At times their conversations, as they stopped for the night during the journey back to Peking, had some of the easy rapport they had achieved while travelling companions on the Allegiance. They acquired a chessboard of the Chinese style and played together, with Tharkay dictating his moves aloud and winning handily each time, with more frustration at Laurence’s lack of progress than triumph.
Yet he also shut his eyes often, too weary to be polite, drifting into an uneasy fitful sleep. At those times, Laurence would find something to do, polishing his sword or writing reports, but in truth more occupied with his own reflections. His memory was returning more easily now, like reaching into a well-packed sea chest and finding everything to hand; not the sudden lightning strike he had experienced in the cavern.
It was this most recent memory that troubled him most, and he would spend a long time sitting at his desk with the candle guttering, trying to make sense of it. He had told Tharkay of all that had happened since their last parting, piecing the events together himself as he spoke, and ending with his own shipwreck and subsequent state.
“It is a strange business,” Tharkay agreed, “but I suppose it was being knocked on the head a second time that broke things loose again. I must be glad of it; I fear I should not have got on as well, with Captain Laurence of the Royal Navy.”
But inwardly Laurence was doubtful. Of course he had been slashed across the skull, and later hit again during the fighting in the tunnel, but memory had not truly returned until he had seen Tharkay lying bloody and broken in that cell, and grieved for it as Captain Laurence of the Royal Navy would not have grieved. He did not know how to tell Tharkay, without giving mortification to them both, that this was the second time that he had brought Laurence to a recollection of himself.
Often, he would find himself watching the fading bruises on Tharkay’s face as he slept, the rapid movement of his eyes under the lids, his bandaged and splinted hands curled loosely on his chest. He did not know what name to put to his emotions, unless it was the same helpless rage he had felt watching in the soldiers hack at Temeraire’s backbone: the combination of valour and suffering he could not ease making him ache with sympathetic pain. Even had he been in full possession of his faculties, Laurence thought, he still would have been taken aback by the strength of his feelings. It was not only that he had not remembered, until he walked into that torch-lit room: he had not known.
Tharkay would startle awake, at several times during the night: nothing so obvious as thrashing or a scream, but his body would stiffen and his eyes fly open, unseeing and glassy. Laurence would help him to wine, the only palliative he would accept, in silence. The words that came to his lips at such moments were foolish endearments, such as he might use to Temeraire, and he bit them back; sometimes he would venture only to speak Tharkay’s name and a reminder of where he was, safe. But his hands lingered, despite himself, on Tharkay’s shoulders: it was hard to know where to touch that would not cause further pain, his eyes mapping paths he did not dare to follow. He did not sleep much himself as a consequence, half-napping through the day’s flight.
He could not tell, at all, what he ought to do about it: surely nothing with honour. It was one thing to turn a blind eye to Granby and Little’s relations, as he now remembered to do; quite another to find his own feelings thus engaged. Perhaps they would fade, with the last of the brain fever; but even as he had the thought, he could not believe it.
Three days from Peking, he returned from an evening conversation with Temeraire to find Tharkay sitting up, attempting to eat a bowl of porridge. Ever since the first signs of convalescence, he had displayed a stubborn independence of spirit, though his hands were still nearly useless – the fingers had been broken one by one, some more than once; Laurence did not like to think what else. Tharkay had not spoken of it, but his wounds and the nightmares were evidence enough.
“Will?” he said questioningly, glancing up, as Laurence paused by the door. He did not know what his own face showed, just then, but it was enough to make Tharkay look more closely in surprise.
“You mustn’t let me disturb you,” Laurence said, turning to go, though he hadn’t the least idea where.
But Tharkay spoke his name again, making him stop. “I am very grateful to be alive, you know,” Tharkay added, low, looking down at the bowl. “Five years ago, perhaps, I might not have been; but I am grateful now. The rest is inconvenience.”
His matter-of-fact tone made Laurence colour in confusion. “I would not wish you to think,” he managed to say, “that any motive of pity.... You have saved me more than once, and the gratitude, then as now, is all on my side.”
Tharkay set the half-finished porridge down, his eyes gleaming bright in the candlelight. “Shall we have a game of chess?” he asked.
“Gladly,” Laurence said, relieved by the change of subject. But when he had fetched the board and moved to set it up by the camp-bed, Tharkay stopped him with a touch on his shoulder.
He did not speak, only looked fond and rueful, but it was enough for Laurence to know that his secret had been guessed – that he had been seen through yet again, as though his soul was crystal, and not the marred and bruised thing he knew it to be.
A moment went by in painful impasse, and then Tharkay, ever the braver, said: “Yes – yes, of course, if you like, if it isn’t pity.”
Laurence hesitated once more. The man he had thought himself to be, only short weeks before, would have considered any such action entirely against his character – if he had ever contemplated it, it would have been only from the deepest despair, a willingness to be hanged for a sodomite if not as a traitor. But it was not despair, nor pity, that made him lean up now and press his mouth to Tharkay’s, careful of his injuries and drawn to his living warmth.
There was passion in the kiss, on both sides, but given the circumstances, no immediate urgency of desire. Laurence was grateful, for he would have had only the vaguest conception of how to satisfy it; but he knelt by the bed and indulged himself for some time, as gentle as he could be without giving offence. Tharkay hissed in frustration at being unable to hold him in turn, but when he sank back on the pillow at last, he was smiling; and when he slept through that night without dreams, Laurence considered a small part of his debt repaid: a drop in the ocean, which he was determined to continue repaying as long as thought and memory were left to him, and fate would allow.