Dr. Hepplewhite grumbled into the room a few moments later, a portly and red-faced man, annoyed to be called from his leisure. "Mr. Hether said I should come down, one of the officers has been hurt?" The man blinked irritably at Horatio where he rested against the bulkhead. Kennedy gave a cheerful grin, and waved the surgeon over to him.
"Aye, sir. Sorry to disturb you. It's Midshipman Hornblower, sir. The one who came aboard seasick. He still hasn't got his legs." Horatio tried not to bristle at Kennedy's mocking tone. And it was true he wasn't as sure-footed as he would like, even after almost a fortnight.
"Tripped over a pig and pitched himself down the aft hold stairs. Knocked out, and we thought he should be looked over, sir, though he's better now." It was a marvel how the midshipman could lie so smoothly, not a stutter or nervous glance. Horatio tried to do his part, and seem less like a boy who had been whipped, but he did not know the way of it, and was sure falsehood was in all his looks.
The surgeon sat him up and prodded his bumps, felt about his limbs and stomach, a rougher and less thorough examination than the one Kennedy had given him a few minutes before. Horatio attempted a becoming stoicism, though he could not stifle a yelp when the man's thumb tested his rapidly swelling eye.
"Fell? You must have hit every step, Mr. Hornblower," was the sour pronouncement, and Dr. Hepplewhite scowled back over one shoulder at Kennedy, who looked as though butter wouldn't melt in that impudent mouth.
"Oh he did, sir. Tumbled like an acrobat." Horatio was glad to be spared the need to reply. "Is Mr. Hornblower all right, then. Should I take him back to our berth?" The bells rang out then. "I'm due on watch, sir."
The doctor snorted, and brought the lantern down, shone it right into Horatio's face. The light pierced his head like a spike, and suddenly he retched up what was left of his supper, missing the surgeon's shoes only because Hepplewhite was expecting it and stepped out of the way.
"I think we should keep him here, Mr. Kennedy." Hepplewhite left Horatio to search for his dignity, laconically returning the lantern to its hook, and stepping toward a locker, pulling keys from a jacket pocket.
"Nothing's broke, though I don't doubt he'll be stiff as a board by morning. But I don't like the look of his eyes. He'll need to be kept awake, until the forenoon watch at the least, just to be sure. On your way up get one of the loblollyboys to sit with him."
"Oh, I could do it, sir!" Kennedy offered hastily. Horatio was surprised, and the doctor too. Both stared, and Kennedy gave them a tight smile, more a baring of teeth, but no explanation.
"Shirking your duty, Mr. Kennedy?" Dr. Hepplewhite glowered suspiciously, looking between the two boys. The surgeon pulled out a bottle and poured a generous cup before locking the bottle back away. Horatio was getting tired of being talked over as if he weren't listening, but the other boy's face was very intent and he didn't want to queer Kennedy's plan, whatever it was.
"No sir, but if I can be of assistance to my shipmate..." Horatio felt he should be worried at the exchange, that if Kennedy and the doctor were both concerned, he ought to be as well. But he had no energy to spare fretting about why he wasn't to sleep or what Kennedy was about. It was all he could do to sit upright and wait through the pain while they decided what to do with him.
The surgeon was gripping his face again, turning his head back and forth while Horatio breathed carefully through his nose and closed his eyes to keep out the stabbing lantern light. "That hold's not been holystoned in a dog's year. These cuts on his face should be washed out." He could hear Kennedy down on the floorboards now, wiping at them with a rough cloth. It was possible that he could feel like a lower and more helpless worm, but didn't, at present, know how.
"I could do that, too, sir. And then sit up with him, if you'll just talk to the officer of the watch for me, sir. I have experience."
"You do at that." The doctor grunted, then, and let go of Horatio, who started to slump back gratefully against the bulkhead until the bruises and welts reminded him they were there. "I'll tell the lieutenant he's down two midshipmen for the next four watches."
Hepplewhite picked up the cup he'd poured earlier and eyeing it judiciously, promptly drained two-thirds of its contents before shoving the rest at Kennedy, who was just standing up again. "Give him this, but don't let him sleep. If he does, and you can't wake him, or if he fits, come for me."
"Aye, sir. Thank you, sir." Horatio echoed Kennedy's thanks, a beat behind, still puzzling over the mention of fits, before giving it up as something else best not thought about at the present time.
"Be about it then. Mr. Hornblower, listen to your messmate." Not waiting to hear Horatio's stumbling agreement, the surgeon quit the sick berth.
As his stomping tread faded away, Kennedy seemed to collapse for a long moment, then blew out a deep breath and rubbed face and head so hard, tufts of silky hair were pulled free of their ribbon to give a golden halo in the lantern light. Combined with reappearance of the impish grin, the dizzy Horatio thought the boy made a lovely, if unlikely, cherub.
"Old sawbones must fancy you, Hornblower, more luck me. No duties until afternoon watch at the earliest, and I didn't even have to take a beating myself."
It hurt to be used thus, until he realized that Kennedy was not serious. Then he was able to offer a tenuous smile, wincing past a split and swelling lip. "Dr. Hepplewhite believed us?"
"Oh no. Hepplewhite's a drunk, but he knows a fist from a fall. He won't put the lie to us with the officers, though." Kennedy leaned over him then, and stared at him disconcertingly long. "We'll have to do this over with Lieutenant Eccleston tomorrow, but there's no use worrying about that, when we have a whole night to ourselves between it." There was that smile again, sunshine in the dark, but Horatio could tell now that it wasn't reaching the other boy's eyes.
They were a startling blue, not the ocean at all, but the summer skies over Kent. At this distance, Horatio could see purpled hollows above the sun-darkened cheeks, and the smudge of a bruise just over that stubby nose. He recalled with a surge of guilt that the midshipman had been sick very lately, and for all that Kennedy acted otherwise, the boy was not sound. When he was laying in Horatio's arms, he had feared the lad would shake into pieces.
"How old are you, Mr. Kennedy," he asked, more to distract from the uncomfortable intimacy than anything else. It was something he had wondered since he came aboard.
"I am not eighteen." That startled him, though Horatio could not have said whether he had thought the other to be younger or older. It did not seem possible that he and this odd, mercurial, little creature could be of an age.
"I am seventeen, myself," he said stupidly, just to say something. He wanted Kennedy to stop looking at him, but he wouldn't risk giving offense again by saying so. He must be in an awful state, to be stared at so peculiarly.
"Yes I know, Hornblower." Horatio flushed at the impatient scorn. "I was standing right beside you when you told the mess, the day you came aboard."
Kennedy brought up one dirty-nailed finger, and waved it slowly back and forth. It was distracting, but he then recognized it as a test. His father had done the same when he fell from their apple tree, and so Horatio did his best to keep his eyes on the waggling digit, and not Kennedy's wrinkled brow, or the small white teeth worrying pursed lips. It did not help that the finger in question refused to remain singular.
Even when they were friends, it had been hard to get Kennedy to say much that was personal. Horatio pressed the advantage now that he had the boy talking. It made the way the mid was staring at him less uncomfortable. "You have been in the service for a while, though, n-not just on the books?" He was still ashamed of his own advantage, in being listed as a member of the crew these past five years while serving none of them. But it was a common enough custom.
Kennedy pulled back, and Horatio could breathe again. He couldn't quite tell, but he thought the other boy seemed satisfied of whatever had been in question. "I went to sea at thirteen." The reply was curt, but it came with a smile so it did not matter.
The mid shoved the horn cup at him. "Drink, this will help the headache." Horatio looked down at it doubtfully. It seemed some sort of herbed wine, sharp and unpleasant. "Go on, it takes the taste of sick away. And it might make your breath smell better." Kennedy winked.
Horatio, burning with shame and thus reprimanded, attempted a swallow. The strong smell of grass roiled his stomach, but his mouth felt cleaner, burning from the bite of it, and he choked it down with a cough. "Justinian isn't your first posting?" He coughed again, and Kennedy took the cup back, hooking a stool with one foot to sit down in front of him.
"No." Kennedy's patience with the questions was at an end, apparently. The midshipman urged him more upright, and started undoing his waistcoat buttons again. "Here, let's see the damage."
Horatio felt he ought not let the other boy undress him like a child, but had his hands slapped for his trouble. "Leave off. You'll be sick again if you move too much, and I don't want to be cleaning it off my breeches too." There was no dignified reply to make to that, so he did not make one.
In short order the white wool was being eased off his shoulders, and Horatio was sad to see the waistcoat had been spotted with blood. Then his shirt, which stuck to him in a couple places and stung fiercely when Kennedy ripped it free.
Horatio knew he was a long, spare, awkward thing, an unimpressive sight in the best of circumstances. Even he did not like to look down himself, now, ripening bruises standing out on skin that was land-pale, and soft, and no doubt far too thin for shipboard life.
There was a bleeding welt on his arm, and another, worse, across his stomach. His shoulder ached almost as much as his head. Horatio did not remember it, but he must have curled up in the midst, for the chief of the damage seemed to be on his arms and back.
Kennedy took mercy on him, then, and helped him shift about to lay on his stomach. "It is not so bad," the other boy said, tracing the edges of the welts with rough but careful fingertips. "The waistcoat took most of the starter's sting. You'll have lumps, but no scars." The touch crept up to his head then, searching through his hair for the bump. Horatio couldn't bite back the little moan as lightning flashed briefly through his temples.
Kennedy hushed him, pulled free the ribbon binding his hair and combed through it, straightening out the tangles even as fingertips found the edges of the lump. Finished, the other boy smoothed the curls back from his face, then stroked them, then did the same down the length of his back, managing to find the few places that didn't hurt.
He ought to object to being pet like a kitten, but the sensation on his skin cast some sort of spell that kept him from moving. Horatio was reminded suddenly of his father, rubbing his back when he was ill with the croup. He had to sniff hard to fight back a wash of contemptible tears.
A strong hand clasped firm on his one uninjured shoulder, then began to soothe again. "It does get better, you know. It will not always be like this." Kennedy's voice coaxed at him, and Horatio was swept with a sudden irritation at the mollycoddling. "It's just that you are the new boy, and Jack is so angry about his exam..."
He rolled over, at that, jerking away, but his injuries complained fiercely at the movement, and his words came out sharper and louder than he intended. "I cannot believe you are defending him, Mr. Kennedy! You of all—" Horatio's temper leeched away when he saw that he had startled the other boy, that Kennedy had jumped up and backed a step, running nervous fingers through already disheveled hair.
"I am not!" The boy's voice broke and Kennedy had to pause and take a breath, before coming close again, and kneeling down. "I am not excusing Simpson. Only telling you that he is not always like this. He has his moods, and this is as dark as they come, but until it passes you mustn't provoke him, Horatio. You don't know what he can do."
Kennedy reached out to take his hand, the fingers playing over his nervous and urgent, but with no hidden message, just concern. There was something in the boy's expression, a distance, that Horatio was already learning to fear. "Clayton won't always be there to protect you."
"Protect me?" Horatio was confused. He had some memory of the other mids speaking up for him in the end, protesting with Simpson, but not Clayton. "Protect me how?" When he was not answered, he shook the boy's hand, trying to drag his attention back. "Kennedy? Archie?"
The name seemed to wake Kennedy, who blinked and shivered before answering. "He pulled a pistol on Simpson. To get him to stop. He might have killed you otherwise, Jack was in such a fury."
Horatio was stunned. It took several seconds before he could close his mouth and ask, "Is- is Clayton all right?"
Kennedy's eyes wryly acknowledged the appropriateness of the question. "Well I didn't hear a gunshot. And no one has joined us down here, so far. Simpson is on larboard watch, Clayton on starboard. He might be safe for now."
Horatio glumly looked down at the broad, brown hand holding his. It had a faint tracing of scars across the knuckles, and he wondered again how they had got there, how long they had been there. Who this odd boy was, so tender and crude and frightened and brave mixed together.
"It will pass, Horatio, but you must help us. Don't fight him. Do what he says, give him whatever... whatever he asks for, and stay out of his way as much as you can. Don't give him any excuse to rage." The fingers clasped his hard enough to hurt, forcing Horatio to look up again into a fierce blue stare. "It won't always be you who pays the price."
Horatio did not know how to respond to the plea and accusation in Kennedy's thrust. He thought the midshipman meant to do him a favor and that the other boy's advice was not all self-serving. But while a lie was one thing, especially to save a shipmate's honor, he could not lay down like a dog just to save himself a beating. He did not think anyone should.
The silence stretched out as he sought some way to make the other boy understand, not wanting to start a fight with Kennedy again over ill considered words.
In the end he could find no kind way to say it, and so clenched his jaw and determined to say nothing at all. He knew it made him look mulish, but he could not help it. There were limits, and he should not call himself a gentleman if he let Simpson push him past them.
There had to be some other way to manage this, and he would think of it, if only his head would stop hurting, and the room cease its spinning, and those sky eyes leave off asking him for something he couldn't give. Finally he shut his lids and turned away, trying to stop the clamoring of all three trials.
His hand was abruptly bereft, and then there was a clatter. Horatio opened his eyes again to catch the other boy's face twisting into an ugly sneer. "You'll learn the hard way, then." The mid headed for the passage, a small bucket dangling from his fist. "I need water for your back. Do me this much at least, Snotty, and don't fall asleep." Horatio shook his head, but Kennedy wasn't looking at him anymore, "Or you'll wish you hadn't."
The last thing Horatio had wanted was another quarrel with Kennedy, but he had got one anyway. He didn't know how long he sat there on the edge of the cot, replaying the bewildering conversation. When he could make himself move again, it was only to vomit, overcome by events of the day, and the final, unexpected blow of Kennedy turning on him once again.
At least this time he found a bowl that someone, Hepplewhite perhaps, had set nearby. Hoping to clear the bile from his mouth, he took another swallow from the cup, but gagged on the taste and was sick again. Then he did collapse, onto his stomach, and wept as he had never cried before in his life.