Title: K is for Kitten
Fandom: Horatio Hornblower
To say Hornblower and Bush were drunk would be a grievous misuse of the word. Sure, they had each had a few drinks at the officer’s club, but that was to be expected. For the privilege of having somewhere warm to pass some time, of being able to play cards to earn next month’s rent, of striking up conversations with illustrious officers, a little bit of libation must be endured. They were not the sort of stinking drunk that the men of the ship typically were after a weekend of shore leave. They were not even the sort of tingly that came from having a cold and suffering through the ship’s physician’s remedy of many mugs of rum. But they were intoxicated enough to walk slowly, swaying together to stay upright.
And it was as Hornblower misstepped and Bush slid an arm around him to keep him from toppling into a store window, that Bush noticed something out of the corner of his eye. Something moving. Something small. Something alive. He left Hornblower to the wall just past the window and turned to go after it.
“Pardon. One moment,” Bush muttered, searching the darkness for more movement, and spotting it at last. He pursued, boots against the cobblestone, walking then running as a carriage came around the corner. Bush reached down, scooped the something up just in time, and pulled back as horse hooves and wheels sped through the street exactly where he had been. Heart pounding, lightheadedness gone from the dose of adrenaline like one he only got during a good battle, he hurried back to Hornblower.
“What was all that about?” Hornblower asked, rubbing his forehead and standing upright again without needing to rely on the wall.
“See for yourself.” He stood up taller, sticking his chest out proudly, to reveal a small black ball of fur against it. As Hornblower watched, the fur moved and light from the gas street laps caught in its eyes, reflecting in an eerie manner. Then it nosed against the opening of Bush’s peacoat, seeking the warmth there. Bush searched Hornblower’s face. “It’s a young kitten.”
Hornblower took a step back. “Indeed, I see that.”
As he continued to see, the kitten reached out one tiny paw and dug its claws into the coat. It flexed its digits and kneaded the paw into the wool.
“Careful. It will put holes in the fabric.”
“Nonsense. It’s too small.” His voice took on a slightly different tone as he spoke with his chin pressed to his neck, looking down at the kitten as if he had never seen its equal. “What a lovely little thing.”
“Yes it is, but it will freeze along with the two of us if we linger out here for much longer.” The days were cold, but the nights were remarkably colder. And it was well into the nighttime now.
“You are right of course.” He cradled the kitten in one arm but wrapped his other arm around it to secure it. “Do you think Mrs. Mason will mind an extra lodger for the night?”
Hornblower took another step back. “I’m not sure I take your meaning.”
“I should think my meaning plain enough. I’d like to bring the kitten home.”
Hornblower’s third and final step back took his breath away as he slammed back against the wall, not expecting it to be so close. He gasped and clapped his hand over his mouth, but the sound had escaped nonetheless.
Bush looked up, confusion in his eyes. “I never took you for an animal-hater, Horatio.”
“Animals? No.” His voice was muffled by his hand.
“Then it is cats in particular you hate?”
“Not… hate precisely.” His eyes seemed to beg for mercy, and Bush knew every one of Hornblower’s expressions. Carefully, he pried the paw, claws and all, from his coat. He hugged it warmly, then moved toward the arcade and set the kitten down where it would be safe, away from the streets. It mewled and disappeared into the darkness, its fluffy tail held high.
They did not speak as they now soberly walked back to their lodgings. Bush led the way up the stairs and Hornblower followed just behind. The lady of the house and her daughter were fast asleep at this hour, and they made their footfalls as soft as possible to ensure that.
When they reached the top of the stairs, Bush headed into Hornblower’s room, knowing Hornblower would continue to follow. As soon as the door was closed behind them, Bush caught Hornblower up in his arms, holding him close. And Hornblower returned the embrace, resting his cheek upon Bush’s shoulder. There were stirrings and touches of all sorts.
But then Hornblower pulled back. He had never before pulled back from this, but there it was. He clapped his hand over nose and mouth and moved back as far as the small room with its slanting ceiling would allow.
Hornblower shook his head, unable to speak, eyes closed.
“Why, whatever is the matter?”
“h’pishhh!” Hornblower snapped forward with a covered but nonetheless violent sneeze. It came with fellows, however. “hihpishh! H’ishhhh! H’pihshhh!” He turned to the side. “hihh… hih-ihPIHshhh! Hihpishhh!”
“Goodness gracious! God bless!”
Hornblower seemed to try to nod. But it was difficult to tell the difference between a nod and the bob of a head from another sneeze. “heh-IHshhhh! H’pshh! Ishh! Ihshh!”
“It was… h’pishh! Sniff! Sniff! It was the kitten.”
Hornblower wiped his hand across his nose then put the other one there in its place. “Sniff! Cat hair always tickles my nose fiercely. Sniff! All I need do is…” He drew close again, lowering his hand from his sniffly nose. Then he took one cautious breath in Bush’s direction before drawing back in an instant. “And I… I… heh-IHPShhhhh! Ihshhhh!”
Off came Bush’s coat at once, flung to the far corner of the room. “I’m sorry, Horatio. I didn’t know. We… don’t come across many cats at sea, do we?”
Horatio chuckled and rubbed the side of his hand underneath his nose. “No we… we don’t. hihpsh! H’shihh! Ihpshh!”
“Thank god. Imagine you going into battle like this.”
Bush said it with such a straight face that Hornblower didn’t realize it was a joke at first. Then he looked up enough to see the smile, and returned it. “I… I daresay you should take all your clothes off, just to be sure. I’m sniff still feeling a bit sneezy.”
Bush nodded. “You know best, of course.” He began to strip down.