Tharkay had spent far too many hours of his life listening to homesick Englishmen rhapsodising over the Arcadian perfection of the English countryside to have developed any real affection for the scenery himself. Verdant mud and damp cows held little attraction for him; all the less, when each Englishman would inevitably couple his endless droning about England with a dismissal of the history, architecture and natural beauty of whichever country was unfortunate enough to find itself graced by his presence.
If it was not England, it was fit for nothing but spoil and plunder – those attitudes were all the more distasteful for their commonality among a set Tharkay had so many other reasons to disdain.
Such, at least, had always been his attitudes. And yet, now -
Now, the sun was low, casting a hazy, gentle golden light over the prospect before him: a setting of green lawns against green oaks, the deeper colour of the yew walk to the left, and to the right more lawns blending imperceptibly into summer pasture sloping level after level towards the river. Hills enclosed the scene – despite the name of the district, they were not peaks by any stretch of the imagination, but the rolling curves had their own gentle beauty, promising a degree of ease in any season. There were indeed cows – brown and content, and quite unlikely to be damp in this warm weather – and Tharkay knew from rueful experience that those lush flats by the river had mud enough to spare for any man who dared cross them.
Something of his pleasure in this prospect derived, no doubt, from sure knowledge of his possession; not the most flattering characteristic to discover in one’s self, perhaps, but Tharkay valued honesty in himself as well as in others, and could not deny that some deep part of himself loved this place best because it was his. In the same way he loved a well-cut suit of English fashion, a good French wine, a fine equipage: comforts all the more valuable for his having done so long without.
But there was also something deeper behind his greedy joy in this possession. As a boy he had played on these lawns – fallen into mud-holes, and despaired his nurses of his clothing – climbed those oak trees, and broke his arm falling out of the tallest when he was nine years old. Then, Tharkay was at last letting himself remember, he had loved this place with a child’s uncomplicated passion, the scope of the whole world enclosed within these hills.
It was natural enough, when he had found himself barred forever from returning, that he should have taught himself to forget that child’s love; still more natural that his triumphant return, long past the time when he had stopped dreaming of it, should nevertheless wake such strong emotions in him. The land was his, now, his forever under English law, and no spendthrift cousin would be prising it out of his hands again.
There was a deep satisfaction in seeing the changes even a year’s occupancy had brought: neatness in house and in garden, order restored to paths and walks, and most of all improvements to the estate itself, men and beasts and land alike no longer alternately overworked and neglected. It would take many, many years to restore everything as it had been at his father’s death – Tharkay still could not decide whether the utter neglect of every duty, or the rapacious plunder of every tenant who remained to be squeezed, had been the worst sin of his cousins’ years of stewardship – but even a single year had been enough to make the difference perceptible.
A distant noise interrupted Tharkay’s musings. There was one more – two more – reasons to be pleased with this estate, and they were rapidly approaching, Temeraire’s vast wings silhouetted darkly against the evening sky while Laurence sat pressed almost invisibly against his neck. Tharkay turned his face towards them, and smiled.
Dinner, that evening, was served in Temeraire’s new pavilion: a very elegant construction in the same golden stone as the main house, and built to harmonise with it; Temeraire himself had prepared the design and overseen the construction. It included a long dining room, sized for humans, but open to the main pavilion on one side, an innovation allowing Tharkay and Laurence to dine alongside Temeraire every evening, and to aid in this aim a new kitchen wing formed a parallel arc on the other side of the building.
The whole construction was very well-made, very convenient from the point of view of everyday conversation between human and dragon, and most unfortunately very attractive to the curiosity of every neighbour within fifty miles. Some, no doubt, were repelled by the prospect of an evening meal with a dragon; and then, too, the absence of a lady at Stirling Hall barred a large proportion of their potential table guests from entry; but certainly these restrictions were not enough to materially aid Tharkay’s peace and comfort in the evenings.
On this occasion at least their guests numbered only three: the local parson, a Dr Edwards; his eldest son, Mr Edwards; and a Mr Knightley, of Matlock Abbey, whose position as the local eccentric had been comprehensively usurped upon Tharkay’s restoration to his title. Not an unpleasant evening; although doubtless Dr Edwards would quarrel with Temeraire again over the Chinese mode of administrating their provinces: an interesting quarrel, to be sure, but one Tharkay had tired of many months previous to the present evening.
As it happened, Tharkay’s prophecies were quite borne out, though the usual quarrel was enlivened somewhat by Mr Edwards, hesitantly at first but growing in volume and vehemence as the level in the burgundy dipped lower, taking Temeraire’s part in the matter. His position was bulwarked somewhat by a recent series of lectures he had been granted the pleasure of enjoying some weeks ago at Oxford. It seemed a very good translation of a Chinese work had recently been completed in Canton, and the translator himself had lectured on its content during his recent trip to England to secure its publication; so inspiring had its content been, that Mr Edwards for the first time felt it obliged in him to disagree with his own father’s position.
Temeraire, naturally enough, was very interested to hear more of the work, and to obtain the man’s address if at all possible; Tharkay resigned himself to the visit of the translator himself, if Temeraire’s threatened letter contained the same level of enthusiasm as his current speech. Not that Tharkay would begrudge any guest of Temeraire’s. He had invited Temeraire, and Laurence, to join his household only after the deepest reflection; he had committed himself, then, and meant it fully.
The initial idea to encourage Temeraire into Parliament could certainly be laid at the door of that spirit of mischief which reared its head at the most inappropriate of moments throughout Tharkay’s life: the thought of his cousin Jack’s expression, on hearing that the position which had so long belonged to his own father, would shortly find itself transferred to a dragon, was almost irresistible. Nevertheless Tharkay had resisted that initial impulse at first; he had spent long hours in contemplation, before committing himself to a step which he knew would be almost irrevocable.
Tharkay had long since resigned himself to the solitude of a bachelor life. The failure of his hopes with Sara was only the final blow to damage of many more years standing; even in his English days he had never expected to marry. How could he, when he had no home and neither the prospects nor the inclination to find one? And his own nature was so solitary, so quick to feel disgust at the foibles of others – a wife, then, was beyond all hope. Even now that Tharkay’s prospects had been increased beyond his wildest imagination, the urge in him to marry had not returned. He had two true friends – riches beyond imaging for the younger, deeply lonely man he had been – and that was enough, and more than enough.
His companions might be eccentric, by the generally accepted standards of England, but he would not trade them for the world. Even if Temeraire’s manners were not always entirely suited for the table –
“I do not find it so, in the slightest,” Temeraire said emphatically, sending a gust of warm breath too rich with Chinese spices across the room. The chefs who some eight months previous had arrived to serve the only Imperial outside China – bearing profuse apologies from Gong Su for the months Temeraire had spent unattended as befit a dragon of his position – had tonight done their work rather too enthusiastically.
Heedless of the teeth now only a few feet from his face, Dr Edwards shook his head, in the pious attitude Tharkay found particularly exasperating.
“Indeed? But of course you are familiar with the works of Adams, which I am sure you would agree provide a far stronger argument in favour…”
They were all familiar with the works of Adams by now, and all quite emphatically did not agree; but several months experience had comprehensively proven that that minor detail would hardly prevent Dr Edwards from continuing in this line, for hours at a stretch if need be.
Tharkay, leaning back in his chair and grinning wryly at his port, caught sight of Laurence’s face across the table: smiling up at Temeraire, warm and tender, with a softness in his expression that, until quite recently, he had so rarely had cause to show.
Laurence turned then, and fixed that same expression on Tharkay.
“I do so enjoy our evenings together,” he said, with complete sincerity; and in that moment Tharkay could not find it in him to disagree.
At last their guests dispersed. Mr Knightley, it was true, somewhat reluctantly; deep enough in his port to be caught up once again in the story of how a ship he had travelled upon some eighteen years previous had been almost boarded by pirates, near off Tunis: the closest he’d ever come to seeing action, and in truth not that close, but it was clear he sometimes felt a little overwhelmed dining among those with military experience, and felt the need to increase his consequence as best he might.
Tharkay was hard-pressed not to yawn, but Laurence bore the story very politely – one could even imagine he had not heard the same story almost every week this winter past – and escorted Mr Knightley to his carriage with the greatest good manners imaginable.
“Have I mentioned recently how glad I am that you have joined me?” Tharkay murmured to him, once Laurence had returned to the pavilion; Tharkay had retired to Temeraire’s part of the room, and was sitting quite relaxed upon Temeraire’s foreleg. “It is true that Napoleon and his armies no longer pose a threat to my health; but a single evening alone with Mr Knightley may yet prove to be my undoing. I would be quite sunk without you, Will.”
“I am certain you would manage,” Laurence said, after a moment’s pause. The wine was affecting him more than Tharkay had thought; his face was deeply flushed.
“Tenzing might manage,” Temeraire said crossly, from above, “But I am quite certain that if Mr Knightley tells that story one more time I shall squash him.”
Tharkay laughed. “But think of your electorate! Think what the periodicals might say!”
“They would say he quite deserved it,” Temeraire said, and then sighed. “Oh, I know, I know. But it is so tiresome, when one is in Parliament, and one cannot even jest about squashing people! Of course they ought to know I do not mean it in the slightest, but there is still the greatest fuss imaginable when I even suggest I might squash someone even a little! It is quite insupportable, and I mean to make complete use of your good sense for as long as I am here; you must resign yourselves to as many jests about squashing as I can manage.”
Tharkay, fighting laughter, made the mistake of meeting Laurence’s eyes; both of them were overcome at once.
“You may joke about any subject, any time you please, my dear,” Laurence said fondly, once he had finally regained his composure, stepping close enough to stroke the tender place on Temeraire’s nose.
Temeraire nudged him affectionately, making Laurence stagger and shaking Tharkay enough to almost send him toppling from his perch. Quickly Temeraire nosed him back into place again.
“Shall we have a reading before bed?” Temeraire asked, hopefully, once they were all restored to order; they had lately begun reading Miss Austen’s latest novel, and were enjoying it immensely.
“If it should please you,” he said cautiously. “But first I would seek your advice – I have had some news today, and I believe your counsel on the matter would be most welcome.”
“Of course, my dear,” Laurence said. “What is it?”
“I had word this afternoon: Mrs Egerton died last night,” Tharkay said briefly. “You know she was expecting; she was delivered of a son two days ago, but I understand the birth was a very difficult one, and it seems she did not recover from it.”
Laurence looked grim, and a little uncertain. Since the unfortunate death of Tharkay’s cousin Jack some months previous in a hunting accident, the last male in the direct line in that branch of the family, they had thought the entail would most likely pass to a more distant relative, a curate with a living in Kent; to hear that the entail had now been preserved in its current line of the family in the person of a fragile infant was certainly surprising news. “Please send your aunt my condolences,” he said at last. “I understand Mrs Egerton had been living in her household?”
“Yes,” Tharkay said, and swallowed the rest of his comment; it might be true that his father’s sister would be unlikely to mourn any person who had the misfortune of possessing a mere Mrs as the prefix to her name, but he felt that to share the thought aloud would not be necessary. Both Laurence and Temeraire had after all met Lady Fitzherbert on more than one occasion, and were unfortunately all too familiar with her character.
Temeraire bent his great head even lower, to listen; his lower jaw was now resting flush against the smooth stone floor.
“Will Lady Fitzherbert be taking charge of the egg, then?” Temeraire asked. “Human eggs are so fragile; I find I do not quite like the thought of one in her care, even if it was produced by your cousin. It does not always follow, you know, that an egg is exactly like its parents; indeed I have often found it to be quite the reverse.” He hesitated. “Do you think she would be quite suited for its care?” he added, in a doubtful rush.
Tharkay smiled in a quick twitch of his mouth.
“You have grasped the matter entirely: I do not wish Lady Fitzherbert to take charge of the child. Since he is to be my heir – if he lives – I find myself of the opinion that it would not be entirely amiss to have some part in his upbringing. Certainly I do not mean this estate to be inherited by a child raised to Lady Fitzherbert’s principles.” He hesitated. “The older girl, too, I think – she is not quite two, and I suspect will have a poor time of it in that household; they are very disappointed she was not born a boy, to better secure the entail in that part of the family. I doubt Lady Fitzherbert is relishing the prospect of bringing two infants into her household, either; she may not like it, but I believe it unlikely that she would prevent me taking them off her hands.”
Laurence grimaced. “The poor children. Yes, of course: I quite see why you would consider it.”
Tharkay paused, waiting, but that seemed to be the sum of Laurence’s contribution to the conversation. He would have to be more direct.
“Would you object if I brought them here? Either of you?”
Laurence’s eyes widened; Temeraire blew another spiced gust over them in surprise.
“Object? Tenzing, this is your home; Temeraire and I are only guests. Of course you must arrange these matters as would best suit you!”
“Will,” Tharkay said, not without some fondness. “Do you think I invited you both here to live with me as mere guests? Temeraire has taken a position in Parliament, and you, Will, have involved yourself very deeply in the affairs of the estate – in these past months I could not have done without you. Do you truly think that, now that you have come to build your lives here, I would be so callous as to rescind that invitation, either directly or by making your lives here insupportable? If you do not think the idea a wise one, or do not wish to live in such close quarters with children of uncertain character, I beg that you will tell me at once.”
“Tenzing,” Laurence began, and then paused; the warm flush in his cheeks had deepened.
“I think it is a very fine idea,” Temeraire said, nodding a little. “Those children will do much better with the three of us to manage them; one might indeed call it a kindness to take them in hand. Do you not agree, Will?”
That last was said with some degree of hesitation, hesitation that in that moment Tharkay shared; but after an extended moment Laurence nodded his assent.
“If I have concerns,” he began, “It is only for you, Tenzing my dear. If you should wish to marry, it might cause – “
Tharkay’s smile turned sharp.
“I do not intend to,” he said briefly.
Laurence’s expression was strange; Tharkay did not think it entirely unhappy, but despite how well Tharkay had come to know him, it was oddly difficult to make out what he was thinking.
“Oh, are you quite sure?” Temeraire said cautiously, with the air of one trying very earnestly to remain indifferent. “It is your decision of course, it is only that Mr Evans has been spending some time explaining to me, why it is thought a very good thing for an Earl to marry; if you did so we would not have to bother with this business about the entail, you know – and would it not be a nice thing, to have a larger circle of companionship on the estate?”
“Marriage would not suit me, Temeraire, I am quite sure of that.” Tharkay smiled to take any sting from his words. “The friendship I have found quite satisfies me, I am perfectly happy as we are. But as it happens, we will need to bring more people to the estate: the children will need women in the house, particularly the girl, as she grows older. I have a spinster aunt who is not nearly so odious as the rest of my family; I suspect, given her circumstances, she and her companion will be quite happy to come here and assist in taking charge of the children. A wife will be quite unnecessary, and quite unwanted.”
Laurence smiled teasingly, his expression now relaxed and easy. “Are you sure, Tenzing? With a lady in the household you will no longer have an excuse to restrict your table; the other half of the neighbourhood will shortly be clamouring for an invitation to dine.”
Tharkay sighed. “One must make sacrifices on the altar of family; or so, at least, I hear, is the expectation. Miss Fraser is a very interesting woman, at least: her conversation is so pleasant one could almost imagine we were not related. And her companion, Miss Lanyon, is a poet – I understand she has succeeded in presenting a number of her works for publication, and is very knowledgeable about such matters.”
“Oh, how famous! Tenzing, you must invite them both to come live with us at once!” Temeraire nodded his head, quite comprehensively pleased. “And pray, you may ask her, if she is familiar at all with any of the works of the Chinese poets – I would so like to have someone with whom to discuss a variety of modes: so many people, you know, are only familiar with one style or another, and it limits the conversation rather sadly.”
“And thus it is settled,” Tharkay said, smiling a little. “I am quite tired; shall we return to the main house?” he added, to Laurence.
“By all means,” Laurence replied, very courteously.
Tharkay had given Laurence a suite of rooms very near to his own, in the main wing of the house; it was often their custom to take a final glass of port together in Tharkay’s study before separating for bed. Tonight, Tharkay did not feel the need for such reinforcement; in fact he was already a little drunker than he liked to be, these days; he was almost certain to have a fine head in the morning. Better to sleep now, lest he make it even worse.
“Goodnight, Will,” he said. “And thank you. I will write to make the necessary arrangements in the morning – “
He paused. Laurence had stepped very close to him; Tharkay would have suspected him angry, if he had not still been smiling faintly, and if there had been any cause at all in the past six hours for such a change in mood.
“Tenzing,” Laurence said huskily; he really was leaning in remarkably close. “You do not wish to marry, at all? You are quite happy with our companionship – with Temeraire’s companionship, and with mine?”
“Of course,” Tharkay began, drawling a little to cover his uncertainty. “It is as I told you earlier. My mind is quite made up – “
He was forced to pause again, mainly from surprise, but there were now other impediments to speech: Laurence was kissing him.
Tharkay spent the next few moments in a state of blank shock. The facts of the matter were quite clear – that was certainly his friend Will Laurence, and it was certainly Laurence’s mouth pressed firmly against his own. There was no denying it was a kiss, by any established definition of the word; but why should Laurence be kissing him? The thing did not make sense.
After a few moments Laurence pulled away. His earlier smile was quite gone; his expression had shuttered itself up, like a locked door.
“Forgive me,” Laurence said, very clearly and correctly. “I have quite misunderstood the situation, have I not?”
Tharkay said nothing; he could find nothing to say.
“I have. Tenzing, I am so sorry.”
He disappeared into his rooms; Tharkay remained silent, still too shocked to speak.
The next morning was strange only from Tharkay’s knowledge of what had come the night before. It was not at all unusual for him to wake to find Laurence already departed for some work on another part of the estate; it was only that Tharkay wished to speak to him, very urgently, and could not.
He spent the day in a kind of daze. His correspondence was finished very quickly, despite the variety of his obligations; he hoped that the other arrangements he was obligated to make would take up more of his time, but those, too, passed very quickly.
He found himself walking the grounds again, late in the afternoon; crossing and recrossing his favourite walk beneath oaks that had been old long before his grandfather had built the grand house behind him.
Thoughts circled his mind and were lost. He had not thought – not Laurence.
And what did Laurence think of him, that he had tried it?
Tharkay returned to the house in time to dress for dinner; fortunately they were not expecting guests this evening. He found, outside Laurence’s rooms, small chaos: all the doors open, trunks piled neatly in the hallways, and inside the rooms were stripped almost bare of Laurence’s things.
“Will,” Tharkay said; his friend had appeared before him, very starched and correct, with a grim expression on his face. “Will, what are you doing?”
It was obvious what Laurence was doing, and Tharkay did not like to state the obvious, but the words escaped him nonetheless.
“I have behaved abominably towards you,” Laurence said, eyes lowered; his lashes looked very dark against his fine skin. “I have abused your hospitality in the most outrageous fashion; I will not now continue to inflict my presence upon you.”
Tharkay shook his head helplessly; he could not even begin to grasp the thought of Laurence’s departure. “Will, why did you do it? I never thought you were the type to – “
He no longer had the words to continue, but Laurence seemed to grasp his meaning well enough.
“You forget I was in the Navy, Tenzing. I was hardly addicted to the practice, but it is true that I have had male lovers – for the most part out of convenience, or so I told myself at the time. I gave that up when I made post – I thought it most inappropriate for a man in my position, and then, too, I am not one who is solely inclined in that direction; I had certain expectations towards Edith – that is, Mrs Woolvey – and saw no reason why I should indulge myself with men now under my command, any more than I should take advantage of the liberties available at port; it seemed to be all of a piece, and quite unnecessary. For some years I had begun to think the tendency quite extinguished in me, no more than a youthful indiscretion…”
Laurence trailed off; he had begun characteristically boldly, taking his fence in a rush, but that motivation seemed to lose itself in his periods. Tharkay could not help but smile, despite himself; it was so utterly Laurence, this confession. He could never, in a thousand years, have expected this from Laurence – but if he had expected it, he must have expected it to go exactly like this.
“Tenzing, I – I am so terribly sorry to have inflicted myself upon you in that fashion. I misjudged the situation completely – I let my own hopes and desires colour my interpretation of events, and led myself astray. I do not know if you can ever forgive me – I quite understand if you cannot – “
Tharkay shook his head. The world seemed to have been turned completely upside-down; and yet there was a kind of logic and sense to this new world. So many events, cast in this new light, showed themselves to have quite another meaning – and yet it all made sense, it all fit together.
“I find I cannot entirely find it in me to blame you; now that I come to consider the matter, some of my actions could certainly be interpreted in another light.” He hesitated. “How long – “
Laurence grimaced; he still seemed unable to look Tharkay directly in the face. “It has been some time; I pray you, I do not think you wish to know more.”
But Tharkay realised abruptly that he did wish to know more. His mind was very full of images – so many years of companionship, Laurence’s actions to save him after he had been taken as a spy in France, Laurence’s rescue in China, the very palpable delight breaking through Laurence’s despair when Tharkay had told him he planned to accompany him to Australia… Even those first uncertain months crossing overland through Europe and Asia; it had been so difficult to trust in Laurence’s assurances at first – all those lonely years had taught Tharkay very well that there was no sense in trusting an Englishman of that class and character – but when Laurence had finally proven himself to be as true as he appeared to be, Tharkay had been so happy…
A number of matters at once became quite clear – most of all that Laurence must not leave, under any circumstances whatsoever: Tharkay could not bear to lose him.
Only slightly less pressing were other considerations: matters Tharkay had never before even suspected in himself, but which were making their importance known with increasing force.
“I do not think I wish you to leave, Will,” Tharkay said quietly. “I find we have been very happy here together – have we not?”
“Yes,” Laurence said. “But Tenzing, I would not for the world cause you discomfort, or unhappiness; I believe it would be far better for me to go. I can find rooms at the village inn for now – I hope that you will allow Temeraire to stay, at least until we can find other arrangements; I am sure we will be able to find a suitable lease within the borders of the electorate…”
Laurence broke off; he had no other choice. This time, Tharkay was kissing him.
“Tenzing,” Laurence breathed, once circumstances permitted; this kiss had lasted rather longer than their last. “What – I am not complaining in the slightest, only – sixteen hours ago you seemed to have quite another opinion on the matter.”
Tharkay felt the corners of his mouth turn up in a smile, quite outside his voluntary control. “I was surprised,” he offered, primly. “You might have told me – or at least given me time to consider my position; I am very inexperienced about such matters, you know.”
Laurence frowned at him; the sight only made Tharkay’s smile widen.
“It is true, my dear; you know how long I have been solitary, and how difficult it was for me to accept you even as my friend. You cannot upset my understanding of the world entirely in a moment, without giving me a little time to reconsider every conception I have ever held of myself.”
Laurence kissed him again; for quite a long moment they found themselves distracted.
“Have you truly never considered it, Tenzing? It is only – I was quite certain you had all but declared yourself – “
“I truly have not. You must excuse me; my experience of the world is more limited than I had previously thought – but then, I suppose, I have never served in the British Navy.”
Laurence laughed against his mouth; quite a pleasant sensation, Tharkay would be very happy to experience it again.
“That is not the only place in which experience in such matters might be gained. There are many countries outside England where it is quite common, I had thought you might have tried…”
“No,” Tharkay said, briefly but firmly. “The thought never appealed, until now.”
“I am glad you are not entirely opposed,” Laurence said fervently.
“No. No, not entirely,” Tharkay replied, and put the words into action again: a gentle kiss, but very sweet.
They separated again, very suddenly, at the sound of footsteps in the hallway outside – Tharkay’s manservant James, no doubt, coming to ensure they were both dressed for dinner.
Quite involuntarily, Tharkay found himself making a series of comments in Chinese; the language was very satisfying for expressing his dissatisfaction.
“Indeed,” Laurence said, still flushed and breathing heavily. Tharkay could not stop looking at him for the world.
“I suppose we had better dine,” Tharkay said, a little crossly.
“I suppose we must,” Laurence agreed, and then smiled sharply. “We will both still be here tonight, after all.”
Tharkay caught his meaning at once and flushed. He could not stop thinking about it, all through dinner: he was abominably distracted, but Temeraire carried the conversation himself very well, with the occasional well-meaning but not entirely sensible interjection from Laurence.
Tharkay could have very easily put it down to Temeraire’s natural kindness, bolstered by his enthusiasm for discussion of wheat prices, had it not been for the very transparent excuse Temeraire gave, later that evening, for why he must retreat very early to the private part of his pavilion, and send Tharkay and Laurence back to the main house together. Either Laurence had somehow found a moment to speak to him just before dinner, or they were both far more transparent in their affections than Tharkay had thought – and yet despite his professional dismay at the latter possibility, he could not find it in himself to care.
“Shall we return to the main house, then?” Laurence asked him softly, his eyes very wide and blue: Tharkay could not for the world have declined.
The servants in the main house were by this hour all in bed: it had been their consistent habit since Tharkay first returned to this house, but now he found it in himself to wonder if there had not been some attempt to preserve the master’s privacy behind the practice; quite impossible to ever know for sure, but the suspicion equally impossible to eradicate.
If he had been thought a sodomite for months, without consequence, what would stand in the way of becoming one in truth? Tharkay could not think of a good reason – nor did he think he wanted to.
Tharkay had not drunk very much with dinner, tonight, but he still found himself flushed and on edge. It was quite impossible to stop thinking about Laurence – about himself and Laurence – about what they might do together, very shortly. The walk from the dining room to the bedroom wing had never seemed so long.
Laurence hesitated at the door to Tharkay’s rooms.
“My dear – we need not do this tonight, or indeed any night, if you do not wish it – ”
Tharkay shook his head briefly. “But I do wish it. That is – if you still find yourself amenable – “
He did not intend for his last words to become so plaintive; nevertheless the result was more than acceptable.
Kissing Laurence was clearly among the most enjoyable of the activities that they could enjoy together; Tharkay did not intend to give up conversation or fine wine entirely, but they would certainly need to undertake a thorough rearrangement of their habits in order to ensure the proper amount of time was devoted to this new pastime.
Kissing Laurence, he was discovering, was also very distracting. He was not entirely sure when they had found their way into Tharkay’s bedroom, or exactly what had happened to Laurence’s coat, but he certainly was not objecting. Still less, when Laurence’s long clever fingers insinuated themselves into his clothing, and made away with his own coat, not to mention his shirt –
“No, Will, I can manage,” he said at last, reluctantly pulling free; it was not like Laurence at all to be so careless with his clothing. “’I will have it off in a moment, only pray mind the buttons – ”
Laurence, laughing, took up kissing his hands instead; a habit most unconducive to the safe removal of a shirt imaginable, but not entirely unwelcome in Tharkay’s current state of mind.
Despite the distraction it did not take very much longer for the two of them to undress. Tharkay had seen Laurence’s body before, of course: their years of travel together had quite seen to that. But never like this: never with the freedom to look as much as he wanted – even to stare.
Under his clothing Laurence was pale and muscular, the broad expanses of shoulder and chest marked out with irregular scars. Colour came at his nipples, small and taut and very pink; and at his mouth; and at the red flush of colour rising in his face and down his neck and chest.
Tharkay had not ever, consciously, thought a man beautiful before: he nevertheless thought this man beautiful now.
“Tenzing,” Laurence said very quietly; he was breathing fast. “Will you come back here?”
Their kisses were different now, deeper and slower, more heated; there was the hot slide of Laurence’s hands over his body, the delicious exploration of his own hands on Laurence’s own. There were other places Laurence liked to be kissed, Tharkay was discovering: his neck, below his ears, and over those small pink nipples. Over those last he liked a bite even better than a kiss: careful and measured, but not gentle, not in the slightest.
Tharkay’s hands were roaming lower now, curious and greedy. The blond thatch of hair covering Laurence from belly to thighs was surprisingly soft despite its thickness; below was more colour, the stiff red jut of Laurence’s cock pushing needily against Tharkay’s exploring fingers.
Laurence was breathing fast and irregularly now, hips working in tiny involuntary pulses. He was gripping Tharkay’s shoulder too tightly, fingernails digging in hard enough to bruise.
“Tenzing – please – ”
Laurence – Laurence begging – Tharkay was filled with a hot satisfied rush. But at the same time there was uncertainty, and frustration –
“Certainly, my dear; only you must tell me what it is you wish me to do!”
Laurence laughed in a quick huff of breath, and disengaged them only so far as it took him to take step backwards, and lay himself down over Tharkay’s bed.
“That is only fair, I suppose,” he began, looking up at Tharkay through his lashes. “But there are many things we could try; you must tell me which of them you think you would most like.”
Tharkay waited, feeling his blood rushing in him; he had never felt less patient.
“I liked your hand very much,” Laurence continued. “We could continue, and I would certainly return the favour. Or, if you like – it has been some years, but I believe I could also remember how to use my mouth, if you were prepared to bear the experiment; I cannot promise to be very skilful right away.”
Another hot rush flowed through him; Tharkay stifled the noise he made, but only barely. Laurence – Laurence’s smooth cultured accents, his voice, speaking about these things -
“It is undoubtedly greedy of me," Laurence said, voice lowering still further into a husky rasp. "But I confess, my dearest, I would also be very eager for you to fuck me.”
Tharkay did not consciously decide to move; it was only that he suddenly found himself stretched out over Laurence, pressed against him, kissing him deeply.
“Yes,” he said hoarsely, when they parted. “Yes, I would like that, very much. Please?”
Laurence kissed him again.
“I did hope you would want that,” he confessed, between more kissed. “It is only – you will have to let me up – Tenzing!”
They were both laughing now. At last, reluctantly, Tharkay did let him go, and at once rolled over to enjoy the view as Laurence made his way over to the dresser: Laurence, entirely nude, was quite the picture.
He rummaged there for some time, but at last seemed to triumph, withdrawing a small bottle of the plain oil Tharkay used to rub into sore muscles. Laurence opened it quickly, sniffing the contents, then smiled.
“I believe this will do; I remember you used something like this when I strained my shoulder on the boat to Australia, did you not?”
Tharkay nodded; at that particular moment speech was beyond him. Laurence walking towards him, naked, was quite as arresting as Laurence walking away from him, and Tharkay was quite unable to take his eyes away.
They kissed again, less immediately urgently this time, but perhaps with more desperation. Then Laurence withdrew; Tharkay could not at first see what he was doing, but then an involuntary spasm of pleasure lifted Laurence’s knees further apart, and Tharkay realised he had his fingers inside himself, steadily working himself open.
“Do you like that?” he asked curiously; it seemed as if Laurence did, from the noises he was making and the way his body was trembling, but it could not hurt to be sure.
“Yes,” Laurence gasped out. “Yes – very much – “
Tharkay leaned down to kiss the corner of his mouth.
“May I try, next time?”
Laurence shuddered all over. “Yes.”
“Good,” Tharkay said, voice catching roughly in his throat, and leaned down to kiss Laurence again.
That took up another long and delicious stretch of time, but at last Laurence sighed and withdrew, positioning himself on all fours on the bed.
He turned to look at Tharkay over his shoulder.
“Are you quite ready, my dear?” Laurence asked, voice low and husky.
Tharkay leaned down to kiss his mouth, then trailed more kisses down his shoulder, the curve of his spine suddenly revealed in this position: a distraction, but quite irresistible.
A final kiss, to the hollow at the small of Laurence’s back; then Tharkay got up, positioning himself behind Laurence.
“Yes,” he said, lining himself up; Laurence was trembling beneath him, flushed with colour again, and pushing back into Tharkay’s hands.
He cried out when Tharkay pushed inside him: not loudly, but with force. Tharkay froze, and ran a careful caressing hand over Laurence’s hip.
“Will – ”
“I am quite well, pray do not stop,” Laurence hissed, and arched back into him. Tharkay did not often do as he was told, but this time thought it would be quite as well to obey.
Time began to blur and slow. There was only the sharp pleasure building in him, formed as much from Laurence’s trembling cries as from the tight heat of his body; all the world seemed to have vanished, save the places where they touched. Their rhythm was slow at first, deliberate and steady, but Laurence would not stand for that, urging Tharkay on with his body as much as his voice.
At last Tharkay thought to touch Laurence again, and found his cock hot and hard under his hand. The sound Laurence made this time at Tharkay’s touch was quite different, guttural and sharp, almost agonised. His cock twitched and swelled; at a second touch, Laurence cried out again and came.
He almost convulsed, body tightening everywhere; and for a moment Tharkay lost himself in a hot rush of pleasure.
Tharkay came back to himself lying down in his bed, with Laurence tangled up in his arms. Laurence seemed barely awake, sleepy-eyed and soft-mouthed, lips swollen with kisses; but he was conscious enough to kiss Tharkay again, as soon as he realised Tharkay was awake.
“That is quite pleasant, my dear,” Tharkay said at last, withdrawing with a sigh. “But we had better stop it, before we both fall asleep.”
Laurence’s face became uncertain.
“Do you not wish me to sleep here?” he asked, frowning slightly. “I will be gone before the servants wake, I promise…”
Tharkay silenced him with another kiss.
“I am not opposed in the slightest,” he managed at last. “It is only that I do not wish to sleep with at least six candles still burning; it would make for the greatest possible awkwardness for the undertakers, should we happen to burn to death in this position, not to mention a source of gossip for all my relations. I would vastly prefer to avoid it.”
Laurence snorted; then he turned his head slightly to look towards the mantlepiece and groaned.
“Can you move, Tenzing? In the present moment, I am not entirely sure if I am capable.”
Tharkay sighed, but he supposed that Laurence had after all the strongest justification for sloth, given their recent circumstances and relative positions; besides which, Tharkay was now quite undoubtedly a gentleman, and must live according to that position.
“You are quite lucky I love you,” he grumbled, beginning to remove himself from the pleasant warmth of Laurence’s body
He was arrested by the look of astonished delight quickly spreading across Laurence’s handsome features.
The expression kindled an answering warmth in him. Perhaps Tharkay had not consciously realised that he loved this man before tonight; nevertheless some part of him had known, and for years.
“Tenzing, you must know that I also love you,” Laurence said, still smiling, and Tharkay realised that he did know that, too.
For had he not known for many years now that Laurence’s regard was the dearest of all his possessions?