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Conduit

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Privacy was something of a scant notion among the corps; even more so among the men that Captain Laurence commanded, as they seemed to be growing fewer and less reputable with each mission. The pretence was still made, of course; backs were turned with a cheerful wink, and one might even be fortunate enough to have a curtain to draw, with the understanding that anything heard from behind the fabric ought not to be acknowledged, if not out of urgency then simply for plain good manners.

Rules of good conduct, however, could never really be impressed upon dragons, who saw even less of a need for discretion, and so John should not have been as shocked as he was when Temeraire cornered him, barely deigning to lower his voice to so much as a murmur when he asked, “Granby, do you think you could show Laurence and Tharkay how two men might mate?”

John began to cough, the hot tea in his hand spilling over his wrist and onto his thighs, but he barely felt it scald, his cheeks already burning at a comparable temperature. Temeraire watched this display with a judgemental sort of patience, waiting until John had wiped the saliva from his mouth and cleared his throat a couple of times before leaning closer, one claw folded on top of the other.

“What,” John said, after a few moments of floundering for a response.

Temeraire huffed, sitting back on his haunches, and John could see his tail lash out behind him. “I don’t see why I need to repeat myself; it’s perfectly clear that they’re in need of some help, and you have experience in the area - more than a little, Iskierka says - so naturally, you’re the most appropriate tutor for them. I’d do it myself, only Laurence never seems to want to talk about mating with me, and I suspect it’s rather different from what I’m used to.”

He spoke woodenly, as though he’d rehearsed the argument, and by the end of his speech John was a little more composed; enough to notice way Temeraire’s tone dragged, almost sullen. He would like to empathise - John would certainly rather be discussing anything else - but Temeraire’s mood didn’t seem to come from embarrassment or reluctance, and he had never been shy about the topic before.

“I do wish Iskierka would stop telling the world about my private life,” John muttered, more to himself than to Temeraire, who was sure to object. “No, I know you wouldn’t have me court-martialled, but I can’t say the same for everyone here, and I’ve never heard a dragon so much as mumble, let alone whisper. But what’s got it into your head that Will and Tharkay ought to be - well, you said it - anyway? We are thinking of the same Captain Laurence, aren’t we?”

Will had taken John’s disclosure with all the grace that was John had come to love him for, but he’d shown no signs of being of the same persuasion. A long time ago, John had had his suspicions, and it was true that Laurence and Tharkay had a mysterious sort of relationship, communicating through skinship more often than words, but when John’s confession only resulted in sympathy and commiserations, his remaining suspicion had vanished. Temeraire might know Laurence better than anyone else, but he was prone to leaps of deduction, and definitely had little understanding of the subtleties of human relationships, if he had to get his gossip from Iskierka.

“There couldn’t be another,” Temeraire replied simply. “I’m beginning to question your eyesight. It’s quite plain, if you only pay attention. It’s just that they’re both so clumsy, and Laurence is so proper, they can’t approach it. I’m sure that Laurence is so worried about getting it wrong - it’s quite different from what he does with Jane, I suppose - that he won’t put himself forward. If you help him, then it’s all resolved, and Laurence won’t need to go seeking out whores or getting married and having babies.”

“Ah, so that’s it,” John said, retrieving his discarded cup, now sadly empty. “You’ve been listening to Iskierka and Churki again, haven’t you? They’re a bad influence and there’s nothing to worry about, Temeraire, even if Laurence did want to marry - which he doesn’t - he doesn’t consider himself fit to impose himself on a woman of any standing, believe me.”

“I wouldn’t call it imposing, ” Temeraire muttered, and well, John wouldn’t either; Laurence’s questionable self-perception had long been a source of mutual complaint between himself and Temeraire. “Any wife would be lucky to have his attentions - not that they should be asking for them, at all, when he has me - besides, Granby, that’s not why I’m asking at all! I’m beginning to think you’re misunderstanding me on purpose.”

John wasn’t, but then again nor was he making any extra effort to, and he began to see that he wouldn’t escape the conversation without giving Temeraire a reasonable excuse for his referral. Temeraire would never be persuaded to see his own ideas as ridiculous, not when he had clearly spent a long time thinking about it, so John would have to use his logic against him. There couldn’t be much harm in indulging Temeraire - and himself - in a little idle fantasy, John figured. He didn’t have Iskierka’s tendency to force his way entirely through his captain’s own wishes, and he couldn’t help but be curious as to what made Temeraire think that Tharkay was the solution to his problem, and John the means of enacting it.

“Then speak more plainly, will you? I don’t have half the schooling you’ve got, even if you have been around for less time. Why should it be anyone else’s business what Laurence and Tharkay get up to - or more likely what they don’t?”

“They don’t, that’s why I’m asking you to teach them.” Temeraire spoke with a sullen impatience that reminded John of one of his first captains, rapping him on the knuckles when he couldn’t remember his sums. Then he stopped, looking at John with his mouth stretched into a queer sort of grimace, and fell down heavily at his side with a sigh so powerful John couldn’t help but wrinkle his nose. “...I want it to be my business.”

Temeraire spoke with such misery that John was certain he didn’t mean that he wanted to poke his nose in; did he think that Laurence was keeping secrets from him? The possibility seemed outrageous, and more likely to result in direct confrontation, but Temeraire’s misery was blatant. John felt a tightness in his chest, and he reached over to pat Temeraire’s muzzle, a weak commiseration for an emotion he could never hope to understand.

“I’m not trying to force my way into a part of Laurence’s life where I have - no purpose,” Temeraire continued after a moment, “but if I could just know for sure that he was happy, that he was being satisfied...and Tharkay is the only human I’ve encountered who’s both up to the task and worthy. Besides you, of course, but Iskierka has already stolen you, and Laurence always tells me the reason you can’t join us on our missions is because you have your place in the corps, and I’ve heard they don’t look kindly on a lot of companionships...not that that has stopped you before, or so Iskierka says.”

John summoned the grace to ignore Temeraire’s final remarks, as well as the subtly curious glances Temeraire was sending over his muzzle, even if he couldn’t prevent the colour from rising to his cheeks at being called ‘deserving’. He might as well have been knighted, considering how much esteem Temeraire held Laurence in - more so than other dragons, if only because of his own ego. Instead he focused on the hoarse whine of Temeraire’s voice and the hollow of the Divine Wind constricted in his throat. It had all the hallmarks of a dragon in pain, but there was no fresh wound to be seen.

“It’s not wrong to want Laurence’s happiness, and I know Tharkay’s friendship has given him a lot of it,” John began carefully, “but I better than most can tell you there’s no changing a man’s preferences, even if it does seem more sensible to someone else.”

“There’s no issue of preferences , Granby, that’s what I’ve been saying. Tharkay is my best option precisely because I don’t hope to change those.”

John thought of Jane Roland; of Laurence’s attempts to be subtle and Jane’s brazen teasing over his affections.

“Laurence is interested in women, Temeraire,” he spoke slowly and Temeraire groaned, as though having to explain himself was only adding to his misery.

“I’m quite aware,” he snapped. “Don’t think me so unobservant. I’m only saying that Laurence doesn’t discriminate between humans, so long as they’re willing and there’s no risk of impropriety. As long as we’re not considering eggs - and we ought not to, for Laurence has me , after all - then there is no need for the person satisfying Laurence to be a woman, is there? I’m not a woman, and Laurence loves me, after all.”

“He certainly does,” John agreed, unable to say anything else while he processed what Temeraire was saying to him. There was still some unsaid meaning to it all if Temeraire’s furtive burrowing of the soil beneath him was anything to go by, but John could hardly focus on that when he’d been slapped in the face with the assurance that Will - Captain Laurence, his Captain - had similar inclinations to himself.

“Are you sure?” John asked Temeraire, unsurprised to find his own voice small and tight. The weight of this discovery felt immense to him. Temeraire’s nostrils flared.

“Would I have thought of this arrangement if I wasn’t? He told me,” he answered, and John squeaked. “One morning after an encounter with Jane he was reluctant to go flying, and he was eventually able to explain to me why a task as simple as sitting down was impossible for him, and then when he lost his memories -” here Temeraire faltered, the sting of offence still sharp, “- it was Tharkay who brought them back, and Laurence assured me that his feelings for Tharkay were not more powerful than his feelings for me, but rather that the very ‘human’ nature of those feelings might have stirred his recollections. I’m sure even you can read between those lines.”

John took the insult in his stride; in fact, he barely noticed it, wishing that his cup was full, and of something stronger than tea. He pulled his lip back with his hook, a nervous habit he’d picked up over the months.

“Will - with Jane ?” he sputtered. There was no chance that Laurence would want him to know this, but it couldn’t be undone, and John couldn’t forget for all the wishing in the world. The tip of his hook pierced his mouth. “Hell.”

“You must have known about that,” Temeraire said, despairing. “I know you’ve talked about it.”

John felt no desire to correct him as to the true source of his shock. Already his mind was flooded with images, some unwanted and others - well, less so. He abruptly recalled the redness in Laurence’s cheeks, spread to his throat in Cusco, as he’d asked John about his capacity. He had thought it was from embarrassment, or shame if he was being pessimistic, but now he thought of another potential meaning, and the vision of that flush turned to arousal, of Laurence biting his lip to refrain from gasping rather than judging came unbidden. He dug both nails and hook into the flesh of his thighs, and when he was grounded he looked back at Temeraire with a new set of curiosities.

“Well, if he’s done that I don’t suppose there would be any problem for them both, if they wanted to.”

“Maybe not,” Temeraire said, responding enthusiastically to John’s matter-of-fact answer, folding one claw over the other in a business-like affect. “But I don’t think Laurence knows that, and besides, there’s the issue of courting, isn’t there, and Laurence has a lot of expectations of men and women in society, so I’m sure that the rules must be different.”

“They are,” John agreed ruefully - if only because courting between men and women was incredibly public, whereas two men needed to be as discreet as possible. “But I can’t teach Laurence to woo - god, I don’t have the experience myself, everything I’ve done has been as quick as possible, so we didn’t get caught.”

“That would be fine,” Temeraire said. “Perfect, in fact. I don’t want it to take up too much of his time.”

“Then why bother at all?” John asked. Temeraire’s claws dug deeper into the dirt beneath him, but John wouldn’t be deterred, happy to go in circles all day to find out what he was about. Even though a lot of what Temeraire said often went over John’s head, he didn’t tend to speak in riddles, unfamiliar with the concepts of shame and discretion.

“Sometimes we have to make do with the lot we are given,” Temeraire said miserably, words that John never thought he’d hear from the dragon’s mouth. “I’d rather see Laurence satisfied with someone else than leave us both lacking.”

It took John a few long moments to finally understand Temeraire’s words. It wasn’t as though Temeraire was left wanting for physical satisfaction, with Iskierka chasing him halfway across the world, the imperial who held his affections in China, and the reluctant service he’d provided at the breeding grounds; if he was lacking it had to be more about the person than the need.

John felt his jaw go slack. It was a coarse joke among the less palatable members of the corps that a spoiled dragon would turn ‘like a woman’, demanding marriage and appeasement on all fronts including physical, but he had never heard of it actually happening, figuring it for a crude euphemism and attempt to curb the aviator’s indulgence of their partners. Physical love between two men was queer for certain, but love between a man and a dragon…

He had been silent for too long. Temeraire was done being bashful and had begun to peer at him; when their eyes met, John had no idea how he might conceal his discovery, and Temeraire knew at once he had been made. His claws came up to cover his muzzle, heedless of the dirt they scattered their, and he groaned in shame.

“Hell,” Temeraire said, and John hoped that if Laurence ever heard him say that, he would blame Iskierka before he blamed John. He could hardly blame him given the circumstances - John wasn’t sure that there was a better word to describe them after all.

“...I guess this is the least I could do,” John said after a pause, chewing on the inside of his cheek. “Are you sure this wouldn’t upset you more?”

“It’s not about me,” Temeraire whined, and John took pity on his desperation, if only because he had no idea what to say to comfort a dragon who wanted to sleep with his captain. “You’ll help?”

“If they should want my help, I don’t suppose I’d have any cause to object,” John told him, instantly regretting his decision when Temeraire’s head shot up in delight. “But I’m not going to try to convince Laurence to commit sodomy, good God, as if the two of us haven’t had enough unpleasant conversations about that.”

**

Days passed, and beyond Temeraire sending him significant looks over the campfire that John refused to acknowledge, he heard nothing more on the subject of Temeraire’s plan. He ought to have been relieved - the discussion could only have ended in embarrassment, and John wasn’t sure how he’d face them afterwards - but he found instead a heavy disappointment settling in his gut. He had come to terms with Laurence’s decision to stay quiet even after John had revealed himself, understanding his sense of personal shame, but there was no sense of the solidarity that he had expected from the knowledge that they shared this secret. In fact the only way that John knew Temeraire had told Laurence of their conversation at all was that he was avoiding John, unable to meet his gaze without an uncomfortable cough and colour in his cheeks.

“Well, more fool them if they don’t want to mate with you,” Iskierka remarked after demanding John tell her the source of his anxiety. “Little’s already told me that you make an excellent bedfellow - which was no surprise - so they’re probably just intimidated by your skill. If they want to let that fear get to them, it’s their loss, not yours. You could have anyone.”

John blanched, reluctantly making a note to tell Little to stop bragging to Iskierka, no matter how keen a listener she might be. “That was never an option - they want to sleep with each other, apparently, not me.”

Iskierka sniffed, tossing her head. “They really are fools, then. Why should they want to make mistakes with each other when they could both be more than satisfied by you? They might even be able to learn something."

John groaned and pulled on the ends of his hair to keep from yelling at her. He couldn’t deny that he’d thought about it - that his advice might be better given through actions rather than words, which he’d never been good with. Laurence had been the subject of a fair number of guilty fantasies when John had first been assigned to him, even before they’d become friends, and he’d only grown more attractive as he’d aged, settling into the role of aviator with a coarse ease that John had always been weak for. The prospect of knowing more than Laurence for once gave John a smug sort of thrill, and adding Tharkay into the mix…

The previous night sleep had been surrendered to the fantasy of his own hand tracing the thick scars of Tharkay’s, closing around his knuckles to guide him over Laurence’s thighs - to wondering if Laurence sounded as passionate in the throes of desire as he did in battle. Tharkay would be hesitant - for once - but determined, and John could lead him between Laurence’s legs with confidence and expertise. When it came to sex, John wasn’t shy: the leap of putting yourself forward was far scarier than making mistakes along the way, and he had had plenty of opportunity to learn. Tharkay would probably be quiet, and that would only make it more satisfying to make him moan - or grunt - or say his or Laurence’s name…

John shuddered, and then grimaced when Iskierka peered at him. “No, I’m not ill, and I don’t need any time alone,” he waved his hook at her, already predicting her questions. “Would you bugger off with all this talk about my sex life? I don’t want you bothering Little or Laurence anymore.”

“I just don’t understand why they wouldn’t want you,” Iskierka said. “But if that really isn’t your concern, then I don’t see why you can’t just write it down and give it to Laurence to read later. Then he wouldn’t have to look you in the eye after all.”

“Captain Laurence,” John amended automatically, “and see, I’d quite like him to look me in the eye eventually - we’re friends, remember. Besides, I still have no idea how I’m supposed to consider Temeraire’s feelings in all this.”

“Temeraire? What does he have to do with this?”

Iskierka raised her spines, indignant, but John was saved having to placate her jealousy by none other than Laurence himself, who came from around John’s tent, partially hidden by Iskierka’s rump.

“Oh, there you are,” Laurence said, almost surprised that John should be exactly where he was supposed to be, and then he floundered, one hand gesturing vaguely to the sky as he appeared to take a sudden blushing interest in Iskierka’s hindquarters. John bit back any remark, not wanting to provoke conflict. “Am I interrupting?”

“Not at all,” John spoke quickly, but not loud enough to cover Iskierka’s ‘yes’, and he glared at her. “I would be happy to see Napoleon right now if he could only take me away from this conversation.”

Iskierka’s tail lashed out at Laurence’s startled laugh, and she curled in on herself, pulling on John’s heartstrings. He would have to explain to her later that he knew her intentions were good; he simply couldn’t risk Iskierka saying something too revealing and forcing Laurence to reject him to his face, in front of his dragon, no less. She turned on her heels and fled the scene, most likely to seek solace in hunting, and John sighed.

He sat down heavily on his stool, patting the seat beside him, but Laurence remained standing, hands now clasped behind his back to cease their wandering. John’s spine straightened despite the exhaustion in his bones, worried now, and he began to rise again until Laurence shook his head.

“There’s no need,” he told John, and then seemed to force himself to sit next to John, moving slowly as if he had been on dragonback for a week. He stayed quiet, the colour in his cheeks unfading, and John waited, his gaze fixed on a point below Laurence’s chin. He’d had enough of these conversations with fellow aviators to know that people couldn’t - and shouldn’t - be rushed when it comes to divulging sensitive information.

“...I understand that you’ve had a conversation with Temeraire,” Laurence said after a long, long moment, voice so tight it sounded as though he might choke on the words. He took a flask from his pocket, drinking, and John wondered if some of the redness in his cheeks might be from Dutch courage, and not simply embarrassment. John nodded, just a small movement but enough to make Laurence exhale thoroughly, his fists clenching and unclenching on his knees in front of him. “Right. I never intended - that is, it’s unfortunate that you are burdened with the knowledge -”

“It’s no burden,” John rushed to correct him, and Laurence looked at him sharply; the first time he’d met John’s gaze in several days. His eyes were tired, pressed wide by stress and surprise. “You won’t have any judgement from me. After all, you’ve kept my secret, haven’t you?”

Laurence sagged, his remaining air rushing out of him in one breath, and he seemed grey in the dull November light. John wanted to reach for his arm, to offer him some kind of comfort, but knew that Laurence wouldn’t appreciate the pity. He worried at his queue, the fold of his hair threatening to come undone.

“Yes, of course,” Laurence rushed, dismissive of something that perhaps he saw as given but which John had never taken as such. “But it is not quite the same, is it? Affections between two men is something that we all know of in some capacity, if not always so close to home, but-”

“Is it because you’re from high society?” John asked in a rush, ready to berate Laurence for his condescension, at the same time as Laurence continued “-but when the affections are between a man and his dragon -” and then stopped short, staring aghast at John.

“What?” Laurence asked, too surprised to engage with his own manners. The colour had drained from his face now, and John wet his lips, getting the sort of headache he’d always had during his schooling as he began to piece his words together.

“Get off,” John said, forgetting himself. “You mean you and Temeraire - really?”

“You didn’t know,” Laurence spoke quietly, hoarsely, and John narrowly avoided clouting himself with his own hook as he went to slap his forehead. He tried to respond, but all that came out was a queer sort of croaking, and he searched for his own flask with difficulty, unable to keep his eyes off Laurence.

“I mean - Temeraire was quite obvious about his own feelings - but I thought that was just him getting strange ideas the way he always does - I didn’t for a second think it could be reciprocated - hellfire -”

“Oh, God,” Laurence moaned low, distressingly pale now, and John forced himself silent. He remembered the fear he had felt when disclosing his own preference to Laurence - the knowledge that it would only take one word for Laurence to have him court-martialled, and how easily Laurence had taken it, betraying none of his own emotion but concern for John’s current predicament. John had been terrified to explain something that he knew at least Laurence would be able to comprehend, and this - this was something else entirely. He couldn’t imagine how afraid - how ashamed , knowing his sense of responsibility - Laurence must be right now.

John moved on instinct, rising from his seat and leaning forward to place his hand on the back of Laurence’s neck, hook resting on his thigh, grounding. Laurence turned to face him slowly, eyes unseeing, and John firmly pushed down all of the questions he was dying to ask.

“You kept my secret,” he told Laurence, voice shaking in spite of himself. “I’m keeping yours. Even if it’s not the one I thought it was.”

“What did you think?” Laurence asked. His relief was tangible, but John could already see his mind whirring again. “What did Temeraire say to you?”

“He asked if I would give you advice on how to sleep with Tharkay,” John told him, all embarrassment over the original subject lost through comparison. Laurence stared at him. “When he gave away his own feelings on the matter, I thought that he was trying to martyr himself by your happiness - not that he was hoping to live vicariously through the experience.”

It was a curious image: Laurence and Tharkay fumbling through a late introduction to sodomy whilst Temeraire bore witness and perhaps even participated, if only by speaking up. John didn’t know how much use his advice would be anymore - his sex life, if illicit, was rather dull, and he’d never encountered anything like it.

“How shameful,” Laurence said ruefully. His breathing was steadier now, but he still leaned heavily into the support provided by John’s palm and chest, so he didn’t move away.

“Well, I’m glad to have the situation cleared up at any rate,” John told him, and if his cheer was forced, it wasn’t all that difficult to find it. Already he was coming to terms with things; strange as it was, it had nothing on most of what he’d experienced during the course of his acquaintance with Laurence, and he and Temeraire had already destroyed so many presuppositions about relationships between man and dragon that they might as well roast the whole hog, as it were. “I certainly wouldn’t want to have inadvertently helped Tharkay be used in such a manner.”

There was a pause as Laurence stiffened, relenting only when John applied pressure to the backs of his ears, easing the tension there.

“Is it use…?” Laurence asked, his voice soft and uncertain. There was genuine emotion there and John had to repress a sigh, his stomach lurching as he realised there was even more to the matter than had already been said.

“Surely you can see that, if he’s just a vehicle for Temeraire,” John spoke gently. “It’s not just a physical thing, you know, even when it’s between two men - at least, not most of the time. At the very least, everyone involved has to be aware of the circumstances and agree to them. Even more so, perhaps, when your life is on the line.”

“Ah,” Laurence said, wiping his brow where some locks had come undone from his queue. “I understand. That wouldn’t be a problem.”

He spoke with such confidence, and John had already forgotten all of his manners once in front of Laurence, so he tried this time for delicacy as he grasped for a conclusion.

“Tharkay...knows?”

Laurence laughed, answering drily. “Pray tell me of a secret that has been kept successfully from Tharkay.”

John swayed on his feet, this time leaning on Laurence for support as he began to feel light headed. Laurence was right, of course - Tenzing knew more about everyone than they seemed to know about themselves - but these were the two men John had spent the better part of seven years with, and he felt as though they had just told him the world was flat after all, despite his view of it from the air.

“Tenzing is well aware of my relationship with Temeraire, and was so even before we had discussed it ourselves,” Laurence continued. “I think he is aware of my personal affection for him, too, though we have only spoken of it in the vaguest of terms.”

“Of course,” John said, voice light. He was well accustomed to Tharkay’s tendency to speak in euphemism, as well as the necessity of it when negotiating relationships denied by law. “And it’s mutual?”

“I think...he is not opposed to them,” Laurence said after a moment. Of course he would never consider himself a viable candidate for anyone’s affections, even someone in almost as dire circumstances as himself.

John shook himself, slapping his hand perhaps a little too hard down on Laurence’s shoulder. “Well, then! It doesn’t seem like you need my advice at all, you dog,” he said, teasing. It wouldn’t do to keep the mood so heavy. “If you wanted to guarantee my silence, you have it - I wouldn’t know where to begin even if I did feel like betraying you.”

Imagining himself decrying Laurence’s romance with Temeraire to the Admiralty was so bizarre that John had to repress a bubble of hysteria, and even Laurence laughed weakly, probably picturing the same scenario. If John was going to betray Laurence, he had had plenty of opportunities already, and though this new information had knocked him for six, it didn’t change anything. He only hoped Iskierka didn’t get ahold of it, lest she get any ideas. He opened his mouth to wish Laurence the best of luck, squashing the sting of his own pride that Laurence hadn’t chosen him to share his affections with Temeraire, but then Laurence grabbed the hand that still lay on his shoulder, holding him in place.

“Well,” he said, clearing his throat. He was still pressed against John side, close enough to share warmth, and John had the rare privilege of looking down on him. The colour had returned to his face in blotches, and his gaze was shyly downcast, fair lashes fanning over blushing cheekbones. “There was some merit to Temeraire approaching you - I am at something of a loss when it comes to -”

Laurence cut himself off abruptly, staring at the floor, and this time John could not repress the hysterical laughter that burst from his chest. He stopped it with a snort as Laurence sagged with shame; John’s judgement would only make him feel worse.

“It’s not that complicated,” John said, a coarse amusement evident in his voice despite all his attempts to hide it. It felt good to have the experience to trump Laurence, but rubbing it in would do no one any good. He could wait until after the fact, at least. “I heard from Temeraire that you’ve had some experience of a similar act, anyway.”

Laurence groaned as if he was ill, and John laughed merrily, massaging the shoulder he was holding. “I’m only teasing, Will - although you might want to talk to him about how much information is necessary to share.”

John himself withheld his own fantasies from Laurence, letting him recover, and after a minute or so he could finally look John in the eye again, which he did with a grim determination. Whatever he had come here for, he was obviously going to see it through, and John braced himself for anything, certain that there was nothing which could surprise him anymore.

“I was hoping you might be able to - that is, that you would be amenable -” Laurence shook his head, banging his fist against his knee, his blue eyes flashing in self-directed frustration. “If you could show us, and by that I mean - if you would like to be there at the time, and to - to take part, I would...not be opposed.”

John blinked in confusion, taking a minute to decipher Laurence’s stuttering request and then nearly fell backwards in shock, saved only by Laurence’s elbow. He had seen Laurence make a similar fool of himself only rarely, and only in front of Jane, when he was trying to conflate his good manners with her casual air, and there was no mistaking Laurence’s meaning, even if it did strike John as unbelievably implausible.

For a moment he wondered if he was dreaming - if he had simply fallen asleep after last night’s fantasy and it had continued into his subconscious, manifesting in Laurence taking an interest in him after all. If it was a dream, though it was incredibly realistic - Laurence was always much more eloquent and promiscuous in John’s fantasies, and he’d never imagined that Temeraire would get involved, of all people or beasts. Laurence had ceased to hold his gaze, and once he was sure John had regained his balance he released him, regarding the floor once more.

“I have overstepped,” Laurence said, making to stand. In a second he would bow shortly, avoid John for another day or two, and then the ice would be broken by some dire event and they would never speak of it again. John had to say something, even if he was being taken for a ride.

“You really want that?” He asked, cursing his own voice, which came out hoarse, as if he was ten years younger. He felt vulnerable; the whole thing reeked of a prank, and yet he knew and trusted Laurence like no one else. He seldom joked at all, and never at someone else’s expense, and the shame and surprise in his expression was as real as John’s own. Biting hard on his cheek, John tried again. “That is - surely with such a delicate situation you wouldn’t want to complicate it with something purely physical…” he waved his hook vaguely, and Laurence shook his head.

“I would not,” he agreed. “I am asking because I trust you - more than anyone beside Temeraire, in fact - and because, well, I would like you to be there. To be - involved.”

Laurence was blushing again, and John could only gape. His heart was beating so furiously it might burst from his chest, and his stomach churned queasily, more anxious than he had ever been with Little. There was more at stake here, John supposed, and the circumstances were very different, and Laurence was…

“Please, if I have troubled you, you need only say the word and I won’t bring it up again,” Laurence was hurrying to put John at ease, empathetic as always to John’s distress. “I am not asking because there is no other option, but as we were getting things out in the open, I wanted to continue the trend. I should not want to harm our friendship in any way, John, I hope you understand that.”

Laurence sounded desperate, and John knew for certain then that he was being sincere; that he had asked out of want, not out of convenience, or pity. John had always thought Laurence had written himself out of the possibility of romance, but true to his personality it seemed that he had simply been devising the most complicated situation possible. John would do better not to get involved.

And yet.

John thought of their seven years of companionship; of how the months spent without Laurence had dragged as though he was missing a part of himself; how Laurence had brought him Iskierka, his soulmate; how he had throughout the period entertained guilty fantasies, even going so far as to drag Little into them, that had grown warmer and more sentimental with time.

He also considered his own sense of adventure, and how he would likely not be offered an opportunity like this again - how it was something of a miracle that he had been offered it at all, really. He had made do over the years with older, duller men attracted to his youth, and then a standing arrangement of camaraderie with Little, who was pleasant enough to look at. Laurence and Tharkay were of another calibre entirely, and though he had never thought of Temeraire in such a way before, he was surprised to find himself undeterred by the prospect of a large and menacing observer.

“Does Tharkay know what you’re asking me?” John asked quietly. Laurence looked at him sharply, something like hope in his eyes.

“Tharkay is more aware of the movements of my heart than I have ever been.” Laurence’s words, oddly romantic, came out in a single breath, and John exhaled his own, heavy with consequence.

“Well, blast it all, then, I’m already going to hell,” John said, offering Laurence a small, wry smile when his jaw went slack. John rested his hook at Laurence’s elbow, intimate and welcoming. “I might as well make a spectacle of it.”