Tharkay’s estates covered a not-inconsiderable portion of the Scottish Borders, the landscape sharply alternating between lush woodland and bare hills vivid with heather as summer turned to autumn: all the deer hunting they had been promised. The house itself stood in a sheltered position, but with enviable outlook over the river valley. It was no picturesque ruin, having been built in the middle of the previous century in a rich but ponderous style; Tharkay was beginning to refurbish it to his own taste as his finances allowed, occasionally consulting Laurence’s opinion on an improved convenience or a style of paper.
‘It is no good asking me,’ Laurence said at last, pushing the pattern-book away over breakfast, ‘I am not the one –’
Not the one who would be living with the result, he had been about to say. But they had hardly accepted Tharkay’s invitation as casual houseguests – even now a pavilion was taking shape on the rise at the edge of the trees, the sounds of workmen and Temeraire’s commentary carrying through the open window.
‘I am no expert in these matters,’ he finished instead; ‘you had better to ask Temeraire, though I fear that it will give him ideas’: if the pavilion’s construction was spurred by enthusiasm and the need to provide for the coming change of seasons, it was as often derailed by some new aesthetic refinement.
‘Perhaps I will,’ Tharkay answered, smiling, and later Laurence saw him with the pattern-book under his arm striding across the lawn.
So Tharkay was kept busy, with the house and the management of an estate that had to be recovered from decades of poor stewardship, and Temeraire with the pavilion and his Parliamentary campaign. (‘You need not canvass, my dear,’ Laurence said to him, ‘you are the only dragon resident in this county or the next,’ which led to a lengthy disquisition on rotten boroughs and the need for Reform, in which Perscitia’s voice could be clearly heard.)
But Laurence himself was idle, more so than he had ever thought to be in his life: his dreams of peace has been distant ones, which he had never truly expected to fulfil. His days were empty, and then somehow they were full: he would breakfast with Tharkay, set out flying with Temeraire or walk through the countryside, answer correspondence, read the books and journals that he had missed in his travels: the last alone in his study, or aloud to Tharkay and Temeraire after dinner. At present they had a new novel by an unknown author, an account of the doomed rebellion by the Highland clans sixty years since; Temeraire complained that the writer had never met a dragon in his life, Scots or otherwise, but he had forbidden Laurence from reading any further in it without him.
Of other society, there was little excepting when any of their acquaintance stopped through on the way between Edinburgh and London; Laurence found that he did not miss it, but Tharkay insisted upon accepting some of those invitations that they did receive from local families.
‘It is you they truly wish to get,’ he told Laurence. ‘But it might do me good in future to be seen among my neighbours, if you think that you could bear it.’
In this, as in his personal appearance, he betrayed a slight vanity that Laurence could not begrudge him, knowing it to be born of long privation. It gave him a secret pleasure, besides, to see Tharkay dressed according to his station and the respect that was – however reluctantly – accorded to him as a result; a little vanity of his own on his friend’s behalf, which reminded him uncomfortably of Temeraire’s fussing.
It amused Tharkay to be charming at these functions, putting on his best drawing-room manner with an undercurrent of irony beneath that only Laurence could detect. Laurence himself, meanwhile, found that his politesse was tested to its limit, cornered as he was by matrons with unwed daughters who all claimed to be fascinated by the details of aerial combat: what was once second nature now pricked him with its falsity.
‘Oh Sir William,’ one such lady breathed, tapping her fan upon his arm, ‘you were so terribly brave! How you must miss the excitement of it, in our poor little corner of the world!’
‘I was merely doing my duty as I understood it,’ he answered. ‘And, like all in His Majesty’s service, am most grateful for the present peace.’
‘But of course,’ put in the matron, an Englishwoman married into the Scotch gentry who claimed to be acquainted with all of dear Sir William’s relations. ‘A gentleman now has time to think of his future, and to securing the companionship of his later years.’
Abruptly, Laurence found the last of his temper exhausted. ‘I thank you, ma’am,’ he said, seeking to catch Tharkay’s eye across the room, ‘but I have all the company that I require, at present. Pray excuse me.’
‘You will think it foolish pride,’ he said later that evening, once Tharkay’s carriage had brought them home, ‘but I find I do not wish to be courted in my prosperity by those who would have formerly crossed the street to avoid me, or to be informed by them what it is that I must now desire.’
‘Why, Laurence, that was very nearly cynical,’ said Tharkay dryly; ‘I shall have some influence on you yet.’
It was very late, only a few candles lit and the servants gone to bed; both of them were well used to valeting themselves. Laurence stifled a yawn, having grown accustomed to keeping country hours, but he was oddly reluctant to break the comfortable hush that had fallen over the room, soothing the irritations of the night with its new-found familiarity: his own chair, his own fireside, his own friend.
‘You know that you have done, Tenzing,’ he said, the mood making him earnest. ‘But truly, there is no real bitterness in my feelings; I am very happy as I am, though I cannot hope to be understood by such people.’
‘I am glad of it,’ Tharkay said. ‘Yet I am aware – that is, there are ladies even in these parts who are neither unhandsome nor unamiable. You must know I don’t expect you to remain here indefinitely, whenever you should wish to form your own establishment.’
The question, it seemed, could not be escaped, though from Tharkay it was not to be resented. Even Temeraire had evinced some renewed anxiety over it, and Laurence had recently overheard him assuring a passing courier-dragon that of course it was not than no one wished to marry Laurence, certainly not now that he was an Admiral and a baronet.
Once, long ago, he might have found his own reluctance surprising. As a young naval officer, dreaming of the fulfilment of his understanding with Edith Galman, he had looked forward to marriage as a quiet harbour after dangers passed, a place of easy domestic harmony, working together or apart, but always meeting at the end of their day in comfort and mutual society.
After the subsequent upheaval of his life and the rejected proposal to Jane, he had thought that avenue decisively closed to him, and eventually ceased to miss it. He had found, after all, such compensations: the friendship of his fellow aviators, return to Britain after exile and a rapprochement with his family, Temeraire’s company first and foremost, and this – the home offered so easily to them both by Tharkay, who had followed him across the world and seen him at his lowest without flinching, who simply seemed to know him, in some deep way that went beyond words.
He was mistaken in this instance, however, as Laurence hastened to assure him. ‘But you,’ he continued, realising it as he spoke with a strange sort of pang, ‘one day surely you will marry, and I hope that you will not find your generosity to us a burden.’
Tharkay stood from his chair and paused a while before answering, crossing the room to bank the fire. ‘The thought does you credit,’ he said at last, low, and without meeting Laurence’s eye. ‘But I have only loved twice in my life, and both times unfortunately. I have no wish now to repeat the experiment anew, or to contract any relation without feeling on both sides. So there is no more to be said about it. While I live – and after, if my lawyers oblige me – you and Temeraire will be welcome here.’
He stopped for an instant in the doorway, not quite turning back, and Laurence found himself transfixed by the spare and lonely figure of him in the dark. He did not know what to say; mere thanks seemed inadequate for the bleakness of that confession. While he hesitated, Tharkay pushed open the door and was gone with a quiet goodnight, and in the morning they went on just as they had before, the moment passed over.
‘Well, this is what I call handsome,’ Granby said, sprawled out upon the newly-upholstered sopha. He and Iskierka had come down from Edinburgh to call, with Iskierka and Temeraire soon embroiled in an argument that seemed to give them both great satisfaction; they had left them to it and retreated to the house, where they had drunk a great deal of Tharkay’s excellent claret, exchanging stories of the service. Now, Granby gestured grandly at the comfortably appointed sitting room and by extension the estate around it. ‘I’m very glad to see you as well settled as you deserve, Will.’
‘It is all Tharkay’s doing,’ Laurence said. The man himself was absent at the Selkirk Sheriff Court, where a tenant of his was to be tried for poaching; for all his claims of tyranny, he took a great concern in their welfare and any encroachments the law might make upon it. It gave Laurence some discomfort to be entertaining in his absence, even while he knew that it would never be resented, and he was all the more unwilling to appear ungrateful. ‘It has been very kind if him to allow us to make ourselves so at home.’
Granby polished off his glass and sat back, tugging off his cravat, flushed and languid with the drink. His coat had been discarded long ago: they were too much old friends to stand on ceremony, a fact startlingly confirmed by Granby’s next words. ‘Well, I see you have put old Tenzing out of his misery at last, though I’d long ceased to expect it. If you don’t mind me saying, Will, I have never seen a man pine so faithfully for such an oblivious object.’
‘Whatever do you mean,’ said Laurence blankly, after a moment.
‘There is no need to cavil with me, you know all my secrets,’ Granby said, and then he scrambled to sit up, as though just realising his error. ‘But I thought, with you living here so happily together…’
‘Tenzing is my particular friend,’ Laurence said, a little stiff, ‘as you are. I have no notion of the sentiments you seem to ascribe. Surely you must be mistaken.’
But the idea had too much substance to be so easily dismissed. Of course, a man like that would never betray himself into any overt admission, but all his actions over the years argued for a devotion that surely stretched the bounds of friendship. I have only loved twice in my life, he had said, though Laurence only knew of one youthful attachment, to Sara Maden in Istanbul. That he might be the other scarcely bore contemplating…and yet who better than Granby to see it, who was intimate with them both and experienced in such affairs?
If true, it surely made his continuance under Tharkay’s roof insupportable – but to think of leaving, and over such a reason –
‘And now I have thrown you into one of your muddles,’ Granby was saying, sobered and rueful. ‘I don’t imagine you’d believe me to have been speaking in my cups, and forget all about it?’
‘No,’ Laurence said. ‘But you have nothing to reproach yourself with; I should rather have known.’
By the time Tharkay returned home, however, he was no longer sure that he would rather have known; he could not prevent his consciousness from intruding upon the ease of their time together. In every look and gesture of Tharkay’s, he now searched for traces of thwarted desire, and did not find them. Perhaps he truly was blind, as Granby had said, but surely a man of Tharkay’s experience and former occupation would be proficient in concealing his feelings.
‘You have not attended to a word I’ve said,’ Tharkay reproached him that evening, as they lingered over their brandies by the fire. Even the very domesticity of the scene was now a source of discomforting reflection – that he had thought himself in no need of a wife while he had this. ‘Will, whatever is the matter?’
‘It is nothing,’ Laurence answered, though he blushed for the lie. ‘John called it one of my muddles, that’s all.’
‘That is a cause of concern,’ Tharkay said, leaning forward to study him. ‘Nations have trembled for your muddles before; I hope that you will give me due warning…’
Laurence shook his head. ‘It is nothing of that nature. A personal matter only.’ He turned his face away from Tharkay’s searching gaze, and the other was too well-bred to question him further.
But the muddle did not resolve itself: his newfound life of leisure left him with far too much time to think. He found himself looking over-long at Tharkay’s hands, which still pained him sometimes when it grew colder; at the line of his shoulders in shirtsleeves as he sat listening to another chapter of Waverley by Temeraire’s side; at his own weathered face in the shaving-glass, wondering what it was that Tharkay might want from him – if indeed he still wanted it, after all these years. He had never known Tharkay to indulge in a dalliance, though surely he would be very discreet if he did; yet any such casual affair did not seem like him, a man who guarded his heart and his privacy so jealously. Who had only been in love twice, and once, perhaps, with him.
It was that which gave Laurence the most pause, and not the bare possibility of carnal desire. He had resisted enough advances, as a golden-haired midshipman, to know himself proof against that; he would have turned away the greatest willing Adonis from his bed without the slightest compunction. Tharkay was no Adonis, though Laurence had always known him to be handsome, with his air of mystery and the clear-cut bones of his face; yet he was a dear friend, whom Laurence wished very much to see happy; whose happiness, indeed, rare as it was, was also a source of his own.
These thoughts made him draw away from their former concord, and feel guiltier still as a result. There was no one with whom he might have shared his feelings – Temeraire could not be trusted to be discreet in such matters, and Granby had gone to Halifax with his formation; it was not a question that could be conveyed in a letter. There was only one man who might have cut through the Gordian Knot, and it was the one tangled at the very heart of it.
‘I do not wish to pry into your affairs,’ Tharkay said quietly, touching his elbow at the library window. They had just returned from a visit to the pavilion (now nearly complete save for Temeraire’s latest ideas for embellishment), and Laurence had gone to look back across the swiftly-falling winter dusk while Tharkay lit the candles. ‘Only you know I hate to see you brooding.’
‘Have I been so bad as that?’ Laurence asked, turning back to him. ‘I am very sorry.’
‘You needn’t apologise,’ Tharkay said. He still carried the light and it made his eyes glitter, concealing their true expression. ‘But I wish you would tell me, if you had any cause to be unhappy.’
‘I am not, in the least,’ Laurence said at once, sincerely enough. ‘I would not exchange my current situation for anything. Only I wonder if – are you content?’
Only a twitch in the hand holding the candle betrayed Tharkay’s surprise, quickly concealed. ‘As much as I might ever have hoped to be,’ he said. ‘But what…’
Laurence took the taper from him and set it on the windowsill, and by its light he studied Tharkay’s face, though it was as familiar to him as his own. He framed it in his palm and the skin was soft, though beginning to prickle a little with the evening, the curve of the cheekbone flaring under his thumb. Tharkay’s look was startled and as open as he had ever seen it: as though Laurence had hurt him, as though he had been unwittingly hurting him for some time.
‘I wish more for you than that, Tenzing,’ Laurence said, low. ‘I wish it were in my power,’ and what was love if not that, he thought, this possessive and protective tide of feeling?
‘You mustn’t,’ Tharkay said, with a deliberate evenness that wavered and then broke, as Laurence drew nearer. ‘I beg you wouldn’t – ’
Laurence kissed him, wanting to know if he might do such a thing. It was a reckless means towards such a discovery, though the only one he had. Yet he need not have worried: Tharkay’s mouth was slack with surprise, for once not curved in irony, and his parted lips only made Laurence wish to go further to chase the warmth inside: no trace of reluctance at all, let alone revulsion – how could he have felt either for this man?
Tharkay still looked shaken when they separated, though he had begun tentatively to return the kiss. Laurence smoothed his hands over his shoulders, holding him in place so that they might meet one another’s eyes: no place now for retreat or ambiguity.
‘Now this I did not expect,’ Tharkay said at last. And then, pragmatically, ‘Will you regret it?’
‘No,’ Laurence said. He found that his blood was up all at once, flooding through the door of desire that Jane had re-opened for him; Tharkay’s closeness was suddenly intoxicating, but he spoke in sober earnest: he would not have taken such a step else. ‘Not unless I have forfeited your good opinion by it.’
Tharkay still regarded him sceptically for a moment; then he twisted out of Laurence’s loose hold. In a single movement, he bent to blow out the candle, pulled the heavy curtains closed behind him, and then reached up for the back of Laurence’s neck and drew him down again, for a kiss that had nothing of tentativeness about it. It felt as though Tharkay was making an argument, letting him see all the banked power that Laurence’s rash action had brought to the surface; his mouth was hot and his fingers punishing in Laurence’s hair.
It was Laurence who brought the kiss to gentle, without disengaging entirely; who made it an embrace rather than a display of brute passion, though he objected to the passion not at all. His arms were around Tharkay’s back, feeling the wiry strength of him and the ruthlessly upright way in which he held himself; he withdrew a little and kissed him more lightly still, each lip in turn and then the corner of his mouth, where the lines had begun to gather with the years.
‘If we might have this, I want us to have it,’ he said into the soft space between them. ‘We have waited long enough.’
‘And whose fault is that?’ Tharkay asked, breathless and indignant, his whole face shining, and it was this, this that Laurence had most wanted to see – honest joy on his friend’s face, and caused by him.
‘I thought before I acted,’ Laurence told him. ‘I imagined you would approve.’
Tharkay shook with silent laughter. ‘Of all the times…’ Then he grew serious again, his hands at rest with the thumbs just touching the skin above Laurence’s cravat: both grounding and a maddening distraction. ‘Would you come to bed?’ he asked frankly. ‘I should very much like to take you to bed, to demonstrate my continued good opinion. But perhaps I am being overly forward.’
‘Hardly that,’ Laurence said. He found that he was shaking a little; with the possibility of it, not trepidation. That he might feel like this for all his days.
He kissed Tharkay again, and then took each of his hands and rather formally brushed his lips against the scarred knuckles, gratified to see a faint flush on his dark skin. They proceeded in silence upstairs to Tharkay’s chambers, which were the closer. At the threshold, Tharkay looked a question at him once more, but Laurence only pushed the door open over his shoulder and tugged him through it, turning the key in the lock.
‘I am yours entirely,’ he said, intending to be flirtatious if he could manage such a thing, but coming out merely honest instead.
‘Not entirely,’ Tharkay said, touching his cheek.
‘No,’ he admitted. ‘But as much as I can spare in this life, if you would have it.’ It had the sense of a vow, and Tharkay seemed to take it as such, his gaze tender and grave.
And then it turned wicked instead, his hands more purposeful. ‘Oh, I intend to,’ he said, and drew Laurence to the curtained bed.
They stripped quickly and without flourish, until Laurence saw Tharkay pull his shirt over his head and could not resist touching the newly-revealed skin with fresh wonder. They had seen each other bare before, of course, in all their years travelling together, but this was an entirely different matter – something like what he had allowed himself to half-imagine of late, looking at Tharkay’s body and thinking of its capacity to give and receive pleasure.
‘You must tell me what to do,’ he said, when they had fallen tangled on the bed together.
‘Anything,’ Tharkay said, leaning over him and threading fingers into his loosened hair. ‘You’ll find I am not at all choosy where you are concerned.’
‘This, then,’ Laurence breathed, taking them both in a clumsy grip, and Tharkay groaned and kissed him deeply, moving his own hand down to join his.
The slide of flesh against flesh was exquisite, even if they were not particularly graceful together, fumbling in their eagerness to be closer everywhere they touched. But that would come, Laurence thought with rising joy, they might keep at it until they had become truly adept, all their lives long. And in the meantime, it was enough to feel Tharkay’s touch and his ardent kisses to send him over the crest, retaining just sufficient sense to ensure that his lover followed.
They lay together silently catching their breath, until Tharkay turned on his elbow and looked down at him, rueful and glad. He must have seen that Laurence had no second thoughts to voice – indeed, he felt as relaxed as he had ever been, all the flurry of misgivings stilled in a satisfaction that went beyond the physical, to that other much older and long-neglected wish for loyalty and permanence and home. He traced his fingers idly down the indentation at Tharkay’s hip, where he was really quite beautifully made: a feature to which he had never before given proper attention.
‘What I have done to deserve this I’ll never fathom,’ Tharkay said quietly, as though to himself.
‘Tenzing,’ Laurence said, startled out of his contemplation, and discovering that there were no words sufficient to encompass the answer. One day, perhaps, he might find them; but now he only reached up to kiss Tharkay in his gratitude, and draw the covers over them both against the gathering chill.