It should feel more like a transgression, Laurence thinks, more like a disrespectful overstepping of boundaries, but who is he to deny his lover’s curiosity, however morbid? Besides, there is the sheer intimacy of it, the warm sensation of Tenzing’s gaze on his bare skin and the gentle pressure of his fingertips skimming over the raised, silver lines of his scars.
‘I know this one,’ Tenzing says, tracing the mark on Laurence’s shoulder. ‘The Chinese assassin. It was not yet truly healed the first time I met you.’
‘I thought I was hiding it well,’ he says lightly, not daring to move.
‘Not as well as you thought, clearly.’ Tenzing chuckles, a low, rough sound that makes Laurence’s heart beat a little faster. ‘But Temeraire did not seem to notice, which I assume was the point of the act.’
‘Indeed it was.’ He is growing accustomed to how well Tenzing understands; although he steadfastly refuses to be considered an aviator himself, he has spent too much time among them to be easily fooled. By the time they had left China to collect the promised dragon eggs from the Turks, the wound in his shoulder had almost completely healed except for a noticeable stiffness of movement; but even so, Temeraire would have fretted and fussed and delayed their departure even further. This, Laurence and Granby had privately decided even then, was out of the question.
Tenzing’s dark eyes move away from the point where, once, a Chinese dagger had almost pinned Laurence to his chair, and travel down his bare arms to a curved, frayed line wrapping halfway around the underside of Laurence’s forearm. ‘This one?’
The answer comes promptly: ‘Burned by a line, my third week as midshipman. One of the sails had torn loose, and I made a grab for the rope like the green fool I was. It hurt like the blazes, of course, but it was a better lesson than my instructors could have hoped for.’ Almost a quarter of a century ago by now, God help him.
‘Hmmm,’ Tenzing says, and lifts his lover’s arm to retrace his finger’s path with his lips. The injury destroyed all feeling in the skin underneath, but Laurence feels the warmth of Tenzing’s breath and the gentle scrape of a day’s worth of stubble on the soft, sensitive inside of his wrist. Under Tenzing’s lips, Laurence’s heart beats out a rapid tattoo, but he does not move a muscle.
He stands in the middle of the room, having been ordered, with a smirk, to offer himself up for his lover’s inspection, although ordinarily he would scarcely permit such one-sided affections. He feels a strong urge to turn his arm and cup Tenzing’s bent head with his hand, to draw him close enough to kiss, but he controls himself. The midsummer sunset pours warm, golden light through the gap in the curtains, a daring disregard for propriety if they were not in Laurence’s third-story bedroom, at the back of the house, where dragons did not venture.
Tenzing had divested Laurence of his coat, waistcoat, neckcloth and shirt almost before the door had closed behind them but steadfastly refuses to drop a single stitch of clothing. He spent his morning meeting with neighbouring landowners to discuss the summer’s crop yields, and his attire reflects this; there is more stiffness to his collar than usual, and everything about his appearance suggests a kind of rigid sternness that has Laurence feel his state of undress more than is quite justified. He is not quite sure yet if he approves of being inspected in this manner, but he finds it hard to deny Tenzing anything, and the satisfaction he is evidently deriving from it is enough to silence his doubts.
‘I knew you had these, of course,’ Tenzing says as he moves to stand behind Laurence. His palms smooth over the breadth of Laurence’s shoulders, then down over the wide expanse of criss-crossing lines. ‘I have seen them before. I must have heard the tale a dozen times. But I can never quite get used to them.’
Once again, Laurence resists the urge to abandon his parade stance and crane his neck around to see. He does not consider himself a vain man, and is not overly concerned with appearances beyond keeping his attire in a respectable state, but it is strange to think that he has never actually seen the marks of the Tswana whips, has never given them much thought beyond the occasional twinging pain or slight stiffness of the skin. Tenzing’s gentle touch feels almost like a salve on long-healed wounds, and he finds with some astonishment that some part of him must have yearned for just such a touch, perhaps to soothe some of the pain of recollection whenever he does allow himself to remember.
‘There are older ones underneath,’ he says, not at all to provoke pity but almost to make conversation; they have too many painful stories between them to lay very great weight by any of them, and by now Tenzing knows as much as any landman the reality of the service aboard His Majesty’s ships. Although he has always considered himself lucky, the months Laurence spent under the cruel, vicious rule of Captain Barstowe left their marks on him in more ways than one.
‘Yes, I thought so - they are lighter in colour.’ Tenzing’s fingers find the hard ridge on Laurence’s hip where a Frenchman’s sabre ran him through just before his making post, and then its counterpart on the other side of his body. ‘I had gathered, from conversations with the late Captain Riley on our journey to New South Wales, that you were considered a fighting captain,’ he says in that same light, conversational tone.
With a rustle of fabric, he closes the distance between them, his front to Laurence’s back, the flats of his palms on Laurence’s hips. Laurence fails to suppress a shiver at the sensation of smooth wool and cold buttons against his bare skin, and he feels Tenzing’s smile as he rests his head on Laurence’s shoulder.
‘I saw more than my fair share of action while at sea, perhaps,’ he admits and feels strangely bashful about it. ‘Allowances must be made for fortuitous circumstances.’
And then there are Tenzing’s lips at the nape of his neck, the top of his shoulders, and when Laurence tries to turn he is held back with firm hands on ribs. ‘I thank Fortune every day for bringing us here,’ Tenzing says, kissing the soft skin behind Laurence’s ear. ‘And for giving us time.’
There are less illustrious scars, too, scattered all over a body accustomed to hard, hazardous work for almost three decades. There is the small, almost circular mark on his left arm where a splintering spar had pierced his flesh during a tropical gale, and the stubborn callouses of working rope, wood and leather every day with his bare hands.
Tenzing’s fingers find the other marks on his wrists, reminders of month upon month spent in the brigs of various blockade ships. After a few weeks, Laurence’s jailors had given up keeping him permanently in irons, perhaps believing it unnecessary when their prisoner showed no resistance or desire to escape, but there are rough lines where the shackles chafed at the bones of his wrists. Tenzing wraps his hands around them, hiding them under his own, darker skin.
‘Of all your scars, I resent these the most,’ he says, and Laurence stiffens.
‘Surely you must be aware –‘ he begins but Tenzing stops him.
‘My dear, you know better than anyone else alive the kind of life I have led,’ he says, tightening his grip on Laurence’s wrists and fixing his gaze with his own. ‘I have said and done deplorable things to further whatever agenda I was pursuing at the time. When I first met you, I am not sure I was able to clearly see right from wrong. But if there is one thing I have learned in all the years I have known you, Will, it is that whenever there is a question of morality, you will not permit yourself to decide any way other than what is right.’
Laurence has no answer to this. Tenzing’s eyes hold him still more effectively than the chains ever did, and if he were a more open man, he feels sure that he would weep like a child at this declaration. Indeed, the impulse to step into his lover’s arms and bury his face in all that finery is strong enough that, for the length of a heartbeat, he almost does.
Instead he says, somewhat stiffly: ‘I am glad indeed to hear you think so highly of me.’
‘All things considered you should be well accustomed to it by now, dearest.’ Tenzing’s tone is the same laconic drawl he employs to speak to drawing room aristocrats who somehow contrive to look down their noses at him, but such affection shines from his eyes that Laurence feels his face soften into a smile. Laurence once again marvels at the fact that they have somehow made it here, to this day and this room and this life they share.
He takes Tenzing’s hands, intertwines his unbroken fingers with his lover’s crooked ones. The sight of them still fills him with unspeakable, perhaps unreasonable fury; he remembers too vividly the angry rows of bristling stitches after he got Tenzing back to the surgeons, the meticulously stifled cries of pain when they carried him down from Temeraire’s back and jostled his bandaged hands… But they are a part of him now as much as his slanted eyes and the exquisite line of his neck, and Laurence takes care to lavish attention on them at every possible opportunity. Tenzing allows him to press reverential kisses to his disfigured knuckles, one by one, before withdrawing his hands.
‘Look at the pair we make,’ he says, still smiling, but Laurence thinks there is an edge to his voice now. He makes a gesture to encompass them both, but especially Laurence, still in his breeches, bathed in dying sunlight. ‘You are almost more scar than skin.’
Laurence forces himself to shrug: ‘They are only scars. It is inevitable, I suppose, when one lives like we have.’ But he thinks he understands something of what Tenzing means; he cannot help feeling similar melancholy, if not anger, whenever his eyes find the hardened knots of scales on Temeraire’s otherwise glossy hide. He tries not to think of it as meaningless, or a waste of blood and pain, but it is difficult not to wonder how much pain Temeraire could have been spared if he had hatched in his native country, or times had been not what they were.
He extends his hands again, an offer of comfort, and Tenzing takes them after only brief hesitation. ‘They are only skin-deep, now,’ Laurence says, not sure if he believes himself. ‘We should consider them a part of a past life, nothing more.’
‘You are right, of course,’ Tenzing admits. ‘And I would do well to keep in mind that I have brought this foul mood upon myself, with nobody else to blame for it; I do not know what came over me tonight.’
Laurence pulls him closer and takes a moment to enjoy how natural the movement feels already, after barely half a year they have had together like this. There are so many things he has not grown accustomed to yet, but this, this has become as easy as breathing. Tenzing opens up to his kiss, letting himself be comforted, and when Laurence’s hands come to cup his face, he wraps his arms around Laurence’s bare waist and presses closer still.
‘Heaven knows I have burdened you with my moods enough times that you are owed compensation,’ Laurence says, and is gratified to hear his lover laugh.
‘It was never a burden, my dear, though I could have cheerfully knocked some sense into you quite a few times. Perhaps I should have indulged myself, and saved us all some time.’
Laurence kisses him again and threads his fingers through the thick, dark hair at the nape of his neck. The sun has almost set, now, and the room has grown dark. Shadows pool in the angles of Tenzing’s face, making his eyes even darker and the line of his jaw more pronounced. To Laurence’s regret, there are several layers of linen between him and the sensitive hollow at the base of Tenzing’s throat.
‘Come to bed, love,’ he murmurs, dropping his hands down to the lapels of Tenzing’s coat and tugging gently. He feels the other man soften at the use of the endearment, and ignores the flash of guilt at resorting to such shameless tactics, choosing instead to slide his hands under the heavy material and work the tightly fitted coat from Tenzing’s shoulders.
He meant to be careless and sensual. But there are some habits that cannot be shed over the course of a few months, and he pauses to fold and set aside each garment he removes, and by the time he has reached Tenzing’s shirt his lover is laughing at him, teasing his primness, and finally he is allowed to give pleasure as much as he has received it. There is still much to be discovered, after barely half a year, and if there is anything they have earned after years of hard work and pain, it is time.