|In Darkness Light
Author: Guede Mazaka
After they had returned—all of them, knowingly and willingly, and that was a thing at which Archie still marveled a little—to the Ferrol, the long, monotone days once again dragged their nails along the old stone walls. Before there had been first the wait for the eternal reprieve, and then there had been the tension of the struggle for leadership and escape to occupy Archie’s time, but now, he had little except the shortening and lengthening of shadows. He even lacked restlessness, for somewhere along the way, he’d gained belief. It was only a matter of time before they were released; that fact was implicit in Horatio’s fortune. Not luck, that fickle thing. No, what his friend had was something as constant and reliable as he himself, though it might be somewhat slow on occasion.
At that, Archie did smile a touch sourly at the ceiling above him. Well, there was always that, if he needed something to keep idleness at bay. Though as much as he wished, he would never dream of pushing that point upon Horatio.
As if his thought were the last nudge the spheres of heaven needed to align, the rustling of letters in the bed across the cell ceased. It didn’t unduly concern him at first; what little mail trickled into Horatio’s hands was usually of no consequence to their current situation. Archie received no mail at all. Frankly, that didn’t trouble him too greatly. There had been reasons he had joined the Navy, and he was content to leave those on the shores of England.
After a few strange moments of silence, Archie finally grew worried enough to turn over and see for himself. Nothing more than a letter, a scrap of mildewed paper beginning to crumple itself under the pressure of the other man’s fingers, which were turning white. “Horatio?”
When no immediate reply came, Archie swung himself up into a sitting position, prepared to wait as long as was necessary. “Horatio?” he called, a little louder.
This time, the other man started, as if he’d imagined himself alone. He darted a look at Archie that was only long enough for the slight wet sheen to be seen, then returned his attention to the letter. If Horatio’s eyes were lenses and his mind the brilliant light of the sun, then Archie had no doubt that the paper would have long since been aflame. “It—seems—because this is not a direct report, but merely a notice from an old acquaintance of my father’s—it seems—”
Archie touched Horatio’s shoulder, then paused because he wasn’t quite certain as to how he’d arrived at the edge of the other man’s cot. A moment’s consideration proved that irrelevant, so he perched on the side and lightly rested his hand on Horatio’s shoulder. “Yes?”
The line of Horatio’s jaw suddenly stiffened. In the same steady, calm voice he used when facing the enemy, he finished. “My father appears to have died.”
Then he bowed his head, and for a long time, they sat without speaking.
Eventually Horatio recovered and pulled himself up, reaching for Archie’s hand. He briefly squeezed it, still looking downwards, and mustered a vague smile. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have bothered you with that—”
“It’s fine, Horatio.” Very carefully, Archie eased the letter out of Horatio’s other hand and smoothed its wrinkles, doing his best not to smear the ink any more than it already was. He then folded it and put it on the bed between them, so if Horatio wanted it back, he could take it. “You’ve never talked much about your father. I didn’t know you were so close—oh, now I’m being rude.”
“No, of course not.” The very idea seemed to offend Horatio. It also startled him into regaining his usual upright posture and looking Archie in the eye, so it could be supposed that the result had actually turned out to be good.
Archie probably stared at Horatio for longer than he strictly should have, but the other man’s eyes had taken on a fragile transparency that invited lingering. In addition to that, neither of them were very sure as to how the conversation was to proceed. Death, of course, was no stranger to either of them, but what they saw in time of battle was bloody and fast and brutal. It had a shocking quality that helped numb the senses till there was time to come to terms with the memory. And authority was harsh, too, and rarely forgiving. The Navy was a father who firmly believed in the lash and the noose. Therefore this kind of peaceful—at least, Archie assumed from Horatio’s lack of outrage that it was a natural death—passing of life, and moreover, of patriarch, was something Archie had nearly forgotten.
“Your father must have been a good man, then. My father and I never seemed to get along,” Archie finally blurted out, once the silence had grown too weighty for him. “In comparison, the King’s hand seemed a relief. At first.”
Horatio’s eyebrow arched at that oblique reminder, but his mind must have still been distracted, for he let it go and followed the original intention of Archie’s words. He folded his hands in his lap and watched them fidget, as if he were tickling up memories from the air. “He was kind. When I said I didn’t want to be a doctor like him, I think he was disappointed, but he never said a word against it. But we weren’t speaking much—my mother had died, and…he withdrew into his work.”
A familial trait, Archie suspected. “And no brothers or sisters, I know. Were there—are there any other relatives that this affects…”
“No, though that makes little difference. My father’s friend also writes that whatever savings my father had have been mostly eaten up by the costs of the funeral and of—whatever business there is. I have a few keepsakes, but that’s all.” The other man made a wry smile, acknowledging the heartless but inevitable monetary facets of a death with good grace. Then he unlaced his hands and pushed himself back on the bed in a poor attempt to resume casualness. “Nothing to fight over, and no dependent except myself.”
“That’s probably the better situation. Older brothers unnecessarily complicate things.” Something hesitantly overlapped Archie’s fingers, stealing the letter out from under them, but he resolutely didn’t look for fear that by observing, he would make vanish whatever was there.
The letter went into Horatio’s pocket, while his eyes remained on Archie. A little surprise—odd how conservative and idealistic the man could be at times—was in that frank gaze, as well as something Archie belatedly identified as wistfulness. Horatio absently rubbed away the salt-stains from one cheek as he replied, “That’s a shame. I…used to wonder what it would be like to have a brother.”
“Well, if you don’t mind the chips and nicks here and there, I would be happy to offer my services there.” Archie kept his tone light, humorously gallant, so that no burden would be laid on Horatio’s excessive politeness. He would rather have kept his mouth shut, but the opening was so plain that his tongue seemed to move of its own accord.
Again, Horatio was caught off his guard. Jerking up a few inches, he blinked his eyes wide. “Oh, but—
“Truly, it’s—” And there Archie had to stop because he was unsure whether to continue in a joking vein, or to just end the pretense there before it grew too unwieldy.
“But I can’t think of you as a brother.” And there Horatio’s teeth snagged on his lip and his face flushed so the splotches on his cheeks from earlier were thrown into sharp relief. He nervously looked away, then back. Once more, Archie saw that rise of determination turn Horatio’s back and chin rigid against whatever might be thrown his way. “Please don’t take offense at that, Archie. I wasn’t explaining it very well; what I meant to say was that—”
When Archie leaned back, his stomach was queasy and his palms were beginning to sweat cold into the bedding, but he looked anyway. “You meant that?”
“I…yes, I think so.” Horatio smiled.