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Thirty Lashes

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Damen was not unfamiliar with Laurent's anger. He had faced Laurent in a rage in Arles, before he had truly known who Laurent was, and he had faced Laurent when he had been angry at Aimeric's betrayal. He had seen Laurent amidst battle with his uncle. Damen had seen Laurent overturn tables, slap Aimeric across the face, insult his men with scathing criticism, and, of course, bribe a man to try to whip Damen to death. Even with that behind them, this might have been the most angry Damen had ever seen Laurent.

Laurent had been visibly furious when he had reduced Jord in the courtyard in front of all of the men, even before Laurent had set the punishment of thirty lashes. When Damen had stepped out of the crowd and spoken on Jord's behalf and then announced his intention to take the punishment himself for Jord as his commander at the time the mistake had been made, Laurent was irate.

The poor man assigned to carry out the punishment had been visibly terrified, caught between the unappealing prospect of Laurent's anger and whipping the king of Akielos. It had seemed, at first, that the only mercy was that Laurent did not appear in person for the punishment. This meant that the man administering the blows was free to swing lightly without Laurent taking offense and threatening to have him tied to the post next, and the lashes were not harsh. When it was finished, and Damen let go of the wooden frame that they'd assembled in the yard, he looked up and caught sight of a fair head on the walls overlooking the courtyard. Then he shuddered as he was doused with a bucket of salt water. Paschal insisted that there was some therapeutic benefit to this bath, though it was hellishly painful. By the time Damen gritted his teeth and looked up again at the walls Laurent had disappeared.

Paschal tended to his back yet again, and the familiar smell of the cinnamon scented salve that he applied to the skin reminded Damen of his time in Arles. It took him back viscerally to the time he had been chained to the floor in Laurent's apartments, draped in ridiculous silks and confined to a single room. It was strange how sometimes a remembered smell could return one to the past in the way other memories, such as the feel of the lash on his back, did not.

The beating was not nearly as bad as the previous one he had received, and Paschal only succeeded in convincing Damen to rest for a day afterwards by conspiring with Nikandros. Nikandros smuggled Damen a leather pouch of liquor, which Paschal would have probably attempted to apply to his back, but which Damen drank instead, and then he indulged himself and slept for a day. The battles were won; there was time.

In the evening, Damen roused to find Paschal attending to him, applying the same sweet-smelling salve to his back and murmuring to himself about the foolishness of princes.

"This was important," said Damen, thinking Paschal was berating him for standing up for Jord.

"I was not speaking about you," said Paschal, in clipped Veretian tones. Damen had become so accustomed to Veretian for the time he had been in Laurent's camp that it was almost odd to notice it again now that he had settled in with the Akielon army as led by Nikandros.

Damen grunted as Paschal tended to a particularly sensitive portion of his back.

Paschal found the liquor as he had finished washing and bandaging Damen once again, and he sniffed at the pouch, frowned at Damen, and then silently took the pouch with him as he left. Damen wished that he could roll over, or stretch, or that he had not slept all day and that there would be work to distract himself with now.

Then Laurent arrived. He slid into the room with the quiet way he sometimes had, where he slipped into a chamber and then went unremarked upon until suddenly he became the center of attention. Damen felt that he was especially attuned to Laurent, from having been frightened of him, from having served him for so long, and, if he were honest with himself, from the feelings that he had for Laurent. And yet he still wasn't sure that he had noticed Laurent enter until he had already been in the room for a long moment.

Laurent regarded him with the pensive expression Laurent sometimes had when something was troubling him. He wasn't angry any longer but Damen was not foolish enough to think that his rage had subsided.

"It's embarrassing that Vere was ever defeated by Akielos in battle," said Laurent, "Given the complete and utter stupidity of Akielon leadership." He spoke in a normal tone that belied the vitriol of his words. "Your father lets himself be poisoned by his bastard son and then you volunteer to be beaten, it will probably be better if you let yourself be killed off and the Akielon throne can be taken over by someone with more common sense."

"This is not your fault," said Damen, ignoring the content of Laurent's words and speaking to the fear that underlay them.

"I don't know why I even bother to let Pashcal tend you," said Laurent. "You seem determined to injure yourself. I'm surprised you don't fall on your sword."

"I'm fine," said Damen patiently. "There is no need to worry yourself."

"I'm only worried because your sheer idiocy is impossible to predict," said Laurent, his tone becoming more acidic.

"Come here," said Damen, gesturing with his right arm for Laurent to cross the room. "Don't make me strain myself moving over there." He did not think that Laurent would actually come -- he suspected, in fact, that Laurent had only approached him because Damen was basically confined to laying on his stomach without moving. Laurent had somewhat strenuously avoided him for the past two months; there was little reason to think that he was going to be more approachable now. But Laurent crossed the room in response to Damen's summons and settled himself on the pallet that Damen was resting on. Damen shifted so that his head brushed Laurent's thigh and rested one of his hands gently on Laurent's leg. He let his injury be an excuse. He would not likely have been so bold in touching Laurent if he had not been prone and bleeding, if there had been any chance that his touch might have been interpreted as leading somewhere.

Damen felt Laurent stiffen when he touched him, and then relax, consciously, as a deliberate act of will. He let himself enjoy the feel of Laurent warm beneath his hand, appreciating how Laurent was finally close enough to touch after months of being just out of reach. He had no expectation of anything more, but after a time of silence, it was Damen's turn to tense as he suddenly felt Laurent's hand on his head. Laurent's hand rested there for a moment, and then Laurent's fingers tangled through his hair and carded it with short caresses, teasing the short curls with his fingers.

Damen made an appreciative noise, and Laurent continued his stroking.

"It's not your fault," said Damen.

Laurent sniffed. "I can hardly be to blame for your idiocy."

"None of it is your fault," said Damen. "I don't blame you."

Damen's back was bare, and he shivered suddenly as one of Laurent's fingers traced along one of the scars along the top of his shoulders, a keepsake from the last time that Laurent had had him beaten.

"It's not your fault," said Damen.

"It is," said Laurent. "I should have known there was more to what happened at Marlas than my uncle told me, I knew that he wasn't trustworthy but I never asked enough questions --"

"I forgive you," said Damen, lifting his head suddenly despite the protest of his back. It was important to look Laurent in the eye. He had somehow forgotten how blue Laurent's eyes were. "Whatever part you played in it," said Damen. "I forgive you. Can you forgive my part?"

Laurent's fingers were still tangled in his hair; Damen could feel the twist of the strands in his scalp. Laurent's eyes were very wide.

"You shouldn't," said Laurent finally.

"I do," said Damen. "It is in the past. Forgive me," he said. "Put it behind us. Say you will let it be behind us."

"I--" said Laurent, but his voice seemed interrupted by the intensity of Damen's gaze. "I forgave you long ago," he said finally.

Damen inhaled, holding his breath for a moment. "Say that our past is behind us," he instructed.

"We can't ignore who we are," argued Laurent.

"We can decide who we want to be tomorrow," said Damen.

"It is not that simple," said Laurent, and he had broken eye contact and was staring with unfocused eyes at Damen's back, which was littered with fresh and old scars.

"It is just that simple," said Damen. "Who is left to stop us?"

Damen sat up, slowly. Laurent's hand dropped from Damen's hair to settle awkwardly in Laurent's own lap. Damen raised an arm to tip Laurent's chin up and reclaim eye contact.

"Laurent," he said, using Laurent's given name with deliberation. "I forgive you. Please forgive me and let us start anew together."

Laurent stared at him for another moment. He seemed at once impossibly young and infinitely old. Damen thought he might get lost in Laurent's gaze, as though his eyes were a pool and Damen were going to drown immersed in his own reflection. "I forgive you," said Laurent finally, and Damen could feel the smile forming on his own face. "Even though you seem possessed with idiocy," Laurent finished, and they started anew to the sound of Damen's laughter.