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Down with this Ship
#2 - Unadorned Truth


Hornblower fingers the two folded sheets of paper as if they were something distasteful. He now wishes he had left them to the wind's fancy to be carried across the deck to dance into the sea. Or at least that he'd never have seen his own name, written in a familiar hand, and therefore been moved by enough curiosity to read what was meant to stay private.

Too late now. He cannot reverse the fall of the sand in the hour glass and pretend it never happened.

He would recognize Bush's neat, cramped script anywhere. The address and the tender salutation show that the letter was meant to go to his sisters. What devil rode him to violate his First Lieutenant's privacy? Is there not a saying about people listening at doors never hearing any good of themselves?

Before Hotspur went back to Grasshopper's grave, he was shamed by his mother-in-law's amazingly tactful criticism, but even more so by Maria's tears. Then there was Elizabeth Patterson -- no, Bonaparte -- who hadn't exchanged but a few words with him and nonetheless thought she'd learnt his mettle well enough to consider him less than a man. Does he really show so little concern for the people he is responsible for? Is he really that heartless? Does he hide behind his duty at the expense of common decency?

He is no longer sure about anything.

Bush's letter is the most condemning of all and forces him to re-examine his own behavior ever since they were sent to find Captain Bracegirdle. And it is proof in itself, is it not -- that it takes his First Lieutenant's unwitting reproach for him to reconsider his actions? He will be a father in less than a year. How can he be a father when he is not even prepared to be a husband? //Women are not sailors,// Archie would be telling him now with a broad grin on his face, //you cannot treat them as you do your men and expect them to understand. They want tenderness, Horatio, tenderness and understanding. They want to know they are the center of your world.//

He has said it even to Maria's face, and the unconscious cruelty of it now turns his stomach --that he'd rather be on Hotspur than in her arms. She must indeed love him desperately if she is willing to apologize for what he now has to accept are his own failings. It is not she who is to blame, it is himself. He should have made amends and dried her tears, not ordered her to restrain herself. She is a woman and as such a creature of the heart, not of the intellect. He will do better next time.

He did not want to marry her, and he should not have. His own reluctance expressed in the worst nausea he has ever experienced -- even worse than his seasickness in Spithead, all those years ago -- should have been enough of an indication. He asked Bush's opinion, but was not willing to wait for possible deliverance; no, he had trapped himself in his own 'duty' and saw only one honorable way out. He did not even give his second-in-command (he does not dare to use the word 'friend' -- he no longer has the right) the opportunity to speak.

None of them understand. Not Bush, not Pellew, not his men. They all cheered him on, congratulated him, told him how lucky he was.

He doesn't feel lucky. He has but himself to blame -- he maneuvered himself into these shoal-infested waters, and now that his ship has run aground, he will have to carry on regardless.

He is trapped in a marriage that feels like a prison. And apparently he is a man who has lost his humanity.

He smoothes the paper in front of him and turns up the lamp a little. The words dance before his eyes and mock him.

HMS Hotspur,
12th April, 1805

My dearest sisters,

I hope this missive finds you in good health and spirit. Dear Sarah, I beg you to set my mind at ease -- tell me that the medicine prescribed by Dr. Alderton has eased your discomfort and successfully overcome the bout of influenza that has plagued the town for the last...

Hornblower skims forward impatiently. The relevant paragraphs are further down the page; there, where he first glimpsed his name.

... Captain Hornblower has changed a lot over the last few weeks. He now appears to be a man driven solely by duty. It is said that marriage changes a man, but whatever changes this brought on him, it disquiets me. He still is -- and always will be -- an exceptional commander anyone would be honored to serve with. The man, though, the friend -- I fear I have lost him.

He addresses me as politely as ever and continues to seek my counsel. Still, there is a distance present that reminds me of Renown, when he and Mr. Kennedy stood united and regarded me with distrust. Believe me, I would be far less concerned if Lieutenant Kennedy were still at his side; the friendship they shared and allowed me to enter at the fringes was a thing of beauty that few could replicate.

But now the Captain stands alone.

During our last mission he committed an act of bravery so daring that the men in the fleet are still talking about it. He refused to include it in his official report. Admiral Pellew somehow heard of it and asked me to divulge to him the particulars, and, thus ordered, I had little choice but to comply. The following day, Hornblower was made Post Captain. His advancement left him tongue-tied and embarrassed and he assured Mr Orrock and I that he had put our names forward for Lieutenant, and respectively Commander, but that the Admiral had been determined to choose his person. I do not doubt that he tried his very best, and there is also no other man who deserves better than a mere sloop.

Still, his joy seemed hollow and he appeared most reluctant to disembark Hotspur to join his wife on shore.

He has confided in me no further, and I still do not know which ship is soon to be his and whether Hotspur's company will be expected to follow him or remain on board to receive a new commander. I have been ordered to refit the ship, so I fear I may be expected to stay behind.

He lost a good friend, a fine and wise man by the name of Captain Henry Bracegirdle, to the fire of Irish renegades (I am quite certain you have studied the pages of the Naval Chronicle and thus learnt of this incident), and has been even more withdrawn and curt in his demeanor since then. He still addresses me by my Christian name on occasion, but lately only to reprove my conduct. I saw myself unable to fire in a situation in which my shot would have most likely caused his death also. He reproached me that he would rather lose his life than his ship and that I should have fired with no thought of the consequences.

I regard him as a friend and thus I, for the first time in my life, refused a direct order. I know I should consider myself lucky that it has not been brought to the attention of the Admiralty. Still, the little regard he has for his own life chilled me to the marrow. Ships can be replaced; a man's life cannot.

I promised Archie Kennedy that I would look after his friend and support him in his place when the Lieutenant lay dying in our cell in Kingston. I believe it was only my solemn vow as well as my helping hand in getting him dressed in his uniform that allowed him to shake off Dr. Clive's restraining hand and walk to his ruin in dignity -- I shall never forget those last moments before the cell door clanged shut behind him and I knew that I would most likely never see him alive again. This amount of courage, this self-sacrifice... it still leaves me tongue-tied in admiration for a friendship so strong and pure.

How am I supposed to keep this promise if I am to be but a hindrance, a second-in-command in name only? After I had disobeyed his order, he took me ashore with him and left Mr Orrock in command. Mr Prowse was not the only one finding difficulty in hiding his displeasure; it is standard naval protocol that at least one commanding officer must stay aboard, and Mr Orrock, no matter how gifted he is, is still a mere Midshipman.

Have I lost the Captain's trust? It did appear so when he decided to keep me under his eye like a recalcitrant schoolboy.

He had already reproached me in the most direct manner. I am to obey him like the good First Lieutenant I am. Of friendship no word was lost. I did not want to acknowledge it when he became cold towards me shortly before we came back to Portsmouth in late 1803; I thought I was mistaken. His obvious gratitude and good spirits on the day of his marriage reassured me that nothing had changed, but that seems to have been an aberration.

His treatment of his men has also changed. Styles, always a troublemaker, lost his position as the Captain's steward to a man bred for the role who was sent to Hotspur on Admiral Pellew's orders as the Admiral's wedding present. One would have thought that Styles would have been overjoyed to return to his position as bo'sun's mate, but no -- not Styles. The animosity between the two men culminated in a fist-fight that led to Mr Orrock taking a blow from the new steward, a small middle-aged man by the name of Doughty.

Mr Orrock was willing to forget the whole incident, but the Captain refused to concentrate on so unimportant a manner and instead had Doughty clapped in irons. The man later escaped to an American vessel, but I seem to remember he left a family behind in England that he may now never be able to see again. Still, exiled to America is better than being hanged by His Majesty's Navy. I would not be surprised if the Captain had somehow facilitated Doughty's escape -- he immediately ordered the Marines to stop firing when the man swam away, supposedly because the American ship was neutral and could misunderstand our men's actions.

Still, I cannot understand how the situation could have ever come that far. The Lieutenant Hornblower I remember -- he was so close to his division that they would have walked through fire on his orders. Now he ignores their occasional discontent and caters to their whims like Captain Sawyer aboard Renown; he let them dictate whether prisoners we'd taken were allowed food or not. I was so shocked that I could not protest when I learnt of this development. He has also let Styles run free with his mouth and fists in a way I find utterly incomprehensible. Whenever asked, duty is the word he gives as a reason.

I fear for him, I truly do. As officers of his Britannic Majesty's Navy, we all should aspire to do our duty above all other considerations. Still, a captain's greatness arises not only from his own deeds but also from the support of the men under him. And a captain who loses his connection to the men is more alone than any other officer at sea.

I will soon have to find an opportunity to ask for some of the Captain's time to bring this to his attention; I can only hope he will not see it as criticism but as an expression of my regard for him. Should he not grant this wish or cut me off I fear we are headed for disaster. I will stand by him no matter what happens, but I... I do wish I hadn't lost the friend behind the stern visage of my commanding officer; I wish I knew where I have failed.

But enough of this grave business, my dearests; let me now tell you the particulars of our travels, and please, you must not picture it as dangerous all the time. Can you imagine being at sea in the middle of a snow storm; when flake upon flake drifts onto deck and...

Hornblower tears his eyes away from the image of his failures preserved in black ink. Amazingly verbose and spirited for his plain and taciturn First Lieutenant.

He hits the desk with his flat hand, disgusted with himself for his immediate putting-down of Bush's abilities. His burns shoot a flash of pain up his arms. He ignores it and, with a groan, puts his face in his hands.

He meant to reject Bush's friendship; he wanted to protect his heart from further hurt. But by doing so, he seems to have lost his way and inflicted the hurt he wanted to spare himself upon others. On Maria who so far he has never called "his wife", but rather "Mrs Hornblower", and whose endearment, "Horry", embarrasses and disgusts him so much he always has to turn away from her when he hears it uttered; on Bush who has become a mere tool in his eyes, not a friend nor at least a trusted comrade; and on his men from whom he has distanced himself so much they must have surely started to resent him already.

"Archie!" he whispers, heartbroken. The old wound he thought scabbed over breaks open again, and for long minutes he steadfastly suppresses the dry sobs that try to rise in his throat.

And for the first time he questions his resolve to keep his distance from others.

He is married now; surely this insane attraction to Bush will no longer plague him? But if it still does? Should he really try to unfreeze his heart?

Can he survive if he does not?

Bush's reference to Sawyer scares him deeply. He would rather die than resemble the man. He would rather die...

And this also seems to be his problem. The people who... care... for him do not want him to die, do not want him to value his life so cheaply. What would become of Maria and their unborn child without his support? What of his men; of his ship?

He cannot see Bush as someone else's First Lieutenant. Just the thought of being parted from him spears his breast anew with a force he'd long thought mastered.

He will have to walk a thin line between comradeship and... more. He does not even want to use the word 'friendship'; not yet.

A sudden longing tightens his chest. To be up on deck or down in the hold -- wherever Bush is now, checking the stores so that Atropos, his new command, might sail by the end of the week -- to talk to his First Lieutenant, or just to stand by his side and know that he is not alone. He will not be able to give back the letter he caught from the wind; it is not sealed and he could never convincingly pretend that he had not read it. He blushes far too easily, and Bush knows too well how his discomfort expresses itself in shifts of shoulders, clenched hands or evasive gazes.

This thought stops him in his tracks. He hits his head on the beam supporting the ceiling right above his desk and curses vividly. Bush already knows him too well.

It seems he has nothing more to lose save his last secret, the one he will carry to the grave unspoken.

//Why not back to friends?// he thinks recklessly. He will accept the pain and consider himself well repaid if the concern he deduced from these pages is once again shown him in small wordless gestures.

He feels the ice break away and the pain return.

And he revels in it.


"Horatio Hornblower" ficlet by allaire mikháil, 2.696 words, Hornblower/Bush UST, Hornblower POV, rated PG-13, set after "Duty". Sequel to Cold to the Bone.

I cannot reconcile the Bush I know from the last four movies with the one C. S. Forester describes in his books. Furthermore, from the onset of "Duty", Hornblower's treatment of the people around him deteriorates more and more and makes me start to dislike the character. That might be similar to the character's development in the books but does not mean that I have to like it. This story is entirely revisionist history and ignores all books after "Hornblower and the Hotspur". Denial is a way of life -- it seems that I am an optimist after all.
Once again I owe a huge debt of gratitude to khaleesian for a great beta job. Thank you! All remaining mistakes are purely my own fault.
Special thanks to Dido for the title. "White Flag" has somehow become my internal soundtrack. I can close my eyes and picture the Sutherland; Hornblower's life as told by C S Forester and just... contemplate how a number of small decisions can set the basis for the future.


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