Next Step
by Simon

"So what are your plans now, Horatio? Do you really think that you'd
like to teach?"

"I don't know. I thought that's what I'd do, but now I fear that I
might become bored with it after a while. I'm not sure that I've the
patience to drill lessons into the heads of a group of unwilling lads
year after year."

"Well, you really don't know that they'd be unwilling. They might
even be bright."

"I'd say that the odds are fairly long as far as that's concerned."

"So, what do you think you'll be doing?"

The two boys were sitting on the bank of the pond they'd swum in
since they were small children. It was a lazy summer afternoon, hot
for southern England and sunny for a change. Naked, they were
lounging in the grass, drying off after a long swim.

"My father asked if I'd like to apprentice to Mr. Thatcher."

"The barrister? You'd hate that."

"I know." He rolled over to his stomach, watching a squirrel search
for something to eat in the weeds. "What about you? Do you want to
stay on the farm?"

"What else am I going to do?" Johnny looked over at his friend. "I'm
not like you, Horatio. I'm not smart like you are."

"Yes, you are."

"You're a bad liar, you know."

"You're smart in different ways, that's all. I could never get a crop
to grow. You can do that."

Johnny fell onto his back, looking up at the leaves and branches
above their heads. "You could if you put your mind to it. You'd read
everything ever written about crops and fertilizer and irrigation and
ask anyone who ever put seed in soil and you'd have the best crop in
the county."

"I hate when you do thatmake like I'm somehow better than you are.
It's not true. You've done it for years and I dislike it." He spoke
mildly, without anger.

Johnny looked over at his friend just a few feet away. They were both
sixteen that summer. Horatio had finished with the school his father
had sent him to ten years ago and was home now. He'd only arrived two
days ago and they were reconnecting as they did every time he came
back.

Johnny knew exactly what his own life held for him. He'd always
known. He would work his parent's farm, marry some local girl and
eventually, inherit the farm, passing it on to his own children when
the time came. He was content with his lot, always had been, never
seeing a reason to question that his life was laid out for him the
minute he'd been born. Somehow, to him, it just seemed the way it
should be.

Horatio was different, always had been. He questioned things; he
questioned people and how things were done. He was forever asking the
whys of things, always looking for the answer behind the answer. A
lot of people found him to be disconcerting. He'd fix those big eyes
of his on you and you felt like a bug under one of those looking
glasses. He just keep on until he got the response he'd been looking
for, wouldn't give up once he'd sunk his teeth into something.

They'd been friends all their lives, well, ever since they were about
four years old, anyway. They had been in the village with their
mothers and had begun to play while the women went about their
errands. Older bullies had begun to pick on the skinny little thing,
pushing him down and rubbing his face in the dirt.

Even then Johnny had been large for his age. Pulling the larger boys
off, he'd bloodied a nose and sent them packing. He still remembered
the look on Horatio's face. Hair messed, eyes huge with tears
standing in them, face dirty, shyly he had thanked Johnny and said
that he'd always be his friend. He had kept his word.

They had become inseparable, the two of them. They could often be
seen about, always together, walking along, one large and sandy
haired, one thin and dark.

Best friends.

Then Horatio's mother had died and his father became strange.

He was sent away with little warning, coming home only for the odd
school holiday and he changed. He had become quiet and withdrawn. He
always seemed to be sad after that. Where he used to laugh easily,
now he rarely smiled. Where he would be spilling over with ideas as
to which adventure required their immediate attention, now he wished
to be left alone to read. On the rare occasions when he would agree
to do something with Johnny, he would seem a hundred miles away, his
mind on things he wouldn't talk about. Still, Johnny kept asking,
hoping that the friend he knew would return.

The time came when he didn't come home anymore. He had decided that
he preferred to stay at school, Johnny had been told when he had gone
looking for his friend one Christmas.

Never good with a pen, Johnny had nevertheless, laboriously written
out letters and sent them. To his surprise, Horatio had answered,
filling page after page with his thoughts and dreams and the fears he
kept to himself. He wrote endless descriptions of his plans for the
future, his sadness at his mother's death, how he was lonely without
Johnny to talk to. The other boys at school didn't seem to take to
him, considering him a threat in class as he received higher grades
than they did. Johnny was still his best friend, despite their being
separated. One day he would come home and then they would have fun
together again. It seemed to be a thought he clung to, repeating it
often.

The only subject that he seemed to never touch on was his father. He
adamantly refused to mention the man and wouldn't respond if asked
about him Johnny stopped asking about that part of Horatio's life.

One day, not long ago, Johnny had received what would be the final
letter Horatio would write him from the school.

Angry, resentful, full of fury and lashing out with bile against his
father, the pages tearstained, Horatio told how he had been offered
positions at both Cambridge and Oxford. The headmaster of the school
had called him the finest mind he had ever encountered and made
applications to those institutions on the lad's behalf himself.

Jacob Hornblower had refused his permission.

He had said that there was no money and he'd be damned before he
begged anyone for a handout.

The hurt and sense of betrayal, the outrage and agony of that letter
was such that Johnny never forgot it's contents nor fully forgave
Horatio's father for causing his friend to endure the pain he had
inflicted.

That had been two weeks ago. Now Horatio was home, seemingly for good
and was spending every minute he could possibly manage away from the
house he nominally lived in.

Sitting up and turning to look over at him, Horatio finally spoke
again, slightly hesitantly.

"Johnny, I do know what I'll be doing. Last afternoon my father
called me into the study. There was another man there with him who I
didn't know. He's a Navy captain who's a patient." He picked a
wildflower, looking closely at it then began to unconsciously tear it
apart with his fingers. "He's agreed to take me onto his ship as a
Midshipman."

"You in the Navy? You get seasick in a bath tub." The expression on
Horatio's face stopped his joking. He looked like a person who had
just heard his sentence with no appeal.

"I suspect that he owes the Doctor money and I'm being traded for the
bill."

"Are you serious? He won't make you do this, will he?"

Obviously close to tears, Horatio tried to maintain a brave
façade. "I'm to be fitted for the uniforms tomorrow and then, as soon
as they're ready I'll report to some ship in Spithead next week."

"No, you don't. You can move in with my family. You know that my
parents like you. You can stay with us."

Unable to speak, Horatio just shook his head, the tears now
overflowing down his cheeks, his eyes on the ground

"John, he wants to get rid of me again. I thought that when I came
back he might let me stay, but he just wants to get rid of me. He
wants me dead."

"That's not true. He's not the warmest man I've ever met, but he's no
murderer."

Looking at his friend, Horatio searched his face. "Did you know that
half of the Mids die within two years?"

Horrified, speechless for a moment, John found his tongue. "For God's
sakedon't go. You can't let him do this to you. Leave. Go to London,
or stay with us, apprentice to someone. Choose something, but don't
do this."

His jaw set and his face a mask, Horatio spoke almost to
himself. "No, I'm going. I've decided."

"Don't"

Nodding his head in his determination, he continued. "I'm going and
I'm not going to be killed. I'll become the best God damned officer
the God damned Navy has seen. I'll shove his face in it." He looked
at Johnny. "I will."

Reaching over, putting his hand on his friend's shoulder and
squeezing gently, Johnny quietly agreed, "Yes, you will."

Horatio's great eyes latched onto his own. "Why does he hate me?
Johnny? What did I do to make him hate me this much?"

"You know the answer, Raysh. You lived and your mother died." He
dropped his hand from the shoulder it had been resting on.

"And will his killing me make that better? Is that what he needs to
get even with me for being alive?" Horatio shook his head. "I swear
to God, if I ever have a son, I'll not be like the Doctor. I'll love
him."

Johnny smiled slightly. "Can you picture us with wives and children?"

Horatio managed a small smile in return. Good, he was coming out of
that black mood a little bit. "No. Can you?"

"You know, I think that I actually can. I think that I'd like that,
having someone." He studied Horatio's expression. "Why? Wouldn't you?"

Horatio shrugged. "Well, sure, of course, but"I can't imagine someone-
--" he paused for a moment, thinking""I can't imagine someone wanting
me. Not like that, anyway."

"Why on earth not? You're smart and you're not ugly, you know. I
heard Susan and Nancy Belamore talking about you when you were in
town this morning. No"really, I did!"

Horatio rolled his eyes. "Of course you did."

"Honestly, you great fool. They were saying that you'd become quite
handsome. That was the actual word they used. And then they giggled."

"See? They were laughing at me."

"Horatio! When girls giggle it's good. Didn't you learn that? It's
when they out and out laugh that you're in trouble. This was a
genuine giggle. Honestly, they like you."

Blushing, Horatio was in open smile now. "I thought that you fancied
one of them. Don't you?"

"Well, they're twins. I haven't decided if there's a difference or
not. Can you imagine waking up with one and thinking that it was the
other?"

"Johnny!"

"Come on, I'm getting hot sitting here." Standing, they made their
way the twenty feet or so to the water. When they got about knee
deep, they dove, coming up splashing. Still slightly lazy from their
rest on the bank, they simply floated, still talking.

Horatio was in a better frame of mind now, Johnny's intention. "Have
you ever"you know---?"

"Dozens, absolutely."

"Johnny, really. Have you?"

He shook his head no. "I'd like to, but no. I've never. Not yet
anyway. You?"

"I've been living in a boys school for ten years. The only females I
saw was the cook, and she was sixty years old."

"Did your father ever give you `the talk'?"

"The good Doctor? God no. He can barely bring himself to say Hello to
me, let along discuss sex. I'm amazed that he ever managed his duty
so that I was bornan act I'm sure he regrets."

Johnny started slowly backstroking around Horatio who was treading
water. "Do you wonder what it's like? Being with a girl?"

"Well, of course, but I'll find out at some point."

"Not at the rate that you're going, you won't."

"Well, thank you, very much, John---and you think that you might have
a solution for this terrible condition you believe me afflicted with,
have you?"

He stopped swimming. "I might."

"Indeed?"

"We're meeting the sisters Belamore at the footbridge at eight this
evening. I spoke to them in town after you returned to your lonely
garret to brood on your fate." Splashing Horatio in the face, he
asked, "So, what do you have to say for yourself now, hmmm? It's past
time you met a girl at the footbridge."

Looking pale, Horatio managed, "I hope that you're joking."

"In the name of God, why? You're practically of age and willing and
so are they."

"But Johnny---I couldn't possibly. What will I say to them? What if
they laugh at me? What if they both want to be with you? You know
that will happen." He swan to shore, walking out of the water and
gathering his clothes, trying to get them on while he was still
dripping wet. Frustrated he just stood there. "Oh, God."

Johnny joined him on shore. "Horatio, you'll be fine. This isn't a
test. This is supposed to be fun. Just relax and enjoy your self."

"Oh, God."

Reaching for his own garments, Johnny attempted to reason with his
friend. "Get your clothes on, I have to help feed the stock. Now calm
down and take some deep breaths. They're girls, we're lads. This is
what is supposed to happen as we get older."
"But what will people say?"

"Come on, now, Horatio. I suspect that people will talk more if you
don't start seeing the local girls." Horatio delivered one of his
black looks. Johnny was completely undeterred. "There, that's more
like it, you're feeling more yourself now. We'll go homemy homefeed
the animals, get some food for ourselves and then go to the bridge.
Right."

Dressed and starting back down the path home, Horatio was mumbling
under his breath. "What was that mate?"

"Remind me again why we're friends, Johnny."

"Tomorrow you can remind yourself."

Laughing, they started walking faster.