Contrary to the sentry's indication, the captain was not alone in his cabin: Hotspur had threaded a tentacle in through the gallery windows and was embracing Hornblower where he reclined on his cot, reading by lamplight.
"Begging pardon, sir," Bush said, averting his eyes. Not that Hornblower was shy about his affection for his ship — and God knew, Hotspur herself was as brazen as they came — but Bush could not help feeling he had intruded on an intimate moment. Indeed, from the corner of his eye he could see Hotspur unwinding herself from Hornblower's lanky form, as if she minded having an observer.
"No matter," Hornblower said with a rustle of movement, and Bush looked back to find Hornblower sitting up on the edge of his cot, his finger marking his place in his book; Hotspur's coils now shifted at his feet. Hornblower was in his shirtsleeves, despite the cool night air from the stern windows, and Bush could not help but check his captain's throat and wrists for Hotspur's marks. If they were there, they were not visible in the deep shadows of the lamplight. The mark on Bush's own neck flamed in his consciousness like a brand.
"The wind's settled, east by north, sir. We should be able to hold course after all."
Hornblower nodded in satisfaction. "Thank you, Mr Bush."
"Aye aye, sir." Bush took a step back to leave, but stumbled when his foot struck something solid. Hotspur's tentacle, stealthily snaking around behind him.
Hornblower sighed, half affection and half exasperation. "He's on duty, dearest."
Hotspur, having lost the advantage of surprise, only moved more quickly, her tentacle rising from the deck and snaking further around behind Bush, blocking his access to the door.
"That doesn't make him yours," Hornblower continued. Bush lifted an eyebrow — whose was he if not Hotspur's? — and Hornblower flicked him an exasperated glance.
Hotspur, undaunted, coiled herself around Bush's waist, and Bush put down a hand to stroke her. The bight holding him was not fully closed — he could step out of it, if he wished, although he felt no particular urge to. "What do you want, beautiful?" he asked, feeling the silken flesh under his fingertips. She nudged him forward, and he went.
"I already told you—" Hornblower said with a note of impatience, and stood up from his cot.
Hotspur twitched, lightning-quick, the bight around Bush opening only to close again around them both, this time without a gap for egress. It snaked tighter, drawing Bush, who was still in motion, the bare two steps required to bring him face-to-face with Hornblower, while Hornblower himself was pushed into a single jerky step toward Bush. It was too close: Hornblower reached out to fend Bush off, and Bush planted his own heels, refusing to let Hotspur nudge him closer. Bush strained back to give his captain more space. "Beg pardon, sir," he said, flustered. The fault was not his, but fault did not signify, not in the Navy.
But Hornblower was focused on his wayward ship. "Belay that!" he ordered her, but the coil continued to wrap them both. "Goddamnit," he hissed under his breath, stiff with embarrassment.
Hornblower was unsettlingly close. Bush stood near his captain every day on the quarterdeck, but always at Hornblower's shoulder. Face-to-face like this, Bush was uncomfortably aware of Hornblower's scent, of the glint of emerging stubble on his cheek, of the hard grip of his hands at Bush's waist. Bush dropped his eyes, but found only the open throat of Hornblower's shirt, the rise and fall of his chest inside. He could just see the edge of one of Hotspur's marks.
Hotspur, bold as ever, continued to twine them both. Her colour was a contented mauve; she felt none of the distress that her captain did. She caressed the mark she had left on Bush's neck earlier, the action distractingly sensuous. Bush was consumed by the thought of what Hornblower must look like when she did the same to him, leaving her never-quite-hidden marks on him. The image was compellingly vivid — Hornblower yielding and soft with pleasure, that strict control of his for once gone — and it took Bush far too long to realise that the thought was as likely to be Hotspur's as any memory of his own. He hastily reached up to drag her tentacle away from his neck, and the thought faded somewhat. Yet Bush seemed unable to summon the discipline to push it away entirely: he remembered Kingston very well. Very well, and perhaps too often.
Bush shoved against Hotspur's tentacle, thumped her coil twice in an effort to get her to release them, but she held them fast. With a sigh, he gave up the struggle: she was doing no harm, and would become bored of the game soon enough.
"I'm sorry, Mr Bush." Hornblower had similarly given up struggling. His face showed embarrassment, rue, anger. "I suppose it's clear enough what she wants."
Indeed, Hotspur's desires were clear enough; Bush felt somewhat drunk with them. Hornblower's mouth was just there, uncomfortably close. The coil slithered around them both, not precisely pushing — she could easily have had them both off their feet, had she wanted to — and yet the sensation of being encouraged was unmistakable.
And yet Bush understood — without knowing how he understood, but as instinctively as he understood a shift of the wind — that the desire was not only Hotspur's. "And you, sir," he asked, because he was Hornblower's as much as he was Hotspur's, "What do you want, sir?"
Hornblower shook his head, his hands hard on Bush's waist. "Nothing I would ask of you, Mr Bush."
Before Bush could respond to that enigmatic statement, Hotspur's arm darkened and struck Hornblower upside the head, making him stumble into Bush. It was only a tap, but more aggressive than could be tolerated all the same.
"Belay that!" Bush ordered, heedless of his own captive position.
But Hornblower did not need Bush's defense. "Who is the captain here?" he roared, and Hotspur's tentacle contracted and thickened, flushing red to match her captain — for an instant Hornblower and Bush were shoved even closer together. "You think you can pressure me into what you want…! I won't have you assaulting my officers, on-duty or off!"
The small cabin came alive with dizzying, slithering motion as Hotspur unwound herself and withdrew. She gave a sulky flip of her tentacle as she went.
Hornblower took a step back from Bush and inhaled deeply. Bush cleared his throat and stepped back as well.
"Damn," Hornblower swore. "She's going to sulk tomorrow. And we have more charting to do."
Hotspur disliked charting even at the best of times. "I daresay, sir," Bush agreed. An unhappy ship made for an unhappy crew: Bush would have his hands full tomorrow.
But now that Bush was free to move where he pleased, he keenly felt the open space between himself and Hornblower. Hornblower cleared his throat, seemingly ill at ease. But Bush dismissed that as fantasy: any captain would be unhappy to have his ship behave so.
"I'm sure you have duties to return to," Hornblower said.
Bush had been sure Hornblower was about to say something different.
"Aye aye, sir. Good night," Bush replied, and departed to resume his evening rounds.
As predicted, Hotspur was difficult the next day, sullen and unresponsive when she needed to be sprightly, and distracted and flighty when she needed to be steady. Bush had the hands busy with the rigging all morning, vainly attempting to offset Hotspur's recalcitrance. Fortunately for the men, Hornblower soon gave up the day's work as a loss and set Hotspur to mindlessly beating into the wind, hoping to exhaust her bad humour against the elements.
Hornblower's own temper with his ship that morning was formidable, and Bush kept a respectful distance lest he, too, draw Hornblower's ire. He kept his distance from Hotspur, as well — at one point she sent an inquiring tentacle inboard to where Bush stood, making pretty to Bush to highlight her pique with Hornblower. Bush was intensely aware of Hornblower fuming silently nearby, so stepped back and informed Hotspur in his chilliest tones that he wasn't the one she had to apologise to. She nudged forward again; again Bush stood back from her, sidestepping this time so as not to be driven against the taffrail. His refusal to play along got him hosed down for his trouble, leaving him drenched and gasping. Hornblower didn't try to contain his fury at this disrespect to his lieutenant, and began putting Hotspur through an exacting set of exercises, one complicated manoeuvre immediately following another, attempting to re-assert his authority over his temperamental ship. With permission, Bush went below to change into a drier uniform.
"My apologies," Hornblower said to him that evening, during the relative quiet of the first watch. Hornblower sat at his cramped desk in the cabin's only chair; the gallery windows were uncharacteristically latched shut behind him, and the tiny cabin seemed nearly spacious without Hotspur's shifting coils. "I didn't expect her to take her temper out on you."
"I've had worse, sir," Bush said, but of course Hornblower knew that: after Sawyer's fall, Renown had become dangerously unworkable, taking out her grief and anger on her upstart lieutenants. Buckland had gotten the worst of it as First — and had proved utterly ineffectual in the face of Renown's anger — but Bush and Hornblower had each come in for their share of trouble during their watches, all of it far more dangerous than anything Hotspur had gotten up to today. Against that, Hotspur's bad temper had been virtually nothing: a fit of sulks, a weak attempt to play one officer off against the other. "There's no real harm in her."
"I won't be bullied," Hornblower said, his resolution firm, but Bush knew how close he was with Hotspur, and he could guess how keenly he felt her pique.
"Of course not, sir. I'm sure she'll get over it soon. She has a willing spirit."
"She does," Hornblower agreed.
Bush said nothing, for there seemed nothing to say.
"She knows I think of Kingston," Hornblower said at last.
"Sir?" Bush had expected to be dismissed.
Hornblower seemed to have trouble meeting his eyes. He picked up his chart dividers and put them back down again. "But she doesn't understand that it's of no consequence. I'm your commanding officer now."
His delicacy might have done another man credit, but Bush was Hornblower's, through and through.
"You were my senior then too, sir," Bush offered. Perhaps Hornblower had not yet felt the weight of his commander's epaulette in Kingston, but for Bush, Hornblower's promotion had put right something that had always been subtly wrong between them, allowing Bush to stop fighting his nature and feeling.
But there was absolutely nothing welcoming about Hornblower's body language now, seated at his desk as he was, toying with his dividers and not meeting Bush’s eye. For lack of a better cue, Bush remained where he was.
"I won't be bullied," Hornblower said again, looking up at him, and this time it seemed like a plea.
"I understand, sir," Bush said.
Unfortunately, he did. Hornblower might think of Kingston, and Bush too might think of Kingston, but those thoughts were irrelevant next to the question of naval discipline. And Hotspur, indulged and petted as she might be, could not be allowed to dictate to her captain, however much they might all three want the same thing. It was a pity, but it was also the way of the Navy.
"If you're finished with me, sir?" Bush asked, and at Hornblower's nod, Bush retreated quietly from his captain's cabin.
Hotspur spent the next two weeks as sulky and temperamental as a teenager, requiring diligent and continual coaxing to her duty, while Hornblower spent the same interval distant and melancholy. Bush was philosophic about the obvious estrangement between ship and captain: he had long observed that every pleasure in the Service must be paid for with interest, and this falling-out, it seemed, was the price of serving a ship that truly loved her captain. The strong affinity between Hornblower and Hotspur was unusual in the service, and while Bush grieved the loss of sympathy between them, he was rather more grateful that neither ship nor captain seemed inclined to persecute him for it — he had served with more than one captain who regarded his lieutenants as the best and nearest targets for his frustrations. Hornblower was not of that ilk, fortunately. Still, Bush kept his head down, did his duty, and did not permit himself to think of the halcyon days of the month previous.
When the reconciliation between ship and captain finally came, Bush was not privy to it: he knew only that one morning seemingly like any other, Hotspur was so high-spirited as to tease Hornblower during his pre-breakfast promenade along the weather rail, and Hornblower was seen to take it with indulgent good grace. Bush's relief was visceral, and he turned his back on the pair, giving them as much privacy as a watch-keeping officer could justify. He felt the deck shiver with some antic of Hotspur's and heard an answering bark of laughter from his captain, and in that moment he was resolved: whatever the temptation, he would not again come between his ship and his captain. He hardly knew what he had done the first time, to prompt Hotspur to behave so, but he would not do it again.
It was only the next day that his resolve was tested: in the middle of the forenoon watch, Hotspur came nosing down to him where he stood on the quarterdeck. It was more sociable than Hotspur had been with him in two weeks, and mindful of his manners, he put out a polite hand for her to taste. But he deliberately refrained from petting or encouraging her, and stepped back when she pushed in closer: after all, it was right and proper that Hotspur's affections be given to her captain, not her lieutenant.
Hotspur, however, seemed to have opinions of her own on that matter: twice more during the watch she tried nuzzling up to Bush, and twice more he was stiffly polite. The third time Hornblower gave him a puzzled frown and called Hotspur away, lavishing attention on her to distract her from Bush. In her eagerness to be petted, she coiled him tightly enough to lift him off his feet, and Bush swallowed his smile lest it be taken amiss. She did not renew her attentions to Bush that day, instead lavishing them on her captain, and Bush told himself he was pleased.
So it went, Bush standoffish to Hotspur's intermittent overtures, until five days later, when she presented him with a shark.
Their only warning was a sudden lunge of the ship under their feet, and then Hotspur's larboard fighting tentacle broke the water, something thrashing wildly in her grip. Bush lost sight of it behind the mizzensail, and then there was fully twelve feet of shark — although half of that was a vicious, knife-like tail — wildly thrashing on the quarterdeck. Bush leapt back and drew his sword, the volunteers scattering. The marine sentry charged up the quarterdeck steps, his musket already at his shoulder, but Hotspur seemed to realise her mistake and snatched the shark up again. She cracked its head hard against the mizzenmast, but it required a second blow for the shark to hang limp in her grip. Again she dropped it at Bush's feet. This time it lay still.
Bush looked helplessly to Hornblower, who also had drawn his sword. Hornblower raised his eyebrows at Bush, expectant, and sheathed his weapon.
Hotspur reached down and nudged the limp shark closer to Bush's feet, as if there had been any confusion about her intent.
To ignore such a gift was prodigious bad luck: the hands would never stand for it, even if Bush's every nerve didn't rebel at the thought. He sheathed his own sword and reached out his arm to Hotspur's. "Thank you, beautiful," he said, and she twined his arm in response. She nudged up toward his face, and helplessly, he turned into it: he had missed her sorely. A sucker bit into his neck, and he let it happen; no, more than that — he reached up his other hand to caress her in return. Well-being flooded him.
Presently he pulled back: there was duty to attend to. "Come, you clever girl. Let me see if you're hurt. Yes, let me look." She submitted meekly, pleased to have the attention, and he went over her tentacle, checking it thoroughly. He found a graze, already turning blue as it oozed, and a long cut from the shark's blade-like tail; he passed word for Dr Wallis.
Hornblower came forward at that, naturally concerned for his ship, although a moment's inspection reassured him that the injuries were minor. Bush stood back, giving him space to fuss over Hotspur.
"Pass word for Mr Rawling and Mr Wise," Bush bellowed, because Hotspur was not the only point of concern: the mizzenmast would need to be checked for soundness. He heard the call go up for the carpenter and bosun. "And get Bailey up here to take this away!"
It was some little while before the usual business of the day resumed: Dr Wallis came and set himself to work on Hotspur's arm; Mr Rawling and Mr Wise each arrived and received his instructions, went away, and returned to make his report; the gunroom steward came up with a small work party to carry away the shark's carcass; a landsman was detailed to swabbing up the mess left behind.
Eventually the quarterdeck was cleared of visitors. Hotspur seemed well-pleased with herself, not in the least concerned about her injuries, and the hands had caught her air of festivity. Sharkmeat wasn't particularly appealing in and of itself, but as per naval tradition when a ship went hunting, each mess would get its share.
Hornblower came to stand by Bush's side.
"How is Hotspur, sir?" Bush asked.
"Just the one cut. Dr Wallis is satisfied that it will heal up nicely."
Bush nodded; he had expected as much, but it was good to have official confirmation. "I hope you'll accept a steak, sir," he said, feeling the awkwardness of offering to his captain what should have, by rights, been his in the first place.
"It would be my pleasure," Hornblower answered. "And I hope you'll join me for dinner tonight."
An invitation was as good as an order. "With much pleasure, sir."
"Very good," Hornblower said, and stepped forward to consult with the master, leaving Bush no wiser as to his captain's opinion on Hotspur making such a gift to her lieutenant.
That evening, Hornblower called "Come" at Bush's knock, but it was Hotspur who greeted Bush at the door, reaching out for him with a questing arm. He attempted to step back and offer her a polite hand in greeting, but a disgruntled noise from Hornblower made him look up.
"I thought we were done with this," Hornblower said, frowning at them.
"Was her apology earlier insufficient?"
"No, sir," Bush replied hastily, belatedly realising that he had given offense to Hornblower's beloved ship. "She has nothing to apologise for. Not to me."
Hornblower made an irritated noise. "You're not doing me any favours by being standoffish with her."
"No, sir," Bush agreed, and chastened, he allowed her to snake around behind him and draw him into the cabin; only a hasty grab at the door allowed him to close it behind them.
"Hello, beautiful," he said, stroking her arm in apology, and she twined his body further, unabashedly claiming him as hers. He cast a wary glance at Hornblower, but Hornblower was watching them with proprietary satisfaction.
"She's happy you accepted her shark," Hornblower said. "Come. Sit, if she'll let you. Cider?"
"It was a noble gift," Bush said after accepting the cider, and felt Hotspur's responding pleasure. With a little persuasion, Hotspur unwound enough to let him sit. Hornblower had brought in the second chair from the chart room, and it took up nearly all the remaining deck space in the small cabin: Doughty had to edge past Hotspur's coils to bring in the meal. Bush was relieved to discover Breton lobster was being served along with the expected shark: mustard could cover a host of sins, but he did not relish the idea of making a meal of shark alone.
They ate in relative silence, etiquette demanding that Bush follow Hornblower's conversational lead, but Hornblower conversing principally with Hotspur as she nosed among the dishes, experimentally tasting items.
"You won't like that," he warned her drily as she approached the mustard pot. "You never have before." But she dipped into it anyway, curious, and recoiled a moment later with such a strong air of affront that only a fear of offending her kept Bush from laughing out loud. She withdrew through the window, vigorously whipping away the offending substance, and Hornblower patiently wet a handkerchief to mop the stripe of mustard from his sleeve.
"Every time," he said with rueful affection, and Bush smiled in wistful sympathy.
Hotspur was back shortly, newly clean and dripping with the sea. "Here, you'll like this," Hornblower said, and offered her his shark; she was gone with it so quickly that Bush barely had time to notice that the steak had been largely untouched.
"She doesn't take offense at you giving her gift back to her, sir?"
Hornblower shook his head. "No, she wants to participate, mostly. Even if it is cooked."
Bush had been manfully making his way through his own steak, but he put down his fork. "Do you suppose she'd like mine?"
Hornblower gave Bush a conspiratorial smile. "I'm sure she'd be delighted."
When Hotspur came back, again dripping seawater across the decking, Bush conscientiously trimmed away the mustard-contaminated part of his steak and gave her the rest. She proudly bore it away, and he felt oddly favoured.
When she returned, it was to drop a sodden mass of seaweed before Bush; he snatched his plate out of the way just in time. Water ran off the edge of the table, dripping into his lap, and he hurriedly pushed back his chair. Hornblower's shoulders shook with silent laughter.
Hotspur hovered expectantly, clearly waiting for a response.
"Thank you," Bush said, at a loss.
Hotspur nosed up under his hand — a warm glow of possession and satisfaction suffused him at her touch — and then she went back to exploring among the plates, obviously angling for the third lobster. Hornblower let her have it, and she again withdrew.
"You do realise she's courting you," Hornblower said, breaking into his own lobster. "God only knows where she learned about the custom of giving flowers, but…" He gestured at the mass of seaweed at Bush's place.
It was an uncomfortable joke, but Bush laughed dutifully. Then Hornblower raised an eyebrow at him, apparently in deadly earnest, and Bush's discomfort turned to horror.
"Sir, forgive me," he said, standing from his chair. "I never intended—" He stopped, his predicament too terrible to voice.
"Forgive you what?" Hornblower asked, frowning at him.
"She's your ship, sir. Please believe me, I would never—" Words again failed him. "Sir," he pleaded.
Hornblower stared at him. "Sit down," he finally said. Unhappily, Bush sat. Hornblower pulled the mess of seaweed aside, out of Bush's way. "Eat," he said. "Try the mayonnaise. It's a French kickshaw, but it goes well with the lobster."
Miserably, Bush went through the motions of eating; the mayonnaise sat untouched. For a little while, silence reigned.
"She doesn't believe I have the power to break you," Hornblower said, conversationally, and to hear it said so casually — Bush put down the lobster, unable to continue even the pretense of eating. "She knows that I never would. Never for personal caprice, certainly, and heaven help me if my duty ever required it."
"I pray to never put you in that position, sir," Bush murmured, heartfelt. Whatever protestations Hornblower might make now, Bush knew that their long friendship would not save him if a misstep of his ever forced Hornblower to choose between Bush and the good of the Service. Hornblower would perform his duty even if his duty broke him — and it was that possibility, more than Bush being broken himself, that made him ill.
Hornblower acknowledged Bush's prayer with a nod. "She doesn't think in hypotheticals. For her, the simple and obvious truth is that I won't. She thinks I'm frankly dotty, worrying that you'll be influenced by a possibility that will never come to pass."
Bush smiled thinly. "Surely not, sir. She respects you."
"It doesn't stop her from thinking I'm mad. She thinks herself far superior to the two of us. There are days that I don't wonder that she's right."
Hotspur chose that moment to come back into the cabin, but instead of scavenging the table again, she paused, as if scenting the air. Her flesh paled, leaching to an unhappy white, and she pushed up against Hornblower.
Hornblower put down his lobster and caressed her arm. "We've scared him, dearest."
In response, she shoved across the table toward Bush; dishes slid sideways and the hated mustard pot tipped to the floor. Hornblower reached out and caught at her arm. "Not just now," he urged. She allowed the delicate tip of her arm to be pulled back, but an intermediary bight bulged toward Bush instead: it was impossible to contain a kraken who didn't wish to be contained. Bush instinctively reached out to help fend her off, and she took advantage of his outstretched arm to settle a bight around his wrist, the suckers nipping in fiercely.
Her distress hit him like a blow, and the urge to reassure her was overwhelming. With scarcely a thought for his fate, he reached up his other hand to stroke her, and she anxiously looped that hand as well, momentarily binding him.
"Sweetheart, avast there," he protested, thoroughly caught, but Hornblower reached out to help extricate him, his long fingers deftly nudging in under one sucker and the next, releasing them from Bush's skin. For a little while it was a case of two ahead and one back, no sooner freeing him of one section of arm before he was wrapped by another, but with a little coaxing they eventually freed one of Bush's hands, at the cost of Hotspur twining his other arm up to the elbow.
But although Bush watched him warily, Hornblower did not seem perturbed by Hotspur's possessiveness. He only stroked the coils that wrapped Bush's arm, gently soothing her. At a meaningful cough from Hornblower, Bush too brought up a cautious hand to stroke her coils. She did not grab for him this time, her flesh rippling in rhythm with his touch.
"She doesn't like it when you hold yourself back from her," Hornblower said, stroking the backs of his knuckles over her arm. Hotspur's anxiety was ebbing, but Bush could still feel a lingering, wistful discontent.
"No, sir," Bush agreed dutifully.
"She doesn't like it when I hold myself back from you, either," he added.
"It isn't her place to say, sir," Bush said, staunch in his defense of her captain.
Hornblower half-smiled at that.
Under Hornblower's fingers, colour was returning to Hotspur's arm, her flesh blushing to a delicate seashell pink. More content now, she unwound herself from Bush's arm, catching at Hornblower's hand as she went. He let her play with his fingers a moment.
"Will you give us the cabin, dearest?" Hornblower asked.
She seemed to hesitate, the delicate tip of her arm hovering expectantly, her even pink contracting into inquisitive freckles of blood-red. But with a last, graceful caress she went, silently retreating through the gallery windows.
Hornblower stood to latch the windows behind her. He stood there a moment, his hand on the glass, as if yearning for an absent beloved.
"Sir," Bush said, rising from his chair. It was not right that Hornblower feel pressed into anything, and especially not this. "You needn't... She's as content a ship as I've ever known. Truly, sir."
Hornblower shook his head and turned to face Bush. "It's not something she wants for herself. She wants it for me." His half-smile seemed to betray a sharp embarrassment, as if it was unthinkable that his own desires should come into the conversation. "And she thinks, perhaps… you."
It wasn't quite a question.
Bush could have feigned incomprehension and let the moment pass.
"I think of Kingston too, sir," he ventured, hoping the admission was welcome.
Hornblower nodded and dropped his eyes. He cleared his throat, and Bush waited.
"I'm not going to ask," Hornblower said. "I'm your commanding officer, it's not fitting that I ask you such a thing. Your position… You can't refuse anything I ask, not even something as trivial as a topic of conversation—"
"You needn't ask, sir," Bush said, low, and Hornblower's eyes came up to meet his. He seemed to take a deeper breath as he waited, his eyes fast on Bush.
"You needn't ask," Bush repeated, "not if it's you."
"William," Hornblower said, and that was all the cue Bush needed to take one step around the table — the mustard pot on the deck went skidding — and another to meet Hornblower where he stood by the windows.
Even so, it required enormous courage to take Hornblower's face in his hands, to lean in and press his lips to his captain's. But Hornblower tilted up his chin and met Bush, his mouth willing and even eager under Bush's own. His hands came up to Bush's waist, pulling him closer, and Bush allowed himself to be guided the half step forward until he stood flush against Hornblower, pressing him back against the gallery windows.
The world seemed to dim, and Bush knew he ought to break away — Doughty might come in to clear the dishes at any moment, and it would be beneath his captain's dignity to be caught so. But still Hornblower held Bush close, and Bush was helpless to do anything but what Hornblower wanted him to do.
Eventually Hornblower drew back from the kiss, and Bush looked up, only to catch sight of the darkened gallery windows, his view of the sea blocked by suckers inscribing circles on the panes, shifting in slow progression as they crawled across the glass. Bush ducked his chin to smother a laugh, and Hornblower turned to look.
Hotspur had so enthusiastically pressed herself against the glass that her arms blocked the great part of the light, except where it bled through violet at the seams where one arm pressed against another. A tentacle tip worried at a window catch from the outside, determinedly flattening and thinning itself, trying to thread its way inside.
Hornblower reached up and released the nearest catch, and Hotspur bulged inside, the bight of her arm first, the tip eventually following. She deftly wrapped them both as she came, dripping seawater and self-satisfaction. In moments, Bush and Hornblower were trapped securely against the windows.
"A little breathing space, dearest," Hornblower protested, and the weight of her arm eased slightly. Her self-satisfaction did not.
Fatalistic about the prospect of being released any time soon, Bush dipped his head to kiss Hornblower again. It was a heady thing, the way Hornblower lifted his chin to meet him.
"This won't be a regular thing," Hornblower warned him, stern.
"Of course not, sir," Bush agreed. That Hornblower would be so self-indulgent as to permit it at all was a wonder.
"And you'll not presume upon my good nature," Hornblower continued, and Bush bit back his smile lest it be misunderstood.
"I imagine you'll be more exacting than ever, sir." Really, it passed imagination that Hornblower wouldn't be twice as strict as before, and not just with Bush: however hard he rode Bush, Hornblower would expect even more from himself. And then, because Bush was fool enough to relish Hornblower's high standards, relish the satisfaction of having his best demanded of him and the giddy hope of living up to it, he added fervently, "I desire no less, and hope to live up to your expectations, sir."
Hornblower pulled back and examined Bush closely, his eyes narrow. "You sincerely mean that, don't you."
"I do, sir."
"More fool you," Hornblower said, but there was affection there, and pride, and Bush didn't mind at all.
Hornblower freed a hand and stroked Bush's face, then reached up to kiss him, fierce and demanding, and Bush gave himself over to it. There was too much feeling in him to be contained in a single kiss, and when he was released, he kissed along Hornblower's jaw, his neck, his shoulder, trying to express his willingness, his eagerness…
"Hotspur will want to participate, you know," Hornblower murmured into Bush's ear, almost shyly, as if he feared that this would be the step too far.
But Bush laughed, because he knew Hotspur nearly as intimately as her captain. "I would be very surprised if she didn't, sir."
Indeed, smugness was still rolling off Hotspur in waves — smugness and contentment and delight. She had opened a second gallery window for herself and had threaded in a tentacle through it, its flattened tip reaching for them both, intermittently caressing them — a shoulder, an arm, a neck — before drawing away.
Hornblower reached for her, and she readily twined his arm up to his shoulder.
"Yes, dear, you were right," Hornblower told her, and Bush laughed into Hornblower's neck at the thrill of triumph that went through her. "But don't let it go to your head — you'll still be charting tomorrow, and indeed, for the foreseeable future, at that."
Her dismay at that was tangible enough, and even through his giddiness, Bush felt sympathy for her. Hotspur, too, would have a rough time in the coming months, as Hornblower reaffirmed to his own conscience that this one self-indulgence had not turned him into a soft captain, one who couldn't be trusted with a sloop-of-war.
"Then we'll just have to pray that the Frogs come out to fight tomorrow," Bush said, and felt Hotspur's answering chime of eagerness.
"You'd be wiser to pray for more charting. Although that's more sense than I'd expect of either of you," Hornblower grumbled, and Bush grinned widely at the compliment. "Now let me be, both of you," he said, pushing at Bush's shoulders and Hotspur's arm; Bush tried to oblige, but was penned in by Hotspur. "Yes, especially you," he added to Hotspur. "You're as heavy as an ox. Go on, shift yourself!"
The bulk of Hotspur's arm reluctantly dropped away, and Bush stepped back a pace.
"Have a seat, Bush," Hornblower invited, "and maybe this time you'll do justice to Doughty's cooking."
"Aye aye, sir," Bush said, and with a care for Hotspur's shifting coils, resumed his place at the table. Hotspur came to hover at his elbow, beseeching him for a taste of his lobster. He broke off half and gave it to her.
"Belay that," Hornblower ordered. "I'll not have my ship thinking she can get anything she wants."
"Aye aye, sir," Bush said, but Hotspur had already made off with her prize. "Too late now, sir."
"You spoil my ship, Mr Bush."
"Yes, sir," Bush agreed pleasantly.
But not two minutes later, Hornblower gave Hotspur the remainder of his own lobster, as unable as Bush to resist indulging his ship.
Bush smiled to himself, and tried the mayonnaise.