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Pole Star Of My Heart (Fic)

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Pole Star Of My Heart (Fic)

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Horatio and Archie
TITLE: Pole Star Of My Heart
PAIRING, IF ANY: Horatio/Archie
SPOILER WARNING: References events in "The Duchess and the Devil" and "The Frogs and the Lobsters/The Wrong War"
DISCLAIMER: Belongs to the Forester estate and... did Ioan Gruffudd acquire the TV rights? Not mine (although I made up the secondary characters), not for profit.
SUMMARY/NOTES: Horatio and Archie travel to London to attend his cousin Emily's wedding.

“I promise you, they do want to meet you,” Archie said, laying a reassuring hand on Horatio’s thigh as they rode towards London. For once, they had prize-money in their pockets, and Archie had persuaded Horatio that the expense of a post-chaise was well worth it, rather than suffering the jolting and crowding of the common stage. Horatio had been dubious, but, he had to admit to himself, the privacy was a welcome change.

“But to invite me to your sister’s wedding?” Horatio said.

“Cousin,” Archie corrected absently. “Would you rather spend your leave in Portsmouth, alone in dismal lodgings? I’ve written of you often enough. They know that you’re my dearest friend. Why shouldn’t they want to meet you? With the house full of guests, one more person is hardly an imposition.”

“”I’ll disgrace you with my shabbiness,” Horatio said. “I haven’t a decent pair of stockings left, and what were my best breeches are nearly worn through at the seat, from scrubbing the mildew off.”

“We’ve most of a week before the wedding,” Archie reminded him. “You’ll have plenty of time to outfit yourself properly. And your coat is still nearly new.” He smiled, that merry smile that caught at Horatio’s heart. “Have you any other objections? We might as well get them all out of the way at once.”

“As long as you’re sure it will be all right,” Horatio said, doubt still in his voice.

Archie caught Horatio’s hand with his own, lacing their fingers together. “It’ll be fine.”

The rocking of the well-sprung carriage soon lulled Horatio into a comfortable doze. He barely noticed even their stops to change horses, a state not entirely owing to his own fatigue, but considerably enhanced by the fact that the coaching-inn where they’d broken their fast had not had such a thing as coffee. He had, perforce, washed down his chop and his eggs and his soft-tack with a mug of porter, with entirely predictable results. He woke to Archie’s lips brushing his ear. “Wake up, Horatio,” Archie murmured, punctuating it with a feathery kiss. “We’re here.”

After the post-boy had helped them set their sea-chests down on the pavement in front of the town-house, the driver set off, well-pleased with the tip that Archie had pressed into his hand, “to drink the bride’s health.” After a bare three raps from the brass door-knocker, polished fit for an Admiral’s inspection, the door opened to reveal a forbidding-looking butler flanked by two liveried footmen. His air of gravity was immediately lightened by the twinkling that came to his eyes. “Lieutenant Kennedy,” he said, clearly relishing the title. “And Lieutenant Hornblower, if I’m not mistaken. Come in.”

“When have you ever been mistaken, Parker?” Archie said.

Parker ignored this sally, motioning the footmen to collect their chests. “Lady Clarke is in the morning room.” He swept a glance over them, taking in their creased, dusty, and stubbled appearance. “I’ll have hot water brought to your room directly.” The look he gave Horatio was direct and not in the least subservient; one could imagine a flag-officer’s steward giving the same appraisal to an inconsequential young lieutenant. “I regret, sir, that we cannot provide you with your own chamber, but with the press of guests arriving, you and Lieutenant Kennedy must perforce share his room.”

Here was fortune unlooked-for! “I’m sure it will do very well,” Horatio said, hoping that his face didn’t betray him. “I assure you we’ve endured much closer quarters at sea.” Realizing how that might sound, he blushed.

Archie beside him was no help, standing silent with only the barest glint in his eyes. Parker gave no sign of hearing anything untoward in Horatio’s words; he merely nodded, murmuring, “Just so.”

Archie led Horatio up the main staircase. One of the footmen was busy unpacking their sea-chests, sorting cravats and stockings into a tall chest of drawers. “You needn’t trouble with that,” Archie said. “We’re used to looking after ourselves, and I’m sure you have more than enough to do otherwise.” The footman gave him a surprised look, but said no more than “Yes, sir,” before leaving the room. Another manservant came in just as he was leaving, bearing a steaming jug before him, and wordlessly set it down on the wash-stand, where clean towels had already been laid out. That done, he withdrew, shutting the door behind him.

“I had no idea your home was so grand,” Horatio said, flustered. “I’m not accustomed to this.”

“Don’t let it trouble you,” Archie said, pouring some water into the basin to let it cool. “Aunt Sophia may like things to be of the latest fashion, and Uncle Henry willing to indulge her, but they’re both kind enough, in their way.” He came up behind Horatio, easing his coat from his shoulders, running a hand down Horatio’s spine as he did. Horatio sighed, leaning into the touch. Archie buried his fingers in Horatio’s curls. “Your hair’s gotten tangled, on the journey,” he murmured. “Sit down and let me comb it for you.”

Horatio sat in the room’s one chair, grateful that Archie didn’t expect him to stand. He closed his eyes as Archie’s fingers brushed over his neck, unwrapping the ribbon that held his queue. “How did you learn to be so gentle with a comb?” he asked. “I never could bear to have my hair brushed, when I was small.”

Archie laughed. “I used to have a very large dog, a Newfoundland, when I was a boy.” He held one of Horatio’s curls away from his head, carefully working through a tangle. “And I was required to brush her every day, because she shed everywhere. I had to learn to be gentle with Ursa, or she’d howl. Even with that, she still shed. That’s why my coverlet is patterned black and white -- she slept on my bed, so they chose one that would show the hairs the least. ”

“Will she be sleeping on your bed tonight?”

“She would, if she were still here,” Archie said wistfully. “She died of old age, not long before I went to sea.”

Horatio reached up and squeezed the hand that lay on his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

“I only wish you could have met her.” Archie kissed the top of Horatio’s head. “You’re combed now.”

Horatio stood up and took Archie in his arms, unable to resist any longer. “Forgive me if I’m not displeased that we won’t be sharing the bed with any other creature, after all.” He brushed his lips along Archie’s cheekbone.

“Nor am I, Horatio.” Archie turned his head, catching his lips in a sweet, slow kiss. “We’ll have all night, and the next nights after that... but now, we need to tidy ourselves and present you to my lady aunt. Time enough for kisses later.”

Washed, shaved, and arrayed in fresh linen and neatly-brushed coats, Archie and Horatio made their way to the morning room. A woman of about fifty sat on a sofa by the window, her head bent over her embroidery. She looked up as the door opened. “Archie!”

“Aunt Sophia, how well you look,” Archie said, crossing the room in a few strides, taking both her hands and leaning down to kiss her cheek as she beamed at him. “Allow me to present my dearest friend, Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower; Horatio, my aunt, Lady Clarke.”

She had a look of Archie about her, Horatio noticed; under her lace cap, her hair still showed traces of Archie’s reddish-gold, although now somewhat dimmed by gray, and her eyes were the same clear blue. Horatio bowed over her hand, hoping that he wasn’t making a complete fool of himself. He never seemed to know where to put his elbows, at times like this. “Your servant, madam.”

“I’m delighted to meet you at last,” Lady Clarke said, sounding not nearly as forbidding as he’d imagined. “Archie has written of you so often. Won’t you sit down, and take a glass of Madeira, and some seed-cake?" She gave a tug to the bell-pull by her chair, not waiting for their answer. "We dine at six here, not at the naval hour, and I’m sure you must be quite famished, after your journey.”

“You are very kind, madam,” Horatio said, perching awkwardly on a straight-backed chair with a seat upholstered in striped damask. Archie poured three glasses from a decanter standing on a sideboard, and, having handed them around, sprawled in an armchair nearby.

“Seed-cake?” he said. “Horatio, this is a signal honour! I used to have to beg morsels of it from Cook, after being told it was far too rich for little boys.”

Lady Clarke mock-scowled at Archie. “Well, sir, and Lieutenant Hornblower is hardly a little boy, is he? And it’s to his credit that you’re here at all, instead of still languishing in a Spanish prison. I believe that warrants a bit of seed-cake!”

Archie’s answering scowl looked in earnest. Before he could say anything that might anger his aunt, Horatio cut in, “It’s as much to your nephew’s credit that I am here, madam, instead of blown to smithereens on a bridge in Muzillac. Did he not tell you that?” he said, at her exclamation, and with a quelling glance at Archie. “I suspect he did not want to worry you; it was a singularly bold action, racing a lit fuse to bring me to safety. I am forever in his debt.”

“Shall we say, the accounts are equal,” Archie said, a slight edge in his voice. “No debt between us, surely.”

Horatio looked at him, again. Their eyes seemed to conduct an entire conversation - What’s wrong? and We’ll speak of it later and I’m sorry and, finally, a gentler No harm done before Horatio spoke aloud the words “No, no debt at all.”

He was saved from having to continue on that subject by the arrival of a servant bearing the promised seed-cake. After that interruption, Lady Clarke sought another topic. "Do you plan to go to the theater while you both are here? I can't spare the time, of course, but that needn't keep you." She smiled at Archie. "I remember when it was all I could do to keep you away from it."

"Of course, if there's anything worth seeing," Archie said. "I neglected to look at the newspapers when we came into port, so I find myself sadly ill-informed."

"They're presenting Much Ado About Nothing at Drury Lane," Lady Clarke said. "With Catherine Cobham as Beatrice, of course, and Dowton as Benedick. She's very fine, but he'll never touch Garrick's performance. How the years go by! I saw him play Benedick before either of you were born."

Archie's jaw set, his eyes clouding over. "Not one of my favorites." Horatio glanced at him, guessing the trouble.

"I've never seen it, though," he offered. "And I'd very much like to see Miss Cobham's talents, even if in a lesser play." You may not wish to see her again, Archie, he thought, but I'll warrant you have less to fear from her than you believe. And it's unlike you to back away from a challenge.

Once more, Archie seemed to take meaning from his friend's countenance. "If you wish it, then of course we'll go. It's not often we have the opportunity, after all." Some of the tension went out of his jaw.

Horatio smiled, reassured. "I look forward to it."

The rest of the conversation proceeded uneventfully, until Lady Clarke excused herself to dress for dinner. They rose as she left the room.

"There's someone else I'd like you to meet, too," Archie said, grinning.

Horatio had no idea what mischief was on Archie's mind, although plainly there was some. "Oh?" was all he could respond.

"Yes. Come with me." And, with that, Archie was leading him out into the passage and around to the back stairs, and from there, down to the kitchen. At the bottom of the stairs, Archie stopped, silently motioning Horatio to stay where he was. Horatio observed the scene before him.

It was as busy as one might expect in a grand London house only an hour before the day's biggest meal. A joint of meat turned before the fire by means of an ingenious clockwork device; a kitchen-maid slid a raised pie into the oven on a long-handled peel; another one tipped a pile of chopped turnips into a pot hanging from a long brass arm reaching out from the chimney. That accomplished, she swung the arm inwards so the pot was over the flames. Several others were slicing, stirring, and mixing things Horatio couldn't quite identify. A stout woman of middle years in a plain stuff dress faced away from them, calling through a doorway into what must be the scullery. "Betsy! What's keeping you? I need the tall saucepan now, not sometime next week, and mind you rinse all the sand out, unless you think her ladyship enjoys parsley sauce with added grit!" She placed her hands on her hips, let out a long-suffering "hmph!" and turned back to the kitchen.

"Hello, Cook," Archie said. "It's good to see you."

She stopped in her tracks, her face breaking into a broad smile. "Young master Archie!" she exclaimed. "Or Mr. Kennedy, as I should say, although it's Lieutenant now, isn't it?" Archie crossed the few steps to her, and she caught him in a solid hug. "Oh, but I've missed you, poppet!" Archie submitted to having his hair tousled, planting a kiss on her cheek. She held him at arm's length. "Very fine, you're looking now, in that uniform." She looked past his shoulder, noticing Horatio still standing on the bottom step. "Who's your handsome friend, then, poppet?" Horatio blushed to the roots of his hair.

Archie turned to Horatio, grinning. "Allow me to present Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower, my dearest friend in His Majesty's Navy. Horatio, Mrs. Hastings, the talented woman whose most excellent seed-cake you were enjoying just minutes ago."

"Delighted, madam," Horatio said formally, moving one step into the kitchen and wondering if it were proper to take her hand.

"Aren't you the long drink of water?" she said, looking him up and down. "You can come closer, I promise I don't bite. So you're my Archie's friend? Very pleased to have you here, then, I’m sure." She took both his hands for a moment as he came to stand beside Archie, then dropped them and turned back to the young man who had clearly been her pet since his boyhood. "Will you be creeping down for your currant bun before the household's awake, just as you used to? Shall I have the baker's boy give me two?"

"You'll tell all my past mischief, won't you, Cook?" Archie said. "I think, after all the nights we've stood watch and watch, we'll be taking advantage of our leave to sleep in."

"That's as you wish," Mrs. Hastings said. "Now, out with the both of you, if you want your dinner on time, with nothing burnt or half-raw! You know when I've time, and this isn't it. Get on with you!"

Archie hugged her again, and turned to go up the stairs. Horatio followed, bemused. The housekeeper who'd come to look after his father's household after his mother's death had been nothing like Mrs. Hastings; she'd been a no-nonsense woman who hadn't welcomed intruders into her domain. Horatio had learned that it was safer to take apples from the local trees, or berries from the bramble bushes, than to interrupt Mrs. Bowman in search of a slice of bread and honey. He felt a brief pang of envy.

"We're already dressed, and there's still nearly an hour until dinner," Archie said. "Let's wait in the library." Horatio nodded, and followed him back up the stairs.

The library was a west-facing room, well enough lit by daylight through its tall windows to have no need for candles as yet, and the day was warm enough to make a fire unnecessary. It was not a large room, but its walls were lined with volumes from ceiling to floor. Horatio caught his breath at the sheer wealth of knowledge it held. Archie smiled at the rapt expression on Horatio's face.

"May I?" Horatio said.

Archie laughed. "Go ahead. They're not just decorations, after all."

Horatio was still scanning the shelves, trying to decide between a travelogue of the West Indies and a treatise on sea birds, when he heard Archie say, "And how are you today, Rajah?" He turned his head to see who else might be in the room, but didn't find anyone. He didn't even see Archie for a moment, until he spotted him kneeling by the fireplace, scratching the head of a tiger-skin rug.

"Rajah?" was all he said, puzzled.

"My first friend in this house," Archie said, standing up. "I barely knew my aunt and uncle, and even though Aunt Sophia was kind to me on the journey here, she didn't take much of a day-to-day hand in the raising of her children. And my cousins all seemed so much older than I was, to a boy of five. They were certainly no help against our governess. Miss Fletcher wouldn't believe that I already knew how to read. She didn't think I even knew my letters! Wretched harpy." He chuckled. "I tried to bring Rajah upstairs one night, thinking to hide him in the schoolroom cupboard so that when she opened the door, he'd leap out, as I imagined it, or rather fall out as if leaping, and terrify her properly. Only trouble was, Rajah was bigger than I was at the time, and a footman caught me at it, and explained very firmly that tigers were not allowed upstairs. He must have told Uncle Henry about it, or more likely told Parker, who would have told Uncle Henry, but I wasn't punished. Uncle Henry just said that if I wanted a pet so badly that I'd made one of a rug, I should have a puppy of my own instead, and that's how I came to have Ursa. It was much less lonely with her."

"I never had a puppy," Horatio said. "My father said a doctor had no need of a gun-dog or a sheep-dog, and we were safe enough without a watchdog, so we could do very well without one. We always had a kitchen cat, though. I never named them beyond Kitty or Puss, but I liked to play with them, especially when there were kittens."

"I can just see you, playing with the kittens," Archie said. "You probably let them climb all over you."

"It wasn't as if I could stop them!"

Archie came over to Horatio, taking his hand and giving it a quick squeeze. "I think it must have been rather sweet." Horatio listened automatically for footsteps in the passage; hearing none, he brushed his lips against Archie's temple before turning back to the bookshelves.

Before long, they heard the bustle of Sir Henry and Emily returning home, but neither of them appeared in the library, both having gone upstairs to change for dinner. It was not until they were all gathered around the table that Horatio was properly introduced to them. He found himself rather tongue-tied, and only managed to form the impression of a square-set, no-nonsense man of about sixty, good-natured but rather bluff, and an intense young woman in her middle twenties whose looks favored her father more than her mother. They took their seats, passing small remarks whose meaning Horatio failed entirely to register.

"I trust that the meeting went satisfactorily?" Lady Clarke said, as the soup tureen was set down before her, and she began to fill the bowls for each of them.

"Very much so," Emily said. "Once I persuaded the solicitors to start exercising some sense."

"I'm afraid you rather shocked Mr. Fiske," Sir Henry said mildly. "He really hadn't expected you to be present at all."

"Considering that it was my future being discussed, I can't imagine why not," Emily said. "It's not even as if, legally speaking, I were solely your dependent and had no existence of my own. You made sure of that when you made sure my marriage portion was in the Funds under my name. And I'm hardly underage." Archie suppressed a snort, only to be quelled by a scowl from Emily and a slight shake of the head from his aunt.

"I don't believe it was the financial aspects of it that most disconcerted them," Sir Henry pointed out.

"What, merely because I insisted that they make provision for circumstances in which there would not be children to inherit?" Emily said. "Sir James made no secret of that when he offered for me. Considering that he'd had the mumps while he was at Oxford, and that his first marriage was without issue, it would be the height of folly to assume that we would have any children."

Horatio choked on his wine. What Emily had said was entirely plausible, medically sound, and not something he'd ever have expected to hear a young lady mention at the dinner table. He looked at Archie to see his reaction, but Archie only seemed amused.

"Emily, dear, we do have a guest," Lady Clarke reminded her.

"I'm sorry, am I upsetting you, Mr. Hornblower?" Emily said, obviously not sorry in the least.

"Not at all, Miss Clarke," Horatio said in a strangled voice. "Please don't allow my presence to keep you from discussing important matters with your family. I would hate to be an imposition."

"Nonsense," Lady Clarke said. "You're embarrassing him, Emily. To say nothing of provoking the rude noises your cousin is finding so hard to keep in check." She shot Archie another quelling look. "Find something else to discuss, if you please."

"Oh, very well, Mother," Emily said. "Tell me, Mr. Hornblower, have you had the opportunity to read Laplace's Exposition du système du monde yet? I'd be very interested to hear an opinion on his theory of tides from someone who has practical experience in the matter."

"I'm afraid I have not, yet," Horatio said, nearly as surprised by this topic as the previous one. "I'd heard of its publication, of course, but life at sea affords little opportunity to visit bookshops, as you might imagine. Do you mean to say you've read it?'

"Of course!" Emily said. "I would have wanted it for his predictions about Saturn's rings alone, but his refinements to Newton and Lagrange's work were fascinating."

"Really?" Horatio said. "Tell me, did he address..." and launched into a technical point that left the rest of the table baffled. Even Archie was unable to follow it; he'd mastered just enough of navigational mathematics to pass his lieutenant's exam, and he could find his way around the lunar tables with a bit of application, but he knew that if he were ever promoted to captain, he would rely on an experienced sailing-master more than on his own knowledge of mathematics to arrive at his ship's best sailing-trim. Emily, however, was in her element; the very air above the table seemed to become a chalk-board filled with equations, as she and Horatio conversed.

"You shall have my copy," she concluded. "As you said, I have far greater opportunity to visit booksellers, and it would be a pity to let you remain in want of it."

"You are too kind, Miss Clarke."

"Emily," she said firmly. "I won't be Miss Clarke for very much longer in any case, and I'm sure I shall take an age to become accustomed to being addressed as Lady Estabrook, and as you are such a dear friend of Archie's, you shall address me as he does."

Archie grinned. "Does that mean he ought to address you as Bossy-britches, as I used to?"

"Not unless he cares for a centipede down his collar rather more than you did!" Emily retorted, laughing.

The conversation around the table continued in an easy, congenial fashion through the second remove, until Lady Clarke rose, reminding Emily that it was time to withdraw. Parker brought in port and walnuts, and they drank to the bride's health and happiness, but it was not long before they rejoined the ladies in the drawing room, Horatio by now feeling very much part of the family.

By the time they retired to bed, Horatio felt much more at ease than earlier. He hung his coat in the wardrobe, looking at the way Archie's hair caught glints from the fire and from the single candle he'd set on the bedside table; they hadn't bothered to light the sconces. The room had seemed luxurious to him that afternoon, accustomed as he was to tiny shipboard cabins and crowded berths, simple lodgings, and his own small room under the eaves in his father's house, but he now realized that by the standards of Archie's family, it was actually rather plain. A screen, a straight chair, a wash-stand with an oval mirror; not carpeted like the rooms downstairs, but a few smaller rugs on polished bare floorboards. Candlesticks on the mantel, brass gleaming as brightly as any aboard ship, but no ornaments; the bed-hangings plain and meant for keeping in warmth, not for display. It all seemed very much in keeping with what they might have thought suitable for a young man just leaving the nursery. His thoughts were interrupted when Archie came up behind him, wrapping his arms around him and kissing the nape of his neck. "Come to bed," he murmured.

Ever since their first night, when Archie had laid his heart bare to him, expecting only refusal, Horatio had felt something akin to reverence when they kissed. The feeling had survived the squalor of El Ferrol, with all their hasty intimacies snatched between rounds of the guards’ patrols; it had only intensified during months and years aboard the Indefatigable, with no chance for more than an intimate look or a glancing touch. Their rare nights of shore leave were occasions to treasure, the mundane surroundings of cheap lodgings easily ignored in their need to satisfy their longing. This, though, was something rarer yet. Horatio pulled the curtains closed about the finest bed he’d ever slept in, and drew Archie into the circle of his arms.

Archie was warm and pliant in his embrace, kissing with a slowness that made it clear that he, too, was enjoying the knowledge that they need not rush. Horatio’s hands moved over him, rediscovering planes and angles, the smoothness of skin and the brush of hair. He breathed in Archie’s scent, warm and clean and familiar. He could feel himself hardening against Archie’s thigh, and Archie against him, but it didn’t seem a matter of urgency; it only added sweetness to his slow exploration. Their kisses grew longer and deeper, dizzying him; breaking from one, he pressed his lips to Archie’s neck, behind the angle of his jaw, and was met with a long sigh, as Archie tightened his arms around him. Slowly, deliberately, he kissed down Archie’s neck, sucking at the point where it joined his shoulder. A gasp, and Archie’s fingers digging into his back. Horatio treasured those noises, quiet as they still were, and repeated the kisses, pressing Archie tight against him. Lips followed hands, kisses along Archie’s chest, Archie’s fingers drifting along his spine, the heavy sweetness of arousal growing stronger in him, Lower still, Archie’s fingers playing in his hair, his hand resting against Archie’s hipbone, a kiss, and then another, and then --

Archie froze beneath him. “You don’t have to do that.”

Horatio stopped, confused, his palm still against Archie’s thigh. “No?”

“I’ll not ask that of you, Horatio. Never feel you must, for my sake.”

“You didn’t ask,” Horatio pointed out. “I chose to. I -- I enjoyed it, Archie. Why shouldn’t I enjoy kissing you?”

Archie’s laugh was harsh, airless. “You’ve no idea, do you?” His arousal was flagging, unhappiness plain in his body’s tension. Horatio shifted, moving up to face him across the pillow.

“I haven’t.” He cupped the base of Archie’s skull, caressing behind his jaw with his thumb. “I thought I should like to kiss you there. If you don’t care for it, of course I won’t.”

“If it were only kissing.” Archie clung tighter to Horatio, tucking his face against Horatio’s shoulder. “I’ll not have you choking, gasping for air, struggling against me. I’ll not have anything of that between us.”

Horatio stroked Archie’s back, soothing him, kissing his head. “Of course not,” he murmured, trying not to let any of his misery and anger show in his voice. Simpson, again. Would he never cease discovering all the varied brutalities Archie had suffered at his hands? What other traps had he laid, ready to spring and close about Archie’s pleasure? He held Archie close to him, trying to let him know he was safe.

Gradually, Archie relaxed against him. Horatio continued to stroke him, covering his face with gentle kisses. Slowly, Archie met his kisses again, warmth and closeness growing between them. Their kisses grew more hypnotic, their bodies pressed tightly together, sliding against each other until they found release. It was Archie who got up and dampened a towel, bringing it back to bed to clean them both with the textured linen; it was Horatio who drew Archie back down beside him, wanting him near as they drifted to sleep.

Horatio woke in the morning to rustling noises. He began to sit up, but Archie gripped his shoulder, pulling him back down. “Be still,” he whispered, lips against Horatio’s ear so no sound carried.

Horatio obeyed. “What was that?” he said, when he heard the door shut.

“Only the housemaid come to mend the fire and bring hot water,” Archie said. “We have at least an hour before we go down to breakfast. We only need to be quiet. Can you be very quiet, Horatio?”

All of the distress of the previous night had gone; Archie was playful, teasing, delighting in trying to make Horatio break his resolve to be quiet. The demands of shipboard life had long since taught them how to dress quickly, a skill that proved very useful now. Horatio only hoped their foolish grins were not too obvious to anyone else.

He need not have worried; Sir Henry, coming to breakfast in a flowered dressing-gown, had eyes only for the coffee-pot until his third cup. Lady Clarke smiled benevolently on her nephew and his friend, concerning herself only with pressing them to more rolls and jam and insisting that it was no trouble to send for more bacon; most of her attention was directed toward Emily, questioning her on the progress of her bridal toilette with references to the mantua-maker’s art far too arcane for Horatio to follow. Emily seemed to have little more patience for it than Horatio himself.

Patience was precisely what Horatio needed for the rest of that day, though, as he spent most of it at the tailor, attending to his much-diminished wardrobe. Archie was little comfort, offering helpful suggestions and observations, until Horatio felt like prize livestock on display at a fair. By the time they returned home, Horatio carrying a parcel containing three pairs of stockings, a crisp black stock, and a new cravat, the Clarkes' other two daughters had arrived, with their families in tow, and a scene of domestic chaos greeted them as they stepped into the drawing room. Lady Clarke was cradling an infant in long coats, Sir Henry dandled a toddler in a salmon-pink dress on his knee, a young boy in the now-fashionable cropped trousers and soft collar was occupied with a plate of petits fours, and a pair of girls in white with violet sashes sat before the painted fire screen, playing a clapping game. Archie immediately knelt down to speak to the girls, while Lady Clarke presented Horatio to the assembled adults. It was all very confusing, but he eventually grasped that Mrs. Charles Harrington was in fact Archie's Cousin Kitty, and that the infant and one of the girls were hers, and that Mr. George Munroe, who would in due time make a baroness out of Cousin Elizabeth, had provided the Clarkes with their other grandchildren. The footman who brought in more small cakes relieved Horatio of his parcel, no doubt taking it upstairs to Archie's room, and eventually two nursemaids came in, shepherding the children out, and the adults went in to dinner.

The conversation was livelier than on the previous evening, the number of diners having nearly doubled, and with much family business to discuss among them. "Have you written to Mr. Jenner yet?" Emily said, as the servants cleared away the soup plates and set down platters of roast fowl, peas in butter sauce, grilled trout, and six or seven other dishes in a symmetrical pattern across the table.

"No," Elizabeth said, just as Kitty sighed, "I haven't had the time!"

"No more delays," Emily said, sounding every bit as high-handed as she must have to earn Archie's nickname. "I won't hear how you let my nieces and nephews go unprotected. If you won't, I shall write to him myself."

"But, Miss Clarke, isn't it dangerous?" Mr. Harrington said.

"You're thinking of variolation," Emily replied. "That did bear some risk, if the patient developed a full case of smallpox, although it didn't happen often. I might have hesitated to undergo it myself. But Mr. Jenner is using cowpox. Most of the patients he's treated so far have had no more than a day or two's fever and a bit of itching where they've been vaccinated, but even if one does go on to develop cowpox, the beauty of that is that it's not fatal. You might as well forbid the children to play near the dairymaids, and I've never once heard of that."

"I shall write tomorrow," Mr. Munroe said. "There are so many illnesses that can befall a young child, and if this removes the fear of one of the worst, I'm entirely in favor of it. A glass of wine with you, Miss Clarke," he said, lifting his own in salute.

She raised hers in acknowledgement. "Your very good health as well!"

The next day was very much the same, with more guests arriving at intervals, and servants bustling about getting them settled. Horatio found it disconcerting. It wasn't, in truth, any busier than getting a ship provisioned for a voyage, but he had no place in the activity, no role to play, and thus the confusion affected him more.

Archie perched on the arm of the leather chair in which Horatio had ensconced himself. "Do you intend to stay in the library all day?"

"It seems the safest place in the house," Horatio said.

"I've a better idea," Archie said. "And I hope you'll accompany me."

Horatio briefly laid his hand atop Archie's. "Anywhere," he said. "But why do I get the feeling there's something you're not telling me?"

Archie grinned, and hopped off the chair arm. "We're going to a toy shop," he said. "Charlie, Kitty's baby, is cutting a tooth, and driving his nursemaid distracted, and Matthew - that's Elizabeth's youngest - apparently decided that this house is the perfect place for a game of hide-and-seek, except he failed to inform anyone else before he commenced on it. My lady aunt begs that I do something to help, so I offered to take the other three out on an excursion. How else should I spend my prize-money, after all?"

Horatio stood up. "Lead on, then, Mr. Kennedy. We have faced French broadsides; surely we can withstand three small children."

"That's the spirit, Mr. Hornblower."

Miss Munroe, Miss Harrington, and Master Munroe - or, as their Cousin Archie called them, Anne, Jane, and Tommy - proved not to be as daunting as Horatio had feared, although certainly high-spirited. Jane, especially, was prone to skip where others might have walked, unlike her demure elder cousin, who slipped a hand confidingly into Horatio's, both Archie's hands being occupied in holding Tommy's ankles firmly enough to keep him seated on his shoulders. They chattered gaily to each other, Archie adding teasing comments, and Horatio finding he need contribute no more than the occasional "Really?" or "Is that so?" when they turned their attention to him.

When they walked into the toy shop, the children grew silent in admiration. Archie beamed. "You can choose any toy you like," he told them. "But only one apiece, and when you're done, you can all help me find something for Matthew, and something for Charlie." They nodded solemnly. "Anne, you're the eldest; you choose first."

Anne didn't hesitate. Her eyes went straight to a large doll, dressed in ruffled silk, whose wax head was tinted and sculpted into the very image of a fine lady. "That one, Cousin Archie. Please?"

"You shall have it," he said. "And Jane? A doll for you?"

"I don't want a doll," she said. "There's a proper iron hoop, and the stick has ribbons on it! Ribbons to blow in the wind when I'm running with it! That's what I want."

"A hoop with a ribboned stick it is," he said, laughing. "And Tommy?"

"The boat with all the animals."

"That's a Noah's Ark, silly," Jane informed him, with all the superiority of her five years to Tommy's four.

"That's right, but don't call your cousin silly," Archie told her. "If he doesn't recognize it, he probably hasn't learned that story yet. You can tell him all of it when we get home." Jane nodded.

"May I still have it, please?" Tommy said, sounding worried.

"Yes, you may," Archie said. "A very good choice."

After some very serious discussion, they chose a wooden horse on wheels for Matthew to pull along behind him, and a brightly painted spinning top for Charlie, "so he can play with it when he's older." Horatio suspected that Jane would be playing with it in the meantime. As they walked back to the house, Horatio carrying the Noah's Ark for Tommy, Archie stopped outside a silversmith's. He swung Tommy down from his shoulders. "Watch them for a minute, won't you?" Horatio was left wondering what, exactly, "watch them" was supposed to cover, but Archie was back out in a moment's time with a small parcel. "A rattle," he said, in answer to the children's eager questions, picking Tommy up again. "So Charlie will have something to play with now. That's only fair, isn't it?"

"But it means he gets two toys," Jane said.

"Yes, but only one to play with now," Archie reminded her. "Besides, when I heard of the rest of you being born, I sent gifts from port - but I hadn't the chance yet to do that for Charlie, as he's so small and I was so far away. We can count the rattle as his first gift from me." Jane nodded, seeming satisfied.

By the time they returned home and brought the children upstairs to the nursery, little Charlie was sleeping, and Matthew had been found. When he saw them, he jumped out of the little chair he'd been sitting in and ran to them, over his nursemaid's protests that he was to stay in that chair, as punishment for his naughtiness. He squealed with delight over the wooden horse, and immediately started to pull it behind him, running in circles around the room. Archie looked at Horatio and nodded towards the door, and they made their escape.

"If we don't want to miss the curtain, we won't be able to sit down to dinner with everyone tonight," Archie said. "Let's go beg a morsel from Cook." Horatio murmured agreement.

Mrs. Hastings was as busy as ever, but spared them enough time to put together slices of bread and cold meat, and gave each of them an almond tart besides, shooing them out directly after. Rather than wait for the Clarkes' carriage to be readied when they hadn't called for it earlier, they chose to walk.

"Of course, it's not the same as it was when I was a boy," Archie said, as they drew nearer. "After I went to sea, they tore it down, and built an entirely new theater. This will be the first time I've been to the new one." He stopped in his tracks as the building came into view. "Good God. It's enormous!"

"Was it not always like this?" Horatio said.

"Nothing like at all," Archie answered. "I don't think there's anything taller than it except the church spires! I only hope we'll be able to hear the actors speak at all, or see more than painted dolls." He bought them tickets in the first of the five tiers of galleries, saying that he expected it would provide the clearest view.

Horatio enjoyed the play more than he'd expected to. Kitty Cobham barely seemed to be playing a part; Beatrice's quips and retorts were as sharp and as entertaining as any he remembered from the Duchess of Wharfedale. At the interval, over Archie's protests, he sent a note back to her dressing room, letting her know that they were attending, and begging the pleasure of calling on her after the play. In short order, the usher came back bearing a folded note in return. Horatio opened it.

"My dear Mr. H," it read, "I should be very disappointed if you did not! I look forward to seeing the pair of you. Until then, I remain,

as ever,

Kitty Cobham."

"She can't possibly want to see me," Archie said, flustered. "The last she saw of me, I was a useless wreck, unable even to feed myself! I won't have her pity."

"I doubt very much it's pity," Horatio said. "Is it so impossible to consider that she might be pleased to see you well again?"

"I'd find her solicitude almost as hard to bear. She knew the boy I was - I used to haunt backstage in those days. If she feels the need to fuss and cluck over me like a mother hen... why did you offer to see her?"

"Because, when she took her leave of me, she asked me to consider her a friend," Horatio countered. "It would be an ill thing, to leave that unacknowledged now." Archie just snorted, but said no more.

When the actors had taken their bows, Horatio and Archie went downstairs, not through the press of theatergoers in the lobby, but making their way backstage to Kitty Cobham's dressing room. Horatio knocked on her door.

"Mr. H!" she said, all smiles, when she opened it. "Come in, the pair of you! What a pleasure it is to see you again."

"And you as well, Your Grace," Horatio said. "Forgive me. Miss Cobham."

"I'll forgive you if you call me Kitty, the way Archie here used to," she said. She turned to Archie. "It's good to see you backstage again."

"I would have thought you'd never care to see me again, after the state I was in when you last saw me," Archie said. "To say nothing of how I spilled your name, never thinking what reasons you might have had for concealing it."

"Nonsense," Kitty said. "I'd have done better to take you into my confidence, as soon as I saw that you knew me. I'd have saved us all a great deal of trouble."

"I don't wonder that you didn't choose to," Archie said. "I was hardly the boy you knew."

"No more are you now," Kitty said. "You're a man, and, what's more, one with both his arms, both his legs, and all his wits about him, except for this foolish notion you've got about having anything to be ashamed of! You survived, as we all did... and all at some cost. I promise you, I should not like you better if you had died!"

Archie chuckled. "Always the pragmatist, Kitty."

"Someone has to be," she retorted. "What brings the pair of you to London, if I may ask?"

"A wedding," Archie said. "My sister - well, my cousin, but we were brought up together. The Indy's in port, refitting, after bringing in a brace of prizes, so I found myself at liberty to attend. It seemed as good a time as any to bring Horatio to meet my family, as well. And so here we both are."

"And a very welcome sight. I wish I could ask you to stay longer, but a friend is coming to take me to supper," she said. "Come, each of you, give me a kiss for luck, and take my best wishes to the bride."

Horatio bent down, resting his hands on her shoulders, and gave her a chaste peck on the lips. "Safe travels, Mr. H," she said.

"Farewell, Kitty," he answered.

Archie merely pressed his lips to her cheek. "Oh, it's just as it always was," she said, teasing. "It was never my kisses you came looking for backstage!"

"That never meant I liked you any less," Archie said, more seriously. "Keep well, Kitty, and perhaps we'll see you again."

For the entire walk back, Archie seemed subdued. By the time they arrived home, the other guests had already left the drawing room and retired to bed, as everyone would have to rise early tomorrow for the wedding. Alone in their room, he went straight into Horatio's arms, laying his head on Horatio's shoulder. Unsure what to do, Horatio kissed the top of Archie's head, moving his hand in a circle between Archie's shoulder blades. Archie said nothing.

"I thought that went well," Horatio said, hoping he wouldn't receive a harsh answer in return.

"It did," Archie said. "That's half the trouble; I'd been so dreading it, so prepared for... I don't know what, that to come out of it with no more than a bracing leaves me at a loss. Rather like coming to the end of a chase, decks cleared for action, only to discover that the neutral's colors they'd been flying were their true flag, and there's to be no battle at all."

Horatio couldn't think of any answer equal to the conundrum. He chose to address what his hands told him, rather than his ears; Archie's body was tense, painfully so. "Come lie down," he said. "I'll rub your shoulders for you."

Archie made a noise of agreement in his throat, pressing his lips behind the corner of Horatio's jaw. Horatio hugged him tighter, then released him. They undressed silently, Horatio pinching out the candle as they got into bed.

With the bed curtains drawn closed, Archie was a shape more felt than seen; even the light from the fire only cast him in greater and lesser degrees of shadow, shifting greys and blacks. "The shirt, too," Horatio said, resting his hand on the small of Archie's back. "I want to do this properly." Archie raised his arms above his head so that Horatio could slide the shirt off of him, then lowered them back to his sides. Horatio bent and kissed the nape of Archie's neck, then set to work.

The difficult thing about Archie being so strongly muscled was that, when he grew tense, it took a great deal of pressure and effort to work out the knots; the advantage was, with so much solid muscle, there was no danger of accidentally grinding his bones together, as had sometimes happened on Horatio's lankier frame. Horatio gave it his concentrated attention, feeling Archie's tension give way, hearing his sighs and muffled groans as each muscle unknotted. Occasionally, when he could no longer resist the temptation, he lowered his head to kiss Archie's shoulder blade, or trail his lips along the indentation of his spine; those, too, were met with appreciative sounds. Finally, when Archie's breathing had slowed and his limbs seemed almost boneless, Horatio stretched out beside him, pressing close to his side and running a flat palm from the nape of Archie's neck to the curve at the small of his back.

Archie turned slightly, draping his arm over Horatio's shoulders and hooking his leg over Horatio's thigh. He rolled his head to the side, eyes closed and lips parted. Horatio shifted closer, meeting his lips for a kiss.

It was slow, and silent, but no less insistent for that. Horatio found himself pressed onto his back, Archie kissing him deeply, his warm weight holding him down. Archie didn't even try to prop himself on his elbows; he held Horatio's face between his hands, burying his fingers in Horatio's curls, kissing as if Horatio were air and life itself. Horatio wrapped his arms around him, not minding the weight; he slid his legs apart to let one of Archie's thighs rest between his own. There was no room for even a hand between them, but it didn't matter. The buildup was longer, the effect more gradual, but the pressure of their bodies together had its usual effect, and the release was sweet, leaving them drifting to sleep still in each other's arms.

Horatio awoke first, sunrise filtering through the bed hangings making him blink his eyes. They had shifted in their sleep, Horatio on his back, Archie face down in the pillows with an arm thrown across Horatio's chest. Horatio watched as the light grew stronger, turning Archie's hair from grey to gold. In due time, Archie awoke, scrunching his nose and shaking his head as he emerged from sleep as if it were a pool. He stretched, and as he looked at Horatio, a flicker of unease showed in his eyes.

"Good morning, Mr. Kennedy," Horatio said, fondness in every syllable belying the formal words.

"Horatio. You all right?" Archie did not sound entirely reassured.

"Never been better," Horatio said, reaching over to stroke Archie's cheek. Archie searched Horatio's face, and let out a breath, concern giving way to a gentle smile. "Hush," Horatio added. "I hear the maid in the passage."

Sure enough, the door opened, and they heard the clink of the ewer rattling against the washbasin as the maid filled it, and the rustling sounds as she poked up the fire. Another clinking sound, softer, and the smell of coffee reached their nostrils; then footsteps again, and the door shutting behind her. Archie pulled open the bed curtains.

"Cook's sent up coffee and rolls, because we won't have a proper meal until the wedding breakfast," Archie said, looking over his shoulder at Horatio, who was pushing himself away from the mattress. He looked back at the tray, and broke into a grin. "No, not rolls. Currant buns."

Horatio laughed. "She hasn't forgotten her poppet. Let me have the coffee, and then I need a wash."

"We both do," Archie said. "You clear your brains with the brew while I wash, and then it's your turn."

Horatio nodded, and went over to the tray. With no table in the room, the maid had set it on the seat of the chair, but it balanced well enough. Someone must have told Cook about his fondness for coffee - had Archie mentioned it in a letter, and his aunt passed it on? However it had happened, it was very considerate for her to have sent up not merely two cups, but a whole china pot to share between them. He drank it gratefully.

Washed, shaved, and dressed in their finest shirts and best uniforms, they went downstairs to join the family in their procession to the church. Rather than ride in the Clarkes' best coach and crowd the bride, her parents, and Edward, her elder brother, eldest of Archie's cousins, they found themselves going with the Munroes instead, as Matthew and Thomas were left home with their nurse, and Anne, who was to be bridesmaid along with Jane, took up but little room. Anne was clearly excited about the prospect, in her white muslin frock with its sash of Wedgewood blue, to match Emily's blue gown. She insisted on sitting next to Horatio, looking up at him with admiration as she clutched her nosegay and chattered about her delight and what she wished in a future bridegroom. She didn't think much of Sir James Estabrook, who was a stuffy scholar, and very much older besides - nearly forty! She would much prefer a dashing officer, one closer to her age. Archie had difficulty stifling his amusement, even as Elizabeth tried to shush her daughter, and Mr. Munroe looked at Horatio with a knowing smile. Horatio was very glad to get down from the carriage.

At the church, Archie and Horatio found themselves seated next to Edward. A captain in the militia, his regiment was camped at Meryton, and he had been able to get leave to attend. Sir James, unfashionably spare but dressed handsomely in a figured grey suit, stood at the altar looking nervous but proud, attended by one other man; the two little girls preceded Emily up the aisle, who walked on her father's arm, looking serene under the bonnet that framed her face. The church grew hushed as they spoke the familiar words, until Emily's voice rang out: "To love and to cherish, until death do us part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth."

A murmur swirled through the congregation. Lady Clarke buried her face in her hands. "She really did it," Edward said in a low voice. "She always said she would, but when it came down to it, I never thought she'd leave out 'obey'."

"Good for her," Archie whispered back. "You know that even if she spoke it, she'd never do it, and better not to be forsworn."

The ceremony continued on, the minister affecting to be unconscious of the reaction. The ring was placed on her hand, the blessings spoken, and the couple left the church, accompanied by organ music, although Horatio could no more have identified the piece than he could have grown wings and flown behind them. The wedding breakfast back at the Clarkes' house was a convivial affair, with much toasting and merriment. Sir James, it transpired, was more of a botanist than a mathematician, and their wedding trip was determined in part by his wish to collect specimens. Emily seemed genuinely delighted by this state of affairs. At last, they departed, the party drew to a close, and small boxes with slices of wedding cake were distributed to the guests as they called for their carriages and began their journeys home. Young Anne favored Horatio with a significant look as she stepped into the coach, her new doll in one hand and the cake box clutched firmly in the other.

"I fear if she doesn't dream of you tonight, she'll be sorely disappointed," Archie said, mischief dancing in his eyes.

"I can't imagine why you'd say that," Horatio answered, sounding cross. He knew perfectly well what Archie meant, but how to deal with a small girl's crush was beyond his understanding. He would be grateful when they were at sea again, and he was able to put the whole distressing matter behind him.

That night, as they lay for the last time in Archie's bed, their heads together on one pillow, Horatio found it difficult to lose himself in Archie's kisses, sweet as they were. It was plain that Archie couldn't help but notice, and he paused in his caresses.

"You seem distracted. Is something troubling you?"

"I was just thinking how much I wished it could have been us, standing there," Horatio said. "How much I wished I could have said those words to you."

"Don't mock me, Horatio," Archie said, pulling away. Horatio caught his hands.

"I'm not mocking us. Why would you think that?"

"Marriage isn't for the likes of us," Archie said. "Or weren't you attending? 'Ordained for the procreation of children.' We can hardly do that."

"No more can Emily and Sir James," Horatio countered. "Much as I didn't expect to learn that at the dinner-table... was your cousin always so alarmingly forthright?"

Archie chuckled. "That was nothing, compared to some of the things she used to say. It never seemed to matter that Miss Fletcher would punish her for it. I believe she liked scandalizing her. She didn't leave the habit in the schoolroom, either. Why do you think my aunt and uncle despaired of her ever marrying?"

Horatio took advantage of Archie's distraction to draw him closer again, stroking his hair. "So, children may be a purpose, but not the only purpose. 'For the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.'"

Archie didn't pull away this time, but his voice grew bitter again. "You've forgotten 'for a remedy against sin.' There's no such remedy for us."

Horatio kissed Archie's brow. "Does it surprise you so much that I wish that there were? That I wish we could stand up together, in the sight of God and all our friends, and I could speak the words that live in my heart? 'With my body, I thee worship' is no sin then."

"You'll speak those words someday," Archie said. "Just never to me. You'd have said them already, if it weren't for a French bullet."

"What are you talking about?"

Archie sighed. "The girl at the bridge. Mariette. Or what were your plans for her?"

"Certainly not that," Horatio said, taken aback. "I confess I hadn't thought much beyond getting her to the ship -- Muzillac was about to become a battleground, and whichever army took the town, Republican or Royalist, they'd have taken her as spoils of war. I couldn't leave her to such a fate."

"And once you'd got her on board?"

Horatio sounded genuinely bewildered. "I don't know. Perhaps I could have sent her to my father; he might have found her a place as a governess, or teaching French in a seminary for young ladies. She was teaching school when I found her, after all."

"If you believe that, you're a fool," Archie said. "She'd have had no reputation left by the time we came into port. You would have had to have married her, even if you'd never touched her. Which was not entirely true, unless I miss my guess."

"I did no more than kiss her," Horatio said, his voice low and not entirely free of guilt.

"And that is exactly what I mean when I say you'll speak the marriage vows someday, only not to me," Archie countered. "You can desire women, and you'll put me aside for a woman someday, however much you may call me your dearest friend."

The resigned bitterness in Archie’s voice struck a chill into Horatio’s heart. The worst part by far was that they contained a grain of truth. Until Archie had confessed his desire for him, Horatio had never contemplated physical intimacy with another man; it was only that the notion of refusing Archie was entirely unthinkable. Nor had he lost his appreciation for feminine beauty. If only he could have protected Mariette without the slightest breath of romance, rather than cause Archie this grief! He sought for words to reassure him.

"'Wonderful was thy love to me, passing the love of women,'" Horatio murmured. "I am no saint. I thought her beautiful, and I did kiss her. But when I did, I realized something, Archie. Much as I wanted to protect her from harm, I knew I would never feel for her, or for any other at all, what I feel for you. You are the pole star of my heart, and none can take your place."

"Truly?" Archie's eyes were wide in the candlelight, hope and fear fighting each other on his face.

"Truly," Horatio echoed, pulling him closer. "I pledge it, Archie. Forsaking all others, keeping only unto thee, as long as we both shall live.'

Archie kissed him then, soft and slow, and Horatio could taste salt on his lips. When they pulled apart, Archie whispered, his lips so close to Horatio's that it felt like another kiss, "And thereto I plight thee my troth."

A million thanks to gehayi, mswyrr, atdelphi, Margaret, and anyone else who read portions and listened to me kvetch while I was writing this. Particular thanks to cluegirl, without whom I never would have managed Kitty Cobham. I couldn't have done it without you.

Also, it may amuse my readers to know that all the secondary characters have surnames taken from the schools in my hometown. As I grew up in Lexington, MA, they're all actually plausible for the period!
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