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Memories of Unreal Things

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There was a room, and a pallet inside it; a small torch burned low in a socket upon the wall. A man lay upon the cot, his face bruised and battered, his hands curled against his chest bloody, and Laurence did not know him.

But the sight of him, so cruelly used, called forth a terrible rage in Laurence’s breast. The intensity of it was shocking, and Laurence hesitated on the threshold, trying to master himself.

The man on the cot blinked at him, and some deep emotion that Laurence could not recognize played across his face. It disappeared in a heartbeat, smoothed into mild amusement.

“Will,” the man said, and this must be Tharkay after all.

The sound of footsteps behind him brought Laurence back to himself. He turned quickly, but it was one of the Chinese aviators.

“Sir?” she said.

Laurence nodded at Tharkay. “This is the man we are seeking. Can you walk?” he added in English to Tharkay.

Tharkay gave him a faint smile. “I would do most anything to oblige you at this moment, Captain, but I’m afraid that is beyond me.”

They contrived a stretcher to carry Tharkay back out of the caves. When they emerged, Temeraire put his head down close to peer at their burden.

“Is that Tharkay?” he asked, his ruff flaring with outrage. “What have they done to him?”

“I am well enough now,” Tharkay said, but his face was drawn with pain under the bruises.

Temeraire reared back. “Oh! It is beyond enough! I will settle General Fela this instant.”

Laurence frowned but said, “I suppose Kulingile can carry Tharkay back.”

Temeraire’s wings, half-extended to take him aloft, folded down as he hesitated. “Oh.”

“We cannot take our wounded into battle,” General Chu said. “Commander Li will stay here with two niru and guard the injured. We will secure the camp and deal with the traitors.”

“They will take especial care of Tharkay?” Temeraire asked. “Only it would be a shame to let him be captured again after we have gone to such trouble to rescue him.”

Laurence said nothing, but he could not deny that his thoughts had run along the same lines as Temeraire. The red dragons bowed their heads and assured them that Tharkay would be well guarded. Still, Laurence could not help one anxious glance back at the little makeshift hospital camp as Temeraire took to the air.

In the end, retaking the camp was swift and almost anti-climatic. General Fela had committed all but two of his own dragons to the attack on Temeraire and General Chu. When they saw Temeraire and General Chu returning at the head of the loyalist dragons, General Fela’s dragons sprang into the air in one last desperate charge. General Chu’s dragons brought them down easily. General Fela remained on the ground. He had gambled everything on achieving the deaths of Temeraire and General Chu, and having failed, was exposed as a traitor. All plausible denials had vanished, and Laurence suspected he had not the manpower nor the stomach for open revolt.

Temeraire dispensed with him with one stunning blow of his front claws. He stood over General Fela’s body, his sides heaving more with emotion than effort. Laurence laid his hand on Temeraire’s neck, and slowly his ruff deflated and the rigid tension went out of his muscles.

“I am not sorry,” Temeraire said lowly. “He tried to kill you. And incite a civil war. And he tortured Tharkay.”

“Yes,” Laurence said. He felt again an echo of that ferocious rage, and he was not sorry either.

When General Chu was satisfied that the camp was secure, and the last soldiers loyal to Fela had been taken captive, they brought Tharkay and other wounded back. They rigged a hammock of netting for Tharkay, and Temeraire took great pains to go aloft gently and fly smoothly for the short distance. Laurence gave up his own camp bed for Tharkay, that he might rest comfortably, propped up with pillows and a spare sack of grain, while he relayed the intelligence he had suffered so much to bring them.

It was grim news indeed: Napoleon would march on Russia in one month’s time, with one million men and near one hundred dragons.

Hammond took himself off at once to discuss matters with the Chinese dragons and left Laurence alone with Tharkay. Tharkay closed his eyes for a moment. His face had been washed, which only made the bruises clearer, and he looked exhausted and worn. The fate of one man was unimportant in the face of Napoleon’s plans, but a faint spark of outrage still flickered in Laurence’s breast at the sight of Tharkay’s condition.

Tharkay opened his eyes and caught Laurence watching him. “Laurence,” he said, “I don’t mean to worry you, but have you noticed that the top of your head appears likely to come off?”

He was Laurence now, he noted inconsequentially, when before he had been Will. “It is merely an inconvenience.” He had lost his hat and his bandages in the fighting, but the bleeding had stopped.

“It is only that Granby has informed me of your — difficulties with memory, and I cannot imagine that an untreated head wound is conducive to recovery.”

“I will have it seen to as soon as I leave you,” Laurence said.

Tharkay inclined his head, accepting his words. “I suppose I cannot harangue you too vigorously over it. When I first saw you, standing in the doorway of my cell, I feared I was hallucinating. But I realized if I were truly dreaming, I would not have pictured you thus, covered in dirt and gunpowder with your hair full of blood.”

Laurence snorted. “How would you have pictured me?”

“Oh,” Tharkay said, his eyes falling shut again. “All golden and shining, a perfect specimen of English manhood.”

Laurence did not know how to respond. He felt obscurely mocked by the words, and yet the smile on Tharkay’s lips was soft, more self-deprecating than derisive. He waited, but Tharkay did not open his eyes again, and he could tell by the rhythm of his breathing that Tharkay slept.

Finally, Laurence left him. He made his way to the surgeon’s tent as he had promised. Granby hailed him as he went, and Laurence stopped.

“How is Tharkay?” Granby asked.

Laurence grimaced. “He has not been treated kindly, but he will recover in time.”

“Good,” Granby said. “He has saved our hides often enough, I am glad we could return the favor.”

They broke camp early the next morning to begin their journey back to Peking, flying with all possible haste. The injured would be traveling separately, at a gentler pace, and would be left to recover at the first waystation they came across. Laurence would have suggested that Tharkay travel with that party, but Tharkay gave him a look of such disdain when he broached the subject that Laurence broke off before he finished the sentence.

Temeraire insisted on carrying Tharkay, as he was convinced the jostling and cramped conditions aboard the other dragons would aggravate Tharkay’s injuries. He was most likely correct, but Laurence could see that Tharkay felt the cold and the wind more keenly than Laurence did, even with his borrowed aviator’s coat and cap. Tharkay was stiff and clumsy climbing down from Temeraire’s back. He would have fallen had Laurence not caught him around the waist.

Laurence considered suggesting again that Tharkay travel with the injured, but Tharkay gave him a withering glare, and so Laurence went in search of a heavy cloak instead. When they went aloft again, Laurence beckoned Tharkay closer under the pretext of pointing out the guide marker they were flying over. He offered a corner of the cloak to Tharkay, so they could share warmth while they talked.

Tharkay accepted both the cloak and the conversation. “I have not seen one from so far up,” he said, and at Laurence’s further questions, explained that he had traveled across China by horseback and dragonback several times. “But not on military dragons.”

They spent the rest of the flight discussing the differences between civilian travel and military travel through China, and Laurence found Tharkay’s conversation to be full of both dry humor and sharp observations. Temeraire’s attention was almost wholly focused on the effort of maintaining his flying speed, but he interjected a few questions. Tharkay answered him as comfortably and unhesitatingly as if Temeraire were a man, not a dragon.

It seemed to do Tharkay some good. He moved more easily when he climbed down from Temeraire’s back when they stopped for the night, although Laurence was careful to stay nearby in case he stumbled again. When Tharkay was on his own two feet, Laurence guided him to a tent.

Tharkay ducked into it and Laurence followed. Tharkay stood in the middle, frowning. “This is your own tent,” he said.

“Yes, of course,” Laurence said. “And you must take the bed, if you will insist on traveling at our pace.”

Tharkay frowned, but Laurence gave him a mild look, inviting him to be unreasonable, and Tharkay yielded.

The next morning, Tharkay did not wait for Laurence’s invitation, but strapped himself in beside Laurence and appropriated half of the cloak.

Laurence was glad of the company, for both the warmth and the conversation.

Laurence returned to his quarters that night to find Tharkay sitting on his camp bed, stripped to his waist. The Chinese surgeon’s apprentice was applying salve to the half-healed lashes and bruises on Tharkay’s back.

Laurence averted his eyes quickly. “Your pardon,” he said. “If I am interrupting—”

“Not at all,” Tharkay said, reaching — perhaps too quickly? — for his shirt and drawing it over his head.

Laurence kept his gaze turned away, but the image of Tharkay’s bare chest lingered in his mind, smooth skin marred by fading bruises and old scars, paler by a shade or two than his face and hands.

Tharkay exchanged a few more words with the surgeon’s apprentice, and then the boy bowed deeply and left.

“You are — everything is well?” Laurence asked.

“Well enough,” Tharkay said. “I will let you have your bed back.”

“There is no need for that,” Laurence said quickly. “You are still recovering.”

“Well, if you are still pleased to have me in your bed,” Tharkay said. His face was exceptionally striking in the warm glow of the oil lamp, a faint, wry ghost of a smile on his mouth.

“I am,” Laurence said without thought. Tharkay’s smile widened, though it looked like he tried not to let it, and Laurence felt his face heat. “Well—”

“Indeed,” Tharkay said. “I am sure we will have an early start tomorrow, so I will bid you good night.”

“Good night,” Laurence said with relief, allowing himself to be rescued from his own clumsy tongue. He busied himself with taking off his boots and sword belt, and Tharkay obliged him by snuffing the lamp when Laurence had settled himself on his pallet of blankets.

When Laurence closed his eyes, he could still see the curve of Tharkay’s smile and the smooth corded muscle of his chest. He did not know why; he was no stripling boy to have his blood stirred by deprivation and a glimpse of bare skin. He forced his thoughts to their route and the days slipping away in Bonaparte’s favor until sleep claimed him.

In the morning, Tharkay climbed aboard Temeraire and settled himself beside Laurence again.

They talked about the logistics of feeding the dragons in Napoleon’s Grande Armee, and what kind of advantage the Chinese forces could bring to the battle, but Laurence found himself shockingly distracted by the warmth of Tharkay’s lean body pressed against his, his low, crisp voice murmuring in Laurence’s ear.

The exact nature of his relationship with Tharkay continued to puzzle Laurence. Tharkay was not overly familiar, but spoke to him comfortably as an equal. No one questioned Laurence’s insistence that Tharkay share his quarters. Laurence supposed they had been friends as well as colleagues, but—

But Laurence had never found himself distracted by the clean, pure lines of a friend’s profile before, by the long sweep of his lashes against his cheekbones or ripple of muscle under his bare skin.

Laurence understood why a man might seek physical release or comfort in another man’s arms; there was little enough other comfort or joy on those long sea voyages. But he had never succumbed to that temptation. It had never seemed worth the consequences to his career, much less his life. Of course, he had never met a man quite like Tharkay before, either. And he could not deny that he was in disgrace, for some reason still unknown, unremembered.

In the end, there was nothing to do but ask. Laurence supposed it could not be more awkward than asking Temeraire if Miss Roland was his natural born daughter, but he still felt his face heat as he struggled to phrase his question delicately.

“My dear,” he said, and hesitated.

Temeraire curved his neck to bring his head down closer. “Yes, Laurence?”

“Are Tharkay and I — is Tharkay my particular friend?” Laurence asked. Lord, his face was afire.

“Oh,” Temeraire said. “Yes? You have always spoken very highly of him, and he came with us all the way to New South Wales when you— when he did not have to at all. He turned down a commission in the Aerial Corps to do so.”

“Oh,” Laurence said blankly. “I see.”

It should have been a shock, to hear that Tharkay was his lover, but it felt more like recognition, like something he had always known.

“Are you quite all right, Laurence?” Temeraire asked.

“Yes, my dear, I was merely -- thinking.” He patted Temeraire's foreleg, the smooth black scales warm under his hand.

The man he was eight years ago could never have imagined, would never have bothered to imagine the feel of dragon scales against his palm, and yet the sensation was familiar and deeply comforting to him now.

The man he was eight years ago had imagined the feel of a man's naked body beneath his hands.

“I must speak with Tharkay,” he said. “Forgive me.”

Laurence tapped at the door to Tharkay’s chamber, and heard Tharkay say in Chinese, “Come.”

Tharkay was sitting up in bed, a scroll open across his lap. He gave Laurence a curious look. “Is everything all right?” he asked.

“Yes,” Laurence said, distracted by the sight of Tharkay’s face, by the surge of wordless affection that squeezed his lungs within his chest. “No. I am—”

Tharkay’s brows drew together.

“Dash it all,” Laurence muttered, and abandoned words in favor of action.

He crossed the room in two swift strides and bent to kiss Tharkay’s mouth.

Tharkay made a shocked noise in the back of his throat. His lips parted, and for just a moment, he leaned into the press of Laurence’s mouth. Then he drew back. His eyes were wide and very dark as he studied Laurence’s face.

“Laurence,” he said, low and not quite steady. “You are not yourself.”

“I am entirely myself,” Laurence said fiercely, and it was not a lie, because he could not imagine being the man who did not want this. Want Tharkay.

When Laurence kissed him again, Tharkay did not pull back, but instead drew him down to the bed and the warmth of his body.

Laurence half-expected some sense of familiarity or recognition to overtake him, and indeed his body had no hesitation, only hunger. But the sensation to Tharkay’s body pressed against his, the hot, clever slide of his mouth, was astonishingly new. How could he have forgotten this?

Laurence’s climax took him by surprise, a wrenching, fiery rush that made him cry out in shock and pleasure. He opened his eyes when it passed, his breath coming fast and ragged, and found Tharkay watching him. Laurence lurched forward and kissed him, clumsy and slow in the aftermath. Tharkay let out a stifled moan and rutted against Laurence’s hip. He shuddered and went rigid, then pliant beneath Laurence. He turned his head away to take a deep, shaking breath.

Laurence rolled to his side, to take his weight off of Tharkay. He felt as though his limbs had turned to honey, warm and golden and boneless.

“Will,” Tharkay said, and it was soft, wondering.

Laurence’s mouth formed Tharkay’s name, but the shape of it was not quite right, and he slipped into sleep before he breathed it out.

Laurence dreamed of that cell again, dark and cramped and lit by flickering torch light. But the memory shivered and warped around him, so that it was not Tharkay on the bed, but himself, not Laurence opening the door as rescuer but—

“Tenzing,” he said, and woke.

And in waking, knew himself. He felt as if that drowning wave of uncertainty and memory loss had finally tossed him up on shore, shocked and scoured but entirely whole, and finally able to draw breath.

Tenzing made an inquiring noise next to him, but Laurence had no reply, still dazed by the sudden rush of memories.

“Ah, and so you were not yourself last night,” Tenzing said.

“Not entirely,” Laurence admitted.

“What a relief it must be to wake and find yourself not a sodomite, but a traitor.”

Laurence felt the wary tension in Tenzing’s body, and heard the cool, too-light tone in his voice, and knew down to his bones that if he flinched, if he spoke wrongly, Tenzing would never touch him again. He would raise up his walls of polite disdain and never speak to Laurence as anything other than another Englishman who had hired his services.

“I wake and find I am both,” Laurence said. He reached out to take Tenzing’s bandaged hand in his and raised it to his lips, pressed the gentlest of kisses to his knuckles. He did not look away from Tenzing’s gaze. “I regret neither.”

Laurence had made Tenzing his lover in his mind on the thinnest of evidence, and yet, rifling through his own returned memories, he could not find that assumption unreasonable. Indeed, the idea that they had not been lovers seemed more ridiculous. How many times in South America had he wished to have Tenzing by his side, not for the skills he would bring to their mission but for Laurence’s own pleasure in his company? How many times had he admired Tenzing’s competence and particular sense of honor? And yes, how many times had he admired Tenzing’s striking features?

For a moment, Tenzing studied him, his face unreadable. Then he sighed and his eyes softened. “Then I suppose I do not have any regrets either,” he said, and allowed Laurence to hold his hand.