It’s really much too hot. Bush has been very much an Englishman all his life, of the type to call bitter gales bracing and to squint in suspicion at a sunny day, and in truth Jamaica does not agree with him; he would rather be back in the familiar dry heat of the Mediterranean or coasting northward to bother unfriendly German trading posts or, best of all, sailing smoothly into Chichester harbour and running through the surf up the long stretches of sand as he hadn’t done since he was a boy to encase his mother and sisters in his arms. He is rarely homesick, but he is rarely somewhere as alien and unfamiliar as Jamaica and yet more rarely so greatly in peril of his life three times in as many days. Bush is aware that his job is a dangerous one - he’s seen enough men perish to know that - but he has had remarkably few prominent reminders of that fact, and now he longs to hold his precious family in his hands and know with tangible certainty that they are, all six of them, in one piece, as if the ladies, and not he, had been the ones sinking inexorably with the anchor, and then clinging to Hornblower and Kennedy, choking and flailing, and then not long after lying flat on the deck in the too-hot sun with a curious numb coldness in the chest and Styles above fretting more than Bush had even given him cause to.
William longs, too, to enclose Horatio’s wrist in his fingers and feel the blood beating beneath the paper-thin skin there; to run his fingers over the scabbing, scarring but no longer bleeding hole in Archie’s stomach and ride the ebb and swell of the man’s breathing.
It’s the heat that makes him think so, he is sure. Too hot to think sensibly or occupy oneself with some appropriate labour or do much of anything except laze here in the dappled shade of an orange tree on a sun-warmed rock above a little private cove, watching Hornblower and Kennedy throwing orange blossoms at each other from the flat of their backs. Oh, suffering indeed - he can already imagine the supreme lack of sympathy such comments would earn him with Victoria, and the thought pulls half a smile from him despite himself.
He has, somewhere in the vast expanse of sand between West Wittering and his family’s rooms in the town, lost the thread of Hornblower and Kennedy’s conversation and before he can pick it up and trace it, Theseus-like, back into their confidence, a lucky throw of Hornblower’s has Kennedy abruptly sitting up and spitting. Horatio curls in on himself in a rare burst of full-bodied laughter as Archie sets to pawing at his tongue in an effort to rid himself of the shreds of petal sticking resolutely to his dry mouth. Archie smacks him, once, in the centre of his chest, still spitting bits of orange blossom but now grinning. It takes years off them both; William suddenly sees them for the young men, barely grown, that they are. Responsibility has made men of them, not years, and after everything it is good to see them so.
William knows himself well enough not to analyse that thought beyond the most easily come-by explanation. They are, after all, friends - surprise as that had been to William. He’d been deep in a dangerous mission, committing mild mutiny just to be there, before it had occurred to him that he probably liked these lieutenants better than he had liked most others he had served alongside.
“You’re an absolute terror, Horatio,” Kennedy says without much venom, and Hornblower uncoils, laughing just as hard. Bush has to duck his head to hide his chuckles when Kennedy barks out his own sudden laugh at the situation and ruffles his friend’s dusty, untidy hair. And then, as if to really hammer home how young his colleagues are, Kennedy grabs a handful of blossoms from the floor and he and Hornblower are wrestling and writhing in the dust, still howling with laughter between attempts to keep their lips pressed closed in defence against a mouthful of flowers. Bush, compressing his lips likewise against an outburst of amusement, drags the stack of their coats, waistcoats, cravats, boots and stockings away from the water’s edge and the risk of an errant foot. Even he is presently attired in no more than a shirt and breeches; it really is too hot. The rock feels pleasantly warm under his bare soles, grounding him to the earth and its secure stability; no upheaval of floor or feeling here, he promises himself, not even at the flashes of skin exposed by his scuffling crewmates. He closes his eyes to focus on the slight burn of the sunwarmed rock, prickling against his skin-
-and then there is a shriek-
-and William is on his feet, eyes open, and launching himself towards the edge of the rock-
-and he is looking over the side, heart in his mouth, at the ripples six feet below him-
-and then Horatio and Archie surface, streaming water and gasping, paddling easily and with confidence. William locks his knees for fear that they will simply crumple beneath him in relief; Hornblower and Kennedy can swim. Of course they can. They have no need to fear drowning, not in this cove so well-sheltered from the ocean that there is barely a wave to disturb it. Archie laughs, smacking the water to send a splash at Horatio, who pulls a face as he twists to avoid it. “That was your fault,” he tells Archie sternly.
“You started it!” Archie attempts in his defence, rather reducing the impact of his already-weak argument with uncontrollable giggles.
Hornblower tilts his head, squinting up at William and keeping afloat with as much ease as he usually stands on the quarterdeck and seemingly with the same amount of effort. “Be our umpire, Mister Bush?”
Bush forces his hands off their stabilising grip on his knees and crosses his wrists, sweeping downturned palms out as if clearing a surface of objects. “Foul - no points, equal fault.”
Hornblower grins at this display of diplomacy, but Kennedy just sends another wave Horatio’s way and attempts to flick some water at Bush too, for good measure. Bush leans away, smiling despite himself, as Kennedy pushes himself up and back to float lazily on his back with a pleased grin. “It’s not so very bad,” he says, trailing his fingers along the surface of the surreal blue sea, and William cannot quite disagree.
Archie’s shirt is quite translucent with water and plastered tight to his chest where he breaches the surface of the ocean; William can see every ridge and valley of Archie’s torso, and it’s the heat - the heat - nothing but the heat - and his mouth is suddenly so very dry, head spinning, and he wants to reach out and touch, to press those fingers to his cracked lips and let the drops slip within.
He blinks quickly, sways slightly, and Hornblower is looking at him with a face of deep concern. William forces his wobbly legs to hold out long enough for a controlled descent into a sitting position, legs hanging over the ledge where his heat-dizzy head would otherwise have abruptly, ignobly, and possibly fatally sent him. “This bloody sun,” he says, with a weak smile in Hornblower’s direction.
“The water’s lovely,” Kennedy points out, quite unhelpfully, but Hornblower rolls his eyes before William himself can.
“Archie, Mister Bush cannot swim,” he reminds him gently, and Kennedy pulls his head up to squint, one-eyed, in their direction. “You might get back under the shade,” Hornblower suggests.
He tries not to let it show, but in truth William would rather take his chances with heatstroke than be relegated back to the orange tree. William is older; he hasn’t known them nearly so long as they’ve known one another; the three of them haven’t the same bonds to bind them as those that hold Archie and Horatio fast to one another. He is fortunate to not often feel that he is playing second fiddle to the Hornblower and Kennedy partnership, an unwanted third, but here as in many things he is the odd one out, unable to join in on their games. Sitting on the sidelines is, at least, somewhat better than removing himself entirely.
“Come and sit in the shallows, here, then,” Kennedy says easily, as if he had meant that all along and was rather surprised that the other two had not known it. Hornblower and Bush obligingly lean around an outcropping to see that yes, there is in fact a shallower part of the small cove where a man might sit on a rock, half in the water, quite safe from any threat of drowning. Hornblower looks up at him in question, and William shrugs, pushing himself back onto his bare feet carefully. “Oh, wait,” Kennedy says, and Bush looks up just in time for a wet lump of cotton to wrap around his head.
There is a snort, hastily muffled, and when he peels Archie’s shirt away from his narrowed eyes Horatio does indeed have his delicate fingers pressed urgently over his mouth. Archie himself pulls a face and ducks quickly beneath the surface, powering away from retribution like a mermaid speeding smoothly below the waves. William shakes his head, trying not to look amused; indeed, he is so preoccupied with maintaining the pretense of irritation that he quite loses track of his own mouth. “Well?” he asks Horatio. “When Mister Kennedy fires a cannon with such accuracy, you never cease striving to outdo him.”
Horatio pauses for a beat, and then his hand comes away from his bright grin to haul his own shirt over his head and lob it upwards. The aim is good, but without the advantage of surprise; William snatches the wet bundle out of the air with a tiny grin of triumph. Horatio snaps his fingers, shaking his head. “Next time, Mister Bush.”
William spreads the wet shirts out on a rock in the sun to dry, listening to Horatio and Archie splashing about behind him. Truly, the heat must be getting to him: he oughtn’t be deriving so much pleasure from childish contests and watching his fellow lieutenants stripped down and playing. He oughtn’t be encouraging them, even if he also has no cause to stop them. What had he been thinking, asking Horatio - Mister Hornblower - to take off his shirt? William shakes his head as if to clear it, and then begins picking his way down the side of the small cliff and into the shallows. Whatever it is he appears to be doing, it is time he stopped.
The water is, as promised, delightfully cool, and he settles on top of a rock where, seated, the water reaches up to his waist. The slight waves float his shirt out, swirling like the strange translucent jellyfish he once spent an hour as a young midshipman watching over the side of the ship off the coast of Cornwall. “If you’re only preparing to throw your shirt at me in turn,” Archie says, “then I should like to point out that it was an accident.”
“Have no fear, Mister Kennedy,” Bush says dryly, “I am quite comfortable.”
“Suit yourself, sir,” Archie says happily, and then he pulls a face. “Are we standing on ceremony, gentlemen?”
William shrugs, leaning back to close his eyes and turn his face into the sunshine, made tolerable by the cool water. “Not on my account.”
“Archie,” Horatio says dryly, floating idly on his back, “if you’ve ever called me sir - and I doubt you have - you did not mean it.” William smiles at the sky, not needing to open his eyes to see Archie’s pride at the fact.
“Well then, William, less of the Mister.” Kennedy - Archie - swims leisurely, barely disturbing the water, and as a consequence is much closer than William had expected when he next speaks. “Why aren’t you a swimmer, then, William?”
His eyes startle open on Archie, head propped on folded arms on a shelf nearby to pin him with his bright blue gaze. He looks like a siren, his eyes the very shade of the water around him as if he was born to be there. William is, for a moment, struck by gratitude that, in defiance of all expectation and an enemy bullet, Archie is there before him and alive. Vibrant and pleasant, all shining gold and blue.
Horatio saves William from attempting to conjure up some kind of answer in the face of that. “Plenty of people can’t swim, Archie.”
“But you’re a coastal chap, aren’t you?” Archie says, water droplets shimmering on his neck where he turns to look briefly at Horatio, and for just half a second, and half a second too long, William thinks about what it would be like to press dry lips to the skin there.
“-yes,” he manages, realising that an answer is required of him. “There was never anyone to teach me - my father died when I was small - and the beaches near the harbour are shallow for miles at high tide.” William traces one finger over the surface of the sea, not looking at his companions. It seems safer. “Then I went away to sea at thirteen, and there wasn’t the time to teach a young middie how to swim.”
“There was a lake near our house, when I was a boy,” Archie offers. “Used to muck about there with my brother - had the shock of my life when I met a wave, though.” William huffs a laugh, grateful for the slight equalisation. He isn’t overly self-conscious of this particular failing usually, but Horatio and Archie - through no fault of their own - have of late rather demonstrated William’s inability in this area, and he does appreciate Archie’s attempt to reduce its sting.
“My father taught me,” Horatio muses at the cloudless sky. There is the slightest reflection of his face in the water, the sharp lines of its delicate bones now curiously wobbly and ethereal, and William itches to trace Horatio’s edges as if that would soften the man somehow, and make him obtainable. There has always been an air of the untouchable about Horatio Hornblower; a beauty beyond measure and some unknown purpose burning bright behind his sternum. Destiny, perhaps. It had not been long after Hornblower had knocked William off his feet that he had known that this was a man in whose orbit he would be helpless but to swirl.
His eyes flit back to Archie, watching Horatio with the same sort of transfixion. Horatio had captured them both, that was clear; whether Archie sees this gravitation as platonic, or - or more as William does, he does not know. Archie had always been a surprise to him, after all: an unexpected friend inspiring a quite blindsiding fondness.
Horatio sits up in the water, lean, muscled shoulders coated in a sparkling sheen of water. “We could teach you, if you liked,” he says, smiling slightly at his perceived brilliance.
Archie turns to him, similarly pleased, and it falls to William to breathe sharply in and pull back. “No, I - I really don’t think that’s necessary.”
“Whyever not?” Archie asks - inevitably, and yet William had still hoped they wouldn’t. He hasn’t the excuse to offer them; he cannot possibly give a satisfactory answer. The heat has made him unwise, but it has not yet driven him to say, out loud, I am afraid I shall compromise myself.
William sighs. Archie knows when he is triumphant and wraps strong fingers around William’s wrist, grinning. In face of such a two-sided attack, he is powerless but to be dragged out into the deeper end of the shallows where the water reaches his shoulders: Archie smiles like sunshine, and all the attention not swept up in its glow is centred on the prickling points at which their skin meets, and so William is up to his neck in saltwater and helpless adoration both before he can think to resist.
“Don’t worry, we’ll keep you afloat,” Horatio says, seemingly delighted at having a job to do whilst on leave. The man will be scratching at the doors of the Admiralty like a hungry tomcat within a week if they aren’t given a commission, and the thought makes William smile. Horatio returns it, if a little bemusedly at the apparent lack of cause, and his face is so sweetened by it that William wants to wade closer and press his lips to it - just a little, just once, just to see-
He had known that this would be unwise.
And then Archie tugs him one step further from the shallows, and William’s toes slip from the rock that had held his head above water, and he loses his smile to choke on his heart, abruptly rammed too far up his throat.
Both Archie and Horatio have their hands out and under his arms before William can get much more than a mouthful of salt water, keeping him sputtering and spitting in the warm air until he can stop wildly kicking his legs in panic and they can set him gently back on his perch. “Alright,” Horatio says carefully, the way one would speak to an easily spooked horse.
“Not to worry, Will, sea's good for you,” Archie says with what he probably imagines is bracing confidence. Unfortunately his audience has been on the sea some fair few years more than Archie and is, in William's opinion, proportionately more qualified to say what level of sea is or isn't good for a man; his ruling is that any amount of ocean is just fine, provided that it isn't in his lungs. William conveys this view by sparing a moment from his key occupation of attempting to breathe to direct a grapeshotted glare at Archie. This, however, just makes the man laugh; Horatio, too, has his lean fingers pressed to an ill-concealed smile, the traitor. Suddenly, it's all rather too much to bear: Archie's enchanting cheer on the breeze, Horatio's sparkling eyes as if there's a great joke that all three of them are in on rather than being at William's expense, their hands pressing firmly against his skin where his shirt has billowed away in the water and, in their drive to save him from ignominious drowning in a millpond of a Jamaican cove, Horatio and Archie's strong fingers have crept up to his pale ribs and anchored him safely there. William is going to say something terrible and unimaginably foolish; is going to lift his feet from the rock and hang there in the water between them; as if Kennedy and Hornblower would want to hold him indefinitely as William rather wants them to; as if he could trust them to do so. For all their asking, there is something his sisters do not know: William has been in love before, and had very nearly lost everything for it. He had been lucky to escape with skin on his back, air in his lungs, and a career stretching out before him with the grandest romance of his life so far dismissed as a midshipman's youthful folly. Horatio and Archie may well have saved his life something like three times over, and yet for all that they are a sword above his head. It is quite something, William finds, to gaze wide-eyed upon one's dearest friends under a surreal summer sun and, with perfect clarity, think you will kill me.
His feet scrabble on the rock below, sliding on the smoothed surface until he can find purchase and push backwards and away. William goes too fast for Horatio and Archie to prevent his escape – too fast to find out how hard they might have tried to do so – and wades back into the shallows. Water surges down his shirt in sheets, leaving him pleasantly cool and already drying in the incredible heat, and the sea pushes at his thighs as he escapes as if to encourage him back into the arms of his own personal sirens. But he will not go.
“Oh, William, we didn't mean to laugh,” Horatio says, sounding truly apologetic – quite the feat, given that William is not sure that this is, in fact, true of Archie. He is prepared to concede that Archie did not mean ill by it, but the man is perhaps kinder than he should be for an officer of His Majesty's Navy, and William loves that about him, and cannot keep having these thoughts.
“You can't give up at the first hurdle,” Archie wheedles, paddling closer in a way which is probably, to anyone else, distinctly puppyish and is to William as great a temptation as any mermaid or siren. What he would give to float upon the mirror-bright sea with strong hands at his shoulders, hips, the small of his back, the places in which he needs support and the tender points where no foreign hands have strayed: the centre of his sternum, the web of his achilles heel, the hollow at the back of his knee. What he would do without, to play easily in the water with his dearest friends without his feelings like traitorous seaweed pulling and clawing at his ankles just out of sight.
William holds up a hand, mustering an expression of firm neutrality and endeavouring to lay no blame for his behaviour at their feet. Heaven help them all, it's not as if Archie and Horatio can help being so bloody endearing. “I think perhaps the first hurdle was any one of my recent almost-drownings. After all that, I shan't meet my end on shore leave. My career might never recover.”
Archie huffs in amusement, but rather as though he can't help it; both he and Horatio are frowning up at him in some – William is tempted to say distress, but surely not. “But – well, exactly,” Horatio says, and William and Archie blink at him slowly in confusion. Horatio pushes himself through the water, gliding forward and out into the air like a great powerful fish surfacing. Water sluices off him leaving his torso glistening and sparkling, more precious than diamonds, and William looks directly at his handsome, upset face with almost palpable distress. Looking anywhere else will surely give him away, and yet – yet-
“If you could swim,” Horatio continues earnestly, apparently unaware of William's internal turmoil at being presented with an object of his terrible affection, wet and warm and half naked and really much too close, “then you might not be so likely to drown, and Archie and I shouldn't need to rescue you all the time.”
Despite everything, William prickles, his hackles raising. “I apologise, sir,” he bites out carefully, “if my possible drowning is at all inconvenient to you, or interferes with the running of your ship in any way. I shall do my best to avoid it in future.”
“Oh, well put, Horatio,” Archie sighs, rolling onto his back and sprawling his arms and legs out. “Say what you mean.”
Horatio shoots him a brief cross look, to which Archie replies with an unimpressed stare. “That isn't what I meant at all, William; I apologise,” Horatio says with deliberate clarity and care, as if that might aid him in his expression, and William finds it so strangely endearing and inherently Horatio that he gives up on being annoyed. “I merely meant-” he huffs, turning half away with some kind of frustrated energy. “Well, what should I do if you were to die?” he asks, a challenging set to his stern expression.
William gestures at Archie, allowing the suggestion of a smile to trouble his lips. “Congratulate Mister Kennedy on his promotion,” he says with a mocking half-bow in Archie's direction, which the man acknowledges with a roll of his eyes.
“William!” Horatio looks rather close to stamping his foot in frustration; William is almost tempted to push him further and see if he will. Yet, at the same time, he can't help regarding Horatio's frustration with some bemusement: he can't fathom out the reason for it, and is both wrongfooted and amused by the mysterious annoyance. “I had not been thinking of the ship! What – what should I do? Without you?”
William frowns, somewhat unsure at what, exactly, Horatio is driving at. He shrugs helplessly, wet linen pulling against his skin. “Well – Archie-” he begins rather lamely, unsure himself how he might answer.
“Good Lord,” Archie says, sounding unexpectedly exhausted – with them and their conversation both, William imagines; he can easily see how Archie's beloved Horatio engaging dull old Mister Bush in awkward conversation might do little for Archie, charming, socially competent and more deserving of Horatio's company as he undoubtedly is. His next words, therefore, rather take William out at the knee. “What Horatio is trying, in his own inimitable and blundering fashion, to tell you, William, is that he is decidedly fond of you.”
There is a moment of surreal quiet in the wake of that statement. Both Horatio and William are staring at Archie in astonishment and disbelief; the man himself is using small hand movements to scull in lazy circles upon his back, eyes closed and face turned up to glow in the sun as if he had said nothing unusual or earth-shattering at all. A slight breeze troubles the orange trees above them and sends tiny waves licking at the rock walls. The world continues, unlikely though it may seem, to turn.
“Archie-” Horatio says, the word edged with fear and concern, but William cannot quite spare a thought for his response yet. His mind is occupied, and it circumvents his decision-making to commandeer his tongue.
“But Horatio's fond of you,” he says, ignoring the man himself to address Archie's suntanned eyelids. “Fond fond, I mean.” William is confident that Archie is wrong about this, has it backwards, is far more beloved than he: who wouldn't adore Archie above almost all else, with his hair like golden sunshine and a smile like precious treasure?
Archie opens his eyes to join William in ignoring Horatio's little squeak at the words and to bestow upon him instead a kind, sympathetic, and deeply patronising smile. “Believe me, I've heard enough from him about how good and wise and dependable in a crisis Horatio's beloved Mister Bush is to know who the favourite is. I've quite resigned myself to being boring old Archie, probably having a fit at a key moment and being quite useless.” Archie's smile creases his cheeks and goes nowhere near his eyes.
It makes William unexpectedly furious. “You are none of those things,” he says sternly, and something in Archie's expression shifts towards surprise – as if he wasn't expecting to be caught out, or for such a response to be inspired. The latter idea only upsets William further: how could he not know how valuable he is? “The illness you have only makes your many accomplishments more impressive. A great many men could better themselves by behaving half as well as you do with far fewer excuses for not doing so. You're a fine officer, beside whom I am proud to serve.”
Archie looks quite stunned, eyes caught wide as William frowns and attempts to regulate his sudden and somewhat unexpected display of fierce emotion. “I did get shot, though,” he says with an almost cheerful smile, in a spectacularly poorly-received attempt at humour.
Horatio flinches with his whole body as if from a great blow. William strides through the water to the edge of the rock ledge and reaches out, wrapping his fingers tightly around Archie's bicep and hauling the surprised lieutenant across the surface to be within William's restricted reach. “Don't ever-” he begins, and then the full horror of the idea, away from which his mind has skidded at every previous opportunity, crashes through him like a wave: Archie, pretending to full health on deck before sliding to lie, full length, at William's side, his blood soaking the wood and lapping at William's arms, Horatio's knees as he kneels by his dear friend's side, Archie growing pale and cool – Archie should never be pale and cool, this sunkissed, vivacious man, who should be always bright and golden and laughing. William's hand tightens involuntarily upon Archie's arm, and then is compelled by forces outside William's control to haul the man closer and crush him, warm and breathing, to his chest.
“Alright,” Archie says, voice slightly constrained by the vice of William's grip but edged by surprised, delighted laughter, and William spares a moment to be grateful that his uncontrollable affection has not strayed too far into the unwelcome. “Alright, I won't ever. Promise.” Archie wriggles his arms free and slings them over William's shoulders – to support his floating, William supposes, but then Archie presses his face into William's damp collar and breathes deeply, and he isn't sure what to think. “But you mustn't ever either, William Bush. Don't think I've forgotten you being shot too.”
“You're both bloody awful,” Horatio bursts out, almost a wail. Archie, delightfully, laughs into the sensitive skin at William's neck, raising goosebumps even under the Jamaican sun.
“Poor Horatio,” he says happily, still wrapped around William's shoulders. “Left out of our honourably-wounded club.” William turns slowly in the water, Archie remaining fastened like a limpet, to see Horatio standing uncertainly in the shallows. The man does look rather distressed, his heavy brows contracted over sulky dark eyes, and William feels disproportionately sorry for him – given that William, at least, would much rather that this club didn't exist than that Horatio should join it too.
“Well,” Horatio says, lower lip jutting out slightly in remonstrative hurt, “I don’t think it’s very unreasonable of me to be upset with you two getting hurt. You are,” he says, angling his chin up in defiance of any objection and making William raise an eyebrow at the full display of Hornblower determination unexpectedly before them, “the two people of whom I am most fond in all the world, after all.”
William had almost forgotten, in the mess of Archie's self-impugned honour and the somewhat unexpected pain and horror it whipped up, the particular fondness that had lead them here. Archie, too, by the way his hands cling slightly tighter to William's shoulders for a moment – such a short moment that anyone else might have missed it, but William is deeply, intrinsically attuned to the warm limbs wrapped around his torso. Well might one say that William does not deserve such handsome attention, but never that he is not appreciating it. Then Archie punches him gently in the temple and William scowls, ducking away. “Told you he liked you.”
“Both of us,” William snaps without much real irritation, and then realises what it is, exactly, that he has said. He directs a disbelieving frown at Horatio; perhaps William is not a hopeful man, or perhaps he is merely cautious, but he cannot quite allow himself beyond suspicious disbelief. It is the emotional equivalent of placing a cat in a box and sitting atop it to keep it there: his heart may be determined to hope and claw and yowl in protest, but he'll be damned if he can't keep it shut up until it suits him.
Horatio, in the face of this deep suspicion, shrugs his helpless confirmation. He seems, at first glance, to be quite equanimous, but his fingers betray him as they twine and fold in on themselves. Even in the heat of battle, pacing the quarterdeck with shot firing about their ears, William has not seen such nerves on Horatio Hornblower. And – that bothers him. The lieutenant's instinct to shore up his captain, perhaps; something deeper, more likely. William is aware that he is frequently a tall, stern and forbidding figure and he is quite content to use that to his advantage as an officer – but never, never, should Horatio and Archie have cause to fear him.
Horatio musters a feeble attempt at a smile. “Rather think I ought to wonder if you two aren't keener on one another than me, though.” He gestures at the embrace which William hadn't intended to begin and has, after some time, made no attempt to end. William resolves to pull away when Archie inevitably does, but until then to enjoy the contact which he is unlikely to again receive.
Archie doesn't pull away.
“I can be keen on you both,” he says, as if it had been a personal slight on his abilities to suggest otherwise. “Horatio, I think I've loved you since first we met; William-” Archie leans in and abruptly presses soft, dry lips to the corner of William's scowl. “See?”
“Archie,” William is vaguely aware of Horatio saying with a slight, delighted laugh, “if you do that again then Mister Bush may be liable to drop you.”
Archie laughs, unrepentant. He seems to glow in the sunlight and the warmth of his own joy, and William cannot shift his gaze elsewhere. William's fingers, hesitant, rise to brush the corner of his mouth, his whole face now fallen open in stunned surprise; he fancies he can feel the shape of Archie's lips still, sweet and salty, under his fingertips. Archie catches his eye and beams, his own eyes dancing and glittering in mischief. “Anyone would think you've never been kissed,” he says pleased with his impact.
William swallows past his dry throat. “Not in a long while,” he admits.
Archie's eyes soften slightly, and this time when he leans in William closes his eyes to receive the blessing on the rise of his cheekbone. It's almost unexpectedly tender and William is a little bowled over by the force of his desire for this kind of soft, gentle sweetness that has been decidedly lacking in his life since weighing anchor at thirteen. He is in unfamiliar surroundings, under an unrealistically warm sun in waters that could easily drown him, but with Archie and Horatio professing affection and pressing upon him its evidence – he could live forever in this moment.
He does still drop Archie, however. It makes Horatio laugh.
They've drifted slowly and inexorably towards Hornblower and the shallows over the course of this unlikely conversation and so when William unceremoniously stands and releases Archie he has a way to fall and does so with a splash into the waist-height water. Horatio doesn't bother to obstruct his laughter with his hand, instead simply relaxing the twisting grip that his fingers had previously maintained upon themselves. Archie, sputtering, surfaces and smacks a great wave of water up at William as revenge; in ducking away he is suddenly and viscerally reminded of having similar walls of water thrown at him by his sisters as they waded about on the sand in their youth. Affection, made simple by being borrowed from his younger self, wells up, and he can't help reaching out and leaning down to press his lips to Archie's brow. He is rewarded with such a stunned smile that he laughs, helpless to resist his own delight and so allowing it to bubble from him in full-bodied, booming amusement. William is really here – really being beloved of these two bright and shining men – and he is, almost to his own surprise, really quite happy.
Horatio sloshes abruptly through the water towards them. The water pushing at his legs and the wet rock under his feet combine with the man's innate coltishness on dry land to send him stumbling; it feels perfectly natural for William to extend an arm and catch him in the crook of his elbow. He'd do the like if ever the man were to stumble, in the knowledge that he would find this an indignity less egregious than ending up flat on the deck and thinking little more of it, excepting on cold nights when the imprint of Horatio's body in his arms might be harder to forget – only now, Horatio wraps his fingers around William's shirt collar and uses this grip to fit their lips together without once taking his own weight upon his own feet again. William is forced – though that word, forced, is in truth somewhat laughable in this situation – to secure his arm about Horatio's waist and press him like some swooning romantic heroine to his chest. He could die with the delight of it: might, in fact, if Archie and Horatio insist upon taking his breath away with such incredible regularity.
Archie makes a somewhat choked noise beside them and Horatio breaks away, blushing heavily. “Good God,” Archie informs them, swallowing hard. “You two – may be the death of me.”
The thought echoes his own so neatly that William huffs a surprised laugh, but Horatio frowns. “Archie-” he says, beginning to pull back. William keeps his arm about him, suddenly awash with dislike at the idea of either man being far out of arm's reach.
Archie scrambles to his feet, wriggling himself into William's hold once more and pinning Horatio between them with what William suspects was a rather gratuitous amount of sliding his bare skin against them in blocking their bodies together. William is deeply grateful for their own bold, bright and brash Archie. “Don’t be worried already,” he implores, and William feels Horatio relax somewhat in his arms. Then Archie grins at them both and winks at Horatio. “Besides, you're certainly welcome to try,” he says, cocking an eyebrow with such teasing mischief that William reckons Horatio kisses him as much to shut him up as for his own enjoyment. It is, he notes, remarkably effective; they remain quite preoccupied for some time afterwards.
The advantage of the sun makes itself, at last, known: their wet clothing has been removed, entirely forgotten, guiltily remembered, and spread out on the rocks where it dries quickly enough that all three of them are perfectly decent when Midshipman Collier arrives to invite them to dinner with Captain Chase and a few other officers looking for a good story from the Navy's very own mutineers. Infamy is not the attention William would most like to draw, but Chase is a decent and cheerful man and will most likely be looking to commiserate with them over the horrors of a poor captain and the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Admiralty. Horatio thanks the young middie most graciously, even sitting up to give a small half-bow – probably to make up for Archie and William, who crack an eye open to glance at the lad and then go back to sprawling in the shade. Archie's head is just brushing William's hip, his arms lain out so as to perfectly innocently curl his fingers against Horatio's wrist and William's palm. All quite forgivable contact, between three young officers relaxing in peace at the water's edge; William can feel every inch of it, hypersensitive awareness crackling like lightning in the slight space betwixt their skin.
Mr Collier bobs a bow and scrambles back over the rocks towards the town. “Gentlemen,” Horatio says, with certainty and a fair deal of reluctance, “we must return.”
William feels himself make a face before he can prevent it, though by Horatio's surprised giggle he guesses Archie may have done similarly. “We never even taught Will to swim,” Archie whines, propping himself up on his elbows and in so doing wrapping his fingers properly around William's wrist.
“That was not wholly not your fault, Archie,” Horatio points out, getting to his feet and beginning the process of sorting their coats, waistcoats and cravats according to their owner. His cheeks are a little red, and not, William suspects, from the sun.
Archie shrugs in concession, entirely unabashed, and squeezes William's hand. Nice hands, Archie has. Very...active. “We could always come back,” William suggests, clearing his throat awkwardly. Archie and Horatio pause to look at him and he squirms a little under the force of their eyes. “If you've nothing else-”
“Not a damn thing,” Archie says, face falling naturally into a grin. “We might spend the whole day here.”
“There's a clifftop walk a mile or so west,” Horatio says, looking thoughtful. He's planning something, William is sure, and as ever his lieutenants will follow him blindly. “It's rather isolated. Hardly anyone heads out that way.”
Archie stretches his leg out to kick Hornblower's ankle gently, telegraphing his teasing. “And how,” he asks with delight, “will that help us teach Will to swim?”
“I'm sure we'll find something to do,” Horatio snipes back, and Archie and William laugh. “William will just have to – not get in situations in which he might drown.”
“A solid stratagem, Captain,” Archie says, pulling a mock salute as he wrestles on his waistcoat and jacket at once. “Steer clear of any large bodies of water, Mister Bush.”
“Aye aye, Mister Kennedy,” William says dryly. “I suppose I shall just have to remain near people who might rescue me for the rest of my life – you two will do, I think.”
Archie beams at him for this display of snarky dry fondness, which settles the nerves in his belly which had made themselves known with enthusiastic squirming as soon as he had opened his mouth; this is, after all, how he is most inclined to show affection. Horatio looks gratifyingly stunned with delight at the idea. “Yes,” he says gently, a smile spreading over his face like dawn light over the waves. “Yes, that will do. That will do rather nicely, Mister Bush; Mister Kennedy.”
William snags an orange blossom from a low bough as they head back, not quite arm in arm but nearer than they need to be, bumping elbows and shoulders. Perhaps he’ll press it and tuck it into the letter he sends home to tell his family that all is well: he is still employed, he is not court-martialled, hanged or drowned, his pay should still keep them housed and fed and clothed. Georgiana would love it here; how cross she would be, that her brother is tired of sun and seas and exotic fruit trees. He should like to tell them everything, but will not commit to paper anything that risks their security, and so this flower will have to do until he can, at last, head home to see them once more: this little piece of Jamaica; of William’s unexpected and incredible joy; of orange blossom, a tiny white star.