Title: Merry Christmas, Mr. Hornblower
Rating: G by my standards, but I’ll say PG to be safe
Disclaimer: All characters are the property of the Forester estate, but I like A&E’s version better. ;)
Summary: Set sometime after The Wrong War. Archie and Horatio are spending their leave at Archie’s sister’s home.
Notes: Thanks to k_julia who rocks betaing in any fandom and also thanks to my HH authority romanticalgirl. You two worked very well together. :) A small disclaimer - ideally, I would have had one more pass taken with a beta, but given general holiday business and the fact I really needed to get this posted before Christmas, there may be a comma or three missed. Forgive me. =)
As soon as he stepped into the small sitting room he felt he could breathe again. Mercifully, one of the servants had opened the doors to the garden. The night was unseasonably warm and the air hitting his skin felt more like a cool spring breeze than a winter’s chill. The sensation was most welcome after the stuffiness of the ballroom. Most importantly it provided a respite from the whirl of activity that evening. Never in his life had he seen such copious amounts of food and drink or been forced to endure so much ceaseless music and chatter. For a man who had grown accustomed to spending so much time alone, it proved overwhelming to his senses.
Even though his complaints were going no further than his own mind, Horatio quickly chastised himself for even having such thoughts. Archie’s sister had been exceedingly generous and gracious to invite him to her home over the holidays. Upon their return to Portsmouth, most of the crew had been granted shore leave. Archie had been particularly excited since it had been, by his best recollection, seven years since he had last enjoyed Christmas with his family. Archie was also eager that Horatio accompany him. Horatio had initially refused, creating a distant cousin who he assured Archie would provide him with a place to stay, but Archie would hear none of it. He even went so far as to show him the letter his sister, Caroline, had written imploring Archie to invite Horatio, desiring to thank him in person for returning their brother and son to them. Archie’s pleading look combined with a desire not to offend the Kennedy family were enough to make Horatio relent. Had he known there would be music and dancing, he might have fought harder to remain behind.
Finding a place in the shadows to hide himself, he peered back out into the ballroom. He searched the room for one face in particular, one that had experienced so much pain in recent years, but in the time they had been here seemed to enjoy a new spark of life.
Somehow, above the noise, he heard him rather than saw him. He’d grown to know Archie Kennedy’s laugh well. It was one of the earliest and fondest memories he had of the young man. Rain pouring, both of them drenched to the bone, the young mid had welcomed him aboard the Justinian with a smile and laugh as he’d told him of the purgatory he was about to enter. Horatio couldn’t help but smile at the remembrance. And after El Ferrol and the disaster at Muzillac, it was a delight hearing Archie’s laugh, watching him twirl yet another smitten young woman around the dance floor, thoroughly enjoying himself and appearing so very much like the Archie he knew and…Horatio stopped himself before finishing the thought.
He was once again being foolish. They were men, they were officers, or at least Archie soon would be a full lieutenant. And even if the noose wasn’t a possibility for acting on such impulses, it was a sin. A man was not to have such desires for another man. Yes, he had heard the stories of men alone for sea at months, succumbing to their base needs or, worse, men like Simpson, who did not even seek a willing partner. Good God, what Archie had been through and to even contemplate…Archie would be shamed once more, sickened if he knew. Archie deserved the comfort and affections of one of the young ladies so obviously enamored with him. Horatio shook his head, trying to clear the thoughts from his mind, and walked towards the open door hoping the cool night air would help bring him back to his senses.
A few moments passed before he heard, “Horatio! There you are! I was wondering where you were hiding yourself. Was it the music, the dancing, or Lady Langford’s daughter that made you scurry off?” A wide grin spread across Archie’s face. He could be such a little imp, mercilessly teasing Horatio and, though he’d never admit it, Horatio enjoyed every moment of it.
“I protest, Sir, officers of His Majesty’s Navy do not hide.” He paused and gave Archie as stern a look as he could muster. In return, Archie was barely able to suppress his laughter.
Horatio sighed and continued, “I merely stepped out to get some fresh air. I’d ask how you are able to stand it, Mr. Kennedy, but I suppose the young women who have occupied your time all evening have distracted you from the heat.”
“Why, Mr. Hornblower, are you jealous?”
Horatio tried to maintain his demeanor, but he could feel his eyes grow wider and the heat begin to rise from his skin. Flustered, he only managed to get out, “Jealous?”
“Yes, jealous. Though it is your own fault. You had just as much of an opportunity as I with those young ladies.”
The young ladies. Of course. Archie could not, would not, ever presume that Horatio harbored any unseemly feelings for him.
Horatio regained his composure. “I could in no way be jealous of such behavior. You were quite shameless, Archie.” Horatio glanced around the room to make sure they were still alone before proceeding in hushed tones, “I saw you kiss at least three of them, Archie. And in your sister’s home with your family only a short distance away.”
Horatio watched as Archie brought his hand to his stomach, as if the action would somehow help to contain the laughter he had been trying to hold back, but could no longer. “But Horatio, I had to kiss those young ladies. I had an obligation. It was the only honorable thing to do.”
“Obligation? Honorable?” Sometimes Horatio just could not figure Archie out.
“Yes. They were standing under the mistletoe. There are rules about such things, Horatio. Granted, Major Conner’s widow practically dragging me was not above board, but if the poor woman is desperate for some affection…”
“Yes. You are familiar with it?”
Horatio sighed. He knew he was not as worldly as some, no, most men, yet he was familiar with the customs of the holidays.
“Of course. I just had not noticed it hung amongst all the other decorations.”
Archie gave him an understanding smile. “Yes, Caroline does have a tendency to be rather excessive this time of year. And this is the first Christmas I’ve spent at home since…” Horatio watched as Archie looked past him, eyes peering out into the garden, searching for something. He’d seen that far off look before and was about to speak, to try and break the trance, when Archie came back to himself. “Sorry, Horatio. What was I saying?”
“Your last Christmas with your family?”
“Ah, yes, I suppose Caroline wanted it to be as festive as possible.”
“They are welcoming you back from the dead, Archie. I cannot think of a greater reason for extravagance.” Horatio reached out and rested his hand on Archie’s arm, feeling the strong muscle under the thick woolen jacket. Horatio was distracted by the sensation, but his thoughts were interrupted by Archie’s unexpected giggling.
“My sister is a mischievous one.”
Archie pointed up and directed Horatio’s attention to the top of the doorframe. There, tacked up amongst a bundle of ribbon and garland was a sprig of mistletoe. Horatio froze, his heart suddenly beating much faster in his chest.
“Are you all right, Horatio?”
Oh God, Archie couldn’t hear his heart could he? Couldn’t sense what he was thinking? Horatio swallowed hard and try to regain his wits. “Yes, I’m fine Archie. I’m just tired. I’m not used to all this, all these people.”
“I understand. Society takes some getting use to. And Kitty never did finish her lessons with you, did she? Perhaps I should see to the continuation of your education. We may need the help of a couple of the young ladies, though.”
“Archie.” Mischievousness seemed to be a Kennedy family trait. “The things you say.”
“I know for a fact you heard much worse as a mid.” Archie grew silent again. The implication of his comment was apparent to both men and he tried to rush past it quickly. “But you are tired and it is Christmas Eve and peace on earth, good will towards men, and all of that, so I shall let you say goodnight and depart for bed.”
“You intend to stay awhile then?”
“I think so. It’s rather nice to be among people again. Not that you haven’t been excellent company these past three years.”
“No explanation is necessary, Archie. Now go see how much more trouble you can cause.”
Archie gave him an all too knowing smile and hurried from the room back to the party. Horatio followed to bid his hostess a goodnight and retire to his room, alone.
Horatio collapsed on the bed, still dressed in everything but his shoes and coat. He pulled at his stock to loosen it and stared at the canopy above his head. Horatio had never even dreamed of finding himself in such a luxurious room. A fire burned bright across from him, casting his surroundings in a soft glow. Heavy embroidered drapes covered the windows, keeping out any nightly chill. And the bed was softer than anything that had ever enveloped his body…and far too large for just one man. His eyes fell shut and a smile spread across his face as he contemplated sharing the bed with Archie, curled up next to him, head resting on his shoulder, soft breath tickling his neck as he dozed beside him.
Suddenly, Horatio furrowed his brow, fisting the cloth of his shirt and cursing himself once again for letting his thoughts go to such a place. He needed to stop this, needed to find a way to move beyond sullying his dear friend in his mind, but it had been nearly a year now of excuses and self-loathing and repeated failure. In El Ferrol, he had tried to assure himself that his feelings were only born out of the fear that he would once again fail to save Archie. When they were finally free of that place, he had met Mariette. Such a lovely young woman who had grown fond of him, yet, even as he worked hard to reciprocate her feelings, it was Archie ever-present in his thoughts.
As he drifted off to sleep, his mind continued on Archie. He saw his face before him, that smile, the gleam in his eye that was finally returning to him. Horatio suddenly felt warm all over, as if he were…
“Good God Horatio, you do sleep like the dead.”
With a start Horatio bolted up and knocked his head against the headboard. Slightly dazed, it took him a moment to focus on a grinning Archie Kennedy directly in front of him. Sounds of laughter soon filled the room. He should have been upset at his friend’s amusement at his expense. Instead, he found himself focusing on the closeness of Archie’s body to his. As Archie knelt over him, Horatio contemplated the possibility of Archie losing his balance, falling on top of him, and the heat of Archie’s body penetrating the thin fabric of Horatio’s clothing, warming him. Horatio felt himself flush in response to his thoughts.
“If I were a Frog I’d have had your throat slit by now.” Archie shifted, moving to Horatio’s right and sitting beside him on the bed.
Horatio had trouble finding the humor in his remark. “I highly doubt the French have plans to invade your sister’s home on Christmas Eve. I feel quite safe…from them. What are you up to? Not enough mischief to keep you occupied downstairs.”
“Perhaps I was making my escape from Lady Langford’s daughter and seeking refuge here. Or, perhaps, I had something I needed to give you.” Archie reached behind himself and produced a small box, unwrapped, but bound together by a bright red ribbon.
“Archie.” Horatio grew serious. Archie and his family had bestowed such generosity upon him already, far more than he deserved. “We’ve already exchanged gifts. And you were far too extravagant.” He plucked at the linen of his shirt. The finest he had ever worn and perhaps some of the finest that could be found.
“I told you Horatio. I wanted to do it. And I had all that back pay which I never could have spent just on myself. It was my pleasure.”
“What?” Archie sounded puzzled.
Horatio sighed, “I gave you stockings, Archie.”
Archie straightened his leg, bringing it parallel with the bed and into view. “And they’re lovely stockings! Perfect fit. I could not have chosen better myself. You really do obsess far too much over such trivial matters. Now quit pouting and open your gift.”
“I cannot. You’ve done far too much and…”
“Horatio!” They both were surprised at Archie’s raised voice. Archie took a deep breath before continuing then quietly stated, “Horatio, it’s nothing, really. As a matter of fact, it didn’t cost me a penny. And it would make me quite happy if you were to accept it.”
He had him there. Horatio would do anything within his power to make Archie happy. Begrudgingly, Horatio picked up the package from the bed and undid the bow. Lifting the top off of the box he discovered a small gathering of twigs covered in small oval leaves and waxy white berries tied together tightly by a gold ribbon. Horatio recognized it immediately as the mistletoe that Archie’s sister had seemingly placed above every doorway in the home.
Horatio stared at the small offering for quite some time before glancing up at his friend. The broad smile that Archie had worn just moments before had faded some. He still smiled at him, but Horatio sensed nervousness, even trepidation, behind it.
Archie swallowed before he spoke. “Do you like your gift, Horatio?”
He was not certain how to respond. Archie had been so excited to give him the gift and Horatio found himself at a loss as to why. “Archie, I...” He looked up into eager, expectant eyes and unable to disappoint, he simply said, “I’m quite touched. Thank you.”
Sighing, Archie asked, “You do not understand, do you? I swear, Horatio, you can manage to unravel the most difficult problems of Euclidean geometry, but present you with the simplest of puzzles…I suppose I shall just have to demonstrate.”
Archie reached into the box and removed the mistletoe. Raising his arm, he held the bundle above Horatio’s head. The implication of Archie’s actions struck Horatio just as Archie’s lips touched his. Horatio froze, shocked at what his friend was doing. But the warmth of his lips, the tip of Archie’s nose brushing against his, and the low murmurs coming from Archie, his dear friend, as he applied slightly more pressure caused Horatio’s body to react in unexpected ways. After a moment, he allowed himself to relax, realizing that he was experiencing exactly what he had longed for, yet never thought possible. Tentatively, he returned the kiss and any doubts or fears he had were quickly erased as he felt Archie smile under his lips.
Pulling back, Horatio saw Archie’s pleased, hopeful expression, his flushed cheeks, and the firelight reflecting off the thin layer of perspiration covering his skin. Archie Kennedy had never looked more handsome to him. Archie cleared his throat before speaking. “Now that you understand, do you like your gift, Mr. Hornblower?”
“Very much, Mr. Kennedy. But how did you….”
Though Horatio failed to see the humor in any of this, Archie couldn’t help but chuckle. “Oh, Horatio, as soon as I pointed to the damn thing hanging above our heads earlier, the way you looked at it, at me…” As he spoke, he lowered his arm, gently brushing the mistletoe along Horatio’s cheek before placing it on the bed between them.
Horatio was horrified. “I was that obvious?”
“No. Don’t worry, Horatio, it’s just that…There have been times, when we have been alone that I thought perhaps you shared my feelings.”
“Your feelings?” Horatio felt his chest tighten, but, this time, out of joy rather than fear. “You’ve felt as I do? If you had said something…”
Archie shook his head; an expression of sadness crossed his face. “What if I was wrong, Horatio? What if I had created it all in my mind? After I was taken prisoner, all that time alone, and then you were there so patient and caring when I cared nothing for myself. What if I was mistaking simple kindness for something more? I had lost so much, Horatio, I could not face losing your friendship too.” He paused for a moment and Horatio looked deep into his piercing blue eyes, seeing the pain that would never quite go away.
Before Horatio could speak, Archie regained his composure and continued. “Tonight I sensed that there was a chance I was not so mistaken. And I have to admit the wine and atmosphere gave me some courage.”
Horatio smiled and placed his hand upon Archie’s arm, squeezing gently, causing Archie to turn and acknowledge the gesture with a smile. “Then I am more grateful than I even realized for Kennedy family traditions.” As a further expression of his gratitude, he leaned forward to kiss Archie once more.
Abruptly, Archie pulled back. “No, no, Horatio, we mustn’t”
Horatio, again, was at a loss. He thought they had just well established that their affection was mutual, yet he was being pushed away.
Archie reached between them and picked up the Mistletoe. “You forgot about this. There are rules to follow here, Mr. Hornblower.”
Shaking his head, Horatio feigned seriousness as he said, “You know I am one to play strict adherence to the rules, Mr. Kennedy, but I do not wish to cause you any discomfort as you hold that up all night.”
“All night?” Archie’s eyebrow raised and a playful grin appeared.
Horatio felt the heat rise in his neck and cheeks. He was sure he was turning the most vibrant shade of red.
“Do not worry, there is a simple solution to our predicament.” Archie scrambled to his feet, standing on the bed and securing the mistletoe to one of the beams of the canopy above them. He fell back down onto the mattress, the effect of which caused Horatio to tumble back onto the pillows. As Horatio laughed, out of joy and the sheer ridiculousness of it all, Archie quickly removed his coat and shoes and tossed them to the floor. He then aligned his body next to Horatio’s, propped his head upon his hand and looked down at him.
“I am glad you are pleased with your gift, Horatio.”
“It is, without question, the best I have ever received. And one that you should feel free to bestow upon me as often as it pleases you.”
“You will find that to be quite often.” Archie bent down and placed a gentle kiss upon his lips. “Merry Christmas, Horatio”
“Merry Christmas, Archie. May it be the first of many for us.”