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Ship's Gossip

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Temeraire broached the topic one day as they were flying a patrol for French ships, and in hindsight, Laurence could only be grateful he had waited until they were far enough from the Peregrine to be out of earshot.

They had farewelled the ship not ten minutes ago, with Tharkay wishing them good hunting on their ‘constitutional’, as he had taken to calling their daily practice of flying out in wide patterns to discover their prey, far beyond the limits of a lookout or a glass. Temeraire had by now mastered the art of disabling one or two masts from a distance with his divine wind, whereupon they would return to the Peregrine and guide it to their lamed prize, with very little damage to ship, cargo or human life on either side. They needed no crew or harness; battles were rare, and becoming rarer as their reputation spread. As a result, morale (and finances) among the crew were unsurprisingly high.

Laurence himself was relieved to be spared the deaths of more civilians, which would otherwise have been a likely consequence of attacking French traders. The dilemma had not occurred to him before accepting Tharkay's offer, but the problem had eaten at him after Tharkay sailed and it was too late to call back his choice. He and Temeraire had retreated from the fraught political atmosphere of Sydney to their valley, and spent the ensuing months starting a herd that could supply them at sea and scratching together tactics, a mental endeavor which had been a balm against their lack of real purpose, and recalled happier times at Loch Laggan, learning to flying in formation.

Regardless, Tharkay's return on a trim ship with a decent crew and a dragon deck just large enough for one had been the most welcome of all Tenzing's rescues over the years.

There was no rescue to be had from any quarter on this day, as Temeraire finally gave in to his impatience and asked, “Laurence, why would two men be mating?”

“I beg your pardon?” Laurence said faintly – too faintly to be heard over the wind, in truth, but Temeraire never needed encouragement for his curiosity and kept right on speaking anyway.

“Only I woke up last night at the usual time, and before I fell back asleep there were two men on watch who looked as though they were mating, but of course men cannot make eggs, or babies, and I could not make out why they should be acting so strangely.”

“I– ah–” Laurence stammered. His face was painfully hot with a blush, even with the wind whipping past. “That is, ah–”

Temeraire turned his head in flight to look at Laurence when he failed to come up with actual words. “Should I ask them directly? Only humans are so shy about mating, I had supposed it would be rude to ask Mr. Sh–”

“Stop!” Laurence shouted. Temeraire reared back in startlement and actually slowed his flight, until Laurence said, “No, I beg your pardon, continue flying, Temeraire, only you must not tell me the names of the men you saw. That act is not called mating, it is called sodomy, and it is against the law. I should be obliged to report them if I knew their names, and they could be put to death for it.” To whom he would report, Laurence was not sure, now that he thought of it.

“Death! But they are my crew! And why should it be illegal? Certainly they were not doing any harm, not even to each other, for they very much seemed to be enjoying it–”

“Temeraire!” Laurence said quellingly, flushing harder. “It is not natural.”

“But that does not make sense,” Temeraire sulked. “You humans are very silly about mating: all that business with Harcourt and her marriage, and your rules about talking about it, and when it is allowed. The whole system is not natural, so I do not see why mating when there's no chance of eggs should be so different, much less why people should feel they can go about killing my crew for such a small thing.”

“The act is considered sinful,” Laurence said weakly, thrown by the onslaught of Temeraire's particular brand of logic, which he found difficult to argue with even when he knew it was coming to an incorrect conclusion.

“Oh,” Temeraire said dismissively, “it is one of those religion things. Well, I shall not attempt to make sense of it, then. And I shall not speak to anyone about it, either, if people are likely to go about killing my crew over it.”

They flew onward in silence, and had the luck to spot a neat French barque just before noon, which put a pause to any further conversation on the topic for the rest of the day.

Laurence had no time to dine with Tharkay that night, as he often did, only swallowing down a quick meal of bread and meat before going aloft again with Temeraire. He kept to the Navy practice of dining with his officers a few times a week – which rather confused them more than anything, for they were a motley mix of seamen from England, the continent, Istanbul, and India, which had Temeraire in fits trying to learn all the new languages – but Tharkay sat down with him for nearly every meal. Having the means to do so was a comfort to Laurence’s heart, after that long period on the prison transport where he could only partake of Tharkay's hospitality – a hospitality made even more generous by the fact that Tharkay never had many resources to begin with – and especially gratifying, to host the friend who had made this life possible in the first place.

Laurence was grateful this practice spurred no comment or resentment from the crew – he had led them to believe Tharkay was representing their investors, which granted him a status that was not likely to be questioned – and even those few who looked askance at him had stopped after their first skirmish at sea, when Tharkay had acquitted himself with his knives with his usual lethal grace.

In truth he had no idea why Tharkay decided to set sail with them. Laurence had himself rediscovered the joys of life at sea, while having to cope with far fewer of the downsides: he did not have to fight the Admiralty for decent rations and pay, nor see good officers be passed over for promotion in favor of lesser men with better families and patronage; none of his men were pressed, and they were generally content in their work; he could fly with Temeraire nearly every day, and return with fresh fish for the ship's pot. But Tharkay was not a man made for idleness, even the rough kind found on a sailing ship, and Laurence had been surprised when he asked to accompany them.

“Of course you would be welcome,” Laurence had said to his request, “but are you quite sure? The work of hunting ships is decidedly different from our previous journey.”

Tharkay had only smiled a little. “Perhaps that is what interests me,” he had said, shrugging. His smile was strange, not his usual wry smirk; Laurence supposed he had been tasked by Maden and his investors to report on the success of their endeavour, so he did not press. But Tharkay had come along on their second expedition, as well, and the third, and Laurence could not bring himself to ask for explanations which his friend did not see fit to offer.

Laurence's days were filled with Temeraire's company and a clear purpose, and his evenings were replete with books, conversation, and good food. He felt as though the sea spray and wind and work had washed something clinging and dark away from his heart, and he didn't dare ask Tharkay why he stayed, for fear of having him leave and disrupt the life that he had pieced back together from what he'd thought were no more than ashes.

The business of disabling and capturing the Arethusa stretched through the following day, complicated by the recalcitrance of the captain, who was Sicilian by birth and seemed to think that country's alliance with Britain earned him some consideration from Laurence, regardless of his sailing out of France under a French flag with a French wife back home. Once he had extracted the man's parole, he thrust O'Dea upon him as an ostensible escort and ship's guide, and had the satisfaction of watching the captain succumb to O'Dea's relentlessly gloomy storytelling. Thus freed, the work of re-rigging the Arethusa, dealing with her men, and shifting a prize crew to her from the Peregrine went rapidly – they had enough successes and sailors aboard that the process was well-practiced, and further sped by their eagerness for returning to port.

On the third morning, he was conferring with Roland before the day's flight with Temeraire, their first since the prize was captured, when the dragon said, “Oh, hello Tharkay! Laurence, might Tharkay come along with us today? Surely you can have no objection if I ask him about what we discussed the other day. He would not do anything silly about it.”

“Ah,” Laurence said, shooting a desperate look at Tharkay, who only look back in mild inquiry – though Laurence could see amusement lurking at the corners of his eyes, where they were well-creased from smiles and sun. “Perhaps not today, Temeraire. We ought not go very far from the ships.”

Temeraire huffed in disappointment, but did not argue. The Arethusa had been carrying a rich cargo, and he was in a complacent mood. Tharkay waved them off without any comment, which Laurence knew very well did not mean that he had forgotten the matter; he would doubtless ask at dinner.

Tharkay poured another round of wine that night with a glint of amusement brightening his dark eyes. “Now, are you going to tell me what Temeraire was hoping to interrogate me about? I have not seen you so embarrassed in quite some time.”

Laurence noted that Tharkay, deft as always, filled Laurence's glass, but only tipped a little into his own, having apparently not been drinking much. He was quite certain this was not the first time, either, and narrowed his eyes at his friend, who only lifted an eyebrow back, unrepentant.

Perhaps it was for the best that Tharkay got him a little drunk. He could hardly do worse than his sober conversation with Temeraire.

Laurence sighed, groping for the words to explain. “I am afraid Temeraire spotted two of the sailors engaged in inappropriate relations, and had some questions about, er, mating. He was not satisfied by my explanation; I assume he meant to get yours instead.”

Tharkay went quite still, his gaze steady on Laurence. “And what have you told him?”

“That sodomy is a crime, punishable by death; that it is considered a sin. We spotted the Arethusa soon after, so the conversation was not long, but I made sure he knew not to discuss it in public.”

Tharkay tapped one long finger on his wine glass, still watching Laurence. “I think even Temeraire should find that topic difficult to discuss, on the scant information you have granted him.”

Laurence rubbed his face. “Would that he knew even less – and I can only be grateful that he waited to ask me first, for Temeraire nearly told me the men's names, in all innocence. I should not like to be put in a position to have to report anyone for such a crime, when the punishment so outweighs the harm.”

“Indeed, why should you report them at all? And to whom?” Tharkay asked, echoing Laurence's earlier thought with uncanny accuracy. “That which is illegal is not always wrong, just as that which is moral is not always legal. As you have reason to know.”

“I cannot say whether sodomy is right or wrong; the church calls it a sin.”

“And you?”

“I should rather call it an addiction, brought on by a lack of opportunity to more natural congress. Certainly I have not known any aviators who practiced it, though it is a common enough failing in the Navy.”

“Have you not?” Tharkay asked, and Laurence realized suddenly that his friend was furious. “I can say with certainty that you have – nearly half a dozen of your acquaintance in the Corps, to my own knowledge – but clearly they were wise enough not to trust you with that information, if this is what you think of them. You will excuse me.”

He rose then and stalked out of Laurence's cabin without another word, and Laurence could only sit, and stare at their half-finished wine, and come to a very obvious, very belated conclusion.

On a ship, even one sized to carry a dragon, Tharkay should have found it impossible to avoid Laurence entirely – therefore Laurence was not surprised when he managed it for three full days. Temeraire had clearly seen him, or rather, seen him avoiding Laurence, for he was visibly worried and asking for the Principia Mathematica to read, though whether that was to comfort himself or for Laurence's benefit, Laurence could not tell. Laurence wished to reassure him, but he was in too much of a tangle in his own mind to sort out how.

Tharkay was an invert – or, no, there had been Sara Maden, which meant that he could choose to find pleasure with women, but did not always; and he was so angry when Laurence said that sodomy was an addiction. Not only angry, but – Why should you report them? And to whom? – as though he'd thought better of Laurence. He remembered an English cottage, the numbing cold of war in late winter, a letter from Wellington on the table, and Tharkay's voice saying There are authorities to choose from to suit any action, if you like; I prefer to keep the choice a little closer.

So Tharkay, absent of any authority but his own conscience, had kept intimate company with both sexes, and found it right enough to argue with a friend over. Laurence could not square it with his own experience: certainly he had known good officers who indulged – more than he previously thought, if Tharkay's estimate was true – but to defend the practice itself? Yet Tharkay had, and with enough anger to break from Laurence's company over it; and he had proven Laurence so very wrong before.

Laurence, what are you doing?

Would he let Laurence explain himself, this time? Or would he finally cut ties and go back to his lonely path, as unaffected as the wind?

“Laurence, why have you stopped?” Temeraire asked. It was astonishing how fretful a dragon could sound, with the deep resonance of that chest, but he had given Temeraire a great deal of practice, Laurence supposed.

“I am sorry, my dear,” Laurence said, picking up his place in the Principia. The Latin was worn familiar by now, and he kept the words rolling off his tongue as he wondered if Tharkay would stay.

There was a knock at his door the next morning. They were in sight of the coast now, and would be until they reached Sydney; the sailing was easy, the weather fair, the Arethusa meekly keeping convoy off their starboard, and Tharkay was still avoiding Laurence.

Laurence called out, “Enter!” without delaying a moment to tidy his desk as he usually would, hoping it was his friend.

Instead, the sailmaker's mate slunk through the door. Laurence blinked. It was very odd for a sailor of his rank to approach the captain directly; most irregular. He would not have thought anything of it from an aviator in a similar position, but even a privateer's crew held to a more traditional stance.

“Mr. Dunn,” he said, fairly certain that was the man's name. “What is the matter?”

“Well, Captain, I had a spot of trouble sleeping last night–” for of course, he did not stand watch as a sailmaker, and always slept at night “–and I came up to the deck, and, well....” He paused dramatically, in the manner of one who wished to be thought a storyteller but had no natural skill for it.

“I don't care to guess, Mr. Dunn,” said Laurence, lifting his brows.

“Well, I regret to inform you, sir,” he said, with a fervent look in his eye that belied his words, “that I saw Mr. Misra buggering Mr. Shipton last night while they was on watch together.”

“Are you quite certain?” Laurence asked with a sinking sensation in his stomach, for he himself was quite certain that Mr. Shipton was the 'Mr. Sh___' that Temeraire had almost named. Still, he ought to give Dunn a chance to reconsider before the man thoroughly ruined two men's lives. “It was nighttime; perhaps you were mistaken.”

“No, sir, there was the moon and all, and I watched a good while to be sure.”

Laurence pressed his lips together.

“I'd swear to it! In court, even,” Dunn said, overloud in the small cabin. Outside, the noise of the ship continued as usual, though Laurence felt quite absurdly that it should not.

“Very well,” he said, unclenching his jaw to speak. “Go and fetch them here, then.”

Shipton was a good sailor, as far as Laurence could recall: an able seaman, quick in the rigging, friendly, stocky and brown-haired, English by his accent. Misra was a rather tall lascar, part of the carpenter's crew, and Laurence remembered little about him except the fine bones of his face and the remarkable and rare green color of his eyes; he had joined them in Bombay only a few months ago, after they had brought their last prize into the port there.

Laurence listened to the comforting sounds of the ship as he sat waiting: men's voices calling, the creak of ropes and wood, the snap of wind in the sails, and below them all, the endless wash of the waves. His heart was beating quite hard, the sound rising in his ears.

A group of footsteps approached, and Dunn preceded the pair of sailors into his cabin. The eager grin he wore stood counter to the sick fear on Shipton and Misra's faces: he had been taunting them on the way here.

Misra leaned his side against Shipton's as they came to stand in front of Laurence's desk, and behind the press of their hips, he saw their hands entwine for a brief moment in a desperate clasp. Shipton saw Laurence note it, and though he was shaking with fear, almost green with it, he tipped his chin in defiance and did not step away from his lover's side.

From his place by the door, Dunn sneered at the display.

Inside, the fraying leash on Laurence's temper snapped.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “I have been informed that you were engaging in personal matters while on watch. Such dereliction of duty is unacceptable on this ship. You will forfeit your share of the prize this journey, and your grog rations are suspended until we reach Sydney. Am I understood?”

He could see that he was, in the unfurling disbelief of the two sailors, and the stunned look on Dunn's face. “Yes, sir,” they chorused, with Dunn half a beat behind.

“Furthermore, what you do on your own time is your business, but you might remember that privacy is rare at sea, and you cannot rely upon your fellows to always ignore things, especially with a curious dragon on the foredeck.”

Misra nodded, but Shipton more clearly understood what Laurence was implying: that Dunn was not the only witness to their indiscretions. And surely now he was remembering how long ago they had made a liaison in view of the dragon deck, that date preceding by several days the one Dunn had witnessed, for he was blushing hotly, but looked even more grateful. His smile was quite extraordinary, now that Laurence saw it.

“That is all, gentlemen,” Laurence said briskly.

“But, Captain–!”

“Ah, yes. Dunn, stay back a moment.” The sailors made their escape, and Dunn stumbled up to the desk, red with anger.

He opened his mouth, and Laurence cut him off with a sharp look before he could speak. “Mr. Dunn,” he began. “Thank you for bringing this matter to my attention. Certainly the men should not allow themselves to be distracted on watch. However, I am not interested in hearing about the personal peccadillos of my crew, unless they have begun to affect the operation of the ship. If that is what you wish to discuss, now or in the future, you may leave the ship when we reach Sydney. Understood?”

Thus quelled, Dunn mumbled his assent and fled. He did not think Dunn was bold enough to cause trouble in port, nor was MacArthur likely to hear him if he tried; the man was a coward, willing to pick fights only with those weaker than himself.

Shipton and Misra had been very much the opposite. That look of defiance from Shipton, and the bright glance he had seen traded between the lovers as they left: they knew what they were risking, and thought it worth their lives.

Laurence spread his hands on the desk and waited for them to stop shaking.

Tharkay slipped into Laurence's cabin a few hours later. Laurence had the ship's log laid out in front of him, but in truth had been doing no work at all, only a great deal of thinking.

Tharkay said, “Ship's gossip is a wonderful means of communication. Even one such as myself, who is not often spoken with directly, will be swiftly apprised of any significant news.”

“I owe you an apology, and an explanation,” Laurence said.

“You do not owe me anything.”

Laurence looked at him wryly. “Only my life, several times over, and my integrity, and my happiness here on the Peregrine. But here, I concede the point, and there is no debt between us; yet I still desire your friendship. I may not have thought I was offering insult, but I did, and I am very sorry.”

Tharkay sat across from him. His face was smooth as becalmed water, but his tight shoulders and closed hands spoke of his lingering wariness. “I expect I shall forgive you, but let us first have this explanation of yours.”

Laurence looked down at the log and tried to let the neat, ordered lines of writing soothe him. “I believe I told you that I considered sodomy to be an addiction: a vice similar to drink, which affects men to varying degrees, and can be controlled or indulged in proportion to one's will. I did not tell you that I–” He ran aground here for a moment, but Tharkay had heard far more shameful things from him before, and still forgave him, so he pushed on. “I...indulged as well, when I was a youth.”

At the edge of his vision, Laurence saw Tharkay twitch in reaction, but he could not force himself to look up and see his expression. This felt rather too much like flaying himself for an audience already. He had no idea why this was so much worse than that time during the invasion, when he now already knew Tharkay's opinion. Perhaps it was the lack of numbness; he had never regretted that before.

“All boyish stuff, of course, very casual. I was in love with Edith Galman by then, and I certainly spent enough time writing her letters for everyone to know it, but I was...inclined to be amiable with my shipmates.”

He drew a shaking breath. Across the table, Tharkay was deathly silent. “When I was seventeen, a newly risen lieutenant, I served under Captain Barstowe on the Shorewise. He... I have always supposed that I said or did something– I have very easy and pleasing manners, and he must have misconstrued... And he was a crude man, very direct in his approach, which shocked me greatly; so my refusal was not very politic, considering his rank.” He closed his eyes against the memory: the rough grasping hands, the foul language, the hot breath on his face. Laurence's greater height, recently achieved and not yet filled out with muscle, had let him throw the man off and slip away – but there was no escaping a captain's wrath at sea, no matter how unjust.

“He retaliated,” Tharkay surmised, and his cool, calm voice gave Laurence a thread to find his way out of the memory.

“Yes. Not personally. Extra duties, less food, more dangerous tasks. All perfectly within his rights as captain, until he died of pneumonia three months into the voyage, thank God.” Laurence shuddered to think of that time: faint with hunger and dizzy with lost sleep from all those double watches, trying to figure out his new authority before his gun-crew of dregs killed or maimed him by accident, and knowing all the while that it might stop, if only he begged a cruel man to use him in a criminal fashion.

In the end, Laurence had chosen the uncertain purgatory of his punishment to that certain hell, but he had been very close to his limits by the time Barstowe took ill. He had weighed the matter carefully, and thought that perhaps fate had given him this trial for being so careless about something he had known to be illegal and immoral, lumped in with the gambling and drinking among the crew that edged past the allowed quantities. It was safer for everyone if Laurence held the line strictly, and he had done so for the rest of his Navy career.

“I stopped after that, naturally. There was Edith, and I was rising through the ranks, anyway, and it would not have been appropriate, to be too familiar with my subordinates.” He trailed off, and looked back to the log blindly. It held no comfort, this time.

“I am very sorry that happened to you,” Tharkay said, low, “but you should not take the actions of an evil man as the standard of all who share such inclinations.”

“Indeed not,” Laurence said. “I served with a number of other fine officers who were inverts, but some of them had, ah, demonstrably successful marriages,” he said, thinking of Captain Farraway and his eleven children, “which allowed me to persist in thinking that it was an avoidable indulgence, brought on by an absence of women.

“But today....Those two careless boys – they were terribly frightened when I had them brought in, but they stood together, and I saw how they....” Laurence trailed off, picturing their hands clutching each other. It felt too intimate to speak of, even to Tharkay. “I have thought a great many things about such relationships over the years, but I had not thought it could be love. Until today.”

He took a deep breath, clenching and unclenching his fist below the table, where Tharkay could not see. This next part was the bulk of what he had spent his time thinking on since the sailors had left, and he knew it must be said, but he feared the consequences.

“You must think me very blind,” Laurence said, looking up at Tharkay. His angular face was so familiar: a little softened after Laurence's confession, but still unreadable. Laurence wondered if he might have fared better at reading it if he were actually blind; he could hardly have done worse. “Here I have been wondering why you should keep sailing out with us when you have surely sent reports to Maden's investors by now; you have so little to do onboard, and no share of the prizes – but now I think you stay for a very different reason. Do you not?”

Tharkay froze and went so very pale that it showed through the nut-brown of his skin. His mouth moved soundlessly, then tightened into a tense line, like a man trying very hard not to vomit.

“Please do not be frightened of me,” Laurence said, seeing the mirror of this morning's interview on his friend's face. “Not you. I could not bear it.”

“I am not frightened; not in that way,” Tharkay replied, and Laurence had not heard his voice sound so bitter since the invasion. “You would not be less just with a friend than you have been to your crew. But I have hoped for very few things in recent years, and you are about to remove one of them. Pray tell me, how should I feel?”

Laurence wet his lips, and said, so quietly that the words almost vanished under the sounds of the sea outside, “That is not what I am doing, Tenzing.”

He saw the realisation – the hope – dawn on Tharkay's face. Laurence had never thought to return to the practices of his youth; but then, he had not thought he would love a dragon well enough to commit treason, either. Surely this was the least of crimes one could commit for love.

He wanted to stand, but feared his legs would not hold him; his hands were still shaking a little. He had come to the end of his courage, at the moment he needed it most – but Tharkay was rising to his feet, coming around the desk, and Laurence let himself look, as he had not let himself before: to see the grace and surety of Tharkay's movements, the long clean lines of his limbs, the elegance of his fingers, the beauty of his skin and eyes. The sharp bones of his cheek and jaw, and the plush bow of his mouth between.

Tharkay stooped to him; Laurence tilted his face in invitation, and laid a hand on the sweet arch of Tharkay's throat as he leaned in. His heartbeat fluttered there, like a bird uncertain of its landing.

Then his lips met Laurence's, and Laurence closed his eyes to feel him more keenly: the cool seaspray taste without and the heat within, the soft lips parting and sucking, thin fingers sliding into Laurence's hair to turn him just so. He took his time – they had taken their time; how foolish of them to wait so long – and wound his way from this gentle, lavish sort of kissing to something deeper, wetter, mouths open and wanting, tongues twining, until Laurence was almost gasping above the wild race of his heart.

He did not feel strange or wrong at all – quite the opposite – and Laurence remembered why he had thought this was an addiction for so long, because he could not get enough. He pushed up, hungry, and again, until suddenly he was standing, chasing Tharkay's mouth as he bore him back against the desk and pressed the length of their bodies together. Tharkay was lean where he was broad, but just as tall, and their hips came together with a thrill that jolted through him. Tharkay was growing hard against Laurence's hip, rocking against him, a narrow line of heat that promised greater pleasures. Laurence gripped him closer, hands sliding down the curve of his back, then lower, and Tharkay, quiet as always until now, moaned.

“Oh, Christ,” Laurence said, shaken. He pressed his cheek to Tharkay's, and pulled himself back from the drowning edge of pleasure. He had not let himself have this in nearly two decades, and never with someone he cared for beyond the usual fellowship. Indeed, he had not wanted anyone since before the treason, had barely wanted his own hand; and now he could hardly think for wanting to cup Tharkay's arse in his hands, lift him onto the desk, and have his way with him; nor did Tharkay's grip on his shoulders seem to indicate any objection.

However, Laurence made himself lift his hips away and move his hands to the safer territory of Tharkay's back. He could not make himself let go entirely, nor stop himself from placing one more kiss on Tharkay's reddened, wet lips.

He cleared his throat. “I have only this morning been lecturing my crew about the lack of privacy they should expect onboard, and the dangers of ship's gossip. I should not like to be a hypocrite.” It was the middle of the day; someone might knock at any moment, needing the captain.

Tharkay smirked at him – damn his mouth for being so tempting; Laurence dipped in for another kiss, and Tharkay made it linger, sucking at his lower lip in a way that fired the imagination – and said, “Are you expecting to be loud, Will? I expect I could make you, and your voice does carry. Temeraire might have more questions.”

“Oh, Christ,” Laurence repeated, dropping his head to Tharkay's shoulder. He was torn between the heat of that casual assurance, and the cooling effect of mentioning Temeraire. “I shall have to explain this all to him.”

“Hmm. I have forgiven you, by the bye, but I admit to some enjoyment at the prospect of that conversation.” Laurence could feel the low laugh that Tharkay gave through his chest, and imagined feeling it in bed, skin to skin. He swallowed hard and pulled away a little further, which only let him better see how Tharkay's face was lit with joy.

Heaven help him, he was never going to make himself presentable at this rate.

“Dine with me tonight? I ought to see if Temeraire wishes to go flying this afternoon,” Laurence said. Temeraire certainly would – if Tharkay had heard the news about Shipton and Misra, then he would have as well, and surely recognized them as the men he'd seen. He had no idea how to explain, but Temeraire's fondness for Tharkay would surely smooth things a great deal.

“Yes, I thank you,” Tharkay said, the formality in sharp contrast to his mussed appearance and the red promise of his smile. Laurence attempted to comb Tharkay's hair flat – when had he done that? – and so nearly jerked a handful out by the roots when Tharkay said, “Then perhaps we will see how quiet you can be, after dinner.”

“As you like,” Laurence managed, then forced himself to step back fully, since Tharkay was still pinned against the desk and could not himself move away. He let his palm trace down the length of Tharkay's arm and twined their fingers together, bringing their linked hands up to press a parting kiss to Tharkay's knuckles. “Anything you like, Tenzing.”

And Tharkay's returning smile was brighter than the sun.