"And...if I were family? Could you take the help I offered then?"
Archie had forcibly accompanied Horatio on his visit of charity to his former landlady (or rather her daughter), not entirely trusting his friend not to do something foolish if left to his own devices. Maria Mason had shown a distinct tendency to fall in love with handsome half-pay naval officers, and when Archie had gently but firmly directed her elsewhere, she had turned her affections towards Horatio, who was no more interested than Archie had been but was much worse at saying no. However, even Archie had not suspected that the "something foolish" would be quite this bad. The man was on the verge of a marriage proposal, for heaven's sake! Immediate intervention was necessary, he saw, and broke into a fit of violent coughing.
"Is your friend all right?" he heard Maria ask. Good, he had their attention.
"I'm sure he is," Horatio said irritably — good Lord, that man was dense sometimes.
Archie coughed louder — it made an excellent cover for the laughter which was so tempting — and stumbled into the wall for good measure, making a resounding thud. "Are you sure?" Maria asked again.
Horatio put his head out into the hall. Success. "Archie," he asked, "whatever is the matter?"
"Just something in my throat," Archie rasped out around the last of his false coughing. "But now that I think of it there's something on the Hotspur that you'd better look at. At once."
"But, Archie…" Horatio's chivalry had obviously gotten the better of him and he put his hand out towards Maria.
"It's absolutely necessary that you come at once, sir," Archie persisted. "I need the captain's eyes for this."
The appeal to duty worked. Archie doubted that Horatio actually believed him, but he couldn't say so in front of Maria without disparaging either his duty or his friend, and he would do neither of those things. "Very well," he said, still sounding irritable. "I'll come. Maria…"
"At once, sir!" Archie all but dragged his dilatory friend out the door.
"Now what is it that's so urgent all of a sudden? And since when did you call me "sir" in the company of friends?" Horatio asked, contorting himself as he tried to put on his greatcoat while walking without losing his hat.
"It's easier to show you than tell you," Archie said, walking towards the docks at the best speed he could muster and ignoring the second question entirely.
"We have time," Horatio said as he struggled to catch up to his shorter friend, but Archie pretended not to hear and kept walking.
Once on board Hotspur, he led his friend, and now captain, towards the tiny closet that would ordinarily have served as the first lieutenant's cabin, and now was made even more crowded by the introduction of a second lieutenant in case Horatio should need to detach a party from his crew for an extended period of time. William was doubtless asleep there, having stayed up much of the preceding night along with his captain and second lieutenant in order to see that the ship was supplied in time to depart on the next day, but this was an emergency and Archie felt justified in waking him. He rapped sharply on the door. "Archie!" Horatio said impatiently. "What on earth is going on? Why are we at your cabin? I thought you said there was something on board ship that needed my attention."
Archie ignored him again and kept knocking. He knew he was nearing the end of his friend's forbearance, but this was an emergency and he felt justified in it. Only a moment later the door opened and William put his head out. He was wearing a shirt and trousers and one boot (the other he had in his hand), but had clearly just woken up. "What is it, Mr. Kennedy?" he asked, and then straightened to attention upon seeing Horatio and made to salute, except that he still had the boot in his right hand. He caught himself halfway before he could hit himself with it, so the end result was a sort of vague waving motion. "Captain Hornblower, sir," he said. "What's the matter?"
"Ask Mr. Kennedy," Horatio said indignantly. "He's the one who dragged me all the way out of Portsmouth."
"And it was because of an emergency," Archie said firmly. "Horatio nearly proposed to Maria Mason."
"What?" William asked, now thoroughly confused.
"Archie!" Horatio had gone past indignant and sounded downright outraged. "I fail to see how my personal life is any business of yours! And it certainly is not enough of your concern to justify dragging me clear across Portsmouth on the excuse of ship's business to announce my affairs publicly to my first lieutenant!"
Archie fixed him with an unamused look and Horatio faltered in his tirade. "Horatio," he said, "I'm not doing this as your lieutenant, I'm doing it as your friend. Now come in and sit down."
William, confused as he was, stepped back to clear the doorway. Horatio, evidently seeing that Archie was not going to let matters rest until he had had his say, obediently stepped into the small cabin. There were no chairs, so the three of them sat down on the cots. Horatio was scowling and Archie realised that he would have to choose his words carefully. Thankfully, William intervened. "Now what on earth happened?" he asked.
Horatio shortly recounted the incident, with occasional accusing glances at Archie, and finished up his narrative with, "And he still has not explained to me why on earth he did it!"
William shook his head. When he had been woken by thunderous knocking on the door, he had expected some minor shipboard crisis at least. He had certainly not expected to be presented with a very private part of his captain's personal life, and Archie knew that though he would doubtless disapprove of the match he was also too good an officer to say so. But there was a certain equality between Horatio and Archie that came of having been midshipmen together, which subsequent promotions had never sufficed to erase, and Archie had been careful to maintain that intimacy, for he laid too much value on Horatio's friendship to let it lapse into simple professionalism. Horatio needed friends, whether he admitted it or not. Archie was not too proud to admit that the same was true of him. But at the moment it was Horatio who needed the advice. "I did it," he said, "because I don't believe for a moment you had thought the thing through. You were about to propose, weren't you?"
"Ha-hm," Horatio said, not meeting anyone's eyes.
William's lips twitched, but he was careful not to smile at his captain, and Archie was grateful to him for his restraint, though he more than understood the temptation to laugh. "I'll take that as a yes," Archie pressed on. "So now I have to ask you: do you love her?"
Horatio stiffened and Archie prayed silently that his friend would not take the question amiss. It was a delicate business he was engaged upon, and he was obliged to go barging in like a bull in a china shop because Horatio would simply ignore any more subtle hints. "I am fond of her," Horatio said defensively, and Archie relaxed. Horatio was clearly not comfortable with the situation, but he was tolerating it for the present.
William clearly understood what was happening now, and he was listening carefully. "I don't believe that was quite what he asked, sir," he said respectfully.
"It's quite pleasant to have someone on shore who cares if I live or die, you know," Horatio went on meditatively, though there was still a defensive note in his voice. "Almost like having a family."
"Sir!" William sounded rather hurt, and Archie understood the feeling, even though he guessed that Horatio did not quite mean what he said.
Horatio looked at William in confusion. "I should hope Mr. Kennedy and myself care if you live or die!" William exclaimed.
"Quite right," Archie said firmly. "I myself count you a friend who sticketh closer than a brother, Horatio. And I hope that you can count me as the same."
"The same goes for me," William said stoutly, though he seemed a little unsure of the propriety of making such a statement to his captain.
Horatio cleared his throat again, his eyes now fixed on his shoes, and there was silence for a little while. Archie knew that they hadn't offended Horatio — or he was almost sure of it — but it was a slightly fraught silence nevertheless. His friend had never liked talking of such things, even when they were midshipmen together and there was no barrier of custom between them. William, bless him, broke the silence again. Horatio believed William to be less intelligent than himself, though he would never be unkind enough to say so. Probably he was correct. Archie had yet to meet a man who could match Horatio's mind for sheer speed and ability, and he included himself in that statement. But Archie had also long thought that William saw and understood more than he let on; this was one more piece of evidence for it. "We're with you wherever you go, sir," he said. "And if you're bound for the altar none will be happier for you."
He shot a meaning glance at Archie. Oh. In his eagerness to see his friend safe from an unwise match, Archie realised he had neglected to account for the fact that Horatio, for all his imperturbable exterior, was keenly sensitive to rebuke, and never more so than when it came from his friends. "Quite right," Archie said, putting a hand firmly on Horatio's shoulder, eager to lay any misunderstanding to rest as soon as might be. "We only want to be sure that you've set a course that will make you happy."
Some of the tension left Horatio's shoulders at that, and the stern mask into which he had composed his face grew a little less stiff. "Well…" he said, and then trailed off. "I...ha-hm...I'm grateful for your consideration, gentlemen. I will take what you have said under advisement. But if you have no further concerns with my personal business, I believe we have a ship to get underway."
"So we do, sir," Archie said respectfully.
He had presumed a good deal on Horatio's friendship today; he would have to be a model second lieutenant for at least two days after this, possibly three, depending on how well the voyage went. There was an awkward silence for a few moments. "Well," Horatio finally said, and excused himself from the cabin.
As soon as Archie was reasonably sure he was out of earshot, he whistled softly. "That was a near thing, William," he said. "A very near thing. We mustn't let him out of sight on land again until after this voyage is over."
William, who had at last remembered his other boot and was in the process of pulling it on, laughed outright. "I don't think we'll need to worry about it," he said. "Not after this. But there are plenty of things aboard I can think of that could use the captain's supervision."
Archie grinned. "Good man, William," he said. "I knew I could count on you."
"You can repay me by keeping him out of danger the next time I'm trying to sleep, Mr. Kennedy," William retorted.
"I'm not sure that even I can promise that, Mr. Bush."
"Then at least promise me that there's someone on deck looking after the loading of the last of the stores?"
Archie hastily excused himself. In point of fact, there had not been. He hoped that Prowse had had the good sense to keep an eye on the men.