A/N: Takes place a couple weeks after "Navigating Deep Waters" and after Clayton's duel with Simpson. Horatio and Archie haven't managed to make much of a reconciliation, but they're not in outright conflict. Hope it makes sense.
Justinian was weighing anchor for Plymouth soon. Rather than stay with her, the Indefatigable's new midshipmen had been given six weeks leave while their new ship finished its transformation from 64-gun third rate into a frigate. Time enough to return home, perhaps for the last time, if the tides of war did not favor them.
Archie was throwing books into the sea chest next to his. Horatio tried not to wince at the noise, and wondered if Kennedy was making a racket on purpose to provoke him into saying something. The other mid had been picking at him for days, trying to force his notice. Horatio had struggled to stick to the firm formality that he had decided was the safest way to deal with the bewildering boy.
His own packing was going more quietly. He had less to pack, of course, he'd only been on Justinian a couple months, and unlike Kennedy, had kept his few possessions neatly stowed whenever possible. He had still managed to lose some of what he'd started with: a shirt gone missing, a handkerchief, one stocking.
While rearranging the contents to lie more neatly, he found tucked in a corner a handful of little flags, and the codes with their inadequate cipher, that Kennedy had given him a lifetime ago. He picked up the packet and turned toward Archie, trying to decide how to give them back.
Archie interrupted him by speaking first. "Hor- Hornblower, I have been meaning to ask, would you like a ride to London? It's easier to go on from there to Kent than to get a coach from Portsmouth..."
The offer surprised him. Things had not been well between them since the duel. It wasn't the awkward kiss, oddly enough, at least not on his part. Nor the vile things Kennedy had said, words meant to drive him away forever, or so he'd been told. That hadn't made him love Archie any less, only hate himself more. There was some truth in every accusation, after all. But in the wake of Clayton's death, Horatio had come to peace with his inclinations, however resolved he was never again to act on them. There were worse sins than unnatural lust-like wrath and murder-that weighed heavier on his heart.
No, what Horatio couldn't quite forgive Archie for was that his former friend had not stopped Clayton. He suspected the reverse, that Kennedy had forced Clayton into it somehow, manipulated the situation to save him from his own suicidal folly. Archie had been so cold at the man's death, caring more about getting away from Simpson and off Justinian than the life just then sacrificed for their freedom, with more to come here and across the Channel, in the coming war.
It was a selfishness that seemed incompatible with the warm, fierce, loyal boy he loved and admired. And that made Horatio doubt himself, doubt his judgment, doubt his feelings, doubt everything except his attraction to Archie and his loneliness.
"Oh, Anne's flags! You keep them, Hornblower, you still need practice." Those strong hands were folding over his, squeezing tightly.
He had lost none of his awareness of Kennedy. He hadn't stopped missing Kennedy, wanting to talk to his friend, to laugh, to hold hands, or sit close together just stealing a few moments of warmth. The ship had been cold, and almost silent, these last days.
He felt the danger now, was all. Knew how this boy could drive him mad, drive him toward death, to other desperate acts. Better to keep his distance, to sit with other men, sling hammock just out of reach, keep to the aft hatch, keep busy, away from temptation. It wasn't Kennedy's fault, but he just didn't trust his sobriety around the boy.
He pushed the flags into the mid's hands and extricated himself, turning away back to his sea chest, so that he wouldn't have to look at the boy's face. "Thank you, Mr. Kennedy. And thank you for your other offer, but I couldn't impose."
Horatio began to refold a blanket that was not quite perfectly square.
"It's not an imposition... you see, my family is sending a carriage for me. There would be plenty of room. And... and why pay the fare? Spend it on a new book instead."
The truth was that Horatio hadn't expected to return home so soon, and with barely a month's wages saved the trip would strain his slender purse immensely. As it was, he would have to beg money from his father to get back to Portsmouth at the end of his leave. He felt his resolve weakening.
"I might even be able to get you on to Kent, if father is feeling generous. He might take a fancy to you. I'll tell him what a good influence you've been."
"There's no need to lie to your father on my account." That came out more bitter than he intended. Honesty would be that Kennedy had been a very bad influence on him. Though perhaps that was unfair. It was Justinian, and her whole miserable crew, that had dimmed his enthusiasm for the Navy.
"It wouldn't be a lie. But you will come with me? I mean, let me take you, I mean, you will ride in the coach, to London at least?"
It was a mistake. Horatio could tell by the way his stomach fluttered at the thought of the long trip to London, alone in a carriage, with Kennedy. But he nodded anyway. "It's very kind of you, Mr. Kennedy. I should be grateful to be spared the expense."
"Truly?" There was that blinding grin. The smile Archie had no right to, not from what Horatio knew of the boy's suffering. Yet here it was, brighter than the sun, for him.
"I'll have them hold your chest with mine, the servant will come here to fetch them. Don't dawdle, Hornblower, and we might be off this accursed boat before dinner!" Kennedy clapped him on the shoulder enthusiastically, then ran off to arrange matters.
Horatio gulped, and had to hide his face, then find some errand himself, far from the midshipman's berth, until he was quite recovered. This was most certainly a mistake.
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