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there are things unbearable

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i.

Laurent smells the cigarette smoke before he even reaches his floor. The rickety staircase is claustrophobic enough already, but the added layer of smoke makes it stifling, and he practically runs up the next half-flight, breath tight in his lungs. When Laurent opens the door to the fourth floor, the smell abates slightly, less concentrated, but his lungs still fill with it every time he inhales.

Nicaise’s door is unlocked, like it always is. The boy himself is nowhere to be seen; the dingy, tiny living space is shrouded in darkness and hazy air. Laurent makes his way over to the open window, and can barely make out the shape of Nicaise on the fire escape, his back turned.

“May I come out?” Laurent asks. There’s no real way to know when Nicaise will turn him away, but tonight all he does is tilt his head in a barely distinguishable nod. He takes another long drag from his cigarette and lets it dangle between his two fingers, glaring at it from underneath his matted hair. Laurent remembers days when it was shining and glossy, the curls smooth under the soft weight of Uncle’s hand.

“What do you want.” Nicaise doesn’t look up from the smoldering tip of his cigarette, doesn’t even blink Laurent’s way. Laurent taps twice against the metal grating of the fire escape and tugs at his hair. It’s strange, having it short. It’s been two years, and he still can’t quite get used to the feeling of the strands tickling at the nape of his neck.

“Those things will kill you,” he says, which he’s said a thousand times. Nicaise scoffs.

“We both know that’s not what’s going to kill me.” He flicks the cigarette away anyway. Laurent watches it fall through the gaps in the metal.

“Don’t talk like that.” This close, he can see the mottled bruising around Nicaise’s throat, the cut on his sharp cheekbone. “You’re only thirteen. It’s a filthy habit.”

“I could be doing worse,” Nicaise says, and that’s fair. Laurent has seen some of Uncle’s other discarded boys, the ones gaunt and starving with track marks littering their arms. He’s seen them hanging around the city, living in the run-down apartments Uncle pays for, loitering on streetcorners. He’s seen them vanish, inexplicably, with no one left to look for them. “He’s been looking for you. You should go.”

“He can wait a while longer,” Laurent replies. He has no desire to go into the one-bedroom apartment next door, with alcohol stains on the couch and memories wrapped in the bedsheets.

“It’s been a week. He wants you home.” He’d learned the hard way, once, never to stay gone longer than a week. Laurent’s paychecks have been going to him ever since he started working, but he’d started staying with Jord or Vannes years ago, as soon as he’d outgrown Uncle’s attention. He only returns now because he knows Uncle could find him if he stopped, and would come after that.

“How are you doing?”

“It’s been a week, Laurent,” Nicaise snaps. His face is still turned away, but Laurent can see the tension in his shoulders through the worn gray sweatshirt. There’s a hole in the sleeve, drawn down to cover his hand, that Nicaise keeps sticking his finger through. “He doesn’t take me out anymore. Says he’s too busy.”

“He gave you those.” Laurent says, gesturing at the bruises around Nicaise’s neck. It’s not a question. Nicaise grimaces and digs his thumb into the darkest part, near the hollow of his throat. It must hurt, but he doesn’t flinch from the pain.

“I deserved it.” The words are sharp, like Nicaise is trying to convince them both. Nicaise is old, now, and he knows it; his voice cracks sometimes, when Laurent hears him through the walls at night. His limbs are longer than they were, ankles sticking out a few inches below the hem of his sweatpants. He knows Nicaise’s sharp tongue has always endeared Uncle to him, but he also knows how easily Uncle’s attention, and his humor, fades.

“You’re only thirteen,” Laurent says again instead, like it’s going to make any difference. They both know how old he is.

“You’re only twenty,” Nicaise points out. “And you won’t make it to twenty-one if you don’t go back to him soon.”

Laurent stands, ignoring the swoop in his stomach as the fire escape trembles, and pulls a ten-dollar bill out of the wallet in his pocket. It’s the last of his money, but it’s not like he’s going to need any until Monday.

“Take it,” he says.

“I don’t want it.” I don’t need it. They’ve played this game before. Nicaise takes the money, and shoves it behind a loose brick, with the rest. Laurent hasn’t asked how much he has behind that brick, but it’s been accumulating for months now. Nicaise doesn’t look back as Laurent clambers back into the apartment, his body protesting the movement after a long week of working on his feet. As he turns to close the door behind him, Laurent hears the sizzle of a match.


 

ii.

Uncle is waiting for him, and Laurent doesn’t care. He locks the door behind him leisurely, his back turned to the living room where he knows Uncle is waiting. He drops his messenger bag to the ground, easy to grab if he needs to make a quick escape. The kitchen light to the left of the door is off, and the light behind him casts odd shadows on the cabinets and stove. From the depths of the apartment, Uncle clears his throat impatiently. Laurent turns, and takes the five carefully measured steps into the dimly-lit living room.

The first thing he notices, as he stands to the side of Uncle’s leather chair, is the whiskey. It’s in a crystalline glass—out of place in the cramped, unglamorous apartment—and rests in front of Uncle on the coffee table. Uncle is reclining casually, his fingers laced in front of him. His tie is sloppy around his neck, his shirt half unbuttoned. His cheeks are maybe more flushed than usual, but his eyes are clear.

“You’re home late,” he comments, and Laurent just nods. It’s easier, like this, to pretend that Uncle doesn’t get to him. That he doesn’t constantly have the upper hand, that Laurent can’t escape this.

“Work ran late. Paschal needed another pair of hands.”

“It’s been a week. Where have you been sleeping these days, Laurent?” Uncle runs a hand along his well-trimmed beard, sandy brows furrowing. Laurent feels acid in his gut. He looks concerned. He’s not, Laurent tells himself.

“With friends. I was working.” Uncle knows that the hospital is across town, nearly outside of it, so he can’t argue. Much.

“Laurent, you know I’m just concerned.” He’s not. “It must be so stressful for you, with such unstable living conditions.”

“I’m doing fine, Uncle.” Laurent offers a terse smile and perches himself on the arm of the couch, just next to Uncle’s. The room smells vaguely of sweat, the window shut tight against the cold night. Uncle has already been next door; the cigarette smoke must have covered the smell on Nicaise. “I know you need me to work, so I’m doing the best I can.”

Uncle smiles, saccharine. Their conversations are like chess games, and Laurent can feel himself twisting up in knots, trying to stay a move ahead even when they both know he’s losing.

“So thoughtful,” Uncle murmurs, and the tone sends a shiver down Laurent’s spine. He glances away, down at the old carpet that smells unidentifiably musty, and listens to Uncle take a drink of his whiskey. The glass makes a soft noise against the wood of the table, next to a few small stacks of paper. A pen is resting on top of one of the stacks, uncapped and waiting to be picked up again, and Laurent takes it as his silent cue.

“I’m tired,” he says, looking back up. Uncle smiles sympathetically and smooths a hand over his beard one last time, then leans forward in his chair, glancing down at the paperwork in front of him.

“If you’ll forgive me for it, I think I’ll work a while longer. Pressing matters, and all that.”

Laurent nods mutely, and stands up to retreat into the bedroom. The bed is as immaculate as ever, pillows full and sheets smooth, and Laurent tries to stop himself from trembling. There is nothing here to be afraid of, not anymore. But of course there is, because when Laurent strips off his worn clothes, he slides open the bottom drawer of the dresser in the closet to find that all of his clothes have been laundered, and the smell drifting up from the pressed and folded clothing is that of Uncle’s detergent. Laurent almost gags, then represses it as firmly as he can.

The king sized bed looms in the room behind him, and Laurent ignores it as he draws out a pair of sweatpants and an overlarge shirt, throwing them on before Uncle decides to retire. He sits by the outlet next to the dresser and plugs his phone in, letting it charge past its three percent of battery remaining before scrolling through messages from Vannes and Orlant and Paschal. Vannes is going on a date, Orlant is in danger of failing his anatomy class and is offering to pay him in coffee for help, Paschal wants him to know that Etienne is going to be covering his shift tomorrow. He’s not scheduled to work again until Monday, so Laurent has the weekend to spend in this neighborhood, with Nicaise a few walls away and his uncle breathing down his neck. He responds to each text in turn, and pulls up a book he’s been working through on the weekends, on nights like this.

Uncle’s footsteps let him know when he’s approaching, and Laurent keeps his head down as Uncle undresses silently, hanging his suit coat and tie up in the closet before changing into sleep clothes. He doesn’t offer a good night, simply slips under the covers and turns the lamp next to the bed off, leaving Laurent illuminated only by the light of his phone screen.

Laurent waits and reads distractedly until he’s positive that Uncle is fast asleep, when his breaths are slow and even and heavy. He’s had enough practice by now to know when to slip under the covers, the pillows soft and welcoming under Laurent’s head even as he has to force down the physical reaction that threatens to send him into a panic, even after all these years.

He has too many memories of this bed and the man sleeping warm and heavy by his side.

Laurent sleeps anyway, and wakes to the sound of Uncle’s alarm. He tries to stay still as Uncle retreats into the restroom and returns to dress himself, tries to keep his breathing even, but it’s no use. Just as Laurent can tell when Uncle is asleep, so Uncle can read him. He knows Laurent’s body as well as Laurent himself.

“I’m off to work,” he says, voice still rough with sleep. “Don’t wait up for me, nephew.”

Laurent tries to go back to sleep. Uncle’s side of the bed cools off quickly, and Laurent drifts in and out of a daze until he hears the door to the apartment next door slam shut. He heaves himself out of bed and into the shower, standing under the burning spray until he hears the door again, if only to spare himself from having to hear Nicaise through the plaster separating their apartments. By the time he steps out of the bathroom, fully dressed if slightly damp, Nicaise’s apartment is quiet once again.

Nicaise doesn’t answer when Laurent knocks. He knows he can get away with it, because Laurent is the only person who bothers to give him any warning.

“Leave me alone,” he calls, when Laurent knocks again. “Go away.”

“I brought you lunch,” Laurent replies, calling lowly through the door. The container of pasta is warm in his hands, from the remnants of one of Uncle’s dinners that had been in the sparsely furnished fridge. Laurent’s name had been stuck to it on a small note, and Laurent had ripped it off without letting his eyes linger on the shape of his name in Uncle’s hand.

The door opens a crack, and Nicaise peers out at him with one dark, glittering eye. His gaze flicks down to the pasta, and the door swings open. Laurent ignores the fresh marks on his neck and collarbone, the bruise forming on his hip. Nicaise grabs the container and sits down on the floor of the kitchen, his sweatpants still too short to cover his ankles and part of his brown, thin calves. The food is gone in minutes, shoveled into Nicaise’s hungry mouth with barely a moment taken to chew.

“Won’t he notice?” Nicaise asks, when even the sauce from the bottom of the dish is gone. Laurent shakes his head, Nicaise narrows his eyes. “This was for you, wasn’t it.”

“Yes.” There’s no point lying to him, and Laurent wouldn’t want to anyway. Nicaise scowls up at him, and puts the container down.

“I don’t want your shitty food.” The words are petulant and belied by the empty container in front of him. Laurent moves from where he’s been leaning on the counter and sits cross-legged on the tile floor. Nicaise looks away and draws his knees up to his chest. The too-wide neck of his shirt slips to the side, and bares his shoulder to the chilly air.

“He’s angry,” Laurent breathes out. The evidence is scarred into Nicaise’s shoulder—days-old, circular burns are littered across the back of Nicaise’s shoulders. They’ve been cleaned, at least, but clumsily; Laurent had brought a box with medical supplies from St. Jude’s to Nicaise a long time ago, and had tried to teach him how to use it. None of the burns look infected, but they do look painful. Nicaise glares at Laurent, and tugs his shirt back up.

“He found one of my packs.”

“No. Something else—he wouldn’t—” Nicaise turns his head away, limp curls falling over his face and hiding his face from view.

“One of his men got arrested,” Nicaise says, finally. He closes his eyes, and his long lashes touch his cheeks.

“Who?”

“Guion. Got caught with some tapes and the address to one of the old warehouses. I heard the FBI’s got people here, looking for him. When he found out...” Nicaise trails off, gesturing at his shoulders. “He wasn’t happy. The cigarettes were just...”

The FBI. No wonder Uncle had been up at the crack of dawn, no wonder he’d been on edge last night. For a brief moment, Laurent feels relieved that he’d been gone, that he’d escaped the first flash of Uncle’s anger. One look at Nicaise, though, and the relief burns out into guilt, sharp and stinging.

Much of the police force is corrupt, Laurent knows. The FBI might have been on the case for months before this, but it would have been easy for Uncle to cover his tracks, to keep himself hidden. Now, though—there are people outside of Uncle’s control looking for him. Laurent has known for a long time about the things Uncle does, the organizations that he has involved himself with. For a long time, there has been nothing Laurent could do about it, except keep himself as far away as possible.

“Nicaise,” he starts, and then pauses. Saying it out loud seems dangerous, even to Nicaise.

“Don’t.” Nicaise shoves the empty container back into Laurent’s hands and stands up, wiping the dust off of his already-dirty pants. “Don’t say anything, just—leave me the fuck alone.”

Laurent leaves without a word, but can’t silence the thoughts in his head that refuse to leave, dogging his steps until he shuts himself back into the apartment, the lock turning with a hollow, final click.


iii.

The strip mall down the street from Uncle’s apartment block is rarely a good place to hang around, but Laurent needs to get out of the building. It’s been an hour since he’d left Nicaise’s apartment, and nervous energy is still lurking under his skin. Staying cramped in the apartment filling out paperwork from the hospital sounded impossible, and Laurent had briefly considered going for a run before deciding that this would be a better use of his time.

Stealing isn’t something that he tries to make a habit of doing. For almost three years, Laurent had worked as a barista in a coffee shop downtown, near his high school and the community college, and had lived off of the cash tips that hadn’t been directly deposited into his bank account—the account Uncle controlled. After getting his Associate’s, though, Laurent had taken his position at St. Jude’s, and the tips had dried up. Stealing from Uncle was unthinkable, and Laurent tries to living off of his friends as much as possible, and so he finds himself dipping fingers into a well-off stranger’s wallet once or twice a week. It’s just enough to contribute to grocery money, pay for half a tank of gas, keep himself fed and caffeinated at work.

He’s about to reach into the pocket of his coat for his single pack of unused cigarettes, trying to make himself look busy, when a man steps out of the thrift store a few storefronts away. He’s huge, taller than Laurent by at least a foot, and built like a brick wall. His coat looks nice, if old, and he’s well groomed enough to make a good target. The man is also large enough that if Laurent get caught, the consequences would be dire. It might be his only chance today, though; the weather is starting to turn from fall to winter, and it’s been getting more difficult to reach people’s wallets through layers of scarves and thick jackets.

Laurent shoves himself off the brick wall as casually as he can and fists his hands in his pockets. He’s in luck today, because the man has just finished tucking his wallet into his coat pocket, and all it takes is a quick bump and a profuse apology and then Laurent has the stranger’s wallet tucked into his own coat and no one is any the wiser.

When he rounds the corner, Laurent pulls the thick leather wallet out of his jacket and inspects it. It’s old and cracked but very obviously high quality, with the designer logo on the corner bright and shiny. Inside: an ID, several credit cards, nearly sixty dollars cash, and an FBI badge.

Laurent stops dead in the middle of the sidewalk. The wallet feels a hundred times heavier in his hand than it had just a moment ago. He shoves the credit cards back into their slots, keeps the cash, and turns on his heel, staring at the ground. Three steps later, he runs face-first into someone’s chest. The very someone from whom he had just stolen.

“Hey!” The man—the FBI agent—greets, smile all teeth and friendliness. Laurent manages a curt nod, his hair falling into his face. “I think I dropped my wallet somewhere around here, do you think you might have seen it?”

“This?” Laurent says. He offers it up along with a small smile, trying to make himself as sweet-looking as he knows is possible, and the man beams back. “I just found it around the corner.”

“I guess I’ll have to be more careful,” the man says, eyes flitting briefly down Laurent’s body, then back up to meet his eyes. “Thank you. I’m Damen, by the way.”

Damianos, say his badge and ID, but Laurent shakes the extended hand without a word. The man’s eyebrows quirk.

“Laurent,” he says, finally. He watches Damen’s face carefully, for the brief moment when his smile goes flat. The moment passes, though, and Damen’s smile is a little softer now, his gaze a little more appreciative. If there was any time to be grateful for his looks, Laurent thinks, now would be that time.

“That’s a nice name.”

“It’s what I have.” Damen runs a hand through his curls, dimple deepening as his oh-so-charming smile widens, and Laurent forces away his own appreciation. This is neither the time nor the person for these feelings to be opportune.

“Would you by any chance want to get a drink sometime?” The question hangs in the air, and Laurent thinks for a very brief moment about saying yes. He doesn’t know why—maybe it’s the dimple. But then Damen shifts on his feet, and Laurent remembers that this is so very dangerous, and he shakes his head.

“I don’t drink.” Damen’s face falls; the rejection is gentle yet adamant. Laurent doesn’t mention that until Spring, he legally can’t.

“Oh, of course. No problem.” The smile is back, a little forced.

“Sorry,” Laurent says for no discernible reason. Damen shakes his head.

“No problem,” he says again. “Look, if you ever need—help, or something, I work down at the local precinct.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Laurent replies, as cooly as he can. The badge says FBI, so he must be working with the police, who might be keeping Uncle updated on the investigation. Uncle knows everything, and Laurent tries to shut down the part of his mind that is racing, trying to think of—something. Anything, really. “I’ll see you around, Damen.”

“Yeah,” Damen says. “See you around.”


iv.

Nicaise is smoking again when Laurent returns to the apartment. He doesn’t bother entering, just knocks and drops the takeout meal he’d bought on the way back in front of the door. Nicaise will grab it eventually, and he’ll eat it after Uncle has left. Instead of returning to the bedroom, Laurent sits out on the fire escape and busies himself with texting Jord until he hears Uncle enter Nicaise’s room.

“Were you good for me today, Nicaise?” Uncle says, voice sickening sweet, and Laurent nearly throws up the meager lunch he’d gotten with a bit of Damen’s cash. He doesn’t wait to hear Nicaise’s answer, scrambling through the window and into the living room as quickly and as quietly as he can. There’s barely enough time to get his headphones plugged into his phone before it begins, but Laurent has music blasting in his ears by the time the window is shut again, keeping most of Uncle’s words muffled by the distance between the rooms.

The music is loud, but it’s not enough. From the floor of Uncle’s bedroom, Laurent can still hear the creaking of furniture and the low baritone of Uncle’s voice and, once, a muffled cry that he does his best to ignore. It’s all he can do to bear it, without letting himself react to what he hears. Eventually, after too much time, the noises stop, and Laurent shoves his earbuds back into his pocket moments before he hears Uncle enter the apartment.

He stays in the bedroom while Uncle putters around, dropping his briefcase by the door. That briefcase, Laurent knows, holds most of the information about Uncle’s business, all of the secretarial work with which Uncle trusts no one but himself.

“Never put anything important online, Laurent,” Uncle had advised him once, sipping at a glass of whiskey sometime in the dead of night. “Too easy for people to find it.”

“Laurent!” Uncle calls from the kitchen, and Laurent is snapped back into the present. He pushes himself up off the floor and unlocks the bedroom door. Uncle is standing in front of the stove, half his buttons undone, jacket thrown over one of the kitchen chairs, his sleeves rolled up. He’s grilling a sandwich, with the fixings of another on the counter next to him. “Would you like dinner?”

“Yes, Uncle,” Laurent says, because his stomach is growling and he knows better than to say no. Uncle smiles at him, teeth white and even, and Laurent represses the shiver that threatens along his spine. His mood is better today, yet his presence doesn’t allow Laurent to relax. He does manage to smile back, and Uncle seems appeased. He doesn’t ask what Laurent did that day, and Laurent returns the favor.

Their silence might be called companionable, if they were not both so acutely aware of the power imbalance between them. Laurent has lived with it for the last decade, since Auguste—

Since Auguste.

They eat, and Laurent ignores how rumpled Uncle looks, how he smells and holds himself. A few minutes into the meal, Laurent smells cigarette smoke seeping in from the hall, the air in the apartment stagnant and clouded. Laurent gets up wordlessly and opens the window once again, letting the cold air of autumn blow through the rooms. It hasn’t snowed yet, this season, but Laurent can taste it on the horizon. Uncle scowls when he sits back down, frustration leaking into the set of his shoulders.

“That’s a filthy habit,” he grumbles. Laurent’s tongue burns at the repetition of the phrase he’d told Nicaise yesterday. He nods in agreement, hating himself for it. “Never pick up smoking, nephew. It’ll kill you slowly.”

“Yes, Uncle.” It’s not like he needs the reminder. He resists the urge to dig his thumbs into the scars at his hips.

Laurent does the dishes, as usual, and Uncle’s eyes linger over the half-full bottle of whiskey on the counter.

“I’m going to shower,” he finally says, and stands from his chair. On the way out of the kitchen he pauses by the sink, running a gentle hand through Laurent’s hair with a sigh. Laurent suppresses his flinch and thinks about screaming, Uncle’s fingers tugging at strands gently. “You had such lovely hair, Laurent. It’s a pity you had it cut.”

That’s not quite the truth—not that Uncle knows any of it. Laurent had cut his hair himself nearly two years ago now; Jord had found him crying on his bathroom floor, the remnants of his waist-length hair strewn around him, and taken him straight to a hairdresser. Sometimes, Laurent reaches around his neck to tug at a braid, only to realize that it’s no longer there. Uncle vanishes around the corner, fingers slipping loose from their grip, and Laurent blinks burning tears out of his eyes, tries to breathe through constricted lungs. When the tears threaten to escape, he pauses, glaring at nothing until he’s sure that it has passed.

When his eyes refocus, they land on Uncle’s briefcase, sitting ajar next to Laurent’s messenger bag on the floor of the living room.

Laurent is in bed by the time Uncle gets out of the shower, and he lies feigning sleep while Uncle shuffles into pajamas. He’s just about to climb in next to Laurent when his cell phone rings, and Laurent has to keep himself from startling. Uncle grumbles and picks it up, his voice biting as he speaks, demanding to know why he’s being called so late. There’s a long pause, and then:

“Fine. Do whatever you have to, I don’t care. Just get it done.” Muted murmuring from the speakers; Laurent can’t make out the words.

“I don’t—no, listen, I don’t care what you think you’re entitled to. This is your job, you imbecile.” Another pause.

“Fine. Fine. I don’t give a damn. Take your pick, whatever you like.” Uncle scoffs and throws his phone down. When it hits the bed, Laurent fights a flinch, curling his hands into fists underneath the covers. Uncle slips underneath them just a moment later, resting on his side for a moment before reaching out, letting his hands settle on Laurent’s waist and pulling him close. The second Uncle’s hands touch him, Laurent’s breath leaves his body, panic and fury warring for space in his chest even though all he can do is let Uncle settle against his back, breath warm on the back of Laurent’s neck. He squeezes his eyes shut and forces himself to breathe despite Uncle’s arm on top of his waist like a metal band, inescapable and cruel. Laurent wants to lean back into the touch; Laurent wants to swing his elbow back and blacken Uncle’s eye.

“Today,” Uncle says pointedly, thumb stroking gently across Laurent’s hip. “Has been a very long day.”

Laurent, for once, agrees.


v.

The next morning, Laurent wraps himself into as many layers as he can stand, before leaving the apartment with his messenger bag slung over his shoulder. There had been nothing left in the apartment to leave at Nicaise’s door, and Laurent tries to remind himself to pick something up on the way back. It’s colder, today, and even in all of his layers the cold still bites at Laurent’s cheeks with vigor. He barely feels it, though, the rabbit-fast beat of his heart and the nervous churn of his stomach too distracting.

Since he doesn’t have a car, or a license with which to drive it, Laurent makes the trek to the police station on foot. The sky is dangerously clouded, the sidewalks slippery with frost this early in the morning. If it starts to snow too heavily, he’ll be stranded at the station until Jord can pick him up, and that’s the last thing Laurent needs. It’s still dry out by the time he’s reached the station, the hour now slightly more reasonable, and Laurent welcomes the rush of warm air as he steps into the building.

“Can I help you?” The officer at the front desk asks. His name badge reads Rochert. Laurent takes a deep breath.

“I need you to give this to Damianos Theomedes,” he says, holding out the large, tan envelope that had once held forms from St. Jude’s, until Laurent had emptied it last night. Laurent’s hand trembles, but he holds it steady, waiting for Rochert to take it.

“Are you in trouble?” The officer asks, concern in his voice. Laurent shakes his head. “I can help, if you are.”

“No. Just give this to Theomedes. And don’t open it.” Finally, Rochert takes the envelope, and Laurent can breathe again. “It’s important.”

“Okay,” Rochert says. He still looks concerned, but he slides the envelope under a paperweight and smiles reassuringly. “I’ll give it to him as soon as I see him.”

“Thank you,” Laurent says, keeping his voice firm. He doesn’t give Rochert enough time to ask his name, and turns back towards the door before he can be asked any more questions. The wind bites him as he steps back out onto the street, and his heart is pounding in his chest, even faster than before. To second guess himself now would be futile, though, so he keeps walking until he’s shaking too hard to keep himself upright, then takes a quick turn into an alley and and slumps against the brick wall.

The solid weight at back does little to ease the shaking breaths that wrack his frame, but Laurent presses his hands flat against the rough surface anyway, letting the jagged edges cut into his fingertips. It’s not hard enough to draw blood, but the sting helps ground him against the biting wind.

Laurent sucks in cold air too fast, as if the knives of the almost-winter air will do anything but make him shake from the inside out. He barely notices that he’s sinking to the ground, and by the time Laurent registers the ground beneath him it’s too late. He lets his body sag against the still-icy cement, watches people pass the alley by on the street, none of them sparing him a glance. It takes Laurent too long to compose himself, shaking from what might be cold, or something else entirely.

When Laurent finally manages to stand, legs unsteady beneath, he realizes that it has finally to snow—just a few flakes dusting the head and shoulders of the people on the streets. He walks back to Uncle’s block quickly, trying to make it back indoors before the snow piles up, and manages to get into his building and up three flights of stairs before the wind starts howling outside in earnest.

“Laurent?” Laurent has barely cracked open the door to the fourth floor when he hears Nicaise, voice muffled behind the door to his apartment. This time, Laurent doesn’t bother knocking, and he pulls the door open to find Nicaise sitting next to it, back slumped against the wall and and knees pulled into his chest.

“Are you hurt?” Laurent asks, and drops down to his knees, trying to see Nicaise closer in the dark apartment.

“Just—it’s c-c-cold,” Nicaise says. The wind howls again, and Laurent can feel the cold bursts from the open window in the living room. Nicaise reaches to shut the door, eyes wide—he’s only wearing a blanket, wrapped around him like a cocoon. It’s clearly not enough, though; when Laurent pulls him to his feet Nicaise almost collapses, his body shaking so hard that Laurent can see it even in the darkness.

“Here,” Laurent says, guiding him to the single chair at the kitchen counter. He knows Nicaise doesn’t like to sit in it, but the threadbare padding will be kinder to him than the floor. It’s a token of exactly how worn down Nicaise is that he doesn’t even argue. “What happened?”

“T-there were two,” Nicaise starts, but his teeth are chattering so hard that he can barely get the rest out. It doesn’t matter. He’s heard all he needs to, and it’s alarming. There had been one yesterday—even a month ago, Uncle hadn’t sent men to Nicaise two days in a row. To Uncle, Nicaise must be losing value quickly, and that spells dangerous things for the immediate future.

“Stay here,” Laurent instructs, then slides into motion. First, he shuts the windows, which are old and heavy and too far off the ground for Nicaise to comfortably reach. Then he ransacks the kitchen for what sparse materials he can find and manages to come up with a ceramic mug and a few teabags. It’s simple enough to heat the water in the microwave and force the steaming mug of tea into Nicaise’s trembling hands. “Did he turn off your heat?”

“He—d-didn’t turn it on,” he stammers. Laurent swears under his breath. It’s almost fifteen degrees colder than it had been yesterday.

“Do you have any clean clothes?” He asks, instead of detailing the ways he’d like to make his uncle pay for this. Nicaise nods towards the ajar door to the bedroom.

Laurent is going to have to go in. Nicaise looks up at him, brows drawn together. Laurent forces back the helpless look he knows is on his face—this is not the time. He leaves Nicaise in the kitchen, and pushes open the door to the bedroom.

It’s almost worse than he thought it would be. On the floor in the corner is the mattress, sagging and old and with stains on the gray sheets. The paint is peeling in several places on the walls, and Laurent tries not to compare the spotty dents to Nicaise’s height. Alarmingly, there’s a stain on one wall that looks like dried blood, and Laurent is viscerally reminded of when he’d had to patch up a profusely bleeding cut on the side of Nicaise’s head. It was one of the few times he had called for help, before today.

The closet is nearly bare, with only a few items of clothing folded impeccably on one of the shelves. Something about the careful arrangement twists Laurent’s stomach, and he shoves it down in favor of finding the warmest items in the stack. Every item is thin and worn, and instead he opts for taking layers. He returns to Nicaise with two long sleeved shirts, a sweatshirt, sweatpants, and several pairs of socks.

Nicaise has mostly stopped shaking, which is good, but when Laurent tries to coax him into the sweatpants, Nicaise freezes. When he tries to raise one leg an involuntary hiss of pain escapes him, and he refuses to meet Laurent’s eyes. Laurent drapes the pants on top of the table and kneels next to the chair, keeping his hands on his own legs. Nicaise keeps avoiding his gaze, head turned away. He’s clutching the blanket so tightly that his knuckles are blanched.

“I know that it hurts,” Laurent says, and Nicaise’s eyes squeeze shut. Neither of them want to hear it, but Nicaise has started trembling more forcefully again and his face is drained of its usual dark, healthy color. “Trust me, I know. But you need to get dressed now or you’re going to get sick.”

Laurent remembers the last time Nicaise had gotten sick, nearly a year ago now. It had been a minor bout of the flu, but it had left Uncle in such a foul mood that Laurent hadn’t returned to the apartment for nearly two weeks. When he finally did, he’d been greeted by the fresh bruises on Nicaise’s body and the bags under his eyes that spoke of lost or tormented sleep. The half-threat seems to work, though, and this time Nicaise sets his tea aside before trying to tug the pants up his legs. He only makes it halfway before the blanket he’d wrapped around himself falls open.

Laurent turns away, but not fast enough that his gaze doesn’t land on the dark bruises marring Nicaise’s thighs, violent enough that they show on the boy’s dark skin. He thinks he may throw up.

“Sorry,” Nicaise whispers, his voice a little more sure now. Laurent waits to a count of fifty and then turns around. Nicaise has the pants on, and is finishing tugging the first shirt over his head. Laurent keeps his eyes trained on the mop of curly brown hair sticking out from the top.

“Will there be—anyone else today?” Laurent asks. He only gets a shrug in response, as Nicaise tugs on the last of the clothing. “Okay. If you do, just try to get these back on. And don’t open the windows, I don’t care how much you need a cigarette.”

Nicaise glares for a moment, but after a second glance at Laurent’s stern expression, nods solemnly. Their eyes finally meet, and Laurent hates what he sees. He hadn’t known Nicaise before Uncle had moved him into the apartment next door—at least three, maybe four years ago—so Laurent has never seen his eyes without the haunted expression that burdens it now. It’s excruciating, watching Nicaise grow, seeing him change and develop while the hollow of his eyes remains the same.

They both know that his time is running out.

“Get out of here,” Nicaise finally says, tearing his eyes away and blinking rapidly. “Go.

“I’ll see you next week,” Laurent says, when the silence becomes unbearable.

“Definitely,” Nicaise replies, because they both know he could be gone by then. Laurent leaves, and shuts the door behind him. After a long moment, he slumps back against the hallway’s disgusting, peeling wallpaper, and pulls out his phone.

“Jord?”

“Laurent? Is everything okay?”

“Can you come get me?” Laurent is ashamed at how defeated he sounds. He’s not supposed to let himself be broken down like this. But it’s too much for him to handle, everything stacking one on top of itself, and he can’t do it on his own anymore. Jord seems to understand this implicitly.

“I’ll be there in ten minutes.”


vi.

Laurent had started staying at Jord’s apartment when he was sixteen. The first time had been an accident; he’d gone straight to Jord’s after practice had ended, Torveld sending him off with a pat on the back that Laurent had to fight not to react to, and had fallen asleep in the middle of writing an essay. He’d woken up, alone, thirteen hours later, underneath the covers of the bed in Jord’s spare room.

While he was in high school, he’d had to be careful not to spend weeknights away from Uncle’s watch; Uncle had still been on the city council, and too concerned with respectability to be pleased when Laurent stayed out for anything after school. Weekends, though, were fair game. Once occupied by Uncle’s business meetings and unpredictable whims, Laurent had suddenly found himself free through Sunday afternoons, and had taken to spending his time either at Jord’s apartment, or sleeping with Vannes in the top bunk of the bedroom she had shared with two of her sisters.

Jord’s apartment is—nice, for lack of a better word. His parents, elusive and mentioned only during tax season, pay the rent while Jord works himself through his residency. The paint is peeling in some places, the carpet in the bedroom smells a little strange, but it’s comfortable and clean enough, most of the time. Something of a second home, if Laurent were inclined to call it such.

He waits on the corner of the street block for Jord to pull up in his car, which is old and dirty and which Jord has refused to give up, even when he had the opportunity to buy another one. Laurent tosses his messenger bag into the back and practically throws himself into the passenger seat as soon as the car stops rolling, slamming the door behind him so hard the car shakes. He lets out a breath, long and tremulous, and out of the corner of his eye sees Jord shut his mouth, his fingers flexing on the steering wheel.

“You know,” Jord says, nonchalant. “I was about to head to the store and get some ice cream, because I got yelled at about six times at Memorial last night and I think I need to eat my feelings.”

And, okay, Laurent hasn’t been having the best day, but it’s hard not to smile at that. Jord’s fingers tap against the wheel, an anxious gesture.

“That sounds nice,” he admits, after a long moment. Jord grins at him and pulls away from the curb, and Laurent rests his head against the cool glass of the window and closes his eyes. It’s barely noon, but he can feel the burden of last night’s unrest on his eyelids, Uncle’s arm slung over his waist, and he blinks his eyes shut for a moment and opens them blearily what feels like moments later, only to find the car parked, Jord sitting silently beside him.

“Are you okay?” Jord asks, once he notices that Laurent has opened his eyes. Laurent blinks, taking a moment to process the question before lifting his head from the glass.

“Yes.” It’s not—the truth, maybe. Laurent isn’t sure. He can still feel exhaustion heavy in his bones, and tries to blink it away as Jord watches him, careful. “Just—a day.”

Jord huffs a small laugh, undoing his seatbelt. It’s only then that Laurent notices the curve of his chest, the ease of his breaths underneath his sweatshirt.

“You’re not binding,” Laurent points out, lifting his head from the window. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Jord reassures, a pinched furrow deepening between his brows. He slouches a little in the seat, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Just a day, you know? My ribs hurt a bit so I didn’t bother wearing at home before you called.”

Knowing Jord, a bit means something much more severe, but Laurent lets it go, knowing that it had probably taken Jord a lot of effort to leave the house without the binder. So Laurent just nods, and unbuckles his own seatbelt, and obediently follows Jord into the store as Jord scours both the candy and ice cream aisles, shoulders slouched forward and basket hurriedly shoved into Laurent’s arms.

By the time they walk out of the store, Laurent’s sure that Jord’s apartment is now going to contain more chocolate and ice cream than actual food. He wisely chooses not to mention it, and carries Jord’s reusable bags from the car to the apartment block without a complaint. Jord chatters while they walk, and Laurent lets everything fade into the background until they’re standing in front of the elevator, waiting for the doors to slide open.

Laurent doesn’t like elevators, but he follows Jord inside the mirrored hold, eyes lowered from his own reflection. The doors are about to slide shut, mercifully, on the two of them, until an arm reaches out from behind the sliding doors and forces them open again. Laurent keeps his eyes lowered and moves closer to the side of the small space, pressed almost close enough to Jord’s side to touch.

He intends to keep his head down during the whole ride, to step off the lift and release the tension building in his shoulders, until the man who had stepped in after them clears his throat, and initiates a conversation.

“Hey, Jord,” the man says, and Laurent’s eyes snap up, almost involuntarily, immediately followed by a coil of alarm that sings through his chest. Standing not three feet away is the FBI agent he’d run into yesterday, the one Laurent had sent the tip to—the one he had turned down for what had clearly been intended as a date. The agent’s eyes meet his, and Laurent sees the recognition spelled across his face, even before he opens his mouth.

“Hey, Damen,” Jord says, and then pauses, his eyes flicking between the two of them. Laurent tries to glare as subtly as he can, trying to convey some vague message of panic. Jord either doesn’t notice or isn’t quite sure what to do to make the situation any better. “Have you two...met?”

“Ah,” Damianos—Damen—clears his throat, shuffling a little awkwardly. He’s wearing the same coat he had been yesterday, though this time with jeans and sturdy-looking boots, rather than the slacks and dress shoes Laurent had noticed yesterday. “Sort of.”

“Yesterday,” Laurent clarifies, as smoothly as he can. He can see Damen looking at him, and thinks that it should make him more uncomfortable than it does. Jord nods, still confused. “He lost his wallet; I returned it to him.”

And, of course, if Damen had any idea that Laurent had stolen from him, Laurent would probably be in handcuffs already. He knows what police officers are like, and if Damianos is undercover as a cop, he can’t be that much different from the rest of them. The thought that Damen would have already mentioned his missing cash should soothe Laurent, but it only serves to set him more on edge.

“That’s—nice.” Jord seems to be working entirely out of his zone of comfort, standing between Laurent, likely radiating tension, and Damen, who keeps moving backwards only to find the metal doors of the elevator pressed against his back. He seems—embarrassed, almost. It would be endearing, such an awkward display from a man built like a gladiator, if Laurent were not hyper-aware of the difference in size and strength between the two of them. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see his reflection in one of the mirrors.

“So, um,” Damen begins. “Laurent, do you live here?”

“I’m staying with Jord.” Laurent clenches his teeth, berates himself for answering so readily, though he knows that Damen likely would have found out anyway, if not from Jord himself.

“Oh.” A pause. Laurent glares at the panel in the elevator, the floor number blinking slowly from four to five. “Well, if you ever need anything I live right next door.”

Laurent pauses, fingers tightening around the strap of Jord’s grocery bags. He doesn’t know how long Damen might have been living next to Jord—he’s rarely, if ever, interacted with Jord’s neighbors—but the thought that Damen had been living and investigating Laurent’s uncle in the apartment next door makes him feel cold. Unsettled, maybe. It’s not a comfortable feeling to have, though Laurent doubts that anyone in the elevator currently is entirely comfortable with anything that’s happened since Damen forced the doors open.

Luckily, the ride ends soon; Damen steps off the elevator first, and Laurent follows with Jord as a buffer between them. Jord sends a confused, slightly anxious look over his shoulder as they make their way down the hall, fishing for his keys in his pocket as Damen does the same.

“See you guys later?” Damen asks, the question curling up at the end, innocuous and yet, somehow, dangerous. Jord smiles at him, responds in the affirmative, and Damen’s gaze lands on Laurent, again. He can feel the weight of it, Damen watching him, and he shifts the weight of the groceries in his arms.

“We’ll see,” he replies, and follows Jord into the apartment, shutting the door behind him firmly and listening to the click of the lock.

He has maybe reached the point where it’s become time to sit down on the couch next to Jord and eat his own feelings, or at least their combined body weight in Ben & Jerry’s. Laurent figures that he’s earned it.

Chapter Text

vii.

Once a week, every Monday, Laurent works an all-day shift. It means that he gets to clock in earlier, and leave the apartment long before the sun has made its first hazy appearance on the horizon. It also means that he comes home exhausted from the bustle of the hospital as it approaches closing. In the evenings, Laurent does the rounds in intensive care, and it is exhausting. He’s only been working at St. Jude’s for a few months, and the first time he’d worked in intensive care, he had fallen asleep on the bus on the way home. Jord had called him frantically an hour after Laurent was supposed to return, and had to pick him up from a bus stop halfway to the suburbs after the routes had closed.

He’s better at staying awake on the way home, now, but he’s still exhausted when he returns. He ignores the open doors of the elevator when he steps through the door of the apartment block and heads straight for the stairs, as daunting as they seem to his exhausted legs and mind. Laurent’s fingers grip the railing tightly as the climbs the five flights, unwilling to let his movements falter even as his thighs ache in protest every time he takes a step. Briefly, he remembers his running shoes, still tucked away in the closet of Jord’s spare room. The sight of the door to Jord’s floor is a welcome one, and Laurent pushes it open wanting nothing more than a hot shower and his bed, piled high with blankets after the first snow of the year.

“Laurent!” Someone calls from behind him, seconds before he fits his key into the door, and Laurent closes his eyes. He resists the urge to press his forehead into the solid wood of the door in exhaustion.

Damianos is standing outside his own apartment door, which is ajar behind him, and he grins over as if Laurent has made his evening simply by appearing. Laurent feels helpless, caught between the relative safety of Jord’s apartment and the unsettling warmth that curls in the pit of his stomach when Damen waves, and starts approaching. If he were to move quickly, Laurent would have enough time to duck through the door and shut it behind him. Instead, he tucks his key back into his pocket and turns, leaning against the door just slightly enough to be casual. He can feel Damen’s gaze on him, and thinks briefly of the dirty scrubs stuffed in his bag, more than ready to be washed.

“You were pretty far from home, last weekend,” Damen comments, and Laurent keeps his face still. Damen’s hands are shoved in the pocket of his sweatpants, his shoulders rolled forward casually. He takes a step closer, and Laurent presses a hand against the wood of the door to remind himself not to step backwards, instinctively.

“You’re assuming that this is home,” Laurent points out in return. The word feels uneven on his tongue. It’s not one that Laurent is in the habit of using, not anymore. Damen’s eyebrows twitch up in what might be amusement.

“My apologies. I guess I forget that I’m not the only one who probably gets around the city.”

“Ah, yes. You spend your days in police cars, terrorizing civilians and looking out for public welfare. How could I have forgotten?” Laurent’s fingers twitch toward the key in his pocket. The way Damen is looking at him is almost uncomfortable in its intensity, and the fact that he’s wearing nothing but a thin top and sweats doesn’t exactly help. Laurent keeps his own gaze steady, and refuses to break eye contact first.

“I’m not actually a police officer, you know,” Damen says, and Laurent realizes that he has made his first misstep. During the week, he lets himself grow almost complacent in conversation with his friends and its simplicity; with Damen, Laurent realizes that he must start navigating each conversation like a chessboard. With Uncle is is familiar, now, but there are things about Damen that Laurent doesn’t know. It is almost like walking blind into a minefield.

“Then what is it you do at the police station?” Laurent tries not to start at the tone of his own voice. It mirrors Damen’s, low and casual and—flirtatious. He steadfastly ignores the slow heat working its way onto his cheeks.

“I’m—a consultant, really,” Damen says, with a little laugh. Laurent fights the urge to roll his eyes—does Damen really think that he’s being clever? He had seen the FBI badge, after all, and if Damen had noticed the missing sixty dollars from his wallet, he has to know that Laurent had seen his badge. It’s enough to throw Laurent further off balance, and he doesn’t like the feeling. By all accounts, he should be the one running circles around Damen.

“So you’re working on an individual case?” Usually, Laurent is not the one asking questions in conversations like these. Not that he’s had many; his situation with Damen is unique, though men like Damen are not. The point still stands. “You must be quite the consultant.”

At the mention of a case, Damen’s expression shifts into slight discomfort. One hand slips out of his pocket and comes to rest at the nape of his neck, knuckles grazing the dark curls hanging loosely there. Laurent tries not to let the tension show on his own face, but his hand slips into the pocket of his coat and curls tightly around his key, the ridges of the metal digging into his palm.

“It’s not really—well. The case I’m on isn’t really something you bring up in polite conversation.” Damen’s smile is tense. His eyes dart away, to Laurent’s shoulder resting against the wood of the door, one hand clenched around the strap of his messenger bag. Laurent glances down, taking the brief moment of respite from Damen’s eyes locked to his, almost uncomfortably.

“I imagine you get that a lot,” Laurent says, and he sounds almost sympathetic. Damen exhales a small laugh, leans in a little closer.

“Yeah, it happens. I haven’t been doing this for too long, though. Just a few years, since after I was discharged.”

Something in Laurent’s blood goes cold.

“Discharged?” He forces lightness into his tone, faked admirably. He remembers—Auguste’s army fatigues, the morning he had left; pulling Laurent into an embrace that Laurent had fought against in anger, at the time. His fingers curl tighter around the key, the metal cutting into his palm until it stings.

“Yeah,” Damen says, dropping his hand again. It rests against his hip easily. “Well, I say ‘discharged.’ I got shot.”

Laurent’s breath catches in his throat. He barely makes out an affirmative noise, some kind of half-response, before he has to clench his teeth to keep down the swell of vague, tumultuous emotion. He’s had dreams—nightmares—of Auguste’s body riddled with bullet holes; pierced over and over again with shrapnel; buried under mountains of sand and forgotten. He tugs his fist out of his pocket, fits the key in the lock. There are angry red lines on his palm that sting when he opens it.

“I should go,” he says, when he can open his mouth again, and Damen takes a step back. He looks a little bewildered, but he doesn’t make any move to stop Laurent as he manages to get the door unlocked, and pauses with his hand on the doorknob. “Good luck with your case, Damen.”

“You—” Damen starts, and then cuts himself off with a small, confused laugh. “Thank you, Laurent. Have a nice night.”

It’s not worth bothering with a response. Laurent pushes the door to the apartment open, flips on the light, and locks the door behind him the second it closes. Jord has his own key; when he gets back from his own shift at Memorial downtown, he can let himself in. For a moment, Laurent just lets himself breathe in the quiet of the apartment, the cold air drifting in from a window that Jord had left open on accident. Winter should be settling in soon, snow blanketing the city in white until it dirties with ash and oil and the grime that clings to the city streets.

Laurent breathes, and tries to stop thinking of army uniforms and gunfire, and of bodies lying lifeless in an unforgiving desert.


 

viii.

Jord arrives back at the apartment about the same time as the food Laurent had ordered, and he lets himself in while balancing the bags of food entirely in one hand. Laurent is sprawled on the couch, one leg out in front of him, scrolling through his phone, and he only looks up when Jord drops the food onto the counter with a small clatter.

"I sure hope some of this is for me," Jord says lightly. Laurent looks up with raised eyebrows, feigning surprise, and Jord stares him down for a solid few seconds before huffing a breath through his nose, amused despite himself. “I'm flattered.”

“I got you that curry you like,” Laurent finally admits, pushing himself heavily to his feet. He'd showered almost as soon as he'd gotten through the door, thinking too hard about not thinking about anything at all, and his hair is still dripping down his neck. A drop slides under the collar of his shirt, and he represses the shiver that threatens to crawl down his spine.

“I'm flattered,” Jord laughs. The circles under his eyes are darker than they were last night, and when Laurent watches he can see the careful way Jord is breathing, too careful of his ribs.

“Hey,” he says. It's soft enough to make Jord look up at him, his fingers still gripping the plastic takeout bag. “You should take that off.”

Jord’s jaw clenches. He looks back down at the food, and then back up again. Laurent doesn't move, doesn't back down. Jord’s breaths are long and shallow, like he's trying to pretend that he's not aching underneath the binder. Laurent knows that it's futile to try and convince Jord not to wear it on shift—he wouldn't want to anyway—but it's hard to watch Jord in pain after the too-long rounds, long past when he was supposed to take the binder off.

“Go on,” Laurent urges, and takes a step forward, reaching forward to tug the bag out of Jord’s hands. “I'll serve it for you, even.”

This manages to bring a smile to Jord’s lap, and his shoulders sag minutely as he lets go of the plastic and takes a small step away from the counter, towards the hallway. “On the fancy china?”

Laurent laughs a little and waves him off, waiting to move until he's sure that Jord has rounded the corner into his bedroom. Then, he tugs the takeout of its bag and rummages around in the cabinets for the garishly decorated plastic dishes they eat off every time they order in, or cook for themselves. It's not quite as grandiose as the antique plates that Laurent had eaten off of as a very young child, but Jord is a medical student, and thrives off of anything cheap and disposable. Besides, Laurent had lost most of his taste for finery a long time ago.

When Jord returns, he's swamped in one of his many overlarge hoodies, and his shoulders are rolled forward easily. His breaths are coming a little more deeply now, and Laurent feels a small line of tension ease from the line of his shoulders.

“Fine china,” Jord repeats with a small laugh, staring down at the hideous reindeer painted on his plate, and Laurent smiles in response. It's almost eleven, by now, and Laurent’s bones are aching for sleep. He's been on his feet for too long today; everything is sore and he thinks that, were he allowed, he'd be able to sleep for an entire day.

They eat in silence, mostly unbroken, until Laurent lets his fork drop down onto the plastic plate, his food almost entirely gone.

“How long has Damen lived next door?” Jord looks up absently, as though Laurent has just barely tugged him away from falling asleep at the table. His gaze focuses after a long home to, and he shrugs.

“A few months?” Jord shrugs. “He never made a lot of noise, so I didn't really notice when he moved in. He replaced the lady with the cats, that's really all I know.”

Laurent represses a laugh. He doesn't think that Jord would notice if someone bulldozed the building, as long as his bedroom remained intact. It’s a little charming, and sometimes infuriating when Laurent happens to be running late for work, and Jord refuses to get out of bed. Not that it happens often, anymore; years of waking up early to get the both of them to school or work or—in Laurent’s case—back to Uncle’s apartment have trained them both to be early risers. Jord doesn’t particularly enjoy it, but he has reluctantly kept the habit out of necessity.

“Why?” Jord’s gaze is suddenly a little sharper. He looks up from his food with what he probably thinks is a shrewd look on his face. Laurent has to fight a blush anyway—it’s not what Jord thinks, and yet he can’t help but feel somewhat exposed by the question. Judging by the gleeful smile on Jord’s face, he fails to suppress the pink on his cheeks. “Laurent, do you have a crush?”

No,” Laurent snaps, and has to avert his eyes at the slightly hurt look on Jord’s face. Something uncomfortable settles itself in his gut, a kind of exhaustion. “I just—it’s nothing.”

Jord eyes him; he isn’t stupid, and despite everything he knows Laurent too well for Laurent to be able to brush it off. But Jord doesn’t push, simply turning back to his dinner with a shrug. Laurent glares down at his own food, and takes a deep breath to steady himself.

Nothing kind of sounds like a crush,” Jord says, and earns himself a kick in the shins. Laurent fights down the smirk when Jord yelps, reaching down to rub at the spot Laurent had kicked. He’d deserved it, after all. “Fine, okay, I get the hint. You’re about as subtle as a sack of bricks, you know.”

“You’re one to talk.” It’s probably fair to say that Jord has even less tact than Laurent himself, at this point. It’s probably fair to say that on any given Monday, the two of them are probably just as close to the edge of an exhausted breakdown, though likely for different reasons. “I’m going to bed.”

“Uh-huh,” Jord says, with the air of someone far too confident in his own assessment. Laurent rolls his eyes and stands up to drop his plate in the trash can, shoving his container of leftover curry into the fridge. “Have fun dreaming of Damianos’ biceps!”

He slams the refrigerator door harder than probably necessary, and retreats into the bedroom before Jord can make another laughing remark about Damianos’ biceps.


ix.

Laurent wakes with a groan at the blaring of his alarm. It’s just past nine, a full three hours later than he’d had to wake yesterday, and yet his eyes still ache from sleep. His limbs are sluggish as he climbs out of bed, throwing on a sweater and some slacks haphazardly. He doesn’t have to be into work for another two hours—the benefits of working a morning—and so he has time to kill. Not that he knows what exactly to do with it. Laurent perches on the edge of the bed, one leg drawn up to his chest, and checks his phone: three texts from Vannes, two of them simply jumbles of indecipherable letters sent at almost two in the morning. The first is only one word, in all caps, sent at eleven thirty: GIRLS. Another text is from Orlant, asking if he can use Laurent’s rewards points at the coffee shop where they had worked together. Orlant still lives with his parents, at almost twenty-two, though he’s paying his own way through his last year of college with the job he still works at the coffee shop, and another on the side. As far as Laurent knows, he’s planning on heading straight into his masters in medieval history. He sends a quick yes but you owe me something free, and proceeds to stare blankly at the glowing screen of his phone for almost five minutes.

Laurent doesn’t text many people. There are less than twenty contacts saved in his phone: Jord, Orlant, Paschal. A few people from work, like Ancel. Some from school, like Vannes and Pallas. And Uncle. Uncle’s name and number have been saved in this phone since he’d handed it to Laurent on his seventeenth birthday, moments before rushing off to a meeting and leaving Laurent alone and feeling the burn of Uncle’s hand clasping his shoulder. In a fit of self-destruction, Laurent taps on his contacts and pulls up Uncle’s profile, staring at the tiny circular picture that grins sharply up from the screen.

“Laurent—” Jord says, and knocks on Laurent’s closed door. “I’m going to the university for a bit, can you get yourself to work?”

Laurent returns to his home screen, and puts his phone to sleep. “I’ll make it. Do you have a shift soon?”

“In a few hours, but I want to get a few things done in one of the libraries. You’ll be okay?”

“Of course.” Laurent drops his head to rest on his knee, still pulled up to his chest, and looks through the hair falling in his face to the closed door. Jord doesn’t try to open it, to insert himself into Laurent’s space, and it’s something of a relief. In the early days of the week, Laurent is still usually reeling from Uncle’s persistent closeness, the violation of living in the oppressively small apartment. He can hear Jord breathing outside of the door, his hand still likely pressed to the wood. Laurent’s stomach murmurs in hunger. “Have fun.”

Jord laughs bitterly, though in good humor. Laurent had gotten an associate’s degree, right out of high school, and can hardly imagine the pressure that Jord has put himself under. He’s twenty-six, almost twenty-seven, and already completed medical school. He’s just a few months into his residency at Memorial, getting paid just enough to make the bills and keep himself afloat. Laurent helps, when he can, but he knows that he doesn’t offer much.

“I’ll see you tonight, okay?” Jord says, and the floorboards creak again as he walks down the hall. Laurent nods, his chin rubbing against the material of his pants.

He should get up. Work, in two hours, promises another day of staying on his feet long enough to forget every memory dogging his step. The fog in his mind sets the stage for a day filled battling non-existence, and right now, Laurent cannot muster the energy to fight it off. He doesn’t know how long he sits there, one leg drawn up in an almost-defensive pose, but it’s long enough that the gentle rapping on Jord’s front door physically knocks him out of his reverie, his foot landing flat on the floor with a sharp jolt of sensation.

There aren’t many people who frequent Jord’s apartment—Laurent, and Orlant, and Vannes if she’s tipsy or lonely. But everyone except Laurent is either working or in class, and none of Jord’s other friends would arrive without asking. Jord hasn’t had a boyfriend (or even, as far as Laurent knows, a hookup) since he started his residency, which rules out a lovelorn stranger, trying to initiate something romantic.

Or so Laurent had thought. He forces himself off of the bed and makes his way to the front door, avoiding Jord’s stacks of paperwork and the random articles of clothing strewn across the floor. It’s probably someone with the wrong apartment number, Laurent reassures himself, trying to calm the irrational surge of nerves fluttering in his stomach. The cool metal of the doorknob is a jolt back to reality, and he takes a deep breath before swinging it open.

It’s not one of Jord’s friends. Likely, it is not a wrong address. Because there is Damen, in a shirt too tight not to be distracting, standing as if he has every right to be waiting for Laurent outside of his apartment like they are—friends.

“What are you doing here?” Laurent says, voice sharp. Damen’s hopeful grin falls slightly, and Laurent has to force himself not to feel guilty. He would turn Damen down every day—has almost had to, this past week—if it meant a moment of peace. Damen shifts slightly. His height, even at this distance, is imposing.

“Hey,” Damen says, almost muted. He shifts again. Laurent thinks that he does not look comfortable. “I just—was wondering.”

He breaks off, and runs a hand through his hair. Laurent watches the curl of his arm carefully, the almost-delicate arch of his neck. He stands, unmoved.

“Would you want to grab breakfast? Or a coffee, or something.”

“No.” It is the first word that comes to mind, more instinct than anything. Laurent blinks at his own tone, at the unwitting edge of panic in his voice. Damen’s smile drops further. “Why?”

“I—don’t know. You just left really quickly last night, and I was hoping to talk more.” Damen looks a little surprised at his own honesty.

“Oh.” Laurent remembers, vividly, why he had left so quickly. But Damen showing up at his door with on offer of company the next morning is not what he had expected, or even considered. Laurent braces one hand against the doorframe, conscious of the overlarge sweater hanging almost off his left shoulder. Damen’s eyes stay fixed, resolutely, on his face.

“Sorry, I can—go.” Damen gestures vaguely behind him, the words thick with awkwardness. Laurent is used to making men uneasy but not—not quite like this. Damen takes a step back, hesitant.

“Wait,” Laurent says, almost as abrupt as his initial refusal. Damen’s foot pauses in midair. “Only if you’re paying.”

It’s perhaps a little cruel, and inadvisable, but Laurent says it anyway. Damen’s face, withdrawn after being denied, blossoms into something resembling joy. He’s too easy to read, too unguarded for it to be entirely faked. Laurent briefly entertains the notion that this is all an elaborate, awkward ploy to get him alone and arrest him, or interrogate him, or—

He cuts off the train of thought.

“Let me grab my coat,” Damen says, glancing down at his exposed forearms. Laurent, unwittingly, follows his gaze; he tears it back up to Damen’s face moments later, already aware of the blush pinking his cheeks. He takes a step back into the apartment.

“I’ll—meet you out here, then,” he says, and does not wait for Damen’s response before shutting the door, solidly, in his face.


x.

This is perhaps one of the worst decisions Laurent has ever made. Once he meets Damen in the hall, both of them covered by their respective coats, he comes crashing into the realization that he and Damen have nothing to say to each other. Nothing Laurent could say is without the implication of Damen’s profession, and his case, and the fact that somehow, he appears not to know who Laurent is. The elevator ride is excruciating, every muscle in Laurent’s body tense, Damen’s arm inches away from brushing his shoulder.

“Why are you doing this?” Laurent asks, when they step off of the elevator. Damen looks at him, like he’s surprised to be asked again. He opens his mouth, as if to remind Laurent that he has already answered that question, and then closes it again. He pauses for a moment, in which he holds the building door open for Laurent like some kind of gentleman.

“You’re interesting,” he finally says. “You keep—showing up places, and being contradictory, and I think I like it.”

It is perhaps more honest than anything Laurent has heard in the last ten years. Damen is so vibrantly out of place in this city, in the web Uncle has spun, and Laurent has the fleeting impulse to tell him to get out while he still can. It’s ridiculous.

“I think it’s frightening that anyone with a pretty face and a sharp tongue could cause your brain to fall right out of your head,” Laurent remarks lightly. Damen’s bark of laughter is sudden and sharp, but mirthful.

“You would get on well with my partner. He’s said the same thing to me dozens of times, I’m sure.”

“You’re not even denying it?” Damen grins and looks down at the ground. They’re walking to the parking garage across the street, the one in which residents have to pay to receive a spot.

“I may or may not have a type,” he admits. “But I’d like to say that it’s something about the way you’ve come crashing in so abruptly, and not just the sharp tongue.”

Laurent doesn’t quite know what to say to that. Suddenly, he feels as if Damen’s attention is undeserved, and he feels the familiar cover of his past settle over him like a prickly blanket, reminding him at each movement exactly how much he does not deserve this.

“There are probably better things you could be doing with your time.”

“Maybe,” Damen agrees. “But it’s my day off, and you’re here, so...”

He leads Laurent to a car, sleek and black and expensive looking, and Laurent tucks himself into the passenger seat with only a modicum of unease. He hates this—being in cars, alone—and he hates that he hates it. Damen’s hands are strong and brown against the steering wheel, the gear stick, and Laurent has to shove away the sickening mental image of Damen’s hands pressing bruises into his skin. He doesn’t know why he thinks it, doesn’t know why his mind constantly conjures images that make him feel sick to his stomach like this.

“Where are you taking me?” He asks, tilting his head back against the headrest. Damen glances over, and his gaze lingers. The engine of the car hums as it turns over, purring into motion.

“There’s a café I like,” Damen says. “I was friends with the woman who started it; she moved to D.C. when she retired. I promised her that I would try it, if I ever found myself in town, and it’s just as good as she described.”

“You’re more sentimental than I might have thought,” Laurent remarks. What kind of federal agent goes around making friends with retirees?

“Well you know, that’s why my muscles are so big,” Damen says, voice grave. “It’s because of all the love in my heart.”

He watches the road, deadpan, for a slow count of almost six seconds. Laurent stares at him. Then, abruptly, he reaches for the door handle.

“Stop the car—let me out—” He says, but he cannot mask the sudden laughter—and then Damen is laughing too, fond. “I’m not joking, stop—”

“You thought I was serious,” Damen says, altogether too delighted for Laurent’s taste. He attempts his best scowl, but it is broken and helpless at the mercy of Damen’s laugh. It’s hard to remember like this, that Damianos is dangerous. That Damianos—Damen—is inevitably going to destroy every semblance of control that Laurent has over his life. Instead, he’s distracted by Damen’s laugh, and his wit, and everything that draws Laurent in despite his best efforts.

The café is as nice as Damen had described—tucked away in a small strip mall on the nicer side of town. The light is warm and welcoming, the patrons sitting with their coffee and breakfast platters and laptops open on the wooden tables in front of them. They order at the counter, and Damen diligently pays for their meals.

“I have work in an hour,” Laurent tells him. “If you wanted, you could drop me off.”

He still has a set of scrubs in his locker at St. Jude’s, which means that he doesn’t have to go back to the apartment. Laurent feels a little off-balance without his messenger bag slung across his shoulder, or across the back of his chair as he leans forward, bracing his elbows on the table. Damen is reclining casually, his coat discarded across the back of his own chair in the heated café. It’s still not winter yet, not really, but the first snows have already come, and the weeks of freezing, unrelenting snowstorms are fast approaching.

“Where do you work?”

“St. Jude’s,” Laurent says, and elaborates at Damen’s blank stare. “I’m a nurse.”

“What?” It’s a little insulting, really, but Damen doesn’t seem to notice. Laurent arches an eyebrow.

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, just—that’s not what I expected you to say.” Laurent wonders what Damen had expected him to say; he’s heard variations from other men before. Lawyer, politician, businessman. Rent boy. “I didn’t think you worked with kids.”

Laurent gets that fairly often as well. He thinks it might have something to do with his personality.

“I like children,” he says curtly, which is easier than trying to rationalize the real reason he works at the hospital. He doesn’t think about it often, and it’s the last thing he wants on his mind with Damen sitting easily in front of him. Damen raises an eyebrow.

“But do they like you?” Damen asks, a philosophical air about him. Laurent glowers, though his heart isn’t quite in it. Their food is deposited in front of them, and Damen murmurs a few words of thanks in a language that Laurent doesn’t understand.

“What language is that?”

“Greek. My native language, actually.” Laurent nods—Damen doesn’t have an accent, but it had sounded so natural rolling off his tongue that Laurent might have guessed, had he heard him speak more. “I picked up a few more in high school, and the army. I’ve actually been thinking of going back to school and maybe getting a degree in linguistics.”

“Oh? Which other languages?” Laurent digs into his salad, which is better than he had expected, and keeps his head up attentively.

“I’m fairly fluent in French, and Spanish, and I know a bit of Mandarin, but it’s mostly just oral. One of the guys in my squadron was fluent, and he tried to teach the rest of us the basics. I think I was the only one who retained any of it, though.” Laurent doesn’t miss the way Damen’s voice falls, ever so slightly, when he mentions his time in the army. It still makes him uncomfortable, reminds him too much of Auguste in his army fatigues, but he shoves the feeling down.

“I wanted to go to a university,” Laurent admits, after a moment of silence. “It wasn’t—something I was ready for, when I left high school, but I wanted to study more.”

“What did you do instead?” Damen seems genuinely curious, through his falafel. Laurent shrugs.

“I got my associate’s locally, and found a job at St. Jude’s. It’s been less than a year.” Damen’s brow furrows, as if he’s trying to puzzle something out.

“So you’re twenty-one?” Laurent shakes his head.

“Almost.”

He doesn’t know how old Damen is. He almost doesn’t want to ask how old Damen is, because Damen’s chin is littered with the shadow of stubble and he could be Laurent’s age, or he could be older. He waits, and says nothing, and Laurent feels Damen’s eyes on him as he eats.

“I’m twenty-six,” Damen offers, and something loosens in Laurent’s chest. He tries not to let it show in the slope of his shoulders. They eat quietly, for a little while, and Laurent finds himself relaxing into Damen’s company. It’s easier than he’d expected; Damen jokes with him, and doesn’t know to shy away from the topics that Jord does—he asks Laurent about his family, and accepts it when Laurent avoids answering. Instead, Damen talks—about his brother, his father, his ex-girlfriend. Laurent raises an eyebrow at that, and Damen only shrugs with a pointed: “She’d like you.”

It’s easy when it shouldn’t be, and Laurent forgets to remind himself that this cannot last.


xi.

On Wednesday, Damen brings him lunch. He had asked what Laurent’s lunch hour was, and had seemed upset when Laurent had admitted to rarely venturing outside the hospital’s cafeteria, unless Vannes dragged him out to eat. He doesn’t expect Damen to show up the next afternoon, texting Laurent a brief meet me outside before handing him a wrap and a small americano, no sugar. Laurent stands, dumbfounded, as Damen leans out of the window of his car and smiles at him, soft and fond. It’s unfamiliar, and heady, and when Laurent walks back into the break room, Ancel gapes at him.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” He asks, the tone of his voice incredulous. Laurent glowers, and Ancel shrinks back.

His coworkers sometimes wonder how it is that the children universally adore him, when anyone he works with knows to be rightfully terrified of crossing him. Laurent eats his wrap, also from Damen’s café, and wonders if Damen thinks—if he wants

It’s not like Damen had made his intentions unclear. Laurent remembers him saying I have a type, remembers Damen’s gaze lingering on the curve of his neck. He doesn’t know why he had let Damen take him out, or had tried to keep up the pretense of friendliness. Letting Damen in now would only hurt in the end—it would hurt both of them, and Damen would hate him, and Laurent isn’t sure why the thought hurts so much.

But it’s an interesting feeling. Laurent does not go out with his friends often—when Jord goes to bars or clubs on his rare nights off, Laurent stays at home. When Vannes and Orlant and Lazar go out drinking, Laurent keeps to himself, out of reach of alcohol. He remembers, too vividly, the loss of control that comes with the overindulgence. So when Damen brings him lunch at work, and drives him to St. Jude’s the next morning, Laurent has to relearn small conversation.

With Damen, it’s almost easy. He’s as clever as Laurent himself, and doesn’t bother to hide his attraction. Laurent is surprised, in that it doesn’t set him immediately on edge when Damen flirts. But Damen has never once tried to touch him, has never reached his hand across the invisible barrier between the driver’s side and the passenger seat. Laurent finds himself replaying the brush of Damen’s fingers on his over and over again, the brief meeting of skin over the wrinkled paper wrapping Laurent’s lunch.

It’s a ridiculous impulse, but Laurent knocks on Damen’s door that night, while Jord is working the graveyard shift. He has already eaten, on his way back from the hospital, but it doesn’t stop him from waiting at Damen’s door like he’s owed something. He doesn’t even know if Damen is home; it wouldn’t surprise Laurent if he weren’t. He waits, counting his heartbeats as they pound relentlessly at his ribcage. There’s a long interval where he thinks that Damen isn’t going to answer, and Laurent hates the inexplicable swoop of disappointment in his stomach.

I don’t even like him, he has to remind himself. This is not because he wants to spend time with Damianos; it is because for whatever, inexplicable reason, he cannot seem to avoid him. Even in his head, the excuse sounds flimsy.

Laurent is about to turn and let himself into Jord’s apartment, when he hears footsteps from just past Damen’s door. There’s a pause, and the fumbling of a latch, and then the door swings open. Damen is obviously disheveled, his hair dripping onto his forehead and shoulders, a towel slung over one of his shoulders.

One of his very, very naked shoulders. Laurent stares, and then doesn’t stare—and, fuck, Damen is staring at him now—

“Damen,” he says, and keeps his eyes fixed on one of the curls plastered to Damen’s forehead by water. He’s not looking at the smirk rising on Damen’s lips, and he’s not looking at the dimple that he knows has formed in Damen’s left cheek from the effort of repressing a smile, and he’s absolutely not looking at Damen’s chest. There’s a moment of silence where he thinks that Damen is going to burst out laughing, and where Laurent is vaguely tempted to let his gaze flicker down to what he had—caught a glimpse of; the sharp cut of Damen’s abdominal muscles, the smooth curve of his hip disappearing into low-slung sweatpants—

Pull yourself together, Laurent thinks, and then wonders why his internal voice sounds suspiciously like Vannes.

“Laurent,” Damen greets, a slow, satisfied smile stretching across his face. Laurent has the inexplicable urge to roll his eyes, but keeps them fixed to their too-safe focal point. “I was just in the shower”

“I can see that.” He hates Damen, he hates how smug he looks, he hates that Damen isn’t wearing a shirt. “And I see that, unlike every other civilized human being on the planet, you enjoy forcing people to stare at your naked body.”

“Well, this is the first complaint I’ve ever gotten about it.” Damen is teasing now, his body leaned casually against the doorframe. He makes no move to put on a shirt, or to try and dry the drops of water dripping from his hair onto his shoulders. It’s infuriating. Laurent stands in his scrubs—he had been too exhausted to change, after his shift—with his messenger bag slung over one shoulder, and tries not to let himself feel intimidated.

Now that he’s standing with Damen in front of him, Laurent isn’t sure what he came for. The company, maybe, but the idea is ridiculous.

“If you keep insisting on disrobing around me, I’m sure you’ll find your complaints racking up,” he remarks drily. Damen’s grin widens.

“You were the one knocking on my door, might I remind you? And besides, you shouldn’t make it sound like a challenge if you aren’t prepared for me to take you up on it.” Laurent raises an eyebrow.

“Yes, and now you’ve sufficiently distracted me from whatever it was I had come to talk to you about.”

“That’s a shame. Are you sure you don’t want to hear more about my shower?”

“You’re disgusting,” is all Laurent can say, but both he and Damen can tell that it’s colored with amusement. He can feel the tension easing out of his own shoulders, almost at ease despite Damen standing in front of him, half-dressed and flaunting it. He’s sticking his hips out on purpose, probably.

“Do you want to—come in?” Damen finally asks, when he stops grinning like a fool. Laurent keeps his eyes fixed on that strand of hair, and doesn’t watch the shift of Damen’s muscles as he rearranges himself in the doorway. “I can put on some clothes, if you’re really sure you don’t want to take a closer look.”

It’s teasing enough that Laurent can shake off the vague nausea that comes with the implication. Damen’s brow creases fractionally, as if he’d noticed the quickly-stifled discomfort.

“I’m gonna go dry off and change, if you want to get into something more comfortable?” He offers.

“I—” Laurent starts, and cuts himself off. “And then you’ll lure me into your apartment for the night, and I won’t get nearly as much sleep as I need to?”

“Only if you want to be lured,” Damen says, and it should be his out. Laurent should tell him: no, I don’t. But he doesn’t, and Damen’s grin has turned into something smaller, more inviting, and Laurent finds himself unable to force up a façade of dislike or even indifference.

“We’ll see,” he says, and even to his own ears it sounds like a yes. Damen’s smile grows a little, and it lights up his face in a way that Laurent wishes that he hadn’t noticed. “You look ridiculous.”

“See you in ten,” Damen replies, sweet as honey, and turns to head back into his apartment. The sweatpants are slung just as low in the back as in the front, and Laurent has to tear his eyes away from the long, warm-brown dip of Damen’s spine. The door shuts behind him, softly, and Laurent is left struck dumb in the hallway, his breath caught in his throat and heat rising in his cheeks. Damen shouldn’t be able to do this to him, Damen shouldn’t—everything has become mixed up in Laurent’s head, the difference between Damen and Agent Theomedes, the line that he was supposed to draw blurring with every passing interaction.

This is dangerous. This is so, so dangerous.

And yet, ten minutes later, Laurent finds himself stepping over the threshold of Damen’s apartment, Damen’s fingers pressed gently against the pulse point on his wrist.


xii.

The pattern follows through Thursday and into Friday, until Laurent reaches out to take his lunch from Damen and no longer flinches away from the brush of warm, calloused fingers against his own. He had heard Damen speaking in agitated Greek on the phone last night, before Laurent had raised his fist to knock on the door, and it had been an abrupt reminder of Damen’s position. Not enough to dissuade him from knocking altogether, but enough to unsettle him enough that Damen had asked after his well-being.

“I’m fine,” Laurent had said, and it had rung false in his own ears. Damen had been careful, more careful than usual, after that; he’d sat on the other side of the table, instead of next to Laurent, while they drank the tea Damen had brought from D.C., the loose-leaf peppermint that he had sworn on the night before. Now, when Damen hands him the food, he does so with a soft smile that somehow manages to wordlessly convey that he hopes Laurent is feeling better. Laurent takes it, and smiles back in a way that he hopes manages to convey that he’s doing fine, and that he doesn’t need Damen to look out for him.

“I won’t be home tonight,” Damen says, an apology in his voice. “Some stuff came up—I’ll be free tomorrow though.”

He says it like an invitation. Laurent curls his fingers around the paper bag in his hand. The sky is dark, the clouds heavy wit precipitation. It casts a shadow over Damen’s face, obscuring the straight line of his nose.

“I won’t be back until Sunday,” he says. Sunday, because he’s going to spend the next two nights sleeping in Uncle’s bed. He wonders if Damen is having the apartment watched. He’d be stupid not to. He is stupid, because he hasn’t yet recognized Laurent for who he is. Damen’s face falls, at that, and Laurent doesn’t let himself feel guilty about it. It’s obvious that Damen wants to know where he’s going to be, but Laurent remains silent, long past the point at which anyone else might have elaborated.

“I’ll see you on Sunday, then,” Damen says, like it’s some kind of fact. Like he’ll be waiting. Laurent only nods, and takes a step backwards, away from where Damen is stalled at the curb. Sunday seems insurmountable; Sunday is three days and a trip back to Uncle’s arms away.

He goes back into the hospital moments before rain begins to pound against the pavement, and Damen’s car rolls away from the curb, drops of water staining the windshield. There are still five hours left in his shift, before he has to take the underground back to Uncle’s neighborhood, and Laurent takes a moment in the lobby to gather himself, to forget the warm brush of Damen’s fingers against his. During the week, maybe, he can allow himself this, but there is always a limit.

His lunch break is over before he knows it, and Laurent goes back to his nurse’s station, where he brings dozens of children each day to weigh and measure them, to take their blood pressure and administer shots. The routine is comforting, and lasts him through much of the week. Many of the children are coming in for routine check-ups, though some have appointments with Paschal or another doctor because of an ear infection, or a mysterious fever that refuses to go away, or another such ailment that usually has their parents fretting out of their skin. Today is no different; Laurent takes three children through a normal routine, making light conversation with their parents, before he calls in a girl who is pale and clammy, her eyes slightly glossed over.

She can’t be more than ten or eleven, Laurent thinks. Her mother is young as well, perhaps around thirty, and looks almost as worn down as the girl herself.

“She’s been like this since Wednesday morning,” her mother—after introducing herself as Anya and her daughter as Emily—points out. “She won’t tell me what’s wrong, just that she ‘doesn’t feel right.”

Laurent nods, and crouches down, putting himself eye-to-eye with Emily. She isn’t looking at him, one arm crossing her torso to grip at her other elbow, one of her braids caught against her stomach.

“Emily, do you want to tell me what doesn’t feel right?” She shakes her head, and Laurent sees tears welling up in her wide eyes. Anya makes a concerned noise, the knuckles of one hand pressed to her lips. Laurent presses his lips together and stands up, walking the pair of them down to his station, where he bids Emily to take a seat. The chair is too tall for her, and her feet swing a good two inches above the ground. Her arms wrap around her middle as soon as she sits, and she hunches over herself like it hurts to sit up straight.

“I’m going to take her temperature and blood pressure,” he tells Anya in a low voice. “Do you have the forms they gave you to fill out in the waiting room?”

She makes a small noise of distress, and shakes her head. “I left them out there—I can run back and get them, if you think she’ll be okay.”

“I’ll take care of her,” Laurent promises, and Anya gives him a watery smile before turning and rushing down the long corridor.

“Where’s she going?” Emily finally asks, lifting her head up a fraction. Her voice is tinged with panic, and Laurent suppresses the instinctive frown before it can reach his face.

“Just back to the waiting room. While she’s coming back, why don’t I just do some check-ups for you? Just to make sure you aren’t sick.” She sticks out her lower lip in a slight, exaggerated pout, and Laurent chooses to take it as a good sign.

“I’m not sick,” she argues. “I don’t need that stuff.”

“Well, I just want to make sure,” Laurent reasons, and this time has to fight off a smile. It’s wonderfully refreshing, sometimes, to be around children—they have no sense of artifice, of manipulation. They ask for what they want, and argue against those that they don’t. “Imagine how upset your mom would be if I missed something that was wrong, hm? It’s my job to make sure you’re healthy.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Emily says after a long moment, but her voice is suddenly thicker, and she turns her head away from him.

“Then let me double-check.” He makes his voice as soothing as possible, and waits for a long moment before she nods, reluctantly. “Okay. Can you take off your coat for me?”

She still hasn’t shed her heavy coat, and at Laurent’s words she seems to retreat into it further. He waits, and she waits, and after a long moment she shrugs herself out of the coat, which also seems to be a size too large for her. Underneath, she’s wearing a turtleneck layered under a tee-shirt, and Laurent moves to set up the monitor. She doesn’t roll up her sleeves, though, and is still sitting hunched over her abdomen.

“Can you put your feet flat on the bar of the chair, and roll up your sleeves?” He phrases it as a question, and Emily looks as if she is going to refuse before she finally places her feet on the bar between the legs of the chair, her knees bent slightly. She doesn’t move to pull up her sleeves though, and when Laurent looks at her with a raised eyebrow, she holds out her right arm like some kind of challenge. Her face is still turned away, but Laurent can see the tension in her young jaw.

Something about this all feels—wrong, somehow. He reaches for her sleeve slowly, making sure to keep his touch light and professional, and starts slowly rolling up the striped sleeve. Emily doesn’t look at him; she hardly seems to be breathing, and Laurent cannot stop the rapid pounding of his pulse for whatever reason, the sudden thrum of anxiety in his veins.

He only gets halfway up her forearm, before he sees the bruises.

She knows that he can see them. Laurent can see it in the set of her jaw, stubborn and unwavering even as the first tear slips down her cheek. He feels—nauseated, and horrified, and the bruise on her forearm matches fingers thicker than his own and Laurent is reminded violently of the way those same marks had looked, pressed into his own skin.

“Emily,” he says, and there is nothing he can do to stop his voice from shaking. “Who did this?”

She shakes her head, her chest heaving with the effort of controlling her sobs. She can’t hold it back for long; seconds later she’s crying openly, jerking her arm away from Laurent’s hand to cover her face. Laurent can’t breathe, cannot think past the horror clouding his mind.

“Where else?” He asks, because it’s the only thing he can ask. Laurent feels hopelessly inadequate—faced with Nicaise out on the balcony; with Guion’s determined son with the auburn curls, standing in the middle of Laurent’s living room before Uncle had told Laurent to get out. Emily sobs again, and presses one hand through her layers of shirts to the slight softness of her abdomen.

No, Laurent wants to say. He can feel his heart pounding as fast as a rabbit against the thin skin of his wrist, as he reaches for the hem of her shirt. Emily doesn’t stop him; she pulls her hand away and claps it over her mouth, trying to stifle the noises. It’s not unusual to hear children crying at the nurse’s stations, but something about this feels so wrong, so horrible, that to Laurent every sob sounds like the ringing of an alarm: something is wrong, something is wrong.

He lifts her shirt just past her belly button, and has to force down the bile creeping up her throat. Laurent jerks away, and blinks away the tears threatening at his vision. He can feel—hands, creeping under his scrubs, pulling him closer and in and—

“I’ve got them!” Anya exclaims, and stops dead when she sees them; her daughter in the too-tall chair, hunched over herself and sobbing, and Laurent, pale-faced and almost shaking, with what must be horror written plainly across his face. Because the bruises on Emily’s hips—not even two days old—are bruises that he is too often used to seeing on himself. “What’s wrong?”

Laurent doesn’t answer her. Instead he tugs her by the sleeve out of the nurse’s station, leaving Emily behind. He can still hear her, behind the thin wall, and Laurent closes his eyes in an attempt to get himself back under control.

“I need to call the doctor in immediately,” he tells her, and his voice is shaking less that he might have expected. “Someone has been hurting your daughter.”


xiii.

For a split second, Anya looks as if she doesn’t understand. And then Laurent’s words sink in, and she seems to register the sound of her daughter crying, and the papers fall to the floor and scatter themselves across the tiled hallway. Laurent can barely breathe himself, his throat thick with panic and horror.

“What—” Anya says, like she doesn’t want to believe him. “What happened to her—what’s going on—?”

“I need to call the doctor,” Laurent repeats, finally reaching for his pager. His fingers are shaking. He tires to ignore it as he calls for Paschal, as Emily starts to forcefully subdue her sobs. Anya pushes past him, one hand pressed over her mouth, and drops to her knees in front of the tall chair in which her daughter sits. Emily hold her breath for a long moment, her whole body heaving with the effort of repression, before she finally slides out of the chair and into her mother’s arms, face buried in Anya’s shoulder as she cries. Laurent can do nothing but watch, and wait with terror frozen in his chest until Paschal comes up behind him and lays a gentle hand on his shoulder.

“She needs an examination,” Laurent says, and his voice sounds hollow even to his own ears. “And a kit done, depending on when—”

“Laurent,” Paschal says. He sounds more understanding than he has any right to, more kindness in his voice than Laurent has heard from his uncle in years. “You don’t have to stay for this. Go home, if you want. Don’t do this to yourself.”

Laurent closes his eyes, and tries not to sway under the weight of Paschal’s hand. Home means back to the apartment, back to Uncle for the weekend and Nicaise on the fire escape and Uncle’s briefcase leaning against the wall next to the door. Home means sleeping in Uncle’s bed, Uncle’s arm curled around his waist.

“No.” His eyes are still closed, but he knows that it doesn’t surprise Paschal. “I’m staying.”

“You know—you don’t have to do this. Not after—”

“I know,” Laurent says, as forcefully as he can manage. It’s easy to forget, most days: Paschal’s hands gentle on Laurent’s bleeding cheek, years ago. The horror on his face when Uncle had brought Laurent to his door, carried in his arms like a child. It’s easy to forget until it isn’t, and Laurent shakes off Paschal’s grip on his shoulder.

The examination doesn’t take long. Laurent coaxes Emily and Anya into one of the small checkup rooms, and Paschal calls for what they need, and Laurent keeps his face blank the entire time. He doesn’t have much to do—he hands Paschal what he needs, and lets Anya grip his hand so hard that he can feel the bones grinding together. He cannot watch most of it; mostly, Laurent keeps his eyes on Emily’s and talks her through what is happening. She seems almost in shock, but when Laurent asks her small questions about nothing things—her cat, her schoolwork, anything to keep her mind off of Paschal’s careful hands.

When everything is done and Emily is sitting carefully on the examination table, her heavy jacket and snow boots firmly in place, Laurent finally lets himself step out of the room for a breath that turns into a gasp, and threatens to become a sob. He clamps down on it, hard, and hardly realizes that his hands are clenched into fists until the door behind him opens and Laurent takes a step back, away from it. Anya slips out and shuts the door firmly behind her, and her hands are still shaking, and her eyes are red and swollen.

“I didn’t know,” she says, like she has to convince Laurent to believe her. “She won’t say who, but—I never knew about anything, her father and I are divorced, and—”

“It’s not your fault,” Laurent says, and has to close his eyes. Who would he say that to, if he had the chance?

“But—she’s hurt, I let that happen to her, I—”

“Stop.” Anya does, her eyes wide behind her dark-framed glasses. She looks pale, like she’s about to faint, and Laurent considers calling another nurse just in case she does. She just watches him for a long moment, her chest rising and falling with breaths that look too big for her body. He breathes too, trying to get his pounding heartbeat under control. Laurent feels sick, in the sort of way that threatens to send him spinning into irrational panic, and so he leans against the whitewashed wall and unclenches his fists and breathes, deep and full.

Paschal steps out moments later, and Anya stammers something quietly before slipping back into the room, her own breathing still jagged. Paschal looks exhausted, and for a moment it’s like his age has caught up to him, after so long of pushing it away. His shoulders are slumped, the lines on his face as deep as Laurent has ever seen them.

“How is she?” Laurent asks quietly.

“Likely in shock,” Paschal answers. He runs one hand down the length of his face, and sighs. “I’ll need to make several calls, and the mother—well, she’ll have to make some decisions. You should go home, Laurent.”

“No, I can stay—” He starts to argue, and Paschal cuts him off with a raised hand.

“Go home. Enjoy your weekend, and come back on Monday. You don’t need to be here for this.” He seems so tired, and so worn, that Laurent forces himself not to argue more. The thought of going back to Uncle’s apartment so early in the evening turns his stomach, but he already has his bag packed with everything he needs for the weekend, stored in his locker.

“Okay,” he finally says, and watches Paschal physically relax a fraction. He smiles gently at Laurent, and seems to consider reaching out for him. Laurent just nods, and turns to walk down the hallway, trying to ignore the anxiety buzzing under his skin like a living thing.

He rides the subway back to Uncle’s apartment in silence, music playing through his earbuds to drown out the sound of the train hurtling along its path.


xiv.

Laurent knows that something is wrong when Uncle meets him at the top of the stairs. Uncle doesn’t say a word, just drags Laurent into the apartment with a strong grip on his upper arm. From the corner of his eye, Laurent sees Nicaise peering out from his cracked door, and tries to convince himself that he’s relieved even as his throat constricts in fear. The door shuts violently behind them, and Uncle’s fingers tighten around Laurent’s arm, dragging him in close.

“I believe you’ve stolen something of mine,” Uncle says, voice low. He doesn’t have to shout and he knows it, and Laurent has to will himself not to shrink back from that too-familiar tone.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Laurent keeps his chin up, his eyes raised to meet Uncle’s, and it’s so hard to keep himself from looking down, from showing Uncle exactly how effective that voice is, that grip on Laurent’s arm.

“You don’t.” Uncle’s face is smooth, his anger almost entirely masked but for the tightness at the corners of his mouth, half-hidden by his beard. Laurent shakes his head. “You wouldn’t happen to know a single thing about what was stolen from me last week?”

“I don’t know,” Laurent repeats. Uncle’s fist slams against the door, inches away from Laurent’s head, and Laurent flinches badly. He knows Uncle sees his reaction, knows Uncle sees him blink a little too hard. “I don’t know.”

Uncle’s fist falls away, but his bruising grip on Laurent’s bicep remains. He crowds Laurent closer to the door, his body a taut line above Laurent’s own, Laurent’s back pressed into the aging wood.

“If I find out that this was you, I will make you regret lying to me,” Uncle says, his face so close to Laurent’s that he can feel his breath against his lips. It’s not a threat, it’s a promise, and something in his chest constricts so tightly that he stops being able to breathe.

“I promise, Uncle, it wasn’t me,” he whispers through the lump in his throat. Uncle’s eyes narrow, scanning his face, and his fingers release Laurent’s arm sharply.

“Of course,” Uncle says smoothly, like Laurent isn’t still fighting off the panicked breaths that threaten to wrack his chest. “I shouldn’t have—well, shall we just put this whole thing behind us, then?”

“Yes, I—I’m sorry.” He doesn’t know why he’s apologizing, but Uncle nods, all traces of anger gone from his face. He looks like any other businessman just home from work, his tie loose and hanging casually around his neck, shirt unbuttoned almost to his chest. Laurent looks away, and has to fight not to close his eyes and wait.

Laurent edges around him, keeping his eyes low the whole time. Uncle lets him go, and Laurent barricades himself in the bedroom. He can’t bring himself to sit on the bed so he slumps on the floor instead, his bag discarded next to him. Laurent won’t allow himself to panic, but he clutches at his hair until he doesn’t have to work so hard to keep his breathing steady, until he’s not blinking the persistent dampness out of his eyes.

He hadn’t thought. He had been reckless, and stupid, and he should have known that Uncle would suspect him. His heart is still pounding, the terror still twisting his stomach into knots after almost five minutes of trying to calm himself, to bring his pulse back to a steady baseline. It’s barely working, though; he can still feel Uncle’s bruising grip on his forearm, the warmth of his body inches away from Laurent’s own.

Laurent waits until he hears the front door shut, until he’s sure that Uncle isn’t going next door, before creeping out onto the fire escape. Nicaise is waiting for him on the escape just to the right, in nothing but a pair of ragged sweatpants and his threadbare hoodie.

“He’s angry,” Nicaise says, taking a long drag off his cigarette. “He’s angry all the time.”

“It will be fine,” Laurent says in turn, tucking his chin onto his knees. He taps twice on the metal grate.

“Says who?”

“Says me.” Nicaise snorts, then chokes on his next lungful of smoke. Laurent carefully watches him regain his breath and inhales only when Nicaise does.

“Like you saying it will do either of us any good.”

“Maybe not,” Laurent agrees. “But I’m at least trying to do something about it.”

Nicaise doesn’t ask, and Laurent doesn’t tell him.

“He’s been coming less, this week,” Nicaise finally admits. “I think he’s going to stop, soon.”

He doesn’t sound relieved, or scared. He doesn’t sound anything. Nicaise is perhaps on the late end of thirteen, closing in on fourteen, and his voice is dead. Laurent taps again, twice against the metal of the fire escape, and Nicaise taps back after several agonizing seconds. He looks so young like this, curled up in a ball in the hazy evening light, the sunset reaching out across the sky in front of them. Laurent doesn’t want to take another breath, lest he disturb the fragile air between them. Finally, though, he speaks.

“If you need to get out, I can tell you where to go.” Laurent doesn’t pause before listing off Damen’s address twice through, to make sure Nicaise gets it. “Tell him everything. If he’s not home, then try the next door over.”

“I don’t need anyone’s charity,” Nicaise lies. His hand wanders behind him, towards the loose brick that hides the money Laurent has given him over the last months.

“Neither did I,” says Laurent. Nicaise scoffs, and grinds out his cigarette on the metal slats of the fire escape.

That evening, Laurent packs a bag with the rest of his clothes, and slips out of the door moments after he hears Uncle enter Nicaise’s apartment. He ignores the murmur of voices that he hears in the hallway, and shuts the door to the stairs behind him moments after he hears Uncle laugh, dark and smooth and rich.

He takes the bus back to Jord’s apartment, and sits in the fading light of sunset with a blanket pulled over his knees, fighting against the wave of memories that threatens to overtake him.

Chapter Text

interlude — damen

Damen doesn’t know who’s been sending in the tips—paperwork that almost seems plucked straight from de Vere’s desk—and he finds that as the week goes on, he doesn’t really care. They’re are a goldmine of information; addresses and bank figures and old records that would have taken them months to uncover alone. Nikandros had been wary at first, but after spending a night checking the documents against the sparse information they’d had confirmed, he had been forced to admit that they might just have been given the real thing. Maybe they should have been a little more suspicious of the source—Rochert had handed him the unmarked envelope, spouting something about a rent boy—but it had been hard to muster up anything beyond relief that they had finally gotten something.

And he might have been distracted, which Nikandros has grown particularly fond of mentioning recently, and with which Damen can’t really argue. It hadn’t been intentional, exactly. Laurent had just so happened to keep showing up, with his infuriating smug face and sharp tongue and blue eyes and—

Damen doesn’t have much of a rebuttal when Nikandros jabs him sharply in the ribs and tells him to get his mind off of whichever bottle-blonde moron got into your head this week, and so he simply rolls his eyes and goes back to double-checking the map they have laid out across the table in Nikandros’ hotel room.

Unlike Damen, Nikandros had gotten into the city three weeks ago and decided to stay in a cheap hotel, on the Bureau’s dime. Damen has already been here for almost three months, and after the first week spent on a collapsing mattress listening to the ruckus of the neighboring rooms, he had signed a lease on the apartment next to Laurent, one that would expire at the beginning of the new year. It’s enough to have something to come back to at the end of the day that’s his, somewhere outside of D.C. and his father’s old house and all the memories that had come with it.

If this case wraps up before January, Damen thinks he might take some time off and spend it back here, learning the intricacies of the man in the apartment next door, who spends his weekends lifting cash from strangers at strip malls, and his weeks taking care of sick children.

But even with the first raid less than a month away, the case probably won’t wrap up before January, and Laurent remains as elusive as ever. Damen barely makes it to Friday afternoon without clawing his own skin off in frustration. Progress has been infuriatingly slow, even with the tips, and it’s hard to keep his impatience in check sometimes, even after three months of investigation. Cases like these sometimes take years, and while Damen hopes that’s not how this is going to continue, it’s hard to imagine a future in which the de Vere case wraps up in sooner than six months. It had taken them almost two years to even pin de Vere down conclusively, with what little evidence they’d managed to gather.

And of course, that’s when he gets the phone call.

“What do you want?” Damen answers on instinct, his phone pressed between his shoulder and his cheek as he finishes stuffing papers back inside one of Nikandros’ endless folders.

“What do you want, sir,” Kastor says, and Damen almost drops the folder.

“Kastor?”

“Do you not have caller I.D., Damianos?” Kastor asks, and though Damen knows rationally that it’s supposed to be teasing, he can’t help but hear a thin edge of hostility in his brother’s tone.

“Sorry,” he says, mostly unsure why he even bothers. Kastor’s temper has always been unpredictable, and it hasn’t gotten any better with age. Damen feels guilty for thinking that, sometimes; after all, it can’t be easy for Kastor. Damen had only been deployed for a little over a year, and he still wakes up in the middle of the night covered in a sheen of sweat and clutching at his scarred shoulder, the phantom taste of sand dripping from his tongue. Kastor had been on active duty for almost a decade.

The conversation is over quickly. Damen hangs up with a deep and unsettling feeling of having accomplished absolutely nothing except having avoided being yelled at, and collapses back onto the couch. It’s not his—the apartment had come furnished—but Damen’s body has already learned the shape and wear of the cushions, and the exact right way to sprawl across it that doesn’t agitate his shoulder. The sun is setting through the curtains of the window across from him, and Damen has to force himself to get back up; he’d promised Nikandros a drink tonight.

The nights are getting colder now, fronted by the winds from the port, and so Damen takes the moment to grab his coat from its hook by the door, lingering for a moment when he hears voices coming from the hall. They’re quiet, growing louder by the moment, and so Damen stays inside, not wanting to interrupt.

“You don’t have to go back there,” someone says—a man, somewhat familiar. Damen’s hand is resting on the cool metal of the doorknob, head bowed as he strains to listen. He’s not eavesdropping, he rationalizes. He’s just—well. He’s eavesdropping.

“Don’t,” comes the warning reply, and Damen’s hand slips from the knob. It’s undeniably Laurent’s voice, laced with exhaustion and something that Damen can’t place through the heavy wood of the door.

“Laurent, I mean it.” Damen’s neighbor—Jord, he remembers—sounds almost frustrated. “I know what he—”

“I said don’t—” There’s the sound of a door slamming, and Damen has to resist the urge to open his door, to check that everything is okay. Instead he waits, counting three pounding beats of his own heart before he hears Laurent’s voice from the hallway again. “If I needed your help, I would ask for it. Okay?”

There’s a long moment of drawn-out silence. Damen holds his breath, waiting for Jord’s response. He can’t even begin to understand the context of the words, but he’s heard enough. There are so many things about Laurent that don’t add up—the stealing, the evasiveness, the way he’d carefully repressed a flinch the first time Damen’s fingers had brushed his wrist. Laurent had told him that he wouldn’t be back until Sunday, and yet here he is; mid-Friday evening, two days earlier than planed.

“Okay,” Jord finally says. Damen barely hears it, and the soft noises of the door to the next apartment opening that follows. The hallway seems strangely quiet, after the click of the door shutting behind them. Damen creeps out into it like a thief, his shoulders tense and his hands shoved deep into his pockets. It feels almost taboo to hear his own footsteps on the carpeted floor, to break the silence that Laurent had Jord had left behind them without even seeming to realize it. Part of Damen wants to turn back, to leave Nikandros to his own too-expensive craft beer and knock on Laurent’s door. Instead, he bows his head, hoping to remain unnoticed until the metal doors of the elevator slide shut behind him, taking him down and down into the lobby.


xv.

Laurent wakes up bleary and confused on Jord’s couch, his head resting on a pillow he doesn’t remember grabbing and his body covered by a blanket he doesn’t remember reaching for. Jord has likely already left for the day, the telltale mug on the bookshelf next to the door cool enough for the remaining contents to have stopped steaming. Jord had left, just a few minutes after they entered the apartment together, to get something to eat, and Laurent doesn’t remember being awake when he returned. Jord must have found him, passed out from the exhaustion of the day on the couch, knees drawn up to his chest and head lolling against the back cushion.

The first time he tries to sit up, Laurent’s head throbs in protest; a blinding pain that nearly makes him groan aloud and forces his head back down to the pillow. The second time, after several minutes of carefully controlled breathing, Laurent manages to settle his feet firmly on the floor as he sits upright. Everything feels blurred and vague except the awful pain behind his eyes. He recognizes this kind of emptiness, at least; the awful hollow nothingness that always settles in his chest the day after nights like those. Like Laurent had felt too much the day before, gotten too overwhelmed with the intensity of fear or panic, and his mind is in the process of shutdown.

He manages to make it to the bathroom and down a few painkillers, and Laurent stands with his hands braced on the sink and tries not to look at himself in the mirror. It’s hard to form coherent thought like this, hard to do anything except to stand and sway, barely keeping his balance even with the death grip his fingers have on the smooth white porcelain. It takes more effort than it should to even go through the simple motion of washing his face, scrubbing at invisible marks until he’s sure his skin is red and raw and he still doesn’t feel clean.

Laurent never works on Saturdays. Normally that would be his first instinct—to throw himself into work and the persona of Nurse Laurent—and today he can’t. Today he’s thinking too much about the little girl with the bruises on her abdomen and forearm, too much about the way she had bitten her lip during Paschal’s examination and answered Laurent’s benign questions with the determination of a soldier. No, Laurent cannot go into work today, and he cannot sit around in Jord’s apartment feeling sorry for himself, and he cannot loiter in a strip mall waiting for someone to brush shoulders with.

Which leaves him almost nothing. Almost nothing left of him, after he’d left school behind. Laurent used to love so many things—playing the piano, reading his father’s old collection of classics, riding horses with Auguste out in the countryside every other weekend. And then Auguste had died, and Uncle had packed up all of their family’s things, and it had felt like that part of Laurent that had loved to do things had been buried with his father and brother.

Laurent wipes away the fog from the mirror, formed from the still-running stream of hot water, and does not look at his face.

There’s a pit in the hollow of his stomach that feels almost like hunger as he wanders into the kitchen, feet cold against the wood, but Laurent spends a long moment staring into the half-empty fridge and finds nothing that seems even remotely appetizing. His running shoes are tucked away in the closet of Jord’s spare room, but Laurent’s limbs feel heavy and sluggish, his head too light.

He returns to the couch mindlessly, the long sleeves of his shirt covering his hands like a child, his soft sweatpants bunched around his ankles. Though his hair is combed and his face is clean, Laurent still feels disheveled. There are a few books scattered on the coffee table and the back of the couch, mostly checked out by Jord from the campus library, and Laurent reaches for one idly. It’s nothing that can hold his attention for longer than a brief moment spent turning through the pages, past diagrams of human anatomy and long, unbroken paragraphs of text that make Laurent’s eyes hurt without even reading them. He places the book back on the precarious stack of three on the back of the cushion, and tries not to close his eyes.

Jord will be gone for the rest of the day. Vannes and Orlant are both either in class or working; Laurent t cannot go into work himself. He tries to resign himself to a day like this, of sitting and doing nothing and being nothing. It almost works; it’s nothing that Laurent isn’t used to.

And then, someone knocks twice on the door of the apartment. Laurent startles slightly, his back turned from the door where he sits. There’s really only one person it could be—one person who would come looking for him near noon, who conveniently happens to live next door.

He opens the door on Damen with his jaw set, trying to force himself back into lucidity. Damen looks as dressed-down as Laurent is himself, in faded jeans and a shirt that looks just as old and well-worn. His hands are shoved deep in his pockets, shoulders relaxed, and his loose curls are mussed. He looks like he’s just rolled out of bed, and Laurent tries not to think about how much he likes it.

“Hey,” Damen offers, the corners of his mouth curling on the word. Laurent lets out a long breath, almost a sigh, and fights the urge to lean against the doorframe. Holding himself up is exhausting; holding himself together for Damen seems almost impossible. He doesn’t say anything, and Damen moves past it as graciously as he can. “I know you said you were going to be gone for he weekend, but I heard you come in last night, and—I don’t know. I thought I’d come check on you.”

“I’m fine,” Laurent says, automatically. He is fine, he rationalizes, just—tired. Exhausted. Something like that. Damen doesn’t seem to believe him.

“You kind of look like you need some company.” Laurent wants to snap back, to say something rude and biting that will get Damen to leave him alone. But Damen is right, like he always seems to be, and it’s infuriating to an irrational degree. He smiles with his lips pressed together, and knows it doesn’t reach his eyes.

“What did you have in mind?”


xvi.

Damen, with a lack of foresight that stuns even Laurent, hadn’t actually had anything in mind at all. Laurent finds this out when he meets Damen in the hall five minutes later, after pulling on something more presentable and lacing himself into his shoes.

“I haven’t eaten,” Laurent says pointedly, though he can barely stomach the idea of eating anything right now. “Since you seem to have an affinity for buying me food, let’s start with that.”

“You’re too skinny,” Damen argues, leading them down the hall and toward the elevator. Laurent quietly steers them toward the stairs, with a look at Damen that dares him to argue. “You clearly can’t feed yourself right, so I’ll do it for you.”

“You make it sound like you’re going to eat me.”

“Only if you ask nicely.” Damen’s teasing words echo down the staircase as he walks down with Laurent a careful step behind him, and Laurent has to grit his teeth to hold back a reaction. Despite everything, Damen makes him feel more awake; he keeps Laurent on his toes in a way he can’t bring himself to dislike. The conversation is easy and teasing, and Laurent lets himself slip into it as they reach the parking garage and settle into Damen’s sleek black car.

“Where are we going?” Damen asks.

“There’s a small place on 4th that has bagels,” Laurent replies, glancing down at his phone to tap out a message to Jord. It likely won’t be received until Jord gets off his shift, and Laurent should be home by then, but he needs someone to know where he is, who he’s with. Damen makes a noise of enthusiasm, and presses the button to ignite the engine.

Laurent doesn’t register most of the drive; he knows Damen says a few things, talks about his time in the city, but doesn’t make much move to respond. He climbs out of the car barely remembering how they’d gotten to downtown in the first place, but doesn’t mention it. The smell from the bakery is overwhelming, even in the busy mid-morning, and it makes Laurent’s stomach turn. He needs to eat, he knows, but the thought makes him queasy.

“Come on,” Damen says, voice low in Laurent’s ear, and Laurent almost startles. Damen’s hand is on his elbow, guiding him carefully out of the way of pedestrian traffic, and Laurent steps into the restaurant without pulling his arm away. There are several people waiting to order, and he steps into line with Damen beside him, staring up at the menu and ignoring Damen’s eyes on him.

This is one of the few places Laurent had frequented during high school, along with the coffee shop a few blocks over, where he had worked. Both are within a few miles of the high school he had attended, and both had been easy excuses for Uncle. Laurent would leave for school an hour early and eat breakfast here, when he had the spare change, finishing the last of his homework or just sitting with a book. The workers had all known his name, and a few had been friendly. Now all of them are gone—almost all had been college students, and Laurent had stopped coming as often after he graduated.

So he doesn’t have to look at the menu, with most of it memorized already, but he can’t stand Damen’s eyes on him. The line moves quickly and Laurent orders first, with a brisk smile at the girl, probably around his age, at the register. Damen takes his time, but dutifully pulls out his credit card and pays for both of them when he’s done.

“Are you happy now?” Damen asks, teasing, after they step away from the register, waiting for a table to clear. Laurent huffs a laugh out through his nose, and reaches for the two drinks the barista hands out to him. Their coffee is black, as strong as it comes, and Damen immediately places his on the counter and overloads it with an amount of cream and sugar that makes Laurent hold back a gag.

“That’s disgusting,” he says, and doesn’t wait for Damen’s reply as he makes his way to a just-cleared table for two. Damen follows him—though not without almost spilling boiling coffee over his fingers—and takes the opposite seat with the grace of a newborn calf. It seems uncharacteristic of him, along with the blush on his cheeks, but Laurent brushes it away without giving it much thought.

“It’s not mu fault I have a sweet tooth.” Damen’s grin is utterly disarming, and Laurent forcibly ignores it, taking a drink of coffee that scalds his tongue. He makes a small noise of pain and swallows, and sees the line of worry between Damen’s brows.

“Too hot,” he explains on what comes out as an unintentional gasp, and the furrow eases slightly.

“Want me to kiss it better?” Damen says, and it’s too serious. The teasing undertone is there—it has been for the whole conversation, almost, but this makes Laurent pull back in his seat slightly, the burn almost forgotten in his discomfort. Damen’s face falls, and he opens his mouth as if to apologize.

“Don’t,” Laurent cuts him off. “It’s fine, don’t, I’m just—” Not ready, his mind autocompletes for him, and Laurent brushes it off. It’s not even a repulsive thought, Damen kissing him, but the thought of it makes his stomach churn even more. He feels too awake and yet not alert enough at the same time, his nerves electrified by Damen’s presence but his mind failing to get the memo.

“Hey,” Damen says, quietly. “It’s okay. Laurent, you don’t have to—”

This time, Damen is cut off by the girl behind the counter calling out his name, holding out the tray with their food on it. Damen pauses for a second, eyes darting between the counter and Laurent, and Laurent looks away. Damen rises from his chair, and returns after a moment of hushed conversation with their tray, and a plastic cup full of ice.

“For your tongue,” he says. Laurent takes it, with a small nod of thanks.

The food isn’t as difficult to force down as he had thought, though every few bites he stops to let a chunk of ice rest on his tongue to alleviate some of the discomfort. Damen looks up at him, sometimes, as he eats, watching Laurent like he’s scared Laurent will run away. There’s nothing Laurent can say to reassure him—after all, he still hasn’t ruled out running away as an option.

“Tell me something about yourself,” Damen blurts, halfway through his bagel sandwich. Laurent looks up at him, knowing Damen can see his confusion. Damen blushes slightly again, his eyes darting down to his food before he looks resolutely up again. “Just, something you like to do. Or about your friends or hobbies. Something I don’t know yet.”

“Oh.” Laurent blinks at him. He doesn’t know what Damen wants from this—is it a ploy to get Laurent to reveal himself, if he’d known all along who he is? Is it his way of trying to break the ice after what he’d said earlier? Damen keeps staring at him, waiting for a reply, and Laurent says the first thing that comes to mind.

“I used to ride. Horses. Every weekend, my brother would take me. I stopped when I was younger, but—I liked it.” It’s so easy to remember, even now; the stables outside the city, the horse that he would ride every week, dappled grey and proud. Laurent doesn’t know if she’s still there; if she’s still alive. Uncle had only taken him once, and Laurent had been so upset that he had refused to mount. They had left after only ten minutes, and Laurent hasn’t been back since.

“I’ve never actually been near a horse,” Damen admits, and Laurent smiles despite himself. “They’re kind of terrifying, right?”

“Not at all. Well,” he amends, “Not if you’re careful.”

The conversation is easy to pick up, after that. They end up staying long past when they finish their food, and their coffee, and only when they start getting pointed looks from the girl behind the register does Laurent suggest that they leave. Damen seems surprised, when he glances down at his phone and realizes that it’s almost noon—that they’ve been sitting together for two hours now.

Damen holds the door open for himself when they leave, and Laurent waits a moment to let Damen catch up, after walking a few paces before realizing that Damen has stayed behind to keep holding the door for a couple behind them. Damen’s smile and greeting are easy, familiar to even complete strangers. He watches as Da,en jogs the few paces it takes to catch up with Laurent, his curls bouncing on his forehead, dimple on his left cheek deep and constant.

“Where to next?” Laurent blinks at him for a moment, and the dimple fades with Damen’s smile. “Um, if you didn’t want to—go back home. Which you could do.”

Damen’s hand comes up to rub awkwardly at the back of his neck, and Laurent doesn’t look at the line of his torso, the thick muscle of Damen’s bicep.

“No,” he says, without letting himself think about it. “Not back, just. I hadn’t thought about it.”

Damen’s gaze softens, and his hand drops back down to his side. He takes a few steps, and Laurent moves to stay next to him as they walk back to the car. Laurent is too-aware of the man next to him, of the warmth of Damen’s body close to him even in the open, brisk air of the early afternoon. The car, in comparison, feels almost stifling, and Laure rolls down his window the second Damen turns his key i the ignition.

“Where to?” Damen asks again, but this time it’s quieter. The streets are busier now, the sidewalks crowded with tourists and students, but the air inside the car feels still. Calm, in a way Laurent hadn’t expected. He rests his head on his arm, propped up against the frame of the open window, and closes his eyes for as long as he can stand. Laurent can feel Damen’s eyes on him, and ignores it.

“Anywhere,” he says. His voice sounds foreign to his own ears. “Just drive.”


xvii.

So they drive. Damen talks, sometimes, as the city whips by the open windows. They pass the college where Laurent got his associate’s, the port, the stretch of identical suburban houses just beyond the city center. Laurent learns about Damen’s family; the father and dog he had left back in D.C., the work partner he had brought with him, and—to Laurent’s vague amusement—a string of men and women with whole he had short-lived, friendly affairs.

By the time they’re driving along the beaten-down road that borders the rocky cliffs outside the city, waves crashing against the stone far below, Laurent’s head feels more firmly attached to his body. When he starts responding, dropping in questions throughout Damen’s seemingly endless stories, Damen’s head tilts toward him, eyes never leaving the road. Laurent can see his smile in profile, and turns his face toward the window. The wind whips at his hair and stings his eyes, dirt and salt and sand from the beach below biting at his skin. The sky is cloudy; rain or snow approaching, carried in heavy gray clouds that almost blend in with the turmoil of the gray sea below.

“We should turn back,” Laurent finally says, and looks to his left. Damen’s hands are firmly on the steering wheel, but his shoulders are relaxed; all the awkward tension in his body seems to have vanished in the last several hours.

“You don’t want to get stranded out here? I see some nice portholes I could get a tire stuck in, if you’d like.” Damen’s mouth quirks up at the corners again, and Laurent rolls his eyes.

“Of course, that was your plan all along, wasn’t it? Get me all the way out here and talk at me until I’m so fed up that I throw myself off the cliffside. Your mind works in fantastic ways.” Damen snorts inelegantly, and pulls to the side of the road to make a careful U-turn.

“And here I thought I was entertaining you.” He looks at Laurent, then, for the first time since they’d driven out past the city limits; it’s brief, and Damen’s eyes turn back to the road not half a second later, but Laurent feels his cheeks heat regardless.

He rolls up his window, and breathes in the still air. It’s still cold—Damen hasn’t turned on the heater, and no chatter from the radio breaks the silence between them, until Damen reaches out to push the volume button. He seems content to stop talking, to play music from the bluetooth connection with his phone and let Laurent watch him and his hands on the steering wheel and the set of his jaw.

It starts snowing when they’re halfway back to downtown, and Laurent turns on the heat only when he starts to see his breath fog up the windshield. Damen watches his hand as he reaches for the dashboard, and Laurent’s face when he settles back into the cool leather of his seat, and then turns back to the road without a word.

Damen doesn’t ask where Laurent wants to go, and Laurent doesn’t stop him when the car turns onto the familiar street, Jord’s apartment building looming over them. The snow on the ground is filthy already, dirtied by mid-afternoon traffic, and when Laurent and Damen emerge from the parking structure, it crunches under their boots. It’s colder outside than it had been when they left; Laurent pulls his coat tighter around his chest and watches his breath fog up the air in front of him. It’s only a little warmer in the staircase, and he picks up a jog with Damen a half-step in front of him, the exertion raising his temperature and his heart rate. Damen turns to him as they step out into the hallway of their floor, his cheeks ruddy and chest heaving slightly.

“Now I feel out of shape,” he jokes. Laurent glances down, to where Damen’s biceps are hidden under his own coat, and raises an eyebrow. Damen laughs, his head tilted back and dimple on full display, and Laurent doesn’t look away. They’re outside Jord’s apartment, and the key is burning a hole in Laurent’s pocket, and Damen is standing behind him like he doesn’t expect anything else from him today. It seems almost unimaginable, though, to step back into the empty apartment and wait for Jord to come home. On any other Saturday, Laurent would be sitting on his fire escape with Nicaise at his side, smoking or making pithy remarks or just tapping his fingernails against the cold metal.

“Invite me in,” Laurent says, suddenly. In the corner of his vision, still staring at the number on Jord’s door, he can see Damen turn his head. There’s a moment of quiet, where Damen simply looks at him, and Laurent lets him. Finally, a nod.

“Come home with me,” Damen says, and it feels much heavier than it should. Home is one door down, home is in a mirror-image of Jord’s apartment with few differences to speak of, and still Laurent cannot think of it as anything but foreign, and dangerous, and maybe more full of life.

In a brief moment of insanity, Laurent takes Damen’s hand.

Damen’s apartment is warmer than the hallway, and Laurent has to let go to strip out of his coat, hanging it neatly next to Damen’s and unlacing his boots. The carpet here is nicer than the one in Uncle’s apartment, he thinks as he toes out of them, arranging both neatly by the door. He can feel Damen’s eyes on him, like they have been all day; he can feel the tingling echo of Damen’s fingers on the back of his hand.

“Laurent,” Damen says, and it feels quiet in the still entryway. Laurent closes his eyes, and stands up. His back is still turned to Damen, his feet bare on the carpet. Laurent feels vulnerable in a way that isn’t quite familiar—less like he’s prey, maybe. He turns, and Damen’s face is as bare as his forearms, sleeves pushed up and eyes soft. “What do you want from me?”

“I don’t know,” Laurent replies, before he can stop himself. He knows, maybe, what he came for—knows that it’s a terrible idea—but what he wants. That isn’t so clean-cut; he thinks it might have something to do with Damen next to him, breathing the same air as they drive along the rocky shore. Damen reaches out, and takes his hand again.

Laurent lets himself get pulled in until his chest is flush with Damen’s, until his free hand rests on Damen’s breastbone and he has to tilt his head back to look him in the eye. His heart is still pounding—from the jog up the stairs or from Damen’s breath on his face, Damen’s warmth against him. It hasn’t—it’s been so long, since Laurent was touched like this—but he can’t bring himself to be scared.

“Tell me to stop.” It’s an unfinished sentence, trailed off in the middle, because then Damen ducks his head down and kisses him.


xviii.

Laurent can’t breathe. Damen pulls away, after what could be seconds or minutes, and Laurent’s heart stutters in his chest. He can feel the emotion thick in the back of his throat and forces it down, forces away the stinging in his eyes. Damen’s brow furrows in concern; he moves a step back, and Laurent’s hand drops from his chest.

“Wait,” Laurent says. His lips feel warm—different, somehow, than they had been a moment ago. Their fingers are still linked, and Laurent takes a step forward, leaving an inch between them. Damen’s hand comes up to his face, touches his jaw feather-light, and Laurent pushes himself up onto his toes. This time, he is the one initiating the kiss, and his pulse is tight against the inside of his skin, and when he closes his eyes it takes everything he has not to cry.

Damen’s mouth is warm, and his lips are soft and slightly chapped, and when he lets go of Laurent’s hand to pull him closer, fingers curling at the nape of Laurent’s neck, Laurent lets his arm drape across Damen’s broad shoulder. The contact is electrifying; their bodies are pressed together, closer than Laurent can bear. He doesn’t pull away. Damen kisses him, and Laurent stops thinking for long enough to kiss him back.

And, oh, Laurent thinks. This is—he doesn’t know what this is. Damen’s lips are soft against his own, and Laurent’s hands fist the lapels of Damen’s jacket, pulling him down without Laurent’s permission. Damen seems surprised, for a moment, but responds without hesitation. This is—Laurent pushes himself up on his toes just slightly, something about the touch and the closeness horribly intoxicating. Damen’s lips are gentle against his, and the kiss is chaste, and Laurent doesn’t want to think about what it reminds him of.

Laurent is the one to break the kiss this time, and when he opens his eyes Damen is smiling at him.

“What?” He asks, too defensive. The smile deepens, and the dimple with it, and Damen’s hand slides around Laurent’s waist. He fights the flinch and hopes that Damen doesn’t see it, quick to relax into the touch. Damen’s eyes crinkle at the corners when he smiles, only noticeable from up close.

“Is this what you want?” He asks again, serious underneath the teasing. Laurent clenches his jaw, forces himself to keep meeting Damen’s gaze. He can feel Damen’s fingers, one layer away from his skin, and he likes it more than he’s comfortable admitting to himself. It’s terrifying, how easily Damen could force this; even without his immense advantage of strength and size, Damen has trained for combat. They’re in his apartment,

“I’m not a virgin,” he says, as firmly as he can manage. By the look in Damen’s eyes, the way his smile has faded to a more serious line, he’s not sure he hid the flinch well enough.

“That’s not an answer.”

“You’re infuriating.” Damen’s lips quirk up again, but his eyes are still locked on Laurent’s.

“I only asked you a question.” Laurent can feel Damen’s breath on his face, and closes his eyes against it.

“Yes.” Laurent barely knows what he’s replying to, but he knows that Damen’s hands aren’t moving, and that this is a terrible idea, and that he has bruises in the shape of Uncle’s fingers on his arm that burn like cigarette butts every time he thinks about them. “Kiss me.”

Damen’s thumb smooths over his skin, and he leans down again, and Laurent is lost.

After a long, blurred interval of kissing, Damen draws him into the bedroom, lacing their fingers together again. The bedroom is not much different than Jord’s master bedroom, except for the bed; it’s big and soft and just like Damen himself, and Laurent finds his hands shaking.

“Let me,” Damen says, and so Laurent does. Damen’s hands are quick and efficient, and once Laurent’s sweater is off, he finds himself being pushed gently against the bed, sitting down on the edge with Damen in front of him. Before he can open his mouth to ask, Damen’s own shirt is off and Laurent is left to watch the thick planes of his torso, the rippling muscle hidden under smooth brown skin. Damen has a scar on his shoulder, a pink patch of scar tissue in the vague shape of a starburst on his left shoulder. Laurent resists the urge to reach up to touch his own shoulder, the ugly gash marring his own skin.

“Like what you see?” Damen asks, voice low and warm. Laurent feels—not inadequate, but smaller. More fragile, when Damen ducks to kiss him again and lets his hands settle on Laurent’s bare waist once more. Damen’s kisses are lighter than Laurent had expected, and he drinks in the touch, new and familiar at the same time. Damen’s hands travel down, and down, until his thumbs dip underneath the waist of Laurent’s pants. His breathing catches in his throat; his fingernails dig into Damen’s shoulders.

“May I?” Damen asks, his lips just inches away from Laurent’s own. Laurent closes his eyes and nods.

Damen is adept at this, as everything else; he urges Laurent’s hips up to tug the pants down, after making quick work of the fly. It’s over before Laurent can think about it too hard. It’s easier, he thinks, than if Damen had wanted him to undress slowly.

“I’m going to kiss you again,” Damen says, and it doesn’t sound like a command. Laurent opens his eyes, and tilts his head up in welcome.

Damen takes a step back, when they come up for air, and quickly pops the button on his jeans. He’s as shameless about stripping down as he is about everything else, and Laurent pulls himself up more fully onto the bed and watches, trying to stop thinking. This is what he asked for; it’s what he wants.

He doesn’t know how Damen wants him, so Laurent just sits, waiting cross-legged while Damen strips down to his own boxer-briefs. Damen joins him on the bed, straddling Laurent’s hips with a smile. It’s strange, to have Damen on top of him like this, practically sitting on his lap, a reversal of the role with which Laurent is intimately familiar. Damen leans in, and Laurent waits for the familiar pressure against his lips, and makes a small, shocked noise when Damen instead kisses the side of his jaw, fingers trailing lightly along Laurent’s sides.

It’s an overload of too-soft sensation; Laurent’s skin is on fire with it, and he fights agitated movements as Damen’s hands trail down, and his lips along with them until he’s kissing Laurent’s neck and Laurent feels like he’s been struck by lightning, every hair standing on end as Damen touches him.

“May I?” Damen asks again, mumbled against Laurent’s neck, fingers playing with the waistband of Laurent’s boxers.

“Please,” Laurent says; anything for more—or less—of Damen’s gentle touches. Damen walks back on his knees, and Laurent lets himself be pushed gently back onto the pillows. He lifts his hips to let Damen tug away his last bit of clothing, and Damen’s breath hitches, ghosting along Laurent's hip and his seemingly clear lack of physical arousal.

“You're not…”

Laurent turns his head away. Damen shuts his mouth, thankfully, but gets an almost laughable expression of determination on his face. His hands find Laurent's thighs, and his neck bows down slightly.

“Wait!” Laurent says sharply, and Damen freezes. Laurent flounders for a brief moment, taken aback. “I—I am not going to return the favor.”

Damen's brow furrows. “I wouldn't make you.”

Laurent doesn’t know what to say. He wants to say that he doesn’t think that Damen would, but the truth is that he doesn’t know what he thinks. Everything is starting to run together sharp and fast, but Laurent blinks it off, focuses on the sheets beneath him and Damen’s hands, warm and rough and sold. Damen’s breath ghosts against his skin again, and Laurent clenches his fingers in the sheets and nods.

The first touch of Damen’s lips on him is gentle, like he isn’t sure how quickly to begin. Damen slowly works them into a gentle rhythm, smoothing his fingers around Laurent’s base until Laurent can feel himself start to stir, and then to rise. Damen makes a pleased noise, one that sends a slow shiver of pleasure up Laurent’s spine, and he turns his face into the pillow, his hands twisting in the bedsheets. If Damen hears his shaking breath, he doesn’t give any indication.

“Wait,” Laurent finally gasps, and Damen eases off, looking up at Laurent with swollen lips and lust-blown eyes. “If you want, you can—”

He breaks off. The furrow between Damen’s brow returns. Laurent can’t meet his gaze, even as he shifts his thighs wider, pale along the brown of Damen’s own legs. Damen groans a little, pressing the heel of his hand against his cock, still confined in his shorts. Laurent bites his lips in what he knows is an enticing show.

“Only—” Damen says, his voice rough. “Only if you want me to.”

“Do it,” Laurent replies, leaving no room for doubt. The thought of Damen above him—Damen inside of him—sparks a little flare of heat and terror in Laurent’s belly, despite the hard weight of something cold lodged in his chest. Damen still looks unsure, so Laurent sweetens the deal. “Please.”

Damen groans again, low in his throat, and grabs a bottle of lube from the bedside table. Laurent expects him to pop the cap, but Damen just discards it on the bed next to them and crawls up the length of Laurent’s body to kiss him again, one arm propping him up as he traces the soft, light line of hair down Laurent’s abdomen.

This gentling may kill him, Laurent thinks.

When he does reach for the lube again, all Damen does is coat his fingers and wrap them in a soft channel around Laurent’s cock. Laurent’s breath hitches along with his hips and Damen smiles into the kiss until Laurent pushes him just an inch away with a hand against his chest. It’s shockingly easy; Damen moves with him, stilling his fingers but keeping them close enough that Laurent doesn’t feel the chill of the air around them.

“What are you doing,” Laurent says, not a question. Damen’s lips quirk.

“Making you feel good,” he says simply. Laurent scowls, and it just serves to make Damen smile more. “Is that a problem?”

“Just—get on with it.” Laurent finds it difficult to meet Damen’s eyes for too long. He feels exposed, lying in the dim light of the stormy afternoon with his body bare to Damen’s gaze, but when Damen looks down at him with warm eyes and a soft smile, Laurent lets himself relax into the mattress.

“If you insist,” Damen says fondly. He trails slick fingers down, pressing down slightly to make Laurent gasp and arch underneath him, clenching his fingers in the sheets. Lower, and Laurent expects him to push in, to stretch him briefly, but Damen’s fingers just. Circle him gently until Laurent bucks his hips down in impatience. Damen huffs a small laugh, slicks up his fingers again, and places them at Laurent’s entrance.

And Laurent freezes. he stops the tiny movements he’d been making against the bed, stops opening and closing his fists to grab the bedding tightly, because all of a sudden this is too familiar and too painful and Damen hasn’t even done anything yet.

“Hey,” Damen says, the second he notices that Laurent is no longer putty in his hands. “Hey, you don’t have to do this. I’m not gonna—Laurent, I’m not going to force you to do this.”

Something breaks inside of him then, that cold thing lodged inside him falls away to leave a dull hollow in Laurent’s chest, and he suddenly thinks that he might cry. Damen eases away, then drapes himself on his side inches away from Laurent, his movements so slow and careful that Laurent wants to glare and cry and insist that he’s not that fragile.

“Is everything okay?” He asks. It almost makes Laurent laugh. Instead, he rolls onto his stomach and angles his hips slightly up, just enough that his abdomen strains to keep him there. His knees, pressed into the mattress, are spread just wide enough.

“Like this,” Laurent says. This is what he knows. Damen nods. His fingers trail down Laurent's side, lingering over the dip at the bottom of his side as he pushes himself down the bed. Laurent clenches his eyes shut again and presses the side of his face into the pillow. Damen’s touch is gentle and firm as he settles himself behind Laurent and pushes his legs open just a few inches wider. Laurent lets him, easing his weight onto his knees, and smiles a little when there’s a sharp intake of breath from behind him.

“You’re beautiful,” Damen says. Laurent doesn’t reply, doesn’t let it register, just lets his body relax until Damen’s fingers prod gently against him. This time, the first one slides in easy and Laurent breathes through it. Damen is gentle, working in another only when Laurent is pliant around him. It’s slow going, but eventually Laurent loosens enough that Damen can slip in a third finger, and when he pauses Laurent expects him to tug them out, replace them with his cock. Instead, he feels more lubricant being added, and Damen gently starts pushing inside him again with the same three fingers.

“What are you—you can stop,” Laurent says sharply. Damen’s fingers, intent on stroking again and again where Laurent is most sensitive, are throwing him off balance. “I’m ready.”

“No,” Damen replies, the frown evident in his voice. “You’re not. If I stop now, it will hurt you.”

“Yes. I’m ready.” Laurent is beginning to get impatient, anxiety mounting in his chest with every passing moment. He can’t move, too high-strung to shift his hips down so Damen’s fingers angle toward his prostate; too terrified and aroused to do anything but wait.

“Oh,” says Damen, like he’s sad, and Laurent almost breathes out a cynical laugh.

By the time Damen deems him prepared enough, Laurent is beginning to lose his erection. He can practically see the determination on Damen’s face when he starts rubbing up against Laurent’s prostate, but all coherent thought is briefly drowned out when Damen thrusts his hand with just the right amount of pressure. Laurent gasps into the bedding, and Damen presses a small kiss to the small of his back and draws out his fingers. Laurent hears the crinkling of the condom wrapper and breathes a sigh of relief.

“Is everything okay?” Damen says quietly, even as he drapes his body over Laurent’s shaking form. He presses his lips to Laurent’s ear, so that he can feel the brief nod.

“Please,” Laurent whispers.

And then Damen pushes inside him, and the breath is stolen from his lungs.

The thrust is slow and deep and Laurent marvels that it doesn’t hurt the way he’s used to; the way is eased by slick and too much preparation and somehow, Damen thinks that this is normal, that this is okay. Laurent trembles underneath him and whines when Damen bottoms out, and somehow lets a little, desperate “more” escape from his lips.

And so Damen gives him more. Soon enough he’s built up a rhythm, gently rocking himself into Laurent until they’re both sweating and gasping with every breath. Laurent can feel his orgasm building inside him, making him drip down onto the sheets as Damen’s cock presses up against his prostate and makes his vision light up behind his eyelids. Damen is fucking him, and Laurent is enjoying it, but as soon as he feels the swell of release he clamps down on it, hard. Damen notices, because of course he does, and he leans his weight on Laurent’s back and one of his own hands in order to reach down to wrap his still-slick fingers around Laurent’s cock.

Damen strokes in time with the thrusts of his cock, and it’s so hard to keep his orgasm restrained deep down inside him that Laurent can feel himself tearing up, desperate already. He knows that Damen is close, can feel the hot breath against the back of his neck and the stuttering of Damen’s hips pounding into him. Damen twists his fist on an upstroke on Laurent’s cock, and he sobs out a breath before he can stop himself.

“Laurent,” says Damen, voice rough and heavy.

“Please,” gasps Laurent, bucking his hips back. The first tear drips from his lashes and onto the pillow below him. “Please, Damen.”

“Laurent,” says Damen again, and presses a kiss to Laurent’s neck. “You can—fuck, Laurent, come for me.”

He holds out for several agonizing seconds, body shaking with exertion and tears stinging at the corners of his eyes, and then Laurent comes.

He comes hard onto Damen’s sheets, letting the waves of pleasure sweep him under, and as he tightens reflexively he can feel tensing above him, muffling a groan into the curve of Laurent’s neck. Laurent whimpers as he comes down, the feeling of Damen grinding into him slowly still to much to be comfortable. Seeming to get the hint, Damen withdraws slowly, leaving him empty and aching. For a long moment, all Laurent can do is stare at the ceiling and try to force down the instinctive wave of panic rising in his chest.

As soon as he catches his breath, blinking what has to be sweat out of his eyes, Laurent rolls to the side of the bed, ever conscious of the loose feeling between his legs and the burn from where Damen had stretched him open. He knows Damen is watching him as he sits up, back hunching as he takes a moment to regain his balance. His whole body feels tight, with one notable exception, and standing takes more energy than he would like. Laurent forces himself to walk, though; he makes it to the bathroom with one hand on the wall as he goes, a failsafe more than anything. When he reaches the sink, he grips the white porcelain with both hands and makes himself look at his reflection.

In the mirror, he looks like a stranger. Laurent knows what he looks like while being fucked, after being fucked. He can still feel the roll of camera film between his fingers, and he reaches up to tug at the shortest bit of hair hanging by his face to remind him that he’s here. In the mirror is a stranger, too old to be looking as sex-mussed as he is now, and he watches the stranger breathe.

When he’s satisfied that his breathing is in sync with his reflection’s, perfectly aligned, Laurent looks away. First, he wets his hands and rubs them down his face, followed with the expensive-looking face wash in the cabinet behind the mirror that boasts of a mango scent. It’s never been used, the foil seal still underneath the cap, so Laurent doesn’t feel particularly guilty about it. When the sheen of sweat has been washed off his face and neck, he turns his attention to other matters.

He’s still too sensitive to clean himself off where he needs it the most, but Laurent grabs two of Damen’s towels anyway, one large enough to fit over the inevitable wet spot on the blankets. The other is smaller and softer, and he gives his abdomen and thighs a perfunctory wipe down before filling a glass of water and padding back into the bedroom, where Damen sits on the edge of the bed, still naked, condom nowhere in sight.

“Satisfied?” Damen asks, the smallest hint of a smile on his lips.

“It was...adequate,” Laurent responds, but it’s softer than he intends. He tosses both towels to Damen, puts the water down on Damen’s side of the bed, and watches as he cleans himself off briefly and then drapes the larger towel over the bedding. Damen’s eyes draw him closer, and then they’re both sitting on the bed, Laurent lying himself down gingerly after a moment, aware of the ache blooming in his backside. He sees the vague smugness on Damen’s face, and can’t repress the smile.

“Sore?” Damen asks, like he already knows the answer. Laurent arches a brow.

“You are everywhere in proportion.”

Damen lays himself down beside Laurent, not quite touching, and beams. Laurent can feel his eyes falling heavier, and it’s becoming harder and harder to open them. Damen’s expression softens, and then he’s propped up on his elbow, looking down at Laurent with a terrible fondness.

“You can sleep, Laurent,” Damen says softly. He reaches out to brush the hair off of Laurent’s face, and Laurent lets him.

“It’s barely five.”

“I’ll wake you up for dinner.” Though it’s said with humor, Damen looks—not tired, exactly, but worn. Like he’s shed a layer of himself, and is only now letting out the signs of strain on his face—the lines around his eyes, the faint crease of his forehead. Through the encroaching fog of sleep, Laurent reaches out to place his hand on the scar at Damen’s shoulder, which looks disturbingly like a bullet wound. Damen looks so fond, as his hand finds Laurent’s and squeezes. His other travels up Laurent’s chest, to rest on the scar at his own shoulder, opposite from Damen’s.

This is ridiculous, thinks Laurent. This is dangerous. The sun is still half-setting beyond the curtain, hidden behind the clouds.

He falls asleep anyway.


xix.

Laurent wakes up when light begins to filter through the window, unobscured by the clouds of yesterday’s snowfall. Damen is fast asleep beside him, one arm slung over Laurent’s hip, drooling slightly into his pillow. The cream sheets are stark against the smooth brown of his skin, tangled around his waist. Laurent remembers pulling the blankets up to his chin sometime last night, after they’d woken up to darkness outside the window, after Laurent had settled himself in Damen’s lap and—

Damen shifts slightly, and his hair falls in front of his eyes. One limp curl brushes his nose, and Laurent almost reaches out to push it away. Instead, he sits up; the sheet pools at his hips, skin pale in the morning light, and Laurent looks away from himself. His breaths are tremulous, hard to control. His hands are curled into fists in his lap, nails digging into his palms for some sense of clarity. He can feel Damen still, from the night before; can feel the ache and the leftover slickness and the twisting discomfort that hadn’t come as soon as he had expected. Laurent feels sick.

He had cleaned himself up as best he could last night, but he still feels dirty. Laurent can feel the imprint of Damen’s fingers on his skin, can remember the path his lips had traced along Laurent’s spine as he’d mounted, and it burns to think about. As quietly as he can, Laurent slips out of the bed, pushing Damen’s arm away gently. When he uncurls his fingers, his hands begin to shake.

The spray of the shower is still frigid when Laurent steps beneath it, and he bites back a small noise of shock as the icy water hits him, drenching his hair and shoulders first. There are two towels hanging next to the shower, too full and soft-looking to be anything but new. The bedroom is the only part of Damen’s apartment that looks lived in; the furniture lacks cohesion, the cabinets are half-full, there are few personal decorations. There’s a photograph of Damen with two other men on his bedside table, both older than him. He’s young in the photo, in a graduation cap and gown; the younger of the two men is in full military dress. The oldest, likely their father, bears the most resemblance to Damen, with a graying beard and a dimple deep in his left cheek. Laurent had seen it last night; had stared at it as he’d slipped into an exhausted sleep, only to be woken again hours later.

He wonders if Damen is still close with his brother.

The water heats up quickly, and Laurent reaches indiscriminately for a bottle of shampoo. Uncle had been particular about the products Laurent used in his hair; he’d restocked them every few weeks as they ran out, and had taken pleasure in working the oils and creams into Laurent’s hair himself. Laurent squeezes Damen’s shampoo out into his hand and rubs at his scalp as hard as he can stand, trying to force away the gentle fingers creeping through his hair. He grits his teeth as lather drips from his fingers; he’d used too much shampoo, had poured out enough to wash the no-longer-there hair falling down his spine.

Laurent forces himself to rinse and condition, washing himself only as much as he can stand, and steps out of the shower. His skin erupts in goosebumps, the warm air of Damen’s apartment still cold on his skin. The towel, at least, is as soft as it looks, and Laurent scrubs at his skin until he’s red and raw all over. He can smell Damen’s conditioner on his own hair, and it’s somehow unnerving and comforting at the same time.

Calm down, he repeats in his head, on a loop. He wraps the towel around his waist and stands with his hand on the doorknob. There is nothing to be afraid of waiting for him in the bedroom. No one waiting for him except Damen, harmless and drooling into the pillow.

And not even him, because when Laurent pushes open the door to the bedroom, the bed is empty. There’s an indent in the sheets where Damen had been before Laurent left; when he checks the clock next to Damen’s family photograph, he finds that it’s been almost forty minutes since then. There’s a folded stack of clothes at the foot of the bed, and when Laurent looks closer he finds that they’re his. Everything except his coat and his shoes are folded neatly and waiting for him, and Laurent lets himself relax slightly as he pulls his sweater over his head. It’s easier to face Damen, like this—with some kind of shield between them.

He expects—something. Maybe Damen sitting at the table, waiting for coffee to finish brewing. In an ideal world, maybe Damen cooking something at the stove, ready with a smile. Laurent aches for something like that; soft and domestic, the remnants of a life he’s almost forgotten. Damen seems the type, to make breakfast after nights like this.

Except he isn’t; Damen is standing fully clothed in the kitchen, just past the entrance, his back to Laurent and tense in a way that has Laurent putting up his guard. His jacket, left hanging on a hook yesterday next to Damen’s own, is in one of Damen's hands, the knuckles while.

“Damen,” he says. Damen turns, and Laurent can see what's in his other hand. Laurent’s wallet, opened wide, with his driver’s license displayed clearly on the inside flat.

“Your jacket was on the floor,” says Damen, his voice tight. “Your wallet fell out—I—”

“Damen,” Laurent says, again. He’s reminded, abruptly, of how strong Damen is. How violent he could be, if he tried.

“Laurent.” The disgust hurts more than Laurent had thought it would. “I never even considered.”

Clearly, Laurent wants to say, but he's very aware of Damen in front of him, nearly a foot taller than him and stronger by far. Instead, he waits. Damen's jaw is tight, his whole body poised. Laurent thinks of a predator.

“Get out.” Absurdly, Laurent notices that Damen’s feet are bare beneath the hem of his jeans. His hair is still sticking up in the back, mussed from sleep, but his eyes are dark. His face is set, all hard lines and nothing left of the familiar teasing fondness. Laurent wonders if he’s ever going to see that look on Damen’s face again. Damen takes a step forward, and Laurent has to fight to hold his ground, back to the bedroom. Damen is blocking the only path to the door.

“You don’t understand,” Laurent says. His head is clearer than it was yesterday; it’s easier to pull on his armor like this, voice hard and eyes cold. He’s had enough practice over the years, but it somehow hurts more when he’s facing Damen like this, instead of Uncle’s friends and business partners. Damen’s jaw, firmly set, twitches.

“I understand enough. You lied to me.”

I never lied, Laurent wants to say. He knows, though, that he might as well have. Damen looks disgusted, almost unrecognizable from the man who’d laughed with Laurent underneath him last night, who’d touched him so reverently. Like Laurent was the only person in the world who mattered.

“I’m not like him,” Laurent spits, through gritted teeth. Damen’s eyes widen, and he takes a step back.

“You’re not—you work with children—” He cuts himself off. Laurent chokes back something awful that rises in his throat at the words; something thick and emotional that feels like tears. He thinks of Emily, clutching at his hand on Friday just to find something, anything else to focus on besides Paschal’s gentle fingers.

“I’m not like him,” he repeats, and it comes out unsteady. “Damen, you have to—I’m not—”

“Give me one good reason to believe you.” Damen’s voice is cold. He’s better at this than Laurent expected; his mask, the federal agent with a criminal standing in front of him, transform him into someone unrecognizable.

“The addresses,” Laurent snaps back. Anger is easy, in the moment. Anger can get him through this, if he controls it enough. Damen’s brow furrows, more confusion than rage now. “The bank statements, the trafficking records. No one has access to those papers. You would have never gotten any of it if it weren’t for me.”

“What?” Damen’s anger seems to be ebbing, but Laurent’s is mounting almost out of control—anger that’s directed more at himself than anyone else. Laurent can still feel the remnants of last night, of Damen inside of him and on top of him, and hates himself for letting it happen when he knew that it would have to come down to this. It always would have ended like this, he tells himself.

“I am nothing like him,” Laurent says, words spit out like poison. “If you’ve really been paying attention, then you already know that. But if it helps, I’m the one who left you those documents. I’m the one who risked everything to get them for you. And you, like the great detective you must be, want to stand there and tell me that I’m as bad as he is. You must be so proud of yourself.”

Damen’s face is closing off; as Laurent speaks, his expression smooths into something hard and unreadable, and it frightens Laurent almost more than the anger. He’s breathing hard, now, and his hands feel cold. Anger is exhausting, but Laurent needs it to survive.

“Fine,” Damen says. He sounds colder than Laurent has ever heard him. “Fine, say I believe you. You’re not leaving until you can give me proof, and you’ve told me and my partner everything you know about this. You want to help this investigation?”

Laurent raises an eyebrow, settles his weight on his own bare feet, and jerks a nod.

“Take a seat.” Damen turns away abruptly, tossing Laurent’s coat and wallet back on the kitchen table, and strides past him into the bedroom. Laurent stands in the hallway for a moment, gathering himself, and then takes a seat at the table, covered in papers and folders and notebooks.

The work that Damen has done is impressive. He has names and addresses of clients; records of people in the area busted for child pornography. Another list of some of Uncle’s former political allies, with notes written in a firm hand that Laurent assumes belongs to him. He skims the biography of his Uncle, his own name mentioned only once, and moves on to the international connections that have been detailed in a hefty manilla folder.

Laurent doesn’t know everything about his uncle’s organization. He knows that it’s mainly based in the city, that he’s walked in on Uncle taking conference calls in French and German, and that once a month he goes down personally to the city’s port. It may not be solid evidence, but Laurent has been able to, over the years, draw his own conclusions. He loses himself in Damen’s research until the front door of the apartment bangs open.

“Another tip, Damianos?” A familiar voice calls. Damen’s partner, the one that Laurent had overheard last week. He’s just out of sight, and Laurent hears the door shut and lock behind him. “Not that I don’t appreciate them, but I’m getting a little tired of this. Don’t they know we can do our job by ourselves?”

“Clearly you can’t,” Laurent can’t stop himself from saying as Damen’s partner comes into view. The man stops dead in his tracks, staring at Laurent like he can’t quite place him. His hair and skin are darker than Damen’s, but they share the same long, straight nose and sharp jaw. Laurent smiles as politely as he can from across the room.

“Who are you?” The man asks, a little rudely. From the corner of his eye, Laurent sees Damen emerge from the bedroom, closing the door behind him. He’s showered, Laurent notices, and changed his clothes. He looks professional, not like someone who had fucked Laurent into pieces not eighteen hours earlier. Damen glances between the two of them, face still closed.

“Nikandros, this is—”

“Laurent de Vere,” Laurent says, masked in false cheer. He doesn’t look at Damen, instead waiting for the horror in Nikandros’ eyes, and then the shock. Finally, the suspicion settles over him like a thick layer of clothing, his stance shifting to the offensive.

“What are you doing here.” He spits the words, advancing slowly, and Damen steps between the two of them, one hand out to stop him.

“Nik, he says he’s going to help.”

Nikandros scowls, and snaps something in the language Laurent now recognizes as Greek. Damen’s shoulders square and he replies, measured and calm. Laurent busies himself with spreading out the information on the table, filing each away in his mind while the two men speak tensely over him. Finally, Nikandros throws his hands up.

“I hope you made me coffee,” is all he says in concession, English this time, and sits at the table across from Laurent. “So, Laurent. What exactly are you going to be helping us with?”

Laurent leans back in his chair and smiles, as slow and threatening as he can.


xx.

The three of them talk through the morning and well into the afternoon. Laurent tells them as much as he knows, as much as he can stand. Damen doesn’t look at him. Nikandros takes nothing easily, grilling Laurent over every detail he provides until Damen touches his arm, shoots him a look. They have a language between them that speaks of years of familiarity, and Nikandros backs off slightly.

“What can you tell us about these men?” Nikandros asks, sliding a paper across the table that he’d pulled out of his briefcase moments before. Laurent takes it, letting his eyes scan it briefly.

“That’s Guion. You’ve already arrested him, but he’ll be the hardest to pin down with any official charges. He’s never—indulged in the practice himself, and he does mostly oversight. He keeps his name off of things.” Damen scribbles it all down in a thick leather notebook that has nearly run out of pages, with newspaper clippings and post-it notes taped over on nearly every page.

“Audin and Juerre will be easier. They both use their personal accounts for everything, nothing offshore. He trusts them both, and charges them regularly.” Nikandros shakes his head, disgust evident on his face. Laurent keeps his jaw set, his eyes downcast. It’s easier like this; Damen has barely spoken to him, and even then only to ask the most minimal of questions. He’s angry still, Laurent can tell, so he keeps his head down; he knows when to stop poking at slumbering beasts.

“How do you know all this?” Nikandros asks, not for the first time. Laurent exhales through his nose. Nikandros’ suspicion is unwavering, the only constant of the day.

“I live with him,” Laurent says, not for the first time. “He invites people to the apartment, and men like them like to hear themselves speak.”

It’s only half true. More often, Uncle has conversations with his contacts over the phone, but he rarely says much of importance around Laurent anymore. He’s been able to learn the things he has through careful digging, quiet flattery of the right men in Uncle’s circle when he’s forced to interact with them, and plain eavesdropping. He turns his attention back to Nikandros’ list. When Laurent sees the next name, followed by a grainy mugshot, his breath catches in his throat.

“What is it,” says Damen; something must be showing on Laurent’s face. He schools his features back into neutrality, and places the paper down gently.

“Govart.” The beady eyes, crooked nose, and rotting teeth glare up at him, though the shot can’t be more than four square inches of the page. Laurent’s voice cracks and he clears his throat, stifling the instinct to reach up and touch his right shoulder, the thick scar under his shirt. “If you’re going to stop any of them, make it him.”

“Why?” Asks Nikandros flatly. His face is still hard, but something softens around his eyes. Laurent ignores it.

“Why? Because he’s the worst of them all. A sadist in every sense of the word, a monster in more ways you could imagine.” Laurent pushes down the hysterical urge to laugh. Damen looks like he wants to say something, his brow furrowed, lips parted slightly. He doesn’t get a chance—just a few inches away from his hand, Laurent’s phone starts buzzing.

Laurent reaches to pick it up and freezes when he sees the picture smirking up from the screen. Nikandros cocks an eyebrow.

“Are you going to answer that?” Laurent barely thinks about glaring, and instead numbly swipes his finger across the screen and brings it up to his ear.

“Laurent,” Uncle says, voice stern.

“Uncle,” Laurent replies. Across from him, Damen drops his pen. Nikandros straightens abruptly, his face darkening. “Is everything all right?”

“I could be asking you the same thing. Laurent, I know I may have alarmed you the other day, but that’s no reason to go running off. You know how I feel about spending time with family.” Laurent is going to be sick. Uncle’s warm, smooth voice washes over him, as effective on Laurent even to this day as it is on the boys he lures into the dirty alleyways in the dark of night.

“I’m sorry,” Laurent manages, throat tight. He closes his eyes—he can’t bear to see the look on Damen’s face, not now. “I shouldn’t—it won’t happen again.”

“I know,” Uncle soothes. “I value our time together very much, nephew. You must know that.”

“I do, Uncle.” Laurent feels fingers brush the hand that’s still extended on the table, and he yanks his arm back sharply. He wants to yell at Damen to stop touching him, wants to grab Damen’s hand and lace their fingers together and never let go. Instead, he curls his own fingers into his palm, digging sharp lines into the skin with his nails.

“Good. Now, I know you have work during the week, but I was hoping that we could sit down next weekend, have a proper meal together. An apology of sorts, if you will.” It is not a suggestion. Laurent bites his lip, hard enough to bruise. “Saturday, perhaps? I know how busy your schedule is, but I’m sure you can make arrangements.”

“Of course. I look forward to it.”

“Good.” Uncle sounds pleased.

“Good,” Laurent repeats, and moves to pull the phone away from his ear. He feels sick already, can’t bear to spend another moment in front of Damen and Nikandros.

“Wait,” Uncle says, and the years of conditioning forces Laurent to listen. “Laurent, I know things haven’t been easy for you, these last years. So much loss and pain have been in our lives, but I think that your brother would be proud to see the man you’ve become. I know that I am.”

Laurent has to press a silent hand over his mouth to force back a choked, ugly noise. He swallows the nausea through short, heavy breaths, and keeps his eyes shut tight. Auguste would be proud of him, he thinks. He’d be proud of the things that Laurent has done today, of what he’s helping Damen and Nikandros do. He thinks that if Auguste were alive, he’d be an entirely different person—a little less broken, maybe. A little stronger. But Auguste is gone, his casket buried empty in a plot just outside of the city, and Laurent will never know if he’d be proud of the man he is today. He’s not sure that he wants to.

“My brother is dead,” Laurent says, unwilling or unable to keep the tremor from his voice. He hangs up without giving Uncle the chance to respond. When he opens his eyes, both Damen and Nikandros are staring at him.

“Laurent,” Damen says, voice soft.

“No.” Laurent scrambles for his jacket, standing up just a little too quickly to be dignified. “I’m done for today. I’m leaving.”

Neither of them try to argue as Laurent escapes to the welcoming silence of Jord’s empty apartment.


xxi.

Jord doesn’t come home until late that night. Laurent had left the door to the spare room ajar, to let him know that he was there, and after a few unanswered knocks, Jord leaves him be. Night had fallen outside the room as Laurent lay through the afternoon, curled on his side on top of the covers and trying not to feel hot weight above him.

He has work in the morning but he doesn’t sleep, half-wanting Damen’s arm firm around his waist and half-hating himself for it. Nikandros had left a few hours earlier, the door to Damen’s apartment banging behind him. Laurent doesn’t move through it, though he does close his eyes when Damen knocks on the door. He doesn’t answer, and eventually Damen goes back into his own apartment. Laurent doesn’t sleep, and when the sun cracks through the curtains he finds that his body is stiff and sore enough that climbing out of bed is a chore.

Jord is waiting for him in the kitchen, stirring a pot of oatmeal. Laurent grimaces but gets down a bowl anyway, holding it out when it’s clear that the pot is done.

“Eventful weekend?” Jord asks lightly, spooning probably too much brown sugar into his bowl. Laurent shrugs. He’s still in Saturday’s clothes, rumpled and dirty, and still smells faintly of Damen’s shampoo. “Do I need to go next door and beat anyone up?”

Laurent smiles a little. “No,” he says. “Though I doubt you could.”

This might have normally earned him a nudge in the rib with one of Jord’s abnormally pointy elbows, but Jord has always been good about knowing when Laurent needs not to be touched. Jord’s gaze flicks down to his neck, where a small bruise mars his skin—the aftermath of Damen’s seeming obsession with his neck.

“So that’s from wrestling, is it?” Jord grins at the high flush on Laurent’s cheeks. “That’s what I thought.”

“I didn’t even know you could think,” Laurent snipes back. It’s so wonderfully easy to be around Jord, even after all these years. Maybe because of them. Laurent is no longer the bristly fourteen-year-old he was when Jord found him attempting to bandage the knife wound in his shoulder in the back room of a Walgreen’s. Jord is no longer a slightly apathetic pre-med student struggling to accept himself; he’s grown into his identities and made a career for himself in the time it took Laurent to get a vocational degree. The years have made them better together, Laurent thinks, and can’t help the smile that tugs at his lips.

“Laurent,” Jord says, and he doesn’t say it like he’s disgusted or scared or angry at Laurent for nothing more than who he is. “I really am here for you if you need anything.”

“I know,” Laurent replies, because he does. They’ve been having variations of this conversation for the last five, nearly six years. Jord nods in acceptance, and they finish their breakfast quietly, leaning against the kitchen counter because they’ve both been too lazy to clean off the table. The domesticity is alluring, if transient.

Laurent’s shift starts at eight that morning, and Jord drops him off at St. Jude’s on his way to the main medical center downtown. He’s been urging Laurent to go back to school, get a medical degree, start making a name for himself in the community, but Laurent’s been shrugging him off. He slips into his scrubs in the locker room, checks in with Abel at the front desk, and waits for his first patient of the day to come in.

Two minutes after Laurent has settled himself in, after starting up his computer and clicking through the day’s schedule, Paschal knocks on the fragile wall behind him.

“Oh,” Laurent says, trying not to look startled. “Sorry, I didn’t notice—”

“No worries,” Paschal says, raising his hands in the air. “I just wanted to check in. Make sure you’ve been doing okay.”

“I—” Laurent starts, a little bewildered. “I’m fine—I don’t know what you mean.”

“Of course.” Paschal nods, but his eyes are worried. Laurent is suddenly conscious of the deep bruises under his eyes, the barely-there tremor in his fingers. He clenches them both tightly in his lap. “Laurent, if I’ve been pushing you too hard, don’t be afraid to tell me. You work so hard—none of us would begrudge you the time off.”

“Of course,” Laurent echoes, forcing a small smile onto his face. “But I’m fine. Just a few things going on in the family, that’s all.”

“Well, I hope everything turns out all right.” Paschal smiles, his sun-lined face softening with kindness. Laurent nods, murmurs his thanks. “And I hope your uncle is doing well. Tell him I said hello, would you? I don’t think I’ve seen him in months.”

And all of the warmth is gone. Of course, Uncle had been the reason Laurent had gotten this position in the first place—he’d been roommates with Paschal through university, and they’d kept in contact for years afterward. A few well-placed phone calls, and Laurent had been hired as a nurse at St. Jude’s Pediatric Hospital. As much as Laurent loves his job—loves the children and the emotional reward—it’s hard to forget that he wouldn’t be here without Uncle.

But then again, that can be said for most of his life at the present moment. Laurent remembers Uncle making donations to the hospital during his time on the Council, remembers the warmth of Paschal’s smile and the tremor in his fingers that night years ago—

“Of course,” Laurent says, yet again. “I’m sure he’ll be pleased to hear from you.”

Paschal smiles, rests his hand on Laurent’s shoulder briefly, and then strides back out into the hall. He pauses for a moment outside, turned inwards like he’s going to say something else. Like he’s going to bring up that night that neither of them have mentioned, even after months of working together. Laurent waits and does not say anything, and Paschal turns away with something like shame flickering in his gaze.

Laurent does his best to brush off the encounter, and slips into the skin of someone much friendlier and much less broken when his first patient of the day steps through the door.

Laurent’s shifts are hours long and back-to-back on purpose. He likes the exhaustion when he gets back to a bed or a couch, likes being able to strip off his clothes and fall asleep almost immediately after his head hits the pillows. He’s expecting tonight to be no different, after a quick sit-down Thai meal with Jord, except when they return to the apartment Damen is waiting outside the apartment door.

“Can I talk to you?” He says, eyes on Laurent. “Alone.”

Jord glances between them, and only tugs out his keys when Laurent nods sharply. “I’ll be inside if you need me.”

Damen shuffles his feet until Jord shuts the door behind him. Laurent does nothing, just waits for him to speak.

“I—um. I made dinner,” Damen says, which explains the warm scent of the hallway. “If you’d like to join me.”

“I already ate,” Laurent replies cooly. Damen’s face falls, and he’s either unwilling or unable to stop it. “If that’s all—”

“Laurent.” He wants to turn away, to go back inside Jord’s familiar apartment and spend the evening watching Jord’s favorite telenovelas. But Damen sounds raw, unsure, and all Laurent can do is close his eyes and listen. “I’m sorry, for how I acted the other day.”

“Don’t be,” says Laurent, before he can stop himself. When he opens his eyes again, Damen looks thrown. “Everything—all of it—was a mistake on my part, and I shouldn’t have done it. I knew what I was getting into, and I led you on anyway.”

“But—” Damen fumbles for words. Laurent ignores the throbbing in his chest that warns him against burning this particular bridge.

“It won’t happen again.” Laurent lights the match anyway. Damen clamps his lips shut, into a thin line, and nods.

“Fine.” His voice is harder now. “If that’s how you want it to be, fine. I just thought you should know that Nikandros needs to talk to you again this weekend. To plan.”

“It’s my pleasure,” Laurent says, letting his words run too sweet. It’s almost worth it to see Damen’s flinch. The throbbing doesn’t go away. “Now, if that’s all...?”

“Goodnight, Laurent,” Damen says. He disappears back into his apartment, the lines of his back full of tension, and Laurent watches him go.

He has a feeling that he may have made a mistake.


interlude — auguste

The plane touches down with a sound like thunder, and his knuckles go white on the plastic armrests. The flight attendant in front of him smiles cheerfully, her eyes glancing across his uniform for the sixth time in as many hours. Auguste tries to smile back, but his breath is robbed when the plane hits a bump on the runway and rocks so sharply it steals his breath.

Honorably discharged, they’d told him, and sent him on a plane back home. Auguste had barely had time to process it all—not even a month had passed since they’d been dug out of that hole and transported back to a hospital. Almost a month, and Auguste still isn’t sure that the whole thing is real. That the world, so long stolen from him, has changed this much.

Ten years, they’d told him, and all Auguste could think was that Laurent would be twenty. Laurent, who’d been as high as his waist the last time he’d seen him, with a round scowling face and limbs too long for his body. The plane slows, but Auguste can’t make himself uncurl his hands from the armrests. The stewardess smiles reassuringly at him as she thanks the passengers for their cooperation, and keeps glancing back at him as the plane slowly empties.

“Can I get anything for you, sir?” She asks, when Auguste is the last person onboard. He smiles politely, strained, and declines. They’d sent home his personal items years ago, for the funeral, and so all he has is the small bag with what basic necessities the government had gifted him with.

The airport is chaotic and loud and Auguste doesn’t care where he’s going, as long as it’s out. The air of the city is polluted and bordering foul, but it’s better than inside. He leans against the hard cement wall of the parking garage and inhales fumes from the dusty cabs loitering around the dropoff zone until his head is clear—or as clear as it’s ever going to get. He ducks into a cab, gives the address written on the sheet of paper a woman had given him before he’d left, with his family’s new address printed near the top. From what he can remember, it’s in an entirely different neighborhood from where he and Laurent had grown up, with Uncle in the next house over, and then Uncle in the same house.

He eyes the building warily when the cab drops him off, feeling distinctly out of place in his crisp uniform. It seems uncharacteristic for Uncle, who’d been campaigning for his third term on the city council when Auguste had left. The lobby is dilapidated and the elevator out of service; Auguste forces himself into the cramped staircase with walls closing in on him from all sides and tries not to hyperventilate.

Uncle doesn’t answer the first time Auguste knocks. It occurs to him that Uncle may not be home, but moments after the second round of knocking, the latch on the door clicks and it swings open.

That the years have been kind to Uncle, is the first thing Auguste notices. His face is slightly more worn, the touch of grey at his temples has spread to his beard and the sides of his hair. Uncle smiles, and crow’s feet appear at the corners of his still-kind eyes.

“Auguste,” he says, warm and welcoming. Uncle draws him into a hug, and Auguste rests his head on his shoulder and lets himself breathe.

“Uncle,” he says, equally warm, and doesn’t protest when Uncle pulls away. “It’s been a long time.”

“Too long,” he agrees. “Please, come in. I’ve just finished dinner, but I’m sure I could find something around if you’re hungry.”

“Oh, no,” Auguste protests, even as he follows Uncle inside. The apartment isn’t as bad as he’d feared—it’s nicely furnished, with no odd smells or apparent leaks, though smaller than he’d expected. Maybe even with just a single bedroom. Something is odd about that; Uncle has never been lacking in money, and has never been particularly afraid to show it. Auguste doesn’t have much time to wonder—Uncle sits him down with a warm cup of coffee and begins gathering papers off the table.

“Is Laurent home?” He tries to keep his voice even, but the thought of seeing Laurent now has Auguste’s stomach turning in anticipation. He doesn’t know if he’s ready—doesn’t know if he’ll ever be ready. Uncle’s face tightens, his brow furrowing slightly, and sits opposite of Auguste with his own mug steaming in front of him.

“Laurent is—troubled, these days,” Uncle says. In his worry, his age catches up to him—it’s jarring, for a moment. Auguste has to look away, conscious of the new lines on his own face. “He hardly comes home anymore, and when he does...”

Uncle trails off. There’s a deep frown creasing his brow, and Auguste can’t help the jolt of panic that spikes his pulse. If something has happened to Laurent—

“Is he all right?” He can hardly keep the panic from his voice. Uncle manages a small smile, and reaches to grasp Auguste’s hand reassuringly. The touch is foreign, but Auguste welcomes it anyway.

“He will be,” Uncle says, so calm and assured that Auguste relaxes despite himself. He envies Uncle his stability, envies him the last decade of everything that he missed stuck in a hole in the middle of the desert. “Auguste, I don’t want you to be surprised when you see him. Laurent is—upset, for lack of a better word. He’s a young man, trying to grow into himself, and he might not be as happy to see you as I’m sure you would hope.”

“What?” Auguste asks, thrown. “What do you mean?”

Uncle sighs. “Laurent has spent his entire life living in your shadow, Auguste. He spent his childhood chasing after you, and his adolescence trying to become someone you would be proud of. To se you now, alive and well...it may come as a terrible shock. And as happy as I am—as we both are—I only want what is best for him.”

“You are going to stop me from seeing him?” Anger curdles low in Auguste’s stomach, only to be stamped out by Uncle’s reassurances a few moments later.

“Of course not. I’m just warning you that his reaction may not be what you would expect, or what you may want.”

On the plane, Auguste had not been able to sleep. He’d stared out the window and thought, over and over again, of what he would say to them all—Laurent, Uncle, Paschal, Torveld. The fantasies were never the same—in one, he’d imagined them all meeting him at the airport, Laurent flinging himself into an embrace, Uncle joining them a few moments later. In another, Uncle had sent a driver, as befitting the nephew of a mayor or congressman. In yet another, his parents had been waiting at their old house, risen from the dead as Auguste himself. In all of them, Laurent was the first one he embraced, his braid nearly down to his hips and the top of his head even with Auguste’s own.

In none of them could he picture his little brother’s face.

“Thank you, Uncle,” he says, and takes another long draw of coffee. He can feel the caffeine working through his system already—the doctors had told him to ease back into it, after so long without, but Auguste had found himself incapable of sleep with coffee as the only way to keep him awake and away from the night horrors.

“I want what is best for all of us,” Uncle says, eyes warm.

“I know, Uncle.” He squeezes Uncle’s hand, still warm next to his, and releases it. “I still want to see him.”

“Of course. I’m afraid I don’t have the room here to put you up, but I know several excellent hotels in the area. I’ve scheduled a dinner with Laurent on Saturday—that should be an excellent time for the two of you to get to know each other again.” Suddenly brisk, Uncle pulls out a pad of paper and writes down several addresses in his slanted hand. He folds the paper crisply and hands it over the table to Auguste, who feels hollow in his chest in a way he can’t quite explain.

None of this is what he’d expected.

“Thank you Uncle,” he says, and drains the rest of his coffee. With any luck, he won’t have to sleep long enough tonight to dream. Uncle smiles, walk him to the door, and pulls him into another embrace.

“I’ll see you soon, Auguste,” he says, like he’d said nearly ten years ago when Auguste had left, in a different uniform and with his future ahead of him.

“Don’t make any promises,” he replies. Uncle smiles wryly, then shuts the door behind him. Auguste turns toward the staircase, dreading the trip back down, but something—someone—catches his eye.

A boy no older than fifteen is leaning against the closed door of the next apartment over, a freshly lit cigarette between his lips. The smoke clogs up the windowless hallway in a way that reminds Auguste of his time in training—smoking had been prohibited, but everyone had done it anyway. The boy is staring at him, one eyebrow raised in a way that suggests that he’s already judged Auguste and found him lacking.

“Why do you want to know where Laurent is?” He asks, defensive, and Auguste lowers his age estimate to thirteen at most. His voice, though roughened by the smoke, is still high and young, and Auguste wonders why Uncle lets the boy next door smoke in the building—why the boy’s parents let him smoke at all.

“I’m his brother,” he says, too shocked to say anything but the truth. The boy’s eyes widen fractionally. “Why do you care?”

“His brother’s dead.” It’s said with not enough conviction. The cigarette between the boy’s fingers dangles there, seemingly forgotten. “He would have said something—”

“I’m sorry, I should go,” Auguste says. The evening has put him off balance, clearly, and he needs to drown himself under the spray of a hot shower. He turns away and starts toward the staircase, leaving the boy behind him.

“Wait!” The boy calls, and when Auguste turns he’s at his side, tugging the slip of paper Uncle had given him out of his fingers. “Got a pen?”

Auguste hands his over, from the pocket at his chest, and watches the boy scribble down what seems to be another address. The sleeve of his hoodie rides up, and Auguste has to stop himself from flinching at the purple bruises that circle his slender wrist. He wants to say something, catches himself opening his mouth, and then closes it when the boy glares up at him. The paper and pen are shoved back at him, and Auguste takes them willingly.

“He’ll be there, probably,” the boy says, shrugging. The sweatshirt seems to swallow him whole, making him even smaller-looking than he already is. “Don’t tell him I sent you.”

“What’s your name?” Auguste asks, desperately trying to get some information to pass along. Uncle will help, he thinks. If this boy is being hurt just next door, Uncle couldn’t possibly know about it. The boy just shakes his head, sticks the burning cigarette between his lips again, and disappears into his own apartment.

Auguste hardly even notices the claustrophobic staircase, because Uncle’s next-door neighbor’s bruised wrist is still at the forefront of his mind.

Chapter Text

xxii.

“If I didn’t know better,” Vannes points out, twenty minutes after she’d practically manhandled Laurent out of his scrubs and into the backseat of the taxi she had called to take them downtown. “I’d say you were avoiding me.”

“I don’t know what would give you that impression,” Laurent replies. He’s too exhausted to think of much else, glaring down at the glass of water resting in front of him, the empty glass at the edge of the table that Vannes has already managed to empty. They’re at the bar just in front of her apartment, which is less crowded than it could be on a Tuesday night. If given the choice, though, Laurent would still rather be anywhere else. Vannes laughs a little, and nudges his foot with hers underneath the table.

“Seriously. I know we’re both really busy, but I’ll always make time for you.” Her speech is precise, and filtered with emotion that she might have hidden had she been completely sober. Vannes reaches across the table for his hand, and Laurent edges his own just out of reach, ignoring the slight hurt on her face. His skin feels electric—if anyone touches him right now, he thinks he may lose all semblance of control. He blinks, and tries to ignore the memory of Damen’s hand warm on his waist, their fingers laced together. Damen’s lips, gentle on his wrists.

“I know,” he manages, and takes a drink of water. Laurent is bone-tired, aching and weary and ready to collapse back into the welcome comfort of Jord’s bed. “I think I’m just getting tired of bouncing between you and Jord.”

She grins. “I know the divorce was hard on you, but can’t you pretend at least a little bit to love me more?”

“I can’t believe everyone in this family is gay,” Laurent comments, and she beams at him. “No wonder that marriage didn’t work out.”

“He’s a little old for me,” Vannes admits teasingly, and Laurent very firmly doesn’t think about it. “But really, Laurent, you know I’m here for you.”

He knows. Vannes has been a constant in his life for as long as Jord has; longer, even. If he were to exclude Auguste, then Vannes was his first real friend that he can remember, after being ostracized by many of his own peers for years before they had met.

“And I’m here for you.” Vannes, however, has always been remarkably well-adjusted; her family isn’t perfect, and Laurent knows how much cabbing takes out of her sometimes, but she always manages to find a healthy balance in a way that’s always seemed a little foreign to him. Her smile is bright enough that Laurent lets himself relax a little, even if he knows that it’s at least partially because she’s well on her way to inebriation. “Shouldn’t you be getting drunk with someone else? Like your girlfriend?”

Vannes’ grin doesn’t waver even as she takes another drink and waves her free hand aimlessly in the air in front of her face.

“Mm—she’s fine. Had a late class, I think. She’ll come over later tonight, so I can—”

“Stop there,” Laurent says, and he can’t hide the laughter in his voice.

“What, just because you’re frigid now I have to be too?” Laurent rolls his eyes, and taps his fingernails against his water glass.

“I’m not frigid.” It’s become a common saying, among his school friends. Orlant thinks that he’s a machine; Vannes thinks he’s sensitive. It’s not like she’s wrong, about that part. She cocks an eyebrow at him and takes another drink of her (disgusting, overpriced) beer. It’s the look on her face, smug and teasing, that makes Laurent say what he does next. “I have had sex, you know.”

It’s self destructive, and impulsive, but it’s worth it when Vannes stifles a spit-take and ends up choking on her drink. Two minutes of coughing and frantic heaving later, she levels him with a look of exaggerated betrayal.

“You what?”

“You heard me,” Laurent says, and smiles placidly back at her. “Just a few days ago, actually.”

For a split second, Laurent actually thinks that Vannes is going to lunge across the table and murder him. Her face is bright red, her dark eyes as wide as they can go. Instead, she seems to get herself under control, despite a few more tiny coughs to dispel the last of the alcohol stuck in her throat.

“Are you going to tell me?” She asks, and Laurent thinks that if he declines, she might go back on her decision not to murder him. He pretends to think for a moment, one finger resting lightly at his chin, and then shrugs.

“There’s not much to tell. You would hate him—he’s all muscle and testosterone. Very manly.”

“Yeah, okay, what was his name?” She’s seconds away from kicking him under the table, probably. “What is he like, when did you meet him, what did you do?”

Laurent pauses. If he tells her to back off, she will, but—he hasn’t talked about it with Jord much. A lot of things go unsaid between them and that’s just how Laurent likes it, but sometimes Vannes’ affinity for talk can be almost cathartic. “His name is Damen. It was—good, mostly. But it won’t happen again.”

He gives something away with that, he knows. Vannes’ expression softens, and she pushes her drink away.

“Was he a jerk? Do I have to dump his body into the port after Jord murders him?”

“No, he—he wasn’t a jerk.” And he wasn’t; he was so gentle. He was so gentle. “It was just. A mistake, that’s all.”

“Oh, Laurent,” Vannes says, and now she does reach across the table, taking Laurent’s cool hands in one of her own. Her nails are blunt and short, painted a deep gold that brings out the warm tones of her skin. “I’m so sorry. If you weren’t ready—”

“I was,” he interrupts, and then shakes his head. “I thought I was.”

She doesn’t say anything, not for a long moment in which all Laurent can do is let his hand be held, let her be there for him like he likes to pretend he doesn’t need. In the moment, with Damen’s lips on his neck, it had seemed okay. It had been what he had wanted; what he still wants, despite everything. He had liked it, and he had wanted it, and yet—he still can’t shake that familiar, gut shame that has settled in over the last few days.

I’d like to keep you like this forever, Uncle had said to him, once. Laurent thinks that maybe, Uncle hadn’t had to. Laurent had done it to himself.

“Hey,” Vannes says, quietly. “My car’s in the parking lot. Want to drive me home?”

He doesn’t know how long they’ve been sitting there. The sky is dark, the dim light of the near-empty bar reflecting off the smooth black of Vannes’ hair, pulled back into a loose braid. Laurent takes a deep breath, and uses his free hand to push a strand of hair back from his forehead. She hands him her keys, and he takes them just to feel the cool metal in the palm of his hand.

“Okay,” he says, like he’s trying to convince himself of something. “Okay.”

He takes a late train back to Jord’s apartment, after driving her home, and stares blankly at his reflection in the dark window until he has to get up, and walk himself into a fitful sleep in Jord’s spare bedroom.


xxiii.

Laurent wakes to Jord rapping on his door, and groans under his breath when he sees that it’s barely eight—he could have slept for another hour at least. Jord barely pauses before swinging open the bedroom door, catching Laurent mid-stretch. The look on his face is pinched, and Laurent rubs at his eyes, suddenly alert.

“What?” He asks. Jord doesn’t even bother claiming that nothing’s wrong. His lips are pressed together tightly, and his eyes dart around before finally settling on Laurent’s face.

“There’s someone at the door for you.” Laurent’s blood freezes in his veins. He doesn’t let anything show on his face, but Jord notices anyway. “He said you’d know him, that your uncle told him not to come.”

Nicaise. Laurent is up and out of bed in a moment, hardly even bothering to run a hand through his hair. Jord steps back, then disappears into his bedroom. Laurent is absurdly grateful for him in that brief moment as he pads through the apartment, the hard wood cold on his feet. Something in his stomach is fluttering—nerves or fear or relief, maybe, that Nicaise is here. Maybe a mixture of all three.

“Nicaise—” he begins, tugging open the apartment door, and stops in his tracks.

The man at the door is not Nicaise.

The first, instinctive words out of Laurent’s mouth are: “You’re dead.” The step back is involuntary, and Laurent’s hand falls from the doorknob.

“Laurent,” says Auguste, like Laurent hadn’t buried him ten years ago. Like he stands in Jord’s hallway, wearing new jeans and a too-stiff jacket, every morning; like Laurent hasn’t been mourning him since childhood.

“You’re dead,” repeats Laurent, because if there has been one constant in his life over the last decade, it has been that Auguste is never coming back.

And yet here he is, not four feet away.

“Laurent, did you—did Uncle not tell you?” Auguste’s brow creases, lines in his face that Laurent had never known existed springing up in places he wouldn’t expect. In all his dreams, all his fantasies of this very moment, Auguste had never aged past twenty-one.

“Tell me what?” Laurent says, hyper-aware of the high, incredulous pitch of his voice. “That I would be getting a visit from—” my brother “—you, who has been dead since I was a child?”

“Not dead,” Auguste corrects softly. Laurent takes another step back. His heart is beating wildly in his chest, his breaths coming quick and short. He tries to get himself under control, and finds that he can’t. It only sends his head spinning higher, unaided by the lack of oxygen in his system. Laurent thinks that passing out might be easier than having to look Auguste in the face again.

“Missing in action,” Laurent says on a sharp exhale. Auguste nods, his hands shoved in his pocket like he’s trying to stop himself from reaching out. The part of Laurent that is still nine, ten, eleven wants to let him, wants to be the one to draw him into an embrace. The part of him that is still clinging desperately to the slim hope that he’s still dreaming warns him to stay back, to not let himself believe this.

“Laurent,” Auguste says again, achingly tender. This time, his hand does reach out, and Laurent pulls himself away, stifling a violent flinch.

“It’s been ten years,” he says, looking ever so slightly to Auguste’s left. It’s better than seeing the awful look on his face.

“I know.” Both their voices are raw and shaking—Laurent’s hands at his side are trembling hard enough that he can feel it throughout his entire body. He doesn’t want to believe what he’s seeing, doesn’t want to let himself think this through, but as the seconds tick by it’s harder and harder to convince himself that his brother isn’t real.

“Auguste,” he says, for the first time in years. Tears sting at his eyes, his breath goes shallow. Laurent can’t think, can’t will his body back under control. It reminds him viscerally of the last time he’d felt like this, terrified and shaking and calling out for his uncle and his father and Auguste. He tries to inhale but the breath gets stuck in his throat. “Where have you been?”

“I can’t tell you,” Auguste says, desperately, and Laurent can see how much effort it’s taking him not to step forward. “But it wasn’t by choice, I promise.”

With every breath Laurent takes he finds himself shaking harder, more and more convinced that he feels strong hands wrapped around his wrists, thin and young like they haven’t been since childhood. Auguste takes a step forward, barely into the apartment, and this time Laurent can’t even start to hold back the flinch, sharp and sudden, and his back hits the wall of Jord’s hallway and suddenly Laurent is gone.

He can hear Auguste’s voice, frantic yet muffled and quickly joined by Jord, but part of him is back in the dark hotel room with a knife in his shoulder and a voice growling in his ear call for your brother all you want, pretty boy. Laurent chokes back his screams when he feels hands on him, but it’s only Jord, who puts himself bodily between Laurent and Auguste, forcing Laurent’s gaze to rest on him.

“Laurent,” he says, forceful. It pushes through the fog in Laurent’s brain, and he holds onto it tightly, keeping his eyes fixed on Jord’s. “Laurent, look at me. You’re okay.”

“What’s going on?” Auguste asks from behind him, but they both ignore him. Laurent feels his chest heaving, loosening as he gulps in air. He keeps his palms flat on the wall behind him until he has enough presence to ball them into fists, then raps twice, hard, on the plaster wall.

It had been sort of a code that he had developed with Jord years ago, just a few months after they’d met. It was meant more as a way for him to ask for help without opening his mouth, at first. Laurent would knock twice on the nearest hard surface when he needed a steadying hand, or a few comforting words, or even a brief moment of physical contact. In time, it had evolved into more of a simple reassurance—a statement of I exist, I’m okay. Laurent would knock twice as he climbed into Jord’s car after a long week, as he shut the door to the guest room behind him, as he watched Jord make breakfast, and Jord would always knock back.

When Nicaise had moved into the apartment next door, he and Laurent had taken it up seamlessly. At the time, it seemed the only reassurance that Nicaise had, and so it had phased out of use in Jord’s apartment. Now, though, Jord just frowns, concern creasing his brow, and raps his own knuckles against the wall.

“You need to go,” Jord says, turning to Auguste. Laurent almost wants to stop him, wants to reach out and grab his brother and pull him in tight, but instead he watches Auguste turn, reluctant, towards the door. The ache in his chest is a physical pang, and it persists long after Auguste has left.

“I thought your brother was dead,” says Jord, once he’s helped Laurent back into his room, a hand out to brace him as he walked on shaking legs. Laurent collapses back into his bed, which he’d vacated not ten minutes before. It seems like an eternity has passed, and suddenly Laurent is exhausted.

“So did I,” he says. Jord’s just looking at him, pity and empathy warring in his eyes. Laurent can’t bear it, so he rolls himself back onto his side, facing away from the door and from Jord perched on the end of his bed. Jord pats the mattress twice, but Laurent just drags the covers up and over him, only half-present.

“I’ll call in sick for you,” Jord says finally, and heaves himself up with a sigh. Laurent’s eyes are slipping shut again, more out of habit than an actual need for sleep. His heart is still pounding, he’s the furthest thing from tired imaginable, but he still finds himself succumbing to unconsciousness.

Laurent dreams.


 

interlude—six years ago

The hotel Chastillon is large and grand, with worn yet elegant brick constructs and elegant stone carvings. Laurent is captivated by the gargoyles on the top, staring down at them with their grotesque faces as he crosses the street with his hand clasped tightly in Uncle’s. Years later he’d remember it, the grand arches and waving violet banners.

“Where are we going?” He asks Uncle, trying to make his voice sound deeper, older. He doesn’t want Uncle to look down on him for his youth, though sometimes he forgets that there’s such a disparity between their ages. Uncle makes him feel older, and wise beyond his years.

“I have business here, Laurent,” Uncle says. “We’ll be staying the night. I thought that you would enjoy the treat.”

“Thank you, Uncle.” He’s always so considerate.

The foyer is just as resplendent, and Uncle lets Laurent wander by himself while he checks in and meets some men by the bar. They talk merrily for a while, until Uncle gestures Laurent over. He introduces him to the smiling men, all of whom eye Laurent in a way that reminds him of Uncle, when they’re alone together. He’s not sure he likes it as much, though, and he’s glad when Uncle lets him go back to the soft sofas, where he settles in with the book that Uncle had told him to bring under his arm.

The afternoon is lazy, and when Laurent grows bored of his book he runs around, exploring the lobby and the dining rooms and even the grand ballroom, which is empty enough that Laurent can run through it, dodging the furniture expertly with his braid bouncing across his back, and when he twists around a long table he catches a glimpse of it and mistakes it for Auguste, running behind him and laughing as he makes chase.

Laurent stops running after that. He reaches behind him and tugs at the long braid down his back and fiddles with the tip as he walks back to where Uncle and his friends are talking at one of the tables in the lobby. He wants to climb on Uncle’s lap, like he always does whenever he remembers—for a brief, blinding moment—that Auguste isn’t coming back. But the men are looking at him like they’re waiting for him to do something wrong, like they’ll all go in for the kill the moment he lets his guard down, so Laurent slips onto a tall chair at the end of the table with only minimal struggling and opens his book again. He doesn’t pay attention to what Uncle is talking about, but every once in a while Uncle will reach over and play with his hair, like Laurent has done something good.

By the time night falls, Laurent is nearly finished with his book. Uncle’s conversation is winding down too, and his hand has been resting on Laurent’s thigh for the last twenty minutes. He wants to shrug it off, but Uncle’s grip is almost bruising. It hurts, but Laurent knows better to wiggle away. And besides, the man with the crooked teeth and squashed nose has been looking at him every time Laurent has checked, and he doesn’t want to draw more attention to himself.

“Laurent, would you like to see our room?” Uncle says softly, under the watchful eyes of his associates. Laurent nods, keeping his eyes away from the burly, ugly man who keeps staring at him. He stands when Uncle bids him to, and follows him to the elevator. Even that is fancy, and Laurent can barely tear his eyes away from the three mirrored walls. From one angle, he can see Uncle’s hand on the small of his back, just barely pushing up the thick wool of his sweater. From another, he can see his own face, his eyes wider than he’d thought they’d be. Laurent doesn’t look at himself much, these days. He keeps his hair out of his face, because he doesn’t want to remember.

Sometimes, he has nightmares about the funeral. He dreams that the casket is open, that Auguste is lying there with rotting cheeks and bugs crawling through holes in his skin, and he wakes up shaking and screaming tight in Uncle’s arms. Sometimes he dreams of visiting the grave and the empty casket only to find Auguste lying on the ground in front of the headstone, his army uniform red and bloody all over, his blue eyes wide and empty.

He wonders if the nightmares would have been better or worse, if they’d had a body to bury. Auguste was only supposed to be abroad for two years, but he’d gone missing in action barely a year into the tour. Every day, Laurent had rushed home from school, hoping to hear that there had been a phone call, that Auguste had been found.

It never came.

Laurent lets himself be led by Uncle’s hand on his skin, a quiet yet forceful propulsion that Laurent couldn’t escape even if he wanted to. It’s a loving touch, one that Uncle often bestows upon him. The hotel room is beautiful; the suite contains a sitting room, a bathroom, and a closed-off bedroom with a single king bed in the middle, piled high with pillows and blankets. Looking at the bed makes Laurent’s stomach turn in what he’s sure is excitement, but he can’t make himself cross the room to touch it.

“Isn’t it beautiful, nephew?” Uncle says.

He knows that Laurent hates it when he calls him that. He doesn’t like the reminder.

“Yes, Uncle.” He expects to be led to the bed, for Uncles warm fingers at his back to trace slightly lower, but it never comes. Instead, Laurent finds himself settled into a too-large armchair, his feet swinging above the ground by at least an inch, with Uncle sat at the desk in the corner of the room. He does appear to be doing business, with papers strewn across the desk in front of him. Laurent watches him, over the top of his book, attempting subtlety.

Uncle is poised in his chair, relaxed without slouching. Laurent tries to arrange his limbs in a careful imitation, searching for that careful mix of elegance and ease that Uncle has perfected so effortlessly. They don’t look much alike—Laurent’s hair is too bright, his limbs too lithe and awkward to perfectly achieve Uncle’s balance. But he does what he can, in the hopes that when Uncle looks over at him, as he always does, he’ll be pleased with what he sees.

Not an hour after drinking the tea Uncle had passed him, one hand resting lovingly on Laurent’s shoulder, Laurent’s eyelids start to droop. His grip on the book in his lap stars to weaken; when he tries to turn the page, his fingers can’t quite get the movement right. He must—he must be tired. He looks up, vision blurring slightly, and sees Uncle watching him quietly, fingers steepled and brow creased.

“Laurent, what’s the matter?” He asks. He sounds as sincere as he ever does, and Laurent feels himself sink a little farther into the lush cushions of the armchair.

“Uncle,” he says. It’s hard to keep the panic at bay, but—Uncle is here. Laurent is just tired. Uncle stands, and walks over to Laurent’s chair, and pulls Laurent to his feet, one hand pressed gently to his forehead. The movement makes Laurent’s head spin. “I don’t feel good.”

“You’re running a fever,” Uncle murmurs, but he doesn’t sound as worried as Laurent thinks he should. Laurent doesn’t feel as hot as he thinks he should, if he were sick. He’s just. His blinking is getting slower, and it’s fine. Uncle’s arm is wrapped around his shoulder, Uncle is leading him to the bed, Uncle is pressing him down into the too-soft mattress that’s nothing like the one they have back at the apartment that Laurent thinks he hates.

“Uncle,” he repeats, a little more desperately. He grasps at the front of Uncle’s shirt, trying to—he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know what’s going on. But Uncle would never hurt him, he loves him, so—

“Shh,” Uncle replies, and takes Laurent’s wrist. Laurent feels the bed dip, and Uncle’s face is blurry above his.

He’s just tired, Laurent thinks desperately, fighting to keep his eyes open. He’s just—it’s not—

He closes his eyes.

Laurent wakes up to darkness. He peels his eyes open, sticky with sleep, and immediately feels the ache in his body that he’s grown to know means only one thing. His heart is pounding loud in his ears, and he can’t remember—he can’t remember.

It takes all of his energy to inch one hand over, and over, until he’s finally reassured that the cold bed next to him is empty. He’s underneath the covers, alone, with the remnants of Uncle on his body, and Laurent has to fight back tears and the sudden desire to scream into his pillow. Instead, he grits his teeth and tries to think back. Maybe he had gone to sleep and Uncle had woken him up later in the night, and that’s why he doesn’t remember. Maybe—maybe he had fallen asleep during, and that’s why everything seems to hurt so much more this time. Maybe.

Laurent pushes himself up onto one elbow, and the nightshirt he hadn’t put on slips off of his shoulder. He doesn’t think he’s wearing anything else. Somehow, in a feat of will that almost exhausts him, Laurent stands up. He reaches with blind, shaking hands, to find the lamp next to the bed, and turns it on to see his clothes tossed haphazardly across the chair he’d been reading in, earlier.

He grits his teeth against the ache, and pulls on each article of clothing one by one, leaving Uncle’s oversized shirt discarded on the floor. Sitting to pull on his shoed hurts, but he forces himself to do it anyway.

The only thing Laurent knows for sure is that he has to leave. He has to get out of this awful hotel, before Uncle comes back. He doesn’t know where he’ll go—back to the old house? Where Auguste had taught him to bake and Father had read to him before bed, where a new family lives now? He could go to Vannes’ house, but—then he’d have to tell her. If not all of it, then some of it.

Laurent shakes his head, and finishes tying his shoe. Even if he just takes a walk, to the park near the freeway maybe, and comes back, that will be enough. He just needs to clear his head.

He turns off the lamp, lets his eyes get used to the darkness, and starts to make his way though the suite. He fumbles slightly with the doorknob and steps out into the sitting room, and squints in the darkness to get to the entrance without bumping into anything. Laurent doesn’t know what time it is, but the hour seems late enough that the hotel is silent. He grips the doorknob firmly, his skin almost as cold as the brass, and steps out of the hotel room.

And walks into the path of the man with the ugly, bent nose, who had been sitting with Uncle downstairs. His face is illuminated by the soft light of the hallway, his teeth yellow and crooked as he smiles down at Laurent. The door of the room closes behind him, and Laurent can feel his rabbit-fast pulse against the inside of his wrist.

“Hello, Princess,” the man croons, voice sour and dripping contempt. He reaches behind him—Laurent can hear the sound of what that sounds like metal sliding across something hard—and takes a step forward to crowd Laurent against the wall. Laurent reaches out to push at him and the man grabs his wrist with a meaty hand, pressing him further back until Laurent hits the plaster.

“Where you going, hmm?” He asks, and suddenly Laurent forgets how to breathe because the man has a knife, and the sharp blade is digging into the side of his neck, and it hurts. “Trying to make a run for it? We all know how much the boss hates it when his little birds try to leave the nest too early, though.”

“I wasn’t—” Laurent gasps. The man crowds in closer, and Laurent can smell his foul breath. He closes his eyes, like that will make everything go away, like he’l be able to wake up in his bed at home with Auguste there to smooth the sweat away from his brow and reassure him that it was just a dream, nothing but a dream.

“I guess it’s up to me to teach you a little lesson, princess,” the man croons at him, and then Laurent feels a hot, wet tongue against the side of his face, and he lashes out without even thinking about it.

His elbow hits the man’s already broken nose, and the man swears loudly, and he lunges, and then there’s a pain in Laurent’s shoulder so blinding that he staggers to his knees, without anything left to hold him up.

It hurts, and Laurent can’t breathe through it, and he manages to look up and see the man standing above him, blood trickling down the hand clapped to his nose and face darkened in rage. He shifts his leg, moving as if to kick Laurent down completely, and every hint of rational thought has left Laurent’s head. He scrambles back, crying out when he tries to put pressure on the arm with the knife stuck in it, and Laurent pushes himself up even though it hurts so much that his vision has almost whited out.

“Get back here, you—” The man growls, nasal and enraged, but Laurent doesn’t stick around to hear the rest of it.

With a knife in his shoulder and blood staining the front of his shirt, Laurent runs.


xxiv.

Laurent wakes up screaming. There’s something tight around his neck, he can’t breathe, so he thrashes until he’s awake enough to realize that he’s managed to tangle himself up in his sheets. He scrambles out of bed, his heart pounding tight in his chest, and just stands for a moment, letting himself regain his breath.

It’s been so long since he’d had dreams like that. Laurent used to wake up in the middle of the night, shaking and scared and as far away from Uncle as he could get in the queen sized bed every other night, until he’d stopped sleeping altogether for almost a week, less than three years ago. Now, when he has nightmares, they’re less vivid. Laurent will wake on Vannes’ couch or in Jord’s spare room with a vague sense of dread and nausea, sometimes phantom aches from years-old scars, ghostly fingers trailing across his thighs. Everything is echoed and blurry inside his brain, and Laurent has to blink at the wall opposite him before he stops seeing the gilded wallpaper of a hotel room he hasn’t been to in years. When his gaze refocuses, the dim light of late afternoon is filtering through the curtains, and Laurent realizes with another sickening jolt of his stomach that he’s slept all day.

Nothing quite seems real; the light makes the room seem hazy, and when Laurent looks down at his hands they seem smudged and false. He blinks rapidly, until he can see them clearly enough to make out the faint tremor. Then, he clenches his fists until his knuckles are white and the tremor is nearly gone.

The apartment is empty. Laurent doesn’t know why he thought it might be otherwise—there’s no reason for anyone to be here. Not even him. He wanders around like a ghost, feeling hollow inside as he traces the walls of the apartment with his fingertips, mapping the perimeter over and over until he’s walked nearly a dozen circles inside Jord’s apartment. It is half a reminder of where he is, half a reminder of where he is not. Laurent could trace the layout of the suite at Chastillon with his eyes closed, could walk the outline of Uncle’s apartment blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back. Jord’s apartment is familiar, but Laurent memorizes every room and cupboard and crack in the plaster until it’s all he can see when he closes his eyes, instead of thick hotel bedding and varnished bedposts.

Of course, that’s when someone knocks on the door.

It takes Laurent nearly three minutes to answer it. He knows because he’s counting, still not quite himself enough to think coherently. As he reaches for the doorknob, he shakes a phantom hand off of his wrist, and comes face to face with Damen, slouching on the other side of the door.

“What are you doing here,” Laurent says, flat. He knows how he must look—hair disheveled, still in last night’s shirt and sweats. Knowing him, there are probably bags under his eyes the size of bruises. Damen must have heard him when he woke.

“I just—” Damen starts, then runs a hand through his hair. He looks a little frustrated, at himself maybe, but Laurent is too tired to call him on it. “Are you doing okay?”

Laurent is also too tired to lie. “My brother has risen from the grave after ten years, Damianos. I think I’m entitled to not be doing okay.”

“What?” And, of course, Damen hadn’t known. Laurent feels his lip curl back in a sneer.

“That’s right. In all your meticulous observation and research, you and your partner managed to somehow look over the fact that my brother has been in the city, has been to see my uncle, and is in fact incredibly alive.” He can see the hurt in Damen’s gaze, and Laurent tries to make himself not care. It doesn’t work as well as he’d hoped, though, and he finds himself reaching out before Damen can turn away. He doesn’t touch, just makes a quickly aborted movement that may have ended with his fingers wrapped around Damen’s forearm, if Laurent had let it play out.

“I’m sorry,” Damen says, his eyes wide and earnest. Laurent curses himself silently. This is what he’d gotten himself into, and the only thing he can blame it on is Damen’s stupid dimples and his own self-destructive tendencies.

“Don’t be,” he replies, against his better judgement. “I can’t—I shouldn’t—”

“Laurent.” Damen cuts him off gently. “Don’t apologize to me.”

“Why not?” Sharper than he meant; Laurent thinks he might be losing his grasp on reality. Evidently Damen can see it too, because he takes a step closer, not enough that Laurent feels crowded. Even though Damen is now markedly closer, and he can almost feel the warm, soft skin under his fingers, Laurent holds himself back.

He can still feel hands ringing his throat, callused fingers gripping him too tightly to breathe.

“None of this is your fault,” Damen says.

“Shut up.”

“No.” He’s so—stubborn, Laurent thinks is the word, but he wants to call it good. “Laurent, you’ve done everything you can. Anyone in your situation would feel the same way.”

“You don’t know anything about what I’m feeling,” Laurent bites back, finally. He wants to let his shoulders slump, wants to bury his head in his hands and just go back to sleep, but Damen is watching him so carefully that Laurent also sort of wants to let himself be wrapped in a hug or a blanket and taken care of for a few hours.

Maybe he should go to Vannes again. He briefly entertains the idea, and then discards it. She would have too many questions, and almost always has someone else puttering around her apartment for one reason or another.

“Laurent,” Damen says, voice achingly soft, and Laurent feels himself crumbling. Tears sting at his eyes and he pretends that they don’t exist. He fixes his eyes on Damen’s shoulder, where he knows there to be a scar that mirrors his own, in the shape of a starburst. His pulse is slowing but his palms still sting where he’s digging his nails into the flesh there, hoping that it will wake him from the horrible numbness that’s settled over his brain like a fog.

“Damianos.” His voice is brittle. It’s probably on purpose.

“Do you want to come over?” Laurent blinks.

“I’m not in the mood to get interrogated, in case you hadn’t noticed,” he says, sharp. Damen shifts slightly, and then Laurent is stuck staring at the hollow of his throat, the dip between his collarbones. There’s a few freckles there, nearly faded into brown skin. He wants to stop looking, but can’t quite make himself.

“That’s not what I mean,” Damen says. Laurent doesn’t look at his face, but he can see the way Damen shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans, his shoulders rolling back in an agitated movement. Watching him makes Laurent feel a little more awake, a little more human. Laurent is barefoot, wearing thin clothing in the chilled air of late November, and he feels like were he outside, he’d be blown away on the slightest breeze. In just the last week and a half, Damen has cemented himself in Laurent’s life, has added himself to the brick wall that he’s been slowly building in his mind.

“What did you mean, then?” Laurent asks. Without waiting for an answer, he shuts the door to Jord’s apartment behind him and leans against it. He finally lets himself look Damen in the eye again, and is rewarded with a smile. It’s soft, but still brilliant. Laurent idly curses Damen’s dimple again, mostly halfheartedly.

“Have you ever tried Greek food?”


xxv.

It turns out that Damen is an excellent cook. He lobs a pair of rolled socks at Laurent when they enter his apartment, and then Damen sits him down at the kitchen table and walks him through the process of making lentil soup and some kind of macaroni. Laurent sits at the table and watches Damen move in the kitchen, paying less attention to his words and more attention to his obvious ease in his surroundings. It’s easy enough not to think about anything heavy while Damen’s talking—the conversation is light and sparse, and sometimes when Damen is looking at the cracked recipe book laid out on the counter, his sentences trail off into mumbled Greek.

“Could you teach me a few words?” Laurent finds himself asking, when this happens for the third time. Damen pauses over the stove, his eyes bright. He beams at Laurent, then finishes adding some more spices to the soup.

“Really?” Damen sounds cheerful, and when they’d first entered the apartment Laurent knew that it had been faked for his benefit. Now, both of their smiles are genuine and Laurent finds himself moving, up from the kitchen table to perch on the far end of the counter, next to the recipe book. His feet swing inches above the ground, his heels tapping gently at the drawers behind them. From up here, he can look Damen in the eye head-on.

“Χαίρετε,” Damen says, his eyes soft as he stops in front of Laurent.

“Bonjour,” Laurent replies wryly. Damen’s smile is almost addicting.

“You know French?” Damen sounds delighted. He leans against the wall next to Laurent, and brings their faces inches apart. Laurent is hyperaware of every breath Damen takes, every flicker of his eyes, but finds himself oddly relaxed. Like he trusts Damen not to hurt him.

“My family spoke it, when I was young.” Not anymore. It’s unsaid, hanging in the space between them.

“If you ever need to practice,” Damen starts, letting the sentence complete itself. Laurent feels his lips twist up in a mockery of a smile, and he looks down, towards the floor. Everything is complicated, everything is spinning out of control and he doesn’t know what to do about it, especially with Damen in the kitchen wearing a stupid apron and with a few herbs stuck in his hair where he’d run it through with his hands. He wants this to be simple, but of course it can’t be. It hardly matters what he wants, anyway.

“I think I’d prefer learning something new.” Damen’s eyes dart, just for a moment, towards Laurent’s lips. Their faces are still close, their bodies angled slightly towards each other, their breaths mingling in the cool air between them. Laurent thinks that maybe he can feel Damen’s warmth between them.

It almost happens. Laurent sees Damen leaning forward, holds his blink for just a moment too long, and then their arms brush ever so slightly. Laurent jerks away, feeling much more awake. Damen doesn’t look confused, or hurt. Just resigned, and maybe a little sad.

“You should—the food,” Laurent manages, looking away.

“Right,” Damen says, and then he’s gone, out of Laurent’s space.

His heart is beating too fast again, and Laurent feels the heat of color in his cheeks when Damen glances his way again. He feels almost shy, which is ridiculous. Laurent of all people has no reason to be shy.

“Has anyone ever taught you to cook?” Damen asks, finally. He places the lid on the soup and shuts the oven door on his pasta dish, then heads to the sink to wash his hands. Laurent swallows back the memories of Auguste’s hands on his, guiding them into the dough and kneading with him.

“Not really,” he says, forcing himself to sound relaxed. It’s not exactly a lie—Auguste had never cooked, had instead filled their old house with the aromas of pies and cakes and brownies and whatever other recipes he could get his hands on. He looks away from Damen, standing at the sink, and back towards the living room. The only light outside of the kitchen is filtering through the window, the snow falling outside making the apartment look dim and gloomy. In the kitchen, the single bulb in the center casts golden light on Damen’s face, oddly shaped shadows cast around the room.

“Come here,” Damen says, and it doesn’t sound like a command. Laurent slips off of the counter, feels his feet, warm in borrowed socks, hit the cool floor. Damen takes his hand in his, and Laurent is standing at the counter with Damen’s hand on his, guiding it as they chop a tomato in tandem, Damen’s breath warm on the back of his neck, Damen’s other arm wrapped softly around his waist.

Laurent lets himself breathe in the spiced scent of Damen’s shampoo, lets Damen’s body warm his own, lets himself exist in this one moment without anything tying him to Uncle or Auguste or anything else. In this one moment, he can pretend that he’s someone else, someone who could be loved like Damen would love him, soft and tender and without asking anything in return.

And, oh, Laurent wants to stay here, for as long as Damen will let him. He almost wishes there was music, because he thinks that Damen would be the kind of man to tug him into a slow dance, and for a moment he lets himself imagine Damen pulling him close, swaying them around the kitchen, kissing Laurent until both of them can barely breathe.

But then the tomato is diced, and Damen is stepping away, and the light in the living room changes into something stormy as the hail starts to pelt the windows, sharp and abrasive, and the moment is gone.

You don’t deserve this, Laurent reminds himself, because it’s true. But he doesn’t step out of the apartment, or remind Damen that this can’t happen, or even take the thick woolen socks off his feet. The storm kicks up not seconds after the oven starts to beep, and Laurent is left standing at the kitchen counter, his fingers lax on the paring knife, waiting for the return of a moment that he isn’t sure he wants to feel again.


xxvi.

Jord knocks on the door of Damen’s apartment half a second after Laurent settles himself into the corner of the couch with a plate of pasta on his lap and a bowl of soup on the table in front of him. Damen pauses halfway seated, then gently sets down his dishes as he goes to answer the door. Laurent hears muffled voices, and then Damen steps outside and shuts the door beside him.

From what he’d been able to gather, Jord and Damen had had words at some point in the last three days, though Laurent isn’t sure when. He waits to start eating until he hears the door open and shut again, and when he looks up he sees Jord in the kitchen, serving himself a bowl of fakes. Damen settles back onto the couch. Laurent notices that he leaves a space between them, enough that Jord can fit on the couch if he wants. Evidently he doesn’t; when he emerges from the kitchen he takes a long look at the both of them and drops into a nearby armchair. As soon as he does, Damen shifts a fraction of an inch closer.

“Laurent,” Jord starts, with a long-suffering air about him. “I got barfed on today.”

Laurent can’t help the slow smile that stretches across his face. “Well, it’s about time.”

“Just because it happens to you all the time—”

“You get barfed on...all the time?” Damen breaks in, a small smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

“I’m a nurse,” Laurent reminds him as haughtily as he can manage, which is impressive even to himself. “A children’s nurse, Damianos. Children like to barf.”

“Well, I’m sure they don’t like it,” Damen says, the smile blossoming on his face. Laurent scowls, and throws a napkin at him. The sound of hail on the windows drowns out Damen’s small, delighted laugh.

“I don’t like it either,” Jord volunteers, having been distracted by what is frankly amazing soup.

Most of the meal is spent in friendly silence. Damen and Jord end up bickering about a sports team that Laurent has unfortunately heard of but couldn’t care less about. At some point, his legs wind up tangled with Damen’s on the couch, his gray, soft sweats contrasting against the dark blue of Damen’s jeans.

He’s starting to think that Damen quit his job at the police station, but doesn’t dare ask while Jord’s here. He lets them put on a television show they both watch, and seem to be adept at arguing about, and then Damen pulls half of a pumpkin pie out of the fridge. It’s obviously homemade, with a bumpy crust and thick whipped cream in the bowl Damen pulls out next. He catches Laurent staring, and must see something in his face.

Laurent hasn’t had homemade pie in—years.

“Nikandros is a stress baker,” Damen explains with a small smile, like he knows it’s the last thing anyone would think of upon seeing Nikandros’ broad shoulders and thick torso. Jord groans when he sees the pie, but it doesn’t stop him from reaching for the slice Damen hands him.

“I don’t think that I’ve ever been this well fed,” Laurent comments halfway into his slice. “No offense.”

“None taken,” Jord mumbles around a mouthful of crust. “Honestly, Damen, if this is what you have in your fridge all the time, please invite us over more.”

“Seems to me like you invited yourself,” Laurent remarks drily. Jord raises his eyebrows from across the room, daring Laurent to comment further. Laurent takes the hint and shuts up.

When night has fallen and the hail blown past, Laurent finds himself falling into a doze on Damen’s couch, curled into the cushions with his head resting on the pillow Damen had tossed at him earlier. His eyes are shut yet he’s not quite asleep, aware enough to hear the lull in Damen and Jord’s conversation.

“How’s he doing?” Jord asks softly, like he hasn’t been in the same room as Laurent for over two hours now. Laurent is very suddenly awake, yet keeps his curled position on the couch, a little intrigued and apprehensive at the same time.

“I don’t know,” Damen admits. Laurent can almost picture the image behind his eyelids; Damen reaching out to smooth the hair out of his face, and withdrawing his hand as if burned. “It’s not like he ever—lets me see, you know?”

“I know,” Jord says. He doesn’t sound bitter, like Laurent might expect, just—sad. He wants to open his eyes, wants to see if they’re both looking at him, but he doesn’t want to let them know he’s awake. “Some weekends, I get scared that he won’t come home.”

Home, he says. Laurent has to disguise the hitch in his breath as a soft snore, and then he really does feel Damen’s hand brush against the sole of his foot, probably on accident.

“Has he talked to you about any of it?”

“Not in years. When I met him, he said a lot of things I don’t think he remembers.” Laurent’s blood goes cold. It’s true, that he doesn’t remember most of his first meeting with Jord. His memory of that night is mostly physical, of hands on his wrists and blood all down his front and hot breath against his face.

“What do you mean?” Laurent holds himself very still, and has to concentrate on the frown in Damen’s voice to stop himself from breathing too quickly.

“It was a long time ago,” Jord says defensively. After a long moment, though, he sighs out, and Laurent hears the clink of silverware. “Five years, give or take. I was still working part-time at a pharmacy, trying to get my degree, and I found him trying to steal a first aid kit from the back room. It was the middle of the night, you know—I heard a crash, and went to check it out.”

“And?” Jord laughs, a rough sound with no amusement in it whatsoever.

“And found a teenager, covered in blood with a knife stuck in his shoulder.”

There’s a long pause. Laurent breathes in, out. The couch shifts underneath him when Damen moves, agitating the cushions. Neither he nor Jord speak, and all Laurent can hear is three people breathing and the gentle patter of rain against the fire escape. Distantly, the sound of thunder comes rolling in, from the swiftly moving storm. It feels like the whole room is holding its breath, but Laurent forces himself to keep breathing. In, out.

“What happened?” Damen’s voice is hushed, too afraid to break the silence of the room.

“I patched him up,” Jord says, just as soft. “Took him back to my dorm room and got the knife out of his shoulder. Had to do the stitches myself, actually. He kept telling me to stop touching him, and every time he did I felt like I was the one getting stabbed, you know. But if I hadn’t gotten him cleaned up, it probably would have gotten infected, and I couldn’t let myself stop. He wouldn’t—couldn’t seem to stop talking though, talking about his uncle and some man named Govart, and he kept grabbing at these bruises all over his arms.”

Laurent hears Damen go very still, and very silent. He clenches his eyes shut tighter and listens to Jord speak.

“I don’t remember all of it, but I know it was all I could do not to yell at him to stop talking, to stop saying things like that. I remember, though, when I was almost done with the stitches, he turned to me and he had this horrible, blank look in his eyes, and I remember thinking that something terrible had gone wrong in this kid’s life, for him to end up in a dorm room with a knife in his shoulder and that look...” Jord trails off, his voice cracking near the end of the sentence.

“He fell asleep in my bed, and I stayed up to watch him, make sure he didn’t tear the stitches while he tossed and turned. Kept crying out for someone called Auguste, and when I woke him up a little after dawn he looked at me like—I don’t know. Like he expected me to do something to him.” As he tells the story, Jord’s voice starts to tremble. “And I don’t—I don’t like to think about it, but every day I wish that I did something to help him. I wish I hadn’t let him go back, but you should have heard what he said to me, Damen.”

“What did he say?” Damen asks, even though his voice sounds wrecked and Laurent can tell that he doesn’t want to know, doesn’t want to hear the answer.

“He said—all he said, that morning, was: ‘he’s never going to love me again.’”

The last echoes of thunder fade from the air, and Laurent can’t help the tear that squeezes out of the corner of his eye. Nobody’s looking at him, though, nobody sees. Damen and Jord are as quiet as the grave—Laurent nearly makes himself laugh, as humorless as Jord had been earlier, because none of the graves in his family had stayed as quiet as promised.

He doesn’t remember the night he met Jord, and Laurent can’t decide if he’s glad that he knows what he’d given away now. The pain in Jord’s voice, the shaking of Damen’s exhale, makes him wish he’d been asleep after all.

“I should take him home,” Jord says, finally.

“We shouldn’t wake him up,” Damen argues. Laurent lets himself burrow into the couch a little more, his brow creasing as if his sleep has been disrupted. From across the room, Jord sighs. “I’ll take him.”

“What?” Jord doesn’t get an answer, because Damen stands from the couch and carefully picks Laurent up—it’s all he can do not to fight against the grip. His head rests on Damen’s shoulder, and privately, Laurent marvels at the feat. He’s not a particularly small person, but Damen bears his weight easily.

“You know,” Jord begins, sounding resigned if slightly amused. “That’s really not what I meant.”

Laurent almost dozes off again while Damen carries him into Jord’s apartment, and only barely remembers to keep his eyes shut when Damen deposits him on his bed. It’s instinct, to curl up on his side in the soft part of the mattress that he’s worn away at over the years, but what comes next surprises even him.

“Good night,” Damen murmurs, voice low and throaty, and then leans over and kisses Laurent on the forehead.

It takes everything in him not to crumble at that, the gentle reassurance of affection that Laurent still doesn’t know what to do with, even after years of living on and off with Jord and Vannes. Damen pulls away after a long moment, and then the light to his room goes out, leaving Laurent alone in the darkness.

Chapter Text

xxvii.

When Laurent wakes the next morning, the sky is still dark outside the window. Laurent throws the covers off himself before he can give into the temptation to fall back asleep, and winces at the sharp cold as it bites through his clothing. The same clothing, in fact, that he’s been wearing for nearly two days. Jord’s shower beckons him, but Laurent pauses in the doorway.

His running shoes are still on the floor of the closet, and Laurent pulls on a pair of warm leggings before lacing the shoes up. It’s been weeks since he’s run, too caught up in work and Uncle’s endless demands of time spent with him to carve out a routine. Laurent takes a moment to stretch before he slips out the door, careful not to wake Jord in the dim light of the sun, which has only just begun to peek up over the city’s horizon.

It’s not cold enough yet for snow to stick, but the sidewalks are icy enough that Laurent has to be careful of his pace. The familiar burn and stretch of his muscles is relieving; the cold air stings his lungs on the way down and Laurent welcomes it. This at least is something easy, something that doesn’t require careful thought and calculation. Laurent lets himself run, his feet pounding against the fragile ice coating the sidewalks and shattering it underneath his weight.

The route he takes brings him back into Uncle’s part of the city, and towards a park that he’d frequented after school as a teenager. Laurent doesn’t let himself ponder this, just focuses on the steady rhythm of his aching legs. He doesn’t run as much as he should, anymore, and Laurent quietly promises to himself that he’ll make more of an attempt.

The streets are nearly empty, and there’s not a soul in the park when Laurent arrives. The trees are nearly bare, and as he jogs the path up towards his favorite group of trees, he relishes in the crunch of leaves under his shoes.

When he collapses under the trunk of the old beech tree, its leaves brown and scattered around the grass underneath it, Laurent wishes that he’d had the foresight to bring a water bottle. He sticks his head between his knees, trying to stop his heaving breath, and then leans back against the firm trunk and closes his eyes.

He almost has his breathing back under control when he hears the crunch of approaching footsteps, jogging in a sure rhythm. Laurent doesn’t bother to open his eyes—it’s doubtful that he’s the only early-morning runner in the area—but pauses when he hears the steps slow, then come to a complete halt, right in front of him.

“Hey,” Auguste says from above him, and Laurent forces himself to open his eyes.

This time, he’s not quite so unprepared. Auguste looks wary, which is reasonable considering that Laurent had had a breakdown, the last time they were face to face. This time, Laurent makes himself look.

Auguste has aged, that much is certain. The lines around his eyes speak more of consistent frowns than smiles, and his stubble is growing in thicker than Laurent thinks that it used to. It makes him look alarmingly like Uncle, with the sandy overnight beard and concern creasing his brow. Laurent shoves the flare of panic and resentment deep down inside himself and makes himself open his mouth.

“Hey,” is all he manages to say, and doesn’t miss the brief look of relief that crosses Auguste’s face.

“Mind if I sit?”

It’s been ten years, and Laurent had forgotten the low cadence of his brother’s voice.

“Go ahead,” he says, grateful that Auguste had waited for the permission before leaning his back against the trunk and sliding down. They sit in silence for a moment, before Auguste offers out a small bottle of water, half empty, from the pack around his waist. “Thanks.”

“I don’t really know my way around here,” Auguste admits. Laurent is surprised that he said it, though he supposes that he shouldn’t be. A lot of things can change in such a long time, and he shouldn’t make assumptions about the kind of man Auguste will turn out to be. “Do you run here often?”

“I used to,” Laurent admits, after a moment. It’s like something with teeth and claws is being dragged out of him, shredding his insides as it goes. “During the summers especially. I’d get up early and run until it got too hot to be outside.”

Auguste is quiet for a long time. Laurent drains the rest of the water and passes it back and waits for Auguste to speak again.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here.” He sounds so tired, Laurent thinks. So sad.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Laurent replies, because that’s what Auguste had said the day before. He might not know the circumstances, but Laurent believes him.

“It wasn’t,” says Auguste, like he’s trying to convince himself. “But I wish—I wish I could have been there for you.”

“It’s over now.” It’s only half a lie. Some part of Laurent feels untethered, still wandering a world where Auguste is still safe in his empty grave.

“Will you run with me?” Auguste asks, abruptly enough that Laurent turns his head to look at him again. Auguste is looking at him, and doesn’t seem ashamed at being caught out. Laurent nods tersely, and doesn’t look away again. They sit there in silent acknowledgment, both of them scrutinizing the other as the sun finishes rising, the dewdrops on the grass beneath them starting to melt under the warmth.

“You cut your hair,” Auguste says, when both of them have looked their fill. Laurent resists the urge to tug at his hair, sweaty and curlier than usual in the crisp air. Auguste frowns. “I loved it long.”

“Maybe that’s why,” Laurent snaps, before he can stop himself. Immediately, he shakes his head, ignoring the alarmed look on Auguste’s face. “No, no. I’m sorry. I just—I couldn’t keep it like that. For work.”

“Work?” The change in topics is welcome; Laurent can feel that familiar urge to tug at his braid twitching his fingers toward the back of his neck.

“St. Jude’s. I’m a nurse,” Laurent explains, and the smile that lights up Auguste’s face might be worth the last ten years. Auguste’s knuckles drum against the dirt and grass in an unfamiliar, barely audible rhythm.

“That’s great,” he says, and Laurent can tell that he means it. “I’m crashing at Torveld’s, for the next couple of days at least. You should come over. He says he hasn’t seen you in a while.”

Torveld had been Auguste’s track coach in high school, and had picked up his pieces when Father had died, leaving Auguste and infant Laurent in the care of their uncle. Auguste had enrolled in a Big Brother program, and Torveld had urged him to do better in school, join the track team, and learn to bake all in the span of three years. Five years after Auguste was deployed, nearly four after he’d been declared MIA, Torveld had resolutely held Laurent up throughout his own years at high school, and had been the one to encourage Laurent to follow in Auguste’s proverbial footsteps, though this time on the cross country team. Laurent smiles fondly, remembering the long hours spent running with Torveld in the city and surrounding suburbs, learning the streets and pathways until he could run them in his sleep.

And then he remembers Erasmus, and the missing posters all around campus, and Torveld’s shaking shoulders in the bedroom of his vanished nephew. Erasmus had never been found by the police, and when Laurent thinks of all the horrible possibilities for young boys gone missing in this city, it makes his stomach turn in revulsion.

“I will,” Laurent says, belatedly. Auguste looks at him again, more thoughtful. It makes his skin itch—Laurent had never seemed to outgrow the desire to not be seen. Finally, Auguste stands and holds out his hand to Laurent, who stares for a long moment. He can see the hesitation in Auguste’s face, the agitated shift of his weight from one foot to the other, but for a split second Laurent can’t make himself move. It takes a few moments of drawn out, off-beat silence, but eventually he reaches up.

Auguste’s hand is warm and slightly damp, either from sweat or the melting frost on the grass, and undeniably real. Laurent braces himself and pushes up off the ground, trusting Auguste to steady him, and barely realizes that he’s being pulled into an embrace until his arms are wrapped around Auguste’s torso, the his chin resting snugly on Auguste’s shoulder.

A huff of laughter comes from above him, and Laurent breaks out of his stunned rigidness to grip Auguste inexorably tighter.

“What?” He snaps, sounding more irritated than he feels. Auguste laughs again, a little louder, but this time it’s slightly choked.

“I just,” Auguste starts, then breaks off. It takes him a moment to collect himself, and then he starts again. “I just thought you might have gotten taller.”

Laurent feels an unsettling urge to laugh, or maybe cry. Instead, he just digs his chin a little harder into Auguste’s shoulder, standing (shamefully) on his tiptoes to get better leverage.

“Of all the things to say,” he muses drily, arms still locked around his brother’s chest. “That had to be one of the first.”

When they finally pull back, Auguste’s eyes are a little brighter and his nose is a little redder; Laurent kindly doesn’t mention it, and not because he’s been swallowing back tears for the last several minutes. He takes the time it takes to retie his shoes composing himself, running meaningless platitudes through his head that remind him of Jord.

“Ready?” Auguste finally asks, bouncing on the balls of his feet. Laurent notes that in all this time he’s never seen Auguste completely still—while they were sitting, his hands had always been in motion, always touching some part of himself or the ground below him. Laurent tucks away the information and nods his head.

“Where do you want to go?” He asks. On his way here he’d had at least a destination, and now he’s free to go where he pleases.

“I don’t care,” Auguste replies, and there’s some kind of tension underlying his words, a strange set to his shoulders that Laurent can’t quite read. It makes him feel a little cold, reminds him of a time when all he had to do was look at Auguste to know what he was thinking. Laurent feels the frown tugging at his lips and pushes it away, pushes all of it away.

“Okay,” he says, and sets off down the worn path with Auguste at his shoulder, in the opposite direction from which he came.


xxviii.

They run for almost an hour more, until they’ve made a loop around the nearby suburbs and jogged their way back into Uncle’s part of the city. At this point, the streets are more crowded, so Laurent takes the two of them through side streets and alleys. If Auguste finds it strange, he doesn’t comment. They don’t talk while they run, but Laurent remembers the feeling of someone running shoulder to shoulder with him and relishes it, revels in the time spent where neither of them have to put up a front.

They’re only five blocks away from Uncle’s apartment when Laurent cuts into an alley, taking a too-sharp turn to the right, and slams into another person. They both end up on the ground, Laurent’s hands skinned and bloody before he manages to comprehend exactly what’s happening. It takes a moment for him to come to the senses, Auguste crouching low next to him and hovering as if he’s afraid to touch, and Laurent pushes himself up off the ground as soon as he thinks he can manage it.

He turns towards where the other person had fallen, intending to apologize, and stops in his tracks.

The man—really no more than a boy—is sitting propped up against the alley wall, his own bloody palm stuck in his mouth, and an extremely unpleasant look souring on his face. It’s not the glare that makes Laurent pause, though; it’s the small, cream-colored birthmark staining his right cheekbone, the same oddly-shaped mark that Laurent had seen so many times on the face of Uncle’s closest advisor.

This is Guion’s son. The one he had brought to the apartment a few weeks after the meeting at Chastillon, the dark-eyed, curly-haired boy who had smiled at Laurent until he’d been whisked away by his father and Laurent’s uncle, and Laurent had been banished to the bedroom to complete his homework. It’s impossible to tell if Aimeric has recognized him, but in that moment, Laurent doesn’t really care.

“Are you okay?” Auguste asks, still hovering at Laurent’s elbow.

“I’m fine,” he answers, and when he speaks Aimeric’s glare only intensifies.

Laurent takes a moment to step back in his mind, to observe Aimeric as anyone else would. Even in the chill of the November air, he’s dressed in only a beat-up shirt, a thin hoodie, and ripped jeans. He shoves himself off the wall gingerly, mindful not only of his bleeding hands but of the way which his entire body moves. Laurent doesn’t say a word, and Aimeric makes no move to initiate conversation. Either he recognizes Laurent and doesn’t care enough to start a conversation, or he doesn’t recognize him and is merely being rude.

“Hey, are you okay?” Auguste asks, this time directed at Aimeric, and Laurent idly wants to shove him away, to put himself between Auguste and the world that Uncle has built around them.

“I’m fine,” says Aimeric reluctantly, and crosses his arms over his chest. “Why, you lookin’ for something?”

“What?” Auguste says, after a considerable pause. Laurent takes the opportunity to drag him away, leaving Aimeric standing up against the alley wall, arms crossed and one boot pressed flat against the brick, the picturesque casual image.

“Let’s go,” murmurs Laurent, though he doesn’t take his eyes off of Aimeric.

“No,” Auguste protests, taking another step closer to Aimeric, his hands out in a placating gesture. “Do you need help?”

“Only if you’re offering,” Aimeric says with a sultry wink, but Laurent watches as he presses himself a little closer to the wall, as his hands shake where they’re pressed up against his ribcage, arms wrapped around himself in what seems much more like self-protection than it had just a moment ago. Auguste seems to realize this and he backtracks, his step back landing in a puddle that has to soak through his shoe.

“Auguste,” Laurent warns, the name thick on his tongue. It’s like Auguste barely hears him, his forehead creased with worry. Aimeric stares back, open contempt directed past Auguste’s shoulder and towards Laurent. Laurent glares back, coldly daring him to say something, to expose Auguste to Uncle’s filth. And there is Auguste, stuck in the middle, and as earnest as Laurent remembers.

“Run along,” Aimeric finally sneers, pushing himself back off the wall, walking faux-casually past the two of them with an exaggerated sway of his hips. His shoulder bumps Laurent’s as he passes, but he doesn’t look back. The insult and the threat have both been delivered; they have no more to say to each other.

“Let’s go,” Laurent says again, quietly. This time, he reaches for Auguste’s elbow, and tugs him gently away from the wall. It makes his bloody palms sting, but Laurent ignores the quiet-hot pain. This time, Auguste follows him, and they walk until they reach the end of the alley, where Laurent picks up his pace and breaks into a jog. His muscles ache, his lungs protest each heave of cold air, his palms smart as sweat gathers and his nails dig into the scrapes, and Laurent feels alive, for once. He’s not sure if he likes it or not, doesn’t want to look too closely at the emotions building up behind the dam, but it’s better than being hollow.

Laurent inhales, exhales, feels his feet pound against the cement. Beside him, Auguste breathes out in tandem, and their feet hit the ground at the same time, and for a moment they exist in perfect synchrony, and Laurent feels like he’s flying, and it feels like his lungs are trying to collapse into themselves, and Laurent has never quite felt like this before and he’s not sure what it means. He think that he’d like to learn.

But of course the moment doesn’t linger, and when Laurent leads them back to Jord’s apartment, his feet tracing the path with little thought, the first thing he sees is Damen standing outside the building, talking angrily on the phone. He sees Laurent and pauses, sees Auguste and does a double-take, and from the look on his face, Laurent knows that he isn’t going to like whatever comes next.


xxix.

Damen ends his phone call with a violent jab at the screen, and Laurent braces himself for bad news. Next to him, Auguste stiffens, and angles his body just slightly in front of Laurent’s own. Damen’s frown deepens. His eyes focus on Auguste, his lips part just slightly, and Laurent has the sudden epiphany that Damen and Auguste are both about to make posturing fools of themselves.

“What happened?” He asks, breaking in before either of them can get a word out. Damen’s gaze finally wavers from where he’s been scrutinizing Auguste, and immediately he seems to—not ease, exactly, but appear less threatening. Laurent thinks that it’s perhaps in the way he holds his shoulders. He doesn’t have long to think about it, though, because Damen runs a hand over his face and then begins to speak.

“They’re sending in the team now.”

“What?” Laurent says, certain that he’s misheard.

“This week,” Damen replies, grim. “I tried to tell him, but—”

“No.” Laurent feels himself shutter, and wishes suddenly that he was not drenched in sweat, in old and faded clothing. “It can’t be. It’s not enough time.”

“What’s not enough time?” Auguste asks, his chest still puffed slightly. Laurent rolls his eyes and brushes past him to stand next to Damen. Auguste’s eyes narrow, glancing between the two of them. Laurent tells himself that he doesn’t care what Auguste thinks, and that whatever he’s thinking it’s probably wrong anyway.

“Nothing,” Laurent says, right as Damen starts to speak.

“But—” Damen changes courses suddenly, looking down at Laurent with that damn frown.

“Nothing,” Laurent repeats, a little more insistently. He’ll tell Damen later, if he’s forced to, but right now his heart is picking up its pace and his mind is already starting to buzz, thinking two steps ahead of what Damen’s already said. “I—What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to go to Nik’s place, and we’ll work something out,” Damen says. Laurent nods, and glances down at his watch.

“I have work in two hours,” he says firmly. “I’m going to take a shower, and you’re taking me with you.”

“Are you sure—”

“You need me,” Laurent reminds him, and then steps back, towards the building’s entrance. “Auguste—I’m sorry. This is urgent.”

“Of course,” Auguste says, though he still looks confused and slightly hurt. “I’ll see you this weekend?”

Laurent pauses, feeling vaguely like he’s been punched in the gut. He’s going to have to sit through a meal, with Uncle and Auguste, and pretend that everything is normal. That he and Uncle have merely grown apart, because there’s no way to tell Auguste any of it without shattering everything.

“Of course,” Laurent parrots, but the words sound hollow. He doesn’t wait for a response, just flees into the building and takes the stairs two at a time up to Jord’s floor. He’s lucky that Jord isn’t awake yet, because he’s sure that his flushed face and sweaty running clothes would raise more than a few questions. As it is, Laurent is out of the shower in four minutes flat, and dressed in dark jeans and a high-necked sweater that’s made its way out of Jord’s closet and into Laurent’s over the course of the last few winters.

Damen is still waiting outside the building when Laurent exits the building, a bag with a fresh pair of scrubs thrown over his shoulder and his hair damp after the briefest of towel dries. That part may have been a mistake—it’s bound to start snowing any minute now and Laurent starts shaking as soon as his momentum stops. Auguste is nowhere to be seen, and Laurent can’t help the flood of relief that comes with that realization.

“Laurent,” Damen starts, and Laurent braces himself. “Your brother—doesn’t he know—?”

“No,” he replies, as curtly as he can manage.

“What?” Damen’s tone implies that he hadn’t really thought that would be the answer. Laurent arches an eyebrow at him and privately wishes that he’d thought to grab gloves.

“Auguste has been presumed dead for ten years. If he didn’t know before he left, and I can promise you that he didn’t, then he most certainly doesn’t know now. I intend to keep it that way for as long as I can.”

“Why?” Damen hasn’t stopped frowning since Laurent had first seen him, but now it shifts into something more like puzzlement. “Wouldn’t it just be easier to tell him now? Rip the bandage off, and all that.”

“No,” Laurent says, because there’s nothing easy about any of this. “Are we going to leave, or do you have any more idiotic questions?”

Damen doesn’t deign this with a response, which is fair enough. Laurent follows him to the parking garage across the street and into the clearly rented car parked in a resident spot. Laurent wonders how much of Damen’s life in this city is permanent; if he has any friends or connections that he hadn’t brought with him from wherever he’d been living before.

“Catch me up,” Laurent instructs, as soon as they’re both in the car and the heat has been adjusted sufficiently. Damen puts the car in reverse and leans over the back of his seat, exposing the long column of his neck, and Laurent is briefly distracted. He makes himself look away before Damen turns back, and focuses on the curling pattern of frost on the window.

“I got the call this morning,” Damen grudgingly admits, heaving a sigh. “They’re sending in the state team Monday morning, and won’t let us postpone. I tried calling my brother, but he didn’t pick up.”

Your brother?”

“Yes—the one I told you about, once. My half-brother, I guess.” A pause. “And the regional director.”

“For the FBI,” Laurent clarifies needlessly. Damen nods, stops the car for a sign, and flicks the windshield wipers on. “Of course.”

“I don’t know,” Damen says, clearly having moved on from the moment. “I talked to him—just last week, and he told me the team would be prepped in a month, maybe a little less. I’ve never heard of anything like this happening before—he knows how detailed and planned these raids have to be. We’re barely halfway there, Laurent. This could cost us half de Vere’s people, maybe more.”

Laurent tenses, when Damen says his name. It doesn’t go unnoticed, but he half-wishes that it had. Damen’s expression softens fractionally.

“I’m sorry.”

“It doesn’t matter. This is your job.”

“Yes, but—you’re not like him, Laurent.” The irony makes him laugh, humorless, and Damen’s expression crumbles further. “You’re not.”

“And yet,” Laurent says, and stops. Damen is looking at him and Laurent wants to tell him to look away, to keep his eyes on the icy road in front of them, and the tiny, self-destructive, awful part of him wants to tell Damen to keep looking, to run them off the side of the road if it means that he never has to tear his eyes away again.

Damen has to look away eventually, so Laurent holds his gaze and waits. It takes three agonizing seconds of the engine rumbling and the wind howling and the city flying by for Damen to break.

They don’t speak for the rest of the ride, but Damen’s eyes keep straying back to him.

Nikandros is staying closer to Uncle—hardly a coincidence, Laurent supposes. The hotel is smaller than he’d though, but the building is nice, and the elderly doorman smiles kindly at them as they walk in. Nikandros answers his door a fraction of a second after Damen knocks, and scowls impressively at the both of them even as he ushers them into the apartment.

The apartment itself is smaller than Uncle’s too, but brighter. He doesn’t get much time to look before Nikandros and Damen sit him down at the kitchen table, but Laurent takes the time to find each exit, and angle himself back towards the front door. He still doesn’t know where he stands with Nikandros, even with Damen here.

“I don’t understand why he called for the team now,” Damen is saying, when Laurent refocuses on the conversation.

“I know,” Nikandros says, and at first it sounds like agreement. And then Laurent looks a little closer, at the lack of surprise on his face and the slightly annoyed raise of his eyebrow. Now that’s interesting, Laurent thinks, and his suspicions are only confirmed moments later. “I keep telling you, something’s up with this case.”

“And I still don’t know what you mean,” Damen says, tugging out his laptop and the nearly-full case notebook Laurent had seen at their last little get-together. Nikandros heaves a sigh, and then his gaze darts over to Laurent, long enough to register that Laurent is watching him carelessly. He clearly decides against speaking further on the matter, but Laurent files the information away in his head. “Anyway, we need to focus on what we’re going to do now.”

“Fine,” Nikandros accepts, and then turns to Laurent. “You know his schedule best—the team is coming Saturday. Where will he be, and when?”

Laurent shifts in his chair. Damen is looking at him again, and he can’t decide whether he wishes that Damen would go back to the instinctive standoffishness of their last business meeting, or if he wants Damen to keep looking at him like this forever. Instead of thinking it over more, however, Laurent just takes a deep breath and pulls forward the nearest manilla folder, as thick as his wrist and labeled de Vere.

“He’ll be with me,” he finally answers, and steeples his fingers under his chin. If he gets to work on time, it will probably be a miracle.


xxx.

Thanks to Damen, Laurent manages to change into his scrubs and check in two minutes and thirty seconds before his shift starts. He passes Paschal on the way to his desk, who looks as if he wants to talk but doesn’t seem to have the time. Laurent doesn’t think about what Uncle must have told him, or whatever it is he must want to talk about. Instead, he signs into his computer and pulls up his first patient’s file, and packs everything that’s happened over the last several days into a little box in the corner of his mind.

Right now, his kids need him to be Nurse Laurent, so that’s who he becomes. Olivia McWatt comes in ten minutes after Laurent arrives, her mother frantically describing her latest symptoms while also trying to have a conversation on the phone with her wife. Laurent shoos her away to finish the conversation or argument, and kneels down so that he’s on Olivia’s level.

She seems to barely see him, her eyes glazed over and her entire face a bright red. Snot dribbles from her nose, and the Laurent packed away inside his head would be a little disgusted at the way she lets it run over her face, but Nurse Laurent just frowns playfully and grabs a cloth from his desk, wiping her off gently. Olivia blinks, and her eyes focus on him.

“Nurse L’rent,” she mumbles, her brow furrowing and her eyes filling with sudden tears. “I don’t feel good.”

“I know,” Laurent assures her, and grips her hands tightly in his. “We’re gonna make that better, okay?”

“O—okay.” Mrs. McWatt finally jabs at her phone, drops her head into her hands, and heaves a sigh.

Laurent understands the sentiment probably a little too well, but he stands up to his full, barely-impressive height anyway and smiles kindly at her.

“Don’t worry,” he assures her, as confidently as he can. “We’ll get you guys out of here in no time.”

The relieved, exhausted smiles that he gets from both of them are probably worth the vomit he gets covered in three minutes later.

When his lunch break rolls around, Laurent calls Vannes. She’s currently working part-time as a cab driver when she’s not in class, and her hours are unpredictable at best, but she’s usually available for lunch.

“Hey, Lau,” Vannes greets, on the seventh ring of the phone. She sounds like she’s been running, but her tone is to cheerful for Laurent to consider it a possibility. Vannes is hardly an athletic person; she’d played tennis for two years in high school and dropped it as soon as she’d completed her requirement, so it’s highly unlikely that she’s participating in any sport.

“Don’t call me that,” Laurent corrects automatically, not quite loudly enough to cover up the hitch in Vannes’ breathing over the line. She laughs a little, and he gives up. “Why did you even answer the phone?”

“Because I care about you.” Vannes sounds suddenly serious, though her sentence falters in the middle. She picks it back up with remarkable grace, considering she’s probably in some logic-defying position right now that Laurent doesn’t want to even begin to contemplate. “Jord told me about—you know.”

“You really need to stop gossiping with Jord.”

“How else would I show my undying love and support for you?” She says, saccharine sweet. Laurent huffs a little laugh.

“Anyway, I won’t impose,” he says, trying to leave his friend some room for dignity. Vannes, however, has no shame whatsoever, and just laughs. She’s probably imagining the look on his face, which Laurent wants to argue about on principle.

“Seriously, Laurent,” she says, though this time her voice seems to have risen half an octave. “Amelie—Amelie, wait. Just—three seconds. Sorry. Anyway, I know you’ve been busy lately, but I’m your friend. Even if you don’t want to talk about it, I’m still here, okay?”

“Okay.” Laurent pauses, looks around from the bench outside the clinic that he’s perched himself on. He’s in clean scrubs, thank god, and gloves that manage to keep out most of the biting cold. His own face is probably as red as Olivia’s had been earlier, and his lips feel slightly chapped. He should probably go back inside, but Laurent thinks that if he spends ten more minutes under the clinic’s harsh lights, he might pass out. The lack of food probably doesn’t help either. “Thanks, Vannes.”

“Any time, my friend,” she says, and the line suddenly goes dead.

Well. Laurent’s at least glad that she’s enjoying herself. It still leaves him out of options for lunch though, and he doesn’t want to spend the money at a restaurant with no one to share the meal with him if he can’t help it, so Laurent resigns himself to getting a sandwich from the Starbucks down the street, and a large hot chocolate that warms his hand through his glove as he walks back to the hospital.

Paschal is waiting for him in the break room. Of course, it might be coincidence, but the way his spine straightens and his eyes sharpen tell Laurent that his arrival has been anticipated. It’s too late to turn around now, so he makes his way over to the able at which Paschal sits, a small fruit salad half-eaten in front of him.

“Laurent,” Paschal says in greeting, his smile turning sad when he pauses. “How have you been?”

“I’ve been better,” Laurent admits, sliding into the opposite seat. “But I’m sure you already knew that.”

“I suppose I just wanted to hear it from you.” Paschal pushes his bowl of fruit away from himself on the table, and intertwines his fingers on the flat surface. “I have no real way of knowing how hard this is for you, but I know that even your uncle has been shaken by this, and I know that you’re one of the most hardworking young men I’ve ever met.”

“Thank you,” Laurent replies. He doesn’t want to hear Paschal talking about Uncle, or about Auguste for that matter, but it’s not like he has much of a choice.

“Laurent,” Paschal starts, then stops again. He seems to gather his thoughts, and Laurent waits for him to speak again. “Laurent, I want you to take care of yourself first. I know, when family is involved, that it’s easy to get swept up in what you think will be best for them, but when faced with these things you need to learn that you are just as important as your uncle, as your brother.”

Laurent stares. Paschal sounds more confident the more he speaks, and by now he’s reached across the plastic table to cover one of Laurent’s hands with his own. When Paschal finishes, he puts on a small smile that doesn’t feel as fake as he thought it would, and turns his hand over so that he can feel Paschal’s wrist, fine and slightly wrinkled.

“Thank you,” he says, quietly, and revels in the kindness in Paschal’s eyes.

“Now,” Paschal says, suddenly back to business. Laurent hardly blames him; he can see the brightness of the doctor’s eyes, and can feel the lump in his own throat. “If you’ll excuse me, I really do have things to attend to.”

Laurent watches him leave, making his way through the small crowd of doctors, nurses, and staff, and then drops his gaze to the blue plastic table. Take care of yourself first.

He eats the rest of Paschal’s fruit.


xxxi.

The next two days go by in a blur. Laurent goes straight from work to Damen’s apartment, where he and Nikandros are frantically setting things up with Makedon, the coordinator of the SWAT Team. They stay up until the early hours of the morning, when Nikandros finally collapses onto Damen’s couch and Laurent slips next door into the bedroom that’s starting to feel more and more like his own.

Laurent wakes at dawn and runs, those mornings, because he needs to be able to not think for a while, and the cold wind and burn of his muscles distract him enough from everything that seems to be moving so fast around him. He avoids Uncle’s part of town and the port alike, which leaves him running endless loops through the suburbs and downtown. No one downtown pays him any mind; he passes other runners and early-morning dog walkers and people who seem to be awake for no reason at all. Laurent revels in the anonymity, and then goes back to Jord’s apartment to get ready for work.

On Friday afternoon, he has to leave work early. He begs the afternoon off from Paschal, citing a migraine as his excuse.

“You hardly need to ask,” Paschal says kindly, though he looks more frazzled than usual. They all are—it’s flu season again, and Laurent feels bad enough for leaving the wing understaffed for the day. “Go home. Rest up; you’re no use to me if you’re sick, Laurent.”

Laurent’s smile freezes. He barely manages to nod, murmur a thanks, those words resonating heavy in his ears. Paschal claps a fatherly hand to Laurent’s shoulder and then hurries on to his next appointment. Laurent closes his eyes and takes a breath and finally forces his feet to move.

Technically, it’s not a lie. His head has been throbbing for hours, and his nausea has only been growing the more he thinks about tomorrow. They have the plan worked out—the team will arrest Uncle before the scheduled meal, hopefully before Auguste arrives. The majority of the team will be split up, arresting what members of Uncle’s ring they can track down, with a few coming to arrest Uncle himself. Laurent runs through the plan in his head over and over, and still he finds his pulse picking up and his stomach twisting. He hails a cab back to the apartment and pays for it in the last of the cash on him.

He’s been having a hard time, lately, reaching into the pockets of strangers. It had been a habit he’d picked up as a teenager, hungry and cold and too angry or frightened or upset to go back to Uncle’s waiting arms. Laurent had started bumping into people with their wallets out in the street, grabbing the cash in a desperate scramble, and running as fast as he could away. After a brief brush with a cop, who had only released him because of the last name on his school I.D., Laurent had learned to be more discreet.

Much like Nicaise, he has his own stack of emergency cash hidden at the bottom of the closet in Jord’s spare room, but Laurent has never used it. Laurent presses his forehead against the freezing glass of the cab’s window, and lets his forehead crack against the glass when they hit a bump.

He thinks that someday soon, he might have to pull out that wad of cash and decide what it is that he wants.

The cab pulls to a stop outside the apartment building and Laurent climbs out, tugging his bag with him. The driver just nods when he hands over the cash, and Laurent stands on the sidewalk long after the driver pulls away from the curb.

He can’t quite force himself to go inside, to climb up the steps to Jord’s apartment because he can’t make himself take the elevator alone, so Laurent stands at the curb and watches the cars go by. He’s not dressed warmly enough for the weather, but he doesn’t go inside. The sun has started to set, casting long shadows along the pavement, by the time he can pick up his feet, but Laurent doesn’t go inside. Instead, he turns against the glare of the sun and shoves his hands deep in his coat pockets, and starts to walk.

Laurent isn’t sure where he’s going, but he lets his feet take him through the city and along the coast. It’s much more crowded now than it has been in the mornings—people brush by him on their way home from work and into the city, cars and cabs honk as the streets back up, and Laurent keeps walking. By the time he’s reached the port, the sky is dark and he can barely see his own feet for the lack of light. Something is urging him back but Laurent keeps walking, weaving between containers mindlessly.

He’s halfway between two containers when he hears it.

“You have no idea the kind of trouble I went through for this,” a man growls, likely no more than a few containers away. Laurent freezes for a brief moment, and then retreats. He presses himself tightly against the metal wall behind him and tries to calm his breathing.

“Of course I know,” comes another voice, and Laurent’s heart picks up again, skipping a frantic beat as nausea curdles once again in his stomach. Uncle sounds frustrated, but his tone is as soothing as ever. “I’m just incredibly curious about the six-day delay. I have an incredibly tight schedule to maintain, do you understand?”

“Yeah,” the stranger snorts. “I’m sure you run a real tight ship.”

“I do.” Uncle sounds colder now. Laurent closes his eyes and wills himself to remain still, to not give into the instinct to react. “Which is why I’m afraid some sacrifices will have to be made.”

Laurent very quietly pulls out his phone, and starts recording.

“You can’t do that!” The man protests, his voice jumping in volume.

“I believe you’ll find that I can,” Uncle says, calm and collected. “Unless you’d like to be arrested for crimes you don’t want to think about sometime in the next few hours, you’ll find that it is in your best interest to stop talking.”

“Fuck you,” the man spits, but falls silent moments later.

Laurent hears footsteps, and is half-ready to start running until he realizes that they’re headed in the opposite direction. Uncle sighs, but Laurent doesn’t hear him move. Finally, he speaks again, this time apparently on the phone.

“I need a replacement down at the port.” Laurent wants to inch closer, to get better audio quality, but he’s rooted in place. “Yes. No, it’s not a total disaster. We still have the cargo.”

Footsteps, and Laurent’s entire body tenses up. He wants to run, but then they start retreating. Forward then back again, forward and back. Uncle is pacing, and it’s echoing off the metal walls of the containers. There are no streetlights in the yard, nothing to illuminate the way back into the city, and Laurent half-wishes that he’d just gone into Jord’s apartment when he’d had the chance.

“Keep it here a few more days—if we transport it immediately we’ll looks suspicious. And tell your men to stay the hell out of the merchandise this time. We don’t need any loose ends right now. No, I can’t come tomorrow. I’ll be there Sunday, to inspect everything, and then we’ll send the cargo along.”

Laurent doesn’t stay to hear more. He hits stop on his recording and creeps out the way he came, keeping his feet light on the gravel, hoping that Uncle is too preoccupied to hear any stray footsteps. Blood is pounding in his ears, his heart hammering against his ribcage, and as soon as he’s sure he’s far enough away not to be heard, Laurent starts running.


interlude—nicaise

Night falls, and he’s finally alone. Nicaise knows because the apartment next door is silent, because it’s the first Friday of the month, because he’s been counting down the days until tonight for the last week and a half.

Technically, his door is never locked, but that’s only because the lock is broken. Nicaise knows that he’s not brave enough to run, and he knows it too. He is the reason that Nicaise would never run. Except tonight, he burns through three cigarettes sitting out on the fire escape and counts the hundreds of dollars in cash hidden behind one of the bricks, and Nicaise makes a decision.

He doesn’t bother packing. It’s not like there’s anything here he wants to keep. Nicaise shoves his feet into the only pair of sneakers that he owns, zips up his hoodie, and shoves all of his cash into the pocket. It takes him twenty minutes of leaning against the wall next to the door to even get his fingers on the handle, but when he does manage to turn the knob, the click of the door opening is enough to make him flinch back.

Nicaise hasn’t left this apartment in weeks, hasn’t been taken to Chastillon in longer. He’s sat on the fire escape, slept on it more often than he’s slept on the mattress on the floor of the pitiful excuse for a bedroom, but he hasn’t been taken out in a long time. He doesn’t want to think about why, doesn’t want to think of the way his voice had cracked this afternoon when he’d gotten shoved against the wall and smothered by too-large too-close too-many hands. He knows what it means when he starts to look at Nicaise with disappointment, and he knows what it means when he loses interest. The empty hallway beckons from just a few feet away, and Nicaise glares at it like that will make it bend to his will.

Of course it doesn’t, but Nicaise takes a deep breath and steps out anyway.

He makes it into the claustrophobic stairwell and nearly turns back right there. Anyone coming up will see him—there’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to go but up if Nicaise sees anyone, and he doesn’t want to think about what may happen if he comes home early and finds Nicaise on the stairs.

By the time he makes it down into the lobby, Nicaise is shaking. He keeps waiting for someone to stop him, for a hand braced on his shoulder, but it never comes. Before he can think too hard about what exactly he’s doing, he steps out of the building, and then he’s standing shakily on the sidewalk. There’s a pay phone half a block down, and his heart threatens to pound out of his chest as he barricades himself inside, against the biting cold, and calls for a taxi. He’s had the number memorized for years.

It takes ten minutes for the cab to roll up to the curb, like a great hulking beast whose jaws Nicaise can’t decide whether or not to climb into. He takes a step out of the phone booth, close enough to see the driver, and lets out a breath he didn’t even know he’d been holding—a woman. She’s looking around with a crease in her brow, clearly not expecting Nicaise to sit himself in the back seat of her cab. She blinks at him in the rearview mirror, then shrugs a little.

“Where you going, kid?” Nicaise glances down at his lap, then back up again. She’s still looking at him, but her gaze has softened. She reaches forward and turns down the radio, playing music Nicaise has never heard before. It takes him a long time, longer than it should, but eventually he rattles off the address Laurent had given him last week, the one he’d told the man claiming to be his brother.

Nicaise isn’t sure of anything anymore, but he thinks he sees the driver’s eyebrows raise, when he tells her the address.

“What brings you out on such a beautiful night?” The driver asks conversationally, once she’s pulled off the curb. Nicaise hardly realizes that she’s spoken until she clears her throat a few minutes later, too entranced by the blur of city rushing past them. It’s been so long, since he’s looked out a car window.

“I just—” He starts, trying to answer, and then stops. “It’s none of your business.”

“Fine, okay,” she says, lifting one hand by her head in a placating gesture. The other stays firmly on the wheel, and Nicaise turns his head back to the window. “I was just wondering. Is someone gonna cover your fare?”

“I have money.” It comes out rude and sardonic, but he can’t bring himself to care. It doesn’t matter, what this woman thinks of him. What anyone thinks of him, other than pretty.

“Okay,” she says, doubtful. Nicaise scoffs. “Listen, if you’re in trouble—”

“I’m not,” he replies, too quickly, and he hates how childish he sounds. She doesn’t seem to believe him, her eyes glancing into the rearview mirror every few seconds to look at him. He pretends that he doesn’t notice, pretends that he doesn’t feel the shivers crawling down his spine every time he feels her eyes on him. The farther away they get from the apartment, the more he regrets leaving.

The taxi is old—the leather is stained and cracked, the muted screen playing ads imbedded in the seat is scratched to hell. The seats smells vaguely of piss. It reminds him of home. Whatever Nicaise has that could be called home, that is. The woman driving taps her fingernails on the steering wheel in time with the radio and it makes him think of Laurent, who climbs out onto the fire escape and taps it with his fingernails, who always knocks twice when he’s brought over food. Nicaise drums his own fingers against the door and glares down at his nails, bitten bloody and raw. He still feels bruised from the men in the afternoon, tenderized by gentle caresses and gripping fingers and bloody words whispered against his skin. He makes himself stop tapping, and digs the tips of his fingers into a bruise on his thigh just to feel it.

“Here you go,” says the driver, an indeterminable amount of time later. She turns around in her seat, and Nicaise refuses to meet her gaze. It takes her a few moments to speak again, like she’s waiting for something that he’s not willing to give. “Listen, I’m gonna stay out here for a couple minutes, okay? If you need another ride home, I’ll take you free of charge.”

Nicaise doesn’t reply. He glances at the meter on the dashboard, tugs a few bills out of his pocket, and shoves them toward her.

“Keep the change,” he says with a scowl. The driver scowls back, and Nicaise scrambles out of the cab as quickly as he can.

Laurent had told him—come here if you need help. Nicaise doesn’t need help. He thinks, maybe, that he needed the fresh air. A change of scenery. The thought makes him laugh a little, earning an odd look from a pedestrian. In this neighborhood, his tattered sweatshirt and too-short sweatpants look out of place. He’ll probably get swept up by CPS if he stays out in the open for too long, so Nicaise walks into the apartment building like he’s supposed to be there.

The night is still new, and the lobby is still fairly busy. Nicaise strains for a glimpse of blonde hair, and chastises himself when he realizes that his neck is craned. He isn’t even sure he wants to see Laurent, isn’t even sure Laurent is here. He takes the stairs two at a time, and glares down at his feet, ignoring the people who brush past him. By the time he reaches the sixth floor, his chest is heaving and his ribs are screaming at him, likely a product on the bruise marring half of his side. Nicaise doesn’t touch it through his sweatshirt, doesn’t let himself pause for breath. If he stops now, he’ll turn back.

He barrels out into the hallway, half-expecting someone to be there. Instead, he’s greeted only with the empty silence and ugly décor of the building’s halls. It’s almost unnerving. Nicaise straightens his spine and follows the hallway, looking for the two apartments that Laurent had made him memorize. There—the doors next to each other, as innocuous as the rest of the building.

Nicaise knocks twice on the first door, both his hands balled tight into fists so that he doesn’t have to acknowledge his shaking fingers. He waits for a count of twenty, then knocks again. No answer. His heart pounds in his chest and his feet itch to turn back towards the staircase, toward everything familiar, but Nicaise makes himself take the steps to the second apartment.

This time, he knocks twice and the door flies open.

“Where have you—” A voice starts, and Nicaise flinches back. The man in the doorway is massive, and looks annoyed enough that Nicaise follows his instincts and takes several steps back. Immediately, though, the man’s face softens, and his posture relaxes. Nicaise still eyes him warily.

“Are you looking for someone?” The man asks, the beginnings of a frown creasing his face, though it looks more like confusion than anything. Nicaise wraps his arms around himself and shrugs. “Do you need help?”

No,” he snaps sharply. Why does everyone think he needs help? “And even if I did, I doubt you could help. All those steroids you’re on probably did something to your brain.”

The man looks taken aback. Nicaise scuffs the toe of his sneaker against the floor, watching as the rubber sole peels back and then snaps into place against the bottom of his foot. Silence, for a moment, like the man isn’t sure what to say.

“I’m looking for Laurent,” Nicaise says boldly, after the silence becomes unbearable. It stretches for a few moments, then snaps.

“Did he give you this address?” The man asks. It’s like he’s physically perked up—his whole posture seems lighter, his lips have turned up at the corners. It’s nauseating.

“Maybe. Are you his boyfriend or something?” The man’s face sobers. Nicaise glares down at the floor, where the very tip of his sneaker sole has snapped off the bottom, leaving his toes bare underneath.

“No.” Nicaise knows what it feels like to be evaluated, and something in the man’s eyes says that he knows something. Maybe not everything, because Nicaise trusts Laurent enough to know that he wouldn’t just tell, but he’s clearly trying not to seem threatening. Not that it works, exactly, but Nicaise notices the sentiment. The man blinks at him, and he remembers that he’s supposed to be—what?

Now that he’s here, Nicaise doesn’t know what he should do. He doesn’t even know why he came in the first place, other than a terrible whim, a whim that could get him killed. He’s alone in a hallway with a man three times his size, who could easily drag him into the apartment, have his way, and get rid of Nicaise by morning. The voice rings in his head, authoritative hands squeeze his shoulders gently: it’s dangerous out there, Nicaise. You’ll be safe here.

Suddenly, all Nicaise wants to do is run.

“I’m sorry,” he hears himself stammer, his feet already fumbling back towards the stairs.

“What? Where are you going?” The man asks, and as soon as he moves to step forward, Nicaise draws back sharply. He ignores the horrible look on the stranger’s face. “I thought you needed to talk to Laurent.”

“No!” He doesn’t realize that he’s shouted until he hears the echo. Very suddenly, the hallway seems large enough to swallow him whole, large enough to stifle him and terrifying in its vastness. Nicaise gulps in a breath and tries to calm his racing heartbeat. “No.”

“I’ll tell him—” The stranger starts again, and Nicaise shakes his head.

“Don’t tell him I came.” The words are quiet now, barely loud enough that he can hear them over the pounding in his chest, the throbbing of his ribs.

“Okay,” the man agrees, but not until after another terrible silence. “I won’t tell him.”

Nicaise doesn’t bother with a thank-you. Instead, he practically trips down the stairs, three at a time, and barrels out of the building as fast as he’d rushed in. The cab is still waiting at the curb, the driver’s head bowed over her phone, and Nicaise throws himself inside. She jumps, and whirls around to face him. She opens her mouth, then closes it again when she takes him in, cheeks warm and flushed, panting from fear or exertion or something else entirely.

“Please take me home,” Nicaise says, and the words burn his tongue. He doesn’t want to call it home, but no other word fits

He doesn’t get caught, but hours later when he’s curled up in a ball, tucked into the corner between the fire escape and the brick wall, Nicaise raps his knuckles on the rough cement between the bricks until his knuckles bleed.


xxxii.

Laurent doesn’t sleep. By the time he makes it back to the building, his feet are aching and the light underneath Damen’s door has gone out. He slips into the apartment, careful not to wake Jord, and leans his weight up against the hastily locked door. His phone is still clenched in his trembling hands, but Laurent is panting too loudly to be able to hear the recording well. It’s grainy and echoing, but the words should be distinguishable. Laurent drops his phone when Uncle’s voice comes through too-loud too-clear, and doesn’t pick it up

Instead of going back to the bedroom, Laurent buries himself in blankets on the couch, trying in vain to stop his whole body from shaking. If he could move, he would make tea, but instead he just pulls the blankets over his head and closes his eyes. His heart refuses to stop pounding, though, and after some time Laurent finds himself curled up in the corner of the couch. His knees are pressed against his chest and his arms are hugging them close, and he counts to himself under his breath by twos.

Two hundred ten, two hundred twelve, two hundred fourteen.

He makes it to four hundred and thirty-two before he loses count. It starts to rain, and the sharp sounds of metal on the fire escape and rain gutters distract him. Laurent thinks about starting over, thinks about pulling the blanket off of his face, and then doesn’t move. He taps his fingers on his knees in time with the rain, and when the rain turns to sleet turns to snow, he starts drawing patterns on the fabric of his pants.

Laurent doesn’t stop moving his fingers until dawn. Everything else in the apartment is achingly still, and by the time light starts to seep in through the fabric of the blankets, Laurent is starting to think that he’s been alone all night without realizing it. It takes an obscene amount of effort to reach for his phone, still lying on the ground where he’d dropped it, and tug his arm back into safety.

Met someone, don’t wait up, says the text message from Jord, nearly twelve hours ago. There’s also two missed calls from Damen, and one from an unknown number. He doesn’t want to think about who it might be. This time, when he thinks about freeing his face, Laurent actually does. The cold, fresh air hits him like a tidal wave, and he sucks in cold gasps and relishes in the burning in his lungs. The sunlight from the window slants to hit his face directly. Laurent blinks in it, averting his eyes away from the dull morning sun peeking over the horizon.

What he doesn’t expect at this hour is a knock on the front door. It’s barely loud enough to be heard, as if the visitor isn’t quite sure that they or anyone else wants to be awake at this hour. Laurent pauses, wondering what will happen if he doesn’t answer.

The person knocks again, a little more confidently. This time, Laurent blinks and tosses away the rest of the blankets. He’s half-certain that the visitor will have left in the time that it takes him to make it to the front door, but he’s not wholly surprised that the door swings open to reveal Damen, sleep-mussed and clutching a full mug of coffee.

“I brought you—” Damen starts, and then finishes the sentence by holding out the mug. Laurent stares. Damen shifts his weight from one foot to the other.

“Thank you,” Laurent finally says, and takes the coffee. Damen looks exhausted. As exhausted, probably, as Laurent feels, his eyes raw and sore from lack of sleep. “Did you want something?”

“I don’t know.” Maybe the early hour is doing something to their ability to lie to each other, because Damen looks surprised that he had managed to get the words out. Laurent nods.

“Okay.” He shuts the door behind him, and follows Damen in his bare feet into the adjoining apartment.

Laurent knows that he should tell Damen what he heard last night, knows that he probably will. For now, though, he just sips at his coffee and sinks into the corner of Damen’s couch. It’s not quite as broken-in as Jord’s, but he manages to find a space for himself. Damen leans against the arm of the sofa and runs a hand through his curls, which are sticking up everywhere. The hand through them makes them look, if possible, even more wild. Laurent kind of wants to bury his fingers in them.

He also wants, desperately, to close his eyes and go to sleep. Damen’s case notebook is open to the middle on the coffee table, like he’s halfway through reviewing things that Laurent is certain he already knows. The sight reminds Laurent of the recording burning a hole in his phone, in his awareness of it pressed up against his thigh.

“You should hear this,” Laurent finally says, and reaches into his pocket. He can feel Damen’s eyes on him, his bowed neck as he taps in his passcode and pulls up the audio file. He hands the phone over, and looks away when Damen presses play.

“—you’ll find that I can. Unless you’d like to—” Comes Uncle’s voice, tinny from the speakers. Laurent represses the sharp flinch at the tone, but Damen’s face tells him that he doesn’t hide it well enough.

They listen in silence, and Damen’s face grows darker and darker. Laurent looks away, back down at the rings on the coffee table and the forgotten mug sitting inches away from the notebook. Finally, the recording ends, and Damen tosses the phone back on the couch.

“Where did you get this?” He asks. Laurent closes his eyes; two, four, six.

“The port. I’ll write it down.” He pulls the notebook close and flips to the very back. His index finger holds Damen’s place, and he tries not to see the photographs and newspaper clippings that have been glued carefully to the thin pages. Despite this, he sees his own name written in bold ink, headlines proclaiming Uncle’s victory in the city council election eleven years ago. No photographs of him, or Auguste. Uncle would never allow the reporters to take pictures of his family.

Once Laurent reaches a blank page, just a few away from the end of the book, he grabs the black pen sitting near the coffee mug and scribbles the address of the shipyard and the general location of the conversation. He may have been in a daze walking thoughtlessly there, but he memorized every step on the way back even through his panic.

“Here.” Damen leans down, his face agonizingly close next to Laurent’s, and inspects Laurent’s slanted cursive.

“I recognize that spot,” he says, his brow creased, and then tugs the journal out of Laurent’s hands. He seems to have the whole thing memorized, and flips to a page slightly nearer the front and puts it back in Laurent’s hands. This is a cutout of nearly an entire news story, with the headline Virginia Missing Teen Found Dead At Port. The date is from a little more than five years ago.

Laurent remembers this. Remembers Uncle on the phone, shouting, for hours on end, remembers sleeping one night out on the fire escape because the last time he’d gone in, Uncle had almost struck him in a fit of rage. He recalls chanting to himself, Uncle wouldn’t hurt me, but still not being able to force himself back into the apartment, still unfamiliar after two years. He skims the article, reads about the thirteen-year-old boy found in the very shipyard that he had stumbled into the night before.

“There?” Damen asks. He sounds like he doesn’t need the confirmation of Laurent’s nod. “Okay.”

Laurent puts the journal down and leans back against the soft cushions. He hears Damen’s soft intake of breath, close to his ear.

“You’re shaking.” This hardly dignifies a response. Laurent clenches his hands into fists and rests them on top of his thighs. His bare feet are cold against the thin carpet, and he tugs them up onto the couch, the mirror image of the position he’d spent most of the night in. Damen pauses, and then sinks into the couch, just a few inches away. “You look exhausted.”

“Are you going to keep stating the obvious, or can you tell me something that I don’t already know?” Laurent snaps, before he can stop himself. Damen just blinks. Laurent holds his gaze, chin high. It’s bad enough that Damen has seen him like this; he doesn’t need the pity that comes with it.

“I just meant,” Damen begins, careful. “You should sleep.”

Laurent forces himself not to look away. The bags under Damen’s eyes look dark enough to be bruises, and he’s sure that he looks no better. The corner of Damen’s lips are turned up, though, like he knows that his efforts are futile. Laurent finds himself staring at him, taking in not only the physical expression of his exhaustion but the way Damen’s eyelashes flutter, the soft curve of his lower lip. He knows that Damen can see him staring, but he also knows that Damen is staring too.

“You know that this is going to change our plans,” Damen says, finally. Laurent nods. “I’ll have to call Makedon.”

“I’m not stopping you.” This time, the pause is filled with something unsaid. Damen looks away, considering, and then nods himself. He pulls out his phone and taps at the screen, and Laurent makes himself look away. This time, he pulls Damen’s notebook closer because he wants to, for whatever reason, and starts at the beginning.

As Damen talks lowly on the phone, Laurent looks through the careful investigation of his uncle’s entire organization, from the first instances of corruption at the city level, spreading out into the international connections that Uncle has today. His eyes grow heavier, until he can barely hold them open, and no matter how hard he fights it, Laurent can’t manage to keep his eyes open against the dim morning light of Damen’s apartment.

The last thing he feels before he falls into the sleep is a blanket being draped on top of him, and Damen’s warm hand pressed lightly against his forehead.

Chapter Text

xxxiii.

Laurent stands on the sidewalk outside of Uncle’s apartment and breathes in deeply, trying to calm the unease resting in the pit of his stomach. It’s only four in the afternoon, two hours before Uncle had texted him to arrive for dinner. Two hours before Auguste should arrive, two hours before Laurent would have had to pretend that he had merely had a falling out with Uncle.

He makes it into the lobby without throwing up, and counts it as a victory.

Of course, it doesn’t last. Because at the top of the staircase, waiting behind the shut door leading into the hallway, is Auguste. He’s standing with his back against the wall, and they notice each other as soon as Laurent rounds the bend in the stairs. Laurent sees him, leaning against the dull concrete wall. For once, the staircase isn’t suffocating with smoke.

“I didn’t think,” Auguste starts, making a hastily aborted movement forward. He leans his broad shoulders back against the wall, and Laurent takes another step up. “I assumed that you—”

“That I would be late,” Laurent finishes for him “Or that I wouldn’t come at all.”

Auguste’s face softens. Laurent makes himself watch, doesn’t look away from the subtle shifting of muscle that he’d long forgotten the sight of. Auguste looks down at Laurent, at his dark gray coat and black turtleneck and slacks, and the worn out boots on his feet. Laurent waits until he seems satisfied, and then takes the last several steps up until they’re standing on equal footing.

“I know you and Uncle don’t get along.” Laurent shrugs, as nonchalantly as he can manage through the twisting nausea.

“I thought that we should talk,” he manages, trying to make it sound believable. “I didn’t know that you would be here.”

“Sorry,” Auguste frowns, his lips turning down briefly. “I just—I wanted to ask him some things, before you got here.”

Laurent takes an instinctive step back. “What things?”

“I don’t know,” Auguste says. He sounds frustrated, but when he looks back at Laurent, something in his face changes. His posture slumps minutely, and he runs a hand through his curls, which seem to be closer to the color of Uncle’s hair, now. “I’ve missed so much, Laurent. I thought he could tell me about some of it, about you.”

This time, Laurent stops himself from retreating. He clenches his hands into fists and tilts his chin up and lets Auguste look his fill.

“He’s not the person you want to be asking,” Laurent says, and then brushes past Auguste and into the hallway.

He knows that Auguste is following him, but he doesn’t turn back. They’re all on a schedule, though Auguste doesn’t know it yet, and Laurent needs to let Damen know when to move in. The hall is silent, and though Laurent knows that Uncle should be home by all accounts, but the frantic pounding of his heart won’t let him relax.

Uncle opens the door on the third knock, and does a double-take when he sees Auguste standing behind Laurent. A split second later his smile is pasted back on, but the cold glint in his eye makes Laurent want to turn back, makes him remember the last time he’d been in this apartment and Uncle’s long fingers digging bruises into his arm. Instead of giving into his instincts, however, Laurent keeps the rigid smile on his face.

“Are you not going to invite us in?” He asks, hardly a second after the door has swung open.

“Of course,” Uncle says, smooth, and opens it wider. “I was just surprised. I didn’t think you two had gotten in touch yet.”

“I found him,” Auguste says, then leans forward and pulls Uncle into an embrace. Laurent looks away. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Uncle’s hand resting on Auguste’s shoulder. Instead of commenting, he makes his way down the hallway and into the kitchen, with its familiar layer of dust and vague smell of ash. In the years he’d lived here, Laurent had never been able to pinpoint it exactly, and it somehow manages to unnerve and relax him at the same time.

He’s been pretending for years. One more night isn’t going to kill him. Uncle and Auguste are talking, their voices growing louder as they make their way through the entryway. Laurent tugs his phone out of his pocket and starts a text to Damen: He’s here. So is Auguste.

The answer buzzes back within seconds: Need to postpone?

No. All clear. I’ll take care of it.

“I just thought, before we went out, I’d come to see if you had any photo albums or something,” Auguste says, and Laurent feels his body lock up. Photos. He remembers the last time he’d had a camera pointed at him—his hair long, strewn over his shoulders, looking at Uncle like it didn’t matter what Uncle asked of him, so long as he wanted him. The memory catches in his throat and suddenly he can’t breathe, the click and whirr of the old film camera echoing in his ears, Uncle’s reassurances traced into the hollow of his throat, fingers digging bruises into the pale skin of his thighs—

No.

“I don’t,” Uncle says, apologetically, from just outside the kitchen. Laurent forces down the panic and blinks down at Damen’s latest message. Five minutes. “Laurent never seemed to like having his picture taken, you know.”

“Yes, I remember.” The two of them are in the kitchen, suddenly, and the room feels half as large. “So much has changed, Uncle.”

Laurent looks away from the two of them, can’t stand the way that Auguste’s slowly-growing stubble shades his jaw into the same cut as Uncle’s, hates the matching sandy color of their hair.

“I haven’t,” Uncle says earnestly. His hand is still resting on Auguste’s shoulder, and both of them hardly seem to notice Laurent. From what he remembers of his childhood, Laurent can tell that this is new. Not unexpected, once he reflects on it—he is not the child that Auguste remembers, the child who adored him and would trail around in the footsteps that he left behind. Laurent watches the two of them talk, and tries not to feel like his heart is getting ripped from his chest.

“Laurent,” Uncle finally says, breaking away from his conversation with Auguste. “Why so early? Auguste, I understand, but you and I both know that you haven’t been eager to spend time with me in recent years.”

It’s like a taunt, and Laurent clenches his fingernails into the palm of his hand until he thinks he feels blood. His smile is as fake as Uncle’s the tension thick between them. He knows that Laurent doesn’t want to lie to Auguste, and knows that Laurent can’t make himself tell the truth. Laurent slides his phone back into his pocket and braces himself against the counter.

“I didn’t know he would be here,” Laurent says, which is true. “I thought you and I could talk. Mostly, I wanted to ask why you didn’t tell me that Auguste was alive.”

“I’m sorry?” Uncle’s face is stony, behind the guise of affection.

“When did you get the call?” Laurent asks, putting the full force of his fury into the words. Auguste has taken a single, gratifying step away from Uncle, a looks of confusion on his face. “How long ago? A month? Two? How long did you let me mourn him when I didn’t have to?”

“Nephew,” Uncle says, placating. “I’m sure I told you, as soon as I knew. Don’t be ridiculous.”

The words hit hard, as Laurent is sure he knows. Don’t be ridiculous, Laurent. Of course we should be doing this—we love each other, don’t we?

“And I am sure that knowing that my brother had been found would be a moment that stands out in my memory,” Laurent replies.

“Uncle?” Says Auguste. Uncle turns to him, smile still in place. It makes him look kindly, Laurent thinks abstractly. Like a good man. Uncle opens his mouth, likely to make another excuse.

And that’s when the knock comes. Two hard raps against the front door, and Laurent’s stomach threatens to revolt. The part of him that is still a child urges him to tell Uncle, to let him run. The part of him that has not been a child since Auguste left keeps his feet planted against the tile. Uncle glances towards the door, then back at Laurent, his feet spread apart slightly as if braced for a fight.

“You should answer that,” Laurent says cooly. Uncle looks once again between the doorway and Laurent, and then retreats.

Laurent counts. Two, four, six, eight, ten—

“—You are under arrest—” Auguste’s sudden jolt, the confusion and horror in his eyes as he rushes from the kitchen, eighteen, twenty, twenty-two

“—this is a mistake—” Uncle’s voice, collected as ever, forty-six, forty-eight.

Laurent only hears four voices: Uncle, Auguste, Damen, and another man who he assumes must be another agent. Now, most of the SWAT team is down at the port, searching for Uncle’s hidden ‘cargo’ and likely armed to the teeth. Only eight men are in the building. Laurent thinks, suddenly, of Nicaise. Two of the team members had been instructed to get him out of the apartment next door. It takes a long moment, but Laurent is eventually able to unstick his feet from the floor.

He isn’t prepared for the sight that waits around the corner. Uncle stands, proud as ever, with his hands cuffed behind his back. He’s looking at Damen with an arrogant sort of pity, and Laurent gets the sudden urge to put himself between Uncle’s gaze and Damen, standing there like nothing Uncle could say or do would break his solid stance. Auguste is being held back by the other agent, looking as if his entire world has just been pulled out from under his feet as Damen lists off Uncle’s crimes. Laurent supposes, in a way, that it has.

Damen catches sight of Laurent and his speech falters, his eyes flicking from Uncle to Laurent to Auguste as if he’s just now recognizing their features in conjunction. Laurent sees the muscles of his jaw set, sees Damen’s eyes go hard when he looks at Uncle. His feet feel rooted to the floor again, until he hears a noise from next door, the sound of shattering glass.

Suddenly, everyone in the apartment goes still. Uncle’s eyes have widened imperceptibly, and his eyes flick briefly to the side, towards Nicaise’s apartment. That’s all the indication that Laurent needs, and before anyone else can move, he shoves past Auguste and the agent holding him, and out of the apartment.

The door of Nicaise’s room is open, and Laurent rushes inside with hardly a second thought. The backs of two FBI agents—both armed, one recognizable as Nikandros—block the door to the bedroom, and Laurent doesn’t hesitate in pushing between them. He had promised Nicaise this much, at least. He stops dead, though, when the image of the room in front of him finally sinks in. Laurent takes a step back, and sees Nikandros’ raised gun in the corner of his vision.

“Hello, princess,” Govart growls, his hand wrapped tight around Nicaise’s throat. Laurent can’t think, can hardly breathe. Nicaise’s bare toes are scrambling against the floor, and his face has drained of blood. His hands are wrapped tightly around Govart’s bulky forearm, tiny in comparison. Both of their pants are half undone, and Laurent thinks he might be sick. In Govart’s other hand is the very same knife that had been lodged in Laurent’s shoulder years ago, and his hand inches up to his collarbone without his permission.

Uncle must have returned it.

“Put him down,” Laurent says, with more certainty than he feels. Govart smiles, and Laurent remembers the foul stench of breath on his own face, and he holds his ground.

“No,” Govart says, relishing it. Laurent doesn’t say anything in return. Nicaise’s eyes are fixed on him. “Aren’t you going to ask me what I want?”

“What do you want?” Laurent replies, mildly. His heart is pounding hard enough that he feels in his fingertips. Govart’s smile, already filthy, turns lecherous.

“You and I have some unfinished business, princess. Just like me and your pretty-boy pet over here.” Bile rises in the back of his throat. Next to him, Nikandros shifts on his feet just slightly.

“All right,” Laurent says, and nods. Nicaise blinks in response, and then everything flings itself into motion.

Nicaise, his face tinged slightly blue, bends his leg and kicks directly at Govart’s abdomen, and falls to the floor when the grip on his neck falters in shock. Govart lunges out at him moments later, knife raised, and Nicaise twists away through a bout of hacking coughs. Govart lunges again, and this time is stopped by the sharp sound of Nikandros’ gun firing, and a bullet lodging itself in his shoulder. The echo of gunfire fades quickly, and Govart screams, dropping to the floor and jerking until his head hits the wood floor with a sharp crack, and then Govart is lying on the apartment floor, unmoving.

For a moment, all Laurent can do is stare. Blood is starting to seep out of the wound, staining Govart’s cheap suit and the floor around him. Nicaise is still coughing, his head buried between his knees and his shoulders heaving each time he takes in another gasping breath. Nikandros and the agent tuck away their guns, and step into the room practically in unison.

“Laurent,” Nicaise gasps, as soon as he’s able to. His voice is wrecked and barely-there, and Laurent forces himself to step past Govart’s body to kneel in front of the boy. “Check the—briefcase—”

He devolves into another bout of coughs, and Laurent straightens without a word. There’s no briefcase to be seen in the bedroom, and he shoves past Nikandros again, leaving them reluctantly with Nicaise. He finds it underneath the single chair in the kitchen, a cheap imitation of Uncle’s own, and pries the latches open with shaking fingers.

It’s more than Laurent could have imagined—more than he’s sure Damen could imagine. It’s proof. Inextricable connections between Uncle and well-known foreign traffickers, carefully-laid plans and diagrams from up to fifteen years ago, and a signed contract between Uncle and Govart, stating that Govart would keep these documents secret and undisclosed so long as Uncle provided him a position within the ring and other compensation. Laurent replaces the papers and snaps the briefcase closed, and then takes it back into the bedroom and hands it to the nameless agent without a word.

Nicaise is standing, now, as far away from the agents as he can get. One of his arms is held at an awkward angle away from his body, fist clenched tight.

“This the kid?” Nikandros asks Laurent when he re-enters, but his voice is strained. Nicaise glares at Laurent, and brings a gentle hand up to the already-bruising marks at his throat.

“Yes,” Laurent replies, looking straight at Nicaise. “Come on.”

“No,” Nicaise says, despite the pain it must cause him and the way his feet shuffle in the direction of the door. “I’m not leaving.”

“Kid, let’s go. We’re on a tight schedule here,” Nikandros says, not as unkindly as Laurent thinks he could be, but Nicaise still flinches back.

“He doesn’t want me to leave,” Nicaise protests hoarsely, his fingers clenching in his dark gray sweatpants. He hasn’t even bothered to retie the laces, but he crosses his arm defensively against his bare stomach. Nikandros clears his throat.

“That doesn’t matter anymore, kid. De Vere’s going to jail for a very long time, and you’re free once we ask you a few questions.”

Nicaise looks at Laurent, like he isn’t sure what to believe. Laurent just looks back, because the hollow feeling in his chest is coming back, and he thinks that if it grows any more, he’ll spend the rest of his life covered in aimless fog. Nicaise looks smaller in the bare bedroom, his arm held at an awkward angle after his fall. He has tear tracks on his cheeks, but he’s not crying any more .

“Come on,” Nikandros says, a little gentler this time. “Grab some clothes, and we’ll take you down to a hospital and get your arm checked out.”

Laurent nods again, and Nicaise taps two fingers of his good hand against his chest, twice where his heart is. Laurent reaches back and knocks against the wall himself, twice. Nikandros jumps slightly, and his partner whirls toward the sound, but it’s what Nicaise needs to finally brace himself against the floor, ignoring Nikandros’ offered hand, and totter to his feet. He barely manages to catch his pants before they fall off his hips, and he awkwardly ties the string despite the stiff and shaking fingers of his left arm.

It takes a Herculean amount of effort for Laurent to unroot himself from the floor and walk over to Nicaise’s closet. He grabs the biggest-looking shirt he can find and brings it over to Nicaise. Nicaise glares at him, but the real anger is missing as he struggles to pull the shirt over his head. Nikandros moves forward slightly, while the fabric is still covering Nicaise’s face, and Laurent throws a silent hand out to stop him, along with a sharp look. Nikandros slinks back, his brow creasing in a frown.

“Where are you going to take me?” Nicaise asks, once he’s fit himself into the shirt.

“A hospital,” Nikandros replies, immediately.

“After that. Are you going to put me somewhere?” Nikandros pauses, confusion taking over his features, but he doesn’t get the chance to answer. From outside the apartment comes the sound of Auguste’s raised voice and, less audible, Uncle responding to him. Laurent can’t make out the words, but the fury in Uncle’s voice is enough to have both him suppressing a shiver. Nicaise’s eyes widen and he holds his arms close to his body in a protective stance. Laurent shifts, as if to protect Nicaise with nothing but his own body between him and Uncle’s words.

“Nik,” Damen calls from the hallway, over the other voices. Nikandros gestures at Laurent and Nicaise, and starts to walk back towards the hall with is partner, but the two of them stay rooted in place.

“Come on,” the other agent says, his patience clearly wearing thin.

No,” replies Nicaise, and there’s something terrible in his voice. “Not while he’s out there.”

There’s a moment where everything is silent, even outside in the hallway, and Laurent can breathe. And then:

“I want to see my nephew.” Uncle’s voice drifts in from the hallway, and all of the air is sucked out of the room. Laurent can feel Nikandros looking at him, and he shakes his head hard enough that he has to blink to clear his vision when he opens his eyes.

“I’ll bring Nicaise out when he’s gone,” he says, in a tone that brooks no argument. A tone he’d learned from Uncle. Nikandros watches him, two four six eight, and then nods curtly.

“Let’s go,” he grunts to his partner. “I’ll call an ambulance for the kid and...him.”

The agents both take another lingering look at the scene they’re about to exit, and then Laurent and Nicaise are alone in the room with nothing but the echo of Uncle’s voice, and Govart unconscious on the floor.


xxxiv.

The ambulance arrives not ten minutes later, and Laurent and Nicaise make their way down the stairs without a word. They leave Govart behind, but it had taken Nicaise a long moment of hesitation to step over the threshold and into the hallway. In the lobby, now crowded with several police officers and an intrigued-looking crowd, he hesitates again.

“What’s going to happen?” It’s not really a question. Laurent looks down at his unsteady hands, looks down at the bruises under Nicaise’s jaw. He doesn’t know the answer, and the way Nicaise is looking down at his bare toes, the inches of ankle exposed by his year-old sweatpants, tells Laurent the both of them know that any answer given would be futile. As far as Laurent knows, Nicaise hasn’t left the apartment without Uncle’s permission in years. As far as Laurent knows, Nicaise could have a family to go back to.

He thinks, that if either of them were less damaged, he might reach out and take Nicaise’s hand. As it is, Laurent pushes his way through the crowd and out of the door, with Nicaise on his heels. He spots the agent who had been with Nikandros, but doesn’t see the man himself, and leads Nicaise over to the ambulance.

“Laurent?” He barely has time to turn around before Auguste is there, close and frantic and seemingly lost. “What’s going on—did you know about this? And that man, I saw you with him last week—”

“Auguste,” Laurent starts, and then Nicaise shoves himself between them, looking at Laurent with something that looks like hurt.

“So it is him?” Vulnerable, almost. Laurent nods.

“I hadn’t seen you since I found out, Nicaise.” It doesn’t seem to lessen the hurt, but Nicaise nods. A paramedic is approaching them, looking with concern at the bruising on Nicaise’s neck, and Laurent warns him with a look to cooperate. It’s not in Nicaise’s stubborn nature, but he follows the paramedic without a word, though he doesn’t let her touch him until he’s seated on the edge of the ambulance.

“You know him?” Auguste asks, and it seems to be too much to handle. Laurent takes a deep breath in and then grabs his brother’s elbow and drags him away from the ambulance, where Nicaise now sits looking as if he were carved out of ice while the paramedic takes her time inspecting his injuries.

“Of course I know him. He’s been living next door to Uncle for years now.” Laurent looks away. He can’t bear to watch the look on Auguste’s face any longer.

“Uncle told me—his parents—”

“Uncle lied.” He says it with force, as if he can convince Auguste of everything that he doesn’t want to believe with just the two words. “Uncle lied to you, has been lying to you ever since you got back.”

“And he never lied to you?” Auguste seems to be bordering on hysterical, and his fist is clenched tight around his dog tags, on a chain that he’s pulled out from underneath his button-down. His breath is heaving, and Laurent recognizes the signs of an oncoming panic attack.

“Breathe,” he says, and the look he gets in return is helpless. “I promise, there will be time to talk later. Just—breathe. Auguste.”

“Laurent,” Auguste says again. He sucks in one breath, than another. Laurent counts them off in his head: in, out, two, four.

“You said it yourself,” Laurent replies, as gently as he can. This is something he can do—every day at the clinic, he consoles children through a round of shots and uncomfortable physical routines. Auguste may not be a child, neither of them may not be children, but this is still familiar. “You’ve missed a lot.”

“I’m sorry.” Auguste’s breathing is more even now, though his voice cracks slightly halfway through the sentence.

“I know.”

They stand in silence for a moment, Laurent with his arms crossed over his chest and Auguste leaning slightly agains the lamp post behind him. The light illuminates the gold in his hair, and for a moment Laurent thinks that he’s looking into a mirror, the resemblance to Uncle burned away by the setting sun and the yellow light from the lamp. Auguste looks defeated in a way that Laurent hadn’t seen in their previous meetings, and at the same time he sees himself reflected, Laurent feels like he’s looking at a stranger. He doesn’t quite look real, in the way that Laurent had always known he was dreaming, when he dreamed about Auguste coming home.

The paramedic, seemingly satisfied, steps away from Nicaise, who scowls. His arms are crossed obstinately over his chest despite the new sling and he refuses to look in Laurent’s direction.

“How could you live with him?” Auguste finally asks. “Knowing what he did, what he does?”

It’s obvious that Auguste barely understands—that he doesn’t want to understand. Maybe it’s wrong, but Laurent doesn’t want to explain all of the ways that he has been hurt in the last decade. He doesn’t want to have to watch Auguste’s face while he does it.

“I don’t know,” he replies, because it’s true. His memories of high school are mostly a blur, and he doesn’t like to think back on them, on who he was before he could freely leave Uncle’s watchful gaze for longer than a weekend. Auguste breathes, and Laurent breathes with him. On the horizon, dark clouds warn of a coming storm.

“Laurent!” He hears again, after a barely a moment of silence, this time from an unexpected voice. He turns and Damen is jogging towards the two of them, hastily tucking his phone into his pocket. Auguste tenses beside him, but this time Laurent can’t blame him.

“I thought you would have left.” Damen shakes his head, sending his curls bouncing into his eyes.

“I sent Nikandros instead. I just—wanted to make sure—”

“What do you need from us?” Laurent cuts him off, not ready for whatever Damen might have said next. His face falls slightly, but Damen seems no less earnest.

“Both of you need to come in for questioning. Nicaise too, if he’s well enough.”

“Nicaise is just a boy,” Laurent snaps, before he can stop himself. Damen nods, but stands his ground.

“And he’s the best testimony we’ve got.”

“You have me,” Laurent reminds him, and watches Damen’s jaw clench.

“Why do you two—” Auguste cuts himself off, gaze flicking between the two of them. “Laurent, did you—?”

“Will you let Damianos ask you a few questions?” Laurent interrupts. “I’m sure it won’t take long.”

His tone, he hopes, is enough to tell Auguste to drop it. It seems to work; Auguste gives a grudging nod, though his glare at Damen hardly lessens. Damen pulls his hand out of his pocket, and offers it to Laurent. Without thinking, he reaches out and lets Damen drop the shiny key, obviously new, into his open palm.

“What is this?”

“I just thought, if you need someplace to stay where you can have your space, you’re always welcome in my apartment. I don’t care if you never use it, but if you ever need somewhere to wind down, I’m here.” Damen pauses, and shoves his hands back into his pockets. Laurent turns the key over in his hands once, twice, and then looks back up.

“Thank you,” is all Laurent can say. Auguste looks dumbfounded beside him, hand half-raised towards Laurent, and Damen won’t look either of them in the eye.

It’s too late to feel guilty, Laurent wants to say. He might, were Auguste not inches away from possibly attacking a federal agent. It’s too late to regret what we’ve done.

But this is his family, and something in Damen’s eyes tells him that he knows. Damen knows that he has Nicaise and now Auguste, but that he’ll never have his uncle back again, after this. Not, Laurent thinks, that he ever really had Uncle to begin with.

Damen nods, and then his hand is warm on Laurent’s shoulder, and Laurent wants to bury himself in the patch of sunlight that hits Damen’s bed in the mornings and never have to get up again. But of course he does have to pick himself up, and of course Damen’s face is businesslike when he opens his mouth again.

“Laurent, we really do need the testimonies.”


xxxv.

Damen takes the three of them down to the police station, which is bustling with activity. On the way in, Damen gets stopped by three different people, all wearing different uniforms, to ask for orders or clarification or something else. Nicaise trails behind Laurent, Laurent’s sleeve gripped tight in his fingers. Of all of them, though, Auguste seems to be having the worst time. Despite the newness of the dark sky and the cold wind singing through the city, he’s sweating, and Laurent can see the shaking of his hands as easily as he can see the barely-muffled panic in his brother’s eyes.

It’s almost a relief, when Damen calls Laurent in first. The interrogation room is cold, and Laurent sits at the table across from Damen and another agent, a woman, who he hasn’t seen before. Her long, brown hair is tied back in a severe braid, and the memories tugs at his scalp like physical fingers. She looks businesslike but not severe, yet Laurent can’t make himself look her in the eye.

It’s bad enough that he has to bare himself to Damen like this, though he knows that he’s done worse. The microphone on the table seems to be glaring at him.

“Are you ready?” Damen asks, and Laurent’s eyes flick over to the other agent. She looks towards Damen, who nods. “Kashel, I’ll take care of this. I’ll need you back when we’re done here, but I’m sure that Makedon could use some help.”

“If you say so,” Kashel replies, and stands. Before she leaves, her hand rests lightly on Damen’s shoulder and squeezes. Laurent watches her go, watches the way her braid swings across the small of her back in the SWAT uniform, and then he and Damen are alone. It’s nothing new, of course, except for the setting. Damen looks sharper in the harsh light of the single light.

“I’m going to turn on the microphone.” Damen reaches out and presses a button, and then settles back into his persona. “What is your name?”

“My name is Laurent de Vere,” he says. Over the years, Laurent has learned how to keep every vestige of emotion from his voice, and he puts all of his energy into keeping his words from wavering.

The interview is brief, and focused mostly on the events of the last twenty-four hours. Damen doesn’t ask the dozens of follow-up questions that Laurent’s answers beg, and Laurent in returns answers with the bare minimum of what the questions require. By the time Damen leans forward in his chair again to flick the microphone off, both of them are starting to lose their composure. They don't look at each other when Laurent stands, don't say a word. Damen taps his foot against the ground, twice, and Laurent fights the urge to rap his knuckles agains the table in solidarity.

"I'll send Auguste in," he says instead, and Damen nods. The door closes behind him with a click, and Auguste stands wordlessly from the plastic chair he'd been seated in. Nicaise doesn't bother looking up, slouched in his own chair and glaring at nothing. Auguste pauses beside Laurent, their shoulders inches apart even if Auguste's are taller, and Laurent has to stop himself from pulling away. Auguste's shoulders slump, and then he's retracing Laurents footsteps back inside the cold room.

"I want coffee," Nicaise says, as soon as the door shuts. Laurent thinks about fighting him, and then thinks about the bone-deep weariness settling underneath him. The police station coffee is bound to be terrible, but it should be better than nothing.

"Come on," he replies shortly, and Nicaise picks himself up and follows him without a word. No one spares them a second glance as they make their way into the only room with a coffee machine, too caught up in the panic of the hour to notice Nicaise with his arm in a sling and dark, mottled bruises darkening on his neck. Laurent pushes change into the vending machine and shoves a bag of chips at Nicaise, who steadfastly ignores them until the coffee starts to drip into Laurent’s styrofoam cup.

“He doesn’t like me,” Nicaise says once it’s full, and then steals the cup out of Laurent’s hands. Laurent lets him have it, and fills up another for himself.

“Who?”

“Your brother. And that police officer you’re fucking.”

“Who ever said I was fucking him?” Laurent sips his coffee and tries not to make a face—it truly is terrible. It’s the shock to his system that he needs right now, though, so he takes another sip and glares balefully at the iridescent reflection of the dingy ceiling light in the surface of the liquid. Nicaise snorts.

“The look on his face when I asked him the same thing.” Nicaise inspects his fingernails idly. Laurent can feel his brow crease—when had Nicaise had time to talk to Damen?

“Not that that’s any of your business,” he starts, sees the corner of Nicaise’s lip curl. “Yes, I fucked him. Why do you care?”

“More like he fucked you. I have eyes, you know.” Laurent leans gingerly against the vending machine. He can feel it humming against his back, can see the lights reflected in Nicaise’s eyes. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter.”

“He doesn’t know you,” Laurent says, as gently as he can manage. Nicaise laughs, dry and spiteful. “Neither of them know you.”

“He’s your brother,” Nicaise says abruptly, and this time he’s taking great pains to avoid Laurent’s gaze. “And—what am I? I’m just a stupid fucking kid who’s going to get shipped around group homes until I age out of the system and wind up in prison.”

“Nicaise—” Laurent begins, horrified by the words. “You’re not competing with him.”

“Right. How could I?” A sardonic laugh, and then Nicaise takes a long pull from his cup. “I get it. You have your brother back now. You don’t have to pretend to care anymore, Laurent.”

Nicaise,” he says, and stands up straight. “I never pretended to care. If you think that I care about Auguste more than I care about you, you’re wrong. I have never pretended about anything with you, do you understand me?”

Nicaise blinks hard, and finally lets himself look up, at Laurent’s unwavering gaze. He tilts his chin obstinately, but his jaw is set so rigid that he must be holding back tears as hard as he can. Nicaise looks different in the harsh light of the police station, when Laurent is so used to seeing him illuminated by the sunrise, or the soft light from the street lamp in front of the apartment building, or the desaturation of his tiny apartment. Nicaise is a foreign creature outside of that building, almost a wisp of himself.

“What’s going to happen to us?” He asks, voice small, and Laurent knows that Nicaise isn’t referring to the two of them. Us is all of them, all the children scattered around the city with scars to deep to heal them. Laurent thinks of Aimeric, and the dark bags beneath his eyes, and the precision of his words through the morning fog.

“I don’t know,” Laurent admits. He knows that Damen had been in contact with social workers and government-employed therapists, but he doesn’t think that any of them had predicted the sheer amount of trafficked children in the city alone. “But I’m not going to let you get lost in the system.”

If Nicaise were younger at heart, Laurent thinks he might have made him promise, or pinky-promise, like so many of his younger patients at the clinic. Instead, Nicaise just nods solemnly and downs the rest of his coffee, unable to hide the grimace on his face.

“I still can’t believe you spread for a police officer.”

“FBI agent,” Laurent corrects, still reeling from the conversation. Nicaise snorts, and blinks the last trace of wetness out of his eyes.

“That’s worse. What, does he have a golden cock or something?”

“Hardly,” Laurent says drily. This is a part of Nicaise that he rarely sees. Usually when Uncle is out of the city for several days, Nicaise seems to become a different child entirely—he and Laurent had once talked for hours on his fire escape, Nicaise matching Laurent’s retorts with comebacks of his own. It was startling, then, to see him immediately retreat upon Uncle’s arrival. Laurent doesn’t like to think about what Uncle may have done to discourage Nicaise’s vulgar behavior, despite everything. “Come on, Auguste should be done soon.”

Nicaise follows him back to the bench after refilling his coffee, and lets his feet swing above the floor when he sits. “He doesn’t know, does he?”

It’s hardly a question. Laurent shakes his head, but doesn’t look over at Nicaise.

“Are you going to tell him?” He says it like he knows that Laurent won’t, like he knows everything that Laurent is afraid to say. He wants to prove Nicaise wrong, wants to tell him that yes, he was going to tell Auguste. But he’s never lied to Nicaise, and he’s not about to start now.

Laurent is saved from answering by the door of the interrogation room clicking open, and Auguste stepping out. He looks haggard and shaken, and when he sees Laurent and Nicaise sitting close, shoulders almost touching, his whole body seems to slump. Nicaise stands without another word, and brushes past Auguste into the room, carrying with him the faint smell of coffee grounds.

“Auguste,” Laurent starts, and Auguste shakes his head.

“No. I can’t—Laurent.” He takes a step away, and then another. “Not right now.”

Laurent nods. It’s the only permission Auguste needs to make his escape, and then Laurent is left sitting alone in the police station, with an ugly sort of echo ringing in his chest.


xxxvi.

The social worker meets them at the police station, minutes after Damen and Nicaise exit the interrogation room. Nicaise had followed Damen out, and he’d raised his eyebrows at Laurent in obvious judgment before Damen could turn around to see. Damen had lead them into another part of the building, which looks more like an office than the rest, the two of them trailing behind them. Laurent stands, now, in front of a middle aged who seems exhausted but looks perfectly put together, his face tired but kind. His clothing is immaculate, his leather briefcase old and cracked, his hair close-cropped and tightly curled.

"Hello," he says, and offers his hand to Laurent with a smile. "My name is Charls.”

“Laurent,” he replies, though he doubts it’s necessary. Damen stands next to Laurent, the stiffness in his spine unfamiliar. He clears his throat, and offers a tight smile.

“Charls is a social worker,” Damen explains, and Laurent sees Nicaise tense out of the corner of his eye. “I’ve worked with him before, on several cases.”

Laurent isn’t sure what to say. On one hand, Charls has kindness in his face, and he seems to be trying to subtly stare at Nicaise where he’s partially blocked by Laurent’s own body, and Laurent appreciates the effort. On the other hand, Laurent had known too many social workers swayed by Uncle’s smooth words and deep pockets, and too many children lost into the depths of the system.

“Damianos called me in especially for this,” Charls says sympathetically. “And I realize that this situation requires...delicacy, to say the least.”

“Indeed,” Laurent replies, his smile tight. A hand closes tight around his wrist and Laurent is shocked enough that he doesn’t immediately move to pull it away. This is not the first time that Nicaise has touched him, or reached out for comfort, but it is the first time around others.

“I’m not going with you,” Nicaise says, suddenly. His voice is sharp, but he stays half-hidden behind Laurent. “I’m staying with him.”

Some part of Laurent had assumed that Nicaise would, battling against the voice of reason that reminds him that he has no apartment, no way to take care of Nicaise, no familiarity with what Nicaise would need from him. The dream is half-formed and hazy, and the desperate grip of Nicaise’s fingers around his wrist jolts Laurent back to reality.

“Nicaise,” he says, and fights back the flinch when Nicaise’s fingernails dig into his skin.

No,” Nicaise repeats, this time with an impossible waver in his voice.

“I know that this is a difficult time,” Charls breaks in. “But I’m here to make sure that you’re safe and comfortable until you find a permanent home.”

“I’m not some stray fucking dog.” Laurent thinks he might be drawing blood, his own fingertips starting to tingle. “You can’t just—shove me around the system like no one wants me.”

The words hang heavy in the air, and Nicaise seems to realize what he’s said. His grip slackens, and before Laurent can reach out he has pulled away entirely, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his hoodie. The material seems to swallow him, and Nicaise scuffs the toe of his worn-down sneakers against the linoleum. Damen meets Laurent’s gaze.

“Young man,” Charls says quietly, sidestepping Laurent and bending down to put his face at Nicaise’s level. He waits until Nicaise lifts his eyes, and then waits again until he holds it. “No one is saying that you are unwanted. But you must know that things are going to change for you, after this. If you would like to stay with Laurent, he will have to be verified as a suitable guardian, and until then it is my job to put you in the care of someone who will take care of you. Does that sound reasonable?”

Nicaise glares. He truly does look his age now, pale against the filtered light despite the usual warm brown of his skin. The bags beneath his eyes are almost the same color as the bruises on his neck, the corner of his lip is scabbed over. Laurent looks at him and feels sick to his stomach. No child should look like this, no child should have that terrible hollow look that has haunted Nicaise for years.

Even if it takes years to get guardianship, Laurent thinks, he will keep Nicaise safe. Right now, though he feels helpless.

“I guess,” Nicaise finally whispers, but he can’t look Charls in the eye when he says it. “I just—”

He seems at a loss for words, something Laurent has never seen before.

“We don’t have to leave now.” Charls straightens his back, and takes a small step away from Nicaise. “Laurent, you’re welcome to join us at the agency I work for. It’s not far, if you’re done here.”

Laurent blinks. Damen, standing neglected to Laurent’s left, nods suddenly.

“We have everything we need from you right now,” Damen agrees, and the look in his eye tells Laurent that he pities them, that he doesn’t want them to be here for whatever happens next. “I’ll let you know when you’re needed here again.”

“Thank you,” Laurent replies, brittle. Damen hasn’t done anything wrong, but his shoulders still stiffen at the tone. “I’m sure you’ll be in touch.”

Laurent would say that he doesn’t know what’s putting him on edge like this, but the events of the day are starting to catch up to him, and when he blinks, all he wants to do is find somewhere to sit and sleep off the headache forming behind his eyes. Nicaise is looking at him strangely, his hurt arm held awkwardly in its sling to angle his hand into his pocket. Laurent tugs his gaze away and looks back at Damen.

“Thank you,” he finally says, trying to sound less openly hostile. He isn’t sure that it works, but Damen’s eyes soften anyway.

“I’ll see you later,” Damen replies, in something approaching the voice he uses when they’re alone. All Laurent can do is nod, and then Damen turns on his heel, claps Charls on the back, and strides back the way they came.

“Well, there’s no time like the present!” Charls says, suddenly cheerful. It’s as if he doesn’t notice the incredulous gazes the two of them level at him, and he leads them towards the exit. “There’s paperwork to be done, and the matter of finding you an emergency placement, just for the next few days. I’m sure I can find a suitable group home for now, but I’m aware that that’s not the ideal.”

“Group home?” Nicaise asks, voice raw. Laurent had noticed it before, of course, but now that Nicaise is trying to keep up with Charls’ brisk pace, his breath is coming shorter. Charls nods apologetically.

“I’m afraid so. It’s not something I like, of course, but it would be irresponsible of me and unfair to both of you to leave you with someone who has no experience with child care.”

“I’m not a child,” Nicaise snaps, but it lacks real venom. “Besides, I’ve known Laurent for years. Can’t you just let me stay?”

“Stay where, exactly?” Charls holds the door of the building open for them, and Laurent braces himself for the bitter cold of the night. He directs this at Laurent, who blinks before responding.

“I don’t have an apartment,” he admits, and Charls smiles again, even more apologetically. It seems to be one of his only emotions.

“And that is exactly my point. I cannot release a child into your custody if you don’t have a stable living situation.”

Nicaise glares at Laurent, as if it is is fault that all of this is happening. In a way, Laurent supposes that it is.

“Fine,” he says, and doesn’t say another word until the three of them are packed into Charls’ car. Laurent watches the city speed past, the bare coating of snow already beginning to melt even in the cold of the wind. Everything seems disconnected, suddenly. Nicaise in the backseat, inspecting his wounded arm with vague disinterest, Charls tapping his fingers on the steering wheel in time with the music on the radio, the key burning a hole in the pocket of his slacks, Auguste’s panicked breathing and the hunch of his back as he fled from them back at the station. None of it seems real anymore, not with Laurent warm in the passenger seat of this strange car, his fingernails scratching foreign symbols into the white skin of his wrists.

He doesn’t hear his name until Nicaise says it for the third time, doesn’t realize that the car has stopped until he blinks the fog out of his eyes. When Laurent looks at the clock on the dashboard, nearly fifteen minutes has passed.

Laurent,” Nicaise snaps, kicking his knee hard against the back of Laurent’s chair. “If I have to be here, you’re coming in with me.”

Laurent fumbles for his seatbelt and manages to open it on the third try, and Charls has made it around the car already to open the door. The cold wind hits him again, and Laurent feels the sting of cold against the wetness on his eyelashes that he didn’t even know was present. The agency Charls purportedly words for is run-down, but the lights in the windows are warm, and the facilities look well-kept.

Inside, the carpet is worn, and there’s already a sad-looking, age-old plastic Christmas tree in the corner of the lobby. Nicaise scoffs, and as Charls leads them to his office, he plucks a few fake needles off the dead branch. They scatter along the floor, and litter themselves across the carpet. They pass only one one other woman in the hall, a harried-looking figure with her hair up in a messy bun and practically sprinting down one of the narrow halls with several files clutched in one hand.

Charls’ office is small but comfortable, and clearly personalized. There’s several photos on the wall, the subject of most being a young man, perhaps three years older than Laurent in the most recent. In one, he stands with Charls in a graduation cap and gown; in another he’s laughing with an ice cream cone, in his early or mid teens. Laurent can see Nicaise staring at the photos out of the corner of his eye, and catches himself glancing at them with longing as Charls settles himself behind his desk.

“So, Nicaise. Damianos told me very little about you before he called me in, and I haven’t even begun to create your file yet. I know that it’s important to have you settled in a group home at least before the night is over, but I need some basic information about your situation first.”

Ah, Laurent thinks. This is why he’s here. Neither he nor Nicaise respond, and Charls doesn’t seem to take this negatively. Instead, he pulls out several sheets of paper, templates blank, and clicks the pen in his hand expectantly.

“Obviously neither of you have to tell me anything you’re uncomfortable sharing at this point, but it would be nice if we could start with a last name.”

And Laurent stops. It’s such a simple question, really, and yet the nonexistent answer dies on the tip of his tongue. Laurent doesn’t know Nicaise’s last name. Charls looks up from his papers, glancing expectantly between the two of them. He looks at Laurent like he thinks he knows the answer, and as they sit there Laurent watches the slow realization spread across his face.

“Nicaise?” Charls asks, and Laurent lets himself look at the boy in the armchair next to him, back hunched over his lap and arms hugging his torso. Nicaise glares at both of them in turn, and then flicks his gaze down. His feet barely touch the ground, his toes dragging against the lumps in the old carpet. Finally, he shrugs, and stares down at the hole in the sole of his sneaker that he’s pulling back over and over again.

“Nasino,” Nicaise says, as if he were reading from a grocery list. The fingers of his good arm twitch up, as if to cover his lips, but Nicaise forces them back into his lap and Laurent tries to stop himself from staring. It’s such a small thing, but the name makes Nicaise sound more human, more real. Nicaise Nasino.

“That’s wonderful,” Charls says, like he’s talking to a much younger child. Nicaise scowls. “Do you have any family in the area, Nicaise?”

Every question is like pulling teeth. It takes Nicaise nearly three minutes to reply with a curt no, and another five for him to tell Charls that both his parents are dead. He doesn’t look at Laurent the whole time, and Laurent gets the feeling that Nicaise had never wanted him to know any of these things. It feels like a breach of privacy, but Laurent makes himself stay in the worn-out armchair and listen.

“Now,” Charls starts after twenty minutes of questions and reluctant answers. He closes the papers inside a fresh manilla folder, and painstakingly labels it with Nicaise’s name. “Laurent, I wanted you to be here to ask if you had any plans for applying for guardianship. If that’s something that both of you want.”

Nicaise very carefully does not look at him. Laurent watches the wood of Charls’ desk, thinking. There is a right answer, and Nicaise knows it, and Laurent knows it. Laurent is twenty years old and he has an all-day job, he is twenty years old and no longer has a home, if he’d ever had one in the first place. The smart thing to say would be no, but then Laurent thinks of watching Nicaise grow up, of being able to keep him safer than he ever could when the two of them were locked in that apartment building.

“I do,” Laurent says, and it’s a promise. “I know that right now I don’t have the means or the qualifications, but it is something that I want.”

Charls looks pleased. Nicaise doesn’t look anything at all.

“Excellent. I’ll be in touch with you, then, about the application process, and we’ll start from there. Tonight, however, I’m going to need to place Nicaise in a temporary home. There should be space in a group home downtown, exclusively for boys, and they have a long history of treating their children well. If that sounds all right to you, Nicaise, we should be going soon.”

“Fine,” Nicaise snaps. His hands are curled into fists, his hoodie zipped up to his neck. He hops out of the armchair and stands impatiently by the door. After a moment full of the sound of shuffling papers, Charls stands from his chair, and he leads them back out of the office and through the building again.

“You’re welcome to come with us,” Charls says, when they reach the door, but the look in Nicaise’s eyes tell Laurent otherwise. He smiles, and does not offer his hand to shake.

“I’d better not.”

“Yes, you have to go meet that FBI agent of yours,” Nicaise says, sneering. “I hope he fucks you as well as he’s fucked over my life.”

Charls raises his eyebrows in vague distaste, but doesn’t say anything. Laurent shrugs.

“I’ll let him know.” He’s about to step out of the door, already making plans to catch the nearest subway to Vannes’ apartment, when Nicaise’s good hand reaches out and grabs his sleeve.

“Wait,” Nicaise says, and then presses something cylindrical into his hand, the plastic warmed from being clenched in Nicaise’s hand for over an hour, most likely. His hand is gone in an instant, and Laurent is left with the door open, wind chilling the entire building, and an old tube of undeveloped camera film clenched in his fingers.

He doesn’t run out of the building, but it’s a near thing.


xxix.

Vannes’ apartment is in the thick of downtown, right behind a bar. Laurent doesn’t even bother to take a subway once he realizes that he’s a ten minute walk from the most popular streets of the city, but he shoves his bare hands deep in his pocket to protect them from the wind, the film clenched in his fist so hard he’s afraid it might crack. The apartments in the middle of the city are usually nicer than they are elsewhere, and more expensive. Laurent hasn’t asked about the deal Vannes seems to have cut with her landlord, and he isn’t about to any time soon.

He can’t go back to Jord’s. It’s the only thing grounding him at the moment, the knowledge that he can’t go back. All his clothing is in Jord’s spare room, everything tying him back to a place is stashed in that room that he gets all to himself whenever he wants it. He can’t go back, because of the key burning a hole into his pants pocket and the way Damen had looked at him this afternoon and the way Jord is going to treat him now that he’s probably seen the news footage from the vans Laurent had seen outside of Uncle’s apartment. He doesn’t want the pity and the horror and the fear he knows he’ll see on Jord’s face. Vannes, at least, will know not to bring it up.

She buzzes him in seconds after he hits the button, and Laurent doesn’t bother with the elevator. Vannes lives above an old liquor store, conveniently located behind the bar that closes at four A.M., and Laurent manages to make it to the back room and the stairs without making eye contact with the middle aged man at the counter who always seems to be looking at him.

When he reaches the second floor, Laurent finds the door unlocked and Vannes waiting for him on the shitty couch she’d stolen from her sister’s apartment years back. She’s alone, a steaming mug curled in her hands, and doesn’t look at all surprised to see him.

“Expecting me?” Laurent asks, and she nods with a wry twist of her lips toward the bar separating the kitchen and the living room, where another hot mug is waiting for him. Vannes waits for him to shed his coat, leaving the film in the pocket and feeling like a weight is gone from his shoulders, and sits quietly while he gathers the mug and settles cross-legged on the couch next to her.

“You probably thought I wasn’t going to make you talk about it,” Vannes says, and Laurent feels his stomach physically sink. His head dips forward, his hair hiding her from view.

“I thought you’d be smart enough to leave it alone,” her replies, brittle. The edge of his voice is sharp, and Vannes should know by now not to engage him when he’s like this, when he doesn’t care enough to soften his words. “Obviously I was wrong.”

“Laurent,” she says. It hangs there for a long moment, silent in the dim apartment. Laurent takes a long sip of his tea, and it burns his tongue and throat going down. He can’t bring himself to care. Her voice is shaking when she speaks again. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Why should I?” Laurent laughs, no humor in the sound, and watches her flinch. It doesn’t make him feel anything. “The only thing it would have changed would be our friendship. Tell me honestly, would you really have wanted to spend time with me? Would you really have wanted to spend time at my house as often as you did?”

The words hurt her. Laurent doesn’t care.

“I could have—Laurent, we would have helped. We’re your friends.”

“I wouldn’t have wanted you to. I still don’t want you to, Vannes.” This time, it’s her turn to laugh. It covers up the sob, the more desperate edge of the sound.

“You were a kid.”

“No,” he says, and realizes that his voice is trembling too. Laurent stares down at the black liquid in the mug that’s starting to burn his hands and bites his tongue. His entire body is starting to shake, from something he doesn’t care to analyze.

“Yes,” she says. Vannes reaches towards the coffee table and picks up an envelope, the top torn open by careless hands, and yellowing at the edges. She reaches in and pulls out a small white square that Laurent recognizes as a polaroid, and then reaches across the couch to hand it to him. It takes everything in him to take the photograph, and not to scream or collapse or burst into tears when he sees it.

There, beaming up from the glossy picture, is himself. He’s—unrecognizable, really, but Laurent knows that long hair, golden and braided and hanging over his shoulder almost down to his hips. He knows that old sweater, still has it buried at the bottom of Uncle’s closet somewhere, had worn it for years even after Auguste’s smell had faded from the scratchy wool. He recognizes Vannes, her arms flung around the boy in the photograph and laughing so hard her eyes are squeezed shut. He even has a vague memory of Gabrielle, Vannes’ sister, bringing her polaroid everywhere they had gone one summer years ago.

The one thing that makes the photo alien, that Laurent cannot reconcile, is the smile on his own face. He can’t be more than fifteen, in the photograph. He looks so young, Laurent realizes. Younger than he ever felt.

“You were a kid,” Vannes repeats, and her hand inches over to cover Laurent’s where it lies on the couch cushion. “Laurent, no kid should have to go through that.”

“No,” Laurent repeats. “But we did, didn’t we?”

He tosses the polaroid back onto the table. It lands face-down, and he doesn’t look at it again. Instead, he downs the rest of his tea, now cool enough not to burn, and turns his face away from her gaze.

“I can’t go back to Jord’s.” Vannes nods. She picks up the photo and tucks it back inside the envelope.

“You can stay here for as long as you want.” She seems ready to say something else, but she’s cut off by the ringtone of Laurent’s phone. He digs it out of his back pocket and stares unthinkingly for a moment at Paschal’s name on the call screen. It rings twice more before he manages to accept the call, and he holds the device to his ear unthinkingly.

“Hello?”

“Laurent,” Paschal begins, and Laurent knows already that this is not going to be a pleasant conversation.

“Hello,” he greets, in lieu of asking Paschal why he’s calling.

“Listen, Laurent. You’re an invaluable nurse, truly, but I think at the present time, in these conditions—”

“You are suspending me.” Paschal sighs, the sound crackling against Laurent’s ear.

“You’ll be granted paid leave. Laurent, you have to understand what the parents would say if they found out.” Laurent laughs, and this time it sounds hollow.

“I understand. I—yes.” Laurent looks down at his hand, inspects the dirt under his nails. The sight makes his stomach turn, thinks of Uncle washing his hands for him until every speck of dirt had been washed away after the funeral, after Laurent had dumped handfuls of soil onto his brother’s empty casket.

“I am sorry,” Paschal says, and the worst part is, Laurent can tell that he means it. “Laurent, had I known—”

“Don’t.” Laurent cuts him off sharply. “You don’t owe me an apology.” There’s a pause, long enough that the only thing Laurent can hear is the echo of his own breathing.

“I’ll be in touch about getting you back on rotation soon.” Laurent doesn’t wait to hear the rest, to hear a goodbye in Paschal’s weary voice. Vannes looks at him, and he shrugs.

“They don’t want a de Vere working at the children’s clinic.” Something in her face cracks, just slightly, and Laurent feels the first twinges of remorse for his cavalier tone. She shifts in her seat, the ancient couch sagging underneath her.

“Listen,” she starts, and then pauses. “I don’t know if—I don’t know. But I picked up a kid while I was driving the other day. Right outside your building. I thought the call was from you, at first, but it was this kid. Couldn’t have been fifteen. I drove him to Jord’s apartment block, and he came out ten minutes later looking like he’d seen a ghost. And I—fuck, I took him back there.”

Laurent’s blood runs cold. Nicaise. It must have been. The look on his face must tell Vannes something, because slow horror starts to take over her features.

“I didn’t—”

Don’t,” Laurent says, sudden. “He’s—safe.”

“Did you know him?” Vannes whispers, and she looks like she’s blinking back tears. Laurent just nods, and bows his head again. His legs are still crossed, and he reaches down to tug off his shoes. He discards them on the floor, and looks up to see Vannes sitting with a hand clapped over her mouth. He doesn’t want to tell her Nicaise’s name, all of a sudden, and he’s not sure why. She’s going to find out eventually, he thinks. Everyone is going to find out eventually.

Laurent doesn’t answer. He feels restless, like his body is trying desperately to stifle something building up inside him. It feels like a precipice. Laurent thinks back to the last time he felt like this, seventeen and fresh from graduation, thinks back to that weekend he barely remembers and his severed braid on the floor.

“I called in sick,” Vannes says, after the silence gets too long for her. “I just thought you might not want to be alone right now.”

He swallows the sharp words that rise up in his throat and makes himself look at her, the gentle curl of her nearly-black hair against the loose material of her shirt. Vannes has always seemed graceful, even as a long-limbed, awkward teenager. He thinks back to the polaroid, of Vannes’ long arms wrapped around his own shoulders, and tries to drudge up the memory of that summer afternoon.

“Thank you.” The memory slides out of reach, hazy and far-away. Laurent blinks down at his hands, half-curled in his lap. The crescents of his fingernails match the permanent lines on his palms. Vannes’ hand inches closer on the couch, and he ignores it. After another long moment of silence, she sighs. Laurent can tell that she wants to pull out the alcohol he knows is stored in various places around the apartment, but she and Jord especially have always been careful of drinking around him.

“You never—said anything,” she begins, haltingly, and Laurent very suddenly does not want to hear how the thought ends.

“You would not have wanted me to.” The words are closed off, and out of the corner of his eyes he can see her shoulders sag. They’re both exhausted, and he can see it in the slump of her normally attentive posture. There are very faint tear tracks running through her makeup, and it makes Laurent think of Nicaise, face red and trembling with Govart’s hand closed tight around his throat.

It hits him, then. For hours he hadn’t thought about it, had pushed the thoughts to the back of his mind, but all of a sudden he can see the tears on Nicaise’s cheeks and Govart’s grin, the lecherous shape of his mouth as he’d called Laurent princess. Laurent feels his hands start to shake, his heart hammering in his neck and wrists and ribcage. The nausea builds in his stomach as he looks back at the scene in his head, thinks of all the different ways it could have ended, rather than with Govart knocked out on the floor of Nicaise’s apartment and a bullet hole in his shoulder.

He thinks he may be sick. Laurent lurches up off the couch, mug discarded on the table in front of him. He barely makes it to Vannes’ bathroom before his whole body is heaving, and Laurent shakes as he vomits up what little he’d managed to eat before the raid. Still he can’t stop seeing it; Govart’s knife inches away from Nicaise’s throat, Govart’s knife buried in his shoulder, Govart’s mouth breathing hot and heavy in Laurent’s face.

“Laurent?” He hears, as if from far away. It takes him a moment to register reality: cold porcelain against his hands, the acidic smell slowly filling the room, the dampness of his lashes. Vannes is standing in the doorway with a hand over her trembling lips, and for a moment neither of them move. Finally, though, Laurent stands to his full height and reaches for one of the hanging towels.

“I’m going to sleep,” he says as steadily as he can. Vannes nods, her eyes bright, and takes a step back. She shuts the door on him, leaving Laurent closed in the yellow light of the bathroom bulb, left alone with his thoughts and the putrid smell as he brushes his teeth so hard that his gums start to bleed.

He can still taste the cigarette smoke, even when he crawls underneath the blanket Vannes has laid on the couch for him, the apartment around him as black as pitch.

Chapter Text

xxxvii.

Laurent doesn’t remember sleeping, but he knows that he has nightmares. They’re vague and undefinable, and he wakes up fighting at invisible hands around his neck. The blanket is tangled around his legs, the pillows at the foot of the couch knocked to the floor. It’s still dark outside, but Laurent can hear Vannes talking quietly from the kitchen, her voice trembling in the silence of the early morning. When she doesn’t stop talking, Laurent eases himself onto his back as quietly as he can. It’s wrong to listen in on his friends’ private conversations, but no matter how hard he tries, Laurent can’t stop himself from hearing her half of the conversation.

“We’ll do our best,” Vannes is saying. She sounds like she’s been crying. Laurent tucks his arms close to his chest and closes his eyes. “We’ll be whatever he needs us to be right now.”

There’s the sound of the fridge—maybe the freezer—opening, and then the slow roll of a drawer opening.

“Don’t blame yourself. We cant—that’s not an option right now. Laurent needs us, Jord. If we start wallowing in self pity—no, I know. That’s not what I’m saying. Just—don’t let him be alone.”

Laurent fights against the thickness welling up in his throat and breathes through it. Vannes sounds so sincere, so tired. She doesn’t deserve this, he thinks. None of them deserve to feel obligated to him after this.

“I love him as much as you do,” Vannes says, achingly tender, and Laurent thinks he may cry. He doesn’t think that he can stand hearing any more of this conversation, so before he can think twice, Laurent sits up with a small groan, loud enough that he knows Vannes can hear him.

“I have to go,” she says quickly, and then the kitchen light flicks on. Laurent blinks against the harsh light until his eyes adjust to see Vannes sitting at the kitchen table, a container of ice cream sitting in front of her. They just look at each other for a long moment, Vannes with bags under her eyes and Laurent with whatever his hair must look like right now. Finally, Vannes attempts something resembling a smile.

“Hey,” Vannes says. Laurent swallows that persistent lump in his throat and doesn’t even attempt a smile.

“Hey.” He doesn’t want to look away, but a quick glance out the window has him pulling his gaze away from her. It’s snowing outside, the light from the city reflecting on the white flakes as they swirl around the street. Laurent can’t do anything bust stare for a moment, his breath fogging the air slightly, and watch as the white powder vanishes on the concrete, too insubstantial to stay longer than a few seconds.

“Do you want some hot chocolate?” Vannes asks suddenly. Laurent blinks back at her. He doesn’t know what time it is, only that it’s still dark enough that he can see his reflection in the window behind her, staring with wide eyes. He nods, and she looks grateful to be given the excuse to stand. Laurent watches from the couch, feeling his chest rise and fall with his careful breaths. It feels strange, not waking up in Jord’s spare room. He’d grown accustomed to the simple luxury of permanence.

Vannes brings the two steaming mugs over to the couch when she’s done. Laurent moves for the first time since he’d bolted upright, crossing his legs underneath the blanket to give her space. Their positions are flipped now, with Laurent sitting on her right instead of her left as he had earlier in the evening. It’s harder to sweep his hair over that side of his face, so Laurent doesn’t even try.

In the absence of conversation, Vannes turns on the television to a late night news show, cutting into the middle of a segment.

“—had previously served three terms on the city council and had been projected to run for mayor, when de Vere seemed to vanish from the public eye—”

The channel flips, and Vannes doesn’t meet Laurent’s eye for a long moment. From the screen, a resting lion stares at the camera, the documentary’s narrator speaking calmly about its mating habits. Laurent is rigid in his seat, his breath pulled tight in his chest like his lungs have forgotten how to compress. His mug is starting to burn his palms.

“Gabrielle is coming into town for the holidays,” Vannes offers, over the sound of the narrator. She sounds exhausted. “She asked if you had—plans.”

He bites back the bitter laugh, but he knows that she can see it in the wry twist of his lips. Laurent shakes his head, thinks of Damen and his D.C. job and Nicaise cold in a group home, fighting for his share at the table. Uncle had rarely celebrated the holidays, not after Laurent had asked him not to all those years ago, too afraid of replacing the memories of Auguste belting out carols on Christmas and hoisting Laurent up on his shoulders to put the angel on the top of the tree.

“She and I were thinking of putting something together,” Vannes continues, leaning to the side to knock her shoulder against Laurent’s. “You, Orlant, Jord. The usual suspects.”

Laurent starts to nod, and then freezes. Vannes’ brow furrows, noticing.

“What?”

“Auguste,” he says, and her face falls. She forces it back, of course, but Laurent sees the moment of desperation before her face is wiped clean again. She sets her jaw, lifts her chin just an inch higher.

“He can come if he wants.” They’re both trying too hard, in the dark of early morning, and both of them know it. Laurent sags, lets his head tip onto Vannes’ shoulder. She sighs, long and heavy, and rests her own head on his. “We’re a mess.”

It had been something she’d said, when they were younger, still struggling through high school together. Vannes had never known Laurent with Auguste, had only known him as empty, but she had managed to piece something of him back together, despite the aching hollowness in his chest those first few years. He’d met her only a year before Jord, but it somehow feels longer.

“Do you ever miss it?” Laurent asks. Vannes hums, questioning, but doesn’t move. “Being a kid.”

He thinks back to foggy memories of chasing Auguste around somewhere with grass—maybe a backyard, maybe a park. He remembers reaching down to yank a dandelion out of the ground and Auguste laughing, helping him blow the white seeds off of the stem with a powerful gust of air, remembers some of them flying back into his face and his indignant yell, remembers Auguste laughing and hoisting a squirming Laurent up into his arms.

He doesn’t know if that memory is anything more than a half-remembered dream.

“I don’t know,” Vannes finally answers. Her arm, wrapped around Laurent’s shoulders, moves slightly, and then her fingers are carding through his hair, unthinking. Laurent can tell the moment she notices, because her movements pause and her shoulder stiffens under his head. Laurent closes his eyes and breathes, and after a moment her fingers resume their gentle pattern. “Do you?”

“I don’t know.” Snow is starting to gather in white clumps on the fire escape, though it’s not cold enough for much to stick, and Laurent blinks his eyes open to stare out the window. The sun hasn’t started to rise, the sky is a cloudy grey, and Laurent feels like he can breathe for the first time in what must be days. Vannes is warm pressed against his side, his mug of hot chocolate is still gratifyingly warm. He’s wearing Damen’s socks.

Laurent watches the snow, and neither of them speak again until the sun starts to paint the sky orange.


xxxviii.

Hours later, Laurent steps into the hot spray of Vannes’ shower and feels the tension in his shoulders ease. The bathroom is engulfed in steam, the water as hot as he can stand without burning himself, and Laurent tips his head back under the cascade of water and lets himself breathe. This air is nothing like the heavy smoke of Uncle’s apartment; this is clean and light and Laurent almost feels dizzy with it. For a long moment, he just stands, letting his skin turn vivd pink under the heat and pressure.

These are the moments he likes best—Laurent doesn’t have to make himself think or act or speak. He combs a hand back through his dripping hair and lathers it with shampoo. This landscape is familiar, and he’s spent enough time around Vannes to note the smell of her products, consistent throughout the last several years, that he can navigate the several bottles of product that litter the shower floor. In a fit of brief insanity, Laurent uses nearly half of the products on his hair, and runs his fingers through his strands once they’re laden with conditioner, testing the weight.

The steam fogs up the glass door of the shower, and Laurent doesn’t have to look at himself in the mirror. It doesn’t stop him from digging his fingers into the mostly-faded bruises on his upper arm and remembering Uncle’s grip, the fury in his face as he’d crowded Laurent up against the wall. It doesn’t stop him from trailing his fingers over his abdomen, hating the touch but forcing it anyway as the pads of his fingers sweep over the raised burns on his hips.

He avoids the area between his legs, avoids the early-morning pricks of arousal and buries it like he’s done a thousand times before.

Laurent closes his eyes, ducks his head under the spray of the stinging hot water, and runs his palms down his sides, slick with soap and conditioner. For a brief moment, he can imagine that it’s Damen’s hands on him, Damen behind him pressing gentle kisses to the knobs of Laurent’s spine, Damen pulling him closer than Laurent ever thought he would want. He blinks his eyes open and the moment is gone, but the phantom slide of skin lingers in his mind. At the apex of his thighs, he is growing heavier.

He shuts off the water and towels himself down, the strokes of the towel perfunctory and effective. He leaves the memory of Damen’s gentle hands behind him in the shower, washed away down the drain with the rest of the dirt on his skin.

There’s still a stash of his own clothing in Vannes’ apartment, in the very bottom of her drawers, and Laurent dresses himself before he exits the bathroom despite the lingering heat that makes him sweat through the heavy knit of his cardigan.

Vannes is on the phone when he emerges into the blissful cool of the apartment, leaning against the counter with a small smile on her face. When she sees Laurent her brow furrows slightly, and she gestures towards his coat, hanging up by the door. Laurent frowns at her, then remembers slipping his phone into the pocket before his shower.

“Tell your mother that I’m very sorry, but she’s welcome to travel up here,” Vannes says patiently, and rolls her eyes fondly at Laurent. He wonders if he’ll be meeting Amelie today, or if she’s perhaps at another wrestling tournament.

When he pulls out his phone, Laurent has six missed calls and two voicemails. Two calls are from Damen, interspersed with two from Jord and two from different unknown numbers. One of the voicemails is from Damen, the other from one of the unknowns. It takes him a moment to collect himself, to think through the possibilities. Auguste, maybe, or Charls. Perhaps both. Laurent glances back into the kitchen at Vannes, who is listening with her phone up against her ear and her smile growing by the second. Trying not to disturb her, Laurent makes his way to the window and pries it open.

The icy air hits him like a knife. Laurent braces himself against the cold and ducks out the window, onto the rickety grating of the fire escape. The metal creaks at him in protest, and Laurent leans up against the building in the vain opes that it will keep some of his weight off the unstable metal. He should mention it to Vannes’ landlord, he thinks, and then glances back down at his phone.

He listens to the message from Damen first.

“Hey, Laurent, it’s me. I just thought you should know—your uncle made bail last night.” Laurent forces himself to breathe, to feel the frigid prick of the wind against the back of his throat. “I don’t know where he’s gone, but we still have the apartment under surveillance. I’ll have my phone on me all day; call if he contacts you, call if you think he’s trying to find you. Don’t get yourself into trouble, please.”

Laurent laughs, shaky and weak, and presses his shaking fingers to his lips. It’s unsurprising, really. He had known that Uncle had the money.

“Also, the man we took into custody yesterday, the one who got shot, was bailed out this morning after they released him into police custody. If either of them try and contact you, we need to know where they are. Laurent, I’m so sorry. I didn’t—”

Laurent ends the message and deletes it with shaking, frozen fingers. He’s suddenly grateful that he’s leaning up against the wall, because his legs are shaking so hard that he doubts he could support his own weight. He doesn’t let himself think about Damen’s message before pressing on the second one, from the unknown number. The area code is familiar, but Laurent hadn’t thought to expect the voice that greets him from the recording.

“They told me I could have five minutes to make a call,” says Nicaise’s tinny voice, annoyance clear even through the low quality of the connection. “And they said they’d be monitoring it, so I thought I’d call you and remind you that I don’t want to be here.”

Laurent exhales a shaking laugh, and tips his bead back against the brick. It’s not snowing anymore, but the sky is still clouded over and ice still coats the metal of the fire escape. The message is on speaker, and Nicaise’s voice barely travels an inch in the damp air.

“I hope you know that I have to share a bedroom now. With three other boys, and none of them like me. It’s miserable, and they smell disgusting, and they won’t let me wear my own stupid clothes.” Nicaise’s voice wavers on the last few words, and Laurent bites down on the inside of his cheek. Nicaise draws in a shaky breath, and lets it out on a huff of laughter, echoing Laurent himself.

“I just—I made plans, and now you and your stupid fucking FBI boyfriend have ruined them all.” Nicaise is trying to be venomous. Laurent knocks twice against the brick behind him, feels the rough surface scrape thin, bloody lines into his knuckles. The sting is sharp and sudden and he ignores it, focuses back on Nicaise’s words. “Everything was going to be fine. He—he promised, Laurent. Everything was going to be okay, and you just—”

Laurent’s stomach turns. He wants to put the phone down, wants to delete the message as quickly as he’d deleted Damen’s, but he owes Nicaise this, at least. This, and a million other things.

“I hate you,” Nicaise whispers, his voice breaking in the middle of the sentence. “I hate you so fucking much.”

“I know,” Laurent whispers back, into the emptiness of morning. The sun has barely finished rising, though it’s difficult to tell through the fog. Nicaise’ can’t hear him, can’t respond, but it seems worth saying regardless. The message ends after that, though not before Laurent misses the sound of a quickly stifled noise, perhaps a sob. Laurent’s hand smarts, the icy breeze prickling at the new wounds. He climbs back in through the window and shuts him behind him, but he doesn’t delete the message.

Vannes is still smiling, but she’s off the phone now and seems to relax when Laurent is finally standing back in the apartment. He manages a weak smile in response and nods towards the hand holding her phone, hanging down by her hip.

“Amelie?” Laurent asks, and she nods. It’s the happiest that Laurent has seen her about a girlfriend in a long time. “We haven’t met.”

“You will,” Vannes promises. Laurent clings to it like a lifeline. He doesn’t want to look back down at his phone when it buzzes in his hand, the sharp vibration evident of a text. He makes himself glance at it anyway, sees the notification from Damen, and slides it back into his pocket. Vannes has noticed, but something in his face must warn her away.

“Come on,” she says, decisively. “Let’s go for a run.”

They had met, years ago, on the high school cross country team. Laurent’s lips twitch upward despite themselves, and it earns him a grin from Vannes. They had both loved running, he remembers, but for him it had been more of an escape, and Vannes had always seemed to know.

It’s freezing outside, but it hardly matters. Laurent tugs on an old pair of track pants Vannes had kept for him and a pair of her running shoes. He ignores the pointed comments about the size of his feet, but knocks her with his shoulder on their way out of the apartment playfully. Vannes looks delighted, and knocks him back gently. They don’t talk on their way out of the apartment, though Vannes leads him out through the back alley, likely to avoid her landlord.

There’s a park downtown that they both like just a few miles away, right above the ocean. Vannes lets Laurent set the pace and he tries not to push himself to her level; she’s likely much more in shape than he is at this point. They run past the port silently and Laurent tries not to retrace his steps from the week before, doesn’t let his eyes stray to the acre of shipping containers waiting for delivery.

He’d told Damen all he knew. At this point, he can only hope.

The longer they run, the more cold air cycles through Laurent’s lungs, the clearer his head feels. Vannes is a steady presence by his side, and he doesn’t have to think about the rhythm of every step like he had with Auguste. It makes him feel almost guilty—to prefer running with her than with his own brother.

“What’s going on in your head?” Vannes asks as they start to loop the park. Her breath is coming in cold puffs in the chilled air, her dark nose is turning just slightly pinked. Laurent hardly wants to think what he himself looks like, the cold stinging at his cheeks.

“The usual,” he says, attempting lightness. She levels him with a true look, and he turns away from it as best he can. Her shoulder knocks his, careful of the icy grass, and Laurent steers away. Vannes follows him at a slowed pace, keeping her distance.

Laurent resists the urge to speed up, conscious of their distance from her apartment and the biting cold in his lungs. Vannes doesn’t try to talk again until they reach their implicit destination: the small coffee shop both of them had worked at in high school, both desperate for extra cash, though for different reasons. The shop is just as he remembers—run down and well loved, tucked into a corner between a pet store and a local law firm. Vannes is the first to slow to a walk, and Laurent pulls back to match her on the sidewalk.

When they walk in, Laurent knows why Vannes had brought him here. Orlant is standing behind the barista’s counter, a dark red apron tied around his waist and a hat perched on his head. Laurent thinks that the point of the hat is to look jaunty, but on Orlant it looks anything but. He barely graces them with a scowl when he sees them walk in, which relaxes a tight knot in Laurent’s stomach that he hadn’t even known was there.

“What can I get for you today, your highness?” Orlant says when they reach the counter, feigning a bow. His gaze lingers a little too long on Laurent, and he resolves himself to ignore it.

“Large americano, no room for cream,” Laurent says, noting how winded he sounds from the run. Orlant raises an eyebrow and taps it into his monitor. He turns with an expectant eyebrow to Vannes, one lip pulled up in a sarcastic smile.

“And for the lady?”

“Decaf soy latte with cream,” Vannes replies sweetly, and drops a quarter into the tip jar. Orlant scowls in the least threatening way that Laurent thinks is possible, and rings them up. Laurent lets Vannes pay, only because he hadn’t thought to bring cash, and makes his way over to their regular table, tucked into the corner. Rather than being a two-person table, the heavy wood stretches halfway across the floor and is accompanied by benches on either side. The seat next to where he and Vannes have sat for years is already occupied by a familiar inhabitant.

“Good morning, Halvik,” Laurent says pleasantly as he drops into his seat. Halvik grunts at him, barely looking up from the paperwork spread out before her. She’s a partner at the law firm next door, an aging woman with pulled-back gray hair in a knot that hasn’t wavered in all the years Laurent has known her. She takes a moment to finish scribbling on her legal pad in indecipherable handwriting, and then pushes her glasses up her nose to look at him.

“Your Uncle’s face was all over the news last night,” she says, her voice slightly accented. Laurent has never asked her where the accent is from. He glances down at the scarred surface of the table and nods. “You are going to need a lawyer.”

He looks up in surprise. He hadn’t expected Halvik to offer—hadn’t even expected to see her before the trial, whenever the date had been set. Her severe face gives nothing away, but her hand finds his on top of the table.

“I know you, dziecko.” Halvik’s voice is stern on the name she’s called him since they first met. Her eyes are warm behind her glasses. “You have done nothing wrong. You are not to blame for his sins.”

Laurent swallows past the sudden lump in his throat and holds her gaze. Her eyes are flinty gray, but softened around the edges from laughter lines and kindness. He does not want to let her wrinkled hand go, soft despite the lines on her skin. His attempt at a smile comes out shaky and he quickly discards the effort. Halvik has never needed smiles from him.

“You call me,” she instructs brusquely. “When you need a friend in court, call me.”

Laurent nods, watches her twist the ring on her left hand in a full circle before picking up her pen again. She’d told him once that it was for luck, or for mercy. He’s not sure which she is asking for today. Vannes drops into the carved chair opposite him, two steaming mugs in her hand, and Halvik goes back to work with a cursory nod. Vannes smiles sunnily back and pushes over Laurent’s americano.

They drink in relative peace, the murmur of the coffeeshop combined with the quick scratching of Halvik’s pen providing some sense of peace in the whirlwind of Laurent’s mind. His phone is still in Vannes’ apartment, hidden in the pocket of his slacks so that he didn’t have to think about Damen or Auguste or Nicaise during the run. Now he almost wishes he had it on him, has the itch crawling under his skin telling him to do something.

At some point, he’s going to have to return to the apartment. He has clothes to clean out of Uncle’s closet, skeletons to drag out from between the bedsheets. He doesn’t know what paperwork of Uncle’s is hidden around the apartment, or what the security cameras tucked into the corner of the living room will tell the FBI team. Laurent walks himself through it in his mind’s eye; pulling out the old suitcase and packing it to the brim, tucking the photographs of his father and Auguste onto the top, and zipping it shut. Leaving the framed family portrait behind, with Father’s hands on Auguste’s shoulders and their mother standing next to him, the round curve of her belly barely showing under the dress. Uncle next to her, hand possessive on her wast and firm on Father’s own shoulder. Laurent had stared at his mother’s face for hours as a child with Auguste sat next to him, whispering stories about her singing voice and her favorite foods and the baking tips she’d tucked away in an old cookbook. He’d searched for something of himself in the woman who had died to give him this, and found nothing but the gentle curls of her golden hair to indicate that she had given him anything at all.

Laurent has to stifle a flinch when Orlant’s hand lands heavy on his shoulder, large and sweaty. Orlant barely seems to notice and perches himself on the table corner, looking at Laurent appraisingly. He’s closer to Jord’s age, though he had met Vannes and Laurent in high school after a sequence of failed years that he tends to speak about lightly.

“You fucking suck,” Orlant says bluntly, directly to Laurent. Laurent nods solemnly, because this is an opinion that Orlant has voiced several times in the last years. “But I don’t—I’m gonna stick by you. No matter what.”

It’s likely the most emotional thing Orlant has said all year. Laurent lets his lips twitch up in a wry smile.

“I’m touched,” he says, like he’d expected nothing else. The relief on Orlant’s face is palpable, and Vannes snorts into her coffee abomination.

“Have you told that to your boyfriend yet?” Orlant doesn’t hesitate and throws a fist towards her shoulder, and Vannes welcomes the impact with a laugh. Laurent can’t find it within himself to echo it yet, but the smile on his face doesn’t dissipate. Halvik starts to gather up her papers in the seat next to him, a smile on her own face. Laurent nods at her in farewell, and she drops a business card onto the table in front of him.

“When you need it,” she repeats, and then makes her way out of the shop. Vannes takes a sip of her drink and raises an eyebrow over the mug in a way he’s sure she thinks is dramatic. Laurent shakes his head at her, and she shrugs in response.

“Okay, I can see I’m not needed here,” Orlant says, relief masked in exasperation. He slaps Laurent’s shoulder as he hops off the table, his apron settling back into place over his jeans, and he returns to the counter. The barista glares at him and steps deliberately away from the monitor.

The knot that has been tightening in Laurent’s chest since the day before has loosened, he thinks, through the warm coffee cupped in his hands and Vannes’ foot pressed up against his under the table, and Halvik and Orlant’s unwavering support. In the comforting warmth of the Nesson-Eloy Café, there seems to be a disconnect between Laurent and the world, and it’s a welcome break.

Laurent leans back in his chair, takes a long drink of his coffee, and lets himself enjoy it.


xxxix.

His phone is waiting for him back at Vannes’ apartment, and Laurent turns it on to see another missed call from Damen and three new messages.

Need you in for more questioning today, what time works?

We should talk.

They need you to clear your things out of the apartment. I won’t be there.

The last message is dated from nearly fifteen minutes ago. Laurent texts back a quick reply, telling Damen that he’ll be at the station later in the afternoon, and then tosses his phone back onto Vannes’ couch. The last day has made him want to turn it off and leave it at the bottom of someone’s closet.

He doesn’t tell Vannes that he’s leaving, and slips out only when he hears her off-tune singing coming from the shower. She’ll be hurt, but it’s better than avoiding the questions that he knows she would pose. Laurent tugs the collar of his coat up against the cold as he exits the building, heading towards the nearest subway that will take him halfway through town. He keeps his head down when he hits the busier streets, any stranger liable to recognize the face that’s been plastered on the news since last night.

It feels like there’s a spotlight shining on him, directing everyone to look at him and to condemn, and Laurent can’t help but feel like the second he lifts his head, someone is going to point him out to the crowd. He keeps his gaze fixed on the floor of the car as he boards, despite the familiar and revolting sight of stained carpet riddled with tar-black spots of ancient gum. The ride is claustrophobic at best, and Laurent exits the underground a block away from Uncle’s apartment with his heart pounding in his chest.

There are still police cars parked outside the building. It makes Laurent stall for a moment, instinctively shying away from the officers outside the doors, but he takes a moment to gather himself. They don’t stop him from entering; neither officers say a word. Their eyes track him, though, and Laurent can feel the weight of their gaze on his day-old clothes and bruised eyes. The nameless FBI agent who’d been in the apartment with Nicaise is stationed outside the apartments, and he lets Laurent in with a solemn nod.

It’s nothing and everything like he thought it would be. The bedroom doorway is blocked by police tape that Laurent ducks under carelessly, only to stop when he straightens up. The room has been practically ransacked—the bed stripped, the furniture moved or discarded carelessly to the side. Clothing is strewn indiscriminately from the dresser, Uncle’s neatly pressed shirts mixed with Laurent’s own sweaters and button-downs. He takes an instinctive step back, and hits the tape at his back.

Even as the building had deteriorated around them, the landlord too poor or apathetic to make repairs, Uncle had always insisted upon cleanliness. Laurent had wondered, for the first years, why Uncle had moved them into the dirty building halfway downtown in the first place, taking him away from the open space of the suburbs where they had both grown up, in the house that had been in the family for years. At first, Laurent had been grateful for the single bedroom and the empty apartment next door, grateful for the freedom it had allowed them.

With the tape behind him, doing little to block his exit besides the insistent pressure against his back, this bedroom feels as much like a prison as it had when Laurent was young.

The suitcases are untouched in the back of the closet, and Laurent takes the smallest of the set and begins reaching for his clothes, careful not to touch what belongs to Uncle. He tries not to think, but each glance to the pile of bedding in a heap at the footboard has Laurent’s mind reeling back to Uncle’s breath hot on his neck, hands wrapped around his slender waist.

In the end, he doesn’t even glance at the few pictures littered around the apartment. Laurent escapes as quickly as he can, and can’t even stand being in the apartment long enough to change his clothes.

He has a meeting with Damen in two hours, but Laurent can’t make himself start the walk towards the precinct. Instead, he catches the next subway towards Jord’s building mindlessly. It’s instinct at this point, to go to Jord’s. It’s where he’s spent most of the last two weeks; where he feels the safest, right now. The car is less crowded than the one to the apartment, and Laurent finds a seat by the window and amuses himself by staring at the spiderwebbing frost across the glass.

It’s been a strange winter. It’s early December, and they’ve only had two snows since the beginning of November. The sheet of white from the night before looks like it might be sticking, and the cloudy sky tells him that there’s more coming. It seems appropriate, to Laurent, that winter should only come after his life has turned so unexpectedly.

He steps off the subway a block and a half away from Jord’s apartment, but it takes Laurent nearly ten minutes to get there. Every step is deliberate, his suitcase clutched desperately in one hand, trying to avoid the patches of ice on the sidewalk. His cheeks are prickling with cold when he reaches the building, and Laurent enters to a rush of gratifying heat. It’s enough to make his shoulders relax, though one still aches from the persistent weight of his case. He takes the stairs up to the sixth floor despite that, despite everything weighing him down.

Laurent stands outside Jord’s apartment, likely looking as if he’s just gotten kicked out of home, and cannot make himself go in. He has the key, gifted to him just weeks after Jord had moved in. He has permission, too, but that’s not what is holding him back. He doesn’t want to see Jord right now. He doesn’t want the pity he’d heard in Jord’s voice while he was talking with Damen, the pity he knows that he has been on the receiving end of since he was fourteen.

Laurent pulls the wrong, too-shiny key out of his pocket, and unlocks Damen’s apartment instead.

It’s easy enough not to think about it, to drop his suitcase and messenger bag at the door and toe off his shoes and hang up his coat. The layout of the apartment is intricately familiar, and Laurent goes through the motions of taking care of himself mechanically—he changes into the softest sweater he owns and a clean pair of pants, runs a comb through his wind-ruffled hair, brushes his teeth until his gums start to bleed.

He barely thinks twice before crawling underneath the covers of Damen’s bed, the hazy winter light falling through the curtains and casting a glow over the clean white sheets. He thinks that it should be more difficult for him—this is where Damen had him on his stomach, hips canted up and almost begging, not two weeks ago. This is where Damen had pressed him down with his body, and yet Laurent still fits under the blankets like there’s a place for him here in Damen’s bed. The pillows are soft and mold to his head, the down blankets settling over him like a cocoon.

Laurent lets himself sleep, buried in Damen’s scent.


xl.

He wakes to a hand on his shoulder and the darkness of night settling over the room from the cloudy sunset outside the window, snow falling despite the last vestiges of sunlight streaming through the clouds.

“Laurent,” Damen murmurs, crouched low next to the bed. His brow is creased, as if in worry.

“Hello, lover,” Laurent murmurs, too exhausted to do anything but blink his heavy eyes open to meet Damen’s gaze.

“You were supposed to meet me three hours ago,” Damen points out, and Laurent blinks in agreement. “Are you all right?”

This is a question that Laurent feels wholly unprepared to answer, and Damen’s gaze softens around the edges. Laurent has an inexplicable urge to laugh, but he knows from the look on Damen’s face that it wouldn’t go over particularly well. Instead, he pushes himself up onto one elbow and regards Damen plainly, in a way he hasn’t been able to in the last week.

“I overslept,” he says simply, and does not offer any explanation. Damen nods, as if that makes any sense.

“You got your things?” Laurent nods, reaches up to wipe the sleep out of his eyes. “I’m sorry about—the state of the place. I know Makedon tried to tell them not to—”

“It’s fine,” Laurent interrupts. Damen looks different in a suit, more well-groomed. He’s even shaved, the barest trace of a five o’clock shadow present on his cheeks. His tie is loosened, shirt open at the collar, as if he’d begun to undress before realizing Laurent was in his bed. “I didn’t need much.”

Damen looks torn, for reasons Laurent can’t quite figure out this soon after waking, but he nods solemnly.

“I’m glad you came.” The words make Laurent’s breath catch in his throat. If he’s being honest, he’s not sure why he’s here, laid out in Damen’s bed like he has a right to be here. Somewhere in the back of his mind the thought tickles—what would Uncle have done, all those years ago, if he’d found Laurent laid out on the bed, helpless to his affections?

It’s a question he already knows the answer to. And yet Damen, still crouched next to the bed with his hand braced against the mattress, still makes no move towards Laurent’s undisturbed clothing, or to touch him in any way. And yet, Damen defies everything that Laurent tells himself is true of men. Instead of replying, he lets his eyes blink back shut, feels Damen’s warm huff of laughter on his face. He’s still held up on a single arm, and Laurent lets himself sink back into Damen’s mattress, familiar and sprawling.

“Laurent,” Damen says, and Laurent can almost feel the vibrations.

“Damianos,” he replies. He doesn’t know what he’s asking for, doesn’t know what Damen thinks he’s asking for. His outstretched palm is flat on the bed, and he can feel Damen’s own fingers inching towards it. He doesn’t have the energy or the will or the desire to pull away when Damen’s skin meets his, so he lets himself be touched, if only for this moment. “Is this how it could have been?”

“Perhaps.” Laurent opens his eyes again, watches Damen watch him. “Is this what you would have wanted?”

“Perhaps,” he echoes. Damen nods, and pulls his hand away. Laurent wants to reach out for him, to draw him close, but he lets Damen step away without another word. Damen sheds his suit coat and tie, his back turned, and it’s as if he’s shed a layer of skin. His shoulders smooth down, and when he runs a hand through his neatly-arranged curls, Damen looks slightly more like the man Laurent has become familiar with. This time, he makes himself sit all the way up, his sweater riding up to expose the burn on his left hip. When Damen turns around, his gaze flicks down to the circular patch of scar tissue, then back up to Laurent’s face.

“Come to bed,” Laurent says, and feels the familiar turn of nausea at the words. It is Damen’s turn to blink, his hands pausing at the buttons of his shirt. Laurent tilts his chin up, looks through his lashes towards where Damen is rooted to the floor. This is what Laurent is used to—this is what he wants, he tells himself. Damen’s body covering his, bruising hands pushing his face against the pillow, the gasping pain of giving. His hands are shaking on Damen’s cotton sheets.

Damen’s hands drop, and he takes a step back, towards the closed door. Laurent lets his thighs spread under the covers, knows how enticing it must look even with the blankets still half-thrown over his hips.

“Damianos,” he repeats. He can see the want in Damen’s eyes and it makes his stomach flutter, twisting the nausea around in circles even as he looks at Damen’s capable hands and wonders what they would feel like wrapped around his neck. “Come here.”

This time, Damen obeys, bare feet gentle on the carpet. Every nerve in Laurent’s body feels exposed and raw, and he thinks that if Damen touched him now, he would fly apart. He reaches out anyway, pulls Damen over him and kicks off the covers in a smooth, practiced motion. Damen’s breath is heavy on his cheek, and Laurent turns his face to the side.

“Don’t do this,” Damen says, even as his hands settle firmly on Laurent’s waist. Laurent pushes up into the touch, pushes his hips against Damen’s in a desperate plea for Damen to hold him tighter, to shove him down into the mattress. Damen’s grip gives, though, and Laurent clenches his teeth. “Laurent, I’m not going to help you do this.”

“Do what,” Laurent snaps, barely a question. He lets his hips roll up suggestively, into the evidence of Damen’s arousal. His sweater is rucked up to his chest now, bare skin exposed to the air. “You seem to be interested enough.”

This time, Damen’s fingers dig into his flesh, and Laurent gasps when he’s pressed down into the mattress with the force of Damen’s considerable muscle, one of Damen’s forearms braced on his chest, the other hand gripping his hip tightly.

And then a flare of panic hits Laurent’s chest and he can’t breathe, and Laurent is suddenly struggling, straining against Damen’s suffocating hold. He thrashes, and Damen keeps him pinned, the sheer bulk of him enough to keep Laurent in place. Laurent tosses his head back against the headboard, the terror in his chest only amplified when he hears the sickening crack and feels the pain race down his scalp.

Damen moves, then, planting himself on top of Laurent’s hips and relinquishing his hold on his waist. His hands come up, bracing Laurent’s neck between them, his fingers buried in the golden hair at the nape of Laurent’s neck. It renders him effectively immobile, and Laurent sobs with it, his hands wrapping tight around Damen’s wrists, taut with tension. Behind the darkness of his own eyelids, he thinks he sees the glinting of perfectly straight, white teeth.

Laurent,” Damen says, and presses his forehead against Laurent’s own. His breaths are harsh and panicked against Damen’s lips, the last of his struggles petering out. “Laurent, look at me.”

It takes a long time, his chest rising with every repressed sob, but Laurent eventually manages to open his eyes. Damen is too close to focus on, and Laurent lets his vision drift, the world in his peripheral vision going blurry. There is something rattling in his chest when he breathes, his eyelashes are clumped together with what must be tears.

“You don’t want this,” Damen says, voice low and desperate. His breath smells like mint. Laurent shakes underneath him, tries with all his strength to push Damen’s hands away.

“I do,” Laurent says, and even to himself he sounds broken. He slumps into Damen’s grip, unwilling to put up any more of a fight, and lets his eyes slowly focus on Damen as he pulls his head away. Damen’s eyes are bright, his own breathing uneven. The ache at the back of Laurent’s skull is making itself known, the pressure in his abdomen easing slightly as Damen shifts his weight. “I do.”

He doesn’t know if he believes it anymore. He doesn’t know if he ever did. Damen just looks at him, his shirt half-unbuttoned revealing the tank top underneath, his hands still cradling Laurent’s head. Laurent finally relaxes his grip on Damen’s wrists, though he doesn’t let go. He knows that he’s left behind red crescents where his nails dug into dark skin, but can’t make himself look.

“I’m sorry,” Damen says. It’s not enough. Laurent won’t let himself cry, not like this, but every breath he takes feels like it might be his last, adrenaline pumping through his veins with nowhere to go. He fights the urge to throw himself at Damen, like he’d fought the urge to claw and bite every day for years. He can feel the tension singing through his body, and he knows that Damen can too.

It’s not enough. Laurent feels like if Damen lets go of him, if Damen moves a fraction of an inch closer, he’s going to fly into a million pieces. It’s thick and heavy between them, the bedroom silent as Laurent struggles to control his breathing and Damen holds him there.

“Let me go,” Laurent finally says, as firmly as he can to keep the tremor out of his voice. Despite the low volume, the words carry. Damen looks at him warily, but his fingers uncurl from where they’ve been pressed against the back of Laurent’s neck. Damen sits back on his haunches, weight lifted ever so slightly from Laurent’s hips, and he scrambles out from under him, his back hitting the headboard in a desperate escape. For a long moment, they just stare at each other, chests heaving in an uneven rhythm.

“Laurent, I—” Damen starts, and Laurent cuts him off.

“I have to go.” He isn’t sure if his feet will be able to carry him, but he slips off the bed anyway. His legs are shaking, along with the rest of his body, but he makes it to the bedroom door without collapsing.

“Don’t follow me,” he says, still trying desperately to keep the tremor from his voice. Damen still hasn’t moved from his spot on the bed, but his head is bent low. The sight sends a pang of hot remorse and shame through him, but when he turns to leave, Laurent doesn’t look back. He tugs on his boots and his coat unceremoniously—he doesn’t know when Damen will move, half-expects him to ignore the demand. His hand slips into the pocket of his coat, and Laurent freezes.

There, half-forgotten in the depths of the silky lining, is the roll of film Nicaise had pressed into his hand at the foster agency. Laurent’s breath, still erratic, catches in his throat, and he pulls out the small plastic tube and turns it over in his unsteady fingers.

There is nothing on that film that Laurent wants to see. He leaves the plastic roll still warm from his touch on Damen’s counter, inches away from where they’d nearly kissed days ago, Laurent’s heels tapping against the cabinets. The thought of Damen developing the film, of seeing firsthand the secrets Laurent has kept hidden for years, makes his throat close up. After a moment spent trying to swallow the sudden re-emergence of tears, Laurent draws the silver key out of his pocket and places it next to the film, the two items tiny on the uncluttered surface of the counter.

He leaves Damen’s apartment quietly, though he waits for the click of the automatic lock before stepping away, his hand lingering on the doorknob. The hallway is quiet, the snow outside muffling any noise even through the walls of the building. Laurent is half-afraid of meeting Jord, and takes the stairs down three flights before he makes himself stop. He presses himself up against the cold wall of the staircase and forces himself to breathe, to ignore the hammering of his heart against his ribcage and force it into a rhythm closer to normal. He feels like a startled rabbit. Laurent is teetering on the edge of a precipice, too controlled to let himself fall yet not controlled enough to step away from the ledge.

It’s while he’s leaning up against the wall of the third floor that his phone begins to buzz in his pocket. Laurent draws it out, expecting Jord or Nicaise or even Auguste, and isn’t prepared for what he sees. Paschal is calling him, has called him once already nearly ten minutes ago without leaving a voicemail. Laurent’s thumb is still trembling as he swipes to answer the call and lifts the device to his ear without a word.

“Laurent,” Paschal greets, sounding flustered. “I know that—what I said earlier, I wish it did not have to be this way—”

“What do you need?” Laurent asks, and his voice sounds remarkably composed to his own ears. He bundles up his panic and pain and the buzzing underneath his skin and shoves it away, to the little place it lives in at the clinic, where none of it can touch him. The emptiness that follows is like a physical ache, but it’s better than falling over that ledge.

“I need you to come in,” Paschal replies immediately, weariness heavy in his words. “Please, Laurent. This is—more than I could have imagined.”

Chapter Text

xli.

Without anyone to drive him, it takes Laurent almost twenty minutes to get to St. Jude’s. There’s an awful sinking feeling in his gut, because what Paschal had described was exactly what he had feared. Their wards packed with children rescued by police officers and members of the SWAT team all over the city—not to mention the cargo that Laurent had discovered on Friday—had left the hospitals with too many abused, ill, malnourished children on their hands. Laurent jumps off the train the second the door opens and barely makes it into the changing rooms before he’s throwing on a pair of scrubs next to an exhausted-looking woman exchanging her stained smock for a cleaner one.

It doesn’t take Laurent long to find Paschal—he’s hurrying along the halls with alarming speed for a man of his age, and draws up short when he sees Laurent. His brow is knitted tightly, gray-white hair in a state of uncharacteristic disarray.

“What do you need?” Laurent asks again, and Paschal deflates slightly with relief.

“I need you to check on the children on the fourth floor—make the rounds. Some seem to be showing signs of hypothermia; make sure that everything is taken care of.” Laurent nods, and Paschal bustles away as quickly as he’s come. The hallways are busier than Laurent has ever seen them, nurses and doctors alike rushing in every direction with pagers sounding every few seconds. Laurent makes his way to the fourth floor, and takes a deep breath to fortify himself before the elevator doors slide open.

It’s still not enough. Every room Laurent enters sends another pang of nausea through him, every child and teenager that flinches away from his touches makes him wish he could do more than take their temperatures and check on various healing injuries. Laurent would say that the worst ones are the teenagers, the older ones who barely look him in the eye, but then he checks up on a girl who can’t be more than eight who trembles when he gets too close and something in him shatters.

“You’re safe now,” Laurent whispers dozens of times, piling more blankets on top of shivering boys and refilling plastic cups of water for all the patients. None of them seem to believe him. Laurent wonders if he even believes it himself, some days.

His hands are shaking before he finally lets himself take a break, ducking into a restroom to try and wash the stench of vomit and antiseptic off of his skin. It doesn’t work, but the effort makes him feel a little better. He’s made it through two thirds of the crisis kids in this ward, but there are still over a dozen left to check on. He’s seen other nurses bustling in and out of rooms, the same pinched expression on their faces as he’s sure is on his own. None of them had paid him much mind, none of them had spared him any unusual glances. Laurent figures that they’re all too busy to remember his last name, or his connections.

It takes him a few moments to compose himself before leaving the bathroom and heading towards the next room, his steps brisk as he opens the door. What he sees makes him hesitate the barest moment; two boys are in the single bed, one sitting up with the other’s head on his chest, evidently sleeping. The boy sitting up glares at Laurent the moment he steps in, his chin tilting in defiance, but Laurent notices the way his fingers clench on the arms of the boy in his lap, his breath quickening under the thin layer of his hospital gown. Laurent leaves the door to the room propped open, assumes that if no one had said anything about it, the arrangement of the boys must be permitted.

It takes very little inspecting to notice that the sleeping boy’s arm is in a cast. His face is mottled with aging bruises, and every time Laurent steps far enough away to be deemed safe, the awake boy glances down at his companion like he’s afraid that he’s disappeared.

“What’s your name?” Laurent asks, after he’s refilled the two plastic cups next to the bed. The boy starts, his dark hair falling into his eyes as he glares up. For a moment, Laurent thinks that he’s not going to answer, but the boy finally glances down, his fingers smoothing over his companion’s gown nervously.

“Kallias,” he says, voice raspy. Laurent nudges one of the cups of water towards him and takes a decent step back. He makes sure his face is devoid of emotion—a familiar mask in these sterile halls. Kallias downs the cup in a single stroke, and places it back on the table without meeting Laurent’s eye. He refills it again, and Kallias drinks more than a third of it before glancing back up.

“He’s Erasmus,” Kallias says, and Laurent’s mask cracks.

“Are you—“ He cuts himself off, ignores the way his heart skips a beat at the name. “Do you know him well?”

Kallias’ glare intensifies, if possible, and he nods sharply. Laurent exhales shakily, resuming his reach towards the thermometer on the counter. He extends it without a word to Kallias, barely within touching range. Kallias seems reluctant and Laurent doesn’t blame him, but after a long moment of waiting and staring and Kallias glancing between Laurent and the open door, he nods.

Laurent steps closer, ignores the way Kallias’ shoulders tense at his approach. Open your mouth, he almost says, and feels the heavy weight of fingers against his lips, urging entrance. Kallias parts his lips evenly for the thin intrusion of the thermometer as nausea bubbles in Laurent’s gut. Tension is radiating from Kallias’ body, every muscle tight except his fingers, gentle on Erasmus’ shoulders as they wait for the thermometer to complete its reading.

Erasmus. Every time Laurent looks at him, at the bruised face and delicate eyelashes and casted arm, he tries to reconcile the image with the boy he’d met one afternoon after cross country practice, Torveld’s fond hand tousling his hair and hoisting his young nephew on his shoulders in front of the older boys, despite the child’s giggling protests. He’d been pronounced missing nearly two years after Laurent had met him, weeks before his graduation. Laurent had been just seventeen, the result of a skipped grade and a spring birthday, and he remembers the defeat in Torveld’s slumped shoulders.

Erasmus can’t be more than four years younger than Laurent himself. He’s been missing long enough to be presumed dead, and Laurent thinks sharply of Auguste, returned from the grave.

The thermometer beeps minutely and Laurent checks the reading. Kallias doesn’t seem to be in danger of hypothermia, but the pallor of his skin still doesn’t look healthy. Laurent notes it, and then moves slowly towards Erasmus. He’s still sleeping, more soundly than Laurent thought possible. As soon as he gets close, however, Kallias jerks back with Erasmus wrapped in his arms, his eyes wide and angry.

“Don’t touch him!” He exclaims, and Laurent steps back sharply. Kallias’ chest is heaving, his body curled protectively over his companion’s still-sleeping form. Laurent lifts his hands, palms out, trying to placate him, but it doesn’t seem to ease the boy’s sudden panic.

“I wont,” Laurent reassures, and takes another step back for good measure. “I’m not going to touch him. I just need to take his temperature.”

For a long moment, there’s nothing but the fractured sound of Kallias’ breathing. Finally, his firm grip on Erasmus’ shoulder eases, and he reaches his hand out, jaw clenched. “I’ll do it.”

Laurent nods, reaches for a new thermometer on the counter. Kallias watches his movements warily, and practically snatches the thermometer from Laurent’s outstretched palm. He fumbles with it for a moment, his hands shaking badly. Laurent just watches, poised to catch the instrument should it fall, but Kallias manages to slip it under Erasmus’ tongue within a minute. His hand lingers, trembling fingers resting feather-light on the yellow and purple marring Erasmus’ face, and then draws back like he’s been burned.

“How did he get those?” Laurent asks, very quietly. It’s hardly the time, and he’s sure the police or the FBI will be by to interrogate every rescued child in the building, but he needs to know. Kallias looks up at him, expression shuttered. Laurent thinks for a long moment that he isn’t going to answer. The thermometer goes off and Kallias hands it back to Laurent without a word. Instead of returning his hands to Erasmus’ shoulders, he crosses his wrists over the other boy’s chest, still hunched over him protectively. Laurent records the temperature—slightly higher than it should be, but not yet critical—and is about to turn to leave the room when Kallias speaks, his voice uncertain and hoarse.

“He was—protecting me,” Kallias says, and Laurent freezes where he stands. “We were. Together for years, ever since...as long as I can remember. I always tried to protect him, when he would let me.”

Laurent feels the tears prickling at his eyes and refuses to indulge them. He doesn’t turn towards the bed, though, doesn’t want to spook the boy.

“Sometimes, though, he’d let them—take him instead. I swear, I tried to keep them off of him but—” Kallias’ voice cracks, and Laurent hears the beginning of a sob. When he speaks again, Kallias’ voice is closer to a whisper, thick with tears. “It wasn’t even his turn this time.”

It’s enough to make him turn. Kallias doesn’t even bother looking up this time, his head bowed low, forehead touching Erasmus’. Laurent wants to reach out, but keeps his hands at his side, stomach twisting with emotions he doesn’t want to name.

“The men who did this are going to pay,” Laurent says quietly, with all the certainty he can muster. When Kallias looks up at him, dark eyes red-rimmed, Laurent meets his gaze without hesitation. The boy doesn’t seem to believe him, but he nods anyway, the movement dislodging a tear from his cheek. The drop lands on Erasmus’ forehead, and Kallias’ dark thumb moves automatically to wipe it away, the touch to tender that Laurent turns his face away.

“There’s a call button next to the bed if he wakes up.” Kallias doesn’t bother responding as he blinks heavily, and Laurent steps out of the room. The moment before he swings the door closed, he sees the tension in Kallias’ shoulders ease, and he slumps back against the heap of pillows at his back. Laurent double-checks that the door is firmly shut, and then steps away with his fingers pressed into his eyes.

He’s not technically supposed to have his phone on him during rounds, but he knows that some things are too time-sensitive to leave to the end of his shift. He digs the phone out of his pockets and dials Auguste, pressing his back against the cold wall of the hallway. Several people pass, and only spare a half-glance his way. The phone rings once, twice, and then it connects.

“Hello?” Auguste sounds wary, even over the static of the connection. It must still be snowing outside, Laurent muses.

“I need you to come to St. Jude’s,” Laurent says. “Bring Torveld with you.”

“St. Jude’s?” Auguste asks, confusion evident in his voice. “What are you doing at St. Jude’s?”

“I work here,” Laurent reminds him sharply, too strung out to gentle his words. Auguste’s sharp breath sends remorse through him, but not enough that he stops to apologize. “You need to get Torveld here immediately. I assume you’re still staying with him; it should’t be a problem.”

“Okay, okay,” Auguste says, placating. “Just—what do I tell him?”

Laurent drags his hand down his face, leans back heavy against the wall. His eyes keep darting back towards the doorway, occasionally obscured by a passing figure. The words shouldn’t be this hard to force out.

“Tell him that they’ve found Erasmus.”


xlii.

Laurent meets Auguste and Torveld in the lobby not ten minutes later. Torveld looks frantic, his cheeks pinked from the cold, and the second he sees Laurent he’s barreling through the not insubstantial crowd. Auguste trails behind him, face nearly void of emotion as he follows the path Torveld is clearing for himself.

“Where is he?” He demands, as soon as he’s close enough that Laurent can draw him to the side, brow pinched. He can’t make himself meet Torveld’s eyes. “Laurent, please, I need to see him.”

“Okay,” Laurent begins, careful. “I will have to ask him. If he does not wish to see you—”

“I don’t care,” Torveld replies, less than a second after Laurent has finished speaking. “I just—I need to know, I need to—”

“I know.” Torveld’s chest is still heaving from his apparent run into the hospital, and Laurent waits for a moment before guiding him through the hallways to Erasmus’ room. He pauses outside the door, listens for the sound of quiet murmuring through the wood, and knocks lightly when he hears it. The sound startles the voices into silence, and Laurent pushes down on the door handle.

“Stay here,” he says, quietly. He doesn’t check to see if Torveld replies. He steps into the room, leaves the door ajar a few inches, watches as Kallias and Erasmus jolt. Kallias’ glare is as frigid as it was earlier, his arms protectively crossed over Erasmus’ chest. Erasmus looks terrified, his eyes wide as he pushes himself back into the other boy’s arms, the bruising on his face stark against his honey-gold hair. Laurent chokes something back and waits for Erasmus’ eyes to calm before stepping a little further into the room.

“Erasmus,” he begins. He doesn’t try to make eye contact, but he sees the split second of recognition, the slowly dawning horror on his face. “You remember me.”

“No,” Erasmus says, voice broken, but it’s not a denial. He’s shaking, even Laurent can see. Kallias’s grip tightens and Erasmus hunches back into his chest, fingers scrambling at his friend’s wrist. “No, no—”

“Get out,” Kallias says, desperation tinging the edges of his tone. Laurent holds his ground, makes the slope of his shoulders as non-threatening as he can manage. Erasmus’ chest is heaving, Kallias’ fingers gripping him in agitation. Neither boy looks comfortable, though Laurent can hardly blame them.

“Erasmus,” Laurent says again, and the boy shakes his head. “Please. Do you remember me?”

He waits. One beat, two, until the pace of Erasmus’ breathing begins to ebb. He shuts his eyes, presses his cheek into the cotton of Kallias’ hospital gown. “Laurent,” he whispers, and it’s enough. The tension in Laurent’s spine doesn’t ease, but it’s enough.

“Okay,” he says. Kallias glares at him, blinks back tears. “Erasmus, your uncle is here.”

Had he been in the same place, four years ago, those would have been the last words Laurent would have wanted to hear. Erasmus sobs, once, and then chokes it down. He doesn’t have to say anything. Laurent nods, and starts to back out of the room.

“I won’t send him in until you’re ready, but he is here when you are.” He fits his fingers in the crack of the door, and Kallias tracks his every movement. “If you need anything, page me.”

“You’ve done enough,” Kallias says, but his voice lacks the conviction of earlier. He’s looking back down at Erasmus before Laurent is even out the door, whispering something to him that Laurent can’t hear. He shuts the door behind him and, acutely aware of Auguste and Torveld at his back, does not let his shoulders slump. His pager beeps at his hip, and he silently thanks the intrusion.

“Well?” Torveld asks, frantic. His long hair is pushed back from his face, beard disheveled. Auguste at his side looks like he hasn’t slept in days. Vaguely, Laurent thinks that it’s barely been twenty-four hours since Uncle was arrested. Twenty-four hours, and he’s out there, somewhere. Auguste runs a hand through his hair, and Laurent notes that it’s gotten darker since he—left.

“You can’t see him,” Laurent says, and doesn’t wait to see Torveld’s face fall. He holds up a hand. “I don’t know when he’ll be ready, but I didn’t think I should wait. You—you deserved to know that he is alive, at least.”

Auguste turns his face away. Laurent pretends that he does not notice.

“Thank you,” is all Torveld manages to say before his face crumbles. Auguste is there in a second, hand braced on his back, rubbing in comforting circles. Laurent feels the echo of a large hand, splayed between his shoulder blades. The part of him that is still a child wishes for Auguste’s attention, his comfort. The part of him that is not watches coldly for a moment, and then checks his pager.

There are places that he needs to be, and here seems to no longer be one of them.


xliii.

Laurent doesn’t leave the clinic until nearly six in the morning. Paschal had left an hour before him, physically too exhausted to remain standing. He had been helped out to his car by another nurse, and Laurent had busied himself with the patients slowly trickling in through the doors, sometimes escorted by harried-looking police officers, other times grouped together in bunches of five or six and half-carried in by members of the SWAT team or police officers. No one spares time for rest or food or pleasantries—there is too much to be done, too many children filling the rooms of the relatively small clinic.

When Estienne finally forces him out of the clinic, three pairs of his scrubs in the industrial washing machine in the back and finally dressed in clothes that make him feel like a human being, the horizon is starting to seem hazy with the faint promise of sunrise. Laurent grips the bag he had taken first from Uncle’s apartment and then Damen’s in one hand, listening to the soft crunch of his boots on the freshly-fallen snow.

The subway that will take him to Jord’s apartment—and Damen’s—is three blocks away from the clinic. The subway that will take him to Vannes’ is four. Laurent stands at the crossroads that will take him to one or the other, and he does not know what to do. In the long minutes that he stands there, braced against the icy wind in nothing but his coat and scarf, not a single car passes.

He does not want to go back to Damen. When he closes his eyes he can still feel Damen’s hands braced against his neck, fingers achingly warm against the winter air. He can still feel hands, though this time he’s not sure whose, wrapped around his still-trembling wrists. Left takes him to Jord and to Damen and the familiar landscape of their sixth-floor view; right takes him to Vannes and her quiet comfort and the polaroid sitting on her coffee table and all the memories that come with it. It is Laurent’s catch-22, each choice as impossible as the next.

For the first time in a long time, Laurent regrets not having an apartment of his own.

He had thought about it, upon turning eighteen. He had gotten his first paycheck from the clinic, after two years of community college, and had looked up apartment listings on a whim. He’d even found one, on the other end of town from both work and Uncle, and had thought for a long time about contacting the landlord, putting down a deposit, finally having a space that was his and his alone. Somewhere to simply exist, without the added pressure of being watched.

In the end, though, he hadn’t done it. Uncle had taken control of his finances at that point anyway—still is in control of his finances, if nothing has changed since yesterday. That is why there had been no point in keeping his paychecks, and no point in renting an apartment. Uncle would have simply needed to stop paying rent, if he had wanted to drag Laurent home like a dog on a choke-chain.

Laurent crosses the street, and keeps walking forward. If he walks until the clinic calls him in again, it will give him more time to center himself. Exhaustion tugs at his eyelids and Laurent blinks it away—it’s been twelve hours since he’d woken up in Damen’s bed, he can keep going for longer than this, despite the strain of being on his feet at the clinic for most of it.

It has started to snow again by the time Laurent sees the first subway stop. He stops to check the route, simply because he can, and notes that it will take him Northeast, towards the coast. He shoves his hands deeper into the pockets of his coat and wishes he had thought to bring gloves.

The city before dawn is eerie; in this business neighborhood, nothing is awake besides the flickering streetlamps, their yellow glows swallowed by the banks of snow piling the sidewalks. Laurent stands still, reaches out and runs a bare finger over the frost caking a store window; the glass is shockingly cold, the frost even more so. Laurent watches it melt on his skin, half-amused that he is warm enough to cause it. His lips are chapped against the blowing wind; he can feel the snowflakes sticking to them for the briefest of seconds before they, too, are gone.

He is so caught up in feeling the cold that he doesn’t hear the approach until the hands are on him. One clapped over his mouth, muffling his hoarse, startled shout. The other wrapped firmly around his chest and arms, restricting his struggles.

As he is forced into an alleyway by a man who must be nearly a foot taller than him, Laurent reflects detachedly that the panic welling in his chest is muted, as if by the snow itself. He is shoved face-first into a wall; there will be a bloody scrape on his cheekbone, Laurent thinks, if he makes it out of this alive. He cannot see the face of the hulking mass of muscle holding him against the wall as he pushes back experimentally, trying to test the weaknesses of the man’s hold. There, when he shoves against a shoulder, is a little give, a grunt of pain.

Laurent is moments away from fighting back with everything he has in him when he hears it.

“Nephew,” says Uncle, hidden in the shadows behind him.

Laurent’s breath freezes in his lungs. His limbs feel like marble, suddenly, too heavy to move. There’s a dark chuckle from the wall of muscle behind him, one that Laurent has heard in nightmares for years.

He’s fourteen again, suddenly, pressed against the wall of the apartment hallway and screaming. Uncle hums, moves, and appears in Laurent’s peripheral vision.

He looks as impeccable and as deadly as usual. Laurent has never seen him pick up a knife, or a gun, or any other weapon that would dirty his hands when he could get his silver tongue to pull a trigger under the pressure of someone else’s finger. Looking at him feels like being thrown into a snowbank—Laurent feels suddenly and unexpectedly awake.

“It pains me, to see us meeting like this,” Uncle says. Laurent closes his eyes, and Govart’s hand wraps itself comfortingly around his neck, like an old friend welcoming him home. When he opens them again, Uncle is smiling, like he pities Laurent. “I don’t see why it had to come to this, Laurent.”

Hearing his own name out of Uncle’s mouth, spoken like an amused lover, makes Laurent think about vomiting over Govart’s hand. It had slipped from his mouth to grip his windpipe; he could speak now, if he wished.

Laurent keeps his mouth shut. Uncle sighs.

“I know that you and I have had our differences. I admit, I had a hand in driving you away, however unintentionally it may have been.” Uncle steps closer, until he’s merely a foot away from where Laurent is still being held against the solid brick. The line of blood from his cheekbone has tracked to the corner of his mouth, and Laurent can taste copper on his tongue. Uncle reaches out a hand, the gold ring on his middle finger glinting in the low light, and Laurent doesn’t flinch.

Uncle smooths the hair back from Laurent’s face, and he closes his eyes in surrender. His body goes limp against Govart’s, the terror ebbing out of his limbs until the hollow deadness that’s sinking into his stomach runs through them.

“I never wanted to see you like this, Laurent,” Uncle whispers, tender enough that Laurent wants, desperately, to believe it. He can feel the tears clawing at him, can feel his trembling breath beginning to morph into sobs. Uncle’s hand remains on Laurent’s clean cheek, rubbing at the arch of his cheekbone absently. Laurent could close his eyes now, with Govart’s hand wrapped around his throat, and he could let everything be over.

But of course, nothing is quite that simple.

“I never wanted it to be this way,” Uncle says, and Laurent feels Govart’s hand pull away ever so slightly from his back, and return with a cold line of steel pressing into him over his coat. Laurent feels himself go still, feels the too-familiar blade twisting in his shoulder from years ago. “Laurent, you have to know that.”

Uncle doesn't like it when he doesn't respond. Laurent chokes on the words in his throat, bucks involuntarily and hears fabric ripping as the knife digs in a little deeper. Uncle waits.

“I'm sorry, Uncle,” he finally manages, dragging the words out of his chest. Uncle’s face softens, his thumb slipping from Laurent’s cheekbone to rest lightly on the curve of his lower lip. Laurent blinks, averts his eyes, tries not to open his mouth and let Uncle’s thumb find its too-familiar spot resting on his tongue. He can see the faint quirk of Uncle’s lips as he strokes lightly over the chapped skin, though he can’t force himself to meet Uncle’s eyes after too many years of conditioning.

“I know, nephew,” Uncle replies with a heavy sigh. “This really does pain me to have to do, when you were such a lovely boy.”

The words strike something low and cold in Laurent’s stomach. He wants to scream, wants to knock Uncle’s hand off of him, wants to kiss the golden ring like he’d done so many times before and he can’t, Govart’s body is pinning his arms to the small of his back, the knife digs in a little deeper. Laurent fights a gasp, fights the panic and the apathy both clawing at Govart’s hand around his throat. Uncle draws away, his touch lingering on Laurent’s cheek for a split second as Laurent realizes what is about to happen.

He is going to die here, in an unfamiliar alley, with Govart’s knife stuck in his back. Uncle sighs again, steps out of Laurent’s line of vision. He doesn’t know if that makes it better—knowing that he is not going to have to watch Uncle as he dies. His face still burns from the imprint of Uncle’s fingers. Govart laughs in his ear, breath tickling his hairline as his hand releases its bruising grip around Laurent’s throat, travels down

“You’re not as pretty as you used to be,” Govart says, voice nasal and threatening. “But I think we can work something out, right Princess?”

From behind him, Laurent hears the crunch of footsteps on snow, and he wonders through the fog of rising panic whether Uncle is going to stay and watch as Govart fucks him, and he cannot stop the instinctive struggle against Govart’s hold on his hip, pushing at his slacks until they tear with a sickening rip and Laurent cannot breathe, cannot feel anything except Govart’s hands sickeningly warm on his skin and the knife pressing cold into his spine through the tear in his coat and Laurent throws his elbow back against Govart’s shoulder, the one that a bullet had clipped just over twenty-four hours ago, staining Nicaise’s apartment floor with blood.

He feels the impact milliseconds before Govart’s grunt of pain presses the knife into his back. Laurent feels the searing pain of the first cut and fights back anyway, ducking away as Govart staggers back, desperately aware of the brief seconds he has before Govart recovers. It’s long enough to get away from the brick wall, not long enough to look for Uncle, not long enough to gather his wits before Govart is lunging at him, as tall as Damen and just as broadly muscled. Laurent is briefly paralyzed with memories—hands wrapped around his wrist in the silk sheets of the bed at Chastillon, the weight of Govart on top of him, rotten breath against his cheek in the hallway of the apartment building—and then ducks away from the blind rage the makes Govart’s moves sloppy.

He and Jord had taken defense classes together. Nearly two years ago, Jord had bought them both a twelve-session class, and had dragged Laurent along twice a week. It had been awful, at first—the instructor was gentle and yet insisted on touching him, on loosely gripping Laurent’s wrists and restraining him around the chest and Laurent had very nearly walked out, those first few days. It hadn’t gotten easier, but the longer he had stayed in the class, the safer he had felt walking home from subway stations, elbow jerking reflexively every time he’d heard footsteps behind him. It hadn’t been much—simple techniques at first, working up to something closer to a sustained struggle by the end of the course—and yet now Laurent is fiercely grateful.

Laurent doesn’t want to run. He knows that he is faster than Govart, knows that he could make it out of this alley safe if he really tried. But very suddenly, Laurent is tired of running, tired of playing into Uncle’s hands over and over and over again like he has since he was a boy, naive and stupid and too easily convinced of his own intelligence. Laurent dodges the first sloppy swing of the serrated knife, and ducks under Govart’s furiously swinging fist to land another hit against his weak shoulder, and a knee to the groin for good measure.

It’s not enough to put Govart on the ground—the shock of the hits barely makes him double over before he’s growling in fury, but it makes him drop the knife. He hardly seems to realize, balling both hands into fists as Laurent keeps stepping away, turning them in a circle until he’s standing over the discarded knife. To reach it, he is going to have to take a hit.

Govart’s fist hits Laurent’s cheek, splitting his lip open at the corner, and he forces himself to go to his knees with the pain, vision spotty for a brief second before his fingers curl around the hilt of the knife. This is the blade that Jord had pulled out of his shoulder when he was fourteen, the blade he’d taken from Jord’s table and dropped on the floor of Uncle’s apartment before burying himself under the covers of their bed. The blade that had been gone when he’d emerged, that he had naively assumed Uncle had thrown away. Govart’s hand fists in Laurent’s hair and he cries out in shock and pain, trying his hardest to scramble up when Govart drags him nearly to his feet, hissing vulgarities and swears as he drags Laurent closer, the sting of his scalp bringing tears to his eyes as he fights for a foothold on the icy ground, finding one just as Govart gives a final tug to bring him up.

He hears Govart growl out bitch, and then the spit hits his turned-away cheek, and Laurent throws all of his body weight into driving the knife up and through and into Govart’s chest. His scalp screams as he yanks against the too-tight grip, the cut on his back tugs and drips blood, the bruises around his throat are beginning to make themselves known, and still Laurent manages to bury the knife to the hilt.

The noise Govart makes is part shock, part overwhelming rage, and then something gurgles up from his chest, and his hand unclenches from Laurent’s hair. The relief is sudden and overwhelming. Laurent steps back quickly, chest heaving as he watches Govart slump, then collapse. It is quickly becoming difficult to think, coherent words drowned out by the unrelenting thud of his heartbeat in his ears and the sound of his own panicked breathing. The knife is still buried in Govart’s chest, though the man lies face-down on the icy gravel.

Laurent does not think he is breathing. It’s disgusting and horrifying and—Laurent is glad.

When he finally has the presence of mind to look around the alley, half-lit by streetlamps and the odd dull light of the cloudy sky, Uncle is long gone.


xliv.

It takes Laurent a long time to decide what to do next. In the minutes he spends standing in the poorly lit alley, staring at Govart’s cooling body, it begins to snow. The cut on his back is starting to make itself known, the rush of adrenaline in his veins fading until Laurent is left panting, hardly able to hold up his own weight. Everything that’s happened feels like a terrible blur—he can’t quite remember the sequence, only Uncle’s thumb on his lips and Govart’s thick, sweaty hands and the shock of his lip splitting under the fist.

He can feel himself starting to detach, slipping into the nothing place that makes him lose minutes, hours with no sense of self and no memory of the time that had passed. Laurent touches the gash on his cheekbone, relies on the sharp sting to ground him so that he can get out of here, before Uncle’s men inevitably arrive to dispose of whichever body they’d been sent to collect. He isn’t sure how he makes it out of the alley, but he blinks and he’s standing on a streetcorner, fingers beginning to go numb.

Paschal lives two blocks away. He—remembers, once, Uncle bringing him. The day after that night at Chastillon.

Paschal, please. Uncle had practically begged, tears staining his cheek as he’d held Laurent, catatonic in his arms. He won’t let me take him to a hospital—please.

Laurent had laid motionless as Paschal had treated him, cleaned him up, talked lowly to his uncle in the other room. He remembers: Uncle slipping in when Paschal left to get supplies from the clinic, whispering to Laurent that if he told, everything would be ruined. If he told, they could never love each other again. Now, he stumbles the walk to Paschal’s house, watching numbly as snow starts to fall again, turning the tips of his fingers pale, then red with the stinging cold.

He can barely feel the wood on his knuckles when he raps on Paschal’s door, four solid thuds that echo in his ears. Laurent blinks the snow out of his eyelashes and waits the long minutes it takes for the door to creak open, Paschal’s irritated grumbling cut off by something like horror.

Laurent?” He asks, like he can’t believe it. Laurent cannot reply. He blinks again, helplessly, and wonders how much of the dampness on his face is half-frozen tears. “What are you—come in, get out of the cold—”

The house is startlingly warm, feeling starting to prick painfully back into Laurent’s fingers as Paschal ushers him onto the couch, fingers fluttering gently across the cuts on his face. He is talking and Laurent can’t bring himself to listen, to understand the frantic words until Paschal takes his hands, holding them tightly enough to massage feeling back into Laurent’s fingertips. He forces Laurent’s gaze up, and whatever he sees makes his calm mask fracture, just slightly.

“Who did this?” He asks, voice raw enough to tell Laurent that he already knows the answer. He shakes his head. Paschal’s fingers, wrinkled and warm, move to push his hair out of where it has fallen over his face, and Laurent flinches back. He drops his gaze, knows what he would see on the man’s face. “Don’t move—I’ll be right back.”

Laurent doesn’t say that he couldn’t move if he wanted to, the cut on his back oozing blood and stinging with the last flakes of melting snow. He doesn’t know if Paschal has seen it yet, distracted by the swelling bruises around his throat and torn slacks. When the man returns, he’s carrying a large first aid kit and a mug of something warm, which he presses into Laurent’s dazed hands.

“Drink this,” he instructs, and Laurent sips obediently. He thinks that it might be tea, but can’t quite tell through the fog settling into his mind. “Laurent, are you—did someone—”

His eyes are sad and frantic as they flick down to Laurent’s torn slacks, his half-undone belt. Laurent blinks slowly, and shakes his head. He can hear the sigh of relief moments before he feels Paschal’s breath tickling against the strands of his hair falling over his face. Gentle hands reach for his face again, this time holding a cloth damp with antiseptic. Laurent holds his head still by sheer force of will, closes his eyes and lets Paschal push his hair back with achingly tender hands. Every time Laurent hisses a breath through his teeth he hears Paschal’s echoing breath of regret, until his face is presumably clean of blood and both the cut on his lip and his cheek have been inspected carefully.

“It shouldn’t need stitches,” Paschal says about his lip, but spends a long time dabbing on an antibiotic cream and taping a small bandage over the cut, hands persistently kind. All Laurent can feel is fingers against his lips, hands forcing entry and pushing past the tight resistance of his jaw. He barely notices when Paschal finishes and moves on to the split across his cheekbone. There are abrasions there, too, from the rough of the brick. Laurent wonders whether it will scar.

He wonders, briefly, if Uncle would notice. If Uncle would care, if he survived but walked away scarred.

Paschal doesn’t speak, aside from asking Laurent quietly to turn his head, until he notices that Laurent is still shaking. He frowns, pulling away to look at him more closely, and seems to notice the way Laurent is holding himself, the careful stillness of his posture despite the trembling. Laurent inhales, falteringly, and Paschal’s brow furrows deeper.

“Are you hurt somewhere else?” He asks, concern lacing his voice. Laurent closes his eyes again. After a long moment, he nods, trying not to pull at the skin of his back. Paschal stands from his place in front of the couch and walks around it, and Laurent can tell the moment he sees Laurent’s bloody back, the cut in his clothing sticking to the slowly-bleeding incision just to the left of his spine. “Laurent.”

He launches into frantic motion, and Laurent lets his mind go blank. He feels what’s left of his shirt and jacket being cut away and thinks vaguely, I liked that coat. Paschal doesn’t speak again, until he warns Laurent that this is going to hurt.

The sting of the antiseptic does hurt, more than Laurent had expected. He can’t stop the small cry that escapes his lips and wishes that he could take it back, wishes that he’d never thought to come. Paschal apologizes, and Laurent wishes that he wouldn’t. He is reminded, suddenly, of the night he had met Jord all those years ago. He feels cold and helpless, divested of his upper layers, his belt still hanging half-open. Paschal’s fingers never stray from their gentle professionalism, cleaning up the blood that had dripped its way slowly down the small of Laurent’s back as he’d stumbled through the snowy streets. He wishes, briefly, masochistically, that Paschal would dig in his nails, tear open the stinging wound. He curls his fingers into his palms and breathes through it.

“This will need stitches,” Paschal says, when the wound is clean. Laurent exhales shakily, nods his head as slightly as he can manage. “I can take you to the clinic—”

“No.” Laurent cuts him off sharply. “Just—can you do them here?”

In the brief moment of hesitation before Paschal’s answer, Laurent can hear his own heart pounding against his chest.

“I can,” Paschal says, reluctantly. “But there will be no anesthesia. It will hurt.”

“I know,” Laurent tells him, and hears the soft noise of sadness. Paschal says nothing more, merely rummages in his first aid kit for the supplies needed. He remembers—Jord’s careful fingers holding him steady as he’d sewn up the now-healed scar in his shoulder. It had hurt, yes, but he had been half-delirious and barely cognizant of his surroundings. Now, he isn’t sure what to expect when Paschal’s fingers brace themselves on either side of the split in his skin, covered by a thin layer of latex.

“Don’t move,” Paschal tells him, and Laurent digs his fingernails into his own palms a little harder. Don’t move, Uncle’s voice teases him, it will only hurt for a moment, Laurent.

The first slide of the needle into his skin burns. Laurent can’t help the choked-off cry that he lets out, hair falling into his face once more as his head jerks forward. Paschal hisses behind him: don’t move. Laurent stills himself, clenching his eyes closed as if that will dull the odd, excruciating pain of the needle pulling itself through the wound. The only blessing is that the process is over quickly; the cut had been deep, not long. Laurent thinks vaguely that he must have lost a lot of blood.

Paschal is speaking again. Laurent isn’t sure what he’s saying, isn’t sure that he’s very present at all right now. He keeps his eyes closed and his posture rigid, even when a blanket is draped over his shoulders and a gentle hand uncurls his fingers from his palms.

“I’m sorry,” Paschal says, and he sounds ruined. Laurent snaps back to himself like an elastic band, and fights the urge to open his eyes. “I—Laurent, if I had—if I had known what he was doing to—to you and to all those—”

“Don’t,” Laurent says, raw and aching. He doesn’t—he doesn’t want to hear this.

“When he brought you here,” Paschal says, horror lacing his tone as he realizes. “That—he lied—”

Laurent thinks that Uncle had told Paschal that he had found him a few blocks away, lying in an alley on the walk home from school. He thinks that Uncle had played his part perfectly, so perfectly that he’d fooled even Laurent. He can hear Paschal attempting to stifle sobs, and feels for a brief moment a pang of regret so strong that it makes him blink his eyes open, taking in Paschal sitting in the armchair in front of him, hands covering his aging face.

“I helped him hurt you,” Paschal says, and Laurent wonders if he’s ever going to forgive himself. He doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know how to ease whatever pain Paschal must be in, remembering Uncle’s concerned hand atop Paschal’s own, urging him that a hospital wasn’t necessary, not so soon after his re-election to the City Council. Laurent stares at his hands, red crescent marks marring his pale, finally-warm hands. He doesn’t say anything in response; can’t say anything in response. If Laurent opens his mouth now, he’s going to regret what comes out.

Paschal manages to collect himself after a long few moments, gathering himself in the darkness of his living room and retrieving, with shaking fingers, the parts of his first aid kit that had been scrambled around the room. Laurent watches hollowly as he packs it up, and vanishes from the room only to return minutes later with a pillow and several more blankets, a bottle of Advil in one hand.

“I converted the spare room into an office,” he explains, and Laurent nods. “Don’t sleep on your back, or your side. It might agitate the stitches.”

“Thank you,” Laurent echoes, and hears the flatness in his own voice. Paschal cannot meet his gaze. It’s unnerving, to see him like this: clad in only pajamas, graying hair flying up in every direction, latex-covered fingertips still stained with blood. Laurent nods, and when the room is empty and dark once more, he slips out of his torn pants, wondering briefly what he is going to wear in the morning. Before he lies down he swallows two of the pills, washing it down with long-cold tea, and hopes that it makes a difference.

He lies on his stomach and tries not to think about Uncle. He tries not to think of the thumb pressed to his bottom lip, the way he’d wanted nothing more than to take it into his mouth where it belonged, the gentle caress of his face like he was a lover, something to be remembered. He’d almost forgotten—Uncle’s effortless skill at making Laurent feel like the helpless ten-year-old who had just buried his brother, who was desperate to be loved no matter the cost.

Laurent sleeps on his stomach and feels hands on him in his dreams, tugging his hips up and scratching beard burn along his spine, pulling him back and rocking him forward until nothing exists except Uncle’s lips against his ear, Uncle’s hands on his thighs, Uncle’s body keeping him afloat in the darkness that surrounds everything around them. When he cries out, his voice echoes back at him, and for a second Laurent confuses his own voice with Auguste’s, reaches out for his brother only to feel Uncle’s fingers curling against his own.

It will be over soon, nephew, Uncle promises in his ear, and closes his hand around Laurent’s neck.

Laurent wakes up tangled in the blankets Paschal had draped over him, his own hand wrapped around his throat.


xlv.

Paschal wakes up two hours after Laurent himself, two hours that he’d spent lying face-down on the couch trying not to breathe too deeply, arms wrapped around his pillow. Laurent can hear him clattering around in the kitchen and looks out of the window opposite the couch, peering through the curtain to try and figure out how long he’d slept. The dull gray of the snow-filled clouds and the reflection of the light dusting covering the ground make it impossible—it could be eight in the morning or past noon. Paschal seems surprised to see him awake, doesn’t mention the bags underneath his own eyes, wrinkled and dark purple. Laurent wonders if he looks any better.

“Let me see,” Paschal says softly, gesturing towards his back. Laurent nods, lets him peel back the layers of blankets to reveal the cut on his back, covered by a bandage. It stings still; the stitches tug whenever Laurent moves too quickly. Paschal gently pries off the bandage and Laurent hisses, too exhausted to try and mask it. He hears the click of a cap and then Paschal is gently wiping the area down, likely cleaning up any excess blood that had leaked during the night. The antiseptic doesn’t hurt as badly, this time, but the cold is still shocking. Laurent clenches his fingers in the pillows and ignores it.

“You can’t come into work like this,” Paschal says, and Laurent almost sits upright before he feels the now-familiar tug in his back.

“I—no, I can,” he argues, speaking for the first time since last night. His voice is raspy; he can feel each finger-shaped bruise dug into the side of his neck. “I have to.”

“Laurent, you can barely sit up.” Laurent grits his teeth, swings his legs over the side of the couch, and pushes himself into a sitting position, ignoring the burn in his back and the ache in his bones. He fixes Paschal with a glare, but the older man doesn’t back down. “I said no, Laurent. You can’t treat yourself in this condition, much less the children.”

It hurts. Laurent looks away, back rigid, and hears Paschal sigh.

“If you can walk freely tomorrow, you can come in. But I don’t want you overexerting yourself today and tearing your stitches open.”

“Paschal, you know how understaffed we are right now—” The thought of sitting by as others clean up his mistakes, the result of his inaction for so many years, makes Laurent’s stomach turn.

“I know,” Paschal replies, something brittle in his voice that Laurent can’t work out. “But I can’t let you do this to yourself.”

Laurent looks away. Paschal sighs, shuffles back into the kitchen. Laurent glances around at the living room in the dim light of morning, taking in the well-worn sofas and the pictures sitting on the mantle, of Paschal and a man he doesn’t recognize in a police uniform, Paschal in scrubs surrounded by children, Paschal and Uncle at their university graduation—

Laurent looks away.

Thirty minutes later, after bringing him a mug of tea and a plate of eggs to eat quietly on the couch, Paschal drops an old pair of slacks, a button-up, and an old coat from his university days on the coffee table in front of Laurent. He stares at the Harvard logo for a long moment, remembering Uncle’s meetings with other alumni and his assurances that, should Laurent wish, he could be accepted as an undergraduate, especially after Laurent had skipped his penultimate year of high school. Laurent thinks briefly about who he might be today, if he’d let Uncle send him to Cambridge after he’d graduated high school at early seventeen, a year before his peers. He would be in his third year, now. Living away from this city, away from Uncle and Govart and Nicaise.

God, Nicaise. Laurent tugs his phone out of the pocket of his ruined slacks and turns it on. It immediately starts buzzing with messages—several from Damen, Jord, and Vannes each. He reads them through, notes their concern, and then taps on his voicemails. Only one is new, and with some trepidation, Laurent lifts his phone to his ear.

Hi, Laurent, comes Auguste’s voice, muffled and half drowned-out by the background noise. He must have been in the clinic cafeteria. I’m sorry I missed you. I thought you might still be here somewhere, but I asked around and no one has seen you in a while. I hope—you’re okay, I guess. I just wanted to say thanks for telling Torveld about this. They still won’t let him in to see Erasmus, but they say he’s doing better. I—none of this was your fault, you know? It’s just—it’s amazing that you’re coming in and working like this after everything. I hope we can talk soon. I know we haven’t really, and I really do want to get to know you better, even after—

Laurent doesn’t listen to the rest of the message. There’s only eight seconds left when he pulls it away from his ear. Auguste’s voice fades away until it’s merely tinny background noise, fading into the empty silence of Paschal’s living room. Laurent drops the phone on the couch next to him, stares blankly until the message ends. He doesn’t save the string of numbers as a contact. He isn’t quite sure why.

Getting into the clothing is a struggle. The slacks aren’t that bad—a little loose around the hips, which is easily fixed once Laurent retrieves his belt from the floor; his socks are slightly damp but still wearable. Shrugging himself into the button-up is agonizing, and almost as bad as shifting his shoulders forward to fasten the buttons. Tugging on the heavy coat is almost enough to make him cry out, but Laurent stifles it. He grits his teeth through the pain and pulls it over his shoulders, moving just carefully enough to keep the stitches from ripping. When he’s finally dressed, he takes a few minutes to heave in sharp breaths through clenched teeth, staring through sweaty strands of hair at the carpeted floor.

He hates this, hates that this is going to stop him from going into work. The nurses and doctor being called in on what should be time off are there because of Laurent’s mistakes, because of all the things that he hadn’t said until it was already too late. He doesn’t know what he is going to do. He cannot go back to Damen, cannot impose himself on Torveld or Vannes or even Jord, not like this. For the first time in a long time, Laurent has nowhere to go.

When he finally manages to blink the tears from his eyes, Paschal is standing in the doorway of the living room, freshly showered and fully dressed. It’s past ten in the morning—Laurent had slept for three hours, maybe.

“I’m going into the clinic,” Paschal starts, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “If you need me to take you anywhere—”

Laurent has nowhere to go. But he cannot stay here, and he cannot sit around doing nothing for the remainder of the day. He feels as if something heavy and solid has settled atop his chest, limiting his breath and his movement. Laurent manages to nod, can’t make himself open his mouth. Paschal does not make him.

“I’ll be ready in five minutes,” Paschal says, and retreats into the kitchen. He does not seem to know how to deal with this Laurent, with the heavy weight of his gaze. Laurent laces himself into his boots agonizingly slowly, fingers fumbling on the still-damp laces until they’re tied tightly, the chill seeping into his feet. Laurent can’t make himself care—these are his only decent winter shoes, though that may have to change soon. It’s barely December, and the snow is already sticking to the side of the roads, dirty with oil and ash and soil. Laurent bites back a whimper when he pushes himself off the couch—he masks it with a cough, watches the blankets pool in a heap at his feet.

He doesn’t eat the toast Paschal offers him, when he makes his way into the kitchen. Keeping his back straight takes conscious effort, and Laurent thinks wryly that he hasn’t walked with this much care since the last time he’d had stitches from a knife wound. He knows that he is worrying Paschal—if the concerned looks hadn’t been enough, Paschal keeps offering him food, water, anything. Laurent thinks that if he tried to eat right now, it would come up immediately. Before they leave the house, Paschal vanishes into his bedroom and returns with a scarf. Laurent wraps it around his neck without a word, covering up the bruising on his neck.

Paschal takes him back to Uncle’s apartment without a word spoken in his old sedan, ugly and dirty and the opposite of Uncle’s sleek black business model. The radio plays a morning talk show, and Laurent lets the asinine chatter fade into the background of his mind, something to take the place of where he might normally be thinking. Paschal tries to ask him something, on his way out, and Laurent ignores him, shouldering his bag delicately. He almost feels bad, but there will be time to apologize later.

The building looks the same. Laurent thinks that maybe, if he stays away long enough, it will start looking different; more sinister. Now, though, for the third time in as many days, he stands staring up at the dirty brick and rusting fire escapes, and thinks that if he were a stranger passing by, the building would draw as little attention as any other. The police tape is gone, the ever-present police officers from yesterday clearly dismissed from their posts. It’s odd—Laurent would assume that they would have the apartment under surveillance, after Uncle had made bail.

Then again, Laurent does not think that Uncle has any intention to return to this building. It’s a small comfort.

This time, Laurent takes the stairs slowly. There are floors of this building that he’s never stepped foot onto; there are people who live on the three stories below them that Laurent has never seen. He wonders how many of them have talked to Uncle, over the years. How many of them had smiled at him, called him neighbor. Uncle had bought out the fourth floor, when they’d moved in. Every apartment in the short hallway is empty, save the one adjacent from where Laurent had lived for years.

When he was younger, Laurent had checked the doorknobs every afternoon, before he let himself into Uncle’s apartment. Every afternoon, they had been locked. Until one day, one hadn’t been, and the doorknob of the apartment just to the left of his own had twisted under his careful touch. Laurent had pulled his hand back as if he’d been burnt, and had retreated back without pushing it open. Two days after that, he’d seen Nicaise sitting out on the fire escape, and Laurent had never tried any of the doorknobs again. Now, he pushes open the heavy door to the staircase and almost wishes that cigarette smoke would weigh down the air in his lungs. There is no FBI agent standing in the hallway. The door swings shut behind him, and Laurent wonders what, exactly, he is trying to prove to himself.

Instead of going straight into the apartment, which he’d done yesterday, Laurent pauses. The carpet is old and worn-out, faded in a straight line down the hall from the echo of too many footsteps. He follows the path slowly, and stops at the first empty apartment. His hand reaches out, almost without his permission.

The door is locked. The knob is cool to the touch, and Laurent’s fingers drop slowly, resting against the brass for a moment before pulling away. His heart is pounding, so hard that he can hear it. Laurent curls his fingers into his palm, and steps forward. He tries the next door, and the next. Each one is locked, the knobs rattling for the briefest of seconds before tightening under his grip. He doesn’t touch any of them long enough to warm the metal under his skin, until he reaches Nicaise’s apartment. Laurent reaches out, lets himself feel the familiar chill, and waits. He doesn’t try to turn the knob until the brass is warm, until his fingers feel at home with the grip.

Laurent twists, and the door opens. He draws back his fingers, and stares at the sliver of light that escapes through the slight opening of the door. It swings back another inch on its own, and the hinges creak. In the silence of the hallway, broken only by Laurent’s own breaths, the sound is deafening.

It would be so easy, to turn around. Laurent doesn’t even know why he’s here, and the thought makes him want to wail in frustration. It is as if Uncle still has that tremulous hold on him, the spiderweb line drawing him back to this building again and again, regardless of the reason. If he breathes too deeply, Laurent thinks, his stitches will tear. He wonders if that would snap the spiderweb. He steps into Nicaise’s apartment.

The rooms have been ransacked. Laurent can’t bring himself to be surprised; he had seen the state of Uncle’s apartment yesterday. The destruction here is at least less cluttered. Nicaise hadn’t had enough in his apartment to make the kind of mess present next door. Laurent picks his way across the living room, stepping around the overturned couch and the half-empty bookshelf. Paperbacks are scattered around the floor, pages crumpled as if someone had been looking through them for something hidden. Laurent picks up a few and straightens the thin sheets, and hesitates before placing them gently inside his messenger bag, on top of his ruined clothes. He doesn’t know if Nicaise will want them, but it feels better than leaving them discarded on the floor.

He doesn’t glance at the bedroom. Instead, Laurent makes his way to the window, cracked half an inch at the bottom. The apartment is cold, and Laurent wonders if the landlord had turned off the heat to the entire floor. Opening it the rest of the way is difficult—the wood is heavy, and sticks when he tries lifting it. The strain on his back is almost unbearable; the roll of muscle tugging against Paschal’s careful handiwork. It takes almost five minutes for Laurent to work the window open long enough to crawl through comfortably, and he settles cross-legged on the fire escape with an exhausted sigh.

He’s never been out here alone. Always, when he’s sat on this particular fire escape, Nicaise has been with him. The cold reaches its icy fingers down the loops of Paschal’s scarf, and Laurent wraps his arms around his middle. He blinks the sudden blur out of his eyes and looks to his right, to the empty fire escape of Uncle’s apartment. God.

It feels like something is wrapping around Laurent’s neck, tightening its fingers until his vision starts to blacken at the edges, and Laurent cannot help the small noise that tears its way out of his throat. He wonders if this is what Nicaise had felt like, that first time they’d sat out on their respective fire escapes. He tries to imagine it—tries to picture himself, more than four years ago now. Sixteen and hollow-eyed, sixteen and barely coming to terms with everything he’d lost. Sixteen with his hair loose down his back, fine and shining in the moonlight, perfectly parted on one side.

He blinks the tears out of his eyes, and the ghost vanishes. The wind tickles the hair at the nape of his neck, and Laurent wonders if it’s time for a haircut.

Chapter Text

xlvi.

He takes the books to Nicaise. It’s brief work, getting the address of the group home from Charls, and the house looks to be only one subway transfer away. It takes him a long time to step back into the apartment, and before he steps back in through the open window, Laurent checks behind the loose brick in the wall to find Nicaise’s money gone. It’s not worth worrying over, not when he hasn’t talked to the boy himself, so he replaces the brick and shuts the window behind him, despite the strain of his back. Laurent doesn’t bring anything else, doesn’t even check the doorknob of Uncle’s apartment. There is nothing in there that he needs to go back for. He keeps his head down on the bus, plugs in his headphones and doesn’t make eye contact with anyone else. At midday, the only people riding the buses are old or homeless, or both. When he transfers buses, the driver gives him an odd look. Laurent lets his hair fall into his face, and doesn’t look up.

The group home is not entirely what Laurent had expected. He had thought, maybe, it would be more like an institution. White walls, a sign on the front lawn. Instead, Laurent finds himself walking past the nondescript building, before checking the address again and doubling back. It looks sort of like a small apartment building, only two stories tall and wider than a typical house. The snow on the small, gated lawn is thin, revealing patches of browned grass around the small, bare tree. Laurent takes the steps up to the door in one stride, wincing at the stretch; he pushes away the burn as he lifts his hand to rap with the bronze knocker.

Laurent waits one, two, three seconds before he hears the rustle of movement. He steps back before the door flies open, revealing a harried-looking young woman. She smiles at him, kind despite the sudden way she’d jerked the door open. Laurent blinks back, and opens his mouth. Before he can say anything, she cuts him off.

“Are you Laurent?” He nods, unsure of what else to say. “Charls told me you’d be coming. You’re here to see Nicaise, right?”

“I am.” Her smile never wavers as she beckons him in. Laurent is grateful that she doesn’t mention the rasp of his voice, or the bandages on his face. “Is he here?”

“Yes,” she replies, leading him through the foyer and into a rather impressively large living space. There are two televisions, one on either side of the room, and there are several bookshelves lining the walls. Scattered around are sofas and chairs, and a pile of beanbags in the corner. A pile of board games is stacked in the corner, and there are more than a few spread out on the floor, the pieces scattered around. The room is empty, but Laurent thinks that it still feels more like a home than Uncle’s apartment ever did. The woman pauses, and then sticks out her hand to shake. “Sorry, I’m Renee. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too. Where are the rest of the children?” Renee blinks, her brow furrowing.

“It’s Monday; they have school.” Laurent blinks back at her. Logically, he knows that it has been two days since Uncle had been arrested. It hardly feels like it; he’d slept very little at Vannes and Damen’s apartments, and had worked straight through last night without sleeping. “We’re waiting for Nicaise’s paperwork, and we haven’t had the chance to put him through testing to determine his grade placement, so he’s in his bedroom right now.”

“How is he?” Laurent asks, glancing around the room again. He looks back at Renee, and her face softens slightly.

“He’s having a hard time,” she says quietly. “He’s been—rude, to his roommates, and to the other boys. He refused to talk to the therapist, yesterday, and he won’t tell anyone a thing about what happened to him before—this.”

Laurent nods. It’s—not unexpected, perhaps. Nicaise likely doesn’t know how to act around others, anymore. “Thank you. For taking care of him.”

“That’s our job.” Renee’s smile is melancholy. “It’s good that you’re here to see him. Not a lot of these boys get visitors, especially not ones that really seem to care. Maybe it will do him some good to see you.”

“Maybe.” The words twist Laurent’s stomach. He doesn’t know how Nicaise is going to react to seeing him. It might do more harm than good, at this point, but the paperbacks are weighing down Laurent’s bag, and now that he’s here he can’t really turn back.

“Do you want to come with me to get him? He might be more willing to come out if he knows you’re here.” Laurent nods, and Renee picks up a clipboard from a table at the doorway. “Sign in here, and then we can go.”

Laurent scribbles his name down, along with the time and date, and Renee glances over it before scrawling her own initials where it’s indicated. She doesn’t flinch when she sees the last name, and Laurent wonders how much Charls had told her. How much Charls knows in the first place. Renee puts down the clipboard and beckons him forward, through the living space and down a hallway. They pass a large kitchen and another large, high-ceilinged room crowded with tables that must be the dining room, and several closed doors that Laurent thinks lead to bedrooms. Upstairs are more rooms, some with doors ajar. Renee shuts them as she leads Laurent past another, smaller, living space, and then stops in front of one of the closed doors.

“Nicaise?” She calls, and raps gently on the wood. There’s no response for a moment, and then Laurent hears shifting.

“Leave me alone!” He calls, muffled by the door and something else—a pillow, maybe. Laurent adjusts his grip on the strap of his bag and shifts his weight from one foot to the other. There’s a pause, and then Renee speaks again.

“Nicaise, there’s someone here to see you.”

“I’m not talking to your fucking therapists,” Nicaise spits, and under the bluster, Laurent can hear a note of fear. He steps forward, almost close enough to lean his head against the door.

“I’m not a therapist,” he says, just loud enough to carry. He can hear, barely, the sharp intake of breath. For a long moment, he doesn’t think that Nicaise is going to respond. There is no noise from the other side of the door, and Laurent and Renee wait with baited breath. Finally, agonizingly, Laurent hears footsteps shuffling towards the doorway. The knob turns, and then the door swings open a few inches.

“What are you doing here?” Nicaise asks, and he sounds suddenly vulnerable. The only part of him visible is his fingers, curled around the edge of the door. His nails are bitten down to the quick, his cuticles red and raw. Laurent looks down at his own hands, at the careful curve of his nails. He hasn’t bitten them since he was a child. After a moment of hesitation, he wraps his own hand around the door, just a few inches above Nicaise’s.

“I came to see you,” he repeats. Behind him, he hears Renee shifting. Nicaise scoffs. It’s a fragile sound.

“Yeah, right. Like all of this isn’t your fault in the first place.”

“You can’t tell me you’d rather be back there,” Laurent says, and almost instantly regrets it. Nicaise is silent for a moment, and then he barks a sharp laugh that pushes the door open another inch. Laurent closes his eyes, lets his forehead rest feather-light against the wood.

“At least here I can tell you to go away,” Nicaise says, but the words lack their usual venom. Laurent feels his lips pull up into a smile.

“You could,” he agrees.

“Why does your voice sound like that?” Nicaise asks, after a moment. His own voice is still slightly hoarse, and Laurent can hear him clearing his throat softly. He resists the urge to pull down Paschal’s scarf, to show Renee in the hallway behind him. His silence seems to say more than he thinks it does, because he hears Nicaise pull away, and then the door is swinging open to reveal Nicaise himself.

He looks—exhausted. Laurent blinks down at him. Nicaise’s hair is greasy and unwashed, his shoulders slumped and his arm hanging despondently in its sling. He’s glaring up at Laurent, but there are bags under his eyes and he looks as if he hasn’t washed his face in days. Laurent supposes that he should be less surprised than he is. For a long moment neither of them say anything—Laurent knows that Nicaise is taking him in; his own dirty hair, the bags under his eyes, the bandages on his lip and cheekbone. Laurent gets the urge to duck his head, but keeps it high. The last thing he needs is for Nicaise to see him weak.

“Hello,” Laurent says, trying to keep his voice steady. Nicaise sneers back at him, crosses his arms over his chest. His right arm is still in its sling, his fingers curled resentfully into his palm. Laurent drops his hand from the door and takes a small step back.

“Have you come to ruin my life again? It seems to be a hobby of yours.” Laurent takes in Nicaise’s posture, the way he stands with his weight leaning on one foot, half-turned away from the door; the uncertainty in his frame like he isn’t sure how to hold himself. Laurent thinks briefly about letting his shoulders slump from their rigid line into something more comfortable and natural, and then immediately discards the idea. Despite his evident exhaustion, Nicaise’s eyes are as sharp as ever, so dark as to almost seem black, even in the harsh light. They can’t seem to stay still, tracing over Paschal’s too-big coat and slacks, flicking behind Laurent to glance at Renee behind him.

“No. I brought you these,” Laurent replies, and reaches gingerly into his beg to draw out one of the paperbacks—an old, dog-eared copy of A Wrinkle in Time that Laurent had seen him leafing through on the fire escape sometimes, too distracted to notice or acknowledge when Laurent had stepped out to join him from the apartment next door. Now, his eyes go wide when they land on the battered cover. One corner is torn away, revealing yellowed paper underneath, but Nicaise looks at it like it’s a perfectly-preserved first edition. Laurent watches as his hand flies up, reaching for the book, and watches as Nicaise forces it back around his own waist. He glares up at Laurent balefully, as if he’s been betrayed. Laurent forces his chin up a fraction of an inch, watches as it registers as—not a challenge, quite, but an understanding.

“What do you want.” The words are flat; cold. Laurent keeps the book extended out, waiting for Nicaise to take it.

“Let me take you to lunch,” he says. Nicaise’s jaw clenches, and his gaze flicks from Laurent’s face to the cover of the book, and then down to the bag resting at his hip. Laurent stands and waits, and hopes that Renee has enough sense to keep quiet until Nicaise has given him an answer.

It feels like an age before Nicaise finally responds, his eyes narrowing slightly before he reaches out, lightning-fast, to take the book from Laurent. “Fine. You’re paying.”

“You’re thirteen,” Laurent points out, and Nicaise flushes. He opens his mouth, closes it, and then pauses for a brief second before opening it again.

“I have money.” It’s nothing he doesn’t know, but Laurent wonders briefly how Nicaise had the time to retrieve the stack of cash hidden in the crevices of the apartment building. Nicaise shrugs, reading the question in his eyes. Renee clears her throat behind them, and Nicaise glares at her, immediately back on the defensive. Laurent turns, glancing back at her.

“Sorry, Laurent, I don’t think that you have—permission, to take Nicaise off the premises.” She sounds apologetic, and a little unsure. Laurent hesitates for a moment, and then deliberately lets his eyes widen, face easing into a more open expression; almost pleading. He can practically hear Nicaise doing the same behind him, and Laurent shifts a little, affecting uncertainty.

“Are you sure?” He sees the moment of hesitation in her eyes, leans forward and pitches his voice lower as if that will stop Nicaise from hearing him. “I know there are rules, but he’s been locked in this place for a while. It will do him good, to get some fresh air.”

“I—I’m not sure, I’d have to call Charls again.” Laurent smiles at her, and even in his state of shameful disarray, it seems to work. Renee sighs heavily, eyes flicking between the two of them. “Just—wait here, both of you.”

She leaves the two of them alone in the hallway, and Laurent turns back to Nicaise. The boy, having dropped all pretense from his face, is watching him.

“What’s in this for you?” He asks, sharp and sudden. Laurent stares. Nicaise is holding the book close to his stomach, hunched protectively around it like he’s scared that Laurent is going to take it away. Laurent takes a step back, watches Nicaise’s eyes track the movement. There’s the fading yellow remnant of a bruise on his cheek that has to be at least a week older than the ones on his neck. He can’t look at those for too long—the vivid red from moments after Govart had dropped Nicaise to the floor has been replaced by dark, ugly purple, the marks yellowing already at the edges. Laurent resists the urge to tug down the scarf, to trace the marks on his own neck. Briefly, hysterically, Laurent thinks that their bruises must be in the exact same shape.

“I—” He begins, and cuts himself off. Nicaise waits, breath shallow. “Nothing is—in it for me. I just thought that you might want some air.”

“Fuck you,” Nicaise spits, but his heart isn’t in it. Laurent lets his hands slip into his pockets, a thin line of tension he hadn’t even noticed slipping from his shoulders. “I don’t need your charity, Laurent.”

It takes Laurent a moment of observation, of standing in silence, to notice what exactly has been nagging him about Nicaise’s appearance. He’s wearing jeans. Laurent blinks, and looks Nicaise over again, paying more attention to what he’s wearing. He isn’t in his own clothing, that much is obvious—the jeans don’t quite fit right, the shirt is faded, the sweatshirt has a hole at the bottom of one of the pockets. Nicaise looks uncomfortable, as if he isn’t used to the way everything hangs on his frame.

“It’s not charity,” Laurent finally says, but it comes out too quiet. Nicaise curls the fingers of his injured arm around the yellowed pages of the book, and looks away.

Renee re-enters the hallway a minute later, slipping her phone into her pocket and holding her clipboard once again.

“Charls is vouching for you, so I’m going to have you fill out a contact sheet; you can take Nicaise out for two hours up to three times a week once it’s been processed. If you were blood relation it would be more, but this is the best I can do for now.”

“Thank you,” Laurent replies, with his most charming smile, and Renee returns it, albeit a little shyly. Laurent takes the clipboard and pen from her, eyes skimming over the blank for before he starts filling it out. It seems to be fairly standard—phone number, address, place of work; Laurent does not like giving out this kind of information to strangers, but one look at Nicaise’s half-averted gaze has him clicking the pen open and scrawling out his name at the top of the paper.

It feels strange, to write Nicaise Nasino next to his own name, to make it real. He stares for a long moment before moving on to the next line, trying to familiarize himself with the idea of Nicaise as someone who exists outside smoky apartments and shaky fire escapes. Nicaise shifts slightly in front of him, and Laurent moves the pen again. He hesitates, when asked for his address, and then puts down the address of Jord’s apartment; he doesn’t know if or when he’s going to be getting his own, and for now he doesn’t have anywhere else to go. Besides, he’s already pitched in on rent for this month.

Two brief minutes later, Laurent hands the clipboard and the pen back to Renee, and she glances over the sheet with a nod.

“Great, you’re all set. You can sign him out here,” she says, flipping to another page, and Laurent initials quickly, too ready to escape from the group home, with its whitewashed walls and closed wooden doors and empty hallways. Nicaise looks helpless, silhouetted in the dim light and hunched into himself like he’s scared. Laurent thinks, he probably is.

“Why don’t you put the book away and then we can go?” Laurent suggests quietly, handing Renee back her clipboard. Nicaise nods, jaw clenching strangely. After a moment spent glaring at the carpet beneath Laurent’s feet, he turns on his socked heel and retreats back into the room, leaving the door wide open as he strides through. Laurent gets his first close look at the room: there are two sets of bunk beds, two desks, and a door that presumably leads to a closet just next to one of the beds. There are personal belongings on the two desks, and a few posters and photographs taped to the walls next to the beds. Nicaise heads towards the barest bottom bunk, with no trinkets or photos or scattered items littering the surrounding area, and pauses for a moment before shoving the book underneath his pillow.

It makes something in Laurent ache. Nicaise’s hair falls over his face as he bends down to retrieve his sneakers from beside the bed, carefully aligned with the bedpost. Laurent is reminded of his closet back at the apartment, of the careful way his clothes had been folded and stacked, despite everything. He chokes back whatever is building in his throat and forces his face back into neutrality by the time Nicaise turns back to him, hands fisted in the pockets of his borrowed sweatshirt.

“Get me out of here,” he snaps, without meeting Laurent’s eye. Laurent nods at Renee, and then takes a step down the hall. It takes a few seconds of walking, but Nicaise soon matches his pace, his shorter legs struggling to match the breadth of Laurent’s own steps. He doesn’t slow down; he knows Nicaise would only take it as pity.

He tries not to feel as if he is making a mistake, taking Nicaise away from the safety of the group home.


xlvii.

“Where are you taking me?” Nicaise asks, after nearly five minutes of walking. Laurent fights a smile; he’d expected Nicaise to start complaining even earlier. He waits a moment, lets the boy stew in his own frustration, and then breaks the companionable silence.

“I just thought we’d walk,” he replies lightly, and immediately picks up the sentence at Nicaise’s growl of barely-concealed rage. “There’s a café I like just a few blocks away; I assumed you would prefer walking over the bus.”

“You don’t have a car?” Scorn drips from every word. Laurent looks over at him with one eyebrow arched.

“I’m twenty.”

“Almost twenty-one,” Nicaise points out. “And you have a job. You’re pathetic, I don’t know why I went with you.”

This time, the smile takes more effort to repress. Laurent ducks his head and hopes that his hair obscures the tic in his cheek at Nicaise’s tone. The cut on his back twinges with every step but it’s all right, Laurent thinks. The sooner he gets used to the pain, the sooner Paschal will let him back at the clinic. Nicaise huffs an irritated breath, and it comes out in the winter air with a puff of white.

“I’m freezing. You could have at least called a taxi or something.” The words are halfhearted, and Laurent wonders if Nicaise already knows why he doesn’t like cab rides, why he doesn’t take that risk. It’s more than likely, and the thought leaves him distinctly uncomfortable.

“You’ll be fine. Look, it’s just around this corner.” Vannes had been the one to introduce Laurent to the small restaurant, actually. It only serves breakfast and lunch, and Laurent thinks that he has timed it well enough, so that they might come in just as the afternoon rush begins to die. Laurent smiles at the host and he grins back; he’s close to Laurent’s age, with close-cropped dark hair and warm eyes. He seats the two of them on the patio, and asks Laurent if he’s enrolled in the city’s Big Brother program. Nicaise snorts, and the host flushes. Laurent does not have it in him to apologize for Nicaise’s actions.

“Do you have a cigarette?” Nicaise asks, after a waitress has stopped by to take their drink orders. Laurent pauses with his water glass halfway to his lips, eyes resting on the arch of Nicaise’s cheekbone. He takes a small sip, after his moment of hesitation, and Nicaise blinks innocently up at him. “They took all of mine.”

“You’re thirteen,” Laurent says, again. “If I let you smoke here, I would get arrested.”

Nicaise’s face, carefully poised, fractures. It’s a split second break; gone before Laurent can fully take it in, but there nonetheless. He sees, and Nicaise knows that he sees. The boy leans back in the wicker chair, his arms crossed over his chest. The strap of his sling digs into the too-big sweatshirt. Laurent sets his glass down and waits, affecting disinterest. Nicaise glances up at him, and then reaches out to fiddle with his silverware.

“Fourteen,” he says, finally, and Laurent goes still.

“I’m sorry?” It’s barely a question. Nicaise glares at the fork as if it’s done him a personal wrong.

“I’m—fourteen,” Nicaise repeats, gripping the fork so tightly that his knuckles go white. Laurent blinks. It’s—he wishes he could say that it comes as a shock. If he looks at Nicaise more carefully, he can see the faint tremor in his limbs. He thinks—none of Uncle’s boys had lasted past fourteen. Few had been recurring visitors to the apartment, though he knows that Uncle had seen them all more than once. Fewer had been present in the apartment; by the time Laurent had been old enough to start spending weekends at Jord’s, loitering on street corners waiting for a pocket to pick, he had noticed the lingering smell in the bedsheets upon his return. The boys had stayed for weekends, or longer when Laurent was out of school. And then, suddenly, Nicaise had appeared in the apartment next door, and, on the cusp of seventeen, Laurent had hated him.

“I’m still not letting you smoke.” Nicaise’s eyes widen, just enough that Laurent notices. He thinks, briefly, that Nicaise might kick him under the table. He wouldn’t put it past him; he’d once thrown a pen across the gap between their windows that had left a red mark on Laurent’s arm for days.

“I hate you,” Nicaise says, with a little more of his usual conviction.

“That’s nice,” Laurent replies, as blandly as he can manage. He knows it infuriates the boy in front of him. The waitress stops by again, this time to take their orders, and Nicaise doesn’t even hesitate before ordering four different dishes, his eyes locked on Laurent’s for the entire time he’s speaking. Laurent smiles beatifically at him and orders a salad. The waitress is fighting a smile, and when she retreats Laurent keeps the smile in place, until Nicaise rolls his eyes and slouches back into the chair once again.

“You sound like you’ve been sucking cock all night,” he observes, glancing down at his fingernails, and the smile dies on Laurent’s lips. He’s not naive enough to thinks that Nicaise doesn’t know the effect of his words, and the slow curl of revulsion and terror burns in his gut. Laurent drops his gaze, clenches his jaw. He closes his eyes, briefly, and tries to will away the panic that raises his pulse. When he opens them again, Nicaise is still looking at his fingernails, but there’s a new tension in his face, in the set of his shoulders. Fourteen, Laurent reminds himself. He thinks that if he opens his mouth, he is going to throw up. Nicaise inhales, and Laurent can hear the tremor.

“I didn’t—”

“Stop.” Laurent cuts him off. “Don’t—I know.”

At fourteen, Laurent would have said the same thing. He doesn’t need Nicaise to apologize; he doesn’t think he’s ever heard the words I’m sorry cross the boy’s lips. Laurent keeps his gaze fixed on Nicaise’s, and reaches up to tug down Charls’ scarf, just enough that he knows Nicaise can see the bruising. Despite himself, despite the still-rapid beat of his heart, Laurent’s lips tug up into the barest hint of a smile.

“We match,” he says, and lets Nicaise come to his own conclusions. Laurent sees the rapid play of emotions across his face: interest, shock, horror, understanding. The faintest glimmer of fear.

“Was it—” Nicaise begins, and cuts himself off. He looks down at the fork still clenched in his fist and drops it, suddenly, back onto the table. “He said you had unfinished business.”

It takes Laurent a long moment to answer. He reaches for his napkin, shakes it out and spreads it on his lap. Nicaise watches him, eyes calculating. At fourteen, Laurent had been much the same. He thinks, for a moment, and then nods.

“Not any longer,” says Laurent, and lets the weight of his words carry. It hardly seems real. Two days ago, Govart had been standing in Nicaise’s bedroom, one hand wrapped around his throat. And yet, not twelve hours ago, Laurent had left him dead in a back alley, three blocks away from a children’s hospital. It’s fitting, he thinks. Fitting, and surreal.

Nicaise is silent for a long time. Their food comes, too many plates for one boy to realistically be able to eat, and Laurent grazes at his salad while he watches Nicaise attempt it. He makes an impressive effort; half his food is gone by the time the waitress checks up on them, stopping for a moment to refill Laurent’s water as she watches in what seems to be stunned horror as Nicaise eats his way around the table, taking a few forkfuls of everything before moving on.

“Are they not feeding you enough, at the group home?” Laurent asks idly, and Nicaise surfaces for air with a venomous look that Laurent thinks is meant to shut him up.

“What was on that film?” Nicaise shoots back, voice sharp. Laurent’s pulse, having just settled back into something approaching normal, skyrockets again. His fingers convulse around the hilt of his knife, paused while slicing a piece of chicken, and he watches Nicaise notice, eyes tracking every movement at the table despite the apparent distraction of the food. Laurent’s stomach rolls over, and he puts his cutlery down. He doesn’t think that he’s particularly hungry, anymore. “Something incriminating. Tell me.”

“No,” Laurent replies, placid, and hopes that it does not give anything away. Nicaise arches one perfectly sculpted eyebrow, too clever for his own good. Too clever to know when to back off a barbed-wire subject.

“He had it in his pocket, you know. He came from next door, said something about compensation. Something like that; you can’t blame me for not paying too much attention.” Nicaise’s tone is flippant, his piercing gaze anything but. Laurent’s breaths are coming in shallow, and when a menu snaps shut at the table next to them he thinks, blindingly and suddenly, that he hears the distinct click of a camera shutter.

“I don’t see why it would interest you. After all, you’re the one who gave it away.” Laurent pushes his plate away, just enough that he doesn’t have to smell the seasonings on the meat, the sharp scent of the dressing. Nicaise pushes, though, and Laurent thinks he sees a glint of something cold in his eyes, something hard and self destructive.

“There was a camera in his closet,” Nicaise says, choosing his words carefully, edged like knives. Laurent goes very still, and knows that he gives something away. “He never took it out, but I saw it. An old, film camera.”

Laurent remembers that camera. Remembers Uncle showing it to him and Auguste, years ago, teaching the both of them how to thread the film and snap the back shut, how to peer through the viewfinder to find the perfect shot. Auguste had taken a single photo of him, days before being deployed. The photo, later, had been developed with the rest of the film roll, pictures that Uncle had taken by lamplight, angling Laurent with careful precision. Laurent remembers, distinctly, throwing the last photo Auguste had ever taken away.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he lies smoothly, and Nicaise glares at him. Laurent, looking for something to do, takes another bite of his salad. His stomach is on the precipice of revolt; he does not know why he thought this was a good idea.

“Liar,” Nicaise replies, one brow arched. He seems content that he has hit his mark, and returns to his food. He seems to think that he has won something, and Laurent does not have the heart to tell him that in games like these, there is no such thing as a winner. Laurent wants, masochistically, to ask when Nicaise had seen the camera; when he had been in Uncle’s bed, Laurent’s bed. Instead, he traces his fingertips feather-light over the bruises on the side of his neck, and watches Nicaise eat.

He had been serious, when he had told Charles that he wanted to apply for guardianship. Laurent thinks that had Auguste never returned, risen from the grave, that he might have called Nicaise his brother. He thinks that he still might, after everything. At sixteen on the cusp of seventeen, Laurent had hated him; at sixteen he had been bitterly and fiercely jealous. And, at seventeen, Laurent had learned how to reach out across the gap between their windows, and Nicaise had learned how to reach out.

“When was your birthday?” Laurent asks, and it’s such a small thing. He should know this already, and yet he’s gone four years without asking. He’d known, perhaps, that Nicaise wouldn’t tell him. Nicaise stops chewing on a chunk of pancake, briefly, and then resumes, eyes lowered. He doesn’t seem to want to answer, but by the time he has swallowed, Laurent can tell that Nicaise has made his decision.

“March,” he says shortly, before viciously attacking another pancake with his knife. “Twenty-eighth.”

In four months, Nicaise will be fifteen. Laurent doesn’t say anything, until Nicaise starts to fidget.

“I was born in May,” Laurent offers. “The third.”

Nicaise snorts, and lifts his gaze again. “I don’t care. Why are you telling me things about yourself?”

“I just thought it would be fair.” This is more comfortable; the gently ribbed exchange of insults and biting retorts, Nicaise finally getting to stretch his limbs after being cooped up in that apartment for too long. Laurent finishes his salad, and finds that it doesn’t weigh as heavily in his stomach as he thought it would. The waitress takes his plate, and the two platters that Nicaise has wiped clean.

It takes him fifteen more minutes to finish his lunch, and Laurent watches as Nicaise takes in the carnage and slumps back into his chair, wholly satisfied with himself.

“I hope you have enough money to pay for all that,” Nicaise remarks, and Laurent smiles back at him, tugging the cash out of his wallet. It’s the last of what he has; he doesn’t get paid again until Friday, and even then he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to cash in his check. Uncle has always—

Laurent wrenches his thoughts away from that particular avenue, and leaves a hearty tip. The waitress, as she takes the bill, smiles generously at him.

On the way off of the restaurant’s patio, Nicaise shoves his hands into the pocket of his sweatshirt and rolls his shoulders forward. His feet slow and Laurent matches him, keeping his eyes neutrally forward. His phone begins to buzz against his thigh, and he steadfastly ignores the vibrations of the call.

“Aren’t you going to answer that?” Nicaise asks, pointedly. Laurent doesn’t answer, and the vibrations die down after a long moment. “You are the worst adult I have ever met in my life.”

“I find that very hard to believe,” Laurent replies, before realizing exactly what he’d implied. Nicaise doesn’t seem to notice, or to care.

“You don’t have a car, you don’t have an apartment, you don’t even answer your phone when it rings. It’s no wonder that your life is a mess.”

“I have a job,” Laurent points out. “I can’t be doing too badly.”

“Yes, a job where you wipe snotty noses and regularly get thrown up on. That’s exactly the kind of life I’m looking forward to.” With a sharp breath, Laurent realizes that this is the first time he has ever heard Nicaise talk about a future. When he glances to the side, Nicaise’s cheeks have colored. “Shut up.”

“I didn’t say anything.” They walk a few more steps in silence. They pass a woman walking her dog, a double stroller pushed precariously by one hand as she attempts to keep the over-excited retriever under control. It moves, as they pass, as if to jump on Nicaise, and the boy shies away, brushing against Laurent’s side. Laurent puts out a hand, trying to brace him, and as soon as they are given enough room, Nicaise yanks himself away.

“I don’t want your help,” he says, scorning the very idea. Laurent shrugs, and tucks his hand back into his own pocket. After a moment, Nicaise speaks again, though the scorn seems to have melted away in the few brief seconds they had spent righting their pace. “Were you serious, what you said to Charls?”

“What do you mean?” He thinks he knows the answer; wants to hear it from Nicaise’s own lips.

“About—applying for guardianship.”

“Yes,” Laurent says carefully, looking over. Nicaise doesn’t notice; he is watching the sidewalk, his feet stepping deliberately over the cracks. “If that is something that you are—Interested in, then yes. Nicaise, I don’t want to see you get lost in the system.”

“You let them take me away,” Nicaise accuses, and Laurent can hear the sharp layer of hurt. “You told me that everything was going to be okay, and then you let theme take me away.”

“I didn’t have a choice.” Calm, rational. Laurent knows that he is not going to hold out for long.

“Right, okay, you didn’t have a choice.” The hurt is more prominent now, and the anger. Nicaise kicks at a small chunk of ice lying in the middle of a sidewalk, and it crumbles under the sudden force. Laurent can feel the tips of his ears, stinging red with the chill. He thinks it might start to snow again, soon. “But you could have warned me. You could have told me something, but you didn’t! You didn’t tell me about the raid, you didn’t even tell me when your brother came back from the dead; I had to hear him talking next door with him, because despite everything you claim, you don’t ever tell me anything.”

Laurent stops walking. Somewhere in the middle of his rant, Nicaise’s voice had cracked sharply, and he stands still with the fingers of one hand pressed achingly, horribly against his lips. Laurent wants to tug the fingers away, wants to remind him that he’s gone, he’s not going to punish you for—this, but he can’t. Even years later, years after the first slow changes puberty had made to his body, Laurent finds himself disgusted at the sound of his own voice, at the prick of stubble across his cheeks. Laurent wants to reassure Nicaise, but he knows that there is nothing he can say.

“I hate you,” Nicaise chokes out, seconds later, and this time Laurent knows that somehow, he means it. Maybe not in the way that he thinks he does, but Laurent can hear the hurt and the pain and everything that Nicaise hadn’t been able to say on those rickety old fire escapes. Laurent reaches out a hand, ignoring the tug against his stitches, and Nicaise doesn’t flinch away; and for the first time Laurent finds himself pulling him close in the freezing wind, arms wrapped tight around Nicaise’s shoulders, Nicaise’s cheek pressed against Paschal’s old button down, Nicaise’s fingers flexing weakly against the wrinkled material.

“I know,” Laurent whispers, and he knows that they’re in public, and he knows that Nicaise is going to need more than this. But seconds later, Nicaise lets out the gasping breath he doesn’t seem to have known he was holding, and his entire body seems to sag exhaustedly into Laurent’s, and Laurent can do nothing except stand in the middle of the sidewalk and hold him up. Nicaise is shaking, from cold or emotion or something else entirely, and Laurent closes his eyes and lets himself feel it.

“I don’t understand why you’re doing this,” Nicaise admits after a long moment, and it feels like he’s offering something.

“Would you believe me if I told you that I care about you?” Laurent asks, with a wry smile, and feels Nicaise huff out a warm breath of laughter, the white puff of air vanishing in the cold after a brief second. Nicaise yanks himself away, and Laurent lets him go.

“That is—disgusting,” Nicaise says, but he meets Laurent’s eyes this time. The anger is not gone, but it has lessened, and Laurent thinks that given time, Nicaise will understand. Given time, he thinks, that they may not have.

They walk in silence until they round a corner and are faced with the long stretch of sidewalk that leads to the group home. The house is still quiet, and Nicaise’s steps slow as they approach the steps of the building.

“You really are going to make me go back.” It’s not a question, but Laurent nods anyway.

“You’re safe here. You might not like it, but—”

“It’s for my own good,” Nicaise parrots, glaring balefully at the house. Its shuttered windows glare back, uncompromising. “That’s what—he said, too.”

Laurent heart skips a beat. Having a conversation with Nicaise is like navigating a minefield; he never knows when it is going to blow up in his face. Nicaise doesn’t—he sounds detached, almost empty. When he’s standing half-turned away, Laurent can see clearly the extent of the bruising on his neck. It’s less visible than Laurent’s own; Nicaise’s darker skin hides the marks more easily. At this angle, though, Laurent can see the sickly yellow edging the finger-shaped purples and blues. Fleetingly, he can feel fingers wrapped around his neck, and Laurent reaches up to loosen his scarf.

“You can ask Charls to move you,” Laurent says, even though he isn’t sure that it’s true. “I’m sure—”

“No.” Nicaise cuts him off, voice still vacant. Laurent reaches out a hand, and then thinks better of it. Nicaise does not look like he wants to be touched any more. He’s staring at the house; at the shuttered windows and heavy wood door, and Laurent thinks he knows what Nicaise is feeling.

He knows the difference between a gilded cage and a rusted one.

“Whenever you’re ready,” Laurent says, quietly. The banks of dirty snow in the gutters seem to muffle the words, but Nicaise hears them anyway. His hand comes up, briefly, to touch the marks on his throat. They stand in silence for a few more minutes, Laurent ever-aware of the ticking clock that says Nicaise has to be back in twelve minutes, eleven. They stand, and Laurent waits until the tremor has faded from Nicaise’s shoulders, and when Nicaise turns back to look at him again there’s something like resolve in his eyes.

“Let’s go.” It’s not enough—Laurent knows that Nicaise is still angry, still hurting. He also knows that there is very little that can be resolved in two hours, over too many plates of food and the same bruises on different necks. Instead of saying it out loud, instead of saying anything out loud, Laurent follows Nicaise up the walkway. His bag is still slung over his shoulder, an awkward weight that means he has to lean to accommodate it with the stitches, and he wonders vaguely if Nicaise had noticed the careful way he’d walked on the way to and from the café. He probably had, and simply decided not to comment.

Renee meets them at the door with a smile and a pointed glance to her watch, and Laurent smiles back. She reaches out, as if to usher Nicaise in, and he pulls back instinctively at the touch. Laurent thinks that he might have been the first person to touch Nicaise in two days; thinks that this has probably been the longest Nicaise has gone without being touched in years.

He walks Nicaise back to his bedroom. The bed is almost bare, if neatly made, but Laurent thinks that it must be an improvement from the mattress Nicaise had rarely slept on in his apartment; anything would be better than sleeping there, he knows. In the warmer months, Nicaise had sometimes taken to sleeping out on the fire escape, a blanket wrapped around his thin shoulders. This bedroom is impersonal—almost sterile—but Laurent tells himself that at least here Nicaise is safe, at least here he has hope for some kind of future.

“Here,” he says, and tugs out the four other paperbacks he’d managed to fit in his bag. Nicaise pauses before he takes them, letting his eyes roam over the familiar, battered covers. Laurent does not know how many times the books have been read, or how they made their way into that apartment in the first place, but he recognizes the look in Nicaise’s eye when he takes them, reaching out more slowly than he had when Laurent had given him the first. Laurent doesn’t expect Nicaise to thank him, and the boy doesn’t. In the soft light of the hallway, Laurent can see again how exhausted he looks. The food has done him some good, but his shoulders have slumped and his arm, in its sling, hangs listlessly. He gathers the books underneath one arm and stares unblinkingly at Laurent, eyes dull.

“I’ll see you later this week,” Laurent says. Nicaise nods, and his brow furrows like he wants to say something. Laurent waits, until Nicaise’s face smooths and his gaze drops to the carpeted floor. Laurent nods, and turns to leave. He walks down the hallway towards the staircase slowly, both adjusting his gait to the new weight of his bag and giving Nicaise time to call after him. Laurent finally finds a new position that doesn’t tug at his stitches by the time he reaches the stairs, and when he turns around to look at Nicaise one last time, every door in the hallway is shut tight, barring entry.

Nicaise hadn’t even said goodbye. Laurent isn’t sure why he’d expected him to.


xlviii.

Laurent walks the four blocks to the nearest subway after he signs Nicaise back in with Renee, smiling tightly back at her before leaving as quickly as she’ll let him. In the brief minutes he’d spent in the group home, it had started to snow, and he blinks the flakes out of his eyes as he walks. His pace is slow; Laurent now has to be mindful of both the shifting of his stitches and the ice slicking the sidewalks, and it takes him longer than it should to reach the underground safety of the stop that could take him back to Jord’s apartment, or further downtown. There’s still ten minutes until the subway arrives, though, and Laurent lets himself collapse onto the metal bench with little enough finesse that his back aches in protest.

He hadn’t been letting himself feel it, but now that Laurent has stopped moving, his shoulders slumped, the ache returns with a vigor. The skin around the stitches is oversensitive and raw; each shifting movement of Paschal’s old shirt against his skin is near-agony. Laurent breathes for a long moment, long and hollow enough that his chest remains still, before reaching into the front pocket of his messenger bag, groping slowly for the packet of Aspirin that he’s kept at the bottom for years.

The bag had been his father’s. It’s made of thick brown canvas, and the only evidence of its tenure is the faded color at the bottom and the frayed edge that Laurent had had to train himself out of picking at several years ago. Auguste had used it for school once, before discarding it at the back of his closet at the house they used to live in, before he’d enlisted. Years later, Laurent had found it after locking himself in that closet during one of Uncle’s political meetings, held in the spacious dining room that always made Laurent choke on its emptiness without Auguste sitting at the corner of the table. Uncle’s men had been in the process of stripping the house, boxing everything up to be moved to the new apartment halfway across the city, and Laurent had fled to Auguste’s old bedroom in a desperate attempt to memorize it, to take in the fading smell of his brother one last time before everything was taken into storage.

Just in case, Uncle had said, after renting out the garage to hold Auguste’s things. At the time, Laurent had still thought there had been some mistake. He took the messenger bag with him when he emerged from the closet, face damp with tears, and had immediately transferred his schoolbooks into it. Laurent has vague memories of his father wearing the bag slung across his shoulder when he came home from work, reaching out to pull Auguste into a hug before hanging the bag on a hook. It’s his, now; it has been his since weeks after Auguste’s funeral, weeks after Uncle had—

His fingers slip over the packet of pain medicine, and Laurent tears it open quickly, swallowing the pills without anything to wash them down. It’s not enough, but he hopes that it will do enough to let him ignore the pain for long enough to find himself situated for the night. Laurent tucks the empty package back into his bag, and his fingers linger over an empty space, a space usually occupied by his single packet of cigarettes.

Laurent remembers Nicaise relaxing into their embrace, and Nicaise yanking himself away too quickly, hurt and confused and emotionally wrung out. He doesn’t have it in himself to be surprised, but he can’t help the wry twist of his lips when he thinks about Nicaise reaching into his messenger bag, likely thinking about how Laurent himself had stolen for years to keep himself away from the apartment.

He figures that a pack of cigarettes is the least he owes Nicaise, even if Laurent wishes he didn’t smoke.

Laurent has almost forgotten about the call he’d discarded on the walk back from the café, until his phone starts buzzing against his thigh again. He fishes it out, glances at the unfamiliar number, and then swipes to answer the call despite all his misgivings.

“Speaking?” He asks carefully, voice sounding almost muffled out loud by the still-falling snow. His fingers, almost numb from the cold, grip his phone just a little bit tighter.

“Mister de Vere?” A man’s voice asks, smooth and pleasant. Laurent bites back the flinch at the name, and tucks the fingers of his free hand underneath the hem of his shirt, trying to keep them warm. “My name is Ryan Moreau, I’m calling from Citizens’ Bank.”

“I—yes?” Laurent answers, slightly stunned. It’s not what he had been expecting, if he’d been expecting anything at all.

“I’m just calling to confirm your appointment at three with us to discuss the management transfer of your private savings account,” the banker says, and Laurent’s heart skips a beat. His savings account had been opened by his father, and managed by his uncle for years. He hadn’t been allowed access, and the one time he’d tried asking Uncle for his information just after graduating high school had gone—poorly.

“Yes,” he repeats, and tries not to sound shocked.

“Great!” The banker chirps back at him, but wavers when he speaks again. “Your—ah, your uncle just finished finalizing the paperwork, so all we need is your signature. If you’re interested in opening up a checking account under your own name, we can get that started for you today as well. Your appointment has been scheduled at four this afternoon.”

“Thank you, I’ll be there.” Laurent watches as his breath fogs up the air in front of his face, the white could disappearing moments after its birth.

“My pleasure,” the banker says, cheer forcibly returned to his tone. Laurent hangs up before the inevitable farewell, and stares unseeingly for a few moments before dropping his hand to his lap, the fingers tucked under the hem of his shirt finally warm against his skin. He isn't—the last time he had been to the bank downtown, with its gleaming steel and too-polished windows, he had been with his father, and Auguste, opening the very account Uncle had later taken control of.

When Laurent tears his eyes away from the snow-covered steps of a building across the street, where his gaze had finally landed, to check his phone, he pauses. He has enough time, if he wanted, to go back to Jord’s. It's his day off, and Laurent thinks that after all this time, Jord is owed an explanation. It's worth the chance that he runs into Damen in his way into the apartment, which is slight anyway; Damen, after all, has his own work to be doing.

It takes another five minutes for the train to arrive, and when the doors swing open and release the distinctive smell of cigarettes, Laurent has to take a moment to gather himself before stepping on. It makes him think, briefly, of Nicaise. Laurent wonders if he'd found a place to smoke his stolen cigarettes, in the group home that doubtless doesn't allow anything of the sort. He takes his seat as far away from the smoker at the back as possible, and ignores the stares he can feel boring into the back of his head. He knows what these strangers think when they see him, knows what runs through their minds when they see the curve of his lips, the fall of his hair across his forehead. He knows—he's been told enough times, from friends and coworkers of his uncle’s, from Uncle himself.

Laurent pulls his borrowed coat tighter around his torso, and absently reaches up with one hand to check that the scarf hasn't slipped down far enough to reveal the marks on his throat. The bruising isn't as severe as Nicaise’s had been, but against the pale skin of his neck they're just as visible, if not more so.

The engine buzzes the seat underneath him, and Laurent lets himself be lulled by the familiarity, into the sort of daze that only leaves him when the doors hiss open to admit new passengers, and then settles back over him like a fog as the train takes him further and further from Uncle’s apartment.

Chapter Text

xlix.

Twenty minutes later, Laurent steps out of the subway and releases his breath, long and slow enough that the cloud of vapor lingers in the air in front of him. Jord’s apartment block is a street down, and this part of the city has more ice slicking the sidewalks, dirty snow piled up in the gutters. After the welcome reprieve of the softly padded seat after the cold metal of the bench at the stop, Laurent’s back protests the idea of walking the short distance. It takes a long moment of standing in the still lightly-falling snow until Laurent clenches his teeth, to stave off both the pain and the shivers that threaten to consume him from the biting cold.

It doesn’t take that long, objectively to make the walk to Jord’s apartment, but every time Laurent blinks snow out of his eyes and the world goes dark for the briefest of seconds, it feels like an eternity. He feels—conspicuous, might be the word. Every time someone passes him, inevitably walking faster in one direction or the other, he feels as if their eyes linger on him for a split second too long to be comfortable.

Laurent shoves his hands deeper into the pockets of Paschal’s coat and tucks his chin closer into his chest, bracing himself against both the biting wind and the gazes of the strangers he passes. Even once he buzzes himself into Jord’s building, avoiding the few people he sees on his way through the hallway to the elevator, Laurent keeps his fingers curled into the raw skin of his palms. It’s not enough to draw blood; just enough to sting in a way that keeps Laurent almost as present as he’d felt with Nicaise’s arms wrapped around his waist.

He hasn’t taken an elevator alone in months. The last time had been when he’d done Jord’s grocery shopping after a week spent on the night shift, just before getting full-time placement at the Memorial Hospital downtown. Laurent had been laden down with bags and too exhausted himself to take the five flights of stairs, and he’d been lucky enough that it had been early in the afternoon, and the elevator had been empty.

Today, Laurent is not so lucky. He waits for the doors to slid open and resists the urge to rock back on his heels in agitation, eyeing the entrance to the stairs that he knows he’s in no physical place to climb. The yellow-white glow of the up arrow glares at him, and when it finally flickers off with a faded-sounding ding, the metal doors slide open to reveal three men standing casually. Two are around Laurent’s age, chatting quietly, but the third is older. Closer to Uncle’s age, Laurent thinks, and feels sick. He tries not to think about it as he carefully presses the key for Jord’s floor, tries not to think about the man standing inches behind him. Tries not to think that if he were to reach out, nothing Laurent could do would stop him.

The two men get off on the lower floor, now arguing about something Laurent hears but doesn’t absorb, and he’s left alone, standing in front and just to the left of the older man. He thinks that the tension is evident in every muscle of his body and tries not to feel like a spooked rabbit. For all he knows, the man hasn’t looked at him once, since he stepped into the elevator. They ride four floors in silence, and Laurent ignores his pulse pounding at his neck, at his wrist, in his chest. The man brushes past him as he steps out onto the third floor of the building without a word, but even the brief contact is enough to make Laurent exhale sharply.

It’s—everything feels disjointed, out of sync. Laurent wonders when it started, thinks it might have been sitting at that underground stop with his phone buzzing in his hand. Laurent wonders how he’s going to talk to Jord like this. He doesn’t know if he’s ready, doesn’t know if he’s ever going to be ready.

The elevator doors slide open on the sixth floor, and it doesn’t matter whether Laurent is ready or not. The doors start to close before he has enough presence to press the button that holds them open, and Laurent curls his now-exposed hand around the leather strap of his bag, if only to stop it from shaking.

Jord is home. If the smell of cooking hadn’t told him, Laurent can hear Jord banging around the kitchen amongst various shouts and swears from halfway down the hall. He can’t stop the smile that fights its way onto his face, and thinks back to the first, disastrous time that Jord had tried to cook for him. Laurent had been fifteen, and would likely have eaten anything put in front of him, but after a long moment of staring at the torched wreck of a casserole sitting on the counter of Jord’s on-campus apartment, they’d both decided to leave the cooking to people who were actually paid for it. In the beginning, it had been one of the few things they’d agreed on.

For the first time since Jord started renting this apartment, Laurent stands outside and wonders if he should knock. Vanishing without a word—for days—on his closest friend isn’t something he’s proud of, and he’s not sure how Jord is going to react. But this—this is practically his home, now especially, and Laurent has never stood outside the heavy door and felt quite like this before. It’s never felt quite so final.

In the end, he doesn’t knock. Laurent digs his key ring out of his bag, reaches up to check that the bandages on his face are still secure, and unlocks the front door, trying to make as little noise as possible. It’s not like it matters; Jord is still swearing colorfully from inside the kitchen, though now it’s in good humor more than outrage. The apartment smells even better from the outside, and Laurent pauses before closing the door after him, gentle enough that it barely makes a sound. The swearing peters off suddenly as the oven beeps, and Laurent resists the urge to peer around the corner to check what Jord is doing until he toes off his shoes and hangs up both his bag and borrowed coat. He leaves the scarf on, because Jord worries. He keeps his hair messily falling over his bandaged cheekbone, because Jord worries.

When he looks around the corner, Jord is finishing sliding something on a tray into the oven, and when it bangs alarmingly shut, he hisses a small yes that makes Laurent’s lips twitch up again. It’s endearing, seeing Jord like this, unaware of being watched. It lasts only for the briefest of seconds—Jord tugs off his oven mitts, drops them onto the counter, and then turns, one hand arched up to run through his hair and—

He freezes, when he catches sight of Laurent, standing motionless in the doorway, and Laurent’s heart trips over itself quickly, terrifyingly. He wants to breathe but when Jord’s eyes meet his and widen, ever so slightly, Laurent finds that he can’t. It’s only been three days, three terrible, exhausting days, and yet Laurent is as exhausted as if it had been a month, a year. He doesn’t want to look at Jord and see the disgust, the anger, but he can’t stop himself from staring.

Jord looks almost as exhausted as Laurent feels; Memorial must be bustling as well, with children and young adults both rescued from Uncle’s hold. His face doesn’t contort in rage or horror when he sees Laurent—it’s more like shock, something unexpected. His face goes slack, and Laurent thinks that had there been anything in his hands, Jord would have dropped it.

“Laurent,” he says, and his voice cracks on the second syllable. And Laurent, frozen in the doorway—Jord, stepping carefully away from the oven once, twice, slowly like he can’t believe what he’s seeing. And then, all at once, he rushes forward and flings his arms around Laurent’s neck and Laurent cannot breathe, cannot think. Jord breathes out, shaky against his unbandaged cheek, and his strong hands curl into the material of Laurent’s shirt, inches above the carefully-taped bandage. Laurent vaguely thinks that he might have bled through it, but it doesn’t matter, Jord doesn’t see; Jord just keeps hugging him, breath tremulous in his chest where it presses against Laurent’s own.

“Where have you been?” Jord asks, and his voice is too shaky, his throat choked with maybe-tears for the words to sound as angry as Laurent thinks he might have meant them. “I’ve been so—Laurent, I was worried.”

“I—” Laurent starts, and cuts himself off. His own fingers are hovering uncertainly above Jord’s back, too indecisive to initiate the contact, too terrified of—something. Jord’s breath hitches, and Laurent closes his eyes, lets himself sag into the hold. His fingertips graze the material of Jord’s sweater, thick and scratchy. He tries to think of something to say, anything that won’t sound like an excuse, and can’t come up with anything other than— “I’m sorry.”

It’s quiet, muffled into Jord’s shoulder, and Laurent can feel him jerk a little bit, as if suppressing a sob. He doesn’t know what he wants—he wants Jord to stop touching him, he wants Jord to keep holding him like he matters, he wants to curl up in his own bed in his own clothes and pretend like none of this is happening. Jord’s fingers dig in tight enough that they tug at the line of careful stitching, and Laurent can’t hold in the gasp pressed out of him at the touch. Jord pulls back and—he’s crying, of course he is, and Laurent hadn’t thought he could feel more guilty.

“Just—” Jord stops, cuts himself off when he sees the bandages on Laurent’s face, the exhaustion painted in dark violet under his eyes. “What happened to you?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Laurent says, and Jord reaches out as if to stroke across his plastered cheekbone, and Laurent cannot stop the flinch. He blinks, and Jord’s fingers are thicker and longer, and the single gold ring glints menacingly even in the low light of the alley and—Laurent blinks, and Jord’s hand is drawing back sharply, as if he’s been slapped.

“Laurent,” he says, blinking away the last of the tears, and this time there’s a bit of the horror Laurent had been expecting. “Please, tell me what happened, tell me you’re okay.”

I can’t, Laurent thinks. He closes his eyes again; one of Jord’s hands is still a steady weight on his shoulder.

“I didn’t come back,” he says instead, because he needs to. “I’m sorry I didn’t—tell you, or call you back—I just—”

“I know,” Jord says, and Laurent knows he can tell that the subject had been changed on purpose, but Jord also knows how to leave well enough alone, when he has to. “I talked to Vannes, she said you were safe with her. It’s okay, Laurent.”

“I’m sorry,” Laurent repeats, because he doesn’t know how to say anything else. He feels weak and helpless and weightless; if his head were to touch a pillow, Laurent would be asleep in half a second.

“It’s okay.” Jord’s thumb sweeps a careful line across his shoulder, and both of them are trembling. “Come on, you look exhausted. I’ll run you a shower?”

“Bath,” Laurent replies, weakly. His back cannot get wet, unless he wants to have Jord change the bandage now. It isn’t a pleasant thought.

“Okay, bath it is. The lasagna should be done in about an hour, if you want to take your time.” Even with his eyes closed, Laurent can tell that Jord beams back at him when he lets his lips curl up at the mention of the food.

“You cooked just for me?” He asks, feigning innocence, finally letting his eyes flutter open as sweetly as he can manage. Jord looks as if he’s about to shove Laurent gently, teasingly, and then changes his mind. He settles instead for shrugging bashfully, the hind of a blush tugging at his smooth cheeks. “I’m flattered.”

“Don’t be,” Jord snipes back unthinkingly, and it eases something in Laurent’s spine that doesn’t go unnoticed by either of them. “If you want to grab some clothes, I’ll start the water for the bath. You don’t look so great; is that even your—?”

It’s a bitten off question, but Laurent knows how it might have ended, had Jord let it play out. He resists the urge to pluck at the cuff of the old, worn button-down.

“I stayed with a doctor from St. Jude’s last night. Paschal,” he explains softly. “He let me borrow some things from him.”

Jord knows Paschal, vaguely. He knows that Laurent has known him for a long time, knows that Laurent had avoided going to see him in the in-between years before getting his job, knows that he might have been the one tending to Laurent’s bruised forearms and occasional split lip at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen; if everything had been different. Jord knows of Paschal, yes, but from the look in his eye Laurent can tell that Jord doesn’t trust Paschal with him. It’s oddly—comforting, in a way.

“Okay,” Jord says softly, as if easing a spooked animal. Laurent isn’t sure which one of them is supposed to be the animal. Jord draws away, reluctantly, and when his fingers have finally slipped from Laurent’s forearm he finds himself sagging with the weight of his body, without Jord there to hold him up. He shakes the lethargy off as firmly as he can, but it’s a persistent and unsettling weight across his shoulders as Laurent retreats into the spare room—his room now, he thinks—to collect a fresh pair of his own clothes.

It’s only been three days, but the bedroom feels foreign, stripped bare. The bed is as neatly made as he’d left it early Friday morning; a dog-eared copy of The Odyssey that Laurent had carried around in his bag for weeks during his last year of high school, unabridged and annotated in Auguste’s slanted, rushed scrawl. He hadn’t kept it just for sentimentality—Laurent enjoys the book, enjoys the simple comfort of a book read over and over again. Before Auguste had come back, he’d been halfway through yet another read, adding more of his own notes in ink next to Auguste’s smudged, penciled commentary. He hasn’t picked it up in a week.

It’s only been a week. Laurent remembers coming back from Damen’s apartment in the dead of night and thumbing through a few pages of Homer, fighting the sleep tugging at his eyelids just to have some semblance of control, after everything. Laurent pauses in the doorway, and tries not to let himself feel anything. Uncle’s apartment had been hell—every night spent in the single king bed had left Laurent with bile on the back of his tongue and Uncle’s fingers scattering phantom touches along the fragmented edges of his memory. And yet—and yet, despite everything, it had been Laurent’s home for years. True, it hadn’t been his really, but it had been a home. Somewhere to come back to, without fail.

Laurent has condemned himself to drifting, aimlessly, until things begin to work themselves out. It shouldn’t feel that different, he supposes, than what his life was before. And yet, it does. There is a difference between not being home and being homeless.

He passes Jord in the hallway when he emerges from the bedroom, carrying an armful of his own clothing and the towel he’d left slung over the back of the desk chair last week. Jord hesitates like he’s going to say something, mouth falling open slightly, and then sighs a little, letting his shoulders slump forward. He must have taken his binder off while Laurent was in the bedroom; his chest fills out his sweatshirt more than it had when he’d gone in, and even in the brief seconds they see each other Laurent can tell that he’s breathing more easily. Sometimes he forgets (accidentally or, occasionally, on purpose) to take it off, during his nine or eleven or fourteen hour shifts as a residency doctor at Memorial, and comes home with red lines dug into the gentle flesh underneath his arms, and can’t breathe too deeply without wincing for hours afterwards. Laurent knows that there isn’t much he can do to help—cups of tea, sometimes, a gentle reminder to leave the binder off as long as he’s comfortable with the next day. He asked, once, why Jord hadn’t gotten surgery, and had received a half-answer; something about not wanting to take the time off of work. It’s not his place to pry, and Laurent of all people knows how to leave private topics well enough alone.

“The water’s warm,” is all Jord says when they pass each other, but it’s underlaid with the kind of affection Laurent has become familiar with; almost fraternal, almost parental. The words tug at half-memories of Auguste attempting to cajole him into the bath at age eight, nine maybe, memories that Laurent isn’t sure are real or simply made up to keep himself from going insane, in those awful years alone. He nods in acknowledgement or maybe thanks, and Jord nods back. He turns into the kitchen, instead of his bedroom, and Laurent shuts the bathroom door behind him heavily. It takes effort, not to lean his back against the cool wooden slats of the door, and Laurent resist by steadfastly undoing the buttons of his borrowed shirt one by one, refusing to let his fingers fumble.

The water is warm, and Laurent lowers himself in as slowly as he can, arms shaking with the strain to his back as he settles himself into the warm water, the upper half of his body erupting in gooseflesh at the chill of the winter air. Jord’s apartment is warm but not extravagantly heated, and even that contrast is enough to make Laurent work quickly.

He doesn’t like the idea of baths in general, but a shower would unavoidably mean getting his stitches wet, and at least sitting down in the half-full bathtub, Laurent can carefully rinse the dirt and grime off of parts of his back, his feet, his chest. He works carefully around the bruises on his throat and face, peeling the bloody bandages from his lip and cheek slowly enough to register the sting of the sticky material. The water begins to cool fairly quickly, and Laurent rinses the soap off his face before leaning forward precariously to submerge his hair, quickly slathering in a handful of shampoo as he scrubs at it. He remembers—Govart’s hand fisted in it, Uncle’s fingers trailing through the strands just long enough to fall into his face, Paschal reaching out to push them away from his face. Laurent closes his eyes, focuses on the stretch of his back as he leans his head between his knees to reach the water, ducks his head under to scrub out the lather. Conditioning is easier; Laurent sits with his hair slicked back from his face, counting to sixty inside his head and refusing to look down at his own body, knowing that if he did he couldn’t stop himself from cataloguing the bruises, pressing his fingers into each one just to keep them fresh. He rinses his hair in the cooling water, runs his hands through it to squeeze out the excess dampness, and then reaches for his towel.

When he stands up, water sloughing off his body like a second skin, Laurent feels lighter. His bones still ache with exhaustion, his back still stings when he shifts too quickly, but his skin feels softer, cleaner. Something has been lifted, and Laurent steps out of the bathtub and does not look down at his battered body.

Putting on his own clothes is something of a relief. The dark henley and wool sweater each settle like armor over Laurent’s shoulders, and he rubs the towel against his wet hair until his back and arms ache from the tension. It’s still damp enough that Laurent feels chilled, and he slides a fresh pair of socks onto his feet in an attempt to warm up. Winter is beginning to settle over the city in earnest, and Laurent doesn’t look forward to the inevitable months of children cycling through St. Jude’s with ailments induced by the freezing cold. Soon enough, snow will blanket the city, lit only by the sudden explosion of holiday lighting and the glimpses of sunlight between storms.

He pulls the plug to let the bath drain out, and leaves Charls’ clothing in a crumpled heap on the floor.


l.

Jord is waiting for him in the kitchen. The timer on the oven is counting down steadily, minute by minute, and Laurent tries not to stare at the clock as they stand in companionable silence, leaning against the wooden table with their legs crossed in front of them. Silence, with Jord, is familiar. What isn’t familiar is Jord’s nearly palpable desire to say something to break it, and his evident uncertainty, written across his face as clear as day. Laurent, for all his virtues, pretends not to notice. He does not want to watch Jord’s face when he—inevitably—has to speak about Uncle, about Damen and Auguste and Nicaise, though he knows that he will not receive a kinder audience from anyone.

With Jord, everything has gone unsaid for long enough that Laurent does not know how to go about articulating it all, everything that has built up in the last six years between them. And so they lean against the counter, some kind of tension thick between them like a metal wedge.

“How long do you think you’re going to be staying?” Jord asks, and Laurent does not look away from the side of the toaster, which he’s been staring at in between glances at the timer on the oven. The metal side is smudged, and a little rusted. He thinks it might be a fire hazard; someone should tell Jord that.

“I don’t know,” Laurent says. He twitches his head forward slightly, and a few strands of damp, curly hair fall across his face. He can feel Jord’s gaze drifting to the exposed scab on his cheek, not longer than an inch but dark and fresh enough to draw the eye. The cut on his lip is less obvious, though swollen, and Laurent resists the urge to reach up and touch it. The last thing he wants is irritation, and a longer-lasting mark. “A while, maybe.”

“You know you can stay here—if you wanted, I could even add you to the lease, next month.”

It’s not the first time Jord has offered, but it’s the first in a while. Laurent blinks, his fingers clench slightly on the cool linoleum of the countertop. It’s—tempting, to say the least. Somewhere permanent, without Uncle breathing down his back, with Jord in the room next door. And yet, Laurent almost hates the thought of spending indefinite, undefined years living in close proximity to anyone—even Jord, who he trusts more than most. He wants to be able to breathe, and he doesn’t know if he’s ever going to be able to in this apartment, with Damen living next door.

“I don’t think so,” Laurent says, and Jord sighs, like he’d known what the answer was going to be even as he asked the question.

“It was worth a shot.” Laurent can hear the smile in his voice, soft and a little sad. It makes him want to take it back, to promise to stay, and he clamps down firmly on the instinct. It’s not what he wants—right now, it’s not what he needs.

“You’re always welcome here,” Jord says, as if Laurent hasn’t known that for years. “I know you don’t always want to come by, I know you have other places and other friends, but I want you to know that even if you stay away for weeks or months or however long, you can always come back for as long as you need to. It’s the least I can do, Laurent, after—”

“Don’t.” Laurent cuts him off, gently. “Thank you, Jord. Really. You don’t owe me anything.”

“Laurent,” Jord says, helpless. “You were—you were a child, I let you go back there and I didn’t do anything, I should have—”

Don’t,” Laurent says. “There’s no point. Whatever you could have offered I would have refused, and it’s all done now anyway. Nothing is going to change what he was, or the things he did.”

He doesn’t know if Jord knows the full extent of what they’re talking about; it’s easy to assume that Jord knows, that Vannes knows, that even Damen and Nikandros know, and yet. The thought keeps tugging at the back of Laurent’s mind, insistent and malicious: what if they don’t know, what if they turn on you when they find out, what if they leave the second you tell them how disgusting—

Laurent buries the thought deep, and checks the timer on the oven again. He’s not particularly hungry; for all he knows the lasagna is store-bought or frozen, a simple homage to Jord’s usual culinary skill.

“I know.” The words sound choked out, remorseful, and Laurent does not turn his head to the side. He doesn’t want to see Jord’s face, however cowardly it might be of him. He doesn’t want to have to look his friends in the eye, when they finally accept it. Vannes had been bad enough—Laurent knows if Jord starts crying, there will be little hope of him keeping his own tears at bay.

Jord had only seen him cry once, Laurent thinks, excluding the night they met. It had been at Auguste’s grave, not long after Nicaise had first appeared in the apartment next door. He’d visited the grave often, at first. Laurent had begged Uncle to take him, to leave him alone to talk quietly to the engraved name and empty casket, but as Laurent had gotten older, the visits had petered out. He visits once a year, now; on the anniversary of the funeral. They’d never gotten a date of death. Laurent wonders if he’ll go again, in four months, when the anniversary comes around again. The clock doesn’t stop, he thinks, even after the dead have risen.

“Did you make the lasagna yourself?” Laurent asks, to distract them both. Jord laughs a little, and it comes out muffled, as if his hand is covering his mouth. Laurent’s gaze affixes itself to the floor, the off-white tiles beneath his dark socks oddly colored in the yellow lights of the kitchen.

“I tried to, at first,” Jord admits, self-deprecation teasing at the edges of his voice, still a little thick with emotion. “I gave up though, and ran down to the store to pick up the frozen one.”

“Somehow I’m not surprised,” Laurent says, just to tease. Jord groans dramatically, and Laurent chances a quick glance to his right. Jord’s eyes and nose are a little pink, his cheeks rosy, but he’s smiling, and the sheen to his eyes isn’t all tears. Small victories, Laurent thinks, and chances a smile back.

“Cooking is harder than it looks,” Jord complains, as he’s done a thousand times before. Laurent scoffs, a little, and pushes his hair out of his face. If they’d been standing closer together, Laurent might have nudged him with an elbow, a shoulder, a foot.

He’s missed this. It shouldn’t be as difficult to accept as it is, but Laurent has missed sharing this space with Jord, during the last few weeks. Everything had gotten so busy after the night he’d spent with Damen, and the morning that had followed, and Laurent finds himself craving the simplicity of just a few months ago, sitting on the floor of Jord’s living room with papers strewn out in front of him as he’d scrambled to complete the final assignments that would get him his associate’s degree. It feels like so long ago, and yet—it hasn’t even been a year.

“Are you doing anything tonight?” Jord asks, just a little too loud to be completely casual. Laurent glances back at the clock, mentally tracks the time until his appointment downtown. Mentally tracks the likelihood of running into Damen in the hallway if he leaves, though he doesn’t know much about Damen’s work schedule, after everything.

“I have an appointment—later, at the bank—” Laurent starts, and cuts himself off when he sees Jord’s incredulous stare out of the corner of his vision. “What?”

“I’ve never seen you go to the bank in my life,” Jord says, the teasing edge back in his voice. Laurent lets his face melt into something affronted-looking, putting on an air of hurt. Jord’s face breaks into a wide, open smile, and something that feels like a knot in Laurent’s chest loosens. “Seriously, what’s up?”

“I’m not sure,” Laurent admits, when he lets the false expressions melt away. He presses the toe of his socked foot against the hard tile, just for something to feel. The more pressure he puts on it, the harder it becomes to keep his balance, and Laurent almost humors the idea of attempting to balance all of his weight on this one point of contact. He’s stopped by Jord’s presence, and the quiet tick of the oven timer in front of him. “The man who called said something about Uncle giving me back control over my accounts, but I can’t be sure until I go.”

“Laurent,” Jord says, and there’s a warning coming in his voice. “What if he’s waiting for you? What if it’s—”

“Some kind of trap?” Laurent lifts his head fully, for the first time since coming into the kitchen, and lets his hair fall away from his face, where it’s been resting to precariously cover the scabbed wound on Laurent’s cheek. The skin around it is bruised and ugly, the mark itself unsymmetrical. It’s ugly, and it hurts, and Jord’s eyes widen in barely-suppressed horror.

“Oh my—Laurent—” He starts, and then claps his hand over his mouth, like he doesn’t know what to say. “Who—?”

“It’s not a trap,” Laurent says with as much surety as he can muster. “I survived his trap, this is—I don’t know. Something else.”

A reward, he does not want to say, because he remembers Uncle’s games from years ago. Remembers his rewards, more clearly than he wishes he did. Jord doesn’t look convinced; Laurent can see his hand, reaching up from his side and then forced back down, almost angrily. Laurent is not quite comfortable with Jord’s gaze on him, the concern thick over his features, but he doesn’t want to let himself turn away his face, in an indulgence of weakness.

At some point, Laurent thinks, he is going to have to get used to his friends seeing him weak. It’s been years and it still unsettles him.

“Are you going?” Jord asks, quiet. Laurent glances up at the timer on the clock again; more time has passed than he thought. There are only fifteen minutes left on the clock; Laurent has time. He doesn’t answer—Jord already knows the answer, knows Laurent too well to take his silence as anything but an affirmation. “I’ll take you, if you like.”

“Thank you.” The words are thick on his tongue; clumsy. Laurent wonders when, exactly, conversation with Jord had gotten so difficult. The silence that hangs between them is thick and claustrophobic, and mercifully brief.

“I talked to Damen, this morning,” Jord says. Perhaps not so mercifully, then. Laurent ducks his face away. His wrists burn where Damen had grasped them, almost twenty-four hours ago now, his gaze open and honest and too understanding for Laurent to handle. Something in his gut twists at the thought of what he had done, at the thought of the little plastic roll of film sitting on Damen’s kitchen counter. His lunch with Nicaise has almost been digested, and Laurent is grateful for the small things. If he were to throw up now, consistent with the nausea churning in his stomach, there would be little to empty from his stomach. “He seemed really worried about you. I know there’s a lot between you two now, but we could stop by and see if he’s home before we leave?”

“No—” The response is automatic, and Laurent bites himself off. “I don’t—that’s not a good idea, I don’t think.”

“Why not?” It’s almost a challenge.

I let him fuck me, Laurent’s brain supplies, and he buries the thought deep. It’s not that he hasn’t thought about it, and yet—if feels almost as if it had happened in another life. With a Laurent who clearly hadn’t been thinking about much of anything at all. He closes his eyes, lets himself feel the warming linoleum under the curl of his fingers, the slightly stifling heat of the wool sweater in Jord’s confined kitchen. It’s difficult to breathe, almost, and Laurent wishes that Jord’s apartment had a balcony, or a fire escape. At this point, he would settle for opening a window.

“I hurt him,” Laurent finally settles on, and it’s at least part of the truth. Jord scoffs a little, from next to him.

“And he hurt you. That’s how relationships work.” Laurent flushes, and wishes that he could blame it on the heat of the apartment.

“We aren’t in a relationship. It was—once, and he’s a federal agent, and I don’t know why I let him—”

“Because you like him,” Jord says, as if explaining something to a toddler, and the nausea resurfaces with a vengeance that has Laurent fighting the instinct to double up over his abdomen. The thought, had it been proposed to Laurent even a year ago, would have been repulsive. It still is, and yet. There is some part of him that acknowledges it as true, as disgusting as it might be. He thinks, briefly, of Auguste’s horror at seeing Damen’s familiarity after the arrest had taken place. He thinks, more briefly, of what Auguste would say if he knew.

“Laurent,” Jord says, when Laurent fails to answer. “Are you really going to let me have the last word on this? That doesn’t seem quite like you.”

Leave it alone, Laurent almost wants to snap, and doesn’t. There are certainly things Jord deserves at the moment, many of them unpleasant, but Laurent shouldn’t shut him down. At least not cruelly. Jord had told him, once, that he had a mouth that would make a grown man cry, and at sixteen Laurent had taken it as a compliment.

“I don’t know,” he admits, carefully. “Right now, I just want—”

There is a lot that Laurent wants. There is a lot that Laurent has wanted for years that is never going to happen. Jord waits, eyes kind, as Laurent’s eyes glance over the landscape of the familiar kitchen he could trace in his sleep.

“I want it to be simple,” he finally says, and Jord exhales softly. His hand settles on top of Laurent’s own and it is almost unnerving, unfamiliar.

“Something tells me that with you and Damen, that’s not going to happen.” The words are lighthearted, but both of them know that it’s the truth. Laurent glances back at the clock—six minutes. “Promise me you’ll talk to him, at least?”

“Why?” The word is wry, accompanied by a twist of Laurent’s lips that makes him feel almost as if he’s back in high school, staring down a teacher whose pockets had been full of Uncle’s cash. He blinks, and his hair falls into his face again, and he resists the urge to reach across his shoulder and tug at a nonexistent braid.

“You deserve at least one nice thing, don’t you think?” Jord asks, tone still light. “If you and Damen can work things out, I think you could be good together.”

“And what, exactly, did you talk to him about this morning? I’m starting to get concerned for my reputation.”

Jord’s laugh is bright and unexpected, and Laurent can’t quite stop a smile from spreading onto his own face. One hand drifts up, palms at his cheek, and Laurent is briefly surprised to find that he has stubble, dusted sparsely over his jaw.

Auguste had never had a beard; their father hadn’t had the genetics for it, he had claimed once. Laurent’s mind darts back just a few days, to the shine of Auguste’s short beard in the warm yellow glow of the streetlight next to Uncle’s apartment building, and clamps down once again on the ever-present nausea.

He remembers beard burn on his neck, on his thighs, and decides to shave before they leave today.

“It’s good to have you back,” Jord says, instead of answering the question. Laurent can’t really find fault in this; there are things that he does not want jord knowing about some of his conversations with Damen, either. Jord’s voice is warm, his hand still gentle on top of Laurent’s own. Laurent manages to recover his own smile, as unimpressive as it might seem, and when he looks over at Jord it’s like something has ebbed away in the small, overheated kitchen. Laurent’s shoulders slump, his posture against the counter relaxes into something approaching a slump. Jord’s eyes soften, half-covered by his curly hair.

“It’s good to be back,” Laurent replies, as honestly as he can. He remembers sitting on Nicaise’s fire escape, remembers Paschal’s hands gentle as they’d stitched up the wound in his back. Everything has happened in such a short amount of time, and Laurent has lost some crucial aspect of his own humanity, of the way he fits in to each event like a jagged piece of a puzzle. Misplaced. “I missed you.”

They stand in silence that no longer feels as claustrophobic, Jord’s hand covering his, Laurent’s hair covering the worst of the bruise and cut on his cheek. Three minutes later, the timer on the oven starts to beep, and Jord jolts towards it as if startled out of a reverie. Laurent watches as he takes the mercifully unburnt lasagna out of the oven, peeling back the tinfoil until the dish is exposed to cool. Laurent stares at the pan momentarily, puzzled for a reason he can’t quite explain.

“It should be ready in fifteen minutes, once it’s cooled,” Jord says, eyeing the lasagna like he’s amazed it had made it out of his hands unscathed. Laurent thinks about telling him that he’s not hungry, and then pauses with his mouth half-open.

“Jord,” he begins, and then pauses a moment again to collect his thoughts. “Why were you making an entire lasagna for just yourself in the middle of the afternoon?”

It really isn’t the strangest thing Laurent has ever seen Jord do—especially not when it came to his eating habits—but it’s just unusual enough to make him wonder. Jord flushes a little, and runs a hand against the back of his neck in embarrassment.

“Well—I didn’t know you were coming, so—I might have invited someone over? I asked him not to come while you were in the bath but—I don’t know, I wanted to surprise him? It really was kind of an impulse thing.”

Laurent pauses for a moment, one hand still resting lightly on the countertop. He wants to ask, wants to let Jord ramble about him about this new mysterious him, but Jord has always been intensely private about his relationships, and Laurent thinks it best not to ask if Jord doesn’t willingly divulge anything else.

“I’m glad,” he says instead, and Jord’s hand drops from his own neck loosely. Something has opened in his face, and he looks a little relieved, as if he had been worried that Laurent would—what? Be upset for spending time with someone else? Taking care of himself? Laurent tries to let his face relax more in turn; it is some semblance of their former ease, and he would rather have it over the tension that had settled over them like a thin layer, standing in front of the oven.

Jord’s phone buzzes and he tugs it out of his jeans, face lighting up with a soft smile when he sees the new message, and Laurent’s hand instinctively migrates to his own thigh, where he phone is buried in his pants pocket. He hasn’t smiled at a text like that in—he doesn’t know how long. It’s nice to see Jord happy, even if something about it makes a little twist of something akin jealousy twist itself around Laurent’s heart.

His propensity for bitter, futile envy has always been one of the things Laurent loathes about himself.

“Laurent,” Jord calls, fingers tapping at the keyboard on his phone. “Do you want to get out dishes? I’ve heard it from reliable sources that this brand of frozen dinners made for incompetents like me is amazing.”

Laurent uncurls his fingers from the edge of the counter, and starts reaching for the familiar cabinets. “One of these days, you really need to learn how to cook.”

“I wouldn’t have to if you would just cook for me,” Jord argues. Laurent laughs, fondly, and tugs down two of Jord’s ridiculously patterned holiday plates. Laurent had happened across his continuously expanding collection of themed dinnerware a few years ago, and it’s become a habit of his to gift Jord with a new one at every major gift-giving occasion. The two he pulls down both happen to be Christmas themed, and a disturbingly round-cheeked Santa beams up at Laurent from the one on the top. It makes him almost uncomfortable, in an amusing sort of way, and so when he places the dishes down on the table, he leaves that one in front of Jord’s seat.

“Why do you always give me the creepy ones?” Jord asks, and Laurent looks up to find that he’s no longer texting. He doesn’t answer, and Jord frowns playfully at him. Laurent still isn’t hungry, but he sets a place for himself anyway. It’s borderline absurd, setting the table for an impromptu meal in the early afternoon, but it is winter, and Laurent cannot find it in himself to really care. Jord is texting once again, with a silly smile on his face that Laurent hopes never graces his own. Not that he has someone to be texting with that sort of look, but—really.

“Have some dignity,” he says, half to tease. Jord snorts a little bit in laughter.

“Come on, Laurent, I know you hate everything to do with romance, but you’d like it if you ever bothered to try it.”

Laurent thinks about sitting on Damen’s countertop, of Damen’s hand guiding his on the paring knife, of Damen’s hands locked around his wrist almost twenty-four hours ago, and wonders if that counts.

“Well, I haven’t, and you look ridiculous.” He settles himself into a chair easily, one leg tucked up underneath him. Jord practically throws himself into his own chair, as ungracefully as ever, and shoves his phone deep into his sweatshirt pocket.

“But really, I like him,” Jord says, and this time Laurent manages a genuine smile. “I think you would too. He reminds me a little of you, actually, and he’s close to your age.”

Jord, Laurent knows, is only a few years older than him. He’s still working towards his doctorate, and his placement at Memorial is part of that. And yet he’s always associated Jord with being older in a way only encompassed by the way he had thought of Auguste as a child; infinitely more put-together, and responsible in a way Laurent had never considered himself to be. Jord is not old, though—younger than Auguste by almost three years—and it makes sense that he’d connect with someone Laurent’s age.

“What’s his name?” Laurent asks, tapping his fingernails gently against the worn wood of the kitchen table Jord had bought at a yard sale. They’d had to carry it back to the apartment together, and while at sixteen Laurent had not been the most muscular of the boys in his class, he had built up enough endurance training with Torveld that it had been more of an interesting exercise than a punishment, as he knows Jord had considered the ten-minute struggle. Jord smiles.

“His name’s Aimeric,” Jord says, and Laurent feels the bottom drop out of his stomach.


interlude — Damen

In the whirlwind of the last few days, it feels like Damen has barely had the time to sleep. He’s been taking nonstop calls from Makedon and people back in D.C., in between the interviews and the raids and—it’s exhausting. He wants nothing more than to go back to his apartment and collapse on the bed that Laurent had spread himself out on the night before, asking in all the wrong ways for something Damen still feels guilty for wanting.

Thinking about Laurent for too long inevitably makes Damen’s head hurt, the migraine pounding in time with his heartbeat every time he tries to puzzle out what had happened between them. Those few bright, glorious days with Laurent sleeping next to him, golden hair fanned out across Damen’s pillowcase, and then the break. Thinking about that morning—about the look on Laurent’s face, when Damen had raised his voice—never fails to leave Damen hurt, and confused, and inexplicably regretful. Everything about Laurent, in fact, sends Damen’s emotions spiraling into something muddied and completely unrecognizable.

When he enters his apartment, the night after Laurent had fled, the night is already falling fast across the walls of his apartment. He had spent the day with Nikandros and Makedon; making arrests around the city, bursting into disgusting, almost-condemned houses in the underbelly of the city and finding children living in despicable conditions. There had been—a few, before this, scattered here and there. They had been mostly luck, and Kastor had wanted it kept quiet. If de Vere had gotten wind of them, he had said, the whole operation would have been done for.

Except now, Damen is starting to question it. If they’d been able to find more of the hovels they’d been keeping children in—before taking out de Vere—maybe not as many would have had the notice to go underground. They’re losing too many, now, and every time Damen gets the call that one of the known locations has been abandoned, he has to grit his teeth to stop himself from screaming in frustration.

You can’t save everyone, Laurent’s voice echoes, and Damen has to stop himself from slamming the front door behind him.

His eyes dart to the kitchen counter, where Laurent had left the roll of film and the key to Damen’s apartment. Damen had found it just a few minutes after Laurent had left, after he’d heard the telltale click of the door locking behind him; he’d emerged from his room in a sort of daze, his wrists still burning where Laurent had gripped them. He remembers the look of uninhibited terror in Laurent’s eyes, when Damen had grabbed his wrists, and his stomach twists.

He’d sent the film in to be developed, and tried not to think about what pictures might be developed from it. They had warned him that the film was ten years old, maybe more, that the pictures might not be developed very clearly, and Damen had put it to the back of his mind, forcefully. If he thinks about it for too long, rage starts simmering in his blood. Twice, Nikandros had to nudge him back to reality with a sharp elbow and a sharper gaze, brows furrowed in concern. Damen had shaken off the concern, and the questions, though he knows that Nikandros is not one to let things like this go.

It’s almost ten in the evening, and the apartment block is quiet. Damen puts on hot water to boil after a lingering glance at his coffeemaker. He’d had at least three cups today, maybe four, and his body is warning him that any more would be much more than a bad idea, if he wants to get any rest at all. So he unwraps one of the loose teabags at the bottom of one of the kitchen drawers and drops it in a mug and thinks, inexplicably, of Laurent asleep on his couch, the morning of the raid. The sound of the electronic kettle feels out of place; it’s snowing again, and the blanket of relative peace is welcomed. Damen grew up on the west coast, bathed in sunlight year-round, but he finds cold winters liberating, in some respect.

He thinks about making food. He hasn’t eaten since lunch with Makedon, hurried and half-finished on the way to another house, and his stomach is protesting against the ratio of caffeine to calories. Damen shrugs out of his coat, and begins unbuttoning his shirt. The heavy vest underneath the shirt is a cloying weight, and a reminder of the danger of what he’s been doing. His fingers linger against the scar at his shoulder, and Damen remembers the burning agony of a bullet, lodged in the muscle. It has taken him years to regain full strength in the arm, and even now he wakes up with phantom pain, the mornings after the nightmares. He thinks about making food, and sits on the couch Laurent had slept on three mornings ago, and eventually the kettle clicks, and Damen’s water has boiled.

It’s a strange sort of daze, that he spends the night in. He sits at the kitchen table and sips at green tea, unsweetened, and listens to the sound as the people who live in the hall get ready for bed, or come home from late jobs, or take their dogs out for one last trip to the grass outside. From Jord’s apartment, Damen thinks he hears the murmur of voices, but he doesn’t want to hope. Last night, Jord had escorted a young man with curled auburn hair into the apartment, and Damen hadn’t gotten much sleep. These voices, though, are hushed; the doors, when they shut, barely make an audible sound. There is no banging of furniture or half-muffled moans, or any of the sounds of sex coming from the apartment next door.

Instead, at half past midnight, Damen hears Jord’s apartment door open, and finds himself rising from the kitchen table, mostly-empty mug of tea cold and abandoned on the table.

He doesn’t know what he expects, when he pushes open the front door. Nothing, maybe. Jord’s new lover, going out for a cigarette. It’s wishful thinking, to imagine Laurent standing out in the hallway in nothing but an overlarge shirt and sweatpants, his arms wrapped around his torso as he leans against the wall, and yet it’s exactly the sight that Damen is confronted with, when he pulls open the door. Laurent looks up, a little bit wildly, and when he sees Damen his body shifts, as it preparing for an attack.

The first thing Damen notices is the bruising at Laurent’s neck. The second is the cut on his cheek, the third the dark circles underneath his eyes. Laurent’s breathing is shallow, his eyes wary. Damen tries not to think of a stray dog with its back against the wall, terrified and willing to fight its way out.

With the way their last meeting had gone, Damen doesn’t blame Laurent for being on edge.

“Laurent,” he says. Laurent’s gaze shifts away; some of the fight in his frame dissipates. Damen, without thinking, takes a step forward. Laurent mirrors him, eyes wide, and his back hits the plaster of the building’s hall. The lights, dim and yellow, seem to flicker darkly, and Damen watches Laurent forcefully suppress whatever reaction had been threatening to rise to the surface. “What—what happened?”

He knows the answer, even before Laurent opens his mouth. It twists like a sickness in his stomach.

“You gave him bail,” Laurent says, and despite the sharp tone there’s something almost like hurt buried in his voice. Like he knows that Damen’s not really the one at fault, like he’s angry at himself for blaming him. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking.

“It wasn’t my call.” It was Kastor’s, he wants to say, and tries not to think about Kastor’s judgement calls on this case, all of the things they should have done but hadn’t, because of him. He thinks back to Nikandros, warning him about the circumstances under which they’d been assigned this case. It should have gone to someone else after Kastor had stepped down, as much as it pains Damen to admit it. Someone more experienced. He’s only worked in the Bureau for a few years, he knows that there are others who could have done—more. Who could have helped Laurent more. “Do you—know where he is?”

Laurent’s gaze falls back on him, and his eyes flash with something like anger. It’s an emotion Damen’s more familiar with, on him.

“I’m not a bloodhound.” Damen slips his hands into his pockets, tries to make the slope of his broad shoulders as mildly threatening as possible. Laurent watches him, eyes guarded. “He’s long gone, I’m sure. I doubt he’ll be coming back soon.”

“Why?” Damen asks, before he can stop himself. Laurent’s hand absently moves up, the pads of his fingers grazing along the cut on his lip. When he seems to notice, the hand drops, curling into a fist in the material of his shirt. It doesn’t look like one of his; too large and well-worn. Maybe it’s Jord’s. Damen tries to stop the ugly flare of jealousy that comes with the thought. Laurent isn’t his, as much as he likes to think so, sometimes.

“He—left me a message,” Laurent says, and for a moment he looks achingly young, despite the unkind lighting which casts sickly shadows over his face. “It doesn’t matter. He won’t be back.”

Damen wants to ask. It’s his case, he should ask, and yet the way Laurent’s shoulders are hunched, uncharacteristically defensive, makes him close his mouth with a soft click of teeth. He doesn’t want to be a federal agent right now. He doesn’t want to be someone that Laurent has to be wary of, someone who needs him for nothing more than a steady source of information about his uncle. He wants to be Damen, wants to be the man that they both had pretended he was, back when Laurent had been simply a lover, simply someone Damen had wanted to learn.

“Do you want to come inside?” He asks. The question hangs in the air, thick between them like the words they aren’t saying. Laurent’s spine straightens a little, his expression pinching. His hair is flattened down on one side, as if he’d been trying to sleep on it; it’s ridiculously endearing, and Damen has to stop himself from reaching out to smooth it out. He can see the hesitation in the slight press of Laurent’s lips, chapped where they aren’t bloodied. Damen remembers kissing those lips.

“Just—for a minute,” Laurent says, reluctance evident in his tone. Damen is used to seeing him wrapped up in button-downs and sweaters and his winter coat, the dark gray contrasting against the smooth cream of his skin. It feels almost wrong to see him in sleep clothes, though Damen has slept next to him while both of them were wearing much less. Damen himself is still half-dressed in slacks and socks, his undershirt clinging to the curve of his waist. Laurent follows him into the apartment, cast in light somewhat brighter than the hallway, and stands in the entrance like he isn’t sure what to do with himself.

“I can make more tea,” Damen offers, and Laurent shakes his head.

“I already couldn’t sleep.” It’s a soft admission, a little detached. Laurent stands in his bare feet and looks overwhelmingly small, and Damen wants. He wants Laurent safe in his bed, sleeping away the dark circles underneath his eyes; he wants Laurent standing beside him, Damen’s arm tucked around his waist to keep him close. Laurent’s arms are crossed defensively over his chest, though, and Damen doesn’t dare make a move to startle him off.

“Laurent, you can relax,” Damen says, and Laurent looks up at him like he’d spoken in Greek. He finally moves from the foyer though; he takes a step into the kitchen sees the case files spread out over the table, and then retreats back into the living room. He settles delicately into the couch, his head tilting back to lean against the cushion. The light reflects in his pale hair, so fine it practically glows in the shine of Damen’s lamp. Damen wants to join him, but as he watches the steady rise and fall of Laurent’s chest under the thin shirt, something tells him that Laurent needs the time, and the space. Instead, Damen retreats into his bedroom, taking the opportunity to release a breath, slow and tight.

The simple matter of Laurent’s existence is impossible; the idea of having him here again, so close and yet effortlessly untouchable, makes Damen’s heart clench inside his chest. It is not his place to want, and yet he does, with a ferocity that surprises even him. Despite everything, Laurent is still pulling him in like a satellite, fixing Damen in a constant orbit on his periphery. Perhaps an exaggeration, but Damen has found his thoughts straying to Laurent far too often in the past weeks, out of proportion with the the length of their half-relationship. And now, Laurent is back in his apartment after arguably the most tumultuous few days Damen has ever had. At least, they’re up there.

He manages to strip out of his slacks and change back into one of his cleaner pairs of joggers. His apartment has fallen into a mild state of disarray, if only because Damen hasn’t been around enough to either wreck it or clean it. Most of his laundry is unwashed. Damen doesn’t like the untidiness, the disorder; he makes a mental note to find time to go to the laundromat this week, in between everything else. Paperwork is piling up on the kitchen table, alongside scribbled notes on legal paper during frantic phone calls back to the capital, and a few scattered dishes.

Laurent is still sitting on the couch, his head tilted back. From this angle all Damen can see is his hair, almost silver in the glinting light from the lamp and window. Part of him wants to believe that Laurent has fallen asleep; he’s so still, and yet somehow Damen knows that he’s not going to be that lucky.

“Laurent,” Damen says. His voice is almost too loud in the delicate silence.

“What.” Nothing about the word is welcoming, or meant to invite conversation. Damen takes a step forward anyway, and another, until Laurent’s profile and chest are revealed from behind the back of the couch. His breaths are long and shallow; the thin layer of his shirt does little to hide the movement of his chest underneath it. His eyes are closed, pale lashes resting against his cheek. Damen lets himself looks and it feels like an invasion, like something deeply private that he should never have witnessed. Laurent looks so young, with his eyes shut and his lips parted ever so slightly, no longer forced into a repressed line.

Damen had kissed those lips. He had felt them open beneath his own, as Laurent had surrendered himself sweetly to the pleasure building between them. He remembers Laurent hesitating and then once again resuming the soft push and pull between them, like the ebbing of a tide; remembers the sweet inexperience of the morning after, how his cheeks had pinked with pleasure and embarrassment. Damen does not want to allow himself to wonder about Laurent’s familiarity with the act, belied by his sweet surprise each time had brought him pleasure. It makes Damen hurt and suddenly, the only thing he wants is to pull Laurent close, to hold him safe and secure and away from the world and everything terrible in it.

He doesn’t say anything. For a long moment, Damen just stands there and watching, until he becomes aware of the slight shifting of Laurent’s weight in his seat.

“Stop—looking at me,” Laurent says, and something in his voice tells Damen that the words had been difficult to force out. He doesn’t know what to do, what to say in the wake of Laurent’s sudden presence. Laurent shifts, picks his head up from the back of the couch and tucks his legs up against his chest, until his chin rests on the tops of his knees, and only then do his eyes flutter open, flicking up to where Damen is still standing, just a few feet to the right of the couch.

Something in his gaze makes Damen feel caught out, exposed in a wrongdoing. The look on Laurent’s face is indecipherable, his breathing still shallow. It’s late enough that Damen’s mind is exhausted, but now he feels caught up in Laurent’s presence, in the tension he seems to carry with him each time they find themselves alone. Damen doesn’t want to think about what that might imply—about whether or not Laurent might be scared of him.

“Do you want to talk?” Damen asks. Laurent’s brows pinch for a brief moment, before his brow smooths out again. Damen moves, slowly enough that Laurent can track each move warily, and settles himself in the armchair opposite the coffee table. It feels like some twisted parody of therapy, Damen sitting in the chair as judge and listener as Laurent sits, protective, on the couch.

“I don’t know.” It’s more than Damen expected from him, at least. He’s the first to drop his gaze, letting his hand spread palms-up on his thighs. “I don’t—I couldn’t sleep.”

His voice is rough. The bruises on the sides of his neck, disconcertingly finger-shaped, stand out even in the dim light.

“I couldn’t either.” Damen’s nails are dirty. The one on his left index finger is cracked, from too long spent against the trigger of a gun. Laurent’s hands are finer than his own, more delicate; easier to slip into a pocket and grab a wallet, Damen thinks wryly. He’s never—asked about that, not really. Laurent, he knows well, has a job, and no apartment or house of his own. There’s no logical, immediate conclusion that Damen can make, on the information he has alone. It’s not the time for that conversation though, not really. The thought seems wrong, somehow.

Very suddenly, Damen hates that he’s sitting across from Laurent so clinically, so separated by everything between them. He pushes himself up and watches Laurent watch him as he settles on the other end of the couch, one hand extended slightly. Laurent’s feet are bare, pressed flat against the material of the couch. They’re so close together like this, Damen can almost feel the heat coming off of him. Laurent isn’t looking at him, but both of them know how aware he is of Damen’s proximity.

“It never felt—real,” Laurent says, falteringly. His fingers clench in the material of his sweatpants, his mouth barely opening to let the words out. Every word seems to be a battle. “Even when we were planning it, it didn’t feel real until he was gone.”

There’s something fluttering in Damen’s chest, aching to get out, trying to claw its way up his throat and into words that want to spill, desperately, over his lips. It’s too much, though; too soon. Laurent is tired, and vulnerable, and Damen would never forgive himself if he overstepped something as fragile as the boundary between them, put up in something like self-defense.

It’s not something Damen can wholly relate to, except he remembers the overwhelming shadow of Kastor hanging over him at the Bureau, the heavy press of violence that had somehow spilled over from his childhood, growing up with Kastor’s medals of honor hanging proudly above the mantle, taking places next to Damen’s high school wrestling trophies and letter of acceptance from Harvard.

He hadn’t ended up going, too eager to live up to Kastor’s military history. Sometimes, he wonders what wold have happened if he had gone, left his family’s legacy behind him instead of being deployed after training and shot, just a matter of months later.

“I’ve never been without him, before,” Laurent says, and Damen snaps back to the present and the dangerous edge to Laurent’s voice, the mounting horror and confusion that makes Damen’s own stomach tighten in anxiety. “He never let me—I wasn’t—”

“Laurent,” Damen says, and this time he lets his hand extend further, landing on Laurent’s forearm, wrapped around his shins. Laurent doesn’t flinch but he does exhale, sharply, and he stiffens ever so slightly. Damen pauses, waiting for the right words, before realizing that the right words don’t seem to exist. “It’s okay.”

“It’s—not.” Laurent looks at him, and his eyes are wide, and Damen thinks that this may be the closest he has ever seen Laurent to crying. “All my life, he has always been there, and now he’s—not, and you took him away from me—

He does not get to finish the sentence, because Damen grips Laurent’s wrists and tugs, and Laurent ends up with his face buried in Damen’s shoulder, one wrist in Damen’s hand and the other hand pressed flat against Damen’s chest. His entire body is shaking; pressed up against Laurent, Damen can feel every shuddering breath that wracks his frame, each like some awful wave that seems to overwhelm them both. Damen closes his eyes, lets go of Laurent’s wrist, and pulls him in for the first real hug that they’ve ever had.

It takes a long time for Laurent to surrender himself, even fractionally, into the embrace. His breaths are still shaky, his body convulsing slightly every few moments as if violently stifling sobs. Damen just holds him, and breathes, and keeps on breathing until Laurent is matching his pace, his face still buried in the crook of Damen’s neck.

“I don’t know what to do,” Laurent says, and his voice sounds very small. Damen’s arms ache to tighten around Laurent’s back, to hold him even closer, but he forces himself to keep relaxing into the loose hold, to keep his breathing steady. Laurent’s next inhale matches with his. His exhale breaks on a small, involuntary noise, something almost close to the sobs that he’s been holding back.

It’s okay, Damen wants to say again, and doesn’t.

“I’m here,” he says, instead. It might not be the best thing to say, or the most correct; but it isn’t wrong. Laurent’s fingers, the palm still pressed up against Damen’s chest, curl against the material of his undershirt.

They sit like that for a long time. Too long, maybe—it’s snowing still, outside of the apartment. From what Damen can see, the blanket of white on the roofs outside the sixth-floor window is untouched, pristine. His breathing is long and slow, and Laurent’s matches his almost perfectly. It isn’t until Laurent makes a small, unthinking noise of discomfort or—something else, maybe—that Damen realizes that the man lying against his chest is almost entirely asleep.

“Laurent,” he murmurs. Laurent barely stirs; the only hint that he’s heard is the slight fluttering of his lashes against his cheek, revealing a slit of pale blue before sliding shut again. “You have to get up—you’re going to regret falling asleep here.”

He can picture the witty retort in his head, Laurent’s sly smirk as he makes a jab across the table; Damen remembers lunch with him on Laurent’s lunch break, trading de-thorned insults like roses across their food, their feet knocking together underneath the tiny table, Laurent’s scrubs a shocking shade of blue.

When Laurent doesn’t respond immediately, or make any move at all to indicate that he cares where it is that he falls asleep, Damen sighs. Jord’s apartment has the same automatic lock that his does; unless Laurent had brought a key, he’s stuck outside for the rest of the night. He’s not lucid enough to ask, and Damen doesn’t feel even close to comfortable sliding his hand into the pockets of Laurent’s sweatpants in search of one. Instead, he tries to rearrange Laurent to the best of his ability, shifting Laurent off of him until he’s lying sideways on the couch. Damen props a pillow underneath his head, and Laurent’s eyes slit open once again, blurry and confused. One hand comes up, vaguely reaching out towards the direction of Damen’s hand, and Damen pulls away sharply. He isn’t sure why.

He pulls a blanket off of the top of the armchair and settles it over Laurent, making sure that the bottom covers his bare feet from the chill. Something warm is building in Damen’s chest, an odd mixture of guilt and affection. Laurent’s face has smoothed in almost-sleep; it’s like years have fallen away that no one had realized he was carrying with him. Damen steps back, and makes himself stop looking.

“Sleep well,” he murmurs, as he reaches to turn out the lamp. He can make it back to his bedroom in the dark; even through the slight clutter, he still knows his home. He starts to creep down the hall, steps as silent as he can make them. He’s almost halfway back to his bedroom when he hears Laurent’s reply, muffled by his pillow and the space between them.

“Yes, Uncle.”


li.

Laurent wakes up slowly, sunlight streaming in through the windows. He thinks, for a fleeting second, that he’s in Jord’s apartment; the windows are positioned the same, the couches tilted at a similar angle. This wouldn’t be the first time he’s fallen asleep on Jord’s couch, but it takes Laurent a long moment to realize that his neck is propped up, a pillow underneath his head, and that he’s been covered by a blanket that he’s never seen in Jord’s apartment before.

There’s a brief moment where Laurent panics, and he scrambles into a seated position. The blanket falls down to his hips and it’s only then that Laurent realizes—he’s still clothed, in the shirt and sweats he had tossed and turned in last night, before going and—

He’s in Damen’s apartment. Laurent can feel his own heart pounding a staccato beat against his chest, his breaths sharp and jagged on the edges of hysteria. It takes a long moment to calm himself, to ease back down from the jolt of adrenaline. He barely even registers his surroundings, other than the blanket and the clothes on his body, until his breathing has leveled out, and once he’s able to, Laurent presses the heels of his hands against his eyes, rubbing away the sleep and drawing in a shaky breath, trying to gather himself.

It’s been a long time since he’s woken up in an unfamiliar place. For the first few months he’d taken to staying at Jord’s on the weekends, Laurent had always woken in a panic, certain he felt a familiar arm draped across his waist, breaths ticking the hairs at the back of his neck. He’d always been surprised to find, in Uncle’s place, the sparse furnishings of Jord’s spare bedroom, the half-broken blinds letting sunlight leak in to splay over the covers of the unfamiliar bed. Even the first few weeks after moving out of his childhood home had been difficult, waking tucked protectively in Uncle’s arms in the strange new apartment with a jolt.

Waking on Damen’s couch, in the familiar living room, doesn’t quite feel like that. Laurent is unsettled; it feels like miscounting the number of steps in a staircase, his foot coming down to hard and sending a sick jolt through his stomach, everything just a few inches off from what it should be. It’s an odd feeling of unsettlement, of something not quite right, and Laurent pushes his hair back from his face, trying to clear his head.

There’s the vague sense of having dreamed something unpleasant, but the memories of it are rapidly fading, and Laurent can’t pinpoint anything specific enough to unsettle him further. He sits up, and a blanket he doesn’t remember draping over himself falls, bunching itself at his hips. For a moment, he just sits. The apartment is quiet, the light muffled by the snow outside and the dark clouds rolling across the sky. The only thing that breaks it is the sound of Laurent’s own breathing, the creak of the building as people on other floors move around. It’s peaceful, almost.

Laurent turns toward the kitchen, looking over from behind the back of the couch. He first registers the shifting pattern of light; one of the windows in the kitchen is open, the breeze disturbing the light so that the brightness of the room increases or fades with every breeze. The second is Damianos himself, in nothing but a thin shirt and flannel pants, sitting with his shoulders hunched at the kitchen table.

He doesn’t seem to have noticed that Laurent is awake. His phone is lying face-down on the table in front of him, the fingers of his right hand splayed out inches away from where it lies. Laurent, from the back, can hardly tell that he’s breathing. Damen sits still, as if carved from marble, the only sign of life the subtle rise and fall of his shoulders. Laurent wants—suddenly, he wants.

It’s not a familiar feeling, or a comfortable one. Laurent clamps down on it as best he can, the overwhelming urge to slide his fingers across the line of Damen’s shoulders, to wrap himself around Damen until he finally feels safe. Logically, he knows that letting Damen close to him, letting Damen hold him, wouldn’t do any good—and yet. He still wants, and his lips still burn with the echo of being kissed, and he watches Damen sit in quiet existence and delights in the simple pleasure of watching.

Damen looks almost defeated. The curve of his spine, the anxious tapping of his right hand every so often, twitching toward his phone as if trying to stop himself from reaching for it. He shifts slightly and Laurent smells coffee, recognizes the position of his left arm as he raises it to drink. His curls are messy and untamed, and Laurent wants nothing more than to bury his fingers in them and let Damen kiss him until his own hair matches that frenzied state. Laurent sits, his abdominal muscles straining to hold him up against the too-soft cushions of the couch, his hips nestled almost too comfortably into the cushions. Eventually, Laurent is forced to put an arm out behind him, to keep his weight up, and that’s when Damen notices him.

“Laurent,” he says—startled. Laurent blinks, watches Damen’s face shift instantly from wearied and exhausted to something calmer and smoothed-over. Something about it sets him on edge.

“Good morning,” Laurent says, unevenly, and watches Damen take another swallow of coffee. Now that he’s turned around, Laurent can see the empty bottle of creamer and the open sugar bowl in front of Damen, a spoon resting on the lid of the bowl. It makes him almost want to smile, a man of Damen’s size and strength sweetening his morning coffee. Damen glances down into his mug, one shoulder coming up into a half-hearted shrug.

“You’re feeling okay?” Damen replies, instead of returning the platitude. It’s a question disguised as a statement, or perhaps the other way around. Laurent just nods, quietly cataloguing himself for new bruises and aches and coming up empty, after a brief moment of panic. Damen nods back. His back is twisted awkwardly around the chair. Laurent just sits, watching, something locked in the gaze between them that he cannot understand.

And—he’d been asleep, in Damen’s apartment, and yet he cannot feel the morning-after echo of fingers against his hips, the telltale ache that would have come if Damen had—

He wouldn’t, is Laurent’s first, unprompted thought, and he finds himself struggling to believe it. He had learned, too long ago, not to hope for that. But against all of the odds, against everything that Laurent has taught himself about men and the things that they take, effortlessly and carelessly—Damen hadn’t touched him.

“Yes,” he replies, unsteady. Damen hadn’t touched him. It doesn’t seem to ease the worry in Damen’s eyes, or lift the burden off his shoulders. He looks down into his mug, as if whatever remaining liquid it holds is going to give him the answer Laurent hasn’t. “Are you?”

Damen’s fingers run lightly over the back of his phone, before dropping back down to the table. It’s a movement that speaks of repression, of something simmering underneath the surface. It should make Laurent afraid, or wary, but only concern rises in his chest as he watches Damen slump further into his own chair.

“I just—” Damen cuts himself off, looks away. “I got a call from D.C.”

Laurent blinks. Damen’s jaw clenches in response; his fingers, once flat on the table, have curled into a fist.

“They want me to come back to headquarters for the next two weeks of the investigation. I’m no longer needed here,” he laughs, bitter. One of his curls has fallen across his forehead, obscuring his eyes, and something unpleasant twists in Laurent’s gut.

“You’re—leaving?” It’s abrupt, and ungraceful, and almost desperate, but Laurent can’t take the words back.

“I have to,” Damen replies, and Laurent’s own desperation is echoed back at him. Damen looks at him again, eyes wide.

“You’re leaving.”

“Two weeks, and I’ll be back.”

Laurent knows better than to ask him to stay. He remembers, too clearly, the last time he’d begged not to be left alone. Laurent curls his fingers into the cushion underneath him and tries to regulate his pulse. The thought of Damen leaving is almost unbearable; the thought of it sends his thoughts spiraling somewhere dangerous, and Laurent tries to focus on the rise and fall of his own chest, Damen’s eyes locked onto him. The tension in the air is palpable.

“You’re coming back.” It’s not a question, though Laurent knows that it sounds like one. Something around Damen’s eyes softens.

“Always.”

And—Laurent remembers asking Auguste the same thing, years ago. He remembers curling his chubby fist into the bottom of one of Auguste’s old cross country shirts, tugging until Auguste had looked down at him with a fond smile. He’d been going to a meet in—Pennsylvania, maybe? Only for a weekend; three days at most, and Laurent at seven or eight had felt like the world was ending.

Always, Auguste had told him, and Laurent had held onto the word like a lifeline. He hadn’t known how true it was. Damen’s shoulders have eased back from their self-conscious slump, though Laurent can still see bags underneath his eyes, dark enough to show even against Damen’s brown skin.

“When do you leave?” He should move, get up, do something other than sit and stare and watch Damen try and process everything on his own, but Laurent can’t seem to make himself move. His body has sunk into the couch over the course of the few hours he’s been asleep, his legs warm underneath the blanket and his own sweatpants.

“This afternoon,” Damen says. “I have an apartment back at the capital, just—”

It’s not home anymore, he doesn’t say, but Laurent hears it anyway.

“I should go. Let you—pack,” Laurent says, and doesn’t get up. Damen is watching him, and he is watching Damen, and everything between them is unbalanced in the strangest of ways.

“Laurent,” Damen says, and it feels like a confession wrapped into a single word.

The tension is unbearable. There are too many things that have fallen between them to talk out in such a short time, too many things that Laurent would not let himself say. They are sitting in different rooms and their defenses are down, and Laurent cannot bring himself to say out loud the things that he wants.

Laurent makes himself push his weight off of his arm, makes himself rise from the couch, feeling uncomfortable and exposed—he has to remind himself that Damen has seen him in less, and yet somehow cannot shake the odd feeling of intimacy.

“You should go.” Damen says it like he doesn’t believe it. He sounds exhausted, as exhausted as Laurent feels. Laurent thinks about reaching out, bracing a hand on Damen’s shoulder. He walks to the door instead, drops his hand to rest against the doorknob. He doesn’t want to leave.

When Damen stands from the kitchen table, Laurent expects him to go into his bedroom, or get another cup of coffee. Instead, Damen crosses the floor to stand in front of Laurent, his height and breadth imposing even in the most causal of clothes. Damen doesn’t move, doesn’t speak for a long moment, and Laurent feels that it says more than Damen might want or understand. Laurent cannot ask him to stay.

“I’ll come back,” Damen says. Laurent closes his eyes.

I’m coming back, little brother, Auguste had said. Laurent, at eleven, had not believed him.

Damen takes a step forward. Laurent would mirror it and move away, if not for the closed door at his back. And yet he does not move away when Damen leans down; his hand, instinctually pressed against Damen’s sternum in this proximity, does not move to push him away. Damen kisses him, and Laurent lets him. Damen kisses him and steps away, leaving Laurent’s lips warm and tingling at the brief pressure.

“Damen,” he breathes. His eyes are still closed. The floorboards creak under the shifting pressure of Damen’s bare feet. His hand fumbles at the doorknob behind him, turning it hastily. He cannot open his eyes, he cannot look to see whatever emotion may be playing itself out on Damen’s too-expressive face. Laurent remembers Auguste kissing his forehead before boarding the plane, remembers Uncle kissing his cheek just minutes after the conclusion of the funeral service. He wants Damen to leave; he needs him to stay. Everything is too confusing and too painful to remember and all Laurent can think at that moment is that he needs, desperately, to get away.

He bolts out of the apartment before Damen can reach for him again, or attempt to break the silence. The heavy wood slams, loud, in the quiet of the hallway, and Laurent presses his forehead to the smooth wood, listening for the click of the lock. His own breath echoes back at him from against the wood; his fingers are shaking on the brass doorknob. He curls his fingers into a fist and digs his nails into his palms.

Coming here was a mistake. He has his bank account back—he has everything he was owed by his father and his uncle and more, and yet Laurent feels more lost than ever. Jord had not wanted to listen, had driven Laurent downtown in frosty silence at Laurent’s insistence that Aimeric had connections to his uncle’s organization, and Laurent had been unable to sleep for hours afterwards. It might be why he’d left the apartment, key hidden deep in the pocket of his sweatpants, with no real destination except away.

It’s how he feels now. Without Damen’s wall at his back something in him feels loose, untethered, and Laurent has to fight himself to remember how to breathe. It has to be midmorning at least, and the wound in Laurent’s back aches at the sharp movement. Jord had cleaned and re-bandaged it in the tense silence of last night, his fingers deft and confident as Laurent had sat with each muscle in his body taut.

It is midmorning, and Laurent doesn’t think he can stand another day of idleness, of being left alone with his own thoughts. His shaking fingers pull out his key to Jord’s apartment. He still has—time, plenty of time, if he wants to make it to St. Jude’s today. They still must be overrun with the influx of children and teens, and Laurent cannot let himself waste another day, the pain from the cut in his back be damned.

There isn’t much of anything Laurent can do; everything has long since spiraled out of his control, had it ever been in the first place. But as he straightens himself, pushing off from Damen’s door, he tries to tell himself that it’s enough.

Chapter Text

lii.

Laurent catches the train to St. Jude’s. The chatter and background noise helps distract him from the thoughts buzzing at the back of his mind. It’s barely ten in the morning, not long before Laurent usually comes in for his shifts, though the hospital is significantly busier than he’s used to. No one stops him from tugging on his scrubs in the locker room, no one says anything if they see him wince when he tugs the shirt down his torso. He gets a few lingering glances at the cuts on his face, but no one calls him on it.

He finds Paschal near the operating rooms. He looks, if possible, even more exhausted than he had when Laurent had stood on his stoop in the middle of the night.

“Fourth floor, as much of the rounds as you can,” Paschal finally says, after a long moment spent examining Laurent with a critical eye. “If it starts to tear your stitches, take a break.”

“Of course,” Laurent lies, smoothly. Paschal looks at him like he does not quite believe that he will follow through, and Laurent schools his exhausted face into neutrality.

“Your brother is still here,” Paschal finally says. Laurent closes his eyes. His brother, Auguste, who had left him a message just yesterday. Who had wanted to—fix things. “With that—Torveld, was it? His nephew should be released in the next day or so.”

“I’ll let him know,” Laurent says. He can hear the tension in his own voice; it seems impossible that Erasmus is well enough to release, considering the severe psychological damage and potential years of malnourishment, but the hospital only has so many beds. They are over-crowded as it is, with more children streaming in each day after Uncle’s men fall victim to plea deals or threats. Every day, more children; every day, Laurent hates himself more for not ending it sooner.

The fourth floor is even more crowded, today—three children to a room, in varying states of both consciousness and health. Laurent avoids the waiting room, avoids even passing through it en route to another wing. He changes bandages, checks countless IV drips, and has to close his eyes every time a child flinches away from his practiced hands. They are all so young, and so scared, and Laurent hates that there is nothing he can do to make it better for any of them.

When he finally makes it to Erasmus’ room, Laurent has finally settled into the rapid pace, the rabbit-fast beat of his heart slowing into something more average. Today, Erasmus is awake, sitting next to Kallias in their tiny bed. Only the railings are stopping them from toppling off, but Laurent wouldn’t have made them separate, even if he had wanted too. They’re too short on beds for that, now.

“Laurent,” Erasmus says, when Laurent knocks gently on the door. His voice is weak, and timid, and Laurent forces an encouraging smile onto his face. Kallias glares. Laurent is starting to think that he would get on well with Nicaise.

“Hello, Erasmus,” he replies, softly. There is one other bed in the room, in which a girl not much older than Erasmus sleeps, curled tightly into herself. She doesn’t have any casts or IV drips, but Laurent can see the bandages wrapped around one of her thighs just below the hem of her hospital gown. Laurent doesn’t have the heart to wake her, and he keeps his voice lowered as he checks Erasmus’ casted arm and Kallias’ bruised ribs. Erasmus’ bruises has faded slightly, more yellow now than black and blue, but his eyes fall to Laurent’s bruised throat and cut face and do not look away. He doesn’t really speak, but Laurent doesn’t blame him. Their hands, underneath the thin blanket, are joined.

“They are going to release you, in a few days,” Laurent says, once he has finished. Erasmus’ eyes widen, and Laurent thinks that he holds his friend’s hand just a little tighter. “If you would like to see your uncle, I can send him in. He has ben waiting for you.”

It takes a long moment for Erasmus to reply. When he starts, he has to break off to clear his throat abruptly, hacking out a few coughs. Kallias offers him a plastic water bottle, and Erasmus sips from it slowly, Kallias’ fingers holding it steady so that Erasmus does not have to free his working arm.

“I want to see him,” Erasmus manages, voice still paper-thin. “I want—I miss him.”

Laurent closes his eyes and pretends that he is somewhere else, pretends that he does not have to think about what those words would mean, to him.

“Okay,” he says, and ignores the fact that his voice is shaking almost as much as the boy’s. “I can get him now, or when I finish making rounds on this floor. It’s your choice.”

Erasmus looks like he doesn’t know what Laurent means. He pauses, and his head falls a little further onto Kallias’ shoulder.

“I think—later?” He says, as if he’s waiting for Laurent to tell him the correct answer. At Laurent’s prompting silence, he speaks again, voice just a fraction more certain. “When you’re done. Please.”

Laurent nods. The girl in the other bed is still asleep, though curled less tightly than she had been ten minutes ago. Laurent can see now the years-old scar on her left cheek, and the dried tear tracks faded on her face. He knows that there is nothing that he can do for her—she is likely on sleep medication, as well as other painkillers and antibiotics, but seeing her face distort in her sleep with fear makes him want to do something, anything, to help.

When he leaves, Erasmus and Kallias are still pressed together from shoulder to hip, and the girl in the other bed is still dreaming fitfully. Laurent clenches his jaw as he shuts the door softly behind himself, and takes a long moment to breathe.

It hurts, seeing all of the victims of Uncle’s crimes. When he was younger, Laurent had convinced himself—he can’t even remember, anymore, but part of him had always wished away Uncle’s midnight meetings and hushed conversations on secure lines. Had rationalized the meetings Uncle had brought him to, with men speaking in accented voices as Laurent had concentrated wholly on Uncle’s hand on his back or stroking through his hair, as simply politics. Now, Laurent cannot wish away the abused children filling the hospital’s rooms, cannot rationalize anything about the situation to himself.

Your fault, whispers something in the back of his mind, and Laurent grits his teeth and shoves it away. He is no stranger to blame, but he cannot take the weight of this.

The moment passes, and Laurent forces himself back into motion; there are still over a dozen rooms he should check, regardless of the incessant ache of the wound at his back. He cannot shake the weight of Erasmus’ exhausted gaze though, or the protective curl of Kallias’ arm every time Laurent had stepped closer to their shared bed. He forces himself into five more rooms, until his legs are shaking with the exertion of keeping himself upright, and Laurent has to brace a hand on the wall to keep himself from collapsing. The physical strain frustrates him—he should be doing more, he should be—

Laurent shakes himself out of the spiraling thoughts and tries to regain his balance, blinking away the dark spots in his vision when he drops his arm from the wall. The waiting room is just down the hall, a minute’s walk at most, and yet the cold white of the hospital wall stretches out in front of him like a funeral procession. His feet feel as if they are made of lead, his entire body dragging him down. It feels nearly unreal; Laurent has to force away the growing dissonance between his consciousness and the world around him.

“Laurent?” The voice startles him, and Laurent’s hand touches the wall again, briefly. He half-turns, and then Ancel’s pale hand is settling lightly on his forearm. He looks exhausted as well, his skin waxy and hair dulled. Laurent is reminded, oddly, of Nicaise. “Are you all right?”

He remembers, not three weeks ago, glaring Ancel into submission when he had asked about Damen. It all seems so unimportant now, so disconnected. Laurent takes his hand off the cool plaster of the wall and touches the tips of his fingers to his own chest, feeling for the frantic beat of his heart. Ancel blinks at him, and Laurent remembers that he has been asked a question.

“I’m fine,” he says. It doesn’t sound believable, even to his own ears. Ancel’s brow furrows as he searches Laurent’s face, his gaze lingering on the cut on his cheek.

“You’re hurt.” It’s not a question, so Laurent doesn’t bother denying it. He drops his hand, and shakes off Ancel’s grip on his shoulder. The contact makes his skin crawl, too much to bear in the fragile state of unreality in which Laurent still seems to be hovering.

“The patient in 413,” Laurent says, instead of commenting. “Erasmus Petrarca. His uncle, legal guardian, has been waiting to see him. I was going to—”

“Hey, you should sit down,” Ancel cuts him off. He makes as if to touch Laurent again, and Laurent angles himself ever so slightly away. It’s subtle, but enough to get the message across, and Ancel smooths his hands over his smock instead. “I’ll take care of it.”

“No, I should—I know the family.” It’s like he’s standing outside his own body, watching himself speak in some caricature of existence. His tongue feels heavy under the weight of the words, and the concerned expression on Ancel’s face does not go away.

“I’ll go with you to the waiting room, okay? You can get off your feet, and I’ll take him to see his nephew. Laurent, you shouldn’t work like this if you’re injured.” Ancel is just a few months younger than him, Laurent thinks. He’s pretty—almost too pretty, in a way that makes him look almost like a porcelain doll. Too old, Laurent thinks, and a curl of nausea snakes around his stomach. Pretty, but too old.

He hates this, hates the thoughts that filter unbidden into his mind regardless of the situation. Ancel takes his silence as agreement, and Laurent can do nothing but follow in pained silence as they make their way into the waiting room. Nearly every chair in the room is full, occupied by a mother or a father or someone waiting to hear the fate of a loved one they’d long since mourned. The misery is almost palpable.

Auguste sees him first. Laurent hardly even registers the familiar faces until Auguste and Torveld are almost in front of him; Torveld is almost unrecognizable even after his mind catches up to his eyes. His beard is overgrown and untrimmed, the sight making Laurent’s stomach lurch in unease. His eyes are rimmed with red, his dark hair speckled with more gray than Laurent thinks he remembers from just a few days before. He wears the exhaustion and worry like a blanket, draped over his broad shoulders. Auguste, beside him, hardly looks any better. His eyes are brighter, scanning Laurent’s face almost desperately. His eyes fall to Laurent’s neck, and he physically draws back in shock or alarm or—something else. Laurent is so tired, swaying on his feet until Ancel’s hand steadies him by his elbow.

“Erasmus wants to see you,” Laurent manages. His voice sounds steadier than before, and he hopes that his expression hasn’t slipped. He has practice—keeping the mask up, when he gets like this, but he doesn’t know how well it might hold against Torveld. Against Auguste. Torveld starts speaking, starts asking questions that Laurent cannot think clearly enough to answer, and Ancel drops his elbow to step forward, introducing himself. Auguste’s eyes never leave Laurent’s, though Laurent keeps what is left of his attention on Torveld’s face, and the muted words that sound like they have traveled underwater to reach him.

“Laurent,” Auguste says, drawing closer. Laurent thinks that he is sick of hearing his name, sick of having to respond to it. He watches Auguste approach as Torveld and Ancel talk quietly, Ancel outlining how he should act, the things that he should not say in front of his traumatized nephew. “What—”

“Nothing,” Laurent bites, before he can stop himself. Auguste draws back fractionally, clearly hurt. Laurent wishes he could feel remorse, wishes that he could feel anything through the fog in his mind. “Nothing that could have been helped.”

“I think—Laurent, talk to me. I need—something, some kind of sign that you want me around. I know this isn’t easy for you, but it’s not for me either, but I’m at least willing to try.” Auguste’s stubble is golden, but seems darker under the fluorescent light of the waiting room. Laurent’s skin itches, and the boy in him who is still eleven years old and mourning is screaming at him, reminding him that this is what he wanted—Auguste, back from the dead. Auguste, who was gone for so long, and had missed so much.

“I do,” Laurent says, eyes closed. The words are wrenched out of him, too raw and honest. “I do, I want to try, but—I don’t know how.”

“Get lunch with me?” Auguste asks. Laurent opens his eyes, glances at the clock on the wall. It’s almost three—he hadn’t even noticed, the hours passing like mercury in the timeless lighting of St. Jude’s. He is due a break, but hadn’t considered taking one. On days like this, no one would begrudge him a few minutes off. Everyone is working overtime, on days they were supposed to have off.

“Okay,” Laurent says, and it feels almost like admitting defeat. Like letting Auguste in, despite everything, is something to be wary of. “Okay.”

Behind him, Ancel leads Torveld out of the waiting room, taking him further into labyrinth of the hospital to see his nephew.


liii.

Laurent takes him to the diner half a block away from the hospital, the one that’s always crammed after a shift with doctors and nurses alike, exhausted and run down after an eight-hour shift. Today less of its inhabitants are in scrubs, though Laurent catches sight of a weary few, one sprawled out asleep on the table next to her empty plate of food. It’s past the lunch rush and before dinner; the noise isn’t too much that they have to raise their voices to be heard.

Laurent doesn’t quite feel much like speaking anyway. Auguste is quiet as well, though he keeps turning to regard Laurent quietly, as if he still hasn’t quite convinced himself that what he’s seeing is real.

For years, Laurent had wondered what his brother might think of him, after so long. Had wondered if he’d truly become unrecognizable, warped beyond belief from the naive, trusting boy who had followed his brother around with stars in his eyes. Now he’s almost afraid to know the answer—does Auguste even recognize him, like this? It seems almost impossible that he might, despite everything.

He doesn’t know, Laurent thinks. He doesn’t know if that makes things better or worse. If Auguste found out, if Auguste knew, Laurent isn’t sure he’d be able to stand it. Thinking about it makes something uncomfortable and dark that he doesn’t want to think about rise in his throat, something too close to anger for Laurent to ever let pass his lips. It’s not your fault, Laurent had imagined himself saying to the reanimated corpse of his brother. He’d been seventeen, eighteen, and when he’d let himself think everything through in his mind, Auguste had never taken the blame. It had always been their father, or the military, or the president for starting the war in the first place. It had never been Auguste. It had rarely been Uncle. Most often, it had been Laurent himself, pushed into a spiral of shame by the smallest of triggers.

It’s not your fault, Laurent imagines saying now, and he cannot picture the words leaving his lips as anything other than a lie. It’s not Auguste’s fault, but—

“I thought about you every day,” Auguste says, when they’re seated. Laurent sits across from him, and stares at his fingers, laced together on top of the table. “Every day I would wake up in that hell, and I’d wonder what you were doing. If you missed me, if you even remembered me after so long. There was no way to tell the time, really. I just knew—it had to have been years.”

“It was.” Laurent’s voice is subdued.

“I never wanted—Laurent, I would have done anything to come back to you.” Auguste sounds almost desperate. He reaches over, as if to take Laurent’s hand, and Laurent pulls away. It’s not that he doesn’t want to—he does, more than almost anything. He would do anything to keep the desperation, the pain off of Auguste’s face, but everything in his mind is clamoring for more space, for something to give, and Laurent knows that if he lets Auguste take his hand, the careful dam he’s built up is going to splinter.

There is not much worse, he thinks, than breaking down in a cheap diner in the middle of the afternoon. So he moves his hand away, and ignores the hurt in his brother’s eyes, and keeps his eyes dry.

“You were dead. And—I never wanted to believe it. I told myself, for years, that you were going to come back one day. That I was going to wake up and it was all going to have been a dream. But it wasn’t, Auguste.” Laurent doesn’t know what he’s saying. He only knows that it is true, and that he has no pretense left in him. “It wasn’t a dream, and I buried and mourned you, and things have changed.”

“I know,” Auguste says, and oh, Laurent believes him. “I never thought—Laurent, I never knew—”

“How could you have?” Laurent replies, almost bitter. “That was the point. None of us knew, until it was too late.”

“You were alone with him, Laurent—for years. And I’ve just gotten home, and nothing has been the way I thought it would, and—you didn’t even know that I was alive—” Laurent stares, and the most logical assumption is staring Auguste in the face, and you were alone with him, and nothing is going the way he had thought it would, either.

“Auguste,” he says, and the words feel like gravel in his throat. He doesn’t know what to say, and that is a rare feeling for him. His phone buzzes on the table, and he picks it up for the distraction, blinking away the persistent burn behind his eyelids. Auguste is the one staring at his hands now, as if they’re some foreign objects laying out on the cheap faux-wood of the table, awkward and unbalanced. His fingers are long and curled in on his palms; vulnerable, almost.

‘Just boarded,’ says the text from Damen. Laurent’s fingers tap a rhythm on the glass of his phone screen, indecisively. He closes his eyes briefly, and breathes in. Don’t go.

‘If the plane crashes, text me,’ Laurent replies. He can imagine the half-smile tugging at Damen’s lips, the fond roll of his eyes. He misses making Damen laugh.

“Who’s that?” Auguste asks, and Laurent places his phone back on the table perhaps a little too quickly. He looks up, and the expression on his face must say something he doesn’t intend, because Auguste flushes a little. “Just—you were smiling.”

“Oh.” He hadn’t realized. Damen always seems to make him lose control, even from onboard an airplane. The thought tugs at something in his chest—regret, or something like it. Laurent thinks of Damen’s lips against his, and how much he had wanted to lose himself in it. “I was—texting Damen.”

“Agent Theomedes?” Something of an accusation. Auguste doesn’t quite seem angry, but the name sets him on edge. “He’s the one who—”

“I know,” Laurent cuts him off. “I worked with him, before.”

“You told him about Uncle.” It’s not a question. “I thought, maybe—but you were working with him the whole time?”

“Not the whole time. Two weeks, at most.” Laurent’s voice is sharper than he’d intended.

Auguste’s brow furrows. His hands are flat on the table now, palms down. His spine is straight, his head bowed slightly.

“And you’re friends.”

It doesn’t seem right, to tell him. To tell him how Laurent had forgotten to keep his guard up, had let Damen in despite everything warning him not to. It had been so easy, and simultaneously the hardest thing Laurent has ever done, because now he cannot forget it. He can’t forget Damen’s hands, gentle on his waist; Damen’s warm breath of laughter; the way Damen had held him like Laurent was something to be cherished. He can’t forget how much he had wanted it.

“Yes.” Auguste doesn’t seem to know what to do with the answer.

“Can we start over?” He asks, abruptly. Laurent’s phone vibrates again, and he ignores it. “I know I can’t change what happened, and I know that it was a shock to you. But I want to try, Laurent.”

“I do too,” Laurent says, helplessly. “I just—ten years, Auguste, and I don’t know how—”

“I know,” Auguste repeats. His spine is still straight, but he’s looking at Laurent with his chin tilted. He looks younger like this, with his face out of the shadow of his hair. He’s still older than the ageless version of him that had existed in Laurent’s eyes; he’s thirty, now, and edging closer to thirty-one. It’s unfathomable. As a child, Laurent had immortalized him in memory, and marble statues do not age. But he’s more recognizably himself with the planes of his face exposed to the light, smoothing away the creases of worry. Auguste always looks out of place to Laurent, as if his mind has had to rearrange each scene to fit in this piece that does not belong, that has been dead and buried in memory for too long. He sticks out, and Laurent cannot look away, as if taking his eyes off of his brother will make the apparition vanish.

“I want us to be okay,” Laurent says, and it comes out a whisper, emotion cutting off his voice. He hates this, he hates

“I do too,” Auguste promises fiercely, like if he says it with enough conviction, it will erase everything between them. And then he’s up, and out of the cracked plastic seat of the booth, and Laurent is rising to meet him with some kind of awful desperation, and he’s letting Auguste pull him into an embrace so tight that Laurent cannot breathe or maybe it’s just the tears clogging his throat. Auguste is tall enough that Laurent’s face is pressing into his shoulder, Auguste’s arms tight around him. It’s all Laurent can do to stop himself from collapsing; he’s shaking with the effort of restraining the sobs, and Auguste is crying already, and for the first time in a long time Laurent feels safe in someone’s arms. The touch isn’t making his skin crawl, the embrace doesn’t feel like it’s crushing him.

He doesn’t know what makes him lose his composure: it’s Auguste’s sobs wracking the both of them, it’s his brother risen from the dead, it’s everything that Laurent had and hadn’t said to the empty grave in their family plot, and Laurent is suddenly overwhelmed with the fact that Auguste is here, and Auguste is holding him, and that was all he’d ever wanted in the first place.

Don’t go, he had said to Uncle, the night of the funeral. Don’t go, don’t leave me—come back, please, he had said, over and over and over again to Uncle and to Auguste’s grave for years and now Auguste is here, and he’s holding Laurent like it’s the most important thing he is ever going to do in his life, and Laurent cannot remember the last time he hugged somebody like this. He cannot breathe and he realizes that he’s crying, his face pressed into his brother’s shoulder, and—

“You came back,” he chokes out, and Auguste sobs again. It sounds almost like a laugh, like he’s been holding in this awful something in his chest and is only now letting it loosen. Laurent shuts his eyes and holds Auguste tighter, and his body shakes with the force of his breaths.

“I came back,” Auguste says, and this time he does laugh. “I came back, Laurent, I’m home.”

“I missed you.” It’s three words, and Laurent barely manages that before almost choking on another sob. Auguste nods, and Laurent feels it against the side of his head.

“I would have done anything, to get home to you.” There’s something layered underneath the words that Laurent cannot piece together, something past the surface. People are staring at them, but Laurent cannot make himself care that they are making a scene.

It’s a long time, before Auguste lets him go.


liv.

When they arrive back at St. Jude’s, Torveld is waiting in the lobby with tear tracks on his cheeks. His eyes are red-rimmed and swollen; he looks a sorry sight, but through the tears Laurent can see the slowly-dawning joy, the awesome realization that Erasmus, against all odds, has made it back to him.

“How is he?” Laurent asks, though he'd been the one checking up on Erasmus not an hour ago. Auguste stands close, their arms almost brushing, and for once Laurent doesn't feel stifled from the proximity.

“Alive,” Torveld replies, like he still doesn't believe it himself. “I never thought—we all mourned, and he's alive—”

He breaks off, his voice cracked with emotion. Laurent is stricken; Auguste beside him is achingly still. Torveld’s grief is too real, too tremulous.

“The nurse said he should be released in three days. Maybe two. I didn't think it would be so fast.” Torveld has his fingers laced between his spread knees, his back bowed as his elbows support the weight of his burdened spine.

“We'll be here,” Auguste promises, leaning down to rest a comforting hand on Torveld’s shoulder. “Whatever you need, whenever you need it.”

“I don't know what I'm doing,” Torveld admits. He uncles his fingers, and one hand comes up to stroke agitatedly over his unkempt beard. The sight makes Laurent vaguely nauseous, and he forces it down. “He's so—scared, he would barely talk to me—I don't know how to help him.”

“It's not going to be easy,” Laurent says. His voice sounds hollowed-out to his own ears.

“I know. But I don't even know where to start.”

“Don't push him into anything. Let him open up to you, in his own time. I'm sure any of the doctors could recommend you a therapist that will help him more than you know how to.” Not that Laurent would know, he thinks. Torveld nods; Auguste’s hand is still on his shoulder.

“The boy with him looked at me like I was going to—” Torveld cuts himself off again with a choked sound that, under different circumstances, Laurent might have confused with laughter. “They didn't let go of each other, not for a second.”

Laurent pictures their hands, Erasmus and Kallias gripping onto each other so tightly that Kallias’ fingers are almost pale with the force of their grip. Torveld looks so helpless like this, and Laurent wonders when he stopped being the unshakable presence he once was, when Laurent was too young to pretend that he didn't need it. Torveld had seen right through him, Laurent thinks; even after Laurent had had years to disguise how much he had missed Auguste.

The first day of high school, after Laurent had gone the whole day without speaking a word, Torveld had found him sitting against the wall of the History building, eyes blank and hands trembling.

I always hate it when you leave me, Uncle had told him that morning, stroking a hand across Laurent’s smooth cheek. That afternoon, Torveld had offered him a hand off the ground that promptly went un-taken, and had not told Laurent how much he looked like his brother at that age.

And so it had gone. For three years, Torveld and the feeling of his feet pounding against the worn track of the school had been the only things keeping Laurent from flying into pieces. And now Torveld is sitting with the world on his back, and Laurent finds himself in the new position of trying to carry the weight for him.

“I should get back to work,” Laurent says, mostly to Auguste. They look at each other, and Laurent feels connected him in a way that he hadn't until now; he and Auguste have reached a kind of implicit understanding, and for the first time Laurent feels almost comfortable looking into his brother’s dark blue eyes.

“We'll be here,” Auguste promises. His hand slips from Torveld’s shoulder, and he seems to reach towards Laurent before forcing it back down to his side. Laurent nods, and leaves them to the corner of the half-full lobby.

The steady flow of patients seems to have bottlenecked to a trickle, and Laurent finds himself checking in on more and more familiar faces, children who look less terrified than they did the first time he had let himself into their room with a small knock prefacing his entry. One even manages a small smile as Laurent checks her vitals, clutching onto a soft toy that hadn't been in her arms the last time he'd seen her. There's a large pile of flowers on her bedside table, and a charging cord plugged into the socket next to her bed; signs of a family, or someone watching over her. The two others in her room aren't as lucky, or as trusting, and Laurent checks over them as quickly and gently as he can.

He runs into Paschal on accident. After taking a few painkillers, Laurent had almost forgotten the wound in his back, until he rounds a corner and clips shoulders with Paschal. It's not hard enough to hurt either of them seriously, but Laurent still gasps as the shock wrenches at his stitches. Paschal is at his side in an instant, his gentle hand braced against the front of Laurent’s shoulder, just shy of his collarbone.

“Laurent,” he murmurs, concern creasing his brow. “You know I told you—”

“I'm fine,” Laurent cuts him off, through gritted teeth. “Just surprised.”

Paschal eyes him, critical. Laurent feels almost anxious, though Paschal’s touch is familiar. A few people pass in the hallway, but they are all is too busy to pause and stare. “When was the last time you checked the stitches?”

Laurent glances at the clock on the wall. It's almost five, he notes with some surprise. The food Auguste had bought him, though nothing more than a salad, sits heavily in his stomach.

“Last night,” he grudgingly admits. “Around seven.”

Paschal sighs a little, and drops his hand. “Come with me.”

There's precious little space to be had in the hospital now, but Paschal manages to find them a quiet corner in one of the staff rooms. There are two nurses leaning against the counter next to the ancient coffee machine, sipping in companionable silence, and Laurent forces himself not to look at them as Paschal instructs him to straddle one of the plastic chairs backwards, his arms resting on the back. He has to force down the reaction when Paschal tugs up his smock, and the long-sleeved shirt Laurent wears underneath. The bandage protects the cut from the chill in the air, but Laurent can feel the goosebumps rising on his back.

“How much does it hurt when you walk?” Paschal asks, voice pitched low; his doctor voice, the one he uses when he's asking children questions. Laurent resists the urge to shrug, and then is preoccupied by Paschal’s fingers on his skin, fresh latex gloves cold and odd-feeling.

“Not much; only when I swing my arms,” Laurent replies. Paschal hums lightly. His fingers slip underneath the bandage and work it off slowly; Laurent tries not to hiss at the pain of the separation, dried blood pulling away from the wound painfully enough that he has to grit his teeth again to keep from making a noise.

“It's healing well,” Paschal notes, setting the stained bandage aside. “It's a clean cut, at least.”

Laurent hears the two nurses behind them shifting, and then a sharp intake of breath from one of them. Paschal must signal them with a hand or expression, though, because neither of them speaks. Relieve rises in Laurent’s threat, and ha manages a small, careful nod.

“I was worried about infection because of the snow, but—” He pauses, waits for Paschal to carefully wipe the cut with antiseptic. It stings, though less than it had two days ago, and Laurent focuses on the sensation instead of continuing his thought.

“Whose knife?” Paschal asks, voice low and somber. It's quiet enough that the two nurses may not have heard, but Laurent stiffens involuntarily. He doesn't want to answer, but Paschal hasn't pried into the situation yet. He deserves this, at least.

“Govart,” he says, and can immediately picture the was Paschal’s eyes slip closed, the soft noise of sorrow that escapes his lips. “I was luckier, this time.”

He thinks, suddenly, of Govart lying on the ground, the wound in his chest staining the snow around him with a vicious halo of red. Luckier, he thinks. The first time, Laurent had run away with a knife in his shoulder; the first time, he had almost lost the use of his right arm entirely. It had taken weeks and weeks to heal, the wound in such a precarious place that Laurent could barely move his arm at all during the recovery.

“I'm not sure that's the word you're looking for,” Paschal remarks, and Laurent cannot suppress the small smile that rises to his lips at the words.

“Maybe not,” he concedes. The air is cold against the cut, and he can feel every inch of the wound being held together by the precarious stitches. Paschal takes a fresh bandage and covers it up, and some of the tension in Laurent’s muscles eases away. He still doesn’t like that his shirt is pulled up, that he’s been exposed to the room, but he has to handle it. Paschal’s fingers are gentle, and so he bears the touch for as long as it takes.

“We’re releasing them so early,” Laurent says, as Paschal tugs his shirt back down. “I know we have to, but—”

“I know.” Paschal sounds weary; Laurent can hear him replacing the lid of the box he’d taken from a storage room, taking a few steps away from where Laurent is still sitting, his arms wrapped around the back of the chair. He can’t make himself move, not just yet. He hadn’t realized how much he had needed to get off his feet, to let his head stop spinning. “But there’s not much we can do for many of them, besides give them a roof over their heads. The ones who have families to go back to—it doesn’t seem right, to keep them here.”

“Maybe. It just feels like—we haven’t done enough.” Laurent’s fingers clench around the edge of the plastic chair. It digs into his skin; will probably leave read lines. Paschal’s hand drops to his shoulder, like he knows what Laurent is thinking.

“It’s not your fault.” The words hurt more than Laurent had expected. He grits his teeth, turns his cheek away.

“I know,” he forces out. “But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t help as many of them as I can.”

“Laurent.” Paschal’s hand is back on his shoulder, and Laurent turns around in the chair. The two nurses are gone, the room now empty besides the two of them. “You are doing everything you can. We are all doing everything we can. It is not your job to save every child in this hospital; no one needs to carry the weight of that.”

“Maybe I want to.” Laurent hears the resolve in his own voice, ringing hollowly in the empty room.

Paschal pauses. His hand is warm, even through Laurent’s two layers, and Laurent ignores the nausea. He lets Paschal’s hand remain, and he keeps his head turned away, and he ignores the dawning sense of hopelessness at his friend’s words. No matter what he does, it won’t ever save them all. It won’t ever be enough, and the thought makes panic clutch at Laurent’s heart.

“I should get back to work,” he says, and stands abruptly from his chair. Paschal lets him go, without a word. The cut on Laurent’s back still stings, freshly clean, but he ignores it on his way back to the inpatient wing.

The night is young still, and Laurent has work to do.

Chapter Text

lv.

When he gets back to Jord’s apartment, Laurent falls immediately asleep, and doesn’t wake up for almost thirteen hours. He wakes to the harsh mid-morning sun streaming through the slit in the curtain to land directly across his eyes, and has to fight a layer of groggy panic before he remembers where he is. Laurent lurches into wakefulness with a sickening jolt, stifling on instinct the noise of alarm lodged in his throat.

He does not remember the dreams that were flitting behind his eyelids just moments earlier, but the rapid beat of his heart and the heaving of his chest forces him to concede that perhaps, he is better off not knowing. The apartment is silent beneath the sound of his breaths, and the light beating into his eyes is reflecting off a fresh, clean layer of snow that blankets the city outside of his window. Something about it is strangely peaceful, even with the harsh white light beating into the room, and Laurent sags back down into the pillow with a bitten-off sigh.

His entire body aches. Laurent has slept on his back for the last three days, despite the healing wound, and when he tries to shift his shoulders forward to sit up again, his back protests the movement so sharply that he has to spend a moment simply breathing through the sudden pain. His head is spinning with the effort and the pain, and Laurent grits his teeth in a desperate, hopeless plea that it will stop.

There are painkillers in the bathroom across the hall, but getting there seems almost impossible. Instead of even trying, Laurent lets himself relax fully back into the mattress and reaches for his phone, plugged in on the bedside table.

He has four messages from Damen, along with the one from yesterday that he had never opened. Laurent taps on the icon, and has to fight a smile at what Damen had sent him.

I’ll miss you, the first one reads, sent moments after their last exchange. It’s innocuous as it is, almost harmless. It brings a warm feeling into Laurent’s chest, though; despite himself, he finds himself reaching out with one hand, resting on the cold side of the bed.

Just remembered how much i DONT miss this place, says the second message, followed quickly by a third. I did miss this girl, though.

The fourth message is a picture: a huge dog, which probably comes up to at least Laurent’s hip, sitting with her mouth open and tongue lolling. A mastiff, maybe. She’s beautiful, and clearly barely managing to stay still for the picture. Laurent has to smile at the mental image of Damen, seconds later, getting violently tackled by a dog half his size.

What’s her name? He sends back, and gets a notification almost immediately.

Thor, Damen texts back, and Laurent thinks that he’s joking for the brief moment it takes him to evaluate exactly how well he knows Damen by now.

I can’t believe you named your mastiff Thor. If you got a Dalmatian would you name it Spot? Laurent manages to turn onto his side, phone in front of his face, without too much pain. There’s almost a minute break before Damen texts back again with another picture of Thor. She’s lying on her back, and Damen’s familiar hand is resting just below her ribcage. Laurent feels a sudden, irrational spike of jealousy, and then forces it down. He’s not going to be jealous of a dog.

I miss you, Damen says, completely unprompted. Laurent lets his phone rest face-down against the sheets; he doesn’t want to be reminded that the apartment next door is empty—that Damen, so consistently present in the last weeks no matter how unwanted he may have been at the time, is gone. He doesn’t reply to the text.

It takes him ten more minutes to get out of bed. By the time he manages to push himself to his feet, Laurent’s head is spinning and his breath is coming in short. He can feel the cut like a brand on his back, warm and throbbing and painful. He had been ignoring it through sheer force of will, the last few days, and Laurent finds himself unable to push it back any longer. He braces himself on the dresser and makes his way into the bathroom with one hand against the wall the entire time, supporting him when he finds himself momentarily weakened by another bout of sickening dizziness. His phone is clutched in his other hand, and it buzzes twice before he makes it to the bathroom, hands braced on the cold marble counter.

They’ve found a prosecutor for your Uncle’s case, says the first text. Laurent breathes out, loud in the small room, and clenches one of his hands into a fist. Someone named Halvik. She’s near you, but has a lot of pull in the capital. She’s a good choice.

He’s also hired a defendant, says the second text, and nothing more.

Of course. Laurent is not surprised, but the knowledge still makes him feel almost sick. It isn’t a pleasant feeling, combined with the dizziness and pain already plaguing him. And—Halvik, though he doesn’t know how she has managed it, is the prosecutor. She had told him to call, and he hadn’t called, and yet somehow she has found her way into it regardless. Laurent has to wonder how she knew; he had spent two years making her coffee behind the counter of the café, but they hadn’t spoken much.

Once, the morning after Laurent had severed his own hair at the nape of his neck, she had paused after handing over her credit card, eyeing him so intently that Laurent had felt as if she could see through his layers of clothing to the day-old bruises on his forearms, the years-old bruises on that implacable thing inside of him. He had stared back, the tilt of his jaw as proud as ever, and she had smiled at him before dropping a twenty in his tip jar.

“It suits you,” was all she had said, but Laurent had never forgotten the words, or the serious smile playing at the corners of her dark, dark eyes.

Do you know why they called you back? He asks. He can picture Damen worrying his lower lip between his teeth, the crease in his forehead. Laurent turns on the water in the sink and dips his hands underneath the spray, rubbing his face until it’s dripping with the cold water and he feels marginally more awake. It’s long past when he should have been at work, but he knows Paschal hadn’t marked him down to work anyway; Laurent had seen the way he watched him, noting every stifled sign of pain. Paschal could have told him this was going to happen, but had likely realized the futility.

My brother thinks I should be pulled out of the case, Damen replies, and it’s so nonchalant that Laurent has to read it twice before he understands. Another message appears, hardly a second later. Can I call you?

Laurent doesn’t answer; he taps the ‘call’ icon next to Damen’s name, and brings the phone to his ear. It rings once, twice, and Damen finally picks up. He says something that Laurent can’t hear—drowned out by the obscene amount of noise in the background.

“I cannot hear you,” Laurent says, and he thinks that he hears Damen laughing. There’s a pause, and then the noise recedes considerably.

“Hello, Laurent,” Damen says, with the fond air of repetition. Laurent’s eyes flick up to his own reflection in the mirror, and immediately back down. He looks—disheveled, unkempt, yet almost pleased. It takes more work than expected to school his expression back into careful neutrality.

“Why are they trying to remove you from the case?” Laurent asks, with no preamble. Damen makes a vague noise in the back of his throat.

“No reason they can prove,” he says, and Laurent’s breath catches in his throat.

“You mean—” He can’t make himself say it, and the words die on his lips. Damen is silent for a long moment; only the crackling sound of his breath is audible through the line.

“I don’t know how he found out, or who told him,” Damen finally says, and he sounds almost apologetic. He must be talking about his brother—the one who put him on the case in the first place. “If I didn’t know better I’d think he was having me followed. But—there’s no proof, and nothing legal either, so he doesn’t have much grounds for it. I’ve made more progress on this than he ever did, and he was assigned to it for almost two years.”

“Two years?” That’s—strange. Laurent glances up at himself again, notes the damp strands of hair falling across his forehead and into his eyes; the water stains them a darker blond than usual. The circles under his eyes have grown darker, even as the rest of his face seems paler than usual. He looks ill, and feels ill, and Laurent is suddenly grateful that Paschal had let him slip away last night—had encouraged it, even.

The painkillers are in the cabinet behind the mirror, and Laurent grits his teeth through the motion of reaching up to fumble with the bottle of ibuprofen.

“Yeah, he had the case before I did,” Damen says. There’s the sound of a car door slamming, and the last of the background noise disappears. Laurent puts the call on speaker and turns the cap of the bottle, letting two of the pills shake out into his palm. They go down easily, followed by a swallow of water cupped in Laurent’s hand, straight from the tap. “He nominated me to take over, when he got his promotion.”

“And when was this?” The mundane talk is good; it helps Laurent keep his mind off of other things, which really should not be dwelled upon this early in the day. He can practically hear Damen’s shrug over the phone line.

“About seven months ago?” Laurent pauses, with his hands still cupped a few inches below his chin.

“You were on this case for seven months, and you didn’t recognize my face when you saw it?” There’s a long pause, and Laurent takes a simple pleasure in imagining Damen sitting in his expensive car, moth opening and closing like a goldfish.

“I—you weren’t a priority in the investigation—”

“Nikandros was watching the apartment, which I lived in, and you couldn’t even be bothered to learn what I looked like?” It’s part incredulity, part humor—Laurent had thought, when he had first met Damen, that he must have been the worst federal agent on the planet. Nearly a month later, and this has turned out to be even more true than he’d initially thought.

“You just like saying these things to embarrass me,” Damen says, but he’s smiling; Laurent can tell, and Laurent can almost see the dimple in his cheek, and Laurent very suddenly wishes that he had never looked at Damen’s face ever, in his life.

“Maybe.” A quiet settles over them, after that last, effortlessly fond word. The painkillers haven’t set in yet, and it still aches a little to stand, but Laurent finds himself unwilling to move from his place over the counter, one now-dry hand braced on the porcelain rim of the sink. Outside of this room, there are things that Laurent will have to face and resolve and do, and in the empty chill of the winter morning, all he really wants is to stay on the phone with Damen. To stay disconnected, as it were, from the uncertainty of the days ahead of him.

“I left you a key,” Damen says, suddenly. “To my apartment. It’s still in my name until the rest of the year, so I left a key on the top of the doorframe.”

Laurent considers mentioning that Damen is seven inches taller than him, and then reconsiders for the sake of Damen’s ego.

“Only for the rest of the year,” he says, instead. “So you’re not coming back.”

“No—” Damen cuts himself off, breathes out in what might be frustration. “I am. The lease runs out on the last day of January, and I have until the first to renew it. And they shouldn’t keep me here much past the holidays, so I’ll have a few days to work everything out. I’m just saying—if you need somewhere to be alone, or—something...”

He trails off, and Laurent’s mind completes the phrase for him: something to remind you of me.

“Thank you,” says Laurent, after a long pause. “I—thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Damen’s voice is warm again, and it brings a small, unthinking smile to Laurent’s lips. “I should go—I’m late to a meeting already and it’s my first morning back.”

“That’s not going to be a good look for you,” Laurent notes, and tries to keep down the flush of pleasure that Damen had—what? Sat alone in a car, talking to him, instead of showing up for a meeting on time? It is ridiculous, and sappy, and everything he would expect from Damen, even from several hundred miles away. “Enjoy your meeting.”

“I will,” Damen says, through a laugh. “Have a nice day, Laurent.”

The call ends before Laurent can say anything else, before he can wait in pained silence for a phrase that he had stopped expecting to hear years ago—one that he’s not even sure Damen would want to say. The silence leaves him alone in Jord’s bathroom, with the scattered hair products and over-abundance of medical supplies, and Laurent’s own reflection in the mirror staring back at him.

He spends the day alone, curled up in Jord’s living room with a book in his lap and snow falling silently outside the open window.


lvi.

The next day, Laurent goes back to work, and two days after that, Erasmus and Kallias are discharged from the hospital.

“I got cleared by CPS when I took Erasmus in,” Torveld explains to Auguste, standing in the lobby of the hotel as they wait for the two boys to finish changing into the new, soft clothing Torveld had brought them. Laurent is standing to the side, facing his brother; he has had run-ins with Torveld’s expressive hands before, and it is not something he needs today. “I’ll need another check, but for now it’s enough that they will let me take them both home.”

There’s something shining in his eyes that Laurent almost recognizes—the disbelief, and the joy, and the aching release that, after everything, his nephew is back.

“It won’t be easy,” Laurent reminds him, and Torveld nods.

“I know. They’ve put me in contact with a therapist who’s willing to come to the house, in case they aren’t comfortable leaving yet, and I have a room set up for the both of them. I thought—they would probably want to be together, after everything.” He runs a hand along his beard, trimmed more neatly now after two nights spent back in his own home.

Laurent has only seen Kallias and Erasmus apart twice, these last two days: once, when Erasmus had been washing himself in the tiny bathroom of the inpatient room, and once when he had been taking Kallias for an X-ray, to check the progress of his healing ribs. Both times, they had been withdrawn, and Kallias had flinched away from the heavy metal vest that had settled over him like a shroud.

Every day, more and more people flock to the hospital from cities and even states away, reuniting with their lost children and passing out in the waiting rooms, tear tracks dried on their cheeks. Some of the older children have been interviewed by the FBI agents still in the city, and more than once Laurent has avoided Nikandros’ heavy glare with his head held high, eyes carefully trained in front of him.

“I never thought I would have him home,” Torveld admits. Auguste’s hand closes around his, the smile on his face soft and understanding. Laurent looks away. Auguste is still living with Torveld, sleeping in the spare room across the hall from Torveld’s bedroom, where Laurent had spent one exhausted night in the middle of his sophomore year of high school. He had woken up to Torveld shaking his shoulder, and he had been barely sixteen, and Laurent had flown into a sudden and terrible panic that had ended with him choking back screams with his head in between his knees, Torveld begging him to breathe from halfway across the room.

He hasn’t been back to Torveld’s snug, three-bedroom house since.

Finally, after what feels like endless waiting, Erasmus and Kallias emerge from the labyrinth of hallways behind the waiting room, hands clasped firmly together. They are practically swamped in the sweatshirts Torveld had bought them, and Kallias’ jeans are perhaps two or three inches too long for him, but it’s the most comfortable Laurent has seen either of them in their skin in the last several days. Erasmus is trailing behind his friend, the fingers of his good hand clutching onto the sleeve of Kallias’ sweatshirt as they move slowly into the lobby. Neither of them are carrying anything—they had arrived at the hospital without any belongings, and Torveld had kept the rest of the items he had bought at the house.

“Are you ready to go home?” Torveld asks, his voice pitched slightly softer. Laurent can still hear the tremble emotion, the wrung-out quality of hope. Erasmus blinks his too-wide eyes and nods. He seems to be holding back tears, or panic; the hand of his injured arm is clenched into a fist so tightly that even from paces away, Laurent can see the tension in his knuckles.

They don’t say anything, and Torveld’s question falls flat. Laurent can see their hesitancy in every movement, each shift of muscle. He thinks, briefly, of Nicaise—the careful way he had always moved, aware of the placement of each of his limbs. Laurent thinks of himself, and his own overwrought awareness of the space he occupies. Looking into the eyes of some of the children here is too familiar.

“You should visit,” Auguste says, abruptly, and it takes Laurent a long moment to realize that Auguste is talking to him. “Come over to see us—and check on the two of them, if you want.”

Laurent hasn’t been back to Torveld’s house in almost five years.

“Okay,” he says, and watches Auguste’s face light up. It changes him—Auguste is clean-shaven again, and though there are still more noticeable lines on his face, marked with weariness, he looks almost years younger. Like something has been lifted from him, in the last few days. He looks more rested, though the persistent bruising under his eyes seems to tell a different story. It’s almost alarming to realize that he has little idea what Auguste does with his time, when he’s not at the hospital—does he wander the city, re-familiarizing himself with the dirty streets? Has he ever thought about coming to see Laurent, in Jord’s apartment?

“Can I bring Nicaise?” Laurent doesn’t realize that he is going to ask until the words have already left his mouth, and Auguste’s eyes have hardened almost imperceptibly. He almost doesn’t know why he had brought it up, until he remembers the odd sterility of the group home, and how lost Nicaise had looked in that too-big house. It might not do any good, to bring Nicaise to see these people—the closest thing Laurent has to a family, now—but he doubts that it would do much harm.

As far as anyone seems to be able to tell, Laurent is the closest thing that Nicaise has to family. The thought makes him feel almost sick.

“If you want to.” Auguste’s brow has creased, his voice more stilted than it had been moments ago. Laurent reacts, instinctively, by taking a small step to the side. “Just—wouldn’t it be hard, for him?”

“What do you mean?” Laurent sounds more defensive than he had intended. Auguste’s hands come up, placating.

“I’m just wondering if it’s the best idea for you to see him. He seemed a little—standoffish?”

Laurent thinks about telling him that that is just Nicaise’s personality, but settles for a small shrug. The stitches in his back are healing, slowly; the movement doesn’t pull at them as badly as it would have on Wednesday. “I’m all he has.”

For a long moment, Auguste doesn’t reply. Laurent keeps his gaze steady, and watches Auguste process his words. Auguste opens his mouth, and closes it, and drags a strong hand over the cut of his jaw.

“Bring him,” he finally says. He doesn’t sound happy about it, and Laurent forces himself to not care.

“Bring who?” Torveld asks. Erasmus and Kallias are standing a few feet away, and their hands are now linked firmly together.

“Nicaise,” Laurent replies, before Auguste can manage a response. “He’s a few years younger than Erasmus, and he’s in a group home for now.”

“Bring him,” Torveld echoes, immediately. Laurent recognizes the look on his face; it had been the same look he had seen his first year of high school, when Torveld had realized exactly who Laurent was—who his brother had been. At this point, it only seems classifiable as the look Torveld gets when he’s about to take someone under his wing, when he has realized that somewhere out there is a child who needs his help. It’s almost sickeningly heroic, but Laurent cannot make himself feel bad about inflicting Torveld’s particular brand of over-compassionate support on Nicaise.

Auguste still doesn’t look pleased, his lips pressed together into a thin line, but he doesn’t say anything more. Laurent feels oddly defensive of Nicaise, though he know that Nicaise would mock him relentlessly for it.

I’m all he has, Laurent thinks, and it hurts. Of course it hurts. He had been as alone as Nicaise, once, and now—he has Jord, and Vannes, and an ever-growing chain of texts from Damen, who has taken to sending him heart emoticons every other message, if only to irritate him. He has Auguste, and things are changing.

“Come on,” Torveld finally says, to the boys at his side. “Let’s go home.”


lvii.

He takes Nicaise out to dinner. He hasn’t seen him since Monday, and Saturday is quickly coming to a close as the cloudy sky darkens early in the afternoon. Holiday merchandise and decoration is almost impossible to ignore in the window of each store Laurent passes as he walks from the subway stop to the group home, too-cheery snowmen and anthropomorphic animals grinning at him maliciously from the polished windows.

Renee greets him at the door and this time the house is not silent—Laurent can hear the telltale sounds of young boys, shouting and laughing and wreaking general havoc in the large living space downstairs. An older woman stands behind Renee, her gray hair pulled back into a severe bun. She stares at Laurent with more distrust than he’s comfortable with, but he forces himself to appear as relaxed as he can, smiling at Renee as winningly as he can.

“You can take him,” she jokes, after Laurent signs in. He notes that there are only four spaces filled between the last time he had written his name on this sheet, even after almost a week of absence. “Nicaise will be glad to see you.”

“That would make a welcome change,” he replies, and is gratified to see the older woman snort in vague amusement before wandering back to the living space. Renee takes the clipboard from him and looks up, her brow creased with real concern this time.

“I’m worried about him,” she tells him. “I mean, I’m worried for all the boys here. But Nicaise refuses to talk to the therapist, or to any of the other boys. He just—sits and reads and ignores anyone that tries to talk to him.”

“Just ignores?” It sounds uncharacteristic of him—whenever Nicaise had been displeased with Laurent, in all those years, he had always been quick to make it known. Renee grimaces.

“He’s—cruel, sometimes. If whoever it is doesn’t go away.” From the tone of her voice, it’s easy to guess that Renee has been on the receiving end of this cruelty more than once. She can’t be much older than Laurent himself—perhaps twenty-three or four—but the weariness in her face makes her seem older. Laurent wonders if that is how he looks, most of the time.

“Give him time,” Laurent says, though he barely believes it himself. Time is the last thing they need—the sooner he can get Nicaise out of here, the better it will be for all of them. Renee seems to understand implicitly, and takes a step back from where she had been standing in front of Laurent, around two feet away. The hallway is well-lit, warm and welcoming. Everything looks exactly in its place; the table with the sign-on book, the endless line of coat hooks on the wall, nearly every space occupied by coats that look almost too broken-in to last another winter.

Laurent is distracted enough by the hallway itself that he almost doesn’t notice that Nicaise has entered it, the severe-looking woman hot on his heels, a scowl darkening the creases of her face. Nicaise doesn’t look like he cares an ounce about her, his expression as cool and vaguely irritated as ever. Laurent can see the difference, though; the bags under his eyes have darkened, the slump of his shoulders is somehow less proud than it had been a week ago. This place is killing him, Laurent thinks, and tries to push down on the sudden rush of guilt.

“Let’s go,” is all Nicaise says, before grabbing Laurent’s sleeve and practically dragging him out of the building. Laurent casts a brief look back at Renee before closing the door behind him, and gets a small wave goodbye in return.

“Where are we going?” Laurent asks, roughly a minute later. Nicaise has let go of his sleeve but he hasn’t stopped walking, his pace furious as he guides them down the mostly-empty residential street. He’s wearing the same hoodie he had been last time: obviously not his, worn out in the elbows and him, zipper broken near the neck. He has to be freezing, but Laurent knows better than to mention it. He remembers—watching Nicaise pull the shirt Laurent had brought for him over his head, seeing the bruising on his chest. The marks, not yet a day old, which were not bruises.

Nicaise doesn’t answer, until he’s forced to stop by a red crossing light. His hands are balled into fists, and he looks for the first time like any other teenager Laurent had gone to school with. Out of that apartment, he seems older than Laurent had seen him for so many years. Maybe it’s because they met when they were both so young, but Laurent doesn’t think that Nicaise is ever going to exist in his mind as anything other than the spitting nine-year-old who had hated Laurent for months and months.

“I’m hungry,” Nicaise finally says, glaring down at the snow underneath his feet. Laurent nods, and takes a step forward so that they are almost elbow to elbow, both of their hands buried deep in their pockets. The light stays red for a long time, and Nicaise finally pulls out one hand, clutching Laurent’s old pack of cigarettes. Some are gone, now, but not as many as Laurent had expected. He’s trying to make them last, probably, since he knows that these will be the last ones he will be getting for a long time.

“You can’t smoke in public,” Laurent finally says, and Nicaise scowls viciously at him.

“I know.” He’s rolling one between his index finger and his thumb, the white shell almost too bright against the dirt underneath Nicaise’s fingernails. “I’m not stupid.”

“I never said you were. Those look too familiar for that.”

“If I can’t smoke, you can’t lecture me about stealing,” Nicaise points out. That’s fair enough, Laurent reasons. “I don’t want you getting all high-and-mighty on me.”

“I thought I already had,” Laurent replies. “And besides, wouldn’t that be a little too hypocritical of me?”

Nicaise snorts out a breath that almost passes for laughter. It’s not as forced as it could be, though, and the cigarettes are now safely back in the pocket of the sweatshirt. They walk in silence, again, but Laurent breathes a little easier this time. It takes them to a busier section of one of the main streets of the city, lined with small stores and restaurants and fairly busy for a cold night in early December. Nicaise pauses in front of the windows of several restaurants, pressing his hand to the freezing glass for a long moment before finally pulling away and continuing down the street, Laurent a half-step behind him. He’s content to wait until Nicaise has found something that he wants, walking down the icy sidewalk with their breath puffing out in front of them like clouds of smoke.

“Here,” Nicaise says, after a moment of standing at the window of the Thai restaurant Laurent has visited with Vannes once or twice before. The restaurant is painted red inside, and the light coming from it is a hazy gold that draws Laurent in, out of the winter night. Nicaise doesn’t even wait to press his palm against the glass before he pulls the door open, forcing Laurent to step in behind him before the door shuts. He manages to hold the second door open for himself, and is greeted with a rush of warm, spiced air. Nicaise almost seems to relax inside the restaurant, though it may just be the reprieve from the cold.

“Two, please,” Laurent says to the host, and follows on Nicaise’s heels as they are led to a small booth in the back corner, the seats old and well-worn. Laurent sinks into the bench, his healing back twingeing a little at the movement. The bruises on his neck have mostly faded to small splotches of yellow, and Nicaise’s are almost gone entirely; or at least, they’re more difficult to see.

“You’re paying again,” Nicaise says, aimlessly picking up his paper napkin and unfolding it, then shaping it back into a tiny square. He doesn’t look at his hands as he does it; his eyes are focused on Laurent, as weary as they might seem.

“What are you going to do with all that money?” Laurent asks lightly, which Nicaise will take as a ‘yes.’ Nicaise shrugs, and tears a tiny corner off of the napkin.

“Keep it. Find someone to buy me some fucking cigarettes.” He’s only half-serious, Laurent knows. Nicaise’s eyes flick over the menu, and Laurent’s phone buzzes in his pocket. He glances down at it underneath the table, and reads the message from Damen with a small smile.

I keep making more food than I need and wishing you were here to eat it with me. Damen’s texts have been getting sappier, lately. Laurent is tempted to remind him that they’re not—dating, not involved, but that comes with the promise of ending messages like these. It pleases him almost an unreasonable amount, that Damen is thinking of him.

You could just say that you miss me and be done with it, he fires back, and shoves his phone back into his pocket. Nicaise is watching him, his expression more open than Laurent has seen him all night. When he catches Laurent looking, he turns his eyes down again, to the partially shredded napkin strewn across the table in front of him. He seems to already know what it is that he wants to eat, but Laurent has to peruse the menu for another long moment before he finally sets it aside.

“Who was that?” Nicaise finally asks, as reluctant as if Laurent had forced him to speak, though they’ve been doing nothing but sitting in the quiet murmur of the restaurant.

“Damen,” Laurent says, and doesn’t elaborate. He wants Nicaise to open up to him, to someone, but if he does it will have to be his own choice.

“You’re still fucking that federal agent?” Nicaise sounds almost like—he wants to sound more upset than he feels. “That is disgusting.”

“It was once,” Laurent replies, and doesn’t know why saying it hurts so much, like something physical in his chest. “And it was—nice.”

Nicaise snorts, like he doesn’t believe that, and Laurent doesn’t blame him, not after everything. There are things he should—say, to Nicaise about it, but he cannot bring himself to say them like this. Not when everything is still so raw. He wants to tell Nicaise that it was nice, that Damen had listened to him and touched him and had offered, of all things, to stop. But Nicaise likely does not want to hear it, and would not believe him anyway.

“You still fucked him,” Nicaise points out, still fiddling with one strip of the decimated napkin. “That’s pretty cold-blooded.”

Laurent grits his teeth, and is spared from answering by a waiter appearing in front of their table, apron tied neatly around his waist. Nicaise snorts, again, and turns slightly to order. He gets an order of curry, a noodle dish Laurent has never tried, and a plate of roast duck, and Laurent resigns himself to the fact that Nicaise will likely refuse to share. He gets himself a different curry as spicy as he knows he can handle, and hands the menus to the waiter before Nicaise can decide that he wants anything else.

“I haven’t had real food in ages,” Nicaise complains, and Laurent has to stifle his surprise at Nicaise actually sounding like the teenager he is. “Those people at the group home wouldn’t know a spice if it slapped them in the face.”

“It can’t be that bad,” Laurent says, trying to sound diplomatic, and Nicaise rolls his eyes.

“They don’t put pepper in the food because some fucking kid complained it was too spicy,” he retort. That manages to shut Laurent up, and he stares slack-jawed at Nicaise for a few moments. “I know. I can’t wait to actually get something decent, like when—”

Nicaise cuts himself off, fingers curled tight around a strip of paper. Laurent waits, with bated breath.

“When...?” He asks, careful. Nicaise shrugs, and starts tearing the strip into pieces as small as the snow falling outside the window. He looks as if he isn’t going to answer, until he finally opens his mouth to speak.

“When my mom would make this stuff,” he finally says, and Laurent can’t help his small, shocked intake of breath. Nicaise isn’t looking at him, eyes fixed on the quick, sharp movement of his fingers. “I don’t know if it was as good as I remember, but...”

He trails off, and Laurent has to stop himself from reaching across the small table, from taking Nicaise’s hands in his own. He would be shoved away, he knows; it’s not what Nicaise wants right now, or what he needs.

“When was the last time?” He asks, quietly enough that he hopes Nicaise won’t be startled. Nicaise shrugs.

“I was nine, maybe.” Four years. Almost five, soon. Laurent’s breath catches in his throat. I was nine, Nicaise’s hollow voice rings back at him. The same age Laurent had been, when Auguste went off to a war he was never supposed to have a part in. “She was born in Thailand, and she didn’t speak much English. I had to go to the stores for her and buy the ingredients, because she was embarrassed.”

It’s the most Laurent has ever heard Nicaise talk about his family. It feels surreal, imaging Nicaise as Laurent had first met him running down the busy streets of the city, buying groceries for his mother.

“And your father?” Laurent asks. Nicaise shrugs again, but when he rips into the napkin again it’s with a renewed vigor.

“He went away for work, and never came back for us like he said he would. Sent money, sometimes. It wasn’t enough.” Nicaise glares down at the shreds, and shoves them away from him abruptly. Laurent almost thinks he’s done talking, until Nicaise opens his mouth again, fingers curled into his palms on top of the table. “I came back from the store one day, and she was just—gone. Everything looked the same. It was a pretty crappy place, but she hadn’t taken anything with her.”

“What happened to her?” Laurent asks, and almost immediately regrets it. Nicaise flinches, so subtly that Laurent barely notices it.

“I don’t know.”

It takes a moment, and Laurent almost expects Nicaise to clam up again, but the boy finally lifts his gaze again.

“He saved me,” he says, like he can hardly believe it himself. “I was alone, and—”

“I know,” Laurent says, and this time it’s him that has to close his eyes, turn his face away. “I know.”

Their food comes not long after, and Nicaise doesn’t look at him again. Instead they eat in silence, and Nicaise finishes almost everything on the plates they bring out, and both of them pretend that Nicaise isn’t on the verge of tears as he starts in on the curry.


lviii.

Nicaise doesn’t seem pleased with the idea of going back to the group home after they’ve finished their dinner, so Laurent pays for the bill and takes him for a long walk through the comfortably crowded streets of the neighborhood. There are dozens of small shops lining the sidewalks, and Nicaise seems unwittingly entranced by some of the things in the displays: glittering watches displayed in the windows of jewelry stores, the five-tier wedding cake sitting proudly in the window of a bakery.

“I’ve never been here before,” Nicaise says quietly, staring in at the array of cakes and breads and other goods. Laurent thinks he means the whole street, the more commercial areas of town, but he could also just be referring to the bakery itself. Either way, Laurent cannot help the small noise he makes, before he tugs the door open and stands in front of it, holding his position until Nicaise has stepped, warily, into the small shop.

“Find something you’d like,” Laurent tells him. The door swings shut behind them with the soft chiming of bells, and a woman bustles out of the back room to stand behind the counter with a cheerful grin.

“How’s the snow?” She asks, as if she can’t see it through the glass panel of the entire front wall. Laurent smiles back, as politely as he can, and shrugs one shoulder.

“Not stopping,” he replies, and Nicaise snorts. He’s walking slowly along the line of cakes displayed near the window, slender fingers trailing lightly along the polished wood of the table. His face is carefully blank, like he knows Laurent is watching. His hair is more unruly than Laurent is used to, and longer. He wonders—how often Uncle had taken Nicaise to get it cut. If he had watched, and run his fingers through the dark curls, and—

Laurent makes a note to call his barber, and reaches up to tug gently on the hair at the nape of his neck. Nicaise moves on to the pastries without a world, and stops in front of the display of brightly-colored cupcakes hidden behind the glass wall separating the food from the customers. He looks up at Laurent, finally, and Laurent nods back at him.

“Four of these,” he says, and then pauses, finishing the sentence awkwardly. “Please.”

It might be the first time Laurent has ever heard Nicaise say that. The woman behind the counter smiles again, and begins placing the cupcakes into a small box, each secure in its own place. Nicaise shoves his hands into his pockets, the gray color and stark lighting making him look paler than he should be. The shadows cast on his face age him, though Laurent knows that the physical aspect of it is likely a trick of his imagination. It is not his imagination that Nicaise looks—tired, almost. Weary in a way no thirteen year old should be.

He orders a scone for himself, from the part of the display full of muffins and coffee cakes, and watches as Nicaise stands on his toes to accept the box of cupcakes. The soles of his shoes are worn out, though better than the ones he had been wearing just a week or so ago.

Nicaise doesn’t say thank you, but he holds the cardboard box close to his chest like it means something.

“Stay warm,” the woman says to them, after handing Laurent back his card. He takes it, and tucks it back into his wallet before he has to read Laurent de Vere stamped into the thin plastic. Paying with it, after Uncle’s face and name had been plastered over the news, keeps sending small jolts of fear through his stomach.

Nicaise is still uncharacteristically subdued as they continue their path down the street, and he clutches onto the box firmly enough to stop his fingers from shaking with the cold. Laurent pulls them into the nearest chain coffee store they pass, and they’re immediately enveloped in warm air once again. Nicaise glares, and Laurent lets go of the too-big sleeve of his hand-me-down hoodie.

“I want coffee,” Nicaise snaps, but it lacks any real conviction. Laurent takes his place in line anyway, and tracks Nicaise as he sits heavily at a small table next to the window. The box with his cupcakes goes on the table in front of him, and his chin goes in the hand he has propped up with his elbow on the table. It’s almost the image of one of those Greek statues, Laurent thinks: young boy, sitting with the world on his shoulders. Laurent remembers that—remembers being that boy, too young to know the things he had. Nicaise doesn’t move, as if he truly is sculpted of marble or obsidian or diamond.

He buys them both tea. Nicaise doesn’t hate it as much as he claims—Laurent has brought him tea in styrofoam cups in the winters for years, now, when it gets too cold. Nicaise had always hissed and spit at him like an enraged housecat, but the cups had always been empty when he had handed them back to Laurent over the empty gap between their fire escapes.

Nicaise almost seems less real, when he’s not elevated five floors above the rest of the world.

“I hate you,” Nicaise tells him, after taking a sip of the tea. Laurent has added four packets of sugar, because he knows how Nicaise takes his tea, and the knowledge feels almost like an intrusion. He knows what Nicaise looks like bloody and bruised and angry, and he knows Nicaise at his most precocious and convinced of his own worth, and yet knowing that he likes his drinks absurdly sweet is where Laurent’s boundaries seem to fracture.

“I’d like you to meet Auguste,” Laurent tells him, and waits for the immediate rejection. It doesn’t come, and Nicaise keeps his chin in his hand, and he looks down into the takeout cup in front of him, paper instead of styrofoam, lid discarded halfway across the table.

“I’ve already met him.” The dismissal is clear. “I don’t need to shake his hand and tell him that it’s nice to see him. He already knows that I’ve fucked your uncle, there’s not much left for us to say to each other.”

“Stop.” It is all Laurent can say—he hates the fear that freezes him in place at the words, hates the slow roll of disgust in his stomach. Hearing it said out loud, in Nicaise’s smooth voice, has always been difficult. “I just want you to—get to know him.”

“I don’t think you even know him anymore,” Nicaise points out, and it’s unnerving to hear such blunt words come from the mouth of a young boy, his head tilted up by the pressure of the palm of his hand, his eyes half-lidded and staring lazily at Laurent. Laurent takes a drink of his tea, and holds his gaze steady. “Why should I even try?”

“Because I’d like you to,” Laurent replies, as simply as he can. “I don’t want you to be some separate part of my life, locked away from everything else.”

Nicaise closes his eyes, and Laurent waits. He hasn’t been trapped—not like Nicaise has—for years, and he remembers how jolting the sudden freedom from his Uncle had been. How terrifying, and awful, and unwelcome it had been at the time.

“I hate you,” Nicaise repeats, miserable. Laurent wraps his fingers around the warmth of his mug, and watches the steam curl through the air above the lip. “Why couldn’t you just have been—”

“Like him?” Laurent asks, and lets the wry smile twist his lips. Nicaise’s eyes slide open, his lips pursed slightly, and he drops his hand from his chin to take another drink of his tea. He looks at Laurent like he’s searching for something, some sort of lie that he thinks Laurent would let play on his face.

“It would have been easier.” If Laurent had been like his uncle, if Laurent had wanted—

“I’m not interested in things being easy.”

That gets Nicaise’s attention, more sharply focused than he has been since they left the restaurant. His delicate brows raise, his eyes open fully, his jaw finds its familiar stubborn set. This is a Nicaise who is more familiar, who isn’t willing to let Laurent see him weak despite its inevitability. Even swamped in strangers’ clothes, Nicaise makes the most of every inch of himself, straining as he sits up straighter, his expression setting into something that calls to mind exactly what he is—a child, holding himself like an adult. A child, told over and over that he was not a child; that he was more intelligent, more mature, more refined than others his age. Groomed, Laurent tries not to think. He is too aware of his own posture, the way the angles of their jaw are almost precisely the same.

“Fine,” Nicaise says, as if he had intended it all along. “I’ll make nice with your stupid brother, and you can sleep better at night knowing that I’m not rotting in that prison they call a house.”

Laurent relaxes, fractionally. “Surely it’s not that bad.”

“The children there are—stupid. They don’t know anything.” Like flipping a switch, Nicaise falls back into the petulance of childhood, and Laurent cannot help the small smile that it brings to his face. “Don’t laugh at me. They’re all idiots, and I hate them.”

“Aren’t you supposed to get along with people your age?” Laurent asks, and Nicaise glares at him. It’s in good fun, and something in Laurent’s chest eases with the knowledge. “At least the adults cannot be that bad.”

Nicaise practically rolls his eyes back into his head.

“They treat me like a child.” You are a child, Laurent refrains from saying. “At least you do not baby me. It’s infuriating—they made me take a test, just to see if I could read or not.”

“It’s because they have to know what grade level you are at, so that when you go into school—” Laurent tries, without much vigor. Nicaise, already petulant, scoffs. Laurent’s tea is half gone already, and losing the boiling warmth that threatens to scald his tongue each time he takes a sip.

“I don’t need to go to school,” Nicaise says. “I haven’t been in years, and I can still read.”

His feet are swinging underneath his chair, just barely long enough that his toes scrape the floor. Despite his short stature, Nicaise has always had the presence of someone much grander in size. Laurent shrugs his shoulders, smooth and fluid and with only the slightest hint of pain, and takes another long draw of his tea. It sits warm in his stomach, along with his dinner, and tugs him gently down the path of exhaustion. He’s been working for the last several days, and while things are starting to settle down enough that people have begun coming in for regular appointments, much of his time is still spent with the children brought in by the police, and the few remnants of the SWAT team that had come with Damen. The hours are longer than Laurent has worked before—bordering on twelve or thirteen hours, spent mostly on his feet and with little time to breathe. The work is enough to drown out thought, though, for which Laurent is thankful.

“I should get you back,” Laurent says, finally, because nothing else is coming to mind. Nicaise’s scowl relaxes into something undefinable that seems almost like disappointment. Nicaise only shrugs, though, and pops the lid back onto his mostly-full cup. He seems unaffected, almost pensive as the two of them stand from the table, but his fingers are tight around the cardboard box of pastries, and he holds it close to his chest as if in protection.

“I hate it there,” Nicaise says plainly, as they walk out the door of the shop and back out into the swirling snow. Laurent nods, and tucks his hands into the pockets of his coat—new, barely broken in, and lined with a material so soft to touch that it almost makes him hesitant.

“I know.”

Nicaise breathes out a small laugh, and tugs his hood over his head, drawing it low on his brow. It casts a shadow over his face, and he tucks his arms in close to his body as if to protect himself from the onslaught of wind and snow. He stays close to Laurent’s side but never touches as they hurry down the street, less crowded now that the snow has started to pick up in earnest. The walk is silent, broken only by the crunching of snow and Nicaise’s occasional muffled swears as he almost slips on patches of ice in his sneakers. Laurent keeps his pace steady, each step careful on the frozen ground. If he falls, it may tear the stitches in his back.

He only slips once—when his phone vibrates in his pocket, Laurent almost loses his footing on a chunk of ice frozen in the street, and Nicaise’s arm shoots out, his hand wrapping around Laurent’s elbow in a pointless attempt to help Laurent steady himself. Nicaise looks exhausted, and his grip is weak, but Laurent doesn’t shake it off even as the boy flushes under the shadow of his hood. They still don’t speak, and Laurent signs Nicaise back into the house without a word to anyone except Renee.

“I’ll see you in a few days,” Laurent tells him, and gets a shrug in response. It’s more than nothing, more than Nicaise had given him at the beginning of the evening, and so Laurent takes it. He watches Nicaise trudge up the stairs with his box still in his arms, the snow-dampened sweatshirt a weight that seems to drag him down.

“Thank you,” Renee says, after Nicaise has vanished from sight. Laurent smiles at her, as much as he can make himself.“He’ll be okay,” he says, if only to reassure himself. Renee nods, and they both know that there is no certainty in this. There is only so much that Laurent can do for him, he knows, but it doesn’t mean that he isn’t going to try.

“Take care, Laurent,” Renee tells him, and turns back towards the common room that is still half-full of boys sprawled on furniture and floors alike, laughing and talking and mock-fighting with each other. Laurent watches for a brief moment, captivated by the way they talk around each other with familiarity. Nicaise must feel so out of place, here—surrounded by people his own age, after so many years of isolation in the world of Uncle and his men.

He leaves quietly, and closes the door on the warmth behind him.