Title: The Most Important Meal of the Day
Fandom: Horatio Hornblower
Prompt: Horatio strikes me as the sort of guy who denies he's sick and tries very hard to hide it. And it's canon that he worries about what his men think about him. So I'd like to see a fic where Captain Hornblower catches cold and tries his utmost to hide it from people, blaming his sneezes on everything from cold air to too much pepper. It's up to you whether or not he manages to hide it.
Surprisingly, I'd like to limit the caretaking element. Either Horatio’s caught and sent to the doctor or he fools everyone and reflects on that dryly before going to bed.



The Most Important Meal of the Day


“Captain?” William Bush leaned forward, inspecting him more closely.


Horatio Hornblower had been trying to look lost in thought, but perhaps he’d gone wrong somewhere in the facial expression to make his first lieutenant suspect something were wrong. He cleared his voice once and realized it wasn’t enough. Dreading a second clearing, he tried to time the sound with the clinking of his knife on the plate. Then he tried to deflect attention. “I was thinking we might adjust our current course. The admiralty doesn’t expect our return for another three days and we’re making better time than expected.”


Bush sat back in his seat. He pushed some mash about on his plate around as he contemplated the answer to what he wasn’t expecting. “Ah, if you say so, Sir. Though I’m sure the men would be glad to get back to dry land.”


Hornblower did not feel likewise. Much more comfortable and confident at sea, Hornblower would have preferred to stay out there for all time. But he knew they needed supplies, needed new orders, and needed some fresh lobsters as the last batch of marines had not all made it through the battle. Additionally, he was hoping that this raging head cold of his might be gone before he had to present himself formally in front of royalty. It wouldn’t do to sneeze in His Majesty’s presence.


Come to it, it wouldn’t do to sneeze in front of his first lieutenant. As soon as any of his men discovered his weakness, he would look like less of a captain in their eyes. A captain was more than just a man who gave orders—he was a figurehead. The crew needn’t know their captain ate or slept or caught vicious head colds.


Asking Bush to take breakfast with him this morning had been a mistake; he saw that now. It wasn’t much of a breakfast anyway, rations being what they were. But there was no way he would be able to get through the meal without sneezing or coughing or doing something so unbecoming. And if sneezing weren’t bad enough, sneezing during a meal was damn near unforgiveable. He valued the man’s wisdom, especially when it came to battle. Bush had seen more than Hornblower and, soon enough, he was going to see Hornblower as Hornblower never wanted anyone to see him.


“All the same,” he croaked out, “I think it wise to take the longer route. There’s less chance of meeting the enemy.”


“Since when did the Lydia ever run from a fight?”


If Bush had a weakness, it was his eagerness to engage. Though for all his restlessness, he was the perfect soldier, obeying every order and never arguing with any direct command.


“Since… sin­-eh!” Quickly, he bent two fingers and pressed them at the underside of his nose. He felt his nostrils twich violently, insisting, and at once his head bowed down. “ehhhkshh! Eh-eh!” Only just finished with a sneeze when another came right along after. He pressed firmly, holding his breath, and seconds later the tickle died down. There was a handkerchief in his trunk, but he didn’t dare retrieve it. It was best to keep the sneezing to a minimum so he wouldn’t need to use it at all.




Hornblower took a sip of his rum, feeling it burn hot against his raw throat but needing it to buy him some time. He would have much preferred water, but he was under the impression that an infusion of rum would keep away scurvy and colds both; so far it was only working on the former. He swallowed and tried to project an air of confidence. “I should be glad to return if only so that my cabin can be given a thorough cleaning. All this dust. It’s a wonder I don’t sneeze more.”


“Of course.”


They ate in silence for almost a full minute as Bush chewed and Hornblower fought off another sneeze. This head cold was not just annoyingly inconvenient, it was quite miserable. His head felt permanently, heavily full. His nose tickled with every breath, and each fluttering tickle was more insistent than the one before. He pressed a fist to his nose, trying to muffle the soft, involuntary gasps. But all too soon his eyes closed despite his wishes and the urge was too great. “ehfChhhh! H’yetshhh!


“God bless you.”


Not sure how to get around it, Hornblower lifted his napkin and wiped his dripping nose. “Ah, sniff! Yes. I’ve asked the cook time and time sniff again not to put so much pepper on these eggs.”


Bush looked quizzically down at his plate. “I don’t think I have any on mine… Would you care to trade?”


Waving his hand dismissively, Hornblower shook his head. “I’ll be fine, thank you.” As fast as he could manage in polite company, he wolfed down the rest of his breakfast. The sooner he finished, the sooner this would be over and he could be left on his own to blow his nose properly and snuffle into napkins, sleeves, handkerchiefs, and whatever else he could possibly find that would be soft and dry against his nose.




Bush suddenly in need of an answer certainly meant he’d been speaking. Hornblower hesitated, not sure what was expected. Then he cleared his throat. “I’ll have to think about that.”


“Of course.” Bush finished and folded his napkin. “I’ll see to the morning watch, shall I? With the course correction?”


Hornblower tried to present a prompt, decisive answer. But his nose tickled again. Badly. He rubbed at it, holding his breath. Having used up all his most believable excuses, he was determined to not sneeze again. Finally, he managed to shake his head. “Keep the heading. I’ll-beh… I’ll be there by eight bells.”  Hornblower stood up to indicate the meal was over.


Bush had left his things on the chest beside Hornblower’s bed. He retrieved his pea coat, saber, and hat. As he put his hat on, he tilted his head and touched his hat in salute. “Eight bells. Aye-aye, Sir.” The door closed behind him just as Hornblower’s legs gave out.


Not even forenoon and already he was exhausted beyond measure. But at least he had managed to make it through breakfast without alerting Bush’s suspicious. At least that was something to be proud of and grateful for. He cupped both hands to his face and doubled over at the force of his sneezes, not noticing until afterward the handkerchief that had been left on his bunk.