As people were raising concerns over the length of the pre-fic Author's Note (more of a preface, really, as it was a Word-doc page long), I'm cutting it out and summarizing. I hope this makes things easier.
Oz's got a bit more of a temper than I'd generally write him with – penal colony in this time period, whut. This hasn't been Britpicked, so I apologise for any Americanisms, blatant or otherwise. The whole thing is set during the last battle in Victory of Eagles, for all you Temeraire people – Hetalians, basically just know that France/Napoléon has invaded England and the Brits are in the process of kicking them back to the continent. Also for Hetalians, Laurence – one of the two main characters of the series and a generally upstanding British Captain – is very woe-is-me right now 'cause he saved all the dragons of the continent, but in a way that made him a traitor to his country. And then he nobly went back to face the music, which means that he's going to be executed when he's outlived his usefulness.
Theme music for the chapter is as follows. Battle: "The Gravity of Choice" from the Pillars of the Earth OST. Laurence and Arthur's 'conversation': "Freedom Fighters" by Two Steps From Hell. Many thanks to Red Hot Holly Berries and saxon_jesus, who betaed. Much love, guys.
Chapter Three – The Gravity of Choice
"There was little enough Laurence could now do, to repair what he had done; he could not restore the lives of the slain, or raise up ships from the Channel floor that had been sunk, or make recompense to all the ordinary countrymen whose livelihood and possessions had been raided away by an invading army. He could not repair his father's health, or the King's, or Edith's happiness. But he had already stained himself irrevocably with dishonour, for the sake of an enemy nation and a tyrant's greed; he could stain himself a little more for the sake of his own, and shield with his own ruined reputation those who yet had one to protect." – Victory of Eagles, Naomi Novik
The great black bared its teeth and dove down, claws spread wide. The French dragon banked and soared upwards with powerful wingbeats, royal blue scales gleaming in the sun. The two crashed in midair, snarling and slashing, dropping through the clouds. Entwined, they twirled out of control, heedless of any other danger as they rent deep gouges in one another, scales cracking and blood flying. Temeraire could still hear the fading roars of pain and vicious anger as his concentration was abruptly pulled back to his own surroundings, and banked to the side, mirroring Requiescat as Gentius spat his corrosive acid at the oncoming French dragons.
He roared, a roar devoid of the destructive power of the Divine Wind, as he crashed into the left end of the enemy formation, Requiescat on the right, both using size and weight to barrel through. Temeraire's crew was ready, a steel volley launching from rifles and pistols alike as they shot past the other dragons. Temeraire and the Royal Copper nearly brushed wingtips as they crossed and then Gentius, Ballista, and several Reapers and ferals came from the front in much the same manner, using the commotion caused by the heavyweights' break-though to single out opponents and engage them, the ferals banding together to go after a Roi-de-Vitesse.
As the two largest dragons looped around for a second pass, the two that had been the black giant's wingmates joined the fray, stooping like sea-eagles from above. Temeraire caught but a glimpse of them before they disappeared into the melee, and then Laurence was calling him. Swinging his head around, he returned his full attention to the battle, snapping at a Papillion Noir that had drifted within range. The other dragon's crew let off a few frantic shots and the dragon dove, hoping to escape the Celestial's range for a few precious seconds; they did, but diving straight after them through the regrouping of the British formation was a young middleweight, hardly old enough to be in the battle, and it was unharnessed. A feral?
Wings folded, it dropped like a stone, swooping underneath the fleeing Frenchdrake and raising its complement of considerable spines, snarling. The Papillion lunged, snapping its jaws forward, and caught a faceful of spines. The young dragon howled as teeth rent its flesh, but it struck upward with the spikes on its tail. The Papillion Noir pulled back, hissing, to avoid the spines and to allow its crew a few potshots, but its wings were slowing, missing beats. The dragon's body shuddered and its wings half-folded, going limp, and it dropped from the sky. The little spined one roared its triumph and beat towards the rest of the battle as well as its companion, who had inserted itself much more smoothly into the battle by being an extra wing in a formation that had lost a heavyweight to a cannonball. Temeraire shook his attention from them and back to the battle, making sure that Cantarella and Chalcedony were keeping the other Yellow Reapers in line. I can worry about strange allies later.
There was a bone-jarring thud as Britain and France collided, falling in one roaring mass of black and blue. They were almost equal in size, though that mattered little as they plummeted towards the forested hills, their battle fought with fang and talon and long centuries of bitter experience behind them. France had gotten his teeth firmly lodged in Britain's shoulder-scales and kept his grip even as the island roared and tore viciously into his side. The continental Nation replied in kind as Britain snapped and bit at his neck in an attempt to dislodge the fangs trying to wrest their way through his dark scales. A particularly vicious slash left France reeling in pain, pushing himself from Britain as Arthur swiped at him again with a bloodied silver-grey paw, and the two banked apart as their descent brought them perilously close to the hillside. Not one to give up the chase, however, Britain angled his wings, and with the agility born of long experience, barely clipped the treetops as he swerved into a trajectory that brought him up into France's side. Caught off guard, the blue dragon roared in pain as Britain crashed into him, bowling him over and knocking him out of balance, tumbling him from the sky.
Britain dove for where France went down, but he was breathing heavily and his shoulder ached, the cracked scales pinching viciously. Damnation, I'm not healing as fast as I should...! Knowing that his strength may not be up to an extended fight with his ancient rival due to the state of invasion, Britain reached for the Empire-Colony bond that tied him to Canada and Australia, the colonies engaged in the battle above, having left the Nations to their own fight. I'll be damned if I lose to France, but even so... It was a chance, and only that, but even so he sent a blast of wounded-help-come up the link and hoped that they would feel it.
France was ready for him when he came down, so instead of knocking the other empire off of his feet as Britain had hoped, Francis executed a graceful dodge to the side, and Arthur had to brake his descent, almost crashing into the ground. He backwinged furiously, barely making his landing, and had to spin around as fast as he could to meet France's charge. They hit shoulder-to-shoulder and toppled, blue over black, and rolled, slashing and biting, France almost puncturing Britain's eye, Arthur nearly breaking a few of Francis' ribs.
Breaking apart and scrambling to their feet, Britain braced himself as France lunged, ducking his head so that the other dragon's teeth caught on the crown of horns extending back from his head, then twisted, fangs scraping against horn, and then one caught, puncturing a hole in the roof of Francis' muzzle. The Frenchdrake reeled back, whimpering in pain as blood leaked from his mouth and narrowly avoiding Britain's following strike, his jaws flashing towards France but clamping uselessly on thin air.
Undeterred, Francis snapped forward again, grazing past Arthur's defences and going for the shoulder he had already injured. Steel-trap jaws had broken and dislodged scales the first time around, and now France's teeth found those chinks in the armour and sunk in deep, through scale and flesh alike. Britain keened, pain lacing the high-pitched cry as he struggled, trying to throw off the royal-blue dragon, but France only dug his teeth in further, bracing his paws against the ground, his claws tearing great furrows into the soil. Unable to wrench his neck around without helping France tear him apart and risking toppling from loss of balance if he struck with his foreclaws, Britain had few options, most of them painful.
Steeling himself, Arthur pulled his wings in tight and lashed out with a quick, controlled strike. The delicate wrist joint of his wing slammed into the base of Francis' neck with bruising force, causing the continental Nation to wheeze as his airways compressed. Twice more Britain struck before France relented, loosening his jaws. Taking the window of opportunity, Arthur wrenched his mangled shoulder back and brought his opposite forepaw around in a short but strong blow to the side of France's head. France went cross-eyed for a moment, stunned, but the torn muscles in Britain's shoulder failed, unable to hold his weight, and he collapsed forward before he could catch himself, landing painfully as his flesh began to knit itself back together. The less-injured France recovered more quickly, shaking his head to clear it and baring his bloodstained teeth. Gathering his weight on his haunches, Francis sprung forward like a hunting cat, claws outstretched. Britain clenched his jaw and tried to struggle to his feet, white-hot pain flashing through his nerves as France filled his field of vision.
Suddenly - no more France. He was knocked aside – two smaller figures dropping from the sky without warning, one then the other crashing into the heavyweight's side, the three slamming into the forest floor, flattening more than a few trees before they skidded to a halt.
Britain heaved himself to his feet as the two Colonies recovered from the impact. They heard; they came, they came. Little Australia, spined and poison-fanged and venom-clawed and altogether deadly despite his youth and small stature, mauled Francis a bit more than he already had, just for good measure, then jumped off to the side, hunching his wings and back and hissing impressively. Canada laid himself bodily on the larger heavyweight, who was starting to twitch and stiffen from Australia's toxins.
"The battle is over! You have lost, Empire Français, and your troops are retreating. Leave, or we cut you down, and when you heal, your lines will be far from you."
France growled, but appeared to concede the point. Britain and France alone were generally an even match, but the presence of the colonies tipped the scales heavily in Britain's favour, and it was indeed true that his troops were in retreat. He gave a last discontented snarl in Britain's direction and limped off toward his lines, too venom-stricken to fly.
For his own part, Arthur was glad for his Colonies' presence, but it did mean that he, as their master, had to maintain a strong front, which was becoming increasingly hard to do as the fight's adrenalin receded and exhaustion set in, both from the physical exertion and the drain from healing. Grey crept in around the edges of Britain's vision as Canada and Australia came to stand beside him and minuscule tremors wracked his frame.
"Very... well done, lads." And it was, both in the main battle and in their timely intervention. He managed an affectionate nuzzle for both and was rewarded when Canada stood straighter, head raised, and Australia ruffled his wings with pride – look, I helped save Britain! - but even that little bit sapped even more of his energy and he shuddered. Blood seeped through rents and gashes that were closing but slowly – France's invasion had indeed been taking its toll.
Canada, worried, watched him falter. "Britain? Arthur, you are badly wounded! Let..." The western Colony hesitated, unsure if he was being too bold. "Let us carry you back to camp. There you can at least rest and regain your strength."
Great Britain stared at him for a long moment, and Canada felt very small under the intimidating gaze of the huge dragon. Then the moment was broken as Arthur shifted, settling his weight on his less-injured foreleg. "I suppose that may be for the best."
Space and mass shifted as the island's body compacted in on itself, pale skin forming from pitch scales, wings and talons and horns vanishing, clothes reappearing. Red spots on the fabric immediately started to appear as his wounds bled liberally. One arm hung limp and lifeless, the other pressing a hand to his ribs as Arthur gathered his strength for a moment, eyes closed and back painfully straight, his face carefully devoid of emotion or pain, before nodding to his Colonies. Canada laid his paws upon the ground, palms upturned and talons open, delicately closing about his Empire's battered frame before lifting off, heading back to the British forces.
""But if we have more liberty than we ought," Laurence said after a moment, struggling through, "it is because they have not enough: the dragons. They have no stake in victory but our happiness; their daily bread any nation would give them just to have peace and quiet. We are given license so long as we do what we ought not: so long as we use their affections to keep them obedient and quiet, to ends which serve them not at all – or which harm."
"How else do you make them care?" Granby said. "If we left off, the French would only run right over us, and take our eggs themselves."
"They care in China," Laurence said, "and in Africa, and care all the more, that their rational sense is not imposed on, and their hearts put into opposition with their minds. If they cannot be woken to a natural affection for their country, such as we feel, it is our fault and not theirs.""
Temeraire tried to sit as still as he could as the surgeon got between his scales to remove bullets that had lodged between them and those that had punctured deeper, into the meat of him. Ensign Roland was by the doctor's side, learning over his shoulder as he worked, and supplied a fast hand to wipe away the dark blood that dribbled from the small punctures. Every now and then he would wriggle, for it was quite uncomfortable, and the surgeon would grace him with a sharp word. All in all, he did not care, for though the battle was won, Laurence was looking fairly miserable. He had not been injured, Temeraire was certain, so the Celestial figured that it must be the impending doom of execution that weighed upon his mind.
His talons involuntarily clenched at the thought. They will not! I shall not allow it! Laurence is a hero, plainly said, and the Admiralty has done not even half as much as any naval midshipman against Napoléon - it is they who should be hung... he continued to grumble furiously to himself in the privacy of his own mind, ignoring the crewmen that noticed his evident agitation and skirted him widely. Of course, Laurence stayed, dear Laurence, who had a hand against his muzzle in a comforting gesture. The surgeon finally pronounced him done and went to clean his bloodstained hands and tools in a washbasin.
Laurence smiled and scratched one of Temeraire's eye ridges, into which he leaned with a grateful rumble. "There you are, my dear. Now, shall we get you cleaned up? There is a lake not far from here where we might wash away the grime."
Temeraire was all for this. Gunpowder, pepper-gun residue, and blood still clung to his scales and it would be a relief to be properly scrubbed again. Perhaps it might even take Laurence's mind off of the looming future, which would be a blessing.
A great flutter of wings was heard and wind pressure suddenly increased as a pair of dragons Temeraire only vaguely recognised banked almost directly overhead, landing in a small, secluded clearing near theirs, separated only by a very sparse line of trees and brush. His own was towards the edge of the camp - Most likely no-one wishes to associate with ones so recently named 'traitor', he thought glumly. Maximus, Lily, their old formation, and many of the unharnessed dragons from Pen Y Fan were settled nearby, but closer in towards the main camp where it would be a better walking distance for their crews. He craned his head upwards, trying to see why they would be coming in so fast but were landing so far from the centre of camp.
His eyes widened as he saw the big red - Though not as big as myself, he noted offhandedly - carrying a man in his talons. The coat the man wore was dark, dirty, and bloodstained; Temeraire could not tell if the original colour was the Corps' bottle-green or the Navy's blue. The red heavyweight settled his forepaws upon the ground and the injured man rose, albeit with some veiled difficulty, sliding from the larger dragon's palms to steady himself on the proffered foreleg of the smaller one. Straightening his back and steeling his shoulders, the man removed his hand from the smaller dragon with a pat of thanks and began a steady, if slow, pace towards camp.
This, Temeraire would not let stand. How could those two just stand there when someone who was obviously in pain needed to get to the medical tents as soon as possible? He felt his neck ruff rising with indignance at this slight. They'd carried him in from the field, so it seemed, and they could not take him just the little bit further into camp? The nerve!
"Excuse me," Temeraire interjected, his tone icy, "but the medical tents are in the centre of camp. I suggest you go there, rather than here, if help is needed."
The two dragons looked up and over at him, startled, and the Celestial could feel Laurence jolt, surprised, from where he leaned on his foreleg. The human turned his head, fixing Temeraire with an unreadable gaze. "You. Dragon. Are you suggesting that I am not fit enough to walk into camp on my own?" The stranger's tone was equally cold, though Temeraire could detect a bare hint of pain beneath staid British resolve, but the rudeness of it still rankled him. Dragon, indeed! Still, Laurence was always lecturing about compassion...
Acting on impulse, he scooped Laurence into his paws and with a hop and a few wingbeats was over the small trees to the other clearing in but a moment. Upon landing, Laurence let out a stifled gasp of "Good God, man!" and rushed to the other's side, supporting him as he threw the man's uninjured arm around his shoulders. The other hung uselessly, and its attached shoulder had the most blood of anywhere on the coat. The dragons that had brought him in had given a sudden start, protectively moving in to cover their wounded - charge? Captain? - from Temeraire, and the smaller one bristled, made all the more intimidating with spines extended. The heavyweight puffed out his chest and mantled his wings, the leathery membrane semitransparent in the sunlight. "This is none of your business, good sir, and we must respectfully ask that you return to your encampment."
"Bollocks," Laurence snapped, and Temeraire blinked in surprise at his captain, who would normally never condone the use of such language, least of all use it himself. "He needs medical attention now, and if you are unwilling, I shall take him myself."
The injured man growled at that, the sound so draconic Temeraire almost mistook from whom it came. Apparently it startled Laurence as well, as he swung his head around to stare. "While I may not seem perfectly all right, I can assure you that my wounds are not as threatening as they appear. I am not in need of assistance, thankful though I am that you have offered." He began to remove his arm from Laurence's shoulders, but the captain caught his wrist before he could do so. They were two of a kind, much the same build - average height but broad-shouldered - and despite protestations, one of them was weakened. Even as they spoke, Temeraire could see a dark stain transferring itself from the side of the stranger's coat to Laurence's.
The aviator had evidently noticed as well. With the quiet stubbornness that kept his head held high despite everything, he strengthened his hold on the injured man and started marching him in Temeraire's direction. "You are suffering, and though I would normally be inclined to respect a man's decisions, the magnitude of blood that your coat alone seems to have wicked is enough to convince me otherwise. So pray be silent, sir, and allow us to bring you to where you may be treated."
Still rumbling with that odd, draconic growl, the man forcibly wrenched himself away from Laurence, seemingly as easy as though the aviator were no stronger than a mere boy, but the effort seemed to cost him and he stumbled, dropping to one knee. A grunt of pain escaped him, hurt flashing over his features. "Leave me," came the low snarl. His coat had fallen open, and Temeraire could see the enormous red stain that almost covered what he could see of the white linen undershirt.
Temeraire made a snap decision. The little spined dragon looked about ready to fling itself upon Laurence in defence of the stranger, and he could not leave his captain in such peril. However, he couldn't very well leave the strange man behind either. Though he had been quite rude, it was obviously because of the pain and Temeraire had to admit that injuries were indeed trying on one's patience. He would have to grab them both. It was good that they were so close together.
In a split-second flurry of paws and wings, the Celestial shot forward and scooped both humans into his grasp, bunching his hindquarters and launching himself skyward. Angling for the middle of camp, he put on as much speed as he could - a muted roar resounded from the clearing and Temeraire knew without looking that one of the dragons had leapt into flight behind him. The quick, light wingbeats told him that it was the smaller, more excitable one, not the red heavyweight.
He beat faster, hoping to outpace the young middleweight. The flight was a sprint, not long and drawn out where he would have the advantage of greater stamina, and the littler one was empowered by rage and who knew what else. Temeraire skimmed over the treetops, passing over the clearings of other dragons that looked up to see what all the commotion was. A quick glance over his shoulder showed that the spined dragon was keeping up right behind him, and the red had taken flight as well, bearing down upon them from behind its smaller companion.
They are quick, Temeraire thought grimly, though hopefully not quick enough, and they are tired - their wings were shaky as they set down. Unfortunately, so are mine. Just a little bit more... His tail clipped the top of an evergreen and sent needles and cones rattling to the ground in a pine-scented rain. Soldiers cursed and scattered below as the Celestial's black form swooped lower, almost to the open area near one of the few buildings in the area, a two-level structure that had been commandeered by the army and turned into a makeshift hospital, surrounded by tents for the housing of those in less-critical shape. The cleared field where no tents stood was just barely overlarge enough, having been kept uncluttered with a few middleweights in mind - it had not been thought that a heavyweight would be ferrying the injured. I will still be able to land, though I must watch my tail... And suddenly he noticed that his tail must need a little more watching than he thought, for a roar from behind shook his scales. They're catching...!
A trio of powerful, air-displacing backwings and then his hindpaws hit the soil, nearby tents straining at their posts and tethers from the wind. Hurriedly, Temeraire laid his forepaws down to release the two he held in his grasp. The injured one, despite his bloodied condition, was not in the least amused or accepting of this treatment - even from his high vantage point, the dragon could see the tensed muscles, the wild, narrow eyes, and he worried for his Laurence as his captain attempted to bodily haul the other man to the building, though it was a battle to even get the stranger to budge but a little. At least he was not being so rude anymore, just stubbornly not quite ready to resign himself to the healers - for whatever reason, Temeraire knew not. Luckily, a physician from inside the hospital saw them - or, more likely, Temeraire - and a trio of men ran out to help Laurence, and none too soon.
The middleweight landed.
It was a tight fit, even though the other dragon was young and small, but there was just enough space; it barrelled down in a snarling, spitting rush of claws, spines, and dark bronze-brown scales, crying something in an accent, perhaps even a language, that Temeraire failed to comprehend. Whatever it said was unimportant, what was important was that he was headed straight for Laurence. Temeraire roared and swiped at it, but it was too close to him to properly aim - he missed, barely. A panicked call - "Laurence!" - and the captain and doctors turned...
The way the smaller dragon slammed to a halt was almost comical; all four paws dug into the ground and his tail as well, many of the spikes on the end thudding into the dirt as it almost faceplanted into the ground in its effort to stop its own forward momentum. The humans looked shaken, and Temeraire would have pinned the earth-toned youngling to the ground save for that it was already prone, meek under the glare of the injured one - and I remember how that Papillion Noir fell from the sky after being pierced. The effort had cost the man though, and he slumped, finally at the end of his strength, putting up no more complaint as the physicians hauled him off, save the irritated expression that never left his face. Laurence followed them into the building with one last apologetic glance back at Temeraire, who was now once again worried about the spiny little dragon now that its captain was gone. For it must be his captain, it has to be, else why would he react so?
The other dragon turned to him, having extricated itself from the ground, the long spines ripping up chunks of dirt. The expression on its face was murderous and it bristled angrily. It would have spoken, probably, but at that moment the heavyweight that had accompanied it made an appearance overhead, banking to turn in a wide circle around them. "Return, Pyropus!" it called, obviously addressing its companion, "He will be safe." The little one was not convinced in the slightest, apparent by the way it hunched and hissed, yelling up to the big red in a lilting, almost musical language that in normal circumstances would have Temeraire intrigued. As it passed over him, it called down to the Celestial, "And I would have words with you as well. Please, follow us back - we may go to your clearing if you might feel more at ease doing so."
A relative compromise. Very well. "I accept." Still wary of the spiny one but reassured by the way the other stranger was willing to approach Temeraire on what was relatively his 'own' grounds, he rose, going aloft and angling back towards his edge of the camp as the heavyweight banked to follow and an earthy glint of bronze scales below signalled the young middleweight's presence as well. They flew back to Temeraire's clearing, and the other two circled as the Celestial landed, informing his crew that he was entertaining visitors - and would they please find Gong Su and ask him if he might make tea? The two overhead descended as the remnants of his crew scattered to make room.
Temeraire watched them as they landed, he himself curling his tail neatly around so that he might appear elegant and in control, despite the fact that he still hadn't had a wash after the battles earlier. The strangers were much the same, smelling of metallic blood and acrid gunpowder, and Temeraire hoped that the tea would come soon so that he could at least focus on the soothing taste. The large red settled itself to Temeraire's front, wings mantling and showing off their sunset colouring for a moment before folding properly, and the little one kept next to its larger companion, pacing in a frustrated circle for the while, agitation keeping it from sitting still. Temeraire arched his neck, displaying his ruff, though not in a threatening manner - moreso to display his status as one of the rarest and most valued dragon-breeds alive. I do hope they can appreciate that, though with the young one's coarse manners it is hard to believe that he would even know what China is. He cleared his throat.
"Now that we are settled, I believe it is time for some issues to be explained. You wished to speak with me?" He tried his best to emulate Laurence at his most patient; it simply would not do to appear anything less than composed in front of these strangers.
The heavyweight nodded its head gracefully, purple-tinted muzzle dipping fractionally with ease and confidence, and Temeraire sat up a little straighter. Where are you from? You have the cultured bearing much as some I met in China, but I do not recognise your breed. When it spoke, Temeraire tried to place the odd close-but-not-quite-British accent, but was unable to do so. "I did. It appears that some matters are in need of explanation. Before we talk though, I must introduce myself. Hriðhige is what I am called, and this is Pyropus." The little bronze middleweight had finally stopped moving and laid down, but was still being insociable, giving the Celestial a hard look and pointedly not speaking to him, so Temeraire decided to ignore him outright. Honestly, so rude! Perhaps he gets it from his captain.
Temeraire nodded in return to the heavyweight, acknowledging. "And I am Temeraire. Now, I am curious to know - what were you doing, bringing an injured man into camp so far from help?"
At that moment, Gong Su and several of Temeraire's ground crew returned to the clearing, laboriously carrying with them an enormous pot that smelled of black tea, and three great bowls, one smaller than the other two, and the Chinaman oversaw the pouring of tea for each dragon, prostrating himself before serving Temeraire, as usual, but also delighting as the other two accepted their tea graciously, even Pyropus, expressing their surprise at being served and at the deliciousness of the tea. As the humans retreated from camp, Temeraire delicately set down his still-steaming, half-full bowl and looked expectantly at Hriðhige. The red dragon took another sip of his tea before carefully placing it on the grass before him; beside his larger companion the little bronze hadn't even bothered to use its paws to raise the bowl, content to drop its head and sip instead - Temeraire noted then that it did not have opposable claws with which to grip the tea bowl.
"Well then, I suppose you would appreciate having your question answered," the heavyweight began. "The fact of the matter, in its simplest terms, is that his injuries were not of a severity that required medical attention, despite how it may have seemed from your limited perspective of the situation. As you should know, serving in the Corps as you do, supplies during wartime are limited and must be saved for those that need them the most. Come morning, he would have been up and about, fit as any here and ready to do his duty, all without an extended visit to the physicians. You must have noted for yourself his reluctance to comply with you."
And he did remember, but that was entirely beside the point, and more importantly they had brought up a sore spot that forever rankled the Celestial. Duty. Temeraire hissed, and damn if he didn't remember every single word of his conversations with Laurence about duty to one's country, duty to the people, duty to one's superiors, and how insensible it all had seemed. It was more of a love for Laurence and a respect of his captain's love for his country than any true sense of duty that had brought him out of Pen Y Fan in command of a misfit draconic army. Duty had thrown his life into shambles. "Duty. Duty would have good men make traitors of themselves, sacrificing all for those that do not deserve their loyalty. Duty kept Laurence and I apart, with him in danger of walking willingly to his death! What has duty ever done in return for those who have served the concept their whole lives? Is that all you care about, this man - your captain - merely be able to 'do his duty'? It is as bad as that awful Rankin, in its own way, when he abused poor Levitas, save that now it appears that the reverse is true, where we who should protect our men don't even care enough to see them safe!"
Pyropus, who had previously been content to be silently hostile, exploded with vitriolic fury. "An' who are you t'be lecturin' t' us about the value of safety and duty? 'Tis obvious you 'ave no sense o' the former, and th' only one's safety you care abou' is your captain. What abou' the people of your Country, eh? 'ave you no care for their safety and freedom? Oh, tha's righ', you don't care about duty, or responsibility, or the liberty of your Country, or -"
"Pyropus." Hriðhige's quiet voice was deeply displeased, but the smaller dragon snapped back at the larger, increasingly incensed and caustic. "No! Do not order my silence; I care no' if you are th' favoured one. I shall say whatever I wish!"
"That you will not. You cannot watch your tongue, and would embarrass our lord." Hriðhige's tone was all crackling brimstone, though its fires were banked, and his tail twitched from side to side behind him in annoyance. The two stared each other down, a silent battle of wills, before Pyropus relented, obviously still unhappy, and the red heavyweight's attention fixed back on Temeraire. "Forgive him, sometimes he does not remember that he should not challenge outright in this time of war," he continued on in his quiet voice, but the baleful eye that he turned to the Celestial was anything but merciful. "However, that does not excuse you, and your blatant disrespect."
Temeraire pulled his head back, his ruff instinctively flaring. "I only speak of what is true. Sensibility seems to be put aside in favour of concepts such as duty, and patriotism. England-" he almost spat the word, and offhandedly felt a mild gladness that Longwings were generally even-tempered, "-would slaughter the dragons of Europe, and even China, if it would ensure their victory over Napoléon! They blame him for a multitude of evils when they themselves perform an act more heinous than any I have ever heard attributed to the French. And when one good man would put a stop to their..." he paused, searching for a word, the rising fury that was clouding his mind keeping the proper vocabulary from him, until he settled upon one that Laurence had once read and then explained to him, and gone quiet when he did so, "...genocide, then they would put that man to death, for he thwarted their plans. Tell me then, why should I show respect to such a nation, when men such as the Admiralty show such decay of reason?"
Violet eyes narrowed with veiled anger, but to a specific slight or to his tirade in general Temeraire knew not. The quiet voice held, never raising in volume, but Temeraire felt a chilling prickle under his scales when Hriðhige spoke next. "And such would a malcontent say when discussing the government, and at some times such malcontents are indeed necessary, but the government alone does not a Nation make, and sometimes one evil may be needed to combat another-No!" Hriðhige bared his fangs at the Celestial's immediate hiss and wing-mantling. "I do not abide their decision! Do not make that mistake! For an evil act it was; there is no denying such, save for those that made the decision and deny it to themselves so that they may sleep more easily. But what you do not seem to realise is that sometimes there must be sacrifices made - it is a testament to the willpower of your captain that he would willingly choose the path of his own ruin so that he might save others, but in your contempt of the government you belittle his sacrifice! Yes, I have heard of you, Temeraire, and of your captain, and I know of what you did. Laurence would suffer so that the dragons of Europe might live, he serves so that he might protect the people of this, his Country, and safeguard Britain from its enemies, both within and without. What do you fight for, other than your captain? Britain will remember Captain Laurence for years to come - the aviator who defied his own Nation, but loved it so much that he would return to face its judgement. He will go down in history for his loyalty. You? For all of your intelligence, you cannot seem to comprehend the concept of self-sacrifice for the greater good - or, as said concept is commonly known as, duty." The red heavyweight bared his teeth deprecatingly, wings ruffled and hunched over his back.
Temeraire bristled at the insult, his talons flexing in anger and digging furrows into the dirt, his last efforts at keeping civility crumbling away. How dare he speak as if he knows me! "I would sacrifice myself for love of Laurence, and that is enough for me! What do I care if history remembers me or not so long as my captain is there with me to see it happen! If we are thrown from Britain, or even refused by China, or any and every other government of the earth, as long as Laurence lives I would be content. You may ridicule me for it, but considering that you would let your captain suffer for the sake of your precious duty, I am not entirely sure that you would understand such singular devotion." The Celestial drew his head up, gaining superior height over the smaller heavyweight, and flared his ruff. "As for loyalty to a nation, be as it may, the fact of the matter remains that men - and dragons! - bleed and die for their people, for their country, but the country does not bleed for them in return. The people might show their gratitude, but the nation just lumbers on, unconcerned as ever when good men like Laurence would be brave and loyal or when horrid men like those of the Admiralty would slaughter every last dragon in Europe for a chance at superiority!"
Unable to remain silent any longer, Pyropus, who had been pacing like a caged beast next to his larger companion, snarled violently, spreading his wings, spines standing up stiffly. When he spoke, it was with barely-restrained fury, but his eyes caught the Celestial's and held his gaze, and for a moment Temeraire felt lost, engulfed by something the enormity of which he had no ability to describe, and then it was gone, sensed for no more than a moment. "You have no idea how much your Nation bleeds for its people. Even for you." The little dragon, trembling with fury, gathered itself on its haunches and launched itself up, almost immediately disappearing over the tree line.
Temeraire growled at this retreat as he watched the young middleweight go, but swung back to Hriðhige when the red dragon raised himself up, evidently to follow the other. "I believe this matter has been discussed to its fullest, for the moment. Now, if you will excuse me-" his voice was brittle, but still unfailingly polite in that odd accent of his, "-I must go and ensure that your blundering has not caused a major incident." And he was off, leaving Temeraire seething in his backdraft, alone in his clearing.
""But Laurence," Temeraire said, at once glad and baffled, "it was my fault, surely: it was my notion we should go to France in the first place. Only, I did not know that they should take your capital, and your rank; and I am sorry-"
"I am not," Laurence said. "I should give more than that, and count it cheap, to preserve my conscience; I am ashamed to have submitted to despair so far as to ever have thought differently."
Temeraire did not wish to argue in the least: Laurence sounded like himself again, if still drawn and perhaps unhappy, and that was worth anything; but privately he could not help a certain resentment that a conscience seemed to be so very expensive, and yet had no substantial form which one might admire, and display to one's company."
Laurence was expecting continued resistance once they landed, and was not disappointed, but after the terrifying instant when he thought the strange dragon might well kill them but instead was rebuked, the other man was strangely compliant – no, resigned, more like – so when the physicians rushed to take him from the aviator, careful of his injuries, he accepted their bracing hands with only minor grumbling. With a glance over his shoulder to be sure that Temeraire was all right, sure that he would be able to handle himself against the little feral, Laurence followed on the heels of the men guiding the injured man - is he an aviator? His coat, it's green under all that blood… He wasn't about to leave this strange man alone, without even knowing who he was.
One medic called for a doctor as the other two steered their patient to a room with an empty cot, the others all filled with other soldiers, some more wounded than others. Seeing this, the man stiffened in their grasp, but, undeterred, they manhandled him expertly over to the cot, one immediately stripping his coat, another going for supplies. Quick hands worked under the unsettling gaze of the stranger, and as they stripped him, Laurence noticed something odd as the medics removed the man's clothing. There's no rips or tears; no bullet holes or even a blade slash. Nothing. So where is all this blood coming from? His face paled as his answer was given with the loss of the undershirt and trousers, and even with all his experience at sea and then with the Aerial Corps, he could feel sick bile rising in his throat at the sight. Dear heavens…
The pale ivory of bone, unbroken but visible, peeked out from tremendous gashes that rent the man open from ribs to mid-thigh. A group of slashes on one side looked to have come dangerously close to severing his quadriceps and the main leg artery – instant death on the battlefield, where he would have bled out almost immediately. And those dragons that brought him in expected him to walk on that leg? Inconceivable! Ignoring, of course, the fact that the stranger indeed managed to start walking before Temeraire had, with his usual unflappable disregard, barrelled into the situation; he shouldn't be able to stand at all. It was obvious why his shoulder was as limp and useless as it was - not only was it dislocated, but whatever had rent his flesh – Laurence could not believe a man possible of this… this savagery – had utterly shredded everything that lay between bicep and neck. White splinters of collarbone lay amidst the rest of the oozing gore, starkly pale against the red background.
Laurence wasn't quite sure how this man was still alive.
Apparently the medics were of Laurence's opinion, though they hid it better. Clean water and bandages were laid out as they cleaned away blood, both dried and wet, and dirt, one of the three delicately handling a pair of tweezers and removing the larger bone slivers from the man's shoulder. Throughout it all, Laurence saw with stunned amazement, the stranger remained under their ministrations with only a mild look of discomfort and pain. When he caught the aviator watching, he merely raised one bushy eyebrow, a corner of his lips twitching upwards with dark amusement. Footsteps approached from behind, and Laurence turned to see an older man, with salt-and-pepper hair and a small pair of spectacles perched upon his nose, and heard one of the men behind him say to the patient, "This is the surgeon; he will help you as best he can. We are going to give you liquor now, so you won't-"
"That will not be necessary." The command came from two directions, confusing Laurence for a moment. What…? The surgeon's lips pulled into a thin smile – it was he and the stranger who had both spoken and Laurence saw the blond man motioning at the elder to continue with his good hand, despite the noise of protest from one of the younger physicians. The surgeon strode forward purposefully, retrieving the tweezers from the man who held them and waving the trio away. "One of you, stay. Be useful and start in on those pads and bandages." They froze only for a moment, likely as confused as Laurence, before one nodded the others off and went to retrieve the gauze and wraps as instructed. The surgeon gave a low chuckle, deftly plucking splintered bone from meaty pulp. The patient rolled his eyes. "You don't have to do this for me, Harper."
The surgeon, Doctor Harper, just shook his head. "Call it a favour, for whatever you were doing to get yourself so bloody thrashed." More shards of red-spattered ivory-white fell into the sterilized bowl. "And what are you doing here, at all? I thought it was your policy to avoid this place as much as possible. After all, it's not often that you ever need the services of a man such as myself."
A glower, though not as venomous as before, shot towards Laurence. "I was… forcibly redirected."
Harper laughed outright at that, and followed the gaze over to where Laurence still stood. "And you brought him in then, eh? Probably snarling like a feral dragon and resisting all the way, I would bet. Brave of you to put up with him. Still, it was for the best you did."
The stranger's head snapped up. "How can you-!"
"And you would have liked to keep this mess in your shoulder, mm?" The tweezers waved a particularly long and needle-like sliver in front of the man's nose.
Green eyes blazed as the patient snapped at the doctor. "Your skills and supplies could be put to better use elsewhere; it is not as if suffering and I are strangers-"
Harper interrupted yet again. "No, merely very old acquaintances with a long and unhealthy relationship. Now budge up, so Yates here can get these bandages in place." The surgeon stepped back as the younger medic stepped in, done wrapping the long, unstitched gashes with gauze pads and linen bandages and now moving on to the shoulder, obviously quite unhappy about not giving any further treatment to a man who rightfully should have been on his deathbed. The elder man raised an eyebrow at the one on the cot. "Now, you're getting moved to a private room and will sleep for a while. For you, rest should do more good than anything else I can offer. Oh, don't give me that look." He shook a finger at his recalcitrant patient. "And no visitors either. I don't care if the king himself waltzes in - you're not entertaining and certainly not leaving until I give my say-so."
The blond man was about to retaliate when the medic took his arm, Doctor Harper on the other side with a careful hand, and together they marched him out. Laurence stared after them in bemusement, wondering if he should follow. If nothing else, he should remove himself from the sick-ward - the sight and stench of injured men was enough to unsettle many a soldier, and though Laurence kept his head better than most, he was not unaffected. A few steps out the door, though, and he was stopped by a hand on his arm. Turning, he questioned, "Yes...?"
It was the surgeon, Doctor Harper. "If I might beg a moment of your time, good sir?" Laurence nodded and the two stepped out, away from the injured and their attending physicians. The surgeon drew him over to a window – not particularly secluded, but at least there was a small gift of fresh air, a blessing in a crowded building such as this. Harper turned to him, expression unreadable. "I wanted to thank you for bringing him here... Captain?" Laurence nodded in affirmation. "As you undoubtedly heard, the stubborn man does his best to avoid hospices at all cost, but more often than not, he does not need them at all. You noted the state of his injuries?"
Laurence's eyes narrowed. "It was impossible to miss. Sir, I served in the Navy before I was an aviator, and have seen men lose their lives to far less than what this man appears to regard as no more than a slight inconvenience – how is it possible? You know him, and he seemed familiar with you; can you explain why this is?"
"It is not my place to say." Harper shook his head, the lenses of his glasses glinting with the movement. "However..." he gave Laurence a penetrating glance, grey eyes sharp and knowing, "he might be willing to tell you himself, considering the circumstances."
The aviator quirked an eyebrow, entirely disbelieving. "Considering his hostility towards me, sir, and the fact that I did bring him here against his will, I doubt that he would be willing to tell me anything, much less the reason why he can survive a... a mauling such as what he suffered."
Chuckling lowly, the doctor clapped a hand on Laurence's shoulder. "You'd be surprised, Captain. You're stubborn; if you really want to know the mystery behind the man, come back in, oh, three hours, and I'll let you ask your questions of him. Until then, I'm sure a Corps lad like you has better things to be doing than getting in the way of my medical team, and I'm not letting anyone in to see Kirkland for that long at least." A pointed look, and Laurence, assured of a chance to ask the questions that plagued him, took his leave, intent on getting back to Temeraire.
Kirkland. If nothing else, I now know this stranger's name.
"...and then they just left! 'The matter has been discussed to its fullest.'" Temeraire snorted indignantly, the tendrils on his muzzle waving in the breeze and the surface water of the pond where he had finally gotten his bath kicked up a few ripples that might more accurately be described as small waves. "I certainly was not finished, not in the least. It was all extremely rude, and I had even offered them tea beforehand." Laurence stroked the dragon's cheek back to the base of his ruff, trying to comfort him as the Celestial ranted about his two 'visitors'.
"Well, I shall be going to talk to this 'Kirkland' fellow in a little while. Perhaps he will tell me about this Pyropus and Hriðhige, and why they acted as they did." And why they think like they do – I have never even heard of dragons in Europe that actually have a sense of patriotism! Duty is understood by some, but mostly a dragon will follow their captain, nothing more.
"From what you said, their captain was just as rude." Temeraire cocked his head to the side. "I wonder why he captains two dragons? Or perhaps one is just a feral that follows them around. Or perhaps they are like the dragons from Pen Y Fan and grew bored of the breeding grounds, though why the little one would be there is odd - he is much too young to be giving eggs to females. Perhaps there is some other reason."
Laurence sighed and scratched Temeraire's eye ridge as the dragon pondered. He was both anticipating and dreading going back to the hospital building to face the strange man. Temeraire was right; he had been quite unpleasant, but a man who by all rights should have been on his deathbed could be allowed a measure of irritability. Still, Laurence expected nothing less than brusqueness when he confronted the stranger.
"It's good that you could make it."
Laurence shrugged as Doctor Harper turned and motioned for the aviator to follow. "I do have questions, whether he is willing to answer them or not, and some of them I bring from Temeraire about the companions that brought him in."
"Companions of his?" The physician gave Laurence an odd glance. "Would these companions have been army lads, perhaps a little younger than would normally enlist?"
Confused, the Captain responded, "No, not at all – he was accompanied by two dragons, a heavyweight and a young middleweight, of what breeds neither I nor my dragon could recognise. They carried him to the encampment, presumably straight from the battle, and would have left him on the far edge of camp near the furthest-sited dragons had Temeraire not intervened."
"Ah, I see." Laurence could not fathom the understanding that came over the surgeon's expression. Did he know the dragons that appeared with the stranger? And why did he expect his patient to have been returned from the field by overly-young soldiers – army, at that, since Kirkland had been wearing a bottle-green Aerial Corps coat. All to be answered soon, Lord willing.
Doctor Harper turned and stopped before a heavy door on the second floor of the building. Raising his hand to knock, he first turned to Laurence. "Sir Kirkland has been awake for half an hour at most, but I am not sure of how much his disposition may have improved. He is generally agreeable enough, though somewhat abrasive and prone to fits of cold temper. I would suggest, Captain, to be diplomatic in your phrasing."
Laurence's eyebrows shot upwards in shock before he managed to rein his expression under control. Sir Kirkland? A member of the Chivalry? The more I learn about this man... But Harper made no further comment and rapped his knuckles upon the door before opening it, the wood swinging inwards with a miserable creaking noise. The mysterious stranger, Kirkland – Sir Kirkland, as it were – regarded them from where he sat on the bed, sheets pulled up to his hips. "I was wondering when you were going to arrive, Harper. I must thank you for leaving the window open – it would have been a sight stuffier in this little room otherwise." His gaze shifted over to the aviator, and Laurence felt the hairs at his nape prickle. There is something very strange about you. "Captain William Laurence. A surprise, to be certain, though not one wholly unexpected." A nod to the surgeon. "A moment, if you would, Harper."
He had given a slight start at the use of his full name and the man's knowledge of it, but recovered as the doctor spoke. "Ever at your service, sir. I'll leave you to your privacy." Harper nodded to Laurence on his way out, the door shutting with a sound much like its previous protest. Turning, he appraised the other man. He didn't look all that threatening, despite his harsh manner earlier and the odd thrill up the aviator's spine upon meeting his eyes. Just another man, on bed rest for being injured in war – except that wounds like his were not the type to be recovered from.
At a nod of invitation, Laurence approached the bedside, unsure of where to begin. The patient sighed. "You have no doubt already heard my name from Doctor Harper, the illustrious attending physician of this place, but allow me to introduce myself, as previous circumstances had not permitted me to do so. Arthur Kirkland." A nod, fairly courteous, but as equally rough as graceful. You do not mention your title, or rank; why?
Laurence returned it. "Captain William Laurence, of the Aerial Corps." A pause, loaded and trembling in the silence. "Though you already knew that, did you not, sir?"
One of the bushy eyebrows rose. "Indeed – though not just for your more recent... accomplishments—" With effort, Laurence kept his expression still and calm at the mention of his treason, for though the other's face was nigh-unreadable, there could be no doubt of what he spoke. "—of which I will keep my opinion to myself, as I am quite divided on the matter, so do not worry that I would condemn you. I know that you have served England, and Britain as a whole, in service with both the Navy and the Corps. An unusual combination, to be certain, though not unique. Your dragon, though, certainly is."
"Aye, that he is, though for as different as he is amongst the dragons I have known, I have never seen or met the like of those you yourself arrived with. Their breed I can only guess at, but that is not what baffles me." Laurence clasped his hands behind his back, his shoulders stiff, and asked that which had been disturbing him ever since he had heard it from Temeraire. "They are loyal to their country, not just their captains – you, I am assuming, though they were unharnessed when you arrived – and they understand the concept of duty, even have quite the sense of it themselves apparently, when many only know an attachment to their keepers and value only their possessions, be it people, trinkets, or capital. You must understand my surprise when I returned to Temeraire and heard of this."
A corner of Kirkland's mouth quirked upward with humour. "And here I thought you had come to ask about me." A low chuckle, but then his face slipped back into its firm set, eyes hard, and Laurence hoped that the civility he was currently being shown would not devolve back into the unpleasant rudeness of their first encounter. "No matter. You asked about Hriðhige and Pyropus. As to their breeds, I can answer that easily – they're mongrels, of no certain type more than another. Hriðhige is from the North American colonies, though he holds some traits of European dragons, and Pyropus... well. Though heavily British-influenced, he is from Australia, and though no dragons have yet been found there, something in his breeding gave him the spines you saw."
"And their values? Though I have tried to instil in Temeraire a sense of moral obligation and he certainly may feel driven to protect fellow creatures, the only connection to this, my country, our country, that he feels is not to the nation itself, but to me, because I love it so – did I not insist that we return to England, he would have been perfectly happy to stay in China. Perhaps it is because he is a Chinese dragon, but I have not known any other transplants to feel the difference. Temeraire, though..." Shaking his head, Laurence continued with a heavy heart. "It does not matter as much now, certainly, since he may very well not remain in Britain once my sentence is carried out, but even so, I would like to think that someday he may come to regard this nation with some measure of fondness, even if he does not stay." Looking up, he met Kirkland's gaze, and his breath caught in his throat. Cold, opaque green had become startlingly fiery, and the intensity with which the other man held him in regard reminded him of nothing so much as a dragon's close scrutiny, weighing him, judging.
"And you would try so hard to give the beast values you hold so dear... why?" Eyes narrowed and brow furrowed, the injured man turned toward him, legs over the edge of the hospital bed, resting his elbows on his thighs and lacing his fingers together, all the while keeping his attention fixated on the aviator.
Cold anger rose in Laurence, at the offhand dismissal of dragons as 'beasts' from someone who was supposed to be an aviator of all people – perhaps he is another of Rankin's ilk - and the continued disrespect and mistrust of him and Temeraire both – though fully justified – had worn thin his nerves. "Because the dragons are as much people of Britain as you or I! Not human but British people nonetheless," he snapped. "And with how intelligent they are, they should be respected as people, but until such time as they are able to make a place for themselves and society as a whole accepts them, they should still be able to take pride in themselves and their country, and know that through their lives and deeds they may make their nation safe, and proud. Why should they not take pride in where they come from, in their people, their accomplishments? Britain may not be China, but I'll be damned if I call myself anything but an Englishman – was it too much for me to hope that Temeraire could someday share that pride?"
The expression on the man's face changed, the corners of his thin mouth curling up, baring a glint of teeth – I cannot say if that looks more threatening or amused – and the deep rumble of his laugh sounded more draconic than human, much like he had seemed back at the clearing near Temeraire's, and Laurence thought for a moment that he could see a black shadow darken Kirkland's exposed skin. "Your staunch defence of your companion and his kind are admirable, but your character shines through other words. 'Damned if you'd call yourself anything but an Englishman'? My my, Captain Laurence; for a man convicted of treason, you certainly are patriotic." He looked up, eyes locking with the aviator's, and nothing in Laurence's power could have broken that link. "Your country is lucky to call you its own."
Something unidentifiable flashed, snapped, near-tangible power crackling through the room like the ozone of an oncoming storm. A vision - a memory swept through Laurence's mind, as real as if he was experiencing it again: himself as a young boy, just entering into the Navy's service, walking down through the docks surrounded on all sides by ships-of-the-line, war-vessels, and the all-encompassing awe and wonder at the strength, power, and beauty of these, the ships, cornerstone of an Empire – and in but a moment the vision was gone but the feeling remained, yet somehow older, more weary, but no less potent, centred entirely on Arthur Kirkland, and Laurence could feel whispered words coming from him, even though he had not consciously given them voice.
"What are you?"
Kirkland's gaze bored into his own, and Laurence felt the world drop away from under his feet.
All anger having fled him, he stood in shock, staring. The aviator's mouth went dry – drier than any stretch of desert he, Temeraire, and the crew had crossed on their way back from China; the moisture all but fled him and his tongue felt stiff, unable to speak as he stared at the man in front of him. Sir Arthur Kirkland. Arthur. The light filtering in through the infirmary window threw a light relief on the bandages wrapped liberally about his sturdy frame, covering the recent injuries – though probably not his worst, as amazing as that thought may seem, Laurence surmised, having seen before the vast scarring strewn across the other man's body, some that by all means looked to have been fatal.
"Are you the king of legend, sir, come back from Avalon to aid Britain in our darkest hour?"
Arthur (King?) chuckled with a wry, lopsided twist to his lips, gazing down at his hands, folded in his lap. Laurence could see the skin of his palms and a detached part of his mind recognised the old calluses that could only have come from long, hard years on a ship at sea. Still looking down at his hands, the man replied simply "And if I was?"
Laurence swallowed through the dryness. "I am not a superstitious man, but there is something about you that I simply cannot grasp. King Arthur you may be, but I have a feeling that there is more to this situation than the possibility of old legends manifesting in reality."
"It is good for you then that I am not King Arthur, but merely share the name. Beyond that…" His hands spread as if in supplication, gaze now raised to meet Laurence's own, "what is it about me that you cannot understand? What is it you see, William Laurence, that leaves you so unnerved?"
Words sprung unbidden to the aviator's tongue, nearly escaping before he could call them back as he gazed down at this man who was somehow more than a man. In your eyes I can see the hills around Wollaton Hall, the mountains surrounding Loch Laggan. Your blood is your people's; its pathways, rivers. In your right arm I see the law, in your left the church. In your hands are the army, the navy, the corps, all the land's labourers. Your bones are mountains and architecture, from the lowliest pebble and pig farm to the grandest cathedrals and snowy peaks. Your skin is history's parchment, marked with every deed true and foul – the passage of time beyond the scope of mere mortals.
"I…" he faltered, eyes wide, nearly poleaxed by the revelation, the sudden understanding of what exactly this... creature... was. "…you – you are Britain."
Blond hair shifted as the impossibility before him tilted its head – was it the Anglo-Saxons that made you so, or were you always meant to be crowned in gold? "An interesting theory, to say the least." Bandages and scars moved as muscle tensed and released. "Though how would one go about being an entire country? It seems quite unlikely that such a thing would be possible."
Laurence's brow furrowed. "Impossible though it may be, I feel no need to change my conclusion, sir. It is not, perhaps, a rational conclusion, but though I like to think myself a man of reason, this falls more towards the realm of faith. I choose to believe in what you are, in what all of my soul is telling me."
A tight smile, challenging. "And here I thought that a man such as yourself would demand evidence, rather than functioning on faith alone for such a claim."
"I believe in the truth of God, for which there is no proof." Laurence felt his resolve rising with each passing moment. "How is this much different, that my beloved country could stand before me in the shape of a man?"
"Because there is proof to be had, for my kind. A Nation is not a god, and so may fall prey to mortal ill and injury - just not succumb to it."
Arthur's hand rose to his chest, and Laurence started forward, afraid that some injury had reopened. However, the other man waved him away, beginning to unwrap the bandaging from around his body. The captain's eyes widened as linen strips fell away to reveal healthy skin, save for some small cuts that remained constantly seeping – nowhere was there evidence of the deep gashes and punctures that Laurence had seen before, save for his shoulder, which now appeared only slightly mangled.
Arthur (Britain) affixed the bandages back to his still-open wounds with a smooth, practiced efficiency. "Despite his invasion, the Corsican has not done much harm to the land and cities." He glanced up at Laurence. "Such are the wounds that remain. They will close within a few months, possibly a year or so."
Wounds to the mortal body – gone and healed quickly. Wounds upon the land… Laurence looked him over again, seeing the scarring that littered his frame and refrained from asking further. "You were bleeding quite heavily when we brought you in to the doctors. Why did you not come here at first?"
"Invasion, occupation, war - these take a toll on the body, as does simple exhaustion. Had France not taken as much control as he did, they would have closed sooner. Normally, even terrible wounds can heal in a span of ten minutes to almost immediately." He finished securing the last of the off-white wraps. "Though I was not lying about wasting medical supplies on me, I will admit that it was not foremost in my reasoning. Appearances must be kept and I cannot afford to reveal myself to the general populace. You must admit, two captain-less dragons with a single injured man would have caused quite the stir in the middle of camp, much less an injured man that should by all accounts be dead from severe mauling and blood loss." A baleful stare fixed itself upon Laurence. "Not that such a scene was avoided anyway..."
The aviator winced. "I-I apologise, sir. I can only hope to claim ignora..."
"Oh, do hush. Had I been human, your actions would possibly have saved my life. As it stands, I must deal with a minor inconvenience, and some irritating rumours - nothing that hasn't happened before." He waved Laurence away and stood from the bed to slip into a clean, folded undershirt and waistcoat, fiddling with the plain silver buttons. A beryl glance flicked to the doorway. "And tell the boys to come in. They have been waiting quite a while."
The aviator blinked, surprised, and moved to open the door. As soon as it creaked inward, a mass of brown barrelled in through the entry. The captain caught a glimpse of dark, wild hair over eyebrows as thick as Britain's own before he was shoved aside by an adolescent boy who could hardly have been older than twelve or thirteen.
In a flurry of gangly limbs, the boy had thrown himself into Arthur's arms, chattering loudly. "They said you'd be all right, an' o' course ya are, but they said you needed rest an' quiet an' they wouldn' let us in! Ah told 'em that you'd want us 'ere with you and they said that it wasn' th' place of a lad like meself to be goin' aroun' expectin' 'em to let me all 'round wherever I pleased an' ooooh but if'n I could only get my 'ands on one o' them..." He seemed to suddenly remember Laurence standing over near the doorway, and spun to face the aviator, who almost recoiled at the scowl on the lad's face. His eyes were narrowed and the impressive brows furrowed; he pointed at Laurence with an accusing finger, damning as the spearhead of Areadbhar. "An' you! Bloody tosser, this's all your fault, an' your dragon's, snatchin' 'im up and away from us like that..."
"Cody," the sharp reprimand came, "manners, boy. Mind your tongue. Do I need to sit you down for lessons again?"
Chastised, the boy relented. "Sorry, Father."
Arthur turned to Laurence, who was highly confused, first at the boy's manner of address for his Country, and then for the words he spoke. Snatching him up and away from us? Before he could ask the new questions that tripped to the fore of his tongue, Arthur nodded to him - no, beside him, to where another boy stood, though this one was closer to being a young man.
Light-skinned and blond-haired where the other was tanned and brown-haired, he appeared to be in his mid-teens and was an inch or two taller than Laurence himself, and by extension Britain. He was dressed as a simple army man - sans hat - but had a blue naval coat, decorated much like a serving-admiral's, draped over his arm. Laurence was startled to see the boy there, as he had neither heard nor seen his approach, had not even known that another stood beside him. There was something odd about him, as there was with the first, but Laurence could not place it.
"Matthew." Arthur's voice was aloof, but with a hint of warmth that bespoke of tender regard.
"Arthur-" the young one's voice did not keep the same stoic reservation, and held the same respect and familial love that the other boy's did when he cried Father, "-are you well mended? The physicians would not tell us much, and even then..." Blue-violet eyes flicked sideways to Laurence, who was struck for a moment with déjà vu, wondering where he had seen them before. Arthur's lips pulled into a thin line that quirked upward at the edges knowingly.
"It seems I have the opportunity to answer two unasked questions at once. Yes, Captain, these are my sons - no flesh of mine but my sons nonetheless." He clapped a hand down upon the shoulder of the younger lad. "Australia." A fond nod to the boy beside Laurence. "Canada."
And suddenly Laurence knew what that odd feeling was that he was receiving from the two. The atmosphere in the room changed instantly. A tension that Laurence had not noticed drained from Matthew's - Canada's - shoulders, and he wondered how major an issue it was for these beings to tell mere mortals like himself what they actually were. Did they tell their kings, their leaders? Apparently they fought in battles and wars - so, did they tell their generals? How difficult must it be for them to put on a human façade around all the people that they met, only to express themselves freely in the private company of their own kind? Australia - dear Lord, I have incurred the wrath of the manifestation of an entire colony - still stared at him and fumed though, shifting from foot to foot like he wanted nothing more than to leap at Laurence and strangle him for stealing away his master - his father.
"Well, Captain Laurence." Canada said coolly. "It seems you are a privileged man..."
But Britain shook his head. "A perceptive one, Canada. It has been known to happen," he spared Laurence a critical glance, "though not often. True to your country beyond what many shall ever be, you are. Even so, not all would put the proper name to what they felt." Looking at the lone mortal in the room with a glimmer of new understanding, Canada nodded deferentially. Britain nudged Australia, who moved begrudgingly to the side, and reached for the naval coat that Canada offered to him.
Even before he put on the coat his demeanour returned to the man that the aviator had first seen in the clearing, wounded but holding himself straight and prideful. The Nation's face hardened and gone was the paternal regard with which he beheld his Colony-sons, even Laurence himself to a degree - for we are all children of our Nation, are we not? - and the coat snapped shut with the ease of long practice. It was an arrogant, regal gaze that swept over them all, his posture its equal. Those eyes landed on Laurence once more, and again he felt that sense of overwhelming presence, his mind overcome with memories and sensations of every bit of his country that he had ever known, from southern beaches to northern reaches. A brief thought of the calluses that he had seen on Britain's palms flashed through in but a moment - even at sea, you ever have been with me - and was gone.
"I do believe I shall be seeing you again, Captain William Laurence," his Nation said as he swept past. "Though if I do not, make me proud, will you?" And then he was gone. In a second, the Colonies of Canada and Australia followed, leaving a stunned Laurence in their wake.
"Laurence, I will do you credit; I have never in my life met any man more desirable to hang, and less convenient." – Wellesley/Wellington, Victory of Eagles
Doctor Harper came out of nowhere. I don't know a whole lot about him other than that he knows about the Nations – Britain and some of the colonies at least - because sometime in his stint as a field medic, back when he was just a young'un, he was scurrying about, doing his job, trying to keep men alive, when suddenly he's got Arthur with bullet wounds and the man is healing right before his eyes. And then he was stubborn enough to find Britain and keep pestering him until he got the truth.
They did not have anaesthetics during the Napoléonic Wars. They barely had what we would recognise as surgery during said time period - mostly it was still cauterization and amputation. I almost made a blunder and assumed there was anaesthesia, then the random thought that I should probably look that up hit me, and I'm glad it did. Instead I figured they'd just give a man a healthy swig of something with a high alcohol content to dull the pain and used that instead. Safe bet, I think.
On names – Laurence notes in His Majesty's Dragon that most of the British Aerial Corps dragons have Latin names like Maximus, Volatilus, Celeritas, Excidium, and Caesar, to name but a few. There are a few exceptions, like Lily (I'm not going into Iskierka right now; she's in a class of her own in just about everything anyway), but not often. So, for Australia and Canada, I'm giving them Latin and Old English names, respectively. 'Pyropus' is Latin for 'bronze', referring to Australia's colouring; 'Hriðhige' is bastardized, internet-researched Old English for 'snow-heart' - if anyone knows anything better on the subject, please forgive and correct me.
Areadbhar is a living, poisoned spear from Irish mythology, and did not need to be physically wielded to wound – it was naturally bloodthirsty and the spearhead was generally tipped in some sort of sleeping potion to keep it from going on a rampage.