Captain Hornblower had been gone for several long hours. He'd left the Hotspur halfway into the forenoon watch and now, eight hours later, they were well into the second dogwatch and he still had not returned.
Lieutenant Bush was restless, and the crew far more vocal than he liked Bush was well aware that the crew were hoping for sometime ashore, and he'd been expecting Hornblower back with new orders. Orrock hovering behind his shoulder like a lost puppy was also beginning to wear on his nerves.
Bush had already had to warn Matthews to stop Styles spreading more discontent; he'd had enough of the man. It was a damn shame that Styles was such a doomsayer, as he was one of the best gunners Bush had ever served with, even though he would never admit that to Styles.
Finally, as the bell struck time for the first watch, a messenger from the Admiralty arrived with two missives. After the messenger had left, the lieutenant turned them over in his hand, and studied them.
One was obviously an official letter, the seal and envelope proclaiming its importance. The other was plainer, carefully addressed in Hornblower's neat hand. Bush could feel the eyes of the crew on him as he broke the seal on the official orders first.
Scanning them quickly, he was pleased to see that Hornblower had been promoted again, from Commander to Post Captain. He was to be given a new ship. A ship worthy of a Post Captain would surely mean more guns, so Hornblower would probably be given a frigate. Bush could barely restrain a groan as he read the final part of the orders. He was to keep the men onboard ship to prevent desertion until they were reassigned. How long would he have that headache to contend with?
With war so close on the horizon, this would probably be one of the last chances for the crew to enjoy Portsmouth. Unrest was common when men heard that they were to be transferred to a new ship without stepping foot on shore. He had seen the results of crew discontent turning to action when he was a midshipman and had no wish for a repeat here, nor any desire to mete out the harsh punishments that would follow. He shook his head, and opened Hornblower's letter. It contained the same information with some personal comments. The Captain said he believed his new orders would come soon, and that he hoped he would be able to serve with Bush again. He didn't make any promises so obviously he hadn't been told what ship he was going to command. He ended on the note that he was going home to Mrs Hornblower, and would be in touch as soon as possible.
Bush sighed, and closed his eyes briefly, praying to whatever gods looked out for sailors that they'd make it through this with only a few cracked heads. It was only a short time since the crew had been quarantined. His hands were tied in regard to allowing wives on board, until a captain gave his permission, and he knew bored sailors would always find trouble. He would have to put marines on guard, again.
"Mr Orrock, a word."
The younger man followed him, and he explained the situation as quickly as possible. He saw Orrock's face drop.
" But, sir."
"You have a problem with our orders?"
He sympathised with the boy, as he saw the same emotions he'd experienced minutes earlier flick across the midshipman's face. They both knew that maintaining discipline would be a struggle, but at least this time, there were no Bonapartes on board. Bush did not allow any of these thoughts to show on his face, keeping his expression stern and unmoved. It had the desired effect as Orrock straightened up, becoming the model of efficiency.
"No, sir," he paused, "what will, we tell the crew?"
"As little as possible but I'll have a quiet word with a one or two of them. Place the marines on guard, and make sure you keep a close eye on Styles. Keep him busy in the galley. Find someone who can write, and make sure they help him organise the stores, or something. Just keep him busy, and out of my way."
Orrock was obviously startled at Bush wanting Styles in the galley, but Bush would take food poisoning over Styles spreading his usual brand of stupidity.He and Orrock patrolled the ship on mid-first watch, putting two men on report for being drunk on duty, and breaking up a couple of fights as they did so. It was a smaller toll than Bush had expected. Matthews had obviously taken his quiet word to heart.
Wearily, Bush made his way to his cabin. He would be able to hear the crew who were off watch, but at least it allowed for some much-needed privacy, where he could contemplate what exactly his own future might hold.
Hornblower had said he would do his best for him, and Bush believed him, but there were lieutenants who held seniority over him, and who would no doubt have patrons that would like to see them serve alongside such a captain as Hornblower.
Bush paced his cabin, as restless as the crew; he knew his temper was fraying and reminded himself forcefully that first lieutenants needed patience and discipline, but he hated inaction and tedium as much as anyone, and this waiting game was frustrating and pointless. The Admiralty moved at a snail's pace, and their machinations were beyond him. He envied Hornblower's grasp of such things, while also grateful that for the most part he had no need to deal with them.
Bush missed Hornblower, not just because of the added responsibility his absence brought, but because he missed his company. Mrs Hornblower was a lucky woman.
Some of the crew were already muttering that they would be pleased when the captain was back - it was a sentiment he understood. Smiling wryly, he re read Hornblower's letter. The Captain apologised that Bush had been inconvenienced, but as situation was now in the hands of the Admiralty, he could nothing. Bush could sense the unspoken frustration. It was inconvenient that the ship was in Hornblower's homeport. He pushed the thought away guiltily. Mrs Hornblower owned little enough of her husband, without Bush wishing to take this time away from her.
Clearing his mind of any thoughts of the first time he and Hornblower had bumped into each other at Portsmouth was difficult. The few days spent there before leaving on the Hotspur had been very special. They'd had sex for the first time, and had found great pleasure in each other's company. It was of little use dwelling on the experience, as things were different now. Bush shook his head, annoyed at his maudlin thoughts and concentrated instead on the mundane routine of reports and logs.
He stretched after a while, rubbing his slightly aching head, and wondered whether he should take another walk on deck, turn in, or write the much delayed letter to his sisters.
His decision was made by a loud commotion; he knew one of the voices was the marine sergeant.
Bush took two long steps to the door and yanked it open, his resolution to be calm evaporating. What the hell was happening? Surely it was too early for trouble to start. He slammed out on deck, and saw that two marines were holding one of the crew tightly, as he struggled and yelled defiance.It was late, but the lamps on the deck afforded enough light to see by, as the night was clear and bright.
"What is going on here, Sergeant?"
He turned his full glare onto the prisoner, who stopped struggling when he saw his commanding officer. Bush was surprised to see it was Rogers, a young man who had seemed only too willing to sign on and was a handy gunner, taking pride in his skill. If he was deserting Bush held out little hope for others.
"This man tried to desert. I stopped him."
Brief and to the point as always, thought Bush wryly. Despite the lateness of the hour many crew were still awake and on deck. They looked on with obvious interest, happy for something to break the tedium, but he was not going to make this a spectator sport. He whirled round to glare at them.
"Back to whatever you were doing. Now. See to it, Matthews."
The bos'un, warned by the tone in Bush's voice, cleared the crew away quickly. Bush became aware of Styles hovering next to him, and he gritted his teeth in frustration. Styles always managed to pick the most inconvenient moments! Ignoring him for the moment, Bush nodded at the men still holding Rogers.
"Take him to the Captain's day cabin."
He waited till Rogers had been taken away, and took a deep breath before turning to Styles.
The big man definitely seemed more circumspect than usual, and Bush was intrigued, despite his mood.
"Begging your pardon sir, the young lad, I don't think he was deserting, just taking a ramble. His missus is up the duff, he just wanted to see 'er."
Matthews had returned, and was quietly nodding confirmation.
Bush gritted his teeth and thought angrily, of all the damn fool, stupid, and idiotic...he could feel his already grim mood worsening with every thought, and his temper was already frayed. He took another deep breath, and was somewhat surprised to find his voice was steady as he dismissed the two men. They knuckled their foreheads respectfully, and retreated quickly, his anger had not gone unnoticed.
Styles's explanation at least made the prospect of punishment easier to deal with, as he could legitimately order a lighter penalty. The boy was a damn fool and if he'd have waited might have got his wish, without the drama. Had he ever been that young and stupid?
By the time Bush arrived at the cabin, Rogers was crying quietly. His face was pale and he looked barely old enough to shave. This lad was going to be a father. "So, what do you have to say for yourself? You know the penalty for desertion?"
"I weren't going to desert sir, I like it 'ere. I just wanted to see my wife, she's due to 'ave our baby. She's on 'er own. Us family are all in Leeds. I wanted 'er to go back there, but she wouldn't..."
Bush held up his hand, to stem the flow of words.
"Why didn't you go to Mr Orrock or Mr Matthews? I could have you shot, and what would your wife do then? Sergeant, clap him in irons. I'll deal with him later."
"Rogers. What's your wife called, and where does she live?"
"Lily sir, she lives at the Point. Her landlady is Mrs Ogden."
Bush wrote the names down carefully, and waved them out. Rogers would have to be flogged, discipline had to be maintained, but Bush would make sure he saw his wife.
Tomorrow, he'd have to call the crew to witness punishment, and the crew's mood could take a nasty turn. He hoped new orders would come soon. He really needed some sleep before he completely lost control of his temper. He did not have Hornblower's temperament to deal with sensitivities of the men. Why hadn't the fool boy just asked?
The crew were in huddles as he walked below, but the mood did not feel dangerous yet. He could hear snatches of conversation, and none seemed mutinous or even particularly angry. Most seemed agreed that they would wait and see.
Styles and Matthews were as always, together, and Bush could hear Styles's aggrieved tone.
"So what do you think Mr Bush will do with Rogers? Have 'im shot, or 'anged mebbe? I think he could 'ave killed him tonight. 'E's a right bastard."
"Only when you're being a stupid bugger Styles. He isn't that bad. Didn't have you thrown to the sharks when you tried to poison him and Captain Hornblower."
Bush managed a wry smile at Matthew's comments. A ship couldn't have a much better bos'un.
He reached the sanctuary of his cabin, and lay down on his hammock; the letter would have to wait for another day.
It felt odd being without a ship again, but at least, this time, Hornblower knew there was an end in sight. There would be no languishing on half pay for him. He wondered what ship he would be given command of. There were several that he knew were awaiting a new Captain. He knew that the size of a ship and the number of her guns was not as important as her crew, but he did have hopes of a frigate, however vain it might seem. Maria stirred slightly in her sleep but did not waken.
They had made love, despite Horatio's reluctance, she had taken it for a fear of hurting their unborn child and had insisted. She'd giggled at his reluctance, assuring him it was perfectly safe. He had no wish for an argument, and had allowed her to take the lead. It had left him wakeful and restless.
He could not quite believe he was to be a father. He did not love his wife, yet she was giving him a gift of a child. He felt unworthy of this; he feared that he would be as poor a father as he was a husband. His thoughts strayed to the Hotspur, and then on to his first lieutenant. He managed a faint smile at the memory of their parting. That fast, unexpected encounter, had been good, and had left him far more satisfied, and less restless than this more leisurely coupling. He hated himself for feeling so unhappy and unsettled, here where his heart should be.
He needed a day away from Maria's stifling presence, have some time to think and plan. After he would ask Mr Bush to join him for dinner. It would be good to spend time with him. He missed his friend's quiet, uncomplicated presence, and the dry humour that often startled a smile from him. The decision allowed Hornblower to easily fall asleep, his mind far more settled than before.
Bush woke feeling a little more relaxed than he had the night before. He needed to get Roger's punishment over with as soon as possible. Fortunately the sentence was light and would take little time. He believed floggings were a necessary evil to enforce discipline, but he wished this one could have been avoided, however he could think of no other course of action given the boy's actions and how many people had observed them.
It was soon finished, and the crew were dismissed. It was a relief to see that the mood of the ship had not noticeably worsened.
Once the boy had been released Bush saw Styles sidle off to the galley, obviously to prepare some vinegar and brown paper, a seaman's remedy after any flogging; it would keep him out of Bush's hair at least.
He retreated to his cabin, and started to catch up once again on the seemingly endless paperwork. There was a knock on the cabin door. He sighed and hoped it wasn't another problem; the pile of paperwork hadn't noticeably diminished, and he had seemed to be writing for hours. There had been no shouts or thuds, and no smell of burning, so that was something. He schooled his expression carefully, and called.
It was Matthews bearing a letter and a smile. Bush could see why the man was smiling. The letter was from Hornblower.
"A messenger brought this, sir. He's waiting for a reply. "
It was a request, that if it were at all possible would Mr Bush please join him for a meal at the Long Room at First Watch? Bush smiled at the formality of the invitation it was so typically Hornblower. Bush was hardly going to refuse. It meant an evening off the ship and he would be spared one of Styles' concoctions. It would also allow him to have his own note delivered to Mrs. Rogers.
It would be good to see the Captain; he had not had the chance to congratulate him personally on his promotion. They could speculate over which ship Hornblower was likely to be given, as long as Hornblower would relax long enough to do so. All in all it should be a pleasant evening, he might even have the pleasure of watching Hornblower trounce another unsuspecting Captain at cards.
He enjoyed watching Hornblower play, despite not having a great understanding of the game. The Captain's hands were long and skilful. Bush quickly forced the errant and inappropriate thought down. He had found their last joining, just before they'd entered port an unexpected gift. Now however they were firmly on Mrs Hornblower's territory.
He was happy that he would get a free evening with good company. When he arrived at the club, he was surprised when he was led up to a private room. Hornblower was already there and greeted him with a smile, and genuine warmth in his eyes.
Despite Hornblower's enquiries and genuine interest in what Bush was saying, he seemed distracted at times, and was drinking more than his wont. Bush wondered if the man was going to tell him what the problem was, or whether he was supposed to guess, or was he to return to the ship none the wiser?
They finally finished their meal, which had been as delicious as Bush had hoped. The waiter was dismissed and Bush and Hornblower sat with their brandy, continuing their discussion.
" We had a slight problem with one of the crew, today. Rogers tried to take an unauthorised leave of absence. His wife is pregnant. If the young fool had simply asked to see her, it would have saved him a flogging."
Hornblower studied his brandy for a few minutes before he spoke, swirling it in his glass. He still seemed troubled, and Bush wished his captain would simply tell him what was worrying him.
"What will you do?"
" I am trying to get permission for the men to have their wives and women on board if this wait continues much longer, but whatever happens he will see her tomorrow."
Hornblower nodded in agreement with the idea.
“I do not believe that our wait will last much longer. I am sure the Admiralty will want as many ships as possible out at sea, especially with experienced crew.”
It grew late, and Bush knew he would have to return to the ship. He was reluctant to leave the calmness of the room, and his captain's company. He had hoped Hornblower would have told him whatever was bothering him before now.
" Sir, I should be getting back. I do not wish to leave Mr Orrock for too long."
" Of course, Mr Bush, I will see you out."
They were at the door, with Bush's hand on the latch when Hornblower blurted out his news in an embarrassed stutter.
"Mrs Hornblower's pregnant."
Bush stepped back from the door, looking at him. He did not understand the man's agitation -- a young wife becoming pregnant was not exactly a surprise. Now he thought about it, Hornblower had been reticent about his wife whenever he had enquired after her, but Bush had put it down to the captain's usual restraint.
His good wishes were genuine and with this news he was glad he had dismissed the idea of any further physical involvement. It would not be proper on shore.
"Thank you, Mr Bush, thank you."
This was obviously what had been distracting Hornblower all evening. He did not seem as pleased about the news as Bush expected him to be. Bush knew that Hornblower had no family left of his own, and that most men valued the thought of children, even if they were not always certain in their affection for their wives.
Hornblower started and then stalled. After several minutes went by, Bush felt a need to break the awkward silence. He opened his mouth to say something when he saw the expression on his captain's face. It was one he recognised, and one his body remembered only too well, but it seemed inappropriate under the circumstances.
Hornblower advanced on him and he was soon pinned lightly against the wall, backed into a corner. Hornblower's hands were everywhere, and Bush was quickly stripped to his shirt, while Hornblower remained clothed. Bush found himself panting heavily, his body responding despite his reluctance.
Bush felt very vulnerable, conscious of their location; this was not the most private of places. The urgency and desperate level of need in Hornblower seemed out of place. It would have been far more fitting after days of enforced abstinence. Bush's arousal never complete, was rapidly waning.
As Hornblower turned him quickly to face the wall, Bush found that he could not get the image of Mrs Hornblower out of his head, her face as she walked down the aisle to meet her husband to be, her devoted expression as she waved goodbye. This was wrong; they should not be doing this. He tensed and without conscious thought tried to pull away, letting out a low groan of discomfort. He had obviously penetrated Hornblower's haze, and the movement stopped behind him, the hold on him loosing.
Bush turned to face his captain, hoping he could make Hornblower understand.
"I'm sorry, sir. Mrs Hornblower -- I can't -- not here."
Hornblower glared at him, compounding William's misery. Without another word he stomped out, the door shutting heavily behind him.
Bush slid down the wall. He sat on the floor staring at nothing for several minutes, before he mechanically gathered his clothes together and dressed, feeling like he'd been buffeted in a storm.
He sat down on the nearest chair, and taking the brandy poured a glass out, drinking it in one swift movement. He barely tasted it, not with the bile rising in his throat, but he felt more composed as the warmth of the drink filled him.
He pulled himself together, and straightened his uniform, wishing there was a mirror to check if he looked as terrible as he felt.
He wouldn't think about this tonight, if he ever thought of it all. What had Admiral Pellew said; sentiment and wishful thinking were useless? The words had never seemed truer.
At the door, he handed the boy the letter for Mrs Rogers, with instructions that it be delivered as soon as possible, with a few coins added as a sweetener.
The evening was cold and foggy. Bush shivered even with his great coat on, but he knew that the chill he felt wasn't totally because of the weather.
Hornblower was disgusted with himself. His behaviour had been unforgivable. His hands were shaking with reaction as he realised what he'd done. In his desperate urge to seek comfort, he'd probably destroyed any semblance of friendship or respect Bush had for him. What had he been thinking? And that was in fact the crux of it, he hadn't been thinking at all. He had made no attempt to consider Bush's feelings or concerns in any way.
Bush's face, pale with shock and the panicked formality of the apology had cut him deeply. He should not have left Bush as he was, but he had reacted purely on instinct, needing to get away before he did anything worse. His desperate rush had led him further away than he had intended and by the time he got back, desperate to seek Bush's forgiveness, he was told that his guest had left five minutes earlier. He wasn't sure how he could have missed William on the way back, but he could have taken a different route. There was little hope of catching him in the fog, and besides Hornblower wasn't sure what the man's reaction would be.
What could he say to Bush, anyway? What could Hornblower do but beg forgiveness? He could not visit the Hotspur, as it would raise too many awkward questions at so late an hour.
The short walk home seemed endless as he fought growing nausea, barely making it to the bedroom before losing his dinner. Maria flapped round him like an overgrown bird and he snapped at her to just leave him alone. Her face crumpled, but he could not spare her, not tonight. He was finally alone and he stayed there for some time, retching long after there was nothing left in his stomach. He was unworthy as a husband and now he even failed as a lover. What sort of man was he? He crawled to bed in an agony of self-hatred and loathing, turning away from his wife's touch.
Bush did not sleep that night; he tried to will his mind and body to relax enough to let him have the rest he so desperately craved but could not. He wanted to forget, he needed to forget and move on, but his mind would not let go, replaying the whole evening over and over in his mind. Why had Hornblower reacted like that? Treating him like nothing more than a handy body, or even worse, a common whore. Had Bush overestimated the strength of their friendship?
Bush stood, and then paced, wondering whether he should have expected it. Hornblower had great difficulty handling his own emotions, and coped poorly with Bush's sentiments or platitudes. That much had been clear in recent months.
He had thought that they had reached some agreement, especially after their last night together. This was an unfortunate memory, as it led him to think about their times together, not just the sex but also the friendship they'd formed. All over. The thought made his throat constrict and he dropped into his chair, bending double to get his breathing under control. He should have dealt with the situation better; he had known his captain was distracted; he should have tried harder to find out why. He could have helped him and provided the comfort and reassurance that Hornblower had needed, but had been unable to ask for. He had let fear and his own feelings interfere with his ability to support his captain. Bush knew that Hornblower despite his skills as a captain was still a young man, with little experience with women, or life away from the sea. Bush had failed in his duty as both friend and lieutenant.
It was too late now, and all he could do was wait and see. He wondered what ship he would be assigned to. There was probably no great danger of him not being given a posting with war imminent, but it would be difficult to accept another captain when in his heart and mind he still felt tied to Hornblower.However it was the life he had chosen, and he could imagine no other.
Despite coming to some level of resolution in his mind, sleep was no closer than it had been before. He used the hours to write the long delayed letter to his sisters. It was going to be a long day.
At dawn, Hornblower finally gave up the pretence of sleeping and quietly slipped out of bed. He stared out of the window his eyes fixed on the Hotspur, thinking not so much of the ship, although he knew every line of her, but of William.
He had been an idiot, and in the cold light of day he could still find no excuse for his behaviour. William could even bring him up on charges if he so desired. He knew though, that while he might deserve it William would not even consider making the accusation and Hornblower was selfish enough to be relieved. Yet another failing that he could add his many others.
When Maria awoke, he apologised to her and for once appreciated that her simple devotion and acceptance meant she asked no questions. He would not have known what to say to her. Breakfast was still an uncomfortable affair as even Mrs Mason sensed that idle chatter would not be welcomed.
A rap on the door broke the stifling silence; it was a messenger from Admiral Pellew. Hornblower was to report to the Tonnant at 7 bells in the forenoon watch to be given his new orders. He felt a mingled sense of relief and shock. He would soon be away from here, and with distance he might yet come to terms with all of this, but he'd had no chance to speak to Mr Bush and put things right with him. He wanted him as his first lieutenant but knew William was unlikely to accept such an offer as things stood now.
Maria had read the orders over his shoulder and her face crumpled,threatening tears, and he turned to her, holding her shoulders gently.
He kept his voice soft, hoping to stem the flow. Not this, not today.
He pulled her into a slightly awkward embrace, still unused to such matters, but kissed her softly, not being able to bear the pain he saw there. With her head on his shoulder he said gently, and with as little impatience as he could manage.
"I may be home before the baby is born, but this is my duty, my love. I must keep England safe for our children."
It was only half a lie. The sea was more than a duty; it was where he felt most alive. He knew the sea, he was at his best there, and life was in many ways despite the dangers he faced easier on board. He simply knew what had to be done, and could do it. Here, too many emotions pulled him to places where he felt uncomfortable and unprepared.
She pulled away after a few minutes, wiping her eyes fiercely, obviously determining to be brave.
" I must see to things, if you are to be leaving soon."
She hurried out not looking back but he knew she was crying.
Hornblower caught her mother's eyes and knew that she had not been wholly convinced by the expressed emotion, but that she appreciated his attempt. If only he could put things right as easily with William.
Bush's head ached; his eyes were gritty with lack of sleep. He brushed Styles' offer of breakfast away and just asked for whatever was passing for coffee these days. He ignored the hurt look on the man's face. Styles could cook a passable breakfast but William had no appetite. When the coffee arrived he was surprised to see it was proper coffee and managed a raised eyebrow. Styles grinned at him and said,
"Traded for it sir, nowt illegal though."
"Thank you Styles. Carry on."
Knuckling his forehead, the big man retreated. The coffee cleared away some of the cobwebs and Bush was a little more ready to face the day, and whatever it brought with it.
Orrock gave his report, there were a few more incidents to report, but nothing serious enough to warrant a flogging and for that Bush was grateful.
"Roger's wife is coming to visit him today. See that he's able to meet her."
Mr Orrock nodded and said, "Styles saw that he was well looked after, sir."
"Good, carry on. I'll be up presently."
Orrock departed, and Bush was surprised that even such a small effort left him feeling worn out. It couldn't simply be one night of lost sleep. He had lost more than one night in the past. He was annoyed at his weakness and went up on deck, hoping the fresh breeze would ease the headache.
Bush felt the atmosphere on the deck shift as his presence was noted. Conversation dwindled as men straightened up and returned to their tasks. He felt some small pleasure that at least here he had things under control.
Catching sight of a small figure on the quay obviously watching the Hotspur, Bush raised his glass for a better look. It was Mrs Rogers no doubt; a mere slip of a girl, seemingly even younger than her husband. He waved Matthews to him.
"Get Rogers up here, and prepare a boat."
Rogers practically threw himself at Bush's feet, but thankfully did not cry, although his eyes were bright with unshed tears. The devotion he had for his wife was obvious. Bush felt embarrassed at the thanks, as well as the evident approval on many of the crew's faces. He was simply doing what Captain Hornblower would have done and what was necessary for the better running of the ship.
"Stop being an idiot, man," he growled quietly. "The deck of a ship is no place for such behaviour."
It seemed to have little effect. Rogers knuckled his forehead, and with adoration and respect still on his face, went to meet his wife.
Bush noticed a boat heading out to the Hotspur, and he knew that his wish for new orders was to be realised. He would have little time to dwell on the events of last night. A fact he was grateful for. He was to report to the Tonnant to receive orders, for both himself and the crew.
Hornblower, early for his appointment, walked slowly to the dock and the boat where he would be taken to Admiral Pellew's flagship. His route took him past the Hotspur and he saw a young couple on the quay, the wife pregnant and embracing her husband tightly, while two marines watched them, their hard faces softened into smiles.
They saluted him as he passed and he recognised them as part of the Hotspur crew. This had obviously been what Bush had referred to last night. A new wave of self-annoyance hit Hornblower as he realised he had probably underestimated how heavily this had weighed on Bush. They were barely more than children. His stomach clenched as he thought of both Bush and Maria. The scene of simple devotion in front of him, threw his own inadequacies towards those who loved him into sharp relief. He took a long look at the Hotspur, memorising the sight. She had been a good ship, and he would miss her.
He wondered how many of the crew he would be allowed to take with him to his new command. He knew that he would most probably not have Bush by his side. The thought made him uneasy. He pushed the feeling aside. He had no other to blame except himself and he would live with the outcome.
Bush felt slightly sick as he exited the Admiral's cabin. First lieutenant on The Lydia, an assignment he could be proud of. Admiral Pellew had been almost fulsome in his praise. The sentiments had embarrassed him, but such a post was a great opportunity, and to all intents and purposes was a reward for a job well done. He would be responsible for getting The Lydia ready to sail, as well as supervising the transfer of crew from the Hotspur.
He had a lot to do in three days. The prospect should have filled him with a sense of anticipation and satisfaction, but all he could think of was that he was to be serving with Captain Hornblower, and the man had no idea .He knew Pellew had been stretching protocol with telling him first, but it had probably appeared to the Admiral a mere formality, and Bush being informed would give Hornblower less to concern himself over.
It was a mess, but one he could do nothing to extricate himself from without damaging either his own career, or that of his captain's. He knew that Hornblower would not say anything either, so they were probably doomed to an uncomfortable and unhappy tour. He was so lost in his thoughts and worries as he crossed the deck that he stumbled into someone -- and was mortified to see that it was the captain himself.
Hornblower saw Bush's face pale and caught a flash of distress before the man recovered his composure. He watched as William managed a creditable salute, and with a calm he evidently did not feel said, with a total lack of any emotion, and a small bow, "Captain." The formality of the address, and Bush's rigid stance, left Hornblower no choice but to return in kind.
Hornblower could see the slight redness of Bush's eyes and knew that he had not slept last night either. He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could say a word, Bush in an obvious attempt at diversion spoke first.
"I've got my new orders, sir. I should be seeing to the ship."
Hornblower sighed and schooled his face into stone, fighting the urge to break the coldness. He knew this was not the time, and that any comment on the whole sorry mess, would only make the situation worse; it seemed a poor way to end such a friendship, but Bush's stony and reserved expression would allow no other path.
"I am about to receive my new command." He paused trying to find the appropriate words. All he could manage was, "I hope you have a safe voyage, Mr Bush."
The formality was stifling; it took him back to their first meeting on the Renown. They had moved on so much since then. They had formed a relationship that he had believed he'd never experience again after Archie had died, and now this.
"And you, sir."
Bush hurried off and didn't look back, leaving Hornblower bereft.
Admiral Pellew greeted him with a genuine smile of welcome, obviously pleased to see him. "Well, Captain. I have good news for you. Your command of The Lydia has been confirmed. You are to sail out in three days. It is nothing too vigorous, just a patrol on the coast; give those Frogs something to think about, hey? I apologise that Mr Bush learnt the news first, but I am sure you have no objections to him staying on as your First Lieutenant. He is a good man to have by your side, and with him preparing the ship and handling the transfer of the Hotspur crew, you have time to join me for a meal."
Hornblower was stunned, but managed to nod and reply, with sincerity, that Bush was one of the best. His stomach twisted uncomfortably. No wonder Bush had been so formal! He was surely dreading the post. Hornblower's face must have betrayed his reluctance, as Pellew smiled at him and added with good humour, "Come now, she will not sail away while we eat, and my steward has a new dish that I am sure you will enjoy."
It should have been a pleasant interlude, as the Admiral was obviously delighted at the news of Mrs Hornblower's pregnancy,
"It is good to see that your aim is as sure on shore, as it is at sea."
Hornblower felt unworthy of the comment, knowing well enough that both aim and sense had deserted him on shore.
The meal smelt delicious, however Hornblower barely tasted the food, simply wanting to get a way to speak to Bush, before the rush of activity that always accompanied outfitting a ship made it impossible.
The short trip to the Lydia still left Bush time to reflect. He knew that soon he and Hornblower would have to work together again, and he was reluctant to think too much on it. He had not, until joining the Renown, ever really interacted much with his fellow officers. He had no connections and had little urge to cultivate them, so had often been somewhat isolated.
He had always felt it important to follow rules and had little patience for apparently foolish heroics, until he'd met Hornblower and Kennedy. Now he had found such closeness, he was reluctant to have to serve without it, but felt it was the only path open to him.
As they came across the Lydia, Bush found, despite his uncertainty, he still experienced the familiar rush of pleasure and sense of coming home that each new ship brought him. She was a sound vessel and with Hornblower as her captain, she would certainly make her mark on the fleet. As Bush came aboard, he could see men scurrying across the rigging shouting to each other. The first deliveries were being winched across and he winced briefly at the thought of having to check them later.
A loud thud drew his attention and he was quickly swept up in preparations.
Despite his usual considerable enjoyment of spending time with Admiral Pellew, Hornblower was relieved when he extracted himself from Pellew’s company as the need to speak to William weighed heavily on him.
When he arrived on The Lydia she was already a hive of activity. He was unsurprised that Bush had already made inroads into her preparation. He hoped fervently that he would find some time to speak with him. He stood on the deck of his new ship for the first time and managed a smile. He allowed the simple pleasure of feeling a ship beneath his feet again to ease his mind a little, before he went looking for his friend.
Bush was not as Hornblower had expected in the centre of the activity but he knew that he would not be far away.
"Simmons?" he called up to one of the men directing the careful loading of some heavy barrels.
"Where is Lieutenant Bush?"
"He is down below inspecting the stores, Captain."
"Thank-you, Simmons, carry-on. "
Hornblower made his way down below, nodding to the men who saluted him as he passed.
On reaching his destination, he shivered and blinked in the darkness, letting his eyes adjust before moving on. He could see the lamps flickering as Bush inspected the stores. The lieutenant raised his lamp to see who it was as Hornblower came near and, placing the lamp onto hooks above him, saluted.
Even in the dim light of the hold, he looked cold and tired. It was a thankless job checking stores, as often the order sheets did not match the actual goods, and Hornblower knew Bush's tolerance for cold was even less than his own.
"How is everything coming along, Mr Bush? You seem to making good progress."
Bush nodded, rubbing his hands together, obviously trying to get some heat back into them, and seemed about to launch into his report.
Hornblower stopped him, wanting to take the discussion to where they would be far more comfortable. While he did want to know about how the ship was coming along, he knew he had very little to worry about in that regard, as Bush was totally capable. They desperately needed to discuss matters of a more personal nature. He felt a twinge of guilt at his small manipulation, but knew he would have to take the initiative. He had thought long and hard about his approach to this. The meal with Pellew with its small talk and easy conversation had allowed him to think.
He had decided that empty guilt was of little practical use to him and he needed to apply the same rules to setting things right between them as he would to any problem.
"I would like to assess all the progress you have made, Mr Bush and see what still needs to be done. I believe my cabin would be more suitable."
Hornblower thought he saw a flicker of anxiety cross Bush's face, but it was fleeting and he made no argument as he extinguished the lamp above him and followed Hornblower out of the darkness.
Hornblower was aware of his own weariness, and wished that he had managed some sleep. He wanted to handle this properly. It was important that matters be put right; he hoped Bush could find it possible to forgive him. He knew that Bush would never give less than his best, even if they never spoke of the matter again, but this cold formality did not sit easily between them.
While he did not realistically expect that William would wish to continue their physical intimacy, he hoped that they could regain at least some small measure of the ease they'd had.
His new cabin felt far more spacious and luxurious then the one on the Hotspur and Hornblower immediately felt at ease. He usually had little use for the trappings of command, thinking them mere trifles, but the comfort might serve to relax Bush.
Indeed the man looked even more tired in the better lighting of the cabin.
The guilt that Hornblower had tried to suppress quickly came back to the fore. Bush indicated the pile of papers on the desk as well as the one he still held in his hands.
"The pile on the right is what has been completed, or is in the process of being ready. The paperwork on the left is what still needs to be done. I am about halfway through the stores, and there are as usual discrepancies. They do this every time."
The frustration was evident in both Bush's expression and tone of voice, and Hornblower pitied the merchants when Bush finally got around to speaking to them.
Hornblower could not help but notice that the pile of what needed to be done was less than what was already under control.
He waved Bush to sit down, and he hesitated but obeyed. Hornblower could feel William's uncertainty and puzzlement. This was obviously not what Bush had expected.
"It seems that you do have everything under control, Mr Bush"
"There is still a lot to do sir. I should be getting on with the stores."
He was reluctant to meet Hornblower's eyes, and looked as if he was expecting a blow or something to fall. It made his captain uneasy; he did not want this from Bush, not at all.
He kept his voice soft and warm and was rewarded when Bush looked up in startled acknowledgement of the tone and the use of his name.
Bush was unsure of what was happening. Hornblower's mood and manner were not what he had expected. There was warmth in him that he had not been prepared for, but he still felt uneasy as he followed the Captain to his cabin. It was thankfully much warmer here, and the numbness in his fingers began to ease.
He had been grateful for the diversion, despite having to face his captain, as he was losing concentration. Now he had stopped however, he was somewhat afraid he might fall asleep. A sleepless night and he realised with a shock that he hadn't eaten since last night, and lack of food had left him heavy headed.
He took refuge in the formality of his report, hoping that he would be able to escape quickly. He knew there was nothing here for Hornblower to complain about, but was unsure of the man's exact mood. Hornblower's face was giving little away, and it was hard to make a judgement. He was expecting the worst, a confirmation of his fears that he was not really welcome and that his presence was simply to be endured because a demur would simply have brought unwanted questions. As a result of this, the soft tone took him by surprise and he was startled into looking straight at Hornblower. He was surprised to see both guilt and worry in his face.
"I want to apologise for my behaviour last night. I can find neither excuse nor reason for it. I understand your reluctance to serve with me. I also know that despite my poor conduct, you will continue to serve me as loyally and effectively as you always have. I am greatly in your debt for that. I will not trespass on your company any more than is necessary in my role as your Captain, but I hope we can find a compromise, as I value your friendship as well as your counsel."
There, thought Hornblower with great relief, he'd said it. His feelings were out there and all he could do now was wait. He really had no idea how William would react. He studied the play of emotions that crossed Bush's face, and was sure he saw relief and acceptance there, but it could have been his own wishful thinking.
Bush swallowed several times and then stood, obviously choosing his words with care. Hornblower knew William preferred action to words and sympathised with his struggle, and despite wanting to help, did not speak, waiting for the judgement.
"Sir, I would wish to serve on this ship within the same boundaries, and in the same capacity that I did on the Hotspur. "
There was no mistaking the tone or the look on his face, and Hornblower felt a surge of relief, affection and gratitude for him. "I" he stopped and allowed Bush to continue.
" Last night fell outside the areas that I am comfortable with."
William's eyes strayed outwards towards the channel and beyond to the open sea, before returning to meet Hornblower's gaze. "I would not like to experience it again."
There it was, the reprimand, as always gently given, but leaving him in no doubt of Bush's feelings, despite the understatement.
They stared at each other for a few moments before Bush moved, holding his hand out to Hornblower with an affectionate smile, that Hornblower returned, taking the offered hand in both his, pulling him closer. The touch reaffirmed their friendship and held the promise of more.
Bush looked up from his now empty plate and sighed in contentment. He caught Hornblower's eye and the captain smiled at him with a raised eyebrow; Bush returned the look.
This was their first dinner aboard their new ship. An unexpected advantage of transferring to the Lydia was that Styles was no longer Hornblower's steward. He had regained his role as bos'un's mate and seemed content with it.
The new steward while not as accomplished as Doughty, was obviously a good cook and his plainer style suited them both far better.
"It's good to be able to identify what we're eating," said Bush lightly.
Hornblower nodded in agreement and his own contentment was equally obvious. Jenkins cleared the plates.
“Thank you Jenkins, that will be all. Very enjoyable meal, thank you.”
The steward left them coffee before departing, closing the door quietly behind him. The coffee had been Admiral Pellew's parting gift and was the best Bush had tasted for some time.
The sea was calm and there was little chance of them meeting the Frogs at least until tomorrow. They hadn't had time for anything other than ship's business in the three days leading up to their departure so It was a relief to finally have the space to relax.
Bush sighed and leaned his head back on the couch, feeling pleasantly relaxed. It was good to be back at sea. The ship felt smooth and right beneath him. A soft, almost hesitant touch on his arm drew his attention back to his captain.
Horatio's voice held a note of plea, but he seemed uncertain of his reception and removed his hand quickly, looking down before starting move away. Bush had thought he'd made his feelings clear, but it seemed his captain still needed reassurance. Placing his cup down, the lieutenant turned to face Horatio and smiled.
"It is all right."
The soft words encouraged Horatio and he smiled his face lighting up in a way that made William's breath catch.
Horatio started to speak, but William hushed him softly guiding his captain's hands under his shirt, gasping a little at the quiver that went through him as Horatio took his lead to softly stroke the suddenly sensitised skin. Horatio's face suddenly dropped and he stopped as if frozen, leaving William bereft. He wasn't sure why Horatio seemed so hesitant, if it was because of guilt over what had happened between them, it was unnecessary.
William had no interest in stopping this, instead he moved closer, leaning in to touch his lips to Horatio's and moved his own hands to touch the smooth skin beneath the captain's shirt. The younger man looked at William, who felt his arousal deepen at the affection in that gaze and he moved down the couch until he was lying almost flat, pulling Horatio gently down. They undressed each in almost silence, a slow process as neither wanted to release their hold on the other, soft moans of pleasure being the only noise between them.
William loved to see Horatio's body, the pleasure never fading even with the daily vision he had as Horatio still showered each morning on deck. He suspected at times it was deliberate provocation. William had no objection even if it was; here at sea they belonged together.
Horatio groaned as they were both finally freed from the last of their clothes. He slowed his movements, smiling at William's mumble of displeasure, drinking in the sight of William's body, he ran his hands slowly down the exposed skin, needing to explore and appreciate the angled planes, the weathered skin. He wanted to map all of this, remember everything so he would never risk losing it again. William responded to his touch bucking and twisting, his breath coming in gasps.
Horatio's own arousal was almost painful and he knew that soon he could no longer hold back. Horatio kissed William savouring the taste and feel, he could get lost in the blue eyes, almost stormy with arousal. Even when William was at his most inscrutable his eyes spelt out his feelings as clearly as if he'd spoken them. Horatio's hand touched William's cock, and the lieutenant writhed and cried out softly, he started to change his position so he could grasp the arms of the couch, obviously intending to turn away to allow for easy access.
Horatio, determined not to lose eye contact, and needing to see his lover's face, stopped him, sliding him downwards so he could both enter and see him at the same time. He coated his cock and hands in oil, and made to prepare William for entry, but he found himself pulled forward. William no longer willing to wait, spread his legs and arched his back.
Horatio hesitated not wanting to hurt him but the look on William's face was the closest thing to an order that Horatio had seen since Renown. He could do nothing but comply, his own arousal almost unbearable, he thrust in, pulling his friend even closer.
In this position, the sensations were enhanced and multiplied, the friction between their bodies leaving them both gasping. Horatio was concerned he might cause some harm, being uncertain of this position and at first he was hesitant, but they were so familiar with each other's movements, they quickly found a rhythm, that left Horatio unable to think. It was too much for William and soon he came with a strangled, cut off cry. Horatio was not far behind as William's muscles clenched, pulling him in tighter and he gasped, his own cry muffled against William's shoulder. They lay there, loosely embraced, gasping for several minutes, waiting for their breathing to return to normal. Horatio reluctantly eased himself out of William's loose grip, not wanting to break the contact but needing to move. He soaked a towel, returning quickly to clean them.
Horatio wanted to say something meaningful or emotional but all he could manage was a simple.
"Thank you, William."
He knew from William's smile that it was all he needed to say. It was so different from his marriage on shore, and far more satisfying.
They dressed quickly before they succumbed to temptation, and cleaned away the evidence of their coupling, sitting in companionable silence. William stretched his legs out to read a letter he had received from his sisters while Horatio plotted the next part of their patrol.