Day 6

Title: Day 6
Author: tarotgal
Fandom: Horatio Hornblower
Rating: G
Pairing: None
Disclaimer: Not my characters. I wish they were mine. I definitely don’t get paid for this.
Summary: Horatio comes down with a most terrible head cold right before he is supposed to be hosting dinner with his officers. He takes desperate measures to meet the obligation.
Notes: Written during my 12 Ficlets in 12 Days in 2018-19 project project for Wig-powder.

Under normal circumstances, Hornblower would never attend a formal event—let alone a dinner—in his present condition. He had the most wretched cold in his head. It felt as though he were submerged underwater. His thoughts were slow, his eyes watery, and his nose leaked almost without stop. To say he was miserable would be understating the situation significantly. He could barely stand seeing himself like this; he certainly did not want anyone else to.

The problem was: when you were a captain of a ship, there were certain things expected of you. There were necessary orders to give, inspections to carry out, drills to supervise, and social engagements to attend. Of course, a fair amount of his work could easily be passed on to his first lieutenant. Lieutenant William Bush was a hard-working, loyal officer who never asked too many questions of his superior. He could read situations better than almost anyone Horatio had ever met. Bush just had trouble sometimes knowing when to speak and when to be discrete.

Most likely, Bush already had his suspicions that Horatio had come down with some awful affliction. Horatio had snuffled his way through a briefing earlier that day and had passed it off as the cold wind getting to him. Most luckily, the head cold hadn’t escalated to sneezes at that time, so Horatio’s excuse had been believable enough for Bush to keep his mouth shut. His eyes, though, had a different agenda. Horatio had caught Bush looking at him more than at the maps.

After his officers had gone to carry out their orders—adjusting the ship’s heading, readying the men for drills that would come in useful as they headed towards waters notoriously popular with pirates, and clearing out space in the hold for the new supplies they would be taking on—Hornblower had shut himself up in his cabin to indulge in a short nap. His body was weary, full of chills and aches, and a short rest seemed the most sensible of options. So he had tucked himself into his bunk with a handkerchief and a quilt on top of his normal blanket.

Though he had intended to take just a short. rejuvenating nap, he woke almost three hours later feeling infinitely worse than when he had fallen asleep. The very first thing he did, upon waking was to sneeze—harshly, wetly, loudly. It was a mighty, sudden “HUH-URRSCHOOO!” The rats at the very bottom of his ship surely had heard that sneeze, not to mention every man on board. Horatio felt around in bed until he had recovered his handkerchief, just in time to catch a second sneeze. “HuhUHSchmmph!” Even muffled, the sneeze sounded too loud to his ears. If he could have pulled the blankets up over his head and hidden himself away for the duration of his cold, he would have gladly done so.

But, if he did that, his officers would surely notice something wrong with him when they arrived at his cabin that evening for dinner.

He had made the offer a week ago, when they had taken on unexpected cargo after capturing a French imperial schooner. The gunboat had suffered much since its last port. Outgunned and outmanned, it was no match for Horatio Hornblower and his crew. The crew and its officers had already been dropped off as prisoners at an English port, but their barrels of rum, rice, flour, potatoes, biscuits, and gunpowder remained on board. Hornblower believed his men could use a reward. He had ordered one of the barrels of rum to be opened and he had invited his officers to dine with him in his cabin in a few nights.

And a few nights was now tonight. Horatio, not the warmest individual at the best of times, had never felt less hospitable. This simply would not do. He had to start feeling better immediately or all was lost. So he called for his steward.

The man had been newly installed in the position for this voyage, but he had been quick to figure out Horatio’s eating preferences and he was never late when his captain called him. These were both very good marks in his favor as far as Horatio was concerned. He was wary, however, about the man’s discretion. He had heard the man gossiping with a few of the men on more than one occasion. This was not something Horatio was going to reprimand him for, however, as it meant the man often had insights about the crew that the captain wasn’t privy to.  

It wouldn’t do for him to be telling tales all over the ship of his captain’s runny nose and weakened state, but Horatio would have to risk it this time.

There was a familiar light knock on his door, and Horatio opened it. A captain’s steward did not normally need to knock. Sometimes his hands were full and it was safer to just enter and place the items down safely. But on the occasions when he could knock, he did so.

His steward stood there with cheeks flushed red, as if he had been leaning over a steaming pot. “Yes, Sir? What can I get for you?”

Silently, Horatio cleared his throat. “I’d like a cup of tea, thank you.”

The man nodded, knowing how Captain Hornblower took his tea. “A nice and proper afternoon tea. Very good. Will that be all, Sir?”

“Mmm,” Horatio felt a maddening tickle strike his nose at just the wrong moment and scrubbed it with the side of his hand, trying to feign thoughtfulness. “Yes, for the moment” he answered. “Just the tea.”

The man took his leave, closing the cabin door behind him. Horatio pinched his nose for a few moments, wanting to hold out as long as possible so that he could not be easily overheard. Then he folded his handkerchief into quarters and buried his nose in the thick cloth. “h’Chmmmmmph! Huhh-Shmmphhh! Huhh huhh!” He froze, not entirely certain if he was going to sneeze a third time or not. As it turned out, the answer was not. He rubbed at his nose and sniffed cautiously. He felt much improved; clearer than he had since before his nap.

But before his steward arrived with the tea, that feeling had already worn off. His nose was full again. As was his head. This damn cold was nothing if not relentless. He put his great coat on not only for warmth but also because it would allow him to carry more handkerchiefs on his person.

ehh… h’Chmmphh!” No matter how politely or quietly he muffled his sneezes, they were unmistakable. Even if he managed to turn his back or cause some sort of distraction that the junior officers might miss, he knew Bush would spot a sneeze right away and know that Hornblower had a cold in his head. So if there was no hope in preserving his image tonight, perhaps he would just have to cancel the event entirely. Perhaps the steward hasn’t yet started cooking the dinner? Perhaps there was still time to reschedule this obligation for another day when he wasn’t so completely miserable?

When his steward returned, he placed the steaming cup on Hornblower’s table and gave a small nod. “Best to drink it while it’s still hot, Sir.”

Horatio nodded and picked the cup up, trying not to look too eager. The first delicious sip was a shock to his body. A shiver raced through him. But then warmth settled throughout him. With a second sip, everything in him went calm. Tea was magical, and this cup tasted particularly good. “You are spectacular.”

The steward laughed. “Are you speaking to me or to the cup of tea?”

Horatio took another sip. “Perhaps both.”

The man laughed again. “Well, if there’s nothing more—”

Quickly, Horatio swallowed and cleared his throat. “Actually, I thought I might ask how your preparations for tonight’s dinner are going.” He tried to imply from his tone that he was still very much looking forward to the event.

“Oh, very well indeed! The timing of a dinner is something of an art, and I think I’ve got it worked out just right, even with this break for tea. I’ve got the bread in the oven already and the meat roasting with the potatoes, soaking in their juices. Your officers will never have eaten this well on a ship, I can promise you.”

Horatio nodded. He knew not to expect miracles from a ship’s steward. There were limited resources and limited ingredients. But his had surprised him more than once with the quality and ingenuity. “Glad to hear it.” He could not let such good food go to waste. There would be no calling off the dinner now.

This left him with only one option if he wanted to save face. It wasn’t one he much liked, but he would choose it over sneezing all over the dinner in front of his officers.

“Doc Potter?” Horatio stuck his head into the small room the ship’s surgeon used as his sickbay. It seemed deserted apart from an elderly man on a stool, leaning into a corner. Horatio had thought up a good excuse in case the sick bay had been occupied. But it seemed that he had it to himself. The most important thing was to hurry through this conversation so that he could escape without being discovered there. Which meant waking the surgeon up. “Doc Potter?” he prompted again. The man did not stir. Perhaps if he hadn’t been half deaf from a cannonball explosion…

Horatio put a hand on his shoulder. “Doc Potter?”

This time, the man startled awake. “What? Oh… Captain Hornblower… I was just resting my eyes a bit.”

Horatio wasn’t about to scold the man for napping during the day given that he had just taken a rather long one himself. “It’s fine, Doc. I…” He glanced at the door. “I need something I can take to keep from sneezing.” He took a deep breath. It was probably best to be honest; if you could not confide in a doctor, to whom could you? “I don’t feel very well today.”

The surgeon nodded slowly, a thoughtful expression on his face. Horatio thought it must mean he was thinking very hard about what help he could provide. Horatio knew there was no instant cure for what he had, but surely there were treatments or medicine that would help. “What?” the surgeon repeated, his hand cupped to his ear. “Speak up, Son!”

Horatio sighed. A little louder this time, he explained, “I need you to give me something to stop sneezing!”

Doc Potter narrowed his eyes. He stuck a finger into his ear and twisted it around. “What?”

Trying not to show his frustration, Horatio clenched his jaw. He wouldn’t yell; if he yelled, everyone would find out and then he would not need anything at all to cover up his illness. “I…” he began, even louder. But then he couldn’t finish. His breath hitched. His nose twitched. His mouth turned down. “huhh-HURCHOO!

The surgeon frowned at him a moment, watching him dig a handkerchief out of his pocket and dab at his nose with it. “I think you’ve got a cold!” he shouted. Horatio winced, glancing back at the door. The man didn’t need to yell; Horatio wasn’t the one who was hard of hearing. “Let me find you something to help with that sneezing! It’s loud!”

This time, Horatio cringed. If Doc Potter thought something was loud, Horatio’s sneezes must have sounded louder than even he believed. He only hoped whatever the man gave him would work well.

A quarter of an hour later, Horatio couldn’t believe his good luck. His head felt light instead of heavy. His nose felt normal instead of runny. His body felt relaxed instead of achy. In fact, he felt better now than he had felt in ages. And he felt more than ready to entertain his officers. By the time he had tidied up his cabin, rolling up maps and packing everything into his trunk, he had company.

“Come in, come in,” Horatio said, gesturing to his cabin. “Food will be served in a few minutes.”

The steward had pulled a second table into the room. Put end-to-end with Horatio's and with a freshly laundered sheet over them, it was a decent long table. Each of the officers had been instructed to bring his own chair or, in some cases, stool or tall box. In that way, the cabin was full but everyone was able to sit for dinner and be sufficiently comfortable. For some of the officers, this was their first time dining with a superior officer, and Horatio was keenly aware of his role as host. He wanted to put them at ease from the beginning. “I want to start by thanking you all for joining me tonight,” he said. “I know we do not often celebrate our victories, but I wanted to make sure you knew that your recent accomplishments are appreciated. You and your men have done your duty for king and country admirably. You deserve a hot meal in your belly while we still have the opportunity for one.”

And, as if his steward had been listening at the door for the perfect moment to make an appearance, in he came with a tray of food. He served Captain Hornblower first, First Lieutenant Bush next, and then the rest of the officers as they were seated clockwise around the tables. None of his officers touched their food, watching their captain carefully for a cue. Horatio decided to pick up the bottle of wine instead of his knife and fork. He topped off each glass, spilling a few drops on the tablecloth and having to pass the bottle down so that those at the opposite end could get some. The bottle easily held enough for each man's glass.

“A toast before we tuck in, Gentlemen?” Obediently, his officers all raised their glasses into the air. “To the officers and crew of the Victory, the best in the whole British fleet!”

Beaming with pride, the officers raised their glasses higher, nodded their heads, and clinked the glasses together before taking a sip from them. Instead of making a move toward his food now, Horatio turned expectantly to his first lieutenant. “Mister Bush?”

Bush, who had already set his wine glass down, quickly picked it back up. “Oh, ah, of course.” He thought for only a minute then a warm, confident smile spread across his face. “To the clever, formidable captain of the Victory.”

“Hear hear!” one of the midshipmen chimed in. There was much clinking and sipping to follow.

Then everyone began to lower their glasses. Horatio looked at the next man. “Mister Thomalson?”

The third lieutenant looked a little startled. He glanced at Bush, who gave him a supportive nod to urge him onward. “Um...” He cleared his throat nervously. “To... to easily captured ships?”

“To easily captured ships!” Horatio repeated more confidently, and sipped his wine. The others did similarly.

Horatio's gaze moved on to the next man. They seemed to understand that they were all going to be expected to make a toast. Horatio could practically see the wheels turning in their heads.

“To our families waiting for us back home,” said one.

“To a good bottle of wine shared in good company,” said another.

“To canons!” exclaimed one of the nervous midshipmen, to which everyone laughed before drinking.

When it got back around the table to Horatio, there was one last toast he felt must be made. “To His Majesty, the King.”

“His Majesty, King George III!” everyone cheered and drank from their glasses.

Satisfied, Horatio picked up his fork, stabbed a small piece of potato, and popped it into his mouth. It was seasoned and cooked to perfection. He was suddenly quite proud to be able to provide this meal to his officers and exceedingly glad he had managed to deal with his cold in a way that would allow him to do so. All around him, the men began eating as well. Despite the long round of toasting, the food was still nice and warm.

The first few minutes were quiet, as everyone savored their meals. The predominate sounds were those of silverware against plates, the tearing of bread, the cutting of meat, and satisfied chewing and swallowing. Horatio was grateful that his sneezes had so far not contributed to the noise in the cabin. He hadn't sneezed once; whatever Doc Potter had given him really had worked beautifully. He must remember this the next time he came down with a bad cold. What had the surgeon called it? He couldn't recall the specifics. Perhaps he could stop by tomorrow and ask for its name again. And then he must write it down so he could not forget.


Horatio lifted his head. Bush looked at him, concern in his eyes. “Is your food all right? You've barely touched it.”

Horatio startled, realizing he had simply been sitting, staring at his food. Though he found he had little appetite, he knew he must at least make a show of eating. “I was lost in thought,” he explained.

Bush smiled. “Of course.” It was not unusual for Horatio to think his way through an entire meal without eating a bite, but he honestly hadn't realized his mind had been wandering this time. He wondered how long he had been sitting there, not eating. And he wondered if any of the other officers noticed. Did they suspect he was preoccupied with thought? Did they perhaps even expect something else might be wrong with him? Surely none of them could guess that he was ill. There was no way they could know that.

AhChii!' Horatio practically bounced in his seat. Several of the others did as well. What a funny sound! It wasn't loud, but it was surprisingly sudden. And silly! So silly it made Horatio laugh. And then a thought occurred to him. “Toasts! We should make toasts. Lieutenant Oliver, pass me that bottle of wine, will you?”

Oliver looked confused as he reached for the wine, but he did as he had been commanded to do. Good man. He was a good second lieutenant as well. He would make a good first one day. But not this day, of course. Horatio enjoyed working with Bush too much. And Bush had never given him reason to consider someone else in the position. One day, Bush would retire from service, of course, but no time soon. Bush was a fighter, and he was at his best when he was at sea and they were at war. A quiet life in a small English village was not the man's style.

AhChiiii! Shiii!

Horatio laughed again. His whole body—from the tip of his nose to the ends of his toes—felt a little tingly. He reached for the bottle of wine as it was passed to him, and he filled his glass. Then he began tipping it in the direction of the glasses on the table. “Toasts!” he declared.

“Captain Hornblower...” Bush said quietly. “I believe we've already done all the toasts we can think of.”

Horatio narrowed his eyes. He didn't understand. “I need to toast my men. And the king, of course.” He grabbed his glass. “To his Majesty, the King!”

“His Majesty, Kig George III!” Everyone answered automatically as they scrambled for their wine glasses and raised them quickly, even those whose glasses only had a few drops in them. The bottle of wine was drained somehow. Horatio thought for sure that he had asked for a full bottle. How strange that was! Perhaps one of his officers had helped himself to more than his share? Horatio looked around, eyes narrowed. No one looked particularly drunk or even mildly inebriated. How to explain the wine then?

ah... Ihchiii!” There was that sound again! Horatio looked around. Could it be a mouse caught under a chair leg? Or a knife striking against china at a strange angle? It was not a sound Horatio had ever heard before, even though he was certain he knew every sound that was possible on his ship. He wished he knew what it was. He was captain. He should know these things. “What a funny sound, isn't that?” Most of his officers nodded, though several looked at their plates, cheeks red. He wondered if one of them had accidentally made the sound and was embarrassed about it. “Ahh-Chii!

“Sir?” Lieutenant Bush placed his hand on Horatio's shoulder. It felt heavier than it should, like it was weighing him down. Horatio felt light, like he might float right out of his chair and join the clouds. He felt the man's fingers squeeze, holding him down. It was just as well. If he began floating, he might bang his head on the roof of his cabin, and that really would be an embarrassing thing to do in front of his men. “Is something wrong?” Horatio shook his head. No, nothing was wrong. He felt calmer and more relaxed than he had ever felt in his life, in fact. Nothing could possibly be wrong when he felt this way. “Sir, are you all right?” And then, after a moment of hesitation, he whispered, “Are you unwell?”

Horatio laughed. How had Bush guessed it? Horatio really did not give that man enough credit. Though Bush shouldn't have said it so loudly. It had just been a whisper, but it was possible the other men had overheard. As much as he hated to admit it, he couldn't lie. What sort of a captain would he be if he lied outright to his first lieutenant? “Yes,” he whispered back. “I have a cold, in fact!”

“What?” Bush asked.

Horatio thought maybe he had not heard. He had thought he had whispered a bit loudly, but perhaps he hadn't been as loud as he had thought. So he raised his voice a little more. “I have a terrible head cold! But do not worry, Lieutenant. Doc Potter gave me some medicine, and I haven't sneezed once since!”

He noticed everyone was looking at him. Perhaps they were wondering what he and Bush were whispering about? They all looked so serious, so concerned about something.

“It's all right!” he reassured them all. Then he grabbed the wine bottle by the neck. “Let's have a toast!” he spread his arms wide to show they were all welcome, and the bottle tipped over his wine glass, spilling it onto his plate of bread. Why hadn't he eaten that bread yet? He wondered if it might in fact taste better soaked in good wine.

As Lieutenant Oliver used his napkin to mop up the spill, Bush muttered an apology as his chair scraped back. He rose from his seat. Some of the other officers did likewise.

Ah-Chiii!” And there was that hilariously high-pitched sound again. He couldn't figure out where it kept coming from, though, as his eyes always seemed to be closed when it happened. What a funny coincidence. “No,” he said, waving his hand at the table. “Do stay and finish the meal.”

Bush said something Horatio couldn't quite make out. More of the men stood up, abandoning what little remained of their dinners. Horatio felt disappointed. But he tipped his head in a nod at them as they passed him, thanking him as they headed out of his cabin. This was strange and confusing. What was Horatio going to do with the leftovers? Should he eat from their plates s so that his steward would not be offended? Horatio picked up his fork, leaned forward, and stabbed a piece of bread with the fork. Laughing, he held it aloft in victory. Victory, like the reason for this dinner. Victory, like the name of this ship. “To victory!” he proclaimed before popping the bread into his mouth.

It tasted strange, not like it had gone stale but, rather, like it wasn’t even bread at all. He narrowed his eyes in confusion.

“Sir... Captain... you can't eat a napkin.” With a one hand on Horatio's shoulder, Bush pulled the bread from Horatio's mouth.

Horatio laughed. Bush. He had forgotten all about Bush. Bush would help him eat all this food so his steward wouldn't find it uneaten. Bush was loyal and always obeyed orders.

And Bush was pulling him up out of his seat now. Bush was reaching under his great coat and sliding it off Horatio's shoulders, sliding it off his arms and his body. Horatio shivered at the cold. And it was cold now, suddenly, in his cabin without everyone there. Everyone had gone except for him and Bush. Bush circled around him and put a hand on Horatio's back. It tingled there but, then, his whole body tingled. The hand gave a push, and Horatio found himself stumbling forward.

A moment later, he was lying on his side in his bunk. And a moment after that, his shoes were off. And a moment after that moment, a quilt was pulled up to his neck. It felt lovely and warm, but it also made his whole body tingle every place the fabric touched him. He wondered why he was still in uniform and not in his night shirt. How strange to find one's self in one's bed and not be able to remember why. Or how. Or why, for that matter.


He felt something soft rub at his tingling nose, and he laughed at the sensation as if it tickled him. His eyes were closed, and he couldn't remember what was happening. Something heavy held him down, and he was glad for it. He would hate to float away from his ship forever. Horatio felt so warm and content he thought it best to keep his eyes closed.

Ahh-Chiii!” He might have fallen asleep like this if not for that silly, high-pitched sound. “Mister Bush?”

“Yes, Sir?”

“Please make that stop.”

There was a quiet moment. Then Horatio felt the something soft on his nose again. This time there was some pressure, like a squeezing. Horatio couldn't understand what it was, but he wasn't sure how to describe the situation well enough to ask what it was. At least the noise had stopped. “Thag you Bister Bush.” His voice sounded funny now, but he didn't have time to wonder why before he drifted off to sleep.