Harlequin's Slash Fic

The Dastardly Libertines

Title: The Dastardly Libertines
Author: Harlequin
Universe: Hornblower
Characters featured: Christopher/Horatio/Archie/Ewan (two original characters, and two canonical)
Category, Word count: Short story; 6968 words
Rating: R
Summary: The lives and loves of Horatio, Archie and Pellew have become inextricably tangled over the years. Pellew’s beloved youngest son Christopher is intrigued to witness some of those tangles unravelling at Pellew’s funeral.
Notes: Someone else had the brilliant idea of casting Ewan McGregor as Archie Kennedy’s older brother; I gratefully borrowed him with permission. This story also features a creation of my own: Christopher Pellew. I think he looks like the Christopher Marlowe portrait; at least, he has the right eyes.
Warnings: For a start, this story is non-canonical! I wrote it early in the piece, and imagined a future that wouldn’t quite have happened. It is set some decades after the Hornblower movies, just after the lamented death of Pellew at a ripe old age. By this time, Pellew, Horatio and Archie are all married with children; however, our lads have reason for one more fling. Generally, this story is just one big rollicking indulgence, with some very nice playthings! Also, the story includes incest between the Kennedy brothers.
First published: 4 January 2008 on Harlequin’s Slash Site

 

The Dastardly Libertines

 

Exmouth
10th June

To my dearest friend John,

You will recall me speaking of the enormous family of which I am a relatively insignificant part – a family which my beloved father described as being brought together by choice and by fate as well as by God and by blood. Until this morning we had managed only three scandals between us in this generation and the last, and none of much moment. In fact, the scandals were of my father’s generation only, and this current sprawling crop of Pellews, Hornblowers and Kennedys seems all too well–behaved.

I suppose that the worst of the scandals until now has been that I have a half–brother who lives in the village. He is as tall as my full brothers, and his eyes are as dark as my father’s – which means they are as dark as mine, too. With my father’s patronage, he has done well for himself as a carpenter both in the nearby towns and at the Naval dockyards. Of course, none of this is ever openly acknowledged, but I saw my father’s lawyer, with his usual bundle of papers in hand, leaving the man’s home on the day after my father died, and we nodded courteously to each other as if all was known and accepted. It is not as if the man or his mother have ever given us any trouble. She married a local farmer soon after my mother came to live here, a good and decent man, and she went on to bear a brood of fine children, none of whom have dark eyes. So there seems no harm done there.

The second of our scandals would not even be considered a scandal if our family had been any other family in the world. It is simply that my Uncle Horatio – who is my uncle by choice and by fate, and not by blood – does not love his wife Maria. In fact, it was said that he truly loved another woman, whom he met much later. I understand that he was too honourable to even question his marriage vows, however, let alone break them, so again there seems little or no harm done. It is only within the setting of our plentiful and passionate family that this loveless marriage can be seen as a scandal at all. I am unsure whether their abundance of children is considered to be a good thing or a bad under the circumstances. I have heard both views discreetly expressed. But I am sure that the marriage itself would not be seen as inappropriate by the rest of the world, who we see every day are all too ready to bless the union of penniless rank with wealthy trade, and such arrangements.

Within our family it is seen as no scandal that I – the youngest son of Sir Edward and Lady Pellew – I myself am somewhat younger than my oldest nephews and nieces. This indicates that my father and mother continued to care for each other for longer than might be thought proper by the rest of the world. And yet I cannot see the harm in that, either! The family has welcomed us all, and seemed to think my addition was no bad thing. So I do not count that as a scandal.

The third scandal is simply that my Uncle Archie – another uncle by my father’s choice – has an older brother who is an actor on the stage. This is whispered about as very inappropriate, though of course Uncle Archie stoutly defends the fellow whenever necessary. I must admit that when in London most of the current crop of children have sneaked down to Drury Lane at one time or another, to see this black sheep of the family act the part of Hamlet or Mephistopheles or Dante – and very well he does it, too. I understand that once my father dined with the fellow at the theatre, along with my uncles – my Uncle Israel, as well – so I’m sure you will suspect, as I do, that the desire to have a black sheep in the family has counted for more than any real outrage at the man’s profession.

I have described these scandals to you in order to illustrate something of my family. They are warm and loving and plentiful, and very sentimental. My father loved my uncles – both those by choice and those by blood – very dearly. And so we have many little Horatios, Horatias and Archibalds on our side, and a plethora of little Edwards, Edwardinas and Israels on theirs. My uncles have stood as godparents at christenings so often that we have all become muddled as to who belongs to whom, and we just assume that my uncles are godparents to all of us. One of my brothers married one of Uncle Archie’s daughters, which seemed a tad inappropriate for a while – at least, that is, until we recalled there was no actual blood relationship between them! And then the intermarriages and the further bounteousness proceeded apace.

So, you have received a picture? All joy and light and the blessing of happy children underfoot, and nothing for God or his angels to worry about, beyond the fact that my father had created his own version of heaven here on earth – though as it was never done with untoward pride or arrogance, I do not believe that his soul is suffering for it now.

And so we come to this morning. This mourning. My beloved father’s funeral service. Large though the church is, of course, it was overflowing with people paying their last respects. The family, all in black crepe. Our servants, our tenants, the villagers. Scores of naval officers in full dress uniform, and as many ratings again, resplendent in their shore clothes. My father was laid to rest with all due honour, and with much weeping. I wept, too, and am not ashamed to admit it. He was a fine man, and kind far more often than stern, and he only ever had our best interests at heart. He never made me feel as if I didn’t belong, though he knew me as well as anyone has ever done. The last thing he said to me – But, no, maybe that should remain between him and me alone.

The family and the officers returned here for a late breakfast. The others were all entertained in the village hall, at our expense of course. By midday, only the officers who knew my father best had stayed, along with all the family. Black crepe rustling, black coats adorned with gold braid, quiet conversation.

I sat in a corner alone, wishing only for your company.

Eventually, though, my Uncle Horatio came over, and he sat beside me on the sofa. ‘Christopher,’ he announced, ‘I want to tell you about your father, your most wonderful, your most beautiful father.’

He was drunk. He was so drunk already, and drinking more from a bottle of spirits in his hand even as he sat by me, that it was a wonder he was able to put more than two words together at a time. It would have been a private conversation if he hadn’t been so drunk that he couldn’t tell how loud his voice was. It would have been private, and maybe I wouldn’t even be writing to tell you about it now. But the people near us overheard, and they fell silent, and then the people near them, and so on, and soon enough the whole room was listening to my Uncle Horatio’s story.

‘I loved your father very much, very much, and he loved me. He was Alexander, and I was his Hephastion. He was Socrates, and I was his wild Alcibiades. Do you understand me, sweet young Christopher, my most wonderful, my most beautiful Christopher? He was Jove – he was a god indeed! – and I was his Ganymede.’

My face was burning. You can imagine. I felt as if the whole room were staring at us. Which they were. And Uncle Horatio was completely ignorant of the fact.

But then Uncle Archie approached. Horatio looked up at him, and declared, ‘So was my dear friend, my dearest friend in the whole world, my sweet lover Archie. Most wonderful, most beautiful. Oh, the things the three of us got up to… It would make your toes curl to hear of it!’

Archie crouched before him so that they were looking at each other directly face to face, he put a careful hand on Horatio’s knee, and he murmured, ‘Think of what you are saying, Horatio my dear, and think of who you are saying it to, and who is listening. Our naval friends – they are too old for duelling, but you are giving them no option! Look at poor Bowles there – he would barely be able to walk five paces before turning to fire! Or else you will find yourself facing young Christopher here at dawn, and then we will have another use of our black crepe in order to bury you.’

‘Yes!’ Horatio cried out. ‘You can bury me in the same grave as him, still freshly dug!’

‘Hush… Hush, my dear.’ And the look that Archie gave Horatio was so compassionate and gentle and loving that I knew then and there that it was all true.

‘La, my dear,’ Maria Hornblower said in her sing–song voice. Horatio’s wife approached with a careless gesture. ‘What tall tales you do tell! Next you will have us all believing that you really did single–handedly defeat the Spanish Armada. But I hear that you and Sir Edward did actually have some assistance… such as the entire British fleet!’

Horatio blinked up at her, and remained silent. Other people laughed a little, nervously.

‘Well,’ Maria continued, ‘as long as you don’t start singing that horribly vulgar song about a ship named Venus, or whatever it was, then we shall all be well pleased.’

‘Yes, my dear,’ he said, nerve failing him at last. ‘I’m… sorry.’ He looked around at the others, blearily. ‘I’m sorry. Tall tales… Indeed.’

Archie stood, and let Maria take over. She had Horatio on his feet soon enough, though he had to lean on her arm to remain upright. ‘Come, let us retire for the afternoon, my dear. Let us grieve for Sir Edward together.’

And the pair of them walked away, heading towards the guest rooms. Uncle Archie watched them go. From his expression, he was aching with compassion. He turned that compassion on me for a moment, and then he walked away in the other direction, heading for the gardens. And then everyone else went their separate ways as well, gossiping, talking. I cannot yet judge whether this will be taken for the truth or not, and if so whether disaster will follow. I cannot yet judge how the family will view the coming scandal.

For there was a reason, John, why I loved my father for never once making me feel as if I didn’t belong in this family of bounteousness. The last thing he said to me was – ‘Christopher, in some ways I have loved you best of all.’ There is a reason why Uncle Horatio felt able to raise such a topic with me, though I hadn’t known he knew.

Have you guessed what that reason is?

And if so, have you guessed why I am writing to you this afternoon, my dearest friend?

In a moment I will seal this, and walk down to the village to put it out of my hands, so that I cannot change my mind. I will do it now, while the shock still makes me brave. If I never hear from you again, John, then know that I love you and I never meant you any harm. If I do hear from you, then –

But it is up to you to determine what then. And in the meantime, I remain your most affectionate friend,

Christopher Pellew

 

*

 

It was late August, and almost three months since I wrote to my dearest friend John, and there was still no reply. It seemed as if the worst had indeed come to pass, and I had lost John’s friendship, let alone any chance of love. I mourned this loss, my life had been nothing but mourning in recent times, and yet – and yet my enforced chastity chafed at me. I was a grown man of twenty, and I had inherited all the energies of my family, even if my energies were not directed in the same bountiful ways.

And so, when I found myself alone in a hotel room in London for the night with my Uncles Horatio and Archie, I decided to take my chances. I ordered the finest wine, and let them drink a glass each, before – as tactfully as I could – making clear that I wished to proposition whichever of them would be kind enough to oblige me…

Horatio: ‘No, no, no. Much as I’m tempted – and, believe me, I’m tempted – no. Your father would kill us.’

Christopher: ‘He’s been dead these two months past, and more.’

Archie: ‘You think that would stop him?’

Horatio: ‘A little consideration such as death stop Admiral Sir Edward Pellew?’

Archie: ‘Not likely.’

Horatio: ‘He was always very clear, you see. ‘Have your way with whomever you like, you dastardly libertines, but leave my dear boy Christopher alone. Or I will kill you.’ Well, words to that effect.’

Christopher: ‘And you always obeyed his every order?’

Archie: ‘Oh, yes.’

Horatio: ‘Absolutely.’

Archie: ‘Well, though, there was that one time…’

Horatio: ‘Well, yes, you’re right… And then there was the Strange Case of the Missing Marquis. Or was that Marquee? Anyway, we kind of totally ignored him altogether during that little escapade.’

Archie: ‘He always forgave us afterwards.’

Horatio: ‘But he wouldn’t forgive us this time.’

Archie: ‘He’d probably have a word in the Almighty’s ear…’

Horatio: ‘When he wasn’t busy giving sage advice…’

Archie: ‘And we’d be marked down for The Other Place, and no time off for good behaviour.’

Horatio: ‘Still, do you think a little consideration such as Hellfire and Damnation is going to stop us?’

Archie: ‘Not likely.’

Christopher: ‘And so you have talked yourselves into it?’

Horatio: ‘It would appear so…’

After another glass of wine, however, my uncles’ bantering tones became serious. Horatio said, ‘Yet, we cannot. Not yet, indeed. We have tickets for the theatre tonight, and we are expected – You have not yet met your Uncle Ewan, have you? If we do not attend, Archie will be sorely disappointed.’

I was fool enough to mutter, ‘You do not – you do not want me.’

Horatio’s face hardened a little. ‘You must be patient with us, Christopher.’

But I turned away, having had enough of rejection lately. I missed John’s companionship in my life.

‘You will not tell me what I do and do not want!’ Horatio thundered from behind me. God, he was truly angry, and as frightening with it as my father had ever been. ‘Edward – your father – was my one true love. Do you understand me? And you have –’ He grabbed my shoulder, spun me back around. ‘– you have his eyes, damn you, his beautiful dark eyes. And you will not try to tell me that I do not want you.’

Our gazes were locked together, and I felt the full force of his anger and his love and his lust. I wondered if he would have me then and there, and I wanted that as much as feared it.

But Archie intervened. ‘Why do you not stay here with Christopher?’ he politely murmured to Horatio. ‘I will make your excuses to Ewan. There is no need for you to attend.’

Horatio closed his eyes for a moment as if battling within himself. ‘No,’ he murmured in reply. ‘No, of course not. We shall go to see Ewan, as we always intended, Archie.’ And he smiled at his friend – a fraught, though a genuine gesture – and he went to collect his coat and hat.

Archie was watching him with that utter compassion of which Archie had always been capable. And yet it was forever at its most profound when turned on Horatio. I realised that if my father had been Horatio’s one true love, then Horatio had been Archie’s. ‘My father.’ I spoke quietly, and yet they both paused in their preparations. ‘Who was his one true love?’

Pain spasmed Horatio’s face. ‘Your mother,’ he abruptly announced. ‘Which is as it should be.’

Which gave me pause… If it had been otherwise, if these men and their loves had been luckier in alignment, I wondered whether our family would ever have come into being. Perhaps not. It was a scary thought.

‘And I will not have you saying, or even thinking, anything dishonourable about either of your parents – do you understand me, sir?’

‘Yes, sir.’

Horatio’s glare eventually softened. ‘Very well, then,’ he said, sounding for the moment precisely like my father. ‘Let us start for the theatre, or we shall be late.’

 

Ewan Kennedy had reserved for us the best box in the house, from which we admired him playing Brutus. He was so good that there were entire moments in which I managed to forget about what I hoped would happen later that night. Whenever I remembered, though, I felt impatient with need. Occasional glances from my otherwise impassive Uncle Horatio only served to provoke my impatience further.

After the performance, however, and before we could return to the hotel, we must go to the star’s dressing room and pay our respects. On any other evening, this would have been the highlight by far. Finally meeting the famous and infamous Ewan Kennedy!

With Archie and me in tow, Horatio swept down the backstage corridors and up the narrow stairs as if he owned the place. A brief knock at the door of the first dressing room we reached, and then he swept inside, obviously relying on the fact that we were expected. ‘Ewan… Brilliant as ever.’

‘Horatio… What else did you expect?’ They shook hands. Ewan was still in his costume, but it was obvious that he had quickly taken off his make–up; his face was glowing with cleanliness and happiness. ‘Archie…’

The brothers hugged each other with fond enthusiasm. Archie murmured his congratulations to Ewan, though too quietly for me to hear.

‘And this sprig of the nobility would have to be one of Edward’s,’ Ewan continued, reaching out his hand to shake mine. ‘Those eyes! I feel as if I should salute, or risk an Admiral’s tirade.’

‘This is Christopher,’ my Uncle Horatio said. ‘His youngest.’

‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ Ewan said, still clasping my hand. And meeting my gaze very directly – so that I felt for one eerie moment that he was speaking to my father through the medium of my eyes, rather than to me. Finally he let me go. ‘We all felt… Horatio, what’s that term? The wind had left our sails.’

‘We’re all a–back,’ Horatio supplied.

‘We’re in irons,’ Archie agreed, slipping his arm around his brother’s waist and resting his head on Ewan’s shoulder.

‘Yes,’ Ewan murmured. ‘We’re all a–back without him.’

‘Thank you,’ I replied.

Silence for a moment. A moment of respectful yet heartfelt mourning. I was very touched that Ewan Kennedy should care enough, months later, to still feel this way.

‘Ewan,’ Archie eventually said, quietly breaking the mood. ‘We have no secrets from Christopher.’

‘Ah.’ A grin grew on Ewan’s face. He glanced at Horatio as if he had mischief in mind, and then looked back at Archie standing close beside him. ‘Does that mean you want a kiss?’

‘Oh, I shall be wanting much more than that,’ Archie said – in the most seductive tones, much to my surprise. I mean, this was his brother he was talking to! His brother by blood. ‘But a kiss will do to begin with.’

And they kissed, mouth to mouth. I am afraid that I gaped. Horatio chuckled, and wound an arm round my waist, held me close to him. Planted a kiss on the top of my head. His need was obvious, from the tremble in his hand if nothing else. ‘Ewan? When will you be ready?’

‘Give me ten minutes.’

‘Then I will order the carriage.’ And Horatio swept out of the dressing room again, with me in tow. ‘Archie!’ he called back. ‘I will thank you not to distract him!’

 

‘Did he really warn you away from me?’

‘Yes,’ Horatio murmured from where he nuzzled at the base of my throat, having pulled my collar apart to expose this small portion of flesh. ‘He loved you dearly, Christopher, and he wanted to protect you. He even risked giving me the idea, just to warn me away! Though I had to admit that the notion had already occurred to me…’

This piece of flattery could not divert me. ‘But – to protect me from you? He loved you, too, Uncle Horatio. Why wouldn’t he trust you with me?’

The nuzzling paused for a moment, and Horatio pressed his face firmly against my skin. Then he said, ‘Perhaps he feared that I would not wait, and that you would be too young. But you are twenty–one now, and entitled to make your own decisions.’

‘I am twenty.’

‘Ah.’ A chuckle vibrated against my collarbone. ‘Then I will expect a severe chastisement from beyond the grave.’ Horatio raised his voice a little. ‘Archie – save yourself while you can. Edward is indeed going to kill us.’

Archie just laughed, but his brother Ewan said, ‘I am not surprised. Did he not always dub you two the Dastardly Libertines?’

‘Exactly that,’ Archie proudly assured him.

Horatio wriggled a little in my arms, but given that this provoked another laugh from Archie – a delighted one this time – I felt sure the wriggle was not directed at me. I dared to look across to where Ewan Kennedy sat at the far end of the sofa, with Uncle Archie cuddled up in his arms in just the same way that Horatio was cuddled in mine. And yet the sofa was small enough that Horatio and Archie, though back to back, were as close to each other as to either me or Ewan.

The black sheep of the family, my Uncle Ewan. Perhaps this had been the true scandal all along – that he and Archie loved each other in ways entirely improper for a pair of brothers. Ewan looked back at me fondly. ‘What are we to do with them, Christopher? They are incorrigible – and Archie, for one, always has been.’

He still had the loveliest Scottish accent, gentle and warm. I felt I could listen to it all night, and be as satisfied in the morning as if he’d made love to me instead of merely talked. It was strange to hear a similarly warm voice in Archie, though tempered into expensive English tones. It was apparent they had each received very different schooling.

But – What are we to do with them? ‘I do not know,’ I faltered. ‘I – I had hoped to be guided by their greater experience in these matters.’

Ewan collapsed in mirth. ‘Do you hear that, Arch? Your greater experience, indeed… I think young Christopher has your measure.’

‘You must be kind to him, Ewan,’ Archie murmured. ‘I believe this to be his first time.’

‘Is that so?’ Ewan was gazing directly at me again, and I was surprised to discover that it was indeed possible to blush even further than I already was. ‘Is that so? Well, then, Arch, why on earth are you concentrating on me, and I on you? The three of us have a responsibility to this young man.’

‘W–what would that be?’ I stammered, trying to back away, as if I could get through the sofa. As if Uncle Horatio would ever let me out of his embrace.

‘Why, to debauch you as thoroughly as three old libertines can possibly manage…’ And he was on his feet, those green eyes glinting, determinedly stalking towards me…

Horatio laughed, though there was something disappointed in his eyes – was I flattering myself, or had he wanted me for himself alone? In any case, he hauled me to my feet, and stood me there to face the others with my back to Horatio and his arms firmly linked around my waist.

Ewan began unbuttoning my waistcoat. Archie caressed my hair, and murmured, ‘Poor Christopher.’ He did not have mercy on me, however: he leaned in closer, and kissed my mouth. I moaned – Ewan was working down the buttons of my shirt, Horatio was gnawing at the nape of my neck, Archie was kissing me with such tender passion; and then Ewan was fastening his mouth on one nipple while caressing the other. It was, needless to say, overwhelming.

My shirt was forced off my shoulders and down my arms – but no further, so that it impeded any movement I might make. Horatio’s arms tight around me, and three pairs of hands all exploring, not to mention three devouring mouths. My flesh was as sensitive as if I were nothing but goose–bumps. Someone – Ewan, perhaps – working at my trousers, and I moaned a protest. Cool air against parts of me that were overheated – and then a mouth firm on me, suckling, sucking – and I imploded with a cry that rang harsh in my own ears ‘Father!’ even as darkness threatened.

 

I was dimly aware of being scooped up into Horatio’s arms and carried to the bed. He lay down beside me, holding me, cradling me. One small corner of me was embarrassed – how manly of me, to almost swoon! But the rest of me simply luxuriated in the utter abandonment of all restraint.

‘Is he all right?’ Archie murmured in concern from somewhere nearby.

Horatio stroked my hair, tenderly loving. ‘Yes. Oh God, yes. He surpasses all right as the sun surpasses a candle–flame.’

‘Fool,’ Archie muttered fondly.

‘Christopher…’ Horatio murmured. ‘Sweet young Christopher Pellew…’

I lifted my arms around his shoulders and kissed him soundly.

Ewan laughed. ‘Yes, certainly he’s all right!’

When I glanced away from Horatio, I saw Ewan and Archie undressing each other with maddened hands. Archie for one seemed about to burst into happy giggles. They were both beautiful, with generous figures, and Ewan’s endowments… well, he put both me and Archie to shame. I blushed yet again when Ewan came to kneel on the bed beside me, and began tugging my already–unfastened clothes away, while Archie did the same for Horatio. I blushed all over. Horatio was leaner than the others, with more sinew but less grace. Not that I was complaining. I only had youth to offer them; and, seeing all their beauties and scars, witnessing all the confidence and knowledge that age and experience offered, I felt blank by comparison.

Not that any of them let me feel that I wasn’t wanted. Horatio in particular would not let me alone. Ewan stretched out along my back, kissing and caressing both myself and Horatio; while Archie lay down behind Horatio, positioning himself, biting Horatio’s shoulder, then – Horatio cried out, stretching tall, tossing his head back. ‘Christ, Archie!’

Archie grinned for our benefit, but his gaze was centred on Horatio. A hand secured Horatio’s hip, and he moved in purposeful thrusts… oh my God… fucking him…

‘Christ, Archie…’ Horatio groaned, lost to the act. I couldn’t make out if his face was drawn with pain or pleasure, but his voice suggested the latter. ‘Christ, warn me next time…’

I became aware of Ewan’s tight grip on me, and I glanced back over my shoulder, apprehensive. After all, if Horatio seemed barely able to accommodate Archie, then Ewan would be another matter altogether… But Ewan just laughed. ‘I was told to be kind to you, Christopher, so you must not fear me.’

I nodded in response.

‘Why don’t you be kind to Horatio?’ he prompted.

The man seemed too fraught for kissing, so I considered other options. I bent my head to suckle a nipple in the ways that Ewan had suckled me. Reached a tentative hand to wrap around his manhood. Began a careful motion, and then firmed my caresses as I gained in confidence. Ewan was close behind me, appreciative moans and words encouraging me. His prodigious cock hard against the small of my back, beginning to thrust in echo of his brother’s thrusts. Now, that I could accommodate indeed – I wriggled a little, and stretched, and he guided me with a grateful hand until I was in the best position for him.

When the end came, it was as if one of them set off the next and then the next. Archie finished first, suddenly thrusting harder as if he’d lost all sense of care. He pushed Horatio half across me in his passion, but Horatio didn’t seem to mind, for he thrust once into my hands, and once more, once more and then his seed was pulsing across my stomach – while Ewan, thrusting back against the sudden increase in pressure, pulsed hot against my backbone.

 

We all lay there for a while, in a messy sprawl of limbs and semen. I was hungry for more, but knew I must be patient while my lovers recovered themselves. The first sign of returning life was Horatio’s hand, which reached between us to caress my renewed hardness. ‘Most wonderful, most beautiful,’ he murmured in happy appreciation.

Archie stirred, and slowly scrambled over the intervening bodies to reach his brother, kissing us both on his way. Then he and Ewan fell to it, caught up in each other as if they’d never had or even thought of anyone else since they were young men growing up together. Horatio gathered me close, and kissed me. ‘Sweet Christopher,’ he said again. ‘Don’t let me fall in love with you, will you?’

‘Why not?’

Horatio sighed. ‘Oh, there are so many reasons…’ But then he grinned, and I glanced back over my shoulder to see what had distracted him. Distraction it was, indeed: Archie was straddled across his brother’s hips, head thrown back, riding him, Ewan’s hands on his hips firmly guiding him… It was the hottest thing I’d ever witnessed. I turned within Horatio’s embrace the better to watch. Another sigh from Horatio. ‘Such assets to boast about, that blasted man,’ he said with a pretence at sourness, indicating Ewan, ‘and such incredible powers of recuperation as well, damn him.’ When I laughed, Horatio hauled me even closer. ‘But what now, my sweet?’ Horatio whispered in my ear. ‘What would you most like?’

I dared to wriggle my nether quarters against him. ‘Perhaps you should…’

‘No, no, no. Much as I’m tempted – no.’

‘You said that once before, Uncle Horatio, and look where we are.’

‘No, I will not risk hurting you. Just because Archie, that dastardly libertine, loves the act, doesn’t mean that even he found it easy the first time.’

I pouted.

He merely laughed at me. ‘You can do it to me, if you like,’ he offered. ‘If you don’t mind being second.’

‘I don’t mind,’ I whispered in reply. ‘I don’t mind anything right now.’

‘Good.’ And he pulled me over on top of him, opening his legs for me like a flower opening for the sun, so that I was lying between his sinewy thighs. And we kissed, we kissed as if it were a sacred act, before he showed me what to do.

 

‘Edward!’

Cold air. I felt overheated amidst sprawling naked bodies, but a cold breeze blew sudden from the window.

‘Edward! For God’s sake!’

Uncle Horatio’s despairing cry. I sat up. Ewan was slumbering on, but Archie was stirring, and then suddenly alert.

‘Please, Edward… Come back… Please…’

Quicker to realise what was happening, Archie pushed himself up over Ewan, and sprang out of the bed. Slower, I followed him.

Horatio was standing there by the open window, caught in the long lace curtains, calling out to the night sky. ‘Edward…’

Archie whispered his name, laid careful hands on his shoulders. ‘Come away from there, Horatio. Come away.’

‘But he was here… Edward! He was here, but now he’s gone.’

‘He wasn’t here, my dear. Come away. Come away before you wake the entire hotel.’

Horatio let himself be drawn back into the room, though he was arguing with his friend as if this was the most reasonable matter in the world. ‘He was here, Archie. The window crashed open. I wonder that the glass didn’t break. I told you he would be angry!’

I secured the window again, and closed the lace curtains; but I left the heavier velvet curtains open so that we had the moonlight to see by. Archie had gotten Horatio to the sofa, and they sat together, Archie’s hands comforting on his friend, on his true love. I crept over there, and crouched beside them.

‘Do you believe in ghosts now, Horatio? Or do you think that Edward’s soul would care to leave Heaven behind, even for a moment, to concern himself with us again?’

The pain on Horatio’s face was awful to see. ‘No,’ he whispered, defeated. ‘No, you are right. For he did not love me. Not as I loved him.’

‘But he did love you,’ I dared to say. ‘You must believe that he did love you! Even if it wasn’t quite the same for him as for you.’

‘Oh, Christopher,’ Horatio murmured, slowly beginning to return to something like his usual self. ‘You are your father’s son…’ And there were tears on his face. Tears of quiet grief.

I knelt up to pull him into a fierce embrace. Wondering if I was doing more harm than good, given that Archie had been trying to calm the situation down. But Archie’s hand patted my shoulder, giving me his blessing. When he stood, I shifted up into his place on the sofa, to sit beside Horatio – and Horatio pulled me into an equally fierce embrace. I went with it, holding him. Comforting him as well as I was able. Archie brought a blanket and draped it over us. And then he left us – casting Horatio one last achingly loving glance, before returning to the bed and his brother’s embrace.

Uncle Horatio and I sat up all night long, weeping and whispering together and occasionally dozing off. Towards morning, it seemed to me, Horatio finally began letting go of his enormous grief. When he seemed at his calmest, I got him to the bed, and Archie woke enough to welcome him back into an embracing warmth.

As for me, I wandered out to the sitting room, wrapped myself in the blanket again, and saw in the dawn alone.

 

*

 

Carnarvon
25th August

Dear Christopher,

I do not know what to write. Except that we must discuss this matter in person. I was away north – I am sorry now for my long silence, but I was helping my cousins on their estate, and mother had promised to forward your letters, but your latest – you know what it was about, and when you wrote it – there was no name or return address on the envelope, and so she did not know it was yours. Though how she cannot recognise your handwriting by now –

I do not know what to write because for the past five days my mind has run first down one track, and then darted off down another before that thought is finished, and then a third, and so on. I will admit that I was glad you had been answered with silence, so that fate had done for me what I might not have been strong enough to do myself. But then I imagined you assuming that we could never again be friends, and I felt the first returns of sympathy. And then –

But I do not know. We must discuss this matter in person. I cannot determine ‘what then’ until I better understand what you offer me. Do not take this to be encouragement – and yet, please, I require friendship from you first and foremost. If I am confused, I require you to respect me. You must promise not to take advantage of my confusion!

I fear I am encouraging you in a matter that can only be fraught with trouble and even danger. I will be your friend first and foremost, too, and we will keep each other’s best interests close to our hearts.

Christopher – you will have received the formal note I sent when we heard of your father. My parents were most concerned for you and your family. Please accept my more personal sorrow for a loss which I know you are still feeling bitterly; I know this because I know how much you loved your father, and how worthy he was of your love.

Before I can write any more for good or ill, I will post this. Tell me when and where to meet you. And we will determine ‘what then’ together.

your friend

John Doherty

 

*

 

I held the letter over my heart, stunned. Of course, nothing could yet be certain but that I hadn’t lost John’s friendship. My dearest friend, my one true love. Nothing else could be certain. And yet… And yet… for John to be so concerned about not encouraging my affections for him… surely that indicated he was more sympathetic to the idea than not.

And yet… here I was, having thrown in my lot with the dastardly libertines of the family. No longer able to offer John the innocent young man I’d been only the day before. If he was considering accepting the Christopher he once knew – well, John may well change his mind about the Christopher who sat here in this London hotel room, naked, with his three lovers asleep in the next room.

‘Are you seeing ghosts as well now, Christopher?’ It was Archie walking in from the bedroom, yawning while he fastened a robe round him. Heading to the sideboard to pour himself a cup of tea. ‘You’re so pale! Did Horatio not let you get any sleep?’

‘No, I…’ I was close to weeping. I’d thrown away my one chance. ‘They brought the mail with the tea.’

‘Anything of significance?’ He sat beside me on the sofa, but he didn’t touch me. Another glance, and Archie sighed. ‘Bad news, then?’

I handed over John’s letter.

He frowned while he read it. ‘And so… you have offered John… what, exactly?’

‘My love. My life. My self.’

‘I see.’ Archie looked at me with the utmost sympathy, and handed back the letter. ‘And naturally, my dear, he is interested.’

‘But it is useless now. Isn’t it?’

‘How so?’

I looked at him, wondering how he could not immediately understand. ‘He is interested in the man I was when I wrote that letter. The day of my father’s funeral. He is interested in – but by no means committed to – the man I was before last night.’

‘Ah.’ Archie glanced away, considering. I was glad that he didn’t feel accused. This disaster was my own doing.

‘You have met John – you must remember him, Archie. The best and truest of men. I do not think he would even understand what we did last night. Let alone forgive me for it.’

‘Must he know?’

I grimaced. ‘Perhaps I would never tell him – at least not the details – for the sake of tact. But to know that I would be forever carrying a secret of which he could never approve… That is too big a burden. It is useless now!’

Silence stretched for a while. Archie finished his tea, and went to pour himself more. He brought a cup back for me as well. Then he sat beside me again, and quietly said, ‘Love is a difficult matter, Christopher. There is little choice in it, and often it is not returned – at least not measure for measure. Your father and Horatio and I have proven that well enough, though we have managed to be friends – first and foremost, as your friend says. But none of this makes the love any less true – and that is what you can offer John. A love that will never change or diminish, no matter what experiences you have or have not had. Perhaps you do him an injustice to think he would not understand. Has he been entirely innocent? There’s no country lass or city girl who hasn’t tarnished his purity? Would you not forgive him?’

‘Of course I would, but…’

‘You should meet with him, and talk with him. Don’t you want that?’

‘Oh God, yes.’ That much was certain.

‘If you must, tell him that you despaired after not hearing from him – that a friend who cared for you obliged you the once – but tell him most of all that you love him, and know that it’s true. Can you do that?’

I looked at Archie, and found that my lips were tugging into a hopeful smile. ‘Yes.’ Whatever would I have done without my family? ‘Thank you, Uncle Archie.’

‘You’re welcome, Christopher.’ He smiled, too, and ran a light caress down my cheek. ‘Poor Horatio,’ he murmured. Then, firmly: ‘Now all we have to do is work out when and where you can meet, and send John a letter by courier. You might be kissing him the day after tomorrow…’

I shivered at the thought, and went to fetch some more tea and the hotel’s letterhead. For the first time in almost three months, there was nothing in my life to mourn.

Subscribe to these comments

Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.