It wasn’t easy, playing best friend to a real-life hero. When a man has saved your life half a dozen times, seen you at your worst and your best, there comes a point when you have to leave the ideal of equal exchange behind and just accept that you will follow where he leads and he will lead where you follow. Yes, Archie had saved Horatio’s hide a time or three – seen him at his worst as well, though it came nowhere near as bad as Archie’s worst – but Archie Kennedy knew he’d never be the main character in this drama. Horatio’s was the name on the playbill and Archie was supporting cast, content to bask in the reflected glory of the lead.
Since their friendship would never be one of equals, Archie consoled himself with doing what small services he could for Horatio. And one of those services, he learned early on, was to head off those who took a prurient interest in his friend.
When Horatio first joined the Navy, he had been awkward and unpolished and not yet finished growing into his height. He didn’t get many propositions in the early years, at least not compared to Archie. After watching Horatio stammer, red-faced, through his first few refusals, Archie took pity on his friend and intervened. Horatio didn’t go in for the easy pleasure the rest of the midshipmen did, and that was fine. Some might even call it prudent, when there were predators like Simpson about.
When it came to Horatio Hornblower, there were two types of men in the world: those who loved him and those who hated him. Such was Horatio’s luck that the men who hated him generally either came to love him or came to a bad end. Horatio needed no help from Archie with them.
The men who loved Horatio came in two groups. The walk-ons – the crew – Horatio was brilliant with. Horatio played the part of strict but fair captain to an appreciative audience years before he earned his stripes.
Then there were the officers. Having come up in Drury Lane, Archie recognized the type: wealthy patrons who loved the theatre and provided direct support to the actors they liked best. So long as Horatio continued to be brilliant, he could count on these men’s support throughout his career.
Archie chased off the officers who sought to take advantage of a rising star, but they were not the real danger. The real danger was from those officers who shared the stage with Horatio, principal characters in their own right. The real danger was from those who Horatio held in high regard. Over the years, Archie watched Horatio fall in love with men who were too noble and proper to do anything other than pine in return.
It was when he watched Horatio’s shy dance with Clayton that Archie first realized that Horatio was a romantic. He seemed uninterested in lust, but where he loved he loved more deeply than Archie could even contemplate. Clayton was Horatio’s boyhood love, and unfortunately was far too good a man to ever take advantage of the boy’s naïve worship. Archie watched them both suffer in silence and wanted to scream at them to get on with it. Later, when Clayton died to save Horatio’s life, Archie was glad they hadn’t gotten on with it – but he was soon to realize that Clayton was just the first.
For a few brief months after they transferred to the Indefatigable, Archie got to enjoy being the favored midshipman while Horatio seethed under the injustice of the slander against him. Of course, Horatio won Captain Pellew over in the end.
The captain had always taken a kindly, almost fatherly interest in his midshipmen, and once Horatio had proven himself the three of them enjoyed their lessons together. When Archie returned several years later from the prison in El Ferrol, he was not surprised that Horatio still had lessons with the captain. But the tenor of the lessons had changed. In the years he’d been gone, as Horatio proved himself time and again, he had moved from favored son to true protégé. Archie was sure he was the only one who noticed the way Pellew’s eyes rested on the young man; Horatio certainly did not. Archie couldn’t chase his own captain away the way he did the other, less discreet officers. And Horatio would not have thanked him if he’d tried. At least the captain was sensible enough not to press his suit upon the young midshipman. Archie would not have liked to see him become the villain of the piece.
Archie actually found himself the unexpected beneficiary of Pellew’s interest in Horatio; the captain took to giving them both private lessons in his cabin. All three knew that the lessons were meant for Horatio, who was destined for great things, but Archie had always known he was supporting cast when it came to his friend. Archie’s presence at these lessons put a stopper in the gossip amongst the crew, and Pellew would never be so improper as to say anything. But sometimes he looked at Horatio with hot eyes.
As the captain allowed his favored acting lieutenant more and more free rein, Archie began to wonder if the captain was even becoming reckless with Horatio’s life. Certainly the misbegotten invasion with General Charette should not have included Horatio setting foot on land.
Until Edrington, all of the love interests in this little drama had fallen neatly into “Horatio looks up to them, but they have the sense not to say anything” or “Horatio doesn’t care for them so it doesn’t matter if they say something.” Not that they would say anything to Horatio. Anyone who wanted Horatio Hornblower had to go through Archie Kennedy. Everyone knew that. Everyone, it seemed, except for a brash young army major with too much money and too little sense. A brash young army major who had managed to earn Horatio’s regard, no less.
In his own arena, Edrington was a capable enough officer, though not an extraordinary one. Like many rich young nobles, he was attracted to the excellence he didn’t find in himself. Unlike the Navy men Archie and Horatio were used to, he had no qualms about propositioning Horatio directly.
At least he had the sense to do it in private. Upon their not-quite-triumphant return to Portsmouth, they were granted a night’s leave. Edrington secured the three of them a private parlor in an inn where they could celebrate escaping France with their skins intact.
Horatio was quiet, no doubt preoccupied with the French girl who had died in his arms. They played whist, the stakes inconceivably high to Archie, but at least Horatio was winning. When their fourth left them, Edrington called for a bottle of fine brandy and toasted the courage of the Navy.
Archie knew Horatio had only come to be polite, but the toast brought a flush of pleasure to his friend’s cheeks. Horatio, ever self-critical, was ridiculously susceptible to compliments. It was a good thing he wasn’t in a profession where he encountered them regularly.
Archie stopped drinking when he heard himself laughing a little too loudly at Edrington’s dry wit. Horatio laughed too, which startled Archie; he was used to being the only one who could secure a laugh from his somber friend.
The rest of the evening was pleasant enough; Edrington set out to charm them both and largely succeeded. Horatio’s cheeks became pinker and pinker as time wore on, either from drink or from the major's flattery.
Just when the conversation and the brandy were winding down, Edrington brought the evening to a close. “Forgive me, my friends,” he said, “but it is time for me to retire for the night.” He gave them a self-deprecating little smile. “Unless the two of you would like to join me?” His eyes were on Horatio.
One could have heard a pin drop. Horatio froze, eyes wide.
“Our thanks,” Archie said. He had no problem stepping on stage when the lead forgot his lines. “But we should return to our ship.”
“Of course,” Edrington said easily, but his eyes were locked with Horatio’s.
An ugly blush bloomed red on Horatio’s face, and he looked absolutely miserable. Archie knew he was regretting every compliment he’d received this night, berating himself for feeling so pleased with them.
“My apologies; I meant no disrespect,” Edrington said quietly, and removed himself.
“Come, Horatio,” Archie said. “Let’s find the Indy.”
Horatio was a bit unsteady on his feet. Archie used some of his winnings to secure a hansom cab down to the docks, then let Horatio lean on him as they made their way aboard. Stiles was on duty that night, and muttered something disrespectful when Horatio almost fell. Archie cuffed the man and caught Horatio; Stiles wordlessly supported him from the other side.
Now that they were acting lieutenants, they shared a tiny cabin abovedeck, just big enough to turn around in. Archie helped his friend into the lower hammock and sent Stiles away. He wished Horatio didn’t look as if he were about to burst into tears.
“Why would he think…” Horatio’s voice was hoarse.
“He’s a nobleman. They’re odd that way,” Archie soothed.
“I just lost Mariette, and he invited me to bed! What sort of a man would do that?”
“I don’t think he understood about Mariette,” Archie said. “And as for what sort of a man he is – ” He shrugged. “It’s like I said. He’s a nobleman.” What else could be said? Noblemen were noblemen.
Horatio was pale and hungover the next day. He never again mentioned Mariette or the major, and for a time even compliments from Pellew, who never gave them unless well-warranted, were met with a flinch.
Months passed, and Pellew’s eyes continued to track his star lieutenant. A strange sort of tension invaded the captain’s cabin where they held lessons, and even Horatio finally noticed it. He took it to mean he was failing in some way, and redoubled his efforts to learn everything Pellew had to teach.
It finally came to a head one day when Pellew called Archie into the wardroom. “I’m recommending you both to lieutenants’ posts on Captain Sawyer’s ship,” he said, to the point as usual.
Archie started in surprise. He had thought Horatio would be kept under Pellew’s wing, and that Archie himself would be sent away. “Yes, sir,” he said. “Thank you, sir.”
Pellew gave him a sharp look. “He’s learned all he can from me,” he said. “He needs to prove himself so that he can make captain, and he won’t go without you.”
Archie blinked. Or course Horatio would go – the Navy was his whole life. Wasn’t it?
“Take this as a lesson, Lieutenant Kennedy,” Pellew rapped out. “I’ve put my personal feelings aside for the sake of his destiny. When the time comes, I trust you’ll do what’s best for him as well.”
At the time Archie couldn’t understand what the captain was telling him, but it would be the key to the whole plot of the play.
Captain Sawyer did not fall under Horatio’s spell. Archie had never felt particularly coddled under Pellew, but now he understood the value of a good teaching captain. Sawyer wasn’t interested in teaching his lieutenants anything; he wanted them to be able to do it already, and to only do it at the captain’s express command.
Archie didn’t mind it so much, for all his complaining. He was used to learning by doing something wrong, taking the scolding, and doing it right next time. Horatio, whose personal standards for himself stood at “know something perfectly before the first time I ever hear about it,” did not fare as well.
“You’re not doing so badly,” Buckland, the first lieutenant, said once, but it just made Horatio more miserable every time Sawyer harped at him.
Now that they were proper lieutenants, there were few who would bother Horatio with improper invitations. But Archie was still used to keeping an eye open, and that eye noticed early on who was looking.
Lieutenant Bush was looking.
Archie couldn’t put his finger on just why he felt Bush was so dangerous. It wasn’t just that the man outranked them, or that he seemed to be the captain’s man even as the captain deteriorated before their eyes. It was something more. Archie’s disquiet had more to do with the cautious regard on Horatio’s face when he looked at the second lieutenant.
The first time Bush made Horatio laugh, Archie recognized the feeling for what it was: jealousy.
But that was stupid. Bush, like Pellew, would never press an unwelcome suit. Horatio could use another friend, and Bush was a good man. An excellent man, it turned out, and on their side when the mutiny went down.
None of that stopped the slow boil of anger in Archie’s stomach every time he saw Bush with Horatio.
One night in the middle of the chaos that followed Sawyer’s fall, Archie found himself on watch with Bush. In a rare moment of privacy, the man said, “Mister Kennedy, I fear I have done something to give you an ill opinion of me.”
“No, sir,” Archie said, schooling his face into a friendly mask. Bush must have been paying close attention if he’d picked up on Archie’s dislike of him; it wasn’t for nothing that Archie had haunted Drury Lane in his youth.
“I hope you know, Mister Kennedy, that I hold our mutual friend in high esteem. I wouldn’t have a friend of his think poorly of me if I could help it.”
Archie waited, his face set in the slightly vacuous expression that calmed superior officers.
A hint of frustration flickered over Bush’s normally impassive face. “I would never presume to impose upon the bond you share with Mister Hornblower,” he said. “I merely offer my friendship, to him and to you.”
Archie normally thought of himself as an easygoing sort, so the surge of anger that flooded him took him off guard. The rage was out of character, but he seemed to be having some trouble playing his assigned role. It was only by clinging to the thought that since the mutiny, William Bush literally held Horatio’s life in his hands, that Archie managed to keep from striking him.
“You will not presume to speculate on the nature of the bond in question,” he snarled instead, voice unwontedly sharp. Bush flinched just a little, which made Archie feel better. “Horatio takes a dim view of those who would insult him so – and so do I.”
Bush’s eyes widened. “I meant no disrespect, sir,” he said earnestly. “Mister Hornblower holds you in the highest regards. I didn’t mean to suggest – ” He stopped abruptly when light dawned. “Oh dear,” he muttered, going pale. “I see.”
Oh, blast. Archie could see it all now. Bush was more like Horatio than Archie could ever have guessed. The man didn’t even understand why he was drawn to Hornblower. No doubt he thought it just a friendly admiration.
“Be warned,” Archie said coldly, “if he ever suspects you of harboring such thoughts, his regard will turn to hatred.” Archie had marked well the lesson of Major Edrington.
At the end of his watch, Archie lay in his hammock but couldn’t bring himself to sleep. He was not so good an actor after all, it seemed. The only person who’d bought his act was himself; Pellew, Edrington, and now Bush had all seen through him. Nonetheless, the important thing was that Horatio believed his disguise. Fortunately, Horatio had a blind spot a mile wide when it came to Archie.
Archie had been fooling himself for much too long. He had joined the ranks of good men Horatio could count on to love him from afar. He had joined years ago. Bush was only recently caught in the snare, and probably didn’t even realize it yet.
Archie Kennedy was supposed to be supporting cast. Supporting cast didn’t get to fall in love with the lead. He had a role to play, and that was best friend, not lover. Horatio didn’t want a lover. Horatio only ever fell in love with people he knew he couldn’t have, and he must know he could have Archie for the asking. It was so bloody obvious now, in retrospect. How many others knew? Archie had been kicking interested parties to the curb for Horatio for years now; surely that had to have inspired some rumors?
Worse, now that he’d joined the cast of love interests, did that mean he didn’t get to play the best friend anymore?
There was little time for such worries, though. There was a mutiny to live through. There was a fort to capture. There were the Spanish to fool and three ships to steal. And then there was Horatio, assigned a suicide mission so that Buckland could get rid of him.
Archie looked at Bush in the aftermath of those orders and saw understanding in the other man’s eyes. They both knew immediately that they would be dying with Horatio. Without the lead, the play would be over.
Now that Archie knew he was in love, he felt a curious absence of fear. He wondered if this was how Horatio felt all the time. Archie, followed by Bush, turned and ran hell for leather after Horatio.
Horatio was supposed to have a brilliant plan to save them all, but it turned out that for once he was following orders. Very well; if this story was to be a tragedy, they’d give the audience a good show. Three seamen cut down in their prime; it had an inevitability to it.
The charges were set, the gunpowder lit. They ran like hell, and somehow they managed to escape the blast.
Archie’s mind hadn’t caught up. It kept screaming We’re dead we’re dead we’re dead while Archie was tearing off his surcoat and sword, grabbing Bush by the arm, smiling like a madman at Horatio as they hurled themselves off the cliff into the water below.
And even after they were aboard, Archie still couldn’t convince himself that he really was alive, that it wasn’t some dream. So in the battle that ensued, he could be forgiven for not playing his assigned role.
Only a main character would be allowed to take a bullet for the lead. Only someone that the lead loved deeply could make such a sacrifice.
Archie didn’t care. He didn’t even think. Of course he would take the shot meant for Horatio. He took the bullet, and buttoned up his jacket, and fought on.
Only when it was all over did he clean himself up and transform himself back into the best friend. He made his way over to Horatio, sharing a joke and a smile.
It hurt like hell.
They told him he was delirious for two weeks. “Lucky to be alive,” they said, but Archie wasn’t so sure. A main character would have died, heroic to the end, and been held in Horatio’s arms as he bled out. He could remember Horatio’s arms around him - but he hadn’t died.
Bush was recovering too, but it was clear that Bush would get better eventually. The doctors muttered over Archie and looked at each other worriedly. Slow decline and gangrene. That was a not a hero’s end.
Bush was not much for words, but he did talk, and he gathered information to pass on. The trial was not going well, and Bush fretted about it. Admiral Pellew was on their side, but the other two judges were not.
Pellew would save Horatio, Archie was sure of it. That was his role, and he’d play it to the bitter end.
Horatio visited the two of them in their sickroom, and Archie saw the look of reverence in Bush’s eyes.
On the morning before he played his final scene, Archie called Bush to his bedside. “You will look after him,” he said quietly.
“We both will,” Bush insisted, not meeting his eyes.
“Don’t be a fool, sir,” Archie said. “Promise me you will look after him.”
Bush hesitated. Finally, he muttered, “I promise.” He looked away and wiped at his eyes. “Not that it will do much good!” he burst out. “They’re building the gallows for him as we speak.”
“I’ll take care of that,” Archie said, and smiled at the disbelieving snort of laughter. He was past caring what Bush thought of him now.
It took some time to gather strength for the next sentence. “When the time comes,” Archie said to Bush, “I trust you’ll do what’s best for him as well.” From the expression on his face, Bush didn’t understand – but he would. One day, he would.
There was a rap at the door. Pellew was waiting.
It was time to play his very last role. However briefly, Archie Kennedy would steal the stage and be the hero before the curtain fell.