Exaggeration and Blank Verse

On The Occasion Of Archie Kennedy's Examination For Lieutenant

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Archie closed the door behind him and slumped back against it, his knees nearly buckling as he relaxed from his attention stance for the first time all day.

"How did it go?" Horatio asked mildly. Archie opened one eye to peer at his friend, who was seated by the window. He had neither a book nor a newspaper to hand, or even a glass of water, but Archie was fairly certain he'd been sitting and waiting for some time. Horatio truly had the patience of a statue or a saint sometimes.

He was regarding Archie now with his most blank and impassive of officer's faces, waiting for an answer. "Well, I think," Archie said finally, convincing his body that it would be worth the effort in the long run to move to the chair by the bed. "As much as you can tell with these things." He settled into the cushion with a grateful sigh, closing his eyes again. "Long day, though."

"Hmm." Archie knew without looking that Horatio was still staring at him, studying his face with unreadable intensity.

"I didn't have to save the fleet at anchor, so you're still one up on me..." He rolled his head back and forth, trying to work a kink from his neck. "What did you do all day?"

"Bought some new shirts. Browsed the bookseller's." He heard the creak of the chair as Horatio stood, then the measured click of his heels as he paced across the floor. "Did a bit of thinking."

"A fine way to spend your shore leave," Archie said wryly, wiggling a big deeper into the chair and stretching his legs out in front of him. God, spending a day at the Admiralty had left his entire body as tight as a drum.

"A great deal of thinking, in fact," Horatio said more pointedly, and Archie realized that he was supposed to be inquiring as to the direction of Mr. Hornblower's thoughts. If he didn't oblige, Horatio would pick at him till midnight.

He capitulated with a sigh, eyes still firmly closed. "And what is it that captured your thoughts with such intensity, Horatio?"

"It occured to me..." He heard the footsteps move closer, stopping quite nearby; if he opened his eyes, he would probably find Horatio no more than a step away. "It occured to me that this is the last night I shall be your superior officer."

Archie scrunched his face in confusion, still refusing to open his eyes for no more reason than the joy of obstinance. "I hardly think they'll announce their decisions tomorrow, Horatio."

"But they could," came the insistent reply, and the restless footsteps moved away again, back over to the window. "And your commission is certain to be accepted, Mr. Kennedy."

This conversation was entirely baffling to Archie. "Well, I'm grateful for your confidence in me, though I fear it's undeserved."

"Don't disparage yourself," Horatio said sharply. "There is no question that the board will name you a lieutenant."

"Well, you'll still be senior," Archie pointed out with a certain amount of irritation. He couldn't begin to see where Horatio was going with this, and in all honesty, he didn't care to try.

"That is not the point!" Horatio said. A muffled thud accompanied the words, as if he'd struck the chair or the window-ledge. "The point, Mr. Kennedy--" and his voice rose to a shout; not the bellow that would carry over the deck of a warship, but certainly enough to seize Archie's attention in such a small room. "--the point, sir, is that there you sit, sprawled in that chair, while a superior officer is on his feet!"

Archie's eyes flew open and he stared at Horatio in open-mouthed shock. Had the man at last taken complete leave of his senses?

Then he realized that the glitter in Horatio's dark eyes was neither madness nor anger, but instead a kind of hopeful lust. He bit back a shout of exasperated laughter. This was Horatio's inimitably clumsy way of starting a game.

He could've been a bit more clear, instead of scaring a year off my life by carrying on like that. Still, now that he was paying attention, he realized that the "thinking" Horatio referred to had probably been more along the lines of working himself into a fine state; that he was terribly excited by whatever game he had come up with; and that Archie wasn't half as tired as he'd believed himself to be.

"I'm terribly sorry, sir," he said, unfolding himself from the chair with a precisely calculated degree of insolent slowness. "My sincere apologies."

"I'm not certain those are worth a penny," Horatio sniffed from his place by the window, face still properly fierce and stern but his eyes growing bright with excitement. "And is there a particular reason you are not at attention, Mr. Kennedy?"

"Sir!" Archie snapped to, clasping his hands behind him and fixing his eyes on the far corner of the cieling. Horatio made a small, satisfied sound that was probably supposed to be a polite officer's expression of approval, but which sounded distinctly less than proper to Archie.

"Better," Horatio said, crossing the room again to circle Archie like a beast with prey, looking him up and down. "Acting Lieutenant. Merely a jumped-up midshipman."

"Sir, I protest," Archie said, not because he gave a damn but because Horatio seemed to be expecting a reply of some kind. Rather difficult to play the game properly when you didn't let me read the rules, Horatio, you magnificent idiot. If I didn't love you so much, I'd smack that look off your face right now. Sneering doesn't suit you; never make it a habit.

"Be quiet," Horatio said, continuing his slow circling. He reached out and ran his fingers over Archie's jacket, across his shoulders. "Your uniform coat is a disgrace, Mr. Kennedy. Hardly worthy of the word." He paused in his pacing, as if the thought was just now occuring to him. "Take it off."

Well, that didn't take long. "As you say, sir." He reached for the buttons.

"Clumsy fingers, Mr. Kennedy," Horatio said as Archie fumbled with one of them. He was watching Archie intensely, his eyes dark and promising, his body simply too close to Archie's own to allow him to function properly.

"Nerves, sir," he muttered, finally mastering the buttons and removing the coat. He hesitated and glanced questioningly at Horatio, who raised an eyebrow in silent approval. Archie took a hasty step back, lay the garment carefully across the back of the chair by the bed, and fell back to attention at the precise spot he'd stood before. Horatio resumed his slow, circling inspection.

"Are you prone to nerves, Mr. Kennedy?" he asked, clearly not expecting an answer. He brushed his fingers across Archie's waistcoat. "And this is in a state as well. It will have to go. But so many buttons..." He stared into Archie's eyes. "Perhaps you'd like me to take care of it."

Good God. He was "thinking" of this all day, while I was dying a thousand deaths at the Admiralty? "As you wish, of course, sir."

Strong hands rested feather-light on his chest for a moment before they went to work on the waistcoat buttons. "Whatever are we going to do with you, Mr. Kennedy?"

"I've no idea, sir." That was God's own truth.

Horatio finished opening the waistcoat and slipped it off Archie's arms, laying it carefully over the jacket. He then turned back and began untying the cravat at Archie's throat. "You must mind your duty," he said, his voice low and getting rougher despite his effort to keep it expressionless. "Your duty to the Service and to your superiors."

"And is it my duty then to service my superiors, sir?" Archie asked, meaning only a jest, but Horatio's hands stilled and dismay flickered in his eyes. They'd strayed into dangerous waters without realizing it.

Archie caught Horatio's eye and smiled gently, breaking the game long enough to let him know that it was all right. Those who said that Horatio was born to command were right; it was in his nature to give orders, expect to have them obeyed, and only natural that he'd take a certain pleasure and assurance in doing so. But he would no more abuse his authority than he would turn pirate. Archie trusted him absolutely.

Horatio's answering smile was a bit uncertain, but he quickly rallied himself and resumed untying the knot. "You've a clever mouth, Mr. Kennedy. Have a care or it might get you in trouble someday."

"So I've been told, sir."

One corner of Horatio's mouth twitched as he fought to keep from smiling. Horatio himself was the one who'd told him that, many times, in beds far worse than this one, and were they ever going to go to bed, or was Horatio going to continue this fencing and undressing until they were both old and gray?

He was down to his breeches and shirt now, and Horatio stepped back to take a look at him. Archie stood at careful attention, his hands clasped at the small of his back and his chin held high, feeling Horatio's gaze on him like gentle pressure against his skin.

"What shall we do with you?" Horatio asked again, stepping around to stand behind Archie. He began weaving the soft black length of the cravat around and between Archie's wrists. "Clap you in irons?" He didn't knot it, but held it in place with one hand, while the other traced slowly down Archie's back through the thin shirt. "Bend you over the table for a flogging?"

Archie tensed despite himself; dangerous waters again. Even knowing this was play, even trusting Horatio as he did, too many unhappy memories were called to the surface by those words.

Horatio was watching too closely to miss the change; instantly the cravat was allowed to fall away, and his hand brushed the back of Archie's neck in apology.

"I'm sorry, Archie," Horatio murmured, coming around to face Archie again. "It was a stupid idea for a game." He hesitantly took Archie's face in his hands and tilted it up for a kiss, all tenderness and caring without a trace of compulsion or fear. "Forgive me?"

"It's all right," Archie chuckled, resting his forehead against Horatio's shoulder. "I'm sorry for ruining the fun by being so damned skittish."

"I look forward to you gaining your commission," Horatio said against his hair. "Being equals again. As it ought to be."

"You'll still be senior," Archie reminded him, glancing up with a wry smile. "The wise old man of the sea."

"Ah, so you think me an old man now? The truth comes out, I see..." Horatio pouted outrageously until Archie laughed and shut up him with another kiss.

"Not in the slightest," he assured him when they broke apart and caught their breath again. "You're positively brimming with the vigor of youth."

But Horatio had gone troubled and brooding on him suddenly. "You ought to be senior, Archie-- you were in the Service will before me. If it weren't for--"

Archie put on a tight-lipped smile and marshalled his patience; he was not going to have this night spoiled by unhappy memories and flashes of guilt. He placed his finger over Horatio's lips to silence him and nodded at the jacket and waistcoat on the chair. "Is this really what you were thinking on all day?" he asked.

Horatio stared at the clothing for a moment and then shifted his gaze back to Archie. "That is barely the beginning of what I thought about all day."

"Really." Archie took a step back toward the bed. "You'll have to walk me through the rest of it, then. You know I'm endlessly fascinated by the workings of your mind."

"I shall endeavor to enlighten you, Lieutenant Kennedy," Horatio said, following Archie step by step across the room.

"Promoting me already?" Archie chuckled. "What would the Admiralty say?"

"They'd praise my judgement--" Horatio broke off as Archie seized his face and kissed him thoroughly. "--and ask only why I didn't promote you further."

"Aside from the obvious," Archie said, turning his attention to the waistcoat that Horatio was inexplicably still wearing. "Shameless and wanton disregard for propriety...buggering a senior officer..."

"Buggering?" Horatio frowned. "I'm afraid I can't recall any buggery. But then my memory is so poor."

At any other time, Archie would have rolled his eyes at the blatant falsity of that statement. Horatio had a memory that could serve as an accounts ledger, annotated history of the British Navy, and travelling curiousity shop. At the moment, however, Archie's attention was fully occupied with the damned buttons of that doubly-damned waistcoat. "Perhaps," he muttered, casting about for an acceptable reply that would keep Horatio's mind firmly on the situation at hand, "that's another thing you were thinking on today?"

"Oh yes," Horatio replied, watching Archie fumble and curse the buttons. "It crossed my mind several times, in fact." He smiled patiently and swatted Archie's hands away, quickly removing the garment himself. He pounced on Archie and rolled him over onto his back, pinning him to the mattress. "I thought about a great many things," he said, quite calmly, as if his hands were not beginning to do positively maddening things to Archie's body. "I don't even know where to begin."

"Might I make a few suggestions?" Archie asked breathlessly. "Or would that be out of place for a junior officer?"

"I think you know your place quite well," Horatio chuckled, his mouth pressed to Archie's throat. "You serve admirably, Mr. Kennedy...a credit to your station..."

"A credit to my superiors," Archie amended, reaching for the buttons on Horatio's trousers and getting his hands slapped away again. He growled in frustration until Horatio shut up him with another kiss.

"I have one last order for you, Archie," he said, sitting up a bit and twisting away from Kennedy's hands again. "And that is to be still." He began unfastening Archie's breeches. "Quite still."

"But that's hardly fair." The feeble protest was the best Archie could manage.

"It is an officer's duty to ensure the well-being and comfort of his juniors," Horatio reminded him with a solemnity that was patently absurd, given the circumstances. "I fear I have been remiss in fulfilling that duty...and tonight is my last chance to remedy that. You wouldn't have me knowingly neglect my duty, would you?"

"Horatio," Archie said, quite dizzy from trying to keep any part of his mind focused on the man's endless speeches. "I yield to your wishes as senior. I submit to your authority. I am your. Loyal. Servant. Now for God's sake will you stop talking and put that mouth to a better use-- I have some suggestions if you need them--"

Horatio smiled at him, and if Archie was offered a choice between that moment and command of a ship of the line, he would have told the Admiralty to go and hang.

"Aye aye, sir," Horatio murmured, and as an obedient officer of His Majesty's Navy, said nothing of consequence for the rest of the night.

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