The mantle is slightly heavier about the collar than Laurent is accustomed to: a bulky contrivance of fur, with thread-of-gold faintly abrasive against his nape. He moves a little more sharply to compensate for the former, chin hitched fractionally higher than usual; the latter, he simply endures.
In the sterile hush of early morning, it is cold out on the balcony, but not hugely so. Bracing, perhaps. He feels braced, for the most part: braced for the worst, and bracketed in jewels. Nothing that occurs today could shock him, given the sheer range of scenarios he has considered and accounted for - but, by the same token, nothing can set him completely at ease.
He finds he would love rather dearly to scream.
His fingertips tense, nails scraping against a ridge in the stonework. Minutely, he forces himself to relax. He relaxes until his palms are level with the top of the balcony, and his breathing is shallow, but metronome-steady. At which point, he finally allows himself to turn around.
And smiles, faintly. “Is this an attempt to wish me luck?” he asks of the figure in the doorway. “Or a very localized foreign invasion?”
Damen doesn’t even have the grace to look apologetic. Instead he grins, bright and broad, arms folded at his chest. Laurent weathers it as he might a blow, schooling his own expression into some semblance of neutrality.
“As far as blessings go, luck seems a little redundant,” says Damen, gently. “But I did think you might appreciate company.”
There is an inappropriate stillness to this exchange - an underlying thread of anticipation that they would both do well to sever.
Laurent leans back against his elbows, eyes narrowed slightly. “Company under different circumstances, perhaps. But actually, what I’d appreciate is clarification. What is it you believe you are doing here?” Damen’s brow furrows. Laurent elaborates. “Three weeks ago, you tell me you’ll be gone within as many days. You proceed to dog my footsteps all the way to the capital. Then, yesterday you inform me that you depart immediately at dawn: a declaration which, no sooner than expressed, is seemingly abandoned. Tell me - do you and your army have any intention of seeing your beloved homeland again? Or does Nikandros ride to win back Akielos in your absence?”
Damen’s smile declines by increments as he recognises the extent to which he has misjudged the mood. Good. By the end of Laurent’s speech, it has vanished entirely. “Circumstances change,” he says, eventually - this time, in all seriousness. “I swore I’d stay to see you crowned.”
“You saw me crowned at Chastillon, when my uncle surrendered,” says Laurent, unrelenting. “At Arles, you witnessed the coronet itself torn from his head - moments before both head and body were struck quite definitively asunder. In all ways but one, you’ve had confirmation of my victory.” Slowly, head aslant, he surveys Damen - noting the gentle, almost indulgent set to his features. It causes Laurent’s next words to emerge half-hissed, a little less impartial than he had intended. “Why choose now to defer to ceremony?”
Damen - who, it seems, has long since learned how to bear such scrutiny - does not buckle under the pressure of Laurent’s gaze. Hardly. If anything, he returns it with twice as much conviction. And to think that, prior to knowing him, Laurent had never thought concern or loyalty to be remotely adversarial. Right now, he faces the full onslaught of an understanding so calm, so deeply characteristic that it is all he can do not to look away or flinch.
Damn him for that, anyway.
“You’re making too much of this,” says Damen, with insufferable calm. Or rather, he rebukes - in that same tone that always holds the power to make both the years and inches between them feel rather less like trifles, and rather more like twin insurmountable gulfs. Briefly, Laurent feels all of about thirteen. “This is hardly some kind of plot. There was no point in sticking to our three day agreement once Nikandros learned who - who I was. You needed his help, and I needed him - staying made sense.”
Put like that, it seems logical. More than logical - inevitable, even. That, Laurent suspects, is its own problem.
“And now?” he inquires, as tonelessly as he can manage.
Helplessly, Damen runs a hand through his hair, and sighs - a gesture that, in itself, seems to say: I didn’t come here seeking an interrogation.
One might well ask him, what did you expect to find? Laurent does not. Instead, he turns back toward the balcony, where Arles spans before them, seeping through the mist like a watercolour sketch. Dawn tricks out each spire in delicate streaks of gold, whilst the rooftops flush a faint tangerine. But for a few stirrings amidst the narrow alleys, the city sleeps. He has lost count of the times he has done this: watched sunlight steal its way across honey-coloured walls, chasing the early-morning fog into gradual retreat - thinking, all the while, that someday every winding street and burnished dome would be his by right and name.
The view is different here. Laurent has not set foot in his old chambers since returning to the palace - nor, for that matter, his uncle’s. Instead, he has set up temporary residence in a set of unoccupied rooms near the east wing. It had seemed altogether - simpler - at the time.
Damen seems finally to recognise that some response is expected of him, although still he does not answer straight away. He does, however, abandon his post at the doorway, coming to stand next to Laurent at the balcony. As he leans forward, hands clasped over the wall, their shoulders brush.
If Damen is at all surprised or put out by this, he shows no sign. Obediently, he shifts: casually enough that one might feasibly construe it as accidental, but enough to broaden the distance between them by several inches. Laurent smothers a wince. He hadn’t - meant that. Once more, he attempts to will the tension out of his shoulders - to urge his fingers to relax their grip against the stone ledge.
Damen tilts his head to face him. “In any case,” he says, gently, “my people could benefit from a few days’ rest. Assuming you’re still willing to give them shelter.”
“To the men who helped take Chastillon?” Laurent arches an eyebrow. “Yes, of course. Even without your appealing to my sense of obligation.”
At this, Damen snorts. Laurent responds with a quick smile, half involuntarily.
Then, abruptly, he straightens. Without risking a glance back at Damen, he withdraws from the balcony, heading back into the main chamber. There, after a moment’s deliberation, he settles upon the divan, smoothing the robe over his knees.
Damen does not follow immediately. He lingers in the doorway, just - watching Laurent: not critically, but nor with any sense of overt admiration. He simply looks, as though committing the scene to memory for future perusal. As if gauging whether or not to speak.
Laurent, for his part, looks straight back. There, half-haloed by the rising sun, Damen seems like the figure of folklore he will no doubt become upon his return to Akielos: solemn and strong, incandescently so, and ever so subtly larger than life. He wears a blue doublet of classic Veretian cut, rendered all the more striking for its incongruity; and for Laurent, it conjures the image of long afternoons devoted slavishly to swordplay, and of a hatred so utterly aimless in its intensity - of years cycling around the fixed point of a single mantra: Uncle, I will kill him.
He takes a quiet, shuddering breath.
It is perhaps this - this scene in its totality - and not complete waspishness, that induces him to say what he says next. “Ah, I think I see. You wish to remain here because you imagine I still need you.” Imperiously, he lifts his chin. “You would do well to remember that I am a King, not a babe in arms. Stay as long as you feel obligated, but do not for a moment believe that it is for my sake. It is for the satisfaction of your own conceit, no more. And never presume to believe that, after all this time, you can teach me how to govern.”
The genuine outrage that spills over Damen’s features cuts deeper than a thousand denials. Something akin to shame steals over Laurent, overshadowing his resolve, and quite annihilating his short-lived anger. He - he shouldn’t let it end like this, and yet it seems this is all he can do -
Damen moves towards him, indignation clearly having taken priority over the previous moment’s hesitance. “And, after all this time,” he demands of Laurent, “do you imagine I’d ever insult you like that?” He makes a move as if to grab him - grip him by the shoulder, perhaps - but visibly arrests himself before he can do so. “Laurent,” he breathes, instead - fraught with both wonderment and exasperation, such that it causes a thrill to chase up Laurent’s spine. And shakes his head, as if to clear it. “Never. Do you understand?”
Laurent cannot look at him any longer. Shame emerges with such force that he can hardly find tongue to speak it. “Evidently, I understand far less than either of us thought,” he tells the opposite wall, weakly.
Had he really meant that? Has he really meant anything he has said since Damen arrived? You do not owe this man honesty, he tells himself - but it is a lie; as ever, an excuse. By now, they owe each other everything.
This time, Damen - Damen, whose unfathomable convictions and impossible honesty have never seemed more alien than now - does actually kneel and take him by the shoulders. Laurent doesn’t flinch, doesn’t move, or force himself to move; he simply accepts the touch.
“If that’s what you really believe -” begins Damen, roughly, before once more stopping himself short. His hands slide to Laurent’s upper arms, clutching a little at the fabric of the mantle. “Then it’s probably no more than I deserve,” he finishes, bowing his head to cover a strange, startled laugh.
The top of his hair brushes lightly against Laurent’s chest. It takes Laurent a moment to realise exactly what he means. Then, he remembers that they have not been alone together like this since - well, Ravenel.
Damen looks up at him again. “We said goodbye before any of this began. No matter what, I wanted that still to stand.”
“So you resolved to leave at sunrise.” It makes sense.
“If not earlier.”
Suddenly, it is Laurent who is possessed of an equally inexplicable urge to laugh. “But you changed your mind,” he points out.
Damen smiles, with such unguarded warmth that it catches Laurent’s breath. “I changed my mind.”
Suddenly, it is all too much to take. Laurent makes a small, abortive movement against the hold, and Damen, taking this as something more than it is, releases him.
Slowly, Laurent rises - and after a moment, Damen also stands. And yet, the distance between them now seems contrived - artificial. Laurent wishes he could force himself to say something gauche again, something so far from the mark that Damen will retreat at once in disgust - anything to strike a death-blow to this renewed intimacy - but finds it impossible to speak.
Instead, it is Damen who breaks the silence. “Anyway. Perhaps all that ought to be expressed between us has already been said. Regardless, I wanted to tell you that I wish you all the happiness - and yes, I suppose all the luck in the world. You will make a good king. Had circumstances been different - had I been anyone other than who I am - I would have been proud to be your subject.”
Disorientated, Laurent blinks. “No you wouldn’t,” he says, eventually. “You’d shudder to be subject to anyone. Even me.”
“Perhaps,” says Damen, although even as he concedes the point, he does not look entirely convinced.
Not for the first time, Laurent wishes madly that he might have some access to his thoughts - some clue to his intentions. With most people, it does not take long for Laurent to gauge the sum of them; words and expressions, however guarded, might as well be clear signs of their character. Damen is not so easily read.
As soon as this crosses Laurent’s mind, Damen does something even more perplexing - he kneels at Laurent’s feet. “My thanks, then, if not my loyalty,” he murmurs, head bowed. He lingers there, for a long moment. Then, suddenly resolute, he looks back up towards Laurent. “I won’t detain you any longer. Your Highness. And - I’m sorry.”
At this, he rises. Unbelievably, he makes as if to leave.
Laurent starts. “Have you changed your mind again?” he demands, almost ludicrously.
When Damen turns back, he seems as wrongfooted as Laurent himself feels. But then, he shakes his head. “I’ll still be at the coronation. But I won’t stay here to disturb you.”
“You think you’re disturbing me?” echoes Laurent, for once at a loss.
“I think I’ve outstayed my welcome,” Damen replies - coming back towards where he last stood, in spite of this. He looks directly - searchingly - at Laurent. “Have I not?”
“Don’t be facile,” snaps Laurent, before he can stop himself.
“Then why,” begins Damen, with a calm that seems to belie considerable frustration, “do I feel like Torveld on the balcony? Tolerated for policy’s sake?”
He saw - well, of course he must have seen that. Laurent, in a bid to cover his own shock, tries to regain the offensive. “Do you imagine yourself to be my suitor? You overstep the mark.”
“Clearly,” says Damen, quietly.
Incensed at their combined cowardice, Laurent comes closer - close enough that he has to tilt his head upwards to meet Damen’s eyes, which he does, as fiercely as he can. “Do you realise exactly what you are to me? Obviously not, if you see yourself as a suitor: to be kept at bay, and led by the nose - permitted to do no more than pay court!” He has lost all control, in every conceivable way. He doesn’t care. On impulse, he reaches upwards, dragging in Damen closer by the collar of his doublet. “Are you really such a fool, Damianos?”
Damen makes a strangled noise, somewhere between objection and disbelief, as Laurent hisses the final word into the scant inches left between them; and then, perhaps without either of them really intending to do so -
- but that is ridiculous, because a kiss cannot be truly accidental, any more than two people can literally fall into one another’s arms. And Laurent knows this, knows the distinction between rhetoric and self-delusion; it is Laurent who kisses Damen, and he does so purposely.
They haven’t discussed - well, scarcely - that is, there hasn’t been time, amidst usurpation, civil war, and the subsequent overhaul and reformation of the entire court at Arles. But if it’s assurance that Damen wants - well -
Well. Damen tenses against him, unmoving, and Laurent is overwhelmed by unease. Abruptly, face burning, he draws back.
He searches for a plausible excuse - something cutting, or flippant - anything, really; and he gets about as far as: “I don’t -” before Damen leans over and kisses him again.
It is everything and nothing like the battlements at Ravenel; shades of that one fevered night mingle with a desperation - a vehemence - that is entirely new. Damen locks his arms around the small of Laurent’s back, as Laurent’s free hand finds its way into his hair, the other still pressed between them. Slowly, inexorably, Laurent feels the tension finally lift from his shoulders, as he fits himself to Damen as best as he knows how - opening to the kiss with something like ferocity, something like madness.
“Sorry,” murmurs Damen, once they break apart. And yet, shakily, he smiles.
“For just now?” Laurent gives him a wry look. At least, he hopes it is wry; in all honesty, he would not be surprised if it turns out somewhat dazed. Not so much from the kiss, as from the way that Damen seems to radiate both relief and happiness - tangible proof that Laurent is a fool.
This provokes a breath of laughter from Damen - still close enough to stir the tips of Laurent’s hair against his cheek. “Definitely not.”
“Ah,” says Laurent. And waits.
Damen relaxes his hold, as though half afraid of reproach. Laurent almost wishes he knew some appropriate way to reassure him - but then, if he did, this would hardly be an issue in the first place.
Damen does not elaborate, precisely. Rather: “How long have you known, anyway?” he asks, smoothing a strand of hair behind Laurent’s ear. Before Laurent can respond, he answers for himself. “You have a scar. Of course. Right from the very start. Why did I not see it?”
A small smile. “I did wonder.”
There is a difference between knowing and knowing, Laurent could tell him. But he does not.
“You wanted to kill me,” says Damen. “More than anything, that’s what you wanted. But you forced yourself to wait.”
“Mm,” agrees Laurent. “It was rather trying.”
“When did you change your mind?”
Laurent shrugs. “When did you stop wanting to use that knife?”
Damen hums in agreement, as though this amounts to a satisfactory answer, and Laurent kisses him again, for no reason other than that he wants to. The hum of agreement modulates into one of approval. He wonders whether this might be regarded as ease, and concludes that it is too hard-won to qualify.
His suspicion is confirmed when, having thoroughly rumpled Laurent’s robe, Damen reluctantly withdraws - this time, properly. “You changed your mind,” he says. “But did you ever forgive me?”
Laurent releases his grip on Damen’s collar. “We have both behaved unforgivably toward one another,” he points out. “We’ll manage, I think.”
There is a pause. “Your brother was a skilled fighter,” Damen says, eventually. “To challenge him to the sword - it was an honour. The greatest I have ever experienced.”
“And yet, your skill surpassed his,” comments Laurent, levelly.
“By a hairsbreadth,” Damen concedes. Guardedly.
“I do not begrudge you it,” says Laurent - finding, as he does so, that this is at least partially true.
Broaching the topic of Auguste is not as difficult as he might have expected. Part of Laurent, it seems, has wanted nothing better than to talk to Damen of Auguste.
But enough of that, for now.
Laurent seats himself on the divan once more; after a moment’s hesitation, Damen follows suit.
“There will never be an ideal time for you to leave, Damianos,” says Laurent. “I would gladly allow you to remain here until we have both grown gray, if I didn’t know that that is not what you want.”
At the use of his given name, Damen makes a curiously expression - strikingly similar, in fact, to the look he gave Laurent upon hearing him speak his language fluently. Taken aback, yes, but not entirely displeased.
“Is that why -?”
“Idiotic of me,” admits Laurent. “If I hadn’t succeeded in driving you away by now, I don’t know why I thought that harsh words would suffice.”
Damen laughs unabashedly at that. “You’d be surprised,” he says. “You almost succeeded.”
Laurent winces. “It is foolish to prolong the inevitable,” he says, pronouncing the words with care. “But - I do not want you to leave.” And curses himself for a child, even as he says it. And yet, he is glad he has said it.
“I know,” says Damen, at once. “But I won’t be gone for good. You’ll have to trust me on that. I will win back Akielos, and once I am restored to the crown, we’ll work to preserve peace between our nations. We’ll draw up a new treaty - forge an alliance, even.” A sidelong glance at Laurent. “If you’re willing to consider it.”
A pause. “I am willing to consider it,” says Laurent. “Provided you return in one piece.”
Damen shifts closer, so that their knees brush, before laying a hand over one of Laurent’s. More than anything, Laurent envies him this effortless tactile ease - but, for the moment, he is simply grateful that he is able to share in it.
“Relax,” Damen breathes in his ear.
Control yourself, thinks Laurent, and almost laughs.
“You’ve won,” says Damen. “You’ve had ample proof of that. And you should know enough to trust by now that everything is going to be all right.”
Laurent simply looks at him, and wonders how he - a renegade prince, exiled from his own lands, betrayed by his own blood - can possibly say this without a hint of irony. And yet, sickeningly optimistic as it might be, he finds he could almost believe him.
He meets Damen’s eyes, and makes his decision.
“The coronation is not until afternoon,” he says. “Let’s not waste the hours.”