If asked before now, Tharkay would have said that he hated to be coddled. Not that many did ask, or that he was the sort to be coddled. For years Tharkay's ills were his own to manage and the concern of no one else.
“Can you take a little broth?” Laurence asked, interrupting Tharkay's reverie. Tharkay focused back on Laurence's concerned face, faintly ridiculous with the bandages wrapped around his head, and smiled a little.
“Yes, thank you.”
The bowl was awkward to hold in his damaged hands--the Emperor's physicans, appointed at Laurence's request, had frowned over the injuries but said he would regain the use of his hands, perhaps, with time--and after Tharkay let out a soft huff of frustration, Laurence leaned in, helping to steady the bowl while Tharkay gingerly sipped at it.
At last Tharkay lowered the bowl, but didn't take his hands away at first, or lift his gaze. And then, as though compelled, he looked up to find Laurence already contemplating him. If it had been pity, or compassion, Tharkay could have swallowed it and his resentment, but this was different.
This was Laurence, this changed Laurence, staring at Tharkay as though he were a wonder, made new before his eyes, and Tharkay was at a loss for what to do about it. Or how to convince himself that it meant nothing.
Enough of this. Tharkay put a faint smile on his lips and said, voice light, “Your company is always welcome, Will, but surely you must have better demands upon your time than playing nursemaid.” Easy to say this, yes, but nearly impossible to believe it himself, not when every one of Tharkay's numerous aches seemed to fade a little with Laurence's steady, quiet presence next to his sickbed.
Not that Tharkay would ever confess as much aloud.
“I believe I have been called worse things than nursemaid,” Laurence said, voice as light as Tharkay's for just a moment, but the pretense faltered; he fell silent, before finally gripping Tharkay's wrist, the pressure careful but firm, his hand warm on Tharkay’s skin. “Surely you must know, Tenzing, how--how grateful I am for you.” Laurence's gaze lifted up, for one devastating moment, before he lowered his eyes again, golden lashes sweeping over his cheek. “And for all you've done.”
Tharkay had no words for this. He should have had words, he should have been able to repay Laurence’s honesty and his regard with more than dumb silence.
But with that simple touch, with all the care and concern Laurence had shown, the look in his eyes--it was all too easy, so damnably easy, to hope for more, to desire more than what Laurence had to give. Tharkay knew the futility in this, had silently raged over it, and to fall into the same damned trap once more was--
Unless he was wrong. Unless perhaps, Laurence could give more, could want more, could want from Tharkay what Tharkay had always craved from him.
“Stay a while yet,” Tharkay said finally, meeting Laurence’s honest blue gaze. “If you can spare the time, I would be glad of your company.”
“With all my heart,” Laurence replied. And Laurence was as good as his word--though, when was he not?--staying by Tharkay's side, obliging Tharkay's curiosity by reciting Chinese poetry so that Tharkay could observe his improvement in the language, telling Tharkay of his travels in Japan, the brain fever that robbed him of his memory, transporting him back to the naval officer Tharkay had never met.
“What utterly ridiculous adventures you have, Will,” Tharkay said, choosing not to say that he was glad not to have witnessed that, the ghost of the man William once was, before Temeraire, before the Aerial Corps. Before his transformation into the man that Tharkay valued.
Laurence was excellent company, but at last, Tharkay felt his eyelids growing heavy despite his best efforts. “I should not be keeping you,” Laurence said, his hand pressing on Tharkay's arm with affection. “Although...”
Tharkay blinked his eyes open at the diffident tone in Laurence's voice. “Yes?”
There was not enough light left in the tent for Tharkay to be sure that Laurence's cheeks were flushed, but he was somehow sure of it all the same. “Ah, your neckcloth,” Laurence said. “I could...assist you with that. If you wished.”
There was a time when Tharkay would have said he hated to be coddled. He'd never been given much opportunity to test the theory in his lifetime, truth be told, but it was an assertion he felt comfortable in making.
Taking comfort and care from a companion though...that, Tharkay felt, he might be able to manage. Especially with Laurence looking at him like that.
“Yes,” Tharkay said. “Yes, that—if you'd be so kind. Then yes.”
The assent sounded rough and awkward on his lips, but Laurence seemed to take no heed. Instead he leaned in over Tharkay's bed, and Tharkay lifted his chin to give Laurence better access to his throat.
He could not ignore the intimacy of the moment, Laurence's body over his, Laurence's hands on his throat, fingers delicately working away at the neckcloth until it loosened. Every so often, there'd be the faintest brush of Laurence's fingers against Tharkay's throat, the very lightest of touches, and yet it was enough to make Tharkay's jaw clench.
An outsider might have found it absurd, a British officer, the son of a nobleman, tending to a wandering nobody like Tharkay, doing a task fit for a valet or common servant. And yet that was not Laurence’s attitude, that was obvious from one look at him. There was a tenderness to it, a care that stilled Tharkay’s tongue, so that he could do nothing but watch Laurence, and hope despite himself.
Laurence's hair was slipping from its queue, one lock in danger of falling over his face. For one brief, mad moment, Tharkay wondered if he could pull it free with a tug of his finger, or smooth it back into place. He wondered if Laurence would let him, if he would jerk back, or hold still while Tharkay touched his hair and just look at Tharkay while he did it.
It took forever and no time at all for Laurence to finish, laying Tharkay's throat bare, setting the neckcloth aside. “There.”
“My thanks,” Tharkay said, thankful that his voice stayed level. “For the aid and for the company.”
Laurence looked at him then, and it was not his usual steady, honest gaze, this was—this was his gaze falling on Tharkay, on all of Tharkay, his body lying back against the cot, his hair loose against the pillow, throat bare and exposed.
It felt shocking, it felt impossible to have Laurence looking at him like this, except that his rescue from the caves at Laurence's hand should have been impossible too. And yet here he was, and here they were.
At last Laurence's eyes snapped back up to Tharkay's face. “You owe me no thanks,” he said, and if the light was not enough to see if there was a flush to Laurence's tanned cheeks, there was no mistaking the hoarse tone to his voice.
Impossible things, and yet here they were, and the hope flickering inside of Tharkay's chest was equally impossible to ignore. “Perhaps not, but I give them to you all the same,” Tharkay said, and it was easy to smile up at Laurence. “Get some rest, Will. I will see you in the morning.”
“Yes,” Laurence said, his voice a little faint, but the smile on his lips was real. “You will.”
That night, for the first time in months, Tharkay did not dream. And in the morning, Laurence was as good as his word. But then he always was.
The excuses were becoming increasingly threadbare, and yet there Laurence was, every evening, helping Tharkay out of his clothing.
There were servants to do this, both of them were fully aware of that, and still every evening Laurence would come, either by himself or in the company of Granby, or perhaps with Temeraire loitering outside the tent, one great blue eye peering in--but every night he would come, and every night it would end the same way, with Laurence finding a way to be the last one in Tharkay's tent. And every night, Laurence would turn to Tharkay and ask the same question--
And to that, Tharkay always had the same answer to give. "Yes."
It would be easy to put down to a matter of convenience and trust. Laurence was careful, and gentle, and Tharkay felt no shame in Laurence seeing him like this, hurt and still weak, needing help.
Easy to believe it was only that, except that Tharkay was not accustomed to lying to himself. Because it was a thrill, having Laurence see to him like this every night, having Laurence apply himself to this task with concentration and care, nimble fingers working away until Tharkay was stripped to the waist, breathless, the echo of Laurence's touch lingering all over his body. And once he was finished, Laurence would always, always take a long look at Tharkay, lying there in his cot, as if he were surveying his work and found it to be good. As if the sight of Tharkay, weak and too thin, scarred and still injured, was one to be treasured.
There were very few excuses left to them, to explain what they were doing. And Tharkay could not make himself care, not when Laurence came every night, and touched him, and looked at him so.
It was a gift, unasked for, and Tharkay would be damned before he turned Laurence away.
Tonight, Laurence lingered even later than his usual wont; folding the clothes with even greater care and precision than normal, until Tharkay really had no choice but to ask, amused, "Is there something you wish to discuss, Will?"
Laurence ducked his head, but didn't deny it. "Our preparations for Russia are nearly at an end; we will have to depart soon." Tharkay knew where Laurence was leading with this, but still he waited for Laurence to ask.
"I have been assured," Laurence said, "that you may stay here, as my own guest, until you are fully healed, but I thought you might prefer, that is to say--"
"Will," Tharkay said, a gentle prod.
“Will you come to Russia with us?” Laurence asked at last, meeting Tharkay's gaze directly.
“I had not thought to do anything else,” Tharkay replied.
Laurence was silent a moment, and then said, “I cannot pretend the danger is not great, but...I am very glad to hear it, Tenzing."
"Did you honestly think I wouldn't go?" Tharkay asked, curious. Curious and surprised, that Laurence could be even a little unsure of him, and it took more effort than it should not to ask, Has my devotion to you somehow gone unnoticed?
"I didn't...wish to presume," Laurence said finally. "God knows, you have done more than anyone could have ever asked of you."
"I could say much the same about you," Tharkay said, eyeing the half-healed cuts on Laurence's head. "And I have come this far, Will. I have no intention of making my bows at this stage."
Laurence's eyes lit up at this, and Tharkay felt an answering smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. And then Laurence's gaze dropped, lingering over Tharkay, his body, and Tharkay's skin went hot at the open appraisal.
If Laurence’s gaze had lingered even a moment longer, Tharkay would have spoken, his broken hands and long-standing reticence be dammed--but Laurence’s gaze flickered away, then back again, before fixing eventually on his own hands, folded tightly in front of him. "I should let you rest," Laurence said quietly, almost as a reminder to himself.
"Until tomorrow, then," Tharkay said, daring.
The light came back to Laurence's eyes, and he inclined his head. "Of course. Goodnight, Tenzing."
"Goodnight," Tharkay murmured after Laurence as he departed.
He could wait.
In Russia, there were no excuses for Tharkay and Laurence to meet in the evenings as they once did. Or rather, there were no excuses left for Laurence to tend to Tharkay the way he once had. Tharkay’s hands were healing, still stiff and aching at times, but he could manage them well enough, and manage his clothing too.
On the surface, things were the same as they had ever been, Tharkay standing half in the shadows, ready with advice or a dry remark as distraction, whichever Laurence and the others needed most. And even that was not enough, as they could do little, it seemed, but stand idly by while all their efforts were thwarted by delay and inefficiency, and all while Napoleon gained the advantage.
It was galling to witness, the stupidity and the inexcusable waste of the forces at their disposal, enough to make Tharkay choke on his impatience and anger. He had not come this far, none of them had, to be held back at the last chance--but for all of their frustration, for all of their knowledge that something had to be done, none of them had any notion of where a solution could be found.
Until Tharkay found their solution, in the guise of a set of elaborate red robes, and an outrageous lie that was carefully not said aloud.
“I must say,” Laurence declared in Tharkay's tent, after they had left their conference with the flummoxed Russian high command, “--that was an unqualified success.” He looked easier now that the subterfuge was at an end and their mission accomplished. Easy enough, in fact, that he gave Tharkay an amused glance and added, “As a false prince of China, Tenzing, I fear you have no equal.”
“Fine words, coming from the genuine article,” Tharkay drawled, but he could not hide his own pleasure at their success, even if he wished to. Immense though the risk had been, it had been a triumph; the satisfaction of watching those gaping faces, dumb with shock. It was all the sweeter knowing that it was his design that made it so, that it was not him they saw, but the spectacle he'd staged.
There was satisfaction in that, and then Tharkay caught Laurence's eye and the feeling changed, transformed, went hot in the pit of his stomach. Laurence was watching him still, his amusement having turned to plain admiration. “I admit,” Laurence said after a half-beat, sounding almost like his usual self, “--you do look...remarkably fine in those robes, Tenzing.”
The words could mean nothing, except for the way Laurence's gaze lingered on Tharkay, too focused to be simply disinterested curiosity.
Instead of turning the compliment aside, Tharkay asked, “Do you think so, Will?”
Laurence looked briefly surprised, but answered readily enough, “Of course. I always feel a cake in them, but you look...” He looked at Tharkay again, his gaze drifting over Tharkay's body, before finishing with, “You look magnificent.”
Tharkay could let it pass. But he had been waiting for this opportunity since Peking, and if he was truthful, for years before that.
So he stepped over to Laurence, shoulders square and his posture perfect, the way he had stood in front of the Russian high command and dared them all to say a word. “Magnificent though the robes are, they also are very heavy,” he said. “If I could ask for your help in taking them off?”
Laurence looked at him, eyes wide. “In taking them off,” he repeated, faintly.
“Yes,” Tharkay said, not even attempting to cloak it with reasonable excuses. “Like in Peking. You were a great help to me then.”
And that made a palpable hit, Tharkay could see it in Laurence's face. Laurence remembered their stay in Peking as well as Tharkay did. He remembered those evenings where he would come into Tharkay's sickroom and help Tharkay undress, nimble fingers working at Tharkay's clothes until Tharkay lay against his bed, stripped to the waist, aching with a desire that he could not act on, thanks both to his injuries and to the knowledge that the time had not come yet.
He'd had to wait, and now here they were, his injuries healed, and Laurence still looking at him with desire and indecision equally clear in his eyes.
He could not force this. He could only ask. “So will you do this, then?”
Laurence just looked at him for a beat, two, and then says, voice only a little unsteady, “God forbid I should deny you, my dear Tenzing.”
Tharkay exhaled; Laurence's hands were already moving to the front of his robes, and Laurence kept his eyes locked on Tharkay's as he started to work upon the ties keeping Tharkay's robes closed.
Tharkay knew his role here, he kept himself achingly still, his skin hot as Laurence bent his head, light reflecting off his golden hair as he applied himself to the task. Slowly, Tharkay emerged from the robes, one arm coming free, and then the other, skin prickling as it was exposed both to the cool air and to Laurence's eyes.
At last, the robes pooled around his feet, Tharkay stripped bare. Laurence's face was flushed, eyes alight, and as he looked at Tharkay, he said, hushed, “Tenzing, I--”
“Will,” Tharkay said. His throat felt tight, it took him a moment to gather his voice to say, “Will, for God's sake, if you truly want this--”
He stopped talking as Laurence leaned in, bending his head to brush his lips, painfully slow and tender, to the burns along his shoulder, lips warm against Tharkay's skin. Laurence lingered for a moment, and then turned his attention to Tharkay's nape, his jawline, Tharkay closing his eyes and tilting his head to urge Laurence onward.
“I cannot,” Laurence was murmuring now, lips moving against the pulsepoint at Tharkay's throat, “I cannot deny you anything, Tenzing--”
“Then don't,” Tharkay said, his voice shockingly hoarse in his own ears. “Don't deny me.” All this time, and it felt as easy as walking, to guide Laurence's head back up, and to lean in for that first kiss, his mouth fitting against Laurence's as though they had done this a hundred times before.
And Laurence matched him, kiss for kiss, touch for touch, until they were caught in a rough embrace, Tharkay's hands tangling in Laurence's soft hair, Laurence's hands gripping Tharkay close at the waist.
“My turn,” Tharkay said against Laurence's mouth, his hands loosening Laurence's neckcloth, pulling at Laurence's bottle-green coat. “Only fair, after all,” he added, smiling as Laurence huffed out a laugh, obligingly slipping his coat off.
The robes were easier to remove than Laurence's uniform, but Tharkay applied himself to the task, eager hands only occasionally distracted by Laurence's hot mouth. In all the time he had spent imagining this, wishing for it, Tharkay had somehow never envisioned the laughter, the sheer joy in having Laurence's hands on him, Laurence meeting his gaze with clear eyes, full of desire and trust. It took what felt like an age, but finally they were both stripped bare, tumbling together down onto Tharkay's small cot.
For a moment, Laurence was beautifully pliant in Tharkay's arms, body pressed against his, but then he was pulling back, and for one awful moment, Tharkay wondered if this was the end, if Laurence had decided against--
But no, Laurence was looking at him with flushed cheeks and wide blue eyes, mouth wet, before he shifted downwards to kiss along Tharkay's throat, his collarbone. Relaxing back against the cot, Tharkay murmured, fingers carding through Laurence's hair, loose from the queue, “Will, what--”
“Let me,” Laurence murmured, eyes flickering back up to Tharkay's face, sounding determined and uncertain in equal measure. “Let me do this, Tenzing.”
Tharkay could feel the tension running through Laurence's shoulders, his body, and so he said, “Of course. Anything, Will.”
Laurence nodded a little, and bent his head again, pressing another soft kiss to just beneath the hollow at Tharkay's throat, and then another, even lower still. It went on like that, Laurence making his way down Tharkay's body, methodically mapping it with his lips and tongue, while Tharkay's breathing grew more and more unsteady, gripping at the blanket.
And still Laurence kept on, his blue eyes routinely flickering back upwards to gauge his reaction, and Tharkay could only imagine the expression on his face as Laurence kept moving on downwards, because surely, surely Laurence wouldn't--
Laurence had stopped, his breath coming in uneven hot puffs against Tharkay's skin, and then he lowered his head and took Tharkay into his mouth, and Tharkay could not think at all.
Laurence was unpracticed at this, that was clear, and yet the feel of it, his tongue, his hot mouth swallowing around him--
“Will,” Tharkay breathed, his hands reaching out to cup Laurence's head, fingers tangling in his hair, combing it back so he could better see the vision in front of him, Laurence's cheeks hollowing, mouth obscenely stretched.
Time stretched, Tharkay couldn't know how long he was there, caught, biting back his moans, Laurence pressing on until Tharkay finally broke and came inside Laurence's mouth, gasping Laurence's name as he did.
“Come here,” Tharkay finally managed to say once he'd found his breath again. “Will, come here.”
And Laurence listened, moving back up Tharkay's body to slide into his arms, and Tharkay took him in hand, Laurence thrusting raggedly into his grip. “Good,” Tharkay murmured, his free hand sliding down Laurence's back. “Very good.”
Laurence sought out his mouth, and Tharkay kissed him and kissed him, holding him close until Laurence spent in his hand, shuddering.
They stayed like that a while, tangled up in each other, languorously kissing. At last, Tharkay pulled away a little, to look directly at Laurence, before he said, “Do you know--you are forever surprising me, Will.”
Laurence smiled a little, nothing like a proper British officer in that moment, and everything that Tharkay could want. “Well,” he said, leaning in to kiss Tharkay again, “I do my best to please.”
Today was cold enough that even breathing in the air hurt Tharkay's throat and lungs. He still emerged from his tent anyway, wrapped in his cloak, shivering in the winter air until he found what he sought.
Laurence was only a few feet away, staring fixedly down upon a map. Tharkay sucked in the cold air through his teeth, then called out, “If you're going to ponder those maps, you can at least do it inside.”
Laurence smiled a little, but did not turn to face him. “I was just looking over our position.”
Tharkay said nothing. Their position was the same as it was yesterday--teetering on the brink of utter disaster, and they both knew it. So instead of speaking, he just moved over to stand by Laurence's side, and waited for Laurence to speak first.
It didn't take long. Laurence lowered his head, sighed, and confessed quietly, “It is a poor sort of battle I have brought you to, Tenzing.”
There was an ache in his stomach, from too little food, and it would only get worse, Tharkay knew. “Have peace, Will. What is made cannot be undone.”
He did not say, I was undone from the moment I laid my eyes upon you.
He did not say, I cannot learn to regret it.
Instead, he asked, "Did you ever think I wouldn't follow you here?"
Laurence looked at him a long moment, then shook his head, something very like wonder in his eyes. "No," he said. "I never did."
"Well, there you are, then," Tharkay said. The cold was seeping through his cloak, and so again he asked, "Come back inside, Will."
"Yes," Laurence said, and they went back to the tent together.