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One the Other

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The night was long with waiting but what could Damen do but wait. He made the orders. He had to follow through. Paschal said that the absence of further ingestion should be enough to turn the tide of sickness. Damen had to believe that.

“What about an antidote?”

“Until your interrogations yield results, it is too risky.”

“You are an educated man. Take an educated guess,” Damen said. “Does the Regent favour any particular poison?”

“I am not in a position to know. Physicians save, as far as I am concerned. They do not harm.”

Damen waited. He sent his guard to his own rooms to retrieve his pack, which had his most necessary belongings. He also bid them to check on Laurent. It made sense. Anyway, it hadn't been Damen who put him in that room all those years ago.

Being a prince who could own anything in the kingdom simply by looking at it, Damen had never much bothered with possessions. What was one thing when you could seize all of the things?

But Damen was a soldier. If he had not been born a prince, he would have still become a soldier and fought for what was right and protected those who could not protect themselves. Soldiers were prepared. They kept their kit in reaching distance at all times. They wore the big things – weapons and armour – on their bodies but the littler, equally vital things stayed in their packs. A skin for water or wine. Bandages and rubbing alcohol. Needles, thread and leather straps. These things could save your life as much as a weapon.

Most people kept personal tokens buried there, too. A lock of a loved one's hair. An item of jewellery. Damen had noticed quite a few soldiers with Laurent's wooden puzzles. Anyway, he was no exception to this brand of sentimentality. Before he left for war, when he thought he was leaving Laurent behind, he had wrapped up his Akielon book of Veretian folk tales and slipped it in the safest place in the pack. But the book Damen laid his hand on now was not that one. It was a book he had given once, a gift that had no thought except that he wanted to do something nice. Laurent's botany book. No longer in his possession. He had put it among Damen's belongings and placed his collar and one of his cuffs between the pages.

A particular page. A poison and an antidote. The poison bearing plant grew everywhere. The antidote only grew in Vere.

“Paschal!” Damen yelled and shoved the book under the physician's nose.

“Oh.” He blinked. “Yes. Yes. Of course.”

“Can you do this? Can you get it?”

“Yes.”

Waiting got longer. Night to day and back again. Every second was a lifetime while Paschal mixed precisely the right quantities required to save Theomedes life. They needed time to ferment. Theomedes slept soundly, mostly. When he stirred, Damen did his best to make him comfortable. In other families, when the father was not the king, it probably felt different. The son would know he had been tended to as a squealing child in a similar manner. But Damen knew his father had never wiped his face when he was child. Kings didn't certain things. When Damen became king, he hoped he would be different.

He thought of Laurent, collared and cuffed, willingly serving and aiding him at the front.

Damen would definitely be different.

He used this endless waiting time to hear reports and make decisions about the people he had taken into custody. It was easier to dismiss the possibility of the slaves and servants involved in wrongdoing than it was the soldiers and doctors. The ones who were most offended at being asked, he decided, were the most suspicious. At the mention of one of the visiting physician's names, Paschal's eyes went very hard beneath the rim of his silly hat.

“That one was turned off by two masters when I was doing my apprenticeship,” he said.

“Pay him special attention,” Damen told the guard. He had sent one of his men and one of his father's to interrogate the prisoners. Laurent, he thought, would have suspected them to but Damen knew how his father ruled. His men would not betray him.

The illness had first struck on the way back from the Kingsmeet. Opportunity. Someone took the chance to prolong it. Damen would have whoever it was hung from the palace walls.

Later. When his father was well. When his warrior, ruler body had overcome the dishonest poison in his veins, Theomedes would want to destroy them himself. It was his right. Damen would wait. He would not deny his father that.

He told no-one of Laurent's letters. They were like the kiss. No-one else would understand.

Paschal administered the antidote with warnings it may make the king appear sicker before it worked. That Damen should brace himself and have help on hand. But Damen did not need help with matters of love. He cared for his father's sick body without any thought to himself.

He waited.

Damen did not notice his father stir, and for that he felt ashamed. He thought if it was Laurent, he would have noticed the slightest change in his breathing. But by his father's sickbed, he was so consumed with selfish worries – weakness and responsibility and acceptance and being played and being poisoned and being king – that he didn't hear the change in breathing, the shift on the soft mattress.

The room smelled sick. There was no denying it.

Damen had managed to notice that.

“Father,” he said, the word the sound of a choke, when he finally noticed the open brown eyes. He didn't know how long his father had been looking at him with his head in his hands. Would never know. “What can I do for you?”

“Water,” Theomedes rasped. Damen poured it himself. He propped his father's frail body up with his own arms and brought the cup to his father's lips. The first drink made him cough and Damen had to wipe his mouth, steady his body, and get him to sip the next drink. Damen was no stranger to giving orders but the words still felt clumsy in his mouth.

He was not used to caring for another (except maybe Laurent) or a slave and that was just performance, mostly.

But he had meant what his declaration. No-one else would treat or touch his father, until Damen could ensure his safety. Servants could be threatened and men could be bought and slaves...what did he really know of slaves?

“You shouldn't--” Theomedes said. “Royalty shouldn't.”

“Family should,” Damen replied. He had sponged his father's skin and cleaned his bed and mixed his medicine while he was too sick to know. Perhaps he would never know. “I have sent everyone else away. How do you feel?”

“Weak,” his father replied. “I am only saying that because you have sent everyone away. Come here. Let me see you.” His fever had broken. His breathing was stronger. There had been no more stomach episodes. Damen could wait a moment or two before summoning Paschal.

His father was weak. Damen went to his knees beside the bed. No-one had ever told him how uncomfortable marble floors were in that position. There was a rug, once, for slaves and cold winter feet but it had to be thrown away.

“I never congratulated you,” Theomedes said. “You have done me proud in Delpha.”

“Thank you,” Damen said, head bowed.

“Do you feel proud?”

“I should get the doctor.”

“Son, answer me.”

“I am glad for our country,” Damen said, carefully. “I am glad Marlas will not be my legacy. But I don't feel...anything good. It was not the success I had hoped for.”

“What more could you want?”

“The Regent is still alive.” Damen steeled himself. “Father, we have reason to believe your illness was not...natural. Poison. Since our return, and the removal of all the physicians and attendants and ...everyone, you have improved.”

“Is it just a suspicion?”

“No,” said Damen. “We have no poison, no proof from the men, though they have all been imprisoned but I have letters. The Regent wrote Laurent a letter. Are you well enough to read?”

“My own death plot? Yes.”

Damen held the letter up for his father to read. Then the second, where Laurent agreed.

“Where is the little prince? Did he run away again?”

“He is here,” said Damen. “He was with me all along. He gave me the proof. He brought the doctor. And I have him in chains.”

“You had to.”

“I had to order the sinking of three Veretian ships in our bay. Soldiers. Waiting for you to die.”

“I am not dead, though,” Theomedes said. “My son has saved me. Kastor looked after me. You have saved me. And you are both going to achieve so much more. Look what you have done as a young prince. I cannot wait to see what you will do as King. Don't look so distressed, my boy. This is not the first plot against me.”

Damen took the letters back and bowed his head again. When his father touched his hair, he felt it right in his heart. “I wish --” He said, and then he could not say any more.

“Did I ever tell you how much I love you hair?” Theomedes asked. No, he hadn't. He was not a man for affection at all and he praised strength and determination, not the physical attributes beyond a person's control. “You were born with a bramble of brown curls, just like your mother's. Mine was always straight, not that there's much left now. It's been cropped close all my life. But your mother had the wildest hair. And when you were a baby, and she was gone, I remember holding you to my chest and feeling it on my skin.”

Damen gave himself over to the story, the love, the soft sure touch from his father – such a rare paternal show of affection.

“You're going to be a grandfather. Kastor and Jokaste.” Damen didn't know he said that except that his father deserved to hold another person of his blood in his life and for all that he was the heir, he couldn't see himself continuing the line any time soon. Perhaps ever.

“They told me,” Theomedes said. “But they are not here. When you were a little boy your tutors and your nursemaids always wanted to cut your hair. I fired one, when they did it behind my back. You used to hide behind it. You used to get sweetmeats stuck in it and scream when they tried to wash it out.”

“I don't remember that,” Damen said. He half-remembered running barefoot after Kastor and playing games with Nikandros with his hair in his eyes. He never knew his father hand a hand in it.

“You were a child. And when you asked, you got it cut.” Theomedes withdrew his hand. “You can't keep them all out forever, Damen. A king never belongs to just himself or his family. Oreste can come in. A slave to wash me.”

“My slave Lykaios is waiting for you.”

“A bed slave? I am not that --”

“She is very caring. She has been injured. This suits her, now.”

“You should go,” Theomedes said, not unkindly.

“I have all matters in hand. We await reports from the bay, the physician has engaged a local apothecary for secondary analysis and --”

“Son, you are not King yet. Go where you want to go. See who you want.”

Laurent.

“I trust him,” Damen said.

“I trust you,” his father said, and his eyes were closing again. “I remember what he said about instability. That Regent is power hungry. Go see the prince, if you wish.”

The king closed his eyes.

“I love him,” Damen said, eventually, but his father had gone back to sleep.
-

Damen remembered another night, where he had been afraid to open Laurent's door, as he bid the guards step aside. Again, he steeled himself and stepped over the threshold. Laurent might hate him now. But he was safe.

He made a sorry sight in the moonlight. No-one had lit candles. No-one ever lit the fire. Laurent was sitting, straight-backed and patient, on the cold floor with his hands chained above his head.

“Hello, captor,” Laurent said. “We're really making all the rumours true lately, aren't we?” Damen went back into caring mode. Light. Water. Heat. Practical things. “Cat got your tongue?”

“I'm formulating an apology,” Damen said.

“Don't bother yourself. We do what we need to do,” Laurent said, and his voice held not even the slightest hint of anger. “How is your father?”

“Alive,” Damen said. “Talking.”

“Plotting to kill me?”

“Not currently. He is asleep. Not at all, really.”

“You didn't tell him?”

“I showed him the letters. I told him you showed them to me.” There were no more chores for Damen to do. “Drink,” he said.

“I've had water. My chains are not that short.”

“I can't release you yet.”

“I know. Pity I took off the cuffs. My wrists wouldn't be so sore if not for these manacles.”

“A virgin in his teen years? You should be used to sore wrists.”

“I am not a virgin,” Laurent said. “I'm going to stand up. Don't mistake if for an imminent attack on your fragile body.” He took hold of the chains and used them to leverage himself to his feet with the grace of a trapeze artist. Laurent probably could have done a full flip, if he felt like showing off. “I am glad my predicament amuses you.”

“May I?” Damen asked. When Laurent nodded, Damen pressed his palm against his cheek. For all his bravado, the skin was warm and clammy from sweat. “I wish it was different,” he said. “When I left for war, I had this entire...fantasy about how it would be when I returned.”

“Tell me about it. This position is not ideal for reading and I do like to hear stories.”

“You would be waiting in my room.”

“Ah, like a pampered mistress,” Laurent said. “Hidden away from the action to wait for her man to return.”

“Like someone,” Damen said. “That I wanted very badly to keep safe. Fine, you'd be working on your puzzle empire or some grand espionage scheme that when I returned. You'd have taken off your coat and rolled up your sleeves and you'd pretend not to hear me come in but I'd see the colour rise in your face.” He felt new heat beneath his fingertips. If he could look anywhere but Laurent's eyes, he would probably see the blush spread. “I would say Laurent and you would push your hair back and say Damen and I would be so glad to see you I would forget the rest of the plan.”

“Stop,” Laurent said. “I was wrong. I don't want to hear this. We are not those people. We don't get first kisses overlooking the sea. I finally get a kiss from you when my mouth is too swollen to feel it.”

“You could have had one any time on the road.”

“That wasn't real either.” Laurent threw the words like a punch. His chains rattled. “You liked to pretend I was a slave.”

“This is real,” Damen said. He still had his hand on Laurent's face. He rubbed his thumb over Laurent's mouth and the cut there. “This is real. All of it.” War. Games. Seduction.

“Yes,” Laurent said. “My uncle thought you had already seduced me. That I could use it to my advantage to take your throne.”

“I don't want to hear about your uncle right now,” Damen said. “And I know you felt it. You felt that kiss in your bones.”

“Did I?” Laurent closed his eyes. “Perhaps. I have nothing to compare it to.”

Laurent was a boy, not yet nineteen, who cried when horses died and killed men in cold blood, and did not seem to care about being chained up in enemy territory. But the admission, to Damen, who he could tell anything to, that he had never had a kiss before sent him retreating back into himself like shellfish protecting its delicate flesh.

Damen had bid him kiss a slave girl's neck and held his hand while a slave boy sucked his own cock and watched his face while he came and he had never thought about this. Laurent was young when he came to Ios but not too young to have those curious, probing kisses kids had.

“If you're weren't in chains,” Damen said. “I would say you should have told me. But it would be wrong of me to deprive you of the opportunity to hit me in the face for saying it.”

“My legs are free. I could kick you in the balls.” Laurent opened his eyes and a sheepish smile passed across his face. “But I won't.”

“What if I kiss you? Would you allow me that tonight?”

“I am in chains.”

“Do you want me to kiss you?”

Laurent nodded. “For longer than you know.”

“Can it be now?” Damen asked. “It's been a when rather than an if for a long time. I know it's not the ideal scenario but--”

“This is what we are,” Laurent said. “But don't unless...not just because you pity me.”

“It's not that. It's never that.” Damen, all of a sudden, felt very shy. He was not the inexperienced one but he he might as well have been with the way his pulse was racing. He put his palm against Laurent's cheek again and just looked into those blue eyes. They were very dark and very guarded and for a second Damen doubted himself. He remembered, then, Laurent's pride and the ways he closed himself off when he felt vulnerable.

Damen could be careful with precious things. Slowly, gently, he pressed his lips to Laurent's forehead.

“That's not—”

Damen put his finger against Laurent's mouth. “Hush,” he said, and kissed his cheeks, the tip of his nose, the soft skin beside his mouth. He kissed Laurent's earlobe, then lightly sucked it between his lips, and felt Laurent's breath shudder against him. Damen brought his mouth to Laurent's and let it hover there for a second, looking into his eyes again to gauge his reaction.

Laurent was chained but he was not immobile. With a sound close to growl, and sheer annoyance on his perfect face, he was the one who closed that tiny chasm of space and pressed their lips together. Damen smiled at the forwardness of it, from the boy who spent years without addressing him because he had never told him to use his given name, and the smiled harder because this was happening – he was finally kissing Laurent.

His mouth rested against Laurent's like he had finally came home. He was smiling. Laurent was flushed pink and glaring slightly. Then, that annoyance melted away. The storm went out of his eyes and his lips were a precise pressure, both unsure and demanding at the same time, pressed against Damen's mouth.

Damen kissed back, eventually, when he was ready committing this to memory. He kissed Laurent in soft, closed-mouthed increments. He slid his palm away from Laurent's cheek, around to the back of his head to feel his hair in his fingers and tilt his head back just enough to change the angle of Laurent's mouth. The angles of Damen's brain were changing, reshaping, with every little kiss. This was happening. This was finally happening.

He had to open his mouth. He had to taste Laurent's lips and feel the shape of them under his tongue. The chains rattled. Laurent lurched forward, pressed himself to Damen, hooking his foot around Damen's calf. The leather of his boot was warm and soft against his skin. Laurent's tongue was hot and sharp when he flicked it against Damen's mouth.

“Snake,” Damen murmured, pulling away to trail kisses along to Laurent's jaw to his ear. Laurent was in chains but he was steady on his feet. Foot. He only had one on the ground. Still, he rocked with the rhythm of crashing wave, back and forth with the rhythm of their kisses like it was too much for him to stay in one place.

“Barbarian. Come back here.”

Damen did as he was told. His mouth with pressed to Laurent's again, open and hungry and wanting. His lips were swollen. His tongue was probing. Kissing Laurent was the most essential thing in the world. His whole body was on fire from kissing, just kissing, this beautiful delicate boy.

Laurent was all sharp edges but he gasped and panted when Damen kisses turned slow and soft and that's how Damen knew those were the kind of kissed he liked best. He slowed himself down. Really, he had to slow himself down. His body was on fire. His chiton was tented from the heaviness of his cock and not since he was an untouched lad had he felt like he might embarrass himself from kissing, just kissing.

Through the headiness, Damen was aware of so many things. This was finally happening. There were guards outside the door and his father was sick and his country was recovering from a war that had been won but never officially ended. Laurent was in chains. His knuckles were white from gripping those chains and for a second, Damen imagined those knuckles gripped in his hair or tight around his cock. He slowed even more. He registered that the tension had left Laurent's eyes and turned them wild, but it remained in his chest and his shoulders. He remembered the things he knew and he didn't want to push this but when he pulled his body back, leaving his mouth in place, Laurent would not allow him.

Laurent had hooked him.

He gripped the chains and pulled himself up off the ground and wrapped his legs around Damen's waist. Damen lost his breath. Dazed, his arms went instinctively to Laurent's backside to help hold him up. The weight was nothing to Damen. It was the joyful triumph on Laurent's face combined with the way he dug the heels of his boots into the backs of his thighs that made Damen weak. He never imagined himself looking up at Laurent. He didn't think he had ever looked up at at anyone to kiss them before.

Laurent was in chains yet he kissed Damen with new dominance. He could move his hand enough to grip his shoulders and Damen felt the bite of metal along with Laurent's nails. He kissed Damen slowly, as if they had all the time in the world, and pressed himself against his front. Veretian clothes were tight and constrained but Damen knew enough of instinctual pleasure seeking to know that Laurent was finding relief in the pressure of pressing himself to him. His eyes were closed. His mouth fell open when Damen pressed kisses like a column of marching soldiers up and down his throat. There was no real relief for Damen in this position but he found himself flexing his hips to meet Laurent's movements anyway.

“Damen,” he said, at the flicker of Damen's tongue at his pulsepoint. “Damen,” he said, gasping, as Damen's grip on his backside grew tighter. “I--”

“Yes,” said Damen in Veretian. He said it again in Akielon and Patran as Laurent rubbed himself against him and kissed him with abandon, swallowing up his words.

“No,” said Laurent, slowing, and pulling his lips away. “No, wait. Stop.”

Damen stopped. He let go of Laurent and let his boots hit the ground. Probably, he thought, he should wrench himself away and let whatever hesitance had reared inside Laurent play out with him alone. But he couldn't. He needed to be there.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, yes, don't look at me like that. Come back, please.”

“I didn't go anywhere.”

“Oh. So, I see.”

Damen put both his hands on either side of Laurent's face. “Talk to me,” he said. “I just...I only want you to feel good with me.” Laurent had come with him before. He knew he had some issues with control but, surely, it was different with him. The fighting, the bathing, the slave play, sleeping, everything. Damen wasn't someone Laurent ever needed to be hidden around.

“I'm not a boy,” Laurent said. “I'm not going to break apart if you touch me too strongly.”

“I would not have kissed you or fought with you if I thought you were a boy.”

“I'm not going come in my pants just because I like you how you kiss me.”

Damen couldn't stop the grin. “You like how I kiss you?”

“Shut up. You know I do.” Laurent looked at the floor. “I like it very much.”

“Me too,” said Damen. “And, if you allow, me I think I can open some of those Veretian laces. If you allow me to touch you, we can see if you could come under my hand.”

“Damen.” Laurent's voice went very deep.

“Or if you allow me to use my mouth --”

“Stop. Don't talk to me like you're a slave.”

“I'm not. I am...hopeless, I think.”

“I'm in chains.”

“I'm strong. I can hold you up. I can move the bed. I --” Damen stopped talking. Laurent's jaw was no longer the slack, pliant thing it had been while they kissed. It was taut, tense, and where his collar had fallen open Damen could see, beneath damp overfine skin, that the sinews of Laurent's neck were strained too. “Tell me what you want,” he said. It was important, he felt, for Laurent to make all the choices.

Laurent was silent for a long time. “My feet hurt,” he eventually said. “Will you take off my boots?”

Immediately, Damen crouched in front of Laurent. His chiton fell open and up around his thighs.

“Oh my,” Laurent said and Damen's skin got hotter and he couldn't quite tell if Laurent was teasing in a good way or a bad. Damen remembered how gentle and attentive Laurent had been during the warring, when he had cuffs on his wrists. He could still feel by the throb of his blood how the slide of boot leather against his skin had summoned the potential for new pleasure and fresh fantasies within him.

At twenty three, Damen had thought he knew all his bedding preferences but Laurent reformed everything about him.

Damen's hands were too large, too calloused, too used to taking, to be that gentle with Laurent. But what he lacked in finesse he made up for in reverence, recalling all the ways he liked slaves to be, and with his eyes half closed, Damen braced Laurent's foot on his own bare knee and worked his ankle free from the leather.

He pulled it away from Laurent's foot and followed the path it left exposed with his hand surely skimming Laurent's calf. If he had allowed himself to drink at all since they returned to Ios, Damen might have pressed his rough cheek against Laurent's slender ankle. But this was already mind-bendingly subversive. He removed the other boot. He stayed on his knees and he was so close to the juncture of Laurent's thighs and the tightly laced Veretian pants.

“I want --” Damen began.

“It's the touching--” Laurent said.

“I'll --” He didn't even know what he was going to say. I won't touch you? He wanted to touch every last inch of Laurent's skin, even the parts that were inside him, until Laurent fell into the kind of oblivion where only touch mattered. “You decide,” he said. “You tell me. I'll keep my hands behind my back if you want.”

“That would make opening the laces difficult.” Laurent let out a breathy hint of a laugh.

“But not impossible.” Damen grinned up at Laurent. More looking up. Games. Seduction. Laurent liked games because they were easier than life. He said himself, he felt everything. That had to wear you down. You had to escape sometimes.

“Is this how you imagined it?”

“You know it's not. Nothing ever is --”Damen was cut off by the sound of a guard knocking at the door. Neither princes nor kings ever belonged to just themselves. He stood very quickly.

“Answer it or they'll storm in to save you from me.”

“My men would never think you could hurt me.” Damen fixed his clothing and did his best to will away his erection. Knocking and interruptions helped. So did recognising the guards' voices. Not just his. Some of his father's me too. “What happened?” He threw the door open. No, nothing could have happened to Theomedes in such a short time. “Is my father --”

“The king is well,” the guard replied. “Exalted, the sea mission was a success. The ships are going down.”

“Good. Is that all?”

The guards looked at each other. It was not all. “Exalted, ships sink slowly. Some of the men will be able to swim and some of the local sailors have a code and --”

Damen understood. Veretians, who were waiting to take this city, were drowning in the Ellosean sea. If he went to the towers, he could probably seem it with his own eyes. War made men into trapped rats, sometimes. They were men whose only crime had been to obey they orders of their ruler.

“Save who you can without unduly risking Akielon lives. Round them up. We'll keep them.”

Damen's men were well trained enough not to question them with anything more than their body language. They understood the urgency of the command.

“Fond of keeping Veretians, aren't you?” Laurent said. “Perhaps you will replace me with some burly--”

“Would you rather I let your people die?” Damen spun around. “Don't you know you are not replaceable?”

“I was only – never mind, what are you going to do with them?”

“Lock them up. Put them to work. Send their heads to your uncle.”

“He won't care.”

“I know that. We fought together, remember?” Damen ran his hands through his hair. “I'm sorry. I have to go. Erasmus will attend you and --” He hefted Laurent's bed towards him until Laurent had to jump onto it or get crushed by it. “You'll be more comfortable now?”

“Go. Don't worry about me.”

“Oh, Laurent,” Damen said. “Don't you know that's impossible?”

-