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Damen didn't worry about knocking on Laurent's door now. Nor did he wait for an answer. Payback. Eagerness. Opening locks. Climbing over battlements. He pushed open the door and Laurent was not there and a great crack started to form in his chest. In a haze, Damen dashed to his own room and there was Laurent, working at his desk.

“Busy?” he asked, casually, when Laurent's head snapped up.

“Not especially. But you looked shocked. Has something happened?”

“No,” said Damen. “No.” Nothing but the reformation of that crack in his chest. The sight of Laurent healed it, sealed it, and made him see things differently. Laurent had been climbing over battlements all these years. Damen was the one behind the fort. He stood behind Laurent and just...looked.

“Now you look peculiar.” Laurent set down his papers.

“Sorry,” Damen said. “These are peculiar days. Where are your chains?”

Laurent swung around to sit sideways, revealing manacles around his ankles that were attached to the leg of the desk. “Unless I want to take a marble desk with me, I'm quite secure,” he said. “Is it insensitive? At least this way I can make use of the pot without needing assistance.”

“You didn't ask for assistance before.”

“No, I held it in. I'm remarkably self-controlled,” Laurent said. “Damen, my barbarian. Always talking about things one really should not.”

“Let me take them off you.” Damen went to his knees to unlock the restraints. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Laurent reach towards him and then pull himself back. “Go on,” Damen said and his heart felt too big for his chest when Laurent simply brushed a curl away from his forehead. Rising, he took Laurent's left hand in his. “Let's go out to the balcony,” he said and kept hold of Laurent's hand as they stepped outside.

“How was the...” Laurent trailed off. “Forgive me. I don't know if the tradition has an official name.”

“It was quiet,” Damen said. “Hollow.” He looked out to the sea. Today, it was not clear enough to see Isthima. The sea was dull, calm, lifeless. Gulls cut ugly screeches across the sky.

“You don't want to talk about it,” Laurent said.

“There is nothing left to say about Kastor.”

Laurent stepped right up to the railing and his hand slipped out of Damen's. It was not a rejection. They were past that. He was just getting closer to the edge. Back turned, Laurent sucked in great mouthfuls of sea air. Damen watched the tension rise and then deplete from his shoulders. He stepped forward, soft in his leather sandals, and came to stand behind Laurent. One hand, Damen put on Laurent's back. The other on his narrow waist. Damen just stood, holding onto Laurent, and it felt like he was the one being held.

After a little while, he tucked a strand of hair behind Laurent's ear. The lock, which was blond again now, was not as soft as it would have been once. The dying would do that. Damen supposed, as he grazed his thumb along Laurent's pulsepoint, that nothing in this world was as soft as it once was. He leaned down a little, a pressed a kiss to the skin he had just touched, and delighted in the way Laurent's breath caught in his throat.

“May I kiss you?” Damen said.

“You just did.”

“That's not an answer.”

“You don't need to ask every single time. I thought --” Laurent stumbled over the word when Damen, briefly, sucked delicate skin between his lips. “We established this new stage in our – relationship that is past negotiation but --”

He stopped talking when Damen turned him around, bent his knees so he was not towering over Laurent, and prevented him from talking by covering his mouth with his own. It was gentle thing, a promise, a soft probing thing, that Damen kept his eyes open for so he could Laurent's reaction and the assent in his eyes.

“I feel,” Damen said, pulling back. “That I have not treated you with the grace you deserve.”

“I disagree.” Laurent cupped the back of Damen's neck to prove his point.

“I ruined our first kiss.”

“By hitting me first. Don't worry. I've had worse.”

“Then the chains. I'm not good a holding myself back, you know.” Damen proved his point by pausing to tug at Laurent's bottom lip with his teeth.

“Animal,” Laurent said. “No, do continue.”

“In a moment,” Damen said. “I wish it could have been --”

“Different, yes. You've said.”

“No, sweeter. Softer. I don't know. You deserve that.”

“You are that. You went to war for me.”

“War is not sweet.”

Laurent exhaled. He smoothed Damen's hair. “Very well. Let's play this out. You have looked after me all these years. You bought me gifts – books, horses, sweets, slaves. You took me on adventures and laughed at my stupid jokes and rude comments. You are the only person since Auguste who has been kind to me.”

“That's different,” Damen said. “I would have done those things anyway.”

“I know,” Laurent said. “So do these things now.”

So Damen kissed him again. He ignored the twinge in his thighs at the awkwardness of keeping his knees bent, because it was very important not to make his height a threat. He kept his mouth closed until he felt the parting of Laurent's lips, a slight movement as instinctual as covering your head from the rain, and reacted to it in turn with a parting of his own and the darting of his tongue too quick for Laurent to catch. Laurent opened his mouth wider, tilted his head slightly for a better angle, and kissed him deeply bringing their mouths together again and again and again until there was nothing between them, not even air.

Damen wasn't sure how he ended up pressed against the wall of the palace, stone cool against his bare shoulders, with Laurent pressed tight against his front. He wasn't sure if it was him making little noises from his lungs or was it Laurent. He just knew this is how it should be, kissing with the salt air whipping all around them, and no-one in sight and no-one able to see them. He had one hand on the back of his neck, mussing the hair there. He had the other wherever he felt like. He couldn't settle. There were so many places on Laurent's back, his chest, his waist where he just fit.

“Is that what you meant by grace?” Laurent murmured, as the shifting of his hips against Damen's made its inevitable impact.

“No,” said Damen. Reluctantly, he disentangled himself from Laurent. He took hold of his hand again and led him back inside. There was a moment when Laurent's still darkened eyes flashed towards the bed, where they had slept innocently and not so innocently, and Damen wasn't quite sure the flash was a positive one. So he poured them cool water, peeled an orange and split it in half.

“Teasing is not graceful, either,” Laurent said.

“I don't tease. There is no rush, Laurent.”

“No? My uncle would say otherwise.” The words rang out like a toneless bell. The lovely flushed drained from Laurent's face. “I meant,” he said. “That there is a deadline. We are going to Arles soon.”

“We still have time. Arles is not the end of the world, either. If this were a traditional courtship, you would make me go slow,” Damen said, casual again, despite the pain in his chest. It wasn't the mention of the uncle. It was the way Laurent reshaped himself afterwards. “You don't play the whole hand at once.”

“You are so sure you'd be the one doing the courting,” Laurent said. “Damen, I am not made of glass.”

“Take me to bed then,” Damen said, teasing now in earnest, but also mindful of the times Laurent had initiated sexual talk and sexual situations and then fled from them.

“In the middle of the day? We've got a throne to get back.”

-

Because princes were still human, there was an interval of eating and regrouping. Because Damen and Laurent were still princes, they had to see to work things. There was always work to do. Damen had the pretence of a sick father and a struggling country. Laurent had the pretence of being prisoner and also had to keep his guard in line, keep the new men on side, and keep the rumour mill turning. Damen didn't give it too much thought. His mind was full.

The thing he knew for sure, was that a sizeable Veretian company was very grateful their prince had begged to spare their lives. Another portion of the army was working well with the Akielons in Delpha. Laurent was not unsupported.

Damen did not need support now. He needed to delegate. If he went around showing his strength to everyone, it would dilute the impact.

“Will you show me what you're working on?” he asked Laurent, after a series of messages had been sent back and forth between Laurent and Theomedes. Speaking face to face would have been quicker but who was he to doubt a current and future king?

“Getting my house in order,” Laurent replied. “Don't worry about it.”

“But I do worry about you,” Damen said. “Incessantly. You have to let me in, Laurent. No more cooking up wild plans and telling me about them later. No more keeping your cards so close to your chest even you struggle to see.”

“It's Veretian stuff.”

“You think I would use it against you?” Damen couldn't keep the hurt from his voice. “After all--”

“I think you could,” Laurent said. “As I could you. But that is not the point. It's boring. Layered letters and reading between the lines and who owes who a favour and who will do me a favour if I will do them in future. You don't care about this stuff.”

“I do,” Damen said. “And, if you want my help in Vere I need to know it. Show me.”

And Laurent did. Lists. Hierarchies. Debts. Loyalty. His faction. His uncles faction. Those who were loyal to the starburst. Those who could be bought. Those who would have to be eliminated.
The light went low and the stars came out and, perhaps for the first time, Laurent shared with Damen these secret things that kept him awake at night, the things that made him prince and soon would make him king. His country of snakes and his brilliant mind, wrangling them from afar.

Later, Laurent's pulled his collar away from his neck and Damen had a lovely memory of running his lips at that same swatch of skin.

“May I?” Damen asked, and he lifted Laurent's wrist on to the arm of the chair. He touched the tight laces.

“I'll get ready for bed later.”

“There's no need to be so constrained here. With me.”

Laurent, when he wasn't masquerading as a slave, dressed in sharp-shouldered, tapered-waisted, ornate Veretian jackets. When people looked at him, they saw the hair first. Clothes second. Face last. They did not see the body, or really the person. Every outfit he wore, from the moderations he made for sport and training, to the luxurious bedclothes was as deliberate as a defensive chess move. He kept himself apart. For all the time he spent in Damen's room, reading or just being, he never appeared with the layers peeled back.

“If you wish,” Laurent replied, after a long moment. Damen started at his wrists, revealing wave-crest white skin patterned with blue veins. He noticed a shiver when he traced his thumb along the bloodline. Smiling, he moved onto the laces at Laurent's collar. The air changed, swelled, as Damen began the important work of freeing Laurent from his clothing.

“Complicated,” he said, as his fingers got trapped in a knot.

“For some,” Laurent replied.

“Good practise for me,” Damen said. “For the future. When we're...together.”

“Aren't we together now?” Laurent's voice was so small that Damen stumbled.

Before he answered, Damen let Laurent see that he was smiling. “You've been in Ios all these years. You know we are not as candid as Veretians.”

“Just say fucking, if that's what you mean.”

“That's not what I mean.” Damen pulled away the final lace, parted the jacket, revealed the fine white shirt underneath. “When we make love, I don't want to embarrass myself by tripping over one of these things.” He flicked a trailing string against Laurent for emphasis and delighted in the small smile that played on his pink lips. He was a little bit pink at the opening of his shirt and underneath the fabric, Damen could see the outline of taut, pink nipples.

He couldn't resist running his hands along Laurent's chest, noting the contrast of his hands to Laurent's sun-shy skin. Pleased with the way Laurent breathed, Damen then couldn't resist tweaking his thumb of one of Laurent's nipples. It made him gasp, then grin.

“Buffoon,” Laurent said as Damen hung his jacket over the back of the chair. “Send for food. I'm hungry.”

“I'm not your servant.”

“First of all,” Laurent said, leaving the desk to recline on the couch. “You owe me. Look at all I did for you in Delpha. Second of all, do you want me to go out to your guards in my undershirt and have them get one of the servants and a taster and maybe the cook and --”

“All right.” Damen knew when he had been defeated. He sent for the food. Granted, Laurent had worn slave garments and bathed with him and slept beside him and engaged in some unconventional sex games but he never presented himself like this – a young man, stripped of his outer garments, the shoulder of his shirt threatening to slip at any moment, relaxed and open and sharing his private plans.

That was not something Damen was willing to share.

He sat, on the couch as always, but perhaps closer than he usually placed himself. He was large. The couch was small. It amused Damen to spread out his arm along the back of the couch until it came to rest along Laurent's shoulder. It pleased him to wrap his arm around Laurent and pull him closer. For a moment, Laurent held himself stiffly as if he did not know what to do. Only a moment. Then, he relaxed into Damen.

“You're very lovely like this,” Damen said.

“Shut up. You've seen me wear less. Nothing, in fact.”

“You're lovely like that, too,” Damen said, lightly running his nails back and forth over Laurent's collar bone. “But this, I don't know. To see you so relaxed and for you to share those things --it moves something in me.”

Laurent arched one brow and gave a pointed look at Damen's lap. “Is that all it takes? Me without my jacket. I would have taken it off years ago if that was the case.”

“You know what I mean.” Damen poked Laurent's ribcage, where he knew from sparring he would react. “Wait, how many years ago? You hated me for a long time.”

“No. Not you. Even when I wanted to, I couldn't,” Laurent admitted. “Don't lose the run of yourself. You had very little competition here.”

“How long?” Damen pressed, and he ticked Laurent until he was squirming beside him like a fish on a dock.

“Feels like forever,” Laurent muttered. “I heard about you long before we met. Of course, I decided then you were a pea-brained animal. Then – you don't get praise enough, Damen? You want to drag this from me too?”

“Yes,” said Damen, grinning. “You never tell me more than you want to.”

“You made me promise not hide.” Laurent played with his trailing laces. His skin was very warm. “You were kind to me. And you were....capable and fair. You were different. And, then, well, you are very attractive. I am still embarrassed on my own behalf for the first time I saw you wrestle,” he admitted. “I know what Jord used to think of me in that room all the time. Let's just say that was the first time I made a rumour true.”

Damen was pleased. Ridiculously pleased. He kissed the top of Laurent's head and pulled him closer to his body. Deeper, an old fear resurfaced. That he had been too much of a presence, too much of an influence, and all those times he had taken himself away from the palace to work had not been distance enough. But he had to push them away. There was not that much of a difference between their ages. Laurent had fought the same battles as Damen when he was just thirteen. Damen never saw him as anything but a child when he was one.

“I didn't know,” Damen admitted.

“You would have dismissed it as a boyhood crush. Another one of your legions of admirers,” Laurent said.

“I would have,” Damen said.”I would never --”

“I know. You've always felt very safe to me,” Laurent said. “And the other boys. That's why everyone loves you.”

“Obviously,” Damen began, because he owed Laurent honesty. “I have cared for you for a long time. But for me, it was, when Aimeric was here. That night --”

“The night of my assassination attempt? You hid it well.”

“I killed all those men for you.”

“There's the Damianos I know. Courtship via swift death for those who would threaten me.” Laurent smiled, but his eyes were tight, and Damen wondered if he was thinking of the revelations that came after that night and if that was one more thing his uncle had tainted. Laurent had been nearly seventeen. Young. Not too young for Damen. Not too young to know what he wanted.

Damen was glad of the knock on the door, the arrival of the food, except it was not delivered by a servant.

“Nikandros,” Laurent said, shrugging into his jacket. “Have you been demoted?”

“Shall I take this meal away?”

“Don't you dare,” said Damen, waving the servants who trailed Nikandros into the room. “My stomach thinks my throat's been cut.”

“Classy joke,” Laurent said. “Will you join us?”

Damen heard us, and smiled hard while they waited for food to be set out. Three settings.

“No chains?” Nikandros nodded towards Laurent. “The servants will talk.”

Laurent frowned. “He's right. Kallias and Erasmus should be doing this kind of thing.”

Damen preferred servants. Lately, he preferred servants and squires for those basic duties. He kept thinking of Laurent pretending to be a slave and, then, all of Laurent's discourse as to why slavery was wrong.

“I've been with your army,” Nikandros said to Laurent. “They are decent enough, given the circumstances.”

“A few near-drowned soldiers hardly constitutes an army,” Laurent replied.

“True. That's why I've come. They are good but they are not enough. I want you to know that, if it comes to it, and your efforts in Vere are not successful you have my support.”

“Oh.” Laurent's face faltered, just for a second, like he didn't know how to react. “Well, I would hope so. You are actually obliged to follow your prince.”

Damen nodded, unwilling to involve himself in this conversation. Partly, he was enjoying that they were getting on. Partly, he was enjoying seeing Laurent come into his own when it came to negotiations. Partly, hugely, he was just sad there wasn't a fourth place around the table. That he hadn't seen, until it was too late, the depths of his brother's misery.

“I have a large command at my disposal in Delpha,” Nikandros said. “Good, loyal men. Damen, you remember Farren my second in command.”

“Not really,” Damen muttered, and found a smudge on his cup to wipe away. Laurent gave him a probing look.

“My point is, that if it comes down to it, I will support you in a fight against the Regent. If he does not hand you back your crown, and your tactics are unsuccessful, we will fight.”

“There won't be a fight,” Damen said. “Fighting is over. We don't want that.” That was the point of the war he just won. The fighting was done by the time Laurent ascended and they would never have to be enemies.

“The Regent may disagree,” Nikandros said.

“Why do you say this now?” Laurent demanded.

“You didn't plan this when you chose me for Delpha? As kyros, I would do that.” Nikandros replied.

“That's not why I insisted on that.”

“No-one care about me choosing your for Ios, then,” Damen said, trying not to sulk. He wanted his best friend as his closest advisor. There were other men who could lead Dekpha.

“Were you just being difficult?” Nikandros asked.

“There's more,” Laurent said, as if Damen had never spoken. Nikandros paid a great deal of attention to spearing a chunk of meat from his plate. “What's your real reason?”

“When we took Ravenel,” Nikandros said. “It was brutal. Bloody. The lord there, Touars, was no stranger to warfare. He went to the dungeons when it was done.”

“Not the gallows?”

“He has a son,” Nikandros continued. “He complied, for the boy. He didn't know we wouldn't hurt the child. We sent him to Arles. It seemed like the right thing at the time.”

“I see,” said Laurent. “And your perspective has changed.”

“This isn't--” Damen began.

“Yes. I overheard you in the tent at Delpha. My perspective changed. I remember you as a boy on the road and --”

“That's enough,” Laurent said. “I see.” He took a long drink of water. “It's for the best, really, that you're choosing Delpha. I have a history of killing the kyros of Ios. Damen would be very angry at me if I killed you.”

“I'm angry now that you disobeyed me,” Damen said.

“It's just one boy,” Nikandros said. “I spoke to that Orlant and the physician. I know there are pets but -- we fight for stupid things, sometimes, and I want to maybe fight for pure things too.”

“If it comes to a fight, I will win,” Damen said.

“I hadn't thought of it as that kind of fighting,” Laurent said. “Vere is depleted. I would have your men, perhaps some Vaskian mercenaries, perhaps my mother's people would show support. They withdrew, before, but this is different.”

“You've been in touch with them?”

“A little,” Laurent said. “In the same way I was in touch with the lady pirate Galenne.”

“You two have so much you don't tell me,” Nikandros muttered.

“Not that much,” Damen said, and impulsively, knocking over the salt cellar, he grabbed hold of Laurent's hand.

He just held Laurent's hand.

And Laurent flushed. Damen imagined he had gone pink right to the tips of his toes.

“You said you were not lovers,” Nikandros said, righting the salt cellar.

“I prefer not use such narrow definitions,” Laurent replied.

Nikandros laughed. “Good for you, kid. And don't forget I used to be your teacher. I can still make you obey my punishments.”

“Will you bring slavery to Delpha?” Laurent asked, then. “Those lands have been free for almost a hundred years. I would hate to --”

“No,” said Damen. “He won't.”

“I suppose I won't,” Nikandros replied. “If my king commands it.”

“I'm not king yet,” Damen said. “But when I am, things will change.” Laurent sighed and rolled his eyes. “What?” Damen demanded. “I am trying to do the right thing. I am trying to do what you want and --”

“I know,” Laurent said. “You Akielons have corrupted me with all this sentiment. Doing things from the heart instead of what makes for the best strategy. If you're serious about making real changes regarding the slave culture, it's going to be huge financial strain. I'm going to have to agree with your father about the reparations.” He looked so thoroughly horrified at the thought of doing the right thing, that Damen felt his lips curl upwards at the edges.

Now it was Nikandros who snorted.

“Have some wine,” Nikandros advised. “It helps make difficult decision easier.”

“How wise,” Laurent replied. “Damen had a lucky escape by you not taking the kyros seat in Ios.”

“He wouldn't listen to me anyway,” Nikandros said.

Laurent did not drink usually. The thought of paying back Akielos for the occupation must have really gotten to him. Because he shrugged one shoulder and took a delicate sip of Damen's wine.

“You can have your own cup,” Damen said.

“I prefer to share.”

“Still on poison watch?” Nikandros said.

“No,” said Laurent. “Pour us some more.”

Damen was not surprised when Nikandros obeyed. He was learning. Laurent had a way of making people do what they wanted. Later, when the dinner was eaten and the wine bottles were empty Damen walked Nikandros to the door of his apartments.

“I owe you so much,” he said. “I can't --”

“Damen, we have a lifetime of hard decisions ahead of us,” Nikandros replied. “For now, let us do good things and be good friends.”

-

Damen had left the door to his bedroom ajar. When he returned, Laurent was idling by the doorway.

“Oh,” he said. “How remiss of you, Prince Damianos. That scoundrel Prince of Vere could have escaped through those open doors.”

“He knows that I would find him,” Damen said. “I'm an excellent hunter.”

Lazily, Laurent stepped around Damen. His eyes danced like starlight reflected in darkest water. Games. Laurent liked games. Damen did, too, with him. He stepped away from the door. Waited. Struggled to keep his face straight.

Laurent bounded. Damen let him make it to the threshold before wrapping one arm around his waist and pulling him back.

“Stop,” Damen said, voice rough against Laurent's ear. “Do you want to bring the guards in?”

Laurent struggled, twisting like a trapped snake in Damen's grasp. Damen didn't mind. He was stronger. The sensation was not unpleasant. Laurent tried to use his elbows to push release Damen's grip, but Damen just held him tighter. He didn't think Laurent minded.

One last effort, Laurent tried to stamp on Damen's foot but Damen knew his tricks and, after stepping away, used his grip on Laurent's torso and the pressure of his knees to lift him off the ground.

“Put me down,” Laurent said, shocked, as Damen assessed the best way to carry him. “I am – Put me down. You can't just haul the Prince of Vere around as if he was a sack of grain.”

“Watch me,” Damen said, hoisting Laurent upwards to his shoulders. “I bet you regret not taking me up on my offer of wrestling lessons. You would have broken those moves.”

“Brute. Animal. Uncouth...animal,” Laurent ranted as Damen easily made the short walk to the bed.

“You love it.” Damen grinned and, without ceremony, dumped Laurent onto the bed. He bounced on the mattress, limbs flopping, hair falling into his face.

“I suppose you better kiss me,” Laurent said, feigning boredom. “To make up for that.”

“I intend to.” Damen didn't hesitate to embrace Laurent and kiss him firmly on his open, wine-stained mouth. Laurent arched upwards to match Damen kiss for kiss. His lips tasted like the rich wine and sugar-dusted fruit they had both just eaten and there was something heart-warming about that.

Leaning was awkward, so when Laurent pulled Damen so he was lying down on top of him, legs entwined, chest to chest, face to face, Damen relaxed into this new, comfortable position. He kissed Laurent slower now, and took joy in the sweet way Laurent responded to that. Laurent was sensitive to tenderness. Damen was sensitive to watching Laurent let himself go in his arms.

He kissed his throat. He pushed open the unlaced jacket to kiss his sharp collarbone. He pushed open the shirt and kissed the cleft of his ribcage. Laurent raised his knee, hooked his ankle around Damen's leg, and Damen grinned against Laurent's soft skin when a swipe of his tongue made Laurent flex his hips.

“I could kiss you all over,” Damen said and applied his mouth to one of Laurent's nipples. He was rewarded by a change in Laurent's breathing and the feeling of his fingers tangling in his hair. After a lovely moment of that, Laurent's fingers tugged a little and Damen was looking into his blue eyes again.

“What you said to Nikadros,” Laurent began. “You didn't have to --”

“I wanted to.” Damen bumped the tip of his nose against Laurent's. “I am not ashamed.”

“But, technically, we are not...that.”

“What?” Damen let more of his weight rest on Laurent. He took his bottom lip between his mouth and lightly suckled.

“Lovers,” Laurent said, more than a little breathless. He turned his head away. Damen took the opportunity to kiss Laurent's neck again.

“I'm not big on technicalities,” Damen replied. “We are...” He kissed the centre of Laurent's chin. “Kissers? Friends who do ...” Purposefully, he pressed his hips to Laurent's. “Do this?”

“Kissers? That's the best you can come up with?”

“I'm distracted,” Damen said. “Laurent, I don't mind.”

“But you are hot for this.” He moved his own body to show he could feel how Damen was turned on. “You want sex. I'm not afraid of sex. I just. Not yet.”

“That's fine. I'm roused, so what? Not even princes get to come every time they get hard.”

“You would get nothing done,” Lauren said, smiling a little. “I'm not afraid of sex. I'm not afraid of you.”

“Good.”

“It truly doesn't bother you to ... delay?”

“No,” Damen said. “Because I have been thinking. If things were different. I know you don't like this but...well, listen. What if you were someone else? A Princess sent for a potential betrothal. No-one would judge a princess --”

“I'm going to stop you,” Laurent said. “Comparing me to a princess is not as compelling an argument as you seem to believe it to be.”

“There is more to you,” Damen said, trying to find the right words to explain this. “Or, indeed, any of us, than sex. Than the way we are expected to behave. Come on, you know this. I don't expect you to be rampantly trying to bed me all of a sudden. Knowing you, you're probably concocting a million different plans and --”

“On the contrary, I cannot think of anything when you make love to me with your words like this.”

“And I was feeling ineloquent.” Damen had to kiss Laurent. Just had to. “If things were different, and I could have courted you, if I had been sent to Arles on a diplomatic mission and met the most gorgeous prince in all the land in the library or stables, I wouldn't expect you to drop your trousers after a few kisses.”

“I would like more than a few. And no more princess talk, please. It's already a sore point for me.”

“Noted.” Damen started things off with a deep, probing kiss. “Why is it a sore point?”

“You prefer women.”

“I prefer you.” So Damen continued his one-man exploration mission of Laurent's body. He kissed every inch of his torso. He trailed his lips from shoulder to wrist, to the tips of each of his fingers and back up along the underside of Laurent's arm until he brushed fine gold hair with his nose. “May I?” He traced the back of his hand along the waistband of Laurent's trousers.

Jaw clenched, Laurent nodded.

Damen was gentle, careful to lift the tight fabric away from his body, as he unlaced the fastening. When the join fell open, he lightly kissed Laurent's hipbone and then made his way down, mouth open of fine material, until he came to the boots and yanked them off. While Damen did that, Laurent, to his surprise, shoved his trousers down over his thighs. He closed his eyes, turned his head, didn't look at his own arousal so neither did Damen.

He darted his tongue into the crease at the back of Laurent's knee. He mouthed kisses down the firm, twitching calf muscles and all along his ankles, the top of his foot and each of his toes.

“Even your feet are unblemished,” Damen said, raising his head. “It's not fair.”

Laurent opened his eyes, suppressed a smile. “I pay a barber to keep them in order. He'll give you a good deal, I am sure.”

“A good deal,” Damen repeated and kissed his way back up Laurent's leg, all along his thigh. “So...,” he said, pausing where he could see Laurent's physical eagerness. “Kissing? I want to taste you --”

“Why?” Laurent sounded confused.

“You've seen it. You know why.”

“But...you? Why you?”

“Should I summon Erasmus?”

“Shut up,” Laurent said, affectionately, and touched Damen's shoulder, drawing him back up to the pillow. “You would do that?”

“I said I wanted to kiss you all over.”

“I don't want to do that.”

“All right.”

“I mean--” Laurent sat up. He raked his hand through his hair. “Can I? Kissing?”

“All right,” Damen said. Though, in all honesty, he wasn't sure what he was agreeing to. When Laurent tugged the lion pin away from his shoulder, he found he didn't care. Laurent was looking down at him now and his fingers were very soft, very proprietary, very erotic as he ran them over the planes of Damen's upper body. He pinched one brown nipple. Almost aimlessly, he played with the dark hair that dusted the centre of Damen's chest.

There was no kissing but the precise press of Laurent's lips to his. Touching was enough. Laurent seemed to marvel in simply having Damen's flesh at the mercy of his hands.

“I used to hate this,” he said, casually. “You.”

Maybe marvelling was the wrong word.

“Ouch,” said Damen.

“Even when I knew, when I admitted the longing to myself,” he continued, taking hold of Damen's bicep and seeing how far he could wrap his hand which wasn't very far at all. “I hated all this powerful muscle, masculine physique, hair, strength. Stupid scars. Stupid skin that got more perfectly coloured in the sun instead of burning to a crisp.” He smiled, and traced his thumb over Damen's lips.

Damen couldn't resist sucking on it for a second.

“My ego couldn't take it,” Laurent admitted. “You are so strong and so...” His eyes trailed downwards. “Large. It's hard for anyone to go through adolescence around that. Sculptors would die for the chance to capture your form.”

Damen was, ridiculously, pleased.

“You hid it well,” he said, settling back against the pillow. Laurent settled, too, with his head on Damen's abdomen. Enough. “And you should have seen me when I was the age you were when you came here. I was....gangly,” he said and felt the breath of Laurent laughing against his skin. “I didn't know what to do with my limbs. I was constantly breaking things, bruising myself. I overheard one of the courtiers saying it was past time I grew into my ears. I had to give up wrestling for months because of all the unfortunate erections.”

Laurent laughed properly now. Damen wanted to freeze that moment, preserve it in memory, because there was no sound more lovely. Because he couldn't do anything but hope to remember it, he combed his fingers through Laurent's hair.

“You're good at that,” Laurent said. “Touching. It feels...you're good.”

“I'm good at most things I turn my hand to.”

“I used to braid my horses mane,” Laurent said. “The one you...the one Auguste was riding that day. I always liked horses. You know that. Auguste and the horseman used to say, if you're going to ride a horse you need to look after it,” he continued and Damen was so content to listen he could burst. “I don't know if you know this, but when I was a child, some people perceived me as bratty. They thought it was some great life lesson to make me muck out the stalls and groom the horses but I didn't mind. Horses are good. Even when...anyway, I was kid then. Before anything. I started to braid my horse's mane and his tail, too. Complicated things, worse than any of these Veretian laces.”

“I bet,” Damen said, terribly conscious of not shifting the mood. “You even used ribbons. Blue ribbons.”

“Gold,” Laurent said. “Blue would have clashed with his coat. Honestly, Damen. Have you learned nothing from me?”

Damen laughed. He had thought, not so long ago, that he would never feel like laughing again.

He said, “I learn from you every single day.”