Maybe it was like this
The knock seemed quiet, hesitant. Perhaps his ears were still dulled. Every year it seemed to take longer for them to return to acuteness.
“Come..” The door opened. It was Bush
“Supplies are loaded, sir. We are ready to get under weigh.”
“Thank you Mr. Bush, see to it, if you please. I shall be – I shall be occupied here for some time.”
Hornblower returned to his letter.
'Dear Mrs. Hammond,
It is with deepest regret that I take pen in hand to--'
That was as far as he had gotten. After years of writing such letters, he was making a very poor showing of this one. And now, somehow, he had contrived to smear the ink. Clumsy. A whole sheet of best paper wasted now. He crumpled the paper, cast it down with force. It floated to the deck with unsatisfying silence. Hornblower drew back his lips, baring his teeth to the canines. He wanted to bite someone. He wanted to dash his own head on his oaken desk.
They had carried Midshipman Hammond's body back to the ship. Hornblower had held the prayer book before him, and said the words, as he had seen it done so many times. He said the words as he had done before, as Keane had done, as Pellew had done. And he knew now that none of them had needed to see the text. It was another aching secret of command.
“Here, Sir, let me.” Bush's hand and sleeve snaked past his cheek and shoulder, moved the ink bottle, before he could upset it.
“Let me.” Bush said again, and he felt, from afar, as if in a spy-glass turned wrong, Bush taking his clenched hand, and unfolding it. Bush trailed his own fingers over Hornblower's palm, finding the burns and blisters. He found the deep cut, in the webbing of Hornblower's thumb and forefinger. Bush trailed his own warm calloused fingers through the smeared blood.
“You should put something on that, Sir.” He said softly.
“I will.” Hornblower did not say that he had laid awake all night, clenching the bleeding fist, and thinking of Jack Hammond's body on the sea-bed.
“Let me help you.” William Bush said again.
“Help me?” Hornblower's voice was dull. He stood, turned, and now he was facing Bush. Bush's eyes were dark, wide and close. They were stretched with something very like fear. But that could not be right. Bush was not afraid of anything.
“William.” The eyes flared, green as moss. “William, please, you called me Horatio, once.” He swallowed hard.
“Horatio.” No more than a breath.
It seemed the easiest thing to rest the bloody hand against William's cheek, and soft, soft to thumb closed those eyes, and watch them come open again, mobile, and alive, thank God.
He felt William turn under his hand, and seek out the hurts, beneath the stains of ink and dirt, and bitter powder. Bush was kissing his palm, more than kissing. Bush, with eyes wide open, and fixed on his, was licking the small injuries, returning again and again, to soothe the bleeding cut.
There was a squall line between them, crackling with lightning. Impossible to tell whose tears came first. Impossible to tell whose kiss came second.
Horatio drew back first.
“William?” He saw Bush's face contract, as if bracing for a blow. Horatio reached forward gently, to correct the mistake. He touched Bush's face again, and knew himself to be aching, hard as a boy of 18.
“William. Is this all right? Is this something you want?”
“Want?” Bush looked dazed. “I have wanted nothing else since the Renown, have wanted, have had nothing, nobody since then. Five years, Horatio, I have...hoped.”
“You... you nobody?” Horatio had always thought himself restrained in matters of the flesh but surely this could cause injury.
“Nobody.” Bush said firmly.
Horatio pulled him close. “William,” He rasped, “Come to me tonight.”