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Till China and Africa meet, and the river jumps over the mountain

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"It is fortunate that the nights are so very long this time of the year," said Laurent. His tone was as mild as the words.

Damen knew exactly what that particular combination meant, but allowed himself to be hooked anyway. He always was helpless when Laurent wanted to toy with him, for all that right now he was the one on top and supposedly in control. "And why is that?" he asked, a little breathless. He pushed himself up, away from Laurent, so they barely touched: he was getting close, and he wanted this to last.

"There are still a few hours left in which we can reasonably be expected to be abed. Which we will need, given the time you're taking getting to the promised... denouement," said Laurent, rubbing his foot lazily over Damen's ankle, but doing nothing further to encourage Damen to speed his efforts.

"Is that a complaint?" Damen asked. Laurent was happiest when Damen lingered over him for hours, teased him almost to the point of release and then gentled his movements, held on until eventually the slightest touch would set either of them off.

The candlelight warmed Laurent's skin, gilding it. The flickers as the tallow melted only served to heighten his beauty, the shadows fleeting across his face promising and revealing. Damen could never tire of this.

"Merely an observation," said Laurent.

"If you're not satisfied, we could always find you someone—"

"And have to train another?" Laurent interrupted nonchalantly. "No. You will suffice." It had been a counterfeit offer; Damen had no intention, could not even conceive of sharing Laurent with another man.

"Suffice?"

"Yes. Suffice. Serve in lieu of better," said Laurent blandly.

"That wasn't precisely what you said last night. I believe you called me... what was it? Ah, yes, magnificent. That was the word. Mag-nif-i-cent," said Damen, drawing out the word and undulating his body over Laurent's in time to it. "In fact, I'm quite certain half the palace heard you shout it out. Shall I call for witnesses?"

"I must have been drunk."

Damen smiled. Laurent was slipping, offering him an opening like that. "You were. On me."

"Why do I tolerate you?" Laurent asked, rolling his eyes.

Damen answered him with his body, his fingers, his mouth. He answered him by worshipping Laurent with every part of himself. "This is why," he whispered between kisses, lingering kisses pressed to the corner of Laurent's mouth, his hand taking hold of Laurent's so their fingers interlocked. If he could remain that way forever, the two of them joined like a child's puzzle pieces, he would be happy.

"As long as you promise to keep reminding me," said Laurent, his voice quiet, the way it often fell when he was stirred to confessions.

"Always," Damen promised. There was a small, thin scar above Laurent's eyebrow. Damen kissed it, a ghost of a touch. Laurent had gotten it here, at Arles, winning back the palace from his uncle, Damen by his side. They'd embraced at the end of the day, exhausted but happy, Laurent not even aware of the blood smeared across his forehead. It wasn't an imperfection in Damen's eyes, that scar, it was a memory. A victory shared.

They had many shared memories. Some good, some not, but every one had brought them to this moment, this life they now had.

Once he'd thought Laurent's beauty cold and cruel, believed him the same inside. Now he'd seen him blissful and helpless, spent and happy, and he couldn't imagine considering anyone else beautiful by comparison. He wished he'd known him growing up, been able to watch him turn from boy to man. He wished he'd known him when he was still shy and bookish, still innocent and unafraid to be seen as such. He wanted everything, past, present and future. He was greedy, and felt no shame.

Right now, he was hungry for Laurent's smile, the one he gave reluctantly, when Damen teased or prodded him. He would refuse to smile with his mouth at first, but his eyes would crinkle helplessly, until eventually he'd let his good humor flood his face.

This morning, in the stables, he had overhead a conversation. Laurent would have flushed to have heard what they said about him. Insults he took in good humor: the worse they were, the more they made him laugh. He would eavesdrop deliberately to hear them. Damen had caught him, more than once. Compliments, on the other hand—

He nipped at Laurent's bottom lip, then traced the line of it with his finger. He wouldn't repeat all the conversation. "I've heard you were a very pretty boy," Damen teased.

Laurent tensed unmistakably under him. His arousal, pressed between them against Damen's belly, faded noticeably. "Some have said so," he said. His voice was tight and pinched, and his hand went slack in Damen's.

His reaction didn't make sense.

Unless.

Unless—

Damen looked at Laurent, his beautiful Laurent, and remembered. Gossip overheard, moments in their early days that Damen had all but forgotten came rushing back to him. The way Laurent understood Nicaise, had tried to save him even though every single attempt had been rebuffed. The way he knew exactly how Aimeric had been treated by the Regent, understood every machination.

Piece by piece, it all fell into place, painting an ugly picture. Now Damen saw it, he couldn't believe his blindness. Aimeric, Nicaise, both such pretty boys. Both irresistible to the Regent. And yet Laurent had been prettier still, the sort of beauty that men spoke of years later, unforgettable. A tempting, rare jewel that a man like the Regent would crave. And anything the Regent craved, he took.

Some have said so. One man had called him a pretty boy, but hadn't stopped at words.

Laurent had been thirteen. A beautiful, defenseless thirteen year old boy, who loved his books and had never been exposed to the depravities at the periphery of the court, hidden away in secret places while his father ruled. Suddenly he was dragged into them, forced—

Damen swallowed. He breathed in shakily, audibly exhaled, the sound carrying in the silence. In again. He was trembling like an old man with the palsy.

His actions at Marlas had done more than cost Laurent a brother. They had cost him a protector, left him defenseless in the face of the Regent's degeneracy. That day had been war, yes, and he had fought fairly, but now he would give anything — anything — for there to have been some better resolution. One that hadn't left Laurent paying the hideous price.

"I take it you've worked it out," said Laurent, swallowing. He pushed Damen off him and moved to the edge of the bed, the covers falling behind him. Damen didn't stop him. "Sadly once every ten years wasn't an accurate assessment of my sex life."

They were both soft now. Laurent shifted, head back, his eyes dark, gazing at the ceiling. There was nothing there to hold his attention. Just shadows and dim corners. How often had he stared at dark corners? While—

Damen gritted his teeth.

Muffled sounds reached him from the corridor. A crash, and a strangled yelp and the faint sounds of a scolding. The servants would be bringing in firewood. The palace could be cold in the early morning at this time of the year, and the ovens needed heating for the day's bread.

He concentrated on the sounds. They didn't calm him. He could see Laurent in his peripheral vision, motionless. This morning, in training, he'd landed a hard blow on Laurent's arm — the bruise was showing, red turning purple — and he'd winced. Laurent had laughed at him, made him swear faithfully that he wouldn't hold back. Damen had sworn, as he always did, and still felt every blow he landed.

There were no visible bruises, no red welts, no scars that Damen could see, but this revelation hurt more than a thousand battle wounds.

Laurent stirred eventually, though his focus was still on the air above them. "I—I am expecting an ambassador from Vask later in the week. I trust you haven't forgotten all their customs."

"A refresher would be useful." The words didn't come out quite right.

"Of course. In the morning," Laurent said stiffly, like an unoiled piece of machinery.

Laurent was close enough to touch still, but had never seemed further away.

Damen had many treasures, but one he could put no price on was the ease that had grown between them. He cherished the moments when Laurent let Damen see the man he was beneath the royal trappings. The way they lay together at night, nothing between them, or so he'd thought.

He needed to find the right words — if there were such words in any language, his or Laurent's. They didn't need to be elegant or stylish; those were not his strengths, and Laurent had never expected such from him. Damen had grown up as a warrior prince first and foremost, trained to be a ruler, using words to command or lead. This was something different, and Damen felt like a fumbling boy, clumsy and lost, too many emotions churning inside him for him to think clearly.

Damen wished he could take back the words he'd said, stupid teasing words, a idle way of provoking a smile. But he couldn't. And he could think of no other words with the power to heal the wound he'd just opened.

He reached out one hand, slowly, giving Laurent time to see it coming and move away if he so wished. He didn't. Damon let it rest on Laurent's shoulder. He meant to leave it at that, but he couldn't bear the closed look on Laurent's face, the look he got when he didn't want anyone to see the pain he was in, or the tense muscles that told of restraint Laurent shouldn't need to exercise between them. He soothed his thumb over Laurent's arm, small circles across warm skin. "I want to hold you," he said helplessly.

"Why?" Laurent spat out the word.

"Because I love you and—and I want you to feel it. I want you to know that nothing can come between us now. Not after all we've gone through." Once he started, the words poured out, racing like a spring flood over a mountain streambed. "I want you to feel my heartbeat against yours and know that every beat of it is for you. I want you to be certain deep down, without any trace of doubt, that I am here and always will be. I want my love for you to surround you, to be in your skin, in your blood, inseparable from who you are. I love you now, and I will love you when we are old and feeble, and I can no longer see you and you can no longer hear me. I will love you to the grave, and if there is a world after that, I will love you there."

Laurent's expression was softening, his body beginning to relax into the bed. He turned his head, holding Damen's gaze. He looked about to speak, but it was a long time before he did.

"There was a time I believed everyone at court must know," said Laurent. He sounded as though he were telling someone else's story, second or third-hand. "I veered between humiliation that anyone else knew, and rage that no one did anything. And then I realized that my uncle was a master at hiding his true nature. No one thought it was anything other than familial affection when he took me on tours of the country, when he lavished gifts on me, when his arm lingered around my shoulders."

Damen thought of the excessive ways of the court, of Laurent's austere taste. "Is that why you never wear jewelry?" Damen asked.

Laurent gave a bitter laugh. "I tried to become the opposite of who he was, and of who he tried to make me out to be. And—" His voice faded, and he closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, he didn't look blank or distant any more, just profoundly sad.

"And you have become a great man," Damen finished for him. Laurent had proven the Regent a liar in both word and deed, over and over.

"That wasn't—"

"I am aware of that. But it is the simple truth."

"I hardly think any of this could be described as simple," said Laurent. He was leaning into Damen now, welcoming his touch instead of shying away from it. Damen wrapped his arms around Laurent, felt each long, slow breath he took in.

"No. But then you are hardly suited to simple," said Damen. If the Regent were still alive, Damen would avenge every single moment of torture Laurent had gone through. "I—I can hardly pretend to understand how it must have been."

"I am glad you can't. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. Not even when we were enemies. I would have killed you, gladly, but I would not have had you experience that."

Damen held him tighter. "If I had known while he was still alive—" he started, forcing each word out.

Laurent shook his head. "It is better that you didn't." There was a long pause. "But... but I am glad that you know. It is a secret I've held onto too long."

They had started out with so many secrets. It was a miracle that they were together, secrets exposed, the vile ones and the sad, the painful and the ugly. There would be no more secrets, Damen hoped.

They lay like that until daybreak as the candles flickered out one by one. The dawn didn't bring healing, just light and a new day, but they had many dawns ahead of them. A lifetime of dawns.