AN. Before we make sail, a few words of caution.

Firstly, obviously, the Hornblower books or movies are not owned by yours truly, but by C.S. Forester and A&E. You'll recognize their hand in chapters 1 and 2.

Secondly, I should declare inspiration from another fic here on this site (A Perfect Victory by Mapu), which in turn used a scene from Master and Commander. Ergo, yours truly cannot lay claim to chapter 2 either. Wait, the waters get even murkier…

Thirdly, I have never sailed before and am not familiar with nautical terms. I'm also not a native English speaker, so I tend to write as it sounds/looks 'right' to me. Do let me know if I've made a mistake, and I'll correct it!

Finally, to end on a positive note, this fic was written for your entertainment (and to quieten a certain pesky little muse so I can sleep again at night). I make no money out of this, nor do I intend to.


The favour returned


1.

The mantle of command

It was a bleak morning, Captain Pellew mused as he descended into the chaos of the main deck, careful not to trip over bodies that seemed almost as abundant and as carelessly strewn around as the debris from the ship.

Contrary to what others sometimes professed, he did not care about the ship itself. Certainly, the Indefatigable was a fine vessel, possibly the best he'd been fortunate to command in his career, but seeing her gaping wounds due to the cannon balls did not tug his heartstrings.

Seeing the hands' wounds, however, did.

As long as the Indy still floated, she could probably be mend. Unlike all those many lives that had been destroyed...

Hepplewhite was a capable enough surgeon, notwithstanding his less-than-pleasant bedside manner, but even the best doctor in the world could work no miracles...

Trying to shut out the anguished moaning and crying of the wounded and dying, Captain Pellew stood a little straighter, his head high as he tried to keep himself wrapped in the mantle of command. Today that attitude did little to protect him from the harshness surrounding him. Though he was physically uninjured, there was a deep ache inside of him, and every moan that reached his ears added another stab of pain to it...

No matter how long he had held this lofty position, no matter how many battles he had fought and men he had lost, the pain never lessened. He had heard some of his peers claim that they had gotten immune to it over time, but he doubted they truly believed that themselves.

One did not get used to this.

One should not get used to this.

Surely, over time, one learned not to show the anguish, and to hide the pain deep inside, well out of view. It was a most difficult lesson, one that all good officers would have to learn sooner or later.

His gaze fell upon Mr. Hornblower, presently clambering on deck, and he fervently hoped that the boy would be spared that particular lesson for a little while longer.

Setting an interception course for his youngest, but most promising, midshipman, carefully navigating the cluttered deck, Pellew took the opportunity to asses the lad quickly.

Hornblower looked like death warmed over, not to put too fine a point to it.

Pellew's heart gave a painful jolt of concern when the boy turned his head, revealing the bloodied left half of his face. But most of all, it was the dazed look in those usually sharp inquisitive eyes that worried him.

"Timely, Mr. Hornblower... Timely..." Pellew said as he tried to curb his own anxiousness and pull himself back together, trying to project the image of the steady captain who is always in control of the situation.

He was not sure how well he succeeded, for his voice sounded too meekly, at least to his own ears, when he stated the question he dreaded hearing the answer to.

"I, uhm, take it by your appearance Lt. Eccleston is indisposed?"

Lord, please, let him have survived with only mild injuries...

But he already knew, even before Hornblower replied, that only a severe injury would have prevented his first lieutenant from reporting in person.

"I regret to inform you, sir, that Lieutenant Eccleston is dead..."

Another name to add to a long list... Another face to haunt his dreams...

"Lieutenant Chadd is also among the fallen"

Though Hornblower's voice was even, Pellew could see the turmoil in the boy's dark eyes. The anguish and guilt, the pain and the fatigue, only kept at bay by sheer stubbornness born from the need to keep up the appearance of the ever-stoic officer in his Majesty's Navy.

A mirror of his own feelings, although he had plenty more years of practise in hiding them. Though the boy might as of yet possess a flimsier mantle of command, the strength and promise for future greatness were clear to Pellew.

"I see..." Pellew said thoughtfully, forcing his mind back on the job at hand. "Hmmm. Who, then, had command of the Papillon during the action?"

He didn't need Hornblower's answer. Not really. He had seen it with his own eyes, had he not? The ingenious bold manoeuvre that was far too unconventional to be attributed to either Eccleston or Chadd, who had been good but rather by-the-book officers. The precisely timed execution that hinted at a mathematical mind. Oh, yes, and the youthful confidence that allowed a man to plunge into a battle against reasonable odds.

"The honour fell to me, sir." Hornblower reported evenly, without the slightest hint of pride. As if he had merely captained a sloop on a calm sea... Pellew already knew that the lad's self-image was not very high, and that he usually belittled his own actions, allowing himself to see mostly their flaws. It was a situation he intended to remedy soon…

However, now, on a bloodied deck and with 2 of his officers already out of the picture, was not the time to address that particular issue. He dreaded to answer to his next, obvious question.

"How so? What of Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Simpson?"

"Mr. Kennedy..." Something - grief, guilt, suspicion, anger? - flashed briefly in Hornblower's eyes as the lad struggled to keep his composure. "... was left behind after the boarding of the Papillon..."

There was more to that story, Pellew instantly knew. The raw pain in Hornblower's eyes seemed to double his own. But, also that would have to wait. The mantle of command demanded so.

"And Mr. Simpson?"

What of the only man Pellew, God forbid, would not have minded not returning.

"I ordered Mr. Simpson to be locked up in the brig..." The statement was delivered neutrally, as if Hornblower was talking about having ordered to trim the sheets rather than having just committed a certain form of mutiny by incarcerating his superior officer.

Pellew almost asked Hornblower to repeat himself, believing his own ears had been damaged by one too many an explosion to have heard correctly. To say he was lost for words was a major understatement.

In fact, the silence went on for so long that even Hornblower, in his exhausted, grieving state, noticed its unusual duration and cleared his throat hesitantly.

Pellew returned to the present instantly, chagrined with himself for getting lost in thought at one of the worst possible moments.

He spoke up briskly, in an attempt to convince himself he had regained control. "Right, Mr. Hornblower, I surmise this is best discussed further in my cabin…"

His eyes flickered to Hornblower's bloody face. "Perhaps after you have been seen to by the surgeon…"

"I'm fine, Sir." Hornblower replied automatically, then expanded most reasonably. "I should not bother dr. Hepplewhite with such a minor injury at this point…"

When he is clearly needed elsewhere

Certainly a most valid point. Never mind the fact that Pellew could not keep Mr. Simpson in the brig indefinitely, no matter how tempting the thought was…

"Very well, Mr. Hornblower." He nodded, turned on his heels and strode purposefully to his cabin, trusting his men to tend to the ship. Now that imminent disaster was averted, surely Cleveland and Hether could manage, as well as Bowles whom Pellew correctly surmised had been put in charge of the Papillon by Hornblower.

Once the door was safely shut by Hornblower, Pellew started pacing, as was his wont when he had a difficult problem to contemplate.

"Right, now, Mr. Hornblower. Would you care to tell me what Mr. Simpson has done to warrant himself a stay in the brig, and during an action as well, I might add?"

Hornblower, standing at rigid attention, turned his dark gaze to meet his captain's unwaveringly as he reported in a neutral tone.

"He shot me, Sir, during the action on the Papillon, while we were getting the sails loose."

Dear Lord!

"Shot you? The nerve…!" Pellew echoed, his voice a near-roar which would quite possible be audible outside as well, hence negating the need to discuss in the privacy of his cabin.

Hornblower looked suitably intimidated by his captain's ire, but, typically and completely wrongfully, assumed it was directed at himself. He levelled his gaze to stare unseeingly before him as he stood a little straighter and said quietly.

"I'm sorry, Sir. Indeed, I have no proof other than my own eyes."

Pellew was about to explain himself, and tell his young impressionable midshipman that he most certainly did not disapprove of locking the miscreant up, and that he would take Hornblower's word even over any other witness's testimony, when the boy spoke up again.

"When I reported the incident, Lt. Eccleston agreed that the matter was best discussed later, but then, as he…" A small pause as Hornblower swallowed. "was trapped under the broken mizzen mast, he told me I should take over command... Mr. Simpson did not agree, and I had no choice but to have him confined, Sir…"

A concise formal report. He implied, but did not stress that he had acted upon his superior's orders, for Eccleston, even in death, clearly outranked Simpson. Nor did he argue that it had all been for the sake of the ship, rather than any personal vendetta he might have with his fellow midshipman.

Hornblower knew there was no objective proof. Probably, no one else had heard Eccleston's last words, just as no one had seen the man who had shot him in the heath of battle. In a court of law, he could easily be found guilty of mutiny if Simpson managed to play out his seniority and Hornblower's earlier challenge to a duel. All the court would see, would be a young hot-headed midshipman that was a little too eager to climb the ranks.

And, they could not have been more wrong…

Pellew would not allow that to happen, not as long as he was still alive. He would not loose his best officer to a bunch of landlubbering near-retired naval captains, no sir! Not the boy who had just saved his ship, not to mention in all likelihood his life and that of almost every soul aboard Indefatigable…

Pellew was so lost in thought again, weighing various options in this delicate matter, that he almost failed to see said boy sway alarmingly. But years of expertise on the frontlines of his Majesty's navy, ducking the occasional cannon ball, pistol shot or bits and pieces of flying debris, had kept his reflexes sharp, and he caught Hornblower before the lad could hit his head again.

Gently guiding the half-conscious boy into a chair, he let the damned mantle of command drop as fast as Hornblower had, to be replaced by genuine fatherly concern.

"Mr. Hornblower?" He asked softly, keeping one hand on the lad's arm in case he should decide to succumb entirely. "Perhaps, a house call from the surgeon would not be so amiss at this point?"

Hornblower seemed to find some strength again, and he slowly lifted his head to look at his captain.

Pellew did not like the unfocussed quality of his gaze, but Hornblower's voice was steady enough as he replied. "I'm fine, sir, just a temporary spell of weakness."

Clearly, he blamed himself for what he saw as a loss of control, but Pellew could only interpret it as one being stretched far beyond emotional and physical limits that would have felled lesser men, staying awake only by virtue of sheer stubbornness, … and that damned mantle of command.

A small indulgent smile curled around his lips, unseen by Hornblower who had once again lowered his eyes, obviously ashamed. Soon, however, that facial expression was replaced by one of open concern, when Hornblower tried to stand up.

While the attempt itself would probably have proven unsuccessful, Pellew did not give him the chance to find out.

"Stay seated, Mr. Hornblower." He said sharply in his usual commanding tone, fully confident that the conscientious young midshipman would not dare ignore a direct order.

Pellew retrieved a bowl of water and a clear kerchief, and startled Hornblower quite badly by gently cupping his face and tilting it back.

The boy blinked, in equal measures of confusion and tiredness.

In the same strict tone, Pellew spoke up "Hold still, Mr. Hornblower, and let me see to that wound for a minute…" He would have liked to add in jest 'Before I loose my best officer…' but undoubtedly, Hornblower, in his present guilt-ridden and confused state, would find a way to warp that statement into a criticism, given the now strongly reduced number of officers, God forbid!

No, best to stay neutral at this point. He would praise the lad later, when he was fully conscious to understand and memorize it, if not enjoy it.

Carefully brushing away the dark curls from the bloodied forehead, Pellew gently started to clean the wound. As the blood washed off, he noticed a nearby area, mostly hidden by the mass of hair, was turning into some interesting shades.

Not due to the bullet, this one, Pellew mused. And he suddenly realised that other wounds might very well be lurking underneath his young charge's clothes. Had the lad not said that he had been loosening the sail when he had been shot? Dear Lord, had he fallen onto the deck?

But he had looked fine, climbing aboard under his own volition. Then again, considering Hornblower's epic stubborn streak…

Swallowing his instinctive reaction to yell for the surgeon immediately, he asked Hornblower.

"Did you hit your head?"

Hornblower's reply was hesitant, as he struggled to recall the past hours.

"I'm not sure, Sir. Perhaps, during the action, when I was knocked down by the explosions… But I don't suffer from double-sight or nausea, sir, so there is no concussion."

Ah, yes, Pellew though wryly to himself, the doctor's son indeed. But he didn't relent, not trusting his young charge to diagnose himself correctly.

"When you were shot, did you fall down from the yardarm? Did you hit anything else?"

"Yes, sir, I mean, I did fall, into the water, but I can't remember hitting anything. I was pretty much out of it, sir…" Hornblower replied meekly.

A fortunate spell of fate, Pellew almost smiled openly.

Wait a moment… But if he had been "out of it"…

"Then, pray tell, how did you manage to get back on board, Mr. Hornblower?" Pellew asked curiously, applying gentle pressure to the wound that had reopened under his ministrations.

Hornblower winced a little at the pressure, and undoubtedly, the renewed pain it brought him, but remained impassive otherwise. "I own my life to Finch and Matthews, Sir. Finch apparently dove in right after me, and kept me afloat. He managed to grab hold of one of the lines of the Papillon, so we did not drift off in the time it took Matthews to alert Lt. Eccleston of our predicament, Sir."

For the second time that day, Pellew was shocked into silence. Certainly, only a small minority of officers commanded such loyalty in their division that the men were willing to die for them, but that was not what had surprised Pellew the most. Finch and Matthews… It seemed almost too fortuitous to be mere coincide…

"Did they, now?" Pellew finally said slowly, making no effort whatsoever to keep the small smile off his face. "Returning the favour you did them, in a way…"

His thoughts turned back in time, to one very early morning when he had been abruptly awoken from a spell of fevered dreams by a terrified midshipman.


2.

Sea Anchor

It had been a heavy storm that had taken the Indefatigable by surprise.

He wasn't entirely sure whether to attribute the trembling in his knees to the lingering illness or the wooden deck groaning under the force of the waves.

The first thing that had popped up in Pellew's mind when he exited his cabin in the early predrawn morning, gripping the door frame when the ship dipped particularly deeply, had been to find out which midshipman of the watch was to blame for allowing them to be caught by suprise. The thought, however, was quickly pushed aside in order to deal with more urgent matters.

"Cleveland!" He barked at the unfortunate midshipman who had been tasked with fetching the captain, and stood presently beside him, too terrified to take any initiative.

"See to it that the mizzen topsail is reefed right now!"

He didn't pause to hear the anxious "Aye, aye, Sir", but set a swift course for the quarterdeck, all the while taking stock of every taut sail and strained cable, as well as the equally tense faces of the hands.

Suddenly, part of the forward sail rigging snapped, causing the canvas to start fluttering wildly as she pulled at the remaining ropes, further damage imminent.

Before Pellew or any of his Lieutenants could shout an order, however, a gangly figure in a midshipman's coat darted across the deck and fairly jumped into the broken foresail rigging, apparently with little concern for his own safety. He was followed almost instantly by 4 others, who also didn't hesitate to brave the flogging ropes and canvas.

Hornblower and his men. The thought came naturally to Pellew, even though he couldn't possibly identify the men for sure in the dark, further obscured by the streaming rain.

Almost as easily, he shifted his attention to other matters, confident that Hornblower would handle the situation.

Up on the quarterdeck, he was quickly briefed by Eccleston, but the man managed to add no further information to what he had already seen with his own eyes.

Damn fool for not fetching him earlier…

Certainly, he had been ill, and admittedly tired and cranky, for the past days, but surely Eccleston knew that a bout of the flu ranked as far less serious than being dismasted in a storm?

He elected not to bit the man's head of, for his first lieutenant did have its uses, although, unfortunately, taking decisive action in an unusual, most hazardous situation did not seem to be one of them…

No, for that, he would need to look elsewhere…

His gaze strayed to the forward sail, and noticed with pleased satisfaction that it seemed once again captured securely by the rigging… and that the 5 men who had climbed in were all coming back down safely.

Then, a terrified shout from above followed by an almighty crack made him snap up his head reflexively, just in time to see the mizzen mast break and fall sideways into the raging waters below.

The Indefatigable shuddered and groaned under the impact, and for one moment in time, all seemed to have reached a stand-still. Then, however, time resumed at its normal pace and Pellew noted 2 things. First, the broken piece of mast was still attached to the ship by virtue of its rigging. And second, he could see several men in the water right beside the floating wood.

Quickly, he strode over to the railing, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted as hard as he could in his best commanding tone, one that broke no argument and was sure to breach through the panic the drowning sailors were surely feeling.

"Swim to the wreckage and climb back aboard!"

He watched anxiously as the men, 4 as far as he could tell, tried to fight the high waves to negotiate a way to their only means of rescue. Apparently, two of them could not swim, or were too injured or terrified to try. One of them allowed a friend to drag him along.

The other was lost below the waves and did not resurface…

Even as the 3 remaining men were slowly but surely closing in on the wreckage, Pellew could no longer ignore the groaning and listing of the Indefatigable, nor the panicked voice of his first Lieutenant.

"She's acting as a sea anchor, Sir, we have to cut her loose right now or else we'll be dragged down!"

Eccleston was right, of course, but Pellew could not take his gaze of those 3 men, tiny insignificant dots adrift amidst the wild waters of the unforgiving sea.

To cut the mast free would mean to forfeit their lives also.

"Captain Pellew!" Eccleston almost yelled in his ear, looking terribly frightened. "She's taking us down! We have to cut her loose, Sir… now!"

Pellew knew the Indy better than Eccleston, and he felt she might possibly handle the abuse for a little while longer. If it had only been his own life at stake, he would have waited. But he could not endanger all men aboard the ship for the very slim chance that 3 might be saved.

"All right, Mr. Eccleston." He said briskly. "Cut the cables."

"Cut those cables loose!" Eccleston's shout was taken up by several more men as the order was relayed and axes brought in response.

Pellew slowly, reluctantly, pulled his gaze away from the 3 men he had just doomed to die to stare out over the rest of his men aboard the Indefatigable… the ones he was trying to save too.

The rationalisation did not lessen the emotional pain.

Suddenly, a small cluster of activity on deck caught his full attention.

Now that the rain had temporarily slowed to a steady drizzle and the morning sun was slowly dawning, even though mostly hidden by the storm clouds, he could make out 2 figures in midshipman coats, one of which was presently shedding the aforementioned cloak, at the centre of a group of sailors,.

Realisation dawned to Pellew just before Hornblower dived over the railing. His counter order remained stuck in his suddenly tightly closed throat.

Eccleston's group attempting to dislodge the mast mere feet away, the shouts of the sailors, the ship's wild bucking movements as she fought the storm, they all faded to the background as Pellew kept his focus on the tiny dark head in the water that was steadily making his way to the drowning men that were still clinging to the wreckage which was about to be set loose and would take them away from the ship… He was torn between anger and admiration, but most of all, he was praying for a miracle.

He did not know if it was luck or skill that brought Hornblower close enough to the men just in time before they would have floated outside of range. But somehow, the lad managed to get a hold of them, and get them clear of the now adrift wreckage, eliciting a relieved sigh from Pellew he could not entirely suppress.

However, the most dangerous part may yet be ahead, he soon realised as he watched the sailors on board, at the command of the other midshipman (which, Pellew was willing to bet his 6 year old claret on, would turn out to be Kennendy), starting to pull them in.

The rope Hornblower had tied onto his person became taut as his men pulled against the strong currents of the water. But the churning waters were wild, and not very predictable, especially closer to the ship, and the men in the water ever as they came close to safety, they also became closer to the danger of being swept against the hull by the huge waves.

Pellew swiftly descended from the quarterdeck, after barking a quick order to turn the ship a few points so that the starboard bow would be breaking most of the waves, leaving the larboard side, where the men in the water were heading, slightly less exposed to their breaking force.

It was not much, but it was all he could do without damming the entire ship to wreckage, which would do Hornblower no good either.

The sailors clustered around Kennedy, watching the rescue attempt and shouting encouragements, did not expect their captain to appear, and it took them a few precious moments to scatter out of the way once they did.

But Pellew needn't have worried. Mr. Kennedy seemed to have the situation well enough in hand, he noticed with approval. The young midshipman was currently directing the sailors that were pulling in the rope to synchronise them with the pattern of the waves crashing against the hull.

"Almost there… Stop pulling… OK, pull… Stop…"

The last stretch, however, would be more luck than planning, and when Pellew's gaze met the wide blue eyes of Kennedy, he noted that the lad was also acutely aware of the danger to his friend.

But even the presence of his Captain did not distract the boy for more than a second before he turned his single-minded attention back to the rescue attempt.

And Pellew did not interfere, though it that had been his intention as he had come down from his lofty position upon the quarterdeck. Partly because he didn't wish to break the concentration of his men, and partly because he felt he could do no better job than Kennedy was already performing.

"Brace yourselves, Horatio!" Kennedy shouted down, leaning down, hanging precariously onto the railing to gauge the raging waters better. "Okay, men… Pull, pull with all your might!"

And so they did. Perhaps encouraged by their comrade's cheers, perhaps inspired by 2 certain midshipmen, perhaps by the watchful eye of their captain, perhaps by fear for the men in the water, but pull mightily they did, and soon many helpful arms reached over the railing and heaved a miserably soaked foursome on deck.

Pellew released a sigh of pent-up fear and frustration as he made his way through the cheering sailors to stand before Hornblower, who looked thoroughly bemused as he was being congratulated by his friend Kennedy as well as the other bystanders.

Still, even after such an ordeal, Hornblower's first thought was for his men. Pellew overheard his orders to get the other 3 below and warmed up, absent-mindedly registering the identities of the three rescued men as they were led past him. Matthews, Bolton, and Finch. Two of Hornblower's, he noted idly, but soon that thought was pushed aside for more urgent matters.

"Mr. Hornblower!" Pellew's authorative voice made the sailors scatter quickly, like seagulls before a fox.

It took a few seconds for Hornblower's dazed gaze to meet his captain's. "Sir?" He asked slowly as he stood up more straight, unsuccessfully trying to ignore his soggy waterlogged uniform, or, more accurately, his soggy waterlogged lack of proper uniform attire (although someone had managed to wrap him in a blanket).

The tiredness in his eyes and the ever so slight trembling of his voice and body should have mellowed Pellew, but somehow, the fear he had just experienced fuelled his earlier anger.

"Mr. Hornblower!" He repeated, allowing his anger to simmer through and sharpen his words to biting intensity. "What in the devil's name did you think you were doing?"

Around them, the sailors dispersed quickly, not wanting to be caught in a backdraft of their captain's wrath. Kennedy, however, kept hovering nearby, compelled either by foolishness or bravery.

Hornblower blinked, looking confused and lost, and not entirely present in mind.

"I'm sorry, sir." He ventured tentatively through clattering teeth, willing to take the blame even though he quite clearly was not sure why he should be sorry.

Pellew was about to fill him in on that. "Jumping overboard just like that, unordered, abandoning ship when our officers were most needed… Desertion, of a sort, even! A fine example of duty you presented to the men!"

He kept his voice low, so that the others would not overhear. He had never been fond of criticizing his officers in front of the men, lest they'd loose their credibility. Normally, he would have taken such a conversation into the privacy of his cabin, but rational thought seemed to have temporarily abandoned him mostly.

Hornblower shrank back a little, more likely due to the captain's imposing demeanour than due to an actual understanding of the words. He looked deadly pale in the dim morning light.

Kennedy took one step closer to his friend, but fear for his captain's reaction kept him from interfering as of yet.

"Why did you think it beneficial to risk your life, and that of your shipmates?"

Pellew had meant it to be a rhetorical question, but of all moments Hornblower picked this question to refocus on reality. He spoke softly, almost inaudible above the whistling of the wind in the sails and the creaking of the wood.

"Matthews has a wife, and 2 children, Sir. His youngest, Adam, has just turned one yesterday. It is not fair that he would never get to meet his father, Sir..."

The soft-voice reply stopped Pellew clear in his tracks, the rest of his rant suddenly forgotten as he stared at his youngest midshipman with dark turbulent eyes.

The awkward moment was broken quite effectively when Hornblower's eyes suddenly rolled up and his body went limp.

Kennedy managed to catch him awkwardly, going down as well but at least managing to keep his friend's head from hitting the unforgiving deck.

Pellew came to himself with a start and bellowed. "Get him below!"

A large burly sailor, Styles, Pellew idly noticed, again of Hornblower's division, must have lingered nearby, for he was quick to jump in and lift the unconscious lad as easily if he were a bag of grain, yet, curiously, infinitely more gentle, cradling him to his chest rather than slinging him over a shoulder.

A limp hand fell out of the blanket just before Styles turned away, and Pellew's sharp eyes caught a smear of… Was that blood?

But then, Styles and his precious cargo had gone and Pellew turned to Kennedy, who had managed to scramble back into an upright position, his gaze divided between the retreating form of Styles and his captain. Clearly, he wanted to accompany his friend, but duty kept him above-decks.

Pellew's eyes narrowed as he watched the fidgeting midshipman.

"Are you injured, Mr. Kennedy?"

Kennedy's gaze snapped back to his captain as he stood at full attention, clasping his hands behind his back.

"No, sir, I'm fine." He blinked, a little confused as to the question.

"Your hands…" Pellew said briskly, prompting Kennedy to unclasp them and hold them in front of him.

Though the rain had washed some of it away, they were still tainted with red.

Blood.

Hornblower's blood.

"It's not mine, sir." Kennedy stated the obvious, his blue eyes wide and frightened as they regarded the captain. But it was not fear for himself, Pellew knew.

What had he done? Why had he allowed his fear for Hornblower's safety to transform into unjustified anger? A brief flash-back reminded him of a similar situation. His little daughter had fallen from the cherry tree she was not supposed to climb. She had suffered a broken wrist and was crying piteously, and would in all likelihood never climb that tree again. However, as soon as Pellew had known that she would be all right physically, he had –for the first time ever- truly yelled at her, venting his own pent-up anxiety. Susannah had been so mad at him for that, that she had refused to speak to him for the next 2 weeks. He thought he had learned his lesson then, but now he was forced to review that opinion…

For an agonising moment, Pellew was almost crushed by self-hatred, before he managed to repress the unhelpful feeling.

"Mr. Kennnedy, go to the sick bay and see if you can assist Dr. Hepplewhite in any way. I expect to receive a report as soon as possible."

"Aye, aye, sir!" Kennedy saluted smartly, before ruining the image as he tore away, almost slipping on the wet deck.

The next half an hour was a blur to Pellew. He stood on the quarterdeck, shouted the occasional order to trim a sail or adjust their course, but a part of his mind was far away, in a place more turbulent than the storm around him. The events kept replaying in his mind. The image of Hornblower's blood on Kennedy's hands would feature predominantly in his upcoming nightmares, of that much he was certain.

Styles appeared briefly, to inform him that their shipwrecked men were all doing well according to Dr. Hepplewhite, despite having swallowed 'ha'f a sea, Sir'. There were some abrasions and contusions, but all fairly minor wounds compared to those typically acquired in battle. Mr. Hornblower seemed to have faired the worst, suffering rope burn on his hands and some scrapes and spectacular bruising on his back probably from slamming into the ship's hull. He had quickly regained consciousness in the sick bay, and after a few sips of rum they had to forcefully prevent him from getting right back up on deck to continue his duty.

Pellew had smiled inwardly at the latter statement, though his face had not betrayed anything.

And as the storm died down, so did his mind settle again.

He had an apology to offer.

Leaving Eccleston in command, Pellew quickly made his way to the sick bay. His knees were shaky, and he wasn't sure anymore that it was entirely due to the vibration of the ship's deck and his lingering fever.

The tableau in the sick bay made him pause for a moment, an invisible observer in the shadows.

Only 2 hammocks were occupied, the other 2 unfortunate swimmers mercifully well enough to be relocated to their usual own beds.

Matthews was snoozing in the hammock closest to Pellew, his breaths sometimes trailing off into an unhealthy wheezing, attesting to injured lungs.

Beside him, Hornblower was peering worriedly from his own sick bed, while Kennedy tried to convince his friend to rest, assuring that he, Kennedy, would keep watch over Matthews' breathing.

"I will make that an order, if I have to." Pellew made himself known as he stepped into the light. It was an attempt at light humour, completely missed his two impressionable young midshipmen, who straightened up immediately snapping to attention.

In Hornblower's case, sitting up so suddenly did not agree with his injured body. He groaned as he fell back in the hammock, looking decidedly green around the gills.

Kennedy quickly pulled a bucket up, undoubtedly familiar with his friend's oftentimes queasy stomach, but it seemed that the mere presence of a superior officer was enough for Hornblower to regain his self-control. Or, more likely, the lad had already spat out 'h'af a sea, sir'…

Captain Pellew sighed quietly as he regarded Hornblower, who was watching him back with those huge doe eyes full of uncertainty and self-doubt, his nervousness further betrayed by the rigidity of his body and his hands fidgeting with the blanket. Thinking he had made a mistake, whereas the blame could only be on his daft captain.

"Erhemm… I hope you are doing well, Mr. Hornblower?" Pellew said as he inwardly flinched. While he was famous for his straight-to-the-point style of conversation, he did decidedly less well whenever emotions were involved, or so his wife liked to remind him with the damnest twinkle in her eyes.

A silly question, really, when Pellew could clearly see that the boy was far from fine. If he had been even halfway fine, he'd have undoubtedly returned to the quarterdeck, no matter how forceful the persuaded not to, Pellew knew.

Nevertheless, Hornblower replied in the affirmative, as courtesy dictated, and slowly sat up a little to prove his point.

"At your ease, man." Pellew shook his head at the startled expression on Hornblower's face, clearly conveying that he thought he had done something wrong, even if he didn't know the reason.

Best get to it quickly, Edward, he berated himself, before the lad jumps completely out of his skin. His head-ache of the past few days was returning with a vengeance.

"Ahem." A quick glance around told Pellew they were still –relatively- alone, and he plunged in. "I owe you an apology, Mr. Hornblower."

Out of all the things the young midshipman had been expecting, this was clearly not on his list. His eyes seemed to, impossibly, grow even larger as they radiated his confusion.

"I had no valid reason to berate you so severely, earlier, for your most valiant rescue attempt. In all my years at sea, I've never seen anything like this… Your decisive actions have saved 3 lives today, lives that are well worth saving, despite my earlier words."

He sighed and sat down beside Hornblower's hammock on the stool Kennedy had recently vacated, suddenly bone-wary and feeling (and no doubt looking) much older than he was.

"I was afraid… Yes, Mr Hornblower," He smiled wryly at the incredulous glance that statement had elicited, "I was afraid that the ship would not hold, and all hands would have been lost, … and I was afraid that your life was forfeit, when you literally dived into a seemingly impossible situation… I reacted to your return rather based on emotions, not rational thought. Perhaps it was the fever, but that is hardly an excuse why I told you all the negative things, with no regard for the more numerous positive consequences of your actions…"

Rubbing his aching head, he ploughed on, hoping he was making a modicum of sense while his thoughts appeared to be all muddled up.

"Being in command is about making decisions, not all of which you personally like. In this case, I had weighed the loss of 3 men acceptable compared to loosing the ship and all its passengers, conceited as I was in the idea that nothing more could be done for them. Though I am glad you've managed to prove me wrong, Mr. Hornblower, trust me on this when I say that you were also very, very lucky to have succeeded in your bold endeavour… I pray your luck may last, but I must caution you about the fine line between bold and rash actions, sir. It was a narrow escape, Mr. Hornblower, and next time you might not be so lucky..."

Hornblower nodded, shuddering involuntarily. "I do understand, sir. I would not like to be in the same situation again…"

But if he were, Pellew mused idly, the lad may jump right in again, despite having experienced the horrible ordeal already once. And if it were him, Pellew, in those raging waters, he would have grasped at the unexpectedly offered lifeline with both hands.

Glancing sideways at Matthews, Pellew suspected that Hornblower had just received an ally for life. Or, more accurately, an entire division of them, he amended as he spotted Styles lurking in the shadows near the entrance of the sick-bay.

"Very well, Mr. Hornblower, I leave you to your rest. Mr. Kennedy, make sure he gets some sleep" He levelled a stern look at Hornblower, "And that is an order."

He stood, and for a moment, the ship lurched from under him. The next thing he was aware of were 2 arms keeping him upright and Hornblower's voice urgently calling for Styles. He blinked tiredly, peering into the frightened blue eyes of Kennedy, who was currently steadying him.

In the background, despite his own incapacitation, Hornblower took charge instinctively, and his orders were followed equally naturally. "Mr. Kennedy, please help the captain back to his cabin and make sure his steward gets him out of those wet clothes. Styles, my compliments to the surgeon and have him report to the captain's cabin immediately, and wait for his orders. I suspect he'll want you to fetch some hot grog or the like."

A dual, only slightly mismatched "Aye aye, sir" was chorused back, and Pellew could not help the small smile from briefly playing around his lips.

It was the most effective roundabout way a midshipman had ever ordered his captain to follow his own orders and get some rest, sir!

Pellew didn't mind. After all, the lad had just today proven to him, the old navy veteran, that he still didn't quite know it all, and that even less experienced youth might show him a trick or two.

But it was only after he had been tucked in securely in his own bed, stomach pleasantly warmed by the grog, that he allowed a full-blown smile as he slipped into the most restful sleep he had had in over a year. He dreamed of his little girl, playing joyously in the tree again, but this time, a tall dark midshipman was lounging nearby and Pellew knew for certain that, if she were to fall, Hornblower would be in time to catch her.


3.

Evening the odds

"Sir?"

Bowles' voice effectively pulled him out of his musings.

The Ship's Master was standing next to him on the rocky outcropping that afforded them a splendid view of the bay, and the preparations for the dreaded duel.

"Mr Bowles?" Pellew arched a querying eyebrow at the uncharacteristically fidgeting man.

"I'm not sure it is a good idea to have Hornblower duel his way out of this, Sir, especially given the recent stress he's been under…"

Genuine concern for the younger man shone in his kind eyes, and again – unneeded- reminded Pellew of how highly his youngest midshipman was being valued by the entire crew.

"Unfortunately, Sir …" He replied briskly. "… it is his only way out of this, bar being hung from the yardarm or being stripped from his honour, and we both know that he would never allow the second to happen…"

"But I'm quite sure about Lt. Eclleston's last words…" Bowles tried, not for the first time. "If I would testify, surely…"

"No, Mr. Bowles." Pellew said decisively but not unkind. "You have told me that you were not able to hear the full exchange, and though, for us, it is easy to infer what has happened, it will not be enough to convince a board of Captains unfamiliar with our Mr. Hornblower."

He sighed. "Even if you had heard it all, they could still choose not to include your testimony, or change the trial in any way to obtain the outcome they think is fair."

At Mr. Bowles' surprised look, he replied quietly. "I've witnessed some of those trials, Sir, and I've seen and hear enough to know that it is mainly politics and power struggles. Hornblower has no title, no family, no career to speak of, no protection of any other kind; I fear his chances would be poor in a courtroom..."

Bowles looked as of yet unconvinced. "Sir, begging your pardon, but do you think the odds are in his favour on a duelling field?"

Pellew almost laughed at the incredulous look he received. Clearly, his Master didn't yet know Hornblower quite well enough.

"Oh, but I do, Mr. Bowles. Unlike Mr. Simpson, who like most bullies is really a coward at heart, our Mr. Hornblower thrives in stressful situations. The boy may be inexperienced in the practice of duelling itself, that is true, but he possesses all the right qualities. He has a steady hand, a keen eye and a mathematical mind, making him the superior shooter, especially since Mr. Simpson saw fit to help himself to some spirits earlier today…"

Bowles blinked at the latter statement, undoubtedly curious as to how his captain would know such trivial matters, but Pellew felt no need to elaborate. His steward was a man of many qualities indeed.

"No, on this field, the boy has the advantage of youth, brains and undeniably courage. Instead of nonexistent connections, he can draw upon his skills, and that damned luck of his…" Pellew concluded, with the ghost of a smile, as Mr. Bowles peered through his glass again for the fifth time in as many minutes.

Below the dualists had stepped out the distance. Vaguely, the sound of Dr. Hepplewhite's counting drifted up.

"One…"

Pellew narrowed his eyes, his focus solely on one figure.

"Two…"

The unexpected gunshot rang loud in the silence, a clear accusation to the violation of the terms of the duel.

The still tableau below suddenly erupted a flurry of movement. Hornblower's division, Matthews in the lead, came running to their fallen officer, followed soon by an apparently furious Dr. Hepplewhite and an eager Simpson.

Pellew thanked the Lord quietly when he noticed Hornblower, once pulled up, managed to stay on his own, if somewhat shaky legs.

Still, Pellew's focus never wavered, remaining riveted on Simpson, who was finally revealed the coward he truly was, begging piteously for his life.

When Hornblower showed mercy, bestowing on his enemy only the highest humiliation, by choosing to forego an easy hit, Pellew felt an enormous pride well up in his chest. Certainly, he had not really expected the lad to simply kill Simpson in cold blood, but not many would have resisted wounding their adversary. Especially given the abuse he had had to endure on the Justinian, a lamentable situation Pellew was now quite certain off after reading Eccleston's and Keene's reports and comparing them to his own observations of Hornblower.

Pellew's eyes narrowed when Simpson stood again, face contorted in anger.

His hands tightened their grip when Simpson swiftly retrieved a dagger from an unsuspecting Cleveland.

And with a simple twitch of his finger, Simpson's mad dash for Hornblower's unprotected back was stopped cold.

The shot scared the five or so curious seagulls that had taken up residence on a rock nearby. Presumably, Simpson was equally surprised as he fell down, no longer a danger to Pellew's crew.

Following Simpson's gaze, Hornblower looked up, and although Pellew could not see it from afar, he was certain the boy had not expected this either.

"Exceptionally fine shot, Sir…" Bowles commented lightly, belying his earlier anxiety. "If I may say so, Sir."

The exchange of pleasantries covered much more, not only indicating his respect for his captain's marksman skills, but also his assessment and anticipation of the situation.

"You may, Mr. Bowles, you may…" Pellew said, fighting hard to remain impassive as he watched his youngest midshipman being supported into one of the sloops.

After handing the rifle back to McAnn and ordering his two companions to return to the boats, Pellew lingered a little while longer, watching Matthews fuss over his injured officer.

With no company but one brass seagull to hear, he whispered to the once more peaceful bay. "I , too, owe you one, Mr. Hornblower, for saving my ship. You are sure to have an interesting career ahead of you, Sir, given your skills, some luck and the damnest way of collecting return favours…"