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The First Variation

Chapter Text

"Sir," said the colourlessly respectful voice of a marine, "One of the prisoners wishes to speak to you."

"Hornblower?" Admiral Pellew had to admit there was still a part of him that hoped against hope that Hornblower would invent some remarkably clever explanation for Captain Sawyer's fall that cleared all four lieutenants of blame to Charlie Hammond's satisfaction, but it was an unlikely hope and not one he could afford to indulge.

"No sir. Buckland."

Pellew's first impression of Buckland had been of a harried mediocrity, a man consistently outshone by his three juniors and keenly aware of the fact. His behaviour throughout the trial had reinforced that initial impression. Even the half-conscious Kennedy, dying by inches of a bullet through the liver, had more life in him. Buckland was the last man Pellew would have expected to request a private conversation for any reason, especially after he had taken the easy way out earlier in the day and accused Hornblower, without evidence or corroboration, before the entire court. But there was no mistaking the name, and the novelty of the request alone was enough to decide Pellew. "I'll come."

The unfortunate first lieutenant was pacing his cell nervously when Pellew arrived, but turned to greet his superior officer with a proper salute and an uncharacteristic look of resolve. "You requested to speak to me, Mr. Buckland," Pellew said.

"Yes sir," Buckland answered, clenching his hands behind his back. "I have...a proposition, sir."

"And what might that be, Mr. Buckland?"

"I am not a stupid man, Admiral. I know that my career is as good as over even if I escape the gallows. When I took command of the Renown, I expected to be fit for that command. That I was not has been proven more times than I care to count."

Pellew opened his mouth, though he did not know what he meant to say. He could hardly deny Buckland's observations; they were shockingly similar to his own. He did feel a moment's pity for a man who was clearly as aware of his own failings as he was powerless to remedy them, but that could never be spoken. Better that it not be acknowledged, even. To Buckland it would be an insult, to the Admiralty a weakness. Fortunately, Buckland saved him the trouble of saying anything by carrying on.

"It was fear that made me accuse Hornblower in the courtroom, simple fear of the gallows and nothing more. But while I may be a coward, sir, I am not entirely without morals. I do not know that Lieutenant Hornblower pushed the captain. For all I know Captain Sawyer fell by simple accident. I owe Hornblower a debt for that accusation, sir, and I have the means to pay it."

"What are you suggesting, Mr. Buckland?"

"That fear could easily be given another explanation than the gallows, sir. It could be supposed to be the product of guilt."

"You suggest that I blame you for the captain's fall."

"I suggest that I confess to having pushed him, sir."

"The court does not exist to punish the innocent, Mr. Buckland."

"Better one innocent than four, sir. And what the devil can I do with myself after this, anyway? Hornblower, Bush, Kennedy -- they'll do the Service proud. I'm...well. I won't."

"And if I use this conversation as evidence of your innocence?"

"Then that would throw the blame back on Hornblower, sir."

"If your mind is made up, Mr. Buckland, I fail to see what need you had to speak to me."

"I told you, sir," said Buckland with a queer sort of smile, "I'm a coward. I might back out at the last minute if I don't tell someone, and besides that I can't bear the thought of going to my grave with every officer in Kingston convinced that I'm a mutineer. I had to tell someone. If I told Hornblower he'd try to stop me -- damn it, even Bush would try, sickbed or no. But you won't. If I was really shameless, I would ask you to tell them for me. But I won't do that. Then I can go to the gallows with a few shreds of self-respect left."

Pellew sighed. He and Buckland both knew that Charlie Hammond wanted a hanging, and he had enough influence with the Admiralty -- at least in the matter of Captain Sawyer, whose reputation was a force of its own -- to get one. He had been looking for the way of least injustice. It seemed that that way had found him, though he did not like it. "Well, Mr. Buckland," he said, "Should you choose to make your oath-bound testimony to the Court Martial that you pushed Captain Sawyer into the hold, I cannot stop you. And what I may say to Lieutenants Bush, Hornblower and Kennedy after that court has concluded its proceedings is not a matter of record."

Gratitude was shining out of Buckland's eyes by the time he had finished the last sentence, and it sent a pang of guilt through Pellew to know that the man was about to thank him for the privilege of dying on the gallows. The suppressed emotion in Buckland's tone as he said quietly, "Thank you, sir," was worse.

Pellew held out his hand. "It has been a pleasure, Mr. Buckland," he said as Buckland shook it firmly.

"Likewise, sir."

And then Pellew was out of the cell, with the knowledge that tomorrow an innocent man would hang so that three others could live. If all three lived. Dr. Clive was not optimistic about Kennedy's chances.

Chapter Text

"Is there nothing you can do for him?"

Hornblower sounded almost desperate to his own ears, and was sure that he would upbraid himself later for such an undisciplined display of emotion, but for the moment he could not bring himself to care. Archie was dying, even he could see that, and Clive still prevaricated like the great fool that Archie had called him so recently in the intervals of his coughing.

Clive hemmed and hawed, and then, to Hornblower's immense shock, produced an answer. "An operation could be undertaken to remove the bullet and any splinters of bone, in the hope that removing the irritants from the wound will give it a chance to heal. But the operation itself could well kill him. Even if all else goes well, the blood loss occasioned by reopening the wound might be fatal."

"He's dying now, damn you!"

Clive looked impassively at him. Something savage and reckless was urging Hornblower to ask the surgeon how much laudanum he had dosed himself with that day, but the knowledge that Archie's life lay in this man's hands restrained him. "Do it," he said instead, surprised at the steady calm of his own voice. "If it gives him a chance."

Clive's face remained impassive, and for a moment Hornblower feared that his own vehemence had driven the man on the defensive; that he would refuse. Hornblower technically had no right to order Clive to do anything. He was a prisoner now, not the acting second lieutenant of the Renown. But then Clive inclined his head once, and said, "I will prepare for the operation. He's awake now; you may speak with him for a few minutes if you like."

Hornblower knew quite well that that meant Clive did not expect Archie to survive the operation and so was giving Horatio a chance to say his farewells. But when he sat down in the chair beside Archie's bed, he found that he had nothing to say. Archie was only half-conscious, and after an interrogatory murmur of Horatio's name, to which he answered in the affirmative, said nothing. Then Clive came in with the stretcher-bearers and Hornblower was banished from the surgery. By some mercy on the part of the doctor or the marines -- he did not know which -- he was not taken back to his cell, but was allowed to wait in the hall, where he paced mechanically to and fro, his mind turning from Buckland's accusation earlier in the day to his own actions over the course of the Renown's voyage to the memory of finding first Bush, then Archie, terribly wounded on the deck of that ill-fated ship.

It seemed that no time had passed at all before Clive reemerged from the surgery, towelling off his hands, though the shadows on the wall had moved by a considerable distance. In answer to Hornblower's questioning glance, he said, "He's still alive, for now anyway. I took four splinters of bone out of the wound besides the bullet; it must have struck a rib. One of the larger splinters had lodged itself in the lung and penetrated to a considerable distance. The bullet itself had grazed the liver and I was forced to aggravate the wound once more in removing it."

"And?"

"The blood loss weakened him still further, as I expected it would. He's unconscious now and will be for some time. What happens then is in the hands of nature."

This was Clive's long-winded version of "I don't know what will happen." Horatio sighed and submitted to being led back to his cell. It seemed that the next day held the keys to many fates, his not least, but all he could do now was wait -- wait for the blow to fall, for he could find little reason to hope.

 

"I wish to confess that I, and I alone, pushed Captain Sawyer into the hold."

Buckland's face was pale, and his voice trembled perceptibly as he spoke, but the words were perfectly clear. Hornblower stared at him in shock. After the First Lieutenant had accused him of attempting to murder Captain Sawyer the day before, this was quite literally the last thing Hornblower had expected to hear from him. Hornblower risked a quick glance at the faces of the seamen who surrounded him, and read the same confusion in them. Even Captain Hammond's seemingly immovable glower had given way to a visibly startled expression. Only Admiral Pellew seemed unaffected by the general surprise. His gaze had taken on a noticeably melancholy air as he brought the gavel down and announced, "Gentlemen, I believe we have heard enough."

Hornblower was about to protest -- of all the many people who had been in the hold that night, Buckland and Bush were the two who could not possibly have had anything to do with the captain's fall, for neither of them had been present at the time -- when he met Pellew's eyes again, and something in the Admiral's gaze stopped him. Then he turned to Buckland, whose face was exhibiting a play of emotions most of which were not at all consistent with a man about to go to the gallows. Pride, satisfaction, and what surely could not be actual pleasure were warring against Buckland's evident fear as he met Hornblower's gaze unwaveringly for the first time in their acquaintance.

Then the marines were hurrying Buckland away, and Matthews was shaking Hornblower's hand and saying something congratulatory, and Hornblower was trying his best to arrange his expression into one appropriate for a man who had just escaped a court martial scot-free, all the while cudgelling his brains in an attempt to think what that last unflinching look of Buckland's could have meant.

 

Eventually, with some help from Matthews and Styles, Hornblower extricated himself from the boisterous group of seamen who all wished to congratulate him on his good fortune. Matthews gave him an understanding glance as he hurried towards the infirmary that had doubled for so long as a prison to the two men who came closest to counting him as a friend. The barred door stood open now in token that it housed free men. Archie was lying quite still, as he had remained since the surgery the day before. Bush was sitting on the edge of his bed reading, but looked up curiously as Hornblower hurried down the hall, for once not caring what noise he made.

"Buckland confessed," Hornblower found himself blurting out. "I can't imagine what made him do it."

He cut himself off before he could say anything that might cast doubt on his own innocence or that of his fellow lieutenants. The court martial might be over but that was no excuse for foolishness.

"We're acquitted then?" Bush asked, voice as steady as Hornblower wished his was, but irrepressible hope creeping into his blue eyes.

"Yes," said Hornblower, and the pronunciation of that single syllable brought all the relief he had not known he felt flooding into his mind.

He sat down heavily on Archie's bed before he staggered under the overwhelming onslaught of emotion or did something equally unpardonably foolish, and then froze when a faint but distinct voice said, "Horatio? Sitting on my foot."

Chapter Text

"Archie!"

Horatio felt yet another wave of relief wash over him, and some irrelevant part of his brain noted that it was a good thing that he was already sitting down. He grasped Archie's hand as though to reassure himself that his friend was quite real, and felt the pressure returned.

"Expecting someone else?" Archie asked with a faint smile.

"Your sense of humour seems to have remained intact, Mr. Kennedy, even if nothing else has," said Bush gruffly, but he, too, was smiling.

"Still sitting on my foot, Horatio," Archie persisted.

Hornblower shifted until he was quite certain the only thing he was sitting on was the mattress. "Better?" he asked.

"That is," Archie said. "What did that great fool do to me? I can hardly move."

"That great fool," said the voice of Dr. Clive from behind them, "took out four splinters of your ribs from your liver and lung, not to mention a pistol bullet and a piece of your shirt that was spreading infection. And now that you are awake he can say with some confidence that the operation was in fact successful, and that, assuming no further setbacks, your chances of living to insult another doctor are somewhat better than even."

Archie looked as taken aback as it is possible to look while recumbent and mostly incapable of motion. Horatio, on an impulse, rose to his feet and offered Clive his hand, saying as he did so, "Thank you, Dr. Clive, for carrying out that operation. I am sure Mr. Kennedy is grateful also."

There was a sound like a suppressed snort from Bush's direction, but Horatio paid it no heed. Clive shook his hand, and then, after a cursory examination of the patient which seemed to satisfy him, turned to the hall and said something that Horatio could not hear, which led to the sudden appearance of Admiral Pellew, followed by the words, "Don't tire Kennedy too much, but you can talk with them for a few minutes."

"Gentlemen," said Admiral Pellew, removing his hat as he stepped through the door.

"Sir!" said Hornblower and Bush in unison.

Hornblower sprang to his feet. Bush followed suit and then winced, doubling over with a hand on his stomach. "At ease, gentlemen," said Pellew. "For God's sake, sit down, man!" he added to Bush, who was still making a concerted effort to stand at attention.

Once Bush was seated, Pellew drew out a chair himself and sat down, motioning to Hornblower to do the same. "I have no doubt that you all have questions about this morning's events," he said by way of preamble. "Allow me to answer some of them preemptively. Lieutenant Buckland made a request to speak to me privately yesterday after the court adjourned. He had come to the conclusion, as I had earlier, that the Admiralty would not be satisfied with less than an execution in payment for Captain Sawyer's death, and that the only matter which was truly left to the court was to determine whose it should be."

All at once Horatio understood the mystery of the impossible triumph on Buckland's face after the trial. Forgetful, in his exhaustion after the trial's strain, of the fact that he was in the room with an admiral, he spoke his thought aloud: "He confessed so that he would hang and the rest of us would not."

Pellew winced almost imperceptibly at the blunt phrasing, hesitated for half a breath, and said, "Yes. That is, in short, what he told me. He wished the three of you to know afterwards, but would not lower himself to ask me to tell you."

Horatio was on his feet in a moment. "We must do something then!" he exclaimed. "There's still time, isn't there?"

Bush, still sitting behind him, made an indistinct noise of agreement. A glance out the window confirmed that the gallows had not yet fulfilled its grim destiny. Then Pellew was on his feet too, his hand on Hornblower's arm, to comfort as much as to restrain him. "You," he said pointedly, "will do nothing of the kind. You cannot save Buckland, but you can damn yourself, yes, and your friends too if you're not careful. It would be best if you did not go to see him either, if for no other reason than that he would not wish it."

Hornblower wrestled briefly with himself before he brought his emotions back under control. He had come far too close to letting go entirely just now, and that was not a risk he could afford. Not when not only his life, but Bush's and Archie's too, might depend on the whole miserable affair being allowed to take its course. "Of course, sir," he said, voice quite even, drawing back from the restraining hand. "My apologies. I spoke hastily."

"You spoke as any man of honour would have," Pellew said quietly, and sat down again. "I trust that you gentlemen will all hold this conversation in the strictest of confidence." Upon receiving nods from all three, he continued, "Now to more pleasant matters. The Gaditana is to be taken into the navy as a sloop of war, rechristened the Retribution. As the nearest Admiral, it is my privilege to promote a commander for her. Mr. Bush, as the senior surviving lieutenant of the Renown, that honour falls to you. It will be some time before she is fully outfitted as a British vessel. You will receive your orders once you are fully recovered. And you will, of course, be needing a first lieutenant as well."

Bush turned to Horatio almost before the last words were out of Pellew's mouth, the obvious question on his lips. "It would be my honour, sir," Hornblower answered as soon as he asked.

Pellew hastily stifled a smile at the rapidity with which their agreement was made, and spoke up again. "I might add that Mr. Kennedy, while he will not be sufficiently recovered to resume his duties for some time according to Dr. Clive, might by that time be ready to be moved without danger, and that it would be advisable for him to return to England in order to seek a new posting there. Perhaps the commander of the Retribution would be so kind as to give him passage."

"Gladly, sir," said Bush.

"Just can't get rid of me, sir," Archie said cheerfully from his bed.

"Archie," said Horatio reprovingly, feeling that it was a little too soon after recent events to be joking about things like that, in the presence of an admiral no less.

"Well, gentlemen," said Pellew, rising to his feet, "Dr. Clive strictly enjoined me not to tire Mr. Kennedy, and so I shall take your leave. Mr. Bush, Mr. Hornblower, Mr. Kennedy, if we do not have the chance to speak again before you depart, I wish you all a safe voyage home."

Chapter Text

There was a great deal to keep a new captain and his new first lieutenant busy in Kingston over the next few weeks. The Retribution had to be thoroughly cleaned, for one thing, having been in use as something very nearly a prison ship during the voyage over, and then there was the matter of supplying her, and ensuring that the rigging Hornblower had cut in order to prevent the Spaniards from sailing off with her during the battle for the Renown was repaired or replaced properly, and a thousand other small things that had to be seen to before she could sail for England. For the first week, Hornblower was the only able-bodied officer, and he hardly gave himself time to eat, let alone sleep, but at the end of that week Clive declared now-Commander Bush fit for light duty. His first order to First Lieutenant Hornblower was a gruff, "Get some sleep before you fall over where you're standing, Mr. Hornblower."

After that things on board Retribution went more smoothly, with the captain's authority to motivate the more recalcitrant seamen and hurry up the slow transfer of supplies, and to send the First Lieutenant below to get a few hours' rest when nobody else could manage it. Some more experienced hands were transferred over from the Renown, as well, Matthews and Styles among them (Hornblower suspected strongly that Admiral Pellew had something to do with this somehow), and that made things a good deal easier.

Four weeks passed in the blink of an eye, and before anyone knew it, it was time to sail for England. Their sole "passenger," in the form of Mr. Kennedy, was hoisted aboard in a bosuns' chair (and none too pleased about it), and then the anchor came up and the wind caught the Retribution's sails, and they were away from Kingston and bound for England.

The weather was fair, for the most part, and the seas not too rough, though that did not prevent Hornblower from being seasick and miserable until he grew used to the ship again. On most days, a part of the quarterdeck was given up to Mr. Kennedy's chair. That gentleman was mending well, but not yet strong enough to stand or walk for long, and so he sat on deck and made desultory conversation with the officer of the watch until night began to fall and the surgeon's mates came to see him back to the cramped cabin that served as the surgery, where he still had his berth.

The weather grew fouler as they neared England, which was only to be expected, but the crew of the Retribution hardly cared. As long as the storm was not severe enough to be a danger to their ship, it could hardly be a sterner taskmaster than the formidable combination of Captain Bush and Lieutenant Hornblower. It certainly could keep them no busier.

There was only one incident on their journey home that could be called real excitement. Lieutenant Hornblower had the morning watch, and Kennedy was still below, when some keen-eyed watchman sighted a sail off the starboard bow. The sails were too weathered for her to be a French ship recently escaped from the British blockade, and so at first Hornblower was not inclined to pay her much attention. Then, just as she must have sighted the Retribution, there was a most un-seamanlike confusion on her decks. The man at the wheel must have let go, or forgotten his business entirely: the wind nearly swung the little sloop right around before someone made an effort to recover her. Hornblower scowled when he made out the name Hotspur on her stern. She might be sailing under an inexperienced commander; the little commotion might mean nothing at all. On the other hand, it might mean something. He made his decision and turned to the nearest midshipman. "Mr. Hewitt," he said, "my compliments to the captain, and I believe I have sighted something which would be of interest to him."

This would not commit either Hornblower or Bush too far should the Hotspur's behaviour turn out to have a normal explanation after all, but it would bring Bush onto the deck promptly enough all the same.

"Mr. Hornblower," Bush greeted him, striding quickly up from his cabin and holding out his hand for the telescope.

"Sir," said Hornblower, handing it over.

As Bush trained the telescope on the Hotspur's sails, Hornblower reported, softly, what he had seen. What they did about it was still for the captain to decide, and he did not wish to excite the men unduly. "Her rigging looks like she's seen action, and recently," Bush observed. "Clear for action, Mr. Hornblower."

"Clear for action!" Hornblower roared, and stepped down onto the gun deck.

This was his charge now, and bringing the two ships together was up to Captain Bush. The Retribution, designed as a privateer, was meant for speed and maneuverability; with a reasonably competent captain she should overtake Hotspur with ease, and Bush was certainly competent. Now the long uneventful weeks of gun drills in the Carribean came into play. The guns were loaded and run out in something near record time -- the crew was, to a man, looking forward to the prospect of action after so much uneventful time at sea.

"Fire a shot across her bow," Bush called down from the quarterdeck.

The Hotspur was still off to the starboard. Hornblower selected one of the better crews on that side. "Styles!" he called. "Put a shot over her bows. Close but not too close."

The boom of the cannon nearly drowned out the sharp crack as the Hotspur's bowsprit fell, neatly cut in half. "Styles!" Hornblower remonstrated.

"Sorry, sir," said Styles, but there was no more conversation, for Hotspur was striking her British colours.

"French, by God!" came Bush's thundering voice from the quarterdeck. "Well sighted, Mr. Hornblower! Let's get his Majesty's ship back for his Majesty's navy!"

Styles' gun was already reloaded, and on Hornblower's order the Retribution's broadside rang out with a rumble of thunder. The Hotspur's attempt to return fire was ineffective, for Retribution had the weather-gage and Bush, making the most of it, had checked her in her course just as Hotspur might have expected her to come up and attempt to board from the starboard side, and now had come up on the port side instead. It was a simple enough maneuver, but effective, and Hornblower hardly needed his captain's orders to fire the port broadside before springing over the narrow gap between the two ships.

A few minutes of chaos followed. Pistols banged and sent clouds of powder smoke drifting around the deck, and cutlasses flashed in the smoke, and men were yelling and screaming. But before long Hornblower was holding up his pistol in the face of the French captain and receiving his sword, and the prisoners were being herded below by the triumphant seamen of the Retribution.

Bush materialised out of the chaos. He had a cutlass in his hand, so either the French had made an attempt at boarding Retribution or he had joined the boarding party. Hornblower handed over the French captain's sword and reported his surrender. "Well done, Mr. Hornblower," said Bush with a smile. "You will take the Hotspur and a prize crew and make for England."

"Aye aye, sir," said Hornblower, returning the smile. "I shall see you in England then."

They did, but not at all in the way either of them expected.

Chapter Text

Hornblower stepped out of the Admiralty office in Portsmouth and stared blankly at the building across the street. He had come in with his report of the Hotspur's capture expecting possibly prize money and at least another commission. He had arrived to a shockingly empty office and the news of peace, which meant idleness and half-pay for the foreseeable future. He wondered if the Retribution had already arrived or if Bush and Archie were still somewhere at sea, eagerly looking forward to promotion and battle.

As he had been thinking, his feet had begun moving almost of their own accord, taking him towards the Keppel's Head near the docks, perhaps with the vague hope of finding someone there that he knew. He checked himself on the doorstep; a lieutenant on half-pay could not afford to spend his idle hours at a pub. That, of course, raised the question of where he could afford to spend them. He needed lodgings, cheap ones, and as soon as possible. He turned and began to walk back into the town, following the same road he had taken on the way to the Admiralty, seeing nothing except the ground before his feet as he turned over and over in his mind the astonishing news of peace, and all its accompanying problems. It was possible to live as a half-pay lieutenant, he knew, but it was not the most comfortable of lives, and if he could find a way to supplement his income it would make things much easier.

He had gotten no further than that when he walked squarely into someone in a greatcoat who spluttered an indignant, and very familiar, "Watch where you're going, man!"

"Archie!" Horatio exclaimed, entirely taken off guard by stumbling - literally - over one of the men he'd just been wondering about.

"Horatio! I see by the long face that you've had the news."

"Yes indeed. I sailed Hotspur into port this morning."

"Some welcome we had from the Admiralty."

"How long since you arrived?"

"A week. I wish I'd had a chance to handle Retribution a little longer before we came in. She's a beauty, with a shockingly fast pair of heels."

"What are you doing here then?"

"Drawing my half-pay for the month. I take it they gave you yours?"

"Yes. Where's Bush then? Shouldn't he be doing the same?"

Archie's face fell. "Best step inside for a minute," he said. "Nothing too much is wrong," he added hastily, seeing Horatio's confusion and concern, "but he'd rather not have us discussing his affairs on the street, I daresay."

Baffled, Horatio followed him into the Keppel's Head, where they took a seat at an out-of-the-way table. Archie ordered a meal for both of them over Horatio's protests. "Don't worry," he said once the waiter had disappeared, "I'll see to it. No," when Horatio protested again, "you will not. My family sees that I don't go hungry, and you've been living off ship's beef and biscuit for three months. Haven't been eating much of that either by the look of you."

Horatio subsided reluctantly as Archie seemed entirely set on his course. "Now about Bush," he said. "He drew a full commander's pay for three months, but we sailed into Portsmouth the day the news of peace came in. His promotion wasn't confirmed, so now he's got to pay the money back. They've stopped his pay for seven months."

"Good God! What's he going to do?"

"I don't know, and I wish I did. He's as close as an oyster when he wants to be though, you know the man. It was hard work to get him to say as much as he did. He went to stay with his sisters almost as soon as we'd got the news. Evidently they've got a cottage in Chichester, so he doesn't need to pay for lodgings at least."

"And beyond that?"

"Haven't the faintest idea. We both applied for posts as lieutenants in the peacetime Navy, of course, but you know there's precious little chance of anything coming of that unless you've got a captain or an admiral with a good word to put in for you."

Horatio sighed. Bush had no connexions that he knew of, and Admiral Pellew was doubtless besieged with requests for the handful of lieutenants' commissions that remained open. He could not help wondering how his friend would manage seven months of no pay. Even had his sisters had the foresight to save some of his commander's pay, things could not be easy for them.

It was then that their food arrived, and Archie turned the conversation into other channels, chatting merrily about his guesses about how long the peace would last, while Horatio stared gloomily down at his mutton. If only he had reached the captain before he fell, the court martial would only have concerned itself with Sawyer's dangerous orders outside Samana Bay and surely the four of them would all have been safe, even Buckland -- he could no longer hold any grudges towards the first lieutenant who had so bravely sacrificed himself for the other three. If only he had warned Archie not to keep walking towards the frightened captain, driving him towards the ladder. A better officer would have done that. If only he had noticed Colonel Ortega's pistol and not left the wounded Bush to look after his friend...

Archie reached across the table and shook his elbow. "Horatio? Something wrong with your dinner?"

Horatio shook himself and came back to the present. "No," he said shortly.

"Well then what are you looking so dismal for?"

Horatio shrugged, did his best to plaster a cheerful smile on his face, and asked, "I'm sorry, I was woolgathering. What was it you said about the peace?"

Archie looked worried, so the smile had probably not come off terribly well, but he repeated his observations, which added up mostly to the fact that Bonaparte must be plotting something and sooner or later England would have to deal with it. Horatio took care to listen.

The sun was westering by the time he and Archie left the pub. "I'd better find some lodgings, I suppose," Horatio said wryly. "Somewhere cheap and not entirely overrun with other half-pay officers, if such a place still exists."

"I've got a room with a landlady a couple streets over," Archie said cheerfully. "I usually stay with my family but I'm here once a month to draw my half-pay and I usually stay for a few days afterwards to hang around the Admiralty in the vague hope of news. You can stay with me; she'll charge you something for the bed but it'll be cheaper than taking your own room."

"I wouldn't dream of imposing on you, Archie."

"Nonsense. There'll be more room than there ever was in the midshipmans' berth on the old Justinian. Not to mention a proper bed! Besides, I'll see more of you."

That last was an incontrovertible argument, and Horatio found himself smiling against his will as he followed Archie to the shabby but neat house.

The landlady, a Mrs. Mason, looked at the two of them skeptically, but when Horatio promptly produced the shilling she demanded for an extra bed, she relented a little. Archie led the way to a room near the top of the house, where a sea-chest bearing the initials A. K. was already in residence. A few minutes later they were followed by a younger woman who Horatio guessed to be the landlady's daughter, who hefted a cot through the door and set it up beside the wall, brushing off Horatio's offer of help with an embarrassed "I can manage, sir."

She blushed when Archie said, "Thank you, Maria," and withdrew in evident confusion at being treated kindly by not one, but two young gentlemen.

Horatio sat down on his sea-chest and smirked at Archie. His irreverent and irrepressible friend rarely got a taste of his own medicine, and Horatio's worries were not enough to prevent him from taking advantage of the opportunity. He continued to smirk as Archie rearranged his things so that Horatio could use half of the narrow counter that held the washbasin. It took a few minutes before Archie finally asked, "What?" in an exasperated tone.

"You have an admirer, Mr. Kennedy."

Archie snorted. "Oh, because you have so wide a field of experience with women, Mr. Hornblower."

"You know as well as I that I have precious little, but I'm not blind either."

Archie snorted his disdain again but offered no further refutations as Horatio began to unpack his things. His sea-chest was quite light and it should not have taken him nearly as long as it did. Archie knew the signs of a brooding Horatio quite well, and could even take a guess at the reason for the brooding (other than the general aftermath of the Renown).

"A penny for your thoughts?" he asked casually.

Horatio frowned at the shirt he was shaking out but said nothing. Archie sighed. "They wouldn't have anything to do with a certain William Bush, I suppose," he asked, "who, I might add, is nearly as stubborn as you are?"

Horatio was the one to sigh this time. "I don't like it. Seven months with no pay! Surely there's something we can do to help him."

"I still have all my prize money from Kingston, you know, not having been well enough to go spend it all on whatever the deuce you two did spend yours on, and I asked him point-blank to take it. He wouldn't. And it's not like we can give the man money against his will."

"I still don't like it."

"Neither do I, Horatio, but you're making me be the voice of reason here and I don't like that either. We'll just have to wait and see. Believe me, if there's a way to help I'll be the first to take it. I still owe him for Ortega."

"Heaven forbid that you ever be the voice of reason, Mr. Kennedy," Horatio said, a little levity returning to his voice. Archie counted it a triumph. He had two friends to worry about. One he currently could not help; for that he would have to wait. A life in the Navy had accustomed him to long waits, and he had the other friend to help -- and pester -- for the present.

Chapter Text

William Bush clasped his hands behind his back (a man accustomed to civilian life would have shoved them into his pockets and let his shoulders slump, but any midshipman in his Majesty's Navy learned to break that habit very quickly) and looked glumly out over the canal that wound through Portsmouth, full of canal-boats and rowboats going briskly to and fro, most of them manned by fellows who seemed to have been born to their trade. Occasionally one of them found himself in need of a postillion to manage the horses that drew his canal-boat, and was willing to pay something to a volunteer who had learned to handle horses at his uncle's forge. More rarely, a rowboat might be short an oarsman and desperate enough to take a chance on a man in a shabby officer's uniform. It was a poor source of employment but it was better than nothing, which was what the Admiralty continued to be worth at the moment.

Today, however, was one of the days where luck was against him, like the day before...well, most of the preceding week, actually. The river was perfectly smooth, the horses were disobligingly compliant with their handlers, the oarsmen were sober, and now he had to either pay for another night's lodging in Portsmouth or for some sort of transport back to his sisters' cottage in Chichester. Unless, of course, he wanted to walk the nine miles back to the cottage this afternoon. A month ago he would have sworn volubly at canals, canal-boats, and peacetime. Now he sighed, turned on his heel, and set out to find a house that would put him up cheaply for the night. Supper was out of the question; he would eat the next day once he had gotten back to his sisters'. He could not afford another full day in Portsmouth at the moment.

He found that his feet had carried him to the Keppel's Head while he thought, which was unfortunate as he would have liked to sit down with a pint and listen to the other officers for a while; he missed the cheerful society of his lieutenants nearly as much as he missed the sea itself (though he would not, and perhaps could not, have put either of those feelings into words, even in the privacy of his own mind). He turned away with another sigh and walked towards the nearest street where he knew of houses that would take lodgers.

He instinctively crossed to the other side of the road when he heard a carrying female voice upbraiding a lodger for something or other. The original subject of the scolding could no longer be determined, and Bush knew landladies in that mood well enough to know that discretion was the better part of valour. Ordinarily he would have stayed well away and not given the matter another thought. But there was something familiar in the subdued male voice that periodically spoke up in the intervals between invectives. Bush warily crossed the street again, doing his best to look like a casual passer-by, and stole a cautious glance at the unfortunate young officer standing on the stoop. At exactly the wrong time. Brown eyes met his and brightened with recognition. Horatio Hornblower spun around, completely ignoring his voluble landlady, and wrung Bush firmly by the hand. A little stupid with fatigue, for he had been on his feet since early that morning and had had little food, Bush found himself being led or dragged or shepherded into a room which already contained two cots and Archie Kennedy, and deposited in a chair. Hornblower was exercising a faculty Bush had not seen from him before, one of talking at a speed of several knots about subjects that seemed to range from Kennedy to whist to the prospects of the peace agreement, all woven together with the theme of how good it was to see Bush again.

"Let the man say something, Horatio," Kennedy said in mildly amused tones, and Hornblower, looking a little chagrined, stopped talking as suddenly as he had started.

Bush managed to stammer out a few words about his own pleasure at meeting Hornblower and Kennedy again. He meant every word of it, though his head was spinning a little from trying to follow Hornblower's conversation; on the Renown everyone had been rather subdued, but even in Kingston after their acquittal he could not recall the man having so much to say nor being so eager to say it all at once. However, he found himself a little awkward in the company of his friends now. There was much in his life at the moment that he did not care to discuss with them, for they were bound to make offers which he would be forced to refuse. It was for the same reason that he had left their letters unanswered, much as he would have liked to reply. But at the moment the two of them seemed content to supply their own conversation. Speaking at a more reasonable pace, Kennedy set to telling tales of their two months' stay in Portsmouth, the landlady's daughter, and Horatio's habits of playing whist. It was pleasant to listen to familiar voices again, and despite his own worries he found himself paying attention to Kennedy's talk.

 

Archie looked closely at Bush as he summarised the most notable events of their stay in Portsmouth. The man looked a little dazed, but nearly anyone might have been after Horatio's welcome. Determined not to let their elusive friend slip away, Horatio had opened a hitherto-unsuspected font of small talk and proceeded to prattle cheerfully about anything and everything in a way that Archie honestly would have thought him incapable of. Bush clearly had been just as surprised from the way he had been looking at Horatio when the latter half-dragged him inside. No, the dazed look was natural enough. But Bush was paler and thinner than when Archie had last seen him, and had dropped heavily into his chair like a man who had not rested well for days. He gave Horatio a subtle nod, and the latter returned it. Bush was going to be staying the evening whether he liked it or not.

"You know," said Horatio once Archie had finished his piece but before the silence could become awkward, "I still haven't thanked you for rescuing me from Mrs. Mason's clutches, William."

Bush mumbled that it was nothing, still evidently a little off balance. Archie guessed that that had not exactly been his intent.

"I wouldn't call it nothing," Horatio replied with a smile. "But then you hadn't been standing on the stoop for ten minutes listening to a comprehensive list of your flaws as a lodger, an officer, and a man in general, so I shall forgive you for saying so."

"The lieutenants on your first ship were slack in their duties," Bush replied, returning the smile. "if you were never properly rated as a midshipman."

"Well I suppose that is true," Horatio answered. "And they certainly did their best. But even the lieutenants on old Justinian could hardly have been familiar with my faults as a lodger."

The conversation fell into a bit of a lull then. Bush had never been known for his loquacity, and now he began to shift uncomfortably, in what Archie suspected was a prelude to excusing himself for the night.

"Was it solely your good heart that led you to rescue Horatio from our fearsome landlady?" he asked, "Or did you have some errand here that you decided to abandon in favour of doing an old friend a good turn?"

The uncomfortable look Bush gave him confirmed Archie's certainty that whatever he had been doing up their street, he had not been looking for them. "As a matter of fact," he said, "I was looking for lodgings for the night, and I really should be going or there'll be no chance of finding anywhere before dark."

"Nonsense!" Archie retorted. "I would say that you have found lodgings for the night. We'll fit in another bed here easily enough. Or we could even double up in a pinch. Though in that case I think you and I had better share. Mr. Hornblower's elbows were notorious on the Justinian for making themselves felt through two layers of canvas in the midshipmens' berth."

Horatio choked in indignation and startled Bush into laughter, which was what Archie had been aiming for, so he was quite proud of himself. "But first," Archie carried on, "supper is in order, I think. I haven't had mine yet, and Horatio is not playing whist with the great ones tonight so he has agreed to join me."

"I'm not hungry, actually," Bush said, having evidently resigned himself to staying the night (which Archie counted as another triumph).

"Well you can at least come with us and pretend to enjoy Mr. Kennedy's jokes," said Horatio. "It's a rare skill, you know, and sometimes he gets discouraged when I'm his only audience, as my acting abilities are lacklustre at best."

"Or perhaps you would prefer to encourage Mr. Hornblower's curious belief that he is witty," Archie shot back.

They turned pleading eyes on Bush in unison. He looked as though he would have liked to demur, but in the face of two separate invitations and two very hopeful faces he could hardly have done so without outright rudeness, and he knew it. Archie seized his coat from the rack in the hall, and threw Horatio's to him without bothering to aim it at something other than his face. The hastily stifled snort from Bush and irate rustling from Horatio told him he had struck his mark. Bush did not have his coat, Archie noticed, and added that to his list of things to worry about even as he bantered with Horatio over his poor (actually perfect, but he was hardly going to admit to that) aim with coats.

Horatio kept up his protests a good deal longer than he ordinarily would have in the interests of conversation, and so the subject of Archie throwing coats at people got them safely into the Keppel's Head. Bush had looked as though he might protest again at the door, but Horatio purposefully led the way and Archie slipped behind Bush, quite ready to walk squarely into his back if he hesitated, and the crisis passed. Horatio passed his and Archie's usual table, making for one nearer the back of the pub instead, and Archie silently lauded his choice. If awkward conversations were to be had along with dinner, it would be better to stay away from listening ears.

Once the three of them were all sitting down, Archie decided it was time to take the bull by the horns. "Well, William," he said, "you've heard Horatio's and my reports. I have admitted to being a terribly boring man who manages his family's business as often as they let him, and Horatio has revealed the hours he spends secretly playing whist with admirals and beating them soundly. How are you spending your months of idleness?"

Bush shrugged with an affectation of indifference which might have fooled Archie if he was not so familiar with the masks Horatio habitually used to cover his emotions. "I find work where I can," he answered. "Usually around the canals. And when I have had enough of that my sisters always find something for me to do."

Archie mentally translated this and found that he did not like the picture it painted. Just then the barmaid appeared to ask what food they wanted. Archie asked for his usual, mind still elsewhere, and realised the moment Bush opened his mouth that he had neglected to ensure that their guest would actually order something. Fortunately it seemed that Horatio had thought of this, for Bush shut his mouth without making more than a slight strangled noise, and Horatio ordered for the two of them.

As soon as the barmaid, with a curious glance at the now-scowling Bush, had disappeared, Bush rounded on Horatio. "Mr. Hornblower," he said sharply, in the manner of the Retribution's commander addressing an unruly subordinate, "I do not know what you mean by standing on my foot any more than I knew what you meant by dragging me into your lodgings, but I have had enough of hospitality that is clearly a cover for some other purpose."

He rose to his feet and reached for his hat. "William," Horatio said quietly but firmly, "wait. Please."

"Do you have an explanation for your behaviour, Mr. Hornblower?" Bush asked, fixing Horatio with a skeptically raised eyebrow.

"Do you really need one?" Archie put in, unwilling to let Bush focus all his ire on his friend. "Because I'm quite certain you would do the same for either of us in your position."

"And what exactly is my position, Mr. Kennedy?" The eyebrow had turned towards Archie now, and he had to admit that it was rather intimidating. Or rather, it would have been if he had not known exactly why Bush was angry.

"Seven months no pay and five mouths to feed," Horatio said, lowering his voice to a gentler tone, "on whatever you saved from your commander's pay, plus whatever your sisters make and whatever you can earn working odd jobs around the canals. That's like me trying to live off my winnings at whist. Possible, certainly, but far from comfortable and even farther from easy. We're not asking you to accept charity, William. We're asking you to let us be your friends."

"Now look me in the eye," Archie added, "and tell me you were going to have supper tonight before we wrangled you in here."

"So you admit to the wrangling," said Bush, but the anger had gone out of his voice, and he sounded equal parts exhausted and amused.

"Unashamedly," Archie said with a grin he knew to be infectious. "But only with the best of intentions."

Bush hastily suppressed his smile, but both Horatio and Archie had seen it. After that conversation was more comfortable. Bush told them a little more about the events of his two months ashore, though they suspected that he was still keeping a good deal back. When the food came he applied himself to it with an eagerness that spoke for itself, and Horatio and Archie both silently vowed that they would see their friend better looked after if it was in any way within their power.

As the three of them stepped back out into the road after their supper, Bush turned to Archie curiously, and asked, "What exactly were you hoping to do, Mr. Kennedy, walking into the pub so close up by my stern?"

"Run into you if you stopped, of course," Archie replied.

After a moment's incredulity, during which he must have read in Archie's face that he was perfectly serious, Bush stopped walking to lean against the doorframe and laugh. Archie found himself laughing too at the mental image of him deliberately running into the solidly built Bush with the hope of shoving him bodily into the Keppel's Head. After a moment Horatio joined them, and the three of them stayed there, rendered nearly helpless by peals of laughter, until an impatient group of customers shoved past them muttering ominously about drunks, and by common consent they took their merriment back to Archie and Horatio's rooms.

Mrs. Mason stoutly refused to have another bed brought up at that hour of the night; evidently she had not forgiven Horatio for his earlier trespass, whatever that had been. Even the offer of a shilling to wash the sheets failed to move her, though she was mollified sufficiently to say that she would see to it the next day. There was no question now, however, of Bush going out to find other rooms: even had he wished to, and he did not, it was far too late in the evening. In the end, they shoved the two cots together, threw Horatio and Archie's greatcoats over them to make up for the lack of extra blankets, and made the best of it. Hornblower's elbows proved to be just as sharp as Kennedy had warned, and there was a cold draught from the door that chilled their feet before they climbed into bed, but that did not prevent any of them from falling asleep in the end.

The next morning Bush woke to find that Hornblower had put a bony knee squarely into his kidney and Kennedy had stolen most of the blankets, but he hardly minded. As he had been away from his sisters' cottage for some days, he left Portsmouth early that morning after breakfast. Hornblower and Kennedy, however, insisted on him promising that he would stay with them the next time he returned to the city, and he was more than happy to comply. He set out for Chichester with his heart lighter than it had been for weeks, even if his pockets were little heavier.

The next letter Hornblower sent to the cottage was answered promptly.

Chapter Text

It was not a month later that Bush, packing his scanty belongings in preparation for a journey to Portsmouth, was distracted by the sounds of excited female chatter from the parlour. He hastily donned his waistcoat and put his head out into the hall to find out what was the matter. There had been little enough excitement in the Bush household of late, and plenty of reasons for thoughtful and worried silence. He could hear male voices too, now -- familiar ones.

"Horatio, Archie, whatever are you doing here?" he asked, brushing past his sisters as they filed out to leave him alone with his unexpectedly arrived friends.

"William!" Archie wrung his hand firmly before tilting his head towards Horatio, who was rocking back and forth on his feet nervously with his hands clasped behind his back, though his face was quite blank. "We have news," he added, and speared his friend with a very significant look.

Horatio cleared his throat for a few seconds before managing speech. "As you know," he began, "I have met Admiral Pellew several times at whist over the past few months. The last time he summoned me to his flagship the following morning. It seems that we are not alone in being suspicious of the ongoing peace. He wished to tell me that Hotspur is being recommissioned and he needed a commander for her."

"And he…"

"Selected me."

"Congratulations, Horatio! Sir." It was Bush's turn to shake his friend firmly by the hand.

"And, of course, I now need another lieutenant."

Bush could not help the pang of envy when he heard this, but he would not be so low as to give voice to it. "Congratulations, Archie," he said, and meant it.

"What?" Archie looked genuinely confused.

"You're to be his lieutenant, of course."

"Oh. Oh, no. I am to be a lieutenant. Second lieutenant, if...well." He smiled mischievously.

Horatio -- no, Captain Hornblower now -- looked slightly pained. "What I mean to say is, would you do me the honour of being my first lieutenant, Mr. Bush?"

Bush realised that he had been standing and staring at Horatio for several seconds now, and the latter was beginning to look uncomfortable. He recalled himself at once and stood automatically to attention, shirtsleeves or no. "It would be my honour, sir."

Hornblower's face relaxed into a grin and Bush shook his hand again, and then Archie's for good measure. "Well then," Archie said, "you'd better start packing! We sail for France the instant the last supplies are on board."

"I'm already packed."

"Excellent. We'll leave as soon as you're ready then," Hornblower said.

"Aye aye, sir!"