"Why do you let him do it to you?"
The soft scorn in those accusatory words hit Archie like a bullet, jerking him from oblivion with an embarrassing spasm of limbs. A sudden sick dread stabbed his gut, already roiling with grog drunk too quickly, to kill the taste of its other contents. How had Horatio known? How could he tell? Kennedy scrubbed at his face with one scratchy blue sleeve, frantic that some careless remnant of their activity had given him away. Then the rest of his friend's words belatedly penetrated the fog that always overtook him after.
"Simpson treats you like a servant and me as his jester. He degrades you—us—with his insults and his demands. We should go together, to Lt. Eccleston or Lt. Chadd, surely they do not know..."
Only because they did not want to. Kennedy had tried to explain to Eccleston what Simpson was. Some part of what the bastard was, at least. What could be said without incriminating himself. He had dared, newly aboard Justinian, thrown back unexpectedly into this nightmare, and unwilling to lie down again. Afraid to lose what self-possession a year on land had given back to him. The lieutenant had seemed to listen, said his complaints would be taken to the captain. That night Kennedy had been the one taken, and taught again that he possessed nothing, leastwise himself.
"It's not their concern, Hor- Mr. Hornblower." He caught the Christian name before it could slip out, remembering that he must keep Horatio at a distance, publicly, for both their sakes. Avoiding the other boy's eyes, Archie found himself scanning the table for any cups left unattended. He had been very late for the meal. The rest had finished and feeling the tension in the gunroom, scattered. Only Horatio had lingered, lying in wait for him. Kennedy wished this argument had not been the reason.
Hornblower was jabbing at the table now, apparently incensed by his apathy, "Whyever not? Stealing our shirts? Our food? Doing his laundry? And any other act he requires." Archie focused on that one long elegant digit tapping insistently on the wood, caught between trying not to think about Simpson's requirements and trying not to grab hold of that lovely narrow hand and press its cool fingers to his aching head. Even if he dared, Archie doubted Horatio would let him. The boy had a very large bee in his bonnet, in no mood to cosset. "It's unjust, Kennedy!"
Hornblower's innocence was exhausting. As if some form of torment was not tradition for every boat, or school, or other place where men and boys were thrown together, above and below, then bound with rules? Simpson's mess was an extreme, but there was nothing to be done, except endure until time and rank made one immune. Yet Horatio was still talking. "...a Republican he called me. Not merely a simple British sailor who thinks my sea chest is my own, and my person..."
Archie couldn't bother to listen further to the rant, collapsing back into himself with his secrets and sore jaw. He wished it were not the precise wrong time to steal Horatio's untouched mug, temptingly within reach. "What's a bit of mutton or a clean shirt?" He couldn't help snapping, interrupting.
"I-I would happily give share to a messmate in need," Horatio said, drawn up with indignation. "But not for greed or sloth. And you know that is not the worst of his demands." Archie was confused by the dark glower in Horatio's eyes, wondering just what Hornblower knew, and how. It was all a bit much for having to dance a jig and lose some meat. Was the boy still angry over the trick with the fighting top? Surely Simpson had not done worse. Jack would have told him. Would have gloated. Did Horatio know?
Kennedy couldn't help wiping his mouth again, licking cracked lips as Archie thought furiously. Whatever known or suspected, he had to impress on Horatio what must be done. "Mr. Simpson is senior among us. He may make demands. It's just... discipline, H-Hornblower." He tried to repeat the thoughts that sustained him, even as Horatio grimaced with disagreement. "You should accustom yourself to obeying orders regardless of wishes or opinions... we cannot question rank—"
Of course Hornblower argued, "There is nothing of this in the Naval code, neither rank nor seniority that entitles him, and the lieutenants..." Archie looked about for who was close enough to hear, cutting in to try to stop his friend from saying more, and grabbing Horatio's wrist. He squeezed hard to warn the other midshipman.
"They will do nothing, Hornblower! We sit among half a thousand miserable souls, a good part of the sailors newly impressed and liable to desert or mutiny. Mr. Simpson is... effective at controlling the men." Kennedy realized his hands were shaking, and he let go Hornblower. To hide it he took up his cup again—though it held not even a swallow—before going on. "Some might not care for his methods, but Mr. Simpson berthed with the lieutenants for months. He is one of them, or will be again soon. They won't check him. Not with his nose for agitators." Or his talent for breaking them.
Damn it all. That stubborn affront on Horatio's face was going to see the boy dead, or worse. The mid was rubbing at reddened arm and jutting out a pouting lip. Looking at him as if Archie were the enemy. Perhaps he was. And if not, then best that Horatio think so. The boy was staring at him now with something like disgust. "I refuse to believe this is what the Navy calls honor," Hornblower sputtered.
Archie needed another drink, badly. He looked about again, hoping for Clayton who always had a flask on him, and could be guilted out of a few draws. Clayton could take over explaining matters to Hornblower as well. It was a service the older man had performed many times for new middies and volunteers. For himself, in fact, long ago on the aptly named Perseverance.
"Call it what you will, just give Jack what he wants, it's little enough." Or it will be so much more. "He'll tire of you if you give him no challenge, and move on to someone else."
"Like he tired of you? He's at you like a dog with a favorite bone, while you do everything he asks with nothing but a 'Y-y-yes, Mr. Simpson!'" Archie winced at this unanticipated mockery. "I call it spineless, to bow my head to another man's insults and whims and kiss his—shoes, besides!" Even in a hissing fury, apparently Hornblower couldn't bring himself to swear. It should have been funny, but Kennedy's instinct now, even with a harmless child like Horatio, was to stutter and cringe, to bend under that anger, and appease. The tatters of pride let him only sit silently as Hornblower glared at him, the other mid's expression shifting from frustration to suspicion. "All in the hope that he will turn on some other poor soul? Am I to be your replacement? Is that the game?"
God no. Not Horatio. In his weaker moments, Archie did think of it. Let this cup pass from me. But Jack ruined men. Killed them. He at least would not die, did not think he would, by Jack's hand or his own. "No, Mr. Hornblower, no. I'm just trying to save you a beating." Archie tried for a smile but feared it came out a grimace. If only Hornblower would listen, and learn to keep head low and take cover. Kennedy knew how to survive until the British Navy or a French cannon settled the matter. For him it could get no worse, and Archie could bear it. Had born it. Shall I not drink the cup which my father has given me? There was a strange sound, oh, he was laughing. At his pretensions. At the absurdity of equating Justinian to the garden of Gethsemane or himself to Christ. What a figure he was. Even Horatio was repulsed, questioning his sanity, perhaps, as he cackled in hard bitter gasps.
"How many beatings did it take to make you a coward, Mr. Kennedy?"
In another mood, Archie might have gone after Hornblower himself for that, and given the prat one to start with. Instead, the laughter dried up, and horrified, Archie felt his eyes burn. He clenched his fists, and buried his face in his arms before tears could spill down his cheeks. There was a long pause while Hornblower waited, for him to make some protest or justification, perhaps, or to else call the bastard out, as a man should. But Kennedy just willed his breath to slow, his chest not to heave, his nose not to sniffle, and the boy, damn that boy, to leave.
An eternity later, there was a scraping, as Hornblower shoved his still-full mug of grog across the table to Archie, before standing abruptly. As the thud of his feet faded, Archie heard him call back, with the stiff diction that was as good as a sneer. "Take it, Kennedy. You know you want it."
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