How Long Have You Had That Cough?
"How long have you had that cough?"
First Lieutenant William Bush looked up from his handkerchief. He’d thought he’d been coughing discretely, but his captain was not a man who easily missed even the smallest of details. “About as long as you’ve had yours.”
The look of surprise on Horatio Hornblower’s face must have matched his own. And they were suddenly two officers of His Majesty's Royal Navy with the worst head colds imaginable.
“The coughing isn’t so bad,” Bush said, once they had safely hidden themselves away in the captain’s cabin for a quick respite. “It’s the sneezing. I can’t remember a time I… I felt… do excuse-hah-hah-CHIH! hehCHIHhhh-uh!” Bush dragged his handkerchief under his nose, the edge rubbing, tidying. “Excuse me.”
“Of course,” Hornblower forgave his officer and friend. “If you will… will do the same.” His breath hitched uncontrollably though he had his own handkerchief clamped tight to his nose and mouth. “Hitchahh! Yihkshuhh! Oh....” Hornblower was forced to take a few steps back and sit himself down onto his bunk. Had he been alone, he surely would have tipped right over, thrown a blanket over himself, and huddled there in private, abject misery.
But Bush was there. And there was a knock at the cabin door.
Bush coughed in surprise and stuffed his handkerchief up his sleeve, out of sight. He cleared his throat and straightened up, trying to look as presentable as possible.
The visitor was only Hornblower’s steward, bringing the tea as requested. Hornblower thanked him, took the cups, and pushed the door closed again with the toe of his boot. He nodded toward his small table with its pair of chairs, and the two men squeezed into the small space with their drinks, inhaling the steam while it lasted. The tea was weak, tasting mainly of water. They had been at sea long enough for the small supply of tea to run low. But the warmth was what was especially helpful.
Though the steam did its job a bit too well. “Yihkshhhh! HahChhhhh! Hahshuhhh! Sniff! hah… hihkshhuhh!”
“Bless you, Sir.”
“Horatio,” Hornblower corrected, his voice part squeak and part wet rasp. He cleared his throat, though that helped little.
Bush smiled. “Thank you for the tea, Horatio.” His cheeks went red, flushed though not from the steam or from fever. He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Sir. I cannot be so informal, not while we’re out at sea.”
“It’s probably just as well. Wouldn’t want to slip up in front of the crew.”
“That’s sniff that’s right.” He pulled his handkerchief back out of his sleeve. “ihh…” He folded it in half and pressed it into place. “ihhh-Hihhchh! h’HIHSHhh!” He snapped forward at each, careful to keep tight hold of his tea and not spill a drop. It felt so satisfying to be able to let go and sneeze after holding them in all day. “Though I am fairly skilled at hiding how I feel, if I must.” The moment he said it, he regretted the words. He looked down at his tea, terrified to imagine his captain’s expression.
Until Hornblower’s hand slid across the tiny table and over one of his hands, the one wrapped around the mug. Bush let the mug alone on the table and moved his hand to the side, turning it, so that it rested entirely in Hornblower’s. Hornblower’s fingers tickled and teased, touched and caressed.
Then his fingers withdrew to take charge of his own handkerchief again. “hahh-CHUHhhhhhhh!”