"We've two things in abundance on Renown, Horatio," Archie said, moving to the sideboard and opening a bottle of wine. He
held it solemnly up in the air for my regard. "Spirits and human misery. Care to lay a wager on which will run out first?"
"Archie," I murmured with disapproval, giving him as stern a look as I could manage. As ever, he ignored it. He smiled at
me, a twist of the lips that didn't touch his eyes, and turned away to pour us each a glass. It didn't matter if privately
I thought he was right. My accepted place in this strange game of service on the Renown was to back the captain, follow the
rules, keep Archie in check. His was to be irreverent and critical and to keep me up at night with visions of nooses. If
we went on like this, I imagined soon we must either begin to despise one another or go mad.
He held a glass out to me, a silent apology, and I accepted with a grateful smile. Madness it would be, then; I could not
imagine hating Archie, even if I did despair of him ever learning to hold his tongue.
He was silent often enough on Justinian, I thought suddenly, from nowhere, as he leaned back against the wall and closed
his eyes for a moment. I studied his face in profile as I sipped my wine. Certainly, he was that midshipman no longer.
His features were more sharply defined, his skin roughened by years of exposure, his hair lightened by tropical sunlight.
There were lines about his eyes and mouth, carved deeply in the nine years since we met. Some of them, I was certain, were
Some were not.
He took a sip from his glass and glanced over at me. "What are you thinking on, Horatio? You look a thousand miles away."
I shrugged and looked down at my glass, swirling the brilliant liquid. "Just remembering days gone by, Mr. Kennedy."
He smiled at that, one as tinged with melancholy as they all were of late, and stared vaguely off into the corner. I resumed
my covert study of him as he communed with his own thoughts. His eyes were troubled, and they did not lighten when he smiled
at me. Another thing I recalled from Justinian-- Archie's unhappy eyes. I looked away, back to my drink again, although
it held no answers. Things were different here; we were worlds away from the leaderless, poisoned apathy of Justinian. Indeed,
perhaps the troubles on this ship stemmed from an excess of activity on the Captain's part...
Only the tense misery in the air was the same. And perhaps no one noticed that except myself and Archie. Perhaps I alone,
in fact; Archie and I hardly spoke of such things, these days.
We hardly spoke at all.
I closed my eyes, suddenly overwhelmed by weariness. This damned voyage. This damned ship. She might be a vampire, sucking
the joy and life from all of us.
"Are you all right?" Surely the voice came from my maudlin reminiscences; no one on Renown gave a damn for my well-being.
I looked up and found Archie standing over me, quite close, worry overwriting the tension on his face. A sudden swell of
inexplicable, desperate feeling went through me, and I blinked rapidly to dissolve it. God, I really was letting this place
poison my mind. "Yes, sorry, I'm all right. Just tired."
He nodded slowly, eyes still dark with concern, and I found myself staring into them as if entranced, trying to hold on to
a shred of his caring, to keep it with me as a talisman in the loneliness of this ship. "You should get some rest," he said,
moving a pace away. He set his glass back on the sideboard. "We're in for a long day tomorrow."
"What makes you say that?" I asked with a frown, trying to remember any particular actions planned.
He shrugged, another joyless smile on his lips. "Haven't they all been long days lately, Horatio?"
I stared up at his face. "Archie, you look tired yourself."
He shook his head and turned back to the sideboard, idly running his hand along the edge. "It's nothing."
"Archie, if you begin lying to me, I fear I shall go mad in this place." Perhaps I already had, letting my unschooled and
unquiet thoughts spring to the surface in that way.
The look he gave me was startled, but something about his eyes and mouth had softened, and for a moment it was like the old
easy company aboard the Indy. The tightness in my chest eased, and I could almost breathe. "Of course I wouldn't lie to
you," he said in a low voice, and the simple honesty of it nearly unmanned me. "But really, Horatio, it's not worth any trouble.
Just a few bad dreams."
I frowned at that; it had been a number of years since Archie had been so troubled, to my knowing. And then I remembered
the path my thoughts had taken only moments before-- the taut misery of this ship, as I'd not felt since Justinian-- and my
shoulders tightened as if I were facing an enemy. God have mercy on us both.
"As I said, not worth troubling yourself over," he said, looking down at the floor in my silence.
"You must try to catch up on your rest," I said, inwardly wincing at my own stupidity. He laughed aloud.
"I'd love to, Horatio, if I had better luck...but since we're one lieutenant and at least a handful of midshipmen short, I
fear I shall be on watch for the rest of my natural life!" He shook his head and glanced at the hourglass, reaching for his
hat. "Buckland is feeling unwell this evening, and requested and required that I assume his watch in addition to my own,
so I fear it's a long night of sea air for me, not the hammock."
"I can take Buckland's watch, Archie, you're exhausted--"
"Horatio, I tell you honestly, I prefer walking the quarterdeck to those damned dreams." His smile was brittle, cracked in
places; it didn't quite hide his weariness as he wished it to. "Besides, you're tired as well."
"We're all tired," I muttered, burying my face in my hands.
I felt him move past me as he went to the doorway, and then his hand landed gently on my shoulder. A light weight, but desperately
welcome; I leaned into the contact like an animal starved of affection. "It will be all right," he said, and I looked up
to meet his eyes, blue and steadfast and the only brightness I'd found on this dead ship bound for hell.
"Of course," I said, trying to smile and making a mess of it. His hand tightened on my shoulder in silent reassurance that
it would be the two of us standing together, whatever might come.
He left, then, and I sat in the wardroom alone for a space of time, letting my thoughts and worries swirl about me. A terrible
unease had entered my heart when Archie took his hand away, and I could not place it or settle my mind. Surely, it was only
weariness and wine. Captain Sawyer would do nothing to endanger a ship of the line. This tension was a self-perpetuating
product of fretting at nothing. When the new second lieutenant came aboard, and the proper order of things was reasserted,
all would be well. Surely...
Still unsettled, I found myself climbing the stairs to the deck, without a jot of a reason why. My eyes strained at the darkness,
seeking the slow, measured pace of a body in the lantern light-- there. Archie moved across the quarterdeck. A fraction
of the tension eased, though again I could not say why.
I watched him from the stairway for a few moments, my head aswirl, and my hand came up across my body to grip my shoulder
where he had before, mimicking that gentle pressure that had steadied me. An anchor in all of this.
It will be all right, I repeated to myself. Have a bit of faith. As long as it's both of us standing together,
it will be all right.
Pray God it would be so. I felt nothing but cold, hollow dread at the thought of standing alone.