Actions

Work Header

Take Me Down in White

Work Text:

 

“Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we’re actually going to meet Laurent,” Lykaios’s mother gushed as the limo they’d hired turned the corner and the storefront came into view several blocks down, “Do you think he’ll say the thing?”

“He always says the thing, Mom,” said Jokaste.

She actually squealed. “Oh, I could just die.”

“All right, but let’s not get so excited that we pick a dress just because the famous Laurent recommended it,” Damen said. “This is Lykaios’s day. Our attention should be on her.”

“Oh of course I’m going to be focused on my daughter,” her mother said breezily, “But just imagine seeing him in person.”

Damen frowned. Next to him, Lykaios was twitching her hands nervously.

“Everyone’s attention,” she murmured. “All those people. All those cameras.”

Lykaios usually faded into the background when her mother and sister were around, but Damen should have been paying more attention to how quiet she was. “I’m sorry, Lyka, I didn’t mean -”

Jokaste cut him off by reaching across the seats to pat her sister’s hand. “You’re fine,” she said, “Your hair looks beautiful, your makeup looks beautiful, all anyone is going to see when they look at you is how lucky Atkis is for getting a girl like you.” She tossed her hair over her shoulder. “And most of them are going to be looking at me anyway.”

It was true. Both sisters had inherited an extreme natural beauty, but Jokaste knew how to turn it striking. She had her hair down today, in loose waves of curls that Damen knew from experience took her hours in front of a mirror with both a straightener and a curling iron to achieve but that looked like effortless grace when she was done; she dyed it a brilliant gold, too, brighter than the natural honey-brown that she shared with her sister in childhood photos, and each various strand of it caught the light differently as she moved. She wore jewel tones, with a draping neckline that dipped between her breasts and a simple gold chain disappearing beneath it that tantalized, made you want to chase it with your eyes down further than you could see. Her cheekbones arched where Lykaios’s face was round and soft, and there was something compelling about her face that came down to more than the clever application of paint, a certain challenge in her eyes that gave an impression of electricity even when she was still. Damen remembered dating Lykaios, promising her that he wouldn’t be one of those feckless boyfriends who forgot all about her the moment they met her sister, and then, despite himself, finding it impossible to look away. He found it hard to look away now, even after all that had been between them.

“Oh, I hope so,” Lykaios said, using her sister’s attention-seeking like a shield, as she often did, an opportunity to fade into the background as she wouldn’t be allowed to today. “I can’t believe we’re actually doing this.”

“But going on the show is what you wanted, right? That’s why we’re here. To do what you want for your wedding.” He looked up sharply. "Jokaste.”

Jokaste gave him a feline smile and Damen inwardly swore at the thought that even after they broke up she was still finding ways to pull his strings.

“Of course I want to be on the show, Damen,” Lykaios said, before they could start fighting, “Look how happy it’s making Mom, and it’ll be great exposure for Jokaste’s perfume line.”

“Lykaios,” he said, fondly, and a little exasperated.

“While we’re on the subject, we should go over why you’re tagging along on this appointment.”

“Because bringing a minor celebrity to your appointment all but guarantees that it’ll be put on the air, and I’m the only one you know,” Damen said.

“That’s the real reason,” Jokaste said patiently, as if explaining to a child, “As far as anyone who asks in front of a camera is concerned, you’re here representing Atkis’s wishes for what he wants to see Lykaios in. Try to push her towards the sexier dresses, but take it in good humor when you are overruled.”

“Isn’t that insulting the intelligence of the audience? The people watching this show aren’t stupid - they know that they set up situations that will make good tv even if the show isn’t scripted. Why can’t we give them a real answer?”

“The people who watch Game of Thrones know that the dragons aren’t real too, but that doesn’t mean that they want them to look CGI,” Jokaste said, “Help suspend the disbelief.”

“So I’m your basic dudebro here to speak for my friend, a presumed other basic dudebro, about what women should wear to appeal to us, but half-expecting to be shot down, because at the end of the day, what do men know about women’s fashion, am I right?”

“You got it.”

“Great.”

“You really don’t have to come if you don’t want to,” Lykaios said.

“Yes he does,” protested her mother, suddenly concerned, “If he doesn’t come in with us, they’ll send the cameras away and it will just be a regular appointment.”

Damen shifted in his seat until he was looking at Lykaios, shutting out the other two. “I’ve already signed all the release forms,” he said, “I’ve got my phone with me for the boring parts, and I can be enough of a dudebro to enjoy watching beautiful women wear pretty dresses for a day. Don’t worry about me.”

“Glad that’s all settled,” said Jokaste, “Because we’re here.”

Lykaios grabbed Damen’s hand and squeezed it, taking one deep breath just as the limo door opened.


Laurent walked around the sales floor, checking in on the ongoing appointments with half an eye on Vannes as she waited for them to be done filming a take of the limo driving up and her celebrity appointment walking out and into the salon. Behind him, Charls had come out of the office to schmooze a new designer, showing her around the expanse of the salon and pointing out how well they could showcase her collection and the quality of the brides that came to shop her.

“Charls’s is more than the perfect dress, it’s the experience of finding it,” Charls’s voice carried over to Laurent, as he allowed himself to be hugged by yet another group of middle-aged women who had nearly forgotten the woman they’d come here to support on catching sight of him, “There are girls who dream of buying their dresses here, even as they dream of the perfect wedding. At Charls’s, every woman becomes a princess for the day.”

It was a mantra Charls had repeated many times, even before the show had taken over a large extent of their day-to-day business - even years back, when Auguste had been working here for the experience while he designed his first collection after hours, and Laurent had hung around in the back whenever he was allowed, doing his homework at an empty desk and letting the avuncular owner offer him sweets he was too old for while he waited for his brother to be done. It was a motto Charls really believed in, one that he insisted the store live by. It had even inspired Laurent’s signature catch phrase, the one that he saw it was time to deploy as the group headed in and Vannes finally walked over to greet her appointment, pretending not to know who her bride was so that her party could introduce themselves. Laurent excused himself from his check-in and walked across the salon, reaching them after they’d finished explaining who they were and getting there just in time to greet Lykaios with his signature,

“Welcome, your highness.”

The bride’s mother actually screamed, an ear-splitting shriek that pierced right through him, causing everyone around them to flinch. Oh joy, she was going to be one of those women.

“It’s all right,” he said warmly, taking it in stride as she fell back against her daughter and started nearly hyperventilating, as it was behavior he was now (unfortunately) somewhat used to, “It’s lovely to meet you. Are you the beautiful mother of this gorgeous young lady?”

He gestured to Lykaios, but she ignored his redirection and grabbed his arm. “Oh, Laurent, I can’t believe I’m actually meeting you.”

“Are you a fan of the show?” he asked, as if this delighted him.

She leaned closer. “I have a little fantasy about you,” she confided.

Laurent was already wearing a fake smile, as he did at all times at work, but he felt it become decidedly more plastic. He forced a laugh. “Uh-oh, let’s not get in trouble now.” Behind them, the sister hissed, “Mother.”

“You shrink down very small,” she continued, impervious to them both, “And then I pick you up, and put you right here in my purse, and carry you around with me all day.”

He honestly would have preferred if it was a weird sex thing.

The worst part was not even that his affection for Charls (far more than the desire to keep his job) prevented him from verbally eviscerating one of his customers as he was desperately itching to do. The worst part was that the network would love this. They would ask her about it in her backstage interview to make it part of the promo, and they would get a private comment from him, where he would have to laugh along and play a good sport or face letting Charls and his brother down.

“Gay men aren’t accessories,” said the one man they’d brought with them, which was the very least of all that Laurent ached to be able to say, and not nearly a resolution to this situation. He whirled round.

“No, we’re not,” he said, outwardly smiling but letting just a little of the venom he was feeling bleed through his voice - not enough to be caught by he cameras, but he thought the oaf speaking for him might just be clever enough to feel it, “Nor do we need big, strong men to fight our battles for us.” He smiled. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”

This was breaking procedure - Laurent was meant to pretend to recognize every “celebrity” that came into the salon, even if they were only as notable as, “spent one season on X reality show also in the Discovery, Inc family of networks.” But it was pushing belief to suggest that he didn’t recognize Damianos Akielopoulos, regrettably less famous for his Olympic gold medal in the decathlon than for the shirtless selfie he’d taken with the Tonga flag-bearer that had become a meme when someone on twitter had captioned it, “I want to be the peanut butter in that muscle-sandwich.” It wasn’t a name that would stand the test of time outside the niche of track-and-field enthusiasts, but his fifteen minutes were not up yet, and pretending not to know him was a subtle diss, a way of saying, “You’re not that special.”

Damianos took it in stride. “Damen,” he said, extending his hand for a shake and flashing a one-dimpled smile so cocky and smug that Laurent wanted to wipe it off his face, “And yours, sweetheart?”

“Damen, that’s Laurent,” the bride’s mom scolded. Her smile turned indulgent. “We’ll have to help him along. He knows nothing about what he’s getting in to.”

“What brings you into the salon then?” Laurent asked.

“I’m a friend of the groom.”

“Oh, and he introduced you to our lovely bride?”

“I introduced them, actually.”

“Well, then you must have known her before.” Normally he would let Vannes do this - ferreting out the drama was consultant’s work, while Laurent swooped in to make connections and solve problems as if he were above all the pettiness, but something about this man made Laurent want to personally see him squirm.

“We used to date,” he said shortly, and Laurent was about to feign surprise and ask a faux-innocent question that would lead to uncomfortable details when Lykaios rescued him.

“It was an amicable break-up,” she said sweetly, “Luckily we were able to all stay friends, so I got to keep Damen in my life and I can’t imagine myself being happier than I am with Atkis.”

“And that’s the best way to start a marriage,” Laurent said, neatly maneuvered back into the warm-supportive role he was forced to adopt for his job, “I’ll leave you in Vannes’s capable hands. She can help you find the perfect dress for marrying your perfect man.”

He took his leave of the party, clasping hands with the mother and sister, making sure to come back to the bride for one last, “Good luck, princess,” before returning to his rounds of the salon.

It used to be that his job as fashion director kept him mostly behind the scenes at Charls’s, only getting involved in an appointment when a consultant turned for help to his superior knowledge of the collection he had helped to build. Now, Laurent found that he had to check-in briefly with every appointment that came in - the women who watched the show expected him. He would be heavily involved in Vannes appointment too, whether she needed his help or not. He’d become something of a mascot as the show’s popularity had risen, and the network mandated that he be a significant part of any appointment that was going to be heavily featured. But after meeting them briefly, he was less resentful of this than he had been.

He had read the precis they had submitted to apply for the show, and knew all the past drama they had disclosed. And any woman who could describe being dumped for her sister as an “amicable break-up” and seem to mean it deserved as many barriers as possible between her and that mother.


“Laurent, I need your help with an appointment,” Vannes said as planned, catching his attention in the hallway. But when he turned his head to look at her, she brushed a strand of hair behind her ear - a signal they had developed over the years for when she genuinely needed his help even though his assistance had been previously scripted.

“Talk to me,” he said, as they strode together towards the stockroom, cameras following in their wake.

After that brief intro, they would reshoot this conversation in the stockroom itself to add the visual interest of them sifting through the racks of dresses as they talked, so she was able to speak a little more freely now than she would if it was actually intended for air.

“Bride has no idea what she wants,” Vannes said, “And you saw how gorgeous she is. Best hourglass figure I’ve ever seen - like a fifties pin-up girl.”

Laurent groaned. Later, he would turn to the camera and explain for the twentieth time that beautiful women could be harder to dress because if you look good in everything, it can be hard to pinpoint what you like, but there was truth to that statement.

“Both the mother and sister brought look-books, could not be more different.”

“Let’s start with Mom.”

“Reading between the lines, Mom is a disappointed gold-digger who’s been throwing her daughters at rich men since they were old enough to drive, and wants a dress that’s going to show off her victory now that one of them’s finally landed one. Ballgown, lace, bling - the works, just as long as it looks expensive. She wants it showy and really making use of their unlimited budget.”

“Cinderella-Princess-Queen.”

“Exactly.”

It wasn’t Laurent’s favorite style, at least not at the extreme end it sounded like the mother wanted, but Lykaios had the beauty to pull it off without being lost in it or looking like the dress was wearing her.

“The sister has her own perfume line, and has created a custom scent for the wedding inspired by the couple’s love, and she wants us to find a dress that will ‘match’ the scent when Lykaios wears them both down the aisle.”

“That’s … interesting.”

“Luckily, I think she’s just smart enough to want the excuse to talk up the scent and get the bottle on camera rather than actually wanting us to match the ‘essence’ of what she’s created - whatever we land on, she’ll be willing to claim. She does have a very specific vision for how she wants her sister to look, though - deep fit-and-flare that just brushes the line into becoming a mermaid, sheer outer layer with delicate beading throughout, not the chunky crystals Mom likes, preferably arranged in geometric lines that complement the bride’s curves with almost an art Deco feel.”

“That’s a lot more champagne-tastes than Mom’s picks.”

“I know, and the bride would look good in that kind of dress, but I don’t think it’s really her, you know?” Vannes stopped at the door to the stockroom to finish their conversation before they got inside and started filming material not intended for the cutting room floor. “There’s something about this one, I really want to find something special for her.”

Laurent nodded. He hadn’t spent much time with the party, but he already understood the impulse to protect Lykaios from the stronger personalities she’d brought with her and keep the day from becoming about them instead of her.

“What about our celebrity guest?”

“He ‘wants to see whatever dress Lykaios looks the happiest in.’”

“Well, that’s a relief.” Laurent paused. “You pull a bunch of different silhouettes, and let’s see if we can’t get the bride to express an opinion; I’ll pull an ideal for Mom, an ideal for sister, and a compromise choice. We’ll meet in aisle six for refilming.”

The stockroom at Charls’s was so large that they tended to move the dresses close to each other when they wanted to film a scene in there and then pretend to “find” them in convenient locations for them to stand and talk while getting them.

“Once more into the breach,” said Vannes, and the cameras followed them inside.


They started with a ballgown for Mom - high-waisted satin with a dramatic train, and enough Swarovski crystals on the bodice to blind a sniper. In the room, Lykaios had smiled, complimenting the classic style of the dress and the way the structured bodice complimented her waist. Out on the floor, no one liked it.

“The bodice is beautiful, Laurent,” the mother said, already addressing him like he were an old friend and not a professional whom she had literally just met, “But the skirt looks a little plain.”

“With this designer, we can replicate some of the detailing on the bodice on the skirt for an extra fee,” Laurent assured her.

“Oh don’t worry about that,” said Lykaios, turning towards him, “We’re donating the dress after the wedding, so any extra cost that we add will just make whoever gets it next feel all the more special.”

“Would it make you feel more special, to add a little bling onto the skirt?” asked Vannes. Lykaios looked down at it and bit her lip.

“What do you think, Jokaste?”

“I don’t like it,” she said bluntly, “You look beautiful in it, of course, but every rich-girl bride of the past ten years has worn a satin ballgown with extravagant beading. It’s been done. For her wedding, my sister should have a dress as unique and special as she is.” Jokaste looked down her nose. “It does not match the perfume.”

Damianos had been typing something on his phone, but at the mention of the scent-matching he looked up with such annoyed incredulity that Vannes jumped in with a question to forestall an argument that, in other circumstances, Laurent probably would have paid to see.

“What do we think of the silhouette?”

“I’d like to see her in something more modern.”

“I love the ballgown. It’s what every mother dreams of seeing her little girl walk down the aisle in.”

Jokaste made a noncommittal noise and tilted her head. “Do we like the sweetheart neckline, or would she look better in more of a plunge, similar to what I’m wearing?” She drew her shoulders back in subtle display. “Damen?”

“Anything you put a woman’s breasts in is just gilding the lily,” said the only man on the couch, but it took him a moment to realize he was being addressed as he was looking at Jokaste’s referenced cleavage, so Laurent counted that as a victory for the lady.

“What do you think of the dress, Damen?” asked Lykaios, “You’ve been awfully quiet.”

“So have you, and I’m not the one who’ll be wearing it,” Damen said, and for a moment Laurent thought that they might have an ally in the room after all.

But then Lykaios said, “You must have an opinion.”

Damen raised his shoulders. “Doesn’t it look a little … busy.”

And Laurent resolved to murder everyone on that couch.

Lykaios turned to him and Vannes. “I think we should try something else.”

 

“We picked this one from Jokaste’s list,” Vannes said, bringing Lykaios out in the second dress, “It’s from Auguste DeVere’s collection, form fitting with a flared skirt at the knee, chiffon overlay with geometric beading, very clean lines. What do we think?”

Personally, Laurent thought this was an improvement over the first dress. The way his brother arranged the sweeping lines of the beading accentuated Lykaios’s curves without looking like it was trying too hard, and the way the lines met in pointed arches definitely incorporated that art Deco feel Jokaste had requested.

“I feel like I could be on the cover of a magazine,” Lykaios said, looking at herself in the three-way mirror.

“That’s a very different feel from the previous dress,” Laurent pointed out, “Is that how you want to feel?”

“Well, I … What do you all think?” she asked, turning around, and Jokaste said “It’s perfect” at almost the same time that their mother said, “It’s not the one.”

“It’s beautiful,” Jokaste insisted, “It’s sophisticated, elegant, modern without being overly trendy, sensual without being too sexy. What more could we want?”

“It’s a lovely dress, Laurent,” the mother said carefully, and Laurent knew that he had been right to bring out one of Auguste’s designs. Fans of the show always shied away from tearing down his brother’s gowns in front of him, “But when I look at her in it, I see fashion model, not bride. I want my little girl to look like a princess on her day.”

“Well, it’s the bride’s day,” Laurent said firmly, “Which vision would you prefer, Lykaios? Princess, or runway?”

“I don’t know. The dresses are all so beautiful, it’s hard to choose.” She looked at the couch. “What do you think Damen?”

“It’s your wedding day, Lykaios, this should be your decision, not two out of three majority wins.”

“I’m asking you.”

“Then I think this one’s also a bit busy,” he said, shrugging his shoulders apologetically.

“Do we prefer this silhouette to the ballgown?” asked Vannes, and Jokaste said “Yes” while the mother said “No” and Damen went back to playing on his phone. The minute the cameras were off him, Laurent was going to break that thing.

“Why don’t we try a whole new direction?” Laurent asked, “Fresh silhouettes, fresh designs - let’s see if we can’t find something that will make our bride feel as decided as our entourage.”

“That sounds good,” said Lykaios, and she accepted Laurent’s hand as he helped her down from the pedestal.


“I didn’t expect that it would be this hard,” Damen said, sinking back in his chair. Since the DeVere gown had been dismissed, Lykaios had come out in what felt like a dozen more dresses (it was four; Damen could still count), all different combinations of tulle and lace and dropped-waist and boning and other words Damen didn’t know the meaning of, none of them able to garner more than the usual eager-to-please smile out of Lykaios, none of them passing muster with Jokaste or her mother, and all of them covered in extras and frills that seemed (to Damen) impossibly fussy. With the last dress, Laurent had turned to him and said,

“I’m beginning to think that ‘busy’ is the only fashion would you know. Congratulations on having learned it. I give you a gold star for vocabulary. Now you can cease using it and come up with an original opinion.”

Damen wondered if the famous Laurent was always that bitchy and the show cut around it or if this appointment was driving him as on edge as the rest of them.

“I know, right?” said another man passing behind them, responding to Damen’s comment. Damen turned to look at him. He was younger than Damen’s father, but considerably older than Damen himself, and with his shirt tucked into his pants like that, everything about him screamed “Dad.” “The estrogen in this room is suffocating.”

Damen narrowed his eyes, hackles raised. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said dangerously.

“It’s just not a place for guys here,” the man continued, “As if anyone can tell the difference between a dropped skirt and a handkerchief waist.”

Damen had been paying enough attention to know that it was the other way around, but he sympathized with the sentiment. “It’s certainly more complicated than I expected.”

“More complicated than it needs to be if you ask me,” the guy went on, which Damen could also agree with. He leaned closer, conspiratorially. “I can feel my IQ lowering every time these women start clucking about fabrics.”

“Well, now we have a problem,” said Damen, “Because you’ve just insulted every woman here, including the women I’m with, and I happen to respect them. You might want to rephrase what you just said.”

“It was only a joke, man.”

“You might want to take it back.”

Jokaste put a hand on his arm. “Damen. Do not start a fight in a bridal salon.”

Damen looked the guy up and down slowly and obviously. He grinned.

“Don’t worry, babe. I don’t think this guy’ll be challenging me to a fight any time soon.”

Excuse me.”

“I think you heard me.” He stretched out his arm and draped it around Jokaste’s shoulders, bending his elbow just enough to make his bicep bulge slightly without it looking like he was trying to make a muscle. The guy paled.

“Asshole,” he muttered under his breath as he walked away.

Damen sighed as he removed his arm from Jokaste’s shoulders. It was the reaction he’d been angling for, but he was still disappointed as he watched him walk away. After this afternoon, a good knock-down, drag-out in the parking lot could only improve his mood.

“Strange, how natural that still feels,” Jokaste said quietly. Her mom had been distracted by leaning over the arm of the couch to talk to a woman in one of the other parties, telling her how beautiful her daughter was and bragging about how expensive the wedding was going to be. “You calling me ‘babe,’ putting your arm around me.”

“Jokaste, what are you doing?” Damen said. “You’re the one who decided to leave me for my brother. Why all this?”

“All what?” All this time, and he was still amazed by her innocent-face.

“Don’t tell me it’s all in my head.”

“You’re so arrogant,” she crossed her arms and looked away slightly, as though she were speaking past him. “Were you always like this, assuming everything a woman does is throwing herself at you? Or have you changed that much since the breakup?”

Damen, who knew Jokaste well enough to tell that, in her own way, throwing herself at him was exactly what she was doing, stayed silent. She turned to look at him.

“And since you brought it up, I did not leave you for your brother. I flirted with your brother to make you jealous, because we had argued and I wanted to make you as angry as I was.” Her face was placid, the ice queen reigneth, but her hands folded in her lap were tight the way they were when she was forcibly restraining her fingers from picking nervously at her clothes, one of her tells that she was truly upset. “But you didn’t get angry. You left.” She gazed at him. “You were so quick to tell everyone that I had dumped you. It took me a while to realize that you believed it yourself. But that’s not what happened. You broke up with me.”

Damen blinked at her as the world veered dangerously on its axis. “And you’re telling me this now?” was all he could think to say, Six months later? When you’ve been dating Kastor the whole time? When we’re in a bridal salon?”

Jokaste shrugged carelessly. “You asked.”

Damen clapped his mouth shut. He was not dealing with this now, not here, in public, on this dumb show where any hint of drama would bring the mercifully absent cameras circling back like sharks in the water. He got off the couch.

“I’m taking a walk.”

Damen wandered through the sales floor, passing racks of hanging gowns and more displayed on models, different groups of friends and family members giving a supportive but critical eye to women in gowns clipped at the back. One group was gathered around two brides, blindfolded and holding hands as their entourage tried to decide if the dresses would look right together as they stood at the altar without letting them see each other before the day, and a burst of applause sprang from them as they got final approval. Three people were crying.

Damen ducked into a hallway that seemed empty for now, unsure where he was going. He needed to get back before Lykaios came out in her next dress, but … First thing first. Had Jokaste been telling him the truth? They had argued that morning, about what he could no longer remember but he knew that it had gotten ugly, both of them saying things they would later regret. He’d wanted to cancel their plans that afternoon, go off alone somewhere and brood until he was ready to make his apologies and hear her out when she made hers, but Jokaste had been raised to prioritize appearances, and she insisted they pretend that nothing was wrong and go see their friends as planned. She’d always gotten along with Kastor, and when he’d seen them together he’d … assumed. Assumed that their fight had snuffed her enthusiasm for a relationship that could be as volatile as it was passionate, assumed that this was her making a different choice, history repeating itself, a kind of karmic punishment for hurting sweet Lykaios by leaving her for her sister. Looking back now, he could see her hand on his brother’s chest, the way she’d pretended to need to lean on him as she laughed at something he’d said that had not even been that funny, as not a choice but a thrown gauntlet - a challenge to her boyfriend to fight for her instead of with her, to win her back before she looked around and started taking advantage of her other options. But instead of fighting for her, Damen had, for possibly the first time in his life, quit the field.

He was pissed. Pissed that she’d tried to manipulate him like that in the first place, pissed that she let the misunderstanding stand for so long, pissed that she was only correcting him now, when she’d successfully maneuvered him into a place that he could not leave without hurting Lykaios and where he could not say all he wanted to say to her without airing their dirty laundry for broadcast. But he could also see, in retrospect, how much he must have hurt her too. He wondered how long it had taken her at the party to realize that he had left, abandoning her without a ride home, without even the courtesy of telling her he was going. He wondered how long it had taken her afterward to realize he’d left for good.

Of course, instead of calling him to fix things or even to yell at him for leaving her, she’d let him go on assuming this was what she wanted and spent the last six months dating the person that would hurt him most in what had to be at least partly out of spite. But that was who Jokaste was. He’d known that when he started dating her. The same things that made being with her seem dangerous and exciting - the ruthlessness that meant she was capable of anything, that he never knew what to expect from her, always a surprise - also meant that she could hurt him like no one else when she meant to. It was part of the package that made her who she was, one of the things that he’d signed up for when he first asked her out.

Which led to the second thing he needed to decide before he rejoined the appointment: did he want her back? In throwing this at him now, in this way, after spending the day reminding him of what he was missing now that he was not with her, waiting for an opportunity when the ever-present cameras were temporarily occupied elsewhere to spring this on him in private, Jokaste was also telling him that if he chose to fight for her now there was still a chance for him to win. The question was, did he want to?

A part of him, a huge part of him, wanted to say yes. Jokaste could be - difficult, at times infuriating, but the challenge of being with her was one of the most exhilarating things Damen had experienced off the track, and somehow she made reaching a new milestone with her feel like as great a victory as clearing a new mark on the high jump, or that moment when he released a shotput and knew, just from the feel of it, that it was going to go farther than it ever had before and he didn’t even need to watch it fly. He remembered her lying indolently in their bed, not long before the breakup, her hair a rumpled mess and the morning sun harsh on her unmade face, wondering aloud that it never seemed to bother her anymore when he saw her without her armor, and he felt he’d give up half of the good things in his life for just one more moment like that.

He knew that he wanted her back now, in the moment. But being in a place like this, there was another part of him that couldn’t help thinking about the future. His eyes caught on another white dress being carried by a harried sales consultant as she hurried down the hall, heels clacking, and he wondered how it would be if Jokaste was here to pick out her dress with her mother and her sister, himself in Atkis’s place on the other side of a phone waiting for texted updates. He pictured himself standing under the gold mosaics of the saints as he waited for her across a church, and the promise of spending not just this moment but the rest of his life in the extreme highs and lows of her manipulations and his temper and passionate tumblings back into bed as they reclaimed each other after yet another clash of swords did not feel like a thrilling challenge anymore. It made him feel tired. And she wasn’t asking for a proposal, but at this stage in their lives, why intentionally move towards something that could not make them happy if it led them there? Perhaps it would be better if he let it stay ended.

But he’d never lasted long with anyone who didn’t spark at him the way Jokaste did. Lykaios, Erasmus, Kashel, Aristocles the wrestler, all by any measure better people than Jokaste and all faded into tepid, temporary flings as the lack of challenge bored him. If he didn’t take her offer now, was he dooming himself to that for the rest of his life, throwing away his chance at something more just because it was hard? Was that the kind of man he was?

He was still mulling this over as he turned a corner and found his head smacked by a raised arm holding thirty pounds of dresses.

There was reeling and then a tumble; the dresses ended up mostly on top of Damen, and Damen ended up on …

Damen had been around models before. Even when they weren’t rich or athletic themselves, they tended to be invited to the same parties as rich men and athletes, and Damen had met quite a few of them. Many of them were - beautiful women, to be sure, but not that - not what you’d assume would be “my face is insured for several million dollars” beautiful. Like, you would take them home from a bar, if you could, but you might not immediately notice them as the most beautiful woman there. Then Damen would see one of their professionally done photos, and something about the angles of their face and the lines of their body would transform in the lens of the camera and produce something … captivating, ethereal, immaculate. There were faces and bodies that the camera loved that weren’t nearly as impressive in real life.

In meeting Laurent DeVere at the start of this appointment, Damen had noticed the same thing happening in reverse. On camera, Laurent seemed to be a nice looking young man, perhaps a little young for the position that he held. But in person … in person, Laurent DeVere was exquisite.

And it turned out he was even more so from about three inches away.


“Are you planning to get off me anytime soon?”

Laurent was not in the best of spirits. There were other brides waiting who also deserved attention; attention Laurent could not give because he was focused almost entirely on this one, very difficult appointment that was already stretching over its time and that he could not give up on because the producers would not film him asking a celebrity client to go home and think it over and make a new appointment for a later date when she had a clearer idea of what she wanted, even though it was becoming increasingly obvious that that was exactly what she needed. Being crushed by the dumb brute she’d brought with her was not improving his mood.

“Right, sorry,” said the idiot jock, scrambling to his feet and taking all four gowns Laurent had dropped in one hand as he extended the other to help Laurent up. He showed irritatingly little effort raising the hangers over his head for the first time, although most people were at least surprised by the combined weight of all that fabric.

Laurent declined the offered hand and got smoothly to his feet unassisted. “This is an employees only area.”

“I’m sorry,” the oaf repeated, “I wasn’t really paying attention to where I was going. I just - had to get off that couch.”

Laurent gave him a disparaging look. “Of course. Occasionally glancing up from your phone to dismiss months of a designer’s work with the same tired criticism must be so difficult for you.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m not the one your behavior needs to be excused by. Or have you forgotten that there’s a bride here whom you are are meant to be supporting?”

He glared. “With all due respect,” he said tightly, his voice not conveying much respect at all, “You don’t know me, or Lykaios, and you have no right to pass judgement on how I support my friend.”

“I know enough about who you are, Damianos.”

When he heard his full name, Damen smirked. “So you did recognize me?”

“Did you really think I wouldn’t know everyone who comes into this salon ready to play for the cameras? I’ve seen the bio in your application, and the ridiculous attention seeking that is your social media presence: all those conspicuously staged photographs with your friends and at charity events, the way you whore yourself out with any excuse to strip off your shirt for a selfie.”

“Hey-”

Laurent stepped forward, and his eyes narrowed. “It’s very important to you that people know who you are, that they think of you as a good guy, a good man, friendly and decent. Perhaps you’ve caught enough of the show to think that I’m the same. Well, there are no cameras here now, so let me tell you how things actually stand. You are in my domain. You have no idea how a bit of creative editing can twist a personality around. Reality tv producers can make angels or demons out of anyone just from what they choose to show and how they choose to frame it, and you’ve already given them more than enough to work with. One word from me, and they’ll make you look like the most selfish, egotistical, mean-spirited person we’ve ever had on this show, and we have more than enough weekly viewers to make that reputation stick over the protests of whatever ‘decathlon enthusiasts’ try to defend you.” He stepped forward again, the toes of his wingtips just touching the edge of Damianos’s sneakers. “Keep fucking with me, and I will destroy you.”

“You have some bite to you after all.” Damen was smirking now, confident and interested in a way that reminded Laurent forcibly of Vannes telling him before the show that Damianos Akielopoulos was famously bi.

“Keep pushing, and you’ll find I have no qualms about biting off important things if they wind up in places I don’t like.”

“When you bring Lykaios out in a dress that she likes, you won’t hear a word from me about it even if it’s the tackiest thing I’ve ever seen. Until then, I’ll give her my honest opinion when she asks about it.”

“Don’t tell me how to do my job,” Laurent said, low and threatening. When he got this involved in an appointment, his job generally became less about advising the consultant on how to best utilize their collection to help their bride and more about being The Gay Man Who Could Tell Women What To Wear, because in the eyes of society, being gay meant he was effeminate enough to understand female clothing but still just man enough to tell a woman what to do. This was demeaning to all involved - to the women who yielded to him as the final arbiter of what they should put on their own bodies, and to Laurent himself, who not only had to deal with being stereotyped, but with people who saw him as so naturally a helpmeet that they would share fantasies of turning him into their lapdogs as if that was cute instead of dehumanizing. Still, Laurent had by necessity come to terms with it years ago, using both his presumed authority and real expertise to steer an indecisive bride in one direction or another, or backup the opinions and desires of a bride clashing with her entourage. He lived with it. But one thing he would not stand for was a man without his fashion degrees or years of experience coming into the salon and deciding he was better suited to take it on.

“I don’t know shit about your job,” Damen said, “But I know my friend, and I know you haven’t found anything for her yet.”

“Lykaios has liked everything we’ve put her in until we get her out to the floor and your group starts tearing it apart.”

“Has she? Or has she complimented everything you’ve put her in.” Damen gestured broadly, as if he had forgotten how close they were. “Lykaios will find something nice to say about any dress that you show her. Until she gives you an opinion - until she says, ‘I like this’ - you haven’t found it.”

“And if she’s this unsure what she likes, you think she needs another person on that couch pulling her in a third direction?” Laurent asked, gazing up at Damianos in scorn, “If you’re so concerned about supporting her, find a way to control that mother and sister. Otherwise, keep your opinions to yourself.”

Laurent ripped the dresses out of Damen’s hand and stormed back to the room.


 “So we thought we’d move in a completely new direction,” Laurent said, “Silk, sheath dress, body hugging, clean lines - not very busy -” he gave the couch his canned smile, almost daring Damianos to say something. Their argument had left him feeling the most invigorated he had that day, and he was determined to win this appointment. “It’s sleek, glamorous, sexy.” An eyebrow raise for the cameras. “What does our bride think?”

“Well, my body certainly looks incredible right now, but I want to see what my family thinks about me wearing it in the church.”

They turned her around on the dias, her mother and sister were finally united.

“I don’t like it,” they said in unison.

“It’s too clingy - it shows her curves way too much!”

“She’s got it, she should flaunt it, but a form fitting dress with more structure would accentuate her curves even more.”

“I want to see another ballgown.”

“We should return to the fit-and-flare.”

“It’s far too plain -”

“The perfume doesn’t match -”

Lykaios was darting her eyes back and forth between them, her face more confused with every exchange, when Damianos leaned forward on his knees suddenly and said,

“Hey.”

Jokaste and her mother stopped talking over each other and fell silent immediately. Both their attention was on him, waiting to hear what he had to say, and Laurent blinked. It was the same effortless way Auguste commanded a room, and he’d never seen anyone else do that before without being dominating.

Damen’s attention was all on Lykaios. “Look at me. Everyone on this couch is here because we love you, and we’re each so proud of you. We’d all love to say that we helped pick your dress, but it’s your wedding and we want you to be happy. So don’t worry about what anyone else is saying right now: what do you think of the dress?”

Jokaste and her mother turned silently towards Lykaios. Laurent held his breath. Lykaios opened her mouth, closed it again, blinked twice, opened her mouth again -

And then suddenly burst into tears.

 

They ushered Lykaios back into the dressing room, supporting her on either side and making a wall between her and the cameras. They almost never used these shots of a bride in tears retreating down the hallway away from her family, but they shot footage every time just in case and Laurent spared them a malevolent glare as he patted her shaking shoulders.

“This happens all the time,” Vannes was saying, as she shored up Lykaios’s other side, “It’s a very emotional time and things come out. You take all the time you need.”

When they got to the door, she all but pushed Lykaios inside. “We’re going to give you a minute, and then Laurent is going to come in and talk to you, OK?” she said, as she pulled the door closed before the camera operator could follow her inside. They couldn’t let “upset bride being comforted” go completely unfilmed, but they could offer her a moment of privacy.

Vannes leaned forward and spoke to Laurent softly, careful of being heard through the door. “Usually when the bride is this confused, it’s really getting married at all that she’s unsure about, but in this case I don’t think that’s it.”

No, Laurent agreed internally, it wasn’t. He knew what Vannes meant about secret doubts about the marriage manifesting as inability to make decisions, but her groom was the only thing today that they’d heard Lykaios speak with surety about.

“I’ll see if I can get to the bottom of it. You go talk to the entourage,” Laurent said, and he entered the room with a knock.

Lykaios had curled as far in the corner as she could and was holding the sweater she’d worn in that day up to her face.

“You can’t get silk wet,” she explained, chest heaving, as she leaned her face further out from the sample gown she was still wearing.

“Don’t worry about that,” said Laurent, handing her a handkerchief he carried with him for such occasions. Vannes was right; people did often cry at these things.

One of the camera operators had followed him inside, but Laurent could let her wait a little longer for footage before he started asking personal questions.

Very soon, however, there was a knock at the door. “I have a visitor,” said Vannes voice from outside.

Lykaios’s sobs immediately intensified. “I don’t want to see them right now,” she got out.

“You don’t have to,” Laurent said firmly, getting up to deal with whoever was at the door. But then a male voice said,

“Can I come in and apologize?”

And Lykaios said, “Damen?” in surprise, reaching her hand towards the door like she was grabbing for a lifeline, and Laurent had no choice but to let him inside.

“Hey,” he said again, softly, taking her hand and sitting beside her in the chair Laurent had just vacated while he and Vannes leaned against the wall. Normally, they gave the brides the illusion of privacy with their family and the camera, but neither of them seemed to want to leave Lykaios alone.

Damen being there was like a floodgate opening and almost as soon as he took her hand, Lykaios began speaking rapidly through her tears. “I’m making everyone wait and Vannes must have other appointments and I don’t know why I can’t do this what kind of stupid woman doesn’t even know whether or not she likes a d-dress-”

Laurent jerked off the wall, but Damen was there first. “Hey,” he said again, this time sharply. He put his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t. I never should have asked that of you. Because I know you, and I should have known how difficult this would be for you. You do know what you want. The trouble is that it’s the same thing that you’ve always wanted: to make other people happy. But today is supposed to be all about you. No wonder you’re confused right now.”

Damen started rubbing her shoulder. “That’s what’s so beautiful and wonderful about you. It’s also why we didn’t work.” He looked up at Laurent ruefully. “I need someone who’ll at least try to push me around a little, or I’ll bowl right over them without noticing,” he said, before turning his attention back to Lykaios. With the angles, it would look like he had been speaking to the camera.

“But Atkis is different The first thing he said when I told him I’d broken up with you was that I was an idiot and he was asking you out no matter what I thought about it. And I’m glad that he did, because I’ve never had so much respect for Atkis as when I saw what he’s like with you, the way he figures out how to center you and support you even while you’re busy trying to take care of everyone else.” She sniffed at him and smiled through the tears. “Why don’t you send me and Jokaste and your mother home, go out front and make a new appointment, and come back here with that fiance of yours. Let him help you figure out what you’re looking for.”

“I wish I could.”

“You can. Lyka, I promise you, you absolutely can.”

She shrugged her shoulders helplessly. “But I still want to surprise him.”

Vannes turned her head and gave Laurent a rueful glance.

“Ok. So I’ve been told I’m here to speak for Atkis, right? That’s the whole reason why I was dragged along on this appointment.” That got another smile from her. “Everyone seems to think that that means I’m supposed to tell you to put on something sexy, but let’s be real here. He’s seen your body. He already knows how great it is.”

“Damen!”

“This is your wedding day,” Damen continued. “He’s going to be looking at your face. And he’s going to want to see you wearing whatever dress is going to make that face light up the most. I know you want to make your mother and your sister happy, but if you have to think about pleasing someone other than yourself, think about him, and think about that.”

Lykaios had already nearly stopped crying and she took a few deep breaths to settle her down. “Ok,” she said, “Ok. But I still don’t know what that looks like.”

“Well, that’s why we came to the fancy place with all the experts right?” Damianos made a gesture that encompassed both Laurent and Vannes. “The whole idea of fashion, of design, is that what you wear says something about you, right?”

“Ideally,” Laurent confirmed.

Damen turned back to Lykaios. “Then tell them what you want Atkis to see from you on your wedding. Not things, like a ‘magician neck’ or whatever-”

“‘Illusion neck,’” Lykaios corrected quietly.

“But feelings, ideas, and they’ll find you the dress that says those things.” He turned back to them in appeal.

“That’s our job, honey,” Vannes said, smiling supportively at Lykaios, “We help confused brides figure out what they want every day.”

“Ok.” Lykaios took a deep breath. “I can do that,”

“Don’t worry about your mom and Jokaste. I’m going to go speak to them.” He stood up. “You alright now?”

“Yeah.”

He reached down and pulled her into a hug, so warm that Laurent could feel it from there and he only imagined what it would look like for the camera.

“See you on the floor,” he said, and left the room.

Laurent stared after him. That … was not what he had expected. He and Vannes had stayed because in wordless agreement, they’d both expected Damianos to come bumbling in there trying to fix things and trample all over Lykaios’s feelings until he’d made it even worse. Instead, he had calmed her down and gotten to the heart of the issue with an emotional intelligence Laurent found surprising. Then he had gone and described Laurent’ and Vannes’s jobs in the simplest terms but still with far more accuracy and respect than he would have expected from Mr. “You haven’t found it yet.”

His surprise must have shown in his face when he turned around, for she dabbed away the last bit of moisture from her eyes and gave him a significant look as she pointed at the closed door.

That ’s why I let Jokaste make him come to this appointment,” she said.

“I should say so,” said Vannes, coming around to take the seat Damen had vacated. “Now, when we were talking earlier about your groom, you said that no one who sees Damianos would believe you, but you know that you traded up.” She raised her eyebrow conspiratorially. “You knew he was capable of that the whole time, and you still stand by it?”

Lykaios smiled. “I do. I really do.”

Vannes and Laurent exchanged theatrically impressed looks.

“Well,” said Laurent, coming around to join them so the camera could get all three in the shot, “Tell us all about this incredible human being, and we’ll find you something that says exactly the things that you want to show him.”


On the show, they would cut it together as if they just needed one more dress after that - that once they had direction, they had immediately gone to the stock room and pulled the one perfect gown immediately.

Actually, he and Vannes both pulled two, for a total of four, which might have been the only dresses they needed if they’d started this appointment knowing what to do. Lykaios had told them enough for Laurent to pull out the adjectives, “Sweet. Romantic. Free,” and she’d nodded in approval at each one, actually lighting up at the last word. “Free,” she’d repeated, “That’s exactly right. I never would have said it myself, but … Everyone says good relationships are hard, that they take work, and they do, but - Being with him is so easy. It’s the easiest thing I’ve ever done and when he looks at me, I want him to see that.”

So Laurent and Vannes had gone back to the stockroom with that in mind - a tricky combination, but not impossible. “Romantic” usually meant lace, but “free” he thought rather meant not, so Laurent shifted through the racks without a particular silhouette in mind, but looking for gowns that were loose and airy, gowns that would make her seem to float down the aisle, ethereal, flowing, simple … He stopped suddenly as he remembered that Damianos had been telling them all day that the dresses they were pulling were too busy. He scowled and resolved never to let him know.

Lykaios had smiled in every dress they’d put on her that day, but Laurent could see the difference immediately when they helped her into the first gown of the new set: one of Laurent’s picks, Grecian-inspired with drapes of fabric and a long train that started at one shoulder and trailed behind her when she walked. There were smiles, and then there were smiles, and in this dress, she was glowing.

“I like this one,” Lykaios said, and Vannes grabbed his hand in triumph. She turned around, looking over her shoulder at the back of the dress in the mirror. She swished the skirt. “I like it a lot.”

Damianos saw the difference as well, breaking into an almost matching smile himself as soon as they brought her out to the show floor. “That’s the face we want to see.”

Beside him on the couch, her mother looked as though she had swallowed a lemon. “Whatever makes you happy, dear,” she said.

Lykaios’s face faltered for a moment before Jokaste jumped in.

“I love it,” she said, “The draping suits your figure so well, and the belt adds just the right touch of elegance. You look so beautiful and happy in it.”

Lykaios’s smile regained its strength and Laurent started to think they might be done here.

“But -” she went on.

“Jokaste,” Damen said warningly. She elbowed him in the ribs and continued.

“Honey you look so lovely, and that dress is so much more you than anything I tried to put you in, I see that now,” Jokaste said, “But this isn’t going to be a beach wedding. It’s a high-end venue, and it’s black tie. Every woman there will be wearing a very expensive evening gown. You don’t want to get something so simple that you could be outshone by your surroundings, or by one of your guests.”

Lykaios wrinkled her nose. “You had to have a point.” She looked back at the mirror and sighed. “But I like this one so much.”

“You could find a new venue and make it a more casual wedding if you wanted to,” Damen pointed out, “You’ve only sent out Save-the-Dates, it’s not too late to change things.”

“No,” Lykaios said, shaking her head, “We’re not basing the entire wedding around a dress, even if it is perfect.” She looked at Laurent and Vannes apologetically. “I’m sorry, but it is just a dress.”

“Do you have anything that could give a similar feel, but a little more upscale?” Jokaste asked.

“We have three more dresses in the room we have still to try,” Vannes assured them.

“But this is the one to beat,” Lykaios said firmly.

“It’s absolutely the top contender,” Jokaste agreed, “And you look halfway like a goddess in it anyway; if we can’t find something else you like just as much, we’ll drip you in such a divine amount of jewels that no one will care how simple the dress is.” She winked. “The perfume definitely approves.” Lykaios laughed a little and shook her head, and for the first time that afternoon, Laurent thought that she and Jokaste actually looked like sisters.

“I don’t know if we’re going to find that number of jewels,” they could hear her mother saying peevishly under her breath as they walked back to the dressing room.

“We’ll rent them, Ma,” Jokaste said, “Like actresses do at the Academy Awards.”

They could almost hear her satisfaction at that thought in the silence, and Lykaios had to put her hand over her mouth to keep from giggling.

 

In the end, they went with one of Vannes's picks: a ballgown with a simple bodice and a banded waist, but a very dramatic tiered skirt that cascaded down in falling layers. It had very little in common with Laurent’s first dress, but Lykaios loved the way the layers floated with her when she moved, and she was glowing inside it the same way she had with the first one.

“I hope this one looks expensive enough, because I really feel like a bride in it,” she said, giving them a twirl on the dais so they could watch the skirt move.

“It’s gorgeous,” Jokaste decreed, “And unique. You’ll definitely be the center of attention in it, no matter what anyone standing next to you is wearing.”

“And you really like it, right?” Damen asked, “You’re not just choosing what will fit the venue best?”

“I love this one,” Lykaios said, “It’s so different from the other one I love too, but they somehow give me the same feeling.”

“I knew we needed a ballgown,” their mother said, apparently deciding to claim this as a victory even though it looked almost nothing like what she’d originally asked for.

“Should we try this one with a veil?” Laurent asked, motioning for an assistant to come over, but Lykaios’s mother reached for something in a bag under her chair.

“There’s one more thing you have to match, Laurent.”

“If you pull out another bottle of perfume, I’m kicking you out of this salon.” For the cameras, he sounded like he was kidding, but if she found a new way to make this appointment more complicated just when it seemed to be finally over, she would learn how serious he was.

But Lykaios softened, blinking, when she saw her mother pull out a gold circlet fashioned of stylized laurel leaves.

“Mom, you brought a stefana?”

“Of course I did. We’ll pick out a nicer one later, naturally, but for now I thought we could see how you look in my old one.”

“But I’d like to wear yours.”

Lykaios’s mother shook her head. “Considering the way that marriage worked out, you don’t want to preserve anything from my wedding.” She stroked her daughter’s hair. “But your marriage will be different. You found a good man, and you’re going to be happy, and everything in your wedding will be all your own, including the stefana. ” She tilted her head, considering. “We should get you one with diamonds, I think, to make up for the dress not having any sparkle.”

Luckily, a crown was something Laurent had no inexperience matching, and as soon as the assistant was back with hair clips and drop earrings and an appropriate veil, he and Vannes had her hair swept up in a quick partial updo with stefana and veil in place.

There was a chorus of soft “oohs” from her loved ones as they saw the preview of what she would look like, and Lykaios’s mother started dabbing her eyes.

“Time for the final test,” Jokaste said gently, looking at her sister with soft eyes. She spritzed her with the perfume bottle and leaned in, closing her eyes to inhale deeply. “It’s a perfect match,” she announced, voice deep with emotion.

“It’s invisible,” Damen muttered behind her.

Enough of this. “Time for the question,” Laurent said, and he and Vannes took their positions on either side of the bride and spoke in practiced unison: “Lykaios, are you saying yes to the dress?”

“I’m saying yes to the dress!” she announced happily.

Applause from the couch, thank you’s all round, Vannes sweeping Lykaios off for measurements and sizing, and Laurent could finally get on with his day.


“So you got one too,” Vannes said, leaning against the doorway of Laurent’s office as he sorted through his mail. In one hand, she was holding a little folded card, about the same size and shape as the invitation Laurent had just opened.

“Nice of her to remember us,” Laurent said, though it wasn’t entirely unusually for brides he had helped to invite him to their weddings. It was nice that she had included Vannes, though - despite the consultants doing far more work for their brides than he did, they were remembered far less often.

“Are you going?”

“I never do,” Laurent said, “You?”

“I would. Venue like that, you know the food’s going to be amazing, and I’m always a slut for an open bar. But I’ll be out of the country that weekend.” She paused. “You know, Damianos asked about you when they brought him back for behind the scenes interviews.”

“I know,” said Laurent, “Because you’ve told me many times.” They asked the guests to wear the same clothes as their previous trip to create the illusion that their interview clips were collected in real time, but in reality it was done later when the salon was less busy, and Lykaios’s group had been brought back in on one of Laurent’s days off.

“Man who looks like that asks about me, I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to see him again.”

“You’re a lesbian, Vannes.”

“I’ve got eyes.” She shrugged. “Anyway, you’re not, so what’s your excuse.”

“I’m not interested in trying to scrounge up a date at a wedding reception.”

“You hardly seem interested in anything besides working here and having dinner with your brother.”

He shot her a glare.

“I’m just saying, it wouldn’t kill you to live a little.”

She shrugged off his doorway and moved on.

Laurent pulled out the little RSVP card that asked him whether he would accept with pleasure or decline with regret, and opened his desk drawer for a pen. At the bottom of the drawer was a magazine Vannes had brought in, a copy of ESPN’S Body Issue featuring athletes from the summer Olympics. Before Lykaios’s consultation, she had been showing it around to the other consultants, who’d giggled like schoolgirls over Damianos’s nude body, but ESPN belonged to a different media conglomerate than their network, and without that particular bit of silliness able to be aired without promoting a rival, Laurent had confiscated the issue to get everyone back to work. Now that the episode was filmed and cut, there was no reason not to give the magazine back to Vannes. But he hadn’t done that. He hadn’t thrown it out either.

There were a few photographs of Damianos Akielopoulos in the magazine - one leaping into the air in the middle of his run with a javelin over his shoulder; one with his feet planted as he braced in the act of letting it fly, legs forming a perfect triangle and an excellent view of the muscles of his back and truly magnificent ass - but it was the picture that had been chosen for the magazine’s centerfold that caught the most attention. Blown up into a double-page spread, the image encompassed a moment between the two smaller photos, Damianos’s body contorted as he shifted from his run to his stance, shoulders back and arms starting to spread to showcase his massive chest and torso that narrowed into the v of his waist, the bright lights of a track field at night throwing his muscles into sharp relief. He was twisted at the hips so that his legs were still facing the direction of his throw, face turned in that direction as well, displaying a noble profile as determined as a warrior on an ancient vase. The way the camera caught him mid-stride meant that the most interesting parts of him were blocked by the vastness of his thigh, but if it was at all in proportion to the rest of him, Laurent had a pretty good idea what he was missing.

He remembered the surprising insight and gentleness that had come out of this man when Lykaios needed him, the heat in his eyes when they had argued in the hall. He looked at the photograph for far too long, considering.

Then, abruptly, he snatched up the pen he had been searching for and filled out his RSVP, choosing, when it asked for his menu options, that he would have the beef.