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To Return With Honour
by Joan C.

Part 12

The sick berth was nearly empty; most of the wounded had been discharged, and Carlyle had been moved from a hammock to the swinging cot. He was sitting up, a tray across his lap, though it did not look as if he had eaten any of the food that had been placed before him. When he saw Horatio, he looked up, misery in his dark eyes, and pain etching his features.

"It's over, isn't it?"

"Yes."

"I should have been there." Carlyle blinked away his tears. "Mr. Martin told me what you said -- I think Campion would have been pleased."

Horatio sat beside Carlyle's cot. "I hope so. His last thoughts were of honour and duty."

Carlyle closed his eyes and laid his head back against the pillows. "I had hoped ... Damned selfish of me to want some recognition from a dying man."

"He spoke of you, Ross. He wished you good fortune, and a safe voyage. He believed you would do well."

Tears streaked down Carlyle's cheeks. "Thank you, Horatio."

Horatio moved awkwardly on his chair. "You are the commander of the Skylark now."

Carlyle shook his head. "No! She is yours, Hornblower, until we are safe in England. Obviously, I am unfit for any sort of duty. And even then, I don't know if I have any right to captain her."

"Ross, it is your right as First Lieutenant to take command. If the captain were alive, he would tell you that. Would you refuse Campion if he were here at your side instead of me?"

"Of course not." He ran his forearm across his eyes. "God, I am weak!"

Horatio rose from his chair. "That is why you must eat, and rest. Your men need you. The Skylark needs you. Never doubt that is what Captain Campion would have wished." He saluted Carlyle and with a nod to Martin, left the sick berth. The surgeon followed him into the passageway.

"Mr. Hornblower!"

"Yes?"

"That was good advice you gave Carlyle. I hope you follow it yourself."

Horatio gave the surgeon a tired smile. "I intend to, Mr. Martin. Goodnight."

He made his way to the great cabin. The lanterns had been lit, and a covered tray set on the desk. Horatio sat down in front of it. If not for his promise to Archie and the surgeon, he would have ignored it in favor of sleep. He had enough sense left to realize that he needed food even more than he needed rest. He raised the linen napkin, and the aroma made him dizzy. There was a thick broth with chunks of meat and potatoes, a baked apple redolent with cinnamon, and a mug of steaming tea. The bounty surprised him, and then he realized that it had come from Campion's stores of food. He set his fork down, hesitated and picked it up again a moment later, and began to eat. He had thought his guilt would turn the food to sawdust in his mouth, but after the first taste, he ate with a good appetite, his young body responding to the nourishment. There was a decanter of wine at his elbow, and he did not think Campion would begrudge him a small glass. In the luxury of solitude, he undressed and lay down to sleep.

Despite his exhaustion, it did not come easily. He turned his head and looked out of the stern windows at the starlit waters. His mind drifted to thoughts of honour and duty, fathers and sons, and to the captain and the ship that he prayed were waiting for him when he returned to England. Then he slept.

~~**~~

Plymouth. For so long it had shimmered on the edges of Horatio's consciousness, like a dream half-remembered upon waking. He stood on the Skylark's quarter-deck and even as they neared landfall, he could not believe it was real. At first no more than a long grey hump on the horizon, it resolved itself into dull green and dun-coloured downs, then the shape of the harbour and the rocks grew distinct and the buildings of the town, the vast Naval shipyards, and finally, the masts and yards of the ships anchored there.

They rose against the overcast sky like a forest of stripped branches, pendants fluttering like the last autumn leaves in the wind. Ten months ago, he had thought it an unremarkable sight; now its beauty made his throat ache. He swallowed hard and looked to Archie; somehow he was not surprised that Archie's cheeks were wet with tears. It was enough of a struggle to suppress his own.

Archie turned brilliant eyes to Horatio. "Home, Horatio. We're home! I thought never to see it again!"

"I confess, neither did I."

"We would not be here, if not for you, Horatio. I mean that."

Horatio was uncomfortable with Archie's sincerity, though he did not doubt it. He did not feel as if he had done anything remarkable. He was bone-weary, heart-sore, and doubtful that he had a future, considering what his errors had cost the Navy. He was grateful that he had not failed in his last, greatest task. He had brought the Skylark and her precious cargo safely to England. If only he could have saved her commander as well.

He forced himself to quit dwelling on the past, and put his mind to the present, lest his neglect dash the Skylark upon the rocks in Plymouth Harbour. He issued a few terse orders to Master Pyne, to ensure their safe anchorage. When he next looked up, he saw the Indefatigables standing at the rail, cheering. "What is it?" he asked Archie.

"Don't you see, Horatio? Look!" Archie pointed to a ship -- a frigate at anchor, emerging as a large merchant vessel piloted past the Skylark.

"My God ..." he breathed. He didn't dare trust his eyes. But he could trust Styles and Oldroyd, who were thumping each other on the backs like two enthusiastic boys. And he could hear Matthews exclaiming. "Look at 'er, sittin' there pretty as ye please! Didn't I tell ye she would be here?" Matthews looked up at the officers standing at the rail. "I knew it, sir. I knew it!"

The Indefatigable. They were home.

~~**~~

Captain Sir Edward Pellew sat at his desk, signing one of what seemed like hundreds of requisition forms. After six months in the Mediterranean, they were being refitted and repaired before being assigned to a new station, as yet undetermined. Pellew did not like being subject to the whims and caprices of the Admiralty; he did not like taking on new officers to replace absent ones, and he most certainly regretted Hornblower's overly-punctilious sense of honour that had deprived the Idefatigable of his presence, not to mention ten prime seamen. Pellew had been ready to lay siege to El Ferrol just to gain their parole. When he had implored the Admiralty to do something, anything to effect Hornblower's release, they had refused. Well damn their eyes! Pellew cursed, not for the first time.

He threw his quill down with a grunt of disgust and rubbed his aching temples. He did not hear the knock at his door until it had been repeated twice, the second time with enough urgency to cause him to wince. "Come!" he snapped at the intruder.

Anthony Bracegirdle was standing in the doorway. His broad, amiable face was flushed, and he was breathless with his news. "Captain Pellew, sir ... it's really quite extraordinary ..."

"It had damn well better be miraculous, sir," Pellew's acid tone would have caused Bracegirdle to retreat under normal circumstances, but he remained standing there, looking like a pouter pigeon ready to burst. "Well?"

"Sir, there is someone here to see you."

"Unless it is King George, I am busy." He picked up his quill, ready to resume writing.

"Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower reporting for duty, sir."

The quill pen snapped in two. Pellew looked at the splintered shaft, and then unbelieving, raised his head. Tall, thin, incredibly shabby, clearly exhausted, but unmistakably Hornblower. Only years of ingrained discipline kept Pellew from leaping to his feet and embracing the lad. As it was, the joy in his eyes was enough to stun Bracegirdle, who retreated hastily to the corridor, feeling as if he had caught Pellew naked.

Pellew quickly shuttered that blaze of emotion, for his sake as well as Hornblower's. He rose from his chair. "Well, Mr. Hornblower, you do have a habit of appearing unexpectedly. Welcome back." He cocked a dark brow. "You are back? No rushing off to honour your parole, to pay a debt, to rescue an old friend?"

Horatio did not smile."No, sir. I am back Mr. Kennedy is with me as well, sir. Though I regret to tell you that only seven of our men have returned. Seamen Dawlish, Dawson, and Thomas are dead."

Pellew's frown deepened. "I expect a full report, sir. Three men out of ten -- it is not a good percentage."

Horatio bowed his head. "Sir, I am sorry. I did my best to bring them all home safely."

Pellew watched as guilt and the grief washed over Hornblower's drawn face. His eyes softened with sympathy. He had forgotten how the lad took things too much to heart. He tried to hide it, but he was not nearly as impassive as he believed he was. Pellew spoke in a quiet voice, "Sit you down, Mr. Hornblower. It seems you have quite a story to tell."

Pellew listened as Horatio related the events leading from his return to El Ferrol, to the journey home. He did not interrupt the narrative, choosing to let Hornblower tell the story as best he could. Pellew was certain there was much that he was missing; but whether it was due to Hornblower's reticence, or his physical and emotional exhaustion, Pellew could not say. He sat back in his chair, his eyes narrowed, watching the expressions play across the features of the young man before him. They were brief, those glimpses into Hornblower's heart, but what he saw there, made Pellew ache in sympathy. However, now was not the time to probe those wounds.

When Hornblower had finished speaking, Pellew straightened in his chair. "That is quite a tale, Mr. Hornblower. Somewhat lacking in detail, but I will not press you for that just yet. I imagine you have business to attend to on the Skylark before you and Mr. Kennedy return to the Indefatigable."

"Yes, sir. There are some details." Hornblower's relief at making his escape was poorly disguised. Pellew sighed, sharpened a fresh quill, and turned his attention to his paperwork.

~~**~~

Horatio emerged from the cabin, so wrung out that he could scarcely walk. He had tried to keep his report unemotional, professional. But he knew that he had failed when he spoke of the deaths of his men -- of Dawlish's murder at the hands of Etienne DeVergesse, and of the tragic mutiny. He had told Pellew of Captain Campion's death in such stark detail that it must have sounded cold and impersonal; but he could not give voice to his feelings, for if he had, he would have disgraced himself.

He walked slowly back to the quay where the Skylark's jollyboat was waiting. He had already seen the Port Admiral about off-loading the Skylark's cargo; and had given Campion's log and the contents of his safe to the Admiral's secretary, who had promised to forward them to the American Naval Attache. All that remained was to say his farewells to the crew of the Skylark and to gather his meagre belongings together. He had left Archie on board to supervise the transfer of the cargo, but they would return to the Indefatigable together.

There was no such formality as being piped on deck, and for that, Horatio was grateful. Having been back on the Indefatigable, he felt that his life on the Skylark was over. It was time to hand the command officially to Ross Carlyle and go back to being just another anonymous junior lieutenant in His Majesty's Navy.

Archie was waiting at the entry port. "How did it go?" he asked.

"Captain Pellew is the same as ever, and seemed pleased that we will be rejoining the Indefatigable."

"All of us?"

"Of course, why ever not?"

Archie regarded him soberly. "You have been gone for less than a year, and the Navy knew that you were alive, at least. I have been considered dead for three years! I have no idea what my position is."

Horatio heaved a sigh. "We will deal with that when the time comes. Captain Pellew will tell us what needs to be done." He looked about him. "Has the Admiralty been here?"

"Oh, yes! Complete with a contingent of heavily armed Marines. They were taking no chances. Oddly, there were only five chests. I had expected more."

"It was still more than sufficient to cost good men their lives." Horatio was suddenly weary. "I will get my things."

Archie nodded. "By the way, Ross Carlyle has moved from sick berth to the Captain's cabin. It was time."

"Good. I wanted to speak to him before we disembark." Horatio's gaze swept the deck of the Skylark. "I don't envy him his command."

Somehow, Archie did not believe him. He thought that if anyone were suited to an independent command, it was Horatio. Perhaps not yet, but soon, and that thought caused Archie to wonder what his own future held. Perhaps it was enough that he had one, thanks to Horatio. He could only hope there was room for that future on the Indefatigable.

~~**~~

Horatio was surprised to see Carlyle dressed in shirt and breeches and propped up in the cot when he entered the cabin. The lieutenant was still as pale as linen, but the flush of fever was gone from his thin face, and he appeared to be on his way to recovery. Yet, he was not at ease, and his eyes held a wary, defensive expression when Horatio entered, as if he were trespassing where he had no right. "The Admiralty has come," he said.

"So Mr. Kennedy has told me. It must be a relief to you not to have that burden any longer."

"I would rather have that responsibility than have lost Captain Campion. I wish --" he fell silent. "Not much use in that."

"No," Horatio agreed quietly. "I've come to say good-bye, and to wish you luck. Will you be allowed to keep the command?"

Carlyle shrugged. "I don't know. No one has come to take it. Though when we return to Baltimore, I expect they will. She's too good a ship for someone like me."

"You're wrong, Ross. You've served her well. Captain Campion put his trust in you."

"And my lack of foresight caused his death!"

"You were not holding the gun. You did not pull the trigger!" Horatio said, and as soon as the words were spoken, recalled with painful clarity, the instant of Bunting's death. "Don't lay that blame on yourself when it is undeserved."

"Still, I must live with it for the rest of my life," Carlyle said. Horatio could not argue the point, for he knew that guilt intimately.

"I must be on my way, Ross." He looked around the cabin. "I will not forget Captain Campion, or the Skylark for as long as I live."

"You saved us all, Horatio. Thank you."

Horatio shook his head. "I only did my duty. As you must do yours. Good-bye, Ross. And the best of good luck."

"Do you think we shall meet again?" Carlyle asked.

Horatio shrugged. "It is a big ocean." He paused, considering. "But stranger things have happened." He snapped a salute and returned to the deck where Archie was waiting for him.

~~**~~

The summons from Captain Pellew should not have come as a surprise to Archie. He had been expecting it from the moment he set foot on the Indy. Still, it was a shock to be ordered to the Captain's cabin early the next morning. He heard only silence from Horatio's side of the thin bulkhead separating their cabins; he was either still sleeping, or had not slept at all and was already on deck.

Archie dressed quickly, very conscious of his appearance. He wanted Pellew to see him as an officer, not as an object of curiosity and pity. He could not stand that. He was too nervous to eat breakfast, but managed a few swallows of hot, sweet tea to fortify his courage before he faced his daunting captain. That thought made a wry smile touch his mouth. Why should he fear the captain? He had survived much worse. Easy to think that, but not so easy to believe in himself when there was so much at stake.

He knocked, entered the cabin at Pellew's invitation, and stood waiting at attention until Sir Edward put down his pen and acknowledged his presence.

"Ah, Mr. Kennedy. Please, sit down. I fear you will be here for some time. There are a number of matters that need to be addressed concerning your situation."

"Sir?"

Pellew frowned thoughtfully over his peaked fingers. "First of all, I suppose I must ask your intentions regarding your future plans. Three years of imprisonment would certainly qualify you for a discharge from this service, if you so desired. No one would fault your resignation under the circumstances."

Archie swallowed. He had not expected this. "Sir, I-I ..." He raised his head, meeting Pellew's gaze squarely. "I had not considered leaving, sir."

Pellew gave him a searching study as if to judge his certainty. After a pause, he nodded. "I am glad to hear it. Now, about your position on the Indefatigable --" An emotion caught between hope and despair flickered in Kennedy's blue eyes. Touched, Pellew abandoned his first plan; a transfer which would have given Kennedy a land-based situation with the Naval yards. He cleared his throat. "It seems that there has been a difficulty with the Admiralty lists -- and I was not aware of this until recently. You were never discharged from the ship's company, Mr. Kennedy."

"I don't understand, sir. What does it mean?"

"It means that you may remain on the Indefatigable, with seniority. In six months time, you will be eligible to take your Lieutenant's exam. Until then, you will be serving as Acting Lieutenant -- that is, if it is what you want?"

Archie's eyes blazed. "It is what I want, sir. Thank you. Thank you!" To stay on the Indy, to serve with Horatio, to have a chance to prove that he could do his duty with honour despite his past and his disability. If Horatio had saved his life, then Pellew had renewed it.

"It will not be an idle six months, Mr. Kennedy."

"I understand, sir." He wondered if he were dismissed, but Pellew continued to study the papers on the desk before him. He looked up, his dark brows creased.

"As you know, I have already spoken to Lieutenant Hornblower about the events on the Skylark. Now I would like your statement on the matter."

Archie moved uneasily in his chair. "Sir, I don't know what more I can add to Hor -- to Mr. Hornblower's report."

"Mr. Hornblower was somewhat reticent about the role he played in suppressing the mutiny and bringing the Skylark safely to port. I suspect there are things that he has omitted."

"He saved us, sir," Archie said simply, but before he could elaborate, there was a sharp knock at Pellew's door, and Lieutenant Bracegirdle stood there, looking quite serious.

"Captain Pellew, the American Naval attaché is here to see you, sir. He is asking to meet Lieutenant Hornblower."

"Is he, now?" Pellew's brow rose. "Very well, you had better send him in. Mr. Kennedy, you are excused. Find Lieutenant Hornblower. His presence is wanted."

"Aye, aye, sir." Archie saluted smartly, surprised that the gesture seemed as natural to him as breathing, and hurried away in search of Horatio.

He found him standing at the fore t'gallant stays, one of the places he recalled Horatio favoring when he craved solitude. He was gazing over the harbour towards the Skylark's mooring; lost in thought. Archie coughed to alert him, and then touched his arm lightly. "Horatio?"

"Look at her, Archie. So peaceful now." He moved away from the rail with an effort, and Archie saw that the sleep he had wished for his friend, had eluded him. He was too pale, his eyes too shadowed and weary.

"Horatio, Captain Pellew is asking for you. The American Naval Attaché is here."

"God, I can only imagine the questions they must have. I suppose I must repeat the whole report for him, as well," Horatio sighed. "I will be glad when this is finished.Wish me luck, Archie."

"You won't need it," he replied to Horatio's back. As Archie watched his shoulders straighten, he wondered if he would take his own words to heart and put the last weeks in the past. Somehow, he doubted Horatio would find that possible.

~~**~~

Horatio knocked politely on the cabin door, and entered when he was bidden. He was not anxious to relive those days on the Skylark. *If I do this, it will be over,* he told himself as he stepped over the threshold. He saluted Pellew gravely. "You wished to see me, sir?" His heart sank when he saw the papers on Pellew's desk. He recognized Campion's log, and the letters he had written exonerating and praising the Indefatigables. They were like an accusatory finger aimed at his heart. For this, Campion had died.

"Mr. Harrison, this is Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower. Lieutenant, Mr. Harrison is the American Naval attaché here in Plymouth."

Harrison was a short, round man, brisk and business-like; and at the moment, smiling. "My dear Mr. Hornblower, it is an honour to meet the man who brought the Skylark to safety." He extended his hand, and Horatio took it cautiously, unused to such ebullient informality from a superior.

"I did my duty, sir."

"According to Captain Campion, you did much more, Lieutenant. These records tell the most incredible story of sacrifice and honour that I have ever read. Both of our countries are in your debt."

Horatio flushed deeply. "That debt is owed to Captain Campion and Lieutenant Carlyle, sir. And to the men who served without question, and placed their lives in jeopardy. Not to me."

"You are modest, Mr. Hornblower. However, I have come to offer the gratitude of my country. Will you accept that?"

What could he say? Even though he did not deserve it, he would not deny his men the acknowledgment that they had done their duty and done it well. "Yes, sir. I will. My men will be honoured to hear it."

Satisfied, and still smiling, Harrison turned to Captain Pellew. "Well, I must be on my way. Thanks to your lieutenant, I have the happy task of informing our Ambassador to begin negotiations for the release of our ships and their crews. It will be a happy day when they return to their families. I hope that will offer you some comfort, Mr. Hornblower."

Horatio thought of one man who would not be returning to his family, and of the admiral who had loved his son. "I wish Captain Campion were among them, Mr. Harrison."

Harrison nodded in agreement. "Aye, it is a sad thing for a man of such promise to lose his life." His smile faded. "And to have been so foully murdered -- I am nearly sorry that the man who killed him is dead, for I would have been pleased to see him swinging from the yardarm, much as it shames me to admit it."

"Justice was done, sir." His voice cracked with weary grief, and he looked away, ashamed of his weakness.

Pellew had remained silent throughout the conversation, but when he saw Horatio swaying on his feet, he spoke, tactfully dismissed him. When he had gone, he looked at Harrison. "You see, as I told you, Mr. Harrison, Lieutenant Hornblower is quite extraordinary."

Harrison nodded. "You are lucky to have him, sir. He is a credit to all sea officers, no matter what nationality." He gestured to the papers he had left for Pellew. "Nothing in those documents will change your opinion, but I ask you to read them. They will answer your questions."

"Thank you, Mr.Harrison. I will return them to you by nightfall. And I will try to persuade Lieutenant Hornblower to accept his due reward. I have no doubt that he has earned it."

Harrison left, and Pellew opened the log of the Skylark and began to read.

~~**~~
Horatio was grateful to escape without being grilled by the Attaché about the mutiny on the Skylark. At the very least, he had expected to be censured for assuming command when he had no right to it other than the authority granted by Campion. The men would be pleased by the expression of gratitude -- they deserved to know that their courageous efforts were appreciated.

He walked through the upper deck, not certain of where he would go: to the wardroom, to his cabin, to find Archie. He wished Lieutenant Bracegirdle had assigned him watch, for that would have decided for him. The wardroom was quiet, Archie was not in his cabin, and Horatio found himself standing at his own door.

He thought of the times in the last months when he had prayed for this moment with all the fervor he could muster. He went inside and stood for a moment with his eyes closed, breathing in the scents. They were not all pleasant, but they were blessedly familiar. Perhaps he would sleep now, as he had not been able to do the night before. He stripped off his jacket. Afterwards, he would ask Lieutenant Bracegirdle to assign him to a watch. His eyes fell on the inkwell and quill on his table. Before anything else, he should write a letter to his father, to inform him he was safely returned to the Indefatigable. Then he would sleep ...

He slept as he sat at his table, the letter to Dr. Hornblower half-written, his head cushioned on his arms. He did not hear Captain Pellew knock softly and enter. He did not know that he looked so indefensibly young that Pellew reached out a hand to brush his tumbled curls, as he would have one of his own son's, only to draw back for fear of waking him. Pellew stood looking down at his lieutenant's peaceful face. "Someday, Mr. Hornblower, you will cease to astonish me, but I do not believe it will be anytime soon," he sighed. He left as quietly as he had come.

Horatio woke at the change of watch, and for a moment was entirely disoriented. The sounds, the scents, the space, were foreign, but the memory of it -- that was sharp. He rubbed his eyes and stretched the kinks out of his spine. He looked down at the letter he had been writing. His sleeve had dragged across the ink and it was now smudged and illegible. Perhaps it would be better to begin again, to be more circumspect. He did not want to place more burdens on his father's shoulders; he had troubles enough of his own.

Horatio reached for his boat cloak and went up on deck. After the Skylark's narrow confines, the Indefatigable seemed expansive and nearly deserted, save for the men on the second dog watch. Half the crew was off duty, either below or onshore, taking advantage of the rare stay in port. Horatio smiled. There would be some sore heads on the morrow.

He closed his eyes, listening to the slap of waves against the hull, the evening breeze whispering in the rigging, the ropes creaking with the weight of masts and spars. How could he have forgotten that those sounds were like the beat of his heart?

"Good evening, Mr. Hornblower."

Horatio straightened from his relaxed stance. "Captain Pellew, sir."

"Ah, at ease, lad. You've earned it." Pellew stood next to him, his eyes going upwards to the rigging. Horatio swore the captain had some secret communication with the Indefatigable, as if they were the same body. Apparently, all was well, for Pellew nodded, satisfied with his observations. "We won't see many more nights like this once the winter sets in," he commented.

"No, sir."

"Mr. Hornblower, I've read the documents Mr. Harrison left with me. Quite remarkable, really, what you and Mr. Kennedy did on board the Skylark."

Horatio turned a stoic face towards the lights of Plymouth. "The men deserve the lion's share of the credit, sir."

"I am aware of that. And it is right that you honour them. But they do not follow cowards, or suffer fools gladly."

"Captain Campion was neither, yet a man of his crew murdered him," Horatio said bitterly.

Pellew frowned. "Surely you do not hold yourself responsible for that!"

Horatio could not hide his anguish. "Sir, I stood no farther from him than I do from you, and I could do nothing!"

If he had been less of a captain, and more of a father, Pellew would have reached out to this young man, but he could not -- and Hornblower would have died of shame at so intimate a gesture. Pellew could only stand before him, his hands clasped behind his back, and let his voice offer the comfort his body could not. "I too, lost a captain. A man I admired above all others, Philemon Pownoll. He was struck down at my side and died in my arms. It is a loss I feel keenly even to this day."

"But that was in a battle, sir!"

"Do you think that matters? How often have I relived that moment and asked myself why was it not I who died that day? Why was I not standing where Pownoll was? Was there something I could have done to save him?" Pellew shook his head sadly. "No, Mr. Hornblower, it is pointless to ask those questions. With time you will learn there are no answers, only possibilities. Do not reproach yourself, lad. Nicholas Campion valued you well, and knew that he did not die in vain."

Horatio knew Pellew was right, but that wound would not heal for a long time. He nodded, unable to speak, wishing Pellew would leave him to grieve in peace.

Pellew was not ready to quit the deck just yet. He cleared his throat. "Mr. Harrison left something for you and Mr. Kennedy. A reward. Five hundred pounds. He felt it was inadequate to express the gratitude of the United States Navy."

"Five hundred pounds?" Horatio was incredulous. "I cannot accept --"

"You do Campion no honour by refusing this gift," Pellew said sternly, quelling Horatio with a glare, and when he looked away, shamed by his intransigence, Pellew's expression softened. His gaze fell on the frayed cuffs of Horatio's jacket, which still bore the white Midshipman's patches on the collar, to the worn trousers that were inches too short for his lieutenant's lanky frame, to his scuffed shoes. The boy had grown into a man over the last months. Pellew smiled to himself. "As I recall, Mr. Hornblower, you had plans for a visit to Cutler and Gross which were interrupted by the Dons. I suggest you use a portion of your reward to secure new uniforms. An officer in His Majesty's Navy has an image to uphold, hmm?"

Horatio managed a slight smile. "Aye, aye, sir."

Pellew nodded curtly. "Carry on, Mr. Hornblower. I have instructed Lieutenant Bracegirdle to assign you and Mr. Kennedy to the next watch, and we will go on from there." He touched his hat and paced away. Horatio sighed and turned once again to look out over the waters. An officer in His Majesty's Navy ... it had a fine sound to it.

Gradually, the peace that had eluded him for so long was returning. The heart of him, which had been so abused, ached a bit less, and he felt the hard, clenching pain in his breast begin to ease. He had forgotten what it was like not to carry the weight of responsibility. He was not so naive to believe that he would never feel it again; nor foolish enough to wish to never carry it again, but for now, it did not hurt to relinquish it for a time.

He heard familiar footsteps, and Archie's shoulder brushed his. He cast a sidelong look at his friend. "Well, I'm beginning to feel as though I am home. How about you?"

Archie smiled. "Home. Yes, it guess it is, for a while at any rate." He looked out over the waters. "I spoke to Captain Pellew."

Horatio's heart sank. He feared that his relief at their homecoming was short-lived. Better to hear it, and to brace himself for another loss. "Are you leaving the Indy, Archie?" he asked.

Archie gave nothing away. "An Acting Lieutenant cannot just pack up his dunnage and leave, Horatio. I only have six months to prepare for my examination --"

"Wait!" Horatio's expression was so comical, so surprised that Archie crowed with laughter. "Acting Lieutenant?"

"Yes! Can you believe it? Pellew gave me a choice -- to leave the Navy if I wished, or to remain on the Indy as Acting Lieutenant."

Horatio did not understand. Why would Archie choose to stay in a life that had only brought him misery? "You could have gone home, Archie!"

Archie was silent for a moment before he spoke. "I am home. You know how it is." He shrugged, his seeming diffidence betrayed by the sheen of tears in his eyes.

Horatio knew. He could not explain it, that feeling of homecoming, of peace. He had travelled over stormy seas, had faced brutal and terrible enemies, had found, and lost friends. His story was not over; there were dark passages and unanswered questions in his future, but he was willing to read those pages one at a time. For now, it was enough to stand side-by-side with his friend and look out over the waters. When Lieutenant Bracegirdle called them to take the watch, their eyes met and Archie smiled.

"Home," Horatio said. They returned to the quarter-deck and the life that they had left so long ago.

 

The End