When Tenzing Tharkay meets William Laurence in a Chinese port city, it is the culmination of decades of what is not quite hope.
Tharkay had known his soulmate would be an Englishman; with a name like William Laurence he could hardly have believed otherwise. But even so, this is a little extreme: Laurence has blond hair, blue eyes, a nobleman’s accent, and the kind of proper manners that can usually tell Tharkay within half a minute that he will dislike a man.
But nevertheless he is Tharkay’s soulmate, and perhaps something could come of it, except —
Except that when Tharkay introduced himself, Laurence didn't react to his name. William Laurence may be written in neat, even handwriting between Tharkay’s fourth rib and his fifth, but Tenzing Tharkay is written nowhere on Laurence.
Of course it would be just his luck, that his life would revolve around a blue-eyed Englishman who will consider him barely worth notice.
Of course, Tharkay agrees to lead him across the desert anyway. What else is there to do, really?
John had never thought he’d be the sort to have an enemy’s name on his skin, but within a week of William Laurence arriving at the covert, it looks like that’s the case.
It isn’t just that he’s a Navy man and not an aviator, either — he called Harcourt Miss, and he hangs about with Rankin, and when he’s asked about Temeraire’s name he has some story about a ship, it isn’t written on him anywhere. John hates him, not just for sweeping in with a title he hasn’t earned but for the way he talks to John, the way he looks at the covert, the contempt on his fucking face —
And then he jumps off Temeraire’s back to get another dragon to safety, and stays outside with Temeraire for two days.
John stops loathing the name on his hip.
Laurence is still a Navy man. He still jumped the queue — still threw the queue out the damned window. He still doesn’t have Temeraire’s name, still isn’t tied to his dragon like an aviator captain would be. He still doesn’t understand the Corps like a captain should. But John can’t hate him, after that.
“You were never really the sort to loathe anyone anyway,” Little tells him when John says as much, and, well. He’s right.
(Loch Laggan, 1807)
It’s not like Augustine didn’t know the names John had written on him — Iskierka wrapped around his left bicep, William Laurence on his right hip — but knowing is different from seeing, and hearing another man’s name in the daylight is different from reading it when you’re in bed.
John notices, of course; he’s always paid more attention than Augustine has ever known what to do with. “You know it’s you I want, don’t you?” he says, when Augustine runs his fingers over the name on John’s hipbone too obviously to claim it was an accident.
“Of course,” Augustine says, and means it; if John wanted to be in Laurence’s bed, he wouldn’t be in Augustine’s. He isn’t the sort to close his eyes and pretend, and Augustine’s too small anyway, his hair too dark and his face too delicate. But John is Laurence’s as firmly as Augustine is Immortalis’s, and Augustine knows that ultimately, he is not the one with a claim over John’s heart, and if John had to choose which one of them to stay beside, Augustine knows it wouldn’t be him.
He must have gone still, because John takes his hand from Augustine’s side and pushes back a lock of Augustine’s hair that’s fallen in his face. “Hey,” and his voice is warm enough that Augustine could melt in it. “I mean it. You’ve got Immortalis written up your spine, that doesn’t mean you can’t want this.”
Augustine nods. It’s not false, it just — rings wrong. “If you didn’t want to be here, you wouldn’t be here,” he says, and pulls John forward again. “Do that thing with your teeth again — ah, yes, that —” and the moment passes, and Augustine keeps his hand carefully away from John’s hip for the rest of the night.
Every child in the Corps thinks about what they’d name their dragon if they got one, of course; John was no different. But in the moment he feels a sudden pang of sympathy for Harcourt, who panicked and looked down at her own hand and read “Lily” off of it, and worried for near a month afterwards that she’d named her dragon after her soulmate rather than having her dragon’s name.
John will never have to ask that question. This Kazilik, still small enough to hold, names herself Iskierka, and the word that circles around John’s arm in his own handwriting is hers, hers, hers.
(Loch Laggan, 1808)
“He’s going to Australia,” John says softly, and Augustine’s face twists just like John knew it would.
He doesn’t need to say “I’m going with him.” Augustine is expecting that news, has been expecting something very like it for the past year; he has always made it quietly clear that he does not expect or demand to be first priority in John’s heart.
What he does need to say, and so what he says, is: “I’m coming back.”
The Chinese that were sent to England loathe him, and Hammond is of course out of the question, and so Laurence does not ask until they are in the palace what the script on his forearm says. (He doesn’t ask about the script on his chest — it isn’t Chinese, to begin with, and it simply feels wrong in a way that he cannot put words to.)
He is not entirely certain of what he was expecting, but to have it proposed that he be adopted by the emperor, for he and Lung Tien Xiang are chosen companions, was not it.
To have Temeraire’s name on his arm is an honor he had not expected; a higher one than the adoption, certainly, but not so high as having been chosen by Temeraire at all.
(New South Wales, 1809)
Tharkay doesn’t see the name on Laurence’s chest until they are in the tent they’re sharing, in the desert of New South Wales. Doesn’t realize, at first, what it is that he’s looking at; only realizes when Laurence says, “Can you read it?” that he’s staring.
“Yes,” he says, his mouth suddenly dryer than usual, as three years of chasing this man around the world shift in his mind.
Something softens in Laurence’s face. “Can you tell me what it says?”
Tharkay has heard the story of the Chinese script reading Lung Tien Xiang up Laurence’s forearm, but not that Laurence had somehow managed to have two names on him, in languages he could not read. “That’s my name,” he says, still not quite believing it, and unbuttons his own shirt to show Laurence his own mark —
— and Laurence, for the first time in perhaps a year, smiles.
( Rio de Janeiro, 1810)
John is changed, when Augustine finally sees him, but not so much so that he does not turn immediately to Augustine and kiss him the moment they can steal enough time alone.
Augustine could happily spend hours re-learning him, fitting himself to John again; he does exactly that, and manages almost to put the reason for their separation out of mind when John says, “Do you still think I’m incapable of making you a promise?”
He almost says “I never did,” but that would be a lie no matter what angle he looks at it from. “We’re aviators, John,” he says instead, “neither of us can promise anything,” which is avoiding the question.
“You’re impossible,” John says, and somehow he sounds fond; they’re too close for Augustine to see his face clearly, but he can hear the smile in John’s voice. “All right, then. I can’t promise I’ll never have to leave, but I promise I’ll come back to you, and if you don’t believe me I’ll just have to keep doing it.”