Hornblower and the Bad Hair Day
by Pam

 

"'In such a night as this . . . '" Archie Kennedy quoted dreamily, as he
gazed into the full-length mirror in his bedroom. The young man reflected
there gazed tranquilly back--face smoothly shaven, fair hair shining and
neatly tied, linen immaculate, blue-and-white lieutenant's uniform clean and
newly pressed. No London beau, but a pleasing figure, nonetheless. His
sister need not blush for him at her party tonight.

The party. Strange to remember how, once, he'd bolted from just such an
event, his nerves too badly frayed from his time in prison and the disastrous
mission at Muzillac for him to endure the lights, the noise, the people. . .
. But El Ferrol and Muzillac were years in the past; now, he stood in a
luxurious room in his sister's London townhouse, dressed in his finest, and
looking forward for various reasons--including one he did not quite dare to
name--to the night's festivities.

Off in the distance, he thought he could hear the musicians his sister had
hired for the occasion, tuning their instruments. For her sake, Archie hoped
that they would remain sober for most of the evening. He cocked his head as
a faint trill of sound reached him--a violin, perhaps?

Another sound--at far closer quarters and requiring no speculation whatsoever
as to its character--caught his attention now. Amused, Archie glanced over
at his friend and fellow officer, Horatio Hornblower, resplendent in his own
uniform, standing before the shaving mirror and attempting--for the third or
fourth time--to tie his queue. With each failed attempt, Horatio's low,
discontented muttering became more audible and--Archie feared--increasingly
profane.

"In difficulties, are you, Horatio?"

"Not at all, Archie," his friend returned, practically through clenched
teeth. Raising his brows, Archie watched as Horatio's long fingers looped
the ribbon twice around his curly dark hair, then tied a bow that seemed to
have a distinct *list* to one side. Beholding the result in the mirror,
Horatio's face fell, then contorted in frustration.

"Damn . . . damn. . .DAMN!" Tearing the ribbon from his hair(Archie winced
sympathetically), Hornblower flung it onto the bed, then sat down heavily on
the foot of the bed himself, the very picture of discouragement.

Archie stared down at him, astonished. Never before had he seen his friend
so frayed, fraught, and downright fidgety! Unbidden, some anecdotes of
Lieutenant Bracegirdle's stirred in his memory--of a half-naked Horatio,
rampaging through the wardroom to beg his fellow officers for a clean shirt
in which to take his lieutenant's exam, and another about an elaborate dinner
party and stockings stuffed with oakum. Not having witnessed either
occurrence, Archie had privately suspected Bracegirdle of a little
embellishment . . . until now. Hornblower's face resembled nothing so much
as a thundercloud; he glared at his discarded ribbon as if he would burn
holes into the harmless length of grosgrain. Frustration over his hair,
however, was only a symptom of what truly ailed him.

Poor Horatio, Archie reflected, concealing a grin. He had faced cannon and
pistol, Frogs and Dons, without flinching or losing his composure, and now
here he was--defeated by a head full of insubordinate curls! And looking as
though he'd rather be shot at than attend a high-society party!

"Horatio," he ventured, with all the tact of which he was capable, "Would you
perhaps care to try the *long* mirror?"

His friend looked up at that, face setting in familiar lines of
determination. "Yes, Archie, I believe I will. I'll not be defeated by
anything so--trivial!" Snatching up his ribbon, he strode to the mirror,
stood as if planted before it. "After all," he yanked his hair back in one
savage fist, "we have made identical preparations for the evening, and if
*you* can tame *your* hair into submission," for a moment, his eyes rested on
Archie's sleek, copper-blonde locks with undisguised envy, "the task should
*not* lie beyond my own capabilities!" Wrapping the ribbon again around the
fistful of hair he held, he tied a smart bow at the nape of his neck, stepped
back from the mirror for his friend's inspection. "Well?"

"Well, the bow's straight, but . . . I'm afraid you've missed something out,
Horatio!"

Horatio put up a hand and discovered the "something out" to be a long lock of
hair, still dangling freely over one shoulder. Ignoring his friend's
apologetic grimace, Hornblower closed his eyes and silently repeated to
himself the six filthiest curses he knew.

"Maybe if you damped it, a little?"

"Maybe." Horatio's tone was grudging. "Or . . . " His eyes widened in
sudden speculation and he darted towards the washstand again, rummaging
through the various toilet articles Archie's brother-in-law had thoughtfully
provided for them that evening. Scent, powder, shaving soap . . . "Lord
Langford's pomade!" he reported triumphantly, brandishing it aloft.
Unstoppering the bottle, he sniffed, somewhat dubiously, at its contents.
"How much do you think he uses?"

Archie had a sudden mental image of his friend pouring the entire bottle over
his head in a frantic attempt to tame every wayward curl. "NO, Horatio," he
said firmly, taking away the bottle, restoppering it, and shutting it in one
of the washstand's miniature compartments, out of temptation's way.

"Archie," Horatio gestured despairingly at his unruly locks, "I cannot go
down looking like this! Your sister's guests will all think I'm wearing a
porcupine on top of my head!"

Archie choked down his laughter. "A prickly problem, indeed!" he managed.
"But you needn't worry, Horatio. *My* preparations for the evening are
finished--and I'm perfectly willing to help you with yours."

"No doubt," Horatio remarked sourly.

"Mr. Hornblower, are you impugning my motives?"

"Not at all, Mr. Kennedy. Would I perhaps set a new fashion by arriving with
my jacket on back-to-front and my hair combed over my face?"

"You wound me, Horatio," Archie declared, drawing himself up in mock affront
to his full five-feet-odd.

"Do I?--truly?" Horatio glanced at him in sudden anxiety, not wanting his ill
humor to have cast a pall over his friend's evening.

"Yes," Archie replied, straight-faced. "Wearing one's jacket back-to-front
ceased to be the fashion *two seasons* ago!"

Horatio snorted an unwilling laugh. "Damn you, Archie!"

Archie grinned. "Done with your sullens? I promise to tie your hair
straight *and* your neckcloth too, if you wish. In your current state, you'd
probably make mice feet of the whole business."

"Very likely," Horatio sighed. He glanced once more at the crumpled ribbon in
his fist, then reluctantly handed it over. "Mr. Kennedy--I shall submit to
your ministrations."

"Good man." Archie beckoned Horatio forward to stand at the full-length
mirror again. "You're next, Mr. Hornblower."

The words were scarcely out of his mouth before he stopped short, his memory
teased. In the resulting silence, blue eyes stared into brown eyes-- and each
young man suddenly knew--without a word spoken--what the other was thinking .
. .

*****
El Ferrol, 1795

The sound of splashing drew him up from the depths of sleep. Eyes still
closed, he drowsily pondered the cause. Rain? But the sound wasn't . . .
steady enough, somehow. Besides--Archie cracked open his eyes a little--the
infirmary wasn't the least bit dim; morning sunlight gilded the walls,
promising another warm, bright Spanish day. Rubbing the rest of the sleep
from his eyes, Archie gazed around the room--and froze at the sight in the
furthest corner.

Horatio. Horatio, stripped to the waist, pale skin gleaming wetly, rubbing
vigorously at his head, which was completely concealed in a length of white
toweling. Before him, on the table, stood several large basins, containing
more water than any one man could possibly use.

As Archie watched, mesmerized, a rumpled dark head, still dripping in a few
places, emerged from the towel's folds. Patting absently at his damp locks,
Horatio shook out the towel and began drying his torso.

"Ablutions, Horatio?" The words were out before Archie realized he had s
poken them.

His friend's head snapped around. "Archie! You're awake."

"So it appears." He smiled wanly. "I heard you bathing."

"Not just bathing," Horatio corrected him. "As you see, I've washed my hair,
as well. Moreover," Archie felt a dawning apprehension as the dark eyes,
holding a distinctly martial glint, fixed themselves upon him, "you're next,
Mr. Kennedy!"

Archie could never entirely recall how he made it from the bed to the table.
A month in the oubliette had left his legs as helpless as a newborn infant's.
Even now, the most he could manage on his own was a dragging crawl. But
somehow, leaning heavily on Horatio, he managed to stagger the necessary
distance, before falling onto the chair his friend quickly pulled up behind
him. Judging from the faint pucker between Horatio's brows, Archie suspected
he hadn't entirely solved the difficulty of washing the hair of a man who
could not yet stand upright. And soon enough, *another* problem arose--when
Horatio reached out to undo the buttons on Archie's shirt.

"No." Archie wrapped his arms around his body, staring defiantly up at his
friend.

"Archie, it'll get soaked--"

"NO," Archie repeated, more forcefully this time.

Horatio paused, clearly struggling between his firm belief in the way matters
should proceed and his desire not to lose what ground he had already gained.
Then--"Very well," he sighed, draping another length of toweling over
Archie's neck and shoulders. "We shall try it this way."

Picking up one of the basins, Horatio approached Archie, then paused, tilting
his head to one side in consideration. The crease between his brows deepened;
he cleared his throat, straightened up, and strode purposefully around to his
friend's other side--only to stop short again, his face a study in growing
confusion as he attempted to discern the proper angle at which to commence.
Uncertainly, he raised the basin to the level of Archie's temple, stopped
again . . . here too, it seemed, the logistics escaped him.

A tickle began under Archie's ribs, worked its way up into his throat, and
escaped through his half-parted lips as a mere shred of sound. To his
astonishment, he recognized it as laughter--long-denied and half-forgotten,
but laughter nonetheless, and laughter that threatened to grow as Horatio's
expression became ever more confounded.

Horatio blinked, then slowly flushed as he realized what was happening . . .
unexpectedly, the corners of his own mouth twitched into a smile that he did
not even try to hide.

"A complicated business, Horatio," Archie remarked, smiling tentatively back.
"Are you feeling quite--at sea?"

Another twitch of the lips acknowledged that--admittedly faint--attempt at a
joke. "On the contrary, Mr. Kennedy, if I *were* at sea, I should know
precisely how to go on! Nonetheless, I *shall* contrive." He surveyed his
friend one moment more through narrowed dark eyes. "Ah--I begin to see . . .
Archie, will you lean your head back, if you please?"

It never occured to Archie to resist, not with Horatio in what could best be
described as "commanding officer mode." A trifle hesitantly, he positioned
his head as Horatio indicated, over the back of the chair. Horatio's left
hand firmly cupped the nape of Archie's neck, while his right slowly tipped
the contents of the basin over Archie's head.

Archie gasped slightly as tepid water sluiced over his brow and temples, ran
in a steady stream over his tangled, dirty hair. Despite Horatio 's care, a
few trickles of water ran down inside the towel swathing Archie's neck and
shoulders, but the feeling was not unpleasant.

"Damn." Horatio set the now empty basin on the table, glanced irritably at
the puddle at his feet. "I didn't think this through--" he cast about the
room, then, "ah!" In an instant, he had crossed the room, retrieved the slop
bucket, and returned to Archie's side, setting the bucket in back of the
chair. Satisfied, he then picked up another basin of water and briskly sent
it in the same direction as the first; Archie barely had time to lean his
head back again. This time, what remained of the water pattered obligingly
into the bucket.

Putting up a hand, Archie felt the long wet strands of his hair, lank as
water weed. How long had it been? Once, before his imprisonment, he'd taken
some pains to keep clean, even at sea where fresh water was at a premium and
reserved, first and foremost, for drinking. Since his capture, though . . .
he'd stopped being so fastidious. For one thing, it hardly seemed worth the
bother, for another . . . strangers, even hostile strangers, seemed to pay
far less heed to someone who looked--and, more importantly--*smelled* bad.
And in prison, his boyish looks had brought him more attention than he had
ever wanted . . . just as they had, *before.*

"Here." Horatio's voice, rousing him from dark thoughts. Archie blinked as
his friend set a rough-hewn block of some pale, waxy substance at his right
hand.

"Soap," Horatio explained. "Courtesy of Don Massaredo."

Of course. From one gentleman to another. Curious, Archie picked up the soa
p, raised it to his nose for a careful sniff. Unusual, but somehow . . .
slightly familiar. Olive oil? He experienced a sudden flash of memory from
his childhood--once, in the schoolroom, his tutor had mentioned soapmaking
in Italy and Spain, a trivial detail that had nonetheless managed to be more
interesting than the rest of the lesson. Soap of Castile, perhaps, he
thought, turning the block over and over in his hands.

"Archie?" Horatio leaned over his shoulder. "Do you need--"

"I believe I can manage this part, Horatio." Archie smiled up at his friend
again. "But thank you."

It took a little time but soon both hands were covered in suds and he worked
them through his hair, grimacing at the knots and mats he found there. Well,
one problem at a time. At least there was enough soap to coat even the
tangles.

When Archie was ready, Horatio carefully tipped two more basins of water over
his head, to rinse everything away, then handed him another towel. Rubbing
it over his face and head, Archie was surprised at how much better he felt.
Since his recent illness, most of him had been washed--or rather, gently
sponged with cool water to remove the worst of the prison filth. But this was
the first time *all* of him was clean at once--and the sensation was very
welcome. Even if the most unpleasant part of this process still lay ahead .
. .

His eyes turned to the table, where a hairbrush and comb now lay within
reach. Before he could move, however, another hand reached for the comb,
closed over it--Archie leaned forward and seized the hand in a grasp that
drew a start of surprise from its owner.

"NO, Horatio."

"Archie--"

"Horatio, I may not be strong enough to climb to the foretopmast but I *can*
comb my own hair."

Blue eyes met brown eyes and clashed. Horatio studied the stubborn, now
slightly flushed face of his friend, and capitulated reluctantly. "As you
wish, Mr. Kennedy."

A minor victory but one which put some heart into him nonetheless. Taking up
the comb, Archie investigated a clump of wet hair on the left side of his
head, found a nest of tangles that made him--momentarily--quail. Slowly, he
thought, his jaw setting. No rush--and the one thing he *did* have at his
disposal was time. He cast a furtive glance at Horatio, but found him on the
other side of the room, fully occupied with donning his shirt again.

Slow and careful. Grasping the comb, Archie began to pull it through his
hair. . .

His scalp was smarting, his eyes watering, by the time he had finished the
left and right sides. But his hair hung smooth and straight over his
shoulders--all that remained was the back. Determinedly, Archie reached up
and back with the comb, and stopped short as the comb's teeth lodged in what
felt like a solid mass of knots starting from the crown of his head. Cursing
inwardly, he tried to tug the comb through the nearest tangle--and found, to
his horror, that his arms and hands were trembling as violently as if he had
an ague.

Damned fatigue. It took all his strength to remove the comb from its
sticking place, and he sat staring blurrily down at it as it lay across his
palm. The inner corners of his eyes prickled with absurd, shameful tears. A
weakling . . . an incompetent . . . who couldn't even comb his own hair--but
couldn't bend his stiff neck enough to ask for help . . .

A hand descended and the comb disappeared, only to make its presence felt
again at the back of Archie's head--but this time, its teeth tugged more
insistently, more firmly . . . until the tangled strands of hair at last
began to part.

"Archie, will you turn this way?" Horatio's voice, calm and level. Cool
fingers touched his chin, tilted his head in the desired direction, and the
combing resumed, with a gentleness that exceeded Archie's own attempts.

Archie swallowed, feeling the threat of tears receding. Ridiculous to let
something so minor overset him, to feel so utterly useless because *right
now* a few simple activities were beyond him. He was only just recovering
from illness and the effects of a particularly severe punishment . . . but
surely he would not *always* be this weak. And at least he was finally
clean. Horatio had seen to that.

Horatio . . . Unseen by his friend, Archie's mouth curved in a faint, wistful
smile. Since he and Horatio had last seen one another, the shy, stammering,
seasick boy he remembered had become . . . a commander, a self-assured
officer who could lead through sheer force of will. In the face of such
blazing certainty, what man would dare to disobey? Certainly, it had never
even occured to Archie to defy Horatio's high-handed announcement that he
would be washing his hair this morning!

And what do you feel about that--your friend rising smartly through the
ranks, gaining honors and experience, while *you* were stuck here?

The answer came back almost instantly: pride . . . and, despite his better
instincts, envy. Archie could not help but feel a certain pang for the
last two years--for all that Horatio had gained, for all that he himself had
lost. They were neither of them the same--in many ways, they'd have to
*learn* each other all over again. And the language of friendship could be as
difficult to master as any foreign tongue, especially to one who had lost the
knack of it after two years of solitary misery.

Yet--over a week ago, when he'd started out of sleep with a hated name on his
lips, Horatio had been there--to soothe, reassure, and pull him back,
insistently, to the land of the living. And in the oddly comforting darkness
that sheltered both of them that night, there had been further words, further
confidences--that neither would have dared to utter in merciless daylight.
By morning, enough of the barrier had gone so that they could meet each
others' eyes unflinchingly, if still a bit tentatively. Perhaps . . . their
friendship would not be so difficult to reclaim, after all.

Without even looking at Horatio, Archie could picture his friend's
expression--intent, focused, wholly absorbed in the task at hand. Closing his
eyes, he let himself drift--

And roused at a sharp tug at the back of his head.

"Archie!" Horatio's anxious face appeared just in his line of vision. "I do
beg your pardon! You moved your head suddenly and the comb--"

"Not your fault." Archie mustered up a reassuring--and somewhat
sheepish--smile. "God, Horatio--I think I must have dozed off!"

Horatio's mouth twitched suspiciously at the chagrin in his voice. "Was I
being *too* gentle, Mr. Kennedy?"

"No, no--it's just--oh, God, I didn't expect this to make me so . . .
*tired.*"

"Well--you've been quite ill, Archie. That *can* make a difference. I
remember when--" Horatio broke off, flushing slightly.

"What?"

"It's of no consequence."

"No, please, go on."

Horatio cleared his throat. "Once, as a child, I had the influenza. My first
day out of bed, it was all I could do to dress myself--and then I sat down on
the floor and cried, because I hadn't the energy to do anything else!" He
smiled ruefully. "And then my father came in."

"What did he do?"

"He let me howl for a while, then he picked me up, and carried me out to the
garden. After half-an-hour, he carried me back to bed. But the next day--I
made it out to the garden myself. It was all a matter of timing, you see,
and not overtaxing my strength."

Archie sighed in weary acknowledgement. "Very well, Mr. Hornblower, I shan't
ask you to carry me anywhere today!"

"No, because you need to let your hair dry instead!" Horatio replied affably.
He stepped away from Archie, dropped the comb back on the table with a
flourish. "That's the last of the knots, Mr. Kennedy! I believe you'll find
it a great improvement."

Archie reached behind his head, felt the fine strands hanging loose and
unsnarled down his back. "How does it look?"

Horatio smiled. "Well, you won't disgrace the uniform!"

Archie flicked him a warning glance. Time may have transformed Horatio from
an awkward boy to a confident and capable man, but it had done little to
improve his rather ponderous sense of humor.

"Indeed," Horatio continued, beginning to remove the towel around Archie's
shoulders, "the only complaint I have to make with regard to your appearance,
Mr. Kennedy, is that shirt!"

Archie glanced down at the offending garment, nearly threadbare and faded to
a sickly grey hue; true to Horatio's predictions, it was also covered with
large wet patches from the morning's labors. But the infirmary was warmer
now--the shirt would dry quickly in the heat. "It doesn't matter,
Horatio--it holds together well enough, and I have no other."

Dark eyes narrowed in determination. "Nevertheless, I shall find and bring
you a new one tomorrow!"

*How can ye strive against the stream? For I shall be obeyed.* Archie sighed
again, giving in. "Aye-aye, sir."

***
London, 1798

"Well?" Horatio asked tensely as Archie walked in a slow circle around him.
His friend held up a pacifying hand, paused as though he were about to speak,
then suddenly changed course and circled him again in the *other* direction,
his face blandly innocent.

"Archie!"

"Calm yourself, Mr. Hornblower. Such things as these take time." Besides
which, Archie reflected with a secret smile, throughout much of his
friendship with Horatio, he had been cajoled, coerced, and "Mr. Kennedy-ed"
by him into various courses of action--always for the most logical of reasons
and with the best of intentions, of course. However, the shoe was most
decisively on the other foot right now, and Archie meant to enjoy every
minute of it. Assuming an expression of the utmost gravity, he allowed
himself to come to a halt directly in front of Hornblower.

"Well?" The impatience in Horatio's voice was palpable.

Archie paused a moment, then offered brightly, "I saw a water spaniel once,
with hair like yours."

"Give me that!" Horatio made a grab for the ribbon dangling from Archie's
hand but his friend ducked away, laughing.

"Aah, aah, aah," he warned, wagging a finger at Hornblower. "I promised to
help you, Horatio, and I mean to keep that promise. But truly, I don't
understand *why* you're in such a pelter."

"No?"

"No." Archie approached him with the ribbon, blue eyes glinting
mischievously. "I have it on very good authority that young ladies happen to
admire curly hair!" Quicker than thought, he reached out and ruffled the top
of his friend's head.

"That's enough!" Horatio batted his hand away and made a second attempt,
likewise thwarted, to reclaim the ribbon. Breathing hard, he glared at
Archie. "You're enjoying this."

"Most assuredly," Archie agreed, grinning broadly. Taking pity on his
friend's flushed cheeks and smoldering eyes, he held up a hand. "I cry truce!
And I promise to tie your hair in as neat and orderly a fashion as you could
possibly wish. My word on it, Horatio."

Hornblower exhaled audibly and attempted to climb back upon his dignity.
"Very well, Mr. Kennedy. I place myself at your disposal."

"Most commendable of you, Mr. Hornblower," Kennedy returned, fighting the
urge to laugh. Pouring a little of the remaining shaving water into the
washbasin, he wet a comb and approached Horatio in earnest. His friend eyed
him warily but remained still as Archie tackled one recalcitrant clump of
curls that seemed determined to stand upright, like soldiers at attention.
Once dampened, however, they proved far easier to manage.

Archie deftly worked the comb through the rest of Horatio's hair, smoothing
and tidying, all the while conscious of his friend's growing apprehension. It
was rather like grooming a skittish horse, he thought, but decided not to
utter that thought aloud, especially since Horatio was still smarting from
the "water spaniel" comment. The extent of Hornblower's anxiety, even
after those rebellious curls had been subdued, continued to amaze him.
Kennedy had experienced the incipient symptoms of panic too often himself
*not* to recognize them in someone else. But--Horatio? *He's terrified,*
Archie realized incredulously. And felt a sudden wave of affection for his
usually composed and self-contained shipmate. That was not unusual, but the
surge of protectiveness that accompanied it was a new sensation altogether.
*Horatio, you fool--can you not see you are among friends? How can I MAKE
you see?*

"Odd how things change," he said at last, his tone deliberately light and
casual. "D'you know, Horatio, a few years ago, I couldn't have borne to face
a party like tonight's, in this very house?"

"N-no?" Horatio's voice sounded slightly strangled.

Stammering again. Oh dear--this was not good. Nonetheless . . . "No, "
Archie replied, in his calmest and most cheerful tone. "You remember when
you and I first went to London together? We saw Miss Cobham act--then I
went on alone to an engagement at my sister's house." He grimaced slightly
at the memory. "A mistake. I should most certainly have cried off."

Horatio had gone very still, no doubt remembering as well. "Too soon after
Muzillac?" he ventured, his tone as somber as it always was when the subject
of that disaster arose.

"Too soon after Muzillac, too soon after prison, too soon after . . .
everything." Archie shook his head. "Alice thought I would enjoy a convivial
evening spent with the cream of society, but I truly wasn't up for it. The
crowds, the noise, the lights--my head was aching fit to burst after twenty
minutes. Lovely food, though," he added wistfully. "I didn't do it anything
like proper justice!"

"How long did you last?"

"Less than two hours," Archie admitted. "An hour and fifteen minutes, to be
precise. I heard the mantel clock chiming the quarter-hour just after I made
my excuses!"

Horatio gave a slight shudder. "Archie, what if it's just as bad tonight?"

"It won't be. Muzillac, prison--they're in the past! It's *all* in the
past," he added firmly, consigning the rest of his painful memories to the sa
me oblivion, "and, in spite of everything, I've survived, possibly even
thrived, made lieutenant . . . I have nothing to prove to those people
downstairs." *And no more have YOU, Horatio, if you'd only believe it.*

"And furthermore," Archie continued, warming to his theme, "we're not even
the guests of honor tonight. We are merely two more people attending my
sister's party--which, by London standards, is quite small. No more than
fifty couples were invited--and I'd be surprised if more than thirty actually
attended."

"But--that still makes *sixty* guests, Archie!"

"But that's nothing, Horatio--at the height of the Season, it's not uncommon
for the great townhouses to invite between two hundred and five hundred
people to a ball!"

"Good God!"

"Yes, a complete crush. Be grateful we'll not be subjected to that tonight.
And since you're recovering from a leg injury, you won't be expected to
dance or even listen to the music if you choose not to. Instead, you can
retire comfortably to the card-room and work on separating a segment of
fashionable society from its money." He smiled covertly as the stiff set of
Horatio's shoulders eased. The anxiety was ebbing, as evinced by his
friend's next remark.

"While you, on the other hand, are looking forward to dancing with--"

"That's enough, Mr. Hornblower!" Archie chided, flushing slightly and giving
the hair he held a light but firm tug. "I could still tie your queue wrong,
you know--or leave great tufts sticking out!"

"So you could," Horatio agreed, sounding amused. He sighed, relaxing still
further. "There'll be whist?"

"Of course--and faro. Hazard. Possibly vingt-et-un too." Laying aside the
comb, Archie gathered his friend's hair together, wound the ribbon around it.
"So you see, Horatio--all that's required of us this evening is that we
occupy space and look presentable. Nothing more."

Horatio scowled at his reflection. "It's the 'looking presentable' part that
defeats me!"

"Well, it shouldn't!" Archie retorted, tying a bow with mathematical prec
ision and stepping away. "There! No fault to be found, I assure you!"

Horatio's eyes widened. Peering into the mirror, he turned slowly to one
side, viewing himself, his tamed curls, and his newly tied queue in profile.

"Well?" Archie's expression could only be described as "smug."

Hornblower cleared his throat, straightened up self-consciously. "It--it
appears to be quite . . . satisfactory, Mr. Kennedy."

"Delighted to hear it, Mr. Hornblower," Archie returned, his face perfectly
grave--except for the eyes. "Shall we move on to your neckcloth?"

This process took far less time than the previous endeavor, and once it was
completed, Horatio turned once more to the long mirror. What he saw seemed to
reassure him-- even as Kennedy watched, Hornblower drew himself up to his
full height, shoulders back, heels close together. Nonetheless, he darted
one more glance at the friend beside him. "What do you think, Archie?"

"Well, you won't disgrace the uniform."

Horatio blew out an exasperated breath, clearly no more amused by the remark
than Archie himself had been, years before. But the last of the tension
seemed to drain out of him and the ghost of a smile tugged at his wide mouth
as he studied their paired reflections, side by side in the glass. Brother
officers, seeing each other through all manner of major--and minor--crises.

No longer bothering to hide a grin, Archie clapped Horatio lightly on the
shoulder before making for the door. "Come, Mr. Hornblower, Society beckons!
And it would be most uncivil to deprive it of our presence!"

Rolling his eyes, Hornblower administered one last satisfied pat to his queue
and followed in his friend's wake.

END