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To Want

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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 finger 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.

Chapter Text

Laurence strides into Tharkay’s room in the heat of the day, to find Tharkay drowsing lazily in the courtyard, the sun picking out the lines and hollows on his face. He drags the chair from the bedside out to the doors to the courtyard, leaving it just inside the room where the light of the sun still reaches and then places his shaving tackle by the washstand.

 

“Tenzing.”

 

Tharkay turns towards him, eyes slitted against the glare and a line appears between his brows as he takes in Laurence and the chair.

 

“Sit,” Laurence gestures at the chair and turns away to the stand, searching through the small cabinet for a small bowl he can use for the soap. He hears the quiet scrape of Tharkay stirring, picking himself up and moving closer.

 

“Will, you don’t need to do this.”

 

Laurence shifts uncomfortably, he knows very well that he doesn’t need to be here, he’s been turning it over and over and over in his mind for the past few days but it’s a viral thought that won’t shake loose and it won’t stop bothering him. Everytime he thinks he’s put it out of his head he instead finds himself looking at Tharkay anew, watching him scratch uncomfortably at his jaw and then wincing at the subsequent pain in his hands. It feels wildly inappropriate, too personal, too close, but then he’s already stepped into that space hasn’t he?

 

He ignores Tharkay and settles on a large cup that will suffice for the task. “Sit,” he says again, scraping off a few curls of soap into the cup and adding water slowly in an attempt to get a good consistency.

 

It had become somewhat obvious that if Tharkay couldn’t seem to trust anyone to put lotion on his hands, he damn well wasn’t going to trust anyone with a blade at his throat. He flicks a glance at the chair to see Tharkay perching on the edge, stiff as a board, the sweetly relaxed curve of his spine from before lost in a moment.

 

“You could look less like I am sentencing you to death, Tenzing, it is not a blade for piercing your skin.”

 

Tharkay lets out a huff of uncertain laughter and some of the strain leaks out of the atmosphere as he turns to watch Laurence prepare.

 

“I had no idea my facial hair was causing such offence.”

 

“You cannot pretend it is not bothering you, you are constantly scratching at it.”

 

Tharkay pauses suddenly in the midst of rubbing under his chin, and looks up catching Laurence’s eye. They stare at each other for a shared half moment before Laurence laughs and Tharkay smiles ruefully at being caught out.

 

Laurence dips the brush into the cup, it is of a lower quality to that which he might have purchased himself back at home, but he is no longer in a position to demand his home comforts and while it is not the best he has ever used, it is far from the worst.

 

The angle is all wrong and it takes some shuffling and nudging and manhandling to get Tharkay placed how he wants, it has been many years since he last did this for another, back when he was a younger man with dreams of sea salt and ocean swells.

 

Tharkay jerks into a sharp rigidity the second Laurence’s blade touches his skin and Laurence stills in response, his nerves tingling in alarm. Tharkay lets out a long thin breath before trying to force himself back into his former repose and Laurence waits patiently, lifting the blade away until they’re both settled again.

 

He starts under the jaw, enjoying the sudden appearance of skin, unlike Laurence after his first shave after he was found, his skin is the same colour under the beard, a fragile pale gold most unlike his usual teak brown. Where Laurence had been and still is a mix of tan and burn, Tharkay is a soft sepia of parchment and shadow, his imprisonment having leached the colour from him.

 

Tharkay closes his eyes, his lashes soft smudges and Laurence takes relief in the loss of his attention. The scrape of the blade is strangely hypnotic and the sounds of the dragons and their captains and their crews in the courtyard seem much further away than the two short steps to the door. He strokes along the stretched line of Tharkay’s neck with the back of his finger looking for any patches he might have missed and Tharkay shivers beneath him. A sweeping prickle of goosebumps spreads across his skin as he does it again and Tharkay half opens his eyes to look hazily at him through his lashes.

 

They both jump at the sudden sound of a yowling cat from outside and the moment snaps, Tharkay letting his eyes fall shut again as Laurence quickly rinses off the blade and starts again more carefully over the jut of cartilage at his throat. He can feel the touch of enquiring eyes passing through the courtyard as he continues, sweeping down by the ear, carefully into the sunken hollows of Tharkay’s cheeks. A treacherous journey over thin, uneven skin.

 

The time passes painfully slowly, every touch of the blade, every discovery of clear or bruised skin feels like it’s burned into his retina and even so with a final rinse of his blade, he can no longer conceive of any excuse to continue.



He knows he shouldn’t, yet he can’t help but run his fingers along the freshly bared line of Tharkay’s jawbone. Sharp and smooth. He presses his thumb down into the middle of Tharkay’s chin, fingers curling underneath so he can control the movement of Tharkay’s head. And Tharkay let’s him, looking up with clear, trusting eyes, not a hint of discomfort or trepidation across his features. It wouldn’t even be the work of a heartbeat to lean closer and tilt Tharkay’s head just so , to press his mouth-

 

He drops his hand away and steps back, suddenly uncomfortably hot, the harsh touch of the sun on his hair is suddenly too much and he takes another step back into the shade, away from the light of the sun on his face and all it might uncover.

 

Tharkay shifts in the chair, pushing into a full body stretch that Laurence watches helplessly dry mouthed before he slumps back, lifting a bandaged hand halfway up to his chin out of habit before stopping, recognising the pointlessness of the action.

 

Laurence turns away from the sight. Somehow despite looking much the worse for wear with the beard no longer hiding the sickliness and bruising on his face, the sun touches Tharkay with a lover’s caress and turns him into a portrait of bold lines and perfection.

 

He rinses of the razor and shaving brush, wiping down the blade fastidiously with a towel when Tharkay steps in close behind him. “Thank you,” Tharkay says, quiet and sincere, before he wanders back out into the courtyard where Laurence can hear Temeraire compliment him on the skill of his barber. He smiles to himself at that, the sneaky warmth of Temeraire’s blind affection lifting him up.

 

“Laurence,” Granby stands at the door Tharkay just departed through looking nervous and anxious and the feeling inside him goes cold at the expression on his face. Granby opens and closes his mouth a few times as if to say something, but instead remains silent and watching as Laurence packs away his shaving kit.

 

Laurence heads towards the door, towards Temeraire and he can feel the heat of Granby’s eyes on him as he walks past him and away into the courtyard where Temeraire and now Roland are commenting on Tharkay’s face.

 

*

 

It’s different today, there’s a stilted quality to the air, he knows it and he knows why, but he keeps the knowledge locked away willing the evening to continue in the same vein as the previous nights. Laurence unties a knot of bandage at the wrist and slowly, slowly unwinds the fabric around Tharkay’s hand, brushing gently in the wake of uncovered skin with his thumb. He takes fastidious care in it today, rewinding the bandage around the thin wooden splints once he is done.

 

He takes his time spreading the lotion over his own hands, trying to capture the scent in his memory, before taking Tharkay’s right hand and letting his muscle memory take over.

 

He watches as fiercely as he knows how, treasuring the touch of skin against skin, warmed by friction, soothed by lotion. It takes only one step out of pattern for the fragile balance to crumble.

Tharkay curls his fingers gently back into Laurence’s palm, a slow tremulous scrape of calloused fingertips catching at the peaks and valleys of his overly sensitive skin. His breath catches hard in his throat as he lifts his head to meet Tharkay’s eyes, solemn and without judgement and he’s frozen. Teetering on the cusp of some unknown chasm, as heat begins to pool in his abdomen, reaching up his chest in waves of desire and terror.

 

He wonders absently if this awful pleasure colours the interactions between Granby and Little, and what should have been a splash of cold water is just fuel to the flame. He finds himself clutching onto the sailor in him, so recently surfaced to tamp down on the fire licking under his skin. He wants to press forward. He wants to touch the newly uncovered skin of Tharkay’s cheeks and jaw and neck. He wants to entangle their fingers in a clasp that can’t be misconstrued.

 

He wants... he wants … he doesn’t know what he wants, so he leaves.