Horatio had barely seen Kennedy since Mr. Simpson's arrival had caused them to be placed on different watches. He had been forced to struggle through duty station, drill, and leisure alike without the other's boy's cheerful chatter, which Horatio had begun to depend on for the companionship as well as the practical sea knowledge that Kennedy managed to slip in amidst the jokes and theatrical nonsense that made up the great portion of the mid's conversation.
Now, even in the few minutes that might have been shared together at meals, Kennedy had been elusive. The mid had come in off morning watch and stopped to help him tie his tail before breakfast, but then made scarce again, leaving the mess soon after snatching a bit of biscuit and cheese.
Horatio assumed the reason was the sarcastic, handsome brute at the end of the table, whose rough hands had been fairly indiscriminate upon all the midshipmen and volunteers, but favored Kennedy as a target. If Archie had stayed, the boy might have spent a long bell seated at Jack's side, enduring his pinches and jabs with awful patience.
Horatio didn't blame Kennedy for making the escape. Yet it was a sad circumstance that the round-cheeked boy should first be silenced--for Archie hardly said a word in Simpson's company--and now was missing the food and drink that were a sailor's chief pleasures.
When Kennedy did not appear for dinner, Horatio began to be worried. He'd seen Kennedy drilling at cutlass in the forenoon with some of the division and other mids of that watch. He'd been reprimanded, actually, for lingering too long in one place, looking down at the whirling blades, and wondering if he would someday soon be expected to strike a man down.
Horatio had not yet so much as held a sword, nor a pistol either, and felt certain he would be as clumsy at it as he was at everything else aboard ship. He still could not make it down the hatch half the time without stumbling at the swing of Justinian against her anchor.
Kennedy had looked well at practice, moving through cuts and parries with the sure-footed grace of a cat. Grinning too, which had cheered Horatio to see. Between the smile, and the white shirtsleeves, the rare winter sun turning wild locks to gold, and the flash of the blade, Archie had seemed entirely made of light.
But Simpson had been drilling too, and it would be like the man to pink Archie, or worse, just to injure that moment of happiness. Or Kennedy might have had another fit, and been hurt that way. Unable to feel settled, Horatio gulped his food hastily and determined to make a search.
He ventured down to the orlop, after turning himself about more than once descending the decks. Some anxious exploration led him to the surgeon's room and the sick berth he knew was down here. It was empty though, as most of the orlop was at this hour, when the ship's company, all but a skeleton watch, were above at the mess tables.
Likely Horatio had just missed Archie coming late. He looked about anyway, checking the various nooks the boy had showed him, where one or two could curl up with a book and have some chance of being undisturbed. He was coming out of the last, one of the sailrooms in a tangle of compartments near the bow, when he heard Archie's laugh coming from down the passage.
He'd barely above a week's acquaintance with Kennedy and yet he instantly recognized Archie's sharp, merry, chuckle out of all the six hundred souls of Justinian. The brash metal of it flooded Horatio with relief, and he was about to hail the other boy, when he realized that the laugh was being joined by another: higher, shriller, female. And both voices were growing louder, heading toward him.
"H'ain't ye a saucy thing. I never gone with an officer afore. Are ye sure ye're an officer then? Ye seem rather small..."
"'Though he be but little, he is fierce.'" Kennedy quipped, and did something to the woman that made her squeal.
Passing back and forth from the midshipman's berth, one could not escape the fact that the ratings rutted with women between the decks. There was no privacy among the crowded hammocks, and what the eye might refuse to see, the ear could not refuse to hear.
It was Kennedy who had explained the presence of the whores, how pressed men could not be trusted with shore leave, but would desert or mutiny if left too long in port without female companionship. Some seamen were visited by their wives, but most of the girls aboard were professional.
While he had been fretting over Archie lying in a heap somewhere, palsied or bleeding, the mid was making assignations with one of the rating's women. Horatio wasn't sure if he was infuriated or just appalled. Later, he couldn't say which devil made him squeeze behind a nearby rack, rather than duck back into the sail locker, where he might have got out the other door through the bosun's storeroom without anyone the wiser.
The pair came lurching into view, arms slung around each other. The harlot--for there were only whores and wives on the ship, and what good wife would be down here with Kennedy--was some years older than the mid, Horatio thought, and everything about her was worn. Her hair was a frizzy brunette nest, and her face red and coarse-featured.
She wore nothing over her shift and stays, and her fat bosom jiggled with laughter as Kennedy tickled her and urged her on. She was tall, taller than Archie, and bone-thin aside from her chest. Horatio thought she looks like a hen ready for the pot. The contrast between the common slattern and the golden-haired lad, still all in white, beside her, caused a wrench that threatened the dinner Horatio had gulped down so recently.
Her layers of skirts were dull from dirt and time, and stained, trimmed with a few tin bells. They jingled with a tired tinkle as she flipped them playfully at Kennedy, revealing a bit of red petticoat and white ankles spattered with tar. "Ye taking me on a tour, luv? This ship's been at anchor a long while, there h'ain't nothing 'ere I 'aven't seen."
"Except an officer's prick, apparently." Kennedy pressed himself up against the woman, maneuvering her around until she was backed against the foremast footing. Illumination from the light room scuttle a few feet away was more than enough to reveal everything they did. "But here will do."
Horatio knew from gunroom talk that all the mids (and if they could be believed, half the volunteers) had availed themselves of similar comforts at dockside, and Kennedy had been as ribald as any of them. But somehow Archie had seemed too much a cherub to be truly debauched, the stories merely jokes, a camouflage.
It was a shock to catch them here, without even the decency to wait until the dark of night. The windowless hold might render the distinction fine, but somehow it felt more practiced and tawdry knowing the sun was shining full two decks above.
The whore might have felt some hint of shame too, batting at Kennedy's hands where they gripped and shoved at her skirts. "'ere in the passage? We'll be seen ye daft middie, and what will yer leftnant think of ye then?" She tried to tug Archie deeper into the shadows, but the mid yanked free, and pushed her roughly back against the foremast. From the sound of the thump, and the woman's squeak, it had been forceful enough to hurt.
"I don't want to do this in the dark," Kennedy coaxed, "I'll be quick."
He knew he should not look. Horatio had learned the mechanics of copulation the way any youth from the country could not avoid and supplemented that with his father's medical books, and the naughty whispers of other boys. Bonnet-topped girls giggling together on market day had worked an alchemy on crude dry facts, leaving him with vague notions of soft pretty lips, and lace, and a marriage bed.
A far uglier matter to see his friend, usually the one bright thing in his day, about to engage in carnal congress with a dollymop standing up against a mast in the stinking hold. It was nothing he'd ever imagined, never wanted to imagine, yet Horatio irresistibly longed to see how it was done.
His own experience was limited by going from a sheltered life in a country village to the all-male company of public school. Too shy to make friends even among his peers, the thought of even speaking to a girl left-him dry mouthed and shaking.
The confident way Kennedy grinned up at the woman, playing with her shift-strings, was all the more baffling when Horatio considered the mid's recent behavior. He knew Archie's moods to be unpredictable, but this lustful rowdy hardly seemed the same boy who stuttered and stared, and fell silent under Simpson's glare.
Kennedy had just fallen silent now, though, a necessary consequence of Archie's sharp pink tongue being shoved deep into the whore's gaping mouth. The only sounds the mid made were low eager groans that twisted painfully in Horatio's stomach, and spread lower.
Horatio had never had so much as a kiss, his sensuality confined to awkward abstract dreams that woke him to wet shame or drove him to surreptitious fumbling in the dark that left him devastated if he were successful and aching when he was not. Knowing his future had neatly consoled him for his lack of a sweetheart, or indeed any means to acquire one. A gentleman soon to go to sea, after all, should not risk breaking a girl's heart by paying court.
But Horatio had already suspected that Kennedy was no gentleman, despite the silk waistcoat and fancy nameplate on the brass-fitted sea chest. And it was not the woman's heart that Archie had now in grasp, but a far less pristine object, just the other side of the ribcage.
Horatio was mesmerized by the clawing fingers, by the very seediness of the boy's small, capable hand being there, plunged deep in that woman's bodice. He slumped against the rack and trembled, and began to burn.
The whore's hands were equally profane, at Kennedy's breeches quickly unbuttoning and loosening, and shoving down just enough for her to get at her goal. "What's a matter, luv, ye're only at half-mast? Not nervous are ye middie, can't be yer first time." He cringed at her mocking tone, but Kennedy just leered. It was a horridly base look, and Horatio's belly gave another wrench.
"Just shaking the rust off. Why don't you oil it for me?"
"Yeah, all right then. Give 'im 'ere." Horatio knew nothing of the etiquette of fornication, but from the slattern's expression, the extra work was unexpected, though she went about it willingly enough. The casual way that woman spat in her hand and gripped at that dangling flesh was wretchedly filthy. It spoke of the thousand other men she had touched. Horatio felt his own prick jerk suddenly in sympathy.
He knew he should not look. He could not bear to watch himself, the few times he had taken his insistent member in hand. But this was a new sin, not merely onanism, but prelude to something worse and infinitely more mysterious. Horatio could not take his eyes off that woman's fist in Kennedy's crotch, her thumb toying with the purpling tip while the rest of her fingers slid up and down the shaft like a milkmaid with a cow.
The mid gasped, twitching, at the rough caress, and it seemed to meet its mission as the object swelled, and stiffened, and darkened. Under the whore's attentions Archie's cock seemed an entirely different animal from the shy slender prick in his own pants. Horatio throbbed.
Kennedy began to groan in earnest, pulling free one rifling hand and bringing a breast with it. This prize was held up to be suckled, curved lips closing hard, then teeth nipping, then wet tongue laving down as the mid yanked up its mate and plunged between them.
Horatio felt certain he would never see a woman's bosom again, however shrouded behind cotton and lace, and not see this moment, this boy's brass hair splayed across her chest as Archie rubbed mouth and chin and jaw against the whore's tits like a cat, eyes closed and expression far too angelic for the sordid act.
"H'ain't ye got a pretty bit of 'ard. now. Ye going to use it, sweets?" Cackling, the whore let go the now jutting cock, and pressed Archie against her with one hand while the other snaked into the mid's clothes, gripping his taut arse.
That at last was too much for the boy, and with a curse, Kennedy dragged the offending mit back out again. Shoving her hard against the mast, the mid slung an arm under one knee and spread her, threw her skirts out of the way, peeled her open like an orange. Horatio had a glimpse of a dark-dusted maw before Archie was diving in.
He knew he should not look. Half-remembered sermons on avarice and lust scattered through his mind like hot coals, but here was the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and he had to bite.
He could not stop himself from watching the roll of hips, the way Archie plunged up and in and back, like a fisherman setting the hook. Horatio studied the jerk and flex of taut white cloth with the same careful fascination that he had followed the lunge and riposte of Archie up on deck. Could he do such a thing? Would he be asked to?
Kennedy stooped, slinging the whore's other leg over, and lifting her from the ground with a grunt. Horatio found that some mathematical center of his mind was still able to function, noting the way Archie used the mast to distribute the woman's weight. Even thin as she was, the mid must be stronger than appearances or delicate health would suggest, to so easily swing her up and down, tossing her like a child.
Though there was nothing innocent in the jangle of her bells, or Kennedy's rasping groans, or the fierce tension in Horatio's groin as he tried not to wonder what it would feel like to have another body thrusting and closing on his own.
It seemed more pain than pleasure. Archie panted and grimaced, tongue flicking out to lick lips like a man dying of thirst. Horatio thought it had been forever that they had been writhing in front of him. Archie's shirt was sticking with sweat, broad back laboring as the whore's grasping arms, her kicking feet, urged him onward.
As he watched, Horatio thought he saw a desperation in the other boy, a yearning, and he had to fight not to touch himself, dizzied by lust into some confusion that his need was tied to Archie's, and they both had to seek release.
"Come on, luv." The woman reached under herself to pluck at Kennedy's groin, drawing a groan, and a new spurt of pounding strokes. "Don't want to get caught, do we?" She grappled the mid with her thighs, digging her heels into his arse and Kennedy faltered, then almost dropped her when a low, hissing voice startled all of them.
"What do we have here?" Mr. Simpson slouched into the light, looking so much like a stalking terrier that even the hidden Horatio curled in on himself. Archie just stared as might a man facing his execution.
The whore craned her head back, trying to see around the mast. "Wait yer turn, now, this laddie'll be done in a minute." She grunted and bounced herself hurriedly up and down against Kennedy's unmoving hips.
Simpson's attention never wavered from the younger mid, prowling close. "Hardly becoming conduct for an officer, Kennedy. What would Eccleston say? Shall I fetch him?" Even though Horatio guessed that was an idle offer, the thought of it was enough to chill, and Kennedy shivered visibly. The whore was less impressed by Jack's circling and smirking, sliding down from her perch, but not quite letting go of Archie.
"I h'ain't putting on a show, 'ere, so jes bugger off," there was a little catch as she must have spotted Simpson's uniform, "sir."
A clink as metal hit the boards. "Now you are. A boy thinks he is a man, well, go on then, Kennedy, let me see how you handle your sword." Simpson leaned in, muttering something Horatio couldn't hear, thin lips so close they were practically caressing Archie's ear.
No matter what was said, Horatio could not imagine how it could drive Archie to lean back into the woman, lift her legs again, heave her up against the mast, and thrust in. Why add to the degradation? Why not refuse? What threat could Simpson have made? The older mid could hardly go to Eccleston now, with the girl as witness that Jack had encouraged them. It was an inexplicable mixture of cowardice and horrible grit.
The boy was sweating and pale with concentration, but relentlessly, began to piston. Kennedy's face wore a still, hollow look that was becoming familiar. The whore, understanding nothing of what was going on, except the tension torquing the body of the boy plunging into her, held on tight, wrapping her legs about Archie's soft hips, and her arms around the mid's neck.
Jack found a seat and settled back to critique the performance. "Get his pants down girl. I think the boy needs a little more room to show his action." The whore hesitated, but Kennedy's blank stare gave her neither approval or denial, and so she shoved a foot against the waistband and pried Archie's breeches down, and then his smalls, until his pallid rear end was exposed to the dim light and Simpson's hoot of approval.
"Show a little more spirit, Kennedy, give it some back and forth. A woman likes to know she's being fucked, and you're working with dirk, not a cutlass."
He knew he should not look. And Horatio realized then that he ought to speak, to show himself, to try ending whatever hold Jack had over the boy by his presence, but he could not do it. Only watch the exertion of white flanks, thighs bunching and trembling, the whore with her breasts swinging free, rocking with the violence of their coupling, while his forgotten erection raged back into prominence.
Without any other sign of attending Simpson, Archie altered his movement, thrusting harder and twitching from side to side to a purpose Horatio did not have the experience to understand. The whore, either pleased with Kennedy's attentions or hoping to encourage the boy to his end, became louder. Each of her squeals and grunts sent a violating twist into his groin, until Horatio thought if it went on much longer he would spill or spew.
Archie was acutely laboring now, arms slipping their grip and having to find the woman's thighs again, before they both fell. The mid gritted his teeth, eyes no longer blankly staring, but wide and anxious. The whore grimaced as Kennedy's rhythm fell off, their groins clashing hard enough to bruise. Simpson seemed to tire of the sport as well, "You need to learn to finish off your opponent, boy. Why don't you turn her about, perhaps you'll like it better that way."
He knew he should not look. Would Kennedy truly take the woman from behind? Horatio had not even known that relations could be done in such a way, like two animals, not man and woman. Despite his horror, Horatio's mind conjured images, his own hands on soft hips, pumping against round white flesh.
In that moment he was finally able to close his eyes and turn his head away, but he could not shut out the sound of Simpson's voice, cutting at his friend, or the wet thuds of fornication, piercing him endlessly like a dagger in his bowels. Horatio though it might never have stopped, if the whore hadn't appealed after several dry minutes, her plea laden with scorn.
"'e's gone soft on me. 'ave some pity on a woman, and let 'im leave off. I got plenty more work tonight without being plowed like 'e's tilling th'ole bloody farm."
Horatio dared a glance then and saw Jack agree with a smirk. She had to yank Kennedy's shirt to prompt the dead, mechanical movements to slow, then stop, and finally let the woman free. Archie stood, legs and arms all trembling with exhaustion, and did not bother to cover up, nor look at Simpson or the prostitute, keeping hooded eyes firmly on the floorboards. Horatio decided to do likewise.
"Don't forget to pay the girl, Kennedy. It's not her fault you failed under fire. Maybe you've lost the taste for battle, now." There was no reply but the sound of metal on metal, thin and sharp above Archie's labored panting, and the grumbled profanities of the whore. Kennedy didn't even thank her for the service, or apologize, but perhaps one didn't, or didn't when the simple transaction had become something ill and twisted under another's watching eyes.
"Come along then, boy. Pull your pants up, and we'll find you something better to do." He already knew that Jack sounded most merry when the man had just been cruel. Horatio glanced up again as Simpson wrapped an almost kindly arm around the smaller midshipman and cajoled Archie back down the passageway. His friend looked haunted. Horatio felt the same.
The girl was stooped on her knees collecting coins. After their footsteps faded away, though, she straightened, and turned to face him. "H'ain't you a sly mouse, skulking in the shadows. But I seen ye back there. Like to watch too, do ye? Come 'ere, luv. I'm a bit wore out, but give me a penny and I'll do ye with me 'and." She leered and made a profane gesture.
He stood up into clear view, and for one awful moment, Horatio's thoughts flitted to the small stash of coins knotted in a handkerchief at the bottom of his sea chest. He immediately felt so sickened, he only barely managed not to stammer in his refusal, "I do not require your services, madam."
The whore sneered until her face greatly resembled that of a rat Horatio had encountered the day before in the bilges, sharp-nosed, hungry and mean. "Cheap little bastard. Keep yer eyes to yerself next time, or someone just might put them out." With a spat, she stomped down the passage toward the forward hatch, leaving him at last utterly alone.
Horatio collapsed back behind the rack, and rubbed his own palm against his aching cock until he burst and wept.
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