"A captaincy for you, Mr. Hornblower, and a fleet of prize ships... and a dozen lovers to spend your fortune on."
"Really, Mr. Kennedy, all within the year? Isn't that asking a little too much?" The reader feigned hurt, and his friend laughed once more and stretched comfortably. "Find a long life for us both and loyal friends, and I think I shall be happy."
"Very well then - give me your hand again."
"Archie, do you really know how to do this?"
"When I was a boy, we had a maid who could read hands. There were some who said she was half gypsy, that she could see things hidden from others. She would sit my sister and I on the kitchen table when our father was out, and tell us when we would marry and how many children we would have... look, Horatio, here. This is a marriage line."
Horatio leaned closer, peering at a short, deep line cutting the edge of his hand just below the little finger. "Is that what it shows, a marriage?"
"Or a very strong love. Grace - our maid - always said that I had one, but when I asked if there were any children, she looked like she wanted to laugh out loud and said no, I would not be thinking of children at all. She would never tell me any more than that, and I never knew why. This is the line of life here." Archie took Horatio's other hand and turned it over, comparing it with the first. "The line on the left hand is what you were blessed with at birth."
"And the right?"
"What you achieve. You have a good strong line on both hands. So, you see, Captain, those prize ships are not so far over the horizon."
"Please." Horatio colored, freeing one hand to take another sip of ale.
Archie smiled, a dimple forming and vanishing. "Ah, Horatio, it's Midsummer's Eve. A night for magic and fortune telling!"
"Then I shall tell yours."
The corresponding creases sloping down from Archie's fingers were very different; deep and clear on the left, but continuing down his palm in an unsteady weave on the right, broken in several places, faint and feathery. Archie noticed his friend's frown, and removed his hands with a self-depreciating little laugh.
"Rather weak. I believe that all I have made of my life is displayed fairly accurately, wouldn't you agree?"
"I would not," replied Horatio, quietly but firmly.
These evenings were both the pleasure and the bane of his life. Archie's presence, his sudden flashes of wit, his smile, filled Horatio with a warmth unlike anything he remembered feeling before, but enjoying his company was like navigating during a storm, where the slightest miscalculation could upset the entire ship. A wrong turn, and Archie's humor would darken and become directed towards himself, and silence would come down between them in an impenetrable barrier.
Archie suddenly found some stray threads on his coat sleeve to be of great interest. "Do you think that as long as you do not say words, they aren't true? That if you cover for every mistake that I make and keep telling me that my fits were just bad dreams, I might start to believe it? You're not that naive, and neither am I."
The portcullis was starting to descend, and Horatio strained against it. "You're stronger than that. Stronger than I think you will ever realize."
His friend lifted his mug again. "Let it be, Horatio. It doesn't matter any more. I just want to have a pleasant evening and get very drunk, if I can. Don't spoil it all now."
"Archie," said Horatio in a low voice, "don't push me away."
"Because of how I feel about you."
"And how do you feel about me?" Archie's face was unreadable. "I should very much like to know. Is it just pity? Or do you like to be with me because I show your virtues up all the more clearly -"
"I care about you!" Horatio's voice cut through the room, and he hastened to soften it. "I care about you very much."
There was a moment's silence, and then Archie said, "That was the last thing I needed to hear you say."
"Is it so wrong? To want to help you, be close to you?"
"I have let people close to me in the past, Horatio. The price was too high."
The ale churned in Horatio's stomach, and he suddenly felt ill. Was that what his attempts at affection had seemed like to Archie? Reminders of another who had wormed his way into his confidence, eagerly drunk in all of his secrets and vowed to protect him, while the payments for that protection grew ever higher, and the midnight confessions became razor-edged weapons out of their owner's hands.
"Archie, I would never do anything to hurt you - you believe that, don't you?"
All of the fight seemed to go out of Archie, and he trembled slightly. "I want to."
His hand was resting upon the table, and Horatio felt an almost overwhelming urge to take it in his own. Instead, mindful of their surroundings, he sighed inwardly and settled for lightly touching the other man's sleeve, trying to express with his eyes the emotions that he could not say aloud.
"Horatio," Archie murmured, "I... care for you too. I don't deserve you."
"You deserve everything," Horatio answered softly. He withdrew his hand. "I'm sorry, Archie. Can we enjoy the rest of our evening? As friends?"
Archie nodded, and smiled a little, and gradually the set look faded from his face and his light eyes regained their usual clarity, tempered only by a faint trepidation, as though he were constantly waiting for blows to fall. They ate and drank in relative peace. Friendship was a pale response to the things that surged inside Horatio, but it would suffice for now. It would have to.
He unfastened the casement and swung it wide, and immediately the mingled scents of summer air and the climbing honeysuckle below the sill filled the little room above the inn. Horatio allowed himself a sigh as the warmth of the earth beneath rose up to greet him. The sea was both his livelihood now and his existence; he knew its ways, its changing moods, its ebb and flow as intimately as the beat of his own heart. And yet it was still a pleasure to have the land under his feet again for a little while and feel its own special rhythms of life, great and small.
Beside his own bed on the opposite side of their shared room, Archie undressed. He had the habit of doing so quickly and quietly, as if he were ashamed of his body and wanted to conceal it from attention, and it made Horatio's heart ache. Pale hair falling about strong shoulders, skin smooth over throat and scattered with a few soft, light hairs over chest and belly. Archie, do you not know how beautiful you are to me? Horatio felt a gentle pull in his groin and turned away. Archie watched him silently, his eyes large in the flicker of the candlelight.
As the clocks chimed, the Midsummer sun finally ceased its climb through the sky. For only a heartbeat, the year reached its zenith, and there was a sense of all that had been planted coming to blossom; a cry to human hearts, responding as they must, to acknowledge the fervor that the summer heat had brought to life and seize the moment.
He walked in a great sprawling garden filled with wisteria and heady-sweet mock orange, and old mellow stonework softened by mosses and lichens and creeping jenny. Statues peeped at him around the foliage, the carved images of saints and angels, but a flicker of animation, like a trick of the light, touched one as he passed her, and she quirked the corner of her mouth and winked at him so suggestively he felt sure that she could not be an angel at all. The evening air caressed him, squeezed wet little fingers inside his clothing so that he could no longer distinguish between the mist and the sweat that was bathing his body. His breeches felt restrictive, his throat tight with some long-unsatisfied thirst.
He began to weave in and out of the high box hedges without knowing exactly what it was that he was searching for, only feeling the indefinable presence of it; now very close, now far away, alternately swelling and retreating like sound on a changing wind and leaving him lonely when it was gone. Horatio knew that it was familiar to him. So he closed his eyes and let the taste and feel of it rush over him, saturating his senses until the recognition came with joy.
"Archie," he said out loud, turned a corner, and found his friend before him.
Archie stood beside a rosebush, laden with heavy, scented blooms on thornless stems, breaking off one at a time and plucking the petals to a murmured children's litany: "He loves me - he loves me not." They dropped softly to form a blood red satin carpet at his feet. Their perfume, combined with their gatherer's sweet musk, was almost overwhelming.
"He loves me," Archie declared, taking a final petal. He rubbed it against his cheek with a small smile of pleasure, and looked up as if noticing for the first time that he had company. "Is it true after all then, Horatio? Do you love me?"
"How can you still doubt that?"
Archie slowly knelt at Horatio's feet, and laid that same cheek against the growing swelling between his thighs. His warm breath penetrated the fabric, and Horatio shivered, one hand hesitantly straying to stroke the other man's thick fair hair and caress the shape of his skull beneath as he bit his lip and gasped -
He woke in a clammy, sweat-soaked cocoon, his nightshirt clinging to every crevice of his body. Floating in the shadowy place between sleep and consciousness, he fought to open his eyes and succeeded, but his dream world with all its beauty and strangeness rolled on as if it were quite oblivious to this act. Horatio forced himself to sit up in the small bed and blinked, and his surroundings obediently changed, but his perceptions did not. He stared into the moonlight, illuminating the room like day and washing it in silver, and his head swam.
"Archie?" he said, uneasily. "Are you awake?"
There came a sigh in response. Beside the window, Archie stood, his own discarded nightshirt puddled on the floor. The fingertips of one hand rested lightly upon the sill, and he gazed out over the tiny courtyard behind the inn and across the sky that would be dark for only a few more hours as if listening intently for something.
Warm. Slick. Naked. Erect. This was Archie Kennedy. And Horatio rose to greet him.
They were treading the finest of lines, the gauzy curtain between reason and instinct, wakefulness and fantasy growing almost transparent. A dozen houses slid into perfect alignment, and under their ancient spell, two wandering souls met and touched.
"I dreamed of you," Archie murmured absently. His brows creased slightly, as if he were trying to catch the lyrics of a half-forgotten song. "I was on the Justinian. I was waiting for someone. I thought it was Jack, but it was you that came...
Horatio shuddered, unwilling to become a new demon. "Archie -"
"...and we did such things together. The most shameless things..."
"I enjoyed it."
In this world, there was suddenly no more fear or uncertainty, only the first honeyed taste of Archie's mouth, sweeter and more succulent than any fruit. And Archie asked silent questions of his own, clawing the barrier of Horatio's clothes aside. Horatio drew back, feeling too much, too quickly. His cock seemed swollen beyond anything it had ever reached before from its fleeting brush with Archie's, and so sensitized that when his friend touched the tender, rosy head, he gasped aloud.
Archie pressed a finger to his lips, silencing him. A shaft of moonlight illuminated his face quite clearly, and for a moment his eyes did not look like his own at all. Archie's eyes were the quiet blue of the sea just as it met the horizon; these were the dark, shifting color of a stormy sky.
"Love me, Horatio."
"Always," Horatio whispered, and as his lover led him to the bed, he was lost to that storm completely.
Embraced by the sympathetic blanket of night, he moved over Archie's body with a passion that seared into both of them, straddling the slightly smaller man and pressing his own throbbing need to his. Archie's heat, the pearly strings of their moisture dripping and glistening in fair and dark nether hair; the raw pleasure of it emerged from Horatio's throat in a hoarse cry. And Archie responded tenfold, moaning and moving like a wanton, running his fingers through his partner's curls and thrusting himself at him. Horatio panted, rough and clumsy in the desire shaking his body.
"Archie, help me! I don't know what to do..."
Archie's hands moved in restless circles over Horatio's back, his flanks and buttocks. He sounded almost feverish. "Tell me what you want. I want to hear you say it."
"I want to fuck!" Horatio ground out.
The sudden profanity shocked him even as it dropped from his lips, but, just as quickly, he knew that there was simply no other word that fit. He needed fulfillment, needed to complete the cycle, just as the year turned through its seasons and flowers grew from bud to seed. More than anything, he needed Archie. And this Archie - the Archie he had always dreamed of seeing, sensuous, confident, proud of his nakedness and its power over his lover - did not shrink from his passion, but rose up from the bed and rolled Horatio onto his back with a fierce, hungry sound of his own.
Their breaths became deeper, more labored, as lips and tongues found secret, sensitive places. Archie's cock was between his lover's thighs in a moment, nudging damply at his entrance, and Horatio's legs tightened around his waist like a reflex. Wrestling together, they murmured to one another as the friends of old, even while their bodies moved to a strange, wild music that they could neither understand nor resist. Archie pushed past the taut muscles, entering him. Horatio cried out in astonishment and wonder.
"Do you like that? Does it hurt?"
"No! It feels... I don't know how it feels! Oh, my God..!"
Archie thrust forward with a moan. "I love you, Horatio!"
"I love you too... so much... never stop..." They swam through a tide of pleasure, gentle meetings of fingers and lips alternating with peaks of madness. The distinction blurred between whether Archie were making love to Horatio, or he to Archie, or both. They clung together, rocked, and lifted their voices in a joyful chorus of ecstasy as the final wave broke, plunging through it to shudder down into the sleepy calm waiting below.
Tired to the bone, they lay in one anothers arms, long limbs entwined, the magic quietened but still warm. Horatio squeezed his muscles tentatively, experimenting, and felt the organ buried within his wet, aching body quiver briefly with life before softening once more. They exchanged soft words and kisses as Archie slipped out, coming away with a moist sucking sound.
Horatio heard his lover's sudden intake of breath, and saw him staring at the fingertips that he had just brushed across his own cock, the tiny bloodstains.
"I did hurt you," Archie murmured distantly.
"You didn't." It was the truth. There had been a strong sensation as Archie breached his virgin passage, but he could not call it pain. Or perhaps it transcended pain, this many-layered, wondrous feeling of changing. "You didn't hurt me at all."
"Come close. Please."
Locked as one, they slept a deep and dreamless sleep.
In Spithead tract, the morning air began to pluck at sails, fresh and chill, awaiting the full warmth that the sun would later bring. The Indefatigable, her timbers flexing gently in time with those of the Lysander by her side, creaked and moaned. But the breeze was still soft in the sheltered streets of Portsmouth to the north, carrying its inhabitants quietly across the threshold from night to day in order that they might take their dreams - if dreams they were - back to reality with them, and for a little while be not lords and gods, but afraid and enthralled as they once were.
A dark-eyed young man stirred naked in the bed he had shared with his friend, saturated with the unmistakable, musky perfumes of sex, and remembered all that had taken place between them, but no longer knew how or why. And still, half-awake, he turned, seeking out Archie's warmth.
But Archie was staring across the room at nothing, his eyes wide and fixed, and in another moment, he gave an inarticulate, mournful cry, the kind that always chilled Horatio, seeming to speak as it did of such helplessness, and began to shake uncontrollably.
Horatio held him for a long time after the fit subsided, resting his chin on top of his head, reciting the little futile phrases of comfort. The scent of Archie's hair filled his nostrils, and he kissed it. Archie shifted uneasily.
"Thank you, Horatio. I... I am quite all right now."
Horatio released him, trying to ignore the ache in his chest. The distance between them had returned, subtle but tangible.
"You hadn't been troubled for so long," he said. "I thought that perhaps..."
"I was cured? It seems you were too hasty."
"It has been twelve weeks! I know, I write it down, I -"
His friend had been pressing the back of his hand to his mouth, suppressing the blood flow from a bitten tongue. A single ruby smudge shone wet on his lower lip. "You write it down? My God, Horatio - you sit and watch me, and wait for it?"
"I watch you because I love you! And I worry about you!" Horatio paused, feeling his own body trembling. "Archie, why now? Why after we..?"
"I don't know. I don't know what happened here last night. All I know is that I swore I'd never let anyone see me like that again, have that kind of hold over me, and now... now I have condemned myself. Horatio, please get dressed." And Archie turned away slightly, wrapping his arms about his knees.
Clothed and packed, they descended the stairs with downcast eyes. If the innkeeper or any of his staff had caught the sounds of passion coming from the tiny attic room in the night, they gave no sign, and Horatio sent up a silent prayer, for the coming of the light had torn mercilessly at the paradise Archie and he had woven together for those few sweet hours. The taste of last night's ale rose again in his throat, and it was bitter. Vomit threatened to follow it.
"Are you feeling well?"
"Yes. No. I'm not sure." Horatio passed a hand over his eyes. "The drink, perhaps," he offered.
"Come outside," Archie said, "and get some air. I think it would help both of us."
They walked to the end of St. Martin's Street, and found a low wall to sit on where they overlooked the harbor and the waves hitting the shingle beyond. The mist was starting to burn away, and sparkles winked and danced on the water, causing an tiny afterglow on the surface of Horatio's eye for a split second at a time and then fading. The morning was beautiful, and Archie was beside him. He should have been the happiest man on earth at that moment.
"Archie, what we did -"
"Felt good," Archie finished. His own response seemed to perturb him, and he looked away once more, gazing out to sea. "It felt better than anything I've ever done. I'm afraid of how good it was. I'm terrified. And it all has to stop now, without you asking anything more of me, because if we go on, I don't know where it will end."
"I would never ask anything of you that you didn't want to give."
"I gave to Jack freely at first. So that in the end, I had no-one to blame but myself."
Stray tendrils of hair had unfurled about his temples and cheeks in the breeze, and his hat was clapped slightly untidily on top of the whole affair, creating a vulnerable picture that made Horatio's heart ache. His hands shifted as if to reach out, but he thought better of it, and lay them in his lap instead.
"Archie, I won't ask you to bed again. I won't even touch you, if you don't want me to. We can be friends just as we were and forget anything ever happened."
"How can I forget what my friend looks like with his arse bared and his cock -"
There was nobody in sight, but Horatio instinctively glanced over his shoulder. "Archie, for God's sake -!"
"Secrets and lies, that is what our relationship would be, wouldn't it, Horatio? I'm tired of having so many secrets. Don't let anyone know that you have fits, that your shipmate is fucking you, or they'll lock you up for a madman, if they don't hang you for a filthy degenerate first."
"Is that what Simpson told you?"
"He was right, wasn't he?"
Horatio shook his head, slowly. "No, Archie, he wasn't. He wasn't right at all."
There was silence for a long time, nothing from outside or inside their heads, only the rhythmic rush and pull of the water. Then Archie made a tiny, choking sound, something caught between a sigh and a sob, and lowered his head, as if crumpling beneath a weight that had been building for years. Horatio found his hand, and, shielded from prying eyes by the folds of their coats, wrapped his fingers around it. Archie tried to pull away, but the other hand held on determinedly, and after a little time, he ceased struggling.
"I meant it when I said I loved you," Horatio said softly. "I don't mean to lose you without at least having fought."
"It may be a long fight, Horatio. No lovemaking in the moonlight for a while. I need time to think. I only hope you find me worth it at the end."
"I will. Archie, just..."
"Think of me sometimes."
So the two of them sat, above the warm harbor walls and the harsh sandy banks with their great flushes of ragwort and red-pink thrift, looking out to where the summer sun was breaking through the clouds, bringing forth endless rebirth and redemption, never to age and never to die.