It was a damn good thing to be out of Tor bay, Bush thought. It had been hard on the men, pent up on a ship throwing itself back and forth like a mad horse with the waves, shore in sight but no boats in or out to bring their wives-- or any woman who might call herself a sailor’s wife, at any rate-- to them. The Captain hadn’t had a chance to see his wife, either, and while Bush questioned his choice of wives, he didn’t question his captain’s need of comfort, just as much as the men. Another week or two, he knew, and the Captain might have a son, or a daughter; it was too bad he couldn’t have stopped in, too bad.
But it was hard to stay maudlin long, standing his watch here, with the spray all around him and Hotspur at sea again.
They had fresh water now, to lift the spirits, and the promise of action would chase the memory of land from them. The cool air was bracing, nipping at his cheek and plucking at his tarpaulin coat like an unruly child. He hunched his shoulders, trying to draw whatever heat remained in his body up to his raw face, left unprotected by his Sou’wester. The endless grey clouds spat rain at times, as icy as what the sea tossed up at them, and he squinted against it all, searching the horizon and the sky.
Hotspur came up into a freak wave that slapped across her bow at an angle, sending a pale, glassy sheet of water across the deck to break up into a great splash when it was broken by an obstacle. Bush, who’d been standing just in the wrong place, took the brunt of it, ice streaming down his back and front as the water found its way under his tight-pulled collar, down even into his boots, into his mouth when he gasped with the shock of it.
Prowse had been standing by-- he’d gotten his lick as well, Bush knew when he shouted. Bush laughed merrily, at himself and at the spluttering sailing master, at the wild sea around them. Prowse grumbled and then started to smile, seeing the humor, and Bush allowed him a grin before he straightened his face. “What a night, by God. She’s going like a swallow.”
“A little too winged, sir,” said Prowse contrarily. “If a wind catches us by surprise she’ll stop flying a little sharp.”
They were keeping a watch, hour by hour, so that just such a thing would be avoided, but Prowse took a certain joy in being stodgy and displeased, and Bush was in a mellow temper, generously feeling that the man could be as stodgy as he liked.
He went for’ard to see what the hands were about, and the log had to be kept, and the wind freshened still more and reefs had to be taken in the mainsail-- it was a bracing business, and it wasn’t until he had two moments together that he became conscious of a familiar ache in his chest. Two aches; old friends on nights like these.
He hunched a bit, trying surreptitiously to pull his wet shirt and coat away from the skin of his chest, succeeded only in letting a cutting bit of wind in. The ache increased, two cold knots drawn tight in his flesh, tingling and alert, and he fancied the jolt of it went down to his lungs when the cold air conspired to nip at them. Nothing for it, he thought philosophically. He’d weathered plenty worse. It just remained to keep busy and serve out the watch; that would be easy enough-- easier, of course, if his wet shirt would not rub against his chest so, but the cloth was soaked through and damnably heavy, and the weight of his tarpaulin pressed it closer still.
A spill of light onto the deck; he turned to see who’d come up from below and recognized instantly his captain’s slender figure, even hunched as it was under his greatcoat. It gave him an instant of pleasure. Aching chest or no, it was a wonderful night, the kind to fire up the blood, and to share it with the captain would make it more wonderful. That pleasure was instantly alloyed with concern: the captain was meant to be sleeping. It was never a surprise when Captain Hornblower failed to sleep, his mind always churning with some plan or some worry, but Bush could wish all the same that rest would find him a bit more reliably.
“Sir!” he greeted, with a grin that he could not quite suppress. “Wind’s nor’west by west. We’ll make Ushant in another day’s time, I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“If the wind holds,” the captain glowered, which was as good as a signal lamp in the dark to Bush that his mind had been dwelling on what had been left behind in England. He’d find fault in any bit of frivolity above deck in a sour mood, as long as his own dark mood held out. Bush knew it, and forgave him for it. After all, he’d been seasick near the entire time they were in Tor bay, and though seasickness was only a theoretical thing to Bush, he had observed the agonies it put Hornblower into, enough to drive the best of men into foul humor, when added to the melancholy.
“The wind’s still got a few hours to her, sir,” Bush said, because his seaman’s instinct told him it was likely so. “And so do the men. Though I fear I may return to find Mister Prowse floating in a block of ice!” They fell in together, each hunched into the other’s warmth, closer maybe than propriety would dictate, but the cold wind dictated with a much sharper tongue. They paced the quarterdeck, keeping watch, allowing Mister Prowse a respite below deck, and Bush answered his captain’s questions about their ship and the men until their talk turned to memories of other cold nights on other ships and then to silence.
“You are fidgeting, Mister Bush,” said Hornblower, sternly, some moments later. In the dim light his cheeks were merely dark, though Bush knew they must be reddened by the cold and the wind.
“Sir?” asked Bush as innocently as he could, trying to pretend incomprehension.
“Fidgeting, damn your eyes, like a schoolboy.” The captain’s face was cross, but there was no real anger to be seen in the light afforded by the faint moon and the swinging lamps.
“Sorry, sir,” said Bush contritely, making an effort to stop doing so-- one made more difficult by a bit of wind that beat his coat around his chest and made him grit his teeth so that the captain wouldn’t see his expression of surprise. It must have failed, because Hornblower looked at him very keenly.
“What’s it about?”
“Beg your pardon?” said Bush, stubbornly ignorant as his best defense against that all-seeing stare.
“Hmph!” said Hornblower, and made to leave as Mister Prowse rejoined them on the quarterdeck. “I’ll see you in my cabin when the watch is called, Mister Bush.”
“Aye-aye sir.” It was, in the end, the only response one could give to an order from one’s captain. He’d have the truth out, and would know why Bush was embarrassed, and maybe he’d smile a bit, or grumble in his way that meant the black mood was breaking and he was trying not to show it. Reassured that the worst could only be so bad, Bush resumed his watch in as fine spirits as ever.
The wind had barely slackened-- and Bush had not dried a bit when he made his way below into the captain’s cabin, nodding to the sentry and entering after a knock and an invitation. He shed his greatcoat as he stepped in, hanging it up, feeling the warm below-deck air on his face. Stuffy it might be, but welcome; though not so much warmer, it was at least still and it felt like a warm breath on him compared to the wind on deck. It would start to thaw the single frozen sheet that was his skin. Even his bones felt as if they must be carved of ice.
“You wished to see me, sir?”
“I did, Mister Bush.” Hornblower looked a little fresher; perhaps after his spell on deck he’d been able to snatch an hour’s sleep. Relief from the cold could do that to a man, or perhaps it was simply being at sea again. Bush was pleased to see it whichever cause had worked it. “I’d like to know the meaning of your extraordinary behavior on deck tonight.”
“Ah. Well.” Bush coughed, embarrassed despite his resolution to face it gamely. “It’s an old affliction, sir. One I acquired before I met you. It comes to me when the weather’s cold.”
“An injury-!” Hornblower’s face shifted at once to concern, and Bush shook his head quickly.
“No, sir, not really-- it might be easier shown. Though, I’d have to take my shirt away, so perhaps not.”
He hadn’t counted on this speech to dissuade the captain. In fact, that faint demure might have been deliberately calculated to rouse Hornblower’s intense curiosity. Bush had decided not long after the order to come down that it was better to explain the thing cleanly, once, and have done with.
As he’d thought, Hornblower’s eyes widened, and his face grew more intent. “If you would, Mister Bush!”
Bush tried not to smile at himself, or let any bit of nerves come back to him. He kept his face very solemn as he took off his jacket and waistcoat and cravat, and drew his shirt up over his head. He could not help shuddering at the air coming into contact with his wet skin, or making a comical little sound of discomfort as his skin started to warm, and the conflict of warmth and frigid cold drew his nipples into peaks as hard as flint.
“Mister Bush,” said Hornblower quite levelly, his dark eyes fixed on Bush’s chest. “I am astonished. You say that you had this affliction before you served on the Renown?”
Hotspur bucked sharply, crashing through a rough wave, and though he shifted his weight without even a thought and kept his feet, his nipples felt the movement heavily, and he shuddered quite involuntarily at the pull, so attuned was he to them at this moment, of his captain’s eyes firmly upon him.
“How, then, did I not see this in Kingston?”
“At first, we neither of us saw much.” Their first night of intimacy-- it had been dark, they had both been addled with heat and drink and exhaustion. “And when my head cleared, I took a bit of care that you shouldn’t, sir.”
On the one or two occasions since that he and Horatio had snatched a bit of comfort from each other, warm and willing, Bush had always kept his shirt on. Horatio had attributed it to shyness, perhaps over the scars of the cutlass-blades that had clawed his back, and though Bush had shaken his head and smiled he had never offered an explanation.
Now he stood bare-chested and Horatio stared hungrily at him-- eyes locked on the two thin silver rings that pierced Bush’s nipples side to side, that had given him such a devilish time in the cold.
“I am surprised to see you like this, pierced like a common hand,” said Horatio hoarsely, his voice still stern and unmoved. His dark eyes gave it away, though; they glittered with mischief, and heat. “What on earth possessed you to do it?”
“I couldn’t say, sir,” said Bush ruefully. “It was when I was on the Superb, first put into port in Antigua-- my first foreign port, and I had a little prize money. Just a midshipman’s share, but enough to get very drunk indeed, and there was an old sailor of the merchant marines in the port-- and either I was drunk enough he took me for a hand, or drunk enough that he thought he’d teach me a lesson, but... well, sir, I found myself back on Superb with a splitting headache and these.”
“You might have removed them. The wounds would have healed,” said Hornblower, staring again at Bush’s chest, expression as avid as Bush had ever seen it, more even than when he was confronted with the most bedevilling questions of spherical trigonometry.
“I might have. But the lesson was pretty well learned, I think. I never went into port drinking again without one or two shipmates to share lookout with, after that. I suppose I’ve got used to them, sir.” Even on nights like tonight-- where they were like chips of very ice in his flesh. Even that feeling was familiar and he might find himself missing it if it were gone.
“Yes,” said Hornblower. And then, his voice straining to contain his eagerness: “May I touch them.”
“Sir. Of course, sir.” It was, to Bush, a rhetorical question at best: he was Horatio’s creature, cheerfully given over. He’d had other captains, had been loyal-- but Hornblower was a good deal more than simply his captain. He was Bush’s better; his leader; his friend; his possessor, and if he wanted Bush’s body he could have it in any way he liked, for the asking.
Yet for all Horatio’s brilliance that simple fact seemed to astound him, every time he had evidence of it.
“Would you come here,” said Horatio, sounding as if he barely believed he was asking, let alone believed Bush would, and Bush risked saying:
“Yes,” and coming over, instead of giving the more proper aye-aye, sir. It was a vast impropriety, and he hoped it was the prelude to several more, even greater improprieties. By God, he hoped!
He stood by Horatio’s little makeshift desk, watching with eagerness, and with pleasure, as his captain reached out to touch first his furred chest, raising gooseflesh-- and then, delicately, with the lightest brush of his slender, fineboned hand, lift the ring through his left nipple.
Bush hissed, not in pain, but in simply surprise, in a rush of sensation. Just roused from sleep, Horatio’s hands were cool, but warm in an instant as the heat was trapped between their skins.
“I think you’ve learned a lesson in the ability of metal to conduct heat, as well.” Now, though Hornblower’s face was impassive again, his voice was wicked. Really wicked.
“Oh, very well, sir, yes. As neatly as from a book,” said Bush, strained, feeling warm blood stain his cheeks. Even his faint blush felt like a heat rash, and he liked it. “Ooh, sir, they’re cold.”
“Yes,” Horatio murmured. “Yes.” And then, half stooping out of his seat, he leaned close. Bush thought he meant to look close at one of the rings, but then he felt warm breath-- and oh, the tingle and the twinge that set up, but it was nothing, nothing at all to the sudden furnace heat as Horatio leaned forward and closed ring and nipple in his mouth.
If he’d had any head for wordplay he’d have said that Horatio’s tongue was like a tongue of fire. He didn’t. He barely had the good sense to bite down on his knuckles to muffle a shout that would bring the sentry running. It burned like a coal, a delightful, delicious hurt that nearly raised him to his toes-- and then the metal was warming, drawn out to stand proud from his chest and then laved flat again by Horatio’s tongue, and he gave a little moan of delight.
“William,” said Hornblower against his chest, and the word on his lips was so potent that Bush felt like he might be drunk from it. Even the brush of Horatio’s lips against his nipples made them throb and ache, made his stomach clench and his prick stir in his wet trousers.
“Horatio. Ah. Oh, Horatio, it’s like a brand. Your mouth’s so hot--” Bush broke off into meaningless noise as Horatio blew a stream of air first against the nipple he had ministered to, and then against the one that was still cold, the ring through it still frigid. It was like ice against the unbearable sensitivity of his nipples, it was wonderful. He was slowly hardening inside his clammy breeches, the damp no proof against his arousal.
Horatio seized his hips and lapped at his chest, heedless of the hair and the tang of salt, drawing flat lines this way and that way, above, below, beside the cold silver ring but never on it-- and then he was, nursing tenderly at the cold silver until it warmed, sucking harder and harder still as Bush clasped his shoulders, head tipped back, eyes shut, breathing as raggedly as if he had just come from battle.
There was pressure on his groin through his trousers and breeches-- Horatio’s hand cupping his prick and bollocks, at first simply touch, physical sensation through the wet cloth, but then leeching slow warmth into his skin, making Bush’s hips thrust even as he pressed forward, harder into Horatio’s hot mouth. Horatio’s other hand played insistently on his chest, rolling the silver ring in the nipple he did not suck between deft, warm fingers, just brushing the cool, hard peak, the heat and the cold and the teasing touch enough to drive Bush to madness.
“Yes?” croaked Bush, quiet as he could be.
“You know the Articles of War?”
It seemed like a senseless question-- of course he did, how could any man not who had been in the Navy to hear them read out Sunday after Sunday not know them, to the very last-- and then he opened his eyes and saw Horatio’s dark, hot gaze fixed on his tented trousers. His lips were darker than before, and his eyes, his hair a tousled mess, and Bush realised he must have been clutching at it, could remember the feel of it now between his fingers.
He understood it all in one stumbling, incredulous second. “Aye-aye, sir, I do know them very well except the twenty-ninth, it has slipped my mind entirely, I don’t remember it at all--” he was pleading, that was the tone in his voice. He was begging. It was dangerous and yet it was completely safe-- not even Doughty would enter without a knock, with the sentry at the door. Nobody would dare enter without first being admitted, and that plank of wood and its flimsy latch might have been a castle wall.
“The twenty-ninth. No. Nor can I,” rasped Horatio, and his long fingers were on the fastenings of Bush’s trousers and then impatient at his breeches in the next moments, pulling down the wet, cold cloth. He dragged Bush to sit on the edge of the desk, and then began to go to his knees.
“No, sir, wait--” Bush grasped for his discarded shirt, damp still but better than the floor, and proffered it quickly. “You’ll scuff your knees. Kneel on this.”
“You know your way about this pretty well. Another man has done this for you,” said Horatio, his voice strange and distant.
“One or two. And I did it back for them.”
Horatio shot a wide-eyed glance at his mouth, and there was a ravenous, desperate look to him now. He sunk down, kneeling on Bush’s wadded shirt, and shoved Bush’s thighs apart with heedless strength.
Then that hot mouth was on Bush’s skin again, wrapped around his prick, and Bush sank his teeth into his knuckles once more, so deep he thought there would be blood. Yet that pain was nothing to the lick of flame around his prick, the rest of him so chilled, damp yet from his watch and bared to the air, but the agonizing heat around him sending lightning along his spine and subsiding into wet, inviting warmth.
He would not thrust his hips-- he would not choke his captain, and he stilled his impulse to thrust by force of will and another deep set of teethmarks pressed into his hand. His nipples burned, hard and swollen; he pressed his hands to them, not near as warm as Horatio’s, trying to ease the sting, urge the ache higher and deeper, building heat as he rubbed. He missed the wet heat of Horatio’s mouth there, longed for it even as it drove him senseless, sliding and sucking on his prick.
Horatio’s head began to bob-- he sucked, his tongue slid Bush’s length, clumsily lapping at the sensitive patches of head, the vein. He was no novice at this himself, but Bush had known that since Kingston, had seen enough, heard enough of quiet negotiations with paid men to drive him mad, to lead him to offer his own body to those beautiful hands. Those hands-- one of them was on his bollocks, now, rolling them carefully to and fro.
“Sir- Horatio- I’m nearly--”
Fathomless dark eyes met his. Horatio gave a harder, demanding suck.
With his hands over his chest he had to bite at his lower lip, letting out a muffled moan as he spent himself into his captain’s mouth. ‘Horatio’ had been on his lips. He let it linger there, until he had his wits back, until he was done panting and feeling as if every leap of Hotspur would send him sprawling into unconsciousness.
Now he could whisper it.
“Horatio. You must let me. Please, sir, please--” He had to have Hornblower’s prick in his mouth, had to give him this same pleasure-- his peak had been bliss but he was unsatisfied as long as his captain was. He ached still to be of service, to return this new warmth and lassitude back to the man who had given it to him.
He gripped Horatio’s shoulders, clumsily trying to pull him up to sit on the desk. Horatio came up, swaying close to him, looking dazed. Bush had to kiss him, then, sweet and tender and trying to pour all of his love into it even as he was licking the taste of himself out of Horatio’s mouth.
“Oh William.” Horatio looked stunned. Ridiculous man, to never understand how much he was adored. “Yes.” Their chests pressed together, Horatio pushing into him wantonly to kiss again. Bush had not known how much he’d het up under his captain’s touch until he felt how cool Horatio was against him.
It was the work of a moment to get to his knees; standing would have been a trial, his bones all melted as they were, but kneeling was the simplest thing in the world. Horatio was braced up against the desk in his place now, working at the fastenings of his trousers, and Bush reached out to steal one of his hands away and bring it to his mouth, to suck on his fingers-- his long, lovely, clever fingers-- undoing the flies himself.
If Sawyer himself had returned from the dead and appeared over his shoulder to snarl about the hanging that was promised to all sodomites in the navy, Bush could not have surrendered Horatio’s prick once he had it in his mouth. It had been too long coming, it was too silken-hard and good against his lips, his tongue; he liked the bitter salt taste of it like he liked rum, relished the feel of it like a stiff breeze in the sails. He leaned into Horatio’s thin legs, into their warmth and the heat between them.
Horatio was making helpless little noises, now, clasping at his hair, and Bush went to him with a will, rocking on his knees as Hotspur rocked, sucking and lapping at him until he gasped out his own warning-- and tipped over his peak as Bush swallowed him eagerly down.
Horatio slid off the desk and into his arms, and hidden a little by it, they embraced each other, sagging against the bulkhead.
It was all perfection.
And then a guilty spear stabbed through Bush, all at once, chilling him quite through-- he had forgotten. “My Lord! Mrs. Hornblower!” He had no regrets about Kingston, the few stolen moments afterwards. He did not have it in him to be very ashamed of sodomy, entered into for the pleasure of all parties. But adultery was a different matter: adultery had a pitiful victim. In Kingston, there had been no Maria. And pressed together Horatio’s small lodgings in Portsmouth, there had been Maria, but Maria Mason, not a wife, not even a lover. Now in his absentmindedness he had lured Horatio into wronging his wife. But Horatio was shaking his head ruefully.
“Knows,” said Horatio, with a quiet little chuckle. “She knows, William. And doesn’t care, not in any corner of her tender heart.”
“Good God, but how?”
“She read the right message from the wrong signal. Hah.” Horatio smiled weakly at him. “A shilling you paid for that truckle bed in my room. She washed the sheets. She knew that shilling paid for an unused bed.”
“We were kept out at cards all night!”
“I know that. She knew that I had brought a handsome friend home, and that he had not slept in the bed he said he would. She had suspected it of me for weeks, and that confirmed it in her mind. The wrong signal. The right message.”
“Hah!” said Bush, amazed. It was not completely unknown; there were women who liked the independence afforded by a husband who was disinterested, but he couldn’t have imagined the tearful, clinging Maria to be one of those mercenary wives. “She doesn’t love you, then.”
“Never think that! She does. As a dearest friend, a confidant-- as a husband who she knows will not often be her lover. She wanted me to be safe while I was away at sea, wanted safety for herself. So now I have a wife, and she has a husband, and...” Hornblower grinned, shaking his head at the caprice of the world. “I was fretting over her letters tonight, but I will tell you that she wrote me in every one of them, quite innocently, that she hoped my friend Mister Bush was taking care of me.”
“God bless her soul,” exclaimed Bush, meaning it, feeling a strong fellow feeling with the stout little woman. They had a common object, the two of them, and he’d never known it. He would do as she’d asked, by God. And bless her for doing the same, in the way that only a devoted wife could: shielding Horatio from the appearance of irregularity, making a father of him. “Now I’m more determined to do it, sir. I’ll chivy you to bed like the devil’s own steward, make you eat three times a day on her orders.”
“Will you! I never should have told you, damn you,” said Horatio, vexed, and reached over to tweak at one of the rings on Bush’s chest, making him restrain a yelp.
Bells clanged out above them, signalling that it was past time for Bush to sleep if he was going to sleep, warning that there was only so much time before the captain would be expected above deck, but they lingered in each other’s arms, sharing warmth. Hotspur was plunging towards Ushant, towards the weary blockade of Brest, the winter winds pushing her along. But the two men were warm and snugged up against each other, for a little while quite ignorant of care.