He was asleep again. Archie smiled and shook his head as he saw Horatio curl in on himself, leaning against a barrel to keep himself upright. You’d think, after bathing on deck naked, being arrested and thrown into the hold while still starkers (thank god Matthews and Styles had slipped him some clothes), being run aground and almost flooded, and then nearly being shot by Mad Captain Sawyer, the man would have been utterly jittery. Then again, he was still in desperate need of sleep after so many days on continuous watch, so perhaps it was exhaustion that had allowed him to sleep so deeply.
Archie also wished that he wouldn’t keep falling asleep on deck, since it might give the wrong impression. But again, he wasn’t on duty, and most of the crew felt like he deserved a rest. What was the harm, just this once, especially since Sawyer was now locked in a straightjacket?
He came over and sat next to Horatio for a moment, gently tugging the book out of his hands. He debated letting him stay on deck and telling him to go to bed, and finally decided Horatio would be all the happier if he woke up without a crick in his neck. He put his hand on Horatio’s shoulder and shook gently. “Wake up, Horatio.”
Horatio started awake, looking around him in a dazed sort of way. “What…where…”
“You fell asleep on deck, Horatio,” Archie said kindly, “Don’t worry, Sawyer won’t be able to hang you for it. But it would probably be better if you slept in your own bed.”
“Yes, yes…of course,” Horatio said, still groggy, “Where’s my…”
Archie handed him the book. “There. Now take yourself off to bed before Buckland or Bush find you like this.”
Horatio nodded, groaning as he got up. He swayed a little and put his hand on Archie’s shoulder to steady himself. As he did so, Archie felt Horatio’s hand quivering faintly, involuntarily, and he frowned. That certainly wasn’t normal.
He said nothing, however. Instead, he waited until Horatio had gone below, then sidled up to Mr. Bush. “Mr. Bush, could I have a word…”
“Honestly, it sounds like he’s caught a chill,” Bush said, after considering everything Archie had just told him, “He’s been soaking wet for the better part of the day, and that continuous watch couldn’t have helped matters. Perhaps we should look in on him while he’s sleeping.”
“Spy on him?” Kennedy seemed dubious, “I don’t know if he’d appreciate that.”
“But it’s the only way to make sure, isn’t it?” Bush said, smirking a little, “He’ll deny everything otherwise.” Kennedy opened his mouth, shut it again, and gestured with a hand. “This way.”
They found Hornblower in his cabin, curled up so tightly that his head touched his knees, and shivering. Incredibly, he was actually asleep, despite the fact that it looked like he was going to topple out of his hammock at any moment. Kennedy came forward and carefully laid his hand on Hornblower’s forehead. “Fever,” he whispered grimly, “fairly high, too.”
Bush beckoned him outside so they wouldn’t wake Hornblower up. “How high is ‘fairly high’?”
“Bad enough that he shouldn’t be working, but not so bad that we need to involve that incompetent prat of a doctor.”
Bush nodded. “I’ll talk to Buckland about taking him off the duty roster for a few days. Meanwhile, we’re going to need to come up with a list of excuses.”
“‘We?’” Kennedy repeated, “And excuses for what?”
“The man saved my life five hours ago. It’s only fair that I keep him from working to death.” Bush smiled, “And from what I know of Hornblower, he’s going to be hard to keep in bed. Thus, we’ll have to trick him into staying there.”
Kennedy looked at him with a certain amount of awe. Bush’s smile widened. “So, any suggestions?”
Archie was sitting by the hammock when Horatio woke up, pretending to read. He peered over the top of the book the moment he heard Horatio cough. “Feeling better, Horatio?” he said lightly, thankful that the book was hiding his smile.
“More awake,” Horatio conceded, apparently oblivious to the fact that he was not only shivering, but his teeth were chattering as he spoke, “Is it time for my watch yet?”
“Not yet,” Archie said truthfully, “I brought you something.”
Horatio blinked curiously, drawing the blankets around him as casually as he could. Archie moved to the alcove built into the side of the cabin and retrieved a cup of coffee. “Thought you could use this to wake up more.”
“Indeed!” Horatio said, his eyes lighting up, “Thank you, Archie.”
Archie handed him the cup carefully. “Drink it slowly, Horatio. It’s hard to bark out orders with a burnt tongue.”
Horatio did indeed sip carefully, and sighed a little as it went down. Archie, watching him carefully, saw that he was shivering a little less. Nodding imperceptibly, Archie leaned back in his chair and made small talk while Horatio drank. When the cup was empty, Archie took it back. “Another cup?”
“No thank you Archie. I…I think I’ll just stay in and read until my watch.”
“Fair enough. I hope it’s a good read. I’ll take this back to the mess.” Archie got up and left, trying to keep a straight face. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen when it was supposedly Horatio’s watch, but at this point, that was Bush’s problem.
“Let me up, Mr. Bush!” Hornblower protested, struggling underneath Bush’s hands, “I’m late for my watch!”
“I keep trying to tell you, you’re not!” Bush insisted firmly, “Buckland changed the watches so you could get some proper sleep. You have early afternoon watches now.”
Hornblower stopped struggling, but he was flushed in the face, something Bush knew had nothing to do with his illness. “Nevertheless, I fell asleep. I shouldn’t have. It was careless of me.”
“You’re tired and…” Bush stopped himself just in time, “overworked. The rest does you good. Everyone agrees. That’s why Buckland was planning on giving you the day off anyway. No one’s holding it against you, Mr. Hornblower. Really.”
Hornblower seemed unconvinced. Bush smiled. “If you need to sleep, sleep. I promise you, this won’t appear in any reports. You can start your watch tomorrow.”
Hornblower ran a hand through his hair distractedly, and Bush took the opportunity to look him over. There was a shine on his face that was obviously sweat, but that didn’t mean that the fever was gone. Hornblower looked up at him, swallowing a little. “You’re sure?” he said shyly.
Bush had never heard that tone in Hornblower’s voice before. Clearly, the man was sicker than he’d thought. “Yes,” he said, his voice gentle, “I’m sure. It’s all right.” Hornblower curled in on himself once more, and Bush swore he heard a wet sniffle. Knowing better than to stay in the room, Bush excused himself.
When he looked in again a few minutes later, Hornblower was asleep once more. Tiptoeing across the room, Bush took up a spare blanket and put it at the foot of Hornblower’s hammock, hoping Hornblower’s mind was too addled to realize it had just materialized there. Carefully, he laid his hand on Hornblower’s forehead. He was warm to the touch, but nothing too serious. Nodding, Bush withdrew once more. It was in Kennedy’s hands now.
Archie came in off his watch to find Horatio thoroughly bundled up in what, at first glance, appeared to be ten layers of blankets. There were, however, only about four of them. Still, there was no denying that Horatio looked cold. “What’s the weather like outside?” Horatio rasped, voice hoarse and dry.
Archie shrugged, rubbing his arms. “Bitterly cold. A wind’s blowing in from the Southeast. Should clear up by morning, though.”
Horatio pulled the blankets around him, murmuring “That explains it.” Archie had to struggle to keep from laughing at how bloody determined Horatio was not to state the obvious. “I was just going to the mess to get a cup of tea. Like one yourself?”
“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble…” Horatio said quickly (a little too quickly), “I’d go myself, but…”
“But you’re still exhausted from continuous watch,” Archie said quickly, “Of course. I understand completely. Just try not to fall asleep until I get back.”
He turned on his heel and left the room, managing not to laugh until he was down below. Bush passed him in the corridor and gave an inquiring glance. Archie, still laughing, nodded reassuringly. Bush gave a curt nod and an amused smile, and went back above decks.
Archie wrangled two cups of tea from the steward, then spent a few minutes adding honey, herbs, and pepper into Horatio’s cup, stirring until the last traces of leaves were gone. The only question was whether or not Horatio would be able to taste it. Then again, it had been ages since Archie had made it for him, so perhaps he’d forgotten.
Horatio was still awake when he got back. “There you are,” Archie said cheerfully, handing over the cup, “Took me ages to talk the steward into it. As if we don’t have enough tea leaves!”
Horatio laughed a little, sipping the tea gratefully. He paused and looked into the cup, arching his eyebrows. Archie tensed, tightening his grip on the handle of his cup, doing his best to look innocent.
Horatio looked up at him. “Does the tea taste a little…odd to you?”
Archie’s grip relaxed. “It does, now that you mention it. I wonder if this is some of that Gunpowder blend I’ve heard about. They add a touch of gunpowder to give it an extra kick.”
Horatio considered the tea once more, then shrugged and drank it down in one swallow. Archie was impressed. “I think that’s the fastest I’ve ever seen you drink something.”
“I’ve been sleeping for too long,” Horatio answered, his voice sounding a little better already, “I needed something to drink.”
“So I can see. Going back to sleep again?”
Horatio shook his head, flushing a little. “I’ve slept enough for one day.”
“Yes, but it happens to be night.” Archie said, laughing a little, “If you stay up all night, you’ll really bugger up your sleep schedule. Besides, if you’re still tired, there’s no shame in sleeping more.”
Horatio’s eyes were already fluttering closed, despite the tea. Archie rested a hand on his shoulder. “Goodnight, Horatio. I’m sure you’ll be right as rain in the morning.”
Horatio sounded like he wanted to protest, but was too tired to argue. Archie tugged the cup out of his hand, content that Horatio was not going anywhere tonight.
“How is he this morning?” Bush asked as Kennedy came out on deck.
“Well, the good news is that he’s not that feverish anymore. The bad news is that he’s clearly ill.”
“And how. I don’t think I’ve ever heard ‘watch’ pronounced like ‘wad’ before. I’d let him up if I thought he could pass it off for hayfever, but there’s no way he could get away with it today. Tomorrow, perhaps, but not now.”
“Hmm…” Bush said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, “And he’s going to be determined to resume his duties today. We’re going to need to find an excuse.”
Kennedy started thinking aloud. “Trouble with Sawyer? No, that would make him go out on deck even faster. We can’t have the watch schedule be shifted again, so…”
“I think I’ve got it,” Bush said suddenly, “After all, he’s going to wonder why the schedules shifted back once he’s well enough to be out on deck. Leave this to me.”
With that, Bush hurried to Hornblower’s quarters, composing his face into one that was both frustrated and welcoming, not an easy task. Reaching the door, he knocked briskly. “Come in.” Hornblower called weakly, and Bush winced. Kennedy hadn’t been exaggerating; the man sounded awful. Nothing for it, though; Bush pushed the door open.
Hornblower was out of his hammock, in the process of buttoning up his shirt. Clearly, he was prepared to go out on deck. Never mind the fact that he looked almost dead and clearly couldn’t breathe, he was going out. Well, he would if Bush didn’t stop him.
So he greeted Hornblower pleasantly. “Good Morning, Mr. Hornblower. Recovered from yesterday’s excursions, have you?”
“Quite well, thank you,” Hornblower answered, adjusting his neckerchief, “I believe I am ready to resume my duties.”
“About that…” Bush said, shaking his head, “Whoever wrote down the shift in schedules completely bollocksed it up. No one is able to make heads or tails of it. So we’re just going back to the old schedule. You’re on for night shift once more.”
Hornblower stared at him in utter disbelief. “You’re not serious, Mr. Bush.”
“Completely serious, I’m afraid. I assure you, the man responsible has been dealt with. Still, that means you have some time to yourself. Can’t complain about that on a ship of war, eh?”
Hornblower shook his head. “I suppose not,” he said vaguely, “But I have no idea what to do with myself.”
“Get some reading done, perhaps,” Bush suggested lightly, “or prepare some correspondence for the next mail ship. Whatever you want, really. I may be your senior officer, but I won’t dictate how you spend your free time.”
Hornblower managed a grin at that. “Thank you, sir. It’s appre…”
He broke off abruptly, hand rising to his face. Bush pretended to be very interested in the view outside the porthole. Watching Hornblower’s reflection in the glass, he saw the younger man pinch his nose and dip forward, releasing an audible squeak. Hornblower dropped his hand and cleared his throat. “My apologies, Mr. Bush. Something in my throat.”
“The sentiment was clear, Mr. Hornblower. I’ll leave you to make up your mind.”
He slipped out quietly, hearing another squeak as he left. He chuckled softly. “Bless you, Mr. Hornblower.”
Archie had been prepared by Bush for what he was going to encounter, although he was still startled when he saw Horatio’s stifling technique for himself. The man was going to pop a nerve if he kept that up. Apparently he hadn’t quite managed to teach Horatio the in’s and out’s of stifling.
Horatio was reading at the window, quiet except for those squeaks. Archie knew that he wouldn’t allow himself to sneeze properly until he was entirely alone, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to leave. Horatio was so endearing when he was trying to pretend everything was fine.
Then it hit him. Horatio didn’t necessarily need to be alone; he just needed the right excuse. Archie stood up and stretched. “I think the room’s in need of a cleaning. Do you mind if I do some dusting?”
Horatio looked up in some surprise. Then he shrugged. “If you like. I’ll continue my reading on deck.”
“Oh, no, stay here!” Archie insisted, “You won’t even know I’m there.”
Archie made his face a perfect mask of innocence, almost willing a halo to appear. Horatio bought it, apparently, for he smiled and went back to his book, remaining in his seat. Archie found a few cleaning rags and set to work.
He kept away from Horatio initially, running the rag over the chests and tables. Then, once he deemed the rag sufficiently coated in dust, he came a little closer. Then, quickly, he shook out the rag in Horatio’s direction. Retreating to a far corner, Archie bent over the shelves, keeping an ear out.
Horatio’s breath caught. “Archie…” he said accusingly, “You’re b-being too…ah…zealous in your dusting.”
“Sorry, Horatio,” Archie said lightly, turning round to look at him. “Is it bothering you?”
“You c-could say that…” Horatio said, pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket. Archie managed to avoid openly smiling until Horatio put the cloth to his face and closed his eyes. “Ihh-shh! Shh! Heh-tchh!”
“Bless you,” Archie said, voice wavering as he tried not to laugh, “Sorry about that.”
Horatio shot him a glare. “I believe I’ll continue my reading outside although the…chhst!...the damage has been done.”
He stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Archie laughed, hand over his mouth to muffle the sound; maybe Horatio hadn’t noticed, but the congestion was starting to clear.
Bush agreed with Kennedy that they should let Hornblower take his watch that evening. After all, it was night, and there would be fewer people about. Besides, it seemed clear that he’d be basically himself by tomorrow, so what was the harm in easing him back into ship’s life?
When Bush saw Hornblower emerge from his quarters the next day, he was startled to see him clenching a handkerchief in his hand. “Good morning, Mr. Hornblower!” he called out, “How are you today?”
“Well enough,” Hornblower answered, dabbing at his nose, “But Mr. Kennedy was careless with the dust rag yesterday. I still haven’t managed to rid my sinuses of it.”
“I see,” Bush said, as Hornblower sneezed quietly into the handkerchief, “Bless you, and my condolences.”
“It’ll clear up by tonight,” Hornblower said, shrugging, “No real harm done, I suppose.”
“Indeed not,” Bush said pleasantly, “I’m glad to see you back on duty. The decks seemed empty without you.”
Hornblower started, then flushed. “I…thank you, Mr. Bush. I’m glad to be back as well.”
He moved off hurriedly to take stock of the ship, but not before Bush caught a hint of a smile. Kennedy came out then, and the two of them exchanged looks. “You’re an unexpectedly good liar, Mr. Kennedy.”
“And you’re actually a decent nurse.” Kennedy rejoindered.
The two of them laughed, shook hands, and went on their way.