Harlequin's Slash Fic

An Understanding

Title: An Understanding
Author: Julien
Universe: Hornblower
Characters featured: Horatio/Archie, with varying degrees of Archie/Simpson, Horatio/Pellew, Horatio/Mariette, Archie/Edrington
Category, Word count: Story; 14376 words
Rating: NC17
Summary: Horatio and Archie fall in love with each other soon after they first meet, but for various reasons are constrained from doing anything about it for far too long. Other people come and go in their lives, but their friendship is the most important thing for both of them.
Notes: This story takes place throughout the first four movies.
Warnings: Vivid memories and after–effects of a non–con relationship (Archie/Simpson). Angsty misunderstandings. Horatio being too honourable for his own good.
First published: 8 December 2002 in Horatio Hornblower & the Prix d’Amor

 

 

An Understanding

 

I

They were both on watch, Horatio Hornblower to starboard and Archie Kennedy to larboard. But, while the Justinian remained anchored in Spithead with her men rotting in boredom and inactivity, there was really nothing to watch for – at least, there were no threats from beyond the ship itself Nevertheless, they must keep watch in the unlikely event that anything dramatic occurred.

With youthful energy to burn and a need to keep warm in the dank January cold, the two of them were each pacing around their own circle on the quarterdeck, and then walking together along the middle of the figure eight they were forming, before parting to circle off to either side of the ship to watch for nonexistent enemies. Their conversation was therefore a very disjointed one. But Horatio had something on his mind, and so tried to make the most of the intermittent opportunities.

‘Foul weather,’ Archie muttered on their fifth meeting. ‘The cold gets right into your marrow… London must have softened me up. This is nothing, really, compared to a winter in the Highlands.’

‘At least it’s not raining.’

‘There is that small mercy.’ It had rained every day for weeks – when it wasn’t sleeting.

But another opportunity had passed him by. Horatio paced round the rest of his circle, dutifully examining the horizon for any sign of shipping. Nothing but bleakness, and no sign of the cloud lifting. What he wouldn’t give for a bit of sunlight right now…

‘Archie,’ Horatio said as they approached each other, determined to get in first this time. ‘I’m not entirely sure how to ask you this.’

‘What’s that?’ the young man said, his tone welcoming enough.

‘I have enjoyed your company,’ Horatio announced, ‘very much, since I first came aboard the Justinian. In fact, it would not be going too far to say that I have enjoyed your company more than any other’s. You are very… well, you’re very pleasant to be with.’

‘And –?’ The tone was distinctly guarded now.

Horatio looked at Archie in surprise, and then they parted to each pace their own circle. Horatio decided to persist, even though he obviously wasn’t very good at this. His father had not been exaggerating when he described Horatio as a solitary boy – and it was clear that had been Horatio’s natural inclination, for the son of a doctor had many opportunities for meeting new acquaintances and making new friends if he so wished.

‘And,’ Horatio continued as they met again, ‘I trust that you have found the same to be true of me.’ When he saw that Archie’s guardedness had only increased, he added, ‘Well, in some small measure.’

‘And –?’ Archie prompted.

‘And, so. I was hoping that you would respond favourably if I asked you to be my… my particular friend.’

The guardedness became a dark glower, and Archie remained silent. They parted ways, Archie stalking off as if deeply offended. Oh dear! Horatio thought. Obviously he was very bad at this. Horatio couldn’t even work out what he’d said wrong. He swept the horizon. Nothing, of course.

The glower was still in force as they met again. ‘I already have enough particular friends in my life,’ Archie ground out.

‘Oh! I see.’ Although he didn’t, really. Not at all. Archie was indeed a very pleasant young man, but Horatio hadn’t thought he had any real friends among the officers or the men. Unless it was… ‘Mr Clayton, do you mean?’

‘No! No, damn it. I thought everyone would know. He is hardly discreet.’

Archie stalked off again, and Horatio was left to frown in puzzlement. Nothing on the horizon. Nothing but confusion in his mind.

‘And, anyway,’ Archie cried out as they met again. Well, it was a muffled though furious kind of cry, that no one but Horatio would hear. ‘Anyway, we are talking of you, damn it to hell. I thought we were friends, Horatio! I never expected this from you.’

‘Um. Expected what? If you already consider us friends, Archie… Well, that is exactly what I was proposing!’

Archie stared at him as if Horatio had gone mad. ‘You were proposing that we should be friends?’

‘Yes.’

‘God, Horatio!’ And Archie stalked off again. No, Horatio corrected himself: it was more like stomped off thistime.

Bewildered, Horatio paced his circle, trying in vain to fathom… ‘What did you think I meant?’

‘Never mind! You poor fool… You don’t have to ask me – we are friends, Horatio, all right? We just are!’

‘I see. I’m sorry, Archie. I haven’t… well, I haven’t had a particular friend before. Or any friends, really. Obviously I have breached an etiquette of which I’m unaware.’

‘Fool!’ Archie muttered again – though he was almost smiling now, apparently amused by Horatio’s poor foolishness. ‘There’s no damned etiquette, all right?’

‘All right.’ And Horatio nodded at him, bravely trying to smile. ‘Friends, then.’ He offered Archie his hand to shake.

Archie rolled his eyes, but returned the compliment.

They parted. Next time they met, they remained silent, though it was a companionable kind of silence. Archie seemed lost in rueful thoughts.

Horatio had plenty to think about as well. On their thirteenth meeting, Horatio asked, ‘What is it that you thought everyone would know?’

Archie flushed with discomfort, and did not reply.

It related to Archie’s misinterpretation of Horatio’s request for friendship, that much was clear. And had nothing to do with Adam Clayton. Well, perhaps the other candidate for whatever it was, was Jack Simpson. If there were any of their brother officers guaranteed to make Archie that angry, it had to be… ‘Jack Simpson. It’s about him, isn’t it? Not Mr Clayton.’

To Horatio’s surprise, Archie shuddered. Then they parted. And this time they would not meet again. Horatio continued round his circle, but Archie came to a halt at the side of the ship, and stared off to larboard with his back firmly turned towards Horatio. To be fair, that was exactly where Archie should be – and Horatio, too, to starboard – paying full attention, even though there was nothing to pay full attention to.

Horatio walked his circle, ruminating. Obviously he had breached etiquette after all. In his ignorance, his clumsy ignorance bred of too much solitude. Archie’s shudder indicated that Jack Simpson was indeed the subject of… something to do with friendship, though nothing to do with the kind of friendship that already existed (thanks be to God!) between Archie and Horatio. It was a conundrum.

‘I am sorry,’ Archie quietly said. He’d walked over to meet Horatio as he came round again. ‘It’s just that he used those very words. He wanted to be my particular friend. He meant something different to what you meant. Very different. But for a while, it was… close to friendship.’

Horatio could discern a need in that quiet voice. A need to confess or unburden or confide. He slowed his steps, and Archie did, too, echoing him. A quick glance around to ensure there was nothing on the horizon, starboard or larboard, and no officers to berate them for inattention, and then Horatio turned to face his friend.

‘You were right. Of course. It is Jack.’ Archie was staring fixedly at the decking.

‘Your particular friend,’ Horatio prompted.

‘He is not my friend,’ Archie announced, very evenly. ‘He uses me. That is all.’

‘Uses you?’

Archie grimaced at Horatio’s appalling ignorance. ‘He uses me. Like a whore. Except that he does not pay me for the privilege.’

‘Archie!’ Horatio’s heart had fallen to lie heavy in his gut. ‘No… No, you cannot mean it.’

Another impatient roll of the eyes. ‘Why in hell would I invent such a tale?’

‘Oh God…’ Horatio cast about him. ‘We must do something. Captain Keene must be told. He knew my father – he will listen to us – he will do whatever must be done.’

‘No. Horatio, you must promise me that you won’t tell anyone.’

‘But we can’t let this continue! For God’s sake, Archie. You do not welcome this. You cannot tell me that you welcome this.’

‘Of course not! I do not welcome what it has become. But…’ Archie looked away, his face flushed again. ‘At first. It was different. It was more like friendship.’

Horatio suddenly took Archie’s meaning – and he, too, blushed. They were each looking off to the horizons again, as if they were indeed on watch, but Horatio couldn’t see anything more than a fog of confusion and humiliation and anger.

‘Don’t you understand?’ Archie sighed, and answered himself. ‘No, of course you do not. You don’t think in the ways that he does. You don’t scheme. He made sure that I felt compromised, Horatio. If he is ever court–martialled for this, he can ensure that I am court–martialled, too, and I will appear as guilty as him. So it is hardly in my interests…’

It would not do. Horatio stood there, furious. He could not let this be. It was… criminal. In the most literal, sordid and nasty of ways. And his friend, his only friend, was suffering.

‘Horatio?’ Archie asked in some trepidation. ‘You must promise me. You must not tell anyone.’

‘I understand,’ he faintly agreed. The full situation only really dawned on him then. An image sprang to mind. Archie. Jack Simpson. A carnal embrace. But not a willing one, not a pleasant embrace, not a happy one, unless such unwillingness made Simpson happy. The details were vague, for Horatio had even less experience of love than he did of friendship. Not that this was love. He looked at Archie again, imagining Simpson touching him – and he shuddered at the horror of it.

‘Horatio! You may well understand, but I require your word.’ Archie had never before seemed so determined. ‘You spoke of etiquette. Well, it is etiquette that when a friend confides in you, and requires your secrecy, you must in all honour give him your word.’

‘Of course,’ Horatio said, still feeling a bit faint. ‘Of course. I will not speak of this to anyone. But, Archie, you will permit me to consider what we can do? What action we might take? You cannot expect me to stand by while my friend, my only friend, is being so badly treated. We can do something about it!’

‘Such as… what?’ Despite the question, there was no hope on that lovely face. Not even a flicker.

‘I’m not sure. Not yet. But I’ll think of something. I promise you, Archie. I promise you.’

Archie considered him, careful. Wary of trusting, and still refusing to hope. And yet, eventually, Archie put out his hand, and they shook on it. ‘You are a good friend, Horatio,’ Archie said. A hint of a smile played on his lips. ‘I only tell you this because you insist on saying things that need not be said.’

‘As are you, Archie,’ Horatio firmly replied. ‘As are you.’

They parted again, returning to the duty they had both neglected. And only just in time, too, for Lieutenant Eccleston appeared, pulling his cloak close round him against the cold, and then Cleveland and Hether came to relieve Horatio and Archie of their watch.

Before Horatio could suggest anything, though, Archie had disappeared ’tweendecks. And no doubt he was right. They had talked enough for now. They had talked enough, and it was time to ponder what action could be taken.

 

An opportunity for action eventually arrived, and Horatio seized it. A duel with Simpson over a small matter, an accusation of cheating at cards. Even Simpson knew that Horatio taking such offence was a mere convenience, but he refused to back down. And it all went horribly wrong when Adam Clayton decided to step forward in Horatio’s place.

Within moments of Clayton’s death, Horatio and Archie were freed from the Justinian and Simpson by the fortunes of war. They were bound for active service on the Indefatigable under the renowned Captain Sir Edward Pellew. Archie was overjoyed, and seemed to easily shake off the pain and fear of their months on the Justinian. And yet Horatio could not so readily leave things behind. Despite being greatly relieved that his friend would no longer be subjected to Simpson’s attentions, Horatio took his own troubles with him.

Because Horatio found himself haunted by that vague carnal image of Archie and Simpson together. He began to add details. Reluctantly, very reluctantly, but he couldn’t help himself. There was undeniable cruelty in what he imagined – but he was undeniably stirred by it, too. Revolted and aroused in equal measure. The image haunted his thoughts, his dreams, his imaginings.

I understand. Oh God save me, Archie, I do understand.

 

Archie Kennedy was in love. It had been a long time, such a very long time, since he’d felt anything so… so damned delightful. The whole thing was simplicity itself. He felt himself smiling with no provocation, day and night, no matter what else was happening, as if he’d been returned to some primitive, natural state of happiness. This had more than once earned him a puzzled stare from the very proper Captain Pellew, though he was too happy to even care. Everything was perfect.

Archie had to admit, however, that the perfection was partly due to the utter frivolity of his love. The object of it could not be less aware of Archie’s devotion if he tried. Horatio – for the object was Horatio Hornblower, of course – seemed utterly oblivious to such matters, as if the more serious things in life commanded all his attention. But Horatio was the best of friends, and an officer with a great future ahead of him, and he treated Archie with such wonderful respect… Yes, of course there was a measure of self–interest in it – to find someone so worthy to whom Archie could hitch his own career, and being welcomed to do so – well, that merited a great deal of Archie’s finer feelings in itself. Beyond that there was the purely personal. Beyond that was the poignant wish for this beautiful man. The wish to touch and to kiss him, to have and to hold him. Amazing that Archie should reawaken to a positive version of such embraces, so soon after leaving a negative version behind. But that was Horatio Hornblower for you – he remade all things around him amazing. Who could help but love him?

 

All was well, Horatio thought, until Jack Simpson re–entered their lives. It seemed that even the haven of the Indefatigable was not safe. Archie was living in terror again. Horatio himself feared the man, but he would not give Simpson the satisfaction of knowing as much. He ensured, as best he could, that Archie was never alone with Simpson. And he began thinking again of what he could do, what action he could take. Archie did not need to remind him of his promise not to speak of the matter, so Horatio could not appeal to Captain Pellew for help. There was no point in attempting to explain the situation to any man – even to Lieutenants Eccleston and Chadd, who knew Simpson well enough – without first being released from that promise.

But then… but then Archie was lost, his boat coming adrift as they took the Papillon. And even as a horrified Horatio watched his unconscious friend float away alone into the dangers of Spanish waters, Simpson tried to murder Horatio.

Which led to another duel, in which Horatio was wounded – though he did not know whether it was Simpson’s declaration that he had murdered Archie, or Simpson’s bullet, that hurt him the most. In the end, Captain Pellew dispensed justice, defending Horatio’s life by killing Simpson.

It was over.

It was over, but Archie Kennedy was lost forever.

Archie, who had prompted Horatio to begin imagining the possibilities of carnal embraces between men. Not that he wanted what Simpson had taken from Archie. But if there were a way – yes, if there had been a way to have the embrace without the cruelty, then Horatio had been all too interested. Though it had always been out of the question, of course. When Archie had thought Horatio was asking for something other than friendship, Archie had immediately rejected him, furious. Disgusted. Perhaps Simpson had made it impossible for Archie to feel any other way about another man. Perhaps Archie would never have felt anything but disgust anyway, for Horatio was all too aware that this was not an acceptable feeling to nurture.

In any case, it was over, and his best friend was gone, and Horatio suspected that he would never again have the chance to indulge his imaginings. Perhaps it was best that it was so. Yes, it was best that it was so.

 

II

Still singed and smoky from his encounter with the Spanish fire ship, and his hair still damp from his dip in Gibraltar Bay, Horatio stood at attention in his captain’s cabin. It was late at night, and the ship was at last quiet around them after all the excitements of the day. Captain Pellew had poured them each a glass of port. But no matter how fulsomely Pellew commended Horatio’s courage in steering the fire ship away from the Indefatigable, all Horatio could think of was that he had failed his examination for lieutenant, and it would be another six months before he would be permitted to try again.

No doubt Pellew read his frustration, because he said, ‘I think in the last few weeks, we’ve seen you face and pass a much sterner examination.’

‘Sir?’

‘I think you’ve tasted the bitter brew that is a captain’s life. Next time, sir, you’ll be better prepared.’

It was a comfort, though a small one. ‘Yes, sir.’

‘Mr Hornblower? It has been an honour to serve with you.’

Horatio smiled a little, proud to have his captain say such a thing. ‘And with you, sir.’ Though Horatio did think to wonder why the sentiment was expressed in the past tense.

Pellew toasted him with the port, and then came back over to the table to pour himself some more. ‘Oh, sit down, Mr Hornblower.’ Those all–seeing eyes considered him. ‘Unless, that is, you are ready to retire for the night? You must be exhausted.’

‘Yes, sir. But I would be honoured to accept your hospitality.’

‘Then, sit!’ Pellew sat at the head of the table. Horatio pulled out the chair before him, and sat at the man’s right hand. They both sipped at the port, thoughtful. Finally Pellew said, ‘I owe you an apology, Mr Hornblower.’

Horatio looked at his captain in surprise. ‘I don’t… I don’t imagine so, sir.’

But it seemed that Pellew was completely serious. Even in the kind glow of candlelight, he appeared troubled and rather tense. ‘I must apologise for insisting that you take the examination. I should have given you more time to prepare, and now you have lost at least eight months’ seniority.’

For a moment, Horatio didn’t know what to say. Various responses competed for attention, but eventually he settled on what seemed the most urgent: ‘Are you saying that I am not ready to serve as a lieutenant, sir?’

‘You are now!’ Pellew declared, meeting his gaze. ‘Yes, you are now. But you haven’t been ready. You weren’t ready this evening. I should have waited until the next examination to put you forward.’

‘Oh,’ was all that Horatio could manage.

Pellew cleared his throat, and shifted uncomfortably on his seat. ‘I believe I made the mistake of letting Captain Foster’s opinion of your readiness override mine. I should not have let his interest in you provoke me.’

‘Oh. I see.’ Though he didn’t. Not really.

‘Still, it is out of my hands now. No doubt you will be better served by your next captain.’

Horatio frowned, unexpected ocean–depths opening beneath his feet. ‘Excuse me, sir, but… am I to leave the Indefatigable?’

Pellew raised a sardonic brow. ‘You wish to serve on the Dreadnought, do you not?’

‘The Dreadnought, sir?’

‘Come now, man, don’t be obtuse. You wish to serve with Captain Foster, and he was impressed enough by you. I’m expecting his request for your transfer, especially after your escapade together on the fire ship. And I will not – I will not stand in your way.’

‘No, sir.’ Horatio swallowed hard. Leaving the Indy now would be worse than leaving his home had been. But he had brought this on himself with his misguided admiration for Dreadnought Foster. ‘No, sir, I… Well, I believe I made the mistake of letting Captain Foster’s opinion of himself override mine.’

Pellew stared at him, as if not daring to believe. But wanting to believe, wanting that very much.

Horatio smiled, truly gratified. Pellew’s high esteem was as rare and as precious as Archie’s trust had been. And it was real. Thisloyalty of Horatio’s was for a real flesh–and–blood man who held Horatio’s life in his hands every day – nothing like the distant hero–worship he’d felt for Dreadnought Foster before he’d even met the man. Horatio couldn’t stop smiling. Pellew didn’t stop staring at him. And the warmth of Pellew’s regard… it began to stir him. Horatio could feel himself react in ways that were… wholly inappropriate.

Sitting there, he began to know himself. And while he smiled to be blessed by Pellew’s esteem, he mourned anew for Archie’s trusting friendship. For there would never be another chance of love for Horatio, not that he had ever really had a chance with Archie in the first place… Though he belatedly remembered that it was best that it was so.

‘If I may stay on the Indefatigable,’ Horatio said, ‘and serve with you, sir, I would be honoured.’

‘Of course,’ Pellew said, apparently recalling his sense of the proprieties. He drew back, and then stood, hands clasped in the small of his back. There was still a tension in him, though it seemed the trouble had eased somewhat. Horatio didn’t flatter himself that he had anything to do with that. ‘Dismissed, Mr Hornblower.’

‘Yes, sir.’ And he nodded his respect, and left the cabin. Surprisingly, he felt content. Philosophical, even. For Captain Sir Edward Pellew thought Horatio had tasted the bitter brew of a captain’s life, and that he had passed that stern examination; and the prize Horatio had won was to remain on the Indy with a man he admired more than any other. Horatio felt content indeed.

 

III

It was yet another nightmare, Archie was almost sure of it. Horatio and some other man in his prison cell. Horatio haunting him, talking about him as if he weren’t there, demanding things from him. ‘He’s lost the use of his mind…’ Ah, yes, I fear he’s right. That’s what he’d always been most afraid of. Or, no, he’d been most afraid of someone assuming that he’d lost his mind, and damning him to a living death, even though Archie himself knew he was sane. Not that he knew any such thing now. Nothing was certain at all. ‘He wants to die…’ No, not quite yet. I’m as surprised about that as anyone. But, eventually, Archie came to realise that Horatio and the other man were real. Or, at least, more real than the nightmare phantoms. (Though that would mean Horatio Hornblower had been captured by the Spanish, which didn’t seem plausible even in a nightmare.) There was Simpson, too, though. Archie wasn’t so sure about him. Simpson might have been a phantom. ‘Jack’s missed you, boy…’ Go away! Go away! Go away! But one thing slowly became clear. If Horatio were real, then one thing became very certain indeed: Archie would not go back to his old life. He would not go back, not under any circumstances. My God, yes, he’s right. I want to die. It’s time to die…

 

‘Archie…’ Horatio whispering. ‘Archie, it’s all right. Ssshhh…’ Horatio’s hands on him, holding him, soothing him. ‘Archie, there, there, there.’

He woke, heavy, sluggish. As if he’d been away in a far–off land, and had been dragged back here through the centre of the earth itself. Wherever ‘here’ was. Archie turned to lie on his back. Tried to catch his breath. Horatio kneeling by the cot, concerned, leaning over him. The prison on the Spanish coast. ‘I was having a fit, wasn’t I?’ Of course. It wasn’t ever like waking from sleep. ‘Strange,’ he commented. ‘I had not been troubled by them.’ He felt the dagger in his own heart, even as he thrust it at Horatio. ‘Not until you came.’

‘Archie…’ That voice, so soft; chiding and forgiving all at once.

‘I will not go back to the Indy.’ He’d turned his back on Horatio, just to make it clear. ‘Do not ask me to.’

Horatio didn’t push any further. A last quiet pat on his shoulder, and then Horatio retreated to his own bed.

Inevitable. Inevitable that the fits returned. Because this Horatio was real. And Horatio meant love, and love eventually meant sex, and sex meant Jack Simpson, and Jack meant fear… No, to be absolutely clear, Jack meant humiliating pain. Jack meant debilitating fear. And fear meant a return of the fits. It was all bound up together, even though he knew, he knew that Horatio was a good man – the best of men, God damn him – a good man, who would never intentionally hurt Archie.

‘My dear little Archibald, come sit here by me. Closer. So confess to me, boy – tell me all your dirty little secrets…’ Go away! Archie groaned, and plunged back into the nightmare.

 

‘No! Simpson! Jack, no…’

‘It’s all right. Archie, it’s all right. Ssshhh…’

Archie lay there while the nightmare faded again, trying to fathom where he was. A real bed. A better room. But the smells were the same, the air was the same, he was still in Spain. Horatio sitting by the bed, Horatio pouring water and offering it to him. Archie pushed the cup away, uninterested.

‘You’re going to drink,’ Horatio said, in tones firm enough to motivate the world to turn on its axis.

‘It’s no use thinking of him…’ No, Horatio, I’m going to die.

‘You’re going to eat. You’re going to get better. And then we’re going to get out of here.’

‘No.’

‘Don’t you want to get back to the Indy?’

‘Christ’s blood! I told you not to spill a drop, boy. Now, lick it up… All of it!’ The taste of wood and pitch, wine and semen. Archie shuddered.

Horatio was still talking of escaping. Of healing Archie, and rescuing him. ‘You’d do the same for me if I were in your shoes.’

Wryness pulled Archie’s mouth into something akin to a smile. ‘But you’re not, and you never would be.’

‘Archie,’ Horatio murmured. ‘I won’t survive if you don’t help me.’

‘You cared for me once, boy, I know you did… You wouldn’t leave poor old Jack so unsatisfied.’ Archie said, ‘You don’t need me. Don’t pretend you do!’

Horatio was sitting on the bed, right beside him, face looming over his, finger jabbing at Archie’s chest. ‘You’re one of us. You can’t let us down. You must get strong.’

But he never would. He’d never be even half as strong as Horatio. Never as strong as Jack. All he could do was submit. ‘It’s only submission, boy. A moment, and it’s done. Submission… Don’t pretend you don’t like it…’

‘Now, drink!’

At least the water took the taste of semen out of his mouth.

 

Horatio was looking very thoughtful in a bothered kind of way. In fact, that handsome face was clouded with the anticipation of trouble. The two of them were sitting in chairs on either side of the fireplace in the sick room with their feet to the warmth, and Archie was still horribly weak, but almost well enough to be sent back to the cell. Which meant that there was a question he must ask, just for the sake of clarification. Which meant that he must interrupt Horatio’s musings.

‘Yes, Archie?’ Horatio murmured when Archie said his name. And he looked up and smiled one of his most reassuring all’s right with the world smiles.

‘That man in the cell with us –’

‘Hunter, you mean?’

‘Hunter. It was Hunter?’

‘Yes. Who did you think it was?’

Archie shrugged, and gave his friend a self–deprecating smile. ‘Nightmares. Jack Simpson. There have been times when…’

Horatio was frowning. ‘When what?’

But it was safe enough to tell Horatio, the doctor’s son – despite the fact that Horatio’s father had the power to have Archie committed. Despite that fact, Horatio had been so accepting, even more so than Adam Clayton had been. ‘If the fits continue, my lady, there will be no choice. He can’t be allowed into society…’ But I’m sane, I swear it! ‘There were times when I didn’t know whether I was awake or dreaming.’

‘You said Simpson…’ Horatio faltered. ‘You thought Hunter was…?’ The implications of this staggered him. ‘Do you mean to tell me,’ Horatio said with barely–controlled fury, ‘that Mr Hunter has been… treating you in the same manner as did Jack Simpson?’

‘No. No, I just wanted to be sure.’

‘Archie, you must tell me –’

‘No, I swear it! I suffer from nightmares, that is all. And you know what state I was in when you found me. Imagining all kinds of strange things…’ It seemed that Horatio believed him, for he shook off the horrid thought, relaxed a little and sat back in his chair again. Though he was still troubling over something. Archie decided that a little teasing was in order. ‘You will never guess what I imagined only last week… I had eaten for the first time in so long… A salad of fruit with honey; nectar of the gods. And as I fell asleep again afterwards, I could have sworn that one of the gods leant down and kissed me as a reward for my efforts.’

A chagrined Horatio was grinning and blushing all at the same time. ‘Yes, all right, Mr Kennedy, that’s quite enough from you!’

Archie smiled at him, amused by Horatio’s mixture of confusion and pleasure. God, please save him from ever losing that innocence… ‘You’re a good friend, Horatio. So are you going to tell me what’s bothering you?’

The grin faded, and Horatio glanced at him, then gazed into the fire. ‘There’s something I must tell you. About Jack Simpson. Do you think that you’re strong enough?’

Something within him wilted, sagged. He looked away for a moment, rolling his head against the back of the chair. Then he looked at Horatio again. ‘Yes.’

‘Are you sure? Perhaps you should lie down on the bed, just in case.’

Ah, so Horatio had also made the connection between Simpson and the fits. ‘I will be fine, thank you,’ Archie said, tones more clipped than he’d intended. ‘Tell me.’

Another duel. Simpson firing before the count had finished, and wounding Horatio. Claiming a misfire. And then Simpson lacking the courage to stand still while Horatio took his turn to aim. ‘Please, I beg you…’ Horatio having mercy on him. ‘Not worth the powder…?’ Pellew dispensing justice when Simpson would have murdered Horatio…

‘Poor Jack,’ Archie murmured. ‘He must have been terrified.’

Horatio stared, mouth agape. ‘Poor Jack! You feel sorry for him? Archie, for God’s sake… The man was a monster for what he did to me – and he did ten times worse to you!’

That provoked a smile. ‘I suppose I must be better, if you have stopped being so careful with me.’

‘Oh God! I’m sorry, Archie. But… I cannot, I will not believe that Jack Simpson deserves your pity.’

The man was dead. Jack Simpson was dead. There was something within Archie that felt the most profound relief; there was a sour terror inside of him that was simply melting away into nothingness. And yet… And yet… there was also a part of Archie that could not quite comprehend the news. Jack Simpson was gone?

‘Archie?’

Could Jack ever truly be gone? ‘If I deserve your pity, Horatio, then he does, too. Jack and I were very similar. That made it all the worse.’ Poor Horatio – he was obviously astounded that Archie could even think such a thing. ‘Don’t you remember my resentment of you?’ And everyone will talk about how the heroic Horatio Hornblower rescued his shipmate from prison. ‘It wouldn’t be like that.’ It would be just like that.

‘You suffered here alone for months, Archie. You struggled to escape without any assistance.’ Horatio swallowed, and admitted, ‘Then I show up, insisting on being cheerful. Of course you resented me.’

But Archie would not be sidetracked. ‘How do you think Jack became what he was? He’d suffered, and he resented those who hadn’t.’

‘You did not become like him – and you will not!’ Horatio rolled his eyes in frustration. ‘All right, all right – I can see what you mean, though I abhor the notion! But experiencing suffering doesn’t mean that one is forced to impose more suffering on other people. I cannot believe you would follow him down that path.’

Archie felt a smile on his lips. ‘Well, maybe not.’

‘I know not!’ Horatio was still so angry that he was glaring at Archie. ‘You care for people, Archie, and if you ever hurt anyone you knew then you would feel the hurt yourself ten times more keenly. Tell me that isn’t so!’

Weakly lifting his hands a few inches, palms out, Archie surrendered.

Horatio took a deep breath, and then another, and seemed willing to let the argument rest there. Eventually he smiled, and quietly said, ‘There. The worst is over. I have been dreading this day.’

‘We seem to have survived it.’ Archie returned his friend’s smile. His best friend. ‘But perhaps I should lie down now. I am weary.’

‘Yes, of course.’ Horatio solicitously helped him up, and got him settled back into the bed. And then Horatio was brave enough to lean down and kiss Archie on the temple again – this time barely even waiting for Archie to close his eyes.

Archie smiled, a genuine smile that felt exceedingly rare to him. For once, there were no nightmares.

 

Horatio Hornblower knew who he was, and he knew what he wanted. The only problem was he also knew that what he wanted was impossible. Archie could never be his. All the customs and expectations of his own country were against such relationships. The Articles of War were against them. Archie’s own history was against them. It was ironic that just as Horatio had come to terms with who he was and what he wanted, he was thrown into a Spanish prison and rediscovered Archie. The man he loved, the man he wanted, the man he had thought lost to him.

Of course Simpson had been lying when he claimed to have murdered Archie – and Horatio might have expected as much, if he’d ever really thought about the situation. It was like Simpson to lay claim to actions he hadn’t taken; to interpret matters to his own end; to subject Horatio to months of unnecessary grief.

Thinking himself bereft of Archie, Horatio had thought of Captain Pellew in that context. Not that he loved Pellew in quite the same ways that he loved Archie, but there was indeed love there of a kind, that much was certain. Such a relationship was just as impossible as one with Archie, though – if not more so. Horatio dared not assume Pellew had ever felt the same way or would ever consider acting on affections that most considered unnatural. Even if he had – the higher the rank and the lonelier the commission, the more visible and vulnerable a man was to allegations and a court martial. All it would take was some malcontent deciding to make trouble for the captain, catching a hint of scandal, writing a letter to the authorities, and Pellew’s life would end in the worst kind of disgrace. No, it was all impossible.

Horatio had never felt so alone. He had never felt so certain of himself. He was a man who desired other men. Who desired one other man in particular. Though when he considered what he could and could not do with honour, Horatio was forced to conclude that his life would remain a chaste one. He would die without knowing a loving kiss or a carnal embrace. For which there were compensations. He had honour unstained. He had friendship. He even had love. And yet… And yet… there were times when Horatio felt he would die of the yearning…

Hot days passed them by, with nothing to distract them from each other. Hunter was gone now, lost to the ocean. There was just Horatio and Archie alone together in that prison cell. And Horatio was yearning, with all the accumulated unanswered hungers of his twenty years. It was of course a matter of plain decency that Archie should not be troubled by these matters. Archie did not need to be reminded of things better forgotten. Though there was a directness to Horatio’s need for the man that made it almost impossible to dissemble. Somehow he managed it. Whenever he was tempted to reach out with words or hands, whenever he found his gaze lingering, whenever he was stirred beyond bearing, Horatio forced himself to recall that carnal image of a cruel Simpson and an unwilling Archie. Poor Archie. It was enough, usually, to temper the urges. Though sometimes, still, to his shame – sometimes it only incited them further. And then he could do nothing, nothing, until the following afternoon when instead of walking he would plunge into the sea and let the waves batter the urgency out of him. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t good. But it would do.

 

IV

‘A fine thing,’ Archie commented, ‘to die in someone else’s war.’

Horatio had no answer for him. Archie was preoccupied with thoughts of a useless death, standing on the bridge that divided their allies from their foes, and Horatio could find no words within him with which to cheer the man. They were both a long long way from the ocean, too far away from the Indefatigable, in a foreign country with the few men of their divisions their only real allies. There were the English soldiers, of course, commanded by Lord Edrington – allies, though unfamiliar ones. And there was the French émigré army, as well, led by Colonel Moncoutant, the Marquis of Pouzages – who unfortunately was not a man to inspire the most heartfelt trust. This odd combination of forces was fighting the French Republicans – or would be, if the Republicans ever dared show their faces – but it wasn’t the right war. It was certainly no place for a British sailor. And, indeed, as Archie seemed all too aware, they might well die here. In the wrong war entirely.

There were no words of comfort within him, for Horatio felt almost as helpless. He threw a compassionate look at his oblivious friend, and turned away.

 

Confusing himself further, Horatio found that the person he most felt for in the midst of this was a French girl of about his own age. Mariette – a girl who, while she didn’t wear the blue, white and red rosette, surely sympathised with the Republican cause rather than with the Royalists. And Horatio himself, while not a rebel in any sense, found that he empathised far more with the noble idea of égalitaire than with the thoroughly objectionable arrogance of Moncoutant.

And so the common sailor (who nevertheless thought himself a gentleman) escorted home the serving girl (who had dared to think herself a school teacher), leaving the titled men to their supper.

Mariette sighed on seeing the wreckage strewn through her school room, and desultorily re–shelved a few books. She seemed almost as confused as Horatio was. ‘It is not you I doubt,’ she told him. ‘It is this place.’ For there could be few certainties in a country sundered by revolution.

‘I will protect you,’ Horatio insisted. He didn’t question how he could make this pledge in a land that wasn’t his, a war that wasn’t his. He simply made the pledge, believing it heart and soul.

His reward was a kiss. His first ever kiss. Mariette’s mouth on his own, soft and surprising; and Horatio responding, the pure sweet caress of lips against lips prompting more carnal stirrings within him, and yet somehow the kiss remained separate from that unworthiness, a blessing in its own right.

They were interrupted by a demanding knock at the door. Full of misgivings, Horatio drew and cocked his pistol, and opened up the door – to find himself facing two drunken émigré soldiers. ‘I’m sorry, monsieur,’ one of them cheerfully said when they recognised him or at least his uniform. ‘Officers first, naturally. Aprés vous.’ They wandered off in search of other prey, and Horatio shut and bolted out the rest of the world.

‘I don’t think they’ll be back,’ he said to Mariette. She had gone white with fear of what they’d intended. ‘But at least allow me to protect you from them.’

‘I would be glad if you did.’

And Horatio took her into his arms for the only kind of comfort he had left to give. The kind of comfort that he hadn’t been able to offer Archie that morning. His face against her fine, honey–coloured hair. Yearning again for her lips, full and faintly rose–coloured against her pale skin.

It seemed that he didn’t know himself at all.

 

Archie hadn’t moved from the bridge all day. Horatio had come and gone. The men had busied themselves placing the barrels of gunpowder to blow the bridge, and setting up the two cannons. The émigré soldiers, lacking any kind of discipline, sat around drinking themselves stupid or wandering off at will. And yet Archie stayed on the bridge, lost in his thoughts. Not that they were particularly illuminating thoughts, and they certainly weren’t edifying.

‘Begging your pardon, sir.’ It was Matthews, one of Horatio’s men. Respectfully concerned tones. ‘Is everything all right, sir?’

‘Yes, fine,’ Archie replied. ‘Fine, thank you, Matthews.’

The man saluted, though obviously unconvinced, and left him alone again.

Archie sighed, and stared down at the sluggish, reed–choked river. This was hardly the place most fitting to cross the Styx into Hades… And yet… Well, he didn’t understand himself. There had been so many times in his life when he’d honestly wanted to die. It was barely a year since he’d almost succeeded in starving himself to death. And yet… it seemed that Archie had grown afraid of dying. He didn’t want to die, not any more. Or perhaps it wasn’t so much that he was afraid; perhaps it was more that he resented death now, when he was only beginning to understand that he actually had some very good reasons for continuing to live. Horatio, for instance. Horatio’s friendship. The all–encompassing love he felt for Horatio. The fact that Horatio’s example and Horatio’s interest in him meant that Archie’s naval career was finally beginning to thrive. Simpson was long gone, and Horatio was beside him forever–and–aye; and Archie no longer wanted to die.

‘Mr Kennedy.’

Archie turned, about to tell Matthews to bloody well shove off and mind his own damned business. But it was His Lordship, the Earl of Edrington, Major of the 43rd Foot sitting astride his rather impressive mount. Taking a breath, Archie swallowed his untoward impatience and greeted the man. ‘My lord.’

‘I thought I would reconnoitre. Would you care to join me?’

‘Of course, my lord.’ One did not refuse an earl, after all. But Archie looked back along the road that led to the village, where Horatio had been dining with Edrington and the other officers. ‘What of Mr Hornblower?’

Edrington’s mouth turned down in a droll smirk. ‘He left supper early, but I do not think you’ll see him till morn. He had concerns of a… personal nature.’

Archie gaped up at the man. Could Edrington possibly mean what he seemed to be implying?

‘She is petite and pretty, young and clever – even a little fiery. I think we leave him in good hands.’ Edrington indicated the men and the cannons. ‘Can your division manage without you for a while?’

‘Uh,’ Archie managed. ‘Y–yes. Of course.’

‘Then, come along.’ Edrington freed one stirrup, and held out a gloved hand; Archie grasped that hand, slid his foot into the stirrup, and swung easily up onto the horse’s rump. Strangely, Edrington didn’t let go of Archie’s hand – he just placed it on his waist, as if tactfully suggesting that Archie may hold on if he wanted. Well, Archie was a good enough horseman not to need to hold on, but he did anyway. He even dared to place his other hand on Edrington’s waist as well. Comforting, to feel another man under his palms, to feel the warmth and imagine the flesh and blood beneath the layers of cloth. Archie almost moaned at the thought, but prevented himself.

Archie hadn’t realised how much he’d wanted the honour of claiming Horatio’s virginity, until it became an impossible dream. Why, even now, Horatio might be… An image assailed him of Horatio, naked, lying in the embrace of some fiery anonymous girl, Horatio thrusting home, that boldly beautiful face lost to sensation – and Archie did moan then, bereft.

‘I believe I know what’s troubling you, Mr Kennedy.’

He thought of remarking that the expedition was doomed, they would all die in this godforsaken place, and he resented that, for he no longer wanted death. Which seemed rather more acceptable than the immediate truth. But he remained silent.

‘I’ve seen how you look at Mr Hornblower. It is plain what you feel, Mr Kennedy – and perfectly understandable, too. Do you know,’ Edrington continued conversationally as if this was the least controversial topic in the world, ‘at supper tonight, while he parried words with Colonel Moncoutant, I even began liking him for his complete lack of diplomacy. Do you find that? That you like Mr Hornblower for all the right reasons, and then for all the wrong ones as well?’

‘Yes,’ Archie said, hoarsely. He had never spoken of such things, except to Horatio himself. Well, and to Jack Simpson, but that was not by choice. Surrendering, he let his forehead rest against Edrington’s upright back. ‘Yes, I do.’

‘Well, then, it seems we must both regret that his concerns took him elsewhere this evening.’

Ah, so Horatio has made yet another conquest without even trying. Archie smiled to himself, wry. Without even being aware of it, no doubt. A tear welled from his eye and trickled down his face. But he would not grieve. Not in His Lordship’s lofty presence.

When Archie lifted his head and looked about, he saw that they had ridden north and then east, further inland – away from the village, and away from the Republican forces. ‘If your intention was to reconnoitre, my lord, what purpose does this direction serve? Shouldn’t we be scouting for the enemy?’

‘You have found me out,’ Edrington replied, completely unperturbed. ‘It wasn’t the land that I wished to reconnoitre.’

‘Then, what?’ he found himself asking, as if he were as naive as Horatio.

‘Why, those hills and valleys, plains and outcrops that are presently hidden away in your britches.’

Archie laughed. He couldn’t help himself. The sheer outrageousness of this man… It was delightful. ‘Be my guest, my lord.’

‘Thank you, Mr Kennedy. I will be happy to accept your invitation.’

Looking around them again, Archie asked, ‘But where do you suggest…?’ It was difficult to imagine an earl wishing to stage a seduction in such a dry, barren landscape.

‘We have trees to lean against, the ground to lie upon; the horse may come in handy; and the twilight will hide us from prying eyes, if any such there are. Will that suffice? A man at war cannot be too particular.’

‘Yes, my lord.’ Belatedly realising there was no longer any need to maintain a polite distance, Archie leaned in closer to the man, slipping his arms around Edrington’s waist, closing his eyes and turning his head to rest against the man’s strong shoulders. Letting the horse’s walking rhythm jostle them comfortably together. It felt safe and good and true, as if Archie were coming home.

First they found a suitable tree to lean against: Edrington rested back against the conveniently sloping trunk, slid down a little to match Archie’s height, braced himself with outstretched legs; took Archie into an embrace – and they were kissing, the earl’s coolness discarded in hunger. Archie let his weight press him against Edrington, Archie nestled there in his arms, between his thighs; hard evidence of Edrington’s need meeting his own.

‘Your kisses are sweet,’ Edrington murmured some while later, his breath making fraught his usual controlled tones, ‘but I require another use of that mouth of yours.’

Archie swallowed, though he’d gone dry at the thought. Nevertheless, he nodded agreement, and lifted himself away from Edrington while the man unbuttoned himself. And then Archie was on his knees, taking that hardness into his mouth and applying all his energy to the task. Edrington shouted in surprise, called on his God, and then groaned encouragement, hands stroking Archie’s head and throat. Archie knew no other way of doing this: he had always wanted to finish it as soon as he could, and it seemed Edrington was even more responsive to his ministrations than… But he would not think of that other man. He would not.

Simpson. Jack Simpson. Never truly gone from Archie’s life. At the last moment, he pulled away, staggered to his feet, leaving Edrington panting for a thwarted completion. ‘I’m sorry,’ Archie muttered. ‘I’m sorry. I cannot –’ He could not bear the taste. Sourness welled in him, and he could have wept for the loss of Edrington’s comfortable lovemaking.

‘It is all right,’ Edrington replied, voice ragged but comprehending. ‘It is quite all right.’ Understanding the reaction, if not the detail of why. ‘Will you – will you kiss me again?’

It was clear that he was free to refuse. His Lordship, the Earl of Edrington was leaving it entirely up to Archie to decide. ‘Yes, my lord.’ And he sank gratefully into another encompassing embrace, Edrington kissing him hungrily, but also patently making the effort to keep his need under control.

‘If I did that to you instead,’ Edrington eventually suggested, again making it clear that this was only a suggestion, not an order or even a request, ‘would that be acceptable?’

He didn’t know. Archie didn’t know. But he wanted to find out. ‘Yes, my lord. Thank you, my lord.’

‘Well,’ Edrington dryly replied, ‘do not thank me until you have judged my performance.’

They exchanged positions, and Archie closed his eyes against the gathering night, let the man unbutton him, take him into his mouth. There was… nothing lacking at all in the performance. Edrington was careful, passionate but not precipitate, and he supplemented his ministrations with knowing fingers. It was the most comprehensive pleasure Archie had ever experienced. Completion drew slowly closer, unthreatening. And yet he warned Edrington when it was almost upon him, for of course Archie could not expect any man to do what he himself would only do when forced. But in response Edrington wrapped his hands firmly around Archie’s hips, and settled in, apparently determined – and when the end surged and rippled through Archie, Edrington drank as hungrily as he’d kissed.

‘Thank you, my lord,’ Archie whispered as Edrington rose to his feet again. They embraced. ‘Thank you very much indeed.’

‘You are welcome.’ A hint of fraughtness in his tones belied the undemanding comfort of the embrace. Of course Edrington was still in need.

‘My lord… You could have me, if you wanted. You could…’ Archie knew no better word for it, so he made do with the crudity. ‘You could fuck me.’

Edrington’s breath caught. He wanted to, yes. ‘Are you sure, Mr Kennedy? I do not wish to take anything that you cannot freely give.’

‘I am sure.’ A kiss tentatively exploring, as if Edrington remained unconvinced. Archie returned the kiss in full measure, and then explained, ‘That act has never been difficult for me. Unlike others. I do not know why.’

‘All right, then.’

Archie smiled up at the man, a wicked thought occurring to him. ‘We have the ground to lie upon; but perhaps the horse may better suit our purposes.’

Edrington’s eyes sparked – that much would have been clear even if the night hadn’t been illuminated by the broad sweep of stars. ‘You have something specific in mind?’

‘If you would be prepared to disrobe, my lord. As will I.’

A glance around, though it was only a token gesture. They had not been disturbed. Indeed, it seemed as if they were the only living creatures for miles. Edrington began shedding his clothes.

Seduced anew by this expression of trust, Archie made haste to follow suit. When he was done, Archie covered the saddle with his shirt, and invited Edrington to mount. And then Archie swung up as well – though this time he settled himself fore of Edrington rather than aft. Edrington freed both stirrups for him; Archie stood in them, leaned his shoulders back against the man’s chest, positioned himself – Edrington was ready for him, cock hard and seeping with need – Archie lowered his weight, sinking onto the man, sliding into place as if they’d both been made for this exactly. Edrington was moaning, low, as if unaware of anything but physical sensation. With a tap of his heels, Archie got the horse walking, and then let his head fall back against Edrington’s shoulder.

Perfect. They did not need to move, for the horse’s easy rhythm did all the work for them. Edrington’s arms tightened around Archie, cradling him, Edrington’s hands spread as if they could never touch quite enough flesh. His head leaned forward, nestling beside Archie’s, mouth at his throat, moans causing a physical vibration. Despite the urgency of Edrington’s need, the lovemaking was slow and gentle; they waited for Edrington’s completion rather than pursued it.

And when that completion came, it seemed to be the most achingly profound experience. Archie could feel Edrington pulse into him, strong deep pulses; and, given their situation, the man could do nothing but let it happen. An imprecation muttered against Archie’s flesh, and then satiated silence as Edrington continued to cradle him and the horse walked steadily on.

Eventually Edrington murmured, ‘You must always tell me, Mr Kennedy, when you have something specific in mind. No doubt I will be glad to oblige.’

‘Thank you, my lord.’

‘But practicalities intrude. Where the devil are we? I do not fancy returning to our respective posts with nothing but your shirt between us.’

Archie chuckled. He took the reins, and turned the horse around. ‘I was paying some attention to the countryside, my lord. I am sure we can find our clothes again.’

‘I see. Well, I suppose I should not complain that you were not paying full attention to me.’

‘But I was interested only in your pleasure, my lord, after you so generously ensured mine.’

Edrington lapsed into silence, curling himself around Archie, and laying his head heavy against Archie’s shoulder. Perhaps he even slipped into a doze as the horse gently rocked them.

Soon enough Archie found the place where they’d begun. ‘My lord,’ he whispered.

An muffled, inquiring moan; then Edrington shook himself awake, and dismounted. To Archie’s surprise, he didn’t begin dressing again; instead, he led Archie to a patch of dry grass, and invited him to lie down. They kissed for a while. Friendly, lazy kisses. It was… divine comfort to fully embrace a man this way, with no barriers between them.

Well, no barriers until Edrington said, ‘Do you know, Mr Kennedy, you put my regret for Mr Hornblower completely out of my mind.’ An ironic smile. ‘I do not expect you to return the compliment, for I know that you love him.’

Archie did not reply. Of course he loved Horatio, but he would never consider Edrington as merely a substitute – and it hurt that he himself was so considered.

‘I fear that Mr Hornblower would not approve of me. I find that I am… resentful. I am jealous of a peasant girl, and I do not like it. Why should it matter to me if he beds her? She can be nothing to me! But he would not approve of such sentiments, for he is an egalitarian, is he not? He would insist that she is as worthy of my jealousy as anyone.’

‘Yes,’ Archie said, himself choked with jealousy and resentment. For Edrington had indeed put Archie’s regret for Horatio out of his mind for a while, but now it returned in full force, complicated by his resentment of Edrington himself.

He would not comfort the man with the fact that there were people of their own rank of whom to be jealous. Would Edrington prefer to feel jealous of Captain Sir Edward Pellew? For Pellew was yet another of Horatio’s conquests, though Horatio remained unaware of it. And Archie had long ago decided that if Horatio was ever to take a man for a lover, then of all those available to him he would choose Captain Pellew. Archie himself could not compete. But now even that was proven out of the question, for Horatio had chosen a young woman instead. No doubt one day he would make an advantageous marriage, and Archie and Pellew – and Edrington, too, God damn him – and all of Horatio’s other conquests would be left each alone with nothing but regret. And Archie would not say anything of this to Edrington, for neither Horatio nor Pellew could ever deserve such a breach of confidence.

‘There,’ Edrington softly said, ‘I have caused you pain, and that was never my intention.’

‘No, my lord,’ Archie murmured in reply, struggling to do the man justice – for it was true that Edrington had been unexpectedly considerate in his lovemaking.

Edrington was watching him carefully. ‘I did not mean to insult you, though I value the privilege of speaking my mind. Tell me exactly how I have given offence, for I can recall a number of possibilities.’

He could at least speak this truth. ‘I do love Horatio,’ Archie stiffly announced, ‘as you have noticed. But I was not thinking of him while I was with you.’

A hand gently shaped itself to his nape. ‘You are kind to me, Mr Kennedy.’

‘You are not so kind to me, my lord!’

‘How so?’ When Archie did not reply, Edrington thought it through for himself. ‘I see. Yes, of course – it was very tactless of me to express surprise that you claimed my full attention for a while.’

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘I was trying to pay you a compliment, you sweet fool.’ Edrington lightly kissed his forehead. ‘And I was vulnerable enough to explain that I did not think it a compliment you could pay me in turn.’

Well, when it was put in such a way… Archie found a chagrined smile within him. ‘I’m sorry, my lord.’

‘As am I.’ Another light kiss. ‘And now, before we return, do you think I might reconnoitre once more…?’

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘Yes?’ Light caresses, those knowing hands skimming the length of him.

‘Yes.’ Archie’s breath caught. It should not have been possible to be friendly one moment, offended the next, then so smoothly mollified and – oh God! – hungering again. But it was apparent that the earl knew exactly what he was doing, and Archie had no real reason not to benefit from it.

They lay there on the grass, kissing, and finding mutual pleasure in the simplest of acts, bringing each other to completion with simple strokes. It was lovely, indeed – but Archie did not lose himself in it, as he had done earlier. Following their misunderstanding, the lovemaking no longer seemed quite as generous and involving. Yet it still was lovemaking, and nothing to be ungrateful for.

Afterwards, they continued there together for a while, embracing closely, naked and unprotected. And yet Archie felt lonely under the cold starlight. Indeed, he had never felt so lonely before. And on the ride back, Edrington said not a word to him.

 

Horatio stood in Captain Pellew’s cabin – and, though he stood tall, he had never felt so diminished. If he had ever thought he had known himself, if he had ever had confidence in himself and in the righteousness of his career, then it had all been shattered beyond repair. He had lost six – six! – of the Indefatigable’s men. Mariette was dead, killed by her own people while under his protection, even though he had promised her – There had been a black moment when Horatio wished Archie had left him on that bridge when the gunpowder ignited, instead of risking his own life to save him. The Royalist army had been destroyed, and the two cannons likewise. Everything that could have gone wrong had gone wrong, as if obeying some inexorable fate. Horatio had blood on his hands.

He had never felt so distraught. In fact, he was fighting off tears, and it was a losing battle. ‘What were we doing there, sir? We were not wanted.’ Mariette had seen the British forces as completely beside the point: to the French people, it was a civil war.

Pellew was standing very near to Horatio now, and his initial fierceness had melted away into sympathy.

‘We brought nothing but destruction, death and defeat.’ He was crying in earnest, he could not help himself. ‘Forgive me, sir.’

‘It’s all right, Mr Hornblower. It’s all right.’ In the softest tones. Then, a little more briskly, ‘Come on, man, look at you. Look at your new uniform. What a sorry state. Hardly the image we’ve come to expect, is it?’

‘No, sir.’ He managed a smile through the tears for this fond teasing. But Pellew had gotten right to the heart of the matter, as usual. Horatio remembered himself in London only – no, could it be only two weeks ago? It felt a lifetime ago. Strutting proudly in his new uniform, feeling every inch the naval officer with God, King and Empire on his side. Knowing himself, and thoroughly approving himself.

But now Horatio had been forced to question everything, from the righteousness of his cause to… to… whether he truly loved Archie. Of course he loved Archie – but he had kissed Mariette! And he had cared for her, and wanted to save her. Was he a man who desired other men, or not? Ah, all was confusion!

‘I’m glad to see you’re safe, Mr Hornblower,’ Pellew said. He had distanced himself again.

Well, there was one thing that Horatio could be sure of. He grasped the fragment of certainty in both hands. ‘And I to be back, sir.’

His captain’s words stayed with him. Indeed, Horatio knew he’d be quoting them to his dying day. ‘Whatever may befall us – whatever – we must never forget we are officers in His Majesty’s Navy.’ He wondered vaguely if he would marry after all, and dandle his children and then his grandchildren on his knee, and bore them with tales of his life of adventure and adversity on board the Indefatigable…

Pellew came closer again, as if drawn to him. Horatio had quit crying now, but his face was still damp, and a last teardrop brimmed and spilled down his cheek. Pellew reached up to brush it away. Which had quite the opposite effect to the one presumably intended – Horatio began weeping once again, feeling more raw and vulnerable than he could recall since childhood. He was dimly aware that Pellew seemed shocked – shocked at himself, perhaps. Another tear was brushed away, and then another touch became more obviously a caress.

Horatio was beyond reacting. He stood there, desperate for this comfort. Unwilling and perhaps even unable to interpret or misinterpret Pellew’s attentions. He would simply soak up what he could.

Pellew’s lips were on his cheek, gentle open kisses as if tasting Horatio’s tears. Words murmured, which Horatio could barely make out, though they came clear when Pellew murmured again. ‘You are the best of us. The best of us.

Though Horatio stood tall, he had never felt so… unstructured. Pellew’s blessing was a balm to his bruised soul. Despite the kisses, it wasn’t really sexual – or at least not only sexual. The shockingness of it lay in the complete openness they were sharing with each other, the utter seductive ease of just being themselves and not forever maintaining all the proprieties.

Then they kissed for a long moment, mouth to passionate mouth; a loving kiss; too deeply soulful to compare with Mariette’s innocence. A wonderful kiss. And he was happy to share this with Pellew, thoroughly happy to receive his captain’s comfort and to offer some in return, even though his heart belonged to –

Horatio started back, staring at Pellew. They each took a deep breath. Horatio knew himself again. He was a man who desired other men; who desired Archie Kennedy in particular. Well, and he wanted Pellew, too – he could hardly deny that at the present moment! – but that was impossible, really. And it was clear now that it was only human to be attracted to more than one person at a time. Caring for Mariette didn’t mean that he had been wrong about Archie.

Pellew had turned away, taken a few steps. No doubt rebuilding a propriety or two. Eventually he turned back to carefully examine Horatio. And apparently Horatio passed that test, for Pellew nodded and said very formally, ‘As you were, Mr Hornblower.’

‘Yes, sir,’ he replied. ‘Thank you, sir.’ And he didn’t just nod a respect – he offered the man a half–bow before leaving the cabin. Horatio Hornblower knew who he was again, and all was right with the world.

 

Archie had found excuses aplenty to remain on the quarterdeck so that he would see Horatio as soon as he returned from reporting to Captain Pellew. There were the men to settle, and their guns and ammunition and other supplies to account for; the soldiers required berths. Mr Bracegirdle and Mr Bowles were off conferring with the midshipmen – so Archie took it upon himself to send an order for bread and rum all round, despite it being the middle of the afternoon, for it had been a long night and a longer day with no rations beyond what little the men had had with them.

Edrington was standing on the poop deck, watching all the bustle with his customary implacable expression; obviously he was content to leave his men’s welfare in Archie’s hands for now, otherwise he’d be down on the quarterdeck organising all to suit himself. Noticing Archie looking up at him, Edrington nodded an acknowledgment, very formal, very proper. Archie returned the compliment, wondering if Edrington harboured regrets not only for Horatio’s indifference the previous night but for Archie’s availability. There was a tiny smile on Edrington’s face, though, Archie could see that now, and it gratified him.

Not so the smile on Horatio’s face when he reappeared. Horatio Hornblower, after a half–hour locked away with Pellew in the captain’s cabin – Horatio Hornblower was a man transformed. He had gone in grieving, and as shaken as Archie had ever seen him. He had come out a new man, exhilarated and confident. Archie felt the old bitter resentment rise in him. So, that’s how it is…

‘Archie!’ He had come right over to his friend. ‘Is all well? What can I do to help?’

‘Nothing. All is taken care of. Here –’ Archie grabbed two biscuits from the pail brought round by the cook’s mate, and offered one to Horatio. ‘Though I’m sure you broke fast in better style than the rest of us this morn, and you will sup equally well this night.’

Horatio looked at him, a bit nonplussed by the angrily insinuating tone. ‘Thank you – I am famished. But what is the matter, Archie?’

‘Nothing. Nothing that I did not foresee.’

‘Is that so?’

‘Yes, it’s been quite clear for some time now, and I suppose that once begun you would inevitably continue, even if you are forced to change mounts along the way.’

Mounts?’ Horatio was frowning furiously. ‘Archie… can you possibly be referring to…?’

‘Well, and why not? There can be no secrets between such friends as you and I.’ Though Archie knew he said this in the most devil–may–care manner.

‘Mr Kennedy,’ Horatio said, ‘I think you had better come to my cabin. We should speak of this in private.’

Feeling thoroughly reckless in his loss, Archie immediately agreed, ‘Of course.’ He beckoned Bracegirdle down to supervise the rest of what needed doing, and then grabbed two mugs of watered rum, before following Horatio down into his tiny cabin.

Despite the lack of room, Horatio was managing to pace back and forth. He refused to take the proffered rum, so Archie swallowed half of one mug himself, wondering if he might have both. The door was closed, the air was uncomfortably warm, and Horatio was angry with him. Nevertheless, Archie propped himself against the wall and rediscovered some patience.

Eventually Horatio said, ‘Were you talking of Mariette?’ He grimaced in pain at the name. She had only died that morning. ‘You seemed to be implying the foulest things.’

‘You spent the night with her,’ Archie said quite calmly. ‘I did not call it foul.’

‘I swear to you –’ Horatio stepped closer to him, insisted on meeting and holding Archie’s gaze. ‘I swear to you that she died as pure as she lived.’

Archie gaped at him. Finally he managed to ask, ‘What?’

‘Why would you assume that I did not behave in an honourable manner?’

Oh God… Archie considered this question, the sheer reasonableness of this question. He had found it all too easy to accept Edrington’s overly sophisticated interpretation of events, and he had done his friend an injustice. ‘I am sorry, Horatio. I was mistaken. I apologise.’

‘Very well.’ The man was still angry.

Nevertheless, Archie had to know. ‘And Pellew? What happened just now, in his cabin?’

Horatio went bright red. ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘You went in miserable, and came out exhilarated – and now you are blushing! I want to know what happened.’

‘Archie…’ Horatio took a breath. ‘Archie, it is not a topic with which you are comfortable.’

‘I must know, Horatio!’

‘We… talked. And I… He…’ Running out of words, Horatio growled instead – and then protested, ‘He is a good man, Archie! I will not say anything about him to which you might attach a dishonourable meaning!’

‘So, it’s true.’ Archie crumpled inside. It seemed that his legs would not support him, as he found himself sliding down the wall until he was sitting on the deck. He gulped some more rum. ‘It’s true, isn’t it? You and he are… lovers.’

‘No! For God’s sake, Archie – where is all this coming from?’

Archie screwed up his face. ‘You’re not lovers?’

‘No!’

‘You’re just denying it to… to protect him.’

‘No, Archie, I swear it.’

‘Oh God!’ Archie curled up, thoroughly lost and ashamed.

Then Archie felt Horatio’s hands on him, soothing him. Horatio crouching beside him, comforting him. ‘Archie…’ Horatio whispering. ‘Archie, it’s all right. I promise you. Everything is all right.’

‘Why were you so happy, then?’ His voice was so small that it was a wonder Horatio even heard.

‘I do not know if I should tell you.’ Horatio’s tones were completely calm now; even amused in a rueful sort of way. ‘It might only upset you.’ He sighed. ‘And yet I suppose I must tell you, or you’ll be concluding all kinds of imaginative things.’

Horatio drew away; but from the sound of it, he simply sat himself down nearby, apparently needing a little distance.

‘Archie… I am in love with you. I have been for a very long time – and I hope you will believe that, because then you will see that I can be trusted. I have never tried to… to take advantage of you, or behave dishonourably. I have never wanted to hurt you. So I hope you will take this as no more than a compliment, and we can continue to be friends, and…’ The smoothly reasonable speech faltered. ‘And, Archie…’

It was a dream. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. Nevertheless, Archie unwound a little, and peeked out at his friend, his hero, his love. Horatio Hornblower, sitting there cross–legged on the decking, looking sincere in the heartfelt way that only he could.

‘I hope you’ll forgive me.’

Archie managed to find his voice again. The small voice only, but it would do. ‘Forgive you for loving me?’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh God, Horatio, you are such an idiot!’

Horatio blinked in surprise, and Archie immediately felt sorry for it. Nevertheless, Horatio continued, ‘I was talking with Captain Pellew, and I realised that – Well, Archie, I will not lie to you about Marlette. I cared for her. But I realised that didn’t affect how I feel about you. So I was happy, and relieved.’

‘You looked that happy because you love me?’

‘Yes.’ Though he certainly wasn’t looking that happy now. Poor Horatio!

Archie got up onto his hands and knees, and carefully approached the man. Horatio seemed a bit startled, and unsure what to expect. What he got was a kiss – as soon as Archie was close enough, he leaned in and met that longed–for mouth with his own. Horatio moaned in surprise – and then returned the kiss with such desperation that it seemed he could not quite believe it was really happening.

But happening it was. Horatio put his arms around Archie, drew him close while toppling back, and they ended up lying on the decking, Archie atop a very eager Horatio, kissing like wild creatures.

‘Archie,’ Horatio was murmuring between kisses. ‘My own dear Archie… Are you sure?’ Another kiss, full and passionate. ‘I thought that you –’

‘I know what you thought. But I’ve been in love with you, too. For a very long time.’

The announcement distracted Horatio from the kisses. He looked up at Archie, reading him closely, hands stroking his hair as if they could not keep still. ‘I never dared to hope.’

‘I would have said yes. If you’d asked. From the day I met you, I would have said yes.’

‘You are right – I am an idiot! We have wasted years.’

Archie smiled at him, and leaned down to press a kiss to the man’s forehead. ‘Well, perhaps it wasn’t such a waste. I am a very different person today. The Archie Kennedy who served aboard the Justinian would not have made so happy a lover. Even the man who stood on that bridge yesterday, thinking of death – he would not have been so happy a lover, either.’

Another kiss, not as desperate this time. A content, secure, loving kind of kiss. And then Archie tucked his head in beside Horatio’s, and they just lay there together for a while, slowly growing used to the idea that their fondest dreams were indeed coming true.

‘We should return to our duties,’ Horatio eventually murmured. ‘It’s a wonder we’ve managed to steal this much time alone.’

Archie smiled at him. Edrington had been right – once a man loved Horatio Hornblower, it was inevitable that he loved him for all the wrong reasons as well as the right ones. Archie even loved Horatio for his practicality in this most romantic of moments.

‘We must be careful. But once our watch is stood down tonight, we must meet, Archie – we have so much to talk about! We must think about how we can meet without arousing suspicion – how and when and where. Do you have any ideas?’

‘I will leave such matters to your ingenuity.’

Horatio smiled up at Archie, stroked his hair again. Seemed to lose himself in his thoughts. Grew serious. Eventually he quietly said, ‘I do love you, you know. You have been the most important person in my life, Archie. For I am a different person today as well, a happier person, and you are the reason for it.’

Surely an exaggeration, a loving exaggeration. Nevertheless, Archie succumbed to the luxury of believing the man, for this moment at least. They kissed again, full of promise and commitment for now and for the future. And then reluctantly they picked themselves up off the decking, and returned to all the demands of their duties.

 

V

Captain Pellew stood at the far end of the cabin, gazing out through the stern windows, lost in his thoughts. The reason he had called Horatio to his cabin remained unexplained. Horatio waited patiently.

At last Pellew quietly said, ‘I am concerned, Mr Hornblower. I am concerned that your relationship with Mr Kennedy is not one that could be officially sanctioned.’

Horatio’s heart had plummeted as soon as he realised the topic of this private interview. Of course he and Archie had risked a day such as this, but he had hoped they would have more time to prepare. This could be… this could be the first slip down a steep slope to an ignominious death. This could be it.

‘I do not ask you to confirm or deny the matter. I do not ever want to be in a position where my knowledge may harm you. Do you understand me, sir?’

‘Yes, sir.’

Pellew sighed. ‘Though perhaps for today it is as well that we speak as plainly as we can. Perhaps for this hour alone we can be honest, and undertake to never repeat what is said.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Very well, then.’ And Pellew seemed to be waiting.

Horatio said, ‘I’m sorry, sir.’

‘Hhhmmm? What exactly are you sorry for?’

‘For putting you in such a position, sir. I had hoped we were more discreet.’

‘Well, perhaps no one else would have noticed anything amiss. Perhaps only someone with a personal interest would notice; someone with a guilty conscience.’

Horatio almost gaped at this. A guilty conscience? Captain Pellew? ‘Sir?’

Pellew wandered across the cabin, keeping his distance; absently put his hand on the back of a chair, clasped it as if seeking strength. ‘The irony does not escape me, Mr Hornblower. I spoke to you of always being a source of inspiration to our men, no matter what befalls us – and then I… I surrender to an impulse that I should have controlled. I have no excuse! If you were in any doubt over your feelings for Mr Kennedy, I fear that I set you the worst possible example.’

‘I did not think of it as an example, sir.’

‘No?’

‘No. I was… I had never received a higher compliment, sir.’

‘And yet I gave you an idea that might never have occurred to you otherwise. An idea that may already spell the end of prestigious career barely begun.’

Horatio smiled gently at his captain; though it was wasted on the man, who apparently felt too guilty to even look at his lieutenant. ‘I am sorry, sir, but the idea had already occurred to me.’

‘It had?’

‘Yes. Years before. Though I admit that you gave me the courage to finally tell Mr Kennedy of my feelings.’

Pain. Pain crossed Pellew’s face like a lightning bolt.

At last Horatio understood. ‘Sir?’ he whispered, dismasted. He could not possibly deserve this… this untold wealth of emotion.

‘So,’ Pellew said, voice clipped though raw, ‘you see why I require your promise to remain discreet. To protect yourself. Not because I fear for myself. But because I could not bear to see you… to see you hurt.’ Apparently he could not bring himself to speak the truth: To see you hang.

Horatio gazed at the man, wondering if he might weep once again.

‘Forgive an old man his day–dreams, Mr Hornblower. You have chosen well. Mr Kennedy will prove to be – He is a good man, and loyal to a fault. I only ask that you protect yourself as well as you will feel compelled to protect him. Do you understand me, sir?’

‘Yes, sir,’ he replied.

‘Very well, then. As you were, Mr Hornblower.’

But this time he felt sure that a reciprocal gesture was called for. Perhaps it was an impulse that should be controlled. And yet Horatio surrendered to it. He walked over to his captain, circling the table. Pellew stood there watching him, profoundly wary, and yet Horatio did not falter. He walked right up to the man, and cupped his handsome face in one hand. Pressed a kiss to his temple. Whispered, ‘Thank you, sir.’

And then he had mercy on the man, and left the cabin, quietly shutting the door behind him.

 

Their first shore leave together since they’d become lovers; their first opportunity to share a real bed; their first chance for proper lovemaking. Horatio was embarrassingly apprehensive. He and Archie had stolen moments together on board the Indy, they had kissed until their lips were sore, and held each other as closely as if they were two halves of a whole. They had pleasured each other with their hands, in much the same way as they’d each pleasured themselves alone before. And yet, in all these weeks, Horatio had never even seen his lover naked. Before now.

Archie was stretched beside him, a feast for the eyes. Horatio had hardly dared touch him yet. There was too much to enjoy looking at; and, anyway, he lacked the courage to begin something he had never begun before. It was just as well that Archie was a patient man…

‘You must advise me,’ Horatio eventually murmured. He was lying on his side, propped up on an elbow, eyes still drinking in the delicious sight. ‘You must tell me what to do.’

Archie was grinning up at him. ‘You must do whatever you most want to do, Horatio.’

‘And what is that? I do not know! I have never done this before.’

‘And do you think that I have?’ Archie asked, chiding him. When Horatio met his gaze in confusion, Archie elaborated, ‘It has never been love for me before, Horatio. There were times when it was comfort, or friendship. But it has never been love.’

Horatio leaned in closer to kiss the man, grateful for this reassurance. And yet he didn’t let himself get close enough to touch Archie with more than the kiss. When he drew back again, he confessed, ‘I do not want to get this wrong. I do not want to hurt you. Perhaps there are things that… that would remind you of things best forgotten. If you will not tell me what to do, perhaps you should tell me what not to do.’

‘You can do anything you like to me, Horatio, I swear it. Anything at all, and I will welcome you.’

He murmured, ‘You are the most generous of men, Archie…’

Despite the delays, it was patently obvious that Archie was still achingly ready. Horatio reached out, tentatively, to touch the one part of Archie that he had touched before even though it was the most intimate part. Archie drew in a sharp breath as Horatio’s hand closed around him, and began a slow gentle motion. As Archie’s eyes drifted closed, his cock wept a little, helplessly reacting to Horatio’s caresses. ‘Ah, I will not last,’ Archie said roughly.

‘Does it matter?’

Archie grinned, looking up at Horatio again. ‘Not if you’re willing to stay for a return engagement.’

‘I’ll stay,’ Horatio said. ‘I’d never leave, if I had a choice.’ Curious, he let his fingers catch the few drops of spilled semen, and he brought it to his mouth to taste.

Frowning up at him, Archie said, ‘Don’t do that! You can’t like it.’

‘Can’t I? I think I do! You taste of… the ocean. Salty, and as brisk as the sea breeze, and as precious as pearls.’

‘Oh God…’ Archie groaned, apparently overcome.

The accumulation of stimulations at last spurred Horatio beyond thought to action – he fell against his lover, kissing him with a passion he could not entirely explain, hand on Archie’s cock knowing exactly how to best please the man. Archie groaned, broke the kiss to cry out in surprise as he finished, Horatio staying with him all the way. It was wonderful, hearing such evidence of Archie’s enjoyment; they had had to remain almost silent before now. Horatio grinned, thoroughly enjoying this feast for his five senses.

Tide–pools laced Archie’s stomach. Horatio dabbled his fingers and tasted again. Beautiful! He lifted a dollop for Archie to taste, too – and, with a doubtful frown, Archie did so, tongue rasping Horatio’s finger. For a moment Archie considered the semen, and then appeared surprised to find it palatable. Horatio smeared his own lips with more, and savaged the man with kisses, to which Archie surrendered with a fraught moan.

Horatio’s own urgency at last caught up with him. ‘Archie… Archie, what should I…?’

‘Fuck me,’ was the provocative reply. ‘For Christ’s sake, Horatio – Fuck me!’

‘Oh God…’ Overcome in his turn. Clumsy, Horatio shifted to lie between Archie’s legs, and Archie was lifting himself, offering himself, guiding Horatio – and somehow Horatio pressed home, found the place and pushed into this snug warm home that was all his own. ‘Oh God, Archie… Archie!’ And he was finishing already, pleasure rushing powerful through him like storm–waves crashing onto the sand, and then the waves slowly ran back out to sea, leaving him cast there on the shores of what had to be Paradise.

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