Day 2

Title: Day 2
Author: tarotgal
Fandom: Horatio Hornblower
Rating: G
Disclaimer: Not my characters. I wish they were mine. I definitely don’t get paid for this.
Summary: Horatio's first visit to the officer's club
Notes: Written during my 13 Ficlets in 13 Days in 2016 project for wig_powder

Blast it! With disdain, Pellew threw the remainder of the cards in his hand onto the table. His luck had been absolutely abysmal today. He glanced toward a window only to see gray skies and streaks of rain upon the windowpanes. If it weren't still raining out there, he would have left already. But there was nothing pressing he had to do today, and spending time in the officer's club was typically an enjoyable experience with good company, fine brandy, stimulating conversations, and engaging games. Not only that, but it was filled with people who understood what being on the land now meant. They all wanted a ship. They all wanted to be at sea. They all wanted a purpose, a reason. All this waiting and slowing down involved in serving during a time of peace could feel infuriating, especially to those unprepared for it.

Which was why his attention turned to Horatio Hornblower the moment the man walked into the club. The last time he'd seen Hornblower, the man was at the helm of one ship in an armada that was twelve ships strong. They had been closing in on part of the French fleet. Hornblower had been brilliant, as always, anticipating what move the enemy was going to make, determining the best strategy to attack. He knew when to dutifully follow orders and when to suggest other courses of action to his superiors. Pellew had seen his share of officers over the years, but few had the combination of sense and insight that had served Hornblower so well. He would be very welcome here in the club, though Pellew had never seen him here before.

“I say! It's good to see you, Lieutenant Hornblower.”

There was a brief look of self-loathing that came across his wet face, which softened into mere embarrassment when an attendant arrived to see to his wet things. “Oh, Admiral Pellew, Sir. Sniff! It's nice to see you again.” Soaked through and through, Hornblower stood dripping, just inside the door. Relatively dry beneath his cloak and hat, Hornblower whipped out his handkerchief to dry his face, neck, and hands. He even gave his nose, presumably running from the sudden cold snap that had seized London overnight, a sound blow. He stuffed the handkerchief away as quickly as possible, leaving no trace of his weakness.

Pellew gave him the time to compose himself before offering a firm handshake that Hornblower accepted at once. “I hope you've been well?” the admiral asked.

Hornblower nodded. “Yes, Sir.”

“Settling in here?”

“Taking it in stride. But I did find a nice place to stay.”

“Glad to hear it.” He knew what the man's peacetime pay was, and he knew what a nice place could cost. Something told him that Hornblower was not being entirely truthful with him. Oh, the man would never lie outright to him, surely. But he might be leaving out a few key details. “Is this your first visit to the club? I haven't seen you here before.”

“Yes, it is. I was a few streets away when I got caught in the downpour. I thought it was as good a place as any to wait out the worst of the storm.” Hornblower's words rang with truth and, yet, Pellew did not quite believe the man. He looked nervous, ill at ease. He had not seen Hornblower in such a state in some time. Not when he had been quarantined on a plague ship. Not when he had been caught at the scene of a duel. In fact, the only time he could remember seeing Hornblower quite like this was when he'd attended a formal dinner party. The man's hand had actually shook when reaching for his fork. Sure, he'd been fighting off the worst head cold Pellew had seen in a long while, but that hadn't been the only reason he'd been nervous. Hornblower was cool and composed, logical and thoughtful in command of a ship. What he wasn't was in command of himself in a social gathering. “Well, as it's your first time here, let me show you around, son.” Protectively, he put his arm around his former midshipman and led the way into the main room.

They were a bunch of characters, their fellow officers. Some stuffy and formal, others loose lipped and liberal, especially when plied with an excess of drink. It would take time for Hornblower to learn about each one of them. But perhaps he could make a few key introductions to set him on the right path.

Pellew directed Hornblower toward a grouping of men who stood around, discussing the latest political climate. “This peace won't hold for long,” one was saying. “It can't,” another reassured him before taking several hearty gulps from his glass.

“Gentlemen,” Pellew interrupted. “May I introduce Lieutenant Hornblower.”

“Another former captain, I expect,” said a fellow lieutenant, reaching out to shake Hornblower's hand in greeting. “Rotten luck this peacetime, don't you think?”

Hornblower tensed, put immediately upon the spot. While he certainly had fallen in rank, he was not a man to denounce his king's choices or forfeit the well being of his country for his own glory. There was no good way for him to answer this question and stay true to himself. Pellew wrapped an arm around Hornblower's back and squeezed. “I've got to be making the rounds with introductions. I'm sure we'll circle back in time. Carry on, gentlemen.”

They left a chorus of “glad to meet you”s in their wake. Hornblower looked gratefully at his former captain, who gave him a reassuring smile. “It's hard times for us all right now. Especially for those of us cursed with bad cards all day.” He nodded over to the table where officers were finishing up another card game.

“Whist, Sir?”

Pellew remembered Hornblower's success at the game among Midshipmen on the Indy, and he wondered if Hornblower still had the same luck—or perhaps skill—that he once had at the game. Anyone who could give Captain Richards a run for his money would be quite a sight to see indeed.

“Damn you, Sir!” laughed one of the officers at the table, seated to Richards' left. He threw down his cards and looked apologetically at his partner across the table. “You've lightened my pockets for the last time. I think I'd best drown my sorrows in drink.”

Better than drowning at sea, to be sure. Pellew took the opportunity to steer Hornblower by the shoulders right into the vacated seat. “Meet your new competition, Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Captain Richards, with a smile as he rounded up the cards on the table and began to shuffle them. “I'm sorry it has to be under such circumstances.” He looked up at his partner across the table, a tall admiral with a distinguished gray beard and mustache, and raised his eyebrows. “Because this is going to be more fun for us than for you.”

Hornblower reached across the table to the man who would be his partner in the game. “Not if we have anything to say about it, right?”

The man waited for a moment then offered his hand, taking Hornblower's in what looked like a firm, decisive shake. “Absolutely right. Captain George Macy. And this is the infamous Captain William Richards and Admiral Colin Cooper.”

Pellew could see from Hornblower's expression that he'd either already known who the men at the table were or that he knew them now by reputation. Hornblower might not always understand how to act around such people, but that didn't mean he didn't pay attention to who they were. And that same attention was what he used on the game before him, just as Pellew knew he would.

Shuffling. Dealing. And then the trump card. Play went clockwise around the table, trick by trick. Meanwhile, Pellew walked around the table anticlockwise, observing the play. There was no speaking, no signaling, nothing that would be remotely dishonorable. All men played with intensity and concentration, but none so much as Hornblower. He studied every card closely. And, in the end, he sat back in his seat. “I believe that's five.”

Captain Richards slammed his fist on the table. “Well done!” he declared. “Pellew, where did you find this man?”

“Once upon a time, he was one of my midshipmen.”

Richards nodded. “Best game I've had in a long while. I demand a rematch.” While the admiral collected the cards to deal another game, Captain Richards pulled out a small tin of snuff. He took a pinch and snorted it, nostrils flaring. He offered the tin to the others, one by one. Each took a little. Then Richards held it out to Hornblower. Hornblower hesitated, looking at the tin as though it held some terrible power over him. “I hear this is Admiral Nelson's favorite brand,” said Richards, tipping the open end in Hornblower's direction.

'Just take it!' Pellew shouted in his head, trying to hint to Hornblower regarding the proper course of action with his expression alone. Hornblower could not very well refuse the offer at this point; surely he knew that much of social niceties. It would be an insult to Richards and the other men and also now, apparently, Nelson himself.

So Hornblower took a pinch between his thumb and index finger and lifted it to his nose. He took a slow breath out then a quick but deep one in, inhaling the fine tobacco leaf powder.

At once, his eyebrows shot up and his eyelids slammed closed. He took in a sharp breath and Pellew gritted his teeth and clenched a fist as if his own steeling against the reaction could somehow prevent it. Of course it could not, and Hornblower pitched forward with a strong, involuntary sneeze. “HIHTtttchew!” Wearing a most horrified expression, he reached instinctively for his handkerchief, but the moment his fingers seized upon the fabric, the corners of his mouth turned down. It was already wet from earlier use. It would be undignified to whip out a sopping handkerchief and blow into it now, in front of such company.

Meanwhile, the others were laughing heartily at his reaction. Most times, sneezing from snuff, especially the particularly dry variety, could not be helped regardless of experience. But most people were still under the opinion that those who did sneeze were new to the sensation, and that was probably the case here anyway.

Hornblower looked entirely out of his depths here, his nose wrinkling, eyes darting around for whatever options might be open to him. But before even his quick mind could formulate any sort of plan, it looked like he would be forced to sneeze again. “hiih... ihhhhh... hih-TISChewphh!” At least with this one he had the foresight to direct his sneeze into his sleeve.

The ticklish sensation really should have stopped after one sneeze. Two sneezes from snuff were incredibly rare. But more than that was virtually unheard of.

Horatio Hornblower, however, seemed to live to defy the odds of any situation. And as soon as he had sneezed the second sneeze, it seemed as though he were already winding up for another.

Hastily, Pellew tugged his own handkerchief out from the pocket in his sleeve where he kept it, military style. Circling round the table, he closed the space between the two of them in a matter of eight steps, practically no time at all. But in those few precious seconds, Hornblower had already begun to gasp. And by the time he arrived beside the man, Hornblower's eyes were closed, nostrils flaring, mouth dropped open, entirely at the mercy of this sneeze. Though he cared for Hornblower not unlike a father would a son, Pellew would not cover his nose for him as though he were a child. So he forced the handkerchief into Hornblower's hand and took a step back again, just in time.

hehTISHewphhhh!” Hornblower sneezed into the pocket-warm, dry cloth with some relief. Around the handkerchief, Pellew saw him smile in gratitude, which was all he could do. For Pellew also saw that this was far from over. Hornblower's nose still twitched powerfully. “hihhhhhTChewphhhh! Tihshewphh! Heh heh TIShchewwphhh!” The sneezes bent him forward helplessly in his seat. In an attempt to gain some control and keep his nose from embarrassing him even more, he readjusted the handkerchief that Pellew had just decided he was surrendering for good, not wanting it back no matter how cold and wet it was outside and how much he might need it later on the journey home. “Ih Hihtchewphh! Chewphhh! Hih ih hihhhTChewwphhh! CHIShhewphh!

Hornblower straightened up, wiping thoroughly at his nose. That seemed to finally be the end. He was well aware that all eyes were on him now, even officers who hadn't been paying attention to the whist game. He folded the handkerchief up, hiding the bulk of it in his palm. Then he smiled and chuckled lightly. “Nelson really knows his sunff. That felt wonderful.”

Everyone laughed, right down to the last man. Pellew could see some embarrassment lingering on Hornblower's flushed face, but the others had already turned their attentions toward the cards again thanks to the man's clever, quick thinking. Hornblower was to the left of the dealer, Captain Richards, so it was to him to lead the first trick. As the next game began, Pellew kept his gaze trained on Hornblower. This man had more surprises in him than even Pellew had counted on. He would definitely make a stimulating addition to the officer's club.