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Although it was a foolish fancy and he would be ashamed to tell anyone, Horatio had grown quite accustomed to thinking of the ships he served on as having distinct personalities, informed by but not adhering to those of their commanders. Justinian had been sleepy and unwell, sick from within like Captain Keene, but she remembered the days when she raced before the wind, and kept her pride. Indefatigable, of course, was a warrior, a veritable Amazon. But she was temperamental, too, and had to be coaxed through shoals or rough weather with a gentle, attentive hand.

Other ships had come and gone in brief tours of duty, each with her own quirks and foibles, a lady of mystery that an officer must court until he understood her whims. On Renown, though, Horatio found himself a spurned suitor. He could not know this ship. She seemed fickle, heedlessly falling to every strong breeze. And as for the less practical aspects of his uncertain sense of her...

Renown loved secrets. She carried whispers and rumors in her beams, listening ears in every shadow. There was no privacy, no safety, no peace. And Horatio felt that all too keenly as he hurried through the dark corridors to the sick berth, praying Dr. Clive was at his usual supper with the Captain. As suspicious and prying as his hysterical fancies made the ship out to be, Renown could not speak. As long as he avoided human eyes and wagging tongues, his covert foray-- and the reason for it-- would remain unknown.

For the first time in months, luck was with him. The sick berth was deserted. He moved quickly, gathering a small roll of badnage and some clean cloths. He hesitated at the open case of medicines, frowning at the vials of milky laudanum. No. What else might a doctor keep for pain? Willow bark, or perhaps valerian...but Clive would have nothing of the sort, not when laudanum was quicker and easier. Horatio slipped out the doorway and retraced his steps to the officers' quarters. He'd have to make do without.

Archie sat precisely where Horatio had left him-- slumped on the floor of their cabin, leaning against his seachest, eyes unfocused and face pale. He held a handkerchief to his temple, as Horatio had told him to, but appeared not to have noticed that the fabric was completely soaked through with blood. Horatio set his pilfered supplies on the chest, knelt at Archie's side, and gently pried the scarlet cloth from his fingers. It left his own hand feeling sticky and cold. "Archie," he said softly, leaning close, trying to catch Kennedy's eyes. "Can you hear me?"

Archie blinked twice, then nodded. "You're back quickly."

"I was hardly likely to dawdle." He didn't try to hide the worry he felt; with Archie, there was no point. He took one of the cloths and held it against the still freely-bleeding gash on Archie's temple. "Are you hurt anywhere else?"

"Arm." Archie frowned vaguely at the gouge above his wrist, which was seeping blood but looked shallow to Horatio's estimation. "Wrecked another shirt, damn."

"It will wash," Horatio muttered, pressing harder and wishing he could simply order the blood to clot. Archie winced but didn't struggle. His gaze was wandering again, looking inward; Horatio sought to call it back. "And it goes under the jacket at any rate."

"Stained linen's a hanging offense, I'm sure..." Archie let the joke trail off unfinished and unnoticed, swallowing hard and staring down at the drops of blood on the rough oak floor. "Horatio, what happened?"

He shifted, uncomfortable, feeling the steady beat of Archie's pulse through the cloth. "You had a fit."

"Clearly," Archie said, shutting his eyes and tilting his head a little against Horatio's hand. "But why? It's been years, Horatio!"

He could only nod and change the soiled cloth for a fresh one. The bleeding was slowing, nearly stopped. Head wounds made such a great mess. "You've been tired. Overstrained."

"Yes." Archie shook his head, a bitter little smile twisting his face. "That is certainly true."

Nearly three months without a second lieutenant-- what could the Admiralty be thinking? Even a hero as great as James Sawyer could not run a ship alone. The situation left three lieutenants doing a third again of the work each, attempting to monitor a large and fractious crew, wearing themselves to ribbons and bashing their heads open on doorframes...

"Let it be, Horatio," Archie said, taking his friend's wrist and gently pulling the hand from his face. "It must be near enough to stopping, and I'd like to get this arm bandaged before the shirt's completely ruined."

Horatio got up and fetched the washbasin, cleaning the gash before he began winding a bandage around it. "How do you suppose you managed this one?"

"I must've caught it on the edge of my seachest when I fell," he said, watching Horatio's long fingers dance with the pale cloth. "Or perhaps during the flopping about and drooling stage of things."

Horatio winced. "You're tired," he said again, helplessly. "The body-- makes itself known, when it needs rest."

"Yes. And mine announces the news with a rather rude trumpet." This smile was more wry, less despairing, and he caught Horatio's hands with his own when Hornblower tied off the bandage. "Thank you," he said quietly.

Horatio only shook his head; there was no debt between them, not ever, and Archie need not thank him for caring. "Let me clean your face," he said. "Then you must get some sleep."

"A few hours before watch, at least." Archie winced as Horatio dabbed at his temple again with the wet cloth, trying to clean the skin without opening the wound. "A watch that isn't properly mine--" He cut himself off and compressed his lips tightly. Horatio watched drops of water run drown Archie's face like tears, and wiped them away with his thumb. He let the touch linger for a moment against Archie's cheek, wishing he knew a way to speak without words that might be overheard on this damned listening ship. Wishing that simply his touch could tell Archie all of his love and fear and worry.

Perhaps it did, after all. Archie turned his head to nuzzle Horatio's palm, and the tense set of his features eased. "You're too good to me," he murmured, his lips brushing Horatio's skin. "Far better than I deserve."

"Nothing of the sort." He set the cloth aside and reluctantly reclaimed his hand to reach for the last dry rag and pat Archie's face clean. "You'll have a remarkable bruise tomorrow. How do you plan to explain it?"

"Perhaps I'll claim you struck me. Sawyer would love it." Horatio winced again, and Archie relented. "Ah, I'll say I stumbled in the dark, or some such. Clumsiness is a flaw but hardly a disfigurement like fits."

"Only the one fit," Horatio said, wanting to have himself flogged for the foolishness as soon as it was said aloud. "It really has been a long time, Archie."

"I truly thought they would not trouble me again." He sighed. "But I've said that before, of course."

Horatio did not care to be reminded of other times Archie had said that. "You need to rest," he said, looking away. "Up and into your hammock."

Archie stood cautiously, quick to lean against Horatio for support as he swayed on his feet. "I doubt I'll be able to sleep," he said with a sharp little laugh. "Half afraid I'll wake up pissing myself."

"I couldn't find anything but varying degrees of laudanum," Horatio said, his chest tight with unhappiness. The fit had shaken Archie to the depths wehre his nightmares dwelled. Perhaps shaken them free of their cages, and on this ship, greedy for any whisper of weakness... "I didn't think you'd want that."

"Of course not. Not for something so trifling." He took a deep breath, looking down at the floor, and Horatio knew him well enough to see that he was mustering sheer will to pull himself together. "Well. Nothing for it, then."

Horatio hesitated, glancing at the door. Closed, but that meant little in the thin-walled belly of a ship. Especially this suspicious, hungry ship. It was a mad risk anywhere, doubly so on a vessel, a dozen more times so on Renown.

But Archie needed him. Archie was hurting. Helping him was worth a hundred such risks. Oh, and being able to be so close to him, whispered a traitorous voice in his heart, that would be worth a thousand...

"Perhaps I might...be near you while you are sleeping," he said, so softly that Archie had to lean his head to hear it. He pulled away again with surprise in his eyes-- but not dismay, of course not that.

"Are you indulging in a spot of madness yourself, Mr. Hornblower?" he whispered. "Here? On board Renown, under James Sawyer's very nose?"

"I wish only to ensure the comfort and tranquility of my brother officer," Horatio whispered back. I want to help you, he tried to say with his eyes and the hand he rested on Archie's shoulder. I want to hold you. It's worth the risk, to me.

Once again Archie heard him without words. He smiled softly up at Horatio and rolled his eyes. "Brother officer, hmm?" he said with a shaky chuckle. "But yes, Horatio...God, yes, it would mean the world if you could only be close to me tonight."

Getting two into a hammock was tricky business; by the time they had found their balance and were lying pressed close together, they were shaking helplessly with barely-restrained laughter. Some of it was directed at their awkward gymnastics; more came from childish giddiness at the small act of rebellion.

They wrapped their arms tightly around each other, savoring the contact. Anything more would be simply too dangerous; not only could they be overheard, they might tip the hammock and knock Archie's head for the second time in an evening. Soft stolen kisses and holding their bodies close was enough, a shred of joy captured in this dark and uncertain place.

"We'll be granted shore leave someday, I'm sure," Archie murmured, glancing into Horatio's eyes and smiling. "Perhaps I'll dream of that, Horatio. All the wicked things we can do once we're on shore..."

Horatio kissed Archie's face and said nothing. But his mind raced ahead-- shore leave, doors that locked, beds that didn't sway, liquor and laughter, solid walls and free air and no need to fear listeners in the corners. The thought was almost enough to make this seem like a poor substitute.

But no. Archie's breath was moving against his skin. Archie was warm and solid and close to him. Archie could sleep without fear of nightmares tonight, because Horatio was there.

Leave tomorrow to tomorrow, Horatio thought, closing his eyes and pressing a kiss to Archie's hair. Tonight, only be here, in this...

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