Nikandros remembered being eight years old, sick in bed with a worsening fever. His mother had been frantic, unable to do anything but alternate between pacing around his room, pressing a cold towel to his forehead, spoon-feeding him broth and asking him how he was feeling. Again, and again.
He had thought that that was as bad as it could get. There had been a plague sweeping Akielos that year, and his mother was convinced he was going to die. She didn’t need to say it, he saw it in her eyes, each time she pressed her fingers to his temples and tried to smile.
As it turned out, a common illness with horrendously bad timing hadn’t been the worst thing life could throw his way. Most illnesses were contagious, many of them curable. They were worrisome, but they held logic. This was worse. Far, far worse. It had to be, because there was no solution, no remedy to relieve the ache of falling in love with someone you couldn’t have.
If aching joints and a sore throat was a plague, then this was an affliction. His chest felt constantly seared by a sword, each intake of breath an effort like the air was laced with shards of ice. Nikandros thought at times that he was being dramatic, that he was overdoing things in his mind out of sheer ludicrousy.
Then, he would see him. He would glance across a room, would look up at the sound of his name so that his gaze would catch onto mesmeric blue eyes, and suddenly he was drowning.
The shame was one of the worst parts of it, the guilt that consumed him like something gone aflame. The knowledge of who this man was, who he was to Nikandros’ king, his friend. Nikandros knew, he was reminded of it every day that he needed to see them together. The way they watched each other across a crowded room, the way they spoke with their eyes or brushed fingers when they thought no one was watching. But Nikandros always was, and he loathed himself for it.
He had thought that the constant proof of what was between them would help. It would hurt, but he was never one to shy away from pain. A little harsh realism was good for everyone, and this one would snap him out of the dark reverie his heart had thrust him into, would bring him back into reality.
It didn’t. It only made things worse, because it was only a constant reminder of what he would never have. It did nothing but solidify that Nikandros would never know what it felt like to have Laurent look at him the way he looked at Damen.
Nikandros had always been a simple man, both with his views of the world and his most private wants. He’d never cared for mindful indulgences, nor had he fantasized about phantom worlds where he held the hand of a beautiful man or spoke with him about anything until the sun rose over the horizon. Those thoughts were for other people, foolish people. Ones who had too much time on their hands and too much nonsense in their heart to see reason, to be practical.
Evidently, that didn’t seem to be the case. As it appeared, such dreams and illusions were just as easily spurred on by a heart full of longing.
He had to stop this- this thing. It was wrong, and it was futile. Nothing good could come out of it, nothing hopeful. However, if there was anything he was more confident about than needing to put an end to his feelings, it was that he never could.
There was a man that Nikandros had known in his teenage years, one that he would often go a round with in the training yard when he was in search of sufficient competition. A group of soldiers from the troop would occasionally partake in a certain stimulant found in Isthima, one that typically led to soft feeling limbs and uncontrollable laughter. At one point Nikandros had begun to notice things, hints that were a telltale sign of when something harmlessly indulgent was becoming stupidly dangerous.
He’d made a single attempt at rebuttal and had scoffed when it was received by stubbornness. It was a funny thing, a miserable thing how easily those situations could turn around on you, how anybody could find themselves in a place where they were intentionally partaking in something damaging, only because of the small bouts of pleasure it gave you. Those brief moments of a high so sweet that they almost rivaled the inevitable low.
At first, Nikandros had told himself that it was all mere coincidence. How was he to know when the king of Vere would be in the library? It was colossal, anyone could be found in a maze of winding staircases and endless shelves. He would be off into the village tomorrow for several meetings, it was imperative that he check the stables and ensure that his horse was saddled and well prepared for the journey. He was born and raised in Akielos; it was in his nature to frequent the gardens, just to feel the sun on his skin.
It was like a balm at first, a hot soup that would soothe an inflamed throat rather actually reduce the swelling. He was taking this passage in the palace corridors because he enjoyed the extra walk in the afternoons, not because he had any intentions of crossing paths or hearing his name in passing, a unique combination of respect and thoughtless indifference.
The things Nikandros wanted, the things he thought about in his most illicit dreams were beyond dishonorable. The disgrace of it all rattled in his bones, at times so raw with it that he couldn’t bare to look Damen in the face, or himself in the mirror.
The knowledge of the improperness did nothing to make his yearning subside, a collection of curiosities that were becoming more visceral by the day. He wanted to know what it would feel like to be sought out for something personal rather practical, to see Laurent come to him and know that it was because he had decided to seek Nikandros out because he felt like it, not because he required something. He wanted to feel his long, elegant fingers interlace between his own, to know if he was someone who cared for an intimacy as simple as holding hands. Nikandros never did, but he thought he might, given different circumstances. As it was, he could feel himself changing for someone else.
And at night, at the most secluded times when the moon streaked shadows made everyone more brave, he allowed himself to enter another kind of longing. To close his eyes and try to imagine how Laurent cried out when he was fucked, how he murmured and sighed when he was made love to. Nikandros wanted to bring him to completion again, and again. To make him spill until he would beg for reprieve, all while begging for more. He thought of heavy lidded blue eyes, golden lashes weighed down by tears of pleasure, streaking down flushed cheeks.
Resentment was a powerful thing, a mind-altering thing that changed the way you perceived yourself. Most times he would look at Damen and feel flooded with admiration for his dearest friend. But sometimes, in his worst moments, he would see him leave his chambers in the morning with an easy, satisfied smile on his face and it would rush through him like poison, his stomach turning over with a bitterness so strong he hardly recognized himself.
But then it would subside, and he would be left with trying to understand how he had gotten to this point, and how someone who used to set him on edge with constant vexation now made him feel like he was seconds away form stepping off a ledge.
It never failed to amaze Nikandros how wrong you could be about a person, how different someone could be from the way they initially presented themselves. If there was one thing he took from all of this, it was that things were not always as straightforward as they seemed. People were often more than they seemed. He supposed he owed that to Laurent, one small way he made him if not a better man, then a more understanding one.
Nikandros tried to compensate for his thoughts, a form of repentance. He would take extra work on himself, would double his efforts when training with his men. Sometimes, he would even set self-imposed rules where he made himself scarce, anything to implement space, as if that would wipe away his depravity from the previous few days. Few weeks. Months.
He never knew what it would be like when the day began, if he would be strong like the man he wanted to be, or weak like the way his heart had become. Only time would be able to tell, to see if he would be able to rise above his greatest challenge.
That morning, he heard each individual crunch of boots on sawdust like it was pressing on his throat. He looked up from the metal he was wiping down as a mindless distraction, just in time to see him enter the training arena where Nikandros had been waiting for him.
He sheathed the sword, set it down by his side as he pushed himself up.
“Nikandros,” Laurent said, nodding in greeting as he did every morning.
He remembered their wrestling rounds when Laurent had first come to him. He had shown strength, merit, but everything about his execution was off. His lack of experience was clear through his awkward footing, the way he held himself wrong or missed the minute openings that Nikandros would show him, would show anyone he was training.
His skills had increased tremendously since then, as Nikandros had known they would. Nikandros would often wonder why they were still doing this, why they were going over moves that he knew by now were well engrained in his head. Sometimes, he would allow himself the reckless indulgence of pretending like there was some deeper reason, though he knew there was not. (He would never act on it, even if there were. Neither of them would.) Laurent would never allow his skills to be anything short of exceptional, a perfect sword hung above a mantel. That was all this was, all it ever would be.
Nikandros cleared his throat. He tried not to feel like he had swallowed the gravel at their feet.