Following Sea
by Jan L

//It will be all right.//

No, he could not make himself believe that.

//It won't be so bad.//

Better. Almost believable. Almost. He wouldn't be alone this time,
after all. And without Hunter -- God rest his miserable soul, but it
would be easier without Hunter's oppressive guilt, worse somehow than
Hunter's earlier scorn and impatience. With Hunter gone, it really would
not be quite as horrible.

But this time ... this time, he hadn't been depending on his own abysmal
luck. He'd ridden the coattails of Horatio's astonishing good fortune,
had actually made it all the way home. Except that Horatio's honour had
been left behind, and they had to return to redeem it.

Perched securely in the crosstrees high above the deck of the
Indefatigable, Archie Kennedy stared out at the blinding brightness of
the sun reflecting off the waves, and reminded himself that, after all,
they would not be dragging him back to punishment after an escape. No,
this time his return was voluntary. This time... His throat tightened.

What the /hell/ had ever possessed him?

//I cannot let him go back alone. I cannot.//

To have grasped this momentary freedom, and thrown it away, was
excruciating. But to watch Horatio return to captivity, knowing full
well he might never see him again? Impossible.

//It won't be so bad.//

They would be going back with the three rescued Spaniards, including the
Almaria's captain. There would be no punishment this time, no torturous
solitary confinement.

No open sea, no boundless sky, no sense of the breeze tugging at his
clothes, ruffling his hair as it filled the sails and sent the
Indefatigable skimming through the limitless waves.

He had forgotten that, that sense of openness. Forgotten the tangy scent
of tar, the cleanliness of decks scrubbed every day, lines inspected and
coiled neatly, sails trim and taut. "Stand on the deck of the Indy,"
Horatio had said, "hear the wind in the rigging!"

He had forgotten the sound, had not allowed himself to try to remember
something he'd never expected to hear again. But it was not even that
which struck him hardest, back on the deck that had once been his home.

It was the air.

Just the air. Such a simple thing. The clean, cool wind, cleansing his
lungs of the prison stench, the odors of unwashed bodies and slop pails,
mildewed straw bedding, clammy stone walls. The stink of captivity.

//Stop. Stop this right now. Count your blessings.//

There were some, surprisingly: he would have his books; Horatio had
saved those, and Captain Pellew had somehow neglected to ever sell off
Mr. Hornblower's possessions when he was captured. He would be free of
poor Hunter; with any luck the ratings would stop looking at him as an
invalid ... and he would have the company of the one friend who had
inexplicably never lost respect for him, even when he'd had none for
himself.

But he would be back in the box, and the way his luck ran he would
probably die there, or if he were ever released it would be as the oldest
Midshipman in the Fleet.

Horatio at least had his commission, now. He was able to go out on
parole, visit the village, walk along the rocky coast and breathe free
air, perhaps imagine that he was only temporarily ashore. There was no
way to imagine open air in that dingy cell, nor even in the courtyard.

Kennedy opened his eyes and stared down at the glittering sea. Best not
to think of all that until it was upon him. If he had wanted freedom
more than anything else, Captain Pellew had given him the opportunity.

And, like a fool, he had refused it. Because the thought of betraying
Horatio's trust, of never seeing him again, was worse even than the
thought of spending the rest of his life in prison.

//I'll survive it. I've survived worse.//

And he'd have to, wouldn't he? Horatio wouldn't let him die.

"Mr. Kennedy?"

It was one of the new midshipmen -- new since his time, at any rate -- a
serious, earnest young man, clinging to the shrouds just below him.
"Captain's compliments, sir, and would you report to him in his cabin at
your earliest convenience?"

Oh, Christ, what now? Was Pellew going to upbraid him for inciting the
rest of the men to follow Horatio back to prison? He had seemed pleased,
on deck ... well, no point trying to second-guess the man, might as well
go learn the worst. He nodded to the mid. "Thank you, Mr. -- Leigh,
isn't it? I'd best get down there, then."

Leigh didn't move aside for him to pass. "Sir --"

"Yes?"

"Is -- I heard that you escaped from the French five times, sir. What
was it like?"

He stifled a sigh. Had he ever been that young? "I /tried/ to escape
five times, yes. And I failed every time. If you should ever be in the
same position, do get it right the first time. One successful escape is
far better than five botched attempts. As to what it was like ..." He
searched for words to express the despair, the hopelessness of it. "Mr.
Leigh, I doubt a day went by that I did not wish I had died cleanly in
battle."

The boy's troubled frown said he had not expected to hear that sort of
answer. "But ... Mr. Hornblower said your courage and tenacity were an
inspiration to him, sir."

That reply so touched him that for a moment he could not reply. "Mr.
Hornblower ... Mr. Hornblower is very generous," he said finally. "And I
must not keep the Captain waiting."

//Oh, Horatio, how could you say such a thing?// he wondered as he
descended. An inspiration? Whining like a sick dog, with about as much
spirit? But what a way to characterize his failures. Horatio would
never have guessed that by the third attempt he was only trying to get
himself killed and end his misery.

He paused for a moment outside the Captain's door to tidy himself,
tugging down his uniform jacket, then nodded to the Marine guard and
knocked.

"Come!"

He presented himself. Pellew glanced up from a chart; the little Kennedy
saw, in reverse, appeared to be the bay outside the Spanish fortress.
"Yes, Mr. Kennedy. So ... you are prepared to return to prison?"

"Yes, sir."

"You do realize that if you had not spoken up, this ship would be
stronger by five ratings and a midshipman?"

He could hardly tell the Captain he was mistaken. Matthews would have
followed Horatio, he and Styles. But the others? Perhaps not. "I --
yes, sir, I see that now. My apologies."

Pellew made a short gesture, brushing the apology aside; he did not
really seem angry, despite his words. "Mr. Hornblower has informed me
that you were seriously ill when he and his men arrived at the fortress,
so ill that you very nearly died. Is this true?"

"Yes, sir, but it was only --"

"More to the point, are you sufficiently recovered to return?"

He straightened his shoulders a bit more. "I am, sir." //And dreading
it with every breath, but I will not let him go without me.//

Pellew frowned at him. Kennedy had forgotten how the Captain's eyes
could look right into one's soul. He felt as though he'd spoken his
fears aloud.

"Are you quite certain? I believe Mr. Hornblower is concerned as to this
point, and I am prepared to override his word if there is medical
necessity. I respect your loyalty, sir, but I would not see you die for
it."

Kennedy swallowed, suppressing that part of himself that shouted at him
to accept the Captain's offer. "I am quite recovered, sir, thanks to Mr.
Hornblower's care. I ... I would not see him forsworn for my sake." And
he could sooner cut off his own arm than bear the look on Horatio's face
if he were to retract his decision.

Pellew stared for a moment longer, then nodded. "Well spoken, Mr.
Kennedy, though I wish more than ever that Mr. Hornblower had not been so
liberal with his word!" He glanced down at the chart again, shaking his
head, while Kennedy wondered if the interview were at an end and wished
he could be elsewhere on the ship, anywhere else. He had been accustomed
to living in Horatio's shadow aboard the Indy, and it was disconcerting
to have the Captain's full attention.

"Well, then," Pellew said. "Before Mr. Hornblower informed me of his
promise to the Dons, I had hoped the Indy had been restored her full
complement of officers. Mr. Hornblower told you of our other losses in
the capture of the Papillion?"

Other losses? He was astonished to realize that Pellew must be referring
to his own disappearance. But then, Pellew was the sort of captain who
would feel the loss of even the lowliest landsman. "Lieutenants
Eccleston and Chadd? Yes, sir. I was grieved to hear of their deaths."

"We have had further losses since Mr. Hornblower was captured. Two other
lieutenants. I have only one at present. Mr. Bracegirdle is an
excellent officer, but we have been seriously short-handed." His gaze
went to the wide rear window in the cabin, as though looking back to
where the lost men had gone into the sea. "I had hoped that with Mr.
Hornblower's new commission, and yourself as Acting Lieutenant, we would
be back to full strength."

Hope died stillborn. He could not speak.

"And instead I have to send you both back," Pellew continued. "I wish I
could find it in me to regret having such honourable young men under my
command; I can only wish I had a dozen more of you. At any rate, Mr.
Kennedy, I had already entered you on the books as Acting Lieutenant, and
I'll not alter it merely because I must return you to the Dons." He rose
halfway, handing over a slip of paper. "Your assignment, sir."

Stunned, Kennedy watched his own fingers close around the paper.

"If nothing else, it will give you some seniority should you pass your
examination on the first attempt. As Mr. Hornblower said he was allowed
excursions on parole as an Acting Lieutenant, it is my hope you will be
treated as he was. Your voluntary return from freedom should be proof
enough that you will honour your word."

He was finally able to manage, "Thank you, sir."

Pellew's expression softened a bit. "It's little enough. At least you
will return with a rank that reflects your loyalty and devotion to duty.
God knows whether I can pry loose a brace of French prisoners from the
Admiralty to exchange for you both." He stood, signaling the end of the
interview. "Have Mr. Bracegirdle assign you and Mr. Hornblower to the
empty officers' cabins. You may as well have proper accommodations while
you're still aboard."

"Yes, sir. But, Captain --"

Pellew glanced up.

"We're only a day's sail out of--"

"Mr. Kennedy!"

"Sir?"

"My orders are to patrol the waters along the coast of Spain, sir. At
the moment we are headed /away/ from the Devil's Teeth. The terms of Mr.
Hornblower's parole oblige him to return as soon as he possibly can.
That does not oblige me to alter the course of His Britannic Majesty's
ship to accommodate His Most Catholic Majesty's convenience, and I'm
damned if I will change my course and beat upwind for his benefit. Any
men I send back are going to be fed, rested, and in good condition. In
my estimation, you will be aboard for at least a week, perhaps longer.
Do I make myself clear, Mr. Kennedy?"

A week. A week of blessed ordinary life, out in the fresh air and
sunshine, a week as an officer on the Indefatigable! No doubt it was
mostly because Captain Pellew was so loathe to send Horatio back, but the
freedom was no less precious, whatever the cause. "Yes, sir. Thank you,
sir!"

Pellew nodded. "That will be all." As Kennedy turned to leave, Pellew
called his name once more.

"Sir?"

"The Service would fall to pieces without loyalty, Mr. Kennedy. It is a
delicate balance, but a strong chain, and every link is important. No
doubt you see that you, and the men, are following Mr. Hornblower ... but
I would like you to remember that the men followed you, as well. The men
looked to you for guidance, and you gave them a handsome example. Your
response was all that I could expect from one of my officers. Well done,
sir!"

He thanked Pellew once more and made his escape, barely noticing the
grinning Marine guard. //Following me?// Not likely; the charisma was
all Horatio's. He had followed like a compass needle, as the others had.
But it was no bad thing to think the Captain saw him as worthy of a
commission, even as an Acting Lieutenant.

What if Masaredo did accept his acting rank, and allow him parole? He
and Horatio might go into town together, practice their Spanish, walk
along the beach... when spring came perhaps they might even swim in the
surf, as they had done sometimes in that brief year aboard the Indy,
before Jack Simpson's shadow fell on them once more. To be able to walk
outdoors in the sun, to pretend for just a little while that he was free
Even the hope of it was a blessing. And before that, a week aboard the
Indy. A whole week.

He found his steps picking up tempo; he had to share the news.

He had to find Horatio.