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No Man An Island

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The cat is more slender than scrawny, and while he has a few scars, he’s well-groomed. There’s no collar, but when Tenzing mentions to the man working the front desk at his motel that he’s found a cat, he immediately gets a positive ID, so it’s a moot point regardless. “Little slip of a tortie, missing one eye?” the man asks, grinning a little. When Tenzing nods, slowly raising one eyebrow, he’s met with a shrug and, “Take him up to the lighthouse, or else let him go and he’ll find his own way back eventually. He belongs to the Captain.” Tenzing being only human, this is more than enough to spark his curiosity. Tenzing being Tenzing, however, he’s certainly not going to ask, so instead he takes the man’s suggestion, piles back into his car with the cat in tow, and makes for the lighthouse.

The town isn’t large enough, or flush enough with landmarks, that he has much trouble finding the lighthouse. He’s been here two days already, which is more or less as long as he likes to stay anywhere, and those two days have given him at least a decent understanding of the lay of the land; it’s not hard to head for the coast, and from there it isn’t hard to spot the lighthouse, which is up on a rocky sort of hill and very distinct in its classic red-and-white candy-striped appearance. The thing is, after all, designed to be visible from a large distance.

The cat seems to know where they’re going as well — no surprise, Tenzing supposes, if it gets lost as often as the man at the hotel had implied it does and yet manages to find its way home every time. When they get to the bottom of the hill and he turns the car to start meandering up towards the little parking area at the base of the lighthouse, the cat actually jumps up onto the dashboard, though it had been sitting quietly enough in the passenger seat for most of the drive. He half-expects it to slide right back off again with how steep the hill is, but it stays put, purring like a rusty old motor, the sound surprisingly loud in the interior of the car.

“Well, at least you’re grateful, I suppose,” Tenzing mutters, then wonders if being on the road for so long really is driving him mad; he doesn’t normally think of cats as good conversation partners.

“Prrrrr,” the cat responds, then, “Mrrow!” as he brings the car to a stop, hopping down off the dashboard again.

There is a little house attached to the lighthouse proper — Tenzing supposes interior design for a perfectly round building must be a little difficult, so it’s not too surprising that there would be a more normally-shaped add on, since apparently someone actually lives here.

“All right, let’s see if they want you back,” Tenzing tells the cat, before gathering it up in his arms as unceremoniously as possible and getting out of the car.

The crunch of gravel under his feet is pleasant; the screaming of seabirds overhead is somewhat less so, but musical or not, it certainly sets the scene. He can’t help wondering, in a concession to the curiosity which has brought him out here in the first place when the cat is, at least if the man at the hotel can be believed, capable of finding its own way back home, what exactly the Captain is going to entail. What with the lighthouse, the obvious mental image is of a wizened older man in a thick cable-knit jumper and a rain hat, but then it’s the twenty-first century; probably anyone can be a lighthouse keeper these days. There’s certainly no need to assume it’s a man, let alone an old one.

And yet the figure that comes striding around the side of the lighthouse as Tenzing approaches is very definitely male, or at the very least masculine: tall, but not too tall, broad-shouldered and sort of sturdy looking, not willowy. He is, in fact, wearing a cable-knit jumper, but no rain hat: there’s gold hair glinting in the sunlight, just long enough to be pulled back into an efficient little ponytail. He’s looking down at what looks like a bit of rubbish, but then he looks up, perhaps catching sight of Tenzing out of his peripheral vision, and all of the air seems to leave Tenzing’s lungs — or perhaps the entire town, or all of Europe, or all the world.

It’s only a brief moment, and it passes, and anyway he doesn’t think he can really blame himself; it’s not every day that a man like that looks at him and smiles like Tenzing is Christmas come early.

Or, well, not Tenzing himself — the cat, surely it’s the cat, because the man is suddenly walking towards him much more directly and much more quickly, and he’s looking down at the cat which Tenzing is still sort of awkwardly holding, and he’s saying, “Oh, Argo!”

Tenzing is certainly not called Argo, and he has no reason to think that his stranger would think that he is; the cat doesn’t seem to really respond to the name either, but then, he is a cat. He’s still purring, though, and he starts to wriggle a little in Tenzing’s grip, enough so that after a moment Tenzing lets him down. He trots over towards the man, and they meet in the middle, Argo winding himself around his owner’s legs and purring even more loudly — loudly enough to be audible from several meters away. The man scoops him up after a second, tucking the bit of rubbish he’d been examining under one arm, and resumes his approach, and all the while Tenzing has stood there as though frozen, his guard all the way up though he can give no particular reason why.

“Thank you for bringing him by,” the man says, still smiling, though the expression is a little more reserved now; this is likely because Tenzing can feel his own face going sort of severe, which even to him seems unreasonable; considering there’s no actual reason to be put off by this man at all. The fact that he has the sleeves of his jumper rolled up to his elbows and the way he’s holding his cat is showing off his rather gorgeous forearms isn’t actually any cause for alarm. “I assume someone must have told you where he belongs, since I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“No,” Tenzing agrees, consciously trying to relax a little and plastering on a pleasant face. “I’m only passing through town, but your cat managed to find his way in through the window of my hotel room.”

“Well, I especially appreciate you taking the time to return him if you’re in transit,” the stranger says. “Will Laurence. I would shake your hand, but he gets cross if you put him down before he’s good and ready.”

“I see,” Tenzing replies, amused completely despite himself. “Tenzing Tharkay. And I believe you said his name is Argo?” he adds, gesturing slightly at the cat.

“Oh — yes,” Will says, with a small, self-deprecating laugh. “I have a terrible habit of naming all my favorite creatures after ships.”

“Well, better a ship than a Ben Affleck film, I’m sure,” Tenzing offers dryly. The joke is innocuous enough; what strikes him immediately as dangerous is the slightly surprised, delighted laugh he gets in return.

Oh, yes. Dangerous indeed, he thinks, as a short silence lapses between them, and WIll choses to fill it by looking at him thoughtfully, his brows pulling together slightly. Argo, meanwhile, has quieted down a little, but is looking out at Tenzing from within his master’s grip with an expression which is entirely smug.

“I suppose I had better let you get back to what you were doing,” Tenzing says after a moment, and Will almost seems to startle a little, then nods.

“Yes, and I you,” he says. “Thank you very much, again, for bringing him back. He has a horrible habit of wandering off.”

“He looks happy where he is to me,” Tenzing says, just a touch too quietly, and with just a touch too much amusement. Will only smiles, apparently noticing nothing in particular about it, but inside his own head Tenzing is swearing in shock. What is that supposed to mean?

“Yes, well, he does always come back,” is all Will says, and Tenzing barely manages to nod at him in what is hopefully a final sort of way before he turns on his heel to walk the thankfully short distance back over to his car.

As the lighthouse slowly shrinks in his rear-view mirror, he can’t help but feel a distant pang of worry that he’s just managed to land himself in something he doesn’t yet understand.

The man at the front desk asks after the cat the next day. Or, more accurately, John asks; Tenzing is somewhat disturbed to discover that he has learned the man’s name without really meaning to. Learning people’s names, unless done with some intent, is never a good sign, in his book.

“Of course, all odds say Argo will be gone again tomorrow,” John says with a laugh, when he finally pries out an admission that, yes, Tenzing had driven up to the lighthouse and delivered the wayward feline and met his owner. “But then he’ll come right back home again. I don’t think he can help himself; the Captain attracts strays like magnets.”

That strikes just enough curiosity in Tenzing to get him to a point where he is, reluctantly, willing to ask — or at least almost ask.

“You call him the Captain,” he notes, quirking one eyebrow. “But that’s not how he introduced himself to me.”

“Oh, it’s a bit of a joke, really,” John replies, scratching at the back of his head. “I mean, he did used to be a captain, before he came here. Navy. But really it’s just that he’s got this aura to him, you know?”

Tenzing does know, in fact, but he certainly isn’t going to admit it.

“Ah,” is all he says, instead. Somewhat infuriatingly, John takes this brush-off in a very good-natured way, only shaking his head and waving Tenzing off with a little smile.

“You’ll see what I mean eventually,” he says, “if you haven’t already.” Tenzing doesn’t bother telling him that he certainly isn’t going to stick around long enough to make any such discoveries; to his mind, it should go without saying.

The morning after that, Tenzing carries his duffel out to the car with full intent to leave. He checked out of his room — it hadn’t been John at the desk, but instead a thin Black boy, barely a teenager, in milk-bottle glasses, absorbed in what appeared to be a Latin textbook. He had paid Tenzing as little mind as Tenzing had paid him, which had been sort of refreshing, really.

The problem comes when Tenzing steps out into the carpark and sees Argo the cat napping peacefully on the bonnet of his car.

Argo, as both John the hotel manager and Will Laurence the sea captain-lighthouse man had told him, does this all the time. He will be fine, and make his own way home, and Tenzing need not worry about him at all; the most that could even theoretically be asked of him is to set the cat off to the side, to ensure that he’s not directly liable to get flattened. That would be the maximum amount of effort which Tenzing owes to this situation. And further expenditure of his time or energy would be ridiculous — unthinkably ridiculous.

He sighs without a word and bundles the cat into the passenger’s seat. Hopefully there will be a coffee shop open between here and the lighthouse.

Cat under one arm, coffee gripped in the other hand, Tenzing is just resigning himself to the prospect of an ungainly juggle in order to knock on the lighthouse door when it swings open without his prompting.

“Hello,” says the boy on the other side, when Tenzing merely stares, taking in the fact that this is certainly not Will Laurence. “Oh, you’ve brought Argo. Are you the same man who brought him the other day? Dad said it was a stranger, and I was sad I couldn’t meet you then, so I’m glad I get to meet you now. I was at school, you see,” he explains, perfectly sensibly.

Tenzing is, of course, no kind of expert when it comes to children, but this seems to him a rather articulate sort of speech for a boy who can’t be older than five or six. Then again, if he is in fact Will’s child, as Tenzing must assume, perhaps this shouldn’t come as quite such a shock.

“I did bring Argo the other day,” he replies eventually. “He was on my car this morning. Is… your father…”

Before he is left to struggle at finishing the thought, thankfully, there is the sound of footsteps from further inside the lighthouse, and, like a miracle, Will appears.

“Mr. Tharkay!” he exclaims, clearly surprised, before he looks down to find his cat once again clutched in Tenzing’s grip and his expression turns amused and knowing. “My, he got an early start this morning.”

“He did,” Tenzing agrees wryly. “And since this is the second time I’ve returned him to you in three days, I think you can get away with calling me Tenzing.” He doesn’t say Mr. Tharkay was my father, because it’s a terrible cliche, but, well — it is true. These days he finds he would rather give his Christian name than be constantly reminded of his paternal relations.

And he would especially rather give his Christian name to men who look like William Laurence, though he’s resolved not to think about that. Especially not since the man evidently has a child, Christ — though Tenzing cannot help but note that the presence of said child does not seem to correspond to the presence of a wedding ring.

“Tenzing, then,” Will says; Tenzing’s resolution also extends to not paying much notice to the spots of color which have appeared high on the man’s cheekbones at the use of the name. “Thank you for your service in once again returning our wayward cat. Oh,” he adds, as though by saying ‘our’ he has abruptly reminded himself of the boy’s presence, “this is my son, Temeraire. Tem, this is Mr. Tharkay, who I told you about.”

Temeraire seems rather a mouthful of a name for any child, but of all the boys in all the world, Tenzing’s short appraisal says this might just be the one suited to bear it. The child in question bows slightly and then sticks out his hand in a very formal fashion, forcing Tenzing to set the cat down in order to shake.

“How do you do,” Temeraire says, and then adds in perfectly fluent Mandarin, “I hope it isn’t rude to ask, but are you Chinese, too?”

“Nepalese,” Tenzing responds, shocked into both honesty and reciprocal Mandarin. “On my mother’s side.”

“I’m adopted,” Temeraire informs him, looking overjoyed to be continuing to speak in what Tenzing must assume is his mother tongue. “You speak much better Chinese than Dad. Have you at least been to China, then?”

“Many times,” Tenzing replies. He cannot help but to glance up at Will, somewhat baffled; the man smiles a bit sheepishly at him and puts a hand on his son’s shoulder.

“Temeraire, why don’t you go finish your breakfast?” he ask-instructs, butting in in English once more. “Mr. Tharkay’s Chinese is better than mine, but that doesn’t mean you can monopolize him all morning.”

“Oh, all right,” Temeraire sighs, sounding incredibly put-upon, and he scoops up the cat — which looks a bit comical, as Argo is almost as big as he is — before retreating back into the depths of the lighthouse.

There’s a moment of silence after he leaves, neither Tenzing nor Will apparently quite sure how to break it now that the most verbose of their party has gone. Finally, before the quiet can become properly awkward, Tenzing clears his throat and says, “You must have fairly good Chinese, though, if you were able to pick out that comment with how fast he was speaking.”

“Or I’m simply very used to what it sounds like when he insults me,” Will returns with a small smile. Then he relents: “No, I’m not so terrible as all that. But I don’t read it well at all, and I have it on good authority that my accent could make a strong man weep.”

Tenzing can’t help but crack a smile at that, though he doesn’t reply aloud. Instead he averts his gaze, looking past Will to the lighthouse, and then turning slightly to look past the lighthouse to the sea. To his untrained eye, the water looks calm today, and there’s no fog to speak of; he’d guess it to be a fairly easy morning in the world of a lighthouse-keeper.

Will certainly looks relaxed enough; he may be dressed smartly, especially for the father of a small child, but there’s little in the way of tension or formality in his bearing. Never mind that everything about his dress and speech makes Tenzing feel like there should be; never mind that, if John from the hotel is to be believed about his former mode of employment, the man likely used to be professionally stiff and uptight. At least for today, he’s smiling faintly, leaning one shoulder against the doorframe, and watching Tenzing as though he is waiting for something, but willing to take as much time as necessary to uncover it.

It’s unnerving. Tenzing is used to being regarded as though he is wholly unsolvable. He clears his throat.

“Well,” he says. “I suppose I’d better be going — I’ve got —”

“Oh,” Will interrupts, the very picture of innocence, as though he doesn’t at all know the extent to which he’s confounding Tenzing’s plans, “but won’t you come in for tea?”

Tenzing still has at least half a coffee clutched in one hand. He goes inside anyway.

“Well, hello,” John says later that day, looking not at all surprised to see him. “Sipho seemed to think you had left.”

“I assume no one has taken the room in my absence?” Tenzing asks through gritted teeth.

It isn’t a problem, or so Tenzing tells himself. It isn’t as though he’s expected anywhere, or as though he has any concrete plans — or indeed any plans at all — for what he will do after he leaves. The fact that he has not yet left is, therefore, not an actual issue in any way; it’s simply unusual, that’s all. And in a way, isn’t that a good thing? He would, after all, hate to become predictable.

There is no problem in that he’d followed Will inside for tea when he had offered; his coffee was lukewarm verging on cold by that point anyway. There is no problem in that, by doing so, he wound up pulled back into conversation with Temeraire, who seemed to be trying to catch him off guard by switching languages at the drop of a hat; no doubt it was hard for a person that young to find anyone to talk to them as they liked, between adults who would try to treat them as an infant and peers who almost certainly were not also polyglots. There is no problem, either, in that Temeraire had managed to exact a promise that Tenzing would come back to talk to him again, or that Will had turned it into an invitation to come round for dinner, or that Tenzing hadn’t said no, or even that he found himself mildly intrigued by the idea; there were few enough chances for him to eat food that could even generously be called “home-cooked” these days, and both Will and Temeraire are nice enough.

There’s no reason that any of it should be alarming, Tenzing tells himself. There’s no problem at all.

Dinner, when he does come round the following evening, proves to be a perfectly respectable lasagne, which leads into an interrogation from Temeraire on the subject of Italy — has Tenzing been? (On several occasions.) Does he speak much Italian? (Perhaps not by the standards of the Italians, but certainly by the standards of most Englishmen.) Is Rome really as nice as all that? (The Sistine Chapel seems somewhat smaller in person, but if you can avoid the crowds, it’s a charming city.) What is a Vespa, anyway? (An especially small and angry cousin of the motorbike.) What is it called extra virgin olive oil — surely virginity is more of a yes-or-no type of distinction, and anyway, how can oil be virginal at all?

This particular inquiry goes unanswered, and instead leads to raised eyebrows on Tenzing’s part and a long-suffering sigh from Will.

“You try raising a child who refused the stork version of ‘where do babies come from?’ when he was four,” he says dryly, sounding only a little defensive — which is ridiculous, because it’s not as though Tenzing is any kind of person to cast judgement when it comes to child-rearing. He’s not exactly a subject-matter expert. “Besides, don’t blame me for telling him what a virgin is. I believe that was John’s doing — John Granby, that is, who runs the hotel in town. I assume you’ve met him? I’m not sure where else you’d be staying, we’ve only got the one.”

“I have,” Tenzing replies, choosing not to go into any more detail than that. “He didn’t strike me as the type to say something like that to a child, though.”

“Oh, well, don’t blame him either, really,” Will says with a sigh. “It’s just, his daughter — I’m not sure if you’ve met her; he usually tries to avoid bringing her to the hotel, for the sake of the place remaining in one piece —”

“Iskierka is a menace,” Temeraire says darkly, a rather damning statement from a child who might just as well be described in such terms himself.

“She is, a bit,” Will agrees easily, shaking his head with a slight wince. “Once she’s got the bit in her teeth about something, there’s absolutely no getting her off of it. So John’s been forced to explain certain things at a rather faster rate than he would have liked, between her and this one,” this punctuated with a jerk of his head in Temeraire’s direction.

“I see,” Tenzing says, not quite able to tamp down on his smile. She sounds a bit like a child after his own heart, though he’s certainly not going to admit that. “I seem to have found my way to a superior young companion, then,” he says instead, and Temeraire beams.

“Oh dear,” Will says quietly, amused. “You’ll never get rid of him now.”

In the future, he will think that perhaps he should have put a bit more stock in that warning, but for the time being, Tenzing simply lets himself be drawn into an answering smile.

“Oh, hello, Mr. Tharkay,” the woman at the cafe says, when he stops by for a coffee on his way out to the lighthouse.

“Evening, Tenzing,” says John, who seems to have decided mutual acquaintance with WIll makes them friends, when he returns for the night.

“Mr. Tharkay!” yells Temeraire, bouncing with excitement, when they cross paths in town. “I told Iskierka about you and she didn’t believe me that you were real, so you have to meet her after all. I’m very sorry.”

“Tenzing,” Will says, warmly, once Temeraire has extracted a promise that Tenzing will prove to all of his friends — but especially the oft-decried Iskierka — that he is, in fact, quite real, and not someone who Temeraire has made up to sound “cool and mysterious.” (Though he does decide to take it as quite the compliment that he gives off an air of coolness and mystery, even described secondhand to children.)

“Hello, Will,” Tenzing says, and begins to wonder if he doesn’t have a problem after all.

Proving his reality to the village children seems to involve a great deal of over-curious young people climbing all over the lighthouse, though Will seems not to mind their presence at all. There’s Temeraire, of course, and the fabled Iskierka, a tiny but ferocious girl with bronze skin and a nest of fiery curls, accompanied by John and a quiet man who Tenzing takes to be a boyfriend or perhaps fiance, by the way Iskierka seems a little dubious of him yet. Then there is Lily, a little older and accompanied by her mother Catherine and father Tom, and a laid-back boy named Max and his even easier-going father — the resemblance there is quite striking — and abruptly Tenzing realizes that he has found himself at a gathering of friends.

Friends, and seemingly half the population of the village if not more; he supposes it must be a good sign for a place this size, so many young families, but God, he didn’t realize he would be among them.

Temeraire seems almost to be holding court, though he’s among the youngest of the children, but WIll doesn’t mirror his son. He seems more content to fade into the social background, though he does appear to get on well with more or less everyone. He has drifted off to the side of things with John and John’s partner — who seems to be called Augustine — and Tenzing, fool that he has become, finds himself likewise drawn toward him as though magnetized.

The ease and familiarity between the three of them is hard to mistake, but it’s especially clear between Will and John; they could not more obviously have known each other for years, and they could not more obviously care for one another. A friendship like that isn’t just rare — as far as Tenzing is concerned, it’s nonexistent, or at least he would have said so up until this very moment, with proof staring him in the face. They laugh and talk together easily, and Augustine follows along with a fond half-smile, and the whole thing is just so damnably warm.

And the worst part is, he doesn’t even feel out of place; every time he starts to drift away from the conversation in his mind, feeling the distance settle between him and the others, someone will draw him back in with a joke or a question or occasionally even a friendly touch. This time it’s John, asking if Tenzing has noticed that Will talks about the lighthouse like it’s his second child; Tenzing has, but that’s not actually what it is about the question that recaptures his attention.

“You don’t call him ‘Captain’ to his face,” Tenzing says accusingly, one eyebrow raised, in response to which John laughs, Augustine smirks, and Will looks distinctly embarrassed.

“I do sometimes,” John assures him, once he’s recovered enough breath to speak. “Mostly when he’s being irritatingly honorable and self-sacrificing, though there’s not as much opportunity for that as there once was, eh, sir?” He jostles WIll good-naturedly and gets an eye roll and a reluctant smile in return.

“He just likes to add to the mystique for out-of-towners,” Augustine tells Tenzing as an aside, while the other two satisfy themselves with a bit of roughhousing which wouldn’t seem out of place among the children — though John is distinctly the instigator, and Will mostly seems to be trying to get himself free without falling on the ground.

“So I’ve simply peeled back the curtain,” Tenzing says, and Augustine smiles faintly at him, something considering and contemplative in his gaze.

“Yes,” he says, over the sounds of Will and John bickering, and the other parents chattering and the children shrieking, and the wind and the birds and the sea. “You know, I think that you may just be the first person to stick around long enough to manage that.”

“What?” Tenzing asks, entirely without meaning to, entirely despite all of his best intentions, his blood rushing in his ears suddenly blocking out all other noise.

Augustine pauses for just a moment, looking entirely too much like he’s figured something out. Just when, Tensing thinks over a mindscape of panicked static, did he become someone who can be figured out to any extent the very first time someone meets him?

“People are either from here,” Augustine says eventually, “or they’re passing through. Will’s the only person I can think of who’s come as an adult and actually stuck around, at least in recent memory. Will — and now you.”

He turns away to fuss at John a little — he’s finally stopped attacking Will, but his collar and hair have suffered in the assault — as though he has no idea what kind of bomb he’s just dropped, or perhaps as though he has every idea. Temeraire is yelling something in the distance; he sounds very far away indeed.

“Are you all right?” someone says at a much closer range, and Tenzing blinks to find that Will is looking at him with his brow creased in concern and his eyes decidedly soft.

Perhaps the most damning thing yet is that Tenzing actually stops to consider his answer. Of course he’s not fine, not at all, but then why shouldn’t he be? It’s not as though there’s anything wrong with any of this. He’s not a shark; he won’t die unless he keeps moving. The wandering, the living out of his car, the slowly chipping away at his inheritance via roadside motels and half-empty pubs and dilapidated petrol stations — all of that’s just habit, isn’t it?

And yet the habit has been his entire way of life for long enough that even the mildest of threats to it would be more than enough to rattle him, and Will Laurence — Will Laurence is smiling softly at him as though trying to cheer him up. He is reaching out with one hand to gently, reassuringly take hold of Tenzing’s shoulder; his son is making his way over to them now, Tenzing can see him over Will’s shoulder, leading a merry band of children all somehow covered in sand and seaweed. Will Laurence is not, in any sense, a mild threat.

“I think I will be,” Tenzing tells him eventually, just before Temeraire and company descend upon them, and Will’s answering smile is warm enough that he almost forgets to be terrified at all.

“It was nice of you to come,” Will says, hours later. The sun is setting; Temeraire is inside, washing up before dinner. Everyone else has gone home, leaving the seagulls once again their main competition for space as they walk down the twisting path from the rock on which the lighthouse sits to the tiny stretch of grey sandy-pebbly beach at its base.

“I know Temeraire can be a bit demanding,” he adds, glancing up at Tenzing from under a fringe of golden hair which has fallen free of the usual tiny ponytail. He does not at all seem to realize what a devastating impact this has. “But he — well, not to excuse it, and of course I’m trying to teach him about boundaries, but he acts that way because he likes you very much. Not many adults can strike the balance between not talking down to him and not lecturing at him.”

“I like him very much, too,” Tenzing admits. It seems both easier and more difficult to get those words out than it should, or than he might have expected it to be. “I don’t have what one might call extensive interactions with children, but I’ve never met one quite like him.”

“No,” Will agrees, sounding exactly as fond as the parent of a boy like Temeraire ought to sound, which is to say: terribly, so much that it makes Tenzing’s bones ache a little.

There’s a pause; they come to a stop on the beach together, standing shoulder to shoulder, the water coming up just high enough to brush the toes of Tenzing’s boots before receding. The sun will be gone entirely in only a few minutes, and WIll in this light is almost effusively golden. Even looking at him peripherally is almost too much for Tenzing to bear.

“You know...” Will says, after what feels like a very long time but must be only minutes, because the sun is still fighting the horizon, just barely peeking out; his voice is very quiet, so quiet that it’s almost lost under the waves, and he trails off without finishing his thought. On instinct, Tenzing turns slightly and leans in, knowing without a single doubt that he can’t afford to miss a word.

“What do I know?” he asks, after a few moments more, because Will has hesitated in whatever it was he was saying to simply stare at him.

Will laughs softly, seeming at nothing, and some small measure of tension leaves him. “You know,” he repeats, sounding just the littlest bit more certain, “Temeraire is not the only person here who likes you very much.”

“I assume you’re talking about the seagulls,” Tenzing murmurs, and he’s still trying to figure out how to word a more genuine response through the shock and excitement and reflexive, defensive sarcasm when Will kisses him.

Tenzing tries not to think about how long it’s been since someone kissed him like this — which is to say, with pure, simple affection, and with the benefit of knowing him. He tries to think, instead, of absolutely nothing at all. It’s only when Will slowly pulls back that he notices the slight tang of salt, or Will’s hands resting gently on his waist, or his own heavy breathing.

“I haven’t spooked you, have I?” Will says quietly; they are close enough together still that his lips brush slightly over Tenzing’s as he speaks. “I don’t want to frighten you off, but I’ve been wanting to do that for weeks, you see.”

“Has it been weeks?” Tenzing replies a little dazedly, his eyes still half closed.

Will hums. “Almost three. John’s starting to talk as though you’ve moved into the hotel permanently.”

“Oh, well, that won’t do,” Tenzing says. His brain still feels rather embarrassingly short-circuited; he hopes Will will be enough of a gentleman to give him some time alone to collect himself before he needs to go inside for dinner, because there is no way in hell he’ll be able to handle Temeraire’s usual barrage of curiosity in this state. The idea of talking to the boy at all while thinking about snogging his father is slightly horrifying. “I suppose I’ll have to — someone in town is bound to have a flat, or at least a room to let, haven’t they?”

“So then you are planning on sticking around,” Will not-quite-asks, taking a deep, slightly unsteady breath. “For — for a while.”

Tenzing pauses — not to consider the idea, not anymore, but to give it the sort of gravity he feels it deserves, to make it clear that he has considered it and that this is no split-second decision brought on by one single very nice kiss. “I can see no reason to do anything else, and several very good reasons to stay,” he says at last, dipping his head a little and looking up at Will through his eyelashes. “Since you’re something of a pillar of the community, I suppose you can probably help me find lodgings.”

“I imagine we can sort something out,” Will agrees; when he smiles, Tenzing has the very embarrassing thought that it’s as though the sun has come right back out again, even though it’s sunk beneath the waves properly now.

“Right,” he says, sounding rather distant even to his own ears. He would wonder if Will has always been this startlingly handsome, except that he knows for certain that he has — it’s just that it’s a bit easier to notice it now that he’s not having an existential crisis about it, and about the whole concept of staying in one place for a change. Or, if not easier, at least it doesn’t give him acid reflux anymore.

“Right,” Will says. Tenzing blinks at him in the now decidedly fading light, then squints, then sighs; part of him really would like to stay down here on the beach and perhaps see if kissing WIll is just as wonderful the second time around — and the third, and the fourth, and so on — but of course, Temeraire is waiting, and Tenzing wouldn’t put it past him at all to come barging down here after them if he decides they’re taking to long.

Besides, he thinks, for once revelling in the little flutter in his stomach rather than fearing it, it’s not as though he doesn’t have time.

“We’d probably best be getting up there,” he says, and before he can think better of it, he holds out his hand.

Will doesn’t say anything, but when he reaches out to take Tenzing’s hand, he is biting down on a smile. The wind is at their backs as they turn and walk together back up the twisting path to the lighthouse, side by side, up to where warm yellow light is spilling out from the back door.