Title: To the Deep
Word Count: 2551
Disclaimer I only made up the kitten
To the Deep
They climbed from the darkness, dressed in their best.
Sunday, church was rigged. Three weeks out of the month, His Majesties Naval forces afloat could expect to hear the word of the Lord. This differed, ship to ship, some sermons were brief, and some were lengthy. But the fourth week was always the same. On the fourth week, the Articles of War were read out. They were treated with devout respect, silently absorbed, with hats off, eyes squinting into the sun. And nobody could claim ignorance of them.
This was a sermon day. The ship was shining from jib to stern chains, the brass was polished, and the deck flogged dry. The midshipman were clean and shining too. Horatio stood next to Archie, he could feel the wind slapping damp against his bruised face. It felt a little like an impatient woman with a wet flannel. Horatio tried to think about the reading. It was followed with a few hymns. He could feel Archie beside him singing in an Archie sort of way, sturdy and unashamed. Cleveland's voice was lower. Horatio moved his mouth in silence. He could not sing, and knew it.
The hymns ended, a little raggedly. Eccleston stepped forward. He had the book in his hand. Maybe he still needed to refer to it. Lumped under the flag, at the height of his knee, was the thing that had once been Davey Williams. The canvas had been wrapped tight around Williams, secured with the needless stitch through his poor nose. But Horatio thought that it looked somehow unbalanced. It took him a moment to realize why. Then he understood. Of course, it was the width of shoulders and torso, tapering strangely to the one remaining leg.
It did not take long to read the simple words. Probably everyone on the ship but Horatio had heard them before. He knew Archie and Cleveland had. People had died of illness on Justinian. Horatio felt as if he should feel something. He had not known Williams at all, really. It had been easy to see him only as a rating in the division assigned to him, to Horatio. Williams was be given work, to be told how and when to risk his life; to do what he was ordered, on pain of death. Horatio knew him as a blur of face with dark hair. An unremarkable face, and a not unpleasant voice. It seemed after all he should be easier to call to mind.
“....Commit the body of Davey Williams to the Deep.” Eccleston finished. The thing that had been Williams splashed foot first into the water. Horatio stood, in the pale sun, feeling his own heart beat. He still didn't know what to feel.
They were dismissed. Styles stepped forward to say something, something about valuing Horatio's effort. Horatio heard himself returning the kindness. It didn't feel real at all. He knew Styles a little now. He was a big man, who seemed slow to speak, diffident. But he was efficient at work, fierce to fight. Despite being willing to kill rats with his teeth, he struck Horatio as kindly, somehow. He had a good smile. Horatio could see the rest of his division, lingering, to hear what was said. He made sure they heard him. It was easy enough
The sun had gone under the clouds now, the water was pewter now chopped with white froth. Sunday afternoon unfolded in quiet.. Horatio paused a moment, to look out over the water. Archie moved to stand beside him.
“I failed to save him.” Horatio said, his voice was very quiet, but he knew that Archie heard. Archie always heard him.
Archie put a hand on Horatio's shoulder. They stood together, facing the pewter sea.
“You did your best, I know.” Archie said. There was a flat quality about Archie's voice that spurred Horatio to look at him more closely.
“Are you all right, Archie?”
“Oh...yes. I, I didn't sleep well.”
“Oh?” Horatio felt a flash of guilt. After coaxing Archie into taking that inexcusable risk, he himself had slept extremely well. In fact, he had done nothing in the past two days, but sleep.
Archie on the other hand looked rather pale, and strangely diffident. Archie was looking down at his own hands now, on the rail.
“I thought we might go to study in the sail locker here,” he said, “as we used to do. I will tell you about it there.” He gave Horatio a sidelong glance. “I think that the...academic standard may be more strenuous here, than it was on Justinian.”
“Strenuous.” Horatio said. “Quite so. You go first, Archie. I will get my books and join you. “ Archie nodded, and headed below. Horatio looked out at the water. He could hear Archie's soft steps receding. Best to let him get a head start. It was permitted for them to seek out a quiet place to study. And as long as no one actually caught them naked, they were safe.
The berthing was quiet. No one questioned him. The kitten was asleep in Cleveland's hammock. He was growing visibly sleek on his diet of biscuit paste and crushed insects. Cleveland was still administering it with Archie's stocking – which was now certainly beyond rescue. Horatio snatched up his journal and trigonometrical workings. Best to have them, anyway.
The sail locker was in the same relative place it had been on Justinian. It would be easy to find. In Horatio's mind, the sail locker was tangled forever with the night that he had known that he loved Archie. It was the place where he had first touched Archie's skin. It was where he had felt his own heart race, where he had wept with rage when he learned about Simpson's lesser abuses. Justinian's sail locker had been dusty, seldom used, never aired. It had been small and shadowy, even by lantern light.
But in Horatio's mind it would always remain magic. He had not known then that Archie would return love, he had not known what to do with any of it. But Horatio had learned, among the rolls of canvas, that he himself could soar. He had learned what it is to hand your own heart away to another.
This time, he knew a little better what to expect. He was reasonably certain of a willing lover waiting for him, with an eagerness that came close to his own. And he was eager. He had been since the day of the boarding action. Archie was the one who had wanted so much to be moved to a frigate. He had spoken of Pellew and the Indy even when he was on Justinian. But seeing Archie risk his skin, seeing Archie drenched to the teeth with blood had moved Horatio strangely. Even when Horatio's head was aching and spinning he had wanted to lie down with Archie, anywhere, everywhere. He had been reduced, he had been exalted, he had been brought to begging in the dark.
Here was the door to the sail locker. It swung open silent. It was lit, as before, by a golden lantern glow. Archie was sitting, quietly on a roll of sail.
“Come here Horatio,” He said.
Horatio crossed the little space in a stride. His knees hit the floor, and Archie's hands were on him, quick as that.
“Oh, your poor face...” Archie steadied him, nuzzling the margins of the yellowing bruises. Horatio pushed against him, moving down to Archie's neck, biting at the blue silk with his teeth. Archie took a hand from Horatio's back, thumbed the knot away, and wrenched the neck-cloth off. Horatio burrowed against Archie's neck, loving the smell of him, the slight salt of his skin. This was a part of Archie that the sun seldom reached. It was white and pink, and the dip where his neck began was smooth. It rose up in goose-bumps under Horatio's tongue.
Archie's breath was in his hair, Archie's hands working loose, jacket, vest, shirt. Archie unbuttoned him down to skin, and shucked the layers off, all at once, like a boy stripping bark off a sapling stick. Peeled so suddenly, Horatio shivered. Archie drew him close with a shaky laugh. “We'll both be warmer in a minute.” He said.
Horatio had Archie's shirt loose now, his face against the solid heat of Archie's chest. He rocked his face against it, lost in sound of Archie's breath and heart, the crisp curls against his face, the way Archie enclosed him. “Missed you, missed you.” Horatio said.
“I know, me too,” Archie said. “The other night, I --”
“I know, I'm sorry. I couldn't help ---”
“It's all right.”
Horatio's face was crushed against Archie, his mouth seeking softly over his skin, his words indistinct, Archie pulled Horatio's face up, gently to meet his eyes. Horatio could feel his own eyes burning, stretching as if to pull Archie in, for always. Archie's own eyes were sparkling dark, the blue gone almost invisible.
“I might have lost you.” Horatio said. “Davey Williams died, and I couldn't save him. You were covered with blood. And I thought, this is what it is like. This is what it is. It is. I had not thought of it, Archie. And it just made me want to touch you.”
“I know, Oh God, me too.”
Horatio was gnawing on Archie's biceps. The warm muscles slid under his seeking lips, and he could hear Archie breathing in a series of staccato gasps. Archie's shirt was gone, who knows how, and Archie bore them both down to the floor, capturing Horatio's inner elbow in a biting kiss.
Horatio drew his fingers down Archie's spine, feeling the strong spring of it. Archie growled, deep and wordless. Moved for Horatio's mouth, with a speed that made it almost a lunge. When he touched Horatio's lips, however, his movement slowed. He held Horatio with almost a strength that was nearly bruising, they were both gasping now, but he touched his lips to Horatio's with delicate care, sliding his own soft mouth open in a way that had Horatio growling in his turn.
“Love you --” Horatio muttered.
“Nard?” Archie gasped
“Have it here –but not yet.”
“Oh, oh, all right, but--- oh, Horatio.”
Horatio rolled Archie under, in his turn, and moved back to kneel between his legs. Archie brought his hips up sharply, as the trouser buttons gave way. Horatio drew the clinging cloth away. His lips skated over Archie's knee-cap, and he turned his attention there. He stopped to kiss the knee slowly, he loved to stoke his tongue over all the textures of Archie, and the knee was a favorite. The sturdy bone, and muscle, delighted him. The little rust colored hairs ticked Horatio's mouth. He took it in his hands, moving Archie's leg to reach the tough cables in the back of it. He loved the fact that the knee was so prosaic, so unappreciated. It was there all the time, laboring through the day with Archie, unseen, with no one but Horatio to love it or even spare it a thought.
Archie had his own thoughts focused somewhat North of the beloved knee. He was wiggling in agony by now, and Horatio gave a gurgling laugh as Archie's pleading turned to cursing.
He clawed at his own trousers, and Archie helped, and they were naked now. The light was golden on Archie, painting him with flickers of shadow, like a leopard man.
Horatio turned his attention to the shadowed area higher up, and Archie's protest turned to teeth clenched hissing. Archie was seeping with need, bowed rigid under Horatio's sliding mouth.
This was good too, this was so good, taking Archie like this, feeling him heave and wriggle, hearing the sounds of him, the sounds he tried not to make.
Soon enough, Archie's strong hands were hauling Horatio up.
“Stop now, “ Archie gasped. “Got to stop you now, can't---”
“I know. Oh God, hurry Archie.”
“Yes. Oh yes.”
Archie was touching him now, preparing him, and it felt so good, Horatio felt himself crying out, almost unable to wait. But Archie was over him, sliding into him, and the cries were coming out of Horatio's open mouth, soft cries of assent, which he could not stifle. The world went all to sliding gold, golden canvas, golden light, golden Archie, in leopard spots. And Horatio was golden too, rising into the goodness, into the burning light.
When he remembered who and where he was, he opened his eyes. Archie, damp with sweat, lounged on a propped elbow beside him. Archie's chest was heaving.
“We had better get dressed Horatio. It would be a shame to get found now. “
“Hmm.” Horatio said. He scrambled into his trousers, and reached for his shirt with regret. He loved the play of the light on Archie.
Thirty seconds later, they were sitting side by side with their books open. Archie was suspiciously flushed. Horatio had a bite mark, half obscured by his neck-cloth. Their hair was loose, but that proved nothing. It could be done. They had gotten away with it.
“You said earlier that there was something you wanted to tell me.” Horatio said. “Outside, by the rail.”
“Oh, right,” said Archie. He spoke as if he had just recalled, but Horatio had the strangest feeling that Archie was acting, that Archie had not forgotten for an instant. He did not know what to make of that.
“I had a nightmare, last night.” Archie said
“Oh.” Horatio frowned. “I didn't know.”
“Well, you were very profoundly asleep. I'm glad I didn't wake you. It doesn't really matter. It wasn't too bad. I was just-- disappointed. I had thought I might be over them now.” Archie gave a weak smile. Horatio knew he didn't like thinking or talking about any of these things, he considered the nightmares a sign of some weakness.
Horatio knew better. Archie had faults, like any man. He could be provoking, he was sometimes surly, he quoted obscure poets without shame, and he bounced awake in the morning like a rubber ball, and wanted to talk. Horatio knew Archie's faults, and loved them. He could not love Archie without them. But weakness was not one of them. There was no weakness in Archie.
“Will you, will you tell me when you have nightmares from now on?”
“Why?” Archie frowned. He was looking down at his book, but his eyes were still. Horatio could tell he was not reading.
“Well, I'd like to know. And we can tell if they become less frequent.”
“All right.” Archie did not sound pleased, but he assented.
Horatio put an arm around him, and moved close. Archie gave a deep sigh, and rested his chin on Horatio's shoulder. They sat quiet that way for some time. This is what they had. They would make it be enough.