Author's Notes: Thanks to Searose and Victoria P for beta and encouragement. Searose fixed the mast issue, and they both poked me on the poetry. All lubberly errors remain my own.
Disclaimer: This is a fanfic based on the FOX movie, which is taken from the novels by Patrick O'Brian. Characters and situations are not my own, no infringement intended and no money being made.
Water rippled at the hull of the Surprise with countless tiny hands. The ripples played a shimmering murmur against her beam, just at the edge of a man's hearing, but it was a beat far too minor to draw the ship from the doldrums. Under the old moon, the sea was a flat plain, a foreign land stripped of all features.
The bicorne weighed in Aubrey's hands as he knelt on the quarterdeck. He set the hat on the planking with care, lest the heavy thing strike with a thud and woke the off watch. The black beaverfelt might as well be granite. Sweat-soaked, he thought. The loops of gold fringe rippled over his fingers as he came to his feet. Devil take this heat. Even at night there is no relief.
The boys beside him nodded. I burn, said the younger, his face flushed with fever. One hand held a leather-bound book against his chest. The volume shuddered with the boy's feverchill. Lord Nelson needed no coat. But my Mother-Queen will weep, to see me so. Blakeney's right arm was shaped of St. Elmo's fire - a phantasm echo that followed the midshipman's restless movements half a heartbeat too late. Captain, is this hell?
It is because we are becalmed, Aubrey said. No more. That is why the air scorches so, even now, under the moon.
The other boy shook his head. You know that's not so, sir. When Hollom spoke, water flowed from his mouth and poured down his shirtfront, soaking his waistcoat and breeches, dripping from his groin. But you'll be fresh enough soon, sir. It is passing cool, and quiet. No one to call your name, there.
And as if the thought were enough to strike sound from the air, a voice spoke his name.
Aubrey turned away from the midshipmen, lurching for the rail. The sheets hung empty, the lines slack, the deck still and strange. Without the rock and the swell of the Surprise under him to make the world aright, Aubrey staggered. Three strides and his hands found the railing. He clung there, shoulders bowed. The jacket rested on his shoulders like a forty-pound gun, pressing him down through the weather deck, the bulkheads, the very skin of the ship. He might as well have had lead sewn into the jacket seams; it was that hard to stand under the strain.
It is the captain's stripes, Maturin said. That is what weighs so heavy. Cut them away and be done with it all. Aubrey shook his head and kept his face to the sea and the moon and the line of the far horizon. It was a trick, some falsehood played by the Devil who ruled beneath the waves. Maturin would never say such a thing. Not to him.
I must keep them. They are all I have.
Maturin's voice was bitter. All? You have the captain's place and nothing else? Am I nothing, then?
Aubrey shook his head again. Nothing and less than nothing. It was sweat that made his eyes sting, drops of perspiration that ran down his face. You are dead, Maturin. A true friend would have stayed dead. Not come to me on the dog watch. Aubrey knew what he would see when he pulled his eyes from the sea. When he took his hands from the railing, the grain tore skin from his palms.
I killed you, he told the man standing there, the bandages soaked through with gore, hands gone to palsy and face pale with pain. With my arrogance, my pride, I killed you.
That's my Jack. Ever the one who must win.
Aubrey shook his head again. So Maturin would claim, when their arguments fell down from debate into quarrels. This rift had gone beyond mending.
He turned back to the boys, still standing on the quarterdeck. Hollom lifted one thin arm and pointed at the base of the railing. Water dripped from his coat and beaded on the tar-soaked timbers. Aubrey followed the pointing finger to the larboard ammo well. The iron rasped rough under his palms. The rust stung the open flesh, but the cannonshot was curiously light, as the bicorne had not been. It was of a size to nestle close to his chest - like a lover's head, like a bottle of brandy, like the Austrian violin.
One step up on the carpenter's box, another to the rail. It would only have been kind for the Surprise to dip underfoot. So close a kinship, so long a companion.
His other companion of long years had not bid him farewell. It would have been fitting, had the Surprise followed suit. But the rail creaked under the sole of his boot and gave way. The leather clung to tarred wood one instant longer.
Then he was falling, borne down by iron, by naval wool, by his command, and the sea shattered like glass beneath him.
Darkness wrapt around him with the saltwater. The hulk of the Surprise was rising away, a black bulk rapidly shrinking as the moon-silvered surface darkened to iron. Already he could no longer see Maturin's pale face, leaning over the side.
Maturin would watch him out of sight, Jack knew. Something watched until it disappeared - the sun, dry land, a departing companion - meant one would never set eyes on that thing again.
Maturin would still watch. Drinking down the sight to quench the moment's thirst, never mind the unending drought to come.
Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink. Maturin was already dead.
Aubrey fell down.
Hollom had been correct. It was cool beneath the surface. He could feel the sweat washed away, adding one more fraction of salt to the sea. Pockets of air had been caught up in his clothing. Now they swirled away from him, pinprick bubbles clinging longest to his hands and face until the sea took them away as well.
The darkness was peaceful, as well as clean. No shouting officers, no screams of the dying, no thunder of cannon, no terrible, soft tremor of air as the rigging fell. Aubrey held the cannonshot closer and watched the darkness rise.
A distant speck caught his attention and he turned to follow it. It grew larger as he watched - too large to be a fish, not large enough for a whale. The edges shimmered and flickered, growing larger and smaller and larger again.
It was Warley. He swam through the water hand over hand. The Surprise's mizzen topsail trailed behind him like a pale cloak. Lines bound Warley's limbs but he struggled on regardless. Powerful strokes, kicking strongly. They had carried him over three hundred yards in twenty-foot waves, in freezing wind and water near ice.
This time, he would reach his captain.
Aubery watched the man approach. Stroke after stroke, turbulence blurring the water as the darkness did not. Warley's eyes were shadowed, covered in hair and seawrack. The cannonshot was suddenly much heavier and Aubery pulled it closer.
The mizzentop captain was very near now. At the last moment, he shifted course, making a graceful arc around Aubrey, just out of reach. The lines and the canvas and even the shattered yardarm followed. Aubrey twisted about, trying to keep Warley in sight.
When the lines began to wrap about Aubrey, it was too late. He struggled, kicking at the thick lines while his arms still clung fast to the shot. Without the shot he would not fall. Without the shot, he might rise again.
Then he realized the topsail had spread again, into a sheet that caught a deep current, and it was already pulling him up.
Warley hung before him, eyes empty and staring. Aubrey released the shot, felt it fall away, brushing against his thigh as it plunged down. Free now, his hands reached for Warley. The face did not shift expression as the mizzentop took Aubrey's outstretched hands and looped the lines about them. Jack began to rise.
He flailed against the lines, but they only tightened the more. Warley was already sinking down. The canopy rippled overhead, then steadied, full before the stream pushing it on. The water above was lighter now. No. Through a tear in the canvas, he could see the keel of the Surprise growing larger. The lines bound his limbs so tightly that he could little move, but still he fought the upward current. No.
Air broke from his mouth as he screamed.
The camp chair shuddered beneath Aubrey, threatening to capsize him into the little lampstand. Aubrey froze, his hands entangled in the coat draped over him and his heartbeat shuddering in his ears.
Night had fallen again. Across the tent, Higgins bent over the still figure lying beneath doubled blankets. When the surgeon's mate straightened, lamplight laid lines of exhaustion across his face.
Aubrey was suddenly aware of the silence in the tent and, over it, his own ragged breathing. He had gone to sleep listening to the shallow rasp of Maturin's breath and the murmuring of the dreams the fever brought.
"Sleeping, sir. The fever seems to have abated." Higgins made his way to his own pallet in the corner. "Morning will tell, sir, but I think he will live."
Maturin would live. Higgins turned down the lamp and settled into his bedding, clearly not at ease without his hammock. Aubrey shifted in his chair and pulled the coat up to his chin. Another hitch and the chair settled at an angle that gave a view of Maturin's cot. Now that he listened for it, the air was full of the slow, familiar sound of Maturin in sleep. Beyond the lamp, the tent wall gaped, letting in a sliver of the night.
Find your strength, he had told Hollom. And the boy had, if not the manner or direction Aubrey could have ever wished. Aubrey sighed and nestled deeper beneath the coat.
Maturin would live. And, because there were some things that even Lucky Jack Aubrey turned craven to consider, he would not be the only one.
Story Note: Aubrey quotes Coleridge. Which got published prior to 1800.
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