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MASTER POST
Part 1
Part 2

***

Loch Laggan, May, 1806

“I beg your pardon, gentlemen,” Celeritas says, and he has the ‘I want to squash you like a bug but I’m too staid and dignified’ look on his face again. “What is it you want permission for?”

Ray bounces on his heels. “To create an elite task force of Anglewing fighters that patrol the skies with golden wings of fire and rain down everlasting judgment upon—Ow! Brad!”

“Sir, what my captain is trying to say, in his typical poetic fashion, is that we believe the coincidence of three Anglewings undergoing training at Loch Laggan at this time provides us with a unique opportunity to maximize their maneuvering capabilities and perhaps form a specialized task unit that can be deployed at the discretion of the Corps when necessary.” Which was exactly what Ray had said, Christ. “To that end, we ask if it is possible to pause the traditional training for a three week span, during which we will attempt an excursion to the surrounding countryside.”

Celeritas hums thoughtfully and motions Brad to continue. Brad does, standing at attention before Celeritas with his hands behind his back, ramrod straight. He’s spitting out details of ground cover and hunting experience and weather conditions, and it’s all painfully dry and technical and way less exciting than it had been when he and Ray and Pappy and Poke had hashed it all out earlier.

“He makes it sound so dull,” Ray whispers incredulously to Bravo, who shushes him, eyes shining. Talk about unfair, it’s practically mutiny. Then Brad steps on his foot again, and Ray swears he must stuff his boots with rocks, there’s no way one man can generate that much pressure per square inch otherwise.

“Captain Espera and Captain Patrick agree with this proposal?”

“Yes, sir, they are on board with the prospective mission, as are the dragonets Marisol and Anima, and, of course, Bravo.”

There is a long, painful pause where Celeritas mulls this over, but Ray knows it’s a done deal. It’s almost impossible not to jump up and down with excitement. It’s early summer and the weather couldn’t be more beautiful, so that’s not an issue. And besides, they’ve gotten a new heavyweight formation in training and Celeritas has his talons full breaking a young Regal Copper-Chequered Nettle breed of some seriously bad habits—like swinging his tail excitedly whenever his formation does a dive. Since his tail is covered with giant spiky barbs, it’s been rather problematic.

Taking the Anglewings out for a week or two will be doing Celeritas a favor, honestly. It’s for the good of the covert—of the country. And it’s not like there’s not precedent: everyone knows Temeraire and Laurence set up a special training formation while they were here, and that worked out beautifully in battle. Even if the poor bastard is now being shipped back off to the bloody Chinese, that doesn’t mean the idea itself isn’t sound.

Anyway, Celeritas and Ray are practically brothers by now, after all the time Ray’d spent grounded with him while his arm was mending. Well, not technically brothers, since they’re different species and all—spiritual brothers, maybe, even if Celeritas had once threatened to eat him. Anyway, the point is, Celeritas knows Ray’s got a good solid understanding of formation theory and training tactics to build on, his ‘typical poetic fashion’ of speech aside. Brad is going to get it for that one later. Ray’s going to remember he said that.

“Very well, Lieutenant Colbert, Captain Person.” Ray punches the air in victory. “You have my permission to take with you what supplies and men you see fit. Don’t stray beyond the Hebrides, and be back within the allotted three weeks. We’ll expect a demonstration of this ‘rain of everlasting judgment’ upon your return and, contingent upon the showing of the dragons at that time, make a decision regarding future excursions and training ventures. And Lieutenant Colbert?” They pause in making their bows. “See if you can get Captain Person to consume less coffee while you’re gone.”

Fuck.

“You’ll pry this flask from my cold dead fingers, Lieutenant,” Ray tells Brad as they walk away. Bravo’s already leapt off into the air to find her wingmates and tell them the good news. Brad just smirks at him.

“You are consuming a potentially unhealthy amount, sir,” Brad points out, and Ray scowls. “I’m only looking out for your health.”

“Okay, first off, you know why. I’m trying to go through all your intensely boring ‘Art of War’ books before we get shipped out.” Also, Ray can’t sleep, can’t stop dreaming of all the stupid ways everything could go wrong and be all his fault, and he’s having that damn nightmare again of Brad falling, only now there’s the added fun of cannonballs ripping through Bravo’s wings, and everyone spiraling down down down, and anyway, Ray’d rather just chew coffee beans and read about Alexander the Great and that dick Machiavelli. Brad looks suspicious, like he’s about to protest, so Ray hurries on hastily. “And okay, I know you’re fine with things as they are, and I am too, but I should at least pretend to have a sound background in leadership, right? I mean, what if you get hurt? Bravo and I can’t just fly in circles and tell the men to stop screaming like babies because they miss their lieutenant. And don’t call me sir!”

“Yes, sir,” Brad says, smugly, which on one hand, infuriating, but on the other, at least he’s distracted from the bags beneath Ray’s eyes by being a huge, insubordinate prick. That’s got to count for something.

“Ugh,” Ray says, and runs a hand over his face. “Go—make the men run drills or something.” Brad salutes—how does he make even a salute look insulting?—and Ray stomps off to go tell Pappy and Poke to get their arses in gear.

He only discovers Brad’s somehow switched out his flask of emergency coffee when he takes a swig in the middle of arguing with Poke over whether or not they should be bringing cattle with them—part of the purpose of this expedition is to give the dragonets a feel for living off the land, hunting by stealth, making do with only what they can hunt and scavenge themselves. Ray wants to give them a day to settle, Poke wants to start off as they mean to finish. Ray’s arguing that even if they are sent off on missions into hostile territory, they’ll still be well supplied to begin with, and nearly caps this compelling point by spitting all over Poke’s face.

Tea. His flask is full of tea, and it’s not just tea, it’s chamomile tea. Ray hates chamomile.

“My captaincy is a fucking travesty,” he observes mournfully, staring at the flask in betrayal, and Poke snorts.

“That’s what I’ve been saying all along, scrub, but what can we do. Damn dragons got minds of their own. We’re stuck with your ass.”

Ray’s nearly too disheartened by the lack of stimulants to continue arguing, but thankfully Pappy sides with him on this one—their girls are younger than Marisol by a good six months. They don’t want to push them too hard to start with, and they can always go whole-hog and start off them off from nothing on subsequent missions, if this one goes well. Poke acquiesces, still amused over Brad’s insubordination, so at least Ray’s blatant lack of control over his own crew has some use, if only for buttering people up with the comedy of it all.

Then it’s off to go pack up maps, requisition cattle, requisition drugs to dope the cattle—boring shit that Ray’s pretty sure he’s supposed to be able to delegate. He doesn’t really mind, though. There’s something satisfying about overseeing it all himself, the supplies being packed, the routes being marked out, the harness being cleaned and oiled.

He takes a moment to go hunt down Brad and chew him out for his pickpocketing ways, but it turns out Brad actually is running drills. He’s with Bravo, having the men throw signal flags back and forth, and Ray watches, pleased, from the shadows of the courtyard arch. That’s his girl. She’s practically prancing in place and glowing, she’s so excited, and Brad’s talking to her, hands on his hips, smiling up at her.

Even though this is giving Ray a cozy warm feeling somewhere in the vicinity of his chest that he doesn’t want to examine too closely, or at all, the fact remains that Brad is in public. Ray has a feeling it’ll be detrimental to whatever respect he’s still got from his crew if he goes over right now and whinges about Brad stealing his coffee.

Brad somehow manages to make himself scarce for the rest of the day—he’s always leaving the room just as Ray’s entering, or talking earnestly with a group of cadets, or just generally being elusive and obnoxiously smoke-like.

“You know,” Ray says later that night when he’s finally managed to chase the bastard down. He leans against Brad’s doorframe and assumes his best glower. “I’ve familiarized myself with the command protocols, and I’m pretty sure I can have you horsewhipped. You are aware of that, right? Horsewhipped.”

“Now, Ray,” Brad says, and he’s lounging in bed in his shirtsleeves, candle on the nightstand beside him and a book open on his chest. His door had been open; Ray hadn’t even had to pick the lock, so he must have known Ray would be coming, must have been expecting him. Ray has a moment where his vision goes blurry, heart beating strangely—but no. Brad’s not luring him to his room late at night for clandestine fumble. It’s just one more way of dicking Ray over. Ray tries to convince his racing, heated pulse of this and only has marginal success. “You know I’m only following orders.”

“I don’t know how you convinced the fucking kitchens to give me only tea, and I’m not sure I want to. Doris looked way too pleased with herself.” Ray says, edging in the door. “And why do you only follow orders if they don’t come from me?”

“You don’t count,” Brad says comfortably, stretching. His shirt is unbuttoned; Ray can see the skin of his chest, a pale gold in the candlelight. “And we need you alert when we’re in the field. Please note that I said ‘alert’ and not ‘insane.’ When’s the last time you slept?”

“I sleep!” Ray protests. What is he doing here? This can’t end well. “I sleep all the bloody time. And I damn well do count, I’m your fucking captain, you know. I know you know. You say it whenever you want to annoy me, and you do that stupid over-educated drawling thing, and it’s like you’re taking the word and beating me in the face with it.”

“My apologies, Raymond.” Brad’s eyes are glittering. “I didn’t know it bothered you. Also, you’re lying.”

“I hate you,” Ray informs him for the twenty-fifth time that day.

“The feeling’s more than mutual, Ray, I assure you,” Brad informs him, lifting the book. He licks his forefinger and turns a page. Ray wants to lick Brad’s forefinger. He wants to lick Brad everywhere. “I’m reading the works of Robbie Burns, sir. Care to join me, or are you just here to protest your unfair treatment by the kitchens?”

“Are you offering me a bedtime story, Brad?” he says, trying to keep his voice cheerful and steady. “Lieutenant, I do believe you’re trying to seduce me. First the kitchen staff, now this. I’m beginning to think your morals are suspect.”

Brad’s eyes do not go dark, it’s a trick of the guttering candlelight. Ray is just shaky from lack of caffeine.

“I promise you, I did not take any liberties with the kitchen staff, Ray. They merely commended me in my thankless, likely futile efforts to make you a more tolerable, less verbally incontinent human being and were kind enough to grant me my one, small request to deny you further fruits of the genus Coffea for the foreseeable future. My morals are as intact as they ever were, which is to say, barely. And, you uneducated degenerate, Robbie Burns wrote poems, not prose, and I doubt you would consider his writings worthy of a bedtime story. Although some passages are perhaps salacious enough to keep your interest, I will admit. At any rate,” he says, finishing up with a grin, pleased with himself. Ray has a minor seizure. “Should you need me to go fetch you a glass of warm milk to assist you in sleeping, I would be more than happy to oblige. Captain.”

It’s the lack of stimulants, it’s causing hallucinations, dangerous ones. Ray’s asleep. He’s dreaming. That wasn’t sultry. Brad calling him Captain was in no way a come on. Pull yourself together, Person. Brad didn’t just lick his lips. Or he did, but it’s just because his lips are dry, or something. And now they’re wet, shining. Red and wet and it has literally been months since Ray’s felt a hand on his dick that wasn’t his own, let alone a mouth. And it’s Brad’s mouth.

“Ray?” Brad says, and Ray realizes he’s been standing there staring like an idiot.

“Nothing!” he stutters, and Brad raises an eyebrow. “No milk, I fucking hate milk. Milk is not necessary. I’ll, um. I’ve got plenty of tea, and I’m going to—” Go hide in my room and jack off and cry into your copy of Herodotus like an infant. “Sleep. Enjoy your poems.”

“See you at dawn, sir,” Brad calls after him, and if he sounds smug and pleased with himself, well, when doesn’t he? It’s Bradley fucking Colbert.

***

Outer Hebrides, June 1806

“Holy fucking hell!” Ray whoops. He never gets tired of this, the cold whip of wind against his face, the speed of it almost beyond comprehension. Bravo whoops back to him happily, her voice echoing along the cliffs, magnified and booming. The three dragons are racing through basalt pillars, weaving in and out, faster and faster, wingtips occasionally brushing the waves below.

It’s almost been more a matter of training the aviators than the dragons. Normally Anglewings are held back from peak performance by the limitations of their respective formations, the reduced maneuverability and speed of the heavyweights they fly with. They’ve discovered that three Anglewings working together can achieve maneuvers that are, at first, completely terrifying: steep impossible dives and near-collisions and countless spirals and loops and even long periods spent entirely upside-down, with no discomfort at all on the part of the dragons themselves. The men aboard them, however, are another story.

The first couple days they’d been out, when they’d really given the dragons free rein to play, there’d been a couple incidents amongst the crew. Ray’s sitting pretty up front, though, and the worst of the splatter-effect is taking out the men sitting in the rear-most sectors, so Ray gets to think it’s hilarious. Brad is not so sanguine, having gotten a faceful from Lilley on their first day out. Like Ray says, hilarious.

But people adjusted, thankfully. Ray had secretly been a bit worried, but Brad hasn’t displayed any signs of seasickness thus far. On the contrary, he looks as healthy as he ever has, pink-cheeked from the wind and bright-eyed, happy. It’s distracting, but Ray’s doing his best not to ogle him too often. They don’t need one of their captains ruining everything by mooning all over the place and then falling off to his death when his first lieutenant stretches and exposes a strip of perfect, muscled stomach.

Motion sickness and momentary episodes of blinding lust aside, they’re doing good work out here, have gotten a hell of a lot done in under three weeks. Their dragons will be nearly impossible to hit in a battle, Ray is pretty sure: no one will be able to get a good enough lock on them to board, let alone to shoot at them with any degree of accuracy. And really, it’s the dragons doing all the hard work. The captains have been passing on general messages, like to head for that wicked nasty looking island with all the spiky pillars and fog and crashing waves, but the girls decide for themselves how to get there, spiraling around each other in a dizzying tangle of wings and tails. It seems impossible, seems like they should be crashing together, bashing into one another, but they never do, not once. It’s beautiful, and dizzying, and for their enemies, deadly.

Well. It will be eventually, anyway, once they’re actually confronting enemies instead of marked targets and clay pigeons. And once they’ve perfected their new skills, too, Ray supposes. The aviators are having to learn entirely new ways of flashing signal flags—ones that can be seen and distinguished at top speed—and of dropping bombs. Every movement has to be perfectly timed and synchronized not only with the movement of their own dragon, but of the two others. They can’t afford to make mistakes, not ones that might result in friendly fire, and so they drill constantly. Ray’s even heard the younger ensigns muttering the signal patterns in their sleep.

Brad loves this work as much as Ray does, Ray can tell. He’s in his element, barking out orders, moving amongst the men, dropping bits of advice salted with good-natured insults. The crew bitches and moans, but they all love it too, even despite having to relearn basic crap like signal flags and shooting protocols. It feels good after all the boring staid formation drills back at the covert, good to be out in the fresh air, to be doing something real, something strenuous and challenging.

Ray’s back with the riflemen now—he doesn’t want them to have to learn things he can’t do himself. His second lieutenant Garza is firing off clay discs, and the riflemen are taking them out in a spray of bullets, timed between wingbeats. They’d spent the first week using blanks and bombs composed solely of sacks of ash, but now they’re using live ammunition and so far no one’s hit a dragon by mistake. Which is good, since Ray’s vowed to dump anyone that does off dragonback and into oblivion, and Brad’s even backing him up for once.

“Hoo-fucking-rah!” Hasser whoops back giddily as Bravo and Anima and Marisol backwing all at the same time, perfectly in tune with each other, wingtips skimming the waves and sending up a fine mist of salt water.

“Having a good time, Corporal?” Ray grins, wiping down his rifle with quick, steady fingers. He’s still using blanks—he’s a good shot, but he’s a bit out of practice and he hasn’t been spending as much time back here adjusting to the new flight patterns as these men have. He’d much rather his pride take a hit here than his girl, so he’s manned up and admitted his inferiority.

“Damn straight, sir. The best,” Hasser says, beaming at him. Ray thinks on his better days that he should just stop pining for Brad’s snotty, perfect ass and set about seducing Walt in earnest. Walt’s got big brilliant blue eyes and a square jaw and a wicked streak underlining his sweet disposition. It’s fun as hell teasing him. Plus, he’s probably the best marksman in the Corps, and Ray’s always been attracted to blonde, blue-eyed geniuses.

“Days like this,” Ray says meditatively, knocking a clay pigeon out of the air and missing the next three entirely. “I swear to Christ, flying is almost better than sex.” And it is. Everything’s right in his world at the moment, the sunshine fizzing in his veins like the bubbles in champagne and the crisp summer wind cradling his entire body. It’s like being fondled by the sky. “You ever have better sex than this, Hasser? I mean, really, really good fellatio comes close. You know the kind, where it’s all sloppy and wet and noisy? Yeah, that’s the stuff. Still, I can’t say I’ve ever bedded a whore that’s better than being in the air on a fine fucking day like this one.”

Hasser is flushing bright red, biting his lower lip. It’s damned cute, and Ray’s pretty sure Hasser would go for a no-strings-attached blowjob in camp tonight, if Ray really wanted to follow up on it, except then a hand comes down hard on Ray’s shoulder. Ray jumps, nearly dropping his gun and losing it to the depths of the Atlantic below.

“Goddammit, Brad,” he swears, chest oddly tight all of a sudden.

“Sir, I had no idea you were so incompetent in the bedroom,” Brad says from behind him, a slight edge to his voice. Hasser snickers and Ray reminds himself to dump something prickly in the little bastard’s bedroll later. No blowjob for him, not that Ray was seriously considering it anyway. Damned command structure. “Not that I’m surprised you’re unaware of this sir, since I doubt you’ve dipped your prick in anything worthy of the term ‘woman’ or even human, but I’ve personally found nothing beats a day of good, hard fucking, not even flying.” He pauses consideringly, then says, “I will allow that today is in fact an exceptionally superior day for it, however.”

“For fucking or for flying, sir?” Stafford asks, sniggering, and Ray sighs.

“Ha ha, Lieutenant Colbert, way to go and ruin the poetry of the moment,” he says, handing Christeson back his rifle and glaring at his first officer. “Walt and I were just engaging in some friendly male bonding over the nearly sexual satisfaction we take from our jobs, and you have to swan in all literal-minded, spreading filthy lies about your commanding officer. You’re lucky I love you so much.”

“I’m touched, sir,” Brad drawls. “But if you’re done playing with the children, Bravo and I need you up front.”

“Oooh,” chorus Lilley and Stafford, and Ray crosses his eyes at them and sticks out his tongue.

“Play nice, infants, or Daddy’ll come back and paddle your dainty rear-ends. Good luck keeping these halfwits in line, Hasser.”

“I’ll do my best, Captain,” Hasser says, saluting, and it’s a proper salute despite the twinkle of amusement in his big, adorable blue eyes. Ray wants to point this out to Brad, maybe see if he wants to take notes on how not to be an insubordinate tosser, but Brad’s already gone. If it was possible to stomp while swarming across a net of harnesses, Brad would be doing it, Ray’s pretty sure. He sighs and follows for what is undoubtedly going to be a lecture on corrupting the morals of their youthful crew.

Brad’s waiting for him up by the captain’s post, sitting cross-legged and looking altogether too amused with himself.

“Walt Hasser?” he asks dryly when Ray flops down. “Really, Raymond? I’m not sure his testicles have even dropped yet.”

“Did you just call me up here to be a jealous strumpet, or do you actually have something you want to tell me, darling?” Ray bats his lashes at Brad and then takes a swig from his flask of tea. At least it’s good strong English tea this time, not bloody useless flowery bullshit. Even the lack of coffee and Brad’s pissy, insubordinate ways can’t ruin his mood today. It’s too gorgeous out, everything’s going too well.

“We’ll be heading back to Loch Laggan tomorrow,” Brad says, all seriousness now. He spreads out a map over Ray’s knees, expertly holding the thick paper down against the wind. “I believe we should make early camp here, at Uig Bay, practice another bit of reconnaissance with the villagers before we bed down for the night. It’s been a long day’s flight back over the mountains to the covert, and everyone’s overworked. We’ll want to be well rested for the return journey.”

“Agreed,” Ray says, cocking his head at Brad. Brad knows Ray trusts his opinion on this — he hadn’t needed to call Ray up here to verify it. Maybe he really is jealous of Walt after all. Actually, he’s been hovering a lot lately, leaning against Ray’s shoulder, letting their arms press together, kicking his feet against Ray’s when they’re all sitting around the campfire at night.

It’s driving Ray a bit crazy, but he’s been trying not to comment on it like he usually would. If he does, Brad might stop, for one thing. And anyway, if he says something, it’ll wind up having all been his head, all imagination. He’s seen the prime articles Brad sleeps with, all long legs and sweetly rounded bosoms and cool competence, as far from Ray Person as it’s possible to get without actually leaving the human race. That Brad might be considering sodomy, and not only sodomy but sodomy with Ray, of all people, is laughable.

If Ray doesn’t say anything, he can at least go on with the fantasy that Brad’s madly jealous of how Ray’s been eyeing Walt’s pretty pink mouth. Ray has a healthy imagination. He can easily picture his first lieutenant pressing him down into his bedroll and punishing him for his roving gaze. Mmm.

He realizes Brad’s looking at him strangely and coughs, searching for something relevant to say.

“Hey, at least the villagers know not to go stark raving mad this time when three dragons pop up in their midst?” he offers brightly, grinning at the memory, and Brad’s eyes crinkle in amusement.

The last time they’d stopped by Uig Bay, the girls had snuck up to the waterfront harbor and managed to infiltrate the town, peering interestedly in the windows of the tiny cottages before a housewife had noticed them, screamed, thrown a pie at Bravo’s face, and fled. At that point all the villagers had been alerted to their presence and had scattered like panicked Scottish sheep, spilling wildly all over the town and screaming incomprehensively in thick impenetrable accents before finally proffering their livestock up to the vicious, bloodthirsty invading dragons, quaking and terrified.

Said dragons had promptly accepted the three pigs in grateful surprise and then asked hopefully if they happened to have any more pies available.

As a practice reconnaissance mission went, it’d been a dismal failure—clearly there are limits as to how close middleweight dragons can get to a relatively dense human settlement without someone spotting them. But now Bravo and Marisol and Anima are all great friends of the Uig children, who, once they’d gotten over their fears, had spent the afternoon giggling and clambering all over their backs and being taken aloft for short rides. Ray suspects they’ll spend tonight being cosseted and well-fed, and possibly being festooned with garlands of wildflowers again.

“Have you passed on word to Poke and Pappy yet?” Ray inquires, sipping at his tea again and making a face. Brad smirks at him before answering, because he is a sadistic bastard and enjoys watching Ray pining for his beloved coffee.

“Not yet, but I suspect they’ll agree with my logic on this matter.”

“Your logic is pretty fucking good, I must agree,” Ray says cheerfully. “Those Uig folk make a damn fine spread of grub. We’ll get the girls to scoop up some tunny, maybe a whale, pay them back for last time, what d’you think? I’m thinking maybe if we get them a good honkin’ whale or two, they’ll feed us until we can’t walk. Some of that stew, oh Lord, that stew, speaking of things that are almost as good as sex. I’m so ready for food that isn’t raw or charred to hell and back—remind me that we need to find at least one crew member that can cook worth a damn when we get back to the covert. And hey, do you think maybe the mayor’ll broach a cask of ale for us this time? I could fucking use a good drink. Although we’ll need to muzzle Lilley, probably, before he gets himself shot by an outraged father.”

“Let’s save the muzzles for you and your filthy mouth, Captain,” Brad says, rolling his eyes, and Ray grins.

“No need, I’ve got you to keep me out of trouble, right?” He pokes Brad in the arm and Brad shoots him a sidelong look.

“I’m flattered,” he retorts, but a smile is twitching at the corners of his mouth. “Now that we’ve established I’m to be your nanny for the evening, I’ll go pass on the message to the other captains.”

“Well, then. Glad I could help you make these incredibly important decisions, Lieutenant,” Ray says, kicking back in his carabiners and enjoying the breeze. He may go back and do a bit more shooting with the boys again in a few minutes, or he might not. Bravo’s noticed he’s up here and is craning her head to look at him, eyes bright and interested, and he hasn’t gotten a chance to chat with her all morning.

“Your input is vital to the success of our endeavors, Captain,” Brad says brightly. “Oh, before I forget, I wanted to let you know: Bravo has been inquiring as to what ‘fellatio’ is. Have fun with that, sir.”

And then the bastard’s moving off to pass the message along to the signal ensigns.

“I will!” Ray shouts after him, and then turns his attention to contemplating how to explain the appeal of putting one’s mouth on another’s genitals to a twelve ton dragon with giant bloody daggers for teeth.

Maybe if he uses puppets.

***

Brad forbids him from making puppets; apparently it would be ‘bad for morale for the men to see their commanding officer playing with paper dolls.’ Mainly Ray thinks Brad’s just worried Ray’s going to commandeer one of his precious maps and make a giant sugar stick out of it, which wounds Ray deeply. He would never attempt to come between Brad and his maps, never. Well, maybe never. Hardly ever. It might have crossed his mind once or twice. Anyway, the impromptu festival the villagers had thrown them had luckily taken Bravo’s mind off of the question of oral-genital contact and the appeal thereof, so Ray’s gotten a brief reprieve anyway. He’ll just scrounge up some rag dolls and paper and other necessary supplies when they get back to the covert. Puppets are still a go – Brad just doesn’t know it yet. Hopefully.

They’re heading back to Loch Laggan now, flying at a rather leisurely pace. They’re all stuffed, and Ray has a bit of a headache and a lingering suspicion that he might have possibly tried to convince Poke to do a country folkdance with him the night before. The booze provided by the mayor had been both plentiful and excellent— Ray has fuzzy memories of Brad laughing, of Pappy and Rudy dancing, of Stafford being chased out of a cottage by a woman with a broom. He remembers Bravo wreathed in flowers, the petals falling down on Brad’s hair, pink and purple and blue, and Ray’s pretty sure he’d fallen asleep on Brad’s shoulder and drooled everywhere, which is sort of embarrassing, but he’d woken up with Brad nearby, petals still in his hair and a smile on his sleeping face, and it’d been torturous and wonderful at the same time. It’d been a good night, and now it’s a beautiful day, and if Ray could just get his hands on a cup of coffee, life would be just approaching perfect.

The thing is, Brad’s been guarding the coffee like a miser the whole time they’ve been out, only granting Ray one cup over the morning campfire and sometimes, if Ray’s been especially sweet and polite during the day, one at lunch. That hasn’t happened often. Ray isn’t well-known for his sweetness, sadly. But sleep has been coming easier these days, as much as Ray hates to admit it. He feels less jittery, more comfortable in his own skin, but some of that might well be from all the hard work they’ve been doing, or the summer air, or the fact that he goes to bed each night nestled against Bravo’s side, with Brad snoring close by. They haven’t been sharing quarters since Ray got his captaincy, and, well, Ray misses it, misses having Brad close.

That last is way too pathetic and flowery and precious to ever admit out loud, but Ray points out the summer air and hard work thing. Brad still won’t hand over extra rations of caffeine.

Ray’s so-called ‘crew’ is sadly resistant to bribery, because they’re all ridiculously terrified of his first lieutenant, even though Ray tells them all Brad’s not actually going to pitch them off dragonback. And even if he does, Bravo can catch them! But still they quail and withhold the coffee. Ray gets no goddamned respect.

Still, he’s proud of all the little cowardly bastards, of the dragons and his fellow captains. Of himself, even. They’ve got the beginnings of an elite reconnaissance team, one that can pick through the countryside with ease, live off the land and gather information, and it’s one that can fight back and pitch a battle if need be. Not bad for three weeks’ of work, and they’ve got a lot of plans for their next venture out. Ray is pretty fucking sure Celeritas is going to be impressed. And he should be; they’re going to hand Boney his arse on a platter.

Bravo’s chattering excitedly to him about desserts, turning her head to ask Ray hopefully whether he thinks they can convince the kitchens to make an enormous boysenberry pie, just for her. His dragon, Ray thinks fondly, pressing his cheek to her neck. Only he would have a bloodthirsty dragon with a sweet tooth.

They’re only an hour or so away from the covert, and Ray’s just starting to fantasize about a hot bath and a pilfered pot of coffee, all for him, when Brad’s hand clamps down on his shoulder.

“Captain,” Brad says, and something in his voice makes Ray snap out of his lazy slouch, set his hands on the saber at his belt. “There’s a signal up ahead.”

There’s a Winchester in the air in front of them, purplish wings blending with the twilight sky. She’s about a half mile from the covert, and she’s signaling them to stop immediately. Stop immediately, land, and await orders. Do not approach.

“Well, that’s bloody bizarre,” Ray says slowly, watching the small dragon wheel and speed back towards the covert. Brad’s tense next to him. “What d’you think it’s about? I mean, can’t be the French, can it? They’d never make it up this far north, not in three weeks' time.”

“I don’t know, but orders are orders, Ray,” Brad says, and Ray agrees absently; the dragons are already landing and huddling together nervously. “I think we should keep the men aboard, though. Just in case.”

“Agreed,” Ray says, rubbing at his temples. “I wonder how long we’ll be waiting.” The girls have been flying all day, and even though it’s been at a slow pace, they’ve been working their tails off for weeks. All of them, man and dragon, are looking forward to baths and dinner, a chance to sleep in their own clearings and beds. And, well, also probably for the chance to brag over the new skills they’ve acquired, maybe place some bets. Now they’re being made to wait, for who knew how long or for what purpose. Ray’s a bit annoyed the Winchester hadn’t just made the effort to fly a little closer, at least give them some sort of clue as to what to expect.

But it turns out they don’t have to wait long at all. The orders aren’t coming by air, like Ray’d expected. Instead there’s a horseman, pounding across the moor hell-bent for leather, his shadow stretching out long and thin behind him.

“I don’t like this,” Ray says, watching the small shape coming closer, feeling an abrupt chill. “I don’t like this at all.”

Brad stays standing at Ray’s elbow, his mouth tight. Ray would much rather he roll his eyes or call him an old maid, a mother hen, but Brad doesn’t. He doesn’t say anything at all, just narrows his eyes at the horizon and stands so close Ray can feel the warmth of him. It’s a bit difficult not leaning back into it.

The horseman stops a few hundred yards off, dismounts, and slaps the horse on the rear, sending it galloping back across the moor towards the covert. Now Ray’s really fucking confused.

“Oh, it’s Doc Bryan!” Bravo exclaims suddenly, sitting down on her haunches and lashing her tail. “But what is he doing here? We are none of us injured. Should we go to him?”

“Doc Bryan? Bennett’s assistant?” Ray asks, puzzled, and she nods. He trusts her eyesight over his, so he doesn’t bother trying to get a better look for the moment.

“Huh,” he says, nonplussed. “I’m not sure what he’s doing here, buttercup, but I think we should stay here for the moment, yeah?” Bravo hums lowly and then sidles over closer to Marisol, pressing their necks together. Ray leans over and waves at Poke.

“What the hell, man,” he says in greeting, and sees Poke shrug. He’s got a worried, pinched look on his face. “This isn’t normal.”

“No, you think? I figured we were just all joining the cavalry now.” Poke shoots back, running a hand through his hair. “Guess we’d better see what the good doctor wants. If we disregard orders now, Celeritas’ll have our damn heads.”

“He’s a scary motherfucker,” Pappy agrees from Poke’s other side, and so they all dismount and approach the doctor cautiously—it seems unlikely he could present any real threat, not when all of them are armed and Bryan’s got nothing on himself but a knapsack. But the situation’s bizarre, has an oddly threatening flavor to it. Ray can’t decide whether to be glad Poke and Pappy seem to think the same thing. He’d almost rather it be his mind playing tricks on him.

“Are any of them coughing?” Bryan says fiercely when he reaches them. No hello, how are you, how was training. He just gets right in their faces, his own covered in stubble, and scowls fiercely. Ray blinks.

“Uh, coughing?” he asks, eyeing the doctor warily. “What do you mean, coughing? You mean the dragons? What’s this about, Doc?” Bryan reaches out and shakes him and there’s a sudden bristle of weapons, which is on one hand stupid, it’s not like the doctor’s going to hurt him. But on the other, Ray’s kind of grateful for the back-up, because Bryan looks pretty terrifying at the moment.

Bryan doesn’t even seem to notice the tension of the men around him. “Are they coughing, man!” Bryan spits out, hands bruisingly tight on Ray’s shoulders. “It’s a simple fucking question!”

“No, Jesus!” Ray says, and wrenches free, rubbing at his shoulder uneasily. “No one’s coughing! What the hell?”

The Doc slumps slightly, like maybe he’s relieved or something. “It’s a plague,” he says, rubbing the back of his wrist over his forehead. Ray notices, finally, the giant hollows beneath his eyes that go along with the stubble, the rough state of the man’s clothing. Bryan continues, low and in monotone, and it takes a while for Ray to follow what he’s saying. The Black Death is all he can think of at first, and once Bryan explains, he almost wishes he’d been right.

“That American brute they took in last December, the Dakota, it must have been the carrier,” Bryan tells them, and they’ve all fallen silent now, listening. Ray feels the blood pounding in his temples; he doesn’t want to hear this. “The patrol that flew in with him to Greenland, they’re all dead now, all of them. The bitch of it is, it looks like a typical cold at first.”

“Which means it’s spread,” Pappy says softly, and Bryan nods, mouth tight.

“We got in a courier a few weeks back from Dover, and she was coughing. It was before we’d heard about the deaths in Greenland and we didn’t think to quarantine her,” Doc says grimly. “It seemed like a typical cough, but it’s already spread. We think it’s the phlegm that does it, some sort of contact, inhaled or otherwise. The shared grounds, the drinking troughs. They’re all coughing now, all of them.”

“How did no one notice?” Ray asks tightly, and then shakes his head. No, it’s fucking done, now, there’s nothing to be solved by hunting people down and bashing in their heads for their stupidity.

Doc ignores him. “There’s some hope we can delay the deaths if we can keep them warm, keep them eating. The cold progresses slowly. They lose their appetites; that’s how it kills the bigger ones, it seems. They starve to death, lose mass. But they all go eventually. All of them. It’s a consumption; once they start coughing blood, they eventually drown in it. I’m told it’s not a pretty death.” He pauses. “The courier arrived the day before you left on training. There’s a chance your girls have been exposed.”

Pappy goes pale and dashes back over to Anima. Poke just shakes his head in disbelief. Ray listens to him talk, tries to remain standing. He remembers the courier now, a little Winchester. Scylla. She’d landed the evening before they’d left. He even remembers her sneezing, now that he thinks of it.

“No way,” Poke is saying, arms crossed, glaring at the man in front of them. “There has to be something. Can’t be no cure at all, Doc. And you don’t know it’s fatal in every case, right? Just the ones so far.” He pauses a bit, sounds a little less sure, a little more worried. “They all have this cough?”

“It’s true we don’t know for sure,” Doc says, scowling. “There may be a cure somewhere. But dammit, every last dragon in all the coverts in England is coughing now, from what we can tell. And they don’t stop coughing until they die.”

Brad is at Ray’s elbow, and he’s had his hand on the back of Ray’s neck, warm and steadying, throughout the whole conversation. Ray doesn’t even realize he’s there until he’s running back to Bravo, as though he could outrun time and death, and notices the back of his neck is cold with the absence of Brad’s hand.

He shakes it off. “How do you feel?” he asks Bravo urgently, stumbling to a halt in front of her, the air burning in his lungs. She looks puzzled, worried. The ground beneath her talons is churned better than any plow could have managed.

“I feel quite well?” she says anxiously, and Ray feels her tail tugging at his ankle, dragging him closer. He lets her, wants to be close, as though he could somehow protect her from this. “I am only a bit hungry, and tired. Ray, what is wrong?”

“You’re breathing okay?” he asks urgently, and places a hand on her chest, feels only the familiar slow thump of her great heart. “No coughing? No sneezing?”

“Not since Rudy tried to roast that shark with those odd roots,” she says, shaking her head distastefully at the memory, and Ray feels weak with relief, like his knees might give way.

“It may be latent,” the Doc says from behind them, and Ray wants to punch him. “She may just not be presenting symptoms yet.”

“We left the next fucking morning!” Ray argues, mouth dry. “They didn’t have time to catch anything. They’re fine. They’re fine, goddammit.” Maybe. Maybe. Oh, Christ, please, let them have left in time. He’ll never ask for anything else from the cosmos ever again. Doc is climbing up on Bravo’s knee, listening to her chest with a stethoscope, frowning, why the fuck is he frowning?

Doc climbs down and strides over to Anima and Pappy, shaking his head.

“What the fuck did you hear?” Ray calls after him, and the man flaps a hand at Ray like he’s not got time for such silly questions as whether or not Ray’s dragon is going to fucking die, or whether he’d like to see how well that stethoscope works from inside his own rectum when Ray shoves it up there.

“Captain,” Brad says urgently, breaking into his thoughts. “Ray, you’ve got to calm down.”

“I am fucking calm!” Ray snaps, and then Brad hauls him against his chest. Ray stays for a second, shuddering, listening to Brad’s heart and feeling his breath in Ray’s hair, and then he makes himself jerk free, following Bryan over to Marisol. Brad’s at his heels.

“I don’t hear any congestion. They’re all clean,” Bryan is saying as they approach, tugging the stethoscope out of his ears; Ray feels like he could kiss the man. “For now. I can’t promise they’ll stay that way.”

“We can’t stay here and wait to find out,” Brad says, frowning. “We’ve got no food, no water, no cover. We’ve got to move.”

“Damn straight we need to move,” Bryan agrees, hopping down and patting Marisol absently on the talon. “We’re still not sure how the contagion spreads, and these might be the last uninfected dragons in England. If it turns out they are healthy, they’ll be needed. But Christ, they’re so young.”

“I am not so young,” Marisol says indignantly, and the others chime in, offended. Ray would pat her nose reassuringly, but she is, she is so young. She’s barely a year old yet, and Bravo’s even younger.

“We’ll manage,” Poke says coolly. “Will you be coming with us, Doc, or going back to the covert?”

“I’m coming, obviously,” Bryan says, scowling. “I’ll need to monitor the dragons for another week at least, and they’ve got plenty of doctors back at the covert. They can spare me, and you can’t. If they do start presenting symptoms, we should return to Loch Laggan. If they’re healthy, well…” He trails off. “Fuck me if I know what happens next, but you’ll probably need a good surgeon around.”

“Let’s worry about that when the time comes,” Brad says, and Ray agrees. Somehow it feels like it could jinx things, talking about a future that might never arrive. A future that even if it does come holds plenty of blood and cannon-fire and danger.

“Where should we go, Ray?” Bravo asks worriedly, and he can tell she’s confused, not sure what the fuss is about quite yet. It’s probably hard for a dragon to imagine it, dying of a cold and not from cannon, or acid, or a spray of fire. Dragons don’t die very easily, not normally.

“I…” Ray says, and looks helplessly over at Pappy and Espera, at Brad, at the staring riflemen and the worried, huge eyes of the three young Anglewings. Then he draws himself up. “Back to the hills for tonight. We’ve made it two weeks out here: we can make it a couple more days. Wait things out.”

Espera nods at him. “The loch thirty miles north? Plenty of game there. Good place to wait, and it’s not more than half a day from Inverness. We can send word back to the covert from there.”

They take off into the growing darkness, the stars just starting to come out. Ray feels blank. He can’t think of anything to say. The men are waiting to hear something, he knows, but he just wants to lay down atop Bravo and listen to her breathe, to count her wingbeats. If something was wrong, he would know, wouldn’t he? He feels like he should be able to know just by putting his hand on her skin, feeling the heat of blood and muscle beneath the scales.

“Well, gentlemen,” Brad announces, his voice strong and clear, and when Ray looks up he’s got a battle smile on his face, tight and brilliant. “Looks like we’ll have the opportunity to put our skills to the test a bit sooner than anticipated.” He begins explaining the situation, and Ray tunes him out, doesn’t want to hear it again. Instead he sings a lullaby his mom had always sung him, sung over his sisters’ cribs, low and sweet. Bravo hears him, turns her head now and then to listen, to nuzzle him before righting herself again.

Fuck, Ray could use a cup of coffee. God damn Brad, with his mean, unprincipled coffee-hoarding ways; now Ray can barely function at all, when he needs to the most. Then Brad does that creepy thing where he can somehow sense Ray thinking lecherous or insulting things about him and appears instantaneously at Ray’s side, looking calm and inscrutable. It’s one of the most aggravating things about him, honestly. Ray scowls and eyes him suspiciously.

“Bet you’re glad I’ve been rationing the coffee now, sir,” Brad says smartly, raising an eyebrow. “We’ve got enough left to last us another three days at least.” Ray’s about to punch him in the chest or start ranting or maybe just stare straight ahead and not say anything at all, but then Brad hands Ray a flask. It’s full of dark, cold coffee, black and bitter and it tastes worse than ass, it tastes like day-old ass, maybe even older than that. Ray can’t breathe for a moment.

“Brad,” he says finally, looking up from beneath his lashes and licking his lips. “Did you just give me your own personal emergency flask of coffee? You prince.”

“Don’t get used to it, Captain,” Brad smirks, and then hesitates, his face strangely young for a split second, and puts a hand on Ray’s shoulder. “Ray. It’ll be alright.”

Ray thinks maybe it will be.


PART FOUR

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
meeks00
Apr. 21st, 2010 07:49 pm (UTC)
This time I wanted to keep track of all of my favorite lines so I could comment with something other than incoherent babble, but all I can remember is this one:

He’s seen the prime articles Brad sleeps with, all long legs and sweetly rounded bosoms and cool competence, as far from Ray Person as it’s possible to get without actually leaving the human race.

HILARIOUS.

And it's the only one I can remember because it was early on, and then I got super hooked and couldn't bring myself to pause so as to try to remember any others. And I just plain forgot the rest.

Anyway, I loved Ray's coffee addiction and Brad rationing it for him and how Ray hits on Walt and how Brad is so obviously JEALOUS, which is PRECIOUS. I love it so much! And you brought in DOC BRYAN. Love that man so MUCH. And I was really, really scared a full-on war had started. I always get so scared that the people who leave will come back to terrible messes :( And this is one, and so SAD, but maybe there will be a cure? And maybe lots of dragons won't DIE? It's neat how you brought in the plague through the DRAGONS though and not the people. So inventive! <3 MUST KEEP READING.
novembersmith
Apr. 22nd, 2010 01:42 am (UTC)
Heeee, Ray isn't bitter AT ALL, NO, DEFINITELY NOT. *g* And ahaha, don't worry, the fact that you got hooked is a HUGE compliment, I am practically dancing with glee over here.

I couldn't leave out Doc Bryan! He's one of my all-time favorite characters! It is really quite ridiculous, I have all these little side-scenes that didn't contribute to the plot so I had to leave them out, but maybe I'll polish them up and post them sometime, just stuff about Doc working with the dragons (and the aviators, after they get hurt) and Ray and Walt being flirty and so on and so forth.

Actually, the dragon plague is Naomi Novik's invention! And it's really genius, to be honest, because as I was researching the fic and the Napoleonic Wars, it became pretty clear that the British would have trounced the French, if you combined their Aerial forces with their historical naval supremacy, so a plague or something HAD to have happened, or the war wouldn't have continued as planned. It's pretty cool! Seriously, the books are a bit dry at times, but it's such a nifty alternate history, I hugely recommend them. Plus, you know, they become less dry when you start writing porn about them. *whistles innocently*
meeks00
Apr. 22nd, 2010 06:56 pm (UTC)
OK, yay for Novik's inventions, but did she have a Ray and a Brad and a GK ensemble? I THINK NOT. But you do, m'dear. You do.

I have all these little side-scenes that didn't contribute to the plot so I had to leave them out, but maybe I'll polish them up and post them sometime, just stuff about Doc working with the dragons (and the aviators, after they get hurt) and Ray and Walt being flirty and so on and so forth.
OK. Now I think you're just hurting me on purpose.

(And even though I may have dissed Ms. Novik's inventions earlier in the face of the shiny light that are your inventions, umm...I think I will read the books because I love alternate history things. In the same way I love fics and side-stories, like OBA and GK togehter, as extras to what currently exist.)
novembersmith
Apr. 23rd, 2010 03:00 pm (UTC)
OK. Now I think you're just hurting me on purpose.
Me? NEVER. :D :D :D

And oh man, you definitely should, they are SO MUCH FUN, especially from an alt!history standpoint, and the characters are also SUPER SLASHABLE. And adorable. Adorable and awesome dragons are all throughout. GO FOR IT, I SAY. <3
arwen_lune
Jun. 8th, 2012 09:26 pm (UTC)
Hopefully you have comment notification on and will actually see this. I am listening to the podfic that Dodificus has made of this story and LOVING it. what a wonderful blend of two of my favourite worlds. And I just wanted to say that I hope you have written and posted all those little sidestreets, because I'd very much love to see them. Doc Bryan and dragons and gruff, endearing medical care = WANT :-)
azurelunatic
Apr. 22nd, 2010 06:13 pm (UTC)
THE PLAGUE OF COURSE THE PLAGUE!!

Perfect reason to hole up another little while, oh yes oh yes...

AND HE IS SHARING THE COFFEE. IT IS AN EMERGENCY.
novembersmith
Apr. 23rd, 2010 03:01 pm (UTC)
Plaaague. I had to work it in somehow! And yes, coffee = love in my mind. *G*
lassroyale
Jun. 21st, 2010 10:04 pm (UTC)
Oh man, I expected Loch Lagness to be in smoke by the time the doc was riding up to them on horseback. Can I ask how big the middle weights are supposed to be? I always think of say, Dragonlance dragons lol, ones that can only hold one rider but these guys all seem huge. I love the idea of it.

Great suspense in this chapter and as always, lovely, smooth writing.
novembersmith
Jun. 22nd, 2010 05:21 pm (UTC)
Heh, no problem! The smallest dragons in the Temeraire universe are in China, and are solely used as messengers and are v v small, but all the other dragons are considerably larger, upward of several tons, even for the smallest. So the average middleweight would be, hmm, maybe 12 to 16 tons? And capable of carrying up to 20 or so men. I could be wrong though, I'm terrible with numbers and things, but that's an approximation.

And thank you again! *beams*
regonym
Aug. 13th, 2010 02:44 pm (UTC)
I like how the events of the T books are slipped in in the background, with the timing and references to what Team Laurence is up to.

“You don’t count,” Brad says comfortably, stretching. His shirt is unbuttoned; Ray can see the skin of his chest, a pale gold in the candlelight. “And we need you alert when we’re in the field. Please note that I said ‘alert’ and not ‘insane.’ When’s the last time you slept?”

It seems like the best sexins (well, almost-sexins in this instance) happen when somebody is worried about Ray’s sleeping habits, don’t they? XD

“I am fucking calm!” Ray snaps, and then Brad hauls him against his chest. Ray stays for a second, shuddering, listening to Brad’s heart and feeling his breath in Ray’s hair, and then he makes himself jerk free, following Bryan over to Marisol.

;________________; Oh, Ray.
novembersmith
Aug. 18th, 2010 11:12 pm (UTC)
It was fun meshing the two worlds, yes! I am a little more worried about how to get events to line up for the sequel, where things get more complicated, Temeraire-timeline-wise, but WE'LL SEE. THINGS WILL WORK OUT. *crosses fingers and toes*

Ahahah, well, Ray does have DEPLORABLE sleeping habits. Needs someone to tuck him in, he does.

Poor Raaaaaaaay, HE'S SO WORRIED ABOUT HIS BB.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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