Disclaimer: All Hornblower characters and situations are the property of the CS Forester estate and of Meridian television. No ownership is implied or inferred. This is done for love only.
Thanks Rabidsamfan for the beta.
The first time Horatio kissed Archie was a stolen moment in the sail locker, and was a complete surprise to them both.
Since Jack Simpson's return to the ship Archie had taken to disappearing for long periods when he was not on watch, and Horatio had suspected him of having a bolt-hole, or several, where he could hide from the senior midshipman's ire. He had not exactly asked to be shown where Archie was going, but had offered instead to go over the navigational problem that they had been set that afternoon. When he first suggested it Archie had paled at the thought of drawing attention to himself, thus making himself a potential target for Simpson, but Horatio had pressed the point, not wishing to lose the friendship that he had embarked upon.
"Oh, very well," Archie had finally said. "It's good of you to take the trouble. But not with the others, alright? We can go and sit in the sail locker, no-one should bother us in there."
Slightly surprised, Horatio had assented and so the two found themselves in the second dog watch surrounded by texts that they had begged and borrowed from some of the other midshipmen, and each clutching a slate and chalk. They had gone through that day's lesson again, and then Horatio suggested going over some other puzzles to ensure that Archie was comfortable with what he was doing. It was not until Horatio had sat back from his own work that he noticed the way Archie's eyes gleamed despite the dim light. A stray lock of fair hair fell across his forehead and Horatio had the insane urge to reach out, tenderly, and brush it aside. It seemed the most natural thing to do, and it took Horatio a considerable amount of willpower to keep his hands firmly on his slate. He did not know why it seemed so appealing, nor was it that he had not been close to Kennedy before – indeed, he had cradled the other man in the throes of his strange fits for several nights now. Nonetheless, he felt a keen urge to be near to him now, which he did not quite understand.
"I have it!" cried Archie suddenly, shattering the quiet of the locker. He scrawled a few figures on his slate. Horatio suddenly realised with a start that he had been staring and hastily looked away, hoping the flush of his cheeks was hidden by the dimness of the room. "Have I not, Horatio?" Archie continued, pressing the slate into his hands. His eagerness seemed to fill the cabin and Horatio tried not to watch as he bit his lower lip nervously, turning it a deep rich red. Determinedly, he looked down at the slate, looking over Archie's scribbled working.
"Yes, you have it," he said, not a little proud of his achievement as a tutor. Archie took the slate back, and smiled at him; a broad, warm smile that Horatio had only seen hints of, and those only before Simpson's arrival. Archie's whole aspect seemed to light up with it, and he reached out and gripped Horatio's hand in thanks. It seemed the right thing to do, to lean over and kiss Archie on the lips, and Horatio was doing it before he realised.
What was even more surprising, was that Archie did not jump back and strike him a blow, as Horatio would have anticipated had someone given him the situation as a hypothesis. Instead he leaned in, just slightly, and for a perfect moment they were kissing and there was no-one else in the universe. It did not matter that they were comrades in arms, and all the propriety in the world could go to the devil, for this was something right and pure and good. But all too soon, the world came rushing up to meet them and Archie pulled back from Horatio and shook his head.
"No, Horatio," he whispered, and his eyes were blank and tired where moments ago there had been bright light. Horatio sat back, confused, and watched as Archie gathered up the books and stood, brushing himself down, his face expressionless.
"Archie..." said Horatio hesitantly.
Archie turned to look at him, and for the briefest second there was a flash of bitter pain and grief in his eyes. He simply shook his head, and left the locker. Horatio watched him go, simultaneously surprised by his own actions and lack of sense, and dismayed at Archie's reaction.
That evening Simpson beat Horatio to hell and back, and Archie sat by, doing nothing.
The second time they kissed, it was Archie's doing. Horatio had hung in the rigging until it was dark, soaked through with rain, bitter and despairing about his situation aboard the Justinian. When he was finally called down he was shivering uncontrollably and his shoulders and knees felt as though his limbs had been stretched by cart-horses in opposite directions. He expected nothing from the other midshipmen after this latest demonstration from Simpson, and so he was surprised to find Archie waiting for him on the deck, buried in a boat-cloak against the weather and clutching a flask that Horatio recognised as Clayton's.
"I borrowed this," Archie muttered, pressing the flask into Horatio's hand. "Come on out of the rain." He led and Horatio followed, not marking where they were going until he glanced up out of his exhausted haze to find that they were in a little corner he knew not where, but they were alone.
"I'm sorry," said Archie, looking around nervously and refusing to meet Horatio's eye. "I truly am sorry. Simpson... he..." He floundered, lost for words, gesticulating silently with his hands. Horatio took a mouthful from the flask and felt it burn in the back of his throat, warming him slightly.
"What is Simpson to you?" he asked, blundering in tactlessly with the question, but he could not take it back and maybe it needed to be asked.
"What he is to all of us," said Archie, and again he dropped his gaze. "You must understand, Horatio... you have not been here very long. Jack has his ways with people, a different way for everyone, you don't know... you can't know what he's capable of. You mustn't keep aggravating him, Horatio, or it will be the worse for you. I'm sorry I didn't help you, I really am. You mustn't make it worse, not if you can possibly help it." He said all this in a rush and came to the end of his words with a stumbling halt, as if he had expected to be saying more.
"That's not my way," said Hornblower, deciding not to push Archie about what he had meant about Jack's ways with people. He suspected that Archie would shy from the subject, and a part of him didn't want to know, cowardly though that was. "I can't give in to him, Archie. I can't let him win."
Archie looked up, his eyes sad but bright at the same time, a spark of something Horatio had not seen there before. "I suppose not," he said, and with a startling suddenness Archie had closed the gap between them and was kissing him, not gentle like before but with a fierce passion that overrode all objection. Horatio slipped his arms around Archie, not knowing what he was doing, and pulled him closer, kissing him back. He closed his eyes and saw only sparks, and warmth stilled his shivering limbs. Then, all too soon the moment was over and Archie stepped back. He reached up and tenderly brushed his thumb over the bruises on Horatio's face.
"My poor Horatio," he said, and a thrill ran through Horatio at the possessiveness way he spoke his name. "So brave, and so stubborn. Please try, for me? I don't want to see you broken like me... like the rest of us."
"There must be something we could do," said Horatio, trying to think while his mind still burned with fire and longing. He reached up and covered Archie's hand with his own. "Some way of getting through this?"
"I have never found it," said Archie. "It will take a braver man than me to best Jack Simpson." His touch remained soft, but his voice was weary.
"We can get through this," insisted Horatio. "Together, Archie, we can..."
"We can't," Archie interrupted with a whisper. "We can't... this... it's too dangerous, Horatio. He'd know, he always knows. This is something we can't have. You must understand."
Horatio looked down, admitting to himself that he didn't even know what "this" was, and that even if he did the analysis of it would lead to that same truth. This was something they could not have.
"I understand," he murmured, the words thick and unwilling on his lips. Archie squeezed his hand, leaned in and planted a chaste kiss on his lips, so soft it might have been nothing but a dream. Then he was gone, melting away into the dark of the ship, and Horatio was alone.
Three stolen kisses were all they had, and Horatio lived by them when Simpson harangued him, remembering instead illicit sweetness and flashes of light. When Archie threw fits, Horatio rushed to his side, taking the opportunity to squeeze his hand and brush his hair from his forehead, the touch sending tingles down his spine. Clayton watched and said nothing, but Horatio wondered if he saw more than the casual observer would. It went unspoken, of course – it would be death for both of them, and he knew Clayton did not wish them ill.
There were days, though, when Simpson's focus turned to Archie, and he seemed to shrink within himself and appeared among them as a ghost of a man, while Simpson's glee rose ever higher. On those days Horatio's protective anger reared it's head and it was hard for him to hold himself back from beating Simpson to within an inch of his life, if he were just given the chance. He was a desperate man, driven by frustration both at his situation and more so by the situation of the man he had come to know as a friend and maybe more.
It was the duel that came between them.
Horatio had seized his opportunity with Simpson, but when he relayed the news to his friends Archie spoke lightly, but the despair washed off him in waves, words he could not say in his eyes. Horatio longed more than ever to grab Archie and kiss him, to tell him that he was doing this for him, for all of them, to free them and to let them be together, but Clayton stuck close by them from that moment, providing safety in numbers against the fear of what Simpson could do. Horatio could only tell Archie that he was determined for his own sake, and with the desire to see an end to it. In the dark of the night he feared what would happen to Archie if he lost the duel, but he closed his mind to the horrors of his thoughts and focused on what he had to do - what no-one else seemed willing to do - until Clayton clubbed him on the back of the head and stole his rightful place, Archie complicit in his plan.
Afterwards, it was as though a wall had fallen between them. Archie came up to him eagerly to relay the news of war, but Horatio, numb with grief from the loss of Clayton, looked at him with dull eyes and saw a man who had betrayed him, however good his intentions. They could be friends, but he would not risk life and limb for the sake of stolen dalliances with a man who had allowed Clayton to die in his place. He did not consider that Archie would have taken that place himself, had it been necessary, would have done anything to stop Horatio from endangering himself.
Their final kiss came aboard the Indefatigable. After Davy Williams was read over and dropped over the side of the ship, Horatio wandered the ship in a fog, finally finding his way to the midshipmen's berth. Mercifully he thought he found it empty, and dropped down on a chair, putting his head in his hands. Someone had died, on his watch, very nearly in his arms. He'd seen him to the sickbay and had done what he could, yet still Williams was dead. A heavy price to pay for the respect of the men, and one he would return in an instant if he could.
A sound like a muffled sob startled him, and he turned to see a figure huddled in the corner of the cabin. Peering through the gloom, he realised who it was.
"Archie?" he asked hesitantly.
"It- it's nothing, Horatio," replied Archie, his voice thick. "Don't mind me."
Horatio rose and went to the corner, and knelt down in front of Archie. Last time he had seen him Archie had been crowing about the victory they had just won, the very picture of elation, but now he was pressing himself against the bulkhead as if he wanted to disappear into it, his hands shaking and his face red as though he had been trying not to cry.
"Archie, whatever is it?" he asked.
"It doesn't matter," insisted Archie.
"Don't be ridiculous," snapped Horatio. "Tell me, what is it?"
"You'll think me a coward," murmured Archie, turning his face away.
Horatio shook his head. "Never," he said, schooling his voice to softer tones. "Archie, tell me."
Archie looked past Horatio and his gaze seemed to fix on something behind him. "I killed a man, Horatio," he said. "Maybe two. But the second... I saw him die. I looked into his eyes, and I saw... he died, Horatio. I killed him."
Archie was shaking uncontrollably now, and the only thing Horatio could do was reach out to him, put his arms around him and hold him while he shook against the tears that he would not cry. The bulkheads hid them from view but for a mad moment Horatio did not care if the other midshipmen saw, if the men saw, even if Captain Sir Edward Pellew himself saw. He stroked Archie's hair and held him, and somehow Archie looked up and he looked down and they were kissing, desperate and despairing, clinging to one another as if they could somehow make themselves one, whole and complete. Archie reached up and gripped his hair and Horatio tightened his arms to pull him closer. They kissed for what seemed like a lifetime, and when they finally pulled back Archie's eyes were not dull but bright and shining.
Approaching footfalls on the deck brought them to themselves and they dived for cover, Archie grabbing a book and hiding the flush on his face behind the pages, Horatio scrabbling in his sea-chest for a shirt that he knew needed mending. The cabin gradually filled with midshipmen and they could only give one another the briefest of looks across the room, but they were looks filled with the promise and hope of life together, sailing the high seas and stealing kisses in secret, the two of them in their own world.
The sea was calm and grey and the sky threatened thunder, but Horatio paid it no mind. It was almost a week since he had paid any care to anything beyond the fulfilment of his duties. He took no joy in anything, and never would again.
Archie was gone. When he closed his eyes Horatio could still see the boat slipping away from the hull, could still see those heart-stopping moments before Simpson had shot him, and knew he would carry the sight to the grave. It had taken every ounce of self-control he had not to send boats back for him in a futile rescue attempt that would have seen them all dead, but he cared not and instead cursed himself for not returning. Archie was dead. There would be no more stolen kisses, no high adventure and excitement, no shore leave where they could slip away and hide and just hold on to one another until their hearts melted into one core. Archie was dead and Horatio had not avenged him, had instead remembered Archie's words and feared too much to look into the eyes of a man on his knees and kill him. The light had gone out of the world and all that was left was grey and cold and lonely. Archie was gone.