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Fortune and Men's Eyes (Fic)

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Fortune and Men's Eyes (Fic)

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TITLE: Fortune and Men's Eyes
RATING: G/PG (kissing)
WORD COUNT: 2706
PAIRING, IF ANY Horatio Hornblower/Archie Kennedy
SPOILER WARNING: Through "Retribution."
DISCLAIMER: Not mine.
SUMMARY/NOTES: Set ashore by the Peace of Amiens, Horatio receives a mysterious letter.

Astute readers may notice a wee crossover.


"When, in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least,
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Inquire for Mr. Godwin. And, I beg you, come as soon as you may."

Apart from the direction, that was the entire content of the letter, but it was enough. The hand was one he'd never thought to see again in this life. He could not imagine how it came to be, but that mattered little; all that mattered was obeying its summons. The letter had reached him at Mrs. Mason's lodging-house only yesterday, and he'd spent a tense evening at the whist-tables, concentrating all his efforts on winning enough to furnish his coach-fare to London. Now he sat in the common stage, crowded in with half a dozen others (and more on the roof; he was grateful that he had been able to spare himself that, given the damp chill of this April day), jolting along the road.

The address he sought proved to be a neat terraced house, two bays wide, of a style suggesting it was no more than forty years old. Clutching his boat-cloak around him with one hand, he rapped upon the door with the knocker. A manservant answered. "Yes, sir?"

"Horatio Hornblower to see Mr. Godwin," he said, still not convinced he would not be turned away.

The man's face broke into a smile. "Come in, sir. Let me take your hat and cloak. There is an excellent fire in the library; Mr. Godwin will be down to see you presently. If you would care for any refreshment, you have only to ring."

Horatio followed him to a room at the back of the house, and sat in a chair near the fire, too anxious to do more than perch on the edge. He had eaten no more than a slice of bread and jam that morning, before he set out, but he could not imagine doing more than staring at his food, should he ask for any. He thought of choosing a book, but knew the words would be meaningless shapes before his eyes. Unable to do else, he fidgeted.

Some time later (it felt like years, but could not have been, because his curls were still damp against the back of his neck), the library door opened, and Horatio rose, turning. And there he was: pale, far too thin, and wearing a figured dressing-gown over his breeches and waistcoat, but unmistakably his Archie. Horatio closed the few steps between them and embraced him, clinging as if Archie might vanish if he were to let him go.

"It's good to see you, too, Horatio," Archie's voice sounded softly in his ear. "But I think we'll both be very much more comfortable sitting down."

Horatio let himself be drawn down onto a sofa before the fire, Archie's arm still firmly around his waist. He found a glass pressed into his hand. "Brandy," Archie said. "I fear you need it."

Horatio took only the smallest of sips, not wanting to become more dizzy than he already felt. "I'm fine," he said. "It's only that I could almost believe myself still seeing your ghost, were it not that I cannot imagine what reason your ghost might have for summoning me to London instead of appearing to me where I was."

"I assure you, I am no ghost," Archie said. "And what's this about 'again'?"

"Yours appeared to me, I would swear it," Horatio answered. "Three days after... after I last saw you, when I was engaged in writing a letter to your family, letting them know the true state of affairs. Or so I thought."

"I saw that letter," Archie said. "That was very kind of you. But, as I was not dead, it could not possibly have been my ghost."

"And yet you were there," Horatio insisted. "You embraced me, and bid me be comforted."

"I did?" Archie said. "I would have, if I could... it must have been not my ghost, but my fetch."

"Fetch?"

"A thing my nurse told me of, when I was very small, before I ever left Scotland," Archie said. "When a person lies very near death, their spirit will often appear to the one they love best."

"Fine story to tell a young boy," Horatio said. "Did she mean to frighten you?"

"Oh, nothing like it," Archie said. "I think Jennie must have had a touch of the Sight - don't look like that, Horatio, these things happen, you saw me, did you not? In any case, one day I found her weeping into her apron, and when I asked her what was wrong, she explained that she'd seen the fetch of her grandmother at the foot of her bed just before dawn, and that she would miss her very much. Not three days later we had word from her village that her grandmother had passed that day."

"Yet you are not dead."

"I was very nearly so. If Pellew had not called in a remarkable doctor who, by my great good fortune, chanced to be aboard the Charwell when it put in at Kingston, I might well have been in truth."

"Then why let me think it so?" It was only by great effort that Horatio kept back anguished tears.

Archie brought his free hand to Horatio's face and kissed him softly. Horatio put both arms around him, dropping his head to rest on Archie's shoulder. Archie did not pull away.

"It was not only you, Horatio. It was very important that the Admiralty have no reason to doubt it; if they knew me to live, I'd have hanged."

"I don't understand any of this," Horatio said.

"It's more than a little complicated," Archie said. "Drink a little more of your brandy, and I'll try to explain."

Horatio cupped both hands around his glass, letting them warm the brandy enough to make the vapors rise from it, while taking another very small sip, and took comfort in Archie's arm around his waist again as he began his tale.

"The first thing you need to understand is that we were not the only, or even the first, to recognize that Captain Sawyer had fallen far from the man he was as hero of the Nile. The Admiralty sought a way to relieve him of his command without making his condition generally known. Mr. Bush was sent aboard to observe the situation and report back to them how it might be accomplished."

"Was he truly?"

"Truly," Archie said. "That was why he took so long to trust us. He had to assure himself not only of our opinion concerning the Captain, but of our discretion as well."

"I begin to see. What then?"

"Well, as you might expect, Sawyer's fall into the hold complicated matters a good deal, not helped by Buckland's incompetence or Clive's equivocation, to say nothing of Hobbs' misplaced loyalty. It very nearly robbed them of any graceful solution at all, and they were within a hairsbreath of pinning it all on you-"

"I recall," Horatio said dryly.

"-until I solved it very neatly for them by taking it onto my own head. They would just as happily have hanged me for it, and slept untroubled in their beds, but my death relieved them of even that necessity. And so Admiral Pellew, who had hoped to protect us all, went to a great deal of trouble to make sure they believed it so. There's a gravestone with my name on it, there."

"But why not tell me?"

"If you knew, would you have left my side?"

"Never. Do you doubt it?"

"Never. And that is exactly why you had to believe it, too, at least for as long as it took you to return to England." Archie gave Horatio's waist a squeeze. "Had you remained, they would have known all was not as it seemed."

"I suppose you're right," Horatio conceded. He took another sip of his brandy. "What then?"

"It was a month before I could be moved," Archie said. "The wound was bad enough - the ball went through my lung, and cracked a rib on its way out - but Dr. Maturin's deft hand at surgery saved me, I'm given to understand. Fortunately, I remember very little of that. Less fortunately, I took fever after; I remember rather more of that than I'd care to. When I was strong enough to feed myself again, and to walk the few steps from cot to round-house, Pellew put me on the packet home."

"To a new name, and a London town-house," Horatio said. "Does anyone else know you live?"

"Besides Admiral Pellew, and Lieutenant Bush?" Archie said. "Dr. Maturin, of course, who knows how to keep a still tongue, and my aunt and uncle. Although officially they're somewhat more distant family now."

"How so?"

"My mother was a Godwin," Archie said. "It's a large family, and one of varied fortune... including one branch with a plantation in the West Indies. It seemed simplest for me to be one of those Godwins, sent back to England for his health after contracting a tropical fever, and for Sir Henry to take an interest in the prospects of one of his wife's relations."

"Very neat," Horatio said. "He provides your living, then?"

Archie grinned. "No. You do."

"How do I manage that, on a lieutenant's half-pay?"

"It was your prize, in truth if not in name," Archie said. "And Admiral Pellew's one-eighth share, safely invested in the Navy Five Percents, furnishes me an income well suited to my modest needs. He insisted, and I thought it better to accept gracefully, and let it ease his sense of guilt for the debacle, and the loss of my naval career, such as it was."

"There's little enough career for anyone, if this peace holds," Horatio said. "Admirals and post-captains still move up the list, of course, but as for the rest of us..."

"When has peace ever held?" Archie said philosophically. "You'll find yourself in command again before long, I'm certain. I only wish I could go with you. Until then..." He looked squarely into Horatio's face. "Will you live with me?"

Horatio swallowed, feeling his heart begin to pound. "Do you mean..."

"That is exactly what I mean," Archie said. "Live here. With me. For as long as you wish, or as long as you can. I can think of nothing I should like better in the world."

Horatio stared at Archie, hardly daring to believe it possible. "Would I not be a burden?"

"Don't be foolish," Archie said. "This establishment already supports a cook, two housemaids, my manservant, and a coachman besides my own self. And on the income from the prize you took. You've a better right to it than I do, if you choose to look at it that way. Please say you will."

"With all my heart," Horatio said, drawing Archie into his arms again. "But... would we not have to be very careful, not to have suspicion fall on us?"

"Less so than you'd think," Archie said. "For propriety's sake, you shall have the room next to mine - a room, I might add, with a connecting door, as I'm certain the two were meant for the master of the house and his wife - but the staff already know that I'm not to be disturbed in the mornings until I ring for hot water, and that I would prefer uninterrupted sleep to a built-up fire, so long as it's well-banked of an evening. Never mind that it's because of my convalescence; if I tell them that the same applies to you, they'll hardly question it." He laid his lips against Horatio's cheek. "As for the rest of the world... it is astonishing what they'll not see, as long as they're not forced to take official notice."

"Astonishing," Horatio said. "The very word."

"I warn you, I'll not be much of a companion at first," Archie said. "I still sleep sixteen hours out of every twenty-four, often at odd intervals, and I stray little from my chair in the eight remaining. The high point of my week is when I go to dine with my no-longer-aunt and uncle, or perhaps to receive a visit from the doctor. He's a very strange fellow, but I think you and he might agree rather well. I must certainly remember to introduce him to my cousin Emily," he said absently.

"Archie, I can assure you, none of that matters in the least to me," Horatio said, still feeling giddy. "That you are alive, and wish my company, is all I could ever ask in the world."

"Will you stay tonight? If you think you can make do until we can send for your things, I find I would very much prefer if you didn't leave."

Horatio's words were muffled against Archie's neck. "I'm not going anywhere."

***
Later that evening, as they sat before the library fire once more, cups of coffee in front of them on a low table along with a plate of almond biscuits, Archie laced his fingers through Horatio's. "Do you have any idea what you might choose to do, if the peace lasts?"

"I confess, I hadn't thought of it, beyond presenting myself at the Admiralty as often as I might, in hopes that they might find a place for me," Horatio said. "That, and playing as much whist as I could arrange, to supplement my income. What of you, once you are recovered, I mean? Although it would appear no such concerns are necessary, for you."

"I was no more meant for a life of idleness than you were," Archie said. "You may laugh... but I am seriously considering taking a seat in Parliament."

"How on earth..." Horatio started to say, but Archie squeezed his hand.

"The opportunity as good as fell into my lap. Sir Henry, owing to the death of some Clarke connection whose name he'd nearly forgotten, found himself in possession of a considerable property near Rainsford. Lady Clarke preferring not to remove from London, they're letting the house, but it also came with the gift of two clerical livings - one solid, one shockingly sparse - and control of a borough as rotten as the timbers on the old Justinian, so much so that one might expect it to glow in the dark as they did. Again, Sir Henry taking an interest in the career of one of his wife's young relations, it's mine should I wish it. The more I think about it, the more appealing it becomes."

"A member of Parliament," Horatio said. "I'd never have thought it. But, do you know, I think it suits you."

"Mmm," Archie said. "I hope it shall."

They sat quietly for a time, until the coffee and biscuits were gone, and Archie was yawning. "I've tired you," Horatio said, sounding guilty.

"I tire easily," Archie said. "No fault of yours. But come to bed, now? Hardy's laid out some things of mine for you in your room... but I shall be very disappointed if you don't stay in mine."

"Gladly," Horatio said. "After so many nights of holding your ghost in my arms... wait. It can't have been your ghost. How shall I explain it, then?"

"You don't need to," Archie said. "Because every night, through the fever and the journey and all the nights since then... I felt your arms around me too."

Horatio was too overcome to speak. The only answer he could think to make was to put his arms around Archie once more, this time not only in the spirit but in the flesh as well.
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