Tharkay's estate wasn't in such ill repair that it was unsalvageable, but the main house had been stripped of not an inconsiderable amount of valuables and furniture, and had been badly neglected. The receiving parlour had suffered damage by nature, entered through a broken window which had not been tended to, and several rooms needed modernising.
"This floor wants replacing," Tharkay said, inspecting the warped and creaking floorboards in the receiving parlour. "I think I will install hot pipes underneath the new flooring." He looked out the window: Temeraire was inspecting the grounds.
"And draw on the heating source for Temeraire's pavilion? A clever idea," Laurence agreed, and considered installing pipes in the dower house as well.
They went over the house, carefully taking note of the work that needed to be done and which purchases had to be made. Tharkay had hired a cook, but no other staff as of yet; the servants' quarters were in a worse state than the rest of the house due to a leak in the roof. He'd placed an advertisement in the paper, and expected to hire more people as the week went on and the house became habitable again. Cook had taken one look at the kitchen, tutted, and set about to work.
Laurence had had his belongings sent to the dower house at the edge of the grounds, and he was headed there now, dinner in his belly and spirits high. Temeraire seemed taken with the place; he'd hunted the deer for their dinner in the forest and graciously shared with Laurence, Tharkay and Cook, who'd done the preparing. Now Temeraire was philosophising on which matter to bring to Parliament first.
"There's of course also the matter of recognising dragons as people," Temeraire said, as he walked with Laurence. "But dragons are not people, nor should we be considered as such. I should like to propose that dragons are recognised as independent creatures with their own rights, but on equal footing with humans, if not greater. Dragons are so much larger than humans, after all."
"Of course," Laurence replied, though he was concerned with Temeraire's notions of granting dragons greater right than those of the people. Wages and voting rights were one thing, and certainly deserved, but Laurence truly felt that nations should be run by people.
The dower house was in better condition than the main house, but Laurence had chosen the dower house over a room in the main house not for that reason, but for the sake of not intruding on his friend's privacy. Tharkay might not mind keeping both him and Temeraire around, but Laurence was mindful that Temeraire took up a lot of space. They could construct for Temeraire a pavilion close to the house, so that he would not be far from Laurence, and they could enjoy their own privacy here, at the edge of the grounds. The forest was nearby, and the river, and the view was beautiful.
"Laurence, surely you do not intend to stay here?" Temeraire said, peeking through the open doorway. "It is so small! I should like better to have you installed in the principal house; it will be splendid when it's all done up, and you would like it there."
"I would like it here too," said Laurence. The dower house was of moderate size and perhaps smaller than average for this kind of house—though of course Temeraire was larger than both houses—and perfectly suitable for his needs, which weren't many.
"But that wallpaper is awful," Temeraire argued. "Tharkay is putting in gilded wallpaper in the principal house—"
"You heard that, did you?" Laurence was bemused. "We can put your pavilion over there and it won't crowd the main house, and it will be close enough that you can look right through these windows here and see me."
Temeraire was not satisfied with this. "The windows in the main house are larger," he argued. "I should see you better."
Struck with sudden inspiration, Laurence said, "You can wind yourself around this house like a fairytale dragon."
Thus inspired, Temeraire let the matter rest and immediately set about testing this claim. He kept himself entertained like that for a short while—"I do enjoy fairytales, Laurence"—and then curled up to sleep by the eastern side of the house, right by Laurence's bedroom window.
Workers arrived the following day, and the renovations started. Laurence and Tharkay, not used to idle work, both donned hardy clothes and partook in the efforts. Divesting the main house of its mouldy wallpapers, rotten wood and warped floors took a week, and every night Laurence trotted back to the dower house. Tharkay had not yet hired servants, so Temeraire fetched water from the river to bathe in, and Laurence made his own bed.
On the eighth day, when construction of Temeraire's pavilion was to start, Temeraire unexpectedly threw a spanner in the works.
"I would like my pavilion to sit between that little hill and the main house," Temeraire said. "The hill would provide some shelter from the wind, and I would have you nearby," he said to Laurence, nudging him.
"I won't be living in the main house," Laurence protested. This wasn't the first time he'd had this discussion, but he'd been certain Temeraire had accepted that Laurence was to live in the dower house.
"Why not? Do you not like Tharkay?" Temeraire asked.
"Of course I like Tharkay!"
Tharkay, who stood nearby and had stopped what he was doing in order to follow this conversation, smirked.
"Only, I do not want you to be alone, Laurence, and if we are connecting the pavilion to the main house to share the furnace, then it only makes sense to place the pavilion close by."
Laurence could not argue with the second half of Temeraire's argument. "I will not be alone," he said, "the main house is not so far away that I cannot call upon Tharkay's company for supper."
Temeraire was not satisfied with this. "But I want you to have gilded wallpaper, Laurence!"
"I find no fault with this reasoning," Tharkay commented. "As I have said: You are welcome in the house, Laurence. I would appreciate your company." With that, he hefted a piece of wood and carried it away, whistling.
A deep embarrassment came over Laurence. It was a warm, sunny day and the season had not yet turned; it was the heat, Laurence told himself. He watched Tharkay go, noticing that his shirt, damp with sweat, clung to his back.
It was unseasonably hot. "I need a drink of water." Laurence turned and walked the other way, heading towards the well. Maybe he'd cool down in the river for a bit after he'd drunk his fill.
Temeraire followed him. "Really, Laurence, I do not see why you have to be so stubborn about this. I shouldn't think Tharkay would make the offer if he did not mean it, and in any case, I would like to live near the main house and be able to converse with both you and Tharkay, and look upon the gilded wallpaper at the same time!"
The work on the main house continued, but Temeraire refused to let construction on his pavilion start until Laurence agreed to move into the main house with Tharkay. Laurence refused to acquiesce to this demand, so the pavilion remained unbuilt for the time being.
Laurence was starting to worry. The seasons would turn soon and he didn't like the idea of Temeraire sleeping on the ground; he'd lived through too many discomforts for Laurence wanting to allow him even one more, even if it was the dragon's own stubbornness that was at fault.
Of course, Temeraire viewed the matter in an entirely different light, and thought Laurence was the stubborn one.
"Of course I wouldn't mind sleeping on the ground for a while," Temeraire blatantly lied, "but Laurence, you cannot truly say you wouldn't like to live in a grand house with so many modern amenities and so much beauty, and with Tharkay!" Leaning close to whisper, in a manner of speaking—as Temeraire's whisper could be easily overheard by anyone within a radius of at least twenty yards— he added: "You could do worse than Tharkay, whom I like very much, and I'm sure Jane wouldn't mind. I wouldn't mind at all."
"You are not sleeping on the ground," Laurence said, ignoring Temeraire's whispered reassurance, on account that his ears were already burning and he would not in any way acknowledge the remark within hearing range of the workers, or Tharkay himself.
Thus locked in a battle of wills, Laurence continued to work with Tharkay and the workers on improving the house's condition.
After a good hour's work, Tharkay let the men have a break and joined Laurence, who was heading for the river. The weather was really rather unbearably hot, and if Laurence was dousing himself in it more often than strictly necessary, nobody commented on it. Now Tharkay was divesting himself of his breeches and shirt, and Laurence found he could not hold his tongue.
"I hope you won't take it to heart, what Temeraire spoke of this morning. In this matter I daresay he has entirely the wrong idea—"
"You mean that Jane would mind?" Tharkay said, in his way. He dove into the river, and came back up; water ran down his chest in rivulets, and he combed his hair back.
Laurence was lost for words. "I wasn't thinking of Jane," he said, truthfully. Then: "At any rate, you do not have a room for me in the house." He didn't say what they both knew; that only the master suite and its associated rooms, which Tharkay occupied, and the servants' quarters were now fit for living, the latter only recently made so. It would be an insult to Laurence to offer him one of those rooms, even if he'd certainly slept on worse ground and Tharkay knew it.
"Are the rooms in the master suite not to your taste?" Tharkay stood in the river, the water reaching his middle.
Laurence was acutely aware that he hadn't himself gone into the water yet, so he hurried to drop his breeches and jump in. "I would not trouble you for one of those rooms! The suite is wholly yours. I would feel badly about it—no, I will not take it."
"My bedroom shares a dressing room with another bedroom, which you're welcome to take for yourself," said Tharkay, with a steady look. Laurence knew not to take offence at the implicit suggestion, as the other bedroom must necessarily be what should've been the wife's room, though he could not help the colour of his face. "Think it over," Tharkay said, walking past Laurence and out of the river. "I will not offer a third time."
This Laurence well believed, as he was familiar with Tharkay's moods. Turn a man down once and he may never ask again, and Laurence realised that he had already rejected Tharkay's advances once, and was now being given leisure to do it again.
Truly, Laurence did not wish to reject him so crassly, or at all. Jane did not factor into the equation for all that Temeraire kept reassuring Laurence she wouldn't mind, for she need never know; she had already done too much for him, and Laurence wouldn't burden her with the knowledge of this crime, even if had he not yet committed it.
"Well?" demanded Temeraire when Laurence emerged from the river at last. He had about him a smug air that did not at all become him.
"Oh, I don't know what to do," Laurence confessed, putting his hand on Temeraire's warm muzzle. "It would not be right to put Tharkay in such a precarious position, when he's only just recovered his estates and fortune—I cannot be the cause of him losing it all, and I will certainly not risk losing you."
"You would not lose me, Laurence," Temeraire said, with conviction. "I would stop anyone who tried to take you away from me, or Tharkay."
Laurence didn't doubt it, but it did little to comfort him. He knew all too well how easily the crown could separate them if it so wished; he'd experienced it too many times to want to go through it again. He was, however, heartened by Temeraire's explicit and insistent support; had Laurence not had it, he would never have entertained the fantasy of accepting Tharkay's implicit offer.
I hope this finds you in good health. Proper response to your letter to follow.
Temeraire and I are settling into our new home splendidly—Temeraire has yet to decide on the perfect location for his pavilion, but he assures me it will be settled by the end of the week—and I have urgent need of your advice in a matter closely related to this living arrangement.
I count Tharkay among my best of friends, as you well know, but fear now that our friendship might be changing. For the better or the worse? I don't know. It would be untenable should I have to remove myself and Temeraire; he would be so perfectly happy here, and with a seat in Parliament! Nevertheless, the nature of my friendship with Tharkay seems to liken to that of your friendship with Augustine Little. This is as surprising to me as it is to you, I imagine. I have thought of myself in certain ways and should never have thought this were possible, though I should have said the same of many of my decisions in the past decade. I continue to surprise myself and disappoint my family. I hasten to add that I have no moral quandaries regarding a change in my friendship with Tharkay despite its nature; I am long past worrying about my standing in society—is it not natural that friendships should evolve? I can hardly say I liked the man when I first met him, but my opinion has changed, and as I continue to know him, so does my fondness for him grow.
No, the advice I seek is of a more practical nature. How, pray tell, does one go about putting such a change into effect? I feel that some things should not be spoken of plainly, though I do not think Tharkay would think worse of me for doing so. I only worry about the outcome—I must think of the consequences, and I must think of Temeraire.
I have relied on your expertise and experience in the past. I should be grateful if you could lend it to me again.
Your friend always,
Tharkay was poring over several wallpaper samples at tea in the garden when Laurence joined him. It was a Sunday, so the house and the grounds were quiet. Even Cook had gone to church. Laurence had not gone, and neither had Tharkay, by the looks of it. Laurence joined him at the table. They did not exchange pleasantries or platitudes, but Tharkay nudged the teapot closer to Laurence, who helped himself to a cup.
"What is your opinion of this?" Tharkay showed Laurence a sample of a wallpaper in cream and gold, the gold overlaid the cream in broad stripes and between the stripes a pattern of fleur-de-lis, also in gold. "I thought not," said Tharkay, in his dry way, before Laurence could formulate a polite response.
"It is certainly very..."
"I thought so."
"Put that away before Temeraire sees it, please, or I will have another battle on my hands. This one, I fear, I will not win. You don't want this in your parlour."
"Perhaps he would like it for his pavilion." Tharkay put the sample in the bottom of the small pile. "I imagine he wouldn't need much convincing."
Laurence sipped his tea. "Given half a choice, he'd construct it out of pure gold, were it not for the terrible insulation properties of the metal."
"Don't forget the structural problems such a soft metal would bring to the building."
Tharkay showed him several more wallpaper samples, all of them gilded.
"Honestly, Tenzing, I'm beginning to suspect Temeraire's fancies are rubbing off on you," Laurence said. "That said, this one is lovely, and should do well in the parlour, or perhaps in an east-facing guest room." This was a dusty rose wallpaper with fine vines—gilded—and lily-white blossoms.
"This one?" Tharkay inspected the sample. He made a satisfied noise, and put the sample aside. Then—much to Laurence's consternation, as he thought the matter of interior decor had been successfully dealt with—Tharkay produced another stack of wallpaper samples from thin air, and slid them across the table to Laurence.
"What is this!" Laurence gulped down the remains of his tea.
"The master suite faces east," Tharkay said, amused. "These are the options for the parlour."
"I was of the impression that the master suite was not in need of refurbishing," Laurence said, feeling quite red-faced.
Tharkay shrugged. "It wasn't."
Laurence couldn't conceive of the meaning of this—rather, he could, but did not wish to go into it. He was saved from having to say anything, however, when Temeraire came speeding back towards them, yelling.
"Laurence! It's Iskierka and Granby!" He landed on the lawn before the garden, excited. "They are coming! In two hours I'd say," he added, "they are quite far away still. What do you think has happened? Oh, I don't hope they're here to recall you into service!"
"We are retired," said Laurence, but rose from his chair. Should another war have broken out, he would do his duty and serve, but surely he would've heard of it? He and Jane had not become strangers to each other; she would've warned him. No, it had to be something else.
"Stop worrying and have another cup of tea," Tharkay said.
Laurence sat. It could not be another outbreak of the Dragon Plague; that the coverts were quite equipped to deal with. He allowed Tharkay to pour him another cup of tea and to add a lump of sugar to it, but couldn't let go of the worry.
"Surely Iskierka is just on a flight of fancy," Tharkay commented. "What do you think of this one?" He showed Laurence a sample of wallpaper done in light blue with a pattern of birds in black and silver.
"I think it handsome," Temeraire said, peering over Laurence's shoulder. "But the birds are very small, and there is not enough gold! Laurence, is this for your rooms? Say it isn't so!"
Thus distracted, Laurence—and Temeraire—went over wallpaper choices for the parlour and several other rooms in the house, and Laurence managed to almost forget that he was supposed to worry.
When Iskierka finally arrived, with Granby and, surprisingly, Little, it was with a lot of fuss and noise and apologies from Granby for showing up unannounced. "You know how she gets," he said, miserably. "She grabbed us both and set off, and here we are."
"Yes, of course," Iskierka said. "Laurence said he was in trouble!"
"What?" Temeraire turned to Laurence, wounded, and yet full of concern. "What kind of trouble? Laurence!"
"I'm not in any kind of trouble," Laurence tried to assure Temeraire, who continued fussing.
Granby was red in the face. "I was discussing your letter with Augustine and Iskierka overheard," he said, by way of explanation.
Iskierka, who had been trying to get Temeraire's attention, now interrupted: "You should not have been discussing it where I could hear if you didn't want me to know about it! Anyway, you can't keep secrets from me, that is absurd."
Tharkay, who had been watching this impromptu reunion with increasing amusement, now spoke. "Refreshments, gentlemen?"
"Thank you," said Granby, fervently. Little agreed, but quietly.
Cook had returned from church, so Tharkay went to procure edibles and more tea, and left Laurence to make pleasantries. Temeraire and Iskierka were arguing about something or other down by the river; their voices carrying with ease, but Laurence didn't care to follow the argument.
Once Laurence had made certain that no emergencies had arisen or radical Frenchmen were on the loose, an uncomfortable silence descended upon them, and stayed until Tharkay returned with the refreshments.
"Lovely weather you're having," said Granby, accepting a crumpet. "It's horrid up north."
"Indeed," said Little, accepting a cup of tea.
"I can't complain," said Laurence, foregoing the tea and taking a crumpet as well. He sliced it in half.
"I can't see why Laurence has to be so silly about it," said Iskierka loudly, basking in the lake all the while. "Of course Granby would never be so silly—"
"Feelings aren't silly," Temeraire declared, rather imperiously. He was standing in the middle of the river, indignation writ on his face. "And anyway you don't know what you're talking about, because Granby had all that sorted before you hatched! He might've been silly!"
"Never," Iskierka argued. "You're just still sore because Granby belongs to me now—"
"Oh my God," Granby said, stricken. "Laurence, I—"
"I know," Laurence said, buttering his crumpet with great care so as to not have to look anyone in the eye.
Tharkay, amused, offered Little a crumpet.
The dragons continued to very loudly argue about their captains and their love lives, or lack thereof.
"Did you say you were renovating this place?" Granby asked. His face was red. As was Little's.
"Yes!" said Laurence, also red in the face. He latched onto this topic as if it were a lifeline. "We—we were just going over wallpaper options this morning, for—ah—the parlour—"
"And the master suite," added Tharkay.
Laurence's blush deepened.
"I suppose you are right in that humans are silly," Temeraire said, reluctantly, but he'd evidently not yet realised that the four men could hear every word of his conversation with Iskierka. "I don't see why he doesn't just invite him to his bed! That is where the humans make eggs, isn't it?"
"Some also do it in the stables or the baths," Iskierka said, thoughtful. "Though there are no baths here, so they could use the stables I suppose," she said, dubiously. "That just seems silly. The bed should do just nicely, even if no eggs will come out of it. Just tell Laurence to stop being silly! I'm sure Tharkay doesn't mind. Little doesn't mind at all!"
Laurence found himself coughing on a bite of crumpet. He wondered if he would ever be able to look his friends in the eye again.
"My apologies," said Little, rising. He left the garden and went round to the back of the house, where the outhouse was located.
Tharkay was smirking. Laurence could tell, even if he refused to look directly at him for the sake of propriety, if not his own sanity.
Granby cleared his throat. He, too, wasn't looking anyone in the eye. "I'm loathe to say my dragon is right, because that never ends well for me—"
"My God, John, do be quiet!" Laurence exclaimed, then looked at Granby in horror. He coughed delicately. "I apologise. That was awfully rude of me."
Tharkay was still smirking. Granby seemed to realise this, because he suddenly rose from his chair. "Will, a word in private?"
Laurence excused himself and followed Granby towards a large oak tree a short distance away. The dragons were still loudly arguing about their captains' personal matters, and Laurence hoped Cook was unaware, or that she would perhaps accept a slight raise of wages.
"Iskierka—" Granby began, but Laurence silenced him.
"This is wholly my fault, John. I should never have put such a delicate matter in writing, or spoken of it at all. I have embarrassed four people including myself, in the span of ten minutes." Laurence glanced towards the garden, where Tharkay was blithely drinking tea. He waved. Laurence's heart skipped.
"I apologise in advance, because I don't know that there's a polite way to discuss this matter," said Granby, looking pained. "Is Tharkay…?"
"I didn't think so," Laurence said, miserably. "But I also didn't think it of myself."
Granby nodded, then took a deep breath. "Of course, some men enjoy both sexes," he said, and meant to continue, but just closed his mouth. Perhaps he was recalling a very similar conversation they'd had in the past, no less embarrassing for either of them, even with the passage of time.
"Yes," Laurence agreed. "But what the devil shall I do about it, John? What did you do?"
"Ah, well," Granby said, shrugging with one shoulder, "I imagine it's not so different from—from—heavens, why don't you approach him the way you approached Admiral Roland?"
Laurence couldn't honestly say that his pride should be damaged if he confessed the truth, but he wasn't much inclined to share such intimate details. He respected Jane too much for that. "I did not do the approaching," he admitted, with reluctance.
The problem was perhaps not so much the approaching, as Tharkay had left him an opening and made his feelings clear, in his way. All Laurence had to do was accept. There was the matter of propriety, however, and these things could be ill concealed in a gentleman's house, full of servants. Iskierka had put it rather succinctly: there were no stables and no baths: no secret meeting places or a crowd of aviators to hide amongst.
"Will," said Granby, seriously, "in some things, one must simply...act. No matter the consequences. I'm aware of what I stand to lose, but it's worth it. If you are of a similar mind..."
"You're saying I should grab the bull by the horns," Laurence said.
"Or the cock by the balls," Granby said, not at all delicately, and gesturing with his hook in a tugging motion.
Laurence laughed, and so did Granby. "Very well," Laurence said. "Now, let's never speak of this again."
"Thank the heavens," Granby said and clapped Laurence's shoulder.
They returned to the garden. Granby went to rescue Little from his self-imposed exile, and Laurence sat in the chair next to Tharkay. The dragons had moved on to other topics of discussion, Tharkay informed him.
"That's heartening," Laurence said, and then, because Granby and Little had not yet returned, and that was all the courage he needed: "I do like the rose with the vines."
Tharkay looked at him. "I am delighted to hear it," he said.
Granby and Little returned in that moment, and with the dragon's conversation no longer being about their captains, the awkwardness soon dissipated. Tharkay offered their unexpected guests to stay for a few days before flying back to Edinburgh, which they gratefully accepted. Laurence was glad of it, and the opportunity for socialising, and offered them quarters in the dower house, which was well equipped to handle unexpected guests.
After seeing them well settled, Laurence drew a deep breath, collected his things, and went to Tharkay's rooms.
Pass our thanks on to Tharkay yet again for his hospitality and patience.
I trust that you two have matters firmly (and enthusiastically?) settled between you, and that your new lodgings are to your liking. I can't say I'm fond of your choices in decor, but I'm not the one who has to live with them. Congratulations on your new life, and may you have luck in this sudden venture into new and unexplored territory; it is all the better for having a trusted companion to undertake it with, etc.
Augustine has quite recovered from the visit (this being the first time he's suffered one of Iskierka's abductions; Immortalis wasn't best pleased when we returned) and wants you to know that you have made excellent choices in both companionship and wallpaper. I don't disagree, but for the blasted wallpaper!
I heard Temeraire made an excellent speech in Parliament last week. Please extend my congratulations to him. Iskierka remains my downfall and curse, etc. and is rather peeved that she isn't in Parliament. I am doing my level best to talk her out of the notion, or surely I will perish.
A layer of frost lay on the ground outside, and a thin film of ice covered broad swathes of the river—until Temeraire dove into it and came back out shaking, retreating into his pavilion once again. Thin pieces of ice floated downstream.
Laurence sat at his desk in the study he shared with Tharkay, by all appearances reading his letters and working at responses to them, but the scenery outside was more appealing to consider. The season had turned, at last, and suddenly; they'd been given three weeks of rain and miserable brown leaves, and now the day had dawned on frost and clear skies.
The floorboards creaked behind Laurence, and then he felt hands on his shoulders. "Will."
"Tenzing," said Laurence, still looking out the window. The wet tracks Temeraire had left in the grass were dark and muddy.
The hands on Laurence's shoulders smoothed down over his arms as Tharkay leaned down, his breath tickling Laurence's ear. "Can I persuade you to come back to bed?"
Laurence cracked a smile. "I'm already up." This wasn't entirely accurate as he'd not yet dressed; he'd only put on a robe.
"It's too bloody early to be up," Tharkay said, dryly. "Are we not retired men of means? We can stay in bed as long as we damn well please." He straightened up, his hands finding their way back to Laurence's shoulders, and then his neck.
They were firm hands, hardened by labour and not yet softened from leisure. Laurence doubted they ever would, and more to the point: he didn't wish them to.
On occasion Laurence was overcome with the reality of his situation, and a spike of fear would lance through him only to soften again; there was something to be said for having experienced the things in life he'd experienced. He'd already been willing to hang for treason when treason meant doing the right thing: why not this? Laurence couldn't honestly say that hanging for love was any lesser.
Laurence folded Granby's letter and put it aside, then rose from the chair. "Yes," he said, tracing the line of Tharkay's jaw with a finger. He rested his thumb on Tharkay's lip. "I'll come back to bed."