“I beg your pardon,” Tharkay said. “I prefer not.”
Laurence froze, his hand hovering over the maps marked and marred with battle plans. “I’m afraid I don’t take your meaning,” he replied, rather more sharply than he had intended. Nonetheless, he did not back down, images of a sickly old man caught out in the rain danced through his mind. “Though you may not always live here, you have a duty to King and Country. Whether you prefer it or not, this is our task, and I would have you at my side.”
Tharkay paused. “You insult me, sir,” he said softly, after a long pause. “You insult me to think that I could allow myself to set aside the veneer of civilization, as you yourself have done.”
Laurence started at this but Tharkay only continued, “That you would even consider to bring this on me, not to mention on yourself, is unthinkable. Laurence, what are you doing?”
The words I don’t know were on Laurence’s tongue, words that would lead to a realization that he had not acted as he should, that he should stop this madness and- “What duty dictates I must.” He said absently, his mouth acting of its own will, not listening to his thoughts.
Tharkay regarded him with darkening eyes, “And you have always followed your duty over your conscience,” he said, ironically, but not unkindly.
Laurence snapped. “Sir, you are offensive.”
Tharkay only nodded. “Yes, but not untrue. Tell me, Laurence, tell me truly, is it my words that offend you or your own actions?”
“Withdraw your remark!” Laurence responded sharply.
Tharkay raised his eyebrows, “And if I do not? What then? Will you challenge me to a duel? Such a spectacle is forbidden for aviators, although we both know how little you care for such rules.” He took a few steps closer to Laurence, staring deep into his eyes, not backing down an inch.
Laurence regarded him hotly, firmly standing his ground. “Hang the rules!” he said fiercely, holding Tharkay’s stare with an equally firm one in return.
Tharkay regarded him for a moment longer, nodded, and said, “Then it is satisfaction that you seek.”
“Yes.” Laurence replied, without a moment’s hesitation. Then his mind caught up with his mouth. Before he could say a word otherwise- a word that would take back the challenge, a word that would satisfy honor without bloodshed- Tharkay turned and left the tent. Laurence could only stare after him, a numb feeling overtaking him. He wanted to go after Tharkay, to make some words of apology. He busied himself with finding and polishing his dueling pistols.
Sunset was in a half hours’ time, the perfect setting for a duel. Laurence waited for Tharkay to perhaps seek him out, or send an emissary of some sorts to meet as a neutral third party, but no one came. When the light began to fade, Laurence carefully hid the pistols in his pockets and went out to find Tharkay.
At the edge of the camp was a small clearing near the edge of the woods, far away from prying dragon eyes. There, he found Tharkay perched on the edge of a large, moss covered rock. He was completely focused on polishing an antique looking dueling pistol.
“You’re late.” He said, not looking up.
Laurence scowled, “You never set a time nor a place before you stormed out earlier.”
A small smirk danced on Tharkay’s lips. “True, but you found me nonetheless.”
Laurence found that he had no rebuttal.
They sat in silence for a long moment, Tharkay still polishing his gun as twilight settled in, with nautical sunset soon to follow. After a time, Tharkay paused his ministrations and examined his gun before proclaiming his satisfaction with the state of the weapon. “Shall we not go a bit further into the woods?” He suggested, “All the better to get a little further from our dear draconic companions.”
He stood slowly- no not slowly, but deliberately unhurried. Laurence followed silently alongside him as they went a little deeper into the forest.
Once they had reached a second clearing, Tharkay paused. He drew a few small candles from his pocket, setting them at various intervals along the edges of the clearing. He lit one small candle, carrying it in his hands and using it to light the others. When he had placed six or so of these little lights in a roughly circular shape, he made his way into the center, gently placing the last candle directly in the middle. The ghost of a smile danced on his face in the candlelight as he turned towards Laurence, asking “Shall we begin?”
The duel, as these things go, was not quite up to code. There was no doctor, they had no seconds, they only had each other and the candles. They stood next to the center candle, using it as a marker. Without a word, they seamlessly moved ten paces away, each listening intently to the other’s footsteps. Laurence turned one pace from a candle, careful not to step on it. As he carefully took aim, he saw a look of pained resignation on Tharkay’s face. He wondered what his own looked like.
He aimed his pistol at Tharkay’s chest, not letting his arm waver, no matter what his heart felt like. He watched Tharkay for what seemed like ages, daring him to shoot first, but the other man did not. It was not until Laurence lost his patient and shouted, “Shoot, damn it man!” Before a gun shot was heard.
Laurence felt his heart stop. He was unwilling to believe that this man, a man he had considered a friend, would actually shoot him. Against his will, he felt his eyes shut.
His vision went dark.
When he felt no pain, Laurence opened his eyes confusedly. He glanced down, and, realizing that there was now a bullet in the candle nearest his feet, let his gun arm drop to his side.
Tharkay stood with his arms crossed across the candlelit circle. “Well?” He asked, almost impatiently, yet Laurence could hear a touch of humor in his tone. “Are you going to shoot me or what?”
Laurence couldn’t help it. It started as a small bubble, a few butterflies shaking his shoulders, before a laugh riped through his body. He practically collapsed with the weight of it.
Tharkay stared at him from across the field, held fast by propriety.
Unable to control what felt like every feeling he had missed in the last few months, Laurence aimed his pistol and fired. The central candle sputtered and died, the bullet lodged in its warm wax. Laurence felt weak kneed under the assault of his laughter, and collapsed to his knees, unable to find the energy to care about the grass stains surely plaguing his trousers.
The next thing he knew, Tharkay’s arms were wrapped around his shoulders. Somewhere along the way, Laurence’s laughter turned into sobs, the weight of his emotions still wracking his body. After a long moment pressed against Tharkay’s coat, Laurence collected himself and his emotions. He allowed himself one final moment in this embrace, before pulling away.
Laurence could not bring himself to look into Tharkay’s eyes. A hand caressed his cheek, gently tugging his chin up. His eyes unwillingly met Tharkay’s eyes, staring deeply for a long moment. Then Tharkay asked softly, “Laurence, what are you doing?”
The question was simple enough.