Whose Father's Son
by Seasprite

The smoke-filled silence seemed unreal after the incessant roar of
cannon, the shouted orders, and the screaming of wounded. The
quarterdeck was littered with splintered wood and tangled sheets, and
as he sat up, Horatio momentarily imagined he could see Lt. Eccleston
lying crushed under a broken spar. But with a shake of his head, he
cleared the unwanted vision. Instead, there was only a small, dark
stain where Captain Pellew had lain a short while ago.

Grasping the quarterdeck's railing, he managed to drag himself upright
in time to see through the dissipating smoke the masts of the French
frigate slip quietly beneath the surface. There was no last gasp of
trapped air as she disappeared; she'd been holed well below the
waterline, her flooded lower decks giving her mortal weight. Even had
there been survivors from her blasted decks -- and the ocean's empty,
glassy surface was not forthcoming -- there was simply no one Horatio
could have sent to effect a rescue.

Still dazed, he looked around him, absently wiping at blood trickling
down his neck. It had been a desperate engagement at close quarters,
where the faces of the men and the terror in their eyes were easily
seen from the decks of both ships. There wasn't a soul aboard the
"Indy" who wasn't bloodied if not broken, and the only way to tell was
the degree to which they were able to start moving about.

On the main deck, he saw Styles push himself up and reach a hand to a
stirring Matthews, both men turning in seeming slow motion to sift
through the wreckage, looking for those who were still within reach of
help. Horatio peered aloft and groaned at the sight of torn sails and
splintered masts and yards, the stays on the fore- and main mast
barely keeping what was left of them upright. Thankfully, the mizzen
itself seemed intact, but its sails were in shreds. If they could
raise any canvas at all, it wouldn't give them much speed or steerage.

They were a crippled ship a long way from home or help. With a
crippled captain.

Lt. Bracegirdle returned from getting Captain Pellew to the sick berth
and, along with Master Bowles, was assessing the damage on the main
deck, ordering the able-bodied to get their injured below. As was
customary under Pellew's command, the welfare of the men came first
absent any other threat. And they'd just sent that to the bottom.

Horatio was headed below decks when Bracegirdle met him at the bottom
of the quarterdeck's ladder.

"Mr. Hornblower."

"Yes, sir?"

"We're going to need the wardroom for a sick bay. Please have a
detail rig hammocks from below decks. And see that Dr. Hepplewhite's
surgery is moved from the cockpit to the fo'c'sle. He'll need the
space."

"Aye aye, sir. Mr. Bracegirdle?"

Knowing Horatio's question before it was asked, Bracegirdle met the
other's eyes steadily. He gestured 'I don't know' with his hands, and
the thin line of his compressed mouth told Horatio what he needed to
know. But it wasn't what he'd wanted to see.

"Styles! Matthews!"

"Yes, sir?"

"Either of you injured?"

"No, sir," they both answered. "'Ow's the captain, sir?" Matthews
asked.

"Alive. Styles, find three others, clear the wardroom of all tables
and benches, and rig for as many hammocks as will fit, leaving enough
space for men to be carried in and out."

Off Styles' questioning look: "It'll be our sick bay. Matthews, take
two men and move all hammocks from below decks to the wardroom."

"Aye aye, sir." They both hurried off.

Cleveland was up and around but with a left arm that had an unnatural
angle to it. But he was directing a handful of men toward the nearest
cannon, clearing debris and resetting it in the port. He caught
Horatio's gaze and nodded gravely, Horatio acknowledging with a nod of
his own.

Other midshipmen were slowly coming to life, guiding still-stunned men
to the work at hand. Horatio headed for the fo'c'sle.

* * *

An hour later, Horatio had the doctor's surgery moved from the bowels
of the ship to the fo'c'sle where there was more light and more room
and, thank God, fresh air. When he had first set foot in the surgery,
the warm, cloying smell of blood in that airless space had made him
instantly ill, and he had to take a deep breath to keep from
embarrassing himself. Blessedly, he wasn't noticed amid the horrors
of the terribly wounded and dying. He looked for Captain Pellew but
didn't find him among those already treated. Hepplewhite was just
pulling a four-inch "splinter" of wood from a ratings' abdomen when he
saw Horatio.

"Took one twice this size out of Captain Pellew's back, and another
out of his leg."

"How is the captain? And where is he?"

"Resting, in his own cabin."

"Who's looking after him, then?"

"I'm sure one of his servants."

"You don't know?!"

"Mr. Hornblower, unless you here to offer your services, I would
appreciate it if our conversation could resume at another time, sir."

* * *

The short interior companionway looked deceptively normal, free of the
carnage of the upper decks. The customary marine was stationed
outside the captain's door. Horatio nodded to him and knocked. A
moment's wait and the door was opened by one of Pellew's servants.
One of the more junior of the captain's personal staff, apparently, as
Horatio had seen him but once or twice.

"I've come to inquire about Captain Pellew," he whispered.

The servant opened the door wider so Horatio could step inside. The
captain was lying face down in the sleeping alcove, his torso swathed
in white bandages. From the small, restive movements, he clearly
lived though not peacefully.

"I don't wish to disturb. I wanted to see for myself that he didn't
want for anything."

The servant sighed. "As much laudanum as the doctor has prescribed,
even if he did want, he wouldn't know it."

Horatio frowned, as much for the impudence of a valet questioning the
ship's doctor in the care of the most senior officer aboard as at
himself that he was inclined to agree with the servant's assessment of
the doctor's judgement. On the other hand, if the captain were that
heavily sedated, he should have been quiet and still...

"He is not to be left alone, do you understand?" The servant nodded.
"The doctor's surgery has been moved from the cockpit to the fo'c'sle,
in case you need to send for him."

"Thank you, sir."

"Call Mr. Bracegirdle or me immediately if... there is any change, or
if you need something."

"Thank you, sir, I will. Mr. Bracegirdle said the same."

"Very good."

With a last, longer look at his captain, Horatio withdrew. He was a
mere two strides outside the door when he had to lean against the
bulkhead. He'd never seen Pellew at less than his best, much less
incapacitated. Even when pausing to search for the right word to use
or just quietly contemplating the expanse of the sea running before
them, his presence was always solidly grounded in his own authority,
utterly daunting and vibrantly alive. As uncomfortable as it
occasionally was to be pinned by the intensity of the captain's
scrutiny, it was even more unsettling to see those eyes now closed and
the man unresponsive.

Matthews appeared in the companionway, obviously looking for him, but
the older man's expression changed to worry when he saw Horatio
leaning against the wall.

"You all right, sir?"

"Yes, a little tired is all." He rubbed his face with both hands.

"Aye, as y' should be. Sorry, sir, but Mr. Bracegirdle asked if you
could join him in the orlop."

"Thank you, Matthews."

* * *

The next two days brought some of the worst weather they'd encountered
in months, hampering their repair efforts and making the ship little
more than a floating collection of hazards for the unwary. Limping
into the lee of a small, barren archipelago of exposed rocks, at least
they gained some shelter from the gale's pounding sea. There was no
shelter, though, from the wind and rain, which battered them
mercilessly. Although the ship was safe from the possibility of
further damage, she bucked and fought her anchorage with every gust of
wind and every itinerant wave that managed to wrap itself around their
rocky protectors.

It was dark when Horatio, ending his watch, shed his nearly useless
raincoat and shook it out before entering his small cabin. He
exchanged his soaked uniform jacket for another and mopped as much
water out of his hair as he could. He then left again, making his way
through the makeshift sickbay to the captain's quarters.

He was surprised when it was Mr. Bracegirdle who answered his soft
knock, which turned to worry when he saw Dr. Hepplewhite attending the
captain, who was sitting near the edge of his bed, bracing himself
upright with one arm to keep his back away from the "headboard" wall
and the other hand firmly on the bed. His right foot was planted on
the floor for balance. Hepplewhite was finishing dressing the wound
in Pellew's left thigh, that was stretched out painfully on the bed.
Except for a carefully arranged sheet, bloodied white gauze was the
only clothing he wore. Even in the dim, golden light of the lanterns,
Horatio could see the man's tan had completely faded in the last two
days. He looked around for the servant he'd seen earlier.

"How is he?" he whispered to Bracegirdle.

"There's still some worry of infection in the back wound, but the
doctor thinks he's out of danger."

"It's good to see him sitting up."

Bracegirdle ducked his head, compressing his mouth in his
characteristic manner of disapproval.

Horatio didn't understand. "What?"

"Mr. Hornblower, if you have a question, speak up, man."

He looked over to see the captain's burning gaze on him, and for a
moment he couldn't help a small smile of relief. Pellew saw it, and
his eyes softened even if his voice didn't. "Well?"

"How are you feeling, sir?"

"Better. Or I would if the good doctor here would kindly stop his
poking and prodding."

But Hepplewhite, if in awe of his patient, also knew the bark was just
that. "Sir, you need to rest, and you can't rest sitting up."

"What I can't do is rest on a ship that is heeling over every ten
seconds. Put that down!"

Hepplewhite withdrew the bottle of laudanum he was holding out to
Pellew, but he deliberately tucked it between the "headboard" wall and
the bed's mattress. "I'll take my leave, then, sir. There's nothing
more I can do for now." As he passed Bracegirdle and Horatio, he
mumbled, "He needs to sleep or I'll not be responsible."

Fortunately the din of the weather prevented Pellew from hearing, but
Bracegirdle and Horatio knew Hepplewhite didn't mean it. He wasn't
the most competent medico and he would never shirk his duty, but they
sympathized knowing he had his hands full with such a difficult
patient.

"Mr. Hornblower, Mr. Bracegirdle here has given his report. Do you
have anything to add?"

"No, sir. I, um, was just... concerned"

"I wasn't questioning *why* you were here, Mr. Hornblower."

"No, sir."

"I don't know why I'm trying to make *you* feel better. You're not
the one with half a cord of wood taken out of his back."

"No, sir." Horatio saw the twinkle this time and he answered with his
characteristic half-grin.

"If you two will excuse me, I have some resting to do."

"Of course, sir," Bracegirdle answered immediately and left.

"Will your valet be returning shortly, sir?" Horatio asked, not
moving, reluctant to leave him alone.

"I hope not."

"Sir?"

Pellew made an impatient, dismissive gesture with one hand. "My
apologies, Mr. Hornblower. I'm not feeling very equitable just now."

"Understandable, sir."

"I chased him off to get some rest. He hadn't left my cabin in two
days."

"All due respect, sir, but you shouldn't be left alone."

"Mr. Hornblower, I assure you--"

His words were drowned out by a thunderous detonation of water
slamming into the ship. The superstructure shuddered violently and
she heeled over, throwing Horatio into the wall near the bed and
sending Pellew rolling into the inside wall of the sleeping alcove.
Horatio barely regained his balance when the ship recoiled, and only
his death grip on the wall kept him upright against the edge of the
bed, blocking Pellew from being rolled out of the bunk onto the floor.

There were dull thuds and then cries seemingly from every quarter of
the ship.

"Jesus Christ..." Pellew muttered between clenched teeth, weakly
struggling to push himself off the bed and away from the agony in his
back, tears of frustration squeezing out of eyes clamped shut.

Horatio immediately lifted him under the arms and held him upright,
glad to see no blood on the sheet when he did so. But he was
terrified at the fine tremors of pain and exhaustion he could feel
reverberating in the other's body, like a harp string pulled too taut
and plucked too hard. He carefully lowered himself to sit on the side
of the bed and pulled his captain's weight forward so most of it was
leaning against himself, one arm across the top of Pellew's back,
avoiding the bandages, the other gently holding Pellew's head to his
own shoulder. In a few moments, he felt the other take a shaky
breath.

"Thank you, Mr. Hornblower. Impeccable timing... as usual"

Horatio felt a hand at his own back, clutching his shirt. Pellew
suddenly gasped and practically writhed out of his grip, Horatio's
youthful strength bracing them both against shared pain. Horatio's
kind heart ached miserably for his captain and his own helplessness.

"Sir, please take the laudanum. It will help you relax so you can
sleep."

"It doesn't... work for me..."

Horatio reeled at the thought that Pellew had undergone Hepplewhite's
knife and needle without any kind of analgesic. And that was two long
days ago. He gave Pellew's bare shoulder under his hand an
encouraging squeeze.

"Why didn't you... become a doctor like... your father?"

"I can't bear to be around the sick and injured."

Pellew's snort of aborted laughter turned into another gasp of pain,
but Horatio could feel a little of the tension dissolve under his
fingers.

"Sir, please try to rest a little. You'll need all your strength to
fight off infection. See if you can't get some sleep. I won't let
you fall."

Horatio felt a small sigh and an imperceptible nod. He lowered his
voice, as if he were telling a bedtime story.

"When I was very young, I was lying at the seashore watching little
white ghost crabs drill holes in the sand. I was fascinated by how
tiny a hole they made, scarcely big enough for their shells to fit.
But I fell asleep and got the most frightful sunburn. I couldn't
stand, sit, or lay down for days. My father held me, just like this,
and even though I hurt so I wanted to scream, it somehow wasn't as bad
because I knew he wouldn't let me hurt any more than he could help"
Horatio trailed off as he felt the hand at his back loosen and the
body he held sag heavily into the sweet oblivion of real sleep.

A couple hours later, when Mr. Bracegirdle came to check on the
captain, he was moved beyond words at the gentle tableau before him.
Horatio was holding their thankfully sleeping captain, the younger
man's head tilted over the older, whether also in sleep or just tender
protectiveness, he couldn't tell, Horatio's back to him as it was.
Bracegirdle would never forget another tableau, that of Pellew braced
like a lion on his own quarterdeck, ordering the cannon fire that
would cover his threatened cubs on the beach near Muzillac. It was
certainly a blessing of the Fates that crossed the paths of these two
men, so different in years and experience, so alike in temperament and
execution and their mutual regard.

Someone materialized behind Bracegirdle, who held up a cautioning
hand, then turned to see who it was. Hepplewhite. They exchanged
small smiles of relief, then, not wishing to disturb the hard-won
peace of that sickroom, they backed out of the cabin, silently closing
the door.