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.
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.
Horatio was still shaking with soft, helpless sobs, when Kennedy returned some awful space later. He did not even hear the other boy come in, just the clack of the wooden bucket coming to rest on the floor beside him. The sound startled him into movement, but he was so miserable that the shame of being caught in tears had nowhere to find purchase. He just curled away from the mid and let his quivering back form what barrier it could.
It did not hold up well. The other midshipman rummaged about the room at first, but after a minute, he felt the thin mattress sink under Kennedy's weight. A wet cloth, so cold it made him jump, was laid against his bruised shoulder. The salt stung, but it was a lesser pain and easily dismissed. Horatio sullenly refused to acknowledge the other boy's presence even enough to push it away.
A moment later, a second soaked rag was pressed against his swollen eye. This was harder to ignore, and far more painful, and he batted at the hand that held it there, only to have his own caught by fingers almost as chilled as the water.
"It will help the swelling, Hornblower." Kennedy's voice was low and gentle. The mid had turned about once again, Horatio supposed, and would be kind now. He didn't trust it, and jerked away from the grip, but he let the cloth be. The burning was fading anyway, and the cold felt good. He thought he heard a sigh, but did not answer, did not care to answer. Talking had been worse than unprofitable of late.
He did better with silence. It stretched out for some time, the only sounds the slap of cloth and water in the bowl. Kennedy set compresses on all the places that could be reached without disturbing Horatio, then got up to range about the sick berth. He lay there, unmoving, feeling misery shift to discomfort, and then to irritation. The water had begun to run down his neck, pool unpleasantly in his many hollows, and soak the mattress.
Soon he would be sodden and chilled in addition to welted and bruised and aching and sick. Horatio recounted his ills to himself, but was too stubborn to complain or change position and give the other boy the satisfaction of admitting his existence. He knew it to be childish, but he had control over little else in his life, so he might at least choose his own discomfort.
Or perhaps not. "Turn over and let me wash your face. The gunroom is no cleaner than the hold floor, and Jack's fists aren't much better."
It was good sense, no doubt, but Horatio was ready to dismiss it. Except that Kennedy would not let him, first coaxing him to lie back, and when he resisted, playing a foul trick and grabbing his injured shoulder roughly, so that he cried out and had to lay flat to get away, compresses sliding off in a muck of sea water.
Kennedy was wearing an odd little smirk and sat back on the stool to observe him. He looked dashing in the wool uniform coat. The mid's cheeks were red from the chill air on deck, but the boy looked snug and warm with the jacket buttoned up completely. It all presented far too cheerful a countenance for Horatio, but before he could resume his sulk, the other boy came at him with a wet rag. "I promised Dr. Hepplewhite, and you wouldn't have me go back on my word, would you Hornblower?"
"I can do it myself." Horatio felt forced to reply, and struggled upright again, studiously ignoring that Kennedy had to help.
"No you can't. We have no mirror for one, and you probably can't move that arm for another. And you shouldn't be moving at all." Still with that irritating amiability. Sitting up had made his head resume aching. Horatio decided he had no more energy to be distrustful, and so lay back again and let Kennedy do him the service.
The experience the other boy had claimed showed in the quick and careful work, first soaking away the dried blood, then scrubbing hard, but not viciously. "These are all shallow, the cheek here is the worst of it," Kennedy commented as he finished up, wiping with a clean corner of the rag. "If the cuts don't go bad, in a fortnight you won't even have a reminder to mar your pretty face." The mid brushed a thumb over Horatio's split lip, and gave a playful wink.
He winced at both touch and compliment. The other boy had no cause to tease, looking so much like an angel fallen out of a chapel painting.
Horatio was distracted from his contemplation of Kennedy's face by cold fingers running over the welt on his stomach. "I'll put a compress here too, Hornblower. It is an awkward place, better if we can convince it not to bruise too badly." Kennedy re-wet the rags and set them once again at eye and shoulder, then casually undid the button on Horatio's pants and pulled the placket to one side, where it would not get wet, before laying the cloth just above it.
Horatio blushed and wanted to protest. Kennedy was being far too familiar with another man's breeches. It was worse when the boy's hand lingered at the top of his thigh, and then the mid rapped a knuckle against his hipbone. Horatio had had enough, snatching at his clothes, and shoving the other boy away.
Kennedy just laughed though, and pushed him down easily. "Lay still." He set the compress back into place. "You know we're going to need to fatten you up before you find yourself out at sea, Hornblower. You're as thin as a two-penny rabbit. You would not last a week on half-rations, and it happens often enough on a long voyage."
From the moon-round face and the stout way the boy filled out a jacket, Horatio couldn't help noticing that whatever other ills the mid suffered under, starvation wasn't one of them.
"Thank you for your concern over my health, Mr. Kennedy." Horatio said in his stiffest, most disapproving tone. That seemed to try the midshipman's patience again. Kennedy pressed lips together into a tight line, and after laying a couple more rags over the worst of his injuries, left Horatio in peace without further comment.
As soon as the other boy moved away, Horatio began berating himself. Whatever Kennedy's flaws of nerve and judgment, the boy had been his closest friend that first week and done him no harm beyond a few harsh words thereafter. No doubt it was he who was being unreasonable, to expect gentleness from a boy who had been some months the only junior midshipman on Justinian.
Kennedy's elders, almost to a man, seemed if not so cruel as Simpson, at least little inclined to be careful. The mid was only following in their example. Such a garrulous, high-spirited thing, and at first Kennedy had stuck to him like a burr. Without that rattling presence, Horatio admitted to himself, he had felt wretchedly alone.
Most of a bell he lay there on his back, sensing the cold of the ocean seep into his very bones. There was a calm to it, and once or twice he thought he had drifted off, only to be brought back into his body by the clatter of Kennedy moving about. The boy was uncommonly clumsy, considering how often since he'd come on board the mid had appeared at his side without warning.
As if the thought were a summons, Kennedy came over then. "These are warm now. Turn over and I'll change them once more, then we'll dry you off."
Mindful of his recent ruminations, Horatio made himself begin again in a more appreciative manner, as the boy bent over him and began to pluck off the rags. "Mr. Kennedy. You have been very good to me, tonight and previously, and I have been ungrateful and ill-mannered, and given you offense, rather than my gratitude. I am sorry for it, and I hope that I can someday earn your friendship."
Kennedy blinked for a moment, then shrugged, all blithe sarcasm. "That knock must have made you more than usually soft-headed, Hornblower. I don't know how you think you've managed to be so offensive when you scarcely open your teeth."
The boy's hands urged him to turn onto his stomach, and Kennedy began tendering cold relief onto Horatio's back. "If we are going to be friends, you should learn to keep up your end of a conversation," the other paused for a moment then carefully enunciated his name, "Horatio. And you might try out the name Archie. I will still answer to it, when we are alone."
Horatio chewed on this for a short while, letting the other boy work, before braving himself to ask a question that had been plaguing him since Hepplewhite mentioned it. "Mr. Kennedy- Archie. The doctor... he said I wasn't to sleep, do you know why?"
"Sometimes when people are let to sleep after a hard blow to the head, they don't wake up."
His father had mentioned something like that once, a boy who had been kicked by a horse in the next village over. "And he said something about fits, did he not?"
"Yes." The hand on his back stopped its work. "That can happen too, when someone is hit too hard."
"Is that..." Horatio didn't finish the question, and muffled his head in his arms instead.
"Yes." Fingers peeled up a cloth, dipping it into the bowl and then placing it delicately back into place, setting a cascade of icy drips down his side. Horatio shivered.
He tried not to ask, but couldn't help himself. "Mr. Simpson?" He thought the other boy would stop again, but cold hands kept shifting over his skin, lifting, rinsing, setting in place again.
"Yes." Silence stretched out. "It was... worse. You don't need to fear them, you will be fine. Just a bump on the head." Archie smoothed his curls back, and patted him gently before going on.
Horatio waited until the other boy was done, and had started to move away, before asking his last question. "Do they hurt?" He thought he would get no answer.
"Only after." Archie left him then, to do more pacing about the small room. But this time the other boy returned every few minutes to adjust the cloths, or touch his shoulder and ask if he needed a drink, before returning to the restless stalking. When another bell had rung, Kennedy helped him up, and cleared away the cloths, rubbing him free of drips.
After he was dry, Kennedy produced a small miracle from that overstuffed jacket. A shirt, wrinkled from being folded into the waistcoat, but better than his own, stinking with sweat and now soaked with sea water and spotted with blood. He did ache less, as he pulled the linen over his head, though it was still more pain than he could ever remember. His eye in particular bothered him if he turned into the light.
The shirt was ill-fitting. It billowed and was too short in the arms, but it seemed clean at least, and warm from Kennedy's body. There was a scent about it, herbs and salt and something earthier, like the musk of a barn cat, but not unpleasant really. One could not have a delicate nose on a ship of war. "Thank you." He was answered with a shrug as the other boy helped him fasten the cuff and neck.
"I had to get my coat, and thought you would like to change. I found this too. Put out your hands." Puzzled, Horatio did so. Archie had had a book tucked away in his jacket too, and shook it, so that the small porcelain pendant on its chain that had been hidden in it fell free.
Horatio was stunned at the casual way his treasure was returned. He stared at it, blinking and trying not to weep again. Archie broke into his thoughts. "The chain is broken, but you shouldn't wear it in any case. Tuck it away in your chest somewhere. I have an old stocking you can knot it in, if you like. It's too easy for things of value to go missing."
He was slow to register the advice, but when he did, Horatio nodded. "Yes, you're right of course." He dropped the pendant into the toe of his shoe, for safekeeping now. He was afraid to look up, but when he did, Archie was not staring, mocking his sentimentality or noticing that he had sniffed into his sleeve. The other boy's attention was caught by the book. "You found something else?"
Archie looked up then, and smiled at him, and Horatio gulped, because it was not a grin, or a smirk, but something softer and warmer, and he felt his lips return it. "Do you want to see? It's a book of poems, by William Blake. My sister Anne gave it to me, before I joined Justinian."
Horatio watched Kennedy's hands on the broken binding of the little book. He could tell it was loved by the way the callused fingertips played with the edges, smoothed over the bent corners and carefully pried open the pages. "It's not Shakespeare. They're simple things, but the printing is beautiful." Shifting nearer, Kennedy showed him the frontispiece, a swirl of colors and hand-lettering, that looked like fire and snakes on the page. Songs of Innocence.
"Were you reading it, during—" Horatio didn't know what he was asking exactly, it was coming out like an accusation, and he didn't want that. He didn't want this strange, feral, boy to be mad at him again, so he cut off the words, and just leaned closer, watching the leaves as Kennedy began to slowly turn through the little book.
"I was trying to. To pretend it wasn't happening." It was a quiet admission, and Horatio didn't look at the mid, even when he felt Kennedy's head rest against his shoulder, fine, soft hair brushing his skin above the linen, and a soothing weight, and the heat of the other's breath. "I am sorry, Horatio." Horatio did look down then, and caught the edge of a wryer smile, one Horatio thought he understood well, spending most of his time as he did in self-disgust.
Horatio didn't know how to answer it, so he asked a question instead. "Which were you reading?" Kennedy thumbed through the book, opening it to a particular leaf, then passing the volume into Horatio's hands. It was a passage that was often read if the way the spine fell open wide was any indication. But his eyes did not want to focus, between the ache, and the tears that were still trying to return.
"Will you..." he said at last, feeling foolish, but Archie nodded right away, and stole back the pages and one of his hands as well. Archie stroked it like a kitten as the boy read.
He watched blue eyes scan the text, and watched Kennedy wet lips and swallow, before beginning in a rich, slow murmur."'The Chimney Sweeper'. When my mother died I was very young, / And my father sold me while yet my tongue / Could scarcely cry—"
Archie recited very well, even Horatio could hear the rhythm of the words, as they told a little story, of an urchin, much abused, who dreamed of the day himself and all the other chimney boys would be relieved of their burdens at last. "And by came an Angel who had a bright key, / And he open'd the coffins and set them free—"
Horatio began to feel disturbed. He did not like to think of bright, lively, Archie reading this poem over and over, seeing deliverance only in death. "Tho the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm, / So if all do their duty they need not fear harm."
It was an echo of what the Captain had said, just one endless week ago. He had found it comforting then, but it was chilling now. "Do you have such faith in God, Archie?" He had not meant to speak so abruptly, and faltered as he went on. "That we will certainly find our reward in- in heaven, if only we can suffer our trials with honor now?"
"One has to believe in something, Horatio. How would any of us make it through the day without it?" Archie was not looking at him, but running a finger over the little rejoicing figures at the bottom of the page, freed from their graves. As if feeling his stare, the other boy glanced up, and grinned to dispel the gloom.
Before that moment, Horatio would have said that he was a good Christian. But to look at that warm and happy face was to hear the echo of their first meeting, "Welcome to Purgatory!" Horatio could not forgive God for putting such a bright spirit into such a cold and heartless place as the Justinian, and ask the boy to bear it, meekly.
It was wrong. Archie's way was not cowardice, at all, no. It was a strength Horatio could not imagine having. But it should not be asked, of any of them, by God or King—to let a man beat him and beg his pardon, or submit to humiliation and theft that had nothing to do with the authority of rank, or ship's discipline. And then to smile.
Clayton had stood up to Simpson, had put a gun to the brute. And saved Horatio. Clayton, not God. That was the example he would follow, not Kennedy's submission. He did not have the other's faith.
Archie was looking at him now, watching his face, and Horatio didn't know what to say. He didn't want to bring up Simpson again, now that they had mended whatever had been broken. He knew Archie would not approve of his resolution to resist, would try to talk him out of it, remind him of the trouble he could cause his messmates. It was such a tangle, and Horatio was suddenly very tired, and could not stop an inappropriate yawn.
Kennedy laughed then, a deep, merry chuckle, and patted his cheek, just hard enough to sting a little. "I see you are not a fan of Blake." Despite himself, despite the ache in his head, and the memory of Jack's Inquisition, the thoughts of facing them all again, facing Simpson, the fears that had settled into his very blood about what was happening on this ship and how it might end, what he might do, despite it all, Horatio felt his spirits lifting as the other boy teased him.
"Another sleepless night for you, Hornblower. Perhaps it would be better for you if I did let you fall asleep. You just might be out for a week and finally catch up."
He answered with careful dignity, trying not to return the smile. "One does not get a surfeit of sleep in His Majesty's Navy. But I should not like to fail in my duty. Will you read me another, Archie? Perhaps something more lighthearted, if Blake can manage it?"
"With pleasure, Horatio."
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The title comes from the Blake poem "The Chimney Sweeper." If you'd like a feel for what Archie has been reading, over and over, here are the poems in Songs of Innocence, and scans of the lovely illumination. I ended up titling, or re-titling all of my Justinian-era fan fiction from lines and snippets from Blake, because the tone and sadness of the writing just meshes with the tragedies happening on that hateful ship.