It was a black frost in Portsmouth, and First Lieutenant William Bush was out of money.
Flicking up the collar of his pea-jacket, Bush ducked his head against the biting wind and shoved his frozen hands into his pockets. Two shillings met his fingers there – all he had until Wednesday, and not enough to procure both dinner and lodgings for two nights.
Two nights in deep winter was a long time.
Bush sniffed and set his shoulders back, weaving his way through the crowd thronging the street. There was a time when the people here might have stepped aside for a man in a lieutenant’s uniform, but since the peace began, officers had been too high in numbers and too low in demand.
On board ship, I would be given deference, Bush thought, grimacing as a man in a greasy duster shoulder-checked him without a glance. Shrugging his coat back into place, Bush continued up the street; money or not, he needed to find someplace to spend the night.
It wasn’t as if he was hopeless, Bush thought. This was not, he reminded himself, the first winter he’d spent in Portsmouth. He’d been on half-pay before and gotten by just fine. His two shillings would get him a room at some inn somewhere; he just might have to make sleep his dinner.
Bush stopped, turning in place and squinting up at the street signs. He’d thought this part of town seemed familiar, and sure enough, in the absence of a real destination, his feet had carried him to a familiar haunt. He looked over his shoulder, down a sheltered alleyway to his left.
The red awning. A coffeehouse with an upstairs level. Recollections flooded Bush’s mind: himself at twenty, just a new midshipman, stranded at port with too much prize money in his pocket and too much time on his hands. A hot cup of coffee, and the lingering touch of the pretty servant boy who brought it to him.
Prior to that day, Bush had never met someone like him. Hadn’t even known there were others like him, much less where to find them.
Bush glanced up and down the street, back down the alley. He swallowed. It had been a long time – once, Madame R. would have recognized him, but he was sure he was now unrecognizable, his face lined and tanned by his years at sea. No matter that he wasn’t yet thirty-five; the service aged one faster than one expected.
I should sincerely hope I’m unrecognizable, Bush thought, his jaw tightening as uncomfortable memories arose to accompany the pleasant ones. There was a reason he hadn’t stepped beneath that awning in nearly four years, despite being in Portsmouth countless times. He thought of a pair of blue eyes, the fluttering in Bush’s stomach as the boy smiled at him and the reflection of his own stupid, simpering smile in the mirror beside the bed.
Stupid fool, he thought to himself. The wound smarted even now; but that was what happened when one was too quick to lay one’s soul bare, when one’s heart was weak. Bush had promised himself he would never make such an ass of himself again.
And I’d been doing so well, too.
A hot spark of indignation flared to life in Bush’s chest, the kind of passionate impulse he tried very hard to quell on sight. Lately, it had been getting more and more difficult to check those impulses, just as it had been with those past flings. Back then, it had taken all of Bush’s self-control not to sigh at every mention of the boys who took his coin, to keep himself from breathing their names aloud like a prayer in his berth at night.
What do you mean, ‘back then?’ his inner voice chastised bitterly. He was no better off now – he was still the same foolish sop, trailing after a man like a puppy, trembling in his presence and burning from within at the slightest touch.
Only now the name was different. And now it belonged not to a faceless molly boy, chosen for looks and taken in a drunken haze, but a man Bush knew personally, a man whose very presence was, for Bush, both guiding light and sustaining warmth.
The name rose, unbidden, to the front of Bush’s mind, and he felt his resolve crumble on the spot. Blowing out a sigh, he crossed the street and walked down the shadowed alley, stepping beneath the red awning and into the coffeehouse with all the ease of familiarity.
The bell on the door jingled as he entered and the woman behind the counter – mercifully not Madame R. – looked up immediately, as did the gaggle of boys scattered throughout the room. They were a fine set, to be sure, and they knew a cull when they saw one, immediately putting their best faces forward, but none of them were quite to Bush’s taste. He’d drunk his fill of that nectar, and now he craved something more genuine.
“Good day to you, sir,” said a low voice at his side. Bush glanced down and saw the madame approaching him, peering up at him through her lashes.
“Something we can get for you?” she crooned. The boys lifted their chins, staring down their long, pretty noses at him. One traced a heart on his upper thigh, a classic call. He wanted Bush’s attention.
Bush fingered the two shillings in his pocket. “Have you a Brazilian blend?” he asked, using the old code and hoping it still applied. The woman’s brows lifted, and her gaze travelled up and down Bush’s form, taking in his naval uniform, and the threadbare coat he wore over it. She jerked her head, slipping round the counter and through a curtain in the back. Bush followed her, carefully ignoring the desperate gaze of the boy who’d tried to signal him before.
The back room was just as Bush remembered; warm and inviting, with an undertone of debauchery. The boys here were more appropriately clothed for their profession: neckcloths undone, shirts open, faces ruddy and lips red. Their eyes followed him as he walked with the madame over to the fire.
“Take your pick, sir,” said the woman to Bush. She made a sweeping gesture with her hand. “Prices will vary based on service.”
Bush nodded, biting his lip as he surveyed his choices. Perhaps it was his time at sea, but something was wrong – the appeal of most of these boys was simply not there. He glanced down at the madame.
“Have you nobody…a bit older? Closer to my own age?”
The madame raised her brows, but nodded. With a flicking gesture, she said: “Come.”
They took the staircase to the second floor, passing by rows of closed doors behind which could be heard the muffled effusions of pleasure. The madame stopped at the last door on the end, giving it a gentle rap.
“Customer, dearest,” she said. To Bush, she added: “Come find me downstairs if he’s not to your taste.”
Bush nodded, and the woman swept back down the stairs, leaving him alone before the molly boy’s door. For a moment, he considered leaving. He still had his two shillings, and his pride, and there would be no shame in resisting this temptation. But outside, the wind was howling, and Portsmouth was lonely and cold, and Bush was so, so tired.
Placing his hand on the doorknob, Bush entered the room.
Inside, he was astonished at how un-familiar the place appeared. His memories of molly houses were all red silk and heavy perfume, glittering mirrors and flower petals. This room was certainly warm, but it was much sparer – Spartan, even. The bed stood in the center of the room, the sheets rumpled, and aside from the bedside table, the only other furniture was the vanity table pushed against the wall, at which sat the boy. He faced away from Bush, and was presently engaged in tying back his hair, but he heard Bush come in.
“Welcome sir,” he said, tying off the ribbon. “How may I –”
Their eyes met through the reflection of the vanity mirror, and Bush’s heart stopped.
No. It can’t be.
That is impossible.
Bush sought his voice; it seemed to have gotten stuck in his throat. When he finally spoke, all he managed to work out was a monosyllable; the single most incredulous word he’d ever spoken in his life.
Hornblower spun around in the chair, his face a mask of confusion. He looked – God, he looked exactly as Bush remembered him, all sharp angles and smooth planes, a work of geometric perfection. Heat flooded Bush’s body, along with a sharp desire to flee.
“Bush?” Hornblower repeated, shaking his head. “What in God’s name are you doing here?”
Bush sputtered. “You – I could ask you the same thing!” he said. “You’re not a – a – “
“A molly boy, yes,” Hornblower said, tossing back an errant curl of hair. “But you – I never would have pegged you for a –”
“You don’t –” Bush held up a hand. “You don’t need to say it.” More softly, he said: “Horatio, what are you doing in this place?”
“I am working,” Hornblower said matter-of-factly. “Same as anyone else. Lieutenant’s half-pay doesn’t go very far.”
“Lieutenant?” Bush drew back. “I thought you were a commander,” he said.
Something dark flashed in Hornblower’s eyes. “My promotion was denied,” he said. “The peace.”
Bush nodded, understanding dawning on him. He fished for something to say, but all that came out was: “Hard luck.”
Hornblower’s brows drew together, and he rose from his seat, frowning deeply. “Bush, I don’t know what you’re doing here, but I don’t need your judgment –”
“Judgment?” Bush scoffed. “Horatio, I’m –” He gestured to his threadbare coat. “I’m in no position to judge anyone.” He fished out the two shillings from his pocket, brandishing them as proof. “This is all I’m worth.”
Hornblower stilled. Lifted his chin. “I see.” He nodded. “And you thought to spend those – on me?”
Bush’s heart leapt into his throat and lodged there. He tried to swallow it down, but it hurt to force it. “Not –” He licked his lips. “Not on you, exactly, I –”
Hornblower circled the vanity chair, eyeing Bush with a strangely dark expression. “But you are of the persuasion,” he said, “and you sought company for the night.”
Bush shrugged. “Well, I – yes, I suppose, when you put it that way.”
Hornblower came to stand before Bush, meeting his gaze directly. His lips quirked into a subtle smile, and he held his hand out.
“Well then,” he said. “You must get what you came for.”
Bush felt like he’d been struck square in the chest. He blinked, his gaze darting between the coins and Hornblower’s outstretched hand.
“You – we – no, I couldn’t –”
“Oh come, Mr. Bush,” murmured Hornblower, closing the final gap of distance between them. “We both of us understand the importance of a warm bed.” He raised his brows, lifting his palm.
Bush’s mouth went dry. Hornblower smelled of perspiration and Madeira, and beneath it, that ever-present sea salt tang. The scent brought back memories of the Renown, of the fort at Samaná Bay and the final battle for the prize ships. That scent, enveloping Bush as Hornblower took his face in his hands and promised him that all would be well, while he lay bleeding out on the deck.
Beneath his clothes, the scars cross-hatching Bush’s chest prickled with the memory.
“Mr. Hornblower –” he began.
“Horatio.” Hornblower lifted his chin, giving Bush the classic molly boy look. Good God, but he did it well. “Call me Horatio.”
Slowly, almost mechanically, Bush dropped his coins into Horatio’s hand. A smile like strong whiskey, heady and full of promise, was his reward for the gesture as Horatio closed his fingers around the silver.
“Excellent.” He pocketed the coins and put his hands on Bush’s pea-jacket, running his fingers along the edges. “Now, Mr. Bush – how will you have me?”
Bush felt as if his insides had liquefied all at once. His legs wobbled, threatening to topple him over, and he reached for something to brace himself against. Horatio saw the movement and smiled, flicking the coat off his shoulders in one deft gesture.
“I see,” he said, turning Bush around and guiding him to sit on the edge of the bed. “It’s not you who shall have me.” He leaned over Bush, cupping his jaw. “Quite the reverse.”
He tilted Bush’s head back, their lips a mere breath away, and for a terrifying moment Bush thought he was going to kiss him. There was a part of him, deep and primal, that wanted him to, but the foolish romantic part of him wanted to wait; wanted it to be natural, the consequence of affection and familiarity – not this.
Fortunately, it was not his decision to make. Horatio pulled away just before they could touch, a breath of a laugh ghosting across his lips, and ran his hands down the front of Bush’s uniform.
“Would you like to take this off?” he whispered, fingering the buttons. Bush nodded, just barely, and Horatio set to work, slipping the buttons from their clasps with deft movements. Bush felt his heart thrashing against his ribcage, and as Horatio’s fingers moved lower, something else began to build low in his stomach.
“How long have you been doing this?” he blurted, his voice coming out small.
Horatio glanced up at him through long lashes. “Oh, a few months now,” he said, sliding the jacket off of Bush’s shoulders.
Bush huffed a nervous laugh. “You’re very skilled for someone with only a few months’ practice.”
Horatio tossed the jacket aside, letting his lips graze Bush’s jaw as he moved. “A great deal can be learnt in a few months,” he whispered.
Heat rushed straight to Bush’s groin, and he clenched his teeth, leaning back to brace his hands on the bed behind him. Horatio withdrew, turning his attention to Bush’s waistcoat and neckcloth.
“You look well,” he said, undoing the neckcloth. The casual comment startled Bush, and he blinked, his automatic reply coming easily.
“Thank you,” he said. “You do too.”
Horatio chuckled. “It’s my business to look well, Mr. Bush,” he said.
Horatio’s fingers stilled at Bush’s throat. He looked up, and Bush gave a terse nod.
“If I’m to call you Horatio, you should call me William,” he said.
Horatio’s face broke into a smile. He gave Bush’s neckcloth a gentle tug, pulling it off smoothly. “William,” he said, the two syllables drawn out slowly. “I shall.”
“And you need not do anything that –” Bush hesitated. “Anything you’re not comfortable with. Anything not befitting a man of your station.”
Horatio grinned. “Thank you,” he said, “but at present, there is nothing which is beneath my station. And there is very little I am not comfortable with.” He pushed Bush’s waistcoat off and withdrew, tugging his own shirt free.
“For example,” he said, pulling down his trousers, “I am perfectly comfortable playing the role of the tart.” He tossed the discarded garment aside with his foot and bunched up his shirt, revealing long, slender legs clothed in women’s stockings, held up with garters at the thighs. Bush’s vision blurred, and he had to close his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, Horatio was again before him, but this time on his knees, his long fingers splayed across Bush’s thighs.
“It’s not so bad, you know,” he said, running his hands up towards the flap at the front of Bush’s trousers. “This job. Servicing men.”
Bush exhaled sharply as Horatio’s hands passed over the hardness pressing against his trousers. He paused there, rubbing gently, and Bush felt something in him fray like a strained rope.
“It’s a bit different, though,” Horatio continued, “when it’s you.” His brows drew together – his thinking face. “On the Renown, I can’t say I never suspected anything. There were times I thought – but not this.” He flicked his gaze upwards. “Never this.”
Bush opened his mouth to speak, but before he could Horatio opened the front of his trousers and wrapped his fingers – oh, those long, skilled fingers – around his cock, giving it an experimental tug. A sound that was not entirely human wrenched itself from Bush’s throat and he jerked forward, his every muscle tensing with the shock of the pleasure that raced through him.
Horatio raised a brow. “Been a while?” he asked.
“It’s not that,” Bush choked. “Good Christ, it’s –”
“I’m told I’m quite good at this, actually,” Horatio said. Opening his mouth, he stuck his tongue out and ran it up the length of Bush’s cock, giving the tip a little flick. Bush whined – it wasn’t the sound he wished he’d have made, but he could call it nothing else – and reached forward, ostensibly to stop Horatio before it went too far. But it had already gone too far, and when Horatio leaned his head forward to press his thick curls into Bush’s hand, Bush knew he was lost. There was no helping it now; he was captured, a prize for the taking. There was only surrender.
Bush curled his fingers into Horatio’s hair and gave another small nod. Horatio dipped his head down, taking Bush into his mouth, and it was like he’d been plunged beneath the roaring sea in a squall. He squeezed his eyes shut, his head falling back, and breathed a sigh, letting all sound muffle around him, all sensation blurring to nothing except the lips and tongue on him – Horatio’s lips and tongue on him.
“Sweet Bush,” a boy had teased him once, “you’re far too easy to please. I put my hands on you and you fall apart in my arms.”
“Of course I do,” Bush had replied. “It’s you.”
It’s you. That’s what Bush would say, had he voice or words in that moment. He wanted Horatio to know that this was more than an exchange of services to him, that the fact that it was him specifically made all the difference, but he couldn’t have put those thoughts into words, even if he’d had the presence of mind to try. He’d never been good at that sort of thing.
Horatio withdrew with an agonizing release of pressure, crawling up into Bush’s lap and pushing him down against the bed.
“Lie back,” he murmured. “Let me do this for you.”
Bush followed orders – that, he was good at – dropping like a stone against the rumpled sheets. Horatio pushed his shirt up and kissed along his chest, following the silver lines of his scars.
“These still hurt?” he asked. Bush shook his head, watching him work his way lower.
“Good,” Horatio said. “I wouldn’t want you to hurt.” He hesitated, hovering above Bush with a distracted look in his eyes. “Seems so long ago, that battle,” he said.
Bush blinked. Pushing himself back up, he took Horatio’s hands, drawing him into the bed with him. He wasn’t sure why, but Horatio’s words had broken his stupor, awakened in him the man he usually was when he visited places like this. A man who gave as well as took.
“Lay beneath me,” he instructed. Horatio looked surprised, but obeyed, laying back and allowing Bush to straddle him. Bush paused, taking a moment to trace the contours of Horatio’s face with his gaze, and then dipped down to press his lips to Horatio’s neck. It was a simple gesture, one he’d imagined making a thousand times, and Horatio’s subtle response of angling his head to expose his neck was more than Bush could have hoped for. His breathing labored, Bush slipped a hand between Horatio’s legs and took his cock in his hand, giving it a series of slow, gentle strokes.
A small gasp came from Horatio, accompanied by a laugh. “That’s my job,” he said.
“You outrank me,” Bush murmured, pressing a kiss to the soft skin behind Horatio’s ear. “I serve you.”
Another laugh. “I do not outrank you,” Horatio said. “My promotion was denied, remember?”
“Mm.” Bush nipped at Horatio’s neck, then gently licked the spot to soothe the sting. “You’re a commander as far as I’m concerned. I would be happy to serve under you.”
Horatio laughed. “If I am a commander, I am only one on board ship,” he said. He slipped his hand between their bodies, taking Bush in hand again. “Here, I believe my title is master.”
Bush’s toes curled. He guided Horatio’s hand to grip the two of them together and rocked his hips, giving him a nudge. Understanding the request, Horatio complied, tugging them both off together as Bush pressed his lips to his neck, saying with touch all the things for which he had no words.
The moment was brief, Bush knew, but it seemed suspended outside of time, a bubble in which the only realities were him and Horatio and the delicious friction between their bodies. Bush heard himself panting, his breaths hitching and interspersed with little involuntary groans, and he knew it was terribly undignified, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. Horatio was, as always, resolutely quiet, communicating his pleasure by digging his nails into Bush’s skin as he worked them together in a steady rhythm.
“Horatio –” Bush was shaking now, thrusting his hips into Horatio’s hand as his body cried out for more contact, more friction. That fraying rope within him was dangerously close to snapping now; Bush could feel the tension low in his stomach. “Horatio, I’m going to –”
“I know.” Horatio quickened his pace, arching his back. “Let me –” He made a deft flick of his wrist, and the rope snapped.
“God!” Bush cried out, spending in a white-hot flash. He fell forward, clinging to Horatio’s shoulders with a white-knuckled grip, and let out a moan that was closer to a whimper than anything. He felt Horatio’s body tense beneath him, then give a brief spasmodic jerk as he finished in the wake of Bush. Horatio’s own exclamation was a mere quiet exhalation, an elegant note to cover Bush’s animal cries.
Bush stayed down after the last waves of pleasure had passed through him, his face buried against Horatio’s chest. In deep, rhythmic breaths he inhaled the scent of him, breathing in salt and soap and warm linen while his hands trembled at the touch of his skin.
I am undone, Mr. Hornblower, he thought. At the touch of your hands. Some things never change.
Finally, gently, Bush pried himself off of Horatio, sitting up on one elbow to look down at him. He was smiling, his cheeks dimpled in a way that made him look almost boyish. Bush could almost picture Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, green and young.
He is still young, Bush checked himself. They both were. They had so much life ahead of them, if the sea decided to be kind.
Horatio shifted beneath him, bringing a hand up to brush a piece of Bush’s hair aside. “What are you thinking about?” he asked.
Bush shook his head. “I’m not thinking,” he said. “I’m wondering.”
Horatio laughed. “That is a kind of thinking, Mr. Bush.”
Bush’s mouth pulled into a smile, the kind of reluctant, genuine smile he rarely gave. He thought Horatio deserved one. With his free hand, he gently stroked Horatio’s face, following the planes of his cheek, the strong curve of his jaw.
“Dear Horatio,” he murmured. “You have quite bested me. I fear that where I am concerned, you are both master and commander.”
Horatio put his hand over Bush’s, withdrawing it from his face to gently trace the lines of Bush’s palm.
“Every commander needs a second,” he said, rubbing circles in Bush’s skin with his thumb. He lifted his gaze. “Feel up to the task?”
Bush shivered. “I was worried you wouldn’t ask,” he said. Horatio laughed, full-throated this time, and it was music, like a bell ringing clear-cut across a frothing sea.
As Bush pulled his boots on, his mind once again turned to the uncomfortable puzzle of where he was to lodge tonight. He was now entirely destitute, and he was beginning to ponder the merits of different doorsteps in the vicinity when Horatio, as he so often did, presaged him.
“Have you lodgings for this evening?” he asked. Bush glanced over his shoulder at him, wondering if it would be better to lie or simply tell the humiliating truth. He never had been good at keeping secrets, and Horatio was uncommonly skilled at ferreting them out.
“I, ah – no,” he said. “Not yet, anyway.”
“Well, then you must share mine,” said Horatio. Bush drew back, affronted, but Horatio merely smiled.
“My boardinghouse,” he clarified. “I only work here. I lodge in Highbury Street.” He produced a slip of paper, upon which was scribbled an address in dreadful handwriting. Bush took the paper but shook his head.
“Horatio,” he said. “I thank you, but I have no money.”
“Sure you do.” Taking something from his vanity drawer, Horatio vaulted over the bed and came to sit beside Bush. Grinning, he held up a half-crown. “Consider this a down payment.”
“Horatio, that’s not how this works,” Bush said. “It’s the other way round – a down payment on what?”
Horatio seized Bush’s hand, folding the half-crown into his palm. “You’ll see,” he said. Bush blinked, unable to fathom what that meant, but Horatio didn’t give him time to give voice to his concerns.
“I’ll brook no argument,” he said, getting abruptly to his feet. “Mrs. Mason is a fickle woman – she’ll never let you in without payment, and I fully expect you to be waiting for me with dinner when I arrive home in an hour.”
“In an – I – what?” Bush colored, but Horatio merely laughed that silver laugh again and pulled him to his feet, shuffling him towards the door.
“Come on, Bush, it’s only an hour. But I’ve business to do in that hour, so you’d best not dawdle.” Opening the door, he pushed Bush into the hallway.
“It’s William,” Bush said, tripping on the skirting board. “Call me William.”
“Oh I will,” Horatio said, reaching up to fix Bush’s neckcloth. “But only on special occasions. I like Bush – it suits you so well.”
Bush was silent. He knew not what to say to that – he found he agreed with it.
Horatio finished with Bush’s neckcloth and stood back. “There,” he said. “A perfectly presentable gentleman. Off you go then – oh! But first –” He held up a hand, fishing in his pockets. “You had better take these back.” His hand reappeared before Bush’s face, and in it he held two shillings – Bush’s two shillings – which he pressed into Bush’s hand along with the half-crown.
“But I paid you these,” Bush protested. “What are they for?”
Horatio’s next movement was so fast that Bush’s mind was quite unable to anticipate it. In one smooth movement, Horatio grabbed him by the back of the neck and pulled him in for a kiss, his body pressing flush to Bush’s as he stole the very breath from his lungs. Fire lanced through Bush, but it was a different kind of fire, less passion and more – he didn’t know what, exactly. It was the kind of heat that left a lasting impression on the nerves and set the world to spinning. Like being drunk, or falling from a very great height.
Horatio withdrew gently, his lips lingering on Bush’s as he spoke. “For future visits,” he said. “I want you to come back to me.”
Bush opened his mouth, but Horatio stopped his words with another kiss, this one chased with some devilish movement of the tongue that nearly turned Bush’s knees to jelly. He had a mathematical precision, in this as in everything.
“Off you go now,” Horatio said, giving Bush’s chest a gentle shove. “I’ll see you in an hour. Remember the dinner – mutton, if you can get it.”
The door clicked shut between them, and Bush was left alone, swimming in the haze of Horatio’s kiss with silver in his hand and the roar of the sea in his ears. Dazed, he turned and left the molly house, making for Highbury Street. His feet, he found, carried him much easier now that he had a destination.