Harlequin's Slash Fic

Duty, Honour, Love

Title: Duty, Honour, Love
Author: Julien
Universe: Hornblower
Characters featured: Various combinations of Horatio/Archie/Pellew, with Archie/Simpson in the background
Category, Word count: Short story; 8646 words
Rating: NC17
Summary: Horatio grieves for his lost friend Archie, and his missed chance for love. Eventually his curiosity leads him in Pellew’s direction. But then his sense of honour and his love are brought into conflict when Horatio finds Archie alive in the Spanish prison.
Notes: This piece begins after The Even Chance, and takes us through the second and third movies.
Warnings: Archie’s relationship with Simpson was non-con.
First published: 8 December 2002 in Horatio Hornblower & the Prix d’Amor

 

 

Duty, Honour, Love

 

I

The song came to a rousing end, and for a moment the men lapsed into relative quietness as they poured more ale down their aching throats. The other patrons of the tavern sighed in gratitude for the momentary peace – except for one. Unaware of either the song or the silence, a figure propped on a stool near the serving hatch wiped his nose on his sleeve, sniffed both liquidly and loudly, and then gave a raw groan that resounded round the tavern.

Matthews turned to his shipmates and gestured like the most desperate of music hall conductors. Obligingly, Oldroyd led the men into another roaring shanty – while grimacing at Matthews, for he was beginning to run dry of inspiration, though if he’d been asked earlier in the evening he’d have claimed there were sea shanties enough to last a voyage to the Indies and back.

Returning to the pathetic figure beside him, Matthews leaned close to murmur, ‘Sir… I think it must be time to retire for the night.’

But Mr Midshipman Horatio Hornblower groaned again, and gulped down another mouthful of spirits (as if he weren’t already three–sheets–in–the–wind drunk), and then damn near sobbed. ‘You know what Simpson was,’ he lamented to Matthews, ‘you were in his division. You know what he did to Archie.’

Matthews replied, ‘Sir, don’t talk of such things. He’s gone now –’

‘He’s gone now, and all he knew was cruelty.’

‘I mean Simpson, sir. He’s gone to Hell where he belongs, and good riddance to him, sir – and there’s no profit in talking the way you’re talking, Mr Hornblower. Sir.’

‘Talking, talking – that’s all I can do.’ Disproving his own words, Horatio banged loudly at the serving hatch, wanting more rum. ‘Talking is what I owe to Archie,’ he continued to Matthews, as if explaining the most reasonable matter in the world. ‘If I’d talked to the Captain, if I’d told him what I knew about Simpson, Archie would still be alive today. But he forbade me, he made me swear never to tell a soul.’

‘And pardon me for saying so, sir, but Mr Kennedy was right.’

Horatio glared up at the man, and all the rum in the world couldn’t blunt his anger. ‘Matthews, for God’s sake, he was silent and he died for it, and damn you for saying he was right!’

The hoary seaman looked at his officer with profound concern. ‘Please, Mr Hornblower. I’ve never begged a man for anything, but I’m begging you now, sir – for your own sake, please don’t talk of these things.’

‘For Archie’s sake, I will talk –’

Matthews dared to put a hand on Horatio’s arm. Horatio looked down at it blearily, startled into momentary silence.

‘For Mr Kennedy’s sake, sir, please. Let him rest in peace. He deserves that. Not to be remembered for Mr Simpson’s sins.’

That finally got through to Horatio. He stared at Matthews, taken aback by this unexpected wisdom. Abruptly, though, Matthews was up and standing at attention. The sudden movement – even just watching the sudden movement – made Horatio so dizzy he almost fell off his stool. Instead he put his head back against the wall, and concentrated hard on the lumpy plaster pressing into his skull, waiting for the world to right itself around him.

‘Captain Pellew, sir!’ Matthews said.

‘All right, all right, as you were, Matthews. What seems to be the problem?’

‘Excuse me, sir, but I sent Styles for Mr Bracegirdle, sir.’ Matthews cast a glare at Styles, who lingered by the door – Styles responded with a helpless shrug. ‘I don’t think you need be worried by our little concerns, sir.’

Pellew looked down at Matthews, severe but not unsympathetic. ‘One of my officers, drunk and making a fool of himself in a seaman’s tavern – I think I have a right to concern myself, man. Now, why don’t you join your shipmates over there, and leave Mr Hornblower to me?’

‘Yes, sir,’ Matthews murmured obediently, moving away, but not without a last wary glance at Horatio.

‘Well, then, what’s all this, Mr Hornblower?’

 

Horatio had barely begun retelling his grief when he found himself whisked out into the cold night air – and before he rightly knew what was happening, he was in a decent hotel room, sitting there shivering in a straight–backed chair, and Captain Pellew was locking the door and pocketing the key. Relatively peaceful moments passed while Pellew divested himself of his cloak, stoked the fire, and poured them each a well–watered wine.

‘Very well, then,’ Pellew said in the most reasonable of tones as he settled into the chair opposite Horatio. ‘I understand what troubles you.’

Horatio stared at his Captain, hardly daring to believe. He wrapped his arms around himself, hoping the fire’s warmth might soon reach him.

‘You will talk yourself hoarse,’ Pellew continued, ‘and make your peace with Mr Kennedy – but you will do it in this room, with no one but me and God to hear. And then come morning when you are sane again, you will never mention any of this again. You will not even thank me. Do you understand me, sir?

The sudden fierceness almost startled Horatio into sobriety. ‘Yes, sir.’

‘Well, sir…?’

But sobriety made it infinitely more difficult to just blurt the matter out. Horatio dropped his gaze, and wondered how on earth he could really say all that needed saying to Captain Sir Edward Pellew.

Luckily, Pellew could be a kind man. ‘What is it that you owe to Mr Kennedy?’ he prompted. ‘To your friend Archie?’

Tears threatened again, spilled over. ‘I owed him more than I ever gave him in life, sir. Simpson – Jack Simpson abused him, sir. Used him like – well, Archie said like a whore.’

‘I understand. Don’t upset yourself further by dwelling on it.’

‘But I do upset myself, sir,’ Horatio responded, foolishly on his dignity, ‘because all that Archie knew was Simpson’s cruelty. But for Archie, it was love.’ It was suddenly easy again, as if the words themselves compelled him. As if poor Archie’s restless spirit compelled him. ‘Do you understand that, sir? Can you possibly understand that? Because I didn’t. Not when Archie first spoke to me of it. I didn’t understand that such relations could be love.’ Horatio’s bitterness, his self–disgust ate at him. ‘So I refused him. And he died, without ever knowing what it was to be touched for love, rather than for cruelty.’

‘I see,’ Pellew murmured.

‘Do you, sir?’

‘Yes, yes.’ Pellew gestured encouragingly. ‘Keep talking, man. Exorcise these ghosts. But then you must promise me never to speak of this again. You cannot do anyone any good with such talk – indeed, you could do yourself much harm.’

‘So you would have understood?’ Horatio stared at the man, abruptly appalled. ‘If I’d told you about Simpson, you would have known what that meant? And you wouldn’t have blamed Archie for it?’

‘No. No, of course I wouldn’t have blamed Mr Kennedy. I can’t imagine him inviting such relations.’

Horatio frowned. ‘But he did, sir. He invited me – I mean – You’d have blamed him for that, wouldn’t you?’

Pellew sighed. ‘Good Lord, Mr Hornblower, sometimes I forget how young you are.’ He laughed at Horatio’s reaction. ‘No, don’t take offence. There was a world of difference between Simpson and Kennedy, at least I saw that much.’

‘Are you saying that… he wasn’t wrong to ask me for…?’

Pellew just looked at him through narrowed eyes.

‘Are you saying,’ Horatio managed over a suddenly constricted throat, ‘that I was wrong to refuse him?’

‘No, no. Heavens above, no. You cannot believe I’d encourage such a thing. You know how severely such relations are dealt with. These are dangerous reefs you’re sailing, Mr Hornblower.’

But Horatio was staring at him with some astuteness. ‘It wasn’t such a shock to you. That Archie spoke to me of love. I had no idea, but you – Well, you know about that kind of love. Don’t you, sir?’

Pellew stood. ‘You dare to ask me that?’ He was staring down at Horatio with all his Captain’s dignity intact – and though he spoke quietly, that only emphasised the threat. ‘The rum is talking, Mr Hornblower, and not your wits. If you truly need a sympathetic ear, then you have been lucky enough to find the only one available to you in all of England. But if you abuse the privilege, then I will leave you here alone – and I will lock you in so that you’ll do yourself no further harm – until you sober up.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Horatio murmured in reply, looking up at Pellew with a mixture of respect and contrition and gratitude. A warm mixture of emotions… As Pellew fetched the jugs of wine and water, Horatio let himself slump a little in his chair, growing more comfortable in the fire’s heat and Pellew’s unexpected understanding.

‘Now, talk,’ Pellew said when he returned.

But… ‘What more is there to say?’ Horatio mused, with somewhat less despair. ‘I think that Mr Kennedy – Do you know, sir, I think that Archie – I think he really loved me.’

‘Then honour his memory for it.’

Horatio nodded, ‘Yes, sir,’ and they sat in silence for a while. The fire settled, and Pellew fed it more wood until Horatio felt the whole room was candescent. In the flickering light he imagined his friend – his hair glinting, his eyes glowing, his smile outshining the sun. That’s how Archie would have looked, if only Horatio had been brave enough not to refuse him. Horatio sighed, feeling another tear trickle down his cheek. But the worst of the bitterness was over now, and it seemed he had Captain Pellew to thank for that.

‘Come on, lad,’ Pellew murmured, and he helped Horatio to his feet, led him over to the bed. The Captain helped him off with his coat and his boots, as matter–of–factly as if they were both Midshipmen, or both crewmen sharing a berth. Horatio let himself be pushed back into the bed, felt the blankets brusquely arranged over him. ‘Sir…’ he whispered. But then, on a memory of friendly blue eyes, he fell into the deepest sleep.

 

Pellew stared down at his most promising officer, until he was sure the man had settled. And then he took a spare blanket from the bed, and headed for the most comfortable chair in the room.

A restless half–hour later, Pellew stood, and strode back to the bed, blanket in tow. ‘Damn you, Mr Hornblower,’ he muttered. ‘You may cost me a good night’s sleep on occasion, but you will not cost me my bed.’ He lay himself there – so close beside the young man, and yet separated by so much, so very much – and eventually Pellew fell asleep as well.

 

Horatio woke to a throbbing head, a cold room, an empty bed. Dimly he was aware that the bed hadn’t always been empty. Vaguely he remembered embraces muffled by clothes and sheets and blankets. Confusingly he imagined dark eyes glowing at him as well as blue eyes. But he was sure that had been a dream. Yes, it had definitely been a dream. Such things were not to be thought of.

 

II

Horatio chose his time carefully, waiting for late on a peaceful, dark night with the Indefatigable far from land, when Captain Pellew was not required but was still awake. Nevertheless, he stood silent in the shadows of the passageway outside the Captain’s cabin, watching the lamplight under the door, until he was sure that the rest of the ship – but for those on watch – were asleep. Eventually he lifted his hand and knocked lightly, almost hoping that Pellew wouldn’t hear. But, ‘Yes!’ came the gruff response.

Taking a breath, Horatio quietly let himself in, and then closed the door behind him as carefully as he’d opened it.

Pellew glanced up from the book he was reading at his desk. ‘Ah, Mr Hornblower. What is it? Is there a problem?’

For a moment, Horatio couldn’t find his voice, but then he remembered to let his breath out, and take another, and finally he was able to murmur, ‘No, sir. I wanted to tell you, sir, I realise now that I was wrong.’

Closing the book, Pellew absently held the volume against his chest, as if he cared for the contents and wanted to keep them close. He looked up at Horatio with those dark unfathomable eyes, and prompted, ‘What about?’

‘Dreadnought – I mean, Captain Foster, sir.’

‘Ah…’

‘You were right,’ Horatio continued, ‘of course. There are better men to admire.’

A wry smile twisted Pellew’s lips. Horatio smiled to see it, a more wholehearted expression, for his Captain rarely appeared anything other than solemn. Pellew said, just as wryly, ‘I fear an imminent bout of flattery.’

‘An apology and an… invitation, was all I had intended, sir.’

With a gesture, Pellew indicated he could continue.

‘I am sorry, sir, that I valued the kind of bravery born of rashness above that born of consideration. I have since learned better.’

Pellew mused on this for a moment. ‘At least you are a quick learner, Mr Hornblower. There are men in the King’s Navy – there are officers who will never understand that distinction.’

‘Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.’

A silence stretched for a few moments, before Pellew prompted, ‘There was something else?’

Horatio dropped his gaze, unable to continue facing his Captain, though he dearly wanted to watch the man and his reactions. ‘Some months ago, sir,’ he mumbled at the deck, ‘you were kind enough to let me talk to you about Archie – about Mr Kennedy, sir, and –’

‘And you promised me to never speak of it again, did you not?’

‘Yes, sir. But if I may…’ Horatio looked up again, glimpsed his Captain’s severe countenance, and stiffened his resolve with desperation. ‘If I may take the risk of breaking that promise, sir, just for a few moments, and only within this cabin…?’

‘Very well,’ Pellew said, though he didn’t look at all happy about it.

‘Sir, I told you that Archie invited me – I mean, he asked me to –’ Horatio grimaced, and managed somehow to blurt it out. ‘He spoke to me of love, sir, and invited me to share that love.’

A brief pause, before Pellew curtly nodded in acknowledgment.

Frantically trying to recall the words he had carefully rehearsed, Horatio watched as Pellew stood from his chair, and turned away to stare out through the stern windows at the Indy’s wake, his back to Horatio. The silence continued until Horatio could bear it no longer. He had forgotten the words he’d intended to use, but there were others that might do instead. ‘I wanted to… issue the same invitation to you, sir.’

Pellew froze. He didn’t move an inch, but Horatio could tell that the man was shocked and on his guard. Another pause, longer this time. And then when he spoke, it seemed that Pellew had had the same trouble as Horatio in finding his voice. ‘What makes you think that I would welcome such an invitation?’

‘I have my reasons, sir,’ Horatio dared to declare. Then he added, a little lamely, ‘But I expect you will not thank me for listing them, whether or not you accept.’

‘Yes, yes,’ Pellew quietly responded, in that almost impatient, almost humble way he did when acknowledging that someone else had made an excellent point, and he was carefully considering it. Eventually Pellew began, ‘Why –?’

‘Why you, sir?’ Horatio supplied. ‘I could give you a hundred reasons, but you might suspect me of flattery.’

Pellew turned towards Horatio, just far enough so that those dark eyes could snare his. ‘You would be inviting Mr Kennedy if you could, would you not?’

Horatio dropped his gaze for a moment. ‘Yes, sir. I think that must be so.’

‘I see.’

‘Perhaps he would refuse me, as I refused him.’

Pellew cast him the driest of looks. ‘Hardly likely, is it, Mr Hornblower?’

‘I don’t know, sir.’ Horatio swallowed hard, close to undone by the compliment. ‘But I thank you for the thought.’

Turning back to contemplate the sea, Pellew at least seemed to still be considering the notion. Horatio counselled himself to patience, for perhaps the hundredth time.

‘Under the circumstances –’ Pellew stopped to clear his throat, before continuing. ‘Under the circumstances, you feel that I am a suitable substitute?’

‘I wouldn’t describe it that way, sir.’

‘Really.’

‘Not at all.’

And Horatio was doubly glad that he had added that firm reassurance when Pellew turned to him again and took a step closer into the lamplight, for it was clear that there was something in Pellew that sorely wished to be Horatio’s first choice.

‘Very well, then,’ Pellew said. ‘Lock the door. As you no doubt expected, I cannot refuse. But by God if a word of this is ever breathed by anyone, I’ll know exactly where it came from, and I’ll have you keelhauled. Gagged first, and then keelhauled. Is that clear?’

‘Yes, sir.’ And Horatio responded to his Captain’s orders with alacrity.

 

A makeshift bed of blankets and pillows on a Turkish carpet spread on the deck, and all the lamps doused but one. Captain Sir Edward Pellew leaning over him, those dark eyes as intent on him as if winning this battle would secure the war for Britain. And Horatio as sensitive and quick to respond as a frigate running before a stiff breeze, with all hands alert to every nuance of sea and sky and sails…

‘Then, have you never before –?’ Pellew murmured, holding him close after their first success.

‘No, sir,’ Horatio whispered in reply.

‘I am your first? For all –?’

‘Yes, sir.’

The Captain’s arms tightened around him, and their mouths engaged again, and it seemed for that moment as if nothing in the world could ever sunder them.

 

III

‘He was cowering, Archie. He was cowering on the ground like the dog he was, begging for mercy, and he was terrified of dying. Absolutely terrified.’

Archie Kennedy was gazing up at Horatio from the prison infirmary’s bed, focussed on nothing beyond his friend’s voice telling him of Jack Simpson’s last moments. ‘What – what did you do?’

‘I turned away! I spared him.’

‘What? No!’

‘I could not kill him, Archie. Not in cold blood. Not when he was so afraid.’ But neither could Horatio withstand his friend’s desperate gaze. ‘I began walking away,’ he continued. ‘They tell me he found his resolve again, and he took a dagger from Cleveland. He would have stabbed me in the back.’

Poor Archie was gaping with the suspense.

Horatio leaned a little closer, and lowered his voice. ‘Captain Pellew was there, watching from the cliffs. He had a rifle. When he saw what Simpson intended, the Captain ended the matter.’

‘Then, it was Captain Pellew who…?’

‘He shot Simpson, Archie. The Captain –’ Horatio let out a sigh, and sat back in the chair. ‘I suppose the Captain passed judgement, as is his privilege.’

‘Horatio?’

Lost in momentary thought, Horatio did little more than raise an inquiring brow.

‘He was right, Horatio. He judged Simpson aright.’

Horatio looked down at his friend. And he clasped Archie’s hand for a moment, to ensure that Archie felt his sincerity. ‘I know, Archie. Believe me, I know. The world is a far better place without him.’

And the younger man turned toward Horatio, curling up beneath the bed covers as if nursing a long–held grief. There were no tears, but Archie closed his eyes, and shook a little – not a seizure this time, but perhaps the remnants of one – and during an hour or more he gradually relaxed, sinew by sinew. He gradually let the pain go. And, somehow, Horatio’s hand remained in his throughout.

 

IV

With a grin, Horatio declared, ‘You are looking at the only man ever who was glad to be thrown into a Spanish prison.’

Archie laughed. ‘Oh, you do talk such rot, Horatio.’

‘No, I swear it!’ Horatio protested, but then he was as overcome by laughter as his friend.

The two of them sat there together in the shade against the stone wall, chuckling away, while their men basked in the sun at the other end of the courtyard. Everyone seemed oddly content, having voluntarily returned to the prison because – and only because – Horatio had given his parole on his own behalf and theirs. Trials and tribulations were sometimes easier to bear when one felt secure on nobler ground.

‘I swear,’ Horatio continued to Archie when he could, ‘as soon as I saw you in that cell, I was glad. I couldn’t even wish to be anywhere else.’

Archie was smiling at him, shaking his head in disbelief.

Horatio gazed at his friend, finding himself falling into a more solemn kind of happiness. ‘I had thought you dead,’ he murmured.

‘And you were right,’ Archie replied, his light tones not masking this truth. ‘I was dead.’

‘I grieved for you. I grieved for what we’d lost.’ Horatio ensured those blue eyes were looking into his own, hoping that Archie could see through into his soul. ‘I grieved for what we never had.’

A moment stretched. The sun baked down from the bluest of skies, and all was quiet.

‘You once spoke to me of love, Archie.’

‘Do you put it so romantically?’

‘I do.’

‘Then…’ Archie scrunched up his face for a moment, before daring to venture such an unlikely conclusion. ‘Then, do I take it that… But, no, you can’t possibly have changed your mind, Horatio…’

‘I have. Yes. I have.’ Horatio lifted a hand to forestall Archie’s response. ‘But I should not speak of it. I am not free to speak to you of love.’

Archie stared at him, hopeful and heartbroken and thoroughly confused all at once. He shifted himself to sit higher against the wall, pressing back against the stone as if aching for certainty. ‘What are you –? What on earth are you talking about, Horatio?’

‘I am not free. I am not free to commit myself. If I were –’

‘No.’

Horatio pleaded, ‘If you can be patient with me…’

But Archie’s face had set hard. ‘When we all thought she was a Duchess, I considered the conquest a little ambitious, even for you, Horatio. But Hunter warned me never to underestimate your ambition.’

‘Archie –’

‘She’s only a stage actress! I wonder that your ambition doesn’t require you to move on.’

‘Stop this!’ Horatio took a deep breath, and tried to ignore the fact that they had drawn the men’s attention with their sudden anger. ‘You shouldn’t have listened to Hunter, Archie. It is not Miss Cobham who has earned my loyalty.’

‘Then, who?’

Horatio shook his head. ‘I can say no more.’

His friend turned away from him.

‘Please, Archie. If you will be patient with me… If you will permit me, once I am free to do so, to speak to you of love, to offer my apologies for my former ignorance –’ His words seemed to be having no effect beyond making Archie despair, which wasn’t his intention at all. ‘I am referring to someone who deserves my respect, Archie, and yours, too, if you only knew – and though I wish I were free, I cannot possibly –’

‘Enough,’ Archie whispered – though the quiet word served its purpose well. ‘Enough. I love you for your sense of honour, Horatio. But that doesn’t mean I don’t suffer for it on occasion.’

Realising that even an apology would be unwelcome at that moment, Horatio settled back against the stone wall again, and concentrated hard on the whitewashed rock pressing into his skull, wishing desperately for the world to right itself around him. Because he had offered himself to Captain Sir Edward Pellew in good faith, and Pellew deserved not only his respect but his love – so while Horatio knew well what he must do, he shrank from the cruelty of it. Because for Edward Pellew this wasn’t merely a matter of desire, and under any other circumstances Horatio would rather die than hurt him.

 

V

Late on another dark night with the Indefatigable out at sea, and with no reasonable expectation of Captain Pellew being required by anyone but Lieutenant Hornblower. Once more, Horatio stood silent in the shadows outside the Captain’s cabin, watching the lamplight under the door for a long time until eventually he found the courage to lift his hand and knock lightly, almost wishing that Pellew wouldn’t hear.

‘Yes,’ came the response.

Horatio quietly let himself in, as he had on so many nights before, and he closed the door behind him. ‘Sir.’

Pellew was looking up at him, dark eyes level and unafraid. ‘Mr Hornblower. I’ve been expecting you.’

‘You have, sir?’ Embarrassingly enough, his voice cracked in the middle of that, as if he were a boy again, with all the terrors and excitements and responsibilities of being a man looming before him.

‘Of course.’

Horatio cleared his throat. ‘I understand that we will be returning to Portsmouth soon. I hoped that you would grant me the honour of a private interview on shore, sir.’

‘Mercy,’ Pellew murmured. ‘Does it really become a gentleman to postpone the inevitable?’

Horatio looked down at him miserably –

But Pellew interrupted him before he could speak again. ‘I will refuse you nothing, Mr Hornblower. That is the danger of such a relationship. I will not even refuse you the privilege of rejecting me.’

What could he possibly say? ‘Yes, sir,’ seemed the only safe alternative.

‘Though if you think honour will be served by insisting that I listen to your reasons – well, I suggest you think again, Mr Hornblower.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘We will meet at my hotel. You know the place – where I took you when… You know the place. I will tell you the day and the time once we make port and I have received my orders. Is that satisfactory?’

There were times in his life when Horatio honestly longed for oblivion. ‘Yes, sir.’

‘Then you are dismissed.’

And Horatio left the cabin – the cabin where that very man, his Captain, had made love to him on so many nights before – and took himself to his hammock with the heaviest of hearts.

 

It had already been one hell of a morning, enduring the foibles of an Admiral and humouring his mistaken notions of good seamanship, and Pellew had nothing better to look forward to – in fact, there would soon be something much worse. The private interview requested by Lieutenant Hornblower. The interview during which his lover would call an end to their liaison. And despite all his sober reflections on the wisdom of such a course, and even on the lucky escape from certain disaster that it brought, Pellew was bitterly sorry that it had to be so.

He was running late, of course. As he strode across the square in front of his hotel, he saw that Horatio was already there waiting for him, slumped miserably on one of the benches under the avenue of trees. And…

Pellew steeled himself.

And Acting Lieutenant Archibald Kennedy was sitting there on the bench beside him, talking quietly to Horatio, talking imploringly of… of Pellew knew not what. But he surmised that the young man spoke of love. It was one of the things that bound them all three together – duty and honour and love. And it was love that was straining those bonds to breaking point, even though duty and honour meant they must all endure.

For the thousandth time, Pellew castigated himself for self–indulgence, for a deplorable lack of discipline.

Then he took a breath, and strode up to his officers. ‘Excuse my lateness, gentlemen. Business at the Admiralty.’

They had both jumped to their feet, punctiliously respectful. ‘Yes, sir,’ they chorused, in perfect harmony.

‘Well.’ Pellew found himself pulling off his gloves, snatching off his hat, betraying his misery. ‘My wits are not so dim that I cannot guess the nature of this interview. I take it that Mr Kennedy is also aware of it?’

Horatio was self–conscious enough to redden, but he answered firmly enough. ‘Yes, sir.’

‘Then he had better come up, too. You can say what you need to say, Lieutenant, and he can witness it, and then there will be an end to the whole damnable business.’

Meeting no argument, and indeed expecting none, Pellew swept off towards the hotel, all too aware of the young men who hurried to follow in his wake.

 

The hotel room was dark, with only one set of curtains opened to the grey–skied day, and no lamps lit. Nevertheless, it was clear what the Captain was feeling – and faced with Edward Pellew’s pain, Horatio’s nerve deserted him. He recalled Pellew asking for mercy, and challenging him to behave as a gentleman. He knew he really must be cruel to be kind, and the sooner it was done the better. But Horatio found that he couldn’t say the words that would end it.

Instead, he tried to explain. If he had not thought Archie lost to him – If he had not been sure it would cost the Captain little to indulge his curiosity – But he had been wrong on both counts. ‘If there were a way,’ Horatio found himself declaring, even though he had not soaked himself in rum as he’d been tempted to do – ‘If there were a way of loving both of you, then I would. But you both deserve everything I am, and I cannot give myself twice over.’

‘Of course,’ Pellew finally interrupted him, no doubt unable to bear any more of his blundering. ‘Of course Mr Kennedy deserves your undivided attention – and I would not presume to distract you, or to claim you as my own. So,’ the Captain concluded, ‘there is an end to it.’ And he turned away, apparently expecting Horatio to walk out of the room, as if it were that easy or as if Horatio were that brave.

‘Begging your pardon, sir,’ Archie said into the silence, ‘but – no, sir.’ The others each turned to Archie, wondering what he was denying. ‘The choice is Horatio’s. And I do not think that he should make that choice until morning.’

‘Mr Kennedy, he made his choice a long time ago. And if you were in my position,’ Pellew said – his voice strained beyond anything Horatio had ever heard from him before – ‘would you not prefer to face the inevitable sooner rather than later?’

‘No, sir. I would prefer to take every last chance I could.’

‘Then you are a stronger man than I, Mr Kennedy.’

Archie dared to smile, but it was such a sympathetic smile that none could take offence. ‘No, sir, not at all. But I can share – for one more night, at least.’

Horatio remained silent, though not by design. What could he say? He wanted to be with both of these men, and if they were to decide between them who he would be with and when, then all Horatio could do was obey. Except that Archie needed him more, and Horatio loved Archie all the more for that, if for no other reason. And Archie, with that nobly empathic smile, was about to walk out the door and leave Horatio with his other lover.

‘Wait,’ Pellew said. ‘Perhaps your generosity leads you to offer something that you otherwise wouldn’t. One cannot happily share something unless one already feels secure in possession.’

‘I do feel secure, sir. And when I thought my rival was the Duchess, I cared nothing for her claims. For a long while, all Horatio would say was that it was someone who deserved my respect – and he was right. You’re different, sir. And you have a prior claim that I cannot deny.’

‘Come now, if we’re talking prior claims, it was always made very clear to me that you were the first to win Horatio’s heart.’

‘But you were the second,’ Archie lightly retorted.

Pellew cast a sharp glance at Horatio. ‘Is that so?’ he asked softly. And he turned away as if he did not expect, or even want an answer. ‘What happened to curiosity?’

‘It was never only curiosity, sir,’ Horatio replied. ‘And it quickly became far more.’

Silence. Silence, and the dim room around them cocooning the men from the world outside. The three of them stood there, equidistant, stranded.

‘Mr Kennedy,’ Pellew said after a time, ‘you are deliberately making it harder for me to release my claim. I was fully prepared to withdraw. Perhaps that is taking selflessness too far. But for you to argue with me – well, that is turning nobility into futility. Why do you do it?’

‘It seems to me, sir… that both choices are equally good and equally bad.’

‘And yet, as you said, it is Mr Hornblower’s choice to make.’

‘Is it, sir? Then why do you release him, and force him to choose me?’

Pellew let out a breath that might have been amused under any circumstances that were less trying. ‘Again, sir – you are taking honour too far.’

Archie dared to reply, ‘There is a third choice, sir.’ Once more, both of his companions turned to stare at him, wondering what he could possibly mean. It was soon made clearer. ‘Horatio himself said he would love both of us if he could. Why don’t we let him choose that?’

Horatio reeled at the thought. There were chairs a yard or two behind him – he turned and made it to the nearest, and sat.

One glance at him from Pellew, and the Captain was able to stand taller and to speak firmly. ‘Because that was merely words, Mr Kennedy. A declaration made with the sole intention of easing my loss.’

‘Was it, Horatio?’

‘No,’ he said faintly. ‘No.’

‘He meant it, sir. He means everything he says.’ Gently chiding. ‘You should know that about him.’

‘No,’ Horatio repeated witlessly. ‘No, I meant it, of course. But I – I know little of these things. How would such an arrangement work? I – You will have to tell me.’ Horatio looked from Pellew to Archie and back again in desperation. ‘And what about Archie, sir? He and I could not in honour begin anything until I was free to do so. We haven’t even…’ Horatio swallowed, horribly unused to speaking of such matters. ‘He says he feels secure in his claims, sir, but I haven’t even kissed him yet, and –’

By now Pellew had sat down as well, as if his legs would no longer hold him. ‘I understand. You must have… experience that belongs to the two of you alone. You must possess each other.’

‘No,’ Archie replied. ‘We should begin as we mean to continue. We should begin with the three of us.’

Horatio was willing enough to acknowledge that both Archie, despite his youth, and Pellew were wiser than he when it came to matters of love. But he was surprised to see that even Pellew was looking keenly at Archie, as if perceiving a knowledge or a bravery even greater than his own.

‘If you are talking of each pair having their own experience, sir,’ Archie continued, ‘then what of you and me? It cannot work that way. We should begin as we mean to go on. The three of us. Together.’

It was Pellew’s last chance, and he knew it. If he left now, they would all have the time necessary to consider this, and make the sensible decision. If he left now, Horatio and Kennedy could develop something for themselves alone. This was Pellew’s last chance to take the wiser path. To disentangle himself from this self–indulgent liaison. To rediscover his sense of self–discipline. If only he had the strength of will.

Archie said, ‘If we don’t do this now, we never will. We’ll lack the courage.’

‘Does that not indicate where our choice should lie?’

‘We all care for each other,’ Archie murmured, as if Pellew hadn’t spoken. ‘We all respect each other. We all want each other. Can either of you honestly tell me you’d rather not take the risk?’

‘Actually, Mr Kennedy…’ Pellew stood, and his shoulders took on the attitude of command. ‘Actually, wisdom dictates…’ He looked at Horatio. He made the mistake of looking at Horatio – who was looking back at him, imploring. Loving. Pellew made the mistake of looking at the man to whom he could refuse nothing. It was deplorable, this partiality. This weakness. But Pellew surrendered to it, nevertheless. ‘Actually, I do believe that wisdom dictates we should stop talking about it, and take appropriate action instead.’

Horatio was on his feet again, surprise dawning on his face. Relief. Delight. Confusion of the most delicious sort. How could Pellew doubt his decision, when this was his beloved’s reaction?

They were all three slowly walking towards each other, meeting, their arms slipping around each other’s waists and shoulders as if this three–way embrace were the most natural thing in the world. Looking at each other with equal amounts of satisfaction and anticipation.

‘Horatio,’ Pellew murmured, ‘I do believe that you have made Mr Kennedy wait long enough for a kiss.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Horatio happily murmured in reply. And at last he leaned in closer to his best friend – and, nestled together in that shared embrace, the two young men kissed for the first time. For Horatio, it was all sweetness and eagerness. There was less solemnity in Archie’s kisses than in Pellew’s. Less awe. Though just as much sophistication. For long moments Horatio lost himself in sensation that he could only compare to the one taste of champagne he’d ever had – which he’d loved, in a forbidden kind of way, because of course it was French.

And then he found himself swept up in the serious passion of Pellew’s kiss, and relaxed into the easy, promising familiarity of it. If Archie was champagne, then Pellew was old malt scotch…

And then – oddly enough, it was even better than being kissed himself – he watched as the Captain cupped Archie’s beautiful golden–brown head in one commanding hand, and the two of them kissed – tentative at first, but soon letting loose, revelling in sharing and combining experiences that Horatio had never had.

‘Welcome,’ Pellew murmured, once they parted. ‘You are very welcome, Mr Kennedy.’

‘Archie,’ prompted the younger man.

‘Then you had better call me Edward.’ Pellew glanced at Horatio, and found he could not tear his gaze away again. ‘You, as well,’ he said, both fearing and loving this new intimacy.

‘Yes, sir,’ Horatio happily agreed.

And they all began kissing again, quickly forgetting whose turn it was, and simply surrendering to all the passion they’d each been denying themselves for weeks, months, years.

 

Such delightful habits were hard to break. The lamplight pooled gold across the sheets – and Pellew had lain himself down by Horatio’s side, the young man’s beautiful length blessing his own old body, and he began tending to Horatio’s needs. No matter what else they had done, they had always begun this way. Horatio lying back – and in a proper bed for once – soaking up the pleasures Pellew could give him… It had been impossible for the Captain to imagine there could be anything finer in his life.

Now, though, there was an addition, a welcome addition. Archie Kennedy lay stretched along Horatio’s other side, focussed on exactly the same thing as Pellew. And, no matter how happy Horatio appeared, Archie appeared ten times more so. Perhaps it had been instinct rather than habit, to initiate this – this overwhelmingly natural embrace for two men who both adored a third more than the object could ever realise. Which was one of Horatio’s most endearing traits – a humility so innate that he could not even conceive of his effect on those who loved him, not even when the results were there for anyone to see. Perhaps that was what made him a safe enough lover for Captain Sir Edward Pellew to throw all caution to the winds…

There was a slight lull in proceedings, perhaps caused by Pellew’s tendency to think too much, perhaps by Archie’s need to withdraw a little and take a deep breath or two. ‘Sorry,’ Archie murmured, with the most charmingly self–deprecating smile. ‘I’m not going to last…’

Horatio was looking up at him with a blend of tender concern and sheer hunger – and Pellew couldn’t help but remember what it was that had torn Horatio apart when he thought Archie lost. He died, without ever knowing what it was to be touched for love, rather than for cruelty. Perhaps Archie’s experience hadn’t been as narrow as Horatio assumed, but there was indeed much in Archie’s life for which his two lovers could provide a weighty counterbalance.

‘Come here,’ Pellew commanded. And he slid his hand around the nape of Archie’s neck, and drew him close for the deepest, most provocative kiss he could muster. Below them, Horatio moaned in appreciation, and his arms tightened around both men – at least, so Pellew assumed, for Archie abruptly shifted closer to him, and he himself was gathered in hard. Pellew finished the task he’d set himself, by letting his hand drift down to Archie’s rump, and then forcefully hauling him up onto Horatio, so that the two young men were mirrored, one against the other.

And Archie was immediately moving, instinctively thrusting, blindly seeking the completion he’d tried to deny himself only moments before. Horatio’s hand joined Pellew’s in massaging that firm rump. Pellew wouldn’t surrender Archie’s mouth, though – so when Horatio leaned up, it was to fasten onto the nearest of Archie’s nipples, gnawing and sucking in ways with which Pellew himself was happily familiar.

Within moments their ministrations had taken Archie to the brink and beyond. The young man buried his face in Pellew’s throat, gasping, silently crying out, his body quaking – his arrhythmic thrusts sending Horatio over the edge to join him in that brief scrap of Paradise man was given here on earth.

At last Archie collapsed onto his lover, and Pellew followed him down, wrapped himself around both beautiful boys. Horatio thanked Pellew with a complacently lazy kiss – and soon enough he roused himself sufficiently to ensure that Pellew was the next to benefit from their loving. Archie seemed as enthusiastic about the matter as Horatio was, bless him. Bless them both. Pellew surrendered, if not to duty or honour, then to love.

 

They woke in a tangle of limbs and sheets and blankets, with Horatio happily caught between the other two men. ‘Good morning, sir,’ Horatio said to Pellew, respectfully enough – though he was grinning with the kind of cheeky familiarity that Pellew would have expected from Kennedy.

The other young man lifted his head, as if hearing his name in Pellew’s thoughts, and he planted a bold kiss on Horatio’s mouth. The two of them beamed at each other for a moment, and then Archie commented, ‘I’m starving!’

Horatio groaned in needy agreement, and Pellew could see his hands moving down Archie’s body under the blankets.

‘No,’ Archie laughed, ‘starving for food, youfool!’ He leaned over Horatio – who took suitable advantage of the situation – in order to plant another bold kiss on Pellew’s temple. ‘Morning, sir,’ Kennedy managed in quite ordinary tones, despite the distraction of Horatio slithering further down the bed beneath him, and disappearing under the covers. ‘You work me hard, you give me rations – that’s fair, isn’t it?’

‘Perfectly fair,’ their Captain agreed.

‘Well, then…’ But Archie suddenly found himself caught by whatever it was that Horatio was doing down there. A moment later, he made the effort to refocus on Pellew. ‘Your plans for the morning?’ he asked shortly.

Pellew shook his head to indicate there was nothing important. ‘Barber,’ he replied, just as shortly.

Archie’s eyes sparked at a sudden thought. ‘Nothing we can’t take care of ourselves, then!’

‘That is so.’

A fraught groan from Archie, and then another one from below him, muffled by flesh and sheets. Pellew had quickened unbearably – and seeing as much, Archie hooked an arm around his neck, dragging him closer, saying ‘Come here!’ just as commandingly as Pellew himself had said it the previous night… Needless to say, Pellew complied.

 

Horatio carefully worked the soap through Pellew’s hair, combed it through the long dark locks, and then indulged the man with a massage from brow to nape, paying close attention to the sensitive places just above and behind his ears. Pellew was relaxed back in the chair, letting himself soak up the attention in a rare moment of indulgence. They had washed each other’s hair aboard the Indy, of course, but there had always been other officers present – and there was no need for decorum now, with Archie their only companion. Archie, who was curled up at Pellew’s feet, with his head resting on the man’s thighs, soaking up a different kind of attention as Pellew stroked his golden–brown locks. Horatio enjoyed taking such good care of his Captain, of course, but it was even more enjoyable to watch his two lovers being so peacefully affectionate with each other.

He fetched another jug of hot water, rinsed Pellew’s hair, then shifted the washbowl away. The hotel maid had left them a whole pile of towels – ridiculously luxurious towels compared to what even the Captain had stashed away in his sea–chest. Horatio took one now, and gently rubbed at the dark locks until they were dry enough for the curl to return. ‘I think you’re done, sir,’ he murmured.

Pellew reluctantly stirred. ‘Thank you.’ He sat up a little, taking the towel from Horatio, and he gave one last lingering caress to Archie’s golden–brown head. ‘No doubt you’d also appreciate the work of those clever fingers,’ he said to Archie.

‘Yes, sir,’ with that cheeky smile only slightly mellowed by utter contentment.

The Captain settled himself on the carpet before the fire, and watched while Horatio prepared a fresh jug of water. Though he was always beautiful, in Pellew’s admittedly biased opinion, there was a grace to the young man’s movements at times like these.

Apparently Archie required a slight amendment to the ritual – he wandered around to Horatio, and silently insisted ondrawing Horatio’s shirt off over his head. Horatio returned the favour. And then Archie was unbuttoning Horatio’s trousers, and pushing them down his hips. Smiling, Horatio climbed out of the garment, followed Archie’s lead again – and then Pellew was blessed with watching the two young men wash each other’s hair while unashamedly naked.

There was something timelessly involving about the simple actions. There was something about the slow, careful ritual that seemed to cast a spell over the three men. Horatio worked over Archie’s golden–brown locks, puzzling out a tangle, then massaging him into a stupor. Then Archie stirred himself and repeated it all for his friend. Pellew remembered exactly what it was to have that dark brown hair running through his fingertips, the curls too stubborn to ever quite straighten – all the while gazing upside down at the bold beautiful features of the man’s face. He had never yet managed to find words to describe what it was about Horatio that destroyed all his defences – but who needed words, when Horatio was sitting there before him in all his glory?

Horatio and Archie came over to the fire, sat cross–legged to one side of Pellew, and the three of them took turns in brushing each other’s hair as it dried. The two young men seemed unable to help interspersing their ministrations with kisses for each other – impassioned kisses – and Pellew could hardly blame them, for they had many lost opportunities to make up for. Though Pellew himself – Pellew himself had lost his Horatio for two long years – lost Horatio to those Spanish bastards and their infernal prison. He himself had much to make up for, too.

After a while, Horatio began tracing lazy patterns on the carpet. He smiled up at Pellew, and softly said, ‘Do you know, Archie – I can never see a Turkish carpet now without thinking of love.’

‘Is that so?’ his friend replied with a smile. ‘What strange tastes you have developed, Horatio.’

‘I have, yes. I think it must be because late at night, when I visit the Captain’s cabin, he always orders me to make up a bed on the carpet there – do you remember the one? It is red, with patterns of dark blue and black. It is very fine.’

‘I remember.’

‘No doubt it will come to have the same significance for you,’ Horatio slowly continued, as if still under the spell they’d woven. ‘And then every time you glimpse it in daylight, when you really should be paying careful attention to a briefing or a plan of attack, you will think of love instead.’

Pellew shook his head, though he knew all too well that his smile betrayed him. ‘I am glad that you can see all the pitfalls that might result from this disgraceful lack of discipline…’

‘Perhaps you can see the benefits, sir,’ Archie countered. ‘I do believe that this carpet we are now sitting on has inspired Horatio to think of love again.’

‘I will throw the thing overboard!’

‘No, you won’t,’ Horatio said with a broad lazy smile.

Pellew considered the strange but very compelling Horatio seated beside him. The two of them had, of course, never spent so much time alone together before, with nothing on their minds but love. He pondered for a moment on what the two of them – the three of them, now – could become, away from duty. Duty. Pellew frowned. ‘From now on, I will hold all significant strategy meetings in the Lieutenants’ wardroom.’

Horatio’s smile grew. ‘You have been very generous with us,’ he commented inconsequentially, ‘Edward. Ever since Archie made such a bold suggestion yesterday.’

‘On the contrary.’ Pellew forced himself not to turn away. ‘I have been intolerably selfish.’

‘What can we do for you in return?’

Pellew stared at this amazing young man, and at the beautiful creature at his side. ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Whatever you’ve ever wanted, Edward. No matter what it is. If it’s in our power, we’ll grant it. Won’t we, Archie?’

‘Yes.’

Taking a breath, Pellew sought to break the enchantment. ‘One moment you’re talking salaciously of carpets,’ he complained, ‘and the next you’re making offers that… that will only lead to me disappointing you.’

‘Never,’ Horatio declared.

But Pellew was again able to smile. ‘Horatio, your young friend there is the one with the imagination. Why do you not let him decide on what you should grant me? I’m sure he’ll surprise – and delight – us all.’

Horatio was startled by this idea at first. But then a smile grew, and soon he was chuckling. In fact, soon he was laughing so hard that he had to lie back on the carpet – a sight that could only provoke Pellew further at this stage. Archie was watching Horatio with the fondest of expressions.

‘You’re right,’ Horatio eventually said, looking up at Pellew. ‘And that’s why you’re the Captain – you know exactly how to make each of your men work to the best of his abilities.’

‘Of course. So you will humbly let us both adore you, Horatio, and Archie will guide us with his imagination, and all will be right with the world.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Horatio happily murmured, before lifting his arms around both his lovers, and drawing Pellew down for a kiss. And all was indeed right.

Subscribe to these comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *