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March, 1816


Laurent claimed those lips before the taste of his gasped name could fade from them.

Even with the words that might have followed now silenced, the room was filled with sound. Limbs rustling across the sheets as they both reached to touch each other everywhere. Panting breaths interspersed with moans. The sharp punctuations of slick skin on skin in an unmistakable rhythm. It was all slowly combining towards a crescendo. Laurent strained for that, no less desperate for it even though he'd almost (but never quite) lost count of how many times they'd done this, and many other things besides, since the guests had arrived at Arles Court for the hunting two weeks prior.

Perhaps they'd been a little louder than they ought, but even in retrospect, Laurent couldn't imagine that either of them could really have restrained themselves much more even if they'd tried at that point. No one else kept rooms in this wing of the estate anyway. Laurent had always liked having his own space, and Auguste had happily obliged him, for the house was more than large enough to allow it. There should have been no one to hear them within two hundred feet at least.

The shattering of ceramic against the floor stilled them both and jerked Laurent's gaze in the direction of the door, which was now gaping open where he'd been sure he'd locked it shut. Not even the dimness of the candlelight could conceal the wide and horrified nature of the pair of eyes that Laurent's met. The interloper looked viscerally disgusted at what he was seeing. And he seemed a little panicked, too, if Laurent didn't miss his guess. Laurent had a sharp recollection of how that wasn't a good combination.

If it had been Auguste, Laurent could have just explained. Auguste might not have necessarily understood, but Laurent also knew from experience that his older brother would at least keep Laurent's secrets without exception, regardless of how grave they might be.

If it had been a servant, on the other hand, or perhaps even one of their temporary guests, Laurent could almost certainly have just blackmailed them, or otherwise bargained for their silence. He might have had to considerably lighten his coffers, but Laurent would have paid a steep price – not happily, but definitely without hesitation – if that was what it would take to save them both from inculpation.

Instead, it was Nicaise who saw them. Of everyone currently staying at the estate, Nicaise was the person who Laurent would least have wanted to stumble across this. Laurent knew the moment that he saw the boy's face that there would be no simple discussion or reasoned negotiations, at least not until Nicaise had significantly calmed down.

Nicaise was out the door before Laurent could call out after him. Laurent couldn't even follow until he'd managed to dress somewhat presentably, or he'd risk lending credence to any incriminating words that Nicaise might think to spout before Laurent could stop him.

"Fuck," Laurent said, even as he was extricating himself from the bed and scrambling for his smalls. It took time to layer himself adequately; too much time.

"Laurent. Calm down. He's your brother. Surely he'll keep it to himself."

"He's my brother's ward, actually," Laurent corrected. The contradiction felt sour in his mouth. It made all the difference, though. Not because they didn't recognise each other as family – they were brothers in every way that mattered to Laurent, and he was fairly certain that Nicaise felt the same – but because what had happened before he and Auguste had taken Nicaise in would likely make it a thousand times more difficult for the boy to accept what he'd just seen.

If Laurent was lucky, Nicaise would only have run to Auguste and told him alone of what he'd witnessed by the time Laurent could track him down. If not…

Laurent didn't even have time to complete that thought before his bedroom door opened without Laurent's permission for the second time tonight, with a bang instead of a quiet and unheeded creak this time.

It must have been quite the picture for those now looking in. Laurent's fingers, in the process of doing up his waistcoat, were startled into inaction. His buckskins were probably noticeably creased in a way that could only come from spending time balled up on the floor before being donned again. He hadn't even had a chance to smooth his hair into something resembling its usual order. And on the bed behind him was Damen in all his glory, though Laurent could hear him scrambling to cover himself as best he could. Too late for it to matter. It would be obvious to anyone with eyes and a nose what had been happening in here just minutes before they'd arrived.

Nicaise must have sprinted, Laurent thought, to have reached the gathered guests and roped most of them into following him back here in less time than it took for Laurent to fully right himself. The boy was certainly breathing as heavily as if he'd been running. So were a few of the other onlookers who were peering through the door, though whether that was from physical exertion or the titillation of what was unfolding before them, Laurent couldn't say.

"I told you all!" Nicaise exclaimed. "I said that sodomite was in here forcing himself on my brother! Do you believe me now?"

Laurent blinked, uncomprehending for a moment.

Laurent had assumed that Nicaise would blame him, and perhaps even viciously compare him with that man, for his willingness to take another man into his bed. But perhaps he should have seen this coming, given Nicaise's history, and Laurent's own. Of course this was how Nicaise would choose to reconcile this, given everything.

"You should have your footmen restrain this man until a constable can arrive to deal with him," someone from the small crowd suggested, presumably in Auguste's direction.

The idea of any of the footmen, who were not all that much larger than Laurent in stature, being able to restrain an ex-military man nearly twice their size against his will would have been laughable, if anything about this situation could be considered the slightest bit humorous. But Auguste ordered it even so.

"Laurent," Auguste said softly, reaching for him, clearly trying to be comforting. His voice broke on the word, as if he were barely holding in his emotions. Laurent saw hurt, presumably on Laurent's behalf, in his brother's eyes. That same gaze turned hard and indicting the moment he glanced past Laurent's shoulder. It was clear then that Auguste would be no help for now. Not that Auguste could have done much anyway, with this many witnesses and a messenger probably already being dispatched to fetch the local constables. The evidence of law-breaking was clear enough regardless of what they might say, even if everyone had mistaken Laurent as a victim rather than an eager participant in the crime. It would be no easy feat to get out of this.

Laurent turned. With his back to the hovering group, and only Damen himself able to see Laurent's face, Laurent silently mouthed: Run.

But Damen, noble idiot that he was, shook his head and stood his ground, just as he always did on points of honour. Laurent could only imagine that he was worrying over what might become of Laurent if what seemed to be the currently accepted version of events shifted towards something closer to the truth. Damen wasn't the kind of man to save himself if it meant leaving Laurent behind. And Laurent supposed it wouldn't really save him anyway. At best it would save some portion of his reputation and allow him to be remembered as a sodomite but not a rapist.

Laurent would have done the same, if their positions had been reversed. That didn't make it an easier pill to swallow, or convince Laurent that he shouldn't try to do something to fight this.

With the bedsheet pulled from the mattress and hurriedly wrapped around himself, barely restoring his modesty below the waist, Damen let himself be led out of the room, past Laurent. He did so without a word or a fight, though the footmen still looked visibly worried that he might break free of them at any moment. Auguste's hand on his arm stilled Laurent when he instinctively started to reach out.

The moment Damen was out of view, Laurent returned his attention back to his family, ignoring the gawkers. Auguste looked pained. Beside him, Nicaise looked oddly satisfied. Somehow it didn't seem to Laurent quite like vindication at ensuring the punishment of a man he'd legitimately assumed was hurting his brother.

"What have you done?" Laurent hissed, too low for anyone but Nicaise and perhaps also Auguste to overhear.

"Saved you," Nicaise said emphatically.

No, Laurent thought bitterly, he hadn't. Damen had been the one to do that, more than once. Laurent had never really managed to return the favour to his satisfaction, even though Damen had claimed it was unnecessary. And now Laurent was no longer even sure that he ever could.