There is a small man already sitting by Tharkay’s bed when Laurence comes in and he stops by the door in surprise. Tharkay looks up at him before quickly redirecting his attention back to his hands, which on closer observation, Laurence can see are in the hands of the interloper. His breath catches uncomfortably in his throat and he wonders if he should back out into the corridor. Especially as Tharkay is practically vibrating with tension, his mouth twisting unhappily, eyes hooded in the darkness of the room. The man mutters quietly in Chinese, too quiet for Laurence to make out the words but Tharkay scowls in response though he says nothing.
Abruptly the man pulls away and Tharkay’s whole body shifts to a more relaxed state as he lets out a heavy huff of breath. The man stoppers a bottle that he leaves on the bedside table and half-bows both to Tharkay and Laurence before disappearing in a whisper of robes and the click of a door closing.
Tharkay doesn’t look at Laurence as he takes the evacuated seat, instead remaining focused on his hands, now trembling in his lap. He doesn’t mean to make any noise, but his sharp intake of breath is enough to break the reverie Tharkay is in. A sharp, sardonic smile of bravado graces Tharkay’s features, an expression Laurence has not seen in many years. It somehow makes Tharkay seem even more vulnerable than the sight of his scarred and broken fingers shakingly clasped together.
Laurence does not speak of it.
The following evening he makes his way to Tharkay’s bedside again and again he watches from the door as Tharkay shakes with tension as the same man rubs a thick lotion into his hands. This time he can make out the admonition the man gives as he leaves. You hold too much tension in your hands, they will not heal .
Laurence says nothing when he sits on the empty chair.
A different man is there the next day and Tharkay is actively flinching away from the hold the man has on his hands and Laurence finds himself shaking with sympathetic anxiety. What follows in the subsequent days is a series of different people, each trying their hand at healing the damage done to Tharkay’s hands and each succeeding only in raising Tharkay’s hackles till he is stiff and tight and convulsing with agitation. Any progress made since the rescue has been reversed, Tharkay’s hands curled permanently into claws except when splinted and bandaged open.
Laurence looks at him solemnly as Tharkay tries to press his hands still against his thighs, his face a mask of agony.
“I can’t.” Tharkay offers raggedly after the silence between them lingers too long, “They’re the only hands I have.”
Laurence thinks he understands.
Laurence makes his way to Tharkay’s rooms earlier than usual and as he closes the door behind him, he is gratified to see that the first man has returned. A look of surprise flits across the misery written on Tharkay’s face as Laurence pulls a stool up close to the healer rather than endure from the shadows as usual. He surprises them both when he gestures the man towards the stool and takes the chair closer to Tharkay himself.
He reaches out for Tharkay’s hand and the reaction is immediate, Tharkay jerks away an aborted yell of pain stuttering in his throat. The healer jumps to his feet shouting at them to stop in Chinese, his soft hands on Laurence’s forearm, trying to stop him from causing further damage.
“Laurence!” Tharkay’s voice is shocked and panicked, Laurence is uncompromising, he cages Tharkay’s right hand between both of his own and holds them still. “Laurence!” Tharkay is panting and near sobbing, still trying to pull his captured hand away. Laurence turns to the healer who has run for the door, likely to call for help and tells him to stop as authoritatively as he can.
“ Will ,” Tharkay’s desperate whisper calls him back to the patient before him, “What are you doing ?”
The air between them is suddenly stiff and charged, Tharkay’s eyes are dark and scared, his gaze searching as he examines Laurence’s face. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but he will not be swayed from the course regardless. He firms his clasp on Tharkay’s hand, cupping it gently in his left and lifts his right hand away completely so he can look down at Tharkay’s palm.
The healer comes closer again now that Tharkay is no longer pulling away, taking the seat besides Laurence silently.
“Tenzing, I won’t hurt you,” he fills it with the sincerity of honesty, and in trying to soothe Tharkay, he brings a modicum of peace to himself, settling his jangling nerves at the sheer audacity of having accosted a bedridden man.
“I know,” Tharkay moans wretchedly looking away, his shoulders shift, tensing and loosening reminding Laurence anew of his friend’s poor treatment and lost strength. He turns to look at the healer, careful not to let his hand tighten or loosen, “Teach me.”
The man looks initially pleased at the situation, Tharkay is softer than he has been at any time over the past week, his hand is resting without tension in the curve of Laurence’s palm, skin cool to the touch.
Of course the healer then looks at Laurence’s hands and lets out a shocked oath, he picks up Laurence’s right hand and Laurence has to fight down the urge to drag it back, sparing Tharkay a quick glance of sympathy. What a picture they must make, three men holding on to each other’s hands in the soft amber glow of the lamp at Tharkay’s bedside. The healer prods unkindly at Laurence’s calloused fingertips and points out a long healed scar across the knuckles of two of his fingers from his navy days.
Tharkay’s laugh suddenly breaks the silence, “Why Laurence, he is quite right, what a mess you have made of yourself,” he says mockingly, although he extends his left hand to lay closer in his lap as an offering. With a quiet huff of resignation, the healer lets go of Laurence and reaches for the bottle, pouring out a small measure into Laurence’s palm. Tharkay lifts his hand slowly away and the healer directs Laurence to rub his hands together, spreading the lotion on both hands evenly. The lotion is thick and cool, with a lovely, cleansing smell that Laurence can’t place. It feels nice against his skin and the soft hands of the healer suddenly make a lot more sense to him.
He looks up at Tharkay only to find the man already watching him, he offers a nervous half smile and reaches for his hand again, half expecting the same reaction as earlier. The muscles in Tharkay’s arm tense, but he settles quickly and they both turn to look at the healer who merely rolls his eyes at them.
The following half hour must be the most uncomfortable Laurence can remember in all his foggy memories, Tharkay’s focused gaze feels like a knife at his throat and the healer is constantly correcting his touch. The process is more involved than it has any right to be, apparently half of the healing is the massaging of the hands, and if Laurence is painted red in his embarrassment, well, no gentleman would hold it against him given the circumstances. Despite his discomfort, Laurence tries to be as diligent as he can, he owes it to Tharkay to see this through. And Tharkay is suffering, though he is silent, the arrhythmia of his breathing gives away his pain, tightly held breaths, long rasping inhales and shocked puffs of exhaled breath.
Finally, finally , the healer stops Laurence with a quiet murmur and puts the lotion away before taking himself off without another sound.
He feels awkward and nervous and twitchy, and when he looks at Tharkay having gently put his hands down on the coverlet, he sees that Tharkay looks ragged and wild-eyed ready to somehow flee in anyway he can. It grounds him more than he can explain and he stands, dropping his hand easily onto Tharkay’s shoulder as if unperturbed in the slightest. He makes a quiet retreat straight into the safety of Temeraire’s forearm where he does not fall asleep remembering Tharkay’s flushed face looking up at him as he left.
The following evening finds him at Tharkay’s door at the same time as the healer and he feels a lot more comfortable as they enter together. Tharkay’s openly horrified face undoes some of his own tranquility.
“Laurence, you don’t need to do this, it’s fine, honestly.”
Laurence ignores him, both his words and the harrowed look on his face and waits for the healer to settle in next to him. The healer directs him to slowly remove the bandages and splints that are carefully wrapped every morning. They follow the same motions as the day before and today it feels easier, the hammering of his heart isn’t echoing in his ears and his hands follow the motions with a surprising ease. The remain in silence, the presence of another quieting their instinctive topics of conversation. Laurence smooths his thumbs up the centre of Tharkay’s palm watching the fingers curl instinctively inwards as a result and a strange feeling curls inside him at the same time. With a bit of prompting he turns Tharkay’s hand over and follows the lines of the scars with a heavy coating of the lotion, the oily texture causing a smooth slide over the cuts that had turned so quickly to clean white lines.
“Are we done?” Laurence looks up in surprise, he’d fallen into something of a daze sweeping his fingers up and down Tharkay’s in an easy thoughtless rhythm and feels unaccountably embarrassed for it. The healer rolls his eyes at them again but agrees ungraciously and as he makes to leave, Laurence follows in his wake making his abrupt apologies to Tharkay as he backs out through the door.
When he returns the next day the healer isn’t there and somehow it makes everything both better and worse. Tharkay flinches easily under his care, shivering under the scrape of Laurence’s fingers against his wrist, pulling back in protest as Laurence tries to press his hand flat. He had hoped to have a conversation about some of his less sharp memories, but the quiet that settles around them pushes back against any attempt at sound until the words disappear in his throat as if they had never been conceived.
He risks a half glance up through his lashes and Tharkay is as still as a cat, watching his hands, his teeth biting down on his lower lip and the queer feeling rises within him again with a shocking lurch. His hand tightens convulsively and he gasps in response to Tharkay’s yowl, before murmuring apologies into the space between them, clasping the hand gently in his own, sorrowful for the damage caused.
Laurence is more careful, keeping his attention strictly on the hands before him, suddenly, strangely more familiar to him than his own. He finds himself biting his own lip as he works and at the slightest hint of the swooping feeling he shifts position, pressing his calf painfully hard into the thin frame of the bed to derail the sensation.
The need to flee isn’t dragging him out of the door to Tharkay’s room and so he stays a while after having stoppered the flask and offers a pointless breadcrumb of a story about breakfasting in Japan which Tharkay counters with a tale of an aborted dinner party in Istanbul. The ease of their companionship seems to have returned albeit with a quiet new facet to it.
The next day sees Tharkay scratching at his chin ruefully with his heavily bandaged fingers and Laurence’s heart lightens with it. The beard Tharkay has been sporting looks unexpectedly well on him, and though he knows it is not by choice, he had been wondering when it would begin to irritate him. He wonders what story the skin of his jaw would tell hidden as it is under the beard, Tharkay had been so very bruised and battered when they’d found him and although the visible parts of his face are healing rapidly, Laurence can’t help but imagine the hidden damage. He wants to touch.
Instead he falls into what has become a routine in such a short time and this time as the swirling heat curls in his abdomen, he breathes through it, letting it skim gently over his skin. A sweet prickle that ebbs and swells with the intimate sweep of his pale fingers against Tharkay’s golden brown. He finds himself humming softly, tuneless and distracted, feeling for the tension in the shifting ligaments under his touch. It’s a strange contentment, not dissimilar to the gentle unwinding of tension that Temeraire’s company gives him. He feels warm and secure and the hard truths of opium and Napoleon and treason are but a distant cloud in a sweet blue summer sky.
The days slide away and the stress he racks up in the day dissipates in the evening with the soothing smell of the lotion and the easy caress of skin. Nobody comments on the hour he spends with Tharkay everyday and he tells himself that it is not such a strange thing to spend time with a friend recovering from injury, particularly one as close and dear as Tharkay. And of course, it is not so strange, but Laurence can’t get past the feeling of engaging in something illicit every time he closes the distance between them to hold Tharkay’s hand. The telltale prickling of his skin, the heated flush rising beneath his clothes, all pointing to an improper secret refused the light of day.