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“Well, I don’t see why I should have to deal with it. It’s hardly my fault if I go looking for him and just happen to burn down a roof by accident, is it? He shouldn’t have left me alone to worry.”

Iskierka’s voice and the irritated hissing of her steam-jets cut through Laurence’s sleep, restless as it was. He’d forgone his bed in favour of sleeping outside with Temeraire and the stars last night, enjoying a bit of comfort, and the company had been blessedly Iskierka-free when he drifted off. Perhaps if he ignored her she would go away, and no one would know of his uncharitable thoughts if he pretended to remain asleep.

Laurence should probably have been more concerned about the possibility of Iskierka burning down houses, but fortunately she talked much and acted little as she knew Granby would get cross with her. Woe betide the world if ever that failed as proper deterrent.

Temeraire, of course, was not so sanguine. “Except he hasn’t done anything of the sort! He told you where he would be and what time you could expect him back, and it’s not right of you to be so selfish as to go chasing after him halfway. Perhaps if you would give him a bit of space, he wouldn’t be needing to go off and spend time away from you. You don’t see Laurence disappearing for days, that’s because I respect his personal space.”

As this rousing speech was delivered from Laurence’s side, in a dragon’s whisper that shook Laurence to his very bones, Laurence had to turn his head into his arm to hide his smile. Temeraire meant well, but he meddled more in Laurence’s affairs, from matters of politics to relationships to fashion, than any wife could ever have done.

“Oh, bother about Laurence! He’s just as boring and stuffy as you are; that hardly signifies.” Iskierka huffed and ejected a burst of steam to punctuate that most cutting of remarks. “He’d never let me go prize-taking, which is why I have so much more capital than you. In human society, that would make me your superior, which means that you should really be taking orders from me. It’s only because you’re bigger and a trifling bit older and there aren’t many of your breed that you think you can get away with it. I should lead a revolution. Others would support me , I should think, if I told them that if they only sank a few ships and acquired capital that they could become important, instead of always remaining second fiddle to some big oaf.”

“Laurence and I don't go prize-taking for personal gain because – because it’s not honourable,” Temeraire retorted, but he didn’t exactly sound enthused about the concept. Laurence could imagine him turning recent events over in his head, wondering whether being exiled from England made treason penny and piracy the pound, as it were. “And I’m not an oaf! I always treat you with the exact amount of courtesy you deserve.”

He obviously felt very proud of this remark, more so because Iskierka could not hope to feel the point of it. Worried that the argument would escalate in volume and violence until half the lower town were awakened, Laurence sighed and stirred to let them know he no longer slept.

“Now look what you’ve done, you’ve woken Laurence,” Temeraire hissed, curling himself protectively – and constrictively -- around Laurence’s waist.

“Perfectly all right, my dear,” Laurence said, stroking Temeraire’s claw in what he hoped was a placating manner. “I was wishing to wake and enjoy the stars anyhow,” he added, asking silent forgiveness for the untruth.

“Oh, well, that’s all right then,” Temeraire said, his ruff returning to its normal position. “Still, though, you shouldn’t be so inconsiderate,” he said to Iskierka, his nose in the air, the perfect picture of condescension. Laurence stifled a cough.

“What’s this about Granby?” Laurence asked, hoping to defuse the situation. Generally, as long as someone gave Iskierka the time of day about her current annoyance, she said her piece and promptly forgot about it.

Temeraire huffed, clearly displeased Laurence had chosen to encourage this line of discussion. Iskierka gave a small wiggle of importance and tossed her head. “Granby has disappeared to sleep over at some person’s house for the third time this week, and he was very clear that I’m not meant to come along, which I think shows a critical error in judgement. I think perhaps he has picked up a parasite in a fruit somewhere that is feasting upon his brain.”

“There is no such thing!” Temeraire shrieked, his love of science wounded to the core.

“Now, now, dearest,” Laurence assured him, but frowned. This was the first he’d heard of Granby visiting anyone overnight, let alone thrice in one week; it meant that Granby, for whatever reason, had intentionally withheld this information from Laurence on purpose. He could not think of any prior occasions where this had occurred.

Curiosity mingled with concern in Laurence’s breast, and he wanted to ask Iskierka if she knew whom, or at the very least what manner of person Granby had struck up acquaintance with, but he could not bring himself to pry into another man’s affairs in such a brazen fashion. The fact that the thought had even occurred to him made Laurence realise just how much living in the dragon corps had affected his thinking. Likely Berkley would have done so without much thought to propriety.

Fortunately for the spirit of inquiry -- though somewhat murkily for Laurence's sense of honour -- Iskierka barrelled onward. "And don't bother asking me what this is all about, because he refuses to tell me. He just rattled on some nonsense about how he shares all and sundry with me, but a man needs a little bit of privacy in his life now and then, whatever that means. I hope he's not looking for a new dragon, because I shan't sit still."

For all her bluster, Laurence knew that the thought must be paining Iskierka greatly, as she, like any dragon, loved her captain and would feel any betrayal keenly. Laurence was not privy to Granby's thoughts or actions, but this, at least, he felt qualified to answer. "I can assure you, he is not looking for another dragon. For where else would he find one with such magnificent abilities as yours?"

He had hoped Temeraire would accept the flattery of another beast in the spirit with which it was delivered, namely in order to soothe Iskierka before she set the town alight. Unfortunately, Temeraire could often be as jealous as any mistress, and made a grunt of displeasure which he no doubt thought incredibly subtle. Laurence placed a hand upon his muzzle and silently urged him to keep his peace.

His luck did not hold today. Temeraire drew himself up and put back his ruff. "I don't see what's so magnificent about it, and anyhow, it only seems so because it's rare in England, where it is common as dirt in many other places."

"Temeraire," said Laurence quietly, but a low growling sound, akin to distant thunder, started up in Temeraire's chest. Complimenting another dragon had its risks, and Laurence began to worry he had misstepped in attempting to save Granby from Iskierka's meddling. He winced. This is what came of handling delicate matters while only half awake.

Well, nothing for it now. Laurence fixed Iskierka with a pointed frown. "Iskierka, if Granby wishes you to stay here and behave yourself in his absence, then that is what you must do. He is placing a tremendous amount of trust in you by leaving you on your own; if you show him that you cannot handle the responsibility, then you only harm yourself."

Iskierka curled her tail tightly around herself in displeasure. "Yes, but if he thinks that I can't be left alone, then he would have to stay with me, would he not, and not go gallivanting about with people who are sure to be far less interesting than I."

"If you think keeping Granby all to yourself by acting like you're still an egg is the way to do it, then you don't deserve him," Temeraire said sharply, and though Laurence should at least reprove the tone, he could not find the strength to judge the sentiment.

Laurence sighed. Temeraire's prickly mood limited his options somewhat. "Iskierka, at the end of the day, if you choose not to listen to Granby then you are choosing to disappoint him, and he will be displeased with you. If you would rather him at your side and angry with you, then that is, of course, your decision, but that is doing him a disservice."

Iskierka coiled up tighter, and a lone steam jet hissed sullenly. "But he will not like this other person better, surely, and spend all his time with them?"

"Surely not." Laurence closed his eyes for a moment and offered up a silent prayer of apology to Granby for what he was about to say. "Did you not think that perhaps he is attempting to buy you some sort of present, and that is why he did not wish you to follow?"

"Oh!" Iskierka perked up, and Laurence made a note to inform Granby as soon as possible. At least he had the capital to afford a proper gift, and hopefully would not mind Laurence's interference. "Oh, but do you not think I should go, in order to check that whatever he's buying is to my liking?"

"I shouldn't think so," Laurence said hastily. "For that would ruin the surprise, you see, and Granby would be unhappy."

"I could pretend to be surprised," said Iskierka, looking shifty, and Laurence could not imagine what sort of horror he had unleashed.

"If he finds out you knew, he's likely to take it right back again, because dragons who do not respect their captains do not deserve presents!" Temeraire snapped, and Iskierka wilted. "Honestly!"

"I wouldn't go so far as that," Laurence said, attempting diplomacy, "but he would not like it, I should think. If you sleep now, then it will be morning when you wake, and his return all the sooner for it. If you show him how well you've behaved during his absence, only think how pleased he will be."

He crossed his fingers and held his breath, and eventually Iskierka settled, though she did not quite look satisfied. "All right, but I will inform him that I am displeased, and then he will be sorry and shan't go out again," Iskierka said, looking smug at having discovered the proper run of things.

They could not hope for much more than that, and so Laurence allowed it to settle. Iskierka dropped off to sleep almost immediately, her snores rattling the windowpanes of Laurence's home. Temeraire, who had clearly been looking forward to a night of sleeping dry, grumbled to himself and peeled back his lips at the condensation appearing on his scales. Laurence removed his jacket and wiped at the droplets as best he could.

"I'm sorry if I displeased you," Laurence said in a low voice. "I only wanted to keep her from flying off and likely getting Granby in trouble. I did not mean to imply that her abilities are in any way comparable."

"Oh, I don't give twopence for what you think of Iskierka's abilities," Temeraire said, lashing his tail and demonstrating his singular ability to lie without scruple. "Only, she's not so very special is she?"

"She does not hold a candle to you, my dear," Laurence said with feeling, "though she could light one far easier."

Temeraire actually snickered, but he did not relax, instead remaining awake with his muscles tensed. Laurence stroked his side. "Is something the matter?" he asked.

Temeraire ducked his head. "Oh, it's only, I know where Granby is, but I've been asked not to tell, and it's absolutely wretched keeping secrets, only I know how much you prize honour and confidence, so I shan't tell anyone, but I don't like it at all."

Laurence did not point out that not mentioning the existence of a secret went in keeping with not divulging one. Temeraire could lie for his own sake well enough, and likely if no one had mentioned to him that he should not reveal Granby's whereabouts, he would not have thought anything of it. "Did Granby ask you not to tell?" Laurence asked. Such an instruction encroached far more strongly over the unwritten rule of interfering with another man's dragon than his own suggestion of presents to Iskierka did. He did not think Granby would have done so without a reason, but that only made this all the more puzzling.

"He did, but he specifically asked me not to tell you," Temeraire said, and his entire body drooped. "I do not know why, Laurence, for of course I did not ask, but have I done wrongly? I do not want to deceive you, but Granby was my crew, once, and I should not wish to upset him."

Without knowing the actual details of the secret, Laurence could not rightly say, but he disliked seeing Temeraire in such distress, and so opted for the calming answer. "Granby must have his reasons," he said. "I only wonder why he told you at all."

"Ah. Well." Here Temeraire gave a cough, which Laurence recognised as the one that made its appearances after unattended cows went missing, or deliberate orders followed with a more lackadaisical approach than their issuers would have preferred. "I may have been eavesdropping. I didn't mean to! Only, I was napping, and I overheard him speaking to a gentleman I'd never seen before, and I didn't meant to listen, but I couldn't exactly turn off my ears, could I, and --"

"I see." Laurence patted him on the foreleg reassuringly. "It's only too understandable, so I wouldn't worry."

"I'm glad you think so," Temeraire said, and his entire body relaxed. He allowed Laurence to draw him down for an affectionate stroke across his muzzle. "Anyhow, it's not as though he's meeting with any great military leaders or anything worrisome, and there are definitely no dragons involved, so I don't see why Iskierka put up such a fuss."

"Perhaps she's only tired," Laurence said, and stretched out with his head on his arm once more. The chill night air did not do much to dispel the clamminess from Iskierka's jets, but he had gone through worse. "I think we would do well to follow her example," he urged, when Temeraire remained staring out at the stars.

Temeraire gave a small start, but curled back down around Laurence. "You can go wherever you like, and I should not kick up such a tantrum," Temeraire said, with utter conviction and a complete lack of truth.

Laurence only smiled. "Thank you, my dear," he said, and closed his eyes.

******

The next morning, Laurence went into the town to fetch up a late breakfast, having spent a few hours reading with Temeraire. He found Granby at one of the taverns, eating a meal of greasy eggs and a scant strip of bacon. "Good morning," Laurence said, wondering if he should mention Iskierka's mood and what he had done to secure peace.

"Is it?" Granby grunted. As an aviator he was accustomed to mornings, but that did not mean he had to like them, as he often said. He seemed rumpled, as though he wore the same clothing as yesterday and had not had time to bathe, but normal people's deportment regularly looked so to Laurence, who had only just begun to take a more temperate approach to his own personal grooming.

Laurence hovered at the chair across from Granby for a moment before realising that the man had no intention of looking up from his plate long enough to offer Laurence a seat. He sat, then, without invitation, and felt himself accomplished for doing so without much hesitation. "I'm afraid I have a rather unfortunate confession to make."

Granby snorted and took a long pull of his coffee. "Do you just. Don't tell me, you accidentally split an infinitive, and now you can't sleep at night."

Well, someone had missed stays this morning, but Laurence did not lower himself so much as to comment upon it. Granby was not so different from his dragon, in that when he found himself in a temper, he thrived on the reactions of others. "No, but Iskierka was set to burn the place down last night looking for you, and had worked herself up into rather an unpleasant mood since you would not tell her where you'd gone."

Granby stiffened. Laurence did not miss the motion, but he pretended he had. "I told her," Laurence continued, "that perhaps you had gone to consult with someone about a gift for her, and she settled. I'm sorry, John, I should not have done, but I could not think how else to calm her."

Some of the tension left the line of Granby's shoulders, but only just. "Oh damn it all, I should've known something like that would happen. Well, it will be easy enough to pop down to the docks and find something for her, and I dare say she deserves it, having managed to avoid setting anything alight for at least a week."

Granby ran a hand through his hair, distracted, and silence fell as Laurence wrestled with what else, if anything, he should say. Any questions Laurence might ask could not be considered in any other way than his own selfish curiosity, no matter how he might attempt to couch them in concern. At last Granby looked up, smudges of exhaustion darkening the hollows above his cheekbones. "For God's sake, Laurence, just go ahead and ask."

Laurence took a moment to come up with an appropriate response. "I would not force you to reveal any piece of information which you would not willingly offer up on your own," he said carefully. "As your friend, I am concerned that you seem unwell, but that is all. I would not demand your confidence."

"Of course you wouldn't." Granby gave a hollow laugh, and though he did not smell of alcohol, Laurence did wonder if perhaps he had partaken last night. "You never demand anything, that's the whole damn problem."

That last was said with twice the force of the rest of the conversation, and punctuated by Granby slamming his hands down on the table and jerking to his feet. Laurence remained in his seat, bewildered, while Granby yanked his coat from the back of a chair and made his way to the exit.

At last Laurence came back to himself, and hurried after him. "John, I'm sorry, but I'm completely at a loss. If I have done anything --"

"No, that's what I meant. You never do anything." Granby's expression was savage, with a hint of madness in it. Laurence was glad for his extensive experience with dragons, for otherwise he might have taken a step back at the violence on the other's face. "You never ask anything, say anything, see anything. Well, I'm sorry, Laurence, but this time you'll just have to ask outright, damn politeness, or let it go."

Laurence spread his hands. He cast his mind back to their interactions over the previous days and weeks, but other than noticing a slight edge to Granby's conversations -- easily explained by the frustration of finding themselves in New South Wales while war raged elsewhere -- he could not possibly imagine what might be the matter. He could not, however, demand that Granby enlighten him.

As Laurence stood still, attempting to phrase his deferral in the least inflammatory sense possible, Granby rolled his eyes, and some of the fire left his stance. "I see I've asked you to do something unbefitting of a gentleman," he said, the words only slightly mocking, "and perhaps that's unfair of me. Look, I'm not in the right frame of mind to see anyone, I shouldn't think, so I'm off to the merchants to see if I can find something suitably palliative for that girl of mine."

Laurence could only nod and watch him go, feeling as though he'd been witness to a conversation in a language he did not speak, but to which he was nevertheless expected to follow and respond.

"He's right you know," said Tharkay from behind him, and Laurence did not jump, but it was a near thing. "You are a little bit blind."

"Oh, am I?" Laurence asked, nettled. Though quite fond of Tharkay, Laurence could not seem to keep his temper quite as in check with him as he could with Granby. Possibly because Granby would bluster and rail but always speak his mind, whereas Tharkay might speak poison with a smile, disguising it in pretty words until one did not realise until later what had truly been said.

"It's not a failing exactly, and in some ways makes you a very honourable man," Tharkay said, rounding the corner of the tavern as he always did, that is, seemingly from nowhere. "On the other hand, it can make certain interactions rather frustrating."

"Are you in his confidence, then, or do you make these declarations based on your tremendous powers of observation?" Laurence could not tell if his question was genuine or sarcastic; he blamed the hour and the morning's encounter.

Tharkay curled his mouth into a smirk. "I'm not sure that remark is worthy of you, Captain Laurence," he said. "But since you asked, it's a small combination of both."

For the first time, Laurence felt a stab of something in his chest that he could not identify. He did not realise that Granby had unburdened himself of his problem to Tharkay, and though that did not bother him -- Tharkay, too, was an honourable man, and carried his fair share of Laurence's confessions -- he nevertheless felt dissatisfied.

"You should ask him," Tharkay said, giving Laurence a keen sideways look. "He shouldn't keep on what he's doing, and I can only provide sympathy, as far as I am able. It's not in my power to alleviate his frustrations."

Laurence allowed himself an irritated huff of breath, something which he only permitted in Tharkay's presence. "I would be only too happy to help a friend," he said hotly. "But as I am not privy to the delicacies of the matter, I fear I shall make some misstep and turn the entire situation to the worse."

"That is entirely possible," Tharkay admitted, and though Laurence prized him for his honesty, and the ability to bypass social niceties and get to the heart of a matter that would otherwise take Laurence much puzzling out on his own, that did not mean Laurence did not find it infuriating. Seeing Laurence's annoyance despite his best efforts to suppress it, Tharkay smiled. "It's not as bad as all that, truly. Granby and I merely share similar means of discontent, and have occasionally referenced the matter. He is not choosing to confide in me while shunning you."

"I am not so self-centred, I assure you," Laurence said, but relaxed all the same. "However, I'm not certain I should press the matter any further this morning. Would you care to join me for breakfast?" He glanced up at the sun, making its steady track across the sky. "Well, luncheon, I suppose."

"Gladly." Tharkay dipped his head and swept out one arm in a bow, indicating the door of the tavern. "You can tell me all about whatever scheme Temeraire has got into his head now. Last I heard he wanted to set you up as a cowherd in the plains somewhere."

"Indeed," Laurence said, some of his good humour restored. "Only wait until I tell you his plans for the house, which he drew up for me the other day."

******

That evening, after Laurence had unsuccessfully spent the day rehearsing for the conversation, he decided he had best get it over with and leap into the ocean fully clothed, rather than inch his way in. He stopped by Granby's rooms at the inn and was about to knock on the door when he heard piqued voices from within. Suddenly finding himself in a similar position to Temeraire during his nap, Laurence froze, uncertain whether he should make his presence known or leave. Eventually, he rapped on the frame, and the conversation immediately halted.

"It is I," Laurence called, when no one immediately came to open the door. "If this is an inconvenient time, I would happily return later."

A low-voiced flurry of an argument, then footsteps, and the door flew open, such that Laurence took a step back. He could not identify Granby's companion, though perhaps he had seen the man about town on occasion; a tall, handsome gentleman with a lean face and sun-bleached hair. He stood in the doorway and looked Laurence up and down. "I suppose you're he," the man said, and his tone did not indicate that this was something of which Laurence should be proud.

"I cannot say with certainty," Laurence said diplomatically. "I am William Laurence, if that is the person to whom you are referring."

The other snorted. "It figures," he said, and tossed an angry look over his shoulder at Granby. "I'll leave you two at it then, shall I?" he asked, and before Laurence could reply, brushed past him and down the corridor.

"Well, you may as well come in now," Granby said, when Laurence paused. He ran a hand down his face, pulling at the skin until it stretched. "My God, what a mess this is."

Laurence could not explain what just happened if someone put a pistol to his temple and threatened to fire, but that did not mean he would not attempt an apology. "I feel as though I must answer for whatever I have done to this gentleman," he began, and Granby laughed, the sound a very parody of good humour.

"You've done nothing, except perhaps exist," Granby said, and shook his head. "Have a seat before you rust," he said, waving a hand toward one of the chairs. "No, I have wronged him, not you, though I suppose you could say you had an indirect hand in it."

Laurence sat, feeling exhausted already. "Tharkay said as much, or at least, I think he did, being his usual cryptic self."

"Did he?" Granby barked out another laugh, and this one did not sound any happier. "Well, I suppose he's had enough too, though I dare say he's bearing up better than I. He's used to waiting, I should think." He sighed and tugged at his hair. "That fellow there, his name is Matthews. I've been spending the night at his a few times this week, and a rough time I've had of it, with Iskierka sitting in a brown study the entire time, but there you are."

Laurence blinked. He got the distinct impression he was supposed to take something away from that sentence, for Granby sat in silence, watching him, his posture tense and waiting. "I fail to see the problem inherent in this, other than that Iskierka tends to be somewhat overprotective," he said.

Granby's eyebrows attempted to hide in his hairline. "Christ a-mighty, Laurence, are you really going to make me say it, on top of everything else? I've been spending the night there."

"Yes, you said that," Laurence said, puzzled. "I still don't --"

"The night," Granby said again, firmly, keeping his gaze fixed on Laurence. "Don't make me spell it out, or I'll not be able to look you in the eye again, I swear to God."

At last, the penny dropped. Laurence felt as though he'd been dunked in a vat of boiling water, and all his blood rushed to his face. "Ah," he said at last, and scrounged for anything more intelligent, but could only manage a rather wilting, "I see."

"Bugger," Granby muttered, passing a hand over his eyes. "Well, it's out now, at any rate."

"I'm not --" Laurence swallowed. "John, I'm not going to run out and have you hanged, I just -- I'm at a loss at what I could possibly say to such a revelation."

"Of course you are." Granby sounded tired, unbelievably so, and he dropped into his seat, leaning back with the crook of one arm across his eyes.

"No, I did not mean -- this is your personal business, that's all." If this conversation were the ocean, Laurence was most definitely drowning. He flailed about for some driftwood to cling to. "You're under no obligation to share any information with me that you do not absolutely wish to divulge."

"Laurence, please understand that I say this with utmost respect, coming from years of friendship," Granby said wearily, and followed it with: "Stop talking."

Laurence did so gladly, relieved to have an excuse not to have to contribute further to the conversation until he had some time to process everything. He sat there, hands in his lap, biting back an apology that he knew would not be welcomed.

"Perhaps I should go," Laurence said after the silence stretched into unbearableness.

"Perhaps you ought," Granby agreed, in the same tone as before. He did not look up, and something in Laurence's chest tightened, like a violoncello tuned far too taut for the safety of its strings.

Laurence turned, but paused at the doorway and glanced back. Granby had not moved. "John --" Laurence said, the word bursting from him like a thing unbidden. "Are -- are you happy?"

Granby made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a snort. "Let's pretend I said yes, that you were not unnerved by the answer, and we both went merrily on our way, so you can get that damn look off your face that I don't even need to see to know is there." He moved his arm and finally glanced at Laurence. His expression appeared blank, not giving any clues to what his mind might be thinking. "I'm sorry to spring this on you, I am. I'd appreciate if you would never speak of this again, that way I won't have to find somewhere even more godforsaken than Australia to maroon myself, or possibly throw myself off a cliff."

"Of course," Laurence said automatically, but he could not leave, not yet. He drew in a breath and released it slowly. "Only one thing, I promise you and I will say no more. Do you love him?"

"For Christ's sake!" Granby exploded, sitting straight up. "What do you take me for? Of course not, you goddamn fool."

Well, that was not the response Laurence had expected -- or dreaded, it was difficult to separate out his emotions on the matter at present -- and as such could not devise anything else to say. He bowed, slipped out the door, and closed it behind him.

******

Tharkay does not give himself over to introspection. He's well-acquainted with the darkness in his soul, thank you; of the distrust that chips away at every interaction he has with others, of the instinct therefore to sabotage relationships on his own terms before the other can have the chance to wound him.

Tharkay prefers to observe. He sees, therefore, that William Laurence has managed to compartmentalize his life so thoroughly into what can and cannot be done -- not only by means of possibility or even his own limitations, but that most distasteful external locus, duty -- that he has managed to block perception of outlying factors completely. A woman might endeavour to remove every article of clothing on her person, only for Laurence to wonder at the strength of the breeze, and offer her his jacket.

Tharkay also sees that a man might lose his mind before any manner of hint may be communicated to Laurence, and that if something is not worth the risk of saying outright, at times it is better to swallow the urge to try at all.

He observes Laurence perhaps more than a man should be allowed for pure, empiric disinterest, but of course, no one observes Tharkay and his motives are never questioned.

He does not begin by watching John Granby; the practice springs up one afternoon after an entirely chance encounter. They're sitting around a fire, in the wilds of some country or other -- Tharkay has since lost track -- and he happens to notice Granby's gaze lingering on Laurence. As Laurence has not been engaging in anything particularly worth noting, Tharkay continues to watch and finds that Granby's eyes often follow lines of motion caused by Laurence's own actions. Laurence absently dragging a finger back and forth across his lower lip while puzzling over a pile of campaign maps nearly causes a second campfire, powered by the force of Granby's intent alone.

Once, during one such occasion, a sudden shift from Laurence causes Granby to break his gaze, and by chance he meets Tharkay's. His eyes widen, and though he does not blush -- he is not a woman, after all, no matter what some might say in light of Tharkay's discovery -- the sudden set of his jaw and curling of his fingers tell Tharkay all he needs. Tharkay allows one corner of his mouth to curl: not in his customary sly smirk, but one wry and commiserating -- a more poetic man might say 'bittersweet'. He sees understanding flicker in Granby's eyes, then the other man returns the humourless smile with a small jerk of the chin.

Later, when Granby pours himself a cup of wine from the stash he keeps in his bags, he passes an extra one down to Tharkay. Tharkay accepts. They don't speak of it -- not tonight. Tharkay derives what comfort he can, cold though it may be, from knowing he is no longer the only man stranded on this particular desert island.


******


"Temeraire, shall we go aloft?"

Temeraire brought his nose down to peer more closely at Laurence -- an affectation, as his eyesight required no such assistance, but a charming one. "Laurence, are you all right? You seem restless."

"I am, my dear, which is why I think a good flight might sort me right." Laurence did not wish to deceive Temeraire, but he could not divulge another man's secret no matter how heavily it lay upon his breast. "The hour would not inconvenience you?"

"Of course not, if you should wish to go," Temeraire said readily, picking up his wings. "At any rate, I do not feel the need to shoot fire all over the place just to show I am capable of flying at night," he added, crossly.

The tone of the sentence and the frequency of such accusations finally penetrated through the wall of Laurence's own problems, and he blinked. "You seem to be quarrelling with Iskierka much more of late. Is something the matter?"

"Oh, I do not wish to speak of it, not here." Temeraire huffed out a breath. "Perhaps when we are in the air, but I dare say we will be overheard here, and she would be ever so unpleasant. Well. Unpleasanter."

Perhaps, then, attending to the ever-perplexing social intricacies of draconic affairs would do their part to get Laurence's mind off his troubles; it might at least give him a topic of conversation with Granby, so that their next meeting might not be one of awkward silence. Laurence did not plan on making a career as an optimist, but one could never start too young, he supposed.

It took him little time to outfit Temeraire in a one-man harness, and soon they were in the air, leaving behind the oppressive heat that rose from the earth for the cooler winds above. Laurence had indeed found problems that could not be solved by a jaunt into the heavens, of course, but they were few, and it eased his heart somewhat to know that this refuge still lay open to him.

Laurence closed his eyes; they were all but useless to him in the darkness, for once they left the town, even the lights below them scattered, then faded to nothing. Precious few ships sailed this way now, and so nothing but intermittent moonlight, softened by the clouds, broke the blanket of night around them. He allowed Temeraire to guide them, sensing his way not from any need for direction or plan, but by the movements of the air currents. At this distance, Laurence heard nothing but the wind, driven by Temeraire's powerful wingbeats.

After a time, he leaned forward on Temeraire's neck. The skies were not the ideal place for a conversation, but they could manage so long as they stuck to short sentences and did not mind repeating themselves occasionally. "What about Iskierka?" he called.

Temeraire turned his head; Laurence felt the muscles of his shoulders tense to accommodate the movement, and a sliver of moonlight glistened on his dark scales. "She is being so insufferable!" Temeraire protested. "She won't give up this business of my giving her an egg, you know, that's why she's on about this business of her breathing fire being so unique. As though I could not find dragons on any other continent to make eggs with."

Laurence did not point out that any attempts Temeraire had made with other dragons to produce an egg had resulted in failure, meaning that his breed did not readily mix or that Temeraire himself was somehow sterile. The possibility of either set Temeraire on edge, and the last thing he needed when being twitted by Iskierka was doubts on his ability to produce offspring.

Laurence had hoped, however, that the discussion would lead in another direction, as he did not feel himself qualified to discuss any of the practices surrounding such things. Any previous efforts had ended in Temeraire frustrated at Laurence's ignorance, and Laurence himself turning an unbecoming shade of scarlet.

"Do you not think," he said carefully, "that she perhaps cares less about the genetic potential of your egg and more about you?"

"Oh, I shouldn't think so!" Temeraire snapped, his vitriol aimed elsewhere. "If she could give herself an egg, I do not doubt she would do it, and honestly, I'm surprised she has not already tried." Laurence did not pursue that line of thought too far. "The silly thing is, I might not mind so much if she would not be so trying."

Ah. Laurence did not bother hiding his smile, as Temeraire could not see it as long as Laurence took care not to let it enter his tone. "I think you are perhaps misinterpreting the situation," he said. "Or, well, that Iskierka is not conducting herself to the full extent of her intentions."

Temeraire gave a shrug of his wings. "I don't know how else I am to interpret it, but I am willing to accept the second possibility. Doubtless she thinks that being atrociously obnoxious gives her some sort of advantage -- perhaps in the wild it is a sign of strength and genetic stability, to be so bossy and full of oneself, but I tell you, it does not carry over to the coven."

Laurence coughed. "Temeraire, there is a practice very common among human youths that I think you might find illuminating, though of course I cannot say whether it translates directly to dragons." When Temeraire did not reply, he continued. "Often, when a youngster, ah, fancies another, but possesses not the maturity nor means to make said affections known, he engages in a sort of harmless torment, as a means of communication. Faulty, I assure you, but no less well-intentioned. Perhaps something of the sort is at play here."

"What?" Temeraire brought himself up short, hovering in mid-air, and Laurence, having grown ill-accustomed to such manoeuvres after months without combat, unbalanced for a moment. "What could possibly be the purpose of that? There can be no advantage in the wild, surely."

"I could not tell you," Laurence said honestly. "I only know that it is remarkably common. I assume, as humans have developed into somewhat civilised society, it is our version of challenging the other to a fight. As we have not wings, we cannot attempt to compare our flying speeds, after all."

Of course, even such carefree activity had been past his scope, for Laurence himself had gone to sea at too young an age to have the opportunity, and his mother had raised him too well to throw rocks or thrust worms in the face of any girl. He had spoken to Edith as a gentleman to a lady, despite their youth -- though that had not done him any favours in the end, of course.

Temeraire gave a loud snort, and threw himself into a roll to show his distaste of the notion. "Well, that's just ridiculous. I should like to think dragons would not be so silly, but I suppose I should not be surprised to find such behaviour in Iskierka -- if it is indeed true what you say. Which I still doubt. I cannot imagine her taking a fancy to anyone but herself."

"So you said," Laurence replied, doing his best not to chuckle. "Were she less irritating, do you think you would be quite in such opposition to the concept?"

"You may as well ask, were the sun not so far off, might I fly up and snatch it out of the sky," Temeraire grumped. "I cannot even consider the question when she cannot manage to be civil for even two minutes out of any given day."

So, tentatively in favour, then, assuming that Laurence could in fact extrapolate human behaviours onto that of dragons, an assumption of which Laurence felt at least mildly confident. He did not push the point, however, knowing from his experience with youngsters on ship that the surest way to kill any such feeling was to insist upon it before it was readily acknowledged.

Temeraire seemed no more inclined to continue the conversation, for he switched tacks. "Will you tell me what's bothering you?" he asked. "You've been ever so down tonight. I don't like it."

He had been watchful and protective of Laurence's moods since their campaign against French soldiers under Wellesley's orders; if a particular funk lasted more than a few days, he became increasingly nursemaid-ish, worried that some larger, darker force was at work. Laurence appreciated the concern, but as he quickly grew exasperated with such mothering, he generally did his best to disabuse Temeraire of any such notions as soon as possible.

"It is nothing serious," Laurence said, running a hand over Temeraire's neck. They circled back, and Laurence ducked to avoid a sweep of Temeraire's wing as he banked into the curve. "A few things have left me contemplative, but I shall get over them fairly quickly, I should think."

A falsehood so blatant it bordered on complete fabrication, but Laurence could not help that. Temeraire twisted his head around in an attempt to check Laurence's expression, but did not succeed, and returned to flying straight with an irritated shake of his neck. "I don't like it when you hide things from me," he said, his voice somewhere between plaintive and peevish, and Laurence winced.

"I do not do so out of malice," Laurence protested. "Only, I have not puzzled things out for myself at present, and I fear that I would only muddle everything if I attempted to converse before I am ready."

"But you will?" Temeraire insisted, and Laurence did not know how to answer. He wanted to reply that a man might have need to keep some things private, even from his dragon, but he may as well have argued that Temeraire should attempt to live without food.

"I shall try," Laurence said, and he hoped that Temeraire would understand. "I can tell you truly that it does not affect you, nor the two of us as partners, my dear. Nor does it concern treason, England, China, Africa, or any matters of state, social justice, or politics."

Temeraire's muscles relaxed. "Well, that's good, though with those out of the way I don't know what you could be upset about. Are you missing our friends at home?"

Laurence's heart gave a small pang, for miss them he did -- irrespective of his conversation with Granby of course, but more so now when he desired counsel. He would not have imparted the details to any of them, but he still missed Jane's honesty, or Berkley's disdain for social niceties over human decency. One of them would surely know how Laurence ought to proceed.

"That is indeed part of it," he said. "The length of time which must necessitate the delivery of any correspondence means they feel even farther away than they are."

Temeraire fell silent, and Laurence knew he was considering his part in their banishment, but Laurence did not wish him to dwell upon the matter. In the past months, Laurence had made his peace with the fact that the England which he had loved so dear, for which he had sacrificed wife and life and luxury, had become a beast unworthy of any of the gifts he had so proudly bestowed upon her. He missed his friends, but he could no longer think of England as his home.

"Do not worry," Laurence urged him. "It is a passing melancholia, nothing more. I'm sure I will be over it directly. Perhaps it is the weather, which has been oppressive as of late. Pray, let us fly about for a little more, then return. I feel my head has cleared already."

Unfortunately, though the knot of anxiety had loosed itself somewhat, Laurence could not say he had gained any enlightenment toward the situation. He could only pray that morning would work its magic, with the dawn shedding light on his conundrum as surely as the sun's rays touched the plains.

******

It arises out of frustration, and ends as a result of the same. They don't speak of it, what it means or what's happening, before, during, or after, save on the day they decide to finish it.

It starts with a look. Tharkay has spent the day watching Laurence, the way his hands cannot keep still, how whatever task he is at, be it pouring coffee, lacing his boots, or checking Temeraire's rigging, he performs again and again as though he's forgotten he already completed it. He reads the same page in his book for half an hour. He's thinking about England, and duty, and whether the life he's chosen for himself is truly worthy of said decision; Tharkay recognizes the signs.

Tharkay does not give much thought to his own desires -- long accustomed to what he cannot have, he does not see the sense in torturing himself -- but when Laurence ties himself in knots like this, Tharkay wants to take him apart and put him back together again, to feel the tension slip from Laurence's muscles beneath his fingers. Thoughts like this drive a man to madness, and so he tears himself away -- and sees Granby. Sees the same need written across those sunburnt features, the same powerlessness and raging discontent in the tight line of his shoulders.

They find each other that night, and it is a blur of hands and mouths and too many limbs, of fingers in hair and fumbling at fastenings. It is exhaustion and exhilaration and dissatisfaction and drowning, and at first light, Tharkay slips out under Granby's half-lidded gaze.

They meet again, on occasion, until one night when in the clutches of Dionysus, the wrong name falls from both their lips. Both freeze, then Tharkay laughs, and Granby joins him, and together they shake and gasp until hysteria wrings them dry.

"This is absurd," Tharkay says, breaking their unspoken rule, but Granby does not seem offended. He sits up and runs a hand through his hair, and he is an amazing man, Tharkay thinks, if only, if only -- ah, but a man might build castles out of such thoughts, yet he cannot live in them.

"God damn the man," Granby says, full of feeling, and this is as close as they ever come to a real conversation about the matter. Tharkay can only nod in agreement.

To find comfort in another's arms cannot succeed when both are dying of thirst for want of the same goblet of wine, Tharkay realises, and so they agree that this is the end. He's surprised to feel a pang of something that could almost be regret.

******

Laurence did not see Granby at breakfast, a fact for which he felt glad despite the layer of guilt at the selfishness of the reaction. He had spent a long, sleepless night, imagining various scenarios in an attempt to discern the proper mode of behaviour, and he did not want to face Granby until he had at least a vague plan. Likely Granby had no deep desire to see Laurence at the moment, either, which did not spur Laurence on in an attempt to track him down and force a conversation on him.

He did, unfortunately, see Tharkay -- unfortunate in that the man had a singular proclivity for saying exactly what Laurence most needed to hear, whether Laurence desired such a thing or not. Tharkay's expression when he slid into the chair across from Laurence was as shuttered as ever, but Laurence thought he detected disapproval in the tight corners of the other's eyes.

Tharkay said nothing for a long moment, which Laurence allowed to extend because he refused to be baited into speaking first. If Tharkay knew something -- or thought he did -- then he could well say so. Laurence continued to sip at the throat-searing liquid to which the tavern insisted on applying the misnomer 'coffee', ignoring the stare.

At last, Tharkay accepted that Laurence could sit in silence all day if it so behoved him, and spoke first. "I suppose you were up all night, thinking about what's the gentlemanly thing to do," he said, his voice inches from a full-out sneer. Tharkay held opinions of so-called gentlemanly courses of action, and felt no compunction about revealing them.

A sharp retort leapt to Laurence's tongue, but he swallowed it. Tharkay did not bother to dance about, attempting to draw the truth from Laurence; he knew. Which meant Granby had told him of yesterday's events, which by extension meant that Tharkay had known of the situation beforehand. A flash of something, hot and twisting, burned in Laurence's chest. Had everyone been privy to this knowledge? Perhaps Bligh, Rankin and the others knew as well, then, and only kept silent in front of Laurence because it amused them.

Tharkay studied him, and marked his distaste with a small shake of the head. "You miss the point so thoroughly and with such regularity that I find it difficult to believe you could be Captain of anything at all. If you applied your emotional track record to your career, you could have fired at all the English dragons while leaving the French ones to wreak havoc."

Laurence gritted his teeth. Tharkay did not usually move to provoke so strongly and so quickly -- not anymore. He had thought, at least, that they had moved past this, earned each other's trust and respect; Tharkay's attitude reminded him much of their trek across the desert when they first tested the other's mettle. He did not relish it; it gave him the distinct impression that he had lost stature in Tharkay's eyes.

He found, however, that he had not the energy to be angry, no matter how many times Tharkay might stoke the fire. The possibility of losing the two men he considered his true friends sat heavy in his throat. Laurence pressed one hand over his eyes, fingers pinching the bridge of his nose. "Am I really the last to know?" he asked.

"Depends upon who you count in that circle," Tharkay said, offering no relief. "But you haven't exactly made yourself receptive to the news, if that's what you mean."

Laurence studied the cheap wood of the table, following the grain until it disappeared over the edge. They ought to wipe the tables more often; several stains from spills and condensation on the bottom of glasses had stained the surface. "How long?" They were alone in the tavern, save one or two snoring in a corner, but that did not make him stupid enough to speak openly in public. Of course, he could think of nowhere they could speak where he would feel comfort.

"Again, that depends on what you're asking. If you mean this particular incident, a good few weeks, I'd say." Tharkay lifted both shoulders and let them drop. "Anything else, you would have to be more specific, but I would be honour-bound not to respond."

Weeks. Weeks, and Laurence had not noticed; moreover, Granby had either not thought to tell him or thought that Laurence could not be trusted with the information. He sucked in his breath. "And you?"

Tharkay's eyes widened a fraction; he must have given Laurence's words some meaning other than the ones intended, for he soon returned to his normal impassive self. "I knew about Matthews since its inception," he said evenly. "Again, as for the rest, I must respectfully abstain."

Laurence did not lower his head into his hands, but he deeply desired to. "Tenzing, I am at a loss," he said, his voice hoarse. "I know not what to do, what to say. But he is my friend, and I do not wish that to change -- surely he understands that."

"He understands that, but I'm not sure you do." Tharkay sighed, a long, dramatic sound that meant he was about to impart some wisdom that he was annoyed Laurence could not realise on his own. "You have no doubt spent your time torturing yourself over the proper response -- what to do, what to say, how to react, where to go from here, how not to disappoint your friendship -- but have you taken one second to think about how you feel about it?"

Laurence blinked at him, startled beyond all hope of responding. "I hardly see how that signifies," he said, spreading his hands out before him. "If I feel anything, it is disappointment that one of the few men with whom I would gladly trust my life did not entrust me with this. If he has kept this secret from me, what else might he be hiding? I do not blame him for his choices, but I cannot help but wonder just how deep the well goes."

The words poured forth from him before he could stop them, and Laurence grimaced at his foolishness. Such an outburst did not become him, in any sense, and Tharkay would judge him more harshly than most.

Instead of replying, Tharkay studied him for a long moment before pursing his lips. "He's right, you know. It's no use talking about this with you, not if that's as much thought as you're willing to give it."

Laurence felt the wound deeply, and nursed it well. "I have had men on my ship about whom accusations were laid before me, and I chose to ignore them, and reprimand those spreading the rumours," he said. "I have long thought that the measure of a man is not to be found in his connections, but in his actions. I should think this would have been evident."

"How magnanimous of you." Tharkay's voice sucked every drop of moisture from the room. "That is not what I meant. I am fond of your Granby, and so I will do him a favour by asking something that he would never, not even if the whole earth were set alight, dare himself. Is that all you can manage to dredge up, talk of honour and the inherent worthiness of man? When you think of him and --" he flicked his fingers rather than mentioning the man's name, in deference to their location -- "what do you feel?"

Laurence frowned. "I would feel the same sense of voyeurism that would accompany any intrusion into another's personal life, no matter what the nature," he retorted. "Shock? Yes. Disappointment at finding out so late? Yes. Hatred? Decidedly not. Judgement? I should think so highly of myself, to assume I had that right. I don't know what either of you think I am feeling, but I assure you, you both do me a grave disservice."

He stood, rattling the table, unable to carry on the conversation any further. Something spread through his chest like a brush fire, igniting a host of unpleasant emotions in his breast. He did not know what collusions Granby and Tharkay had undertaken in his absence, nor how they discussed him, but he could not help but feel ill-used. After his own act of treason, a sin so great that he could no longer return to his homeland but instead remained here to rot, though every dragon in Europe might thank him for it, the notion that he might judge Granby for something as irrelevant to Laurence's own life as this --

Tharkay did not make to follow him, and so Laurence stalked out of the tavern on his own, feeling impotent and foolish. He wandered the dusty streets, ignoring passersby even when he carelessly trod on their toes or jostled elbows. Usually, the sheer disorder and disregard for social politeness kept him horrified and off the streets, but today Laurence felt out of sorts enough that he did not notice.

A strange restlessness kept him moving long after any idea of direction lasted in his mind; he simply could not settle long before he found himself jerked to his feet and continuing onward. Betrayal seeped through and coloured every thought, in spite of the part of Laurence that continued to take note of the appropriateness of his actions and reminded him that he had no right to feel so. He was acutely aware of his heartbeat, pounding out a steady rhythm in his chest and in his throat, and outside sounds at once seemed magnified and devoid of all meaning, so that he heard each word of every passerby while remaining insensible of their conversations.

What did Tharkay mean, asking Laurence what he felt? Did Tharkay honestly think Laurence so injudicious as to thrust his own personal feelings onto another's interactions? He had not allowed himself to feel when told of Edith's engagement, and he had a much higher personal stake in that situation -- what right did Tharkay think Laurence had granted himself, that he would do so in this case? If Granby wished to take up with a stranger and keep it a secret from Laurence, he had every right to do so. Certainly he had carried on the affair with the appropriate amount of discretion, if it had taken this long for Laurence to discover it, and only then through Iskierka's imprudence.

Laurence began to suspect that the appropriate reaction was no reaction at all, but to let the man go about his business -- despite this, Laurence could not quite account for the thundering of blood in his temples, nor the speed at which he realised he was striding through the streets. He forced himself to stop and pressed a hand to his chest.

This would not do. Laurence needed to see Granby, to speak to him as a friend and as a gentleman, and to clear up any misconception that Granby might have of Laurence's honour, or his fidelity as a companion and former comrade at arms. He turned heel and headed back to town.

******

Tharkay has prepared for bed and is about to blow out the light when his door bursts open. Granby stands in the entrance, every ounce of his body electrified, and Tharkay's throat tightens. He recognises the madness in Granby's eyes; he saw it himself in the mirror, after Sara chose her family.

"I was with Matthews," Granby blurts out. Tharkay nods. He has not been able to seek companionship himself, but he does not blame Granby for succumbing. The man is as gregarious as Tharkay is cautious, withering at the lack of interaction as a caged bird plucks off its own feathers. "He saw us. He knows."

Tharkay considers it a mark of just how much these two men have affected him that the raw emotion in Granby's expression and the rasp of his voice punches him in the chest. He cannot pretend that they are isolated beings, now; he cares. "What did he do?"

He does not need to ask, not really, because it is Laurence, and Tharkay can read him as well as the desert without actually needing to see him. Granby chokes out a laugh. "He sputtered out something about personal honour and privacy and not wanting to infringe upon my personal dealings or something, I don't know. I stopped listening after the apologies. Doubtless he would have preached me a sermon on forgiveness or some such rot, but I threw him out. I couldn't look at him." Granby buries both hands in his hair. "I'm sure he's stewing right now about what he ought to have said as an officer and a gentleman."

No doubt of that. Tharkay allows himself a small wince. "And Matthews?"

"Oh, furious, of course. He's got it into his head that I only took up with him because he's blond, as though I'm some lilied schoolgirl doodling names in my copybook." Granby's face is aflame, and Tharkay prudently does not mention that he had drawn the same conclusion himself. "I dare say we're finished, though I'm well shot of him if that's how he's going to act. If I wanted a woman, I would damn well find one, wouldn't I?"

Granby brushes past Tharkay with the easy confidence of one who has taken far greater liberties, and flings himself into a chair. "I'm done with all this," Granby says viciously. "I mean it, I can't take it anymore. It's madness."

He continues to rant, echoing every dark thought that enters Tharkay's mind under the cover of night, when sleep and reason elude him. Tharkay listens for a while, then crosses the room, leans down, and silences Granby in the most effective manner he knows that does not involve his knives.

"I thought we weren't doing this," Granby says, some time later.

"We're not," Tharkay responds, running a hand through his hair in an attempt to return it to order. "But we made no provision for extenuating circumstances, and I would venture to say this counts as one."

Granby falls quiet for a moment, and when he speaks, it's slowly, as though every word must be wrenched from him by force. "I never thought myself the kind of man weak enough to tuck in my tail and run because I can't face someone, but damned if I can't keep this up. If it continues like this I don't know what I will do. You can laugh if you want, but it's the truth. For ha'pence I'd cure myself of this damned affliction if I could."

They are not lovers, and so Tharkay does not touch him, but his hand twitches at his side for a moment, rebellious. "It should not come to that," he says, somewhat surprised at how much he wants that statement to be truth.

Granby shrugs, and Tharkay's stomach twists. He hopes Laurence sleeps well tonight, for Tharkay intends to have words with him tomorrow.

******

He found Granby at his rooms, mercifully alone -- Laurence did not think him master of himself today, and could not promise that he would not fan an encounter with that Matthews fellow into a challenge if an occasion arose.

Granby did not look very circumspect himself about the idea, judging by the prodigious glare he fixed upon Laurence when he entered. "What?" he demanded. "If you've come to spout more about honour and duty at me, you can damn well show yourself out."

Laurence's blood was already up from his argument with Tharkay, and seeing Granby ready and willing to start a fight did nothing to return him to a more sanguine temper. He wrestled with himself -- if Granby would not be the better man and avoid acting like children, Laurence would have to do so -- and nearly succeeded when he caught sight of a ring of marks at Granby's throat, just above the line of his shirt. For one insane moment Laurence thought Granby had been wounded by some sort of animal before the truth hit him; Granby caught his gaze and, with an angry flush, tugged his collar up over the offending bruises.

He could not explain it, but the sight fanned the flames of Laurence's dissatisfaction and distemper until all thoughts of proper, civilised behaviour flew from his head. "Why did you not tell me?" he demanded.

Granby snorted. "Yesterday you were falling over yourself to assure me I need not press any distasteful personal matters upon you. What made you change your mind?"

"That was before I discovered that you had unburdened your soul to Tharkay," Laurence snapped, "who tells me the two of you have deemed me unworthy of the knowledge. I don't know what you thought I would say or do, John, but I think it's safe to say you do not think as highly of me as I do you."

Granby's eyes narrowed. "It's not what I thought you'd do, it's what I knew you wouldn't," he said, "and before you ask, I know you don't know what the hell I mean, and that's the entire goddamned point. I won't explain myself to you, so if Tharkay won't do it, you'll damn well just have to use your brain and figure it out yourself."

Laurence's chest seemed to expand with frustration and fury, and he wondered if this was how Temeraire felt when powering up the divine wind. "You should not treat me like a child," he said, hearing the warning in his own voice but not knowing exactly what it signified. "I assure you, I will not faint from the prurient details -- for which, by the way, I am not asking. I may have been raised a gentleman, but I am not a fool."

"Oh, aren't you?" Granby rolled his eyes with such fervour that Laurence wondered it did not pain him. "I refuse to discuss this. As a gentleman, I'm sure you understand." Sarcasm dripped from his words like venom from a snake's fang.

"No, I do not, not this time." Laurence knew himself to be acting beyond all reason or hope of proper deportment, but he could not stop himself. Perhaps it was the months of feeling adrift and torn from all his roots finally making themselves heard. "You will forgive me for taking a personal stake in something which very clearly does not involve me, but I had thought we were friends, John, truly. That is until you kept this from me, and thought to tell not only Tharkay but some stranger in New South Wales of all places, before it occurred to you that I might care to know about it."

This time Granby's eyes nearly disappeared to slits, and had Laurence not been in such a fine temper himself he may have stepped back. "You will watch yourself," Granby practically hissed, and strode forward until they stood face-to-face. "You overstep your bounds, whatever friendship we have."

"I merely wish to know why the thought of informing me is so abhorrent to you that you would take up with a likely criminal!" At the thought of Matthews, the forge in Laurence's chest roared to life again. He could not understand the nature of his frustration, but the more he thought of the two of them -- not of the proper response as a gentleman, but, as Tharkay had dryly challenged him, his own feelings on the matter -- Laurence found something inside of him twisting.

"Well, you didn't leave me any goddamn choice, did you?" Granby all but shouted. His anger cracked, and for a moment Laurence thought he saw something else in Granby's eyes before the rage returned. It passed too quickly for him to make any identification.

"I fail to see how I, completely unaware of this entire situation, could possibly have spurred you to do anything at all," Laurence countered. His entire body tensed, quivering with fury. "If you would be so kind as to indulge me with an explanation, I assure you I would be eternally grateful --"

Granby seized Laurence by the shirt front, his strong aviator's fingers digging in to Laurence's chest. Laurence barely had enough time to brace himself for the blow he knew was coming before Granby pulled him close and kissed him hard enough that their teeth clashed and Laurence tasted blood.

It was not a romantic kiss, nor a loving one. Laurence was somewhat used to the first, having found Jane to be a demanding and not altogether feminine lover when the mood struck her, but even at her fiercest, Jane was always understanding, giving as much as she took. He did not have much time to ponder, however, for nearly as soon as the kiss began, Granby shoved him back with enough violence that Laurence stumbled.

"There!" Granby wiped his mouth in a savage gesture. "You have your answer. Do what you like with it!" He stormed to his bedchamber and slammed the door hard enough to rattle the walls, leaving Laurence alone in the sitting room.

Laurence's legs collapsed beneath him. He fell onto the settee, and stared at the far wall while the shadows crept over its surface. At last, the colour of the light on the wood shifted from white to orange, and he realised with some embarrassment that he had held Granby hostage in his room until dusk -- nearly an hour. Startled, Laurence jumped to his feet and left as hastily as he had entered.

******

Again Laurence wandered, just as aimlessly if not as furiously as before. The tang of copper remained in his mouth for some time after leaving the inn, and he had to stop himself several times from raising a hand to his mouth to check if his lip was bruised. If his mind had been spinning this morning, now it was a wash of nothing, a swirling, dizzying void of anything of sense, leaving him walking into walls and tripping over his own boots.

This time, when Laurence's feet finished their autonomous journey, he found himself at Tharkay's apartments. Laurence swallowed and nearly turned tail, but that spoke of some cowardice he could not identify, yet still felt with a strange sense of urgency. If nothing else, no matter how little Laurence wished to have any conversation on the matter, Tharkay was perhaps the only person who might have an answer to the wordless questions that Laurence's mind would ask as soon as he gave it leave to do so.

Still, it was not without dread that Laurence knocked on Tharkay's door, nor without a disproportionate amount of anxiety did he wait during the endless stretch of time between his signal and Tharkay's hand on the latch. The door opened, and Tharkay stood frowning at him. "I was about to sup," Tharkay remarked idly, "so if you are looking to continue our argument, I would prefer if you could return after I have had something to sustain myself."

Laurence shook his head. "No, I just -- one thing," he said, and Tharkay waved him on with a mockingly gracious hand gesture. "Did you know?"

"Much as others may think to the contrary, my hailing from the Orient does not make me gifted at reading minds," Tharkay drawled. "Of what, precisely, am I supposed to have foreknowledge?"

Laurence swallowed. "Granby. Just. Did you know?" Without thinking, he raised a hand to his mouth.

Tharkay followed the movement, and Laurence saw the switch of recognition flicker in his eyes. "Short answer, yes," he said, and tugged Laurence forward by the arm. "Inside. Now."

Laurence obeyed, glad to have someone giving orders for once, as he apparently was not capable of directing his own life with any proficiency. He sat when Tharkay directed him, and accepted the cup of tea Tharkay poured -- from a stash that he kept for Laurence's benefit, as he disliked the quintessentially English beverage on principle, something about his father -- without question.

Tharkay sat opposite him, and Laurence watched him arrange his features into a mask, though for whose benefit and against whose inquiry Laurence was uncertain. "Tell me," Tharkay said simply.

Laurence did, though it took him a fair deal longer to do so than strictly necessary, given that he could not entirely wrap his mind around the situation. Every detail, every sound, resolved itself into nothing but a whirl of confusion.

When Laurence finished, Tharkay sat in silence for a moment. "I see," he said at last, the words painfully insufficient, but he seemed as uncertain how to proceed as Laurence. "And?"

"And what?" Laurence could not think up a more baffling response.

"And, your reaction?" Tharkay clarified, speaking extra slowly so Laurence would know this was entirely for his benefit. "I see no blood on your knuckles, so it appears you did not strike him for the insult, that's something. But what else? Disgust? Revulsion? Anger?"

Sheer, absolute confusion, throwing him into such a state that Laurence actually felt ashamed to admit it. He cleared his throat. "No, none of that. I thought I made that clear earlier -- at least, I attempted to." At this point, Laurence could no longer recall what he'd said in any reliable detail. "Perhaps I might have done, at the beginning of our acquaintance -- I was much more concerned with moral strictures then. But now, my entire world has become such a turmoil that I cannot find it in myself to pass any sort of judgement on something that is, to all intents, completely irrelevant to a man's application of duty or -- or anything else. Even were I to have such thoughts, which I assure you I do not, I could hardly press any sort of judgement upon him after my own actions this past year. Whether the focus of -- of his affections is Matthews or myself hardly signifies."

Tharkay continued to watch him, inscrutable, and Laurence had the insane thought that he was being tested, only he could not discern from the other's expression whether he had passed. Tharkay took a long breath before speaking, and though his tone remained as flat as usual, Laurence thought he detected something beneath it -- but, like Granby earlier, he could not go so far as to identify it.

"I see," Tharkay said again, and Laurence had the rather mad impression that Tharkay actually did not know what to say. "I did not expect this," he said slowly, and were he in a better mood, Laurence might make a good-humoured but still pointed remark about feeling the depths of hell freeze beneath him at that statement.

"Did you know?" Laurence repeated his first question. "Tenzing, please."

Tharkay held his breath for a moment before releasing it. "I knew," he said. "I will not dishonour our friend by giving the date when the fact first reached me, but yes, it suffices to say that I had knowledge of this before you. I did not think it prudent to speak, and I'm sure you will forgive me."

"Yes -- my God -- of course." Laurence shook his head. "Did he tell you?"

"I --" Tharkay actually hesitated, the occasions to which Laurence had been privy he could count on one hand. "Not as such, but I -- drew conclusions, which were later verified. I can tell you he did not seek out my confidence."

Laurence could not discern which option he preferred; knowing that Granby had not intentionally chosen to share himself with Tharkay eased some of Laurence's discomfort somewhat, but then again, that Granby's situation had been enough that Tharkay had taken note made Laurence feel rather like a heel. Should he have noticed as well? How bad had the signs been?

He suddenly thought of Temeraire's innocent inquiry about whether Laurence and Granby's friendship constituted a marriage, and felt sick to his stomach. Even Temeraire had noticed, if he had not understood, and he found human interactions largely a mystery. Laurence imagined Temeraire discussing the matter with Iskierka, and he nearly collapsed anew.

"I know not what to do," Laurence said, and before Tharkay could speak, he held up a hand. "Nor not what I feel, never mind what I ought, so you needn't start that lecture again." He pressed the heels of both hands against the hollows of his eye sockets. "My God, I cannot make any of this out, let alone myself."

"Do you reject him, then?" Tharkay asked.

Laurence could only shake his head. "If you could see inside my thoughts, you would not ask me such a question. That implies I have come to any sort of conclusion at all -- that it could even be possible, what with everything I thought I knew being tossed upon the breeze like this. Yes, you may call me melodramatic, and surely you and your well-travelled ways are more worldly than I, but --" Laurence cut himself off, sensing a long and possibly embarrassing ramble lurking behind his tongue.

Tharkay remained very still, and his lack of movement made the very air in the room feel thick. Laurence struggled to gather his thoughts. "I -- do not instinctively refuse," Laurence said in a rush, and once the words escaped him, he knew them to be true. The air left his lungs, and for a moment he felt lightheaded. "Though I know not what that says of me, and does not constitute acceptance, nor prior consideration of the matter, only --"

He thought of long flights with Granby at his side; of the strong, sure weight of Granby's back pressed against his, sabres drawn, as French boarders surrounded them on all sides. He thought, too, of more pedestrian things -- Granby sitting cross-legged in Laurence's cabin aboard the Reliant, stitching Laurence's socks and rolling his eyes at a grown man's inability to do this himself, making comments about noblemen and their sheer ineptitude; the man's amusement at Laurence's dismay upon seeing the haphazard mess of his suitcases, jackets flung in amongst boots that had not been brushed, so that dirt flaked off the soles and onto the fabric. And yet, something still did not feel complete; the pieces did not click inside his soul the way he thought they should.

Laurence's breath came short in his chest. "I do not know," he said. Tharkay still had not moved. "I have never been less certain of anything in my life, I think," Laurence said, hearing the full ridiculousness of the statement. "If you have any mercy at all, you will avail me by performing that task at which you are so adept, which is telling me exactly what I do not wish but so desperately need to hear."

Tharkay remained silent for a full minute, after which he shook his head. "I am sorry," he said, his voice low and raw in his throat. "This time, I cannot be of service. I beg you to excuse me."

Laurence had previously thought he could not be more at a loss; he knew now that he had been premature. He could not, however, press Tharkay on the matter, not when his friend had actually requested Laurence's compliance rather than finding a subtle way to twist Laurence round to his way of thinking. "Of course," Laurence said automatically. "I apologise."

"No need." Tharkay's mouth tightened in a thin line that Laurence assumed was meant to approximate a smile, but for the life of him Laurence could not imagine the reason for the lemon in the expression. "It is only that the ordeal has taken a rather personal turn of late, and I no longer feel qualified to give my opinion."

Laurence nodded. Had he a clearer head he would not have involved Tharkay at all, but he had no one else to whom he could turn. He almost wished for a battle, simply because nothing cleared one's head and sorted one's priorities like facing death at the hands of an enemy's sword. Men returned home afire to marry their childhood loves for a reason.

"Only tell me one thing, and then I will ask no more of you," Laurence said, and Tharkay tensed. "You do not judge him, for what you know."

"No!" The word came out somewhat sharper than Tharkay intended, judging by the way his shoulders hunched after he spoke. "No, I do not."

Laurence nodded again. "Do you judge me, then, for my indecision, or for being so slow to realise the truth of the situation? I know to you, subtleties are observed, and choices are made and adhered to in an instant, but I cannot -- I cannot do that, Tenzing, not this time."

Tharkay swallowed, and he caught Laurence's gaze and held it so that his eyes burned like a brand. "No," he said, choosing his words with care. "I do not judge you. But nor can I offer you praise."

"Fair enough," Laurence said, the words scraping in his throat. Truly, he had hoped for something more, though he knew not what, and something about the coldness of Tharkay's tone threw him. Again, the suspicion tickled Laurence's brain that he had missed a crucial piece of the puzzle, and the day's events had left him extremely sensitive to such a possibility. He dared not inquire, however, for in his not insignificant time as Tharkay's comrade and friend, Laurence had quickly learned to recognize the expression that meant Tharkay did not, under any circumstances, wish to discuss the matter. His face had held that same mix of tight lips and challenging eyes when they had stayed at the Maden household.

"Well." With that one crucial avenue of conversation closed to him, Laurence could not quite determine how to continue from here. Asking about Tharkay's health seemed laughably pedestrian. "I think I shall return home. Temeraire will likely have sent out a search party, and if I stay out much longer he's liable to land in the middle of town." Laurence attempted to inject easy humour into his tone, but failed utterly. "Good evening, then."

Tharkay inclined his head. "Good evening."

Laurence made it back to his without incident, thankfully; he paused long enough to assure Temeraire of his overall health and well-being, but soon enough retired to his rooms and flung himself upon the bed. Sleep, as he had suspected and feared, did not come easily, and he could not help but wonder who else lay awake that night, and what thoughts now ran through their mind.

******

Laurence hoped that these sleepless nights would not make themselves a habit; he certainly did not enjoy the novelty, after being conditioned to sleep on command wherever and whenever he had the opportunity, either at sea or in flight. This time, as he saw the dawn from the wrong side yet again, Laurence knew that something must be done. He could not continue thus without putting his health at peril -- not that he thought he might suffer some sort of illness from lack of sleep, but that Temeraire would soon notice, and either cause Laurence to be suffocated thanks to his mothering, or blow the town to the ground in an attempt to find the cause.

He had likely caused Temeraire alarm already in being so taciturn of late, and could not hope to fend off his dragon's concern for much longer. He resolved, then, to do his best to allay Temeraire's fears at breakfast; to his surprise, the field was empty when he ventured out behind the house. Laurence stood in the yard, blinking rather stupidly at the waving grasses and the lone cow who eyed him with baleful suspicion.

Laurence opened the book he had brought for Temeraire and flipped idly through it, though he did not register a single word of its content. His mind kept wandering down the treacherous path it had begun last night, attempting to discern what, if anything, Granby's revelation meant for him, but could find no new ground to tread. The thought did not fill him with the revulsion and rejection he knew should be his automatic reaction, that much was clear; yet it did not seem to be entirely complete, either. Laurence's head ached, and he decided to give it no more thought for now.

He had struggled to retain the first chapter of the book and was considering setting off to town to search for news of Temeraire when the familiar sound of frantic wing-beats filled the air. The cow lowed in alarm and bolted, but Temeraire was not after food; he landed with the awkward, thumping lurch that constituted an emergency. Tharkay clung to his harness, expression grim.

"What is it?" Laurence demanded, for Iskierka landed a moment after Temeraire, Granby on her back.

"Demane is missing," Tharkay said. "Kulingile too. Apparently he said something about wanting to prove his worth after one of the young lieutenants tried to coerce Kulingile away again, and set off to capture a bunyip."

Laurence did not curse, but he came close to it. "When did they leave?"

Iskierka started to speak, but Temeraire hushed her; Laurence did not want to be unkind, but he was glad; the efficiency of Iskierka's storytelling left something to be desired. "Some time last night. We didn't think he'd really do it, Laurence, I'm so sorry."

"It's all right," Laurence said quickly. They could choose to place blame later, if the situation warranted, but at the moment they had no time. He ducked into the house and fetched his sabre and pistol, locking them to his belt, then climbed aboard.

Thankfully, the urgency of the matter transcended the awkwardness of the previous day's events, for Laurence felt nothing but the thrumming of urgency. Quick glances at the others as they flew showed only grim determination, and Laurence felt a profound heave of relief that at least whatever had happened did not affect them where it mattered.

They flew for several hours, searching for any sign of the boy and his young dragon; Iskierka occasionally made sudden dives to the ground as something caught her eye -- a glint of sunlight on a rock, a flash of leaves, the rustling of some animal on the ground -- and Temeraire soon lost patience with her.

"If you will please stop wasting our time by darting down to examine every snake on the ground, I'm sure we will find them much faster!" Temeraire snapped, and Laurence leaned forward to rest a placating hand on his neck. Certainly the delays irritated Laurence as well, but he saw no merit to antagonising Iskierka to the point where she decided she would no longer assist them. As much as it might gall Temeraire to cooperate, Iskierka's help meant fewer hours of fruitless searching.

At last, Temeraire gave a shout and headed for the ground near an outcropping of cliff with a small opening at the bottom. In front of the cave's entrance, the ground was scuffed and torn from the impact of a dragon's landing -- even Laurence, unskilled in tracking, could make out the marks where a dragon's wings had hit the ground, and claws dragged to stop itself from toppling. It certainly was consistent with Kulingile, who had not yet adjusted to his bulk.

Tharkay slid from Temeraire's back with liquid grace, dropping to the ground while scarcely displacing the vegetation beneath his feet. "It was they," he said, bending to pick up a severed length of vine that looped around a tree branch; upon closer inspection, Laurence realised the vine was of the kind Demane used as a harness instead of the traditional leather and buckles.

"That could be anything," Granby argued, scrambling down next to Tharkay. He took the vine and held it at arm's length, eyeing it with narrowed eyes.

"The vine does not grow here naturally," Tharkay pointed out, crossing his arms and speaking with the enforced patience of one who knows his subject but is nonetheless used to being doubted. "Moreover, you will notice that it was not frayed, gnawed, nor cut -- this was pulled to the breaking point, and simply snapped."

Laurence sucked in his breath. "Kulingile was tethered here, and something startled him enough that he flew away."

"The question being, did Demane escape with him, or did Kulingile fly off in a panic without him," Granby added, grimacing.

"We could look for Kulingile," Temeraire offered. "We can track the skies faster if we don't need to worry about all of you, and meanwhile you could search the cave for Demane." He gave a full-body shudder, obviously unhappy about leaving Laurence and the others on their own, but not seeing any other choice. The entrance to the cave may have admitted a smaller dragon like Volly or perhaps one of the younger Longwings, but neither Temeraire, Iskierka, nor Kulingile would have been able to fit through the opening.

"Well, there's nothing for it, is there," Granby said, checking his weapons at his side. "I don't see what other choice we have."

"I don't like it," Iskierka protested immediately. She crept toward the opening and tucked her head inside, twisting it side to side and endeavouring to ease her way in. "Are you sure I couldn't make myself very small and come with you?"

"Come, love, you can't even get your head all the way in," Granby said fondly, then his expression shifted. "For goodness' sake, don't get stuck!" he said, exasperated, as one of Iskierka's spikes lodged itself in a crevice. It took him a good minute or so to work her loose, during which Laurence felt Temeraire's pointed lack of comment as a palpable thing.

Tharkay flipped one of his knives from his belt, holding the wicked curve of metal loosely in one hand, in a fashion that belied his casual stance. Laurence knew that Tharkay could gut a man -- or a small dragon -- in a matter of seconds. "Torches," Tharkay said. "We'll need to bring something to light. The moss should do it, if we gather enough of it. Laurence, would you?"

A little way from the cave stood a small pond, of the type that the bunyips liked to drain and fill at will; Laurence approached it with caution, but when it did not immediately move to suck him in, he inched closer and began gathering up as much moss as he could. Once he filled an armful, he returned to the entrance, and found that Tharkay had emptied a pack full of weapons and was now arranging them on his person in various holsters and straps.

"Good Lord," Granby blurted out, picking up one of the knives, which looked as though it could split a bull down the centre without so much as a snag. "What are you planning to do with these?"

"Whatever is necessary," Tharkay said, unperturbed. Laurence himself was not so bloodthirsty, but he had to admit admiration for a man who knew his weaponry. Tharkay offered one of the blades to Laurence, but he declined. He handled himself best with his sabre.

Once everything had been redistributed, Tharkay went about stuffing the bag with as much moss as it could take. He then broke several large branches from nearby trees, tore a strip of fabric from a spare cloak, and wrapped them around the branches. He stuffed moss in between the layers of cloth, then stepped back and examined his handiwork. "That should do it," he said, giving a satisfied nod. "When they burn down, we'll have more fuel to make new ones, providing you two don't mind carrying a bundle of wood each."

Not for the first time, Laurence felt ridiculously grateful to have Tharkay in his company. Laurence knew himself to be a tremendous asset to any party on the sea or in the air, and he did not do too badly in a land battle, either, but in the wild he did not have anywhere near the foresight Tharkay did. Judging by the expression of envy and approval on Granby's face, he felt the same.

"Will you be all right?" Temeraire fretted, lowering his head and nudging Laurence in the shoulder. Laurence knew that Temeraire must find the situation very dire if he had suggested splitting up at all.

"Of course we shall," Laurence assured him. The cave, at least, seemed dry and free of vegetation, which meant it unlikely to be inhabited by any creatures large enough to worry about. It did not stink of spoor, at least. "We shall not venture far; surely Demane must know that bunyips do not live in caves, for there is no water for them to use to their advantage. Likely he entered here for some other reason, and Kulingile merely panicked in his absence."

"That does sound like him," Temeraire admitted; the younger dragon had not quite internalised his own size at present, nor what danger it might pose to others, behaving rather like a large dog that balked at squirrels. "All right, if you're certain. But please do not stay in there longer than an hour; Iskierka and I will try to return by then, but oh, don't take any risks, Laurence, please."

Granby snorted. "It's a cave," he said, making a dismissive gesture. "Don't worry yourselves to death. We have the wilderness king over here, at any rate, so I'm sure we will be fine." Tharkay raised his eyebrows at this designation, but did not demur, and Laurence found himself smiling.

After a few more reassurances, they finally persuaded the dragons to leave. Laurence watched them until they disappeared over the horizon, then turned back to the cave. "Well, gentlemen," he said, shouldering his pack and wincing a little as the faggots of wood he'd strapped to it dug into his shoulders. "Shall we?"

Tharkay lit their first torch and handed it to Laurence, the tallest of the three, who went ahead, his free hand at the ready on his belt. He did not anticipate trouble, but neither did that make him a fool, and he stepped forward with caution. The cave seemed to end abruptly, but as they drew nearer, Laurence marked a sharp turn.

They hesitated for a moment, then Granby clucked his tongue and strode forward to peer around the corner. "It's a simple turn," he reported. "No multiple branches or anything, so we shan't get lost if we continue, I shouldn't think."

Laurence was about to reply in the affirmative when a dragon's roar broke the silence outside. The three men ran for the entrance, then just as quickly backpedalled and raced out of the way, as a thunder of rocks came crashing down, blocking the opening completely. Granby cursed a blue streak, while Tharkay merely stood in grim silence. They waited until the tumbling died down before venturing forward.

"We're not getting through that," Granby said. "Not without a great deal more equipment than we have."

Tharkay knelt at the base, pressing his ear to the stone, and shook his head. "It's too thick," he confirmed, and Laurence's stomach plunged. "We cannot break through from this side."

"Perhaps the dragons?" Laurence brought up the possibility without much hope.

"Right, they'd likely bring down the whole mountain in an attempt to get us out." Granby scoffed, his tone a mixture of exasperation and affection. "No, we're better off trying to see if there's another way out before they get back."

Laurence agreed. "It looked like a ridge, not a full cliff face," he said. "We should be able to find another entrance without much trouble."

"We can't stay here for too long, at any rate," Tharkay added, taking an experimental sniff. "With the three of us and the torches, we'd use up the air too quickly, and I don't want to risk putting out the light. Just because the cave isn't likely to have dragons doesn't mean I wish to sit here in the dark."

"Nor I," Laurence added hastily, with a small shudder he hoped would be hidden by the gloom, or at least forgiven if observed. "Well, gentlemen, it looks as though we have no choice."

"Once more into the breach," Tharkay said dryly, and off they went.

The cave seemed straightforward, at least, with one straight passageway that did not curve about or split off in myriad directions. Laurence felt glad of that, at least, as unless Tharkay had managed to find some sort of bioluminescent plant with which to mark their path, he was uncertain how to ensure they would not get lost.

They found no sign of Demane, nor an exit, and Laurence began to feel the oppressiveness of the darkness and the cave's low ceiling weigh down upon him. The longer they spent in each other's company, the more Laurence recalled the incidents of days past. Without those occurrences, surely they would have been speaking to each other, helping to alleviate the worry and the shadows with their conversation. He could not, however, bring himself to start up a casual discussion for fear it would fall flat, leaving them in a silence twice as awkward as before.

If nothing else, the walk should allow him plenty of time to think, but Laurence did not know if he wished to take the opportunity. Granby's revelation had left Laurence painfully aware of every little thing which he might otherwise take for granted. When the cave's walls narrowed, leaving not enough space for the three of them to pass abreast, they split into single file, walking close behind to avoid losing each other, and Laurence could feel Granby's presence behind him as clearly as if he saw it. Once he stumbled, and Granby reached out to catch Laurence's arm, the press of his fingers firm and steady against his upper arm, before Granby recalled their situation and snatched his hand away.

Tharkay, likewise, did not appear to be unaffected, as even his wry remarks remained unspoken. Laurence felt the tension between the three of them as if giant cobwebs stretched across the cave, tangling him and making it difficult to move or think.

They walked in silence under the dancing light of Tharkay's torch, until a sound that Laurence had previously not registered simply for its strangeness made itself heard: water.

"We must be near an entrance!" Granby exclaimed, looking relieved.

Tharkay frowned. "It doesn't feel right," he said, halting in his steps. "If this were an outdoor spring, we should feel the air getting fresher, but it tastes as stale and close as always. Something is very wrong here."

"Oh, stuff!" Granby retorted, clearly on edge. "You're just paranoid -- not that it hasn't kept you alive all these years, no doubt, traipsing across Siberia for fun and all, but water has to have a source. Follow that, we get out of here. You don't need to be a genius to see that."

He took off toward the sound, nearly falling into a large hole on the way, and Tharkay ground out something through his teeth that Laurence did not catch, but which could not have been complimentary. "That man," Tharkay said, louder, perhaps feeling Laurence's eyes on him. "He's going to get himself killed properly one day, not just shot or stabbed or whatever else he's managed to do to himself already." He hefted the torch and hurried after Granby, and Laurence followed, hand on his sword.

They found Granby by a pool of water -- not a stream, as Laurence might have hoped, but a distinct, discrete body of water. Granby kicked a pebble into it and muttered to himself.

"I could have told you," Tharkay said, sounding somewhat weary. "Occasionally springs or lakes will form fully underground. It didn't mean there's an entrance nearby."

Laurence knelt by the edge of the water and stretched out his fingers, surprised to feel what appeared to be sand beneath his hand. "This does not make sense," he said aloud. "One would expect such a pool deep underground, perhaps, but this is not -- it is inside a cave. Would something like this really form on its own?"

"I admit I am not an expert," Tharkay said, joining Laurence, and crouching close enough that their arms brushed. He held the torch high over the water and shook his head. "You're right about one thing, at least -- this did not form as a natural spring. Something very strange is happening. It's as though the water is being directed from somewhere, but I can't make out the source."

Granby walked around the spring and let out a shout of surprise and dismay. "It's a dead end!" he called back. "The cave doesn't go any farther than this. We'll have to turn around and go back after all." He swore, and aimed a kick at the water, sending a spray into the air.

Silence fell for a second or two, then everything happened at once.

The water in the pool began to swirl, gathering together in a whorl at the centre; Laurence and Tharkay leapt back, and the sand beneath their feet began to slide out from beneath them, toward the whirlpool. The level of water quickly lowered, and from the depths came a low scrabbling sound on the rocks.

"What in the devil is that?" Granby demanded, at Laurence's side again. "What's happening?"

Laurence glanced at Tharkay, whose features, thrown into relief by the torch, resembled an African death mask. Tharkay sucked in his breath. "Bunyips," he said shortly. He jammed the torch in a crevice in the wall, and began work on a new one, with such practiced ease that Laurence almost did not recognise the edge of panic in his voice. "They've found a way to control the water through here as well, God only knows how. Possibly we're closer to the other side than we thought. Either way, we need to --"

He broke off, for in the entrance to the hallway stood a lurking form that Laurence recognized all too well.

"The hole in the ground," Granby said. "The one I nearly tripped into." Metal sang as he unsheathed his sword, stepping squarely in the bunyip's path.

"That's the first lair," Tharkay said. His hand closed around Laurence's wrist, and he tugged him away from the water, which had almost fully receded. "And the other --"

In the flickering torchlight, Laurence made out the terrifying creature in front of him, and had he not seen evidence of them in daylight, he would not have trusted his eyes now. The head of a dog, but with tusks half again as long as the skull, and a long, lanky body with a tail that whipped furiously.

Tharkay did not let go Laurence's wrist. "Stay close," Tharkay ordered, "and mark my location. I'd rather not be stabbed by accident."

"The thought had not occurred to me," Laurence shot back, surprised that he had the capacity for sarcasm at a time like this, but facing death in near-total darkness did strange things to a man. He shifted his sabre, glad he had practiced wielding it one-handed.

They backed up, slowly, and from behind him Laurence could hear the scrabbling of claws on stone, and the fall of Granby's boots as he shifted his footing. "They're slower than the ones on the ground," Granby noted, his voice thick with relief.

"I shouldn't think so," Tharkay countered, ever the voice of sunshine and optimism in their little trio. "I imagine they're unused to the light, and it makes them cautious. They will not hold for long."

Granby moved until his back pressed against Laurence's, his muscles tense. As he stood, back-to-back and side-to-side, with monsters that should not truly exist surrounding him, Laurence had an insane thought that could only occur to a man about to meet his fate: here, for whatever reason, he felt the completeness that had eluded him earlier. Despite the dread and fear clutching his chest, something else released, making him feel almost calm.

Laurence shifted his arm until he found Tharkay's hand, and squeezed it; he moved his sword arm back until his elbow pressed hard against Granby's side. "If I am to die," he said, "I am honoured to be in the presence of two exceptional people such as yourselves, and I am even more honoured to call you friends."

"Goddamn it, Laurence, this is no time for your platitudes!" Granby burst out, but he turned and gripped Laurence's arm for a moment before turning. Tharkay said nothing, but his fingers tightened.

The bunyip drew back into the shallow remains of the pool -- still enough to drown a man, Laurence thought, if it dragged him in -- then charged.

Laurence could not think of a fight that occurred in more confusion. The darkness, the uneven light; at one point, someone's foot hit the torch on the ground, and it skittered across the cave, flinging monstrous shadows everywhere and throwing off Laurence's aim. The bunyips were indeed just as fast underground as above, but fortunately were used to the darkness, and thrown off by the presence of the torches. Unlike their surface counterparts, their eyes were large and milky -- a fact which Laurence became well acquainted when one tackled him and he found the massive skull mere inches away from his face. Tharkay appeared at Laurence's side, but before he could strike, the bunyip's tail whipped out of nowhere and sent him flying. Laurence heard the crash and thud as Tharkay hit the far wall, his knives clattering to the ground.

Claws raked his chest, and Laurence bit back a shout of pain. His sword-arm lay trapped by the bunyip's weight, and he wasted no more than a moment attempting to dislodge it before discounting it as hopeless. Instead, he raised his free arm and drove his thumb into the creature's eye, feeling the flesh burst beneath the pressure.

The bunyip howled and reared its head back, but that did not stop it forever; Laurence had time to wrench his arm free, but had to leave the sword or break his wrist. The creature growled, the sound echoing off the walls. Laurence thrust out his hand to the side, scrambling madly, and finally his fingers closed around the end of the torch -- the lit end.

This time Laurence did scream as the flames seared his fingers, but he forced his fist to remain clenched, sliding it down to the wood and flinging his arm about to bring the torch to bear. The bunyip screeched, but did not back away.

Then, behind its head, Tharkay loomed like something out of a nightmare, and with both hands brought his knives down into the back of the creature's skull. It shrieked, the sound tearing itself through Laurence's brain, and he managed to wrench himself free in time to thrust the torch straight into its belly.

A few moments of writing, then the bunyip collapsed. Tharkay moved close, dragging one leg behind him, and, grabbing Laurence's sabre, drove it straight through to the hilt at the bunyip's heart. "There," Tharkay panted, stumbling over to Laurence and helping him to his feet. "One down."

As for Granby -- Laurence whirled, his brain having compartmentalised for survival so that it had momentarily forgotten about their second opponent. Fortunately, as he grabbed the second torch from the wall and brandished it, the slain corpse of the other bunyip greeted him. Not so fortunately, he could not make out Granby in the dimness.

"Damn it all!" Laurence's heart tripped in his chest. His right hand no longer responded to his commands, and the gashes in his chest oozed through his jacket. He did not have long before the blood loss overwhelmed him, and Tharkay did not seem much better off. "John, where are you? John!"

Perhaps half a minute of unbearable, eternal silence, then a low groan emerged from beneath the corpse. "Here," Granby's voice said, breathless and faint. "Get this -- goddamn beast off me. It -- stinks something -- awful."

Relief filled Laurence strong enough that he thought he might pass out -- though he could perhaps credit that to pain and adrenaline -- and he and Tharkay rushed forward to shove the bunyip's corpse aside. They had to manoeuvre it carefully, as Granby's sabre lay buried in its underside, his discharged pistol having blown a hole in its skull. Granby lay curled beneath the body, and did not move even after they removed its weight.

"John, are you all right?" Laurence demanded, falling to his knees. Granby did not change positions.

"Claws," Granby said, and in the dim light his expression was pinched, his eyes screwed shut. "Got me -- across the gut, God damn the beast."

Laurence moved his gaze downward, and saw that Granby's abdomen was dark with blood. His hand covered his stomach. "I need you to move your hand so I can see the wound," he said.

"Can't," Granby said, and something bubbled in his mouth. He coughed and spat, his teeth shining red. "They -- might come out, I'm afraid."

Laurence risked moving the torch closer, and through Granby's fingers he saw the telltale mess of guts. "Oh no. John, no."

Granby coughed again. "It's -- all right," he said. "At least -- I killed the bastard."

"Don't be so quick to die a hero," Tharkay snapped, and Laurence jumped; real fear tightened the man's voice, which Laurence had not heard more than a handful of times. "We can still get you out of here, if you would oblige us not to die just yet."

"Wouldn't -- want to disappoint," Granby said, closing his eyes.

"What do you need me to do?" Laurence asked Tharkay, who knelt next to Granby's side and used his knife to tear his jacket and the straps of his pack into strips.

"Support his head," Tharkay said shortly, "and don't get in my way."

Laurence worked his hand under Granby's shoulders and heaved upwards long enough that Granby could rest his head on Laurence's thighs. "Here," Tharkay said, tossing Laurence a makeshift bandage. "Tie that around your chest before you pass out and are no good to anyone at all."

Laurence bit back any reply and did as he was told, wincing as the cloth bit into his skin. Wrapping and fastening the cloth with only one working hand was more than a little difficult, but Laurence managed by bracing the other end with his elbow pressed to his chest. Having finished that, he turned back his attention to Granby, whose face looked pale even in the torchlight.

Tharkay worked in silence, and though Laurence thought himself strong of stomach, he found himself unable to watch as Tharkay peeled Granby's hand back. Silently cursing himself for his weakness, Laurence closed his eyes and bowed his head until his forehead nearly touched Granby's.

"Relax," Granby said. He flailed one arm upward, and Laurence caught it, gripping his wrist tightly, fingers slipping on blood. "You're -- making me nervous."

A ghost of a laugh escaped Laurence, and with nothing else for it, he bent and pressed his lips to Granby's forehead. "I'm so sorry, John," Laurence said, feeling the inadequacy of his words as strongly as the fire in his chest.

"What, for -- leaving me to -- fight the damned bunyip -- on my own?" Granby joked, then yelped as Tharkay did something with a knife and a length of vine that Laurence did not quite follow. "I'm -- flattered you thought -- I didn't need the help, and -- sorry -- to disappoint."

"Be quiet," Laurence said viciously. He pushed Granby's sweat-soaked bangs out of his eyes. "Just -- be quiet."

Granby chuckled, the sound a ghost of its full-throated cousin. "Did -- anyone tell you you're -- rude when you're -- scared? What -- would Lady Allendale think?"

Laurence ignored him. The rush of battle, the fear, the adrenaline, the lack of air and loss of blood left his head in a dreadful muddle. He no longer knew which emotions crashed over him, only that they threatened to drown him in their strength. "John, about yesterday --"

"Oh God." Granby sputtered, and turned his head to spit out a mouthful of blood. "Laurence -- I don't, I don't want -- deathbed apologies. For Christ's sake, leave -- leave me my dignity."

"No," Laurence said, a roaring in his head. "No, you must listen. I make no promises, and I will not hide behind the spectre of death to make a coward's confession. I don't know what to think after yesterday, truly I do not, but I promise you this -- if you do not give up, if you can make it through this, I will do my absolute best to give you an answer you deserve."

Granby's eyes went wide. "And that -- means what?" he asked, biting back a scream as Tharkay continued to work.

"I cannot tell you," Laurence admitted. "But rather more, I think, than your silence believed of me. John, I ask you -- I beg you -- don't leave."

Granby attempted to reply, but his words came out as a choked gurgle.

"This is very touching," Tharkay said abruptly, "but you need to stop him talking. It's making him struggle. I'm almost finished."

Laurence nodded, shame burning at his ears, and instead of speaking he ran his fingers through Granby's hair and did his best to wipe the mess of blood and spittle from his chin. Granby's eyes rolled back and he slumped, unconscious, but his chest continued to heave in ragged bursts.

"There," Tharkay said at last, with more weariness in that one word than most people put into an entire year. "That is all I can manage for now. If we can get him out, a surgeon might be able to save him. Only let's be careful not to jar him and send his insides tumbling out again."

Laurence nodded. He did not miss that Tharkay's face paled when he put weight on his right leg; something jutted out from the thigh, through the fabric of his trousers, and Laurence's gorge rose. In retrospect, his chest wound and scorched hand were the least of their problems. Moving gradually so Tharkay would not notice, Laurence shifted Granby's weight so the majority of it fell on him.

The trek through the cave had not seemed long on the way in, but the return distance was torture. They could not carry the torches and Granby at the same time, and in the darkness every pebble or rise in the ground seemed to find Laurence's feet and try to make him stumble. By the time they neared the final turn, Laurence's chest burned enough to make him dizzy, and he could scarce hear Granby breathing at all.

"Let's hope they've come back and cleared the entrance after all," Tharkay said, his voice fainter than its wont. "Otherwise, this will be an ignoble tale, in the end."

Laurence could not find the breath to reply. They turned, and suddenly light from the open entrance dazzled them so that Laurence nearly dropped Granby from the shock.

"Laurence?" Temeraire called, and his voice may well have been the call of a host of celestial beings for the joy it brought to Laurence's breast. "Laurence, there was a cave-in, but we've cleared it now. Are you all right?"

Scarce had Temeraire's voice been so welcome, nor the sight of his head thrust close to the entrance. Laurence attempted to reply, but could only cough, leaving Tharkay to call out instead. "Granby's down, so for God's sake, get yourselves ready to fly," Tharkay shouted.

"What?" came Iskierka's cry. "Granby? Granby is hurt? What happened? Temeraire, you said no one would get hurt! This is your fault!"

Laurence could make no sense of that, and so he did not bother; he only knew that if he collapsed now, so close to the entrance yet still far enough that the dragons could not reach him, likely they would not make it out. His entire world narrowed down to his body and the ground twelve inches in front of him; he threw all his consciousness and effort into moving one foot at a time.

At last, they made it out. Laurence remained standing long enough to see Granby safely strapped to Temeraire's back while an increasingly-hysterical Iskierka had to be told by Tharkay that her spines and jets made her carrying him back impossible, before he could stand no longer. The ground met him, every bit as welcome as the most extravagant of four-posters, and Laurence knew no more.

******

Laurence woke gradually, and with a struggle, as though his body did not want to abandon the oblivion of sleep just yet. Laurence did not agree, however, as he had spent his unconsciousness in a terrifying jumble of nightmares, of memories real and imagined, and so confused that he could not discern which was which. He guessed the bunyip's claws possessed some form of venom.

At last his memories sorted themselves out, and Laurence sat bolt upright as the fight and its aftermath presented themselves clearly. The movement caused a jolt of pain, and he pressed a hand to his chest, wincing. His entire torso was wrapped with bandages, his right hand likewise, and for a moment Laurence had to fight to stay conscious. After a moment, however, he mastered himself and was able to stay awake.

His bed was in the hospital -- a shabby affair by London standards, but well enough for this purpose. Laurence inched back and leaned against the wall, looking about the room. He blinked when he saw Demane's form curled at the end of his bed, the boy sitting in a chair with his arms on the blankets, head pillowed on his hands.

Laurence had forgotten all about Demane in the struggle, and his heart surged to see the boy alive. "Demane?" he asked, shifting his foot just enough to nudge him.

Demane jerked upright, eyes wide, and when he saw Laurence he made an abortive gesture as though about to tackle him in a wide hug. "I'm so glad you're all right," Demane choked out, barely holding back a sob.

"And I you." Laurence raised his good hand and swept his hair out of his eyes. "I'm most gratified to discover you and Kulingile were not, in fact, devoured by bunyips."

This time Demane actually did cry, and the sight of it shocked Laurence to his core. The African boy held his pride above all else, and Laurence did not think he had ever seen his tears. "I'm sorry!" Demane burst out. "I'm so sorry!"

Certainly Demane's careless bravery had nearly cost them all very dear, but Laurence did not want the boy thus burdened. "It's all right," he said. "I assume you have learned your lesson, and will not be chasing creatures on your own again?"

Demane shook his head, and swiped a hand across his eyes. "I wasn't," he said. "Kulingile and I were here the whole time. Well, hiding. We found the cave, scuffed up the ground and left the vine. Kulingile weakened the rocks so a small roar from Temeraire would bring a small cave-in."

A cold dread settled over Laurence's shoulders. "I beg your pardon?"

"It's not his fault," said Emily Roland, appearing in the doorway. At the sound of her voice, Demane stiffened and forced his tears to stop, biting his lip hard enough that it began to bleed. Emily's face was pale, her eye sockets shadowed. "Temeraire said you and Granby were fighting, and he didn't know what to do. We thought that if the three of you were stuck in a cave for an hour or so, you might be forced to talk to one another, so we pretended that Demane had gone to look for bunyips. Temeraire and Iskierka knew. I was in charge of keeping watch for your return to send word to Demane." Her voice shook, but she remained steady. "None of this was supposed to happen. You weren't supposed to get hurt."

Laurence knew, intellectually, that he should forgive them, children and dragons alike, but he saw nothing but Granby, bleeding out onto the cavern floor, his entrails glistening between his fingers; Tharkay, working to save him with his thigh bone protruding through his skin. So much nearly lost, for a childish scheme.

Laurence forced himself to take several long, deliberate breaths before he trusted himself to speak. "The others?" he asked.

"They're all right," Roland said hastily, obviously eager to set that worry to rest. "Granby -- they were worried for a little while, but Tharkay sewed him up good, and he's going to be fine. Tharkay is resting now, though they said it will be a fair bit before he can walk again."

Laurence nodded. "I see." He swung his legs over the side of the bed and settled his feet on the floor, testing his balance, before rising. "You two, go home," he ordered, and he heard the ice in his voice but could not make himself be kind, not this time. "I will speak with you later."

Roland darted forward and grabbed Demane's sleeve, tugging him out the door after her. Laurence remained in place for a moment, steadying himself, before walking slowly to the next room.

There he found Tharkay, half-propped against his pillows with his leg stretched out in front of him. Tharkay held a book, but did not read it, staring at the far wall without seeing it. At the sound of Laurence's entry, Tharkay's head whipped around. "You're not dead, then," Tharkay said, his tone an entirely unconvincing attempt at levity.

"Indeed not, thanks to you, I think," Laurence said, and gradually made his way over to Tharkay's bed. Not wanting to jar the leg, he sat in a nearby chair instead. "How are you?"

"No serious damage." Tharkay leaned his head back against the wall. "Broke my femur, which is a new one for me, and bruised or cracked some ribs -- luckily I have had experience in that department, so it does not bother me as much. This, on the other hand --" he waved a hand at his bandaged and splinted leg -- "may pose somewhat of a problem."

On impulse, Laurence reached across the bedclothes and gripped Tharkay's hand in his. Tharkay stiffened, as though to pull away, but eventually stopped and left their hands in place. "I never doubted your courage," Laurence said, and though it was not strictly true -- at the beginning of their acquaintance he had done just that -- he felt its truth at the heart, at least. "Yet, once again, you have proven it to me nonetheless."

Tharkay lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "You're the one who gripped a torch by its flaming end -- a strategy compelling in its element of surprise, I must say, but rather lacking in execution."

Laurence laughed. "If ever we find ourselves in a similar situation, I will endeavour to act with more finesse," he said. He winced. "Your knives are still in the cave."

"I can make new ones, or purchase some easily enough," Tharkay said, and flexed his fingers until Laurence released them. "You made a pretty speech there, toward the end," he said carefully, as though part of him did not wish him to speak. "I felt rather like an intruder. I must apologise."

Laurence frowned. "It is due to your presence that we survived at all," he countered, but the words felt hollow. It was not enough, but the reasons slipped away beneath him like water through cupped hands. He grasped at it, but failed to find the heart. "You -- you are not an intrusion, never," Laurence said, feeling the clumsiness at his very core. "I am rather injured that you would say so."

Tharkay's lips quirked. "Why, thank you. I am honoured to have been thus approved."

Laurence knew when Tharkay mocked him, but at the moment exhaustion pressed itself too deeply upon him for him to respond properly. He only shook his head.

"I wish to rest," Tharkay said suddenly, laying his head back upon the pillows. "Granby is in the next room. You should see him."

Laurence hesitated, sensing something in the air that he did not like -- something in Tharkay's voice smacked almost of bitterness, but he could not think why. "If you are sure," Laurence said, not wanting to intrude upon another's convalescence.

Tharkay did not reply, but merely closed his eyes, and after an awkward moment Laurence rose to his feet and hobbled over to Granby's room.

The sight of Granby was a great deal more alarming, as he lay with his entire torso swathed in bandages, his skin scarcely any ruddier than the cloth that held him together; even his sunburn seemed to have lost its hold on his skin. Laurence's breath caught in his throat.

Granby's lashes fluttered, and he turned his head. "Laurence?" he croaked.

"Yes," Laurence said quickly, darting forward.

Granby licked his cracked lips and winced. A cup of mostly-melted ice sat on the table next to the bed, and Laurence tipped a cube into Granby's mouth. Granby nodded and held it on his tongue until it disappeared. "Thank you," he said, sounding marginally better. "Well, that's a story to tell the youngsters, hey? Did they find Demane?"

Laurence flinched, and hoped Granby did not see. He thought it best to wait until his friend had healed before imparting that particular piece of information. "How do you feel?"

"Like I've had my guts half torn out by a giant monster," Granby said, and managed a weak grin. "By the way, I believe you owe me an awkward bedside confession, unless I hallucinated that. They've given me enough laudanum to kill a horse, so it's damn likely. Apologies if that's the case."

Laurence drew in his breath sharply. His time in unconsciousness had not given him much clarity; he could only remember that one, brief moment before the creatures attacked, when everything fell into place. "Are you sure you want to have this conversation here?" he asked, hedging.

Granby fixed him with an unimpressed stare that said he knew exactly what Laurence was doing. "I spent God knows how long holding my guts in with my fingers," he retorted. "Humour me."

"Very well." Laurence took a deep breath and released it slowly. The words flitted just out of reach, and he hissed in frustration at not being able to find them.

"Your eloquence amazes me," Granby said, his tone and choice of words reminding Laurence of Tharkay for a moment. He coughed and grimaced in pain before continuing. "And you know what, I've changed my mind. As much as I'd love to hear what you have to say -- if, of course, you figure it out yourself -- I think I'd rather be spared the indignity of you taking it all back after the shadow of death leaves you. If it's this hard for you to choke out whatever it is now, I can only assume you'd die of shame when it came time to take it back."

Laurence frowned, stung. "Do you really think so lightly of me, that I would make vows only to recant them later? I told you I would make no promises until I meant them, and I spoke the truth." His fingers dug into the bedsheets, wrinkling the fabric. "I do not know what you ask of me, nor what you expect, or want, but." Laurence swallowed. "I would not be averse to trying, if you will be patient with me."

Granby's gaze was intent enough to send a shiver down Laurence's spine, but then he broke it with a short laugh. "Good God, Laurence, you act as though I were going to ask you to bugger me right here. A little credit, honestly."

This time Laurence did choke, and for a moment thought it might actually do him in. Granby started to laugh, which only set him off coughing, and together they hacked and wheezed and fought for breath until both nearly lost consciousness.

"I meant," Granby gasped, small chuckles still escaping him, and he pressed one hand to his chest. "I mean -- good God, Laurence -- I never intended to ask you for roses and a house on the downs, for Christ's sake." He looked uncomfortable even forming the words. "All I ask is that whatever you do, you don't do it because you think you owe me, or anything so offensive."

"I would not do you the dishonour," Laurence said stiffly, but Granby snorted.

"Please. You would marry a girl got with someone else's child, if you thought it would save her from slander." Granby rolled his eyes. "With you being a convicted traitor, I can see you consigning yourself to a life on the border of Sodom just because you thought you owed me something." He flicked his eyes to Laurence, then away again. "I don't know either, you know," he said. "If you honestly want to -- well, whatever -- then I'm not going to spit in your eye, but Tharkay --"

Laurence blinked. "What about Tharkay?"

Granby clapped his mouth shut. "Nothing," he said quickly, astounding Laurence anew with his complete inability to lie in any convincing fashion. "You were right. Now's not the time. My head is swimming, and this is already more talk of feelings and the like than I can stomach even on a good day. I'll need a good deal less laudanum and a lot more honest liquor in my system before I can handle this."

Laurence was not inclined to disagree. The spectre of the undefined still lurked in the corners of the room, and he was not certain he was ready to light the candles and banish it just yet. Not when he did not fully understand what he would find. "You should rest," Laurence said firmly; this, at least, he knew to be true.

Granby gave him a small smile. "Don't turn nursemaid," he said. "It doesn't suit you. If you would, I'd like you to go see Iskierka and reassure her that I am still in one piece."

Ah. Laurence ran his tongue over his teeth and decided not to mention their complicity just yet. "Of course," he said, rising. He hesitated a moment, wondering if something else was required of him -- some sort of gesture, or token, of what he didn't know -- but Granby closed his eyes, not to shut him out as Tharkay had done, but from pure exhaustion.

"Another time, then," Laurence said, and Granby nodded without looking at him.

******

Laurence did not relish the ensuing conversation, but he felt it better to get over with now, while Tharkay and Granby were still abed, then to try to puzzle through it with everyone all at once. The doctor fussed over him for a minute when he tried to leave, but after a brief examination allowed that Laurence was well enough to be up and about, so long as he was careful.

He found Temeraire not far from the outskirts of the town, hunched and miserable. Any fury that Laurence may have had boiling inside him slipped away, replaced by a kind of resigned weariness. Temeraire was not a child, but occasionally his grasp of consequences resembled that of one.

"Laurence," Temeraire said plaintively when he saw him, leaning on a stick offered to him by one of the nurses. "Laurence, I am so terribly sorry. I don't even know what I can say." His voice shook, and he ducked his head. "If you don't want to speak to me, I understand."

Laurence shook his head. He drew up alongside Temeraire and leaned against him, resting his forehead against Temeraire's dark scales. Temeraire let out a high keening noise and curled himself around Laurence, though being careful not to squeeze too hard. "You have been incredibly foolish," Laurence said after a time, when he felt he could speak again. "Roland and Demane informed me. Roland gave the impression that it was her idea, but I doubt this is true."

"Oh no, it was not, not at all!" Temeraire protested. "I asked them. It was mine, mine alone." He hesitated, but did not continue, though Laurence knew him to be dissatisfied.

In spite of himself, Laurence smiled. "I'm well aware that Iskierka is implicated just as much as you, so you needn't protect her," he said.

Temeraire released his breath in a huff that ruffled Laurence's hair. "Oh, good," he said. "I would not have said a word, truly, even though she told me she was going to inform Granby that I threatened to bite her if she did not go along with my scheme -- which is not true -- because I knew you would not like it."

He sounded so wounded that Laurence could not help but forgive him. Tharkay lived, as did Granby, and no one had lost any limbs. Surely anything else would make Laurence a petty man. He wished now he had not been so harsh to the children. "Iskierka is young," Laurence said. "Granby knows this. He would not have thought so ill of you."

Temeraire said nothing, but merely trembled, his sides heaving from the effort of holding his emotions inside. Laurence reached up and stroked his nose. "Dearest, you must promise me you will never do anything of the sort again," Laurence said. It was clear to him that Temeraire had punished himself far greater than Laurence could without resorting to cruelty, but he felt he should at least pay lip service to the deed.

"I promise," Temeraire said hastily. "Oh, Laurence, I promise ever so much. I only wanted to help, and now I've made everything so much worse, and you all could have died --"

"It's all right." Laurence smoothed his hand over Temeraire's scales. "I am not angry. And you were correct about one thing -- we are speaking to each other again, Granby and I."

Temeraire did not find Laurence's attempt at light humour very diverting, but at least he looked less ready to tear out his own heart with his claws. Laurence drew back far enough to look Temeraire full in the eye. "Temeraire," he said, making sure his words were clear, "I forgive you."

A muffled noise from behind him drew Laurence's attention. "You too," he said, though he did not turn his head. "Roland, Demane, come out."

They tumbled from the scrub bushes, and flung themselves at him. Laurence ruffled Roland's hair and placed a hand on Demane's shoulder, and enjoyed the freshness of the open air.

******

Laurence returned to his home after that; as much as he would have liked to stay and watch over his friends, his presence agitated the hospital staff, and with reluctance he acquiesced to his demands. The next few days passed slowly; Laurence passed his time reading, or writing letters to Jane that he knew he would never send, or sitting out in the grass, watching the clouds with Temeraire, who remained close and protective.

One afternoon, Laurence was startled from a light doze by the sound of wingbeats, and Temeraire's answering growl. He cracked one eye open to see Iskierka drop into the field, shoulders hunched. Temeraire did not rise in greeting or offer her a cow; though he knew himself mostly responsible, he had not, apparently, forgiven Iskierka for her part in it. Laurence sighed and reminded himself to speak with Temeraire about that later.

For now, he reached for his stick and went out to meet Iskierka, who occupied herself by staring up at the sky as though she came to admire the view. "Is everything all right?" Laurence asked her, when she did not speak. Presumably Granby continued to improve, or she would have arrived in a much more alarmed temperament.

"Oh yes," Iskierka said, tossing her head, but she would not look at him and meet his eye.

Laurence frowned. "Is there something troubling you?" he asked. "Is Granby upset with you?" He did not think that would be the case, but pain could do strange things to a man, not to mention all that laudanum.

"Of course not!" Iskierka retorted. "He would not be cross with me, not ever." Her gaze, however, said otherwise, following a flock of birds as they took off from the field rather than fixing upon Laurence. "That is, you don't think he would, would he?" she asked, doing her best to sound casual, but Laurence heard the scrabbling of panic behind her words, and suddenly he understood.

She had not yet spoken to Granby; likely, she could not bear to, knowing him still to be ignorant of her part in his injuries, and dreading having to answer his questions about what happened. For the first time in her life, Laurence realised, Iskierka found herself paralysed by guilt. Guilt that she could not assuage nor bluster her way out of, despite all her threats of placing responsibility solely upon Temeraire's shoulders.

"Of course not," Laurence said. "At least, not permanently. He loves you deeply. You must know that."

"It's just, the others, they say that I've done a great wrong in allowing my captain to be harmed, and I no longer deserve one. It's all rot, of course," Iskierka said, with the same unconvincing bravado, "but one can only tell them so many times. I wondered if you could help me come up with a good argument against it."

Laurence nodded solemnly, hiding his smile. Behind him, Temeraire gave a contemptuous snort, but did not comment further. "You should tell them that Granby loves you more than breath itself, and if he did not understand that you did not intend to harm him, then he would not be your Granby," Laurence said. "You should tell them that as soon as he hears what has happened, he will forgive you, for you are his dragon and he is your captain, and no stronger bond exists on Earth. You may even tell them that Granby has made his own lot of foolish mistakes in his time, and will surely not begrudge you yours."

"Yes, exactly, that's precisely what I was thinking," Iskierka said, nodding with satisfaction, and Laurence noted that she did not droop quite so heavily now. "I hear he's going to be out of hospital in a few days, so I suppose I shall see him then," she said. "I shan't tell him I asked you, of course; he'd only be upset that those other dragons doubted him, and I shouldn't like to start a fight."

"No, of course," Laurence said with all the sincerity he could muster, and ignored Temeraire's exclamation of disbelief. "I am glad to be of service."

After Iskierka took to the air, Laurence returned to Temeraire's side. "Dearest, you should be kind to her," he said, chiding gently. "Granby was in far more danger than I. You understand how she must feel."

Temeraire emitted a low grumble of displeasure, but he did not argue. He did, however, complain. "I would not mind so much if she would not make up stories so," he said. "It makes talking with her a chore, as one must always play along, else she gets so sulky that conversation is utterly impossible. Though I suppose that would not necessarily be a negative thing."

Laurence shook his head. "We almost lost him, Temeraire, and she would have been -- at least in part -- responsible. Think how you would have felt, if it were I."

Temeraire did not reply, and Laurence placed a hand on his neck.

******

Granby showed up at Laurence's some two weeks hence, jealously guarded by Iskierka, who even hissed at Temeraire when he drew too near to give his well-wishes. Apparently convinced that the bunyips would appear even now to snatch him away should she leave him on his own for more than a few minutes, Iskierka had to be persuaded to allow him to speak with Laurence inside, without her poking her head in the door.

"It's a tremendous nuisance," Granby said, though he sounded as fond as he did annoyed. Laurence knew him to be flattered by Iskierka's attentions, even when they inconvenienced and vexed him. "Did you know, she tried to supervise me dressing myself, in case I managed to injure myself putting on my trousers. I put my foot down there, I tell you, and she sulked at me for a good half a day."

Laurence chuckled. "Well, you did injure yourself more prodigiously than usual, and that is an accomplishment for a man who has been stabbed, shot, flung from the back of a dragon, and heaven only knows what else before I met you. She has some right to be concerned."

Granby snorted and held out one hand at chest level. "See that?" he boasted. "Nary a tremble. I fancy I could go back into aerial combat right now and not worry about a thing."

"I do not doubt it," Laurence said, and indeed he did not. If anyone personified the adage about getting back on the horse, Granby certainly did. "I do not think, however, that I could enter a cave any time soon."

A shadow crossed Granby's face, and his hand stole to his abdomen in a reflex gesture. "No, perhaps not," he admitted. "Fortunately, I don't see that we shall have the need any time soon."

Silence fell, and Laurence could feel the ghost of their previous conversations as the invisible Regal Copper in the room. He did not want to broach the topic as he had not managed to clarify his own position in any satisfying form, but avoiding it seemed to make it worse.

After several minutes of this, Granby made a low growl in his throat and smacked his forehead. "This is exactly why I determined I'd never say anything," he despaired. "This damned awkwardness, it'll be the death of me. Dammit, Laurence, we've gone through more battles together, on more continents, than half the men in the service. I don't want to sit here like we're at some godforsaken dinner party next to a diplomat we knew just got caught with his third mistress."

Laurence did not particularly care for the comparison, but he agreed with the sentiment. Their friendship had, since its inception, weathered all sorts of trials -- up to and including treason, a much higher test than most people had to face -- and to see it falter in this manner seemed a tremendous waste. "It needn't be like that," Laurence protested, though he could not see a solution. "Perhaps we're going about this the wrong way."

"If you have a solution, I'll gladly hear it," Granby said, leaning back in his chair. Despite his earlier assertion that he had returned to normal, his face still exhibited an unhealthy pallor, and he executed his movements with a cautious deliberation entirely unlike his usual brash character.

"Not a solution, per se." Laurence looked up at his ceiling, unable to meet Granby's eyes. "The usual course of any normal relationship, of course, begins with a formation of some sort of understanding, enacted between both parties and any extended members if necessary. However." He thought of Jane, languid in her dressing gown and pouring him another glass of wine. "In the case where a -- ah -- dalliance is, shall we say, somewhat irregular, I've found that excessive obsessing about particulars has been counterproductive."

"Had many dalliances, have you?" Granby asked, sounding amused, and Laurence shot him a dark look. "No, no, I'm sorry, don't look at me like that," Granby said quickly, but oddly, he seemed more relieved and like himself in the face of Laurence's discomfort. Well, glad to be of service, Laurence thought.

Laurence gathered himself and tried again. "All I meant is, all this talk about who wants what and all -- perhaps it's a bit premature. Perhaps we should --" he floundered, not having made it as far as he thought he would, and struggled to rally himself under the damning weight of Granby's raised eyebrows. "That is to say, if the problem exists in attempting to define the boundaries of such a thing, or what it means, then perhaps it would be best to save that until later, when both of us have a clearer idea."

He made no sense, and Laurence knew it; he watched Granby's expression shift through the course of his babbling, from expectant to confused to incredulous, and by the time Laurence's smattering of thoughts ran themselves dry, he seemed almost entertained. Laurence could not help feeling stung.

"Yes, perhaps talking about things is not the best way to go about it," Granby said with exaggerated sincerity. "Really, there's only one test that's crucial right now, hey? If we fail that, then no point in turning your head about on the matter."

Thankfully, Laurence was not such a novice that he could not grasp Granby's meaning -- though certainly some four years prior he might have been -- and he stifled a cough. "That sounds wise," he said, not knowing what else he could possibly say.

Granby laughed, the sound somewhat less robust than his usual, and he heaved himself to his feet, wincing at the movement. "Stitches all through my gut," he said, grimacing. "I'll be getting them out in a few days, thank God." He walked gingerly to Laurence's chair and extended a hand.

Absurdly, Laurence felt the same heart-pounding, ear-roaring keyed-up anticipation as he did when taking off to join the corps in battle. His affair with Jane had been, at its core, straightforwardness exemplified; this nebulous whatever-it-was with Granby, anything but. With Jane, anything sexual had merely been an extension of their friendship, natural and uncomplicated. Here, he found himself doubting everything -- how close to stand, where to cast his gaze, where to put his hands.

Granby clucked his tongue as he might to a dragonet that spilled its bowl of sheep guts. "This is what comes of taking up with a gentleman," he groused, and before Laurence could form the appropriate rejoinder, Granby closed the space between them and kissed him.

Laurence would have liked to say that everything fell into place at that moment, all doubts vanishing into space, but alas. Separated into only its physical elements, the kiss was not unpleasant, but strange; Jane, for all her masculine traits, was still a woman, with curves and softness despite the lean muscle that came from flying. She did not have stubble that scraped at his cheek.

Granby pulled back, and the scowl on his face startled Laurence so that he nearly stumbled. "For Christ's sake, you're still thinking," Granby expostulated, his voice cracking with indignation. "What the hell has a man got to do to make you stop?"

"I --" Laurence could not imagine how he could possibly respond to that, and Granby rolled his eyes hard enough that he likely gave himself a headache.

"Don't answer that," Granby ordered. He reached up and curled the end of Laurence's neck cloth round his fingers, and a thoughtful expression crossed his face. "All right, I think I have an idea, but you're going to have to trust me."

Laurence swallowed. "I do," he said, and that, at least, he knew he could profess without reservation.

Granby looked at him then, and something in his expression shot straight into Laurence's gut, where it curled and twisted into something deeper. "Good," he said, and smiled.

******

"That wasn't so bad," Granby said cheerily, rolling the neck cloth into a ball and tossing it across the room, not bothering to get up and place it back in its proper drawer.

"Glad not to disappoint," Laurence muttered, but without any vitriol. He lowered his arms, wincing as the muscles protested. His heart had not quire recovered, still hammering in his chest, but at least his vision had returned. "Are you all right?"

Granby blinked, not understanding the question at first, then laughed. "Oh, I'm fine. Don't worry." He hesitated for a brief second, then, with a touch of boldness, bent and kissed Laurence full on the mouth. Laurence had quickly realised that the less he thought during these moments the better, and so he did not bother to dwell on the fact that this still felt primarily strange above all else, and that the essence of the experience still felt rather like poking one's tongue into the hole from which a tooth has been pulled.

Granby may have said he was fine, but he shifted in a manner that suggested otherwise, and as Laurence was nothing if not a gentleman, he could not allow himself not to return the favour. As long as he couched it in those terms, it did not feel quite so awkward. It was, therefore, some time before they spoke in any coherent manner again.

"One thing still puzzles me," Laurence said later. "Earlier, in the hospital -- you mentioned Tharkay."

"Ah. That." Granby's expression closed off in -- coincidentally -- a very Tharkay-esque fashion. "I'm not sure that's my place to tell you, honestly."

Laurence did not intend to let that divert him, not this time. "If it only concerned Tharkay then I of course would not insist, but I have the suspicion that it does not. Please feel free to correct me, if I have made an errant assumption."

Granby hesitated. "Ah. Well." He grimaced and ran a hand through his hair. "I won't tell you what ain't my place, and you can't convince me otherwise, but I can at least give you the bits that concern me, anyhow. Just … try not to get all Laurence about it, will you?"

"I will do my utmost," Laurence said dryly.

******

Laurence had rather hoped that the night's turn of events would help clarify all the questions in his mind, but alas. Much as he'd woken up in Jane's bed just as confused as when he'd started, he found that leaping that particular hurdle did not miraculously clear away all the ones still in front of him. If anything, it merely steered him onto another path which, if somewhat less defensive and confrontational, was no less muddled.

He rose earlier than Granby, as usual, and even that itself posed its own awkward question: was he expected to stay in bed until the other woke, and would a failure to do so mean he had somehow broadcast dissatisfaction with the proceedings? Laurence covered his eyes with his hand and bit back a groan; a large part of him knew this must be ridiculous, and that Granby would likely scoff at him if he knew, but he could no more help it than Tharkay could avoid being sarcastic.

As for Tharkay -- well, Laurence could not think on that now. One man could only be expected to do so much, after all.

In the end, after a few agonising moments of lying still, one arm trapped under Granby's not insignificant weight, Laurence gave up and heaved himself out of bed. He pulled on his clothes, unable to maintain a state of undress in his own apartments when alone, never mind when entertaining, and made his way to the kitchen, where he began the process of making tea and a meagre breakfast. Laurence did not count himself as a master of the kitchen, but he could do for himself, at least, since traitors to the crown were not supplied with manservants.

He was just finishing up some eggs and toast, with a pot of coffee for Granby and a cup of tea for himself, when he heard Granby enter the kitchen. Thankfully he had dressed himself as well -- Laurence found Jane absolutely enticing when she lounged about in her dressing gown, but the image of casual dishevelment was so tied to her that Laurence thought it likely his brain would implode attempting to transfer it to someone else.

Granby did not look his best in the mornings, however, appearing in rumpled clothes with his hair askew and a poisonous expression on his face as he glared at the sunlight streaming in through the window, and somehow this relaxed some of the knots in Laurence's chest. Fundamentally, nothing had changed; he needed to remember this.

"Is that coffee?" Granby asked, reaching past Laurence to snag himself a cup and inhaling deeply. "You're a god among men, William Laurence."

"I do try," Laurence said, amused; he never understood anyone's hatred of mornings as an arbitrary thing, as a navy man learned to treat 'morning' as any time he woke after the late watch, and 'breakfast' as the meal he ate at that point. He placed a plate of food before one of the chairs and gestured at it. "Please eat, before you murder someone."

Granby flicked an unimpressed look at Laurence over his coffee, but did not argue. He tucked in to his breakfast handily enough, which Laurence considered a good sign in a man who'd had to hold his insides in with his bare hands a mere fortnight before. That thought, of course, did not mesh well with breakfast, so Laurence did not dwell on it.

The scene that presented itself smacked enough of domesticity that Laurence found himself a little off balance, but he tried not to let it affect him. The only difference between eating breakfast together in his kitchen and sharing a cold cup of coffee over a campfire was the location, surely, and did not necessarily mean anything.

Granby sighed and set down his drink. "Laurence, for god's sake, you're not going to be strange about this, are you? I didn't get myself nearly killed and lord knows what else in order for you to suddenly start over-thinking every single thing. I'd rather take up with a hundred Matthewses rather than have everything turn awkward."

Laurence raised his eyebrow, ignoring the greater question in order to focus on that last sentence. Granby flushed and crossed his arms. "Metaphorically speaking," he groused. "I just mean -- god, I don't know, it's not as though I make a point to do this, and I certainly don't have long heartfelt conversations about it. I'd take a sabre for you before, and I would now, is all I'm saying."

Strangely enough, his blustering made Laurence smile. "Understood," he said. "I do have one question, and then I promise I shall cease with the incessant overanalysing and allow events to take their course, whatever it might be." Granby waved him on, and Laurence grimaced. "Are we informing our dragons of this arrangement?"

Granby's face lost several shades of colour, and he slapped a hand to his forehead. "Good Christ, I hadn't even thought of that. I vote no, at least not yet. The last thing I need is Iskierka poking her head in the window and asking how we're going, or --" here his colour shifted to green -- "God forbid, attempting to work out what our eggs would look like." Laurence choked on his tea. "Yes, you see what I mean. Perhaps later, but at this point -- no. Dear God no."

Laurence found himself inclined to agree; the conversation with Iskierka would no doubt be awkward and pointed, but Temeraire would want to ask questions -- likely not about anything as crass as mechanics (please God no), but he would want to discuss the social repercussions and contracts and what it all meant and Laurence did not think he could survive that.

It still left the matter of Tharkay rather at large, but that would just have to wait. Granby did not seem eager to bring up the matter again, either, which likely meant he felt just as out of sorts about it as Laurence.

They finished their breakfast in a companionable silence, and by the end Laurence thought that perhaps he might manage to find some sort of equilibrium after all, even if it took them some time. Afterward, Granby made a face and attempted to return his hair to some sort of order. "I should get back and see Iskierka," he said. "I think she's all right, but it was trouble enough convincing her to let me go last night -- I spent the first three days out of hospital almost entirely at her side, you know, convincing her I didn't hate her for being a damned meddling fool."

Granby said the last without vitriol, though with plenty of exasperation. "God knows why they thought that was a good idea -- or at least, why they didn't consider the thousands of ways it could have gone horribly wrong. The children I'm less surprised about, but you'd think a dragon would see more sense."

Laurence shrugged and gathered up the dishes. "They were worried," he said, though of course that did not justify it. "And they're dragons. When we offer to do something dangerous, they're convinced that as humans we will manage to get ourselves killed in minutes, but when it's their idea, they seem to forget that."

"Indeed." Granby rolled his eyes and laughed. "I couldn't get angry with her; it's clear she'd done a good job of it herself. Though I might if she insists I wear the jacket she's commissioned for me in apology. You should see it -- I'd look a proper fool, strutting around like the rajah of India with all those jewels on me, not to mention a target for every drunken convict staggering around looking for a coin to buy his next bottle of rum. At least she understood that argument and backed off, though she did volunteer to buy me a personal guard to protect me at first."

Laurence chuckled, imagining the scene. The last of the awkwardness faded, at least for now, and he found it possible to converse without constantly running his mind over every phrase and interaction. For himself, Granby made no move to renew intimacy; they did not kiss as they parted, and if Granby's hand brushed his on the way out the door, it could have been as much an accident as anything else.

When he found Temeraire, the dragon was digging his claws into the ground in impatience. "Oh good, you're up," Temeraire said, shaking out his wings. "I was about to go find you."

"What is it?" Laurence frowned. "Is something wrong?"

"There's been another revolt in town," said Roland from Temeraire's back, startling Laurence, who had not noticed her presence, nor that Temeraire was rigged for flight. If she had done all that on her own, then Laurence felt he ought to compliment her. He missed his crew. "Apparently the latest shipment of rum was delayed this morning."

A few uncomplimentary terms ran through Laurence's mind, but he did not debase himself by uttering them aloud. "I presume this is a real conflict this time, not another attempt to solve one of my personal problems through deception?" he asked, feeling somewhat unkind, but could not help being wary.

Roland, at least, had the decency to flush with embarrassment, and even Temeraire glanced away. "No, it's a real thing," Roland said. "I suppose we're not really needed -- it's just a bunch of drunkards and convicts setting themselves against the militia -- but I thought, it's the only action we've seen for a while, and anyway, if Temeraire could just blow everyone over then we could collect their weapons and it would be over before anyone got seriously hurt."

Laurence was amused at the thought of Temeraire using the divine wind to topple over both lines of the conflict like mahjongg tiles. "I'm not sure it works that way," he said, beckoning Roland down so he could check the straps.

"I could try," Temeraire said, sounding both dubious and eager to experiment. "I should probably practice on some trees or something, first, though, and not live people," he added, disappointed.

"Very astute." Laurence rolled his eyes, just slightly. "How does it lie, Temeraire?"

Temeraire raised himself on his hind legs and flapped his wings. "All lies well," he announced.

"Very well, then," Laurence said, and climbed aboard.

They found the town square a teeming mass of brawling bodies -- though the officials were conspicuously absent, the doors to Bligh's mansion barred tight and surrounded by guards, Laurence thought wryly. From the sheer disarray, Laurence guessed that perhaps half the people had actually begun the fight, while the others, bored from the daily drudgery of life in the colonies, had simply joined the ruckus for want of something better to do. The militia seemed reluctant to use their weapons on unarmed men, at least for now, but all it took was for one overeager rifleman to lose his patience, and that would be it.

Laurence felt no love for the townspeople with their appalling lack of manners, but that did not mean he wanted to see the square become a bloodbath, either. "Temeraire, perhaps you could give a roar over the crowd," he said, leaning down. "See if you can startle them into dropping."

Temeraire obeyed, rearing up and roaring loud enough that even Laurence, safe behind him, winced at the noise. The combatants paused, some with hands over their ears, others in shock, and turned one and sundry to gape at the newcomers. "You're all being very ridiculous!" Temeraire scolded them. "Everyone should stop fighting immediately, or I shall be forced to make you!"

For a moment Laurence thought that might have done it, but then one man used his opponent's distraction to his advantage, hitting him over the back of the head with the wine bottle he carried. The blow, and the other man's body collapsing unconscious to the ground, broke the spell over the crowd, and fights renewed with double the intensity.

"Oh, bother," Laurence muttered. "Temeraire, it's no good; I'll have to join them for now. Stay here, and prepare to use the wind -- over their heads, of course -- if I give the signal."

Across the square, Iskierka landed with Granby. "Are you sure I can't just set the buildings on fire?" Iskierka demanded, loudly enough that Laurence heard her clearly. Several of the men fighting heard her as well, and turned to stare at her in alarm. Granby said something to her that Laurence did not catch, and which Iskierka did not find satisfying. "I'm not letting you go in there and get yourself killed when one tiny fire would finish this once and for all," she protested. "It's not as if there's anyone inside, is there? They're all out here. Look, I could set the tavern alight! That would stop them, surely?"

Laurence winced. Sure enough, a roar went up from the crowd, and over half the men ignored their current opponents and turned to face the new threat to their favourite past time. "Oh, she would go and make it worse!" Temeraire despaired. "Iskierka, no!"

Too late. Iskierka backed up hastily, hissing and issuing jets of steam, tiny flames of warning flickering at her nostrils, as the crowd advanced upon her. In a battle against Napoleon, this would not have been a problem as Iskierka could have freely set them alight, but against civilians and supposed allies, she could not do much to harm them while they had no such compunctions about doing so to her.

"Why doesn't she just fly away?" Temeraire demanded, clawing at the ground, but Laurence knew he did not mean the question seriously. Iskierka would not fly away from a battle and allow herself to be open to accusations of cowardice, especially -- though Temeraire would not likely think of this -- with Temeraire watching her. "She really is the most -- oh, hello."

Laurence turned and saw Tharkay climbing the rigging, coming to sit next to Roland. He gave Laurence a nod. "I should have known you'd be here when the trouble started," Laurence said, at once amused and grateful.

"I should have known you'd all be here making it worse," Tharkay drawled, gesturing. "You should have just let them pound each other into the ground. A few fatalities and they'd sober up quick enough."

"Thank you for your kind advice," Laurence said, nettled. "Temeraire, I think it's time we end this."

Temeraire leapt aloft, hovering over the crowd. "Do you think I ought to try?" he asked, twisting his head around in an attempt to find an angle that would be effective without killing anyone.

"I think we have no other choice," Laurence said, and winced. The alternative was Iskierka finally losing her temper and burning down the entire town in retribution, and he did not think she would enjoy living rough in the savannahs, fighting or treating with the bunyips for water, and hoping Granby did not get devoured by one of the thousands of poisonous creatures that lived on the ground.

Temeraire filled his lungs with air, and the rumbling sound, beginning low but quickly rising, caused some of the men to stop and and attempt to run -- but the press of the crowd was too great, and would not let them through.

Granby leaned close and said something in Iskierka's ear, and though she tossed her head, disliking the suggestion, she finally stretched out her wings and took to the air, looping around behind Temeraire. Temeraire tilted his head back and released the divine wind, sending it harmlessly above and greatly distressing a pack of gulls that now found themselves tossed about the sky like a handful of straw in a gale, but at the last minute he turned his head and allowed the final rush of air to sweep the crowd. Men tumbled about like matchsticks, crashing into each other and rolling about on the floor, but Laurence did not think any of them would be seriously injured, and he drew in a breath of relief.

"Not much time now," Tharkay said. "We ought to secure them before they have the strength to stand." He drew out several coils of rope which he had tied to his belt, and passed one -- and a knife -- to both Roland and Laurence. "Bind the ones not in uniform, and let the militia take care of it when they're able."

He leapt down from Temeraire's back as soon as it was safe, Laurence following soon after. Tharkay darted over to Granby and gave him supplies as well, and they worked quickly, lashing the wrists and occasionally ankles of the troublemakers. A fair few had not been affected as badly and attempted to fight, but even so they were not steady on their feet, and a good blow quickly rendered them useless.

By the time the majority began to stir and moan in pain, they had been safely secured. "We should get out of here," Tharkay said, glancing at Laurence. In typical fashion, he did not appear out of breath in the slightest, despite dashing about and engaging in more than a few fisticuffs with more troublesome opponents. "I'm afraid you will not be popular, Laurence, for what you've done. Bligh, no doubt, will commend you to high heaven and attempt to seduce you to his cause once more, but the others will not be so grateful."

Granby snorted. "They should be, the dogs," he said darkly, "but no doubt you're right. They'll see it as interference, more proof that dragons are dangerous and should be kept away from town."

"Not to mention, they likely assumed that the men would lose their fire after having a good fight," Tharkay added, casting his gaze about the square. Several militiamen tottered to their feet, and the looks they threw Temeraire's way certainly did not scream gratitude. "This way, you've robbed the convicts of their righteous anger, and they'll likely only stew longer."

Laurence did not much care, as he knew that the only alternative had been to allow them to fight each other until someone was severely injured, and though he did not harbour warm feelings for anyone here, that did not mean he was as willing to allow them to kill themselves as Tharkay appeared to be.

Likewise, Temeraire did not seem apologetic. "Well, that doesn't make any sense!" he retorted. "They were fighting, we stopped the fighting. What does it matter?"

"Nevertheless, I suggest we leave for now and allow them to settle it," Tharkay said, climbing back aboard Temeraire's rigging.

"I agree," Granby said, and Iskierka snorted.

"I don't see why they should be displeased when I didn't even burn anything," she said, but added, "but humans are never particularly intelligent, and I don't want anyone trying to blame my Granby, so I think we should leave as well."

Thus decided, they took off and left the square and its confused inhabitants behind.

******

Tharkay once cut out a portion of his own thigh after a bite from a poisonous serpent began to necrotise the flesh. He wishes he could do that now, with the envy that stirs in his breast.

He suspects when Laurence and Granby sit on opposite sides of the campfire instead of crouching together on a log and passing a mug of coffee between them, and knows when they spend the entire time not making eye contact with each other and forcing camaraderie upon Tharkay like a defeated navy captain might be returned his sword by the victor in a token gesture. He rather wishes Iskierka would set the entire continent on fire and put him out of his misery.

Laurence, true to form, seems entirely determined to ensure that Tharkay feels included, not realising that in so doing he is enforcing the separation far more cruelly than if he had just left well enough alone. This is, of course, so typically Laurence that Tharkay almost cannot fault him for it, much as he would not have scolded his eagle had it killed a child's pet mouse and eaten it -- except that an eagle has no cause to know better, whereas Laurence really should.

Young Emily Roland, at least, seems unaware, working discontentedly on her algebra with Demane, whom they met later, having reluctantly kept Kulingile from the conflict. The two of them sit, heads bent together over their notes, their future spelled out as plain as the writing on their copybooks, and Tharkay wishes them more joy than he suspects their respective heritages will grant them.

Laurence continues to babble on about one thing or another, studiously seeking Tharkay's opinion on this matter or that one, and finally Tharkay catches Granby's eye and holds it in order to give him an accusing stare. Granby, at least, is no fool, and his ears redden before he looks away. It is not what has so obviously transpired to which Tharkay takes exception -- that, at least, is on par with the leftover stew that is Tharkay's romantic life -- but that Granby has so obviously shared a crucial piece of information with Laurence. Had he not done so, Laurence would not be so desperate to show Tharkay that nothing has changed.

"I'm off to find some firewood," Tharkay says suddenly, unable to take it anymore. He stands up, cutting Laurence off mid-sentence, and brushes bits of bark from his trousers. Laurence looks hurt, but only for a moment before he wipes the expression on his face and replaces with with solicitous concern.

"I'll help you," Granby says immediately, rising. Tharkay wants to tell him to find firewood and place it somewhere creative and uncomfortable, but of course he cannot do so without making a scene, and so he merely lifts his shoulder in response and stalks off.

"I'm sorry --" Granby begins once they are out of earshot of the group, and Tharkay rounds on him.

"I don't give a damn what you and Laurence do or don't do behind closed doors," Tharkay grinds out, knowing both that this is a lie and that Granby is acutely aware of that fact. "The best man won, and I give you the heartiest of congratulations. I would, however, have expected that in return you have kept silent upon a particular matter that does not concern you."

Granby winces and shoves his hands in his pockets. "I didn't, not the way you're thinking," he protests. "I didn't say -- that is -- dammit, Tharkay, all I said was --"

"If you said anything, it was the same number of words too many," Tharkay snaps, and though he normally takes pride in keeping himself in a state of icy calm, preferring to freeze others rather than burn them, he cannot do so now. This alone is humiliating enough to feed the fire in his breast. "I could have survived while the two of you galloped off on your white horse to home and hearth, truly I could -- I am not a jilted maiden. But to have to bear all that and yours and Laurence's pity besides --" he wants to spit on the ground, and so he does. It does not help much, but the expression on Granby's face does, a little. Tharkay has hurt him, deep, and for that he is glad. An eye for an eye.

Granby screws up his face in a grimace. "I'm sorry," he says again.

"Save it," Tharkay says, struggling to pull himself back under control. It shames him that this whole situation has allowed him to lose himself so easily. It speaks much to the weakness in his soul that he thought long excised after parting with Sara. Tharkay does not wish to return to being that person again; he needs to find that version of himself and hold its head under the water until it can no longer surface.

He is not so melodramatic as to think he no longer requires feelings or caring about others; that is the act of someone hurt so deeply he responds in a childish rage, but it is something like. Tharkay will survive, and he will not be pitied. He sets his jaw and stares Granby down until the other breaks his gaze.

"Damn it all," Granby mutters, then turns on his heel and heads back to the encampment, pausing to scoop up an armful of branches in an effort to look as though they'd actually been searching.

Tharkay watches him go. He is happy for them, truly, or at least as truly he can be while simultaneously wishing for the world to be consumed by a giant monster. Granby and Laurence. It makes sense that it would be the two of them; it was they in the beginning, before he ever arrived, and in a sense, he has never truly been a part of their pairing, only a tolerated intrusion. He should not be surprised at the outcome, and really, he is not, not at the core.

What does surprise him is that he can no longer untangle of whom he feels more envious. Unfortunately, as that would not avail him even if he did, Tharkay sets the thought aside, relegating it to the same room in his mind where he keeps his thoughts of Sara's children, one of whom surely must exist by now.

A man cannot survive on wishes, nor build a fire out of regrets, and so Tharkay bends and begins to gather firewood.

******

Laurence did not purport himself to be an expert on interpersonal relations -- rather the opposite, most of the time -- but he had an idea of what transpired between Granby and Tharkay during their quest for firewood, only confirmed when both returned separately with matching expressions of frustration and overall unhappiness. Tharkay rebuffed any attempt Laurence made to speak with him for the rest of the evening, which did nothing but strengthen his fears.

He wondered what it must feel like to embark on a relationship -- if, of course, that was the appropriate word for what he and Granby refused to label or discuss in detail for fear of sinking beneath the earth in embarrassment -- without this level of confusion and the twisting of loyalties. Certainly breaking all taboos against immorality was difficult enough without Laurence knowing that he had stuck a dagger in the back of a friend, as well.

And yet, he could say nothing in good conscience when Tharkay so vehemently desired the subject be left alone.

Still, though, Laurence did not intend to let this fester until all traces of their friendship dissolved in the wake of it. If he did not wish this new development to alter the fundamentals of his interactions with Granby, it was doubly so for Tharkay -- whose history of abandonment and subsequent fatalistic attitude meant he would likely take this in stride, as a mere extension of what he considered his cosmic desserts. That thought alone dug its claws into Laurence's chest and would not let him go.

Tharkay deserved better. Laurence knew this; he felt it in his gut, wrenching him sideways at the thought of the man living out life alone, convinced of nothing better. Tharkay's life of neglect and casual underestimation had left its mark on him, no matter how much the man remonstrated against the idea. That he had followed Laurence thus far was not a compliment Laurence intended to take lightly, nor a loyalty he meant to cast aside.

Unfortunately, in light of all else, Laurence had little idea of what he meant to do.

After the first night, when Granby and Tharkay had their unseen altercation, things returned to somewhat of an equilibrium in that Tharkay fell full into pretending mode, putting on a face and acting as though he knew nothing, saw nothing, heard nothing. Laurence did not buy it any more than he suspected Tharkay did when Laurence pulled the same -- though less skillfully on his part -- but still could not discern how to challenge it.

One afternoon, Granby and Iskierka flew back to town to check the situation, and to fetch more supplies if it warranted further sequestering. Demane, Roland and Kulingile took it upon themselves to explore a nearby cliff range, under the strict orders that they would not enter any caves, leaving Laurence and Tharkay on their own.

Tharkay took out his new collection of knives, pulling them from various places on his person that Laurence had not realised were capable of concealing weaponry, and began the process of sharpening each on a small whetstone. He did not speak to Laurence, but did not overtly ignore him either, dragging the blades along the block with a small flourish.

The scraping sound soon overshadowed the calls of various birds and the hum of insects, and at last, Laurence could take it no more. "Tenzing," he began, and Tharkay stiffened.

"Whatever you're about to say, I assure you it's not necessary," Tharkay said, holding up a blade and examining it before testing its sharpness against a broad leaf.

Laurence would not be put off, not this time. "I think you'll find it is," he said. "I'm not sure what you think has happened, but there's no need for things to be like this between us."

Tharkay set his knife and stone down with deliberate care, then folded his hands in his lap and fixed Laurence with a polite, inquisitive stare; the look of a student who has not decided whether a particular professor is worthy of his attention. "And what, pray, does Captain William Laurence, in his inestimable wisdom, think has happened?"

That threw him, slightly, but Laurence soldiered on. "Granby and I --" he stopped, flustered, unable to put a name to it, and Tharkay's nostrils flared slightly but he did not interrupt. "That is, we are attempting to establish a new --"

"You're lovers," Tharkay said, sounding drained of both energy and patience. "How do you manage it if you can't even say it? It's very English of you, I must say."

Laurence ignored the gibe, meant to knock him off course; he knew Tharkay did not expect him to rise to the bait, but could not resist attempting it anyway. "Lovers, then," he said, though the word tasted strange on his tongue. He looked up at the sky, blue and hot and nearly devoid of clouds. "Granby told me --"

This time Tharkay did cut him off, with a sharp gesture as well as words. "I don't care to hear what Granby told you."

That was probably for the best, as Laurence did not know how to phrase the words 'you are in love with me' without sounding ridiculous and entirely self-serving. He could barely think the phrase in his mind without wanting to shy away from it. "I only meant, whatever you might feel, I do not want you to think that --"

"What I do or do not feel is irrelevant, is it not?" Tharkay asked, taking out a short, wicked-looking curved blade and examining it for notches. "Any conversation you attempt to have along these lines can have no fruitful discourse, so I suggest you do not torture yourself any further. I doubt you even know what you're trying to say."

He did not, but that did not mean he ought not to try. Laurence swallowed his impatience. "Tharkay," he said, resorting to the less personal surname, as he rather felt that his permission to use the other had been revoked. "You are extremely valuable to me, you must know this. Your counsel, your friendship, is not something I would cast aside."

Tharkay stood, deliberately, but with coiled fury, and somehow this alarmed Laurence more than if he had leapt to his feet with a violent shout. "Do not humiliate me further," Tharkay said, his voice calm and dangerous as newly-forged steel. "I understand your motives, and believe me when I say that I know you are an honest, worthy man, and do not think less of you. I therefore would ask you pay me the same courtesy, rather than assuming that I cannot function under the sight of you finding happiness with another just because I have not performed a traditional dance of congratulations and provided you with a bed of jewels for your dowry."

Tharkay swallowed, his teeth gritted together. "You equate momentary dissatisfaction and, yes, disappointment, with utter soul-crushing misery, which says very little about your estimations of my character. I have endured more epithets against my race, personage, qualifications, and everything else than you could probably name if you had a century to think on it. I ask you not to insist on pouring vinegar on the wound by treating me like a boy disappointed in his first love, and imagining my soul to be so weak."

Laurence took a step back, aghast. "I never meant to imply --"

"Of course you didn't." Tharkay slashed the air with his hand. "Laurence, if you were only ever punished for what you meant to do, doubtless you would be blameless forever -- but alas for you, that is not how it works. A man who kills another through inaction is just as guilty as one who looks where he is aiming; likewise, one who patronises with the best of intentions is no better than an Admiral who looks straight through a man as though he is not there and asks the guards who let the coolie in."

Laurence hissed. "You do not mean that, surely."

"If you are naming yourself the executor of my thoughts and deeds, I believe we're done here," Tharkay said. "If I am behaving as though our friendship is damaged, it is not because I am so jealous at the thought of you two together that I cannot contain myself. If you cannot see that, then I do not see what valuable discourse any conversation between us could possibly have."

He spat the words with such cold, calculated fury that Laurence could scarcely hear them over the ringing in his ears. Without giving much thought to his actions or the reason behind him, Laurence found himself closing the distance between them, catching Tharkay by the shoulders. He intended on saying something -- anything -- to make Tharkay realise his mistake, but he kissed him instead.

Tharkay did not strike him, as Laurence might have expected; instead, Laurence found himself with the point of a blade pressed against the pulse point of his throat. He swallowed and felt it dig into his skin.

"Do -- not -- humiliate me in that manner again," Tharkay ground out, his eyes aflame. Laurence could find no words with which to defend himself, and knew that any attempts to do so would not be met with kindness. Tharkay stood in silence for a few moments, evidently searching for words himself, but, unable to find them, he sheathed the knife in his sleeve and returned to his pile of weaponry.

Laurence, utterly unable to comprehend what had come over him just then -- nor why the impulse to do it again, were there no knives present, would not release his brain -- said nothing. He had, he thought, rather lost his mind.

******

Later that evening, after Granby and Iskierka returned, Laurence drew Granby aside and, his heart heavy, informed him of what had occurred during his absence. Laurence was under no illusions that Granby would not be furious; they had not labeled themselves as lovers as such, and had made no agreements or understandings, but Laurence imagined such a situation still precluded kissing people willy-nilly. He'd thought of Granby and his Matthews again, and the bright spot in his chest began burning again with what Laurence now knew to be an unflattering burst of jealousy.

Granby, on the other hand, neither struck him nor pulled a weapon, but merely sagged in what Laurence could only describe as relief. "Oh, thank God," he said, uttering those three simple words in perhaps one of the most baffling contexts that Laurence could conceive.

Laurence blinked. He knew he had not availed himself of a string of lovers throughout his lifetime -- though, to be fair, neither had Granby -- but that did not mean he should be so ignorant as to miss a provision like that, surely. "I beg your pardon?"

Granby laughed and passed a hand over his eyes. "Sorry, that must have sounded strange. I just meant -- you're not the only one."

Well, that was certainly new, and Laurence had to give Tharkay some measure of credit for his unexpected efficiency. "I beg your pardon?" he said again, with more incredulity this time.

"Not since," Granby said, rolling his eyes at Laurence's bafflement. "Before. I told you, we talked about this -- well, common affliction, I think we called it, I hope you take no offence." Laurence rather did, but tried not to think about it. "At any rate, we spoke of it, sort of -- well, we did not speak so much as console one another, if you take my meaning. I thought I'd mentioned that."

He most certainly had not; Laurence felt he would have recalled such a detail. He wanted to ask what caused them to stop, but despite everything else still could not make himself form such a question.

Granby chuckled then, and patted Laurence on the arm in a conciliatory manner. "It's all right, you don't have to debase yourself by asking. We stopped because it was just sad, really. The two of us together, that's one thing, but when the common thread is being in love with another, it just felt like wallowing. In the end we decided it would be best to find our consolation elsewhere."

And so Granby had found Matthews, and Tharkay … Tharkay, as per his usual, had locked everything up inside himself and refused to consider the matter any further. Laurence drew his lower lip between his teeth and chewed on it in thought. "Would you still?" he asked. "Regardless of anything else, I mean."

Granby looked up at the sky and gave an exaggerated shrug. "I wouldn't have thought so -- that'd make me one greedy bastard, wouldn't it, baking my cake and eating it as well, or whatever the saying is. But. If you're asking, and you're not being a woman about it and looking for a reason to slap me, then, yes."

Just when Laurence thought things could not get any more complicated -- nor, for that matter, any more Biblically condemned, but oddly enough, Laurence had no scruples on that count. England had done precious little enough for him that flouting one more of her laws did not seem much of a task anymore. He wondered when this had happened to him.

******

As it turned out, the physical aspect of things -- while nice, though still nothing Laurence could think too heavily upon without his years of education as a gentlemen making the blood leap to his face and his words completely leave his mind -- did not form the anchor of the relationship.

Laurence felt incredibly relieved by this, though really, he should have expected it. While his and Jane's interactions had been even less formally-arranged than this one, with the insistence on her part that it remain casual if anything were to take place at all, it would not have continued as long as it had, Laurence felt, without there being some measure of affection between them. Even if Jane had laughed at him when he proposed -- something for which, despite feeling stung and rather humiliated, as any man might be expected to feel, Laurence was actually quite grateful now -- she had not done so out of malice, or want of fondness, but because she gauged their situation far more accurately than he had.

Even now, Laurence found that the case with Granby and himself hinged less on what they did behind closed doors but in those moments were nothing was said. Four years of friendship lay between them now, those weeks and months fraught with battles, losses, struggles, and tests that had forged a loyalty between them that few could hope to match. While previously, an unspoken agreement thrummed between them in the silences, during those fights side by side or long nights spent sitting next to each other without speaking, now Laurence had a word for it. A woefully nondescript, generic word, he rather thought, which did next to nothing to encompass the years that had come together to create the present situation, but at least it gave him a starting point.

It at least gave Laurence the ability to put a name to the strange feelings that had crept up inside him during various points in his association with both Granby and Tharkay, however uncomfortable it made him to dwell on them. Moments where the words had choked up inside him -- where, exceedingly grateful that Tharkay had chosen to ally himself with Laurence and join him in exile after most of his own crew refused even to make eye contact, Laurence had only managed to blurt out an inane, unfeeling-sounding sentence about being glad of Tharkay's company.

Tharkay, it seemed, had understood him, that the emotions Laurence wrestled with went far deeper than the pitifully insignificant words he had managed to say. Impressive, really, when Laurence had not been entirely certain himself.

Whether or not one of those words was 'love', well -- Laurence had no doubts on that score, but at the same time, little idea of what it meant. He knew, having read Temeraire countless books of philosophy and language, that he was scarcely the first person to note the absurdity in that a man could 'love' a ship, a woman, a dragon, a father, a daughter, and Christmas pudding, with that lone word responsible for governing the incredible range of emotions and physical reactions. He loved Temeraire, that was certain, but so, too, did he love Granby and Tharkay -- only, less so could he put a finger on exactly what that statement entailed.

Regardless, Laurence realised that whatever it meant to have some sort of agreement between him and Granby, be it lovers or something else, it was not enough. A stool on two legs cannot stand, but requires constant balance and attention from the man who attempts to sit on it; Laurence found himself in a similar situation now. It was not that Laurence found any of the physical aspects lacking -- especially considering, given what Granby affectionately termed his 'goddamn gentleman's repression', Laurence could not devote proper thought to the matter without having a mild panic attack and needing to stop and drink some tea -- but that it still felt empty.

Perhaps, had his friendship with Tharkay continued apace, it would not have been such a stark contrast, but with the force of Tharkay's fury between them, Laurence felt the loss keenly. Having established with Granby that the other felt the same way, the solution seemed clear enough, but the method of implementation was not so clear.

"He's just so stubborn," Granby lamented one evening, giving the fire in Laurence's grate a sullen poke. "Not that I'm any less so, of course. You know, the entire time he and I were -- well, anyhow -- we never actually talked directly? Except for once, and even that felt like I was pulling my hairs out one by one."

Laurence felt rather vindicated at that, for Granby seemed to delight in torturing Laurence for being rather less than forthcoming with emotional discussions himself. "He is a man used to tuning out his own needs," Laurence said, and while that particular trait had long saddened him, now he found it absolutely maddening. The more time they spent in this awkward state of limbo, the more Laurence feared that Tharkay would have nothing else to hold him here. Since Laurence had oft wondered what kept Tharkay bound to him in the first place, now that he knew and had ostensibly severed that tie, the possibility of separation seemed all too real.

Granby tossed the poker back in its stand and sat down with a grunt. "Exactly. And it's not like you could just go up to a man and say that. 'Oh hello there, but what I really think you need is a good, healthy dose of yours truly' -- it's ridiculous! I wouldn't even say that to a woman. To a man it would be damned offensive. He'd gut me with one of those knives, and he'd be right to."

Laurence knew to his very core that he himself needed Granby and Tharkay, that without them his life would be a much emptier place, his judgements less solid. Yet to say so aloud seemed an excess of sentimentality that bordered on the unhinged. "I know not what to do," he admitted.

At that point, a perfunctory rapping at the front door cut off Granby's reply, and Laurence rose to answer. He found Tharkay at the door, his expression neutral, holding his familiar beaten rucksack over one shoulder. "No," Laurence said immediately, unthinking, for he knew what his friend was about to say. "No. Please."

Tharkay pressed his lips together, as though he had anticipated Laurence's response and already steeled himself against it. "I find that my presence is no longer required on this continent," he said, the words even and rehearsed. "I am to catch the next vessel that will take me out, perhaps to Asia. I do not pretend to be so melodramatic as to say farewell forever, so please do not take this news with more feeling than is meant."

"Damned right you're not," Granby exploded, appearing behind Laurence, and Tharkay took in his arrival with a brief glance. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Maintaining my dignity," Tharkay said, and this time allowed an edge into his words. "Surely you can allow me that, if nothing else."

Laurence's chest constricted. "Tharkay -- Tenzing -- please." He hesitated, not for the lack of words but beneath the sheer volume of them, tumbling about in his mind like a flurry of bats in the evening air. He could not very well babble about two-legged stools and linguistic connotations of simple words when those thoughts meant very little even to him. In the end, eloquence failed him, as it always did. "It would mean very much to me if you stayed," Laurence said at last, every fibre of his being aching with the inadequacy of it.

Tharkay's gaze flicked to Laurence's face; Laurence could only hope and pray that his meaning, as tangled as it was inside his own head, somehow made it through to Tharkay's understanding. Tharkay merely shook his head, however. "You cannot ask it of me," he said simply.

"He might not, since he wouldn't even ask for a bandage if his arm were cut off," Granby snapped, clearly impatient with the lot. "Luckily for all of us, I don't break out in a sweat over it, and since I'm the only one of us who's seen his own insides from the outsides, I think I'm entitled to a bit of drippy nonsense without my manhood being taken into question." He took a deep breath and let it out. "You're not going anywhere, not unless you're willing to chop my arms and legs off, and Iskierka's wings, too, because that's what it's going to take to stop you."

Laurence could have kissed him. It took his brain a moment to remember that such a thing was no longer hyperbole; he wondered, idly, how long it would take before this sort of thing sank in for real.

Tharkay looked startled, and before he could muster up his no doubt blistering reply, a shadow fell over them and Temeraire dropped to the ground. "And mine!" he declared. "What's all this nonsense about leaving? You're my crew, Tharkay, even if I don't technically have a crew anymore, and you're dear to Laurence, and I won't have it! Has something happened? Has someone said something? I may not be able to set things on fire or do anything so flashy, but I can have them tossed in the ocean in a moment!" He lashed his tail to punctuate his point.

Laurence could not help but smile, and even Tharkay seemed amused before he remembered to be stoic. "That is all very well," Tharkay said, "but in the end, a man's decisions are his own. The moment that stops being true, we may as well lie down and die."

"Oh, stuff!" Temeraire tossed his head. "Of course that's true, but if this were really your own decision you wouldn't be going, would you? Whatever's making you go, it isn't the depth of your soul." He lowered himself down so he could look them more or less at eye level. "I've figured it out, you see."

"Oh?" Tharkay raised an eyebrow. "Do indulge me."

"Well, then." Temeraire settled himself down, shifting his shoulders for a moment like a cat in order to find a comfortable position against the ground. "Your Bible, I'm sorry to say, has it all wrong, at least the part about 'two become one'. It has the last part right, you see -- in the end, you become almost like one person, because you think for the other and act for the other and you stop being selfish -- but it's wrong about the numbers. It's not about two becoming one; it's about as many as it takes to form that completion. I think it's all this business of only choosing one other where all your problems come from -- wars, divided loyalties, all of this."

Laurence only wished that that fellow, what's his name, Reverend Something, who had debated on whether or not dragons possessed a soul, could be present to hear this new form of blasphemy. Laurence found he could not even pretend to disapprove.

"There's a school of thought, in a small tribe in the Indies," Temeraire continued, "that believes that one soul is divided between several people, and that the journey of life is for each to find the others who carry pieces of that soul, and for them to come together. It's clear to me, anyway, that even if that isn't true -- for it's so hard to tell with mysticism -- that something of the sort happens here. That's why aviators and their dragons can be so close, though we are not the same, and which is why it's ridiculous that we cannot get married, or for the three of you for that matter, as though the only important thing about marriage were whether or not they can make eggs together."

Laurence coughed. "Have you given this a great deal of thought, dearest?" he asked, for while Temeraire's passions were high, his usual articulateness when dealing with philosophy was somewhat lacking this time.

Temeraire looked shifty. "Well, I had been doing some reading on the matter, but I only really started thinking about it just now, when I heard Tharkay say all that rot about planning to leave. It's still very rough, and I could do with a long discussion, Laurence, if you wouldn't mind, and perhaps one day once I work it all out, I could publish my own text! But you believe me, don't you?"

Laurence looked from the dragon to the two men beside him, and found himself smiling. "I do, my dear," he said, and laid a hand against Temeraire's neck. "I do believe you have found the very crux of the matter."

"So you see?" Temeraire said proudly. "There's no reason why Tharkay must leave at all. It's only this ridiculous notion of twos that, frankly, is rather surprising that you believe in the first place, Tharkay, considering the pride you take in eschewing so many other restrictions that society imposes."

Tharkay remained silent for a long moment. Laurence swallowed and reached out a hand. "Stay," Laurence said again, quietly. "Please."

"I'm not saying please," Granby said, crossing his arms. "If you're going to insist on being a damned idiot when even Laurence has come 'round, I don't see how my begging is going to make any difference."

"Thank you kindly," Laurence drawled, unable to stop the tone, and Granby laughed.

Tharkay released his breath, then straightened his arm and let his pack drop to the ground. He grasped Laurence's hand, and jostled Granby with the other. "Then I suppose I'll need a place to stay," he said. "I gave notice at my apartments this morning."

"How convenient," Laurence said, peering out at the yard as the sun came out from behind the clouds. "Temeraire has taken fancy to architecture, and has quite the plans for this place; I'm sure he could think of something for you. Tell him, Temeraire."

******

It is not perfection, of course, for nothing ever is.

For all Temeraire's rousing speeches and heathen philosophy, it will never be anything that they can tell another soul -- not the children, and certainly not Iskierka, whose ability to keep secrets is legendarily low even when she thinks it's something worth keeping, such as a herd of particularly juicy cows. In this instance she would not understand why it should matter a fig to anyone, and while in principle Tharkay agrees, they are surrounded by convicts sentenced to hard labour, and it would not be difficult to add three more if the governor saw fit.

Granby is, as Tharkay suspected during their brief liaisons, a demanding and occasionally selfish lover; Laurence, Tharkay finds, is rather the opposite, often giving without thought to himself in the slightest, and often attempting to turn down any offers to the contrary; while Tharkay himself is so unused to the situation that first he is greedy, like a beggar child at a banquet who stuffs himself because he knows not when he will find such a sumptuous feast again. It takes time to strike the proper balance.

Granby is also somewhat of a mess in the house, leaving his belongings in the strangest places, which drives Laurence somewhat to insanity. Tharkay is tidy in his own affairs and cares not a whit if someone else's socks end up wedged in the settee, and so watches their arguments with detached amusement.

There are too many limbs and not enough room, and it is difficult to procure an item of furniture where the three of them can sit together comfortably when they watch the fire. Laurence would sit on the floor, of course, but the others do not permit him; usually it is Granby, sprawled in front of the settee with his arm across Tharkay's thighs and his head on Laurence's knee.

It is frustration and near misses and exasperation, but it is also understanding, compromise, and satisfaction. It is arguing over dinner and the washing-up, and arguing with Temeraire over whether they should turn native and raise a herd of sheep together as he seems to envision as his dream. It is stifling in the early evening heat when Tharkay cannot move without finding some part of another's body in any direction, but it is also the chill of pre-dawn, when the others' warmth is ever-present and more than welcome. It is confusion and, in a way, a loss of the sense of self, of the independence that Tharkay has taken so many precious years to cultivate; it is being answerable to someone else for the first time in his life. It is finally being able to make demands of another, not because they owe him in any sort of balance-sheet sense, but because whatever he might ask, it will be given, gladly.

It is not perfection, but it is enough. For the first time in his life, Tharkay finds himself content.