Kastor and Jokaste lived in a picturesque, two-story double-gallery house that was set back far enough from the street for there to be a small but well-maintained front yard in between it and the sidewalk. A wrought-iron fence surrounded the entire property, as did a much taller hedgerow that was just as immaculate as the rest of the yard's greenery, parting cleanly at a right angle directly behind the fence's single gate. Everything from the house's clapboard to the intricate, neoclassical box columns that supported the two covered porches along the house's façade had been painted a soft, eggshell white. The only exception was the house's shutters, which were a dark navy blue.
Although Damen was hardly an expert on architecture, it was plain to see that Kastor and Jokaste's home, like practically all the other houses in New Orleans' historic Garden District, was old—very old; likely at least a hundred years old, but probably more than that. Nikandros, Damen's best friend since childhood, would probably have a better idea—being an architect and all—but he was over 1,000 miles away in New York City and probably had better things to do than make an educated guess as to how old this house was.
Not that it really mattered to be honest. The fact that Kastor and Jokaste's house was old was more than enough for the hairs on the back of Damen's neck to stand on end as an acute sense of dread fluttered in the pit of his stomach.
Damen hated old buildings.
Admittedly, this was more than a little bit weird for someone who was currently pursuing a Master's degree in history, but Damen had good reason for his dislike.
For as long as he could remember, Damen had been able to see ghosts; a unique privilege—if it could even be called that—that no one else in his family appeared to share. As a result, Damen had spent most of his childhood seeing a whole host of different child psychologists because from his father's perspective it wasn't normal for a young boy to carry on hour-long conversations with his dead mother.
Needless to say, Damen had learned to hide his abilities very quickly after that; not that it was always easy. Apparently being able to see (and hear) the dead made Damen especially attractive to ghosts because despite having made it a general point to avoid cemeteries and other places spirits tended to favor—see: old buildings—they always seemed to find him. Unfortunately, when they did, it was usually without warning. So while Damen had certainly gotten harder to spook over the years, he was hardly made of stone. Every now and then a ghost would materialize out of nowhere and startle him, leading everyone who happened to be around him at the time to conclude that he was just a weirdly jumpy person, which he was not.
However, that wasn't the worst part about Damen's ability. No, the absolute worst part about the whole thing was the fact that practically every single ghost Damen came across would ask him for help. Sometimes they asked him to deliver a message—not all of which were as heartwarming and polite as Damen would have liked—and sometimes they asked him to complete some other task—the weirdest one to date being that one time some guy who evidently really liked s'mores-flavored Pop-Tarts asked him to deliver ten boxes of the stupid things to his grave for some inexplicable reason because it wasn't as if he could actually eat them.
Obviously, Damen certainly had the option of saying no even though ghosts tended to get a little testy when their requests were refused, but he could honestly never bring himself to. After all, if these requests were important enough that whoever was making them couldn't move on to wherever it was people went after they died, Damen figured that the least he could do was offer a helping hand.
However, that didn't mean that Damen enjoyed playing errand boy for the dead; hence his long-held practice of trying his best to avoid ghosts as much as possible. Unfortunately for him, there really wasn't much he could do about his current situation.
His previous place of residence, a tiny studio apartment that practically screamed 'hi a grad student lives here,' was scheduled to be torn down within the week. Evidently, the big shot developer who had purchased the property from Damen's former landlord was very keen on getting his luxury, high-rise condo project started as soon as possible. As a result, Damen—and the red duffle bag he'd stuffed full of all his worldly possessions—really had nowhere else to go; at least not right at that moment.
Kastor and Jokaste had done him a huge favor by allowing him to move in with them in exchange for his babysitting services, which, as far as rents went, was pretty much a pittance. There was no way he could turn down their offer at this point without appearing completely ungracious. Plus, with campus only a ten minute walk away, this was by far the closest he'd ever lived to school, and Damen was almost willing to concede that he'd happily deal with a few ghosts in exchange for that kind of convenience.
Still Damen sincerely hoped that Kastor and Jokaste's house was free of ghosts; so much so that—despite considering himself firmly agnostic—he even silently mouthed a prayer to whatever higher power there might be as he made his way to the glass-paneled front door and pressed the doorbell.
Not even a full 30 seconds had passed before Kastor was opening the door with a grin.
"Damen!" he said as he pulled his younger brother into a near-bone-crushing hug. "We were expecting you sooner. I was starting to think you'd gotten lost on your way here."
Damen felt himself flush. "That was one time, Kastor," he protested. "Besides, it was my first day going to campus, and I hadn't even been living in New Orleans for a week at that point."
"True enough," Kastor said after he'd finally released Damen. "Now come on in. Jokaste has been dying to see you. You won't believe how huge she's gotten—you'd think she has triplets in there!"
Although Kastor hadn't been exaggerating about the size of Jokaste's belly, unfortunately for him, Jokaste had come up behind him and, therefore, had been well-within earshot when he'd made his comments. It was clear from the way she smacked him in shoulder—none-too-gently if the way Kastor winced was any indication—that she wasn't happy in the least.
"Yes, dearest husband," she said icily, her blue eyes narrowing as she fixed Kastor with withering look, "please continue telling your younger brother all about how huge your wife, who is nearly seven-months pregnant with twins, has become."
Still rubbing his shoulder, which was no doubt smarting from the slap Jokaste had given him, Kastor offered her a sheepish smile and said, "Sorry, sweetheart. It's just that, well…" He trailed off, apparently thinking the better of whatever it was he was going to say.
"That's what I thought," Jokaste said before turning towards Damen with a warm smile. "Hello, Damen. How have you been? It's been so long since we last saw each other."
"Hi, Jokaste," Damen said with an equally warm smile of his own as he pulled her into a gentle hug, careful not to put too much pressure on her protruding stomach, which, like Kastor had said, really was quite large—larger than what Damen had expected at least.
"I've been good," he said when they pulled away from one another. "What about you? I thought the doctor said you should be on bed rest."
Stepping aside so that Damen could come inside the house, Jokaste gave a rather nonchalant wave of her hand and said, "Dr. Paschal is a worrywart. The only thing I can't do at this point is go for longer than an hour without a trip to the restroom."
Kastor only shrugged when Damen looked over at him. The words 'you try telling her what to do' left unsaid between them.
"Oh! Before I forget," Damen said, suddenly remembering the small gift he'd picked up from the mall last week.
He then swung his duffle bag off his shoulder onto the ground and unzipped it. It took a few seconds of rummaging before he pulled out a small package from the bag's depths.
"Here," he said, holding out the package towards Jokaste. "This is for you and Kastor. It's not much, but I hope you both like it."
"Thank you, Damen," Jokaste said as she accepted the gift. "Should I open it now?"
"Sure," Damen said, zipping his bag up so that he could sling it back over his shoulder.
Jokaste started to carefully peel back the earnest-but-admittedly-ugly wrapping job Damen had done, using her long, neatly-manicured fingernails to pick apart the varying lengths of translucent scotch tape keeping the whole thing together. Beside her, Kastor had the look of someone who wanted to snatch the present out of her hands so that he could divest it of its wrapping paper with a couple of well-placed rips. As always, patience was not one of Kastor’s strong points.
However, Kastor managed to restrain himself—likely because he knew that he’d face Jokaste’s wrath again if he didn’t—and Jokaste eventually unfurled two tiny, pastel-green onesies from the center of the still-mostly-intact square of shiny, blue wrapping paper. Each one had a smiling, cartoon dinosaur appliqued to the front, and despite the cashier’s continued insistence that these were meant for boys, Damen was satisfied that they were sufficiently unisex. Kastor and Jokaste, after all, had elected to keep the babies’ sexes a surprise until the birth.
“Aw, Damen,” Jokaste said, smiling as she lifted up the onesies so that Kastor could get a better look at them. “They’re adorable. Thank you so much.”
“Yeah, thank you, Damen,” Kastor said with a smile of his own. “The twins will be happy to know that they also get to partake in the Damen tradition of dinosaur-themed baby clothes.”
Damen laughed. “Did I really buy Alex a dinosaur onesie too?”
“I think it was more than just a onesie,” Kastor replied, obviously amused. “I’m pretty sure Alex grew up with a whole wardrobe full of cartoon dinosaurs thanks to you.”
Alex, who was now nearly ten years old, was Kastor and Jokaste’s first child, born when Damen was still in high school. Although Damen’s only source of income back then had been the modest allowance his parents had given him every week in exchange for completing his chores, the prospect of becoming an uncle had excited him to the point where he’d practically become a VIP at the Baby Gap thanks to the sheer volume of baby clothes he’d purchased, all of which had apparently prominently featured various kinds of cartoon dinosaurs.
“Alex was always especially fond of the stegosaurus shirt you bought him when he started pre-K,” Jokaste added. “He once tried to wear it for a week straight and cried when I told him he needed to wear something else so that I could wash it.”
“You just didn’t want people to think he only had one set of clothes,” Kastor said fondly, his expression soft with affection.
Jokaste sighed. “It’s exhausting doing laundry every night! I needed a break! Plus there was no way those marker stains he’d gotten on there were going to come out without a good, long overnight soak.”
“Of course, sweetheart.”
“Anyway,” Jokaste said emphatically, clearly wanting to change the subject. “It’s time for me to make my hourly trip to the restroom. Kastor, why don’t you go show Damen around the house? The last time he came by to visit we were still living in our apartment, and I’m sure he’ll want to see where he’ll be staying.”
“Ah, yeah. You’re right,” Kastor said with a nod. He then turned to Damen and added, “You’ll find that we’ve definitely had an upgrade—more space than we know what to do with, really. We were lucky that one of Jokaste’s clients just happened to be looking for tenants when we found out that we needed to find a bigger place to live.”
Damen nodded. “Yeah. I can imagine that a family of five in a two-bedroom apartment would get a little cramped.”
“More than just a little,” Jokaste said as she walked past them on her way down the hall. And while it was more a waddle than a walk at this point—Damen supposed seven months of pregnancy would do that to a person—it felt wrong to put Jokaste and the word ‘waddled’ in the same sentence; she was too graceful for that.
With Jokaste making a beeline to the nearest restroom, which turned out to be at the very end of the hall across from an artfully-furnished living room that had obviously been decorated by Jokaste and not Kastor, Kastor gave Damen the grand tour of the house.
Although there was no peeling paint or wallpaper to corroborate Damen’s suspicions regarding the house’s age, Kastor confirmed them soon enough, explaining that it had been built during the mid-1840s by one of New Orleans’ most illustrious families, the de Vères. The current owner, a wealthy land developer most people had taken to calling The Regent for some reason or another, was a direct descendant of that family, and, as a result, he had gone to great lengths to keep his family’s home, the last tangible piece of the legacy they’d left behind in New Orleans, as well-preserved as possible. This meant that apart from the usual bits of maintenance typically associated with homeownership, the house hadn’t undergone any serious renovations since The Regent had acquired it, which, according to Kastor’s estimation of The Regent’s age, had likely been at least a quarter of a century ago.
The Regent’s careful upkeep of the house, however, had not been for nothing, as it was just as beautiful on the inside as it was on the outside. The walls had been painted a pale buttercream yellow; except for the ornate crown and base moldings, which had been left white. This contrasted nicely with the newly-stained, dark hardwood floor, and Damen silently wondered if the wood was still the original wood that had been used in the house’s initial construction. Judging from the way it creaked loudly beneath their footsteps, it probably was.
After showing him around the house’s first floor, which contained—in addition to the living room and the bathroom Jokaste had been occupying—a kitchen, a study, a second sitting room, and a dining room that boasted a sizeable crystal chandelier, Kastor led Damen upstairs so that he could finally see his bedroom.
Damen’s room turned out to be at the end of the hall right at the front of the house. Alex’s bedroom was right beside it, and Damen could see Alex, who was still very much the spitting image of his mother, with his blond curls and light brown skin, building something—Damen couldn’t quite tell what—out of Legos as they walked past.
Although friends and relatives alike had speculated that Alex would probably grow to look more like his father as he got older, Alex’s dark eyes were still the only indication that Kastor’s genetic material had ever been involved. This was, objectively-speaking, fortunate for Alex because while Kastor was by no means ugly, anyone with eyes could see that Jokaste was the more attractive half of the couple by far.
“Your room was originally the master bedroom,” Kastor said after they’d said hello to Alex, who had been too engrossed in his Legos to really notice their presence much less respond. “But Jokaste and I only managed to stay in there for a week before we made the decision to move into the guest bedroom instead. There’s a draft in there or something because I swear the temperature in that room is at least a good ten degrees colder than the rest of the house.”
“Oh. Weird,” Damen said tonelessly despite the sinking feeling in his stomach.
Evidently, Kastor’s words hadn’t really instilled much confidence in him regarding the ghost-free nature of the house.
“Don’t worry. Jokaste made sure to give you extra blankets just in case. Though I told her you’ve always been pretty good at dealing with the cold; better than me in any case.” Kastor shrugged. “Anyway, here we are,” he said as they came to a stop in front of Damen’s bedroom door, which, as it turned out, was deceptively innocuous.
Because just as Damen had expected, Kastor and Jokaste’s house was decidedly not ghost-free, as evidenced by the young man sitting at the edge of the perfectly made-up, queen-size bed Damen assumed was to be his.
The young man, like all the other ghosts Damen had previously encountered, looked much like a regular, living person in many ways. First, he was hardly the translucent spectre people tended to think of when they heard the word ‘ghost’; in fact, he appeared to be very much solid from Damen’s point of view. Second, he didn’t have any visible wounds on his body, and this had nothing to do with how he’d died because contrary to what Hollywood horror movies had popularized over the years, people’s spirits didn’t look exactly like their lifeless corpses. Damen was grateful for this because he knew that if they did, his ability to see to dead would have made his life a hell of a lot scarier.
So what exactly tipped Damen off that the young man sitting at the edge of his bed was no longer among the living? Well, besides the very obvious fact that Kastor couldn’t see him of course.
One of the things all ghosts had in common with one another was that they had an almost greyish glow to them—like someone had used Photoshop to desaturate them in what Nikandros had always criticized as a weak attempt at being ‘artsy.’
However, despite looking just as ashen as every other ghost Damen had ever encountered, the young man’s hair was still a startlingly bright shade of yellow, comparable to the color of freshly-bloomed buttercups or even sunflowers. It contrasted sharply with the dark navy blue of his single-breasted morning coat, which he had left open, revealing a flashy, gold-colored, lapelled waistcoat that had probably been exceedingly fashionable during his lifetime along with a neatly-pressed, white, cotton shirt that featured a turnover collar under which sat a black four-in-hand necktie. His grey trousers were, in light of the rest of his ensemble, more or less forgettable, but it was clear from the way they fitted his body even while he was sitting down that they had been impeccably tailored; likely made to order Damen suspected.
All in all, the young man was dressed impeccably; even by 21st century standards, which Damen supposed wasn’t saying much considering most people—himself included—tended to wear a t-shirt with jeans most days. Whatever was clean, really.
Although the young man, who had apparently been contemplating the grain in the floorboards prior to their arrival, had initially seemed completely disinterested in them, his entire demeanor changed when he saw Damen. He blanched, looking—ironically—like he’d just seen a ghost, his blue eyes going wide with surprise as he stared openly at Damen.
Given that Kastor was still in the room with him, Damen pretended not to see the young man and pointedly looked in the opposite direction. The young man, however, apparently took that as his cue to approach because Damen heard him slide off the bed and take several, almost cautious-sounding steps towards him.
“So what do you think?” Kastor asked, completely oblivious to the ghostly young man now standing right beside Damen. “Pretty amazing, right?”
“Yeah,” Damen said, his voice tight as he suppressed as shiver, the air around him having gone unnaturally cold.
Kastor had apparently also noticed the sudden change in temperature because he let out loud ‘brrrr’ and quickly attempted to rub some warmth back into his upper arms, left bare by the short sleeves of his t-shirt.
“There’s that weird draft again,” he said, his dark eyebrows knitting together as he glanced around the room in confusion. “I honestly have no idea where it’s coming from.”
“It’s okay,” Damen said, forcing a smile even though he could see the young man peering at him curiously out of the corner of his eye. “Like you said, I’m pretty good with the cold. Plus, considering how hot this summer’s been so far, it’ll be a relief to have a bit of a draft in here.”
Kastor laughed. “I suppose that’s true. It’s really been hot this year hasn’t it?”
“Y-yeah,” Damen replied, nearly choking on the word because the young man at his side had decided to reach up and gently brush his knuckles against the side of Damen’s face—like a lover’s caress.
Thankfully, Kastor didn’t seem to notice that anything was amiss, and he continued to prattle on about the room for another minute or so before he said, “Well, you must be tired. I’ll let you get settled in. If there’s anything you need, you can find me in the kitchen.” He then grinned and added, “We’re having fish tacos tonight. Your favorite.”
“Sounds great,” Damen said, forcing his smile just a little bit wider even as a pale, unnaturally cool thumb pressed softly against the corner of his mouth.
Needless to say, Damen had experienced a lot of things in his many years of communicating with the dead, but sexual harassment had certainly not been one of them. At least, not until now.
“Dinner’ll be at 6,” Kastor said as he started towards the open doorway. “Do you want me to close the door?”
“That’d be great. Thanks, Kastor.”
The door then shut with a soft click, and Damen listened as Kastor’s footsteps faded away into relative silence.
“Okay,” Damen said once he was certain Kastor was no longer in earshot, jerking bodily away from the young man. “Who are you, and what the hell was that?”
The young man, apparently very much used to not being seen by the living at this point, glanced behind him as if to make sure that Damen wasn’t talking to someone else. Then, realizing that Damen was, in fact, talking to him, he asked incredulously, “You can see me?”
“Obviously,” Damen said, knowing full well that he probably sounded incredibly rude, but he couldn’t bring himself to care given the circumstances.“Now who are you and what are you doing in my brother and sister-in-law’s house?”
The young man’s expression, which had previously been one of surprise, immediately darkened at that, his lips pinching together into a thin line. “I am Laurent de Vère,” he said as he crossed his arms over his chest, “and this is my house.”
Damen tried not to scoff. “Yeah, maybe 150 years ago,” he said as he set his duffle bag down on the bed, much to the relief of his shoulder, which had started to ache from the weight of all his belongings.
“155 years,” Laurent said stiffly, his arms still crossed over his chest.
“What?” Damen asked, his face screwing up in confusion.
“It’s been 155 years,” Laurent said, “since I died.”
“Oh good. So you do know you’re dead.”
Damen knew he was being snotty, but he was still pretty peeved about how Laurent had touched him out of the blue like that thinking that Damen would be completely oblivious to it, which somehow made the whole thing that much worse.
Laurent’s expression soured further. “Of course I know I’m dead,” he snapped, his tone like acid. “What kind of idiot wouldn’t realize he’s dead after 155 years?”
“You’d be surprised,” Damen muttered. “Now back to my earlier question, why were you touching my face like that?”
Laurent regarded Damen silently for a moment, his expression unreadable.“You truly have no recollection of who I am?” he asked, sounding fragile, as if his voice was made of fine, wafer-thin glass.
Damen gave him a weird look. “Why would I know who you are? First of all, I’ve never seen you before in my life. Second of all, my parents weren’t even born when you were alive. How could we have possibly met before?”
Laurent’s mouth twisted as a curious expression of sadness flitted across his face; so brief that Damen couldn’t help but wonder if he’d simply imagined it.
And then, like the sad look that Laurent may or may not have actually had, Laurent was gone, vanishing without so much as another word and leaving Damen alone in his new bedroom with a duffle bag full of clothes he needed to unpack.
Thank you to everyone who commented and left kudos on the last chapter. I really appreciate all your support <3
Also a big thank you to Cannedebonbon, who drew me some really fantastic fanart of ghost Laurent here and here. She also looked over most of this chapter to make sure I didn't miss any typos or other weirdness.
Things got a little fluffier than I had initially planned in this part, but, well, I couldn't help myself, I suppose :)
My life is so weird , Damen thought somberly to himself as he sipped the Venti Vanilla Bean Frappuccino he’d just bought on his way to campus.
Nearly a week had passed following his encounter with Laurent, and the young man had been noticeably absent ever since. It made Damen wonder if he’d been a little too harsh during their first meeting, but even though some unerringly soft part of him couldn’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for Laurent, who had evidently been alone for a very, very long time, the rest of him was still annoyed enough that this sympathy was quickly quashed.
Damen knew that Nikandros, who was well-acquainted with Damen’s preferences when it came to romantic partners, would be stunned to know that Damen had rejected the affections of someone so blond. And while Damen resented the implication that he had such a blatantly obvious ‘type,’ he couldn’t deny that he’d certainly established a clear pattern. The last five people he’d dated had been blond.
However, none had been quite so blond as Laurent, who, despite possessing an unnatural, grey sheen in death, still had impossibly yellow hair.
Damen couldn’t deny that Laurent was very attractive. His facial features, while delicate, were still obviously masculine, and the lines of his expertly-tailored clothing had suggested that the rest of him was just as pleasing to the eye. Damen had no doubt that Laurent had been exceedingly popular when he’d still been alive, the combination of his family’s good name and his own striking appearance securing his place as one of New Orlean’s most eligible bachelors at the time all too easily. Even Damen, had he been alive during the mid-19th century, wouldn’t have been able to resist the charm of Laurent’s exceptional beauty.
That is, until Laurent’s less-than-stunning personality made itself known with all the subtlety of a brick to the face, like it had done less than a week ago, when Laurent had revealed himself to be kind of a creep. This was, in Damen’s opinion, a very generous assessment of Laurent’s character, as there were plenty of other, less flattering words that could be used to describe Laurent’s ungentlemanly behavior.
It was, therefore, no surprise that while Laurent’s sudden absence had been unexpected, it was far from unwelcome—though Damen had a sneaking suspicion that Laurent would make another appearance soon enough. After all, ghosts that had been trapped on Earth for as long as Laurent had been didn’t disappear for no reason. Something was evidently keeping Laurent here, and Damen supposed that it would eventually fall to him to figure out what it was because even the worst kinds of people, which Laurent certainly was not, ultimately deserved some kind of peace.
Damen was still thinking about Laurent when he walked into the tiny classroom the school had reserved for the 9:00AM tutorial of Western Civilization, a first-year course that was only popular because it didn’t require students to write any sort of paper, thereby making it the least offensive option for many when it came to fulfilling the school’s history distribution requirement. However, in addition to three-hours’ worth of lectures each week, the course also had a one-hour long tutorial, during which students were expected to discuss whatever readings had been assigned for that week. As expected, this part of the course was not so well-liked, and, despite having 20% of their final mark allocated to participation in these discussion sessions, a significant proportion of student consistently neglected to do the readings. As a result, Damen, as one of the course’s teaching assistants, was forced to help the ‘discussion’—if it could even be called that—pathetically limp along until class ended.
At least, that’s how it had been last year when Damen had TA’d for Western Civilization for the first time, and he hardly expected it to change now, especially when the students steadily filing into the classroom looked like they’d rather be anywhere else.
Taking another sip of his Frappuccino, which had turned slightly watery thanks to the late-August heat, Damen glanced up at the clock that had been affixed to the wall at the other end of the room and frowned when he saw that it was very obviously broken, its hands lying motionlessly against its face. He knew that this was a rather old classroom whose maintenance left much to be desired, as evidenced by the peeling paint on the walls, but he had honestly expected there to be a working clock at the very least.
It didn’t really matter in the end, of course; it was a minor inconvenience that was readily solved by Damen fishing his cellphone out of his jeans’ pocket and using it to check the time instead.
Seeing that nine o’clock had already come and gone, Damen set both his half-finished drink and his cellphone down on the desk that had been placed at the far end of the classroom opposite the door. A quick glance around the room told Damen that all ten—yes, ten—of the students that were currently enrolled in his section were present, some admittedly less than others; like the young man who, despite having chosen a seat in the front row, had elected to start the fall semester off strong by taking a nap instead. His name, according to the class list that Damen had been given, which helpfully featured each student’s school ID photo beside their name, was Nicaise.
Damen couldn’t really blame him. It was, after all, 9:02AM on a Friday morning, and Damen himself wanted nothing more than to go back to bed thanks to a series of bad decisions involving a number of YouTube videos that had culminated in him going to bed at a little after 3:30AM. Besides, while Damen certainly liked it when his students did well in the course, he didn’t like it enough to really care about whether or not they paid attention in class. They were all adults, and Damen figured that they could make their own decisions about their education.
So Damen pointedly ignored Nicaise for the rest of the class and instead asked the slightly more awake students about their thoughts on the passages they’d been assigned to read from the Epic of Gilgamesh . Although most of what the students said during the discussion was absolute bullshit, there were a few thoughtful comments in there that made Damen feel somewhat hopeful about the quality of the answers he’d be marking come midterms.
At around 9:59AM, he decided that he might as well end class there and dismissed his students. The majority of them were out in a flash, but Nicaise didn’t even so much as twitch. Evidently, he was still asleep.
It was only when the next class’ students started to file in that Nicaise finally jerked awake, his brilliant blue eyes going wide as he whirled around in his seat so that he was facing the doorway. For a moment, Damen was confused as to what had startled the young man so suddenly, since it wasn’t as if the students coming in had been particularly loud; 10:00AM on a Friday was still way too early for university students to exhibit any real energy.
Then he saw the ghost standing in the doorway.
The ghost was a bulky man—larger even than Damen—with broad shoulders and a solid, muscular torso. He wore a letterman jacket in the school’s colors over a white t-shirt that had three Greek letters printed across the center front. Damen recognized them as the name of one of the fraternities on campus and concluded that the man had likely been a student at the university at some point or another; probably a senior if his appearance was anything to go by.
At first Damen was unsure as to whether Nicaise could see the ghost, as another student—this one still very much alive—had entered the classroom at around the same time. However, when the ghost roughly grabbed a handful of said student’s backside, Damen saw Nicaise’s eyes narrow dangerously, his hands curling into tight, white-knuckled fists that suggested he wanted to hit something very, very badly.
Although it was certainly possible that Nicaise and the other student, who was currently looking around him for whoever had groped him with a distressed expression on his pretty face, had some sort of feud going on, it quickly became clear from the way Nicaise got to his feet and started striding towards the ghost, looking downright murderous as he did so, that this was not the case. Apparently, despite there being at least a foot and 100 pounds between them, Nicaise was all too ready to take on the ghost in a fight; a fight, Damen strongly suspected, that would not end well for Nicaise.
Reacting almost on instinct, Damen reached out and grabbed Nicaise by the arm, effectively stopping him in his tracks.
“What the f—” Nicaise started to say, his eyes flashing as he whirled around to face Damen. The seriousness of Damen’s expression, however, made him pause, his body relaxing ever so slightly beneath Damen’s grip.
“Don’t,” Damen said, his voice tight, “leave your bag behind.”
The way Damen had paused purposefully in the middle of his sentence likely seemed strange to everyone else, but Nicaise seemed to have grasped its meaning; that starting a fight with a ghost in the middle of a near-full classroom was probably not the best idea.
“Thanks,” he said, relaxing even further though his expression remained obviously sour. Clearly he didn’t appreciate Damen getting in his way.
However, Damen was satisfied that Nicaise wasn’t going to try picking a fight with a ghost nearly twice his size and released his arm. Nicaise immediately seized the opportunity to retrieve his black messenger bag, which he’d slung over the back of his chair.
“Come with me,” he said to Damen in a low voice that was just loud enough for only Damen to hear as he walked past.
Having taken a moment to retrieve both his phone and half-finished drink from where he’d left them on the desk, Damen expected to find Nicaise waiting for him in the hallway just outside the classroom. However, it quickly became clear that Nicaise had elected to keep walking instead because he was nearly at the building’s exit.
As a result, Damen was forced to run after Nicaise, who kept an unnecessarily brisk pace all the way to the Starbucks just outside campus. It was the same Starbucks Damen had purchased his Frappuccino from earlier that morning, and Damen was mildly embarrassed to see that the barista who had made his drink was still standing behind the counter.
“Hey, Nicaise,” the barista said with a grin that seemed to stretch up all the way to his eyes, which were an all-too-familiar, brilliant shade of blue; the same blue as Laurent’s eyes. “Here for the usual?”
“Yeah. Thanks, Auguste,” Nicaise replied as he fished his wallet out of his bag, his pants apparently much too tight for the pockets to have any real sort of functionality.
However, like the rest of Nicaise’s ensemble, the pants, which were a sunny shade of yellow, were obviously quite fashionable. This was especially true when paired with the form-fitting, black t-shirt Nicaise was also wearing and the straw fedora that sat atop his artfully tousled, brown curls. Unlike Damen, whose wardrobe of soft, cotton t-shirts and loose-fitting jeans was more the pinnacle of comfort than fashion, Nicaise seemed to have what most people would consider to be taste when it came to clothes.
“Here you go. One Tall hot chocolate with extra whipped cream,” Auguste said, still smiling as he handed Nicaise his order.
Nicaise thanked Auguste as he accepted what looked like a steaming cup of steadily-melting whipped cream from Damen’s point of view. He then handed Auguste a handful of bills and instructed him—with a wink!—to ‘keep the change.’
Auguste, apparently used to this sort of behavior from Nicaise, didn’t even bat an eyelash at the fact that a young man who was at least a decade his junior had just flirted with him.
Instead he continued to smile serenely as he said, “Don’t worry. I made it at ‘kids’ temperature’ for you, so you won’t burn your tongue like last time.”
This was clearly not the kind of response Nicaise had been hoping for because he flushed a conspicuous shade of bright pink before scurrying away towards a miraculously empty table near the large window that dominated the cafe’s storefront. Damen, trying his best not to laugh at Nicaise’s embarrassment, followed after him.
“So, before we start this little chat I want to make one thing crystal clear,” Nicaise said as Damen took a seat opposite him. “I could’ve taken that guy back in the classroom no problem. There was no reason for you to step in like that.”
Damen snorted. “Somehow I sincerely doubt that. He was nearly twice your size. Plus there were other people around.”
Nicaise’s eyes narrowed as he regarded Damen silently for a moment before he said, with a bored wave of his hand, “Whatever. So I guess you’re a medium too?”
Nicaise rolled his eyes. “A medium? You know? Someone who can see the dead? I use the term ‘see’ really loosely, of course. Not all of us are so lucky. My Uncle Jacques, for example, he ‘tastes’ ghosts when they’re close-by. Don’t ask me what that means because I don’t really understand it either. I don’t think any of us do.”
Damen was incredulous. “He tastes them?”
“Like I said, don’t ask.” Nicaise took a sip of his hot chocolate and licked off the stripe of whipped cream that clung to his upper lip after. “Anyway, I’m assuming you’re like me? You just see and hear the dead? No weird ‘tasting’ business or anything like that?”
“Definitely not,” Damen replied, stirring the overly-liquid mess his Frappuccino had devolved into with his straw but making no move to drink it. “I didn’t realize there were others—besides me that is.”
“There are plenty of us. In fact, my whole family is full of mediums. Are you the only one in yours?”
Damen nodded, which earned him a pitying look from Nicaise.
“I suppose,” Damen said with a shrug. “Now why were you trying to start a fight with that ghost?”
Nicaise looked at Damen the same way one would look at someone who had just asked an incredibly stupid question.
“Wasn’t it obvious?” he asked. “He was harassing that poor guy, and it’s our job as mediums to keep ghosts from harming the living—though I’m guessing you didn’t get that particular memo.” He sighed and shook his head. “What a waste of talent. Thankfully you have me now, so hopefully you won’t be quite as useless moving forward.”
“‘Useless?’” Damen repeated, feeling more than a little offended.
“Yeah. What good are you if you aren’t actually getting ghosts to move on like they’re supposed to?”
“Except I have been doing that.”
Nicaise eyed him skeptically. “Somehow I find it hard to believe.”
Damen rolled his eyes. “Just because I haven’t been using my fists to help ghosts move on, doesn’t mean that I haven’t been doing my ‘job.’ Have you seriously been punching every ghost you come across?”
Nicaise paused for a moment, looking thoughtful as he took another sip of his hot chocolate. “Pretty much,” he said.
“Wow.” Damen honestly didn’t know what else to say. “Has it really never occurred to you that you could—I don’t know—just talk to them? Most of them are usually pretty willing to tell you what’s keeping them around.”
“Yeah, and some of them would rather lop off your head instead,” Nicaise replied without missing a beat. “I don’t know about you, but dying isn’t exactly my idea of a good time. So don’t blame me for having a shoot-first-ask-questions-later attitude about the whole thing.”
Damen was shocked. Although he’d certainly met a sizeable number of ghosts who were understandably less than happy about being dead, none had ever tried to kill him. There had been a few close calls with grievous bodily harm over the years, of course, but those instances had been more the product of bad luck than any sort of murderous intent. In that way, Damen supposed he was lucky. He couldn’t even begin to imagine how terrifying a ghost that took delight in ending the lives of others could be.
“All the ghosts I’ve encountered have been relatively peaceful,” Damen admitted.
“I figured,” Nicaise said with small shrug. “Anyway, we need to take care of Mr. Ugly before he manages to harass every last undergrad from beyond the grave.”
“I agree. But do you really think we need to resort to violence right off the bat? Maybe if we just talk to him…”
Nicaise gave a derisive snort. “You really want to try reasoning with him? He looks like he doesn’t even have two braincells to rub together.”
“He’s a ghost. I don’t think he even has braincells at this point.”
“You know what I mean,” Nicaise said with a wave of his hand, looking decidedly unimpressed. “He’s exactly what comes to mind when you think of the dumb fratboy stereotype.”
“Even so, talking to him might still be worth a shot.”
“Then you can talk to him. Meanwhile, I’ll stand a reasonably safe distance away until things inevitably go south and I have to bail your ass out. Then, once our ugly friend had been taken care of, I’ll turn to you and say ‘I told you so.’”
It was now Damen’s turn to look unimpressed. “Whatever you say,” he said.
Nicaise then pulled out his phone, which was nestled in an expensive-looking, leather case, and slid it across the table to Damen. “Here. You can put your contact info in this. Also, I’m Nicaise by the way.” He then paused for a moment and, looking somewhat sheepish, added, “Sorry. This is a little awkward, but I didn’t catch your name earlier. I was—”
“Sleeping,” Damen helpfully supplied with a good-natured smile, drawing a soft, slightly embarrassed-sounding chuckle out of Nicaise. “It’s okay. I’m Damen.”
“Cool,” Nicaise said as Damen pushed the phone, now with his contact information stored inside, back towards him. Nicaise tapped the touch screen a few times with his fingers. “Okay, I sent you a text. You can add my number that way.”
Damen’s phone vibrated once in his pocket, confirming what Nicaise had said. He wondered if it was a little weird for a TA to have a student’s phone number stored in his phone, concluded that it probably was, but saved Nicaise’s contact information anyway. It was for a good cause, after all.
“Now I need to get going,” Nicaise said, rising from his seat. “I have a chem lab that I need to get to.”
Damen winced. The last time he had been enrolled in any sort of lab had been back in high school; a conscious decision on his part, as science was far from his forte.
“It’s not that bad,” Nicaise said upon seeing Damen’s expression. “Well, okay, the Friday part is pretty bad, but that’s what happens when you get a shitty registration time.” He shrugged. “So how does meeting on campus near the quad around noon tomorrow sound? I’d like to nip our university’s pervert ghost problem in the bud as soon as possible.”
“Sure,” Damen replied. His plans for the upcoming weekend thus far were practically non-existent in that they hadn’t evolved past sleeping in and maybe playing a few stages of the latest Fire Emblem.
“I’ll see you tomorrow at noon then,” Nicaise said as he picked up his drink, which had probably cooled to the point where it was now on the wrong side of lukewarm. “Bring some band-aids or something. You’re probably going to need it.”
Damen repressed a snort. Although he didn’t doubt that Nicaise had had some less-than-ideal experiences with ghosts in the past, he didn’t think tomorrow would end as badly as Nicaise seemed to think it would.
His own drink now looking completely unappetizing, Damen rose from his seat and tossed the still half-full cup into the garbage can. He still had some time before he had to be back on campus for the meeting he’d scheduled with his advisor, the wildly eccentric but also well-respected Professor Makedon, who had apparently spent the morning participating in some manner of Civil War reenactment (hence why the earliest he could see Damen was after lunch). As a result, Damen decided that he might as well take advantage of the nice weather and go for a walk around the neighborhood.
He, of course, did not think about Laurent at all while he did so.
The ghost from earlier, it turned out after a cursory google search on Damen’s laptop, was a man named Govart, and he’d been a student at the university until about five years ago, when he’d gotten too drunk at one of his fraternity’s parties and drowned in a kiddie pool that had been filled with a little less than eight inches of water. As Darwin-Award-worthy as Govart’s death had been, it had been a tragedy for the university’s football team, who had lost one of their best linebackers, which given Govart’s size, Damen didn’t doubt.
Unfortunately, it seemed that Govart, who had been the subject of far too many sexual harassment complaints while he’d been alive (all swept under the rug thanks to his status as a football star), still wasn’t satisfied. So rather than move on to wherever it was people went when they died, he’d hung around campus, perving on whoever caught his eye.
Govart’s latest victim was a junior named Erasmus, the student Damen had seen Govart grope in the classroom earlier that day. Damen had used Facebook to discover Erasmus’ name, searching through a whole slew of undergrads’ photos until he recognized Erasmus with his fair skin and honey-colored hair. The whole thing had made Damen feel like the worst kind of creep, but he told himself that it was part of his job as a medium to do this kind of research, which made him feel slightly better. Sort of.
Now knowing more about both Govart and Erasmus thanks to the wonders of the internet, Damen felt reasonably confident that he could send Govart on his way when he met up with Nicaise the following afternoon or at least make a valiant effort to do so. He wasn’t exactly sure how he was going to do it, of course—he never did—but things had always worked out in the past once he’d gotten a handle on the ghost in question, usually starting with their past.
Govart, however, was not the only ghost in Damen’s life who needed help moving on.
Despite his persistent absence, Laurent was definitely still hanging around; of that, Damen was convinced. Even now, as he sat cross-legged on his bed with his laptop propped open on his lap, Damen had the distinct impression that he was being watched. From where, he had no idea, but he was certainly going to find out.
“Laurent?” Damen hesitantly called out, careful not to raise his voice too much as Kastor, Jokaste, and, most importantly, Alex were all sleeping.
When Laurent had still not materialized over a minute later, Damen couldn’t help but feel just a little bit stupid.
Sighing, he closed his laptop and set it on his bedside table. The digital clock beside it told him that it was nearly 1:00AM, and given that he’d only had about four and a half hours of sleep the previous night, Damen figured he might as well go to bed.
Kastor and Jokaste had generously provided him with a memory foam mattress instead of a cheap, spring one like Damen was used to, so his bed didn’t creak when he stood up. Stifling a yawn, Damen pulled his t-shirt over his head, and he was about to shuck off his sweatpants when a sudden chill came over him.
Of course he’d arrive just as Damen had hooked his thumbs into the elasticized waistband of his pants. In fact, Laurent had probably timed it that way on purpose.
“Hello, Laurent,” Damen said coolly, crossing his arms over his naked chest as he turned around to face the other man. He noted that, unlike him, Laurent was still fully-dressed, wearing the exact same set of clothing Damen had last seen him in.
“Hello,” Laurent replied, his face inscrutable even though he was very obviously taking in the sight of Damen’s bare torso, his blue eyes flicking down to a point well-below eye level before meeting Damen’s gaze once more.
It made Damen debate for a moment as to whether or not he should put his shirt back on, but he ultimately decided that it didn’t really matter.
“We need to talk,” he said, his expression serious.
Laurent didn’t seem to like this suggestion very much because he was quiet for several moments, his lips pursing in a small rosy bud beneath his nose. However, he eventually acquiesced with a soft sigh and a defeated-sounding ‘very well’ that Damen honestly hadn’t been expecting but wasn’t going to complain about.
“What is it that you wish to discuss?” Laurent asked, looking tired in a way that Damen supposed only a 150-plus-year-old ghost could.
“You,” Damen replied without missing a beat, though he quickly realized that there had probably been better, more delicate ways to broach the topic.
Laurent, however, didn’t seem to be too taken aback by Damen’s bluntness. “Me?” he asked, his expression just as maddeningly unreadable as it always seemed to be.
“Yeah. It’s not normal for someone to hang around for this long after they’ve died.” Damen paused then added, “It’s also not normal for someone to touch another person’s face when they think they won’t notice, but I’m going to chalk that up to a one-time mistake that you’re not going to make again.”
“And?” Laurent said, pointedly ignoring Damen’s last statement.
“There has to be something keeping you here.”
Laurent shrugged, clearly meaning to convey only cool indifference, but Damen could see the slightest hint of tension hidden underneath the feigned nonchalance. Damen decided that he needed to push harder.
“Let me help you, Laurent,” he said, surprising even himself with how earnest he sounded. “It’s what I do. You’re not going to be the first person unable to move on that I’ve ever helped. If you’d just tell me how you died, then maybe I could—”
“ That ,” Laurent said sharply before Damen could finish, his agitation crackling like an electrical current between them, “is none of your business.”
Laurent wasn’t the first ghost Damen had encountered who was a little sensitive when it came to discussing the details of his death. However, the vehemence with which Laurent had spoken was unlike anything Damen had ever encountered before. This wasn’t to say that Damen didn’t expect some level of distress when it came to broaching this particular topic with the spirits of the dead—perhaps even some embarrassment if the cause of death was considered to be particularly unbecoming—but Laurent’s reaction had been something else, and this troubled Damen deeply.
“Laurent,” Damen said as gently as he could, dropping his arms into a more relaxed, open stance that he hoped would serve to reassure Laurent at least somewhat, “I know it’s probably painful for you to remember, and I promise I’m not asking just for the sake of being nosy. I wouldn’t ask you this if it wasn’t important.”
Unfortunately, Damen’s words, however kind he had intended them to be, only served to darken Laurent’s poor mood further. The entire room seemed to vibrate with the intensity of Laurent’s vexation, and the books Damen had neatly stacked on his desk suddenly clattered to the floor, toppled over by an invisible force. It was then that he realized that Laurent was not someone who liked to be pushed.
Thankfully, the racket Damen’s books had made seemed to draw Laurent back to himself. He jerked away from Damen, his hands balling into tight fists at his sides as a series of conflicting emotions flashed across his pale face. Damen could see that Laurent was trying to quell the tempest of feeling roiling inside of him and utterly failing, the controlled mask he was struggling to school his features into twisting apart at the seams with each attempt.
“Laurent?” Damen asked, a sharp pang of concern surging up from somewhere deep inside him. It was the kind of concern one would have for a close friend or even a lover. Laurent was neither of these things, and yet the feeling persisted.
“Are you alright?” Damen continued as he took a tentative step towards Laurent, noting that the other man had tensed up to the point where his body was practically shaking from the strain of it. “I didn’t mean to upset you like that. I’m so—”
“Don’t apologize.” Laurent’s voice cut through the air like a knife, but still he couldn’t seem to bring himself to meet Damen’s gaze. “Not you. Not to me.”
Damen swallowed thickly, an inexplicable throbbing in his chest. He couldn’t understand why the sight of Laurent in such obvious distress made him feel like this, and he understood the sudden urge he had to wrap his arms around Laurent even less. They barely knew each other; of that Damen was certain. And yet Laurent didn’t act like the complete stranger he was.
Damen’s mind was racing as he attempted to conjure up some sort of logical explanation. Perhaps he had met Laurent at some point during his childhood and had simply forgotten? No, that couldn’t possibly be it. There would have been no reason for a ghost like Laurent, who was evidently very attached to the home he’d lived in while he’d been alive, to travel to New York City, where Damen had lived until a little over a year ago.
Damen shook his head. None of it made any sense.
“Just let me help you,” he said as he took another step towards Laurent, this one less hesitant than the last.
Still Laurent refused to look him in the eye. So Damen took another step and then another, and then suddenly he was close enough that he was able to reach out and lightly touch his fingers to the back of Laurent’s hand.
Laurent immediately jerked his head up, his eyes wide with shock. He then glanced down—almost incredulously—at where their hands were touching. Laurent’s fingers twitched once, and before Damen knew what was happening, Laurent was sliding his hand into Damen’s, his thumb running over Damen’s knuckles with a tenderness that made Laurent’s cold touch seem almost warm.
“Damianos,” he said softly, his lips pulling back into a tiny smile that made Damen’s heart flutter against his ribcage.
And then, before Damen could ask him what he meant, Laurent was gone.
Sorry it took so long to update! I had planned on getting this part much sooner, but, well, it ended up being about 9,000 words long, so it took a while to write :'D
Unfortunately, I have my law school exams coming up soon (100% finals orz), so it might be a while until I update again, but I'm going to do my best to try and get the next chapter out as soon as possible! It's an exciting one that I've been looking forward to writing!
Thank you again to everyone who commented and left kudos! You all make me so happy <3
Also a big thank you to Cannedebonbon for looking everything over for me again!
Bright, golden sunlight was already streaming in through Damen’s bedroom windows by the time he woke up the following morning. The rest of the house was still quiet, but the air was thick with the warm, comfortingly-familiar smell of breakfast. Damen recognized it immediately; Kastor had made pancakes.
Blearily blinking the last bits of sleep from his eyes, Damen slowly unfurled himself from his cocoon of blankets and immediately regretted it when a sudden blast of chilly air assaulted his exposed skin. It felt more like the middle February than the end of August, and that could only mean one thing: Laurent was there.
“Good morning,” Laurent said nonchalantly as Damen bolted upright in bed.
Laurent was seated casually with one foot tucked underneath him on the cream-colored loveseat that occupied the far corner of the room. A well-worn book, its olive-green cover heavily faded and peeling at the edges, lay open in his lap at a point slightly past halfway. It seemed that he had been sitting there for quite some time.
“Were you watching me sleep ?” Damen asked, both incredulous and horrified at the same time.
“Of course not,” Laurent replied as if it was the most obvious thing in the world without even looking up from his book. “As you can no doubt see, I’ve been reading.”
“In my room. While I was sleeping .”
“Your point being?” Laurent asked, his pale fingers tucking a stray lock of hair behind his ear. The mid-morning sun made it seem as if his hair was practically glowing, a golden halo that turned white along the edges.
Damen, of course, pretended not to notice.
“It’s weird,” Damen said. “We hardly know each other.”
“Hmm.” This time Laurent’s face didn’t even so much as twitch. Any distress he’d previously expressed at the fact he and Damen were actually complete strangers was suddenly nowhere to be found.
Then, after a brief period of silence, Laurent finally looked up from his book and said, “Your brother and sister-in-law have taken your nephew to the park. I believe there’s a note waiting for you in the kitchen along with a very generous serving of pancakes. You should hurry before they get any colder than they probably already are.”
Not sure what else to say, Damen thanked Laurent for the advice and, bracing himself for the worst, forced himself out of bed.
Immediately Damen wished he had worn socks. The hardwood floor was like ice beneath his bare feet, and he winced as he quickly padded across the room to the much-warmer hallway. Although Damen knew that Laurent wasn’t making his room uncomfortably cold on purpose, he still couldn’t help but resent him a bit for it. The fact that he was contemplating putting on a sweater well-into summer was just wrong , to say the least.
He didn’t actually put one on, of course. The rest of the house remained pleasantly at room temperature, and since Laurent wasn’t making any move to follow him, it seemed that even his thinnest sweater would quickly prove to be unnecessary. In fact, by the time Damen arrived in the kitchen, he found that he was no longer cold, and the goosebumps that had peppered his bare arms were practically gone.
Like Laurent had said, there was a still-warm stack of blueberry pancakes waiting for him under a sheet of aluminium foil on the kitchen counter along with a note from Jokaste that confirmed that she and Kastor had taken Alex to the park. They would, according to her estimates, be back around lunchtime, and she encouraged Damen to help himself to the extra pancakes Kastor had made in the meantime. Needless to say, Damen intended to do just that.
He found the maple syrup easily enough, wedged between the milk and the orange juice inside the fridge door, but as he went to retrieve it a sudden chill passed over him, and it wasn’t because the refrigerator door was still open.
Damen sighed. “You don’t have to follow me everywhere,” he started to say, but cut himself short when he saw that it wasn’t Laurent who had joined him in the kitchen—it was his mother.
Although it had been nearly half a year since her last visit, Egeria still looked the same as always: youthful and bright despite the grey ghostly glow. She was still wearing her favorite light pink sundress, and in it she looked almost exactly like she did in the old photo Damen kept framed on his desk, given to him by his father as a way to remember the mother he was never supposed to have known.
In that respect, Damen was grateful for his ability to see the dead. Despite the fact that it had come with its fair share of aggravations (like the one currently lounging around in his bedroom) it had also let him have a relationship with his mother, and that, in Damen’s opinion, was worth everything else he’d had to put up with over the years.
Even now, he could feel fondness blossoming warm and soft in his chest as he looked at her. She’d been a near-constant presence in his life as a child, and Damen honestly couldn’t imagine what growing up without her would’ve been like.
“Sorry, Mom,” he said sheepishly as he shut the fridge door. “I thought you were someone else.”
“Oh? Were you expecting someone?” Egeria asked, watching as Damen continued to prepare his breakfast.
“No. It’s—it’s nothing,” Damen said quickly; probably a little too quickly, but he didn’t give Egeria the chance to push the issue any further, as he quickly followed up with a question of his own. “So why the sudden visit?” he asked. “Not that I’m complaining, of course. I’m always happy to see you, Mom.”
Egeria sighed.“It’s your father,” she said, her forehead creasing with worry. “He’s been neglecting his health again. The doctor told him that he needs to start watching his cholesterol, but, well, you know him, so of course he doesn’t actually do it.”
“You know I can’t just call him up out of the blue and harass him about his diet,” Damen said as he moved the plate of pancakes, which were now liberally doused with syrup, along with a glass of milk he’d poured for himself to the kitchen table. “Besides, I’m sure it’s not that bad. Dad’s always been in pretty good health anyway.”
“That’s because he used to eat more than just takeout! You know he’s ordered pizza three times in the last week alone? Three times , Damen!”
“He probably just found a new place he really likes. He did the same thing when he discovered the barbeque pork buns from that Chinese place down the street. He’ll get tired of it soon enough and go back to eating like he normally does.”
Egeria let out another sigh as she sat down with Damen at the kitchen table. “You’re probably right,” she admitted, albeit somewhat reluctantly.
Damen offered her a gentle smile. “Don’t worry so much,” he said before starting to dig into his breakfast.
His first bite was quite sizeable, probably a little too large to be polite, but it was worth it. The sweetness bursting across his tongue was exactly like how he remembered, and Damen barely managed to keep himself from immediately shoveling the rest in.
Egeria watched him eat in silence for several moments, and just when Damen had taken another too-big-to-be-polite bite of fluffy, syrup-drenched pancake, she suddenly blurted out without further preamble, “So there’s a boy in your room.”
Evidently she’d been waiting for an opportunity to bring up this particular topic throughout their entire conversation; though Damen assumed that she’d been hoping to do it in a slightly less jarring manner, as the suddenness of the question made him very nearly choke on his food.
“Um, yeah,” he said with a hoarse cough after swallowing forcefully. “That’s Laurent.”
“He seems a little old for you, sweetheart.”
Damen felt himself flush at the insinuation in his mother’s words. “It’s not like that at all!” he protested. “We’re not even friends! Besides, he doesn’t look that old. He can’t have been more than 20 when he died.”
The heat in Damen’s cheeks immediately intensified. Why had he felt the need to argue with his mom about whether or not Laurent was too old for him? Laurent was too old for him, and—more importantly—he was dead . This was not a fact that could easily be overlooked.
“Well, he certainly seems quite enamored with you,” Egeria said. “I had been planning on saying hello when you first woke up actually, but that boy was sitting there, and I didn’t want to interrupt anything.”
Damen groaned and buried his face in his hands. Although he’d always loved Kastor’s pancakes and the stack in front of him was, without question, absolutely delicious, he suddenly found that he no longer had any appetite for them or anything else for that matter.
“He’s been dead for over 150 years, Mom. I think it’s more desperation than anything else at this point.”
Egeria made a soft hmm -ing sound; the kind she always made when she didn’t believe a word Damen was saying, but felt that it was too impolite to say so.
“Either way,” she said, looking down at her lap as she smoothed out the skirt of her dress. “I think you should keep your distance from this Laurent. There’s a certain… darkness surrounding him, and I don’t want you to get hurt because of it.”
“Darkness?” Damen repeated with a light-hearted chuckle. “Well, that doesn’t sound ominous at all.”
Egeria’s expression was grave. “I’m serious, Damen. I know it sounds ridiculous, but this is no joke.”
Damen found that he no longer had any urge to laugh. The seriousness with which Egeria had spoken had left him feeling cold inside.“Okay. I believe you.”
“There are some people in this world that you do not want to get involved with, Damen, and that’s all I’m willing to say on this matter. I’m afraid that if I tell you any more you’ll become a target. Just promise me that you’ll leave Laurent and the matter of his confinement alone.”
“Confinement?” Damen asked, his dark eyebrows knitting together in confusion. “You make it sound like someone’s keeping him here against his will.”
Egeria gave him a hard look. “Leave this alone, Damen. It’s for your own good.”
Then before Damen could even so much as open his mouth to ask one of the many questions now buzzing around inside his skull, Egeria was gone. Only the lingering chill indicated that she’d ever been there.
Damen’s thoughts felt like they were racing at a thousand miles an hour. He quickly cleaned up after himself in the kitchen and headed back upstairs in the hope that Laurent could shed some light on what Egeria had just told him. However, Damen soon found that, like Egeria, Laurent was also suddenly nowhere to be found.
Already Damen’s bedroom was starting to warm up, the sunlight still pouring in through the windows steadily filling the space with the summer heat Laurent’s presence had previously kept at bay. Normally this would have pleased Damen, but now the warmth only left him feeling disappointed.
His heart ached at the thought that Laurent could be some kind of prisoner, trapped here not because of his own unwillingness to move on, but because of someone else’s machinations. He didn’t understand why this possibility upset him as much as it did, but the truth was that his emotions were generally a mess when it came to Laurent.
Annoyance and frustration seamlessly bled into feelings of tenderness and attachment that, by all accounts, lacked any sort of reasonable foundation, and Damen found himself struggling to keep up with all the emotional flip-flopping he’d been doing. He’d only known Laurent for a little over a week at this point, and he was already exhausted by it all.
Resisting the urge to call out Laurent’s name, Damen wandered over to where Laurent had been sitting on the couch and ran his fingers over the battered green cover of the book Laurent had been reading, left behind as if it belonged in the room. Perhaps it did.
Stupid , Damen thought to himself as shook his head, pulling his hand away from the book. You barely know him. He’s just another ghost that needs your help. That’s all .
He kept repeating this to himself as he started to get ready, and by the time he was walking out the door, Damen had successfully convinced himself of it.
Laurent was just another ghost that needed his help. That was all.
Damen was nearly at the campus quad when he got a text from Nicaise.
change of plans. meet me outside the dining hall. ghost perv’s favorite boytoy is here.
Although there wasn’t really any evidence to support the conclusion that Erasmus was actually Govart’s favorite (or that he was even Govart’s only victim), Erasmus was the best lead they had right now, and Damen couldn’t fault Nicaise’s logic in having tracked him down. However, lunch time at the dining hall, especially on the weekends, was absolute pandemonium, with all the undergraduates who lived on campus finally leaving the darkness of their dorm rooms to nurse their hangovers with greasy cafeteria food. Damen was legitimately worried that he wouldn’t be able to find Nicaise in what was sure to be a veritable sea of students.
In the end, Damen’s concern had been for nothing. Nicaise, in his coral capris, was easy enough to spot. He’d taken a seat at one of the tables that had been set up along the dining hall’s sizeable patio; prime real estate on hot days like today thanks to the shade provided by the large umbrella at the center of the table.
“Hey,” Damen said as he took a seat beside Nicaise, who was in the middle of adjusting his pink hairclip so that the majority of his dark brown curls were pushed away from his face. The hairclip, Damen saw on closer inspection, was patterned with an assortment of tiny, white rabbits and orange carrots.
“Took you long enough,” Nicaise said as he inspected his handiwork in a small pocket mirror. He was apparently satisfied with it because he snapped the mirror shut and slid it back into his bag, a small, burgundy satchel that looked pristine-enough to be brand new.
“It’s not even noon yet,” Damen pointed out, but Nicaise didn't seem to care.
In fact, Nicaise acted like he hadn't heard Damen at all.
“Fuck it's hot today,” he complained as he fanned himself ineffectually with his hand. “If I had known that going outside was going to feel like crawling up Satan’s asshole I would've worn something else. This shirt is too new to be ruined with sweat stains.” He gazed down forlornly at his white, short-sleeved button down.
“I'm sure it'll be fine after you wash it.”
Nicaise looked at Damen like he’d suggested something appalling—like the ritualistic blood sacrifice of infants for example. “This is 100% silk,” he said sternly. “You can’t just wash it. Though I suppose you wouldn’t know anything about that,” he added with a sniff after looking Damen up and down.
Damen frowned. “Are you trying to say there’s something wrong with the way I dress?” he asked.
“No, of course not,” Nicaise said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Everybody loves an uninspired look like yours.”
Although Damen couldn’t really argue with that particular assessment of his style (or lack thereof), Nicaise’s tone was more than a little off-putting. “Well, you don’t have to say it like that ,” he grumbled.
Nicaise rolled his eyes. “Anyway, boytoy is sitting over there in the corner with some other students—his friends, I’m guessing. I figure we’ll just follow him around and see if ghost perv shows up. I admit it’s not the most glamorous of plans, but this job isn’t exactly glamorous to begin with, so whatever.” He shrugged.
“Is that how you normally do things?” Damen asked, genuinely curious.
“Sometimes,” Nicaise replied. “It really depends on what the ghost is fixated on. In this case, ghost perv seems to be fixated on boytoy—”
Feeling his face grow warm, Damen let out a little cough and said, “His name. It’s Erasmus—not boytoy.”
Nicaise laughed. “What? Did you Facebook stalk him or something?” he asked, obviously joking.
However, it was clear from the way Damen pointedly looked away as the heat of his embarrassment crept all the way up into his ears that it was more a startlingly apt assessment of what had actually happened than a joke.
“Seriously?” Nicaise asked before devolving into a fit of laughter. “ Tsk. Tsk, Damen. What a bad TA you are, creeping on poor, unsuspecting undergrads like that.”
Damen felt his flush deepen. “I wasn’t creeping on him,” he protested, weakly because, well, creeping was exactly what he’d been doing to be honest. “I was doing research .”
“On what?” Nicaise asked, somewhat breathless from laughter. “How hot he looks in his Facebook photos?”
“No! Of course not. I would never—”
“Relax,” Nicaise said, cutting Damen off before he could splutter any further. “As long as I’m not involved, I honestly don’t care what you get up to in your free time. So did your ‘research’ turn up anything useful?”
“Well, nothing that would link Erasmus to Govart,” Damen said. Then realizing that Nicaise probably didn’t know who Govart actually was, he added, “That’s the ghost.”
“Oh? Did you Facebook stalk him too?”
Damen gave Nicaise an unimpressed look as the young man erupted into another fit of laughter. “You know there are better ways to research people than just looking them up on Facebook,” he said dryly.
“So what did you find out?” Nicaise asked once he’d composed himself again, albeit only barely.
“Well, since he died five years ago, Govart hasn’t really changed much. Apparently he was just as much of a pervert then as he is now.”
“And Erasmus just happens to be who he’s taken a liking to?”
“Basically. Though it’s entirely possible that he’s harassing more than one student on campus.”
“It’s possible, but unlikely. In my experience, most ghosts tend focus on one particular person or one particular place at a time, especially if they haven’t been hanging around too long,” Nicaise explained. “I’m sure you’ve probably realized that the longer a ghost is confined to the mortal plane the more powerful it’ll become.”
Damen nodded, thinking about the way Laurent had sent his books tumbling to the floor without even so much a twitch in their direction; he couldn’t even begin to imagine what Laurent could do if he really set his mind to something.
“Well, ghosts like Govart, who haven’t really been around long enough to build up a substantial amount of…” Nicaise gestured vaguely as he struggled for the right words, “spiritual energy? It’s not entirely accurate, but you understand what I mean, right? Anyway, like I was saying, ghosts like Govart aren’t usually capable of attaching themselves to multiple people or places. That’s why our best bet is to follow Erasmus and wait for Govart to show up.”
“So it’s not unusual for a ghost to confine themselves to one place?” Damen asked.
“If they’re a relatively ‘young’ ghost so to speak, then no, it’s not,” Nicaise replied. “It’s a little more unusual in the really old ones, who can basically go wherever they want, but it’s not completely unheard of. Some ghosts are just really attached to a specific place or a specific person and won’t abandon them without a good reason.”
Damen hesitated for a moment, remembering his mother’s warning from earlier that morning, but eventually asked, “Is there anything that could, um, trap a ghost somewhere?”
“What? You mean like besides the usual stuff? Like ‘someone drew a sharpie dick on my skull and now I can’t move on?’”
Damen gave Nicaise a wide-eyed look. “Did that actually happen?”
“The sharpie dick on the skull?” Nicaise said like it was the most normal thing in the world.“Oh yeah. Some idiot kids thought it’d be hilarious to draw a giant dick on the forehead of their classroom’s skeleton as part of a senior prank. It probably would’ve been hilarious if the skeleton had been made of plastic like you’d expect, but it was actually some lady’s, and, well, she wasn’t exactly happy with the recent addition to her forehead to say the least, so I had to take care of it. That sucked.”
“By punching her into the afterlife?” Damen hazarded a guess.
“Exactly,” Nicaise replied with a grin. “You catch on fast. But to answer your earlier question, there are a few ways for a person to intentionally bind a spirit, but none of them are permanent. I think the longest recorded binding history lasted for about 50 years, and that’s way outside the norm. Most people don’t have the will necessary to execute a binding like that.”
“I see,” Damen said, his brow furrowing as he processed what Nicaise was telling him. Maybe he’d misunderstood his mother after all, and whatever was keeping Laurent around was far less insidious.
“So why the sudden curiosity?” Nicaise asked, his expression inscrutable as his blue eyes bore into Damen.
“Just something I heard,” Damen replied vaguely. It wasn’t exactly a lie, but it certainly wasn’t the full truth either. “Don’t worry about it.”
Nicaise shrugged. “Whatever you say. Just don’t do anything stupid.”
Damen balked. “You think I want to try binding a spirit?” he asked, incredulous.
“I have no idea what you want or don’t want to do, Damen. I’m just telling you now that you shouldn’t do anything stupid. Nothing good ever comes out of binding a spirit, which, by the way, is a surefire way to piss them off, in case you were wondering.”
“The more you know then.” Nicaise then looked back over at Erasmus, who was currently laughing at something one of his friends had said, and said, “My god. How long is this asshole going to take? I just want to go home and binge-watch Netflix like a normal person while procrastinating on all my actual responsibilities.”
“I’m sure Govart will show up eventually,” Damen assured him, but ‘eventually’ was evidently not good enough for Nicaise, who made a dramatic scoffing noise as he sunk down petulantly into his chair with his arms crossed over his chest.
“This sucks,” he grumbled. “It's hot, I'm sweaty, and the Grindr choices around here suck. You know some guy tried to start a conversation with me by sending me a picture of his dick today? Like he didn't even say hello first. And the worst part of all is that his dick wasn't even good looking. Here let me show you.”
“No thanks!” Damen said quickly as Nicaise started to rummage around in his bag for his phone; his pants were, once again, too tight for anything to fit in his pockets.
“No, you have to see it,” Nicaise insisted, his brow furrowing as he continued to dig through his bag. “It’s unreal .”
Of course, this only made Damen want to see the photo on Nicaise’s phone even less, which was impressive considering Damen hadn’t wanted to see it at all in the first place.
“Nicaise, I’m your TA !” Damen protested, sounding thoroughly scandalized.
Nicaise paused momentarily in his search so that he could arch one dark eyebrow at Damen in a brazen display of impudence and ask, “So?”
Damen was at a loss for words. All he could do in the seconds that followed was gape uselessly at Nicaise, who let out a triumphant shout when he finally found his cell phone and held it up proudly for Damen to see. However, Nicaise thankfully didn’t get a chance to do anything more than that because it was then that he noticed that Erasmus had already said goodbye to his friends and started to walk away.
“Shit!” Nicaise cursed as he shoved his phone back into his bag, where it would no doubt be lost amongst the rest of his belongings again, and stood up from his seat. “We have to follow him.”
Damen nodded his agreement, and the two of them immediately hurried after Erasmus, taking care not to follow him too closely, lest they be discovered.
They tailed Erasmus all the way across campus to the university’s theater, and it was only by some miracle that Erasmus didn’t notice them. In fact, Erasmus was still unaware that he was being followed when entered the auditorium through one of the two entrances located at the back of the lobby. Both sets of double doors had already been papered over by posters advertising the theater department’s upcoming performance of Into the Woods , and while the dates announced on the posters weren’t until mid-November, Damen supposed that it wasn’t too early for the theater students to start preparing.
In fact, it seemed that they already had.
Although Damen couldn’t see much through the tiny gap cracking open one of the auditorium doors had created (and he didn’t dare open the door any wider for fear of being noticed), it was clear that construction on the set was already well-underway. Tall wooden structures that Damen assumed were trees had been set up along the back and sides of the stage, and while they had yet to be painted, they already gave the scene a heavily-wooded appearance, which Damen figured was probably the point.
However, strangely enough, Erasmus seemed to be the only person working on the set at the moment. Although this certainly worked out in Damen and Nicaise’s favor, as any interaction with Govart would be difficult to explain to onlookers, Damen couldn’t help but wonder where all the other students were, as Erasmus certainly wasn’t the only theater student at the university.
The most likely explanation, of course, given that undergraduate students were generally loathe to start their day before mid-afternoon on a Saturday, was that Erasmus had just arrived early and everyone else would be in later in the day. Damen could only hope that he and Nicaise had taken care of Govart before then.
“We should go in,” Nicaise said in a low voice that was just loud enough for Damen to hear. “I can’t see shit from out here.”
“And have him see us the second he turns around?” Damen whispered. “I don’t think so.”
Nicaise rolled his eyes. “We can crouch down behind the last row of seats. It won’t exactly be comfortable, but we’ll be far enough away from the stage that he won’t be able to see us hiding from where he is now.”
Damen had to admit that Nicaise was right. Although it would probably be absolute hell on his lower back after a while, hiding behind the back row would certainly get the job done, and it was better than the alternative in any case.
“Okay,” he said with a nod. “Let’s go.”
Erasmus didn’t even so much as look up as Damen and Nicaise quietly sneaked into the back of the auditorium. He’d put on a pair of headphones and was currently bobbing along to whatever was playing out of them as he started to paint one of the wooden trees brown.
Although Erasmus kept his back mostly towards them, every now and then Damen caught a brief glimpse of the side of his face and noted that it was just as pretty as he remembered. With his light skin and honey-colored hair, Erasmus was exactly Damen’s type; or at least that’s what Nikandros would say. But Damen couldn’t deny that Erasmus was attractive. In fact, Damen probably would’ve asked Erasmus out on a date in slightly more ideal circumstances, which only made him feel even skeevier about the Facebook stalking he’d done the night before.
Unfortunately, instead of trying to make him feel better, a tiny voice in the back of Damen’s mind then took the opportunity to unhelpfully remind him that while Erasmus was certainly easy on the eyes, he was nowhere near as beautiful as Laurent was. It was a fact that Damen desperately wanted to forget, as things were already weird enough for him where Laurent was concerned. Not to mention that he had a sneaking suspicion that it was impossible for someone who was still very much alive to have any sort of real relationship with someone who was not.
The logistics of it alone were… elusive to say the least, but the biggest problem from Damen’s perspective was that he simply couldn’t imagine playing any sort of part in something that would doubtlessly prevent someone from properly moving on like they were supposed to. He honestly couldn’t think of a more selfish form of love, and, regardless of whatever the basest parts of his brain thought about Laurent’s physical appearance, Damen wanted nothing to do with it.
Thankfully, Nicaise interrupted his intrusive thoughts about Laurent soon enough, elbowing Damen none-too-gently in the side as he hissed, “Damen. Look.”
Damen’s eyes followed the direction Nicaise’s hand was pointing in and promptly widened when he saw that Govart had materialized only a few feet down from them in the middle of the aisle.
Govart was apparently so used to going about his business unnoticed that he didn’t even so much glance in their direction, though he certainly would have been able to see them. As far as he was concerned, Damen and Nicaise were just like everyone else: completely oblivious.
This was probably why he didn’t immediately lash out when Damen grabbed him firmly by the arm and stopped him in his tracks. He was too stunned by the fact that a living person could actually see him to do anything more than stand there and gape uselessly at Damen.
“Um, hi,” Damen said awkwardly, still gripping Govart’s arm. “Govart, right?”
Govart, however, clearly wasn’t listening because all he said was, “You can see me?”
“Yeah. I’m a, um, medium.” Damen made a vague gesture with his free hand, feeling more and more awkward with each passing second. “Anyway, I need to talk to you about how you’ve been harassing the other students on campus. You really can’t do that.”
Govart frowned at this and then, having finally noticed Damen’s grip on his bicep, forcefully swatted Damen’s hand away. “Get your hands off of me,” he growled, his squashed face somehow managing to look even uglier as it contorted with anger. “You can’t tell me what to do.”
Damen rubbed his hand where Govart had hit it, the skin still smarting beneath his touch. “Yeah, and dying doesn’t suddenly make sexual assault okay, so stop it and try to move on. You’re not supposed to be here.”
Apparently this was the wrong thing to say because Govart immediately grabbed Damen by the collar of his shirt and lifted him bodily off the ground with all the ease that would be expected of someone handling a ragdoll.
His feet flailing out underneath him, Damen scrabbled for a hold on Govart’s thick forearm as the cotton fabric of his t-shirt dug painfully into the back of neck. Everything around him had gone cold, and his lungs felt like they were full of ice. He gasped, struggling to breathe even after his fingers had found purchase and alleviated some of the pressure against his neck.
For some inexplicable reason, Damen felt like he was drowning—not suffocating, drowning —his chest full of something and nothing all at the same time. It was a sensation unlike anything Damen had ever experienced before and almost impossible to put into words. The only thing Damen could say with certainty about it was that it was absolutely horrible.
In fact, it was so horrible that when Govart finally threw him across the theater in the direction of the stage and the feeling suddenly passed, Damen was nearly grateful for it. Then his body crashed hard into the ground, where the thin carpet did little to soften the impact, and the pain blossoming along his side made him instantly forget that brief moment of gratitude.
Damen groaned, clutching his shoulder, which had unfortunately taken the brunt of his fall, as he curled in on himself. Although he was certain that nothing was broken, Damen knew that he was going to be feeling this for a while. He wouldn’t be surprised to find ugly bruises mottling his skin where it hurt the most later.
“Are you okay?” an unfamiliar voice edged with obvious panic asked from somewhere above Damen.
Damen opened his eyes and saw that Erasmus was peering down at him from the edge of the stage, his hazel eyes wide with obvious distress. Apparently Erasmus’ headphones, which were now curled around his slim neck, had done nothing to block out the sound of Damen’s body hitting the ground. Damen groaned again, silently cursing Govart for having made things more complicated than they needed to be.
“I’m okay,” Damen said, trying not to wince as he pushed himself up into a sitting position. “I must’ve tripped on a loose piece of carpeting or something.”
It was a lie, and a poor one at that; though Damen had never held himself out to be much of a liar. However, Erasmus seemed willing to accept it, nodding slowly as he sat back onto his heels.
“I keep telling the administration that this building needs to be renovated,” Erasmus said with a sigh. “It’s practically falling apart at this point.”
As if on cue, a sudden crack sliced through the air, and Damen looked up just in time to see the metal truss holding up the stage lighting start to come apart.
Damen didn’t have time to think in the seconds that followed. Acting purely on instinct, he reached out towards Erasmus and grabbed him firmly by the arms before pulling him down off the stage.
Obviously startled, Erasmus landed heavily on top of Damen, who winced as his still-tender shoulder made contact with the full weight of Erasmus’ elbow. However, when the entire truss came down not even a full second later in a mess of screeching metal and sparking wires right where Erasmus had just been kneeling, Damen immediately forgot about the pain. All he could think about was that if he had been even a second slower, Erasmus would’ve been crushed beneath the weight of the truss—probably to death.
Erasmus was apparently thinking the same thing. “You saved my life,” he said breathlessly, pushing himself up just enough so that he could look Damen in the eye. His expression was one of both gratitude and admiration, and Damen felt his face grow warm beneath Erasmus’ awestruck stare.
“Are you okay?” Damen asked as he propped himself up onto his elbows. Their faces were now only inches apart, and Damen tried his best not to notice how impossibly long Erasmus’ eyelashes were. This was, after all, neither the time nor the place for that sort of thing.
Erasmus nodded, flushing a light pink as he shyly tucked a stray curl behind his ear. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
It was then that Nicaise, who had apparently taken it upon himself to deal with Govart after Damen’s miserable failure, suddenly let out a flurry of curses that showcased not only his vast knowledge of swear words but his near-limitless creativity when it came to using them as well. Damen looked over just in time to see Nicaise narrowly dodge one of Govart’s meaty fists.
Erasmus, having heard Nicaise’s colorful swearing as well, also turned his head to look, but rather than react with nothing but confusion like Damen had expected, Erasmus instead went inexplicably pale before falling limply against Damen’s chest in a dead faint.
“Erasmus?!” Damen exclaimed as he cradled Erasmus’ slack body in his arms. He called out Erasmus’ name again and gently shook him as he did so, but it was no use; Erasmus was out cold.
“Nicaise!” Damen shouted, looking over just in time to see Nicaise kick Govart hard in between the legs—a move that proved to be just as effective on the dead as the living, as Govart immediately crumpled bonelessly to the ground.
“I’m a little busy right now, Damen!” Nicaise shot back over his shoulder as he circled Govart’s prone form with the slow, easy gait of a predator about to come in for another strike.
Although it might’ve just been Damen’s imagination, he swore he saw something akin to white-blue flames licking along the edges of Nicaise’s hands as he curled them into fists once more. Then the eerie glow grew brighter as the faint flicker along the edges of Nicaise’s palms roared to life, and Damen knew that he could no longer blame what he was seeing on his imagination.
“So are you going to be a good boy and move on like you’re supposed to?”Nicaise asked, using his foot to roll Govart over onto his back. “Or do I have to send you there myself?”
“Go to hell,” Govart spat, though it was clear from the unnatural strain in his voice that he was still feeling the last blow Nicaise had dealt him.
Nicaise cracked his knuckles. “Exorcism it is then.”
The air seemed to crackle with energy as Nicaise drew his arm back, the flames enveloping his fist burning even brighter than before. Although this was already nothing like the exorcisms Damen had seen in the movies, he’d still somehow expected Nicaise to recite some sort of bible passage in Latin before he dispatched Govart.
Needless to say, Nicaise did not do this.
“Go shove a waffle iron up your ass,” he snarled and slammed his fist down into the center of Govart’s chest.
Glowing, white-blue flames immediately washed over Govart, engulfing him completely before he could even so much shout in surprise. They burned brightly for several seconds, and when they finally died down into nothingness, Govart was nowhere to be found. It was as if he had never been there.
“Well, that’s done,” Nicaise said as he walked over to Damen, dusting his hands as if he had just cleaned up a mess, which Damen supposed he had in a manner of speaking. “What happened to him?” Nicaise asked upon seeing Erasmus, who was still lying limply against Damen’s chest.
Damen shook his head. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “He suddenly fainted out of nowhere.”
“Maybe the shock of nearly dying got to him,” Nicaise suggested with a shrug. “It happens sometimes.”
Although Nicaise’s explanation made the most sense, something about the whole thing continued to nag at Damen, though he wasn’t sure what. Erasmus wasn’t like him or Nicaise, of that Damen was certain. He hadn’t seen Govart the day before, so there was no reason that he would’ve been able to now. And yet Erasmus had acted like he had seen Govart fighting with Nicaise. Damen couldn’t explain why or how, but his gut told him that things weren’t quite as simple as Nicaise’s explanation made them out to be.
“By the way,” Damen said, suddenly changing the subject, “did you just tell Govart to ‘go shove a waffle iron up his ass’?”
“Oh. Yeah. That’s part of the exorcism,” Nicaise explained, and when Damen looked at him doubtfully, he elaborated. “Okay, it’s how I do my exorcisms. Some people use bible verses to help them focus; I use insults. It’s a personal thing.”
This, of course, explained absolutely nothing from Damen’s perspective, but he didn’t get a chance to ask Nicaise for further clarification, as Erasmus finally started to regain consciousness.
“What happened?” Erasmus asked with a soft groan, his hazel eyes fluttering open. “I was… I was working on the set, and then…” He trailed off with another groan, wincing as he pressed the heel of his palm against his browbone.
“The stage lighting collapsed,” Damen explained gently as he helped Erasmus sit upright beside him. “You must’ve fainted from shock.”
Erasmus nodded, though it was clear from his expression that his memory of what had happened was still somewhat hazy. “I remember. Sort of.” He then looked over at Damen, who had taken the opportunity to finally get to his feet, and said, “You pulled me out of the way, didn’t you?”
It was now Damen’s turn to nod, and when he did, Erasmus flushed the same shade of light pink he had earlier and said, “You saved my life. Thank you.”
Damen smiled. “It’s no big deal,” he said as he offered Erasmus a hand, which Erasmus gratefully took. Though it was clear from the way Erasmus swayed dangerously to one side after standing up that he was still feeling somewhat dizzy, and Damen immediately reached out to steady him. “Are you alright?” he asked, his brow creasing with concern.
“Yeah. Sorry,” Erasmus replied, his flush darkening as his fingers brushed against the hand Damen had put on his hip. “I must’ve stood up too quickly.”
Damen shook his head. “You don’t need to apologize.”
“Sorry.” Then, realizing that he’d just apologized again, Erasmus let out a tiny, embarrassed-sounding laugh and said, “It’s a bad habit.”
Bad habit it may have been, but Damen couldn’t help but think it was cute; everything about Erasmus was. The way he spoke softly, with his eyes lowered and his cheeks flushed an enticing shade of pink, made something melt inside Damen, and while he was loathe to admit it, Erasmus was almost certainly his type.
Nicaise, on the other hand, clearly thought differently because when he rolled his eyes at Erasmus’ response Damen could practically hear it.
Thankfully, Erasmus didn’t seem to notice Nicaise’s obvious distaste, and he carefully smoothed out the front of his white, paint-flecked shirt once Damen finally drew his hand away. Admittedly, Damen may have let it linger for a moment too long on Erasmus’ hip.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” Damen asked, still feeling somewhat concerned despite Erasmus’ previous assurances that he was actually, in fact, perfectly fine.
Erasmus nodded. “Yeah. I’m sure.”
Damen smiled, his shoulders relaxing slightly as relief washed over him. “I’m glad.”
Erasmus then looked at Damen like he wanted to ask him something, but was unsure about actually doing so. His fingers played idly with the hem of his shirt, and Damen could see the slight indent in Erasmus’ lower lip where he was worrying it between his front teeth.
For a moment, Damen thought that Erasmus was going to remain silent forever, but then Erasmus brushed his gold-burnished hair behind his ear again and said, “So, um, I need to go let the department head know about what happened with the stage lighting, but… I’d really like to take you out to dinner as thanks for saving my life, if you’re okay with that?”
Damen’s smile grew into a full-on grin as happiness swelled in his chest. “I’d like that a lot,” he said.
“That’s great,” Erasmus said, flushing with pleasure at Damen’s enthusiastic response. He then reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, which he offered to Damen after unplugging his headphones from the jack at the bottom. “Do you mind giving me your number so I can text you later about setting up a date?”
“Is that what this is? A date?” Damen asked, still grinning as he took the phone.
Erasmus’ blush darkened considerably, and he hesitated for a moment before replying in a shy voice, “It is if you’d like it to be.”
Damen, as expected, seized the opportunity. “I would.”
“Then it’s a date,” Erasmus declared as Damen handed back the phone, having entered his number under his name. He then paused, glancing down at his phone’s screen with obvious delight before adding, with a beaming smile, “Damen.”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Damen heard Nicaise mutter under his breath with another roll of his eyes.
Erasmus either hadn’t heard Nicaise or had simply chosen to ignore him, because he didn’t even so much as glance in Nicaise’s direction as he slid his phone back into his pocket and said, “My name is Erasmus by the way. Sorry that I didn’t introduce myself earlier. That was rude of me.”
Damen laughed. “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”
“Anyway, I should probably get going.” Erasmus’ expression made it clear that he’d much prefer to continue speaking with Damen, but unfortunately his sense of duty and responsibility had prevailed. “I’ll text you later?”
Erasmus then offered him a small parting wave that Damen couldn’t help but find absolutely adorable—though it was clear from the strangled noise of disgust Nicaise made that Damen was alone in this—and hurried out of the auditorium. Although Damen was sad to see Erasmus go so soon, he couldn’t deny that watching Erasmus leave had certain perks.
“ Gag ,” Nicaise said the second Erasmus was finally out of earshot. “I can’t believe you’re actually into that.”
Damen rolled his eyes. “Shut up, Nicaise.”
Nicaise shook his head. “You have absolutely no taste. And I can’t believe he asked you out before even asking for your name . Talk about getting ahead of himself.”
Damen shrugged. “I thought it was cute.”
“It was disgusting.”
Damen rolled his eyes. “Let’s just get out of here.”
“Fine by me. Netflix, here I come!”
“Okay, but first you’re going to have to explain that exorcism thing to me again.”
And Nicaise did; or at least, he tried to. However, by the time he dropped Damen off in front of Kastor and Jokaste’s house, having given him a ride home in the most beat-up Jeep Damen had ever seen, Damen was still just as confused as he’d been before.
Nicaise had said something about how focused ‘spiritual energy’ was really the only thing necessary for an exorcism to take place; the words—whether they were Latin bible passages or, in the case of one of Nicaise’s distant cousins, Sailor Moon’s catchphrase—were just a conduit of sorts, something to help the medium focus their power in order for the exorcism to actually take place.
Needless to say, Damen didn’t understand any of it—well, except for the fact that the white-blue flames he’d seen earlier were a physical manifestation of Nicaise’s concentrated spiritual power. That was the only thing Damen had gotten out of their entire conversation, much to Nicaise’s dismay. And while he hadn’t seemed too thrilled at the prospect, Nicaise had promised to try explaining it again to Damen at a later date, when he would teach him how to exorcise spirits on his own because, as Nicaise had so articulately put it, Damen ‘couldn’t stay completely useless forever.’
Normally Damen would’ve taken offense at something like that, but he was too exhausted from what had happened with Govart to really care. Plus his shoulder, which had only been throbbing a bit earlier, was now aching something fierce, and Damen knew that he needed to ice it as soon as possible.
This was why Damen made a beeline straight for the freezer after he’d thanked Nicaise for giving him a ride home. Unfortunately, Kastor and Jokaste were both in the kitchen at the time, and they insisted on fussing over Damen for a full half hour despite his assurances that he was fine—just a little sore.
As a result, by the time Damen finally made it to his room, with a plastic bag filled with ice and plans to do nothing but lie on his bed and play Fire Emblem for the rest of the day, he was even more exhausted than before; so exhausted, in fact, that he couldn’t even bring himself to care when he found Laurent seated at the foot his bed, waiting for him.
“You’re injured,” Laurent said, obviously distressed by this fact.
“Hello to you too,” Damen grumbled, shivering as Laurent got up from the bed and walked over to him, the chill that inevitably came along with Laurent’s presence washing over him.
“Let me see.” Laurent’s tone of voice made it clear that there was no room for argument; not that Damen had any energy left to argue at this point.
Damen sighed before reluctantly complying with Laurent’s demands. He even pulled off his shirt so that Laurent could get a better look at his shoulder, which was already showing signs of bruising.
“You know, it’s really not that big of a deal,” Damen said, trying not to wince as pain radiated down his arm; evidently taking off his shirt had been a mistake. “It’s just a little sore.”
Laurent’s frown deepened at the sight of Damen’s swollen and discolored shoulder. “It looks painful,” he said, his voice soft as he gently ran his fingers over the dark bruising.
It was clear from the way Laurent jerked his hand back less than a second later once he’d realized what he’d done that he’d touched Damen unthinkingly, as if out of instinct. Although Damen didn’t like the idea of Laurent touching him without permission, he couldn’t deny that Laurent’s cold fingers had felt good against his heated skin, and he wouldn’t mind having them there again. In fact, Damen wanted them there.
“It's fine if you want to touch,” Damen said softly, mildly embarrassed by this admission. “Your cold hands feel… nice.”
Laurent, however, didn't take this as an invitation to touch Damen again, even though it very clearly was. Instead, he continued to clutch his hand to his chest, looking almost troubled as he stared down at his feet.
When Laurent still hadn’t done anything nearly a full minute later, Damen gave up and wandered over to his bed, all the while ignoring the sharp ache slicing through his chest. He dropped his shirt on the ground, too lazy to put it away properly, and threw himself down on his slightly rumpled comforter. Damen couldn't remember the last time his bed had felt this good.
It took a few minutes for Damen to get himself situated, but in the end he was reclining comfortably against a stack of pillows with his makeshift ice pack sitting on top of his injured shoulder and his Nintendo 3DS in hand. He had just finished loading his save file when he felt the bed dip as Laurent took a seat beside him.
“What is that?” Laurent asked, peering curiously at the 3DS.
“It's a 3DS,” Damen explained. When Laurent only stared blankly at him in response, he elaborated, “A hand-held video game console.”
However, this explanation clearly meant just as little to Laurent as the first one had, as he continued to regard Damen with the same blank stare.
Damen sighed. “You play games on it. Here, I’ll show you.”
Shifting so that Laurent could get a better look at the screen, Damen started to explain how Fire Emblem’s tactical gameplay worked, slowly playing through the stage while Laurent watched.
By the time Damen had cleared through the first half of the map, Laurent had clearly gotten the hang of the mechanics because he had started to offer suggestions while simultaneously critiquing Damen’s strategic choices. Although Damen went with his original strategy most of the time, he did follow Laurent’s advice a handful of times, where Laurent’s less-direct way of thinking was more appropriate.
“Do you want to try?” Damen asked after they’d cleared the stage. “I have a couple of DLC maps that you can try.”
Laurent looked confused. “DLC maps?” he repeated.
“They’re extra maps—not part of the main storyline.”
“I see,” Laurent replied, though it was clear from his expression that he still didn’t quite understand. Damen, however, wasn’t going to try and explain it any further because explaining this kind of thing to Laurent was exactly like explaining it to Damen’s father, which Damen had never had much success with.
“So do you want to give it a shot?” Damen asked again while offering the 3DS to Laurent.
Laurent hesitated for a moment, but eventually reached out at took the console, arranging his hands on either side of it just like he had seen Damen do only moments before. “What do I do?” he asked as he squinted down at the menus displayed on the screen, clearly unsure of how to proceed.
“Go to the globe at the top of the screen by the castle entrance,” Damen said, leaning in so that he could slide his hand up beside Laurent’s and guide his thumb upwards on the directional stick.
Laurent was evidently not expecting Damen to get so close to him because he jumped slightly beneath Damen’s touch, his shoulder accidentally knocking into Damen’s just hard enough to aggravate what the ice pack, which was now lying discarded beside Damen on the bed, had previously soothed.
“ Ouch .” Damen winced as pain flared white-hot across the full-length of his shoulder. Then, seeing the look of concern that flashed across Laurent’s face as a result, he quickly added, “It’s okay. I’m fine.”
Laurent gave him a serious look. “If you’re in pain you should take some laudanum.There’s no point in suffering needlessly.”
Although Damen knew that laudanum had been a popular pain reliever during Laurent’s lifetime, the suggestion still shocked him; though he supposed he should be grateful that Laurent hadn’t suggested morphine or even heroin instead, two other forms of pain relief that had enjoyed much use during the second half of the 19th century.
“I think I’ll just stick with an ice pack and maybe some Advil, thanks,” Damen replied as he gingerly rubbed his aching shoulder.
Laurent gave him a quizzical look. “What’s an ‘Advil?’”
“It’s a pain reliever.”
The confused crease in Laurent’s brow only deepened. “Then how is it any different from laudanum?”
“Well, for one Advil isn’t illegal—”
Laurent snorted. “There’s no reason for laudanum to be outlawed. It’s perfectly safe.”
“Except for the fact that it’s one of the easiest drugs to overdose on out there. There’s a reason why you can’t get it without a prescription anymore.”
Laurent was quiet after that, so Damen thought it best to change the subject, quickly adding, “Anyway, once you get up to the sphere I was talking about press ‘A,’ and it should open up another menu.”
He continued to guide Laurent through the various menu screens until Laurent had successfully managed to open one of the DLC maps. From there, Laurent was able to figure things out for himself, though Damen still chimed in every once in awhile with suggestions and was pleasantly surprised when Laurent followed most of them.
Sitting there, nearly shoulder to shoulder on Damen’s bed, they played through several more stages together, laughing whenever the enemy AI did something particularly stupid, like attack a unit they were guaranteed not to damage.
The easy camaraderie they had fallen into felt so oddly comfortable, natural even, that the rest of the world was easily forgotten for the remainder of the afternoon.
I am SO sorry that it took this long to update. I had a pretty hectic exam schedule that spanned basically the entire month of April, and then I immediately started a new job right after, so things were pretty crazy! I also spent a lot of time struggling to write this chapter for some reason. Not really sure why, but oh well. It happens, I suppose. I am going to do my best to ensure that future updates are more regular and not nearly 3 months apart!
Thank you once again to everyone who commented and left kudos. You are all incredibly lovely people, and I'm so glad that many of you are enjoying the fic so far :)
Also special thanks to Cannedebonbon again for editing the absolute mess the first draft was!
I just want to note that this chapter has some content that may be triggering for some. However, it is a HUGE spoiler that relates to how Laurent died/did not die, so only mouse-over the spoiler text below if you want a detailed explanation of the potentially triggering content, including spoilers:
Damen and Erasmus went out on their date exactly a week later, and all-in-all Damen considered it to be a successful one.
Erasmus had taken him out to a local Cajun restaurant, the kind of hole-in-the-wall that only a New Orleans native like Erasmus would know about. The food had been amazing, full of flavor and undeniably authentic, and Damen had admittedly eaten a bit too much of it. However, when Erasmus had suggested they go to a nearby café afterwards for beignets, Damen had quickly forgotten about how unpleasantly tight the waistband of his jeans had become and readily agreed; though he still took the opportunity to surreptitiously loosen his belt a few notches the next time he used the restroom.
It was nearly 11PM by the time they came to a stop in front of Kastor and Jokaste’s house, having walked down from the streetcar stop a little ways up the road. The air, while still warm, had cooled down considerably since that afternoon, and a pleasant breeze had thankfully cleared away most of the humidity. It made the walk home just as enjoyable as the rest of the evening, and Damen was sad to see it come to an end.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to walk you home?” Damen asked. This was the first time anyone had ever walked him home before, and he honestly felt a little out of his element.
Erasmus let out a soft laugh. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “Campus isn’t that far from here. Plus this neighborhood is generally pretty safe.”
“You know, it’s really not a problem—” Damen started to say, but lapsed into silence when Erasmus gently touched his upper arm.
“I’ll be fine, Damen,” Erasmus assured him with a smile. “Really. Don’t worry about me. There’s no reason for you to walk out of your way on my account.”
“You say it like walking with you is some kind of punishment,” Damen said as he took Erasmus’ hand, the one that had lingered on his bicep, and gave it a light squeeze. “It’s not. I had a good time tonight.”
Erasmus flushed, and while it was somewhat predictable, Damen found it no less endearing than before. In fact, he was nearly overwhelmed by a sudden swell of warmth in his chest when Erasmus gazed up at him through his long lashes and said, “Me too,” in a soft murmur that Damen had to strain to hear.
“Then next time I’ll walk you home instead,” Damen said as he flashed Erasmus what he hoped was his most charming smile. Judging from the way Erasmus’ blush darkened several shades as he nodded his agreement, it seemed to have had the desired effect, and Damen decided to seize the opportunity it afforded him.
Gently cupping the side of Erasmus’ face, Damen leaned in and pressed a tender kiss to his mouth. Erasmus’ lips were warm and soft against his own, and they parted eagerly when Damen offered an invitation to deepen the kiss. What had started off as a chaste press of mouths was quickly becoming something far more heated, and when Erasmus made a low, unthinking sound of pleasure deep in his throat, Damen’s self-control, which had already worn dangerously thin over the course of the evening, almost snapped.
Although Damen had planned to take things at a more gentlemanly pace, the decidedly un -gentlemanly thoughts he was currently having were making him wonder if it would be better just to say to hell with it and invite Erasmus inside. Besides, if the way Erasmus was pressing his body flush against Damen’s was any indication, it seemed that Erasmus wouldn’t exactly be adverse to this idea either.
The unexpected sound of Laurent’s voice cut through Damen’s thoughts like a knife and caused him to awkwardly knock his chin into Erasmus’ mouth as he jerked away. If there was a less elegant way of breaking a kiss, Damen couldn’t think of it, and he silently cursed Laurent for having chosen such an inopportune time to appear. He was absolutely certain that any charm he might’ve had in Erasmus’ eyes had just been thoroughly shattered.
“Ow,” Erasmus said, pressing his fingers to his lower lip, which was no doubt smarting from Damen’s clumsiness.
Damen fumbled for something to say; preferably something other than ‘sorry, but the ghost of the guy who used to live here just appeared out of nowhere and startled me’ because Erasmus was just as aware of Laurent’ presence as anyone else, which was to say not at all.
“Sorry, I thought I saw a, um, spider,” Damen said after what had likely been a too-long pause and immediately felt his face go hot with embarrassment at how lame he sounded.
“A spider?” Erasmus repeated, his brow creasing with confusion.
“Yeah. I’m, uh, terrified of them.”
For a moment, Damen was certain that Erasmus was going to call him out on his obvious lie, but then Erasmus’ expression softened and he was looking up at Damen with that shy smile of his that made Damen’s chest prickle with affection.
“I never would have guessed that someone like you would be afraid of spiders,” Erasmus said, his green eyes twinkling with amusement. “It’s cute.”
Although Damen was relieved that he’d somehow managed to satisfy Erasmus with this admittedly weak excuse, he couldn’t help but feel bad about the fact that he’d just lied. Dishonesty had never sat well with him, and Damen wished that the circumstances hadn’t necessitated it; but ultimately a tiny lie was far more believable than the truth. He could only imagine what Erasmus would say if he told him that he could see the dead.
“Um, yeah,” Damen said as he rubbed awkwardly at the back of his neck. “Sorry again for knocking into you like that.”
“It’s okay. I’m sure we’ll have plenty of other opportunities in the future,” Erasmus said, then playfully added, “without spiders, of course.”
Damen let out a sheepish laugh. “Yeah. Definitely.”
Pushing himself up onto his tiptoes, Erasmus pressed one more kiss to Damen’s mouth. It was chaste and quick, barely more than a brush of Erasmus’ lips against Damen’s. And yet, the way Erasmus’ breath puffed hotly against Damen’s skin as he pulled away with a soft murmur of “good night” made it seem almost erotic.
Or at least, that’s what Laurent seemed to think if the noise of disgust he made was any indication.
Damen pointedly ignored him as he bid Erasmus good night and continued to ignore him until Erasmus was firmly out of earshot. It was only then that Damen finally rounded on Laurent, who was leaning against a nearby lamppost with a decidedly sour-looking expression on his face.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Damen hissed, the low volume with which he spoke doing little to disguise his obvious irritation.
Laurent, however, didn’t even flinch. “You shouldn’t have let him be so forward,” he said stiffly as he pushed himself upright.
Damen spluttered. “ Forward ?” he repeated incredulously. “We were just saying good night!”
“Yes, of course, silly me,” Laurent said in a voice like acid. “I had forgotten that it’s impolite to keep your tongue to yourself when wishing someone good night.”
“Oh please,” Damen scoffed. “Like you were a paragon of virtue when you were alive.”
“This isn’t about virtue,” Laurent snapped. “This is about basic manners.”
“And butting into my business is good manners?” Damen asked, his tone just as scathing as Laurent’s had been. “Jealousy doesn’t look good on anyone, Laurent—alive or dead.”
It was clear from the way Laurent’s expression soured further that Damen’s words had struck a chord. Laurent was jealous; that much was obvious. Damen had been aware of Laurent’s attraction to him from the start, but he had thought that he’d made his opinion on it clear. But then again, maybe he hadn’t.
It wasn’t like he’d ever told Laurent that he wasn’t interested in him like that. And while Damen had thought that this much would’ve been obvious considering the circumstances, they had spent a considerable amount of time in each other’s company this past week, and Damen supposed it was entirely possible that Laurent had gotten the wrong idea from it.
However, despite this, Damen couldn’t bring himself to regret spending time with Laurent. Although they’d gotten off to a somewhat rocky start, Damen found that he genuinely enjoyed being around Laurent. There was an easiness to their conversations that Damen hadn’t really experienced with anyone else before, the sense of comfort entirely distinct from how he felt around a close friend like Nikandros—not necessarily better, but definitely different.
Knowing that he was likely going to lose all this with what he was about to say made Damen sad, but he also knew that he couldn’t allow things to continue as they were. It wasn’t fair to him, and it certainly wasn’t fair to Laurent either.
Sucking in a deep, calming breath, Damen clamped down on the annoyance still simmering hotly in the pit of his stomach and forced himself to put it aside for the time being. “Laurent, listen—”
Laurent, however, was definitely not listening. In fact, he wasn’t even there, having once again decided to vanish without warning in what Damen was starting to think of as a typically Laurent fashion. It seemed that the uncomfortable conversation regarding Laurent’s jealousy would just have to wait until Laurent decided to reappear.
Unfortunately, as luck would have it, the next time Laurent decided to show his face, Damen had been on his way to meet Erasmus for lunch and didn’t really have time to chat. Of course, by the time Damen had gotten back home, Laurent was once again nowhere to be found, and Damen had no choice but to postpone their conversation once more.
Although the situation with Laurent was frustrating, Damen didn’t dwell on it. Things with Erasmus were going well, and Damen chose to focus on that instead for the time being.
It was surprisingly easy to. Erasmus was sweet to a fault, kinder and more gentle than anyone Damen had ever known before. But he was also passionate, especially when it came to his interest in theater. In fact, he’d spent nearly the entirety of their second date telling Damen all about the drama department’s upcoming performance of Into the Woods , which was still slated for November despite the mess Govart had made. Erasmus had been absolutely mortified afterwards, of course, and had spent the rest of their date apologizing over and over again for monopolizing the conversation like that despite Damen’s assurances that he’d actually enjoyed listening to Erasmus talk about his interests. No doubt Erasmus had thought that Damen had only said this out of politeness, but, in reality, it had been a completely genuine statement—a testament to how hopelessly attracted to Erasmus Damen already was.
However, even though Damen’s head was always full of thoughts of Erasmus, he still found himself wondering about Laurent from time to time; like he did nearly two weeks later, when Laurent still hadn’t reappeared, and Damen was honestly starting to worry.
He was actually considering whether he should try calling out to Laurent again when Jokaste appeared in the open doorway to his bedroom and, after knocking politely against the wooden doorjamb, said, “Damen, can I ask you for a huge favor?”
“Of course,” Damen said as he sat up on his bed. “Anything you need, Jokaste. You know I’m always happy to help out.”
“Well, Alex is going on a field trip to the museum with his class today, and Kastor was supposed to help chaperone, but, well…” Jokaste sighed. “There was an accident this morning at his work—a serious accident. Apparently a steel beam wasn’t secured properly, and it collapsed on one of the workers.”
“Are they going to be alright?” Damen asked, though, judging from Jokaste’s serious expression, he could already guess what her answer would be
“Unfortunately, no,” Jokaste replied with a sad shake of her head. “That’s why Kastor had to go in to work today even though it was supposed to be his day off. Apparently it’s a real mess. The other project manager was practically begging him for help on the phone earlier.” She let out another sigh. “I’m sure you can guess where I’m going with this.”
“That Kastor can’t go on the field trip anymore?”
“Yes. Exactly. And even though Alex’s teacher told Kastor that he’d be able to manage without him today, the reality is that he could really use another adult’s help with watching the kids. Normally I’d volunteer myself, but there’s no way for me to keep up like this.” Jokaste gestured at her protruding belly, which the loose fit of her floral-print blouse did little to diminish, as if to illustrate her point. “Do you mind going along as a chaperone for the kids? It’d only be for the morning. Alex’s teacher assured me that the trip would be done by lunchtime at the latest.”
Although Damen sure didn’t feel like an adult, sitting there in his Legend of Zelda t-shirt and Pokéball-patterned pajama pants, he nodded and said, “Yeah. Of course. I’m happy to tag along if Alex’s teacher doesn’t mind.”
Jokaste laughed. “I don’t think he’ll mind, Damen. In fact, I’m sure the poor man will be thrilled to hear that he doesn’t have to wrangle a class of 5th graders on his own the whole morning. Anyway, go get dressed. I’ll give you a ride to Alex’s school once you’re done.”
Damen nodded and immediately started to get ready once Jokaste had shut the door to his bedroom on her way out. Figuring that he didn’t have much time before they needed to be on their way, as Alex had already left on the morning school bus, Damen decided to forgo his morning shower, which was just as well because for the past several days the water temperature had been entirely unpredictable. One second the water would be pleasantly warm, with no indication that anything was amiss, and then the next it would be unbearably cold or scaldingly hot, to the point where Damen had no other choice but to jump out of the way.
Although it would be easy to blame this dramatic variation in temperature on old piping, Damen couldn’t help but find it odd that he was the only one in the house experiencing it. While he’d gotten a faceful of too-hot water the night before, everyone else had been able to bathe without incident around the same time. It was enough to make Damen wonder if perhaps Laurent had discovered a new way to express his displeasure, and Damen had made a mental note to bring it up the next time he saw Laurent—whenever that would be.
Going on a field trip with Alex and his classmates certainly got in the way of Damen’s plans to check up on Laurent that morning, but there was no way that he could say no to Jokaste, who had accepted him into her home with more grace than Damen could have ever hoped for.
It seemed, therefore, that Laurent would just have to wait until that afternoon.
The museum was exactly like Damen remembered it for the most part; the only discernable difference being the addition of a new exhibit that had still been under construction during Damen’s last visit nearly a year ago. According to Alex’s teacher, who had thanked Damen at least ten times on the bus ride over for agreeing to chaperone on such short notice, this new exhibit had only just opened to the general public, and it was clear from the excitement with which the man spoke that he had very much been looking forward to touring it.
Alex and his classmates, however, didn’t seem to share their teacher’s enthusiasm, and Damen noted that one student in particular had brought along her Nintendo 3DS, which she was currently trying to play as discretely as possible. Unfortunately for her, Damen was not the only one who had noticed, and the 3DS was quickly confiscated.
Poor girl, Damen thought, unable to keep himself from feeling a pang of sympathy for the girl. He knew that if he had been in her shoes, he probably would have done the same thing. Standing around in the museum’s atrium with nothing to do but wait was boring.
Thankfully, they didn’t have to wait for much longer, as a cheerful-looking tour guide soon came over and asked them to follow her in an equally cheerful-sounding voice. Evidently she’d been doing this for quite some time because she didn't seem at all bothered by the way the students shuffled behind her like a pack of zombies while she started to enthusiastically explain each aspect of the exhibit. Either that or she’d had a lot of caffeine that morning.
“This is boring,” Alex said in a low voice as he fell into step beside Damen at the very back of the group. His expression suggested that he’d rather be somewhere else; probably his room, where his latest Lego creation was still waiting for him half-finished—or at least that’s what Damen assumed.
“It’s better than being in class, isn’t it?” Damen asked, his voice just loud enough for Alex to hear. The last thing he wanted was to disrupt the tour, and not just because doing so would reflect very badly on him.
Alex shrugged. “Maybe.”
Damen resisted the urge to laugh. “Only ‘maybe?’”
“Probably,” Alex said with another shrug. “At least I don’t have to pay attention in class.”
Laughter bubbled up into the back of Damen’s throat, and he only just managed to repress it into a sound that could really only be described as half-snort, half-cough. “Don’t tell your mom and dad that,” Damen said once he’d managed to re-compose himself, knowing full well that Kastor and Jokaste would not be happy to hear that their son was daydreaming in class instead of paying attention.
Though, for what it was worth, it didn’t seem like Alex was having any trouble academically-speaking. Damen had gotten more than a few proud e-mails from Kastor about Alex’s good grades to know that much. Plus, it was hard to imagine any child of Jokaste’s being of less-than-average—or even average—intelligence.
“Of course I’m not going to tell them,” Alex said, the withering look he gave Damen an almost perfect imitation of the way Jokaste looked at Damen whenever he said something she thought was stupid. “I’m not an idiot.”
“I know, I know,” Damen said soothingly as he ruffled Alex’s blond hair—another trait Alex had inherited from his mother. “Now try and pay attention to what the tour guide is saying. I know you have to write a report about this exhibit later.”
Alex made a face. “It's a stupid assignment,” he said, carefully patting down the hair Damen had disturbed. “Why should anyone care about a bunch of boring old dead people.”
Although Alex was definitely more like Jokaste than Kastor in most respects, it seemed that Alex had at least inherited his father’s general distaste for history—something Damen was very familiar with. After all, Kastor had made his thoughts on Damen’s choice of major very clear on multiple occasions. Honestly, Damen was surprised Kastor hadn’t yet made some sort of snide comment about it since he’d moved in.
“All the people in this exhibit were important to the city in their own way,” Damen explained. “If you listen to the tour guide, you’ll find out why.”
It was clear from the look on Alex’s face that Damen’s suggestion didn’t appeal to him at all. However, he eventually let out a sigh and said, “Fine,” before turning his attention to the tour guide, who had already started to talk about the next part of the exhibit.
“As you can imagine, everyone was pretty surprised when Damianos d’Akélion took over the family business after his grandfather’s death,” the tour guide said in the same cheery tone of voice she’d used before. “In fact, it was quite the scandal at the time because even though Damianos was the d’Akélion family’s only male heir, he had still been born out of wedlock to a single mother, which many thought made him unfit to take over the plantation. However, Damianos quickly proved himself to be quite the competent businessman, and the d’Akélion’s business flourished as a result of his efforts.”
The tour guide then motioned towards the small portrait that had been affixed to the wall behind her and said, “This portrait of Damianos was commissioned in 1857 from famous New Orleans artist…”
Although the tour guide continued to talk about the portrait and the artist who had painted it, Damen had stopped listening. The only thing he could focus on right now was the fact that the man in the portrait, this Damianos d’Akélion, looked almost exactly like him.
It was as if Damen was looking into a mirror rather than at an old painting. Everything about their faces was the same, from the shape of their mouths to the thickness of their eyebrows. In fact, the only real difference Damen could pick out was the length of their hair. While Damen preferred to keep his cut short, Damianos seemed to favor having his on the longer side, pulling it into a low ponytail at the base of his neck.
“He looks a lot like you, Uncle Damen,” Alex said in a voice so low that Damen probably wouldn’t have heard him had Alex not leaned in towards him before speaking. Apparently the uncanny resemblance hadn’t escaped Alex’s notice either.
“He does,” Damen admitted, still unable to tear his eyes away from the portrait in front of him.
“Yeah. It is,” Damen agreed, trying his best to ignore how thoroughly unsettled this discovery had left him as he attempted to turn his attention back to the tour guide, who had already moved on to the next part of the display.
“As you can imagine,” the tour guide began, “the d’Akélions weren’t the only influential family living in New Orleans at the time. In fact, it’s actually rather difficult to talk about the d’Akélions without mentioning the de Vères as well.”
The mention of Laurent’s family name was all it took for Damen to finally shove Damianos d’Akélion and his eerie portrait out of the forefront of his mind. All of his focus was now on the tour guide, and Damen highly doubted that there was anyone there that was listening to her as intently as he now was—not even Alex’s teacher.
“Ten years before Damianos took over the d’Akélion plantation, Aleron de Vère, who was the head of the de Vère family at the time, suddenly passed away, leaving everything to his eldest son, Auguste de Vère. Although Auguste was only 16 when he inherited the family business, he managed it reasonably well, and the de Vères maintained their position as one of New Orleans’ wealthiest families for many years.
“Damianos d’Akélion’s succession, however, proved to be a turning point for the de Vères. While the d’Akélions and the de Vères had always had something of a rivalry between them, Damianos’ success propelled that rivalry to new heights, as the two families became more and more competitive with one another.
“It was also around this time that Aleron de Vère’s youngest son, Laurent de Vère, who had only been 6 years old at the time of his father’s death, started to take a more active role in the family’s business. Of course, some historians theorize that Laurent was helping his older brother long before this, but so far no records have been found that substantiate this. In fact, the first time Laurent mentions helping Auguste with the family business in his journals is in May of 1857.”
“Then why do those historians think he started helping out earlier? That doesn’t make any sense!” one of Alex’s classmates blurted out without raising his hand and was promptly scolded by the teacher for not having done so.
The tour guide, however, seemed to take it all in stride and answered his question without missing a beat. “Well, a lot of what we know about Laurent de Vère comes from the journals he kept during his lifetime, and even though Laurent certainly kept a meticulous record of his day-to-day life in most respects, he rarely mentioned the plantation. So it’s entirely possible that he became involved in the management of the plantation at a younger age and simply didn’t mention it.”
“Then what did Laurent write about in his journals?” the same classmate asked, though this time he raised his hand before speaking; he likely wasn’t keen on getting another scolding.
“Mostly about girls,” the tour guide said with a laugh. “Laurent was very popular, and many people considered him to be a good match, especially for their own daughters. This meant that Laurent spent a lot of his time attending various parties and other engagements, which he then wrote about in his journals, though admittedly with very little interest. In fact, the only thing Laurent really seemed to have a genuine interest in was his family’s long-standing business rival, Damianos d’Akélion, who he mentioned quite often following Damianos’ succession.
“Granted Laurent’s first few entries about Damianos were far from flattering, but his attitude towards Damianos actually changed quite quickly after that. It wasn’t long before they became close friends and, eventually, lovers as well.”
“Really?” several of Alex’s classmates asked in unison, evidently just as shocked by this particular revelation as Damen was, albeit likely for different reasons.
Although this certainly explained a lot of Laurent’s behavior—especially why he insisted on calling Damen ‘Damianos’ instead—it was far from the explanation Damen had been expecting. After all, being confused for someone else’s dead lover wasn’t exactly something you could expect; not even after experiencing as much weird stuff as Damen had.
“Yup,” the tour guide said, peppy as ever even as a good portion of the class continued to stare at her with eyes as wide as saucers. “Laurent and Damianos saw each other in secret for more than three years. They both knew that their families would never approve, as being discovered would surely ruin their reputations, but it seems like they couldn’t bring themselves to stay away from one another. It was almost like Romeo and Juliet in a way,” the tour guide added with a somewhat dreamy-sounding sigh that only served to make Damen feel even more awkward about the whole thing.
The tour guide switched to a more somber tone of voice before continuing. “Unfortunately, the pair were separated when Damianos passed away in 1861 at the age of 25, and Laurent, apparently unable to bear living without Damianos, took his own life shortly thereafter. He was only a few week shy of turning 21.”
She then clapped her hands—likely in an attempt to dispel the gloomy mood that had settled over the group—and said, “Well, I think that’s enough digressing for today!” Flashing the class her brightest smile yet, the tour guide launched back into the pre-prepared speech she’d likely been instructed to give; one that undoubtedly did not include secret love affairs and their less-than-happy conclusions.
Although the children seemed more than happy to move on from this rather bleak tangent, Damen found himself unable to push Laurent’s unexpected manner of death out of his mind. While the tour guide certainly had no reason to lie about it, her explanation nonetheless felt off somehow. Not just because people who committed suicide rarely—if ever—stayed behind as ghosts, but also because even though Damen admittedly didn’t know Laurent all that well, he still found it difficult to imagine Laurent doing such a thing.
Then again, it would explain why Laurent was so reluctant to talk about how he died. Plus Damen supposed it was entirely possible that Laurent, overcome with regret following his death, suddenly found himself unable to move on. Hence why he was still hanging around in Damen’s bedroom.
But still there was something about that explanation that just didn’t sit quite right with Damen. He wasn’t sure what it was exactly, but it continued to nag at him throughout the rest of the tour, which Damen, quite frankly, stopped paying attention too. In fact, Damen was so absorbed in his own thoughts, trying to puzzle out why someone like Laurent still hadn’t moved on, that he didn’t notice the field trip was over until Alex helpfully reminded him with a sharp nudge to the side.
“Well, that sucked,” Alex said as they made their way along with the rest of the class towards the museum’s parking lot, where a bus was waiting to take them back to school.
“You really didn’t think any of it was interesting?” Damen asked.
“I guess the part with that guy who looks like you was kind of okay,” Alex eventually conceded with a shrug. “Still weird, but okay.”
“So is that who you’re going to write your report on? Damianos d’Akélion?” Damen couldn’t help but feel a little weird saying his doppelganger’s name, especially when Laurent had been calling him by it ever since they first met.
Alex shrugged again. “Maybe. I’ll think about it later.”
Damen was about to tell Alex just how much like Kastor he was when the sharp sound of squealing tires cut through the air, and Damen looked up just in time to see a silver van hurtling straight towards them, with what looked like two drivers behind the wheel.
There wasn’t enough time to think. The van was gaining speed fast, and Damen knew that it would only be a second before it was careening up over the curb and onto the sidewalk, where it would undoubtedly collide with either Alex or himself, likely with disastrous consequences.
Already the sound of squealing tires was filling the air, and Damen felt himself reach out instinctively towards Alex.
He only hoped that he wasn’t too late.
The police arrived in record time, as did Jokaste, whose distress at the situation was only rivaled by that of the van’s driver, who was thankfully unhurt despite the severe damage his car had sustained from crashing headlong into a nearby lamppost after narrowly missing both Damen and Alex.
There was, of course, only one driver as it turned out, a middle aged man who had been on his way to pick up his wife and two daughters when he’d suddenly lost control of his vehicle. Damen didn’t know why he’d seen two people earlier, but he figured that the suddenness of the situation had caused his eyes to play tricks on him. It made sense. After all, there was no reason for there to be two people behind the wheel.
Ignoring whatever lingering doubts he still had, Damen pushed the face of the young man he’d thought he’d seen out of his mind and headed over to where Jokaste was fussing over Alex.
Although Alex didn’t seem to be injured in any way and had told Damen just as much, Jokaste apparently didn’t want to take any chances and insisted on taking Alex to see the doctor just to make sure. Alex’s teacher raised no objections and made an offer to e-mail Jokaste a copy of the materials that would be covered in class later that afternoon, which Jokaste readily accepted, much to her son’s apparent chagrin. It seemed that the prospect of missing school lost most of its thrill when make-up work was sent home.
After thanking Damen for his quick thinking, Jokaste herded a scowling Alex into her own car, a sleek, white SUV that gleamed in the mid-afternoon sun. Although Damen would’ve loved to hitch a ride with Jokaste as well, as he wanted nothing more than to go home, he still had to give a statement to the police, so he had no choice but to stay behind.
Thankfully, the police managed to wrap up things pretty quickly, and Damen was able to get home within the hour, which was good considering it was now past lunchtime, and Damen’s stomach was insistently reminding him of this fact.
Unsure as to when Jokaste and Alex would be back from the doctor’s, Damen decided to go ahead and make himself something to eat. Although he certainly wasn’t as skilled as Kastor in the kitchen, Damen knew enough to keep himself from starving. So while the turkey sandwich he ended up preparing wasn’t fantastic by any means, it was decent enough, and Damen was content to eat it as he opened up a new browser window on his laptop.
The things the tour guide had said earlier about Laurent were still bothering Damen, so after making sure that Laurent wasn’t actually hovering over his shoulder, Damen typed Laurent’s name into the Google search bar and started to read through the results.
Unsurprisingly, they confirmed everything the tour guide had said back at the museum.
As the youngest son of Aleron de Vère, Laurent had led a very comfortable life. Most of his days had been spent mingling with the rest of New Orleans high society, attending both dinner parties and dress balls alike with a frequency that suggested he had little time for anything else. It seemed that while Laurent’s elder brother was responsible for managing the family’s business, Laurent himself was responsible for handling all social engagements and maintaining the family’s sterling reputation.
At least until his romance with Damianos d’Akélion had plunged both families into scandal following Damianos’ death, the details of which continued to elude historians even to this day, giving rise to a wealth of debate full of conflicting theories.
Laurent’s death, on the other hand, was well-documented and, therefore, very clear.
Two weeks after Damianos’ untimely passing, Laurent de Vère went into his study, where he penned a brief note to his elder brother before adding a fatal quantity of arsenic to his afternoon tea. His body was later found by a servant, who had come to inform him that dinner was ready. There was no debate about this sequence of events; everyone seemed to accept it as fact.
And yet it continued to bother Damen.
A loud ping finally drew Damen’s attention away from his laptop’s screen, and he saw that Erasmus had sent him a text message. Smiling to himself, Damen wasted no time in opening it up with a swipe of his finger across his phone’s touchscreen.
Just finished baking a bunch of brownies :D Though I ended up making way too many! Do you want some? :)
His smile growing into a full-on grin, Damen quickly typed back a response.
Sure! I love brownies.
Great! :DDD , Erasmus typed back, once again showcasing his love of emoticons, which, like most things about Erasmus, Damen found incredibly cute. Are you at home? I can drop by with some before I have to go to class? :)
Cool :) See you in 15 min!
Erasmus, true to his word, rung the doorbell almost exactly 15 minutes later, and when Damen opened the door, he immediately presented Damen with the largest tupperware container Damen had ever seen, filled to the brim with brownies.
“How many did you make?” Damen asked, unable to keep himself from balking at the sheer number of brownies inside the container.
Erasmus smiled sheepishly as he explained, “I, um, accidentally added too much of one ingredient, so I added more of the other ones to compensate, but I just ended up with way too many brownies in the end.”
Damen laughed. “I guess I shouldn’t complain since I’m the one who gets to benefit from the surplus.”
“I hope you like them!” Erasmus said earnestly.
“I’m sure they’re delicious,” Damen said with a warm smile. “I’ll try my best not to eat them all in one sitting.”
Erasmus grinned. “I can always make more for you if you do.”
“That sounds dangerous for my waistline.”
“Probably,” Erasmus said with a soft laugh. “Anyway, I need to head over to class, but I’ll text you afterwards?”
“Sure. Sounds good.”
“Okay. Talk to you later then,” Erasmus said as he turned to leave, but stopped when Damen gently caught him by the wrist. “Damen?” he asked, his eyes widening ever so slightly as he looked at the hand on wrist and then up at Damen’s face.
Erasmus’ confusion, however, didn’t last long, as Damen started to bend down, his intentions becoming clear from the way he angled his head slightly to the side, his eyes sliding shut as he pressed their mouths together in a soft, tender kiss.
Like always, Erasmus responded eagerly to Damen’s touch and kissed back without hesitation, the slow slide of his lips against Damen’s doing little to disguise the hunger that burned underneath. It made Damen wonder if Erasmus was also thinking about the night they’d spent together over the weekend and whether he wanted a repeat of it as badly as Damen did at that moment. The memory of it alone made desire flare hotly in the pit of Damen stomach.
Never before had Damen been as sorry as he was then that classes actually existed.
Clamping down on the want steadily building inside of him, Damen forced himself to ignore just how enticing Erasmus’ mouth was in an effort to start drawing back from the kiss. However, just as Damen was about to finally pull away, having somehow found the resolve to do so, a loud crash came from inside the house, and Erasmus jerked away from him, obviously startled.
“What was that?” Erasmus asked, craning his neck as he attempted to peer into the entryway behind Damen.
“I’m not sure,” Damen said, his voice carefully measured even though he could feel the telltale chill of Laurent’s presence brushing against the back of his arms. “But I guess I better go check it out.”
“Yeah,” Erasmus said with a nod, abandoning his efforts to see what exactly had caused such a worrying sound in order to look back at Damen’s face. “I hope it’s nothing too serious.”
“Me too,” Damen agreed.
After saying goodbye to Erasmus, Damen headed back inside, determined—now more than ever—to finally confront Laurent about his behavior. He’d only just shut the door behind himself when the source of the noise immediately became apparent.
Broken glass littered the floor along with several damaged picture frames that had once been affixed to the wall. While the photographs contained within the frames were still salvageable, the frames themselves were obviously beyond repair and would need to be replaced before the pictures could be hung back up. It was a complete mess, and Damen had no idea how he was going to explain it to Jokaste.
Already anger was starting to bubble like acid in the back of his throat, and it only grew more and more insistent the longer he stared at the damage that lay before him. By the time Damen finally turned his attention to Laurent, who was standing motionlessly at the foot of the stairs, the anger had become searing hot, and it lapped at his insides like flames, scorching him from the inside out in a red flush that burned just beneath his skin.
Laurent, however, was pale; ashen white until he noticed Damen’s presence, at which point his face became strangely splotchy, red blooming across his skin like wine staining a linen cloth. His expression twisted with a mix of emotions so tumultuous that Damen didn’t even know where to begin when it came to picking them apart.
He wasn’t going to, of course. He didn’t want to. In that moment, Damen was too furious to even consider what Laurent might have been feeling, much less care. Whatever lay sandwiched in between the shame and the anger could remain a mystery.
“Damianos—” Laurent started to say, but Damen didn’t want to hear it.
“Don’t call me that,” Damen snapped, his tone harsh enough that this time Laurent did flinch, the cool, unaffected demeanor he’d projected the last time he’d come face to face with Damen’s anger suddenly nowhere to be found. “My name is Damen,” Damen continued. “Not Damianos— Damen .”
“What?” Damen sneered. “That I was your dead lover?”
“That’s—” This time Laurent cut himself off before Damen could, snapping his mouth shut not even a second after he’d opened it. He said nothing in the moments that followed; he didn’t need to. His silence was answer enough.
Damen let out a harsh bark of mirthless laughter. “Wow. Just, wow,” he said as he shook his head in disbelief. “Did it never occur to you just how crazy that actually sounds? In case you haven’t noticed, I’m still alive, which makes it really difficult for me to be someone who’s already dead.”
“I know that,” Laurent said, a hard edge of something in his voice, as if there was something caught in his throat that he couldn’t quite swallow down. “I’m well aware of the fact that you’re still alive.”
“Then why the hell would you think that I’m Damianos? Is it because we look alike?”
“It’s not that simple,” Laurent muttered, his face now more red than white, a shade of scarlet so vibrant that not even the grayish glow he exuded could dull it.
“Then explain it to me.” Damen’s tone made it clear that this was not a request; it was an order.
Laurent, however, refused to comply, his lips pressing into a hard, thin line as he stubbornly avoided Damen’s stare. It seemed that in that moment, Laurent much preferred looking at his own two feet, content to act as if Damen wasn’t even there as seconds continued to tick by in silence.
Although there was a part of Damen that wanted nothing more than to tear into Laurent for all the trouble he’d caused, he somehow managed to hold himself back.
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Damen sucked in a deep, calming breath that brought his annoyance to a low simmer instead of a full-on boil.
“This needs to stop,” Damen said as he gestured towards the ruined mess Laurent had made of Jokaste’s framed photographs. “I know you’re upset, but I like Erasmus a lot, and I’m not going to stop seeing him, so you’re just going to have to deal with it.”
“He’s not right for you,” Laurent snapped, his blue eyes flashing. Although Laurent’s jealousy had never been much of a secret, at that moment it was written plain as day across his face.
“Not right for me ? What? Like you are?” Damen snorted. “Don’t make me laugh.”
“I didn’t say that,” Laurent said stiffly, though the crimson staining his cheeks certainly suggested that he had been thinking it.
By now, Damen was done trying to be diplomatic. Annoyance had once again goaded his blood into a boil, and he could feel it pulsing white-hot in his veins. Although he knew it would have been wiser to grit his teeth and keep quiet, the voice of reason in the back of his mind absolutely insistent on this point, Damen found himself opening his mouth anyway.
“Sorry, Laurent,” he said coolly,“but I have absolutely zero interest in ghosts, especially not the ones who have no one else to blame but themselves.”
Laurent gave him a long, hard look. “What exactly are you suggesting?”
“What I’m suggesting ,” Damen said, an edge of mockery in his voice, “is that you have no one to blame but yourself. You should’ve thought things through before you went and killed yourself.”
All of the color immediately drained from Laurent’s face. “You think I committed suicide?” he asked, horrified.
“Yeah. That seems to be the general consensus.”
Laurent somehow turned even paler at that, and Damen couldn’t help but wonder why. Surely Laurent would’ve known that the circumstances of his death wouldn’t have remained secret for long. Damen couldn’t imagine that Laurent hadn’t overheard a person or two gossiping about him in the weeks following his death. After all, people loved a good scandal, especially ones that involved normally well-respected people.
“That is what happened right?” Damen asked, though somewhat cautiously, as he had not forgotten Laurent’s reaction the last time he’d tried to broad this particular topic.
“It’s not,” Laurent replied after a moment of silence, his expression deeply troubled.
“Then why were you so upset when I asked you about it before? I thought you were ashamed or something, and that’s why you didn’t want to talk about it.”
“The truth is that I don’t know exactly what happened,” Laurent admitted, though reluctantly, as if doing so reflected poorly on him; not that Damen really understood why, of course. “I remember taking tea in my study. My butler had brought it in while I was reviewing some documents my older brother had sent me earlier that week. I hadn’t been sleeping well around that time, so I assumed the headache I developed soon after was just from lack of sleep. However, my condition quickly worsened as the afternoon progressed—though I’m sure that much is obvious from my current state.”
Laurent sighed. “In any case,” he continued with a slight wave of his hand, “my memory of that afternoon is hazy at best. I remember drinking my tea, attempting to do some work, and feeling progressively worse and worse as the afternoon went on. Then everything went black, and the next time I opened my eyes I was dead and alone in a completely empty house.”
“What do you mean ‘empty house’?” Damen asked, his eyebrows knitting together.
“Exactly what I said,” Laurent replied. “The house was empty. My staff was gone, and so was my body. Apparently I had been dead for weeks.”
Until now, Damen had been under the impression that every ghost experienced that all-too-disconcerting ‘staring-down-at-your-own-lifeless-corpse’ moment, almost like a rite of passage, so to speak. However, even though Damen had never encountered a situation quite like Laurent’s before, it was entirely possible that it happened often enough to still be considered relatively normal. He made a mental note to ask Nicaise about it later.
“It wasn’t what I was expecting, no,” Laurent said. “Now tell me what it is everyone else thinks happened that day.”
Damen hesitated at first, as it seemed impolite to recount something that had turned out to be completely false, almost like retelling a nasty rumor. However, when Laurent continued to look at him expectantly, with an expression that seemed say ‘well, go on then,’ Damen realized he couldn’t simply stay quiet forever and told Laurent what he knew.
“So my tea was poisoned then,” Laurent said once Damen had finished, his tone suggesting that this revelation did not surprise him in the least.“I had suspected as much given the circumstances, but the only person who could have done that…” He trailed off, his brow furrowing as his lips pulled into a deep frown.
Then he shook his head. “No. It couldn’t have been my butler. He wouldn’t have done something like that.”
“What makes you so certain?” Damen asked, but immediately regretted it when Laurent gave him a sharp look.
“I didn’t hire just anyone , Damia—Damen.” Laurent quickly corrected himself without missing a beat. If this mistake had left him feeling flustered, there was no way for Damen to tell, as Laurent’s expression was perfectly neutral to the point of being unreadable.
Not seeing the point in addressing Laurent’s little slip-up, as it was clear from his reaction that he’d heard Damen loud and clear earlier, Damen merely rolled his eyes and said flatly, “Of course. My mistake.”
Laurent ignored Damen’s less-than-polite tone, his expression that of a man deep in thought. “The question that remains then,” he said, “is who did do it.”
“I’m guessing you have a few people in mind?”
Laurent once again shot Damen a look that made him regret having asked the question in the first place, and said, “Yes,” before vanishing without another word.
Damen, who had grown all-too-used to this sudden disappearances, was not surprised. He was, however, mildly irritated.
As bothersome as Laurent had proved himself to be—which was very—Damen still wanted to help him in whatever way he could, a desire Damen chalked up to his being too soft-hearted. However, helping generally proved to be much more difficult when the person being helped was less-than cooperative. And in the case of a murder, it was downright impossible.
Granted, Damen hadn’t encountered a lot of murdered ghosts in the past, which he was grateful for, as their situations were often the most difficult to resolve. But he’d handled enough to know that he wasn’t going to make any progress without Laurent’s help. Then again, it was entirely possible that the situation would be equally bleak even with Laurent’s cooperation.
Often ghosts who had been murdered wanted justice. And while it was possible for Damen to achieve something like this in more recent cases—usually with the help of the proper authorities—it was almost impossible to do in cases like Laurent’s, which were so old they had long since been forgotten. After all, it was kind of difficult to solve a case when there was no more evidence left to find, or even a still-living person to pin the blame on.
Damen could only hope that Laurent wasn’t hell bent on finding out who had murdered him over 150 years ago because with the way things currently stood, Damen wasn’t so sure either of them would ever uncover the truth. And even if they did, he wasn’t exactly sure how he was going to be able to bring a corpse to justice.
However, as depressing a thought as this was, Damen couldn’t bring himself to simply dismiss Laurent’s case as hopeless right off the bat. He knew that he needed to at least try, but before that he needed a plan, and Damen had a few ideas on where to start.