novembersmith: (Default)
[personal profile] novembersmith
MASTER POST
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

***

Dover, Late December, 1806

It turns out one of the worst parts of the dragon plague is that Ray has to deal with the Admiralty all the sodding time. That’s not true, actually—there are worse parts, but he doesn’t like to think about them, doesn’t like to remember visiting Laetificat and watching her labor for breath, her nostrils red and raw, her ribs showing beneath the dull skin. He tries not to think of it, of the mounded heap of earth that covers Obversaria’s unmoving body, the slump of Lenton’s shoulders as he watched her be buried. She’d looked very like Bravo, smaller in death and curled in on herself.

Ray doesn’t think about any of that, not most of the time. Not when he’s awake, at least. It’d been so close, such a close thing. It could have so easily been—anyway, he doesn’t think about it.

Instead he thinks of how much he bloody hates standing in a room full of old rich men who look down their noses and sneer and seem totally nonplussed by the fact that three dragons cannot be fifteen places at once, and like to ignore the fact that the entirety of Britain’s aerial support depends on three ragamuffin captains and their charges. None of them get taken seriously, right from the very beginning: Ray is too lower class and uncouth, Poke is too dark and ethnic, and Pappy is too Irish for their Lordships to actually listen to, let alone debate with. Ray even tries to be polite, at first, but after they are ordered around like sheep, mocked and drawled at and talked down to at every turn, like they’ve got no fucking idea what they’re doing, he abandons any pretense of politeness and just starts sneering right back.

Right, fine, so their three dragons hadn’t seen a single engagement before they were thrown into the thick of things. They’ve done a damned fine job of protecting their lordships’ interests, regardless of their youth. And alright, it probably doesn’t help matters that Poke and Ray have taken to outright insulting the bastards to their faces, but it’s satisfying, anyway. And then Pappy drawls at them in his soft, pleasant voice and sounds completely submissive and obedient, so long as you aren’t actually listening to him. Though Pappy’s insults, Ray has to admit, do at least tend to be less crude than his own. Ray’s more likely to just tell the weasel-faced whoremongers to kiss his arse; they can hang him for his impudence when he’s not fighting a bloody hopeless war for them.

Really, though, Ray actually has been doing his best not to explode into expletives every time they are called to London for a meeting of strategy, which thankfully isn’t often. Poor Roland has to deal with those pigs in wigs day in and day out, and she’s likely got it worse than any of them. Ray can scarce imagine the uproar that resulted when their Lordships found out about the female Longwing captains. No, the Anglewing captains are definitely missing the brunt of the imbecility, by virtue of actually being out fighting the battles. They’ve got a degree of freedom in their distance from any commanding officer; they can interpret the orders that do come rather liberally, tailor them to the situation, instead of just flying into death dumbly. Roland is stuck dealing with the twats in person. She sends Ray and Poke and Pappy missives directing them all over kingdom come, but they all she’s doing her best to shield them from too much crap falling on them from above.

Anyway, he feels like a twat himself complaining too often. He’s still got Bravo, healthy and tired, but whole. The Admiralty seems dead set on getting them all killed, keep trying to send them into battles with no support and entire fleets of French ships and cannons arrayed against them. But if Bravo dies, it’ll be in fighting. Not a slow, lingering death drowning in her own blood, not like Obversaria. Ray’s lucky, and he knows it.

Things get moderately less intolerable once Laurence and Granby return in December with a new fire-breather and a pack of feral dragons. For one thing, the Admiralty finally have someone else to snip at. The Anglewings look downright obedient in comparison to the young Kazilik and the motley pack of foreign dragons, who lack any captains whatsoever and have to be coaxed into obedience with shiny trinkets. That’s fantastic enough; Ray bursts into laughter every time he thinks of those hoity toity fuckers in Parliament dealing with it. But on top of that, Iskierka and her feral friends are tearing about the Dover port, setting the bewildered French ablaze, and it’s actually given the Anglewings a chance to rest for the first time in months.

She’s a foul-mouthed, insubordinate godsend in fiery red scales; Ray could kiss her.

“She’s fucking brilliant!” Ray enthuses, bouncing on his heels. “Did you know a Kazilik can hit a target from over eighty yards away? And she can breathe fire for five straight minutes at least. Watch her now.”

He’s just gotten back from a lunch with Granby. The Anglewings are being shipped further south to cover the Channel from Portmouth to Penzance tomorrow, and Granby and his pack of miscreants are taking over the skies in the north. It’s still stretching their resources hellishly thin, but with the rest of the dragons out of commission and Temeraire headed back to Africa in search of a cure for the plague, the Corps hasn’t got much of a choice. Ray and Granby managed to snatch a scant few hours of free time that afternoon, right before Granby’s first scheduled patrol. They’d met up at an inn, shared a bottle of port and a year’s worth of gossip, and now Ray’s in an excellent mood. Unlike his current companions, who seem bent on pissing all over his parade.

“She is not so impressive,” Bravo sniffs. She is basking in the pale, watery sunlight and sulking up a storm. Despite having vocally complained for weeks about how they were all being worked to death and how Ray needed time to sleep and eat, she’s taking their replacement in the Dover harbor remarkably poorly. She’s watching with narrowed eyes as Iskierka darts about the Channel, cheerfully setting sails on fire. “She’s got no finesse at all. I do not think she is even attempting to take the necessary targets, she is just going for the ships with the best figureheads, look.”

Ray huffs out an enormous sigh. The things he puts up with. “Oh, come off it, you must admit she’s pretty damned fantastic,” he protests. “Look at the Frogs go, they’re like wee fish in front of a shark. And she’s totally bloodthirsty, a real little ripper of a thing. Granby’ll have his hands full with her, I can tell you. He’s over the moon. Did I tell you about how they snatched her egg from the Turks?”

They’d spent lunch comparing stories from the last year: Granby’s trip to China and across the Himalayas, through Istanbul and Prussia—fucking madness, Ray’s a bit jealous, to be honest. And then about the twenty-nine skirmishes Ray and Bravo’d had to commit to protect Dover and their other ports over the duration of the plague, just three Anglewings against hordes of the French. Granby looked a bit disbelieving at times, but most of it’s the God’s honest truth, and Ray’s exhaustion must have lent an air of sincerity to his voice. At the end, Granby had just clapped him on the back sympathetically and poured him another glass.

Ray’d sort of thought they might renew a more intimate acquaintance after that, to be honest, relieve some tension, but it hadn’t taken much conversation to realize Granby’d had more luck with Laurence than Ray had with Brad. He went all stupid and red whenever he mentioned Laurence’s name, and Ray’d finally had to roll his eyes and just ask: “So is Laurence any good, then? He looks like the type to be a fucking lion in the bedroom.”

Granby had spit wine everywhere and spent a moment spluttering indignantly, then he’d given in and leaned in towards Ray with a wicked gleam in his eyes. “Raymond, my friend, you have no idea.”

“You dog,” Ray had said despondently, and let himself be poured another dram of port. “I suppose I won’t ask to debauch you further, then.”

Granby had flushed further, smiling and playing with the stem of his glass. “No,” he’d agreed, almost shyly, cheeks pink. Ray might have hated him, a bit. “I rather think I’ve been taken off the market for good.” Ray definitely hates him, in retrospect, but the bastard had been so ridiculously happy it was hard to be mean about it, even when Granby was terribly selfish and didn’t share any details.

Anyway, Ray’d made the mistake of coming back an hour or so later, glowing with praise for the new dragon and her captain, a bit flushed with drink, and now his dragon and first lieutenant were having an enormous hissy strop for no good reason.

“Granby’s hardly handling her well,” Brad says pointedly, scowling and crossing his arms over his chest. “He will ruin her. She has no discipline.”

“If you can even say she handles at all,” Bravo notes coolly, arranging herself to best show her glowing golden-brown coils in the sun. Ray squints, pained, shielding his eyes. “Look, she is wasting a good half a second each wingbeat, making turns that way. It is all show and no economy.”

“Agreed,” Brad says, scowling, and they are both utterly useless, picking away at Iskierka’s every move, just because she’d accidentally set fire to a British mast or two. She’d put it out almost immediately anyway, commandeering a small fishing boat, filling it with water, and dumping it over the blaze. All sorted. But Brad and Bravo just grumble and starting complaining about the lack of cohesion in her formation.

Ray has had enough. He throws his hands up in the air. “What, are you jealous?” he asks them both incredulously. “Don’t be stupid, Iskierka’s not a patch on you, Bravo, and you know it. You’re just being difficult.” They ignore him, and Ray gives up. “If you two want to waste our first night off in months bitching about our bloody fantastic new dragon, wonderful. Fine. Sensational. Have a party. I’m going to have a bath before we’re shipped off wherever. Have fun being a bunch of old biddies.”

They both sniff disdainfully, alarmingly in unison with each other. Well, they can just keep each other company, then. Ray stomps off. Bravo coils herself up, arching her queenly head to better sneer at Iskierka’s prowess, or lack thereof. As he leaves the clearing, Ray hears her trying to engage Marisol in insulting the Kazilik, but Marisol is feigning sleep and snoring away obnoxiously. Ray envies her. At least she can pretend to escape by sleeping. Ray’s stuck with Brad, who is following him even now, looming and disapproving, dogging each steps—escape of any sort is clearly not an option.

“In case you wondered, Captain,” and how the fuck does Brad make an honorific sound like ‘you worthless fucking word-grubbing wastrel’? How? “We’re going to Portmouth. You should at least be aware of the name of our next posting, you incompetent ass.”

“Portmouth, right,” Ray drawls, mock-thoughtful. Brad’s annoyed face is usually equal parts terrifying and adorable—Ray gets the feeling he might be the only person in the Corps that sees the ‘adorable’ in it. Right now he sees only ‘obnoxious.’ “Thanks for that. You’re a peach.”

“Don’t you think you’re being appallingly stupid, Raymond?” Brad bites out, following him into the baths.

“Well, why change now?” Ray snips, loosening his cravat and then tossing it on a nearby bench, then sitting down to shuck off his boots. “I’ve got you to keep track of things for me. And I really don’t see what the fuss is—Iskierka being here makes all our lives a damned sight easier, and it’s not like we’re going to have to work with her.”

Brad cuts in, getting in Ray’s face. Ray freezes in the midst of unbuttoning his shirt, looking up uncertainly.

“What I meant, sir, that the piano player was one thing. At least you were somewhat circumspect—for you, anyway, which isn’t saying much—and I admit you’ve left off visiting your whores lately, which helps. I’m glad of that. But Granby is a captain of the Corps. You can’t just go swanning off in the middle of your duties for a quick screw by the docks and expect no one to notice.”

Ray can scarcely get his lungs to work. “You’re out of line, Colbert,” he whispers, and tries to look away. He can’t. Brad’s never said anything about Ray’s dalliances with men, never once mentioned how he talks a good show and is fond of large-breasted women, but never seems to date any of them. Ray knew Brad had to have suspected, after a while, but he’d never said anything, and Ray’d felt safe. He even flirts back when Ray teases him, sometimes, but it’s always joking, always friendly.

And now this. It’s making his chest hurt. He can barely breathe.

“They hang men for sodomy,” Brad says fiercely, and takes a step forward. Ray’s shirt is half unbuttoned and he’s feeling terribly naked, suddenly, but his fingers don’t want to work, numb and trembling. “You’re risking your life to dally with these men. You stupid fucker, they’d hang you.”

“Okay, one, they wouldn’t dare,” Ray says, talking quickly and backing up again. The covert baths are a terrible place to have this conversation, but it’s midday. The rooms are steamy and empty, that’s one thing to be thankful for. Ray hears himself talking, words echoing in the emptiness, but most of his attention is on Brad’s face, on the tense line of his mouth, on wondering if he’s about to punch Ray in the nose. “Bravo’s too important to the war effort, they wouldn’t dare hang me, not now. I’ve got fucking immunity, Brad. They can’t just kill me, not that easily, not for something like—like that. Two—” He sucks in a breath as Brad steps closer, takes Ray’s shoulders in a bruising grip. His voice falters a moment. “Two, I—there was no screwing, the docks or anywhere else. It was just lunch, you goddamned suspicious twit, not that it’s any of your damned business.”

“It’s entirely my business,” Brad replies, quiet and intense. “If they’re going to hang you for something, it’s my business. You’re my—my captain.”

“Never got the impression you cared much,” Ray attempts airily, and Brad grabs the back of his neck. Ray freezes, and then Brad’s—it’s like a cannon goes off behind Ray’s eyes, rendering him completely and totally incapable of any thought that isn’t revolving around shock and light and Brad’s lips hot and firm against his.

“What, I don’t—” Ray tries to say against Brad’s mouth, and Brad growls and shoves him back against the wall. Ray’s toes leave the floor for a moment, and he moans involuntarily, helplessly. The kiss deepens, wet and bruising, and Brad’s hand twines in Ray’s hair.

“I care,” Brad says finally, hot and damp against Ray’s skin, moving his lips along the line of Ray’s jaw. Ray can’t fucking stand it, how he’s completely undone by this simple thing, unable to do anything but pant and arch his neck. Brad sucks a throbbing kiss into his skin, and then Ray shakes himself mentally, tries to struggle for sanity, for thought. What the fuck is happening here? Brad isn’t homosexual. Brad likes women. But it’s hard to think when Brad’s grinding against him like that. “I do care, Ray. And you’re safer this way, with me. Fuck, I’ll make sure you’re safe, I’ll take care of you.”

That penetrates Ray’s brain slowly, penetrates the daze Brad’s hands are causing like a drug. Brad cares, but that doesn’t mean he cares the way Ray does. He wants Ray safe.

“Stop,” Ray says thickly, and shoves Brad back. Brad doesn’t move at first, so Ray has to put a bit of weight behind it, enough that Brad staggers and then looks at him with big, confused blue eyes. His mouth is red and used and wet, and Ray hates him a little bit, really hates him for the first time in his life, and wishes he could maintain the feeling because beneath it is a wave of humiliation and pain. He doesn’t want that part to surface, wants to stay infuriated forever. But it’s not Brad’s fault Ray wants something he can’t give. Brad’s offering him a hell of a fucking lot, but Ray doesn’t want Brad’s pity. “You don’t have to do this. I don’t—don’t want it. Not like this.”

“What, you’ll let John Granby and Joseph Bones sod you, but not me?” Brad asks furiously. His hair is a mess—Ray must have run his hands through it at some point. He hadn’t gotten a chance to appreciate it because he’d been out of his goddamned mind with shock and lust, and now he never will, because--fuck. “You’re risking your fucking life for these men. Do you have feelings for them, is that it? Is that why?”

“That has nothing to do with it,” Ray says tightly, trying not to look at Brad’s mouth, the line of his throat. He could have it, could taste it. He never imagined it like this, never imagined Brad kissing him could do this, bring a tight feeling to his chest like a sob, or a burning in his throat like bile. He feels stupid, and sick, and of course Brad is just that fucking noble, to offer to satisfy someone he loves but doesn’t want, just to keep them safe.

“I get that you’re worried, Brad,” he continues, summoning a sardonic smirk from somewhere. “I’ll be more circumspect when I find fellow sodomites to satisfy my perverse, unnatural urges in the future, I promise. Just, for now, please, if you’ve ever had any fond feelings for me at all, just—go. Get out of here. Let me take my fucking bath and we’ll forget all this. Please.”

Brad breathes out through his nose, takes a step forward and then his hand is on Ray’s chest, right over his heart. He has nice hands, and Ray could trace the lines of them in his sleep. He has to close his eyes and concentrate on breathing for a moment.

“But I don’t want—” Brad starts to say, low and rough, like it hurts to talk, and then over the hiss of steam and the thump of his own heart, Ray hears a familiar, hateful sound: Christeson and Lilley and Stafford ricocheting down the hallway towards them, their laughter echoing off the stone walls, high and chattering. They’ll be in the baths at any moment, will see Ray like this, Brad like this—but then Ray blinks and Brad’s hand is gone.

Brad’s back is facing him when the three boys enter. They halt, throw a couple lazy salutes, and swagger off to the other side of the baths, stripping and tossing their pants at each other. Fingers stiff, Ray motions back at them dazedly, probably long after they’ve stopped even looking at him. Brad stays facing away, staring down at the bench. He’s doing something, but Ray can’t see what. He’s busy trying to parse the cheerful banter of the boys, the splashing, the line of Brad’s back and the words he’d just said.

“You should take better care of your things, sir,” Brad says quietly, suddenly, and Ray somehow hears it over the echoes and voices and water, and then Brad’s gone. Two long steps take him to the door and then out, and he’s gone.

Ray blinks, looks over, and chokes out a surprised laugh. The fucker’s folded all Ray’s clothes.

***

Ray goes to find Bravo afterwards, his hair still dripping from the baths and icy in the January air, his clothes perfectly creased. She’s coiled up haughtily, peering out at the harbor and flicking her tail like she’s terribly annoyed with him, he Ray knows she doesn’t mean it, not really. She’s a bit overdramatic at times; Ray supposes he has only himself to blame for teaching her that. He ignores the way she sniffs disdainfully at him, muttering about his wet hair and how if only he had a fire-breather for a dragon he could likely dry it for himself and never worry about the chill. Instead he only settles himself between her forelegs, leans against her chest and closes his eyes.

She smells of high wind and fresh air and dead animal, the goat from her breakfast, probably, and he can hear the bellow of her lungs moving as she grumbles, a low sweet healthy movement of air. He remembers when he could pick her up in his arms, and now her heart is twice the size of him, beating loud and hot. He loves listening to it, the cadence of it; he focuses on the sound of it vibrating against his bones instead of the tight feeling behind his eyes.

Brad—what had he been about to say? Maybe Ray doesn’t want to know. Probably not, but it’s hammering behind his eyes right now, the look on Brad’s face. He imagines he can still feel the five phantom fingers on his chest. He’s going to insane over this, he knows it. He presses his face into his knees and breathes to the beat of a dragon heart, slow and steady. Brad doesn’t want him, can’t possibly know how Ray feels or he’d never have offered—but how long has he known about Ray and the other men? He hadn’t said anything, not once.

“Ray?” Bravo says hesitantly, nosing him, and he turns and rests his head against her cheek, sighs. Her breath is godawful, worse than a butcher’s shop, and he loves her so much it aches. “Ray, what is wrong? I do not want you to catch cold, you are wet all over.”

“I’m fine, love,” he tells her, chest heavy, and she curls up around him, wings arched protectively to hide him from the wind.

She asks him again, nuzzling worriedly, but when he doesn’t respond, not really, she only coils around him more carefully, tucks her neck around him. She starts humming, and then, as the sun sets, she begins to sing and Ray cannot help but smile.

Marisol and Anima moan and make a great show of hiding their heads beneath their wings, but Bravo continues on. She has seen Ray laugh up at her and now she cannot be stopped. She’s bellowing out into the cold air and likely setting all the cats in Dover to yowling and all the children to hiding beneath their beds. She has a voice like a rusty saw, though it is surprisingly on key.

It’s a bawdy song that he knows Bravo only vaguely understands, even after all Ray’s attempts to diagram human anatomy for her, and he interrupts and tells her they should make up a version more applicable to dragons. This draws the other two dragons into the conversation, and soon they are all squabbling over what bits of a female’s anatomy are the most appealing. Ray is appalled and horrified and can’t stop laughing. He does not even know what an egg spur is and what is more, he does not want to, but it appears to be a central part of the chorus now.

When Brad appears in the clearing, aghast, hands clapped over his ears, Ray automatically beams at him and waves cheerfully before even thinking about it. Brad stomps over, face a veritable stormcloud, but it’s his normal ‘Ray, what have you done, your behavior cannot be sanctioned by either God or the Devil, you are some new species of infernal beast’ expression and Ray feels the weight on his chest lighten suddenly, like now he can finally breathe again.

Maybe they’re alright, after all. Well, of course they are. They’re Bradley Colbert and Ray Person, they can’t be anything else.

“This is our finest weapon against the French,” Brad says, pained. Ray can barely hear him over the cacophony and the wheeze of his own laughter. He is pretty sure there are tears streaming from his eyes at this point. “This. I almost think we should deploy them as a form of auditory warfare. The demoralizing effect—I can scarcely imagine it.”

“The Admiralty would never stoop to such despicable, savage tactics,” Ray drawls, and then falls over on his side, covering his face and giggling. “Brad, oh my god, you haven’t even heard the verse about their tails yet. I had no idea! Do you know, I think our three dragons are not only inverts, but engaged in the most obscene sort of polyamory? How fantastic is that!”

“We are going to be dragged into the town square and burned,” Brad says mournfully, but he is laughing, and when Poke and Pappy appear a few minutes later, he keeps them from tossing Ray off the parapets. He’s standing a little farther away than he normally would, perhaps, and the moments where they would normally bump shoulders pass with Ray leaning against Bravo’s side and Brad standing conscientiously a few feet back. But Ray supposes that’s to be expected.

Ray still feels brittle, a bit like something inside himself has cracked and is sending jagged pieces into his lungs, his blood, but it doesn’t much signify. Brad is smiling at him. They’re going to be alright.

***

Later, Ray realizes he decided this too soon; they are not alright. Nothing is alright. At the beginning of the flight to Portmouth, dawn streaking the sky pink and orange, Brad had approached him. He’d placed a hand on Ray’s upper arm, said in a low voice, “Ray, we need to talk. We never finished—I think perhaps there are issues that require clarification between us,” so close that his breath had been warm on Ray’s ear, despite the chill morning wind whipping around them.

“Talk about what?” Ray had replied, high and jittery, smiling wide and empty. Brad had went still, like Ray had hit him, and Ray had just—kept talking, prattling on like an imbecile. It’s just—he couldn’t let Brad guess how he felt. Even that moment had been awkward, but it’d be approximately ten thousand times worse if Brad knew Ray wanted to cherish him from head to toe, worship his body, listen to his drawl forever. Pathetic, Person. And he couldn’t even come up with an adequate change of subject. “I can’t think of anything we could possibly need to talk about, Lieutenant, not a thing, not a blessed, bloody thing. Can you? Of course not, because there’s nothing.” Pathetic.

Brad had stayed silent for a moment, then peeled his hand off Ray’s arm, said, “Only that I suspect you’ve been sneaking more than your allotted ration of coffee, sir.” And Ray had laughed and protested, and Brad had watched him blandly and then vanished. Disappeared. If it wasn’t for the occasionally glimpse of bright blonde hair and broad shoulders Ray spotted as he scanned the dragonback, he’d have thought Brad’d fallen off.

Bravo is no Regal Copper. There’s no way Brad should be so good at eluding his captain when they’re all trapped aboard a middleweight Anglewing at an altitude of several thousand feet, but Ray supposes he shouldn’t be surprised. It’s Bradley Colbert. Brad can do pretty much any damned thing he sets his mind to, and apparently lately he’s set his mind to breaking Ray’s sanity into a thousand, tiny pieces.

Ray should have said yes yesterday. Fuck, he should have just ripped off Brad’s belt and gone to his knees on the unforgiving stone floor, taken Brad in his mouth, finally tasted him. He’s thought of it a thousand times a day for the last ten years, it seems, wondering if Brad’s mouth would fall open, if he’d tilt his head back and gasp. If he’d be quiet or if he’d talk, filthy and hot, pushing his hands through Ray’s hair, if he’d tug and pull, and Christ, why hadn’t Ray just let him? Would a pity fuck have been so terrible?

Now he’s up here alone. Bravo’s attention is on the horizon, Brad’s hiding from him somewhere amidst her wings, and Ray can’t stop thinking, can’t get away from his own thoughts, the skittering whirl of them.

He can see it, see how Brad would turn away blithely afterwards, pat Ray absently on the shoulder, leave him wrecked on the floor and wander out whistling. Or worse, he can see Brad’s eyes widen in pity as he realizes what the expression on Ray’s face means—head over fucking heels in love for a man a thousand times his better. ‘Oh, Ray,’ Brad would say. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t give you more than a quick fuck every now and then, keep satisfied, keep you from the garret. But you can’t imagine I’d give up the countless ivory-skinned beauties that swoon at my feet, or the sharp-eyed brilliant Longwing captains that take me out back for a hard, maddeningly loud romp. I like cunt and clitoris, round tits and long legs, and I can tolerate the cock and balls you have for a while, but not forever.’

Or he’d look at Ray, horrorstruck and guilty, and that’d be worse, somehow, because it’s not Brad’s fault, not really, he’s not ever supposed to know how Ray feels, never. It’s not his fault he prefers women, that he can’t give Ray more than that.

And then regardless of how Brad reacted, Ray would have to go stick his head in a vat of Longwing acid, because he can’t—even in his mind’s eye it makes his throat go tight and his eyes go hot and his stomach is churning like he’s had a bad meat pie. The thought of Brad looking at him wide-eyed, with pity—Ray can’t stand it, he couldn’t have stood to see it. He made the right decision, turning Brad down, it was the right decision, it was.

Only now it seems like he’s lost Brad anyway, after only a kiss, one kiss. One kiss, and Brad’s avoiding him, treating him like a stranger. Maybe Ray should just come clean, tell Brad the truth. At least then—Brad would know, would understand why Ray’s been such a tosser lately, manic and distant and obnoxious.

Things can’t get worse, anyway. He’s gotten used to Brad being constantly at his elbow, offering an offkey harmony to his outbursts of song, or at least an aggravated chorus of ‘With all due respect, please shut up, sir.’ He keeps turning to ask Brad’s opinion on the distant sails Bravo’s spotted on the horizon, or on the quality of coffee likely to be available at the distant outpost they’ve been relegated to, or whether this lot of sailors will be as bad as Lord Nelson, who despite being brilliant had the tendency to toss about dragons as though they were as expendable and unfeeling as wooden ships. But Brad’s not there and Ray bites his tongue on his questions, tastes blood and bad decisions lingering in his mouth for hours, aching.

He catches a glimpse of his lieutenant now and again over the course of the flight, shimmying up Bravo’s side and disappearing amidst the riflemen, his hair bright and clean in the sunlight. Ray doesn’t look for him often, though. He doesn’t want Brad to catch him looking, which is stupid, but fuck it all, Ray has some pride left, he figures. He’ll just talk to Brad later, after they get settled in at the Portmouth fort. Corner him in the barracks, apologize, maybe offer a smile and the last of the port he’s been saving for a special occasion.

Except then they land and meet Commodore Stephen Ferrando, and Ray realizes they’re all fucked, and doesn’t have any time to worry about anything else besides how his girl and his men are going to come out of this fucking war alive.

Well, that’s not true, Ray always has time to contemplate Brad’s mouth and shoulders and the way his legs look in the uniform trousers, and how they’d look out of the trousers and wrapped around Ray’s waist. He can do that crap in his sleep. But an enormous portion of his attention is currently being taken up in trying not to gape in absolute, abject horror as Ferrando welcomes the Anglewing Formation arrival with a series of plans that are apparently designed to get every man, woman, and dragon serving under him killed in action. It’s like listening to Brad outline one of Shakespeare’s moronic tragedies, except apparently that load of bollocks hadn’t been as farfetched as Ray’d thought, because now it’s going down in real life.

Brad had appeared out of thin air when it was time to land, standing quietly at Ray’s shoulder when they went to meet their new commanding officer, and Ray had been preoccupied with not turning and making giant, pleading eyes at Brad. By the end of Ferrando’s speech on bringing the battle to the French—never mind that their naval forces are spread paper-thin across the Baltic and Atlantic and that their aerial forces have been fucking decimated by plague—Ray’s working more on not turning and making giant ‘Oh my sweet Christ in heaven, we’re fucking doomed’ eyes at Brad. He gives in and flicks Brad a glance as they’re being taken on a tour of the grounds, and Brad looks grim, but raises an eyebrow and shrugs.

Ray rolls his eyes—make the best of it, of course they’ll make the best of it, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t fucking stupid. They should be focusing on defense, at least while they’re stretched so thin, but what does Ray fucking know, he’s just a mangy, uneducated aviator. Obviously the wrinkly, mold-ridden, floppy-dicked sots in the Admiralty have a much better grasp of the situation than Ray possibly could, because unless Ray’s missing something huge, this mission they’re being sent on honestly is Shakespearean tragedy levels of stupid. But he nods and keeps his mouth shut anyway, because contrary to what everyone in the damned British Isles says, he actually does know how to hold his tongue when it counts.

They wind up at a sad, pathetic clearing with a selection of scrawny bovines waiting for the dragons. Bravo eyes them dubiously, then coughs politely and says in a hopeful voice, “Actually, we are perfectly accustomed to fishing for our meals.” Ferrando brightens at this and smiles for the first time since the dragons had landed and he’d said, scowling at the horizon, as though a dozen Regal Coppers and Longwings were going to materialize out of the clouds, ‘But where are the rest of them?’

“Damned glad to hear it, ma’am,” he says gruffly. “That will make supplying our movements across the channel a hell of a lot easier, pardon my language.”

“Oh, your language is quite acceptable,” Bravo replies, clearly puzzled. Ray coughs to hide a smile. Bravo’s not exactly a stranger to vulgarity.

“Hm,” Ferrando says, eyeing her, and then calls over one of the officers that’d been following them around the grounds. “This is Captain Fick, of the HMS Battalion, in command of a squadron of five ships of the line. You’ll be reporting to him as we engage the French in their own ports over the next few months.” Fick salutes the three aviators sharply. Ray blinks—Fick looks all of nineteen years old, big green eyes and slight build. But he has an officer’s bars on his shoulder and a clear, piercing gaze, despite his smooth cheeks. He must be older than he looks, mid-twenties at least. Likely there’s more than him to meets the eye, if he’s been given his own ship and command of a full squadron at such a young age.

Plus he’s got a nice mouth, which Ray feels is only fair. If he’s going to put up with all this bullshit from command, he should at least get something pretty to idly ogle now and again.

“Gentlemen, your focus will be on penning the Frogs from the Channel Islands to the Bay of Biscay,” Ferrando says gruffly, drawing back Ray’s attention. Apparently while he’d been zoning out on Fick’s mouth, Ferrando had been speaking. Brad must have noticed his lack of attention, though hopefully no one else did; he’s hitting Ray with an especially icy stare. Great, like his lieutenant wasn’t already miffed with him. Fuck Ray’s life. “You aviators will have two days to work with Captain Fick and his men to design a series of naval-aerial maneuvers which best maximize our movements across the channel to acquire and lock down our targets.”

After making this pronouncement, Ferrando leaves, the majority of the naval officers following him, and then it’s just Fick and the aviators and three curious dragons.

“So, did I understand him correctly?” Ray asks finally in the silence of the clearing—well, as silent as it can be with the crews swarming over the three dragons, chattering away cheerfully as they remove the heavy harnesses, because apparently they hadn’t heard the ‘doom doom doom, so fucking doomed’ speech they’d just been given. “It sounded an awful lot like we’re meant to be covering the entire Western half of the English Channel, and beyond.”

Fick straightens and looks as though he’s suppressing a wince. “Yes, that’s precisely what we’re meant to be doing, gentlemen.” He pauses. “We rather expected there to be more of you.”

“Hey, you’re getting the best formation in the Corps,” Poke says, leaving out the fact that they’re the only formation capable of sustained fighting, besides Iskierka and the ferals stationed at Dover. Anyway, Ray figures it’s not really lying, since they are the best formation, healthy or otherwise, in his opinion. “But we’re not made of magic. That’s a lot of coastline to cover with only three sets of wings and a couple sets of sails, brother.”

Fick looks uncomfortable as he replies, “I am assured that as soon as the campaign against the Dutch at Copenhagen is completed, we will receive further naval support. And in any wise, we are not to engage the French or any other vessel unless they attempt to enter or leave restricted waters. Our duties are strictly patrolling.”

“That’s basically all the waters, you realize that?” Ray says morosely, and he’s going to continue but he’s suddenly realized that Brad’s staring at their new captain friend and grinning, and that said captain is smiling back incredulously.

“They told me they were sending the best men in the fleet,” Fick says, eyes bright. “I see that they were correct. Hello, Brad, it’s been a while, has it not?”

He’s calling Brad not just by his Christian name—he’s calling him Brad. What the fuck.

“Nate,” Brad says, nodding, his voice startled and happy. Ray knows that voice, knows it comes with an unguarded smile, and is suddenly so jealous he can barely breathe. That’s Ray’s smile. Who is this little snot-nosed sailing brat to be given one of the precious, carefully guarded, Bradley Colbert smiles that belong to Ray?

“I apologize for the lack of formality,” Fick apologizes, eyes big and earnest and Ray is not falling for this at all. Fick is trying to seduce away his lieutenant, and Ray had him first, goddammit. Just because they’ve had a falling out doesn’t mean this fresh-faced upstart can just swan in and befriend him. “I was once Captain James Colbert’s cabin boy,” he explains to the three captains, and oh. Well, fuck. That does explain it, doesn’t it.

Fick is the sort of man Ray’s always imagined Brad would be bosom companions with, in a different life. An earlier life, apparently, a pre-Raymond Person existence. Nathan Fick is well-educated and sophisticated and handsome and clearly brilliant, if he’s been given command of a mission like this one when he’s so young. He’s not a verbally incontinent, buck-toothed coal miner’s son that can barely read a line of Greek and can’t dance or play a hand of whist to save his soul.

“Our fathers were good friends,” Fick is saying, and Poke and Pappy are nodding in understanding, and Ray’s just frozen to the spot and trying with all his might not to actually hover over Brad and piss on his leg and growl ‘mine, mine, mine.’ Little good that would do him anyway—Brad would just disembowel him and then set the remains on fire, probably. He had informed Ray after a particularly trying evening at the bar a few years back that that would be the result if any of Ray’s misguided attempts to urinate landed upon him: fire and disembowelment. “Brad and I used to spend summers together when we were lads, before he swore off the sea forever. I hadn’t known you joined the Corps, Brad. Is one of these your dragon, then?”

“No, sir,” Brad says, and his voice has gone stiffly formal. Ray wants to bite something. Or punch something, whichever—he’d like a good barfight about now, is what he’d like. “I’m first lieutenant aboard Bravo. May I present my captain, Raymond Person?”

“Charmed, I’m sure,” Ray says between clenched teeth, offering a tight smile and lighting up a cigarette. He speaks through a wreath of smoke and a smirk, and is viciously pleased when Fick looks taken aback. “Not quite Brad’s caliber, I’m afraid,” he drawls, “but dragons do get funny turns now and again, and I’m afraid I was somehow chosen instead. Bloody inefficient branch of the military, the Corps, isn’t it, Captain Fick?”

“Ah,” Fick says awkwardly, and Ray is kicked sharply in his ankle. He finds himself treasuring the pain, because he’s an idiot and a tosser and can’t help be pleased that at least Brad is acknowledging someone exists outside the godlike presence of one Nathaniel Fick.

“Person’s too modest,” Brad says icily, and Ray snorts, dragging in another lungful of smoke and rolling his eyes. “Despite his lack of a civil tongue, he’s a brilliant captain, I assure you.”

“How very kind of you to say so, Mr. Colbert,” Ray says snipply, his nails cutting into his palms as he clenches his fist. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Poke and Pappy staring at him like he’s started speaking Greek or, heaven forbid, fucking French. Ray bets that Fick speaks fluent Latin, Greek, and French. Probably Mandarin Chinese and Dutch, too. Fuck, Ray needs to rein himself in—Brad’s ignoring him, anyway. No more kicks to the ankle, just icy silence.

What is truly unfortunate about the situation is that Ray has been forced to secretly swear himself Fick’s archenemy, when he actually suspects that under other circumstances he would like the man very much. After introducing himself to the captains, Fick marches up to the dragons themselves, heedless of their size and teeth, and offers them a bow. Bravo is charmed, that much is certain, and immediately begins cheerfully interrogating the Captain on the number of battles he has been engaged in. In fact, the two have to be interrupted so that the dragons can take to the air and catch their dinners before it gets too dark. Fick looks a bit abashed, and it makes Ray all the more annoyed when Brad grins at him teasingly.

“I had forgotten,” Brad says, crooked smile on his face, “how you always carried around those carved dragons in your pockets. Still have a fondness for aviators and their charges, then, sir? I can assure you, it is a much less romantic occupation than you and I imagined as children.”

It is inappropriate to talk so casually to a commanding officer, at least to one outside the Aerial Corps, and it annoys Ray even further that Fick just blushes slightly and grins back.

“Now’s not the time for childhood reminiscing, Brad,” he chides gently, and then straightens, all seriousness and steel as he lays out the Anglewing formation’s tasks for the coming days. He takes them to his map room in the fort, and they stand around a table that has seen hard use, but is scrupulously clean. Brad, who is something of a complete nutter for maps and navigation, promptly begins fawning over the models and globes and sextants.

“You know, we should really wait for the dragons to get back from their meal to discuss strategy,” Ray says, interrupting their chatter over Mercator lines. He’s cleaning his fingernails with his short dagger, blatantly ill-mannered, relishing the glare Brad is shooting him. He’ll take negative attention over no attention at all. He’s being childish, he knows, but he can’t bring himself to mind.

Nate looks momentarily confused, and then brightens so much it’s kind of ridiculous. Ray is resolutely not charmed.

“I hadn’t even thought,” Nate starts, smiling, and then says, “I apologize, gentlemen.” And he goes himself to throw open the windows looking out into the clearing and they all sit to wait for the girls to return. Brad starts talking to Nate about taking him up for a short flight on Bravo in the morning, to give him a real feel for the aerial maneuvers they’re going to be discussing. He doesn’t even ask Ray’s permission. Not that Ray usually minds that sort of behavior—Bravo is, to his mind, as much Brad’s dragon as Ray’s. But this is different. This time he minds, rather a lot.

The girls come back a few minutes later and crowd around the two windows looking into the room, peering at the candle-lit table, and Nate proclaims that he will have it set up in their clearing in the morning, or possibly that a modified, larger version might be created, that they can look upon it with ease. Ray normally would be fucking ecstatic over a naval man treating their dragons so well. Instead he’s tossing his knife idly in the air and catching it by the blade and trying not to grimace too obviously or look like he’s thinking about tossing it in Nate’s direction.

It is very stupid. This is one of the first fruitful conversations Ray’s ever had with a member of another military branch. But Brad spends the entire evening staring at Fick and smiling slightly, catching his eyes at every opportunity. He doesn’t look at Ray once. Not once. Not even when Ray flicks one of the tiny brass figurines meant to represent a ship at his head. He just bats it out of the air with uncanny precision and goes back to mooning over Fick. And ignoring Ray. Ray hates being ignored and he has been ignored all damned day.

If Ray weren’t so very certain Brad had a fondness for pussy, he’d think Fick was Brad’s childhood sweetheart or something. But that can’t possibly be the case. Brad likes women, long-limbed and sweetly curved, with wicked smiles. Ray has meticulously catalogued all of Brad’s conquests over the years. Brad likes women, exclusively.

Except… except there had been that one quick kiss they’d shared yesterday in Dover.

Except for the fact that if Brad were to lay with a man, and mean it—want it—it would be with a man like Nate Fick.

After the meeting’s ended and they’re all going their separate ways, Ray stops to take a look at Fick’s bookshelf—and yes, fucker definitely has the same copy of Herodotus that Brad has, and probably the same books of Scottish poetry too, Christ. He’s scowling at the shelf and then realizes he hears voices, and oh, sensational. He’s going to have the entirely dubious pleasure of overhearing a conversation between his first lieutenant and their new commanding officer in the hallway. His life is just that grand.

“Captain Fick,” Brad is saying, low and pleased, and Ray backs against the wall, out of sight, or so he hopes. He can just see Brad in the hall, smiling and bowing slightly, his hands behind his back. Fick, the baby-faced, green-eyed little bastard, is smiling back up at Brad, and he replies in a stupidly syrupy voice, “Yes, Lieutenant Colbert?”

“I wondered if you might join me over dinner to continue our discussions on the formation’s past experience with collaborating with naval forces.”

“And to catch up over a bottle of Madeira, I hope,” Fick says, crinkling his nose and smiling. He looks like an infant when he does that, Ray can’t help but notice. A stupid, red-cheeked infant. “I’m afraid I must decline, or at least postpone the offer. One of our ships is being refitted with top of the line cannons, and I’ll rest easier if I see the work myself before she’s declared ready for active duty. I hope I can make it up to you later?”

“On the contrary, it’s refreshing to see a superior officer take genuine interest in his charges, I assure you. That hasn’t often been my experience during our engagements thus far.”

Ray feels this is an intentional slight on his captaincy. It must be. He crosses his arms and ponders what possible way he could get back at Brad for any of this. He could set Brad to teaching the ensigns penmanship, or geometry, perhaps, but Brad is an annoyingly good teacher and would probably enjoy the opportunity to broaden young minds, the fucker.

“Perhaps a late dinner, then?”

God, Ray hates this. He doesn’t want to hear this conversation. He seriously gives thought to jumping out one of the windows, but it’d likely make a racket, he supposes. Instead he dithers over the bookshelf for a while and tries not to listen to the banter in the hallway. He pokes idly at the gilded spine of Paradise Lost and the heavy tome emblazoned with seashells by someone called Lamarck. Who has time to read all this bullshit in the middle of a war? He picks up a copy of Swift’s novel and glares at it, waiting for the two gits outside to move off so he can go sulk and be coddled by his dragon, and scowls at the book. He flips a couple pages, looking for pictures, and then jumps about a foot in the air when a hand slams down on the book, tilting it sharply.

“I had no idea you could read upside-down, Raymond,” Brad drawls, mouth slanted in an unimpressed line. “How famous of you.”

“I can do all sorts of things,” Ray sniffs, tugging the book back and willing his heart to stop pounding. Brad doesn’t let go and Ray lets off pretending he’s not glaring; he is totally glaring. He wishes his glare could set Brad on fire. “You think you know everything, but you don’t, I hate to tell you. I don’t mean to break your heart, Bradley. I know you bank on being all-knowing, all-seeing.”

“And yet,” Brad bites out precisely, glaring right back, “I’m not the one listening in on private conversations.”

“Well, I didn’t want to interrupt,” Ray jeers, wrestling the book free—okay, not really, Brad lets go and Ray nearly falls on his ass. He makes up for it by shoving the book back on the shelf, deliberately in the wrong place, with the military histories. Take that, Captain Green Eyes. Your book is misshelved. Have fun invading Lilliput. “You seemed to have a lot to discuss.”

“Ray,” Brad says, exasperated, but his mouth twitches slightly and Ray notices he leaves the book where it is, which is like a minor victory. Ray is pretty sure Brad noticed what Ray’s subtle attempts at mutiny, there.

“Brad,” Ray says back, but instead of coming out mocking it sounds plaintive, vulnerable. He scowls and rubs a hand over his treacherous mouth.

Brad watches him silently for a moment, eyes shuttered, and then says, “Do you have a problem with me attending dinner with Captain Fick, sir?”

“Take him to dinner, quote fucking poetry at each other, bring him flowers, do whatever the hell you please, Lieutenant. I won’t stop you,” Ray says, and fumbles in his pockets for his cigarettes. He edges around Brad, or tries to, but Brad’s like a goddamned wall when he wants to be. “I get it, Fick’s pretty like a girl, but there’s no call to come over all bashful now, Brad.” Brad stares at him, unmoving. “What, do you want a fucking chaperone? Are you twelve? You’ve got the stones to woo him like a man. Buck the fuck up and get out of my fucking way. That’s an order, in case you missed it.”

“I’m beginning to think you don’t have the slightest fucking clue what I want, Captain,” Brad spits out, color high on his cheeks, and he looks furious, like he might be about to punch Ray in the jaw. Ray beats him to it and shoves him into the bookshelf, full of pretention and brilliance and culture and all the things Ray will never fucking be, and stalks out. He lights a cigarette in the hallway, slows down with his hands trembling, and listens. There’s a sound like a curse, and what might be books falling, and Ray doesn’t wait around to hear anything more.


PART FIVE




Profile

novembersmith: (Default)
novembersmith

May 2010

S M T W T F S
       1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031     

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags