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Sea Change

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Arkady descended on Temeraire and began to expound fervently on the best angles for brooding eggs and the proper songs to be sung at the different stages of development. Temeraire was eyeing him in bafflement, but listening willingly enough—he could scarcely get in a word of protest, anyway.

Tharkay sympathized. He had recently received similarly detailed instructions from both Arkady and Wringe on the care of their egg, and, somewhat surprisingly, also on the care of his own person. The ferals had been firmly set against Tharkay’s leaving England again, and were apparently entirely unconvinced he was capable of keeping himself properly fed and clothed in their absence. Arkady had only been consoled by the fact that Tharkay would be accompanying his egg as a protector and escort, as he was not entirely certain Temeraire would be an adequate nursemaid.

Tharkay knew this concern did not much signify. The ferals looked upon him more as a useful possession than as a friend, though he knew they were genuinely fond of him in their own bluff way. In truth, Tharkay could not help being touched at their possessiveness. A man did like to be missed, on occasion, and he had put a rather lot of effort into the transport and instruction of the Turkestan ferals. He did not suppose he would ever have children of his own; his erstwhile draconic brood was likely the closest he would achieve.

But other than the pack of irascible dragons he had coaxed and bullied across a span of continents, he had no ties to England, nothing to keep him in the cold, grey country any longer. His time with Arkady and his fellow miscreants was over, at least for the foreseeable future. Though apparently the care of their offspring was going to be occupying a considerable portion of his and Temeraire’s time.

The dragonet was to be decked out as a king or queen, and Arkady was now reluctantly bequeathing a spangled bracelet to Temeraire’s keeping, to be handed over at the hatching. Tharkay watched, bemused, as Arkady extracted increasingly elaborate vows from the increasingly exasperated Imperial that the bracelet would be passed to its proper owner when the time came, with interest.

“I will not devote any portion of my prizes to your stupid egg!” the dragon protested vehemently, flattening his ruff, and Arkady sniffed and pressed on.

“And we thought Iskierka spoilt,” Tharkay said to Laurence, who was standing nearby with a far-off expression on his face. Apparently he’d not been listening to the ensuing arguments at all; he startled and stared at Tharkay as though he’d seen a ghost, a burst of color entering his cheeks. He looked, Tharkay thought dispassionately, much improved. He had gained back some weight, and his face had lost that intolerable blankness it had carried months previous, had color and expression again. And there was something subtly different about his carriage, about the set of his shoulders, that bespoke a man with a purpose and a future.

“Tharkay,” he said, and there was a surprised warmth in his voice that made Tharkay foolishly catch his breath. “What are you doing here?”

“Laurence,” Tharkay replied, inclining his head and avoiding the question for the moment. “I am not surprised you missed my arrival. Arkady and his egg do tend to divert attention.” Indeed, most of the deck hands were currently staring slack-jawed at the two squabbling dragons, the bustle of ship preparations temporarily halted. But in truth, Tharkay had wanted a moment to watch Laurence unobserved, and it had been simple enough to take advantage of the distraction Arkady provided and make his way unobtrusively to the man’s side.

It was a pleasure to see Laurence smiling again, Tharkay thought, not quite as dispassionately as he would like to have managed. But then he supposed he ought not lie to himself. Had Laurence contrived a means of staying in Great Britain, Tharkay would have remained also, despite his distaste for the climate and the majority of the people that inhabited it. He would not say as much to Laurence, but he rather suspected it might be apparent. Lord knew what Laurence was going to do with that information.

He admitted he was somewhat invested in finding out.

Laurence looked pleased to see him, in a stilted, embarrassed sort of way. The last time they had spoken alone, after all, Laurence had had tears upon his face. Their interaction had been awkward and strained ever since, on both sides.

Now, though, Laurence was watching him with surprised eyes, and Tharkay allowed himself a small smile. At times, it was terribly easy to read the thoughts on Laurence’s face—just now he was unsure whether to beg pardon for his behavior in the previous months or to thank Tharkay for his intervention.

Tharkay forestalled both responses; he needed no apology, and the healthy flush on Laurence’s face was thanks enough. He also owned that a small, mean part of him cherished the memory—he had taken no joy in Laurence’s pain, but that Tharkay had been the one to reach him in his extremity, to shake him from the grim indifference, well. It was a little embarrassing how often he dwelled on that thought.

“You need not bid me farewell, just yet; I am coming,” he said, watching Laurence’s face intently. “Captain Riley has been good enough to invite me as his guest.”

The reaction was all he could have wished. Laurence’s eyes widened and his mouth fell slightly open. He started to say something and then stopped himself, biting his lip and eyeing Tharkay sidelong. Then he offered an innocuous comment on Tharkay’s acquaintance with Captain Riley, his tone faintly inquiring.

Tharkay made an intentionally flimsy excuse, curious as to how Laurence would respond, and was rewarded by a wondering look in Laurence’s eyes, as though he could not imagine why any man might chase him across the globe. Tharkay could not imagine why more men did not. In fact, he was a bit surprised not to find Granby aboard also.

“Then I am glad we shall be shipmates,” Laurence managed after a few moments, and his eyes were bright. In all honesty, Tharkay had expected to find Laurence in a black mood. He was on the cusp of exile, still a prisoner and still considered a traitor. Tharkay was given to understand Laurence enjoyed England and the society there; certainly, he would be leaving the newly widowed Edith Galman and Jane Roland behind, to say nothing of his other close companions, and he would be arriving in a lawless, desolate place.

 But Laurence appeared to Tharkay to be startlingly relaxed. A bit pensive, perhaps, but no more. His hand was on Temeraire’s flank and he was regarding Tharkay with open fondness. There was a glint in his eyes that Tharkay could not quite interpret.

“I look forward to our continued journeys together,” Tharkay murmured, looking at Laurence from under his lashes. A bolder move than he usually allowed himself with Laurence, but he could not resist. Besides, he doubted Laurence would pick up on the insinuation; he was startlingly innocent for a naval man. But then Laurence raised an eyebrow and smiled faintly, and Tharkay found himself on the verge of blushing, for once.

“Your company is, as always, welcome,” Laurence said, breaking their gaze and looking back up at his dragon, who was drawing himself up to indignant heights as Arkady cast aspirations on his child-rearing skills.

Tharkay stared. He had not seen any prior inclination, any overt hint that Laurence might welcome—but no, Laurence was just glad not to face the voyage alone, without human companionship. The man had never taken any of the carefully careless gestures Tharkay had made as anything more than than friendship; there was no reason for that to have changed now.

He watched Laurence snort and move to break up the escalating argument, assuring the outraged dragon that the egg would be treated as nothing less than royalty and that Temeraire would brood over it as if it were his own. In the midst of soothing the ruffled scales, he cast a glance back over his shoulder at Tharkay and nodded towards him.

“After all, we have Tharkay with us, and he will hardly allow us to neglect our charges.”

“In fact, I have been lectured extensively on the matter,” Tharkay said wryly, and Laurence smiled brilliantly at him. Well, Tharkay thought, blinking and biting back a smile of his own. Well.

Perhaps this would be more of a journey than he’d expected.