Horatio roused when they were levering him awkwardly into a narrow bed in the surgery. His long limbs were giving them trouble, as they always did him. He tried to tuck them in and make himself small. The feel of an actual bed at his back, and not canvas and air, was distracting enough to keep his mind off other sensations for the moment.
One of them lit a lantern, hanging it near the bunk. It swung and cast ghosts on the walls that spun until Horatio thought he might be sick and so closed his eyes. Mr. Cleveland and Archie—Mr. Kennedy were consulting now in whispers.
Kennedy had dropped that dispiritedness that was so unsuitable, and was arguing a point with the other midshipman. Horatio could not help resenting that his former friend could so readily find a tongue now, who had said nothing earlier. Done nothing, either, except get out of the way and look glad not to be stretched across the table.
"Go on, Cleveland. It's almost turn of the watch, and we need to keep this quiet." Horatio forced himself up, wanting to protest. There was far too much keeping quiet on this ship as it was. They both looked at him, then, Mr. Cleveland with frustration and Mr. Kennedy with a less readable expression. The boy was in the shadow of the larger man, just a few flickers of honey hair and arms folded tight around, one foot tapping against the floorboards.
Mr. Cleveland laid hands on Mr. Kennedy, tugging an arm. "You're on with him. He'll be looking for you and we don't need another row. Hether's fetched the doctor, he'll be along..."
"I know." Horatio was watching their faces closely, and saw Kennedy's features go still, too still. Then like a dog shivering off water, the boy shrugged free and pushed Cleveland firmly toward the passage. "I'll be there soon. I'll just talk to the doctor first, make sure he tells the officers things rightly." He could not hear the rest of what they said then, but the older mid left while Kennedy moved back to his side.
Horatio flinched when the other lad bent close over him and was immediately ashamed of his cowardice, for the hands that touched him were gentle, turning his jaw to examine the damage and feeling his skull where more than one bump throbbed to be handled. He ventured to question, "Mr. Kennedy?" His waistcoat was pulled open and he hissed as probing fingers found a place above his hip where the starter Mr. Simpson was wielding had struck and split his skin. "Mr. Kennedy!"
"You fell down the hold stairs, Mr. Hornblower," the boy said flatly, doing up Horatio's buttons and tugging the fabric down to hide the stained linen of his shirt. It took him a moment to comprehend the meaning, but when he did, he sat upright, indignant, then blinked at the sudden nausea and the stabbing pain in his head.
"I did no such thing," he managed to mumble, but let himself be pressed back onto the pallet, awakening other injuries. There was hardly a part of him that did not seem battered, though he did not remember being struck so many blows as all that.
The boy's eyes were cold and dark as the ocean as Kennedy leaned over to capture his gaze. "If you say that you fell, perhaps you will be believed. If you say that you fought with Mr. Simpson, he will deny it. As senior, his word will be taken over yours. And then Jack will beat you again for tattling and see that you take all the blame. And in a few days, it will happen again. And again."
"But it is not right." The captain's words mocked him. Do your duty and no harm will come to you. "It is not honest." There was an unmanly quiver in his voice so he clenched his jaw, willing himself to silence.
"There's nothing in this life that is fair, Horatio. And precious little that is honest." Just for a flash, like the moon through clouds, came the wide grin that had welcomed him to Purgatory, and then it was gone. "I did warn you," the middie whispered, too gently to be a mockery. The other boy's fingers brushed against his nose, his lips. Too light to hurt, but his skin felt suddenly swollen and tight, each separate blow now singing out its existence.
Kennedy drew in a breath, looking away. "You're new." The hand lingered, cool against Horatio's cheek, who closed his eyes again. "Say that you fell, and worst case, you'll probably only be mastheaded, sent up to the crosstree to hold on for a few hours," the boy explained. Horatio pictured the height of the ship's masts and swallowed, thinking that sounded bad enough.
Hornblower felt sick again and didn't know if it was his head or fear or both. He felt he should not just lay here, but he did not know what else to do, and his head ached, and Kennedy's rough fingertips brushed the curls off his forehead, giving a comfort quite at odd with his words.
"Get a name for fighting and you will be flogged, you know, or caned." Horatio swallowed again as he imagined the indignity of being whipped bare-buttocked before the crew. "Even disrated." Kennedy pulled back as the sound of steps coming down the passage carried to them. He opened his eyes, catching the other boy's tension.
"I am going to tell the doctor you fell. Don't name me a liar and bring me down with you." Kennedy smiled again, but this was just a wintry little twitch of the lips. "I've kissed the gunner's daughter too many times already."
Horatio watched as Kennedy turned away. They had been friends at first, but after he had seen how Kennedy was with Mr. Simpson, what Jack could make the boy do, he'd pulled away. They had argued, he'd thought Kennedy was too craven, and said as much. He'd been disgusted by the lickspittle stuttering and flinching, without pride or spine.
But Kennedy had a straight broad back, and that small shoulder had still carried him here. The advice, the lies even, might carry him a deal farther. Horatio was confused all over again about who had the strength and who the honor.