The trouble with dragons was that they were just mythical enough for Laurence, sometimes, to feel a little over-confident with magic and omens, a little superior to his old sailor companions who still threw salt over their shoulders or murmured darkly at the sight of a magpie. Laurence flew on a beast of legend almost every day, petted its head and crooned to it when it had nightmares, and magic seemed much like the mundane.
He couldn’t help but think, afterward, that it was a matter of hubris, like it always was in stories. Laurence got self-satisfied and overconfident, and Tharkay – well, Tharkay had always been so knowledgeable, and it is not much of a stretch of the imagination to think of him as a little overly pleased with his own intelligence (even though Laurence was trying, these days, to judge Tharkay on his actions and words, rather than any sort of carefully cultivated attitude).
His theory always fell short when it came to Granby, though, because Granby had been around dragons all his life, and he still looked at Iskierka with wonder in his eyes.
So maybe it was none of that at all; maybe it was that they happened to take that detour when they first landed in Scotland, too glad to be back on familiar land to be wary; maybe it was because they wandered through the caves despite Temeraire’s uneasy warning that he didn’t like it and Iskierka’s pitiful cries at the mouth of the caves, where the dragons waited for them; maybe it was that they were all three of them too stubborn to let one explore alone; maybe it was that endless curiousity.
Whatever the case, when they emerged from the caves at the other end – “Like a tunnel,” Granby said, musingly – the weather had changed to a bright enough sunshine, despite a cool wind, and the surroundings were almost entirely different, and yet familiar, too. Granby especially looked puzzled, and the three of them climbed up to the top of a green hill, staring down onto the small village below.
“Why!” Granby cried, gasping in astonishment for air. “This is Newcastle-upon-Tyne! How can it be possible?”
“Your home?” Laurence enquired, puzzled, and Granby nodded quickly. “But – we are in Scotland—”
“Captain,” Tharkay said, suddenly, and Laurence turned to look at what had gotten his attention. Tharkay pointed down the hill and Laurence stared in disbelief and mounting horror – the cave that they had come out of was gone, and all below them was green fields.
“Good God,” Granby said, faintly, and Laurence stood bewildered and silent.
It had taken them a long time to decide what to do; Laurence insisted that the best thing would be to walk back down the hill and scout around for where the caves where (“They can’t just disappear!” he said heatedly), Tharkay repeated over and over that there was no point, that they could see perfectly well from here (“In case you didn’t notice, Captain,” he said, crisply, “They did,”), and Granby kept casting wistful glances down at the Newcastle-upon-Tyne when he thought the others couldn’t see.
Eventually, Laurence looked at Granby’s expression, the longing in his eyes, and said, a little grumpily, “Very well, then, let’s – let’s head down to the village and impose upon your family, Granby, if that suits you. We can send some sort of missive from there, surely. I hate to think of what Temeraire and Iskierka are doing, by now,” he added, and Granby looked acutely miserable for a moment, then took a breath.
“Well, nothing to be done,” he said. “I am sure someone will be able to lend us horses and we’ll just have to make our way from here. Come on. My mother will be glad to have you as guests for a little while, I’m sure.”
With that, he set down the hill with a firm tread, and Laurence and Tharkay exchanged a glance before falling behind him. Laurence murmured to him, “Have you ever seen something like this happen—”
“Never,” Tharkay said. “Though I have read of it.”
“Oh?” Laurence brightened, hope swelling within him. He really, really disliked to think of Temeraire, far away and anxiously awaiting his return. “How did others overcome such a… setback?”
“Well, generally they rubbed the lamp again,” Tharkay said, wryly. “I mean that I have not seen or heard or read of such things outside of fairytales. This is a different kind of curiousity to the ones I am used to.”
“Indeed,” Laurence said, heart sinking. “Well, then, we shall just have to continue on. I am sure Granby’s—”
At that, though, Granby stopped short, making Tharkay and Laurence both collide into his back. Laurence blinked, confused; Granby was white as a ghost, staring down the hill to where a small, rowdy gang of boys were playing what looked like an enthusiastic game of King Arthur’s Knights, waving sticks at each other and shouting.
“What is it?” Laurence asked quickly, and put a hand on Granby’s shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
“I—” Granby said, and then stopped short, shook his head. After a moment he drew his breath and pointed at where a scrawny, familiar looking boy with a mop of brown hair falling into his eyes and – Laurence noticed with a sudden, strange feeling – a nose peeling with sunburn had separated from the group a little and was flapping his arms like wings, roaring.
“That’s me,” Granby told them. His voice was shaking. “That’s me, and my brothers, and my friends. Laurence, Tharkay, I – this isn’t just another place. This is another time.”
Having decided that a suddenly adult version of her son, a Captain of the Dragon Corps and a half-Tibetan guide would probably not be the best company to present at Granby’s mother’s doorstep, the three of them retreated down the bottom of the hill and found, after some walking, a ruin of a stone cottage that they sat under, backs pressed to the wall.
“I remember this place,” Granby said, once he had guided them there. “I think I used to keep – aha.” He lifted up a stone and retrieved some – relatively fresh – green apples, handing them round. “There. I can’t speak for you fellows, but I’m famished.”
Laurence found that he was the same, and bit into the apple quickly, eating it all in what felt like three bites. “Well,” he said, finally. “This is a mess and no mistake. Whatever are we to do now?”
“I confess myself at a loss,” Tharkay said, almost drawling, but there was panic in his eyes enough to keep Laurence from calling him out. “We can hardly arrive at the Dragon Corps Headquarters in London and announce ourselves as some of their best servants fifteen years hence—”
“—and there is no one here we know who can give us shelter,” Granby finished. “I don’t have any coin on me. Do you?”
Laurence and Tharkay turned out their pockets, with the result of two pounds and sixpence – not nearly enough to get them looked after in this suddenly unfamiliar version of home. Tharkay stood and said, a little cautiously, “We need to eat tonight. Possibly some version of – borrowing might be necessary.”
Laurence bristled, ready to say that they would no more steal from another Englishman than they would their own mother, but Granby interrupted with, “Yes, and I know a farm not far from here that I can take you to.” Laurence gaped at them both, and Granby shot him a remarkably fond grin. “Never mind, Laurence, they’ll still be alive back in our time. We’ll be sure to repay them, and with interest for all their years of waiting.”
“Very well,” Laurence said, seeing both the necessity of the argument and the fact that he had no chance of winning it. “Shall we go, then? It may be getting dark, soon.”
Tharkay made a face. “Two is already a little conspicuous,” he said, “Best if you wait here,” and when Laurence gaped, Granby just waved cheerfully and the two turned and walked away.
“Traitors,” Laurence muttered, and suddenly felt acutely lonesome for Temeraire, though he had not been gone from him even a full day. He picked up a hunk of wood from amongst the piles of rotting hay and withdrew his penknife out of his pocket. He might as well keep himself occupied.
It was not very long before Laurence heard approaching footsteps again, and he looked up hopefully; but it was not two sets, after all, just one, and a great deal lighter and faster than he was used to. He tensed, even though he had no reason to expect himself under attack here, and rose to his feet, but it was not any kind of enemy at all who appeared in the doorway of the half-ruined cottage: it was a little boy.
Not just any little boy, either, and now that Laurence looked closely he was surprised that he hadn’t noticed Granby’s younger self at the same time as his Lieutenant (fellow Captain now, Laurence thought, a little reluctantly; he tried not to be possessive around Temeraire, as that would be an unaccountably bad influence, but it was harder to control his thoughts). The younger Granby had the same wide, blue eyes as the man Laurence knew, the same nose (of course) and slightly startled expression.
“Who’re you?” the child-Granby demanded. “What’re you doing here?”
“I’m sorry,” Laurence said. “I’m just sheltering here for a moment. I’m waiting for friends. I hope I’m not intruding.”
“No,” Granby said, a little reluctantly. “I have to get home for dinner soon, anyway.” He eyed Laurence and observed darkly, “It’s rude not to introduce y’self.”
“I’m Captain William Laurence,” Laurence answered, trying not to smile; here was the Granby he had fought with so coldly the first few months of the Dragon Corps. “What’s your name?”
“Johnnie,” Granby said, tilting his chin up. He looked suddenly a little awed. “Are you a Captain, then?” His gaze lingered on Laurence’s coat. “I say – are you from the Dragon Corps?”
“Yes,” Laurence said. “On Temeraire.”
“Haven’t heard of him,” Granby said, dismissively. “I s’pose he’s one of the couriers? Don’t know why you’re a captain if he’s a courier. I know all the fighters,” he added, proudly.
“Temeraire is new,” Laurence improvised. He looked at Granby. “Are you interested in the Dragon Corps, then?”
“Well,” Granby said, uncomfortably. “Sort of. Ma says it’s good to be interested in what you’re going to do and I’m – I’m going there next month. To train as one. So I thought I’d better go and learn something about them.”
“Certainly,” Laurence said gravely. “You’ve done an admirable job, too. I’m sure you’ll fit in very well.”
Granby stepped closer to him, and one of the last rays of the sun fell through a hole in the roof, staining him in sunlight. He looked strangely angelic for a muddy boy, Laurence thought, and some of the man that he was to become shone through. Most of Laurence’s attention, however, had no time for such strange observations, occupied with the things he hadn’t noticed about Granby straight away: the defined cheekbones in his thin face, the way his shirt fell against his skin raggedly, his trousers too short, his feet bare, and how even through the material Laurence could see Granby’s ribs, could almost count them. He sucked in a breath despite himself, heart suddenly aching.
“I hope so,” Granby said. He paused and then asked, in a defiant rush, “Were you – were you nervous before you joined?”
Laurence looked at him. “Yes,” he said. “Very much so.”
“Oh,” Granby said, and tilted his chin up. “All right, then. I’m not really. Just. I might miss home, a little, and Tommy and – but not James, he’s a prat. Well,” he amended, “Maybe just a little bit. But only because he’s my brother, not because I like him.”
“That sounds fair,” Laurence agreed.
“Anyhow,” Granby mused, “I should awfully like to fly.” His gaze focused on the wooden object Laurence was holding in his hands, finished a little while before Granby had come in and then forgotten, and his face lit up. “Oh,” he breathed, “is that your dragon?”
Laurence looked down at the little wooden carving, and smiled. “Not mine,” he said. “Temeraire has a ruff that’s beyond my meagre skills. It’s another dragon I know.” He was rather proud of Iskierka’s likeness: she wasn’t very recognisable unless one knew what one was looking for, but the pose, half-prowling and half-pleased was quite cleverly done, if he said so himself.
He looked at Granby’s huge eyes and his threadbare clothing, and thought of coming to the Dragon Corps himself, with all his belongings and treasures and things to remind him of home and friends and family, links to an old life, reminders that he had had a different life. He swallowed, and then dug out his penknife again, carefully shaping a hole at the high-rising part of Iskierka’s head.
“Do you have a chain?” he asked, and Granby shook his head, looking confused.
“No,” he said. “I – maybe at home, Tom might have one that I could use.”
“Well, before then you can use this,” Laurence told him, and dug in his pockets for a moment, finally procuring a length of string. He threaded the dragon onto it and held it out. “There,” he said. “Until you have a dragon of your own.”
“Oh,” Granby said again. He bent his head and pulled it over almost reverently, and then eyed Laurence warily for a moment. “Thank you,” he said decisively, and then, with a sprawling mess of limbs, threw himself at Laurence, hugging him tight around the middle. Laurence stilled, and then hugged the boy back as best he could, smoothing his hands carefully over Granby’s back. God, but he could feel every bone, and the boy weighed nothing.
“I’m not scared anymore,” Granby informed him, when he pulled away. He sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve – Laurence tried not to grimace. “Although,” he said, “I really should get back for dinner. Goodbye! Maybe I’ll see you with the Corps!”
“Goodbye,” Laurence said, and then Granby was gone, just like that, pelting out of sight.
He had been meaning to ask something about how their expedition had gone, how well they had fared, whether they had been caught. Instead, though, the moment Granby and Tharkay came back inside, their silhouettes framed by the night sky, Laurence looked up and blurted out, “You were so thin.”
“What?” Granby asked, startled, and Laurence flushed hotly, looking away. Tharkay looked puzzled.
“I – you were here,” he said. “A moment ago. Your younger self. We – we talked for a moment,” and Granby blanched. Laurence knew that this was rude, that he was pressing and being cruel, but he couldn’t help it, couldn’t restrain himself. “John, you were – you were scared and thin and – how much did you even get to eat?”
Granby turned a blotchy kind of pink, and scowled. “Not all of us can be of noble blood, Captain,” he said crisply, and then shoved a loaf of bread at Laurence. “There. Now, if nobody minds, I’m going to try and sleep.”
He stalked over to a corner between two crumbling walls and threw himself down on his coat, tossing uncomfortably before falling still, his back to them. Tharkay sighed heavily and sat down next to Laurence. “That was poorly handled,” he said, quietly.
“I know,” Laurence said miserably. “I couldn’t – you didn’t see him.”
“I did,” Tharkay said. “Back at the – I did. It was awful. I don’t know if I could have talked to, to the younger one, and not said anything.”
Laurence raised his head, surprised, for here was understanding and sympathy, sure enough, and Tharkay’s eyes seemed brighter than usual in the dim light. For a moment, they said nothing, and Laurence felt strangely comfortable just looking at him, his profile fine and strangely handsome in the growing dark. Then, Tharkay stood up and murmured, “Come on.”
Laurence followed him with a certain sense of awareness, as though nothing could be unusual or wrong on this night, and Tharkay slipped easily between Granby and the wall, elbowing him until he made room for Tharkay to lie down beside him. After a bare second’s hesitation, Laurence lay down at Granby’s back, and it felt strangely natural and deliberate, safe, out of place, out of time. Laurence felt adrift, but not unpleasantly so, and he was not alone.
“Go away,” Granby mumbled, and Laurence felt a stab of guilt.
“When I was seven,” Tharkay said, taking no heed of him, “My best friend’s mother told him I was a devil, and that he wasn’t allowed to play with me anymore. He and our other friends chased me down the street and threw stones.”
Granby lay very still. Laurence put his hand on Granby’s side, felt his breath rise and fall and knew that he could probably count his ribs, but only if he pressed hard enough. “When I was seven,” he said, “I once went for a fortnight with nobody but the maid speaking to me. My governess had left and my parents forgot that I was there. One night I had nightmares and woke up screaming, and the footman shut the door so that I would not disturb my parents.”
There was silence for a while, and then Granby mumbled, “I can’t remember the conversation.”
“I imagine,” Laurence said, gently, “That it was a very busy time for you. It is natural that you should forget one small encounter.”
“I wish I hadn’t,” Granby said, and then Laurence twitched his fingers a little, just enough to realise that Tharkay had his hand resting light on Granby’s side, too, when their fingers brushed.
Nobody said anything else, and Laurence was surprised at how easy it was to fall asleep, Granby tucked up warm against his front, Tharkay’s hand resting alongside his.
He woke to the blue light of dawn and Temeraire’s anguished roar, the divine wind ripping through worlds, through times, and it was all that Laurence could do to reach out and blindly hold on to Tharkay and Granby, clutching tight to their arms, as the wind around them picked up and he found himself ripped away from the ground, dizzy and soaring through black.
When he could see again, it was to Temeraire knocking him off his feet and gathering him close, growling low and satisfied and nudging at Laurence, saying, “Are you alright? Laurence, are you—”
“Quite fine, my dear,” Laurence said, and reached out to touch Temeraire’s nose. “A little shaken, but – are the others safe?”
Temeraire lowered him grudgingly to the ground, and Laurence looked as a windswept Tharkay sank heavily down on legs that looked suspiciously shaky, while Granby kneeled and talked in a low, reassuring voice to Iskierka, half-smiling. As he watched, Granby leaned forward a little and something fell out from underneath his shirt; when Laurence narrowed his eyes and squinted, he realised that it was a chain, a wooden figure swinging on it, and Laurence laughed out loud, suddenly jubilant.