The Grating
by Archer's Aim

Dedicated to Emily and all those on the list who were discussing one of the age-old questions of the universe -- "Who left the grating on Renown open?" It spawned plot bunnies galore. Here's number one, which btw assumes there was only one way into the hold, and all the action revolved around it. Um, I did warn you that my plot bunnies know nothing about ships, right?

~~~~~~~~~~~

He watched from the shadows, as the young lieutenant inadvertently dropped the grating into place. The sound echoed throughout the ship.

From aft, he heard footsteps, and the lieutenant, looking up, hastily scrambled backwards, crouching behind some barrels as red-clad forms rushed forward. When they'd passed, the lieutenant crept out and made his way aft, following a path taken earlier by his friend.

As the lieutenant's footsteps died away, he stood up and began extinguishing the lanterns around the hold, leaving only one dim light on the far bulkhead. Cautiously, he pulled the grating up, his arms aching with the strain of holding it well above the deck. With a muffled grunt, he lugged the grating into the shadows with him, settling down to wait for the one who deserved punishment.

He wasn't doing this for himself. He was doin' it for the boys. /Someone/ had to stop the madman before he killed them all.

~~~~~~~~~~~

He hadn't wanted this life. He'd been forced into it, grabbed by two burly seamen as he staggered from a tavern at the brink of passing out from too much cheap ale. When he woke, he was trussed up in a hammock that swayed nauseatingly back and forth. A voice informed him he'd been tied up to stop him from beatin' another of his fellow sufferers into unconsciousness.

Apparently, drink and kidnapping didn't mix too well in him.

God, he'd been angry. They'd untied him, but only after the five largest men in the crew surrounded his hammock to make sure he behaved. He'd pushed through them and, finding the sunlit deck, grabbed the first man he saw, demanded to be sent home.

That's when he learned grabbing an officer meant punishment. Fifty lashes, that time. Could've been worse, the doctor told him when he woke a day later. They could've /hung/ him.

He'd spent the next year tryin' to survive. A year of near-constant pain, as he struggled to do things he'd never dreamt of, the price of failure another set of stripes on his back. And always, /always/ watched by those damned officers.

Then he was transferred to another ship, one sentenced to the harbor. At least here he could enjoy some comfort ­ decent food, willing women. Even if he /was/ forced each and every day to look at land he would never step on. He set about making a place for himself, using his fists to get to the top of the pecking order, finding favor with the one /really/ in charge of this ship, no matter what the puffed-up officers might think.

And that was when he met The Boy.

~~~~~~~~~~~

How could anyone stuck in purgatory be so damn happy about it?

The lad was always smiling. Nothin' made him stop. Not the work, not the officers (too blind to see the evil all around), not even pain. Damn, The Boy was still smilin' after being knocked over, his leg broken when they'd tried movin' a cannon. A strained smile, but /still/ . . .

He'd been assigned to a new division when yet another set of officers arrived aboard. Out of nothing but boredom at being stuck on this rotting hulk, they'd decided to reorganize the men. What a group he'd fallen in with ­ old-timers full of stories of adventure, a couple pressed men like him (less bitter about it, seeing as how their alternative was a hanging for thievery), and The Boy.

"Why're you here?" asked the lad at that first mess.

"None o' your damned business," he'd snapped back.

"Oh," then, "so I'm guessin' you got caught by them pressers, 'eh? Me, I /volunteered/. Didn't have nuttin else to be doin'. . ."

Nothing he did shut out The Boy's voice, as he nattered continuously about his parents, their tavern, his baby sister, five older brothers, the crazy bailiff, some stray dog, a barmaid . . . all the details of his life ashore.

Somehow, somewhere in the next few weeks, he'd found himself worn down, getting ­ used to ­ the lad. Even if The Boy did have the tendency to open his mouth at the worst possible times.

Like when that fool Chad managed to slip on a newly-washed deck and ended up hangin' facedown over the railing, saved from the drink only by a hook caught on his breeches. Which held up long enough to get him back over the rail, then puddled 'round his ankles. And into the embarrassed silence The Boy's voice rang out, commenting on the pretty embroidery Chad's wife had sewn 'round the bottom of the shirt . . . well, how the hell was the lad to know that Chad's shirts had been sent for washing, leavin' him to wear a nightshirt that day! Still, it earned him a few stripes.

Afterward, tending to the lad's torn back, and him still going on about Chad's fancy taste in clothing, well, he'd lost it.

"You're gonna get killed for insubordination or some such, you know!" he'd roared.

And The Boy looked up at him, and with a smirk on his face said, "Well, no, 'cause you'd've stopped me from doin' somethin' that stupid, 'eh?"

Stunned, he'd looked around the gathered division, all grinnin' back at him, and he'd realized the lad was right. He would protect him from getting killed . . . because when he hadn't been lookin', he'd ended up caring what happened to the idiot. To the division. His /friends/.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

O'er the years, they'd gone away, one by one. Lost to accidents, battles, illness, things that happened in the service, even when you were servin' on the best damned ship in the fleet. But still The Boy hung in there, and he kept watching over him as best he could. Damn, he'd even come round to carin' for some of his officers too, seeing as how they were just young lads themselves, tryin' to grow up like The Boy.

He'd finally settled into this life. He actually was proud the day they told him he'd been promoted and would be off to his fourth ship. If his old tavernmates could see him now!

Then he found out The Boy wasn't coming with him, but was to join that fool Foster's ship. Moved up to head one of the starboard divisions, but still, off without him.

God, he'd begged. But the officers already on his new ship weren't interested in hearin' about one lowly seaman. Buckland actually said he'd be flogged and turned if he kept on with his nagging. And the Captain ­ he just stood there on the quarterdeck, that /smile/ on his face. Didn't care enough to even /ask/ Buckland what the fuss was about. By the time /his/ officers came back from shore leave, it was too late.

Foster's squadron had sailed.

Six months later, back in for provisions, he heard about Foster's latest blunder, and how every division on the starboard side had been blown to pieces by a French broadside.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

He'd wanted to kill them, the smug bastards. Thinkin' they was better than any man who climbed up rigging and worked the guns. For a few weeks there, he'd found himself truly tempted. It would be /so/ easy ­ a slip in the rain and over the railing, a stumble in the dark to fall in the hold. But /his/ officers, now, they'd understood how he felt. After all, they'd known The Boy too. They kept him too busy to get into mischief, and talked to him until he'd begun to accept what had happened.

And then Sawyer'd killed another lad.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Poor Davey. Never had a real chance. Maybe on another ship, he'd've been given time to learn. Not here in hell.

He wasn't a topman. Hadn't even been in the service long, came aboard just before they left harbor. Straight off a farm. He'd never even seen a /town/ before he went to Portsmouth lookin' for work. Where the press gang found him.

That damn Buckland assigned him up top. Told him he'd grow into the job. He wondered what the man thought when he watched Davey fall that night. Probably didn't care. Like Sawyer, who couldn't even be bothered to read a prayer over the lad's body.

He'd hoped it would end there. Only, Davey wasn't enough for the Captain. Not when there were more deaths to be had.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Wellard. Poor lad'd only tried to do his best, his duty, and been caned into a stupor for it. Again, and again. It would keep on until the lad was dead. He couldn't let that happen. Couldn't give up another lad to this Captain's madness.

He knew /his/ officers well. Knew they'd try to help Wellard, even if the others like that Bush didn't. And look what they'd gotten for it. Sawyer was after /them/ now, too. They were on the edge already, one of 'em on exhausted from continuous watch, the other's nerves near shredded with worry over too many things . . .

He knew where it'd end. With all their deaths. Unless someone did something.

Tonight, /especially/ tonight, when everyone was distracted by Sawyer's ravings, was the perfect time for the Captain to have a little accident.

~~~~~~~~~~~

He'd not had long to wait, though things didn't exactly go to his plan. He'd /expected/ Sawyer to wander forward, blunder in the dark into the open hold, now that the officers were all safely away from there, driven by the hunt above deck, in full view of others.

Instead, the young lieutenant surprised him, scurried past, instinctively veering around the hold, and drew up sharp as he heard voices forward. A moment of hesitation, an indistinct voice aft, and the lieutenant bolted into the bay, pulling the barred door closed behind him. Trapped between the Marines searching forward and the lunatic coming from aft, clad only in a nightshirt and robe. And then Sawyer, damn him, came into view, veered around the open hold, stopping just short of the bay, catching sight of a faint shadow through the bars.

His voice tremored with fear.

"My men, where are my true men?"

The lieutenant's compassion led him to step out in an attempt to calm the Captain. And damn it, distracted, the madman backed up into the open hold . . .

He could only watch helplessly as /his/ officers, and Wellard, the poor lad, the ones he'd only meant to protect, gathered around the open hatchway. And were found there moments later by the Marines.

Even in death, Sawyer was draggin' them down with him . . .

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

He slid limply onto the bench next to his last friend.

"Where've you been, mate?" Matthews asked. "All kinds o' trouble breakin' out up there, and they've threatened a lashing ta anyone not in mess or on watch right now."

"I had something to take care of," Styles replied in a low voice, and picked up his knife to start whittling.

His hands were shaking too much.

Closing his eyes, he uttered up a silent prayer to a God he wasn't sure would listen.

'Please God, watch over them, cause I've failed again . . .'

The End.