They could not start building the pavilion immediately, much to Temeraire’s chagrin. Neither of them had much in the way of capital anymore, with which to buy materials and manpower, and when Laurence offered to sell his opal-encrusted robes, Temeraire’s ruff went up and would not settle again for hours. In the face of that horror, doing menial work for a few weeks to earn coin was preferable; but while flying over the seas with nets, fishing being the easiest way to make use of Temeraire’s size and abilities, he often cast lingering looks inland, towards their promised valley.
Laurence took to it as well as Temeraire had seen him take to anything in life, with dignity and honour, and he managed to work out profitable work for them along the harbour. Though it was winter in Australia, the nights were warm enough for them to sleep together in the covert, and Laurence said this was a good way to save money. Temeraire liked Laurence sleeping with him, and he liked even more the prospect of getting away from Sydney sooner, so he made sure Laurence slept warm and restful every night, protected by Temeraire’s wing.
Come spring and with a bit of funding secured, they began to plan. Temeraire had already mapped the design he wanted, a grand pavilion with its own little section for Laurence, too, so they could be together. Laurence insisted that he needed a house as well, although Temeraire didn't see the point; houses were too small for him to enter, and he disliked the idea of Laurence being out of reach. But Laurence stood fast, and so they drew up plans for a modest house next to the pavilion, with all the necessities Laurence needed.
“I don't trust any of them to decorate my roof,” Temeraire said to him, low and anxious, as Laurence lined up the convicts he'd found with previous experience in carpentry, and who were not skittish enough to run screaming from a dragon with an interest in architecture; a meagre bunch, by all accounts, and none of them with the delicate air Temeraire needed for his decorations.
“I could try and get hold of Shen Li,” Laurence said doubtfully, “and see if any of the workmen under Jia Zhen will come down.” But Temeraire knew this would be difficult, and yet another aspersion to Laurence’s character if he ever wanted to involve himself in Government.
“I suppose I shall just have to supervise closely,” Temeraire sighed, and shook his head to test the mettle of the men. To their credit, none reacted; but that may have been due to an unavoidable pre-payment in the form of rum, judging by their cloudy eyes and stinking breath.
In the end, they managed it themselves; Temeraire didn't like other people on his property, and certainly not people who looked upon Laurence with barely concealed disdain. So instead he dismissed the workmen as soon as he could. Laurence stencilled out designs on the wood that Temeraire described in great detail, and Temeraire carved the lines with a claw; although Laurence apologised many times over his lack of drawing skill, it was exactly what Temeraire wanted. Besides, it was something he and Laurence had made together, so it did not matter that the lines bent oddly, and that some of the dragons looked rather like horses with wings. “And it's certainly better than anything Iskierka or Caesar could have made,” Temeraire said, puffing up proudly when the decorated beams were laid over the pavilion. Laurence stood next to him, hand resting on his side, and said,
“As long as you think so, my dear.”
The house was not nearly as beautiful as the pavilion, even though Temeraire had suggested several times that they could paint it in bright colours, or perhaps hunt for some opal to stick to the walls. But Laurence seemed to like it, and he always kept the windows open so that Temeraire could check on him if he so wished. Temeraire hadn't told him that it was difficult to let Laurence out of his sight, but Laurence understood nevertheless; yet another reason why he was the best companion Temeraire could have asked for.
Now that they had no workers, the valley was theirs; shared only with the natural wildlife, the birds and the herds of cattle. The spring air was warming into summer, and Laurence would sit with him in the evenings; reading, or often in silence, although sometimes he would get philosophical, a new quirk to his personality that Temeraire was delighted to discover.
“Does it not remind you of the ocean?” Laurence said once, the day stretching into night at last; a few insects, faintly buzzing, were their only audience.
Temeraire nosed at his cheek. It was smooth and clean shaven, a habit that he was privately happy Laurence had not abandoned; he looked most excellent when one could see as much of his face as possible. “What does?”
“This view,” Laurence said, gesturing to the rolling hills in front of them, still brilliantly green in the dusk light. “The hills look like waves, almost.”
“But they're green,” Temeraire said doubtfully, looking out. He knew Laurence’s eyesight was even worse than his own, in the dark, but he didn't think it that horrendous.
Laurence laughed. “I know, my dearest. So are waves, at times. But that is not what I meant; the sense of openness, here, it looks much like one from a boat.”
Temeraire didn't see the resemblance, even though he squinted and turned his head. There were so many places to land, and the ocean had none; and it was all the wrong colour besides, and none of the hills were moving like waves ought to. “Is that good?” he asked finally.
Laurence shrugged, still smiling. He had been smiling more this spring than Temeraire had ever seen him do before, and Temeraire treasured it as he might a particularly shiny piece of gold; only, he could not polish and protect Laurence’s smile in the same way, much though he wished it so. “It reminds me of my childhood, when I first began in the Navy.”
It occurred to Temeraire suddenly that he knew very little of Laurence’s life before they had met on the Reliant . This was a mistake he meant immediately to rectify, but even though Laurence equibly answered every question Temeraire could think of, such as the ships he'd sailed on and how many prizes he'd taken and the most exciting battle he'd been in, he soon started yawning through the replies, resting more and more against Temeraire until he was entirely asleep, breathing softly into Temeraire’s scales.
Careful not to rouse him, Temeraire nuzzled him closer and made himself comfortable, covering Laurence with his wing; and so they both slept until morning.
He forgot to ask Laurence any more questions about his past. It probably wasn't important, anyway; Temeraire wasn't there, and he dared say Laurence led a much more boring life before Temeraire arrived.
But some might call this a boring life too, even though it was anything but. They awoke in the morning, and had breakfast, and then they would go for a flight if the weather allowed it, seeing as the days were heating up unmanageably once again. If it was too hot, they would doze and read under the pavilion; rather, Temeraire would doze while Laurence tended to the humble vegetable patch he'd started growing on the other side of the house, where the plants were shaded and protected from the wind. In the evening, they would hunt together, and then they would eat before talking into the night, then sleeping, and doing it all over again. Occasionally, they would go into Sydney for unread books and the latest news, and Temeraire found that people were treating Laurence differently; less of a threat and more of an accepted novelty.
“It’s not natural,” Temeraire overheard a man saying, while he was waiting for Laurence to receive the post, “A man can't live all alone like that. Makes you mad, it does.”
“He's got that beast to keep him company,” his companion replied, much deeper into the bottle if his slurring was anything to go by.
“Aye, and I hear it's temperamental and demanding like a dame, ‘cept you don't even get to get under her skirts!”
“It has no skirts,” the other man said, confused, but the man only laughed, leaving both his friend and Temeraire befuddled.
He told Laurence of this odd conversation as soon as they landed back in the valley; but Laurence only turned red and said that it was not nice to eavesdrop, and would not explain further. Temeraire sighed, curling up on his pavilion. Sometimes he thought Laurence knew as little of people as he himself did; he missed Roland and Granby to interpret the behaviour of humans, tiny and incomprehensible as they were.
“Don't eat your kill before we land,” Laurence told Temeraire. The sun was less scorching as the weather cooled again, and they'd gone for a ride in the afternoon, stumbling upon a fat kangaroo Temeraire could not help but sink his claws into. “I shall try and cook it, like Gong Su does.”
Temeraire tried to hide his surprise, but knew he was unsuccessful by the embarrassment in Laurence’s voice as he continued,
“He has been sending me letters describing methods and recipes; I certainly don't want to get your hopes up, but I thought it might be a nice change. I bought some dried spices in town, sage and rosemary, which he said went well with white meat. It will be an attempt, grant me nothing more.”
“Laurence,” Temeraire cried, and then he had to land immediately, in the middle of the valley, and put his kangaroo down so he could take Laurence between his talons and rub his cheeks all over him, unspeakably grateful.
Laurence endured this treatment with bemused patience, and when Temeraire was finished, he said only, “Had I known it would make you this happy, my dear, I would've tried to improve my cooking skills months ago. I'm sorry to have deprived you for so long.”
Temeraire shook his head, but he knew there was no way to make Laurence understand that it wasn't about the food, necessarily, although that was a great benefit indeed; it was about the level of care that he was treated with, which made something like the divine wind rumble in his chest. Laurence put his hand on Temeraire’s nose, looking up at him with warm blue eyes, and Temeraire couldn't help but nuzzle him some more, before they set off back to the pavilion.
The kangaroo, in the end, was a little burnt in places and a little raw in others, and the rosemary had been unevenly rubbed into the meat with oil and salt, and it was the best meal Temeraire had ever had.
As the nights grew longer, Laurence grew quieter. More often, he would sit inside the house and write letters, pausing for deep thought between sentences, but Temeraire never saw him take the letters into town to send them off. He kept his windows open even as it grew chillier, so that Temeraire could clearly see him whenever he wished, but he spent less time pressed against his side, an intimacy Temeraire sorely missed. Whenever he dared to ask what was the matter, Laurence would blink for a few moments and say, “Nothing, dear, nothing at all.”
But something was the matter, even if Laurence did not seem unhappy, per se; he still smiled and laughed if Temeraire said something particularly witty, and he did not neglect Temeraire, nor the plants behind the house. It was these plants, and Laurence himself, which gave Temeraire the idea; “Perhaps I shall ferment some of these,” Laurence commented as he harvested some grapes, feeding Temeraire from his own hand. “I have never made wine, but it would be its own reward, to eat a meal and drink wine entirely by our doing.”
“You can make enough for me, too,” Temeraire said; he had never been drunk, although he knew from his mother that dragons were not immune to the effects of alcohol. Indeed, he had seen Laurence drunk many times, and it was usually pleasant; he became more talkative and open, when in the right company, and maybe if Laurence had some wine to enjoy, he would feel free to tell Temeraire what was the matter, and Temeraire wouldn't have to worry that Laurence missed Britain, or wanted to leave him behind.
He set off towards Sydney the very next day; telling Laurence that he had some private matters to attend to, he flew into town to purchase some wine for his plan. Temeraire had no idea what quantity he would need, but he thought at least a cask should be enough; and alcohol of all sorts was plentiful in Sydney, even though it was difficult to find anyone who would enter business with a beast. After many frustrating hours making his case with whatever merchant would stop to listen to him, Temeraire had acquired a cask of wine; the merchant promised him it was the highest quality, and it was a mix of all the different grapes in the world, therefore it suited every palate. He flew back with it strapped to his chest, as careful as possible, and when he returned, Laurence was still sat inside, in deep thought as usual.
“I brought you a gift,” Temeraire said through the window, and Laurence startled, and came out to join him.
“Why, this is a surprise,” he said with amusement when he saw the wine. “Did you decide you wanted some, after all? Who would sell it to you?”
Temeraire sniffed. “A man,” he said, for he did not remember the merchant’s name. “But it's not for me, it's for you. We can have it for dinner?”
“I can't drink an entire cask myself,” Laurence said, as if a cask was a large amount of anything, “pray, my dearest, have some with me. Are you hungry, then?”
Temeraire nodded, pleased that his plan was going so smoothly. Laurence set to cook the other half of the cow Temeraire had caught that morning, and Temeraire napped on the pavilion in the meantime, the fire under the stone warming him nicely.
They ate together, and Laurence had put a bowl of wine for Temeraire to drink from, himself drinking from a glass he'd bought in Sydney. Temeraire didn't much care for the taste of wine at all, and made this plainly clear, but Laurence only laughed and said, “One gets a taste for it, my dear; this is not the finest wine, I must admit, but it does very well for a country that does not make its own.”
“Make sure to drink it all, then,” Temeraire said urgently, ignoring the stab at his pride to learn he had picked a subpar cask; it was all the merchant’s fault, he decided, and he was a lying sneak who should get no further business from him. But the mediocre wine worked, and Laurence’s face turned a charming pink over the course of the meal, until they were both fully sated and Laurence was leaning against his body, the very sensation Temeraire had missed. “Will you tell me now, dear Laurence, what the matter is? Is the valley not to your taste?”
Laurence was silent for a moment, stunned, and then he laughed. “You are quite devious, my dear, to get me drunk in order to learn what you want. Someone else might not appreciate such deception. ”
“It's not deception, I never told you otherwise,” Temeraire said immediately, “and besides, someone else might say it's your doing in the first place, for not telling me what is wrong.”
“Nothing is wrong,” Laurence said, as he had said many times before, but then he paused and said again, “Nothing is wrong, my dear. I am just so wretchedly happy, and no man who has done what I have done deserves such a life; but I would never abandon you, even if it means I am taking something I have not earned.”
Temeraire craned his head to look at him. He felt almost like he did when he thought Laurence dead; a deep, unflinching pain in his chest, and the bubblings of a roar in his lungs. “Laurence,” he said when he could speak, his deep voice pulled even lower by sorrow, “that is not true in the least.”
Laurence smiled, which Temeraire could not understand, because his heart was breaking into so many pieces that he was not sure he could ever feel joy again. “I knew you would object, which is why I have not told you. It is not your responsibility; I know you would see me happy, and I can never make you understand that men like me, perhaps, do not deserve to be happy.”
“Everyone deserves to be happy,” Temeraire said, struggling. “Laurence, I - I cannot - you are the most wonderful, without equal, the - the best man I have ever met, you cannot think that you don't deserve this - I haven't even given you any presents for months!”
“I care not for presents, my dear, as long as I have your company,” Laurence said, and Temeraire could not stop himself from curling around him, throat full of anxiety and sorrow and happiness all at once. There was nothing wrong, nothing at all, and Laurence was happy; only, he was so painfully guilty to be happy, and this was making him unhappy. Temeraire did not know how to solve this, but he knew that there must be a way to impress the fallacy of this logic onto Laurence, if only he could speak without embarrassing himself. He nuzzled Laurence instead, holding him close and surrounding him, and Laurence laid a hand on his cheek, stroking the soft scales there. He continued in a low voice, “I do not mean to distress you. I would never leave you; you know this.”
“That's not the problem,” Temeraire said, pained, “I would rather you leave than think so lowly of yourself.”
Laurence startled, stiffening in the midst of Temeraire’s body, and Temeraire immediately spoke again,
“No, no, don't leave, you shan't leave, I will not have it, I only - I only, Laurence, I don't understand, I… Why is it bad to be happy? No one can say whether you deserve to be or not; and if someone tries to take this from you, I will kill them where they stand.”
Laurence’s thumb stroked his scales, and he was silent for a long moment. Then he said, “I am also afraid to find myself being inappropriate, in pursuing this life with you.”
Temeraire blinked. “Inappropriate?” he asked, but Laurence had evidently thought better of explaining his line of thought, and he half-heartedly attempted to get out of Temeraire’s grip, to no avail. He sighed and visibly steeled himself, as Temeraire had seen him do before battle when the odds were not very good at all.
“I care for you deeply,” he said, “and I cannot deny that spending so much time with you has contributed almost entirely to my happiness; that is why I must keep my feelings as they should be, between an aviator and his dragon.”
“But you're not an aviator,” Temeraire said slowly. He remembered the conversation between the sailors, and the fierce blush it had awoken in Laurence’s cheeks after.
“A man, then,” Laurence said, uncomfortable. “Temeraire, I really rather wish you'd let me go--”
“Say it,” Temeraire said. “Please, dear Laurence, so that I may not misunderstand you.”
Laurence sighed. “It seems I can deny you nothing after all,” he said with a self-deprecating air. “I have found myself wishing, at idle times, that our bond may be more of that between a man and a woman.”
“Like you and Admiral Roland?” Temeraire asked. His heart was big and thundering in his chest, tossing him about like a storm.
“I care deeply for Jane,” Laurence said evasively, “but that is not… If you were a woman, Temeraire, I would wish to marry you.”
“I am not a woman,” Temeraire said.
“I know. That is why -”
“I am not a woman,” Temeraire interrupted, “I am a dragon, but I do not see why that is a problem, if it would make you happy. It would certainly make me happy, and this land is ours, and it is no business of Government what we do on it.”
“It would make you happy?” Laurence said faintly. He looked as though this had never occurred to him, even though Temeraire had made no secret of his affections.
“Of course,” Temeraire said nonchalantly, ignoring the thunderstorm still raging in his chest. “I love you.”
At this, Laurence tensed again, but not out of fear; his voice was low and tender when he replied, “My dear, I adore you. And though I do not know yet what it will entail, anything I have and am is yours to keep, if you wish.”
“You're mine,” Temeraire said easily; this, at least, was a long-accepted concept by them both. “As for the rest, we can figure it out together. We are getting very good at figuring things out together, I think.”
“I think so too,” Laurence said warmly, though his voice was still trembling.
“And for now, I would quite like a kiss,” Temeraire said brazenly, trying not to flinch away from his own boldness, “as payment for making me listen to your low opinion of yourself, which hurt me deeply.’
Laurence laughed, and it was as delightful a sound as ever; and then his lips pressed against Temeraire’s muzzle, and no previous sensation could compare to this, this feeling of flying in the best possible conditions while being securely planted on the ground. “I apologise,” Laurence murmured into his scales, barely moving away.
“Good,” Temeraire said with an exaggerated huff, making his intentions plain when he asked with a hopeful air, “it was truly painful; can I perhaps have another kiss?”
Laurence smiled, which Temeraire could feel against his skin, and obliged him.