Title: Albatross

Fandom: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Summary: How a great white bird rocked a world and saved a friendship.

Disclaimer: All characters belong to Patrick O'Brian, the writer who created them, and to Universal, 20th Century Fox, and Miramax, who brought them to life. Claiming any ownership would be very silly of me, so I won't even try.

A short piece banged off one night due to the lamentable lack of Master and Commander fic on this site. I watched that movie and my brain positively *fused* with possibilities. This is movie-verse, as I only read halfway through The Mauritus Command (book 4, I think), several years back. But perhaps I shall give O'Brian another try...

Read, review if you will, I'm a feedback parasite.

The ship is their own little world.

Aubrey knows this. He understands implicitly, deep down in his soul, that pitch and pine and planking don't hold a collection of timbers together. The Surprise is its own world, beating across the vast, empty ocean, and it takes faith to keep it all together. It takes faith and loyalty, and most of all, belief. The men must believe in their officers, the officers must keep faith in their captain, and the captain must remain true to himself. He must do his duty, follow his orders, and do everything he can to hold their little world together.

Some days, Aubrey feels his grip is much more tenuous than usual.

He never should have made that final comment. A verbal jab, careless and cruel, one that he'd tossed off without a thought. It had knocked the fight straight out of Stephen. He'd left without a word, without meeting his eyes, and Aubrey had felt something vast and uncomfortable drop between them. They had fought before, arguments about the Navy and her system of operation, the morality of press gangs, but never so bitter as this.

He knows now that he shouldn't have included that final insult. To tell Stephen that they had no time for his damn hobby...he sees the moment once more: himself, regretting the words the moment they were spoken, seeing the shock and pain in Stephen's eyes. For an instant, it had seemed that he would bellow straight back. Instead, the other man had turned and left, and pride had kept him from following.

Aubrey knows exactly how those words must have sounded to Stephen. The man's first love and truest devotion is to science and the natural world, just as his own is to his ship and the sea. To Stephen, sailing past the Galapagos would be the rough equivalent of the Surprise sailing past a small fleet of wounded Spanish galleons, without taking any prizes.

Aubrey supposes that it's his own fault, that he let his damn temper get the better of him. Curious that Stephen is the only one who can rouse that rage. Once, he thought that the Irishman simply had the most irritating ability to get under his skin, but now he's not so certain. He's coming to the realization that it must be trust— trust in Stephen, so implicit that he can be a man and not a captain, that his uncertainty and human weakness can crack the surface.

And what does Stephen get for this trust? Aubrey shakes his head, leaves his cabin and watches the marines outside snap to attention. Jack, he thinks to himself, you're the greatest fool God ever made.

He emerges on deck, blinking in the pale morning light. The deck is humming with activity; Tom Pullings is directing the hands aloft to loose the topsails, determined to make the most of the favourable wind. The young lieutenant turns and salutes. "Good morning, sir. Wind's freshening from the northeast, and I've set some of the men to repairing the damaged mizzen sail. Oh, and we've got an albatross following."

Aubrey has to smile at that, thinking that Stephen will jump at the chance to dissect something new. And it will mean a day's respite from salt beef in the wardroom. He heads aft, and sees a familiar red head vanish behind the mizzenmast. There is a flash of white, and he catches a glimpse of a long white wing, wheeling past his line of vision.

He'll call Stephen over. They'll speak quietly, and he'll apologize for speaking rashly, for trivializing what his friend holds dear. But he won't apologize for leaving the island, for taking Stephen away. They have a mission to fulfill, a duty to their country. They were sent to stop the Acheron, and Aubrey knows he'll follow the ship to the far side of the world if he must. If he didn't, he wouldn't be Captain Jack Aubrey. And a captain must be true to himself, or their world would founder.

He draws even with Stephen, who stands opposite, shielded by the mizzenmast, entranced by the great bird. He steps out just as the albatross swoops towards him, and there is the sudden *crack* of musket fire.

The scene pauses for a moment, long enough for the bird to sweep away, wings white and graceful as an angel's.

Stephen's legs fold underneath him, and he hits the deck, knocking his glasses askew. Aubrey doesn't remember moving, but he's suddenly kneeling on the deck next to his friend. Beneath his red hair, Stephen's face is horribly pale.

The other man tries to speak, but words won't come. Just an long animal sound, his fingers twitching spasmodically, and Aubrey's heart seizes. He rips Stephen's waistcoat aside, to see blood seeping though the white shirt underneath. The bullet hit him low in the abdomen, and Aubrey can't even tell if it's still lodged within.

He can sense the men crowding behind him, vaguely hears Howard saying frantically that he hadn't seen him, hadn't seen, had been aiming at the albatross...

Tom's there now, bellowing for the surgeon's mate, and Bonden, the coxswain, is herding men away. But all he can see is Stephen, watch his chest heaving as he tries to breathe.

He can feel the world crumbling around him.