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Is it odd, Tharkay thinks sometimes, being retired.

Certainly he never quite dared to imagine a settled, peaceful future. If he had it is doubtful his fantasies would have included a disgraced aviator admiral and his politically-inclined dragon, but then Tharkay's plans never do work as intended. Perhaps that is for the best.

Today Temeraire is outside with Iskierka and Immortalis. It is getting late, and Captain Granby and Captain Little join them in the sitting room. Everyone is on their third or fourth glass of wine. There is a peculiar comfort in this, sitting with old friends, which is also something Tharkay would not have imagined just five or six years earlier.

Retirement has been good for Laurence, too. He has shed his jacket and through the night unbends enough to let Tharkay rest a hand on his knee. Even in front of these two guests, who know of their relationship and are extremely unlikely to judge it, Laurence tends to be uncomfortable about showing the slightest affection. Truly there is no need; Granby sent Tharkay a rambling, four-page letter of congratulations once Laurence managed to awkwardly hint at their situation, and Tharkay is indeed glad to see him so soon. He knows there is still plenty of fighting to require Iskierka and Immortalis, and while this is not their first visit it may well be the longest.

Little tends to be a bit more reserved, and Tharkay does not know him well, but he accompanies Granby everywhere these days. Tharkay heard a few stories during his time at the coverts and suspects the man is a bit more exciting than he lets on, but sometimes Little watches Laurence almost uncertainly, as though he isn't quite sure how to behave around them. It might be because of Laurence's high birth and manners, or perhaps because Little – like Tharkay himself – once wondered about Granby's avid devotion to the man. It would be no wonder; if you listen to the poets half of England was in love with Laurence during the war.

Poets are always ridiculous, Tharkay thinks. But they are at least right about one thing; he can't imagine anyone knowing Laurence and not loving him.

The shadows outside lengthen and they let themselves get carried away with reminiscing. Sitting on another couch facing them, Granby gestures with his hooked hand as he speaks. He tells them laughingly about his new first lieutenant, a timid fellow who gets absolutely bulldozed by Iskierka on a daily basis. “But he will learn, I suppose,” Granby says. “Mr. Tomes will either determine to shut her down, or let her beat him down, in which case he ought not deal with dragons at all. Though I do feel bad for the man.”

“Iskierka can be somewhat stubborn,” says Laurence delicately.

“Oh, no, it is just – well. Tomes was transferred because he kept fumbling and stuttering around Captain Hansen, with the Longwing? She thinks he might have a fancy for her. That does not excuse his being unprofessional, I suppose, but it would be a hard thing.”

“Oh, pray spare us,” says Little suddenly. His wine glass is empty – again. “As though you cannot understand the situation! You act like I was not there, when you were this one's First Lieutenant, always complaining about Captain Laurence's blue eyes and Captain Laurence's lovely stupid face - “

Tharkay cackles over his wine. Laurence cannot quite control his own expression; Granby takes one look at him and cries “You don't have to be so pleased about it!”, and then he's laughing too.

- the drink is clouding all their heads, so perhaps those two do not take proper note, as they ought, when Tharkay leans over and confides, “They would look quite a picture, though.”

“Don't you think?” Little relaxes. He leans forward, gaze oddly intent. Deliberate. “You know, I did not much like to hear those things from John, back in '04. But then we had some fun with Chenery and a lad from the town, and you know, I began to think about it...”

Suddenly Laurence clears his throat. “Here, Augustine, let me see your glass.” He rises and takes it, walks to a side-table, then stops. He ruefully announces, “Oh; it seems we have drunk all the bottles.”

“We have more,” Tharkay says. “But perhaps that is enough drink. I think Captain Little has another diversion in mind, anyway.” Idly he adds, “It is pity we do not have any oil, Laurence; I am always telling you we should stock it.”

Laurence flushes. “Tenzing,” he reproaches. But his voice has assumed a reluctantly interested tone, and Tharkay straightens, paying more attention. “That is entirely indecent, and the wine is no excuse.”

But Laurence does not actually object, Tharkay notices. This is the sort of way Laurence acts when he knows he should object, but then Laurence feels he must object to many enjoyable things because he is a self-suffering martyr, so that does not signify.

Tharkay finds himself exchanging considering looks with Captain Little. Oddly, Granby – who usually reads Laurence so well – hastens to agree with him. His face is mottled and flushed. Embarrassed, then. Nudging Little pointedly, he says, “Perhaps - perhaps we ought to set down the wine and move to another room? I think the dragons...”

Boring. Tharkay sets down his glass and tilts his head at Little.

He does not intend it as a signal, but evidently that is how the captain reads him. Or perhaps Little is just waiting for any opportunity, and is more adventurous than even Tharkay theorized. Little abruptly swings up from the couch and grabs Laurence's shoulder.

Little kisses him.

Tharkay snorts as Laurence stumbles, wine sloshing until he hastily sets down his glass. He does not pull away, though, but rather catches himself and stands stiff in Little's grasp. Laurence looks automatically to Tharkay when Little shifts back – but, what, does he think to be chastened like a cheating housewife? Tharkay offers a raised eyebrow instead. Laurence flushes.

And Granby gawks. Laurence is incredibly red and tugs his cravat, but still he does not make a word of protest, Tharkay sees with delight. It took nearly half a year of cohabitation before Laurence would stop his occasional fretting about the 'impropriety' of their situation, so tonight's acquiescence could be interpreted as outright enthusiasm.

Little suddenly turns away and throws himself down on the couch where Laurence previously sat, drunkenness making him stumble a little. He leans heavily against Tharkay, who doesn't mind, and tosses Granby a jaunty salute. “Now you must kiss him, John. I know how long you have wanted to; you will always regret it if you do not.”

Laurence and Granby stare at each other. Laurence clears his throat. “Tenzing - “

“Oh, do not mind us,” Little offers. He leans yet more heavily against Tharkay, absently stealing his wine-glass to take a long gulp. He must be deep in the cups because he drops a hand down to grasp Tharkay's thigh without any hesitation.

“Oh, hell with it,” Granby decides suddenly. He totters up on unsteady but determined legs, stumbles to Laurence, and presses him against the wall.

Laurence makes an undignified sound that Tharkay tucks away in his mind for later mocking. Evidently Granby sees no need for shame now that he is committed; his good hand moves under Laurence's shirt to press him back, and he braces them shoulder-to-thigh, thrusting his hips forward.

Laurence is never loud during activities like this, but under Granby's mouth he breathes heavily, inhaling with a sharp hiss whenever Granby does something particularly right. The last layer of his good manners has clearly fallen aside; he grasps Granby to him with one arm pulling at the man's back, the other trying to tug away his coat.

“We really need to get together more often,” says Tharkay aloud, and realizes only then that he is probably a bit drunk also.

But this doesn't seem important when Little laughs against his ear, the hand on his thigh shifting upward. The result is a little fumbling – they are both more interested with watching Laurence and Granby – but Tharkay will always be coordinated enough for this, whatever his intoxication.

Soon they have shed enough of their lower layers to curl together, Little's breath ragged against his shoulder when Tharkay palms him without barrier. Tharkay is abruptly reminded of a little den of iniquity he visited in his travels. A woman on either side of him, flesh over flesh, and all around the room men sighing under the hostesses' administrations. But this is far better, he thinks. For one thing the entertainment there was not half so good.

Across the room Laurence groans softly. Tharkay will have to congratulate John later; it is damned difficult to get that sound, and he would know.

Granby only has one good hand, but he makes clever use of his hook by looping it into Laurence's cravat. Laurence seems perfectly willing to be tugged this way, gasping against Granby's mouth. Tharkay can hear him even from the couch. Laurence has been divested somehow of his coat and shirt, and he and Granby seem suddenly determined to get as close as possible. Tharkay enjoys the sight as Laurence grasps Granby and tugs down his trousers, grinding their hips together.

“You are going to fall,” Little calls to them laughingly. Even as he speaks his hand tugs at Tharkay's cock, moving in smooth, sure motions. Tharkay hisses between his teeth, and Little turns to look at him, pleased. Someone has experience at this.

Tharkay spares enough attention to notice Granby and Laurence pulling each other toward the other couch. He leans back and Little follows the gesture, nosing against his neck and kissing the hollow of his throat. Little suddenly shifts and swings himself over, bracing himself with one leg on either side of Tharkay, their hands and cocks meeting together in the hands-breadth between their bodies.

Tharkay tugs Little yet closer, trying to spread his legs as Little's hand speeds up. Slick skin rubs against him. He pumps Little's cock in his own hand, rewarded by a choked groan, and shifts. “I can barely see,” he complains. Little snorts breathlessly.

But he can see enough. Behind Little's back Granby presses Laurence against the couch, pistoning his hips with such athleticism that Laurence is pressed audibly into the creaking furniture with each movement. Tharkay lets himself wonder if the other couple is accustomed to this sort of fun, because they are both remarkably aggressive about it.

Then Laurence releases a sound Tharkay has never drawn from him, long and gasping. He feels a flash of jealousy before Little suddenly releases his grip, slides down to the ground, and takes Tharkay into his mouth in almost one motion.

Now Tharkay is the one groaning. He has a perfect view of Little, his head bobbing at an enthusiastic pace. The captain sucks each time he goes down, groaning low in his throat, and Tharkay flings out a hand to grab the couch as he feels his muscles tighten. Across the room Laurence stutters, “John – John - “ and that does it.

His hips stutter. Little chokes but doesn't falter. Tharkay leans back his head and exhales as the orgasm wracks through him.

After, Little pulls himself up and falls against him. Tharkay reaches out, but the captain is already spent. These couches are going to need a severe cleaning.

Across from them Granby and Laurence lie against each other, each breathing hard. Granby seems flushed and a trifle smug, so possibly Tharkay missed something. Laurence mostly looks dazed. Tharkay eyes the redness around his neck, where Granby tugged at him so much, and decides some experimentation will be in order through the next week.

Laurence opens his mouth to speak.

Granby kisses him, hard, which silences him. “Laurence,” Granby says as he pulls away. “If you try to apologize I will get Temeraire to ask you how male dragons might mate - just see if I won't.”

Laurence takes this threat seriously, wincing. A sudden voice intrudes. “Oh, I heard my name; are you all quite done now?”

Everyone startles and turns to stare. A great eye peers at them through the window, black scales camouflaged by the night sky. Temeraire sounds thoughtful and a little indignant when he adds, “Laurence, I thought you said that men only mate with one person? I do quite like Granby, but surely you are not leaving Tharkay?”

Laurence huddles deeper against the couch and flings an arm up to cover his face. Granby starts laughing.

“No,” Tharkay answers for all of them. He loops an arm around Little, pleased to see the other captain grinning. His heart beats fast against his ribs, and they are all of them still flushed and panting. “But I hope you do not mind having some guests in the future.”

“Well,” says Temeraire. “As long as you do not start making eggs, I suppose.”

“We will do the utmost to restrain ourselves.”

Temeraire blinks at them. “...Laurence,” he asks in tones of deep fascination, “did Granby bite you? Because I have heard some creatures mate like that, but - “

Laurence puts the other arm over his face too. Tharkay ducks his head to hide a smile.

Yes, he thinks - perhaps retirement suits them fine.