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Slash and Yaoi Fiction
Title: Water under the Bridge
Author: Juxian Tang
E-mail: juxiantang@hotmail.com
Site: http://juxian.slashcity.net
Fandom: Hornblower, movies
Pairing: Hornblower/Bush, Bush/other
Rating: NC-17
Warning: hints of non-cons in the part 1, later violence
Summary: An acquaintance from the past appears on the ship, and Bush finds himself in a tight spot
Thanks: Huge thanks to Das Tier for the most wonderful and considerate beta and enormous help. If something sounds really good, it's her merit.


For Das Tier, Salome and William Berry

He should've been kinder to her. Next time he would.

Horatio made this promise, looking at the folded fluffy socks knitted by his wife's not quite skillful hands. Oversized and clumsy as they were, he knew they would serve their purpose, maybe not this time but later, on cold winter nights when he'd be wrapping himself up in the blanket trying to get warm in vain. Just like the gloves she had made served their purpose.

But now he didn't want to look at them. Stuffing the socks to the far corner of his trunk, he chided himself for the relief it brought him. He didn't have the right to shove the thoughts about her away with the same eagerness.

He should've been happy with her. Really, there was no reason why not to be. Wasn't happiness what everyone expected from someone wed only a few months ago?

He recalled Sir Edward Pellew's words, as the man cheerfully informed him yesterday:

"Soon you are going to dread visits to my office. Every time I call for you, it is to get you away from your lovely wife again. But at least I hope I redeemed my fault by giving you such a short notice so that you could spend another night with her."

With time, it became somewhat easier to answer such things.

"If Mrs. Hornblower was aware of your kindness, she certainly would be grateful to you."

"In other words, it would be a cold comfort to her. Now to the business. Tomorrow you will take a passenger and the Hotspur is going to sail... here."

He followed the tip of Pellew's finger, moving south along the west shore of Portugal and farther down.


"Right. I don't have to explain you that it is not going to be an easy journey." That is why I entrust it to you, Pellew's eyes said, and Horatio, once again, as always under this burning, passionate gaze, felt a fervent wish not to disappoint him. "It is a highly important mission and you have to do everything that depends on you for it not to fail."

Perhaps there was a bit too much enthusiasm in Pellew's voice - like it always appeared to be when he himself didn't quite enjoy the idea, as Horatio had come to learn. But he was not going to make it more difficult for his commander.

"I will, sir."

"Good. Good. The man will embark on your ship tomorrow at noon and after that you will immediately set sail."

"May I ask his name, sir?"

For a moment there was a pause, Pellew looking at him as if weighing his answer.

"Mr. Andrew Linsford it is."

"The 'Morning Chronicle' Andrew Linsford?" Horatio heard Pellew clear his throat and quickly schooled his face into a mask of composure.

"The unofficial representative of the foreign offices Mr. Andrew Linsford. Yes, *that* Linsford, indeed."

Horatio remembered the articles signed by this name - short essays always written in a brilliant, dry, sarcastic tone, no matter what the man touched - the course of war, social life or his travels, as Linsford seemed to travel a lot, visiting most exotic places. As far as Horatio could judge, he'd really been everywhere he wrote about - but the reason why the name stuck in his mind was that sometimes in Linsford's precise, clever writing, there was such a never-missing stroke affecting the readers' emotions that it was impossible to forget.

"He will inform you about the rest of the mission," Pellew added. "It is apparently considered top secret. Or they themselves aren't sure what he's going to do there," he grumbled, barely audibly.

"Aye-aye, sir." Horatio pretended he didn't hear the last phrase.

He couldn't deny he was excited. Perhaps he shouldn't have been. With the war in full swing, this journey, even though dangerous, still was nothing like being engaged in action - and what right did he have to find this distraction desirable? But he did think it fascinating, couldn't wait to start it.

And now the time was coming, and even Maria's tears were something Horatio didn't need to dwell on any more.

A short knock on the door made him raise his head.

"Mr. Bush. Is everything ready?" In his excitement Horatio gave the man one of his rare smiles and he saw how it reflected briefly in Bush's intense blue eyes.

"Yes, sir. She can sail off at any moment."

"Then we only wait for our guest. I hope it will not bother you to share your quarters with someone again."

"No, not at all, sir. I don't think anything will bother me, after Cotard."

Horatio looked at him. Bush's voice sounded calm as always but there was a little quirk to his mouth. Horatio bit his lip secretly.

"But really, Cotard was not so bad after all. You seemed to handle him all right in the end, didn't you?"

"Yes, sir."

The moments when Bush allowed his attitude of perfect subordination slip off just a little were always brief, and the times when Horatio accepted it were even briefer. But this was the way is was supposed to be, was it not? They were the Captain and Lieutenant; what had been possible on the Renown, and even later, when they both had lived on half-pay, became improper now. Even when it came to the personal matters...

Horatio remembered Bush's appalled, obviously distressed look as he'd told him of his proposal to Maria - a moment when he shook his head like he didn't want to believe it. The truth was that then Horatio didn't want to believe it either - but what was done, was done. And as Horatio continued, asking him to be his best man, Bush seemed to recall his position quickly, saying no word to discourage him.

Bush had been most supportive through the event, and Horatio was grateful to him for the joy in Maria's eyes that for a moment made Horatio forget his own misery - and for making the wedding a less awkward occasion than it could have been

Yet sometimes, when Bush's eyes turned at him, he caught this wistful, somewhat sad look and was not sure how to take it - with fear or with longing - for there was the sadness he couldn't afford to feel himself. Fortunately, it was always very brief, and Horatio could ignore it if he wanted.

"Thank you, Mr. Bush," he said dismissively, and immediately heard another knock. "Yes, Mr. Orrock."

"The guest is on board, sir," the young man said, out of breath.

"I'm coming." He took a brief glance at the mirror, checking if he looked properly.

The man standing on the deck was very tall and thin. Horatio could see only his back - lop-sided, one shoulder higher that the other, as he leaned against the rails, looking down at the rippling water beneath. He was dressed as a civilian and his hair, dirty-blond and lank, was caught in a narrow black ribbon. Horatio stopped, waiting.

"Sir," Orrock called, and the man turned, his very pale green eyes sliding around and then fixing on Horatio's face with a strange, disturbingly intent look. "Captain Hornblower, sir," Orrock added.

The man walked up to him briskly, dragging his left leg with every step.

"Linsford. My orders."

The man seemed to speak fast and move fast, his hand, narrow and spidery, thrusting the papers at him. Horatio took the documents, read them, the information there no more than Pellew had given him. He folded the papers, using the small pause to find the right tone for the moment, such as probably Linsford expected from him - open but business-like.

"Welcome on board, sir. May I introduce to you - Lieutenant Bush, Mr. Linsford, the messenger of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs." He wanted to add something about 'Morning Chronicle' but thought better about it.

He expected Bush to say some polite words - and was surprised to hear none. Horatio turned slightly, frowning, and stopped still, bewildered.

Bush's face was ghostly pale, all the color drained from it - it was only once that Horatio had seen him like that, when the boat of the Renown was sinking and Bush was caught in the rope. And his eyes looked exactly like then - the eyes of a drowning man, of someone who looked his worst nightmare in the face.

"I believe the introductions are unnecessary," Linsford said, his voice softening, acquiring a drawl, charming and yet somewhat unsettling. "We have met before, haven't we, William?"

* * *

The first night on the ship Horatio usually slept well. It seemed his sleep ashore, at home, was always troubled, likely because of the unusual solidness of the bed - or because, even in sleep, he was aware of the presence in his bed, the presence that he couldn't make himself welcome.

This night, though, he was restless,. Perhaps it was because he hadn't burnt his nervous energy yet, the way in front of them a hard one that would demand daily and nightly alertness, but for now they still were quite safe. More to the point, he should've rested while he could. But even as he forced himself into sleep, the dreams that came to him were fitful and disturbing.

He dreamed of Archie, something that he rarely did lately. With time passing, the pain that had seemed to be never-fading, was growing dull and most often barely present. And even Archie's face - it'd dimmed in his memory, as Horatio didn't have a portrait to remember Archie by.

In his dreams he couldn't quite say how Archie looked either, there was just the definite knowledge, as it happens in dreams, that it was him. And there was an insistent beat of worry that haunted him, a feeling of something he had to do but didn't know how - even though in a corner of his mind Horatio knew that everything had already happened. He hadn't been able to save Archie. He had failed him.

Disturbed and sad, Horatio sat up, pulling the collar of his sweat-soaked shirt. The small flame of the candle seemed distant and almost unreal as he kept seeing the deck of the Papillon far below him - and the boat drifting away from the ship slowly, Archie's curled body in it.

And another picture came to him, the memory he hadn't had for many years - but which seemed not to fade at all, unlike Archie's face - him looking at the skull tattooed on Simpson's hand as the man raised himself from the water among the wreckage of the Justinian.

He couldn't sleep after that and didn't want to try, so he dressed and walked out to the deck. The night air was clean and cold and it felt good to breathe it full lungs.

Prowse, the habitual insomniac, saluted him briefly, and Horatio stood in silence, looking at the darkness of the water in front of him.

* * *

"So, this is the best you've managed to do, William? The lieutenant on a twenty-gunner? Under the command of a boy years younger than you? How pathetic."

He wouldn't answer that. The words had the only purpose - to sting - and he knew it, and by God, they worked exactly as they were supposed to, no matter how he tried not to listen, not to let them get to him.

And the voice - precise, ironic voice, emphasizing words like they were gems falling from the tongue. He thought he had not remembered it, except for sometimes, in his dreams, and even then he could deny it.

It seemed he'd never really forgotten it.

"But on the other hand, what else could one expect from you? You always were a little nonentity, no wits, no brilliance, no courage. Pretty blue eyes, though - was it not what Harlow liked about you? Oh sorry, I forgot. It's not for your looks he chose you - but for your skills."

He didn't have to tolerate it, did he? He was a grown up man, an officer, not a fifteen-year-old boy, a helpless midshipman not knowing better than to mistake manipulation for kindness and wander into a trap like a stupid mouse. Bush felt his fingernails wound his palms, as he tried to bring himself back to reality, shield himself from the past that was crowding on him.

It didn't work. There was a reality of its own in his mind, and Andrew Linsford's voice was a part of it, and he knew he was not ever free from it. His mouth was so dry it hurt to swallow, and with dizziness Bush knew that there was just one thing he couldn't deny, one emotion that overwhelmed all others. Fear. He hated himself for it and yet could do nothing.

"Just as well, since you haven't seemed to keep your looks. Oh, you are a sad sight, William, time hasn't been kind to you."

"It shouldn't be your concern." The words were ashes on his tongue, disgustingly helpless, and even saying them took more effort than he seemed to be able to muster. His cabin seemed tiny and constricting, Linsford staying in front of the door, leaning against it, his arms crossed.

Like he expects me to try to escape, Bush thought. Yes, right. Run from his own quarters. From his own past. Just how much uglier could it all get?

This weakness was unforgivable.

"Indeed, why should it concern me? It's you who can't rely on your looks any more - and see where it has brought you. I'm sure, William, if Harlow had demanded your services for somewhat longer - or if you had kept offering them, you would already do a Captain's position."

"You don't know anything of me."

Yet Linsford didn't need to know, did he? He could do it just like that, make him sound so pathetic, despoil his life just in a few sentences, casually.

Linsford's pale eyes gazed at his face in the familiar, persistent way. It seemed the man never needed to blink, could stare like that for longest periods of time, not giving even a small break.

"Oh but I do know something."

And it was the truth, and how disgusting, how utterly unfair it was that such a thing, a thing Bush had thought he had put past him long ago, could come back now - to destroy his life, everything he had - his career, his future... destroy the only friendship he had in his life.

If anyone knew, Bush thought, cold spreading through him in a numbing, doomed feeling. If anyone knew of his disgrace...

If Horatio knew. And the name of his Captain, the Christian name that Bush dared to say only to himself, was sweet and bitter in his mind.

"The Vindictive - I'm sure the name is still remembered. Ill fame always sticks. Don't you remember it, William?"

He wished he could forget - the name of the ship - the taste of the damp mattress clenched between his teeth until his jaws ached, until there was nothing else but the moldy, bitter taste of old horsehair in his mouth - and the pain became distant, as if floating outside, not a part of him.

And the cultured, cold voice, enunciating every word clearly:

"You're spoiling the brat, Harlow, I'm sure he can take more. Let me show you how it is properly done."

"Marks fade, William." And Linsford was not at the door any more but even closer, taking a step forward, his pale eyes the only thing Bush seemed to see, no matter how he tried to break away from this gaze. "But memories do not."

He wanted to step back, anything to put at least some distance between him and those translucent, cold eyes - but he couldn't, just the table behind him, nowhere to go.

"Don't touch me," the words were a whisper, and even Bush himself knew they lacked strength. And it seemed Linsford didn't hear them at all - well, why would he listen, if Bush let him not to?

"What will your Captain say when he knows that you started your *brilliant* Navy career as a whore for your superior on the ship whose name was blackened by a scandal?"

The words were like a slap, and yet it was true, and he knew it. A whore, a whipping boy, an endless entertainment during the hours of idleness. At least he hadn't died, like that boy, Miles, did. But once again Bush thought that maybe he would be better off dead.

"How fast and how eager will he be to get rid of your presence on the ship?"

If Horatio knew... Such dirt, such loathsome things - Bush couldn't bear the thought how defiled his Captain would be by hearing of them. By hearing of his lies and betrayal.

The man he trusted, the man he asked to stand at his side on his wedding... a midshipman on the Vindictive. He'd betrayed Horatio's trust.

He wanted to say something but his lips were so numb it seemed he couldn't move them - and what could he say? Linsford's gaze was satisfied now, a smile appearing on his lips.

"I see we understand each other, William. No wonder, you always were a smart boy - always knew what was better for you."

He thought he would be sick now and swallowed quickly to fight it. Oh really. If he had been so weak to allow it all to happen to him - if he still was so weak that he couldn't take what was due to him - the blame, the contempt, the punishment - he should've just taken *this* instead.

"As pathetic as you always were, I still enjoyed your services once, William. I think I will enjoy them again."

Bush closed his eyes, shame coursing over him in a drowning wave, and yet he knew that he would do nothing to prevent it. He'd lost - and he deserved what was going to happen.

* * *

Staring at the map, a divider in his hand, Horatio felt that the ink contours of the shore blurred in front of his eyes until they became just one shapeless, ugly stain. It was hopeless. He let the instrument drop and rubbed his face in irritation. He was so tired. This voyage shouldn't have been such pain.

In fact, it was going easier than he expected, the Hotspur managing to keep out of danger so far, sliding like a shadow past the French. It demanded constant attention, of course, and was draining, but still, wasn't Horatio supposed to feel relieved how smooth everything was going? He hadn't often been so lucky.

And still he felt exhausted - as if something was sapping his strength, some hidden difficulty he had to overcome daily. And maybe it was there.

He knew something was wrong, even though he didn't know what.

Sometimes, in a fancy mood, Horatio liked to think that he had some strange connection with the ship - like that time, during his first command, when the knowledge that Marie Gallante was holed had come to him in a dream. And now the Hotspur - all of it, the ship, the crew - in the usual smooth way of her life something was jagging, and this something bothered him.

And worst of all, when in his search for support he turned to where he always did, as he was used to - he couldn't find it any more.

Bush wasn't there for him.

Oh, he was there all right, on the deck, wherever Horatio needed him, efficient and accurate as always. But something was missing; as if he was just a mechanism, not a man.

There were times when Horatio thought he would possibly prefer his men to be replaced by some kind of competent machines - when the *personalities* became too much for him and he couldn't find patience enough for every one of them. But now... now it felt wrong.

How wrong? What could he reproach his Lieutenant for?

I don't like it how you stare into nothingness - as if I'm not here, as if *you* are not here. What kind of talk would it be? I don't like to feel every time like there is a wall surrounding you and there is there's no way in for me. But wasn't Horatio himself all for strictly official relations between them?

And he wasn't sure if it mattered at all. Perhaps it was his imagination.

I don't like it that I don't see your little, curved smile shared with me any more, your ironically quirked eyebrow. I don't like that you don't even try to reach for me any more.

Was it because now Linsford was there, and Bush's attention was... distracted, somehow? Was Bush now reaching for Linsford instead?

Horatio remembered their first evening, when they had dinner together, the three of them. Linsford was charming, exactly everything that Horatio always failed to be in society - witty, sharp, observant - funny and cruel remarks spilling from his tongue with no effort.

"You know why they sent me on this mission? Because my little essays somehow managed to convince them that I'm the right man for this job, the word "literature" never coming to their mind. And since I did set some contacts with various hot-heads on the Moroccan coast, who are by chance willing to do a little back-stabbing work to get on Bonaparte's nerves... here I am."

Horatio nodded. The easy tone didn't deceive him but he didn't know if he was put off with the apparent contempt the man seemed to feel for everything and everyone.

It seemed that Linsford felt this slight reticence, as his voice changed suddenly to a more serious one.

"I'm sure your ship will deliver me there safely, Captain Hornblower, and back, with my mission being successful."

"I certainly hope so," Horatio said.

"I am relying on you. If you forgive my audacity, you seem to know what you are doing."

Horatio must have given him a look, because Linsford smiled, pointing at his leg.

"I started in the Navy, didn't you know? I still miss it. Would do anything to be a part of the sea life again."

With a corner of his eye Horatio saw Bush's downcast gaze, behind the glass brought to his mouth his lips set in a pained curve that Horatio knew for a sign of extreme tension. The conversation had been between him and Linsford till now, he realized, Bush must've felt left out, even though he was usually a quiet one. But now Horatio was glad for the chance to involve him into a conversation.

"Is it how you got acquainted?"

The glass brought to Bush's lips wavered a little, and there was something in Bush's eyes that made Horatio feel uneasy, a strange surge of alarm going through him even though he couldn't explain it.

"It was the beginning of Mr. Bush's career, yes." Linsford was smiling. "And I was a young lieutenant who somewhat helped him to settle down. Is it not so, William?"

It was probably the first time when Horatio heard that immediate, toneless answer Bush was giving to Linsford's words.

"Yes, it is."

He heard a lot of that in the next days. Linsford talking and Bush answering in monosyllables but always without a pause, always what Linsford seemed to expect him to say.

It didn't make him feel good. But perhaps it was just that he was feeling...should 'jealous' be the word? Or deprived? Or cast out? Horatio told himself that if he cut his conversations with Bush short, there was no reason why Linsford couldn't talk to him. And they had known each other before, they were on the first name basis, for God's sake - and *he* was not on the first name basis with Bush. So how could Horatio mind?

Perhaps it was just foolishness, his imagination that Horatio should've known better than allow to run free. He had more important things to focus on and he was going to do exactly that. He had the ship he was responsible for, and the crew, and they by far were not out of danger yet.

He couldn't work in the end, unable to concentrate, the stomping of feet on the deck a constant distraction. He got up and walked out, nearly running into Styles, whose head, in his usual stupid manner, was turned to the direction right opposite to where he was going.

"Sorry, sir."

Horatio rolled his eyes.

"Um, sir..." The man stopped, looking at him, his face wearing a somewhat confused, hesitant expression, not quite usual for him since Styles never had a problem of finding words.

"Yes?" Horatio stood, waiting for him to go on.

"Sumfin I wanted to tell ya..."

"Ah, Captain Hornblower." Horatio heard the brisk, limping steps approaching as Linsford's cultured voice reached him. "You've decided to take a look at the surroundings, haven't you?"

"Yes, Styles," Horatio repeated, looking at the man - but Styles already seemed to forget what he wanted to say, looking away and withdrawing from Horatio.

"Nufin, sir. Nufin at all."

* * *

"Where did you get this scar from, William?" The hand touching his midriff was heavy, insistent, no way to escape it - and he knew better than to try.

"The Spanish," he said curtly. Somehow saying more, even raising the memory of the battle on the Renown, the battle that had brought about Kennedy's death, and Captain Sawyer's, and young Wellard's, would mean to defile these memories now.

Bush managed not to think of it. He became quite deft at not thinking of things, he thought wryly, deft at disentangling his mind from them at his wish. This ability he'd developed still back then, nearly twenty years ago, and how easily it resurfaced when necessary... Like he never really forgot it.

It was easier this way. It was the only way to live. Only sometimes he wasn't sure why it was so necessary to live after all.

"It's a pity that you are not wearing any marks left by us, William, isn't it? I thought Harlow had given you plenty, and some were quite deep."

The same voice, counting strokes - 'twenty six... twenty seven...' - was etched so deeply in his mind that it never really seemed to leave. And 'The bugger is crying, Harlow, let's give him something to think about. Come here, cry-baby.'

"You always had that stoic way of taking it, unlike Miles. But Miles was a pansy, I think it angered Harlow most of all."

Bush remembered that. Stifling nights in the overcrowded room - and a skinny dark-eyed boy on the next cot, with his nose always stuffed and the eyes of a frightened rabbit. These eyes met William's in half-darkness, full of terror and fervent wish that Bush could read so clearly because it mirrored his own. Please not tonight. Please let them be busy elsewhere.

The little prayer they repeated day after day.

"I knew he'd kill one of you some day. He never knew when to stop, poor Harlow. That's why I got out of it before it became too hot - right in time, it turned out. The others were not so fortunate. But you were lucky as well, weren't you, William? First that you stayed alive... and then that you covered your traces so well."

Bush knew it would come to that, sooner or later - it always did - and yet it always made him flinch - like nothing that Linsford did could. A thumb touched the corner of his mouth, letting him know that his sign of weakness was not missed.

"Deceiving your Captain, aren't you, William? And he seems to be of such high opinion about you. What would he say if he knew what you are?"

"He will know, if you don't become more cautious." The words were dull, the impudence of them coming out of despair. This thought had scared Bush so much in the beginning - but somehow he'd come to live with it by now. Horatio would know. Linsford was practically bringing it on, probably risk sharpened his enjoyment. It was a ship, after all, a small one, not seven hundred men like the Vindictive - and even there everyone had known.

In the sea, there could barely be any secrets. Perhaps some hands already knew, Bush thought, Styles was giving him an odd eye recently.

And when Horatio knew... well, he wouldn't have to stand condemnation and disappointment in his Captain's eyes. He wouldn't need to see loathing in the eyes of the man who meant *everything* for him.

He wouldn't hang for buggery. There were always means to prevent it.

"Oh yes, yes, sure, so afraid to disappoint him. The young, reckless, handsome Captain of yours. Too handsome, is he not, William? Too handsome for his own good."

* * *

The wind was strong and salty, showering him with sprays of water, but Bush didn't feel like going inside. His presence on the deck was not necessary now but it was all the same for him where to be. Or, more precisely, there was no place where he wanted to be at all.

So, it had come to that finally. For a while - for these short months on the Hotspur with Horatio, he had let himself feel happy, feel at ease. Every day of seeing the face of the man who'd become the most important person for him in the world - it was happiness. Even when Horatio was getting more distant from him - first because of subordination, then because of his marriage - even then every time when Bush looked at him, he thought that it was enough, he was contented with it, would want nothing more.

He let himself believe that it could always be like this. Before the Renown, before meeting Horatio and Archie, he must have been going through the motions, doing something, he had some aspirations, wanted promotion. But behind that, there had never been anything, and he hadn't even realized this gap.

He hadn't realized it could be different - like he hadn't realized, before seeing Horatio and Archie stand by Wellard, that someone could care. They had changed so much for him. They had changed him.

But now it had come to an end. He had to face it. No matter how cowardly he was - he had to accept it. The only meaningful thing in his life would be ruined if he didn't do something, as soon as possible.

"Do you think I don't know, William? Do you think I don't see anything? Tell me, it's his face you imagine? His hands touching you? What would you like him to do with you, William?"

Sickness came over him again and he swallowed quickly forcing it down, breathing in the wind deeply.

"He will never touch you, of course, won't he, William? Too clean, too innocent for such dirt, our Captain. But still, notoriety is like this... should anyone know what you are, what do you suppose they think? That he is blameless? You and him, on the ship, the Captain and Lieutenant - what did you do during the long nights of your journey? Not enough to bring it to the court, of course, but you won't shut people's mouths."

The man always had a flare; always knew where it hurt.

And Bush was getting so tired of that, of having to refute absurd accusations - and they even didn't seem so absurd any more. What if people really thought so? What if they believed?

He couldn't let it happen.

"Um, sir..."

He turned, looking at Styles, seeing the man chew his lower lip, as if at a loss. And almost immediately Bush knew what was going to happen, in horror and distress.

It had started. He was not mistaken - he hoped he was, but didn't he know that it was just his weakness that made him deny the obvious? Styles knew. And he was going to blackmail him.

All to the better. Just a sign for him that it was time to blow out his brains. Like Harlow had done.


The tone of his voice appalled him - so dull, one word seeming all he could manage. But at least Bush hoped his gaze was properly cold and steady. If Styles was going to say that, he wouldn't make it easier for him.

"It's gunna be u-right sir," Styles mumbled.

"What?" It didn't sound like anything Bush expected, so he had difficulty interpreting it.

"It's going to be all right, sir," Styles repeated - and his voice was low, almost cooing, like one would speak to a child or a seriously ill.

It was not... it couldn't be. Bush stared, unable to utter a reply. Styles' big, ruddy face was crumpled in a grimace that, he understood with dread, was sympathy.

Styles was pitying him. Now that was a real disaster.

He shook his head, straightening, making himself look fully controlled.

"I have no idea what you are talking about, Styles. And don't you have anything to occupy yourself with?"

"Ahem, sir..."

"Then go wash the deck, it always needs cleaning."

Damn him, Bush thought as Styles turned and walked away with a loud sigh. Damn him with his silly face that Bush had come to be attached to somehow and with his misplaced attempts of kindness.

And damn himself for causing it all.

Had he waited for too long? Why didn't he finish it before, right when it started - sparing himself so much indignity, all those days - those *nights* he didn't want to think about? Why did he let it go on for so long, until it became impossible to hide - because if Styles knew something, there could be others who knew, too.

But he didn't want to leave the ship. He had duties, and it would complicate things, the ship staying without the officer on such a journey. He didn't want to fail Horatio... didn't want to leave him.

Horatio, with his dark, passionate eyes - Horatio, reedy thin and yet strong like a steel rod - Horatio, with his mouth generous and wide and a sweetest smile in the world - a smile that Bush almost never saw any more.

Horatio, who sometimes looked like he was walking barefoot on broken glass and it made Bush want to build a perfect shelter for him, to protect him against everything.

Instead of it, he could ruin Horatio. Unless he took immediate measures.

And he wouldn't use a gun to put a stop to everything. Suicide meant scandal in any case, after all. There were more unobtrusive ways.

A noise from the aft made him turn, a bucket rattling - and then Linsford's voice - Bush couldn't make out the words said in a hiss, but he already knew there was trouble there.

"You son of bitch, do you know what I'll do to you? Oh boy, you chose a wrong man, you did."

Bush hurried there, his eyes taking the picture immediately: sulky-looking Styles with a broom in his hands, the wet deck and Linsford, his eyes narrowed and having that unblinking, hypnotizing look in them, as the words were spilling from him, soft, measured and merciless.

"You'll beg to lick this water off my shoes and you'll do it now - or you will regret it, regret it so much."

The sound of his words was nearly rhythmical - and even though they were not addressed to him, for a moment Bush slipped under their spell, only to come round with a shiver a moment later. He should have remembered it - and yet every time it came as a surprise to him, how looking so serene, so harmless at one moment, Linsford could become so... horrible the next minute.

And Styles was frightened now too, his cockiness gone, as he was clinging on the broom like it was the only thing that held him.

"Sorry, sir. Didn't see ya, sir."

"But you lie, don't you? I saw you looking at me. You wanted to insult me, how bad of you. So, will you lick?"

He had to stop it, Bush thought, until it became really ugly - and he knew, he knew why Styles had done it, oh, what an idiot! Could he be less helpful in showing his needless support?

Yet Styles did it for him. And Bush couldn't say a word, couldn't even make a sound to give away his presence.

What was happening to him? Had he come to the point when his fear became everything he was?

"What's going on here, Mr. Bush?"

He turned around, as if struck.

Horatio was there, frowning, looking at him. Horatio's presence had always been his anchor, the unbearable brightness of Horatio's eyes, the strength of his voice the only things that often mattered at all. But now even that seemed dimmed, distant.

Pull yourself together, Bush ordered himself, as long as you're not dead - don't you dare to fail him.

"Oh, Captain." Linsford looked up, sounding nearly unconcerned. "I think we have a problem here. Is the punishment for attacking a superior still as it was in my times?"

There was no shadow of doubt in his voice, like he already knew what Horatio's answer would be.

"Has someone been attacked, Mr. Linsford?"

"Why, me." His smile could be charming when he wanted to.

For a moment there was a pause as if Horatio regarded his words - and then he said, very tranquilly:

"But I don't see any harm done to you, sir."

Bush saw Linsford's eyes flash up for a moment, as if anger gave color to them, and his voice, still level, was not amiable any more.

"And what about that?"

Of course. His stockings were all wet and streaked - Styles obviously had tried very hard 'not to see him'.

"With respect, Mr. Linsford. It's just some dirt on your stockings."

The calmness of Horatio's voice was absolute - as absolute, Bush could feel it, as was his refusal to give in. Linsford might not notice it but he did.

"I do not insist on hanging him, of course." Linsford still spoke agreeably, as if inviting Horatio to discuss the matter with him. "But come on, a good flogging? I won't believe he doesn't deserve it, for this misdemeanor or another one. Just the way to uphold discipline on your ship, Captain."

He always enjoyed it, didn't he, Bush thought. More men on the Vindictive had been flogged on Linsford's orders than on anyone else's - and he always watched, his lips pale and drawn in a frozen smile, his colorless eyes unblinking.

Horatio had no idea what kind of a man he was, Bush thought helplessly, he didn't know how dangerous Linsford was.

"I am afraid, Mr. Linsford, I don't need advice on how to carry out my duties - as I do not give you advice on how to carry out yours. It doesn't look like there is malice in Styles' actions, rather his usual stupidity."

"And I am afraid you are wrong, Captain. He did it on purpose." And then Linsford suddenly was looking at Bush, his eyes catching his gaze, not letting it go. "Mr. Bush saw it, he can confirm my words. Didn't you, *William*? Didn't you?"

And he couldn't answer.

He knew he had to, knew what he had to say - and Horatio's brightest eyes looked at him, and Styles' stared at him with a dismal, scared look - and Linsford... and he couldn't.

How disgusting he was. So, it had finally come to that - to what Bush always was secretly afraid of most of all. He'd become worthless. Still occupying his place, still there - but his weakness had eliminated everything else.

If he couldn't do his duty - why did he still live then?

"I don't do flogging at request, Mr. Linsford." As if from afar, Horatio's voice was reaching him, cold and restrained, anger evident in it only by its brittleness. "Nor I do them upon a groundless suspicion. I'm afraid you'll have to be satisfied with an apology. Styles."

"I'm sorry, sir," Styles mumbled.

"And you're washing the deck every morning from now on, till we're back home," Horatio added.

"Aye-aye, sir."

"Mr. Bush," the voice was still cold and sharp, cutting like a blade over his nerves. "Would you please follow me to my cabin?"

He walked after Horatio, like in a dream, past Linsford, past Styles who was scrubbing the deck again.

So it was over now, Bush thought, really over. But maybe it was to the best.

* * *

The door shut close behind Bush, and Horatio turned to face him. And at this moment all the angry, acidic words he wanted to say died on his lips. He had been ready to say a few bitter things, intended to get through to the man, break him out of his incomprehensible apathy, even if he had to be cruel for it. But now Horatio felt he couldn't do that.

God, the man looked like a walking corpse - Horatio couldn't understand how he hadn't noticed it earlier. But now, even in the dim light coming through the half-curtained windows, he could see that Bush's eyes, widened, surrounded by dark circles, had that wild, lost look in them, like he hadn't slept for nights.

But why? What was happening?

What did he miss?

"William," he said softly, "what's wrong?"

It seemed Bush had been bracing himself for a rebuff - and Horatio's tone, in its gentleness, startled him. He blinked and his gaze became even more desperate.

Horatio felt dismay. Bush, his Lieutenant, the one whom he used to see always so composed - even too composed sometimes - it was strangely painful to see him lost, vulnerable like this. There was something in his haunted, unhappy look... something that Horatio thought familiar but he couldn't pin down exactly what.

And then he saw how Bush seemed to regain control with an effort - and the usual mask of quiet composure came back. Horatio met the gaze of the blue eyes that looked steadily at him. Like tinted glass, everything hidden behind them.

"Nothing, sir. I'm sorry, sir."

You might as well be sorry, Horatio thought. Exasperation surged through him. What did Bush think, that he was so easy to deceive? Why was he denying - and making things more difficult? Like Horatio didn't have enough problems now as it was.

He forced patience into his voice again, trying once more.

"I know something bothers you. Do you trust me so little that you cannot share it with me, Mr. Bush?"

Bravo, Horatio. Now wasn't it rather manipulative?

For a moment the composure in Bush's eyes broke again, naked misery shining through, and Horatio felt, in surprise, that it hurt him to see Bush like this - to see him so obviously unhappy - and to know that something was going on and Horatio wanted to interfere but felt helpless because he even couldn't find what was the matter, still less prevent it.

Once Sir Edward Pellew had told him that there was nothing on the ship that was outside the Captain's control, and Horatio thought that maybe it was the reason he didn't like to be kept unawares.

But there was something personal in it as well. It was not only his pride as a Captain concerned - but it was like something of his own was touched. With Archie's death, Horatio thought he'd lost the only person who could get this close to his heart and there was not going to be another. He didn't think that Bush... but then there were never any problems with Bush, he was always... always helpful, and quiet, and reliable...

"Sir..." Bush's eyes, darkened-blue, looked at him with an anguished, desperate expression. "Sir." He stopped, as if thinking better than continuing, reminding himself of something that made him force his control back, though not quite successfully. "It's really nothing, sir."

"Oh come on, man!" Now Horatio's patience had run dry. "Enough of that."

He made a step forward, urged by his anger and disappointment, and grabbed Bush's shoulders, shaking him - like it could've prompted him to answer. Bush's exhausted, unhappy face was so close, his eyes wide open and staring at Horatio's face.

"Talk to me!"

Bush's shoulders were stiff under his grip, his body string-taut, frozen, and the concealed resistance of it, even though he didn't move to get free, mirrored the resistance Horatio felt in his silence.

And then suddenly another thought struck Horatio, one that didn't have any connection with the situation and he didn't know where it came from. For all the time they had known each other, no matter how much time they spent side by side, it was the first time he touched Bush in such a personal way. Yes, there was that time when he and Archie dragged him from the cliff, wasn't there? But it was not like that, that time it had been a necessity...

Horatio had always valued his personal space, and guarded it especially warily after his marriage, when he seemed to never be alone at home any more. And now he stood in the personal space of another man and...

But he'd think about it later. Right now he wanted his answers and if he had to shake them out of Bush, he would do it.

Perhaps he could say something that would work to a better effect, Horatio thought, something like 'I'll help you', or 'Trust me' - but at this moment another voice came, pleasant, soft and cold.

"Oh, what an interesting sight."

The closing door made a soft, squeaky sound - the sound it hadn't made when opening - and now Linsford was in the room, leaning against the wall at the doorway lazily.

Horatio felt how under his hands Bush flinched hugely.

"I thought I would find something like that, sooner or later," Linsford said. "But it looks like the things are progressing with an alarming speed."

It took a moment for Horatio to realize the meaning of these words - and then he saw himself as if from aside, as Linsford could see them - him standing strangely close to Bush, his hands on the man's shoulders. He flushed and removed his hands quickly, stepping away - and realized that he couldn't do anything worse to prove his 'guilt'.

Bush didn't say a word, looking down, all color gone from his face.

"I see you've achieved your goal, William. Managed to seduce your Captain. Of course, you wanted it so much, didn't you? You just can't have enough. I wonder who else you entertain on this ship."

The words were so incongruous that at first it was only the tone that registered with Horatio - leering, sarcastic, insinuating. And he saw how Bush seemed to clench, hiding into himself, his face ghostly pale, his hands clasped so hard that the knuckles were white.

He hated to see that. It shocked him how much anger it brought him - to see Bush hurt like that - but he didn't have time to think about it. He stepped forward, half-consciously realizing that he did it to stand between Linsford and Bush, to put a barrier between them.

He made an effort to sound calm.

"I'm afraid your meaning escapes me, Mr. Linsford. Besides, I would like to remind you that you cannot enter the Captain's quarters without an expressed permission."

"You should be glad it was me who entered," Linsford said in such a simple, confiding tone that for a moment Horatio was startled. The man seemed to be changing every moment, from insulting to friendly, from hostile to charming. And yet, Horatio thought, he knew what didn't change in him - his eyes. Always hollow and attentive, studying him. "What if someone of your sailors saw you in such a position, Mr. Hornblower? You haven't even pulled the curtains. Do you not care for your reputation at all?"

"My reputation is not of your concern. Neither is the morale of my men. There is nothing there to damage it."

"Glad to hear, glad to hear." There was anything but joy in Linsford's eyes. His gaze, Horatio thought suddenly, it looked... hungry. Like he was foretasting some pleasure, something he'd put off for a while. Very deliberately Linsford's gaze moved from Horatio to Bush. "It's good that I seemed to enter in time - or do you think you would've been safe with him any longer, Captain?"

Bush flinched, as if lashed, but was silent.

"You should express yourself more clearly, Mr. Linsford," Horatio said, feeling how with every word disgust rising in him. "If indeed you have something to say."

"Am I unclear? Oh, am I?" The irony in Linsford's voice was poisonous. "Well, I'll try then. Are you aware of Mr. Bush's - or should I say 'William's' - most hidden secret, Captain? He was a midshipman on the Vindictive. Seventeen years ago it would be the best anti-recommendation one could have on his list. Although, Mr. Hornblower, you might be too young to remember that."

The Vindictive... it did stir something in his mind. Horatio frowned. He heard this name - he was only a child then, wasn't he? And the adults were talking about it in the hushed tones, something obviously not intended for his ears.

Oh yes. And it came up once again, when he'd told his father he wanted to join the Navy, and the name of the ship was an argument his father used in the heat of conversation - but even then there were just hints, just half-explanations...

'The Floating Brothel'. Right. A boy, a midshipman, killed in such a brutal way that it caused a scandal, a scandal revealing other secrets, rape, and abuse, and buggery. And someone was going to be hanged but committed suicide in time, thus hushing the talks...

"Ah yes, I see you remember." Now Linsford's voice was pleasant again. "Let me assure you that our Mr. Bush played his role as a midshipman on the Vindictive to the hilt - with everything that it included."

With a corner of his eye Horatio saw how Bush's shoulders stooped, as if something in him was broken. He still looked down but his hands unclenched - like there was nothing he could hold onto. He didn't look tense and desperate any more - he looked... doomed.

Leave him alone, Horatio thought angrily. He remembered - he remembered the Vindictive - but he remembered something else. Simpson's hateful voice, breathing words at him: 'What's your dirty little secret?' And Archie's face that could be so happy and shining, freezing in blankness under Simpson's stare.

He knew why Bush's look seemed familiar to him. So trapped, desperate Archie had looked when Simpson called his name.

He remembered saying to Simpson, on the Indefatigable, that those were new times. But it didn't save Archie - and there were no new times, for some things, and Archie was screaming Simpson's name in his nightmares in the Spanish prison, years later.

There are things you can't be free from... he himself had managed to get free and that was why he knew how difficult, nearly impossible it was.

"And Mr. Bush hasn't changed since then," Linsford continued in his graceful, calm voice. "You can ask him yourself, Mr. Hornblower. No wife, no sweetheart, why is it so, William?"

The look of misery and shame in Bush's eyes as he finally looked up, as if only Linsford had this power over him, was unbearable - and again Horatio was surprised how much it hurt him to see it, how *personal* it felt.

He wouldn't let a stranger harass one of his own, Horatio thought. But it was exactly what he'd let happen. And damn, it was so unfair - that Bush had always been here for him, never failed him - and he, Horatio, failed him like this. Bush didn't deserve it, it shouldn't have happened to him, he shouldn't have been hurt like this, wounded by this link from the past.

The past that had continuation in the present, Horatio thought with disgust and sorrow.

"Since you speak about the Vindictive, Mr. Linsford, was it not where your career started as well?"

"Ah, but I left in time. My name was never tainted by a scandal."

You left because you knew there was going to be a scandal, Horatio thought.

"This scandal was a horrible thing, Captain. So many good men implicated, just by association. I dread to imagine something like that can happen on another ship. On the Hotspur, for example. Her Captain and Lieutenant... ah, it doesn't bear thinking."

So, now it was a threat. Horatio knew that Bush understood it too, shifting for the first time, trying to say something. Horatio raised his hand, stopping him. He didn't need a sacrifice. He could deal with the situation.

He wouldn't let his ship be destroyed. And he wouldn't lose anyone close to him.

You can challenge him, Horatio thought dryly. Well, once the duel had solved the things. But he was not seventeen any more, and it wouldn't be a solution at all. And after all, he had his orders - to take Linsford to Morocco and bring him back. And that he would do.

"Do you suppose, Mr. Linsford, that it is the right course of actions, to spread rumors like that, rumors that can distract the Captain from his duties in a difficult situation and endanger the ship.

"Rumors?" The jeer was unmistakable in Linsford's voice.

Horatio felt his throat clench in anger, and yet his voice sounded calm as he continued.

"Yes, rumors. And as you said, when you start splashing dirt... Some might recall that you served on the Vindictive at one time as well."

He could threaten too. If he needed to fight Linsford, he would fight dirty.

The bastard won't dare to do anything, Horatio thought. He wished he could tell Bush so, explain it right now. But his only hope was that the man understood - as he always did.

"Rumors," Linsford repeated, and this time there was a little concession in his voice. "Perhaps you are right. It is not the time for that."

"All of us should make an effort to fulfill our duties, shouldn't we? Not wasting time on anything else."

"Truly." Linsford's tone was bland and Horatio thought with triumph that he was winning, the man was giving in. "How long will it take us to reach Morocco?"

"If everything goes as planned - three days. Maybe four."

"Then I hope *nothing* will distract you from continuing on your path without problems," Linsford said, looking at Bush so deliberately that Horatio felt hot with anger.

He gave Bush a brief look, hoping that it said 'I'm on your side'.

And I suppose that nothing will distract you from preparing to your mission, sir. So if you would like to change your cabin for another accommodation, I will see what I can do."

I won't leave Bush alone with this bastard any more, Horatio thought. Bush looked like he was barely standing on his feet, he needed some rest.

Anger flared in Linsford's eyes - and was gone almost immediately.

"Very kind of you, Captain, to offer me your quarters. Shouldn't you have been so hospitable from the beginning of our journey?"

Son of a bitch. But let him be, Horatio thought, right now damage control was the most important thing.

"Then we are agreed, Mr. Linsford."

He wanted to kill the man. There were few people whom Horatio hated this much - and right now Linsford was right on top of the list.

"Yes. Yes, Mr. Hornblower. We agree."

At least for now - it stayed unsaid but Horatio felt it. He wasn't so naive not to understand it. If the man got a chance to strike, preferably at his back - he would.

But at least so far things seemed to be settled.

"If there is nothing else, Mr. Linsford..."

"Just one question - when can I move to my new quarters?"

"You will be informed, as soon as they are ready."

"Very good."

Linsford turned, strangely graceful despite his limp, and walked out, the door closing softly behind him. Horatio felt his strength drain out of him. He was so exhausted - he wanted to slump on the chair and bury his face in his hands - and just think about nothing for a while.

But it was not finished yet. And the part of the conversation that lay ahead for him was probably the most difficult one.

He turned to Bush, the man looking up at him immediately, as if preparing to meet his eyes. Bush's face looked tired and sad but he also appeared calm.

Like a sentenced to death is calm, Horatio thought. Damn Linsford, for doing it to him. And I was a fool for not noticing it earlier.

"I'm sorry, sir, for not informing you earlier about my time on the Vindictive."

Horatio let his anger break through, his eyes flashing.

"I don't remember asking you about every place where you served." He made a step towards Bush, glaring at him. "Neither I remember asking you of your preferences for... for bed partners."

Ah, that was subtle, Horatio. You handled it so well.

But he could see something in Bush's gaze break, as if Horatio's fury had smitten away some barrier inside him. He was not protecting himself from me, Horatio thought, he was protecting me - from himself.

Oh William, he thought sadly, reproachfully. The tentative hope in the man's eyes was breaking his heart.

Horatio raised his hand slowly, put it on Bush's shoulder again - and now the man didn't stiffen under his touch.

"How long do we know each other, Mr. Bush?"

It seemed not to be the question Bush expected.

"Over two years, I suppose."

"It feels longer for me," Horatio said. It did. Maybe because Bush was a part of his old life, of the life that, as Horatio thought sometimes, was gone forever with Archie's death. Bush was the link that connected those two lives, keeping them from falling apart.

"For me too, sir," Bush said quietly.

"You never failed me. There is no man more loyal than you in my life. Why is it so hard for you to accept that I can also be loyal to you?"

So quick to give, so slow to accept a gift... as Archie had once told about him. He understood Bush because he himself was like that. Only Horatio couldn't help himself; but at least he could try to help the man.

Bush was dear to him. It was the truth, and now Horatio couldn't help but admit it. So dear that he would do anything not to lose him.

"It's... it's not hard, sir."

"Then do it. Trust me. Because... I trust you."

The last words were difficult to say but they seemed right and something in Bush's eyes was changed, the forced calm draining out, and there was such hope, such gratitude shining at Horatio that it sent a pang through him, both of joy and something else. He was dimly aware that his hand clenched convulsively on Bush's shoulder, as if holding onto him - but Bush didn't seem to mind the force of the grip.

"I need you," Horatio said. "I need my Lieutenant. I need my friend."

He didn't know why he hadn't said the last word before. Maybe because it was the word he had called Maria, trying to protect himself from her - and in the end it hadn't worked - and after that he found it easy to say it only of those who were dead. But now it sounded so right.

He saw something opening in Bush's eyes - opening for him, at last completely - and Horatio felt a surge of relief coming over him. He could try not to admit how much it bothered him - but now it felt right.

His hand was still on Bush's shoulder and he felt how Bush straightened, his eyes meeting Horatio's gaze steadily.

"Aye-aye, sir."

And Horatio smiled.


"It's quiet," Horatio said, putting the glass down, his eyes narrowed against the sun. The line of the shore was green of the trees and grey-brown of the rock, and the boat, tiny at this distance, stayed on the sand, abandoned and empty. As it had been for over than twenty-four hours by now.

No sign of Linsford coming back.

They had reached the place yesterday, staying away from lively ports. Linsford had pointed Horatio the destination on the map, a secluded bay with the shore that looked completely uninhabited. Linsford, with his lips pressed tightly and his movements brisk and business-like, studied the coast for a while and then demanded a boat.

Horatio's instructions were not to ask any questions but the look of he location filled him with doubts.

"Are you going to go alone, Mr. Linsford?"

"Oh yes, Captain, I don't need a number of your badly managed beasts to accompany me."

Horatio didn't really care to send someone with the man. In fact, he would be happy to have Linsford away from the ship. When they came back to England, he would have his men to scrub every inch of the Hotspur clean, especially everything in his cabin that Linsford touched, he thought.

"When shall we wait for you to be back, then?"

"Tomorrow morning. At dawn. I might be back earlier so do not even think of wandering around. And prepare to sail as soon as I return, we cannot waste any time here."

The dawn had come, and yet Linsford had not returned.

So, what was he supposed to do now? Horatio caught himself on a thought that seemed strangely attractive - that Linsford wouldn't return at all - and stopped himself forcibly from thinking it. Linsford could be a bastard, but there were orders.

And if it were anyone else lost on the shore, perhaps in danger - wouldn't Horatio do anything to try to help him? Would he just sail away, once the time was over?

"I can take a party to check, sir," Bush said thoughtfully, also looking at the shore.

Horatio kept silent. Bush knew him damn too well. He would've never forgiven himself if he hadn't tried to do something for Linsford, it would always hang on him with the knowledge of his duty unfulfilled.

"Besides," Bush added in the same wistful way, "we can take a look at the place, while at that."

Yes. And *that* too. Thank you for reading my thoughts, William, Horatio thought.

"Just wondering where those future 'allies' of England keep their ships," Bush continued.

Horatio had asked Linsford about it. The man looked at him with a grimace that conveyed the deepest imaginable contempt.

"It's just a meeting point, Captain Hornblower. Why do you ask these questions? Do you have some authorities, unknown to me?"

Horatio looked askance at Bush, who seemed calm and even casual as he kept watching the shore, as if quite unconcerned with Horatio's answer.

It was good to have him back, Horatio thought. He knew nothing was so easy, as long as Linsford was around, and maybe never would be easy at all but at least Horatio didn't have the feeling any more that something bad was happening near and he couldn't figure out what.

He wished he could do something more - he didn't know what more, and always, when having a choice whether to talk or not to talk about things, Horatio chose not talking, maybe because with Maria he was so often forced to say things he didn't want to.

However, Bush was always taking his silence for granted - like he was taking for granted to be there where Horatio needed him - and stay out of the way when he didn't - and keep as much out of Horatio's personal space as possible now, when they shared the quarters - a little more and he would be sleeping on deck.

And he knew what Horatio wanted.

"Mr. Bush, take six men with you. You have four hours to search for Mr. Linsford. If you don't find him or if you feel any danger, return immediately."

Horatio watched them row away, under the accompaniment of Styles' gloomy muttering about 'good riddance' and 'why to look for him'.

And now six hours passed, and the dusk changed to thick, cloudy darkness - and the party still was not back. And Horatio could feel how every minute elapsing was chipping away at his composure.

He had known something was wrong. Why did he have to send Bush there? Send others there? Duty be damned. His duty was to his men. What if he had lost them?


He peered in the glass, desperately trying to see something in nearly impenetrable darkness. On the shore, there were lights gathering. Horatio looked at them, knowing that whatever it was, it wasn't what he wanted to see. Too many lights to belong to his men.

"What do you see, Mr. Prowse?"

"What can I see there?" the man grumbled. "I'm not an owl."

Horatio tried to see if there was a boat leaving the shore - but it was futile, and only complete silence, except for the softest splash of waves, told him that no one was approaching.

Horatio didn't know how much time passed. His fingers went numb, clenching the glass. This waiting in anxiety was a torture.

"I see him! It's Styles, sir!" When he heard Matthews yell it, for a moment hope sprang in him. And yes indeed - at some point, it seemed the darkness had started dispelling - and now the shore was not ink-black any more, and Horatio could discern moving shadows there. The night had passed.

It indeed was Styles, Horatio recognized the brightest neckerchief the man was wearing - red and yellow, its ends flapping on the wind. The dusk was swiftly receding, and he could see Styles kneeling on the shoreline, and a man behind him, pointing a gun at his head.

"Ooh bastards," behind him Matthews said bitterly.

They were there, all his men, kneeling on the sand in a loose line, and behind every one of them a man stood, faces hidden behind facecloths, aiming at their heads. With lurching heart Horatio moved the glass along the line, finding Bush kneeling there. The man's expression was grim and he held his left arm pressed to his chest under an awkward angle.

"What the hell..." Prowse muttered next to him. And as if on a clue, knowing that they finally could be seen them clearly from the ship, one of the men walked up to the boat and jumped into it.

Horatio watched as two other men took the oars and the boat started moving to the Hotspur slowly. The first man stood, looking at them, and even once raised his hand and waved it.

They didn't even bother with a white flag, Horatio thought angrily, but why would they? His men were in their power.

The sun was quite bright by the moment the boat reached the ship. The man standing in it pulled the facecloth down, showing a bright smile that didn't falter even when he looked at the marines pointing the guns at him.

"Who are you?" Horatio said as soon as the boat was close enough.

The man was tall and dark, dark-eyed, and his face seemed to be made of soft clay, so easily it crumpled in a smile.

"Do I have an honor to speak to the Captain Hornblower?" The man's accent was heavy but he spoke quite correctly. "Can I get to the ship?"

"No. What is the meaning of it all?" Horatio made an effort for his voice to sound calm. The man's grin became wider.

"But I thought it was pretty clear, Captain, was it not? We present our part of the bargain - to persuade you to offer yours.."

"And your part of the bargain..."

"... is that we won't kill those people in front of your eyes, of course," the man finished brightly.

"And what will prevent us from killing you right now?" Prowse muttered.

"You can try," the man said quickly. It seemed to be a question he expected. "These men are just fishers we hired to help, completely innocent and absolutely of no value for us. As for me... I'm sure my commander values my life much less than you value the lives of your friends."

"Who is your commander?" Horatio asked, struggling to stay calm.

"Commander Youssef El Malik sends his greetings, Captain."

And then a horrible thing happened. One of the sailors on the shore, Tucker was his name, suddenly jumped up onto his feet and bolted. It was surely not an attempt to escape, just a breakdown - but the gunshots were immediate. Horatio saw the small figure jerk and fall, face down, on the water line, and not move any more.

For a few moments he was tight as a string, deeply afraid that others on the shore might panic as well - and that would be a disaster. But they stayed quiet.

The men in facecloths came up to Tucker, pushed him with the barrels of their guns - and walked away - and it was a sure proof that the man was dead, Horatio thought bitterly.

The man in the boat, who had watched the picture in his glass, turned to them, still looking quite cheerful.

"As you see, we don't have scruples killing one of yours. Now would you like to see others die as well - or would you listen to the Commander Youssef's conditions?"

"What do you want? Money?"

"Money?" the man laughed. "How much money can you offer for the lives of your men, Captain?"

Not much, Horatio thought, not much at all.

"You don't have enough to offer us," the man interrupted him before he had time to say anything. "All your little boat," he gave the Hotspur a long, condescending look, "doesn't cost so much as we want."

Not the ship. I won't surrender the ship, Horatio thought. To do this would mean to doom all his men to captivity and likely death. There were only seven - now six - men on the shore, and Horatio knew what choice he had to make.

Leave while he could. That was his duty. It would be a right decision. Bush would approve it. In fact, he would definitely insist Horatio to do it.

He would leave, and their blood would spill on the yellow sand...

"Our Commander wants to invite you, Captain, to visit him ashore."

For a moment the most overwhelming feeling Horatio had was relief. Not the ship - just him. That he could do - that he would do, certainly. His men wouldn't have to die.

Because the ship could live without her Captain - but the Captain, as he had seen, hardly could live without the ship.

"Will you let my men go then?" he asked levelly.

"No. But we won't kill either them or you. You have the Commander's word on it."

Good. He took a deep breath - and suddenly was aware of the silence around him.

"Sir, you're not going to..." Prowse started, and Horatio had neither time nor wish to listen to it.

"Mr. Orrock." He turned, meeting the gaze of the young midshipman. "You have the ship. If I, or Mr. Bush, don't return till tomorrow, or if you're threatened in any way, you will sail for home."

"Aye-aye, sir." Orrock sounded efficient as always, even though not happy at all.

"Please leave your weapons on the ship, Captain," the man said politely, "would you mind?"

Horatio looked down, freeing his sword and handing it to Matthews, then giving him the pistol. In Matthews' eyes, there was a strange expression, sadness mixed with understanding.

"I still think you should..." Prowse muttered.

"I don't need your opinion on my actions," Horatio said, his tone mild even if his words weren't.


"Yes, Matthews?"

"May I go with you?"

"Absolutely not."

Matthews nodded, as if it was something he expected.

"Then good luck, sir." His hand brushed against Horatio's arm and then his side shortly, startling him a little. But as he turned to Matthews, the man had already stepped aside.

Horatio thought whether there was something he could say as the bigger part of the crew was staring at him like he was going to the gallows. He could find nothing. Everything would seem terribly full of pathos to him.

So he just turned and descended to the boat.

As the boat moved closer to the shore, Horatio found himself torn between two urges - to look at the Hotspur, the ship he was leaving, he didn't know for how long - and the closing shore where the lives of his men depended on him.

He looked at the water instead, only sometimes glancing at the chipper man next to him, who was whistling some tune all the time.

In a way, this forced idleness was so bad that it was almost easier when the guns pointed at him as soon as the boat neared the shore. Horatio saw the faces of his men - pale and anxious as they looked at him, Styles snorting blood that dripped from his nose on his gaudy kerchief.

"You shouldn't have done it, sir," Bush said as Horatio stepped on the sand.

I couldn't have done anything else, he thought. And at the same moment hands were on him, dragging him forward, twisting his arms back, and a dark stripe of cloth was pulled over his eyes. Horatio struggled a little, instinctively, hearing Styles curse and the sounds of commotion next to him.

"Hush your men, Captain," the voice of the cheerful man reached him. "It's just blindfolds so that you didn't see the way."

"Calm down," Horatio ordered, trying to sound composed himself. He found it difficult - the sight of his men, alive and safe, was a secret consolation for him. But he made himself relax. It quieted around him, and then firm hands clasped on his upper arms, pushing him forward.

The path was uneven, first rising uphill and then going down, and Horatio very much doubted they were taking a direct way. Several times he stumbled against bigger pebbles and only the hands holding him kept him from falling.

The thought of breaking away immediately was on his mind, but he had to admit that right now it was completely impossible. Even if he managed to made a sign to his men, and all of them could get free from the hands that held them and yank off the blindfolds... they didn't even know where they were.

He couldn't afford acting in haste.

They stopped finally; the wind was stronger on his face now and there was some salty tang in it, so he supposed they probably were walking along the shore, climbed to one of the cliffs there. The blindfold was removed, and Horatio blinked, trying to get used to the bright light.

Around him, his men were blinking too, rubbing their arms that were not held any more. Bush's face was paper-white and the way he held his arm was even more awkward. Horatio thought that if they'd dragged him the same way as others, it had to be quite bad pain, and yet he hadn't heard a sound from him.

They were on a small, secluded plateau, perhaps really on the top of a cliff, but the big boulders on one side hid the sea from the view. On the other side it was bordered with a tall fence made from thick, sharp poles. In front of him, a structure was clinging to the rock, a house seeming to be an integrate part of the cliff.

Horatio saw a figure in the doorway, leaning against the doorjamb, and for a moment, even though he recognized the man, his mind refused to make a connection.

Andrew Linsford looked at him with a bored, slightly disgusted expression.

"Welcome to your new home, Mr. Hornblower."

Deep in his heart, Horatio couldn't but admit that he suspected something like that. Suspected and still denied it, not wanting to give in to his antipathy to the man. If he had... maybe his men would be safe.

"I thought I would see you here," Linsford continued. "Your nobleness is sometimes so... predictable."

"So far so good, Andy-boy." The man who'd come for him to the Hotspur walked up, smiling happily, and Horatio saw how Linsford barely could suppress a shudder at being addressed this way. "We did a nice job, didn't we? Now it's your turn to do your job nicely."

"Don't you worry about it, Youssef," Linsford muttered.

Right. What a fool, Horatio thought with disappointment. The man *was* a commander - and they had him in their hands on the Hotspur - and let him bluff his way out.

If he alone were to bear the consequences, Horatio would have thought that he deserved it, for his stupidity.

"I'll bring you the answer in three weeks," Linsford said.

"Do it. Three weeks I'll keep them."

And then Horatio felt something snap in him, his anger not in check any more. He stepped forward, not paying attention to the pistols pointed at him.

"Oh I think you should be more careful when striking a deal with him, Commander El Malik. Because if we are the only way to achieve his cooperation, you are going to be in a tough position. He will betray you - as he betrayed his fellows."

He saw Linsford's face distort as the man stepped forward to him, his voice a hiss.

"What makes you think you ever were my fellow, Hornblower?"

"So, I should say 'betrayed his country' then?" Horatio said.

A blow was heavy, making his head jerk and his mouth fill with blood.

"Shut up."

"He will betray you, Commander, because it is the only thing he knows how to do. He disgraced himself so many times - what is one more for him? All you are going to gain for it - just prisoners to feed for three weeks."

"Shut up!"

Now Linsford's face looked really horrible - and suddenly a pistol was in his hand - and before Horatio had time to get frightened, a shot threw him on the ground.

It was strange, he thought, he almost didn't hear the sound, just a soft clap - and it felt like a big paw pushed him. Like he was not wounded at all.

But there was strange heaviness in his left side, and touching it with his palm, he saw it come red with blood.

"You bastard!" He heard Bush's voice and saw him being shoved back brutally, a short cry escaping him as the gun-butt slammed against his left arm.

"I'm all right, don't do anything," Horatio shouted.

Linsford stood over him, looking down. Horatio struggled to rise on his elbows and felt strangely weak. It also seemed to be getting darker and he blinked, trying to dispel the dimness. He saw Linsford freeze as Youssef cocked his gun, pointing it at Linsford's head.

"If you wanted me to believe that the boy was telling the truth - you couldn't do anything better, Andy," the man said in a low, dangerous voice.

Horatio saw Linsford swallow, his throat moving, but his voice was quite calm when the words came.

"You know I won't deceive you. I merely didn't want to take more insults from the brat. You can trust me."

"Yes. As far as I can throw you, is it how you English people say?" Youssef's voice was cold, all cheerfulness gone from it. "But I tell you something, Andy-boy. Deceive me, and you won't sleep well ever again, even in your sad, damp London. You will return with the answer. And you will stop killing my prisoners."

With disappointment Horatio saw that the man lowered the gun.

"If I wanted to kill him, he would be dead," Linsford said. "I can shoot. I actually made you a favor, Youssef. Mr. Hornblower is quite famous for the troubles he causes. But now he likely won't be so... agile."

"You know what?" Youssef's voice was still chilly. "I don't need favors I don't ask for."

"Besides," Linsford said slowly, as if suddenly recalling something, "it gave me a deep satisfaction to do it."

Horatio heard barked commands, in the language he didn't know, and the men were coming up to him, raising him on his feet. Horatio could feel blood running in a hot stream against his side. He still didn't feel hurt, just somewhat heavy there. And yet when the men tried to push him forward, he felt that his legs suddenly became very weak, giving in under him. The darkness finally stepped so close that he could see nothing else, and at the next moment he slipped into it fully, sagging on the hands that held him.

* * *

Horatio came round in the near darkness. Or so it seemed to him until the dimness in front of his eyes dispelled and he saw a faint, flickering light of a candle. Pain was like a huge stake thrust into his left side, going deeper with every breath. He tried to move and found himself somewhat restrained. Bush looked down at him with worry in his eyes.

"Mr. Bush... how is your arm?" The voice came out unrecognizably hoarse.

"Fine, sir. I think it's broken."

Horatio smiled feebly. So much like Bush, to say something like that. It hurt to smile; it hurt to breathe, too, or to talk. Dreading, Horatio raised his hand and patted over the wound. It was wrapped tightly, the cloth just a little wet on the top. His jacket was taken off and tucked around him and there was something else soft under his head - Bush's jacket, he thought.

"The bullet passed right through," Bush said. "Please, sir, don't move."

"So the bastard said the truth," Horatio whispered, puzzled at how much effort even such a small thing demanded. "He can shoot."

Bush's lips quirked but a smile barely reached his eyes. Peering against the dim light Horatio looked around, saw the others, sitting on the floor a bit away from him. They seemed to be locked in some room without widows, a cellar, maybe.

He saw Styles and others shift a little when they noticed him looking - as if to gather closer. And their stares prodded Horatio to move. He couldn't show his weakness. They relied on him and he had to be strong for them. If he just ignored the pain, he was sure it would go away - or at least would be postponed till he could deal with it.

He struggled to sit up, finding it strangely difficult - until a hard palm supported him, helping him. He nodded at Bush in gratitude, feeling too dizzy for words for a moment and swallowing coppery tang in his mouth.

"Do you know what is going on?"

Bush answered him, with the others nodding. They had found no signs of Linsford but instead saw another bay and two ship there.

"I recognized one of them," Bush said flatly. "It was the Amaranth."

The Amaranth. The name sounded somewhat familiar. Horatio recalled finally - a clipper gone missing two years ago, suspected to be attacked by pirates.

"She has another name now, of course," Bush continued, "but it was her. I don't know what the other one was."

They had started to return to the shore, and there they were apprehended, outnumbered so much that they didn't have a chance.

"We shouldn't have given in," Bush said, and Styles and others had the idiocy to nod in agreement.

"Yes," Horatio whispered angrily, "you shouldn't. You should've got yourselves killed. Now what a negligence that you didn't. Try harder next time." And when his words were greeted with silence, he immediately regretted his harshness. "I shouldn't have sent you," he muttered.

Yet what was the point to think of 'what ifs'? He'd done what he'd done, and now they could only think how to get themselves from this situation.

"What do they want?"

Now there was silence.

"I expect they want to keep us as hostages," Bush said finally. "But for what purpose..."

The heavy bolt on the door rattled, rising, and the door opened, letting Linsford in. And as Styles made a motion as if to get to him, two more men walked in, their guns cocked.

"Stay in place, stay in place." Linsford's pale eyes looked like a cat's, glittering in the faint light. He looked around the cell until his gaze finally stopped on Horatio, who tried very hard to keep the grimace of pain out of his face. "I see our brave Captain is already up. Good, good. But don't strain yourself too hard, you know how these wounds are - so easy to make them worse."

The intense loathing Horatio felt to the man was burning, making blood thunder in his ears deafeningly. But he wouldn't give Linsford more satisfaction than he'd already given.

"So, you're serving the pirates, Linsford? How lower than that can one stoop?"

For a moment it seemed Linsford struggled with his anger but then his face became serene again.

"Ah, I see you've already been informed." His gaze slid over the others. "Your men, Hornblower, shouldn't have been so curious. And you shouldn't have sent them to spy. Now what shall happen to you, who knows? Who knows if you ever see England again? And I will go back there on your ship, Captain, and bring the news from my friends. They are happy to help our country, just for a few small concessions, and my mission will be fulfilled."

Horatio wanted to say that in England they wouldn't believe Linsford - or that they wouldn't cooperate with pirates but he wasn't so naive. And the thing that hurt most of all was the thought of the Hotspur.

"You won't get in charge of my ship. My men won't trust you."

"Oh won't they? When I come back to the ship, saying that your orders are... But wait, what orders did you give to... Mr. Orrock, I believe?"

Horatio felt blood rush away from his face and knew he didn't manage to hide his dismay.

"Exactly, Mr. Hornblower. He wouldn't have a choice but to sail to England. Tomorrow, I think," Linsford added after a pause, "the wind is getting stronger. Not that you will feel any wind on your face for a long, long time. And I can't wait to get back to writing," Linsford continued. "The newspaper is looking forward to my essays. I think, Mr. Hornblower, when - *if* - you come back to England, you might find yourself unexpectedly famous."

Horatio bit his lips. Linsford's tone was not threatening - it didn't need to be. He could imagine it, had seen it before - how merciless the man sometimes was in describing those around him - but until now Horatio always thought they no doubt deserved it.

Well, perhaps he deserved it too.

But Maria... she was reading 'Morning Chronicle' and Linsford's essays, he saw her laughing and crying over them many times.

He felt dizzy.

Linsford's eyes followed him, clearly enjoying, and then slid over Bush, stopping for a long moment.

"You did it for him, Hornblower, didn't you?" Linsford's voice grew lower, having this intimate, almost rhythmical cadence. "Would you be so willing to give yourself in if you didn't know how he felt about you? Is it your guilt that moved you - or do you... do you by chance share his feelings, I wonder. This kind of inclination... it indeed should be punishable, since it makes men weak."

Horatio found himself gripping Bush's hand that still supported him, to prevent him from saying anything or lashing out. He watched in silence as Linsford walked out and the door closed.

"Tomorrow," Horatio repeated once the steps behind the door died out. All the eyes were turned at him and he knew his men would do anything he'd tell. "Then we have to get back to the Hotspur tonight."

He wasn't disappointed, their eyes lighting up. They trusted him - and yet he couldn't help wondering if their trust was enough to save them. Was he sending them to death as surely as it would be if he'd never given in?

"I want you to escape and get back to the ship. Take any chance you have. Don't look at the others - the priority is to warn Mr. Orrock and Mr. Prowse about what's going on. Is it clear?"

"Aye-aye, sir," the hushed voices echoed. He turned and looked at Bush who alone looked not so much enthusiastic as calculating.

"It is a priority," Horatio repeated.

"Aye-aye, sir," Bush said quietly.

* * *

The candle had almost died out. Horatio tried to convince himself that it was the fumes that made him feel light-headed. He would be all right as soon as he'd get some fresh air; he definitely would be.

The pain was not getting easier to ignore; in fact, it seemed to grow a small notch with every breath. Something in him was so scared with this pain that he dreaded the time when he had to move. Yet he was not going to let his men see it. They needed him, at least till a certain moment. And then he could serve as a distraction, if nothing else.

They heard the steps at the door again finally and Horatio met Styles' eyes and nodded. They were ready, and he struggled to get up.

He didn't expect that - the wave of dizziness coming over him, pain enormous. For a moment it seemed that darkness was swallowing him again, and Horatio couldn't understand what was with him, was he sitting or standing or floating. A few seconds later he realized he was on his feet - leaning heavily with his arm over Bush's shoulder.

"It's all right, sir," the voice was soft, coming as if through a thick veil. "I have you."

There was something wet on his face and Horatio raised his hand weakly to touch it. Trickles of sweat ran over his temples.


Styles was at his side, making a motion to put his other arm over his shoulder. Horatio pulled away from him.

"No." He wished his voice didn't sound so feeble; he didn't want to scare his men instead of encouraging them. "Don't waste your effort on me. I'll make it in my own time. Remember, the priority is to reach the ship, at any price." Styles dared to look discontent at it. "It is an order. And it concerns you as well, Mr. Bush."

Bush didn't let him go. Horatio wanted to get free from the support but knew he would just flop down then and it would be even worse.

"You won't slow me down, sir," Bush said quietly, hardly audibly for others to hear. "I don't think I will be really fast anyway, with my arm."

That was a twisted piece of logic but there was such a wave of weakness coming over him that Horatio gave in, he couldn't argue any more, succumbing to the warmth and steady support with gratitude.

The door opened finally, and Lawson and Styles yanked a man forward, one blow knocking him out. A bucket of water rolled on the floor. Someone outside the door made a surprised gasp but Styles was already out and Horatio heard another body falling on the ground.

Till the last moment Horatio was not sure he would be able to walk - but when the time came, he found it easier than he expected, even though he leaned heavily against Bush's shoulder.

They moved as quietly as they could, up the stairs. There were two more men there - also overpowered in silence. Now four of the sailors were armed. They heard voices and froze for a moment but it all seemed clear.

They almost made it when a small figure rushed under their feet. Horatio saw Styles grab it and raise into the air. A small girl, no older than seven, stared at them with eyes enormous with horror over Styles' hand covering her mouth.

Styles' hand was so big and rough and the girl seemed so frail, like a doll in her tattered clothes, that for a moment Horatio got scared, he didn't know of what.

"Styles, no," he whispered furiously. The man looked at him, puzzled - and let the girl go.

Her shriek was piercing. Horatio couldn't understand the words but he could guess quite well.

Now there was no time to be careful. They shot when hearing steps approach and broke outside, to the night air and pouring rain, and then Horatio suddenly bumped against Lawson's broad back and knew it was over. The sounds of cocked guns were all around them.

"Drop your guns," Youssef said, appearing on the threshold. "Drop your guns and no one will be hurt."

With despair Horatio saw that all his men were still there, no one had managed to escape. They still clenched their guns.

"Drop the weapons," he said. Even simply standing became unbearably hard all of a sudden and he wanted Bush to let him go - and at the same time the only consolation that came to him at this moment was from feeling his lieutenant close.

"Very reasonable, Mr. Hornblower." The hated voice belonged to Linsford. Strangely, Horatio barely could muster any anger against Youssef and yet Linsford's presence made him dizzy with loathing. Linsford walked up to him, seeming oblivious of the rain hitting his face. "It's a pity it is a bit too late to be reasonable. See what I told you, Youssef? I probably should have shot through his knee, not through his side - then he wouldn't run. But it's not too late for that."

Horatio felt his whole body freeze as he looked at the gun in Linsford's hand pointing at him. The expectation of the pain was bad but the thought of his knee shattering, of him not being ever able to walk straight was the worst. He swallowed sickness, licking cold, bitter drops of the rain from his lips.

And then he was pushed back, softly, was falling as the support he'd come to count on was gone - but he didn't really fall, there was a wall behind him - and Bush stood between him and the gun now.

Oh no, Horatio thought, don't do it for me, I can't accept it. Was it the real meaning of Linsford's words, said earlier tonight, the words Horatio had ignored then. Of attachment meaning weakness. Only Linsford didn't say attachment, he said... but could it be? Could Bush feel - like that - towards him? Could he, Horatio, feel...

"Now, William, you don't mean that," Linsford said. "I know you, you always were a smart one."

"And you always were a coward," Bush said quietly and with deepest conviction. "Shooting at someone unarmed, that's so much like you."

"No," Horatio whispered. He knew what Bush was trying to do.

"Out of my way," Linsford said, a blow throwing Bush on the ground, a small sound escaping him as he must've hit his arm - and Horatio looked at Linsford again - and the gun.

"Andy," Youssef's voice came, "what did I tell you? Stop shooting my prisoners."

For a moment it seemed that words just breezed over Linsford - and then he shrugged a little, making a step towards Horatio. The gun was still in his hand but the barrel didn't point at him any more.

Instead of it, with a sickening pain, it thrust against his wound. Horatio gasped, his breath halting, and he was dimly grateful for it because he wasn't sure he would be able to keep a scream otherwise. The barrel of the gun was pushing, twisting and turning against his wound - and Linsford's face was so close and yet blurring in front of Horatio's eyes.

"Do you regret you tried to cross me, handsome boy?" Linsford's breath touched his face but the words were coming from afar. "You stupid, stupid little Captain. Do you feel sorry for it?"

A part of Horatio's mind wanted to scream, yes, yes, I'm sorry, just stop it, please, please stop this pain - but a part was still holding, still hoped that he could lose consciousness before the words were wrenched out of him.

"Beg me," Linsford said.

It seemed the gun pushing under his ribs had been the only thing that kept Horatio upright - because now he fell, on his knees, the impact resounding through his body. He felt hot and cold at once, the sensations changing so fast that he couldn't make them out.

"Yes, like that," Linsford said. "Now you kneel - now you beg."

It seemed the rain was in his lungs because it was difficult to take a breath, and for a moment Horatio was terrified that he was drowning. He gasped, swallowing water, streams leaking over his eyes, nearly blinding him.

"I'll... kill you... bastard," he said. "I swear."

Linsford's boot slammed in his side, toppling him down. He fell, on the wet ground, strangely relieved that the world acquired stability again.

"Get the others in." Linsford's voice reached Horatio through the cloak of dizzying pain. "And this one - I think a refreshing shower will do him good. Both of them, I think, William, you'll keep the company to your Captain, won't you?"

Horatio saw only the feet shuffling through the dirt past him, recognizing the boots of his men as they were taken away. Next to him, Bush was forced to kneel, his left arm hanging like a lash. Horatio could barely see farther than that.

He couldn't get up. He wanted but he just couldn't. He saw Bush move to help him but he was stopped, and Horatio added to it: "No, don't." Rain was pouring, cold, seeming to numb the pain somewhat. Numb his body all in all.

Bush looked at him, his eyes sad and full of such open gentleness that Horatio wondered how he hadn't seen it before - or maybe hadn't wanted to see. Was he afraid of it - of this affection, this loyalty? Was he so afraid that he deceived himself as to how deeply Bush cared for him?

Was he so much a coward?

He reached his hand, dirty and clammy, and a moment later Bush's hand clasped it, and even though his palm was probably as cold as Horatio's, Horatio thought it was the only point of warmth he still felt.

"It's not a weakness, Mr. Bush," he whispered, replying his own thoughts, not even knowing if Bush understood him. "It's not a weakness."

* * *

It'd been three days since their failed escape. Three days since the Hotspur was gone and Linsford was gone with it. And three days since Horatio got ill.

Bush remembered kneeling there, under the rain, his clothes soaked through, and it seemed he couldn't get any colder than that - apart from his arm that was throbbing with hot, sickening pain. And his hand was in Horatio's palm, the comfort of this touch impossible, and Horatio's dark eyes stared at Bush from the deathly pale, dirty face.

And then his eyes closed and the fingers slackened, and Bush panicked, getting to him, yelling at those around them to help.

Youssef finally came out to the sounds and made a sign to send them in. Bush began to shiver as soon as he was back in the cell, Styles and others helping him to get out of the soaked clothes and forcing some of their own onto him - and at this moment he didn't even care if he was naked among them.

He couldn't stop shaking and his teeth chattered - but it was all right, it didn't matter. It was much worse with Horatio who didn't even shiver, his eyes closed, his body cold and hard as wood, and he didn't even seem to feel when the men were stripping him. The bandage on his abdomen was soaked with blood and dirt.

"He needs a doctor," Styles said, his eyes looking horrified and guilty, although how was any of it his fault? It was his, Bush's, fault, that Linsford hated Horatio so much - if he hadn't dragged Horatio into it, Linsford wouldn't have a reason for revenge.

It took them the whole day to make the guard even listen to them - they were not even given water. But finally Youssef came - and shrugged, looking at Horatio.

"Captain Hornblower shouldn't have tried to escape. Now he's paying the price."

He did send the doctor in, though, or the man who served as a doctor for the pirates. The man cleaned and bandaged Horatio's wound, put Bush's arm into a splint and left.

His visit was of little help for Horatio.

"It's bad, sir," Styles said gloomily, looking at Horatio's ghostly pale face and the convulsive movements of his hands as he pulled the jacket over himself unconsciously, unable to get warm. "He's cold. If he were hot, it'd be better but now..." Like Bush didn't know it himself.

They gathered all their jackets to put under and around Horatio but it still wasn't enough. His face, distorting in suffering, looked so vulnerable that it seemed years younger, and his voice was small like a child's.

"It's so cold... why is it so cold..."

Finally Bush couldn't bear it any more, pulled Horatio against himself, pressing him closer, wrapped his good arm around him, Horatio's head against his shoulder. If Styles or any other thought it inappropriate, he thought, they could take it up with him later. But to his surprise they seemed to approve, nothing else.

Horatio's body was burning against his, every breath of his resounding through Bush's chest. Sometimes Horatio's eyes opened, blindly, a distant, mesmerized look in them.

It went worse as the fever set at last. Horatio didn't feel cold any more but intensely hot - and all Bush could do was to wet a cloth constantly, wiping his face and trying to force some liquid between Horatio's parched, cracked lips.

He wasn't quiet any more, his face flushed, as he pushed the jackets away from him. His chest in the open shirt was sleek with sweat, hands tearing at the cloth violently. It was then when Bush heard him whisper, in an anguish, guilty voice:

"Maria... "

It hurt to hear him call for her - and Bush forbade himself to think about it. He felt Horatio clench onto his hand - and then more words came:

"I'm sorry I couldn't... couldn't love you... why did you want me... I wanted a friend..."

Bush felt such pain thinking about it, the whole story of Horatio's hasty marriage coming back to him. After it had been done, Horatio never talked about it, nothing that could make people think he was any less than happy...

Only he wasn't happy at all.

The spasms got so violent at times that Bush couldn't hold him alone, and then Styles and Lawson came to help. He listened to heart-wrenching little cries Horatio made trying to get free, begging to let him go, begging not to make him do something, not to send him to the riggings - and his hands clenched on Styles' shirt with such force that the knuckles went white.

Then the fit passed and Horatio stayed exhausted, his breath shallow and feeble and his face tired and distant.

Bush was exhausted to - so much that he was just blacking out from time to time, slumping against the wall right next to Horatio, no matter how determined he was to stay awake.

"You need to rest, sir," Styles told him, "we can take care of him."

It was not that Bush doubted they could. But he was afraid to let go. Even to himself Bush didn't want to admit that he was afraid that once he'd go to sleep, he would wake to finding Horatio gone.

And this thought filled him with deadly cold.

* * *

He still fell asleep, after all, and woke up in utter quietness. The candle was a puddle of melted wax and flame was tiny, barely giving light at all. The men didn't move, snoring softly. Horatio's head was lying against Bush's shoulder, peacefully, and Bush jolted up, horror surging through him. He groped, trying to make sure, hoping it was not what he dreaded so much.

"I'm sorry for waking you," Horatio's quiet voice said.

It was so faint, barely more than a whisper - but it sounded perfectly rational. Barely daring to hope, Bush touched his forehead, checking it. It was not burning any more. At some point the fever seemed to break.

Horatio's fingers reached to his hand, taking it, and Bush immediately regretted his boldness, trying to take his hand away. He knew so well how wary about his personal space his Captain was, how invasive he could find this touch.

The hand didn't let him go, and Horatio didn't seem to be bothered with their position at all. Instead his thin fingers, tips hard with calluses, twined through Bush's, holding them.

"I like when you touch me," Horatio said.

Bush felt blood rush to his cheeks. The words sounded unreal - but in a dream he had never known how hardened Horatio's hands were. And at the same moment understanding came to him. Horatio still was delirious; still didn't know what he was doing.

"I've never touched anyone I wanted to," Horatio whispered. Bush looked down at his face, so young, so thin after the illness. He looked like a boy, so frail and wistful. "I have never kissed anyone I wanted to," he said.

Bush didn't know what to do; propriety demanded him to interrupt him, to spare Horatio from these confessions that he would definitely regret, once conscious, wouldn't forgive Bush for listening. But the hand was clinging to his with such force that he just couldn't let go, couldn't make himself shake Horatio out of this fragile peaceful state, afraid to bring on another fit.

"There was a girl," Horatio said, so quietly that Bush wasn't sure he heard everything. "Mariette... She was nice... I promised to save her and... and didn't. She kissed me but I... I don't remember that. And after that... nothing. Do you think there is something wrong with me?"

This question made Bush feel like his heart was wrenching. A part of him seemed to always know that Horatio was quietly, secretly unhappy beyond his self-composure. But he hadn't known how deep it was - how much self-doubt there was.

Something wrong with him... with him, who was so strong and so bright, and if there was something good in Bush's life, it was meeting him...

"Did you want to kiss someone, Mr. Bush?" the feeble voice reached him again. Even though being called by the name, Bush still couldn't quite believe Horatio really realized where he was, who he was talking to.

"Yes, sir," he said quietly. He felt Horatio's head move in a nod.

"I... I also... want to kiss... do you think you can kiss me, Mr. Bush?"

His heart lurched, his hand clenching involuntarily on Horatio's hand holding it. For a moment all the words, all the thoughts escaped him, even his breath seeming to come to a halt. Sadness washed over him.

How he wanted to say 'yes' - it was everything he wanted, could dream about. But how could he? It would've made him so happy if Horatio knew what he offered, if he were not delirious, unconsciously speaking out the vague ideas of his mind.

"Sir..." he whispered helplessly.

"I wish you could want to kiss me," Horatio said, and the quiet, reasonable sorrow of these words contradicted the force his both hands now were clenching on Bush's hand, pressing it to Horatio's cheek. His cheek was warm, slightly rough with stubble. Bush could feel something breaking in him, right and wrong not so obvious any more.

Was he more a criminal taking what was offered - or pushing him away, leaving Horatio in his feeling of loneliness and misery? It could be fever-induced but it was real for Horatio now. He didn't want to push him away.

"I want to, sir," he said.

He saw Horatio tilt his head towards him, his eyes half-closed but his lips opening. Bush thought of the tight-lipped, awkward kisses he couldn't help but see Horatio giving Maria.

His feeling of guilt was enormous - and still he leaned to those half-parted lips, pressing his mouth to them, gently, carefully, ready to withdraw at any sign of Horatio's discomfort.

But Horatio surged towards him, lips opening wider, hot and dry and eager, meeting Bush's kiss. The little gasp Horatio made was caught into Bush's mouth, and then their tongues met, and nothing else existed for a few moments, just Horatio pressing against his chest, Bush's hand caught between Horatio's palms, their mouths locked.

And even through the unbearable, painful joy of this sensation, the sadness Bush felt was still stronger. How starved for a touch Horatio was... how lonely he had to feel to lean into this contact with such passion, such eagerness. And he, Bush, was an impostor, taking something that was not meant for him.

Their contact broke finally, Horatio slumping against him, a little sigh falling from his lips. His hands still were clasped on Bush's but were slacking a little.

"Thank you," he whispered, "it was good," and his eyes closed.

But long after he seemed to slide into quiet sleep Bush stayed awake, listening to his breath, remembering the short, almost unreal sensation of their lips linking.

* * *

"How many days have passed, Styles?" He had asked this question before. There was no much point in it and yet Styles answered, with unwavering enthusiasm, as he always did:

"Nineteen, sir."

He probably thought these questions served some real purpose, Horatio thought. Leaning against the wall, he wrapped his jacket tighter around him. His fever had gone down but he still felt chilled sometimes. And ever since he'd got better, Horatio saw how the others looked at him. Like he had come back from dead and now everything was going to be all right.

He wished he were as sure of it. They relied on him, his men, and this unconditional trust was almost frightening, lay too heavy on him. Horatio tried to suppress these thoughts, telling himself it was only a sign of his recent illness, he would snap out of it. He wouldn't let himself get sluggish or dispirited.

There had to be some way out.

The guards did everything not to allow another escape attempt, obviously given the strictest orders - so, they kept the contacts minimal, even though some of the sailors tried to engage them into a conversation, mostly by signs. But the door opened only to shove a bucket in or out.

And now when the Hotspur was gone anyway Horatio didn't want to risk another unprepared attempt, which could end worse than the first one. There was the Amaranth, though, as Bush had said. But chances were very slim to get there and take over it - even though Horatio knew that if he told his men they were going to do it, they would gladly try. And he didn't want them to die trying.

He was so proud of his men. Locked in this tiny cell, with nothing to do but to count the days, they still didn't give up and even kept passable discipline - which was Bush's merit, of course.

In the dim light of a candle - the only light they had seen for weeks, sometimes Horatio thought it was the only light his eyes could tolerate any more - he looked at Bush who was talking to Styles, lecturing him for something. Bush's arm was in a sling made out of Styles' bright neckerchief - well, formerly bright. Bush's face was pale and not healthy looking but quite calm.

Horatio remembered something, looking at him - this husky, quiet voice, and careful hands touching him, holding him when he was burning up. As soon as Horatio had come round, Bush withdrew from him, sensitive to Horatio's needs as always.

Horatio always wanted privacy - privacy he seemed not to be able to get anywhere now, when he was married - and was touched with this consideration. But somewhere deep inside him, there was also regret that he couldn't admit even to himself for Bush keeping this distance between them now.

Horatio couldn't breach it - not only because it was no time and place for it, as he told himself. He couldn't breach it because he was afraid of what would happen if he did.

Bush must have felt his gaze because he looked back at Horatio, his eyes questioning. Horatio only nodded a little and looked away.

He wished he could do something else, say something - but he couldn't help it. He was afraid; afraid of what could grow from something so small like a shared smile. He huddled deeper into his jacket, pulling it around tighter.

Something sharp nicked his hand. He winced a little, thinking at first that he scratched it against some ornament on his jacket. But there was blood in his palm.

Holding his breath, Horatio shoved his hand into the pocket - and there, under the lining, his fingers touched a sharp, narrow length of metal. Fearing to believe his luck, Horatio pulled it out.

It was a blade - a self-made knife, narrow and with a thin, heavy handle. The blade was shining and very sharp. How did it get there - he'd never owned such a thing...

And then a memory came to him, a distant one - Matthews patting his side when saying good-bye to him, in a quick, strange gesture.

Oh what a fool. Of course the man had slipped him this weapon, so that his Captain did not go to his enemies armless. And Horatio had failed to guess it.

If he'd found this blade earlier, before their attempt of escape - would have it changed anything? Horatio ousted this thought with an effort. Regretting about the past meant wasting time, the time they could spend planning the future.

"Mr. Bush." His lieutenant man came up to him, his eyes lighting up as he saw the knife. "Perhaps we have a better chance now," Horatio said softly.

* * *

Three weeks had passed, but nothing changed in their situation. Was the Hotspur back? Did Linsford strike the deal for Youssef? And what about him and his men? They were not going to leave them rot here forever, right? Horatio was growing restless. This forced immobility was so hard to bear that sometimes Horatio felt dizzy with impatience.

The door opened widely for the first time in weeks, and finally Youssef came in, blinding them with his smile in his usual manner.

"Long time no see. Is everyone in good health? No good news for you, though, Captain, I'm afraid," he continued before Horatio could say anything. "It seems your English people have cheated. No ship coming."

"Maybe it is your good friend Linsford who cheated?" Horatio said in an icy voice.

"Maybe, maybe. Who knows?"

Youssef was right - there were more important things than Linsford.

"And so what now? Are you going to kill us?"

"No, no," Youssef smiled again. "Did I not give you my word? Besides... what a waste it would be, to kill fine English seamen for nothing? I suppose I can make a good bargain on you."

"England won't negotiate with you over our lives."

"Ah, Captain. But I didn't mean England."

And that was when Horatio understood that it was now or never. Youssef stood there, hands buried in his wide sleeves, smiling - so sure everything would be as he decided.

Horatio jumped up onto his feet, unwound like a tight spring, the blade in his hand - pressed to the man's jugular - and no matter how well Youssef controlled himself, Horatio felt how the man shuddered, feeling the cold steel touching his skin.

"You said once your commander didn't value your head so much," he said, still somewhat bitter at being deceived them, on the Hotspur. "Let's see now exactly how much *he* values it."

The bandits who accompanied Youssef looked quite indecisive, glancing from their commander to the sailors who already gathered abound them dangerously. For a moment Youssef was silent but Horatio already knew the man wouldn't want to die. He said something in his language and the men put down their weapons.

"What do you want, Captain?" Talking against the blade was likely inconvenient - his voice sounded stifled. "You don't really think you will get away, do you? Even if you make out of here - where shall you go? We'll hunt you with dogs."

"You didn't leave us much choice, did you?" Horatio asked quietly.

He felt Youssef perk up somewhat, his voice insistent, convincing.

"And if I do? If I give you my word that we will..."

"What? Let us go home?" Horatio asked angrily.

Home... did he still have where to go? Horatio hadn't wanted to think about it, forbidden himself to admit how much it bothered him. Even if he got back to England, what waited for him there? A court marshal for failing his duty and abandoning the ship? And did Linsford fulfill his threat, about the newspaper?

"Let us go," he said. "Or by God, I'll kill you."

An Youssef must have felt it was true because he didn't bargain any more, giving the orders to his men in a dry, snapping voice.

They were followed with silent gazes, the men around them gloomy but no one made a move that would endanger their leader's life, even when Styles and others yanked the guns out of their hands.

The brightest light as they came out of the house was a shock to Horatio, and only a few moments later he realized that they were lucky they hadn't attempted their escape by day. It was a sunset, the sun nearly gone - otherwise they probably would be caught blind like moles there.

The smooth handle of the knife was slick of sweat in his hand. He'd felt full of nervous energy in the beginning but now weakness was catching up on him. Horatio thought he had to expect it.

"Open the gates," he ordered. "And no one is to follow my men. It is your life on stake, remember."

Youssef gave him a look and repeated the orders. The gates opened, and Horatio clasped the knife tighter.

He knew he wouldn't be able to drag Youssef with them to keep the others from chasing them. He was barely standing on his feet, it would slow them down too much. So, there was no other choice, then. And had he truly believed that he could get away?

Horatio suddenly recalled Bracegirdle - the man so obviously was crushed with the loss of his ship that, Horatio knew, had that shell not killed him, he would've found another way to die with honor.

Sometimes it was the only way out.

"You realize you can't hold me like that infinitely," Youssef said very quietly, and for once his voice sounded without his usual antics. "Ah so." Suddenly understanding filled his voice. "So, you want to die, Captain. I see."

"You might die with me," Horatio whispered.

"Ah, but you don't believe it yourself, right? I cannot imagine you slitting my throat once your men are out of danger. But I can tell you what, Captain. I'll grant your wish. You'll die - since you free me from my word."

The gates opened, the passage was free.

"Sir?" Styles was looking back at him, a question in his eyes.

"Run, what are you waiting for?" Horatio yelled. "Run, you bastards!"

They did. And at the same time Youssef's elbow slammed against his side, into his barely healed wound. The pain was like a flash of black, dimming everything, making him double over, distantly aware that the knife was wrenched out of his hand.

Horatio fell on his knees - and heard the shots but his men were gone, none of them wounded or killed. He smiled in relief.

"So are we going to play another game now, Captain?" Youssef said, looking down at him. There was a little trickle of blood on his neck and he rubbed it with his palm.

"I think not." The voice was quiet, familiar, and Horatio felt enormous sorrow, looking at Bush who pointed the gun at Youssef.

Damn him, why didn't he run? How dared he not to, when Horatio ordered him?

"Oh, you're not going to die alone, are you, Captain?" Youssef said, his smile a little regretful. "Or is your friend aware of your suicidal plans?"

No, Horatio wanted to cry out, seeing how Youssef suddenly made a step away. But it was too late. A shot thundered - and Bush was falling, blood red like paint on his very pale face.

It can't be, Horatio thought, it isn't happening. It shouldn't be. It seemed the grief that flowed over him was so huge he couldn't take a breath, couldn't think about anything but repeating these words. It can't be. It can't.

He knelt, paralyzed, looking at Bush lying on the ground, the sounds of the cocked guns barely registering at all.

I failed you so much, William, he thought.

Youssef came up, looking at him, and Horatio found himself dizzy with hatred - and yet he couldn't even move to try to kill the man.

"Take him to the cell," Youssef said. "Both of them."

Both? What was the point, Bush was dead... Horatio saw them raise him, his head dangling. But did his eyelashes tremble just a little?

There was blood on the side of Bush's face but... but it was not an open wound, not like Horatio was afraid to see. Could it be that the bullet just grazed him? Hope flooded him, replacing everything else. Horatio heard his own breath, pathetically loud, the sound suspiciously like sobbing.

"It is not my way to shoot an unconscious man," Youssef said. "Tomorrow, when you both are back with us, you'll die. Are you able to wait this long, Captain?"

There was an open jeering in the last words, and Horatio suddenly felt clenching in shame. Hands grabbed him, twisting his arms behind his back, and he walked, not resisting at all.

* * *

There was darkness in front of his eyes, and in this darkness, pain was enormous and throbbing, pounding against the walls of his skull. Bush moaned, and it hurt too, the sound uncomfortably loud. Something cool and careful touched his forehead, strangely relieving, and he moaned again, wishing to get more of this touch and unable to.

"Shh," a soft voice told him, familiar and yet almost unrecognizable in its gentleness. Bush could barely believe it. He needed to see. But the eyelids seemed impossible to raise. "Don't move."

Horatio... he didn't let the name fall from his lips - but he knew, his body, everything of him knew. It was Horatio's hand on his forehead, Horatio's voice calming him down.

He had to see. He managed to raise the eyelids, at the price of worsening pain - and yet the darkness around was just as thick and impenetrable as before.

Fear made him thrash, dislodging the light palm, which Bush immediately regretted.

"Is it dark? Or something... something with my eyes?"

"It is dark," Horatio said.

He relaxed at once, realizing suddenly that even though he was very cold, lying on the bare floor, there was something warm under his head. Was Horatio holding him?

"You have quite scared me, Mr. Bush," Horatio said. The voice sounded carefully neutral but under this, there was something so strange that Bush strained to open his eyes again, hoping to see at least something.

The darkness was not complete, after all - from a narrow slit under the ceiling, some moonlight was coming in. Horatio's shirt and face were pale white in it.

"They've taken your jacket, sir?"

"Yes. Our jackets." A small smile was evident in Horatio's voice. "Better safe than sorry, they decided, what if I hid something else there?"

Bush chuckled at that, and the sound came raspy, hurting his throat. He was so thirsty. He swallowed, his saliva feeling ropy, but he supposed that asking for water would be futile, if it was there, Horatio would've already given it. Yet he seemed to guess what Bush needed.

"No water either," he said regretfully.

Right, Bush thought, right. And then knowledge came to him, clear and simple, even though he didn't know how he knew it.

"They want to execute us tomorrow, sir?"

"Yes, William," Horatio said.

"And others?"

"They've got away. At least I hope they did."

He closed his eyes again, in relief. Another bout of pain came and passed, quicker than the previous one. Strange as it was, the thought of his death in a few hours worked miracle on his headache.

"You were supposed to go. Why do you keep disobeying me?" Horatio asked in the same quiet, mild voice.

Because I couldn't stand the thought of living without you, Bush thought.

And now they were going to die together... just how much better was it? He failed Horatio all the same.

"I cannot answer this question," he said.

Horatio made a short sound, half-discontent, half a chuckle, and shifted a little. Bush recalled again he was lying against his lap. He pushed on his elbows, trying to get up.

"Is something wrong?"

"I think I want to sit up," he said. "You must feel... inconvenient."

Horatio's hands were careful and firm, helping him settle against the wall. Now Bush could see him a little - a ghostly figure in the darkness, Horatio's arms wrapped around his knees in a childish pose. His eyes were very dark but there was no way to see the expression in them.

"I'm sorry it had to come to that, William," he said, his every word deliberate, very careful. "It is my fault."

Sorry... Bush recalled suddenly what that bastard Youssef said, the words he hadn't had time to think about then. Did Horatio really want to die?

This thought was so painful, more painful than even the knowledge that Horatio would be executed tomorrow.

He wanted to die...

"Please, sir," he said. "None of it is your fault. I would..." He wanted to say that he would rather die with Horatio than live without him - but how could one say a thing like that aloud? "If the others are free," he said instead, "it is because of what you have done for their sake."

"But not for..." Horatio started and then stopped abruptly, and Bush felt his heart clench with the pain sounding in this voice. He would die tomorrow, Horatio would die - and now he still didn't know peace, and he, Bush, couldn't do anything for him. "I'm sorry," Horatio added, his tone changing forcibly to a softer one. "It's no use to argue about these things. Not now. I don't want us to go like that. I'm... I'm grateful to you for everything. I..."

It seemed he wanted to continue - but no words came, and Bush just looked at him - he could see Horatio's face clearer now - so pale, his eyes so dark.

So young... so vulnerable. They would kill him tomorrow.

"The moon has risen fully, hasn't it?" Horatio asked.

He nodded; there was little he could say and the words seemed to hurt.

"You have blood on your face," Horatio said. "I'm sorry I cannot do anything for you."

"Nothing is necessary, sir."

"As you did for me," Horatio added. "I..." He stopped again, and then continued, in a careful, quiet voice. "Mr. Bush... William... I wanted to ask. Then, when I was delirious - did I... did I say or do something that can be considered... inappropriate?"

So, that was it, Bush thought. Regret filled him with an overflowing wave. His crime, his memory, the most precious that he had, his stolen kiss - that made him touch his mouth secretly since then, as if making sure it had happened - now he was called to answer for that.

But at least he could answer it in such a way to put Horatio out of his worry - at least it was the only thing he could do.

"Nothing, sir. Nothing that I remember about."

He'd be damned if he let Horatio feel defiled, because of the moment that didn't mean anything for him... that meant everything for Bush.

There was silence - was this answer enough for Horatio? Bush couldn't bring himself to look up.

"But I remember," Horatio said softly. "I asked you to kiss me."

It felt like a stake slamming in his chest, and Bush clenched his fists, fingernails entering his palms deeply, his teeth sinking into the inside of his lip. He remembered... oh God. Oh God. He thought he would lose Horatio in the morning... but it looked like he would lose him right now.

Next to him, Horatio shifted a little, sighing softly.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Bush. I'm sorry for imposing my will on you."

It was not what happened! For a moment Bush couldn't believe what he heard. Did Horatio blame himself? How could he? When the fault was his, when it was him who wanted it so much, even a caress that didn't belong to him, that he went for it immediately as soon as it was offered, not taking into account the situation, Horatio's state...

"Don't be sorry, sir," he said. "It's me who had done it."

Horatio looked at him, he could feel it - and Bush could barely stand this gaze, even though he knew his face was as dim to Horatio as his to Bush. But he had to stand it. He had done it - and he had to take the blame. "You wanted it, then?" Horatio asked very softly. And there was only one way to answer that.

"It was the happiest moment of my life, sir," he said. "Even though I shouldn't have..."

"No," Horatio said, shifting, his long legs and arms untwining as he changed his position - and now Bush could see him kneeling in front of him, his face very close. "William, would you mind if I..."

His long fingers touched Bush's cheek, carefully, like he was touching something frail or precious - or like he was leaving Bush every chance to lean away from this touch. And when Bush didn't, Horatio's hand lay on his face, turning it - a begging, questioning gesture.

His breath was taken, and he reached his hand too, touching Horatio's face, the roughness of stubble on it - and felt a gasp coming from Horatio, like it wasn't something he expected - but the touch of the long fingers against his face became stronger, more decisive.

"I would like... if you..." Horatio whispered, and then they both were on their knees, reaching to each other, the touch bolder, both Horatio's palms cupping his face, and Bush couldn't resist, letting himself do what he wanted so much but thought it impossible. His hands plaited through Horatio's hair, combing through it, until getting caught into the ribbon holding his ponytail.

"William." The word was just a breath - and it sounded so surprised and relieved - and then their mouths locked, Horatio's hands still holding his face while Bush's palms roamed, touching the curly hair, the smoothness of the temples, hard line of the jaw.

The kiss was stunning - so strong, so sweet, so much bolder than their first, and Horatio's lips were burning against his mouth, his tongue sweeping against Bush's, and he almost forgot how to breathe, breathing was distracting, he wanted to feel and to remember nothing but every tiniest detail of this kiss, nothing more.

Their lips parted finally - but Horatio didn't let go of his face, his temple pressed against Bush's, and Bush could feel his chest heaving, so close, could hear his speeded breath.

"It's so different," Horatio whispered, a shiver going through his body.

Different from what? From his wife? But these words became a strange absolution for Bush, and he let his hands slide lower, to Horatio's shoulders, pushing his shirt open.

"Let me show you," he whispered.

Horatio's breath hitched - but he didn't lean away, instead pushing into Bush's touch, and his own hands came alive again, fumbling with Bush's shirt, hastily and awkwardly.

Bush felt tiny shivers going through Horatio's body as he passed his hands over his chest, spreading the shirt open. He leaned forward, kissing Horatio's neck, and he raised his head, giving the better access, his vein pulsing under Bush's lips with wild speed. He held Horatio, supporting him, and it seemed necessary, as Horatio sagged slightly - and yet kept pushing towards Bush's lips trailing down his chest.

"I think... William, I think I'm dying," he whispered, a hitch in his voice, something like a small sob. Bush kissed his nipple, and Horatio's gasp was surprised, frightened and delighted, and this sound for a moment was too much, so much that Bush had to stop. Then Horatio's fingers plaited through his hair, and he knew he was doing right.

Horatio's body was vibrating with tension, his breath hoarse and hasty, and Bush kissed him, lower, careful not to bother the bandaged wound, coming down to the waist of his trousers and feeling how Horatio went rigid in his arms.

"It will be all right," Bush whispered. He could feel the hardness of Horatio's cock under the cloth, straining, needing for a touch - and yet if Horatio wasn't ready, he wouldn't go further. For a moment there was a pause, and Bush didn't move - and then Horatio's answer came in a mere whisper.

"I know."

He pushed the fastenings apart, kissing Horatio's abdomen, the darkest curls of his pubic hair. Horatio's hands were clenched on his upper arms, painfully hard, and Bush knew he didn't even notice it - he just needed something to hold onto.

He wrapped his palm along the tall, straining shaft loosely - and the enormous shiver running through Horatio's body seemed to resound through him.

"P-please," Horatio said in a small voice. "Ooh yes, please..."

Bush smiled, leaning down, taking the wet head into his mouth - and it was really all it took. In the next few seconds it was over, Horatio shuddering and Bush's mouth filling with warm, thick liquid.

A soft cry broke from Horatio's lips, hushed against his own palm, and then exchanged into smaller, softer sounds, like broken breaths.

"My God," Bush whispered, rising, catching him. There was no resistance in Horatio at all, as he leaned against his chest, and the soft sounds hushed, just little shivering stayed, going through his body. Horatio's cheek was pressed against his, warm and moist.

Bush held him, silently, his palms on Horatio's shoulder-blades, just stroking softly - until Horatio shifted, pressing him nearer, for a moment, before slackening the hold.

"Sorry," he said in an apologetic, slightly smiling voice. "I'm such a mess, what's come over me?"

What had he done to himself, Bush thought, sorrow and gentleness filling him, that such a small thing could have broken him? How unfair it was... Horatio deserved so much more, deserved happiness, and safety, and content. And it was not meant to be.

Bush felt Horatio's fingers, careful, touch his mouth, stroking it.

"Will you let me too?.." Horatio said. And then his hands were back, pushing Bush's shirt open, the touches suddenly bold, hungry, exploring him by touch, tracing his ribs, fingertips probing the scar on his midriff.

And with the same determination, Horatio pulled the fastenings of his trousers - and there it was, a warm, rough palm lying on Bush's cock.

He shivered, his body melting into this touch - and then he felt Horatio reach down, no hesitation at all. So much like him, Bush thought. So bold in everything... He stopped Horatio's motion, pulled him closer, just his hand over Horatio's, showing in a gesture what he wanted.

He felt Horatio's mouth finding his, lips open, pressing against his lips, their tongues clashing - and the palm slid over his cock, tight and gentle, and he felt his legs giving in under him, as the pleasure spread through his body.

He gasped, coming, and Horatio's hand didn't stop, and the pleasure went on and on, and Bush slumped against Horatio, weak, and felt the solid support of Horatio's body against his.

"There, there," Horatio whispered. "Oh William."

Horatio held him, tightly, their bodies pressed together, and that was why Bush felt an awkward motion of his. I've come into his hand, Bush recalled. And he doesn't know what to do with it. But before Bush could do something, Horatio wiped his hand against his trousers, and he still wasn't letting Bush go.

"It's so strange," Horatio said, his voice soft and somewhat bewildered. "I'm so tired."

"It's all right," Bush whispered, his lips against Horatio's temple. "It's all right."

They lay together, touching, and then Bush felt Horatio's mouth press to his, and the tongue lapped softly against his as he could feel quiet, steady rise of Horatio's chest pressed against his.

* * *

In the narrow beam of light Horatio's closed eyelids were perfect semicircles, his eyelashes seeming enormously long. His face was peaceful, except for the big mouth compressed in a tight, sad line. Bush looked away quickly, trying not to wake him up with his stare.

He didn't know how much time passed but he thought that every moment of it, of Horatio's thin hot body pressing against his, Horatio's breath brushing against his neck, was etched in his memory. He didn't want to think about anything else. But how could he not?

They would kill Horatio. Soon they would come for them.

The noises came, the sounds of the morning Bush had never paid attention to before. But now every one of them meant that the time was running short. Horatio shifted, his eyes opening, and for a moment there was such a sweet, unguarded expression on his face - the expression that always had surprised Bush on the Renown but after that he hadn't seen it for a long, long time. It was gone quickly, Horatio's eyes serious and dark.

"Are they coming for us?"

"Soon," Bush said. Horatio sat up, rubbing his forehead, as if with headache. Bush wanted to kiss this hand, this face, just one more time.

"Do you think anyone of ours managed to get safe?" Horatio asked, his face still half hidden behind his hand.

"I think they did," he said quietly. "Styles certainly did. Nothing's tougher than him."

"Oh yes." Horatio chuckled distractedly.

They both felt silent. Horatio must have needed a few moments for himself, Bush thought, and he was going to do everything to give him this time. He told himself he wouldn't wonder if Horatio felt regrets over what had happened a few hours ago. As selfish as it sounded, he'd rather not to know, he thought.

He just hoped he hadn't made Horatio feel worse about himself.

They heard steps, and Bush tensed, anxiety coursing through him, scalding hot. Was it the end? He didn't even know if they'd let them out of the cell or shoot them right there. He wanted to fight, to do anything to make it more difficult for the bastards - but he knew it would be futile, all he could do was to die with honor.

He saw Horatio look up, his gaze dark and unbearably intense - and then the steps withdrew. But Horatio continued to look at him, with the same intent, strange expression - as if he wanted to say something.

"Sir," Bush said softly.

And then Horatio shook his head, loose strands of hair falling over his face, hiding it, and the words that came were small and quick, as if he was both afraid of saying them and not saying them.

"God... I so don't want them kill you, how could I do it to you..."

And at this moment Bush understood he couldn't bear it, most likely they would never have another chance - and he reached, holding Horatio, pulling him closer, even if just for a short while, even if it wasn't enough comfort at all - and felt Horatio lean into this embrace.

The bolt on the door jangled, rising, and he let Horatio go, not wanting anyone to witness their closeness. Was it going to be the shots coming right from the door?

A figure in the ragged, flowing clothes, much like Youssef and his men used to wear, barged into the cell - and then the facecloth was yanked down, and Styles' grinning face was looking at them.

"Oh my," Bush said.

"Yes sir, bet I surprised ya," Styles announced. "Let's get out of 'ere."

The shots sounded above them, and yells, and Styles' didn't look idiotically happy any more but focused and calm, taking out one - two, three pistols from the depth of his ragged clothes. Two of them he gave to Bush and Horatio and one clenched in his hand.


They ran, Styles shot, one of the bandits falling dead on their way, and finally they were outside - and there were more shots, and incredulously Bush saw Matthews there, and others, who had been left on the Hotspur.

But there was no time to think, he shot, and saw a man falling, grabbed his gun and shot again. With a corner of his eye Bush saw Horatio fighting another man, his expression focused and merciless, as always in a battle.

He saw something else - Youssef standing in the doorway, a pistol in his hand, aiming at Horatio.

Bush shot, without thinking, and saw the man fall back, the pistol knocked out of his hand. He wasn't dead probably, Bush thought distantly, as there were men running to Youssef, dragging him away - but it didn't matter now.

He parried the blows and shot again - and saw Styles' next to him - and the gates were open, their way free.

"Retreat," Horatio shouted, his eyes sparkling, blood on his cheek.

And by God, this time Horatio was going to go too.

* * *

It was good to shave and be dressed cleanly again. It was good to be alive. So good that Horatio didn't try to hide a smile turning the corners of his lips up. Deep inside, he had this triumphant, delighted feeling that made him wanted to touch his ship to make sure it was there, stroke the rails and warm wood of it, but of course he couldn't afford it - at least until he was in his cabin alone.

And now he looked at his men standing around him.

"I could have expected such reckless actions from Mr. Orrock - but from you, Mr. Prowse? You are full of surprises." He knew by their smiles getting wider that his words didn't deceive anyone. They looked anything but chided - but Horatio couldn't say he minded it.

"With respect, sir," Orrock said, "Master Prowse was the most amazing in it all."

"Yes," Horatio nodded, "yes. I know it."

Under his gaze, Prowse grunted in embarrassment and tried to avoid everyone's eyes - which was hardly possible.

"Sometimes we all do something stupid," he muttered.

Horatio caught an amused, content expression on Bush's face - that seemed to mirror his own feelings.

"Thank you," he said, seriously. "Thank you everyone. What you have done - it is difficult to describe how much it means for me."

They sighed shyly and then Orrock said:

"At first we believed him, sir. But Matthews, he... he kept saying..."

Kept risking being punished, Horatio thought, kept talking about not trusting Linsford, even though Orrock and Prowse, no doubt, made him stop many times.

But finally they listened to him and... He still could barely believe the risk his crew had taken for him - the risk that could put all of them on the gallows.

"We cornered him and he admitted everything, in the end," Orrock said. Horatio didn't want to wonder what means they used to make Linsford talk. But it worked, indeed.

They put Linsford to the hold and turned back for Morocco, kept out of sight from ashore and sent boats trying to figure out the way to free others. And when Styles and others managed to escape yesterday, they got right into the welcoming hands of their comrades.

And this morning the Hotspur appeared on the horizon, serving as a distraction, while his men managed to infiltrate into the bandits' camp and free them.

As they climbed up to the deck of the Hotspur, finally out of danger, it seemed every hand on the ship, in their delight, had to pat him and Bush on the shoulders, and Horatio didn't mind, smiling and even enjoying the attention. It was good to know that everyone was alive and safe.

It was good to be home.

Yet there was one more matter unsettled - the one Horatio couldn't put away, no matter how he wanted to.

"Where is he?"

The room where Linsford was held was the dampest part of the hold but Horatio couldn't rouse in himself any disagreement against it. The man looked gaunt, his clothes torn and soiled. The ribbon holding his hair was gone, and it spilled over his shoulders, lank and greasy.

Linsford's eyes, red-rimmed, focused on Horatio with hatred - just a shade of his usual oppressive expression. Horatio still felt intense loathing towards the man, even though he told himself Linsford was defeated now, crushed - he could've been more generous about him. But he didn't feel like being generous at all.

Linsford's lips twisted in a grimace of utter contempt, like he was looking at the most disgusting sight in the world.

"So... the victorious Captain returns to his ship. What an occasion for celebration." From above, the excited voices of the sailors reached them. "No matter that all this Captain managed to do was foolishly get himself into danger."

He was doing what he could best, Horatio thought - hurting. Trying to get to the vulnerable spot and hit.

He saw Linsford watch him avidly, for any sign that his words reached the aim - and then said quietly, in a confiding, deliberate voice.

"Sticks and stones, Mr. Linsford."

Anger flared in the man's eyes but he managed to control himself.

"Oh, but they won't be sticks and stones in the court marshal, will they, Hornblower? Do you think you won't go there, for losing your ship, for wandering who knows where for weeks?"

"The court marshal will also have a few questions to you as well," Horatio said.

"And I'll tell them, be sure I'll tell. I have connections, Hornblower, such as you can't dream about. I'll see you in such disgrace that you'll miss Youssef's dingy cell. No, I'll see you hanged."

"We shall see," Horatio said.

And yet a part of his mind was not so calm. Horatio wished he could believe that the truth would be accepted and Linsford would be punished as he deserved. But he knew it didn't always happen like this.

If only he could find a permanent solution. If the man was dead... now Horatio could challenge him, could he not? He knew Linsford would jump at the chance, so sure in his skills.

And yet... something in Horatio protested this idea. Linsford was a bastard, and Horatio had to kill men who were innocent of anything except for being born in another country. But the duel... it would be like getting back in time, like it had been then, with Simpson... He had to find another way.

"You will grieve, Hornblower," Linsford said, his voice having complete, utter certainty in it. Horatio knew it was manipulation, of course, but even so his heart clenched. "Oh how you will grieve."

And even though he said nothing else, Horatio couldn't help but think what those words could mean. He knew Linsford couldn't have a way to know what had happened between him and Bush - but... but Linsford could fling his accusations just as easily.

And Horatio couldn't let it happen.

He knew it probably was a weakness, he should've done his duty, should've faced what was in front of him. But he couldn't. Not only for himself, although the thought of what might happen made Horatio utterly sick, but for the others. His wife and... and William.

And as much different as they were, and even though in his wish to protect them he was moved by very different feelings, he still knew he had to do it for them.

He walked up to the deck, called for Matthews.

"Prepare the boat."

"Aye-aye, sir," Matthews said, and Horatio knew the man understood what he was going to do - and there was such non-judgment in his eyes that Horatio felt touched nearly to tears.

The boat was ready and Linsford was brought up, wincing in the bright light.

"What are you going to do, Hornblower? Drown me?"

"It's your choice," Horatio said in an even voice. "You can go with us to England, and then we'll see whose word will be believed. Or you can go now. It is up to you."

He decided that he would deal with either choice. If Linsford decided to stay and bring charges against him - well, he would fight them best he could. But he wouldn't let the man rule his life with fear.

"Yes, stay and have you poison me, on the way back? Or starve to death?" Linsford asked mockingly.

Horatio heard his men grunt in exasperation.

"If we wanted to poison you, we would already..." Orrock started and Horatio stopped him with a sign.

"So, what do you choose?"

For a moment Linsford looked at him, biting his lip, and then said, his voice threatening:

"I'll leave. I'll leave but it's not the rest you heard of me, you sodom..."

"Another word," Horatio said, "and I will shoot you. And it will give me a deep satisfaction," he added softly.

Linsford glared at him, swallowing anything he wanted to say, and walked to the boat, crawling down into it heavily.

There was silence as he rowed away. Horatio stood on the deck and watched him, and the others followed the boat with their eyes. Then Matthews finally cleared his throat and said:

"I can hardly believe it, sir, but the air's got definitely clearer."

Horatio didn't answer. He looked at his men, Styles with a wide smile on his face, Orrock frowning and tense, and Bush, his eyes screwed a little against the sun, his expression wistful. Horatio wished he could say something, explain, but he never could, and then he knew it was unnecessary. They all understood.

Instead Horatio cleared his throat as well - must've been catching it from Matthews - and said, turning to Bush:

"All hands to stations, Mr. Bush. We are going home."

And he heard the man's low, strong voice repeating his order.

"All hands to stations!"

They were already sailing when Styles' voice caught him, from the aft, excited and impatient.

"Sir, sir, look there!"

Horatio took out his glass.

Linsford's boat had reached the shore, small waves lapping against it lazily. And next to it, face in the sand, almost as Tucker had laid weeks ago, Linsford lay, wind stirring his dirty blond hair.

Youssef's men probably hadn't recognized him, Horatio thought. Or on the contrary, recognized him too well.

He wondered whether to tell Bush about it - or was it better to leave Linsford behind, never recalling him. But the choice was taken out of his hands as he heard Styles' voice, shrieking elatedly.

"Sir, sir, come here and look, he's dead, they killed him!"

* * *

"You wanted to see me, sir?"


The word was soft and for a moment Horatio kept standing at the table, his fingers touching some papers as if in contemplation. Then he turned and looked at Bush.

It was dusky in the cabin, the light of the day almost gone, and in it Horatio's eyes seemed even darker than usual, his face pale and tired. He looked young; he looked thoughtful. And the absent way of addressing - Bush had noticed it. He stood and waited, for what could follow.

They were three days in the sea by now, going back to England, and the storm that caught him right after they'd left Moroccan coast nearly ruined the Hotspur. Only now they were finally safe, enough to have a moment of peace.

And was it why Horatio called for him now?

Bush knew it had to be. Since their return to the Hotspur there hadn't been a minute while they stayed alone or could think about anything but the safety of the ship. But sooner or later, this conversation had to happen. Bush just didn't know what exactly it would be.

Was Horatio regretting what happened? Was he disgusted with it? Was he willing just to put it behind him and never to mention?

Whatever it was, Bush knew he would do anything to make it easier to Horatio. He swore in it. What had happened then, in Youssef's cellar, was the best thing that happened in his life and he was endlessly grateful to Horatio for it. Even in his mind, he wouldn't demand anything more.

He would do anything not to burden Horatio, not to use Horatio's kindness against him.

"Yes," Horatio repeated, raising his chin. The gesture was resolute - but for Bush it suddenly screamed such insecurity - such confusion - that his heart clenched in sadness. Whatever Horatio tried to brace himself for, it didn't come easy to him. And God, how vulnerable he looked.

I have to help him, Bush thought, I'll do anything for him.

"Did you want to talk, sir?" he asked quietly. It was a proper question, a safe one, but at the same time it didn't push Horatio further than he wanted to go.

Hesitation flickered in Horatio's eyes briefly and then he nodded. His lips were compressed in a tight line.

"I want to. Yes." And yet there was nothing more to come.

I'm sorry, Bush thought. I'm sorry you have to go through it. It was unbearable to look at it.

He had to take it in his hands.

"Is it about... what happened on the shore, sir?"

He saw Horatio's eyes flash, his lip bitten, and his look was so guilty and uncertain that Bush was ready to do anything to protect him.

"Because we don't need to talk," he continued. "If you want it to never be mentioned between us again, it will never be. Everything can be like before."

The last thing was blunt, but he didn't know how else to put it to make Horatio feel safe.

"But if you think, sir, that you won't feel comfortable with me serving on this ship, then I... I understand it, sir," he finished awkwardly. Oh how kind of him. If Horatio couldn't bear looking at him any more - he 'understood'. But he'd already said it, didn't find a better way.

Horatio stood in front of him, leaning back slightly against the edge of the table, and Bush saw him shake his hand, rub his forehead tiredly. Horatio's voice was very sad as he spoke

"Is it what you wish, William?"

And his name was bitter and intoxicating to hear.

"Wish what, sir?" Did he wish to leave the ship, to never see Horatio again? Did he wish to stay and look at him every day, remembering and yet trying not to remember? Of course he wished to stay. Even if never again Horatio's eyes looked at him with kindness, even if there was always a wall between them.

"To forget everything."

How could he answer anything but the truth at it?

"I will never forget it, sir," he said quietly. "Neither I want to. But you don't need to..."

"Then why do you think that I want to forget?"

Bush felt his breath hitch. There were reasons, right? Because Horatio was going home, where his wife waited for him. Because they were not going to die in the morning any more. Because Bush knew how once feelings had already been forced onto Horatio and how they weighed on him.

He didn't want to be another her. He wanted Horatio to be free.

He felt Horatio look at him but his vision hazed, Horatio's face blurring in front of his eyes. Yet Horatio's voice sounded clear and quiet, every word striking him as deeply as was possible.

"I don't want to forget. Only I don't know what to do about it." Bush heard him sigh. He wanted to answer but he couldn't, his voice was gone. And then Horatio's words lost their precision, became jumbled and stumbling. "How... how are these things done? If, I mean, if you also want it, that is. I would never force you into it, you know it. Just if you want. But I don't know how... it is dangerous, I mean. I don't want to risk your career and besides..."

And then Bush just couldn't bear it any more.

"My God, sir," he whispered, "I love you. You're breaking my heart."

And suddenly Horatio made a step towards him - and they were so close - even closer, because Bush felt a thin, long body pressing to him, Horatio's arms pulling him closer, wrapped around him, Horatio's curly hair brushing against his cheek.

He didn't gasp - his breath was taken, with incredulous feeling - and at the same time his body recognized it, with unbearable delight, this closeness, these sensations, etched into it forever. Horatio's head lay against his shoulder, and Bush put his arms around him, holding him as tight as Horatio held him.

The beating of Horatio's heart was strong and fast against his chest, and he could feel Horatio's breath, hasty and soft.

"I missed it so," Horatio whispered, his forehead pressed to Bush's shoulder. Bush closed him eyes with the amazement and joy sounding in this voice. "I thought I would never hold you again. I thought you wouldn't want me."

Oh Horatio. So strong and brave - and yet such a child inside. Twenty-seven years old - he still was a child, still didn't understand so many things.

I'll do everything for you, Bush thought. Anything that I can. You are everything that matters in my life.

"We'll need to be careful, right?" Horatio was saying, still not letting him go, his grip very tight. "Shall we be able to?"

"Yes, sir," Bush said. "We shall be very careful."

It would work. Against all odds, it had to work.

Horatio looked up, his eyes dark, his hands still clenching on Bush's shoulders - but now there was a smile on his lips, that sweetest, easy smile of his.

"Would you not call me 'sir'... in here?" Horatio asked politely. "You can call me by my name, William, you know." And when Bush paused for a moment before answering, he added. "Do you think you can do it?"

And Bush thought this smile reflecting in the dark bright eyes was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen in his life.

"Yes, Horatio," he said. "I think I can."


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