Passages: Christmas 1820 (an alternate Universe)
by Meanjean

 

The box arrived at 4pm on December the 23rd. It arrived at a small tidy house that belonged to a family of moderate means but extraordinary love. It was addressed to a man, a physician, an educator, and a retired officer from His Majesties Navy. And it was addressed from a man, a Captain serving at the admiralty, and the brother-in-law of the physician. But the doctor was not there to open it right away; a baby was at that moment making its way into the world, as babies often do, and he had been called away. It was left to his wife and four of his five children to note the box and look at it with wonder. But they would not open it, and deprive their father of the joy of doing so at whatever time he should return home. It was much talked about, however, and deeply anticipated, so much so that the eldest child, a steady boy of fourteen, stole upstairs to tell the other child about its arrival. And that news, and the wonder of it, did much to cheer that young boy of nine, who was unfortunately sick and in bed, as he too often was.

So the box waited, its contents being dreamed about by many.

One man who did NOT dream about the box was at that moment in an uncomfortable carriage, on its way to visit the small tidy house, or more importantly its family. He was an elderly man, but one in good health. And he was one of remarkable good cheer, though he had only last year lost his beloved wife. Perhaps, since love came late to him to begin with, he cherished what he had of it even more. But losing her had reminded him of other old friends he longed to see, and however healthy he felt, the hour glass was more bottom heavy in his account than otherwise. And he knew his daughter would forgive him if THIS Christmas, he allowed himself to spend some time remembering his past.

There would be a stopover at an inn this night, and then he would arrive in Scotland tomorrow morning, if all went well, but he was blasting himself at the moment for not opting to travel by sea. Land travel! He sighed in exasperation. Whatever had possessed him? But tomorrow would see him there, visiting one of the men who had become a son to him.

And with a faint grin, he picked up the naval gazette to read about the exploits of a certain Admiral, in whose career he was very interested indeed. Perhaps it is that he noted the snow outside, now piling in drifts; and he remembered a time a very long time ago when that Admiral was a willowy young man, and he was a Captain just learning to reawaken to the wonders of the world around him. And he wondered if, even at age seventy, he could throw a snowball well.

***

It was Christmas Eve day in Aberdeen, Scotland. A young boy named Edward was reclining sadly on a settee in a tiny but cozy nursery, well bundled with blankets against any chill. Young Edward (who would brook with no nicknames, mind you! He took pride in his name, after all!) was unfortunately of a sickly constitution. Though as he grew older, he was not sick quite so often, and now that he was nearly nine, there were often several weeks together when he felt perfectly normal. It was unfortunate that one of his bad spells should happen this week.

He sighed and looked longingly towards the window. His brothers and sisters-Reggie, age fourteen, Dan and Diana, the twins, now twelve, and seven-year old Olivia-were no doubt happily out in the fast-falling snow, building snow-people and having perfectly wonderful snowball fights. Perhaps Papa would tear himself away from his work and join them! Mama would prefer them out from underfoot while she was trying to get ready for the festivities tomorrow. Eventually, they would traipse in, covered in icy wonder, and Mama would gripe good-naturedly about the snow in her kitchen, and then would sit them all down with steaming cups of chocolate. Of course, he would not be forgotten...a cup would be brought to him; Reggie, who was really quite a decent chap for a big brother, would no doubt bring it, and then tell him stories to amuse him. Papa would not want all of his brothers and sisters in the nursery together, so as not to get him excited and start a coughing fit.

But I really feel ever so much better today! Edward thought, a deep frown ruining his otherwise angelic features. His eyes flashed angry, as he remembered trying to argue Papa into letting him go outside. But his father had been quite firm; Mama said it was some question as to which one of them was more stubborn. Not that Papa yelled at him; Papa never yelled. Ever. But he didn't move his resolve one bit either, and Edward really knew better than to keep up arguing. The last thing he wanted to do was have another coughing fit that left him frightened and gasping for air, because then he might be forced to stay in the Nursery TOMORROW, and that would really be a tragedy.

The problem was it was soooooo boring in here. The governess, Miss Benton, had been given days off to visit her own family, and he was forced to amuse himself. The family only had two other servants...old Tom, who worked in the stables and gardens, and did other odd jobs around the house, and Mrs. Macready, the housekeeper of sorts, who was far too busy helping Mama to think of spending time to amuse him.

And his books! He swept them petulantly onto the floor, frowning even deeper. He had nothing new to read, nothing exciting, and he was an avid reader. If someone came in to see him, perhaps he might ask for a book from Papa's library. He reached for the bell...

And stopped. Edward might occasionally be a bit stubborn, and he was momentarily put out, but by nature he was quite a good child. And he hated to disturb Mama or Mrs. Macready, when they had so much to do. He had the feeling he was not being a very good patient, something his Papa would gently admonish him with when he was reluctant to swallow the strange and bitter brews he was given in an attempt to make him better.

So it was with a guilty conscience that he extricated himself from the heaps of blankets and picked up the books he'd tossed aside, and walking slowly and carefully he put them away neatly on the shelves. Papa liked things neat. He shivered, and reached for a throw to put around his shoulders, and then went over to the window.

The snow was still falling, thick heaps of it, and sure enough Papa had taken some time to join his brothers and sisters in a frantic snow fight. He must have seen his last patient just before noon, and soon, Edward knew, Papa would have to go to the University, where he taught medicine. He always had a class at three o'clock, and then he would return home for the evening, and regale them of tales of his students, which one of them had done the silliest thing during the day...usually involving fainting from watching some procedure.

He sighed and shuffled away. But the settee looked so uninviting...and he was tempted.

"I might..." He thought, checking his breathing and feeling no constriction. "I might just be able to sneak into the library myself and fetch a book..."

He knew, of course, that Mama would be very angry if she caught him, and then she would tell Papa, and he would look at him with those wide blue eyes of his very sad and say how disappointed he was that Edward had not obeyed. There was no worse feeling in the world than having Papa be disappointed with you!

"I am going myself to spare Mama the work." He tried to convince himself, against his better judgement. The nine-year old in him won out, and he peaked his head around the door and then shuffled down the stairs.

Voices came from the kitchen. Mrs. Macready, singing in her strong Scottish accent a bright air, and Mama joining her from time to time. He smiled. They were well occupied, and besides, they had given him an excuse...if caught, he could say that he DID ring the bell, but nobody heard him! And congratulating himself on his brilliance, he walked into the library.

As far as libraries went, theirs was not large. It was certainly nothing next to Uncle Archie's and Aunt Alicia's. But Papa had quite a nice and varied collection, and the room was snug and warm. He walked over to the shelf of books that Papa kept available for his younger children and picked up an interesting looking volume of sea-tales; some of the words might be big for him, but all the more to keep him interested. He turned quietly, meaning to go back upstairs, until he spotted the most amazing thing in the world on the table, and he stole forward to take a closer look.

A package had been delivered for Papa yesterday, a very large one, Reggie had told him. But he had been unable to say what exactly was in the package, as Papa had been away last evening and Mama would not open it until he came home. This must have been it...and a fine thing it was, too.

It was the model of a ship...a fighting frigate, with splendid white sails and shiny yellow paint. The model was three feet long, but it looked ready for the ocean, almost daring one to imagine walking aboard her decks, inviting him to climb her ratlines-they WERE called ratlines, right? He rather thought they were. He wished, desperately, to be tiny enough to go aboard her.

Slowly, and carefully, he walked around to look at it in all detail. Forty-four guns, he counted...no, only forty-two, for two seemed to be missing, a strange detail to omit in something so carefully made. Because even a nine-year old could tell that this was a fine piece of work, that had taken somebody heaps of time to create. Yet, he had a feeling, Edward did, that the ship didn't mind missing two guns...it seemed to expect it, seemed almost to whisper to him that she was fine enough without them, and let her enemies take false hope from the fact! Surely... surely ...yes! There was the name! Indefatigable! HA! He knew it!

"It's the bloody Indy!" The words came to his mind, but thankfully not to his mouth! Mama would scorch his ears if she ever heard him use such language. Never mind that they were actually Grandfather Morris's words, and never mind that Papa himself had laughed long and hard when Grandfather said them, while telling old sea stories. In fact, he would probably get Papa AND Grandfather into trouble.

He did not touch her, but stood longingly in front, wondering what stories she could tell. He imagined himself as a Midshipman (not quite old enough yet, mores the pity, but if he was going to dream he might as well make it as grand a dream as possible) climbing up the side. "Permission to come aboard, Sir?" And this he did speak out loud.

"Permission granted, Mr. Brandon." A deep, strong voice spoke from the chair behind him, and Edward nearly jumped out of his skin as he turned around.

He hadn't noticed the man before, but he must have been in the chair by the fire the entire time. He was old, very old, Edward thought, but very, very much alive. His face was wrinkled and his hair was white, but his eyes were a merry brown that seemed alight with mirth, and his lips were in the slightest smile imaginable.

He was torn with guilt at getting caught out (would this stranger tell on him?) and curiosity as to the gentleman's nature. He only must have arrived today, for to be sure a visitor would have merited a report from Reggie! Perhaps he was one of Papa's patients, who stopped to chat with Mama...but on Christmas Eve?

"Hullo. Why are you in our library?" He asked, curiosity defeating manners.

The gentleman's little smile became slightly more pronounced, and then the man's face became a mask of sternness. "I might ask you the same thing, young man! I believe you were supposed to be asleep in the nursery at this time?" He raised his eyebrows commandingly.

"I..." Edward gulped. He did not know why he felt compelled to answer this stranger, but knew somehow that he must, and that it had better be a darned good answer, too. In fact, nothing short of the truth would do! "I came downstairs for a book..." He held out his hand, displaying the Tales of Captain Cook's Voyages; he noticed that his hand shook just a bit.

"Hmm." The man took the book from him, and then smiled at its title; Edward almost relaxed. But that face went stony again, and the challenging eyes met his. "Could you not have asked to have a book brought to you?"

"I..." Oh, God, this man was sharp! He remembered the well-thought out lie about the bell, and the singing from the kitchen, but couldn't get the words out of his mouth. And then he realized he didn't want to lie, anyway. "I was bored, and I wanted to just get up for a little walk." And he hung his head slightly; His parents would be told, and Mama would be angry, and Papa would be disappointed, and all in all it was a rotten world!

"Here, now!" The voice was gentle suddenly, and a kind hand reached out to him, grasping his arm softly. Edward looked up through blurry eyes and saw that the man really was smiling at him this time. "I have been in your father's care once or twice, young man, and I know first hand he can lead you the devil's own time. I know how frustrating it is, even when he's right!"

"The problem is, he is ALWAYS right." Edward murmured, blinking, and the man chuckled.

"Indeed." And the gentleman leaned forward to stoke the fire, sliding over in the chair with a sidelong glance. When Edward hesitated, knowing he had stayed downstairs too long already, the man patted the seat insistently. "After all, you are bored, and I am bored, so we might as well keep each other company, eh?"

"But Papa said I was to stay upstairs..."

"Tcha! Don't you worry about that, young man; when he comes back we shall tell him that I fetched you down. He will not question ME!"

"But I'm really a terrible liar!" Edward said, but the man only grinned wider.

"Trust me, lad, I can handle your father. Now, do sit down and tell me why you chose this book!"

Edward did as commanded (funny, but it had felt like an order!) and sat beside his new friend. The man let him snuggle up close, and then pulled a lap blanket around him. He had the sudden feeling of being remarkably safe and happy, and he sighed. Really, what he had wanted more than the book was a little company, after all.

"Now, Edward..." The man somehow knew his name. "Why Captain Cook? Do you wish to go to sea?"

"More than anything!" He sighed, knowing with his weak chest it was not likely ever to happen. "My father used to be at sea, you know!"

"I do recall it, yes." His friend said, a peculiar look oh his face that Edward couldn't quite make out.

"He was a ship's doctor, and a commissioned Lieutenant, and he got to sail all over the world, and saw lots of battles with the French, and he learned SO MUCH!"

"Hm. He's told you quite a lot about it, has he!"

"Never enough!" Edward sighed. For Papa always talked a lot about Uncle Archie, and an Admiral Hornblower, whom he'd never met, but who wrote Papa often, and Captain Cousins, whom Edward HAD met, and liked quite a lot. Captain Cousins had been Papa's best friend, and his brother Reggie was named after him. His brother Dan, on the other hand, was named after a friend who had died. And he, of course, was named after the great, the awe-inspiring Captain Sir Edward Pellew. Edward had never met him, either; the man had a daughter in Wales whom he was much devoted to, Papa said, and though he was retired from the Navy, he kept a little schooner and a small crew, and ran it out to sea sometimes, because it suited him.

All of these people Edward had heard of, heard the stories so often he had them memorized. But for some reason, Papa was singularly unwilling to talk about himself! And that, more than anything, was what Edward longed to hear.

The stranger didn't know any of this, of course, but he followed Edward's eyes to the gleaming yellow model on the table. And with a teasing note to his voice, the man asked, "I suppose that is why you're so interested in that toy boat over there, eh!"

Edward whirled around, blue eyes sparking in anger. "Toy boat! That isn't any toy, I'll have you know!" He stuck his chin out defiantly, not even caring if the man changed his mind and reported his behavior to his father. "Why, that is the finest ship ever made! The Indefatigable! The Indy, that my father sailed on, with Uncle Archie and Captain Cousins and Admiral Hornblower and Captain Sir Edward Pellew, and lots and lots of other great men, too! Toy boat! He would never let you call it any such thing!" Edward was certain of this; his father would not have anyone put down the Indy!

Again there was a peculiar twisting at the man's mouth, though his eyes were respectably wide. "I do beg your pardon, young Edward. I did not know that the Indefatigable should mean so much to you!"

Edward felt his anger subside slowly, and he studied this man curiously, but his voice was still very serious. "It means a lot to my father, so it means a lot to me!"

"I see." And as Edward calmed down, he felt the man give him a gentle squeeze. "Fond of your father, then, are you?"

Fond of? What silliness was this? "I love my Papa very much." He blinked up at the man, not even understanding why he would need to ask such a question.

"Even when he is angry at you?" Those eyebrows were raised again...Edward wondered if when he grew up, he'd learn how to do that!

"Papa doesn't get angry at any of us. Sometimes he is disappointed..."

"Disappointed?" The man questioned seriously.

"Not in us, really, but in something we've done. Like he'll be disappointed when he finds out I came down stairs when he told me not to." Edwards head sagged again.

"I told you, young man, I will tell your father that this is my doing, eh?" The man stroked his head. "So is your father angry...er...disappointed, for long?"

"Oh, no, never; he tells us what we did wrong, and why it's made him unhappy, and then we have to do more chores to make up for it, and it's over. Except I still feel bad that I made him unhappy at all."

"I see." The two of them stared into the fire. "But you never doubt that he loves you, I hope, because I know he does, quite a lot!"

"Oh, I know. He tells me often. And even if he didn't, I'd know, because when ever I have a coughing fit I see how scared he gets."

"I bet he does."

There was a companionable silence for a few moments. The book was there, but Edward was curiously uninterested. He had a growing feeling that there might be better stories forthcoming than any book could hold. Finally, he ventured a tentative question.

"Did you know my father when he was a boy? Because you seem to know quite a lot about him."

That smile was there again. "Indeed I did know him as a boy, not one as young as you, though. I first met him on the Indefatigable, in fact, for I sailed on her too!"

"You DID!" Edward exclaimed, the man's estimation having increased largely on this information. He ought to ask his name, he knew, but something told him not to, instead, he just looked curiously at this stranger, who knew his name.

Sensing the unasked question, the visitor responded, "Who I am is rather unimportant to what you want to know, isn't it, Lad?" He put his hand under his chin, looking down at him, and Edward felt like his very essence was being measured. "You want to know what your father was like, and I can tell you that. He was quite a lot like you, or at least, I see a lot of him in you."

"Really?" Edward swelled with pride. He knew he looked like Papa, of course, everyone said so, but he'd never hoped he'd actually be like him.

"Really." The man smiled again. "All of his good points, and even one or two of his bad."

"Papa doesn't have any bad points..." Edward started...

"Like his stubbornness!" The man smiled even larger. "And his tendency to be argumentative and say exactly what was on his mind. Never did manage to curb that impulse!"

Blushing, Edward had to admit the man had a point. About both of them! But there was still something puzzling him...

"You said I had one or two of Papa's bad points, like he had a few. And I guess you're right about being stubborn...Mama says so all the time, and I know I sometimes say things I shouldn't. But I can't think of anything else wrong with Papa!"

"Ah, well, I suppose, the other things...there not there any more, you know. And they weren't his fault, really."

"What? What are they?" Edward asked, utterly dumbfounded to believe his beloved father had ever had additional character flaws.

"Well, I guess you could say he was withdrawn. Yes, that's the word I want. Oh, on the outside he could be a joking, happy boy, but he held any hurts close to the inside, and wouldn't let anyone see them So sometimes, you know, we quite forgot he was human, and the more he was asked to do, the more he did, until suddenly he would be on the point of collapse."

"Oh..." Edward thought on this; but it was hard to imagine his loving and forthright father holding back his feelings.

"One time, young Edward, he almost died because he didn't want to tell any of us he was sick. He locked himself in the spare quarters, and none of us could find him! Worried us half to death, I can tell you!"

Edward's eyes were wide. "But he was a Doctor! Surely he knew he needed to get help for himself!"

"Let me let you in on a little secret...the worst patients in the world are Doctors!"

"Oh. Papa says the worst patients in the world are Naval Captains."

"Does he? Does he indeed? I shall have to ask him about that later." Clearing his throat, the man continued. "What else do you want to know?"

Oh, the opening, it was so great. Why, he wanted to know everything, everything. But it was perhaps with a slightly impish grin that he did what any nine year old would, given the chance. "What is the worst trouble my father ever got in?"

The impish grin was matched, with accompanying eye twinkle. "Ah, a very good question, that! Your father made perhaps more a point than most young midshipman of avoiding any misdeeds. In fact, he was so scared when he first came on board that he just about hid every time...er, the Captain...came around."

"He was afraid of Captain Pellew? But...but he idolizes Captain Pellew!"

"Idolizes? Well, I don't know that I'd go that far, but remember, I am talking about in the beginning, and some Captains...not all, but a few, had a reputation of mistreating the young men who served for them. Anyway, your father had heard stories. Told to him by your Uncle George, I believe."

Edwards face went dark. "Oh, that explains it. I don't LIKE Uncle George!"

"Can't sat that I blame you there. So you see, he managed to spend quite a long time keeping out of any trouble, even when he stopped being afraid. I do believe...the Captain...took him down a peg verbally once or twice, and to be honest with you, that wasn't even his fault. For he soon
proved to be a good officer, and a fine young man. Until..."

There was a dramatic pause, and Edward leaned forward, eagerly.

"...Until he was directly insubordinate to Mr. Hornblower, and began to behave like a whiny, petulant fifteen year old instead of an officer in His Majesties Navy!" The line was delivered with deep intonation and flare.

"No!" Edward was delighted and shocked. "But Papa says Admiral Hornblower is like a brother to him!"

"Indeed he is! And do you not sometimes fight with your brothers?"

"No, not really...well, not often...well..." Edward felt himself getting rather red.

"Hm. I thought so. Anyway, you must remember, Admiral Hornblower was plain old Lieutenant Hornblower, then, third in command on the ship, but not so very old himself. Now, it all started when Mr. Hornblower was injured...seriously injured, in fact. Your father saved his life. However, as we discussed, your father brooks no dissent in the sick berth. And Mr. Hornblower, much like the man he is today, is a man of action. Not reckless action, but then he has always been singularly unable to comprehend danger to his own person, as he would in his men. So he ran your father ragged, and quite frankly, your father let him have it right back!"

"I bet he did! But whatever did Captain Pellew do?" Edward wondered.

"Well, it was a sticky situation, I believe, made all the worse because Captain Pellew had to be away from the ship for a period, and was forced to leave it to first Lieutenant Bracegirdle to handle." His eyes got misty for a second, and Edward understood, because whenever his father thought of Lieutenant Bracegirdle, who had been killed in action a few years back, he looked much the same way.

"Anyway...I myself, you must understand, heard of this second hand. But it would seem that despite a direct order to behave themselves, both your father and Mr. Hornblower managed to stand on Bracie's last nerve. He tried threats, both oblique and obvious, but neither man seemed able to stop themselves. Now, you must understand, this was particularly a painful thing, because we all knew that Captain Pellew regarded both men as sons, and yet any official action might be detrimental to their careers. So Mr. Bracegirdle took action to have the situation remedied before the Captain could return."

Edward's eyes were wide. "Did he have them beaten, Sir?"

"Oh, no. First of all, he knew that would not please the Captain. And second of all, it was only your father who was at risk of that; a Lieutenant cannot be beaten in such a manner. But in any event, Lieutenant Bracegirdle believed that violence would have been a lazy solution, for the simple minded, and good Bracegirdle was neither, let me tell you that. Indeed, he laid a cunning trap for them, that left both men stranded on a grounded ship, and forced to work together alone at a monumental physical task." Again, a dramatic pause, but Edward was so spell bound he could not even speak.

"You see, on that ship there were over one thousand vegetable marrows. And Bracegirdle made them stay on board, overnight, until they had each and every one of them loaded into boats to be towed away! By themselves!"

"No!" Edward could hardly believe that such a feat was possible. "But my father cannot have been very big then?"

"He was not. And though Mr. Hornblower was taller, he was very slender, and to top it off he was still having problems with his injured leg. Now, your father never told me what happened on that ship, nor did Mr. Hornblower. But when they came back, they were closer than they had ever been before, truly like brothers, and with an understanding of each other that nobody...not even their closest friends...could ever match. They are, it turns out, very much alike, though their talents were so very different."

Edward sighed, trying to picture his father as a troublesome fifteen year old, and surprising himself by being able to do it. And then he realized something, and he had to grin. "So that's why he won't let Tom grow any marrows in the garden! He absolutely forbade it!"

The elder man laughed. "I would bet you it is the reason. And I never saw anyone so green as your father and Mr. Hornblower when we were all at dinner a few nights later, and we passed around a plate of stewed marrow!"

Edward laughed with him at the image. Oh, he liked this man, even if sometimes he found him a little intimidating. "I imagine that father did not get into trouble like that again."

"No, no, he didn't, although he and the Captain had a few other run-ins while they were serving together. Captain Pellew was guilty, I am afraid, of being harder on him than he meant to, because he did not want to appear to favor him. And though he tried to be fair, he often held your father to a higher standard than other men, and also forgot fairly frequently that he was little more than a boy who'd been thrust into a situation of tremendous responsibility. It is a wonder your father has not ever resented him for that."

Edward squeezed in a little tighter, and leaned his head against the old man's chest, for he had suddenly looked rather sad. And he said quietly, "Papa has always told me that Captain Pellew saved his life. That everything he is today, is because of him. So you see, I don't think Papa looks at it like you do at all. If he did, he'd hardly have named me after him, would he?"

"No, I guess not, lad, I guess not."

There was that silence again. Dimly, in the kitchen, he could hear his mother and Mrs. Macready singing carols, sweet ones, and he felt drowsy and warm. Christmas was tomorrow, and there would be presents and roast goose, and mashed potatoes, and dried fruits, and crackers and all sorts of good things. They would play games together, and Papa would laugh, and Mama would look all smiley like she did she was happy. They would go to church, and Papa would hold him by his side, and they would sing together, and it would be a grand day. But for now, Edward was having none of that. He was miles away, on the deck of the Indefatigable, with the sun on his face and the wind in his hair, and what could be better than that?

"Captain Pellew?" A voice called from the doorway, and Edward jolted awake "How on earth did you end up with Edward, Sir?"

Captain Pellew smiled at physician Drew Brandon, now standing in the doorway, looking remarkably untouched by time. "You might say we found each other, Drew."

"Papa? Don't you have class to teach?" Edward stretched out and then stopped, mouth open. "Captain Pellew?" He gasped.

His father's blue eyes twinkled as he leaned down and scooped him up into his arms. "Yes, indeed, Edward, he is spending Christmas with us; by the by, they don't have classes on Christmas eve, and never mind all of that! How, young man, did you get down stairs?"

Well, so much for a diversionary tactic...Edward's brain, still addled with sleep, couldn't come up with an answer, and he waited for his father to scold him, as he knew he deserved.

Not this time, though. "Welllllllll, I suppose it was a bit much to expect you to keep to bed on Christmas Eve, and quite by yourself, no less. I had forgotten you would be alone." Drew kissed his youngest son on the forehead. "You are feeling better, then?"

Edward exhaled, wildly relieved. "Oh, yes, Papa. I feel quite well!"

"Mhm. Take a breath!" His father commanded, with mock sternness.

Edward did, a deep one, and he held it for a few seconds before letting it go, with out a single cough or a wheeze.

"Good enough. Now, let's get you off to the kitchen, eh? I believe your mother has a cup of chocolate with your name on it." Drew looked back at Captain Pellew. "If you'll pardon me, Sir, let me get him settled."

"Indeed, Drew, take your time."

As he left the library, Drew whispered into his son's ear, "You are a terrible liar, child!"

"Am I, Papa? I did try very hard to be convincing." Edward looked appealingly at his father.

"When, pray tell, did you realize that was Captain Pellew you were talking to?"

"Pretty early. The way he called me young Edward, for a start. And something in the way he seemed to give orders, only without them really being that. I just...knew."

"And there was a reason you didn't tell him this?"

"Yes. I thought he'd tell me more stories if he didn't think I knew what he was."

Drew studied his young son with amusement. "And did he?"

Edward met his father's eye innocently. "Oh, yes, Papa. Wonderful stories." He turned his head to the side. "Do you know what I should like to do next summer?"

Blinking at the change of subject, but wary of Edward's sense of humor, Drew said, "No, but I am guessing you will tell me."

"I should like to help Tom with the vegetable garden."

Seeing no trap, Drew mulled it over. "I don't see why you can't do that. What, exactly should you like to grow?" He asked, standing just outside the kitchen.

Edward grinned very impudently up at him. "Vegetable marrows!"

Drew gaped for a moment, head spinning, and then he did the only thing he could do. He broke down in bales of laughter, as he set Edward, scamp that he was, down on his feet. The sound brought his eldest son, fourteen year old Reggie, out to the hall.

Reggie had his father's features but his disposition was more like his namesake's, for he was steady and dependable. "Is everything alright, Papa?"

"Indeed, Reggie, I need you to take your brother off of my hands, before he kills me. And you..." He pointed at the still smirking Edward. "I expect some discretion from you, young man!"

"Aye, aye, Sir!"

"Now, I am going in to speak with Captain Pellew, for *I* have not had the luxury of doing so yet today, unlike some of us. Off with you, then!"

And he heard Reggie say kindly to his young brother, "So that's where you've been all day! Lucky dog..."

Drew returned to the library, trying to look perturbed. "Well, shall I have any secrets left in my life by the time you leave, do you think?"

"Not if I can help it." Captain Pellew stood stiffly; his joints were slow with age, but he did not need to use a cane yet. He walked steadily to the model ship that had so entranced Edward earlier. "Remarkable workmanship. From Archie, I suppose?"

"Yes, indeed. I believe he had one sent to Horatio and Reg as well."

"She was a good ship." Captain Pellew's eyes looked beyond the model, to his storied past, and a scant five year period that stood out in a career that held many fine moments.

"She had good men." Drew said, fondly, recalling what was in fact the first real home he ever knew.

"Edward...Drew, his health...is he doing better?" Pellew asked, cautiously.

Drew's face froze. "He believes he's getting better, anyway."

"But is he?"

"I...do not know, Sir. I am perhaps too close to it, to know what is real and what is hope. The attacks happen less and less often now. But I know that children like this, with lungs like his...they often don't live past five. So I don't know what to make of it, except to know that we are on borrowed time." His entire body was rigid; the pain so real it could be felt, and Captain Pellew put his arm around Drew's shoulders.

Captain Pellew sighed, remembering the number of men lost before they by logic ought to have drawn their last breath. And here was he, at the age of seventy, still going strong. And the young man next to him, who nearly hadn't survived the abuse that marked his childhood, almost lost to fever once, and making his way through constant battles, now thriving. Alive, both of them, alive on time that had been the gift of God since they both drew breath. Both of them, making the most of the time that they had been given, thankfully. No regrets. And softly he spoke.

"We are all of us on borrowed time."

Drew made the slightest nod of his head, accepting the reality. Not taking his eyes of the ship, he swallowed once, but spoke clearly. "I am glad you have come, Sir. Christmas is a time for family, after all. And we are that."

Yes, they were, thought Pellew. Families are not always born, but sometimes made, if one kept their eyes open. He glanced at Drew, still shorter than he was, slightly stockier than he had been as a youth. And he remembered the snowballs. The one's he'd thrown at Horatio, all those years ago. That would have been Drew's first Christmas on the Indefatigable, and he had been a wide-eyed, terrified boy, the one he'd noted as he shrank away from him whenever possible. Who could have guessed, then, of the relationship they would develop? "Your son is remarkable. I am looking forward to meeting the rest of the brood."

Drew grinned. "And they you! They are rather awe-struck, but I have high hopes that Reggie will keep them from doing anything too crazy in your presence."

"Wellllll," He drawled out, slowly, placing his arms behind his back. "It has been quite a long time since I have had the opportunity to terrorize youngsters. It will be a welcome challenge, Mr. Brandon."

Laughing out loud, Drew shook his head. "No go, Sir! They'd have heard too much about you from me, for one thing; and for another, by the time you get in there, Edward will have let YOUR secrets out."

"Ah. Guess it is a waste of energy, then." His mouth twitched slightly. "I don't suppose you could procure me a glass of Port, Sir?"

"I think I can manage it, Sir. And I'll join you with a cup of cider!"

Just like old times, thought Pellew, with a warm feeling in his heart. As long as I don't look in the mirror!

***
In the Aberdeen port, a rather battered, straggly looking ship was making Anchor. She had been at battle in the North sea, and had since then fought ice floes and rough weather. Her Captain and her sailors were weary, and any friendly port had been welcome, even a Scottish one. Her name was the Peterborough, and at her best she would have been a grand ship of the line. She was not at her best at this moment, however.

Standing on her quarterdeck, beside her Captain, stood a man still tall, still thin, swathed in a greatcoat. He was pale, but that perhaps might not have been a result of the considerable cold.

"It's actually almost temperate for Scotland, Sir." Captain Ruger said, tentatively. One never knew how an admiral would start acting up, and THIS one was a bit of a rogue. Always had been, the rumor went. "About 10 degrees, I should say."

"A venerable heat wave, Ruger." Said the swaddled Admiral, his thin mouth cracking what might have been a smile. "So this is Aberdeen, eh?"

"Yes, Sir. Perhaps we may find something in the stores for a Christmas feast for the officers?"

"And what of your men, Sir?" The voice was low and even, without a hint of anger. Yet Ruger had the distinct feeling he'd managed to offend the man. This one, he knew, had never had a mutiny. Never been on a ship where one occurred, or where there had been a rumor of one. Of course, there'd been that business with Renown. Rum, he'd heard that had been...still, nothing proven, and if ever a man could be said to have been a second coming of Nelson, it would be this one.

"Of course, Sir, I shall see my men well provided for."

"Good." The statement was terse, clipped off. "Captain, I must request the use of one of your shore boats."

"To go into Aberdeen, Sir?"

"I had not intended to use it to return to Russia, Sir." One eyebrow raised faintly, in surprise that his request should be questioned.

Ruger hastened to explain. "Naturally, Sir, you may have a boat...as many as you need... however, I feel I would be negligent not to point out that Aberdeen at its best is not a lively town, and this being Christmas Eve..."

"Yes, Ruger?" The voice tersely asked as he'd hesitated.

"Won't be much in the way of entertainment." Ruger murmured.

Ruger had assumed that this Admiral was looking for companionship, specifically female companionship. It had been a hard campaign; the Admiral, who was semi-retired at this point and usually took his choice of duty, had been begged on this assignment as a favor to a friend. They had been away from their family-their wives-for six months. Ruger knew if he could leave the ship, he'd be looking for the first agreeable, hopefully disease free female he could find. And with nine out of ten Admirals, he'd have not been alone in those thoughts.

Bad luck that this was Admiral number ten, who had no interest in womanizing. He'd gone through that stage in his life, foolish man that he'd been, and it had nearly cost him everything. He could not even blame it on boyhood, as he'd been in his thirties, except to acknowledge that if he had perhaps not been such a serious, brooding boy, he might have gotten such follies out of his system earlier.

"Captain Ruger, I do not know what YOU might look for as entertainment in Aberdeen. But I can tell you that what I am looking for is good companionship and a warm welcome from an old friend who last I heard was teaching at the medical college here. Unless you have reason to tell me that the esteemed Dr. Andrew Brandon is away from Aberdeen, I shall attempt to find him there."

Ruger blushed for many reasons. One, he realized that this Admiral was one of the more moral types, and he might have just damaged his career. And two, he knew the name of Andrew Brandon well. Outside of naval circles, he was often considered, if not quite a quack, a bit peculiar, with strange, un-modern ideas. Within naval circles, where there was a network of men he had worked with, men he had treated, and men he had trained, his word was one step short of a directive from the almighty himself. His book, Practical Medicine in a Naval World, was nearly standard issue.

"I had been unaware that you were acquainted with the great Dr. Brandon." He murmured, hoping he put the proper deference into the man's name.

The Admiral's head turned, his gaunt face and prominent cheekbones lending him a noble aspect. His fine dark eyebrows raised slightly, his eyes grew wide, and it was with surprising sincerity that Ruger was answered.

"KNOW him, Captain? He is my BROTHER." And with a faintly discernable twinkle in his eye, the Admiral made to take his leave.

The statement, however, left Captain Ruger very confused...for how could Dr. Andrew BRANDON be the brother of Admiral Horatio HORNBLOWER?

"Ah, well." Ruger thought "It's been a hard campaign, and the Admiral might be a bit worn out. Not quite thinking right, I'm sure."

And it was with relief that Ruger returned his thoughts to a pleasant dinner with HIS officers, without his esteemed guest causing emotional stress for them all.

***
The drawing room at the house of Dr. Brandon was currently in a state of bustle. Young Edward, after vanishing upstairs for an hour to "rest" (so he said), had settled into a settee, and his sister Olivia had curled up next to him. True to his father's orders of taking it easy, Edward was reading from a story book to his younger sister, who followed his words with silent rapture, blue eyes wide as he regaled her with stories. Both were dressed in their Christmas best, and looked as though they might be sitting for a portrait, save for the rather stubborn little cowlick on Edward's head that would NOT lie flat, for all the orders in the world.

The world around them, however, was considerably busier. Diana was practicing carols on the piano forte. Her dark hair was set back by a ruby ribbon that matched her dress; though she was but twelve, she had already showed signs of being a great beauty. However, her twin, Dan, the most active of the Brandon brood, was determined she should not practice in peace, and was attempting to steal her ribbon. He was chased by his eldest brother, trying to keep order in the room. But Dan was smaller and faster than Reggie, and managed more than once to flee from his grasp.

In the corner, by a globe, Sir Edward Pellew, now affectionately known to all the children simply as "Captain" was discoursing with their father over a naval gazette.

"Horatio would seem to be in Russia, then?" Drew said, over the noise of the carols.

"Last heard, indeed. His second time there, and he was not anxious to go, from what he wrote to me. Especially leaving his wife and son for so long."

"How old is his Richard now?"

"Twelve, I believe."

"Hard to realize that Reggie's older than he is." Drew mused, and he and the Captain exchanged a silent look.

"Of course, the eldest would have been seventeen now." Sir Edward said, sadly.

"Aye. A terrible waste, that was." Drew's blue eyes were flinty with anger. Horatio's eldest children, a boy and a girl, lost just out of infancy, in a smallpox epidemic. So unnecessary, when there precautions one could take...but there you go! Edward Jenner had developed a treatment protecting against smallpox in 1796, but had met with so much resistance and disbelief on publishing his findings that the treatment had not been widely adopted until just recently. Typical of the medical establishment. If it were not Christmas eve, he might launch into a lengthy diatribe that most of his children AND his wife could have recited by heart.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a song-book prepare to go flying. "Daniel, cease and desist that, young man, or your sister will have you strung up by the piano-strings, and I will not stop her!" He said, quietly but with authority.

"Yes, Papa." Daniel said, stopping immediately, and the songbook was replaced, the carol begun again. Drew watched as Reggie nudged Daniel over towards the kitchen, where their mother would be more than match enough for any mischief.

Looking over his children, and remembering Horatio, Drew felt a pang. To lose one's child...to have to bury a child...could anything be worse? He could not imagine that pain. Taking a quick glance at Edward, he noted his good color, his easy breathing, and uttered a silent prayer that his son should be the exception to what the medical establishment expected from his illness.

The worried glance, the paternal pride, were not lost on his houseguest. "You're a good father, Drew." Captain Pellew murmured into his mulled wine.

"I hope so." Drew replied, but the old blush began to creep into his face. Of all the compliments he might be paid, that is the one he coveted most.

Violet swept in then, wearing a dress that matched her eyes, her hair piled on top of her head. Around her throat she wore a clasp of pearls, one her husband had brought back to her after his last voyage at sea. "Gentlemen, dinner shall be in half an hour, I think. I do not want to keep the children up later than that."

"As you wish, my dear." Drew allowed his eyes to linger over his wife for a moment, glancing from the choker, following the lines of her neck to her mouth and at last her eyes; and he felt a familiar thrill running through him. He held his hand out to her; she took it, head turned slightly, and allowed him to pull her close and kiss her. Drew did not make any move to let her go, his arm circling her waist tightly.

She blinked appealingly up at him, leaning in close enough for him to smell the lavender of her perfume. "Enough, Sir, or I shall appeal to the Captain for rescue!" She teased, squeezing him right back.

"Madam, gallant though I may try to be, I know full better than to cross your husband when he is set on having his way." Sir Edward bowed low, and winked at Drew.

"A conspiracy! I am done for!" Violet cried, leaning back, arm over her face in a picture of mock-woe.

Edward looked up from his book. "We can rescue you, Mama!"

Olivia sat up on her knees in excitement. "Indeed we shall, Mama!"

Diana paused at the piano-forte. "Don't be silly, Edward, Olivia; Mama does not wish to be rescued."

Violet sighed, looking over to Diana with an exaggerated frown. "And I am further to be exposed by my own daughter. Well, that settles it, Sir, you are stuck with me..."

Drew kissed her once more. "As I expected." He murmured. But Violet had an ace in the hole.

"...and we shall all go hungry, for there is nobody to finish preparing dinner."

"Hungry, you say?" Drew released her. "Well, I suppose you must be returned to your offices. But return quickly, my dear Mrs. Brandon."

She curtseyed neatly. "I shall do as you request, Mr. Brandon. I leave you to your old war stories."

"Hmph." Drew wrinkled his nose up. "Indeed not, these are new ones."

Diana began a more dramatic carol, O Holy Night. It was her favorite, even if it was French; Papa had found the music for her and she adored the melody, both strong and sad, but inspiring.

"She plays well." Sir Edward could not help but remark.

"Indeed, she is gifted. She works hard for it, though; she never does need to be told to practice."

Reggie and Dan returned, and went up to their father.

"Might we play a game of chess to pass the time to dinner, Papa?" Reggie asked.

"You may start a game of chess; it is doubtful you will finish it." Drew agreed.

"If we do not, may we leave the game-board for tomorrow?"

"I suppose that is acceptable. Anything to keep you..." He laid a gentle hand on Dan's head. "...out of mischief!"

"I won't get into any mischief, Papa, I promise." Dan's face was lit up with the excitement of Christmas.

Drew laughed. "Very well, off with you both!"

And he watched the boys settle at a table in the corner, with more than a little pride. He turned back to Sir Edward with an explanation. "Reg visited last summer and taught Reggie how to play, and he's been working on Dan ever since."

"I remember...Mr. Cousins was quite skilled at the game."

"He still has the set you gave him, I believe. The one with the interlocking pieces."

"Ah. We rescued that from El Muerte, when he burned his arm." He looked back into the past, seeing it perhaps more clearly than he saw the day before yesterday.

"He still has scars from that event but it's cosmetic only; there was no injury to the use of his arm, thank God."

"I seem to remember somebody other than God being involved in that instance, Drew."

Drew shuddered. "Never had to treat a burn that bad in all my time since, and Lord willing, I never shall. Horrible, horrible time it was."

"Papa, is anyone else expected for dinner this evening?" Reggie asked suddenly, from the table by the window.

"No, Reggie, we are all here. Why do you ask?"

"Because there is a carriage coming up the drive, Papa." He said, peering out the window, and then looking back at his father imploringly. "Uncle George isn't visiting, is he?" George had a country estate not far away in the mountains; true he usually did not winter in Scotland, but still...

Drew pulled his breath in sharply. "I do not believe so." He frowned.

"Whatever happened to 'Christmas is a time for family', eh, Drew?" Captain Pellew asked, feigning innocence.

Drew scowled again. "George attempted to terrorize my children the last time he was here, and I will not have it. He outright took a swing at Dan for being seated in the chair he preferred. I threw him out."

The Captain nodded; he understood better than most on how many levels Drew would object to George being around his children. "Still, if not your brother, then who?"

Edward looked with large sad eyes at his father. "It is probably a patient, Papa." Resignation oozed from his very being.

Drew sighed. "Alas, Edward, you are no doubt right; I shall have to prepare my kit."

"I will get it for you, Papa." Diana rose from the pianoforte. "Perhaps if you leave quickly you can hurry back."

"Sometimes I wish you weren't such a good Doctor, Papa." Dan added, frowning.

"Well, people cannot help getting sick, Dan, my boy. And whomever it is likely has a family who wants them to get better."

There was a knock at the door, and Mrs. Macready went to answer. They heard her voice carry in from the hallway.

"Heavens, Sir...let me take your wraps..."

An indistinct voice responded.

"...yes...yes...in the drawing room. I shall put some tea on for you...coffee, you say? I believe that could be arranged as well."

Diana handed her father his bag just as a tall, thin man entered the room. His eyes twinkled faintly at the expression of shock on the two men he faced, and he looked down the pretty young lady before him.

"I must beg your pardon, Miss...I have been away to sea for some time, but I do not believe I am in need of your father's services, for once."

"Hornblower!" The eldest man said, even as the younger one came forward.

"Horatio! You are supposed to be in the Russian tundra, you old scoundrel!"

Dan knocked over his chess-man. "Admiral Hornblower?" He mouthed to his big brother, who was nothing but eyes.

Horatio and Drew embraced warmly...at least, it was warm on Drew's part; Horatio himself was a human icicle. "I cannot believe you are here!" Drew said, his face alight and what little age he showed melted away.

"Nor can I, to be honest. Sir..." He approached Pellew; there was a second of pause, and then they too embraced, with a faint hint of awkwardness that gave way to a genuinely meant grasp. It was an embrace nearly thirty years in the making, after all. "I had no idea you would be present."

"Mr. Hornblower." Sir Edward cleared his throat to cover up any surprising emotion. "Yet again you have the habit of turning up when I least expect you.

"You never did clear me of that habit, it seems." Horatio grinned wide, then took in the group around him. "Dear me, Dr. Brandon, you seem to have expanded at an alarming rate!"

With a chuckle, Drew introduced him around, as all five children came forward. "Reggie, my oldest, the twins, Diana and Daniel, young Edward, and Olivia."

They all made the right social moves, bowing or curtseying as befitted them, hoping to impress their Papa of how nice their manners were before this important guest. Reggie quite stared, however, for he had often wondered what Admiral Hornblower would be like. And Diana looked...well...star struck, indeed; as if she had never seen anyone quite like him. Horatio, also, looked over the children, with a bit of longing.

"Children, why don't you get yourself set at the dinner table?" Violet appeared suddenly. "And give your father and his guests a few moments to chat before we start."

"Yes, Mama." Reggie replied, snapping to attention, and he began to herd his siblings through the door in an orderly fashion. Diana, however, did not take her eyes off of Mr. Hornblower.

"Mrs. Brandon, I do hope I am not inconveniencing you." Horatio began, bowing to her.

"Inconvenience? Nonsense!" She handed Hornblower his requested coffee, hot and strong. "If I had heard you were in Aberdeen and had not stopped in I would have been most affronted! Please, consider this your home in Scotland."

Horatio gave her a wide and warm smile. "Thank you, Ma'am. I am indeed most grateful."

"However did you get to be here, Horatio?" Drew could contain his curiosity no longer.

Hornblower sipped deeply, letting the coffee sink in, then addressed the question. "I had been, as you've no doubt read, in Russia, at Mr. Cousins' request, for a mission of his. I cannot reveal too many details, but all went well, and I was able to secure passage back to England on the Peterborough. I had hoped to make my way back to Barbara and Richard in time for Christmas, but the ice was difficult, and we had severe storms. We only arrived in Scotland today, and when I heard my good fortune at having made Aberdeen, well, I felt you would not turn away a stranger at the inn, so to speak."

"I would not, even if you were a stranger, which you most certainly are not." Drew bent forward to throw another log on the fire, knowing that Horatio felt the effects of the cold more than most men, a lingering remnant of a long-ago spell in the riggings probably being to blame, among other things.

"Who has command of the Peterborough now, Horatio?" Sir Edward asked, most curious.

"Man name of Ruger. Was a midshipman under Foster on the Dreadnaught. Idiot."

"Ah." Sir Edward felt that nothing more needed saying.

Violet could not let it pass. "Gentlemen, please, it is Christmas."

"Yes, my dear." Drew said, automatically, though Sir Edward and Horatio exchanged looks that said they were quite in agreement over Ruger, or any man who was a disciple of old Dreadnaught Foster."

Sensing that she was being patronized, Violet rolled her eyes. "Well, idiot or not, he is on his ship, and we are here to enjoy our own company. Let us go along to dinner, now, then!" Violet continued, turning, and the gentlemen followed slowly.

"This shall be a relief from ship's stores for you, at least!" Drew joked.

"And ship's fools." Horatio added, in all seriousness.

Captain Pellew smiled. "It is nice to know that some things never change."

***
The meal was a friendly one, not pretentious or overly formal. The children were spoken to freely, as was NOT the custom in many homes. But Drew and Violet believed that they would learn better how to behave in society if they experienced it first hand, and so they were included in conversation, and asked opinion, and treated as human beings. Which is not to say they were not expected to be on their best behavior, and to their credit, each of them were exceptionally good this evening, despite the excitement that must result from being Christmas Eve.

"Tell me, Master Reggie, what plans have you for the future?" Hornblower asked the eldest, thinking on his own son as he did so.

Reggie smiled with assurance at him. "I wish to go to sea, Sir, but Papa wishes me to wait until I am seventeen, so I might continue my education further."

"A sound idea." Horatio smiled. "It was not until I was seventeen myself when I signed up, for the same reason."

Dan joined the conversation tentatively. "Papa was much younger though, weren't you, Papa?"

"I was two weeks shy of my fourteenth birthday." Drew replied, pouring gravy over his mashed potatoes, trying not to notice the thoughtful look that his eldest son was giving him. "But though it all ended well for me, I do not think that is the most sensible way to do things."

Violet dabbed her lips. "I must agree. Though I have no objection to Reggie serving, of course; there is a strong family tradition of it, after all. But I should like him to be bigger, and older, and more certain of himself. A ship is not an easy place, as you gentlemen are well aware."

"I am content to wait, in any event." Reggie added. "I have no burning desire to leave home."

Olivia could not resist adding a little tid-bit herself. "Uncle George thinks Reggie should go into the Army!"

Captain Pellew coughed into his napkin, Horatio raised his eyebrows, and Drew smiled at his youngest daughter. "Olivia, my angel, I know you mean it well, but if there is one subject I would ask that you not bring up at the dinner table, it is your Uncle George."

"Hear, Hear!" Violet agreed with fervor.

"So..." Horatio opted to change the subject. "Shall there be presents tonight, then?"

Diana managed to find her voice, though she still was in awe of the famous Mr. Hornblower. "Oh, no, Sir; we open our presents up on Christmas morning; it is a tradition from Mama's childhood."

"Very well, then!" Horatio smiled. "My presents shall wait for the others!"

The children, as he quite expected, got very wide-eyed and excited at this. Drew looked him over in shock. "Mr. Hornblower, I do not see how you managed it, when you did not even know you were coming here!"

"I was fortunate to get to shore early enough to obtain some small things." He said, a dimple showing at his cheek. "Some others I was prepared with from the trip to Russia. I would not have felt comfortable arriving empty handed!"

"Nonsense!" Violet murmured, but her eyes were misty as she looked at him. "It was very kind of you, though."

There was much happy contemplation among the children, then, until their mother made motion for them to rise. "You may remain up in the drawing room for one half hour more, and then to bed with you."

"Would either of you care for Port? Captain? Horatio?" Drew hesitated. He did not drink it himself, and really was looking forward to the next half hour with the children.

Captain Pellew and Horatio were of the same mind, though. "We shall all repair to the drawing room together, I think. Time enough to talk once the children are in bed!"

Diana, just getting up from her place, was most excited about this; her eyes sparkled, and there was a faint blush at her cheeks. For she had a wonderful, exciting idea; an idea that at this moment was far more important to her than presents could ever be. Coming around to the table, and looking between her father and his younger guest, she stammered out what she thought was a simple request.

"Papa, I would be HONORED, indeed, if I might play my new carols for Mr. Hornblower."

 

***
The request had been whispered, a timid and shy hope from a young girl, one whom nevertheless expected that her wish would be granted. Drew glanced quickly at Horatio, but Reggie had nabbed him for a few questions, and he had not heard this unwelcome situation presented. Drew gently took Diana by the arm and walked her into the empty hallway, noticing the confusion on her face.

"Diana...I am afraid I cannot grant your request." Drew said, as kindly as he could.

Her face drew forward into a frown, her expression even more confused than before. "But Papa, I have been practicing often..."

"Yes, yes, my dearest, I know that. But I must ask this of you, not only to not play tonight, but to not play for the duration of Admiral Hornblower's visit," Drew added, hastily, hearing voices from behind him. Horatio would be coming soon, and he did not wish to embarrass his friend by recalling attention to his old failing.

Diana grew pale, the color ebbing from her face. "I...I can play another song, Papa, if you do not wish me to play the French one..."

A footfall behind him startled him, and he whispered anxiously, "Diana, I dare say that one song you play will be just like another to the Admiral, and therefore it is best you not play at all."

He hadn't meant to be cruel; he could never be cruel intentionally to any child, let alone one of his own. But he saw the hurt on her face before he finished his sentence. He had only wanted the situation resolved before Horatio joined them, but instead he had managed to tread on his daughter's heart.

"Oh..." She said, struggling greatly with the shock of it. Her pale blue eyes filled with tears suddenly, and Drew cringed.

"Diana, I didn't mean..." He started, but it was too late; she darted from the room towards the kitchens, her hand on her mouth, trying to keep herself together.

Damn! He thought, angry at himself. Violet touched him on the arm, just above the elbow; it had been her footstep, after all, and not Horatio's.

"Dear me," She murmured.

"You heard the whole thing?" Drew said, his voice growing husky.

"I did. And you were quite right, it would not be correct to torment Mr. Hornblower in his visit; but we must explain to her the reason for it." She soothed him.

"I'll go after her..." He said quickly, but Violet grasped him and held him back.

"Not right now, Drew. She would be more embarrassed for you to see her so emotional. Give her some time to herself to recover; then you might go up to her before it is her bedtime. She will be able to hear you then."

"You think?" He hesitated, fighting the urge to run frantically after him.

"I KNOW." Violet said, firmly, moving with the coffee pot for the drawing room. "No twelve year old daughter wishes to be caught crying in front of her father, or to have attention called to the fact that she has been crying at all. Just make certain you talk to her later tonight."

"Alright." He reluctantly agreed, as Captain Pellew, carrying Olivia and with Dan and Edward clinging to his sides, swept out of the dinning room, in the midst of yet another story.

"...And then, you see, as the smoke cleared from before the fireships, what sight do you think greeted me?"

"Mr. Hornblower!" The three of them chimed together. Drew and the Captain exchanged smiled; Drew's was perhaps half-hearted. He watched them follow Violet on her course; Reggie passed, then, giving him a long curious glance, but he could not be detained from the Captain for any longer then his younger siblings. Horatio, however, stopped by his side.

"Anything wrong, Drew?" Horatio asked, studying his face closely.

"Minor domestic situation, I am afraid, Horatio. Very minor, but it shall be fixed by tomorrow, I have no doubt." He tried to cover up his very real self-loathing.

For in all the years since he'd first become a father, all fourteen of them, he'd never made one of his children cry. For any reason. Oh, he'd SEEN them cry, at various points; a scraped knee here, a turned ankle there; a fight with a cousin or a friend. But he'd never been a source of tears before, until this evening, and it broke his heart to think Diana could suffer such pain at his hand...or in this event, tongue.

"I wonder, Drew..." Horatio broached, perhaps seeing that more information would not be forthcoming. "If you might show me to my guest quarters, as it were...I did not have a chance to freshen up before dinner, and at the very least feel the need for a fresh shirt."

Drew was glad for any diversion. "Of course, Horatio. If you would follow me..."

But Drew sensed that no diversion would be acceptable to take the worry off of his head, until he had things settled with his eldest daughter.

***

A fresh shirt doing wonders for his outlook, Horatio walked softly down the stairs, lost in thought. A warm house this was, if not in temperature, then in love. It was the sort of home every child ought to have, and too few of them did. Yet something had happened this evening, though he was not quite sure what, do disturb the equilibrium of this happy house, and he was afraid somehow it had been brought on by his visit.

Just prior to the drawing room, he passed the library, and glanced in, noting the tidy, small room crammed with books. A single lamp flickered and there was a low fire lit; he might enjoy a few moments there tomorrow with a book...Good heavens, what is that? He thought.

For his eyes had caught glimpse of the great model ship that had so entranced Edward earlier this day, and he came forward.

"It must be from Archie," He thought, before glancing at a card beside him. The greeting from his old friend to Drew had been short and barely legible, as was normal for Archie:

"Hullo, Drew. Ran into our old friend Matthews a few months back...he's out of the Navy now, and doing a bit of model work to augment his living...was more than happy to carry out a few of these for me...hope I can manage to get Hornblower and Cousins their models, but heaven's knows where either of them are. Matthews tried to undercharge me terribly for it; but I would insist on paying a fair price. He claimed he should pay me for the joy of such a labor of love, and I do believe he meant it. Anyway, enjoy walking the decks on her with your heart, as I shall mine. Give my love to all...Captain Archibald Kennedy."

Horatio smiled at the characteristic handwriting that was so bad it could only belong to a gentleman, and then stared at the Indy with the same longing young Edward had felt. In but a few seconds, he was transported, the years melted off, and he was a boy not even twenty, in a long boat, Archie by his side. They were being delivered from Justinian, and he would never, in all his life, forget the feeling he'd had the first time he'd seen Indefatigable. Without having any idea of the many triumphs and tragedies he would experience aboard her, he knew in his heart that his life had just changed for the better. Somehow, he'd known.

To be eighteen again...not knowing how many friends would die, not knowing that ships could get blown up from under you...not knowing how fragile love was. Still, he was not certain he wished to live it over again, either; he might not make the same choices the second time around, and yet every choice he'd made in his life had made him who he was today. A happy man, with a wonderful wife and a fine son, admired in his career and with friends that could not be equaled in the entire world. The losses were endured...

A slight sniffle intruded in his thoughts, and he froze. He was not alone in this room; he knew it suddenly, with great sureness. And with the silence he'd used to sneak up on countless midshipmen who were perhaps not quite behaving, he turned and eased towards a chair whose back had been turned away from the model, towards the flickering fire. And slowly he looked over its high back and down into its contents.

Why, it is Miss Diana! Horatio thought, smiling faintly, until he realized she had been crying. She did not notice him, her gaze was on the fire, her head resting on her forearm, as she leaned against the arm of the chair. But even in the dim light he recognized the redness of her eyes, and the dampness on her cheeks, and his heart broke for her, though he did not know why.

Sometimes, he knew, there was a benefit to being an impartial observer. How many ships had he entered, since his appointment to Admiral, where he was not responsible for the men, yet he could spot problems that even the best of Captains had not seen? Midshipmen suffering abuse or neglect; men fomenting trouble, other men misplaced in their tasks. Partly, of course, that was the ongoing legacy of Justinian. But it was also a honed skill, one he took great pride in. One he'd learned from a master! And he smiled ruefully again. For he had seen something, over dinner, that perhaps Drew had missed.

He'd looked over the boys carefully. He was after all, most used to boy children; because of Richard and because of countless young men he had mentored in the past. And Drew's boys were a fine lot. Reggie, with his father's face but his mother's disposition...he would be proud to have him serve on any ship of his, and was certain the young man would prove to be a capable officer one day. Dan, a perfect blend of both parents, with all of their vitality and sparkle. And Edward, sweet, smart Edward, who was in Horatio's opinion the child Drew OUGHT TO have been. Raised with love, given ample encouragement to form his mind, secure in his life. Yes, a fine lot of boys indeed.

He was less used to girl children; his only daughter had died while still an infant and he'd barely gotten to hold her. But a quick glance at Olivia had reminded him of Drew's sister, though she was only seven; strong, vibrant, fearless and wildly protective of her brother, in this case her elder brother Edward, whom she clearly idolized. But Diana...it had been a strange thought that had entered his mind from the moment he'd looked at her.

She obviously had been star-struck by him; something he might have found annoying if she'd been an adult woman, but which was decidedly cute coming from a twelve-year old girl. But that was not what startled him. For something in her eyes, in the way she held herself, in her measured tone of speaking, in her careful appearance, told him that though Edward might be the child Drew ought to have been, Diana, in fact, WAS her father's daughter. Indeed, she might have more of Drew in her than the other four put together.

It's the eyes that give it away, Horatio thought, studying her now. Somehow, she had inherited this need to take the weight of the world on her shoulders, and yet never complain about it. Over dinner she had been referred to as the peace-keeper, the one whom organized lessons for her siblings, who oversaw Olivia's sewing and Edwards drawing. She was called smart and talented, and she had blushed, but had obviously craved the praise. Her emotions, Horatio was certain, would run deep; her heart would bounce in extremes, and her self-doubt would nag at her hopes. He knew this, perhaps, because so it had been not only with her father, but with him as well.

And he recognized her self-abusing mood, one he had found her father in more than once. Whatever had gone wrong-and something surely had-she had taken on her shoulders and into her very soul. And no more than he could have left Drew alone twenty-three years ago, could he let her be alone now.

"Miss Diana?" He said, softly, sitting beside her before she could move. She sat upright quickly, wiping at her face, her mouth pursed as if she were not certain what to say. He handed her his handkerchief. "Please, I do hope I might share this fire with you for a few moments."

"I...of course you may, Sir." She sniffled out, accepting his offer and blowing her nose.

Horatio stared into the fire, hoping to find the right words to say. "I have long wished to meet you, you know. I did get to meet your eldest brother when he was but a baby, but could only hear of the rest of you in the letters your Papa sent me." He leaned forward, stoking the burning embers. "He is very proud of you all."

He'd come pretty close to hitting the target. "Papa is not proud of me." She whispered.

Horatio turned to her, knowing better than to outright deny her feelings. "Indeed? I have always understood otherwise, but you would know best. Yet does he not tell you he his proud of you?"

"Yes." She frowned, and blinked once more. "But it would seem not to be true."

"It must be, Diana, for your father is a famously bad liar."

That almost made her smile, and then she choked back a sob. "I only wanted to play for you."

"To...play?" Horatio did not understand.

"The pianoforte. I have some lovely new carols I have been practicing, and Papa always told me before that I really play quite well. But tonight he made it clear that I do not play well enough for you, Sir...so I must not be very good at all!" She blinked furiously, a fat tear trailing down her cheek.

Oh, dear, Horatio thought. Drew's heart had been in the right place, but how could he explain that to this wounded young lady? He wiped her tear away with his thumb, and cleared his throat. "Diana, I am certain that for any other visitor your father would be pleased to have you play; nay, he would accept it as the highlight of the evening."

"But you're our MOST important visitor!" She said, blowing her nose again.

"Pshaw, not more important than Captain Pellew, certainly; he was an admiral too, though he does not use the title now." But he could see that he was making no headway on THAT account. But how on earth did he explain tone-deafness to a child? Drew might offer him sympathy, but had no clue as to how it really affected him. Indeed, his own WIFE did not understand it! And he had a glimmer of an idea than.

"Diana, you must understand, my wife plays, several different instruments in fact."

She looked at him in interest. "And does she play well?" Diana asked.

Damned if I know! Horatio thought, and then said out loud, "Very well, by all accounts, but I fear that your father did not wish me to be reminded that I am separated from her this Christmas, because he knew it would make me sad. I am certain that he did not wish to hurt your feelings, but possibly he did not want to embarrass me."

She gaped. "But why should you be embarrassed for missing your wife, Sir? Why, I think that's the sweetest thing I have ever heard." Her face was now alight with all the delights of romance that a girl not quite grown into womanhood could feel, and Horatio blushed.

"Well, you know, us men...we are not so good at expressing these feelings." He stammered out, and she rolled her eyes. "Oh, Mama is right...men are so silly about these things. And Papa is probably very worried about me!"

Horatio took the chance. "Undoubtedly, young lady, so shall we return to the drawing room together, that he might see we are still friends, you and I?" He rose and offered her his arm; he saw the pleasure on her face clearly as she accepted it.

So it was together that they walked out of the room past the Indy, and Horatio had a fleeting image of himself and Drew, in miniature, living on her decks forever, railing at the stairs for love lost and love won. A lifetime ago, that was.

And this sweet little girl, the very essence of her father, leaned her head against him, to cheer HIM up!

***
After postponing bedtime for an extra half hour, Violet finally insisted the children be gotten to bed, so she could begin her preparations for tomorrow. Horatio saw Drew's relief as Diana threw her arms around him and kissed him on the cheek, and he was glad. The Captain was resting in a stiff armchair, and Horatio made to pour two more cups of claret as the bustle began to filter out.

"Good night, Papa." Reggie brought up the rear, and then turned to the guests. "Good evening, Captain, Admiral. I look forward to speaking with you both more tomorrow."
"Hold up there, Reg." Drew said softly, and then leaned over to talk to Violet, who was carrying a soundly sleeping Olivia." Horatio saw Violet raise her eyebrows, and then sigh and nod. Reggie waited, curious but not worried in the least; he did not fear his parents. And then Drew closed the drawing room doors behind him, firmly, before turning to his eldest son.

"You may have a half a glass of claret, if you wish....in fact, Horatio, you may pour us both out a half glass. It is a special occasion this evening, after all."

Horatio did as he was bidden, both he and the Captain amused by the astonishment on Reggie's face. "Papa?" He asked, cautiously.

Drew smiled at him. "At your age, Reggie, I was quite often in the company of these gentlemen, having conversations into the night about anything and everything. So, after some artful persuasion of your mother, you are to be allowed to sit up with us, this evening. You are old enough, lad."

"Mr. Brandon." Horatio said, trying to be solemn, he handed the young man his glass. "Drew." Damn the Captain, he thought, he will grin and make me wish to do so as well!

This, it would seem, was perhaps the best Christmas present any boy of fourteen could have asked for. He took the glass, holding it as if it were a magical goblet in some ancient rite of passage, and then sat, carefully, in a stiff armchair. "Thank you, Papa."

Drew took his glass from Horatio, and then raised it before them all. "Gentlemen, here is to old friends, and new friends, to Christmases past, and those to come!"

"Here, here!" Captain Pellew said, softly. And together they sipped the ruby liquid, three men reminded of toasts past, and one young man dreaming of toasts future.

Reggie waited, expectantly, understanding that he was the...what was the term? Junior officer! Yes, that was it; and he would not be expected to initiate a topic. So he listened, and waited.

"A pity Archie could not be here this evening. I have not met any of his children at all." Horatio murmured, studying his glass.

"He would not leave Alicia alone in her condition." Drew said, having a feeling he was springing a surprise on Horatio and the Captain both.

And, as he expected, he was. "She is with child?" Horatio gasped, his mouth, wide.

"Yes."

"My word. Isn't she...the same age Kitty was, about, when Beatrice was born?"

Drew grinned as the Captain struggled to be delicate. "Indeed. And it is nine years since the last one, so I will admit to being nervous. I hope to arrange a trip to London in three month's time to be present at the birth."

"Archie would be relieved for that, no doubt." Horatio nodded sagely. "This will be their fifth child, will it not?"

"Indeed." Drew decided now was the time to draw his son into the conversation, and looked expectantly at him

Reggie took the cue. "Alexandra is now seventeen; Amelia is fifteen; Anna is twelve, and of course Anthony is nine."

"Anthony." Pellew winced. "Archie never quite got over Bracegirdle's death, I think." And he sighed, deeply, as all men were silent.

Reggie, emboldened by having spoken his first words in such august company, drew a deep breath. "Papa, I never did hear exactly how Captain Bracegirdle died?"

Drew looked up from his hands, where his mind had wandered. Nodding a bit, he looked from Pellew to Hornblower, and then began. "Yes, you are old enough now, and planning a career in the Navy, it is not bad for you to understand it. When our old friend Bracegirdle was made Post Captain, some twelve years ago, he had the good fortune to be given command of the Indefatigable. Our old ship, and a happy one it had been. I read it in the Gazette, and I was most pleased; I knew, you see, that Bracie wouldn't let the old ship down. He'd be as fine a Captain as the Indy expected."

Reggie's brow furrowed. "But, Papa, the ship does not know who is sailing her?" He said, wondering if this is what sort of thing adults said when they took alcohol.

But Captain Pellew leaned over and tapped him on the arm. "Don't you believe it, Reggie. I am telling you from almost sixty years of experience. A ship is not just timber; it has a soul, and that ship, in particular, had a strong one. I felt it, certain sure."

Horatio nodded. "We were all so happy for Bracie, and when he asked Archie to be his first Lieutenant, Archie did not even think twice. He was certain it was a fortuitous omen."

"So what went wrong?" Reggie asked, for all men had suddenly looked as if in great pain.

"A botched plan from admiralty, for a change." Horatio scowled, his sarcasm full force. He had as much fondness for fools as his mentor had, which is to say, none. "Bracegirdle was ordered to keep the Indy on the site of a wreck that had precious cargo, while the larger ship of the line went off on some trite mission. Bracie held that position for three weeks, never having to fight another ship, but fearing he would have to fight his own men, if they were forced into inactivity for much longer. And then...the gale struck."

Pellew shuddered. "Three weeks of the worst storms the Caribbean has ever seen. Hurricanes. Waves. Wind. The poor Indy had no chance; finally, exhausted and with no relief, her mast snapped; and she was foundering wildly. There seemed no question she would dash herself to pieces against the reef."

Drew blinked. "Somehow, your uncle and Bracegirdle kept her away from the peril, long enough to launch boats, Archie organized the abandoning of the ship; there is no question that his actions saved the lives of at least seventy men, and he was commended for it. His last memory of those events is of Bracegirdle, standing at the helm, ordering him over the side. Archie would have disobeyed, but he was struck by some flying debris, and knocked overboard; some of his men grabbed him into a boat and they got away to safety. But the Indy..."

"Lost?" Reggie whispered. Somehow, it didn't seem possible; he had never really understood the full meaning of Captain Bracegirdle's death...had never realized that it meant that the Indy, the ship of his childhood dreams, had died too.

"She and Bracegirdle went down together." Drew nodded, understanding the shock to his son.

Horatio mused silently. "Archie still believes, he tells me, that the ship held herself together so long so that she might save as many of her men as possible. No, Reggie, don't ever let anyone tell you a ship does not have a soul. It carries part of the soul of every man that built her, and part of the soul of every man who ever sails her. A powerful combination, and a force to be reckoned with, when she has good men."

"Archie wouldn't go back to sea, after that." Pellew added, his long fingers brushing the side of the chair. "I was more than happy to get him a post at Admiralty, as my last official act; he said he just couldn't bear to sail again. He is a strong and brave man."

"He always has been." Horatio whispered, under his breath.

Reggie blinked, but dash it all, given the privilege he was given this evening, he could not CRY, for heaven's sake. Swallowing, he took a chance. "May I propose a toast?" He asked, quietly.

His father looked up at him in surprise, eyes wide.

Not faltering any more than his father would have in the circumstance, Reggie raised his glass. "Here is to the Indefatigable, and all the men who ever sailed her."

There was a moment of silence...and Reggie thought, I blew it, Papa will never let me stay up past dinner again in my life.

And then his father smiled at him, smiled wide and with approval, and raised his glass. "Hear, Hear."

***
They had all drained their glasses now, save young Reggie, who still wasn't certain that he liked this stuff. Mr. Hornblower (he had begged Reggie to not use the term Admiral) was refilling his own glass, as well as Captain Pellew's glass. His father, whom Reggie rarely saw touch spirits, had declined.

"What exactly is Archie doing for Admiralty now? Not just administrative, I hope; that would be a waste."

"I believe he is functioning much as my old friend Harvey did...handling supplies and requisitions, only based out of London. Probably the first man other than Harvey who ever gave a damn about the ships they were supplying!" The Captain added, dryly. "I do wish he had not given up on active duty entirely, however; I would not be surprised to have seen him an admiral also."

Drew spoke up softly. "It's not entirely due to Bracegirdle's death, Sir. It's also medical."

Horatio and Captain Pellew looked at Drew with fear on their faces, and he could only shrug. "I am afraid that with the trauma of the loss of Indefatigable, his fits reoccurred."

"Oh, NO!" Horatio gasped.

"Three of them he had in that first year afterwards, only two since then, but even still, he won't risk it; won't put the lives of his men at risk. And I cannot disagree with him."

The Captain nodded. "Indeed, it is much clearer now, Drew. I can understand..." He sighed deeply. "A shame that such a fine man should be so unfortunately stricken. How many men owe him their life!"

"I do, for one." Horatio said, resuming his seat with a great air of sadness.

Drew rose and poured himself cider, as Mrs. Macready had left for him. "As do I."

Reggie stirred. He had heard tails from his father of the events at Muzillac many times, though his father had been on the Indy and not on the beach.. But he knew that Uncle Archie had dragged Mr. Hornblower to safety from an exploding bridge. This, however, was a story he had not heard.

"Father, you never told me that Uncle Archie saved your life." He said, in wonder.

And watched as a worried glance shot like lightning between the Captain and Mr. Hornblower. Even more amazing, his father had frozen, his face staring out towards the window, though the curtains were drawn. He was so very, very still, and then he walked towards that window, on the pretext of pulling the curtains to check on the weather; but Reggie had a distinct impression his father was not seeing the snow at all. And he was certain, but certain, he saw his father's shoulders shake, just a bit.

The Captain spoke hastily. "I think, Reggie, that might be a story for another time and place." And he and Mr. Hornblower turned worried gazes at his father.

"Of course." Reggie said quickly, not wishing to upset his father, though he feared he was too late on that account.

Swiftly, Drew turned back from the window, face pale, but composed. "No, no, gentlemen; we have had many stories this evening. Perhaps it is time for one more." He looked down at his son. "Reggie, when Diana informed Mr. Hornblower this evening that we opened presents Christmas morning, as that was the tradition in her family, I could not help but see you start. What reason for that?"

"I..." He did not understand in the least where his father was going, but there was a sense of unease in the room. "...I realized, for the first time, I think, that we do not have any traditions from YOUR family, Papa."

Drew nodded, and then turned back to the window, hands behind his back in an old stance he was most comfortable with.

"Indeed. So, what do you know of my family? The one I was born into, I should say."

Horatio cleared his throat. "Perhaps the Captain and I had better retire?"

Drew looked at them imploringly. "I would rather you did not, either of you. I...feel I might need your moral support in this."

The silence descended again, and Reggie looked down at his hands, struggling for the words to say. "I know that you and Aunt Alicia are very close, and obviously always have been. I know that you are fond of our Uncle, Lord Exton, though our Aunt obviously does not approve of us. And I know that Uncle George...well..."

"He drinks too much and is not a terribly nice man." Drew finished wryly. "Do not hold back, Reggie; we must be honest, after all. Go on..."

The room seemed too warm, suddenly, but Reggie knew his father wished him to persevere. "You had two other brothers, Ralph and William, whom I know died just after I was born. And your mother and father both died well before then." He frowned, suddenly, another new thought coming to him. "You never speak of them."

"Not if I can avoid it, no." Drew closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. "Your Grandfather, Reggie, and I use that term very loosely, was worse than Uncle George. He was a drunkard and he was violent. We do not have any Christmas traditions from my childhood, because the only tradition that existed was my father deciding after church which of us, excluding your Aunt, he would beat that day. But then, that was not special for Christmas; it was my every day life." He could not keep the faintest hint of bitterness out of his voice.

When he turned back around, he saw Horatio and the Captain both looking at him with extreme concern; his son's face was pale and shocked. "The first happy Christmas I ever had was on Indefatigable; the first real father I had known was Captain Pellew; and Horatio, more of a brother to me than even your Uncle Stan. But it was your Uncle Archie, Reggie, who saved me from certain death."

Reggie stirred uneasily, having a feeling that this story would have nothing to do with the Navy at all.

"I was your age, Reggie; or a bit older. I had gone from an abusive house as a child damned to a respected officer on the finest ship the Navy had ever seen. Naturally, this was too much for my father to accept, and he sent for me to return home."

Reggie's mouth hung open. "Could nobody stop it, Papa?"

The Captain spoke first. "No, Reggie, and believe me it nearly killed me. The futility, the anger, the helplessness. I KNEW what I was sending your father back to, but I had an order from the Admiral and no amount of pleas would make him bend." The Captain sat back, at the mercy of one of the memories he'd rather forget. "I actually had nightmares about his fate."

Drew walked over to his son, and sat down in a chair across from him. He leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees, head cradled in his hands. "For me, it was the worst despair imaginable. Worse than if I had never left home at all; for I now knew what it was like to not live every day in fear, to have people respect and care for you. Your grandmother was addicted to laudanum, and was of no help, and I felt myself quite alone, though Alicia tried to keep me sane. But it was Archie...your uncle Archie, himself the son of a Lord, who came after me."

Reggie could not help but blink back tears now, though he tried to keep his voice from wavering. "How could he help?"

"Your Grandfather..." Horatio said gently. "Was obsessed with title and rank, and your Uncle Archie's father was one of the highest peers in the land, not to mention a fine man. Archie's brother knew your Uncle Stan, and together the descended on the house, convinced your Grandfather that your father actually suffered terribly in the Navy, and that the worst punishment he could give him was to send him back."

The Captain snorted. "Which he did, after he nearly beat him to death for the last time, for the sheer sport of it. Your father was more dead than alive by the time Archie got him home..."

There was a pause, then, as they all realized what Captain Pellew had said. After he got him home. Home. Drew looked with wet eyes at his true father, a smile of gratitude on his face; Horatio could not suppress a grin, and Captain Pellew, though he did blush, blustered right back at the both of them. "Alright, so I called it your home. A home for both of you! It was, and it is useless to pretend otherwise, just as it is useless to not admit that I could not love you both more if you had been my sons. I am too old and too cranky nowadays to care about protocol anymore."

"And too tired, I think!" Horatio said, rising slowly, and extending an arm to his Captain. "Come, Sir...I do not think our moral support is needed any longer."

The Captain, feeling the effects of the cold, was a bit slower, but determined. And he looked from Drew to his son, and nodded firmly. "You are my flesh and blood, and do not let anyone tell you otherwise. Good evening, gentlemen."

Drew did not rise but watched them leave, a fragile smile still on his face. He did not know what to say next to his son, and struggled for words, but there was no need; Reggie had his own ideas.

"Papa!" And he flung himself into his surprised father's arms, more as if he were nine-year old Edward than a young man of fourteen years. He did not care. He felt his father embrace him, and he hugged back, as hard as he could. He was afraid to speak, afraid to cry more and therefore upset his father more. But he wanted to cry, cry for his father, desperately.

What he missed...Reggie mused, thinking about everything his father was to him. Why, he missed everything...he missed having someone throw him up into the air and catch him and make him laugh, and asking if they'd been missed while they'd been gone. He missed a father to go to with questions, to listen and advise. He missed having snowball fights, and burrowing in the sand by the lake. He missed having someone tell him that they were proud of him; he missed having someone at his bedside when he was sick, who could make him feel better just because they were there. He could not imagine his life without his father, and did not know how his father had gone for fourteen years with nobody in his life who could make him feel the same way.

He felt his father squeeze him again, and then kiss him on the side of his face. "Reggie..." He whispered. "I cannot bear it for you to cry," he began in a shaking but teasing voice. "I have gone fourteen years without causing any of my children pain, and yet this is the second time tonight I have done so!"

Reggie sniffed once but pulled himself back together and let his father back away enough so that they could look at each other in the eye. And Drew spoke firmly.

"I have had much success in my life, Reggie. I have been decorated in battle, I have saved lives, I have seen my book published and used as text on ships throughout the world. But believe me when I say that the greatest thing that ever happened to me is happening still, and it began on the night you were born. From the moment I held you, I was determined that I WOULD be a good father. And if I have not told you this story before, forgive me, but it was only because I would wish that I could keep such ugliness out of your life forever."

"You are a good father." Reggie gave him a brave smile. "It is just that I do not like to think of you hurting so badly. I love you, Papa."

Drew's smile grew stronger, less tentative. "And I love you."

The clock struck midnight.

"Merry Christmas, Papa!" And Reggie hugged his father once more.

"Merry Christmas indeed!" Drew stroked his son's head. "We must retire now, and for God's sake don't let your mother know I kept you up THIS late, she will kill me!"

"As you wish, Papa." Reggie said, with a little laugh. "Good night!"

A good night indeed, thought Drew, even if it had been a rather draining one.

***
The next morning saw them all at church, before opening presents. The children were at their angelic best, under the watchful eye of their mother, and Drew let his mind wander from the sermon, to his own prayers.

"Thank you, God, for my wife and children, for another year with Edward healthy, and for bringing me the great gift of the family of my heart; Captain Pellew and Horatio this Christmas. Please keep them in good health and good spirits, and protect also that family that cannot be here. I am truly blessed."

The organ began playing, and Drew could not help a mischievous glance at Horatio, who was stone-faced and immobile. Violet poked him rather painfully in the ribs, for she knew he was not paying proper attention! But he could not help but notice that Captain Pellew seemed to be of the same wayward thoughts he was!

***
Gifts for one another were plentiful, if not extravagant. Most surprising were Horatio's gifts, which included a book of exotic medical practices from Russia ("I had planned on mailing it to you, but this is better, I think.") a set of stacking dolls for both girls (and Olivia was ecstatic indeed) and three small model ships for the boys, obviously purchased in town yesterday.

Diana, however, kept glancing longingly at the Pianoforte. Drew knew she was too well behaved a child to ask again when she knew the answer must be no, although he was not quite certain as to how he had managed to get back into her good graces. So much had happened last night that he'd never had a chance to explain Horatio's tone deafness to her, but perhaps Horatio had done that himself, for it was he who'd led her into the drawing room last evening.

Horatio had also noticed Diana's furtive glances, and rose suddenly, leaning over to Drew with a whisper. "Promise me that no matter what I say, you will go along with it?"

"Of course." Drew was surprised Horatio would even have to ask that.

But in a few moments he understood, for Horatio headed for the pianoforte, and fingered the songbook on its shelf. "Miss Diana...I understand you are quite skilled at this instrument?"

Drew, Violet, and the Captain all nearly fell over in shock.

Diana looked helplessly at her father, whom she would not disobey, but Drew had made a promise to Horatio. "Indeed she is, Mr. Hornblower, but..."

Horatio cut him off. "Though I miss my wife and her playing terribly, I believe I might be up for ONE song, and I must note that you have my favorite carol here. I would be most grateful, Miss Diana, if you would play it for me."

Diana blushed furiously, obviously dying to say yes. "Well, Diana, I think if that is what Mr. Hornblower wants..." He gave him a few seconds to take the obvious way out, but Horatio did not. "...Then you must play for us all."

She beamed then, and it was as if rays of sunlight danced across the room. "If you are agreeable, Papa, I would be happy to." She moved so quickly into the bench she almost skidded off of it's highly polished surface. She looked up to Horatio. "Will you sing it, then, Mr. Hornblower?"

The Captain coughed loudly, and Drew had to forcibly bite his own lip.

But Horatio was unfazed. "No, my dear; my voice would certainly ruin your playing."

Dan rose to stand by his sister. "I can sing it, then." And the twins smiled in understanding, even as the adults in the room wondered what, exactly, would happen in a few minutes.

But what happened was simple...Diana stretched her fingers and began the slow, steady rhythm, and Dan's angelic voice chimed in...

"O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining...it is the night of our dear Savior's birth..."

And Horatio did not flinch. Indeed, he was looking affectionately at Diana, and standing not two feet away from her!

Drew blinked, again, wondering how many times he would end up fighting tears this holiday? The Captain, as well, was more than a little touched, and Violet dabbed freely at her eyes. For Horatio had given such a gift to his daughter that it could never be repaid.

The song ended, and there was well-felt applause from all. Diana, her need for the music satisfied, curtseyed, Dan bowed, and both willingly came away from the instrument. Only then did Horatio meet Drew's eye, and he shrugged as he returned to sit next to him. "I have missed out on having a daughter, I guess. It would have been nice."

Yet there was still one last present, or rather three of them. For Edward came forward shyly.

"Papa, yesterday, after Captain Pellew told me so many stories, I went upstairs and decided to make special presents for you all." And he solemnly held forth three rolled pieces of parchment, one for the Captain, one for Horatio, and one for his father. Each was neatly tied with a piece of yellow ribbon. Drew fingered it gently, and Edward understood his unspoken question.

"It's yellow like the trim on the Indy, Papa; Olivia was kind enough to give me some of her doll's ribbon, so the presents are from us both."

Each man then untied his parchment.

And Drew whistled low.

He'd always known, of course, that Edward was gifted at drawing. After all, in so many times of illness, that and reading were the only activities permitted him, and so he worked at it like Diana worked at her music.

But he was unprepared for this.

His picture was of him, in the Indy's sick berth, as it had often been described to him. He was drinking tea, with Horatio to one side, and Archie and Reg to the other; the Captain stood in the doorway looking proudly on. And it was so real; so well done, that it was hard to understand that his nine-year old son had created it!

He glanced at the Captain's paper. The Captain was at his dinner table, and the men gathered around him for a meal. Drew recognized himself, and Horatio, Archie and even Reg. With one more man at the table: jolly, slightly running to fat, hair thinning, eyes kind, attire dapper. Bracegirdle! How had he known what the man had looked like? In quiet shock, Drew looked to a very proud Edward. "That is how I have always pictured Mr. Bracegirdle to be, Papa, is it close?"

Close? Drew could not even speak.

Then he saw Horatio's face...his very, very shocked face. Quickly Drew and the Captain both leaned in to look at the third drawing.

Horatio was a young Lieutenant in this one, much as he'd looked when Drew had first met him. He was on the quarterdeck, looking almost regal, so much was he in his element. And behind him stood...three men? A burly man with a saucy grin; Styles, it was. But then Edward had met Styles, for he had been working for Archie when they'd visited London last spring. Styles had lost a hand several years back, but Archie had as a matter of course found him employment at the dockyards.

The next man was older, statesmanlike, almost paternal in his glance at the young Lieutenant. Matthews, true to life. Now, Drew was perfectly sure Edward had NEVER met Matthews, though it was possible that he had come up in stories from the Captain yesterday. But the likeness, given what little description he could possibly have, was astounding.

But the third man...

"Oldroyd." Horatio whispered, wiping at his eyes quickly. "Edward, how did you know?"

Edward frowned. "I did Styles and Matthews first, but when I finished I just felt there was something missing. And somehow, I knew there needed to be a third man, and he should have red hair and a big grin, and look like he was the happiest man alive. That is how I saw him."

Reggie and Dan, not understanding the extent of this feat, both patted their kid brother on the shoulder. "Nice bit of work, Edward."

Horatio, however, extended his hand to the boy, who with deep pleasure accepted it. They shook solemnly. "You have given us all a gift, I think, that we will treasure forever. And I thank you."

Edward blushed and grinned, and then with a whoop went over to join his brothers at a game they were playing.

Violet kissed Drew on the head, with a sniffle as she watched Edward romp. "I shall make some coffee, I think."

His wife walked out, and the three men, formerly officers together on the Indefatigable, sat together in stunned silence. Drew looked about him in wonder. They might be on borrowed time with Edward; indeed, it might be so with each other, for the Captain did not get any younger, and Horatio was constantly in battle, and he himself...well, illness could strike silently enough, as he had seen more than once. But if this time was a gift, then he was grateful to not spend it alone. And indeed, he did not, nor did the men beside him, ever have to worry about that. For though three men sat on the settee, Drew now realized that the hundreds whom had touched their lives would never be far behind.

And with a smile, Drew came to a conclusion. "This time, then, is God's gift to us...and let us always spend it in love."