SHADES OF GLORY
by Idler

It was time.

And the captain's hands shook. They shook at the sight, and in sure
knowledge of the task set before him. He clasped his hands tightly,
professionally, in the small of his back; the movement stilled their
tremor, though it could not stem the rising tide of his emotion.

He stood anchored to this spot in the damp, biting winter air as she
furled her sails one last time, and the sight brought hot tears to
his eyes. Had anyone been at his side and dared remark upon it, he
would have gruffly attributed them to no more than the wind...though
he would have known it to be a damned lie.

For she had served well, and boldly. Never shirking, never conscious
of her own peril. She had suffered the severest of blows, and still
she fought on. She had sheltered her own, and dealt death and
destruction to her country's foes.

And he had fought with her. Within her. Trusting her, and defending
her. He was hers, and she, in some small way, was his. She had
never truly left him; she lived in his memory, always a part of the
man he was.

He had known of her coming, and he alone stood to greet her. Too
worn, judged too damaged to stand in battle again, there would be no
more glory for her; she was to endure the rest of her days in
drudgery until she was too decayed for even that.

Brave Temeraire...a prison ship, with her own soaring soul
imprisoned. She would never again rule wind and waves; she would lie
here at anchor, battered and powerless, subject to their mercy, with
her glory now shrouded by the stench of the filth she contained.

And it grieved him. He had seen ships end their days before, but the
pain of Temeraire's fate cut close to his heart, though he could not
fully explain it. He watched as her small crew clambered down the
steep sides, filling her boats with His Majesty's brave men...for the
last time. All had departed, leaving her deserted, derelict.
Forsaken.

He imagined rats leaving a sinking ship, and his heart was full, and
he was glad he was alone.

At length, the click of shoes on the cobbles roused him from his
thoughts; a young lieutenant approached him, halting at a respectful
distance. "Captain Bush, sir?"

So it was time. He did not speak, for he dared not. He nodded once,
sharply, and made his way to the nearby gig, settling himself in the
sternsheets without a word. The lieutenant took the oars himself,
and they set out, the man's stroke strong and regular. A proper
seaman, this one, he thought, and was pleased that it should be so.
She deserved no less, this last time.

He looked down at his hand as it rested on his sword hilt, and was
dismayed to see his fingers twitch with shameful agitation. He
clenched them tightly until the knuckles were ivory-white, almost
bloodless. Fear had always been a stranger, and this wavering
unnerved him. But it was mutiny, surely, that he contemplated.
Uncharacteristic, of course, and not seemly for a captain.....though
he and mutinous thoughts were not, after all, wholly unfamiliar.

Thus he sat silently, still and remote, his face shuttered and
distant, inviting neither conversation nor close scrutiny. As
Temeraire's bluff side loomed before them, the lieutenant at last
ventured to speak, misery plain on his face. "Sir? Will you
require..."

The man's expression was sufficient for him to deduce the remainder
of the question. He had been asked it often enough of late. "No",
he snapped harshly. Damned if he'd board this ship--this ship, this
time, more than any other--ignominiously dangling in a bosun's
chair. He rebuffed the man's outstretched hand and silent offer of
assistance. He needed little, and would accept even less.

He climbed the ship's familiar side steadily enough, ignoring the
lieutenant dutifully following close behind, and emerged through the
entry port to silence. He had believed himself prepared, but still
it shocked him, and tied a tight reef-knot of despair in his gut.
Perhaps no one could prepare for a transformation such as this, from
deadly fighting creature to crippled, impotent hulk.

He had never been a fanciful man, yet ships had always seemed to him
as live things; a sense he had neither contemplated nor questioned,
and he ached to find his saucy girl reduced to this...a toothless,
faded crone. Aghast, he moved past the lieutenant, leaving him
adrift in his wake, and the man wisely made no attempt to follow. He
made his way down the companion ladder, descending through the
unsettling stillness, allowing memory to guide him. Some things
could never be forgotten.

He walked the dim and shadowed gun deck, his step hollow....loud and
unnatural, wood upon wood. Empty ports gaped, eyeless, her great
guns now gone. Silenced, or sent to serve on other ships. He had
never seen her like this, and was suddenly ashamed of her nakedness.

The emptiness mocked him, filled only with the memory of wood and
iron. Defiance, Viper, Revenge....and there, at starb'd
four....Jumping Billy, aptly named; he could see the deep scars
where, as it had grown red-hot, it had leapt and jammed against the
overhead beam. No amount of frantic effort could work it free; only
in battle's aftermath had it eventually been chiseled loose. There
had been no time that day; it was then that the call for boarding had
come, and those still able had rushed up the ladders, eyes wild in
powder-blackened faces, weapons in hands past fatigue but fueled by
battle's fury. All fighting-mad, bent on slaughter...and they had
not even yet known the full cost of Redoutable's defiance.

And now she was but a husk. Her might had been stripped from her,
and she would never be the same. Never again would she feel the raw
power as it resounded through her frame; never again could she stand
in bold defiance and feel the exhilaration of victory hard won by
ability and strength. There was little sense to her existence now,
as all that had defined her was missing, and the very thought wounded
him, cutting deeply to the bone. He felt suddenly weak, bereft, and
his hand sought the solidity of her scarred timber; even as it
steadied him he staggered, overwhelmed by the flood of memory.

They were there: he could see them. And his ears were filled with
shouts and thunder as the great guns spoke as one. Bitter smoke
flooded through the open gun ports, and hung heavy in the air; he
could taste it, and powder grains stung his lips. He was moving,
shouting. Shouting to be heard as the guns lurched backwards,
leaping like live things, straining at their tackles. Shouting above
the constant, oppressive concussion within as hot iron battered
Temeraire's timbers on either beam, point-blank and deadly. His
voice felt hoarse, ragged, and his throat burned like fire. He tried
again. "Reload!! Reload, damn you!!"

Harris, working the larb'd battery, did not turn, and he cuffed the
man sharply. "Reload", he roared, full in the man's glazed eyes...or
thought he did, as he could only feel his parched throat respond.
The din was unimaginable, the thunder of rippling broadsides and
squealing trucks on gun decks above and below; the gun captain must
have heard, or guessed, and turned back, urging his men, driving them
on like beasts pushed beyond endurance.

He turned to his own station, squinting through the choking smoke and
hail of splinters: his men were but vague shapes as they moved
purposefully through it. The deck felt strange, uneven beneath his
feet; he looked down to find his shoes awash in blood and flecked
with raw, unidentifiable bits of humanity. Blood stained his
stockings, and caked his trousers to the knees; cold awareness dawned
for a moment, and he looked about him, his eyes tearing, stinging
from the acrid smoke.

The smoke concealed much, but not enough. Men...pieces of men...were
strewn everywhere, as if a butcher had lost his senses and painted a
hideous scene in blood and flesh. Others worked their guns amid the
horror, heedless of the stench and carnage, treading through the
human wreckage; perhaps it was past all comprehension. Could that
truly be tough, fearless Downs, legs crushed into a red smear beneath
an overturned gun? Or the earnest Mr. Bledsoe, hours before scarcely
more than a child, now scarcely more than bloodied rags, destined
never to earn the commission he so cherished?

As he turned away, blue eyes caught his own, bright in the shadows.
Meadows. Gun captain, larb'd 6, with the face of an angel, capable of
cursing like the very devil himself. Now silent and slumped against
a splintered gun carriage, hands vainly pressed to a sea of red,
unable to contain the flood. He looked up, and nodded once and tried
to smile, as if willing his lieutenant to understand. "It's all
right, sir," he whispered faintly, and died.

"Oh, God..." he breathed, and closed his eyes against the rising
nausea and horror. Just for a moment.

When he opened them again, all was silent. Silent, and clean, and
empty. There were no guns, no men, no blood upon his single shoe.
Nothing but memory and a lone captain standing stiffly, in full
dress, and his eyes were dry.

But memory had power in this place, his own deck, his very station at
Trafalgar. It sickened him to think that the echoing space once
filled with smoke and thunder was soon to become a different sort of
floating hell.

And he was to doom her to it. It was his word that would pronounce
her fit enough and set the dockyard to work, severing her proud,
shining brass and gilt, marring her living lines with crude-cobbled
wood. His word would anchor her until she had outlived even the
least of her usefulness, here, in sight of land. And his word would
fill her with the worst of men: those who had scorned and lost the
freedom that better men had purchased with the currency of their
blood.

His fingers traced the outline of the small packet concealed within
his pocket. Flint and steel, char cloth and twist of oakum. It
would be so simple to release her: consign her to the flames, and
save her from her fate. He knew it was a thing he could do,
regardless of the consequences. By his hand, she could end her days
in blazing defiance, and not merely live them out crippled, unfit for
the life she had always known and the one purpose for which she had
been created.

"Like you." It was a woman's whisper, heard faintly in his heart.

He closed his eyes as the words twisted, cutting cruelly like a
knife, white-hot and ice cold. Dear God. Yes, indeed, like him.
Even she, his beloved Temeraire, knew the truth. They were alike,
joined again in their suffering, and he held the means to release
them both.

In the next breath, he knew he would not. Could not. He thought of
the men--his men--who had gone bravely before him, into battle,
toward certain death or screaming agony. They had offered their
lives willingly, without looking back, and had carried on to glory
regardless of the cost. None had hidden from their duty, and none
had run from it. He could nearly see them now, mere shades,
insubstantial figures toiling in the smoke as they had been that day,
giving all that was asked of them, and more.

They had done him proud. And he could do no less. He...and
Temeraire.

These men had gone with eyes open to the last, never seeking quick
release. Perhaps something of them was still here, still
persevering, in the sure hope of victory to come. This place was
their only shrine, their temple, and he could not cast it down. To
do so would admit defeat, and make a mockery of hope: for them, for
Temeraire, and for himself.

He placed his hand on her scarred timber once more, two oaken hearts
in full accord. It was duty, nothing more....it must be done, if
only for those brave men.

"Like you." Words felt, not heard, and not his own. Hers.

He heard hurried steps on the companionway, and looked up, his hand
still resting on her frame, still drawing from her strength.

"Captain Bush? Is all well, sir?" The lieutenant's face was full of
concern and confusion. "For a moment I heard something, and I
thought I.....er." He hesitated, realizing the absurdity of his
words, but once committed, plunged on nonetheless. "I am sorry,
sir.....but I thought I smelled....powder."

Bush eyed him gravely. "Imagination, Lieutenant. Not altogether
surprising, in a place such as this. But I am finished here.
She..." He smiled gently, heartened, sustained with new
resolve. "She ....will serve."