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A Christmas Conundrum (Horatio Hornblower)


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Hi everyone! The holidays are upon us, and therefore I thought I'd get into the spirit with a little fic starring my favorite sailor, Horatio Hornblower. Now, would the plot of this story actually be likely to happen? Probably not. However, it's Christmassy and a shameless indulgence :) So go with it, and I hope you all enjoy! (There will probably be 1 more installment after this one)

Lieutenant William Bush had quite a bit on his mind. Come to think of it, this was the most daunting endeavor, and it had been days since they had seen a battle. It would likely be days more; the seas were vast and clear, and their ship sailed lonely through their depths. And yet, Bush felt a rush in his head when he tried to think about just how he would execute this plan of his. And then there was the bigger question: would his Captain even be able to appreciate it?

    The clouds were just beginning to part after the storm that had thrashed the ship hours previous. Though the sunset was appearing, the storm had stolen whatever warmth was left in the air; at long last it finally felt like late December. Lieutenant Bush smiled to himself. He had always liked the cold and snow during the winter, especially during Christmastime. Now that he was at sea, a white Christmas was out of the question, but a cold one was the next best thing.
    Bush got the sense that Captain Hornblower did not feel the same way about the weather. At present, the captain stood at the helm, staring vacantly at the setting sun and shivering. Hornblower had been in this position quite often lately, and Bush was almost certain he knew the reason for the man’s getting lost in thought. Hornblower had confided in him a few days previous that the coming Christmas would be the first he spent at sea since he married Maria. She was pregnant, due sometime in late January. By that time, Horatio would be home. But nonetheless, he feared she’d go into labor early and he’d miss the birth of his first child.
    And it was because of this that Bush decided to do all he could to take his captain’s mind off homesickness. After talking to some of the midshipmen, they all agreed that some sort of gift for the captain was in order. All they had by way of material goods was extra food and spirits. Hornblower ate better than all of them and he didn’t care much for drinking, so the crew decided on something else. It had taken some prodding and convincing, but Bush had finally arranged to give the captain a concert of sorts. The next day, Christmas Eve night, Bush would gather the crew on deck and have them sing a few carols for Hornblower to hear. It would be crude no doubt (they were sailors and not a choir), but it would be a welcome break from drinking songs and homesickness alike. They hadn’t practiced for fear of the captain overhearing, but a plan was in place (as well as an order to dock the pay of anyone who spoke too loudly of it). The lieutenant had to admit, he was excited.    
    “Good the storm’s cleared up, sir,” he called to Hornblower by way of making conversation. Hornblower jolted and gave his lieutenant a tired nod.
    “Indee--heehh’ISHH!” Without warning, Hornblower brought a fist to his nose to catch his sneeze. He pulled a handkerchief from his sleeve, meaning that he had stored it there for easy access. “Excuse me, Mr. Bush.” He cleared his throat heavily. “It is fortunate indeed.”
    Hornblower walked toward Bush but faltered, catching himself on the ship’s railing just in time. His face was a sickly shade of pale, save for his cheeks marked high with red.
    “Captain!” Bush called, rushing to lend Hornblower a supporting arm, but the captain waved it away.
    “I’m fine, Mr. Bush,” he said quietly, in a tone that suggested the assurance was more for his own sake than for his lieutenant’s. He looked up and gave a small smile, two actions that looked like that had sapped him of his energy almost entirely. He had tried for placation but fooled no one. “But I'll be in my quarters, should you need me. Admiralty paperwork.”
    Bush watched with a sinking feeling in his chest as the captain walk stiffly to his cabin, swaying each time the ship swayed as though he weren’t used to the motion. Just when he had thought he’d taken everything in to account for the Christmas concert, this was a new twist thrown into hisplan. He’d forgotten that his captain could get sick. Bush exhaled. He’d never seen the man with any more than a headache before. Of course the first time had to be now. 

    Christmas Eve had come, and it was long past eight bells without any sign of Captain Hornblower. The whole ship noticed and felt the absence as a slight but palpable bad energy. Glances were exchanged, but nothing was said. Only Bush had seen the captain in a less-than-perfect state the day before, and he knew Hornblower would like that he kept it that way.
    After another hour passed without any sign of him, Bush decided he’d check on Hornblower. Ashamedly, he felt his heart thrum in his chest. He had been so confident in his plan to give his captain a good Christmas and now everything was topsy-turvy. He stopped at the door to the captain’s quarters.
    “Heh’NGXT!” A tortured inhale, a rapidly rising staccato of breath until-- “Heh’KESCH’uhh!” From behind the door, Bush heard Hornblower groaned ever so slightly to himself. Bush lingered a moment with his fist poised, wanting to give the man a few seconds to clean himself up as well as the peace of mind that (as far as he knew) no one had heard. After a few snuffles, the captain was again silent, and so his lieutenant brought his fist down upon the door.
    ‘Cobe id,” came the voice, so deep and husky that Bush was taken aback. If he hadn’t known better he would have thought there was a stranger in the captain’s quarters.
    Bush opened the door to find Hornblower at his desk coughing wetly into a fist, his other hand clenching tightly to the blanket he had drawn about his shoulders. His captain’s uniform was off, and though he was nowhere near naked, the sight of him in merely a white shirt and unbuttoned vest was just as startling. Hornblower looked up, clearly seeing his lieutenant before him, but did not straighten his posture or do anything to make himself more presentable. This fact was what worried Bush most; any illness that could stand in the way of his captain’s stiff code of conduct was a severe one indeed.
    All that Hornblower did was run a shaky hand through his mussed hair and look chagrined at his loss of control. “Forgive me, Mr. Bush.’
    “No apology is needed, sir,” Bush said quickly, stepping closer. “How do you feel, if I may ask?”
    “Hihh’assh!” Wearily, the captain clasped his handkerchief over his nose as though already sick of the action, and then set it back down on the table within easy reach. Bush felt pity stir within his chest. Hornblower hesitated, then conceded finally. “I’ve felt better.”
    Such an admission from the man, who would rather bleed to death in secret than admit any sort of weakness, was akin to saying “I feel like death warmed over”. Bush did not take this lightly.
    “Are you feverish?”
    Hornblower gave a tense nod, his eyes returned to the desk, full of papers in front of him. As much as Bush admired that he was keeping his word, work was the last thing the captain needed in this state.
    “I’ll send for the doctor straight away.”
    Hornblower shook his head. “Don’t trouble him, Bush. The man works so hard every other day of the year. Let him have Christmas free of worry.”
    “But sir--”
    Horatio glared at his fellow officer darkly. “That’s an order from your captain.”
    Bush nodded, not one to test boundaries but also wishing to do something to alleviate his captain’s obvious discomfort. “In the meantime, sir, is there anything I can get you?”
    Hornblower opened his mouth, looking initially as though he’d refuse, but then his expression softened. He cleared his throat, but his voice was almost gone. “A hot drink, if you could. Whatever the cook’s got to spare.”
    “Of course, sir.”
    “How are things above decks?”
    “Not a cloud--”
    “Heh’CHMPF! Hihh’TSCHH!
     “--nor a ship in sight. Bless you, sir.”
    Hornblower nodded, as satisfied as he could be without being up there himself. “I trust you’ll alert me if anything changes.”
    “Aye, sir. Will you be staying here for the day then?”
    “It would probably be best if I did so.” The captain managed a smile even as Bush’s heart sank deeper in his chest. “Now how about that hot drink, Mr. Bush?”

     "Right away, sir.” Bush exited the cabin, shutting the door on another round of harsh coughing from Horatio. Now that the captain was sick more than ever, he was determined to give Hornblower a little Christmas joy. But Bush sighed, wondering just how exactly he would do so.


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Wow I love this! I was actually just reading and watching Hornblower today and was in the mood for some Horatio too so this is perfect! Well done so far, I can't wait to see what happens next!

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Speaking as the forum's most prolific Hornblower writer, I'm delighted to see another person's take on the fandom! This was a lovely early Christmas present! I loved the description of Horatio's sneezes and disheveled appearance in his cabin; made me want to see it in reality...

I'm looking forward to part two!

(However, given my obsession with all things Hornblower, there is one little thing that throws me out of the story, but given that the story is unfinished, there could be an explanation that will eventually clear it up. But I don't want to give unsolicited constructive criticism [especially since you described this fic as a shameless indulgence], nor do I want to risk unintentionally spoiling your intent, so just let me know if you want to hear it and I'll send you a PM, if that's possible.)


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Thank you all! I'm so glad to see some fellow Hornblower admirers on the forum. I hope you've all had a good Christmas if you celebrate, and happy holidays! 

Part 2 has arrived! Please pretend that the Christmas carols mentioned actually existed at Horatio's time. After all, this is a shameless Christmas fic; let's have some fun :) 

It was about four in the afternoon, the winter sun already about to disappear from the horizon, when Lieutenant Bush had had enough waiting. If the captain were to come out of his own free will, he would have done so by now. The only thing that would draw him from his quarters now was some sort of external force. Looking from face to apprehensive face of the midshipmen, Bush half-wished for a battle. A mere whiff of gunpowder or a whistle could likely pull a man like Hornblower from the brink of death. Or at least something out of order with the ship. That’s when the idea came to Bush.
    “Doesn’t look too promising for the captain to come out to see us, does it, sir?” Midshipman Parney said as he checked a knot on the rigging more out of boredom than necessity. 
    “Actually,” Bush said, throat tight with the excitement of having a plan that just might work if he could get past the guilt of doing it. “I think I know just the trick.”
    After Bush explained his plan, the midshipman carried a guilty but interested expression, like a young boy whose friend had just suggested they put a frog in his mother’s shoe. “This had better work, sir, or the captain will have us all flogged.”
    “Or worse,” Bush conceded, but even in spite of himself he couldn’t keep a smile from his face. “But I’m confident the captain will appreciate his gift.”
    Parney nodded. “Once his heart starts beating again after the scare.”
    Both laughed, but Bush felt a discomfort in his chest. He knew his captain well, undoubtedly better than any other man on the very ship, but he hoped that he wasn’t making an error in judgment of the man. For if he did, he knew there would be hell to pay. Talking to clear his mind of worry, he and Parney made the rounds to inform the rest of the crew of their intentions, and to ready them to serenade the captain when the moment came.
    With Parney in tow, Bush steeled himself to knock on the captain’s door for the second time that day. For a time there was no sound from the other side of the door. Bush prepared to knock a second time when Horatio’s voice, dreadful as ever, bid him enter.
    “Sir!” Bush put on his best air of controlled panic, and stepped on Parney’s foot to ensure he did the same. “Midshipman Parney spied some heavy debris in the water, likely rusted iron of some sort. We tried to turn the ship to avoid it, but she couldn’t move fast enough. We’ve sustained some damage on the port side, sir. Near the hull.”
    Instantly, Horatio, who had been sitting on his bed, shot to his feet and was buttoning his coat. He coughed horribly and held his head for a moment, the quick movement having dizzied him. Bush felt a pang of guilt in his stomach, but he quickly chided himself. It’ll be good for his spirit, for he knew that at least some of the captain’s torture was self-inflicted.
    “How bad?” Hornblower asked between attempts to suppress his coughs.
    “We haven’t taken on any water yet, sir, but we thought it best for you to have a look and decide the course of action.”
    He nodded, finishing off with a scarf pulled tightly around his neck. “Thank you, Bush. Parney--heh’kshew! lead the way.”
    Horatio had muffled three more sneezes into his handkerchief before they had even made it on deck, and Bush felt his guilt intensify with each one. Here he was, forcing the captain, sick beyond belief, out of bed and up into the cold evening air for a false damage report. If the “concert” failed in any way, forget flogging, Hornblower would have him murdered.
    As soon as the reached the deck, the second lieutenant bellowed, “Men, your captain is on deck!”
    Uneasy at this rare display of formality, Horatio gave a polite nod as his men stopped to salute him. He leaned toward Parney and rasped. “Show me the damage, Mr. Parney.”
    Bush took a step to block him. “If you could stay here for a moment, captain.”
    If they had been civilians at a tavern, Bush was certain Hornblower would have struck him over the head. “Show me the damage. One of you.”
    “T-there is no damage, sir.”
    Horatio blinked, mind too fogged to be angry. Yet. “What?”
    “The men--I--we’ll explain.” Flustered, Bush called over his shoulder. “Any moment now, Mr. Stevens!” Before the captain uses his remaining strength to throw me overboard, he added silently. 
    Stevens, who had been in a boy’s choir until the age of 13 (and so was the most musically inclined out of all of them), stepped on a crate and hastily began waving his arms and giving signals for the men to start singing. The sound rose, first a soft, rough cacophony of voices, until it was one voice, very bearable and almost pleasant. The song they had elected to sing first was “The Holly and The Ivy”, and to Bush’s surprise they all knew the words perfectly.
    He stole a glance at his captain, who was wearing the most confused expression Bush had ever seen. Horatio blinked, letting his eyes linger shut for a moment as though his singing crew was a dream that would disappear upon opening them again. When he found them still very much there, he touched a hand to his cheek and to his forehead.     
    “What kind of fever is this?” he murmured, and Bush bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.
    After the first two verses, the singing had returned to a jumbled mess of ten different words at one time as well as lagging and not singing at all. Seeing that they had pushed that song to its use, Stevens called out that they try “Silent Night” instead.
    Bush heard a noise, a sort of squeak next to him, and saw Hornblower stifling aggressively into a fist. He rolled his eyes, not in the mood to inform his captain that he’d pop a blood vessel that way. But he kept his eyes on the captain, and noticed that the man’s jaw, which he always kept rigid in an authoritative manner, had softened considerably. Horatio turned and caught his lieutenant watching him. Bush turned away. 
    “Mr. Bush?”
    “Yes, sir?” Steeling his own jaw, Bush kept his eyes ahead, on Stevens back as a point of reference. 
    “Where on earth do you get these ideas?” Bush turned to see Horatio grinning ear to ear. He hadn’t thought his captain’s mouth could stretch so widely. The sight sent warm relief flooding through Bush’s body. He’d done the right thing. Against all odds, he’d done it.
    “It just occurred to me,” he said with a smile of his own.
    Horatio’s smile turned to distress. “Heh’KETCH! Hihh”TSCH! Hihh--issh’uh!” After this, he coughed fiercely, hugging his ribs with his free hand. 
    “If you’re feeling unwell, captain,” Bush said with a touch of worry, “it would not offend me in the slightest if you went belowdecks.”
    Hornblower waved away his concerns, but touched his throat unconsciously all the same. “I think I can stay ‘round for one more song.”
    After “Silent Night” had run its course, Stevens directed them in “Upon a Midnight Clear”. But when it soon became apparent that no one knew much more than the titular words, they settled back on the “Holly and the Ivy” once more. There were moments of surprising resonance and there were moments when Bush cringed, but the boys’ hearts were in it. And judging from the smile that kept poking up on the captain’s face, his heart was too.
    When the singing ended, the ship was enveloped in a storm of clapping and hollering. Horatio allowed himself another full smile. He tapped Bush on the shoulder. “Get them to be quiet. I can’t hardly yell.”
    After Bush had brought the racquet down to a happy murmur, Hornblower, still smiling, cleared his throat. “I extend my most heartfelt of ‘thank you’s to you all,” he croaked, voice an inch from breaking entirely. A somewhat devilish look crept into his eye. “As well as an extra round of gin for Christmas!”
    The men erupted once more and there would be no quieting them this time, not that Horatio wanted to. He wiped his nose with his handkerchief and turned to Bush, whispering. “And an extra hour in bed for me.”
    Bush chuckled. “Well deserved, sir.”
    The captain looked him in the eye, and for a moment there was no difference in rank between them. They were two friends, close at hand and heart. “Thank you, Mr. Bush. I think I’ll remember this Christmas for a long while.”
    “I as well, captain. Happy Christmas.”
    “To you as well.” The sparkle in his eye returned. “Drink my ration for me, won’t you?”
    Bush agreed and saluted his captain. As Hornblower turned to go, he caught two more sneezes in his handkerchief, rough and wet. But something told Lieutenant Bush that the captain would be feeling much better in the morning.

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Aw! I'm glad Horatio managed to have a Merry Christmas, despite his illness! And I'm glad to think of this story as a Christmas present for myself as well! Thanks for sharing!

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On 12/28/2017 at 5:08 PM, Wig_Powder said:

Aw! I'm glad Horatio managed to have a Merry Christmas, despite his illness! And I'm glad to think of this story as a Christmas present for myself as well! Thanks for sharing!

I'm so glad you liked it :) Thanks for reading!

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