Harlequin's Slash Fic

The Fancier of Boys

Title: The Fancier of Boys
Author: Julien
Universe: Hornblower
Characters featured: Horatio/Archie, with Archie/Simpson in the background, and the possibilities of Horatio/Clayton
Category, Word count: Short story; 3052 words
Rating: R, but only for what’s implied
Summary: Horatio becomes aware of exactly how Simpson is using Archie, and is determined not to be victimised himself.
Warnings: The setting involves non-con and dub-con elements.
First published: 8 December 2002 in Horatio Hornblower & the Prix d’Amor

 

 

The Fancier of Boys

 

Horatio Hornblower loathed Jack Simpson. Loathed him with a passion that shook him to the core, because Horatio had never known before that he had the capacity to hate. As he carefully framed the lies that comprised his correspondence – I count myself fortunate indeed to serve under Captain Keene, and with so fine a body of men as are to be found here on ‘Justinian’. I am very happy. – he wondered if his father had ever suspected that Horatio was capable of such monstrous falsehoods, of such rancid hatred. Or, even worse, of such impotent despair.

It helped when he thought on death. What a release that would be! The very idea of freeing himself from this life, or of being freed, was at times – ironically enough – the only thing that helped him last through another day and another night.

It helped, also, when he worried about the other men, the good men, who were trapped aboard with him. It helped when he pondered how he might help them, even though he felt powerless to help himself. Midshipman Adam Clayton, for instance. He was a good man – a little more refined than his shipmates, a touch more of the gentleman about him, and as quietly decent as their days stretched long. He seemed to lack a final reserve of courage, though. Clayton would stand up to Simpson when he absolutely had to, but only for the moment it took to achieve a specific objective; and then he would submit again, and the rest of them perforce must submit along with him, even though Simpson was only one of many midshipmen.

Then there was Archie Kennedy. His smile had been the only bright thing on the whole ship – until Jack Simpson had returned, and that brightness faded away. There was something about Kennedy and Simpson. Something strange between them. It wasn’t as if Simpson plagued Kennedy any more or any less than he plagued the other miserable midshipmen – but there was something about the ways in which Simpson plagued Kennedy that was unlike anything else he did.

To try to keep his mind occupied, Horatio set himself the task of discovering the nature of their secret. He watched them and listened to them, each alone and both together, as surreptitiously as he could. But the matter never quite came clear.

Until one day, as he was standing watch on the quarterdeck in the pouring rain – would God never run out of rain to dump on Spithead? – when he saw Archie come up on deck from the direction of the midshipmen’s berth aft, and walk forrard as glumly as if walking to the gallows, and then descend again into the Justinian’s depths. While Horatio could think of no good reason for Archie to be heading for the galley or manger or powder store at that time, he didn’t attach much significance to the matter until a half hour later – when Jack Simpson appeared fore, as if returning from wherever it was that Archie had gone, and looking mightily satisfied with himself.

Mischief had been done, that much was obvious. And Horatio was soon free to investigate, because Simpson himself came over to relieve his watch. A detestably smug, mocking smile followed Horatio as he immediately headed fore, and started down the stairs.

He didn’t find Archie until he’d reached the darkness and dankness of the orlop deck – and Horatio was lucky to locate him there, because Archie was sitting unnaturally still amidst the coiled cables, lost in his own thoughts. ‘Archie?’ Horatio said, as quietly as he could and still be certain of being heard.

Nevertheless, the young man flinched, and looked up at Horatio with such a fearfully panicked expression that Horatio felt sick to his stomach.

As Archie scrambled to his feet – far more clumsily than usual – Horatio tried to calm the situation. ‘Please, don’t disturb yourself on my account. I was just… concerned. If you’d rather I left –’

‘No need,’ Archie breezily replied. ‘Nothing to be concerned about.’

That seemed patently untrue, but it was hardly gentlemanly to contradict the man. Horatio stood there, torn between wanting to stay and fearing he would be required to go. ‘If there’s anything –’ he tried.

But Archie cut him off. ‘No. Thank you. Everything’s fine.’

‘Well, then,’ Horatio lamely concluded. And he nodded in respect, before turning towards the stairs.

Until, at the very last moment – ‘Horatio!’

‘Yes?’

Archie seemed horribly embarrassed, but apparently there was something he needed to say. ‘I’d be careful if I were you,’ the young man advised, before laughing nervously.

‘How so?’

‘When Jack asked… Well, the Inquisition. Do you remember his first accusation?’

Horatio frowned, having long been unable to think past the second accusation that insulted his mother in the direst ways. He could only hope that she remained safely oblivious of those words, and of his situation – which sounded like a fair enough description of Heaven, as far as Horatio was concerned. Simpson’s first accusation at last returned to him, though. ‘He asked if I was a fancier of other –’

Archie cut him off again, more pained than ever. ‘That’s the pot calling the kettle black,’ he said, with an attempt at joviality, as if they were just two happy shipmates sharing a laugh.

And that was it. Horatio was at last on the very edge of Simpson and Kennedy’s secret. Unable to do much more than gape, Horatio waited, in hope and in fear of more information.

‘You should be careful,’ Archie repeated. ‘Jack was talking about you just now.’ A grimace of utter distaste. ‘And when he… Well, he said your name. And that was when he…’

‘Whatever do you –?’

But Archie was walking away from him, heading stiff–backed up the stairs, uncomfortable both physically and mentally. No doubt impatient to be done with this. Just before he disappeared from view, however, Archie turned around to impart one last piece of information. ‘He said he could handle two. He said he could take us both on. Trust me when I say – you don’t want that.’

And Horatio found himself stranded there aghast, stranded there with the sea only a little way below his feet, and he wished he could just sink down through the decking into his own salty oblivion, and never see daylight again.

 

‘So, do you see,’ Horatio stumbled to the end at last, ‘I need to know – whether one does the choosing – or if one is chosen.’

Silence.

Horatio dared to glance at the man he spoke to, but he could make nothing out – Clayton had retreated into the shadows on the far side of the cannon. Horatio sighed, and gazed pitifully through the gunport at the grey seas, glad for the cold breeze that blew in against his face.

‘But why do you ask?’ Clayton eventually whispered.

‘Because if there’s an established way of doing this, then –’

‘What makes you think that such relationships are established?’

Horatio frowned in puzzlement at the man, wondering which of them was being the more obtuse. ‘There is someone – I will not name him – who seems to be in just such a relationship. And he warned me – he warned me to take care. And I thought – Well, it is something I would very much want to be careful about entering into.’ He asked, ‘Does my reasoning not make sense?’

‘Yes. Yes, it does.’ Clayton seemed to withdraw even further for a moment, so that he wasn’t discernible at all. ‘But may I… Why do you ask me? What makes you think I know about such things?’

‘Of all the men aboard this ship, there are few enough I would turn to for guidance – and as for…’ But Horatio stuttered to a halt, fear belatedly dawning. ‘My God, I have insulted you! Mr Clayton, I assure you that I meant no offence. I was too bound up in my own concerns to think about how this must sound – I apologise, I humbly apologise – but of course if you wish to demand satisfaction, then my life is in your hands.’

‘Stop,’ Clayton said. ‘I do not take offence. I was merely wondering what prompted you to approach me.’

‘Because… if one is permitted to do the choosing… then I would choose –’

‘Stop!’ Clayton said again, sounding slightly panicked. ‘Mr Hornblower,’ he continued after drawing breath – though his tones remained vastly troubled. ‘If your friend was good enough to warn you to take care – I wonder that he did not mention that I am no protection against Jack Simpson.’

Horatio just stared into the darkness where Clayton hid, feeling thoroughly trumped.

‘Such a plan has been tried before. Unhappily, it failed.’

‘Are you saying –’ Horatio cleared his throat, and suddenly remembered to blush. ‘Are you saying that… you and Archie…?’

‘I believe he had the same thoughts as you.’

‘Archie chose you?’

‘Is it so hard to believe, Mr Hornblower?’

‘No.’ Horatio sighed, and turned away. ‘Obviously not.’

‘But then Jack… well, he doesn’t only take our clean linen and best cuts of meat.’

‘I see. So, it seems that – it seems that one must be chosen. And I do not take kindly to the notion.’

‘I don’t blame you,’ Clayton muttered.

They stood there in silence for a while, each deep in their own reflections – which must have taken very different paths, for when Horatio eventually spoke, Clayton seemed more startled than ever.

‘It is still a good plan,’ Horatio declared.

‘What?’

‘It might not have worked before, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t now. The configurations are different. Mr Simpson can hardly be dissatisfied in his current situation. And, in any case, there would be – I assume! – additional benefits. That is, Mr Clayton, if you are not unwilling?’

At last Clayton stepped forward into the dim light. His lean, worn but handsome face carried an expression that – well, it seemed that Clayton was more taken aback than Horatio could ever have imagined.

‘Obviously I know little of these relationships,’ the young man continued, ‘but they must be about pleasures as well as protection. Is that not so?’

Clayton swallowed, apparently gathering his nerve. ‘For some,’ he agreed. ‘Maybe. Not for all.’

‘For you?’

The answer must be in the affirmative, for as Clayton’s mystification gradually ebbed away, he began looking intrigued instead. His hands were resting on the cannon that stood between them – Horatio lifted his own hand, and carefully laid it on one of Clayton’s. The touch of flesh on flesh focussed them both, so that the Justinian faded away, and nothing else existed in their world but for each other and the cold iron.

‘I – I choose you, Mr Clayton,’ Horatio said, firm and faltering all at once.

‘And I cannot let you do that,’ the older man replied, in the same firm and faltering manner.

Horatio dropped his gaze. ‘Of course. I understand now that it is Mr Kennedy you would choose, if you could; however –’

Clayton laughed, with the slightest dash of hysteria. ‘God knows – the Devil knows – if it were left up to me to decide, I could not choose between the two of you!’

‘Then…’ Horatio dared to hope that he was at last close to winning the hand, game and rubber. ‘You will accept me?’

‘I cannot! Horatio, you are making the most appalling mistake. I cannot save you from him!’

‘All it would take,’ Horatio pleaded, ‘is someone to stand firm against him. If one cannot do it alone, then two can do so together.’

‘You do not know, dear boy. You cannot understand what Jack Simpson is capable of. Such things would never even enter your head.’

‘You and I, Mr Clayton, could stand firm together.’

‘I understood you the first time – be good enough to understand me. I cannot do what you ask.’ And Clayton withdrew his hands, and turned away into the shadows again. ‘Make another choice, Horatio. Make a wiser choice.’

And try as he might, Horatio could not win another answer from the man.

 

At last God seemed to be running short of rain, though the skies remained grey and threatening. When it wasn’t wet, though, rather than be trapped ’tweendecks all day as well as all night, Horatio and Archie began a habit of heading up to the mizzen–top whenever their duties allowed. Horatio still felt deathly afraid every time he had to climb the rigging, but the shared solitude was well worth the effort; and anyway the more often he climbed, the less fear he felt. One day, he swore, he’d be scampering up and down the ropes as easily as the most hardened rating or the most confident boy.

The two young men usually just sat there in the mizzen–top, simply wallowing in the rare peace and quiet, while the old Justinian creaked and rocked below them. But today Archie was fretting over something, and apparently he could not keep still. Horatio assumed, with a heavy heart, that he could ascribe Archie’s troubles to Jack Simpson – but of course, as a gentleman, he could hardly raise such an issue. So he quietly sat there, wondering if Archie would talk of the matter.

‘Horatio…’ Archie eventually began.

‘Yes?’

‘I saw you talking with Clayton.’

Horatio couldn’t help but blush, even though that very topic had been on his mind. ‘Yes?’

‘Did you… reach an understanding?’

Archie was deliberately staring out to sea, so that Horatio could not make out his expression. ‘Yes,’ Horatio honestly replied.

It seemed that Archie sighed, and his shoulders sagged, though he said, ‘Good. That’s good.’

Silence.

Until Archie burst out – ‘I hate them! Simpson, Clayton – I hate the lot of them!’

‘Mr Clayton is a good man,’ Horatio protested. ‘Perhaps he does not have your courage, but –’

‘Do not flatter me,’ Archie said, low and venomous. ‘I’m awake to your tricks.’

Horatio sat up straighter, startled to hell and back. ‘Don’t, Archie. Don’t talk like him.’ His friend turned to face him at last. ‘You said that in just the way that Jack Simpson would.’

Archie shook for a moment, and Horatio feared he would have another fit – he desperately hoped not, given that they were both swaying some thirty feet above the deck. But, no – Archie quietened, and turned to Horatio, and leaned in close to say something a little more intimately. ‘I hate them, don’t you understand? I hate that it has to be that way.’

‘Does it really have to be?’ Horatio asked.

‘You realise what I would prefer, don’t you?’

It seemed obvious. ‘To be free of Simpson.’

Archie grinned, though it wasn’t a pleasant expression. ‘No, you fool. Well, I mean, yes – yes, of course. But I would prefer…’ Those blue eyes looked deeply into his own, and then lowered as if ashamed. ‘I would prefer to be with you, Horatio.’

A cannonball had lodged in his chest. Horatio had taken a cannonball, and it hadn’t torn him in two, it had lodged in his chest, and he couldn’t breathe. ‘No,’ he managed to protest.

‘If you would only – You keep talking about standing up to Jack. If only you would do it! Haven’t you been given reason enough yet? I’m sure you could put him in his place, Horatio. And then I would be free. I would be free to be with you. If you wanted.’ The blue eyes glanced up at him again, just briefly. ‘That could be your reward. Such as it is.’

‘Oh God,’ Horatio groaned. He wondered how Clayton had managed not to take offence, for Archie was offering him much the same thing as Horatio himself had offered Clayton – and Horatio felt more insulted, more humiliated than he’d ever done before in his whole life, even including Simpson’s tortures. ‘What would you want me for?’ he said when he could draw enough breath for it. ‘Pleasure or protection?’

‘Both,’ Archie immediately responded, flashing him a cheeky grin.

But then Archie’s gaze snagged on Horatio’s face, as if noticing for the first time that Horatio was mortified by the idea. For a long moment, Archie sat back, thinking hard, apparently reconsidering. Eventually he said, very quietly, ‘You care for Clayton. Don’t you?’

‘Yes. Of course. He is –’

‘A good man. Yes.’ Archie sighed. ‘God save me from good men!’

‘Archie!’ Horatio protested.

‘Simpson tries to break my body; he’s already broken my soul. But you – you and Clayton – you’ll break my heart. And I know which hurts the most.’ Archie looked at him with a strange mixture of toughness and pity and pain. ‘God save you from ever finding out, Horatio.’

‘Archie, stop,’ Horatio managed to say. ‘You want my protection, you want to exchange me for Simpson – as if I could possibly take on such a role – but then you talk of your heart? I do not understand!’

A long silence, and Archie looking ashamed again. Yet that boyish face actually appeared rather manfully beautiful underneath the shame. As if there were possibilities. As if Horatio had not yet seen all the best that Archie Kennedy could be. As if they could both become so much more than this – if only they were all free of their tormentor!

‘Ask me again,’ Archie said, in the rough kind of way that indicated he felt laid bare. ‘Ask me what I’d want you for.’

Horatio swallowed. ‘Pleasure or protection?’

Those blue eyes met his. Perfect clarity shone in their depths. ‘Love,’ Archie replied.

‘Dear God…’ Horatio prayed. And he discovered that his hand had reached for Archie’s, and was grasping it hard. They looked at each other for long moments, raw, and yet full of hope. ‘Then I promise you,’ Horatio brokenly said, ‘I will stand against Simpson. I don’t know how yet, but I’ll find a way. If there’s ever an opportunity, I’ll take it. I promise.’ He swallowed, wondering what on earth he could do – only knowing that he must do something. ‘We will salvage all the good that we can from this… from this wreck. Do you believe me?’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you trust me?’

‘Yes, I do, Horatio.’ Archie smiled at him. ‘I do.’ And his smile had that old brightness – all that old brightness, and much more as well.

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