It’s early in the morning, with the sky just beginning to lighten, when Laurence starts putting on his uniform. This work unfortunately necessitates that he actually look around the rest of the room – something neglected the previous night – and he starts automatically cleaning up after the place’s usual occupant.
Jane, still sitting on her bed, laughs at him.
“Lord, Laurence, I am not a child, and you are not a maid; quit trying to make me civilized.”
Laurence tries to find a way to say that he is just unused to the messy surroundings – without being rude – and, failing that, drops his hands helplessly. Belatedly he returns to fumbling with his own cravat, very conscious of the hour.
No one has ever commented on his wanderings from Jane’s quarters, but he does not need to give them further reason.
“You know,” says Jane, leaning back to watch him, “ - You should take Harcourt to bed.”
Laurence tugs his cravat so hard it almost strangles him.
“I beg your pardon,” he manages, coughing.
“You should take Harcourt to bed,” Jane repeats, as though he had actually misheard. She continues, “Catherine is a sweet girl, but a little shy; I daresay she’s warmed up to you now, though. And I know I said a child might wait a dozen years, but with this war…”
“That is what I thought you said,” says Laurence faintly, barely able to remain calm in front of this shocking suggestion.
Jane, fortunately, does not notice. “Anyway, if you are nervous about the thing, I could just ask her to join us.”
“Join us,” Laurence echoes. He must be misunderstanding.
“Yes, I think it would be quite fun,” says Jane cheerily, and no; apparently he understands things quite well.
Laurence wonders if it’s too late to return to sleep and pretend this was all a dream.
…The problem, of course, is that once the matter is declared, he can’t just not think of Harcourt.
She has always looked a bit boyish to him. She is very fair featured, of course, but her manly dress, coupled with her strong position within the formation, has always left Laurence treating her as a comrade rather than any potential interest. Yet now, as in the first days of their acquaintance, he finds himself uncomfortably aware of her higher voice when the captains meet at dinner or after drills. Finds himself watching her oddly small hands gesturing when she makes suggestions. By dinner he is sure Berkley has noticed his preoccupation, because the man keeps grinning at him, but Harcourt herself seems oblivious.
He decides that the topic must, at least, be broached. It is unspeakably rude, and he would deserve it if she chose to slap him, report him, or announce him a cad in the eyes of the world; but for Temeraire’s sake he must contemplate Jane’s suggestion, and he cannot in good conscience let the matter go discussed by anyone – even Roland, in the privacy of their respective quarters– without admitting the whole to Harcourt. She should know, he thinks, if her name and body are being placed in conjunction with such unsavory ideas.
Which is how he finds himself inviting her to a walk, and, though evidently a little bemused, she exits the hall with him to walk around the practice field.
Here they can watch one of the other formations at practice; one of the Yellow Reapers has been recently injured and seems a little slow. “Oh, drat,” say Harcourt absently. “Suppose they’re not at top shape yet; look at little Letifer there…”
“There is something I must say,” blurts Laurence. Harcourt turns to regard him, and he finds himself reddening horribly. Inwardly Laurence laments the whole affair, because there is really no polite way – no possible way – to address the issue. “I beg you not to take offense, because I assure you that there is – I mean to say, that I respect you perfectly as a friend and fellow officer, but – first, it should be made plain that I do not mean to insinuate anything of your character - “
“Oh,” Harcourt interrupts, in a tone of slight surprise. “Why! Is this your way of trying to invite me for a romp, Laurence? No wonder you are all flustered today. I already spoke to Jane, you know, and I was going to drop by in the evening. Babies are a nuisance, but I expect we have a little leeway in this war after the Battle of Dover, and, well.” She looks him up and down, appreciative. “Making the thing sounds fun, at least.”
Laurence stares at her mutely for a moment, face burning, and then – overwhelmed past words – he turns around and marches straight to Temeraire’s clearing, telling a passing ensign to grab a book from his quarters.
Jane and Harcourt can satisfy themselves together as much as they please, if only they leave him out of it and never mention the subject again.
…And maybe he can read Temeraire one of the Latin or French texts tonight. Just to help him focus, and keep his thoughts from straying.