Passages: 1799
By Meanjean

Part 6

Drew stood on the quarterdeck. Another five minutes, and he'd be calling the men to line. It felt like he had a stone in his stomach. Not made any easier because he'd just had a...fight? words? with Morris! Morris, of all men.

No, it had not been a fight. Morris was far too good a man, and far too respectful of him, even without regards to his relationship with his daughter. Morris would never fight with a superior officer. But this time he disagreed, and the disagreement registered itself as disappointment, disappointment in Drew. And that, for him, was worse than a whiplash.

It had started innocently enough, just after breakfast, as Drew was making his way up from sick-berth. Horatio had been sleeping soundly, and he'd had the pleasure of clearing Anderson for work:

"Mr. Brandon, Sir...can I talk to you?" Morris stood hesitantly off to the sides, in the shadows.

"Of course." Drew had smiled warmly. "You can always speak to me, Morris."

His smile had faded when he got hold of the grim expression Morris wore. "Sir, there's rumors, Sir...yer going to make Marks walk the gauntlet?"

He had nodded seriously. "I am, Morris."

"Ye can't do that, Sir." His voice was vehement.

Drew blinked in surprise. "I do not see how I could remove the order at this point, Morris. Besides, he is guilty of very serious offences."

Looking uncomfortable, Morris blurted out, "But Sir...he saved your life!"

And with much stuttering and waving of hands, Morris set out to explain what he'd overseen and overheard, the day of the attack. And for the first time, Drew understood why he had been left on Indefatigable, when Mr. Kennedy was taken. He'd thought it strange, to be the only Lieutenant left behind; he now knew, Marks had lied for him.

"...so you see, Sir...you can't do this. It isn't right." Morris had finished, running his hands through his hair wildly. "He's a good man, at heart. Just needs to be around the right sort of folk."

"Morris." Drew kept his voice controlled. "I know you mean well. And yes, Marks is a good man; I can see that too. But you do not comprehend the seriousness of his offense. I could have ordered him hanged. I am doing what I can to save HIS life, Morris. This is the only way how."

"Sir...have you ever seen a gauntlet?" Morris stared him down in shock.

"I do not expect it to be pleasant, Morris." Drew snapped, his worn nerves fraying dangerously. "But I have seen men flogged before. He will survive."

"But the other men...he will be cut adrift!"

"This conversation is OVER, Morris. You are dangerously close to insubordination, Sir!" Drew forced himself to stand tall, and glare at a man he had previously considered a friend. "The punishment stands."

Morris shook his head. "Aye, aye, Sir." Then, with a scathing look of disapproval, he said, "I'd never have believed it of you." He paused. "Sir."

***
Drew closed his eyes against the memory. It had hurt. He couldn't deny it. He couldn't show it, either. He could hardly stand up on the quarterdeck and denounce Marks as a traitor whom had turned in Captain Pellew and left them all to an uncertain future...the man would find a knife in his back before the day was done. Yet only then could Morris understand that he was being LENIENT.

So instead he would stand on the quarterdeck and announce that Marks had been fomenting dissention, disturbing the harmony of the ship. Most of the men would understand and accept that; Marks had made himself a nuisance over the past weeks, griping and complaining. Hell, more than a few of them would probably think the punishment overdue.

There was a shuffling sound next to him, and he turned.

"Midshipman Anderson reporting for duty, Sir." He saluted crisply.

Drew nodded, glad for the company. "Very well, Mr. Anderson. I imagine you have heard about our events for the morning."

"Yes, Sir." Anderson did not question him. "When is it to start, Sir."

"Another couple of minutes." Drew looked straight ahead, but he felt Anderson settle in beside him, in similar stance. And he felt his support, though it was not visible. That relieved him. "How is your side, Anderson?" He asked quietly, glad to be able to be a Doctor for even a few seconds.

"It is well, Sir; hardly hurts at all." Anderson coughed discretely. "Sir, couldn't you...wouldn't you be happier down in sick berth right now, Sir? I am certain they might need you."

Drew managed not to smile at the kind lie. "Very thoughtful of you, Mr. Anderson. But I'd be a pretty poor leader if I ordered a punishment I did not have the courage to watch. The men would hold me in derision, and rightly so."

"Most of them know you, Sir. I mean, they UNDERSTAND." Anderson tried to explain himself.

"True. But if even one of them mistakes my absence, that is one man too many." Casting a quick glance at the glass, he nodded to Andrews. "Call hands to punishment."

He remained impassive as Andrews set the wheels in motion, and somehow he separated himself from his surroundings. A curious phenomenon! He'd become very good at it, in his life; trying to stay outside himself, separating his mind from his body. The last time he'd needed such artifice was when he was home...his father, beating him with the cane without mercy, and him, retreating behind his mental wall. Ironic that it was he who held the whip this time, so to speak.

He was so detached that he almost thought he imagined Anderson's clearly muttered, "Oh, Christ!" But the shock of the exclamation was enough to bring him slightly back to reality.

"Mr. Anderson, is something wrong?" He blinked.

"Oh...er...nothing, Sir...that is, let me take care of it. Stay there!"

Which, naturally, was enough to make Drew turn around and see what Anderson saw...Horatio! Blast him, HORATIO! Making his way up to the quarter-deck.

***
Drew saw me before I would have liked him to. He had seemed so lost in his own world that I thought I'd have a chance to actually stand beside him on quarterdeck before he noticed. Alas, Anderson had no such distraction, and I saw his eyes widen at the sight of me, read the exclamation on his lips and saw it bring Drew around.

I was being followed at annoyingly close proximity by Styles and Matthews. Just because I'd had a slight dizzy spell when I first came above decks. Now they were no more than two steps behind me, waiting for me to fall.

Meanwhile, Drew's face was going a lovely shade of deep magenta, and his eyes were a flinty ice-blue. His lips trembled as I took the steps gingerly, leaving my loyal men behind. As I suspected, though, he was loath to call me out in front of the whole ship, losing his dignity in the process. He waited until I was standing beside him

"Mr." Pause. "Hornblower." He growled through clenched teeth. "What. The. Devil. Are. You. Doing. Above. Decks. SIR."

"Trying to save you from yourself, Mr. Brandon." I answered lightly, wondering if that was the ship or my head moving in that manor.

Drew caught my teetering. "Mr. Anderson, please hold Mr. Hornblower steady so he does not go pitching to the deck, if you please."

"Aye, Sir." Anderson discretely stood next to me, giving me something to lean against.

I tried to pass of the entire incident very nonchalantly. "You are excused from duty, Mr. Brandon. Why don't you retire to sick berth for half an hour or so?"

"You, Mr. Hornblower, are totally out of line, to suggest that *I* should get to sick berth. How the devil did you get away from Lyman anyway?"

"I bullied him into letting me up here." I felt rather guilty about that, suddenly, as Drew's jaw set in a line. "Not his fault. I told him I was his superior officer, and he had better obey my order. Which is what I am about to say to you now. Get yourself below decks, Mr. Brandon. As the first Lieutenant, and therefore rightful commander of this ship in Captain Pellew's absence, that is an order."

"Oh, really? Well, as ship's doctor I am officially declaring you unfit for command. Which would leave the command of the ship to the next highest ranking officer...Me! Be careful or I will have you removed from the deck in irons."

All of this, mind you, was hissed back and forth to each behind a mask of the utmost dignity. Just at that moment a few men, unaware of my dramatic entrance just minutes before, spied me up on deck.

"Oy, Mr. Hornblower's upright! Lookee there, eh? Ah, we'll settle them Frenchies good now!"

I smiled at them, and then through my gritted teeth muttered, "Might I suggest that would not be good for morale...Sir!"

He smiled back and in the same manner replied, "Do you think it would be better for morale to hide from witnessing a punishment that *I* have ordered? Especially as I'll have command of this vessel for a few days yet, if not longer considering you've probably damaged yourself in some way by rising too early."

"That's the second time you've used that argument...Sir." Anderson said, and then looked as if he wished he hadn't.

"Sounds to me like you're trying to convince yourself." I said, triumphantly. "You don't have anything to prove to me or anyone else on this ship. There's no need for you to torture yourself. Just give in on this, Drew, and then I will go quietly below decks, meek as a lamb, for however much longer you request."

I thought I had him, for a moment. Maybe I did. Until his clear blue eyes caught sight of Morris, among those lining up to mete punishment. Morris looked at him, a look I could not fathom...disgust, almost?

Drew did not blink, but he spoke very quietly. "Horatio. I cannot run from this. I would lose the respect of one man, certain sure, and that would be disastrous. Morris would never forgive me for the cowardice, and he is Violet's father. I understand your concern for me, but please understand my position. Do not undermine me in his eyes." He paused. "Please?"

I cleared my throat. "I will not leave you, then."

"I do not object to the company, even if you should never have gotten out of your bed." He admitted. "The support is welcome."

"Very well then." I coughed. "It is your deck, Mr. Brandon. Begin when you are ready."

***
I rested in sick berth, worn and feeling sick. Drew was emphatically right; I had been in no condition to be above decks. Thankfully, Johnson tells me I did not damage my abdominal injuries, but the journey did my head no good at all.

Nor the commotion. When Drew...in a booming voice that reminded me more of the Captain than I would have believed possible...called out the punishment, I became so nauseous I thought I would lose it right there. My ears rang for several minutes more. I watched Reg, taking the lead as I once had been forced to; Matthews, ever the leader, followed Marks. But my thoughts never left the grave young man beside me, who didn't flinch, didn't waver, didn't cringe.

His face did drain of color though, so slowly that at first I did not notice. As Marks continued his march, being lashed repeatedly by his shipmates, Drew's complexion faded. Indeed, it was as if the blood drawn from the unfortunate man below came from the young man next to me. By the time Mark's cruel cycle had been completed (the flogging taken stoically, with little noise and less show than Bunting had put up) Drew looked ghastly, his face waxen, his eyes rigidly fixed forward as he dismissed the company.

"Mr. Anderson, please get Mr. Hornblower back to sickberth." He said, shortly. "I shall hold the deck until your return."

Anderson looked as if he'd like to hesitate, but an order was an order after all. "Aye, aye, Sir."

Still not taking his eyes off of the horizon, Drew continued quietly. "While in sick berth, please alert Johnson that Marks will need tending. He is to be shown every kindness. I will not tolerate any further cruelty." He swallowed hard. "Make certain the men are made aware of that."

"Of course, Sir." Henry nodded, and then grasped my arm. "Come, Mr. Hornblower."

I would have protested, except Mr. Cousins came up to take my place, and I knew I was leaving Drew in capable hands.

That was several hours ago...I am not certain I even know how long, for I dozed off almost as soon as my head hit the pillow. But now, Marks rests across from me, laying still; his raw back exposed to the air to promote healing. Johnson had sponged him off with cool water earlier, but now the best treatment was to simply let it rest. I am not certain if it will even be that debilitating to him; his back was so scarred from his service on Calypso that he was protected from serious injury.

Footsteps came in quietly, and I looked up to see Drew, still pale, enter the berth quietly. He didn't seem to see me at first, but went straight to Marks, kneeling beside him gingerly.

"I'm...sorry." He whispered, and I heard his voice catch.

Marks lifted his head gingerly. "Ain't nobody's fault but me own, Sir. Don't fret now."

"How can I not?" Drew shook his head. "Morris tells me you saved my life, and how have I repaid you?"

"By saving mine." Marks grunted as he raised his head further, propping himself up on his elbow. "Ye've given me a chance, Mr. Brandon. To make something of me life. Nobody else's ever done that."

"Yes, well..." Drew took a cup of tea (the smell of the willow-bark wafted up to my nose) and raised it to Marks' lips. "I have had my share of second chances myself, Marks. Had I not wound up on this ship, I do not like to guess what my life might have become." He exhaled slowly. "Still not certain what it'll end up being, to tell you the truth. I'm out of my element right now."

"Bollocks." Marks grinned. "Yer doing fine, ye are. A fine Captain. Better 'n Hammond, leastways."

Drew gave a little laugh. "That, Marks, is called damning with faint praise!"

"Huh?"

"Never mind." He shook his head. "I thank you for the compliment, and quite agree with you about Hammond. Now you, Sir...get some rest, you hear? We will need your help to get Captain Pellew back."

"Aye, aye, Captain." He murmured, the willow-bark already soothing him. And Drew sat for another five minutes, until Marks was obviously well asleep.

"Drew..." I called out to him, softly.

He sat back on his haunches, and half turned to me. Giving me a wan smile and a little shrug, he shifted position and leaned back against my cot, sitting on the floor. I put my hand on his shoulder.

"It is over now." I said.

"Yes." He rubbed his face, and then ran his hand over his hair. "Thank God, and let's hope I never have to order something like that again."

"You are very brave."

"Rubbish." He said, quickly. "Ordering another man beaten senseless does not make you brave, Horatio."

"Standing up to your worst fears does." I rebutted. "I remember well enough what it was like when I had to walk one of my men through the Gauntlet." Poor, stupid Bunting...whom I had never quite been able to reach. Drew is already well ahead of me in that regard. "I know there was no such thing that happened in your tenure here, but..."

"Yes, there was." He interrupted.

"What?" I thought over the past three years. "Surely not?"

"While you were in prison. I didn't witness it, because I was recovering; in fact, I was the cause. Captain Pellew ordered Hepplewhile through the gauntlet twice because he attacked me." Drew turned and with excellent foresight pinned me to the bed, for I had started to rise in indignation.

"When the...what did he..."

"Hush, Horatio. It was a long time ago." He kept the pressure up on my chest until he felt me collapse back on to the pillow. "He beat me just enough to weaken me, tied me up, and poured half a bottle of gin down my throat."

"You don't drink spirits!" I gasped.

"I would imagine that is why he did it!" Drew gave me a shrug. "Captain Pellew was..." Drew's eyes warmed suddenly. "By God, Horatio, he was magnificent in his anger. I couldn't believe it, you know. My entire life nobody with power had ever tried to defend me, had ever stood up on my behalf. That was like... like...it was like sunshine, Horatio; like sunshine after a long and dark week of storms."

And his jaw grew determined, suddenly, his eyes serious, flinty-cold. "I will get him back here, Horatio. I will not let the French lead him to the Guillotine. The few hours when I thought he was dead were the worst of my life, and I will bring him back."

I squeezed his shoulder in complete understanding. "We will bring him back together."

***
May 9th

"So, Hammond dines with the bloody Captain again, leaving us this slop?" Archie's exasperation was infectious. Captain Pellew rubbed his unshaven chin, and wished desperately for a razor and a bath. They were, he believed, in their fourth day of imprisonment, and still no clearer as to how to extricate themselves from this situation. It had apparently broken through the normally cheerful demeanor of Mr. Kennedy.

A new situation had developed within the past hours. The ship's movement had changed, become erratic, occasionally violent. Heavy waves, he thought. Storm coming.

"The weather might help us."

Archie looked up from the congealing gruel. "How so, Sir?"

"Slow down the French. They are not known for keeping ships that wear weather well."

"So I've noticed." Archie shifted. "This one seems to be in perpetual disrepair...the officers are shoddy...I should be ashamed to be an officer here."

"The French are not born sailors, Mr. Kennedy." Said Pellew, with all the smug arrogance of a British Navy Captain; though perhaps this was excusable. "We are an island nation. The sea has always been a big part of our life."

"Still." Archie thought out the problem. "Indefatigable was not at her best when we left her."

"Mr. Cousins will have her fit."

"Sir...the mast was badly damaged." Archie protested.

Captain Pellew could not help but chuckle. "Not as badly damaged as the last time he had to repair it. Trust me, Mr. Kennedy. The Indefatigable will be more seaworthy than this barge."

Footsteps echoed, and Captain Pellew and Archie were instantly silent. Hammond rolled in, groaning.

"Sea-sick, Sir?" Archie asked in faux concern, as the door banged shut. "Tut, that's a shame."

"Damn you, Sir. Have you no compassion for a man ill?"

"You dare speak of compassion?" Archie started, but Pellew grabbed him.

"Easy now, Hammond. We are none of us at our best here, and our tempers grow short. Once you get used to the motion of the ship, I am certain you shall feel better."

"I AM NOT SEASICK. Captain's in the British Navy do not get..." And he retched, with suddenness that made both Archie and Pellew jump.

"Oh, God...here." He handed Hammond his empty porridge bowl. The guard outside laughed. Archie rose quickly. "A bucket, please?"

The guards laughed harder. "Damn, what is French for bucket, Sir? Do you have any idea?"

"My languages are poor at best." Pellew shook his head.

"And I only speak Spanish. Where is Horatio when I need him!" He said, shaking his head in despair, for the smell was becoming...rank.

"BUCKET!" He yelled again, as Hammond evidenced signs of renewed illness.

Finally, one of them took pity on them and handed him a pail.

"Here you go, Sir." Archie held the receptacle up to Hammond's mouth. "Rough seas, eh?"

Pellew, on the other side of Hammond, shook his head. "No such luck, Mr. Kennedy." Hammond groaned and fell back against the wall. "He's feverish as well." Archie, mouth agape, looked Pellew in the eye. "I am afraid we are looking at illness, Mr. Kennedy. Whether food borne or air, we shall soon see."

Archie looked down with concern at the sweating, panting Hammond, and up at his Captain. The three of them had been in close proximity for days. "I guess we shall, Sir."

***
Reg Cousins spied Morris at his usual work, keeping an eye on the other men in his division, particularly Thomas, who could be a bit of a cut-up. Much like the relationship Matthews had with Styles, Morris seemed to regard Thomas as his personal responsibility. The man had been one of Reg's best, since the day he had first been assigned to oversee a division. When he had been imprisoned on Serendipity, it was Morris' hand that reached down to deliver him.

But ever since Drew had ordered Marks through the gauntlet two days ago, his manner had been reserved and downright cold. Not so much to Reg, but to Drew, certainly. Reg would have rather'd the cut had been directed at him, for it would have bothered him less. But he could not let this go on. It was eating Drew up inside, even if he would not show it or articulate it.

"Morris, can I have a word with you please?" And as Drew had done with Marks, he pulled the man aside.

"Aye, Sir?" Morris said, shuffling over to him.

Thing was, Reg wasn't quite sure what to say, or how to phrase it, but he had to try. "Morris, I am very disappointed in your attitude towards Mr. Brandon."

Morris didn't look surprised at all. "I'm sorry, Sir. I've not been disrespectful at all, I hope." His voice was even, and unemotional.

"You have been not, nor would you ever be. But there is a difference between respect and admiration, a difference between respect and caring. He loves your daughter. You used to care about him, and he felt that. He feels your change in attitude now." Reg studied him carefully. "It is not easy to be thrust into a leadership role unexpectedly, Morris. Having men you depend on not be there for you only makes it more difficult."

Morris shuffled his feet, looking down at them, but he didn't answer.

"Do you think he enjoyed issuing that order, Morris? Seeing a man beaten so badly? Of all people, do you not think Mr. Brandon would have avoided doing it if he could have?"

Morris grimaced. "Wasn't right, Sir. Captain Pellew wouldn't a done it."

Reg shook his head. "Your right, Morris. Knowing what I know about the situation, there is a very real chance that Captain Pellew would have had him hanged. And had it been my decision, without knowing of extenuating circumstances, I would have done the same. So you see, Mr. Brandon was showing compassion. And if you do not believe me, ask Marks."

Morris stared in disbelief. "Hanging? Sir, it was just loose talk, is all. You don't hang a man for that."

"No, you don't." Reg's voice was firm. "So you might want to ask yourself, what else was Marks guilty of, that Mr. Brandon opted not to make public, and not to act on? Again, you see, Mr. Brandon has exercised tremendous restraint and understanding. Understanding, because he can see that Marks was badly mistreated, and because he knows what it is like to be mistreated himself."

Reg made Morris meet his eye. "Marks himself has not shown any anger towards Mr. Brandon. Indeed, he has been even more respectful towards him, and is eager to return to work to assist us in rescuing the Captain. It should be evidenced that Mr. Brandon insists on him not exerting himself, and opening any wounds, making then ripe for putrification. What else must he do to convince you of his concern for his men?"

Morris' face was a deep red. "I didn't know, Sir...I didn't know."

"No, you didn't. Yet you judged him anyway. You are so concerned at what Marks did to save Mr. Brandon's life; yet you showed little enough compassion for the man who saved yours. You must know your behavior hurts him terribly." Reg looked over the deck, at the various men going about their duties. "I have valued your service, Morris. What Matthews has been to Mr. Hornblower, you have always been for me." He gave Morris one last look. "I know, in the future, I can expect better from you than this."

 

And without looking backwards, he walked away.

***
Drew came above decks, into the cool night air. The ship rocked heavily; Reg and Ward had already warned him that they were approaching storms. The wind was picking up, but he didn't mind. It felt good running through his hair, and seemed to wash some of the weight off of his shoulders. He just hoped that Horatio wouldn't be subjected to violent sea-sickness; it might cause him to rip his sutures.

He grasped the railing firm in his hands, enjoying the feeling of the smooth wood. She was running well; he had never doubted that she would be. Reg and Ward had gotten her in top shape; made all repairs, and prepared well for storms. They were making him look good.

"Mr. Brandon, Sir?"

He froze, his stomach rising and sinking at the well known voice.

"Good evening, Morris." He said, hopefully.

"Evening." He paused. "Storms coming up."

"Yes, so I have been told."

"Might slow up the Frenchies."

"We are hoping so. Better if we can catch them at sea."

There was an uncomfortable silence for a few moments. Drew wanted to apologize for disappointing Morris, but couldn't; Captains didn't apologize; it was an unwritten rule that might as well have been in the Articles of War.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Brandon." Morris said quickly. "Bout any misunderstanding we might have had."

Drew turned quickly, wild with relief. "Me, too." He stammered out, unwritten rules be damned.

"Not yer fault. Should have known you better. I was afraid, you know. Seen men before who were good officers when they were Lieutenants, who couldn't handle the power when they got it. You're not like that."

"And I never will be. I took this power unwillingly, as it is, and I am not enjoying it one bit!" He emphasized.

"Ah, well, you're doing a fine job of it, and you should be proud of yourself, you and Mr. Cousins both." He coughed slightly. "*I* am proud of you, lad."

Drew felt his jaw tremble, but spoke evenly with effort. "You will never know how much that means to me."

Morris saluted him with a smile, "I think maybe I do, Sir." And he moved easily away, the great strain between them both evaporated with the night air.

***
May 11

Drew was sound asleep when the storms hit. He heard the rain pelting against the skylight, and leapt up. Once again, he had fallen asleep over dinner, and for the second time, Powers had him laid out in the Captain's bed. He felt less guilty about it this time, and he quickly found his shoes and had his jacket and tie ready by the time Mr. Howard came down to see him.

"Mr. Cousins' compliments, Sir; and he would request your presence above decks."

"I am on my way, Mr. Howard." He looked around and grabbed the Captain's sou'wester, as his own was stashed in his quarters.

It was a hard, driving rain with heavy winds. He had to lean forcefully into it to just to walk forward, and was exhausted by the time he'd reached the quarterdeck, and soaked despite his precautions.

"A wild night, Mr. Cousins."

"Indeed, Mr. Brandon." He and Ward stood together, looking up at the sail.

"How is she holding, Mr. Ward?"

"She's holding very well, Sir."

"Do you think it necessary that we should shorten sail?"

Ward studied the masts and then the horizon. "My advice would be not yet, Sir. Our men are well capable of shortening quickly should weather worsen."

"And I am confident the French will have shortened sail already, if they are not hove-to out-right. Which means every minute we can travel at top speed brings us closer to them." Reg met his eye.

"And you are of the opinion that would be a good thing?" Drew asked.

"I am. Though we would still be outnumbered, I am confident that we can handle sail and fight in this storm better than the French, especially if we catch them hove-to. The idea appeals to me more than a march over land, frankly."

"Understood." Drew looked over the men, and then called to Mr. Howard. "Have the men be prepared to shorten sail at Mr. Ward's notice, Mr. Howard. Mr. Ward will have command of the deck." He looked over at Reg. "You need to get some rest, Mr. Cousins."

"In this storm?" Reg balked. "I cannot do that."

"You and Mr. Ward are the most capable officers in above-deck duties; each of you need to be alert and well when on the quarterdeck. You should rest now for at least half the watch, and then replace Mr. Ward. Or would you rather see me making these decisions, should you both collapse of exhaustion?"

Reg's mouth twitched slightly. "Point taken, Mr. Brandon. I trust you have things well in hand, Mr. Ward?"

"I do indeed, Mr. Cousins."

"Good enough." Reg started to walk away, then turned back to him. "Who will be spelling YOU, Mr. Brandon?"

"I have just woken up," Drew pointed out. "I'm good for one watch at least."

"I'm going to hold you to that." Reg called out, as he walked away.

Drew pulled the sou'wester around him tightly, as the rain poured off of his hat. Tea. He should very much like a cup of hot, steaming tea...and then he realized that the fires were probably out; too much risk of accident in weather like this. Suddenly, he wondered if the fires were out!

"Mr. Howard, has anyone spoken to the steward about dousing our fires?" He gulped out.

Howard looked at Ward, both with wide eyes.

"Um. No, Sir?" Howard nervously squeaked.

"My oversight, Mr. Brandon. I ought to have realized..."

"No, Mr. Ward, it is MY oversight...and my responsibility." Drew said, evenly. He was angry as hell at himself, for not thinking of this further. "Please alert Clarke to do so at once, Mr. Howard."

"Yes, Sir."

Howard scurried forward from the deck, to do Drew's bidding.

There was silence now. Drew continued berating himself. Stupid, stupid mistake...there could have been a fire. Fine that would look, to have the ship burn from under him. Have all the men end up in boats...in seas like this, they might as well just jump into the water and drown immediately. Captain Pellew and Archie, no hope of rescue, going on to prison and death. Captain Hammond probably, somehow, would survive, and gloat to other Captains that Pellew's men weren't as smart as he'd thought they were.

He put himself in the Captain's mind. So secure that a rescue would be forthcoming, no doubt. Archie agreeing cheerfully. Waiting. And waiting. For a ship that would never come, because Drew hadn't had the common sense to take a rudimentary precaution that any green midshipman should have known to order. He felt his face growing hot, and promptly forgot about his discomfort, the pelting rain and the chapping wind. He deserved to be uncomfortable.

Midshipman Howard reappeared, a big smile on his face. "Steward Clarkes' complements, Sir, and he'd already taken the precaution of having the fires doused."

Howard's grin faded quickly as he realized that the news didn't make Drew any happier. "Thank you, Mr. Howard. It is comforting to know that the ship's COOK is better fit for command than her Captain." He glowered into the darkening night, frustrated and angry with himself.

He didn't notice Howard watching him cautiously, with oversized-eyes and pale face. Nor did he see Ward motion Howard to back away from him. He could only see his own near-failure, and wonder if maybe his father hadn't had him pegged right all along.

***
Captain Pellew was rapidly becoming very, very worried.

Hammond was sick; horribly sick, still heavy with fever and unable to keep anything more than water down. The ship rocked repeatedly and without rhythm, indicating heavy storms. He could tell when Labrie finally gave the order for her to heave-to, because the motion became centered in its jerkiness. Still, it had given him a headache; Mr. Kennedy also was just plain weary of the confinement.

At least the two of them had not shown signs of illness. They were about the only ones who didn't, though; their guards changed, grew fewer, changed again. Whatever this illness was, it was running through the French without stop. The guards became agitated...he heard them mutter the word "morte" several times...apparently some men were dying from this disease.

"This is very bad, Sir." Archie's voice was tired; his hair fallen out of its queue, and his chin stubbled. "This looks like the diseases we saw when we left port last January."

"I know." They had ended up losing four good men in that bout; Mr. Kennedy himself had been stricken and in sick berth for over two weeks.

"Perhaps that is why I have not gotten sick this time." Archie mused, sponging off the delirious Hammond (who was infinitely more likeable when unconscious, Pellew had to admit).

"I do not think so, Mr. Kennedy." Pellew said, leaning backward. "You were still unwell when we docked in Oporto during that period, but it is believed that the illness was a result of contaminated beef. Mr. Brandon's cleaning expedition turned up several questionable casks."

Archie and he met eyes suddenly. "Sir...you and I are probably about the only men on this ship relegated to porridge."

"So we are." Pellew leaned over their ill compatriot. "Hammond! Hammond!"

"Mmmmph."

"Hammond, what were you eating at dinner these past nights?" Pellew shook his head gently.

"Wine."

"And what."

"Potatoes."

"And..."

"Stewed beef..." He groaned and tossed in his blankets, and Pellew released him.

"Can it be?" Pellew mused. Then, rising quickly, slightly stooped, he went to the door. "Guard! Guard!"

A bleary-eyed pale Frenchman appeared. "Your Captain...get me your Captain!"

"Pardon, monsieur?"

"Your Captain... 'Capitain'" he tried, desperately. And then, with his usual aplomb making up for the vagaries of the language, "'VITE! VITE! CAPITAIN!'"

Strange use of language or not, the young man knew an order when he heard one, and with rapid French to his partner, darted off.

***
Captain Labrie lay in his cabin, a thoroughly miserable man.

He had always been subject to "mal-de-mer", particularly during severe storms. And these storms were enough to make even the most hardened seaman ill. Worse this time, though; he had the fever that had been sweeping the ship. Not as badly as other men, it would seem, for he was able to force himself upright.

"Mon Dieu!" He cried out, as the ship gave another particularly nasty roll.

He'd given the order to heave-to yesterday, for the pumps were already working non-stop, and so many of his men were ill that he knew to proceed was folly. He had managed to get off signals to the other ships, frustrating ones. His brother Captains, who were NOT ill and whom were in more sea-worth vessels, were not inclined to stop. They were willing, however, to take his prisoners and deliver them for him.

When Hell froze over! Labrie had thought. He'd declined their *kind* offer of assistance. He had captured Pellew...why should he relegate the glory to another ship? Because he was certain that his name would be conveniently left out of any reports when Pellew's head was handed to Napoleon on a platter. Literally.

"Mon Capitain..." A voice called out to him.

Oh, for the love of...would they not leave him alone? Shorten sail, heave-to, man the pumps, douse the fire, damn it all, why should he care? Just do what needed to be done, with the least inconvenience to him, please. "What is it?"

"The prisoners, Sir...their Captain...he wishes to see you."

"Tell him I am indisposed." Labrie groaned.

"Sir...he insists."

"DAMNATION." Labrie snapped, but rose slowly anyway. Perhaps this Pellew was sick; the last thing he wanted to do was have him already dead when he arrived in France, thus depriving the Republic the honor. "I will arrive presently."

***
The Indefatigable ploughed ahead, through stormy seas and brutal wind. The men were working hard around him, Drew knew. Somehow, the ship was holding up well, flying, almost; surely they would be gaining ground on the French? The knowledge that they might do that was about the only thought he could cling to, in between beating himself up brutally for his mistakes.

Conversation had been sparse for the past few hours, mostly his doing. Another failure, that he should have rendered Ward and Howard so uncomfortable. But he just couldn't be cheery and chat, not now. Not when he realized that if they managed to get to the Captain it would be in spite of his leadership, not because of it.

The bells rang, signaling the change of watch, and he was vaguely aware of Reg's presence. Heard Reg and Ward murmuring to each other. He shifted his shoulders in the over-sized coat. Anderson, replacing Howard, came up beside him.

"I brought your own coat, Mr. Brandon. Here, Sir...change out of that one and Mr. Howard will bring it down to Mr. Powers."

He wanted to peevishly decline the comfort, but couldn't get the words out, and swiftly, so he wouldn't get more wet than necessary, the jackets were changed. He stopped glowering long enough to mutter a terse, "Thank you," to Anderson, and then resumed his gloomy stare.

A few minutes went by. He heard Reg requesting some adjustments...Anderson working with some of the men. Suddenly, Reg ambled up beside him, standing in position. They were both silent for some time.

"Doing your best impression of Captain Pellew after a trip to admiralty, I see." Reg said finally.

Drew didn't answer, just clenched his jaw even tighter.

"Not speaking, eh?" Reg prodded him gently. Drew turned briefly and gave him his fiercest glare, then resumed his stare out to sea.

"Looks like I'll have to hold up both ends of the conversation, then. 'How was your rest, Mr. Cousins?' 'Interminable, because I felt a cad for leaving my friends on deck in abysmal weather.' 'You needed the rest, Mr. Cousins. You cannot expect to be perfect. That is my job.' 'Nobody is perfect, Mr. Brandon...not even Captain Pellew.' 'At least Captain Pellew never forgot to douse a fire during a storm, Mr. Cousins.' 'But you didn't forget, Mr. Brandon...you remembered within five minutes of taking the watch.' 'Nevertheless, it is inexcusable! I should have woken up from a sound slumber and went charging down to the steward the minute a few rain drops fell.' 'But as I was holding the deck when the storm hit, wasn't it my responsibility to call for the fires to be doused?' 'Of course it is my fault and not yours; since I am too damned stubborn to delegate even the slightest responsibility..."

"FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, WILL YOU SHUT UP!" Drew snapped, whirling around. Several heads turned to look at them, and Anderson made a point of discretely returning them to their business.

Drew, chest heaving in indignation, stared down his friend, then finally exhaled deeply. "Your point is taken, Mr. Cousins."

"Is it?" He asked. "So you are going to stop berating yourself for what was my mistake, if anything."

"I still can't believe it took me that long to think of it." He muttered.

"We've had rather a lot going on here. However, you are correct, it was a serious transgression from both of us. Shall I send for Andrews and order us flogged?"

Drew actually gave a short laugh. "Don't be daft!" He paused. "We're officers." Another pause. "We should be assigned to watch and watch." He attempted to quip.

"Hell, we're already doing that, the both of us!" Reg joked back, sensing Drew's mood break. And as they both laughed quietly, Reg pointed out, "In fact, that might be why we both neglected to give that order."

Drew and Reg shared a smile, Drew sighing deeply. "Ward and Holloway must think I am out of my mind."

"They were very worried about you." Reg admitted. "Ward actually thought you might pitch yourself over the side."

"I hope they were not offended." He felt the guilt creeping in again.

"I told you, they were worried; they could sense well enough that you were angrier at yourself than at them; the same way we would know with Captain Pellew." He coughed lightly. "May I say, Captain Brandon, that you are doing one hell of a job, Sir?"

Drew let himself smile into the driving rain. "I think WE are indeed, Captain Cousins."

Anderson had been letting Reg work on Drew without interruption; standing off as quietly as possible. His eyes were scanning the horizon, looking anywhere but at the commanding officer. A blinding flash of lightning lit up the sky suddenly; it was brief, but it was enough.

"Sir..." He cried out, suddenly. "I believe I just spotted a sail!"

***

"What is it, Pellew?" Labrie snapped, leaning groggily in the doorframe, his two ailing guards by his side.

Seething at the rudeness, Captain Pellew forced himself to keep a civil tongue. "Captain Labrie, I have noticed that your ship seems to be having a bad bout with illness..."

"The state of my ship and my men are not your concern, Sir! Worry about Hammond, but other than that kindly do not speculate on my affairs."

Taking a deep breath, Pellew plunged ahead. "I understand, Sir. However, the Indefatigable dealt with a very similar illness earlier this year..."

"So now you are a Doctor as well as a navigational genius." He smirked annoyingly.

"I AM NOT." The Captain counted to five. "I felt obligated to tell you that our illness was a result of contaminated beef."

"Are you suggesting that I have poisoned my own men?" Labrie growled, rising to his full height indignantly.

"No...no more than I would!" Captain Pellew could not believe the man's idiocy.

Labrie swept on. "I spent good money for my beef when I was in Oporto..."

Pellew interrupted him. "I disposed of the bad beef I had IN Oporto, perhaps..."

"Sir, there is nothing wrong with my food supply. I am not an idiot who would spend money on someone else's discards." Labrie let his full peevishness shine through; he was ill, he was tired, he was sea-sick, and he had a pompous arrogant Englishman for a prisoner who felt he was in command of the ship. One more word from this man and...

"Captain, I am telling you, we have treated this disease before..."

Labrie lost control, and lunged at Pellew. The guards reacted, one holding the victim in place, while their Captain directed several well placed blows to the prisoner's face and body. The other barred the way of the remaining upright Englishman, Kennedy, who was wild with indignation.

Finally, anger sated, Labrie backed off, wiping his hands. "This is my ship, Pellew, not yours." The guard dropped him to the floor.

"Your ship. Your responsibility. Sir." Kennedy seethed, holding up his Captain where he had stumbled backward.

"At ease, Mr. Kennedy." Captain Pellew mumbled thickly, his voice controlled despite the assault. "Now is not the time."

"Yes, Sir." Archie said, never taking his raging eyes off of Labrie. "As you request."

Hammond sat up slightly. "The Admiralty will hear about this..." He murmured groggily.

Labrie laughed outright as he turned to leave, shutting the door behind him. "I do not report to your Admirals. I do not think I need to fear repercussions."

"Not yet, Labrie." Kennedy muttered, helping Captain Pellew down. "Not yet."

He sponged Pellew's face off with water.

"Thank you, Mr. Kennedy." Pellew leaned backwards, coughing painfully.

"We are doomed." Hammond moaned morosely, somehow displaying something akin to lucidity. Archie touched the man's forehead and discovered the fever had broken. Another sign that the beef was to blame...he hadn't had any since he fell ill.

"We are not doomed." Archie said, returning to his preferred patient. "Your ribs, sir? Are they alright? Nothing broken?"

"I am FINE, Mr. Kennedy." Captain Pellew snapped, in a tone Drew Brandon would have recognized well. "I only regret my stupidity in believing that man would give a damn about his crew!"

"We are doomed." Hammond repeated again. "We will all die miserably executed in France, or of illness here."

"Cut the Drama, Hammond." Pellew growled, somewhat indistinctly.

"Who will save us?" Hammond moaned.

Archie pressed the compress to Pellew's bleeding lip, and answered for him. "Mr. Cousins will save us, you great idiot. That young midshipman you would not pass for Lieutenant, and who you tried to torment, is one of the greatest natural leaders I have ever seen. And he possesses loyalty that you could only dream about from your own men. He, with Mr. Brandon, and Mr. Hornblower if God willing he is still alive, will come after us."

Hammond's face went purple. "That boy couldn't find London Tower if he were standing in front of it! And I resent, Sir, your implication that my men are not loyal!

"May I remind you, SIR, that it was not one of the Indefatigable's men who lead us to slaughter!" Archie said, pointedly.

Hammond sat back, too weak to argue, but his eyes burned brightly. "I will not forget this impertinence, Mr. Kennedy. I WILL NOT. One day, perhaps, you will regret it."

"I doubt that very much." Archie snapped.

Captain Pellew's eyes were slightly reproachful, and he almost felt guilty. Except beneath the cloth, Archie distinctly spotted the hint of a smile.

***

Reg had hastily ordered a change of course, in the direction that the sail was spotted. A few flashes of lightning revealed nothing, at first, but then...

"There she is again, Sir!"

Reg nodded, now training his glass towards the spec of white. "There she is." He could just barely make her out. But what he saw was enough. "I am almost positive it is our quarry, Mr. Brandon." He said evenly, keeping the desire to jump for joy out of his voice.

"Excellent, Mr. Cousins." Drew turned back to Anderson. "Call all hands, if you will, but quietly! Though it is unlikely she will hear us, the caution does us no harm."

"Aye, Aye, Sir." Anderson turned to make his way to gather the men.

"And Mr. Anderson? Excellent work, Sir!"

His eyes sparkled. "Thank you, Captain."

Drew smirked only after Anderson was out of range of seeing him. "I will be happy indeed to give up that moniker, Mr. Cousins."

"Understood, Mr. Brandon." He kept his eye on the glass, and permitted himself a smile. "I believe, Mr. Brandon, unless my eyes deceive me, she is not only hove-to, she is alone!"

Drew's eyes were wide. "Alone? Why that is an extraordinary break for us!"

"It is indeed...perhaps God really is on our side!" He quipped. "Poor Ward...denied any rest."

"The excitement will keep him going." Drew said, with a shrug. "The sight of that ship has done a tremendous amount for my own spirits!" He coughed once. "Should we clear for battle?"

Reg's lips were pursed. "I think not. I think we must perform here as we did on Serenity...when I was rescued."

Drew frowned. "Send over shore boats and extricate the prisoners, you mean? Certainly they will not expect that, but can it be done? With Serenity, we had the advantage of a lax, non-navy crew. Surely these men will be better prepared? I know they are French, but they cannot be stupid."

Reg nodded. "I would not underestimate the enemy. I'd rather be wrong in over-estimating them than the other way around."

Morris and Matthews appeared above decks now, quickly setting to work and watching the less disciplined men for any signs of chatter.

"Morris? Matthews? A word with you, if I might."

They looked each other over, and then approached the quarterdeck in curiosity, not nervousness.

"Sir?" With great ease they saluted both young men.

Reg paused, and looked at Drew...who really ought to speak first. He realized the delay, and took a deep breath. "Mr. Cousins and I were discussing our options for rescuing the Captain, for it seems certain that is his prison in the distance. Mr. Cousins?" Drew passed the question on to Reg, for he was not certain what he wished asked.

"Do you think, men, we can get boats over there in this weather? The seas are rough, but I believe it is best for us to proceed in the same manner as you did when I was rescued from Serenity."

Matthews looked out to the water. Morris spoke first. "Aye, Sir, seas are rougher now, but with the right men, it shouldn't be a problem. With OUR men, Sir."

Matthews agreed. "Yes, Sir...our men can handle this. I've seen much worse, and that's a fact now."

"Indeed, Matthews." A familiar voice spoke from behind them. "The seas were far rougher when we escaped from the Casa Massaredo, eh?"

It might have been a joke. Reg was too shocked to respond, but Matthews could not contain his glee. "Mr. Hornblower, Sir, yer upright!" His face brightened into a wide smile. "Good to see ye, Sir!"

"Good to be seen, men. On about your assigned duties, now."

Matthews and Morris looked in confusion from Reg, to Drew, to Horatio, and back to Reg.

"Prepare two boats, men. Make certain we are armed...did the French leave us with any pistols at all?"

"Mighta left us with one or two. They weren't real thorough." Morris scratched at his stubbled chin.

"Find what you can, and gather every knife or club that might work for us. And choose us seven more good men for each boat. I know I can trust you both to find the right ones."

"Aye, aye, Sir!" They knuckled their foreheads, and, with Matthews' still grinning at Hornblower, they followed their orders.

Drew meanwhile was staring at Horatio. Who was staring back at him. Reg cleared his throat, and, spying Ward, found an excuse to leave the two legal Lieutenants under the pretext of brining the acting Master up-to-date.

Drew's face was inscrutable. "I did not think, when I asked Anderson to call all hands, that you would regard that as carte blanche to return to active duty."

"You ought to know me well enough to expect me to be here right now." Horatio said, calmly.

Drew didn't blink. But he saw in Horatio's face the emotions he'd had when the rescue of Reg had been organized. He'd done just this...abandoned sick berth to stand beside Captain Pellew, offering his services. The Captain might have sent him back bellow decks. He had not, understanding that Drew desperately needed to be where he could see what was happening.

"You are not fit to be a part of the boarding party." His voice was final, and Horatio's jaw tightened, prepared to argue. But Drew continued. "However, you are entirely fit to command the quarterdeck."

And with great relief Drew went on with a smile, "Welcome back to duty, Captain."

Horatio's face relaxed, and his jaw trembled. "Thank you, Mr. Brandon."

"No, Mr. Hornblower; I thank you, more than you will ever know." He coughed. "However, any signs that head of yours is bothering you, or your stitches opening up, and I will have Styles carry you back to sick berth kicking and screaming."

Eyebrows raised, Horatio looked at him. "Is that any way to speak to your commanding officer, Lieutenant Brandon?" He teased.

"As Doctor Brandon, should you be medically unfit, I will not hesitate to declare you so." Drew quipped back. "Even if I don't want to."

"Someday..." Horatio smiled, but was only half joking. "I will understand why the Admiralty gave medical men such ridiculously cruel power. Seems highly unnecessary to me."

"And hopefully it will always be unnecessary." Drew motioned to Reg. "Mr. Cousins, stop being such a coward; Mr. Hornblower and I are being quite civil to each other. Do him the honor, if you will, of letting him in on your plans. As he is to have command of the quarterdeck, it seems prudent."

Reg's eyes twinkled respectfully at the both of them. "As you wish, Lieutenant Brandon. I assume you will maintain watch with Mr. Hornblower?"

"You assume no such thing, Mr. Cousins. I will be manning one of the boats."

***

Marks was busy bellow decks, searching for any form of weaponry they might need, when Morris tapped him on the shoulder.

"How is it going, Marks?"

"Four pistols. Eighteen blades. French didn't seem to worry much about them."

"They have not given us much credit this entire time. They will pay fer that." He nodded sagely. "Hopefully Styles and Thomas have turned up some more pistols as well." He patted Marks on the shoulder. "How's yer back?" He asked, gently.

"Oh, it's fine, Morris. Healed right up, probably faster n'it ought to have.' His voice was gruff with embarassment.

"So...yer not averse to havin' a bit of a row, I'd guess."

Marks stared at Morris. "A...row?"

"Aye. Mr. Cousins asked me to pick good men for the boats. Far as I can see, that would include you."

"They'll never allow it. Not Mr. Cousins or Mr. Hornblower. They're fair men, Morris; but they won't risk the mission fer me. They don't know I can be trusted or not."

"I think they will allow it. What you have shown is loyalty to Mr. Brandon. I don't think I mistake that." He looked at him pointedly.

Morris' response was warm. "Mr. Brandon's a good lad, alright. Not much more'n a boy, but more a man than many I've served with. I'd do anything fer him, if he asked. But why..."

"Because I KNOW Mr. Brandon. And for all he likes to pretend he's not much of a seaman, whenever he's had to, he's performed as well as Mr. Cousins. Maybe not as much of a head for planning, but for action, he's as good. And I know where Mr. Brandon will decide he's going to be...In one of those blasted boats. I cannot leave Mr. Cousins' division, I will not abandon him. And Mr. Brandon, he's never had to lead a division. So I want to make sure, Marks, that there is a man in that boat that will make certain Mr. Brandon gets back alive."

Marks rose up, standing tall. "You can count on it, Sir...if he goes, he'll be coming back. I won't give him a choice!"

Morris grinned. "Good enough...knew I was right about that. And Mr. Cousins will believe me when I tell him that. He'll want the same thing, Marks. Guaranteed."

***
"Can I not talk you out of this?" Reg mumbled to Drew, as they were preparing to heave to, having drawn as close as they dared without attracting any attention, so far as they could tell.

"You cannot. And Mr. Hornblower agreed...there should be a Lieutenant in the boats. It cannot be him. That leaves me."

"You've never been on a mission of this magnitude."

Drew did hesitate then. And he looked at Reg, not as a fellow officer, not as Lieutenant to Midshipman. "As a friend, Reg, I will ask you. Do you think I am endangering the mission? Do you think that I cannot do this? I want to know, honestly...your evaluation of my skills. I feel...that I need to be there. I feel that I ought to be there, and that I can do this. But I will trust your judgement."

Reg turned his head slightly, looking over the ship...the spotlessly running ship. Much of that had been his doing...but his doing WITH Drew, not despite him. And he turned back to his friend's worried eyes. "Before last week, Drew, I would have said you could not handle this. Before last week. Not now." He smiled confidently. "You are ready."

Drew sighed, and smiled. "Thank you, Mr. Cousins. Your opinion means much to me."

"However..." Reg crossed his arms. "You're taking Henry."

"Anderson? But he's your man."

"By that token, you don't have any men, unless you count Lyman, and HE is definitely not ready for this. But as my man...and since we are both once again technically midshipmen, that is not true, by the way...Anderson will go where I ask him to, and I want him to be in your boat. I will take Holloway. Got it...Sir?"

"I suppose, Mr. Cousins, I will defer to your judgement on this." He started as the anchor set. "We are stationary, Sir. Best get to work on our boats."

***
The boats were silent, men without words fighting the strong waves created in the storm. Drew was hunched up by the tiller, Anderson next to him, Marks not far away. He felt strangely calm and confident, despite not having a pistol in his hand. They had turned up a total of twelve of them. Reg had offered him one, but Drew had declined. He'd never fired one before; it made far more sense to put it in the hands of a man who could actually use it. So it went to Anderson.

He was warmed to know that, in addition to Marks, two other men had volunteered for his boat, Matthews and Styles. Reg, after all, had loyal men whom had worked with him for years now, men like Thomas and Morris, who would not leave his side. As most of Drew's time had
been spent bellow decks, Drew knew he'd not had the time to cultivate that kind of relationship. Yet here he had men anyway, men willing to support him despite how green he was.

"We're gettin' close, Sir." Styles whispered.

He nodded, and motioned to the men, who stopped rowing and quietly secured the boat to the side. La Liberte was eerily quiet.

"Let me go up first, Sir." Matthews tugged at his arm. "I have a pistol and if anyone is near us I can pick them off neatly."

"I will follow right behind." Drew said. Marks and Anderson appeared to be sticking to him like glue. He looked over and saw Reg leading his men, pistol at the ready, in a similar manner.

It took little effort to get up the side, to his surprise. Matthews went over, and he waited, observing Reg do the same. No shot was fired, and tentatively he followed, the remainder of the men behind him.

Matthews and Reg were there, agape. For not a soul walked the deck of La Liberte, save a lone man on watch, who was sitting AND sleeping, from appearances.

"I should very much like Hammond to see that." Reg whispered. Keeping to the shadows, he stole upon the man from behind, finally hitting him firmly on the head with the but of his gun. He slumped over, and Matthews quickly moved to tie him. Reg picked up his pistol, and handed it to Drew with insistence.

"I am leading my men below." Drew whispered.

Reg nodded sharply. "I shall take the deck."

They found the hatchway and proceeded into the darkness, Drew feeling that his heart would beat out of his throat. He had never been on any ship but his own, and he was confused. Anderson looked around for a moment, and then motioned them down a particular hatchway; Drew followed closely behind.

Slowly, he found a cabin, and drawing against the wall, he peaked in. Two men were in there, groaning piteously. Styles made a face at the stench...one Drew was familiar with. "They are having illness here." He murmured. He and Styles burst in the door, securing the men's weapons and tying both up in their hammocks.

"Ou est l'anglais?" Drew queried.

"D'eau, S'il vous plait?" One man pleaded, motioning to a bucket.

Drew smiled grimly, and picked up the ladle. He held it over the sick man's face, leaned in, and whispered again, "Ou est, l'anglais?"

The man desperately glanced at the water. A part of Drew was horrified that he could sport with a man's basic medical needs, but these were the men that took Captain Pellew. He would show no mercy.

He whispered low to Drew, who nodded, and then let the man drink, even as he spoke low to his companions, "At the end of this passageway, gentlemen, and to the left."

Styles waved his dirk menacingly. "If yer lying, man...we'll be back!"

"Come." Drew grasped him firmly. "We have a job to do."

Reg appeared suddenly. "We've taken the deck, Mr. Brandon...four of our men are holding prisoners above." He was almost puzzled. "The men are walking about here half drugged."

"They're wholly drugged, Reg. Or sick, at least. They have some sort of fever here."

"Contagious?" He asked, face paling.

"Does it matter, at this point?" Drew pointed out.

Reg nodded slowly. "I guess not."

"Our men are this way..." They followed the wall of the passageway quietly. Suddenly, two guards rose quickly before them, drawing their guns. Drew reacted; as did Reg; they fired and two men fell.

"Christ, and we were doing so well!" Reg snapped, stepping over the bodies. "Now anyone who is healthy will be coming out of the woodwork."

Drew gaped down at the dying men, staring at the pistol in his hands. "Nice shot, Mr. Brandon." Anderson quipped, patting him on the shoulder.

"Damn!" Drew muttered.

"Well, don't just stand there..." Reg muttered, frisking one of the men for keys.

"Oh, right..." Drew looked through the window, but the interior of the room was dark..

"Got 'em. Better stand back in case our information is bad." Reg's voice was brusque, and in command.

Anderson pushed Drew to the wall, stepping past him to retrieve the guards' guns, still cocked but not shot. He handed one to Drew and one to Reg, as Reg pushed the door open and leapt back cautiously. "Captain Pellew? Mr. Kennedy?"

"All clear, Mr. Cousins." The Captain's voice called out.

Drew slipped in, taking Marks' lantern with him. "Sir?"

"Drew?" Archie gasped.

"Mr. Brandon...this is unexpected." Pellew coughed. "Captain Hammond needs assistance, I fear."

Drew and Reg blinked in the dark surroundings. Archie rose at once, extending his hand to Captain Pellew. Drew gasped. "Sir...your face!" Dark anger replaced the shock, as he realized the Captain had been beaten.

"Tut, just a few scratches, Mr. Brandon. No need for DRAMATICS."

Reg extended his hand down to Captain Hammond, who was staring at him in something akin to disbelief.

When he didn't move, Reg tried again, with a forced smile. "Come, Sir...we must hurry before we are discovered. We can find more comfortable quarters for you I am certain."

Hammond would not accept his hand. Drew was tending the Captain. Finally Archie, a look of pure disgust on his face, grasped Hammond and forced the issue. "Unless you want to get left behind, Sir, accept that you might have judged a man's capabilities wrongly."

"Bah!" Hammond exclaimed, and showing surprising agility for a sick man, made his bid for freedom quickly.

Kennedy put his hand on Reg's shoulder. "Lead us on, Mr. Cousins;
Captain Pellew and I have been expecting you."

Following quickly in Hammond's wake, they made haste to regain the deck. Reg turned back, pistol drawn, at a sound down another passageway.

"You go ahead. I will check it out." He murmured to Archie. Morris, as a matter of course, took his side, with a grim smile.

Drew could not see Hammond ahead of him. He was in shock; he had just killed a man (literally, instead of the fictitious murder of negligence he'd committed in his past); Captain Pellew had been beaten up, Archie was fine, and Hammond was the same ass as he'd always been. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs. Quickly, he turned the corner, with the Captain by his side...

Only to run straight in to Captain Labrie, with a pistol to Captain Hammond's neck.

***
INDEFATIGABLE:

I would have liked to pace, but surprisingly the young loblolly boy Lyman had come above decks shyly.

"Good day, Lyman. You had best get bellow; things might get exciting here." I said to him, kindly.

Lyman shook his head. "Yer out of sick berth, Sir. Mr. Brandon said I 'us to keep an eye on ye and not let ye get too wild, like las' time."

"I see." I had a sudden twinge at his conscience. "I hope, lad, that Mr. Brandon and Mr. Johnson weren't too hard on you when I rather intimidated you to letting me come above decks last time."

"Ar, right mad, they were!" He looked sheepish. "Not yellin, as such; but I could see it on Mr. Brandon's face, it were all red; an' Johnson, he spoke te me fer about half an hour how I 'us to tell him afore letting an injured officer leave sick berth. I felt bad, Sir. An' no spirit rations fer a week, not what I minded that so much."

"Sorry, Lyman. My fault." I wonder if he realized how lucky he was that it was Johnson and Brandon he'd crossed; not to say that Drew hadn't before been able to make me feel like dirt without yelling or raising a hand to me. I decided now was a good time to make amends.

"Mr. Ward, see if you can't find something useful for this fine young man here, as he will insist on spending his time above decks." I added under my breath, "Something safe, if you please."

"Aye, Aye, Sir." Ward gave me an admiring smile that quite startled me, then put his hand on Lyman's shoulder. "Come, young man. I'll make certain you are kept within eyesight of Captain Hornblower."

I stared out to La Liberte, ignoring the dull ache in my head. My abdominal wound, thankfully, was nearly totally healed. What were they finding over there, I wonder? Was the Captain alive, and well? I caught myself muttering a prayer under my breath, and hastily cleared my throat. Angelina's doing, no doubt; God, how I miss her.

Ward came back by my side. "Mr. Lyman is cleaning the windows on the skylight for you, Sir."

"Excellent, a fine thing for Captain Pellew to come back to a spotless ship!" I said loudly enough for a few of the men to overhear. "I am certain he will be pleased at how well his ship has
run while he was absent. It is a credit to him, and a credit to every man on board her."

Several of the men looked about with pride at that remark, and made certain that the cables were coiled neatly, and everything was in perfect order. Ward again looked at me with admiration on his face, and I became flustered.

"For what reason do you stare at me, Mr. Ward?" I asked, acerbically.

"No reason, Sir." He coughed a little. "Just...it has been a pleasure serving with you, Sir."

I swallowed hard. "We have served together here but a month, Ward."

"And on your trip to England with the prize ships, as well. I've not forgotten everything you did for me."

"Nonsense. Styles helped you more than I did." I muttered, confused.

"Mr. Hornblower, if I may...I think perhaps you don't realize how important you are to the young men; the midshipmen, of course, but even the powder boys and the boys like Lyman."

"Important?" I asked.

"Aye, Sir. I don't know your history, Sir, maybe you've never been on another ship, but I have. There are few Lieutenants who will take the time to help a boy, or even consider him as anything other than cannon fodder. You have a real rapport with children, Sir, and they sense it."

I was such a mass of confusion and pleasure over this comments that I almost couldn't respond. "The conditions here largely due to Captain Pellew, Mr. Ward."

"Yes, Sir." He hesitated, then plunged on. "But Captain Pellew has a ship to run. It's hard for him to pay attention to every man all the time, let alone the boys. You always do. Don't even think you realize it, sometimes. Stop to pat them on the head or praise their work, give them a smile and a bit of encouragement. It does help, you know."

I was silent, mulling this over, for a few moments. "Thank you, Mr. Ward." I said, not having as difficult a time accepting this praise as I would have if it had been about my navigational skills. "I WAS on another ship before this one. I remember what it is like to be away from home and scared to death. Life was intolerable, sometimes."

"Ah." Ward responded, sagely. "So it was not like Indefatigable?"

"No." I shook my head, and looked out towards where my imprisoned Captain and best friend were held. "It was not."

And suddenly I missed Archie, missed him with every fiber of my being. I remembered my dream while I was in sick berth, and shuddered. We had been through too much together, on Justinian, in Spain and France, and here. Not all of it was good; yet some of it was glorious! But all of it with enough understanding of each other that no explanation was ever necessary.

And again, I prayed. "Just bring them back, God. Please, just bring them back."

***
Drew came up short, his pistol frozen in his hand. Though he had no great love of Hammond, he could not quite bring himself to commit an action that would cause his death.

"Gentlemen, I must request that you put down your arms." Labrie sneered. "Unless you wish to watch me send your colleague to God."

"Do that, and you'll be dead yourself." Archie said, evenly.

Captain Labrie nodded. "So it would seem we are at an impasse, then."

What order to give? Drew's mind was a blur.

"You will not get away with this, Labrie." Captain Pellew's voice was strong and stern, and Drew realized with infinite relief that he did not have to give an order at all.

And freed from the paralysis of leadership, inspiration struck, and he drew his breath in sharply.

"Sir, we are Captured!" He said, trying to sound as whiny and petulant...as much like Midshipman Coleman!...as he could. "Sir...WE ARE CAPTURED!" He cried out loudly, looking up at Captain Pellew with plaintive eyes.

Captain Pellew stared down at him, mouth open and eyes squinted slightly. 'Who are you and what have you done to my Lieutenant?' could be plainly read on his face. "Quite so, Mr. Brandon." His brow wrinkled further.

"SIR, WE ARE CAPTURED!" He cried out again, making his voice echo through the ship.

"Enough, Mr. Brandon! Control yourself!" The Captain snapped. Labrie watched the exchange with amusement.

"This is one of your fine officers? I am amused." Labrie tightened his grip on Hammond. "Now, gentlemen, turn around, if you please; drop your arms, back to your confinement."

Everyone looked at the Captain, save Drew, who was looking shame-facedly at his feet. Captain Pellew sighed. "As he says, gentlemen."

The men all put down their pistols, and turned slowly, back around the corner they came from.

As the last of them made the turn, Labrie and Hammond bringing up the rear, Drew noted a door to another cabin slightly ajar; one that had decidedly not been earlier. He tried not to smile, for Hammond still was tightly gripped by Labrie. Well, perhaps he could remedy that.

Closing his eyes, he tried to terrorize himself, remembering his father coming after him with the cane when last he was in England. He put himself firmly in the grip of his worst memories. And it was with that look on his face that he turned abruptly to Labrie.

"Sir...Sir, I beg of you, I don't want to be in prison, please, Sir!" He whimpered, and actually got down on his knees.

"Mr. Brandon!" The Captain gasped.

Labrie laughed, and moved his pistol momentarily away from Hammond.

Drew jerked Hammond down so the man toppled on top of him.

And with spit second accuracy, the cabin door was flung open, and Reg Cousins, pistol raised, felled Labrie with a neat shot right between the eyes.

There were a few seconds of silence, of shocked disbelief, until Drew managed to extricate himself from beneath the voluminous Hammond. "Excellent shot, Mr. Cousins!" He said, dusting himself off, with a grin.

"Excellent warning alarm, Mr. Brandon." Reg replied, retrieving Labrie's pistol and discarding his spent one. Morris also came out of the small cabin, where he'd been waiting in the event that there was more than one captor to deal with.

"Oh, so you heard me then?" Drew asked, tugging Hammond upward. The man teetered, and Archie came forward to steady him.

"Good God, man, they heard you in Gibraltar! I had no idea you could be so shrill." Reg shook his head.

"Nice bit o' groveling, too!" Morris added.

"Quite pathetic, I know." Together, Drew and Reg made to lead the way to the deck.

Archie, Captain Pellew, Anderson, and the other men, including Marks, Styles, and Matthews, followed the exchange in confusion for a few seconds. And then, with dawning understanding, Captain Pellew struggled; he bit his lower lip, he took a deep breath, and then he could not hold it back anymore, and he let lose with a laugh, softly at first, and then rumbling to great levels. As he did so, Archie gave out a gasp, and his own grin spread wide, before he joined him. The rest of the men took this as license to laugh with them.

Reg and Drew together turned, exasperated. "Good heavens, do you wish to STAY here?" Drew said, sternly. "We must make our exit NOW, before we have any more surprises."

And somewhat meekly, still shaking his head, Captain Pellew murmured, "Aye, Aye, Mr. Brandon."

***

They were relatively unimpeded to the boats. A decision was made, given their own taxed crews and the state of ill-health on board La Liberte, to disable her once they were back on the Indy, rather than take her as a prize. Hammond, Pellew, and Kennedy were placed in Drew's boat; Hammond would not let go of either of his fellow officers, and Drew figured Reg would just as soon not expose himself to Hammond more than necessary. His officer status slid secondary to his doctor role, for a moment, as they began to row away from La Liberte; Hammond looked ghastly.

"Are you alright, Captain Hammond?" Drew asked.

Hammond shook his head and muttered; Captain Pellew explained. "La Liberte appears to have been striken by the same situation we saw earlier in the year, Mr. Brandon."

"Ah." He nodded. "Bad beef?"

"Yes, indeed; purchased in Oporto; for all I know it was the same beef we ourselves dumped there." He scowled.

Archie nodded towards the Captain's face. "Trying to explain that to La Liberte's Captain is how Captain Pellew sustained his injuries, Mr. Brandon."

"They are NOT injuries, Mr. Kennedy!" The Captain fumed. "A few bruises, nothing more. I am fine."

Drew raised his eyebrows, and the Captain hurried on, "For your purposes, Mr. Brandon, I am NOT fine, do you understand? I am emphatically, totally, and without reservation NOT fine!"

Oh, it was hard for Drew not to smile, to laugh outright at the Captain's fussiness. He allowed himself to really feel the happiness of their success, however difficult the road had been to it.

Archie, naturally, was confused. "I do not understand, Sir...are you fine, or are you NOT fine, and what is the difference?"

The Captain's face was dark and angry, so obviously so that it was apparent to Drew that he was really not angry at all, as much as flustered by the attentions of his men. "Once upon a time, Mr. Kennedy, Captain Pellew asked me why I persisted in asking him about his health, when he so hated it. And I explained that if he tells me he is fine, then I know he is sick. If he becomes irritated, then I know he is fine."

"Mm, and what happens when he tells you he is fine in an irritated manner?" Archie asked.

"Then all is right with the world, Mr. Kennedy." Drew fought to remain serious.

The Captain sighed, but looked on Drew with a certain amount of affection that he could not hide. "I assume my ship is still in one piece?"

"Totally, Sir." Drew answered.

Hammond suddenly sat up, becoming agitated. "He SHOT him, Pellew. My God, he SHOT him."

"Easy, Hammond; we are safe." The Captain tried to calm him down.

"But that boy...that boy..."

"Midshipman Cousins, yes..." He said, in irritation.

"He shot him. Point blank...BANG!" The boat rocked as Hammond flung his arms out wide to indicate the magnitude of the feat, and Archie struggled to contain him, as the men corrected for his imbalance.

"Yes, yes, Captain Hammond, Mr. Cousins shot Captain Labrie and saved your life; we all realize that, even if you will have conveniently forgotten it by tomorrow." Archie fought to keep him still.

"He wasn't there, and then that one..." He pointed to Drew. "That one pulled me down, and the boy was there..."

"Mr. Cousins is nearly nineteen, Hammond, hardly a boy, now." Pellew said, trying to keep him from fussing too much.

"Excellent shot, Pellew, by God! An excellent shot indeed."

"Mr. Cousins is rumored to be the best shot on Indefatigable short of Captain Pellew, Sir." Drew said, becoming amused by Hammond's babble.

"I dare say, Captain Hammond, that you owe a debt of gratitude to both of these fine young officers." Archie said, smoothly.

Hammond pulled away from him coldly. "You Sir, insulted me earlier! I shall not talk to you."

Drew rolled his eyes, but wisely refrained from involvement. If Hammond wanted to be stupid, he would. Then again, since he WAS stupid, he probably didn't have a choice.

But Captain Pellew would not be entirely silent on the subject. "Indeed, Captain Hammond. It would seem you owe your life to a mere Midshipman." He looked at Drew seriously. "I understood from the French, Mr. Brandon, that you were holed?"

"Indeed we were, Sir." Drew knew where this was going.

"I assume you effected the repairs on the ship?"

"Indeed, I did not. As you are well aware, Mr. Cousins has extraordinary skill and had no problem having a sail fothered and correctly placed. Additionally, he was able to organize the repair of the mizzenmast. And, because of his fluency in French, we were able to understand your destination and correctly chart it, in the hopes rescuing you on land if necessary, or intercepting you as we did."

"Really?" Captain Pellew feigned surprise. "And how were YOU occupied during this time?"

"Naturally, as acting Captain, I maintained all logs and oversaw the crew. But I believe it is established, Sir, that one assigns to a task the man who is best fitted for the job."

"An excellent policy, Mr. Brandon."

Drew didn't notice that both the Captain and Archie had flinched slightly as he mentioned that he'd been the commanding officer of Indefatigable. Nor, as they were nearing the ship and preparing to embark, did he have time to think about why that might be.

***

"Mr. Hornblower, Sir..." Ward said, an undercurrent of excitement in his voice. "We have boats returning, Sir!"

"Have we?" I tried to keep my own voice calm. "Good. Any sign of action on the deck of La Liberte?"

"None, Sir. That's a good sign, certainly."

"It would seem so." I paused. "We are cleared for action, however, should that not be the case? I would not like to be led to slaughter like a lamb."

"No chance of that, Sir. We are well prepared." Ward walked up beside me, as I took out my glass.

It is still stormy out, and therefore it took some time before I could tell who was actually in the boats. I was, after all, once responsible for a deception that involved masquerading as ship's men returning from a mission in their own boats. I should very much hate to be fooled in the same manner.

Finally...I had them in my sights! "Mr. Holloway, if you will, do me the honor of running below and notifying Powers that Captain Pellew should be returning shortly."

Holloway gave me his largest grin. "Aye, aye, Sir!" And ran down to put the Captain's faithful servant's mind at ease.

I cleared my throat and stood proudly on the quarterdeck; Ward just behind me, and we waited patiently.

"Shall we give them a cheer, Sir?" Ward asked, one eyebrow raised.

I considered it. "I do not think so, Mr. Ward. The Captain, I believe, would be most impressed to simply return to his ship and having it running well. He might even consider it impertinence. No, best we greet him as if he had been away in port." My face brightened. "In fact, we must pipe him aboard, shall we?"

Ward knuckled his forehead with an understanding smile. "Of course we must. I shall arrange it, then."

So it was that as the boats came forward, the Captain was properly and decorously greeted by his men. I waited for him to give us a gruff response and a nonchalant comment before he called me in to report.

I was relieved to see him upright and solid; but I saw, before he took two steps forward, the bruises on his face, and I contained a hiss of anger. I know well enough I cannot comment, though; whatever had happened, he would not reveal pain before his men. He stood tall, though his expression was sadder than I might have thought. That puzzled me a good deal.

He glanced around the deck, as if he were not really seeing it. Hammond was just coming along behind him, and I could spot Archie's hat clearing the railing. And it was at that moment that the Captain finally caught my eye.

His face went blank, as I stood taller, knowing he would be inspecting me. But there was no acerbic comment; no piercing glance. Instead, he slowly opened his eyes wide, wiped his hands across them once as if to convince himself that what he was seeing was THERE, and his mouth fell open even as he came forward to me.

"HORNBLOWER?" He gasped. "I thought you were dead!"

Archie had spun as the Captain said my name, and I could tell instantly from the look on his face that he had thought the same.

"Not quite, Sir." I found it hard to speak suddenly, for the Captain's eyes were suspiciously misty, and Archie's were most obviously bright with tears.

"Who told you Mr. Hornblower was dead, Sir?" Drew looked confused as he came to join us.

"I thought...you were commanding officer, you said..." The Captain still seemed to be in shock.

Drew understood. "Mr. Hornblower WAS injured, Sir, and has only just returned to duty today. In fact, I would not clear him to join the boats to rescue you. So I WAS the commanding officer." He coughed. "With a good deal of help from Mr. Cousins and Mr. Ward, and indeed, all of the men."

We might, at that point, have become hopelessly maudlin. We might have allowed a horrific amount of sentimentality to override all of our better judgement. But Captain Hammond, with his usual flair, saved us all, by giving us the best laugh we could have had.

He was standing there, looking rather ill-used (is the man sea-sick?) when Mr. Cousins boat began to unload, lead, of course, by Mr. Cousins.

"You, BOY!" Hammond shouted to him. "YOU!"

Reg's face went pale, and his eyes blank, as he stepped backward against the railing. I took two angry steps forward; under no circumstances would I ever let Hammond abuse him again.

"Hammond!" Captain Pellew called out menacingly.

Captain Hammond paid him no heed, as he had Mr. Cousins pinned against the rail, unable to move.

And he reached out, and EMBRACED HIM!

Drew choked beside me. Reg's face, just visible over Hammond's shoulder, now blushed a brilliant crimson, even as he grimaced. Hammond was smacking him on the back like an old friend. "You, BOY...YOU ARE ONE FINE SHOT, SIR!"

"Er...thank you?" Reg gulped, utterly confused.

Drew lost it then, and without ceremony, made an escape bellow decks. Archie, now beside me, was struck with a fit of giggles.

And Captain Pellew had to go forward and extricate a confused Midshipman from the hug of his worst nemesis.

"Come, Hammond, Mr. Holloway here will show you to your berth." He nodded, as Holloway came forward, trying so hard to look dignified.

As Hammond was lead away, the Captain cleared his throat. "Well, I think I must see Mr. Brandon, Mr. Hornblower, Mr. Cousins and Mr. Ward in my offices, along with Mr. Kennedy. We shall have a good shot of brandy, I think..." He looked at the still immobile Reg Cousins, "Or perhaps three or four, and discuss what has been going on here. In an hour, say, once we are under weigh. Mr. Ward, if you do not mind...please get us moving."

"With great pleasure, Sir."

The Captain patted Reg on the back, who finally got moving himself. "What just happened, Sir?" He asked, in wonder.

"I think, Mr. Cousins, that is as close to an apology as you are ever going to get from Captain Hammond."

Reg shook his head. "I think, Sir, I liked it better when he hated me!"

***
I entered the Captain's Cabin about ten minutes ahead of my fellow officers. Archie was desperately trying to clean himself up; Drew had rather thoughtfully sent a supply of fresh water to him. Unfortunately, as the stoves are still out, it is not heated water; perhaps by tomorrow the weather will lessen in severity.

Drew and Reg were taking care of myriad minute details, and then would be cleaning themselves up to report to the Captain. But as I had the least to recover from, I had decided to seek out Captain Pellew earlier, for any questions he might have.

He bade me to enter with a quiet voice.

He stood beside the windows, gazing outward, one hand resting on his writing table, stroking its gleaming polished wood gently. He did not turn at first.

"I ought to have expected you would be early, Mr. Hornblower." He finally turned his gaze on mine; those eyes, which could be so many things at so many different times, were now filled only with kindness and warmth. "Please, sit down. I must say, I am still getting adjusted to the fact that you are not dead."

I sat gingerly; my health is very probably only 90% at best. "Thank you, Sir. I would say I am just getting adjusted to seeing you on board, but as I was not able to really appreciate your absence while in sick-berth, it would be rather inaccurate. Indeed, I have a hard time picturing Mr. Brandon and Mr. Cousins carrying out your duties, thought I know they did."

He poured me a glass of brandy with a slight smile. "Apparently so, Horatio. Apparently so." He raised an eyebrow. "You are permitted spirits, I assume?"

I paused, glass half raised to my lips. "Well, Sir...Mr. Brandon did not SPECIFICALLY mention to me that I should not drink them."

He gave a chuckle under his breath. "Then I would drink up one glass at least before he gets here to comment on it."

He drummed his fingers on the table as the ship rolled gently. "We are well under weigh, at least. Mr. Ward is a wonder indeed."

"He is, Sir..." I felt moisture in my eyes again, and cursed myself for the softness.

"Mr. Bowles." The Captain sighed. "A man who deserved a better end than he got." He raised his own glass in a toast, that I followed.

After I sipped, though, I corrected his statement. "There are worse ways to die, Sir, than with honor, serving your king and doing your duty. His end was quick; I am certain that he felt no pain. To have survived maimed would have been far worse for him, I am certain. So here, sir, is to the life of an honorable man." I raised my glass, and he nodded in agreement; we drained them in silence.

"We head on to Oporto, Sir?" I asked, cautiously.

The Captain shook his head. "Though Mr. Cousins has repaired the Indefatigable neatly, I feel Gibraltar is the closer port, and we shall there be able to render her more stable for a lengthy voyage. Besides, given the circumstances, the quicker I report, the better for all of us. This could get interesting, Mr. Hornblower."

"How so, Sir?" My brow furrowed.

He refilled our glasses as he went on. "I am not certain that I am not liable for charges. Certainly, Hale could order an inquiry, at least. I lost command of my ship; the life of a ship's master of thirty years' service, and temporarily, the freedom of one of my Lieutenants and a brother Captain."

I nearly sputtered in indignation. "Come now, Sir...there was no way for you to handle the situation other than how you did."

"Perhaps not, but then you were there, eh, Mr. Hornblower? Even if you were not conscious for all of it." He shrugged. "The admiral will in all likelihood require an explanation, at the least. Because he was not there." He gave himself a little shake. "I have taken a brief look at Mr. Brandon's charts and logs...enough to give my orders for the sail this evening. Other than that, Mr. Hornblower, I have decided to throw regulation to the wind for the evening!"

"Sir?" I said, nearly choking on the brandy.

"I do not wish to hear a report. I do not wish to read details of command. All I want is to sit in my cabin, with my officers, enjoying a few glasses of brandy, whatever stale food Powers can come up with, and bask in the fact that I am on board Indefatigable. Do you have a problem with that, Hornblower?" He looked at me with his most withering glare.

I grinned. "None whatsoever, Sir." I tilted my head. "Pity for Reg and Drew, though; no doubt they've been steeling themselves for the past half hour for this meeting!"

He smiled back. "All the more reason, then, to make them wait for tomorrow! I so seldom have the opportunity to torture any of you anymore!" And his eyes suddenly gleamed with pride, which he did not even attempt to conceal. "You were out of this command, Horatio?"

"For about ninety percent of it, yes, Sir." I admitted, blushing slightly.

"And Mr. Brandon and Mr. Cousins did this...all on their own?"

"They did, Sir." I felt rather proud of that myself. "With Mr. Ward's willing help."

"And the men...the men followed them?"

"Without question, Sir."

He chortled again. "Well, then...WELL THEN...that is something, eh, Horatio? Two midshipmen and a Lieutenant who's a doctor, and they did it! Ha! I bet there isn't another Captain in the bloody Atlantic who could expect his crew to do the same thing! Well done indeed!"

"Are you planning on telling them that, Sir?" I teased.

"Don't be ridiculous, Hornblower. I have an image to maintain!"

At which point, there was a quick knock on the door.

Drew and Reg, perfectly groomed and totally petrified, walked bravely into the room. The Captain came before them slowly; his face still bore the bruises of his experiences, but it did not change the command of his countenance. He deliberately grasped his arms behind his back and stared at them, eyes half closed, mouth drawn into a thin line. I tried not to smile as each young man stood a little straighter and held his breath; I could see Reg clench his hands nervously from my vantage point; Drew appeared to be chewing on his lip. I know I saw him gulp, as the Captain let his eyes sweep from one to the other.

Gradually, he cleared his throat. "Well done, men."

And he smiled.

I could see both Reg and Drew exhale even as he turned to a decanter and poured them both glasses of brandy.

"Will you accept one glass, Lieutenant Brandon? You have earned it."

Color returning to his face, Drew managed a smile. "I believe I shall, Sir."

He handed both of them glasses, and motioned them to sit down. "Pity we cannot have the fires lit, I know."

Drew went gray for reasons I don't understand, and I caught Reg glaring at him.

The Captain, if he saw it, ignored it. Powers had, with Drew and Reg, swept in with such food as we could expect: a plate of biscuits and some cheese purchased in Madeira, still in good shape. Captain Pellew now foisted such meagre bounty on us all. "I trust Powers took good care of you, Mr. Brandon?"

Drew relaxed again. "He took excellent care of both myself and Mr. Cousins, Sir."

"I am glad to hear it." The Captain raised his glass; I had resolved to slow down. "Drink up, Sirs. The evening is young, and though we await Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Ward, I see no reason to postpone our enjoyment. To your first Command, Mr. Brandon...and your tenure as first Lieutenant, Mr. Cousins."

"Thank you, Sir." Reg drank gratefully, but Drew paused.

"I must protest, Captain...Mr. Cousins and I controlled the Indefatigable together." He spoke without hesitation.

"I understand the uniqueness of the situation, Mr. Brandon. And we will get into full details tomorrow, when we shall have a report, eh, and I shall examine those charts of yours. Assuming I can read any of them, from what I remember of your handwriting!"

Reg choked slightly on his wine, and I had to smile myself, even as the Captain swept on.

"...but at this moment, I am not inclined to wallow in the details, gentlemen. I would like, for one evening, for us all to rejoice in each other's company. The events of the past week have reminded me clearly how lucky we are to sail with each other."

"Then here is to the Indefatigable, Sir." Drew raised his glass to the Captain.

Archie and young Ward arrived just then, making our little group complete; Archie looking as relaxed and happy as ever I'd seen him, and Ward looking most intimidated. I smiled reassuringly at him, which made him relax slightly. Poor Ward had been around the Captain the least, and I had no doubt that he would find himself on the receiving end of more than one sharp barb and teasing comment.

The Captain, meanwhile, was most cheerfully going through the last of this decanter; with his usual aplomb, Powers was preparing another bottle. "Mr. Cousins...no claret for you, I know; rejoice it is brandy!"

"Thank you, Sir."

"And young Mr. Ward...Christian name is Mathew, I believe?" He darted a quick glance at the lad, whom had seated himself up close to me, trying to duck out of sight.

"Er, yes, Sir...it's Mathew." He blushed, accepting the brandy cautiously. "Thank you, Sir. I am honored."

"Honored? Fine way to put it, when I am thanking you for managing to find me like a needle in a haystack, young man." Pellew coughed. "I ask your Christian name because there is a very real possibility that given enough time and enough brandy this evening, we may be reduced to that level."

Finally, he passed a glass on to Archie, again with a strange glint in his eyes. "Well, Rosencrantz, a brandy?"

"Thank you, Guildenstern, I think I shall." He replied, grinning.

Perhaps the brandy (for he has suddenly filled my third glass) has gone to my head; or did the Captain and Archie call each other by obscure Shakespearean names? What the devil went on in that prison of theirs?

"Speaking of Shakespeare..." Drew jumped in, his face faintly ruddy from the unexpected partaking of spirits. "Mr. Hornblower, is it you whom has my copy of Henry V?"

Oh, yes. "Indeed I do, Mr. Brandon." I stifled a sudden desire to belch. "I picked it up while I was in sick berth and wanted to finish it."

"What's this?" Archie's eyes lit up. "Horatio Hornblower reading for pleasure? And Shakespeare, no less."

"I have read Shakespeare before, Mr. Kennedy..." I tried to protest.

"Reading for pleasure, Hornblower?" The Captain joined in, mocking me gently. "I am surprised at you!" He gave a mock growl. "Mr. Cousins, I seem to remember once having a conversation with you where you said YOU did not care to read for pleasure?"

Reg held his own. "Quite probably, Sir, for I was young and foolish then." He shifted his eyes at me. "However, it is true that there is seldom time to indulge in reading that is not related to my duties."

"It's hard enough to find you without your nose in a book as it is, Mr. Cousins." Archie tweaked him.

"And you should thank God for that, Mr. Kennedy." Drew teased right back. "Unless you would care to picture ME fothering a sail."

"Mr. Brandon is too modest." Reg folded his arms and met his friends eye pointedly. "Mr. Brandon, never having even had charge of a division of men, led this ship. Mr. Brandon manned a boat to La Liberte. Mr. Brandon, never having fired a pistol before, felled a guard. And Mr. Brandon, who says he cannot lie, did an admirable job of finding a way to send me a message, and further managed to pull Captain Hammond to safety, by acting the complete fool. Lieutenant Brandon cannot hide behind the illusion of inadequacy any longer, I fear."

Drew was getting redder and redder with embarrassment, and Archie patted him on the shoulder. "More brandy, Mr. Brandon?"

He blinked, suddenly realizing that he had emptied his glass. He thought it over carefully. "Perhaps I will."

"You're going to need it." I said, seeing where the various conversations were going. But I resolved to keep an eye on him. He is not used to spirits, and I do not want to see him making him self sick. Or beating himself up tomorrow.

"Speaking of Captain Hammond..." Captain Pellew dragged his name out long, and we all turned towards Reg, who was becoming as pink as his friend. "How is your new best friend, Mr. Cousins?"

"I do not know, Sir. I am not any more inclined to seek him out today than I was last week, Sir."

"A wise move, I think." Archie muttered, for the first time letting any hint of acerbity settle on his countenance.

The Captain refilled Archie's glass...his second. Drew's second. My...fourth? Oh, Dear. "Now, then, Mr. Kennedy...let us give Hammond the benefit of the doubt for one evening, at least. In all likelihood he will resume obtuseness tomorrow, but until then, I for one, shall enjoy the quiet."

"Did you have a run-in with him too, Mr. Kennedy?" Reg asked, curious.

"I had a few words for him, yes; wherein he threatened to exact revenge on me at a later date, though I do not see how that would be possible."

I shivered, and Ward, who'd been watching the barrage of conversation in awe, turned to me in concern. "Are you well, Mr. Hornblower?"

"Quite. Just a sudden chill." One, in fact, I do not understand.

"Hammond is Hammond. Always will be." The Captain said, sagely. "But, Mr. Cousins, though I do not wish to get your hopes up, perhaps, just perhaps, we shall be able to get him to reconsider his evaluation of your exam, assuming he has not forgotten himself by this time tomorrow."

Reg's face glowed. "I did not rescue you for my greater glory, Sir. But if Captain Hammond does wish to reconsider, I would not stand in his way. Only because, however, I truly believe I *did* pass the exam the first time."

"It is GOOD to have you back, Captain." Drew said, with abruptness that might lead us into sentimentality once more. "Good indeed."

"Sir..." Ward, perhaps the least drunk of the group of us, for he was not entirely comfortable with the group as yet, spoke. "Sir...if I may..."

"Yes, Mr. Ward?" The Captain looked at him thoughtfully.

"I should like to propose a toast to Mr. Bowles, Sir. I know I did not serve with him long. But I think I learned more from him in my few months' here than I did in all the previous year I spent at sea. He was a smart man, and a good man, and I will miss him."

"To Mr. Bowles." Archie was the first to echo the toast. "With whom I have served with longer than any man, including Horatio here."

"To Mr. Bowles." I repeated, an image of Papillon coming to my mind. "Who trusted me enough to back me up in my darkest hour, and is in no small part the reason I am still here today."

"To Mr. Bowles." The Captain sighed. "A man who certainly recognized a fine shot when he saw one."

"To Mr. Bowles." Reg said, quietly. "Who valued me so much that he was aghast to think I would risk my reputation by inebriating myself on a few glasses of claret."

"To Mr. Bowles." Drew said, softly. "Who was the first person to ever say a kind word to me on this ship, when he praised how quickly I could ready my gun-port."

And together, and solemnly, we all raised our glasses. "To Mr. Bowles."

Just the beginning of a long evening, I fear.

***

May 15th, 1799

An excerpt from the Diary of Drew Brandon

"I am sorry for the interruption to my entries here. But my life took rather a turn for the adventurous. Followed by an extended hang-over and then a lengthy translation and explanation to Captain Pellew of our events during his capture.

Marks, I am happy to say, shall not hang. Not that the Captain didn't look as black as death at first, when we reported that he was a traitor. But he understood his desperation, and, as he said, I had ordered him punished, after all. He would not...nay, could not...punish him twice. So Marks shall remain here, on the Indy. For however long we shall remain together.

It was at the end of our rather brandy-filled night (two glasses and I was beyond control; I do not understand how my father ever built such a tolerance) that the Captain broke down and told us of our uncertain future together as officers. It seams Reg's situation is the most precarious, as a mere midshipman. But so long as Admiral Parker lives, the Captain believes he shall see advantageous positions for us all. For Horatio and Archie, of course, that means serving on larger ships, expanding their reputations. For the rest of us, that would preferably involve staying in Pellew's command.

For the first time, I appreciate my father's death. Should I be assigned to somewhere undesirable, I know Stan will not force me to stay in the Navy. However, as long as I stay in the Captain's command, I will remain in service. I owe him far too great a debt to ever abandon him.

Perhaps I am not the complete idiotic git I thought I was. I did survive command. I faced my worst fears. And the men still follow me. However, it was not enjoyable; Dr. Brandon remains infinitely preferable to Lieutenant or Captain Brandon. So that is what I shall hope to remain.

Hammond, as it happens, may in fact rescind his failure of Reg. He abhors Archie now (who apparently was rather critical of him during their imprisonment) yet near worships Reg. Who HATES IT! He escapes to sick berth at every chance, grateful for a friendly ear and a hide-away.

Well, we shall be in Gibraltar soon...perhaps the day after tomorrow. Horatio longs for Angelina; I long for Violet, though, I suspect, not in QUITE the same ways! Then, on for England, to our fates; Reg shall see his Ellie, perhaps as a Lieutenant. But, Lieutenant or not, she shall love him still, I know. As will his family as a whole.

And, I hope, I shall have a chance to seek out my own brother, and try to unravel the mysteries of my family...why can I have a casual glass of claret or brandy, and be pleasantly happy, when the same would turn my father into a vicious violent man. Was he ever happy? Could he have been?

The answers are distant still. But I hope I shall find them, one day.

May 21

We were on our third day in Gibraltar, with Captain Pellew spending some time
each day with Hale and returning in a foul mood each time. But it seems that
there will be no formal charges brought against him, just a scolding reprimand,
mainly, from what I can deduce, for not attempting to take La Liberte with us.

Our repairs continue. The Captain has persuaded Hale to allow Mr. Ward to
perform as an acting master until we get to England, where our crew will be
disbanded as a whole. But the experience will be invaluable for him, especially
when it comes time for the Captain to help him find a new job.

"Morning, Horatio." Archie sat next to me at the table, a steaming cup of
coffee beside him.

"Archie." I responded, quietly. I have been unable to shake the persistent
uneasiness that has plagued me ever since I dreamed of his death.

"Still your usual cheery self, eh?" He raised an eyebrow at me, and then set in on his eggs, our in-port luxury. "I would have expected a better mood, given you were able to visit Angelina yesterday."

I blushed, some rather pleasant and completely improper images flooding my mind. "Angelina is a very important part of my life, Archie, but there are some things that even spending time with her cannot resolve."

He sighed. "You are fortunate she understands your moodiness, Horatio."

"Nearly as well as you do." I retorted, in exasperated fondness.

"Well, I have known you for long enough..." He looked at me again. "Really,
you have been most pensive ever since I returned from La Liberte. A long time to brood, even for you. What failure do you heap on your head this time?"

"None, Archie." I took a deep breath. "Do you understand how I value your
friendship?"

"As much as I value yours, I would imagine." He blinked at me, a wry smile on his face. "Sentiment, Horatio? Now I am worried."

"Archie..." I felt my face growing redder as I buried my head in my chest,
staring into the depths of my coffee cup. "Archie. I had a dream." I
murmured, afraid to articulate my silliness.

"I beg your pardon?" His mouth fell open in disbelief.

I hid my face in my hands. "I had a DREAM, alright? While I was in sick
berth...I dreamt that you were dying...right before my eyes...and it was because of me, and I could not stop it. Alright?"

"How much laudanum did Drew give you?"

"Archie..." I said, reproachfully, and he became more serious.

"Look, Horatio...I was captured. You were worried. That is not unusual. And the laudanum really does do strange things to your thoughts. Perhaps you felt that you could have prevented my capture somehow...it wouldn't be the first time you'd taken on responsibility for someone else's actions." He grinned. "Nor the last, probably."

"Stop it." But I gave him a slight smile. "You know I am not normally
fanciful..."

"Now there is an understatement..." He quipped.

"But I have grave misgivings about the future, suddenly, Archie. And I cannot shake them."

"Bollocks." He said stoutly. "I am here, I have never been better in my entire life. Yes, I could get cut down tomorrow by a stray shot or flying splinter. So could you, or Reg, or even Drew. I cannot worry about that, Horatio. But for the record, I am stating now, that under no circumstances, should I be killed, are you to blame yourself. I am not the wreck of a man you found in a prison in Spain, but a fully responsible adult who can take care of himself...and even occasionally you. Got it?"

"Quite." I felt some relief at his adamancy. "I suppose knowing of the changes in our future doesn't help much."

"No, that I DO understand." He drained his coffee. "But the Captain has
promised to make every attempt to have us transferred together. And you must
admit that you would welcome new challenges yourself, Horatio."

"It is just so unlikely that we shall find ourselves serving with another man
like Captain Pellew."

"Impossible, more like. Because there is no other man like him." Archie
admitted. Then, holding out his hands, he began counting off names. "On the
other hand, Clark, Chalk, Harvey...all reputedly decent men, and Captains.
Versus Hammond and Foster...and, of course, poor old Keene."

"So what you're saying is..." I let a wicked grin slip over my face despite
myself. "We have an even chance...yet again."

He groaned. "Your humor has not improved in the years I've known you, to be
certain."

He rose slowly. "And I am on duty soon. Try not to wallow in mourning during my absence."

Ward entered then, hesitantly. He is still not used to being "acting" master, but has been accorded with Bowles' privileges. "Er, morning, Gentlemen."

"Good morning, Matt." Archie said, pleasantly. The use of his Christian name still flummoxes him, which is rather amusing. "Captain above decks?"

"He is...Archie." He covered his embarrassment in conversation. "We've got a visitor, it seams."

"Captain Harvey?" I hazarded a guess.

"No, it's a civilian. Young man, mid twenties, I'd say. Well dressed.
Blonde."

I looked over at Archie. "Is your brother in Gibraltar?"

"From the Americas? Not likely." He shrugged. "Perhaps a man seeking a place for a brother or other relative."

***
Drew was cheerfully dusting off his bottles. He'd had time yesterday to lay in a good supply of herbs and other necessities. He'd also paid a visit to Violet, which left him strangely happy and edgy at the same time. That was the usual effects his visits left him with. Lyman was forgiven for his transgressions, and had amused both him and Johnson all morning with stories from the powder boys' hi-jinx. All in all, the world was a good place.

"Did you get willow bark yesterday, Drew?" Johnson asked.

"Third drawer from the left on the medicine chest." Drew replied. "Clean
bandages, Stephen?" He asked in return?

"Lyman is bleaching them in the sun above decks." He hummed merrily. "How was Miss Violet yesterday?"

"She is well, thank you." Drew controlled the blush with effort. "I will be
sorry indeed if my new ship does not have Gibraltar on its run."

"Lieutenant Brandon, Sir?" Anderson entered, a strange look on his face.

"Yes, Henry?" Drew looked at him, curious. "Something wrong?"

"No, Sir. Captain's compliments, and he'd like to see you in his cabin."

"Of course." Drew wiped his hands and began to unwrap the apron he often wore while in the sick berth. "I shall come immediately." He did not take his eyes off of Anderson's face. "Is his mood...difficult, Mr. Anderson?"

"I cannot tell, Sir. But...unless looks are deceiving, Sir...I believe he is
with one of your brothers."

Drew's eyebrows arched. "Curiouser and curiouser. Slight man, my height,
perhaps a shade heavier in build? About twenty-eight?"

"With your face. Yes, that would be the visitor in question."

"Stanton." Drew said, positively. "Perhaps he decided to tell me of my father's demise in person. Very well, then. Johnson, the berth is yours."

***
Drew felt only moderately nervous approaching the Captain's office. Had it been his late father in there, he would have considered jumping off the ship and swimming to Gibraltar before entering.

"You sent for me, Sir?" He entered when commanded.

Sure enough, his brother Stan, looking rested and fit, was awaiting him, with a smile.

One Drew would have returned, if not for the fact that the Captain's stance was familiar. Unmoving, rigid; staring out the ship's windows; his shoulders' tense. A stillness that was disquieting.

"I did, Lieutenant Brandon." He did not turn around. "You remember your
brother I assume?"

"Naturally, Sir." Drew did force a smile at Stan, then; but the silence was
unnerving.

"Drew, it's good to see you. You look much better than when last we met."

It would have been hard NOT to. "Thank you. I guess you have been told that I know of father's demise?" He offered, hesitantly.

Stan checked his smile into a look of decorous stoicism. "Yes. I am sorry you could not hear it from me. I know the circumstances are awkward, but he was still our father and one must grieve."

"In some way, yes." Drew conceded. He could mourn never having much of a
father more than he could mourn the man's passing.

"Your brother..." The Captain finally turned, his face a mask of unfathomable expression. "Has a proposal for you, Mr. Brandon."

Drew turned to him. Stan coughed lightly. "I have, indeed. My purpose here
was not only to inform you of Father's death. But to perhaps right some wrongs you have suffered from."

"Yes?"

"I know your service here has been invaluable to the Captain. And I am pleased as punch that you passed your Lieutenant's exam. But you were not meant for the Navy, Drew. It was a punishment, not an avocation. I would like now, to offer you the opportunity to leave it."

"I..." Drew stared at his brother. "Leave the Navy?"

"Yes. And study medicine, as you ought to have been doing all along. Wherever you choose. There are fine schools in Austria, I understand... though what the political climate is at the moment, I am not certain. France is out of the question, but there is Salzburg."

"And a school in Edinburgh, if you do not wish to travel so far." The Captain put in, his face still blank.

"What I am saying is, money is not an object." Stan continued. "I am Lord
Exton now; all of our other brothers have made their way in the world, and
Alicia is well set; I would like to see you equally so. I know I cannot undo
what you have suffered; let me help to make certain you never suffer again."

Drew felt his breath coming fast as he stared, first at his brother, then at the Captain. His mind was awhirl. It was a generous offer to be certain. His brother legally owed him nothing. And it wasn't just the money. It was the tacit approval of career choice. A chance of a lifetime. It was what he'd always wanted. Wasn't it?

He looked once more at the Captain, who met his eye with his most inscrutable
stare. "An excellent opportunity, Mr. Brandon. You know I would be sorry to
lose you from your service here. But I certainly will not stand in your way.
Especially when I know our future to be uncertain."

Drew swallowed. "I thank you for your understanding, Sir." He looked back at his brother. "Stan, you must realize this has been rather a shock to me."

"Of course." Stan soothed, coming forward to lay his hand on Drew's shoulder.
"I know you well enough to understand you would never have applied to me for
funds directly."

Drew nodded; he'd never even considered that an option, when he'd heard Stan had come into the title. He'd just been...relieved. "You are staying in
Gibraltar?" He said, finally.

"I am for the next few days, at the Kettle of Fish."

Turning to the Captain, Drew took a deep breath. "Sir...we are to remain in
port a few days longer, are we not?"

"We are." He still did not evidence any emotion.

"May I call on you tomorrow, then, to give you my answer?" Drew finally said.

The Captain raised his eyebrows, but Stan smiled even wider. "Naturally, I do not need an answer immediately. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow...
afternoon, perhaps?"

"Tomorrow afternoon." Drew said firmly, ignoring the sharp look Pellew was
giving him.

"Excellent. I shall be happy to buy you dinner! Captain Pellew..." Stan
extended his hand. "It has been a pleasure, Sir. I thank you for your time."

Stan left quickly, sensing, perhaps, a difficult conversation coming up.

"Mr. Brandon." The Captain again looked outside the window. "Have you changed your mind about becoming a Doctor?"

"I have not."

"Then I fail to see the difficulty in answering your brother." He grasped his hands firmly behind his back; Drew could see his knuckles glowing white.

Taking a deep breath, Drew persisted. "As I said, the offer was sudden. And
since I do HAVE the time to think it over, I don't see the harm in taking it.
My future hinges on my decision here."

"You don't belong on this ship, Mr. Brandon." His voice was sharp. "Do not be so foolish as to deny your talents, as your father did for so long."

Drew flinched slightly at the Captain's tone. "I am not denying anything.
Quite probably I will take the offer. I just...wanted the time."

"Very well then." His voice sounded bitter. "You are dismissed, Mr. Brandon. Please be so kind as to inform me of your choice once you have made it." And without further words, stung by the dismissal, Drew turned away to
return to his sick berth.

***

I lounged on my cot, trying to finish Henry V. It was a quiet evening. I had not seen Angelina today, but would try to get out to her tomorrow. Archie was on duty, and I was enjoying a rare chance of solitude.

Until, of course, the knock on the door. "Enter."

"Horatio?" Drew's very serious face peeked round the corner. "May I have a
moment of your time? I could use your advice."

"Of course, Drew." I smiled at him, and he sat in a chair that occupied one
corner of what I still thought of as "Bracegirdle's old quarters", rather than "my quarters."

He rested his elbows on his knees, running his hands through his hair before
speaking. "My brother has offered to stand me for medical school."

I grinned. "That's wonderful, Drew!" And then I thought a second further.
"Now? I mean, right away?" And thought a second more. "Leaving the service?" My voice trailed off, and my smile faded.

"Exactly." He gave me a lopsided grin. "Thus my dilemma. I do not want to
leave the ship. Yet I want to go to school. So I have no idea what to do."

I leaned forward myself. "Have you told the Captain?"

"Stan actually spoke to him first. He didn't exactly try and do a good job of convincing me to stay." Drew shrugged.

"Of course not, and don't put a single implication on that, other than the fact that the Captain wants what is best for you." I said, quickly. "He will miss you, as will I; but you must do what YOU need to do."

"Like you did?" He asked, pointedly.

He did have a point. After all, I had turned down a chance at command because I would not do anything that might be construed as a slight against Captain Pellew. He hadn't been happy about THAT, either. I thought it over.

"Drew, I did do what *I* needed to do; I needed, for my own conscience and
sanity, to remain here for a while longer and not take the offer from Admiral
Hood. Though on paper it does not make sense, in my heart, it was the right
choice for me."

"So..." He mused. "It is possible that the obvious choice may not be the right one for me?"

"Only you know that, Drew. It is not a question I can answer; or your brother, or the Captain, even. Only you know your own heart." I paused a moment as he digested this. "But make the decision for you, Drew. Not out of obligation you might feel. You might be thinking now that leaving our company would be ungrateful, but it would not. Any consideration any one of us has paid you these past years has been more than paid back, in your service, and in your friendship."

His smile trembled a little. "Thank you, Horatio, I think I needed to hear
that." He rose slowly, with a sigh. "I still have not decided, but you have
helped. I must work the rest out on my own, I fear."

"You do that. Think it through. Choose what is best. And do not fear our
anger should you choose to leave. We will miss you, but we will be happy for
you."

"I will miss you all too...if that is what I decide." He smiled once more.
"Good night."

I watched him go with a smile. And then, after a few minutes reflection, I
rose, prepared to go where I knew I would be needed.

***

"Why am I not surprised to see you here, Horatio?"

"Because other than Archie, there is no other man who knows me so well." I
said, easily. "And because you know Drew well enough to suspect he would
confide his dilemma in me."

"I fail to see the dilemma, Mr. Hornblower." His voice was terse. "I will miss him...you know damn well I will. But I care too much about him to let this chance pass by."

"I understand, Sir." I took a deep breath. "But be certain it is the chance he wants. He is not the same beaten down child he was two years ago. And you have seen...we both have seen...that he was worthy of that promotion."

"He said he still wishes to be a doctor." The Captain argued.

"No doubt he does. But let him make the choice. All of his life, he has been buffeted by circumstances beyond his control, unable to have a say in the most important details of his own future. Everyone has told him what to do, and how to do it. This is his decision. Whatever it might be, we need to respect it."

He hesitated, and then sighed. "Lord, Horatio, I miss him already and he is not even gone. It is most discouraging to think that whatever my new command is, I might lose all of you. But how could I ask him to stay? I know if I did, he would; but I do not wish him to hate me years from now."

I smiled at him fondly. "He will never hate you, Sir. And you have not asked him to stay. He will appreciate the freedom to make his choice. And because it will be HIS choice, there will be no resentment."

I am only now curious as to what that choice will be.
***
Drew got to Gibraltar at about 1pm. He was early for Stan, he knew; but there was purpose to that. In going over his confused thoughts last evening, most of the night, in fact, it had occurred to him that he was not the only person who had a stake in his decision.

There was Violet.

He arrived at Mrs. Bracegirdle's nervous. Violet herself opened the door, wearing a calico smock and with her hair pulled back in a kerchief. She went pink, eyes wide with chagrin.

"Hullo, Drew." She wiped quickly at a smudge on her face. "We've been cleaning the back rooms today. I wasn't expecting you."

"You look lovely, anyway." He smiled warmly at her. "Do you think we can speak for a few moments?"

Mrs. B came through, carrying a fussing Andrew. "Mr. Brandon! Good to see you!"

"And you, ma'am."

"Bring him into the kitchens, Violet. Feed the poor boy...he looks half starved." She tossed Andrew up in the air and his fusses turned into a giggling laugh.

Violet smiled fondly, and moved to let Drew enter. "You remember the way, I think."

"Indeed I do." He felt warmed by the memory of the day last December when he'd
delivered little Andrew. He sat himself at the table, as Violet went to put the kettle on for tea. He sighed gently as she turned, placing her hands on her shoulders and squeezing them, rubbing them.

"So tense." She whispered, kissing him on top of his head. "What is on your mind, Drew?"

"You. Us. My future." He raised his hand to touch hers on his shoulder; holding it. And he explained, succinctly, the offer placed before him by his brother.

"I see." She came around the table and sat next to him. Her face was pale, and her eyes cautious. "You're leaving."

"I don't know." He leaned forward into her hands. "With the possible break up of the Indefatigable, Vi, there's a good chance I'm leaving no matter what. I will follow Captain Pellew into hell if necessary; but the truth is, his next ship might be in the channel fleet, or in the Indies, or worse. So you need to be prepared for that."

She nodded. "Ma and I are used to it, Drew. I know Da will stay with Captain Pellew as well. If it looks like he's to be stationed in the channel fleet for a year or more, he'll see us moved. I think he'd like to do that anyway; send us back to Plymouth. He had a grand chance here, and it's been handy, but he doesn't like us being surrounded by the Spanish, as it were."

Drew felt a little relief at that. "I ought to have known your father would have thought that out. So...if I do go to school, it will be Edinburgh; far enough, to be sure, but at least the seas and hostile enemies will not separate us."

She blinked sudden tears out of her eyes. "So you don't want to separate?"

He looked up sharply. "Of course not." She turned away, but he placed his hand against her face and made her look at him. "I love you." He paused, letting that sink in. "More than I would have ever thought myself capable of. More than I have ever hoped to get in return. I cannot live without you, Vi. We are entwined...two vines clinging to each other. I cannot see my future without you in it."

Violet smiled through her tears then, wiping her eyes. "You do have a way with words, Mr. Brandon." She sniffed, and rose as the water began to boil; pouring out tea. She placed a cup before him, and then returned her hands to his shoulders, and then to his hair. "Your queue is untidy." Deftly, she undid his ribbon to fix it. She paused to run her hands through his hair, and he closed his eyes at the sensual touch. "I have always loved your hair, Drew. Do you remember?" She combed it with her fingers. "In the boat that time, back in Portsmouth."

He murmured softly, "I don't remember much of that, Vi. I was close to unconscious."

"I know. You had collapsed in a heap at the bottom of the boat, and I stood watch over you. I didn't know how to help. The only thing I could think of was to stroke your head, try and sooth you." She exhaled, and then began to slowly re-tie his hair. "I didn't think, then, that there was a chance on earth a man like you would ever even look at me. Yet in that moment I knew I'd never love anyone else the way I loved you." She wrapped her arms around him. "Whatever you choose, Drew, I stand beside you."

He leaned back against her. "Everyone keeps saying that. Nobody gives me any push one way or the other." He looked up into her face. "I need to know what you really think."

"You've learned quite a lot sailing on Indefatigable. You've told me that yourself."

"I have. It's been...a practical school, really. I've learned by doing. And I've had a great deal of freedom to try different things." He agreed.

"What would university be like?" She asked innocently.

"Classes. A lot of classes. A chance to learn from different professors, new wisdom, new advances." A whole world of education before him. "A chance to study things I haven't gotten to see yet...diseases, the new inoculation technology." He felt his voice warming to those things.

She kissed the top of his head once more. "I'm just going to say this for you to think on. Are you done learning in the Navy? Are you ready to move on? That, seems to be, the necessary thing for you to decide."

*Am I done with the Navy?* He asked himself.

"For me..." She continued. "I want you to be happy."

"Where I physically exist does not change that." He answered. "I will be happy as long as I have you."

***
"Has Mr. Brandon left for Gibraltar?" The Captain asked, peevishly, approaching me on the quarter-deck.

"He has, Sir." I answered smoothly. "Over four hours ago, in fact."

He harrumphed loudly, but said nothing, just resumed his steely-eyed glare into the port. "Something wrong, Sir?"

"I had requested that he notify ME of his decision once he'd made it." He grumbled. "I need to know how to handle the staffing situation."

"We have a doctor, still, with Johnson. Two Lieutenants, with Mr. Kennedy and myself. Enough to get us to England." I pointed out.

Naturally, he was in no mood for rational conversation. "I know damned well the personnel of the ship, Mr. Hornblower." He snapped. "Why couldn't he speak with me before he left?"

"Perhaps he still hadn't made a decision?" I tried.

"What is he going to do, toss a bloody coin when he gets to his brother?" And with that pronouncement, the Captain spun on his heals and strode away, the rest of the crew keeping a wide berth from him.

***
"I am disappointed, Drew."

Stan looked over his tankard at his brother mournfully.

"I thought you might be." Drew shrugged. "I've given it quite a lot of thought, and it's not that I don't appreciate your generosity. But..."

"But?"

"Stan, I am good at what I do. I shouldn't brag, but I am. And it's not just stitching up wounds and grinding up medicines. I'm a good deal more than that to the men. I am a voice for them, a neutral person who understands what they do and can offer them advice or counsel. I enjoy that. And I am a Lieutenant, and not a bad one, either; that makes me very unique...not many other Doctors, I'd wager, can understand from experience what it takes to be a sailing man."

Stan looked at him fondly. "All of this is true, I am sure. I just hate to see you continue to put your life on hold."

"It isn't on hold; Violet made me see that. I am still learning here. When I am done, when I have learned everything I can from this job, then perhaps I shall move on."

"Very well." Stan folded his napkin. "I am putting the money aside for you then..."

"You don't have to..."

"In a trust." He said, sternly. "When you are ready to move on, it is there for you. And don't think of refusing. It is the least I can do."

Drew smiled. "I thank you. It is most generous." He paused a moment. "How was Mother when you left?"

Stan let out a deep breath. "She's not well, Drew. Still clings to the laudanum. I suppose there's not much hope, now?" He asked.

"After eight years of addiction? Impossible to break, I'd say." He let his shoulders sag. "I wish I could offer suggestions. Does she even realize father is dead?"

"No, and worse, she cringes from me whenever I walk in the room. Apparently I look a great deal like him."

Drew laughed shortly. "On what planet?"

"Really. When he was my age, which would have been about when she'd married him, he looked like me. Like us, I guess."

Drew couldn't contain the shiver. "I like to forget I share any part of him, Stan."

"I feel the same way, and you suffered more than I did." Stan shook his head. "He was never a happy man."

"I wanted to ask you about that..." Here was his chance. "What drove father to violence? Do YOU know?"

Stan had a far away look in his eye. "When I was a child...he wasn't that bad at first. Inattentive, and with no use for children, but not violent. He traveled. He was often gone. He didn't have the title then, you know. His brother had it." Stan smirked. "His brother Andrew."

"I was named after him?" Drew hadn't even known he'd had an Uncle Andrew.

"Yes. Uncle Andrew was, from all the stories I've heard, a real bastard. Apparently he used to beat up on father often when he was younger. Once he passed away, and father inherited the title, I think he took it as carte blanche to beat on others."

"A cycle of violence." Drew murmured. Then he frowned. "But why name me after him?"

Stan grimaced. "THAT I do remember. Mother had been forced into the marriage, and he regarded her with less fondness than he did one of his horses. She didn't want more children, but I think father considered us as a visible evidence of his power."

"Well, he needed an audience to witness his temper. And bear the brunt of it." He cringed.

"Quite. Anyway, after Alicia was born, I remember mother insisting that was it. But father would not...er...relent."

Drew paled at the implication; Stan pretended not to notice. "He spent all of her pregnancy with you carousing in France. By the time he came back you were six months old, and firmly christened Andrew...out of spite, I believe. He went crazy, but gave up. I actually started calling you Drew, because it seemed to not rouse his ire so much." Stan patted him on the arm. "I'm sorry if this pains you."

"I asked." He swallowed deeply from his small beer, the least alcoholic offering at the pub. "I guess I had sort of clung to the idea that Mother loved me, at least."

"She did!" Stan leaned forward insistently, getting in his face. "Don't you see? She loved us all, and it killed her, watching father torment us and her unable to help. The last thing she wanted, probably from the day I was born, was to bring more children into this world and feed his anger. She had no choice. That is why she is...where she is today."

There was silence, then. Stan and Drew finished their meals, Drew long lost in thought.

His mind wandered between Violet, and Reg's father, and a conversation in a field around a broken fence.

"The cycle stops here." He pronounced suddenly, looking Stan in the eye. "No more circle of abuse. It stops here."

Stan raised his own tankard. "Hear, hear." They drank, and Stan continued, "So long as George and Wills don't have any children."

***
I spotted the boat first, returning from shore. I raised the glass. "Still in uniform." I murmured. Still, that meant nothing.

I waited patiently as he came aboard. His face was pale, but composed, and his eyes revealed nothing. "Mr. Hornblower." He saluted. "Captain Pellew is in his cabin, I assume?"

"He is." I decided to warn him. "He had expected an answer before you left."

"I didn't have one to give him, then."

"And do you now?" I asked.

I was interrupted by the Captain's sharp voice. "Well, Mr. Brandon, you have returned, I see. I am most disappointed that you apparently have not learned to follow orders. Or did you not understand my request that you notify me AS SOON AS YOU MADE A DECISION?"

"I understood the order perfectly, Sir." Drew didn't even flinch.

"And yet you left for Gibraltar almost six hours ago without so much as a word to me!" The Captain seethed.

"I did. Because I did not have an answer to give you. And did not have an answer until about two hours ago. Would you like that answer now, Sir?" He remained calm.

"If you please." I saw the slight paleness on his face behind his anger.

"Very well." He stood straighter, and looked proudly at the Captain. "If you do not object, I have decided not to resign my commission at this time, but to continue in your service, as Doctor, Lieutenant, or *cook*, if that is what you require. And before you assume otherwise, I am doing this because it is what I want; I have much to learn still from this career, and do not feel the need to interrupt THAT education at this time. My brother has promised me that I can decide to seek a University education at a later date. But the war will not wait for me, nor any man. I am able to use my talents currently to serve my King and Country, and can think of no finer goal."

I almost applauded.

The Captain did not move for a second. Then, clearing his throat, he gave the only answer he could. "I do not object. Welcome back, Lieutenant Brandon."

And without further words, but with a decided spring in his step, he turned to return to his cabin.

But I caught the hint of the smile on his face before he did.

***

May 25th

I waited on the docks for Angelina. I had only a brief time before I had to return, and we would be sailing for England tomorrow. She had promised to see me before I was off.

"Horatio!" She waved to me, running forward lightly. "I am sorry to be late. A fussy customer."

I embraced her, in full view of the world, not minding the attention one bit. "You are here, and that is what matters." I looked at her, for I had noticed a certain twinkle in her eye. "What has happened."

She smiled brightly. "Oh, Horatio...I have had a letter from a distant cousin...he and his wife have made their way to England and they wish me to join them. She will be operating as a milliner, and can use the help. They have sent me money for passage. I am bound for London!" She looked doubtful, suddenly. "That is a good thing, is it not?"

I was ecstatic, and picked her up right there, spinning her around. "It is an EXCELLENT thing, Angelina. No matter what route my next ship puts me on, Portsmouth will inevitably be a port of call, and thus, London!" I felt the surge of joy buoy my resolve; for there was a reason I had asked her to meet me.

"When you get to London, Angelina...will you marry me?" I asked, barely daring to breathe.

Her mouth opened a bit, and then she giggled, like a school girl. "I will, Horatio Hornblower. I will marry you tomorrow, if you like."

I kissed her firmly, then. "Not tomorrow. Not until I am settled in on my new ship. Once I am, though...I am resolved you should be mine."

"I am yours already, Horatio." She smiled. "But I am more than willing to declare it before God and the world. There is no finer man than you."

"If I am a fine man, it is you who makes me so." I looked joyfully into her eyes. "With whom do you travel to London?"

"It is uncertain. There is a merchant vessel going soon. Mrs. Morris and her daughter travel with me as well, good news for young Brandon. It shall travel under protection of Captain Clark's Neptune."

"And do you need anything, anything at all from me? Are you settled for money?"

"More than settled. I have done quite well here. I only want to know that you will get there safely, so..." She poked her finger into my chest. "No unnecessary heroics, Mr. Hornblower. Understood?"

"Aye, aye, Sir." I teased.

She buried her head in my chest, and I took the chance to look around Gibraltar,
contentedly. The port had been very good to me, indeed.

 

JUNE 5, PORTSMOUTH

Our second day in port. All formality among officers has disappeared; and the midshipmen and Lieutenants alike have gathered in the ward room, commiserating with each other over our uncertain futures.

Admiral Parker is dead.

Captain Pellew has reported to Admiral Hood.

And the world may be falling to pieces.

Admiral Hood hates Captain Pellew. That is without a doubt. And chances are, I myself am not very high up on his list of preferred human beings. The Indefatigable is to be broken up, the only question is how? We had hoped that Admiral Parker would use his connections to arrange matters according to the Captain's preferences. And there isn't a man among us who would not trust his life with the Captain.

But now that is all moot, and we are in limbo. I am resigned to the worst. I will be sent to whatever is the worst ship, least likely to encounter advantageous action, possibly a dispatch vessel! Archie will never be allowed to transfer with me. The Captain cannot expect a gift; no, Hale will find a ship that SEEMS to be a step up, but in reality is worse than hell. Chances are the other officers will be assigned willy-nilly to whatever Captain is most hated by Pellew.

Reg is most morose. Hammond had spent the remainder of our journey up from Gibraltar hanging all over him, praising the simplest task and talking him up to be a second Nelson. "I just KNOW he's going to ask Hood for me to be transferred to him!" He moaned.

"But as a Lieutenant, Reg." Drew tried to sooth him. "Surely he'd want you as a Lieutenant."

Reg picked up his head. "Even worse! You know how he treats his midshipmen, and ship's boys! Marks has told stories enough, and he brags about it himself. How am I supposed to exist as an officer on a ship so full of injustice and watch it go on? Not speak out against the brutality! His ships just about INVITE mutiny."

"There is no excuse for mutiny." I said, automatically. "Besides, perhaps you would be able to mitigate it, hm? Since you have his ear."

Archie looked over at Drew. "Regretting your decision yet?"

Drew was the most calm of us all. "No, I am not."

Of course he wasn't. He had what each of the rest of us was, for one reason or other, lacking: Freedom. If Drew wished to not go to whatever ship he was assigned, he could simply resign his commission and write and tell his brother that University sounded like a good idea after all. I was, in fact, rather envious of that.

Ward took my mind off of Drew's luxury for a moment. "Speaking of mutiny, have you heard about the Impetueax?"

I considered correcting his lamentable French, but decided against it. "I have, Mr. Ward. A most difficult situation."

The Impetueax was also stationed with us in Portsmouth, and had been through a rumored four mutinies in the past six months. Men were hanged, men were flogged, but apparently to no avail. Word was her Captain was hanging on to his commission by a bare thread, but as he was an old friend of Hood's, would likely not be removed.

"Must be a bad lot of men." Young Holloway opined.

Archie shook his head. "No ship can start out with five hundred bad men, Mr. Holloway. Yet every ship most likely has two or three, this one included. It takes leadership to keep those two or three from turning the rest."

"So you blame the Captain?" Reg asked, curious.

"And her officers, yes." Archie said emphatically.

I agreed. "Captain Pellew once told me that on board his ship, everything concerns a captain. For the situation to become so far out of control, the ship's leader must have been very inattentive indeed."

"What of her officers, do you think?" Drew asked.

"As much to blame." Archie said instantly, perhaps thinking of Justinian.

"I am not so certain." I contradicted. "It is very easy for me to sit in judgement of them, from the confines of Indefatigable. But who knows how much freedom they can have had? Mr. Cousins, when Hammond was hell bent on attacking you, I could not stop it, though I wished to, because of rank."

Archie considered the points. "I suppose you are correct, Horatio, when you say that we do not know the circumstances. It could be either way: an incompetent Captain backed up by indifferent officers, or competent officers undermined by a difficult Captain. No matter how you look at it, though, it is the men who have suffered."

Anderson shivered. "I don't like this talk, gentlemen. I have grown used to our men here, and our officers here, and our Captain, here. I do not understand why every ship cannot be like this one."

I looked at him indulgently. "That will be OUR job, Mr. Anderson, when we are ourselves Captains."

Captain Forbes looked in. "Gentlemen, Captain's returning to the ship."

"Thank you, Forbes."

And slowly, we all rose, to go forward and greet the man whose leadership we already mourned.

***

"At ease, Hornblower; sit down."

"Yes, Sir."

He had called me into his cabin as soon as he'd gotten on board. His face was blank and expressionless; an unusual occurrence. Though he often would effect a stone-face as we went into battle, he normally didn't bother on a return from Admiralty. His usual face then was pure anger and rage at whatever idiotic task was being requested. Or maybe it's just that I have learned to read it so well, and this time, his expression escapes me.

"Mr. Hornblower, I know I gave you a certain amount of detail as to what my hopes had been for the changes of command we would be facing." He paused.

"You did, Sir; however, I understand that the unfortunate death of Admiral Parker changes things." I tried to make this easier for him.

"It does." He paused again. "Admiral Hood is not a fan of either of us, I fear." He grinned suddenly, a wry expression. "Or us of him, if truth be known. However, fate has intervened on your behalf, Mr. Hornblower."

"How so, Sir?" I said, afraid to even hope for a decent commission.

"You have read the Gazette?" He asked.

"First thing this morning." I admitted.

"Then you know of the adventures of the Renown. Captain Sawyer faced and defeated three French Frigates on his own, sinking two and capturing the third. Quite a remarkable feat."

"Remarkable indeed!" My voice warmed. "Though tragic, as he lost nearly two thirds of his crew, from what I understand."

"Indeed; I can only guess how devastated he is. And I knew of Sawyer; years ago. He's no Foster. Never a man to willingly risk his crew when not necessary. In this case it was clearly kill or be killed. Still, I can imagine too well how those deaths pray on his mind."

"That is good to know, Sir." I trust Captain Pellew's judgement, to know the difference between a man like Foster who considered his men cannon fodder even when defending a supply ship, versus a man who would truly regret his losses.

"Sawyer has been much decorated. I have not seen him in years, but I have read of him, of course. Renown shall need extensive repairs, but she's a good ship of the line, and no doubt will be seeing extensive action. A chance for prize money; a chance to prove one's self for a lucky officer." He met my eyes pointedly. "Or two."

I felt the cabin tilt dizzyingly. "Do you mean, Sir...that Mr. Kennedy and I..." I gasped.

The Captain smiled warmly. "It galled Hood to no end, I can tell you, to offer YOU in particular such a coveted spot. But here is Sawyer, national hero, begging for the best available Lieutenants...he lost all but two, Buckland and Kymper, in his adventures. Of course, it means you and Mr. Kennedy become third and fourth Lieutenants, but on a ship of the line!"

"Sir!" Words failed to come at first, and he looked at me kindly. "I shall call Mr. Kennedy in presently to explain it to him. You shall be dismissed from this ship tomorrow evening, and shall have two weeks of shore leave to thoroughly run through your due prize money before reporting to Sawyer. I suggest you both make the best of it."

"Of course, Sir!" I grinned at him. "I cannot thank you enough for the chance, Sir."

"And I cannot thank you enough for your service here." His eyes were sad and kind at the same time.

"Sir..." I said, suddenly reading the look he had. "What about you? What about the others?"

"Ah." His eyebrows rose. "Admiral Hale is most impressed, so he claims, by my ability to get out of trouble. So he has handed me, with a smile, the smarmy bastard, the most trouble he could. I am now Captain of Impetueaux."

"Impetueaux?" I gasped, frowning. "Sir...perhaps Mr. Kennedy and I would be better off serving you on the new ship. You will need HELP, Sir...she's in a bad way, from all I've heard."

"A terrible way, and I would have welcomed your help, and the help of all of my officers. However, in a unique way of twisting the knife in deeper, Hood has decreed that I shall not be able to take any of my commissioned officers with me. So even if you were not already bequeathed to Sawyer, I could not accept your assistance."

Damn, but I fear for him on this job! His very life could be in jeopardy. But he quickly sought to sooth me.

"I will not be without all friends, Mr. Hornblower. Hood gave me permission to take a third of Indefatigable's men with me. Knowing him, I have a feeling he doesn't consider that an asset. You and I know otherwise, eh?" He looked more relaxed then. "Yes, Morris has served with me for years; and Andrews, of course; no finer bosun. Thomas. And this new man Marks, whom Drew reclaimed; I believe that gratitude is a good base for loyalty. Clarke, the Steward, and Powers, naturally."

"And Styles and Matthews." I said, hurriedly. I could not bear to see them at the risk of a diffident Captain.

"Ah, yes...Styles and Matthews. I hadn't thought to take them with me." His face was deadly serious, and I panicked.

"Sir, I know no better men than Styles and Matthews..."

"Decent, perhaps..."

"Decent? Sir, their loyalty is unsurpassed. They have always stood by my side. When in Spain, they were the only men to not fall prey to Hunter's escape attempt, but to obey my orders. Granted, Styles can be a little hot-headed, but Matthews keeps him well in check..."

"Ah. Perhaps I have misjudged them?" He raised his eyebrows, and fool that I was, I failed to take his meaning.

"Entirely, Sir."

"I see." He rose and approached the Marine outside his door. "Send for Matthews and Styles, if you please."

He turned back to me. "I shall discuss it with them, and with you, then."

He volunteered no more speech, leaving me befuddled. He made some notations in his log book, but otherwise ignored me. I was too shocked to make conversation myself.

My two good men arrived finally.

"Ye sent fer us, Sir?" Matthews asked, placidly. Styles shuffled in beside him, his eyes seeking mine.

"Ah, yes, thank you, men." He rose and stood before them; I followed suit. "Men, Mr. Hornblower here has just made extensive praise of your work ethic. You see, I am bound to command HMS Impetueax. You have heard of it, have you not?"

"Aye, Sir." Matthews' blue eyes went wide.

"Mr. Hornblower here implored me to take you with me into that command. I admit, I had not thought to at first. Do you want to know what I had thought of?"

Styles and Matthews looked at each other uncomfortably. "Sir?" Matthews' asked plaintively.

"I had thought...that seeing as how you had served with Mr. Hornblower, and Mr. Kennedy as well, for so many years...even before Indefatigable...that it MIGHT perhaps be better if you considered to serve with him." His eyes twinkled defiantly at me now, and I felt mine rage. Well, Damn him, why hadn't he said so the first time!

This time it was Styles who spoke. "Sir, we'd be happy, I think, to serve with either one of ye. Ye've both been fair to us."

"Yes, well..." The Captain coughed. "I further wished to make certain that I had somebody on Renown to keep an eye on Lieutenants Hornblower and Kennedy, and keep them from blowing themselves up." His eyes were laughing outright, and my cheeks burned.

"Renown!" Matthews and Styles both chimed in, in rising glee. Captain Sawyer's reputation extends to the lower decks, I see.

"Yes, Renown. She is looking, as I understand it, for a new bosun," (he looked pointedly at Matthews) "and a bosun's mate." He transferred that gaze to Styles, then looked at them both with half-closed eyes. "Gentlemen, when first you both came on board Indefatigable, I wouldn't have thought myself to be saying this, but nevertheless, I am. You are offered promotion, as befits your excellent and unflagging service to me, to this ship, and to your officers. I know that you will take the lessons you learned here to heart, and not let this new found power go your heads. As wielders of discipline, you have a responsibility to the Captain and the men. Use it wisely, as you have seen Mr. Andrews do, and you shall not be amiss."

Styles was nearly trembling, and it was left to Matthews to speak for them both. "Sir...I thank you. I believe, Sir, we will not disappoint ye."

"No, Sir." Styles said, voice nearly overcome with emotion.

The Captain extended his hand to both, and I followed suit. Then they were dismissed.

After the door closed, I turned on him. "Well, you could have TOLD me that, Sir!"

"What, and lose a rare opportunity for sport with you, Hornblower? I have short enough time for that as it is." He sighed, then turned once more for the Marine. "Send first for Mr. Cousins, and then when he is released, for Mr. Brandon." He looked at me. "You are dismissed now, Mr. Hornblower. Find Mr. Kennedy and tell him, before he goes wild with worry that I have not called for him."

"He's on duty." I pointed out.

"Then try and have his cry of joy kept to a minimum. I do not want to distress Mr. Cousins further than I have to."

"Sir..." My eyes were wide. "Is there no good chance for him."

He sighed. "That depends, Mr. Hornblower. It very much depends."

***
Reg came forward nervously. He was not afraid of the Captain. But he was deathly afraid of the news the Captain was about to give him. Still, there was no help for it. He waited, resigned to his fate.

"Mr. Cousins, I yet again have a difficult request to make of you. It is hardly the first one I have made this year, I know." Captain Pellew turned to look out the window.

"Sir, I have not done anything in your service that I have ever regretted." He thought over Serenity, and La Muerte, and weeks spent in Madeira translating for the Island Governor. They hadn't been easy tasks...and Serenity had nearly undone him...but he'd gotten through, and with the admiration of his superior officer intact. That was something.

"And you have done much in my service to make me very proud of you. And to be very deserving of promotion to Lieutenant, as you well know."

"Thank you, Sir." Reg's cheeks glowed with the compliment.

"As you can probably guess, it will take very little prompting from me to get Captain Hammond to write a letter requesting the change of results from your exam. He will have to get concurrence from Christie and Chalk, but judging from Chalk's description of the events of that day, I doubt that would be a problem."

"I would be grateful for that, Sir." He admitted, hesitantly.

"However, I also know that unless I *do* prod Hammond, his memory is short, and he will never get around to doing it on his own."

"Sir?" Reg was hopelessly confused.

"The crux of it is, Mr. Cousins, I am asking you to NOT ask me to prod Hammond. And remain a midshipman." His eyes were anxious.

Reg blinked, but didn't hesitate. "Very well, Sir."

"Very well?"

"If that is what you advise, then that is what I shall do. I know you would not advise it without good reason." Reg's desire for his commission was tempered by his trust in Pellew's judgement.

The Captain smiled suddenly. "Thank you, Mr. Cousins. For, in my new command, it will be very useful to have friendly faces about me. I am to command the Impetueax, and though I shall not be allowed to bring my Lieutenants, I can bring my midshipman."

Reg's face relaxed, and he nearly smiled. "Then I will gladly stay in your service, Sir. And the other midshipmen will be exceedingly relieved to do so, as well."

"That is good; Ward, Holloway, Anderson and Howard are fine young men. But it is you I wanted in particular. This command will be rough, Mr. Cousins, and I need a clear head and a good shot, who I can trust. You are as good as a Lieutenant in action. Give me a few months and I will have you one in title as well."

Flush with praise, Reg almost couldn't respond. "I am...honored...Sir."

There was a knock at the door. "Ah...that would be Lieutenant Brandon."

Reg suddenly looked a question at him. "Sir?"

"He will have to tell you himself, I am afraid. It would not be good for me to let you know before I let him know."

Chagrinned, Reg nodded, and gave way to his friend. Drew looked a question at him, and Reg gave him an encouraging smile.

***

I found Archie on the quarterdeck, and first bade him to make no sound. Then I told him where we were bound.

His lips strained. Oh, he wanted to say something, he did! His jaw trembled, and he pounded his fist into his hand, with an idiotic grin. Then he cleared his throat.

"Permission to speak, Lieutenant Hornblower?" He asked, in a low voice.

"Permission granted, Lieutenant Kennedy, provided you keep it down."

"Sir...may I suggest that on leaving this ship we endeavor to see just how many pints each of us can absorb in a single evening?" His voice remained controlled.

I grinned. "I am not adverse to a little celebration, Mr. Kennedy."

"Then let us drink Portsmouth dry!"

***
Drew looked seriously at the Captain, who met his eyes just as seriously. "Mr. Cousins is to be transferred, Sir?" He asked.

Captain Pellew smiled, not surprised that Drew's first concern would be his friend. "He shall transfer with me and the other Midshipmen."

"I see, Sir." His relief was brief. "The other Midshipmen?"

"Yes. I am not to be allowed...to bring any...ANY...of my Lieutenants with me in my new command, on board Impetueaux."

Drew let that sink in, his face paling. "So what is to become of your Lieutenants?" He finally asked.

"Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Hornblower go to Renown. You..." The Captain looked away. "Captain Hammond has offered you a place, if you would like it."

"Captain HAMMOND?" Drew's face went even whiter.

"He does have four other Lieutenants. All in their late twenties to late thirties. Rather an old lot for you. I told him there was a good chance you might reconsider your brother's offer and resign your commission. He didn't seem to care, one way or another."

"I see." Drew straightened up, chewing on his lip thoughtfully. "Then, Sir, may I say it has been a pleasure serving with you as your Lieutenant, but I believe I shall resign my commission, indeed."

The Captain's face was immobile. "I had expected such. Well, good luck to you then. I expect to read much of your success as a Doctor in the future."

He extended his hand. Drew took it silently, and then turned and went out the door.

DAMN! Pellew thought in irritation.

Before he could even uncork the brandy snifter, there was another knock at the door. A very confused marine announced, "Sir...er...Doctor Brandon says he is here to see you."

The Captain managed not to smile.

"Show him in, then!"

Drew, color returned, eyes twinkling, stood before him.

"Good day, Captain Pellew."

"Good day, er...Doctor Brandon."

"I am under the impression that you are to take command of a new vessel, the Impetueaux. Is that correct, Sir?"

"It is."

"Excellent. I thought perhaps you might be in need of a physician. Although currently without credentials, I do have over two years of practical experience in shipboard surgery and ailments. I believe my previous Captain can vouch for my capabilities."

"Very possibly." Captain Pellew folded his arms behind his back. "Mr. Johnson, however, will be transferring to Impetueaux as well."

"Why, would that be Stephen Johnson, Sir? As luck would have it, I have served with Mr. Johnson previously! In fact, I would venture to say that we work quite well together. And considering that Impetueaux is nearly twice the size of my last ship, it seams to me that it would only be beneficial to have two skilled medical men on board."

"Perhaps you are right, Mr. Brandon."

"Of course, I must beg to bring Mr. Lyman with me...he is a loblolly boy of unsurpassed excellence and is an asset to any sick berth."

The Captain hesitated for one second. "Drew...I must remind you...this is a ship in mutinous state. My command there will not be so...benevolent, I fear, as what you are used to."

Drew raised an eyebrow, in imitation of the Captain. "Are you threatening ME, Sir?"

"I am saying that men will be flogged, in all likelihood, at a greater rate than what you saw here."

"Then I will treat them, as necessary. I do not wish to get murdered in my bed by mutineers, Sir; and I know you will do whatever necessary to turn Impetueaux into Indefatigable. I also understand that the mission will be somewhat dangerous. But with a strong enough core of men around you, we will bring the others around." Drew's voice rang with the confidence of youth.

The Captain extended his hand once more, this time with sincere joy. "Then, Doctor Brandon, it is a pleasure to welcome you to my crew."

***

On the docks in Portsmouth stood a man, a shell of a man, looking at a shell of a ship. The ship was the Renown, and the Captain was James Sawyer. Renown would be repaired. It is doubtful that her Captain could be.

Sawyer gazed in agony at the ship. His beautiful ship. His loyal, wonderful crew. And four idiotic Lieutenants who lead them to disaster.

He'd had fever...but had not been so sick. Call me if you need me, he'd said. And left the deck to his youngest Lieutenant, Lynn. Lynn had not wanted to call the Captain when he'd seen the sail. So he'd called the first Lieutenant, Buckland. Buckland was an idiot if ever there was one. And Buckland also did not call the Captain. He decided to engage. Engage!

Where there had been one sail, there soon were two. Two frigates. Bearing down on them. And the Captain slept, as Lieutenants Kymper and Campbell also decided not to wake him, but to now flee.

Into the waiting arms of a third ship.

He'd been wakened by the blast. By the time he got on deck, he saw his willing, desperate men, being lead by six terrified and stupid midshipmen and his idiotic Lieutenants. Who had, in every way, taken every step possible for disaster.

Somehow, they'd won. Somehow, they'd bested the enemy. But at what cost? So many men. So many bodies. So many whom he'd failed to protect. Three hundred lives lost. Including Lynn and Campbell. Buckland and Kymper plagued him still.

He stared at the ship. Three hundred men. Three hundred men, whose cries he still heard, who he feared would rise up and accuse him on judgement day. Three hundred men. And him called a hero for it. Some hero. He should have died as well.

And now...more Lieutenants. Pray this lot were better than the last. But he'd learned...oh, he'd learned. It was the men. It was the men who he owed, and it was the men who fought for him. The officers were for themselves. He'd not forget it. No, he'd not forget it.

Any more than he'd forget the three hundred men.