Playing at Games
by Ashley

Acting Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower stood at the starboard deck of the
Indefatiguable, his hands braced around rough rope that lead to the mizzen
mast.

He had told Captain Pellew that he would be ready for his next chance at the
exam. He was lucky. Had the fire ship not interrupted them, the Captains
testing him for Lieutenancy would have surely failed him. Pellew had almost
said so himself.

And then there was the incident involving Bunting.

Better the speed of the bullet, than the slow agony of the rope.

Hornblower shuddered, though he told himself it was because of the bracing
wind that came thundering across the deck.

I have never needed Archie's council more, and I wish to God he were here.

That was a thought best left unanswered.

He sighed, and decided the call of the senior officers could not be put off
any longer.

As much as he did not like to drink, for fear of losing his head, he thought
that some port or sherry would be a nice respite from the feelings that
battered their way around his brain.

He gulped in large amounts of fresh air, decended the steps to belowdecks,
plastered a smile on his face, and went to join his fellow shipmates.

*

A loud thump woke Horatio late into the night, and he jolted out of his
berth with his heart speeding in his chest, and his skin prickling.

He rolled his eyes and flopped back into his hammock with relief; from now
on, no falling asleep with books on his chest.

No further sleep was forthcoming, however, and he decided a walk round the
ship would do him good. The chill night wind seemed to calm him when he had
bouts of insomnia.

Plus, being able to get out of his stuffy quarters would be a blessing.

Up on deck, all was calm, and the only noise he could hear was the periodic
ringing of the bell by the midshipman on watch.

He nodded as he passed Matthews, who was rolling rope methodically, and
planted his posterior on a stack of boxes that had yet to be put away. He
knew they would be gone by morning; Captain Pellew did not stand for a
disorganized ship.

Resting his chin in his hand, he shut his brown eyes, and tried to relax.
He had read briefly of an ancient Asian practice he thought to be called
'meditation,' and remembered that it involved certain breathing practices
and visualization, but he wasn't sure exactly what that meant.

So he tried to imagine things that made him feel good, and things he had
loved as a boy, in the days following the death of his mother.

Being a solitary child, Horatio had had to entertain himself on frequent
occasions, and as he sat on the deck of the Indy, he smiled as he remembered
a certain game he had played as a youthpirate.

He had placed several of his toys in strategic positions around the small
room he occupied upstairs, and had created a beach for himself to plunder.

Waving a stick about, and squinting one eye madly, he had screamed "avast,
me hearties," and other such words he imagined pirates would say, and then
would procede to rob his teddy bear of all of it's worldly possessions.

Afterward, he and his crew' would celebrate, and spend the loot on things
that pirates might need, such as hats and cloaks and swords, stolen from his
father's wardrobe.

Eventually his father would come in, speaking in a stern manner of the
things he was trying to accomplish, and how little boys should be seen and
not heard. He would then plop Horatio down with a book, and remove all of
the stolen goods back to his room.

Even when his game was stopped, when he was supposed to be reading, Horatio
would continue his fun in his head, finishing sea battles and duels to the
death in all the gory details a seven year old child could imagine.

A wry grin crossed his lean features; little did his younger self know just
how many adventures' his older self would get into.

Many of which Horatio wished he hadn't had to experience.

The bell rang again, and Horatio stood, not realizing how long he had stayed
on deck.

Dawn would be showing soon, and as he had the first watch, he had better try
and snatch a few more moments of rest before having to report for breakfast
and any news the captain might want to relay to them.

As he was walking sleepily down the corridor to his quarters, Lt.
Bracegirdle was emerging from his, a huge yawn stretching the man's ruddy
face. He grinned sheepishly when he saw Horatio, then frowned.

"Mr. Hornblower, are you ill? What are you doing out of bed at this hour?"
he asked quietly, not wanting to wake any of the others near them.

"I am quite well, thank you, Mr. Bracegirdle. A touch of insomnia is all,"
Horatio answered, scrubbing a hand over his face. He frowned at the feeling
of stubble on his cheeks. It wouldn't do to be scruffy at the morning
debriefing, no matter how tired he was.

"I always find that a tot of rum will take care of that for me," the
lieutenant joked, and as Horatio nodded goodbye at him, grabbed the younger
man's arm.

"Sir?" Horatio said.

"It wouldn't be seemly for you to carry all the burden of Bunting's death on
your own, Mr. Hornblower," Bracegirdle said. "He was long past saving."

"Someone else said that very same thing," Horatio answered in a small and
exhausted voice. "I can't help but believe that Captain Pellew would have
found a way to reach him."

"There's no way to know for sure, Mr. Hornblower. One thing to remember,
however; the captain is human, just like the rest of us, and surely does not
blame you. Take that knowledge to heart, and try to forgive yourself as
well."

Horatio just blinked at the other man, surprised at his candor, but also
found that his spirits were a bit lifted by Bracegirdle's kind offering.

He wasn't sure if he could do what the Lieutenant asked, but he was touched
at the kindness behind the action.

He opened his mouth to say something, but Bracegirdle cut him off with a
wave.

"You'd best get in bed. Not much time left before morning."

Hornblower nodded, and shook his head slightly, clearing his throat, which
suddenly felt very full and tight.

"Aye, aye, sir."

*

Horatio found once he slipped his nightshirt back on, and drew tired fingers
through his curly brown hair, that he was well and truly spent.

As his head hit the pillow, he thought back on his memory of playing at
pirates as a child, and how innocent he had been then.

Playing at games of death. He knew now that it was no such thing.

Mr. Bracegirldle had just been being kind to a subbordinate, and although
Horatio was thankful for his words, he knew in his heart that the incident
with Bunting would never be far from his thoughts.

Just as the look on Archie's face when Horatio had had to knock him out
would never leave his memory either, or the blood leaking from Clayton's
lips as he died.

He dropped to sleep with the sound of the ship's bells in his ears, and
voices whispering to him of his failure at the exam, and his failure to save
Archie, and Clayton, and Bunting.

Even with the wide open sea and sky that surrounded the Indefatiguable,
Horatio's world felt like the tiniest cage in the tiniest room.

He was going to have to try and find the key.

Fin.