by Versaphile

The evening's light was fading fast, but the night was young. In a busy pub that took up the main floor of an inn in Portsmouth, at a corner table at the rear of the room, three friends were celebrating their reunion. The furniture was worn, the tables sticky in places from spilled drinks, and the air was smoky from fireplace and pipe alike. It was the perfect place for a sailor to rest his heels and chew the fat, which is why Hornblower had suggested it when Bush and Kennedy had met him in port that afternoon. They had both been given leave from the Renown, for the warship, like the navy, was no longer at war.

"To peace, gentlemen!" Hornblower said, raising his ale.

"To life on half-pay!" toasted Kennedy. Bush gave him a lopsided smile and joined his mug to theirs. Their drinks clinked noisily against the chatter of the pub. Each man lowered his arm and took a mouthful of ale.

"Far better to live on a commander's half-pay than a lieutenant's," said Bush, reclining in his chair. He allowed his legs to stretch out beneath the table, in contrast to his usual posture. He sipped at his drink contentedly and watched his companions.

Kennedy was leaning forward on his elbows and grinning. "How does it feel to be a captain, Horatio?"

Hornblower gave him a reproving glare. "The Admiralty has not yet confirmed my promotion, Archie. And with this blasted peace..." His lips thinned slightly, betraying his concern. "It has been two months already."

"They cannot fail to confirm it," said Kennedy, setting his drink down with a thump onto the old wooden table. A slop of foam ran over the side and formed into a sticky puddle around the mug. "I can think of no man more deserving of the honour than you." Bush gave a nod of agreement.

Hornblower expelled his breath sharply. "If I could only be as certain."

"Has mention been made of the Renown?" asked Kennedy. "Pellew did assure you that the matter was resolved."

"Yes," agreed Hornblower, drawing the word out. "To both. It was all over the Gazette and Chronicle soon after I arrived. It has been the subject of some conjecture. Even the daughter of my landlady was full of rumours. She insisted on asking me what it was like!"

"One of the benefits of being at sea," said Bush, "is that you are free from the gossiping of women."

"Such as your sisters?" asked Kennedy.

Bush snorted. "Word has already reached Chichester. I received a letter. They worried for me," he admitted. They worried too much, Bush thought to himself. He suspected this homecoming would not count among his easiest.

"They will be glad to see you," Kennedy assured him. "When must you depart?"

"The day after tomorrow. I would delay, but I do not want my lateness to cause them yet more concern."

"So soon?" Kennedy frowned with disappointment. "I had thought you were to stay in Portsmouth a week at least." Bush gave him an apologetic shrug.

"Is that how long you will be staying, Archie?" Hornblower asked, and Kennedy turned back to him. "I would welcome your company. Yours too, Mister Bush, brief though it may be."

"I admit I am not as eager as William is to return home. I do not have three sisters ready to wait upon me hand and foot." Kennedy gave Bush a brief, wide smile and a knowing wink.

Bush ducked his head and looked down at his ale. Absently, he noted that a fresh round of drinks was in order. He cleared his throat. "If you will excuse me, gentlemen, I will secure another round." Bush rose from the table and made his way to the bar. He gave his order, and as he waited for it to be filled he looked back at Hornblower and Kennedy; he had to angle himself to obtain a clear line of sight. From here he could see them in profile. Their chairs were arranged on one side of their circular table, with Bush's own chair set opposite. As he watched, Kennedy slapped Hornblower on the arm and laughed, and Hornblower gave him that close-lipped grin Bush had seen him give Kennedy a number of times before.

When he had joined the Renown, Bush had seen them like this: heads together, smiling. They had treated him like an intruder at first, two against the world and him no different from the likes of Buckland and Hobbs. At length, they had warmed to him and welcomed him into their circle, and proved to be quite unlike the friends he had known before. He had been exhilarated by them. Perhaps they were not three against the world, as Buckland had claimed, but Bush would not have chosen any other two to be by his side.

And then it was only him and Kennedy, who told bad jokes and sang when he was drunk and made Bush feel fourteen years younger. Bush was normally a man of few words, but Kennedy could draw hours of talk from him, or make him laugh at a day's hard luck. But now it made him sad to see Kennedy with Hornblower again, though it ought not to. They had been friends for years, where he had only known them months. They were paid off and grounded, and he was bound for Chichester. Not for the first time he wished that peace had never come.

A heavy rapping sound reached his ears, bringing him back to himself. Bush's observations had been interrupted by the barman, who had knocked on the bar. He was handed three full mugs of ale. Their contents sloshed a bit and dampened the edge of his shirtcuff as he carried them back to the table.

"Ah, most welcome," declared Kennedy as Bush handed him his drink. "Horatio tells me that he has been enjoying his prize money."

"Between that and a captain's half-pay you must have little to worry for," said Bush. He shook his wrist, flicking the moisture from it.

Hornblower had been drinking his ale appreciatively, but swallowed quickly to answer. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I have, ah, found my way into the Long Rooms. Whist."

"Do you win?" asked Bush.

"Frequently," replied Hornblower, with a hint of pride. "Though in small amounts."

"I prefer a game of chance," said Bush. "Whist is too slow." This made Kennedy laugh, and Hornblower give both an amused glower. "My own prize money is set for Chichester, though I have spared myself a little for my own pleasures."

"So you at your sisters', and I stuck here in wait for the Admirals. Archie was just agreeing to stay in Portsmouth," Hornblower said.

"A full pocket and free roam," said Kennedy. "I still have much set aside. Family money," he shrugged, and sipped at his drink.

"He will be good company," Bush said to Hornblower, settling back. He looked towards Kennedy, and their eyes met across the table. Bush found that he could not hold his gaze. Observing this, Hornblower raised an eyebrow and looked between them.

"Archie, have you been bedevilling our Mister Bush in my absence?" he joked.

Kennedy feigned a remorseful expression. "With great effort and small success," he said, shaking his head with affected dismay. "He keeps too much to himself. "

Bush began to scowl at them, but when they broke into chuckling he could not keep the corners of his mouth from creeping upwards. "I had forgotten that together you are a pair of jackanapes," he said, dryly, "who once did not hesitate to pull me off a cliff." Bush gave them a shrewd look. "And I think you would not hesitate to pull me off another."

"Then you are in luck," said Kennedy, "that Portsmouth is so free of cliffs."

"But not other pleasures," said Hornblower. He sighed lightly. "Yet I do not think there will be time for them, if we have but one full day together." Suddenly his eyes lit up. "Of course! Do you not realize the date?" Kennedy and Bush exchanged blank looks. The calendar passed quickly and without fuss while at sea, as they had little need to reference it apart from navigational concerns. "Today is April 30th." Kennedy merely raised his eyebrows. "Tomorrow it will be May Day!"

"May Day in Portsmouth," Kennedy murmured, realization spreading across his face. "That will be a pleasure."

"It has been many years since I was on land for May Day," said Bush. He rubbed his lip thoughtfully.

"Then it's settled." Hornblower raised his mug for another toast. "Tomorrow we shall celebrate together."


The three men drank, and they talked, and soon the hour grew late. In his corner seat, Bush nursed at his drink, quiet in thought. He watched the other seamen in the pub; a few were even from the Renown, and those that had met his eye had knuckled their foreheads in respect. As the evening had worn on their boisterous revels had faded to a low murmur, and eventually, alone and in groups, most had trickled out into the night. Some of them would soon be bound for merchant ships, but most would have to find work on land.

Bush frowned. The novelty of their return to port was wearing off now. For him, land meant no ship to sail, no men to command. It meant weeks, months, perhaps even years of waiting for this blasted peace to fail, as Bush knew it must. As far as he was concerned Napoleon was no more trustworthy than any other Frog, and it was simply a matter of time before this became evident. But that time was no small thing to let pass.

Bush did not find life ashore to be a terrible thing. He loved his sisters and it warmed his heart to see them again. He was away for such long stretches that it made their reunions dear to them all. He could not deny that he rather enjoyed how his sisters doted on him. Repairing their cottage, reacquainting himself with old friends in town, tending the garden, having space and hours of his own: in all of these he felt contentment. Yet his heart was still for the sea, and the sea had no use for him.

He looked up from his drink at Kennedy and Hornblower. He was not surprised to find that they were engrossed in conversation. He closed his eyes and let their words flow around him: reminiscences over their adventures together, and plans for how to pass their own time ashore. Neither had any responsibilities but to themselves, they had no family to support. They would each have their fellow as company in the long months ahead, if they so chose. As close as any two friends could be.

"William?" Kennedy's voice was soft and near. Bush opened his eyes and saw that Kennedy was crouched beside him. The yellow light of the lamps and candles made a golden halo in his hair, and outlined the strong curve of his jaw. "You were falling into your ale." Bush blinked, blearily, and straightened in his chair. He licked his lips.

"I apologize." When had he fallen asleep? Kennedy stood, removing his hand from Bush's shoulder. The warmth from it left him almost the moment he realized it was there. He rubbed his face and worked to come back to himself.

"Why don't you get some sleep?" suggested Kennedy. "You look done in." Hornblower nodded in agreement.

"Consider it an order, from a captain," Hornblower said, gently teasing. Bush knew that humour was aimed at Hornblower himself as much as it was at Bush.

"Yes, sir," he said, and it was the most natural thing for him to say. "I will retire." Bush stood, taking care to find his balance as he did. A use for his sea legs, he thought. "See you in the morning, gentlemen."

Bush made his way upstairs to his room. It was a modest lodging, but after his cramped quarters on the Renown it seemed a luxury. More importantly, it was within his means, for he knew that the days ahead would make every penny stretch. The room contained a simple bed, a chair, some small furniture, rough wooden floor and a window with cheap hangings. Once inside he stripped and slid himself naked beneath the covers, relaxing into the sheets. They warmed against his body quickly.

It felt odd to lie upon a mattress. He missed the constant, gentle sway of his cot. With his eyes closed he could imagine that the thin padding beneath him was taut canvas, but the world remained stubbornly unmoving.

Bush sighed and turned onto his side, fluffing his pillow as he did so. Minutes passed. He turned again. He tried to empty his thoughts but could not; his mind buzzed and he could not quiet it. Suddenly he was too warm, and he kicked off the sheets to let the cool night air onto his skin.

He sighed in frustration. It was no use, he could not sleep. His thoughts were knotted in his head and they could not be untied. Wryly, he realized that he would have had more success nodding into his ale.

Bush gave up the attempt and rose from his bed. Moonlight glowed through the thin curtains, illuminating the room a pale grey. He walked over to the window and drew the edge of one curtain aside. Portsmouth lay before him, peaked roofs and chimneys coloured that same pale grey. It was not far from their lodging to the harbour, and he caught sight of the sails of the Renown. She too was being tucked neatly away until she was once more needed.

Bush dropped the curtain and turned his back to the window. He needed more ale, or better yet, something stronger. He dressed himself again in his uniform and quietly locked his room behind him. In the dim light of the hall he peered at his watch. It had been the better part of an hour since he had left Hornblower and Kennedy to each other.

He walked down the stairs and left through the front door without looking behind him into the back room of the bar. There would certainly be other pubs open at this hour that would welcome an officer.


Spring was in the air tonight. The night was cool but not intemperate, and a fresh breeze blew in across the waters. Kennedy breathed deeply, letting the tang of salt clear his head. Nothing like the sea air on the senses, he thought. He and Hornblower had parted company for the night, and he wished to stretch his legs before bed. A stroll to the dockyard and back seemed ideal, and now at the dockyard he stood, watching the ships. At length he turned from the harbour and began the walk back.

He realized that he was glad to be off the Renown. The ship had been nothing but trouble for all of them. No, he qualified, not entirely. Some good had come of it. They had met Bush. Hornblower had been promoted and briefly given command of his own ship. Though he wished things had not started with such difficulty, they had ended well enough.

Kennedy snorted. Difficulty was certainly one way to describe what had happened. Out of habit he pressed a hand to his stomach. The bullet had grazed across his midsection and he bore an impressive scar to show for it. Had he but turned the other way... It did not bear thinking about. Bush had been somewhat worse off than he, his wound cleaner but deeper from a Spaniard's sword. As they lay recovering in Kingston, Kennedy had joked that they were a matched set.

They had returned to the Renown, and Hornblower had left them for his own ship. Out from under Sawyer's broken command, the Renown was no longer tense and hostile. The air was easier, free of the suspicion that so fractured the crew. In this new atmosphere, he and Bush had become good friends.

With Hornblower gone, Kennedy found himself also taking notice of Bush's manner as an officer. He was strong, stern with the men but not unfair. His style of command was less personal than Hornblower's but still quite effective, and he had an air of certainty that Hornblower sometimes lacked. Kennedy would watch him stand on deck, back straight against the wind, handsome face set with calm determination, staring out at the horizon. This was his element.

Despite his own ease with naval life, Kennedy was not sure a ship could ever be his home. His injury, and now this peace with France... they seemed almost to be a message to him. This was an opportunity, it said, a chance to find a new path. Yet he wasn't even sure if he wanted a new path. There was always the stage, of course. He chuckled, remembering how he loved to perform, loved reciting his lines. It had not been the proper life for him, not according to his father. His father had decided that he was raw clay to be shaped into a man by the Royal Navy. Kennedy still tasted bitterness on his tongue when he recalled the events that lead up to his enlistment. Still, what was done was done. He had learned to love life at sea despite himself. Hornblower was no small part of that, he knew.

When they had parted in Kingston, Kennedy had not expected to see Hornblower again, not for some time. It was almost a shock to wake up that first morning and find him absent. Bush had looked at him with concern, thinking at first that his wound was paining him. Kennedy had told him he had merely slept poorly, and that he would be fine with a good night's sleep. He knew that Bush had not been entirely convinced by this answer, but his friend did not press him.

It was Bush who had been acting oddly tonight, however, and Kennedy was not entirely convinced rest was any more a cure for him. Bush had been acting odd for weeks now, in small ways, the most obvious of which was his withdrawal. He was keeping more to himself, the way he had when Kennedy had first met him. On its own this was strange, for they had up to then been growing steadily closer and Kennedy could not see what had changed between them. Tonight he had turned quiet again. There was something plaguing him, Kennedy knew, but he could or would not share his burden. Perhaps with Hornblower's help they could draw it out of him before he left for Chichester. He would take Hornblower aside and discuss the situation with him in the morning.

Kennedy shook himself from his musings at last. He was walking along the streets at a slow pacing, drawing out the distance of his route back. Warm yellow light still spotted the streets, from the other pubs and houses that remained open. He passed a pair of men who held themselves in a furtive manner, and reflexively Kennedy felt at his pocket. This was not exactly a low street, but neither was it one he desired to remain in longer than was necessary. He quickened his steps in haste, but had barely walked a pace when he stopped, listening.

There it was again. If it was possible for a moan to be familiar, this one was. It was coming from a dark alleyway just ahead. Kennedy moved himself flat against the wall before it and crept forward silently. He would not be caught in a trap by bandits, if this was one. He reached the corner and peered into the gloom, wishing the moonlight would be a better aid. He saw a figure slumped on the ground, a man. An officer, from the clothing. He threw aside his caution and went to the man's side.

"William!" What in God's name was he doing here? Kennedy put a hand under his cheek and tilted his head upright. There was blood on his forehead.

Bush moaned again and pain creased his features. Kennedy called his name again urgently, and Bush's eyes fluttered open. "Archie?" he slurred, looking up at Kennedy. He grimaced. "My head..."

Kennedy could smell rum on his breath. He was gathering a fair idea of what had happened, but he was not quite sure why it had. "Come on," Kennedy said, moving a firm arm around Bush's back and heaving him upright. Bush staggered and bumped against the wall. The impact made him gasp. Kennedy steadied him and loped Bush's arm over his shoulder. "Have to get you back to the room," he said, clenching his teeth as he took most of Bush's weight. They stumbled out of the alley towards their destination. At least there wasn't too far to go...

In the end it was the stairs that created the most difficulty, but they too were surmounted. When they reached Bush's door, Kennedy briskly patted Bush's pockets until he found the key. They entered and Kennedy released Bush onto his bed, then himself collapsed into a nearby chair. Moments passed as both men lay silent, breathing heavily. Finally Kennedy stood and walked out of the room. He returned with his hands full, and dumped the contents of his arms down onto the small table. Satisfied, he lit the lamp at Bush's bedside and sat down on the edge of the mattress.

"How are you feeling?" he asked. Bush moaned under his breath and opened his eyes.

"Like I've been clipped on the head with a cudgel." He tried to sit up, but partway there he collapsed back onto the bed. Bush swore.

"Lie still," Kennedy commanded. He poured water into a small porcelain bowl and dipped the corner of a clean kerchief into it. He leaned in and wiped carefully at the blood on Bush's head. There was a lump to the side of his head; the bearer of the cudgel must have come from behind. The edges of a bruise had begun to creep down the corner of his forehead, but Kennedy did not think it would spread much further.

"What were you doing there?" Kennedy asked, pausing from his work.

"Lying unconscious," Bush replied testily. "It was not my first choice."

Kennedy snorted and rolled his eyes. "We thought you had gone to bed," he said, and dipped the cloth into the bowl to rinse out the blood. The water darkened to a dirty red. Turning back to Bush, he smoothed the hair around his wound gently, washing the dark brown curls. The tousled strands brushed against his hand with a soft tickling.

"Couldn't sleep," Bush muttered. "Felt like a drink."

Kennedy thought he must have felt like several drinks, from the smell of his breath. He looked down. The wound was clean, as far as he could tell. He put aside the cloth and dabbed ointment onto Bush's head. The liquid gave off a bitter smell. Chamomile, he recognized. The landlord's wife had been more than kind. Bush sighed, and some of the strain went out of his face. The chamomile was cool where the tips of Kennedy's fingers touched it.

"William," he began, "why did you not rejoin us? We had not gone." Bush did not answer. Kennedy rose and retrieved the cold compress he had been given. He pressed it against Bush's head, and Bush started from the chill. "Hold this," he said, "it will help with the swelling."

Bush reached up and clutched the compress. "I did not want to intrude," he said, quietly. His eyes were closed again. Kennedy frowned.

"Sit up," he said, and helped Bush slide up against the headboard. He retrieved a glass and filled it with fresh water, then pushed it into Bush's free hand. "Drink." Bush drank. Kennedy refilled his glass, and again Bush drained it without a word. "You were robbed," Kennedy said. He retrieved the empty glass and began to help Bush out of his jacket.

"It was a seaman," explained Bush, awkwardly pulling his arm free. He switched the compress to his other hand to allow Kennedy to remove his jacket. "I was on my way back. He said he needed help."

"He helped himself," said Kennedy, laying the jacket over the back of his chair. "So did his friend. Were you carrying much?"

"Enough," Bush admitted. Kennedy helped him lie back down again and pulled the cover over him. "My watch is gone as well. Of all the times to get robbed! My sisters will have my hide."

"I think they will be glad to see you safe more than they will worry over what little has been lost." Kennedy turned down the lamp. When he looked back to the bed, he saw that Bush had already drifted asleep. Kennedy shifted the cold compress back in place. Bush would be a sight come morning, but at least he did not still lie bleeding on the cobblestones. Kennedy reminded himself that he must have that word with Hornblower when he returned in the morning. He gathered up the items that he had brought in and closed the door softly behind him.


Bush awoke to find that overnight his head had doubled in size and been run over by a cart. He realized, of course, that this was perhaps a slight exaggeration. He cracked open an eye only to recoil from the bright sunlight glaring in at him. Something damp slid down his face and he flinched in surprise, lifting his head from the pillow. A soggy compress lay where his head had been. With an effort he flung it off the bed and cautiously lay back down. He shut his eyes tightly.

It only took seconds for him to remember everything about the night before. He wondered if there was a way for him to remain in this bed until tomorrow morning. Certainly by then his head would have returned to its normal proportions. He lay still and tried to breathe without making any noise or moving at all. That did not help. Slowly he realized that the pounding in his head was at least partly the sound of someone banging on his door with what must have been a belaying pin. Before he could work up the breath to tell whoever it was to stop making such an awful din, the door opened. He dared a squint: it was Kennedy. Of course. He closed his eyes again.

"Finally back with us?" Kennedy asked.

Did the man have to shout like that? Bush grunted. He heard the scrape of a chair being pulled along the floor, and then the creak of its wood as Kennedy sat down in it. "I fear I'm done, Archie," he rasped.

Kennedy just clucked his tongue. "Here, drink this. Horatio swears by it."

A glass was pressed to Bush's lips, and he sipped at it. Then he almost spit it out. "That is vile!" he protested.

"Vile and effective," said Kennedy.

Bush scowled at him, then realized that he was in fact now sitting upright. The glass in Kennedy's hand held a murky brown liquid. Bush did not want to even consider what it contained. "I feel as if I've been keelhauled," he muttered. He rubbed his head delicately, mindful of where he had been hit.

"Horatio and I have been waiting for you. Are well enough to join us?"

Bush considered this for a moment. The pounding had begun to ease to a tolerable level. He slowly moved to let his legs hang off the side of the bed. So far so good. "I believe so." He looked down at his clothes and saw that they were somewhat the worse for wear. "I will meet you both downstairs shortly."

"Good," Kennedy said, patting Bush lightly on the shoulder. "We did not want you to miss out on the day's festivities."

Once Kennedy had left, Bush sat slumped on the bed, gathering his strength. With a sigh he undid the buttons of his shirt and slipped it off his shoulders. His muscles felt terribly stiff, but he knew from long experience that the only cure for it was action.

He needed some air. He stood, slowly, and opened the window to let a fresh breeze into the room, then leaned against the frame. He took several deep breaths, and his mind began to clear. Eventually he turned back towards the room and finished undressing. The curtains blew inwards as a strong wind gusted through the room; goosebumps prickled on his arms and legs, and Bush rubbed at them briskly. He found some fresh clothes among his belongings and dressed.

Hornblower and Kennedy were sitting by the front window of the pub when he went downstairs. The smell of the sausages they were eating made his stomach tilt, and he swallowed hard. He sat down and tried to avoid looking at the plates of food on their table.

"You appear rather green this morning, Mister Bush," said Hornblower, taking a bite of his sausage. As he chewed he cocked his head. "That is quite a bruise. Archie told me of last night."

"Yes," Bush replied, touching at the corner of his forehead. "It was a seaman, unless that was pretence as well." Hornblower frowned in disapproval. Bush knew what was in his thoughts, for it was in his as well.

"Gentlemen," Kennedy thumped the table (lightly, out of consideration for Bush's head), "we have the day before us. Let us not be vexed by the night's hard luck."

"The city market," said Hornblower, pointing his fork at the window, "will be full of merchants today. I think we should all find much we need there, and more besides."


When they left the inn and emerged into the bright morning, Bush wondered for a moment if he would after all be up to the festivities. All the smells and noises of the city were magnified and multiplied. The breeze from the sea brought fresh air, but even this close to the shore it did not carry away the raised dust of the streets, or wash the stink of a city packed full of people, animals, and waste. Bush had never held a great fondness for cities, for he found them to be largely unclean. He preferred the order and freshness of a good sailing ship, or the flowering gardens and warm rooms of his Chichester cottage.

Still, despite his poor feeling, Bush was determined to enjoy himself. Portsmouth would be behind him soon enough, and better to meet the day with full sails than to lay high and dry in bed. So he braced himself against his ills and willed them to pass, and until they did he would pay them no mind.

They walked the streets to the market. To Bush it seemed that a great tide of people must have washed upon the shore that morning, for Portsmouth's quarters alone could not contain such a crowd. Workers, tradesmen, sailors, and women and children mingled and crossed. Many wore clothing dyed in light colours, reflecting the freshness of spring. As they drew closer to their destination, the buildings also became decorated. Here and there ribbons were wound round, and pale flowers had been placed in rows along windowsills. The sweet-musk scent of hawthorn laced the air. They turned a corner and the market lay before them; if possible it was busier inside than the streets that lead to it.

"Good morning, sirs!" Bush turned at the sound and saw three young women walking over to greet them. They wore light and colourful frocks, and had blossoms and ribbons in their hair. Each held a straw basket full of pink and white flowers. "Some fine flowers for such fine officers?"

"We would be honoured to accept," answered Hornblower, who gave them a nodding bow. The girls smiled coyly, and each walked to a man with a sprig of hawthorn in hand. Bush gave a smile to the one who approached him; her hair was deep brown and long, with thin ribbons woven through it. She looked up at him with a grin of her own, and carefully tucked a sprig of white hawthorn into one of his buttonholes.

"Thank you," murmured Bush. He turned to look at his friends, and saw that they were being attended to in a similar fashion. The girl in front of Hornblower had already bestowed her flowers upon him and was now glancing at his epaulette. She had a considering look upon her face, but Hornblower did not seem to have noticed this. His eyes were visibly entertained elsewhere, a fact that the girl likewise did not attend to. The girl at Kennedy's side was still fiddling with his buttonhole, apparently having some trouble with the sprig. She gave a small cry of pain and put her finger to her mouth, dropping the hawthorn as she did so.

"Are you hurt?" Kennedy asked her, and he gently pulled her hand free. There was a spot of blood welling on the tip of her finger.

"A thorn, sir. It was not clipped as it ought to be," she explained. She looked down and gasped in dismay. "Oh, your flowers...!"

"Do not worry about the flowers," comforted Kennedy. "Here," he said, pulling a fresh kerchief from his pocket. He pressed it against her finger, dabbing lightly at the wound. The girl coloured slightly and fluttered her lashes.

"You're very kind, sir." Kennedy withdrew the kerchief and saw that the bleeding had stopped. He gave a kind smile and released her hand, and she pressed it to her stomach briefly. Then she selected a fresh sprig from her basket and quickly placed it into his buttonhole. "There," she smiled, "that's better."

"Oh, sir!" Bush turned in surprise to see that these last words had come from his own flower girl. She was looking at him with concern. "Your poor head! Was it hurt in battle, sir?" Bush looked into her eyes; they were large and dark, but they did not meet his own. Instead they looked upwards, at his bruise. The girl reached up to stroke his forehead as if to soothe him.

"No, only misfortune," Bush muttered, and lightly pushed her hand down and away. The girl's brow furrowed slightly in confusion for a moment, and something flickered in her eyes. She gave him a nod, then grinned and pulled at her friend's arm. Then suddenly all three girls were off, giggling to each other as they disappeared into the crowd. Bush watched them go.

"If you remain in Portsmouth much longer," Bush said dryly, turning to Kennedy, "I think you will soon run out of kerchiefs." Kennedy laughed at this, and folded the stained cloth back into his pocket.

They continued on, further into the market. Before them lay a great assortment of tables, each holding its own particular bounty of goods. They moved to the closest, upon which piles of cloth were sat. Bush ran a hand along the coloured wool, judging its quality. The seller, a man with a grey beard and a soft belly, watched him with a keen eye.

"My sisters will appreciate this," Bush said. "And lace as well, for their dresses." Hornblower leaned over his shoulder to see.

"I think you will find the best prices are to be found further in," Hornblower murmured in his ear. Bush nodded thoughtfully at this and put down the lace. They moved from the table in search of a better exchange.

"What else are we to look for?" asked Kennedy, conversationally.

Bush considered this as they walked slowly along. "Ink and paper," he said at last, "for letter-writing. Some tools, perhaps, for when I return home there will be many repairs to complete. What do you seek?" he asked.

"Kerchiefs," Kennedy declared. Bush snorted in amusement.


It was not long before Bush had found much that he needed, and his arms were full of cloth and small packages. Thankfully the competitive atmosphere of the fair lent itself well to bargaining, and he had been able to find all he needed at a price comfortable to him. Kennedy had also purchased a few small items, as had Hornblower: a pipe for Kennedy's favourite cousin; a folding knife to replace Hornblower's own, which had seen better days; and so on.

The fresh air and easy exercise had improved Bush's disposition greatly, for his muscles were no longer tight and his head had ceased to pound. As the sun crept into the centre of the sky, his stomach rumbled noisily. He realized that he had not eaten since the night before. He motioned to Hornblower.

"We should break for lunch," Bush said.

"Over there," said Hornblower, "a chophouse."

"Excellent. Archie!" Bush called, tilting his head as his arms were occupied. Kennedy had been poking through a collection of mugs. He abandoned his idle quest and followed them. They soon found a table and sat down. Bush sighed, glad of the rest. He was still somewhat wearied from the events of the previous night.

"So what do they serve here?" Kennedy wondered aloud, squinting at the painted wooden sign that rested against the wall. It listed a handful of items and prices, acting as a crude menu. "Ale, humble chop," he read, "pork, lamb, mutton... oh, and cockles."

"Mmm," Hornblower hummed agreeably. He rose from his seat. "Mutton, definitely. What would you like? Ales all-round?"

"Yes, and lamb for me," said Kennedy. "William?"

"Cockles," Bush said, licking his lips at the thought. "Pepper and vinegar?"

"Certainly." Hornblower walked over to place the order.

Kennedy stretched, then slouched against the table. "Cockles?" he asked, distaste plain on his face. "How can you eat those? They are always full of sand." He screwed up his nose. "Sand and vinegar, ugh."

"I do not mind the sand," replied Bush. "I have always liked cockles, since I was a child. I did not know I was not supposed to like them."

Kennedy snorted. "You have been a sailor too long," he said, shaking his head. "It appears the sea has taken your stomach as well as your heart."

"So it has always been. The sea is my life," Bush said simply.

"Surely not," protested Kennedy. "Are you not glad to be ashore?"

"Are you?" countered Bush.

"Very glad. It is all well and good to sail, but it was not by choice that I set out. Now that I have the decision before me, I think I might prefer a life on land."

"Not so with me," said Bush. "I grew up wanting to be a sailor, and have been one for almost as long as I can remember. The sea is likely to have the rest of me as well."

"Then it is good that you are kept from her a while longer. To peace, long may it last!"

"Toasting without me, Archie?" Hornblower had returned with their ales and food. Bush and Kennedy helpfully unburdened him, and they eagerly tucked into their plates.

It had been too long since Bush had eaten cockles. He moaned with pleasure as he began sucking the meat of one out of its shell. And these had just the right mixture of vinegar and black pepper... After a few moments, Bush realized that he was being watched. He looked up to see Hornblower and Kennedy smirking at him. Then he looked down at his plate, and realized he had greedily devoured more than half of its contents in under a minute. He coughed, feeling sheepish. "I was hungry," he protested.


"'Proposals for improving the maritime power of Great Britain,'" Hornblower read aloud from a calfskin-bound book. They had come to a bookseller's table, and were browsing casually through the titles. Each stopped here and there to read aloud passages of interest. "'When, by the establishment of the national militia, the great expense of supporting mercenary armies shall be at an end, the government may apply those savings, partly to the discharge of public debts, and partly to the improvement of its maritime power, by increasing the number of British seamen.' A sound idea, don't you agree?"

"One that the Admiralty may find worth exploring again," remarked Bush dryly. Hornblower laughed and returned to browsing.

"'The Journal of the Battle of Fontenoy.' 'Reflections on the revolution in France,' another timely selection." Hornblower read off the titles of each book as he sorted through the disorganized collection set before them. "'Lexicon Technicum.'"

"A solid reference. What year?"


"Hm, a far earlier edition than that which I have used. It had some worthy plates of a ship of the line, but as a midshipman I preferred Falconer's Dictionary of the Marine."

"My copy of the Technicum was well-worn at the maths," Hornblower recalled with evident fondness. "It grows ever out of date, but it served at the time. Unlike this," he said looking at the title of another book, "'Some Information Respecting America.' Shocking that they could find a publisher for that propagandist prattle." He made a thoughtful noise and moved onwards. "An Account of the Earl of Peterborow's Conduct in Spain, Buffon's Natural History of Birds, Travels into Several Remote Nations of--"

"Let me see that last one," said Bush, reaching across to snatch the book from under Hornblower's hand. "Buffon's birds, in English even. Fifty-six plates, hand-coloured!" He turned the pages reverently. Hornblower peered with interest over his shoulder. His shadow obscured Bush's view, and Bush moved the book away to catch the light. The sun shone bright upon the coloured birds, intensifying the pigment even as it flattened out the finely detailed lines that lay beneath the paint. The name of each species was written at the top of each page in a wide, looping cursive. Bush turned the heavy pages with care.

"Striking," said Kennedy, looking on from his left.

Bush nodded once, then closed the book. He gestured to the bookseller. "How much for this one?"

The bookseller took the book and held it close, squinting at it through his monocle. He was an old man, with a shock of white hair. "Twelve shillings, sir."

"Damn," Bush muttered. "Thank you, but it appears I must do without." The bookseller nodded, and slowly placed the book onto a stack at the end of the table. Bush assumed they were to be sorted later, but from the look of things the old man was in no hurry to do so. Bush turned to Hornblower and gave a dissatisfied grunt. "My purse would not be so tight if I had not been such a fool last night."

Hornblower gave him a patient look. "You thought you were going to the aid of a fellow seaman," he reminded gently. "There is no fault in that."

"He was pretty well over the bay," joked Kennedy to Hornblower. "A little more rum and he might have helped a Frog!" Bush scowled at him, but Kennedy merely snickered.

A medium-sized, leather-bound book flew past Bush's shoulder and was deftly caught by Kennedy. Bush glanced at Hornblower, who had thrown the book; Hornblower was giving Kennedy a fond look. Bush turned back and saw that Kennedy had opened the book and was running his fingers down the page, his lips moving silently as he traced. Bush squinted to read the words on the spine, but could not make out the faded gilt lettering that embossed the brown leather.

"'My friends were poor, but honest,'" Kennedy read, and gave Bush a wink. Bush found that he could not help but smile back. Kennedy then moved to another section of the book, seemingly at random. He cleared his throat and straightened his back, as if in a pose.

"'Let me have war, say I,'" he began, glancing at Hornblower and then back down at the words before him. "'It exceeds peace as far as day does night; it's spritely, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy; mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war's a destroyer of men.'" As he spoke his eyes had wandered between text, Bush, and Hornblower, but by the end of the speech he had strayed fully from the page.

"You know these words well," observed Hornblower.

Kennedy nodded. "A small role I once had fortune to play," he said. "My memory is rusty, but with review it returns to me quickly."

"They are timely," said Hornblower. He drew a deep breath and then blew it out in a snort. "Somewhat blunt, but this peace is a lethargy. Action would be greatly welcome, Archie."

"It will come soon enough," Kennedy assured him. "In the meantime," he continued with a sly expression, "there are other delights at hand. Our company shall draw you onto pleasures." At this Hornblower seemed to waver between eagerness and a blush. "'Happy, in that we are not over-happy; on fortune's cap we are not the very button.'"

"Wait, I know this," said Hornblower, rubbing his temple as if to coax the memory from his mind. "I know this... Something about... was it shoes?" He grimacing slightly and looked uncertainly at Kennedy.

"'Nor the soles of her shoe,'" finished Kennedy. He reached over and gave Hornblower a friendly slap on the shoulder. Bush watched Hornblower's epaulette sway glitteringly in the sun. "But that is not my favourite," Kennedy said.

"What is your favourite, then?" asked Bush.

Kennedy held up a finger, motioning him to wait. He then licked the finger and flipped towards the back of the book. He scanned through until he lit upon another passage. His eyes moved quickly upon the page, and then he looked up and spoke clearly, with his eyes fixed upon Bush's. "Doubt thou the stars are fire; doubt that the sun doth move; doubt truth to be a liar; but never doubt I love."

"That is beautiful," agreed Bush, reluctantly breaking from Kennedy's gaze to peer again at the binding. It remained unreadable. He tapped his chin in thought. "These lines are familiar to me. Is that Hamlet?" Kennedy's eyebrows raised slightly in surprise.

"Yes," said Kennedy. "Polonius reading Hamlet's words, a love letter to 'the most beautified Ophelia.' I did not think you were familiar with the works of Shakespeare."

"You did not play Hamlet, then?" Bush asked.

Kennedy gave a sharp laugh. "No, nor Polonius. It is said that all actors aspire to play the Dane, but that is no longer an ambition of mine." He closed the book with a slap and dropped it back onto the table. "There are telescopes for sale a few tables over. If you do not mind I will go on ahead and wait for you there."

"A moment," said Hornblower. He gave the piles of books one last glance-over and then moved to join Kennedy. "I am finished here as well."

"I will yet stay," said Bush. "Go on, I'll follow shortly." He watched as Hornblower and Kennedy turned and walked away through the crowd. Then he reached over and picked up the brown volume that Kennedy had discarded. He examined it thoughtfully, then opened the cover to read the frontispiece.


When Bush rejoined his friends, he found them in the midst of a rather heated lecture being given by a large man in worn work-clothes. As he reached their side, the man turned to look at him. His eyes lit upon the bundle of fabric under Bush's arm, and he made a rough grab at it. Bush gave a startled yelp and stepped back in surprise. Before he could blink he saw that the man's arm had been caught by Kennedy, who was holding the man back with a white hand and a glower.

"Sir, I ask again that you leave us in peace," demanded Hornblower. Bush saw that his lips were drawn tight with annoyance. His expression was the one he wore when facing down an enemy in battle, and Bush wondered what had transpired in his absence. The man pulled his arm from Kennedy's grip with a sharp tug, grunted, and backed down from his threatening posture.

"Why do you want this cloth?" Bush asked, gesturing with the bundle under his arm. "What is this about?"

"It is about the livelihoods of the good men of Portsmouth, and England!" the man declared. "It is about dumb machines stealing those livelihoods, making poor men and poor cloth." He thrust a sheet of paper at Bush, who took it with his free hand. It was a broadsheet by the local trade of weavers, decrying the introduction of some manner of loom.

"This is no concern of ours," said Bush. He held the broadsheet up to return it, but the pamphleteer waved him off.

"Is it not your concern that the cloth you buy is quality?" the man countered sternly. "Have you no care for the families of the weavers whose trade is defiled by this, this treasonous industry?"

"That's enough out of you!" The seller had come out from behind his table with a stick in hand, which he held menacingly. The pamphleteer began to back away, but as he did he continued his forewarnings.

"You think it will stop with the weavers? That telescope in your hand will be next! The might of the navy will be broken on the back of such rubbish, when war comes again!" The seller and his stick were drawing nearer as he spoke those words. The man turned at last and hurried away into the crowd.

"That man has been pestering all day," sighed the seller. "No doubt he'll find others to jabber at. I apologize for the trouble, sirs."

"No matter," said Hornblower. He held up the small telescope that the pamphleteer had made such a point of. The brass shone, the thick lens sparkled cleanly; it was a fine instrument. "How much for this? That fellow was right about one thing, this is indeed of excellent craftsmanship. I doubt any machine could commit such art."

"Thank you, sir," smiled the seller, "I think that, for you, a small discount could be arranged. How does one pound strike you? It is worth half that much more."

"Too hard." Hornblower shook his head, then gave a laugh. "If such a telescope could be made as well at less cost, even by some machine, I could afford the purchase. With it I could sight an enemy ship even in a foul fog."

"And sail into port with another prize ship and a hold full of Frenchies." At Kennedy's words Hornblower ducked his head. Before he could argue to the contrary, Kennedy held up his hand. "It strikes me, Horatio, that I have not yet given you a present to celebrate your new command." He pulled a pound note from his pocket and handed it to the seller, who accepted it happily.

"Archie, that is too much," protested Hornblower. "I cannot accept--"

"Of course you can," insisted Kennedy. "It is not so much cost to me as it is to you." Bush watched as Hornblower hesitated, caught between embarrassment and gratitude. "One day," Kennedy promised, "when I am given command of my own ship, you will have the chance to return the favour." This took the wind from the sails of Hornblower's awkwardness, and with a look of deep appreciation he began to enthusiastically inspect his gift.

All of a sudden Bush felt the day catching up with him. He let his shoulders drop, and shifted the bundles under his arm. The side of his head had begun to ache more strongly again, and the glare of the midday sun stung his eyes. He blinked to clear them, and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

"William?" Bush picked his head up to see Kennedy looking at him with concern. "You look tired, William. How does your head fare?"

"It is fine," Bush said wearily, "but I admit I could do with a rest."

"What say we go back to the inn? We can unburden ourselves and break from the crowds for a while." Bush made to nod in agreement, but found himself suddenly compelled to a yawn. "I will take that as a yes," said Kennedy with a hint of amusement in his voice.


Kennedy held two sprigs of hawthorn in his hand as he sat with Hornblower on a stoop outside the inn. They were watching the ebb and flow of the crowd that still filled the street, even as the sun moved lower in the sky. For a while the number of people had lessened, presumably because others had also felt the need for a rest early in the afternoon, but now they had returned in force. Many had also dressed in their best clothes and finery for the evening's festivities.

When they had arrived back at the inn, before going inside Kennedy had plucked the flowers from Bush's buttonhole, pointing out that it was bad luck to bring hawthorn indoors. Bush had given a tired smile and reminded him to remove his own sprig as well. Bush had then said he would be going to his room to put away his purchases, and would return shortly. That had been over an hour ago. It was just as well, however, for his friend had needed the rest. Despite his protests, it was clear he had not fully recovered from the troubles of the night before.

The thought of those troubles reminded Kennedy that he'd been meaning to speak with Hornblower on that very subject. This was the first quiet moment they had had all day, and while Bush slept there was no better time to discuss him. Kennedy nudged Hornblower with his leg. "Horatio," he said, pulling Hornblower's attention from the passer-bys. "I want to ask you something."

"Yes?" Hornblower looked up at him expectantly from his seat on the bottom step.

"Have you noticed… that is… do you think William is behaving oddly?" questioned Kennedy.

Hornblower's brow furrowed, and he pursed his lips in thought. "He seems the same to me as when last I saw him," he answered slowly. "Quiet, but then he is a quiet man, and that is no fault."

"Nothing else?"

"He did get quite a knock," Hornblower pointed out. "That alone is enough to make anyone act oddly."

"It is more than quiet, and not from any knock," Kennedy protested. Then he gave a long sigh and waved at Hornblower. "Never mind."

"Archie, is something the matter?" asked Hornblower, sitting up to look directly at Kennedy. "You have been acting differently since you returned from the Renown. It is not unusual for Bush to keep to himself, but we have always been able to speak to one another about our concerns."

"Nothing is the matter," denied Kennedy. When Hornblower responded to this with a look of strong scepticism, Kennedy gave a resigned shrug. "I do not know. It is probably... it is probably just that it is strange to be without a ship again."

Hornblower clapped a hand to Kennedy's knee. "It is at that," he agreed, drawing his hand back from the friendly gesture to rub his chin. "I cannot tell you how restless I felt the first day I was back ashore. I had hoped to have my promotion confirmed directly and be back at sea in a matter of weeks. Then the weeks piled up like the dust on my trunk. It is good that you came when you did. Without company I had begun to lose myself in this city."

"I cannot imagine you being lost anywhere," said Kennedy. "You could drop your compass to the depths and still find your way home."

Hornblower shifted at the compliment. Kennedy knew that he never could comfortably accept such things when they were given. "Are you sure that is all it is?" Hornblower asked, changing the topic. Now it was Kennedy's turn to shift in discomfort.

"Yes. Well, mostly. I have been thinking upon the future..." he trailed off, not entirely sure himself what his answer would be. He picked at the hawthorn, watching the tiny petals drop and flutter to the step below. The flowers had wilted from the heat of the day, and the pale pink and white blossoms had begun to crinkle with streaks of brown.


"Yes?" Kennedy looked up, startled from his daze. He blinked, then thrust the hawthorn into Hornblower's hands. "Here, take this," he said, standing up. He brushed some stray petals from his clothes. "I will go wake William. No doubt he has had enough rest by now."


Despite his announced intention to wake Bush from his nap, Kennedy entered his room with the silence of a scout. He tread lightly on the boards, careful to avoid those that had creaked beneath his feet during previous visits. Bush was still sleeping deeply; his shoes were lying at the side of the bed where they had been lazily kicked off, and a blanket was wound partway around his body, covering his chest and shoulders but leaving his legs to stick out in the air. The room was comfortably warm at this time of day, with the daylight glowing softly behind drawn curtains, but the cool air from the sea would creep back soon and bring a chill to the evening.

As if in response to his thoughts, a light breeze blew into the room, making the curtains shift. Kennedy watched for a still moment as thin beams of light played across Bush's face. For a few seconds Kennedy thought the disturbance might rouse him, for he made faint noises and smacked his lips in his sleep. Then the wind calmed again, and Bush was once more drawn away from waking. In such repose his skin was smoothed of age, the long planes of his cheeks given back the curve of youth.

'Perhaps he needs a few minutes longer,' thought Kennedy. He decided to sit in the quiet of the room and wait a while before he roused his friend. There was the chair he had sat in before, next to the table. He walked over to it and saw that Bush's purchases were upon it, and that some of the items had fallen from there to the floor. He crouched down and picked up the swatches of cloth, brushed them off and began to refold them. As he did so, something fell out of one with a thump. Fearing he had woken Bush, Kennedy looked over at the bed, but the sleeper had not moved. Kennedy placed the last of the cloth in a pile on the table and reached down to see what had fallen.

It was a book, and a familiar one at that. Kennedy rose and walked towards the window with it, curious. The dim light grew somewhat stronger as he reached curtains, and he flipped open the cover to read the title. 'The Works of Shakespeare in Twelve Volumes. Volume Seventh, containing All's Well That Ends Well, Coriolanus, and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.' He smiled, surprised and pleased at the discovery.

"Well, well," he whispered.

"Archie?" Kennedy turned, startled, to see that Bush was sitting up and rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "What are you doing?" Bush asked, groggily. He stretched once, arching his back sharply. He then untangled himself from his blanket, staggered to his feet, and joined Kennedy by the window. It was then that he saw the book in Kennedy's hands. All at once his manner changed, wakefulness coming over him as surely as if he had been doused with water from an icy wave. He pulled the book hastily from Kennedy and strode over to the table, tucking the tome back beneath the folded cloth that sat there.

"William?" Kennedy was confused but also concerned. He did not understand what had upset Bush so.

"Please do not go through my things," said Bush coolly, his back still turned.

"I am sorry, but I was only curious," protested Kennedy. "I only found it because I was saving your things from the floor. I did not think your sisters would have been pleased to receive dirtied cloth."

At this Bush's abrupt stiffness began to fade, as if he had begun to realize his overreaction. Bush closed his eyes and let out a breath, then turned to Kennedy. "You are right. Thank you." Bush sat down in the chair beside the table and rubbed his hands slowly against each other. Whatever fit had taken hold of him, it had left him now.

Kennedy sat down on the edge of the bed across from him. "I was surprised to find it," Kennedy continued, explaining. "I did not think you had the money to waste on such things as plays."

"It was not a waste." Suddenly the stubborn look was back in Bush's eyes. "It was only four shillings, and aside from that I do not need account for my spending."

Kennedy blinked, startled again by Bush's defensiveness. "I was not questioning it," he replied. "I apologize, William. I did not intend offence."

"I know," said Bush quietly. He looked down at his stocking feet, frowning.

Kennedy rose from the bed. "I will meet you downstairs with Horatio," he said, not unkindly. "Put on your dress uniform before you come down." Bush nodded, and Kennedy left him to change.


If there was one part of their wardrobe that the navy did right, Kennedy reflected, it was their dress uniforms. Hornblower's new captain's uniform was the standard navy blue but edged with gold thread that caught the shine of lamp-light; it was designed to stand out from the crowd, and in this is was a success. Kennedy and Bush's uniforms were plainer, lacking the gilt but still of the same fine cut and design. All three wore their swords, which swayed behind them as they walked. The hats were included as a matter of course, because there was nothing you could do about the hats.

As they walked the streets of Portsmouth, Kennedy was pleased to note that the sight of three fine officers such as themselves, kitted up in full dress, was enough to turn heads even in a naval town like Portsmouth. He felt emboldened and thought that his friends felt the same. Hornblower was strutting like a peacock, for all his usual modesty, and even Bush had puffed his chest unconsciously. When Bush had come down from his room, Kennedy's first thought had been relief that Bush was in better spirits. Rest had eased the pain from his eyes, and his earlier moodiness had faded once more. Now he strode with familiar confidence, and his head high and his back straight. This prompted Kennedy's second thought, which was that tailoring did fine things to a man's figure.

"This way to the Queen of the May!" shouted a crier. He rang a bell as he walked, directing the crowd to the square where a stage had been constructed. A maypole stood at the centre of the square, wrapped 'round with ribbons from celebrations during the earlier part of the day. As the three men drew near, they saw people milling about, talking excitedly. Warm light spilled from the surrounding buildings, and many wove in and out of their welcoming doors. On the stage, a throne had been set for the May queen, and several figures bustled about. But the crowd was too thick, and Kennedy could not see well enough from their position. Turning, he sought a vantage point.

"There!" he exclaimed, and motioned for Hornblower and Bush to follow him. There was a stack of heavy wooden crates set to the side against a plain wall. Presumably they were left over from the sellers' trading, but now they would serve as superior footing. Hornblower chased off some young boys who had beaten them to it, and they climbed up to watch the proceedings from above.

"Much better," agreed Hornblower. "And I know what will improve our view further." With a grin he reached into his inner pocket and pulled out the collapsing telescope he had bought that afternoon. He extended it with a flourish and put it to his eye. With his knee up upon a box and his back straight, it was as if he was surveying not land but sea, with a sharp eye for enemy ships and other obstacles. He executed a slow, steady turn, mimicking the circle of a crow's nest.

"Do you see the queen?" asked Kennedy. He shifted impatiently, eager to look for himself.

"She is not there yet," said Hornblower, continuing his assessment of the crowded square. "Aha, but she will be soon. Look," he pointed, "they have set up a path for her."

"Come, Horatio, loose your hold." Kennedy made to grab at the telescope, and Hornblower ducked away with a laugh. Then the crate beneath his feet wobbled alarmingly, and he froze his motion. Kennedy took the opportunity and snatched the instrument from his fingers and put it to his own eye. He grinned widely at what he saw. "There she is!"

"Is she upon the stage?" asked Hornblower, who had regained his balance and was now peering with a hand to his brow.

"Yes, just arrived. They will crown her soon, they have the garland waiting." Kennedy turned from the telescope and looked at Bush, who was standing beside him, squinting at the stage. Kennedy tapped him on the shoulder and handed him the instrument. "Here, have a look," he said.

Bush took the telescope with a nod and turned it on the scene before him. "Lovely girl," he remarked. Then he began a slow arc in the same manner as Hornblower had before him, sweeping across the crowd. Halfway across he stopped, narrowed his focus, and then inhaled sharply. "That's him!" he cried. He thrust the telescope into Kennedy's hands and took off down the crates in a rush, almost falling as he lunged off the less stable boxes. Kennedy and Hornblower exchanged a quick glance of bewilderment and took chase after him.

For a moment Kennedy thought he had lost sight of Bush's running form, obscured by some of the taller men in the crowd, but soon he sighted Bush's quickly-bobbing hat. There was no mistaking that, and it made him grateful for what was normally an annoyance of fashion. He and Hornblower sped their pursuit.

"Stop, thief!" shouted Bush. The man he was chasing had seen him and took flight. Kennedy realized that it must be none other than the sailor who had robbed him! Bush had chased the man out of the square and down an alley, and Kennedy and Hornblower made to follow. Suddenly Hornblower pulled Kennedy's shoulder to force him to halt, and he pulled him against the wall.

"There's another one," whispered Hornblower. "Look!" He pointed. Sure enough, another man was following after Bush. The unseen accomplice, no doubt. "I think I know where they are headed. You go after Bush, I will go around and head them off." Before Kennedy could even nod in acknowledgement, Hornblower had shot off into the crowd, presumably to find a shortcut. Kennedy hurried to follow after Bush, and suddenly, fervently wished he had brought his pistols along with his sword.

Away from the festivities, the alleyways were dark and narrow. Kennedy listened for the sound of running footsteps, and turned accordingly. The sound of his own breathing was loud in his ears and he worked to quiet it. It would not do to give himself. Despite the darkness, the polished brass buttons of his uniform glittered in the half-moonlight, and he found himself cursing the navy's tailors. He passed through an open street and back into the alleyways again, hoping he was on the right path. He cursed Hornblower for making him lose his quarry. How could he possibly know where these men were going? Bush would be one man against two, normally no concern but this was not the open field of battle. He turned again, and listened for footsteps. This time he heard none. He had lost them, damn it all.

The loud blast of a pistol sounded in his ears, and in a great rush he was knocked to the ground. In these close quarters the gunfire was a painful din, and as he fell on his back he cried out and pressed his hands to his ears.

"Archie!" It was Bush who had saved him! "Are you hurt? Speak, man!" It took a moment for Kennedy to reply, for the breath had been knocked from his body. He coughed, gasping for air. Bush pulled him upright to lean against the wall and patted him down frantically, checking for injury.

"I am unhurt," he rasped, pushing away Bush's hands. The acrid smell of gunpowder hung in the air. He had expected to have left such things behind him now. "There are two of them."

"I noticed," whispered Bush. "Shh, listen!" Both men tensed as they heard someone running towards them. Bush moved into a crouch, reading to spring at whoever came close. The footsteps slowed, stopped.

"Mister Bush!" came a hissed cry. It was Hornblower! It seemed he had been correct about his shortcut after all.

"Sir," called Bush, relief clear in his voice. Hornblower scurried over. Bush pointed ahead, where their immediate alley intersected with another. "Take the one who went left, I will take the other."

"Archie?" Hornblower asked, sounding worried.

"Just need to catch my breath," Kennedy said. "Go on, before they get away!" Both men nodded, and Hornblower took off in pursuit. Bush turned to Kennedy and held out his hand.

"Here," he said, handing Kennedy his hat, which had fallen off. Kennedy took it, and Bush ran into the darkness. Kennedy put it back on his head with a tug, took a few deep breaths, and then hurried after Bush. Again he followed the maze of alleys until he reached another junction. He stopped, breathing hard, unsure of which way to turn. Then he heard the cry.

"Oh no," he muttered, rushing towards the source of the noise. It had not been a comforting sound, and his stomach clenched with worry and fear. Suddenly he stopped, for he had reached a patch of stark moonlight, and in it were two grappling figures. It was Bush and the second man up against the bricks, and Bush had his sword upon the man's neck.

Kennedy let out a breath of relief and went to Bush's side. "You caught him!" he cheered. Bush had the sword pressed tightly indeed, and he did not move his arm at Kennedy's approach. Kennedy looked down and saw a spent pistol lying near his feet. This must have been the one who shot at him, he realized. He looked up at Bush's face, and saw rare, murderous anger clouding it. "William?"

"This wanton coward hit me from behind and stole from me," said Bush, the steel in his voice as cold as the steel in his hand. "He struck one officer, and almost killed another. He bears firearms in the open light of day, and I would wager they were gained through robbery as well. Under the articles of war, his fate is clear. Are you eager to hang, coward?" At this the man struggled fiercely, but Bush would not let him move an inch. "Give me back what you stole."

"I don't have it. My friend..."

"Your friend will be caught by my friend. But I think you have it." The edge of his sword gleamed as he tilted the sharp blade against the thief's neck.

"You would be wise to do as he says," warned Kennedy.

"The war is over! Bugger your articles of war!"

"The war is never over," declared Bush. "If you are a seaman, and by your dress and manner you are either a seaman or a liar, then as long as you are alive and able you serve the navy."

To Kennedy's surprise, the man gave an angry laugh in response. "I serve nobody. I was caught in a pressgang and lost five years of my life! The navy damn well owes me, and if I have to take it by gulling pigeon officers like you--" His insult was cut off as Bush pressed the sword so hard against his throat that it broke the skin. A thin trickle of blood ran along the edge and down his neck. Kennedy realized with no small shock that Bush might not stop at that, and while it would be no great loss to anyone it was not the way things were done.

"The navy owes you nothing," Kennedy said, his voice strong and clear in the night air. "You serve to defend your country, and that service repays you in full as it protects your family and land. If you cannot take pride in that then it not the fault of the navy but of your own character. This officer has protected this country with his life countless times, and in exchange you would steal from him and his family? He owes you nothing. Now return what you stole."

The thief did not respond to his words, but Kennedy saw that the strain in Bush's arm had calmed, and the sword was held firmly but at a safe strength. There was still anger in Bush's face, but it was no longer the kind that calls for blood. Once again the sound of running footsteps echoed down the alley, and Kennedy turned to see Hornblower arriving, a look of relief on his face. In his hand he held a pistol, and he trained it on the thief. Hornblower tossed Kennedy a length of rope. Kennedy tossed Hornblower his telescope, and Hornblower caught it with a grateful nod.

"I can take him now, thank you Mister Bush. Archie?" Bush backed off slowly, letting Hornblower take charge of his prisoner. Kennedy tied the man's wrists, securing them tightly. "You partner has been delivered to the police," he told the thief, "and now you will follow him." The thief spat curses at Hornblower, but a gesture of the pistol silenced him once more. Hornblower grabbed his collar and began to lead him out, but before he did so he motioned to Kennedy. "I will handle this," he said quietly. "You look after Bush."

Kennedy looked and saw that Bush was leaning heavily against the wall, his eyes closed. "I will," Kennedy said. Hornblower lead the prisoner away, leaving Kennedy and Bush alone in the quiet alleyway. Kennedy went to Bush's side and pushed gently at his shoulder, encouraging him to sit on a nearby stoop. Bush sat. Kennedy joined him, and for a moment they leaned against the wooden door behind them in companionable silence, letting the rush fade.

"Thank you," Kennedy said, his quiet voice surprisingly loud in the silence. "For saving my life." At this Bush gave a crooked smile. Kennedy felt his heart warm at the sight.

"Then we are even. Surely last night you saved mine. Besides, your life for a few pounds? It would have been a waste." Both could not help but laugh, more in relief from the night's dangers than at the joke itself.

"You know, for a while I thought you ready to slice his neck open." Kennedy said this lightly, expecting Bush to laugh again. Bush did not. He did not even look at him, but instead stared blindly at the wall opposite.

"I was," Bush said quietly.

"But... for a few pounds?" Kennedy asked, confused. "Money has never meant so much to you before. Surely your purse is not that tight."

"He would have killed you, if I had not been there," Bush said to his boots. "In truth he only tried to kill you because you followed me."

"But he did not."

"I thought he had, for an instant. Even when I saw you unharmed..." Bush trailed off.

"The grip of that fear did not loosen so quickly," finished Kennedy. Bush looked up at him, finally bringing his eyes to meet Kennedy's own. Bush's held surprise, understanding, and other things besides.

"Not quickly, no."

"We have nearly died together before, William. A matched set, with our scars." Kennedy felt at his stomach reflexively as he said this last, and Bush's eyes followed the motion. Seeing this, Kennedy moved his hand to his knee and pressed it there with determined firmness. "We have not seen action since Samaná, I know, but it has been only a few months."

"So short a time? It seemed longer."

"Perhaps that is because the last month of it you have spent shutting yourself away," said Kennedy. Bush blinked and lowered his eyes, embarrassed. "I try to speak with you but you only grow quieter."

Bush stood, abruptly, and walked a few paces away. Then he stopped, and turned around. "It is complicated," he protested.

"Evidently," said Kennedy, dryly. He waited patiently for Bush to find his words. A minute passed, then two.

Bush sighed and relented. "I do not know why it is different, Archie," he said, drawing out the words as if uncertain of their rightness. "I only know that it is."

"What is different?" prompted Kennedy.

"I am. Or you are. I am unsure what has changed." Bush rubbed his temples, obviously frustrated.

Kennedy took pity on him. "We both have, I think," he said thoughtfully.

"Do you still wish to leave?" Bush asked suddenly.

Kennedy frowned at him. "Changing the subject?"

"No. Do you? When war returns, what will you do?"

Kennedy considered this. It was a question that had weighed upon his mind for longer than the two days they had been in port. "I think..." he drew out the words, watching Bush carefully as he spoke, "I think I will return. Though I do not know when that may be, and it may be some time. Is that what you wished to hear?"

"Only if it is the truth. I hope you would not lie to me."

"If I did you would see through me. How is this not changing the subject?"

"I hoped your answer would make mine clearer, but I am not sure that it did."

Kennedy stood and walked over to Bush and crossed his arms in annoyance. "If your answers were any less clear I could use them as a shaving mirror," he replied tartly.

"Fine!" Bush said, waving his arms. "I have changed. It is my problem, I will deal with it."

"As you have dealt with it so far? By sulking and getting mugged?"

"Archie!" The look of shock on Bush's face was priceless. If Kennedy had not been so harrowed up himself he might have laughed. "Fine, then. If you must know, if you insist upon this..."

"Yes?" Kennedy prompted.

"I..." Bush began to falter, but then a look of particular determination came over him. Kennedy had last seen it when they had decided to disobey orders and go to help Hornblower blow up the Spanish fort. They had not expected to come back from that.

"I know," Kennedy said, surprising Bush, who gave him a look of cautious questioning.

"You know what?" he asked warily.

"I know why you bought that book of plays," Kennedy said, stepping forward to close the space between them. "I know why you have been avoiding me, and why you have not been sleeping well." Another step, and now only inches of air remained. "I know why you want me to stay, even though you do not expect to see me for months, do not know if we will even receive the same posting. To be honest, William, I would have to be blind not to see it, especially since the reason for your disquiet is kin to my own." A dozen emotions flitted over Bush's face, finally settling on what Kennedy identified as fearful expectation. "'My friends were poor, but honest.'" Kennedy repeated the lines he had spoken earlier that day, but this time he continued on. "'So's my love. Be not offended, for it hurts not him that he is loved of me.'"

"I read that passage," breathed Bush, "but there was more to it. You twist the meaning of these words."

"Words are for twisting," replied Kennedy. "Every actor knows this."

"Are you acting now?" Bush's voice was a whisper now.

"No," said Kennedy. Then he leaned in, and kissed him softly. When he drew back, the fear was gone from Bush's eyes, replaced by the same passion that had fuelled him earlier that night. But this time it was not angry, but gentle. "Your eyes are beautiful," Kennedy said. Bush coloured slightly, but quickly recovered. He reached up and laid his hands lightly upon Kennedy's arms. For a moment they stood as statues in the darkness. Then they kissed, and each kiss was more confident than the last.

"I must still be asleep," murmured Bush, his lips brushing Kennedy's as he spoke. "Or lying in that alley with a bump on my head and my pockets emptied."

"Believe that you are not," insisted Kennedy, gripping the sleeves of Bush's jacket. "Dreams end faster than waking does."

"Then I am awake, that this will not end." But as he spoke the words he grew sad. "But it will end. Tomorrow morning I am bound for Chichester."

"Chichester is not far," observed Kennedy, "and I have no great plans. Would a guest be unwelcome in your home?"

In reply Bush gave him a most brilliant smile. "A guest would be dearly welcome," he said, and drew his guest close to offer him the hospitality of his kisses.


It was fortunate that Hornblower had been delayed in the transfer of his prisoner to the police, for if he had returned in a timely fashion he might have grown curious about why his friends had failed to do so themselves. As it was, Kennedy and Bush had barely made their way back to the inn before Hornblower had arrived. It was also fortunate that there was a perfectly good reason for the signs of disarray in their uniforms, and the colour in their cheeks.

They had agreed, carefully, that they would not tell Hornblower. Not yet, at least. The change was too new to them both, and while he was a good friend, his comfort with such matters was not guaranteed. He would forgive them their caution, if and when they told him. It was difficult to pretend that their friendship had not developed further than was normal, but in this the shortness of their time together was an unexpected aid.

Neither slept well that night, alone in their beds.

The next morning, Bush rose early. He repacked his belongings, making them ready for his journey home. The book he saved for last. During his restless night he had read it by lamplight and moonlight, from cover to cover. Kennedy had been correct in his assumption that Bush was not a literary man. His knowledge of Shakespeare had previously been limited to a few performances that he had been dragged to by his sisters. One performance had been of Hamlet, and as he read, memories of that performance mingled with his mind's eye of the text. It made him wonder about Kennedy's regret.

Bush checked his watch; there was still over an hour before his carriage was due. He entered the hallway and cast a longing glance towards Kennedy's closed door, then turned and proceeded down the stairs to greet Hornblower for breakfast.

"Mister Bush!" waved Hornblower cheerily. "You look well this morning."

Bush sat down across from him at their table. "Do I? Odd, for I slept little."

"It does not show at all. You're practically glowing, man. Pleased with last night's catch?"

"What? Oh yes, the thieves..." Bush willed himself to behave as normal, but found he was failing happily at it. His lips curved involuntarily into a smile, no matter how he fought them. He felt like a cat who had gotten into the cream.

"Archie!" declared Hornblower. Bush started; for a moment he thought Hornblower had found them out, but then he turned to see Kennedy approach.

"Horatio, William," Kennedy said, dropping into the chair between them. "Have you ordered yet?"

"No, we waited for you," replied Hornblower. He waved, flagging down the barmaid. Hornblower must have asked Bush what he wanted, and Bush knew he must have told him something, but he barely noticed doing so. All his senses were fixed upon Kennedy, and let the rest of the world go hang. Kennedy looked back at him with eyes that sparkled warmly, and no words needed to pass between them.

"Archie?" Hornblower rapped on the table, bringing both men back to attention. "Do not tell me you slept poorly as well."

"I am afraid I did, Horatio," admitted Kennedy.

Hornblower clucked his tongue. "Well, try and stay awake. We have much ahead of us! Oh, Mister Bush, that reminds me: I have something for you, before you leave." He patted at his pockets, looking for something. Bush watched as he withdrew some items and held them out across the table. "Your watch and your money," explained Hornblower.

Bush took both gratefully. "This is more than I lost," he said, looking at the notes.

"Consider it a gift. Or a return on your troubles, if you think that better." Bush nodded in understanding and folded the money, putting it carefully away.

Their food arrived, and they ate. Despite efforts at constraint, or at least secrecy, Bush and Kennedy spent half the meal exchanging snatched glances and furtive smiles. If Hornblower suspected anything, Bush thought, it was either that they were witless or that they were conspiring. In truth it was both yet neither, but if he made such suspicions known they would not correct him.

Too soon their plates were empty, and Bush's carriage was due to arrive. It was with great reluctance that they brought his travelling chest and bags from his room. There was a minute when he and Kennedy were alone together, while Hornblower carried a bag downstairs. Kennedy covered Bush's hand with his own, paused on the edge of the trunk. Bush gave him a hopeful, wordless look, and at the assurance in Kennedy's eyes he felt his chest grow tight. Together they carried the chest downstairs, where Hornblower was already loading the bags into the waiting carriage.

"Packed and ready," declared Hornblower, once the trunk was squared away. It was time to go.

"I wish I could stay longer, gentlemen, but I have three sisters who expect me home, and they do not take excuses. I trust you will enjoy Portsmouth in my absence?"

"Yes, though lessened by the loss of your company," said Hornblower. "If there is time, you must come and visit."

"Without question." They shook hands firmly, and Bush turned to bid farewell to Kennedy.

"It has been an honour to serve by your side, Archie. I hope to do so again."

"The honour has been mine," insisted Kennedy. His smile twitched.

"If ever tire of Portsmouth and wish to spend time in the country, my cottage in Chichester is open to you. It is humble, but..."

"I am sure that Chichester holds its own delights." The look in Kennedy's eyes was positively scandalous.

Bush ducked and cleared his throat. "I have something for you." He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a book. It was the collection of plays. He handed it to Kennedy. "One choice does not prevent the pursuit of another," he said.

Kennedy opened the book; an inscription was written on the frontispiece. "Directions to your cottage," he observed. "Thank you, William." Bush put out a hand to bid him farewell, but Kennedy pulled him into a rough embrace. Finally Bush pulled back and climbed into the carriage.

"You know, Horatio," Bush heard as the carriage began to pull away, "it has been too long since I saw the countryside in spring..."


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