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“Gold,” says Temeraire decisively.

“I expect it would not be very sturdy,” says Laurence, which is more tactful than saying that it would be wasteful, or gaudy.

“Also only think how it would seem in the fall, surrounded by golden grass,” adds Tharkay. “Obsidian, perhaps; and it would warm very well.”

“Oh, but a black pavilion would be stuffy in the summer,” says Temeraire, though not strongly. He bends instead over the large rolls of parchment spread over the ground, head twisting this way and that, picturing it. “Perhaps silver?”

The three of them are sitting around an utterly unremarkable spot of ground, which lies atop a low hill overlooking one of the small ponds on Tharkay's estate. Though it is not yet important, Temeraire has laid claim to the spot as the site of his future Pavilion.

“I would think the construction of the base most vital,” Tharkay says. “Do you still wish to have it heated? Wood will not do, especially with Iskierka always visiting; something easily warmed - “

As Temeraire suggests various stones – thankfully moving away from the idea of precious metals - Tharkay glances up and catches Laurence's eye. His expression shows a small glimmer of amusement, and then he turns again, listening to Temeraire with appropriate gravity.

Always Tharkay is doing this. He was the one to invite them, of course. He suggested additions to Laurence's quarters, and has had a small courtyard established with high walls and a rain-screen, where Laurence might read to Temeraire even during storms without traversing the grounds. Laurence cannot fail to note his meaning; these are large, permanent additions, and though much was implied with Tharkay's original offer, he seems intent to show through example that he welcomes them both.

Temeraire has hardly noticed - it would never have occurred to the dragon that they were not welcome forever. Yet Laurence wonders.

They may be token gestures only, even an extravagant way of avoiding awkward discussions; but Laurence is missing something, he thinks. And if they are indeed to live together, he and Tharkay, he wants no misunderstandings.

Yet there is no good way to broach his questions. And so instead he only nods agreeably when Temeraire suggests a fountain, and the planning continues.


 

 

“There, do you see?”

Laurence has always considered himself a decent tracker – better than the average man, at any rate – but the patch of ground Tharkay is pointing at seems entirely unremarkable. “I confess your eyes are better than mine,” he says.

“No, they are not,” his friend denies. “Something walked here recently – you will notice the grass is bent?” Laurence notices no such thing. “And this flower - “

Laurence obligingly bends to look at the splintered stalk of a flower. “Very well,” he concedes, acknowledging that something has been through, at one point. “But how are you so certain it is the horse?”

“There is one more sign,” says Tharkay, and then pauses expectantly.

Laurence does not expect himself to match Tharkay's eye for detail, but he humors his friend and scans the area. It takes him a few minutes, but then he reaches out and plucks up a few strands of rough, blackish-brown hair from a low branch, uncertain.

“Very good,” says Tharkay, and gestures. “I think it is slowing down; let us not fall behind.”

It is oddly relaxing, attending to a task with such little pressure. The lost horse is not in any particular danger – most animals, including predators, avoid the grounds and Temeraire's scent – and the day is pleasant enough that a brief stroll through the woods is no burden.

Yet Laurence finds himself restless anyway, and Tharkay must perceive it. After a few minutes of walking he asks, “Has something been bothering you?”

“Not at all,” says Laurence blankly. “ - Unless one considers Temeraire's sense of aesthetics, I suppose.”

“An evil we must all suffer,” Tharkay says. The words are light, but his eyes watch Laurence with an intensity that belies his casual tone. “However, that is not what I mean. Laurence - if I have in any way made you uncomfortable - ”

“I beg your pardon?” Laurence frowns. “I do not understand. Why would...”

He is cut off abruptly as the distant sound of hooves thunder ahead of them. The two exchange glances, walking faster, before a loud series of crashes makes them both startle to a stop.

The sounds continue to approach, becoming deafening. Laurence has a ludicrous image of feral dragons tearing through the Scottish undergrowth, though he reminds himself that every creature in the area would give way to Temeraire. Still, Laurence takes a prudent step under the shade of a nearby tree, and finds Tharkay beside him with a knife that Laurence had not even noticed him carrying.

In front of them the black stallion they've been hunting suddenly comes bursting through the trees. It bolts past making nervous cries.

Staring, Laurence and Tharkay automatically turn to see what has spooked the creature. From the brush a rabbit hops forward by two uncertain steps, blinking at them.

Tharkay laughs first – a short bark, betraying his anxiety – and Laurence also cracks a smile. They retrieve the horse without issue and walk the terrified creature back to the house.

When they reach the stables Tharkay stops, absently stroking the creature to avoid looking at him. “I will talk to the stablehands,” he says, abruptly curt. “You should see to Temeraire.”

Laurence tries to answer, except Tharkay vanishes before he can.

Frowning, Laurence walks slowly back to the house. Tharkay has a habit of doing that, he realizes – acting normal minutes, and abruptly fading away, closing himself off. Laurence has not much noticed, because for all the years of their acquaintance Tharkay has ducked in and out of Laurence's life at his own pace, never predictable. Yet more and more he makes himself absent, on his own estate, and Laurence wonders at it.

If I have in any way made you uncomfortable...

Laurence considers turning back to demand answers – yet in the end, he goes and reads to Temeraire instead.

Tharkay does not respond well to ultimatums. And Laurence knows him well enough, by now, to understand that things will come to a head eventually.

 


 

Granby cringes against his seat as something rattles outside, the whole house shuddering. Meanwhile Captain Little accepts a glass of wine from Laurence. “Immortalis will not let them do anything disastrous,” he assures. He glances at the window, saying so, and whatever he sees makes him wince. “...Probably,” he amends.

Every now and then Laurence can hear Temeraire and Iskierka's voices rising in argument around the house. Last he checked they were occupied in racing, which means they are likely to squabble over the results and re-do the whole thing for two or three hours.

“I only hope there is still a house when Tharkay returns,” Granby sighs. “ - Where is he, again?”

“Visiting a relative,” Laurence says. One of the few to whom Tharkay still writes, he has explained; they are not particularly close, but on decent enough terms. “Did you wish to speak with him?”

“No...no,” says Granby, utterly ignoring the pointed looks Little is sending him. “In fact, we were rather hoping to see you alone.”

Laurence frowns, setting down his own glass on the table between them. Little is staring intently into his wine, cheeks slightly reddened. “Has something happened?”

It cannot be so serious, Laurence thinks, or they should not have hesitated to visit; yet he cannot imagine why they would desire Tharkay's absence. They have visited together frequently since Napoleon's capture, and they have visited individually. There are other conflicts, other wars, which require the skills of Iskierka and Immortalis; and Laurence is glad that among their work his friends can continue to find solace in each other, and a place for themselves. Yet never have they approached like this, almost as though they are steeling themselves for confrontation as pair – steeling themselves against him.

Granby himself seems rather uncomfortable, shifting awkwardly as he considers a response to Laurence's query. Little keeps shaking his head. “We wanted to ask,” Granby says, “About, well. About the circumstances of your living here.”

Laurence's frown deepens. He cannot understand why this question should make Granby so anxious. “Tenzing offered, after Napoleon was captured - “

“Yes, of course,” says Granby. “But why?”

“Well,” says Laurence, and hesitates.

“What John is trying to say,” says Little abruptly, setting down his drink, “is that he wanted to ask about your relationship with Admiral Roland.”

Laurence hastily sets down his wine to avoid dropping it. The glass clatters hard against the table, and he leans back, speechless.

Granby looks embarrassed – and a bit confused. He glances at Little, double-takes, and then nods slowly. “Well,” he says. “That is – I would not quite....... Yes. Yes, I am afraid that is the issue entire.”

Laurence tugs at his collar, and wishes – for the first in a long while – that his current social circle were a little more like the company from his navy-days; that is, people very polite and formal who did not dare to make any private inquiries whatsoever.

“She is a dear friend,” he says at last. “We continue to correspond.”

“Yes, of course you do,” says Granby. “Do you love her?”

The terrible bluntness of the question is almost a relief, because Laurence realizes he can say, “No,” and mean it.

“But you liked – being with her,” says Little.

This is rather too far. And furthermore, Laurence cannot begin to imagine what they intend by the exchange. He might suspect anyone else of starting this conversation to castigate him, but Granby and Little are the last people who might properly scold him for indecency.

His offended silence must serve as some sort of answer, because Granby and Little again exchange glances. Significant glances; evidently they have derived some meaning from his lack of response. “You've never seemed very interested in such things,” says Granby. And then, awkwardly: “Women, I mean.”

“I am sorry,” says Laurence, in a cold tone that is not sorry in the least. “But I fail to see how I owe you any explanations.”

But then he wonders, more guiltily – has something happened with Jane? She is the one who refused his offer of marriage, but it is true he did not press the matter as honor demanded...

“It is just that I have never understood what desire has to do about any of it,” Laurence says, more quietly. It is an attempt, of sorts, of an explanation and apology both. And it is the present company that induces him to add, “ - whether men or women are involved.”

Granby straightens so fast that Little visibly jolts from beside him. He points an accusing finger at Laurence. “Hang on,” he says. “ - You've slept with a man!”

Laurence is so taken aback that he blurts, “...Yes?”

Granby is both delighted and enraged. “Why the devil didn't you mention that in Cusco, Laurence?”

“ - It did not seem relevant?” Laurence isn't sure why everything he says sounds like a question, or how he is now on the defensive, accosted in his home.

And he does not tell Granby, this is not something I tell people, which should be self-evident.

Granby looks from him to Little, gesturing furiously with his hook as if to say, 'are you hearing this?'

Little just appears deeply embarrassed and takes a long pull of wine.

Laurence feels this is all getting out of hand. But Granby keeps speaking before he can try to shift the topic. “Now, hang on,” he says. “ Let us go back - what do you mean, that you don't understand what desire has to do with anything? It is not as though you've never stayed the night with anyone, so you must see the difference between – well, the admiral for example, and that random fellow at the pub who's always looking at you?”

Laurence regards him blankly.

“Blaire Huntington,” Granby clarifies. “Good lord, Laurence, hadn't you noticed? We've only been there twice, and each time... ”

Little coughs pointedly.

Laurence chooses to ignore this revelation. “It always seems to make people happy,” he says helplessly. Jane certainly enjoyed their nights together, and it is not as though Laurence usually minds, or not too much. Though there are certainly better ways to spend time. “But I am afraid I have never understood the appeal.”

Even Little is looking at him weirdly now.

“Makes people happy – do you see why he gives me gray hairs?” Granby appeals to Little now: “Do you understand?”

“I rather thought the treason was reason enough for your stress,” Little answers, “and the constant string of assassins. But, yes, this is a bit worrying.”

Granby turns back to Laurence, and demands, “Does Tharkay know?”

Laurence is baffled, and beginning to recall his further agitation. “I do not understand why you care, John – and what does Tharkay have to do with anything?”

Granby turns his eyes beseechingly toward the ceiling and covers his face.

Little coughs again. “John, I believe we agreed - “

“He'll never realize it himself,” Granby complains, waving a hand toward Laurence. “Are you hearing this? And Tharkay won't say a damned word, neither - “

“If you believe there is something I should know,” says Laurence, now becoming really annoyed, “Then say it plainly.”

But Little touches John's arm, a warning, and Granby just grumbles into his tea for a minute. “Oh, I suppose it doesn't matter,” he mutters at last. “ - Not if you really... well.”

They stay a bit longer, but the conversation grows swiftly awkward, and cannot be recovered; and Laurence, too, is fighting distraction as he wonders over Little's reticence. Finally the pair make their farewells, and Laurence is left alone in the quiet manor.

He crosses to a window near the rear of the house, seeing through a window as Temeraire sits outside his half-consructed pavilion to watch the sunset. It is not hard, Laurence thinks, to imagine the secret Granby did not want to utter; given the context, there is only one conclusion, and somehow it does not surprise Laurence at all. Cannot, perhaps, while he stands here in Tharkay's home, which already feels so comfortable and warmly native to him.

Laurence has pressed himself into physical acts many times before, and for many reasons - curiosity, obligation, desperation. But here, in quiet solitude, he can admit the truth; he loves Tharkay, and he will never be able to be with him.


 

Temeraire sits back on his haunches, looking somewhat embarrassed, and turns to rub his nose against the large hawthorne tree overlooking the pond. It shudders dangerously, which only makes him more sheepish. “It is not as though I could not have beaten her,” the dragon explains again. “ - Only, Iskierka of course is still in the Corps, and I have not had much opportunity for flying of late - “

“You mean you are getting fat,” Tharkay volunteers.

Laurence stifles a smile when Temeraire becomes indignant, protesting that he is not fat, and if he is a bit larger, that is because he is young and probably still growing -

Tharkay catches his eye and smirks when Temeraire abruptly decides to prove his flying prowess, winging into the air and zipping through the sky in circles. Laurence leans against the much-abused hawthorne tree, watching.

“A pity Iskierka cannot visit more,” Tharkay notes as an aside. “She certainly keeps him in high spirits.”

“They will be returning to the front soon, I am sure,” Laurence says. “John did not provide the direct heading, but they will be posted to South America.”

Tharkay turns, studying him. “Is that why their visit disturbed you? Some talk of the war?”

His voice is mild and without reproach; Laurence flushes, anyway, and feels thoroughly caught. “No,” he admits.

Tharkay hums, turning back to survey the sky. For a minute Laurence thinks that this will be the end of it.

And then, without any prompting on his own part, his lips move:

“Tenzing – why are we here?”

Laurence feels immediately abashed. But Tharkay does not even turn, his eyes still following Temeraire's rapid and erratic flight through the air. Laurence shifts on his feet, the bark of the tree scraping against his side.

Shadows ripple over them as Temeraire flies. In a thoughtful tone, Tharkay asks, “Why do you think you are here?”

There is no good answer.

“No, of course you will not say,” Tharkay adds, before he can even try. The words are more clipped, this time; and still he does not turn to Laurence. “...Of course you cannot say.”

Suddenly Laurence is angry. “That is unfair,” he insists, stepping forward. “And I think you know it. Because you have given no hint of the truth, either - “

Tharkay barks a sharp, unpleasant laugh. “No hint!” he exclaims. “Followed you around the world, and I have given no hint?”

“You know well what I mean,” Laurence says. “I would not have given it a thought, except for – for the example, in our friends.” Tharkay takes a deep breath, does not respond. And Laurence adds: “We cannot be like them.”

Tharkay visibly winces, face pulling tight. Somewhere a bird is shrieking, and Tharkay twitches toward the sound as though wanting to be anywhere else, use any distraction. But at last he manages to say, through gritted teeth, “I would not ask it of you.”

Before Tharkay can leave – before the matter can linger again between them, broken, undiscussed once more – Laurence forces himself to say the rest. “You should not believe,” he presses, “That my regard for you is any different. And I am more sorry than I can say, to disappoint...” And when Tharkay starts to walk away, he adds, “ - But it is not only you.

There; it is said, as well as he can manage through his own mortification. Tharkay hesitates, at least, and half-turns. Curiosity will stay him, if nothing else.

“I cannot – there is no desire, not for anyone,” Laurence admits in a rush. “I cannot help but disappoint, in that area. But my regard for you is no less, and if... if I could offer everything, without damaging any relationship further...”

Laurence is forced to stop, awkward and very aware of his own desperation. There is no polite way to discuss it – the awkward fumbles of his youth, his confusion, the despair when he wondered just what was wrong with him. And here, now, he is haunted still - denied a relationship which, though taboo, could nevertheless bring contentment. But he cannot change who he is. And he has tried. He has. There is only one thing left.

He waits.

Twigs crack underfoot as Tharkay walks back, slowly, with his face oddly blank. “Not for anyone,” he echoes. Laurence can barely bear to look at him.

Finally, Tharkay's lips twitch. “Will,” he says. “ - Have you thought I did not know?”

Laurence cannot respond.

“Not the specifics, perhaps,” Tharkay says. “That it is not only me you turn away from, I mean. I would like to say that my ego is secure enough I am not consoled; yet that would be a lie. But... you owe me no apology. You know that there are people, men and woman, who have ten children and yet have never been truly intimate in all their lives. And there are couples whom live chastely, by choice or restriction, and yet are irretrievably bonded.” Here, a pointed pause. “But I invited you here with only the intent that my dearest friend would stay with me past our war-days, and hopefully forever. And I know that your regard for me is – not all the same, as mine for you.”

And here, he raises a gentle, oddly hesitant hand, and touches Laurence's face.

“Yet you are my dearest friend,” Tharkay repeats. “I am not surprised, Laurence, nor disappointed; I am thrilled every day only to see you. And while I do not deny I have longed for more, my happiness should never be questioned. Not while you remain. And if your feelings are the same...”

He trails off. It is an oddly forward, oddly sincere speech for Tharkay, and Laurence cannot help but be moved. He tries to find words, and for a long minute fails. Tharkay's hand against his cheek feels warm and blazing, filling him with unspeakable joy. If this moment could only be preserved forever, Laurence would be fully satisfied.

Yet all things pass. He clears his throat. “They are,” he says. “ - the same, I mean.”

“Then for once,” Tharkay says, “Let you not worry about what is correct or normal. We can be happy here, together; all else is nothing besides that.”

Laurence nods, and they stand there for a long while. A sharp gust of wind suddenly knocks them both back, and Temeraire lands heavily at the pond's edge.

“See?” the dragon demands. “ I can fly perfectly fast! But, oh. Whatever are you both doing?”

“And I would have you here forever,” Tharkay repeats, in a quiet huff. “ - gods help me,” and Laurence laughs.