Horatio Hornblower woke up sneezing. Sniffling, he glanced around to make sure no one was looking and rubbed his nose on his nightshirt, too tired to grope around for his handkerchief. It must be the dust in here, he thought to himself, Archie was a little too enthusiastic with the rag yesterday. Planning on giving his friend just a little grief, Horatio grinned and got out of bed, preparing for the watch.
“Watch yourself, Mr. Hornblower!” Captain Pellew chided affectionately as he watched his Junior Lieutenant stumble over a coil of rope, “It wouldn’t do to have such a promising career cut short because of poor eyesight!”
“No sir. Sorry, sir.” Hornblower said, flushed with embarrassment as he gave a salute.
Pellew smiled indulgently. “On your way then, sir.”
Hornblower moved off, shuddering a little. That caught Pellew’s eye. It was a fine summer day, with a cool breeze that should have refreshed the young officer. Furthermore, the man was too strict to allow himself to cry on deck, so that shudder couldn’t have signaled tears. Pellew’s suspicions rose.
Spotting a blonde head coming down the rigging, he decided to confirm his doubts. “Mr. Kennedy!” He called, “Come along here for a moment, if you please!”
Kennedy bounded forward, a little nervous but not too much so, which was reassuring to see in a man who had had such difficulties. “Tell me, Mr. Kennedy, has Mr. Hornblower been acting strangely today?” Pellew said once the young acting-lieutenant was by his side.
“Strange in what way, sir?” Kennedy answered, his tone curious rather than deliberately innocent. Good; he wasn’t trying to protect Hornblower. Pellew gestured over to where Hornblower was talking to his division. “He doesn’t quite seem himself. You’re his bunkmate; have you seen any odd behavior from him?”
Kennedy considered. “He was sneezing quite a lot this morning. We both assumed it was from the dusting I gave the room yesterday.”
Pellew’s brow furrowed. That all but confirmed what he suspected. “He’s been a bit sluggish on his watch as well, and nowhere near as sharp as I’m used to. Mr. Kennedy, I do believe that Mr. Hornblower has taken ill.”
Kennedy looked over at Hornblower again. “Could be, sir. But he’s so stubborn, it will be hard to know for sure.”
Pellew smiled. “There’s one way to know for sure. Listen to me carefully, Mr. Kennedy…”
“Horatio!” Archie’s voice cut through the tired haze that Horatio had been unable to shake. Grateful for the distraction, he looked up at his friend with a smile. “Yes, Mr. Kennedy?”
“Captain’s compliments, Mr. Hornblower, but would you please make your way to the sickbay? He wants a report on an invalid officer. And since you’re currently the one on watch…”
Horatio nodded and moved towards the hatchway, Archie on his heels. “You don’t have to go too, Archie,” he said, once they’d descended, “This is hardly a job for two men.”
“I have to go there anyway,” Archie said, tone so completely pleasant that Horatio was completely oblivious of any mischief, “I’ve got a slight headache.” Accepting this, Horatio entered the sickbay.
“Oh, yes,” Dr. Cornell said, nodding emphatically at the captain, “It’s a cold, all right. A bloody spectacular one, actually. I don’t know where he could have picked it up.”
The captain turned to Kennedy, looking inquisitive. “Think you could shed some light on the matter, Mr. Kennedy?”
Kennedy looked like he was trying not to laugh. “Well sir, he…you know how hygienic he tries to be. I’m guessing all that cold Atlantic seawater may have done him more harm than good.”
Cornell was unable to keep a straight face, although he managed to stop himself from laughing out loud. “How ironic. But I think you’re right, Mr. Kennedy. There’s been a mild cold going around the ship, but nothing like this. Since we haven’t been on land recently, your explanation is the most plausible.”
“How serious is it?” the captain asked, a touch of worry in his voice.
“Well, I wouldn’t be putting him to work any time soon,” Cornell said, glancing back towards the infirmary and trying to fight down his laughter, “more for his sake than for the crew. I think almost everyone’s had some form of the illness now, so it’s not a matter of infection so much as the risk that the stubborn fool will work himself into a nice case of influenza.”
The captain nodded. “Would it be best to keep him in the infirmary or allow him back to his quarters?”
“I’ll have other patients to attend to and can’t keep an eye on him. I’d suggest sending him back to his rooms. Mr. Kennedy can lock the door behind him if necessary. That said, if he gets worse, bring him back here. With luck, he’ll be in no condition to argue if that happens.”
Kennedy saluted, grinning. “I think I can handle that.”
“One last thing, Doctor…” the captain said, arching an eyebrow, “Was it really necessary to gag Mr. Hornblower after you did your examination?”
Finally, Cornell allowed himself to laugh. “It was either that or tie him to the hammock. I couldn’t let him go back to work and risk becoming worse, at least until I’d told you what was going on.”
“He could have just removed it, you know.”
Cornell smiled, pleased with his brilliance. “I put a bit of spice in the gag and told him it was a remedy to clear his sinuses, and that he had to sit quiet until it was finished. I’m not sure how much he believed me, but he acquiesced.”
“I’d better go break the bad news.” the captain said, pushing through the curtain, Cornell and Kennedy right on his heels.
They found Hornblower sitting up in the hammock, looking extremely sullen, the gag still firmly in place and his handkerchief out to rub at his runny nose. The captain removed Horatio from active duty for at least a week, which caused Hornblower to make some angry noises of protest, but hampered by the gag, he was unable to get his point across. The captain merely waited until the patient had quieted down before saying the three words that would make Hornblower obey practically anything. “That’s an order.”
Hornblower’s shoulders slumped in defeat, and Cornell knew it was safe to remove the gag. Kennedy stepped forward then and tried to help Hornblower up, but Hornblower, growling, stood up and moved away, heading back for his quarters.
Watching his hesitant movements, and catching sight of his shivering body, Cornell knew that he would probably be seeing the man in the sickbay at least once more.
“Heh…hehhh…HEH-pshiew!” Horatio sneezed loudly into a handkerchief. Sniffing tentatively, he knew there were more coming. Groaning, he waited. Unfortunately, the sneeze was taking its own sweet time. “Eh…ehh…Ah…” nothing. He swore, massaging his sore head, and rubbed at his nose. “Ahh…ahhh…” it tapered off again.
“Sneeze, damn you!” he growled, frustrated. His nose twitched a few times, but refused to comply. Shaking his head, Horatio clamped the handkerchief over his nose, refusing to drop it; he knew the minute he did so, the sneeze would burst out.
He heard the turning of a key, and surprised himself by being pleased. Archie was back from his watch. “How are you feeling, Horatio?” Archie said, glancing at him. Seeing his current position, he laughed. “Stuck sneeze?”
“Yes,” Horatio muttered, “And I don’t dare let down my guard.”
Archie laughed. “What if an ally came to your aide?”
“What did you have in mind?” Horatio said warily.
Archie moved to Horatio’s seachest and pulled out a quill. “Let’s flank the enemy on both sides, shall we?”
Now Horatio laughed, even if it sounded more like a cough. “Give it a go, if you think it will help.”
“Want to know my dirty little secret, Horatio?” Archie said as he ran the quill around the edge of Horatio’s nose, “I did this last week, when I came down with this.”
“You caught this damn cold?” Horatio said, startled, “I never heard a sniff out of you!”
“It wasn’t as bad as yours, for a start,” Archie said, gently tickling the tip of Horatio’s nose, causing it to twitch violently, “And I am a master at the silent sniffle, not to mention the stifled sneeze.”
“I’ll have to take l-lessons.” Horatio said, feeling the sneeze dancing close to the edge. Archie, who was apparently an expert at this, chose that moment to slip the quill into Horatio’s nose. One brush against his septum and Horatio, for once in his life, willingly lost control.
“EKATSHHEEW!!” The handkerchief was clamped firmly against his face at that point, but the handkerchief was completely soaked through. “Goodness!” Archie said, both shocked and amused, “Bless you! Or are there more on the way?”
“I think I’m all right for now.” Horatio answered, feeling a merciful relief from that damn itch. Dabbing at his nose, he took another handkerchief from the small pile he’d placed next to him. “Maybe now I can get some rest.”
“Excellent idea. Your division misses you, by the way. Matthews asked me to convey their well wishes to you.”
“Thank them for me when you get the chance.” Horatio said, touched. He wanted to say more, but exhaustion was overpowering him, and he could feel himself falling asleep. Since he preferred sleeping over sneezing, he let himself go.
When he next woke up, it was dark, and his entire body seemed to be on fire. He lifted a hand to pull back the blankets, and suddenly found himself shivering. He soon discovered that even the slightest movement made him quiver with cold, although lying still was just as unbearable. Paralyzed for the moment, Horatio listened, trying to take in his surroundings. If Archie was out, then perhaps he would see Horatio’s condition when he came back. If he was already asleep, then Horatio was properly buggered.
But there was no indication one way or the other that Archie was there. Swallowing, Horatio called out softly. “Archie?”
That was as far as he got before he started coughing. They were dry, harsh hacks that made his throat burn and tears come to his eyes. And of course, all the excess movement made him shiver even harder than before. The rational part of his mind told him he needed water, but the rest of him was screaming for something more important; air.
The door to the room banged open, and he heard a jumble of voices, none of which he was able to pick out. Someone was standing over him, a hand on his forehead. Afraid he was going to suffocate, Horatio gestured desperately at his throat, trying to gasp out “water” but unable to manage it.
Then someone slapped him hard on the back. The shock of it made him stop coughing for a moment, and that’s when a cup of cool water was pressed to his lips. He gulped it down as fast as he could, shivering anew as the water hit his stomach. After a hesitant pause, he took a welcome breath; the coughing was gone for now.
The shivering, however, had become worse. Whoever had slapped his back was now rubbing it gently. “Hornblower? Hornblower, can you hear me?”
He nodded weakly. “C-cold.” He rasped out, wondering if his voice was even audible. He coughed again, but this time, there was water to stop it before it got too bad. He sipped gratefully. He dimly heard someone barking out orders, but didn’t know or care what exactly was being said. All he wanted right now was some warm blankets.
“Move aside, move aside,” someone said at the doorway, and the murmuring voices fell silent. Then someone was in front of him, poking and prodding, making him shiver more. He bit his lip to keep from groaning; he’d shown enough weakness for one night.
“I was afraid of this,” the new person said, “His fever’s spiked. It’s not life-threatening, but he’s going to need to be under more supervision. We need to move him to the infirmary.”
“Damn it, doctor, he’s in no condition for that at the moment! One good shock might kill him!”
“I highly doubt that,” said the doctor dryly, “But your point is well taken. Mr. Kennedy, do you mind keeping vigil?”
“Not at all,” said another voice, “should I send for you once his fever’s gone down a bit?”
“Do you think you can carry him down to sickbay yourself?”
“As long as he doesn’t struggle, I think I can manage.”
“As I said, if he has to be brought back, he’ll be in no condition to argue. You should have no trouble with him. I’ll be expecting you.”
And just as suddenly as the hubbub began, everyone was gone. Only Archie, apparently, remained, closing the door softly. “You had us worried there for a minute, Horatio. We thought we were hearing your death rattle.”
Horatio managed to shake his head. “There’s life in me yet.” He said, in between coughs. Archie held the cup of water for him. “Easy now, Horatio. Don’t make the fever worse.”
“B-blankets?” Horatio murmured, as he shivered violently once more.
In minutes, he was wrapped up in several warm blankets that had clearly come from his friend’s own hammock. “Th-thank…” he tried to finish, but the exhaustion was carrying him off again.
Just before he passed out he felt Archie’s hand softly touching his forehead. “It’s my pleasure, Horatio.”
“Excuse me, doctor, but I’ve got orders from Captain Pellew to check on an invalid officer.” Archie said a few hours later, unable, despite his worry, to keep himself from grinning at the familiar phrasing.
Doctor Cornell smiled too, his own grin a lot more relaxed. “You may tell Captain Pellew that the patient is doing all right, under the circumstances. He still has a fever, though not as high as it was earlier, but I don’t think there’s any chance of him becoming much worse. At the moment, I’m trying to sweat the fever out, so he’s fairly delirious. With luck, however, the fever should break by tomorrow—or rather, later today.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Archie asked.
Cornell gave him a mock stern glare. “What, you don’t think I am fully capable of handling a sick man on my own? Away with you, young whippersnapper, and give your report to the captain!” Then, relenting with a grin, “and then you can return and look in on him.”
“Thank you!” Archie said cheerfully, saluting him and disappearing out the door again. He was back fifteen minutes later, and Cornell waved him through the curtains. “He’s in the fifth hammock down. Can’t miss him, really; he’s the only officer there.”
Once he was through the curtain, Archie did indeed spot Horatio almost immediately. Horatio had insisted on putting on his coat before they went to the infirmary (whether out of cold or tradition Archie didn’t know), and was still wearing it. As he approached, he could see the hammock quivering slightly. Horatio was still shivering, although now it was more like a continual shaking rather than violent shudders. Pulling up a seat, Archie sat down and took a closer look at his friend.
Horatio’s face was flushed with fever, although he appeared to be starting to sweat, an excellent sign. He was currently asleep, although it was a more fitful sleep than Archie was used to seeing. He shifted constantly and made small noises in the back of his throat, occasionally twitching like a cat. Since he didn’t appear to be in the grip of a nightmare, and probably wouldn’t be in much of a condition to talk if he woke up, there wasn’t anything Archie could do. Softly patting Horatio’s shoulder, he stood up again. “I’ll be back after my morning watch.” he whispered, before disappearing through the curtain once more.
True to his word, he was back before the clock had finished striking eight bells. Doctor Cornell immediately answered his unasked question. “He’s awake, and he’s bloody miserable. The fever’s broken, but now he has congestion to deal with. I can’t understand what he’s saying half the time.”
Archie wheeled around on his heel and left the infirmary again. “I’ve got an idea. I’ll be back shortly.”
When he returned, he was carrying a mug of tea, a packet of handkerchiefs, and a book. “If you don’t mind my taking on the duties of a nurse, Doctor…” he said half-apologetically as he re-entered, but Cornell just laughed and waved him through.
Horatio was sitting up in the hammock, arms folded and looking extremely put out. Archie couldn’t help but laugh at the sight. “Don’t start on that again, Horatio,” he said as he pulled up his seat once more, “You’ll annoy the other patients.”
Horatio opened his mouth to retort, but Archie shoved the tea into his hands. “Don’t even try. I don’t have an English to Illness translator. Drink some of that first.”
Horatio sipped cautiously, then drank more readily; this was probably his first drink in a good while. After a moment, he lowered the cup, still half-full, and bent his head down, attempting to breathe. “What are you doing?” asked Archie, bewildered.
“Steam.” Was all Horatio said, and Archie understood at once, having seen his mother use a similar treatment many times before. Figuring Horatio wouldn’t appreciate an interruption, he sat back and waited.
Initially, Horatio’s breathing remained ragged, but soon, it sounded less like a gasp and more like a sniffle with each breath he inhaled. Then, finally, his nose started to twitch.
Archie immediately tossed the pack of handkerchiefs into Horatio’s lap, taking the tea in his other hand so that it wouldn’t spill and scald the patient. Horatio picked up a handkerchief and managed half a grateful glance before succumbing. “AH-ESSSSSHHEW!”
“Bless you.” Archie said, as Horatio groaned softly in relief, “How are you feeling?”
Horatio held up his hand to wait as he made use of the handkerchief. When he finally set it down, his voice was lower in pitch, but his words were actually intelligible. “Well enough, I suppose.”
Archie hid a smile, knowing that that was Horatio-speak for “Completely miserable.” Horatio continued, “I’m still a little chilled and my nose and throat are rebelling against me, but otherwise, the illness appears to be gone.”
“Well, that’s what the tea and tissues are for.” Archie said, patting Horatio’s shoulder.
Horatio, miracle of miracles, actually smiled. “I appreciate it, Archie.”
He looked like he wanted to say more, but didn’t want to admit to actually needing the articles in question. Instead, Archie held out the tea again, which Horatio took, sipping cautiously once more now that he could actually taste what he was drinking. Blinking and making a face, he looked back at Archie. “What exactly is this?”
Archie flushed a little. “It’s my mother’s recipe. It doesn’t matter what sort of tea you use, but you add in plenty of honey for the throat, and a few herbs to keep down the fever…and a little bit of pepper.”
“Pepper?” Horatio repeated, looking down into the cup, “In tea?”
“Clears the sinuses,” Archie said with a shrug, “And speaking of which…”
Horatio, a step ahead of him, handed him back the tea and put the handkerchief to his face again. “Eh-ehhh-hehh-EH-KITCHH! Ihhh-hihhh-HIT-SHHH!”
“Bless you.” Archie smiled, “At least they’re coming out this time.”
Horatio sniffled wetly. “I won’t be so pleased about that once I start sneezing in earnest.”
“You’re always sneezing in earnest,” Archie answered, moving his seat back just out of Horatio’s reach, “You also eat in earnest, walk in earnest, and basically just do everything in earnest. You’re the most earnest person I’ve ever met.”
Horatio, well aware that he couldn’t hit Archie from that distance, settled for a death glare. Archie laughed. “That’s the Horatio I know. You’ll be back on duty before you know it!”
“It can’t be soon enough for me!” Horatio said bitterly, lying down in the hammock once more and dabbing at his nose. Archie smiled sympathetically; he knew that Horatio detested looking weak, and despite the fact that it happened to everyone, and that nobody cared, he was still horrendously embarrassed that the whole ship now knew he wasn’t indestructible. Once he got out of the infirmary, he would try very hard to pretend this hadn’t happened. And for the sake of friendship, Archie would play along. Well, mostly.
“Here, I brought you something to read while you wait. It’s not The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but it’s fairly engaging and should help you forget your troubles for a few hours. And just in case it doesn’t…” Archie pulled a quill pen from his pocket and set it on Horatio’s lap, “Here’s something to help you out.”
Horatio looked from Archie to the quill and back again…and then started laughing. Archie laughed too and rubbed his friend’s shoulder once more, pleased that despite everything, Horatio was still able to see the funny side of things. Maybe there was hope for him yet.