The muffled noise attending the changing of the watch had died away, and Hardy had just fallen asleep again, when the deep silence of the middle watch was broken by a knock. Instantly awake, he sat straight up in his cot. Some deep instinct told him that the knock had not been at the cabin door, and that there was only one other place from where it could have come.
So much for sleep.
The knock came again, more insistently this time, but not before he was already hauling himself out of his cot, feeling groggy and stupid now that he was upright, and stumbling into his dark day cabin. He fell to his knees, fumbling around until he found the hatchway in the deck. With a last lingering thought for that sleep he had been so close to enjoying, he threw it open.
Nelson peered up at him through the opening, still fully dressed, looking pale and fidgety.
“Hardy,” he whispered, in a tone of direst urgency, “are you awake?”
“...No,” groaned Hardy, rubbing his eyes. “Why?”
“I must speak with you.”
“Now, my lord?” He did not quite succeed in keeping the note of dismay out of his voice.
“Yes; now!” hissed Nelson. “It is a matter of greatest importance!”
That woke Hardy up a bit, though not for the better. “What is it, sir?”
Nelson was almost twitching from foot to foot in agitation. “It occurred to me - what if we are wrong about Villeneuve? What if he has gone somewhere else, and we are leading the fleet in the wrong direction entirely?”
Hardy’s eyes closed. His head started to pound. Not for the first time, he was forced to reflect that when he had agreed to the installation of a hatchway between their cabins for ease of communication, he had reckoned without Nelson’s ability to come up with the wildest notions at the most un-Christian hours.
“Sir, even if he has... can’t this wait until the morning?”
“How can it wait?” Nelson cried, and Hardy winced, sure that it must have woken up Mr. Scott and Mr. Atkinson in their cabins forward. “We may lose the French fleet entirely!”
While part of Hardy’s waking mind dutifully endeavoured to consider the admiral’s concerns, the rest of it rather unpatriotically grumbled that he would pilot the French fleet into Portsmouth harbour himself, if it meant he could have just a few hours' sleep. But it would never do to say that, so he found something reasonable to say instead.
“My lord,” he ventured gently, “you are all keyed up from our meeting with Admiral Collingwood. Now, we all agreed that we were following their most likely course.” He cast his eye over Nelson’s pale face, and the deep shadows beneath his eyes. “Why don’t you get some rest, sir? There’s no good in getting yourself in a state. Better to consider it all afresh in the morning.”
“I can have no rest, Hardy,” said Nelson, softly, but with implacable conviction. “I cannot, not until we have located the French fleet.”
Neither, it seemed, would Hardy.
“Well, my lord,” he said, in one last, forlorn effort to dislodge this notion about stray French fleets from Nelson’s head, “even if we are sailing in the wrong direction, it would be impracticable to try to change the whole squadron’s course at this time of the night. And with the wind in the northeast–”
“What?” Nelson’s head gave a jerk. “What time is it?”
“Just after midnight, sir.”
“Oh! Is it?”
“Yes, sir,” said Hardy patiently. “Watch changed not long ago.”
“Oh!” said Nelson again, looking appalled. “I had no notion of the time at all.” Which confirmed all of Hardy’s worst fears about how long Nelson had been brooding over this. “Oh, Hardy, I must beg your pardon! You must be tired! Please, do you go back to bed at once, yes, do.”
That was the moment where Hardy had the chance to bow out and flee back to his bed. But if he did that, he knew, then Nelson would simply pass the rest of the night in this same state of anxiety, and with no way of giving vent to it, would doubtless end up pacing the quarterdeck into the wee hours. This inevitably made him ill, which would in turn require Mr. Beatty to be fetched to attend him. And Hardy knew from experience that if Beatty was roused out of bed in the middle of the night for anything less than the Black Death, the consequences would be unthinkable.
So, for the general good of mankind, Hardy said, “Do you want to come in with me, sir?”
At that, Nelson suddenly became most interested in the chequered sailcloth beneath his feet. He kicked his shoe against it, and in a voice so quiet that Hardy could barely hear him, muttered - almost into his collar - “Yes.”
Hardy smiled. “Up you come, then, sir.”
There was rather a to-do in hauling Nelson up through the hatchway - really, which part of this arrangement was meant to make things easier for him? - but finally Hardy succeeded in setting him on his feet on the deck and ushering him into his sleeping cabin. Now that Nelson was distracted from his anxiety, his obvious fatigue was catching up with him fast, and he became surprisingly biddable, suffering Hardy to roll him out of his coat and waistcoat, and kicking off his shoes himself with a yawn he did not even try to hide.
Getting them both into the cot was even more of a feat, but eventually they managed it. And once they were both bundled together in the close confines of the cot, there was no choice for them but to get cosy, with Nelson half-tucked into Hardy’s side and half-sprawled across him, his good arm flung across Hardy’s chest. Hardy took a moment to make sure that Nelson’s sharper edges were safely out of contact with his vital organs, then gathered his little admiral up in his arms. Within seconds, it seemed, all the tension in Nelson’s slight frame unravelled, and he draped comfortably across Hardy’s body, snuggling in close. His face rested in the crook of Hardy’s neck, leaving a covert kiss there, and his breath came deep and even - almost a purr, Hardy thought with a smile.
Minutes stretched out in comfortable silence, then eventually Hardy bestirred himself to ask, “Are you feeling better, my lord?”
His answer was a low hum, which he interpreted as an affirmative. Then, a faint murmur of, “...very kind to me, Hardy... thank you...”
Hardy chuckled. “You know, Admiral Collingwood says he sometimes sings Bounce to sleep. Shall I try that?”
“Shan’t be necessary,” said Nelson. “Not tonight, anyway.”
They both laughed, soft and tired. Nelson’s stockinged feet entangled warmly with Hardy’s bare ones. Hardy stroked his back in slow circles. This was nice, he had to admit. And it would have been impossible to get away with it without that damned hatchway. So it was good for something, after all. And it was so much easier falling asleep and knowing at the same time that Nelson was also resting happily, and not working himself into a state of near-collapse. Leave it to Nelson to hit upon a plan that at first seemed to be sheer madness, but was actually genius in disguise.
Maybe it was a mark of how tired he was, but it was only then that the germ of suspicion bloomed.
“You wouldn’t have had an ulterior motive in putting that hatchway in, would you?”
He could see nothing at this angle, but somehow in the darkness he could feel that Nelson was smirking, very definitely. Hardy’s own smile spread, and he dropped a kiss onto Nelson’s flyaway white hair. “Goodnight, sir.”
And, lulled by the rhythm of Nelson’s deep, easy breathing, he drifted off at long last. It was a long time since he had slept so well.