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On the Virtues of Long Familiarity

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Tenzing Tharkay has never thought himself the least bit cowardly, and likes to joke – privately, in his own thoughts – that he has the scars to prove his fair share of courage and a good deal more to spare. He once crossed the Himalayas with nothing but the pack on his back, spent an agonising six hours beneath the floorboards in the very room where a high-ranking Turkish military official was bleeding out in the aftermath of a successful assassination attempt, and, not least, endured several years of living with his father’s relatives in Britain as a young boy. No, Tenzing Tharkay is not a cowardly man, and yet the sight of Temeraire’s gleaming teeth first thing after waking in the morning was something he has not quite grown accustomed to even now.

It is a very new habit to spend some of his nights out in the pavilion; he finally gave in when it became clear that there was no force in Heaven or Hell that would stop Will sneaking from the house in a fit of insomnia, not even the warmth and comfort of Tenzing’s own bed. It is not as if he has not slept enough nights huddled against Temeraire’s side in any case, and the pavilion Temeraire has had built overlooking the lake is comfortable enough that it is no real hardship.

Last night, Temeraire dozed off soon after dinner, likely worn out from a lengthy exploration of the county in the company of several unharnessed middleweights, and Will had looked so endearingly sleepy himself that Tenzing suggested they not bother to return to the house, and retrieved their blankets from the old sea chest Will keeps next to Temeraire’s assorted treasures. They stretched out together on the dragon’s foreleg, which is just about wide enough for the both of them, and Tharkay fell asleep satisfied to know that Will would still be there when he wakes up.

He had, as always, forgotten about Temeraire’s habit to wake with the sun, which is why he now struggles to bite back a startled yelp as the dragon nudges his captain awake with his muzzle, almost dislodging Tenzing in the process. He manages to roll himself to his feet with reasonable elegance, perversely grateful for the rousing effect of a set of fangs the length of his arm less than a foot away at, damn it all, five o’clock in the morning.

Will is already on his feet and strapping himself into his flying harness, which does nothing to improve the state of his already-creased clothing. ‘We are just going aloft for a quick turn about the estate,’ he announces, barely looking at his hands on the buckles. ‘If you want to join us-‘

‘No, no, I am perfectly content,’ Tharkay says dismissively, waving a hand while he attempts to gather their blankets. He tosses them aside, to be dealt with later, and draws Will closer by the collar of his shirt in order to kiss his cheek. ‘I am going inside to find a bed; enjoy yourselves.’ He pats Temeraire’s side and the dragon nudges him, affectionately, which almost lifts him off his feet.

As he watches Will settle into his usual seat at the base of Temeraire’s neck, Tenzing feels a familiar pang of affection for man and dragon both. Temeraire’s black hide looks almost eerie in the pale morning sun, the pearls on his platinum breastplate glinting as he walks out onto the dewy grass and stretches his wings towards the sky. Will calls out something that Tenzing does not quite hear, and then with a single powerful leap they are off, and Tenzing cranes his neck to watch until they disappear from view.

He knows perfectly well that he would be welcome on these early morning flights; he has been invited often enough, and Temeraire has long since made it clear that he considers Tenzing as much his own as any of his crew. The harness he used to wear to fly with Arkady and the other ferals rests at the bottom of that same sea chest, ready to be brought out again whenever he chooses. He has accompanied Temeraire to London a few times, of course, not to mention the countless hours he has spent on dragonback during the war, but even if Will does not admit it, these early morning flights are different. If there is one thing Tenzing has learned about aviators as a group it is the intensity of the bond between dragon and captain, and despite all Will’s assurances he would not dream of insinuating himself into what seems to him a very private moment.

Limbs still heavy with sleep, Tenzing walks across the expanse of lawn that separates the pavilion from the house. He enters through a side door to avoid the imposing marble staircase in the entrance hall and climbs up the back stairs to his chambers, silencing his steps more out of habit than anything else. There is nobody else in the house – the few servants they have live down in the village, and leave each night after dinner.

In late May, the nights are still cold enough that he contemplates lighting the fire in his bedroom, but there is still that vagabond part of him that considers even a dry blanket a luxury. After a moment’s hesitation, he simply sheds yesterday’s rumpled clothing and settles into bed, which is still too soft and somehow less comfortable than Temeraire’s foreleg had been.

He does not remember falling asleep, but he wakes with a start for the second time that morning when Will slips under the covers behind him and attempts to wrap a cold arm around Tenzing’s waist, which earns him a pillow to the face and a disgruntled comment about treating one’s lovers with more courtesy.

Adequately chastised, Will withdraws a little to rub his hands together in an attempt to warm them up, and Tenzing sighs and turns to face him. ‘What time is it?’ he asks, taking his lover’s hands in his own.

‘Just after seven,’ Will says, and then: ‘I did not mean to wake you.’

‘And see where it has gotten you.’ Tenzing smiles and kisses him, leisurely, because seven o’clock is still too early for something more artful, and his heart still hums with contentment at the ease with which they now get to enjoy these moments together.

Will returns the kiss with perhaps a little more ardour, having spent the better part of two hours being thoroughly tossed about on dragonback. He too has shed his clothes, which Tenzing supposes is a blessing because they are likely cold and damp and he prefers his bedsheets dry.

Will’s lips are just as cold as his hands, at first. Tenzing twines their fingers together and presses his lips briefly to his lover’s knuckles. The light is creeping in through the curtains, and in the old oak tree just outside the window the birds are singing as if their little lives depend upon it.

‘Does this mean it is time for breakfast?’ Tenzing asks but he does not move to get up quite yet.

‘Pray do not wait on my account,’ Will says, shifting to lie on his back, facing the painted ceiling above Tenzing’s bed. ‘I was intending to get some more sleep.’

Tenzing waits. He has known Will for well over a decade, and no matter how stoic he believes himself to be, he is easy to read to those who know him well. There is that storm cloud in his eyes, the rigid set of his jaw, the slight furrow between his brows which seems to deepen with every passing year; sometimes Tenzing wistfully recalls the first time they met, when the lines on Will’s face were born from weather and good humour. But Tenzing also knows that prying will get him nowhere, so he must wait, and hope that Will hears the question in his silence. Often, he does not, or perhaps does not feel as though he can answer it truthfully, and Tenzing has taken the time to privately wish the demons of Hell on whomever is responsible for this.

Finally, still staring at the ceiling, Will says: ‘I startled up from a dream not long after you had gone to sleep, and found I could not settle down again.’

Tenzing finds his hand again, under the covers, and holds on tight.

‘There was that moment,’ Will continues, ‘when we returned from France and the Marines arrested me, and they we so careful to be out of Temeraire’s sight before they brought out the shackles when they need not have bothered with them at all – in that moment, I would have gone with them like a lamb to the slaughter.’

I knew this, Tenzing tells himself, I found him in a burning building, but it makes no difference. He is not a violent man, all things considered; he defends himself when he has to, kills when it cannot be avoided, but he is not a violent man. He takes no pleasure from inflicting pain, and yet he thinks he would quite cheerfully strangle every man responsible for the state Will had been in by the time he found him again in the forests of surrounded by dragons and the smell of French blood.

Will is quiet for a long moment. His hand is rough and calloused in Tenzing’s own, and not as cold as it was when he first came to bed. ‘The first officer I ever lost was a midshipman called Michael Cholmendeley. He was nineteen years old and we were on our way to England, where he was to take leave to study for his lieutenantcy exams. He got his leg shot off by a twelve-pounder, died of fever two days out of Cadiz. His mother met us at the port.’

Tenzing holds his breath. He thinks he can tell where this story is going, but Will has his own rhythm with these matters, and Tenzing has learned not to pry. Outside, the birds are building up the crescendo of their morning performance, and a door slams shut at the other end of the house, signalling the arrival of the servants.

‘She did not weep when I told her,’ Will says, tightening his grip on Tenzing’s hand. ‘She did not say a word. But when I turned away, there was this… no, it was not a sound as such. I felt it down to my bones, Tenzing, and that day when they took me away – you cannot imagine it. The ground shook beneath our feet. You have seen the damage the divine wind can inflict.’

He has indeed, and what he has not heard others have told him, in great detail; some with awe, others (the majority, if he is quite honest) with their eyes wide with terror, shaking their heads at the memory of destruction so complete as to tear up the very ground they stood on.

‘I should have called out to him. I should have –‘

‘Darling,’ Tenzing says, interrupting, ‘what could you have done?’

He can feel Will deflating, letting out a long, harsh breath. ‘I dream about that moment,’ he admits finally, turning to face his lover. There is the merest shadow of stubble on his jaw and that furrow between his brows that Tenzing resents so much, and if there was more light in the room and if his hair was not so fair, there would be grey at his temples.

‘Shhh,’ Tenzing says, cupping his face. ‘It is long past.’ He kisses him again, tastes the morning wind on his skin and takes private delight in the soft noises of his lover’s pleasure when he turns his attention to that specific spot at the top of Will’s bare shoulder. It is not his intention to seduce him out of his black moods, but this is how they have learned to move on. So much of the past brings them pain, but this is how Tenzing knows they have won: it is not yet eight o’clock, and Will is in his bed. Later, they will have breakfast while they read the morning papers and walk out to the home farm to inspect the new fence. They will share dinner and argue with Temeraire over this speech or that bill in Parliament, and perhaps Tenzing will lose a game of chess, and in the morning Will returns from his early flight wind-swept and smiling and with cold hands.

In the present, Will eventually falls asleep with the blankets drawn up over his shoulders and Tenzing running his fingers through his hair, which he refuses to cut short in the current fashion. Tenzing watches some of the lines on his lover’s face fade and smiles to himself. He kisses the top of Will’s head before he slips out of bed, taking some care not to disturb him.

The sun has burnt away the worst of the chill when he steps outside, casually dressed, and ambles across the expansive lawn with very little thought of direction. He has half a mind to go down to the lake, but he is not at all surprised when his feet take him instead back to the pavilion where Temeraire sits with his tail curled neatly about himself, working on something in his sandbox.

‘Good morning,’ he says when he notices Tenzing’s approach but does not look up from his work. The Latin alphabet, although he is perfectly capable of reading it, is much more difficult to write out using dragon claws, so Temeraire prefers to draft even his letters to Parliament in Chinese when there is no-one nearby to write them down for him on paper. ‘Is Laurence sleeping?’

Tenzing returns the greeting and gathers up the heap of their blankets from the floor to shake out and put away again. ‘He says he did not sleep well.’

‘No, he often does not, but he does not like to admit it.’ The dragon pushes away the sandbox and lowers himself to the ground so they can speak more comfortably. ‘But it is much better here than it was in the war.’

Tenzing know this, and is glad to hear it anyway. ‘Shall I write that out for you?’ he asks, pointing at the sandbox, and settles in with ink and parchment.
Now that Tenzing is properly awake, the sight of Temeraire’s gleaming teeth no longer unsettles him, and he strokes the dragon’s muzzle in a gesture that used to appear bizarrely domestic to him but now feels so very natural. Of course, Temeraire is not his – neither, in a way, is Will, because man and dragon belong to each other above all else. But, for reasons Tenzing can still not truly comprehend, they have chosen to let him be part of their lives without question or expectations, and on a fine spring morning such as this, he has all he could possibly want.