Title: sky's bright aether
↳ Series: Temeraire AU (Part One)
Recipient: For snakeslide.
Pairing(s): Gen (Dean/Castiel)
Genre(s): Alternate Universe - War of 1812 + Dragons, Captain Dean Winchester, Castiel the Egg, First Mate Benny, Ye Olde Salty Pirate Talk, Boats and Ships, Book Fusion - Temeraire by Naomi Novik
Summary: "Damn and blast," Dean says, looking down at the shell peaking out through cushioning straw. It gleams in the flickering light; an oily, almost iridescent sheen, like a black pearl.
They find the ship listing badly but still afloat near the Bermudas, placid water and a light breeze belaying her storm-torn rigging and shattered masts. It's hard to say how long she's been drifting in the current, salt and the merciless equatorial sun working to age her hull to the color of ash. Her masthead, once a comely lass with a demure smile, is now a withered crone that leers at Dean as the U.S.S. Alligator circles around the bow of the wreck.
"An omen, captain, make no mistake," Benny says, returning the crone's smirk with a wary stare. "Best to leave this one be."
"Aye," Bobby says on Dean's other side. "This ship is surely cursed. Let the water claim her."
"Cursed? Perhaps," Dean allows, closing his spyglass with a snap and gesturing for the helmsman to bring them closer. "But by her lines, this ship is a Royal Navy schooner, and God take my eyes if I leave a single page in her captain's log unturned."
"You think so?" Benny says, shading his eyes. "No standards, no colors. That script on the hull says Miracle Moll, captain, and no British vessel I know of goes by that kind of name. A smuggler's ship, more like."
"We'll know soon enough," Dean answers grimly. "Ho, ropes there! Prepare to board!"
When Dean was first mate, he would have been the first of their party to leap across the waves. That was what had drawn him to the sea as a boy, after all: tales of pirates and chests of bullion, the thrill of the dangerous and the watery unknown. A captain now, and a grown man and soldier besides, he stands at the prow and watches Benny lead the men in the crossing, eyeing the Moll mistrustfully as the entire ship bobs under the crew's added weight.
The deck of the wreck slopes badly to the port bow, and they use iron hooks and knives sunk into the distressed planking to keep themselves upright as they fan out, searching the rigging, forecastle and above-deck officers' cabins. There's precious little left of the previous occupants, it seems, but the men bring Dean coins and other monies, traveler's chests full of clothing and books. Dean orders it all, especially the loose papers, brought to his quarters aboard the Alligator, and then retires from the deck to examine them. Whatever cargo is left cannot be as important as these.
He's leafing through what may be the doomed vessel's charter some minutes later when there comes a soft knock at his door.
"Enter," he says absently, pulling a folded letter out of the pages. It's florid, courtly French, barely legible to his eyes, and he sets it aside for Benny to look through later.
The door creaks open, and Adam's fair head appears in the narrow gap. "Begging your pardon, sir, but we've found something below decks you ought to see."
Dean's eyebrows rise. "Truly? Are there gold doubloons aboard our Spanish galleon?"
"No, sir," the boy says nervously. "Only— Mr. Lafitte said to get you right away, sir."
"Did he?" Dean says, using the table to stand as a passing wave rocks the Alligator. "Well, lead the way, then."
The Moll's bulwark is so skewed Dean needs to climb up to reach the grating, pulling himself over the edge and into the dark, dank hold. The smell of excrement and decay is strong, almost overpowering in the close space. As he lowers himself into the gloom, he hears Bobby say, "—and practically empty besides. There are barely any stores, even!"
"The faster to reach the blockade, I expect," Benny responds, holding his lantern high as Dean and Adam approach. Murky water sloshes around their ankles, an unpleasant reminder that their time here is limited.
"We'll take the stored water, if potable," Dean says, stopping at the edge of the pool of light. "The food and forage, too."
"And these, captain?" Bobby asks, lifting his own lantern to illuminate a series of large crates crowded into the far corner of the bow.
"What are they?" Dean asks, moving closer.
"Look here," Benny says, moving to one that's been pried open. He sweeps aside the straw packed tightly inside to reveal the smooth, rounded top of an enormous—
"Egg," Dean says with resignation. "A thrice-damned dragon's egg. There's your curse, Mr. Lafitte."
"But it's stone-cold," Bobby says, setting his hand gingerly on the shell. "Dead as the Baptist."
"What a waste," Benny says disgustedly, wiping sweat from his forehead. "Worth its weight in gold, and left to rot."
Dean turns to look at the remaining crates with a rising sense of dread. "Good Christ, are they all eggs?"
"They're big enough," Benny says, running a hand over the edge of one that almost comes to his shoulder. He gives it a testing shove. "Let's find out."
"Careful," Dean says, reaching back for the crowbar he saw Bobby carrying. The bosun sets it in his hand and Dean holds it out to Benny, who gives him an arch look and draws his dagger instead.
"Right," Dean says, amused. "Carry on, then. Lads, by the looks of this water the poor girl's not much longer for this world, so let's get these open and get out of here, what say?"
There's a ragged chorus of "Aye, captain," and the crew sets themselves to prying the crates apart, splinters and steel flying every which way in the humid underbelly of the Moll.
Dean picks his way around the perimeter of the mostly-empty hold examining the smaller chests and kegs left behind. He pulls men away from the crates to take the intact containers back to the Alligator, but the bags of flour and dried meats are sodden lost causes. The men pass the cargo among themselves to the entrance to the hold and out over the edge, up to the gunwale of their own ship.
As they slowly empty the hold's meager load, Dean spots an unattended crate half-hidden among its bigger neighbors. There's no man left to tend to it, and he hefts the crowbar in his hands consideringly.
It's a trial to so much as budge the crate, Dean leaning his full weight against its side and barely managing to move it into the open. He plants his feet in the swirling water—is it higher than it was even two seconds prior?— and fits the edge of the crowbar beneath the wooden lid, working steadily around the panel. It's hard going, nailed down extremely tightly, and it's a good ten minutes' work before he can wedge his hands under it and force the panel upwards.
"Damn and blast," he pants, looking down at the shell peaking out through cushioning straw. It gleams in the flickering light; an oily, almost iridescent sheen, like a black pearl.
There's a sharp crack and a yelp of surprise, and a powerful smell adds to the odors of the hold. Dean coughs as it fills his mouth almost tangibly.
"I—I didn't mean to—" Adam stutters, and in the dim light Dean sees that a careless blow has broken an egg open, leaving dark liquid to seep out of the fissures.
"Dead," Benny pronounces it. "Are they all dead, then?"
There's a flurry of straw-stalks and disheartened affirmatives from the rest of the men, and Dean looks down at the opalescent glimmer of his egg. "Maybe we can take the shells for collectors, or jewelry-making," he offers, stroking a finger over its marble-like surface.
Something flutters weakly against his fingertip, and Dean yanks his hand back with an oath.
"Captain?" Adam asks uncertainly.
Dean takes a breath. "Benny. Light."
Benny comes, bringing his lantern's glow, and Dean plunges his hands into the hay surrounding the egg. It's warm— not burning hot, as he's heard they are, able to melt a lead bullet into streams of liquid metal. No, it's merely warm, like banked fires in midwinter.
"Hell and damnation," Dean says sourly, withdrawing his hands and shaking the hay from his uniform.
"Alive," Dean says. "Alive, damn it, and now we've the responsibility of getting it to the air corps unharmed—"
Around them, the Miracle Moll groans, a long low note vibrating up through the floor and into Dean's bones. The sound of rushing water is suddenly louder.
"Lafitte, Turner," he snaps out, gripping the edge of the crate. "Help me get this thing out of the hold. The rest of you, gather what you can and back to the Alligator." The Moll lurches, and Dean is almost knocked to his knees. "Now!"
Between the three of them the crate moves, but not nearly fast enough. The Moll's sudden instability means they spend more strength keeping the egg upright than forcing it closer to the hold's entrance, where crewmen wait with pulley ropes and frantic gestures. "A net, get a net," Dean calls up, and seconds later a square of fishing mesh splashes into the water before them. "Both of you, up the ropes to help them pull!"
"Captain?" Benny asks, though he's already moving to obey, and Dean starts to tip the crate over.
"We'll never secure it, otherwise," Dean yells over the roar of the water. The hold is filling fast, and the egg slips out of the cushioning straw and into raging white foam. The water is to his thighs, now, and the egg just buoyant enough to roll into the net.
"Up!" he shouts, and grabs a trailing rope just as the Moll begins to sink perceptively underneath him. Cold seawater pours in from all sides, and he lunges up for the deck, heaving himself halfway out with his hands scrabbling for purchase on the slippery wood. A hand grabs his wrist and hauls him up the rest of the way, and Benny is dragging him towards the Alligator's starboard side,where the crew are levering the egg aboard.
"Cut the guides! Cut the guides!" Benny yells, twisting his hand in the loose bits of rigging on the Alligator's hull as Dean does the same. There's a sharp snap and one of the last remaining masts of the Moll crashes into the surf just behind them. "Cut them!"
And finally, the ship springs free of the weight of the Moll, just as the latter plunges beneath the white-capped waves, never to be seen again.
"Cursed!" Benny shouts, over the sounds of the spray and the gurgle of the small whirlpool created by the Moll's descent. "I told you, captain!"
Dean coughs and spits out the water in his lungs, and shouts back, "No one likes a braggart, Mr. Lafitte!"
The U.S.S. Alligator is a schooner herself, larger than the Miracle Moll but hardly half of a frigate's size. It's a craft meant to be light and quick rather than heavy with gunnage, and taking on the Moll's contents, however little, has turned Dean's spritely lady into a wallowing sow. Dean sits at his planning table and eyes the sextant's reading, working out the distances in his head and coming up with a number that fails to please no matter how much sail he opens.
The sad truth is that they're at the far end of their patrol, weeks away from the coast and friendly waters— never mind that small inland fort, somewhere in the vast lands gained with Jefferson's Folly, where the airmen raise their dragons. Dean looks at their map, looks at the egg currently occupying his bed, and sighs heavily.
"Can't we at least put it out on the deck?" he pleads with the men seated at table with him.
"You have to keep it warm-like, see?" Ben says, petting the shell with awed eyes. Apart from his duties as cabin boy, Ben can also apparently claim the title of the Alligator's resident expert on all things draconic—admittedly self-educated through penny thrillers and the occasional piece of yellow journalism, but embarrassingly better informed than Dean's officers all the same.
"It'd be better if there was a fire," the boy says authoritatively. "I bet it would hatch right away, then."
"No fires," Dean says immediately, because fire is death to a ship and the last thing he needs is a hungry dragonet trying to eat his crew and setting the rigging ablaze. And the things imprint, don't they? Like goslings and other wild birds. Dean's not condemning a man to play dragon-nanny if he can help it.
"No, I guess not," Ben says, subdued. "But it should still be warm. An' you gotta talk to it, too, or it won't grow right," he adds, flattening his palm against the shell. "Talk to it as much as you can."
"I think it's had plenty time to get used to silence," Dean says, a little sharper than he means to. "Fine. It can have the bedclothes, but we'll need to move it. I'm no brooding hen."
"Move it where, captain?" Bobby asks. Something about the set of his mouth says he's enjoying this. "There's no room in the hold after we transferred the Moll's cargo. No extra berths, either. You could put it on the floor, but what if it rolls in the night and breaks open?"
"God— bless it," Dean says, mindful of Ben's young ears. "I'm not sleeping with the d— dratted thing."
"Then sleep on the floor," Bobby says.
"As your commanding officer and captain, I could order one of you to give up your hammock," Dean says, eyeing the assembled.
To their credit, they don't laugh in his face. Benny's lips twitch and are still.
"… blast," Dean grumbles, rubbing a hand over his tired eyes. "We should have let it sink."
Five weeks to the Carolinas, and a week more for Washington. The egg at least is restful company, unlike his crew, and it becomes Dean's near-constant companion as he devotes himself to pouring over the Miracle Moll's effects. His attention is seldom needed on deck, as his orders are clear and do not change— for land, and the capital, as fast as the wind can take them— and he takes to spending long hours in his quarters, trying to piece together the wreck'strue identity.
The mystery of the Moll is compelling. No mere smuggler's ship would have a half-dozen dragon eggs just sitting in her hold. Unfortunately, whoever left her to sink was careful to take most incriminating details with them, leaving Dean searching the scraps of paper and vellum he finds in vain.
The books are entertaining, at least, some decent enough translations of classical pieces mixed in with the kind of sensational literature that would stain Adam's cheeks red for days.
"'And he put his hands upon her heaving bosom, and she did squeal,'" Dean reads, a single burning candle leaving the cabin dark and full of shadows. He's curled in a half-moon shape around the egg, facing the wall, bare belly and the tops of his thighs pressed to its now-hot shell. It's the only way he fits on the damned bed anymore, and it keeps the egg from moving as he sleeps.
"Completely daft, this," he decides, flipping through the next few pages until the two lovers 'collapsed, spent, his throbbing staff dripping with essence, glistening with her womanly juices'. There's an outside chance the Moll's crew was using it as a book cipher, or Dean would be mightily tempted to throw it overboard. He compromises by pitching it over his shoulder and reaching for the next novel in the jumbled pile next to him.
"'Sense and Sensibility: A Novel'," he reports to the egg. "'By A Lady', it says. Well, it can't be any worse than that claptrap about womanly juices and throbbing staffs, can it?"
The egg remains mute on the subject, and Dean gives it a pat before he cracks open the stiff new cover and begins to read aloud.
Unfortunately, the situation only gets more ridiculous from there.
The adventures of the Dashwood sisters enthrall, at least until a few nights later when Dean is nearing the end and hears from outside his windows, "By God, is she really going to marry Colonel Brandon? But Mr. Willoughby!"
"I am not doing this for my health, gentlemen!" Dean yells. "Someone else talk to the damn thing once and a while!"
This, of course, is exactly the wrong thing to say to a group of bored sailors with an exotic article like a dragon's egg in their midst. Dean becomes accustomed to walking into his quarters and seeing old salts and young officers both, men he's known for years as hard workers and fearsome fighters, sitting and cooing like a flock of turtledoves at the egg's blank façade.
"And then my maman died, and they turned us out in the street," he catches Benny telling it one afternoon, stroking it with his cheek resting on its domed side.
"It's an egg, man!" Dean says, stomping inside without bothering to close the door. "Impervious as a lump of rock!"
"Petit Benois said it needs words to grow," Benny says, unruffled. "À Dieu ne plaise if I leave the poor creature with just you to talk to, captain."
A the following night, they're crowded into Dean's over-warm quarters with a fifth of the Moll's whiskey all around and the table set for card-games. Dean loses spectacularly and calls into question the mothers' virtue of all men present.
"Captain," Bobby says with a reproving look, "have a care, won't you?"
Bobby nods towards the egg, swaddled three-deep in blankets and giving off palpable amounts of warmth. "Not in front of children."
Dean stares at him, completely nonplussed. "I refuse to watch my language around a goddamned reptile's egg, Bobby!"
The handful of gamers frown reproachfully.
"For God's sake," Dean groans.
It grows impossible to sleep with the egg, heat baking off it in waves that ripple through the air; Dean opens all the windows and his cabin is still like a glassblower's oven. He starts to worry for the bedclothes, for the goosedown in the comforter, and then for the hull.
"We have to put it outside," he says, and for once no one argues with him.
They break down a barrel from the Moll to half its height and line it with sheets and leftover straw, wedging it tightly in the prow of the ship. Dean's grateful for the release of his bed, but that night he sits on the bulwark and begins Der Schweizerische Robinson; his German is rusty and he honestly doesn't think the egg could care less, but it's an engaging story all the same.
When Ben drifts closer and leans nonchalantly against the rail near him, Dean switches to English, and the Robinsons explore New Switzerland until the evening constellations disappear beneath the horizon.
As they come so close to land they can taste it in the air, the egg begins to hatch— and there suddenly ceases to be anything ridiculous or amusing about it.
"It is not hatching," Dean says calmly.
"Melting, then," Benny offers, standing a good distance away.
"No. It can't."
"Far be it from me to question your eyes, O Captain," Bobby says, "but I'm thinking that crack mine see running near the length of the thing says otherwise."
"And it's glowing," Rufus says suspiciously. What looks like molten metal is just visible through the thin crack.
Dean gives the foremost mast a savage kick, which does nothing but hurt his foot and make his madder. "A week," he bites out, hands in fists at his sides. "Seven more days, and it'd be the blasted air corps's problem."
"Aye," Bobby says flatly. "But it's ours."
Dean gathers the entire crew and stands on the quarterdeck, Benny just behind him, looking down at the rows of faces with trepidation; these men have trusted him not to lead them astray, and what now?
"Gentlemen," he begins, "I would like to think you are aware, even though I do not tell you this often enough, that a finer crew cannot be found in all our nation's young navy. Many of you have outstanding careers as officers ahead of you." Dean's eyes linger on Adam, and he forces them away as he continues. "But I must ask one of you to sacrifice that future.
"I think we are all aware that if that egg behind you hatches before we reach land, it will fall to someone on this ship to take the dragon in hand. The beasts die, elsewise, and airmen are fewer and more precious in this war than sailors." Dean looks at the determined set of their shoulders, the lifted chins and steady eyes. "For your country, gentlemen, I must ask that each of you be willing to do what might be necessary. Am I understood?"
"Aye, captain," they reply in unison, fiercely, and Dean holds their gazes for a beat longer before he says, "Then you are dismissed. To your stations, gentlemen, until we have ourselves a dragon."
It's another tense day before the shell breaks open completely, and when it finally happens the hatching leaves much to be desired in the area of subtlety.
Dean hears the explosion on deck and charges out half-dressed to confront whatever enemy ship is firing on them. He runs down the companionway, searching for Benny and staring around wildly at the open ocean, waves deep violet under a pink dawn sky.
The deck is an anthill, men shouting and running from port to starboard to put out small fires where flaming pieces have landed. Dean grabs the first that comes close enough, who happens to be Adam, and he yells over the noise, "What's happening? Where's—?"
A thin wavering cry rises up over the din, and the deck falls completely silent in the space of a breath.
"Mother of God," Dean whispers, slowly releasing Adam's shirtsleeve.
Dean hears a few startled oaths, sees movements from men closer to the bow, but he can't hear or see the egg; there are a forest of bodies between Dean and the prow, and though the men are quiet the waves have no care for the moment. The sails go untended, snapping aimlessly in the morning's breezes. He rocks forward on the balls of his feet, straining to catch a glimpse of something, anything.
As quickly as that, the dragon appears.
It's… small. A great deal smaller than he thought it would be, and it seems like such a tiny thing to be burdened with so fearsome a reputation. It creeps along the deck with its belly scraping the wood, coal black, two times the size of a cat and built very much like one. Its delicate head and long neck weave back and forth as it darts wide-eyed glances up at each man it passes. It looks— cold, Dean thinks with a pang, and quietly miserable; it's shivering as it moves clumsily towards the foredeck. Its wings hang limp from its shoulders, dragging on the wood behind it, and as he watches it holds itself lower and lower, more and more obviously frightened out of its wits.
Adam is standing in front of Dean, and the dragon is only a few yards away before Dean realizes it's headed straight for the boy. Dean has the wild impulse to pull him away, hide him in the hold or the brig until the dragon's chosen someone else.
He doesn't move.
The dragon is letting out high, reedy huffs like a child's sobs as it searches the crowd, sounds growing softer and sadder as it comes to Adam's feet and cranes its neck back.
"Ah," Adam says. "Hello?"
The dragon squawks pitifully, head drooping to rest on the deck. It seems exhausted.
"Oh. Ah." Adam looks completely lost. "Does this mean it… wants me?"
Dean clears his throat, feeling his heart sinking down into his stomach. "Adam—"
The dragon shrieks, loud enough that everyone in the vicinity jumps. It flares its still-wet wings, the paper-thin skin a deep sapphire blue where the light shines through, and starts climbing Adam's leg like a tree.
"What—ah, what's it—?" Adams says, and then the creature is on his shoulder, staring directly at Dean. It yowls, demanding… something.
"Captain," Adam says shakily, a hand slowly rising to hover over the dragon's back, "what does it want?"
Dean looks at the little creature, wings held defiantly high even as they tremble with the strain, and feels something in him crumble.
"Not you," he says, and the dragon leaps across the three feet or so of space between them and Dean catches it, cradles its slippery, bony body against his chest.
Dean! I found you! it says.
"Yes, you did," Dean tells it, smiling as it rubs its narrow skull rapturously against his cheek, odd chirruping purrs trickling out of its toothy mouth.
Dean! I am not it, it insists. I am Castiel, he, man-male, stronger-bigger soon. Big like Dean!
"I'm sure you will be," Dean says. Adam's staring at them like the world is ending, but it's a breath of relief that escapes Dean now.
"Gentlemen," he says, as the dragon noses into his hair, leaning its—his chilled body into Dean's neck and head, "This… is Castiel."
Castiel flaps his wings and gives a happy, fluting trill. Hello, Dean's Crew! How nice to meet you! I am hungry now. Will we eat coconuts like the Robinsons?
"You remember that?" Dean asks, and looks up at Benny's stricken expression. He puts a hand on his shoulder, squeezing warmly.
Of course I do. I want to know more about the monkey, Dean, but I also want food. I am very hungry.
"Soon," Dean promises.
"Captain—" Benny says helplessly.
"Tell me, captain," Dean replies, and the man's face does something complicated and painful-looking. "Is there meat left in storage, by chance?"