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Lady Hypermenestra threw Laurent a party for his seventeenth birthday. It was, according to Damen's foster-mother, a traditional Veretian party, but given that Hypermenestra had never been within a week's march of the Veretian border and Laurent was treating all of the preparations for the event with an air of suppressed amusement, Damen had his doubts about the authenticity.

The party was called a masquerade, and it involved decorating the main hall as a forest, complete with giant tree trunks and leaves made of painted paper. Then each of the guests was instructed to attend the party dressed as a forest animal, and the excitement of the costumes and the preparations occupied Hypermenestra and her ladies for months.

This was all right with Damen, for he found himself the same weeks occupied with the only woman in the keep not obsessing over Laurent and the masquerade, his new lover Jokaste. Damen had had the fortunate experience of having most of the women he was interested turn out to be only too pleased to fall in to his bed. In contrast, Jokaste had turned him away three times—one time when he had already managed to walk her to her bedroom door—before she permitted him to try to please her with bed play. Even then, she made it clear that a second invitation was contingent on satisfactory performance and should not be presumed.

Hypermenestra had assigned Damen the costume of a brown bear for the masquerade, but more appropriately given how Jokaste was fascinating him, he should have been considered one of those small birds that puffs out all of his chest feathers and then hops around on a branch with a song to try to attract a mate.

Damen had been looking forward to seeing Jokaste’s garb at the masquerade, but she was called away to her father’s keep the day before the event, and he bid her goodbye with a kiss in the courtyard and could not persuade her to even tell him what animal she had been assigned. Instead, she ran a hand through his hair and said that if he was very good, perhaps she would wear the costume for him when she returned.

The party itself hummed with excitement. Damen tried to remain in the shadows, focusing the attention on Laurent on his day. He retreated with his goblet to one of the alcoves partially hidden by a decorated indoor tree, and appreciated his drink and the music.

It was Laurent himself who sought him out, elbowing Damen further into the alcove so he could settle next to him on the bench. Laurent was dressed as a fox, with red ears somehow affixed in his golden hair, and wearing a giant furry tail. He had to settle the tail behind him as he sat down.

“You should wish me happy birthday,” said Laurent.

“Happy birthday,” said Damen. Laurent had a lazy posture on the bench, leaning back with his weight on his arm and his hand rested on the seat beside Damen. Laurent’s eyes were bright in the dim light of the alcove and Damen wondered if Laurent had been drinking.

“I would ask a birthday gift of you,” said Laurent.

Damen said, “Oh?”

“Take me hunting,” said Laurent.

Damen raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were already planning to come along on the trip next month.”

“Not with Kastor or with the other men,” said Laurent. “Just the two of us.”

Damen took another sip from his goblet to give himself a moment to consider the request. He generally tried to avoid the kind of extended time alone with Laurent that a hunting trip would entail, but it was hard to deny Laurent on his birthday. “All right.”

Laurent rewarded him with a slow, pleased smile. The expression lingered on his face for a moment and Damen smiled helplessly back. Then Laurent’s face sobered, he sat up straight, and he spoke suddenly in a much more serious tone.

“I need to speak with you.”

Damen gestured with his goblet, indicating that Laurent should go on.

“You’ve been avoiding me and I have important things to tell you.”

Damen cringed internally. He had hoped it had not been obvious to Laurent that Damen was intentionally avoiding him, just as he hoped it was not obvious how interested Damen found himself in who Laurent spent time with that was not Damen. “I have been busy with Jokaste--” he began, but Laurent interrupted.

“It’s about Jokaste,” said Laurent.

Damen braced himself to have with Laurent again the conversation they had had on the ramparts, where he told Laurent to take a lover his own age. As far as Damen could tell—and he tried not to pay too close of attention—Laurent had not followed his advice.

“We should go back to the party,” said Damen.

“No, you need to listen to me,” said Laurent.

Damen wished he had chosen a slightly less secluded spot to watch the party. “I really think we should rejoin the others.”

“You need to break it off with Jokaste,” said Laurent.

Damen took a deep breath. “Laurent—" he began, and something of the conversation he was about to begin must have shown in his voice.

“Yes, yes,” said Laurent dismissively. “I know what you are about to say, you have only chaste, brotherly thoughts about me. Let us take that for granted for a moment, and as a brother, please consider this a warning that Jokaste does not have your best interests at heart, and you should break it off with her.”

“I enjoy her,” said Damen. “Why do you say she does not have my interests at heart?”

Laurent proceeded to explain, and as the explanation unfolded Damen finished the wine in his goblet and set it on the floor and Laurent adopted a more casual posture again, tucking his legs up on the bench under him.

Damen was reminded again of the way that Laurent had with words, where he could take an idea that Damen himself had never thought before, and yet after a few minutes of speaking call to mind all of the things Damen himself had seen, all of the things he had observed but not pieced together, and it was like a cracked eggshell becoming whole once again.

Finally Damen raised a hand to cut Laurent off. “You have convinced me. I will break it off with Jokaste when she returns.”

“Good,” said Laurent, tucking a strand hair behind his ear. “I was beginning to think I would never get a moment alone with you again while she was here, and that it was impossible to think up an excuse to get her to leave.”

“You are responsible for Jokaste’s departure?” said Damen, feeling as though the egg shell had crushed in his hand once again.

“I needed to speak with you,” said Laurent simply, as though this were obvious.

“You and Jokaste are more similar than I realized,” said Damen.

Laurent looked quizzical for a moment, and then his entire posture changed again, stretching out to become more sinuous as he leaned his head in closer to Damen in the alcove. “I would be willing to increase our similarities,” he said, and the tone of his voice implied heavily that he envisioned this activity happening in Damen’s bed.

Damen put a hand firmly on Laurent’s shoulder and pushed him away. “I have stolen you too long from your own party.” He shooed Laurent out of the alcove just as Hypermenstra appeared seeking the guest of honor. She scolded Laurent mildly for leaving his party, Laurent apologized with appropriate fervor, and he rejoined the guests in the hall. Hypermenestra took the seat on the bench that Laurent had vacated.

“I did not think you were interested in him,” she said, “You have ignored him following after you for so long.”

Damen wished that his wine goblet were full again. “He is too young for me,” said Damen.

“And you are courting Jokaste, now,” said Hypermenestra.

“Yes,” said Damen, but then, thinking that he ought to start to sow the seeds of their dissolution, “Though we are not serious.”

Later that week, it was impressed upon Damen that Jokaste had thought they were serious, and Jokaste punctuated the conclusion of their fight by slapping him. Damen broke it off with Jokaste as Laurent had suggested, and of course Jokaste reacted as Laurent had predicted, given how he had placed himself in to Jokaste’s head and explained her motivations. Laurent had not warned Damen that Jokaste would slap him, but perhaps he felt Damen deserved that.

In any case, it was a relief to miss the last few days of Jokaste’s occupancy—she decided she no longer wished to reside in Ios and was returning permanently to her father’s keep—when Damen and Laurent departed on their hunting trip.

They planned their trip for three days. The first two days of the trip, Laurent was perfectly behaved. He was companionable and fun without needling Damen about the sore spot that was Jokaste. He made no attempts to move too close to Damen, or to crawl in to Damen’s bedroll when Damen settled deliberately on the other side of the fire from him. Damen told himself that he was relieved, and he speculated to himself that perhaps Laurent had given up his ideas about Damen and taken another lover, and that he was happy for Laurent for embracing his youth.

On the third day of their trip it rained, and when they made a fire in the evening they had to search out the dry pieces of kindling to get it started, and Damen pulled a larger log over near the fire so that he did not have to sit on the damp ground. Laurent sat next to him. Damen was relaxed. There was something nice about being out of doors, away from the demands of the keep and the people who asked something from him – a decision, a favor – all day. The air was wet with the smell of the forest, and the fire was pleasantly warm in front of them. Laurent tried to prop his jacket on a stick near the fire to dry it, and they bantered about the likelihood that Laurent’s prop was going to fall and dump his jacket into the embers. Damen thought the arrangement precarious; Laurent insisted it would hold.

The sky darkened, and the prop had not yet dropped Laurent’s jacket into the embers, and Damen contemplated putting another log on the fire.

Laurent swung one leg over the log they were sitting on to face Damen, and said, “Seventeen must be old enough for a kiss, at least.”

Damen looked over at Laurent, startled.

Laurent seemed to take this as a cue to press his argument. “What if I ended up kissed first by someone else, by accident?”

“By accident?” said Damen. Laurent opened his mouth to reply, and Damen realized that was not the key point they needed to debate, and interrupted before he could speak. “We need to negotiate.”

Laurent canted his head slightly to the side. “I like negotiation.”

Damen laid out his terms. “One kiss,” he said. “Then you move away to the other side of the fire and stay there, and there is no further touching, and you must stop torturing me with advances you know I cannot accept.”

Laurent leaned in slightly, his voice intent. “I am not the one who tortures you. You torture yourself. As far as I am concerned, you could have me, right now, if you would just allow yourself.”

“It is not a kind man who tempts another from his principles,” said Damen. “I have made my wishes clear and you are taunting me with such comments. I begin to think you enjoy having me at this disadvantage.”

Laurent smirked, and his voice had something of an edge as he said, “I do find I am enjoying –" but then he was cut off when Damen kissed him.

Damen held Laurent’s face in his hands to bring their lips together, and he kept his hands there warm on Laurent’s cheeks as their mouths met. Neither of them had shaved during their trip, and Damen had the beginnings of a beard, while Laurent had uneven golden stubble.

The first press of their lips together was chaste, and then as Damen drew back slightly Laurent parted his lips slightly with an expression of wonder, and Damen leaned in again and took Laurent’s mouth more thoroughly. He did not hold back from the kiss, but the kiss itself was a tease of what they each wanted. Damen was not accustomed to a lover responding so passionately to his kiss as a prelude to nothing, and he wanted, desperately. He wanted to kiss Laurent again, he wanted to pull Laurent on to his lap, he wanted to push Laurent down on to the bedroll. He wanted to take off Laurent’s shirt and touch every span of his skin. He wanted to feel Laurent’s hands on his own face. He wanted to press against Laurent and pull him tight in to Damen’s body and simply feel him against Damen.

He looked at Laurent, instead, his hands still on Laurent’s face. He thought he had had every thought he could have about Laurent already, on one evening or another, but now he was having them again, and more besides.

Laurent raised his own hand to Damen’s on his face, and gently pulled it away to free himself. He stood up off of the log and made his way to the other side of the fire.