Gibraltar, June 1799.
He was sure he'd done well this time. Archie was so certain of the fact that he whistled as he made his way through the streets of Gibraltar. Perhaps it was the contents of the letter that Captain Pellew had given him to present to the three captains on the examination board that had tilted their opinion in his favour. Archie wondered what his captain had written but hadn't asked. He'd been so nervous, thinking of failure yet again. But the day had suddenly brightened and now Archie felt like celebrating. The other midshipmen were gathered in a tavern not far from the docks celebrating Jonathan Riley's sixteenth birthday and although Archie had earlier made his excuses, he now decided to join them.
The tavern was crowded but he had no trouble finding his friends. Lionel Thockmorton's voice could be heard clear out in the street. Archie was greeted warmly by his friends and Peter Crittenden slid across to make room for him on a low bench.
"Didn't expect to see you, Arch. How did you go?" The dark haired midshipman asked quietly. They all knew that the lieutenants eExaminations were a repeated trial for Archie and tended to avoid the subject.
"Fine I think," Archie replied with a big smile as a tankard of frothy brown ale appeared in front of him. He looked around, "Where's little Pip?" The youngest midshipman was strangely absent.
Lionel Thockmorton leaned across the table and lowered his voice as if he were about to impart a national secret. "I think the captain got wind of our planned caper and ordered young Moseby to remain behind. He must think he's a bit too young to be visiting a whore house."
Archie looked over at Jonathan Riley just in time to catch the young man's blush before he looked down again hiding his eyes.
"Are you sure you are ready for this Jonathan?" Archie asked. He had been surprised that Riley had agreed so quickly when Thockmorton first brought up the suggestion a week ago. Riley had grown up, that much was more than apparent. He was no longer the quiet young midshipman that Archie had befriended 18months earlier but a confident young man. But was this what Riley really wanted or was he going along with Thockmorton's idea so that the worldly young aristocrat wouldn't think him still a boy?
"I'm sure Archie," the gentle blue eyes met Archie's so as to leave no doubt. "You said I'd know when I was ready. This is what I want."
Archie felt a pang of disappointment, not because he wanted Riley for himself, but because he had hoped that Riley might somehow be different. Had Lionel Thockmorton's tales of endless rogering made him long for what he didn't know?
"Then congratulations Jonathan. I hope it is all that you expect." Archie raised his glass in a toast.
"Well finish up gentlemen, the women await," Thockmorton declared as he downed the last of his ale. Archie stared into his glass. This was one part of the evening that he would pass up.
"Are you coming Archie?" Riley asked expectantly, and Archie wondered how to decline without causing Thockmorton to cast aspersions on his manhood.
"You go on ahead. Arch and I will be along when we finish these ales." Peter Crittenden took another slow sip of his ale and sat back confidently. "We can wait a little longer, unlike you two. Mind you don't come in your breeches just thinking about it, Lionel!" There was jovial laughter and good natured teasing as Riley and Thockmorton bid their good byes.
Peter Crittenden sat back with a sigh. "Thank God you came along Archie. I had no idea how I was going to get out of going with them. You're a life saver."
Archie frowned, surprised by Crittenden's words. In the past he and Harry had always been more than eager when it came to visiting brothels. What had happened to change that? He glanced sideways at Crittenden but was reluctant to inquire. Was the death of his friend Harry still weighing on Peter’s mind?
"Do you remember the first time you ever went to a brothel Archie?" Crittenden put his glass down, turned his head so that he was looking at Archie and rested his chin on his hands. "I do, I'd just turned 15 and I was aboard the Thebes. Harry took me along. He said it was time. I thought he was only taking me because for the last two months I'd spent too much time in his hammock with him doing ..well...we'd been doing to each other what I usually did to myself, only Harry had showed me it was more fun to do it with a friend." Archie felt a slow blush creep up his cheeks. This wasn't the sort of conversation he and Crittenden usually shared. He wondered if the younger man was drunk.
Crittenden closed his eyes and leant back against the wall again, lost in his remembrances. When he spoke again his words slow and clear.
"So we went together, Harry and I, and because we were both short of money we decide to share the girl, that way Harry said he could show me what to do. He wasn't that much older than me, but he had been at sea a lot longer and he knew so much more. I always felt like a child beside him." That was understandable, Archie mused. Harry Stratford had stood a good half a foot taller than Peter, who was fine and slim and at 19 still had not attained his adult strength.
"So I watched while he took the girl. I couldn't help but get aroused, but it was the sight of Harry that made me hot, not the woman. When he had finished he came over to me and said it was my turn. But I told him that I didn't want the woman, that all I wanted was him." Slowly Crittenden opened his green eyes and fixed Archie in his gaze. "You see I don't fancy women Archie, not at all and I think Harry understood that then, for he dismissed the whore and took me over to the bed and proceeded to show me what two men could do together. He showed me everything and it was amazing. I always wondered who his teacher had been. He never told me, but I was always thankful to whoever he was." Crittenden ran his slim hand through his hair and closed his eyes again. "So now you know. Every time we went to a brothel we always went together. The other lads thought nothing of it, if anything they were envious. But it was Harry who always fucked the whores and then he would make love to me."
Archie's mind was in turmoil trying to fathom what Crittenden was saying. "Are you asking if you can come in with me, Peter, and watch while I ..while I ..do it?"
"Oh Archie," Crittenden laughed, his serious tone lost. "I know you never visit the brothels when we are in port. I doubted you were going tonight! No, I am simply suggesting that we cover for each other. We could say we picked up a couple of lasses here and took them upstairs. If we get a couple of rooms no one need know the truth."
More ale arrived and as they drank Archie considered Crittenden's words. It seemed a sound idea. He leaned back and made himself comfortable against the wall as the ale started to take effect. Perhaps a night spent drinking with a friend was just what he needed.
"I know now what you tried to tell me when Harry died, Archie." Crittenden was speaking again, his voice slightly hushed, the words coming slowly. "I didn't really understand it then, but it was the only thing I had to cling to and I trusted you." He took a long drink then turned back to Archie.
"But I don't want to live on memories Archie, I can't. I know I'll never find exactly what I had with Harry again, but I don't want to be alone all my life either. That's no way to live."
The silence stretched out between them as Archie waited for what was to come next, but Crittenden just stared into his glass.
Loneliness was something Archie understood well. It had been his companion for many years. He found himself thinking of Horatio and what they had briefly shared together.
"It's getting late," Crittenden declared disrupting Archie's reminiscences. The tavern was nearly empty and the tap man was wiping the tables. He blinked, downed the last of his ale and looked into Peter Crittenden's green eyes.
"Perhaps we could get a room together, Peter?" Archie wasn't sure exactly what prompted him to ask. He only knew that Crittenden's words had touched a chord inside him and that he too wanted to find again the ecstasy he had discovered in Horatio's arms.
"Are you sure Archie?" They were the same words that Horatio had used.
"Yes Peter, that is, if you want to. You don't have to....I wouldn't expect..." But Crittenden leaned over and placed a gentle finger on Archie's lips, "Shhh Archie, yes I want to, I have for a while now but I wasn't sure if you would."
The room was arranged and they were shown up to the first floor. It was small and neat with a bed just big enough for two. Archie smiled to himself and crossed to pull back the curtains so that the sun would wake them in the morning. But as he turned back to Crittenden he felt the first tremors of fear start in his stomach.
"What's wrong Archie?" Peter asked, his face going from hopeful anticipation to deep concern.
"Peter, there is something I have to tell you," Archie crossed the room to sit on the bed. It had to be said; now before they started. "You see back when I was on the Justinian there was a man named Jack Simpson."
"Shh Arch, I know, I know what he did." Peter had come to kneel in front of Archie, his hands reaching out to clasp Archie's where they lay in his lap.
"It wasn't what Beddows said, Peter," Oh god surely he hadn't believed that!
"I know it wasn't. I overheard Jonathan telling Beddows off that evening. My god you should have heard him, I didn't know the lad knew such words. But I do understand what happened to you Archie. It was a terrible thing that Simpson did." Peter rubbed his hands gently. "I'm glad you had Horatio to help you through it."
"Peter, Horatio and I only ever did it once. I'm afraid that I will disappoint you in some way."
"Oh Archie, you couldn't disappointment me. Why I consider it even more of an honour now that you have told me this."
"I'm no prize Peter," Archie replied sadly. Dropping his eyes he felt again the shame of Simpson's touch.
"You are to me Archie," was Peter's soft reply. "Come now, we have all night and lots to learn about each other. We can go as slow as you want." Then Peter knelt up and kissed Archie's lips, slowly seeking admittance and Archie wrapped his arms around the slim figure, so different in feel to Horatio and pulled him up and back so that they tumbled onto the bed fully clothed.
It turned into a delightful struggle as they tried in vain to undress each other without letting go. They kissed and laughed and giggled their way to nakedness, their passion gently rising but never threatening to drown them. And when at last the touches and kisses were no longer enough it was Peter who rolled onto his back and looked up into Archie's blue eyes silently offering the one thing that Archie had never known.
"I can't," Archie panicked, "I've never done this. I don't know what to do."
"Of course you can Archie. You know what to do. Just use a bit of spit to make it easier, that's all there is to it." Peter's voice sounded so certain that Archie relaxed. He remembered what Horatio had done and proceeded the same way, slowly and carefully until Peter Crittenden was moaning under his ministrations in a most alluring way.
Archie lost himself in a maelstrom of sensations. Peter's urgent cries of pleasure, the salty taste of sweat as he bent low to kiss Peter's neck, the sharp tangy smell of sex, the hot tight friction that threatened to steal his senses. But the greatest amazement was that Peter shared the pleasure with him, that this was something he wanted, enjoyed. Archie watched in fascination as Peter rose to meet every thrust, his wild green eyes fixed on Archie, as together they moved closer to ecstasy.
What Horatio had said was true. Archie believed it now as he lay with Peter Crittenden wrapped in his arms, drowsy and sated. Perhaps when they were rested, they could try it again? Maybe Peter might....Archie smiled as he realised that he no longer saw this as something of which to be afraid. Thank you Horatio, he prayed silently. One day he would tell Horatio about this and thank him in person. He smiled even more as he thought about that meeting.
"What are you thinking about?" The sleepy voice brought a pang of guilt to Archie and he opened his own eyes to find Peter smiling up at him.
"I was thinking about Horatio, thinking how I would thank him the next time I saw him." Would Peter be disappointed?
"I think I might thank him myself, Arch," Peter said as he leaned up to kiss Archie's lips.
They spent the rest of the night in a haze of passion, giving and receiving pleasure and in the morning Archie awoke to sunlight and the warm embrace of a dear friend.
There were many ways to love, Archie knew now, many shapes and forms that it could take. In their world, possession had no place, rather it was the sharing and the caring and the letting go that characterized the greatest of feelings.
He looked at Peter Crittenden, his fine dark hair spread across the pillow in disarray and knew that what they had was transient and should be treasured all the more because of that. Things would change when they returned to the ship. What they had discovered here would have to remain hidden. But in the meantime they had a few more hours to themselves.
Smiling happily Archie woke his friend.