PASSAGES: 1799
by Meanjean

Part Two

February 20th...

Archie was watching me carefully in the ward-room, where Drew and I were engaged in a game of chess. Not either of our strengths, but it was here and it kept us from having to have conversation with our mess mates. It was only the three of us here at the moment, and I was welcoming the relative quiet. But Archie, as he usually does, had other plans.

"Well, Horatio. I have not seen the motion of the sea bothering you as we start this voyage."

"It has not." I moved my bishop, and Drew frowned, studying his options.

"Perhaps it is those strange biscuits that I have caught you munching on. The ones you dunk in your tea, and do not share."

I blushed. Drew looked up from the game at Archie, and very deliberately said, "I would not recommend them, Archie; they're harder than the ship's biscuit. I've told Mr. Hornblower that he's liable to break his teeth."

Archie smiled. "Your move, Drew. Best you think about it, and not worry so much about Horatio's diet."

Drew smiled in return; matching the volley. "It is my job to worry about everyone's diet, Archie." But he glanced at me in amusement, and did in fact return his attention to the board.

I meanwhile, was cursing myself for not being more discrete when enjoying my treat, and for most especially giving Archie the chance to wonder at my secrecy. "I really did not think anyone else would enjoy them, Archie. However, if you do wish to try one, I would be happy to share."

Drew's hand was arrested in mid-air. Looking up, I could see the shock on his face. It's true that on leaving Angelina I had walked with Drew back to the ship with that package clutched to my heart, and had jealously hidden it in my cloak from the moment other men might have seen me. It was only a token food item; yet it was all I had to remind me of her until I should find myself in Gibraltar again, and I cherished every one of them. But we ALWAYS shared food in the mess, and I had to get Archie off the trail.

No such luck! Archie laughed out loud. "Did you know, Horatio, that I had the watch Tuesday afternoon, and watched you and Drew returning to the ship?"

"Yes, Archie. You were there on deck when I came up the side." I responded carefully. Drew completed his move and sat back in the chair, and with a very faint smile (no doubt relieved that it was not his own personal life up for debate this time) watched a different game develop.

"Do you know, that as your boat pulled away...perhaps fifty yards from shore, there was an interesting development?"

"Indeed?" I was wary now.

"Indeed. I saw two woman approach the dockside who seemed most intent on watching your boat.

My jaw dropped.

"Of course, I decided that it must be the lovely Violet and Mrs. Bracegirdle. Naturally, I was curious, and knowing that my wife would have been most disappointed if I did not take the opportunity, I decided to take a look through the glass. Sure enough, there was a quite young girl there with dark black hair, whom I have no doubt is my future sister." Drew's face grew very red, but Archie swept on.

"However, the woman with her was NOT Mrs. Bracegirdle, whom I have seen. Indeed, she is a woman I do not know. Yet there was no mistaking it, she was just as distraught as Miss Morris was, and was looking with rather heartbreaking adoration on your jolly boat."

"I..." The words froze in my throat. "Archie..." I said, trying to sound warning and angry, and failing.

"Now whom in the jolly boat could incite such a response from this woman? She was rather well dressed for Styles, Matthews is most happily married, judging from how often he mentions his wife; and unless Drew has decided that two women are better than none...that only leaves...yourself."

"Archie..." Then his words sunk in. "Did she really look like...like..."

And he laughed! "Totally besotted, Horatio, and I cannot believe you didn't tell me this, either one of you! First you withhold Drew's love life from me, and now yours! Really, I am going to get a complex."

Drew joined in on the laughter. "You're a detective, Archie! You ought to be a spy."

I was very still, thinking over everything he had just told me. She really, really had been sorry to see me go? Can it be possible? The smile crept over my face slowly, and grew larger.

"Archie, look, you've made Horatio SMILE!" Drew gasped, feigning shock.

I looked sheepishly up at my best friend. "Alright, alright, enough." But my light heart would not let me be stern. "It does seem, my friend, as if your good fortune has rubbed of on the rest of us."

He slapped me on the back, and raised a cup of grog. "Nothing would please me more to see both of you as happy as I am."

It was Drew who decided we ought to throw ourselves on Archie's mercy. "Now that you know, Archie...take it easy on us?" His gaze met his brother-in-law's very earnestly. "Please? We have not your ease in these matters."

Archie's grin eased into an affectionate smile. "As long as you permit me my own private enjoyment of your situation, gentlemen, I see no reason that, say, Captain Forbes needs to torment you both."

I raised my glass back to him. "Thank you, Mr. Kennedy! You are too kind."

There was an exclamation of "brrrr!" as Mr. Cousins came in off the watch. "Gentlemen, it's frigid, wet and windy out; I hope Mr. Bowles is correct when he says the whether going forward is better, because this is pretty nasty."

"Hullo, Reg!" Drew called out, in a jovial voice. "Take some grog and watch me attempt to put your lessons to good use in defeating Horatio."

"I shall take the grog, however, Mr. Hornblower has been most humbly requested by Captain Pellew to report."

"Indeed?" I frowned, and feelings I have been fighting ever since Mr. Bowles uttered that curse "easy sail to England" came to the fore, over-riding my personal contentment. "Did he say why, Reg?"

"No, Horatio, but he seems to be in a pensive mood tonight." Reg flung off his cape, shaking the water off of it.

I sighed. "Then I must ask you, Mr. Cousins, to take my place at the table. I cannot conceive that I will be returning shortly."

Drew threw his hands up, even as Reg nearly salivated at the opportunity to further hone his chess skills. "Terrific. Thank you very much, Horatio! Against you I stood a chance."

"An object lesson, Mr. Brandon. You sometimes never know whom your opponent will be!" I quipped. But as I left the wardroom, I could not be so sanguine. I had been expecting this conference since we left Gibraltar. But I do not even understand why.

***
The first half hour of our meeting was routine, going over our plans, the chart, the men. Anything and everything, and no reason at all for him to call me for a special meeting. Finally the Captain sat back with a sigh.

"One day down, and by my calculations two weeks to go, before we reach England, Mr. Hornblower. Pray they are all as uneventful as this one was."

He had poured glasses of claret; this ought to be the time when we might relax, and, if his worries were of a more personal nature, when he might become less formal. But not this evening, for I looked up sharply to try and read his face; his voice had been husky, with a deep edge to it, and there was something unusual happening here.

"So..." I said, watching his eyes as they were directed down at his log book. "You and I are of the same mind on this voyage, Sir?" I plunged on. "I have felt an uneasiness since you announced we were to return to England."

He didn't answer at first. The lamp flickered; the shadows danced across the table. Reaching, he closed the ledger slowly, letting his hand run down its cover. "I ought to be happy. I will be able to see my wife and daughter. But, though there have been no problems, no complications that I know of, I cannot shake the feeling that all is not quite right with this sail."

Our eyes met. Futility, of course, arguing about it. We were ordered, along with Dunbarton, to escort Serenity back to England. Simple orders, for once, with no hint of secrecy and no reason to misunderstand them. The Earl of Noth needing the assistance with his private schooner.

"It is, after all, a basic task. The sort one might undertake in the Navy when in peace time." The Captain continued, looking at me unflinching, with no hint of a flicker in his eyelids.

Ah, but that was the issue. "Yet it is certain that we are at war..." I said, since he seemed to want me to draw it out.

The corner of his mouth turned up very slightly. "Indeed, Mr. Hornblower. That has not changed. We are at war. We have enemies, French and Spanish. Whom we ought to be fighting."

"Yes, Sir." We continued sipping the wine for a few moments. The Captain had obviously been thinking deeply on our mutual unease, and it seemed that he had arrived at a conclusion that he was trying to guide me towards. Yet it is the simple reality that I have not seen anything amiss with the mission. Of course, I had not had the opportunity to meet the Earl...

"Strange..." I mused out loud. "I do not know many members of the nobility who'd find themselves in the midst of a war zone, unless they are in the Army or Navy themselves."

"True. Very true. Of course my dear wife...the, ahem, Duchess of Warfedale, was in a similar circumstance, and as a woman that is even more unlikely."

I felt a smile creep over my face even as a chill ran over spine. "Ah, but your wife, sir, she was not quite what she seemed to be, was she?"

He raised his eyebrows. "Indeed, she wasn't. Of course, she was not harmful either. But we did not know that; at one point I feared she might be a spy."

I clasped my hands before me. "And there is also the fact that our own motions were not dictated by her presence. Whereas with the Earl, he is in a manner dictating our every move."

"Ah, yes. I had noted that Admiral Hale was quite besotted with him, when I met them together. Very fawning. Perhaps, losing his perspective?"

The room was icy, even as I felt the ship pitch. Yet so drawn in was I, that my stomach forgot to quake. He was suggesting that the Earl was perhaps not what he seemed. Imposter? Spy? It seems preposterous, thought of logically. And yet a ship is run by instinct as well as logic, and there is nobody, but nobody, whose instincts I would trust more than Captain Pellew's. In this instance, the basis of them in fact mirrored my own.

"Forgive me, Sir...but how do we proceed?" I asked.

"I can only say carefully." The Captain nodded. "Yes, we must be careful, Mr. Hornblower. I would appreciate it if you give the matter some thought."

Anybody who overheard our conversation would have been confused indeed. We had not said enough for it to be understandable for someone who was not of a like mind. And that was on purpose, for when one begins to doubt the nature of a friend of the king...one is on very dangerous ground indeed.

"I can assure you, Sir, I will give it my utmost consideration." I rose, and he did not blink.

"I would appreciate that, Mr. Hornblower. Particularly at this point in my life, I do not wish to die while being made a fool of. Nor do I wish to see any of my men in the same situation." He smiled with stony determination, and I thought, if the Earl has decided to try and use us as some kind of pawn in a dangerous game, he picked the wrong Captain indeed.

"I bid you goodnight, Sir." I said smoothly. But before I could exit the door, he called after me. "Horatio?"

"Yes, Sir?" I was startled by the familiar, and knew whatever came next would not be about the ship's problems.

"Perhaps when we return to Gibraltar, you might know a seamstress who can assist me with having new shirts made?" There was a twinkle in his eye.

I cannot stand this any longer. I came back into his office, shut the door firmly behind me, and took a deep breath.

"Sir...I must know...you are not a mind-reader; yet at times you know things about me, or about the other men as if...as if..."

"As if I could hear every word of a private conversation?" This time he did smile, as he got up and stood beside me. And he looked up.

"Handy thing, a skylight. One might wish to avoid personal conversations while near one. Especially with a young Doctor whom is rather head over heals in love himself." He coughed. "I do not normally let men in on my secrets this early, Mr. Hornblower. And Bracegirdle, when he found out, had rather the same look on his face. So I expect that, even if you become more circumspect in your conversations, you will not reveal my secret, hm?"

I swallowed, in shock. "Of course, Sir." I blinked. "But why tell me now?"

And then it was back, the secret, the fear, the shiver in my soul. "Because, Mr. Hornblower...when there are men about who might not be trustworthy, one needs to be prepared to find information where one can."

"I understand, Sir." We were not the only ship with a skylight, and Captain Pellew might not always be alone in his rooms.

He nodded at me. "Think it over, Mr. Hornblower. Your ideas are always most valuable to me. I expect nothing less this time. For all of our sakes."

I came out of his offices and headed to the deck; Mr. Holloway had the watch, and a thankless task it was; the whether was wet and cold; spray hit my face. But I needed the shock of the fresh air in my lungs, for what was before me. And as I stood there, I could not help but notice the lights on Serenity, glowing cold in the night, and wonder what secrets she held.

February 21

Morning dawned crisp and cold; my breath steamed before me and evaporated into nothingness. I had been awake late, thinking, and then my mind raced through strange dreams, to the point where it was simply futile to remain below decks. Especially as I listened to Archie's even, deep breathing...it frustrated me that I was so much more aware of our perilous situation than I could let him know. Still, he'd had his share of sleepless nights in the past...more than his share, in fact.

Mr. Anderson had the deck; he stood quietly about ten feet away. Other than a brief nod of his head he had not approached me; his silence was more respectful than fearful. He knew if I wished to speak with him, I would initiate the exchange. How old is he now, anyway? Is he even fifteen yet? A good lad, he's turned out to be, though he'd been problematic at first.

I took in the deck, the various men around the riggings, going about their duties. The sun was pale and low as it came up on the horizon, dawning right past Serenity, our problem ship.

I frowned suddenly, for something was amiss with her. She was sending out signals? But nonsensical ones at that! I approached Mr. Anderson at once.

"Mr. Anderson, what do you make of the message coming from Serenity? It is without comprehension."

"Entirely, Sir. Mr. Cousins noted it yesterday, and he spoke with the Captain. It seems, Sir, that Serenity is without any experienced midshipmen or other crew who understand signals."

I frowned. It was not unlikely that they would be inexperienced with a signal flag, especially if this was a new crew the Earl had outfitted his ship with. But it was a bad procedure, nonetheless.

Anderson continued. "Their Captain, Sir, knows the system, but he's not always above decks. I believe what we see is the attempts of their men to learn it."

"I see." I don't like it, but I see. "Perhaps, Mr. Anderson, we ought to offer one of our officers to Serenity until we get to England?"

"It might be less confusing, Sir." He hesitated, and I could see that he saw the logic of the idea, though he was not comfortable with it. But still, he spoke up without hesitation. "Indeed, Sir, I would be glad to volunteer, if it would help the Indefatigable."

I managed to not smile. "I'm glad to hear it, Mr. Anderson, but from experience the Captain is loath to loan out his younger men to strange environments, especially given those not Navy vessels, captained by a man he is not familiar with. He'd rather a commissioned officer, certainly." I pretended not to notice his extreme relief.

Even as I noted him breathing a little easier, my conversation with my mess mates from last evening forced its way to the front of my mind. Thus the idea was born. Drew had joked yesterday that Archie would make an excellent spy. It is certain we needed to have a Navy man on board Serenity, and certain that the Captain and I were both uneasy with this strange situation.

"Good morning, Mr. Hornblower!" Archie strode up to the deck, with impeccable timing. "You have risen with the sun, I see."

I thought of the skylight, and with a quick glance at Anderson, I tugged Archie by the arm as far away from it as possible.

"Archie, my friend, how do you feel about a turn of espionage?" I whispered as low as I could.

There are certain things that Archie excels at. Artillery, for one; he knows his way around a gun better than any man I've ever seen. But it would seem that this might be another; for though he had no clue where I was leading, his eyes sparkled in anticipation.

"Intriguing, Horatio." He matched my low voice. "In a matter of official business?" He squinted slightly into the sun.

"Let's say, as a favor to myself and the Captain? Unofficially official, if you will."

He smiled, a firm smile of determination. "Better and better, Horatio!"

"We shall have to speak in private to the Captain about my idea."

And with a sharp nod, he held his arm out before him, a sweeping gesture. "Lead on, Mr. Hornblower. Lead on."

***
"An excellent idea, Mr. Hornblower, but a futile one, unfortunately."

I had gone immediately to Powers, to request that the Captain receive us as soon as he was prepared, but he had flung the door open immediately, as if he anticipated that I would be speaking to him. The skylight, I suppose...he must have deduced enough from my conversation with Anderson. In any event, we were ushered in at once, while Powers was sent for coffee.

He had obviously hastily dressed himself, his hair was not tidy and his uniform not fully buttoned yet. But somehow that failed to impact his aura of control and power; I realized we could have found him in his dressing-gown and he still would have been master of the situation.

In any event, it took me but a few minutes to outline my plan, while never stating in the open that we were suspicious of the Earl. Archie was getting the gist of it, though; his eyes grew wider and his chin more firm. But the Captain, with tremendous sorrow, denied my request.

"I do not understand, Sir. How is it futile?"

"I suggested the same to the Earl, even before I had time to question our mission. He was put-out; insisted that between his Captain and himself he should be able to handle any communication issues, and was especially loath to take on a commissioned officer." The Captain's eyes lit up for a moment as he looked at Archie. "Not a bad idea, I must say. I believe you could have performed an invaluable service, Mr. Kennedy. Not that I would have enjoyed losing you from the Indefatigable, even short-term."

If he was disappointed, Archie hid it well. "It would have been a challenge. I AM curious to see what the Earl is like. I knew his parents, Sir."

The Captain and I exchanged startled glances. It is easy to forget that Archie is of such a privileged class. Naturally, he would have been familiar with the Earl.

Putting his fingers to his mouth, stroking his still unshaven face, the Captain asked, "What sort of people were his parents?"

"Friends of my father's, Sir, and as true to the crown as you make them. My father and the previous Earl hunted together often."

"So you do not think it likely that their son might have ulterior designs?" I asked, wondering if the Captain and I were making something out of nothing.

Archie turned to me, tilting his head slightly, with a faintly amused smile. "It is true, Mr. Hornblower, that I am as true to the crown as MY father. But without knowing the young Earl, I cannot assume the same. After all, my eldest brother is as different from me, and my father, as can be believed; and then there is the instance of Mr. Brandon, in comparison to HIS father. To be the son of a man of honor is no more guarantee of your own honor, than to be the son of a man of shame would guarantee one to be a shameful man."

The Captain leaned forward. "But, Mr. Kennedy...might you have heard anything to help us know the man better? You would be in the same circles."

"We need my brother David here, Sir. Remember, I have been in service since I was little more than a child. I missed out on much society gossip I might have otherwise heard, and no doubt Mr. Brandon would say the same."

"A pity your brother is so far away, then. Or that we have no access to Major Edrington." I sighed, though my head began to throb, remembering the crashing hangover I'd ended up with the last time I'd seen the Earl.

Archie returned our thoughts to our immediate problem...how did we get one of our men over to Serenity. "Would he take a midshipman, Sir?"

"He might..." The Captain considered it, and then pounded his fist on the desk. "No, Damn it all, I'm not comfortable with that, not at all. Mr. Holloway and Mr. Anderson are little more than boys. Their work is admirable, but they are NOT ready for such a task, and I will not send a man on a mission I do not believe he can handle."

Taking a deep breath, I knew it was my duty to point out the obvious. "I must tell you, Sir, that Mr. Anderson DID volunteer to be sent over to Serenity to help with their signaling, though I do not think he relished the idea of leaving Indefatigable."

"If it were only a matter of signals, I'd send him!" Captain Pellew scowled. "But he is unaware of what the real problem is."

"Pity we lost McGill...he was been old enough to handle himself." I sighed.

"I am not certain he would have had the brains, though. He was never as smart as Mr. Cousins, certainly." Archie pointed out.

And looking up sharply, the Captain and I locked stares and icy smiles as we both had the same idea.

"Sir, the Earl is against a COMMISSIONED officer being sent over..." I started.

"...and Mr. Cousins does not have his commission yet!" He finished.

Archie blinked once, and then matched our tight smiles. "Yes, Mr. Cousins is more than bright enough and skilled enough to handle himself over there."

"The Earl wouldn't be aware he was acting Lieutenant, Sir?" I asked quickly. "I wouldn't wish to send him over under a false title, and have our suppositions be wrong. If he were found out, later..."

"Yes, not good for any of us." The Captain went for his log book. "We must make certain that should we be set up for questioning later, we are prepared to defend ourselves." He took his quill, and began to contemplate a blank page. "You shall have to speak with Mr. Cousins, Hornblower. But I would say it's wrong for him to have gotten so drunk as he did later this evening."

"Sir?" What's this? Mr. Cousins drunk...or he will be drunk...tonight? I know he likes a glass or two of claret, but he has tremendous self control!

The Captain looked at me. "I am afraid I am going to have no choice but to demote him back to Midshipman, at least until he has learned his lesson."

"Which he will have learned thoroughly by the time he is gotten back to England!" Archie put in.

I winced. "I don't know that I like having to do that, Sir."

"We shall explain it to him, of course, and if he objects, we will consider other options. But it is in his best interest he is not found out to be a Lieutenant. I do not like maligning his character at all, but I should like even less having his murder on my conscience. If what we suspect is true, Mr. Hornblower, the Earl is a dangerous man."

That of course was true. A man willing to sell out the Navy, if indeed that is what he was, would not hesitate to harm someone who was threatening him. And I could explain it to Reg...he was smart and brave, and he would be willing. Yet I felt a pit in my stomach; though he was eighteen, though he was one of the best young officers I'd ever seen, I hated sending him into such danger, even when I knew he was by far the best man for the job.

And again my eyes met the Captain's. And I realized I finally understood how he had felt, sending Archie and I off to the beach in Muzillac.

Yes, I understand him fully for the first time. Unfortunately, my instinct also tells me it will not be the last.

***
I found Reg in the ward room, half sprawled out along the table with his books. I have never known a man to study so much or with such total concentration; I was quite able to come right up behind him. And with half a smirk, I could not resist the temptation.

"AN ABSORBING PROBLEM, MR. COUSINS?" I shouted, loud enough to be heard back in Gibraltar.

The book went one way, his notes another; Reg himself started to fall backwards. I extended my hand before he could actually tip to the floor.

"Mr. Hornblower!" He got pink in the face. "You startled me, as you no doubt intended!"

"I can see that." I retrieved the book for him, as he sorted out his notes. "What exactly was it you were reading up on, anyway?"

"An absorbing problem, as you said...the methods of relieving a leak in the ship when pumping is not working. Although I understand the answer, I am having a hard time, well, seeing it, if you will."

"Let me look." Momentarily shoving aside the reason I am here, I sat beside him. As I suspected, the answer dealt primarily with fothering a sail, and I smiled at the memory. I read the instructions from the book out-loud: "Take a spare sail, cover it with oakum and bind it to the sail with needle and twine in several places to keep it fast, then take a hawser and cut it into proper lengths to go under the ship's bottom...." I chuckled. "Heavens, it would seem I did it all wrong!"

"You've had to do this, Horatio? Not on this ship, certainly." His eyes were wide, and I realized that my adventures on board the Marie Gallant were well before his time with us.

"Bite your tongue Reg, if Mr. Bowles ever heard you say the Indefatigable was leaky he'd have you in irons! No, it was on a prize ship I was sailing to England...attempting to sail, I should say; when I was but a midshipman." I looked back down at the page. "Do you want to know how I managed to place the sail over the hole? I dove down into the water myself until I found the leak, and then went back down guiding the sail and made certain she stuck!"

"That's more sensible!" Comprehension dawned on Reg's face. "The method, as they explain it...well, if you've got a leak bad enough that the pumps can't keep up, the whole process seems rather time consuming!"

"Memorize this answer anyway; exam board captains are not known for enjoying creative solutions to the problems they throw at you." And then my mission forced its way back to the front of my mind.

"Actually, Reg, the reason I am here is in a way about your exam." I hesitated.

He paled. "Heavens, it's not so soon as when we arrive in England, is it? I had hoped to have more time..."

"No, no..." I soothed. "The Captain has not been informed of any exam, and certainly he would not put you, and Drew, up for one if he felt you could not pass." He'd learned that lesson already, I added ruefully in my mind. "Reg, the Captain and I need your help; it involves a bit of deception, and it involves tainting your reputation for a short period of time."

Reg shut the book slowly, and met my stare in frank curiosity. "Is this another situation where we end up having to flog a pig?" He asked, reminding me of a situation that I had used him in, setting him up as a scapegoat to capture the real suspect. Then, the deception had worked, but not according to plan and not without some fancy footwork, either.

This was hard, very hard to ask of him. But I knew we had to. "It's considerably more serious than our incidents last summer, and more dangerous. We need to place a spy on Serenity, for the Captain believes she is not what she seems. We need a good man, a smart man, a trustworthy man. We would like to send you."

He flushed with pride. "I am surprised you needed to ask me; if you need me on Serenity, then to Serenity I go. Simply tell me what I am looking for..."

I held my hand up. "Thing is, Reg, it's a bit more complicated than that." I took a deep breath. "The Captain on Serenity, and the Earl himself, in fact, will not accept a commissioned officer on board her."

His brow drew in, and he frowned. "I see...at least...no, I don't see, Sir. You wish me to pretend to be a rating?"

I shook my head. "No, Mr. Cousins. You must be...demoted, to midshipman."

I took in his face for a few seconds as he slowly and unwillingly processed this most distressing request. When I felt he had adjusted to the shock, I further explained: "If you only pretend to be a midshipman, and something happens to the Captain, myself, or the Indefatigable; if the log books fall into the wrong hands...you are at risk. You are at risk if the Earl is false, and he finds you to be an Acting Lieutenant; you are at risk if the Captain and I are wrong, and he finds you to be a spy. So the log books must reflect your demotion, and your temporary transfer to Serenity. If all happens as we expect, you'll have performed more than valiantly enough to be legitimately made Acting Lieutenant again." I hesitated. "It goes without saying that you'll not lose any esteem with your Captain, or your officers."

The struggle in his mind was painful to watch. He had became very still, and had ceased looking at me, but was now staring fixedly at his books. The struggle, the achievement just to get where he was; I knew that feeling well. We were asking him to let go of it and appear to step backwards; the difference between a Lieutenant and a Midshipman was oh so very great indeed.

I pushed my hands against the table, rising. "Well, think on it for an hour, or so, Reg; you would be doing your country a very great service indeed..."

He interrupted me, his voice sure and strong. "If you need me on Serenity, Sir, then to Serenity I go." He stood next to me, very still but very immovable. "How shall this demotion take place?"

A part of me was overjoyed; another part of me ached for him. "The Captain's idea was that you should get very drunk at dinner tonight, and in a fit of pique he shall send you back to the midshipmen."

There was a slight, very slight, turn at the corner of Reg's mouth. "The Captain does not often have fits of pique, Horatio, unless there is some earlier communiqué from Admiral Hale involved."

"A good point; we shall have put about that he has been stewing over his orders, and our situation with the Earl has not helped his mood."

"Still, watch and watch, losing my spirit ration...I can think of half a dozen things the men are more likely to believe the Captain would do first. And I assume that we are to include the men in this deception, are we not?"

"Yes, yes, but," I paused. True; mere drunkenness might get a midshipman caned or a Lieutenant confined to quarters or extended watch normally...

"He's right, Horatio." A voice spoke from the doorway. Drew. Reg and I both looked at him in dismay.

"The Captain is not known for being irrational." Drew continued nonchalantly, strolling over to the table and sitting down. He looked from me to Reg, and crossed his arms. "You two were, of course, planning on letting me in on this escapade, I hope."

"I had not thought that far..." I murmured, but Drew was continuing on.

"Because after the last time, I would hope you not have left me thinking that the Captain could turn into a tyrant, and Reg suffering for it? I believe I rather upset your plans last August."

Reg grinned sheepishly, and I gave a slight grimace. Our deception last time worked totally, to the point where poor Drew, who hadn't been in on the plan, was convinced that Reg was to be nearly flogged to death. We were forced to let him in on the truth when he approached the Captain and demanded to take half of Reg's punishment. It turned out he managed to think of a solution to our situation when the rest of us were at a loss on how to proceed.

Drew was drumming his fingers on the table thoughtfully. "Reg has, after all, saved the Captain's life in the past..."

Cousins went rather beet red at that remark.

"...so for the Captain to demote him he must make a serious misstep, one that everyone accepts would enrage the Captain, even if just for a little while."

I felt myself helpless, and Reg and I returned to our seats to try and has this out. "In truth, Drew, the public drunkenness was the Captain's idea. We had not thought anything out further, because we did not want to proceed without Mr. Cousins' permission."

Reg looked at me earnestly. "That was very fair of you, Horatio, but if the situation is as serious as you believe, then there are more important things than my personal honor."

Drew looked up suddenly, and then turned to his best friend. "You are not planning to actually get drunk, are you?"

Reg and I looked at each other. "We shall give you a few glasses of Claret, maybe dribble some over you so you stink of it."

"And I can act it up, sing a little loud, maybe insult Mr. Bowles..."

"Hit me."

Reg and I nearly spun out of our seats as we turned to look at Drew, who was very serious indeed. "You must hit me, Reg."

"Like hell I will..." He sputtered, but Drew grasped his arm.

"You're drunk, you're quarrelsome, I try to get you to take some tea; you take a swing at me. I guarantee that there isn't a man on board the ship who'll be surprised that the Captain would demote you for striking me."

A distant bell rang in the silence that followed. And for a moment, I wasn't here. Reg and Drew were staring each other down. Reg was angry and indignant; Drew was stubborn and determined.

"After everything we've been through, how would anybody believe I would strike you?" He insisted.

Drew shook his head. "Over-indulgence in spirits changes the nature of a man, Reg. Trust me, I know." His mouth twisted slightly. "Naturally, I expect that when you wake up tomorrow with a hangover that you will be utterly abashed and begging for my forgiveness, which I will magnanimously grant. The Captain will not be so easily moved, I fear."

The tension was eased somewhat as Reg cracked a very faint smile. "You are very determined on this, Mr. Brandon."

"Consider it my sacrifice to make the mission a success, Mr. Cousins. I want you back as Acting Lieutenant soon enough." Drew stuck his chin out firmly; once he is determined, it is not easy to go against him. As I know too well.

"Well, Gentleman, I shall explain this to the Captain. I cannot say that he'll be pleased by the suggestion, Mr. Brandon." I pointed out, rising.

"He will not, but he will see the truth of it, Horatio; you know he will. He will grumble, and he will fuss, but in the end, it is what must be done." Again, those placid and unmoving blue eyes met mine, and I wondered what would ever happen if the Captain and Drew REALLY locked horns in argument with each other. I am not entirely certain that I know the outcome! Or for that matter, that I would wish to.

***
"Absolutely unacceptable, Mr. Hornblower!" The Captain spat out, fuming.

He was pacing before the windows in his cabin, his anger beneath the surface, but only just so. I could almost discern a shake. His lips tightened and rolled; his face was growing redder, and in his hands he clenched and un-clenched a roll of parchment. In short, he was in full "grumble and fuss" as Drew called it, and I waited stolidly for him to calm down.

"It would be easily understood by the men, Sir, should they ever be questioned." I pointed out, as the eruption seemed to be slowing.

"I cannot have my officers brawling with each other like common street fighters! I could never accept that!"

"Which, of course, is why you would have to demote Mr. Cousins, despite his stellar past record." I added, now playing devil's advocate to an idea I hadn't liked much myself.

The Captain glared at me; his eyes fiery. I let him stew for a few moments, before I continued on, "It would work, Sir. And it is Mr. Brandon's idea."

He let the air escape him with a whoosh. "Oh, very well, but I don't like it at all." He closed his eyes. "Take two bottles of my best claret for the mess this evening, Horatio; get Mr. Cousins inebriated without being insensible; have him act the rest; keep it from all men who must not know, what our plan is. After I demote him..." His shoulders sagged. "I will offer him to Serenity as a means of getting him to appreciate Indefatigable. We must work out a signal system of some sort, but that can come tomorrow."

"Yes, Sir. We will be prepared." I said, backing for the door.

"Yes, yes, off with you, before I change my mind!"

He turned back toward the window, and I did as he commanded, never so relieved to be out of his office since the day I first came here.

***
"Another glass before the rest of our mess mates arrive, Reg." I instructed.

He frowned down at the ruby liquid, the tint of the two glasses already drunk in a short time span enough to stain his lips faintly. Taking a deep breath, he began on glass number three and I watched his throat bob as he swallowed. Six gulps and he paused for breath; then another six gulps to finish it of. With a half cough, he set the goblet down and wiped his mouth with his sleeve, his eyes tearing.

"Ugh!" He chewed on his lower lip, choking back a belch, his face growing ruddy. "My stomach!"

"Three glasses of claret, ten minutes, no food." Drew nodded sagely. "Not a happy effect."

Archie was the only other member of the mess present; Mr. Bowles and Forbes had been detained by the Captain for some phony reason. They would be here shortly, enough time to see the after effects of Mr. Cousins' indiscretion.

That is, if he can keep the wine down! "Steady, Reg!" Drew soothed, as his friend laid his head in his arm.

"And I've...urp...always LIKED the Captain's Claret..." He moaned.

"NOBODY can like this stuff when drunk that quickly on an empty stomach!" Drew pointed out. "How are you feeling?"

"Woozy." Reg sat up, propping his head on his arm. "No more, please!"

I sighed. "I think that's enough...the Captain will be releasing Bowles and Forbes soon. Your supposed to be getting belligerent, Reg."

"The only thing...(gulp)...I feel like getting is into my bed..." Cousins grasped at the table, as the ship lurched. "Was that me, or the ship?"

"The ship." I said, tight lipped. Bowles had predicted rough weather this evening, and increasingly I could feel him to be right. It was certain I would be confined to the ginger tea Drew had cooked up for me, and not touching the claret.

Archie raised his eyebrows. "Between the two of you, I am dearly afraid for the state of the mess floor in about ten minutes time!"

Cousins put his hand over his mouth. "Don't say mess!" He implored.

"Well, gentlemen, I trust you left us some food..."

Bowles and Forbes entered; our ships master casting a knowing look at me; my face must look ghastly. Forbes, however, immediately noted Mr. Cousins.

"Reg? Whatever is wrong with you? I have never known YOU to be sea-sick."

Reg took a deep breath, and then, bless him, threw himself into the performance for all it was worth. "Hullo...Drew, we've got LOBSTER for dinner...get it? Lobster!?? Ha!" He draped his arm around his friend.

"Um..." Drew looked at a stunned Forbes. "As you can see, Forbes, Reg has had a bit more claret than was prudent this evening."

Bowles sat down studying him warily. "That is most surprising, Mr. Cousins! I had not expected it of you."

Cousins leered and leaned forward over the table. "Bowlsie! When did you...urp...get here? Who's sailing the boat?"

"BOAT!" Bowles spat out. Then, with a very, very dark look, he proceeded to take a forkful of stew, but not before I could here him mutter very softly that Cousins should be damned glad not to be a midshipman right now.

Reg tried to stand suddenly. From the looks of it, I am not sure how much longer he is good for; and if he gets sick, I know I shall follow! He is obviously trying to get the worst of it over with.

"Think I'll go on up to the deck and check the weather!" He announced.

Drew, on cue, protested. "I do not think that would be wise, Reg." And he rose next to him.

"Oh, an' whooze gonna stop me, eh? YOU?" Reg teetered for the door. "Wonder how fast I can get up the riggings? I feel like I could fly!"

Forbes gasped. "Somebody stop him before he hurts himself...Horatio!"

I rose, but as Drew was next to Reg, naturally he would get there first. He gripped Reg's arm. "I cannot let you do this!" He said firmly.

And Reg swung round. "Bugger off, Drew!" And his fist flew forward.

Now, we had practiced this earlier...Reg's punch should just graze or even miss Drew entirely; then Reg would pin him to the ground. Reg was, after all, reluctant to hit his best friend. It looked splendid in sick berth before lunch.

However, the ship and the weather conspired against us, for as Reg threw his perfectly aimed shot, we pitched. Drew was thrown off balance, and was therefore not quite where Reg expected him to be...right at the end of his fist! Blood spattered; I saw a look of surprise on Drew's face, a look of horror and revulsion from Reg, and then they both went down, and finally Reg was sick to his stomach, from more than just the claret, I suspect.

"Pull them apart!" Bowles yelled; Forbes grabbed Reg and Archie tried to help up Drew.

"Forbes confine Mr. Cousins to his quarters!" I gulped, trying to keep my own food down. "Archie, take Drew to the medical berth, they ought not be in the same place this evening. Get Johnson to take a look at his nose." I did just that, and felt my stomach contract, but fought it. Reg looked over at Drew at the same time and then, between the wine, the tension, the emotion of what we were trying to pull off, and the sight of his best friend rendered bloody by his own hand, he lost it, and barely choked back a sob as he put his head down on his arm again.

And Forbes, with so much gentleness you might have thought he was in on the scam, raised a rather messy Cousins off the floor. "C'mon, Man...reckon you won't be that foolish again, eh?"

I looked at Bowles, who glanced grimly around the mess. "Mr. Hornblower, a terrible thing this is...you'll have to tell the Captain." He sighed. "I feel bad for Mr. Cousins...it's not like him at all, and I dare say we might have kept it quiet, but...for God's sake, he HIT Mr. Brandon."

"I know." Drew had been right; the weight of the infraction was magnified a thousand fold by the act of violence. "I shall go upstairs to report it now, I am afraid the Captain will be very angry."

"Yes." He threw his napkin down. "As if I could eat any more after this!" He waved his open arms around the mess...tipped wine glasses, spots of blood, and Reg's unplanned contribution...my throat constricted, and I hurried away.

***
"I thought you were going to try and avoid actual bloodshed, Mr. Hornblower?" The Captain snapped off tersely.

"That had been the plan, Sir." I admitted, seeing no point in going in to detail about the unfortunate run of the ship at the worst possible moment. He did not like hearing excuses any more than I liked giving them.

"Well..." He frowned, rubbing his hand at his temple. "I guess I have certain expectations to meet. I would imagine I am very angry."

"Seething, Sir." I encouraged.

"I would naturally pay a visit to Mr. Brandon in sick berth. Should I yell?" He spoke more to himself than to me, but I answered anyway.

"No, Sir. It would be more believable if you got just below the boiling point. Your at your most terrifying when you're quietly angry."

He looked at me with one raised eyebrow. "Am I?" He smiled ruefully. "Well, after the years we've served together, you ought to know." He coughed. "I guess there's no point in stalling, eh? Tonight, I can handle. The seething, as you put it. Worse will be tomorrow, when I will have to scold Mr. Cousins and demote him, when the truth is he has been and remains a vitally important member of my crew!" He shrugged. "You will be present, naturally, and I must have Mr. Bowles as well, else he would wonder. But, Horatio, prepare Mr. Cousins if you can...remember how furious I was with Bunting? This might have to be as bad! And HE has never seen that."

As bad as Bunting? Oh, dear. Poor Mr. Cousins, indeed!

***
We made our way swiftly down to sick berth, the Captain's face a dark ruddy scowl, his pace quick, but as clipped as his speech was. Every man shrank a little bit passed him; those whom had heard of our trouble (rumors fly on a ship like gulls to refuse) shook their heads sadly on Mr. Cousins' behalf.

Drew was laying back on the table, his head draped off of it, compressing his nose with a cloth. Johnson was soaking another compress with freezing cold seawater, and muttering darkly under his breath.

"Cwmptn Pllllwww!" Drew tried to say, attempting to rise and speak, but Johnson forced him down, as he greeted us.

"Captain, Mr. Hornblower. Forgive Mr. Brandon for not rising, but in order for the bleeding to stop, he must keep his head BACK." Damned, but I have never seen Johnson so angry.

"Sgt. Johnson." The Captain said formally, using Johnson's marine title. "How bad is the...damage...inflicted...so cowardly...on Mr. Brandon...by... Mr. Cousins?" The room seemed to get colder from the force of his words, and I shivered.

"Rggggg Dnnnnnnttt Mwwwnn ttttt hwwrt mmwww!" Drew protested, as expected. I believe he was trying to say that Reg didn't mean to hurt him, but his voice had gotten rather indistinct. Johnson forced his head back down and motioned for Drew to keep the pressure on his nose.

The Captain ignored him, and awaited Johnson's reply, which was swift. "By some miracle, Sir, the boy's nose ISN'T broken; just a bad bleed. It'll be rather ugly for a few days. But it could have been much worse."

"Indeed!" The Captain's scowl was deeper. "I shall speak with Mr. Cousins tomorrow morning. I do not trust myself to do so now." He said, so smoothly and evenly my stomach turned.

"CWMPTN!" Drew cried out, his eyes pleading. But the Captain just held up his hand, and Drew was still.

He turned one more time back to Johnson. "Sir, I would appreciate it if you would let me have a few moments alone with Mr. Brandon and Mr. Hornblower."

He nodded once. "Of course, Sir. Try not to keep that compress off of him for too long." And with a worried glance, Johnson strode away.

I waited well until the footsteps had faded and then helped Drew up to a semi-seated position. He quickly removed the bloody rag and is voice became understandable, if a bit nasal.

"Remind me next time we start playing espionage about how badly things go wrong for us, Sir!" He said with a vague sniffle. "How bad does it look?"

"A lovely shade of blue to match your eyes." I teased, handing him a fresh compress. "I think it's stopped bleeding, though."

"Have you checked in on Reg, yet? He must feel terrible."

"Because he hit you for real, or because he's got half a bottle of my best Claret in his stomach?" The Captain asked dryly.

My own stomach was quesy, as I remembered that in fact the Claret wasn't in his stomach any longer.

"Both I would expect." Drew tried to grin, but it came out badly. Then he turned his attention to me. "You look rather green, Horatio. There's ginger tea in the third drawer over there; have cook steep you some."

Pellew shook his head at Drew's unending calm. "You frighten me sometimes, Mr. Brandon. You do indeed."

"Yes, Sir." He admitted, without even a slight hint of apology.

"You understand that my conversation with Mr. Cousins is not likely to be pretty tomorrow?" He said, pacing the floor.

"That was the plan, after all, Sir. Hopefully the rest of it will go right." Drew murmured, and then placed the cold compress back on his face.

The Captain glowered again, then turned to me. "Have you and Mr. Cousins a plan for what he is to do on board Serenity? How he is to get us messages?"

This, at least, could make me smile. "Oh, we do Sir. His idea, in fact. Ingenious one, too."

And the Captain and Drew both looked at me, but I said nothing more. I wasn't taunting them; I couldn't say anything else, for at that moment the ship twisted again, and the inevitable I had been fighting happened.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of buckets in a sick berth!

***
"You...you sent for me...Sir?"

A very pale, very frightened Mr. Cousins reported first thing the next morning; Mr. Bowles to the side, and myself standing at attention.

The pale was natural; he really was still sick as a dog from last night. The fear was also natural, for I had found time about an hour ago to tell him first off that Mr. Brandon was fine, and understood the accident, but more importantly, exactly what he could expect to happen in Pellew's office this afternoon! And though he knew it was all for the benefit of others, he did not look forward to it one bit.

"Mr. Cousins." The Captain did not look up. "You will be happy to know that your outburst of violence towards Mr. Brandon has had no lasting results." He spoke plainly, still devoted to his log book.

"Sir, indeed, I am thankful..." Reg quavered.

"SILENCE!" He screamed, and Reg weakly shut his mouth. The Captain's dark eyes bore holes into him. "However thankful you are, does not erase the fact that an officer on board my ship found himself so inebriated that he was utterly and totally unable to control his behavior." He rose quickly and came just inches away from Reg, his body rigid. "And what of the NATURE of your crime, Mr. Cousins? Think about WHOM you struck, and in WHAT CONDITION you were in when you did it! A man...a FRIEND of yours...whom has lived first hand with the VIOLENCE created by an excess of drink, and you, Sir... YOU, SIR! HAVE VIOLATED HIS TRUST IN THE WORST WAY IMAGINABLE." With a deep breath, the Captain moved away, slowly, looking Mr. Cousins up and down.

Reg was shaking like a leaf, and looking as if he might be sick again. For God's sake, man, I thought. Hold it together. For all of our sakes.

The Captain sat wearily. "I am...disappointed, Mr. Cousins." He said, in a weary voice, and an image of Spain came back to me unbidden.

"Mr. Hornblower, see to it that Mr. Cousins things are moved back to the Midshipmen this afternoon."

I placed my hands behind my back and tried to look sadly at Reg. "Aye, Aye, Sir, though it saddens me to do it." I said, evidently most disgusted.

"It saddens me as well." He looked at Reg. "No defense, Mr. Cousins?"

Wisely, Reg slowly shook his head. "No, Sir. I have none."

"Indeed you do not." He cleared his throat. "Amends to Mr. Brandon you must make in your own way; however, amends to your standing on this ship must come from your performance. I have in mind to send you over to Serenity, as they have no capable signal man there, and lord knows you have proven yourself capable of THAT at least. Perhaps some time away from the Indefatigable will make you appreciate what chances you've had here. But no more on this now; I expect to find you in your new quarters within the hour. Am I understood."

"Yes, Sir. Aye, Aye, Sir."

And I walked him out the door, having to fight the very real urge to pat the man on the shoulder!

But as we walked down the dark corridor, where we could not be overheard, Reg whispered furtively, "Horatio?"

"Yes, Reg?"

"Remind me never to really cross the Captain. I do not want to ever repeat a scene like that again!"

I remembered a scene or two like that in my own past, and I did put a hand on his shoulder then.

"Believe me, I understand."

***
A still uneasy Reg Cousins climbed up the side of Serenity the next day. He understood too well the strangeness of his situation. Yes, he was on this mission precisely because Captain Pellew did trust and value him, and esteem his capabilities. But he was being sent to an owner and Captain who were reluctant to have him, with a cloud over his head. THEY would think he was under disciplinary action, and would probably guard their opinion of him accordingly. Truthfully, the staged interview with the Captain HAD been unnerving, even though he knew the man didn't mean what he'd been saying.

He found himself on the deck; a few men milled about, but nobody paid him any attention. "This is certainly not a Navy vessel," he mused privately.

"Well, well." A silky voice drawled. "It seems our guest has arrived."

Reg turned, the hair on his neck rising at the smooth words. "Yes, Sir. M-Midshipman Reginald Cousins, HMS Indefatigable." He stammered over the title just faintly.

A tall man with pale, pale blond hair and fair skin (why, the man made Drew look dark!) dressed in lavender silks addressed him. His attire and general poise made Reg think of a peacock. But his eyes were different. They were brown, much like the Captain or Horatio's, but there was neither the spark of wit and fire often in the Captain's eyes, or the intelligence and compassion in Horatio's. These eyes were dark and dead, like small bits of unlit coal, and just as welcoming.

The man smiled; his eyes remained glacial. "Formerly Acting Lieutenant Cousins. Yes, Pellew wrote me all about you."

Reg swallowed hard, and didn't know where to look, which he figured was the right, uncomfortable response anyway.

The peacock continued, "I, as you have probably guessed, am the Earl of Noth. You may, of course, address me as, My Lord."

"Yes...My Lord." Reg murmured, hoping he looked abashed.

"This must be quite a privilege for you, Mr. Cousins. Have you ever before met an actual Earl?"

"Yes, Sir; the Earl of Edrington sailed with us on a mission last..."

He never finished the answer; the Earl slapped him smartly across the face, and he gasped.

"I do not..." The Earl said, still smiling, "Like being contradicted."

"No, My Lord." Reg murmured, holding his hand to his face. He was beyond shock; the slap had not hurt so much as stunned him. He tried to imagine Captain Pellew striking one of his men in this manner, and could not. Nor, when it came down to it, could he imagine the Earl of Edrington doing so. *This man is dangerous The Captain was certainly right about that.*

"Here are the rules, former Lieutenant Cousins." The Earl's oily voice went on. "Though we have a Captain, I am the authority on this ship. I do not want you here, but have no choice, if I want to maintain the protection of your ship. When we need signaling, one of the men will fetch you. Otherwise, my best suggestion is that you keep your mouth shut and stay out of the way. I do not want any attempt by you to try and impose Navy regulations on my ship. If you do, you will be subject to MY justice. Do I make that clear, former Lieutenant Cousins?"

"Perfectly, My Lord." Reg took a deep breath. The man's contempt for him, and indeed for the Captain, was frightening. But he had a job to do. "My Lord, might I beg you for...an indulgence?" He asked, as meekly as he could.

"What sort of indulgence?" The Earl asked, sounding pleased with the submissive tone of his voice.

"My Lord, I have been engaged in a long running series of chess matches with a shipmate. I asked my Captain if I might signal back my chess moves to the Indefatigable, and he informed me I must request your permission. My Lord, I would be most humbly grateful." His own words nearly made him ill, even as he waited, betraying none of the tension he felt, for a reply.

"Your Captain, in his message to me, mentioned that you might be requesting a favor, and indicated that he had no objection to it himself." The cold eyes looked him over. "I have always understood chess to require a certain amount of intelligence. I am surprised you favor the game."

His face burned, but then, it was to his benefit that this man thought he was stupid. "I confess, My Lord, I am not very skilled, but I am trying to improve." Another deep breath. "You must play the game well, I am certain."

The eyebrows went up, much like Captain Pellew's but, oh, to different effect indeed. "I have no knowledge of chess, or any other frivolous game for that matter; I have no time. I may be nobility, but I am not an idle man. I leave such nonsense to those not driven for improvement."

"Of course, My Lord." Privately, Reg was relieved that the man was ignorant. It would make any... unorthodox...moves he might make to be less obvious.

"You may signal your arrival to the Indefatigable, and see if she has any instructions for us. Then please remove yourself and your uniform from my deck, if you will. Orson there..." He pointed to a wizened and toothless black man, who nodded grimly. "...will show you to your cabin. Try and stay out of the way for your own sake." Orson turned at that moment, and Reg was sickened to see that the man's back was roped with old scars, layers of them.

"Yes, My Lord." Reg watched with relief as the Earl, with no further words, left him. He would make his signals, and then find his cabin, and perhaps barricade himself inside for the rest of the trip! *No, thought Reg. I cannot do that. I have a job to do here. I am on a mission for Captain Pellew and for Horatio, and I will not let them down, no matter how much it pains me.*

He looked back to Orson's disfigured torso, and hoped it would not pain him too much!

***
Archie and I were hard at work in our quarters, going over the chess-based cipher I had worked out with Mr. Cousins. He had lent us his board, and to all appearances a game would be on-going, although it would be with some rather peculiar moves, depending on what situations we saw.

"Horatio?" Archie asked. "Whom will be interpreting Reg's signals?"

"Midshipman on duty, I suppose. He's supposed to be giving us updates at mid-day, more often if necessary."

At that moment, Mr. Anderson knocked at the doorway. "Mr. Hornblower? Captain Pellew asked me to relay any signals that came in from Mr. Cousins directly to you, and we've just received word from him." His brow was slightly wrinkled.

Archie smiled at me, and I have to say I was relieved. "Quite right, Mr. Anderson. The message is?"

Anderson answered promptly. "We received indication that he has arrived, Sir, along with another message..." He paused for only the smallest second. "E5, Sir. That is what he signaled. I am confident I did not get it wrong."

I bit back the urge to grin. He was not at all confident that he didn't get it wrong! Because the message from the ever-reliable and intelligent Cousins made no sense. And he was just waiting for me to question it sharply.

"An excellent message, Mr. Anderson; quite what I was expecting." I caught the brief expression of relief on his face. "In fact, don't be surprised if you receive similar messages in the future. Back about your duties now."

"Aye, Aye, Sir." He was confused but happy to know he HADN'T made a mistake.

Only when he left did Archie carefully move a pawn into the e5 position. We had decided that we would plot the pieces out as called for, even when it seemed nonsensical, in case anyone should question our little game. But with the strange system of notation we were using, it was doubtful that the messages or notes would make sense to anyone, even if they did know chess.

"What do you call this notation system again, Archie?"

"Algebraic." He said, studying the board for a moment. "Very commonly used except for England, Spain and the new world. "I had a German tutor once, and it is he who taught me chess. Mr. Cousins' teacher, in Madeira, likewise must have learned the game in Portugal."

"I see." I wrote the move down in my booklet, and then Archie and I looked with meaning at each other.

"Successful. Proceeding with caution". I said, quietly. It was a pawn move in the "e" column, this meant both that he saw no threat of the code being unraveled...and he had already reached an opinion-a negative one-on the trustworthiness of his new shipmates. Not enough to be clearly actionable, but I trust his judgement.

"Well, we shall have to acknowledge him back. Think Anderson can stand the suspense?" He said, and he tried to smile.

But it was no use. If Mr. Cousins was not comfortable, then neither was I.

****
Reg was down in what passed as his quarters, and wondered what the hell he had gotten himself into. The room was nothing more than a tiny closet, with enough room for him to sling a hammock. His duffel rested beneath him, and there was a lantern. It held little fuel, though, and he feared having to ask for more.

The ship itself was, at first impression, one he might have been proud to sail on, if not for the circumstances and for the Earl. But he'd learned that was only the case from the outside; she put up a good appearance, but her care was shoddy, her men indifferent or worse, and she'd had some unusual alterations at the hands of the earl. No, he'd decided that he'd be Captain Pellew's oarsman on a shore boat before he'd wish himself an officer here.

But where to go, and what to do with himself? He'd tried to question Orson, but the man had been mute. On the Indy it would have been insubordination; here he'd figured the man had been told to not talk to the unwelcome quest. But a disreputable looking hard bitten old-timer named Barman offered an explanation, forcing Orson to open his toothless mouth for Reg. Giving Reg the ample opportunity to see that at some point in time the man's tongue had been removed. He didn't want to know how.

There was some consolation from this Barman's tales, and that is that the man's scars were not a result of floggings here; Orson had been a slave in America, and had felt the lash there. Probably that's where he'd been mutilated as well, but the possibility that it had happened here was enough to keep Reg from asking about it.

About half an hour ago, he'd found the officer's mess, for the four men who in some way qualified as officers. He had known he was unwelcome immediately. He would not learn about any disreputable goings-on from her crew, that was certain. No, he would have to exhibit more cunning. And he needed to be careful about it, too.

The Earl had sought him out, only to inform him of his food arrangements. He would receive standard food issue from the steward: cheese, beef, potato and biscuit. He was not welcome to eat with the Earl's men. He could station himself above decks or below, or hang himself from the ratlines, for all the man cared, as long as he stayed out of the way. The last words the Earl had said were how to find the steward, because he should not be expecting to have meals served to him!

And with a sigh, Reg slid off the hammock, and went to the corridor, in search of food.

Naturally it wasn't that easy. It had become clear that nothing here would be. The configuration was strange, owing to some of the Earl's modifications to the ship, and he was afraid he'd gotten hopelessly lost, when he found himself in somewhat familiar surroundings.

He'd found the sick berth.

It was smaller than the one on Indefatigable, naturally. But very much like the one on the Indy, and that was remarkable. Because Drew, and Johnson with him, were not orthodox about how they ran their little world. They kept it so relentlessly and perfectly clean that it was almost without odor...the only place on the ship where that could be said to be true. It was a warm place, when not in battle, and a cheerful one, but he'd decided that was largely a function of the men who worked in there. It had not been true during Hepplewhite's days.

But here? On a ship that did not have normal odors, but instead stank to high heavens in some places? Serviced by men without real discipline or real officers, who were many of them in no reputable condition themselves? How is it such a sick berth came to be here? Reg stood there, taking in the atmosphere, and missing his friend Drew so badly it hurt. What if this were the Indy, right now? Reg closed his eyes and imagined Drew addressing him with almost mock formality: "Good day, Mr. Cousins. Care for a bit of tea, to take the edge off the cold?"

"Good day, Sir. Can I offer you some coffee? It is a cold day outside."

Reg whirled around and then came up abruptly. It was not the Earl, thank God, but a man he did not know. A very tall one, he was certainly over six feet, and he looked powerful as well. He was not in his first youth, perhaps Captain Pellew's age; his graying hair was worn long and loose, his skin was dark but his manner was English. His face was placid and...was it real or was he desperate?...his eyes were kind.

And throwing caution perhaps to the wind, he stammered out, "I thank you, Sir. Is it possible you would have tea instead?" Shyness came upon him as he made the request, as well as fear, for he was certain he was violating some edict of the Earl's.

"I have chamomile tea, young man." The man moved towards a small table and a spirit lamp. "But perhaps a brew of willow-bark might do you well."

Willow bark! An excellent idea, for his head was pounding. "I thank you again, Doctor. Willow bark is a good idea, I believe."

The man regarded him curiously as he motioned to a stool. "You assume I am a doctor?"

"This is obviously your habitat, and you have offered me willow bark, besides." Reg explained, as he took a seat, looking cautiously about.

"And you have accepted willow bark, which I can assure you is NOT usual for sailors. A remedy of your mother's, perhaps?"

"No, Sir; a remedy of my own ship's Doctor." And he smiled, though an image of Drew once again made him homesick, and he feared to talk more.

"I see." The Doctor said no more, but he gave a slight chuckle; perhaps he'd not expected to encounter another innovative physician out at sea. "The water shall boil eventually, so we must have some conversation. I know you are our guest from the navy ship that escorts us. Do you have a name?"

"Lieutenant Reginald Cousins...I mean..." Reg felt his face fluster over the wrong title, "...Midshipman Reginald Cousins, HMS Indefatigable."

"Ah, yes." The Doctor looked politely away at his confusion. "I did hear the Earl..." The man's face flinched in disgust, for only a second. "...mention your unfortunate demotion. You do not seem a man, I must say, to give in to an excess of drink."

"I'm not, normally. It was a moment's indiscretion." He felt mortified anyway; he hadn't cared if the Earl thought him stupid, but he did not want this Doctor to have so low an opinion of him.

"A youthful mistake, eh? Well, most men do make them. Though I am surprised that your Captain demoted you for one error." He looked a question at him, and somehow Reg felt compelled to answer.

"I...er...got a little rambunctious...and hit another man. A friend and fellow officer, in fact." Again, there was a little stab of pain; he remembered Drew's bloody face when that punch had landed.

"Surely the ship's doctor, whom you obviously think so highly of, might not have reported the indiscretion."

Well, naturally, Reg thought, but as the man I hit WAS the ship's doctor, and as the entire point of the staged fight was to get me demoted, reporting the incident was inevitable. "It's a rather complicated situation, Sir."

"And it landed you here, eh? Well, you're atoning for your sin pretty well, I should say." With precision and gentleness, the Doctor put his hand under Reg's chin and touched gingerly the spot where the Earl had struck him. "You're as popular a guest here as I am, only you are vulnerable because of your age and because unlike myself, you have no connection to the crown."

"Guest?" Reg asked, as the Doctor turned back to steep the tea. "You are not the ship's doctor?"

"I have made myself useful during this voyage; it took me the entire journey from Brindisi to Gibraltar to make this place decent. But I am here because the Earl was requested by a very important ambassador...an old friend of my father's...to return me to England. I am expected at the court of his Majesty, having been recommended to him by old friends. When one's king calls, you must answer the beacon."

"Oh." Reg accepted the offered cup, and took a deep sip of the bitter but familiar brew. A quandary, this man was; no, he was a thousand of them! A skilled doctor, not connected to the Earl closely (he said) who sounded English, but looked anything but. True, he was the one friendly face he had seen so far, but might that not be on purpose? Yes, he was a quandary, and in his current situation, a quandary was a bad thing. "May I ask your name, Doctor?" He said, looking at him very frankly.

"You may, Mr. Cousins. I am Doctor Luis Sebastian." His eyes crinkled faintly. "And yes, Mr. Cousins, I am of Spanish descent."

Reg blushed, but gave the man a smile. "You read me well, Sir. I hope you do not feel insulted."

"No, it is a question I am well used to; in fact, you were behaving with more tact than most. My father was as English as you are, a diplomat, in fact, and my mother was a Spaniard." Dr. Sebastian had allocated some of the boiling water for his own coffee, which he now poured. "And of course, we are at war with Spain, and so you feel you must judge me, eh?"

Reg looked at him in surprise. He had not Drew's ready wit, or Horatio's sharp intelligence (in fact he felt his shipmates often over-estimated him in that regard). So it took him a second to understand his own reaction, and another few seconds to form a way of articulating it. "I suppose, Doctor, that every man will try and judge another. But if you will, Sir, I believe I had already made a judgement of you before I had even seen you."

"How so, Mr. Cousins?" Sebastian sat back, regarding him with amusement.

Reg shrugged, and looked around. "I judged you, I guess, based on your sick berth. I assumed you to be a man like...like our own Doctor."

"And now that you have met me?"

"I am...I am told...a good judge of people...and I do not believe my original estimate to be far off. There are things, of course, that I must take your word on, but as a whole, I think you are an honorable man."

"So I am like your Doctor, then?"

Reg had a vision of Drew, who seemed to be topping out at about 5'6", and who was slight, and had only begun shaving this year, for heaven's sake, standing next to this tall, powerful man with his dark skin and graying black hair, and saying that they were alike. And he laughed, a remarkable thing for as dark as his mood had been a scant few minutes before.

"In appearance, truly not! But otherwise..." Reg thought of how Drew might greet a strange young man in unhappy circumstances, when he would be in middle age. "I believe you are cut from the same cloth."

"Ah." Dr. Sebastian, slowly raising his cup, perhaps savoring the aroma of the strong coffee as much as the beverage itself, seemed to understand. He looked over the rim at Reg, without in any way making him feel uncomfortable. Yet, those eyes, he was certain, saw much that other men would miss.

"Do you wish to know how I judge you, Mr. Cousins?" Dr. Sebastian murmured. "I believe, Sir, that you have a tendency to underestimate yourself badly. And I cannot for the life of me see any captain with intelligence...and I have always heard Captain Pellew of the Indefatigable had more than his share of that...would let you be demoted. I would be very curious, Sir, to know just why you are here."

Terror struck Reg. He had let his guard down. He had forgotten to be stupid and penitent and remorseful, and had instead foolishly allowed himself to act naturally in what was a very homey environment. But this was not Drew's sick berth. This was not Drew. This was a man who claimed to know the King, yet admitted to being half Spanish. He felt certain the man was a good man, but he did not KNOW it to be true, and could not risk his life, or the lives of his shipmates from whatever folly the Earl was planning, in trusting him.

"I do not understand your meaning, Doctor. I made a mistake, I hit a man, a young man who is practically a son to the Captain, and I quite understand that an example had to be made." Reg cast his eyes downward, staring into the murky remnants of the cup.

There was a long, indulgent sigh. "Of course, Mr. Cousins. You must know the truth of your situation, and I have no reason not to believe you."

There was an awkward pause. Reg knew he ought to ask for directions to the steward and remove himself quickly. But remove himself to where? There was no other friendly place on the ship. Finally, he spoke with hesitancy, "How, may I ask, did you hear of Captain Pellew?"

"From an old friend of mine, Mr. Cousins. The Earl of Edrington."

Reg looked up sharply. "Major Edrington?" He repeated, afraid of what he had heard.

"Indeed." Dr. Sebastian nodded. "Major Edrington was most impressed with the Captain and his men. I seem to remember..." Dr. Sebastian froze in mid-sentence, suddenly, and a chill ran up Reg's spine, but did not know why.

Until the voice spoke from the doorway. "Former Lieutenant Cousins, I thought I requested that you not associate with any of my men?"

Reg, sick to the heart, turned slowly on the stool to face an inscrutable Earl of Noth. "I...I..."

"I am not one of your men, My Lord." Dr. Sebastian said, smoothly. The tone made Reg think of Captain Pellew, and helped Reg find his own voice.

"I...am sorry...My Lord...I was lost on the way to the steward, and the Doctor was kind enough to offer me some willow-bark tea."

"It is true, Dr. Sebastian is a passenger and not one of my men." The Earl smiled, and Reg felt even sicker. "So I will not have you punished, this time. But you should know that if I ever do find you disobeying the rules, then you will need more than willow-bark tea to aid your recovery. I am not so spineless as your Captain."

Reg seethed, forgetting his fear when he heard Captain Pellew referred to as SPINELESS. I WILL ENJOY BRINGING YOU DOWN, SIR. Reg thought, his pulse beating at his temples. I WILL ENJOY BRINGING YOU DOWN FROM WHATEVER GAME YOU ARE PLAYINNG, AND I WILL ENJOY TELLING YOU THAT YOU WERE BROUGHT DOWN BECAUSE THE SPINELESS CAPTAIN PELLEW SAW RIGHT THROUGH YOU FROM THE START.

Outwardly, his face went pale, and he blinked and looked down. He was not certain that he trusted his voice to speak.

The Earl was beside him, up so close he could smell him, with a suddenness that made him finally understand what Drew must have gone through his entire life. The Earl reached out roughly towards his head, but a slight shift from the supposedly neutral Dr. Sebastian arrested him, and he paused, only to speak harshly: "Look into my eyes, boy!"

Reg did as commanded, trying to recall the fear he'd seen on Drew's face, when his friend learned he was to be sent home. That was about the way to play it; terror beneath a veneer of calm. He hoped he could mimic that look.

The Earl sneered and dropped his arm, as if he'd never meant to hurt him at all. "Worthless! Pellew would have been better off seeing you flogged to death rather than demote you. At least then you would not have taxed the food supply." The Earl backed away, then turned at the passage. "Speaking of food, you have missed your dinner. The steward cannot be bothered now. You must wait for breakfast, unless someone takes pity on you." He looked rather cheery at the thought. "Good day, Mr. Cousins." The vile man disappeared as suddenly as he had arrived.

Reg's breath came fast, his face he could feel was mottled red in a mix of fury and shame. Dr. Sebastian patted him on the arm.

"Well done, Mr. Cousins. It's best for you to appeal to the Earl's need to keep you in abject terror. I have more protection than you do. Though..." The Doctor continued, "...I must caution you, the Earl does not make idle threats. I will help you as much as I can, should he decide to carry them out; but I do not know how much that would be. I would report any incidents to my connections, of course, but that would be of little consolation to you if you are maimed for life."

"I understand, Dr. Sebastian. I'll be careful." Reg knew now what sort of man he was up against; angering him and ending up flogged or worse would prevent him from fulfilling his duty to the Captain. Reg was not a physical coward, but the idea of not coming through on a mission was unacceptable.

"Yes, well, fortunately there is no need for you to be careful AND hungry. I have my own provisions with me; can I interest you in some biscuit and cheese, and some dried beef? It is not much, but there are apples too."

"Sir, we have a long journey ahead of us. I would not wish to deprive you of food you might need later."

"You deprive me of nothing, I can assure you. I came well prepared on this journey for I did not trust the Earl to do so. Your company would be most welcome. And perhaps, if reluctant to talk about yourself, you would be willing to tell me something of this Doctor of yours. I am most intrigued."

Reg smiled again, glad that this man would not ask questions he could not allow himself to answer. "That, Doctor Sebastian, would be my joy to do."

***
A Letter to Angelina Danini, from Horatio Hornblower:

February 24

Dearest Angelina...

I found myself this evening seated with my old friend Archie Kennedy, watching him write to his wife. Why, I asked him, do you write a letter, when you know it will be two weeks or more before you have an opportunity to send it? Because, he answered, if I write to her a little bit every day, it is as if a part of her is here with me, and I miss her less. And I hope that I might find some of the same relief in the feeble effort I am making now.

Forgive me; I know I am not well-versed at expressing the thoughts in my heart. Were I to write to you on the details of how the ship's sails are set, I might be able to wax poetic. I wish now that I asked Archie what he writes to his wife; do his letters resemble a diary of his life on the ship and its minute details, or does he dream of the future on paper?

I remember with great longing our conversations during our brief acquaintance in Gibraltar. And I ask myself what should I like to talk to you about, if I could be with you in your shop, drinking tea and eating biscotti, like all of those times we would talk about everything from Venice, the ancient poets, or the state of the war. What should I like to tell you, that I cannot talk of with anyone else?

And here it is: Angelina, I am scared. Frightened beyond what anyone would ever believe me capable of. Because I have sent a valued young man on a mission putting him in danger, in a situation that becomes more and more troublesome every day. It is all the worse because I like this man; I have begun to consider him a friend. He's but eighteen, his entire life before him, and I don't like to think of him suffering because of a decision I made.

I look around me, at the other men who I consider friends and mentors. They all have an impression about me...the Captain feels I am destined to make my mark in the Navy, and Archie, as well, has said as much to me many times. Drew is perhaps more familiar with my human failings, but even still, he would be shocked to know just how scared I am. And I am shamed by it.

I am not a hero, Angelina. I do not even feel that I am a remarkable man. Yet others will insist on telling me that I am both of these things, and the more that happens the more I feel I must push my real self into hiding, lest I let the people I care about down.

The young man whose life I have currently risked, Reg Cousins, is a good friend of Drew's; a man who has loyalty and courage as well as brains. I have watched him over the years, and seen him meet the world without fear, throwing himself into danger, not recklessly, but with strength and sureness. What would he think of me if he knew I were staying up at night, worried for his safety, in a situation he entered into with open eyes?

This is not much of a love letter, I suppose. But I will have you, at least, know me at my worst. Somehow, in some way, I find myself able to say things to you, even if only on paper, that I cannot to another human being.

How is it possible I can miss you so much, when we had only a scant week of acquaintance? In my rare moments of idleness, I see your face, your eyes, hear your voice, and long to again touch you. Why am I so blessed?

For whatever reason you will have me, I am undyingly yours...

Horatio.

 

February 25th-Serenity

Reg stood in the cold, having sent the day's signals, convinced he was a complete and utter failure of the worst kind. He took the cup of warm grog he had gotten from the steward...heavily watered down, as no doubt had ordered by the Earl, clutching it in his hands, more for warmth than for thirst. But though the warmth touched his hands, it couldn't reach inside his heart.

This was a sick ship...as bleak as they came. But he could have borne that, if he could have garnered any information at all that would be of use to Captain Pellew. But there was none. He was certain, dead certain, that the Earl was not quite right. But he did not dare converse with the men in a way beyond their duties, not with the Earl or his lackey, "Captain" Purcell always about, just waiting for him to put one foot wrong.

A scream, repeated for the twenty-fourth time, echoed in his ears. He shivered, but didn't move his eyes from the horizon and the distant Indy.

This was the fourth man flogged in the three days Reg had been here. And the day was still young, he thought with bitter sarcasm. There might yet be another. Hell, it might even be him.

Another hellish scream, one that tore at his soul, as salt water was tossed over what he knew would be the raw meat of the man's back. If he were bothering to drink the grog, he wouldn't have been able to keep it down.

The Earl had made him watch the first flogging, two days ago, and Reg had cowered as expected, looking down-cast and terrified. He wasn't certain it was an act anymore. But he had not been dragged to witness anything since, and Reg was glad. He was numb. And he was alone.

Dr. Sebastian made a welcome friend that first night. They sat up, eating the meager feast, and Reg had talked of Drew and his ways, and how much he had learned, the respect he commanded from all the men despite his young age. Dr. Sebastian encouraged him, seemed impressed, expressed a wish he could meet this remarkable young man. Reg had gone back to his pathetic cabin feeling not so alone, not so friendless.

But dawn had made him angry with himself for his indiscretion. Not only had he shown too much of his own nature through the conversation, but he'd given away much about Drew. If Major Edrington was an "old friend" as he had said, was it not possible Sebastian knew Drew's father or his brothers? What if it was Army brother, who'd caused Drew all the trouble the last time? If word got back to Lord Exton that Drew was practicing medicine...DEAR GOD, Reg thought, WHAT HAVE I DONE?

*You have permitted yourself to be lulled into a false sense of security.* He cringed, loathing himself as he did so. *Dr. Sebastian got more information out of you in one evening, by sensing your desperation, than you have gotten out of anyone here for three days. Horatio asked you to take on this mission because he felt you could do this...hell, he'd been apologetic, about the demotion and the chicanery, but ultimately it had been a vote of confidence. And how have you repaid him?*

"Ah, Mr. Cousins...it is good to see you are still alive." Dr. Sebastian was by his side. "You'll freeze, standing at the rail like that for no purpose."

"Dr. Sebastain." Reg said by way of a greeting. His own voice sounded lifeless. He'd been avoiding the man ever since that first evening, but his only option at this moment was to run back to his own dreary cabin. "There is another man who's been flogged. Have you come to treat him?"

"I have seen him. But I will not treat him."

"The Earl won't allow it?"

"The Earl would not cross me. But still I will not treat him, for he is dead. May the lord have mercy on his soul; it is certain he found little mercy in life." Dr. Sebastian's hand shook slightly as he pulled a cigar from his coat, and struck a flint. Reg watched, mesmerized, anything to keep his mind off of this last bit of news. The smoke trailed away thinly, evaporating into nothingness, and Reg wished it would take him with it.

"Dr. Sebastian, you are a guest here as I am. But you have sailed on Serenity longer. What...hold can he have on these men? In the Navy, you are sworn to your ship and your Captain, and cannot leave, but these men are civilians. Why do they stay in such conditions?" He was desperate to understand something, anything of this situation.

"As you say, I too am a guest here. Some of the men...the worst of them...I believe are well compensated for their service, and they do not scruple as to what that service is." The Doctor's disgust was evident.

Reg understood suddenly. "Mercenaries." Men for hire, willing to do all, risk all...but for what? What was the Earl offering? "The other men?"

"The man Orson, for one...I have heard he is an escaped slave from America. If he left the ship, to where would he run? And the others...they are seamen, it is certain, yet they stay. I do not think I underestimate your intelligence when I say I believe you can guess why."

Reg scanned the ship. Several of the men, the "lower" men on the ship, the ones most likely to taste the lash or whatever else the Earl had a mind to dish out that day, walked with their heads low, occasionally he had caught furtive glances at the Indefatigable, or the Dunbarton. Not wistful looks, but fearful ones. They knew their business, but were scared to death.

"Deserters." Reg whispered to the breeze.

"It seems to me to be probable." Dr. Sebastian shrugged sadly. "Men who must always run forever. Whatever they left behind, I am certain they never imagined themselves here."

Reg let a faint moan escape his lips. Men with a built-in fear of the Navy, who would risk hanging if they so much set foot on the Indefatigable. These men would not trust him. They might not be mercenaries, but the Earl owned them as much as if he had bought them. He looked back out to the Indy, wishing to have the Captain or Horatio here for guidance, for he was at a loss on what to do next.

The Doctor followed his gaze. "Mr. Cousins, I do not know why you are here. I sense you fear me. I also sense you want to trust me. That is...unusual."

"I am following my orders, Dr. Sebastian." He said, with a quiet despair.

"Yet you cannot tell me what those orders are, I suppose." He took another long drag at the cigar, exhaling slowly. The sound of the waves filled Reg's ears. "But perhaps I can put your mind at ease on other matters."

"It is very doubtful, Sir."

"And yet I should like to try." Reg glanced sideways, and noticed the thin smile the Doctor wore. "I believe we spoke for many hours about your friend, Drew, the young doctor. I think it did you well to speak of him, and relieved your...homesickness...if you will...for your ship."

"Rubbish." Reg said, his face red. "An officer has no business being homesick. Even a recently demoted midshipman." His voice was bitter.

"Ah, I had forgotten, when a man becomes an officer, he ceases to be human." There was a touch of humor in his voice. "But I remember the conversations about Indefatigable that I had with the Earl of Edrington. I remember the Earl saying that there was a young man named Drew on board, the son of Lord Exton. He did not mention in what capacity the man was serving, however."

And *I* did! Oh, God! Reg thought, his stomach quavering.

"Lord Exton is a fool." The Doctor spoke deliberately. "I sailed with him on my way out to Italy...I believe he was attending to his daughter's wedding in Gibraltar. He was in pain. I offered him help. He cursed me."

"Yes, well...that would be Lord Exton." Reg began to be confused.

"Your friend...suffered very much, am I right?"

"Sometimes, he suffers still." Reg whispered.

Dr. Sebastian nodded. "A child does suffer. More than anyone realizes."

"Please..." Reg couldn't bear it. "Please, I must ask you, Dr. Sebastian, do not mention to anyone what function Drew performs on our ship..."

Dr. Sebastian looked stunned. "Of course I should not do so! My profession has not enough men like your friend...I am not so afraid of competition that I could ever destroy a career that sounds so promising. Is THAT why you are avoiding me? Rest assured on that account, then."

Reg felt some of the great burden he'd been carrying slip away. Not all of it, but enough. "I thank you, Doctor."

"Hm. As for the rest of your...mission, what ever it may be..." The Doctor finished his cigar and threw the last of it out into the ocean. "There is a passageway...runs beyond sick berth. I have heard men there, late at night. I do not know what they are planning, and did not care to hear, since MY mission is to return to my King as planned. Perhaps, though...you will find the answers to your own questions there."

Reg glanced quickly around, but there was nobody near enough to have heard their conversation. And without another word, Dr. Sebastian was away.

A trick...it might be a trick, Reg thought. His instinct told him Dr. Sebastian was a good man. His head told him that the Doctor might have been playing him like a pianoforte.

But he had to DO something. He had learned nothing yet, and this was his first real lead. What was the worst that could happen to him? If found he would feign innocence and play stupid, pretend to be lost. The Earl would flog him, of that he was certain, but still...it was worth the risk. He'd rather be flogged than fail his ship.

This evening, he thought, I will learn something, or I will die trying.

***
February 25th, Indefatigable

"What does Mr. Cousins' news add up to so far, Gentlemen?" Captain Pellew addressed Archie and myself in his cabin just before sundown.

"Not much, Sir." Archie admitted. "The signals so far have indicated he feels the Earl is not trustworthy, but he also indicates no concrete news."

"I'm sorry we have not learned more, Sir." I added, softly.

He sighed. "As am I. I feel certain that something is amiss here, but all Mr. Cousins can indicate so far is no more than what I guessed at. The Earl must be a very cunning man." His brow furrowed, and I shifted my feet.

"Sir, it is but three days, and the travel has been slow. Perhaps he just needs more time." Archie pointed out.

"Perhaps. Well, at least if there is treason happening, I know I have one man there on our side." He looked at me sharply. "You don't think Mr. Cousins would be tempted to play a lone hand, do you, Mr. Hornblower?"

I gulped. "No, Sir! Anything he learned he would report at once. He is a good man, and will follow orders."

He wiped his hands over his face, rubbing his eyes. "Oh, I know that full well, I suppose. I don't like that he's over there on my foolish mission. Especially as it begins to seem that I've imagined the whole thing."

HIS foolish mission? "Sir?" I began, but he cut me off.

"That's enough, Mr. Hornblower. I am at the point of requesting his services back, just for my own sanity. He has saved my life once, I would be loath to repay that by having him killed on a fool's errand."

Before I could speak, Archie jumped in.

"So YOU'RE worried about him too, Sir? I admit, I have not been able to shake a feeling of unease. I thought I was being fanciful."

Archie's been feeling uneasy? When? He has never seemed anything but positive in the past days!

"It's not fancy, I'm afraid, Mr. Kennedy. My concern grows." The Captain looked at me. "Did you give him a signal to use for immediate relief?"

Still reeling from the shock, it took a second for me to answer his question. "I...oh...yes, Sir. Nd8."

Archie chose to explain what was obviously nonsensical to him. "Knight to the D 8 square, the King. Calling in the Knights. Calling for help."

"Hmmph." The Captain frowned again, and turned to gaze out of his windows. "Well, he has not done so yet, gentlemen, so I think despite our fears, we shall leave him to work a while longer. He would probably be most insulted to learn we ever worried. You are dismissed."

I walked out behind Archie, whose face had returned to its placid good nature, and glanced back at the Captain, who now wore the stoic countenance I was most used to. And yet they, too, felt the fear going through my mind.

The Captain looked up and caught my glance, and tried to give me a tight smile. "Do try and get some sleep, Horatio."

I nodded, with more understanding now. "I believe, Sir, that I will sleep as much as you will."

February 25th, Serenity...Evening

"If I am going to keep a habit of doing secret work for the Captain, I am going to have to request a new wardrobe." Reg thought, perhaps in a fit of gallows's humor. Standard issue white shirts did nothing to aid his desire to make himself inconspicuous. Quelling a slight shake of his hand, he removed his shirt entirely and instead took his cloak and fastened it up to his throat. It was slightly cumbersome, but at least it was dark. He then wound his neck-cloth loosely around his face, and quietly opened the door.

The ship was deep in slumber; he could hear the timbers creak and moan with the motion of the ship. The weather was growing rough; he had worked with Mr. Bowles long enough to pick up a sense of a storm. He wondered if bad weather would help or hinder his efforts.

He moved with surprising subtlety despite his height, sliding through the shadows. He had played a game with his brothers as a child, where he would seek them out where they were hidden, and on a large farm there had been many, many places to hide. He had learned to be quiet, to find ways to fit in places that ought not hold him, to scale heights and balance along fence-posts in secret. It had turned out to be wonderful training.

Past the sickberth now, he thought. He spied the dingy half hidden space the Doctor had indicated and slouched down to go through it.

The passageway went on, into the bowels of the ship. To be certain, he had never seen such a thing on any legitimate ship; perhaps the Earl was smuggling. It was as good a guess as any.

The corridor ended abruptly in a tiny room, and Reg gagged. There were several crates here, but whatever was in them...the stench was unreal. He bound his kerchief even tighter over his mouth.

Distantly he heard footsteps, and he shuffled into the corner, lodging himself deeply between two crates and drawing into the shadows. He forced his breathing to remain calm and quiet as Two men came into his view, under a narrow halo of lamp light. He drew back quietly, hearing something scuttling away behind him. A rat? He'd rather not know, but between the ship's rats and the human ones before him, he'd take the four legged kind.

"Y'hear somethin'?" The first man asked. Reg recognized Barman, who settled himself on a crate and poured whiskey, passing it on to his friend.

The figure_head captain, Purcell, was with him, and settled across. "Aye. Rats. Getting worse, they are. Not surprising, when you consider."

Both men laughed in a way that made Reg want to gag even worse than the stench did.

"Fitz comin' tonight?" Barman asked.

"Supposed to. Weather's not been cooperating, an' were a few days behind schedule. But it'll be soon, four days at the most."

"Unless this weather does worsen, gentlemen." The oily voice that had become the stuff of Reg's nightmares spoke from the doorway.

Both men turned, with more camaraderie than they showed the man above decks. "Aye, Fitz, a storm'll put us right off." Purcell murmured, pouring the Earl whiskey. "But our friends will wait, I suppose."

"Oh, they'll wait, gentlemen. They've paid us well enough for their prizes, they cannot afford to be impatient." The Earl looked around, and frowned distastefully. "The smell grows worse, gentlemen. We cannot do anything about it, I imagine?"

"Too many eyes, Fitz. The men, but especially that Dago doctor and the boy."

"The boy is an idiot. I wouldn't worry about him." Fitz gave a cold smile.

"An idiot, he may be, but he's Captain Pellew's idiot. I've heard about Pellew, Fitz!"

Purcell and the Earl both laughed. "This time two weeks from now Pellew will be on trial in Paris, if not beheaded already. And the Indefatigable will be on the bottom of the ocean. No, it's Sebastian has me worried."

"Don't understand why you didn't get rid of him first off."

Purcell shook his head. "Doctor that well in with the crown, disappears on our way to England? Couldn't risk having folks poking around us before we were close. This way, he disappears the same time Pellew does, and the Navy is disgraced for allowing it to happen."

Fitz chuckled. "Disgraced indeed. I'd like to be there when Hood realizes that his best ships were handed over to an imposter, and nobody realized it."

Reg was sick, terrified and furious, and remained as still as a stone. Idiot? Pellew's Idiot? 'And proud of it.' He thought, in confused ire. Pellew at the guillotine? The Indy on the bottom of the ocean? Not if he had anything to do about it. Imposter? The Navy disgraced? Never.

'Captain Pellew had your number.' He thought angrily. 'You will pay dearly for underestimating him.'

He shook his head out. 'Can't work this out now. Just listen.'

But there wasn't much more. They had another round of drinks and laughed about men Reg didn't know, incidents from Italy. And then they broke apart, leaving one after another and extinguishing the room in darkness.

Only as the last footsteps faded did he rise, trembling and cold. He wanted to run without regard out of this place, jump overboard and swim to the Indefatigable if he had to. But he couldn't. He must stay, and figure out how to report what he had learned.

He moved forward stealthily, snaking his way out of the long hidden passage. It was just as he entered the main corridor that a hand went over his mouth, and strong arms held him firmly. He struggled in vain as he was pulled away into the darkness.

***
Reg continued to struggle for a few seconds, terrifying images fleeting through his mind of the worst that could be about to happen, until a rich voice whispered in his ear, "Be still, my friend. You have been ill, and must get to sick berth, where you have been all night. Be still, please."

And without thinking, Reg understood. Dr. Sebastian had him on a hammock and hastily withdrew the cloak, covering his shivering, bare torso with a scratchy blanket. The cloak Reg could hear being stuffed somewhere, and he kicked his shoes off.

Dr. Sebastian lit a dim lamp, and in a few seconds, footsteps thundered along the passageway, and the Earl burst in.

"He is HERE?" He snarled, heading for Reg. Reg's shivering was real enough, and he drew the blanket up closer.

Dr. Sebastian stood before the Earl, a force to be reckoned with, and answered stoutly. "Yes, he is here, Sir. From his hours on deck today he has caught a chill; he came to me for tea earlier this evening and I wished to keep him under my watch."

The Earl was seething, and he stepped forward, grasping Reg's chin, and he winced. Sebastian took hold of his arm. "Sir, if what he has is contagious, that might not be wise." And firmly he removed the offending arm.

Reg hoped he looked as sick as he suddenly felt. The Earl's sneer was marked, but it gradually faded to deep contempt. "Weak. Dissipated, useless man. How you ever made Acting Lieutenant is beyond me."

"M-my L-lord." Reg chattered. "I...I...am s-sorry I've displeased y-you."

"You give yourself too much credit, boy." The man gave him that cold smile. "I could care less about you. But next time I send a man to your quarters and you are not where I expect you to be, there will not be enough skin left on your back for the Doctor here to sew together. Are you clear on that?"

"Y-yes, Sir." Reg whispered hoarsely.

"Good man." And with fierce suddenness, the Earl swung with the back of his hand across Reg's face; the move surprised both Reg and Sebastian.

"My Lord, the boy understands you well. I do not care for your methods in my sickberth. Leave it, if you please." The Doctor hissed.

Reg closed his eyes tightly, his chest heaving. His vision behind his eyes was red, fading into the fierce desire to reach up and show the Earl exactly how weak he was. 'Can't do it.' He thought. 'Can't get violent. It would prove I am as stupid as he thinks I am.' He focused, focused on controlling his anger, breathing deeply, and didn't realize the Earl had actually left until he felt Dr. Sebastian's kind hand on his shoulder.

"A close call, my young friend." Reg opened his eyes and blinked back tears of frustration and fear, as Dr. Sebastian pulled a stool over, as well as a pot of salve. "I heard them go looking for you, and prayed that I would find you first and keep you safe. As you can see, my prayers have been answered."

"For now, anyway." Reg remembered the words from the dark chamber, that Dr. Sebastian was in danger as well. And the good of it was, he finally knew he could trust him. "Your life is at risk, Doctor."

Dr. Sebastian smiled down at him complacently, and applied some of the salve to Reg's face. "I have thought so for some time, Mr. Cousins. I am glad to know I am not alone."

"As am I." Reg sighed. The stuff the doctor was using was textured like Drew's salve, but was cooler, more refreshing. "What's in here?" He asked, somewhat indistinctly, since the doctor was holding on to his face.

"That would be the mint oil you are feeling, Mr. Cousins. Should we get off of this barge, I would be happy to send a bottle of it to your friend."

With a half smile, Reg replied, "Nothing would give me more pleasure than if I could introduce you, Sir."

The Doctor smiled, and then rose to retrieve Reg's cloak from he had stowed it. He began to return it to Reg, then held it to his face, sniffing at it delicately. Abruptly, and with a terrible frown, he held it at arm's length.

"Terrible stench there was in that chamber." Reg murmured in explanation.

The Doctor shook the cloak out, still at arm's length, and then laid it to the side. "The stench of death, Mr. Cousins. I cannot wrap you in this." He went to his own little chamber, and returned with his own coat. "Here. I apparently was not lying when I said you had taken a chill."

"I'm a little cold, I confess, but that is not why I am shaking." Reg nevertheless accepted the additional warmth gratefully. "There are very bad things going on here, Doctor. I must signal my ship."

"If you try to do so at this moment, you will certainly be hanged as a spy." Dr. Sebastian said, keeping him as firmly pinned to his hammock as Drew would have in the same circumstances.

"I know. It is frustrating, but we are not in immediate danger, it would seem. I will signal tomorrow."

The Doctor raised his eyebrows. "So...there is more to your intellect than the Earl suspects? I am not surprised."

"No? You should be. I have behaved most stupidly around you." Reg blushed.

"For being cautious while you were surrounded by mercenaries, deserters, and traitors? That is perhaps the smartest thing you could have done. And I expected no less, from a man whom the Earl of Edrington claimed saved Captain Pellew from a fatal bullet wound."

Reg's blush grew deeper. "He arrived on Indefatigable after those incidents, Doctor. I do not understand how he could know about them."

"And men on ships never talk, I suppose? Least of all, their grateful Captains who might be particularly proud to demonstrate to a fellow commander the loyalty of his men, hm?" Dr. Sebastian smiled at his confused embarrassment. "I can see well why the Captain placed enough trust in you for such a dangerous mission. Now, let those thoughts warm you, and get some sleep. We do not know what the morning shall bring from the Earl."

Reg watched him walk away, and was surprised to realize how true Dr. Sebastian's words were. The thought of the Captain speaking highly of him to Major Edrington DID warm him. Perhaps he had taken his last conversation with Pellew more to heart than he realized, even though he knew it'd been staged. That, and the strong belief that he had come through for the Captain again...the Captain would see a way out of their peril once he was aware of it...warmed him still further.

He had not failed. And that, at this time, was what mattered.

 

February 26th...Indefatigable...Evening

Archie and I sat in the mess, looking over our notes fruitlessly. We were so absorbed we did not hear Drew come up to us until he sat down, with three mugs of steaming tea. "Chamomile." He said, gently. "I don't think any of us are sleeping as well as we ought."

"True." I admitted. I grasped the mug between my hands, and looked around the small area that was our home. The lamp cast a warm glow over us all, and there was a feeling of peace here. Good men. A good ship. I knew enough of another world to appreciate how remarkable what we have here is.

Perhaps Archie was thinking the same thing, for he seemed lost in the depths of his mug. Drew seated himself beside Archie, and with a sigh folded his arms and rested his head on them. I had to smile. For all of his new found maturity, every now and then we saw sign of the boy still in him.

"Long day, Drew?" I asked kindly.

"Mmph. A lot of sickness. Just congestion, really, worse in some than others, but it's taxing. And the cold does not sit well with some men."

This I understand. Often I find myself in the cold weather reacting more strongly than others around me. My hands in particular, get stiff and ache something terrible. It has been that way ever since Lieutenant Eccleston had me confined in the riggings in a gale for two watches. I have often wished he'd had me beaten instead, even after the beating I'd already taken from Simpson. The effects would not have lasted nearly as long.

"Any word from Reg today?" He asked, daring to go to the issue top of mind.

"No signals at all." Archie said, and we exchanged glances. The silence was terrifying, and the Captain was one second away from sending over boats.

Drew raised his head. "That's not good, surely."

"Mind, we've HAD signals, but they were just wrong enough that we don't believe them to be Mr. Cousins' work. And no chess moves with them."

Archie sipped his tea. "Perhaps he is ill."

Perhaps. The three of us settled into an uneasy silence. Reg was not prone to sickness. No doubt the lack of firm information had been as galling to him as it had been to us. In frustration, he might have been careless. If careless, he might have been found out. And then...I shivered.

What was the penalty for spying on a ship of rogues? How badly would he suffer before they killed him, I suppose, was the real question. Because if found out, he would die. I blinked suddenly and buried my nose in the cup.

"They can't kill him." Drew murmured, studying me with those all-seeing eyes of his. "They might hurt him badly, but they can't kill him. Not while he's under protection of the Indefatigable."

"We don't know what their plans are, Drew." Archie pointed out reluctantly. "They may not care about his relationship with the Indy."

Drew frowned, but went on insistently. "Until whatever plan they had panned out, they'd have to care. If they are up to no good, they cannot risk having Captain Pellew question the...the death..." He gulped, and took a deep breath. "Of one of his men." Now it was Drew's turn to look down and study the grain of the table.

Archie reached over and put his hand on Drew's shoulder. "We will believe that to be true, then. It does us no good to believe otherwise."

It is not so easy, however, to change your thoughts, no matter how optimistic the words out of your mouth might be. And thinking of Angelina, and our discussions on theology, and spiritual belief, I considered praying for Reg, and for us all. Would that make me a hypocrite? Perhaps. So instead, I said a silent prayer to Angelina, for her to pray for the welfare of us all.

***
EARLIER THAT DAY ON SERENITY

Reg stumbled up into the daylight. At least, it would have been daylight if there had been any light at all. They were starting a bad storm, with driving rain and heavy winds. The convoy had tightened together, and had not been required to heave-to, but he that that might very well end up happening.

His cloak well around him and the water streaming off of his hat, Reg took a few tentative steps to the signal flag. He'd worked out this morning, in his mind and in his notebook, exactly what signals were to be sent. Dr. Sebastian hadn't questioned him, understanding that there were certain ways in which Reg must still play a lone hand, if for no other reason than to protect the Doctor from guilt by association should the worst come to pass.

The ship bobbed, and Reg grasped for the ropes to steady himself. For once, he thought, he would not mind confining himself to that tiny cabin. As soon as his duty was done.

"Mr. Cousins!" The Earl shouted from the quarterdeck. "Good to see you."

And before he realized what happened, two of the Earl's biggest and least-reputable men had him in their grasp.

"Gentlemen, please bring Mr. Cousins to me so that we can go over his infractions, if you will!"

DAMN! Reg felt the anger welling up in him, pushing down the fear. *Ten minutes...he could not have given me another ten minutes, and then it should be immaterial whether or not he beats me to a pulp?*

He did not struggle; it would be futile. The arms which grasped him were not kind and not gentle, but purposeful as he was marched forward.

An image came back to him...he'd been beaten twice during all of his time on Indefatigable, nigh on four years now. Early on he'd been sent to the bosun for half a dozen strokes for an infraction he could not even remember. The second had been worse, because he'd felt the guilt of it keenly. A storm worse than this one, and a mistake of his had allowed the Indefatigable to become crippled. It was a mistake born of hubris, and he'd owned up to it immediately. The Captain hadn't liked doing it (he never did) but had ordered him a dozen strokes. Reg was surprised to get off so lightly, and lashed himself mentally in a way that made up for the Captain's leniency.

But what he remembered of those punishments now were how they took place. Allowed to march to the gun under his own power. Not jeered at by the bosun Andrews, who took no particular joy in beating men or boys the way some men apparently did. Allowed, essentially, to keep his dignity. Afterwards, when it was over, it really was over; no grudges held, no jokes at his expense.

That was so clearly not the case here. Several of the men were looking at him with grins on their face, or not trying to look at him at all. The two men he was pinned between were more dragging him than allowing him to walk, though he would not show fear. He could hear the laughter beginning. He knew that so many present had just been waiting for this moment to come.

Finally, before the Earl, his arms pinned painfully behind him, Reg could only stare up at his nemesis as he was forced to his knees. The man, though soaked through, was in rapture from the situation, his eyes gleaming.

"You are late above decks. You went missing last night, though I found you sure enough, claiming some illness. It seems to me, Sir, that you are a malingerer. Captain Pellew ought to have cured you of that with a rod years ago. Now, however, you shall suffer more because he did not." The Earl smiled down at him. "Let us decide how you should suffer, eh? I do not suppose this is a hanging offense?" He looked around at his men.

"Hangin's too easy fer the likes of him. Punish him soundly first, then, when it seems he has failed to learn his lesson, you can hang him." Purcell, the figure-head Captain, pronounced in deep tones.

"Yes, Captain, I must agree with you, Besides," The Earl reached out to Reg's face, and he flinched away, having been on the receiving end of two stinging slaps from that hand. But the Earl stroked his face with a gentleness that made him shiver. "Besides, Pellew might object. With the weather as it is, and days delayed already, that would not be wise."

And as Reg was held down, unsuspecting, the Earl punched him, hard, in the stomach, and he retched.

He reeled from the pain, as he heard those around him laugh. Laughter, coming from everywhere. Reg closed his eyes and focussed...focussed on Captain Pellew fighting off whatever was ahead of them. If the Captain were to have a prayer, it would only be because of Reg's courage to survive in this situation. Slowly, he opened his eyes, and met the Earl's eyes directly, with resignation.

"Ah, so what is your fate to be, if not hanging, eh? That is what you wish to know. Well, here are your choices, Mr. Cousins. Yes, you shall have a choice, it is the least I can do for my guest. Two dozen of the lash, across your bare back, or two watches in the riggings. What will it be?"

A choice? Reg blinked...it was the last thing he'd expected. A choice. And some choice it was...he knew, too well, what the lash could do. He would be disfigured, scarred for life, though he was fairly certain he'd survive. The man who had died the other day...that had been his sixth flogging this month, Dr. Sebastian had told him. Reg was young, and strong, and no abject coward. It sickened him, but he could get through it. Hell, his arm was already a mass of scars from the burn he'd suffered. What were a few scars on his back to add to his collection?

On the other hand, the riggings. It was so cold outside, barely above freezing. The wind whipped violently through the sails, and there was a very real shot they'd be hove-to. He was already feeling the cold from the fifteen minutes he'd been above decks. Two watches? He remembered McGill, taking sick after his time in the riggings, and dying from it. He'd been recovering from illness, but still...and then, there was Horatio, who still felt the cold so badly from his own exposure once. Not that Horatio ever complained...he never would. But they all knew about it, the same way they knew he could not bear music.

"Your choice, Mr. Cousins? Quickly now, before I order both." The Earl was losing patience.

"The lash. I choose the lash." Reg was surprised as the words came out of his mouth, how steady and sure they sounded. Hold on to that courage; he thought. You're going to need it.

No, he would not show fear yet. There would be time enough as the blows fell, and he knew he could not bear them in stoic silence, as he had done the cane. But he would put up a good show, as good a show as he could.

The Earl was surprised as well, it would seem, he stared at Reg thoughtfully. "I had not believed you had it in you, Mr. Cousins. It seems that while short on brains or sense of time, you do at least have physical courage. That must have been the cause of your promotion, even if you undid that promotion with your stupidity."

Reg said nothing...what else was there to say? He tensed himself, waiting to be dragged to the gratings.

"Take him to the ropes, men. Secure him well in the riggings. You know how I like it done." The Earl shrugged.

Reg's mouth dropped, and the Earl laughed. "You didn't REALLY think I'd give you a choice, did you? I confess, I had been looking forward to a flogging, I had been certain that you'd choose the riggings. But you are not entirely stupid, it would seem, and I do admire your courage. Nevertheless, what good is a punishment if it is gone to so willingly? No, to the riggings you will go. Eight hours. Good luck to you."

HELL! DAMN HIM TO HELL! Reg thought, even as he was being dragged away.

***
An hour later, Reg understood the full horror of what "how I like it done" meant. His cloak and his coat had been removed, and he had been stretched, spread eagle and arms apart, as far as his protesting limbs could go. His muscles screamed in pain, even as he'd bitten his lip so hard he'd drawn blood. Coarse rope bound his wrists to the riggings; the ankles were not so bad, as he still had the protection of his stockings But he could feel that soon those stockings would be rubbed away, from the friction of the ship bobbing on the wild waves.

He tried, as much he could, to lean into the ropes, and have them bear his weight. But each movement of the ship was a new meaning in torture, for he felt certain his limbs would be torn away, as he dipped backward, the ropes burning his bleeding wrists, and he cried in pain, warm tears on his face the only comfort he had. They were too soon washed away by the icy spray from the sea below.

'I cannot bear it, God help me, I cannot." He cried to himself, for he knew nobody else would care.

You must bear it, he answered himself. You must. There is too much riding on this for you to give up. You must bear it, or all will be lost.

Horatio bore it. Horatio had been in such a situation as this. On his first ship. Justinian. Reg tried to force himself to take his mind away from Serenity. He'd heard it from whom...not from Horatio, or Archie, who never talked about that other ship. No, it was Matthews he'd overheard. Christmas Eve. He'd gone up to relieve Horatio and the Captain, and Reg had overheard Matthews telling Styles how it was a shame that Horatio still suffered from the cold.

He listened to the men. Always listened to the men. A good way to learn, his father had advised him long ago. His father always listened to the hands he'd hired on the farm, and Reg listened to the men. That evening, after the two of them had spent some time on watch in the fighting top, Reg heard them continue the discussion before they'd gone away. A spell in the riggings, Horatio'd had. In a bad storm, and him hurt to boot. Hurt how, Reg had wondered.

He'd found out later, pieced together bits of the past of a man he'd come to admire so much. Another mission, and Matthews remembering Simpson, a man who made him so angry he actually spit...strange for Matthews to be so angry. Simpson had beaten Horatio, nearly kicked his ribs in, and what happened but Horatio had gotten sent to the riggings. Reg remembered being horrified, at the same time he was glad to piece the elements of the puzzle together.

HOW HAD HE BORN IT? The thought screamed through Reg's mind. So cold...so damnably cold, and your wrists bleeding, and your hands going numb. The rest of you numb, but not so numb you cannot feel the pain, as your legs feel they might rip from their socket at any moment. GOD HELP ME! And Reg screamed.

Laughter. Laughter below, the men who would taunt him. Dr. Sebastian. Not taunting him, but arguing, arguing loudly with the Earl...Fitz? What kind of name was Fitz for an Earl? HE'S NOT THE EARL. The answer came to him with crystal clarity. The performance not even as good as the one Kitty Cobham gave as the Duchess of Warfedale. With the pain came understanding. This man is an imposter.

An ungiving imposter. For the Earl had turned his back on Dr. Sebastian, not even giving him the luxury of finishing his sentence. Giving up the pretense of caring that the Doctor had royal connections, because the "Earl" assumed that Sebastian would, like Pellew, be dead within the next few weeks. Head trembling, hair whipping his face with icy locks, he tried to bravely meet Sebastian's eye.

The sorrow there, the suffering...at least one man on this ship cares that I shall die.

Dr. Sebastian, with tears in his eyes, tears for him, as he made the sign of the cross and then clasped his hands together before him in a sign of prayer. He's praying for me, Reg thought. And then the Doctor disappeared as the ship moved violently again. Reg pushed his mind away, away from the pain.

So the Doctor is a Catholic. Of course, he is Spanish. Who else was Catholic? Oh, yes...Captain McAnn had been. Captain McAnn, a good and loyal marine, and a storyteller. Captain McAnn with his head blown off, the day the late Captain Strong on Dunbarton had gone mad and attacked a small Armada. Horatio'd been hurt that day, too, and Reg had stood the quarterdeck, taking over Horatio's duties, fighting with Mr. Kennedy, and they'd turned the tide, pulled a miracle. Only to turn around and nearly slip in what had been left of McAnn, bleeding on the deck. Why was he thinking of McAnn? Oh, yes. He was a Catholic. Dr. Sebastian is a Catholic. But Dr. Sebastian isn't dead.

'I am losing my mind.'

No, it is frozen, is all. The wind whipped at him, and he whimpered, even as he was ashamed of himself for doing so.

'A brave lad he is!' His father. His father holding him steady as the local apothecary stitched a bad cut on his arm. It hurt...Lord, it had hurt so badly, but in his father's arms, how could he cry? He'd been maybe five years old, and would not let himself do more than shed a few tears, but not a whimper, because his father held him and said he was brave.

And later that night, after he was safe in bed, Reg heard his father put his head down and weep. 'Couldn't bear it.' Da'd said to his mum. 'Couldn't bear to see him hurting like that, and me not able to help him. All I could do not to cry for him, but he was being so brave...' Pain, always worse to watch it done to someone you care about. Would he rather have Drew here suffering like this?

Drew. Wish he could have met my Da. Seen what a family was supposed to be like. Da would'a liked him, and Mum would have probably not stopped feeding him for the duration of the visit. 'What're they feeding you on that ship of yours?' She'd say. Well, maybe Drew would meet his Da...if the Captain managed to survive despite Reg's failure (and he'd never bet against the Captain, no matter the odds) then maybe Captain would let Drew bring Reg's things back to his family, to explain his death. How did he die? His Da would ask.

LIKE A BLEEDIN' COWARD, WHIMPERING FROM THE COLD IN A STUPID RAIN STORM. He berated himself. Stop the nonsense! You must survive. Think of the signals. You will survive this, and you will send them, and do your duty.

And unable to stop shaking, he closed his eyes and saw the pieces of a chess board flying in the wind around him.

***
February 26, Indefatigable

Mr. Anderson stood on the deck, warm in his cloak despite the downpour, looking with uncertainty at the ship where Mr. Cousins was. The officers...Drew, Mr. Hornblower, and Mr. Kennedy, were below having dinner, but he knew they were worried. They hadn't heard from Mr. Cousins today...just gibberish from someone obviously not used to a signal flag, like they'd seen before Mr. Cousins was sent over.

There was a lot he didn't understand. Not like Mr. Cousins to get drunk. Even less likely for him to hit Drew. Impossible that the Captain should demote him. Strange messages suddenly being sent over to the ship after his exile, and Mr. Kennedy betraying a keen interest in Chess, and Mr. Hornblower with him. He stayed up last night and tried to put the pieces together, and maybe he did. Not totally, anyway, but he had a feeling that Mr. Cousins had not done so very much wrong after all. And that he was still in favor, at least of the Captain, and his brother officers. Mr. Bowles didn't seem to be in on it, whatever "it" was, but he had a feeling he'd seen this pattern before.

He'd been the victim the first time, not that he hadn't deserved it. He'd thought Mr. Cousins had been flogged...viciously flogged...for a mistake he'd made. It was all a fake. And he'd learned, not only from his own subsequent punishment, but from the inexplicable charity Mr. Cousins had shown him, something of what it took to be a good man on a good ship. He looked up to Mr. Cousins now, so much more than he could ever explain to anyone else.

And so he stood, and stared hard at this Serenity. Mr. Cousins was there, and maybe he was suffering, and he couldn't do a thing to help, and it made him very, very frustrated indeed.

"Good evening, Mr. Anderson." The Captain's deep voice spoke. "Bad weather we are having."

Anderson no longer quavered quite so much at the Captain's approach as he used to. "Bad indeed, Sir. Shall we have to heave to, do you think."

Captain shook his head. "Mr. Bowles says not. And he is never wrong."

Together they stared at Serenity, thoughts on similar lines, Anderson believed. Captain's worried too.

"Mr. Anderson, you are adept at sending signals, no doubt?" The Captain asked, though he knew full well the answer.

"Yes, Sir!" Anderson said, with meaning.

"Good. Send this one for me, then. To Serenity. Please, ask her, for me, WHERE THE HELL IS MY MAN?"

"Aye, Aye, Sir." He bit back a smile.

"Of course, I don't suppose you can put it like that. Word it as you will, but I expect an answer, and I expect one from the man himself, unless they want me to RUN MY CANNONS out at them!"

"Of course, Sir." Mr. Anderson glanced in admiration at the Captain, at his angry best, and then set to work.

Cold. There was nothing in his life but cold; bone shattering cold; uncontrollable shivering, muscles frozen in their tortuous position. Wind whipping his raw face, his hair down his back, stiff with slivers of ice. His lips, thick and chapped, unable to move; his teeth dancing together so rapidly he would fear they'd break, if not for the fact that he was beyond fear. There was no comfort in this world, no hope, no help; just stiff, rigid, cold, ropes that punished his body and prevented him the merciful release of a final dash into the sea, that would end the suffering.

From the last bits of what conscious thought he had, Reg heard bells. Two hours to go until he was released. It didn't matter anymore.

Vaguely he was aware of waves of commotion around him, voices harsh. The Earl... whomever he was, his voice was strident and angry, but damned if he could make out the words; damned if he cared.

It was with a shocking snap that his left wrist was cut free; his arm fell painfully back to his body, his muscles now unused to free movement. Before he could realize what was happening, his other limbs were free and rough hands barely presented him from crashing completely onto the deck. He found himself standing, sort of, propelled between two men, and his shaking grew more violent.

"YOU! YOU! COUSINS!" The Earl was before him, inches from his face, and Reg wished his mouth could move so he could spit on him.

"PAY ATTENTION, BOY!" He was aware of slaps, hard ones, three or four of them swinging his face about and back again. He couldn't feel it, although he probably would later. If he had a later. Lifting his face, Reg tried to focus.

"YOUR BLASTED CAPTAIN IS THREATENING TO RUN THE GUNS OUT ON ME UNLESS I PRODUCE SIGNALS FROM HIS MAN!" Reg began to return to his senses; the Earl's face was red with anger, his nostrils flairing. He wanted to laugh and cry at once. Captain Pellew, bless him.

"IF YOU...CAN MANAGE TO PRODUCE YOUR USUAL SIGNALS...I WILL RELEASE YOU BELOW DECKS. UNDERSTAND?"

Understood. No more riggings. There was something else...something else...

Signals.

Reg forced a deep, painful breath, and tried to slow the shaking...stopping it altogether was impossible. "I und-d-d-erstand."

He was assisted to the flag. He must signal. He remembered how. But the other signals...the important ones. He heard his voice speaking through thick lips.

"Sir...my chess moves...I m-must signal..."

"Yes, yes, hell signal whatever you want...except about your little rest period. Captain Purcell will know if you're sending anything not a standard signal or a chess move."

"I...have...several..."

"DAMN IT ALL, MAN I DON'T CARE. JUST DO YOUR DUTY BEFORE PELLEW BLOWS US ALL TO HELL..."

"Y-yes...my l-lord."

Somehow, he did it. He called on reserves of strength he didn't know he had, thankful he had used memorizing the chess moves he had to call as a way of distracting him from his torment. They came back to him one after another.

"Rh8"
"Bd4"
"Qg8"

He hesitated. Did he call for help? Not yet, he thought. He's not in real danger yet. They were at least four days from peril and it might be important to the Captain that he stay here. The Earl still thought he was stupid. There was no immediate need; and this gave the Captain time to plan.

"He's signaling back to you, Boy. It's an Acknowledge. And..." Purcell paused...Reg waited, teetering on the final reserves of his strength, wondering if they would just send him overboard once the Captain no longer was about to blow them apart. How long could these signals last?

"He's inquiring after your health." There was rough laughter around him, and Reg felt tears in his eyes. They were...worried. Lord, if they only knew...

"Answer that you're fine, Mr. Cousins. Unless you want me to get out the cat after all."

Reg made haste and replied that all was well. They would know soon enough otherwise, once those chess moves were in Horatio and Archie's hands. And did none of the men here wonder why anyone would signal three chess moves at once? And...And...

The deck came crashing up to him, and nobody attempted to stop his fall. He heard footsteps walking away, the Earl laughing. "You may attempt to find your way down to Dr. Sebastian, Mr. Cousins. He'll not be looking for you for a couple of hours yet. Or you can lay where you are. Makes no difference to me."

They were gone, then, and he couldn't do it. Couldn't find the energy to move even a few feet. The deck rolled, and he wondered if he would be flung over, but it didn't happen. He wanted to cry out, but couldn't find the voice; he wanted to cry but couldn't find the tears.

'I have done my duty.' He consoled himself. 'The Indefatigable shall know the danger. The lives of her men and those of Dunbarton will be saved. If I die in the process, what matter?"

The water puddled beneath him, the sleety rain beat down. And he tried to imagine himself at home, walking in the field beyond the church and picking flowers with his girl, Ellie. He tried to remember what it had been like to be in the sunshine, warm and happy. But the memory would not stay, and gave way to the icy terror he was facing.

Closing his eyes, he allowed himself a low whimper, a plea for mercy, before the cold darkness took him.

***
INDEFATIGABLE

I heard them first...the sound of pounding footsteps racing along the passageway. I looked up from my book with both fear and hope in my heart. Drew also looked up, abandoning the notebook he had made a pretense of writing in. Archie himself was frozen, hand grasping a chess piece he'd been fiddling with.

Suddenly, Mr. Anderson, dripping wet and breathless, stood before us, his eyes glowing. "MR.HORNBLOWER,SIR,CAPTAINSCOMPLIMENTSANDHEHADMESIGNAL SERENITYANDORDERTHEMTOHAVEMR.COUSINSREPORTIMMEDIATELY ANDHEDIDSIRANDTHECAPTAINASKEDMETORUNTHESIGNALSDOWNTO YOUATONCEBECAUSEHESAIDYOU'DBEWANTINGTHEMANDHERETHEY ARE.

What? I knew well enough what I hoped I'd heard, but even still! Hell, Lieutenant Eccleston would have handed me my head if I'd ever made a report like that. However, I am not Lieutenant Eccleston; so I rose and approached him, smiling kindly. "Mr. Anderson, I know you can make a better report than that. Now, why don't you start from the beginning, and I beg of you, take your time."

He blushed brightly, and took a deep breath. "Sorry, Sir. Captain Pellew's compliments...he had me signal to Serenity, ordering that they have Mr. Cousins and only Mr. Cousins respond to us."

My restored sense of order in the berth immediately dissipated into nothingness with this simple sentence, for Archie and Reg were on their feet at once.

"Did he respond? Is he alright?" Drew gasped anxiously.

"What kept him from reporting earlier?" Archie wondered, letting some of his earlier frustration show through.

"Did he learn anything new?" Drew came even closer.

"Did he have any...unusual signals to send?" Archie said, with a glance at the chess board, and realizing that Anderson was not in on the game.

"My God man, IS HE ALRIGHT?" Drew repeated, running his hands through his hair frantically. Poor Mr. Anderson's head moved from one to the other, and I was afraid it would spin off.

"SILENCE! THAT IS ENOUGH GENTLEMEN!" I roared, surprising myself.

And not only myself. Archie's jaw dropped. Drew's eyes were wide, and Mr. Anderson swallowed hard. Taking a deep breath myself, I continued on.

"We will learn everything, I am certain, once we have given Mr. Anderson the luxury of making his full report! Now, Mr. Anderson..." I put my hand gently on his shoulder. "Pray, continue."

"Yes, Sir. After about twenty minutes, Mr. Cousins was finally found to signal us."

I held up my hand to stop him. "How are we certain that it was Mr. Cousins?"

"He used certain codes that would only be known to him, Sir. Besides, they have nobody else on board the ship who can signal that well."

I nodded, trying not to betray the same abject relief that Archie and Drew were plainly showing. "Go on."

"After some preliminaries, Sir, he send over three more unorthodox signals Sir...I have them written here..." He handed me a rather battered and damp but still legible bit of paper. "I believe they're what you've been waiting for. They're chess moves, aren't they?"

I raised my eyebrows at him, even as I glanced down at the sheet and then passed it on to Archie, who was already flipping through our notes on the cipher. "Yes, they are. How did you figure that out?"

He blushed again. "I just...guessed, Sir."

"Good guess." Archie murmured, setting to work.

"Well then, Mr. Anderson..." I patted him once more on the shoulder before making to return to my seat. "As you've guessed our secret, you might as well get out of those wet things and join us."

His face now went all the way to pure crimson as his eyes lit up. "Sir, I'd be honored to help."

Drew, meanwhile, had come up to him and begun to take his cape and his hat. With a tentative look at me, he asked quietly, "I don't suppose you happened to ask after his health, Mr. Anderson?"

"We did, Mr. Brandon. He responded that he is well. I'm not certain the Captain believes it, though." Anderson came slowly over to the table, watching us work with fascination.

"His life's not in any danger at the moment, however." Archie looked up at all of us. "No Nd8 in the bunch."

Drew sighed, so deeply I felt a breeze. I confess, I am relieved myself. Whatever was going on over there, there at least did not seem to be the need for a hasty rescue mission.

"Let us figure out the rest of the cipher, gentlemen. We shall then finally have something solid to tell the Captain."

And together, the four of us set to work.

***
Fifteen minutes later had us with a damnable situation on our hands.

"Gentlemen, we must report to the Captain at once." I said, putting my hands on the table and starting to rise.

"There is no need."

We all turned and stared as the Captain came forward, his face worn with worry, but less so than it had been before we knew Reg was at least alive.

"As you well know, I am not a patient man, Mr. Hornblower. Indeed, I'd have been here earlier if not for having to conference with Bowles on this infernal weather. Well, men. Let me have it." He said, sitting expectantly at the head of the table.

Archie spoke first, showing the captain the notebook as he did so.

"Rh8...Rook to the E8 square. Rook indicates a trap. H is an extreme...it means he's dead-on certain about it, and 8...that's the last row, the farthest move. In this context, that means the trap is against the...well, the convoy itself. We're being led into a trap."

"I KNEW IT!" The Captain's voice was a low, rumbling seethe, and he slapped his hands down on the top of the table. "I knew somebody was pulling our strings somewhere. Pray, continue, Mr. Kennedy."

"Bd4...Bishop. Bishop deals with time...after the previous entry that would mean the time he can estimate to the attack, or trap; the choice of the d row would indicate days, and the 4 means, well, four. Four days estimated to the attack."

The Captain nodded. Four days. Four days to plan something. My mind was already spinning with the options.

"Finally, Qg8. Q regards the Earl in particular. The g means he's almost dead on certain about his conclusion, which was 8...he believes strongly, therefore, that the Earl is an imposter."

Drew looked up. "That would be bad for the Admiralty, wouldn't it, Sir? To be taken in by a phony Earl?"

"Very bad." Then he grinned grimly. "Although it's been done before!"

"It didn't get by you the last time, either." I pointed out. His eyes twinkled just slightly.

"Nor you, Mr. Hornblower, if memory serves correctly." Returning his attention to Archie, the Captain asked the only question remaining. "No danger signal from Mr. Cousins?"

"No, Sir. No indication of danger at this time."

The Captain nodded, then frowned. "Whatever took him so long to signal in the first place? That is not like him. Something is going on over there."

"We have no choice but to trust his information that he is safe, Sir." I pointed out.

"Yes, you are right...still, I'd rather solve the problem sooner than four days. The quicker I get him off of that ship, the happier I will be." He rose at last. "Well done, men. I would like to meet with all of you first thing in the morning. Each of you should be thinking about any ways out of this." And his eyes showed more than a hint of mirth as he finally acknowledged Mr. Anderson, whom had been trying to hide down behind Drew. "That includes you, young man. Let's see if you're as smart as you've been acting lately."

"Ah...Aye, aye, Sir." He chirped, weakly, and I gave him a discrete wink as the Captain turned away.

One evening to prepare. And pray Mr. Cousins was really as well as we hoped he was.
***
Pain. Cold was ebbing slowly, and he was aware of pain, pain in his ankles, pain in his hands, pain in his face. Rough hands over his body, rubbing, rubbing, with some sort of towel, and with each rub was more pain, from inside, stinging pain as his body warmed up. "Stop. Hurts." He cried out.

"Shhh, Mr. Cousins. The pain is a good sign. It means you are not badly frozen."

He was still shaking, beneath the hands, and wondered who else was there, as gentler hands lifted his head, and held warm tea to his lips. Warm, not so hot it would burn him. His lips could not seem to work right, and the liquid dribbled down his chin to his chest; the rough hands mopped the liquid up. The cup was tilted and he swallowed as much as he could, and it did warm him slightly.

But only slightly. Would he ever be truly warm again? Would the pain ever stop? He cried out once more, and then heard Dr. Sebastian giving someone (who else was there they could trust on this ship?) instructions and the rubbing stopped; there were warmed, heated blankets, wound tightly around his body. The Doctor held him tightly, and he heard something, rhythmic and gentle, in his ear. Prayer. Not a familiar one, but the words soothed. And he clung to the Doctor's faith in desperation.

God, help me through this. Just let me survive to walk on the Indefatigable once more. Take me in old age; take me in battle, but God, please don't let me die like this.

And this time, the dark was not as cold and frightening.

***
He tried to move, but found it difficult. He was bundled so tightly. He still hurt, especially his face; if he had not been hallucinating, the Earl had slapped him more than once yesterday. But he was not as cold. He swallowed once, and was relieved to find his throat did not hurt; his lips were swollen and chapped, but he did not feel feverish. Perhaps, just perhaps, he would survive this ordeal.

"Ah, Mr. Cousins. You are awake and more conscious. How do you feel?"

"Hurt." He whispered, testing his voice gingerly.

"I had imagined that. Where, exactly, do you hurt?"

Where didn't he? Well, he could start with the obvious. "Face."

"Yes, several bruises. The Earl worked you over pretty well in an attempt to get you to send those signals."

The signals! Reg tried to sit up, but moving within his shroud was not an option. "Doctor...did I...did I..."

"Signal the Indefatigable? Yes, I am told that you did. Many signals. Fortunately, Purcell thought they were all nonsense. So relax and tell me where else you hurt."

Reg sighed, and sank back down. "Wrists."

The doctor nodded, with a smile. "Yes, I imagine they do." Gently he loosened the blankets; Reg shrank back from the draft. "I know, Mr. Cousins. The chill is bad." He removed Reg's arms, and then bundled the blankets about him as best he could. Holding one arm up, Reg felt his arm spasm, and he cried out before he could stop himself.

"Shhh. Your muscles were strained by the way that bastard had you tied. They will be sore for some time, I am afraid. But first thing first."

Reg winced as the Doctor loosened the bandage on his wrist, and saw the raw bleeding wound left by the ropes. The Doctor bathed the wrist slowly, then dipped in to one pot of salve...one without mint, and covered the wound with the balm before re-bandaging it. Then, dipping into the balm with the mint, he began to massage Reg's sore muscles. That hurt, at first; Reg could not believe how badly. But as it went on he felt the soreness loosening; the muscle relaxing.

Gradually he gave himself in to the Doctor's treatments, from one arm to the next, and then to his ankles and legs; no longer questioning or fighting. It hurt, something awful, but he trusted Dr. Sebastian as much as he trusted Drew, and he closed his eyes and tried to think himself away from the pain.

"You are a model patient, Mr. Cousins." Dr. Sebastian said, as he finished and re-tucked the blankets around the injured man. "I know what I had to do must have caused you a great deal of pain. Most men would have had to have had to be held down." He laid a hand on Reg's forehead, and Reg relaxed, finally, the pain ebbing. "And no sign of fever. You sailors are indeed made of solid stock."

"I have had enough exposure to sick berth, I suppose."

"Yes. I could not help but notice the scars on your arm. What, may I ask, caused that."

"Fire. On a mission. I was burned rather badly." He closed his eyes against the bad memories. "You think I am a model patient, Doctor? I can tell you that anything you had to do to me this day was no where near as bad as the treatment my friend was forced to do to save my arm."

"I have never treated a bad burn. Can you describe to me what he did?"

Reg tried to remember, but he had been in so much pain at the time, and was so tired now, he was not certain how accurate he could be. "Can I get back to you on that, Doctor? Better yet, have him tell you himself?"

Dr. Sebastian chuckled. "By all means, my good friend. Curiosity got the better of me. Ah, here is Orson now, with some broth for you."

"Orson?" Had HE been the third person there last night?

"It was Orson who found you on deck, and carried you down to me. I had not expected you to be released so soon, you see, and was making preparations for what I thought you would need."

Reg looked with gratitude up at the old man, worn by the trials he had suffered in life. He might be mute, but Reg assumed he could understand. "Thank you, Orson. I owe you my life. I hope...the Earl was not angry with you."

Orson's face crinkled into a toothless smile as he shook his head, and shuffled away. Dr. Sebastian took the broth and explained further. "Fortunately your Captain put such a fear of God into the Earl, he had no time to notice Orson's actions, and as the Earl foolishly regards you as stupid, he did not really care. You'd served your purpose..." He scowled heavily, as he held the broth to Reg's lips. "...a way to amuse him while he is held up by this weather, from whatever plans he has."

Reg drank the broth, thankful for its steamy warmth, and especially for the kindness of the hand that fed him now. Only after he had drained the bowl did the doctor let him sink back down into the pillow; and then Reg realized he was actually in the Doctor's bed. "Sir...I have displaced you." He murmured, and tried to rise.

"Nonsense." The doctor held him down effortlessly. "You needed a solid bed under you, not a sick berth hammock. Now, you rest, get another hour's sleep. In two hours you are scheduled to signal the Indefatigable, and I would not wish you to be late again.

Reg shivered involuntarily, for he knew he could not take any further time in the riggings, or the cat, for that matter. "Nor I sir."

"Then we are agreed. You shall go back to sleep, and I will make certain you are above decks in a timely fashion. Understood."

"Aye, aye, Captain." He gave the doctor a brave smile, and then sank back into a dreamless slumber.

February 27th

Letter from Horatio Hornblower to Angelina Danini

My dearest Angelina,

There is now a ray of hope in our dismal world. We have at last had word from Mr. Cousins; it would seem that he has been succeeding as I had hoped, and has found out the information we needed. It is not good information; nay, it speaks of treachery and treason. But now that we are prepared, I feel confident that we have more than an even chance of coming out the victor.

An Even Chance. Angelina, I feel I must explain to you the irony behind those words. Once, long ago, I was a young man, a desperate young man, so tormented by another midshipman that I felt I was better dying in a duel than to continue my life as it was. I remember distinctly telling Archie and another midshipman, a good, kind man named Clayton, that I had an even chance in a duel, where as with the lack of justice found below decks on a poorly run ship (needless to say this was NOT the Indefatigable) I had no chance at all.

What strikes me as odd, in hindsight, is that I WAS so desperate. Perhaps I have served on the Indefatigable too long, and forgotten how bleak life can be when you have no justice available. But beyond that, I have since learned that although Simpson (my torturer) certainly delighted in tormenting me, how I suffered was nothing compared to the suffering of others, particularly my good friend Archie. I wonder at times how I can have been so weak to wish death, when Archie was so strong as to persevere in a circumstance a thousand times more trying.

But enough of Simpson. He is past and gone, and useful only as a reminder of what sort of man might exist. I am confident that the best use of my life on the old Justinian is recognizing the danger such a man is, and recognizing him for whom he is, before another man might. Does this make any sense to you, Angelina?

The thing is, the man who is in charge of Serenity, the ship causing all of our current troubles, might very well be the same sort of tyrant. I have not met him; the Captain has, and was immediately suspicious of him. That in and of itself was good enough for me. But to add to that, the reports we have received from Mr. Cousins indicate a sort of desperate man, a mercenary, a man who would sell the King's ships to a foe, not caring if the men on those ships all went to watery graves. And that is the sort of man Simpson would have liked to have been.

So the others have been planning...and I have helped...for a way to take over Serenity, before the blow can fall. But never far back from my mind is that though we know Mr. Cousins is alive, we do not know him to be well. And there is a difference between the two. That sort of a man is capable of torments too vile to be spoken of, and I fear for how Mr. Cousins, a man of forthright honor and courage, should suffer.

We have taken the first step already, though. Captain Pellew is at this moment ordering all the ships in our squadron to heave to, due to inclement weather. Mr. Bowles was most perplexed; though the weather is very bad, it is nothing to the gales we had weathered last year. He felt we could continue to proceed on our heading, albeit more slowly than preferable. The Captain has not told him that it is not in our best interest to continue on that route; and I think he is curious to see how Serenity, previously leading us merrily down a path to our death, will handle the sudden stop.

Angelina. I am thinking again about your religion, or more to the point, your beliefs. There was a point, just a day ago, when I was in such despair for Mr. Cousins' welfare that I almost prayed for him; but I could not. As Shakespeare once said, "Words without thoughts never to heaven go." I know the words, my love, but am not certain that the thoughts and beliefs match them. So instead I prayed to you, for your prayers and belief to be brought into my heart. Perhaps I am growing to believe in God. But there is no doubt in my heart that I already believe in you.

With love, affection, and any other emotion you will take from me...

Horatio.

 

***

Reg Cousins began to shake again almost as soon as he was above decks. The weather was still brutally cold, and he was not truly recovered. The Earl was disappointed that he was recovered well enough to be above decks at all, no doubt he'd been hoping for a reason to send him to the gratings.

Reg ignored him as much as possible; acting as cowed as he could. The shivering helped make him seem more frightened than he actually was. He was one up on the Earl; he knew that Captain Pellew was now aware of the danger, and had no doubt that his fine shipmates were already well at work on a plan to thwart this madman. He would deal with anything he had to until that time.

"Send your signals and get out of my sight, Mr. Cousins. The sight of you annoys me."

The first signals came through...Chess signals. Reg didn't need to translate this one; it was the one he was hoping for. Ka1. The acknowledgement of danger, the danger he had signaled to the ship yesterday. He knew then that his message really had been sent, he had not gotten the cipher botched despite his condition. Next, he knew, would be more mundane signals, those regarding the movement of the Serenity and her protective squadron.

The message came through clearly. "Heave to."

Reg had to fight hard not to smile, or laugh alright. An ambush, planned for a spot they were expected to be in, roughly four days from now. But if they weren't moving...the simplicity of it was beauty in and of itself. Thankfully, the weather was bad enough to justify it.

Purcell, the Captain whom had some nominal experience with the signal system, understood enough to understand the last command. "Bloody HELL!" He snapped.

"I am afraid this shall delay us, Captain." Reg said, at his most innocent. "Hopefully the weather will break soon."

The Earl swooped down on them both. "What is it? Purcell, what is going on?"

"It's the blasted weather! Pellew wants us to heave to!"

"Certainly not!" The Earl growled, but even as he said it, they could see the Indefatigable slowing down. Soon they would be stopped entirely.

Reg again bit the insides of his cheeks. The Serenity could either keep sailing without her so-called protective cover (really her victims) or would have to stop with them. Did the Earl really have a choice?

He did not. "Acknowledge it, you bloody BASTARD." He snapped at Reg, fuming. And turning on his heal, Reg heard him order the first crewman he passed to the gratings, on the grounds of being underfoot in such unfortunate circumstances.

Reg sent the acknowledge, and watched as the men around began to suit action to words. He would not wait, though. He did not care to hear another man's screams, knowing how easily they could have been his. And the fact was, unless he was careful, there was no guarantee it might not still be him tomorrow.

And he headed down to Dr. Sebastian, his mind on a nice cup of hot broth and a warm blanket, and the relative haven the sick berth had become for him.

 

***
February 28, 1799--INDEFATIGABLE

The Captain stood proudly on the deck, watching the hurried actions of the Serenity with a smile. Or at least, what passed for a smile with him; I have learned well enough how to read that tiny up-turn of his mouth, and the faint wrinkling at his eye that betrayed his humor.

"I wonder what the Earl is saying right now?" I mused, standing attentively beside him.

"Probably nothing I would care to repeat before my wife." He replied, the up-turn increasing slightly. He looked up to the sky. "As long as the weather continues to be so foul, I see no reason for us to move."

"A stale-mate?" I asked, wondering what the next step will be.

"Perhaps. The material question is, what exactly was the trap? Tell me, Mr. Hornblower, where do you believe we would have been in four day's time, the weather being passable?"

I thought a moment. Seven days at sea, in weather that is notoriously difficult at this time of year, though usually not as bad as it has been. "Roughly, Sir, off the coast of Spain, past Portugal, perhaps around Vigo."

"Exactly." He frowned very deeply, and I followed his logic.

"You are thinking that the Earl, whomever he is, has an alliance with France or Spanish, then?"

The Captain's 'smile' disappeared. "Undoubtedly. And we are to be led to their Navy. I would not relish a visit to a French prison, Mr. Hornblower."

"Nor I, Sir." And I was glad Archie was not present for this particular conversation; if anybody had an aversion to prison, French or otherwise, it would be him. "Would we be offered in exchange for French prisoners, do you think?"

The Captain's gaze did not waver. "You might be, Mr. Hornblower. Mr. Kennedy certainly, as he is nobility. They would try with Mr. Brandon, of course; not that I have any faith in his father urging his release. The rest of the men would probably be held until the end of the war, or until they successfully escaped. I on the other hand...do not hold high the hope that my head would long remain connected to my body."

The clipped irony did not lessen the shock of this for me. Of course, as I thought it over, I could well see the inevitable. The Captain...indeed, our entire ship and the squadron he commands, have become a major nemesis for the French. How much pride would they take in executing a man whom had been responsible for so much destruction? It would be as if the English had the opportunity to execute Boney.

And yet he betrays no fear, no anxiety for his own well being. This, at a time in his life when he had more to live for than ever before. A wife. A child. Promotion to Commodore, the last step before he would be Admiral. His reputation stellar.

"Then we must not get captured, Sir." I said, evenly, hoping to keep the shock out of my voice.

"All in all, I'd rather not." And his humor, in the face of such treachery, was reassuring to me. Hell, it made me believe that we were fully in command of the situation, when we are not, yet. If only one day I could inspire such belief from my own crew...if I could only be in any small way a shadow of what he is...how happy I should be!

But tearing myself away from my awe, I thought out the reality of what we were facing, trying to guess where his own mind would lead him. And with a deep breath, I made a suggestion.

"Sir, if I may...now that we are in on the plan, well, Serenity has no way of reaching her friends. If we can gain control of her, we might possibly be able to turn the tables on this trap."

And for the first time in all the time I have served with him, he gave me a full blown smile, and I felt as if the sun had come out through the storm. "My thoughts exactly, Mr. Hornblower. Yes, we shall, while hove to, plan an assault on Serenity, and then it shall be one of our own men at the helm when we encounter this trap!" The smile faded and he coughed, lightly. "It will be interesting, I think, to encounter Admiral Hood's face, when he sees that despite having sent me off into a situation where I cannot win, my squadron will return to him not only unharmed, but with prizes."

"SIR!" I gasped. "You don't...you don't think..." I lowered my voice. "You don't think Admiral Hood sent you into this situation KNOWING it was a trap? Sir, that's...treason!"

He sighed. "Alas, too true. And technically it was Hale who sent me out here, and he is too stupid to ever conceive of treason. But it is equally true that I don't think Hood would have shed any tears over my loss to France. He is no doubt still angry that the disaster of Quiberon bay ended with my being promoted."

"As was only right." I spluttered. "The Admiral hasn't any sense if he cannot appreciate you, and every ship and man that is a part of this squadron, has done for England's cause...Sir." My chest was heaving in anger, as at last I remembered my responsibility as First Lieutenant to present a CALM front.

But the Captain was looking at me thoughtfully, in a way I could not quite pick up. His mouth had that little tilt again. "Your loyalty is welcome, Mr. Hornblower. I am quite relieved for the sake of England that I am an honest man. Had I chosen a different path in life, who knows what trouble might have happened, with such men to follow me!"

I blushed, as I stammered my way out of the situation, for I had recognized the teasing tone of his voice. "Sir, if you were such a man, you would not have the followers that you do." It sounded incredibly lame to me.

But still, he regarded me with that tilted smile, and those thoughtful eyes, before he turned back towards the horizon. "Best meet with Mr. Kennedy, and start hammering out a plan to take Serenity. Bowles says the worst of this weather will hold for a couple of days. Ample time to plan an attack."

"Aye, Aye, Sir." I touched my hat and started to walk away.

It was only as I was leaving the deck that I realized, perhaps, why he gave me that strange look. For the first time since the events there happened, he had mentioned Quiberon Bay to me without causing me pain, anguish, guilt or torment.

I repeated the words over and over in my mind, as I walked towards the ward room. Quiberon. Muzillac. *Marriette*. Nothing, other than a slightly sad memory. No pain. The failure is fading. Angelina. I thought, with some surprise. It must be Angelina.

I am a lucky man indeed.

***
March 1

Reg Cousins was in the midst of a game of acey-deucy with Dr. Sebastian. The doctor, it turns out, was even more skilled at the game than Mr. Bracegirdle, and he was in fact being beaten badly.

"I am at your mercy, Sir!" He groaned, as Sebastian executed another skilled move. "This game is very bad for my morale, Sir!"

"Perhaps. But I believe I am fortunate that there is no chess set on board, or the tables would be turned neatly." The doctor answered. And their eyes met, total understanding there, and Reg grinned broadly. He reached forward to take the dice, for what would probably be his losing move.

"SEIZE THEM BOTH."

The room was filled suddenly with the Earl's men, and Reg felt himself being gripped again, by the same men who had dragged him to his punishment the last time. Unreasoning fear filled him. Was this what it was like? To suffer torture repeatedly? Did it take so little to destroy a once confident man?

But he could not stand to see two suffer.

"My Lord...My Lord...whatever I have done...please..." He looked over to see the stately Dr. Sebastian also being handled roughly, though it took three men to contain him. "Please, Sir, Dr. Sebastian has done nothing to merit such treatment."

The Earl spun, inches away from him, and Reg flinched and waited for the blow. Face? Stomach? What else might this man dare?

"Your Captain, boy, has angered me for the last time. Insisting that I take you on, when it ran so clearly counter to my desires. Now ordering us hove to!"

"Sir..." Reg, though sounding very frightened, forced himself to think, keep himself sane on the inside. And he wasn't supposed to know about the trap. "Sir, it is for the ship's own good. We shall reach England in ample time."

The Earl laughed, a high pitched giggle, full of mirth and without sanity. "Reach England? Boy, the only way any part of you will reach England is if a Plymouth fisherman reels in the beast that gnaws on your body!"

Reg tried to look blank. "S...Sir?"

"Oh, for the love of God, Mr. Cousins...can you really be so stupid? Even this Dago Doctor I believe has the intelligence to suspect something is not quite right. I AM NOT THE EARL OF NOTH."

'No, you're not', thought Reg triumphantly. 'I have known that, but now you have admitted it in front of witnesses. And you think *I* am stupid?' Outwardly he let his mouth fall open in shock.

The Earl was pacing sick berth, still chuckling. "The question is, how to dispose of you? I must keep you around to signal until the weather lifts...our compatriots have instructions that if we did not reach them by the twenty-eighth, they were to seek us out."

DAMN! Reg thought. So we do not HAVE four days, as I signalled! Today is the twenty-eighth. The enemy was on its way to them.

"But once our friends are here, I shall take great care in disposing of you both. You, in particular, Mr. Cousins. I want to see the look on the legendary Captain Pellew's face when he finds your body hanging from the yard arm. If I time it right, perhaps you will not even be dead yet, and I can have him observe your last gasps. Not that he'll care, at that point; he'll have enough to do worrying about HIS neck!"

Reg's breath was heavy, not only because his arms were pinned painfully behind him by Barman. He hoped...he dearly hoped...that the Earl really did have such a low opinion of him!

"Sure you don't want him back in the riggings, Fitz?" Purcell asked, leering.

Dear God, no! Reg felt the panic rise up in him, and he beat it back with much effort.

"No, Purcell, I unfortunately do need to keep him around, in case Pellew gets suspicious and makes good on his threats with the cannons. Has he signaled yet today?" Fitz asked.

"Not a word, yet. It's a might early."

"Doesn't matter. Bring him up now, and have him signal. And boy, don't you get any ideas about those signals of yours. Purcell here will dictate, and you will not try and fool your Captain by being clumsy or forgetting to put a chess move in there! Understand?"

"Yes...my lord." Reg looked downward, hoping the triumph did not show in his face. This man was an Idiot! Complete, utter, total IDIOT!

But to all appearances it was an abject, cowed midshipman, head held low, being brought to the signal flag above. And Fitz was pleased.

***

Midshipman Anderson was not due to come on duty for another hour or so, but he decided to check on Mr. Coleman, the greenest of the Indefatigable's mids, anyway.

"Everything alright there, Luke?" Anderson asked, chummily.

Coleman shrugged. "Cold and miserable, Mr. Anderson." He answered formally. The soaked midshipman drew his hands behind his back. "Not your watch yet, is it? I don't need you to play nursemaid to me." Coleman regarded Anderson with disinterest.

Anderson sighed. Luke and he were the same age, but Luke was from a titled family...not quite in Mr. Kennedy's or Drew's league, but certainly of a higher standard than Anderson's. And Luke tried to preserve a feeling of superiority. Anderson and Holloway, the most senior of the midshipmen, tried to nip that in the bud. On his majesties' ships, there were no titles other than rank. They would not permit Coleman to lord it over them, or over the other young man in the berth, Howard. And he knew they could go to Mr. Cousins or Mr. Brandon (he always hesitated to involve Mr. Hornblower in such triviality if he could) if any real problem existed. But what it boiled down to was Luke made no attempt at friendship.

He'd told them once that he was only here long enough to gain a little experience, and then his father, who had 'pull' would get him transferred to a better ship. Which made him not only supercilious, but stupid, in Anderson's mind.

"I will return in an hour, Mr. Coleman." Anderson said, matching formality.

"As you please, I'm sure."

And shaking his head, Anderson disappeared below decks, figuring on scrounging up a cup of tea from Drew before he would battle the cold himself.

Not twenty minutes after Anderson had gone, Coleman saw the signals coming from Serenity.

He frowned. His bad luck, he thought. Just when he thought he might get through watch without any unusual drudgery. Damn Mr. Cousins...why was he signaling early? Normally they came in over Anderson's watch.

He set himself to sulkily taking in the messages.

Stupid signals, really. Utterly unnecessary. Reporting the Serenity's state of supplies as normal, state of water normal, confirming that they were to remain hove to. Why bother sending them at all?

Mr. Bowles, who Coleman disliked intensely, but was smart enough not to show it, was beside him suddenly...he'd been working on some repairs forward.

"What signals, Mr. Anderson?"

Coleman repeated what he had read.

"Acknowledge them, then!" Mr. Bowles said, tersely.

Coleman followed the order, and all seemed right with the world. And then he got stupendously lucky.

"You are relieved from watch, Mr. Coleman. It is almost over anyway, and we are under orders to alert Mr. Hornblower or Mr. Kennedy once signals come it. Go and take care of that now, give them the full signals, and then get yourself dry."

"Aye, Aye, Sir!"

Coleman, unused to being made to stand around in bad weather, did not need to be told twice.

***
"And that is all, you are certain?" A pair of brown eyes regarded him closely.

"Yes, Sir, Mr. Hornblower." Coleman said, seething at the implication from the first Lieutenant that he couldn't read basic signals. Why, he'd been educated by some of the best tutors in London. Who was this commoner to question his skills. A pity Mr. Kennedy, who was a really fine man and probably ought to be first Lieutenant, was not around to report to.

"Very well, then; you are dismissed."

Not until later, when he was sitting in front of a cup of hot grog, did he consider the question in full. Of course, there had been that gibberish at the end of the message...nonsense, and no point going back and telling Lieutenant Hornblower about it now. He'd just get a lecture about being thorough. He knew the signals well enough, and he knew that Nd8 had no meaning in any text he'd ever seen. Probably the Lieutenant would read him another riot act for screwing up the message, when he was perfectly certain of what he'd seen.

No, no reason to tell anyone. Like as not, it was just that farm boy Cousins having a bit of sport with him anyway. Well, the joke was on him, this time.

And with a great yawn, Coleman figured he'd use his free time to take a little nap.

***
Reg felt himself falling downward into the cramped storage room...hell, storage PIT that was serving as his prison. Thankfully, Dr. Sebastian was there to catch him.

"Urgmph." Reg sighed, as Sebastian helped him to a pile of hay he'd scraped together.

"My word, Mr. Cousins...what did these bastards do to you?" The Doctor seethed. He could see precious little...a slim sliver of light came from the opening above...but he could feel the young Lieutenant trembling.

"It's...it's nothing, Doctor." Reg coughed painfully. "After my signals...our friend Fitz decided it would be sporting to see how well I can fight four of his men at once, with my hands tied behind my back."

"I cannot see well, Lad. Are you bleeding anywhere?"

"Probably." He held out his wrist towards the doctor. "I think the ropes have undone the assistance you gave me before."

Sebastian sighed, and then Reg heard the sound of ripping.

"Doctor?"

"Shhh. They have left us with a little water, and sent a few weevily biscuits down. But they were in an old napkin, and that is at this moment more useful than the sorry excuse for food." With gentle skill, the Doctor began to tend to the raw skin.

Reg tried to breath, and found it difficult, but not excruciating. A few well placed blows to his ribs had taken their toll, but there did not seem to be any permanent damage. Besides...he'd done what mattered. Sent the danger signal. The Captain would know that he needed help; once he was free, he could relay the danger of the arriving enemy to him. But he had no doubt the Captain would come for him, and Horatio and Archie with him.

The Doctor was very skilled, he thought, as his injuries were tended to. Shame he worked in higher circles than a mere naval vessel. Any ship would be proud to have him on board; he'd be so much better than the average ship's physician. Of course, some might hold his nationality against him...Reg was embarrassed to even remember he'd been suspicious himself.

'Wish I could tell him about the secret signal.' Reg thought. 'I'd like him to know that assistance is on the way. Captain Pellew will not let us hang.' But he couldn't risk it; there was too much danger of listening ears up above, where he couldn't see them. No, explanations would have to wait.

"Here. There is no willow bark, my friend, so water will have to do."

"It is enough, Dr. Sebastian." Reg drank deeply, then sank back against a crate, taking care to avoid his multiple bruises. "Captain Pellew, Sir, will be very grateful, as I am, for all of your assistance during my time here."

"I would be honored to have the pleasure of meeting him, after my conversations with Major Edrington."

Reg turned to look at him, not for the first time wondering about the Doctor's connection to the Major. "You never did tell me, Sir, your occasion for meeting him?"

There was a moment's silence, as Reg stared into the near darkness, wishing he could see enough to read the expression on his new friend's face. Instead, the Doctor reached out to him, and patted him gently on the arm.

"My friend, I am afraid I have not been entirely truthful with you, either." Reg could make out enough to see the doctor glance at the opening above, and the man spoke in a low whisper. "I can explain some of it to you now."

Reg sank down, slightly, huddling his cloak around him, and waited.

"I met the Earl back in Plymouth, last November. I am an old friend of his late father's...the man had a serious heart condition I was trying to treat him for. It was your friend's father, Lord Exton, who assisted his early release from this world."

"That much I have heard." Reg confessed. "Please, go on."

"The Earl was, if I may use the expression...in quite a snit. He'd uncovered some information about the Earl of Noth...an idea that he might have gone bad, if you will. But those in power rather tut-tutted the information; though the young Earl had a reputation as rather an enfant terrible, as the French would say, there is a big step from wild oats to high treason."

"But it isn't really the Earl..." Reg started, confused.

"Yes, as we have learned. But that was not known at the time. Nor was there any indication of what the exact danger was. And the Major's regiment was set to go to Portsmouth, leaving him powerless. I had been planning a trip to Rome for some time, before this war broke out. As a good Catholic, it is natural I should wish to visit the Vatican."

"Of course." Reg murmured.

"And the last information the Major had indicated the Earl was in or around Rome. So off I went...unknowingly sailing with Lord Exton on his journey out to Gibraltar. Had we known that the Indefatigable was the target, I might have broken my journey off there and spoken with your Captain directly. Instead..." Reg could visualize the shrug he could not see. "I made it to Italy, managed to secure passage on Serenity with the assistance of some forged documents that the so-called Earl couldn't refuse. But I knew, from the second I met him, that the man was NOT the Earl of Noth."

"How?"

"A scientific fact. I had known Noth's parents, and they were both very fair skinned blondes. With blue eyes. Let this be a lesson to you, Mr. Cousins: Two parents with blue eyes cannot ever produce a child with eyes of brown. I do not know the reason for it, but it is as true as the sun rising in the east."

"So all the while I was deciding whether or not to trust you..."

"I was wondering if you were, in fact, the idiot you were portrayed to be."

There was a moment's silence, and then the two of them laughed together, quietly. And in Reg's case, painfully.

And he couldn't resist. He leaned over, and whispered very faintly...

"Help is on the way."

He felt the Doctor nod. "I had hoped that to be the case."

***
Anderson began to work his way down to the midshipman's berth, soaked after a longer than usual stint above decks. Howard had been feverish, and he'd volunteered to split the lad's watch with Mr. Holloway, so he might recover. Another two hours was not difficult, and truthfully, he'd hoped Mr. Cousins might signal; he had worried when the usual hour had passed and he did not. So before taking the time to reward himself with a hard-earned dinner, he sought out Mr. Hornblower and Mr. Kennedy.

"No signals today, Mr. Hornblower, Sir. Perhaps something is wrong?" He said, standing respectfully at attention.

Mr. Hornblower gave him a little smile. "Nothing wrong, Mr. Holloway. Mr. Cousins signaled early today."

"Oh!" Anderson was relieved. Then he remembered who'd had the earlier watch. "Mr. Coleman took the signals, then? But he's not in on...the situation."

"No, but he reported promptly. And since the signaler gave Mr. Cousins' assigned sign-on, I am confident that nothing is amiss."

"That's a relief. What did he signal?"

"Nothing new, which is not surprising. I rather wish he'd sent us some indication, but perhaps he did not wish to press his luck with the chess cipher. He knows we're aware of the trap. Had there been any danger, he'd have given a call help." Lieutenant Hornblower smiled at him. "Your concern is admirable, Mr. Anderson, but we have thought of every contingency."

"Yes, I guess you have." So why didn't he FEEL any better? "Guess I'll head to dinner now."

"You do that, Mr. Anderson. I shall alert you if any new information comes in, I promise."

So with a half smile and a heavy heart, Anderson returned to his own berth, wondering what exactly was bothering him?

***
We were halfway through dinner, a new breakthrough having occurred to occupy conversation. Now that a real danger was uncovered, the Captain had informed Mr. Bowles and Captain Forbes of the actual use of Mr. Cousins. Forbes had a good laugh; Mr. Bowles, I am afraid, was rather affronted at first, mainly at the fact that we permitted Mr. Cousins' reputation to be sullied.

The explanations, largely from Archie and Drew, were fast and furious, and covered up the fact that I wasn't participating. Something was bothering me, and had been ever since Anderson reported to me earlier. Essentially, I was worried because Anderson was worried; he hadn't fooled me with that half smile of his.

I ran over possible flaws in my mind. Reg had a specific set of signals he gave every time he signed in, that were specific to Indefatigable. No imposter, even in the unlikely event that the Earl could conjure up a man to be so sure with a signal flag, would get away with it. And Reg would be certain to notify us of any danger. He would NOT go a lone hand; his reported misadventures with the mizzen mast, back when I was in prison, had taught him to avoid such a pitfall. So what, exactly, was wrong.

"Gentlemen..." I said, and the conversation around me was stopped immediately, as they realized I had not been contributing much previously. "Is anyone else concerned that there was no chess move relayed today?"

"Not at all." Archie answered promptly, looking at me with surprise. "We had the needed information. Unless he learned more, or was in danger, there was no need. It is entirely probably he has NOT learned more, and from his last signal, we have three more days before there is immediate risk."

I gave a sigh of exasperation. Every word if it, the same in essence to what I'd said to Anderson. So why is this still gnawing at my mind?

Drew was puzzled. "You do not think it was an imposter, do you?"

I shook my head. "Even a midshipman as green as Coleman would recognize his signals."

"Oh, it was Coleman who took the signal, and not Anderson?" Drew digested this. "Coleman's smart enough, Horatio. A bit of...well, to put it bluntly...he's rather an...well..." He blushed.

"He's an ass, Drew. Call it for what it is." Archie snorted. "He and my brother Wills would get along just wonderfully."

"Still, regardless of Coleman's personality...and I agree with Archie's assessment of it..." Mr. Bowles added, "...he is, as Drew said, smart enough. I was above decks and caught the part of the signaling...I was too far away to read them well, and truthfully I had my hands full. But it was too skillful to be any man on Serenity but Cousins."

I took a deep breath. "That eases my mind greatly, Mr. Bowles. I had not been aware that you were with Mr. Coleman."

Archie passed me some wine. "Looking for trouble where none exists again, Horatio?" He teased. "This espionage business is going to your head."

"Perhaps." I drank down the claret. "I confess, gentleman, I will be happier once we have Mr. Cousins back on board, and this event is behind us."

"I think we can all agree on that!" Drew added. "The only remaining question would be, did Coleman botch the message?"

"I questioned him pretty sharply about it. He was quite certain of what it was. Dealt with supplies, water, and the need to remain hove-to."

"The supplies portion confirm what I was able to catch." Bowles admitted.

"He wouldn't have missed anything, would he have? After all, he's not, well, he's not in on the chess cipher." Archie asked.

"Neither was Anderson at the beginning." Drew pointed out. "The whole point was nobody had to be in on anything. A midshipman is given the order to carry any message received to his superiors. He's not about to start editing it!

"Not twice, anyway!" Forbes deadpanned.

We all laughed at that. No, to be certain, Anderson had carried me the message in the beginning, even if he didn't understand it. And Coleman, though he is full of his own self worth, is at least capable of following orders, after all.

***
March 2

Reg had not slept a bit when there was movement up above; a rope dropped down and a rough voice called out, "Cousins! Sebastian! Move it, now, if you please. The day is new, and we have new adventures in store for you!" The laughter echoed around the small prison he was in.

He took the rope with shaking hands. Morning? Indeed, he knew it had been long hours since he was deposited here, but, Morning?

Where was the Indefatigable? Where were his shipmates? Surely, a rescue in the cover of darkness would have made most sense?

Why hadn't they come for him?

Dr. Sebastian was behind him, and steadied the rope, and then steadied him. "One step at a time, Mr. Cousins. You can do this." His voice was encouraging, though Reg knew he must also wonder why the promised help was not on the way.

Where had he gone wrong?

***
Blinking through the rain, Reg began to shake again. It was still cold, and he still chilled easily, but he saw the edges of despair creeping in around him. The Indefatigable, cheery and unmolested, was off in the distance. Perhaps...if he sent the signal again? Would he still be allowed to signal? He swallowed hard.

"Well, my friends. I trust you slept as well as you deserved." The Earl...er, Fitz...was all happiness this morning. "Another day or two at the most, and we will be able to put the both of you out of your misery."

Another day. Was it time enough?

"But it occurred to me, in your case, Mr. Cousins, that you seemed particularly unimpressed with my desire to hang you."

"My Lord?" He questioned. His mind was dull today, he could not quite think clearly. He had been frozen and beaten, and had thought he'd be safe by now. And what else should he call him, anyway?

"How many men has Captain Pellew hanged in your time with him?"

"None, My Lord." He was puzzled now; what difference could that make?

Unfortunately, all the difference in the world.

"As I suspected." The imposter clapped his hands together, an expression of rapture on his face. "You have never seen a hanging then? Tut, tut. That must be rectified at once. Otherwise, how else shall you know what you are to face?"

Reg blinked, and then with a look of panic glanced at Dr. Sebastian. NO! HE WOULDN'T DARE!

The Doctor stood in total stillness next to him. What thoughts went through his mind Reg could only guess at.

Fitz turned around, and glanced over the men.

"Have Orson brought forward, if you will." He smiled cheerily.

OH, NO! The shaking grew more pronounced. "My Lord...Sir, this is not really necessary." He murmured. "I won't have another suffer for my crimes."

"Quiet, Cousins. Orson has committed his own crimes, not the least of which was his assistance of you."

Reg watched as a noose was fitted around Orson's neck. The man's eyes were wide with fear, and Reg's matched.

What was next? He would be hauled up, he supposed...that was how they did it. It was always a question of how well liked the condemned man was, by whether his shipmates hauled him slowly, or whether they made it speedy in the hopes of breaking his neck before he could suffer.

So which men would be hauling up poor Orson?

Purcell came forward just then, and he handed Reg the rope.

The world was tilting out of control. He looked at Fitz...surely he didn't mean?

"You do KNOW how a hanging works, don't you, Mr. Cousins?"

"I won't do it!" He whispered, his voice raspy.

"Oh, yes, you will. Because if you do not, I will blow the good Doctor's brains right out of his skull." And with a smooth movement, he removed his pistol and cocked it, his arm steady, and, no doubt, his aim true.

Dr. Sebastian did not flinch. He stared the "Earl" down. "Sir, I want you to know that I am certain that there's a special place in hell for you."

Reg looked from Dr. Sebastian...to Orson. Orson met his eyes. And he blinked. And then he smiled and nodded. Reg felt the tears welling up in his own eyes. Was Orson...giving him permission?

Slowly, Orson moved his bound arms forward. He looked down at the bindings, and then on the scars on his arms. No longer frightened, he raised his head, and never took his eyes off of Reg. And the smile grew more pronounced.

SET ME FREE.

Wishful thinking, Reg thought. A way to balm my conscience from the devil's choice I must make. Convenient for me to believe that I'm relieving his suffering. What point, anyway? If I don't do it, Fitz will kill Sebastian anyway, and then have somebody else hang Orson. Before he hangs me.

WHY DIDN'T THEY COME?

Setting his shoulders, Reg took the rope in his hand.

***
"Sir, I confess, I am uneasy about Mr. Cousins' welfare."

The new day had not seen me released from my personal anxiety. The planned attack on Serenity was tomorrow night (after all, if we had four days to plan, Archie and I saw no reason to not use time). And I was very, very confident that our boarding would be successful. We could not ask for a crew better prepared, more able to work together, than our men here. The caution would have to be used in order to ensure that Mr. Cousins...and any man he has learned to be honest, of course...can be extricated safely.

Yet I cannot fight of the continued feeling of unease over his safety, and as soon as possible, I had decided to seek out the Captain for his advice.

He frowned before me, those dark eyes of his unreadable. Indeed, he studied me in much the same way he had the first time I had a personal interview with him, when he was tearing my liver out for my involvement in what he considered a foolish duel. The difference between then and now is that the study does not disconcert me; he can read in me what he will, but I will stand by my feelings.

"We have had no warning?" He asked, sharply.

"No, Sir. Nevertheless, I would like to move up the timing of our invasion to this evening."

"And forgo the opportunity to use the extra time for planning." He reiterated, eyes never leaving my face.

I did not hesitate. "Yes, Sir." Simple. Plain. Direct.

He leaned back in his chair, his fingers touching pensively. "And yet you can give me no concrete reason for doing so?"

I took a deep breath. "None, Sir, other than my own instinct."

He was silent for a few moments, studying me. Then he nodded. "Well, there's nobody whose instinct I would trust more, Mr. Hornblower. Ready your men. We will move at midnight tonight."

"I-Thank you, Sir. It must seem like a whim..." I stuttered, certain I had not heard him right.

"It does not, Horatio. You were in tune enough with the situation on Serenity to begin with that you believed me when I said I felt something was amiss. Why should I not believe you now? No, the sooner we get Mr. Cousins back on this ship, the better for all of us."

I felt about a thousand pounds of weight lift off of my shoulders. "Very well, Sir. I shall begin to ready the men."

I just hoped that he didn't notice how my hand was shaking as I shut the door behind me. Does he truly trust my judgement so much?

Should he?

***
I repeated the story to Archie and Drew in the sick berth, where I met up with them. After explaining the change in our plans, I told them both, with more than a little embarrassment, of what the Captain had said. The reaction was immediate.

Drew rolled his eyes. "Oh, here we go, Archie. Seven minutes of self-recrimination from Mr. Hornblower, of how misguided the Captain's trust is..."

"Nay, Drew. Only seven? I would have expected fifteen or more!" Archie laughed right at me.

Drew crossed his arms. "Well, let's hear it Horatio. Shall we have the entire laundry list of every myriad way you have failed the captain..."

"And/or your men." Archie put in for good measure.

"...since you have joined the Navy? And then, perhaps, you can explain to me, why you are so insistent on the Captain's noted infallibility whenever he praises me..."

Archie interrupted again. "Or any other man in uniform."

"...yet, when he says anything to you that is not a direct criticism or harsh assessment of your performance..."

"Something that has not happened since we first arrived here from Justinian, I might add."

"...suddenly, the Captain doesn't know what he is talking about, obviously has special blinders on where YOU are concerned, because it ought to be obvious to a blind man what a doddering idiot you are!"

I stood there in shock, looking from one to the other. They were...both of them...mocking me? Mocking my feelings on this? Archie and Drew, ganging up on me! I would not have believed it possible.

Finding my voice, I straightened up, and tried to muster some dignity. "Well, gentlemen." I tried not to sound hurt. "As you are now prepared for our change in plans, perhaps it would be best if I left you to your previous conversation."

I turned away, embarrassed by my reaction but unable to avoid being petty all the same.

Archie called to me. "Horatio? Oh, for the love of God, can you not understand why it is so frustrating for us to hear you put yourself down so?"

I would have turned back to argue the point, but we were interrupted from this silliness by the sudden appearance of Mr. Coleman in the doorway.

I tried to regain my dignity. "Yes, Mr. Coleman, what news?"

"Mr. Cousins signaled again, about two hours ago. As the signals were the same as yesterday, Mr. Bowles bade me wait until my watch was over before I reported them., Sir."

"I see." I took a deep breath. "The exact same signals, Mr. Colemen."

"Yes, Sir...as I said." He stressed the last words with a hint of aggravation.

"Mind your tongue, Mr. Coleman." I snapped, suddenly too reminded of Hunter. "You are bordering on impudence, Sir."

"My apologies, Sir." No more aggravation; his voice was studied and cautious, and blank. "However, it is quite true. The signals were verbatim from yesterday. The daily report on water, food, and a confirmation that we are to remain hove to."

"I see." Yes, without new news, no doubt Mr. Cousins would relay normal ship's business. And yet... "No other signals from him?"

Coleman stiffened slightly. "Sir, the signals were the exact same as yesterday's." His face was red, and I took it for anger.

"That is enough, Mr. Coleman. You have just lost your spirit ration for the week. Now, did anything else happen of note while you were above decks?"

His eyes sparked with resentment, but his tone was civil. "One other thing DID happen on Serenity, Sir. It appears, from what we could see through the glass, that the Earl has had one of his men hanged."

I gaped. "WHAT?"

Drew came forward to Coleman immediately. "Are you certain?"

"Yes, Sir. But it's just a Negro, Sir."

I felt a mix of anger at his disdain for human life based on skin color, mixed with relief that it so obviously wasn't Mr. Cousins.

"Mr. Coleman, please. For my sake...and I dare say your own...please remove yourself from my sight. You are dismissed." I snapped.

He didn't need to be told twice. But as he left I put shaking hands out to the surgeon's table and leaned on it. "Damn! But I like this situation less and less every minute."

Archie patted me on the shoulder. "But at least we know Mr. Cousins is safe." He said.

"For the moment." I shook my head. "A hanging? The Earl obviously grows unstable, Archie. And an unstable enemy is always dangerous."

Drew was very pale. "I am going above decks. I want to see for myself that it...that it isn't..."

I looked at him and nodded. "I believe we shall all go together."

As we were leaving the berth, Drew turned back to me. "Horatio, about earlier...I did not mean to upset you. But you know, it's pretty much the same thing you would have said to me, if the tables were turned."

I gave him a slight smile. "I know, Drew. I just never realized I was so easy to read. Come, let's worry about more important things, eh?"

Archie slapped me on the back. "More important than Horatio Hornblower? Never!"

I gave him a scowl that melted into a reluctant smile. I really do have priceless friends.

***

Mr. Anderson was above decks, and seemed not at all surprised to see me, or the entourage I had brought. Indeed, he handed me the glass before I asked for it.

"I suspect Coleman reported it to you, Mr. Hornblower, Sir?" He said, as I traced the ship until I found the poor devil in question. I shuddered. True enough, the man was as black as coal, and dressed as the lowest ship hand on a barge might be.

"Yes, Mr. Anderson." I passed the glass on to Drew. "By the by, he has lost his spirit ration, for insubordination. I expect that you will not be providing him with any of your own in compensation."

"Of course not, Sir. Not that he won't try."

Archie and I looked at Anderson together. "Try how?"

"Oh, he's forever trying to put a toll on our spirits or our seachests, on the grounds of his father's social status."

Archie drew his breath in with a hiss. "He's what?"

"A toll, Sir. Some men try such things, I understand."

Archie was pale to the lips. "Aye, SOME do." And he looked quickly away.

"But we won't let him. I told Mr. Cousins about it the first time he tried it, and he read him the riot act. Every now and then he tried to intimidate Mr. Howard, but Mr. Holloway and I won't let him."

I looked at him, and he met my eyes with great frankness. "You understand that such behavior is not tolerated on this ship, Mr. Anderson."

"Of course, Sir. I understand it well, and Mr. Cousins made certain that Mr. Coleman knew it, too. There's no trouble in our berth, Sir." And he said it with more than a hint of pride, so that I had to bite back a smile.

Drew, meanwhile, looked a little sick from having seen the unfortunate victim, even if we were to far away to note the gruesome details. "When did it happen, Mr. Anderson? Do we know?"

Anderson shook his head. "Before Mr. Cousins signaled, it seems certain, Sir. Mr. Coleman noted the body when he was taking the message down ." He looked up at me in apology. "I tried to dash above decks midway in , in case Mr. Cousins should again signal early, but I was not quite in time. Mr. Cousins was even earlier today."

"I see." I set my shoulders, and then gave myself a shake. "Damn, but I wish you had retrieved those signals yourself!"

"I'm sorry, Sir." He frowned in shame, and I hastened to explain.

"It is not your fault, Mr. Anderson, that Mr. Coleman is not entirely reliable. I do not know what is wrong here, but I am certain that SOMETHING IS!"

And without further words, I turned on my heal, and tried to pace my anxiety away.

***

Dr. Sebastian was trying to help him, and he knew he wasn't making it easy. But...for the love of God...how could he go on?

Reg was in the corner of the store room, his little prison, curled up into a ball, wishing he could close his eyes and disappear into nothingness. The good Doctor was beside him, having covered him with his own cloak, and was stroking his head gently. But Reg could not stop the shaking, nor could he find his voice, or shut his eyes. To be certain, he was afraid to shut his eyes, for what he might find in dreams staring back at him.

He'd done it. He'd had no choice, really. They were, all of them, playing for time. He hoped that he was correct, and that the look Orson had given him was understanding... before...before...Reg screwed his face up tight, trying not to remember, but unable to stop the torment of his mind.

The rope in his hands. Rough and scratchy, and damp. Wrapping it, around and around, gathering as much slack as he could, but his hands, his poor bleeding wrists and hands, and there was not as much strength in him as there could have been. Still, he'd tried. Tried to make it quick, tried to make it painless. When the Earl gave him no choice, when he was just seconds away from shooting the Doctor, Reg had done it...he'd heaved. Thrown everything into his body. Please, let his neck snap.

And he'd watched in horror as no such thing had happened. The rope secured by laughing fiends around him, as he'd fallen back to the deck. The Earl, coming along, grasping his chin from behind, holding his face steady, making him watch. Ten minutes. Ten minutes it had taken for the poor man to die. The air being denied, the blood to the brain slowed and eventually stopped. The slow torment of the noose.

"NO!" He clamped his hands over his ears, trying to stop the gasping sounds that Orson had made.

"Shhh." The Doctor leaned in closer, gathered him up as much as he could, for Reg was nearly the same size. "Shhh. This is not your doing, Mr. Cousins. Not your fault. Orson is now with the good Lord, and no longer suffers, and the almighty knows who is to blame."

Reg continued to shiver, though, could not get the images out of his mind. He'd been in shock, unable to move at first, when it was over, and then the Earl bade him to make signal again, though it was even earlier than yesterday.

Lot of good it will do, he thought. Though he'd sent the danger signal again. But now he was quite certain that nobody would be coming. They had decided he was expendable, he guessed. Well, perhaps he was, especially now. What sort of a man was he, anyway? No, he would not be rescued. God...Dr. Sebastian's God...had obviously decided his punishment would be to have to die in the same way he'd killed a man.

"I'm sorry..." He murmured, to the Doctor. "They're not coming. I'm sorry."

"They will be here, Mr. Cousins. I am certain of it." Dr. Sebastian grasped him tightly, rubbing his shoulders, trying to stop the tremors. But nothing doing. He was quite certain he would never be warm, in body or spirit, for the rest of his pitiful remaining hours.

***

Exhausted after his watch, and hoping to catch a brief nap before the activities of the evening, Anderson headed towards the midshipman's berth, shaking his cape out as he did so. He spotted Coleman sulking in the corner, reading through Norie's seamanship.

"Luke." He said, evenly and with no hind of friendship.

"Anderson." Coleman replied, with near total disdain. And then he flung the book to the side with a smirk. "There. I am certain."

"Certain of what?" Anderson asked, rubbing his hands together to warm them.

"There is no such signal. I knew it was nonsense." And the smirk grew. "Blast Cousins for trying to have sport with me."

Anderson stood still, and regarded Coleman with horror. It was only with the greatest effort that he controlled his voice, for he was certain that should he say what he was thinking right now, Coleman would close up like a clam. "I beg your pardon. Did Mr. Cousins have sport with you during...his signals?" He tried to sound politely interested, and not reach over and grab Luke by the jacket and give him a good shake.

Coleman stroked the book's cover, and rose to stand by him. "Aye, he did. Trying to issue me some nonsense jumble of letters and numbers, expecting me to go off and report them to Lieutenant Hornblower, making a fool of myself."

"I see." Anderson did not move. 'I am going to kill him. I am going to kill him slowly.' "You don't, by chance, remember what that signal was, do you?"

Coleman tossed the book to him. "ND8. Sent it TWICE, damn him, yesterday and today. YOU look it up, see if you have more luck with it than I did." And whistling happily, Coleman began to pass through the berth.

Anderson was quite unable to move for two or three seconds. But when he did, it was with lightning reflexes he didn't know he had. He caught hold of Coleman by the collar and slammed him back against the wall.

"GET YOUR FILTHY HANDS OFF ME." But Coleman was slightly smaller than he was, and as he tried to avoid strenuous work whenever possible, he was rather weaker.

For a few moments, Anderson imagined all that he wished to do to him. And then, with a bitter smile, he realized that there was only one thing he could do, and it was more than enough. "Mr. Coleman, you are going to accompany me to the Captain and repeat that story for him, if you please!

"Bugger off!" Coleman said, struggling, though he did rather pale at the mention of Captain Pellew.

Holloway, with impeccable timing, arrived at just that moment.

"Henry?" He gasped, looking at Anderson with his tight grip on Coleman. But he didn't move to help the midshipman so recently described as an ass by his superiors.

"Hullo, Tom. Grab an arm, will you? This midshipman needs to be having a conversation with the Captain. And for his sake, I hope that his foolishness has not resulted in any harm coming to Mr. Cousins."

That was enough information for Holloway; Mr. Cousins had been well liked as a fellow midshipman, and even more liked as a helpful Lieutenant. He took firm grip of Coleman.

"You can come with us quietly, or we can carry you screaming through the entire ship. But really, where do you think there is to go?"

Coleman's face was red in anger. "The Captain will not be pleased when he hears how you have manhandled me. Nor my father, either!"

Anderson bit back an angry laugh. "Your father is not here, Sir, and I believe the Captain's displeasure will be directed towards someone other than myself."

"There's no such signal!" Coleman growled, as Anderson and Holloway force marched him into the passage.

"Explain that to Captain Pellew. If you can."

But inside his seething, white hot anger, Anderson trembled. Please, God, Let Mr. Cousins be alright.

INDEFATIGABLE:

In Captain Pellew's office, Archie and I were working on our preparations for this evening. I could feel my blood starting to race, my entire bearing becoming taut, with the anticipation of our success, and the fear of our failure. Archie was confidently going over our chosen men, in which boats they were to be placed, and what function they were to have. With one part of my mind I made note to point out to Archie that he is certainly no less competent or trustworthy than I am! How far he had come from the man who I had found in prison, welcoming death.

I was about to lean forward to suggest Mr. Anderson take the lead in one of the boats (he's certainly earned the chance) when there was a loud thunk at the door, and low and behold, there Mr. Anderson was, along with Mr. Holloway, and between them was grasped Mr. Coleman!

Captain Forbes had let them in. "Sir, there seems to be an issue between these gentlemen..."

The Captain's mouth had dropped to the table at the suddenness of the interruption...Anderson was obviously bursting to say something, but he was controlling himself until spoken to, quite properly. The Captain's face was pale and rigidly composed, which meant dangerous.

"Thank you, Forbes. You may remain, if you please."

Forbes closed the door, and Coleman wretched himself from his fellow midshipmen. The Captain crossed his arms, and looked at the three of them, but before he could speak, Coleman burst out.

"Captain Pellew, I must protest the manor in which I have been handled. These gentlemen have seized me without cause or provocation, and it had been my understanding that such behavior is NOT tolerated in the midshipman's berth on your ship. I must insist that they be dealt with appropriately."

The silence was one of stunned incomprehension. Anderson, and Holloway with him, were seething; so was the Captain, though probably I am the only man to realize it. He sat back, eyes wide in disbelief, two spots of red on his cheeks.

"Mr. Coleman." He spoke quietly. "I do not believe you were given leave to speak, Sir!"

He started to turn to Anderson, but...dear God, does the boy have a death wish?... Coleman continued on:

"I cannot be silent in the face of having my character assassinated..."

"SILENCE!" The roar was immediate and deafening; the Captain rose and came forward to the three midshipmen, two of whom had the sense to wait until they were questioned. Holloway cowered outright; even Anderson flinched, but Coleman was still staring defiantly forward.

"Mr. Coleman, you will bide your tongue. I will ascertain what the trouble is, and will decide what punishments are necessary. IS THAT UNDERSTOOD?"

For a second I thought he was going to speak out again; I could throttle him myself, damn the boy! But he decided against it, and simply answered, "Aye, Aye, Sir."

The Captain gave the three of them his most ferocious stare, and then turned to Mr. Holloway.

"You are senior in the berth, Mr. Holloway. Can you explain to me this situation?"

He took a deep breath and answered firmly. "Sir, I came upon Mr. Anderson with Mr. Coleman in his grasp. When I requested the reason, he informed me that Mr. Coleman had information regarding Mr. Cousins safety, and he was insisting that Mr. Coleman report it to you immediately. Mr. Coleman was not willing, and I agreed to assist Mr. Anderson in bringing him forward to report to you."

At the mention of Mr. Cousins name, I felt my heart sink. This was it, then. Oh, I know full well that it is unlikely the conversation between Holloway and Anderson was anything nearly so professional and complacent, but no doubt the gist of it is correct. And in the end, that this has come up is nothing less than I expected.

And with sudden vehemence, Coleman burst out once more. "That's a LIE, I know nothing at all about Mr. Cousins' safety..."

"MR. COLEMAN!" For a brief second I thought the Captain might actually strike him. "You will be allowed to speak IN YOUR TURN, SIR. If I have to remind you again to wait until you are bid speak, you will find yourself speaking to the bosun!"

He drew a deep breath, and turned to Mr. Anderson. "Well, Mr. Anderson? Briefly, if you will." His face was still hard, but I thought I saw a faint glimmer of encouragement for the boy.

Anderson did not flinch, though he was pale. "Sir, I found Mr. Coleman this afternoon searching through Norie's seamanship. He made a comment to the effect that he 'knew there was no such signal'. When I pressed him on it, he gave me indication that there were signals sent by Mr. Cousins that he had not passed on to Mr. Hornblower, because he had believed them to be unimportant, Sir."

All color left Captain Pellew's face, and mine, for that matter. I felt the bile rising in my throat. "Did you ask....Mr. Anderson...what signal, Sir?" His voice was controlled, low, and silky with danger.

"Yes, Sir. He informed me that the signal Mr. Cousins gave...yesterday and today...was ND8."

YESTERDAY? DAMN! DAMN! DAMN!

Behind me, I heard Archie exhale deeply and raise his hand to his face.

Coleman twitched angrily, but I glared at him before the Captain noticed, and he held his tongue.

Still composed, Anderson met the Captain's eye frankly. "I felt, Sir, that you needed to know that immediately. I am sorry if we have caused any disturbance." He held out Coleman's copy of Norie's Seamanship, which he had brought in with him. "He wrote the signal on the front page, Sir."

The Captain, taking the book and looking at the offending scribble, closed his eyes for a second, and nodded. "Your apology is noted, Mr. Anderson. But your duty was clear, and you have performed it well. I would suggest that you and Mr. Holloway return to your berth and prepare for imminent action."

"Aye, Aye, Sir." And with relieved expressions, both young men hastened away.

"Mr. Hornblower..." Captain Pellew looked at me, turning his back on Coleman, and allowed me to see the pain and fury in his face. "How quickly can we come to assistance?"

I swallowed. "Any attack in broad daylight is folly, and would almost certainly ensure that Mr. Cousins would be killed...if..." I let my voice trail of, and cleared my throat. "However, we do not have to wait for midnight. Darkness falls in just a few hours. My men will be ready, Sir."

"It is more dangerous that way. You understand that?"

"We will not abandon one of our men, Sir." That from Archie, who spoke with quiet authority.

Captain Pellew turned to him. "Understood, Mr. Kennedy. I would like for you, if you please, to go on ahead and begin preparations. I require Mr. Hornblower to finish handling our...situation, here."

Archie, his eyes hard as sapphires, glared past the Captain at the sulking Coleman, who still looked remarkably unashamed. "Aye, Aye, Sir."

And he brushed past me, not daring to allow himself to get closer to the errant Midshipman than he had to.

As the door closed, the Captain set his shoulders and wheeled around on the boy. "Mr. Coleman. I have told you would have an opportunity to speak. Now is your chance to do so. Do you have anything to say to me that could possibly explain your actions?"

If he were smart, he'd shut up and accept his punishment. If he has at least minimal intelligence, he would try and apologize, expressing remorse.

"I deny Mr. Anderson's allegations completely." He did not even dignify this stupidity with a Sir.

The Captain was growing a rather frightening shade of purple. "You deny, Sir, receiving this signal, not once, but twice?"

"No, Sir. I received the signal. I deny that I have placed Mr. Cousins in danger."

The Captain turned away, speechless with rage, and I addressed him. "Mr. Coleman, do you deny having been told to report any and all signals to myself or Mr. Kennedy?"

"The signal was nonsense." He said, not even having the sense to look scared.

I snapped. "Your job, Sir, did not involve concerning yourself with the nature of the signal! Your job, Sir, was to report to your superior officers any signal...ANY SIGNAL...so that they could do their jobs and take any necessary actions. Mr. Anderson was not aware of the meanings behind these signals either, but that did not stop him from reporting them to me, even though he did not understand them, BECAUSE MR. ANDERSON KNOWS HOW TO FOLLOW ORDERS." I tried to calm down. "Do you still deny, Sir, that you failed to follow your orders, and that you therefore have placed Mr. Cousins' life in danger?"

He glared at me in resentment, but did not answer.

The Captain had cooled to a strong simmer from a full boil. "Mr. Coleman." He spoke, barely above a whisper. "You do not know the level you have pushed me to. I would not toy with me at this moment. You admit to not following your orders. For two days, Sir, you sat on a signal that was of vital importance, because you thought that, at the age of fifteen, you were smarter than your Lieutenants and your Captain, and knew better than they did which signals were important or not. Does it not bother you, Sir, that there is a very real probability that Mr. Cousins is dead because of your negligence?"

Coleman did not even flinch. "We are at war. Men die."

The silence was eerie. The Captain clenched his hand; how he refrained from slapping him, I do not know. His jaw clenched, and he shook, his chest heaving as he looked with unbridled disgust at this spoiled child.

"You are not fit for service in his majesties' Navy, Mr. Coleman. Unfortunately, I had no choice but to take you on. Captain Forbes?"

"Yes, Sir?" He said; I flinched, knowing this was not about to be pretty.

"Mr. Coleman is to be escorted to the bosun. Where he is to receive twenty four strokes of the cane for his infraction. I have never believed it possible to beat sense into a man, but I cannot see any other options here."

"Aye, Aye, Sir." He said, tersely, and he grasped a shocked Midshipman.

"You can't beat me!" He gasped.

"ENOUGH!" The Captain stood forward, inches from the immobile Coleman's face. "I AM THE CAPTAIN ON THIS SHIP, DAMN YOUR FATHER AND DAMN YOUR CONNECTIONS! NOT ONLY WILL YOU BE BEATEN TODAY, BUT YOU WILL RECEIVE A DOZEN ADDITIONAL STROKES EACH DAY AT THIS TIME FOR THE NEXT THREE DAYS, AND DO NOT PRESUME I WILL NOT EXTEND YOUR PUNISHMENT IF YOU DO NOT SERIOUSLY ADJUST YOUR BEHAVIOR HERE!" He took a deep breath, and snarled at him, but his voice resumed its level of muted anger. "And if Mr. Cousins in fact does not return to this ship alive, it will be every day until we get to England, at which time, Sir, I will gladly arrange your transfer to any other ship in port..." He looked the boy up and down. "If I can find one that wants you. Mr. Forbes...take him away from my sight."

"Aye, Aye." And with strong arms, Forbes dragged the shell-shocked Coleman out of the Captain's offices, and we were plunged into silence once more. His face was pale again, and in his anger ebbed to despair, as he turned to the windows.

"Sir..." I started tentatively, sensing how very upset he was about the entire disastrous situation.

He held his hand up. "Horatio...please...the thought of losing Mr. Cousins in such a fashion..." He gulped. "I am not a cruel man...never would I have believed I could issue such a punishment! But, God help me, he gave me no choice!"

I shook my head. "Sir, never would I have believed I'd see such a wanton disregard for duty as I have just witnessed. He showed not only stupidity, but a complete disregard for the welfare of one of his ship mates. I cannot comprehend thinking on...the death...of a man due to my own negligence, without complete remorse."

He gave me a bare hint of a smile at the understatement. "No, of course you cannot comprehend that. Nor I, really." He set his shoulders and reached for his cape. "Well, I am no coward, Horatio. I will go forward to witness this punishment, though it gives me no pleasure." He looked at me as he fastened his cloak. "You must go explain this to Mr. Brandon, Horatio. I'll not have him hear that I've turned into an abusive tyrant without knowing the reason why."

"You are no tyrant, Sir." I said, pointedly. "And I think, once he knows what happened, Mr. Brandon will understand your reaction well indeed."

***

I was hastening my way bellow decks when I heard Coleman yelp sharply, and I felt a bare seconds' compassion. Then it occurred to me what Mr. Cousins may have suffered, and the spark of pity was gone.

Drew barreled into me just as I got bellow decks, his eyes wide. We both heard the second yelp, and I grabbed on to his arm.

"Drew..." I started.

"Horatio? One of the men just told me that the Captain has ordered Coleman beaten...twenty four times?" His shock was very real, very understandable, and about to be very much worse.

I pulled him backward and guided him to the sick berth as we heard another yelp, more shrill this time, and Drew flinched. "Come with me. I assume nobody has heard the rumors as to why?"

"No, I..." He winced at another, fainter yelp, and I hurried him away. "I just can't believe Captain Pellew..."

I pushed him forward into the sick berth. After a brief pause, I realized that I was correct in guessing that we would be unable to hear the, er, commotion, from this area. "Sit!" I said, commandingly. And I headed for the spirit lamp and began to prepare for tea, which he would no doubt need.

"The Captain sent me down to explain the situation to you, Drew. And I should tell you, before you here it from others, that Mr. Coleman is to be punished again, although not as harshly, each day for the next three days."

I watched the shock sink in. He looked suddenly very vulnerable, and I reached out and grasped his shoulder.

"Dear God, Horatio, whatever could he have done to merit this?" He whispered. I mentally urged the water to boil faster! Drew continued on, his hands shaking slightly before him. "When Reg made a mistake and disabled the ship, and rendered us all liable for capture, he got a dozen, and it was over. I...I didn't like it, but I understood it, and so did he. But this..."

"Drew." I took a deep breath, but he continued on.

"And Anderson...ended up in the riggings for his falsehoods. Granted it was summer, and I can see the Captain not wanting to leave Coleman subject to illness...Lord knows, nobody understands THAT more than I do. Stlll..."

"Drew!" My voice was sharp and he looked at me. I sat across from him and grasped his hands in mine, and made him meet my eye. "Drew, Coleman withheld information from Mr. Cousins' signals. He purposely decided that he did not need to notify us...and it turned out that Reg was signaling that he was in danger. He did not tell us that YESTERDAY Reg sent this signal. And he did not tell us that this request was repeated this morning. Anderson found out only by accident, and made Coleman report to the Captain. Else we might never have known."

Slowly, I watched the change. Those eyes, full of stunned hurt and, yes, compassion born of empathy, went blank. He blinked, slowly, as he took in all that I had said to him.

"Horatio..." He whispered, his voice strangely absent of emotion. "Horatio, are you telling me...is Reg dead?"

I closed my eyes. "I do not know, Drew. We can surmise that he was alive this morning to signal, at least. That was eight hours ago. But I am afraid...it is a very real possibility."

He brought his breath in, slowly, deeply, and the eyes changed again, from pools of blankness to icy furor. And pulling his hands out of mine, he stood abruptly, his face beginning to redden in rage. I grasped him. "Where do you think your going, Drew?"

Lips shaking, he continued, his voice slightly high pitched, "I am going to watch, Horatio. I am going to watch him suffer and pay, and I am going to be glad of it!" His eyes became suspiciously wet, but he would not let the tears fall.

"No!" I said, gently but firmly.

"Leave me be, Horatio. If it were Archie, you would do the same!"

"Yes, I would want to, Drew, though it would not be wise. But YOU are NOT me!" I pushed him firmly back down on to the stool. "I do not have your nightmares, Drew; I have not suffered your past; I cannot empathize with a man in Coleman's situation the same way that you can, even if I can feel sorry for him. You may think you want to watch him suffer, and maybe a part of you does. But you do not need to suffer yourself, and if you go above decks to watch this, then that will be exactly what WILL happen...you will never be able to let go of it. It will be an image of the Indefatigable, and indeed of Captain Pellew and Mr. Andrews, that you will never be able to forget. And I do not wish to see that happen to you!" I rubbed him across the back as he folded his arms on the table and laid his head down on them. More softly, I added, "And I am quite certain that Mr. Cousins would not wish this to be your lasting memory of this ship either."

I stood there for a moment, as he tried to compose himself. I could feel the shaking of his shoulders, and I touched his head briefly. Seeing he was making no move for the door, I turned and began to prepare tea, handing him a linen napkin as I did so. By the time I came back to him, he was sitting upright; his eyes red and his cheeks damp, but he had regained his calm.

"Now what?" He said, dully, as he accepted the tea.

I sat across from him. "In about an hour, Archie and I are taking a group of men to bring him back, and thwart the earl. In that order." I stressed. "Until that time we can only hope for the best."

"I suppose it is out of the question that I could go with you?" He asked, wistfully.

I smiled at him. "You know that well enough yourself, Drew. We need you here, and you have never been on a mission like this. If we save Reg and you get killed in the process, how do you think that will make him feel?"

"Like I do right now. Helpless!" He sighed, and ran his hand through his hair. "Very well, I shall do the usual of preparing for casualties, and I will stay away from Coleman. But I cannot vouch for my reaction if Reg is hurt or...worse, Horatio!"

"Nor can I vouch for the Captain's, in that event!" I said, eliciting a faint turn at his mouth. I rose and began to make my way out of the berth, but turned back to him at the last second. "Reg is strong, Drew, and he has come through so much. We will bring him back where he belongs."

Drew looked up from his steaming tea. "Horatio? It goes without saying, of course, that I expect to see you and Archie back here in one piece as well."

"All men unscathed? You shall put yourself out of work, Doctor Brandon."

"In this event, Lieutenant Hornblower, gladly!"

***

The shaking had finally stopped, and Reg Cousins sat up now, trying to pretend to himself that he had any nerve left at all. He stared stoically into the darkness around him, listening for rats, or for footsteps that might indicate another trip above decks, another beating or another hanging. He rather wished they'd get it over with. At the moment, the worst thing about death was waiting for it.

Dr. Sebastian was beside him; he'd finally released him from his grasp once Reg had quieted down. Occasionally he spoke to him, or patted him on the shoulder. But there were no false words of encouragement...the Doctor seemed to have accepted that they wouldn't work very well anyway.

Out of disjointed thoughts, Reg spoke quietly. "I do wish you could have met my friend Drew, Doctor. You would have liked him, I'm certain."

"That may still be possible, Mr. Cousins." Sebastian's voice was tired and drawn, but he could not allow all hope to slip away. "We must place ourselves in the good Lord's hands."

Reg felt his chest tighten, and he gripped the edge of the sailcloth in a painful fist, tightening his jaw. Thankfully the doctor, whom only meant well, could not see him. In God's hands? God was not looking his way right now, he was certain. He had killed a man. Reg was certain he was doomed to rot in hell.

'It's not as though I have not killed men before.' Reg tried to rationalize to himself. But it would not stick; there was a difference between pulling the noose around an innocent man's neck, and the sort of action one might take in a boarding party, or from the deck of one's ship. No, there was no mercy for him.

He wondered if, somehow, the Earl had gotten some message to the Captain about his behavior, distorting it? Was that why he had been forgotten? Perhaps the Captain had seen him hanging Orson, and had been disgusted...no, no, that would not do; the first signal had gone before Orson's death (murder, a voice whispered to him) and no rescue had come that night.

He tried to force himself to think objectively, to think logically, the way Horatio had always taught him. The bottom line was, Reg Cousins was only one man, out of the hundreds on Indefatigable. Though Captain Pellew would not be happy about it, there must have been some threat to the ship or the crew that prevented his action. He had weighed the loss of one man, against the loss of his entire ship, and had made the only deduction he could. No man was worth that. Of course not. He understood.

Still, it hurt. He felt a single tear run down his face. Let it, he thought. 'Because I will not cry when lead to my death. I will be courageous in defeat. And if Orson died at my hand, at least I know I saved my shipmates and my Captain, and there is something to be proud of in that.'

Beyond him, the Doctor, with an uncanny sixth sense, gently reached over and wiped the tear from his cheek, and then patted his shoulder once more.
***

We approached the silent ship steadily, the oars as quiet as possible. In this instance, the stormy weather was a benefit, disguising our approach. And our men understand well the urgency of our mission.

Just after darkness is not truly an ideal time for a siege. There are still far too many men on board, milling about. If we had the luxury of waiting until late night...something we might have had yesterday...it would all be so much easier.

Mr. Cousins, of course, was my primary concern. Trouble was, if we went all out and boarded her like we had boarded Le Reve, it was highly likely that they would put Mr. Cousins to a swift death. Assuming, of course, that they had not already done so...but that is a consideration I will not dwell on.

Archie and I had made a quick change to our plans, and as a result, Anderson was in the boat with me, and it was Holloway who was leading his own boat. Henry was out of uniform, in a calico shirt borrowed from bellow decks, and a bandana round his head. Morris, one of Reg's most loyal men, was beside him. They each had two pistols, and were prepared for our unusual task.

"You are prepared, Mr. Anderson?" I whispered.

"Yes, Sir." His face was serious, but calm and determined. He had grown fond of Mr. Cousins, and was a willing volunteer for this dangerous job.

It had been Archie's idea, that we send two men up the side first, to try and locate Reg. Anderson and Morris would be given five minutes on their own to find him. Out of uniform and in so small numbers, there was a chance they might go unnoticed, with the weather as poor as it is. When I offered Henry the chance at the task, he had jumped at it; perhaps, in his heart, this would be his final retribution for his errors last summer.

Five minutes, to hopefully find a living Mr. Cousins and put a pistol in his hand, and then find out what, if any, men were with OUR side in this mission. Once five minutes had passed...well, a full scale assault would take place.

The Serenity's ropes were visible before us, and with Matthew's and Styles helping to hold the boat steady, Anderson rose with the stealth of a cat. He looked down at me with a nod, and then over to Morris, and I held my breath as they slowly went up.

They peered over the side, and then Anderson first, followed by Morris, disappeared to their deck. We waited, silently, for any commotion indicating prompt discovery. There was none. I checked my watch, and waited.

Styles, beside me, raised his eyebrows at the quiet deck. I watched him study the expanse of the ship with unease that faded to disbelief. Our eyes met, and we were thinking the same thing...woe to the ship's hands who would ever let intruders aboard the Indy so totally unnoticed! Then again, she is not a Navy ship, and that seems to be playing to our favor.

One minute down. How I wish I could be with Anderson in this moment!

***
Midshipman Henry Anderson moved quietly into the shadows, Morris behind him. Together they scurried across the decks, but the three or four men they could see did not note them at all. Two were drinking, the other was lounging sullenly on the quarter deck, eyes closed, more asleep than not.

Down the hatchway he slipped, his dagger drawn needlessly. There was noise here, and the configuration...most maze like. For whatever reason, the Earl had made strange changes to his ship, but as it happened it worked in their favor. Except that they had no idea where to begin searching.

They ducked into a shallow behind the hatchway steps, Morris' hand on his shoulder defensively, with a fatherly authority that made Anderson smile. A man came down, slowly, his breathing labored and harsh. Anderson could make out sounds, gasps of pain it seemed.

He soon learned why. The poor wretch had no shirt on, and had obviously been recently and vigorously flogged, and not for the first time, judging from the layers of scars. The only man on the Indefatigable whose back could compare was Styles, and those scars had not come from his current ship.

The man looked cowed, and frightened. Anderson watched him shy away from noises, as if afraid he might get sent to the gratings again. And even as Morris eased his grip on his shoulder, Anderson was seized with sudden and reckless inspiration.

With all swiftness, he grasped the unfortunate hand before him, pulled him back beyond the stairs, and pressed the dagger to his throat.

"One word from you, Sir, and it will be the last sound you'll ever make." Anderson whispered strongly.

"Mr. Anderson..." Morris gasped, but Henry quelled his shipmate with a stern glance that he hoped resembled the Captain's just a little.

The poor victim trembled in Henry's arms, eyes wide. "Please, Sir..." He begged quietly. "Not again. Please not again."

"Don't want to go to the gratings, do you?" Anderson asked, and the man's eyes were filled with terror. "What if I told you I could make certain that you are never at the gratings again, as long as you do your duty?"

"I...I always try to, Sir. Tisn't easy here, Sir."

"No, here I would imagine it to be impossible." Anderson kept his knife at the man's throat. "But Captain Sir Edward Pellew would be very grateful to any man that aided his crew, in taking this ship."

The man's eyes blinked, hopeful, and then the light went out of them. "Can't, Sir. M'a deserter."

Oh. That explained how the Earl was able to keep crew. Anderson was lost, now, but thankfully Morris was there to pick up what he had started.

"What's yer name, mate?"

"James, Sir. Dabney James."

"Well, James, Capn's nigh on the fairest man I ever seen. Been with him over ten years now, I reckon. You'll be heard, right enough. And if you show yer a good man now, it might go a ways to helpin yer case."

"Pellew...he's...he's a terror!"

"Capn Pellew a terror? Damn, man, you want a look at MY back? Not a scratch on it, nor on the boy here, neither. Who's been tellin' ye that?"

"My old Capn, Foster, he talked often, he did, bout Pellew."

Anderson had to bite back a laugh. "James, Captain Pellew and Captain Forester are long-standing enemies, and about as alike as tar and wine. I promise you, if you can help us find our man, you'll get a fair hearing. Look's like that's more than you've ever gotten from this sham Earl of yours."

James swallowed, and then shuddered. But he relaxed. "Ye came for that boy?" He asked in wonder.

"Captain Pellew sent Mr. Cousins here. He will not leave a man behind." Anderson smiled.

This, perhaps, did as much to make the man's mind up as anything else he'd said. "Arright, then. Poor lad seemed a decent chap."

"Seemed?" Anderson whispered. "Is he dead then?"

"Nah, but he probably wishes he were." James looked at the knife, and a relieved Anderson released his grip slightly. "Boy and the Doctor are in the back storage hold. I'll show you."

"No games now!" Morris said sternly, fingering his pistol, even as Anderson turned. "What Doctor?".

"Good man, fer a dago, is Doc S. Can't rightly say his name. He tried to help the boy, just a passenger, he was, not crew. That didn't set too well on th'Earl."

"I imagine not." Anderson said, dryly, but feeling sudden gratitude towards this unknown man. At least Reg had not been alone.

They skirted the maze like interior...Anderson knew time was getting close. Then they came upon a trap door, guarded lazily by a large, slovenly, nasty looking brute.

"Barman." James whispered tersely, drawing in his breath. "Bad lot, 'e is."

Well, their cover had to be blown some time. Morris and Anderson looked at each other, and shrugged. Then, with effort, they lept forward together, and together they swung the butts of their pistols down on Barman's head.

They hadn't talked it over, and together they might have hit a bit to hard. But the shocked mercenary didn't even have time to do more than open his mouth, before his eyes rolled back into his head and he slumped harmlessly to the side.

James was there in a flash; He dragged Barman off to one side, and taking the shirt that had been draped round his waist, tied the unconscious man's arms behind his back. "Nasty bastard." James kicked Barman over. "Las' time ye'll see me at the gratings."

Quickly, Anderson opened the trap door, leaving Barman to James' justice. There was a coil of rope nearby, and he dropped it in.

"Reg?" He whispered, into the darkness.

***
"Reg?"

The voice in his dream was warm and worried; not Drew, surprisingly, nor even Horatio. No, it was Anderson he dreamed was here to rescue him, and there was perhaps a little satisfaction in the thought. Anderson, whom had once despised him, had grown to look up to him and follow him willingly. Anderson, whom he extended every friendship to, and who eventually accepted it, shyly, being strong enough to seek him out. Now THAT would be an accomplishment to be proud of. Shame it was only a dream.

"Reg?" The voice was stronger.

"Indefatigable?" Reg heard Dr. Sebastian's voice question.

"Yes, please, we must hurry..."

"He is not well, but I will get him there."

Reg blinked his eyes open, as the Doctor grabbed his arms. "Mr. Cousins, your mates have come. We must get out of here."

They...came? Was Anderson really here, after all?

Still uncertain, Reg decided that, dream or not, he did not wish Midshipman Anderson to find him cowering in a corner.

"Of course." Reg answered, evenly, as if he had expected nothing less. "I am present, Mr. Anderson. We have messages to get to the Captain..." He held the rope to a surprised Doctor Sebastian. "This man is our ally, Mr. Anderson. He must be helped."

"Yes, yes, but Reg, please..."

Dr. Sebastian was up quickly, and then Reg felt himself following. God, his hands and wrists still hurt...the stab of pain shocked him into something resembling full consciousness. "Henry?" His voice quaked as he began to emerge from the trap door.

Strong arms grabbed him the rest of the way up. "Good t'see you again, Sir." A gruff voice murmured.

"Morris?" He blinked up at his most loyal man.

They had come for him after all! He wanted terribly to throw his arms around their necks and weep. But a sudden commotion from above decks told him there was not time.

"That's Horatio!" Anderson pressed a pistol in his hand, and one to Dr. Sebastian. 'Why is the Doctor still looking at me so curiously? Everything is alright now, after all!' Reg wondered. He noticed that one of the poor crewmen-James?--who had been so downtrodden seemed to have joined them. He'd armed himself with Barman's pistol, and Reg tried to smile.

"Good to have you with us, James." His voice seemed strangely calm. "Let us get moving, eh?"

And somehow finding strength he didn't know he had left, Reg lead them all towards the main passage, and the deck above.

***

Drew came up on the cold deck of the Indefatigable, bundled as much as he could be with dignity. He went straight to the quarterdeck, and with a salute to Captain Pellew, set himself in position by the man's side, arms behind his back and facing the troublesome Serenity. The ship, still hove-to, was fairly quiet, the men who were left on board were solemn, knowing the danger their mates faced. And Drew made no speech, but waited instead for the comment that was sure to come from his Captain.

He did not have to wait long. "Mr. Brandon." A long pause.

"Sir." Drew said, steadily.

"You are far from sick berth."

"I am."

"There is a reason for that, I suppose."

"Yes, Sir." Drew finally turned his head to look at him. "Unless I have missed my count, Sir, I am the only Lieutenant currently on board the Indefatigable."

The Captain arched his eyebrows. "I suppose that is true. I had not thought to call you away from your other duties, however."

"My duties have been taken care of...sick berth has been prepared for any casualties, and Johnson is stationed there. However, should anything require immediate action on the part of Indefatigable, I felt you would need my assistance more here." Drew turned back to the horizon, holding his breath. There was every chance that the Captain might send him back below decks with a blistering tirade in his ears. He suspected the Captain's mood would be edgy, at best. And they would both know that Drew had ulterior motives for being present.

"I see." He could feel the Captain's gaze upon him. "I do have Mr. Bowles present, and Mr. Howard is the midshipman of the watch."

Drew's heart sank, but there it was...if the Captain opted to send him below decks, then that is where he would go.

"However..." The Captain drawled out lazily. "I am not averse to the company, Mr. Brandon. If you are not afraid of me, that is."

Drew bit back a smile, wild with relief. But he also caught the hint of question in the last half of the statement, the undercurrent of uncertainty, and remembered the events of this afternoon.

"After all, Sir, I dared to come up here." He glanced over at him

"Mmm." Was all the Captain said. But his face relaxed, and that was enough.

The night was rainy, the seas were choppy, but it was far from the worst storm they'd ever seen. The water streamed from both of their hats in a steady trickle. Drew heard Midshipman Howard sniffle once or twice, and Drew was still Doctor enough to make note that the young man could use a good dose of thistle tea after his watch!

"Do you see anything yet, Mr. Bowles?" The Captain muttered into the anxious darkness.

"Nothing yet, Sir."

The rain was just heavy enough to make any visuals difficult, though. Drew took the glass and trained it towards Serenity, and blinked when he thought he saw a slight flash, more of a twinkle. There was another one.

"They're shooting, Sir..." Drew gasped, at the same moment the faint pops carried over to the Indefatigable.

"So it would seem." The Captain said, taking the glass from Mr. Brandon. "Mr. Howard, keep an eye out for any signals!"

"Aye, Aye, Sir."

The moments dragged...Drew felt himself being pulled apart inside, desperate for some news. The pops increased in frequency, but no other sound carried over the waves and the wind. Then, gradually, the noise slowed down, and then stopped.

Drew looked at the Captain's immobile face, his stony stare at their adversary fierce and unforgiving. He heard the bells, and realized with a start that he had been above decks for over an hour now.

"Sir..." Mr. Howard began. "Sir, I have a lamp, Sir. Three flashes. It's our men, Sir."

"They have control then!" Mr. Bowles exclaimed, allowing himself a grin. "The Serenity is ours."

It was only as he exhaled that Drew realized he'd been holding his breath.

The Captain did not smile, of course. "Any signals, Mr. Howard?"

"No, Sir, but..." His voice quavered just slightly. "I can't see the flag, Sir."

The Captain sighed, but did not look surprised. "No, Mr. Howard. Visibility too bad."

Drew, however, was noticing something else. He squinted hard, but his eyes were not deceived.

"Mr. Howard? Does it appear to you, Sir, that the Serenity is making preparations to set sail?" He asked, carefully.

All of them trained their eyes towards the masts. "Yes, Mr. Brandon. That is what it would look like." Howard agreed.

"That's not in the plan, Sir!" Mr. Bowles said in wonder.

"No, it is not!" The Captain acknowledged, looking puzzled.

"Sir..." Howard continued. "Looks like one of our boats is returning to us, Sir."

Drew's head was spinning. He still didn't know the one thing he really wished to know... was Reg alive? But other thoughts were parading through his mind. It was not so long ago, after all, that he had been performing the functions (albeit rather badly) of a first Lieutenant, and perhaps he had learned more than he'd realized.

"Captain? If I might make a suggestion, Sir..."

The Captain turned towards him, and met his eyes.

"Mr. Hornblower would not make sail without good reason. Rather than wait for an explanation, perhaps we should consider doing the same, and try and signal Dunbarton likewise?"

The reaction was stunning. The Captain looked down at him, eyes half closed in thought, and then he gave him THE smile, that smile, the slightly upturned corners of the mouth that indicated he was pleased, pleased and impressed.

"An excellent observation, Mr. Brandon. If you please, get right on that with Mr. Bowles. Mr. Howard...I need you to do your damnedest to indicate the situation to Captain Clark."

"Aye, Aye, Sir." Howard scampered away, and Drew, forcing Mr. Cousins out of his mind for the time being, started to head away with Mr. Bowles.

"Lieutenant Brandon!" Captain Pellew stopped him for a moment, and Drew tried to keep himself calm.

"Sir?"

"Very, very well done!"

Drew flushed up to the roots of his hair. Strange how one compliment from the Captain could still make him feel as though he could fly! "Thank you, Sir." He answered, and as the Captain nodded, he tried not to trip over his own cape as he hurried to assist Mr. Bowles with the men.

***
I silently willed the boat to go faster, though I knew my men were fighting the waves to the best of their ability. Looking around the boat, I knew there was much explaining that needed to be done to the Captain, and I am not even certain where to begin.

We had the Earl, real name apparently Fitzhugh Macrae, in the boat with us, well bound and guarded. The mercenaries had been more than willing to talk about his plans once they realized they were facing the noose. We had secured other prisoners on Serenity, where I had left Archie in charge, with Mr. Holloway to assist him.

Anderson was sticking to Cousins like glue, at my orders. Reg was looking placid, unmoved and had been rather withdrawn ever since I had the pleasure of seeing him alive. His only speech, one that burst forth in a rush, was to tell me about the impending arrival of the Earl's allies, and I realized immediately that we would be at a disadvantage if discovered hove-to. However, I soon also realized the futility of attempting to send a detailed signal in this weather, and in any event, the Indefatigable would be without most of her officers. Archie and Mr. Holloway were more than capable of operating Serenity with the crew we left behind.

Anderson nudged me. "Mr. Hornblower, Sir. Looks like the Indefatigable's taken a cue from our moves, and is starting to make sail herself."

Good job! It would save a world of time; hopefully we will not be caught flat-footed as it were. "Mr. Bowles must have guessed our reasoning, eh, Mr. Cousins?" I said, trying to draw him into conversation.

"Yes, he must have done just that." Reg said, quietly. I looked him over and felt my misgivings return.

There was no time to question him, but it did not take a genius to see he had been sorely tried by this adventure. His face was bruised badly, and he was huddled in his cloak against the cold, as if he had been half frozen. Then again, he had been...

Before our hasty exit, the strange man introduced to me as Dr. Sebastian, and very strongly vouched for by Mr. Cousins, had pulled me aside:

"You are his Superior officer, are you not, Mr. ?"

"Hornblower. First Lieutenant of HMS Indefatigable. And Mr. Cousins is, in reality, also a Lieutenant."

"Lieutenant Hornblower." The unusual man had given me a thoughtful smile. "Yes, he has mentioned you. I feel comfortable, then, Sir, in telling you what I can about his situation here, although I understand your need to return quickly. He had an extended turn in the riggings, was beaten up more than once, and went through a nasty trauma earlier today that I cannot detail in a few moments. I believe, Sir, he is in shock."

I had gulped, and then mentally cursed Coleman to high heavens. "I understand, Doctor. My own father was a physician. I can assure you, I will watch over him."

The Doctor had looked me over, and damned if it hadn't felt like Captain Pellew when he'd give me that searching stare. Then he smiled. "I believe you will, Lieutenant Hornblower. In that event, may I offer my services to your crew here on Serenity? I understand the Indefatigable is well provided with medical staff."

I'd smiled then. "Indeed, Sir, they are, and it would be a relief to me to have a physician on board here. I shall inform Mr. Kennedy of it, if you do not mind."

At least I know now SOMETHING about what Mr. Cousins had gone through. Nobody was more aware than I of how time in the riggings, in wretched weather, can affect a man. But I still wondered on the meaning of "a nasty trauma". I had asked Mr. Anderson to stay near Reg, keeping an eye on him. Shock had strange ways of manifesting itself, and I wanted him properly looked after for when the breakdown happened. One thing was certain: he was a changed man, from the confident one we'd sent over to this mission just days ago.

And I glared at the arrogant, seething sham Earl across from me. The man had said nothing at all so far; when his Captain was run through by Archie, he had given in to save his own hide, yet given us no comment. But now he was smiling smugly at me, and I could not contain myself.

"You are awfully confident, Sir, for a man about to be hanged."

Fitzhugh Macrae looked purposefully at Cousins, whom had shrunk down lower at my comment, for reasons I cannot fathom.

"I am to HANG, you think, then? Really? You think you shall HANG me?"

"That is what I SAID, Sir." I snapped, hoping to quiet him. For Mr. Cousins was reacting to the "Earl's" words as if he'd been slapped.

Macrae was undaunted. "You are unprepared. My allies have been readying this attack for days."

I returned his smug smile. "We have NOT been unprepared, Sir. Mr. Cousins has been telling us of your plans RIGHT UNDER YOUR NOSE."

For the first time, I thought I saw fear on his face. "That BOY? What can he have found out? And how could he have let you know anything?"

And then something came out of, a hint of the Reg Cousins I knew. He smiled slightly, and leaned forward to the "Earl".

"My Lord," He said, with an inflection that would have made Archie proud, "You really ought to have learned how to play chess."

Fitzhugh snarled with fury and disbelief, and tried to lunge at Reg. Anderson pulled his dagger, but Reg, eyes sparking back, reached out and slapped our prisoner hard enough to knock him over in the boat.

The slap rang out, a snap in the darkness, and I watched Reg with concern. His chest was heaving; his hollow cheeks were spotted red, and he closed his eyes. Finally, with effort, he looked at me in shame. "I am sorry, Lieutenant Hornblower. I ought not to have lost my temper; it is inexcusable."

I shook my head. "On the contrary, LIEUTENANT Cousins," I stressed, now realizing where those bruises about his face must have come from. "I think you have every excuse imaginable."

***

We got Mr. Cousins up the side of the Indefatigable, largely under his own power, though Anderson moved right behind him carefully as a precaution. But I wanted, for everyone's sake, for him to be the first face seen on decks.

I could hear the excitement before I even put my own feet beside him. "Mr. Cousins, Sir. Welcome back!" Mr. Howard piped up.

"Thank you, Mr. Howard, it is good to return."

And the Captain called out quickly, "Mr. Cousins. Report, if you will." Though his speech was as usual, there was no disguising the relief on his face. But I am not certain that Reg noted it a bit; indeed, his shoulders slumped; I have never seen him shy from facing the Captain, and was surprised it should be so now.

I followed him to the quarterdeck, after whispering to Mr. Anderson that it would be a good idea to locate Drew. He raced below decks towards sick berth.

Captain Forbes detained me briefly. "What'll I do with THIS?" He asked, indicating the bound prisoner.

"Take him to the hold and keep him well guarded." I replied, after a few seconds' thought. "The Captain will wish to speak to him and decide his fate, but we have more pressing matters to deal with first."

"Aye, Aye, Sir!" And I was grateful to leave the scum in Forbes' more than capable hands.

As it happened, by the time I got to the quarterdeck, Reg had outlined the exact nature of what the trap had been, and was explaining how there were even at this moment an unknown number of enemy headed towards us.

"Not unknown." I interjected. "Before Mr. Cousins was above decks, I managed to have the information out of one of this renegade's lackeys, and confirmed it when I confiscated his record book. Three French Corvettes." I handed a journal, previously held in my jacket, over to Captain Pellew.

"Indeed." He grasped it quietly, and then secured it in his own jacket. "Three Corvettes, against ourselves, Dunbarton, and a surprise attack from the ship they believe to be on our side, eh? Think we can do it, Mr. Hornblower."

I had to fight not to smile. "Sir, I would not count us out if we were to go against three corvettes single handedly."

"Mhm. Then I guess we shall try and give our pursuers rather a surprise, eh."

Reg had stood to the side, not quite hearing this exchange. But the Captain, though he had been subtle, had looked the young man over and noted everything I did, and more.

So it was with more kindness than sarcasm, for once, when he complimented him. "Mr. Cousins, your work was exemplary. I shall have you immediately returned to status as Acting Lieutenant."

"Thank you, Sir." He replied, quietly. The events had worn on him badly.

And with his usual dead-on aim, Captain Pellew went right to the target. "What did that bastard do to you, Mr. Cousins? Do not tell me nothing, for if that were the case you would not have signaled for our help, nor would you be sporting bruises that are so obviously not from the skirmish this evening."

"I...he..." Reg looked at me, and I nodded in encouragement. "He hit me a few times, first, Sir; nothing terrible, just, well, startling. Then..." A pause. "The riggings, Sir. I was confined for six hours during the worst of the storm."

The Captain's lips grew thinner, but he only inclined his head, an indication for Mr. Cousins to continue.

"It would have been eight hours, but you...as I understand it...threatened to blow Serenity out of the water if I were not returned to signals. As it was, I almost froze to death on deck after I was released, but a man named...Orson...helped me bellow to the Doctor I had become friendly with."

"He's an ally, Sir." I said, quickly, but the Captain went on.

"What else, Mr. Cousins? Come on, now. I can see there is more."

"He...when he thought he was safe...he had me and the Doctor placed under arrest...he let his men beat me for sport, and then I was locked away, to be...hanged..." His voice was an unusual pitch. "later."

"I see." The Captain was searching him, waiting for more; I think we both knew that there WAS more. But Reg was very close to the edge, and the steady rain and persistent cold were taking its toll on him. "We will talk more later, after we have resolved our crises here. Meanwhile..." He smiled faintly, and raised his voice. "Lieutenant Brandon?" He called out.

Suddenly, coming down the ratlines about twenty feet away, I noticed a slender figure well bundled against the cold. DREW? IN THE RATLINES?

Drew turned towards the deck, saw Mr. Cousins, and even from the distance we were at I could see the relief and joy on his face. Yet somehow, somehow, he maintained some calm.

"Yes, Sir!" He came forward at a walk that was in fact just shy of a run.

"You do remember Mr. Cousins, do you not?" The Captain asked, deadpan.

"I believe I have a vague acquaintance with him, Sir." Drew tried to also remain serious, but he was failing rather badly.

"Good. He's in need of a double spirit ration if you will, and a warm blanket. I believe the extra bunk in your berth is still unused."

"Yes, Sir." Drew looked over Reg, and the mirth on his face faded into bald concern. "Come, Mr. Cousins." He said, gently. "Some brandy should warm you up quite nicely." He grasped his friends arm.

"I...Lieutenant Brandon..." He was trying to play the game, but could not.

"You are dismissed, Mr. Cousins. You have earned your rest, and your return to Lieutenant's standing. We will talk more tomorrow." I have not heard the Captain's voice so gentle since my disaster at Muzillac.

Yet Reg did not appear to be relieved; indeed, his face creased with more worry. But Drew lead him firmly away, towards warmth, and friendship, and relative safety. The Captain and I watched them together. Only after he was gone did he have anything to say to me.

"Perhaps we should not have sent him." It was not a criticism as much as a worry.

"If we had not, Sir, we'd all be dead or prisoners by now." I pointed out.

He sighed, deeply, then scowled. "Our prisoner?"

"Under guard."

"Good. I will question him tomorrow, before I further tackle Mr. Cousins. Perhaps, then, some of this will make sense."

The way this sail has gone, I doubt that very much.

 

***
It was but a few hours after my return to Indefatigable that saw Dunbarton, Serenity and Indefatigable were now moving as well as possible in the difficult weather, to a face off with our not so secret adversaries. I prepared our men as best as possible and made certain all was running smoothly. Anderson had the quarterdeck; properly it was Coleman's watch, but there was no chance that I would leave him alone on it, even if he were in any condition to take it. He has been assigned to other tasks, and Andrews is keeping an eye on him. I promised to relieve Anderson in a few hours, and went below decks, knowing a few hours sleep would be necessary to keep me going.

But, I thought to myself, there would certainly be no harm in just popping by the sick berth, and seeing how Mr. Cousins was doing. I popped around the corner to the entryway...

...and promptly barreled into Captain Pellew!

Startled for the moment, I began quickly, "Beg your pardon, Sir..."

"Not at all, Hornblower...I was just..."

"...thought I'd get some tea from Drew..."

"Terrible headache I have..."

We both stopped, and then the Captain pursed his lips, and grimaced. "Hell, I don't know whom either of us think we are fooling! However, Mr. Cousins is not here; Mr. Brandon had him taken to their own berth, according to Johnson."

"Oh." I said, numbly. "Well, then..."

The Captain started walking and then turned back to me, a look of exasperation on his face. "Are you coming or not, Lieutenant Hornblower?"

I stood to attention quickly. "At once, Sir!"

We said nothing else to each other until we found ourselves at Drew's berth. There was flickering lamp light coming from the small window, and the Captain looked in, and then opened the door quietly.

Drew looked up in surprise; he was seated next to Mr. Cousins' cot, where his young friend lay sleeping deeply. Reg must have had a good six blankets over him, and he seemed curiously small within that bundle.

"Captain, Mr. Hornblower." He said, in a whisper. And he rose to greet us, his movements stiff from his exertions earlier no doubt. "I have just gotten him back to sleep." He motioned us out to the passageway, so we could converse without risking waking him.

"Mr. Hornblower, Sir, what the devil did they do to him over there?" Drew asked as soon as he had shut the door behind him. "I don't mean the riggings, either, though that must have been bad enough. He's a wreck inside, not that he'd let me see that, or even tell me about it. But it's in his eyes."

The Captain looked at me, and I shook my head slowly. "Dr. Sebastian, the man whom befriended Mr. Cousins on Serenity, told me he'd had a "nasty trauma" - his words - but there was no more time to go over exactly what went wrong. I had hoped he'd have told you about it.

Drew shook his head. "I tried, but the truth is he was in no condition to do any talking. He took a couple of pretty bad beatings, and he's chilled to the bone on top of it, and I gathered he didn't sleep at all in his prison last night." Drew's face fell into a deep, ugly scowl. "He was expecting, you see, that we'd be coming for him. That was the only thing he asked me. What happened, and why did it take so long for us to retrieve him?"

"Bloody hell!" The Captain spat out. "Coleman had better keep well away from me, if he knows what is good for him."

Considering the condition Coleman had been in when last I saw him (barely able to walk) I had no doubt that he would keep as far away from Captain Pellew as possible.

Tilting his head towards the door, Drew went on. "I explained to him that Coleman botched the signals. I didn't go into detail, but I think he was more at peace when he realized that we came as soon as we could, and that nothing bad had happened on the ship to prevent it."

I was surprised he had doubted it. "Mr. Cousins should know we would never leave one of our men behind!" Certainly I would not...it had happened once with Archie, and I had at the time not had the power to prevent it. And the Captain...he came to Muzillac, didn't he? Against all orders, he made certain his men were not left to be picked off for target practice.

Drew looked at me. "Yes, Mr. Hornblower. He knew that...before he left here. Whatever happened to him over there obviously undermined his beliefs very deeply."

"I am going to take great joy in hanging Fitzhugh Macrae." The Captain said, evenly. I could not agree more with those sentiments, and I remembered Mr. Cousins in the boat, reaching out and striking the prisoner, no doubt a payback for the numerous blows he had suffered on that ship.

There was a muffled sound from the berth, and Drew looked in through the window. "Another nightmare." He murmured, and he went to Mr. Cousins quickly. The Captain and I crowded in behind him, but stayed in the shadows.

Reg was tossing, tangling himself in the blankets, murmuring.

"Orson...no...please..."

Who was Orson?

"Shhh, Reg." Drew put his hand on his friend's forehead, and smoothed his hair back. "Shh. It's over. It's all over. You're on Indefatigable, and you're safe. Orson cannot hurt you here." Drew looked over at me and shrugged.

Reg, however, cringed, turning in his bed and holding his hands up to his ears. "No...didn't hurt me...I...I...God, will it never end?"

"It has ended." Drew said firmly, straightening out the blankets. "Whatever it is, is over now. You are back where you belong. Sleep, Reg. Go back to sleep."

Slowly, Reg calmed down, his breathing became deeper and more steady, and Drew, lines of exhaustion on his face, sat back on his haunches. "I hate to see him like this. He was always the strong one."

The Captain came forward, touched Drew once on the head, and then leaned over and did the same to Reg. "There is no man who is entirely strong or entirely weak, Mr. Brandon. You, for example, are far stronger than you would ever give yourself credit for, or than one would believe to look at you. Likewise, as strong as Mr. Cousins is...he will have his points of weakness. This sham Earl obviously found ways to touch his worst fears in ways we do not understand. But as you said, he IS strong. And he will have the strength of those around him as well. He will recover. I do not believe you will give him an option." He added, eyes twinkling.

Drew let off a little laugh. "No, Sir. I never have given any of you an option, have I."

It was my turn to smile, then. "Get some sleep, Drew. Wearing you both out will not do anybody any good, and I will need your expertise above decks when battle hits." I teased.

He blushed. "Yes, well...apparently I am not so futile a Lieutenant as I thought."

The Captain tugged on my sleeve, and bidding Drew a good night, we left.

"You are heading for some sleep yourself, Mr. Hornblower."

"A few hours at least. Then I shall relieve Mr. Anderson above decks."

The Captain permitted himself a tired smile. "A pleasant surprise he's been in this whole mess. After last fall, I wasn't certain what would become of him."

I nodded, the memory still difficult. "He made his mistakes. He learned from them, though; and he made the effort to change." I compared it to our current problem. "Do you think Coleman has it in him, Sir?"

He shook his head. "I do not, Horatio; although I could be wrong of course. But Anderson was abjectly apologetic for what he'd done, once he got up the courage to admit it. Coleman is sorry, alright...sorry I had him beaten, not that he nearly cost Mr. Cousins his life."

"Well..." I drawled out. "No point wondering about Coleman's future now, Sir. We have enough to deal with. Good night."

***
March 3

It was still an hour before dawn when I relieved Anderson, sending his exhausted self down for a well earned nap. Coleman still had an hour to go on his watch, and was standing well away from me, rigidly to the side. He was sulky, I knew; and probably fearful as well. I considered what the Captain usually did in such circumstances, which was to behave as though the infraction had not happened and go on with life as normal.

I do not find that so easy in this case. First of all, technically he is still being punished; the Captain would not be relenting on his orders sending the boy to Mr. Andrews this afternoon. He might have reconsidered, of course, if, as he had said last night, Coleman showed any kind of feeling beyond fear of punishment. But in any event, with Mr. Cousins so obviously affected, largely as a result of our delay in getting to help him, it is difficult for me to consider treating Coleman as I would any other Midshipman on watch.

There is also the fact that I do not know that I can trust him. Any man negligent enough to fail to disclose signals, might also fail his duties in other ways.

Still, I felt it incumbent on me to try.

"An uneventful watch, Mr. Coleman?" I said, quietly.

He did not move. "Yes, Sir, Mr. Hornblower." The voice was devoid of emotion, and the silence that followed was stifling. He might, at this moment, have inquired about Reg's health. Or made other small talk, if he really just wanted to put it all in the past. But nothing. And I gave up.

A half hour passed in total quiet. A faint hint of daylight was on the Horizon. And with it...I opened my glass, but the lookout confirmed what I already believed. "Ship's sails, dead ahead. French colors."

They were still well out of range, and the wind was with us. But I felt the anticipation through my veins. "Call hands to quarters, Mr. Coleman, and alert the Captain."

He balked at the command; for a moment, I thought he might refuse.

"That is an order, Mr. Coleman! Quickly, now!" I snapped.

"Aye, Aye, Sir." And he reluctantly moved away, spreading the word of our found adversaries.

The Captain joined me within five minutes, wearing a scowl as black as any I've ever seen on him.

"Our company is here, Sir." I said, wondering at his expression. When he didn't answer right away, I took a guess, though I knew it might only result in his barking at me pretty badly.

"Did Coleman do something stupid, Sir?"

"Hm? No, Hornblower; he alerted me and then scurried as far away from me as he could!" His eyes grew even darker. "That journal you gave me last night...I took the time to read it." He watched the approaching Corvettes for a second.

"About fifteen minutes away, Sir." Mr. Bowles called.

Captain Pellew did not respond, at first, then spoke first quietly to me. "There will be time enough to discuss this later, Hornblower. Now, let us prepare for battle."

"Aye, Aye, Sir." I called out to the men. "Ready at the guns, Now! Be prepared to fire when we are in range."

I saw Anderson, back above decks, and Holloway and Howard working with their respective divisions. Coleman, also, was there, barking ugly comments at his men. I shook my head, but there was not time to correct this now.

Suddenly two more heads appeared above decks. The first was Mr. Cousins.

"Where should I station myself, Sir?" He asked.

"Mr. Cousins...are you fit to be here, Sir?" I turned away from him, and looked to Drew, the other new man above decks. who shrugged in frustration, and glared at his friend.

"Mr. Brandon will tell you I have no injuries to prevent my being here; and I have in fact slept probably more than anyone else here. And Sir, this is MY battle." He was not pleading, his voice was as steady and calm as it ever had been. Only something about his eyes (and the bruises still not faded from his face, of course) gave anything away.

Captain Pellew addressed Drew directly. "Well, Doctor?"

"As Mr. Cousins says, he is physically fit for battle." Drew crossed his arms.

I exchanged a glance with the Captain. Yes, we needed more help above decks, but we also knew what Drew wasn't saying out loud. It was his mental state we were concerned with.

Reluctantly, the Captain and I nodded to each other. "Very well, Mr. Cousins. Oversee Mr. Anderson's group, if you will." And with sudden inspiration, I called Mr. Anderson over to me, after Reg left to check on the crews.

"Sir?" He asked.

"Mr. Anderson, I am uncertain as to how fit for battle Mr. Cousins really is. I would like for you to keep an eye on him; stick by him; if anything disturbs you, alert me at once."

"Aye, Aye, Sir."

Drew looked mollified by my request, then turned back to Captain Pellew. "Sir, shall I be required above decks, or below?"

I nearly laughed, and wished Archie could have heard that! To think he would even be agreeable to a place by a gun is a startling change.

"Bellow, I think." The Captain said, trying to hide the twinkle in his eyes. "With the upcoming fire of three Corvettes, I need you treating casualties, not becoming one."

"Aye, Aye, Sir." Drew took one last concerned glance at Reg, and then went off.

And the Captain and I waited for the action to begin.

***
Dunbarton was first in range to fire on the French, and we tensed ourselves for a spirited battle. Two ships, as had been outlined in the "Earl's" journal, were engaging Dunbarton; she is slightly larger and has more guns, but is less maneuverable, than we are. The third Corvette was heading for us; this was the point where Serenity was to have also made towards the Indefatigable, and engaged us, to our surprise.

"Serenity approaches, Sir." Holloway called out.

I smiled. Archie was luring our enemy towards us.

"Fire as soon as we are in range, Mr. Cousins."

"Aye, Aye, Sir."

I kept my eye on him, but he had lost none of his battle sense. The Corvette came slowly into range. Three seconds...two...one...

"FIRE!" Mr. Cousins roared. His voice was echoed by the other officers, and by the guns themselves. And a second volley followed hard on the first; the guns of the serenity, though more meager than ours, were trained against their target, and were attacking her from an unexpected side.

The chaos this caused the French (why were they being shot at by their ally) was enough to delay their own fire. They were scrambling...I could see it through the acrid smoke. Something roared over my head and I heard some masting splinter, instinctively I stepped away and fragments fell to the quarterdeck.

Sensing our advantage, Reg had already commanded the guns reloaded. And again...

"FIRE!"

We sent another broadside over to the enemy, and could now hear their screams; the confusion was reigning there. Her course changed; she was making away.

"WHAT FROM DUNBARTON?" Captain Pellew called out.

"Sir! Mr. Howard yelled hoarsely. "She's exacted a heavy toll on one Corvette...the other, Sir...is heading straight for us..."

DAMN!

Reg had, bless him, seen this before Howard; leaving our previous retreating adversary to Serenity, he had moved the men and were getting guns into place.

"Bring her around, Mr. Bowles! See if we can't get close enough to board her." The Captain roared.

There was a blast, a shake, and some screams...we'd been hit, but I could sense not as badly as we might have been.

"FIRE! Reg called again, and the shot was perfect; perfectly timed, perfectly aimed, perfectly deadly. The corvette immediately listed as we came up closer to her, and I could see flames on board, even as her officers and men(dear God, what was she doing with SO MANY men?) scrambled about on her.

"No point in boarding." The Captain said, eyes alight with success. "She's done for. Once we make certain the danger is passed, we shall launch boats..."

"Sir..." Mr. Holloway screamed. "SIR! Mr. Cousins!"

The Captain and I wheeled quickly; Reg was on the deck rail, and then over; jumping some four feet to the listing corvette, pistol out and cutlass drawn, and he was staring down some fifteen uninjured frenchmen.

"MR. COUSINS! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?" The Captain raged, but he could not be heard above the general commotion.

Too late, I remembered my instructions to Anderson.

He was also on the railing, and then over, sprawling next to Reg, landing not nearly so gracefully. Open mouthed, I watched, as Reg yelled at him, and Anderson yelled something back, both looking furious. Then Reg, in a rage, ran the first Frenchman through, and Anderson shot another.

That left two against thirteen, as the Corvette drifted away from us.

"A suicide mission..." The Captain whispered, horrified. "Dear God, he is literally trying to get himself killed."

"Can we not fire on the ship, Sir?" Holloway said, plaintively.

I shook my head. "She's too damaged already, Mr. Holloway. And burning. The cannons would cause more problems than they already have."

Captain Forbes, bless him, appeared at the railings, six marines beside him. Taking their muskets, each fired in turn, stopping to reload, trying to cut the odds down.

It was mesmerizing, really. Like watching a dance, or a stage play. Reg moving viciously through his attackers, face torn up with rage, trying his damnedest to get killed with honor, yet only succeeding in putting others to death before him. Anderson, never moving from beside Cousins, doing his damnedest to make certain Reg didn't die, no matter how badly he wished to, showing skill with a cutlass I didn't know he'd had. Forbes and his men managing to get shots off whenever possible, keeping our men from being swarmed. I saw Reg push Anderson off with a shout once, but Anderson would not go.

And suddenly, our men were the only two left standing; they had gone the length of the Corvette, now halfway to the water. And left a trail of death beside them; death for everyone except the one man who'd wished it. And Reg stood on the sagging deck, still as a mouse, and then sank down to his knees and sobbed.

Anderson looked over to me, desperate for instruction.

"Styles? Matthews?" I called out. "Get a boat launched!"

"Aye, Aye, Mr. Hornblower."

"Mr. Anderson!" I bellowed. "Get Mr. Cousins overboard!"

I watched Anderson try and tug at him, but Reg is considerably bigger than he is, and wasn't moving. I felt myself panicking? Whatever would we do?

A voice, authoritarian and scorching, rose behind me.

"LIEUTENANT COUSINS! WHAT IN GOD'S NAME DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING, SIR! GET YOURSELF INTO THE WATER NOW!!!!!!!"

I looked over at the Captain, for the pitch had not sounded like him, and I wondered what had gone on with his voice. But the Captain, mouth open, wore only a pure look of shock, and together we turned.

Drew, his face in a blind fury, was with us, and was not putting up with one bit of this. Reg raised his head for the first time.

"DID YOU HERE ME, REGINALD COUSINS? YOU GET YOURSELF OVER THE SIDE THIS INSTANT, OR I AM GOING TO GO OVER THERE AND GET YOU. WE HAVE BEEN THROUGH TOO DAMNED MUCH FOR YOU TO SIT ON A SINKING SHIP AND BLOODY WAIT TO DIE! GET YOURSELF OVER NOW!!!!!"

They stared each other down for a few seconds, and then Reg permitted himself to be helped up; not wasting the chance, Anderson grabbed his arm, and together they dove over the side.

There was quiet then. Silence around us. I could see Dunbarton's quarry sinking; the first corvette we'd engaged had been boarded by our men on Serenity, and her colors were struck. And now, this ship...we watched her slide away before us, and our duty was done.

Drew stood beside us both; he had his surgical apron on, slightly stained with blood, and was in his shirt sleeves. Yet he looked far from cold; indeed, he was boiling angry.

"Stupid git." He muttered to himself. "I knew he wasn't quite right. Should have knocked him over the head before I let him come up to fight."

"Your timing, Mr. Brandon." The Captain said, still in a state of shock himself. "Was impeccable."

"Mr. Howard came to get me, Sir. Was bringing a man with a splinter wound down below and let me know that Reg had lost it."

"And yet..." I murmured. "Before the moment he went over there, it may have been the finest battle I'd ever seen him fight."

Drew shrugged. "Shock, Sir. Whatever happened to him, as long as the fight was on, he didn't have to think about it. Once the fight was done, and he was still alive, something in him must have snapped. I wish I knew what it was..."

I saw that our boat had Anderson and Cousins both, and relaxed.

But the Captain shook his head. "I'd like a conference with both of you, if you please. Because I am afraid I do know what happened."

Drew and I looked over the Captain, and then as we realized that Reg would be gotten back to the Indefatigable alive, we followed him towards his quarters.

***
He gestured to us to be seated, and then handed me the journal. "I trust, Mr. Hornblower, that you did not read the entire tome?"

"No, Sir. Only the section that gave me the information on the attack. There wasn't time..."

"No, no, of course there wouldn't have been. Well, I have marked the passages for you that are of the most importance. I confess, I could not sleep a bit after *I* did."

Some entries had been book-marked with parchment; I opened the first one and looked at the section the captain had checked. Drew came in next to me, and we read them together:

"Pellew sent over one of his boys to me, to "facilitate our communications." Reading between the lines of the note, it seems the stupid boy (well, not a boy, really; kid must be about nineteen) got himself into some trouble, and this is as good a punishment as Pellew can think on. I am more than happy to oblige, of course...though I would normally feel threatened by a forced visitor, I feel I am going to get a great deal of enjoyment with this one..."
***
"The boy is as stupid as I guessed, and easily cowed. Purcell urges me not to take him too lightly, but honestly! Disgraced as he is, and the boy insists on sending chess signals to a shipmate. I'm certain THAT impresses Pellew. It is only a matter of time before I have him at the gratings. That will be good sport; I do not believe he has been flogged before. Fresh skin. How many before he screams, I wonder? My guess would be two. I think I shall give him twenty-four."
***
"A slight scare with our resident trouble maker, Mr. Cousins. Right after my nightly meeting with Purcell and Barman (in the presence of the Earl, of course; he is getting rather ripe) I decided now would be a good time to deal the boy a few blows. He'd not done anything wrong, of course, but there would be no harm in slapping him around a bit. Keep him scared. However, the boy wasn't in his berth, and I panicked; what if there really was more to him? He must be killed at once, though what would I tell Pellew? As it turned out, though, I found him with that Dago Doctor, Sebastian, whimpering from a cold! Sebastian defended him, but I will find a way to get at him, no fear. Tomorrow promises much enjoyment. Really, once I have Pellew in my grasp, I must thank him for providing me with such entertainment."
***
"A change in plans this morning. Mr. Cousins was up above decks some five minutes later than normal, which was my excuse to have him flogged. I am a generous man, so I gave him the choice of two watches in the riggings or twenty four lashes. To my surprise, the boy chose the lash! Naturally, I could not oblige, but then, I think I've perfected my technique of confining men in the riggings to a point where the pain is nearly as excruciating, and of course the punishment does last longer. But Purcells calls..."
***
"Damned Pellew, spotted his man was not making signals and ordered me to present him at once. Cousins has gotten out of a good two hours of punishment. Well, he made his silly signals...idiot was so confused I think he sent over three chess moves. But it was enough to satisfy the Indefatigable, and I had the joy of watching the young man collapse on the deck, where I was more than happy enough for him to remain. I spotted the darky, Orson, moving him bellow, though. Well, he will be punished in time. And Mr. Cousins has not had the last my wrath, either."
***

"Cousins has recovered for now, just in time to tell me that the Indefatigable signals that we are to be hove to. Well, thank you very much, Pellew! I do hope the French allow me to be present when you are guillotined. The weather isn't nearly as bad today as it was yesterday, anyway; I'd no idea the Navy were so namby pamby about their ships. No matter. I have decided what I shall do with Mr. Cousins...and he will wish that I had flogged him to death by the time I am done with him."
***
"Had Cousins and Sebastian arrested, and will keep them confined in the low storage bin. First, though, I had to give the boy a few reminders of what he deserves. After having him signal (and we made certain there was nothing but our position, our supplies, and his chess move), I ordered him bound, and let the men have sport with him. He takes a beating well, I'll give him that. He is not broken. Yet. But after tomorrow...ah, that will be fun."
***
"I got him. Finally got the boy, got him through Orson, and oh, it was worth the wait. I've wanted to be rid of that darky for some time, and what better way than to have him hanged, and have the former Lieutenant Cousins play hangman. He wanted to refuse, but I gave him the option of having me kill Sebastian instead. Not much of a choice, and he knew it. Oh, he tried to make it swift...but of course, one man on a rope, not much chance of a clean kill. And I ordered him held there, over the ten minutes it took Orson to die. Held him right beneath him, as Orson twitched and struggled; made him listen to the gasping, rattling breath and the heaving agony, and he broke. I took a great pleasure in asking Mr. Cousins how it felt to be an executioner; I made him sit there and watch the body swaying in the wind for some time. Over an hour, in fact. Purcell spotted the Indefatigable looking over our kill. I had the boy signal, eventually, and then brought him right back before the body. Only when I had him thoroughly shaken and traumatized did I cut Orson down, and then I made Cousins bind him and throw him over board. By the time I sent him back to his prison, he was a shaking wreck.

Tomorrow, I shall have him shoot Dr. Sebastian. In the stomach, perhaps, so he can watch him die slowly..."
***

"GOOD GOD!" Drew whispered, slowly. I was speechless.

The Captain had his head in his hands. "I blame myself for what just happened above decks. I had read these entries, and yet I allowed myself to be fooled into thinking he was enough of himself to perform in battle. Indeed, I hoped it might be his first step on the road to recovery."

I nodded. "I confess, Sir, without knowing what the cause of his trauma was, I also thought he might find...closure...in seeing what his information had enabled us to do."

Drew pounded his fist on the desk. "I cannot believe, that either one of you can even consider blaming yourself. The fault here lies with two men, as far as I can see. The Earl himself, and Coleman. If we'd learned about the danger as early as we ought to have, that entire last entry does not even happen."

I looked at him curiously. "You have become the fierce warrior these past days, Mr. Brandon. Indeed, you gave me quite a turn above decks, when you ordered Mr. Cousins overboard."

He went a deep red, and didn't say anything for a few moments, although neither Captain Pellew or I took our eyes off of him. Finally, he gave me a wan smile. "I guess, Mr. Hornblower, Reg...you all...are my family. And I will fight like hell for your safety."

There was a timid knock on the door, and the Captain called out for the visitor to enter.

Anderson, still dripping, and draped with a blanket, stood there. "Midshipman Anderson, reporting, Sir."

The Captain and I exchanged glances. Finally, I spoke. "You have secured Mr. Cousins, Mr. Anderson?"

"Yes, Sir. In sick berth. Captain Forbes has stationed a marine to keep watch over him."

"A good man, Forbes. His quick thinking saved both of your sorry hides, Mr. Anderson." The Captain's voice was stern.

"Yes, Sir." Anderson understood he could be called to task for such reckless behavior.

"I know, Mr. Anderson, that Mr. Hornblower requested you to stick with Mr. Cousins, but surely you saw the folly of his actions."

"Yes, Sir, I did."

"So for what reason did you follow him?" The Captain stared him down.

"To prevent him from getting killed, Sir." Anderson didn't blink.

"Even though you knew..." I broke in. "...That it was more likely that you should both be killed, than that you both should be saved?"

"Yes, Sir, but, begging your pardon, at the moment there wasn't much time to think at all. I knew that he was heading into certain death, and I could not live with myself if I just watched it happen, when there might have been something I could do about it." He blushed; it had been more explanation than we'd asked for.

Captain Pellew stood up and, as was his habit, got inches away from Anderson. "I am going to say this once, Mr. Anderson, so listen well. If you ever try such an insane stunt again, I promise you that by the time I am done with you, you will wish you had been killed." He paused, and softened a bit. "You have become too valuable a man to me to see your life thrown away recklessly." And then, softening even more. "But I am grateful for that reckless disregard for your personal safety today, young man. You are dismissed."

Anderson blinked, gulping, but gave a little nod, squeaked out an embarrassed "Aye, Aye, Sir," and made a hasty exit.

It was after he left that I turned back to the Captain. "Now what, Sir?"

He sat back down, exhausted. "Mr. Brandon, you ought to return to sick berth and look after him. See what his mood is, and report back to me later today. Mr. Hornblower, I am going to request a meeting with Captain Clark from Dunbarton; it would seem we are taking two prizes in Serenity and the remaining corvette, and crews must be arranged. Later, we will have to meet with this...Fitzhugh Macrae." He spat the name out. "I ought to just summarily hang him..."

"Sir..." Drew looked up sharply. "I am not certain that would be a good thing, for Mr. Cousins at least."

The Captain and I looked at each other, and Drew turned to me. "It's like yesterday, Mr. Hornblower. When Mr. Coleman was being punished, and you would not let me above decks. I do not think it is the best thing right now to remind Mr. Cousins of the circumstances that brought him to where he is."

A good point. Though this man certainly deserved hanging, if ever a man did.

"Well, we will get to that point later. See if you can talk some sense into Mr. Cousins; I will address him tomorrow; but keep a guard on him. I have not yet decided how to best proceed."

"Aye, Aye, Sir." Drew looked tired enough, but I knew he would not be sleeping until he was assured that Reg was properly settled and of no danger to himself or anyone else.

***

"You have all the prize crews arranged, Mr. Hornblower."

"Yes, Sir. Mr. Kennedy shall remain with the men we left on Serenity, and Captain Clark's men will handle La Chattellerault. Our prisoners remain on Serenity, save for Macrae. There are a few, Sir, who are requesting that you hear their case."

"Those who worked WITH our cause, I suppose? Mr. Anderson did have a word with me about a man by the name of Dabney James. I am certainly willing, in his case, to offer him a place here. As for the rest..." He shrugged. "I will listen, of course. For the mercenaries, I can guarantee no pity."

"Of course not, Sir."

"I have requested Forbes bring up Macrae for questioning." He shifted his shoulders. "But I meant to ask you, since he brought it up...what exactly DID you say to Mr. Brandon about my punishment of Mr. Coleman?"

I had forgotten that he'd mentioned it this morning. "Sir, you were correct in your guess that he'd be shocked that you'd ordered such a thing. However, when I informed him of the reason, he was enraged. He intended to go up and witness Coleman's punishment, I think he believed he would enjoy seeing it done."

"But you disagreed." His eyebrows raised slightly.

"I did. The fact that the punishment was deserved would not take away from Mr. Brandon's natural associations. The reminders would be too strong. And then later, he'd start doubting himself again...he'd wonder if he was able to take pleasure in another man's suffering, if that did not make him more of his father's son that he'd thought he was."

The Captain chewed this over. "Well thought out, I think, Mr. Hornblower. It is exactly how he would have reacted. So do you concur with him that likewise we should not hang Macrae? Would it cause Mr. Cousins MORE pain, rather than help him heal? My only remaining goal in this sail, Mr. Hornblower, is to make certain that we get Mr. Cousins back in body AND spirit."

"That would be my goal as well, Sir. However, at the same time, I cannot think of a man who more merits death than this one."

"You don't know the half of it, Mr. Hornblower. Mr. Kennedy sent over a dispatch this morning. They've found the real Earl."

I blinked. "You mean he was there the entire time?"

"In a manner of speaking." The Captain said dryly. "What was left of him was stored in crates in that hidden meeting room that Macrae mentioned."

I swallowed hard against the horror. "In that case, Sir, an execution is well with in your rights."

"It is indeed, Mr. Hornblower, especially as he was so kind to leave us with this journal to damn him." Footsteps approached. "Well, this should be interesting, I would think. Enter!"

He was led in then, even paler than what would seem natural. Finally, perhaps, he is sensing fear; he now knows that he has been beaten. Either that, or a night under guard has disturbed his equilibrium; his lavender silks are now hopelessly spoiled; stained and, quite frankly, reeking.

The Captain sniffed once, and then turned to Forbes.

"We felt the best place for him was in the manger with the beasts, Sir." Forbes answered.

"As always, Captain Forbes, you have an excellent grasp of my preferences." The Captains said, in what would almost pass for good humor. "Do me the favor of standing guard. The last time I permitted myself to confront a prisoner it was only the quick thinking of Mr. Cousins that saved my life."

Macrae started slightly at the words, and the Captain pretended not to notice, appearing interested in some papers instead. "Indeed, Mr. Hornblower, I believe you were a guest of the Spanish when it happened. You have heard the story?"

"I do not recall it, Sir." I sensed that was the answer he wanted; it was far from the truth.

"Ah, we were carrying a rather large number of honest French soldiers, whom though they are the enemy, one can respect for serving their country. Unfortunately, we also had rather dangerous serpent among them, an officer who was no gentleman, a rogue and a miscreant, and a murderer, no less; quite possibly he was a spy as well." The Captain coughed. "After an unfortunate...er...accident, the Indefatigable was held up for repairs, and we were able to transfer those prisoners to another ship. But this man...whom I am ashamed I must admit I let get under my skin...had no intention of going quietly. And so it was that I made the mistake of being smug in my capture of him, and thus found myself staring down a pistol he'd snatched from one of the marines...not one of my marines, thankfully!"

 

I effected shock. "But Sir, however did you survive the shot? It must have been from point blank range." I prompted him for where I could see him headed.

"Why, as it turns out, though I myself was unprepared for danger, there was another who was not. It was then-Midshipman Cousins, in fact, who had enough sense to have a pistol handy, who had enough distrust in the situation to keep by my side, and who was quick enough to both deflect the shot aimed at me and blow this demon straight to hell!" His voice was rolling now; Captain Pellew could have joined his wife on the stage any time.

He continued, adding the epilogue. "I was wounded, but not mortally; and Mr. Cousins further compounded his valor by holding the watch through...how many hours, was it, Forbes?"

"Twelve hours, Sir." Forbes answered promptly. "In weather that was not fit for a beast."

"So you see, Mr. Hornblower, I have a natural trust of prisoners. And without Mr. Cousins here, I am at your mercy."

I tried hard not to grin. "I will endeavor to live up to his example, Sir."

Macrae could take it no longer. "I don't bloody well believe it. That indolent, half-witted boy..."

"ENOUGH!" The Captain snarled, and then regained his calm. "Mr. Cousins is neither indolent nor half-witted. He is in fact a steadfast, loyal man, whom I thought highly enough of to bring him with me as a translator during a diplomatic negotiation, whom has always been both willing and able to step in when another officer is down, whom has done nothing but work hard to learn what he does not know, worked to correct the few mistakes he ever has made, and become a leader not only of the men but of many of the petty officers. So that when I had need for him to take action recently, LIEUTENANT Cousins was willing to go, to do what he had to for the good of is ship, even if it meant a temporary demotion and having to act disgraced, in order to fool a rather ridiculous popinjay of a phony Earl."

Macrae's face went red, then paled again as his mouth opened and shut during the Captain's speech. "An Act? Are you telling me that...he...he was a SPY?"

"He's a good Lieutenant who did his duty for his Captain and his King. If that makes him a spy, in this instance..." The Captain shrugged. Then he picked up the journal the Earl had left behind.

"I do not often get good reading material. Gibraltar's stores always seem so lamentably unstocked..." He murmured, and Macrae lost what little color he had had.

"Mr. Hornblower read of your plans for the ambush. I read forward from there, and learned how you so terribly mistreated one of my men, to say nothing of the treatment of your own. Only after I had a curious dispatch from Mr. Kennedy on the Serenity, did I read the beginning of it. You have murdered one Jamison Thatcher, Earl of Noth. We have the poor wretch's body, and we have your own words as evidence." He slammed the booklet down on the table, so forcefully that even I jumped, and then he came forward to Macrae, as he had with Anderson, but oh, with quite a different look on his face; his voice was the low controlled whisper that had set more than one young officer cowering. "Is there...Sir...any thing you wish to say in an attempt to mitigate or explain yourself...before I pass sentence on you?"

Macrae was shaking. "Damn you, Pellew. And damn the boy you sent to me. So do your worst, Sir. My mission has failed. Go on. Hang me!" And I am certain I did not mistake the slightly malevolent glint in his eye as he made the suggestion.

I turned to him slightly. "What mission, Sir? Do you maintain that you did not merely intend to lure Indefatigable to her destruction for pecuniary gain?"

"That was a pleasant side effect." He said, anger beaming from his eyes. "But no, if you must know, my goal, which I have failed in abjectly, was to exact revenge on the man who was the downfall of one of my most trusted compatriots. A man with whom I trained, with whom was practically a brother to me, though we were not of the same nation. So now that you've told me other stories, Captain Pellew...I would like to know the details of your foul butchery of Etienne DeVergess."

I drew my breath in sharply; Forbes turned to the Captain, whose face had become suddenly unreadable. "Etienne DeVergess? He is the man whom you have done all this for? It was for his death that you sought revenge, ON ME?"

"Yes." Macrae said, evenly.

And the Captain laughed, and I allowed myself to join him. So did Forbes, although never taking his iron grip off of our prisoner, our enraged and embarrassed prisoner.

"I fail to see to see the humor in this, Captain Pellew."

"No, and mores the pity, I doubt you ever will. For you see, Macrae, I have TOLD you the story of Etienne DeVergess. I did not shoot him, Sir. Mr. Cousins did."

"YOU LIE! NO SHIP'S BOY COULD BRING DOWN ETIENNE!" Macrae was livid, and Forbes pushed him back to the wall; the man was shaking with rage.

This time, I answered. "Perhaps no boy could. But Mr. Cousins is not a boy. He is an officer in His Majesties' Navy, and he has bested you twice."

Macrae tried to lunge again, but Forbes was more than his match, and he finally gave in. "Then get the noose, and get it over with."

"Oh, I think not." Captain Pellew studied Macrae carefully. "I do not think that would do for you at all. So, Forbes, here is what you will do with this...vermin. I wish him to be displayed for view...in the riggings, for twenty four hours or so." The Captain passed Forbes the journal. "I believe Macrae has devised an ingenious method for how he prefers it done. See if you can't make use of it." He coughed once, and I noted that Macrae seemed to shrink.

"And then, Sir?" Forbes asked.

"And then, Forbes, I would like a contingent of your best Marines to see how they are at hitting targets. He should make a ready one from that position."

A firing squad. "Nothing could be more fitting in this circumstance." I said, stoutly.

"It is, in fact, kinder than you deserve. But it will have to do. You are only lucky, then, that Mr. Cousins is alive. Because had you killed him..." The Captain's hand shot out, and grasped Macrae's throat. "I would have done the honors myself, and enjoyed it."

And thus he was lead away, possibly the happiest man to ever have to face a firing squad in his life.

***
Reg Cousins lay motionless in the sick berth, continually supplied with heated blankets that in fact left a slight flush on his face. But inside he was still ice; colorless and cold. He saw himself from the outside, as if he were somebody else, and did not recognize what he'd become.

He knew there was a guard stationed in the berth. He also vaguely knew the guard was there to protect him from himself. Because he shouldn't be alive, and he nearly wasn't alive, and damned Anderson and his foolish need to protect him. He knew he wanted to die, and yet...

And yet. Something in him hadn't been able to just give it all up. He could have simply laid down his sword, put down the pistol, and let any one of the Frenchmen do their duty. But he didn't want to die a coward. No, he ought to put up a good show. Too good a show, apparently. And then there had been the Anderson issue. If Reg had allowed himself to be easily killed, Anderson would have been next, certain sure. He had enough guilt on his head.

The despair...the overwhelming blackness...when he'd reached the corvette's quarterdeck, with no further opponent, and still drawing breath...he never again wanted to feel like that. Orson, dead. Fifteen French sailors dead behind him. Some men fortunate enough to have caught fatal wounds on Indefatigable, though not many. But he lived, lived to remember it all, and it would not go away.

Then Drew...damn his eyes...yelling like that. Commanding him, ORDERING HIM to save himself. Save himself for what? But he had to obey, had to listen to him, felt there might be something in Drew's threat to come after him, and if anything happened to Drew...hell, how much else could be heaped on his head?

"Awake, then?" Drew pulled up a stool beside him.

Reg turned his head away, not answering.

"Angry at ME too? I've heard you about bit off Anderson's head in the boat, for having the nerve to try and save you."

Reg closed his eyes. It had been irrational, he knew. But if Anderson had only left him alone...God, why hadn't the boy left him alone? Forbes' men alone would not have been enough to save him. "Go away."

"Not likely. As I said, we've been through too damned much, and you've pulled me out of despair often enough, that I cannot do that comfortably."

"You've never..." His voice trailed off.

Drew leaned forward, elbows on his knees, hands clasped before him. "I've never what, Reg? Known what it's like to feel I'd rather be dead? I think you know better than that. Next? Know what it's like to feel I've murdered a man...It was only a month ago I felt certain McGill's death was on my head." Reg had jumped, and brought his horrified face to look into Drew's eyes, and Drew softened his voice. "I know about Orson, Reg. This man Macrae, he left a journal."

Reg felt the tears well up, and he turned back to the wall. "Has the Captain read it?"

"Yes, he has." Drew waited for Reg's reaction, studying him carefully.

"Oh, God." Reg fought another round of sobs that seemed to want to well up in him, and felt his face burn in shame. "Whatever must he be thinking?"

"I can tell you one thing he was thinking. He blames himself, for having sent you over into that pit. Horatio also, takes the blame, but then, nothing new there." Drew took a deep breath. "And I blame Coleman, for not getting us the signal, and I blame Macrae, for everything else. I do not blame you for anything that occurred on that ship. You did your best. We are alive and free because of it."

Reg sniffed, thankful he had fought of the tears, and felt his chest stop heaving. "Drew, I know you mean well..."

"You have not heard me out, yet. I will tell you what I DO blame you for." Drew's voice became firm. "I blame you for nearly getting yourself killed this afternoon, in folly. I blame you for nearly getting Anderson killed."

Reg snorted. "He didn't have to follow me."

"The hell he didn't! Imagine it's two years ago, and you're an impressionable Midshipman, and it's Mr. Hornblower whose life is at risk, and tell me you wouldn't have done the same damned thing. For an officer who spent time teaching you, trusting you when nobody else would, forgiving him for a mistake that could have cost you dearly. There was no way Anderson was leaving you go without a fight."

"So...now Anderson hates me, you hate me, the Captain thinks I'm a screw up, and I've had a breakdown in front of the entire ship. I can find a lot of reason to live in that..."

"HEY!" Drew leaned over and got right in Reg's face. "I do NOT hate you, you great idiot; it would be a hell of a lot easier if I did. But when I first got here, and I was cowering from my own shadow, for Christ's sake, it was you who kept me safe, convinced me I would not die. When I was being forced into battle surgery, and I lost Carlysle, you forgave me..."" Drew's voice broke for a moment.

"Stop." Reg turned back, eyes imploring. "That wasn't your fault, you couldn't save him."

"But I didn't know that. You had to make me believe that." Drew took a deep breath. "When I was being sent home to my father, it was you who kept me sane those weeks of waiting, and when I got back here it was you who saw me through a month of nightmares he'd left me with. And since my sister's wedding, when my father and I had our final parting, it is you who's kept me from getting mired in self-recriminations. I was not kidding when I said we had been through too much to allow you to throw your life away."

"It's not as if you've not done the same for me..." Reg muttered, feeling that he was losing the argument against his will.

"True enough, I've done everything I could to be there for you, even if I felt it could never be enough. So, Reg, can you understand that when I saw you throwing your life away, it HURT?"

No, he didn't understand. Not at all. Reg looked at Drew in confusion.

"It hurt. That you didn't trust me enough to let me help you; that you had decided that I would condemn you without giving me a chance. Do you think so little of me, then?"

Reg closed his eyes. "I hadn't thought about that, Drew. It wasn't a case of trust. I just...wanted the pain to stop."

"I know." Drew laid his hand on Reg's head, smoothing the hair back from his forehead. "Just understand, if you harm yourself, you're not stopping the pain, just transferring it to others. And, worst of all, you'd be letting him win, that bastard, when in fact the truth is you've beaten him. He thought you not worth worrying about, and you brought him down. Not without some losses, but still, you bested him. And saved us all." Drew watched Reg for a few moments; his friend still didn't look at him, and he wasn't sure he'd gotten through. But he did not look quite so blank as he had a few minutes ago. Like any wound, you had to fully drain the poison before healing began. He rose to go on about his duties.

Reg called him back. "May...May I have some tea, Drew?"

Drew forced himself not to smile. "Willow bark or chamomile?"

"I don't suppose you have just plain tea?" Reg looked at him, and he tried to force a smile himself.

"Plain tea?" Drew threw his hands up in mock indignation. "I've got drawers and boxes full of every assorted herb and folk remedy that can be found between Plymouth and Gibraltar, and the man wants plain tea?" He gave an exaggerated sigh. "Guess I'll have to see the steward for THAT..."

"If it's too much trouble..." Reg hurried, but he stopped on seeing Drew's forceful glare.

"You were saying, Mr. Cousins?"

He gulped. "I was saying...thank you."

Drew gave him a satisfied nod, and went off on his quest for standard, Navy issue tea.

***
March 4th

The Captain and I had a brief conversation last evening with Drew. His conclusion was that Mr. Cousins showed signs of coming out of the state of shock induced by his trauma. He had spoken with Drew over the course of the day, gradually describing the events on Serenity, and by the evening had sent for Mr. Anderson, to apologize for some hard words that had passed between them.

"Good enough." The Captain had said, with quiet force. "Then I will expect him to report to me tomorrow morning."

The look on Drew's face said he wasn't at all sure that Reg was up for THAT, but we both knew that there was no point in postponing the inevitable. He was going to have to face the Captain sometime, and I was uncertain how he planned on proceeding here. Reg's service on Serenity had been exemplary and valorous; his behavior yesterday reckless and foolish.

I keep going over my own return from Muzillac, when I had so felt a failure. Barely able to contain my own distraught emotions, the Captain had forced me to be professional, forced me to report, and face my own knowledge of our shortcomings in that mission. He had managed, somehow, to make me believe in my own self worth again, by reminding me where my duty was. Of course, he had another, less official conversation with me later.

But all of that is beside the point. The meeting that the Captain would have had with Mr. Cousins without the influence of yesterday would be one thing; but his near-suicide had changed things. And the Captain has been thoughtful, and brooding, and has not sought to share with me the way in which he plans to approach this problem.

"Acting Lieutenant Cousins, Reporting for duty as requested, Sir."

He was still paler than normal, but had shown no signs of fever or illness; a resilient young man, to be sure. He set his shoulders back stiffly, his chin out, his eyes the only part of him betraying his worry.

"Mr. Cousins." The Captain said, rising from behind his desk. "You are aware, I suppose, that I have read the journal left by Fitzhugh Macrae, detailing the events of your time on Serenity."

"Yes, Sir. Mr. Brandon told me, Sir." He answered.

"You were, if I read correctly, confined in the riggings for some six hours, in addition to being the victim of physical assault more than once. You were also imprisoned, and forced to execute one of the ship's men, essentially for sport."

I caught the faint hint of a tremor, controlled with effort. "Yes, Sir."

"And yet...despite what this man Macrae tried to do to you, you managed to discover him for an imposter, ascertain the nature of the trap against Indefatigable, and relay that message to us so we might forestall the attack. I have here a dispatch from one Doctor Sebastian, whom says you did this without regard to your personal safety, thus putting the life of your shipmates above your own?"

"I did my duty, Sir. Nothing more. Nothing less." Reg looked unblinkingly ahead.

"Why, Mr. Cousins, did you not signal that you were in danger at the same time you signaled to us of the planned trap?" He shot out, suddenly.

Reg was momentarily taken aback by this question, but recovered quickly. "Sir, at that point, first of all, I was barely conscious; I relayed the message after six hours in the riggings in freezing rain, and the manner in which I had been confined..." He blanched.

"I am aware that Macrae was unorthodox in his treatment of you." The Captain said, with the first hint of kindness I'd seen. "And he is learning first hand at this moment of how that can affect one. But, go on. You signaled us the next day, and gave us no indication then that you were in trouble."

"Sir..." Reg swallowed once, and then took a deep breath. "Despite Macrae's enjoyment of tormenting me, I did not regard myself to being in mortal danger. Danger of a certain amount of abuse, yes. I knew I stood a good chance of being flogged or beaten in some manner, but as he seemed reluctant to kill me as long as he had to maintain the pretense of your protection, I felt that any physical punishment I must take, I could handle. He regarded me as stupid, and I felt since he was not threatened by me, I might possibly learn more. And it seemed to me to be in the best interest of our ships that you have as long as possible to plan a counter-attack. Obviously, I made an error in judgement."

"When did you first realize that your life was, in fact, in jeopardy?" The Captain kept his gaze sharp on him.

"When he had me arrested. He took the liberty at that point of admitting to me that he was not the Earl of Noth, and I knew then that he would not allow me to leave Serenity alive." Reg was composed once more.

"You must have been puzzled when no help was forthcoming?" Captain Pellew asked, averting his gaze for the first time.

"I..." He shook himself gently. "I admit, Sir, I found it troubling. I had to believe that there was some problem on Indefatigable that prevented a rescue attempt."

The Captain was facing the windows now. "Or, you believed no help was coming."

"Yes, Sir, I knew that was a possibility. I am only one man, and you could not risk the lives of three hundred for mine. I knew it would not be a decision you would enjoy making, but if it was necessary, you would do what you had to do." He furrowed his brow, perhaps not understanding the line of questioning.

"You are most understanding of my duty, Mr. Cousins." He turned back, and in two strides was beside Reg. "How is it then, Sir, that you can have so little grasp of your own?" He snapped, making me jump slightly.

"Sir?"

"Yesterday, Mr. Cousins, I speak of yesterday." He paced before him, his eyes never leaving the young man before him. "How is it that you have so little regard for your duties that you would risk not only your life, but the life of another man, in such a foolish endeavor."

"I..." He gulped. "I was not thinking on my duties, Sir."

"THAT is patently clear." He scowled. "Have you not proven yourself to be an excellent officer on board this ship?" He barked.

Reg had no clue how to answer that one. "I...have tried..."

"You have succeeded. Did you not save my life, Sir?"

He blinked. "I protected you, Sir..."

"YOU SAVED MY LIFE!" The Captain glared. "You then stood twelve hours of watch, during which time you effected a repair of the mizzen mast in record time!"

"Sir, I was responsible for the damage to the mast in the first place..."

"SILENCE!" There was total quiet. "An error, Sir, which you admitted to me immediately, an error the result of over-confidence which you corrected, having shown the ability to learn from your mistakes. And is it not true, Mr. Cousins, that when I needed a translator to come with me to Madeira, you performed valiantly there?"

"Um..."

"And when Mr. Hornblower's knee was injured last year, did you not immediately replace him on deck, taking on his duties, and enabling us to have success against our adversaries?"

"Well..."

"And did you not do the same, when Mr. Kennedy was struck with fever this year? Indeed, were you not suffering from the early stages of fever yourself, but you refused to give in to your own illness, because you knew we needed you badly at that moment?"

"I did my duty, Sir." His voice was quietly shocked. It was a strange way to be yelled at, to be certain.

"YOU DO YOUR DUTY WELL, SIR!" The Captain stood proud but stern, and would not take his eyes from Reg's face. "You are one of the finest young men I have ever had privilege to command. I have seen a bright future for you, as I have for Mr. Hornblower and Mr. Kennedy. You have a natural gift of leadership; you have an uncanny sense of trouble when it is brewing, you learn willingly and quickly, and above all else, you can THINK, Sir! And thinking officers are in no great supply in this Navy. So I do not appreciate the fact that you even considered throwing ALL OF THESE GIFTS AWAY!" His voice quieted, and he turned to me with one eyebrow raised; and I bit my lower lip, as he continued. "I know what you went through, Mr. Cousins. I can only imagine at your feelings, enduring that last day on Serenity. But understand this: I consider it an insult to my leadership for you to have found it necessary to try and get yourself killed."

"Sir..." Reg whispered, horrified. "I would cut off my right arm before I would ever knowingly insult you."

"That would not be any improvement, I'm afraid. I need you here with both arms." The Captain betrayed some wry amusement, and was noticeably calmer. "Come now, Mr. Cousins. Admit your value, to yourself. You do not need to convince me, or any other man on this ship, how valuable you are. What we do need to make certain is that you never go off like yesterday again. It does no honor to this man Orson for you destroy a life he himself saved."

Reg blinked suspiciously. "It was horrible, Sir."

"Hanging a man always is. But his death is not on your hands; the fault lies with another." The Captain looked over some papers on your desk. "You have served with me now for over three years, Mr. Cousins?"

"Yes, Sir."

"We are headed for Plymouth. Your family is not far from there, are they?"

"No, Sir...our farm is outside of Newton Abbot."

"Very well. It appears we will have two weeks in England, at least. I intend on granting you a week or so of shore leave to spend time with them. Help you get your mind off of this mess."

"Sir...I am grateful, of course, but I don't...I mean, I no longer feel so dismal..."

The Captain looked at him softly. "This is not a punishment, Mr. Cousins. And the fact that you are feeling more yourself today does not mean you will be ready for battle tomorrow." He coughed. "You might consider THIS a punishment, though; I have no intention of permitting you shore leave alone; you will be forced to drag Mr. Brandon with you, and given his predisposition to nag any recovering patient, I am not certain that is a thing to envy."

Reg's mouth trembled, and I think he was not certain whether he wanted to laugh or to cry. In fact, he did neither, at least not in our presence. "Thank you, Sir. I think I can safely promise never to attempt anything so foolish again." He hesitated. "Sir...what has become of Macrae?"

"He is currently confined to the riggings in roughly the same configuration you were." The Captain's voice was terse.

"And...and then?"

"The firing squad." He answered shortly.

Reg's relief was quite visible. "Again, I thank you."

"No, I thank you, Mr. Cousins. Now, get on with you. You look as though you should not be up and about, and I don't want Mr. Brandon to come yelling up at me about keeping one of his patients out of bed. Quite the tongue on him, lately. You are dismissed."

Reg's eyes twinkled in understanding. "Aye, Aye, Sir."

After the door shut, I let myself grin at the Captain openly, though I knew he would consider it impudence.

He tried to scowl at me. "What are you looking at, Hornblower?"

"A master, Sir. Never before have I seen a man browbeaten with his own accomplishments. Well done, indeed."

"Harumph." He sat behind the desk, to fill out the logs. "I honed THAT skill on you, I believe."

And I find myself wondering, not for the first time, what he would have been like as a Midshipman or a Lieutenant. What Captains did he serve for? Whom had mentored him?

And did they know how that little legacy bore fruit, in a growing tree of officers inspiring to be the same sort of leader he was?