Exaggeration and Blank Verse
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All Archie wanted was a bit of quiet, a few moments of peace to read his book. But Lieutenant Bracegirdle felt a need to impart tales of adventure and wisdom tonight, and it would not do for a younger officer to be anything less than attentive. Especially a mere Acting Lieutenant with a gaping two-year hole in his service records. No chance of escape to the midshipmen's mess, or his hammock; it would be unforgivably rude. Nothing for it but to smile politely, and try to listen...but dear God, Bracegirdle was dull!

Even Horatio, seated next to Archie on the slick-polished bench, was beginning to show cracks in his mask of polite interest. His eyes flickered from his superior officer, to the poor unopened book in his hands, to the ceiling, and finally to meet Archie's own with an expression of mute suffering.

Archie hid a smile and looked down at the surface of the table. Really, Bracegirdle seemed quite deeply involved with the sound of his own voice, perhaps he wouldn't even notice if his audience was to transfer its attention to some light reading material.

Horatio was shifting about now, squirming in his seat. Archie glanced over at him, making a mental note of the collapse of Lieutenant Hornblower's fierce self-control. He'd held out from fidgeting far longer than Archie had managed. In fact, Kennedy was becoming dismally certain that soon fidgeting would be insufficient, and nothing short of getting up and walking around would keep his rear end from going completely numb from sitting on this damned bench-

Someone was resting a hand on his knee.

He looked over at Horatio, who was staring straight ahead, face impassive. Archie sat back, glancing down under the table, doing his best to appear casual and avoid drawing Bracegirdle's attention. Yes, that was Horatio's hand on his leg, fingers drumming a light rhythm against the fabric of his breeches, the movement gradually evening out into a slow caress.

This was most odd. Well, not the gesture itself, but the circumstances, the timing, the fact that there was a superior officer in the room, lecturing away about something that was probably very important if Archie had been paying the slightest bit of attention, which he no longer was...

He forced himself to look only at Bracegirdle for a few moments- or perhaps it was only thirty seconds- before he allowed himself another glance at Horatio. No question of it now- Hornblower's eyes were bright with some personal amusement, and a smile was tugging ever so faintly at his mouth. He had these moods from time to time- inexplicable fits of merry rebellion, never over anything truly serious but otherwise unpredictable. Archie found them both delightful and a bit terrifying, because he never knew what sort of idea would escape from the brilliant mind behind the obedient officer's mask.

Horatio's hand was creeping upwards from Archie's knee to his thigh.

Archie caught himself before he gasped out loud, turning it into a slightly strained cough.

"Do you require something to drink, Mr. Kennedy?" Horatio asked, the image of innocence. Archie mumbled in negation and gestured for Bracegirdle to continue while Horatio's fingers forged forth on their quest.

There was no point in glaring at Horatio or moving away; the man didn't know the meaning of "mad risk" when this mood was upon him, but would pursue his goal of choice with the enthusiasm of any terrier. He would vanquish all obstacles, with fire and the sword should it prove necessary; right now, the only obstacles were the buttons on Archie's trousers, and they were hardly putting up a fight.

And Bracegirdle was still droning on. Archie rested his chin in his palm, splaying his fingers across his face to conceal his expression. Horatio was sitting there with a bland smile, exactly as if he wasn't rummaging around in his shipmate's trousers like a fishwife in the ragbag.

Horatio's fingers tightened, just a bit, and Archie's hips jerked despite himself. He was likely to slide off the damned bench if Hornblower carried this through to its conclusion.

Bracegirdle's story must have reached a humorous end, because Horatio was laughing politely. Archie did his best to make a sound that could be interpreted in the same light.

"Well," the First Lieutenant said, looking at the hourglass, "I fear my watch calls, gentlemen. I'm sure you've grown quite tired of hearing me natter on."

"Certainly not, sir," Horatio said, as his fingers continued their maddening dance. Archie could make only a vague mumble of agreement.

"You must be eager to apply yourself to your book, Mr. Kennedy," Bracegirdle continued, turning his jovial smile to Archie.

"My book," was the rather stupid reply, as Horatio eased his touch enough for Archie to muster his wits. He stared down at the forgotten little volume. "Yes, sir."

"A pleasant evening to you, lads." Thank the Lord for small mercies, Bracegirdle moved to the door.

"Indeed, sir," Horatio said, and to Archie's eyes his smile had become decidedly smug. "And a peaceful watch to you."

"Ha! With any luck!" And, chuckling to himself, the First Lieutenant was gone.

Archie let both of his hands slam flat to the tabletop. Horatio's smile stretched into a now-undeniably smug grin. "The Captain says you were born to hang," Archie muttered through clenched teeth. "But you're damned determined to hurry it along, aren't you?"

"When I meet my fate, I'd like to know I've done my part to earn it," Horatio said. "Now, Mr. Kennedy, we only have a few minutes until the change of watch is complete and we have company in search of its bit of brandy before bed, so if you please..."

Really, at this stage it would have done little to no good to object. Archie surrendered to Horatio's ministrations.

A short time later he sat breathing hard and composing himself while Horatio sauntered across the room to the washbasin. Hornblower was still grinning like the cat who'd got the cream. "Are you certain you've no French blood at all?" Archie asked him, checking again that he'd re-buttoned his trousers neatly. "You're certainly as wicked as Robespierre."

"Mr. Kennedy, have a bit more respect for a shipmate's heritage," Horatio scolded cheerfully. "I'm as English as the Indie herself."

"And mad as they come," Archie muttered, shaking his head and returning Horatio's smile. As his blood cooled and his mood steadied, Mr. Hornblower would be appalled by his own behavior tonight, and spend the next several days more stiff-necked and inflexible than usual as a kind of penance. Archie wanted to enjoy this silly, lighthearted Horatio while he had him.

The wardroom door opened and Second Lieutenant Chatham entered, sighing with relief as he removed his hat. "Ah, it's good to be out of the cold. Mr. Kennedy, pass the brandy, there's a good lad. I say, Hornblower, it's a pity you were off-watch. The mids have let the spare cables get in a terrible state, and we could've used your clever hands on deck, I don't mind telling you- goodness, Mr. Kennedy, you're choking! Pound his back, Hornblower!"

"I think he's all right, sir," Horatio said, nonetheless delivering several hearty thumps between Archie's shoulder blades. "Aren't you, Mr. Kennedy?"

"Quite," Archie gasped, catching Horatio's arm and giving him a scorching glare before the man could deliver another 'helping' blow. "And indeed, sir, Mr. Hornblower's hands are a great asset. To the ship."

"Hmm." Chatham sipped his brandy and glanced around the wardroom. "I suppose Bracegirdle was down here boring you both to tears? Lord, how the man can talk!"

"Mr. Bracegirdle has a great deal of wisdom to impart in his stories," Horatio said in the most neutral of tones, only Archie seeing the near-demented glint of repressed laughter in his eyes.

"I, for one, feel the better for having heard them," Archie said, and was rewarded as Horatio was forced to bite his lip to keep silent.

Chatham rolled his eyes. "Oh, you two will go far, if you remain this skilled at playing politics."

"One seeks to do one's duty," Horatio murmured. "And trusts that one will be rewarded."

"Lord, Hornblower, you could relax once in a while," Chatham sighed, rising and moving to his cabin. "I've never seen a man so in need of a pint and a tumble. Next time we're in port, see that he gets them, eh, Kennedy?"

"Absolutely, sir," Archie replied without a trace of a smile, as behind Chatham's back, Horatio turned several shades of red in rapid succession. "You may consider it done."

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