Harlequin's Slash Fic

Horatio Hornblower & the Ripping Yarn

Title: Horatio Hornblower & the Ripping Yarn
Author: Julien
Universe: Hornblower
Characters featured: Pellew/Alex (OMC), and various combinations of Horatio/Archie/Pellew
Category, Word count: Story; 17897 words
Rating: NC17
Summary: The Indefatigable takes a rich Spanish prize in a joint action with a British privateer, the Tamburlaine. The prize is then claimed by both ships – a situation complicated by the fact of Pellew’s relationship with the dashing Captain of the privateer.
Notes: This adventure takes place at some stage after the fourth movie, while Horatio and Archie are still serving on the Indy. The movie in my mind stars Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix as the Captain and Lieutenant of the Tamburlaine – but of course you are free to cast to suit yourself.
First published: 8 December 2002 in Horatio Hornblower & the Prix d’Amor

 

 

Horatio Hornblower & the Ripping Yarn

 

‘Ship to larboard!’ Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower bellowed with every last scrap of authority he possessed, emphatically indicating the direction equally larboard and forrard of the Indefatigable. The tension among the officers on the poop deck turned from anxious to focussed. As soon as he was sure that the Captain had sighted the ship, Horatio lifted his spyglass again, and concentrated hard on making out the details. ‘It’s a frigate,’ he announced.

‘Spanish colours,’ Captain Sir Edward Pellew observed.

‘And there’s a sloop beside her,’ Lieutenant Archie Kennedy added.

‘Bear away, Mr Bowles!’ came the Captain’s order – immediately acknowledged and relayed. ‘Topgallants, if you please.’ The Spanish ship was running directly before the wind, and the Indy would begin by matching and hopefully exceeding her speed on a parallel course.

‘That’s got to be her, hasn’t it, sir?’ Archie asked. ‘That’s got to be the Galicia.’

‘I certainly hope so, Mr Kennedy,’ Pellew dryly replied.

They had been searching for the Galicia for almost two weeks now, knowing only that she was reported to have sailed from Santa Fé de Bogotá, heading home to Spain with a hold full of gold from the New World. Some of the Indy’s officers had argued that the Galicia would try to elude capture through sailing a slow and unpredictable course; others had insisted that she would simply cross the Atlantic with as much speed as possible, and therefore they need only follow the prevailing winds. Pellew had kept both of those tactics in mind during their hunt, and no doubt more besides; Horatio suspected that was because the Captain himself would have followed a far more complex strategy.

Spying canvas unfurling, Horatio said, ‘They’ve seen us. She’s setting more sail.’ The sail billowed for a moment, and then snapped full. No doubt the frigate had been matching the sloop’s speed, but now she would pull away, and the sloop would try to engage the Indy, thereby sacrificing herself to give the Galicia a chance to escape – such a tactic indicating that the frigate was indeed the Galicia with her precious cargo. As the frigate began drawing away, Horatio spied a complication. ‘Another sloop! To her larboard.’ Two sloops as protection. Oh, the prize money from this voyage would defy description!

‘Good God – another frigate!’ Archie exclaimed.

Of course Archie knew the difference between a sloop and a frigate, and had known so for far more years than Horatio. ‘Where?’ he asked.

‘Direct to larboard.’

Horatio located sails with his naked eye, then trained his spyglass on her. ‘A privateer!’ She was running parallel with the Indy, obviously with exactly the same purpose. ‘British. And she’s after the Galicia, too.’

‘My God…’ Pellew murmured, sounding as if he felt sure the enterprise was doomed.

‘It’s all right, sir,’ Horatio made so bold as to reassure him. ‘We’re commissioned in His Majesty’s Navy. We hold all the rights in this situation.’ But of course Pellew knew that, and had known so for far more years than Horatio had even been alive, and Pellew had no patience with men who told him what he already knew. Warily, Horatio let his spyglass drop, and glanced at the Captain.

Pellew was staring at him, staring directly at Horatio rather than at the Galicia or the privateer, and the anticipation of doom was clear on his face.

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ Horatio said in a low voice.

‘As am I.’

‘I beg your pardon, sir?’

Pellew seemed to recall himself. Abruptly turned away. ‘More sail, Mr Bowles, and be sharp about it!’

‘Aye aye, sir,’ the Master courteously replied, though it was an order with which he was already complying.

Horatio looked at Archie, who appeared as mystified as Horatio felt – and then they both shrugged the matter off, and made ready for battle.

 

The Indefatigable took the first sloop easily enough, while the Tamburlaine – the privateer – took the second. Mr Bracegirdle was sent aboard the Indy’s sloop with a prize crew. And then the Navy frigate and the privateer began chasing down the Galicia, both making more sail than they otherwise might in such a strong wind, and thereby risking their masts.

‘She must be carrying a deuced lot of gold,’ Horatio muttered.

‘And that’s not all.’

Horatio started, having been unaware of Pellew standing just behind him. ‘Sir? She has other cargo?’

Pellew seemed about to answer, and then apparently thought better of it. ‘Get below to your Division, Mr Hornblower. We’ll fire a broadside as soon as we’re in range.’

‘Aye aye, sir.’ Horatio exchanged a respectful and friendly nod with Archie – a gesture that over the years had come to explicitly signify wishing each other safe from harm during action, and trusting they needed no more final farewell than that – and then Horatio headed below to the gun deck.

His men, under direction from Matthews, already had the guns ready for loading, of course, so Horatio explained strategy – they would aim cannon balls directly across at the Galicia’s own gun deck, with the intention of hurting the crew, they would try to avoid damaging the rigging, and they could assume that the cargo was all safely below the waterline. Then there was nothing to do but wait until the Indy manoeuvred close enough to their prey. A tense hour passed.

A tense and empty hour – and then suddenly the Galicia was blocking the light through the gunports, and the order to fire was relayed down, and all was confusion and destruction for a while. Horatio directed a broadside, and covered his ears in a vain attempt to protect them. Even as he lowered his hands and ordered an immediate reload, the Indy’s thunder was echoed – presumably the Tamburlaine was to larboard of the Galicia, and following precisely the same tactics as Captain Pellew.

The Galicia returned fire, but only in the ill–disciplined way Horatio had come to expect from the Spaniards. A cannonball crashed through the Indy’s hull into the gun deck, whistled just above their heads like a devil flown from hell, and crashed out through the other side of the ship, showering them all with wooden splinters. Horatio made sure the two wounded were bundled off down to the sick bay – and then heard the boarding party’s orders relayed down to him, which meant he must quit firing or risk taking out their own men.

The bloodthirsty battle–cries of the marines and the Indy’s own boarding crew echoed down from the quarterdeck. Horatio almost smiled to hear it, knowing that Archie would be leading the men, pistol in his left hand and sword in his right, his voice louder and lustier than any. He sent up a brief, wordless prayer for his friend’s safety, and then looked for Matthews. The gun deck was almost completely dark now, of course, with the Galicia’s hull looming close enough to almost reach through the gunports, but Matthews was as ever just beside him, waiting for orders and no doubt anticipating exactly what they would be. ‘Keep the guns ready, Matthews, but if we board her successfully then there’ll be no more need for them.’

‘Aye aye, sir.’

Then Horatio was free to head back up to the poop deck, and watch the fighting. Small arms fire sounded insignificant after the cannons’ thunder, but of course the men currently swarming over the Galicia, both Briton and Spaniard, would not rate the effects insignificant at all. Swords clashed, men yelled, men screamed. The smoke from the cannons and guns was quickly clearing afore in the wind, and it seemed that already a British victory was assured. The Spanish were falling between the double assault, from blue–and–white clothed sailors and red uniformed marines on the Indy’s side, and from the many–hued privateers on the Tamburlaine’s. Nevertheless, the Spanish continued to fight fiercely, no doubt even more reluctant than usual to give up such a prize.

Horatio saw Archie in the thick of things, wielding his bloodstained sword as if it were an extension of himself, throwing himself into every new encounter as if he were indeed indefatigable. And then –

And then Horatio saw something that almost stopped his heart. Even though the fighting was in no way contained, and the Spanish were resisting as bloodthirstily as ever, Captain Pellew was boarding the Galicia with only a handful of men behind him.

‘Archie!’ Horatio yelled, as he sprang up onto the Indy’s rigging. Archie finished his man off, and turned to locate Horatio – who with an empathic gesture directed him towards their Captain. Seeing the danger, Archie immediately gathered those around him who were presently unengaged, and headed towards Pellew at a run. There were some casualties that could not and would not be borne!

But that was when Horatio made the mistake of looking down, and his resolve almost failed him. He swayed twenty feet above a narrow slice of dark sea, and if he fell between the two heaving ships, he’d be lucky not to be crushed. Apparently they had boarded the Galicia without waiting to fix the two ships together with grappling hooks. He closed his eyes for a moment, and then steadied himself by looking across at his goal. The ships continued to roll apart and together, with no logic to their rhythm. At its closest, the Galicia’s rigging was only three feet away, and if Horatio timed his leap well then it would be easy. In any case, Captain Pellew was in need of his protection, and Horatio would be prepared to do far more perilous things for the man than this. He took a breath, waited for the optimum moment – and he jumped.

As soon as his feet hit the Galicia’s deck, Horatio forgot his fear, and thought only of Pellew’s safety. The Captain was striding purposefully athwart the deck, as if he hadn’t even noticed the continuing swordplay. Archie had been quick to organise a cordon of men around him, but in keeping Pellew from harm they all had their work cut out for them. Horatio had never known a situation even close to this – it was completely unlike Pellew to put his men in such a difficult position. As he joined the protective cordon, Horatio saw a man who must be the Tamburlaine’s captain approaching from the other side, similarly surrounded by his own men.

The two captains finally faced each other amidships while the fighting ebbed and flowed around them. For a long moment they simply considered each other, Pellew’s dark and intelligent eyes sizing up the man and his worth, while the privateer’s blue eyes danced mischievously over Pellew’s form.

Pellew said, ‘So we meet again, Captain Crowe.’

Those blue eyes sparkled like the sun glancing off an exotic sea. ‘So we do, Edward.’

Horatio shot a glare over his shoulder at this untoward familiarity.

But Pellew just sighed. ‘Really, Captain,’ he chided. ‘Such a lack of respect reflects only on your own character, and not on mine. In any case, if you wish to insult me in front of my men, surely you can manage better than that.’

After a moment Crowe gave a bow that was only half mocking. ‘Indeed, Captain Pellew, sir. I apologise for my inept effrontery.’ Being a privateer he was, of course, a rogue – and he looked the part. His figure was handsome enough, but full and soft where Pellew was lean and hard. His clothes were colourful, and still looked rich despite the worn spots and the patches. His wavy brown hair was cut short and jaunty, which seemed undignified compared to Pellew’s long dark locks. As for Crowe’s bearing – while it was commanding, it was also thoroughly insolent, which contrasted poorly with the pride Pellew displayed, not in himself as such, but in his rank and responsibilities. The life of a privateer captain couldn’t possibly be indolent, but Crowe gave the impression of enjoying ease and plenty. Horatio knew well which one of these captains he would die for, and which one he could never truly respect.

‘Well,’ Pellew at last declared, ‘the Indefatigable has taken this ship, and I hereby claim her along with her cargo and crew.’

‘But I have already claimed her for the Tamburlaine.’

‘I think not.’

‘We won her, Edward. We boarded her first.’

‘That’s not true!’ Archie cried. He stepped back within the safety of the cordon, and said to Pellew, ‘The first aboard were the Indy’s men, sir, I swear it.’

Pellew merely lifted a brow at Crowe, as if Archie’s word was patently good enough for them all.

With no prompting from the officers, the Indy’s men reformed the cordon, so that Archie and Horatio were freed to stand to each side of Pellew, enforcing his word with their bodies. A man left the Tamburlaine’s cordon to stand at his captain’s shoulder as well.

The five men watched each other for long moments, recognising the impasse for what it was. And at last the fighting around them died away, and the British victory was secured. The question remained of who could legitimately claim the prize of the Galicia and her cargo.

There was sudden movement in the gallery under the poop deck, outside the captain’s quarters. The movement was swiftly suppressed, but both Pellew and Crowe were now staring anxiously in that direction. Pellew turned to Horatio, and beckoned him close. ‘Go to the captain’s cabin,’ he said quietly so that no one else could hear. ‘There will be a black leather pouch, the kind that couriers use, locked and possibly well–guarded. Secure it.’

‘Aye aye, sir,’ Horatio replied. He headed aft, knowing that he could trust Pellew’s safety to Archie. A moment later he was joined by the man who’d been standing by Crowe, who was either on the same mission, or who’d been ordered to shadow Horatio. They glanced at each other warily, but then concentrated on the task at hand.

Horatio asked two quick questions of the Indy’s men in the gallery, and ascertained that while the Spanish captain was in custody, his cabin was locked and had yet to be secured. The two lieutenants drew their pistols, and cocked them. ‘Your name?’ Horatio asked.

‘Lieutenant Joaquin Perez.’

Horatio looked at him, noting anew the dark hair and eyes, the cunning features, and the swarthy complexion that was after all not unusual in a seaman.

‘Yes, I am Spanish, sir. But my loyalty is to Captain Crowe and the Tamburlaine – and they are forever pledged to Britain.’

‘Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower.’ They shook hands in a perfunctory but respectful way.

And then they counted down from three, and as one they kicked open the double doors leading to the captain’s day cabin, and entered with pistols aimed at their enemies’ hearts.

Except there were no enemies – the cabin was empty. Horatio tucked his pistol away in his waistband, and swept a quick look around for the black leather pouch. Perez was doing the same. Nothing. They exchanged a glance, and then each fell to searching through the cabin, silently agreeing to let the other search his own half, but working quickly so as to beat the other man to the prize. Still, they turned up nothing.

They met in the middle, and cast about them for ideas. ‘I will take the captain’s sleeping cabin,’ Perez said, ‘and you can take the wardroom.’

‘I think not,’ Horatio firmly replied. ‘We had better stay together.’

So they made their way starboard, and squeezed into the sleeping cabin. There would barely have been room for the captain to shrug off his coat before climbing into bed – and the wooden box, though slung close to the deckhead, would no doubt have knocked against either wall in a heavy sea. Horatio put a careful hand on the side of the box, still disconcerted, after all these years in the service, by the thought of a captain being required to sleep in his own coffin. There was naught else in the tiny room, so Horatio and Perez set to work dismantling the bedding. Nothing.

‘The wardroom?’ Perez suggested.

Horatio nodded in agreement, and stepped back into the doorway. A hollow clunk sounded beneath his boot. He let his foot fall again, and heard the same hollow sound from a deck that should be solid timber. Dropping to his knees, Horatio tried to prise the boards away with his bare fingers.

Perez – a man leaner than his captain, and obviously athletic – laid a hand on Horatio’s back, and vaulted over him. It was the only way past Horatio, who was blocking the doorway. Perez crouched before him, and slowly drew his knife. They looked at each other across the silver blade. And then Perez bent to work, using the knife to lever a loose board from between its mates.

And there lay the black leather pouch.

They both reached in for it, heads and shoulders dovetailing in an intimate moment that neither avoided, and they both lifted it out of its hiding place. Then they both carried it out to the quarterdeck, each with a hand wrapped firmly around its long strap.

The two captains were still standing there amidships, apparently ignoring each other now, while the two British crews worked around them to tidy the decks and secure the prisoners. It was apparent that the Galicia had sustained heavy losses, and there was much cleaning up to do of those who were beyond the surgeons’ help. Archie and one of the privateer’s men stayed protectively close to their captains, but now that the danger was past they were also attending to directing their men. All three of the frigates had taken in sail, so that they kept abreast of each other, still running before the wind, but no longer outpacing the sloops.

As soon as they noticed their lieutenants, the captains were suddenly focussed, dark eyes and blue eyes both intent on the leather pouch. They waited there for Horatio and Perez to approach.

‘Who found it?’ Crowe asked.

‘I have claimed all the cargo for the Indefatigable,’ Pellew reminded him.

‘Joaquin?’

But Perez hesitated in answering, so Horatio spoke. ‘I found its hiding place,’ he announced. Pellew looked triumphant. ‘In all honour, I must add, though,’ Horatio continued, dying a little as Pellew’s triumph slipped its moorings. ‘I must add that Lieutenant Perez was the one to open the hiding place. We found the pouch together, through our joint efforts.’

‘Well…’ Crowe drawled. ‘What now, Edward?’ He cast those blue eyes back to Pellew, and examined him thoughtfully – though Pellew himself was unreadable, even for Horatio. ‘We have one sloop apiece, there is no argument there. But we both claim to have taken the Galicia and the bullion. And both our men claim the main prize.’

A long moment stretched. Horatio wondered what on earth was in the pouch that could be worth more than the gold. It wasn’t heavy, but it felt as if it contained more than letters, papers or dispatches. He could feel Perez weighing the same matter, as the strap jiggled slightly.

‘Whatever the outcome,’ Pellew at last replied, ‘we will both return to England.’

‘Yes,’ Crowe agreed.

‘So, let us take that course, as a convoy for now.’

‘All right. But, Edward –’

‘I suggest that Lieutenants Perez and Hornblower share command of the Galicia. For now.’

Crowe glanced thoughtfully at the two lieutenants, who still stood there with the pouch held firm between them.

‘You trust Mr Perez,’ Pellew observed, ‘or you would have searched for the pouch yourself. And Mr Hornblower has proven himself to possess a sense of honour beyond his sense of loyalty and beyond his own self–interest. Beyond even his captain’s interests,’ Pellew added reprovingly.

It seemed as if Crowe couldn’t help but grin at this. ‘Then you must love him more than you ever loved me.

Pellew ignored the comment. ‘The gold stays aboard the Galicia, as does the pouch, until we have resolved this situation. Agreed?’

‘Agreed.’

A curt but respectful nod, and Pellew turned on his heels, no doubt about to return to the Indefatigable.

‘Edward,’ Crowe said. When Pellew turned back again, the privateer said, ‘Dine with me tonight on the Tamburlaine. Bring your officers to protect you, as many as you like. Bring these two.’ And he indicated Horatio and Archie.

‘Mr Hornblower will stay aboard the Galicia,’ Pellew replied, with a slight bow, ‘but I will be pleased to attend, as will Mr Kennedy.’

And the captains each returned to their ships, along with Archie and most of the men – leaving Horatio and Perez still standing there with the pouch hanging between them. They looked down at it, and then across at each other. Neither of them was about to trust the other with it, and yet they could hardly command a ship while both clinging to a leather pouch… What to do for the best? What to do?

 

‘So,’ Captain Alexander Crowe murmured to Kennedy, leaning closer still, ‘how long has it been?’

Pellew watched from the other end of the table. Archie Kennedy sat there at Crowe’s right hand, refusing to back away from Crowe’s insidious presence, even though it was apparent that he wanted to. Three of the Tamburlaine’s officers sat opposite Kennedy, all silent and concentrating only on the food and the wine, as if used to ignoring their captain’s antics.

‘How long has what been?’ Kennedy replied in stiffly disapproving tones.

‘How long have you had the pleasure,’ Crowe elaborated, ‘of serving under Edward…?’

Interestingly enough, Pellew noted, Kennedy had immediately taken Crowe’s meaning. Kennedy knew exactly what Crowe was insinuating – while the more innocent Horatio, perhaps, would not really have understood, though he’d certainly have known enough to take offence. The question was almost impossible to answer for anyone who caught the undercurrents of meaning. Red–faced with fury rather than embarrassment, Kennedy eventually chose to respond to the surface only. ‘I have proudly served aboard the Indefatigable since the spring of ninety–four.’

‘Delightful,’ Crowe said in his lazy drawl. ‘At least, delightful for Edward. I imagine that he works you particularly hard. Though perhaps you find that as enjoyable as I once did.’

‘You take advantage of me, sir,’ Kennedy said, ‘and you do your own officers a disservice by not treating me as a gentleman.’

‘How so?’

‘If you knew Captain Pellew as well as you imply, sir, then you would know that we are forbidden to duel. You are toying with the good name of a man of whom you are not fit to claim an acquaintance – and you do so in safety, because you know I cannot demand satisfaction from you. As for your officers – you do them a gross disservice by not providing a better example of appropriate behaviour.’

A smile of vastly amused proportions had spread across Crowe’s face by halfway through this speech – and by the end, he was laughing out loud. ‘Dear God!’ Crowe spluttered. ‘Where did you find these two, Edward? This one, and your Hornblower. You must adore them!’

Kennedy pushed back the bench and stood, hand on the hilt of his sword. Despite one of the other officers standing to face him, pistol in hand, and the others all very much on the alert, Kennedy didn’t blink an eye. ‘Captain Pellew, sir, I respectfully request that you release me from your prohibition on duelling.’

‘That’s enough,’ Pellew said. ‘That’s quite enough from both of you. Captain Crowe, why don’t you dismiss your officers? Anything else you want to say to me can be said in private. Mr Kennedy – find your men, join them in a pitcher of beer, and then have the boat made ready for our return to the Indefatigable.’

A long moment stretched. Kennedy was glaring down at Crowe as if sorely tempted to murder him where he sat.

‘Lieutenant,’ Pellew softly prompted.

It was enough to stir Kennedy out of his fury. ‘Yes, sir,’ he said. And with one last daggered glance flung down at Crowe, Kennedy turned on his heel and left the cabin.

Crowe waved a dismissive hand at his three officers. A servant came to collect the dishes and cutlery, and to pour them each more of the appallingly good red wine. And then at last Pellew and Crowe were alone together.

A silence stretched. Perhaps Alexander Crowe had been expecting a blistering reprimand from his former captain, for he hung his head a while, elbows propped on the table, miming defeat. Eventually, though, he sat taller again, and took a generous mouthful of the wine.

Tamburlaine…’ Pellew mused. ‘For the conqueror Tamburlaine, I take it? But he named himself the scourge of God, and I never knew you to be a righteous man, Alex.’

Those blue eyes twinkled at him with nothing but good humour. ‘You’re right. I didn’t name her.’

‘Ah. Then the man who purchased your services…’

The twinkle turned into an earthy chuckle. ‘He is a righteous man, yes.’ Crowe leaned in closer, even though the table still separated them by several feet. ‘I think you must be the only man in the world whom I’d permit to call me a whore, Edward.’

‘It gives me no pleasure to do so.’

‘Oh, it gives you all the pleasure that righteousness brings,’ Crowe carelessly responded, sitting back again, as if he wasn’t at all bothered by the insult. Which he couldn’t have been, of course – if Alexander Crowe had ever really cared for Edward Pellew’s good opinion, then he would never have left the Navy. ‘Righteousness can be a cold kind of pleasure, though, can’t it?’

‘Perhaps. At times.’

Crowe sighed. ‘I remember that first night,’ he murmured. ‘Our first night aboard the Indy, when we celebrated your new commission.’

‘Alex, there is absolutely no point in discussing this any further.’

‘Drink some more of this fine wine – I won’t tell you where we got it from, or what it cost us, for then you wouldn’t enjoy it as much. Drink some more, and reminisce with me.’

‘I will not.’

‘So… there are no memories of me that please you?’

Pellew just looked at him dryly. Of course there were, and many of them. ‘But this is not a meet topic, Alex, and if you have ever felt that you owe me anything at all, then I’ll thank you not to raise it again.’

‘All right,’ Crowe agreed. Which Pellew immediately suspected, for it was far too easy. ‘All right, but…’ Yes, here came the snag. ‘In return for my discretion – and even I can be discreet when I choose – I want to know one thing.’

Pellew sighed. He had little choice but to play along. For now, at least. ‘What would that be?’

‘Which one of them do you love?’

‘What?’ Though he feared he knew exactly what was meant.

‘Young Archie Kennedy – he certainly looks like your type. You always did have a weakness for blue eyes, didn’t you? Though he’s fairer than me, and there’ll always be something about him that’s more boyish than I ever was. But I’m sure you find him pretty. And he’s brave and decent and honourable, and all that. A good man.’

Pellew remained silent, refusing to indicate whether this judgement was correct or not, or whether he’d even considered the matter.

‘But then there’s Horatio Hornblower. What a name, poor fellow! He’s not your type, not physically – but I suspect you love him for his soul, Edward. That absurd sense of honour. I think you have finally met the one man who can exceed all your expectations, at least when it comes to…’ Crowe waved a hand in the air above his head – ‘all those abstract nouns by which you set such great store.’

Silence.

‘So which one of them has your heart, Edward?’

‘Why do you imagine that I didn’t learn my lesson well, after you left? After you sold yourself to the highest bidder. Once made, I have never repeated a mistake.’

Crowe smiled at him. ‘You still believe that your heart can be commanded as easily as you command your men – so there are obviously some lessons that you haven’t learned.’

‘I’ll take my leave now,’ Pellew said, standing from the table. He hadn’t touched the wine since Crowe had hinted at its unworthy origins, though he had to admit that he left the full glass behind with a pang of regret. ‘If you’ll excuse me.’

‘What about our bargain?’

‘I never agreed to it. I merely asked that you behave as a gentleman. There is far more at stake here than my good name, or yours.’

Crowe sat there staring at him – oddly enough, looking flummoxed, though surely he knew Pellew well enough to have anticipated exactly such an end to such a conversation.

Pellew nodded the respect due a fellow captain, and headed out to find Archie Kennedy and the Indy’s boat.

 

As Pellew lay in his bed that night – unable, of course, to sleep – it wasn’t his first night aboard the Indefatigable that he remembered, or his celebrations with Alexander Crowe. It was a night seven months later, as the Indy lay at anchor in the Solent Channel off Portsmouth. He glanced at the door, which remained safely closed – he glanced at the door, remembering Alex stealthily letting himself in, though Pellew hadn’t been expecting him. Stockinged feet and no candle or lantern, despite the damp and darkness of a foggy English midnight. Alex closed the door behind him with the faintest snick of the lock, and proceeded to disrobe.

Pellew shook himself, trying to resist the memory. But it was an all–too–visceral one, and, for once, his memory was stronger than his will.

‘What is it?’ Pellew had whispered. Though it clearly wasn’t ship’s business that had brought his first lieutenant to the captain’s sleeping cabin.

‘Oh, I’ll show you soon enough,’ Alex promised.

Edward had sat up the better to see him – and Alex took advantage of that, and stripped Edward’s shirt off. Soon they were both naked – something they’d rarely risked aboard ship – and Alex swung himself up into the bed, landing with great precision, with his length perfectly matching Edward’s. Then they were kissing. Hungry kisses, as if Alex wanted to capture him dead or alive. Despite which, Edward had the presence of mind to draw the blankets back over them both, risking being teased for growing old enough to care about the cold.

Alex shifted a little, mouth roving hungrily down his throat and across his chest as if Edward’s lips were no longer enough to satisfy him. ‘What is this about?’ Edward asked again, while he still could.

‘Give you something to think about,’ Alex informed him between bites at his nipples, ‘while you lie here alone at night,’ he continued, rasping across the tender bites with his tongue, ‘in your coffin.’

‘I’m going to leave orders,’ Pellew replied, ‘for when I die. Like a Hindu and his widow, his suttee. If you’re not already dead, too, if we haven’t fallen together, they must kill you. Then they can put you in here with me, and nail the damned thing shut, and we’ll lie together forever on the ocean floor.’

Before the tale was half–told, Alex had left what he was doing, and lifted his head, and he was staring at Edward in something of a state of shock. ‘You are joking,’ he said. But he did not sound very certain of it.

Edward laughed. ‘Yes, I am joking, my dear.’ And he drew Alex back down to him for a gentler kiss.

They lay there embracing more quietly, with that beautiful body moving over his own spare frame, and Edward’s hands exploring, guiding, caressing to his heart’s content.

Eventually Alex chuckled, though, and broke away. His eyes caught what little light there was, and glinted as cool and as precious as pale blue diamonds. ‘But you will not divert me from my purpose, Edward.’

‘What purpose is that?’

‘I have prepared myself for you.’

He didn’t know what Alex meant – but he discovered it soon enough. Alex, always as supple as an eel despite his generous body, swung himself up, and ended on his knees, straddling Edward’s hips. And then – then he lifted, and he grasped Edward’s cock, and he found the right angle to begin guiding Edward into himself.

‘No…’ Edward protested. He thought his heart might burst.

‘Why not?’

‘Because we’ve never…’ His cockhead was pressing against Alex now, against the very place. And the man was indeed prepared – there was the slickness there of butter or oil or God only knew what. All Alex need do was sink his weight a little, and he’d be through. ‘No! Wait.’

‘Why should I wait? I want this, Edward, and I am quite determined to have it.’

‘Tell me one thing.’

‘What?’

‘Are you… Well, have you done this before now?’

Alex let out a breathless laugh. ‘But if I say yes, then I admit to faithlessness, for we established that I was quite virginal – in that way, at least – on our first night together. You expressed the very same scruples then that you are expressing now.’

‘I remember. Just tell me.’

‘You care so little for what I’ve done these past seven months?’

Edward struggled to keep his face calm. ‘Of course I care – for if you recall, on that first night we also established that I love you. But I never expected your fidelity, Alex. Not in these matters, at least.’

Alex sagged a little, strangely – unexpectedly – undone.

‘If you tell me now that you have been faithful,’ Edward carefully offered, ‘I will believe you. And I will rejoice in it, Alex.’ Fiercer, then – ‘I will rejoice!’

‘But, no,’ Alex replied in a small voice, ‘I am a faithless hound. As it seems you always knew.’

‘Come here, my dear.’ Edward said. And he gathered Alex back down into his arms. ‘Never mind what passes elsewhere, with other people. For I still love you, and you still care for me, and that has never changed, nor will it.’

‘I am still virginal,’ Alex muttered against Edward’s throat. ‘In that way. I want you to have me. You, Edward, and no other man.’

It was an offer he could not be expected to resist. Even though Alex was still oddly listless. Perhaps this wasn’t quite the right time, but perhaps there could not be a better time – he’d never seen Alex so vulnerable, and maybe that would make it easier. Edward kissed his lover, and murmured, ‘Yes. But we’ll do it my way.’

A soft grunt for a response, which Edward took as agreement. Gently, he shifted Alex over onto his side, and then lay behind him. There was just enough room within the wooden confines of the bed. And then he carefully began pushing himself inside the man.

The pressure of it, the pain of it, indicated that Alex had been telling the truth. Edward persisted, slowly and surely. Alex gave no sign that it hurt him, but of course it must have done – and Edward returned the favour, by not betraying his own pain. Eventually, though, something within Alex relaxed, and Edward could move freely, and the urge was there to simply thrust to his heart’s content, and rush for completion. Which neither of them deserved.

Instead, Edward stilled, and settled himself, and reached for Alex’s somewhat–less–enthusiastic cock. It responded to his touch – but Alex moaned, and whispered, ‘Please.’

‘Yes.’

‘I mean – Please. Finish it.’

‘Not yet,’ Edward murmured. And he began caressing the man, fondling his balls, kissing and gnawing at his nape and jugular – doing all the things that he’d learned gave Alex pleasure. Once that cock stiffened again, he began gently thrusting, though still holding himself back. Until finally, finally Alex completed with an odd little cry, and then Edward could restrain himself no longer. He thrust once, twice, thrice and he was home… And they lay there together, quaking for a time, until at last they quietened again.

It seemed that Alex dozed for a while, and Edward struggled to stay awake, for Alex must soon be sent back to his own quarters. They could not be caught in this state. This delightfully decadent state.

And then it seemed as if Alex hadn’t been dozing, for without any warning he murmured, ‘I have something to tell you.’

‘What is it?’ Edward softly replied. He’d known there would be a reason behind this unplanned visit and this very unexpected lovemaking.

‘I have been offered the position of captain. My own ship.’

‘Already?’ He’d known since before this began that it would come to this. Alex was a natural leader, even if Edward couldn’t always agree with how that leadership manifested itself, and there was no reason on earth for the man to remain a lieutenant forever. ‘Congratulations,’ Edward offered, tightening his arms to signify that he never wanted to let his lover go. ‘You must be pleased.’

‘You won’t be.’ In that listless voice.

‘No, for I will miss you terribly.’ He pressed his face against Alex’s nape, heart already aching with loneliness. But he had been lonely before, and survived it. ‘Perhaps I will sleep better without these interruptions.’

‘Perhaps not, knowing where I am.’

Edward lifted himself on an elbow to gaze down at Alex’s face, or at least what he could see of it. Something coiled in his gut. Something like fear. An unclean kind of fear – not the pure kind of poignant loss that followed losing a lover to a worthy career. ‘What is it?’ he whispered.

And that was when Alex told him that he would become a privateer.

‘What?’ Edward cried, pushing the man away, clambering out of the madly swaying bed. ‘Does ambition mean so much to you, that you would sacrifice your decency? You would wage war for profit alone?’

Alex was crouched on the deck, having tumbled from the bed they’d lately shared. And Alex was hushing him, but Edward would not be hushed.

‘Your honour means so little to you?’ Edward thundered. ‘Your vows to King and country?’

‘Please, Edward. People will hear.’

‘Let them hear! You are the only man on board this ship who has anything to be ashamed of!’

No doubt fearing that his shipmates would come to investigate, Alex was pulling on his clothes.

‘By God, if it wasn’t the middle of the night, I’d have you rowed ashore right now – but you are not worth bothering the men for.’

Alex stood, fully dressed again, with his hands out as if beseeching. But all he said was, ‘Edward, put on your shirt, for God’s sake. Bowles will come crashing through that door at any moment.’

‘Get out of here! And be gone from this ship before I come to the poop deck tomorrow morning. Do you understand me? Begone, God damn you!’

He was alone. The anger swirled around him for a moment, with nowhere to land, but then it drained away, and Edward was left feeling diminished in its aftermath. But he didn’t feel wrong. Not wrong at all. He sighed, and shrugged on his nightshirt. Wrapped a blanket round himself, and went to sit in his day cabin, watching the sea swell dark under the oppressive fog.

As predicted, Bowles made a wary appearance, and there was a rustling out in the gallery as if others had come to investigate the commotion. ‘Captain Pellew, sir? Is everything all right?’

‘No, Mr Bowles,’ he quietly replied, ‘everything is not all right. But there is nothing to be done about it. Mr Crowe has resigned his commission, and will be leaving us in the morning. Perhaps you’ll be so good as to see him safely ashore.’

‘Yes, sir.’ The man hesitated, confused. Perhaps suspecting something of what lay between his captain and his first lieutenant, or perhaps not even dreaming of it. ‘Can I fetch you something, sir? A tot of rum to warm you?’

‘No, thank you, Mr Bowles. Pray return to your rest. I am sorry you have been disturbed.’

‘Very well, sir.’ And the man saluted him, and left. There was a murmuring in the gallery outside, and then footfalls heading back ’tweendecks.

Edward sighed. And he whispered to the absent Alex something that he couldn’t have said to the man’s face. And I… I mean so little to you?

 

The convoy had run before the wind through the night with main sails set, but when Horatio arrived on the Galicia’s poopdeck as the sun rose, he saw that they would take a brief respite in their journey. The Indefatigable was flying flags requesting that the ships take in sail, and the captains meet on the Galicia. Perez appeared at his shoulder, blinked the last of the dawn’s twilight from his eyes, and read the flags.

‘I suggest that we acknowledge the request, and prepare to carry it out,’ Horatio said to this man with whom he shared command.

‘Agreed,’ Perez replied, his inflection of the word exactly echoing his captain’s.

‘Very well. Matthews! Acknowledge the Indy’s request, and ready the men. We’ll take in sail as soon as the other ships are prepared.’

‘Aye aye, sir.’

Perez exchanged a glance with him, and as one they headed down the stairs to the binnacle. A marine and an armed privateer stood on guard there, as ordered. Perez knelt to unlock the cabinet under the compass, and drew out the black leather pouch. First he examined it, and then Horatio followed suit, reassuring themselves as far as they could that the lock had not been tampered with, nor the pouch itself.

‘Do you know what’s inside?’ Perez asked as they crouched there, heads bent together over this mystery – but he didn’t speak loud enough for the guards to hear.

‘I don’t have the first idea,’ Horatio replied.

The man’s mouth quirked. ‘And you wouldn’t tell me if you did know.’

‘That is true.’ They exchanged a smile, complicitous and respectful and amused.

Once they returned to the poop deck, they saw that the Tamburlaine had acknowledged the Indy’s message, and had already begun taking in sail.

‘Mr Matthews,’ Perez requested, ‘if the men are ready, pray carry out Mr Hornblower’s order.’

‘Aye aye, sir.’

Horatio watched as the men worked. It seemed that both Navy and privateer crews wanted to impress each other, so they were all being remarkably efficient. While one couldn’t approve of the privateers, it was still gratifying to see that, as sailors at least, the British were nearer the quality of the Navy than were the Spanish. Well, perhaps he should allow for one exception, as it seemed that Joaquin Perez was a competent and sensible enough seaman, and perhaps it was as well for that rogue of a captain to have such a trusty officer beside him, Spaniard or not.

‘Mr Hornblower,’ Perez murmured. ‘I do believe we are about to have company.’

‘Ah, yes. Thank you,’ he responded, chastising himself for not paying better attention.

Soon Captain Pellew and Captain Crowe were each piped aboard the Galicia. With the barest of acknowledgments to their lieutenants – even Pellew did little more than nod his respect to Horatio – the two captains withdraw together to the captain’s quarters, already deep in private conversation.

Horatio noticed that Archie had been left standing alone on the quarterdeck, staring after the two captains with an expression of angry concern. He nodded to Perez, and wandered down to his friend. ‘Good morning, Archie. What’s happened?’

Archie seemed to shake himself. ‘Nothing. It’s nothing.’

‘Then why the squall on your face? You are making heavy weather of something.’

The imagery won him a reluctant smile. Archie turned away, stepped back to the side of the ship and took in the forever–stirring sight of the Indefatigable. ‘Horatio…’

‘Yes?’

‘It pains me to speak ill of a man who once served on the Indy.’

‘And yet…?’

Archie looked at him, eyes candidly direct. ‘Captain Crowe is no gentleman.’

Horatio took a moment to swallow a smile. ‘Then I take it that the officers’ supper was not a success?’

‘I’m being serious, Horatio!’

‘And so am I! Oldroyd has been talking of nothing but the men’s supper ever since. It seems he is close to deserting for the sake of the beef and the beer. Did you not enjoy the meal?’

‘I’m sure Crowe served us all their best victuals – but I hardly noticed. The conversation was… extremely disagreeable.’

‘I see.’

‘No, you don’t!’

‘No,’ Horatio equably agreed, ‘I don’t. Archie, will you please tell me what’s troubling you! Or must I torture you for it, or seduce you with better rations than even the Tamburlaine can provide?’

Archie stared hard at him for a moment. And then he finally drew close enough to murmur, ‘If Crowe has the chance, he will try to provoke you. He will say the most outrageous things about Captain Pellew. I trust you will pay him no mind.’

‘But of course I must protect my Captain’s honour if ever it is called into question.’

‘Pay him no mind, Horatio. Even Pellew just ignores him. And do not dwell on his meaning.’ Archie recaptured Horatio’s gaze, and the strength of feeling revealed in those blue eyes – only inches away now – almost stole Horatio’s breath. ‘Promise me, Horatio.’

Carefully considering this request, Horatio thought of all that might possibly lie behind it. He recalled Pellew shaken into apologising as soon as he identified the privateer sharing their pursuit of the Galicia. He thought of Crowe’s inappropriately familiar manner with Captain Pellew. And now it seemed that Archie was torn between protecting his captain and protecting his friend. Eventually Horatio turned his face away to stare down through the endless blue of the ocean, afraid that he might not be able to bear Archie’s response. ‘Are you saying… that Captain Pellew has… left himself vulnerable to Captain Crowe on a matter of honour?’

Silence. Silence, and when Horatio finally looked back at Archie, his heart sank as he identified desperation on his friend’s face. ‘I am saying,’ Archie finally replied in the most careful of tones, ‘that we should follow the Captain’s example, and just ignore the bastard.’

Horatio nodded once, though he was as yet acknowledging rather than agreeing to such a course of action.

‘Pellew deserves our loyalty,’ Archie insisted.

‘On that we are definitely of one mind,’ Horatio firmly replied.

But no further meeting of minds was possible, for the two captains reappeared. Crowe was insolently swaggering, Horatio noted, while Pellew maintained the easy dignity that seemed his birthright. Trusting that whatever had been negotiated was in the Indy’s favour, Horatio made his way to the gallery, along with Archie. Perez was already there, at his captain’s side.

Once they were assembled, Pellew announced, ‘We have decided that a third of the Spanish prisoners will be taken aboard the Indefatigable, a third aboard the Tamburlaine, and a third will remain on the Galicia. That way the burden is spread.’

‘Yes, sir,’ the three lieutenants chorused.

When further orders weren’t forthcoming, Horatio asked, ‘And the Galicia’s cargo, sir?’

Pellew glanced away for a moment, as if he knew the situation seemed suspiciously irregular. ‘Captain Crowe and I have yet to reach an agreement on disposition of the cargo.’

Horatio would have loved to argue the point, but he was all too aware that anything he said might sound like criticism of his captain – at least to the ears of a rogue. ‘Yes, sir,’ Horatio eventually managed.

Crowe was watching him, a smirk on his face. ‘What a pity you are not an American, Mr Hornblower, with the right to freedom of speech.’

‘Even an American would temper that right with the respect due to such a man as Captain Pellew, sir,’ Horatio countered.

‘You think Edward prefers your respect to your honesty? You don’t know him at all.’

If looks could kill, Horatio knew he would be a murderer by now, and an unrepentant one at that. He ignored Archie’s discreet whispered warning. ‘If I had anything of substance to add, sir, then I would indeed feel free to do so – but Captain Pellew is more aware of the situation than I, and knows the Articles of War better than I. Any comment or interference from me would be presumptuous and unwarranted.’

Crowe just snorted in amusement, and slung a friendly arm around the neck of Perez, shifting his weight so that his lieutenant must brace himself to bear the burden. ‘I still want to know where you found this pair, Edward. They are more like changelings or holy fools than ordinary men.’

‘Enough,’ Pellew said at last. ‘Mr Hornblower and Mr Kennedy, see to the removal of a third of the prisoners to the Indy, if you please. I assume that Mr Perez will –’

‘No, these two can handle the prisoners,’ Crowe said. ‘Kennedy can get them to the Tamburlaine, and then Smith can get them bedded down – you met Smith last night, Kennedy, if you recall.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Archie muttered.

‘I have other services for Joaquin to perform at present.’ That friendly arm tugged Perez off balance, and Crowe cocked his head so that it rested against his lieutenant’s temple. Perez’s face betrayed no emotion at all, and certainly no awareness of any peculiarities in his captain’s behaviour. Crowe smiled at Pellew, and his blue eyes glinted. ‘Think of me, Edward.’

‘Oh, I have far worthier things with which to occupy my mind.’

Crowe was dragging Perez back into the captain’s cabin. ‘Worthier, I’ll grant you,’ he called back, ‘but certainly no better!’ And then the two privateers were gone, and the double doors were firmly closed behind them.

‘Well…’ Horatio said, somewhat taken aback by this odd turn of events. He looked to Pellew and then to Archie, but neither man would meet his eye. In fact, they were both studiously staring somewhere else entirely, as if very embarrassed, and very unwilling to admit to it. In which case a gentleman really should ignore the whole matter. ‘Well,’ Horatio began again, ‘Archie, if you will have the boats prepared, I will have a third of the prisoners brought to the entry port.’

Archie nodded, still avoiding his eyes, and strode off. Then Pellew did the same. Left high and dry, Horatio shrugged, called for Matthews, and headed below to where the prisoners were held on the lower deck.

 

Disaster struck a half–hour later. Taking advantage of what must have appeared to be a deplorable level of distraction, the group of prisoners who had just boarded the Indy – and who were still in the waist – broke free from the marines guarding them. The first Horatio knew of it was when he heard the yelling of desperate men. He’d been watching Archie take the other prisoners over to the Tamburlaine – but as soon as he heard shouting – and then a pistol shot! – from the Indy, Horatio ran back across the Galicia’s deck.

By that time, two of the marines and one of the prisoners lay dead or injured – and another of the prisoners was on the poop deck with a pistol to Captain Pellew’s head.

Horatio froze.

Indeed, all of the Indy’s men had frozen. It seemed that no one but the Spanish dared to move. They consolidated their position on the poop deck and the aft part of the quarterdeck. Disarmed yet another marine.

Pellew appeared furious. But it was obvious that he was being careful not to move. God, they all knew how easily a cocked pistol could fire if handled clumsily. Even from that distance, Horatio could see Pellew take a deep breath, and then another. And then those dark eyes met his across twenty feet of salt–laden air, and Pellew’s face was calm. Pellew trusted him. Or trusted God or Fate or some such thing. Pellew trusted Horatio to handle this.

He tried to remember the Spanish he’d studiously learned while in prison. It was so long ago, though, damn it, and Pellew had a pistol to his head. God damn it to hell! ‘Hablo un poco de español,’ he called to them. ‘¿Habla usted inglés?’

‘Si, señor. I speak the inglés.’ It wasn’t the man who held Pellew hostage, but it was one of the men on the poop deck who had spoken.

‘Oh thank God,’ Horatio muttered. Then he called, ‘What do you want? What do you think you’ll gain by this?’

Movement distracted him. He glanced back to see Perez kneeling by the binnacle, reaching inside. Just what he needed! Those accursed privateers taking advantage of Pellew’s danger for their own gain!

‘Half your men are dead,’ Horatio continued to the prisoners on the Indy. ‘You’re outnumbered four to one!’

‘You know what I want, señor!’ the Spaniard called back to him. ‘Take the oro, take the Galicia. Just leave us a sloop.’

Horatio frowned. ‘They want a sloop?’ he asked himself. And their lives, presumably. Was death so fearful to them?

‘This is what you want?’ a voice yelled out beside him. Crowe, of course. Captain Crowe, and he was holding the black leather pouch over the side of the ship.

The Spanish all stepped forward, alarmed. Yes, that was what they wanted, all right. And they wanted it badly enough to take one hell of a risk.

‘I’ll throw it overboard, I swear to God!’

No, señor!’

‘You let Captain Pellew go – you surrender – or I’ll do it!’

The Spaniards exchanged looks of despair, wondering if they’d been beaten at their own game.

‘You’re trying my patience!’ Crowe announced. And he let the pouch slip. Only a dexterous man could have done it – he let it slip just so far, and then caught the strap again.

As one, the Spaniards had gasped, and rushed forward to the side of the ship, apparently expecting to see the pouch fall into the ocean. A couple of them seemed prepared to follow it down – one even jumped in, just in case, ready to catch it while it was still near the surface.

But that was enough for the Indy’s crew – they took advantage of the distraction, and regained control. Pellew himself disarmed his own assailant. Within minutes, the Spaniards had been bundled ’tweendecks – including the one who’d jumped overboard – with every last one of them casting longing glances at the pouch that Crowe still held out over the briny deep.

Pellew wandered closer with his hands clasped behind his back, and considered Captain Alexander Crowe standing there. ‘You would have done that?’ he called to Crowe. There was only ten feet of sea between them, though the movement of the ships meant they were never quite level.

Crowe shrugged. ‘I was bluffing.’

‘Why?’

‘Not for you!’

‘I would think not!’

Pellew was staring hard at the man, as if reconsidering something of great importance. Horatio tore his gaze away from his captain, and considered the man, too. Those blue eyes had caught the sun again, but surely Pellew couldn’t see the twinkle from where he stood. Crowe’s old silk shirt was half unbuttoned, and it billowed in the breeze, providing teasing glimpses of sun–browned flesh and scarring. If the man wasn’t such a rogue, Horatio had to admit he’d be quite dashing. Horatio tried to imagine him in a lieutenant’s uniform, with more dignity in his bearing – and for the first time he acknowledged that perhaps Crowe would have been an asset to the Indy. Maybe.

Perez had appeared in his usual place at Crowe’s shoulder. The two exchanged a quiet word or two. And then Perez took the pouch, and headed back to the binnacle, silently inviting Horatio to join him. Horatio looked back at Pellew, sent up a silent prayer of gratitude for his captain’s safety – saw Crowe give Pellew one last glance as well, before turning away – and then Horatio followed Perez, to ensure that the pouch was secured once more.

 

There was a rather singular problem that resulted from running an efficient ship with an excellent crew – and the problem was that when one wanted occupation, one sometimes found oneself at a loose end. Captain Pellew spent that day trying to keep his mind on simple and sober matters, but it was not to be. The Indefatigable ran tirelessly before the wind, as did the rest of the convoy. The officers and men occupied themselves with maintenance work, or took a well–earned break, and their captain’s direction seemed completely superfluous. Pellew even tried to muck in with them, and assist with various tasks – for he had always prided himself on never asking his men to do anything he couldn’t or wouldn’t do himself – but for once he wasn’t wanted. Perhaps his crew thought he had also earned a break, and were tactfully ensuring that he took one. God only knew their reasoning… All Pellew really wanted was to be distracted from the most improper sort of thoughts.

As he had indicated to Alexander Crowe, Pellew had indeed endeavoured to learn from that mistake. He had promised himself never again. Never again. It was a decision he’d deferred making until the immediate pain was past, too, so it wasn’t just a reaction to the loss or to the hurt of Alex’s betrayal. He was getting a little too… mature, after all. Not that he didn’t indulge in a discreet liaison on occasion when safely on English soil, and not that he didn’t enjoy such encounters to the utmost. But he had promised himself that his heart would never again override his conscience.

The few men Pellew had loved in his life had all been near his own age, and the relationships had been, as far as possible, between equals. It had been a point of honour with him. To be honest, he had always feared that the embarrassments of doddering old age would include falling in love with his beautiful young lieutenants, and he prayed God would help him forever resist the nubile midshipmen not yet eighteen… Better to put that part of his life firmly behind him, along with Alex, and maintain a shred or two of dignity.

Except that the worst had come to pass despite all his best intentions. For Alex had been exactly right – Pellew would have happily given heart, mind and body to Archie Kennedy, who was indeed perfectly attractive. And Alex had been right on both counts – for Pellew’s soul belonged to Horatio Hornblower.

It was humiliating. Utterly humiliating. Here he was, ready to swear that he had found his soul–mate in a man born when Pellew was already twenty years of age. Here he was, ready, willing and able to seduce either or both of these beautiful young fellows – despite the fact that, as far as he could ascertain, they had already done the honourable and unexceptional thing of falling in love with each other.

Well, he was sure at least that Kennedy was fully aware of the fact that he loved Horatio – and of the fact that Pellew did, too, though Pellew had never once feared Kennedy making any trouble for him over the matter. Pellew wasn’t so sure about Horatio, though. Whatever Horatio felt for his Archie, Pellew was fairly sure that anything beyond friendship was beyond Horatio’s awareness. Though of course that didn’t make the feelings any less real. So Pellew couldn’t, in all conscience, interfere. And, in any case, he’d promised himself never again. Never again!

Damn Alexander Crowe for not resting in peace – for showing up where he wasn’t wanted – for reminding Pellew that he was still a man, with a man’s needs and a man’s energies. Damn Alex for those precocious, precious eyes that saw right through him – for that cocky swagger that showed off all his assets – for the impudence that both appalled and secretly delighted Pellew. And damn him to hell and back for gratifying Pellew’s finer feelings that very morning, by threatening to destroy their prize rather than see Pellew hurt.

Though that had been a bluff, surely… Crowe had only done it because he knew the Spaniards must immediately surrender. And yet… And yet he had convinced the Spaniards that he was serious, and had almost convinced Pellew, too. Damn him!

Damn Alex for reminding Edward that he was a fool – that he was ten, twenty, a hundred kinds of fool – and a lonely fool, at that.

Pellew sighed, anticipating another long, sleepless, and thoroughly dissatisfying night.

 

Horatio was inspecting the men of his Division the following afternoon on board the Galicia when he noticed that one of them had augmented his usual clothes. ‘How dashing you look today, Oldroyd.’

‘Thank you, sir,’ the man happily replied, despite Styles digging him in the ribs with a particularly severe elbow.

Eyeing the gold silk scarf wrapped round Oldroyd’s throat in place of his somewhat plainer neckerchief, Horatio frowned. ‘So, it’s not just the fresh beef and the copious beer that you find attractive in the life of a privateer.’

‘No, sir.’ Another carefree response, despite Matthews glaring a warning.

‘It comes at a price, Oldroyd,’ Horatio said, dropping the bantering tone.

Oldroyd opened his mouth, but for once was wise enough to close it again without speaking.

‘It’s a myth that they earn more prize money than we do. They certainly don’t earn any wages, as we do. And the beef and beer and colour all come at the price of any hope of ever being considered respectable. Is that honestly the kind of life you want?’

‘No, sir.’ Far more subdued – but the words were dutiful rather than convinced.

‘Very well.’ Horatio took them all in with a sweeping glance. ‘You’re doing the British Navy proud, all of you. Keep up the good work, and there’ll be plenty of prize money awaiting us when we bring the Galicia home to England!’

They let out a cheer, which was mostly heartfelt, and then Horatio dismissed them.

Perez wandered over, and indicated the Indy’s flags. ‘It seems that we are both invited to supper on your ship, Mr Hornblower, along with Captain Crowe.’

‘Yes, thank you, Mr Perez.’

‘We should each arrange for another lieutenant to take charge of the Galicia in our absence.’

‘Yes, of course.’ And Horatio nodded respectfully, and went to do exactly that. Though he hoped Pellew wouldn’t send Archie to the Galicia – Horatio would far rather Archie remained on the Indy and joined them for supper. His real priority, though, was to beg the opportunity to talk to Captain Pellew in private.

 

‘Very well, Mr Hornblower, but make it quick. We have guests.’

‘Yes, sir. Mr Kennedy is entertaining Mr Perez in the wardroom, and I believe that Captain Crowe hasn’t yet left the Tamburlaine.’

They were in the captain’s cabin, with the table already set for the officers’ meal. Sitting behind his desk, Pellew gestured for Horatio to go on, obviously impatient to deal with this, and be freed to take care of more important matters.

‘If I may, sir. I wish only to understand. I certainly do not doubt your judgement, sir, and if there are matters that you are not at liberty to explain, then I assure you that there is no question of –’

‘Your point, Mr Hornblower…?’

‘Well, sir, I only wondered – That is –’ Horatio took a breath. ‘We boarded her first, sir, so the Galicia is ours.’

‘But I only have Mr Kennedy’s word for that, and Captain Crowe strenuously denies it.’

Horatio tried not to let his reaction – his amazement and outrage and despair – colour his response. ‘You would take the word of a privateer over that of a lieutenant of the Indefatigable?’

‘Ordinarily, of course, I would not. But I doubt that anyone can be completely sure of such things in the confusion of battle… And Mr Kennedy is not quite like you, Mr Hornblower. There are times when I believe that his loyalty outweighs his honesty. Do not think that I am insulting him, because I am not. Loyalty and honesty are both excellent traits, and we must expect different men to attach different weights to each.’

‘I see,’ Horatio stiffly replied.

‘To have earned the loyalty of a man such as Mr Kennedy is a precious thing. He does not give it lightly. He does not trust people without good reason. You should take his loyalty and trust as a compliment, Mr Hornblower, as do I – and you should not expect him to always agree with you on whether honesty or honour or even duty are more important.’

‘Yes, sir.’

Pellew observed, ‘If I had sent Mr Kennedy to retrieve the leather pouch, he would not have been as scrupulous as you in insisting that it was a joint prize.’

Horatio looked at his captain, abruptly mortified. He had failed. He had been arrogant enough to misplace his faith. ‘I am sorry, sir.’

But Pellew dismissed this as of no consequence, and merely commented, ‘I sent you, Mr Hornblower. In any case, there is a more significant matter to consider.’

‘Yes, sir?’

‘Captain Crowe has indicated to me that he is prepared to fight for this prize.’

Horatio had never been more shocked. Eventually he stammered, ‘He would fight – he would fight the Indy – a frigate commissioned in the British Navy –’

‘So he says.’

‘But – but even if he succeeded, there would be witnesses left who would ruin him – unless – well, he cannot mean to kill us all. Can he?’ Horatio endeavoured to read Pellew’s face. ‘He would attempt to kill hundreds of his own countrymen, and destroy the Indefatigable, for the sake of the gold? For the sake of whatever is in that pouch?’

‘I think not,’ Pellew replied, though he sounded troubled over the matter. ‘But do you understand now? Quite apart from considering the safety of my men, even Alex – even Captain Crowe himself deserves to be saved from taking such a course.’

‘Surely he is bluffing. Just as he was bluffing yesterday morning.’

‘Yes.’ But Pellew sighed.

‘Sir? He served with you for some time. You can judge whether he is bluffing.’

‘Alex was always a difficult person to know, Horatio. Just when I felt most complacent about his loyalty to me and to the Indefatigable, I discovered that he had secretly arranged to be given command of a privateer.’

‘I see,’ Horatio murmured.

‘Well,’ Pellew briskly concluded, standing from his desk, ‘we are not in a situation where the matter must be decided immediately. There is no harm in continuing as a convoy. For now.’

‘If you’ll excuse me, sir,’ Horatio dared to say, barely above a whisper, ‘there may well be harm.’

Those dark eyes considered him. ‘How so?’

But how could he put it into words? Pellew walked around the desk to where Horatio stood, still staring at him. Drew near to Horatio, as if he could only properly read his meaning up close. Circled him, inches away. Horatio withstood his captain’s scrutiny, but only just.

‘Do you imagine, Mr Hornblower,’ Pellew said, low and threatening, ‘that just because you dare to question me, there is any other man on board this ship who does not trust me implicitly?’

‘No, sir.’

Pellew just stood there, with all his authority looming.

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ Horatio managed.

Abruptly the moment was over. ‘Very well, then,’ Pellew said, walking away with his hands clasped behind his back. ‘If our guests are here, Mr Hornblower, pray show them in.’

‘Yes, sir,’ he said, sagging somewhat. Then he hurried to comply with his captain’s request.

 

The meal was an unexpectedly quiet affair. Nothing controversial was spoken of. Nothing impolite or impolitic was expressed. It seemed that even Captain Crowe lacked the excessive spirits required to be outrageous.

Once the supper had been consumed, the other officers made their excuses and left, though Horatio remained seated, with Archie beside him, and Perez remained at Crowe’s right hand. After another glass of wine, however, Pellew said, ‘If you’ll excuse us, gentlemen, Captain Crowe and I have matters to discuss.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Horatio obediently murmured in defeat. He and Archie stood, and headed for the door.

From the corner of his eye, though, Horatio saw Crowe sling a familiar arm around Perez’s neck before the younger man could rise. Crowe whispered something in the man’s ear, and Perez nodded agreement, face impassive. Then, of course, Crowe rested his forehead against Perez’s temple again before letting him go, just as he had done before. It seemed to be a very friendly and comfortable, if overly intimate gesture. It was chiefly the friendliness and comfort that impressed Horatio in that moment.

Out in the cold night air, Horatio made for the side of the ship – to starboard, so that he need only consider the sky and the ocean. Anger roiled in his gut, and resentment.

‘Horatio?’ Archie came up beside him.

Anger, resentment, and – Horatio had to admit it – envy. A bolt of envy struck his heart through.

‘We should probably accompany Perez down to the wardroom.’

As his father had observed on more than one occasion, Horatio had been a solitary boy. He’d never even had a real friend until he’d met Archie. Perhaps Pellew would have been his friend, too, but for the distance required by command. But the point was that they, and every other man on board the Indefatigable, forever behaved in the most proper of ways. And Horatio had never once thought of that in a negative light. Until now.

‘Horatio? What’s bothering you?’

Until now, when he found himself envying the easy familiarity with which Crowe treated Perez. That physical expression of affection. That light in his eyes and that roguishness in his smile when the captain saw his lieutenant. Why couldn’t Pellew or Archie ever do more than shake his hand or pat his back? Why couldn’t Archie hug him when there was something to celebrate, and hold him when commiseration was necessary? Why couldn’t Pellew sling a friendly arm around Horatio’s neck and drag him off to wherever he was needed?

‘Horatio!’

Well, so, that last image didn’t quite work, but when he was alone with Pellew, and when duty did not require their immediate attention, couldn’t his captain occasionally unstiffen enough to be nothing more or less than his friend? An almost impossible thing to imagine from the very proper Pellew, perhaps, but Horatio had indeed imagined it now.

A hand was lightly placed on his arm – or, more accurately, on his coat sleeve, with just enough pressure so that he felt it through the layers that separated fingers from flesh – and was tactfully withdrawn again as soon as Horatio looked down at it.

‘Horatio, whatever are you thinking about?’

I am thinking that I wish you would grab my shoulders and shake me, rather than carefully place your hand on my arm as if you would prefer not to be touching me at all. I am thinking that I wish you would take me in your arms so fiercely that I begin to fear you will never let me go. I am thinking that there should be a dark, quiet nook or cranny somewhere aboard this ship where we can go and simply talk… and you can explain certain things to me, rather than just patting me on the head and sending me away as if I were a child. I am thinking that I am a man, Archie!

‘I was thinking,’ Horatio finally said in a strangled kind of tone, ‘how very much I dislike Captain Crowe, and all that he stands for. In fact, I fear there are times when hatred would not be too strong a word to use.’

And then Horatio forced himself to turn away from the heartfelt dismay on Archie’s face, and walk back towards the wardroom, silently inviting the waiting Perez along with a nod.

 

Once the two captains were alone again, Pellew did not discuss the Galicia or her cargo, though Crowe was obviously expecting that to be the only permissible topic. But Pellew knew the situation would not be resolved with rationality, so there was no point in trying to argue the man round. Any such attempt would soon descend into nothing but assertion and counter–assertion.

Instead, they talked. Reminisced. Laughed together in the carefree way they used to before they became lovers.

Crowe caught up the jug of wine, and brought it to Pellew’s end of the table; refilled their glasses, and sat down beside Pellew, where Horatio had been sitting. ‘You pretend that you’re getting old, Edward,’ Crowe observed, ‘but you are not.’

‘Oh,’ Pellew responded, ‘there are times these days when I feel all too fatigable.’

Crowe let out an appreciative belly–deep chortle. ‘Edward, I don’t believe it. You just made a joke. In fact, you just made a joke that – I am fairly sure – contradicts all known grammatical rules.’

‘Do you see what the world is coming to?’

But Crowe would not be diverted from his course. ‘I know what you always feared.’

‘How inconvenient it is to run into one’s former shipmates.’

‘You had enough scruples over me being five years younger than you. Now you’re in love with one of two fellows half your age.’

‘Not quite half,’ Pellew was stung into retorting.

Crowe laughed, fond but a little unkind as well. ‘You should pursue him. Whichever one he is. Either of those two would do anything you ever asked of him.’

‘And that, of course, is the problem.’

‘I assure you that such obedience can be a great convenience!’

‘If you are referring to your Mr Perez, then you are doing both yourself and him a grave disservice, Alex.’

‘I never understood,’ Crowe murmured, sitting back the better to contemplate his former captain, ‘how you can be so reticent. The very thing you most want is waiting there within your reach, and yet you will not reach! I don’t understand. You could have had me for the asking a hundred times before you finally let me insist.’

Pellew cast him a sharp glance. ‘Do you compare yourself to either of them?’

Crowe winced as if he had been slapped across the face, and Pellew was immediately sorry for it. That had not been dishonest, but neither had it been fair. He reached to tentatively cover Crowe’s hand where it lay on the table.

But the hand slid out from under his – and then Alex had both hands around Pellew’s nape, dragging him closer, and Alex was standing, leaning over him. Kissing him. A brutish, beautiful kiss. Pellew tried to pull away, but he was not permitted to. His chair crashed to the deck. Someone would come any moment to investigate that. In the meantime, Alex was pressing up against him, wrapping those strong arms around his back, and Pellew was unable to resist the assault. It was indeed an assault – but it stirred all the old energies in him, and Pellew knew there could be no retreating. Not this time.

And yet… And yet of course it was not Alex whom he loved. Not any more. Not for years now.

There were footsteps outside in the stern gallery. Even Alex heard them. Pellew used the moment to push the man away. His mouth was bruised, and his heart protested, and yet he felt more alive than he had done for years.

The footsteps didn’t even pause outside the door. Maybe no one had heard the chair fall, after all, or perhaps they hadn’t attached any significance to it. Pellew picked the chair up himself, and righted the wine glass that had tipped over, sopping up the spilled wine with a napkin.

Alex stood there watching Pellew, shamefaced. Defeated. Wistful. Hungry, and angry with it. He was a beautiful, complex, compelling man, and Pellew had only one thing left to say to him. ‘Get off my ship, Alex.’

‘Edward…’

‘Go!’

‘I will not say that I was wrong.’

‘Get off my ship now, or by God I will have you thrown overboard.’

One last pleading look, and then Alex turned away. Strode for the door, flung it wide so that it crashed back against the wall, and then strode out. And Pellew was at last alone.

 

He was not blessed with solitude for long. There was a careful knock at the open door – Pellew was half–surprised that it was still on its hinges – and Archie Kennedy looked in. ‘Sir?’

‘Yes?’ Pellew said from where he stood looking out through the stern windows.

‘I thought you might like to know that our guests have returned safely to their ships.’

‘Thank you, Mr Kennedy.’

A tactful pause. And then the young man said, ‘Goodnight, sir.’

Pellew was about to return the wish, but instead found himself saying, ‘Would you care for a last glass of wine before you retire, Mr Kennedy?’

‘Thank you, sir.’ And the young man came inside, and closed the door behind him.

They sat there together on the lockers that ran along under the windows, companionably silent. Kennedy seemed to have as many sobering thoughts to contemplate as his captain. Pellew smiled wryly. What a sorry pair they made!

‘Sir?’ Kennedy murmured, catching Pellew’s searching glance.

Pellew cleared his throat, and embarked upon a perilous quest. ‘I… I believe, Mr Kennedy, that you have guessed at the nature of my former relationship with Captain Crowe.’

Kennedy had the grace to blush a little, but that same grace meant that his gaze never faltered. It was gratifying that there was at least one man on the Indy who would not condemn him for having once loved Alex. ‘Yes, sir.’

‘I mention this only so that you know that I understand such relationships – within certain circumstances, at least – and that it would never be my choice to betray any confidence that related to such a matter.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Now Kennedy dropped his head and turned away a little, so that only his profile was visible. His lovely profile… ‘You want to ask me about Horatio.’

Even the name, in such a context, hit Pellew hard. He said gently, ‘I know that you care for him.’

‘I love him. Yes.’

‘And does he…?’

Kennedy swallowed. Closed his eyes for a moment. ‘No,’ he admitted. ‘Horatio cares for me as a friend.’ Then Kennedy looked up at Pellew again. ‘But I would not feel encouraged by that, sir, if I were you. I don’t think he approves – or maybe he just doesn’t understand. I don’t know. This very evening he said something to me – Well, after Captain Crowe’s display with Mr Perez, Horatio seemed quite disgusted.’

‘I see.’

‘I know he cares for you, sir,’ Kennedy continued, raw and pleading. ‘He admires you greatly. But I don’t think either of us have anything to hope for.’ Kennedy turned away again. Took a hefty swallow of the wine. ‘Better that he doesn’t even know.’

A silence stretched. Poor Kennedy sat there nursing a battered heart, and Pellew’s actual quest hadn’t even occurred to him. Which no doubt indicated that it was doomed to failure – but that didn’t mean Pellew couldn’t take the chance to repay the fellow for his honesty with a genuine compliment.

Pellew reached out, and brushed a gentle finger down that generous cheek. ‘It is rare to find such humility and such beauty coexisting in the one young man.’

Kennedy was frowning up at him. ‘Sir?’

‘I wasn’t prying in order to explore my chances with Mr Hornblower –’

‘But I’ve seen the way you look at him, sir! You care for him as much as I do.’

Pellew sighed. ‘Well, yes,’ he admitted. ‘But I care for you as well, Mr Kennedy. And I was actually exploring my chances of you indulging me, just for one night, just for tonight. Which of course I wouldn’t request if you were otherwise committed. However,’ Pellew continued, when Kennedy did nothing more than gape at him, ‘it is obvious that I cannot substitute for Mr Hornblower in your affections or in your bed – and I certainly will not press the point.’

‘Captain Pellew, sir…’ Kennedy whispered. ‘I am honoured…’

‘Thank you. Now, drink up your wine. It is fine stuff, and we should not let it go to waste.’

‘But, sir…’

Pellew led by example, and drank his own wine. It was indeed fine stuff, though not as fine as the Tamburlaine’s – but at present it tasted very bitter.

‘Captain Pellew, sir… I know I cannot take Horatio’s place for you, either, sir, but I would be willing to…’ And now Kennedy really did blush – and, impossibly enough, it only enhanced his beauty. ‘I would be willing to indulge you, sir.’

‘You would?’ Pellew was startled enough to say.

‘Yes. I most certainly would.’

And for the second time that night, a man leaned in close to him, spread his hands possessively around his flesh, and kissed him. A tentative, burgeoning, beautiful kiss. Not an assault at all. Pellew groaned, and gathered Archie Kennedy close into his embrace. And they sat there for a long while curled up together. Blessing each other.

 

Pellew led Kennedy by the hand into his sleeping cabin, and they both stared at the wooden bed hanging there. It was, of course, barely wider than Pellew’s shoulder span, and he had never been largely built. ‘I was a lot younger and more agile,’ Pellew observed, ‘the last time I shared this bed with a lover.’

‘There’s no harm in being snug together, sir.’

‘No, there isn’t,’ Pellew agreed, with a smile for Kennedy’s optimism.

The room itself was so small that it seemed easiest for them to each undress themselves. Pellew stripped down to his shirt, and clambered into the bed, feeling ungainly. A delightfully naked Kennedy soon followed him in, landing on top of Pellew with all of Alex’s enthusiasm if none of his precision. They kissed, already thoroughly familiar with each other’s mouths, and happy to continue being so. Pellew freed Archie’s hair from its fastening, and the golden–brown locks fell around him, shielding their kiss. Then Pellew began exploring the rest of the beautiful body that lay on his, caressing the long curve of Kennedy’s back, the dimples of his spine, the generous buttocks.

Kennedy lifted himself a little, and tugged at Pellew’s shirt–tails. When the obstruction was removed, he fitted himself snugly alongside Pellew’s own manhood, and began the most appallingly lovely rhythm of thrusts. Pellew moaned, wondering how it was possible that he could have denied himself for so long. He fitted his hands over those buttocks, and dug his fingers into the flesh for encouragement – which drew an echoing moan from his lover.

‘Captain Pellew, sir – please.’

‘Call me Edward,’ he ordered.

‘Edward, please…’ And Kennedy reached behind himself, pushed one of Pellew’s hands down further, and further in, until his meaning was made clear.

‘Are you sure?’ Pellew lifted his other hand to cup Kennedy’s face, to turn it into the lamplight so that he could see the young man’s expression. ‘I don’t want to hurt you, Mr Kennedy.’

‘It’s Archie,’ the fellow replied, that gorgeous voice roughened with need, those blue eyes warm. ‘And I’m sure you’ll pleasure me, Edward. Not hurt me.’

‘Very well, then,’ Pellew murmured. And even as he was gazing up into Archie’s face, he pressed a finger inside the man, and was stirred to watch those eyelids droop in sensual pleasure. The rhythm of thrusts faltered, returned, strengthened – until Pellew abruptly realised that he had better initiate their other intentions before they both finished like this.

Soon enough, he had Archie on his side, and Pellew was lying behind him, carefully pushing into the man. This time, there was no pain, not for either of them. Archie was still, but that was only to ensure that he wouldn’t hinder Pellew. The young man was quietly moaning, heavy with lust, literally radiating heat. Once Pellew had filled him as well as he was able, they began slowly moving together, finding exactly the right dance. Pellew propped himself on an elbow, the better to watch this beautiful lover of his, the better to reach for Archie’s cock and run teasing fingers down that hardness. Archie groaned, and lifted an arm up to tangle his hand in Pellew’s hair, to drag him down for another burgeoning kiss.

And so they continued for a period that must only have been minutes, but which seemed as if it were hours, for the measure of the sensuality of each moment was full to overflowing. And when Archie completed, Edward murmured his name as lovingly as he knew how, and he followed him.

 

To recognise their joint command of the Galicia, neither Horatio nor Perez had claimed the captain’s sleeping cabin. Instead, they had slung their hammocks at opposite ends of the day cabin. In what had already become habit, they ate breakfast together at the table in the middle of the cabin, amidst the Galicia’s charts and logs – such as they were – and politely ignored each other until such time as they’d both woken enough to be civilised.

Buenos dias, Señor Perez,’ Horatio eventually greeted the man as they each settled into their second mug of beer.

‘Good morning, Mr Hornblower.’

‘There is something that I think we should talk about.’

Perez lifted a brow to indicate that he was listening.

‘I have the utmost respect for Captain Crowe,’ Horatio declared.

That dark–complected face remained impassive – as impassive as it did when the man’s captain slung an inappropriately familiar arm around his neck and whispered in his ear. Somehow, though, Horatio could see that Perez knew he was exaggerating to the point of lying outright.

‘Of course, I have even more respect for Captain Pellew,’ Horatio continued with complete truthfulness, ‘but I would not listen to a word said against either man.’

Perez nodded, willing to accept that and hear more.

‘I believe, however, that it is in everyone’s interests to resolve the question of who can claim the Galicia and her cargo. To continue in this convoy, with the point unresolved, can only cause uncertainty for the men of both the Indefatigable and the Tamburlaine.’

Another nod, though it seemed that Perez was unwilling to commit himself to speaking on the issue. Horatio wasn’t entirely sure if that was simply the man’s native reticence and caution, but he thought that it was.

Horatio continued, more carefully than ever. He had lain awake half the night thinking of the best words to use. ‘I understand that our captains used to be friends – particularly close friends – and they served together as brother officers for some time. There is no dishonour in either of them feeling a loyalty to the other, or a concern for the other’s interests.’

Perez was smiling faintly, as if he knew something more about this than did Horatio. Nevertheless, after a moment, Perez nodded once more.

‘Well, then,’ Horatio concluded, relieved that he had gotten thus far without offending Perez, ‘perhaps it falls to you and I, who have no personal loyalty to each other, to find a solution.’

The other man at last spoke. ‘A solution that we would then propose to our respective captains.’

‘Of course. Yes, of course the decision is theirs alone. My intention is only to assist the process.’

Perez thought this through for a while. Finally he looked across at Horatio with those exotically dark eyes, and he asked, ‘What do you have in mind?’

 

The two captains sat at either end of the table, and Lieutenants Hornblower and Perez each sat at their captain’s right hand. The little hospitality that the Galicia could provide was arrayed before them. Pellew, who seemed in an unusually expansive mood that morning, had helped himself to the wine and biscuits. Crowe, who was still glowering as hard as when he’d left the Indefatigable the previous night, had pushed his chair back away from the table, and sat there with his arms crossed, apparently ignoring them all.

Horatio wound to the end of his proposal, an explanation which had been perhaps unnecessarily lengthened by tact, then he took a much–needed gulp of wine and he sat back in his chair. Silence greeted him. Pellew was, as expected, quite unreadable – but at least he didn’t seem angry. In fact, as Horatio looked at him, hoping for a hint of a reaction, he was surprised to discover that something within Pellew appeared rather contented.

As for Crowe, one could have easily concluded that he hadn’t even listened to Horatio. Except that, eventually, he turned a sullen look to Perez, and asked, ‘You agreed to this?’

‘I agreed to present it to you and Captain Pellew, for your decision.’

‘But you helped devise the scheme?’

Perez glanced at Horatio, and then said what they’d agreed to say. ‘Mr Hornblower and I shared in devising it, yes.’ There was no percentage in not presenting it as a jointly arranged solution, and in any case Perez had thought of a few significant details.

More silence.

Horatio said, ‘Captain Pellew, sir. Would you care to join me on the poop deck? To, uh, to check our current course against the Indy’s. I am not entirely sure of the calculations –’

‘That would be a first,’ Pellew muttered in an amused tone. He cast a dry look at Horatio, for they both knew full well that Horatio had the best mind for mathematics on any of the ships in the present convoy. ‘Thank you, Mr Hornblower, but I have nothing to say that cannot be said before Captain Crowe and Mr Perez, so unless they need time to discuss this in private, there is no need for your offer.’

‘Captain?’ Perez murmured.

‘There’s no need,’ Crowe gruffly replied.

‘Well, Alex,’ Captain Pellew said, ‘our lieutenants are proposing that the Indefatigable takes the main prize, while the Tamburlaine takes all the appearance of it.’

Crowe said, ‘Your men may mutiny. They will see us sailing off with the Galicia and her gold, and all you’ll have to show them is a courier’s pouch.’

‘My men will trust me, and the prize money will make good my word.’

‘And my men…?’

‘The gold and a frigate is hardly a negligible prize, Alex. And don’t forget that we each have a sloop.’

‘You would say that, for you have an interest in agreeing to this.’

Pellew leaned forward a little, and lowered his voice. ‘I command a frigate in the King’s Navy, Alex. You are a privateer. I could insist on taking it all.’

‘Then why in hell don’t you try?’ Crowe cried out. And he pushed to his feet, and walked away from the table.

‘Because we won her through a joint action. Because I suspect that you boarded her at the same time as we did. Because your men fought well, and have proved themselves capable, and I believe it only fair that we all share in the prize.’

Silence.

Then Perez got to his feet, and walked over to his captain. For the first time that Horatio had witnessed, the lieutenant initiated that comfortable, friendly contact between him and his captain – he placed his hands either side of Crowe’s waist. And he murmured, perfectly audibly, ‘Take it, Alexander. Your men will love you for the gold and the ship. They do not know about the pouch, so they will love you for besting the Indefatigable and the renowned Captain Sir Edward Pellew. And, besides…’ Perez smiled. ‘I have a new adventure for you.’

‘Do you,’ Crowe flatly responded.

‘Yes.’ And he stretched up the few inches’ difference in their height, to murmur in his ear.

Crowe was startled by whatever it was, agreeably startled, and at last his expression lightened. He stared at his lieutenant, and Perez bore the examination willingly – and then Crowe grabbed Perez by the shoulders, and kissed him. Kissed his mouth, and Perez was returning the favour with interest. It was the most passionate kiss that Horatio had ever witnessed.

For a long moment, Horatio watched, too shocked to turn away. Not only was it by far the most passionate kiss he’d ever seen, it was, of course, the only full–blooded loving kiss he’d ever seen between one man and another. He was gaping.

He belatedly realised that he shouldn’t be staring, and he dropped his gaze to the table, tried to find something of interest on the charts scattered there, but they were all a blur. Unlike the previous night, he felt no anger. No resentment. Today, all he felt was envy. He’d known, vaguely, that such things occurred, but they never seemed to occur in his own part of the world. Why couldn’t he have something like this? With Archie, or with Pellew?

Horatio glanced up, wondering at his captain’s reaction. But Pellew had stood, and tactfully turned away. He was staring out through the stern windows, with his hands clasped behind his back, as if all alone and musing over some small question of strategy or navigation. As if there weren’t two men kissing each other in the very same room, kissing each other and declaring their mutual love in all but words.

‘I guess we have a deal.’

Crowe’s words recalled their attention – Pellew turned back around, and Horatio dared to lift his gaze to the men from the Tamburlaine. Crowe was standing there, with all his happily swaggering confidence returned. Perez remained at his side, with an arm around his captain’s waist, and though his expression was impassive again, those dark eyes were glowing. That bolt of envy struck Horatio through to his very soul.

‘Very well,’ Pellew said, and he walked over to shake Crowe’s hand. ‘Thank you, Alex. It has been, as I always anticipated, an interesting encounter.’

‘Yes – despite not reminiscing,’ Crowe replied with an outrageous wink.

Pellew cast his gaze up to heaven, as if praying for patience, then shook the other man’s hand. ‘I wish you luck, Mr Perez, and great fortitude.’

‘Thank you, sir. It has been an honour to meet you.’

‘Likewise.’ Pellew turned to find Horatio standing there by the table, awaiting his orders. ‘Mr Hornblower, organise your men, and collect your belongings. We will return to the Indefatigable with our prize as soon as we may.’

‘Yes, sir.’

Apparently something in his expression snagged Pellew’s interest, for his captain stared at him for a long moment. Horatio looked back at him, wondering if his envy and his need were written that plainly on his face – and, if so, what kind of trouble he might be in.

‘Edward,’ Crowe said. When Pellew turned back to him, Crowe murmured, ‘There’s plenty of gold. Take a pallet. Dazzle your men with it.’

‘That is a generous offer, Alex, which I’ll respectfully decline. They will trust me, I promise you.’

‘Good. Of course they will.’ The captains shook hands again, and Crowe said, ‘Enjoy yourself, Edward. Forget the bad lessons I taught you.’

‘Likewise, Alex.’ Pellew seemed to tear himself away, and headed for the door, sparing a glance back at Horatio. ‘Carry on, Mr Hornblower! You have your orders.’

‘Yes, sir.’

 

Late that night, Horatio quietly knocked at Captain Pellew’s door. In reply, there was a discreet scuffle inside, and footfalls, and a long pause before Pellew called, ‘Yes?’ When Horatio opened the door, he found Pellew seated behind his desk, and Archie standing at ease before it. All very proper indeed. Which didn’t explain Archie’s blush or Pellew’s most determinedly unreadable expression.

Horatio closed the door behind him, and leaned back against it, and carefully examined both men.

Pellew asked, ‘What is it, Mr Hornblower?’

‘Horatio,’ he said. ‘You called me Horatio once, and I wish you would again.’

‘What is troubling you, Horatio?’ In his most sober and serious captain’s voice.

Archie murmured, ‘If you’ll excuse me, sir.’ His head was lowered, and he was walking for the door, apparently expecting the obstacle to cooperate by removing himself. But Horatio refused to budge, and Archie came to a halt not three feet away.

‘You had better stay, Mr Kennedy,’ Pellew advised. ‘Perhaps Mr Hornblower has something to say to both of us.’

Apparently Archie couldn’t face Horatio, but he turned to Pellew and said in an imploring tone, ‘He has come to you!’

‘Perhaps not. Mr Hornblower?’

‘I wanted to talk to both of you,’ Horatio confirmed. ‘I was waiting for you in the wardroom after your watch, Archie, and finally I asked Mr Bowles where you were, and he said the captain had sent for you.’

‘There you have it, Mr Kennedy,’ Pellew declared. ‘He was waiting for you!’

‘For both of you,’ Horatio said as firmly as he could.

Archie’s shoulders sagged, and he only just made it as far as the chair positioned beside the captain’s desk before sinking. Pellew seemed unperturbed, but Horatio knew by now that the captain’s unreadable expression could mask a great deal. ‘Well, then,’ Pellew said, ‘your audience awaits.’

Of course, it wasn’t as easy as that. No matter how often he had said the words to himself throughout that long afternoon and evening, Horatio had known how difficult it would be to say them to these two men. Nevertheless, he must begin, and begin he would. With the easier part of it.

‘My father always called me a solitary boy. And I never minded solitude until I made my first real friend. It was only then that I knew what I was missing.’ Horatio swallowed, and realised that he would have to make this plain. ‘That’s you, Archie. You were my first true friend.’

Archie was still sitting crumpled there on the chair, but he managed to whisper, ‘Thank you, Horatio.’ His voice was dry – not dry as in ironic, but dry as with fear. The parched mouth kind of fear.

Horatio forced himself to blunder on. ‘Captain Pellew, I have sometimes flattered myself that you would be a real friend to me, too, if your responsibilities permitted it.’

‘Of course,’ the man confirmed. ‘Of course you must consider me as your friend.’

‘Thank you.’ Horatio managed a small bow, honestly grateful for that much. Now for the more difficult part. ‘My mother died when I was quite young. My father was very affectionate, of course, but he never… he never held me in the way that she did. He never touched me, or kissed me goodnight. Perhaps that was not to be expected, but I missed my mother all the more for the lack. Then I came to sea, and joined the world of men. It only now strikes me how strange it is to be on a ship filled with hundreds of souls, with barely room to take a solitary breath – and to be unable to remember once being touched in friendship, beyond a handshake or a clap on the back.’

‘But, Horatio –’ Archie tried to protest.

Horatio was desperate enough to cut him off. ‘I never really minded not being touched until I saw Captain Crowe and Mr Perez together. It was only then that I knew what I was missing.’

Silence.

But then Archie turned to Pellew, and protested, ‘He doesn’t understand!’

‘He does, Mr Kennedy, I swear it to you again! It would not have been possible to misinterpret the way Alex kissed Mr Perez this morning.’

The younger man buried his face in his hands.

‘Archie,’ Horatio said, ‘you asked me last night what I was thinking about.’ Was it only last night? It seemed an age ago. ‘I was thinking that…’ His own mouth had dried. ‘I was thinking that… if only you would grab me. If only you would hold me. If only you would realise that… I am not an innocent! If only you would recognise that I am a man!’

There was a muffled sob from behind Archie’s hands. Horatio stared down at the golden–haired head of the best friend he had in the world, and he was suddenly more scared for Archie’s sake than for his own.

‘I think you had better clarify,’ Pellew said in a relatively neutral tone, ‘why it was that you wanted to speak to both of us.’

‘Because… because I had hoped there was a chance that one of you might… might want to… to touch me. To… love me.’ Horatio swallowed, desperately wishing for a glass of the wine that waited on Pellew’s desk. Enviously noting that Pellew and Archie had been drinking together, for there were two half–finished glasses standing on the deck over by the stern window lockers. ‘Because I could not decide whom I’d prefer. And a rejection from one would make it all the more difficult to approach the other. And because it was apparent to me…’ Horatio swallowed again, and closed his eyes, and let his head fall back against the wood of the door. ‘It was apparent to me that you both knew more about these matters than I did.’ He groaned as it all became clear. ‘But you have both already chosen, haven’t you? You have chosen each other. And I must – most humbly – beg your forgiveness for intruding.’

He turned against the door, blindly searching for the handle. Distraught. Wrenching himself away from something that he had never even had. Something that he could hardly even guess at. Something that he had come to want more than anything else in the world.

‘No!’ Pellew said. ‘Horatio, wait. You are misunderstanding the situation.’

Confusion halted him. Confusion and hope and fear.

There was movement behind him. Pellew was approaching. Horatio turned to face him, though he was not quite brave enough to open his eyes. ‘Your friend Archie loves you dearly,’ Pellew said, ‘so you must welcome him.’

And suddenly Archie’s warmth was pushed up against him, and Horatio took his friend into his arms as if he had discovered paradise, and Archie’s own arms wound around his waist so fiercely that it seemed he would never let Horatio go. Horatio groaned, and dared to look. That golden–haired head was tucked against his shoulder, Archie’s face turned away as if the emotion of the moment was too much to bear. Horatio could guess at how that felt!

Pellew’s hand reached to stroke Archie’s hair, blessing him with fondness. More than fondness –turning to look at his captain, Horatio caught a fleeting glimpse of the most compassionately loving expression on Pellew’s face.

‘I love you, Archie,’ Horatio declared, raw. ‘I really do. But Captain Pellew loves you, too.’

That hand withdrew as if burned. Pellew was about to turn away when Horatio caught him by the wrist.

Archie whispered, ‘It is you that he loves, Horatio.’

The turmoil on Pellew’s face put the lie to that – or, at least, made it plain that they were both right.

‘I wanted to talk to both of you,’ Horatio said, knowing himself thoroughly for the very first time in his life, ‘because I want both of you. What can be done about that?’

Pellew tried to tug his arm free, but Horatio wouldn’t let him go. Archie turned his head so that Horatio felt Archie’s lips against his throat – and Archie was still unable to look Horatio in the face, but he looked across at Pellew, and reached for his other arm, and drew him closer. ‘Then you must have both of us,’ Archie murmured, voice breaking with the joy and the terror of it. ‘Horatio… Our own sweet Horatio.’

And then Pellew surrendered, and took that last step towards them, and the three men were all holding each other close, and Horatio dared to look upon the golden–haired head tucked in against his shoulder and the dark–haired head tucked in beside his own, and he sent up a prayer thanking God for all the beauty in the world.

 

To his eternal embarrassment, Horatio finished before the three of them had hardly begun. Archie and Edward regarded him fondly, though, not cruelly, and told him it was only to be expected. He stammered out yet another explanation of how no one had ever touched him like this before, of how he’d hardly dared touch himself, and they both fell on him again as if he were elixir incarnate.

After Pellew had firmly locked the door, and Archie had wedged a chair under the door handle for good measure, they had made up a bed on the decking of Pellew’s day cabin. And they were all lying there naked together, and Horatio was being blessed beyond imagination by both of his lovers. He was too sensitive now, though, and when he begged respite, they at last took pity on him.

Instead, it was fascinating to watch Edward kiss Archie, right there above him. Only that morning he had witnessed what he thought the most passionate of kisses, but that paled into insignificance when he witnessed – and experienced! – the two men he loved most in the world loving each other and himself with all their need and their hunger and their skill.

Edward was tugging Archie closer, so that he lay sprawled half atop Horatio, his hardness digging delightfully into Horatio’s hip. Horatio raised up to kiss those beautiful lips, loving the golden hair falling to tickle his throat. And then Archie moaned, and seemed to melt over him – and Horatio looked up to see Edward moving over Archie, thrusting – thrusting into him, possessing him! Horatio groaned even louder than Archie! – for it was very apparent that Archie loved this act. All of him melted sensuously over Horatio, except for one part that was not melting at all… Though it was a wonder – Archie seemed as heated as if he were on fire. He was murmuring something against Horatio’s throat, but Horatio couldn’t make out the words.

Dark locks fell amidst gold, and Horatio watched as Edward nuzzled at the nape of Archie’s neck. Horatio reached up – he had one arm cradling Archie, but with the other he reached up and ran a gratefully loving hand from Edward’s shoulder slowly down past his sensitive waist to where his hips moved with the most intoxicating slowness. What would it be like to have Edward possess him like that? How would it feel to move his own hips in such a way, as he thrust into his beloved Archie?

Another moan, heartfelt, and Horatio couldn’t tell any more which of the three of them it was. He pushed his face against Archie’s where it lay beside him, claimed another kiss – and Archie was finishing, shuddering against him, seed spreading warm between them. ‘Archie…’ Edward murmured above them. ‘Horatio…’ And then he was finishing, too, those slow thrusts becoming ragged, and Archie accommodating him with no hesitation at all.

By which time, naturally enough, Horatio was more than ready to begin over again, and it took all of his prodigious reserves of patience to wait for his two lovers to oblige him… But eventually they did, of course, and with great pleasure, too.

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