Day 1

Title: Day 5
Author: tarotgal
Fandom: Horatio Hornblower
Rating: G
Pairing: None
Disclaimer: Not my characters, not my 'verse. I don't get paid a cent to play. Please don't sue and make things worse.
Summary: Poor and stuck on land, one more thing goes wrong for Hornblower when he comes down with a cold.
Note: Part of the 12 Ficlets in 12 Days project 2010-2011. Requested by silentdream789


Tonight would not bring Horatio much comfort. He was sure of that as the tricks around the table were scored. While he considered himself the best player at the table, the others were also quite good and he only received two points for his hand.  At this rate, it would take months just to make the amount he owed his landlady. He knew he must work harder at the next hand. While most of his fellow officers considered Whist to be a game of luck, Hornblower's exceptional skills at mathematics, logic, and reasoning had taught him that the card game had less to do with luck and more to do with cleverness. Except tonight his mind was muddled, his clarity clouded.

Tonight he was sure he would find no comfort because he had an awful cold. His nose failed to stop running, though a thick, linen handkerchief held just so and used at just the right moments helped him to hide that from his compatriots well enough. It was the tickles that were much more difficult to hide, truth be told. Sometimes a few good rubs would do them in, but other times there was nothing for it except to bury his nose as deep as possible in the cloth to sneeze a great sneeze. Or two. Or three or more if he was especially unlucky. Because that was where luck came in. It wasn't in the game, it was in his cold.

And, goodness gracious, what a cold it was. He had had worse, of course. Or perhaps they had caused just as much misery as this one, but those had been accompanied by pangs of seasickness or wet days on the deck of a ship or fierce storms that brought both an unsteady stomach and wetness through and through. He recalled with no pleasure being called “Snotty” during his first times as a Midshipman, worried that he was close now to actually living up to that name so many young midshipmen were given.

No gentleman would be found out of doors and out of bed with such a head cold as his. And, yet, he had dragged himself to the officer's club for he knew he had to. Whist was the only way he could supplement his income, now that peacetime had robbed him of his station and his home at sea. In fact, sometimes he wondered if this cold was just one more way fate told him he was not cut out for life on land. There were too many people about this winter. Too many sniffly noses and dirty hands touching cards. Too many people standing by fireplaces for warmth, coughing and spitting into the hearths. Too many people demanding unnatural things from him. When he was at sea, he had specific duties and people expected specific things of him. And those things he could live up to quite well.

But biding his time, playing games for money, scrounging to make good his simple debts, shoving his fists into very thin pockets of a very thin peacoat that did little to protect him from the cold… this wasn't his place at all. He belonged at sea.

As the cards were shuffled, Hornblower pressed his hanky to his nose to stop a run. He would have liked to have blown his nose, but that was absolutely out of the question. His rubs and swipes and other ministrations might go unnoticed out of pure politeness, but a loud, liquid gurgling would be impossible to ignore.

As the cards were being dealt out, Hornblower turned his head slightly, cheeks flushing despite the fact that he was quite chilled to the bone. “hehh…” It was another of those irritating tickles. “hih…” Damn the tickle, just growing worse. His eyes closed. “huh-Uhshffff!

“Bless you, Mister Hornblower.”

He pinched his nose between thumb and forefinger through the cloth, wiping it clean as he lifted his head. He found himself staring straight into the face of Admiral Pellew. And he gulped. He knew catching cold was not something to feel shame about. But all the same, he felt shy around his superior when he was feeling far less than his best. Surely the man had just bore witness to that terrible sneeze?

“When you have finished with your game, I would like a word with you, if I may.”

As if Hornblower were in any position whatsoever to refuse? He started to rise at once.

“Stay.” He held up a hand, gesturing that Hornblower was not to react so quickly. “It's not an order,” Pellew said, with a bit of a smile—that rough, strong smile that said so much. “It's a request. Have at your game as you will and join me afterward.”

“Yes, Sir,” Hornblower replied. “Thank you, Sir.”

He shivered a little and wished he were wearing his peacoat now. This dress shirt and vest were not remotely warm. A wool blanket wrapped around his shoulders would be even better. He took up the cards he had been dealt. Other players tended to rearrange their cards in order to more easily see what they held. It was typical play to lead with one's strongest suit, or with a singleton. But Hornblower did not need to make such an unnecessary fuss. One look let him understand where he stood.

And if only his cold would cooperate, he would have an easy time at the game. But his nose continued to run and tickle and “hah-Ehshhfffff!” He pressed his hanky to his nose as he played his first hand and by the second, his nose was a little better. By the third, however, it tickled again and he had to turn to sneeze once more. “huh-Etchfffff!” The momentary glance away from the cards had caused him to lose track of what had been played. Had it been a low card or a face card? Had the honours been split? Or were they already on the next round? He couldn't be entirely sure. And even more than he hated his cold, he hated being even the slightest bit unsure. He took a chance. He played high. And it paid off. Perhaps his fellow players were not the experts he had expected. One discarded card brought about a trump. And he felt a fluttering in his stomach as laid down his cards. “That's five, I believe, Sirs?” Thank goodness he had gotten that bit of it correct.

The moneys were passed his way and the cards were gathered up. His nose tickled again, and he wished this time to sneeze. It was the perfect time, in fact, if ever there were such a thing. He was between hands. His concentration could be stolen. And the others would not notice. They were confuddled with drink and deep in conversation about some matter. Now he could sneeze. Now he should sneeze. But his nose merely tickled. It tickled badly, unrelentingly, but not nearly enough to warrant a sneeze. Horatio tried rubbing his nose. He tried brushing the cloth at his flaring nostrils. But neither technique touched the tickle, either to diminish or intensify it.

The cards were dealt and the game began. And it was then, naturally, that the sneeze struck. He only had enough time to put down his cards before it struck. He sneezed in the general direction of his hand and the handkerchief he held, but the sound was not the least bit muffled. “HAH-CHISHOOO!


Hornblower looked up at once, alarmed. The voice he recognized did not belong to one of his fellow card players. Nor, in point of fact, did it belong to Admiral Pellew. “Lieutenant Bush!” he exclaimed, looking into the man's face and hoping he wore an expression of pleasure, not one of embarrassment.

“I thought I might find you here. I have something I must discuss with you.”

Again, Hornblower made to rise.

And, again, he was beckoned to stay put in his seat.  “At your leisure, naturally.”

Caught quite miserably between needing money in the most desperate way and wanting to retire somewhere private where he might deal with his considerable ailment, Hornblower hesitated. He could not for the life of him figure out what Bush might have to discuss with him. They shared lodgings now, cheap as they were, and Bush could speak with him any time he liked, whenever he wished. There must be a matter of some importance to discuss now if it involved even a brief mention while Hornblower was playing whist.

“I believe I have a moment now, William.” He collected his winnings and bowed out of the game graciously. “Gentlemen,” he said, nodding to each of them politely.

He followed Bush out of the main room of the officer's club and into the hallway, all the while rubbing at his nose and keeping on the lookout for Pellew, but the commander seemed to have disappeared. Bush led him down a hall and into a small corner, out of the way. “I had an inkling that you might not be well off, and a certain captain suggested relieving you.”

“Did he now?” Hornblower felt a bit mortified at the idea of Pellew noticing the state of his health, moreover discussing it with Bush. And if Pellew noticed, it was highly probable that others had as well. Though with all the sneezes he had suffered though, it was hardly surprising. Though no one else had thought to say anything or, indeed, provide him with an excuse to leave the table. “Well, I shall have to th-thank him when I see h-him.” He pinched his nose with thumb and forefinger, but still his nostrils flared against his tough.

“Good God, Man.” Bush pulled a handkerchief from his sleeve and handed it over. “You look as though you desperately need this.”

Hornblower would have liked to have explained that he had his own handkerchief for this. He would have liked to have been able to politely refuse the kindness. But it was true; he did need it. So he plucked it out of Bush's hand and pressed it securely over his nose. “hufChifffff! hehChufffff! Huh-Uhshfff!” He felt Bush step closer, blocking the view of Hornblower form anyone who might pass through the corridor. Hornblower relaxed just a little. “UhChfffff! Hshffff! Heh-heh-hehSHFFffff!” Honblower blew his nose, not caring one bit how it sounded, only knowing that he needed to do it to get himself back in order. And when he was done, he found himself wedged into a corner, propped up, nose still dripping but not tickling. “Please accept my apologies…”

Bush chuckled. “I have a feeling that I will be hearing more of that tonight through the walls, yes?”

“It is likely,” Hornblower agreed, nodding. “I do not see my condition improving significantly within a few hours. And I do feel quite miserable.”

“Well then…” Bush extended his elbow. “Please allow me to see that you get home safe and sound. I'll pay for a warm carriage and all.”

Hornblower sniffled behind the man's handkerchief. “No, truly, I appreciate the gesture, but you can no more afford that than I can.” With one more sniffle, he lowered the hanky, folded it, and straightened up, trying his best to look well. He took a careful breath in and let it out just as carefully.

But Lieutenant Bush was not one to be fooled so easily. “It is cold out, Horatio. Allow me to provide assistance. I promise it will not break me.”

Hornblower felt another sneeze approach and knew its presence would lend no credibility to his argument. He shivered and quickly reacquainted himself with the handkerchief. “hufchh! HffShffff!

Bush smiled. “Of course, if you're feeling well enough to walk the whole way… through the freezing cold… in the dark…”

With a chuckle, Horatio shook his head. “You've always been a fighter, Mister Bush, and I have no intention to fight you over this. I know when I've been bested in a battle.”

Wrapping an arm around Hornblower and steering him down the corridor toward the door, Bush shook his head. “Best you, Mister Hornblower? Never!”

Hornblower shivered terribly as the cold night air made its assault on his person. But the doorman found them a carriage and Bush gave coins liberally as needed to get them in and safely home. Once inside, Hornblower adjusted to the unpredictable bumps and jolts as the wheels hit uneven cobblestones. And then he felt relieved to be in relative warmth and comfort for the remainder of his journey home. Bush patted his back and settled back, hands behind his head and arms bent at the elbow, clearly enjoying this luxury, though his wink showed that he was just playing in order to coax a smile from Hornblower.

And as horrible with head cold as Hornblower felt, he could not deny Bush that pleasure. For some time now, it seemed as though no one cared whether he lived or died. It was reassuring, to say the least, to know that wasn't the case now.