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In Your Eyes

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“I don’t really feel much of anything.”

Laurent looked down at his friend Jord, who was sitting on the floor with Orlant in their shared apartment. The three of them were in graduation caps and gowns, killing some time before they left for the commencement ceremony for their Associate’s degrees. Jord held his cap in one hand and ran his tan hands through his auburn-brown hair, which was determined to stick up in all directions. Orlant stretched his long legs out and leaned his head back on the couch, his crooked nose pointing up to the ceiling. Laurent was fussing over his Student Marshall’s address.

Laurent hummed noncommittally. All three of them could have gotten into the University of Arles on scholarship two years ago, but Laurent wanted to stay with Auguste to help take care of Nicaise, and Jord and Orlant refused to go to a different country without him. All three instead went to the local Delpha community college for two years before moving on. Laurent didn’t know how he got so lucky to have such fiercely loyal friends in his life.

“It’s just, I don’t know. It all went by so quickly and didn’t feel much different from high school.”

“And then there was that whole mess with Aimeric,” Orlant chimed in as he tilted his head to give Jord a condescending smirk.

“Did I ask?” Jord griped with a resigned sigh. “I even got him to sign my yearbook, and he wrote, ‘I’m sorry, Jord. I hope you’re happy.’” He looked crestfallen. “I mean, who does that?”

“Laurent, he’s being difficult again. Laurent. Laurent!”

Laurent jolted as Orlant lightly slapped his calf. “What?!”

“Were you even paying attention.”

“Yes...Jord was whining about Aimeric again. Seriously, I don’t know what you saw in him besides a pretty face and a cute ass.” Laurent dropped his speech in his lap with a huff. “His cock wasn’t anything special from what I saw.”

“Hey!”

Jord and Orlant always looked a bit shocked when Laurent talked so bluntly. In high school and these past few years, Laurent had developed a “look but don’t touch” persona to protect himself from the constant deluge of leers and comments about his body. But around Auguste and Nicaise, his compassion and joy shone through, however tinted with his prickly nature. And then sometimes Laurent would say the filthiest things with no more weight than if he were talking about the weather.

“I bet I know what was keeping you distracted--”

“Don’t you dare,” Laurent cut him off with an icy glare. Laurent could let some of his walls down around these two, but they were pushing their luck at the moment.

“I heard Nik saying that Damianos would be coming to the ceremony to see him. Didn’t you two get coffee together last time he was in town? I think I remember something about gorgeous brown eyes and muscles straining under a t-shirt.” Orlant smiled over at Jord when they noticed how red Laurent was getting.

“I was already in the cafe reading with my tea, thank you very much, and he bumped into my chair. It’s not my fault he decided to sit and talk with me after buying me another tea because he spilled mine in my lap,” Laurent said, perhaps a bit too clipped, as he brushed a strand of hair behind his ear and adjusted his tie. “Now, if you two are quite done being idiots, shall we go prove that we aren’t and receive our diplomas?”



Damen sat in the uncomfortable garden chair next to his brother, Kastor. He could see Nikandros sitting at the front of the crowd with the rest of the graduates. The ceremony was small due to the small class size, and the chairs were placed under an awning to protect people from the sun. The dean of the college was standing at a podium, and she welcomed everyone to the ceremony before going into a prepared speech about the importance of community colleges and how they not only prepared the graduates to go onto to finish a Bachelor’s and beyond, but that they also provided degrees and certificates in trades. She was a good speaker, and her speech made pride swell in Damen’s chest for his best friend. Nik had decided to become a mechanic after falling in love with the old cars Damen’s dad loved to keep around. They had lived together for two years when Damen started pre-med at the University of Ios, but Nik had decided to come back home to get his degree. Damen had missed him fiercely.

“And now, distinguished guests, we have our Student Marshall, Laurent de Vere, to give his address to the class.” Laurent, Damen thought, where have I heard that name before? “Laurent de Vere was an honor to have at this college. He ran the book club, he excelled at classes ranging from chemistry to art, and he helped lead our fencing club to a championship.” Damen could see two men playfully punching a third in the arms. All Damen could really see of him was the back of his head, where he wore his blond hair, mostly hidden by the cap, slightly long to his chin, keeping Damen from seeing any of his face. “Please join me in welcoming Mr. Laurent de Vere.”

When the man got up and stood at the podium, Damen’s eyes widened. He instantly recognized him as the man he had spilled tea all over the summer before. The man--Laurent, he remembered and confirmed by the dean--Laurent was striking. He was tall and lean, with high cheekbones and a piercing stare. His hair, which Damen realized had grown since their disastrous not-date, shone as the sunlight came through the gaps of the awning. Damen scooted down in his seat a bit in hopes that Laurent might not see him; he had already been so embarrassed and felt like he made a fool of himself the entire time at the cafe.

“What is knowledge?” Laurent began, and a hush fell over the crowd. His voice was rich and smooth, and light like clear water. When he spoke, it was like he was filling a stadium with his voice without even speaking very loudly. “Is it what happens when a pupil sits in front of a teacher, and the information and experience of the authority is deposited into the brain of the lesser? Is it comprehending the divine, a sudden moment where the secrets of gods take flight in our eyes and we achieve enlightenment? Or is it a group of people, students, professors, colleagues, friends, learning from one another. Because we all have things to learn, and things to teach.”

Laurent went on with his speech, talking about shared bonds and new experiences and moving on to bigger and better things, whatever those things may be. Although he was an excellent public speaker with the poise of a prince addressing his subjects, he seemed distant and almost cold, as if the parts of his speech were bulletin points he needed to hit. He had been so acerbic and caustically witty when Damen had spoken to him, before.

“So, to conclude my speech and let you all out of this humid tent,” that finally got a small chuckle from the crowd, “I can think of no better way to summarize than with a quote by Oscar Wilde, who can always say it better than any of us ever could: Education is an admirable thing. But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can ever be taught. Thank you.”

The crowd clapped, although they seemed a bit confused. Damen smiled shyly when Laurent met his eyes from the podium. He noticed Laurent’s eyes widening slightly and a slight blush on his cheeks before he quickly made his way off the podium and back to his seat.

Then the dean began calling names and the graduates walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. Damen gave a loud cheer for Nikandros, even though the audience was instructed to please keep their applause until the end, thank you. When Laurent walked across the stage, he looked out into the crowd, scanning it before a slight crease formed between his brows and the corners of his mouth barely curved down.

After the graduates got the go ahead to move their tassels and throw their hats, Damen immediately sought out Nik to congratulate him, enveloping him in a tight hug. “Hey man, I’m so proud of you. Any time I need my car fixed, I guess I gotta pay you now, huh.”

Nik rolled his eyes and patted Damen's shoulder. “Damen, you know I would never make you.”

“Nik,” said Damen playfully aggrieved.

“Fine. But you’ll be heavily discounted.”

“Deal.” Damen brought Nik in for another quick hug before they let go. “So, Nik. How, uh, how’d you like the Valedictorian’s address?”

Nik gave him a knowing glare. “It’s called the Student Marshall when you’re in college, and you’d know that if you hadn’t bombed that literature class because a certain Jokaste made sure you were only thinking with your cock every time you went.”

Damen began to protest. “I graduated on time, didn’t I! With a pretty damn good GPA I might add.”

“Yes, I know. But that’s not the point. The point is, I know you didn’t give a damn about that speech because you were too focused on the blond giving it.”

“That’s not...entirely true! I really liked that Oscar Wilde quotation at the end. I paid some attention in that literature class.” Nik continued to stare. “But whatever. Do you know him? I think I may’ve met his brother back in high school.”

“He was in my writing class they make everyone take even if you’re just getting a technical degree. You could, I don’t know, tell he really cared? He was so intimidating and distant but he never tried to rub it in anybody’s face. If that makes sense. Our social circles never really overlapped, but the worst I ever heard about him was that he could be kinda short and bitchy with people. But who isn’t, right? Anyway, he’s probably not a bad guy, but he just didn’t seem interested in anything that wasn’t a book. Nobody ever bragged that they had fucked the Frigid Prince.”

“Is that what they call him? Seriously? That’s so juvenile.”

“Just some of the guys in my mechanics program. But they’re assholes.” Nik let out a sigh. “I know nothing I tell you is gonna make any difference, because I know you and you’re an idiot whenever you encounter pretty, bitchy blondes.” Damen started to interrupt, but Nik continued. “I love you, dude, but you got med school to think about, and if you get that fellowship, you’ll be out of here and on to Arles before the end of summer.”

“I know, I know.” Damen brought a hand up to run it through his hair, looking down at the ground as he did so, avoiding the annoyance in his friend’s eyes. “It can’t hurt to at least say hi. I did spill tea on him.”



“Laurent, I really liked your speech.”

Laurent didn’t even look as Jord approached him from behind to put a supportive and congratulatory hand on his shoulder. “No you didn’t, Jord. I didn’t even like my speech.”

“What are you talking about? You know you’re a good writer.”

“I know. But that doesn’t mean that speech was any good. All commencement speeches are the same cut and dry bullshit.”

“Okay, fine. Fair. I liked that Oscar Wilde quote, though.”

Laurent rolled his eyes. “Of course you did. We’re gay, Jord. We have to.” He turned to his friend. “The audience didn’t look too impressed. Every joke except that damn mention of the weather fell flat. I could practically feel the urge of every single person to look at their phones or watches to see just how long they had been tortured.”

“Whatever,” Orlant interrupted as he threw his arms around both their necks.

“Hey! I already lost my dignity giving that god awful speech. Don’t mess up my hair.”

“Why do you care so much? Wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain Damianos Akielos standing over there talking to Nikandros, would it?” Orlant said with a lopsided toothy grin.

Laurent shot him a furious glare, but his cheeks pinked against his will anyway. Just then, he looked towards Damianos and saw that Damianos was looking back at him. Damianos smiled, obviously flustered, before turning back to his friend, who threw his hands up and walked away. Laurent’s flush only seemed to spread. Jord and Orlant apparently noticed, for they then shoved Laurent in Damianos’s direction.

Laurent tried to regain some composure as he moved toward Damianos, but then their eyes met and Laurent felt the air leave his lungs. Damianos was easily the most beautiful man he had ever seen, with his big dark eyes, his nut brown skin, his smile that lit up the room. And he seemed oblivious as to how offensively attractive he was, just casually walking through life not knowing he could have people kissing his feet as he walked if he wanted.

When he made Laurent spill his tea that last summer, his anger instantly dissipated when he looked up and saw the genuine regret on that face. Damianos had sworn profusely, then apologized for doing that, then apologized for the tea, then apologized for not apologizing for the tea first. Laurent reacted with some of his typical disdain, but he knew he hadn’t pulled it off when Damianos just smiled at him and asked to replace his drink. He wasn’t one to pass up free tea, so they sat and chatted about nothing in particular while they both drank, introducing themselves and just barely getting to know one another before Laurent had to leave to watch Nicaise. Laurent was glad for the excuse to leave, as even being in Damianos’s presence left him feeling flustered and out of control.

He shook away his thoughts, forcing his body to calm down out of sheer force of will, and approached Damianos.

“Well well, if it isn’t the honorable barbarian who made me spill my tea. Damianos, wasn’t it?” Laurent tried his best to let some of the humor shine through his bite, but he was notoriously bad at it. But it either worked on Damianos or Damianos didn’t care because he shot Laurent a shy smile that lifted up the left side of his mouth. When he smiled, a dimple appeared on that cheek, and Laurent dug his thumbnail into the side of his finger just to bring him back to reality.

“Laurent! It’s a nice surprise to see you again. I liked your speech a lot, especially that Oscar Wilde quote at the end.”

Laurent scoffed, but he filed the fact that Damianos liked Oscar Wilde away for future reference; they hadn’t mentioned their romantic inclinations over tea. “Sure you did.”

“I’m serious! You really have a way with words.”

“Well I better,” Laurent slightly raised a brow, but he felt himself starting to blush and hoped Damianos wouldn’t notice or would blame it on the heat, “considering that’s what I’m going to school for.”

“Oh, right. I uh, I remember you mentioning that. You were wanting to transfer to U of Arles, right?”

“Yes. In fact, my GPA here qualified me for automatic acceptance, and I was awarded a full scholarship.” Shit, he thought, way to make yourself sound like a stuck-up asshole.

“No kidding? I’m waiting to hear back about a fellowship for their med school. It’s probably the most competitive in the country, but I thought it was worth a shot.” Damianos seemed to shy away at that, and Laurent had to stop himself grabbing the man’s strong jaw to force his gaze back. Instead he raised his arm to look at his watch, just to give his arm something else to do. He hadn’t seen Auguste at the ceremony at all, and he noticed that it was starting to get past when Auguste would get home from fetching Nicaise from daycare.

“I hate to cut our little reunion short, but I need to be heading back. It seems my brother and nephew come between us once again. W-would it be possible,” Laurent almost stuttered, “for me to get your phone number? I never really got to thank you for not being a dick after spilling hot liquid all over me, and I’d like to return the favor. Coffee, not the spilling.” The last part came out in a rush, but he bravely met Damianos’s eyes anyway.

“Of course! I’d love to. I’m hanging out with my brother Kastor and helping him around the retirement home all summer, so just let me know when you wanna go and we can work something out.” Damianos held his hand out for Laurent’s phone. “And you can call me Damen,” he said as he dialed his number into Laurent’s phone, called it, and answered on his own. “Only Nik calls me Damianos, and he has to be really pissed with me to do that.” He hung up both phones at the same time, handing Laurent’s back to him.

“Great. I’ll, uh, I’ll shoot you a text or something.” Laurent turned to make his way back to Jord and Orlant. “I’ll see you around, Damen,” he quickly added over his shoulder.

Damen , Laurent thought.

Damen.



Laurent was sitting at Auguste’s dining room table, holding his graduation cap in his hand, when he walked through the door with Nicaise. He seemed frazzled, his shoulder-length golden hair sticking out of his low ponytail and falling around his face. Nicaise’s face was red, like he had been crying, and he coughed and sniffled into his sleeve.

Auguste saw that Laurent was there and immediately looked upset. “Oh god, Laurent. I’m so sorry I missed your big day. Nicaise’s daycare called saying he was sick, so I had to rush and take him to the doctor.” He ruffled Nicaise’s hair and walked them both into the kitchen.

“You could have called,” Laurent said, slowly, controlled. “Or texted. I had to stand up there and make that stupid speech in front of people who would rather have me turn around to comment on my ass, or speculate on my ‘Schrodinger’s tits.’” He felt himself getting upset, but even around his brother, he refused to show that kind of weakness. Auguste had white-knighted for him enough when he had started going by a different name his senior year of high school, and people promptly started calling him a sissy and much more unsavory terms. Laurent loved that his brother stood up for him, but when not even his teachers cared that much, it often did more harm than good.

Laurent learned very quickly to take care of himself and to process his feelings alone.

“Laurent! Language! Nicaise is in the room.”

“What? It’s not anything he hasn’t heard before. Don’t pretend you haven’t slipped up in front of him. Isn’t that right, Nicaise?” Nicaise smiled and giggled through his sniffles. Auguste groaned.

“Can you for once stop acting like his friend and start acting like his uncle?” Auguste plopped down into the chair next to Laurent, resting his head in his hands.

Laurent let out an exasperated sigh. “Auguste, what happened? You used to be so fun, and goofy, and admirably foolish. And I mean that as a compliment. I know,” Laurent glanced over at Nicaise, “that things haven’t been easy since D-I-A-N-E left you. But I am not D-I-A-N-E. I’m your brother.”

Auguste looked up between his fingers. He lowered a hand down to grab Laurent’s, glancing up at him apologetically. “I was fun, wasn’t I? I still am.” He sighed. “I really am sorry about today. I know how much this meant to you, and I know how much you sacrificed to stay around and help me. It’s a good thing Nicaise is due to start kindergarten in the fall, because I don’t know what I would’ve done without you being here if he still needed more at-home time.”

Laurent felt a pang of guilt at Auguste’s words. He knew that Auguste would never resent him for going away to pursue his writing career, but he couldn’t stop the thought that he was abandoning his family when he left.

“It’s okay. But when I get my Bachelor’s in two years, you better be there come hell or high water.” Laurent emphasized his point by jabbing a finger at Auguste. “And you know while I’m there, I’ll come home as often as I can, and if there’s ever an emergency with Nicaise, I’ll be on the next flight out. What else are brothers for?”

Auguste leaned over to hug Laurent, placing a kiss on the crown of his head. “I’m so proud of you, and mom and dad would be, too. Speaking of which.” Auguste got up and went to his bedroom, coming back with a small box. “This was in mom’s jewelry. I gave a lot of it to Diane,” he said the name in a whisper, “but I saved this for when you published your first book of poems or got married or something. It’s the least I can do to show you how much I appreciated all the help.”

 

Laurent took the box in his hands and carefully removed the lid. Inside was a pair of royal blue studs. “Mom’s sapphire earrings,” he said in awe as he took one out of the box, putting it in the hole of his right ear. He thumbed over the cool smooth stone. “Thank you.”

Laurent had always been closer to their mother, and Auguste to their father. As a child, his mother Hennike had given him a love for the written word and introduced him to her favorite poems, showing him how their rhythms and structures worked.

Laurent was only 8 and had come home from school crying, his eyes swollen.

“My darling,” his mother said, kneeling down to embrace him. “What’s wrong? Mr. Herode didn’t call me or anything.”

Laurent snuggled into his mother’s warm arms. She smelled like bergamot. He took a tendril of her hair and wrapped it around his finger; she did the same to his.

“There’s this boy,” he began softly. He was so nervous. “His name is Leon. I picked a flower at recess and gave it to him. I remember you told me that people would give flowers to people they liked, and that the flowers had meaning.”

“What kind of flower was it, Laurence?” She asked with a soft smile.

“It was a dandelion, mama!” He was so excited. “It was big and yellow like the sun. And I thought dandelion sounded like Leon, a little bit.”

“That is so thoughtful of you.”

Laurent’s eyes dropped again. “I really like him, mama. His smile is so nice. But when I gave him the flower, he laughed at me. All his friends laughed at me.”

Hennike’s jaw tightened. “Why is that, my love?”

“He...he said that I wasn’t pretty because I wore pants and shirts like him. He said I looked like a boy. And that boys don’t like boys.”

“Laurence, I want you to know that he is wrong. Boys can like boys just like you like boys, and girls can like girls. Sometimes people don’t understand what isn’t familiar to them.”

Laurent shifted, burying his face in his mother’s neck. It was a long moment before he spoke again. “Do you think I look like a boy, mama? Because I like to wear these clothes?”

Hennike kissed his temple, her lips lingering as she stroked his hair. “I think you look like you.” Looking back, perhaps she knew, even then. “And one day, when you grow up, you’re going to find a nice boy, a man, who will love you no matter how you dress.”

“I don’t know, mama. Boys seem awfully mean.” His small body wracked with an even smaller sob. “I just wanted to give him a flower.”

His mother’s arms tightened around him. “Not all boys are like that, sweetheart. Not the ones worth talking to. Wait here.” She removed herself from him and went to their small library room, coming back a moment later with a book.

“Have I told you about William Shakespeare yet?”

Laurent’s eyes lit up. “We watched a Wishbone episode about him! There was Romeo and Juliet, but they couldn’t be together.”

Hennike chuckled. “That’s right! He wrote so many things. Happy stories, sad stories. Stories that people have remembered for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

“Woooooooooow.” Laurent didn’t quite know how to process that.

“He also wrote poems, called sonnets. And many of them are about love, to another person. Come here.” Laurent stepped to her as she lowered to his level. “The way he wrote them, the words follow a certain beat, like a song.” She grabbed his fist in her hand and placed it on his chest. “When you read the poem, the beat is the same beat as your heart. Da-dum. Da-dum.” She beat on his chest.

“Da-dum. Da-dum.” He repeated.

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Da-dum. Da-dum.
“Thou art more lovely and more temperate:” Da-dum. Da-dum.
“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,” Da-dum. Da-dum.
“And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:” Da-dum. Da-dum.
“Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,” Da-dum. Da-dum.
“And often is his gold complexion dimmed,” Da-dum. Da-dum.
“And every fair from fair sometime declines,” Da-dum. Da-dum.
“By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:” Da-dum. Da-dum.
“But thy eternal summer shall not fade,” Da-dum. Da-dum.
“Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,” Da-dum. Da-dum.
“Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,” Da-dum. Da-dum.
“When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,” Da-dum. Da-dum.
  “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,” Da-dum. Da-dum.
  “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Da-dum. Da-dum.

“Da-dum. Da-dum. Da-dum. Da-dum. Da-dum,” Laurent said once more, quietly.

“Wasn’t that a lovely poem?”

“It was, mama.”

“One day, the right boy will make your heart beat like that poem.”

“Even if I give him a flower?”

Hennike smiled.

“Especially if you give him a flower.”

Laurent broke from his reverie. He walked to the kitchen to grab some water. “You know, I was standing up there today, and I just felt like nobody knew who I was, and I didn’t know who they were. At least in high school people bullied me to my face when they thought I was an insufferable prick.”

“But you have me, and Jord and Orlant though, right? Why do you want the approval of all those losers anyway? Surely you don’t find a bunch of people who barely graduated high school interesting.”

Auguste’s judgment made Laurent tighten his fingers around his glass. “I went to the community college too, you know.”

“Yeah, but by choice. Those other people probably had no other option.”

“That’s not true and you know it. I had brilliant professors and classmates there. What the fuck, Auguste.”

Nicaise had a coughing fit, then, and Auguste quickly rose to scoop him up. “I had better get him in bed. Why don’t you head back to your place and celebrate with people who aren’t sick toddlers. I’ll stop by tomorrow on my day off, and we can all go to the park.”

 

“Sure, that sounds nice.” Laurent walked to the door and opened it. “I’ll still pissed at you though!” He shouted as he walked through the door.

“Laurent!”

“Piss!” A small, hoarse voice chimed in.

“Nicaise!”

Laurent laughed as he closed the door.



“Hey Damen?” Kastor was knocking on Damen’s door. When he got back from the ceremony that afternoon, he had collapsed on the bed in Kastor’s spare room. It was only mid-afternoon, but Damen had every blind closed and the blanket pulled over his head. He was exhausted, having only flown in late the night before. The knocking reverberated in his skull.

“What,” Damen groaned back, the word rumbling in his chest.

Kastor cleared his throat. “The mail just came by, and there was this envelope from the University of Arles. I thought it might be junk and I was about to throw it away but...” Damen jumped up and flung open the door as Kastor pretended not to know what the envelope was.

“Give me that.” Damen took the envelope from his brother’s hands and quickly ripped it open. As he unfolded the letter, he began to read out loud. “Damianos Akielos,” he read as his hands shook, “the University of Arles Medical School is pleased to announce that you have been chosen as the recipient of our annual fellowship, guaranteeing you tuition, experience, and guided mentorship.” His grin split open his face. It took a second for the meaning of the words to actually register in his brain, but when they did...“Kastor! Oh my god! I got it!” He threw his arms around his older brother, enveloping him in a fierce hug.

Kastor hugged him back for a few moments before he spoke, suddenly taking on a more serious tone. “You see, Damen? It’s all working out for you.” Kastor pulled back, his hands on Damen’s shoulders. “That fellowship attracts thousands of people. And after all the skipped vacations and late nights and failed relationships, all the hard work is paying off. They picked you . An Akielos so special, they are celebrating you all over the world.”

“I know. It’s so surreal, I don’t think it’s sunk in yet.” Damen let out a somewhat hysterical laugh. “Okay, deep breaths. Deep breaths. Holy shit, I can’t believe I got it.”

“I can. You’re the best, and finally somebody else is realizing it. It would do you some good to realize it yourself,” Kastor said as he prodded him in the chest with a finger.

“Stop it, stop it. Didn’t dad teach you the value of humility,” Damen gently shoved his brother.

“Ugh, whatever. Humility is for people who aren’t celebrating. Let’s go out, my treat.”

After going to the local sports bar and getting absolutely trashed on good beer and better women, Damen once again came back to the spare room in Kastor’s house and collapsed on the bed in exhaustion.



Laurent was pacing the floor in his living room so much that Jord and Orlant commented that he would soon wear a hole through it.

“Just call him already! We can’t afford to lose our security deposit if you ruin the carpet,” Orlant teased as he stared intently at the video game he was playing.

“If you don’t call him, I will!” Jord threatened.

“Please. He’s way too big for you. I thought you only liked them small and pretty.”

“Would you two shut the fuck up.” Laurent ran a hand through his hair. “Fine. I’ll call him. I’m going in my room, and if either of you makes a further comment, I will personally rip your dick off and feed it to the dogs at the park the next time I go with Auguste and Nicaise.” He stalked off to his room and slammed the door. He waited a second to make sure nobody was hovering against his door before going through his recent calls to find Damen’s number. After taking a final deep breath and letting it out, he let himself fall into his haughty, proud persona, standing tall in the middle of the floor. He touched the number to call it again and heard it start to ring.

“Hello? This is Damen’s brother, Kastor. Damen can’t come to the phone right now as he is currently being violently ill in the bathroom. Can I take a message?”

Laurent almost lost his nerve. “Hi, Kastor. This is Laurent. I told Damen I would call him to go get coffee or something. Could you let him know so he can call me back? Great, thanks.” He hung up quickly, probably too quickly, and fell back onto his bed, trying to keep himself from imagining how good Damen had looked in his button-down and chinos at the ceremony, and failing. He tried to keep himself from hearing Damen’s low, rich voice in his head, and failed. He tried to keep himself from remembering that Damen’s top button had been undone, and his sleeves were rolled up to the elbows, and his skin was so goddamn beautiful and his arms were covered in dark hair and the hollow of his neck was right there and…

He hadn’t felt this nervous about a guy since high school.

Laurent couldn’t tell if the butterflies in his stomach were from anxiety or something else entirely. He hadn’t seemed too forward with Damen, right? Damen had given him his number. Damen had bought him tea that one time and had been so endearingly awkward. Damen had honestly seemed a little flustered at the ceremony. There was something there, right?

Right?

His nerves only increased as he waited for Damen to get back to him. What if Damen was just that friendly of a person, that he wasn’t treating Laurent any differently than anybody else. What if Laurent wasn’t special. What if, god forbid, Damen was actually straight. Laurent really tried not to think of the implications of that.

Minutes turned to hours, and he went to bed that Friday night feeling miserable and embarrassed. There was a reason he never did this sort of thing anymore, and this was that reason. He had been made fun of and rejected enough for one lifetime.

The next day he was making a salad for his lunch when he heard his phone vibrate. He picked it up and answered without looking at the number. “Hello? This is Laurent.”

“Hi, Laurent? It’s Damen.” Laurent’s heart dropped into his stomach. “Listen, I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner. I was going through my texts and calls from Thursday and Friday just to make sure I didn’t do something stupid after celebrating.”

“Yeah, I saw the announcement from the University on Twitter. Congratulations.”

Laurent heard Damen pause. “Thanks. Anyway, I noticed there was a call from you that I don’t remember answering, so I thought it was best to call back. I didn’t make a fool of myself to you on the phone, did I?”

Laurent noticed that Damen didn’t mention anything about Kastor. “Not unless you count right now.”

“Great,” he heard Damen chuckle through the speaker.

“I had just called to follow up on getting coffee? If you’re still interested.”

“I’m actually gonna hang low for the rest of the day.” Laurent steeled himself, already shutting off. He had expected this. “But are you free tonight?”

The butterflies were back. Or was it anxiety. “Sure, why?”

“Nik invited me to this graduation party. This guy Makedon throws it every year. He was their mascot or something ten years ago and now he dresses up as the Delpha Dolphin and shotguns beer and cheap griva with the recent grads. Give ‘em one last hoorah before finally getting out of here.”

Laurent stood and blinked, staring out the window above his sink. Damen was inviting him to a party? He squashed down the warm, excited feeling rising in his chest, too afraid to get his hopes up.

“Unless you’re not into parties. Which I totally get. Nik told me a lot of the guys in his mechanic program were assholes.”

“I’ll go,” Laurent blurted out.

“You’ll go?”

“I’ll go. And I’ll pick you up. I don’t really drink so I’ll DD.”

“Oh, okay. Um. Right.” Laurent had to keep himself from laughing. Was Damen just as nervous as him? Surely not. “Pick me up at 8? I’ll text you the address.”

“Sounds great. I’ll see you at 8, then, Damen.” Damen.

Before Damen had a chance to say goodbye, Laurent hung up the phone. He picked his knife back up to finish cutting the veggies for his salad, and the sun seemed to shine through the windows of his kitchen a little brighter. He was aware of the rhythmic beating of his heart, ever so slightly increased.

Chapter Text

Damen wasn’t normally such an anxious person where dating was concerned. When he had been in high school and college, he had, admittedly, been a bit of a playboy: very few serious relationships, rarely there in the morning after a hookup. He thought the men and women he took as lovers had a pretty good time, but the sort of post-coital intimacy wanted by some was just...not something he ever wanted to give.

But he had never felt this nervous just waiting for someone to pick him up. And why? This wasn’t a serious date. There was no way this could even turn into something more serious than a hookup, if it ever got to that level.

Laurent felt different. Damen couldn’t get his mind off of him. There was just something about him, and he couldn’t quite pin it down. When they had hung out last year, Damen had been a little awestruck, sure, but he was still getting over Jokaste. Thinking of Jokaste still stung a little, even today, but he felt a lightness he hadn’t in years. He felt potential.

Damen was staring in his mirror, second-guessing his outfit, which he had never done for just a goofy party. Would Laurent expect him in something less casual? More casual? Damen was wearing a plain black t-shirt with knee-length denim shorts and high-tops. Should he switch to a button-down? Pants?

Before he had more time to think himself in circles, Kastor knocked on the door.

“Damen, someone’s at the door for you. Gotta hand it to you, you’ve really outdone yourself with this one. I could bounce a quarter off his ass.”

Damen walked away from the mirror, applied some more cologne just in case, and opened the door. “His name is Laurent. And aren’t you a little old to be talking about 20 year-olds like that?”

“I’m only 31. As if you haven’t bragged about all your past conquests to me before.” Kastor looked puzzled.

“Well he isn’t a conquest yet,” Damen murmured as he brushed past Kastor and headed downstairs.

When he got to the bottom of the stairs, he saw Laurent standing in the foyer. Damen was so transfixed that he had stopped walking without even realizing it. Laurent was wearing a dark blue long-sleeve shirt with black skinny jeans, and when he brushed some hair behind his right ear, Damen noticed a dark blue earring. He was tall and lean and, yes, Damen couldn’t help notice how those jeans hugged his form. Unfortunately, at that moment, Laurent looked up and caught him staring.

“Hi,” Laurent said, shyly, before his whole aspect shifted into something far prouder. “Are you quite done staring?”

“Probably not.” The words came out before Damen could catch them. It was something he normally wouldn’t be ashamed of saying, but he felt weird saying it to Laurent. The words were true, though, and he hoped he hadn’t come off as creepy. “I’m, uh, ready to go when you are.”

“I’m obviously ready,” Laurent snipped back.

“Right, right. I guess we better go, then.”

Damen followed Laurent out of the house, closing the door behind him. They walked down the sidewalk, and Damen opened Laurent’s driver door for him.

“Oh, such a gentleman,” Laurent teased, but Damen didn’t think he sounded upset or annoyed, which was a good sign. He walked to the passenger side of the car and got in.

As they drove to the party, Damen attempted small talk. How are you doing, did you have a nice weekend, but the conversation felt flat and stifled until Damen brought up Laurent’s earring.

“I like your earring.”

Laurent spared Damen a quick glance before looking back at the road. “Thanks. It was my mom’s.”

“Yeah? Did she give it to you recently?”

“She, uh, she and my dad died about five years ago,” Laurent said without any emotion in his voice. Damen worried that he had already screwed this up beyond repair. “My brother gave it to me as a graduation present.”

“Oh. Um, well, it looks really nice on you. I like how it matches your shirt.” Damen twiddled his thumbs in the passenger seat and looked out the window at the houses flying past. When Laurent didn’t say anything immediately, he dared look over, and he thought he saw a small smile on his face. But maybe it was a trick of the light in the dark car.



Laurent thought he might die.

He could not deny the way Damen was looking at him, the way Damen fumbled conversation around him, the nervous way Damen jiggled his knee as they drove. Damen...liked him. Laurent made Damen nervous. Laurent didn’t think he had ever made anybody nervous like this in his whole life. Even when he had a boyfriend in high school, Torveld, it felt different than this...whatever this was.

But as they talked in the car, Laurent tried to sound charming and interesting, but somehow it was already so awkward between them.

Was he already screwing this up?

It must have gotten to Damen’s limit, because he fell silent and they didn’t talk until they arrived at the house for the party.

Laurent parked the car and they sat in silence for a moment. “I’ve never been to a party like this before,” he said into the darkness, not looking at anything in particular.

“We don’t have to go, if you don’t want. But I promise to show you a good time.” Damen sounded a little disappointed.

“No, I--I want to.” He finally looked over at Damen and gave him a small smile. “I know you will. I’m sorry, in advance, if I’m awkward or if I keep you from having a good time or--” Laurent let out in a rush before he could stop himself. He felt embarrassed. This was only a silly date. But Damen interrupted him by placing a gentle but strong hand on his shoulder.

Where Damen’s hand touched him, it was like his skin caught fire. His hand felt warm through the thin fabric of his shirt. And it was so big. Laurent realized, then, that he hadn’t been touched like this since Torveld. He couldn’t believe that something as inconsequential as a comforting touch could feel so intimate and electric. He had to force himself not to gasp.

“Hey,” Damen said, “there is no way you will keep me from having a good time. I know we don’t know each other that well, but I am certain that I am the luckiest guy here.”

Damen smiled at him.

Laurent smiled back.

“I guess we won’t know unless we get out of this car and actually enter the throng.”

Laurent didn’t understand how anybody thought this sort of thing was fun. Everyone was drunk, and hot, and sweaty. The music was playing too loud. Laurent felt incredibly out of place. Damen had wandered off to get a drink, leaving Laurent standing outside on the back porch. Somebody, he supposed it was that guy Makedon, was currently dressed in full mascot regalia, holding Nikandros up by the feet for a keg stand.

“How is that a good way to get drunk,” he suddenly heard Damen say in his ear. Damen surprised him and handed him a red Solo cup of water. “I thought you might be thirsty.”

Laurent took a long drink and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Thanks. And yeah. Isn’t the beer supposed to be able to flow down into you.” He looked up at Damen. “Why are men like this.”

Damen shrugged. “I have no idea. I had my fair share of parties in college, but I didn’t have time for the standard frat stuff.” Damen took a drink. He smelled like cheap beer and sweat and cologne, but Laurent realized he didn’t care. Damen was so effortlessly easy and in place, here, yet he looked like a king among his subjects. No other man here held a candle to him. How could Damen think he was the luckiest man here, when clearly, Laurent was.

“I think it’s all just a bunch of dick waving,” Damen continued with a laugh. “Nik told me he came to this last year, and he saw a guy throw up after doing a keg stand. Which defeats the purpose of drinking if you can’t even keep the drink down.”

“Hey, are you Laurent?” They were interrupted by a woman who Laurent recognized from his writing classes. Her name was Vannes.

“I am. And you’re Vannes, right?”

“Yes! We had a few classes together, but I never got the chance to tell you how much I liked your writing when you would share. You really pushed me to be better.” She didn’t look shy or intimidated or dismissive like most people normally did. “I don’t think I would have gotten into the journalism program I wanted without that push.”

Laurent didn’t know what to say. “Wow, thank you. You, uh, you did the same for me. I loved that sonnet corona you wrote last year. I thought it was clever how you played with the etymology of the words.”

Vannes beamed. “I’m glad someone finally noticed. I slaved over the OED for days when writing that.” Suddenly, a tall, masculine woman came up and wrapped her arms around Vannes’s waist from behind. Vannes gasped as the woman kissed and nuzzled under her ear, whispering something that Laurent couldn’t hear. “Well, it seems I am needed elsewhere. I’ll let you get back to that beefcake of yours. It was nice to see you here, seriously. Evening, gents,” Vannes said with a wink and left, putting her hand in the back pocket of her partner’s jeans.

Laurent’s jaw dropped. He must look like one of those singing fish you hang on the wall. He didn’t dare look at Damen.

“Do you wanna mingle around for a little while?” Laurent looked over at Damen, finally, and noticed Damen’s cheeks looked a little darker than normal. He was scratching his arm, and Laurent saw the muscles in his bicep and forearm and hand ripple with the movement. Beefcake, indeed.

“Sure. It’s getting a little humid out here for me.”

They made their way inside. When they got to the living room of the house, they stopped in on the edge of the room and watched as a girl played a guitar, singing terrible songs she must have written herself, with lyrics hinting at a recent broken heart.

“I think it would do her some good to take a poetry class or two,” Laurent leaned up and said in Damen’s ear. This close, he felt overwhelmed. Damen was so physical, was such a presence next to him.

Damen laughed and said, “or six or seven.” They both took a drink. “Are you having a good time?”

“To be honest, this wouldn’t be my first choice for a weekend,” Laurent admitted. He noticed that Damen looked a little crestfallen. “But I am enjoying being with you.” He didn’t know when he had got so bold, especially since he had no liquid courage to back him up.

The smile that Damen gave him was brighter than any star Laurent had ever seen.

“I’m glad. Do you wanna stay here, or do you wanna go do something else?” Damen looked away, then, and into his drink as if it were the most interesting thing he had ever seen. “I could text Kastor and ask him to busy himself elsewhere if you wanted to come back to my place.”

Lauren’t brain short-circuited. Surely Damen didn’t want that. Maybe Laurent was misreading his intentions. Maybe he just wanted to watch a movie or something. When Damen looked back up at him, Laurent realized that, yes, he very much wanted to go back to his place. Damen had been such a gentleman the whole party and had hardly left Laurent’s side. Laurent had never felt so at ease with another person, even if the party wasn’t fun and he felt awkward and was sure he was keeping Damen from doing whatever you’re actually supposed to do at parties like this. He knew, deep down, that Damen would be a generous lover. The thought alone made him feel dizzy, and anxious heat pooled low in his belly.

But he knew he wasn’t ready, yet. Laurent hadn’t been with another man since, well, since Torveld. He hadn’t been with another man since starting his transition. And as much as his body was practically screaming at him, yes, yes please, that same body felt constricted and tight and too much all of a sudden, just thinking about it. What would Damen think.

“I’m actually getting a little tired, to be honest.” He forced his voice to be smooth and calm, knowing it wanted to shake.

“Oh, okay.” Damen took another drink of his beer. “Um, are you wanting to go home?” He asked with sincerity. Laurent felt awful and guilty.

“No, no, you’re having a good time. Go hang out with Nik. I’ll just go find somewhere quiet to sit.”

“No, we can go. I’m fine, seriously. I don’t know any of these people except for Nik, anyway. And he seems to be pretty busy doing shots with Makedon.”

Whatever had been building between them went cold and distant. Maybe that’s all Damen had wanted, Laurent thought dejectedly. And if not, would Damen wait? And then there was the fact that they only had a few months before they went their separate ways. How could Damen have wanted anything other than sex knowing there was no way it could seriously go beyond that.

After they made a final lap around the party so that Damen could say goodbye to Nik, Laurent drove Damen home. Neither of them said a word the whole way, and Laurent turned on the radio so that the silence wasn’t so deafening. After what seemed like an eternity, Laurent pulled into Damen’s driveway.

Damen turned in his seat towards Laurent. The car was dark and the air was stifling. “Hey, thanks for coming with me tonight. I had a lot of fun spending time with you again.” He gave Laurent a small smile, and his dimple appeared. Laurent must have gargantuan self-restraint to keep from melting.

So, he choked out, “yes, thank you for inviting me.”

The moment hung heavy between them, full of anticipation.

Then Damen looked at Laurent’s lips, and, after a moment that stretched out for hours, began to lean over into Laurent’s space across the car.

Damen , Laurent’s traitorous heart thumped in his chest.

Damen got so close to Laurent that he could feel his breath feathering on his face. Laurent couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. Laurent could count the eyelashes framing Damen’s gorgeous brown eyes, which went out of view as Damen’s lids lowered. Damen’s lips parted, just barely. Laurent’s heart was beating so wildly he was sure Damen could hear it.

Laurent, ” Damen whispered, almost against his lips. But before Damen could close the gap between them, Laurent turned his head and leaned away.

Damen immediately moved back and looked forward through the windshield. “I’m sorry,” Damen said. “I thought--I must have assumed--I should have asked first.”

“No, it’s.” Laurent swallowed, his throat feeling thick. “It’s okay.” Laurent looked down at his lap. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea for us to get involved. You have your fellowship, and I have my writing program. We’ll be at completely different campuses across the country.” He looked back at Damen. “And I don’t--I don’t want to get physical without this being serious.”

Damen looked embarrassed, but not angry, which made Laurent feel less shitty. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Damen gave him another smile. “I’d still like to get that coffee with you though, as friends, if you want.”

“As friends?” Would that be enough for either of them?

“Yeah, as friends. I honestly really liked spending time with you.” Laurent couldn’t believe it. He was sure that Damen would jump ship, but he was quickly learning that Damen defied his expectations.

“Okay. Um, just text me when you want to hang out again.” Laurent wasn’t sure where to look: at Damen, through the window, at his lap.

“Sure, that sounds great. Well, I’ll, uh, I’ll see you later, Laurent.”

Damen got out of the car with no further comment, and Laurent couldn’t place how he felt. He waited until Damen was inside before driving away.

What had he been thinking agreeing to go to this party. What had he been thinking saying no.

What had he been thinking.



When Damen got inside, Kastor was watching something about WWII.

“Hey, how’d it go?” Kastor said, not looking away from the TV.

Damen just said “fine” and headed up to his room. He closed the door and fell onto his bed. What had happened? He was so sure Laurent was into him. The party had been awkward, but in a nice way, a way that felt like they both cared what the other thought of them, desperate not to screw it up. He shouldn’t have come on to Laurent so soon. As soon as he had said he, he regretted it, and regretted having more than just a few beers. Laurent must think so little of him, and Damen couldn’t blame him.

And he didn’t know why this rejection hurt so much. He had been rejected dozens of times. But he had wanted Laurent so badly. And not just physically, though he obviously couldn’t deny how much he already wanted him that way. When he had tried to kiss Laurent, he felt weak and out of control the closer he got to his lips, and he hadn’t been able to stop himself from whispering Laurent’s name. Damen had felt so right , as if their lips would touch and every single thing in his life would suddenly fall into place.

But Laurent had said no, and honestly, for a good reason. He wanted more from Laurent than just a fling, and he knew that Laurent deserved more. Damen knew it couldn’t work.

If only they had the time.

Damen could imagine it:

If they had time, Damen would give Laurent the whole world. He would let their relationship develop slowly, naturally, morphing from friends to lovers as if it were an inevitable conclusion. They would get coffee and go to movies and take walks until the time spent together became second nature. Damen would kiss Laurent, as easy as breathing. And Laurent would kiss back, melting under his touch. They would touch, more intimately each time, until finally Damen would press Laurent down into his sheets, shivering under him. They would come apart together, and the whole world would shift. And Damen would make sure it didn’t shift back for as long as possible.

Damen went to sleep that night, and he felt an emptiness he had never felt before.

The next day, he and Kastor were having dinner when the doorbell sounded through the house.

“I’ll get it,” Damen said as he got up from the table. When he opened the front door, two men in suits were standing there.

“Are you Kastor Akielos?” one of the men said.

“No, I’m his brother Damianos. Who are you?”

“We’re representatives of the IRS, and we need to speak with Mr. Akielos.”

Kastor must have heard and he stepped beside Damen at the door.

“Good evening, gentlemen. If you haven’t noticed, my brother and I are trying to have dinner. Surely this can wait another time?” Damen could hear the anger in Kastor’s voice.

“Our apologies, Mr. Akielos. We can see that we’ve caught you at a bad time. You can expect us to get in further contact with you tomorrow.” One man took out a business card and held it out to Kastor.

Kastor slammed the door in their faces.

Damen was shocked and confused. “Kastor, what was that about?”

“It must be some mistake or scam. The IRS always mails you, first.”

They went back to the dining room to finish dinner, but Kastor didn’t meet Damen’s eyes for the rest of the evening.

 

When Monday finally rolled around, Damen decided to help Kastor out at the retirement home. Their father had started it, and Kastor had taken over when their father died so that Damen could finish pre-med. They were currently both in one of the kitchens, helping the staff with dishes after lunch.

“So,” Kastor said after the staff left the kitchen to start sending tea to each of the rooms, “how did your date go Saturday night?”

Damen took two dish towels and threw one to his brother and they dried their hands and arms. He let out a loud sigh as he began talking, leaning against a dry spot on the counter.

“You know, I thought it was going great. We were making each other laugh a lot. But then, I don’t know. I guess I had one too many PBRs and,” Damen brought his hands up to his face and dragged them down, “I asked him back to the house like an idiot. He said no, but I still tried to kiss him in the car when he brought me back.”

Kastor bit back a laugh. “Damen, I coulda told you you weren’t getting in his pants that night.”

“I hadn’t even wanted to!”

Kastor shot him a look.

“I mean, okay. How could I not want to fuck him. But I didn’t want to try that night. He’s just...I honestly can’t explain.”

“It’s just a silly crush.” Kastor moved over to him and lightly punched his shoulder. “Just man up. I’ll take you out this weekend and we’ll find someone to take your mind off him. Besides, it’s probably for the best anyway. You’re leaving in a few months and you have enough broken hearts in your wake.”

Damen stepped away from the counter and finally took off his apron, hanging it on the hook near the sink. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’ll see how I’m feeling this weekend, but I guess I should be getting it all out of my system before med school.”

“Atta boy.” Kastor hung up his apron and clapped Damen on the shoulder. “C’mon. We have a movie night to set up.”

As Damen helped Kastor set up the common area for the movie night, Laurent kept invading his thoughts. Laurent had agreed to get coffee, even though they were keeping it strictly platonic. Would he want Damen to wait before getting ahold of him? If Damen waited too long, would it be too late?

But he figured it would be nice to at least let Laurent know he had a good time, so he sent him a text saying just that, and that he was free for coffee whenever Laurent wanted to go. He put his phone on silent and sat down with the residents of the home while they watched a movie, trying to think of anything but the phone burning a hole in his pocket.


“hey! how r u doing? just letting u know i had a good time and i’m looking forward to getting coffee whenever u want :) “

Laurent stared at the text message. He and Jord were on their couch watching a documentary on Netflix while Orlant was in his room with yet another of his girls. Laurent was always so confused as to how Orlant got so many women to come home with him, looking the way he did.

“Damen just texted me.”

Jord looked over at him.

“Didn’t you cold shoulder him, though?”

Laurent was slapping his phone against his thigh and biting nervously at his lip. “I did. But he said he had a good time and still wants to get coffee, even after I basically friend-zoned him in the car.”

Jord chuckled. “Damn, he’s got it bad.”

“Well he’s an idiot, then.”

But Laurent saw Jord smile when started typing out a message.

“Hi! I’m fine, just watching a movie with my roommate. I could be up for coffee tomorrow. Make it a light lunch?”

Laurent sent the text. He wanted to throw his phone. He had turned Damen down, so why was he doing this to himself, to Damen? Why couldn’t he just let it die down naturally?

“sure. i really like halvik’s cafe downtown. meet you there?”

“Yeah. Meet you there at noon. See ya.”

What the fuck was Laurent doing.

 

After arguing with himself over whether or not he should text Damen and call the whole thing off, Laurent finally left the apartment and headed towards the cafe. Downtown was only about a mile from his house, so he gave himself plenty of time to have a leisurely walk. It was hot, and his binder made it feel even hotter, but he was wearing a thin cotton long-sleeve shirt and a sunhat to help combat the heat. Laurent enjoyed this time to himself, and he would make short voice memos on his phone when he saw a particularly beautiful tree or something else that he might want to use in a poem. His phone was full of these recordings; nature was one of his favorite subjects for poetry, especially the way the light freckled through the leaves of the trees that lined his street. By the time he got to downtown, he had a few minutes of possible lines, possible metaphors and symbols, ready to be written and shaped.

Laurent steeled himself as he walked into the cafe. He had purposefully shown up early, to give himself time to prepare and collect himself, but it seemed that Damen had had the exact same idea, as he was currently sitting at a table flipping through his phone. He looked up as Laurent came in.

“Hi, Damen. I’m sorry if I kept you waiting. Did I remember the time wrong?” Laurent sat down in the chair opposite Damen and hung his messenger bag over the back of the chair.

“No! No.” Damen put his phone in his pocket and brushed his curly hair back. Laurent so badly wanted to twirl one of the curls in his fingers. “I was around and thought I would get out of the heat.” Damen’s face was a little shiny, Laurent noticed. “Aren’t you hot wearing that?”

Laurent shrugged. “I’ve dressed like this for years, so I’m used to it at this point.” He took his hat off and tucked it under his seat. “Are you ready to order?”

“Oh! Yeah. I’ll come up to the counter with you.”

Laurent had Damen order first before getting a panini and chai for himself. Damen took his turkey sandwich and iced coffee back to their table. He took a sip, letting out a satisfied aaah , before asking Laurent, “how can you drink something so warm in the summer?”

“It seems I am made of sterner stuff than you, Damianos. Maybe I’m a cold blooded snake and need the external warmth.”

Damen laughed, and Laurent laughed back.

And then, miraculously, they fell into easy conversation. It was...nice. Laurent realized that he really liked talking with Damen, that Damen was smart and funny and interesting, and was actually interested in what Laurent had to say. Laurent felt himself opening to Damen, blooming like one of those flowers that only opens every ten years or so. They talked about Laurent’s poetry, about Damen’s love for romantic comedies, about dumb shit they had done in high school, about their hobbies.

“Woah, I didn’t know you rode horses!”

Laurent took a drink of his chai. “Yeah, Auguste and I have since we were kids. Our parents knew the owners of the local club.”

“That’s really cool. I’ve always wanted to learn, but never had the opportunity.”

Laurent set his cup down on the table, cupping it so hard his knuckles were turning white. He could...but no, that would lead Damen on, wouldn’t it?

Fuck it.

He looked up and into Damen’s eyes. His eyes…

“I could give you lessons, if you wanted.”

Damen beamed. Laurent wanted to be the cause of those smiles forever. But no, they had to stay friends.

Right?

“Really? That sounds fun.”

“It’s been a few months. You know, busy with my final semester and my portfolio for the Arles writing program. But I bet you’re a quick learner, even if we do have to find some mutated giant of a horse to fit your size.” Laurent teased, because he noticed quickly that Damen liked it. When had he started doing things because he knew Damen liked them?

“Well, I bet you’re a good teacher,” Damen said as he looked down at his hands.

Laurent blushed.

“I will need to talk to the stable owners about the horse, but we could start this upcoming weekend if you want.”

“Sure, that sounds great. Will I meet you there or?”

“Oh, I can drive us if you want. It’s a little out of the way.”

“Cool, cool. Just text me when you know more specifics?”

“Yeah, no problem.” Laurent made a memo in his phone, saying out loud “Get back to Damen with specifics.”

Damen tilted his head to the side, giving Laurent a questioning look.

“Sorry,” Laurent said, putting his phone back in his pocket. “I record all my ideas for poems like that, so it’s one of the only things I look at regularly.”

Damen leaned forward, putting his elbows on the table. “Yeah? What are some ideas you have in there now.”

“Um, well, I like that thing the light does when it filters through leaves. It’s an interesting visual, and I have this whole sonnet cycle exploring what I can do symbolically with that visual. So it’s mostly different ideas I have about that as I’m walking down my street.”

Damen put his chin in his hand. “I would love to read them, sometime, if that’s okay.”

Laurent had to look anywhere else for a moment. “Most of them are still rough, but I have a few in my notebook that aren’t too horrible.”

Laurent reached into his bag and grabbed his black notebook. He flipped to an earlier page and started reading out loud. He was comfortable sharing his writing with others, frequenting local open mic nights. But he suddenly felt very self-conscious, and very exposed, reading his writing to Damen. Every few words, he would look up and see Damen staring at him with rapt attention. When he got to the turn and finished, Laurent paused a moment before closing the notebook and putting it back in his bag. He brushed his hair behind his right ear, worried that his face was beet red.

“Wow. That was really good. I have no idea what any of it meant, but it was beautiful, and I think I felt what it meant even if I didn’t understand it,” Damen said a little quieter than his usual rich boom.

Laurent nodded. “Sonnets tend to be more explicit, but I like playing with the form and making it vague. I want them to be felt rather than understood.” He smiled at Damen. “So I’m glad it worked.”

Damen smiled at him. Again.

Laurent noticed that they had long ago finished their lunches and were nursing empty cups.

“Do you want me to grab you more coffee?” Laurent offered.

“No, no. I should probably get going. It’s bingo night at the retirement home and Kastor wants help getting everything set up.” Damen stood up to leave. “I’m looking forward to this weekend, and if you wanna hang out or talk in the meantime, you have my number.”

Laurent stood up and slung his bag over his shoulder before taking their plates and cups over to the bin. He walked with Damen to the door and they stepped out into the afternoon heat.

They stood there for a moment.

He wanted to kiss Damen.

He couldn’t kiss Damen.

He had no idea what to do, instead.

Laurent decided, impulsively, to stick out his hand for a shake. “I had a nice time. Thanks for indulging me.”

Damen looked at his hand and blinked. “Yeah, me too. Thank you.”

When Damen took his hand in his, Laurent felt fireworks. He knew that Damen’s hand was warm and gentle, but he had only felt it through his shirt.

Now, skin to skin…

Laurent was aware of every pore, and line, every soft hair, of both his hand and Damen’s. Damen squeezed his hand when he shook it, and his grip was strong, firm, but controlled so that he didn’t crush Laurent’s hand. Laurent’s mind was fixed on the areas where nothing separated their skin, supplying him with thoughts of how those hands would feel elsewhere.

And then Laurent realized that he was still holding Damen’s hand. He dropped it like a hot iron.

“Right. I’ll, uh, I’ll see you later Damen.” He offered him a small smile before walking away back home.

When Laurent got home, both Jord and Orlant were gone. He was thankful, because he went straight to his room and collapsed on his bed, running his hands over his face and groaning.

“I am so fucked ,” he said out loud.



Damen stopped home so that he could shower before heading to the retirement home. He got in the shower and let the water run cool but not too cold. He stood under the stream, letting the water flow over his skin, which felt like it was on fire. Damen’s body was buzzing, and he had to lean forward with his hands against the wall to steady himself.

“I am so fucked ,” he said out loud.

 

During that week, Damen and Laurent texted each other, but they didn’t meet up until Laurent picked him up for his first lesson in horse riding. Thankfully, this car ride was far less awkward than the ones to and from the party. They talked some, but mostly, they just sat in comfortable silence as an 80s station played new wave on the radio.

“Oh man, I love this song!” Damen said emphatically, turning up the dial. He started to sing along, even making dramatic hand gestures, while Laurent started laughing so hard that he had to pull the car over. Damen took the opportunity and got out of the car. They were out in the middle of nowhere, so he knew he wouldn’t embarrass Laurent when he got out and started doing an air-guitar solo. Laurent was laughing so hard he was crying.

“Oh my god, you’re such an idiot.” Laurent said. “Stop, please. My stomach hurts, and I need it not to hurt to ride.”

Damen threw himself back into the passenger seat and buckled up. Laurent was flushed and there was still a grin on his face.

Damen realized that he liked making Laurent smile like that. He wanted to do it again, and again. But as friends, right? That’s what Laurent had wanted.

They drove the rest of the way singing together with the windows rolled down. Damen noticed that Laurent’s voice cracked as he tried to sing higher, and he saw that it flustered Laurent, who then only sang lower and quieter the rest of the way.

When they got to the stables, Damen was in awe. Laurent had mentioned that it was out of the way, but he hadn’t mentioned it being so idyllic.

“Wow, this place is really something,” he said getting out of the car and taking it all in. The air was quiet and heavy and he could hear the soft buzzing of insects, the breeze dancing through the wildflowers.

“It is, isn’t it?” Laurent was standing beside him. “This is probably my favorite place in the world.” Damen looked down at him and smiled.

“Well, I am the pupil, and you are the master. Show me your wise tutelage, oh sage one.”

Laurent snorted. “Okay, don’t get too ahead of yourself there.” He started walking toward the stable with the horses. “Follow me, let’s get you your horse.”

The horse Laurent took him to was huge. It had dark hair covering its body, making it look like a black hole.

“This is Samson. Samson, this is Damen,” Laurent said, stroking the horse’s snout. “You can touch him, he won’t bite.”

“Hi, Samson,” Damen said as he ran his hand over the slick hair of the beast’s nose. “My name is Damen.” Samson nuzzled his nose and mouth into Damen’s hand.

“He likes you. Here, give him this.” Laurent reached into his bag and pulled out an apple, handing it to Damen. Samson quickly bit the apple out of Damen’s hand.

“That’s a good boy,” Laurent said to Samson, softly, running his hair through his mane.

Damen felt like he was intruding on something deeply intimate and private. Laurent treated the horses like they were his family, his closest companions. He must have spent his whole life with these animals.

After he had time to get used to his horse, Laurent showed him how to mount and dismount, how to sit in the saddle, how to hold the reins. He had to repeat himself a few times, as Damen was distracted by the sight of Laurent on a horse, his legs strong and tight around its body, his seat perfect, his back straight and poised.

They spent hours going through the basic gaits, walking and trotting, slowing the horse down and speeding it up. After Damen felt like he had the hang of it, they walked their horses around the land, talking as they did so.

The afternoon light was filtering through the trees, like Laurent liked, Damen realized, as he saw Laurent tilt his head back and hum, smiling. Damen’s heart seized in his chest.

“In all my poems, I have never been able to capture how it feels to be out here.”

“I think I understand what you mean,” Damen said. And he knew that this, whatever they had, would never be enough.

 

That’s how they continued through the rest of May. Damen helped Kastor at the retirement home, and he tried to hang out with Nik when he wasn’t at the shop. Laurent continued to watch Nicaise and spend as much time with Auguste as he could. Jord and Orlant left a couple of weeks after graduation so that they could get an apartment lined up, and Laurent was planning to join them at the beginning of August.

And every weekend, Laurent gave Damen riding lessons. Laurent was right, Damen was a fast learner, and after those few weeks, they mostly spent their time on the horses walking through the forests and fields on the property.

Once, when Damen got comfortable enough, Laurent looked over at him with an impish grin, saying “race you” before spurring his horse on with his legs, galloping with fury and grace. Damen had to force himself not to stare so openly at the sight before kicking his own horse into a gallop. Laurent thought that Damen looked like a mythical figure, maybe a king at war, on that horse. He didn’t know when the anxiety in his stomach had stopped making him feel ill every time Damen smiled, because now he felt nothing but calm and peace and warmth.

 

May finally turned to June. They were done riding for the day, and Laurent was helping Damen brush Samson, checking his legs and hooves. They were both quiet, the only sounds being their breaths, the occasional huffs from Samson, and the insects outside coming out at dusk.

Laurent stood up and kissed Samson’s face, scratching him behind the ears. “Thank you again, Samson, for your valiant efforts,” he said, feeding him a carrot.

He saw Damen stand up and start petting Samson’s nose.

Their eyes met.

Damen’s hand moved, every so slowly, to meet Laurent’s, their fingertips brushing together.

They had touched more, over the weeks, when Laurent needed to adjust his seat or the way he held the reins.

So why did he gasp at this touch.

Why did his breath stop as Damen moved around the horse to stand in front of him.

Why was his heart beating its way out of his chest as Damen stared at him with so much heat.

Why did he allow Damen’s name to escape from his lips with a sigh.

And why did time stop when Damen leaned down, taking Laurent’s jaw in his hand, and kissed him, chasteley, their lips barely brushing.

The kiss ended as quickly as it began. Damen was still cupping Laurent’s face, his thumb rubbing over the soft skin of his cheek. Laurent’s eyes dropped to Damen’s mouth, and he surged up, wrapping one hand behind Damen’s neck, claiming Damen’s mouth with his. Damen moaned, and Laurent realized he never wanted to hear another sound ever again.

 

And Laurent made sure, for the rest of June, that he got that sound out of Damen as much as possible. He didn’t know how he had denied himself the pleasure of Damen’s lips for as long as he had (was it only a month?). In that first hesitant week, full of new possibility, they discussed the logistics of what was happening between them. Although their campuses were across the country, they were still within driving distance. If this lasted through the summer, they agreed to spend weekends alternating who visited whom.

After, the burgeoning energy and thrill kicked in. Damen spent more and more time over at Laurent’s apartment. They watched movies. Laurent read poems to Damen, bouncing ideas off him as he wrote. They kissed, melting together as if it were a crime to ever come up for air.

Laurent had never been happier, he thought. Just thinking about Damen caused the goofiest smile to form on his face. For the first time in his life, he realized that he was alone in his bed, and that he didn’t want to be. Sometimes, he and Damen would nap together, the first time making sparks dance across his skin when he felt Damen’s weight settle behind him. And eventually he asked Damen to stay over, every so often. Laurent had never slept better, and when he would wake up with Damen’s arm around his waist, his happiness lighted up his whole body.

Then, as July grew nearer, they both got restless. When they kissed, Laurent was aware of how Damen’s body reacted, and he was aware of the reaction of his own. Hands wandered, mouths wandered; Damen discovered that Laurent became a pliant wreck just from being kissed on the neck. But one day, Damen’s hands wandered too far. Laurent gasped and stiffened when he felt Damen’s hand on his chest.

“Damen, no.”

Damen shot back.

“I’m sorry. Was that too far? Fuck, I’m really bad about asking before I spring that stuff on you.”

Laurent was trying to calm his breathing down.

“No, it wasn’t too far.” He sat up and collected himself. “Damen, I need to tell you something.” Laurent looked over at Damen, who looked a little confused.

“I...Damen, I’m trans.” Damen’s eyes widened. “I know you’re bi so you theoretically shouldn’t have any problems with...what I have, but I promise you it’s different and I’m sorry it took me this long to tell you and I understand if it’s a deal breaker and--”

Before he could finish, Damen was kissing him. “Okay,” Damen said as he brought their foreheads together. “What should I know, about…” He trailed off.

Laurent brought his face down to Damen’s shoulder, and gave it quick kiss. “You can touch me everywhere except, you know, those areas right now.” He brought his hand to Damen’s stomach above his belt. “But I would really like to touch you, if you want.”

Laurent ,” Damen moaned, and they fell back onto his mattress and didn’t leave for the rest of the day, or night, or morning.

 

For the next couple of weeks, their intimacy grew as Laurent learned Damen’s body, and Laurent slowly let Damen know his. He still wouldn’t let Damen touch him there, but they had reached the point where they could both be mostly naked in front of one another, and a few times Laurent managed to bring himself off under the covers while Damen kissed him. He couldn’t always finish, just from nerves and dysphoria, but he still felt safe and comfortable with Damen’s arms holding him. The first time he managed it, he and Damen looked at each other for a moment before Laurent laughed, tired and joyful, climbing on top of Damen and kissing him senseless.

Laurent never thought he would have this. He had been on hormones for a few years at this point, but his body was not what most wanted when they were with a man.

And yet.

Here was Damen, kind, sweet Damen. This absolute god of a man, who treated him with delicacy and care and reverence. Laurent never once doubted that Damen saw him as a man, never thought that Damen was uncomfortable with his body, even if Laurent was.

He wanted so badly to be with Damen, to have him fully and completely, but each time they got intimate, the walls went up and they kept to what they had been doing. Damen assured him that it was fine, that he loved sharing anything with Laurent, but even to Laurent it didn’t feel like enough. He wanted Damen, but he wasn’t sure how.



The fourth of July drew close, and Damen was over at Laurent’s for the weekend. Things were getting busy at the retirement home in preparation for the holiday, and Damen was allowing himself one indulgent weekend before he knew he would have to go into overdrive helping Kastor.

Damen and Laurent were eating pizza and watching a movie in Laurent’s bedroom. The movie was terrible, and they were both making comments and laughing. They eventually shifted, gradually, so that they were touching and leaning on one another. Damen ran his hand over Laurent’s thigh, and turned to kiss him. They kissed and kissed and kissed, Damen feeling lighter with each press of Laurent’s lips. If he had the choice, Damen thought, he would spend eternity kissing Laurent. Then Laurent rested his head on Damen’s chest, and Damen’s heart stopped beating when Laurent’s hand moved over his stomach.

“Damen, I...I’m ready.” Laurent kissed Damen’s chest through his shirt as his fingers skated underneath the hem. “I want you,” he whispered, looking up at Damen.

Damen took Laurent’s face in his hands, then, and gave him the lightest of kisses. “Laurent, are you sure?” He peppered kisses over his cheeks, his eyelids, his forehead. “I want you, too. I want you so much.” Laurent’s breath was coming quick and shallow.

Laurent kissed him, fiercely, fisting his hands in Damen’s shirt. And then he took Laurent in his arms, never wanting to let go again. Damen wanted to touch him everywhere, wanted to make his body sing, but he pulled back when he got the urge to let his hands roam.

“Laurent, how do you--uh, where can I touch you?” Damen had this conversation with every lover, but he had never been with someone like Laurent. He was so afraid of hurting him, of making him feel different and out of place and wrong.

Laurent looked nervous, almost a little sad. “I,” he swallowed, “I still don’t want you touching my chest at all, but you can touch me down there until my packer comes off.”

Damen kissed him and lowered him down onto the mattress. “Of course.” He placed his hand on the firm place in Laurent’s lap where his packer was, eliciting a sharp gasp. “And you can touch me everywhere. I want you to.” He kissed at Laurent’s neck, drowning in the smell of his sandalwood cologne. “I want to make your body feel good with mine.”

Laurent stiffened under him. “Actually, Damen. I want…” Laurent kissed him and ran his hands over his ass. “I would feel more comfortable topping. If that’s okay.”

Damen had experimented with lovers before, but beyond his own use of toys, he had never been taken by anyone. It wasn’t his first choice, or his natural instinct, but he wanted to try for Laurent.

“Sure, we can try. I’ve never...you would be my first,” he admitted, hoping he didn’t sound nervous.

“I haven’t, either.” Laurent got out from under Damen and went to rummage in his dresser. “I actually haven’t done anything with anybody since before transitioning.” Laurent pulled out a harness with a dildo already in, and Damen saw Laurent’s hands shaking. “In any way that matters, you’re mine, too.”

Damen hadn’t known, and he felt his heart bursting with the knowledge that Laurent felt comfortable enough to share this with him.

When Laurent joined him in bed, they moved slowly, kissing and touching, each moaning and gasping softly. Eventually, they were both naked except for the dark shirt Laurent left on since he wasn’t binding, and the harness. Damen had seen Laurent this undressed before, but the sight still took his breath away. Laurent was a beautiful man, his hips narrow, his thighs and ass thick but lean from the horse riding, his stomach taught and covered with soft, blond hair.

“Laurent,” Damen said between kisses, “touch me.” And Laurent did, pleasuring him with his hands and slowly working him open with his long slender fingers. They were breathing heavy into each other’s mouths, and Damen’s legs were trembling as he writhed on the mattress. The way Laurent looked at him was like a man seeing land after months at sea, as if he couldn’t believe it was happening. Damen looked back as he touched Laurent’s hand and guided him out. He nodded at Laurent, and Laurent nodded back.

“Can I...will you like it if I blow you?” The dildo Laurent had was slim and curved, and Damen thought it was beautiful and suited Laurent perfectly. He wanted to show Laurent that he loved that part of his body. Laurent nodded, biting his lip, and Damen took him into his mouth. It tasted, well, like silicone, and he wasn’t sure what to do to make it good for Laurent. He moaned and looked Laurent in the eyes as he lavished him, and Laurent’s cheeks and neck were flushed. They couldn’t look away from each other as Damen kissed the tip. Laurent was moving his hips, just to get some pressure and friction on himself.

“I’m so happy I’m doing this with you,” Damen said as he came up and moved to his back.

Laurent moved between his legs and kissed him. “I’m not sure what to do,” Laurent said, his voice quiet.

“Neither do I, from this position.” He kissed him again and again. “But we’ll figure it out.”

Laurent grabbed lube and put a generous amount on himself. He lowered himself down over Damen, and as they kissed, Damen felt Laurent thrusting against him, their bodies rocking together. Eventually Laurent sat up and lined himself up. Damen held his legs behind his knees to make it easier for Laurent as he pushed forward.

“Is this where I should--”

Damen hissed. “Ow! Uh...maybe further back?”

“Here, can you move your legs like this?” Laurent attempted to arrange him.

“I don’t think I’m flexible enough for that.”

After a few minutes of maneuvering, Laurent finally pushed inside. Damen gasped, stopping Laurent.

“Oh my god, are you okay? Did I hurt you?” Laurent tried to pull out, but Damen stopped him.

“No, I’m...just keep going.”

Laurent leaned down over Damen to kiss him before he started rocking his hips. But the angle was awkward, and he kept slipping out. Damen could see Laurent getting frustrated.

“Why don’t I get on top.” Damen sat up on his elbows and kissed Laurent. “That might make it easier.”

Damen flipped them and straddled Laurent’s hips. Damen worked down slowly, his rocks and thrusts shallow, until he had taken Laurent completely. It hurt, at first, and they had to stop a few times as Damen became comfortable. But pain soon turned into pleasure. Damen took Laurent’s face in his hands, and Laurent took his, and their eyes fell shut when Damen started moving.

“Damen, does it feel good?” Laurent said in a low, breathy whisper.

Damen kissed him. “It feels incredible.” He moaned as Laurent moved with him and hit that spot inside. “Does it feel good for you?”

“Yes.” Laurent took him in his hand and whispered against his lips, “but I wish I could feel you.”

Damen sat up and put his hands on Laurent’s stomach as his thrusts increased. The feeling of Laurent inside him was so much more overwhelming than he had expected. The sight of Laurent gazing up at him was overwhelming. Damen didn’t know how he had gotten so lucky to have this. He didn’t know how he was supposed to give this up at the end of summer, only to have it every weekend, if that.

Damen didn’t know falling in love would happen so effortlessly.

“Laurent,” he moaned, completely overtaken by his emotions.

“Damen,” Laurent said back, but his voice was shaking. Damen started feeling Laurent tense and tremble under him. With the increased speed, Laurent had started slipping out again, and he was looking frustrated and upset.

“Damen, I need you to get off.”

Damen did, quickly but carefully, and then Laurent was in his arms, holding him.

“I’m sorry,” Laurent said into Damen’s neck, and Damen felt Laurent softly crying.

Damen kissed him and rubbed his hands over his sides, trying to comfort him.

“Don’t be. It’s okay. It’s okay.” He laid them both down on the bed, facing each other. They held each other, Damen rubbing Laurent’s back and stroking his legs, his face, his arms, until Laurent looked calmer and not upset.

“Is there anything I can do?” He kissed Laurent’s forehead.

“I want to finish you with my hand.”

“What about you?”

“Um, after, will you spoon me while I…” Laurent trailed off.

“Of course, whatever you need.”

They kissed again, their mouths and tongues meeting with more intent as the kiss dragged on. Damen ground himself against Laurent’s length. He trailed kisses down until he was suckling at Laurent’s neck, biting when he felt Laurent take him into his hand. It wasn’t long until he was biting out Laurent’s name against his skin as he spilled between them.

Damen held Laurent as his breathing came down, nuzzling into him and whispering his name. Laurent rolled over in his arms. Damen could feel how tense Laurent was, so he kissed the nape of his neck. Laurent took Damen’s hand and placed it on the toy.

“You can touch me, like this, for a while.”

“Okay.”

Damen pumped his hand over the silicone slowly, making sure to apply more pressure on the downstroke so that it pressed into Laurent. Laurent’s hips started moving back into Damen, and they both moaned when Laurent backed into Damen’s half-hard arousal. They rocked like that for a while until Laurent removed Damen’s hand and, with a moment’s hesitance, shimmied out of the harness and pulled the covers up over them.

“What do you want me to do.”

“Can you talk to me?”

“What do you want me to say.”

Laurent was silent for a moment. He took a deep, shaky breath before he spoke again. “Tell me what it felt like to have me inside you.”

“Of course.” He moved his hand over Laurent’s flank. Laurent propped one leg up and moved his hand between.

Damen whispered into his ear as Laurent touched himself. “When you were inside me, I felt so full and stretched and complete. I never realized it could feel like that, would feel like that. I love the way you feel. Your cock is so smooth and perfect.” Laurent was starting to shake next to him. “And I was so tight around you.” Damen was getting lost in the memory and rubbed himself along the crease of Laurent’s ass. His words turned into utterances of Laurent’s name as he held Laurent in his arms, their bodies rocking together. Laurent’s body seized up as he came with a soft, choked cry. Damen was mesmerized by how angelic Laurent’s face looked in the throes of pleasure, his eyebrows bunched and his lips swollen and pink. As Laurent rode out the aftershocks, Damen held him and kissed him.

Damen reached over to grab some tissues off the nightstand to clean them both up. Laurent turned into him when they were done.

Damen trailed his fingers along Laurent’s cheek and brushed some hair behind his ears. “Are you okay?”

Laurent sighed and looked away, rolling over onto his back and staring up at the ceiling. “I...I wish that wasn’t a question you felt you needed to ask.”

“Oh.” Damen was trying to be so careful with Laurent, but he realized then that Laurent probably didn’t want to be treated too delicately. Laurent probably wanted to be treated like any other lover Damen had taken. “I’m sorry.” He propped himself up so that he could look at Laurent’s face. “I’m not sure what to say, except that it was good for me, and I hope it was good for you.”

Laurent gave him a long, searching look before leaning up to kiss him.

“Thank you,” Laurent whispered against his lips. He rolled over away from Damen and placed Damen’s arm around his waist. “It was...nice. But I don’t know if I want to do it like that again.”

Damen tightened his hold around Laurent and kissed the exposed skin he could reach. “That’s okay.”

Laurent got up to turn off the lights in the room and came back to the same position. When he spoke, his voice was quiet. “I had a boyfriend in high school before I came out. Torveld. He was really sweet, but he started getting frustrated when we got physical and I was hesitant. I wasn’t honest with myself, yet, about...all this, so I wasn’t sure why I didn’t want to, with him.” Damen was rubbing Laurent’s stomach, giving him constant contact, hoping to ground him. “He was pretty good looking, I guess.” Laurent sighed. “And one night, we were in his car making out, and he started touching my chest. It felt nice? But really disconnected. But he was obviously very into it and I had never...I didn’t like my body, and I was amazed that somebody else did. I wanted to keep going, so we did. But it hurt, really badly, and we couldn’t keep going for very long.” Laurent swallowed. “I had suspicions about myself, and what I thought about when alone, so, I had him try anal. But I felt so uncomfortable in my body that that didn’t feel good, either.” Laurent let out a shaky breath. “So I thought, maybe I just don’t like penetration, even though being with a man that way was what I wanted. And I wanted this so badly with you, Damen.”

Damen nuzzled into him, leaving open-mouthed kisses on his neck. Laurent turned over to face him.

“I thought maybe I would like it this way. And this was nice, too.” Laurent placed a hand on Damen’s chest, and Damen took it and held it close. “I love that I could do that to you. Share that with you. But I think I want to go back to before so I can figure out what I want, and how.” Laurent kissed him so softly that he almost didn’t feel it, except that it made his heart thump so hard in his chest he thought it stopped.

“Laurent, whatever you want. I want to make love to you, fuck you, however you want to call it, so badly I think it might kill me.” Damen breathed a soft laugh, and Laurent was breathing heavy again.

“Damen, I--” Laurent kissed him for the thousandth time. “Eventually.”

“Whenever you want.”

They held each other, their breaths slowing, holding hands and touching foreheads. If Laurent never wanted to touch again, he wasn’t sure he would be able to handle it, but he wanted whatever Laurent wanted. Damen wanted this to work so badly. Being with Laurent felt so right, even if tonight had been...not the best.

“Laurent,” Damen whispered.

“Hmm?”

“I...I think I love you.”

Laurent stiffened. “Oh.”

Shit .

“It’s...it’s okay if you don’t love me back. I just wanted you to know, no matter what happened tonight or how we go forward, that I do.” Damen was trying to save face. Shit. Fuck. Had he made Laurent even more uncomfortable?

“It’s not that I don’t. I don’t know.” Laurent rolled back over. “I’m just...I’m not sure what I’m feeling right now and this was a little overwhelming.” Laurent paused, and whispered, “I’m sorry.”

Damen kissed Laurent’s hair and breathed in his scent, sandalwood and vanilla and a little musky, after. “Don’t be. It’s okay.”

Despite Laurent in his arms, warm and comforting and so, so right, Damen was restless, and it was long after Laurent’s breathing shallowed and softened before Damen slipped under.

Chapter Text

“You did what?!

Damen stood resolute at Nikandros’s exasperation, leaning against the wall of the garage. They were at Nik’s place, and Nik was sliding out from under his car, covered in black grease.

“What? I just I told him I love him. It’s not a big deal.”

Nik got up and wiped the grease from his hands onto his coveralls. Realizing they were also covered in grease, he gave up the fruitless gesture. He talked as he grabbed a clean towel to wipe his hands and face. “Not normally, no. But you two have only been together what, a month? And you said it after sex? Sex that wasn’t even that good?

“Hey, first time stuff is always rough. Give me a break. There were other circumstances.”

“Which are?”

“Not my place to tell you.”

Nik gave him an oh come on stare. “Fine, fine. So what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I think I freaked him out. He’s been pretty closed off for a few days, despite my best efforts. Fuck!” Damen kicked the wall behind him. “God, Nik. I don’t want to lose him. He’s--”

“Different, right?”

“Hey--”

“And won’t hurt you, right? And this totally won’t distract you from school, right? You’ll be able to balance your work while trying to accommodate his every mood swing, right?”

“The thing with Jokaste was completely different and you know it.”

“Damen, if your girlfriend telling you she cheated on you after only having been together a few months made you almost fail a class she was in, then what do you think walking on eggshells around your boyfriend who will live across the country will make you do.”

Damen realized, with his heart sinking into his stomach, that Nikandros was right. Damen shouldn’t be with someone who was so volatile, so easy to upset. But he still felt like this time was an exception. Sex was involved. Intense feelings were involved. Laurent’s dysphoria was involved. Not every disagreement would be such a clusterfuck. Couples fought, got on each other’s nerves, upset each other. It happened.

He thought it was perfectly reasonable that Laurent would be distant after what happened. He probably would be, too. Laurent wasn’t made of stone, and Damen had seen him angry a few times now. Laurent had a contradiction of a mouth: he could be so sweet and loving, could joke with his friends and tease his brother, could kiss with the delicacy of a butterfly's wing, but that same mouth could vomit cold razor blades, cutting down a person without even raising his voice. He was never cruel, but Damen could tell that Laurent had the capability to be. Damen recalled a time at the stables when Laurent had snapped at him, quick as a viper, because Damen hadn’t secured his saddle correctly and could have hurt both the horse and himself. Any time Laurent lashed out, he had a good reason. From what Damen could tell, Laurent always had a good reason for everything he did.

“Nik, please trust me. I’m not an idiot.” Nikandros looked skeptical at that. “If I were Laurent, I would probably be a little distant right now, too. He’s not Jokaste. I’m not making that same mistake again.”

“Damen, I know. But I remember how bad it was last time.” Nik looked up, as if asking the heavens for more patience. “How is he different. What’s so different about him.”

“He’s…” Damen was about to say smart, but Jokaste was brilliant. “Well…” He was about to say funny, but they both had that dry, teasing sense of humor that Damen loved. He could say that Laurent pushed back against him, held up to his personality, but Jokaste could too. They were both cold to most and warm to Damen. But…

“He’s true.” Damen paused, gathering his thoughts.

Nik began to interrupt him. “He’s true? Damen who the fuck talks like that--”

“Would you just listen to me! Sure, he might have a million different reasons for doing something. It makes my head spin trying to keep up with him sometimes. And you might think he acts like a different person around me. But he never does any of that just to fuck with people, at least not in a harmful way.” Damen laughed, remembering. “We were at the state fair two weeks ago, and we saw this little girl crying, alone. After we figured out that she had lost her big brother in the crowd, we walked her to a meeting point.” He couldn’t stop the smile when he looked at Nikandros. “He showed her little magic tricks to cheer her up while we waited.” Nik actually looked surprised. “Jokaste would never have done something like that. I swear, sometimes I think Jokaste was with me just to see how much fun she could have toying with me before she got bored.”

“Damen, you thought all that about Jo while you were together, too. You didn’t see her for what she was until after.”

“Yeah but I never felt settled around her. Was never sure how she felt. When she left me, I wasn’t even that surprised deep down.”

“And you feel secure with Laurent?”

“I--” Shit. Damen felt defeated. “I did until this.” And that was the truth. Damen had no reason to doubt Laurent’s feelings. Hell, he knew Laurent wouldn’t fake for him, or else he would have told Damen he loved him, too. But now he could feel that the foundation he thought was so solid might be made of sand.

Damen slid down onto the floor of the garage, hands on his knees. “Nik it’s only been a month, and this isn’t even that serious.”

Nik sighed, then sat down next to Damen. “You got a point there.” He threw his arm around Damen’s neck. “I’m just worried about you, bro. I don’t wanna see you get hurt again.”

“I know dude.” Damen gave him a shy smile. “What do you think I should do to fix this?”

“Have you tried talking to him?”

“No, I was gonna let him come to me. Give him space. It seemed like he needed it.”

Nik started laughing. “God you can be such a idiot sometimes.”

“You’re the one who’s friends with me.”

“Somebody has to keep your ass in check.”

“Well you’re sure doing a great job.”

Nik shot him a half-hearted pointed look, obviously enjoying the banter. “Giving him space is one thing. Ignoring him and the problem and making it a whole lot worse is another.”

“I know you’re right.” Damen sighed. “I just don’t know how to go about it. I don’t wanna make him feel crowded. Trust me, I know this wasn’t a huge deal, and normally this wouldn’t be so hard. But the circumstances are...special. And no, I’m still not telling you what those circumstances are.”

“Maybe give it a few days? Make sure it’s in a place where he’s comfortable, where he’s happy.”

“Man, you’d think I’ve never been in a relationship before. That’s so obvious.”

“Nobody said you were the brains of any relationship you’ve been in, Damen.”

Damen punched Nik’s arm. “Jerk.” Nik laughed. “I could do it this weekend, when we’re riding. It’s sort of Laurent’s, I don’t know, zen place. I just hope I say the right thing and don’t fuck this up even more than I already have.”

“Well, Damen, I don’t know Laurent very well. But if he’s dating you, I think he knows to expect you tripping over yourself by this point.”

“Asshole.”

“Well, we know you love those.”

Nik yelped as Damen punched his arm again in the same place, making sure he did it with slightly more force.

 

Laurent sat in the grass, his back against Damen’s tree trunk of a chest. The small grove sheltered them as they rested, bodies and horses tired from a long morning of riding. The summer sun was less intense on his pale skin here in the shade, and the air coming in cool off the small pond nearby soothed the fires in their lungs. Laurent had his head back against Damen’s shoulder, the smell of Damen’s aftershave blending perfectly with the smell of the wildflowers and grass around them. Laurent felt like he was in Arcadian pastoral, innocent and sweet and idyllic. The rise and fall of Damen’s body behind him lulled him into a place of peace.

However, Laurent felt the unease, the tension, in Damen’s body, in the way Damen’s hands refused to rest or linger on his skin. Normally, when sitting like this, Damen would rub Laurent’s stomach, caress his thighs, squeeze him against him so tight that Laurent never wanted him to let go. Missing were the absent-minded traces of fingertips across Laurent’s forearms, gone were the nuzzles and kisses in Laurent’s hair and against his neck. Damen sat there, a pillowed statue.

Ever since that night, it had been different. Damen seemed nervous around Laurent. When they talked, Laurent could hear everything Damen wasn’t saying. It was like Damen was walking on eggshells. Damen hadn’t stayed over. When they hung out, their casual intimacy was gone. Damen hadn’t asked Laurent to read for him. When they made each other laugh, it rang hollow. When they kissed, Laurent felt how uncomfortable Damen was, that his mind was elsewhere. It was like they were going through the motions of a relationship without there being anything of substance behind those motions.

They hadn’t had any sort of sex since that night. Laurent didn’t want to anyway, but Damen hadn’t even offered or seemed interested. Damen usually couldn’t keep his hands off Laurent, sexual or otherwise. He appreciated the space, of course, but instead of this feeling respectful, it felt unnatural. It’s not that they had sex every day, but once they had become intimate, they rarely went more than a few days without it. And now it had been a week of Damen being skittish and Laurent not knowing what to do or say to fix it. That wasn’t true. He knew exactly what he should do, what he should say. Laurent should tell Damen he loved him, too, that he has never felt more alive or happy or safe than with him, that Damen makes his blood sing. He should tell Damen that he just got frustrated and overwhelmed that night, that Damen had done nothing wrong. But he was honestly still frustrated and overwhelmed, and he didn’t want this to get any bigger or worse than it was.

And what if the problem was bigger than that? Was it more than just Laurent not saying “I love you” back?

Laurent reached up and back to stroke Damen’s face and hair, turning his head to peck the corner of Damen’s mouth. Damen didn’t move.

“You seemed distracted on Samson today.” Laurent kept scratching his fingers against Damen’s scalp as they both basked with their heads back and eyes closed.

“Mm?”

“Mhmm. Your posture was all over the place.”

“Mm,” Damen answered noncommittally. “Long day yesterday with Kastor.”

“Yeah? What’s been going on.”

“Not much. Some IRS stuff. He did his tax returns wrong last year or something.”

Silence. Stillness. Damen was never this closed off, especially not with Laurent. Damen was one of the most over-sharing people Laurent had ever met. That would normally annoy the hell out of him, but in Damen, he loved it more than he ever thought possible. It was easily one of Laurent’s favorite things about Damen. Damen was open, warm, so excited about his life that he wanted the world to know all about it. That he wanted to share that with Laurent, that excitement, well. Laurent understood now why even something shared so widely could still feel so special. Even if it was just Damen talking about his day at the retirement home preparing an afternoon tea service, Laurent felt how much Damen cared.

Damen continued to be still, resting his arms on his bent knees. After what felt like an eternity, Laurent grabbed one of Damen’s arms and wrapped it around himself, sinking into the forced embrace. He could feel Damen’s breath hitch. Laurent kissed Damen’s arm where it crossed over his shoulder.

“Have I told you how much I love your arms?” Damen made a confused noise in response. Laurent rubbed his cheek against Damen’s exposed skin, Damen’s arm hair soft against Laurent’s face.

“I said, I love your arms. They’re nice.”

“...okay?”

“And that means you can hold me, Damen. Please.” Damen wrapped his arms around Laurent’s chest, but still not tight enough. Another moment that stretched on for hours. Finally, Laurent broke the silence.

“You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not ready to talk about it anymore than that, but none of it was you.” I just hope it wasn’t me, either.

Damen exhaled behind him.

“Okay,” Damen said slowly, carefully, “I was trying to find the right time to talk to you, anyway. Is there anything--”

“That’s all I want to say about it, for now.” Laurent fought to keep the anxiety from coming through in his voice. But then Damen finally melted behind him and relaxed into their lounged position. Laurent moaned at the first brush of Damen’s lips across the nape of his neck, desire pooling in his hips as those lips moved up his throat and under his jaw. Damen’s hands, roughened through use of the reigns, skirted under Laurent’s shirt to rest on his belly. Laurent giggled when Damen tickled the area under his bellybutton and scratched the trail of brown hair. He had taken touches like these for granted, he realized. Damen was free with his affection, true, but that didn’t make being the recipient any less precious. Laurent couldn’t believe that he ever let himself get used to this.

And then they were both laughing, Laurent from Damen’s touches on his stomach, Damen from Laurent’s reaction, and Laurent again from happiness. Laurent was laughing as he turned in Damen’s arms and straddled him, sitting down in Damen’s lap. He smiled as he felt Damen smiling against his lips, more laughs bubbling through like champagne. Laurent slowed down their kisses when he noticed Damen’s body reacting underneath him, Damen rubbing circles into Laurent’s hips with his thumbs. Laurent started when Damen suddenly shifted, sitting up more and wrapping his arms around Laurent’s back and up to the back of his head. Then Damen was scowling as the leaves shifted just so allowing a particularly bright ray of sun to blind him. Lauren’t couldn’t help himself and laughed so hard he had to lay back between Damen’s legs.

Damen leaned forward to fall over Laurent, his hands firmly planted on either side of Laurent’s face.

“I’d like to see you try to do foreplay with the sun in your eyes,” Damen said as he nuzzled his nose against Laurent’s.

“Foreplay? Oh, is that what you were attempting? How presumptuous.” Damen’s t-shirt was hanging off his stomach, riding up to expose the warm skin there. Laurent smoothed his hands over the tight muscles, ghosting his thumbs up and up until they were circling Damen’s nipples. Damen shivered above him, adjusting so that he could leave slow, wet kisses on Laurent’s throat. Laurent opened his eyes and saw the tranquility of the forest above them: birds huddled on branches, a bee lazing by, a single leaf detaching and falling down over them. Nature in one accord with them. This was right, him and Damen.

Laurent flipped them over, leaving one leg between Damen’s to press against him there.

“Please. We both know that if the sun got in my eyes, you’d think I looked like an angel and come in your pants like a teenager.” Laurent unbuttoned and unzipped Damen’s jeans as he talked.

Damen gasped and bit his shoulder, saying, “You’re not wrong,” as the world narrowed to just their touches.

 

After, they lounged on the edge of the pond, Damen’s shirt sacrificed to clean them. Laurent listened to the beating of Damen’s heart through his chest, watching drops of water dry in Damen’s chest and belly hair. Laurent thought it was a little funny: he was always so constantly aware of his own body, but Damen’s was so much more physical, so much more there, and yet he didn’t seem to be aware of it. Laurent probably thought that every time he was with Damen like this, but it didn’t stop it from being true.

Damen shivered next to him as the breeze sailed across their bodies, the air and water chill as day turned to night.

“We should probably start heading back,” Laurent said as he kissed Damen’s pec. “It’ll be late by the time we’re back in town.”

Damen wrapped his arms around Laurent and groaned. “But I’m so comfortable here.”

Laurent was, too. “Well I’m getting cold, and hungry, and you drove today.” He bit Damen’s nipple, before sitting up. “Get up.”

Laurent stopped when Damen grabbed his arm. Laurent turned back to look at Damen, still lying on the ground. Laurent’s heart sank when he saw how Damen was looking at him. Soft, a little in awe, a little scared. Damen moved his thumb back and forth over the thin skin of Laurent’s inner arm near his elbow.

“I love you. Is that okay to say?”

Laurent had to look away for a moment. That hurt. When he dared look back, Damen had the same expression, but he could see the sadness there, too. Laurent tried to convey everything he felt with his eyes, with his hand over Damen’s heart. The rhythm of Damen’s heartbeat felt more real than his own.

“Damen, I--”

“I know.” That damn dimple, Laurent thought when Damen crooked up the side of his mouth in a half-smile. Laurent looked back over the pond.

“Of course it’s okay.” Can’t you see on my face how you make me feel? Is this love? Why is it so hard to say? He searched Damen’s eyes, saw the emotion and love and passion in them, and was terrified.

 

“Hey, Auguste! I’m here!” Laurent shouted once he was through the door of Auguste’s house. It was Sunday morning, and they--Auguste, Nicaise, and him--were going to the park to fly kites.

“Laurent? Thank god you’re here. Could you come back to Nicaise’s room?”

“Of course, what is it?” Laurent said as he took off his shoes and walked to the back of the house. As he got to Nicaise’s room, he heard a hoarse “Lo Lo” from the bed.

“Yes, Nicaise, it’s Lo Lo. What’s wrong kiddo?” He put a hand to Nicaise’s forehead. It was clammy.

Auguste was sitting in a chair near the bed, measuring out some liquid medicine. “He got an upset stomach right after I texted you to come over, and spent the last fifteen minutes throwing up. Must be a bug going around or something. Sorry I didn’t text you but I had my hands full.”

Laurent sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed Nicaise’s stomach through the blankets. “No problem. I can hang out here and help out today as long as you need. I guess he’s at that age where he gets sick on a dime, huh.”

“Yeah. I remember you being worse at this age. You were like a poor Victorian street urchin.”

“What’s a street urchin?” Nicaise croaked, his voice weak and pathetic.

Laurent giggled. “I’ll make your dad watch Oliver Twist with you sometime, or maybe we’ll read A Christmas Carol together at Christmas. Would you like Lo Lo to read to you now?”

“Yeah. Peter Pan?”

Laurent smiled. “No problem, kiddo.”

Laurent grabbed the book from Nicaise’s bookshelf, got in bed, and sat with Nicaise “like a racecar,” as Nicaise always called it, Laurent’s back against the wall with his legs stretched out but slightly bent, and Nicaise sitting between them. Laurent’s mother used to read with him, like this, when he was sick. Laurent read with Nicaise for about an hour; Nicaise particularly liked Tinkerbell and always laughed when she was mean to Wendy. It made Laurent smile that Nicaise liked this, too. Laurent remembered his mother reading this to him, and how he immediately latched onto Peter, a boy who would never grow up. Sometimes he thought their family was just Lost Boys, now.

Eventually, Nicaise fell asleep. Laurent got up, tucked Nicaise in, and headed back to the living room where Auguste was making coffee, tea, and sandwiches.

“You’re so good with him,” Auguste said as he sat Laurent’s tea and sandwich down in front of him.

Laurent took a sip of his tea. “He reminds me a lot of myself as a kid. Plus, I get to be his cool uncle and not his boring uncool dad.” Auguste laughed at that, but said nothing in response, taking slow sips of his coffee and a bite of his sandwich here and there.

“Is everything alright, Laurent?” Auguste said after a while, not looking at Laurent.

“Huh?” Laurent looked up from his teacup, where he had been staring. “Yeah, sure. Why do you ask?”

“You seem...I don’t know. Tired? Spacey?”

“Oh. It’s nothing, really.”

“What is?”

Sighing, Laurent said, “You’re really not gonna let this drop, are you.”

“I’m your big brother.” Auguste sat back in his chair, legs spread and crossed, one ankle resting on the knee of the other leg.

“And I’m 21 years old.”

“And?”

Laurent rolled his eyes. “I’m an adult, in case you’ve forgotten.”

Auguste crossed his arms. “C’mon, Laurent. Quit being a smartass.”

“Fine.” Laurent sat his teacup down on its saucer with a clink. He ran his hands through his hair before dropping them down on his lap. Reluctantly, he started. “Something happened with Damen, but everything is okay and it’s not a big deal.”

Auguste sat up like a shot. “Did he hurt you? Do I need to go kill him?”

“What? Auguste, no. Damen would never hurt me. Not like that, and not on purpose.”

Auguste stared at Laurent for a moment, anxiously drumming his fingers on the table. “Did he...did he make you do anything you didn’t want to do.”

“No, never. It’s nothing like that. Just some boring awkward stuff and bad communication. I promise, it’s not a big deal. It was bound to happen eventually.”

Auguste paused, realization dawning in his eyes. “What did you mean, that he would never hurt you, not like that.”

“God, why are you so hung up on this?” Laurent spat out impatiently.

“Because you’ve never had a relationship before and you don’t know what you’re doing and I doubt you could see the red flags as they happened.”

“Oh wow, Auguste. Great to see you think so highly of me.”

“I’m serious. I was the same way, at your age. You get so blinded by everything, the love and sex and attention, that you sort of ignore anything wrong.”

Laurent was silent.

“That’s it, isn’t it.”

“What?”

“I don’t want to know details. But,” Auguste said, his voice heavy and frustrated, but laced with obvious care and worry, “he...did he respect you? Respect your boundaries? Did he...did he know beforehand?”

Laurent winced, dreading where this conversation was going, but knew his brother meant well, damn him. “Auguste I’m not an inexperienced child and I don’t need to be treated like I’m made out of porcelain--”

“Would you answer the goddamn question, Lo? Please?”

“Yes, he knew long before. I’m not a masochist.”

“And the other stuff?”

Softly, Laurent said, “Of course he did. He was perfect.” A beat. “That’s the problem.”

“I don’t understand.”

“He told me he loved me for the first time, after.” Laurent was worrying at the hem of shirt sleeve, picking at a loose thread in the stitching.

“And you don’t love him back.”

“I...I don’t know. I think I do. I don’t know what else to call this.” This not quite sinking in his stomach, this not quite flurry of butterflies, this warmth.

“And do you think he meant it?”

Did Laurent think Damen meant it? He thought of how Damen held him when he said it, how generous a lover he had been, how cherished he made Laurent feel. How, through being strangers to friends to lovers, he had been nothing but patient and kind, and supportive, and a million other cliched adjectives that all added up to one thing.

“I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life,” Laurent said, looking Auguste straight in the eyes.

Auguste smiled. “Then that’s a good thing, isn’t it?”

“Yes but...but what if this is all too much. I didn’t…” Laurent paused for a breath, “it wasn’t an amazing experience for me for obvious reasons and I freaked out, and there’s so much extra work he will have to put in for me and I’m not worth it. He loves me now but how long will that last.” Laurent scoffed. “I’m the Frigid Prince, remember.”

“Laurent you know that’s not true.” Auguste reached out a hand and placed it over Laurent’s, his thumb rubbing across the skin.

“But isn’t it, Auguste? Isn’t it?” Laurent felt tears stinging behind his eyes as he ripped his hand out from under Auguste’s. “And we’ll be living across the country from each other. That puts so much more pressure on--on everything. And he loves me but what am I giving him in return, huh?”

“I hate to say this, but if this is upsetting you this much, do you think it’s a good idea to stay in the relationship? Obviously you should talk to him first, but you guys haven’t even been together that long and already this sounds like a bad soap opera. Damen seems like a great guy, but maybe it’s not the right time for you two.”

Laurent tried to imagine being without Damen, now that he had him. Laurent wasn’t so naive as to think he couldn’t live without Damen. He absolutely could, and his life would still be incredibly happy and fulfilling. Hell, he would probably find someone else who would treat him just as well.

But, he realized, although he could, he realized he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to be with somebody else. He didn't want to be alone. Sure, that might all change sometime in the future, but future “what ifs” were no reason to sacrifice what he wanted right now.

And what Laurent wanted, was Damen.

“No, I...I think I need to just talk to him. You know how I get, too much in my own head.”

“That’s exactly the problem, though. You get too much in your own head about everything, and that’s bound to blow up in your face eventually.”

“And what would you know about that, Auguste.” Laurent’s voice was even, controlled. He was losing his patience with his brother. Even though Auguste was older than him, and even though Laurent admittedly had no idea what he was doing, he was tired of being treated like a fool. “You were so fucking clueless that you were actually surprised when Diane left. It might have done you some good to be in your head a little more.”

He heard Auguste inhale sharply. Auguste’s next words were mumbled, slow, and low in pitch. “That was low. Nicaise is asleep. I suggest you leave before I start yelling and wake him up.”

 

So Laurent left. Auguste was right, that had been harsh. But Laurent couldn’t bring himself to care. He was confused enough about how he felt that he didn’t need his brother weighing in.

And why was he so confused? This should be so simple. Damen loved him. Damen hadn’t given Laurent any reason to worry that anything else was wrong. Damen was just giving him space. Damen was worried about hurting him further. Why was Laurent making this so much worse than it had to be? Even if Laurent couldn’t tell if what he was feeling now was love, he knew that falling in love with Damen would be so easy, and that there was no possible way it wouldn’t happen.

It was just that Laurent was so scared of what was happening between them. This felt different. Not that Laurent had much experience in this area, but he never expected for it to feel like this. He was sure love would be huge, intense, fireworks, life changing and earth shattering. But what Laurent felt when Damen looked at him, when Damen confessed what Laurent already knew, Laurent felt none of those things. Instead, it was as if everything suddenly settled. He wasn’t nervous, or anxious, or scared, not because of that. It was like Damen came into focus. His heart didn’t beat out of his chest but rather kept a steady rhythm. He tried not to think about that too much, that conversation he had with his mother all those years ago niggling in the back of his mind. But it was true, or at least, it could be true one day. Laurent refused to be so cliched as to think he had found his soulmate after such a short amount of time.

Though around Damen, the presence of his heartbeat--that damning heartbeat--was as natural as waking up after being asleep for years.

Laurent walked back to his house from Auguste’s. It wasn’t too far, but he used the time to enjoy the beauty around him. Naturally, he paid a lot of attention to the leaves above him as he walked, the light freckling his skin as he passed underneath. He inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with humid summer air, the lazy energy of July sinking into his body. The heat kissed his skin and enveloped him, wrapping him in a hazy embrace. Laurent remembered the humidity and the heat when Damen first kissed him, how the air was so thick it choked him but also kept him from falling over. Damen’s lips had been salty with sweat. Laurent licked his own lips at the memory. Laurent hadn’t cared that they both stank, that when Damen pulled Laurent in against him Laurent’s clothes stuck to his body, like his clothes were doing now. Every flower, every cloud, every bee, every blade of grass, reminded him of Damen. Damen, like his heartbeat. Damen, all around him. Damen, making him so dizzy he couldn’t think.

He got out his phone to record thoughts like he did with his poems, because maybe that would help him make sense of everything he was feeling. But when he went to speak, nothing came out. Laurent stared at his phone for a moment before shoving it into his back pocket. What was wrong with him?

Damen loved him. Damen loved him. Damen loved him.

Laurent didn’t think anybody had ever loved him like Damen did. Why couldn’t he just let himself be loved? But as he continued to walk, he knew.

If he acquiesced, if he let Damen’s love in, there was no going back. It would be finished.

He stopped in his tracks. Images of what that would look like, would be like, rushed through his mind at lightspeed: the two of them baking together, licking batter off spoons, getting flour on each other’s noses; going ice skating every winter, with Damen finally getting the hang of it after a few years; Damen working late hours at the hospital and Laurent bathing him and massaging him when he got home, dead tired and aching; lazy mornings in bed tangled in each other after Damen took him apart slowly and tenderly the night before; Damen coming to Laurent’s poetry readings at open mic nights; having Nicaise over on the weekends, and seeing Nicaise grow up together. Laurent saw comfort. Laurent saw safety. Laurent saw peace.

Why had this ever terrified him.

There was no guarantee Damen wouldn’t hurt him. There was no guarantee he wouldn’t hurt Damen. There was no guarantee they would stay together. But why did that matter, if he didn’t give it a shot now?

Laurent ran the rest of the way to his house.

 

“Hey, Damen, could you come in here for a minute? I need to talk to you about something.”

Damen had been playing a videogame in the living room, something mindless to distract him. He knew that he and Laurent were okay, but he worried about being too stifling, of making Laurent feel like he expected something, anything, from him. Damen was trying to be better about working through how he felt and what he wanted to say before he just blurted it out, and that type of introspection was giving him anxiety he hadn’t experienced much in life. He just cared so damn much.

When he heard Kastor shouting from his study, Damen paused the game and walked into what had been their father’s office: leather furniture, solid mahogany desk, books lining the walls on everything from his favorite fiction novels to books about business and so on. A very stereotypical office for someone of their father’s stature. Their father, Theomedes, sat at that desk like a captain commanding a ship. But even though Kastor was well in his 30s, he looked small sitting in that space he could never fill. Damen hadn’t even bothered. Compared to Kastor, Damen felt like he was still just a dumb kid.

“Hey man. What’s up?” Damen said as he sat across from Kastor.

Kastor had been rifling through papers on the desk, hair disheveled and shirtsleeves bunched up and soiled. His nails looked bitten to the quick, the skin angry and red. An empty tumbler of what Damen assumed had been full of cheap whiskey sat on the desk without a coaster; Damen could smell the grain liquor.

“Kastor, what’s going on.”

Kastor pulled the whiskey bottle out of a drawer, as well as another tumbler, and filled his and Damen’s glasses.

“Damen, do you remember when the IRS came a while back?” Damen nodded. “It turns out it’s more serious than I thought. It’s not just something wrong with my tax returns.” Kastor downed his whiskey like a shot, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “I must have missed something in the bookkeeping because they think I’m embezzling money through the retirement home.”

“There must be some mistake. They must have mixed up a file, or something, or--”

“Damen, I know.” No, he didn’t know. He couldn’t believe this. “I’ve gone through our books and haven’t found a thing. The guys who help keep the books have gone through them and haven’t found a thing. But the IRS, they…” Kastor met Damen’s eyes, then looked away, “they think I’m guilty, Damen. My credit cards have been canceled. They’re snooping around my office at all hours of the day. I don’t know what they’re expecting to find, but they can’t seem to be convinced otherwise.”

And then, Kastor did something Damen had never seen him do. Kastor’s eyes grew red and puffy, and Kastor swore as he violently wiped a tear from his cheek.

Damen suddenly didn’t feel like he was 22. The men in their family, they didn’t cry, at least not in front of each other. Damen couldn’t even remember a time when he and Kastor had ever comforted each other as adults. Seeing his older brother break in front of him, it was all he could do not to break, too. Since losing their father, Kastor was the only family Damen had left, and family was everything to him.

“Kastor, is there anything I can do? What do you need?” Then Damen realized exactly what he could do. “You know, the fellowship, they allow you to postpone a year. I can stay here and help with whatever. We’ll fight this.”

“Damen, you can’t. You’ve been working for this for years. You’ve made so many sacrifices. We, as a family, have made so many sacrifices to get you here. Don’t give that up.”

“I’m not giving it up. I can just postpone it. It will probably be good to take a break, anyway.”

“It won’t be a break if you’re neck-deep in legal shit with me. The last thing you need is to feel stressed out before you go off to med school.”

Damen didn’t say that it was a little too late for that. No reason to worry Kastor with his own problems. What were some relationship problems that were mostly resolved compared to this?

“How about this. I’ll call them and say there’s a family problem. I won’t say I need to postpone right away, but I’ll get info as to how to do it if I need to. Deal?”

“You can’t just throw away your future like this. A lot could happen in a year and I don’t care if you can technically go back--”

“Deal?!”

Kastor slammed a fist down on the table, but all the fight left him like air from a balloon. He poured them both more whiskey. “Deal.”

The whiskey burned as it ran down Damen’s throat.

“I don’t think I tell you enough how much I appreciate you, Damen. You’re a good man. Dad would be proud.” Kastor was running his fingers along the rim of the glass.

“Well, I wouldn’t be where I am without you staying home and taking on the business. I owe everything to you, man.”

Kastor didn’t say anything for a moment, a small smile ghosting his lips. It was amazing how much he looked like their father, black-bearded, broad, a force to be reckoned with. Kastor had been born using a surrogate, as nobody thought Damen’s mother could get pregnant. Damen never met Kastor’s birth mother, but he could only imagine what a powerhouse of a woman she must have been. Although Damen definitely got some of his features from his father--his thick dark hair that covered his body, his size--you could not deny how much he took after his mother, particularly his eyes.

Suddenly, Kastor swept the papers off the desk into a drawer, saying, “so, what’s been going on with you? Are you still seeing that guy? You tap that yet?”

Damen groaned. “Kastor, is my sex life really that interesting to you?”

“It’s more interesting than all this IRS bullshit.”

At least Damen could give him a distraction, he thought. “Yes, I’m still seeing Laurent. We hit a bit of a rough patch, but it’s nothing and I think we fixed it.”

“What happened?”

“You know me. Too strong too soon. Same thing that scared Jokaste off, I bet.”

“Do you think this has scared Laurent off, too?”

“I hope not.” This time, it was Damen who refilled their glasses. The whiskey was starting to warm his belly, his limbs and lips tingling, his head growing light. “I think I’m in love with him, Kastor.” Kastor’s eyebrows practically disappeared into his hairline at that. “I know it’s so soon, but god, when you know something, you just know, you know?”

“No, Damen, I don’t think I do. You haven’t told him, have you?”

Silence.

“Oh you fucking idiot. You told him. And you scared him.”

Silence.

“You can’t expect everyone to be as foolhardy as you. I can’t blame the kid. You’re kinda intense, you know that? I’m surprised you haven’t proposed.”

“I might be intense, but I’m not that stupid. Give me some credit.” Damen took a small sip of his drink, Kastor following immediately.

“I don’t know. I swear you were practically picking floral arrangements the moment you met Jokaste.” Kastor swirled the amber liquid around in his glass, staring at the small whirlpool. “You’re worse than a woman sometimes.”

“Really, Kastor?”

“What!”

“You can’t just say shit like that.”

Kastor shifted his weight in his chair, the leather squeaking and cracking under him. “Whatever. Have you talked to him? What’s going on?”

“We’ve talked a little. I’ve mainly just tried to give him the space that he needs to work through whatever he needs to, but he said it has little to do with me and more to do with him.”

“God, he sounds worse than Jokaste,” Kastor said with a hint of derisive laughter in his voice. “At least she wasn’t a fucking drama queen. A bitch, but not a drama queen. You sure know how to pick ‘em.” Kastor saluted Damen with his glass before finishing it off.

Damen loved his brother, but man was he an asshole.

“Oh, and I suppose you could do better?”

“You don’t see me moping around the house because a girl--or guy, in your case--got emotional with me.” Kastor put his feet on the desk. Damen repressed a cringe at seeing feet on the wood. “I can’t afford the distractions. I get some every now and then, but relationships just aren’t worth it. Trust me. I’m a little bit older than you, a little bit wiser. I’ve been around. And especially at your age, people are still just hormonal idiots using relationships as an excuse to fuck. That’s all it is. Nobody at your age has ever been serious about dating. If they say they have, they were lying.”

“Laurent isn’t a distraction.”

“Isn’t he, though? All summer you’ve been trailing after him like a golden retriever. And lately you’ve been a miserable sad-sack, checking your phone constantly and sitting on the couch like you’re dying.”

“I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.”

Kastor kept talking, as if Damen hadn’t said anything. “But I can see how dating him has affected you. And whether you postpone your fellowship or not, he’s going to hold you back from whatever you try to do. You can’t be responsible for his melodrama, and I know you too well to not take that shit personally and let it eat you alive.”

Like it already was. The intrusive thought was there and gone in a flash. Damen finished his drink, setting the glass down with a weary finality. He got up, his head starting to spin.

“I’m gonna go lay down. I don’t need this from you right now.”

You don’t need this? You’re not the one being threatened with prison time, Damianos!” Kastor was rising out of his chair, his voice rising with him.

“What?”

“Yeah. Prison time. They’re gonna try to put me away. And here you are, saying you’ll help, all the while your fuck toy is driving you crazy! You can’t help me like this, Damen. You can’t split yourself in two.”

Damen was roaring now, too. “What do you want from me, Kastor? I told you I would help. I am willing to put my life on hold for you, because I love you, and it’s the right thing to do. What more do you want? You want me to dump him? Would that appease you? Prove to you I’m serious?”

“It wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world.”

They stood, facing each other, their father’s desk between them, as if his ghost were there. Damen wondered what Theomedes would be thinking about their pointless squabbling.

Damen didn’t want to leave Laurent. He knew it was crazy, but he could see himself spending his life with Laurent. He felt that click with him. Damen might be foolish, but being with Laurent was the most right he had ever felt.

But they had only been together a short time. And Kastor needed him. Laurent would understand, right? Maybe even agree to pick back up after this was all over. But no, Damen could never ask Laurent to wait for him. That never worked. Damen respected Laurent too much to do that to him. Damen loved Laurent too much.

And that was why, Damen realized as he collapsed into the chair again, his pulse pounding between his temples, that he had to let Laurent go.

 

After, Damen took an ibuprofen, drank a glass of water in one chug, and went to bed. In the morning, he sent a text to Laurent.

hey! can i come over

Damen was rubbing the sleep from his eyes, walking to the bathroom in his boxers to get more medicine for his headache, when Laurent texted him back.

Yeah, sure! I was wanting to see you anyway. :)

He wasn’t sure who this was going to hurt more.

 

Laurent opened the door with a wide smile, more open than Damen had ever seen him. Oh fuck. Damen felt the single, painful beat of his heart when Laurent stood on his toes to kiss him, humming contentedly as he did so, his fingers weaving through Damen’s hair in a way that made him melt.

Damen realized, with dreadful clarity, that he would never have this again.

He tried to commit to memory this feeling. How Laurent’s lips felt against his own, the sound of Laurent’s voice, the warmth of Laurent’s body against his own, under his hands. Damen had never done anything so difficult as repressing the tears threatening to spill. His hands tightened on Laurent’s hips, grounding him, holding on for as long as he could. Until he knew he couldn’t anymore, and he started detaching, body and soul.

“Hey there,” Laurent said against his lips, smiling. This was new. It wasn’t that Laurent hadn’t been free with his affection before, but something had changed.

Laurent lowered down onto his feet, searching Damen’s face.

“Something’s wrong.” It was timid, but it wasn’t a question.

Damen didn’t deny it.

“Damen. What’s wrong.”

He let out a sigh, not daring to look Laurent in the eye but knowing he deserved that, deserved to be faced head-on. “Laurent, there’s something I want to talk about. Can I come in?”

Laurent blinked. “Of course. I had something I wanted to talk to you about, too. Why don’t you make yourself comfortable while I make some tea.”

Damen nodded, coming through the doorway and sitting on the couch. Laurent came back a few minutes laters with tea, and an envelope.

“Here’s your tea. And here’s…” Laurent hit the envelope onto his palm a few times. “Take this.” Laurent placed it in Damen’s hand, folding his fingers over the crisp paper, and didn’t move his hands away. “I know I’ve been difficult lately. I haven’t failed to notice how patient and considerate you’ve been with me. You would think I would be comfortable saying what I need to say to you, but...well, you’ll see. You know I’m much better with poems than I am with people.” Laurent placed a hand on Damen’s cheek, and Damen saw how scared he looked, saw the sundering of many walls.

“Damen,” he started with a breath, “I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to say it back, but I l--”

He couldn’t bear to hear this. He knew he wouldn’t be able to do what he needed to do if Laurent finished that sentence. Damen steeled himself, closing his eyes, treasuring this final touch.

“Laurent, I’m breaking up with you.”

And there it was. Damen dared open his eyes, and he wished he hadn’t. What he saw was the single worst thing he had ever seen in his life.

For a millisecond, Damen saw the utter devastation on Laurent’s face. That beautiful face. The most beautiful face he had ever seen. The face he had kissed, caressed, worshipped. That face cracked and shattered, as if Damen never deserved such beauty. The next moment, he saw the rage in Laurent’s eyes. Those cerulean blue eyes he couldn’t look away from, the eyes that would haunt his dreams for the rest of his life. As quickly as he saw these things, they were gone. The walls went back up, and Damen knew he was firmly outside them.

Laurent removed his hands from Damen’s skin. It felt like being flayed.

“I see. May I ask why?”

“There’s just some family stuff, and it takes priority, and--”

“I’m a distraction. Yes, quite right. Well.” Laurent got up. Damen took that as his cue to leave. “I hope, whatever it is, it works out in the end.” Laurent opened the door and showed him out. “Goodbye, Damianos.”

And shut the door in his face. Damen didn’t even get a last look, terrified the image of Laurent was already fading from his mind.