As Damen downs his sixth shot of the night, sullen and hunched over the tabletop, Auguste comes to a very drunken realisation: his best friend is in love with his little brother.
It’s a thought which, for a moment, destabilises him. In a sheltered booth in Ivy, with loud, generic music blasting through every inch of the room, and the scent of strong, fruity drinks, Auguste feels simultaneously too drunk and too sober to deal with it.
But as he looks at Damen, his best friend of more than ten years, he knows, deep in his chest, that it’s true.
Damen has been morose for a while now, even before this trip to Isthima. Auguste thinks back to his business trip to Marlas, and how, on the last night, Damen had been withdrawn, quiet, completely unlike himself. Auguste had thought that it must have been because of the strange fight he and Laurent had had. He should have pressed harder, he realises, and found out why they had been fighting. But he’d been weak; he’d caught a look at Laurent’s face: shallow and frightened, and despite his instinctual urges, Auguste had let it go.
Now, he wonders, if it was something about…this: about Damen being in love with Laurent. Although, he’s not sure why it would be an issue. From what he knows – based on that one conversation with Laurent, granted – Laurent had been willing to date Damen. Maybe he had changed his mind?
Fuck it. Auguste really is too drunk for this.
Looking at Damen’s curls, which are frizzing at then ends, either from a lack of styling or because of the pressing humidity in the club, Auguste says loudly: “You’re jealous.”
Damen doesn’t appear to hear him at first. He’s lost in his own head, tracing imaginary patterns onto the woodwork.
Auguste kicks him under the table. The kick is harder than he wanted it to be; Damen winces, before his eyes snap up.
“You’re jealous,” Auguste says again, just as loudly. Nobody is paying them any attention; Berenger and Huet are on the dance floor. “Angry. Upset. All of the above.”
Damen’s been flushed since his third drink, but even under the dark lighting, Auguste can make out how red his ears become.
“Why would I be any of that?” Despite the steadiness of his tone, Damen is slurring a little. His eyes shift to a point over Auguste’s shoulder.
“Because Laurent is on a date with Torveld.”
Damen’s eyes blaze with heated anger. He visibly tries to reign himself, even as his jaw clenches.
Aha, thinks Auguste.
Mouth pursed, Damen says, “He’s not on a date.”
Auguste shrugs. He pretends not to notice Damen’s obvious anger. “Hmm, I don’t know. Seemed that way to me.” He takes a sip of his whiskey. “They seemed to be very into each other. Laurent was practically in his lap at my birthday dinner.”
The music in Ivy is overbearing; it’s like it’s rattling in the inside of Auguste’s skull. Even then, Auguste can hear the way Damen is grinding his teeth.
Auguste waits a beat. Then he waits some more. Damen remains silent.
Auguste curses in his head. Just a small: for fuck’s sake. He takes another sip of his drink. “Damen,” he begins slowly, “are you in love with Laurent?”
Damen’s tight jaw finally slackens. It drops open, and the colour on his face darkens, all the way down to his neck.
“No,” he says. It comes out strangled.
Damen has always been a terrible liar. He’s the kind of man that should not be in charge of a company; he’s too transparent in a ruthless, cutting industry. But that’s the charm of Damen, too; he’s a fearless leader.
Right now, though, Damen is acting like a melodramatic idiot. As his best friend, Auguste is allowed to think that.
Auguste says, “Dude, look –”
“Don’t.” It’s a short, sharp word. Damen looks horrified. He staggers to his feet. “I – I need some air.”
“Ah, fuck,” Auguste says. As Damen stumbles through the crowd – with little effort due to his size – Auguste calls out, “Damen, wait!”
Damen ignores him. By the time Auguste manages to get up, Damen has already slipped out the back entrance.
Auguste pushes past the crowd; he’s tall too but he doesn’t do it with as much ease as Damen. It’s probably because he’s drunk.
The night air is cool and refreshing against Auguste’s flushed face. The sky is clear and littered with stars; Isthima is the new love of Auguste’s life.
Auguste casts his eyes towards the end of the street. Damen is seated on the curb side, near the street sign, head down, hands buried in his hair.
There’s a surging amount of guilt and worry bubbling in Auguste’s chest. He approaches Damen cautiously. “Damen…” He considers what to say; he really is too drunk for this.
Damen says something. It’s muffled into his biceps; Auguste can’t make it out.
Damen looks up; his eyes are bloodshot. “I said: you’re right.”
“Oh. Ah.” Auguste sits down next to him. “You know…it’s okay if you are.”
“No. It isn’t. I shouldn’t even –” Damen cuts himself off, running an aggravated hand through his hair. “I shouldn’t feel that way about him. It’s wrong.”
“Feeling isn’t necessarily wrong, Damen,” Auguste says. “And you’re obviously self-aware enough to understand that…that this isn’t the most ideal situation.”
Damen’s laugh is dry and humourless. “He trusts me to take care of him. I don’t want to take advantage of him by – by springing this shit onto him.”
Auguste frowns. “What do you mean ‘take care of him’? Laurent can take care of himself just fine.”
Damen shakes his head. “I know that. I just mean –” He takes a sharp breath. “I want to be there for him, but I also…I also want more. And it’s so fucked up because I shouldn’t want that.”
A car passes by them, windows down, blaring an obnoxious track. Auguste waits until it turns at the end of the street to say, “Have you tried talking to Laurent about this?” He thinks of their fight.
Damen turns to him, eyes wide. “No. No, absolutely not. I can’t.”
“Why not?” Auguste tries to sound acquiescent. “I think Laurent would be more understanding than you realise.” Again, his mind wanders to the conversation all those months ago: Laurent’s quiet voice in the middle of the night, yearning, and trying to take advantage of an unknown, terrifying situation with all the dauntlessness of a nineteen year old.
A small line creases Damen’s forehead, right above his eyebrows. He watches Auguste for a moment. His voice comes out quiet when he says, “Do you remember how things ended with Jokaste?”
Auguste has to squash the sudden anger that flashes through him. Jokaste is a dark, ugly stain in Damen’s history. Now, he only says, “Of course I remember.”
Damen nods. “I know you all think her cheating was kind of the breaking point between us; obviously, it affected our relationship. But the truth is, we had been at a bad place for a while.” Damen shudders, eyes now back on the gravel beneath his shoes. “Everything we did was documented all the time – to the point where when we stepped out, we just sat at home waiting for the article to pop up. The things they would say about her; they were unfair, harsh – and it always bothered her, even though she pretended it didn’t.”
Auguste is shocked to hear that, truthfully. His memories of Jokaste are far from pleasant; her grating comments, her worldview, her attitude – all of it annoyed him. It’s strange to think Jokaste, for all her nastiness, could be human, too.
Damen continues, “It’s like that way with anyone I’ve been with. The intrusiveness of the outside world…it drives them crazy. And then there are my parents – you know how they are.”
Auguste nods. Over the years, Damen has distanced himself from Mr and Mrs Vallis more and more. They’re good people, but as parents their love is conditional; they demand perfection from their sons, and when they fail to deliver it, they become cold, almost tyrannical. Damen is more sensitive than Kastor; as a result, it often takes him weeks to get over fights with his parents. Auguste recalls how, back in university, Damen had confessed that his parents often set him up romantically with suitable peers. Now that he thinks about, Auguste is sure that’s how Jokaste and Damen met: at a Vallis Tech corporate party.
“I don’t want Laurent to go through any of that,” Damen says, when Auguste remains quiet. Behind them, the backdoor opens, briefly exposing the street to a cacophony of noise, before it slams shut, and they’re wrapped in their own bubble once more. “I’ve never met anyone like him. I could listen to him talk for hours. I dread it every time I have to leave him. Sometimes, all he does is just look at me and I –” Damen closes his eyes, face twisting in anguish.
It makes a lump grow in Auguste’s throat. It’s an unexpected reaction; he’s not an emotional person. But something about the way Damen is talking about Laurent, Auguste’s favourite person in the entire world, is making him feel gratitude towards his best friend. Laurent is an amazing person, and it’s always hurt Auguste that Laurent has never been aware of his own worth. It’s gratifying that one of the best men Auguste has ever known loves Laurent for who he is.
Quietly, Auguste says, “I understand, but if this is something you really want, I don’t think you should let the possibility of a few negative outcomes stop you. Laurent is tougher than you think.” He takes a breath. “For what it’s worth…I think you two would be a good for each other.”
“He makes me a better man.” Damen’s confession is equally as quiet.
Silence settles over them for a few, steady moments. The streets are empty by now; there aren’t any more cars rolling by.
“So you’re just going to let him go?” Auguste finally asks. Even after everything Damen has explained, it’s disappointing to realise.
Damen’s smile is fleeting, and insincere. “I think I’m too selfish for that. I want to still be in his life – however…however he wants me.”
“Even if it means Laurent ends up with Torveld? Or someone else?”
Damen’s eyes flicker to his. “Yes.”
“Damen –” Auguste shakes his head. He truly doesn’t know what to say anymore.
“I know,” Damen says. His insincere smile is back, shadowing his face, the line of his jaw. “The fucked up part is…There are days when I just think what if? What if I ignored all the bad possibilities and just went for it?”
“You’re worried about hurting him.”
“All the time.” Damen’s laugh is a bitter, callous thing. “I don’t ever want to be the cause of his pain.” He winces after he says it, like he’s remembered something awful.
It’s obvious now that the conversation is over; Damen hunches in on himself once more. Auguste supposes everything that needs to be laid out has been.
“Thank you, for trusting me with all this,” Auguste says. In their friendship, sincere moments like these are rare, but cherished. When Damen nods, Auguste continues. “I’m always going to be here for you.”
This time, there’s a genuine lightness in Damen’s smile and eyes. “Thanks. That means a lot, honestly.” He hesitates. “Can I ask for a favour, though?”
Damen faces him head on. “Please don’t tell Laurent about any of this ever. After tonight, I don’t want to talk about it anymore ever again – so please, don’t say anything that might make him feel uncomfortable towards me. I still – his friendship is important to me.”
“Okay,” Auguste nods slowly. Everything inside of him is yelling at him to pull Laurent aside and tell him of Damen’s reciprocated feelings, but he knows how unfair that would be to Damen. This is more than just a case of a few strong feelings; it’s bigger than that.
As silence presses down on them again, Auguste tries valiantly to lighten the mood. “Let’s go back inside. I need a few more drinks, and I promise when I confess my feelings for your brother, the conversation won’t be so fucking sad.”
Damen snorts. Then his shoulders start shaking with laughter. “I hate you,” he says finally; weirdly, it’s a relief to see the white of Damen’s teeth as his mouth settles into a grin.
“I love you too, pumpkin,” Auguste says, eyelashes fluttering in an exaggerated manner. “Now come on; as the birthday boy, I demand more drinks.”
Damen and he stand up together. Right before they step back into Ivy, Auguste ruffles Damen’s curls. It’s not much, but Auguste is hopeful it conveys everything he wants to say: You’re going to be okay. And so is Laurent.
Damen smiles. He understands.
Six months later, Auguste receives a call from Laurent in the dead of night. It’s almost three am; for Auguste, he’s only just preparing to go to bed. It’s unusual to get a call from Laurent so late; his little brother is in bed by nine on a weekday.
Auguste detangles himself from the knotted bedsheets; the lady he had met in the bar grunts as she presses her naked chest to the mattress. She had been fun, and very flexible. Auguste is almost tempted to ask for her number, even though he knows he most definitely won’t.
There’s nowhere to go to answer Laurent’s call. Auguste is on a business meeting in Barbin; the hotel room he’s in is small, but there’s a balcony, so he heads outside, shivering at the cool night air.
“Help,” is the first thing Laurent says.
The contentment Auguste had been feeling after his fuck evaporates in an instant. Now, his body surges with adrenaline at the distress in Laurent’s voice.
“What is it?” he says. “Who hurt you?”
“No!’’ Laurent says quickly. “Sorry – it’s not like that.”
Auguste relaxes by a fraction. “What’s wrong?”
Laurent’s breathing is laboured on the line; it manages to keep Auguste on edge. “It’s the census date today.”
“Ah,” says Auguste.
In his final semester last year, Laurent had taken an elective on Roman History. For Laurent, it had apparently been lifechanging; he’d made friends in the class, had excelled in it to the point where the professor had encouraged him to minor in it, and most importantly, he’d enjoyed it. In fact, Laurent had become so enamoured with the subject, he had considered enrolling into a dual degree of English and Ancient History, with a minor in Roman History.
Auguste had told him to go for it, and so had his friend Aimeric, but Hennike and Aleron didn’t share the same sentiment. They argued that adding another two years to Laurent’s degree was pointless, especially with a degree that had such a limited career scope.
His parents have always been overly cautious when it comes to Laurent. As a child, Laurent required a lot of attention, and as he’d grown older, it had been hard for his parents to break those habits.
To this day, Auguste doesn’t like thinking of Laurent in his teenage years. Guilt stirs in his stomach when he remembers how careless he’d been with Laurent’s feelings. It’s frightening to think he may have lost his brother forever.
After several arguments with their parents, Laurent had reluctantly given into their demands. Instead of enrolling into a dual degree program, he would quietly finish his current degree and start fulltime employment. Auguste had protested loudly against it; it was only when Laurent told him let it go, did he stop.
Now though, it seems like Laurent may be regretting his decision.
“It’s the last day to enrol,” Laurent says now. There’s still some panic in his voice. Auguste can make out the muffled sound of feet sliding across tiles; Laurent must be pacing.
“So what are going to do about it?” Auguste keeps his own voice mild.
“I don’t know!” Laurent whines. There’s some more shuffling. “Nothing. I’m going to do nothing.”
“Okay,” says Auguste. “Then do nothing.”
Laurent pauses; the shuffling has stopped. “I –”
Fondness swells in Auguste’s chest. Pressing his smile into the phone screen he says, “Laurent. Do you want to enrol in a dual degree, yes or no? Don’t think, just answer,” he adds when he hears the start of a protest from Laurent’s mouth.
“Yes,” says Laurent quietly. “But Mama and Papa –”
“Are stubborn as fuck, but they’ll understand. If this is something you really want to do, then you and I both know they’re going to stand by you no matter what.”
When there’s no reply, Auguste says lightly, “Well, if you don’t manage to enrol by today, there’s always next year. If you can wait that long.”
Absolute silence. Auguste stretches, peering over the concrete railing to look at Barbin landscape; it’s mostly long stretches of farm.
Finally, Laurent says, “Can you stay on the phone with me while I do it?”
Auguste smiles. “Of course.”
He hears clicking a few minutes later. Auguste zones out a little; the rhythmic clicking of keys is soothing, and it almost lulls him to sleep.
He swears his eyes are drifting close, when through the tinny speakers of the phone, he hears it: another pair of footsteps, heavier in their stride, and getting closer to the clicking.
Unmistakably, Damen’s voice drifts through. “…heading out now, alright?”
“Yeah, sure,” Laurent says. Auguste assumes his phone is placed down somewhere, because for several moments, there’s just the sound of rustling and muted voices. A door closes.
Auguste’s curiosity is peaked. When the phone is picked up again, he says, “Was that Damen?”
“Damen. I swear I just heard him over the phone.” He furrows his eyebrows. “Where are you?”
“At home,” Laurent says. “In my apartment.”
Fucking hell, the apartment. Auguste had given Damen a firm lecture on splurging when he’d found out about its existence. His lecture to Laurent about accepting excessively lavish gifts had been less resolute; once Laurent had begun squirming with guilt, Auguste had relented.
Auguste presses on, “So, Damen wasn’t at your apartment just now?”
Laurent hesitates for a second. “Yes, he was.”
“Why?” Auguste frowns. “He told me yesterday that he was flying to Patran.”
“No, he is,” Laurent says. His voice is a little high pitched; it keeps cracking. “But he also had some work in the Marlas office, so he came by.”
Auguste ponders over this. “He came over to your apartment at…” He peers at his phone, “three thirty in the morning?”
“Marlas is four hours behind you, remember? It’s closer to midnight here.”
“Ah.” Auguste supposes that make sense. However, he can’t help the small seed of worry that grows in him; Damen shouldn’t be hanging out with Laurent so frequently. They haven’t had the chance to properly talk over the last few months due to hectic schedules, but Auguste assumes Damen is still very much in love with Laurent. He could be wrong, of course, but he doesn’t think so; the way Damen had spoken about Laurent…it had seemed like a forever kind of thing.
It’s unhealthy, he thinks. Right now, Damen should try and distance himself from Laurent, at least for a while.
“I’ve completed the form,” Laurent says. Auguste can imagine him, seated at his dining table, buzzing with anticipation. “Should I click ‘submit’?”
“Yes,” says Auguste firmly. There’s no answer, so he says, “Alright, I’ll count down: three, t –”
“I did it.” Laurent’s laugh is breathy, laced with disbelief. “Oh my god.”
“Congratulations.” Auguste smiles, head tilted towards the sky.
“I might not even get accepted. They have to look at all my marks and –”
“Laurent, if you don’t get in, I will personally saw off my big toe.”
Laurent lets out another laugh. It’s a fond sound. “The left one or the right one?”
After he says goodbye to Laurent, Auguste stays out in the balcony, enjoying the quiet of the night. Before he heads back to the bed and its occupant, he sends Damen a text:
stop torturing yourself man.
A few weeks later, while Laurent is on midterm break, Auguste invites him to stay at his place for the weekend. After some deliberation, Auguste also invites Damen. For a moment, he feels guilty over it; surely, the last thing Damen wants is to be constantly in Laurent’s presence while battling feelings for him. Then he tells himself he’s being ridiculous: he can’t spend the rest of his life walking around eggshells whenever Damen and Laurent are together.
Damen arrives hours before he’s meant to with his usual fanfare: he hugs Auguste until his ribs crack, before he goes over to his duffel bag and brings out neatly wrapped boxes.
Auguste tears into everything eagerly; after all this time, there’s no point protesting against Damen’s gift giving spiel unless it involves houses, yachts or jets.
“This is nice,” Auguste says, rubbing the collar of a thick, woollen jacket from Tommy Hilfiger. The colour is darker than what he prefers, but the material alone makes up for it.
Damen nods, “Laurent liked it too. His is red.”
Auguste looks up at that. He arches an eyebrow. “You gave one to Laurent?”
Damen rubs the back of his neck, sheepishly. “Well, a while ago.”
Auguste stares at Damen. Something seems off. Damen keeps squirming, and his eyes dart between Auguste and the far wall every few seconds.
Damen has always been a terrible liar; Auguste just isn’t sure what he could be lying about this time. It’s not as though Auguste is unaware of Damen buying Laurent things: Laurent has shown up to family dinners wearing vintage Chanel for fuck’s sake.
He waits a moment. Damen taps his fingers on his knees, still not quite looking at him.
Auguste sighs. It’s hard to be suspicious of a man who’s just bought him a new fall wardrobe. He also doesn’t have the heart to lecture Damen on boundaries and healthy relationships minutes after seeing him for the first time in months.
Laurent arrives on time, exhausted and thinner than he was a few months ago. But his skin is glowing: there’s an even, luminous quality to it, his hair is styled perfectly, and it shines gold underneath Auguste’s kitchen lights. The shade of his hair matches the gold band of his watch and the gold lining threaded through his sweater.
Auguste feels bewildered looking at him. It’s the first time he’s noticed how grown up Laurent is. He’s twenty now, but all Auguste can think of is when his parents had come back from the hospital, a bundled weight resting in their arms.
It’s an unconscious decision to hug Laurent tight. Up until this moment, Auguste hadn’t realised how much he’d missed his brother.
Damen hugs Laurent with an enthusiastic amount of vigour. Auguste’s eyebrows raise when Damen nuzzles into Laurent’s hair. He dismisses his initial plan – he definitely needs to talk to Damen at some point tonight about boundaries.
The collar of Damen’s white button down shirt shifts as he extracts himself from Laurent’s embrace. It pulls lower, exposing the line of Damen’s neck and his collarbone.
That’s when Auguste sees it: just underneath Damen’s collarbone, on his left pec, there are three inked numbers.
50 / 80 / 5
The tattoo is minimalist in its style; the sizing and font are small and delicate. Auguste would have missed it completely if he hadn’t been staring at Damen.
Now he says, “Oi!” loud enough to startle both Laurent and Damen.
Damen’s earlier expression filters onto his face; it’s guilt and trepidation all rolled together.
Laurent steps back, moving towards Auguste once again. Auguste can see the tattoo even more clearly. Against the brown of Damen’s skin, the black ink is rich in its colouring. Auguste jabs his finger against it. Damen grunts a little.
“How long have you had this?” he demands.
Damen looks down, surprised, as though he’d forgotten about it. “Oh. Uh. A few months?”
“What?” says Auguste. “Since when are you into tattoos? Where did you get this done?”
“In Ios,” says Damen. He steps away from Auguste’s prodding finger. “I thought it’d be…cool to get one.”
Auguste stares at him in disbelief. Damen has never expressed an interest in getting inked, even at the height of their stupid shenanigans. Damen, who wears blazers as his casual outfit, has always seemed too proper for them.
Auguste doesn’t know why it’s so startling for him. He thinks it might be because he’s seen Damen’s body, unmarked, for years, and to see the ink across his pec, however inconspicuous, is a bit disorientating.
“Well, what does it mean?” He finally asks. It must be something significant; Damen wouldn’t have just inked himself for any reason.
Damen shrugs, “Stuff.”
“Stuff,” Auguste repeats.
From the entrance of the kitchen, Laurent says, “Auguste, can you help me with my bags please?”
Auguste turns to Laurent. There are three duffel bags by his feet.
“Why the fuck do you have so many bags? You’re only here for two nights.”
Laurent flushes. “This bag has my textbooks.” His foot nudges the bulging, brown leather Coach bag. “My exams are in three days, in case you forgot.”
“Ah, right.” Auguste swivels back to Damen. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten about that tattoo. You’re going to tell me what it means.”
“Alright,” Damen says, amused. He’s already walking over to Laurent, picking up two bags with ease. Show off.
Laurent smiles at him. Damen grins back, his expression completely besotted.
For fuck’s sake, thinks Auguste.
For dinner, Damen suggests a local Italian place with excellent wine. Auguste already knows which restaurant he’s talking about: they’ve frequented it together, often.
The lighting in Vines and Grapes is yellow and dim; it’s almost like mood lighting. It’s soft and romantic, and Laurent’s hair shines even more in it; it catches the eyes of a few patrons.
Laurent and Damen seat themselves next to each other, while Auguste takes the seat opposite. Damen is relaxed in the chair, back pressed to the leather, and his right arm dangling over the top rail of Laurent’s chair. Laurent, in comparison, is tense; he keeps gnawing at his thumbnail, eyes darting over their surroundings, too quickly for him to actually appreciate the hanging lanterns or the artwork along the wall.
Auguste nudges him with his foot. “Hey, everything okay?”
Damen turns to Laurent in an instant, concerned.
Laurent flushes under the attention. “Oh, yeah, I’m fine. I’m just stressed about exams, that’s all.”
Auguste gives him a reassuring smile. “You’ll do fine. You always do.”
Laurent nods. “Thanks.” His smile is wan. “It’s just…I want to do well in the Ancient History components to show Mama and Papa that I – you know.” He flushes again; the colour vines across his cheeks. “That I didn’t make a mistake.”
“Don’t think like that,” August tells him. “You know your stuff. And if you do fail – although I don’t see that happening – it’s not the end of the world. I think I failed my entire second semester in third year.”
Damen nods. He flings Laurent a sure, steady smile. “He’s right. You’re going to be fine.”
The waiter comes over then, to take their orders, and Laurent looks relieved.
Auguste doesn’t want to stress Laurent out any further; even though all he wants to do is sit here for the rest of the night reassuring his brother, he turns to Damen instead.
“So?” Damen says, eyebrows furrowed.
“What does your tattoo mean?” Auguste can’t see it now; Damen’s shirt is buttoned, but he still remembers how it looks. “Also, side note: I’m kinda sad you didn’t ask me for any suggestions.”
Damen snorts into the rim of his glass. “Please. I couldn’t risk whatever shit you would have come up with.”
Auguste grins. “Come on, tell me.” He kicks Damen under the table, hard, and is gratified when Damen jumps in his seat.
Damen is contemplative. He stares at Auguste for a few beats, then says, “Guess.”
“Yeah. I want to hear what you think it could be.”
Auguste thinks back to the three numbers: 50 / 80 / 5. He can’t discern what it could be.
“Is it a date?” he asks, even though he knows the answer to it already.
“Nope,” Damen shakes his head. His grin is easy, loose.
“Oi,” Auguste addresses Laurent. “Help me out.”
Laurent says, “What was it again? I didn’t get a good look at it.”
“Didn’t you?” Damen looks incredibly amused. His dimple deepens with his smirk. The hand dangling over Laurent’s chair presses into Laurent’s shoulder, just a brief touch.
“No,” Laurent juts his chin forward as he looks at Damen. He seems amused too.
Auguste doesn’t like this; he feels like he’s missed the first part of a joke and arrived in time for the punchline instead.
“It’s three numbers: fifty, eighty and five,” Auguste says. They both startle, as if they’d forgotten he was even there. It peeves Auguste a little. “With slashes in between.”
“Hmm,” Laurent takes a sip of his wine, looking thoughtful. For some reason, this makes Damen smile wider. “Is it a math equation? What’s fifty times eighty times…”
“Twenty thousand,” Auguste says. He pulls out his phone to confirm. “Yep. Twenty thousand.”
“Is that a significant number to you?” Laurent asks Damen. “Maybe it’s how much Vallis Tech is worth.”
Damen laughs, crowding into Laurent’s space. Laurent doesn’t pull away. “You think that’s how much my company is worth, Revere?”
“It could be.” Laurent’s smile is coy.
“I’m pretty sure the printers alone cost more there,” Auguste says.
Laurent looks at him again, but he still doesn’t move away from Damen. Their elbows brush against each other.
“Then I have no idea,” Laurent shrugs. “I give up.”
“So soon?” Damen says, and Laurent huffs, elbowing him in the chest.
Auguste tries again. “Is it coordinates?”
“Fucking hell! Just tell me, please.” He’s not above begging.
“Just tell him,” Laurent says, nudging Damen again. “Us, I mean.”
Damen raises his eyebrows, staring down at Laurent with an inscrutable expression, until Laurent flushes and looks away. He then says to Auguste: “Maybe later. This is fun.”
“You’re a cruel man, Damianos,” Auguste says, with a sombre, slow shake of his head. “You’re breaking my heart over here, dude.”
Laurent laughs. The tension from earlier has left his body.
Their food arrives then, briefly putting a pause to their conversation. Auguste still isn’t letting this go. He tells Damen this, pointing his fork at him. “I’m going to figure it out, man.”
Damen smiles. His eyes shine with it. “We’ll see.”
It’s late when they get back to the apartment; Damen had wanted to watch a movie, and then go to a dessert bar. Auguste hadn’t been in any position to refuse.
Laurent doesn’t head to the guest bedroom like Auguste expects him to – or rather he does, but then he comes back out almost immediately, lugging that ridiculous bag, his laptop tucked under his arm.
“What are you doing?” Damen says. “It’s two in the morning.”
“What he said,” Auguste says, bemused and concerned.
Laurent places his textbooks and laptop on the table; there’s no care in his placement. “I need to finish some readings. It won’t take that long.”
He heads over to the coffee machine. Auguste glances at the textbooks covering his dining table: Roman Politics, The Roman Atlas, The History of the Roman Republic, and sighs.
“Laurent, if this was a bad time for you –”
“No!” Laurent stops fiddling with the coffee machine to stare at him, wide eyed. “I told you I wanted to visit. Stop worrying so much.”
“We can’t help it,” Damen says then. His eyes don’t leave Laurent.
Auguste sighs, this time internally. He needs to find a way to stop this.
“Alright,” he says. “We’ll leave you to it. But don’t stay up too long.”
Laurent nods and smiles. Damen stays rooted in place, by the kitchen counter, still eyeing Laurent with an unnerving amount of disquietude.
“Come on,” Auguste says, pulling his sleeve as he walks past Damen. “There’s something I need to show you in my room.”
Once they’re safely tucked away in the master bedroom, the door sealed shut, Auguste whirls onto his best friend.
“Dude, you need to cut this shit out.”
Damen seated on his bed, shirt now unbuttoned enough to expose that ridiculous tattoo, blinks. “What?”
Auguste crosses his arms, standing over Damen. Like this, he’s much taller. Auguste hopes he just looks stern enough to carry his argument. “I don’t think it’s healthy for you to still be fixated on Laurent like this.”
Damen’s eyes widen, before they flicker down to the carpet. His hands twist with the bedding. “Is it that obvious?”
“Unfortunately. It’s written all over your face every time you so much as look at him.” Damen’s mouth quirks a little at that. Auguste presses on, voice hardening. “If you keep it up, Laurent is going to figure it out too.”
Damen looks at him. In this lighting, the colour of his eyes is similar to honey. “I can’t help it.”
Auguste shakes his head. He feels a sudden urge to be protective over both Damen and Laurent.
“Maybe I should set you up with someone.”
Damen blanches. “I don’t think so. I mean – I’ll get over this. Uh, eventually.”
“I just don’t want to see you get your hopes up about something that might not even happen.” Auguste tries to gentle his tone. He doesn’t want to sound be pitying; god knows how many times he’s made that mistake with Damen over the years, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for Damen when he’s like this.
Damen clears his throat. He runs his hands over his knees, a nervous habit he’s had since childhood, apparently. “Thank you…but I think I’ll be fine. Honestly.”
Auguste shakes his head again. He can only hope.
It’s only hours later when Auguste’s sleep breaks naturally. Lazily blinking his eyes open, he fishes around his bedsheets for his discarded phone. The light from it is blinding, but Auguste can make out that it’s about ten past five – definitely too early to get out of bed.
Auguste tries to go back to sleep; outside, the birds are already making noise, a car drives by, there’s distant chatter, and his bladder is full.
“Ugh, fuck it.” Auguste decides to relieve himself. On his way to the bathroom, he shuts the window, and once more, the room descends into silence.
When he finishes pissing, he realises he can still hear the low hum of conversation, even through his closed window. It takes him longer than it should – Auguste’s brain has limited functionality in the mornings – to realise that the voices are coming from his living room.
Tiptoeing down the corridor, he peeks his head through the entrance of the living room.
Laurent is seated on the kitchen countertop, still dressed in his clothes from last night. He rubs at his eyes, sniffling.
Damen, situated firmly in between his legs, murmurs something too quiet for Auguste to hear into Laurent’s ear. Unlike his brother, Damen is wearing his pyjamas: an expensive silk set, sans shirt. Auguste frowns.
“I know,” Laurent says. He lets out a wet laugh. “I don’t know why I keep freaking myself out like this.”
“You just need a break,” says Damen. “Some time to relax.”
“That’s why I’m here, aren’t I?” Laurent mouth droops in the corners; it makes it look like he’s pouting. “I just don’t want to disappoint anyone.”
“You won’t,” Damen says, so firmly, it almost takes Auguste by surprise. The conviction in Damen’s voice is heady. “You’re going to ace your exams and then…” Auguste’s eyes widen when Damen presses a kiss to Laurent’s neck, “we’ll head over to some faraway island and celebrate.”
“You’re horrible,” Laurent says. His laugh is much more genuine now as he pushes Damen away. Did Auguste imagine that kiss?
“And I think you’re wonderful,” Damen says. “You’ll get through this, like always.”
Laurent smiles. He places his hand on Damen’s neck, fingers grazing the shaven hair there. “Thanks. You’re sweet.”
Auguste expects the kiss this time. He doesn’t why he does, but there’s something about the way Damen is smiling, relaxed and fond, that highlights his desire.
It’s shocking to see Laurent eagerly respond to Damen’s kiss. And then it isn’t shocking at all; Auguste realises they must have done this before. Perhaps for a while now; he hasn’t seen Laurent so calm in a long time.
When Laurent lets out a small, cut-off moan, Auguste comes back to his senses. He’s been starting at them too long – and as much as he loves both of them, Auguste honestly doesn’t want to see his little brother in this position ever again.
Back in the quiet of his bedroom, Auguste isn’t quite sure what to do so he says, “Well,” and when he can’t think of anything else, he says it again, “Well.”
It’s almost noon when Auguste manages to get out of bed again; he’d fallen asleep sometime after seven.
Laurent is on the sofa, an open textbook sprawled on his lap, and a highlighter in his hand. Damen is next to him, reading the news on his phone. He looks up at Auguste with a grin. “Hey. We made pancakes for you, but they’re probably cold now. And Laurent burnt about six of them.”
Laurent shoves Damen. “Fuck off. You kept distracting me!”
“How?” Damen says, a little too innocently to be genuine.
Laurent huffs. He glances at Auguste and flushes. “Fuck off,” he says again, going back to his textbook. This one is called: The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Auguste considers them carefully. All this time, he’s been too busy watching Damen: his face, his body, every time he interacted with Laurent. Damen’s signs are easy; the admiration and fondness on his face are hard to miss. He’s like an open book. But Laurent is too, in his own way. He’s so comfortable around Damen it’s ridiculous. Auguste doesn’t think he’s ever seen this side of Laurent: playful, shy, a little inexperienced. He realises now that for every time Damen had been looking at Laurent, Laurent had been looking right back.
Auguste clears his throat. “So, how long have you two been dating?”
“Since –” Laurent cuts himself off, wide- eyed. He closes his textbook with a resounding snap. Damen drops his phone onto the carpet. He looks up at Auguste, horrified.
Auguste raises his eyebrows, biting down on his smile. “Well?”
Laurent looks at Damen, then back at Auguste, face colouring. “We were going to tell you.”
“Tonight, actually,” Damen says. His face is red too. “It’s not like – well, we weren’t keeping it a secret.”
“Technically,” Laurent says. He still looks mortified. “How did you –”
Auguste puffs out his chest. “I’m a smart dude.”
Laurent nods, biting his lip, face completely red. “You saw us kissing this morning.”
“No, I figured it out, thank you very much –”
Laurent turns to Damen. “I told you I heard footsteps.”
“Alright fine!” Auguste throws his hands in the air. “Maybe I saw you two, but I was this close to figuring it out!”
“Not really,” Damen says. He’s starting to loosen; the curve of his smile is amused. “You literally told me two days ago that I didn’t have any chance with Laurent.”
“Oi!” Auguste snaps. “I was on the right path.”
“I don’t think so,” says Laurent.
“Unbelievable! You’re already ganging up on me. I demand you break up.” He says the last part with a smile. Now that he’s faced with this, Auguste’s chest is light with happiness.
Laurent gives him smile. It’s shy and unbearably sweet. “Since November.”
“Before…you asked how long we’ve been together. Since November.”
Auguste does the math in his head. Exactly six months. He smiles. “Congratulations. I’m happy for you guys.”
“Yeah?” For the first time, there’s apprehension in Damen’s tone. There’s a flicker of doubt scratched onto his face.
Auguste keeps his smile wide. “Of course.”
Later, Laurent pulls him out onto the balcony. Damen is still getting ready for dinner.
“You’re really okay with this?” Laurent says, biting into his thumbnail. “About Damen and I?”
“I promise,” Auguste smiles. “I’ve been rooting for the two of you for a long time.”
Laurent’s shoulders relax. His fingers trail across the railing. “I’m sorry we waited so long to tell you. Damen was in Ios until the end of January, so were trying to figure out how to navigate through a long distance relationship – and then when he finally came back to Marlas, we decided we’d wait until we could actually sit down and talk to you to tell you.”
“Hey,” Auguste squeezes Laurent’s shoulder. “There’s no need to apologise. Like I said, I’m just happy you two are happy.”
“Thank you. That means a lot, coming from you – for the both of us.”
Auguste chuckles. “I’m honoured you guys think so highly of me.”
“Of course we do,” says Laurent, eyebrows furrowing, like he’s not thought of Auguste in any other way.
Auguste’s chest bubbles in delight once again.
The doors to the balcony slide open. Damen steps out, dressed in his usual uniform: slacks and dress shirts that are too tight around his biceps.
He gives them both a smile, but Auguste isn’t paying attention to him; his eyes are fixated on the ink peeking out beneath Damen’s shirt. Up until this moment, Auguste had genuinely forgotten about it.
Now, however, he’s just realised something. 50 / 80 / 5. In Roman numerals, those numbers mean: L / R / V. As in – Laurent Revere.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” says Auguste.