Title: Nor Iron Bars a Cage
Word Count 876
Disclaimer As Ever
Nor Iron Bars a Cage
Horatio's hands were sweating, wringing behind his back. It was visible from the front, he knew, only by a sight bunching of the jacket over his upper arms. Captain Pellew would know, by that alone, the depth of Horatio's emotion. Still, he could not seem to stop it. And his feet were sweating too, had they been bare they would have left wet tracks on the deck-boards of Captain Pellews office. They were not bare of course, and so his toes were squelching.
Horatio had a sudden image of himself, as a moth pinned, struggling and alive in a display case. Captain Pellew's dark stare was boring right into his eyes, burning in his chest. Pellew looked astonished and affronted.
“I gave my word,” Horatio persisted. “And that of the men.”
“Well,” Pellew said, “they must speak for themselves. Your word does not bind theirs in this matter.”
“Now, Mr. Hornblower,” Pellew began, “There is another matter---”
The knock on the door was light but determined. Horatio had a moment of pity for whoever sought to enter the cabin.
“Come!” Pellew barked forbiddingly.
It did not serve to stop Miss Cobham at all. She had changed into clean slops. As in the fishing boat, her lower limbs were visible. Horatio had not noticed this at all, as they had floated awaiting rescue. But now, somehow, it seemed indecent. He had never really thought about women as having legs. Watching her enter the room, Horatio realized something else. She had been so small, tucked shivering under his arm. They had spoken little. Shut mouths kept the moisture in, and anyway, what was there to say? Sometimes she said a word or two to him, sometimes he slept, sometimes she did. She had smiled at him. She had been herself then. But her smile was different now. Now, even in sailor slops, even with her hair tied back like a boy, with a simple ribbon, she drew the eye. She chose to make herself looked at. Her posture had changed, her face had changed. She was being the Duchess. Acting. She really could act.
“Captain Pellew,” she said, “I could not retire, could not sleep, without telling you of the heroic and gallant actions of Acting Lieutenant Hornblower...”
“That may be so,” Pellew was repressive. “But Mr Hornblower is no longer my Acting Lieutenant.”
Horatio felt his knees give. He truly thought he was going to faint.
The world was swimming and buzzing, suddenly far and small and cold. And then Mr Bracegirldle had him by the arm, and Horatio found himself eased into a chair, and his head down on his knees.
“Look at the poor boy!” Miss Cobham was squeaking in that voice-that-was-not-hers. “Oh, Captain Pellew, how could you?”
And then, Horatio was made to understand. His commission had been approved. he was not acting Lieutenant anymore, because he was fourth Lieutenant Hornblower now. And Mr Bracegirldle was smiling, and shaking his hand. And Captain Pellew was clapping him on the shoulder. And Miss Cobham, overcome by the spirit of the moment, surged forward and gave him a kiss.
Archie reached up, hung the lantern. The sail locker sloped away, gold and dim in the swinging pool of light. He leaned a shoulder against the bulkhead. God, his heart was pounding. He could feel all his senses straining, nose, eyes, skin. It sounded the same, minute creaks and splashes, all around, unheeded in his shipboard years. It smelled the same, of tar and canvas, rope and sweat, and salt. He had breathed this every day for years. How had it not crushed him? how had he come not to notice it?
He felt his head was cloudy, floating. He knew this feeling of old. He could fight it. Archie was not a child anymore. And Jack Simpson was dead. Dead. No need to think of him, now or ever again. Horatio was coming, would be here to meet Archie soon. Archie would not do this, not after so long. He was staying in his body tonight. He wanted to be right here.
The door opened. The shadow on the floor distorted. Archie felt his breath catch. And it was Horatio, all against him, hands, mouth, warm, and the good smell of his skin.
And Horatio knew, because he always knew. He knew from the first touch. His hands were steady, drawing Archie close, comfort overtaking desire. “Stay with me, Archie,” Horatio whispered. “Safe here now.”
They stood, heartbeats pressed together, five, six, ten. Archie let out a long slow breath. “I'm with you,” he said.
“Glad to hear it.”
Horatio drew back to look at him, eyes shadow dark, questioning. “You didn't have to promise to go back with me.” He said. “You can change your mind, I don't know how long I'll be.”
Archie's head shake was swift and abrupt. “Don't be a fool, Horatio.” And his own hand was reaching, touching sliding, finding a way to make Horatio shiver and gasp.
“I'd rather be with you.”