Harlequin's Slash Fic

Choices

Title: Choices
Author: Julien
Universe: Hornblower
Characters featured: Archie/Ewan and Ewan/Eleanor/Archie (two original characters and one canonical)
Category, Word count: Short story; 5637 words
Rating: NC17
Summary: While still at home in the Scottish Highlands, before he joins the Navy, Archie finds himself falling in love with his beautiful, adventurous brother.
Notes: This isn’t exactly an alternate universe piece, but might be considered as a back–story for Archie. A friend suggested the wonderful casting of Ewan McGregor as Archie’s older brother, and gosh that sure works for me…
Warnings: As you’ll have gathered, this features brother-slash. Also (gasp) some het!
First published: 8 December 2002 in Horatio Hornblower & the Prix d’Amor

 

 

Choices

 

The ladder leading up to the hay loft creaked under someone’s weight. Archie peered anxiously over the bales that provided his hiding place, hoping that the someone would prove to be… Yes, thank God, it was Ewan Kennedy: the eighteen–year–old second son of the Lord of Deveron; Archie’s older brother; and Archie’s… Well, Ewan was the only person in Archie’s world whom he could love unreservedly. And so he did so.

Thinking himself alone, Ewan began the ritual – shaking out a blanket, and flinging it across the loose straw spread across the centre of the loft. He lay himself back on it, and wriggled his entire body once or twice until he was comfortably settled. And then the ritual called for Ewan to doze off for a few minutes, making the most of the warm spring afternoon. Archie watched him carefully, never quite able to get enough of that blessed face with its relaxed good humour. Not that Ewan couldn’t turn thunderous with no warning at all, but mostly he was possessed of more equanimity than all the rest of Scotland combined. Equanimity, and the beauty that came with it. Today, though, instead of the usual –

Today, instead of dozing off –

Archie gazed over the hay bales, and shifted, silently seeking a better vantage point. Today, Ewan ran a languorous hand up inside his own shirt, and arched back a little, wallowing in the effects of his own caress. His other hand began unbuttoning his trousers, and then Ewan lifted his hips to loosen the cloth’s snug grip on him. The first hand appeared to be circling his own nipple – not something Archie had realised was pleasurable for a man, until now – while the other plunged down, down into his trousers, down further to…

The ladder creaked again. Ewan stilled. Archie – deprived of witnessing whatever would have happened next – cursed under his breath. A white cotton cap appeared, with tendrils of dark hair escaping round it, and then the rest of Eleanor the laundry maid stepped into view, while Ewan watched her with amused anticipation.

‘I was just about to begin without you,’ Ewan lazily informed her.

‘Why ever would you want to do that, sir?’ Though she didn’t seem to expect an answer, serious or otherwise.

She reached up under her skirts, with her back to Archie – which the fifteen–year–old had to admit that he was almost grateful for – and began shucking off pantaloons and petticoat and some other cotton garment. Archie watched Ewan watching her. His brother’s green eyes were alight in a face that somehow managed to be pretty in the most manly of ways. And as for the setting – Archie wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Ewan had staged it all. The green blanket he lay on highlighted his eyes; the few glints of sunshine turned both his hair and the straw into gold; the cream shirt and the dark brown trousers he wore flattered his figure. Perfection!

Even though Ewan hungrily watched this girl disrobe, his mind was obviously still mulling over his favourite subject – the amateur theatricals that he put on in the drawing room as often as their father allowed. ‘How are the costumes coming?’ he asked. ‘How is my new cloak?’

‘I’d have it done by now, sir, if you didn’t have these other duties for me to fulfil.’

Ewan propped himself up on one elbow, and pointed imperiously back down the ladder. ‘Then hie thee to thy needlework, wench!’

She laughed, and happily threw herself down beside him. ‘No, sir.’

‘You dare refuse me?’

‘I refuse you nothing, sir,’ Eleanor murmured provocatively. And she took Ewan’s nearest hand, and guided it up under her skirts. This was his second favourite subject, of course. Ewan appeared to forget all about the theatricals as he shifted his hand up, up, further up, until – with a knowing twisting thrust – he impaled her on his fingers. Archie gasped –

Archie gasped, and then waited through a heart–pounding moment, wondering if he’d be discovered.

But, no, Ewan and Eleanor were only aware of each other.

‘Sir,’ Eleanor pleaded under her breath, ‘don’t refuse me. You know I’d do anything you ever wanted, if you’d only let me act in your plays.’

Ewan slowly shook his head, concentrating mostly on what his hand was doing as it steadily worked away. ‘You know you can’t.’

‘But, sir, if you’d give me the chance, I know I’d be good. I wouldn’t embarrass you.’

‘My father forbids it, and there’s nothing more to say about the matter.’ He changed rhythm, perhaps in an effort to distract her.

Apparently Eleanor didn’t agree there was nothing more to say. ‘It wouldn’t even have to be a role with lines. Surely one of these fine characters you play would have a maid servant.’

‘Give over, Ellie,’ Ewan said, his fine mood beginning to dissipate.

Perhaps she couldn’t read him as well as Archie could, for she persisted. ‘I could just be your servant, sir.’

‘Ah, but then the classes would be mingling on the stage, and you know how he hates the idea.’

‘Why, but I’m mingling with you right now!’

Ewan grinned, genuinely amused, and Archie smiled to see that pretty face relight. ‘That you are, wench.’

Eleanor lifted her hips to meet another thrust of his fingers. ‘Sir… this time… wouldn’t you like to place yourself somewhere… snug and moist and pleasant?’

‘Begetting my brat wouldn’t change anything, Ellie. And it’s certain that the village doesn’t need any more little half–Kennedys playing in the dust and the mud. Just because my father doesn’t have the sense or the nerve to commit sodomy…’

‘Yes, sir,’ she whispered, defeated once more on all counts. The two of them settled closer together in the hay.

But, after a moment, Ewan’s eyes sparked, and he pushed himself up onto his elbow again. ‘Besides, Ellie, I have something else to ask of you this fine afternoon.’ And without turning his head, Ewan called, ‘Archie!’

It was so unexpected that Archie didn’t even recognise his own name. Nevertheless, he froze. Something had obviously gone very very wrong.

‘Archie! Quit skulking around back there, and come over here.’

He couldn’t move. He couldn’t move.

‘Archie…’

Shame was painting his face bright. Falteringly, he rose from his hiding place.

‘Come here,’ Ewan repeated, beckoning a little impatiently. Beckoning with those fingers damp from Eleanor’s secrets…

Archie tottered over there on unsteady feet. He couldn’t look at Eleanor, so had no idea of her reaction. He just looked at his beloved Ewan lying there. Ewan, who reached up, and grabbed his hand, and yanked Archie down between the two of them. He ended up facing Eleanor, so he shut his eyes. He ended up cradled in his brother’s arms – and found himself stretching back a little, making the most of the embrace.

‘How old are you now, Archie?’

‘Fifteen,’ he replied. ‘Almost sixteen.’

‘I think it’s more than time that we made a man of you, baby brother.’

‘Yes, sir,’ he murmured helplessly.

‘Eleanor?’ Ewan prompted. ‘You couldn’t possibly refuse to deflower the handsomest of all the Kennedy boys, could you?’

Archie opened one eye in time to see her smile. And then he was staring as she walked her fingers down her skirt, and began lifting it inch by inch to reveal stocking, stocking, a finely darned hole, shapely knees, more stocking, and then finally a hint of bare flesh.

Ewan had reached down to unbutton him, and Archie groaned a little, rocked by conflicting fear and desire. The skirts crept higher, revealing long bare thighs. Archie stared, confused as hell, both wanting this and not wanting it, already thinking ahead to his own hardness plunging into that promise of snug and moist and pleasant… Or would he – should he – could he follow Ewan’s lead, and explore a more subterranean pleasure? Archie stiffened at the very thought of it, held there in Ewan’s arms, feeling Ewan’s face rub against his hair – and Eleanor laughed a little, as breathless with anticipation as any of them.

‘Eleanor!’

It took a moment to realise that it hadn’t been either of the young lordships calling her name.

‘Eleanor!’

She stilled, and then started to her feet. ‘Tarnation!’ Reaching for her pantaloons, and desperately trying to get them on under the heavy skirts.

‘Where is that pesky girl? Eleanor!’

A last harried, regretful glance at Ewan, and then Eleanor headed for the ladder, scampered down it as quickly as any boy caught in a mischief.

‘Eleanor!’

‘Yes, madam?’

The voices died away, and Archie was left in the quiet of the barn and the blessing of his brother’s embrace.

‘Well,’ Ewan eventually said with a laugh, ‘I was about to begin without her. I suppose I’ll just have to finish without her, too!’ And he set Archie aside.

Archie lay there – in the remnants of Eleanor’s warmth – and watched as Ewan unfastened himself further, took himself into one practiced hand. Fascinating. A darker hue, a generous hardness, an admirable treasure. The rhythmic hand travelled the length and breadth. Ewan rolled back on the blanket, lifting his hips in time, closing his eyes, humming a senseless tune. Thrusting up, his thighs taut.

And Archie couldn’t help himself. He reached out. Ran one tentative palm along a thigh, from knee to hip. Worshipping.

Ewan stilled. Startled. Watching him. ‘Arch?’ he whispered.

Archie looked at Ewan. And he knew. He knew with a certainty beyond anything. It might be the worst sin a man could commit – but it was Archie’s sin, his very own sin, and he had no choice but to surrender to it. The knowledge gave him courage.

‘Do to me – Do to me what you do to her. In that, I am the same as her, am I not?’

‘No… No!’

‘Why not?’

‘Because! Because you have to ask why not.’ Ewan sounded desperate, though.

Determined to drive Ewan beyond the power to refuse him, Archie bent and took the head of that prodigious cock into his mouth. Ewan cried out, and bucked, lost to the shock of sensation.

But he was only lost for a moment, because then Ewan reached for Archie’s hip, hauled him round so they lay topsy turvey – and he claimed Archie’s small hardness in his own mouth. Archie was barely aware of his own pleasure – nothing could compete with the taste and feel of his brother’s ripeness. Nothing, that is, until questing fingers crept past Archie’s testes, and back, and further back – until they brushed at the entrance to him, and that was when Archie spurted with a cry into Ewan’s mouth, and Ewan repaid the compliment in full.

 

It almost killed him to wait – but Archie waited. Even at fifteen, he felt he was wise enough to let Ewan take his time mulling over this strangeness. When next he saw Ewan, while heading down the hall to the dining room the following day, Archie smiled happily. Lovingly. Confidently. And kept walking without any hesitation, without any hint that he’d dearly love to stop right there and push Ewan back against the wall and ravish him with kisses. Archie smiled happily, and walked down to his usual place at the table. Ewan trailed along as well, looking thoughtful.

Their parents were already there, seated at either end of the long table, not conversing. There was no place set for the Kennedy son and heir, though. ‘Isn’t Robert joining us?’ Archie asked. ‘He isn’t feeling poorly again?’

‘No, Robert is fine,’ his mother reassured him. ‘I’m sure he’s feeling completely better now. He was enjoying the sunshine so much, that he asked for a tray to be sent out to him in the rose garden.’

Archie cast a doubtful glance at the overly–familiar dark dusty reaches of the dining room. ‘We should have joined him. I’m sure they could have set up a small table for us. How pleasant that would have been!’

His mother was just looking at him, puzzled. It seemed that all her sons puzzled her at times, though each for very different reasons. ‘What odd ideas you have, dear,’ she murmured, before turning away to signal an end to the matter.

Their father was reading a letter from a pile of correspondence, and pointedly ignoring his family.

Far more interestingly – Ewan was looking across the table at Archie, frowning in thought. So Archie smiled at him again. Sweetly. As sensually as he knew how, even though he feared foolishness. And apparently that all just made Ewan think even harder.

In fact, the longer that Archie waited, the more intrigued Ewan became. Until at last after supper one evening a few days later, Ewan dragged Archie aside in the hall – they were in the very spot where Archie had wanted to kiss him – and said, ‘Tonight. Once everybody is safely abed. The airing room.’

Archie smiled as happily as if he’d never doubted he’d be blessed with another assignation. ‘Yes,’ he said, his voice full of promise.

‘Yes,’ was the reply, full of both need and confusion.

 

Airing cupboards were no match for the Scottish highlands, and Archie’s mother had a penchant for copious amounts of clean, dry linen – so the Kennedys had built an airing room, a big wooden structure enclosing the back of the kitchen chimneys. Because the kitchen fire was never allowed to go out, there were times when it was the only warm place in the whole house.

Archie closed the door behind him, ducked beneath the first row of sheets hanging down from just below the rafters, and then the second. There was a soft padding footfall, but it was only the old grey cat – she would wait patiently for hours in order to sneak in here.

Maybe he was early. Maybe Ewan wouldn’t even appear, and Archie would be left there all night to wither away in grieving silence. Punishment for the impertinence of daring to love the most adventurous of the Kennedy clan.

‘Ewan…?’

‘Arch.’

He followed the whispered reply, and found his brother, his beloved, lying back on a mattress right up near the chimneys. Like Archie, Ewan was dressed only in his nightshirt and woollen socks. His coat lay discarded on the stone floor.

They stared at each other for a long moment. It seemed that Ewan wasn’t about to invite Archie down onto that mattress, almost as if he were testing Archie’s resolve. But no challenge could be easier to meet. Archie shucked off his socks, and lay himself down beside his brother – and almost sobbed in relief when those arms lifted in welcome and gathered him in.

‘What put this into your head?’ Ewan murmured, holding him close, pressing his face into Archie’s hair. ‘What’s my baby brother doing, scheming such diabolical schemes?’

I love you. Archie came so close to blurting it out that he could feel the shape of the words in his mouth. Just as he’d been remembering the shape of his brother’s cockhead in his mouth for days now. After a moment, he could reply, relatively coolly, ‘Mother always said I’m the one with imagination. Well,’ he amended, ‘she usually just calls me odd, but that’s what she means.’

Ewan laughed, and rolled onto his back, bringing Archie with him so that he lay on top of that fine body, already feeling the press of his brother’s hardness against his groin. And then Ewan was running a hand round the back of his head, forcing him down – and Archie had no idea why he resisted for a moment, but he did – and then his mouth was on Ewan’s, and they were kissing, kissing – kissing as if Ewan had been as famished for this as Archie.

One hand kept him close, fingers caught in his hair, while the other ran firmly down the length of him. Cupped his buttocks. Without breaking the kiss, Ewan cocked one leg to give himself purchase, and began thrusting up in devastating rhythm. Archie groaned, and surrendered, and tried to answer the pattern of those thrusts. But within moments he was already finishing, shuddering, falling into a greater wealth of bliss than he ever could have imagined. Those beautiful thrusts continued, as if Ewan hadn’t even noticed, or as if Ewan could prolong the pleasure forever.

Eventually, though, it became the most exquisitely tender torture. ‘Stop!’ Archie broke away to plead. ‘Enough…’

That beautiful face looked up at him, eyes sparkling, overflowing with good humour. ‘Some lover you are. You’ve had enough of me already?’

‘No!’ Archie protested in chagrin. ‘Never! That’s not what I meant.’

But Ewan was laughing harder than ever, and Archie realised he was being teased. He lay himself back down on his beloved, and just clung to him for long moments, riding out the chortles, getting his breath back. Regathering his wits. Below him, Ewan quietened again into patience, his hardness never once faltering. Hands gently caressing, soothing. Which Archie was more than content to wallow in – at least until he was ready to take the next step in this adventure.

He dearly wanted to see Ewan naked. Without asking for permission, Archie sat up, and slowly drew Ewan’s shirt off over his head. Pressed kisses down the pale chest. Ran his hands down the strong legs, loving the texture of the golden hair that gilded them. Ewan stretched there, utterly unashamed. Utterly beautiful.

Archie fell on him, wanting to devour. Took that manly cock into his mouth and sucked hard. Wrapped his arms around those hips. Wanting to worship. Ewan bucked against him, groaning in desperation. Hands on Archie’s head encouraging him, tension betraying the fact that he was barely managing not to push Archie down, not to push himself deeper. Nevertheless, Archie tried to follow that impulse, tried to take all of Ewan into himself.

With a grieving cry, Ewan pushed him away. Lay there taking deep breaths. Gathered himself; then regathered Archie into an embrace. Archie cuddled in tight, pressed himself as close to Ewan as humanly possible.

‘I want you to possess me,’ Archie said against Ewan’s flesh. ‘I want you to do to me what you do to her.’

‘No… Oh, Arch,’ Ewan muttered, half amused and half frustrated, ‘what am I going to do with you?’

In reply, Archie pushed one of Ewan’s hands down to his buttocks. Dared to push further until Ewan’s fingers again caressed the entrance to him.

Ewan indulged him for a moment, before asking, ‘Why must you run before you’ve even walked?’

I love you. He still managed not to say it. He just looked up at his brother, and smiled, matching Ewan’s amusement and frustration and adding some wryness to it, too.

And Ewan, wanting of course his own completion, toppled Archie over onto his back, pushed Archie’s shirt up to expose his renewed hardness, lay over him, and found satisfaction thrusting against him, kissing him, holding him. It was wonderful. Beautiful. Exhilarating. And Archie knew he was a fool for wanting anything more.

 

Archie was walking past the barn, just as summer finally decided to shake off spring’s hesitancies, when he heard evidence of the last thing he wanted to know about. The unmistakable sounds of Ewan and Eleanor up in the hay loft. At least they were arguing rather than coupling. But there was something in the tone of their voices… Something intimate. There was passion in their anger. Archie would have sworn on his life that the one activity had followed the other. He stationed himself in the lower limbs of the old oak by the path to the fields, and waited.

Eventually Eleanor stalked past him towards the house, oblivious to the witness, triumph painted hard on her face. Archie had never before loathed anyone even a tenth as much as he hated the laundry maid in that moment.

And then Ewan appeared in the barn’s doorway. Bold enough to still be rebuttoning himself. Archie dropped to the ground, and stood there waiting for him. His brother. His beloved.

Ewan saw him, and trouble painted his face as hard as Eleanor’s triumph. He walked over, eyes avoiding Archie’s pain. ‘Hell hath no fury…’ Ewan muttered when he was close enough.

‘What’s that meant to –’

‘Don’t ask me questions,’ Ewan pleaded, cutting Archie off with a peremptory hand. ‘Tonight. The airing room. All right? And don’t think that –’

A pause stretched, until Archie prompted, ‘What?’

‘Don’t go thinking that everything I do is by choice.’

And Archie watched him walk away.

 

The heat of the airing room washed over Archie like a tidal wave. Maybe this wasn’t the place for a summer rendezvous. He walked down a row of linen, hoping that Ewan hadn’t dragged the mattress near the chimney this time.

Apparently not – hands grabbed him, and he was half carried, half led to the far corner of the room, and his nightshirt was confiscated. There were pillows this time, and a sheet had been dragged down from the ropes. A bottle of sherry stood by the old mattress, and even two of their mother’s finest glasses. Archie frowned. He hadn’t been expecting an apology. He’d thought – an explanation. Of how his adventurous brother remained adventurous. Which Archie didn’t want to hear, of course. Well, he didn’t want to hear the details, because he’d always known their love wasn’t exactly a mutual or an equal thing. He’d just hoped – he’d had this irrational desire for Eleanor to be as passing a fancy as Ewan’s previous liaisons. Archie had hoped he would be the only one Ewan would keep coming back to, no matter how far he strayed in between times.

Ewan lay himself on the mattress, beckoned Archie to follow him down. Poured the sherry, and handed a glass to Archie. They toasted each other silently. Ewan drank his in one gulp, waited for Archie to finish his, and poured him another. Then they were kissing, with the sherry lending its sweet gold to the embrace.

Running a beautifully familiar course, Ewan’s hand headed for Archie’s buttocks. And then… And then… And then a finger was pressing inside him. Possessing him. The heat and the neverending sherry–kiss had Archie close to swooning. At last, at last, this would happen, and maybe an apology wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

They were moving together, skin against skin, still kissing, always devouring. Until Archie broke away, unable to wait any longer. He turned within Ewan’s embrace, and pressed back against him. Offering all that he had to give – all that hadn’t yet been taken, at least. Ewan seemed to hesitate. ‘Please,’ Archie said.

‘Don’t,’ Ewan raggedly replied. ‘Don’t let me hurt you.’

‘I don’t care.’

‘Then God help me, I won’t do it.’ And it seemed Ewan had the strength of will enough for both of them, for he moved away. Only half an inch, but he moved away, and Archie’s skin was cold where Ewan was absent.

‘Please!’ Archie begged. ‘I won’t let you hurt me. I promise. You won’t hurt me.’

And then at last Ewan was pushing close, holding him, claiming him, owning him, completing him. Archie almost wept for the joy and the pain of it.

 

Ewan didn’t make an appearance at breakfast the next morning, which wasn’t unusual. And when he didn’t join the family for dinner or supper, no one seemed to think much of it. Sometimes they wouldn’t all sit to a meal together for days at a time, even when they were all at home. Despite which, Archie was feeling a tad lonely. It was only when a note arrived with the post the next day that anyone realised anything was untoward.

*

Dear Father,

As you are aware, it has long been a dream of mine to make a career of acting on the stage, and so I am writing to you from my new lodgings off Drury Lane in London. If you discover that you are missing one laundry maid, it is because I felt the need for some willing company. Perhaps you will do me the honour of believing how futile it would be to wish for the return of such a superfluous member of the Kennedy clan, or to take any action thereon.

Nevertheless, I remain, &c.

Ewan Kennedy

P.S. Pray remind young Archie what I said about choices.

*

Of course he was questioned long and hard about the situation, particularly given Ewan’s postscript, but Archie stuck with his initial story: ‘I don’t know why. I don’t know what he means.’ And then he went to bed early, buried himself under the quilts, and sobbed his heart out into his pillow.

 

He was preternaturally slow, Archie had always known that. He may well have an imagination, but Ewan’s sparkling creativity and his oldest brother’s quick reasoning were always several steps ahead of him. Therefore it took him over three weeks to realise that if Ewan could run away to Drury Lane, then Archie could, too. If Ewan could make a new life for himself, then so could Archie. And if Ewan had honestly wanted Eleanor with him rather than Archie, then what was it he meant about his choices not always being the ones he most wanted? Surely he had meant – Well, Eleanor must have threatened to tell what she knew or suspected about Ewan’s relationship with Archie. She’d wanted Drury Lane as much as Ewan did – and he wasn’t the sort to refuse her company on the journey. No doubt that was what had occurred.

It was the height of summer. His sixteenth birthday had come and gone with no acknowledgment from Ewan or the rest of his family. Archie packed a bag, told his mother that he was going on a walking tour of the lochs with a distant cousin. And he headed for London.

 

Slow or not, Archie tracked down Ewan on the morning after he’d arrived. Drury Lane was, after all, a community only a little more numerous and a little less homogenous than the village he was most familiar with. It didn’t take long to discover the whereabouts of a newly arrived Scottish actor of handsome features, adventurous habits, and noble blood.

Archie knocked on the door of a rented room just as the nearby church rang ten bells.

‘What?!’ demanded a voice half asleep and wholly crabby.

Archie smiled in recognition, and let himself in. The room was dark, cluttered, unprepossessing – and about half the size of Ewan’s dressing room back home. Nevertheless, Ewan himself was in it, and Archie cared for nothing else. Better – Ewan was alone in it. Lying in a dishevelled bed, all on his own.

Ewan gaped. ‘Arch!’

‘Hello.’ Archie closed the door behind him, and walked over to sit on the side of the narrow bed. Much to his surprise, Ewan kissed him. As if that were the most urgent thing on Ewan’s mind as soon as he saw his baby brother again after more than four weeks’ separation. Archie felt absurdly gratified, and returned the kiss for all he was worth.

‘What are you doing here?’ Ewan finally asked. ‘Father didn’t send you? You’re not going to try talking me into returning? You of all people should know that I won’t!’

‘No. No, of course not – none of that.’ Archie smiled, confidently. And for once that confidence was more than halfway real. ‘Rather, I was hoping to talk you into letting me stay with you.’

‘Oh, Arch…’ Ewan smiled, beautiful and regretful all at once. ‘How star–crossed we are, how doomed this is. But stay for a while. Stay as long as you can. If you still want to when you hear – Well, I’m hardly the new leading man. Of course not! What foolish dreams we have! I doubt I’ll even win myself a speaking role for a year or more. If you want to lower yourself to sharing bed and board with the man who sells programs and sweeps floors and mends costumes, then I’ll be glad of your company.’

Archie was more than happy to be asked to stay on any terms – but one question remained. ‘What about Eleanor?’

Ewan waved a dismissive hand. Archie needed no more, but Ewan elaborated, ‘She found herself another man with more immediate prospects… I wonder why she didn’t just come down here alone! In the end, she had little need of me.’

‘I need you,’ Archie murmured, heartfelt.

‘I know.’ And Ewan lay back in the bed, bringing Archie down with him, and bundling him up in a tight embrace despite the fact that Archie was still in all his street clothes. ‘But, sweetheart, you know this will never last, don’t you? It’s a beautiful dream, Arch, and I love you for imagining us together, but it’s a dream that will never survive the morning light.’

Archie clung to his brother, his beloved, and he prayed with all of his heart and his soul for something he’d never ever wanted before. He prayed that Ewan was wrong.

 

It lasted three months. Three glorious months.

Archie made himself indispensable in selling programs, sweeping floors, mending costumes, and charming all those who could possibly help his brother’s career – while Ewan devoted himself to learning lines, and rehearsing with Archie or anyone else who was willing. It was a matter of great celebration when Ewan won his first speaking role, even though it was only a one–liner. And in the small hours of each night they’d topple together into Ewan’s narrow bed, and live that beautiful dream of theirs as if each dawn might be their last.

Until late one morning, as winter loomed, when their father arrived. ‘That walking tour took you far afield,’ he grated at Archie.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘I expected more of you, boy.’

This was news to the youngest legitimate son of the Kennedy clan. Archie glanced at Ewan, who seemed defeated already. He glanced at Ewan, which was more than their father had yet done, and then he returned his gaze to this man who claimed to have expectations of Archie. ‘Yes, sir?’

‘Your brother Robert is dying –’

Archie sat down on the bed, where Ewan was still curled up. Reached a hand for Ewan’s comfort. Of course they’d long known Robert was consumptive, but he’d seemed to improve beyond all measure during the summer. ‘The cold weather?’ Archie guessed.

‘As soon as the autumn frosts arrived. It’s been downhill ever since.’

‘Can he travel? They say the Italian climate –’

‘Not any more.’

Archie sighed. Perhaps he’d never see Robert again. Not that they’d had much in common, and not that Archie had cared for Robert in even a tenth of the ways that he cared for Ewan – but they were brothers.

His father continued: ‘Robert is dying. This one –’ he gestured contemptuously at Ewan – ‘is never going to amount to anything. Which leaves you, boy.’

‘Leaves me for what? Sir.’

‘You’re leaving this place, for a start. I’d take you home, but I don’t expect you’d stay. I’d send you to college to read the law, but you never had Robert’s faculties. So, it’s the Navy for you. I’ve arranged a place as a midshipman. It’s time to quit these boyish pursuits. It’s time to become the man your family can be proud of. Do you understand me?’

Archie just sat there, his hand still in Ewan’s. He wondered what on earth he could say, what reasons he could plead, how he could possibly change his father’s mind. Because, of course, his father had the right – and even the responsibility, if one could see it from his point of view – to do just as he threatened. It was yet a long five years until Archie reached his majority.

To his surprise, Ewan spoke up. ‘Father, Archie isn’t cut out for a career in the Navy. That was Robert’s dream, if you remember, and not one that Archie ever shared. I know he can’t stay here, but at least make a different choice –’

Their father turned on him, furious. ‘As if any of your choices have taken account of the boy’s welfare! As if I would ever listen to the ideas of a fourth–rate actor.’ And he turned away from Ewan, as if for the last time. ‘Archie, you will come with me. I will give you five minutes, and no more, to pack your belongings and make your farewells, and then you will accompany me to the docks. And that is all there is to say about that.’

And perhaps it was indeed all, for Archie couldn’t even find the voice to argue. Seeing this, his father walked back out the door, and then audibly stationed himself on the other side. And still Archie had no voice. He looked imploringly at Ewan.

‘We knew the dream would end,’ Ewan murmured.

I’d dared to hope otherwise.

A regretful hand ran through Archie’s hair. ‘We knew we’d have to part, sweetheart.’

I love you.

‘The Navy – it’s not a good choice. But you’re clever, and you’re loyal, and you work hard. You’ve proved that here. I’d never have made it this far without you – at least, not so soon. Remember that. Take opportunities where you can. Make better choices for yourself than Father has done.’

Archie leaned closer, wanting kisses rather than sage advice. At least that small wish was granted.

Then his father was rapping at the door, and Archie was tearing himself from Ewan’s arms, and he was walking away from his brother’s life, his brother’s love, with nothing but the clothes on his back and a wound in his heart that he knew nothing and no one would ever heal.

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