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Six Bells

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Bolitho was woken by a soft cry of pain, though woken was hardly the word; he had only been lightly asleep, waiting for this to happen. He scrambled out of the hanging cot in the corner of his great cabin and picked up the lamp burning low on his desk, and knocked at the door of his own sleeping quarters.

“Thomas?”

There was a pause. A silent pause. Then, quietly, came Herrick's response. “What is it?”

“Can I come in?”

Another pause, then a resigned response. “Yes.”

The resignation tore at Bolitho's heart. For so many years they had been closer than brothers, each knowing the other's heart and mind, and now this. But he opened the door and went in.

In the narrow sleeping-space the lamp-light showed his friend lying awkwardly in the cot, his body undeniably diminished from the sturdy form it had been, his face set in an unmoving mask.

“Can I get you anything? Laudanum?”

“No, not that.” Herrick's voice was decisive. “I was trying to get up to visit the head, if you must know.”

“Oh. Well, let me help you with that.” But he did not so much as move closer until he had Herrick's sharp nod; then he helped him with the difficult business of getting out of the cot.

They crossed the great cabin, Bolitho holding Herrick's arm lightly to balance him. Then Bolitho waited in the chair behind his desk. There were papers strewn on it. None that might not be seen by Thomas, his fellow Admiral and one-time dearest friend. Bolitho's report of his attack on the pirate stronghold where Herrick had been held prisoner was still half-written. How did he tell of the journey back to the Valkyrie, sitting on the bottom-boards of the boat with that friend in his arms and tears running unnoticed down his cheeks? How did he tell – but here his memory baulked before he could relive the quarter-hour during which Minchin had lopped off Herrick's maimed right arm in hopes of saving his life.

There was surely no need to tell their Lordships that, a couple of days later, the sick-berth still being full of urgent cases, and no space in the ward-room, Bolitho had simply said, “He can sleep in my quarters, and I will keep an eye on him” - and who, in Sir Richard's own ship, would gainsay him?

Certainly not Herrick, who had said, “Very well,” and left it at that.

The door opened and Herrick re-appeared in the great cabin, his face set, but with a tired smile in his eyes. “Thank-you, Richard. I hate having to use the bottle.”

“I too. So undignified. Can I take you back to your bed?”

He helped him the few steps across the cabin. Just as well the Valkyrie was moving easily across a light swell. From the foredeck came the sound of the ship's bell. Six strokes. Night was turning towards morning.

They got Herrick back into the cot, and he shifted about, trying to get comfortable. “Is there anything I fetch you?” asked Bolitho.

“No. I just need to get this arm higher. Sometimes it's less painful when it's uppermost.”

Bolitho cast about for a blanket, rolled it up, and was about to put it behind Herrick's back to support him, when Herrick said, “Oh, for pity's sake, Richard. Get in.”

He had not said that for many years.

Bolitho came out of his momentary shock, edged round behind the cot, then climbed carefully in. “How do you want me?”

“Behind my back – yes, that's right -”

Bolitho eased his arms around Herrick, and they settled, curved together in the narrow confines of the cot. “Is that better?”

“Yes, for now. I might need to ask you to move again later.”

“Not too soon, though.”

Herrick's one remaining hand was within easy reach; Bolitho felt along the muscled forearm and took it within his own. Herrick's fingers closed round his, hesitantly. “Lady Catherine -”

“Will not begrudge us this, I can assure you.” Nor would she, though she and Herrick had been at odds for much of their acquaintanceship. But that was a matter of circumstances, not that she had any doubt of his worth, nor of Bolitho's love for him. And now Herrick was turning his head on the pillow, back towards Bolitho's. Then he stopped, with another little gasp of pain.

Bolitho heaved himself up awkwardly, leaned across and set his mouth on Herrick's. Quietly, sweetly as any pair of lovers in the leafy lanes above Falmouth, they kissed. The first time in ten years. No, longer. But it was the same as it had ever been. Bolitho could feel his heart thumping, quick and hard. But he eased himself down onto the mattress again, and said, with a little laugh, “My back will not let me do that for long. I'm older than I was. But oh, Thomas, I have missed you.”

“And I you. For all that's come between us, Richard, still I have missed you.”

Their fingers twined closer, and Bolitho arranged himself so Herrick's maimed arm was best supported against his own shoulder. His free arm curved around the strong, sturdy waist. Then, realising that their feet were almost touching down at the end of the cot, he stroked his toes along Herrick's instep, surprising a breath of laughter out of him. “It's good to hear you laugh again,” Bolitho said. He kissed the back of Herrick's neck, where the skin lay bare between night-shirt and queue. “Go back to sleep, dear friend.”