his smile-- quite like Horatio to see this as a victory of his own enlightened reason over emotional chaos.

Archie said nothing. Also quite like Horatio not to know the shaded underside of the facts. He'd been out on one of his walks, the afternoon before it rained, when Hunter had knelt at Kennedy's bedside and hissed at him to get on with it, to die faster, to relieve them all of the burden of his presence. In particular, to relieve Horatio.

"He's chained himself to you, and the weight will sink us all...if you've an ounce of His Majesty's Navy left in you, you snivelling brat, you'll do him a favor and cut yourself free."

Suicide as an honorable action; a curious concept, but no less than accurate, in this case. Not the sort of heroic self-sacrifice that men wrote plays about, but Archie had grown quite used to being forgotten, and in fact found it to hurt a damn sight less than the shock of memory.

Horatio settled the razor to Archie's cheek and Kennedy closed his eyes for a moment, letting him carry on his ministrations with the baffling tenderness that was in no way deserved. Archie could not imagine what Horatio got out of this play at service, but with luck he'd had his fill of it. Only let fate give him a space in which to act, and he'd cut the anchor-rope and let the wind carry Mr. Hornblower to every horizon--

"Sir!" came Hunter's voice from the courtyard below the window. "Begging your pardon, sir, but Matthews needs to speak with you and they won't let him in the sickroom."

An icy certainty sent a shiver down Archie's spine. Not fate providing for him, then, but Hunter. So be it. "Go on, Horatio," he said, attempting a smile that looked ghastly in the little mirror. "I can manage."

True to his honorable soul-- that insisted on seeing that same honor in everyone else, whatever the circumstances-- Horatio took him at his word. He pressed the razor into Kennedy's hand, murmured that he'd only be a moment, and hurried out the door. Archie stared at the length of metal, at the play of light along its edge. He'd only need that moment.

It was the blackest of sins, of course. But a man could only be damned once, and surely he already was by virtue of the sin of pride. What else to blame for this fierce rebellion in his chest, this unwillingness to be saved by Acting Lieutenant Hornblower's pity? Pride's sister, envy, perhaps. Three times damned, then.

He brought the razor to his throat, closed his eyes, left it to God to sort out the worst.

5. Justinian
The little boat rocked wildly against the waves, and Horatio clenched his eyes as tightly shut as they would go. God deliver him from this agony. And this was to be his life, from here on? Surely he could not bear it.

"Jump!" A thin voice came through the water's angry hiss. "You can make it!"

Anyone who had already survived more than a day in this life could surely be trusted in such matters. Horatio abandoned himself to the voice and jumped.

Capable hands guided him over the rail and onto the deck. "Welcome to Justinian," the voice went on, and now he could see its source as a weary-looking man in a uniform that matched his own, though he looked a sight less awkward. "Midshipman Clayton at your service, and you are?"

"Hor- Midshipman Horatio Hornblower," he stammered, trying to keep his teeth from chattering by bare force of will and largely failing.

Clayton's eyebrowsrose in amusement. "Quite a name. Well, let's get you out of this wet-- stow your things and take you to see the captain." He rested one hand on Horatio's shoulder and guided him across the deck. He followed for a few paces, then stopped dead in his tracks. The most ghastly vision of his young life had caught his eye.

Two corpses hung from the yardarm, twisting gently in the wind and streaked by the driving rain. They were nearly colorless, going gray about the edges, horrific as any vision of Hell.

"What the devil-- oh." Clayton followed his gaze and fell silent. "That happened only this morning. Captain Keene left them up as a warning. I imagine he'll cut them down before last watch."

"What on Earth did they do to earn such a fate?" The wind turned the corpses again, and Horatio saw that one had been an older man, sharp-nosed and wickedly thin. Even in death, what Horatio could see of his face through the rain appeared harsh and cruel.

"Violation of Article Twenty-Nine," Clayton murmured, hesitating before going on in response to Horatio's look of confusion. "Unnatural acts of buggery, you see."

Horatio took a step back under a powerful wave of revulsion. "Such things occur on a ship of His Majesty's Navy?"

"Not always by choice," Clayton mumbled, wiping the rain from his face and staring up at the corpses again. "Shame about the lad, but for the other...well, good riddance." He turned and shook his head briskly as if clearing it of a bad smell. "Well. No need to tarry in the rain, Mr. Hornblower."

Horatio obediently fell into step behind him, glancing up at the second body as they passed. It couldn't be said for certain in such a rain, but he felt sure as he passed that the young man's hair had been bright. Clayton had spoken truly when he'd called him a lad-- the boy was likely about Hornblower's own age. He shivered, watching the body swing, and prayed God would spare him such a grisly fate.

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