Two points in time stick out to Horatio, two points that belong corked up in thick glass bottles. In bottles he can store them and watch as they catch the light on the windowsill of his quarters. In bottles, he can visit them, wishing to be comforted, but ultimately finding that he can’t disentangle sentiment from the stinging lash of failure.
Still, the memories come. It’s inevitable with the uniformity of sea life. The details of the separate vessels eventually blur into one craft. He might be on the Indy , Renown , Hotspur… Every tool, every book, every coil of rope holds an unbidden vision of the past. The waves pitch, the bottles clink against the creaking floor, and his cramped sea cupboard floods with images of the blinding coastal sun, the hard impact from cliff to air to sea, the humid damp of a cell, and conspiratorially quiet whispers of poetry he could never be sure were quoted or created on the spot.
There had been days where the words seemed to spring up from some deep well. They dizzied him then as he tried to pin them down and analyze them to no avail and they dizzy him now as mere segments wash over him. Words spoken into his hair just so or against the hot shell of his ear. He wishes things were different, that Archie could be safe behind a fine desk with a quill twirling between his clever fingers.
The first memory is held in a bottle visited and shaken so frequently that the glass is warped and thin. It spills out its contents again and again, always revealing the same cool Mediterranean evening air, somewhat stale for having wafted through prison bars, but still welcome and calming.
He shivers, still damp from the sea spray and rubs a rather plain-looking cockle shell between his palms. It had been a gift; Archie presented it to him earlier that day along the surf with enough pomp to befit the crown jewels. He’s giddy and light, a strange feeling. An impossible one, he tells himself as guilt threatens to bite it back. For them to be carrying on as such, skylarking like children while on parole of all things and worse yet, back in their cell.
They exchange airy words, flushed and a little breathless from their long walk along the coast. The heavy lock is secured on the door, and the footsteps of the sentry echo into the distance.
They’re alone. As alone as they’ve been a hundred times before but something… Something is different. Horatio can’t recall his pulse jumping like this before nor such inexplicable nervousness. Nervous around Archie? Absurd. And the giddiness.. . He simply can’t account for it, try as he might.
“May I?” Archie asks, an excited trill coloring his carefully maintained accent as he settles behind Horatio on the old cot. It creaks in protest under his weight, making him laugh. A shallow, unusually light little thing. Before waiting for an answer, he frees Horatio’s windswept, heavy curls from their binding and runs his fingers through them.
Horatio has to close his eyes against the sensation. How many times had they done this for one another without consequence? He’s racing to catch up with himself, feverish from nothing at all, from suddenly too much. Archie’s strange but impossibly infectious energy of the afternoon had carried through to sunset and back into their shared cell. Archie rests on his knees, barely a breath between the once white of his dust-covered breeches and the navy blue of Horatio’s jacket.
“You’d look very handsome with a braid, H’ratio,” Archie soothes, gentle as a breeze as his fingers pull deftly at the knotted curls.
“Think so, do you?” Horatio replies awkwardly, his face hot, his tongue clumsy and stupid. His thumb strokes persistently at the soft inside of his shell. It’s utterly foolish but he can’t keep the smile from his mouth for more than a moment at a time. Never can he recall a time past where he’s struggled to maintain a neutral, if not somewhat dour expression.
A tremor runs down his back as Archie brushes the hair from his neck, fingers lingering on the rare peek of skin, and begins to arrange it into a loose plait.
“Upon my word…There.” Archie runs his blunt nails from the crown of Horatio’s head to the curve, shaking free the shorter curls that frame his gaunt face. “It’s just as I said.”
Horatio can hear Archie’s breath hitch, close as they are, and he turns to read his face but stops dead in his tracks as what can only be lips make contact with the sensitive skin just behind his ear. The lips, Archie’s lips, part after a long moment on a shaking exhale, almost a sigh, but the contact doesn’t break. Horatio fancies burning to a pile of ashes under that heat. In fact, he wishes he could.
What if he’s hallucinating? What if he’s come down with a fever? What if he’s actually asleep and any moment he’ll wake up to find-
“ H’ratio ,” Archie sighs again and shifts to rest his forehead against Horatio’s hair. His nose bumps gently against the place his lips were moments ago.
If Horatio’s tongue was clumsy before, it’s positively useless now. He blinks and blinks and stares forward as waves of pure heat wash over him. His mouth opens and shuts, stupid as a fish. He pushes the shell into his palm until it hurts.
Behind him, Archie shakes out another breath and replaces his nose with his lips. He seems frightened by his own boldness, yet dauntless in his pursuit. Archie moves down, marking each small distance with another kiss, until he meets the stiff collar of Horatio’s jacket.
“Archie,” Horatio whispers because it must come out, it must . He hasn’t the faintest idea what it sounds like: accusatory, reprimanding, scared, eager, confused, gentle? His mind strains and struggles, but quickly comes to the halting realization that this is exciting . It’s risky . It feels wonderful for his body to be humming so and never before has he felt more aware, more drunk.
God, he wants this.
Leave it to Archie, a maverick if ever he knew one, to be savvy to such simple wonders.
When Horatio turns his head his gaze is drawn in by Archie’s immediately. It settles him somewhat. Sobers him. It’s a blue that burns but he sees it snuffed out as Archie tries to master himself.
Archie’s lashes flutter close after a moment and his tongue darts out briefly to wet his lips. The simple motions, so familiar to the Horatio of mere moments ago, seem heavy with new meaning and he can’t explain away the heat it sends through him. Horatio turns on the cot to fully face Archie, crowding him.
“Please, d-don’t be cross with me, H’ratio,” Archie asks quietly, sounding sick. His lips curl up into a tight, self-deprecating smile. No, it can’t rightly be called that. Horatio’s seen what a smile looks like on the canvas of that face. Archie’s eyebrows lift and he stares down at his knees as he says by way of explanation,“My condition affects me in peculiar ways, it seems. I’m... I’m sorry.”
“Archie,” Horatio says firmly. His voice seems to hit Archie like the back of a hand might. The pained expression, the shallow breathing, the trembling lip. Horatio tilts his head and inches forward in an attempt to catch Archie’s eye again.
Horatio curses inwardly and clears his throat. At this, Archie shifts his gaze to Horatio at last.
“You’re... sorry. I hope you don’t... Do you mean that? That is to say- are you? Sorry, I mean?” Horatio lets the question hang, careful about his tone even if the words are nothing short of disastrous. He knows what he wants to hear but can’t stomach the idea of leading Archie further if he wants nothing more to do with him. It must be Archie’s move. Horatio’s gentler tone, his trusting look, and a dozen other things are packed in tight to the air between them that Archie, miracle that he is, seems to understand without the added trouble of more talking.
It’s still while the promise of words light Archie’s eyes and Horatio tucks the moment away, eager to look back on it and revisit its comfortable weight when he’s not so keyed up.
“Well, no,” Archie says at last. “In truth… In truth, I’m only sorry I’ve waited this long.”
Then it’s settled. They’re probably both mad, but what can they do but take action? His body is positively humming with what might be. He can’t stand indecision. Not even in this.
Horatio clambers in his usually graceless way onto his knees. He inches forward until he’s aligned with Archie as near as their proportions will allow. Knee to knee, thigh to hip, shoulder to neck. Archie tilts his face to his, the shadows of fear and doubt gone. Horatio can’t mistake the almost playful smile that softens his features. Changeable as the sea.
Perhaps one of them pushes forward first, perhaps they come together in unison. It’s impossible to say. Horatio can’t imagine having the courage to close that small distance but can’t admit to hesitating either. He tries to match Archie as their lips press together, the contact blissful. Blissful but awkward. Surely he’s meant to do something here? Suddenly Horatio’s face hardens in concentration as he tries to puzzle out the mechanics of this unfamiliar act. He’s overthinking it but powerless to stop. How exactly does it work ? Does he open his mouth? Good God . He waits for his instincts to kick in, feeling as though he’s just missed the bottom step from the poop to the quarterdeck.
“God’s teeth, H’ratio,” Archie teases, nudging Horatio’s nose with his own and kissing his bottom lip. “Put your hands on me.”
Horatio lets his hands hover awkwardly by Archie’s waist. Archie’s not wearing his jacket or waistcoat, and Horatio can barely stand the thought that nothing but thin cotton might be between his fingers and Archie’s warm skin. What if Archie took ill earlier on their walk? That would account for the haste in which he removed his uniform earlier and-- Archie tuts and pulls Horatio’s hands to his waist. The shell drops from Horatio’s palm, landing noiselessly on the cot.
“Try to re lax .”
“I-Yes. Right.” Determined to do just that, Horatio swallows in an attempt to dislodge his heart from his throat and return the damn thing to where it belongs. He lets his fingers press into Archie, who rolls up to meet his touch. It must be Horatio who’s unmanned by a high moan, because the answering laugh can only belong to Archie.
It’s a little uncomfortable on their knees like this, but Archie’s licking his bottom lip just so and when Horatio opens his mouth to gasp, he’s consumed with sensation that all at once draws in his focus and frees his mind from any single thought.
They kiss and breathe and laugh a little and kiss some more. Archie is wickedly clever and his hands seem to be everywhere at once. Overstimulated and completely out of his league, Horatio can only hold tight and try to tame his ragged breathing. It’s not a struggle he seems likely to win.
Archie pulls at his stock, wrestles him playfully onto his back, and straddles his hips, looking triumphant and flushed.
“I’ve just had a thought,” Archie declares, gasping a little as Horatio’s emboldened hand finds its way under the collar of his loose shirt. It’s peculiar how they’ve settled here with such ease, but Horatio recalls his all too recent hesitation with surprise.
Caution is nothing more than an excuse for cowardice, after all.
Easy enough for his sloppy, pleasure-addled mind to supply such bold witticisms in the dark solitude of a prison cell. Such carelessness might easily be chased away by the harsh light of day. Yes, they can worry about that in the morning. Strangely, there doesn’t seem to be any room for doubt or fear in their cramped quarters this night.
“How could you possibly manage such a thing… Well? Let’s have it, I’m shivering with anticipation, Mr. Kennedy,” Horatio grins and settles his hand over Archie’s heart.
“Is that what it is?” Archie says coquettishly, reaching back to untie his own queue. He shakes out his hair and experimentally rolls his hips. Eyes fluttering closed, Archie rests his hand atop Horatio’s, savoring his partner’s startled cry.
“ God- ”
“No, listen,” Archie’s casual phrasing is betrayed by his breathlessness, the high tenor of his voice. He doesn't stop moving. “You’d be quite… Look here, you claim you can’t detect music, H’ratio-”
“ What ?”
“H- hush , pay attention.” Archie rocks his hips with a grace of motion Horatio can certainly admire but never duplicate. He’s bucking and twitching and reeling like some sort of inverted ship while Archie staunchly weathers the storm. “If we ever happen upon a Siren, you’ll be quite immune to her spell. Suspicious, that.”
“I assure you- God, Archie… That were you to hear me sing… Your theory would be put to rest.” It’s a miracle he can string words together through the haze of maddening friction, but something must be coming out for Archie to be humming a laugh like that.
“Not so sure,” Archie whispers, settling low against Horatio, lips to his ear, “You are no mere man, to drive me thus. I intend to get to the bottom of it.”
The second memory is more of a rush of pure feeling, a feeling so pure his mind and judgement can’t hope to catch up. Weeks of exhaustion and uncertainty, and the endless string of mad charges. It’s only as he’s tugging off his jacket and throwing his sword aside that the gravity of the situation sinks in.
Archie seems positively euphoric at the prospect of jumping off a cliff, though Horatio imagines that has to do in large part with Bush’s panicked reaction to their plan. For all the good in him, all the charity and kindness and cleverness, Archie can be a contrary thing.
The air leaves his lungs as his feet leave the rock, and the heat that takes over him in battle and in love covers his body in a sweat. He can hear Archie yelping delightedly, and he figures he must also be howling in pure sensation. Poor Bush, not usually a man to flinch or shy away from danger, seems beside himself. What rotten luck to throw your lot in with two mad men, drinking in danger like grog.
It stings when they break the water’s surface, but the heat of his blood keeps any pain at bay. He catches his breath, and without any clear thought, uses Bush’s single-minded distraction to seek Archie out. He locates Archie’s flapping arm and pulls him under the water after he’s sure he’s heard a generous gasp. Once submerged, he opens his eyes, pulls Archie against him, and slots their lips together. It’s brief, a moment stolen and spent before either is ready to let go.
“It’s alright, Mr. Bush, we’ve got you.” Archie’s laughing, sputtering seawater, his arm slung behind his superior officer's back for support. Horatio does the same on Bush’s other side as he steals a look at Archie. A grin splits Horatio’s face.
“Not a Siren, he says!” Archie manages to call between labored breaths. Horatio can perfectly imagine the wink which would accompany that statement under normal circumstances. The comment is lost on Bush, as Archie knew it would be, but Horatio laughs and responds with a well aimed splash.
When they’re back aboard Renown , Bush takes Buckland aside in an attempt to make amends for his and Archie’s flagrant disobedience. While the acting captain and first lieutenant are in conference, Archie and Horatio bend their heads together. In the wake of their excitement, truthfully still very much in its grips, they fail to maintain professional distance. Archie keeps his gaze trained on their superior officers, daring contact with Horatio’s dark eyes only briefly. He can’t keep the smile from his face, though he seems to be trying his best to look contrite.
“What on earth possessed you...” Archie runs his tongue over his lips. They must be salty from the water.
“Same thing that possessed you to follow me back to the fort, you fire eater. Not to mention jumping off a damned cliff. God, Archie...You know… You know what I mean to say.” Horatio knits his brows together, willing the heart of his words to make their way soundlessly to Archie.
Archie’s barely concealed smile breaks through like the dawn as he looks up at Horatio from under his lashes.
They shift awkwardly in place in lieu of what they wish they dare do until duty calls them to action. A stolen kiss beneath the waves is all they have to sustain them. It will have to do. Horatio reaches for the breast pocket of his jacket only to remember that it’s gone, along with the shard of a simple shell he kept tucked within.
Later, haunted by ghosts, plagued and tormented by failure after failure, Horatio’s memory captures the echo of Archie’s playful accusation.
Not a Siren, he says!
Curious, which innocent details of the past may be darkened by the misery of the future. How many men had died under his watch? How many had he killed? How many times must he relive that last kiss? Briny, and too quick, and fueled by some unknown foresight. The kiss of a creature of lore.
If only there was something stronger than glass bottles that he could store these memories away in. Something more seaworthy. Something perhaps with a great iron lock and a key he could carry in his empty breast pocket, or, better yet, throw into the sea. Yes, a great chest.
He’s exhausted with the past and wearier still of the future. He’ll keep the anger and gravity, the weight of duty, the burning ambition, but perhaps into this chest he can pour the remnants of his weaknesses. Surely it can fit the ache of his heart and his bones, the pleasure he is unworthy to feel again, any pride or happiness.
Into the chest will go the thoughts that set his eyes swimming, the taste of pale skin, the feel of a weather-beaten cheek beneath his lips, the bell-like ringing of laughter, the intimate hitch of breath, and the feel of tensing muscle. Into the chest will go the memory of the smile that cracks like the dawn. What use does a man--a figure of duty--have of ghosts and sentiments?
The chest locked tightly, he can watch as the key falls beneath the too-still sea.