Fic: A Wild, Unaccustomed Thought

Up the steep gully in the cliff, to the battery of SamanĂ¡ Point in Santo Domingo, through broken limestone and scrub Hornblower had run, thin and gangly-legged and awkward, but faster than Bush, speeding ahead with every stride. Of course it had been dark with that desperate darkness of the hours before dawn, the phosphorescence in the water made brilliant as fire about their landing boats, and their parties had set off separately, Hornblower’s scouting the way and Bush’s to the rear. Bush had barely clapped eyes on Hornblower all morning: he had seen him once when they rendezvoused past the crest of the peninsula, and not again until they stood in the tropical sunrise on the fort’s gun platform, as marines ran wild after fleeing Spaniards below. Nonetheless when Bush thought of their last weeks together in the Renown, he thought always of Hornblower running. In his imagination it were as if Hornblower had run up the hill, over the turret of the battery and with a great leap, straight onto the deck of the Retribution, there to sail away, captain’s epaulette bobbing. And the relief to Bush of Hornblower’s promotion was immense. Though it meant they would part, Bush was relieved of the obscenity of so admiring his inferior officer.

Did he fear in the end that he was as weak as Buckland, that if he had turned to Hornblower for direction, it was because he had been as unmanned by fate’s sudden bestowal of command as Buckland had? Buckland at the last had been surprised in bed by the rising of the Spanish prisoners, and constrained there to wait to be cut loose by Hornblower, like a maiden chained in sacrifice to a dragon. Hornblower had rescued them both that night. Bush, at least, though he had fallen, was on deck with his cutlass in his hand. He had tried to rise to meet Hornblower and the boarders from the prize crew, but the boundaries of his body had become diffuse — his flesh was unmoved by his will the way the sea is unmoved by a swimmer. Later he would understand the wounds he had sustained, and forgive himself the weakness that kept him abed for weeks, and tired and oversusceptible to drink for weeks again. He could look at the healed scars without sentimentality, the way they marbled alternately livid and white when he moved — his body was a sail hoist in the wind of war, and like any sail it would rend and soil with time.

“It should have killed you,” Hornblower said. Bush felt fingers on his bare back; Hornblower was prone to a certain fancy, and he could not look without sentimentality, it seemed. The sensation as Hornblower traced the great diagonal slash from his shoulder to his spine was alternately uncomfortably intense and almost absent, as was the way with newer scars. Bush braced his shoulders. Before Hornblower, Bush had not known that fancy was the underside of brilliance. He remembered Hornblower’s gasp to see his first flying fish, aboard the Renown some days short of Santo Domingo — he had been distracted by Hornblower’s alacrity in suppressing his enthusiasm thereafter, when he would have struck closer to the heart of it to have remarked on the whimsy.

Cheek by jowl they were, shirtless in order to shave, in the narrow room in Mrs Mason’s boarding house, for not to glory, had Hornblower sailed in the Retribution, but to this: a shrew downstairs and a sorry dark box upstairs — his commission unconfirmed, his pay docked, his kit part-pawned for fourpenny suppers with more gruel than meat.

“A clean cut, rapidly stitched and bound up in its own blood, will heal well, the surgeon said,” said Bush — too sententiously, he thought immediately. For he found he cared for the tenderness in Hornblower’s voice, in his touch that had traced the path of the scar down to the spine, as he had never cared for the fussing of a sister.

Bush turned and caught his arm under Hornblower’s, a hand to his back. Hornblower’s skin was so taut and thin over the ribs, like a rangy child’s! He thought of Hornblower at supper with the spoon so rapidly to his lips. For a perilous second Bush wanted to shake him, to force him to accept Bush’s offer of half his own pay — and hang his sisters. The second passed: “I’ve never forget that. But I can’t accept it,” Hornblower had said, and then, “You’ve brightened the world for me by saying that,” and Bush knew that to renew the offer now could only shift it from honour to imposition, with no greater likelihood of its being accepted.

He had surprised Hornblower by turning to put an arm about him, he saw, and now he merely held his position, waiting for the momentary stiffening in Hornblower’s spine to dissipate. But Hornblower took his cue from Bush, and stood equally quiet in the part-embrace. For a moment Bush thought wildly that he had entered that vertiginous silence before one kisses a girl — that moment of two people finding their dissimulations all at once exposed, who freeze with fright as much as rapture, on the brink of the plunge. There was a wild, unaccustomed thought of raising his hand to Hornblower’s wide-eyed face, and kissing his mouth.

With terror he realised he might really do it. He was a stag standing stock-still with shock, having heard the rifle crack — he inhabited that moment prior to comprehension of the result.

He tore their gazes apart and threw his other arm around Hornblower, seizing him in a robust embrace. “My dear friend,” he declared. He feared there was a false note to his voice, but Hornblower responded with a murmur of natural masculine pleasure, and thumped his arms up around Bush’s shoulders, his face against his neck, with a similar friendly violence.

Bush patted the crest of Hornblower’s shoulderblade, with a ghost of that trembling that comes sometimes when the danger of battle has passed.

Hornblower pulled his face back to look up at Bush. His gaze was too quiet: he had not mistaken Bush’s mood for one of vigorous fraternity. Oh, it was worse that they should gaze at each other in silence while embraced fully thus, face to face. Bush was about to dishonour himself, dishonour himself crushingly to a friend and a fellow officer — years later, men might decline to remain seated when he joined a table. The ground behind a precipice was giving way beneath his feet, and he was too far from the rift.

But it was Hornblower who kissed him, clumsy with ardour. Four, five times Hornblower pressed his lips against Bush’s, hard and avid. Pressure made Bush’s teeth score his lip from within; Hornblower’s own teeth scored it from without. A flush of uncertainty slowed him at last, and Bush kissed him back, with equal rapidity and force. He heard surprised pleasure in Hornblower’s sigh, and he smothered it with his mouth.

On they went in desperate artless attack and counterattack of the lips. Now it seemed Hornblower would hold Bush’s face immobile in his hands, the better to devour it. But Bush desired no escape, only urgently to be allowed to make further ventures of his own, and would have protested had there been means that would not interrupt. All of Hornblower’s back was free to his touch: the delicately papered lantern of his ribs; the peculiar velvetiness of the small of the back as it disappeared beneath his breeches. Then he cast loose Hornblower’s grip upon his face and sank his fingers into Hornblower’s hair, between the scalp and the queue, and held him fast so that there could be no more of this attack-and-retreat, only an endless, constant, sliding pressure of their lips together.

A flurry of steps on the stairs. They jerked apart. His belly twitched as Hornblower’s fingers trailed away from it. The tread could only be Maria’s.

“You haven’t shaved,” Hornblower said. There was something of a sleepwalker’s artless clarity in his voice. He raised his hand to his lips, swollen scarlet. And then Bush understood: his whiskers were the culprit.

“The chops,” Hornblower said. “They will want to serve.” He began to pull on his shirt. “You must follow me down presently,” he said.

There was scarcely enough room between the two cots for Hornblower to dress while another man stood beside him. At last he was done, and would have gone. In passing Bush touched his wrist, and Hornblower paused and turned back to him, clear-eyed. Then he passed Bush and was gone.

Bush stood between the two cots. His razor and his kit had become strange to him. The water in the basin had probably cooled, but he did not test it.

He supposed they would go to the shipyards after breakfast, and thereafter to the Long Rooms, as they had the day before.


2 Comments so far

  1. Jenifer Winterbine January 9th, 2010 9:39 pm

    I have found my way here after wandering off from Harry Potter fandom – and how very sweet it is to find fics written in excellent English without having to search through a dozen disasters to find one. Loved this. You have captured the atmosphere of the era, the series and the books.

  2. Eyebrow of Doom January 11th, 2010 10:55 pm

    Thanks so much!

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