Title: Of Knots
Characters: Archie Kennedy, Horatio Hornblower, Jack Simpson
Rating: R, (An assault)
Word count: 1283
Disclaimer: I did not invent these people
“So, you thread the working end through the bight, so, and there you have it.” Archie pulled the knot tight and held it up. It looked exactly like the diagram in Horatio's open book. They had weighted the open page down with a small rock, so the pages would stay open, but any reference to the text was for Horatio's benefit only.
Archie had been at sea since he was 14. His hands were tough and quick and clever. His mind, too, Horatio had realized lately. Archie could hand, reef and steer. He could box the compass. He could knot and splice. And, with Horatio's encouragement, his spherical trigonometry was coming up fast.
“Let me try.”
“Here.” Archie handed over the length of worn cord. “Try not to look at the book this time. I am sure you can do it.”
“Your faith inspires me to greatness Mr Kennedy.” Horatio's tone was wry. Archie smiled, a brief flicker, clouded too soon.
Today was Sunday, make and mend. They had the afternoon more or less free. Eccelston encouraged them to do lessons together. It saved him trouble.
“ So you have. Very good Mr Hornblower Now try figure 12: the carrick bend.
“Let's do some trigonometry instead. My mind is swimming.”
“I doubt that. Still I will relent, hand me my slate.” Archie looked up, the sun was in his eyes, and he was squinting slightly. “You know Horatio, I don't understand something. You say that you find numbers a great comfort. You would think knots would come easily to you.”
Horatio sighed. He had had the same thought. The mathematical requirements of his new life challenged him not at all. He could see the numbers in his mind, as he had since childhood, with subtle shifting patterns of beauty and logic. He could see them. He ran problem sets in his mind at night. It helped him sleep. But he had stopped asking years ago if anyone else did. Confusion, or derision was the sure result. No one ever did. Not even Archie. Archie, he suspected, recited Shakespeare.
It had taken time for Horatio to realize how adept Archie was at becoming invisible. He took care not to stand out at lessons. Over the years any hint of praise, or bit of ability had led to beatings by Simpson. There were days, today was one, when Archie was quenched. His smile, his quick reply, even his bright hair were lessened somehow. Horatio could only wait, at such times for the quick flashing, sharp tongued boy to emerge from hiding.
The voice was low, clotted, flecking his ear with spit. Archie could feel the stiff rise of him, pressing in with dirty heat. Useless to resist. Some remnant of pride, dim now, kept Archie from begging. And he knew that if he wept he would never stop. T
The hand now, it came rough, down the front of his trousers, scratching his flesh, pulling his hair. Archie could see drops of blood, dripping to the floor, with spit, from his own nose and mouth. He had fought again, a little, at first. He couldn't seem to help it. But this was going to happen. It was happening.
Archie's body was heaving now, caught between vomit and shriek. He could do neither, of course. But there was one avenue left to him. Not for his body, but for his essential self. Sometimes he could do it. It helped a little.
There-- he had it. He forced his consciousness small, small, contracting away somehow from the edges of himself, he went smaller, smaller, until Archie no longer filled the limits of his own body, until the essential Archie was a flickering speck, a spark, a shard, high and off to starboard, and from there it didn't hurt.
He could watch from above, and see where the pitiful bright haired doll lolled on it's bleeding face. But it didn't matter. Archie was a spark. He was so high up that even the hate felt dim.
Simpson gave a final shudder and jerk. Spark-Archie watched from above. Dirty fingernails, dug and marked Archie's neck, turning his head.
“You bore me boy.” Simpson hissed. “I think I may need to introduce your friend, young Snotty, to our fun. He doesn't know about it, does he Kennedy?”
Spark-Archie fell back into his body with choking speed.
“No, Jack, please.” But Simpson just laughed, and left.
The inside of the ship's berthing was darker by far than the deck outside. Even on the most moonless of nights, the clouds or stars provided some light to those on watch. But the sleeping place was blacker than shut eyes.
Horatio could not discern the edges of the hammock. But he could feel where the edge touched the taut edge of Archie's hammock, and they rocked together slightly, at the least motion of either. Horatio was not asleep. He did not think Archie was either. He could hear Archie's soft breath, when he held his own to listen. He had started doing this after Archie broke his ribs. It seemed only prudent then. Now he did it out of habit. It comforted him,
Horatio had been imagining knots, as Archie had suggested. They were a struggle. They did not have the soothing quality of cards, or calculations. But he hoped the exercise might make his hands more sure. In any case, there was no point in sleeping. He and Archie shared the morning watch within the hour.
He had dozed off, of course, by the time he had to get up. He rose, and dressed, at the sound of the bell, with Archie, a shadow, beside him doing the same. The air on deck was still. A breeze would come, with the dawn, but not yet.
Horatio stood at the rail, for some time, with Archie beside him. He shivered, and the dawn came up, wan and streaky. As soon as the light was sufficient he took up his knot cord, and began his practice. He could see Archie watching him, sidelong, smiling a little now, at Horatio's frustration.
“I could do it well, Archie, if I just had another hand, or possibly two.” He muttered. Catching a bit of cord in his mouth, Horatio tried to feed it through the bight. “This cannot be right, he muttered around a mouthful of cordage.
“No, it is not right, Mr Hornblower,” Archie erupted. “You –you look like a puppy!”
“A noble maritime puppy?”
“No, just a puppy!”
Archie took the free bit of cord in his own mouth, and drew it taut, baring his teeth, and wrinkling his nose ferociously.
They staggered, cord between them, fizzing with laughter and growling.
Archie recovered first. Horatio was still giggling when he saw Archie's eyes change. They softened, grew large, something swept into them, that Horatio had never seen there before. Sadness was a part of it, but only part. He only knew that the look made his own eyes soften, his belly clench.
“Horatio.” Archie's voice was very very soft, “You know, I am here to keep you from harm.” Archie's arm drew him in, Archie's lips slid over his own, a delight, an astonishment. He was still moving forward, still trying to understand, when the kiss broke.
Archie gave him a tight smile. “Try again – carrick bend” He said.