He descended the stairs still half-gripped within the dream that had woken him, and it was only as his bare foot touched down on the shocking cold floor of the lower level that he realized it was well into the small hours of the night.
It had been night in his dream, as well, and the sky thickly crowded with stars; but the deck of the ship beneath his feet had been warm. Or warm until the wind and rain came, at least, blotting out the sky. Old habit had carried him out of bed and down the hall; he would certainly have been needed on deck in such a storm, in his former life. In one of his former lives, Laurence corrected himself wryly: he had several by now.
He was still standing there in the foyer, his toes shrinking back from the cold, when he noted something strange. Flickering lantern-light pooled warmly on the floor from around the bend of the corridor—where Tharkay’s study was. Laurence paused a moment, torn between curiosity and a desire not to intrude. Curiosity won. He moved to the open door.
A heap of letters, unopened and sealed in wax paper, sprawled across the desk. Light from the lantern cascaded unevenly over the paper and shone off the leather falconry gloves that had been tossed in among them, glimmering over their gilt embossing. A face turned upwards at the intrusion; one side richly bronzed by the light, the other made mysterious with shadow, his eyes glowing and soft.
“Tenzing,” said Laurence, heart hammering for no reason he could name. “Keeping a late night, I see.”
He smiled crookedly, a mere glint of teeth showing in the unsteady light. “Not all my doing, I assure you.” He gestured at the unopened letters on his desk; a smaller pile of opened ones pooled in his lap. “My lawyers have finally seen fit to forward my correspondence, and it has become a small mountain since last I was in England. I must tell you, it is a peculiar feeling to have several years of one’s life accumulate in one's absence and then be deposited all at once.”
“I can wholly sympathize,” said Laurence, with some feeling. He paused there; it verged a little too close to the matter that had brought him out of his bed well past midnight, and he was now awake enough to be thoroughly embarrassed over it. Still—it had felt so real—
Tharkay had noticed his indecision. His gaze sharpened, incisive, and Laurence felt abruptly aware that he was in his nightshirt, and that he had rushed out of bed from a nightmare like a child. Still, Tharkay said nothing. Gathering the letters out of his lap, he took long strides to the other side of the study, where he pulled down a bottle so cloaked in dust that Laurence could not read the label. He gestured Laurence to the other chair.
"Do your dreams still come?" he asked quietly, putting the bottle down on the table before him.
Laurence let him pour before answering. The swirl of clear liquid into the glass was oddly soothing, almost hypnotic.
“I begin to think they are more than dreams,” he said slowly. “The more I remember, the more I become ever more conscious how many pieces are still missing of my mind. The matters of importance, I believe, are firmly fixed; yet the details, the daily scenes of life—It is a damned business, Tenzing, not to feel myself secure in my own mind. Every new memory reminds me that there are parts of my life that are as a stranger to me, while I must become an observer of my own past, without knowing what it is I am deprived of."
He paused, looking down at his glass, turning it around in his hand; baiju, that the troops had been so fond of in China. He did not have to bring it to his lips to taste the aroma, heady and strange.
"I dreamed of you," he said, and took the liquid into his mouth. A spreading heat in his throat and chest gave him courage. "You were there, at least. It was night, and the deck was warm..."
It was night, and the deck was warm enough to sleep on. Many of the sailors were doing just that, sprawled against the sides or merely curled wherever they had dropped. Laurence walked the length of the deck beneath sails that belled out gently as they caught the low breeze; through the maze of fabric and rigging he could see the Southern Cross hanging overhead. Tenzing was by his side, unseen and silent yet somehow undetectably present, in the manner of dreams.
The voice of the Allegiance was familiar to him now, after so many years of traveling by her, and currently she spoke in the soft creaking murmur of a ship at peace, content with herself and sailing as graceful as such a lumbering hulk ever could expect to. Laurence rested his arms on the railing, looking out at the sea at night. Tharkay stayed a step behind, so that if Laurence looked to his side he could not see him, but he could feel his presence just behind his shoulder, solid and warm and real.
They heard the sound at the same time, it seemed like, or perhaps that was only true in the dream; Laurence realized as he was telling it that only a sailor would have distinguished the noise as unusual. But Tharkay's face did not change, hearing it, and Laurence plunged on.
The sound was coming from beneath the dragondeck, near the figurehead, and Laurence's steps quickened at once, fearing that some sailor meant to do Temeraire a mischief. Tharkay followed at his heels, silent and quick. He was certain that it was a sailor; no animal would have willingly gone so near Temeraire, and no aviator would have thought to go down the complex series of ladders and ropeways that led down into the dark belly below the dragondeck, only illuminated even during the day by the reflection of light from the water. If it was cleaned more than once a sixmonth, it was due to a sailor’s habitual obsession with cleanliness in every part of the ship, and only when a dragon was not in residence.
The stars were unusually bright that night, or perhaps Laurence was only remembering it that way; either way, he told Tharkay, they had no difficulty navigating down to the figurehead. There were deeper shadows moving within the darkness. Laurence was now certain that there was someone down there, beneath the very heart of the dragondeck.
The noise came again, something between a moan and a whisper, nearly inaudible over the murmur of the sea below. By silent mutual agreement Laurence and Tharkay came to a stop. Laurence strained his eyes to peer below them.
There were two men, Laurence realized with a start, as his eyes adjusted to the dimness. He could see the reflected starlight shifting over them and revealing stolen glimpses of hands moving hungrily over thighs, of bodies pressed chest to chest. Laurence could see their faces now, could recognize them; two of Riley's young officers, holding each other in fervent embrace…
Laurence came back to himself abruptly, sitting in a comfortable chair in Tharkay’s study with the cold night just outside the windows, aware that he had not been fully attending to his own words. He took in shallow breaths of air scented not with the salt of the sea but with the aroma of the pine forests where Tharkay hunted. The last wisps of the memory of the ship at night dissolved, revealing the study and the lantern throwing golden light onto Tharkay's face. Laurence could not seem to look anywhere else.
"Was that where it ended?" asked Tharkay, breaking the brief silence.
Laurence hesitated. "Yes, afterwards it became a mere dream, I am sure; a storm on my first command. Nothing more." He turned the glass around in his hand. "So," he said eventually. "Did it happen?"
Tharkay looked over him thoughtfully.
"It did," he said. "But not as you dreamed it."
He rose and walked swiftly to the desk, and there removed one of the opened letters. It was long, written both sides of the paper and crossed. With a start Laurence recognized his own handwriting.
"Yes," said Tharkay. "Having finished with reading various threats against my life and other letters of business, I find myself at liberty to read your correspondence to me, although several years now out of date. I hope you forgive me if I don't reply as I go."
"Good lord, I have written you a novel," said Laurence, and then flushed. He considered himself a good correspondent ordinarily, and there was nothing unusual in his writing lengthy letters--nothing unusual at all. He could not really be surprised by it, he realized as he recovered himself: it was only that he had not remembered doing it.
Tharkay, if he had felt slighted by the remark, did not show it.
"Your letters are everything one could want from a correspondent," he said, with a wry smile. "I ought to have warned you that I, on the other hand, am an indifferent letter-writer at best. I am not accustomed to putting my thoughts on paper, and as a general rule I have tended to travel faster than my mail. Perhaps I shall have to learn the habit now that I am so domesticated."
“Hardly a word I should use to describe you, I think.”
“No,” said Tharkay, lifting an eyebrow. “I am domesticated entirely, and I meant to be. No man can be a wild creature forever, and I only chose to be in preference to a life that would nonetheless have treated me as such, however many leashes I may have worn. The habit of correspondence anchors one to the world. Previously that had little value to me, but your example shows me the utility of it. The memory you recounted to me just now is contained in every particular in the letter in my hand. Except, of course, that I was not present. I seem to have inserted myself where I did not belong.”
Laurence took the letter into his hands, making some reply. The story was indeed written out there, but Laurence could not make out any sense of meaning, and the anecdote was not one he would have ordinarily have included in a letter. It was indeed written shakily, as if in haste, as if he was a common gossip hastening to share something he had witnessed entirely accidentally. There was no explanation following, and having crossed his lines he could not simply remove the story from the letter, as he supposed he must have wanted to.
The following lines were more sedate, and talked only of the ordinary life of the ship, and towards the end of a great albatross that had accompanied the ship for some hours. This, Laurence did remember; the bird had been quite unafraid of Temeraire, who had gazed at it closely in fascination. It being easily twice the size of any eagle he had ever seen, Laurence did not indeed think it was in the habit of fear. He had enclosed a sketch of it with the letter, and Laurence held it up to the light to examine it more closely.
It was certainly his work, Laurence thought ruefully, crude as it was. He had always, even as a child, taken great care with his script, but even the most basic draftsmanship had always escaped him. The bird had been sketched out in thick, uneven lines. Some attempt had been made to show how the great wings shaded to black near their edges, but the shape of the head and beak were entirely wrong, so that it looked more like a great-winged eagle than anything else. He couldn't think why he would have sent such a thing to Tharkay.
Laurence was on the point of offering an apology for the poor quality of the drawing when Tharkay spoke.
“I must thank you for the sketch you enclosed,” he said. “I have never seen an albatross in the flesh, myself, although I had hoped to on the outward voyage to New South Wales. You remember our conversations on that subject, I hope.”
“I do,” said Laurence slowly, the memory of that night on the deck of the Allegiance coming back to him even as he said it. Tharkay had been in one of his rare expansive moods, speaking softly of birds of prey he had known and set free, while they shared a bottle of Madeira and watched the constellations slowly change above them. “I only wish I remembered writing this letter.”
Tharkay shrugged. “You might have lost the memory to time in any case, whether you were shipwrecked or no,” he pointed out. “We should do better to be grateful that we have the letter at all. Your postscript tells an interesting story.”
Laurence took another look at the letter. In his own handwriting he clearly read:
I must entrust to the generosity of M. De Guignes for the safe delivery of this letter. The Allegiance is lost, and nearly every man of worth lost with her, God Rest Their Souls. Do not worry for us: Temeraire and much of our crew were able to escape from the sinking, as well as this letter, kept dry in the pocket of my coat and sealed in wax. I can only hope and pray it finds you well.
“Admirably succinct,” said Tharkay, as Laurence with some dismay finished rereading the brief note. “I can only imagine how much it would have soothed my mind had I received it in any reasonable amount of time.”
“I do apologize,” Laurence said. “I cannot explain what I was thinking.”
The lines of Tharkay’s face softened. He said,
"I beg you will think I was delivering a rebuke. Indeed, I am indebted to you for sending word at all, although in this case I could hardly have done anything about your captivity."
"You could hardly have done anything regardless," said Laurence, bemused, "as I was quite solidly on the far side of the world from you."
"Matters could have been arranged," said Tharkay. "Not, however, that you required it, judging from the stack of letters that came after."
"Have you read them already?" asked Laurence, startled, taking another glance at the overflowing stacks of envelopes. He could not remember writing a single one.
"No, nor the ones that came before. I am ashamed to say that I simply picked the first on the pile to read, and had only begun putting them in any sort of order when you arrived."
"If I may beg a favor—when you have finished with them, I would be glad to reacquaint myself with them." With some embarrassment he confessed his difficulty.
"How can I refuse, when I already have the permission of the author?” said Tharkay, smiling a little. “There is no reason for you to wait, however. We will read the letters at the same time. Then we may have the pleasure of discovering the past together.”
From then on it became a settled habit of theirs to spend every evening in the sitting room, reading the letters aloud to each other. There was little else to do; it was deep winter, and the chill that had set in over Tharkay's estate might as well have followed them from Russia. The windows were rimed with frost, and the servants went around in thick stockings, quite incongruous with their uniforms. At night Laurence could hear the sound of pine trees snapping under the weight of snow, all the resin inside frozen and stiff. He had heard that in London, the Thames had frozen over and they were holding markets on the ice. Temeraire had written to tell him of it, excitedly, and to say that he had even visited it, although a great many people talked with him beforehand and made him promise not to step on the ice, or fly low over it, or roar too loudly, as if he were some lout, to do such a thing. He also wrote to say that Lady Allendale had already introduced him to several men he would have to know as a member of Parliament, and named a number of old allies of Laurence's father.
He had read the names with a pang. His brother would have ascended to Lord Allendale's seat by now. He tried to picture George wearing his father's coronet, walking in the corridors of power once occupied by his father; the image was bizarre.
With Temeraire gone there was little to occupy his time, and he would be gone for a fortnight longer still, overseeing construction on the manor he had insisted on building outside London. Laurence accompanied Tharkay daily to exercise his goshawk, stamping his feet through the crackling snow as the hawk wheeled against the white sky. Those were mornings before the house was awake, all the servants taking the chance to stay late in their warm beds with a master who asked very little of them, and the snow settling lazily on the land. Laurence stood a little back as Tharkay lifted his lure and began to spin it in slow circles above his head. Above them in the sky, the hawk turned sharply, lifted its ferocious talons, and struck. Hawk and lure hit the ground together in an eruption of snow.
As Laurence approached, Tharkay had already settled the goshawk on his arm and was feeding it gobbets of raw flesh from his hand. Laurence eyed it warily. He still had scars on his forearms from helping Tharkay trap it just a few months earlier, and he could not call the animal anything more than half-tame, and that generous.
“That will be enough for today, I think,” said Tharkay, glancing up into the sky. “I do not yet want to try her in a storm. No doubt I would never see her again.”
“Is that not a constant danger, regardless?” Laurence asked, turning to walk back to the house with him. From her perch on Tharkay’s arm, the hawk swiveled her brown-streaked head to keep an angry eye on him. “You do not keep her on a leash.”
“A creature that flies cannot be kept shackled, as you have cause to know,” said Tharkay. He regarded the hawk on his arm, now sullenly inspecting the far horizon for prey. “She returns to me because she wishes to. A hawk is not like a man. She would certainly die in the wild, in this winter, but that would not weigh on her in the least, should she decide no longer to stay. She trusts little, and seldom, and loves even less. Even if it killed her, she would not stay with one who has not earned her company.”
In the evenings they sat before the fire, well-fed with crackling logs against the winter chill, and read letters.
The storm had come as predicted, and it screeched at their windows like a live thing. Laurence barely heard it. They had taken it in turns to read the letters aloud to each other, and tonight was Tharkay’s turn. It was odd, and strangely comforting, to hear his own words in Tharkay’s voice, and read in a tone very unlike his usual dry manner. He gave them an intensity that Laurence did not think was merited by the content, pronouncing the words as if searching for hidden meaning in each one. It made Laurence wonder if he read all of his letters in such a way, or if only his received such treatment. The thought made him cough.
Tharkay broke off from reading the letter at the sound.
“I hope your own accomplishments do not bore you,” he said, his voice his own once again. “I realize they must seem very small compared to your later exploits.”
“I do beg your pardon,” said Laurence, feeling his face begin to flush. “My—my throat was dry. Pray continue.”
“Allow me to pour for you,” said Tharkay instantly, and Laurence could hardly object. His glass was filled with a fine, full-bodied port, very welcome after the chill of the day. Tharkay poured another glass for himself, and for a little while they drank in silence.
“I am afraid,” said Tharkay finally, setting aside his glass, “that I have been filled with a certain amount of guilt.”
“What have you to feel guilty for?” Laurence asked, startled. “I am sure I do not know a man who has less—that is to say,” he amended hastily, “I hope you will clarify yourself, Tenzing.”
“I have been unexpectedly gifted a wealth of paper, that I hardly know what to do with. It makes me realize that I have given nothing in return for near-daily recounting of the thoughts and actions of more than a year.”
“I can hardly call it nothing,” Laurence protested, but Tharkay carried on as if he hadn’t spoken.
“I am not one who can easily put down on paper what I think, and even less what I feel. Yet I cannot help but feel that I owe a debt to you, which may merit that I lay down my heart after all.”
“Please do not think I wrote in hopes of forcing an answer,” said Laurence, faintly bewildered. He could not guess Tharkay’s meaning. “They were meant to be read by you, and it is enough to me that you are doing so; do not feel compelled to respond when you do not wish to.”
Tharkay met his eyes levelly. “And if I wish to?” he asked.
The fire had been built up too high, or the wine too strong; Laurence felt quite warm suddenly. “Then by all means,” he said. “Perhaps when we have finished, you may draft a reply.”
“An excellent compromise,” said Tharkay, quite seriously, and went back to reading the letter, a remarkably detailed narrative of the resettlement of Brazil, following the alliance with the Tswana. Laurence was left to ponder Tharkay’s words.
Even having seen the stack of letters for himself, Laurence found himself startled nonetheless by the extent of his correspondence. He had even written regularly from Australia, although there was little to relay save for the creeping progress on Temeraire’s pavilion, the raising of cattle, and occasional invitations for Tharkay to visit, whenever the urge to travel should strike again.
The narrative grew less settled after the sinking of the Allegiance. The next letter was postmarked with such a long stretch between dates that Laurence had feared that a letter had been lost; the contents, however, proved to contain every improbable event that Laurence had uncertainly remembered from that time; the discovery of the pirate map and their escape from their prison island, their travels across the Incan Empire and their rapid decampment thereof to Brazil. If he had omitted anything, it was very little. The letters, at this point, had reached a scale to rival one of Temeraire’s mathematical tomes. Perhaps it was not wonderful that Tharkay felt obligated to respond, and Laurence could not himself deny that he was burning with curiosity to know of Tharkay’s life in the interim. It felt almost taboo, this promise of future knowledge from one who was so generally private as a rule, as if he were eating from a forbidden fruit; the thought produced a squirm of excitement in his chest, and he had to force himself to concentrate on hearing his own letter read aloud.
Their days passed in this way; cold mornings spent among the forests of Tharkay’s winter-wild estate, and evenings before the fire, until one by one their store of letters diminished, and the land sank deeper into the snow.
It was late, the evening before the New Year; Temeraire would be spending it with Laurence’s family and returning in the morning. Laurence tended the fire himself; all the servants had been granted leave to go and spend the day with their families in the village, and were even now leaving their preparations for breakfast in the kitchen downstairs. They would depart any moment, and Laurence did not intend to distract any from their excitement.
Footsteps in the hall alerted him; he turned to find Tharkay entering, his dark eyes bright from the cold, pulling his gloves off his hands and tossing them onto the desk. He was still in his cloak and boots, making Laurence feel underdressed in his nightshirt and dressing-gown, and in bare feet.
“A quiet night, and no more snowfall,” said Tharkay, settling into his chair. A bottle of port, from a particularly good year, stood on the table between them. “I begin to think we may see spring before Whitsun.”
“Small mercies,” said Laurence, thankful not only on behalf of the farmers. He had already written twice to Temeraire, advising him to put off travel until it was warmer. Laurence dreaded to think of him caught in a storm, and Temeraire’s latest reply had promised caution so blithely that Laurence was beginning to regret allowing him to go off to London alone.
“He assured me, if you can believe it, that he would not fly at all if the wind was very strong, or if he could not see through it, but then in the same paragraph goes on to say that he did not think storms in England were ever so very bad! I think he meant it to be comforting.”
“Perhaps politics will give him a greater sense of caution,” Tharkay suggested, his lips quirking.
“God forbid he should learn anything from a politician,” said Laurence with feeling. He poured for them both, quickly; small droplets landed on the table between them. He had been made clumsy by his eagerness. He had the letter already in his lap.
This was the last. It was slimmer than the rest. He smoothed the paper with a shaking hand. It was dated from their voyage outward from Rio; just before the storm that took his memory.
“I shall expect your reply after this,” he said, half in jest, to Tharkay, who only smiled back, although Laurence thought the edges of that smile were too taut, twisted by something that was not happiness. Laurence tore his eyes from it, tried to put it out of his mind, turning his attention to the letter.
He began to read it aloud.
“Tenzing,” he said. “I beg you will forgive my forwardness. Perhaps it is your lack of reply that gives me the courage to set down in words how I feel, or perhaps I can simply no longer withstand the agony of concealing to you what is fundamental to me. I must tell you. I—”
He faltered, looking at the next words on the page. His throat worked silently.
Tharkay’s hands tensed around his glass.
“Keep going,” he whispered.
“I must tell you,” said Laurence, barely audible himself. “I love—I love you.”
He paused, swallowed. His mouth was dry, and out of words. Unable to think of anything else to do, he continued to read.
“I love you. I know the danger, should this letter fall into any other hands but yours, but I do not wish to equivocate, or be anything less than clear. My heart belongs to you, and has since, I believe, the moment you recalled me to myself in England, these many months ago. I did not realize it at the time; could not realize that what I felt should be called love, but the loss of years and of many friends has made me understand more truly what I feel.
“I do not know if you love me in return. You have made me a better man, and I, I hope, have earned some fragment of your affection. If there is any room in your heart for me, no matter how small or how irregular the form, I beg you to allow me to fill it. It is the greatest hope of my heart that you will consent to spend our lives together, in whatever fashion that may take, until death, and after.
His signature closed the letter. It made it real to Laurence, somehow, reading it; he felt dazed, and in an odd state of disbelief. They were silent awhile. Then Tharkay said,
"Will," a single word, but imbued with such ferocity of emotion and longing as Laurence had hardly ever heard from him. He was as still as one of his hawks, tense as if he was carefully controlling every muscle in order not to move.
Laurence knew that he must speak, but it was as if he had forgotten how. The harsh drumbeat of his heart in his mouth seemed to forestall reasoned thought and speech. The words escaped him without volition.
"I cannot—I cannot remember writing the letter."
Tharkay stared at him, his face looking younger than his years, but not with joy; not with joy at all but with a painful openness, like watching a man laid out on an operating table. In the next moment Laurence realized what he had just said.
"Tenzing," he tried, but it was into an awful, cold silence that saw Tharkay take to his feet and flee the room.
Laurence sat there longer a minute, stupid and slow. In battle he had sometimes taken a bullet or a bloody scratch and not even realized until he was close to bleeding out in the orlop, and then the pain would come all at once; it was very alike now.
He stumbled out of the chair and was running as soon as he was on his feet, slipping on the cold floor. He saw the edge of Tharkay’s coat whip out of sight around the corner and lunged for it, missing by inches, and falling slid across the bare wood. He scrambled on his hands for purchase, and was up again, lurching, only in time to see Tharkay vanish through the front door.
Laurence did not hesitate. He threw back the half-open door and ran barefoot into the night.
He could not recall, later, how long he ran. Images came back to him muddied, a confusion of snow and trees, Laurence wearily forcing one foot in front of the other. He had lost Tharkay’s track, at some point, but he could only continue to walk. He was sure, in some corner of his mind, that if only he stayed the course he would find Tharkay, and set this right…
His feet were numb, and his fingers, curled against his chest, would no longer move. He stumbled, tripping on some unseen rock beneath the snow, and went down hard on his knees. It seemed impossible to get back up. All he could see was the white fog of his own breath.
Then hands were there, lifting him upwards, holding him against a blessedly warm chest.
“Fool,” said a voice in his ear; a voice welcome, familiar, loved. Laurence closed his eyes and gave himself over to its warmth.
Laurence woke again when they were nearly at their own door. He was dimly aware of having stumbled along under Tharkay’s guiding arm, leaning most of his weight on Tharkay’s shoulder. He had not remembered letting Tharkay wrap his cloak around his chest, or allowing him to wrap Laurence’s feet with his own socks and boots.
Tharkay noticed, perhaps, that Laurence was more of himself. The arm giving Laurence support stiffened, and he turned his head away. Despite the cold numbing his lips Laurence urgently felt the need to speak.
“You need not fear that I will take your letter to heart,” said Tharkay coolly, cutting him off. “You will be happier to let the past remain in the past, and I am content with leaving the matter to rest. Indeed,” he added, “I can think of no reason the matter should ever arise again.”
Laurence was silenced. Such an outright rejection, he could not gainsay. He could not pursue his suit, as it were, with an unwilling partner, and still call himself a gentleman. Tharkay had made his answer clear, he felt; all that was left was for Laurence to be grateful if Tharkay was still willing to admit him into his life, even if their friendship could never be the same, with this admission between them like a wall of glass.
He could no longer stay, of course. That was certain. He would have to leave with Temeraire when he came, tell him as much of this painful truth as he could stand to lay bare so that they could stay at Wollaton Hall, or in London.
They had reached the entrance. Laurence stood there blankly, wishing only to get inside where he could put walls in between himself and Tharkay. Then Tharkay said, sharply,
“The door is locked.”
They were silent awhile, knowing that the servants would have been long gone by now. The last of them to go must have locked the door behind them, assuming that their master and his guest were safe and warm in bed. There would be no chance of getting back into the house before morning.
Laurence was vaguely aware of being half-dragged, half-carried to the gardener’s shed. He felt oddly as if he were walking on air. There was no pain at all; he could not feel his feet. Tharkay lowered him down against a wall, rearranging the cloak over his chest with unexpectedly gentle hands. They withdrew, and Laurence slumped forward onto his knees.
Tharkay left and returned with loose bricks from the garden, which he arranged in a circle. He left again without explaining himself; Laurence could do nothing to protest. He had no right to, in any case, of course; by the time he realized this Tharkay had already returned with a load of firewood, dry from having been lodged deep within the small woodpile.
“We may burn this shed down around our ears, but that would be a more dignified risk than the alternative, I think.” He looked closely at Laurence. “And you need warmth,” he said, more quietly. Laurence felt entirely incapable of making a reply. He wanted to tell Tharkay that he had enough warmth; he was not cold, only numb, and he had been numb since he blurted out the ugly truth to Tharkay in his study. But his lips did not want to move, and he could only watch Tharkay through eyes that were sliding closed of their own volition.
His hands were swift and sure as they made the fire, and they did not tremble. Laurence had not hoped that they would; he had not, at all. He had not hoped to be raged at, he had not hoped for recrimination. Tharkay’s calm was reassuring, of course. It meant that Tharkay had not been moved by his letter, nor by the truth he had blurted out after. That could only be for the good. Laurence felt as if he was breathing around a knife at his throat.
The fire caught, a small flickering wisp that seemed too fragile to sustain itself. Laurence could not feel the heat of it at first at all, and then it was suddenly too painful, harsh as if he had plunged his hands within its heart. He did not draw them back, however, and did not fight Tharkay as he undid the fastenings of the cloak and removed the boots from his feet.
He was shivering violently now, as he had not before; he had seen enough men die of cold to know that was a good sign. But still there was a chill inside his chest that the fire could not assuage. He felt Tharkay put his hands to his neck, his wrists, feeling the temperature of his skin. His hands were warmer than the fire.
Laurence had been clad only in his nightshirt and dressing-gown when he had run out into the night, and those thin layers were soaked through with snow, and had begun to freeze to his skin. Tharkay’s hands hovered over the buttons for only a moment before he was undoing them, deftly, with no sign of hesitation. Laurence felt the cloth slide over his shoulders only distantly, and he was bare to the waist, with no separation between his skin and the cold air. Then warmth slid across his chest, the warmth of another living human, folding him into his arms. His shivers subsided, and he slept, insensible to the world.
That warmth carried him through the night and into the calm, cold morning. The sun streaming through the slatted sides woke him. He was instantly, painfully aware of everywhere Tharkay’s skin touched his. They were chest to chest, face to face, arms entwined. He could feel Tharkay’s breath on his mouth. They were arranged like lovers, Laurence could not help but think, and he felt his chest constrict painfully. He opened his eyes.
Tharkay was awake already, and looking back at him. There were curious golden flecks within those dark depths; they circled like constellations in the night sky. Laurence stared, entranced. There were lines of fatigue etched into the corners of those eyes. Tharkay did not look as though he had slept at all. In his eyes Laurence felt sure that he saw as if reflected in a mirror the feelings of his own heart; desire, despair, love.
He had to turn his head blindly away to avoid doing something he might later regret. Instead he reached for one of Tharkay’s hands, holding it in his; he brought it to his mouth and kissed it hard before pressing it to his cheek. His resolve of the previous night had melted away. He could not let the moment end without making his feelings plain.
“If I could write that letter again, I would,” said Laurence. Tharkay froze, his eyes widening. “I would write it again, and mean every word of it. If my memory was lost a hundred times, you would restore it, just so that I could write it a hundred times again.”
Tharkay’s head came up sharp, his eyes glittering with some new emotion, one that Laurence had never seen before. But his voice was as cool as ever.
“You need not dissemble for me,” he said.
“I am not dissembling!” said Laurence sharply. “I—” He took a breath. He had never said the words aloud before. “I love you.”
"Say something," said Laurence, when the silence had become too much. "I beg you."
Tharkay turned his head from side to side, almost drunkenly. His face was wet. His hands, clumsy with having once been broken, reached out, and Laurence, joyful, weeping, took them into his. Tharkay staggered forward like a man blind, and kissed him.