Passages: 1799
By Meanjean

Part 4

April 2

We are but a few days out of Gibraltar now, and I am looking forward to our return to port there for several reasons. Our voyage from England had been uneventful, but lengthy...a stop in Oporto, to deliver dispatches, and a stop in Madeira, to make certain we kept our hand in at their port. It was our happy occasion to discover that Bracegirdle was in Madeira at the same time, and Captain Pellew had him over for a dinner one evening.

Bracegirdle is doing well with his ship, and he was very proud to speak about it in detail. The foibles of his midshipmen, the personalities of his officers, the habits of his men. I know I detected an amused twinkle in Captain Pellew's eye, although I am fairly certain that he was just as proud of Bracegirdle, as Bracie was of his ship.

I confess to having some very human pangs of jealousy over the conversation, and I have thought on it often since we departed the island. But I am certain that however much I look forward to someday obtaining my own command, I would not wish it under the circumstances that Hood's offer came. Frustratingly, I seem to have lost the paper that the offer was made on; but as nobody has thrown it in my face I have to believe that the missive was destroyed.

Of course, seeing Angelina is very top of mind at the moment...and the anticipation of it is what drove me above decks this evening, standing in the comfortable, fresh air and wishing to push the Indefatigable forward faster.

"Hullo, Horatio." A tired voice spoke from behind me, and a young man appeared beside my elbow.

"Evening, Drew." I answered, smiled down at him. He followed my gaze to the Horizon, and leaned forward against the rail. "You look exhausted."

He turned his head to mine, eyebrows raised. "You have not heard, then? I spent the past six hours trying to treat a man for an abdominal abscess. One of the new ones, Perry was his name."

"Was?" I asked, sympathetically.

"Yes, was. Unfortunately he was too far gone and I lost him. Very frustrating. He was new to the ship from Portsmouth, a volunteer. I guess he'd had bad experience on a previous ship and was afraid he'd be flogged for malingering if he saw me for help. So he waited too long."

"Bah!" I spat out angrily. "What man have we ever seen treated so foully? I can tell the difference between a man legitimately sick and one who is shirking his duty."

Drew grinned up at me. "Of course you can, Horatio, and our men know that. The only reason he came to me at all is because Styles discovered Perry's ailments and just about dragged him off to see me." He shrugged. "Perry just wasn't here long enough to trust us. I regret it, but we did everything we could do."

He was right of course. Whenever any new man came on board there was a period of adjustment. You always bring your past with you. I know that from experience.

Following the adjusted train of thought, I asked in an abrupt change of subject, "How is Archie?"

He sighed. "No better, no worse. He seems to blame himself for what happened, though I cannot see why."

I knew why, of course. He would not explain this to Drew, but Archie had come to the conclusion that Alicia had lost the baby because the two of them had been...intimate...during the week. I confess, of all the things I might have picked up living with my father, this is not one of the questions I can answer. And for all his intelligence, I'm not certain it's one Drew could answer either.

"At least he hasn't been physically affected in any way." I pointed out.

"Yes, I was afraid his fits might reoccur. I THINK," He paused, choosing his words carefully, "I THINK, that if they did not reoccur with these events, then he might very well be past having them."

"That is good, at least." I sighed. "If only we could give Archie a reason for this to have happened."

"I've thought about that. Reg is probably right, you know. There might have been something wrong with the baby, and nature took its course. But I can't prove it, and I'd be afraid to tell him that, anyway." He took a deep breath. "Actually, Horatio, I am here to speak with you particularly this evening."

I looked at him curiously. He had returned from his time with Reg's family remarkably sane, so I do not see that he would need advice. And I myself have no personal quandaries for him to help me with. "What about, Drew?"

Squaring his shoulders, he took a sheet of paper from his jacket. "About THIS."

It was my note from Admiral Hood.

"Oh." I gulped, and held my hand out, fearing he would not give it back to me. But he did, although he hesitated. "I guess you found this in sick berth?"

"I did. About two weeks ago, wedged beneath a crate." He looked back over the water. "I've been debating what to say about it, or if I even should." He took a deep breath. "I assume, as you are here, that you turned the offer down?"

"I did." I was firm with my answer. "I didn't feel the offer was genuine."

"You don't think he meant to give you a command?"

"I don't think he was offering it for the right reasons." Drew rolled his eyes, and I continued quickly. "I'm not being modest this time, Drew. I think he only offered me the chance to spite the Captain. I resent being any man's tool, but a tool used against one of the greatest men it has been my privilege to know? How could I even consider it?"

"Yes, I can see how you felt. But, Horatio, does the Captain know this?"

"No. I meant to talk to him, but I got sidetracked with arranging his wedding. He was so happy, how could I do this to him?" Drew looked at me in surprise, and I have to admit, the arguments that made so much sense to me at the time now sounded spurious at best.

"Are you going to tell him?" I asked. Drew, after all, has as much of a relationship with the Captain as I do, if not more. He could very well see it as his responsibility to do so.

"No." His blue eyes searched my face. "I leave that to you. Mark this, Horatio, the Captain shall find out one way or another, and I think it would be better coming from you than from Admiral Hale in two days' time."

I blanched. He was right, of course. Nothing would be worse that having Captain Pellew find out from someone else, and his taxing me on it later! "I wouldn't want that to happen."

Drew nodded, seeing that I had given full thought to the worst scenario. "Well, then..." He paused, looking at me in sympathy. "Good luck to you."

I have a feeling I am going to need it.

***
I found the Captain in his cabin. He looked up at me with his face inscrutable as ever, although I have learned to detect a hint of warmth in his eyes that indicates he's agreeable to seeing me. "An unexpected surprise, Mr. Hornblower. I should have expected you to have turned in for the evening by now."

"I could not sleep, Sir." I paused, uncertain what I should say next.

He caught my indecision, and laid his pen down. Leaning back in the seat, he studied me. "Something preys on your mind, I fancy. Please, be seated."

"I...yes, Sir." I sat down, and felt more awkward in his presence than I had since that long-ago day when I'd first met him, and he'd torn me up over my botched duel with Simpson. I wondered what his reaction would be this time.

"Well, Horatio?" He asked, as I did not speak at once. "I have never known you to be so reticent before."

Reluctantly, I handed him the letter, my letter that Drew had found. "Perhaps the best way to begin would be for you to read this, Sir."

Puzzled, he leaned forward and took the document from me, and then sat back again, leaning towards his lamp. He held the note out, and pursed his lips as he began reading. And I watched his eyes scanning it, darting across each line, lines that had burned into my memory. His face paled, then the angry red spots burned in his cheek; his brows knit themselves even lower with each word. He came to the end, then cast his eyes over me in a quick dart, before returning his eyes to the beginning, certain he had misread the contents the first time.

Slowly, then, he folded the note, and laid it on the table before him. His eyes then looked up from his own hands to my face, his mouth set in a stern line. "Mr. Hornblower. Why are you still on my ship?"

"Because, I..." I felt the sweat beading down the back of my neck. "...I turned admiral Hood down, Sir."

"You turned...him down?" He pushed his arms against the table and stood, leaning forward, suddenly towering over me. "YOU TURNED HIM DOWN?"

"I...yes, Sir." I gulped, looking helplessly up at him.

He closed his eyes in total exasperation. "Why? For the love of God, Hornblower, why?"

"I did not like his terms, sir." I said, trying to regain some semblance of control over the situation.

"His terms? What terms? You were to have command of a ship, Hornblower. A Captain, if not in name, then in deed. Once on that ship, he would have had no more control over how you operated it on a day to day basis than he does over mine now." He stared at me in disbelief.

"Sir...he did not mean this promotion as a compliment to my skills. He meant it only to torment you; I could not aid him in that goal. It would have been an insult." I looked at him beseechingly, hoping he would understand my motives.

He did not. "Do you think me so petty that I would allow the foolish insults Hood allows himself to stand in the way of your promotion?"

"Petty? No, Sir, I know you would not hold me back, but I cannot permit him to blemish you."

"Blemish me how, Horatio?" He shook his head and turned away to the windows. "Do you not understand the compliment to me, to see you promoted to such a responsible position at so young an age? Do you not realize that had you taken his offer, he would have thought he'd won, but in reality I should be the victor? To see a man that I had trained, a man whom I esteem and have nothing but the highest regard for, be able to perpetuate the kind of leadership I believe this Navy needs, and does not see enough of? What more could I want?"

Of course, I hadn't thought of it that way. I felt myself flushing under his direct gaze as he turned and looked at me, disappointment all over his face. "I do not doubt your heart was in the right place, Horatio, in opting to stay in my service. But I cannot be pleased that you have materially damaged your own prospects in so cavalier a manner after all I have watched you accomplish."

My heart sank, stung to know that in trying to compliment him, I had only succeeded in hurting him instead. "I'm sorry, Sir. I truly believed I was acting for the best."

He closed his eyes. "I know you did, Horatio. Why, for the love of god, did you not approach me for advice?"

I took a deep breath. "I had planned on it, Sir. But you then asked me to assist in your wedding, and you said how much you trusted me...I felt, Sir, that to abandon you would be gravely misplacing your trust."

He sighed. "Desertion would be abandoning me. Not promotion." He sat back down, suddenly looking more weary than I could have believed short of battle, and rubbed his temples and with a decidedly dismissive tone to his voice, said, "Do me the favor of having Mr. Brandon see me, Mr. Hornblower, with some of those powders of his. My head is not well."

I rose stiffly, and remained poised, ever the professional officer. "Of course, Sir. Good evening, Sir."

It is perhaps as well that he couldn't see my face as I shut the door behind me.

***
"As requested, Sir, I am here with some willow bark and some feverfew." Drew Brandon stood calmly in the Captain's doorway. Two years ago his stomach would have been in his mouth on approaching the Captain when he was not in a good mood (judging from the ghastly pallor on Horatio's face, his mood would be dark indeed). But he'd learned to disassociate the man from his temper, and could withstand his tirades, especially when he was secure that he was not the cause.

"Thank you, Mr. Brandon. Which would you recommend?" The Captain did not look up, but remained scribbling furiously in what looked suspiciously like a diary.

"Well, I am going to assume that the headache is the result of your recent conversation with Mr. Hornblower..."

"That is not your concern!" He snapped, looking up and causing the ink to blot nastily on the page. "Stick to your medical advice."

"I beg your pardon, Sir. You asked me to make a recommendation as to which would remedy be most helpful, and I cannot do that without knowing what the cause of your ailment is." Drew remained impassive, and met the Captain's sparking gaze head on, without flinching.

The Captain blinked first, and rubbed his forehead. "Damn you, yes, my headache is a result of that conversation. I suppose Horatio told you all about it?"

"Not exactly, Sir." Drew paused, but knew the Captain would never let him get away with so shoddy an answer. "In fact, I saw the letter from Admiral Hood." He decided to NOT explain that Horatio had come forward only on his advice.

"Did anybody else see it?" The captain asked sharply.

"I do not believe so, Sir. And of course, I have no intention of being indiscrete." Drew said, soothingly.

Captain Pellew's shoulders sagged slightly. "Of course you don't Drew. I know that." He drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Well, which medication?"

"Feverfew, I think." He drew a packet out. "I took the liberty of asking Powers to get you some boiling water, Sir."

"Thank you." He sat back, and stared vacantly out to the windows again.

Drew wasn't certain if this were a dismissal or not. He paused, as the Captain did not speak further, and then ventured forth a statement of his own. "If there is anything else I can do, Sir?"

"You cannot turn back time." He sighed deeply, then turned back to his young doctor. "Do you have any idea how badly Mr. Hornblower might have damaged his career? Admiral Hood is a very powerful man. For me to slight him, from the safety of an impeccable record as the Commodore of a small squadron, is one thing. But for Horatio...it might now be years before he receives another chance at command. I would not have wished this."

"Of course not, Sir." Drew took a deep breath. "But I don't think he made these choices lightly, Sir. I think he knows the risk he took in the refusal."

"That only makes it worse. Dash it all, he knowingly damaged his career, not for his vanity, but for MINE." The Captain's mouth set in a narrow line.

Powers entered smoothly, with boiling water. Drew thanked him, and then took the liberty of preparing the potion for the Captain, as Powers withdrew as silently as he'd entered.

After he was certain the powder had dissolved, he passed the cup on to the Captain, who grunted his approval. Drew began to leave himself, but stopped at the doorway and turned back.

"Sir, what I am about to say might be impertinent..."

The Captain passed his hand over his forehead. "Well, it wouldn't be the first time!" He muttered.

Drew ignored him. "...but ask yourself, Sir, if you had received that letter, back in the days when you were serving Captain Kent, whom you speak so highly of, what, Sir, would you have done?"

And with that parting shot, Drew sensed he'd be best off escaping into the relative safety of his own berth.

***

I was on watch early, by choice. As I was not sleeping anyway, I saw no reason to remain restless down in my cabin. I should hate to wake Archie (who seemed to be enjoying a good night's sleep for once) with my tossing and turning. So I watched the sun dawn pale over the horizon, and tried again to find joy in the thought of returning to Gibraltar. I could not.

"Good morning, Hornblower." Mr. Bowles called out gaily. I effected a smile. "A fine day for sailing, it is; we shall see Gibraltar by evening."

"I never doubted you, Sir!" I said, forcing a jovial tone. Bowles, as gifted as he is at judging a shifting wind or a foul current, is not so good at picking up on the nature of men, and he did not note my own evident discontent. Anderson, Midshipman of the watch, DID cast a quick glance at me. HE has picked up on my tone and my mood. And I was able to distance myself from my worries and be pleased about that; pleased that he was showing that kind of intuition. It bodes well for his future as a leader.

Bowles ambled away, casting an ecstatic glance at the sky. I settled in next to Anderson, and tried to lose myself in the motion of the ship, the way she cut through the water, the adjustments made as needed. But it would not happen.

Anderson was too smart to speak to me. He knows, well enough, that a superior officer in a mood is best left alone, even if I do not have a reputation as a tyrant. I breathed the sea air deeply, trying to clear my pain and sorrow. I do not know, in truth, where I am going from here.

I was so lost in my own thoughts that I never heard Captain Pellew approaching until he spoke.

"Mr. Anderson, how goes the watch?" He said, tersely.

"Uneventfully, Sir. Mr. Bowles feels we shall be in Gibraltar before day's end." He answered, quickly.

There were several quiet, uncomfortable moments. It was not my place to speak first, the Captain did not address me, and Anderson sensed the tension. I felt him glance from me, to the Captain, and I distinctly could hear him swallow, hard. Poor lad!

"Mr. Anderson." The Captain intoned deeply. "You are relieved of this watch. I request you to attend Mr. Brandon and assist him in creating a list of supplies for sick berth, so we may obtain them speedily on arrival in port."

"I..." The confusion danced over his face. The Captain's profile remained immobile, and he did not turn. And Anderson knew better than to question an order, especially as it would remove him for what was an obviously uncomfortable situation. "Aye, Aye, Sir." He saluted smartly, and hurried away as fast as he could do without arousing comment.

The silence continued. If I were to walk away...even though I am not officially on watch and could theoretically do so...that would be cowardice. But I could not help but wish for the deck to open up and swallow me. Or even better, the welcome diversion of a distant sail, especially an enemy one. Anything but this stony silence.

"Lieutenant Hornblower." He began, finally. I felt a slight relief in knowing he really did not mean to ignore me for the rest of my service with him. "Sir?" I answered, my voice devoid of emotion. At least I hope it is!

"Do you remember, Sir, a few years back, when we had the good fortune to run into Captain Foster after he had wrecked yet another ship?"

How could I forget that meeting and everything that came of it? "Of course, Sir."

"After our...er...volatile dinner...you were gracious enough to offer me an apology because you believed you'd offended me." I could feel my face grow warm with the memory, but he swept on. "It is my turn now to offer an apology to you, Sir."

Only the greatest restraint kept my mouth from falling wide open. "Sir...there is no need..."

"Yes, there is, Hornblower. Although I stand by my feelings of frustration that you did not take Hood's offer, I must apologize for my method of address to you. It was unnecessarily harsh. You have always been an exemplary officer and a loyal one, as well, and you deserved better."

I felt my throat constrict, and I had to take a very deep breath before I trusted myself to speak. "Your apology is...noted, Sir." I cast a quick glance at him beside me.

He actually gave a tight smile then, actually getting my sense of humor for once. His eyes still on the horizon, he gave me a little "humph" before continuing. "Mind you, I do not retract that I am sorry you have not been promoted."

"Of course not, Sir." I answered, more easily.

"Doubtless you have once again martyred yourself on Mr. Kennedy's behalf. Protecting him from the agony of being my first lieutenant."

I played back gently, feigning seriousness. "After all, Sir, I do owe him my life; it would have been cruel to turn down a chance at saving his neck." I quipped back.

"Well, Sir, as you have mentioned necks, I feel I should tell you, if you ever do something so foolish again, I will be forced to wring yours myself." His mouth set into a fine line, with but a tiny quirk at the corner of his lips.

I had to smile then. "Understood, Sir."

We remained in companionable quiet together above decks. Our professional formality returned, but this time with an undercurrent of good will. "An uneventful return to Gibraltar." He said, with a deep breath and a faint twinkle in his eye.

"Thankfully so, Sir, after our departure." I replied, with a shiver. Indeed, our trip to England was almost enough to make me wish to never have to sail there again!

"Well, contrary to what is commonly thought, I guess there is SOME rest for the wicked." His mouth upturned slightly again. Footsteps approached, and I looked down, surprised and amused (we both were amused, I think) by the sudden appearance of Drew above decks. The boy came at a barely masked run, his uniform untidy, obviously he had dressed hastily. Anderson! The Captain had send Anderson down to Drew under a pretext to speak with me alone; no doubt the boy had explained to Drew exactly why he'd been relieved of duty and sent on a nonsense project. Breathless, our young friend pulled up before us, and looked both of us over, from one to the other.

"Is something amiss, Mr. Brandon?" The Captain asked, sounding surprised to see him here.

"I...no, Sir. Good morning. Good morning, Mr. Hornblower." He was puzzled.

"Good morning, Lieutenant Brandon. Good to see you above decks." We both pretended to have no clue why he was here. Yes, indeed-- Anderson, leaving what he saw as a strained situation, had alerted Drew-he being the only person on board with a shot at controlling us both. And, bless him, the young man had scurried forth to try and save us from ourselves.

Only, of course, there wasn't anything to save us from!

Fully displaying his turn of mood, the Captain was not above having a little sport, either. "You must have dressed yourself in the dark, Lieutenant. Else you slept in your uniform. Look how untidy his neck-tie is, Mr. Hornblower! I should have expected him to make a better appearance than this." His voice was the same wry expression he had once used to bait me over my own clothing.

"Indeed, Sir." I said, not really wanting to torment Drew, but glad that the Captain was in a mood to tease. "One must chalk it up to our proximity to Gibraltar. He seems to have lost his head with the thought of our return. I wonder why?"

Drew blushed, but crossed his arms behind his back, jutted his chin out, and returned fire with remarkable aplomb. "Perhaps I have, Sir. Mr. Hornblower would know about that as much as I would, if not more." He then gave the Captain a very sweet smile. "By the way, Sir, how is your headache this morning?" Eyebrows arched, his eyes sparkled even as the Captain blinked down at him.

"Ahem." Captain Pellew paused before answering, and was saved from any further reply by the appearance of Lieutenant Cousins above decks; this watch was over.

"Impeccable timing, Mr. Cousins. I turn the reigns over to you. I've wasted enough time waiting for my coffee." And he exhaled happily.

"Sir?" Reg looked thoroughly and utterly puzzled. The Captain quickly made his escape, Drew just shrugged at his friend, and I was too relieved by the turn of my morning to say anything else as an explanation.

Taking up his position, I gave Reg a brief run-down on the ship. He took everything in, and then finally got up the courage to ask, "This may sound a silly question, but what have you done with poor Anderson?"

"Captain Pellew had another errand for him, Mr. Cousins." I soothed.

Reg sensed we weren't going to further enlighten him, and with a barely perceptible shake of his head, he sighed and turned his attention to the ship, and Drew and I fell into step with each other as we headed away. I marveled at my escape from the Captain's censure, remembering his terse mood and obvious disappointment in me when I'd left his cabin last night. "What did you say to Captain Pellew last night, Drew?" I asked softly.

"That feverfew would do better than willow bark." He answered evasively. But he did smile.

I was prevented by further taxing him on his tactics when we were interrupted by Archie. Not interrupted, actually, but distracted. My good friend, looking morose and lost, was by the rail, staring helplessly at the horizon. Drew paused in his step, and then nudged me to follow him, which I did.

Archie turned briefly to face us. "Good morning, Gentlemen." But he didn't sound as though there were anything good about it. His blue eyes, pale with sorrow, returned to gaze down at the gently swelling water.

"Archie..." Drew began, glancing at me sharply, his eyes imploring something I did not understand. "Archie, there is something I feel I must tell you. I wasn't certain that I should, but I've discussed it with Horatio, and he agrees..."

He had? When? How did I miss it? Taking a deep breath, Drew forged ahead. "...About the baby, Archie..." And suddenly he set his shoulders, took up his stance, and met my friend's pained face with a forceful stare. "...The baby would have been healthy, Archie, but it was growing wrong, and if Alicia had not miscarried, she would have died in childbirth."

WHAT? Archie's face had paled, and he turned to Drew and grasped him by his shoulders. "How so? How might we have prevented it?"

"It is a million to one occurrence, Archie. The baby was placed wrong in her body, and her body sensed the problem, and that is why she lost it. It is not likely to happen again, and there is absolutely no reason that the next time she is with child, she cannot safely carry to term."

Archie stared, and then let his hands drop to his body, mouth agape. One hand lifted to his mouth, and rubbed his chin. "I...could have lost her?" He whispered.

"Nature took the best course in this case, Archie." Drew said, easing from his insistent, professional tone. "After all, I AM a doctor. I do know these things."

"And it was not our fault? We could not have prevented it?"

"It was nobody's fault, Archie. It just happened." Inhaling, he placed a hand on Archie's arm. "Let it go. She needs you to be strong, right now, even from a distance." Giving his body a little shake, Archie, some spark returning to his eyes, pulled himself together.

"Of course, of course...I must write her...let her know...what shall I let her know?"

I chimed in here. "I think it is enough to let her know that you love her, Archie."

"Yes, yes...you are right." With a quick nod, he turned away. "At once, of course." And he hurried off.

Drew watched him go, his face twisting in uncertainty only when he was confident that Archie could not see him. "I hope I was right to do that, Horatio."

"I take it is NOT true?" Drew was not known for his acting ability. He looked at me, eyes wide.

"Horatio, how could I know? When I got to my sister, all I was concerned about was not having her bleed to death! And she was only just three months along, I could not even tell what was child and what was...oh, God, Horatio, it was terrible!" He paled, and nearly wretched; I held my hand out to steady him. I hadn't really given scope to how horrifying this must have been for him, and I rubbed his arm gently.

"I think you did the right thing, Drew. Archie was wallowing in agony, he blamed himself. He would have kept right on brooding about it, too." I watched the color return to his face slowly.

"Pray to God, then, that she does not miscarry the next time, for then Archie will never believe another word I say." He began to walk again, and I also resumed my pace.

"Care for some coffee, Horatio? Sick berth is peaceful right now, and it will be quiet there."

"I would be glad to join you." And I smiled to myself, thinking that my father would have had a good laugh. After all, it was I who had been insistent on wanting to be a doctor, who rhapsodized about how life would be on board ship, traveling to distant lands. Yet now, I often find the surgery to be my oasis of choice!

***

April 4th

 

 

Captain Sir Edward Pellew sat before Admiral Hale, and waited for the world to be dropped on top of him. Hale was a close friend of Hood's, a stupider version of the most duplicitous officer Pellew'd ever had to deal with. Hale and Hood both had been humiliated by his recent exploits; nearly turning over the Indefatigable and the Dunbarton to a rogue, to be sold to the enemy. When Pellew had foiled the pirate's attempted coup, he'd known that somehow both of these Admirals would regard it as impertinence.

Add to that Hornblower's direct insult to Hood (however much deserved, Pellew thought with a smile inside his mind) and he had a feeling he was about to be saddled with the least desirable, most dangerous, and probably most futile mission that Hale could dream of.

*Fortunately*, Pellew thought, again fighting that inward grin, *I do not place high value on his imagination.*

Hale was trying to get under his skin now. He shifted papers on his untidy desk, took bites of some crumbly pastry that dribbled over his shirt, took pains to brush away the wayward crumbs, sipped his tea, cleared his throat, shuffled more papers, dripped jam on one of them, cursed, called his aide, made him clean the mess, coughed laboriously, spat noisily into his kerchief, handed the soiled linen to the same unfortunate aide, and then waved the man off.

At long last, he lifted his eyes to Pellew, who remained immobile and expectant.

"So you made it back, eh?" He worked his jaw in exasperation. "Remarkable, you taking care of that pirate. Bet it made quite a splash back in England."

"I was fortunate, Admiral." He said, smoothly. "I have good men behind me."

"Hm. Hornblower still with you, then?" Hale's eyes were flinty cold.

Pellew felt his shoulders tighten. "Yes, Lt. Hornblower remains in my service."

"Well, you wouldn't be the first captain to want to hold on to a good man, rather than let him go." Pellew fumed but declined to answer. "I assume that it was Hornblower who performed so valiantly on Serenity?"

"No Sir, though his performance WAS impeccable. It was Acting Lieutenant Cousins serving there."

Those bushy eyebrows arched, and his wrinkled face creased into a deep frown. "You sent an ACTING Lieutenant on this duty? To prevent Mr. Hornblower's greater glory, no doubt!"

Pellew took a deep breath, and counted to five. "In fact, Sir, we were in a situation where it was necessary to not send somebody who had their commission, and Mr. Hornblower recommended Mr. Cousins specifically."

Hale's frown deepened. "You have two acting Lieutenants, do you not? Loes Exton's son is an Acting Lieutenant also?"

"Yes, he is." Captain Pellew feared he knew where this was leading.

"So why, for the love of God, did you not send him? The son of a Lord ought to be given greater consideration than some poor street waif."

He was aghast at the thought of placing Drew on that barge; it was hard enough to see the strong Cousins suffer so. But the insult to the fine young man was not to be borne! "I beg your pardon Sir, but Mr. Cousins is hardly a street waif. He comes from a respectable, land-owning family..."

"Bah!" He snapped. "We'll see where breeding tells soon enough."

"I..." What the devil did that mean? "Sir?"

"An examination for Lieutenant is happening at the end of this month. I expect you will send forward both young men?"

"Naturally, Sir." Damn! He had hoped to give them longer to hone their skills.

"Good enough." Hale coughed again, and, in absence of a fresh kerchief, spat into a receptacle in the corner. "Captain Hammond is coming in to port soon."

"Is he?" Pellew tried to keep confusion out of his voice. "I'm glad to hear it."

Hale's stare was withering. "Perhaps you are unaware that his ship, from all reports, was decimated in a skirmish he fought in the Mediterranean. Hammond was fighting valiantly while you were off on your little pleasure cruise."

Pleasure Cruise? DAMN THIS MAN TO HELL! "I am..." He said through clenched teeth. "...sorry...for any losses Captain Hammond sustained."

"He should be in within the week, and then we shall start effecting repairs to Calypso, but I must say, it is not at all certain she can be salvaged. In which event, Hammond will be given command of the Grey Goose."

"A fine ship. I saw her at dock in Plymouth." A seventy-four gunner.

"Perhaps you are jealous? Certainly with all your recent acclaim, a mere frigate must seem almost an insult."

"I can assure you, the Indefatigable suits me fine."

"Ah, well, perhaps eventually Admiral Hood can find you something better." He smiled in a rather oily manner. "However, once Captain Hammond arrives, and after we go through any necessary paperwork, he will need transportation."

Dear God, don't say it! Captain Pellew begged in his mind.

"...And as you have become quite efficient at making that run to England..."

Oh, Lord!

"...it seems you would be the man best suited to seeing him back to Portsmouth. I would hope that Admiral Parker would humor me in this."

"Naturally, Sir."

DAMN, DAMN, DAMN.

This then, was his punishment. For presuming to survive an impossible situation, for attracting a loyal and skilled crew, for behaving in the best interest of the men, because it WAS ALSO in the best interest of the Navy. To be forced to make that run again, and with HAMMOND, of all people. HAMMOND, in all of his pomposity and arrogance, on his ship, with his men.

Good God, Hammond on the same ship as poor Mr. Cousins, whom Hammond had given such a hard time to. Could not the young man get ANY breaks!

"Now, there is the question of what to do with you until then. I believe, with Admiral Parker's permission, there's another service you can provide for us..."

Captain Pellew swallowed hard. What else was coming?

"Your old friend Mr. Tapling is here. We are set for another return to Oran, with a supply ship; though the convoys have been getting though, I believe it never hurts to be prepared. You shall be his escort. Do try and keep your men disease free this time."

Through clenched teeth, his fist aching, Captain Pellew managed a, "I would be only too willing to be of assistance, Sir."

And Damn you to hell.

***
It would not have taken a genius to see that Captain Pellew was not in the best of moods as he was piped back on board the Indefatigable. For me, as a man who's served with him for so many years, I could almost feel the anger radiating off of him like the summer sun on the Spanish beaches I used to walk.

I could feel the pairs of eyes on me. All the men, waiting to see how I would react to the Captain's mood. Bracegirdle had always had such a knack for letting his anger simmer away rather than boil over...slowly, the safest way. I only hope I can live up to his example!

"Welcome back, Sir." I did not need to ask if the meeting at admiralty was fruitful...his scowl and dark brow told me it certainly had not been. Or at least, it certainly had borne fruit of only the most bitter variety.

"Lieutenant Hornblower!" He saluted, then turned his dark, angry eyes over the ship. I swallowed my nervousness...there is not a thing wrong with her, and I know it, but suddenly I fear him finding even the faintest fault. "I wish to speak with you in my cabin, if you please, in half an hour."

"Of course, Sir!" I said, smoothly, while inside my stomach turned to jelly.

He nodded, looked around again, and then began to move away. And just when we began to collectively breathe again, he pulled up short. "Mr. Cousins!" He snapped, forcefully.

"Sir?" He said, his color draining.

"Mr. Brandon!" The Captain snapped once more.

"Yes, Sir!" Drew forced his worried eyes from Reg, forward to the Captain.

"I expect to see the BOTH of you in my cabin in half an hour as well, if you please. Do not be late."

"Of course not, Sir...Aye, Aye, Sir." Their words tumbled over each other's.

"Harumph." And moving briskly away, I though I heard him say "England."

Oh, Dear.

***
Drew, Reg and I arrived at the door at the same time, and the three of us hesitated. The marine on guard looked awed and cowed himself, no doubt having just seen the worst of Captain Pellew he could ever imagine. Drew, calling up reserves of courage I can only wonder at, was the first to step forward.

Naturally, the Captain flung the door open. "Gentlemen, do not just stand there dawdling. Get in here AT ONCE!

"Sorry, Sir." Drew said, looking a little sheepish.

We arranged ourselves before his table, and waited.

His back was to us at first, as he tossed documents on to the desk, and then folded his arms neatly behind his back. Lifting his head slowly, he looked us over, and I tried hard not to squirm. Raising his eyebrows, he finally spoke.

"Mr. Cousins, Mr. Brandon. There is an examination for Lieutenant on May the first in Gibraltar. You will be expected to present yourself, I am granting my permission for you to do so."

Reg's face relaxed somewhat. Drew's got paler. "Thank you, Sir." Cousins replied.

"Do not THANK me, Mr. Cousins. This is not a gift; the examination will not be easy, as no doubt Mr. Hornblower can attest to..."

I felt my cheeks get warm.

"...and you had best not expect to cruise through it. I would hope to see the both of you...YES, THE BOTH OF YOU, MR. BRANDON...well prepared for it. Every spare moment ought to be spent in study, if you plan on passing."

"Of course, Sir." Reg said, more subdued. Drew could not find his voice, which was just as well. His habit of bluntness, long admired, was NOT what the Captain needed now.

"It goes without saying that I am expecting you to pass this test. I do not want to end up with some tired retread of a Lieutenant assigned here because my midshipman cannot cut the grade." He cleared his throat, and then looked down. "You two are dismissed."

"Aye, Aye, Sir." Reg said, and he steered a wide-eyed and ashen friend out the door behind him.

I waited for him to address me. At least I knew he was not sending me off to an exam. One which, in fact, I have never passed.

"Mr. Hornblower." He said, finally.

"Sir."

"It is my privilege to inform you that we shall be receiving a call from an old friend of yours?"

"A friend, Sir?"

"Yes, Hornblower, a friend, you do have a few of those, don't you? This particular friend is Mr. Tapling, still of the diplomatic services."

"Oh." Ignoring his barb, I remembered Tapling-a rather rotund, officious bureaucrat who in the end I was able to find tolerable. Not a bad sort, though he was pretty pompous. Still, I doubt if the Captain had any fond memories of that entire escapade, and so I did not seek to defend Tapling's personality. "Why is he visiting, if I may ask, Sir?"

"He's not VISITING, Hornblower, members of the Diplomatic service do not visit. He's on duty, and we're to help him return to Oran to load up another blasted supply ship, though Hale as good as admitted to me that there is no real need."

"I see, Sir." I took a deep breath. "Are we certain that Oran is safe now?"

"As safe as such a god-forsaken place could ever be." He tapped his log book with one finger. "We depart in three day's time. Hopefully the trip shall be a short one. Once returned to Gibraltar, that should give both of our young Lieutenants time to study."

"Of course, Sir."

"I expect you will help them. Particularly Mr. Brandon, as I believe he is hell-bent on failing it."

"I will encourage him as much as I can." I promised. He sighed deeply, and I recognized the anger fading from rage into disgust.

"He will need the help. He has not had anywhere near the practical experience Mr. Cousins has had, and will be nervous."

"Still...you WANT him to pass, Sir?" I knew my own feelings on the subject, but I wanted to hear his, enough to risk his wrath with an extra question.

He, bless him, actually gave me a tired smile, and to my shock, began to pour us both glasses of brandy! "I confess I do." He handed me the snifter. "For starters, it will ensure him a certain amount of autonomy from his father. Once commissioned, Exton would have a hard time just dragging him off the ship. And second...because he CAN, you know."

"I agree." I almost smiled, and I raised my glass. "Here is to Lieutenant Brandon and Lieutenant Cousins, then; good luck and good fortune."

He raised his own glass, and took a sip, and waited for me to sip my own, before he went on.

"You'll need that brandy, Hornblower, before I tell you the rest of our orders."

I took one look at his face. Oh, my. This is not going to be pretty, is it?

I drained the glass in one shot and waited for him to give me the bad news.

***

April 5th

 

 

Drew and I together made our way through the streets of Gibraltar, in what was a gift of kindness from the Captain...an afternoon to call on our ladies. Mr. Tapling would be on board sometime tomorrow, and by dawn on the seventh we would sail for Oran. The Captain had requested Mr. Cousins take charge of the landing there, and the young man was quietly beside himself, not so much with anxiety as an erstwhile desire for perfection.

Reg had quizzed me at length about my own assistance of Mr. Tapling on our last trip to Oran. Any anxiety he does feel now will no doubt be of my own causing, as the strongest recommendation I could give him was that to be quarantined on a ship of your own command as a precaution against the black plague was about the worst method of preparing for an exam that I could think of.

He had stared at me. "But you DID pass, Mr. Hornblower!"

No, in fact, I had not, a fact he had never really understood until I explained it to him in detail last evening. I think I meant to put him to ease by proving that I am not perfect, and even I (I know full well the somewhat misplaced admiration he has for me) am capable of looking like a stumbling idiot in front of three Captains, particularly when one of them was Foster. Unfortunately, the plan backfired, and from the look on his face, I read his thoughts all too clearly: "Good God, if Horatio could not pass, what chance have *I* got?"

Well, he had the advantage of having several people to hand more than willing to assist him in his studies. I had Bracegirdle, but we were so lamentably short-staffed at the time, and in the midst of a crisis to boot, that he could not have helped me as much as he would no doubt have liked to. And, of course, I was rather reticent to ask for help. What a strange young man I had been, and can that really only have been a few years ago?

The crunch of the gravel beneath my feet brought me back to the reality of the moment. I was nervous to see Angelina, to see if she still cared for me (her letters indicated that was so, but I am still nervous in any event). Drew was no doubt thinking of Violet, as well, but a look down at his face and I realized he had more problems than his developing love life.

"Worried about the exam, Drew?" I asked, as off-handed as I could.

"He expects me to PASS, Horatio. I had not thought he would." He didn't look at me, but kept those still-stunned eyes on the road before him.

I understand the underlying problem here. Drew's life revolved around approval of others, particularly the Captain. Without meaning to, Captain Pellew had just placed a huge burden on Drew's shoulders. If the Captain expected him to pass, then to his mind failure was not an option.

He went on to admit as much. "I've never let him down before."

I considered saying something like "then I suggest you not start now." That is what Archie might have said to me, with a little grin on his face. But I am not Archie, and I fear the jest would fall flat. So I was as honest as I could be.

"It would not let the Captain down to fail, Drew. It would let the Captain down to not try." I wondered how much of the conversation from last night I should repeat to him, and decided that it was better for his sanity, all in all, that I NOT bring up his father. "The Captain does believe you are Capable of passing, you know. But it is also a matter of luck, the composition of the exam board, the time of day you meet with them, whether or not their lunch agreed with their stomach, even." I tried to make light of it.

He did manage a smile, then. "Perhaps I should bring some extract of ginger with me to dose them all before I appear." His smile widened slightly. "And, of course, there is always all that Laudanum that I try to avoid using."

"That's the spirit!" I encouraged. "Play to your strengths."

"Well, I cannot conjure up a fire ship. That one's been done."

I smiled in return, my good humor restored. For it was a sunny day, full of the warmth of spring, I am in love, and I have a family of shipmates around me.

"We're lucky our orders weren't worse than a trip to Oran, from the Captain's mood." It was perhaps more of a question than a comment; he guessed, being bright, that there must be more to the situation. And my worries returned.

Back to England. I could not tell him that. Not yet, not until the exam was over at least. We all would have our objections to the trip, though perhaps not Archie, who would love to see Alicia again. But for Drew, it meant the risk of encountering his father, and for me and the Captain, given our past attempts at this arduous sail, we had become almost superstitious about this journey. Granted, this time it would be by way of Madeira and Oporto, mirroring our trip out. And we did not have a parasite in tow.

Unless you counted Captain Hammond, of course.

Remembering the Captain's concerns, which had been stated but not explained, I asked rather abruptly, "What passed between Captain Hammond and Reg, Drew?"

He looked at me, his brows drawn down and his mouth in a tight frown. "Hammond? However did his name enter your mind, Horatio?"

I had to think of a reason, fast. "He was on my exam board, Drew; that is what made me think of him. I have heard rumors of a run-in when I was in Spain."

Drew shrugged. "I don't know that run-in is the way to put it. When one of you is Captain and the other Midshipman, it's pretty obvious who shall loose out."

"He seemed a rather harmless old fool." I said to encourage him, casting a look around making certain that now was not the time for a wayward Admiral or Captain to overhear my conversation.

"Harmless?" Drew snorted derisively. "He came on board when Captain Pellew was shot. You know the circumstances, I believe?"

"I do. Hove to and repairing a broken mast, the prisoner DeVergess got a shot off at the Captain, and Mr. Cousins blew his head off."

"Pretty much. Anyway, you know how the mizzen mast got broken, right? That it had been Reg's mistake?"

"Yes, and the Captain was forced to have him punished for it." I said, hoping not to bring up disturbing images to Drew's mind.

"Well, that had been just the evening before. You know Reg. He was much harder on himself than the Captain ever could be, and if he slept a wink I'd be surprised. Then, he had watch early the next day, and the weather was torrential. Driving, freezing rain, the sort that numbs you through. Well, DeVergess took his shot, chaos loomed, and with our shortage of men, Reg ended up holding the deck through the next three watches, pretty much."

"Good God, that is not human." I whispered, never having understood what exactly had transpired that day.

"It is more than the watches, though. He oversaw the repair of the mast, organized the men, re-arranged people as necessary due to the weather and the work...he was functioning as Captain, more or less--and getting it all done. But he was doing it exhausted, and was near collapse by the time the sun set. Powers brought him some food, and he sat to eat for maybe five minutes, and Hammond found him."

I could not understand. "What do you mean, Hammond 'found him'? Surely he could not have objected to Reg's need for rest after everything he'd been through, not to mention saving the Captain's life?"

"Object? Horatio, he wanted him caned 36 times for it." I gaped. "Andrews refused, and Hammond proceeded to verbally tear them both to shreds. Not that Andrews gave a damn what Hammond said about HIM, but Reg was cut to the bone."

"But what happened?"

"Lieutenant Bracegirdle happened. He saved Reg, soothed Hammond, got him off the ship, and got Reg to sick berth, which by that point was where he belonged. I think the Captain found out about it FROM Hammond, which really mortified Reg, but you know the Captain well enough to understand he was not amused by Hammond's posturing. Anyway, that's it. Whenever Hammond's name comes up, Reg gets pale and withdrawn." Drew exhaled. "I think, perhaps, that it was the first time in his life he had ever come up against a true bully...at least, until Serenity. It would have been better if it had happened to ME."

"It should never happen to either of you." I firmly interjected. But I could finally understand all the reasons the Captain was annoyed at having to ferry Hammond back to England. Well, I am full capable of keeping an eye on things, I hope, and with any luck the trip, for once, really will be an easy sail.

Our serious discussion was brought to a close as we reached the dress shop. Violet and Angelina both were there, standing on the stairs, awaiting us patiently, expectantly. For a moment all four of us were silent, and then drawing a deep breath Drew extended his arm.

"Miss Violet." He said, gently. "Might you care to join me on a walk?"

I suppose it is highly improper for me to allow the two of them to do that. And yet, as badly as they would wish to walk together, was as badly as I should wish to be alone with Angelina. I gave Drew what I hoped was a stern, brotherly look. "I expect no reports of anything indecorous, Mr. Brandon."

He gave me his most impertinent grin in return. "Likewise, Mr. Hornblower. Likewise." She took his arm, with a faint blush, and they set off towards the gardens, in full view of the world.

Not so I. Turning my gaze to Angelina, she has only grown more beautiful by her absence. She smiled, tremblingly at me, and held out her hand in much the same manner Drew had used with Violet.

"Your shirts are ready, Horatio. Perhaps you would care to try them on?"

I found myself smiling and growing red at the same moment. "I thank you, Angelina. I suppose I shall have to."

I took her extended arm and allowed her to lead me into the shop. And as she closed the door behind me, she purposely moved the shop sign to "closed." I had to remind myself to keep breathing.

She turned back to me uncertainly, and we hesitated but a moment, and then, with more need just for her touch that I had ever believed possible, I held my arms out to her, and she ran forward into my embrace.

"My dearest..." I murmured, shakily, into her glorious rich brown hair. "I cannot even begin to explain how much I have missed you, how much I feared that after this time, you would no longer care for me..."

"Horatio..." She lifted her head up to look at me. "If you do not kiss me, I think I shall die."

My lips sought hers, their flavor more sweet than I had remembered. I wove my hands tightly around her dress, permitting myself to be more bold than I could have ever dreamed. Of course, it was not her I touched; there was more fabric between my hands and her flesh than in the bolts around me. Or so it seemed at the moment. But just the thought of her skin, of being able to someday caress it, was enough to drive me man, and I kissed her with renewed vigor.

She slid her own hand over my chest, inside my coat and against my shirt, encouraging my continued caress. I wondered if she were as frustrated as I was, if she felt the same heat just from my presence, as I do from her? I know so little of women, really. And yet, all I want to know is about THIS one, what makes her happy, that I might perpetuate it; what makes her sad, that I might make it go away. And how to keep making her make those delicious little noises that she is making now...

Suddenly aware of just how improper I was being, though I am not certain that either of us cared, I backed away, reluctantly. She sighed. "We are nearly out of control, Angelina. Forgive me."

"Forgive ME, Horatio, for I do believe I was your equal in that display." She looked at me archly.

I smiled broadly. "More than my equal, in fact." I suddenly remembered, and pulled a little package from my jacket. "This, by the way, is for you...from a little place by the name of Newton's Abbot."

She smiled, and then cast her eyes and their fine lashes up to my face. "Your letters were gift enough, Horatio." But still, she accepted the package, and opened it without difficulty. The tortoiseshell comb rested there, and she gave a slight gasp of delight. "Oh, Horatio, it is beautiful." And then, tilting her head to one side, she unbuttoned my jacket.

"Angelina!" I gasped, as she did not cease this unexpected behavior. For with certain, and skilled hands, she set to work on my waistcoat. Of course, I made no move to stop her, I only closed my eyes, and let her do as she pleased. My neck tie was soon also discarded, and I stood before her feeling almost naked, though I was still far from it.

I felt her stand on tip-toes, leaning against me, and reaching up to whisper in my ear. "Do you want YOUR present now?" My eyes opened wide, and she smiled. "Your SHIRTS, Horatio!"

Oh, of course. "Yes, thank you. You did not have to do this, you know."

"I am an adult woman, Horatio. I do as I wish. THIS is what I wished." She tugged at my arm, and lead me towards the back room.

I lifted the first shirt before me. OH! It was fine, indeed, a rich silk, a dress shirt the likes of which I had never thought I should own in my life. There was another like it, plus two more shirts of a very fine muslin, more for daily wear. I did not know which one to try, first. I looked at her, and felt tears in my eyes, not just at the generosity of her gift, but in knowing how much I must have been in her thoughts all these past nights, when she would be alone and sewing diligently shirts for her man. For me.

"Oh, Horatio!" Coming forward, she kissed my wet cheek, and then my nose, and then again my lips. "Horatio, do not leave me yet."

"I am not going anywhere for several hours." I murmured, confused.

"I...I..." She turned almost painfully red, and turned away from me. "Forgive me for what I am about to say, but, Horatio, I WANT you. I love you, and I do not want you to leave me again for your ship, wondering if you should ever come back, without having known your love to completeness. There, I said it! If it makes me a wanton woman, so be it."

I reached out and grasped her shoulders, making her look back at me. "Angelina...I love you as well, and I want you also. But I am afraid...and what if there should be a child?" My words tumbled in confusion out of my lips, my mind trying desperately to over-ride my heart and my body.

"Then it would be our child, and it would be the highest achievement of my life." She looked at me with all sincerity. "Please, Horatio! Do not leave me again to the torture of all of these weeks when you are gone, to wonder what it would be like to have you touch me."

My mind was fighting a losing battle, I could sense it. And sometimes, when you know the battle is lost, it is better to surrender.

I took her in my arms again, this time not intending on letting her go. And propriety be damned.

***

We lay together, my own mind lost in the wonder of the difference between love with a woman you cared about, and that bizarre initiation rite that Cleveland and Hether had dragged me to so long ago.

"You must get dressed soon, Horatio. Drew will be back shortly." She sighed reluctantly, her hand resting tenderly on my chest.

"A few moments more, perhaps. I want to commit this feeling to memory." I kissed the top of her head. "I cannot believe that you love me as much as I love you. A most unexpected development."

She laughed, a light, musical sound that pleased my ears. "And Horatio Hornblower is normally so good about planning for everything." She leaned up, grinning down at me. "I loved you when you left. But with every letter you sent me, Horatio, I loved you even more."

"From THOSE letters?" I was damned near shocked now. "They were largely a list of worries and fears, Angelina! I cannot believe you found them romantic!"

"What could be more so? For a man, such as you, to take the risk of sharing what were your deepest fears and hopes with me? Could you have offered me any greater gift than your trust? I know you too well, Horatio, for in you I see myself. You have trusted me." She kissed me softly. "And now I have trusted you. See, now you must come back to me, society dictates it." And she rose with a laugh, clasping the sheet around her and leaving me exposed.

Strangely, I am not embarrassed at all. If she wished me to make a show of redressing, I would, and I rose before her. "Are you playing valet, my lady? If so, kindly hand me one of those lovely shirts."

With a curtsey, she reached to do so. And as I expected, this left her sheet vulnerable, and I gave it a slight tug.

"Horatio!" She giggled, for it pooled to the floor.

"We are equals, now." I walked towards her and embraced her. "Equals in love, equals in mind, equals in spirit." And kissing her once more, I murmured, "And partners for life."

***
I was fully clothed and totally decorous as Drew and Violet approached us. He bent to kiss her hand, something that gave her no small pleasure, from the look of it. In a fit of whimsy, I did the same.

Angelina betrayed nothing. "Lieutenant Hornblower. Godspeed you, Sir, and return to Gibraltar safely."

"As you wish, Signora. As you wish."

I said nothing further, and Drew and I began our return to the ship; I have a decided spring in my step. I could feel him looking at me curiously, but either he is still very young for his age, or he is too much the gentlemen to question me closely. I am, at this moment, infinitely glad to be no longer sixteen.

But I am not entirely sanguine. There is still Archie to face.

***
"Spill it, Horatio!"

Archie had finally gotten me alone, in our Cabin, and had the chance to ask what had no doubt been foremost in his mind since I returned from my afternoon in Gibraltar.

"I do not understand the question, Archie." I said, purposely playing obtuse. "I am not generally clumsy, at least not since my early days in service, and do not often spill things."

He threw his pillow at me. I took advantage by adding it to my own meager tuft, and placing them both behind my back. "Much better, Archie, I thank you."

"You..." He shook his finger at me. "My God, Horatio...did you...did you...YOU DID, DIDN'T YOU!"

Were I a different man, I might be boastful, or might be able to play it off in a more nonchalant manner. Instead, I got very bashful about it...I couldn't even look him in the eye.

And sensing, perhaps, my sensitivity, Archie let up on the teasing. "You are happy, Horatio?" He said, kindly.

"I am...ecstatic." And I felt a grin steal over my face, a smile of wonderment.

"Lord, you really are, aren't you?" He shook his head at me. "I do not believe I have ever seen you this way, Horatio."

I felt, suddenly, that I needed to explain myself to him, lest he get the wrong idea. "It isn't just that we...made love, Archie." I sat up and leaned forward, my elbows on my knees. "It's everything. It's the fact that she understands me...Archie, she knows me better than I know myself. I can say anything at all to her; she can say anything to me, and yet sometimes neither of us need to say anything at all, and...oh, this doesn't make any sense!"

"It makes perfect sense." He replied, with a warm smile. "I understand it well. You've found a soul-mate, Horatio. That's a magical thing."

So this was how he'd been feeling all these past months, since he'd met Alicia. So powerful a connection that it changes your very fiber, your outlook on life. And I saw, also, how very much he must have been hurting since we'd left England. Should Angelina suffer, I would suffer three-fold on her behalf.

Looking into his face, behind his happiness for me, I could see he still suffers for Alicia, and for their loss. And I gave him the only gift I could.

"Archie, I am not supposed to tell you this..." My breath came faster as I realized I was about to violate a direct order. "But after our trip to Oran, it appears our next assignment shall include a return to England."

He blinked. "But we only just got back from there!"

"Do not ask me more, I beg of you!" I felt sweat pouring down my neck just at my little transgression of the rules. "It is not common knowledge yet, and not definite...I would never have told you if not for the fact that...well...I thought you should like to know." I stammered out.

And he smiled, again, warm and affectionate. "Lord, Horatio Hornblower in love AND breaking protocol within five minutes of each other. I am all astonishment." He reached out and touched my shoulder. "Thank you, Horatio. Nothing could please me more than a return to England. And I know what it cost you to tell me about it; it shall be our secret. You are a good friend."

And without even a slight change in expression, he reached behind me and stole his pillow back. "And a thief."

"Nonsense, you gave me that." I retorted, but was smiling as I threw myself down on the cot, and finally let myself relax...to dream, perhaps, of Angelina.

Pleasant thought, indeed.

***
Captain Pellew was on deck when I arrived the next morning. Mr. Cousins was overseeing the loading of our guest...and I wondered if the Captain's mood would be as foul as it was the first time we'd had to haul Tapling on board.

"Lieutenant Hornblower, I trust you are well this day." He said, all humor restored from his misadventures with Hale two days ago.

"Very well, Sir, thank you. Lieutenant Cousins is progressing well with Mr. Tapling, I see."

"Yes, I can hardly even hear the man complain. It would seem that Mr. Cousins is more adept at handling a grapple than you are."

"Quite possibly, Sir." I admitted, refusing to be baited.

"The other option being that Mr. Tapling has lost some weight, of course."

I remembered the rotund diplomat's frank appreciation for fine food and good wine, and replied, "Nothing would surprise me more, Sir. But perhaps he has learned a touch of civility."

"Now THAT would surprise ME, Hornblower. Still, we shall have our answers soon enough, for it appears Mr. Cousins has hoisted him aboard."

I watched Cousins introduce himself, and saw, as he was helped out of his conveyance, that my supposition was correct...if anything, Tapling had grown rounder in the time since I'd seen him last. Reg made a slight bow, and then lead the man towards the quarterdeck.

"Captain Pellew, Sir, Mr. Tapling of the diplomatic service."

"We are acquainted, Mr. Cousins. You'd best work at clearing that mess on deck, so we can get under weigh in a timely fashion."

"Aye, Aye, Sir."

Tapling's bright eyes scanned the ship appreciatively, a far cry from the attitude he'd taken when I'd first met him.

"It is good to see you well, Captain Pellew, I must say, and Lieutenant Hornblower, I am pleased to further our acquaintance. I trust our voyage to Oran will be less eventful this time." He quipped, all three of his chins quivering in mirth.

"For all of our sakes, Mr. Tapling, I do hope so." My answer was fervent, and the Captain gave a little twitch, and Tapling turned his bright eyes on him.

"What of this boy Cousins who is to lead me? I trust he is as good at his job as Mr. Hornblower, here?"

It put the Captain, so sparse of praise in general, in a difficult position, as it would require that he either admit that I was good, or claim Cousins to be better. I decided to bail him out.

"Mr. Cousins is a very skilled Lieutenant, Mr. Tapling, and I have no doubt you will find him to be every bit as conscientious as I was." I answered quickly.

"My, how very very politic of you, Mr. Hornblower. You have indeed matured since last I saw you." He sighed deeply. "I trust my quarters are the same."

"Actually, we can offer you better at the moment. Your former quarters are in fact shared by Lieutenants Cousins and Brandon." Tapling would be housed instead in Lieutenant Bracegirdle's former cabin, which I had eschewed in favor of staying where I was.

"Well, that IS unexpected." He looked around the ship, and chuckled. "Would it be possible, Hornblower, for me to have a tour of your cooking areas?"

"Our what?" I asked, shock overcoming politeness.

"I am most intrigued by your kitchen situations, and besides, I am interested in renewing my acquaintance with your Steward, Clarke. Most educational, was my tour of duty on the Caroline."

The Captain looked at me, speechless. Perhaps he had not realized the extent of the change in Tapling during our plague-ship days. I confess, even I am surprised by his request. But we each shrugged, and I took the advantage of grabbing Mr. Cousins, fresh from giving orders to clear our equipment. "Mr. Cousins, it is time you and Mr. Tapling became better acquainted. Escort him to his quarters, and then, if you would, please give him a tour of our galleys."

Reg blinked, but he's far too good an officer to ever question me. "Aye, Aye, Mr. Hornblower. Mr. Tapling, if you would be so good as to follow..."

"Lead on MacDuff!" He chirped.

"Ah, Mr. Tapling..." The Captain called out. "It would be my honor to have you dine with me this evening. We shall have the other Lieutenants as well...Mr. Cousins, please alert Mr. Brandon and Mr. Kennedy."

"At once, Sir." Reg replied, brightening at the prospect of one of Powers' meals. The suggestion was pleasing to me, as well.

Once Tapling was out of earshot, the Captain made a little smile. "Not at all as bad as I'd remembered him. What exactly did you do to him on the Caroline?"

"You over-estimate me, Sir. I did not cause this change."

"Hmm." Was his only reply, as he looked across the deck. He noted some repair work going on. "Mr. Bowles seems quite taken with young Ward, I see."

I felt a particular pride in that. Bowles had Ward beside him now; the young man was making furious notes into a journal as our Master pointed out vagaries of the ship, things he should know. Like many men denied an early education, Ward has turned into a voracious student. And there is no subject that interests him so much as the Indefatigable. As that is Bowles' favorite subject to discuss, he is enthralled with the young man. And Ward, bless him, GETS IT. He is a natural with weather, with wind, and with sail. He is thriving here.

"A good match. Much better than McGill was." I felt a slight twinge at speaking ill of the dead, but it was the truth.

"Indeed. He's got a bright mind, Hornblower. And I have to confess, the fact that he originally served with Foster, and Foster rejected him, only adds to my mirth." He coughed once. "So...how was your trip into town yesterday?"

I could not look at him.

"I see." He replied, as if I had responded. And then, very smoothly, he went on, "Kitty will be most pleased."

I swallowed hard, but I felt a warmth in the pit of my stomach. It was as good as his saying that he approved, as well. "Thank you, Sir."

"Mmm, don't let it disrupt your performance." He added sternly.

"Naturally not." I quickly replied.

But it was a nice feeling, nonetheless, standing there, watching the ship's activities, next to the Captain. Soon, we'd be under weigh again, as we were meant to be, with the wind in the sails and the sun shining on the water. And I wondered if the Captain really was disappointed that I'd turned down that commission of Hale's. At the moment, I am not. I cannot think of anywhere else I'd rather be.

***
Dinner was an easy, relaxed affair. Fresh spring lamb (the Captain must have cajoled an extra favor out of Captain Harvey) with potatoes and peas, butter that was NOT rancid, and a fresh baking of bread. The wine flowed, and all around us were jolly, particularly Mr. Tapling.

He had spent much of the dinner questioning the Captain or Mr. Bowles about their gastronomical preferences. Archie, member of nobility that he is, was more than able to hold his own. I myself just sat there in amusement, as various ragouts and roasts were discussed. My time in Spain had convinced me that nothing was better than simple English food, if it's fresh and well prepared (a big "if" I concede). But then, I have simple tastes.

Reg and Drew were quietly enjoying their food, and, as befitted junior officers, were speaking only if spoken to. Reg would have time enough to converse with Tapling once we were in Oran, anyway. And my impression is they both hoped to be speedily away from their tables, and back to their studies.

The Captain was just beginning to provide port when Tapling hit us with most unexpected news.

It started unwittingly with Archie. He'd just been extolling his father's fine collection of vintage ports, and comparing them with others he'd had.

"You missed the '56 that he brought to my wedding, Mr. Tapling. A fine vintage it was. All the guests agreed that it was among the best they'd ever tasted."

Drew, in an unusual gesture from him, found humor in his own twisted life. "Even my father could not help but note its quality, and I can assure you, HE will drink anything." His smile was wry, and after a brief start, we all gave him encouraging looks. For him to have reached the point of emotional security where he could jest about his father's habits was progress indeed.

Tapling, of course, was not in on the joke, and fortunately noticed nothing strange in the exchange, except for one thing.

"Your father, Lieutenant Brandon? He was at Mr. Kennedy's wedding?"

"As Mr. Kennedy is married to my sister, Mr. Tapling, it seemed appropriate." Drew smiled even more confidently.

'Your sister, Mr. Brandon? I had not realized you were so well connected." Tapling, of course, was still enough of an aristocrat for it to be inconceivable to him that Mr. Kennedy would marry anyone not of the upper crust.

His confidence didn't waver. "My father, Mr. Tapling, is Lord Exton." I did catch him set his shoulders. One never knew how people would respond to that bit of information...Lord Exton had made enemies of more than just his children.

Tapling did, indeed react...his face became somber, a peculiar expression from him. And he looked with such explicit pity on Drew that I was surprised.

"My condolences then, Mr. Brandon. I assume it IS still Mr. Brandon...or do you have no elder brothers?"

Drew looked most puzzled. I myself assumed that the condolences were for Drew's misfortune of having an abusive drunken lout for a father. He, I believe, assumed the same. "I have four elder brothers, in fact. Why do you ask?"

"So I might address you properly, of course. Had you no elder brothers, you would then be Lord Exton."

The Captain dropped his fork with a clatter, and that was the last sound we heard in the cabin for several seconds, as we all began to understand what to Tapling was common knowledge.

Drew found his voice finally. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Tapling. I do not comprehend why I should be Lord Exton, even if I WERE first born?"

And Tapling realized, then; his chins quivered, his lip dropped in horror. "Oh, I say!" He spluttered. "My poor boy, can it be you have not been told?"

The Captain took things in hand. "I think it would be best, Mr. Tapling, if you just said the news plainly, if I am understanding you correctly."

"I was in Scotland...beastly country...when it happened. Day before I left. Lord Exton suffered apoplexy while waiting to board a ship for Plymouth."

Drew very deliberately folded his napkin. "Are you telling me, Sir, that my father, Lord Exton...formerly George William Brandon...is dead?" His voice was entirely devoid of emotion.

"Yes, he is. I saw it, I am afraid, with my own eyes. Dear me, I guess no letter has had time to reach you yet." Tapling looked mortified to be the messenger of such tragic news.

Was it tragic? I remember learning of my own dear father's death from a letter delivered ship-board, and the feeling of desolate devastation that ensued. But Lord Exton was NOT like my father, and Drew had not those feelings for him. But he was his father, still. I watched him closely.

"I see." Drew didn't blink, didn't waver. He took a drink of water, placed the goblet down, and looked over at the Captain. "I am sorry, Sir. I must ask to be excused."

"Certainly, Mr. Brandon; you are free to go." The Captain's face was filled with compassion, and yet none of us were certain what was best to do.

Drew rose, and without the slightest change in his demeanor, went out the door.

Reg's head spun around quickly, but he did not even need to get a word out. "Go after him, Mr. Cousins. Keep close watch."

Reg nodded. "Aye, Aye, Sir."

A somber calm fell over the rest of us. I hope this is only good news, as macabre as it sounds. It certainly makes the boy's immediate future easier. But at what cost?

***
April 10th

We are just outside of Oran. Our sail has been quiet and easy, and almost a happy one. I say "almost" with consideration. It is true that Ward has regarded this as a learning experience, and Bowles grows to rely on him daily. Archie seems to be well on the way to recovery from his personal grief; Reg has bordered on obsessive about his upcoming exam, only interrupting the preparation for it, with preparation for our landing in Oran tomorrow. I, of course, am reveling in the sort of love I had never expected to be gifted with. The Captain is happier than in all of my time with him, and writes daily (I have learned by accident) in a diary to his daughter, so she may understand where he was when he was away. It is very cute.

But amidst all of this, there is Drew.

Mind you, he is acting normal. Studying when necessary (although not, in my opinion, as much as he ought). Treating the sick. Working on medical concoctions to help our men. Joking. Smiling. But I am afraid I sense there is more beneath his surface than most could understand.

I cannot sleep tonight. Memories of our last trip to Oran, worries on Reg's behalf for tomorrow, and on Drew's behalf in general will intrude. So I am determined to steel to sick berth for a brew of chamomile tea, and of course, the chance of a late conversation with my young friend.

I could smell the berth...it's combination of cleanliness and herbs...before I got there, and I paused in happy memory of my own father, before I walked in.

The berth was near empty. One loblolly boy, young Lyman, was found yawning there. He rose quickly on my entry.

"Can I help you, Sir?"

I abandoned all pretext of tea on scanning the empty berth. "No, I am well, young man. I had been seeking Lieutenant Brandon."

"He was here earlier, Sir, like most nights. But he was restless, tonight, and said he could not concentrate on his books."

"He is normally here with them, at this time, then?" I was curious.

"Oh, yes, Sir, whenever there isn't anything he must attend to in the mess. He takes notes on how some medicines are going, or some nights, he'll talk with me about his thoughts, on how a patient is recovering, and whether or not it is what he expects. I've learned quite a lot from him, really."

I smiled, knowing Drew by nature would be drawn to mentoring a young mind who was interested. "Would you like to be a doctor yourself then, Lyman?"

"Oh, I don't think I have that in me, Sir. But as Mr. Brandon says, I don't have to be a doctor to understand the basics, and help the men. The more I do understand, the more I do help."

"True enough. Well, I'll be on my way then. Perhaps he sought out Mr. Cousins for a late game of chess."

"Perhaps, Sir."

I removed myself from the welcoming familiarity of the surgery, to the tiny cabin that Drew and Reg shared.

But I got no farther than the window. I saw dim lantern light, and I peeked in. Reg was there, alone. He rested on his bed, his hair over his shoulder, chewing on his lip. He took copious notes from Norie's seamanship, and frowned hard. So absorbed in his studies was he that he never realized that I was watching him. I smiled at his dedication, and then I turned away.

A glance in the ward-room assured me of what I already expected: Drew was not there. Bowles was taking on Forbes at acey-deucey, Archie watched them, egging them on. I stayed back in the shadows, not wanting to attract attention or ring an unnecessary alarm.

Yet I grew more and more uneasy. Where was he?

With Captain Pellew, maybe? I made for his cabin. I could hear voices as I approached, but I slowed as I neared his cabin, knowing if I were not careful, the Captain would note me coming. And I ran into Powers leaving his quarters, and decided to ask him before disturbing the Captain.

"Powers, have you seen Mr. Brandon this evening?"

"Indeed not, Sir. Captain Pellew spoke with him briefly this afternoon, but he has not been around since then. Has he gone missing, Sir?"

Damn it all, the last thing I wanted was to put the wind up with the Captain, and putting the wind up with Powers was the same thing! "No, I am in need of some willow-bark, and someone said they thought he was here. I am certain he is in sick berth."

"Very good, Sir. Should I see him, by chance, I will send him after you."

I ended up above decks, without thinking about it. The night is fine. The air has a clear, warm stillness about it, that speaks of the Mediterranean. A few months from now, those unfortunates who find themselves outside of this Muslim port will wilt from the heat. But at this time, at this moment, it is a fine, welcoming atmosphere.

And the stars are overhead, peppering the velvet sky like a thousand fine diamonds. Not, I corrected, that I have ever seen a thousand fine diamonds, or even one. But if I could imagine them, this is what they would look like. This must be Angelina's influence over me, for certain sure I never thought this way before I fell hopelessly, madly in love.

"G'evning, Sir."

Styles wandered past me; he also seemed to be taking the air.

"Styles." I stood a little straighter, never wanting to be anything but the perfect officer to him. "A fine night."

"Arrr." He came beside me and hesitated. Then, scratching at his stubbled chin, he looked over to me. "Y'er lookin a bit peaked, Mr. Hornblower, Sir."

I have never felt better in my life! "My health is excellent, Styles." I snapped. I can't have the men thinking my well-being to be in question.

"Course, Sir. S'just...welll..." He paused, and rubbed his chin once more. "I thought mebe you'd do with seein' the Doctor, Sir..."

I fumed. "My health is excellent and I..." He was looking at me with meaning, and I stopped in my words. "Or perhaps, you're right. That would be Mr. Johnson you're suggesting I speak to?

"Nah, Sir...I was thinkin' you'd do better to speak to Mr. Brandon." He coughed. "Course, to do that ye'd have to head up to the fightin' top, an' I know that's not your favorite perch, Sir."

"The fighting top?"

"I know, Sir, quite a climb it would be fer anyone, but then, I guess if Mr. Brandon could make it, well, you could too, I know."

"Perhaps you are right, Styles." I tried to sound at ease. "And the sky would look glorious from there, no doubt."

"Sure and it would, Sir. Well, I've best to get some shut-eye, Sir. G'night."

"Good night, Styles. And I..." I caught his eye. "I thank you." I whispered, under my breath.

His eyes were round. "Don't you be doin' that, Sir; all I'm doing is taking a bit of air." He gave me a saucy grin. "Skylarkin, like you allus said you wanted to see."

I grinned almost against my will. "As you say, Styles. Now get bellow with you, before I call the bosun."

"Aye, aye, Mr. Hornblower."

And after he walked away, I began my journey up to the fighting top.

***
Drew rested there, hunched up, head on his knees. He looked curiously at me when I arrived, but did not make any hasty move or look as though I'd interrupted him. I cursed myself, meanwhile, for not realizing that this, of course, was where he'd be if he just wanted to think for a bit.

He gave me a tight smile. "Horatio. I've half been expecting you all evening."

"If I were not so obtuse, I'd have been here earlier." I sat across from him, and waited to see what else he would say.

"You haven't alerted the ship looking for me, I hope." His voice was cautious and concerned. "Because I am quite alright, really."

"I know you are." I lied. "And no, I didn't raise any alarms. I just wanted to see how you were doing." There was quiet, and only the wind in the canvas interrupted our thoughts. "So...how ARE you doing?"

"I don't know." He shrugged. "I ought to mourn, and I ought to rejoice. A damned strange place to find myself, I can assure you."

"I would imagine it would be." I hoped my voice was soothing, not ingratiating.

It must have been fine, for he went on as though I hadn't spoken at all. "Our last meeting was painful enough. And to be honest, when I saw him in Gibraltar, I knew, with my head, that he was not long for this world. Too much alcohol, abused too often. He was doomed, and I could not save him. But I still regret it."

A questioned buried long in my mind forced its way forward. "Do you have ANY good memories of him, Drew?"

"None." He shook his head. "Sometimes I think it would be easier if I did. And sometimes I think if I did, then I would only feel the loss of a father, long before he died, even more keenly."

"I wish I could help you." The overwhelming helplessness I was in bubbled over; I cannot comfort him this time, and I am lost.

To my surprise, he smiled at me. "You ARE helping, Horatio, all of you. Because you are my family, and you are here. I know I must work through this myself, but I can do it knowing there is no shortage of people who would carry the burden for me if they could. That does count."

I sighed. "You are too young to be this wise."

"I guess. But it's the only way I know how to be." He turned his head fully to me in curiosity. "What were YOU like at sixteen, Horatio?"

"Me?" I thought it over. "Oh, I was a totally foolish young man."

"No, seriously." He folded his arms over his knees and rested his chin on them.

"Well, that is it, I WAS serious. Far too much so, if you get my drift. I was away at school, only coming home for holidays, and oh, I think I acted as though I could solve all the world's problems. I had every answer to everything. Except the answers to the things that mattered most." And from mourning for Drew's loss, I had returned to missing my own father, once again.

"Your father must have found you funny." He smiled warmly at me.

"Funny how?"

"I have always thought that you must be a great deal like him. No doubt he was once like you, and recognized himself in you. I bet once, a long time ago, he thought he knew the answer to everything too. And I bet it made him laugh, thinking that some day you would realize that you didn't."

I grinned at the image. "I do believe you might be right, Drew."

He sighed, a deep, tired sound. "I, on the other hand, can't look at my father and see myself, nor do I wish to. I have no past, Horatio. No sense of where I come from, or who I am like. I feel strangely adrift. I think, you know, I have a good sense of where I am, but not much clue as to how I got here."

"Does that matter?" I pointed out. "It is where you are now that matters."

He frowned, his brows drawing lower, and then he nodded. "It does matter, a little. I would like to understand the things that made my father what he was. Else how can I keep from repeating it, or recognizing it in others?"

"Not everything has a reason."

He lifted his head. "But that in and of itself is a reason, isn't it? If I knew that my father enjoyed torturing bugs when he was a child, it would tell me that he was just born with a wish to inflict pain, and there was nothing to be done. But if I knew that once he had been a normal child, and that only after he began to take drink, and could not stop, did he become violent, well, that's a reason to. A different one, but still a reason."

I nodded, understanding his need to understand his father. "So, how do you answer this?"

He looked skyward. "Reg's Da had an idea, when I was visiting him. That I should talk to my brother Stan, because he is the eldest. Stan might remember more, might have seen the pattern develop. I had planned on doing that, but there just hasn't been time."

"Well, we are to head to England soon. Perhaps then..." I didn't realize what I'd said until Drew brought his head down sharply.

"To England? But we have only just returned!"

I gulped. "I was not supposed to tell you that." I blinked, horrified. To purposely let Archie in on our orders was one thing; it was a deliberate, concrete act. But I had just let it slip out, unthinking...what sort of an officer was I?

Drew must have seen my horror; he looked on me with tremendous affection. "You were not supposed to tell me what, Horatio? I did not hear you say a thing."

I blushed. It was an unforgivable error, made all the worse because it was now hanging out there with no explanation, and I am not certain that I can give one. In fact, all in all, I had best not.

Our general environment received a shake, and I realized we were being approached. Styles, perhaps, checking on us. I scooted over towards Drew, making room for the new arrival, secure that unlike on Justinian, I would find no unwelcome intruder to our hideaway.

"Gentlemen, I trust you are both well." And without ceremony, or heavy breath, Captain Pellew swung himself onto the now crowded fighting top, and sat watching us both.

We were speechless, and stared at him, afraid to even move.

He arranged his cloak around him and looked, with pleasure, up to the stars, giving a little grunt, as if they had been arranged to his order, and a good job had been made of it. Then, realizing that Drew and I were still beyond our senses, he looked to us in exasperation.

"Good heavens, men, certainly you did not think me so feeble I could not make a simple climb up the rat lines."

"I..." Drew looked at me for assistance, but I could offer him none. He handles the Captain much better than I do in these situations. With a deep breath, he ploughed ahead. "I am sorry, Sir, we did not doubt your capability, but would not have thought it was your desire."

"Well..." He raised his eyebrows at me. "When I hear Horatio here telling some cock-and-bull story to Powers about needing willow bark, and seeking you at my quarters, but then saying he will check sick berth NEXT, I knew something was up. Sick berth is where you would check FIRST."

Of course, that is where I HAD checked first, and I blushed that I had been so easily read. Drew gave me a little glare of exasperation.

"Then, of course, I made point of listening closely at the skylight. You've forgotten that little tid-bit I suppose, Horatio. Styles' rather obvious pointer was clearly audible."

I smiled in spite of my embarrassment. "Touche, Sir. I shall never again underestimate a master."

The Captain nodded at my compliment, and then turned to Drew. "I trust you haven't been considering throwing yourself overboard, up here?"

He smiled in assurance. "Hardly, Sir. I just like the view, and the solitude." He shrugged impishly. "Mostly the view, fortunately, because the solitude seems to be in short supply."

The Captain gave a little chuckle. "And it shall remain so, young man. I have no intention of leaving quickly after that climb, and you'd have to go through Horatio and me to escape yourself. So you must put up with the company."

"The company is never unwelcome." He leaned backwards. "I just...I don't know any way to say this, but to say it straight out..."

"That is your usual style." Captain Pellew quipped.

"...I do not want any pity, Sir. Sometimes, I feel like I've had enough of it for a lifetime, and it's a wasted emotion, really."

"Really?" The Captain's voice was wry. "So the kindness I've shown you has been WASTED, has it?"

"No, Sir. Not your kindness. Not your friendship, nor Mr. Hornblower's, or Reg's or Archie's. I'm explaining myself badly, but what you gave me was real help. Real hope. Pity is inactive, something felt for you that doesn't do a thing except making the person who pities you feel better about themselves."

His voice had an undercurrent of bitterness in it, and the Captain and I exchanged glances. There had been a tremble, an anger there, that I had not seen coming. And then I realized that he was shaking, and I put my arm out to him. Without further word, he buried his head in his knees.

We knew he was crying, the first tears he'd shed since he'd learned of his father's demise. In fact, they were the first tears he'd let either of us see in a very long time. And together, the Captain and I reached out to him, each of us laying a hand on one of his shoulders. And neither of us speaking.

Slowly, regaining control, he sniffed once, and then raised his head. "I am sorry, Sirs. This must seem quite stupid to you."

"Not at all, Drew." The Captain's voice was low and gentle, and I rubbed his shoulder.

"I was just...remembering. I had an uncle..." He wiped at his nose. "My mother's brother. He would come over often, and he would be kind. He'd always make great speeches on temperance, and try and talk my father down from the drink, out of the beatings. He'd make speeches in public even, about the sanctity of family, the responsibilities of a husband and a father to care for them." Drew gave a cold sneer. "Then I called him on it when I was nine. I was terrified; my father was after me and I knew it would be bad. My uncle was leaving, and I threw myself at his carriage, pleading with him to take me away. He slammed the door shut, and then watched, with oh so much pity on his face, as my father beat me unconscious. THAT is what pity is to me. Indifference masking as concern. Callousness hiding as compassion." His voice trailed off.

And the Captain purposely put his hand under Drew's chin, and grasped it firmly. "Mr. Brandon, I do not pity you, and I never have." His voice was quietly commanding. "How could I have pity for an officer who took on Doctor Hepplewhite, who has performed surgeries without turning a hair, who has been willing to take ME on, when necessary, to say nothing of Mr. Hornblower here. You are the least pitiable man I know. I can regret your childhood, regret what you have suffered, but I cannot pity a man who is as fine and strong as you are. Do you take my meaning, Sir?"

With a little quiver at his lip, Drew's eyes showed the smile more than his mouth did. "Yes, I do Sir. And I thank you."

"Mmm." The Captain released his face, and nodded proudly. "Well, a fine lot of officers we are, stuck up here in the blasted fighting top. What do you think Admiral Hood would say, Hornblower, should he come upon us here?"

"I do not think he would say a thing, sir."

"You think he'd be speechless?"

"I do not think he could make the climb." I deadpanned.

And for once, both of my companions laughed at my jest.

***

April 13

 

 

Reg Cousins came in out of the dazzling sun, into the dark cool of the Indefatigable. At least, here, in April, it was cool; he knew the ship's innards were capable of becoming a veritable oven with the summer heat. Strange for him to feel such affection for a habitat so seldom comfortable, but he did.

Blinking, he made his way with assurance despite being blinded by the change in light. He knew the ship so very well, every creek and every cranny. And he certainly knew the way to sick berth, where he hoped to find his friend Drew.

Find him he did. Squinting into the berth, he saw Drew murmuring over some texts...not medical ones, for once; his friend was actually trying to cram more information into his skull to try and pass that dreaded exam they must both face. "Your head will burst, Drew." He teased by way of greeting.

Drew looked up, some strain showing on his face, but allowing a smile nevertheless. "That would not be a medically established response, Reg. It would quite make the books, in fact!" And he shut his book and got up. "You need some salve, my friend."

"Aye, I do; that is one of the reasons I came down here." Reg sat on the stool as Drew went to get down the crock of the home-made concoction that was a panacea for a variety of skin ailments. "That sun was mortal strong in Oran. I tried to keep under cover of my hat, but even still..."

"You were by the dock." Drew said, matter-of-factly, as he spread the cooling potion on his friend's reddened face. "Reflection off of the water. And the sun IS stronger in this region, though you generally tan well." He smiled grimly. "Another good reason why I should not be a Lieutenant. Were I with you today, I should have FRIED."

"Stop talking nonsense." Reg murmured, as Drew continued to apply the cooling salve. "I am going to look silly when you're done with me."

"Your skin will absorb it quickly. I'll put on some mint tea for you to take, and you can stay here out of sight for a little while."

"Mint tea? That's a new one." Reg opened his eyes at last, his face already feeling better.

"It was a suggestion in the notes that your friend Dr. Sebastian sent over to me." He said, moving to the small lamp to heat water. "Mint is a cooling agent." He took a sachet and sprinkled out a teaspoon of herbs into a mug. "It was very kind of him to take the time to do that. I wish I could have met him."

"I think he would have liked to meet you, also. I...rather talked you up to him, you know." Reg added sheepishly.

Drew grinned. "Well, I don't mind that, as long as it's my medical skills you're praising." He sat across from Reg, as they waited for the water to boil. "So, how was the port of Oran?" He tilted his head to one side, arms folded across his chest.

"Fascinating." Reg admitted, with a pleased smile. "I don't pretend to understand everything that occurred today. Mr. Tapling thinks it will take us at least three days to complete our negotiations. They don't like to be hurried in this area of the world."

"So what did you do this entire time?"

"Stood to the side with my men, while Tapling sat to tea with the Emir's representative. If they said fourteen words together, I would be surprised. Still, it seams this is how things get done here. It would make me batty if I had to live that way."

Drew's face crinkled in thought. "So how is it that Mr. Hornblower was able to get through negotiations in one day?"

"The plague." Reg shrugged. "Tapling says that they were probably aware of the danger, and had been anxious to pass off goods and get payment before we realized what was happening. He blames himself for not realizing the unorthodoxy of their speed."

The water finally reached boiling, and Drew poured out a dose into the cup with the mint-leaves. "What of the port itself? What does it look like?" He asked, even as his attention fell on mixing the brew.

Reg looked up at his friend, so concentrated on his task, and yet... "Hang on, Drew. Do I detect a bit of wistfulness there? To get into port yourself?"

Drew did not look at him. "You know I am no negotiator."

Understanding set in. "You want to get about and muck up one of their medical men, don't you! Check out the local herbs and customs? Folk remedies, myths?"

Drew's face grew ruddy, and he laughed. "Guilty as charged, Reg. I confess myself to be curious."

"Perhaps I can ask the Captain if you can come along..."

"He'd never allow it. We're in the midst of delicate negotiations, and he doesn't need me to bungle things up by accidentally offending one of the natives, which I am not unlikely to do. I don't know if you noticed, but I do have a tendency to be blunt." He gave a self-conscious smile as he handed Reg the steaming cup. "Ah, well. Perhaps next time."

They were both quiet for a few moments, Drew lost in thought and Reg attempting to down his prescribed medicine. Setting the cup down, half drained, Reg reached for the book before him.

"Do you want me to test you on anything?"

Drew's laugh was short and slightly bitter. "For what?"

Sighing, Reg shook his head. "Come now, Drew, that will not answer. I have seen you above decks, you know; you are far too hard on yourself."

"Perhaps; and if Captain Pellew were testing me, and it were on my actual performance on ship, I might feel more confident. But a verbal quiz on things that I have not done often enough to be second nature, in hostile territory as it is...Reg, I am frightened." He admitted, slumping down on the table.

"As am I, Drew!" Reg soothed. Drew gave him a withering, don't-patronize-me- glance. "Truly! Horatio himself failed, or at least he would have, had he been permitted to complete the test. I AM worried about facing that board, and I AM worried that I will be letting Captain Pellew down if I do not pass. But ignoring the test would not ease my mind, and I cannot believe that it is making your mind any easier either."

Drew slouched down further, chin resting on his crossed arms, and he sighed. "Reg, can I ask you something?"

"Of course."

Hesitating for a few moments, biting his lip and looking away from Reg, almost through him, Drew finally asked. "What happens if you pass, and I don't?"

Frowning, Reg shook his head slightly. "I do not understand you."

Drew continued to look anywhere but at his friend. "When you are my superior officer... what becomes of our friendship?"

"Oh." Silly git, thought Reg. "I don't recall that the period where Archie was a Midshipman and Horatio was a Lieutenant saw an end to their friendship."

"No, I guess they made it through fine. It's just...I've had enough losses. We won't be berthing together any more, won't be able to converse casually above decks, or even socialize in the ward room. If you think about it, Reg, you've been there for me from the moment I set foot on this ship. I am certain I would not have survived this far without your guidance, and I will miss it. "

Reg thought slowly out Drew's problem. There was some truth to what he said after all; should Drew fail, Drew must move back to the midshipmen; he would be eating with them save for times when the Captain would host dinner for the lower officers. A wall would exist. But he would not let it destroy something that had been built over more than two years.

"Drew, some of what you say is inevitable, I'll grant. But you even if you cease being a Lieutenant, you will remain a doctor, will you not? So when we are here, in this room, I promise you, we will always be equals. Agreed?"

Chewing it over for a few moments, Drew gave him a reluctant smile as he sat up again. "Agreed, Reg."

"Of course, if you'd stop being stubborn and let me question you, you might end up passing anyway and then this whole stupid argument is moot."

And with an exaggerated sigh, Drew gave up. "Very well, do your best impersonation of Captain Pellew, and test me."

Scowling deeply, one eyebrow raised, Reg began, "How good of you to finally decide to participate, MISTER Brandon. Do you think you can do me the honor of answering a simple question, Sir?"

It is perhaps as well that no exam board was present, as laughter is generally frowned upon in such circumstances.

***
April 15

Mr. Tapling and his partner in negotiations were raising their voices, and then waving their hands in mock-apology to each other. Reg was beyond trying to understand them anymore. What had been initially interesting had become torture. The heat scorched him; his face was fried, even despite his hat and the additional coverage of a sail that he'd rigged up. (Horatio had made a point of suggesting that). He was not burning any longer, but he was still sweating, and that was most uncomfortable for his tender face.

Stupid uniform. The Navy didn't have extended exposure to the African landscape in mind when they designed them obviously. He chafed in the wool jacket and was miserable. Only the keenest understanding that he was an officer in the Navy and had men to inspire kept him from behaving like a petulant child right now.

"Mr. Cousins, Sir." Morris came up beside him. "That one there, Sir...he's lookin' at you funny like."

Not moving more than necessary, Reg turned his head slowly to where a tiny old man, dressed in loose robes, a turban wound round his head, was seated in the sun. As Morris had indicated, the dark, mysterious eyes were full on Reg, as if trying to read his thoughts.

"He looks harmless enough, Morris. No doubt he has never seen white men before." And probably wonders how we can be such a moronic species to come to a climate with ninety degree temperature wearing wool, Reg added silently. Sarcasm certainly was not to be shared with the men, but it was how he felt.

"Aye, Sir, no doubt." Still, Morris did not move too far from his superior officer, and kept stern watch on the curious native.

Reg turned his thoughts back to Tapling's meeting. Again, they were back to stony silence, sipping tea and occasionally uttering a word or two. He prayed fervently that these negotiations would be over today; he had no desire to return to this place tomorrow. Taking a handkerchief, he mopped his brow, wincing as he did. He very much would have liked an entire pot of Drew's salve, except that it was known for not keeping well in hot weather. He'd smell like spoiled milk, but he WOULD feel better.

"Sir..." Morris brought him back from his wandering thoughts, and he realized that the little man had come up next to him.

Morris and two other men of his, Thomas and Walker, were quickly near him.

"It's alright, men. This gentleman is unarmed. We do not want to offend him." Reg said, although he did not take his eyes off of the stranger. Squinting his eyes, he thought of Tapling's greetings of two days ago. And slowly, looking the man proudly in the eye, he placed his hands together, similar to being in prayer, and gave a slow, gradual bow.

It must have been the right move, because the elder man mimicked him, looking pleased. Then, without words, he turned to a boy behind him. The boy carried a potted plant, a vibrant green thing with thick, spiky leaves. One leaf was snapped off at mid-point by the native, and then presented to Reg, as if a gift.

"Sir, you don't know what that is...might be poison, Sir." Morris hissed below his breath.

Reg studied the dignified man in the turban carefully. His poise was still and gracious, his gesture not at all threatening. "I don't think he means to poison me, Morris." Reg's voice was soft. Looking at this man, he made a motion with his hand to his mouth, and tilted his head in question.

Lifting his eyes slowly, the man shook his head, and then peeled back the skin of the leaf to reveal an oozing liquid, viscous in texture. Squeezing about a tablespoon of the substance out, he held his hand to Reg's face. The men came forward, but Reg quelled them with a glance, and then gave the native a nod of acquiescence. Slowly, the man spread the gel over Reg's tortured skin.

Reg, stifling a gasp of relief, closed his eyes. Cooling and fresh, the strange juice soothed his pain amazingly, seeming to cure him on contact. And with the crystal recognition that this man must be the local medico, he allowed himself to be treated, with the same trust and respect he would have accorded Drew.

He opened his eyes slowly, to find his men watching him carefully, and a slight smile on the face of the native.

"Thank you." Reg said, with another little bow.

His new friend bowed back, and then presented the plant to him as a gift, with a motion to the rest of the men.

Again, Reg bowed, and smiled.

***
"What do you make of it?" Archie asked, studying the unique object with much curiosity.

I am currently eyeing a plant (now resting in the middle of the table of the officer's mess) that Reg brought back with him from Oran, looking as pleased as a cat carrying a fresh kill. Reg now sat placidly at the table, his face looking much better than it had the past couple of days. Hell, he hadn't even seemed too upset at the fact that he was going to have to return to Oran for at least one more day. Negotiations were still not finished, Tapling tells me.

"I have never seen the likes of it, not in my father's study." I murmured, gingerly running one finger over one of the smooth, cool leaves.

"I am planning on asking Drew. Perhaps he'll know." Reg offered. "Quite frankly, unless it has some sort of strange side-effects I am unaware of, I don't really care what it is. Wonderful stuff."

"Hmmm." I was cautious myself. Perhaps I ought to ask Tapling to try and have a conversation with this local who presented Reg with the gift, though that would take time away from our main purpose, obtaining food.

Drew popped in suddenly, looking rather breathless and depositing several books and sheets of paper unceremoniously on the table.

"Morris told me what happened." He explained, and then took off his jacket and leaned in for a closer look. "This is it, I take it?"

And he leaned cautiously over the plant, sniffing it, and prodding the leaves and the dirt. He gave me a glance.

"No, Drew." I answered his unspoken question. "Never saw its like before."

"Hmm." He continued closely inspecting the unusual greenery. "Morris said the native broke the leaf up and rubbed some type of gel over your face?" He murmured more into the dirt than to Reg.

"Yes, more or less."

Rising suddenly, Drew left the plant and came over to Reg. One hand firmly beneath his friend's chin, Drew gave him a good look-over. "Your skin does seem better; not nearly so red. Does it still hurt?"

"No, not nearly as bad as it did."

"Hm." And sitting abruptly at the table, he began to leaf through one of his newer medical texts, the ones he usually eschewed for my father's old book and notes. Shutting it suddenly, he moved over to the sheaves of paper, in a handwriting I did not know. And then with a smile, he took one of them, and cross-referenced it against the newer book.

"Here it is. It was one of the items your Dr. Sebastian mentioned in the notes he sent on over to me. Said he'd had luck to experience it while he was in the Indies, but he didn't know much other than its use in treating burns and skin sickness. It's in the book, though. A plant called Aloe." And he gave a slightly smug smile to the rest of the table.

"It's not poisonous, is it, Drew?" Archie asked, looking warily at the plant.

"No, not even if swallowed. In fact, it appears to be used in, er, digestive cases as an internal drug, if juices are evaporated and ground into powder."

"Digestive cases?" Reg asked.

"It's a laxative." Drew shrugged, his face slightly tinged pink. Reg's eyes were wide, and his mouth fell open slightly.

"Be glad you did not eat any, then." I said, attempting not to laugh at his expression.

Archie failed entirely, his good natured grin breaking over his face. "Interesting plant, indeed. Let us hope the men do not learn of this, any malingerer would consider it a gold mine."

"Well, whatever it is when swallowed, it had miraculous effects externally." Reg said, with a bit of stress. But he got up and took hold of the plant, and presented it to Drew. "Given its medicinal potential, however, perhaps it should be left to sick berth."

"I would welcome it." Drew admitted. "The salve I make does not keep well, and as we are approaching summer, no doubt I shall find it useful."

"Just don't find it too useful," I teased. "Any man goes down with cramping, and I shall know who to blame." I effected a mock sternness, and looked Drew over, eyebrows raised.

He laughed brightly, taking my threat with all the valuation it deserved. "Take care I do not become displeased with you, Horatio. If I'd had this last summer when we were fighting, I could have made your life difficult indeed."

April 23

"Ah, Lieutenant Hornblower. There you are."

Now, Captain Pellew had summoned me, so I am uncertain as to why he would find it surprising that I would be in his cabin. Also, he had used the very formal "Lieutenant Hornblower" , albeit in a tone of voice that was nearly jovial. So I am not in any sort of trouble. The only deduction remaining, unfortunately, is that he is about to ask something of me that he would rather not be asking. Or that he knows I would rather not be doing.

"Yes, Sir. How can I be of assistance?" I asked, keeping myself wary.

"There are certain advantages, of course, to being a Captain. Some are more obvious than others." He paused, with a little apologetic cough.

"Of course, Sir." I still was uneasy.

"One of them, is that you can often assign more unpleasant tasks to your junior officers. I hope that I have not been guilty of that too often."

"Sir, there is nothing you have ever required of me that I have not been prepared to do." It seemed as prudent an answer as I could make.

"Naturally, Lieutenant. However, for many reasons, this particular detail is one I would rather you handle. You are...less intimidating...than I am."

I controlled a smile, and decided not to reply with the obvious, 'I should hope so!'. "To which man am I to be less intimidating to, Sir?"

"Mr. Cousins." Again, he coughed. "It seems definite, from conversations I have had with Tapling, that Calypso was damaged beyond repair. We shall undoubtedly have to ferry Hammond back to England." He leaned back and looked at me. "The material point is, Horatio, Mr. Cousins knows I know all the detail behind his problems with Hammond, and I am afraid that ANY conversation on that front would be mortifying to him. And I would rather not see him distracted needlessly before his exam."

"Understood, Sir." I paused. "As it happens, Sir, Mr. Brandon did give me an idea as to their mutual dislike, if you will."

"Very diplomatically put, Horatio, when the truth is Hammond treated him in a manor I would not use on a ship's rat." He frowned deeply. "But Mr. Cousins probably does not realize you are aware of his situation, and also, the very fact that you are both Lieutenants and closer in age gives you an understanding I cannot presume to."

I thought he was being rather hard on himself there; he in fact has a first rate understanding of all of his men, regardless of their age. However, he is correct that the natural regard Mr. Cousins has for him would color his reaction; he could only take the warning as a failure of some sort on his part.

"I will speak with him, of course, Sir. I beg your pardon, though; how bad can this be? Mr. Cousins is a Lieutenant, after all, and we shall be still in your report, not in Captain Hammonds." I pointed out.

"Yes, of course, 'bad' is probably not the right word. 'Awkward' might be better. I do hate this sort of interference from Admiralty. Waste of our time, when we ought to be fighting the enemy."

I agreed fervently on that account, and then took my leave to seek out the unfortunate Mr. Cousins.

***
That young man, of course, was feeling anything but unfortunate as I approached him. He was above decks but not on duty. The weather was fine and he had Drew pinioned in a spot of sun by the ship's boats, where he was quizzing him mercilessly. Drew, however, was bearing up in good humor, even if he had a tendency to hesitate before he answered. He will probably fail for that alone, but at least he will make a good show of it.

"Mr. Cousins, a word with you if I may." I said, interrupting the amusing scene.

He shut the book at once. "Of course, Mr. Hornblower." And he passed the book over to his friend, with a stern glance. Drew, in pure insolence, held the book over the rail as if to pitch it to the fish, and Reg's eyes flared. Drew laughed, and settled in again, re-reading the process of fothering a sail out loud.

Reg, exhaling in relief, followed me willingly and without fear. I satisfied his curiosity once we were in a spot away from open ears.

"I wished to speak with you about our upcoming orders, Mr. Cousins."

"Beyond our return to Gibraltar, you mean?" He asked, in all innocence. Then, a note of wariness crept in. "Not another Serenity, I hope?"

"No, no, nothing nearly so difficult as that." I said quickly. "I thought you should be told...er...we return to England after your exam for Lieutenant."

He blinked, and got rather pale. "I am not being transferred, am I? Because we will have too many Lieutenants?"

I am very bad at this. "There are no upcoming transfers that I am aware of. Rest assured, the Captain would not wish to see you promoted only to lose you."

He relaxed, and gave me a curious look, with a smile. "Then why should returning to England be a bad thing, Sir? Especially as I have a wife there." And his face reddened a bit deeper beneath his healing sun-burn.

"We shall be taking a passenger with us." I swallowed and squared away my shoulders. "Captain Hammond, in fact."

Recognition dawned on his face; his smile faded gradually and his face went from pink to bronze. "I see." He cleared his throat, and looked towards the quarterdeck, and closed his eyes; I had the impression some very bad memories were on parade in his mind. "I take it, Mr. Hornblower, that you are somewhat acquainted with my relationship with Captain Hammond?"

"Somewhat." I evaded. "I understand it to be similar to my own relationship with Captain Foster."

I fancied he was a bit relieved that I made such a comparison. "Possibly worse. I do find the thought of spending time with him unnerving. But I shall be professional about it. My only hope is that he shall be the same."

"He's a guest on Captain Pellew's ship only. He is not our Captain." I added, glad he was taking this so well.

"And do not think that there is a day that goes by that I am not thankful for that!" He admitted.

"Very well then, Mr. Cousins; you have my permission to return to tormenting your friend." I looked at Drew, who looked mortally puzzled over some problem.

"Thank you, Mr. Hornblower. I intend to drag him into promotion whether he likes it or not!"

And together, we laughed.

***
April 29th

We finally arrived in Gibraltar, having been somewhat slowed up because of difficulties with our supply ship, The Atalanta.

Like most supply ships, she'd already seen her best days and was reduced to her lowest common usage. She was leaky, balky, had a tendency to stall in stays, and was altogether so poorly constructed that she made the Caroline seem like a top-notch vessel. And to further compound things, her commander up and died.

That sounds frightfully callous, I know. But really, it was most vexing. He actually fell from heart ailments (or so Drew thinks) right at the wheel. His petty officer was...well, I am going to be cruel here. The man had Hunter's disposition and Oldroyd's brains, not a pretty combination. He didn't signal us what happened for some eight hours, fearing our reaction; and then proceeded to drop anchor for no conceivable reason--I believe he panicked. Naturally, WE had to pull up to figure out what the devil was going on. It's the first flogging I've seen the Captain order in over six months. He then sent Cousins and Ward over to her to try and guide her, and immediately our pace became more normal.

The exam for Lieutenant is tomorrow. The Captain has also, very kindly, given me leave to see Angelina tomorrow as well; every nerve in my body seems to dance in anticipation. Reg and Drew seem likewise nervous, but for very different reasons indeed.

We depart on May 2nd, so my time in Gibraltar will be brief. Hammond comes on board (we have received dispatch confirming the total uselessness of Calypso) on May 1. Reg, fortunately, has been kept far too busy with his exam preparations and the duty of commanding Atalanta, to worry about Hammond's presence.

I'd worried about Reg, remembering how the pressures of commanding the Caroline had unnerved me and really prevented me from further study. However, Reg did not have the added grief of fearing the Plague, didn't have to abide Tapling, or contend with a mutinous subordinate. And he did have young Ward, who Archie has christened "little bowlsie" (behind Mr. Bowles back, of course). In fact, Ward informed me today (with a little pride) that he would often assist Mr. Cousins in his studies, on things the average master might know. Hard to believe that this young man was a frightened boy who could barely read just a few months ago.

But there was still one way that I assist Reg and Drew this evening. With that purpose, I headed to their berth, rapping gently on the door.

"Enter." Reg called out calmly. So I did.

He was stretched out on his bunk, checking over his notes, but all in all, looking fairly calm. Across from him, however, Drew had worked his hair so it stood on end, his queue all undone and his face lined with worry. He tried to smile at me when I entered.

"Glad to see you both looking so industrious. Well, Mr. Cousins, tell me, Sir, how would you rig a lower mast?" I stood arms behind me, and stared at him.

He sat up, cleared his throat, and very seriously replied, "You would lash on the girt-line-blocks, put on the bolsters, parcel and tar them, put over the runner and tackle-pendants..." He continued with the answer without hesitation, slowly but confidently, never pausing more than a second or two. He was far more unflappable than I had been, and much better schooled. And though I expected no less, I was impressed anyway.

"Excellent. And Mr. Brandon..." Drew looked up at me imploringly, dry lips rubbing against each other. But if I backed off now, he'd end up insulted, believing that I do not think him capable. "How, Sir, would you go about splicing a cable?"

He looked faintly relieved, and started hesitantly. "I...I would..." He licked his lips once and then flew through the answer, barely pausing between breaths. "...put the whole strands twice each way...point each strand with a tail of three fathoms...seize them with quarter and end seizing to make them lie snug." He paused, looking at me.

"Correct. You see, you shall both do fine. Now, for the important part, Sirs, how are your uniforms?"

Drew's color slowly returned to something resembling human. "Fine, Sir. I have a fresh shirt, and I sponged my best coat today."

Reg had gone gray. "My what? I...oh, God, I didn't think to prepare at all!"

"Neither had I." I grinned perhaps a bit smugly. "Cook has an iron, gentlemen, if you see fit to borrow it. It will most likely cost you your spirit ration."

"He can have mine." Drew said, emphatically. "For the week, if he wishes."

"Mhm. And the state of your shirts, Mr. Cousins?" Given that he has just spent several weeks in hot climates, not to mention in command of a supply ship, I have a feeling I can guess.

"Oh, dear." He whispered. "Horatio, if I try and clean one now, shall it dry by the morning, do you think?"

Drew turned to him. "I have a spare...but..."

Reg was horrified. To arrive for an exam in one of Drew's shirts would be to arrive with his arms protruding at least four inches beyond the cuffs, and no doubt with the front so strained it could not tie. The vision of it alone was enough to almost render him ill.

I relented. "As it happens, Mr. Cousins, I expected you might be ill-prepared. So I have a loan for you. We are much of the same size, I believe."

And I tossed him one of the fine silk shirts that Angelina had sewn for me.

He held it in admiration and shock. "Horatio, you can't mean to lend me this."

"Come now, I think I am the best judge of what I can and cannot mean, Reg. My... er...Singora Danini, I mean, made me four of them, and I have not even had the chance to wear this one yet. And it is only right that you appear before the exam board as well dressed on the outside as you are prepared inside."

He smoothed the shirt out, and then folded it neatly. "I thank you, Horatio. I shall not forget this."

I grinned at the two of them. "I would suggest you both sleep now, gentlemen. Surely, Drew, a little chamomile would not be amiss. You are not likely to learn anything in the next few hours that will affect the outcome tomorrow."

Drew sighed. "I guess you are right. I just wish it were over."

I tapped him on the shoulder. "Courage, my friend. They cannot harm you, you know. Whatever happens tomorrow, you return to Indefatigable no less respected than when you left." And with that final bit of wisdom, that I hope shall put them both at ease, I slowly made my leave.

***
May 30th

Charles Chalk, recently having been made Captain after serving as Commander for a short six months, was relishing the thought of being on his first exam board. He rested in the offices at admiralty, chuckling at the thought of the growing number of nervous young would-be Lieutenants occupying the outer hallway.

"Thirty five of them today have arrived so far!" Grumbled Captain Christie. Christie was a rotund, good natured man with flaming red hair that grew wild on his head. His reputation was as fiery as his hair, but Chalk had chance to speak with some of his men once, and had a fairly high opinion of him. Christie had been Captain for only a year himself. "The list keeps growing, Chalk."

Surreptitiously Chalk took another look into the hallway. "Here comes thirty-six and thirty-seven." Chalk murmured. "Rather young, these two. Capable looking tall dark bloke and a scrawny little blond one. If he's eighteen I'll eat my waistcoat." Chalk quipped, a hint of his own nerves shining through.

"Those'd be Captain Sir Edward Pellew's boys, I'd wager." Christie said, enjoying having the upper hand on the most junior Captain.

"How would you know that?" Chalk asked.

 

"Had a chat with Captain Harvey, down at the dockyards. Harvey and Pellew are old friends. Seems Captain Pellew will not release his men from their regular duties for the exam; morning detail must be taken care of. Says more often than not his boys are the last ones to arrive. Thus, the last tested." Christie nodded sagely at his inside information.

"Harumph." The voice came from an armchair where the third member of the board rested. Neither Chalk nor Christie had involved him in conversation; this man had more than ten years' command experience so it was not to them to make the initiative. As a result, they both rather jumped at the man's expostulation.

Slowly, the elder Captain arose. Chalk had already noted the man did not seem to be in a good humor. He went to a list that rested on the table. "These the men submitted, are they?"

"Er..." Christie decided he should answer, being the next most senior Captain. "Quite so, Sir. Admiral Hale presented that to us. Our list of examinees."

"Our list of victims, you mean." Hammond held the paper out at arm's length, scanning it. The list was alphabetical, though that was not how the men were tested. It didn't take him long to find what he was seeking. "As I expected."

And Chalk watched in some fascination as the previously rather bitter and perturbed old man let loose with a smile.

"Gentlemen, as your superior officer, Sirs, I have a request to make of you. There is a particular gentlemen..." He said the word with a sneer. "That I should wish to test myself. With no interference. One of Pellew's young men, in fact." He glared at them both, with a malevolent eye, as he placed the paper back down on the desk. "I assume you have no objection to that, Sirs?"

Chalk would have liked to object, although he wasn't sure why. He'd always been rather indulgent of his own midshipmen; they were but boys away from home, after all, and he'd rather his ship be a happy place than a miserable one. And he was quite certain he didn't like the gleam in this man's eye. But what could one do with a Captain more than ten years' your senior, but agree with him?

So when Christie said, unemotionally, "Naturally, Captain Hammond, you may opt to question any of the young gentlemen you choose," the only thing that Captain Chalk could do was reluctantly agree.

***
Drew felt his heart beating rapidly in his throat as they approached government house. Oh, he knew that it was a medical impossibility for it to be so, but it was what it felt like. For the first time in his life, he considered the medicinal properties of alcohol to be attractive.

 

He followed Reg's lead. He was ALWAYS following Reg's lead, and had, ever since he'd come on board. He was grateful for that. Reg's sheer brilliance had enabled him to bask in the shadows above decks, and cultivate his own brilliance bellow, where it mattered most to him. So when Reg saluted and announced himself to a sentry, Drew mimicked him as close as possible just seconds later. He could not miss the slight smirk of the sentry as he looked him over.

*My uniform is impeccable. My hat is pristine. What can he be finding fault with?* Drew recalled Horatio's obsession with the condition of their hats, and would have been amused, if only his mouth were not dry as last months' biscuit.

He and Reg entered the hallway, and the door closed behind them. They were the last then. Specifically, HE was the last; a very long wait they had ahead. He looked around the room nervously.

And he then understood the smirk. He was a midget among giants! He was just under five-seven, not so VERY small, but still very slender, and he knew he was rather young. But the rest of the men were closer to Reg's height, and Reg's build, and the next youngest man in the room was...Reg!

His friend gave him an encouraging smile, and they found a spot on a bench. It would be hours before they were called. Reg naturally pulled out his book.

But Drew, once the shock of the room got over him, could feel his nerves dissipating. Why, there would be no shame in failing here! He was sixteen to Reg's eighteen; the next man to Reg appeared to be twenty. And most of them had that bearing that spoke of more than two and a half year's service, like he had. No, if he failed, it would not be for want of intelligence, but of experience, and the Captain would surely not blame him at all.

Reg was engrossed in the text; Drew preferred to glance around the room and study the varying ways the men dealt with their nerves. Some gibbered nervously in the corner, boasting of recent exploits. Drew smiled; Reg's stories could best them all, but he was too modest to tell them. Another group of men were downing claret like it were water; again, he was certain that these men should not be fit to be any competition for his friend.

And one by one, he went over the room, and judging the men by their demeanor and appearance and boasts, he was certain that if his friend could not pass, no man here could. And that mattered more to him than his own state of exam.

A man was summoned. The first to arrive, then; a man whom Drew had heard to be mercilessly sarcastic and who spoke as if he were already doomed. He went through those doors to his mission beyond, and the room hushed for a few moments, before bursting into frenzied speech once more.

"We have a long wait, Drew. Why do you not take out your own book?" Reg urged.

"I'm fine, Reg. Last minute cramming won't help. They'll either ask me something I know or something I don't." Drew pointed out. Reg studied him.

"Well, you look a little less a wreck, anyway. Glad to see it." Reg gave him a smile. Drew knew his friend was nervous too, but realized that Reg was probably more nervous on Drew's behalf than on his own. He was pleased, then; if Reg were worried about him, it would take his mind off of his own predicament.

Suddenly the doors opened; the hush was back, and the sarcastic man gave them all a wry but happy smile.

"Second time's a charm, or so they say. Lucky me."

A tall man with a prominent adam's apple offered his hand in congratulations. Another begged what was asked.

"The same question they started me with the last time...the definition of a rhumb line! Well, I've had more than two years to learn THAT well. Lucky for me the board didn't remember me."

Reg looked up at the Navy's newest Lieutenant. "Surely you didn't have the same exam board?"

"Not entirely, thank God. Though Captain Harvey would not have been bad; I'm just as glad that Dreadnaught Foster was not here. He's a tartar!"

Reg nodded, understanding. "So I've heard. Only one man the same this time?"

"Yes, and it would be bloody black Charlie Hammond; thankfully, he kept rather quiet. Chalk and Christie don't seem at all bad..."

The man went on. At least, Drew was pretty certain he rattled off more on his opinions of the lesser-known members of the exam board. But he didn't hear any of it. He hadn't heard a blasted thing since the words "Black Charlie Hammond." And he was entirely certain that Reg hadn't heard a thing, either.

He looked nervously at his friend. Reg was staring unmoving off into space, and his book slipped to the floor. Silently, Drew picked it up, and closed it. The sarcastic man was off; the next victim was in, and Reg Cousins was a thousand miles away, reliving the horror of an extended watch, exhaustive repair, a gravely wounded Captain Pellew, and Hammond threatening to beat him to death for sitting down on watch. The same Captain Hammond who had been affronted when Captain Pellew not only didn't have Reg punished, he had him PRAISED.

"Maybe..." Drew suggested feebly. "Maybe he doesn't remember you, Reg."

Reg looked at him, his eyes giving him the obvious answer to that question.

Small chance.

This isn't happening. Drew's muddled thoughts quite drove out his knowledge. This isn't happening, not to his best friend, the man so obviously best qualified to obtain his commission. This cannot be happening.

"Next."

Man number two exited, face glum and flushed. Five minutes and a bad outcome. Not a good sign, by half.

***
"Horatio!" Angelina waved to me as I approached her shop, leaning out from the small porch over the steps.

It took every ounce of restrain to prevent me from running along the cobbled streets to sweep her into my arms.

And then I thought, "What the hell?"

Without even so much as looking around to make certain a wayward Admiral didn't catch my untoward behavior, I sprinted towards her, and she ran to me; meeting her just before store I picked her up tightly into my arms and spun her around with wild laughter.

Indeed, the laughter was not as wild as my own heart; for she looked at me with her eyes aglow, with tears of joy in them, and I knew that everything I ever wanted was in my arms right now.

She stroked my face gently. "Oh, Horatio, I am so pleased to see you; so relieved that it has only been two weeks."

"Two damnably long weeks, from my thinking, Angelina. Oh, how I've missed you!" And I kissed her, her lips warm on mine, and inviting. And I caught my breath, and thought only of getting her inside, and to myself.

With a sweet sigh, she backed away, taking both of my hands in hers as she pulled me towards the doorway. A slight scuffling sound on the porch brought both of us back to reality.

"Ah, Miss Morris." I felt my face glow red. "I am sorry that Mr. Brandon shall not be visiting today."

"It's alright, Mr. Hornblower." She looked over him with an embarrassed and apologetic smile. He noticed she was gathering a bag of items; apparently she was on her way out. "He sent me a note explaining he was to take his exam. Shall I see him before you return to the ship, do you think?" She looked even more sheepish, and then cast a quick glance at Angelina. "Signora, if you please, I am headed to Mrs. Bracegirdle's and do not wish to intrude, bt could I have a few minutes of conversation with Mr. Hornblower?" Her wide, deep blue eyes were desperate; I think even if Angelina were not the kindest, most giving woman in the world that she would have given in to the request.

I made it easy for her. "Angelina, please, why do you not put the tea kettle on? I shall be in before the water has even had time to boil."

She winked, slowly, and leaned in to kiss me once more. "You are the best man in the world, Horatio. I am certain of it." And she then walked backwards, to the door, never taking her eyes from mine.

"I'm sorry, Sir. I know how precious your time is." Violet implored, insistently.

I gave myself a shake, and looked down to Miss Morris. "Do not fret, Ma'am. Mr. Brandon is as a brother to me, and I could not turn your request down. Please, what is it you wish to ask me?" And I sat, invitingly, on the steps; stretching my legs before me, and I motioned her to do the same.

She threw herself down with more of the girl about her than the woman; easy to see the difference, now, between her fifteen and Angelina's twenty-six. "Mr. Brandon told me, Mr. Hornblower, that he was to take his exam today?"

"Yes, you mentioned that. And to answer your earlier question, he will probably not be finished there until nearly dark. So it is unlikely you shall see him today. And our plan is to depart the day after tomorrow, and like as not neither of us shall have freedom to visit again on this trip." I feared what I said pained her; I forgot whose daughter she was.

"Oh, I understand that, Mr. Hornblower; that's the way of it, when you marry the sea." She went pink. "Not that Drew and I are married, of course, but..."

"You have an understanding." I said, gently. "But I can see that you are worried, Miss Morris. I can assure you, his heart is most definitely yours."

"And mine his." She sighed. "Mr. Hornblower, he was so worried about not passing his exam. Do you think it likely he shall?"

"He is capable of it." I answered, slowly.

"That is not what I asked." She shook her head. "So you do think he'll fail?"

"Exams are trying, Miss Morris. And he is not confident, not there. Put him in the surgery with a scalpel in his hand and it's another matter. Is it so important to you that he does?" I was surprised by this. Her father was not an officer, and would not have thought his rank mattered.

It turns out it didn't. "No, I would love him as well as I do if he were a powder boy. But Mr. Hornblower, will it be bad for him if he fails?"

"Bad? He will not be happy." I frowned, confused.

"No, I mean...will he lose respect? Will others no longer esteem him? Will the Captain cut him loose?" She was wide-eyed and serious in her concern. "I do not know of these things, Mr. Hornblower. We've never had officers in our family. Will he be transferred? I think if any of these things happen, it would kill him!"

"And me with him, because I would fight to the death anyone who tried to hurt him." I said, laying emphasis on each word. "The Captain and the men all value your Drew as the finest physician any of them has ever had the privilege of sailing with. And I cannot tell you what that means on a ship of war. Drew might not pass, but he will come back to Indefatigable, back to his home, and little will change for him but his sleeping arrangements. Do you understand?"

She did, thankfully. And, relieved, she repaid me with a hug of her own, that quite took me by surprise.

"THANK YOU SOOOO MUCH, Mr. Hornblower." And she kissed me briefly on the cheek. "You are a good man."

"Um...thank you." I was quite speechless by her gratitude. "Drew is a lucky young man."

She rose, again with the agility of a child, and was now all happiness and smiles. "You and the Signora belong together, Sir. I know no better people."

And like a woodland fairy in a play, she was gone.

I was dumbfounded for a few seconds, until Angelina's voice came from the door behind me.

"Well, Horatio, the tea is boiling. Are you ready to come in now?"

I grinned up at her, and then rose quickly.

"I am ready for whatever you have, and whatever you want." My voice was husky with desire, and I feared momentarily that she would balk at my forwardness.

Instead, she reached out and grabbed me by my waistcoat, and pulled me inside.

***
The hours dragged. Some men were inside for a good twenty minutes. Some for as little as five. Most meeting with the same result: failure. Glum faces, faces attempting to be nonchalant, marched passed, paying little attention to the two youngest men in their company who sat huddled together on a bench by the door.

Drew had totally forgotten that he himself was to take an exam. That was immaterial. Keeping Reg sane-that was his job now. The exam be damned.

"Come now, Reg...surely you can explain to me how you take in sail while in a head-wind?" He tried again, a coaxing expression in his voice. "If that is what they ask me, and I cannot answer, it shall be your fault I fail!"

Nothing was working. Reg would occasionally mumble out answers, sometimes he would glare at Drew, a look that would have scared a man who didn't know him so well half witless. Mostly, though, Drew's feeble attempts at keeping his friend's mind off of his worries were met with blank stares.

The clock moved slowly. The exam board took a break for a meal. Nothing was provided for the waiting men. Just as well...Drew was positive he should regurgitate anything he tried to force down.

Five men left to go now, including them. Three more before Reg, and still Drew could not seem to make him sensible. His friend was failing himself before Hammond could get the chance. With restlessness, Drew rose and paced.

Another man, seeing his gesture and mistaking its object, tried to commiserate with him. "Thirty one men seen and two passed. Either our odds just got better, or our position is futile." Drew glared at him, and like a wayward patient in sick berth the man backed away from his angry blue eyes.

Ten minutes. Two men left before Reg. Another twenty minutes. The next man called...the one who'd tried chatting with Drew. Only five minutes for him to fail. The last man was called in, and they were alone. Reg was slumped on the bench, despair overcoming any sense he had, and Drew took desperate measures.

Grabbing Reg by the collar, he hauled him up...no easy feat given their size difference, but Reg was so stunned by the attack he made no protest. With as much force as he could, Drew shoved Reg against the wall. "Serenity!" He snapped.

Reg blinked, looking pale. Drew raged on. "Good God, man, after everything you went through on Serenity how is it at all possible that you can let an old blow-hole like Hammond disturb you!"

There had been a silent pact that Serenity was no longer to be talked about, for Reg wished it behind him. But it was the only card Drew had left to play, and this was his last hand. And he seldom lost at whist, after all.

Throwing the same energy into his wrath that he had used to get Reg out of his dangerous funk, he fumed on. "What ever sort of petty tyranny Hammond subjected you to when you were a midshipman on watch, that cannot compare to the torture and abuse you suffered at the hands of the pirate Macrae. How can Hammond strike such fear into you? Should Macrae himself come into this room, you would charge him in anger, not cower in fear. What is the meaning of this, Mr. Cousins? Have you so totally forgotten what you are?"

Reg's face read only sullen anger. "And what exactly AM I, Mr. Brandon, but a poor farm boy, of no consequence?"

Drew shook his head. "You're Acting Lieutenant Reg Cousins, of His Majesties Frigate Indefatigable. You have served with and learned from the finest officers the Navy has ever produced for four years. You are distinguished in battle. You are Captain Pellew's officer, Horatio Hornblower's protégé, Henry Anderson's mentor, and my friend. And Captain Hammond be damned!"

Silence. Drew counted the seconds. One, two, three, four.

And exhaling slowly, closing his eyes, Reg rubbed his face. And managed a smile. "Thank you."

It was all he said, but Drew could have fainted he was so relieved. The black mood had broken.

"You can do this, you know." Drew encouraged. "You CAN."

Reg's smile grew more confident. "I have no choice. I'd rather spend a month in Oran than just give in to Captain Hammond. If I do fail, Drew, it will not be because Hammond has me cowed."

"That's the spirit." Drew nodded, growing more sure every second that Reg would make it through.

The door opened, and the last man, face red and angry, stumbled out, muttering a terse 'next' to Reg.

And his head held high, resplendent in perfect uniform, wearing a fine silk shirt, and a determined glare, Reg Cousins went forward into a different kind of battle.

***
His heart in his throat, Reg Cousins walked in through the door when called. Daniel into the Lion's den. But Drew's scathing lecture had gotten through the clouds of his head. "I can do this." He said to himself. "I CAN do this." He went to face a man who had no good opinion of him, but he did so knowing he had the very high opinion of Horatio Hornblower and Archie Kennedy; Anthony Bracegirdle and Wallace Bowles. And of course, Captain Sir Edward Pellew. The worth of these men was ten times the worth of Captain Hammond; their opinion, therefore, ought to be worth ten times the amount of Hammond's as well.

Drew, of course, was biased, not that he didn't appreciate that. No more loyal friend was there to be found. And he wouldn't trade that for Hammond's good opinion, either; not even at this moment.

He presented himself to the exam board, scanning the three gentlemen...Captain Christie, bigger than life, vibrant and florid; Captain Chalk, who seemed to give off a good-natured air; and of course, Hammond, staring at him with something very like hate in his eyes. Reg did not cringe. He refused.

"Acting Lieutenant Reginald Cousins, His Majesties Frigate Indefatigable, reporting." His voice was sure and calm. *I can do this.*

"I know who you are, Mister...Cousins." Hammond smiled, a cold icy smile that nearly melted Reg's resolve. *He cannot harm me. He can only ask me a question, and I CAN answer any question he asks. I am prepared.* "Your papers, Sir...if you remembered to bring them."

He handed them over without a tremble. Hammond read them. Line by line. Letting him wait, standing at attention. Two minutes. Three. Five. His eyes checked every bit of his information, as if it were in a foreign language he needed to translate.

*He's trying to make me nervous.* Reg told himself, not permitting himself to fidget.

*It's working* A voice whispered inside his head.

*No it's NOT. He shall not undermine you.* He answered, angry with himself.

Though Reg didn't squirm, he could not help but notice that both Captains Chalk and Christie DID, neither one of them looking a bit happy. Still, they were juniors to Hammond; they would not interfere with his little mind-games. He managed to feel sorry for them, and that pleased him; that he was not so terrified that he could not understand their plight.

"These SEEM to be in order, Mr. Cousins." Hammond glared, as if accusing him of forging his documents. Well, they came from Captain Pellew; let Hammond accuse HIM of forgery, if he dared. Reg was fairly certain he didn't.

Hammond sat back, studying him with a little smile on his face. *He's going to play with me. It won't be a straight-forward question. Be prepared. Do not let him see your fear.*

"So, Mr. Cousins. Your ship...in the unlikely event you should ever be in command of one..." He sneered. Reg felt Chalk's shocked gaze slide over to Hammond, and he took comfort in it. "...your ship, after heavy action with the enemy, has been holed. Though you have destroyed your attacker...assuming you command better men than you ever were...you are taking in water. How, Sir, do you effect repairs to save the ship? Not to mention your sorry reputation."

Reg wanted to laugh. However rudely couched, this was a question he knew well...why, had not he and Horatio gone over every aspect of this circumstance? It had actually happened to Horatio! The sting of Hammond's insults disappeared in the confidence that he was well prepared with an answer.

"I would prepare to fother a sail, Sir..." And without even a tremble in his voice, or a pause for breath, he described the process for doing just that. And then the process for placing the sail, once prepared, in place over the hole. That was not, he knew, as Horatio had done it; Horatio's circumstances had been dire and he'd gone a faster route. But Reg knew the textbook answer was the one required; unless he was given further complications that would demonstrate a need to show creativity with the requirements.

There was silence, as he finished his answer. He waited for Hammond's response. The man was staring at him in surprise, evidently certain that this question would stump him. He thought he saw Chalk's lips twitch, and Christie's eyebrows crinkle, both close to smiles. Then, Hammond's face grew dark. He rose, and stood just inches away from Reg's face.

"WRONG!" He shouted, so loudly Reg was certain his father-in-law could have heard him back in England, and he DID cringe, a little, then. Christie and Chalk both gasped, but did not speak further, as Hammond continued.

"What sort of NONSENSE is this, Sir? You have water pouring in from a shot that told, no doubt because you were too unskilled to evade their guns, and you are going to dither about in a slow, methodical manner? Your ship would be on the bottom of the ocean before you ever managed to place sails in such a way, and the lives of your men would rest on your head. You are Pellew's young pup, have you not learned anything from the man that the care of the men is paramount?"

Reg tried to regroup, once the man finally paused. "Naturally, Sir, should time be pressing, I would take any shortcuts necessary to repairing the leak..."

" 'Should time be pressing?' Good God, man, when have you ever known that time is NOT pressing when you have been holed? Are you an idiot? Wherefore did you come up with this answer?"

"It...it is straight from Norie's seamanship, Sir!" Reg gulped, and realized immediately he should not have done that.

"A textbook! Ah, yes, fearless leader you would be, Sir, taking time to thumb through an instructional manual while your men drown! What we want, Sir, are not useless cubs who can quote books! We want men who can think, men who can do! So, Sir, you have water pouring into your ship and you must place a fothered sail; what do you DO? WHAT DO YOU DO!"

And Horatio's solution snapped into his mind, as all he had left. "I would dive over the side, Sir, to locate the hole, and guide my men verbally to shift the prepared sail. If necessary, I'd pull it myself until it was placed in the hole, and suction had drawn it secure." His voice was calmer than he felt; inside, he felt battered and beaten. Again, he took strength from the other Captains, particularly Chalk. The man was attending him with something that resembled admiration.

"YOU WOULD DIVE OVERBOARD? YOURSELF?" Hammond was scandalized. "A Captain performing a duty better suited to one of his men? Your responsibility is to delegate tasks to the appropriate man. Whatever gave you the example that a Captain should perform in such a manner!"

Reg straightened out his shoulders and said in a low and controlled voice, "I have lived, Sir, with that example and by that example, every day that I have served in His Majesties Navy."

Hammond's eyes grew round, utterly shocked at such impudence, and not so stupid not to see the insult that Reg hadn't really tried to hide anyway. For Reg knew he'd failed, for no good reason, not of his own doing, and he could not control that or salvage this exam. He'd failed despite being correct, or maybe because of it. That was over, he was certain. The most he had left was to salvage his reputation with the other Captains. He would not break down before them.

"You, Sir...YOU SIR!" Hammond spluttered, and then grabbed him by his jacket and shook him. Reg held himself still, stoic. "How dare you, HOW DARE YOU IMPLY THAT I AM LESS A MAN THAN YOUR CAPTAIN!"

"Captain Hammond..." Chalk started, but he was held back by Christie. Not that it mattered; Hammond was not to be deterred.

"YOUNG MAN, YOU ARE EXACTLY AS I EXPECTED YOU TO BE. I TOLD THAT FOOL BRACEGIRDLE THAT YOU WERE IN SERIOUS NEED OF CORRECTION, AND PERHAPS IF YOU'D BEEN PROPERLY BEATEN AT THE TIME YOU WOULD NOT BE THE SORRY EXCUSE FOR A MAN THAT I SEE BEFORE ME. BY GOD, FOR TWO CENTS I'D HAVE YOU FLOGGED SENSELESS MYSELF RIGHT NOW!"

Reg didn't move, he didn't blink. In the back of his mind, all that had belatedly occurred to him, was that he was about to have to spend the next weeks sailing with this man, and now he was going to have to do it as a midshipman.

Hammond shoved him away; somehow Reg held his balance. "You great idiot. You have the audacity to present yourself for an examination for lieutenant, when you have not even demonstrated the proper skills to be midshipman. You are impudent, lazy, disrespectful, and in every way a man not worthy of service with this navy. You are lucky, Sir, that I even permit you to retain your rank of midshipman. You can be certain, Sir, that I will have a discussion with your good Captain about your behavioral problems during our upcoming sojourn to England. You can be further, assured, Sir, that I shall be watching you, WATCHING YOU, every minute of every day, and any transgression, ANY TRANSGRESSION, I will be certain will be dealt with appropriately. Do I make myself clear, MIDSHIPMAN COUSINS?"

The trembling started, his legs shaking, his jaw working furiously. But he would hold it together; he would not loose it now. "Yes, Sir, Captain Hammond. I understand you well, Sir." His voice also shook, damn it; and he so wanted to not let the man know he'd been gotten to.

Hammond sensed it, sensed the blood in the water, and went for the kill. "I dearly hope, Midshipman Cousins, that your family is not dependent on your salary and were not counting on your promotion. Do you support them, Sir? Do you HAVE a family?"

"I have a...wife...sir." And dear God, whatever would she think when she'd learned he'd failed?

Hammond's great laugh boomed out, like an explosion in the room. "A wife! My God, gentlemen, did you hear that? This young pup has a WIFE. What sorry young woman made the mistake of allying her fortune to yours? She will regret that, no doubt. Won't she, Mr. Cousins?"

Reg blinked, holding his breath.

"I asked you a question, Mr. Cousins." Captain Hammond leaned forward again, and Reg feared he would be shaken once more. "Do you believe, Sir, as I do, that your wife will regret her decision to marry you? Or do you, Sir, DISAGREE with me?" His eyes were sharp, half-closed and daring him.

"I...do not...disagree with you, Sir." He whispered, hoarsely.

"Louder, Mr. Cousins, louder. I do not believe Captain Clark and Captain Christie heard your answer. And in detail, if you please. Now, then, how shall your wife react when she hears of your total and abject failure?"

"She will be disappointed, Sir." Reg said, praying fervently that Hammond would dismiss him from this torment soon.

"She will regret your marriage?" Hammond continued, prodding the wound.

"She will regret our marriage." Reg's voice was numb, and seemed to be speaking from miles away.

"And Captain Pellew, Sir? Will he be pleased with your performance here today?" The man smiled, sneered, in fact.

"No, Sir, he will be very disappointed that I have not passed." *Please, let him let me go away from here.*

"And you, Sir, you are an idiot, are you not?"

Reg sighed. "Yes, Sir. I am an idiot."

Hammond chuckled, enjoying himself so much that he had no desire to end his torment. And he had been prepared, as well; and readied his coup-de-grace

"I heard of your exploits on Serenity, Mr. Cousins. That you willingly hanged an innocent man. No doubt I have done many men a great service; preventing their necks from being stretched."

Willingly? WILLINGLY? How had he heard? Dear God, who had told him of what had occurred on that accursed ship? His breath came faster, and he took a deep breath to refute the charges.

"Captain Hammond, Sir..." He began, his eyes pleading. "Please, Sir, that is not how it was..."

The slap rang out in the room, sharp and stinging. Reminding him of Serenity, and the sham Earl, and all he had suffered. He tasted blood on his lip, and raised his hand to his face. His disgrace was now thorough. Hammond had won.

"I suggest, boy, that you learn to curb that tongue of yours." Hammond raised his hand again, and Chalk burst forward.

"Captain Hammond!" Chalk exclaimed, and perhaps Hammond finally remembered that he was not without witnesses.

"I will speak with you later, on board Indefatigable." Hammond hissed.

Reg closed his eyes, and felt the room sway. Chalk's voice, wary but kind, recalled him to his senses. "Thank you very much, Mr. Cousins. You are dismissed. Please send in the next man."

"Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir."

And it wasn't until he reached the door that he remembered who the next man was, and realized he must face him.

***
Drew's anxiety grew with every minute Reg remained in the room. He paced, restlessly, on the carpet. After five minutes, he'd perked up...certainly if Hammond meant to dismiss him, he'd be out by now. But after ten minutes, the worry returned. How many questions would be asked?

After fifteen minutes, Drew started running his fingers through his hair, only stopping when he realized how detrimental this would be to his appearance. He forced himself to grasp his hands forcibly behind his back, and resumed his pace, his jaw clenched so tightly it hurt.

After twenty minutes, he began to pray for a dose of laudanum, to calm his nerves.

After twenty-five minutes, he began to pray for a bottle of laudanum, certain Reg was going to need it.

And finally, after thirty minutes, the door opened and Reg came out.

Or at least, someone who used to be Reg came out. His lip was swollen; Drew knew well enough what that portended, and was shocked. "Reg?" He whispered.

His friend blinked, and then cast his eyes downward. And Drew knew, then; Reg had failed. REG, more capable of command than anybody he could imagine, had been failed, somehow. But before he could say anything, offer any sympathy, Reg dashed passed him, out into the courtyard, leaving Drew alone.

"You there!" Hammond's voice called. "Don't keep us waiting; you're the last."

In total shock, Drew entered the exam room and faced the board.

Uncertain what had just happened, he never-the-less understood that he was not the only man in shock. Hammond looked like a well-fed cat, but the other two (he could not remember their names now) were stunned as well, and uneasy. He announced himself and presented his papers mechanically, and saw Hammond checking over his fingernails, totally disinterested in him

Chalk, seeing that Hammond would not talk, and noting that Christie seemed stunned to silence, took the lead.

"Well, Mr. Brandon. It appears to fall to me to question you. Tell me, Sir..." It was perhaps a compensation for the horror he had just witnessed that lead him down the path he chose. "Can you tell me, Sir..."

Drew blinked, totally incomprehensible of what was going on around him.

"Can you tell me..." Said Chalk's gentle voice. "How you would go about rigging a tackle to remove cargo from the hold of a ship?"

And because he'd been stunned senseless, Drew did exactly that.

The words came out of his mouth without thinking. An image of vegetable marrows, making their way up to the deck of a grounded ship and then down into waiting boats for transport, fled through his mind. If there was one above deck duty he knew by heart, this was it, and his dumb luck that Chalk had guessed it.

He finished the answer, and waited for another question. Chalk, seeing that nobody else was still inclined to speak, gave him a little smile. "Correct, Mr. Brandon. I congratulate you."

Drew blinked. "I...excuse me, Sir?"

His smile grew rather indulgent. "You have passed, Lieutenant Brandon. I have passed you. Congratulations."

"Oh. Thank you, Sir."

And with a salute, he numbly walked back out the door and headed for the courtyard with only one question on his mind:

What the hell was he going to say to Reg?

***
He found him outside, disconsolate, shoulders sagged and head down, staring at his feet as he kicked at the loose dust in the pathway. He looked up at once on hearing Drew, though, a question in his eyes.

"I passed."

He wanted to take the words back as soon as he spoke them, because he was certain that they hurt Reg. But it could hardly be kept a secret, could it?

He had, in rare flights of fancy these past weeks, imagined passing the exam. He'd kept the dream secret, preferring to hide behind the façade of expected failure. It would be easier to hide his disappointment, then.

But in his imagination, he'd thought of saying those words to Reg; imagined his friend's unabashed joy at the pronouncement. Followed, of course, by the lengthy diatribe on how he had never doubted it would occur. After all, if he passed, it was almost entirely due to Reg's diligent help these past weeks.

He hadn't imagined this.

Reg didn't respond, didn't look like he was capable of speaking. He just turned abruptly and began the walk back to the dockyard, Drew trotting along beside him, uncertain what, if anything, he should say.

Reg's steps were purposeful and long; he was propelled by demons Drew could only guess at. But he slowed, noticeably, as they approached their ship's boat. Attended to by their ship's men.

"My men. God, my men." Reg muttered, and for a second he stood stock still.

The were, indeed, Reg's men. Morris, Thomas, Walker, and Timmons. Good men, all. Among the many men who had cheered them loudly as they'd left the ship this morning. Cheering them the way the men do when a well-liked officer was facing promotion. Cheering Reg, mostly, but cheering Drew too, because he was respected, even if for different reasons. Drew had over-heard Thomas joking that they'd have a new Lieutenant by nightfall. "A" new Lieutenant. One. Not two. Morris, the father of Drew's girl, had hushed him immediately.

Well, he'd been right, but if a wager were going on below decks (come to think of it, there probably WAS one) he'd just made somebody a very rich man, because this was not the outcome anybody saw coming.

"Come, Reg." Drew whispered. "We cannot stay in port forever." Please, don't hate me, he added, silently.

Still, Reg did not respond to him, other than to resume his walk forward.

Morris spotted them first, a grin of joy on his face. Fortunately, he looked at Drew before Reg, and Drew shook his head emphatically. The shock was immediate, but Morris was smart, and turned quickly, speaking in harsh terms to the others.

So Reg was not unduly tormented as they got in the boat and the men began rowing. Nobody asked how it went. Nobody had to.

Morris kept meeting Drew's eye, but there was no way for him to explain right now. No doubt Morris would seek him later, and then the word would spread through the ranks...Midshipman Cousins. Lieutenant Brandon. And the world was upside down.

***
I waited anxiously in Captain Pellew's office. We could both hear some commotion above decks, and knew that the boat had returned. He remained calm. I was a wreck.

"Calm yourself, Horatio. We shall drink a toast soon to our new Lieutenant, or perhaps even Lieutenants, and then all will be right with the world. Besides, you are wearing a path in my carpet. I had hoped that the time in Gibraltar would ease your nerves."

Wicked of him to embarrass me in such a manner. "Different nerves, Sir." I said pointedly, and he chuckled.

Archie was there as well, looking considerably more relaxed. "Mr. Hornblower, it is only an exam board, after all. They would not be tortured."

I rolled my eyes at him. "This, Mr. Kennedy, from a man who apparently was able to walk through his exam blind-folded!"

He did look rather proud of himself, damn him. In fact, if stories were correct, he'd been the ONLY man to pass that day, giving him every right to be proud and a little smug. Not that I really begrudge him that. I smiled on him in exasperation.

There was a knock at the door, and at the Captain's request, Mr. Cousins and Mr. Brandon entered.

And my smile fell away. Reg's face was grave; Drew's was shocked.

The Captain had to notice it as well, and he sat up in alarm. "Gentlemen, I see you've returned from Gibraltar." I heard his question well enough.

So did both Brandon and Cousins. Reg spoke deliberately, eyes looking not at the Captain, but fixed on a spot just beyond him.

"I must regret to inform you, Sir, that I have...failed."

Eyes wide with shock, and mouth open, the Captain sighed. We had all been certain, dead certain, that he would pass. "I see." And then. "I am sorry to hear it."

"I am sorry to let you down." Reg's voice was just this side of control, and it made me cringe for him. I remember too well what he is feeling, only I had considerable more luck on my side.

The Captain pulled himself together, business like. He was disappointed, sure enough, and he was not hiding it well. "You understand, Gentlemen, that this means six more months with the midshipman at least. I must ask that you remove your things from your quarters. Mr. Hornblower, we must decide if we need to seek out a third Lieutenant before we leave Gibraltar."

Reg spoke again, his voice now even more despairing. "I beg your pardon, Sir, but that won't be necessary, you have a third Lieutenant."

We stood still for a moment. Dear God, Reg, if you were joking about failing, the Captain will have your hide, legal or not!

Drew finally found his voice, though, and shocked us all. "I passed, Sir."

If they are both having sport with us, both of them! Why, I do not put two cents on their life!

And then it hit me. They weren't sporting with us. This is exactly what happened.

"With your permission, Sir, I will move my things immediately." Reg was dying to leave this room, dying to be away from us and our eyes and our questions that he did not wish to answer, not now.

Slowly, the Captain nodded in resignation of what had come to pass. "Naturally, Mr. Cousins. You are dismissed, then."

He did, quietly and without fuss, and without shrinking from the reality he faced. He was no coward, Mr. Cousins, never had been. But he didn't need company at the present time.

As soon as the door shut behind him, Drew spoke up. "Sir...Captain Hammond was on the exam board."

Oh. That explained it, I guess.

Or at least it explained it to me. It was apparently not enough for the Captain. "That should have been immaterial, Mr. Brandon. A question is still a question, and one must bear up enough to answer it. I can understand that with Hammond present his nerves got the better of him. But the entire point of being a commanding officer is that one cannot succumb to your nerves."

Drew blinked in shock, and I confess I was surprised as well. The Captain was all business, and I saw none of the compassion he'd shown me when I was placed in a disturbingly similar circumstance. Of course, Reg had not been saved by a fire ship. But he shouldn't have needed to be. After every other way he'd performed on this ship, he deserves every benefit of the doubt we can give him.

"Sir, he belongs above decks, not me." Drew's voice was soft. "Must it be six months? Can he not return to being an Acting Lieutenant before then?"

Captain Pellew's voice was crisp. "That cannot be done, Mr. Brandon. Regulations are regulations. Perhaps in that time he will learn better control of his emotions, so that Hammond would not unnerve him again."

Drew flinched, and looked at the Captain in bewilderment. Then chagrin. "Sir, I do not know what passed in that exam room, but Mr. Cousins knew full well Captain Hammond was in there beforehand, and he was fine when he entered."

"Lieutenant Brandon." The Captain's voice was stern. "I admire your loyalty to your friend, but an exam board consists of three men. Hammond is not my favorite person. I do not like his method of command. But I do not believe a brother Captain would deliberately fail a man. Mr. Hornblower, tell me, if you had the where-with-all to think of the correct answer during your own exam, would Captain Foster have failed you?"

"No, Sir. I do not see how he could have." I frowned, though. Reg had walked into that room better prepared than I, with better experience. I cannot see Captain Hammond's mere presence driving him out of his senses.

"Come, Mr. Brandon, you and Mr. Cousins both understood well the terms of this exam. You must live by the consequences. I am only sorry for Mr. Cousins that we must sail with Captain Hammond, but he must accept that as well. Now, as to berthing...Mr. Hornblower, I think it is time that you moved into Mr. Bracegirdle's former quarters. Mr. Brandon may berth with Mr. Kennedy now, and Mr. Brandon's old quarters shall be allocated to Captain Hammond."

Archie sat up abruptly, and we stared at each other in chagrin. But the Captain was on a roll; his back was to the window, and there would be no winning an argument with him tonight. At least Archie and Drew get on well enough. However, I would miss the company.

Drew was staring at the back of the Captain's head in disbelief, studying his shoulders and his bearing. His mouth was slightly open. This was not the reaction he'd expected, or hoped for. His face fell, bald hurt on it and confusion. I understood. For the first time, the Captain had let HIM down.

But his face was blankly composed when the man turned back around to us. "Would you care for a glass of claret in celebration, Mr. Brandon? Or I could have Powers try and find you some cider." His tone was warmer, more kind, almost gentle. But Drew, very professionally, was having none of it.

"I am sorry, Sir. I am aware of the honor, however it has been a long day, and if it please you, I would like to retire myself. Do you require that I move my things this evening?"

The Captain accepted the excuse, not sensing Drew's hurt; not inexplicable, as Drew was good at hiding his feelings when necessary. "No, Mr. Brandon, first thing in the morning is acceptable. We'll work out a rotation of the officers afterward, taking into account your extra duties. Congratulations, and good evening, Sir."

"Thank you, Sir." His voice was blank.

Only after he was gone did Archie speak up, giving voice to what I had not found words to say.

"Sir, I think there is something that went on here that we do not know about." His voice was calm, and not at all insubordinate. We both knew that the Captain valued our opinions, and would not tear our head off when we give them, even if he disagrees. "I have served with him for too long, and seen him in too many trying situations, to believe he could just fold."

This would be one of the times he disagreed. "Mr. Kennedy, I know Mr. Cousins' value, and that is why I am so thoroughly disappointed that he failed. I ought to have known it was too soon, after his troubles on Serenity. But perhaps this is a good indication that he was not only not ready to take his exam, but perhaps also not ready for his commission either. As a midshipman, he will have time to re-establish his equilibrium, and be better prepared next time."

There was nothing else to say, so we began to rise. I would have to move my own items tomorrow, something I did not relish doing.

Archie ran ahead in front of me, and was not surprised to see me pause at the door. He looked at me in understanding, and went on ahead.

"Sir..." I turned to speak to him once more.

The Captain had his hand on his head. "Mr. Hornblower, please, no more pleading. I am only following regulation."

I took a deep breath. "I understand that, Sir. But I also understand that you were far kinder to me in a similar situation than you were to Mr. Cousins tonight. I'm not speaking about the fact that you refused to declare me failed. Instead, I am referring to the words that you spoke to me, to encourage me to continue on, to keep working hard. I did not hear any of that this evening."

His eyes snapped. "Come, Mr. Hornblower, I hardly handed him his head. I cannot escape the fact, however, that I was counting on him. I have a difficult sail ahead, with Captain Hammond present, no less. Now I must in his place rely on Mr. Brandon, whom is skilled above decks more so than he admits, but not nearly so much as Mr. Cousins, and not nearly so much as he is at Doctoring. I am annoyed, yes, I am, because he failed. Now, if you will excuse me, I have much to work out." He frowned at me, turned his back to the window, and I understood the dismissal.

Risking my life, I took my head in my hands. "Aye, Aye, Sir." I looked at him with meaning. "However, Captain Pellew, I feel obligated to point out, that he failed the exam. He has never failed you."

I left before he could turn around, half expecting him to charge after me and have me court-marshaled. Either he didn't hear my statement, or he didn't pay it any mind, for he let me live.

***
Drew couldn't sleep.

Everything that had happened today had left him drained and miserable. If you'd told him when he'd left Indefatigable this morning, he'd return a Lieutenant, he'd have been thrilled. Now, all he was, was very very alone.

It was this blasted berth, his stupid quarters, his half-empty stupid quarters, and it made him sick.

Reg should be here. Reg should, he should, and that was all there was too it. Childish though it may seem, all he could keep repeating to himself was that the stupid Navy was too stupid for its own good, and he could not believe that... that... that... the stupid Captain had no compassion for Reg at all!

And as soon as he let himself even think it, he felt awash in shame and remorse. How could he ever think such things about Captain Pellew? The man had been a father to him, when he so badly needed one. The man had given him every consideration, every compassion, every kindness, and here he was going and repaying him with such angry thoughts.

He was confused. He was undeniably angry at Captain Pellew, because he knew full well that had the situation been reversed, and Drew failed, he'd have gotten a pat on the back, a 'better luck next time', a 'you are still valued here' and been allowed to continue without feeling such a failure. And he didn't understand why the Captain could not extend that kindness to Reg. And he was angry at Reg, because he expected that Reg was likely never going to forgive him for passing. In hindsight, he wish he'd had the presence of mind to fail. At least then there would not be in such danger of a permanent rift in their friendship. To top it off, he hated himself, for daring to be angry at a man who'd saved his life, and who treated him as a son, and hated himself for daring to be angry at Reg, who had taken him under his wing, taught him everything he'd ever needed to know, and had taken him into his HOME, for God's sake.

And he couldn't sleep because, even with his father dead, he still feared night-time visitors, and this was the first time in all his days on Indefatigable (save for a few odd nights in the medical quarters) that he had slept in isolation. First crowded in as one of many mids, and then in here with Reg...there had been a safety, there. He missed that.

Besides which, all of the confusion and hatred and anger and peevishness had given him one colossal head-ache!

He rose to head to sick berth, because idiot that he was, he kept no powders with him. If he could not sleep, perhaps he could get some work done.

He was yawning ferociously when he reached his destination, which was dimly lit. Must be a man in the berth, he thought; he ought to have checked in with Johnson about patients when he returned. Already this Lieutenant nonsense was messing up the important things.

But as he entered the room he saw one man, not sick, but waiting, sitting at the table beside a flickering lantern, his head down on his hands.

"Reg?" Drew whispered, approaching quietly.

Slowly, his friend raised his head. His eyes were somewhere between hope and despair. "Mr. Brandon." He said, quietly. "We swore, but a few days ago, that in this room we would always be equals. Is...is that still true?"

With a gulp that hid his relief, Drew sat across from him. "Yes, it is. As long as you still want it to be."

Reg did not even attempt to disguise HIS relief, and he put his head back down in his arms. Drew, instinctively, reached over to grasp his arm. They were both silent, Drew patient, Reg composing himself. Finally, he lifted his head and spoke. "I wish, Drew, that the Captain were not so angry about it."

So he had noticed. "He's disappointed, is all. This is not what anyone expected." Drew took a deep breath. "What did you get wrong, Reg?"

A scowl settled in on his friend's face. "Nothing. I got nothing wrong. I started out fine. My answer was right, but Hammond got in my face and started twisting my words...and before I knew it he had me contradicting myself, and then I got angry and gave a rather oblique little insult, and that really ticked him off. It does not matter. He never intended I should pass."

"But what of the other Captains?" Drew gasped.

"I think they felt pretty sorry for me. But they were also both very junior, and I don't think there was a thing they could do." He sighed deeply. "God, Drew, this is going to be one long trip back to England, with me at his mercy."

"He is not our Captain." Drew started, but then remembered that Captain Pellew had seemed to side, to a degree, with Captain Hammond.

"But I am only a midshipman, and he can and will try to make my life a living hell." Reg's deep brown eyes met his own stare then, eyes filled with gratitude. "It would have been an utterly unbearable journey if I had lost your friendship with it."

"Lose MY friendship? I had thought you were angry at me!" Drew protested.

Reg shook his head. "Not angry. Embarrassed. And ashamed. That I had been so full of myself that I never considered failing. But I AM happy for you, Drew. There was just no way to find the voice to tell you that earlier."

Drew grasped Reg's hand tightly. "Nothing will ever end our friendship, Reg. Do you understand me? Captains be damned."

Reg gave a faint chortle of gratitude.

Drew was just glad that he hadn't picked up on the plural Captains.

***

*Damn you, Horatio Hornblower, and your unfailing sense to protect the injustice you see!* Bitterly, Captain Sir Edward Pellew stared out the windows, his hand gripped tightly on a brandy snifter. Tonight was to have been his finest hour, and instead a tightly woven plan...one none of his men could even begin to know about...had come unraveled like an aged sail.

But to have Hortaio, HORATIO, remonstrate with him, was the bitterest brew of all. It left a painful pit in his stomach, made all the worse by the sure and certain knowledge that Horatio was right. He had been irrational. He had been cruel. But Horatio didn't know what had been at stake, and neither did anyone else. For Admiral Parker was dying.

Admiral Parker, Pellew's champion, the one who'd let him work with four Lieutenants to begin with. Who had promoted him to Commodore. Who was powerful enough that Hood and his flunkey Hale could not really damage him, not overtly. Parker was brilliant and unfailing, and just. And he was dying.

The confession had come following his reports on the Serenity incident. Parker wished Pellew to be prepared. And together, they had created a plan, one that would keep Pellew, and most importantly HIS MEN, out of Hood's grasp.

It was certain, with Parker out of the way, Pellew would be given whatever the least desirable transfer available to one of his rank at the time. And his men should be scattered to the wind; somehow, Hood would never allow him to keep Hornblower and Kennedy. Therefore, Parker planned to take pre-emptive strikes.

As the Indefatigable would be broken up no matter what, the key would be to do it in the most advantageous manner. That had been a particular reason for his anger when he'd learned Horatio had refused a command. Though it came from Hood, it had played into his hands. With Horatio promoted to Commander, he would need a Lieutenant. Mr. Kennedy would do nicely. The two of them, in control of their own little ship. And some of his men, his Indefatigable men, could transfer with them.

As Horatio had declined command, other actions would take place on their return to England in a few weeks' time. Pellew would be given command of a ship of the line; the best one Parker had. Hood would have no way to remove him from the ship without a genuine reason. However, in exchange for this, it was equally unlikely that he would be allowed to transfer all of his Lieutenants with him.

But there were options. Captain Clark, on Dunbarton and without having yet caused Hood any undue stress, needed two Lieutenants; Hornblower and Kennedy would transfer to him as second and third. It seemed important to Pellew that they be transferred together; they learned more from each other with every journey, and their strengths and weaknesses were mirror, rather than identical. In another year they would both be totally ready for command.

It was expected that Pellew would be forced to take in a first and second Lieutenant of lengthy standing. In fact, Parker had plans as to who those men would be...steady men, though not brilliant, that he felt were best in the hands of a solid Captain; two men not likely to be promoted soon. But Captain Pellew would be allowed to sneak in a third and fourth of his own choosing. Cousins and Brandon, of course. His stealth weapons. Enough in the shadows of the reputations of Hornblower and Kennedy that they would not have attracted attention. But he knew their worth. He could have them both with him, nurture them, watch them mature, and then see them advantageously placed as well.

Now, with Lord Exton dead, the need for Drew's promotion was not as dire. If HE'D failed, Pellew knew he could always bring him along as ship's doctor. But Reg was key to the equation. He needed him!

Yes, damn it, he needed him. He'd grown to rely a good deal on Reg, the same way he'd relied on Horatio during his early days. Now, Horatio had grown beyond that, was ready to take flight. But to have a man he could so thoroughly trust by his side, even as third Lieutenant...there was no words for the value in that. A good example for the younger men. Someone he could count on to know his moods, his quirks. When newer Lieutenants would try and play politic to their Captain, he'd have one man who could (and would) give an honest answer. Someone who wasn't afraid of him.

But as a midshipman? Pellew'd like as not be given a bunch of green ones for his new ship. He could try and transfer some of his current young men to Bracegirdle, perhaps, or to Clark on Dunbarton. But HE had a reputation now...so Parker told him...of being a good Captain for young midshipmen to serve with. The result was men clamoring to get a particular young gentlemen assigned to him. Gone, now, would be the days when a simple farmer like Samuel Cousins could just ask him to accept his son on his ship. Patronage was at stake. Games were played. That was how he'd ended up with Coleman (he shuddered). And all the more reason, should he end up with a bunch of boys like that spoiled progeny, that he have the calming influence of Lieutenant Reg Cousins.

And now there was no Lieutenant Reg Cousins. There was Lieutenant Drew Brandon, excellent physician, decent officer, and entirely rudderless without the steadying influence of his best friend. Cousins might be lucky and end up serving with Bracegirdle or Clark, but could just as well end up with Foster or Hammond, or somebody equally repulsive. And he would miss him.

And Captain Pellew knew he would never, after the reputation the lad had developed, be able to talk Admiralty, even with Parker's influence, into bringing Horatio with him to his new assignment. And he couldn't talk himself into it, either. Hornblower would come on as a third lieutenant, not a first, and behind two men of such long standing that he would find it stultifying.

So did he ask Kennedy to come with him? Even though he suspected that it was in the Navy's best interest to keep Hornblower and Kennedy aligned for a little while longer? The same way he'd believed it would have been better if he and his old friend Grey had the opportunity to serve longer. Foolish sentiment, perhaps. Yet it was what he'd believed.

He was bitter, angry, and ashamed; that he had been so proud he'd never seen this coming! Never considered it possible Mr. Cousins would fail. So he'd taken that anger out on the man he'd been so counting on.

*He failed the exam. He's never failed you.*

Of course, Cousins knew none of this. Nobody did; how could he have added that sort of pressure to the lad? Not when the boy had enough of it lately.

He felt sorry, suddenly, tremendously sorry for Cousins and the thoughts that must have gone through his mind when he'd entered the exam room. Just like Horatio, he'd lost his head at the sight of his most feared demon. He could understand it, but he couldn't excuse it, and he couldn't help being human enough for it to show.

He poured another glass of brandy, hoping it would knock him out. Perhaps things should look better in the morning.

Footsteps above. Quiet shuffling. A distant "shore-boat ahoy."

A visitor? At this time of night? Damn, but this portended nothing good!

And putting the brandy down, he rose and straightened out his uniform. He had just enough time to prepare before Midshipman Howard arrived with his guest.

"Captain Pellew, Sir? Captain Chalk, of the Neptune, is requesting a meeting with you, Sir.

 

***

"Captain Chalk?" Captain Pellew was courteous, but only just. He was in no mood for a strange visitor this time of night. "This is rather late for a social call, Sir, but I am pleased to make your acquaintance." He laid rather more emphasis on the "late" than on the "pleased."

"I understand, Sir. But as I understand it we are both scheduled to depart from Gibraltar within the next few days, I fear that this was my only opportunity to address you. And as a matter of conscience, Sir, it was imperative that I DID address you before you departed.

Pellew's irritation waned slightly as his curiosity piqued. It had not hurt, either, for Chalk to invoke conscience. It was too rare, he often thought bitterly, to find other Captains who had one. "Then I would ask you to please sit, Sir. Might I offer you a glass of brandy?"

Chalk smiled thinly. "I would be happy to accept, Sir."

With all due ceremony, Pellew poured libation for them both, although he realized he'd probably be getting close to his limit. He must drink slowly; but he could not have Chalk drink alone.

"Captain Pellew, I know no easy way of explaining what occurred this evening, but I must try. I was on the exam board that tested your two young men today."

"Ah." So there was a logical reason for this man's appearance. He remembered Harvey's letter explaining Horatio's exploits. Of course, he had a personal relationship with Harvey, and this man meant nothing to him at all. "I hope it is not with a complaint about either of the young men that you are here?"

"A complaint? Quite the opposite, Sir. Indeed, I am here to issue a most heartfelt apology at what I was unable to prevent occurring."

"An apology, Sir? For what reason?" Curiosity was getting the better of his distemper.

"For the abysmal treatment of what to my observation was a very fine young man and an excellent officer. I am speaking, of course, of the unjust failure of Midshipman Reginald Cousins."

Speech left him. And forgetting his resolve, he tossed back the rest of his brandy in one gulp.

"You are surprised, Sir. I had rather doubted that the young man would have told you exactly what transpired. I'm not so far removed from my youth that I cannot understand how reluctant he'd be to discuss injustice with his Captain. It smacks of whining, and Mr. Cousins did not appear to be the whining type."

"He most emphatically is not, Captain Chalk, even when he has had reason to be." Captain Pellew's skin began to crawl. "What, exactly, transpired this evening?"

"I am guessing that you are aware of a certain animosity between Captain Hammond, who lead the exam board, and your young man?"

"Yes, I do know of that." Now there was an understatement.

"Well, whatever its cause, Sir, I can tell you that Captain Hammond immediately almost rejoiced to see the young man on our list of examinees. And informed us that he was to handle the questioning personally."

"Himself?" Pellew felt the cords in his neck strain. "But the exam is to be a trial by committee to prevent any personal issues from influencing the exam."

"Quite, Sir." Chalk was embarrassed. "But I have only just made post, and the other member of the board has been post only a year. If there were a way to refuse his request, I am not aware of it."

"No, no I don't suppose you can do that. I know Hammond well enough." Bitterness crept into this voice. "So he chose questions purposely that Mr. Cousins could not answer?"

"It was not questions, Sir, it was question; and though it was a difficult one, I can assure you, Mr. Cousins did answer it, perfectly and with a great aplomb. This, despite the fact that Hammond couched the question in what I can only say are the most insulting terms."

Captain Pellew blinked, uncomprehending. "Are you telling me, Sir...are you telling me..." He began to seethe. "That Midshipman Cousins did NOT fail?"

"I am telling you that he should NOT HAVE failed. I of course, cannot override Hammond's decision."

"I see." With effort he put the snifter down. "How, Sir, did he justify this?"

"He was all over the young man, immediately, decrying what was in fact a correct answer as being simplistic and in error. In what I can only describe as cruelty, he methodically tore apart every word the young man spoke, even decrying the fact that the answer was from the text book."

"And so Mr. Cousins lost his composure!" Damned Hammond, and damn the entire exam system that would not permit this to be rectified.

But Chalk had leaned forward, a gleam in his eye. "No, Sir! That is just it! He DID NOT loose his composure. In fact, he was able to come up with a further solution to the problem, an inventive one that answered every objective Hammond had thrown at him, and he did it without flinching! If there were a test to demonstrate courage under fire, he would have passed with ease."

Captain Pellew could only shake his head. "Every word you speak, Sir, disturbs me more and more."

"Good, because it disturbed me to watch it happen." Chalk took a good look over the Captain. "I am glad to see, Captain Pellew, that you agree with me that this was an injustice. I do not pretend to have an answer, but I know that had one of my loyal men been so abysmally abused, I would wish to know it. And with your reputation, I felt certain that you would feel the same way."

He raised an eyebrow suddenly. "My reputation, Sir?"

"Partially from your Lieutenant Kennedy...I had the command of the Sophia for his return from his own Lieutenant's exam. And partially from something Mr. Cousins said himself."

Pellew looked at the Captain in surprise. "He mentioned me in the exam?"

"Not directly. However, his creative answer...the question, by the way, dealt with the placement of a fothered sail...was that he, as Captain, if the situation was dire and lives were on the line, should dive over the side to make certain that the sail found the leak. I felt it really was an ingenious answer, and was impressed that he came up with it." Chalk's face, indeed, lit up.

Knowing of Hornblower's history, and understanding that the solution had probably been a frequent topic of conversation between Horatio and Reg, the Captain could only smile. "I am afraid you have pegged the wrong man for inspiration in that particular instance."

"I do not think so." Chalk smiled in turn. "For Hammond was aghast at his solution, that a Captain should perform a task so beneath him, and asked where he ever got the example that this was acceptable behavior, the boy replied, and I quote, 'I have lived, Sir, with that example and by that example, every day that I have served in His Majesties Navy.' I very nearly applauded him, Sir."

Captain Pellew turned in his chair uncomfortably. "He said...that?" He murmured, shaking his head. And he ran his fingers over his face, weary and tired suddenly, the effects of the brandy and the shock combining to do him in. "More fool he."

"I do not think so, Sir." Chalk tapped his glass thoughtfully. "I have heard enough about you from independent sources to believe he is more or less on the mark. However..." Chalk took a deep breath. "I also understand that you have the misfortune to be sailing to England with Captain Hammond?"

Pellew sighed, deeply. "Alas, Captain Chalk, that is also true. Five minutes ago I was not overly worried about that, as it never occurred to me that Hammond's role in this was MALICIOUS."

"Understood, Sir. Which is why I am about to make an offer..." Again, he paused, running his finger nervously over the glass' rim. "Self serving though it may seem. If, Captain Pellew, you have worries about the young man on this sail, it would be my honor to accept him on board the Neptune."

Addled with brandy, Pellew was slow to understand the request. "You are suggesting...a transfer?" His voice rose slightly, eyes flinty, and he stared at Chalk, trying to decide if the man had had an ulterior motive all along.

"Temporary, of course, Sir!" Chalk hastened to end any suggestion of manipulation. "I'd be happy to transfer him back to you once you return to Gibraltar...we are both a part of the same patrol. Believe me when I say I do not intend to steal one of your most valuable men. I only have his best interest at heart."

"Are you suggesting, Sir, that I cannot keep one of my midshipmen safe on board Indefatigable?"

"Naturally not. But I may note the presence of two brother Captains did not dissuade Hammond from physically assaulting the young man in the exam board."

His anger deflated into shock. "Assaulting? How so, Sir?"

"He grabbed the man and shook him near to pieces, before striking him. He would have struck him twice, in fact, but I interceded. He also made multiple threats to his person during the upcoming voyage. And after all, Sir, a midshipman is almost defenseless against an officer on a tirade."

Captain Pellew felt his insides turn to stone. "Captain Hammond struck one of my officers?" His voice was a quiet hiss, the low rumble that his men would have recognized as a clear danger sign.

"Indeed he did, Sir. I am sorry I was unable to prevent it, but it quite took me by surprise."

"I would imagine it did, Captain Chalk, as you seem to be a most reasonable and fair man. Treachery in a brother Captain is always unexpected, and disappointing." But the Captain's eyes were not softened at all. He was beset by visions of slowly strangling Captain Hammond, in all of his bloated glory, until the man ceased to be a source of torment for any man.

Finally Chalk rose, sensing that Pellew had reached his limits for discussing treachery, and afraid he had offended the man by suggesting the transfer. "I thank you for your time, Captain, but perhaps it is best if I take my leave."

Pellew stood abruptly and extended his hand. "Captain Chalk, what you have told me this evening is disturbing, but I must thank you, Sir, for having the integrity to pass the information on. I feel...though it gives me no pleasure to say it, Sir, that I must extend your offer to Mr. Cousins. The choice shall be his, and I shall respect it."

"Again, Sir, I understand that his loyalty is to you." Chalk smiled in relief. "I have only his best interest at heart."

"As do I, Sir. He is a good man." Better, perhaps, than I deserve, Captain Pellew added in his mind.

It was only after Chalk had left, that he turned towards the windows and wondered whether he should proceed this evening, or leave the question to the morning. He hated to disturb Mr. Cousins' sleep. Then again, how likely was it that the young man was having any?

And how to proceed from there? Would he imply, by the offer of transfer, that he was displeased with his performance? Would it be construed as an insult? The Captain was thoroughly upset that he had not been more supportive of the young man on his return. Horatio was right; Reg had not failed him; he'd done everything a Captain could ask. Instead, he had been let down by his Captain.

Meanwhile, Hammond... The angry burn started in his chest, and Pellew glared out the window into the inky blank darkness. Stupidity and cruelty were a bad mix; and Pellew could only wonder at how the man had ever been made post. He'd seen the man mistreat midshipmen on Calypso, beating them on a mere whim; he'd seen the man react as if to a Capital offense for the smallest breech in protocol, when a serious issue of dereliction of duty would be allowed to slide. But the man had crossed the line...he had mistreated and abused one of his own men, and a man, too, whom could and should be a valued officer to the Navy.

The sound of the glass crunching in his hand alerted him to the fact that he had crushed the snifter to shards even before the sharp pain did.

Damn! He dropped the remains of the snifter on to the floor and grabbed his kerchief, to stop the bleeding. The cut did not seem deep, but like it or not, he was to be heading to sick berth; he did not need to spend the evening bleeding all over his cabin.

 

***

Pellew made it to the sick berth quickly, hoping to find Johnson or some loblolly boy who was not too terror-struck at the thought of assisting his him. He dearly hoped he would not find Drew; he was not certain he was up to it. The boy could read him like a book, and he was well aware that the young man had been offended by his treatment of Reg Cousins earlier that day.

He spotted a flickering light in the berth as he entered. Thinking there might be a man present who was ill (and why hadn't anyone told him?) he came forward slowly. And pulled up short when he realized what he saw before him.

Reg Cousins. Drew Brandon. Sitting across from each other at a table, a flickering lantern dancing off of their hair and faces. Two cups of half drained tea, now cold, resting at their elbows. Each one with their heads down on their folded arms, fast asleep.

Bless me, Pellew thought. They had found the one place on the ship where rank did not matter, and claimed it for their haven.

Understanding how Drew reacted to an abrupt awakening, he approached silently, and then very gently reached out to Mr. Brandon's shoulder, touching it with less weight than a feather as it would fall to the ground. Then, so as not to startle the boy, he rubbed his shoulder slowly. After a few seconds, he felt Drew freeze, awake but frightened. The Captain continued his gentle rub, so the boy would know: friend, not foe. And with a deep breath, Drew raised his head stiffly, and turned to face his visitor.

"Captain?" He murmured, blinking sleep from his eyes. Then, as if watching a stage play, Pellew saw the events from the day parade through the boy's memory, and the blue eyes went a calculated icy shade. They scrutinized him, questioned him, perhaps even challenged him, all without a word being spoken.

"Mr. Brandon." Captain Pellew whispered. "I must beg two favors of you. First, I seem to have cut myself, and could use assistance. Second, I should like then to have a few moments alone with Mr. Cousins. I must speak to him, and it needs to be private."

Drew's eyes never wavered, but judged him in the balance. And then the expression eased, and there was a slight smile. "Of course, Sir." He whispered back, rising from the table, limber as only a sixteen year-old could be in the circumstances. "Here, Sir, let me take a look at you."

Drew pulled him into the old medical quarters of their long-forgotten former doctor, so as not to wake Reg. He removed the kerchief, and gave a pouty frown. "Glass shards in here, Sir. I must be careful." He disappeared for a moment, and then returned with a basin of water and tweezers. "Reg needs the sleep, Sir. I hope you do not mind that we work in here?"

"Of course not." The Captain said, holding back a wince as Drew went to work. "No point in waking him before necessary."

Drew cast a quick glance up at him from his work. "My question is, Sir, did you throw the glass, and at whom?"

Pellew tried to force a chuckle. "I did not throw it, I crushed it to powder."

A few moments went by, as Drew began to bandage his hand, murmuring, "No stitches, Sir. You'll mend." His touch was gentle, as he returned to his previous thoughts. "Why did you crush the glass?"

Wants to make certain I am not angry WITH Mr. Cousins, before he releases his friend to my care! "I had a visitor. Captain Chalk, from the exam board."

"Indeed, Sir." Drew sat back, his expression troubled. "And?"

"And...I think that Captain Hammond had best stay out of both of our ways, Mr. Brandon, if he knows what is good for him." Captain Pellew relented at last.

Drew gave him his warmest grin. "Sir...have I explained to you the medicinal properties of aloe?"

***
Captain Pellew, hand bandaged, separated from his young Doctor at the door to the medical berth. With an understanding nod, Drew headed away, towards his own bed, leaving Pellew alone with Reg.

The young officer was still sleeping, his hair splayed over his shoulder, his breathing deep and even. He looked so impossibly young at the moment, so much more child than man. And yet Pellew'd seen him in circumstances that would make most men run screaming, standing tall and steady, a rock in chaos. Like Horatio, he showed the promise, even this young, of being a leader of men. He worked well with the young midshipman, leading by example and offering friendship and advice. His own division were loyal, devoted to him and hard working. Why should he be penalized for the irrational behavior of one Captain? Reg Cousins was worth a thousand Hammonds.

Yet suffer he would, because of Hammond, and all Pellew wished to do was to mitigate the damage done to a promising officer's career.

He took Drew's place, and almost reached out to touch Reg, but paused, and pulled his hand back. Clearing his throat, he knocked briskly on the table.

"Mr. Cousins?" His voice was formal but not unkind.

Reg, ever the officer, sat upright quickly, startled but desperately trying to pull himself together. "Sir?" Captain Pellew tried not to smile at his confused face, as he tried to make sense of the world, waking abruptly from a deep sleep in a strange place. "My apologies, Sir, I must have drifted off...it is inexcusable..." He gulped, blinking helplessly.

"Why? You are not on duty." Pellew pointed out, wryly. "Though I myself could have come up with less uncomfortable perches than a table in sick berth."

"Yes, Sir...it's just..." Reg looked around, realizing finally that someone was missing. "Isn't Mr....Lieutenant Brandon...here, Sir?"

"Doctor Brandon just left us; I had to awaken him for some assistance, and then encouraged him to return to his bed. I am here now to speak with you, Mr. Cousins."

"Yes, Sir." Reg's face was immobile, expression blank. "I understand, Sir."

"Do you?" Pellew felt his eyebrow go up almost of its own accord. "And so what is it, Mr. Cousins, that you understand?"

Even in the dim, dancing lantern light, Pellew could see his wince. "I understand that you must be exceedingly disappointed, Sir."

"Yes, you are right on that account. I have come to count on you quite a bit, Mr. Cousins. You are a valuable officer, and I will not lie to you; I had assumed you would pass."

"Yes, Sir." His voice was misery, plain and simple; his eyes fell towards his hands, folded before him on the table.

"I obviously also did not plan on Captain Hammond being on your exam board." Pellew added, very gently.

Reg looked at him. Then with a deep breath he stuck out his chin. "I won't use Captain Hammond as an excuse, Sir. I assume Mr. Brandon told you about it, but however it happened, I failed. That is all that is of consequence."

"Yes, Mr. Brandon told me he was there, and with only that knowledge, though I could understand what your reaction would be, I would not have used it as an excuse either. Forgive me, Mr. Cousins, for not understanding what sort of treachery you faced."

His eyes widened. "Sir?"

"Captain Chalk came by to speak to me earlier, and told me of Hammond's behavior. I am thoroughly ashamed, on the behalf of the entire Navy, that you should have been subjected to that."

"Oh." Reg's pale face relaxed slightly. "Sir...I tried. I am not one to complain, but I do not think he meant for me to pass."

"Really, Mr. Cousins?" The Captain tried desperately to bring some lightness to this dire moment. "What gave that away? The fact he denied that your correct answer was correct, or the fact that he tried to shake you to pieces when you gave a further correct answer to his new conditions?"

The young man sighed, deeply. "He was...not charitable, Sir. It took me by surprise for him to be so vindictive. I expected him to try and intimidate me, but I hoped..." He ran his hands over his face. "I suppose I hoped that the fact that I would not be intimidated would actually impress him."

"Well, it impressed Captain Chalk." Pellew coughed once, and then looked away, into the murky shadows of the berth. "In fact, it impressed him so much that he has offered you a position on his ship. And I..." Oh, damned, this was hard. "I would not stand in your way if you chose to take it."

Reg lifted his head again, surprised. He leaned forward, staring down Pellew. "I beg your pardon, Sir. Are we talking about my transferring from Indefatigable?" His mouth remained opened slightly.

Gathering whatever courage he could, the Captain made his choice, distasteful though it was. "Yes, Mr. Cousins. In the light of your ongoing problems with Captain Hammond, Captain Chalk felt it would be in your best interest to not be on this ship for the sail to England."

"Captain Chalk felt it would not be in my best interest. I see." Keeping his face impassive, Reg slowly brought out the rest of his words. "And what, Sir, do YOU feel?"

Captain Pellew thought of the impending (and still unknown) break up of the Indefatigable. Thought about the fact that once in England he would have so little control over where this fine young man would end up. Here was a chance, a golden chance, to make certain that Cousins ended up on a good ship, with a Captain who deserved him. And who valued him as much as he deserved to be valued. And he forged ahead.

"I agree with Captain Chalk, Mr. Cousins. I think that a transfer would be the best thing that ever happened to you. A fresh start." He looked away, not wanting to see the hurt that he did not doubt was on the young man's face.

 

"A fresh start." Reg's voice was wooden and cold. "Of course, Sir. Naturally, if you wish me to go, I will go. Thank you for the consideration, Sir."

God, this was killing him, killing them both. But he could not let sentiment get in the way of doing what was best, for all considered. "We will make arrangements in the morning." He rose quickly and turned away, wishing himself out of the sick berth with all haste.

And a voice stopped him, at the passageway. A voice in his mind that had remained untouched for all these years. The voice of his long-dead friend William Grey. It interrupted his thoughts and shocked him into stillness.

*Do NOT do this Edward. It is a mistake, a mistake I tell you. Do not let this young man go! You NEED him, Edward. He is vital!*

*But how can I be so selfish as to keep him to an uncertain future.?* Pellew wondered, bewildered.

*KEEP HIM!*

Abruptly, Pellew turned back. He saw Cousins, with his head in his hands, slumped in dejection. "Mr. Cousins!" He snapped.

Cousins raised his head quickly, blinking, forcing himself calm. "Yes, Sir?"

"What do YOU want?" He stepped forward, back to the table.

"Sir?"

"I do NOT wish you to leave my command. But I have only your best interest at heart." He stressed the words 'best interest' as much as he could.

Reg straightened up, and stood. "Sir, if you do not want me to leave, then I do not wish to go."

Pellew nodded. "You understand, Mr. Cousins, that Captain Hammond will make every attempt to keep you in misery during our trip?"

Reg met his eyes with meaning. "I will not let CAPTAIN HAMMOND drive me from Indefatigable, Sir. That would be cowardice."

The Captain felt the corner of his mouth twitch. "I know you are no coward, Mr. Cousins. But you must, for both of our sakes, be on your best behavior. You must be the perfect officer."

"I would not ever wish to be anything else." And he stood proudly to attention.

The Captain managed not to smile, looking at Reg through half-closed eyes. "A man's worth is measured in more than his rank, Mr. Cousins. And I am honored to serve with you."

"The honor has been mine, Sir." Reg's voice shook a bit, and Captain Pellew knew he had best leave, before the both of them became disgustingly sentimental.

"One last word, Mr. Cousins, and I say this in the strictest of confidence." The Captain paused, wondering if he were doing the right thing, but decided he must go forward. "There are things happening, Sir, that you are unaware of. Once we arrive in England, it is possible you might be removed from my command anyway. I would hope that not to be the case, but I cannot guarantee it."

Reg didn't even question him. "I throw my fate in with you, Sir. Wherever you lead me to, I follow."

And the Captain did smile, a little, sad to know he could not do more for such a young man than this offer. "Very well, Mr. Cousins. You'd best retire, then; tomorrow shall be an adventure, to say the least."

"Aye, Aye, Sir. And, Sir?"

"Yes, Mr. Cousins."

"Thank you."