William Laurence has been learning about propriety and manners since the instance of his birth, when his mother – loving though she was – handed him over to a wet-nurse for feeding; Lady Allendale, after all, had parties and functions to attend, and the sooner he could be moved from her the better.
When he was five, he reached over to hug his father during a formal dinner and was firmly rebuffed. This is not the place, Lord Allendale reproved; and then it never was. Laurence fled home at twelve, longing for the sea, which was cold as his home but also much more fair - and more predictable in its tempers. Since that time he has shaken Lord Allendale's hand on half a dozen occasions; this is the limit to their interactions.
In the navy, of course, a sort of rough jocularity is allowed – at least when an officer is young. People clasp hands to pull a comrade over the edge of the railing; press down to staunch the flow of bleeding. Knock shoulders under the influence of grog, cheering at the silly caperies of their shipmates.
But anything more is also noted. Noticed. Laurence knows of men who hide in corners of the ship together, acquainted more intimately. That knowledge, and a resultant fear of judgment, taints interactions. There is a certain understanding among the navy, yet any impropriety will still tinge a man's reputation. Once people notice such a relationship it is never forgotten.
Any hint, any speculation of indiscretion – that cannot be allowed. Laurence has many good acquaintances, and one or two officers he might term friends. But there is always a careful, proper sort of distance to those relationships.
Temeraire is different.
Temeraire, who cracked from his shell only four days ago, has no notion of human privacy and no consideration for personal space. Laurence thinks about these things as the hatchling climbs over his arm, half-tripping into his lap in an attempt to reach the book Laurence has been reading.
“It is only,” Temeraire says, in his pitched, childish tones, “that I do not think this the most logical arrangement of letters, Laurence; I am sure there are much more efficient ways to construct a language. Perhaps we could make a better one,” the dragon adds, inspired. “And then everyone could use that, and reading would be much more efficient.”
Laurence feels his lips twitching. He reaches down, without even thinking, and strokes the dragon's head; Temeraire leans into his touch like a cat, entirely unselfconscious. “I am sure you could create an excellent language, dearest; but there is no good way to incite everyone to learning it.”
“Oh; but surely if it were better,” Temeraire protests, shifting around. The cabin-lights make his black hide gleam. Laurence still retains the captain's quarters, and there is plenty of room for them to sit apart; but when Temeraire shifts, he moves only to flop his body around, scales sliding like a snake, and digs his foreclaws into Laurence's shirt.
The dragon burrows his head against Laurence's chest, and insists, “Pray keep reading; I quite like the book, even if your writing does not make much sense.”
Laurence obliges. And he reminds himself that Temeraire, for all the creature's cleverness and immediate loquacity, is still a child. He is only days old. But a distant, guilty part of him hopes, as he scratches the dragon's neck, that Temeraire might remain so affectionate forever.
“Whatever are you doing outside,” Temeraire reproves, opening his wings in clear invitation. “Look, you are wet all over. You will catch cold.”
“Who has been telling you about colds?” Laurence asks, amused as he ducks under the dragon's wing. Rain rebounds off the scales, echoing in a comforting fashion, and Laurence shakes his head to clear the water from his hair.
“Granby did,” says Temeraire. “He told me that if you get very wet or do not eat properly, you will get sick, and then maybe die; you must take better care of yourself.”
Laurence spares an exasperated thought for his new first lieutenant, who doubtless knew exactly what he was doing by inciting Temeraire's protective instincts. Now softened from his earlier resentment, Granby seems determined to make up for his manners by playing mother-hen; though perhaps it is rather Laurence's fault, for not having the forethought to remove himself from Temeraire's clearing even two days after he was injured helping Victoriatus.
Not that Laurence had any other choice, of course – what else was he meant to have done? Leave Temeraire alone?
“The lieutenant exaggerates,” says Laurence. It is also possible – likely – that Temeraire has entirely misinterpreted the conversation. “I have stood on deck under three-day gales, my dear, and been quite well; you remember that storm, when we were on the Reliant.”
“Yes, but you stayed under my wing then, as you should; and those other sailors did not look very healthy, either, after running around in the rain.”
Laurence laughs a little and decides to perch himself on Temeraire's shoulder. It is much like lying on the top-bunk in a ship, he thinks; the soft membrane of the wing just above his head, and the clatter of rain pounding from outside, soft and slow. He lies back, calling, “I do not claim they were happy to be wet, but I assure you that no one dies of a little chill.”
“If you are sure,” says Temeraire, doubtfully. “But, oh, I am glad you are here. I have meant to tell you, Laurence about this odd bird I saw, which was flying in this very particular way; and it had me thinking...”
“Aren't you going to eat?” a voice asks. “Are you feeling well?”
The voice belongs to Lieutenant Granby, who sounds concerned. Laurence blinks, finding himself lying on soft black hide, and hidden from the world by a dark, transparent covering. Yes – he was speaking with Temeraire, wasn't he?
“Well I cannot just move,” Temeraire says, as though this should be perfectly obvious. “Laurence is asleep, I think.”
“Laurence? Good lord, is he with you? One of the runners has been looking for hours; some message came from the admiral.”
“Well, why did you not tell me?”
“...We did not want to disturb you,” Granby evades, meaning: we did not want to alarm you.
Laurence hastily sits up, smoothing down his coat. He stumbles to the ground on sleep-cramped legs. His head barely skims the improvised roof. He still marvels that the fragile dragonet he once held can have become so large.
“Oh,” says Temeraire, slightly disappointed. “ - I think you have woken him.”
The wing shifts.
Granby's expression of worry fades as soon as he looks at Laurence. His lips twitch, instead, and Laurence hastily tugs at cravat to straighten it.
He does not think there is anything laughable about his appearance, so why the lieutenant seems so amused must remain a mystery. “I beg your pardon, Mr. Granby,” he says. “You said something about a message?”
“Yes – though I am sure there is no rush,” Granby says. There is an odd sort of warmth in his voice. “I'll track down Dyers and send him over.”
“And I shall eat, I think,” Temeraire says. The dragon shakes out his wing, and Laurence realizes belatedly that it is probably sore, having been held in the same position so long. But then Temeraire asks, “Will be back to read this evening, Laurence? I quite like that latest book you brought from the town.”
“The encyclopedia, you mean?” Next to him Granby muffles a snort. “Yes, my dear. I shall see you then.”
Days at the covert tend to run long, of course. When there are no patrols, there are drills to master, and always the formation is trying to determine better strategies. But it does no good to tire the dragons either; and anyway every crew must be ready to fly out in an instant, in case the French become bold and attack ships or dragons near the shore, so it does no good for officers to be exhausted.
There is certainly more downtime than what Laurence became accustomed to in the navy. Today he meets Berkley in Maximus' clearing, where the captain is checking some issue with the dragon's harness.
Berkley has already told him – vaguely – about the plans for tonight, but Laurence has questions anyway. “...And this happens every month, you say?”
“Oh yes,” says Berkley, pinching a piece of harness between his fingers. “I'll have to speak with the quartermaster... anyway, every month. It is a tradition some of the courier-captains started, you know; they tend to be an excitable bunch. We just get together to read out letters; and some of the captains write, or do art, so sometimes that is shared too. It is not a bad way to spend an evening.” Berkley steps back, wiping his hands, and addresses his dragon. “There, you great lummox; this is why I always tell you to quit itching your back against the trees. You will tear the harness to shreds.”
The Regal Copper grunts, but seems preoccupied. Abruptly Maximus peers down at Laurence, sweeping out a long foreleg. Laurence stumbles as the dragon pulls him to its chest. When Maximus lowers his head, Laurence is left neatly squashed between his scales.
Laurence is baffled. The act must have been accidental, but he has never known dragons to be careless with humans, despite the disparity in their sizes. He can only manage a confused, “Ah,” and then has to focus on breathing.
Fortunately Berkley has also seen the exchange, and stomps back over to smack Maximus across the snout. Maximus jolts his head with an injured expression, though it is unlikely he even felt the blow. “Oi, you brute! What are you doing? Let the man go before you suffocate him.”
“Why, I am only being friendly,” says Maximus. “And anyway, you were talking with Captain Sutton and Captain Harcourt just this morning, and saying that Laurence does not get enough - “
“Shush, you damn gossip,” Berkley snaps. “God save us all from well-meaning dragons!”
Grumbling, Maximus shifts his leg and releases Laurence. The dragon promptly negates this relief by nudging Laurence with his snout, nearly bowling him over. “I did not mean any harm,” Maximus sulks, and Laurence well believes him; it is only that the intentions of dragons often do not mesh well with their actions.
“And no harm is done,” says Laurence anyway. He pats the dragon's leg, and Maximus seems pleased.
When he turns Berkley has an odd expression on his face – perhaps Laurence should not have been so familiar with another captain's dragon? But Berkley just swings an arm around Laurence's shoulders, and says, “Well, hurry up then; we are going to be late.”
It is rather nice to sit and hear the letters. Ale passes around, and Laurence rather ashamedly thinks that, for all the impropriety of the occasion, he is rather starting to like the aviator-brand of informality. Among the navy, if officers were to gather like this they would be stuffed away in some formal dining room, politely reading out pieces of news over an uncomfortably long dinner and sweet wine. Everyone would make polite and uninteresting conversation, and it would be perfectly exhausting.
Here, the aviators are seated in an empty clearing, sprawled out across the flat grass like a group of school-children. They are placed haphazardly around a fire, where one or two people roast meats or apples. And as Berkley promised, there are letters. Officers jostle to read their news with a playful air of competition, and they are all clearly familiar with one another; one captain Laurence has never met, the captain of a Bright Copper, is teased mercilessly when he shares news from Weymouth covert, where there is apparently a Longwing captain the man knows intimately.
Laurence does not have to worry about talking too much, or too little, because no one minds either way; and it is actually quite pleasant sometimes, to fade back and just listen.
The ale fatigues him. At some point Laurence realizes that Berkley's arm is still around his shoulder, and he has been leaning into the man quite heavily. But when he glances to his left Berkley only grins at him, and on the other side of the fire Captain Warren leans over to top their glasses.
In the end Laurence stays where he is,and listens for the rest of the night in silence.
Not a bad evening at all.
The Officers Lounge at Dover has a more casual atmosphere than any similar place Laurence has visited. There are still the expected sights – men drinking beer and writing letters, and groups squared around a table of cards. It is less expected to see half-dressed officers playing catch, and another pair reading dramatic monologues from some poet, apparently trying to outdo each other in ridiculousness.
Laurence, for his part, sits at one of the couches positioned against the wall. The room seems an unlikely area for any sort of discussion, being rather loud; but Laurence expects they will be reviewing the new drills Lenton assigned the dragons. Temeraire has been grumbling more and more about the practice, and Laurence hopes that the senior aviators might know more about consoling a dragon to the notion of such repetition.
Warren enters first, greeting Laurence politely; Berkley and Sutton join them later, and then Little and Chenery. Captain Harcourt comes last, looking ruffled and a little exasperated.
“Sorry about that,” she tells them all. “Lily has got the notion to try twisting her head, and spitting up, and burnt herself a smidge; I do not know what she expected.”
“She is not hurt?” Laurence asks.
“Mostly embarrassed, I expect. At least we have mastered this last maneuver of Lenton's, and might move on from it.” Harcourt drops down onto the couch beside Laurence, “I cannot much blame her, in truth; I have been going mad seeing the same maneuvers over and over.”
Harcourt twists in her seat and casually throws her legs over Laurence's lap.
Laurence stiffens. Harcourt does not seem to find anything strange in her actions, lying down with her head hanging over the arm of the chair, tilted toward the floor. No one else comments, either, and Warren turns to Chenery to ask something about Dulcia's wing.
Laurence contemplates his position. He has seen Harcourt sit against other people in similar ways, leaning into others as though her body cannot support itself. But she has never tried it with him. He cannot ask Catherine what she means by this gesture without bringing more attention to the matter, and probably embarrassing them both. Shoving her legs away would be rude, surely, and imply a reproof he does not intend to make. But if he ignores the situation, he must do something with his hands, which are currently hanging stiff and awkward in the air.
At last Laurence folds his arms to his chest and determinedly focuses on the surrounding conversation.
They talk about the new maneuvers for half an hour, and decide upon a new signal, should they have cause to use it. This agreed, talk slowly become more pleasant and less official.
And somehow it turns to discussion of the dragons. Much of aviator-talk revolves around the dragons.
At one point Sutton tells them that he has, at last, discovered why Messoria is always so fatigued when they go to Loch Laggan. “She is normally so sedate,” he tells them, “Which is why I never notice, when she does get a mind for mischief. When we were last at Loch Laggan, she heard some rumors about a sea-serpent under the lake, and decided to see it for herself; so she went out every night, and hid under the water for a few hours, with just her nose above the surface - “
“Oh no,” Warren says, and Berkley bursts out laughing.
“Apparently she was quite surprised when the rumors increased, and yet she saw nothing,” Sutton sighs.
Harcourt laughs, too, wriggling her feet. It is at this moment that Laurence realizes he has relaxed unintentionally throughout the night; his hands are resting lightly against her ankles, and he has not even noticed.
Laurence flinches his grip away as though burned. “Excuse me,” he blurts, unintentionally interrupting one of Little's stories about Immortalis. He stands – Harcourt squawks and almost falls from the couch – and at once exits the lounge.
Laurence burns with shame. The evening has been slow and relaxed, but that is no excuse. He meant nothing ill by his actions – and surely Harcourt knows that – but what might others judge of them, of her? Laurence has no desire to ruin anyone's reputation, and unlike Jane, Harcourt is very young -
“You look like you have just learned Napoleon is invading,” a voice says, “and that Nelson has meanwhile dragged all the fleet to China.”
Laurence turns to see that Captain Chenery has followed him out. They have not spoken much alone, though Chenery always strikes him as a cheerful sort, amiable and ready to take amusements from any corner. “I beg your pardon?”
Chenery laughs. “Oh - I am sorry, Laurence, but it was hard not to smile, seeing Catherine provoke you in such a way.”
“Provoke me,” Laurence echoes. Chenery looks at him expectantly, and – oh.
All at once, everything makes sense. “...And it is not just her, I suppose?”
“You had not noticed?”
“I did,” says Laurence. He had just not realized. “But I thought better of the Corps, than to think it's captains had time to mock one another.” He thought better of his friends, too. His chest feels queerly hollow.
“Mock – that is not what anyone intended,” says Chenery, sounding surprised. “It is only, you are so bloody formal all the time, you know.”
Laurence steps back. “I see,” he replies stiffly. “Excuse me, Captain; I am sure I shall see you tomorrow.”
He moves to go, but Chenery lunges forward, grabbing his arm. “Oh, hell with it,” Chenery says. “I know I am mucking this all up, and – no one is making fun, Laurence, I promise. It is only, we thought you might like to relax; so everyone has tried to be a bit more friendly. That is all. I suppose we do not talk much, but even so, I imagine it must be exhausting to act so stiff and sober every day; everyone has only been trying to help.”
Laurence is recalled oddly to Granby's apology, months ago. It was Granby's plain-spoken sincerity which moved him then. Chenery's shame and earnestness has a similar ring of truth, even if the sentiment leaves him incredulous.
“We are officers,” says Laurence. “Of course I am serious, in everything I do. We each have our duty - “
“Yes, of course,” Chenery interrupts. “But having a duty does not mean we must be without happiness, Laurence. Can you say it hurts our efficiency, being a little more loose than your navy-friends? And if not, what is the harm?”
“It is – there are proprieties to be observed,” Laurence tries.
“Bullocks to proprieties and manners and whatever else,” Chenery snorts. “Society does not accept aviators, anyway; so I do not see why we should be constrained by Society, and made miserable by its silly rules, to boot. You would never have let us go on in the first place if you did not agree. Is it really so wrong to be happy?”
Laurence thinks of sitting at the fire with Berkley's arm around his shoulders. Harcourt laughing and kicking her feet in his lap. Temeraire, curling a wing around him on a chill night.
“No,” he says at last. “No; of course it is not.”
“Well,” says Chenery. “Then stop fretting so much, and just let yourself enjoy things. You might be surprised, I think, how easy that is.”
“Laurence,” Temeraire says. “You are very quiet today. Is anything wrong?”
Instead of answering Laurence poses his own question: “Would you mind if I slept out here with you tonight, my dear?”
“Of course not,” says Temeraire, nudging Laurence with his nose. “You do not need to ask.”
Laurence smiles. “Yes,” he says, and strokes Temeraire's snout. He leans closer to the dragon, wondering at all the changes of the past year. And Laurence admits to himself, for the first time, that he is glad to have left his old life behind him. “ - Yes, my dear, I think I am beginning to understand that.”