Passages: Road To a Wedding
by Meanjean

Part One

The road to the wedding of Archie Kennedy...largely from the point of view of his prospective brother-in-law, Midshipman/Doctor Drew Brandon.

September 17th

Tomorrow we depart Gibraltar, and there has been no sign of Archie yet.

I am worried about him, more worried than I care to admit. I think Horatio is too, but he won't admit it. Granted, Captain Pellew had initially told Archie the Indefatigable would not be set to depart Gibraltar so quickly, but we always knew it was possible. My letter from him was dated August the 28th, and he said at the time he was uncertain whether the letter would reach us before he did. Obviously he knew he would be departing soon.

Word has it that the weather off the coast of Portugal has been beastly, but I do not know that makes me feel any better. We don't know what sort of ship he sails back on (the possibility is that it might even be Sophia again; Lieutenant Bracegirdle has told me that it is rumored she will be returning to the Gibraltar run with her new Commander). But the chances are that it will not be larger than a frigate; may be as small as a supply ship. And in bad weather...

I hate, sometimes, the slowness of the information. Archie could be dead, shipwrecked of the coast of France, and we might never know it. Just another ship missing, another lot of men gone. It both frustrates and frightens me.

With a sigh, I returned to labeling the parcels I picked up with Johnson this morning. We were lucky, this time, I found most of the herbs I need. You can never find enough willow-bark, though, and some of the men have come to depend upon it. I do hope we shall not be long out to sea with this meager supply. I must be careful how I prescribe it. Johnson himself went back into Port this afternoon, looking for more normal surgical supplies.

"Letter, Mr. Brandon."

Mr. Anderson, the cause of so much consternation on board recently, stands in the doorway uncertainly, holding a parcel for me.

I manage a smile at him, though how sincere it is, is questionable. "Thank you, Mr. Anderson."

He knows, of course, my opinion. And he feels it. And blast it, I hate myself for being so petty. But I am not as able to forgive him for his deceits as Reg is. Especially when one considers that unlike Reg, I was not aware that he was never in any danger. I would never be cruel to him, but I cannot count him among my friends.

Quietly he nodded, and without further words placed the envelope on the table, turning away with shoulders slumped. And almost feeling Reg prodding me in the ribs, I spoke further.

"I have noted you are not sleeping well, Mr. Anderson."

He turned back hesitantly. "I...am doing fine, Mr. Brandon..."

I came forward and held his chin to look at his eyes, one at a time. "I don't think so." I shook my head. "Remember, Mr. Anderson, my hammock is within four feet of yours. And I think I can spot a man who has not been sleeping." Slowly, professional concern overcame my baser reactions. "Please, sit down."

I guided him gently to the examining table and took a look at him. No fever, no glands swollen, both good things. My guess would be that it his own guilt working on him in the evenings. "Any pain, Mr. Anderson?"

"My stomach, sometimes. Feels funny." He admitted quietly.

"Lie down." I pressed on his abdomen gently, but felt nothing like what we had seen with Mr. Morris that would indicate an appendix infection, and no lumps, no feeling of an abscess or injury. But sometimes, when one's mind is filled with worries, it can manifest itself in a variety of ways. "Does it hurt most when you eat?"

"I have not had much appetite lately, Sir."

"Ah." I said, helping him up. "Headaches?"

"Sometimes."

"You must not use willow bark if you get another one. It will make your stomach worse."

His eyes stayed glued to me as I mixed together two envelopes of herbs. "Don't drink the grog at dinner this evening. We'll boil up some water and you must take this instead. Chamomile. It should both settle your stomach and help you sleep. And you MUST eat, Mr. Anderson. Understood?"

He looked up at me curiously. "Yes, Sir." He swallowed. "Why..." His voice trailed off and looking away, he got up off of the table.

Why am I helping him, he wondered? Because it is my job, I almost snapped out. But I didn't. Thinking of what Reg would want most, I gave his shoulder a little shake. "Because you're bloody well keeping me up at night, Henry." I quipped lightly. "Besides, if you collapse on duty, Captain will read me the riot act for not noticing you were ill. And he is NOT PLEASANT when he is angry."

"No, Sir." And he gave me a very timid smile, which I return with more warmth this time. I am not good at holding grudges, and he was obviously beating himself up enough for both of us.

"Now get on with you, let me read my letter in peace!" I watched him disappearing through the doorway and sighed. Whether he was trustworthy or not, I am still not certain.

Turning back to my letter, I see it seems to be from my brother Stan. Unusual; Stan does not write often, as he is so occupied in keeping father reigned in. Braking the seal I smoothed out the paper.

"Drew,

I hope this letter finds you happy and well on board Indefatigable. I would say it was a pleasure to see you last, but under the circumstances we both know that could not be the case. But I try to picture you, sometimes, in your uniform, standing on the deck of your ship, away from father's grasp, and THAT is a pleasure.

Which is why I hope what I write next is not too much of a disappointment. I do not know if Archie has sent word or not, but he and Alicia are to be married. I know how much that must please you. However, father is hell-bent on seeing them married SOON, even though Archie will unquestionably not be able to get back to England for some time. He is having me make preparations to move the three of us to Gibraltar, where we shall stay some time at Government House with Sir Hugh Dalrymple. As soon as the Indefatigable's schedule can be ascertained, he is certain Captain Pellew will grant permission for Archie to take a few days' leave so the ceremony can be performed.

I must be perfectly clear: Father WILL be at the ceremony. Therefore, YOU cannot be.

Try not to be angry. It is for your own good. It would be too dangerous to have you close to him; I cannot be certain I could prevent any damage. And it would be fatal should he hear that you are still performing medical duties. You must speak with the Captain about this. Alicia and Archie will be disappointed, but at the same time, they will not wish to see you harmed, and I know that you would not wish to put any damper on their celebration.

I will make up some story to father to explain why you cannot attend, tying it in with some sort of honor or duty that he would be loath to have you break. Of course I will let you know what that story is, so that Archie might be able to back it up.

Please, do forgive me for this. I can only hope that time will make up for the suffering father has put you through in your lifetime.

Your affectionate brother, Stanton."

I felt a sharp stabbing pain in my lungs, and the pages blurred. Damn my Father! Why cannot he just die and be done with tormenting my life? How is it possible he can taint my happiness even here? I crumpled the letter into a ball, condensing it smaller and smaller, as if I could condense it into nothingness by force of will, finally hurling it across the berth, where it bounded away to the corner.

There was some sort of commotion above decks, and instinctively I rose, wiping my now-damp face with a cloth so that I might look like a ship's physician, and not a miserable ship's boy behaving childishly. No sooner had I splashed sea-water on my face than I heart the thunder of footsteps come down the passageway.

"Mr. Brandon!" Reg came thundering in. "Man down, fallen off of the ratlines! Thomas and Morris are bringing him down now."

Hell, nothing like a surgical emergency while safely at anchor. "Bad?"

"Pretty Bad."

And Johnson WOULD be in port! I still rely greatly on his surgical experience; I have not performed too many operations by myself. "Find me Jenkins, Mr. Cousins," knowing I would need the help of our loblolly boy. "And tell Clarke I'll need hot water."

Reg hesitated. "The injured man IS Jenkins, Mr. Brandon."

Jesus! "Find me any help you can, then, Mr. Cousins."

Jenkins! He's what...twelve years old? And what the hell was he doing in the ratlines anyway?

Just as Reg spun away, Thomas and Morris arrived, carrying the unconscious boy as carefully as they could.

"Get him on the table!"

I washed my hands in my alcohol solution and approached him

A small trickle of blood came out of his mouth. Not good.

"He din't hit his head first, Sir...'is arm."

So I saw. A bone protruded from his upper bicep. It would have to come off; no way in hell I'd be able to set that. But it wasn't bleeding too badly; not the priority injury. I ran my hands gently over the back of his head and downward on his neck; a small bump, and his neck was not broken. The bump could not have been the cause of the blood on his mouth.

I ripped his shirt open, putting my head to his chest. His heart was beating, but not regularly. The blood indicated some kind of bleeding inside, probably his chest. I ran my hands over his abdomen; his stomach was distended. I swallowed a flashing memory of the happy, joking boy who'd always been so helpful to me. *This is just a body. Not anybody I know. Just another body.*

"The internal injuries are the worst. I'm going to have to open him up." Had we been at sea or in battle I would probably have been unable to even make the attempt, and would have had to give him up for lost. Here, at least, I could try.

I looked around just in time to see Reg arrive with Mr. Anderson, and buckets of hot water. Well, beggars can't be choosers. I nodded sharply. "Mr. Anderson, you can assist?"

"I'll do my best, Sir."

"Not squeamish at all about blood?"

"No, Sir."

Reg looked apologetically at me. "I'm on watch, else I'd help."

I didn't acknowledge him. I didn't have time. "Thomas, Morris, I have to open him up. He's bleeding inside and if I don't stop it he's got no chance. He may look unconscious now, but as soon as I start he'll be in a lot of pain. Mr. Anderson..."

"Yes..."

I sighed. He didn't know the names of the instruments, and quickly I spread them out as I thought I'd need them. "Hand each to me as I ask, dipping it first in the boiling water, then not touching it to anything. Once used, put it to this side on this hot cloth."

As I spoke, I was sponging his abdomen with alcohol. I handed him a pad of linen.

"As I cut, dab the blood from the wound. See these Clamps?"

"Yes?"

"I'll need them to move...well...whatever around inside. I am apologizing in advance if I should snap at you for any reason, and do not take it personally. I know you are doing your best."

He nodded solemnly.

I swallowed hard. "Fine. The first knife, please..."

Even as I made the cut, I could feel the surgery moving away from me, as if I were outside of myself. I heard myself asking for instruments tersely, and Anderson complied quickly. There was a lot of blood. Too much. "Check his pulse, Mr. Anderson. There should be a beat about every second. Fast, or slow?"

A pause. "Slow. Four seconds between."

Damn, I'm losing him! I saw a contusion on his liver and worked quickly to stop the bleeding.

"Silk!"

He fumbled slightly and dropped it, and I cursed. "Put it in the hot water first! Quickly, now!" I snapped.

I worked feverishly. "Pulse?" I asked.

A pause. "Six seconds between."

I got the blood stopped there, but suddenly there was more, from his stomach. I felt sweat drip down my back. I cannot do this. It's too much, too much blood.

"I can't get a pulse, Mr. Brandon." Anderson said, just as I saw my way clear to the rupture. But even as he said it, it stopped bleeding so profusely.

I put my hand on his upper chest. Nothing. On his neck. Nothing. Over his mouth. Nothing. And there was no point in hurrying any more.

"He's gone, men." I said, softly. I saw Anderson blink back a tear, but otherwise he held himself steady. And said, "Silk."

"Sir?"

"I'm not sending him to burial mutilated like this." And I began the simple task of closing the incision, on a boy who could no longer feel my violation. I looked up to Thomas and Morris. "Thank you men, for your assistance, and I am sorry it was for naught."

Morris nodded at me. "Aye, Aye, Sir. We're sorry too."

They walked away, leaving me to complete my distasteful task.

"Mr. Anderson, I do thank you for your help. You may return to your duties. There is no more emergency here."

He looked over at me. "Can I not help you clean up, Sir?"

I looked around. Had there been this much blood the entire time? I looked down at myself; I was sopped with blood. With Jenkins' blood. I forced the image of him out of my mind again. "That would be appreciated."

We worked in silence together for some time; cleaning, thankfully, was not something he needed much instruction in, and I, for some reason, became obsessed with making Jenkins look as whole as possible. I even put his shirt back on him, and then folded his hands neatly on his front.

Anderson, sensing that I would rather be alone, turned back to me. "I'll get going then." I nodded, taking off the surgical apron I had on, knowing I'd have to report this to the Captain. "I thank you again. You were a big help."

"I was glad to do it, Mr. Brandon. It could have been any one of us."

I managed to smile at him as he left, then sank into the chair, wondering what to say to the Captain. I could not seem to move; I was tired to the bones. Damned, but I have not felt this bad after hours of battle surgery.

Johnson returned presently, having heard the news on deck.

"Too late." I said, still not able to will my body to move.

Johnson twitched. You got used to losing men, I suppose. But this was Jenkins, and he had been fond of the boy.

"What was it?"

What wasn't it, would have been more like it. "Fall from the ratlines. Bruise to the brain, not fatal; compound arm fracture, would have needed amputation, but not fatal, and bleeding inside, from his liver and stomach. I just couldn't stitch it fast enough."

He walked over to Jenkins, and I saw him shake a bit. "I should have been here. I could have stopped it."

Oh.

He didn't say another word to me, just turned on his heel and walked back out the door, and I put my head in my hands.

*I tried, Johnson, I really did. The blood was just coming too fast, from too many places, and the shock was too great to his body. Even if I had stopped the bleeding, I would have had to take off his arm, and he couldn't have stood it; leaving it on risked infection, and God knows how bad the head wound was. I needed another pair of hands, more experienced hands, and even then, I don't know...*

But Johnson's statement cut through my thoughts like the scalpel: *I COULD HAVE STOPPED IT.*

My failure. My fault.

I finally rose, and began cleaning myself off, just when Horatio came down. "Mr. Brandon, Captain Pellew would like to see you in his quarters immediately," he said tonelessly.

I looked up sharply. "I am on my way, Mr. Hornblower." I said, with the faintest hint of a question.

Which he understood and answered. "The Captain appears upset, Mr. Brandon, that you have not reported to him sooner."

Better and better! "I shall follow you out, then."

***

It may have been the fasted trip I have ever made from sick berth without actually breaking into a run.

He was, as Horatio indicated, waiting for me.

"Ah, Mr. Brandon, how good of you to deign to report to me."

I set my shoulders. It was not as though I had been dawdling downstairs, and damned if I was going to leave Jenkins open like that. But I know Captain Pellew well enough to not try and make a case. Just answer his questions yes or no, and apologize if I've screwed something up.

"Am I correct in understanding we lost our loblolly boy this afternoon?"

I met his eyes. "Yes, Sir. Jenkins. I tried to operate on him, but his injuries were too severe. Unfortunately, Johnson was ashore getting supplies; he might have had a better chance at saving him."

He strode up before me, and I could see he was really, really angry. He might have burned a hole through my face with his eyes. He's just come back from Gibraltar with our new mission; my guess was it was not a good one, and my misfortune to be the first officer he's called.

"And so you are telling me I have lost a twelve year old boy while the ship is sitting at anchor in Gibraltar Bay?"

"Yes, Sir."

"AND WHOSE FAULT IS THAT, MR. BRANDON?"

I don't understand. "As I said, Sir, my surgical skills were not great enough..."

"DAMN YOUR SURGICAL SKILLS, MAN!"

I drew my breath in sharply; he was right in front of me, close enough to make me want to cower, although I didn't. Why was he doing this to me?

"How, Mr. Brandon, did Mr. Jenkins sustain these fatal injuries."

"He fell from the ratlines, Sir." I whispered.

"He fell from the ratlines, did he? And what in the bloody HELL was a loblolly boy doing up in the ratlines?"

"I...I don't know, Sir."

Backing away from me, Pellew looked me over from head to foot as if I were a stowaway. "You don't know?" He asked, one eyebrow raised, his voice dripping sarcasm. "Who does Mr. Jenkins report to, Mr. Brandon?"

"I..." Hell, I can't tell him I don't know again, but truth is I had never thought of that before. I guess I assumed he'd report to Andrews, like the powder monkeys he berthed with.

The pause must have been long enough to constitute an answer anyway. "I see. You don't know that either. A loblolly boy reports to the ship's DOCTOR. The DOCTOR is responsible for his health and well being and SAFETY!"

But...I'm NOT the Doctor. I'm a Midshipman. Johnson's a Marine Medic. Certainly I remembered Jenkins' used to report to Hepplewhite...but I haven't got any real authority. How was I supposed to know...

"SO I ASK YOU AGAIN, MR. BRANDON, WHOSE FAULT IS IT THAT JENKINS IS DEAD?"

I swallowed. There is only one answer he will accept. "It is my fault, Sir." I whispered.

"I DID NOT HEAR YOU!'

It isn't fair, oh, it isn't. I was on duty...which for me meant being in the sick berth unless called away. I was where I was SUPPOSED to be. Jenkins was not on duty, and had every right to be skylarking on deck. How could I have prevented him from doing so? I cannot be in two places at once! How can he not see that?

Clearing my throat, I forced it out more clearly. "It is my fault, Sir."

I have grown smart enough, finally, not to blurt out everything I think.

"So, a twelve year old boy is dead, sewn up in his own hammock, and set to be buried at sea tomorrow, because of your negligence. Is that a fair assessment of the situation, do you think?"

No. "Yes, Sir."

"And now I have to write to that boy's family and explain to them that their twelve year old son was killed, not fighting the enemy, but because his superior officer was too indifferent to pay him proper attention? Does that seem right to you, Mr. Brandon?"

The cabin seemed to grow smaller, and the air heavier. I don't know what the right answers are anymore. "No, Sir."

"No, it is not right. And I am not going to do it. You are."

I looked at him helplessly, and could not get any words out of my mouth.

"You can try to explain, as if it were possible, the circumstances of Jenkins' death to his family. I expect to see a final draft of the letter first thing in the morning, do you understand?" He sat behind his desk and opened up his log, took a pen, and wrote up Jenkins' parents names, and their address, handing it to me.

"Aye, Aye, Sir." I said. I could feel the shaking starting deep inside of me, but fought to control it.

He took one last look up at me, and I hoped to see some hint of compassion in his face. There was none. "If you cannot handle the responsibility of one twelve year old boy, Mr. Brandon, how can you ever expect to handle the responsibility for the well being of a ship full of men?" No anger left there. Sadness. Disappointment. I would rather he strike me down.

"You are dismissed."

Blindly I left his cabin, aimlessly heading towards the sick berth. I felt, suddenly, as if the gravity of the earth was dragging me down into the depths of the sea. I didn't know Jenkins was my responsibility. I didn't know.

I got down to sick berth, where the boy's body was gone now, no doubt sewn up into his hammock and above decks for burial tomorrow. But I could still see where it had been, in my mind, even as I went for paper and pen.

Johnson came down just as I began writing. Our eyes met for a few seconds, and he looked away sharply and left me. He blames me. He blames me for not saving him, and Pellew blames me for letting him get hurt in the first place. And again the tiredness swept over me...

I put my head down on the table for a few seconds, wishing I could disappear into it, like a termite.

Lieutenant Bracegirdle's voice cut into my thoughts.

"I DO hope I'm not disturbing your sleep, Mr. Brandon."

Oh, God. "Of course not, Sir." I raised my head slowly and looked up at him.

"I just overheard a conversation in the midshipman's mess. Did you forbid Mr. Anderson to partake of spirits?"

I blinked. Anderson. God, that seemed like ages ago. Was it only this morning? "Yes, I did."

"And by what authority did you deprive him of his spirit rations?"

"No, Sir, you misunderstand, I did not deprive him of..."

"I do not misunderstand anything, Mr. Brandon. Did you tell him he cannot partake of spirits?"

"Yes, but..."

"No 'buts' Mr. Brandon! You are a midshipman, and as such, cannot punish another midshipman, do I make myself clear?"

But it was MEDICAL! "It was not intended as..."

"DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?"

I was stunned. "Did Mr. Anderson complain..."

Bracegirdle towered over the desk at me. "Mr. Anderson did not need to complain, Mr. Brandon! You have admitted that you forbade spirits to another midshipman. I know well enough that you were not pleased with the punishment meted out to the young man for his theft, but that does not give you the right to augment it! Now, do I make myself clear, or do I have to call Mr. Andrews to make it clearer?"

I closed my eyes once. "No Sir. I am perfectly clear on your instructions. I do not have the authority to punish another midshipman."

He looked at me sharply. "Remember it, and remember your place here."

My place? That depends, apparently, on which minute of the day it is, and whom is doing the asking. "Yes, Sir."

He left me there, to start writing a letter to explain why it was my responsibility somebody's son died, even though I am not even to be allowed to tell a man that it is not a good idea for his health to take a drink.

***

Eight drafts later, I finally had what I hoped would be an acceptable missive for the Captain:

"Dear Mrs. And Mr. Jenkins,

I am sorry to inform you that your son, Robert, was killed today, in a fall from the ship's rat lines. I accept full responsibility for his accident; I am remorseful that I was unable to prevent his activity, and even more so that I subsequently was unable to save his life on the surgical table.

Your son served with me valiantly as a medical assistant, and was a tremendous asset to the sick berth. He was bright and funny, and never ceased to be a source of joy to me and to Medic Johnson. Most particularly I remember his laugh, which was gentle and sunny, and often a comfort to those he ministered to. He will be missed.

Yours truly, Midshipman Andrew Brandon."

The first paragraph came surprisingly easy, since I had already begun to believe in my own culpability. It was the second that brought me pain. There was no lie there; I would miss the boy's disposition greatly, and putting it into words brought me to tears. But I would not cry.

I copied it one more time, making it as legible as possible. Then I folded it neatly and left it on the table. I need air, or my lungs feel as if they will explode.

The air was fine, beginning to grow cooler with the change in season. I could hear the subtle, quiet sounds of the ship that were usually made late in the evening. I saw Mr. Anderson, just beginning his watch. He smiled at me.

"I just wanted to thank you for the tea, Sir. My stomach is much better this evening."

I looked at him carefully. "I am glad of it."

"We missed you at dinner."

"I had work to finish."

He nodded. "I thought as much, after everything that happened today." He glanced up at me shyly. "Thank you for letting me help you."

"Thank you for the help. We almost did it." Well, he didn't know any better, and might as well let him think that. "By the by, Mr. Anderson, you did not by any chance have any conversation with Mr. Bracegirdle this evening, did you?"

He frowned. "Funny you should mention that, Sir. He did come by and offer to get me a cup of grog about half an hour ago."

"Did you accept it?"

"I did, but I didn't drink it, Sir. I don't understand why he brought it out, because I had thought he was still rather mad at me over...everything." He twisted his neck a bit. "But since he was being nice to me, I didn't want to refuse, either. So I took it, but it's still in the cup over there. This is the first night in two weeks my stomach hasn't bothered me, and I didn't want to ruin it."

I took a deep breath. "You understand if you wanted to drink the grog, I wouldn't stop you?"

He gave me a rather strange look. "Of course, Sir, but you told me I'd feel better if I didn't, and I do. Why would I drink it? That makes no sense, Sir."

I gave him a half-hearted smile. "Of course it doesn't, Mr. Anderson, but then nothing this day has."

He sighed. "Well, Sir, if I've learned anything these past weeks, it is that today eventually is over, and tomorrow is a new start."

"I do hope so. Good evening, Mr. Anderson."

I walked away and was about to go bellow decks when I had a stabbing, queasy feeling in my stomach myself, and I sank down beside one of the boats, hiding myself in the shadows of its davits as I folded myself into a small ball, wishing I could be invisible.

What I want, I suppose, is to be able to be a petulant, whinny, average fifteen year old for just one hour. But nobody will let me. And the thing is, I cannot even say that this is the worst day of my life. Sad as it is to think on. Finally I got up and made my way over to the ratlines.

A long way up. He must have fallen right about here. What HAD he been doing, anyway? Looking at the view? Playing with his friends? Trying to keep up with boys more used to this work, perhaps? I'd never know.

A gentle voice next to me caught me by surprise.

"Ay, Mr. Brandon, ye look worn out, ye do." Styles.

"It has been a long day, Styles." I answered. A long, bad day.

"I heard about Jenkins. He never did have no 'ead for heights, that boy. S'why he became a loblolly. One o the others musta dared him to do it."

"I killed him."

"Cor, are ye daft? If ye couldn't save him, it weren't to be done."

"I should have kept him from falling in the first place."

"An how'wre you to do that, exactly, Mr. Brandon?"

"It doesn't matter how. It was my job, and I failed."

"Says who?"

"Captain Pellew."

That shut him up pretty fast. We stood together looking up the ratlines a few moments before he spoke again.

"I don't understand that, Mr. Brandon." Another pause. "Cap'n must have some powerful worries on his mind, to be talkin like that. Ye know how he cuts off everyone short when he gets to worryin' about something."

"I thought that too, at first. But the more I think on it..." I shrugged. "He's dead, isn't he? Who else is to blame."

"Men be falling about on ships all the time, Mr. Brandon. T'aint nobodies fault, sometimes not even their own."

There was that stabbing pain in my stomach again, so sharp it brought tears to my eyes, but I blinked them away quickly. When did I last eat? Breakfast? The ship swayed...

"Mr. Brandon?" Styles put his hand on my shoulder to steady me.

"I am fine, Styles." I said, automatically. Ever the officer in his majesties Navy!

"Aye, Mr. Brandon, of course yer fine." He gave me half a smile, knuckled his forehead and ambled away.

Oh, what I would not give for just one hour's privacy, and what is the one thing that Indefatigable cannot provide me with? Somehow, the company of my mates this evening, in my current mood, is distasteful. Closing my eyes, I wished for my sister; tried to imagine her putting her arm around me, and just letting me BE for a while. But to be with my sister would put me with my father, and I could never wish for that.

I wonder if Johnson is down in sickberth? We have no men ill at the moment, so most likely he's with his fellow marines, probably taking a cup or two of grog to ease the pain of our loss. A sudden thought: Hepplewhite's quarters, still unused since our former doctor deserted. Johnson or I camp out there when there is a serious case in the berth we wish to be nearby for, but otherwise we each prefer the company of our mates. Yes, I could be alone there, for a bit; maybe I will sleep there this night.

***
Sick berth is deserted, no hint visible of the struggles I had there this afternoon. I went to Hepplewhite's door and pushed; it stuck, like it always did. I leaned against it and turned the handle sharply, throwing my weight towards the hinges, and it swung free. It was a peculiar little dance Johnson and I had learned to do, and the only way to open the door.

Just as I crossed the threshold, a ball of paper caught my eye. My letter from my brother. Bending to pick it up, there was another bolt in my stomach. Damn! I have enough worries without letting my frustrations take hold in my body. A few seconds, please God, a few seconds and the pain will go... I drew my breath in slowly, and I rose. There. Better now. I am damp; a sudden sweat from the surprise of the attack. I should go get food before going to bed, to settle my digestive system. I know that I should.

Ah, to hell with it. I am tired, and to get food I'd need to go to the mess, and then I should never be left alone. Reg would worry, he'd drill me for information, he'd want me to talk. I can't face that. Besides, it's better, now. I can wait for breakfast.

The bed actually looks inviting. Closing the door behind me, with a firm push, I enjoyed a moment of peace, thinking of having shut the day's grief behind me as well. Looking down at Stan's letter, I could feel the tears well up. A lousy way to start the day, it had been. With a tight grip on it, I dove down onto the cot, laying on my back and staring at the ceiling. What I child I am! Crying over a stupid letter, whimpering because Bracegirdle and Pellew yelled at me! Wallowing in self-pity because a boy is dead due to my negligence. I wiped at my face with my sleeve. No more tears. Not for myself. I do not deserve them.

***
Horatio was walking the ship on his rounds. They weren't really his rounds, not required, but had long been a habit of his, since before his trip to Oran. He enjoyed the Indefatigable in the evening, liked her stillness, and always slept better after he had seen, for himself, that everything was in order.

"Mr. 'Ornblower, sir?"

He turned to Styles, suppressing a smile at one of his favorite men. "Yes, Styles, what is it?"

The knarled seaman came forward, unafraid to talk to his Lieutenant. "Sir, I just wanted to tell ya, I saw Mr. Brandon about half an hour ago."

Horatio nodded. He'd heard about the death of the boy Jenkins; he'd seen Johnson earlier. Johnson had been beside himself with grief; apparently he felt he would have been able to stop Jenkins' foolish behavior had he been here. "Yes, he is probably unhappy right now."

"Sir..." Styles hesitated, wanting to choose his words carefully. "He's a bit more'n unhappy, I think, an' I, well, I was worried about him. I think the capt'n was a bit hard on 'im."

"Ah." Horatio, unlike Styles, had inward knowledge of the reason for this. Pellew had just gone over their pending orders with him and Bracegirdle, and they were not pretty. When things went bad at admiralty, Pellew often had a habit of bottling up his anger, and letting it slip out at the first inadvertent officer who gave him reason. To be sure, he knew no reason why Pellew should particularly come down on Drew, but sometimes it just happened that way. "I understand, Styles."

"Yes'r. An' also, Sir...he seemed to be hurt."

That stopped Horatio in his tracks. "Hurt, you say?"

"'E grabbed 'is stomach, like, and he looked pretty sick fer a moment, then 'e was alright."

"I see," he said, relieved. He figured he knew what it was...upset at losing Jenkins and then having the Captain get angry, it had probably bothered his stomach. Horatio didn't understand it, but his father told him that was often the way of it. "Bad thoughts are more harmful than bad food," the man used to say. "Well, Styles, I am certain he is fine, but I will check in on him before I retire for the evening, and make sure of it."

"Yessir. Thankee." And Styles gave him that old saucy grin, that hid his admiration and gratitude towards his superior.

'I will just finish my tour up here and then I will rout him out,' he thought, resuming his stroll around the deck. 'Like as not he's holed up somewhere thinking he wants to be alone when what he really needs is to talk to someone.' He knew too well how THAT was.

"Shoreboat ahoy!"

Horatio stopped and looked out seaward. He swallowed hard. Could it be?

He walked as quickly up to the quarterdeck. Sure enough, it was Archie! Archie, making it back in time for their upcoming mission after all.

Then, he thought about the mission as Pellew had described it to him, and almost wished that he hadn't.

***

"I cannot believe it, Mr. Bracegirdle!" I felt the anger and confusion welling up again.

"I am afraid, Sir, I lost my temper with him. Nevertheless, it is true...he
ordered Mr. Anderson off spirits."

I sat back in disbelief, rubbing my head. It's been one hell of a day. I
have blasted orders from Admiralty that put me in a hurricane-strewn
corridor off the coast of Spain, where will be attempting to capture a
privateer (pirate!) by the name of DeCarlos. DeCarlos has become legendary
for the number of ships, both English and Spanish, he has destroyed in his
travels. The ship's name was, aptly, El Muerte.

But we are not to sink the vessel! It would seem that in his last attack he
managed to secure a trunk full of something...Parker was damnably vague...that
was of importance to the crown! We must remain there until successful, or
until supplies are exhausted. I had filled Bracegirdle and Hornblower in on
the blasted news, which sat well with neither of them. Horatio looks
forward to weather like I look forward to a dinner at Government house, and
Bracegirdle's wife is due to deliver their child in late December. She was
not feeling well when he left her, and I can certainly understand how
worried he is.

I have already bitten off Mr. Brandon's head once in frustration this day,
which I was beginning to regret. I did wish to make certain he understood
that he needed to take his responsibilities seriously, but I remembered the
wounded look on his face when he walked out of my office, and realized I had
been unduly harsh. But now Bracegirdle tells me he has sought vengeance on
Anderson?

"It is very uncharacteristic of him, Sir." Bracegirdle continued. "But I
wanted to make certain that we saw no repeat of his behavior towards Mr.
Hornblower last month. What really bothered me, though, was his feign of
surprise that I should care. I hope, Sir, that though I myself felt
Anderson should have been punished more, I did not give the impression that
I would APPROVE of personal attacks on the boy."

I shook my head. "I am certain you did not, Anthony. Still, it is
baffling. Was it before or after my conversation with him?" I asked,
thinking perhaps that he had acted out in anger and frustration.

"Before, it seems certain..."

Just at that moment, we could hear Mr. Brandon on the quarterdeck, where
young Anderson had the watch. I tensed myself, but to my surprise found
Anderson's greeting nothing but amicable:

"I just wanted to thank you for the tea, Sir. My stomach is much better this
evening."

His stomach? Anthony and I exchanged glances.

"I am glad of it." Drew's voice dripped with exhaustion, but was sincere
enough.

"We missed you at dinner."

"I had work to finish." And a letter to write, I thought, cringing.

"I thought as much, after everything that happened today. Thank you for
letting me help you."

"Thank you for the help. We almost did it."

I was most confused. This was not the sort of animosity you would find
between warring officers! Drew continued:

"By the by, Mr. Anderson, you did not by any chance have any conversation
with Mr. Bracegirdle this evening, did you?"

Anthony and I looked at each other, waiting.

"Funny you should mention that, Sir. He did come by and offer to get me a
cup of grog about half an hour ago."

"Did you accept it?" Thin ice, here.

"I did, but I didn't drink it, Sir. I don't understand why he brought it
out, because I had thought he was still rather mad at me over...everything."

Anthony winced visibly.

"...But since he was being nice to me, I didn't want to refuse, either. So I
took it, but it's still in the cup over there. This is the first night in
two weeks my stomach hasn't bothered me, and I didn't want to ruin it."

His stomach was upset? Bracegirdle went pale, even as Drew continued:

"You understand if you wanted to drink the grog, I wouldn't stop you?"
Heavy emphasis; I could see his serious face and those penetrating eyes in
my mind.

"Of course, Sir, but you told me I'd feel better if I didn't, and I do. Why
would I drink it? That makes no sense, Sir." And Anthony groaned, putting
his head in his hands.

"Of course it doesn't, Mr. Anderson, but then nothing this day has." Least
of all his rather capricious officers, poor boy.

And Anderson, bless his heart, tried to cheer Drew up. "Well, Sir, if I've
learned anything these past weeks, it is that today eventually is over, and
tomorrow is a new start."

"I do hope so. Good evening, Mr. Anderson."

I looked over at Anthony, whose mouth hung open in shock. "I...medicinal?
Oh, Dear. Sir, what have I done?"

I shook my head. "An understandable mistake, Mr. Bracegirdle, given the way
things have been around here lately."

"Still, Sir...I cannot believe I did not let him explain! I was so hard on
him, Sir..."

"No worse than I was, I am afraid. Earlier today I chastised him for not
keeping better control of Jenkins, but I could have been kinder."

I looked up, for Anthony's eyes were on me in confusion. "Why should he
have had control of Jenkins, when the boy reported to Andrews?"

"Wha..."

 

I blinked at him. And a sudden memory jolted me. Over a year ago, it was...after Hepplewhite was gotten rid of. Drew not even fifteen years of age, and Johnson a Marine; a good man, but not a NAVY man. And we had decided that Jenkins should report to the Bosun. He would be most able to keep him out of mischief. I tried to remember if we'd ever had a conversation with Brandon OR Johnson about that specific fact, and could not. Drew, still new to the Navy, would probably have never even thought about who reported to who. He had a job to do, and he did it. He was only a midshipman, after all.

I groaned. "Dear god, Anthony, what was I thinking?"

"You've grown accustomed to thinking of Mr. Brandon as our Doctor. We all have. It is not so surprising." He soothed.

"Not to you perhaps, but I have no doubt that my reaction surprised HIM!" I shook my head. "Why did he not say anything?"

Bracegirdle got rather pink and did not answer.

"Come, Anthony, I can see you have a comment to make. YOU are not usually afraid to make them."

"I am sorry, Sir. But you have just come back from Admiralty with our orders. He knew that, even if he didn't know what the orders were. But...beg your pardon, Sir, we all know when you are in one of those moods it is best to just let you vent."

I winced. "I had not known I was so predictable."

"We've all been together a while now, Sir. And you don't get into moods that often, and usually for cause."

Poor Mr. Brandon, to be so thoroughly jumped on by his superiors for nothing more than doing his duty! I rubbed my temples, and thought of willow-bark, which Drew always made sure I had a supply of. Somehow, I felt guilty at preparing myself a cup of it at the moment. Anthony stared at me helplessly, and without words we continued with our Port, for some time, simply listening to the quiet on deck. Each of us had our own demons to deal with.

Finally I spoke. "I suppose we must say something to him, but what?"

"Shore boat ahoy!"

I picked my head up. Mr. Kennedy, could I hope?

Bracegirdle rose, giving himself a shake. "Well, we will deal with making our amends to Mr. Brandon tomorrow. He has probably retired for the evening, and we must hear from Mr. Kennedy, assuming this is him."

Make amends? Captains do not do such things openly, even when they are in the wrong. Bracegirdle understood the look on my face. "In a manner of speaking, of course, Sir."

Yes. Behave normally. I might, when he brings me the letter I have forced him to write, admit that it has come to my attention that in fact Jenkins did not report to him, and therefore he bore no responsibility for his death, and perhaps he would care for a game of whist this evening? I grimaced. Such nonsense; I ought just to be able to come out and say, "I was behaving like a fool because Admiral Parker seems to think six small ships in hurricane-type weather are enough to bottleneck the Spanish fleet and I was not angry at you at all!"

Bracegirdle cut into my thoughts. "It is Mr. Kennedy, Sir."

For we could hear a happy, though quiet, greeting given him by Mr. Hornblower. "Good evening, LIEUTENANT Kennedy. We were beginning to fear we had lost you to civilian life."

"Ah, Lieutenant Hornblower, I see my letter to Mr. Brandon has arrived. Yes, I have returned to Naval life, although after nearly drowning myself off the coast of Portugal, I have to say I did occasionally permit myself to wonder why."

"Bad weather, then?" Horatio asked in concern.

"BAD does not begin to describe it, Horatio; I feared the Sophia would turn itself upside down at points. I am excessively glad for your sake that you were not with me."

"Oh." He said, limply.

Of course, what Mr. Kennedy does not know, but what Mr. Hornblower does, is that our orders take us right into that weather.

"You are heading to see the Captain, of course?" he asked.

"Naturally. I trust Mr. Brandon made him aware of my obtaining my commission?"

"He did indeed, Mr. Kennedy."

"Why are you blushing, Horatio?" I heard him ask, the voices fading as they walked away, and I permitted myself a small smile despite my mood. It would indeed be good to have Mr. Kennedy back with us.

"Shall I leave, Sir?" Bracegirdle asked.

"No, by all means, I should like you to stay for this."

***
Within five minutes I was handing port all around...Kennedy, Hornblower, Bracegirdle and myself.

"Well done indeed, Mr. Kennedy. I am most pleased that you passed, although I doubted it not."

"Thank you, Sir."

"You must have been nervous, Mr. Kennedy, facing that board after having two weeks at sea to think on it!"

"On the contrary, after two weeks on Sophia, Sir, I found the thought of the exam board utterly undaunting."

"Ah." I said. "So, how was your sail on Sophia?"

He met my eye. "Interesting, to say the least, Sir. I had the misfortune of losing Midshipman Dawes on our journey."

I almost fell over. DAWES? "He was supposed to remain on Dunbarton with Clark, Mr. Kennedy."

"I wondered if you knew he had transferred. I rather doubted it, since he did not seem to mix well with the other men."

Damn! I should have warned Clark about that; Dawes was an ocean of trouble waiting to happen. "How...did you lose him?"

He met my eye evenly. "According to my report, Sir, he died as a result of injuries sustained in our entanglement with the Spanish."

Our eyes met, and I understood. With a swallow, I asked what worried me most. "Mr. Wheeler, Sir? How is he coming along?"

And after a searching look, Archie gave me a slight smile. "Mr. Wheeler is coming along better than anyone would have expected. He is healing, Sir. I believe, given time, he will recover entirely."

A relief that was; I knew Mr. Kennedy could help the boy. I caught the confusion on Horatio's face; Bracegirdle, at least, I had given some preparation on for this. But I decided to turn the conversation to more personal matters.

"And your family is well?"

He brightened up considerably. "Quite well, Sir, thank you. My father, in fact, has sent along some of his finest port as a gift for you, I believe for returning me from the dead, not that he put it quite that way!"

Bracegirdle laughed, and Horatio spoke up, "I am glad to hear it indeed, Archie. As I am glad to hear that congratulations are in order."

He got very pink then. "Ah, another good man fallen, Captain!" Bracegirdle sighed-ironic, given his extremely happy state of matrimony.

"Indeed," I responded, thinking with fondness of Kitty. "When shall your turn come, Mr. Hornblower?"

He swallowed at the jest. "Alas, Sir, I have not Mr. Kennedy's luck, it would seem." And he pulled Bracie down with him. "However, Mr. Kennedy, do not let Mr. Bracegirdle's taunts bother you too badly, for his wife is with child and he does not know what he is saying."

Another round of congratulations went round, as well as another round of Port. I was purposely drowning my distasteful duties, and I would feel it tomorrow. "Miss Cobham wrote me that you had visited, and she was most impressed with your father and brother, to say nothing of your lovely fiancé. I did have the pleasure of meeting her once. Quite charming, Sir."

Bracegirdle twinkled. "Pity Mr. Brandon has no more sisters, eh, Mr. Hornblower."

"Where is Drew, anyway? Retired already? I had hoped to speak to him." Archie said, at the same moment Horatio snapped to attention.

"I beg your pardon, Sir, I had promised to look in on Mr. Brandon. He was apparently not feeling well earlier this evening."

"Ah, my fault I am afraid, Mr. Hornblower. I came down rather hard on him for no good reason earlier."

"Yes, I had heard that, but..."

Bracegirdle interjected. "Not all of it, surely. I too stand guilty..."

Kennedy looked confused. "Whatever has been going on in my absence, Sirs?"

Horatio ignored him. "It was Styles who spoke to me, Sir, and he seemed to feel that Drew might me physically ill..."

"He probably just needs to get his frustration out, Horatio, I am certain that is all." Bracegirdle soothed.

"We will talk to him in the morning. I am certain that Styles just saw him upset." I added.

Horatio wavered. "Nevertheless, Sir, I would feel better once I am certain he is feeling alright."

Archie looked around at each of us. "Gentlemen, how much can I have missed in six weeks away?"

That brought all of us to resounding silence. Just in time to hear a tentative knock at the door.

"Enter!" I called.

Mr. Cousins, looking worried, walked in without even noting Mr. Kennedy. "Sir, beg your pardon, but have you seen Mr. Brandon?"

"He is probably in sick berth, Mr. Cousins."

Reg shook his head. "I went looking for him there, Sir. When he didn't turn in. I mean, I knew he'd be upset about Jenkins dying and all..."

"Jenkins died?" Archie whispered to Bracegirdle.

"...but I know him, and you can't let him brood on these things, you've got to draw it out of him or he makes himself sick. I waited until Mr. Anderson came off watch...he said he'd talked to him earlier and he was still pretty upset, so I figured I'd dig him out."

"And he's not in sick berth, you say?" Horatio frowned.

"No, Sir, nor in Hepplewhite's quarters either, because the door there is locked. I've been just about all over the ship...even went up into the fighting top, Sir. Nothing doing."

"Nonsense, man, a fifteen year old boy cannot disappear off a ship." I gasped.

"He can't even swim." Joked Mr. Kennedy, having no clue, of course, as to how bad things have gotten.

Horatio jumped at the sentence, with a look at Bracegirdle. "Yes, he can." And the two of them rushed forward for the door.

I followed, with Archie behind me protesting all the way. "You are talking about desertion! DREW! Deserting! There is no way..."

"You don't understand the kind of day he's had, Mr. Kennedy," I said, letting the worry creep into my voice.

He caught up to me, still confused. "I cannot imagine anything pushing Mr. Brandon off of this ship, Sir."

We went everywhere, even to the cable tier, with no sign of him. We returned to sick berth, and I tried the door to Hepplewhite's quarters. It wouldn't budge. I pounded on it and called out. "Mr. Brandon? Are you in there?"

No answer.

"He would come out if he had been, Sir." Cousins looked like he might be at the breaking point. Desertion. He knew what that would mean for Mr. Brandon, if he were caught. We all did.

Just then Johnson came in, somewhat surprised to see us all. "I am sorry, I was looking for Mr. Brandon." He muttered, looking rather ill-used himself.

"Join the club." Bracegirdle muttered.

Johnson looked around. "I wanted to apologize to him. I said something that I think he might have taken the wrong way, and I wanted to make sure he understood...I didn't blame him."

Can things get worse? "What did YOU say to him, Johnson?"

He shook his head. "I said I wished I had been here, that I might have stopped Jenkins' death. I think he might have taken it as a slight on his skills. The truth is, I used to keep a tight watch on the boy when he was skylarking; he was prone to be a bit of a daredevil. He'd been punished for it once. He'd never have dared near the ratlines if I'd been on board."

I could hear the undercurrent of panic in Archie's voice. "I do not care what any of you did or said to Drew. I know him, and he is on this ship somewhere. He did not desert!"

"Desert!" Johnson gasped. "Never!" He shook his head. "Did you look in Hepplewhite's quarters? He might have wished to get away."

"He's not there. The door's stuck shut, anyway." I said, despair coming over me.

Johnson walks past us. "Oh, that door always sticks, Sir, there's a trick to opening it..."

And leaning against it and tugging at the handle, the door swung open...

***
My eyes opened. Dark. Pain. Bad pain. Where? Oh, Hepplewhite...

"Lord!" I whispered, my stomach! I struggled...covers...choking...holding me...let go, let go, let GO!

"Off!" I cried. Water...sweat. My sweat. Fever. I am soaked.

Must. Rise. Get help. Sick. Very sick. Argh! My stomach. Hurts! HELP ME! Just a moan and a squeak. No voice. What's...wrong? Not upset. Sick. SICK!

Voices. Outside the door. Pounding. I am here. I am here. Help me! PLEASE! Quiet now. Don't go. I am here. No voice. Hot. Please. Johnson. Get Johnson. Door...sticks. Oh, don't leave me here!

[CRACK] Light. Johnson. Thank. God.

The world went black.

***
Johnson rushed forward...Drew lay on Hepplewhite's cot, soaked and racked with fever, doubled over in pain. We brought the candles inside quickly.

"Drew! Drew what is the matter?"

He could barely whisper...no wonder he had not cried out when I banged on the door. "Hurts."

Johnson pulled the tangle of blankets off of him in a fury. "Cold seawater, someone, fast!"

Kennedy bolted away with a clatter.

"Easy Drew, easy." Johnson soothed. "Appendix? Abscess?"

"Don't...think so." He gasped. "Agh." The boy wretched, but nothing came up.

"God, you're burning up!" He said, even as he undressed him, tossing away soaked clothes and bedding to where we all stood. "Bad food, Drew? What did you eat?"

"AHHH!" Drew cried out again, and I felt myself shake. "No, no food since...breakfast. Biscuit. Juice. Nothing since."

Kennedy came in with two buckets slopping about, but I said nothing. Horatio handed Johnson rags, which he dipped in the cold water and then sponged off our sick doctor.

Soon Drew seemed to quiet a bit. "Better." He whispered. And he sank back onto the pillow, face still flush with fever but not as agitated.

Johnson turned to Horatio. "Boil some water, Mr. Hornblower, then let it cool for him to drink."

I gulped. "What is it, Johnson?"

Shaken, he looked at me. "I do not know, Sir. I must examine him first. He seems to have picked up some feverish illness while in port."

I gasped. "Contagious?"

"I do not know. It's not typhoid or plague, Sir; I could tell that. Maybe a grippe."

Bracegirdle and I exchanged glances. I hated suggesting it, but for the good of the ship I had to. "Should we move him to shore, Johnson?"

Archie turned away sharply, but he needn't have worried. "No point in that, Sir. Whatever it is, if it is contagious, we're all infected by now. He went to port before morning, and he's been in contact with most if not all of the ship.

I sank down onto the empty chair. "Then there is no problem with my sitting here with him."

Bracegirdle put his hand on my shoulder. "Sir, you cannot help him this way." He said quietly.

"Can I not?" I looked down at his flushed face, still crinkled in pain. This did not look good. Mysterious fevers made off with men-or women-all the time. We do not know what causes them, or how to stop them; they must simply run their course and one hopes that the person stricken is strong enough to fight it off. I looked down at Drew's slight body. Emotional strength, God knows, the boy had in excess. But physical? I drew my breath in sharply.

No, if we lost him, I would not have the hard words I spoke to him earlier this day be the last he heard from me. He deserves more than that.

"I shall stay here, Lieutenant. Last time I checked I am still Captain of this ship. Please, get some sleep, the rest of you. We must depart tomorrow morning; Lieutenant Bracegirdle, you must call me at that time. Until then, I shall be here." I said firmly, daring anyone to cross me.

Johnson held a cup to Brandon's lips. The boy swallowed and then drifted off into a fever induced oblivion. "We shall let you know if there is any change." I added, more gently.

Bracegirdle, Hornblower and Cousins reluctantly filed out, Reg looking as if he would fight my order, and Horatio putting his hand firmly on the boy's shoulder and pulling him away. Archie stayed for a few more seconds, leaning over to pick up a crumpled ball of paper that I had not noticed.

"Mr. Kennedy, what is it?" Johnson asked, for my newest Lieutenant had gone pale.

He tried to force a smile. "A letter from his brother." He looked at me. "You said he was having a bad day, Sir? Read this."

I did, and winced. "Poor Mr. Brandon, somebody decided this would be the day your roof would cave in about your head." I cringed, resting my hand on his hot forehead. "But it is a new day now, put the old one behind you and fight this disease, young man. If anybody can fight it, it is YOU."

Archie touched my sleeve. "Sir, I am going, because you ordered me to. But please...tell him when he awakes, that come hell or high water, I will find a way to have him at my wedding, or there will be no wedding at all."

I blinked. "Mr. Kennedy!"

Archie managed a smile. "You want to see him get fighting mad, Sir? Tell him that, and he'll fight anything just to have the chance to knock some sense into me."

Understanding him, I put my hand on his, and he walked away. And Johnson and I settled in for a long night of anxious waiting.

***
I remember Captain Pellew sitting beside me, his cool hand on my forehead, and his voice gentle and low in my ear. I do not know what he was saying, but it was kind, and I knew he was no longer mad at me. That made me feel better.

I opened my eyes in a soft, light place, comfortable, just warm enough, just cool enough. A sweet cold nectar was given me to sip, and I sank back onto clouds of white, no longer tired, but lethargic, lazy.

I realized that it was Jenkins who provided me with the glass. So this is it. I am dead. Claimed by fever. I hope Johnson can find all of the herbs, and remembers how to prepare them. I hate the idea of abandoning my post like this.

Jenkins smiled at me, and pulled some silky covers up farther. "Thank you for trying, Mr. Brandon, you did your best."

"I'm sorry it wasn't better."

The boy shook his head. "Sorrier, Sir, that I got you into trouble. Wasn't up to you to look after me. I made a mistake."

"S'alright. We're going to miss you, though..." My head was heavy. "At least, Johnson will...he'll miss both of us, I guess..." Poor Johnson.

I realized that Jenkins had disappeared. And suddenly I felt gentle, professional hands, examining me.

"So, you are Andrew Brandon!" A sensible, dry but kind voice said.

Nobody but my father calls me Andrew; as a result, I have always hated the name. "I prefer Drew." I said evenly, to the voice whose face I could not see.

"I know you do. But I do not like nicknames." The voice was not angry, but amused and insistent at the same time. It reminded me of someone who I could not place.

"Well, Andrew! Tell me. What disease have you?"

"An airborne one, I would say, Sir. Not the plague, I hope. But the sort that folks in cities get often, usually around a head-cold."

"Ah. There is much not understood in the time we lived in, I fear. Yet a scant two hundred years after my death, Mr. Brandon, what you have will be known as a *bug*. Trifling little annoyance that folks will take a few pills for, stay a home in bed for a few days, maybe even take a tablet made up out of my willow-bark to reduce the fever. And then be as right as rain." The voice sighed. "I was out of my time, I fear."

"Dr. Hornblower!" I cried, rising up, wanting to see the face of the man I had wondered so much about.

"Take it easy, Andrew. You must not get excited." He came forward into my vision, then, looking so much like his son, only with gray hair and a crinkled face. The same wry, half smile Horatio was so prone to, though. "You are not dead yet, and I would prefer to keep it that way."

"I...I'm not?" I asked, confused.

He shook his head. "No, and fortunately since I think Johnson has the brains not to bleed you, you stand a fighting chance. Your body, young man, is fighting off this disease. Your spirit rests with me. I requested that."

"You did?"

"I did. I wished to see you."

"Oh." I said, in awe. "I have learned much from you, Sir."

He gave me the full smile, then. The rare one that I have seen from Horatio maybe twice. "I am very glad of that, Andrew. I was angry with my sister, after my death, when she sent Horatio my medical texts and a lifetime of notes. I knew she was doing it to be spiteful, to hurt Horatio for going into the Navy, to make him feel as guilty as possible. I didn't want that." The smile faded.
"All I wanted, when it was to late, was for him to know that I loved him; I did not want to hurt him any more."

Remembering our conversation on the Independence, I wanted to reassure him. "He did love you, Sir. He loves you still."

And blinking, he twinkled down at me. "I was there, Andrew. In the stars that night when you and my son were coming to terms with one another. I understand Horatio well, and I am glad that he understands me. It only human, though, wishing I had one more chance to tell him that in person."

I felt embarrassed that he should have seen all of our antics, and he laughed at me, then, just as I imagined he might.

"Anyway, I am very glad that my medical texts found their way into good hands. You have all the makings of an excellent physician, child, and I have no doubt that you will live to see a great many advances in medicine. And maybe even cause a few."

I felt my heart grow light under his praise. "I would wish only to make you proud."

"Not only me, young man, but a great many men who are quite fond of you, even if they have their moments."

I remembered. Johnson, Pellew, Bracegirdle. All so angry at me. But I knew, in the end, that it would be alright. They had not meant to hurt me. I blinked, and Dr. Hornblower touched my cheek.

"Everyone, I think, forgets you are not yet sixteen, Andrew."

I gulped. "Please, Dr. Hornblower...must you call me Andrew? I know you do not care for nicknames, but only my father calls me that...and he..."

"And he is a man whom should never have been allowed to have children." He finished for me. "Sadly, there is no qualifying exam to be a parent. Oh, any one of us might make mistakes, but there are certain men whom should not be nearer a child than England is to France." He smoothed out my hair. "I do not sound like your father when I call you Andrew, do I?"

"No, Sir...you don't say it the same way at all...but..."

"Shh. It is a good name. You ought not despise it. Now, then, I have my text book. If, as I hope, you make a speedy recovery, we have not much time for our studies."

"Our studies, Sir?" I do not understand.

"Yes, Doctor Brandon!" He teased. "You have learned much from experience on ship board, and you have been diligent in looking up things you might encounter in the future. But there are some things you have not prepared for, and you shall need to know them, young man!"

I sat up with his assistance, and, dumbfounded, began to study the passage he laid before me...

 

***

I rested my hand on the boy's head. He was still burning up, and his sleep was pained. Johnson would, every fifteen minutes or so, sponge him off and get some water down his parched lips, and his face would relax for a few moments. Sometimes, the fever would be replaced by a bout of chills, and he would shiver uncontrollably. The blankets came out, dragged up to his chin, and Johnson and I together would try to sooth him. Then the fever was back, and he struggled against us and the covers.

I looked pleadingly at Johnson, who could do no more than shake his head.

"It's no disease I've ever seen before, Sir. Sometimes these things come and go quickly, as if they've never happened."

And sometimes they don't, I added in my head.

I have no knowledge of medicine myself, only that which I have seen in my years at sea as a relatively healthy man. But I was wracked with the futility of being unable to do anything.

"Johnson, I must ask, would it help if you bled him?"

He sat down next to me with a sigh. "I could try, Sir. But I don't like to. For one thing, I haven't seen that it actually helps much...like I said, people get better or die of these things whether or not they've been bled. And Sir..." He gestured at Drew. "HE doesn't do it, Sir. I studied medicine
formally, which he hasn't, and bleeding is an acceptable practice, but he looks askance at it. Says it never made sense to him that we would purposely do to someone what we spend so much time trying to stop in surgery."

I smiled. "I never quite thought of it that way." But of course, bleeding was a common problem in battle surgery, and a BAD thing.

Johnson shook his head sadly. "Neither had I. But that's the thing about Drew... maybe because he's never had formal training. He CAN think of these things. From new angles, sort of. And he can try it out, here. And damme, Sir, if he isn't usually right."

We settled into silence, watching our young protégé fight a battle we cannot help him with.

As dawn approached, his fitfulness seemed better; he was still feverish, but seemed not as hot. Johnson was worn out, asleep in a wooden chair, and every muscle in my shoulders was stiff and painful. Too painful for me to turn at Horatio's approach, though I recognized his footsteps.

"Sir, Mr. Bowles compliments, and he is ready to get under weigh at your orders."

I inhaled deeply and then let it out with a sigh, trying to exhale the weariness with the air. Horatio put his hand on my shoulder, an unusual gesture, but not unwelcome this morning. "Sir, would you like me to handle it?"

I shook my head and rose reluctantly. "I cannot abandon my duties, Mr. Hornblower. But your assistance would be welcome." I looked over at Johnson, who probably needed relieving, but by whom? We have no loblolly boy.

I turned slowly, thinking to get one of the men to come down and watch Drew's temperature, only to almost walk smack in to a tentative Mr. Anderson.

"Mr. Anderson. I trust you have a reason to be in sick berth, Sir?" I said, sternly.

"I thought, Sir, I might be able to help." He blinked up at me imploringly.

"You are not on duty?"

"No, Sir."

I looked over at Johnson. We could not afford to lose him to illness as well. "Very good. Every half hour you must try to cool Mr. Brandon off, and try to get him to swallow some water. Do not wake Johnson unless you have to."

"Yes, Sir."

And with one last reluctant look at a very sick young man, I returned to my duties.

***
Mr. Cousins was the officer of the watch, and was trying very hard to look like he didn't wish himself bellow decks. I gave Mr. Bowles our course in a terse voice, and watched as Indefatigable came to life.

"That will put us right in the storms Mr. Kennedy has come from, Sir." Horatio said.

"I am aware of that, Mr. Hornblower." I said evenly. "Mr. Cousins, signal our squadron with the coordinates, if you will."

"Aye, aye, Sir." I watched with appreciation the smooth, sure way he handled himself, despite his worries. Bracegirdle was right; he'd become a fine young officer. Well, I would be having a conversation with him about that soon, though with Mr. Brandon sick it might not be as soon as I had planned. My orders regarding his requested promotion were not quite what I expected, and I let a wry smile creep over my face in remembrance of them.

"All ships acknowledge, Sir." He turned back to me. "Should we warn them about the weather, Sir?"

I considered. "Yes, Mr. Cousins, let them know we have had reports of storms in that area and they should be prepared." What Kennedy had described had been worse than storms, but I did not wish to set off a panic.

I turned to Horatio. "Prepare Clarke for the eventuality of weather forcing us to close down our stoves. We should have enough cold food available to us."

"Aye, Aye, Sir."

Slowly, and then more quickly as we hit the sea breezes, Gibraltar faded into the background. I was not sorry to see it go; Gibraltar meant admirals and bureaucracy and frustration; life at sea was infinitely more agreeable. Usually.

The early morning turned into the late morning; the clouds becoming thicker overhead as we left the relatively hospitable area around Gibraltar.

"Mr. Bowles, prepare to send hands to lunch."

"Aye, Aye, Sir."

At that second, Mr. Anderson turned up above decks. For a moment I felt my heart in my throat.

The boy smiled at me. "Mr. Johnson's compliments, Sir, and Mr. Brandon's fever has broken. He's still sleeping, but much more comfortably."

An audible sigh came from Cousins next to me, and I hid my own relief as best I could. "Thank you, Mr. Anderson. Now you had best get yourself some lunch, while we are still able to have the fires lit."

"Aye, Aye, Sir."

There was a rather awkward silence above decks, for Mr. Kennedy had just come up to take the watch, Mr. Hornblower had been discussing our course with Bracegirdle, and Mr. Cousins looked as though he'd like to break into a run to sick berth. I cleared my throat.

"Mr. Cousins?"

"Yes, Sir?" He said, struggling to hide the resignation at being assigned a task at just this moment.

"Perhaps you would do me the favor of checking with Johnson as to the status of his supplies?"

His face lit up. "Of course, Sir."

"Take your time, now. I expect a thorough report."

"Naturally, Sir." And he was off like a shot.

"Mr. Kennedy, when your watch is over, perhaps you could do the same for me. Mr. Cousins is still young and could perhaps use a back up."

Horatio and Bracegirdle were still looking at me. "Naturally, Gentlemen, should you find yourselves near the sick berth, it would do no harm to inquire as to Mr. Johnson's needs."

Horatio, blast him, would not let me off the hook so easy. "And you, Sir?"

I arched my eyebrows. "This is my ship, Mr. Hornblower. I will go wherever I damned well please!"

And I turned on my heal and suited my action to the words!

***
September 19th

Opening my eyes, I swallowed and blinked, trying to adjust to the dim light in Hepplewhite's quarters. Glancing around, I moved my head on my pillow gently. There's a strange motion; and at first I am afraid it is in my head. Then, with a particularly violent roll, I realize it is the ship, which makes me feel strangely better. I turned my head to the left, and saw the Captain, half asleep, sitting next to me; there is a cup of water beside him; I am parched. Quietly I move my arm out for it, but I am strangely weak.

With a jolt, the Captain started awake, seeing my arm suspended mid-air. Without a word he moved it back beside me, and then took the cup; helping me raise my head he held the water to my lips; it was warm, which was to be expected, but it was also wet; and I felt relief as it slid down my throat. I must have been very sick, because even the minimal motion has exhausted me, but I looked up at the Captain and managed a smile.

"Thank you."

He smiled in return. "Welcome back, Mr. Brandon. You gave us a bad scare."

I sank backward into the bed, even as he gathered the blankets up more tightly around me. "Sorry." I sighed, glad for the comfort. "How...long..."

"Only two days, although it has seemed much longer to us, I can assure you." His eyes twinkled at me. "Essentially I have had to add an extra watch to the shift; one above decks, and one here."

I could not do more than smile back, but I was grateful. Grateful to be here, to be awake, to be safe, to be with my friends.

"Are you hungry, Mr. Brandon? The fires are out, but I can round you up some biscuit at least."

Even as he said it, I was famished, even for biscuit. I nodded, then managed to say, "Storm?"

He nodded ruefully, as he got up and gave instructions to one of the powder boys...apparently my new loblolly boy. Returning to me, he sank down again on the chair. "We return to the same storms Mr. Kennedy recently left...he made it back late the night you were stricken."

I sighed in relief, glad to know he was safe.

"He has been down here often, as has Mr. Cousins and Lieutenant Bracegirdle, and Mr. Anderson. Mr. Hornblower was here at first, but since these storms have started..." He shrugged.

Seasick...Horatio is seasick...I tried to sit-up, to go after my notes...

"Whoa, young man...where do you think you are going?" His hands were firm on my shoulders; clearly, I was not going anywhere, and I tiredly settled back down.

"In my textbook, Sir...I have a recipe...for a tea that I think will help Mr. Hornblower's stomach."

He looked at me, his head tilted somewhat to the side. "We have no fires lit, Mr. Brandon."

"It can be steeped cold; just let it sit longer. It might ease his symptoms."

"I will tell Johnson to look into it for you." He held the water up and I drank again. "You again put the needs of the men over your own."

My speech seemed to be deserting me, and I could only half smile in reply.

He cleared his throat awkwardly. "About the other day...Lieutenant Bracegirdle and I...well, we both of us made some errors in judgement. Jenkins was not your responsibility, and we know you were not being malicious towards Anderson. It was just..."

He paused awkwardly, and I put him out of his misery. "...bad timing. I understand, Sir."

He nodded and then turned in relief as a dry biscuit came out of nowhere. "Ah, thank you, young man."

"Yessir." The new boy piped up, then disappeared back into sick berth.

I let the Captain help me up and I began the long process of restoring my strength. How can even lifting food to my mouth make me feel so weak? And the biscuit was so dry...Captain Pellew kept the water flowing, though, and it eventually all made its way down.

Johnson looked in over Pellew's shoulders. "Ah, I heard somebody was awake..."

Pellew raised an eyebrow.

"Not for long I think, Mr. Johnson."

It was true that I felt sleep coming back over me, but I struggled to stay awake, to listen to them both.

"The food stayed down, Sir?"

"It seems so. And he's thirsty as all hell."

"Good. A good sign. He'll be back to normal in a week, I'd say."

"Don't rush it. Let him take all the time he needs to get better. The way this weather is, I doubt we will be needing his services for battle wounds any time soon."

"Let's thank God for small favors then, Sir."

But I was fading away, thinking about the Captain, who never apologized to anyone, almost doing so to me. And remembering, in that strange point before dreams, of Dr. Hornblower, and the unusual lesson he set for me. I do not understand it at all. But I will trust him.

And I slipped into the warmth of darkness.
***
September 26th

Finally, a week after waking up after my feverish illness, Johnson has seen fit to permit me a few hours above decks.

We are having a good day for us, weather wise, which means that the rain has abated for the time being. The winds and swells are still fierce, which is why Johnson has not let me outside until he was certain that I was strong enough to stand it. And even still, Reg is by my side, not actually holding me up, but bound and determined to grab me if I were to prove too unsteady on my feet.

However, I can certify that in this weather, the amount of time I have been belowdecks has been almost enough to bring my nausea back. None of the men ever seem to be able to dry off; we are all inward bound as much as possible, the food is one step shy of uneatable. The general atmosphere consisted of wet wool, stale smells, bad food, and old ale. And that was being kind.

I grabbed hold of the ropes firmly, and just breathed deeply.

Reg nodded. "Color's better already, Drew. It's pretty foul downstairs."

"The wind feels good." I turned my face into it.

"Keep an eye on him, Mr. Cousins. He goes over on my watch and I'll be hanging from the yard-arm."

"Yes, Sir, Lieutenant Bracegirdle."

I leaned backward, and focussed on the horizon...one of the tricks I have been teaching Horatio, that some have found to combat motion sickness. Although I have never been prone to it, eight days of rolling like a billiard ball on a hillside can make anyone weary.

The fog was heavy about us. I could barely make out a glimpse of Dunbarton to the east of us; just north'ard of her was Apollo. Their sails seemed to come in and out of focus like a bad dream.

"Why are we here, Reg?"

"We're looking for some ship called El Muerte."

"We're looking for DEATH? That's pretty thick even for the admirals."

"I have a feeling none of them speak Spanish."

Bracegirdle has been continually on edge this journey; Pellew says his wife is expecting within months and has been having a bad time of it. All the more reason I convince myself that parenthood is NOT for me; I shall make a career as a Navy doctor and it would be paramountly unfair for a wife or child to be left on shore. Especially a child. In any event, it is fortunate that Bracegirdle's bark is decidedly worse than his bite, for though he is barking enough for four captains, he has not bitten. Yet.

"Blast it, Thomas! What the hell is wrong NOW?"

"Number four gun, Sir...can't tell meself, Sir."

"Where the devil is Mr. Kennedy?"

Reg spoke up quickly. "It was his watch last, Sir. I believe he's retired."

Bracegirdle's mouth worked furiously, but I knew that he would not want to disturb Mr. Kennedy. Horatio has only just returned to the rotation one day, and Anderson and Holloway both still are having the devil of a time of it. The man looked me over. "Mr. Brandon, are you steady, Sir?"

"Yes, Sir." As long as I don't move.

"Then Mr. Cousins, would you be so good as to check with Mr. Thomas and see what on earth is wrong with his gun."

The wind was picking up, and Reg looked at me, and looked over at the pitching ship.

"You want to go bellow, Drew?"

No, I do not want to go bellow. I need more than five minutes of air to clear out that putrid smell from my memory! "I am FINE, Reg."

He looked around, and before I knew what was happening, he pushed me up against the foremast.

"What the hell..." I said.

But before I finished, he had lashed me there tightly.

"Not taking any chances with you, friend."

"For God's sake, Reg, you have me trussed up like a Christmas goose..."

He grinned. "Be glad the fire's are out, or Cook might try and roast you. Back in a flash."

And he darted off, leaving me angry as hell and quickly thinking of the words or twelve I'd say to him when he untied me. I struggled unsuccessfully against the ropes. He had not tied me so tight, but tight enough in my still weakened state; I was going nowhere. And as realization set in, I leaned backward, conserving my energy for what I might do to him when he lets me go.

The commotion took place behind me, and I looked forward, like a living masthead, scanning my field of view as I did so.. Dunbarton and Apollo to my left; Catherine and Victory to my right. None of them visible for more than a second, coming in and out of my sight with whispers, in parting mists. A glimpse of a sail or a lamp here; a ship's bell ringing lonely in the distance.

I sighed, just enjoying the air, feeling strength start returning to me with the bracing wind, and I caught sight-just a whisper--of another sail dead ahead, some distance off. Another sail.

I frowned. But...which ship?

Dunbarton, Apollo to the left; Catherine and Victory to the right. Sophia, not returned to our run, but patrolling the Med now. Georgina, our new sloop, not yet fully refitted, and being worked on in Gibraltar and awaiting her new Commander, Bracegirdle, round about December.

And again, a whisper of a sail...dead ahead.

I inhaled sharply. "SHIP DEAD AHEAD! DEAD AHEAD AND COMING TOWARDS US!" I poured every ounce of my energy into that scream.

For a second it seemed nobody heard me. Then Reg and Bracegirdle came thundering towards me, Bracegirdle slipping and Reg steadying him as the ship rocked. Bracegirdle pulled the glass out.

"I don't see...Damn! There she is!"

He turned to Reg. "Get Mr. Brandon bellow decks, and notify the Captain...immediately!"

"Aye, Aye, Sir." Reg was, even as he spoke, undoing my ties and pulling me away.

"Could you see colors, Drew."

"No. But I should have. Where colors ought to have been...nothing. No flag at all."

He shook his head as I nearly tumbled down the steps, and he propped me up with a firm grasp on my cape. "Alert Johnson. I feel we may have found what we were looking for."

I gulped. "I pray not." I thought, remembering my untimely jests earlier.

But he left me, leaning heavily against the door to Hepplewhite's quarters, fearing the worst.

***

I waited in Hepplewhite's quarters, the door open, as I heard the men rush forth to their duties. The air had not improved in my time above decks, and it seemed all the fowler in my mood. First, Reg had to go and tie me like a damned prisoner to the mast, and then he dragged me with so little ceremony back to sick berth. What really irked me, of course, was the fact that I had NEEDED his assistance; even the minimal exertion of my trip above decks had taxed my limbs.

And now, we are in a situation where we might have casualties, and I will not be able to help.

I could hear Johnson next door, with our new loblolly boy, a chap named Lyman. Preparing the berth hurriedly, cleaning tools, checking supplies, and then setting in to wait for the undoubted injuries. I went through the checklist in my head even as I heard them getting ready, and forced myself to keep my mouth shut as I just sat there.

My tension released as I heard the first gun, distant but rumbling. Not us, and probably not one of ours. So it WAS an enemy ship I had spotted, and I let myself feel just a bit self-satisfied, for chances are if I had not been above decks we should NOT have spotted it.

I counted the gun-fire, but relaxed, for I knew our men and our ship, and I did not fear for my life here. It grew more rapid, and I could feel our direction change, though waves seemed to fight us. Suddenly, one of our own guns went off, and I presumed we were coming to the aid of one of our squadron. More distant rumbling, and our guns went off again, a broadside, this time; the ship shook and loose dust came down from the rafters.

The firing slowed, and then there was another boom, a single gun, and the ship shook, but in a different way; I could hear splintering, I could hear screams. Our men. A hit. And the tension returned, even as we answered fire, and even as the thunder of men came down stairs, with an agony of cries, and I could not bear it; I sprang forward.

Four men, with splinter wounds, none life threatening. I headed to the first, Thompson, and leaning against the wall, I began to examine him.

"Mr. Brandon? Ye be well enough to help?"

"I will do what I can." I muttered, though the room was spinning.

"Mr. Brandon!" Johnson exclaimed. "It is only four men, and none serious. I thank you for your assistance, but I must ask that you return where you belong!"

I forced my head up and tried to act well. "I AM where I belong."

I could see his face get purple, but I turned back to Thompson and started to clean the wound.

Suddenly something grabbed me from behind. "What the..." I cried out. Johnson lifted me by the armpits, and with one smooth motion swung me over his shoulder like a bleeding sack of flour. "Put me down! I have to HELP!"

"You have..." He puffed. "...to get better, and you will not do that exerting yourself!"

I struggled in vain, getting in just one good kick at him before he dumped me down on Hepplewhite's bed. Damn him! "You are NOT my superior, Sir!" I snapped.

"Be grateful for that; I do not think Mr. Hornblower would have taken kindly to that kick! Now stay put and KEEP OUT OF MY WAY!" He slammed the door shut behind him, and I rose but found myself collapsing to the floor. I pounded it in frustration, then crawled to the door. But I knew it was futile; the blasted door sticks, and I was left to huddle next to it as I heard more men brought down, until, my energy spent, I felt myself give in and sleep.

***

There was a shot of light and suddenly I felt myself falling forward, just catching myself before my face hit the deck. As I blinked awake, trying to remember, I heard a tired sigh from the dim world above me.

"Couldn't even stay in the damn bed, could you?" And Johnson leaned down and lifted me more gently this time, back to the cot.

"Is it over?" I asked. Stupid question; there was no more fire.

"It is, Mr. Brandon. Seven casualties total, before you ask, none worse than splinters and I managed not to kill any of them."

I winced. "I didn't think you would...it's just..."

"I know. I know." He sponged off my head. "But Drew, you know yourself you are not ready to return to active duty." He brought the blankets up to my chin and forcibly tucked them around me, almost as though I was encased in them. "Can you move?"

"Not easily." I grumbled, ashamed for my action and still frustrated by how damn helpless I was. "I do not like feeling helpless. I have felt that way too often in my life."

"Nobody likes feeling helpless. All the time I was fighting that fever last year, do you think I liked that? Liked the fact that I had abandoned my post to someone not even sixteen, knowing I left you with only a vicious drunk for assistance? But I had to give in to my body, Drew, or I would be dead, and Hepplewhite would probably still be here. I don't think any of us want that!" Another blanket came out, and I felt like a mummy. "Are you certain you can't move?"

"Why do you keep asking me that?"

He took a deep breath. "Because. Mr. Kennedy is one of the men injured."

Hell! I struggled fiercely, but Johnson knew what he was doing; I was going nowhere. Finally, with a gasp, I stopped, tears of frustration in my eyes. "Please! He is to marry my sister! I must make certain he is alright!"

"Can you not trust me?" He asked, his hand resting on my chest. I closed my eyes.

"Alright. Just please...tell me how hurt."

"Splinter. In his right bicep. It WAS pretty jagged and did bleed a bit, but I cleaned his wound thoroughly, made absolutely certain there was not a bit of wood or fabric left behind, and stitched it up. He refused laudanum, by the way."

I sighed deeply. "He would. It gives him nightmares. God, those stitches must have hurt like hell."

"Man didn't even scream, Drew. He is, however, sleeping comfortably now, and I will not have him disturbed by even your well-meaning observation. So he will recover uneventfully, and have a fine scar for your sister to minister to on his return."

I smiled in spite of my worries. "And don't think I won't hear it for letting him get hurt, either!"

He patted my shoulder kindly, and I felt all the worse for my stupid tantrum earlier, and then remembered...I KICKED HIM! He could have me in irons for that! What the hell was I thinking?

"Johnson...I'm sorry. I made a sad spectacle of myself, and I am ashamed."

He nodded at me. "We'll call it even, then, for my outburst about Jenkins."

"Yes, but you didn't mean it..."

"Whereas you most certainly intended me harm!" He raised his eyebrows. "Still, I turn you over to the Captain, he has you court-marshaled, you get tossed off the ship and I end up with twice the work load. No, thank you, I think it is best we keep this to ourselves, eh?" He smiled warmly, and I felt profound gratitude towards him. "I am certain that the men have no wish to get you into trouble."

I sighed. Captain Pellew will find out; somehow he always does. But I said nothing to Johnson at this moment. I merely nodded and drifted off again, admitting my tiredness for the first time.

***
October 10

An entry from the journal of Drew Brandon...

"The days have been long and tedious, almost unending bouts of rain and wind, with waves pitching us about. Four times we have nearly encountered this mysterious ship, El Muerte, and each time one of our ships suffered damage while the pirate disappeared into the mists. I can tell the Captain's patience is wearing thin, his mouth is taut and he speaks seldom; not once in this fortnight has he called us in for a game of whist.

I have been holding my breath, waiting for him, in that mysterious way of his, to learn of my uncalled for tantrum in sick berth, though I know Johnson would not tell him. Indeed, I have contemplated telling him myself, and pleading for mercy, but Johnson says if I do anything so foolish HE will throw me overboard before the Captain has a chance to. I guess he is right; the men must truly care for me to have held the secret so closely, and Reg (the only man I have told) has repeatedly said that as I have made my own amends to Johnson, I am blowing this out of proportion. Perhaps he is right.

The truth is, it is just this week that I have felt fully recovered from my mystery illness, which has given me a chance to experiment with various doses of brews for Horatio. We have worked up a system of steeped teas of ginger and cardamom with honey that seem to suit his stomach best, and he looks more himself.

Normally, of course, by now he would have stabilized himself in rough weather, but this weather transcends 'rough'. It is unpredictable; the seas rough in a north and south motion one day and an east-west one the next; and calmer on the third followed by perhaps a simply wild day the fourth. In other words, every day is a new adventure to the ship and her men, and I think I can safely say each of us are bone-tired and dreaming of dry land..."

"Drew?"

I looked up from my entry to see a beaming Mr. Kennedy in the doorway. He is all smiles lately; even if I will not be able to attend the wedding, I am glad indeed that Archie has found such happiness with my sister.

"Yes, Mr. Kennedy?"

He arched his eyebrows at me, but I have learned well from that dressing-down Pellew gave me about how one addresses a superior officer, when there is even the slightest chance of being overheard. I had told Archie about how I had informed Horatio (and indeed the entire ship) of his promotion; he had found it endlessly funny. He understands my reasoning, but the rascal is inclined to try to entice me to slip and call him by his first name.

"Well, MR. BRANDON, I do believe you should take a stroll above decks. There is a most unusual occurrence and I am deferring to your superior intellect to tell me what exactly the situation is, and how we should treat it."

"Me? Where is Mr. Hornblower?" I asked, for I was the last so- called superior intellect to be spoken to about matters above decks!

"Oh, Horatio is zonked out from whatever medication it is you've given him; that and the fact that he just got off watch in beastly weather, and your good friend Mr. Cousins is on the watch now."

"If Reg is on the watch, I am certain he can identify your situation far better than I can!"

Archie's eyes lit up at my expression. "Oh, I am certain that REG can, but he and I should like a concurring opinion, DREW."

I blushed. Damn, he has caught me out in informality. "Mr. Cousins does not usually require my assistance in ship matters any more than I would require his for medical ones, MR. KENNEDY."

"Oh, hell, man, just follow me above decks."

With a slight shrug, I closed my journal and headed out behind him.

My mouth gaped at what I saw as my head cleared the decking. Dumbfounded and thrilled, I headed to the quarterdeck, turning 360 degrees as I did so.

"Damme! Sunlight!" I gasped.

Reg bit back a grin. "I told you I felt that was what it was, Mr. Kennedy, but indeed it has been so long I was not certain."

"Yes, well, always ask a learned man such matters." Archie quipped.

To hell with all of them! I took a deep breath and turned my face to the sky, which was clear and blue. The air was crisp. There was still a wind, and the seas were still choppy, but there seemed no question, the weather has broken. "Has anybody told the Captain?" I asked, finally, not wanting to return bellow decks.

Reg, of course, was on duty and could not leave yet. Archie shook his head. "No, Mr. Brandon. Perhaps you would do the honor." They both looked at me imploringly, and I rolled my eyes at them. The feeling, lately, is that I am living a charmed life where Captain Pellew is concerned, because I am the only officer he has not chewed out since this voyage began. Of course, that may
be because he did a pretty thorough job of chewing me out when we were still in Gibraltar!

"God hates a coward, Gentlemen." I teased, as I made my way off the deck.

Reg shook his head. "It is not cowardice, Mr. Brandon. A prudent officer always sends the right man for the job."

I chuckled and then made my way towards Pellew's cabin, thinking that we might even be able to have the fires lit today.

Before I could even knock, however, he startled me. "Enter, Mr. Brandon."

Somewhat timidly, I stuck my head in. "Mr. Cousins' and Mr. Kennedy's compliments, Sir, and..." My voice trailed off, because of course the sunlight was streaming brightly into his quarters, fairly dancing off the polished wood of his desk!

He did not look up. "Mr. Brandon, I do not believe that was a very clear report. Surely you know better than that." He intoned evenly.

With a gulp, I entered fully. "I beg your pardon, Sir. Mr. Cousins and Mr. Kennedy's compliments, and they wished me to notify you that the weather has broken."

"Indeed." He looked up at me, his face full in a sunbeam. "Are we certain?" He asked dryly.

"Yes, Sir, it does seem pretty certain." I said, blushing.

"Well, then, I believe we might have the fires lit, Mr. Brandon. Which means I might be able to have a decent meal this evening. Would you concur, as a 'learned' man?"

I choked back my gasp. Was he really able to read minds, or was that a lucky tweak? "I should say the fires could be lit safely, Sir."

"Well then, you and Mr. Cousins must join me for dinner this evening."

"Of course, Sir, I'd be honored..." I paused. "Mr. Cousins and I alone?"

"I do believe that is what I said, Mr. Brandon."

"Of course, Sir..."

"And usually I do mean what I say." His eyes betrayed no hint of how serious he was, which of course meant nothing.

"Of course you, do, Sir, and I will let Mr. Cousins know of the honor, Sir." I answered smoothly.

His mouth twitched, finally, just enough for me to understand his mood. "Glad to see you are back to normal, Mr. Brandon. I have had enough of the feint of heart around here lately." He coughed. "I don't wish either of you to lose your appetites, so be certain to tell Mr. Cousins that this is not a BAD thing. In fact, I should have told you weeks ago, but your illness and then bad weather got in the way. Try not to make yourself too insane with worry before dinner."

I took a gamble, deciding his mood had broken with the weather, and risked returning the jest. "But sir, I would be loath to disappoint you by NOT torturing myself with wonder."

And he outright chuckled. "Then wonder if you will, young man!" He turned his face to the windows. "Perhaps that ship shall show its face now, without cover of weather. I should like very much to see how well he can sail around us THEN! Ha!"

I shook my head. "El Muerte will not dare, Sir. She knows she is out of her league."

He looked at me with an amused expression. "You know what they say, Mr. Brandon. God hates a coward!"

And dumbfounded, I returned slowly to quarterdeck, wondering how in the HELL he does that!

***
We arrived promptly, of course...neither of us being masochists enough to wish to endure the torture of his disapproval from the start! Reg gave me one whimsical look before we entered, and then made a point of holding the door open so I could enter first. Such a friend! I looked around, hoping he had in fact decided to invite at least ONE other officer, but no, indeed, it was just the three of us, as promised.

The Captain, as he does, enjoyed toying with us both from the beginning. Although I must say, after nearly two weeks straight of cold rations, we were almost too interested in the excellent chicken dinner to fret about why he would wish us there. Almost.

"Mr. Brandon, I am afraid we are clear out of non-alcoholic beverages. Would you prefer a glass of claret to water?"

I hesitated. I have grown confident enough of myself to believe I will not become a drunkard like my father. However, I really do not like the taste of it! But water is currently NOT a much better choice; the stuff we are uncasking now is almost at the point of being declared a vegetable. "A half a glass, perhaps."

He smiled at me with understanding as he poured. Reg himself is partial to the Captain's claret, which I understand is considered to be a fine vintage, although of course I have never seen Reg even approach a state of inebriation. It is probably just as well I do not opt to pursue life as a captain; I have a feeling that the ability to hoist a few glasses of wine and port at the admiral's table is not an unimportant skill.

We ate slowly, savoring every bite, and at the same time waiting for the bomb to drop. Pellew, naturally, took his time with us.

"Well, Mr. Cousins, have you been able to keep your chess skills up?"

"I am afraid not, Sir. Chess is not a game easily played on a rolling ship."

"Too true, I am afraid. You are not overly partial to whist, as is Mr. Brandon. When you become a captain, you will have to find some other form of entertainment to torture your midshipmen with."

Reg blushed faintly, and hardly knew how to answer, finally stammering out, "It has not been torture, Sir."

"Hm, I shall have to try harder then, eh, Mr. Brandon?"

"I could hardly say, Sir, as I have no objection to whist myself, as you are well aware."

"No, and no wonder. You shall soon be founding your own estate out of my pocket!"

I smiled back at him, for it is true that I have picked up a fair amount of pocket change these past weeks. "I wish I could claim it skill, Sir. It has been my fortune to be at the whist table many times when Senior Officers found themselves distracted by more serious issues than I generally ever encounter." Not to badly done, I must say!

His face lit up at the statement, which seemed odd. "Ah, so you feel perhaps that if I increased the amount of responsibility which you have you might be more inclined to drop a hand here and there?"

Oh, my, that is not what I meant to indicate at all! And I had a sudden flash of what it had been like, that day when everyone seemed to be coming after me, when nothing I did was right. MORE responsibility? God help me!

Reg tried to bail me out. "Mr. Brandon is being modest, I think, Sir, both in his skill as a whist player and in the responsibility he already caries."

"Indeed, Mr. Cousins? Perhaps that is true." I felt my pulse slowly return to normal, as the Captain now addressed Mr. Cousins. "And what of you? I certainly am aware of your skill as a marksman and as a linguist. Are you prepared for greater challenges?"

Reg met his eyes with confidence and enthusiasm, perhaps hoping he knew where this conversation was leading. "Sir, I am prepared to do whatever you request of me."

Pellew searched his face. "Indeed, Mr. Cousins? Suppose I should ask you to lead an invasion of France?"

Impressing me mightily, Reg did not even flinch. "I do not believe, Sir, you would ever ask of me something which I was not capable of. Therefore, if you asked me to invade France, I would do my best to be successful."

Hell, the way he said that, *I* almost believed he could take the country over himself.

Pellew sat back, and then refilled his wine glass, following suit by pouring another splash in mine. "Then gentlemen, let us propose a toast." He raised his glass. "To Acting Lieutenant Reginald Cousins."

I grinned, wishing I would be so informal to say what I really wished to. "To Acting Lieutenant Cousins." I raised my glass to Pellew, while Reg looked more than a bit flustered. I knew how happy this made him; all he wanted was to follow in Mr. Hornblower's shoes, and the Captain's shoes, and this was the first step. I could have cried for him, I was so pleased.

He accepted our congratulations with joy tempered by composure. I knew later, when we were in our berth, he would be considerably more vocal! Only, of course, he would not be in the berth any more, not for longer than it took him to pack his sea-chest...I will miss that. But not enough to wish to see him held back.

"The midshipman's berth will not be the same without you, Mr. Cousins." I added, after I shook his hand.

He looked startled for a moment, then realized that he would be moving. "You must act as the senior midshipman now, Mr. Brandon, and try to keep tabs on the younger men."

I suppose that is what the Captain meant by insinuating that I should have more responsibility as well. Certainly I have no objection to keeping order in the mess, although at this moment there are only four of us. No doubt we shall receive more midshipmen when next in Gibraltar.

"Ah, well, men..." Captain Pellew twisted his neck slightly. "That, I am afraid, is an inadequate plan." He cleared his throat. "For you see, Mr. Cousins, you must share your new berth with Acting Lieutenant Andrew Brandon."

Huh?

I might have noted how shocked...pleased, but shocked...Reg was, if I could have taken my eyes off of Pellew. The man looked utterly inscrutable, and gave no hint of what prompted this extraordinary development. I do not want to be a Lieutenant, I do not want to be a commander, I do not want to be a Captain. I want to be a doctor...a damned good one, the best ever to serve in the Navy, in fact. If I have ever entertained lofty goals it has been an occasional thought of someday being in a teaching position, and being able to share my practical knowledge with other doctors of open minds. Nowhere in that goal was a step to Acting Lieutenant necessary!

"Sir, I must protest..." I took a deep breath. "I am not unappreciative of the gesture, but I am nobody who should be leading a quarterdeck in an emergency!"

"No, Mr. Brandon? I might point out that you handled just such a task quite well during our debacle at Quiberon."

"I fired some guns, Sir. A task any decent midshipman ought to be able to handle. It does not compare with the responsibilities of a Lieutenant."

"Mr. Cousins, how is Mr. Brandon during your exercises with Mr. Hornblower? Can he handle the mathematical requirements? Does he answer the navigational questions acceptably?"

Reg had no clue how answer this one, of course. He was loyal, but he was honest; he probably enjoyed the thought of our being promoted together, but at the same time knew this was the last thing I wanted. "He is always full prepared, Sir, and does his lessons well, but more often he is working on medical problems."

"That, it would seem to me, would be all that would be needed for an Acting Lieutenant."

I tried one more feeble protest. "Sir, I cannot abandon my medical duties!"

With shock, Captain Pellew turned back to me. "Of course not, Mr. Brandon. You will continue performing in the capacity you always have. There is not likely to be an exam for a good while. It might serve you well to brush up on procedures when you have free time, but otherwise, things will go on as previously. It is only that you shall have a new title."

He rose, and we followed suit. "Gentlemen, you may spend this last night in the Midshipmen's berth with your mates. Tomorrow, you will join the officers. Good evening."

Reg and I started to follow out, but I balked in the doorway. "You go ahead, Reg. I will follow shortly." I whispered to him.

He looked at me expressively. "Mind your tongue, Drew!" But he did as I asked, and I turned on my heel and went to confront Pellew.

***

He looked up on seeing me close the door behind me. His face was tired now, but his eyes were kind, and I knew this was one of those instances where I would be able to speak with him honestly.

"You have further comment to make, Mr. Brandon?"

I sighed. "I believe you expected I would, Sir."

He nodded, as he sat back in his chair, rolling port around his glass. "Yes, I suppose I did." He motioned to the chair. "Sit and make it then."

Following his suggestion, I did just that. "Sir, I do not know for what reason you decided to do this. I have never, in all of my time here, known you to do anything that was not in the best interest of your ship. But Sir, it is blatantly NOT in the ship's best interest to have me serving as a lieutenant, Acting or otherwise!"

He looked at me keenly. "Perhaps I have a better appreciation of your talents than you do, Mr. Brandon."

Taking a deep breath, I plunged on. "I know my strengths and my weaknesses, Sir. If you could, somehow, promote me officially to ship's Doctor, with the papers to prove it and despite my father, I would leap at the offer. I am a good Doctor now, even if not credentialed. I believe that some day I can be a great Doctor, just as I believe that Mr. Hornblower, or Mr. Kennedy, or Mr. Cousins, can someday be great Captains. But I am not of their ilk, Sir. And never will be." I shook my head. "We do not really need a fourth Lieutenant...fifth, in fact, until Mr. Bracegirdle leaves us. So I can only conclude that you did this because you thought I would feel bad because Mr. Cousins was promoted ahead of me. I can assure you, I would not. He deserves every bit of this, and I deserve it not at all."

I watched him, waiting to see if he became angry or brittle at my statements. He stretched his hand out before him, as if absorbed in the shape of his fingers, then drummed them slowly on the table, giving himself time to choose his words. I am a fool, I suppose, for attempting to refuse such a gift, but I know, as every man on this ship will know, that this was a gift without merit, and I did not like that one bit.

Finally, he ran one finger over the rim of his glass. "From your statements, I conclude that you believe Mr. Cousins will be an excellent Lieutenant."

"Yes, Sir!" I said warmly. "I know of no man more able. He reminds me much of Mr. Hornblower."

"Sometimes, maybe." He admitted. "In fact, in battle I often feel that way about him; he has learned to temper the occasional over-quickness which sometimes alarmed me. In some ways, in fact, he is MORE fitted to being an officer than Mr. Hornblower was at first; his temperament is more prudent. YOU, in fact, remind me of Horatio more that way." He met my eye, and I knew the conversation had become very personal.

"Drew, you are still young. You believe that every man is promoted on his worth alone. The sad truth is, much in this Navy depends on champions and patrons, though not as much as is the case in the Army, thank God. Mr. Cousins has no champions, other than his Captain and the officers who work with him and those men he serves with every day. That ought to be enough. Unfortunately, it was not."

I sat back, brow furrowed in confusion. "What do you mean, Sir?"

"Drew, I never intended to have you made Acting Lieutenant. For all of the reasons you pointed out and more. I knew you didn't want it, and I knew it was not what the ship needed, either. But when I went to Parker to request making Cousins Acting Lieutenant..." Pellew sighed, leaning forward and putting his head in his hands. "Admiral Hood was there also. You know, I believe, how well we get along!"

"Oh." I was still confused, but suddenly I understood exactly why Pellew had been in such an abysmal mood on his return to the Indefatigable!

"Parker, had he been there alone, would have trusted my judgement and let me do as I wished. Hood, however, found it necessary to remind me that among my Midshipman I had the son of a Lord. A Lord who might wield influence on the behalf of the navy, a Lord who would be too thrilled to have that son promoted Acting Lieutenant." He looked up at me. "Hood flat out told me that if anyone were to be promoted to Acting Lieutenant, it would be you."

My mouth hung open, and then I shut it helplessly, now at a complete loss for words. Pellew nodded, seeing I was finally catching his drift.

"What could I do? I could not tell him in what capacity you really serve. So I accepted it, and then went on to plead Mr. Cousins' case with Parker once Hood left. He gave in, although he thought four was a bit too many Lieutenants, but he is so full of my praise at the moment that I think if I had begged for Matthew's commission, he'd have given it to me!"

"I understand your situation, Sir." I said, softly. "I am sorry that my father has once again put you in an awkward position."

With a snort, he shook his head. "Do not apologize for that which you cannot control, Drew. If you were the sort of sniveling aristocrat your father would have you be, and I had to promote you, THAT would annoy me!" He met my eye pointedly.

"You may, of course, refuse the commission."

Well, why hadn't he said so in the first place? That was easy enough...

"However," He continued. "I must point out the consequences if you do so. Technically, you are my third lieutenant, with Mr. Cousins the forth, pending Mr. Bracegirdle's departure. Until that point, YOU are fourth, and he is fifth. Should you refuse, then Hood will ensure that Mr. Cousins promotion is denied as well."

Oh.

"I would prefer not to see that happen, of course." He continued, looking at me. "And after all, Mr. Brandon, it is all only temporary. Eventually, somebody will ask you to pass an exam."

I laughed a bit. "Well, when you put it that way...and after all, it does not hurt to humor my father a bit more. However, I would not wish it to be known that I am of seniority over Mr. Cousins, so to speak."

"Of course not. You may share with him what you choose of this conversation, but I beg of you, be prudent about it."

Realizing what he meant, I agreed. "I will do nothing to cause him to doubt his abilities, Sir. Though you and I both know there is no need, he would be stung to learn of these circumstances."

Gathering up his papers, Pellew stood, as did I. "Very well then, Lieutenant Brandon. Best you retire for the evening, then." I went to the door, but he called to me just as I touched it. "By the way, how are Mr. Johnson's injured ribs recovering?" He asked, in about as off handed a way as imaginable.

The burning started at my neck and spread to my temples before I could even turn around. "Sir?" I forced out, my voice hoarse with shock.

"I assume you have not felt the need to kick him again since you have recovered?"

I KNEW I should have told him myself! Now I must add the shame of deception to that of my actions! "Sir, I beg of you...I was ill and frustrated...I know that is no excuse, but I promise..." I stammered more in fear of his disappointment than his anger.

He held his hand gently over my mouth to quiet me. "Mhm. Illness and frustration and distemper, Mr. Brandon. An intriguing combination, and one that ought not deteriorate into violence, eh?"

"No, Sir." I whispered.

"Well. Since Johnson is not inclined to see you in irons, I see no reason to take this further. Frustration is acceptable, Mr. Brandon. Violence is not. Remember that."

My breathing gradually returned to normal. "Yes, Sir."

He started to turn away, and then added as he went into his private rooms, "Remember that particularly the next time *I* am struck ill, young man!"

Which, as he knew it would, could only make me smile.

***

Reg was waiting for me just outside our berths, looking anxious. I motioned to him to follow me, for there were ears everywhere, and I wanted to keep our conversation to ourselves. We found ourselves in sick berth, and I sat at my stool, Reg perching on a crate nearby. "Well?" He asked, anxiously.

"Well..." I said, having used our walk to sort out exactly how much I wanted to tell him. "It is permanent, I am an Acting Lieutenant."

"Oh." He tried to gauge my mood. "I am glad to keep you on as a mess mate, Drew; It would have been strange suddenly being your superior officer. Still..."

"Still, it is bizarre." I finished for him. "And it is the result of my father's interference again; he pushed my promotion with admiralty, I am ashamed to admit."

He gave me an understanding smile. "Ah, I didn't think this was Captain's desire! And at least you will not be removed from your duties here."
I nodded, a blush creeping over my face. I could not tell him the details; that his promotion was contingent on mine; how could I hurt him in that way? "You are happy, then?" I asked.

"Happy?!? Oh!" His face flushed and he swallowed hard. "Happy does not begin to describe it, Drew! What this means to me...it is everything I have ever wanted, since I was a child. And it is more..." He looked at me shyly. "I've never told anyone this, but...I've a girl back home, Drew."

He had a girl back home? When he joined the Navy he'd been but fifteen, and he left behind a girl? "Good lord, Reg, I did not know your precociousness extended to the fairer sex?"

He looked impossibly sheepish. "I've known her all my life, Drew. Ellie grew up on a neighboring farm. We've always known..." He looked down at his hands, still embarrassed. "Anyway, we'd have settled it before I went away, but of course her father laughed at the idea. He wanted two things: for me to be at least eighteen, and a commissioned officer. Now...I am there, Drew. I can write her now...and let her know we can start planning our lives."

Folding my arms, I could only look at him affectionately. "I always wondered why you were so secretive about those letters from home. She's been writing you all this time?"

"Yeah." He looked up at me with a shrug. "I was afraid to say anything, afraid to jinx myself."

"So, what's she like, your Ellie?"

"Oh, she's perfect. She's funny, she's sweet, she's a real spitfire, too, Drew. First time I met her was at a church picnic and she beat me in a footrace! We were eight years old, and she was so indignant that the minister spoke to her about her unladylike behavior that she just tossed her braids about and said that she didn't want to play with the silly old boys anyway, and she ran off into the fields to pick flowers. I followed her, and found her sitting by the stream crying her eyes out because the minister had told her no man would ever want such a shameful woman and she was going to spend the rest of her life old and destitute."

I gasped. "Sounds like he was one mean old brute!"

"He still is. Anyway, I took one look at her there and I was gone. Spent half an hour trying to console her, picked her flowers even, and I finally asked her to marry me."

"When you were EIGHT? Are you out of your mind?"

Lips curving in to an even wider grin, he nodded. "That, Drew, is exactly what she said! But I've persevered so to speak, and by the time we were twelve, she quite saw things my way."

I shook my head and got up at the same moment he did. "Well, it is good to know you've met your match somewhere, Reg. And I am doubly glad for your promotion, then." And even gladder I did not repeat Pellew's story to him. I could not have him ever doubting just how or why his promotion came through.

As we headed to the midshipman's berth for our last evening there, Reg suddenly gave me a gentle punch in the shoulder.

"Hey!" I cried out, rubbing my arm in mock indignation. "What is the idea?"

"That, LIEUTENANT BRANDON, is for the audacity of calling ME precocious!"

***
October 11

"Well, well, well, gentlemen, looks like we have two additions to our berth...a bedraggled lot indeed." Archie rose from the table in the officer's mess, looking over both Reg and I, newly arrived after having moved our meager belongings in to the impossibly small berth we now shared.

Horatio did not move from the table, where he sat with his nose in a book; he only raised his eyes. "Good lord, Mr. Kennedy, they will let anybody in here nowadays."

Captain Forbes merely shook his head. "Apparently, gentlemen, we shall now have to include baby-sitting amongst our duties," he muttered, an impish look in his eyes giving away his real nature.

I sighed. "Out of curiosity, gentlemen, just how long shall we have to endure this?" I slid into a chair near Forbes, who was kind enough to make room for me.

"Why, until we get tired of it!" Archie said with a grin, even as he let Reg pass to sit down. "Or until you bribe us with better food than what we've managed to acquire in our own stores, of course."

"Food would be good." Horatio murmured, shutting his book. "Although it is not as bad as it was now that we are able to have the fires lit."

"I can see that better nutrition is not to be one of the benefits of promotion." Reg joked. "Unless Drew considers chipping in from his Whist winnings."

"I would be glad to do so; however, until we reach Gibraltar, there is little hope for such relief.

I realized, even as we awaited our meager food, how lucky Reg and I were to be here. Horatio and Archie and Captain Forbes...all of them good men, no petty jealousies, no temperamental natures. Save Horatio's occasional bouts of moodiness and withdrawal, of course. It seems to be Archie's special role in life to draw him out of his shell, playing on his worst impulses until he gets a response.

Bowles and Bracegirdle joined us, and naturally started in immediately in on the good natured barbs:

"Heavens, Mr. Bowles, we have stowaways in the officer's mess!"

"It would appear, Mr. Bracegirdle, as though an invasion has been successfully launched." Bowles reached over and mussed my hair, an annoyance, but one I hid. The price of being the youngest in anything is that your elders seem to think your hair a free-for-all.

Bracegirdle sat down and reached for a biscuit. "Mr. Hornblower, I am surprised you were not able to mount a better defense of the quarters."

Horatio shook his head sadly. "I did my best, Sir, but Mr. Kennedy stood against me."

"The devil you say!" Archie interjected. "I did no such thing."

"For what reason should Mr. Kennedy allow such interlopers into our presence?" Bowles said, between mouthfuls of the tough salt beef.

Horatio, eyes wide, looked round the table. "Why, to turn the topic of conversation at dinner from its usual course of late."

There was much laughter, and Archie got rather pink. Reg looked at me with wonder, and I could only shake my head. I myself was surprised that Horatio... HORATIO... appears to have just told a joke, even if I don't get it.

Forbes leaned back. "Gentlemen, between Mr. Bracegirdle's impending fatherhood and Mr. Kennedy's impending nuptials, we almost did not deserve the joy of adding two new men as fodder for our grist mill."

"Indeed, there is a wealth of conversation at this table, if not of food." Horatio continued.

"So, Mr. Kennedy..." Mr. Bowles continued. "Just how elaborate shall the wedding be? Shall we expect to see dancing monkeys as entertainment? Will roast goose be served? Shall you send the leftovers back to the ship for those of us not in attendance?"

Inwardly I winced, knowing I was to be one of those men. Horatio caught my eye, and would have attempted to deflect the conversation, but Forbes jumped in first.

"Nothing like the marriage of a couple of swells, eh? I expect you will turn aside your dress uniform in favor of something more splendid, a fine satin, eh?"

Bowles took up the torch. "Silk of course. May I suggest purple? That is the color of royalty, is it not?"

Archie looked around, "Gentlemen, please, we are NOT royalty!" He looked at me pleadingly. "Drew, help me out."

Which, naturally, I was more than happy to do. "I can assure you, Gentlemen, that Mr. Kennedy's family has impeccable taste and would not be preparing anything ostentatious for this ceremony." I paused. "However, as the planning will be falling to MY family, dancing monkeys and purple silk are NOT out of the question."

This brought the room down, except of course for Archie. "Oh, thank you very much, Mr. Brandon, I am so GLAD to have your assistance here!"

Bracegirdle sighed. "I do wish we could manage to get letters out here."

"As do I." Archie agreed. "This has been most frustrating!"

Reg looked at Bracegirdle. "When is your wife expecting, Sir?"

"Not until December, but she was most ill when I left her." His eyes did twinkle a bit though. "And you no longer have to call me Sir!"

This was going to take some getting used to.

"Ill in what way...Mr. Bracegirdle?" I asked, my professional curiosity aroused, for more than one reason.

"Her feet and legs were most swollen, Mr. Brandon, and causing her great pain."

"That is not uncommon. Does she have assistance, so she might not tax herself unduly?"

"Thankfully, yes; the daughter of the woman who owns our rooms is a nice, quiet lass and has been giving her a hand. But even so, I would wish to be with her if duty did not prevail."

Horatio looked at me thoughtfully. "How have you come to know so much about the conditions of a woman with child, Mr. Brandon?"

What did I say to that? 'While I was in a hallucinatory fever I met your father and he set me to studying the delivery of children, for what reason I know not?' "I have an interest in all things medical, Mr. Hornblower."

"That will come as a great relief to the next man on this ship who gets pregnant." Forbes deadpanned, and the laughter spread.

"Or you can consult all expectant fathers in the future!" Bowles chortled. "Mr. Kennedy will no doubt be needing your services soon enough!"

It would be hard pressed to guess which of us were more embarrassed at that thought, Archie or I. He tried to demure. "Mr. Bowles, really, lord knows when we shall get back to Gibraltar, and if I end up with three day's leave it will be fortunate!"

Bowles raised his eyebrows. "THREE DAYS? Ample time indeed, Mr. Kennedy. One evening, in fact, should suffice."

Archie's coloring now resembled the pickled beets on the table. I gaped. "Gentlemen, please! This is my SISTER we are discussing."

Bowles and Forbes both looked a bit guilty, holding back grins. Bracegirdle did a better job of maintaining his dignity. Neither Horatio or Archie would meet my eye.

I can see that if this is the general topic of discussion from now until we return to Gibraltar to see Archie and my sister married, it shall be a very long campaign indeed!