Oh, hell, Laurence thought, and sped up. Temeraire was no longer sleeping on the ridge outside the market. There was no sign of him, even though he had specifically promised to stay put for the afternoon while Laurence assisted Tharkay as best he could with obtaining supplies for their journey across the mountains. There was no dark form against the skyline, no tracks leading off through the snow, nothing to suggest where he had went—just a dragon-spaced shape in the snowdrifts. The mountainside was empty.
Laurence squinted, frowning. Well, empty apart from a few distant figures on a stand of rocks. Perhaps they had seen where his recalcitrant dragon had gotten off to -- hopefully he wasn't lecturing the local herdsmen on husbandry practices again.
He reached the strangers, who were standing on an outcrop jutting dizzily out from the mountainside and talking excitedly to one another. A rather motley group, actually: an eccentric looking gentleman who was tanned a deep, weatherbeaten brown and was wearing what might have once been a top hat; a young woman wearing sailor's garb with a riot of red curls tumbling from beneath her kerchief; and a slight Chinese youth wrapped in a colorful blanket and, beneath it, apparently very little else. Laurence would have been more taken aback, but his service in the Corps had rather inured him to women dressed in clothing inappropriate to their station. The rest, well, it would have to wait until he'd found Temeraire.
The three were deeply engrossed in their conversation -- Chinese, it seemed, and Laurence was only able to catch every other word of it. Something about a necklace and the belly of the moon. Laurence coughed politely, to no avail.
"I beg your pardon," Laurence said finally, raising his voice over the mountain wind. The young man whirled around and stared at him. He had rather extraordinary eyes, Laurence noticed. The color was oddly arresting: a deep, drowning blue. The older gentleman and the young lady only smiled at Laurence, and the gentleman doffed his hat.
"I am sorry to interrupt," Laurence said uneasily. There was something unsettling about the two of them, their black glittering eyes and knowing smiles. Not unfriendly, exactly, but strange nonetheless. And likely they knew no English, damn it all. Laurence began fumbling for the Chinese necessary to ask after his dragon, intending to descend to pantomime if necessary, when he was interrupted by a flurry of tangled limbs.
Most distractingly, in the midst of leaping at him, the young man had lost his grip on his blanket and was now entirely naked. Laurence automatically caught him. The poor fellow was wobbling markedly on his feet, like a sailor put on shore for the first time in years, and Laurence's hands curled reflexively around his waist, steadying him and pulling him away from the nearby precipice.
"Laurence!" the man said, in tones of the greatest delight, and put his hands on Laurence's cheeks.
"Ah," Laurence said, breath caught in his throat, mind curiously blank. He should be asking after his dragon, but there was something about this young man that made it difficult to look away. "I. Hello?" And then there were fingers delicately brushing his eyelashes.
"Your eyes have gold too!" The man said, wondering. "I never knew, I thought it was all atop your head. Oh, Laurence, this is lovely."
Laurence's jaw dropped. There was no earthly way, and yet...
"Temeraire?" he squawked finally, catching one of the wandering hands.
Temeraire beamed at him. "Yes! Marbet put a spell on my pendant, you see—" He flapped a hand at the red-haired young woman, who curtseyed sardonically. "—because it is a pearl also, only I didn't have to eat it, which I would have hated to do in any wise." Indeed, Laurence belatedly realized the pearl was still around Temeraire's neck, drastically reduced in size but recognizable all the same, even down to the minute dents and scratches. "Now look! It is possible after all, Laurence, I am so happy! Only it is very difficult, this business of having only two legs to balance upon, but I do like having hands with thumbs, and it is nice being able to see you so close, Laurence, isn't it nice?"
"...I suppose it is," Laurence admitted, after fumbling for a response. It was undeniably his Temeraire standing before him, unsteady and bright-eyed. He was pale as good porcelain, with undertones of gold, and had hair that feathered over his forehead, glossy and black. His smile was somehow familiar, despite his mouth looking entirely different and considerably less sharp than usual. "But, dearest, I admit I am confounded. This Marbet, how did she do this? Is it permanent? Are you sure you are alright?" He ran a hand helplessly over the smooth pale curve of Temeraire's shoulder, worried. Had something been lost in the transformation? What would they do if Temeraire was never to return to his true shape? Laurence could not think he would be happy as a human, bound to the earth, vulnerable to talon and musket.
"Oh, no, it is not permanent," Temeraire said blithely, cheeks reddened with the cold. "We have only to say the words over the new moon and I will have wings again." He wriggled his shoulders as though vaguely uncomfortable, and Laurence's eyes strayed down momentarily before shooting back up to his dragon's face.
"We shall need to find you some clothes, my dear," he said briskly, turning to address the two magicians, and was rather disgruntled to see both had slipped off without his noticing. "You will catch cold," he said, scowling at the empty outcrop, and picked up the blanket again, securing it around Temeraire's shoulders.
"I am looking forward to seeing the markets," Temeraire said contentedly, leaning into Laurence's side, and Laurence noticed he was still trembling in the chill wind. Laurence removed his own coat and draped it over Temeraire, adding his scarf as well. "Tharkay has said the Nepalese stalls are much different from those in China and England."
Laurence went still, and then had to resist the urge to bury his face in his palm. "Bugger," he said, grimacing. His wits were still slowed by the shock of it, he supposed. The larger significance of the transformation was only just now occurring to him. "Temeraire, we are meant to be flying to Istanbul with all speed possible!"
"Ah," Temeraire said, looking a bit abashed. "Yes, well. Marbet did say I had to choose now, and, well. It is only a week off, the new moon! And we can travel by foot, can we not? At least for a short while." Laurence found it was quite difficult to maintain a stern face when Temeraire was looking beseechingly up at him like that and shivering.
Tharkay, when they had found him and the other officers later, was not nearly so sanguine about their chances in the mountains without a dragon. It was agreed they would set up camp for the next few days and plot a new course, one which would take into account their change in transportation.
In the meantime, Granby and Dunne's clothes had been requisitioned and Temeraire was no longer entirely outraging the sensibilities of all around him, though he did distastefully protest the plainness of his garb. Laurence was not entirely surprised when shortly thereafter he was dragged off to the local market, Temeraire's hand warm and dry in Laurence's own as he tugged his captain from stall to stall.
Temeraire also managed to badger Laurence into purchasing a number of warm, brightly colored scarves, gently chiming necklaces and bracelets, and a spangled belt decorated with mysterious geometric shapes and stars. The resulting outfit suited Temeraire surprisingly well, and when Laurence said as much, Temeraire flushed happily and preened, turning his wrist this way and that to watch the swirls of copper and tiny tin bells sparkle in the sun.
It was a lovely way to pass a morning, wandering through the dense network of tents and stalls. They tried a number of spiced drinks and skewers of meat, most of which were surpassingly delicious and left a pleasant heat upon the tongue, although some made Temeraire sneeze alarmingly. They collected parcels of spices to try and identify later, packets of roasted nuts and honeyed dried meat, gifts for Lily and Maximus and Laurence's mother. Despite the delay to their journey and the pressing worry that Temeraire's transformation might have some untoward, malignant affect, Laurence found he was uncomplicatedly happy. The lingering malaise of their stay in China, the separation and doubt and worry, seemed to dissipate entirely, and Laurence was a little embarrassed how willing he was to abandon duty for a time and simple enjoy Temeraire's company.
Even as a human, there was a quality to Temeraire's voice, deeper than one would have expected, that caused the locals to treat him with a deference unmerited towards one so young. This was lucky, as Temeraire was prone to staring unabashedly at the men and women of the market and commenting loudly on the differences between the genders, which had not at all been so apparent to a draconic eye. Granby managed to hunt them down in time to overhear the most inopportune of these encounters, but he was no help at all, only turning away, shoulders shaking and clutching at a tent post to hold himself upright. Laurence was left to convince Temeraire as best he could that it would be most untoward to ask the local spice woman if he could feel her bosom, even if he was unfamiliar with the texture of such human accoutrements and had none of his own to examine.
Granby eventually took pity on Laurence and reported that they were needed back at camp to help calculate the redistribution of supplies, and Laurence quit the market thankfully. If Temeraire's questions about anatomy were to persist, he much preferred them to be overheard by his crew, rather than passing strangers who might take offense.
In all honesty, the crew took the change in their dragon surprisingly well, perhaps because despite the lack of familiar wings and scales, it was so very obviously Temeraire wandering amongst them, poking through all of their belongings and asking the most outrageous questions. He spent the main part of the afternoon following Tharkay about, prattling about markets and human footwear and asking after the health of his eagle, which he pronounced to have very nice wings, now that he could see them up close, though they were much inferior to his own when he was in draconic form.
Temeraire was reluctant to allow Dorset to inspect him, attempting to sidle away when the doctor went to draw blood. Dorset was not much impressed, but as he said, it was another token of proof that he was dealing with the same charge, albeit greatly reduced in size. Afterward Temeraire spent a good several hours sulking and rubbing his arm pointedly, until Granby coaxed him into learning how to hunt as humans did, with knives and pistols rather than teeth. Laurence was ensconced with Tharkay, plotting out a slow, torturous route through the hills of Nepal on foot, and so could only watch Temeraire bound off, waving an unloaded pistol about eagerly and tugging a laughing Granby by the sleeve.
He did not much like to let Temeraire out of sight, but after all, he was a grown dragon and fully capable of caring for himself. Besides, Granby would probably manage to prevent Temeraire from haring off after a caravan or a sparkle of ice upon a mountainside. The two returned after several hours, covered in mud and, surprisingly, bearing several feathered and furred prizes upon their arms.
All the crew, by the time they had pitched camp, looked a bit exhausted, having been peppered with questions from the wide-eyed, cheerful dragon about their hair, clothing choices, hunting skills, penmanship, eye color, the vagaries of their anatomy, and beverage preferences. It was a bit like being under friendly but ceaseless siege by a toddler, albeit one with a tendency towards piercing and uncomfortable questions.
"But why do you not just eat with your hands?" Temeraire inquired over their meal of roasted rabbit and ptarmigan, the brace of which he and Granby had managed to bring down after several hours. Granby had been prone to random fits of snickering after they'd returned from the hunt in the lower meadows, though he wouldn't explain why. Which, Laurence thought, eyeing his first officer darkly, was rather ominous. "It seems rather unnecessary, to cut something up before you eat it."
"Indeed," Tharkay said, his accent perfectly suited to a drawing room in a grand estate. It was startlingly out of place around a campfire, the cold stars achingly bright overhead and the lonely peaks of mountains stretching over them. "You may find that holds true for many of the British conventions of civility, but fail to follow them and you are branded a savage."
"I do not much see how it affects one's intellect," Temeraire said, sawing at his meat clumsily and frowning. Laurence resisted the urge to take his plate and cut it for him. Temeraire preferred muddling through on his own to being handheld, Laurence had found, and so he bit his tongue and watched his dragon in the firelight. The flames glittered off his new necklace, bangles of coppers and tins and tumbled, uncut stones, cheap and yet somehow still oddly beautiful.
"Oh, intellect is of less import than one might expect among high society," Tharkay drawled, cutting a piece of meat for his eagle. "It is all in how one ties one's cravat."
"I do not have a cravat," Temeraire said, pausing and looking up worriedly.
Laurence shook himself and re-entered the conversation; it was far too easy to lose track of his thoughts at the moment. "You do not need one, my dear," he said, placing a hand comfortingly on Temeraire's shoulder and ignoring Tharkay's smirk from the other side of the fire. "We are away from society, amidst our own people. I admit, it is not the usual way of doing things, but as aviators we are permitted to relax our manners upon occasion. Pray do not worry about it further."
"Hmm," Temeraire said thoughtfully, and then smiled, bright and sunny. Laurence caught his breath, but Temeraire only reapplied himself cheerfully to his dinner, and if his portions were cut a bit larger than was prudent, Laurence held his tongue.
Afterward, it seemed only natural that Temeraire should share his tent, and despite the impropriety of it, Laurence gladly pushed their bedrolls together, that they might share warmth against the cold of the Himalayan night. They had spent countless nights with the dragon coiled about his captain, and now Laurence could instead curl round him, a protective arm around his chest, dark head tucked beneath his chin. He had earlier made a halting attempt to explain matters of personal space and inappropriate conduct, but had abandoned the discussion upon seeing Temeraire's hurt, confused look. In all truth, he much preferred being able to remain in contact with Temeraire whenever he chose, rather than being guided by propriety. It was, he reassured himself, rather an unusual situation, anyway.
"Are you quite comfortable, dearest?" he murmured, and Temeraire mumbled a sleepy assent into his chest, yawning.
"Humans are very odd," he stated, rubbing his nose against Laurence's collarbone. "I believe in most instances I prefer to be a dragon, but I did enjoy reading books for myself, and when Dorset taught me to play poker. And this, this is very nice. You are quite wonderfully warm, Laurence. And you smell like sun, and the sea."
"Thank you, I suppose." Laurence laughed, and then Temeraire leaned up and pressed his lips to the corner of Laurence's mouth. Laurence froze.
There was the sound of wind from outside the tent, and the distant crackling of the guards' fire and Dunne's snoring, but everything else seemed very quiet and still. Laurence could only just make out the gleam of Temeraire's eyes, inches from his own, and he could feel the warmth of Temeraire's breath, coming in quick pants against his cheek.
"Did I do it wrong?" Temeraire asked quietly, pulling away.
"Temeraire, I—" Laurence fumbled, and took in the slump of his dragon's shoulders and immediately reached out and gathered him back in. "No, it is not that, you do very well," he said, finally, and after a confused moment, pressed a kiss to Temeraire's forehead, meaning to go on and explain the misunderstanding after Temeraire had been comforted. This proved to have been a mistake, because Temeraire immediately beamed at him, teeth visible even in the darkness of the tent, and launched himself at Laurence's mouth again, this time managing a more direct kiss, firm and hot. Laurence felt his cheeks heat, and he carefully managed to disentangle himself.
"I am doing it wrong," Temeraire said dejectedly, and Laurence kept him at arm's length this time.
"It isn't that," he insisted, heart pounding oddly. "You have a human form now, it is true, but at heart you are a dragon, and I am your captain, and for another matter, we are both male. It is not… It is not appropriate, for either of us."
"I do not see that it matters," Temeraire sniffed, rolling onto his stomach and pillowing his head on his arms. "If I were a dragon I would be far too large, and you too small, but now it is not the case. I am here, and you are here, and it is all stuff and nonsense that males cannot kiss males. It is like cravats and eating with a knife. It doesn't matter, not really."
"Oh, Lord, do keep your voice down," Laurence hastened to say, hiding his face in his hand.
"You let Captain Roland kiss you," Temeraire said after a moment, in an injured voice. "I do not see why I cannot kiss you also. I am sure I could kiss you even better, if only you would let me try."
"I am sure you would," Laurence said, grinding the heel of his palm into his eye. He had anticipated Temeraire might make further hideously embarrassing inquiries about these matters, but he could not in his wildest dreams have imagined Temeraire making those inquiries about his own person, of Temeraire being interested in him in that way at all. "That, however, is not the issue. It is not the same thing at all."
"Let me try once more," Temeraire wheedled, "and I will speak of it no more and let you sleep."
Laurence was going to regret this, but he was tired, and it was such a simple thing, in truth.
"One kiss," he said tiredly, closing his eyes and rubbing his temples, and Temeraire said brightly, "Right, one kiss," and deposited himself on Laurence's chest, pressing Laurence into the bedroll with startling strength. Laurence made a surprised noise into Temeraire's mouth and Temeraire frowned, then leaned back.
"You have to kiss back," he demanded. "Otherwise it does not count."
"I do not remember covering that stipulation in our negotiations," Laurence retorted, slightly breathless as he tested Temeraire's grip and found it deucedly stronger than expected. He was surprised to find his heartbeat quickening; it was not entirely an unpleasant sensation.
"Laurence," Temeraire rumbled, and Laurence could not see his expression but could picture it perfectly, both as a dragon and a man, a scowl and a flattened ruff. If Temeraire had had a tail at that moment, it would have been lashing. "William."
"Very well," Laurence conceded, a little unsteadily, and Temeraire grinned, a sharklike flash of teeth in the dark tent, and then leaned down, deliberate and slow. Laurence could barely see beyond the outline of dim shadows and shapes, and was startled at a feather-light touch of lips just below his ear.
"You aim is slightly off, dearest," he observed, inhaling shakily, and felt Temeraire smile into his skin.
"Oh, is it?" Temeraire asked airily. "How silly of me." And moved his mouth upwards, teeth closing over Laurence's earlobe and tugging gently. Laurence felt hot, despite the cool of the night air, and his heart was pounding ridiculously. He attempted to sit up, and Temeraire pressed him inexorably down again.
"Temeraire," he said irritably, voice cracking slightly. "What are you doing?"
"Mmm," Temeraire replied, mouthing hot and wet over Laurence's pulse, testing with his tongue. "You taste of salt. Why?"
"Sweat, I imagine," Laurence said from between clenched teeth. "Now, if you would be so kind—"
"I like it," Temeraire said decisively, and then leaned in and captured Laurence's mouth. First just a touch of lips, and Laurence tentatively pressed up into it. Temeraire's mouth was soft, and sweet, and Laurence forgot a moment and let his mouth be coaxed open with a second and a third kiss. Temeraire made a low, purring sound, and Laurence forgot everything altogether, because Temeraire's hands were in his hair and their mouths were moving together, wet and hot, teeth crashing.
"Oh, yes, like that," Temeraire whispered delightedly against his mouth, biting Laurence's lower lip and grinding down with his hips. Laurence let out a startled moan, thrusting up involuntarily and arching his back. "Laurence. Laurence, let me—"
He slid a hand beneath Laurence's shirt, stroking Laurence's side and tugging him in closer even as he kissed him more fiercely.
"Mine," he said lowly, and sucked a kiss into Laurence's neck as Laurence struggled wildly to catch his breath, and then he rolled his hips again, undulating and ungodly hot, and Laurence fought to remain quiet. "I want you. Please, Laurence, let me touch you."
"Yes," Laurence hissed, abandoning common sense, because it was Temeraire, and he was wide-eyed and panting and begging, and Laurence could not help but drag him up for another kiss. "Yes, anything."
Temeraire made a noise of satisfaction and tugged at the collar of Laurence's nightshirt and popped off the first three buttons.
"Wait," Laurence stuttered, and unbuttoned the rest with fumbling hands. Temeraire immediately slid his hands down Laurence's chest, running his fingers along Laurence's ribs, the planes of his abdomen. When Laurence raised his hands to remove Temeraire's shift in turn, Temeraire rumbled and pinned his wrists above his head.
"Stay still," Temeraire murmured distractedly, and went back to mapping Laurence's skin with his hands, long smooth strokes that were driving Laurence to distraction. He attempted to reach down again and Temeraire growled.
"Laurence," he said, exasperated, and leaned up and kissed him fiercely, until Laurence could scarcely breathe, and finished with a sharp nip to Laurence's lower lip. "Oh, I like that noise, make it again."
"Temeraire!" Laurence exclaimed, and then hastily lowered his voice again. "Let me touch you, blast it all. Let go of my wrists."
"In a moment. I would like to try something," Temeraire said absently, and entirely cut off Laurence's line of argument by managing to snake his free hand down Laurence's stomach, stroking through the thatch of curls and then taking Laurence in hand. "Men are so strange," he said in a hushed, dreamy voice, stroking his hand along the taut length, and Laurence bit his lower lip on—he wasn't sure if it was a noise of outrage or pleasure. "Always keeping your organs out like this."
"Not… just like this," Laurence managed; it had been a long time since another's hand had been upon him, and this was Temeraire, fumbling and curious, adjusting his grip with every stroke, watching with gleaming eyes as Laurence thrust helplessly in his grip. "Oh, Christ, Temeraire."
"Listen to you," Temeraire said lowly, letting go of Laurence's wrists in favor of shoving Laurence's legs further apart. "I have never heard you sound quite like this, Laurence. Say my name again?" He twisted his wrist and Laurence obliged, gasping. Temeraire hummed and bit Laurence's collarbone, speeding the motion of his hand, and Laurence couldn't bear it. Temeraire's grip had loosened, and Laurence was able to twist his sweat-slick wrists free, and rolled Temeraire over, pressing him into the bed.
"Oh!" Temeraire said indignantly, and then he sucked in a breath as Laurence paid him back, stroking expertly. Laurence had not dallied with men since before he became a captain of his own ship, but this was Temeraire. The laws and the stigma, none of it seemed to signify, not now. Laurence only wished that there were light to see by, to put image to the helpless, delighted sounds Temeraire was making. "Oh. Oh, Laurence, yes, you—"
"Anything, dearest," Laurence whispered, face hot, and Temeraire let out a guttural moan and bucked into his hand, and then Temeraire was craning upward, hands on Laurence's face.
"Laurence," he said, over and over again, biting at Laurence's mouth, and then, in a broken cry, "William," as he spilled into Laurence's hand. Laurence followed soon thereafter, a little embarrassed at how quickly he reached completion under the touch of Temeraire's hand.
"Next time I should like to lay with you properly," Temeraire said muzzily, having dragged Laurence down and planted himself firmly on top of him. "If that is alright with you, I mean?" he said anxiously after a moment or two of silence, during which Laurence's mouth had gone entirely dry. "Do you need supplies? Oils and things? It is a little odd, that you would need oils, but I do not mind."
"Ah," Laurence said blankly, blood thundering in his ears. "Yes, oils… oils of some sort would be necessary, in that event." Temeraire murmured thoughtfully in response, nuzzling at Laurence's neck, a low rumble very like a purr starting up within his chest.
"But how do you know about—I mean," Laurence began, flustered, and then Temeraire stretched lazily, wrapping a leg around Laurence and tugging him closer, lithe and warm, and Laurence entirely lost track of what he had been saying.
"Mmm," Temeraire said, and rubbed against Laurence's thigh. Laurence blinked, surprised at his recuperative powers. But then, he supposed Temeraire was still a rather young dragon. "I asked Granby how these things worked with humans, and he was very kind and gave me a great deal of useful advice."
"He did, did he," Laurence said darkly.
"Do not be cross, it went well, didn't it?" Temeraire said against Laurence's neck, smirking. "It was much better than my time with Mei."
"It is not generally considered good form to mention previous partners when in bed with another," Laurence said dryly, fighting the urge to pin Temeraire to the bed. This possessiveness was quite unhealthy, he was sure of it.
Temeraire snorted and bit Laurence's chin gently. "You humans are so very odd," he said, sounding both mystified and fond. "I should rather lie with you than anyone else in the world. Do you think lamp oil would suit?"
"Lamp oil?" Laurence replied, puzzled, and then sucked in a breath. "Oh. Oh. I… yes, I imagine that should suit quite well."
"Capital," Temeraire said smugly, and pressed Laurence back into the bedroll again.