“Aren’t you a little young to be drinking?” Damen asked, lifting an eyebrow at the barely-adult boy sitting beside him at the bar. Behind him, the raucous sounds of celebratory partying ebbed and flowed.
The kid held his gaze and deliberately sipped from his tumbler of top-shelf whiskey. He continued to hold Damen’s gaze as he placed the tumbler on the counter with a gentle click, barely heard over the commotion in the tight bar. “If I’m old enough to die for my country I should be old enough to drink fine liquor.”
“You don’t even look that old,” Damen said. “What are you, fourteen?”
Damen reached for the tumbler, and the kid shifted it along the bartop out of his reach. The kid narrowed his eyes. “Do not.”
Damen shook his head and reached again. “If Jord catches you drinking Makedon’s going to lose his license- Fuck!”
Pain flashed up his leg, and he jerked up and off the barstool. The kid withdrew a fork from Damen’s thigh and slid off his barstool, putting the high chair between them. “What the hell are you playing at you little punk-”
Damen’s tirade was interrupted by a young man with blonde hair flowing up against his chest, two hands pressed hard to Damen’s ribs. “Okay, okay-”
Another man, less young but also blonde, slid in front of the kid and stumbled, catching his balance on the bartop. Damen reached a hand out and grasped his arm, to steady him. “Auguste, are you okay?”
Auguste flashed a smile at him and waved him off. Laurent, the young man in Damen’s arms and Auguste’s younger brother, clung to Damen’s jacket limpidly. He was unaffected by Damen’s jostling, and did not seem to care that he was squished between Damen and the bartop. Auguste said, “Fine, fine! Bit harder to keep my balance now!”
Auguste turned, and the purple tint of his prosthetic leg caught the dim barlight. “Okay, Nicaise. Let’s leave the nice man alone…”
“He threatened me,” Nicaise said, his voice trailing away as Auguste herded him away from the bar. Nicaise snatched his drink before allowing himself to be moved and threw a scowl at Damen before he vanished out of sight, lost in the crowd.
“You can’t fight Nicaise,” Laurent said, his words slow and deliberate. Damen had to bend close to hear them. “You will certainly lose.”
Damen jerked back, annoyed. “He’s fourteen!”
Laurent shook his head, the movement long and uneven. Damen narrowed his eyes as Laurent patted his chest. “No, no. He is too smart for you.”
“Are you drunk?” Damen asked. He held Laurent closer as Laurent shifted his weight, unsteady on his feet. Damen turned them until Laurent was safely tucked between him and the bar, away from the other rowdy patrons surrounding them.
“It’s a celebration!” Laurent said, his voice pitching. “I’m allowed to drink!”
His fingers gripped Damen’s jacket, pressing hard against the piece of folded paper Damen had tucked inside the jacket pocket. Damen felt it crinkle against his light t-shirt. Laurent pressed against his body like a hot brand, drunkenly swaying into Damen’s space as if he owned it.
“Oh. I’m hurting you-” Laurent ripped his hand away from Damen’s chest and overbalanced.
Damen snaked an arm around Laurent’s waist and kept him upright. Laurent resettled his hands on Damen’s hip, away from the stitches in Damen’s shoulder. “You’re not hurting me.”
“I could,” Laurent said. His eyes fixed at Damen’s jacket, right where the wound was. Damen slowed his breath under the scrutiny.
“You wouldn’t,” Damen said. He was viscerally aware of the paper in his pocket.
“You don’t know that,” Laurent said. He swayed on his feet, his grip on Damen’s hips keeping him upright. “You don’t know anything about me.”
Damen was jostled from behind, and he shifted closer to Laurent, until his lips brushed Laurent’s ear. “I know your name is Laurent. You care deeply for your brother. I know your favorite colors are blue and silver. And I know you are seriously going to regret how much you’ve had to drink tonight.”
Laurent trembled in his arms, pressing close.
“I know that you prefer the company of men,” Damen said. His heart quickened in his chest.
Laurent lifted a warning hand between them, and Damen stopped. Laurent narrowed his eyes. “Not here.”
Someone bumped into Damen from behind, and he shuffled slightly to keep from crushing Laurent against the bar. At Damen’s back, Orlant hooted enthusiastically. “Look what Laurent found! An Akielon commandant!”
“Colonel,” Damen said. He eased back until Orlant retreated, back into his own space. Laurent remained plastered against Damen’s chest. “I was invited.”
“That’s impossible,” Orlant said, his voice carrying over the rest of the crowd. Several people turned and noticed Damen, and then noticed his arm curled around Laurent’s waist. “We don’t like Akielons.”
“I hope you like this one, at least.” Auguste’s voice broke through the crush of the crowd. He slipped through the crowd, less one belligerent teenager.
Orlant lifted his eyebrows, his drink sloshing in hand. Auguste drew up alongside Damen and put a hand on his shoulder. “This is the man who rescued me.”
Orlant’s mouth fell open in silent awe, and behind him, another young man, Aimeric, openly stared. In the heavy silence that followed, Aimeric stepped forward. “Did you really?”
“My team,” Damen said. Laurent’s fingers worked under the hem of his shirt and brushed against heated skin. Damen cleared his throat, trying to focus. “We received communications that there was vital intel in a nearby compound. When we infiltrated and neutralized the threat inside, we found him.”
“More dead than alive,” Auguste said. He tapped his prosthetic on the ground. “And missing a few pieces. But you were injured too, weren’t you?”
“I took a bullet through the shoulder,” Damen said.
“And he still managed to carry me out!” Auguste said. “We might be celebrating my return tonight, but we cannot forget who made it possible.”
Orlant lifted his drink. “To the Akielon!”
Around him, the men and women who had heard Auguste’s retelling raised their glasses and cheered. Damen was jostled and slapped on the back as the Veretians closed in around them, laughing and thanking him. Auguste shoved Orlant out into the crowd to start dancing, and soon the crush of Veretians thinned, and Damen relaxed his shoulders.
“Auguste, you’re tired, you need to rest,” Laurent said, letting Damen take most of his weight. “You should go home.”
Auguste peered at his younger brother. “Are you drunk, Laurent?”
Laurent made a face. “No.”
“He is very drunk,” Damen said, shifting his grip to keep Laurent upright.
Auguste let his gaze flicker between them before frowning. “Maybe we should go.”
“You’re going to leave your own welcome home party?” Damen asked.
“I think Laurent is done for the night,” Auguste said. “I’ll see him home.”
Damen glanced at Auguste’s prosthetic. “I’ll come with you. I’m not sure he can stand upright on his own.”
“I’d appreciate it, if it’s not too much trouble,” Auguste said. “We can put you up for the night, as thanks.”
“You’re such a good person,” Laurent said, his voice slurring. He patted Damen’s chest. “You and you. Both.”
“Okay, buddy,” Damen said. “Time to go home. Let’s go. Did you have a jacket?”
“No,” Laurent said. His lips twisted in a delightful pout. “I had nothing that went with this shirt.”
Auguste laughed, and pushed away from the bar. He picked his way through the crowd, creating a path for Damen to guide Laurent through. Damen had escorted one brother into the city, and now he ushered the other from the bar.
The night air was cold when they left the overheated bar, and Damen paused for a moment to shrug his jacket off and drape it over Laurent’s shoulders. Laurent tugged it close, his weight still heavily against Damen. After a few stumbling steps, Damen grew frustrated and scooped Laurent into his arms.
“I am not your bride,” Laurent said, mumbling against Damen’s shoulder. He went limp, and Damen continued walking beside Auguste.
“He’s going to be so embarrassed when he wakes up,” Auguste said with a chuckle. “He’s always cared too much for appearances.”
“I do not envy the hangover he faces in the morning,” Damen said.
Auguste walked a few more steps in a contemplative silence before he said, “I still find it an amazing coincidence that it was you Laurent wrote to. How did that start?”
“After our nations joined forces, the PR hacks at home decided to try and increase understanding between us,” Damen said. “They started this program that connected Veretian civilians with Akielon soldiers, and gave me a pen pal. Your unit has Akielon pen pals. I think Lazar is quite taken by his.”
“Ah, yes, someone named Pallas,” Auguste said. “I remember that now, from when he visited me in the hospital. But still, the chances that you would be matched with Laurent…”
“I thought it was strange,” Damen said. He remembered the first few letters he had gotten from the prickly Veretian. “He didn’t seem to want to write. I wondered why he did it at all. He sent me essays on the failures of our system of government, and why Vere was much more stable and prosperous.”
“But you still read them,” Auguste said.
“They were very good at putting me to sleep on bad nights,” Damen said, with a wry smile. “Though, I will admit, he can turn a phrase.”
“Yes, he was always a bit bookish,” Auguste said. “I’m grateful it was you.”
“Me too,” Damen found himself saying. Laurent was warm and solid in his arms, in a way Damen had never imagined he’d get to feel.
The trip to Laurent’s place in the city was quick, and Auguste let them into the luxury flat with his key. Damen pushed down the sense of deja vu as Auguste let them into the flat and then closed the door behind them. Auguste gestured to a room off to the side.
“That’s Laurent’s room.”
“I’ll watch over him,” Damen said.
Auguste smiled, his eyes kind. “I have no doubt. You’re a good man, Damianos.”
Auguste walked towards another room, his uneven gait loud in the pressing silence of the flat. Damen made his way to Laurent’s room, and left the door ajar slightly just to be on the safe side.
Laurent roused as Damen carefully lay him against the sheets. He watched with bleary eyes as Damen removed both his shoes and tugged his socks off his feet. When Damen reached for his jacket, Laurent wrapped his fingers around the lapels and held tight.
Laurent closed the distance between them, and sealed his lips over Damen’s. For a brief, glorious moment, Damen felt wanting heat surge through him. He broke their kiss with a sharp exhale, and gently pushed Laurent down.
“You are too drunk,” Damen said.
“I know you want me,” Laurent said, undeterred. He ran his fingers along Damen’s arm.
“Sleep,” Damen said, not denying it.
Laurent’s hand gripped the fabric of Damen’s shirt, and, as if captured by the spell of Damen’s words, his eyes drifted shut. His fingers still clasped tightly, though. Damen couldn’t bring himself to pull away. After a brief struggle with his conscience, Damen kicked his shoes off and crawled onto the mattress beside Laurent. With a carefully determined distance between them, Damen let himself drift.
He woke some time later at the soft glow of a light from the bedside table. Laurent sat up against the headboard of his extravagantly expensive bed, still wrapped in Damen’s jacket. But now he held a piece of paper in his hands. Damen shifted, unlocking muscles that had tensed in sleep, and rolled onto his side. He propped his head up on one hand.
“You are overly romantic,” Laurent said, no trace of slurring. His eyes fixed on the paper in his grasp. He looked pale, even for a Veretian, in the low light.
“How are you feeling?” Damen asked.
“I’m fine. Why are you still here?” Laurent nailed him with a clear, blue gaze.
“You would not release me,” Damen said, unperturbed by the scrutiny. He was gratified by a light pink blush dusting over Laurent’s cheeks. “I think you might fancy me.”
“Why are you carrying around this letter?” Laurent asked, ignoring his comment. He rustled the paper in his hands. “Why did you keep it?”
“I kept all of your letters,” Damen said, confused. The letter in Laurent’s hand was the one Damen had tucked inside his jacket before heading to Auguste’s welcome home party. Laurent had written it by hand, and it contained a story about how Auguste always let Laurent win in Mario Kart when they were young. In the letter, Laurent reflected that Auguste had done it on purpose, but the young Laurent had thought he owned a special game controller that made his character very fast.
“Because you wrote them,” Damen said. “I couldn’t just throw them out. If you didn’t want me to keep them, why did you write them?”
Laurent exhaled harshly, and pushed a hand through his tousled, blonde hair. He put the letter on the nightstand and rolled off the mattress, putting himself out of arms’ reach of Damen. Damen sat up, concerned, and leaned a shoulder against the headboard. Laurent took a few more steps back, until he was well out of Damen’s space.
“My brother was captured two years ago,” Laurent said. Damen nodded. Laurent had mentioned it in his letters. Laurent watched Damen’s face carefully. “Your unit was the closest to where he was last seen.”
“I know,” Damen said, frowning. “You told me all this.”
“Do you know what I do for a living, Damianos?” Laurent asked, his voice sharp.
“No,” Damen said. His full name sounded harsh in Laurent’s tone.
“I deal in information,” Laurent said. “Secrets. Expensive, regime-ending secrets.”
The quiet that followed his admission pressed against Damen’s chest. Laurent stared at him, waiting, and Damen turned the words over in his head. Secrets.
“You’re the Prince of Vere,” he said, as understanding dawned on him. Laurent pressed his lips together. Damen shook his head, stunned. “But the Prince of Vere’s been operating for… almost ten years. You’d had to have started when you were-”
“Fourteen,” Laurent said.
“You hacked the Akielon Department of Defense when you were fourteen!?” Damen’s jaw dropped.
Laurent’s gaze was like ice prickling along his skin. “I was bored and it was easy.”
Before their raid on the compound where Auguste had been kept, Damen’s communications officer, Erasmus, had received a heavily encrypted message presumably from Command Ops. But Erasmus hadn’t been able to pinpoint the exact source. The encryption had seemed close enough to a standard Command Operations message that Damen and his second in command, Nikandros, had agreed it was worth the risk. They had assumed the sand and distance had caused interference.
Laurent kept staring at Damen, and Damen shifted uneasily. He was missing something. Something that Laurent needed him to realize. His thoughts drifted back to the message Erasmus had received. He narrowed his eyes. “You sent us into the compound.”
“Astute,” Laurent said.
“Why are you telling me this?” Damen asked.
“So you know exactly who you intend on getting into bed with,” Laurent said. The chill in his voice swept down Damen’s spine and settled heavily in Damen’s gut. “The man who sent you and your unit to die for his brother.”
This silence was even more suffocating. Damen had lost Lykaios in the raid on the compound. He himself had taken a serious wound as they dragged Auguste free of that sand-covered hell hole.
A folder slapped down on the bed. Damen jumped, ripped from his shock. The folder was thick with paper. Laurent nodded at it. “The evidence is there. All you need to do is turn it in to your supervisor.”
Damen, eyes on Laurent, reached for the folder and picked it up. He briefly flipped through the contents. There was enough in here to put Laurent away for multiple lifetimes. Details of everything from the Prince of Vere’s offshore funds to the small dictatorship he had brought down five years ago were in the palm of Damen’s hands. “You want me to… turn you in?”
“I utilized a foreign nation’s armed forces in an unauthorized strike against the enemy for personal gain,” Laurent said. “I’m fairly certain that’s illegal in all courts of law, regardless of national affiliation.”
“You did it to save your brother,” Damen said.
“And got your lover killed in the process,” Laurent said, digging the knife in.
Damen’s chest tightened, remembering the play of Lykaios’ blonde hair against a hotel bed in a rare moment of peace. “She wasn’t my lover. I’m not going to turn you in for saving your brother.”
“You could have died,” Laurent said. “You should want justice. Revenge, at the very least, for the death of your countrymen.”
Damen tried to put himself in Laurent’s position. If Kastor had been taken from him, and if he knew of a whisper that he was alive somewhere, he doubted he would stop for anything to recover him. Damen set the folder on the sheets, all of its contents in tact, and met Laurent’s eyes. “I won’t do it.”
Laurent folded his arms tightly over his chest and said nothing, his breathing clipped. “Why?”
Damen spread his hands, helplessly. “Because I would have done the same. I have a brother. I’d do anything to keep him safe. I understand.”
“You would break international law to save your brother?” Laurent snorted and rolled his eyes. “I find that highly suspect.”
“Fine. I understand that you wanted to protect your brother, and I might have fallen a little in love with you,” Damen said. He tipped his head back against the headboard. “Sometimes your letters were all that kept me sane. I want to be a little selfish. I don’t want you to leave.”
“You don’t know anything about me,” Laurent said. “Those letters could have been a lie. Everything I wrote was completely fabricated.”
“I don’t think that’s true. You just admitted the lengths you went to for your brother,” Damen said. He reached over the bed and picked up the letter, carefully penned in Laurent’s precise hand. “I think, if I gave you my heart, you would treat it tenderly.”
“You are unbelievable,” Laurent said, breathless. “Did you not hear me? I tried to have you killed!”
“What do you want me to say?” Damen asked. He lifted his shoulders. “I would do it again, knowing what I know now. If it meant bringing your brother back to you, I would take another bullet just to deliver him to your doorstep once more.”
As Damen talked, Laurent drew closer to the bed, as if pulled in, incrementally, but the pull of Damen’s voice. He stopped when he stood next to the mattress, and his eyes met Damen’s. His fine, blonde brows drew together, and the corners of his eyes pinched.
“You are not what I imagined,” Laurent said. “At all.”
“Do you want to learn more?” Damen asked. He held himself very still, as if Laurent were a frightened animal who might bolt at the slightest movement.
Laurent tilted his head and breathed out, slowly. “I think… I do.”
When Damen reached for him, Laurent clasped his hand, and let Damen pull him down onto the bed.