Damen stares at the scene before him, not quite sure how it's come to this point. Just four months ago, he'd been on track to inherit his father's company — Akielos Visionworks, a multimedia behemoth that produces hundreds of videos a year — and now, he is digging through a mini-fridge because the exact creamer preferred by his new boss, Laurent, isn't available at the Starbucks in the hotel lobby.
And, okay, fine, his father's company makes porn, and so does this company, but it's not like each one doesn't fill a legitimate place in the entertainment industry.
The problem was less the industry, and more the fact that while he thought he'd been on track to become the CEO just as recently as last month, Damen is now here, acting as personal assistant to the heir apparent of his father's fiercest competitor in the market. It seems particularly unfair that he's fallen so far, and so fast.
If he has to blame someone for his current situation, it's Kastor, his half-brother. He'd always thought his half-brother had only his best interests at heart, but clearly Kastor hadn't, or he wouldn't be reduced to working at Vere.
The worst part of it all is that it wasn't just Kastor that had destroyed Damen's place in the world. No, that honor had also belonged to Jokaste, his... well... not exactly his girlfriend, per se, but his... something. His something that he slept with several times per week, and sometimes in his office. His something that happened to also be one of their company's most promising stars.
So when the rumors of their liaison had started flying around the corporation, and when she did nothing to stifle them—and in fact, almost encouraged them with her sly smiles—he found his influence in the company dwindling quickly. After all, how could any of the actresses trust in the company if they believed one of the producers would take advantage of his position for his own sexual pleasure?
Never mind that everything between him and Jokaste had been consensual, nor that Damen had never used his influence to help her career.
His influence dwindled so quickly that, within the month, when Kastor suggested he take a break from Akielos to allow the company to recover from the internal scandal of it all—just a brief break, he'd assured Damen—Damen had been unable to refuse. After all, what Kastor said was true: he was destroying the unity and effectiveness of the production team with his personal affairs.
He'd stepped down willingly, secure in the knowledge that Kastor and Theomedes would bring him back into the fold once everything had blown over.
But then a month passed.
And then his father died.
And that was when Damen was absolutely sure of one thing: He wasn't going back to Akielos anytime soon.
Damen sighs. It's pointless to dwell on that now. Though he will regain his rightful position in the company eventually — Damen refuses to consider any other outcome — what matters most right now is he's locked into an apartment and bills he can no longer afford without a paycheck. Though even that is probably better than the alternative, because if he'd been staying in one of the company houses, Damen had no doubt Kastor would have left him to live in his car like some homeless man.
Which he would have been, he thinks with horror and disgust.
Worse still, the entire estate is tied up in probate because his father had drafted the latest version of his will and never had it signed, or notarized, or anything he was supposed to have done. Damen remembers agreeing to be the executor, but since nothing had ever been finalized on that either, Damen still has to fight with Kastor over who is the appropriate representative. He'd waited a good three months, thinking that Kastor would do the right thing and let him come back to work, let the court stuff settle out, compromise and maybe appoint Nikandros as executor. But the olive branch had never come, and with his inheritance still tied up in court, his landlady was no longer accepting apologetic smiles as payment.
To get the job at Vere, he'd used a fake last name in addition to the fake resume history. No, he isn't particularly happy about it, but it's not like he could very well walk into his father's rival company and pretend there wasn't anything weird about an him being there, could he? They'd probably have thought he was some sort of corporate spy, instead of just really desperate for a job. Clearly they haven't done any sort of background check on him, which—well, honestly, he can't say he's surprised. Hopefully if that truth ever comes out, it will be after the whole mess with his half-brother has blown over, and Damen is welcomed back home with open arms and his rightful position as head of the company.
And can pay his rent.
Until then, he still has to struggle through the humiliation of taking food and drink orders, and performing what little odd jobs they were shorthanded for during video shoots.
Damen finally finds the creamer stashed away in the very back of the mini-fridge — French vanilla flavor, behind several cans of beer and bottles of wine — and quickly adds the two splashes Laurent prefers before heading back to the main site of today's shoot — the bed.
Nothing fancy today — they need a film to be released next month, and the existing footage has been deemed "not good enough" by the Regent. Thus, Laurent is on set today to "deal with it," quickly and cheaply. Which means a rented hotel room at the Patras Hotel, which has always turned a blind eye to its consistent use as set location for Vere Industries. Torveld, the hotel manager, welcomed them warmly when Laurent had checked the group in at the front desk that morning, and then ushered them through several staff elevators until they'd been safely ensconced and away from the patrons.
"He lets us stay here because the real porn groupies get a kick out of trying to figure out what rooms we've filmed in and which rooms we haven't. As long as it's not hurting his business, he's happy," Laurent had explained, when Damen had given him a curious and suspicious eye.
At Akielos, they'd had a set townhouse where they filmed the scenes, dressing the stage and moving tchotchkes from room to room to make each "set" look different, as a means of cutting costs and ensuring there was always an available set for filming. The Vere way seems rather inconvenient, because it means filming on smaller, more portable equipment, that's often not as high quality.
Jord, one of Laurent's top talents, shrugged when Damen had asked about it. "I was told no one seems to care. I guess it's just porn right? Maybe no one needs to see everything that high def."
Damen isn't so sure he agrees, what with all the HD TV's and 4K TV's on the market, but he can't deny that Vere is making a profit nonetheless. And in all honesty, it's not as if he wants to spend the rest of his life here, in this company where he doesn't quite understand the politics of it all, the who's sleeping with who, and the who actually cares about who, so it shouldn't matter whether or not Vere is managing their productions effectively or efficiently. His rightful place is in his father's company. This? This is just a way to pay the bills.
He hands the coffee to Laurent, who inspects it more thoroughly than Damen really thinks is necessary — first smelling it, then taking a small sip to make sure it's the correct temperature. Once Laurent deems it has passed inspection, he turns to him, his blue eyes laser sharp and intensely focused.
Damen has found that these moments are rare with Laurent. Most often, Laurent's expression is almost glazed, or bored, or disinterested, but every so often, something flashes — a moment of brilliance, a moment of clarity. It's those moments that Damen finds the most disturbing, because then the true elegance and beauty of his body comes alive, and every nerve on Damen's skin becomes acutely aware of the other man's presence.
"Something is wrong with the set," Laurent says simply, his eyes still seemingly boring into Damen's soul. "Tell me what it is."
Damen has found that Laurent enjoys asking him questions like this. It's happened more than once since he started working here, and Damen wonders if Laurent knows his real identity — knows he's really the son of Vere's greatest rival, knows that acting as Laurent's personal assistant is beneath him and a waste of his abilities. No matter what kind of deflection Damen tries, it never works — Laurent continues to press for his opinion.
But he still tries to deflect each time anyway.
"I don't…" Damen begins, trailing off and hoping he won't be asked for more.
His wish doesn't come true. Laurent waves a hand impatiently. "I know you can tell me what it is. So tell me. We don't have all day."
Damen sighs, looking back at the scene before him. The actors are sprawled out on the bed, waiting for Laurent, the director today, to tell them to proceed, to shout out "Action!" The employees often perform dual roles at Vere, both director and producer and lighting director and also actor, depending on what's needed each day. One of the male actors for today is Aimeric, a younger man with a slight, thin build, and brown, curly hair. It's always made Damen a little uncomfortable, the way Aimeric holds himself like a man, yet seems so much like a child. Thankfully, he's working with Jord today, another pale, tall man, but this time with the muscular build of someone who takes their workouts seriously. Contrary to appearances, Jord's extremely gentle on set, and Damen relaxes. There's something about Aimeric that makes him worried even the slightest bit of pressure will break him.
"The lighting's off," Damen says finally. "Shift it back about two paces, and then the actors won't seem so washed out."
Laurent doesn't even acknowledge Damen's response, and for a split-second, Damen wonders if he's somehow answered incorrectly. Not that Damen thinks he's wrong about the lighting — he's most definitely right — but wonders if Laurent doesn't like the idea of Damen knowing so much about the business already, when the lies on his resume said he'd never worked in porn before.
However, it only takes a moment more before Laurent orders the lights shifted back two paces, and after that, the shoot moves efficiently through each and every close up, grind, and cock shot.
Just another day in the office.
The next shoot they have at the Patras Hotel is almost two weeks later. At this point, Damen's feeling more familiar with the office politics, and as such, more comfortable in his own skin while he's working. It takes less effort to manage the expectations of others when one knows what those expectations are, after all.
"Damen," shouts Orlant, another set assistant today. "We need an extra hand over here. "Can you…?"
He sighs, wiping his hands on the legs of his trousers, and goes to work. At this point, it's all old hat to him again, and the thrill of being on set is something he hadn't realized he missed during his climb up the corporate ladder. He starts repositioning the lighting equipment — it's the same guy handling the lighting as the last time, and somehow he doesn't seem to understand how to actually do his job.
Against his better judgment, Damen sneaks a glance at Laurent while he works.
The other man is clean-shaven, and there's something especially youthful about him — youthful in the way that he looks so young, yet seems as if he understands more than his years should allow. His hair is blonde, almost the exact shade of blonde that usually makes Damen's mouth water. It's too long, slightly curled, and tied back in a ponytail. The sort of look that only the very rich or very eccentric can pull off.
Or, someone who works in porn.
Damen groans. God, he thought, it's indecent the way Laurent looks like something out of one of the Vere videos.
Still, Damen thinks, frustrated, just because Laurent's exactly his type doesn't mean he can let his thoughts run away with themselves. That path is madness. After all, there can't be anything between them, what with Damen lying about his identity and all, and given what he's seen so far, he's not even sure Laurent is capable of normal human emotion. Even worse, Laurent definitely views him as more of a personal slave than a personal assistant.
And, Damen thinks with a frown, not the sexy kind either.
Despite asking for Damen's advice and insight with increasing regularity, it hasn't stopped the minutiae of Laurent's daily requests.
"Fetch me coffee," Laurent orders one day.
Another day, it is, "I thought I told you to make sure I have fresh coffee." (He hadn't, but Damen supposed it is implied?)
Then it quickly devolves into a series of rapid and menial tasks, such as make a hundred copies of this script, and collate it, and make sure it's bound properly for the meeting with my uncle, and the meeting with production, and the meeting with the actors, and oh, the file had a typo, please make another hundred new copies and have it ready by lunchtime.
There's no way Laurent can expect any reasonable human being to maintain the pace he'd set for Damen without some kind of mental and physical breakdown.
Then Damen remembers he has a rent payment, and a cable bill, and also electricity, and he gets back to work.
Even without the threat of homelessness, Damen's not the type to complain. Perhaps, he thinks, that's why it had been so easy for Kastor to cast him out of Akielos. Kastor had complained, loudly and often, when something had not gone his way, and made sure absolutely everyone around him knew how difficult it had been to fix, and how he had done it all by himself. In short, he made himself sound at once beleaguered and overworked, but also able to rise above the challenge. By virtue of not complaining, Damen had made everything seem simple and easy for himself, even when it had not been.
Damen rather doubts that Kastor's strategy would have worked with Laurent, here in Vere. If there's one thing Damen has learned, it's that Laurent is intelligent, able to see through so much of the bullshit spewed in production meetings it was almost uncanny. It isn't even that Laurent addresses the incompetence directly, but that he has a tendency to ask the kinds of questions that quickly and efficiently expose the employee in question of not having a fucking clue.
Damen's still fiddling with one of the cameras when he's brought back to reality by a soft, urgent voice beside him.
"One of the actors didn't show up," says Erasmus, his voice strained. Erasmus started working the same day Damen did — he remembers the kid from orientation on the first day. As an intern, Erasmus has been learning about all sides of the business, following around the other employees and desperately trying to learn as much as he can.
"I don't really want to work here," Erasmus had told him shyly that first day. "But I'm a communications major and I needed something for my resume." Erasmus hadn't known what he wanted to do outside of porn when Damen had asked, however, and the lost and confused expression on his face had inspired a strong sense of affection for the kid.
Damen looks at Erasmus, at the kid before him, who has always been much too good and kind for this sort of work, and sees the stress and despair in the his expression.
He sighs. "What do you mean, didn't show up?"
Erasmus swallows deeply. "I mean that he's not here."
"Then call him," Damen says impatiently.
When Erasmus hesitantly opens his mouth to speak, Damen interrupts him. "Never mind. What's his phone number? I'll call him."
Erasmus hands over his own cell phone, the call log open. "I've already tried calling. Almost ten times now."
Damen grunts, dialing the number on his phone as well, desperately hoping that if the actor doesn't recognize Damen's phone number, well, maybe the man will answer.
Damen's not that lucky, of course. The man doesn't answer.
Which means that Damen has to be the one to tell the lead producer they are now short an actor.
The perks of being the boss's personal assistant, he supposes. No real responsibilities except for all the things no one else wants to do. He sighs, standing in front of Vannes, the producer for this video, Ancel, the supporting actor, and Laurent, again the director, explaining why the shoot for the day would have to be canceled, despite having already paid Torveld up front for use of the hotel's facilities. It was part of the agreement that Vere would pay up front when filming, non-refundable.
Laurent's response is steely at best.
"Absolutely not. We're not wasting the money that's already been spent arranging for the location."
Considering the location is a by-the-hour hotel, and not even one of the nicer ones, Damen doesn't think it will significantly hurt the company's bottom line if they have to cancel, but he bites his tongue.
Still, Laurent must see the argumentative look on Damen's face, because his eyes narrow. "Don't forget that we have also rented the lighting equipment, the video cameras, and even additional staff for today's shoot. Who here would like to pay for these expenses out of their own pocket?"
Laurent sneers. "I didn't think so. Vannes, we need a solution."
The woman sighs, looking to Ancel. Her expression is resigned, but brightens when she sees the glint in Ancel's eye.
"What is it?" she asks. "What are you thinking?"
Ancel turns his devious expression to Damen, who feels his palms begin to sweat.
"What if we use the assistant today instead?"
Damen feels himself flushing. Despite having worked in porn for years — hell, having basically been born into the industry — he's never once appeared on camera before. "I can't," he says stiffly. He shifts uncomfortably as he feels all eyes on him, each person sizing him up, evaluating his body, his potential amorous talents.
Laurent nods. "That could work. They have similar builds, after all."
Damen's face swings so quickly to Laurent's he'll be surprised if he doesn't have whiplash tomorrow. "Didn't you hear me? I said I can't."
Laurent tilts his head, just ever so slightly to the right, and there's something dark and sinister behind it all — something calculating. "Then I suppose you'll be happy to pay for the wasted equipment and rental fees with a deduction from your paycheck."
Damen feels a cold chill take over his body as he thinks about that damn rent check again. Why had he signed that stupid apartment lease? It was entirely too expensive.
He can't afford the cost of the day's shoot to go to waste, and Laurent knows it, knows he has Damen exactly where he wants him right now — though Damen can't exactly figure out why this was where Laurent wanted him.
Damen's jaw is clenched as he responds, thinly, "I won't show my face."
Laurent pauses, as if giving the matter some serious thought. However, he answers so quickly that Damen knows the entire thing has been an act, that Laurent knew this would be the outcome several steps back but is trying to pretend it's all a happy coincidence, that he hasn't seen it coming a mile away. "We can keep you blindfolded throughout the shoot. Would that work?"
Damen forms a fist, closing it and opening it, as if somehow the simple act will refocus the world, make everything make sense.
But instead of magically being transported to a world where he doesn't work for Vere and isn't asked to have sex on camera, everyone is still staring at him, waiting for his answer. He lets out the breath he hadn't realized he was holding, and nods. It's probably as close to hiding Damen's face as Laurent is going to let him get, and they both know it.
After that, the rest of the set up moves with clockwork precision. The bed is made up, prepared for the slight alterations they're making to the script, the covers expertly tousled, and Damen blindfolded with his own tie.
Laurent is the one to tie his hands to the bedpost, and Damen wonders if Laurent is using his own tie for that part. After all, it does feel rather silken to the touch — too soft to be something one of the staff members was wearing.
Something about that thought makes the situation more erotic. But only a little. And he's not even sure he can put a finger on why, as if identifying the quick intake of breath will somehow shake his foundation so completely, the sensation can't be named.
Strange, how Damen doesn't need to see Laurent to know the feel of his hands, lightly touching Damen's wrists as he tightens the knot. Damen tenses as he feels the cold wood of the headboard against his skin.
"Is this part really necessary?" he asks.
Damen can almost hear the smile curled into Laurent's words. "Your request to not be seen has forced us to make some slight adjustments to the script. We'll need a believable reason for you to be blindfolded, after all, so Vannes suggested we might add some light bondage into the mix. I agree with her assessment."
Damn frowns, not quite sure how bondage became necessary, but Laurent is already finishing the knot tying him to the bedpost, and there is no longer any room to argue. Damen pulls against the fabric, testing the knot.
Sturdier than he'd expected.
He opens his mouth to speak, but the words are lost in his throats as Laurent's voice whispers low and breathily into Damen's ear. "If we don't get a marketable video from this, you're still paying for everything here."
And with that simple threat, Laurent is gone. The lighting checks are quickly cycled through, clothes on, clothes half off, all clothes gone — each moment checking the way it looks on camera, and Damen feels Ancel draping himself over his body, knows they're trying to figure out how best to position themselves and the camera to capture each moment of pleasure on screen.
It's extremely awkward, and Damen begins to worry he won't be turned on enough for anything to be filmed at all. Ancel's not even Damen's type, so the thought of this man doing whatever he wants to Damen does not send even a shiver of anticipation through him. Perhaps, if it were Laurent… he thinks, trailing off.
But no. That's a stupid thought. There's no way that Laurent would deign to participate in a porn shoot. Damen is disturbed that he so desperately wants him to.
Then, just as quickly as they began, the preparations are over, and he feels Ancel's soft fingers rearranging his clothes, setting the scene for Damen's seduction. Laurent calls the scene to action, and Ancel begins, his hands kneading Damen's pants, a smile kissing Damen's lips.
"Come on," Ancel whispers. "Get hard for me."
It's one of the most revolting sentences that could have been uttered, Damen thinks. There is nothing about Ancel, or this situation, that in any way, shape, or form makes Damen's dick any stiffer.
Ancel rolls his hand against Damen's crotch, his other hand fluttering across Damen's chest, unbuttoning his shirt slightly, featherlight kisses trailing down his neck and onto the hint of exposed skin on his chest.
Still, Damen does not react.
At least, not until Laurent says, softly, "Don't forget the cost of today's shoot, Damen," and his cock jumps to life, half-hard and straining against his trousers almost instantly.
Ancel laughs, whispering, "You like that, do you? His voice?"
Damen shakes his head, struggling against the tie at his wrists. Ancel unbuttons his trousers, unzipping his pants so slowly that it's almost agonizing. When Damen feels Ancel's fingers tugging on the zipper, unbuttoning his slacks, tugging on the pants just enough to expose his boxers to the view of everyone in the room, Damen tenses, waiting for what would come next. He feels Ancel's lips curling around his cock through his underwear, tonguing the fabric, wetting it, trying to make something more happen.
Still, Damen's cock ignores the sensation, remaining half-hard, the strangeness of having to perform for an audience, for a man he doesn't even like, keeping him from reacting further.
He frowns, knowing that he has to come at some point, or Laurent really will make good on that threat.
It's the thought of Laurent threatening him that stirs his cock to life again.
"Try it slower," Laurent says, interrupting. "Tease him."
Good Lord, if the sound of his voice didn't make Damen's entire body tighten.
What had Aimeric said about Laurent? Frigid. He'd heard it from several of the producers too, that Laurent never got involved in video shoots, aside from barking a few orders and letting the actors do as they wished. That he only gave the most basic of directing advice, something Damen had witnessed himself.
Which just makes his participation now that much more erotic — the idea that he is doing this for Damen, when he hasn't for anyone else.
"That's better. All right, now that he's actually reacting, start removing some of the articles of clothing," Laurent continues, directing Ancel's movements once more.
Damn, he thinks. There's absolutely nothing frigid about Laurent's voice in that moment. It's smooth, like silk, and Damen can feel the words tracing his body, featherlight touches across his arms, his neck, his length. There's something about Laurent's voice, disembodied, that transforms the entire experience. It's as if he can feel Laurent's voice the same way he feels Ancel unbuttoning the last few buttons of his shirt, peeling the dress shirt from his body, inch by agonizing inch.
He doesn't wear an undershirt, so his chest is exposed instantly, the cold air from the room on his now sensitive skin causing him to hiss as he takes a sharp intake of breath. With Damen's hands still tied, all Ancel can really do is bare his chest and his shoulders, and he feels the other man's fingers dancing across his skin, far from where he actually wants to feel them.
It feels like ages before Ancel moves his tongue in a slow, lazy line up Damen's length, pausing just before he reaches the head.
Damen shudders, cursing, preparing himself for the next onslaught, because even through the fabric he's becoming too sensitive.
But nothing happens. Ancel hesitates, and it's not until Laurent speaks again that Damen understands why.
Ancel is waiting for instructions.
Damen groans with anticipation, and if he's truly honest with himself, a little excitement.
"Pull it out. Stroke it. Lightly."
Immediately, Damen feels Ancel's fingers once more, tracing the shape of his cock through the boxers, then pulling the fabric away to bare him fully to the camera and their audience. Ancel dances around it, tickling his balls, but never quite reaching the spot Damen now wants to feel the other man's touch the most.
He gasps when Ancel's touch grows slightly firmer, his wrists straining against the tie holding him on the bed, and he hears Laurent laugh — a sound, light and musical, and seemingly utterly unaffected by the scene before him.
Damen's cheeks flame. Good Lord, who all is even in the room at this point? He tries to remember, not quite believing he's lost track of them. Vannes, of course. Erasmus. Ancel and Laurent. Who is handling the camerawork today? Already, Damen seems to have forgotten his face, and even more so when Laurent speaks his next order: "Grab it."
Damen would have leapt off the bed if Ancel's body hadn't already covered his, sitting patiently on Damen's knees, holding him in place. In the back of his mind, Damen wonders what angle the camera is filming him from. When they'd tested the light earlier, it had been to the right of him, hadn't it?
He struggles to turn the opposite way, embarrassed to be filmed in this state.
"Ah, ah, ah," Laurent says, in a sing song voice. "Look the other way, please."
Damen burns, too hot everywhere, but especially too undone to be facing a camera in this moment. Ancel grabs his aching cock, and when Damen cries out in surprise, Ancel turns Damen's head to face where the cameraman obviously wants it, licking a line up Damen's neck to make the movement seem less staged.
And so it continues, with Laurent giving orders and Ancel obeying them, until Damen has been fully bared to the entire room, almost so far gone that he almost doesn't quite care that he is about to come in front of at least six people, and even more once the video is eventually rented. Ancel's mouth works his cock, licking the length of it, swirling around the head and then retreating, making Damen wish that he could fit it inside the softness of Ancel's lips and mouth, half wishing those lips and that mouth belonged to someone else entirely.
All this until finally, blessedly, Laurent orders Ancel to take Damen's cock whole.
The words "Take him" are barely out of Laurent's mouth before Ancel's eager lips descend on Damen, his mouth taking him swiftly in one go — because of course, Ancel is one of their top performers, so he'd have to be good at something like this — and Damen's hips jerk upward involuntarily, straining to find his release and be done with the torture of Ancel's hands and lips and Laurent's words.
Damen is so far gone at this point he doesn't even hear when Ancel is instructed to draw back, but he feels the loss immediately, his face turning about, as if he'll actually be able to see Laurent's smug face. Ancel hesitates over the head of Damen's cock, his tongue swirling but not quite giving Damen what he wants—the velvety softness of Ancel's mouth, free of gag reflex.
"Finish it," Laurent says finally, and Ancel has barely taken Damen's cock back in his mouth before Damen comes, swiftly, the tremors racking his body until finally, he stills.
His face is flushed, and he wonders what he must look like in that moment. It's unthinkable. The man who was supposed to be the director, the producer, the CEO, the anyone but the man spent on some messy bed in some two star hotel, the scratch of the cheap fabric of the hotel bedsheets uncomfortably sharp in the wake of his climax, despite the high quality of the tie against his wrists — this man is not supposed to be Damen.
Ancel hasn't even removed all of Damen's clothes, his pants and boxers uncomfortably pool around his knees, holding him in place, while his shirt remains, hanging loosely against his shoulders.
He jerks against the bedpost when he feels someone's hands on his wrist, but once he hears the laughter near his ear, he knows it's Laurent, removing his tie that had bound Damen to the bed. Damen stills, praying he can hide the way his body reacts to Laurent. Already, he feels his cock stirring, as if his body is ready to repay Laurent tenfold for the humiliation he's suffered, to push Laurent down, to worship his body until Laurent is straining into his hands, crying out his name—
The lights are almost blinding once the tie has been removed from his face. He blinks, trying to focus on the world around him, and he realizes for the first time what a strange industry it is that he works for, has worked for so long. Only minutes before, he'd been climaxing, at the height of pleasure, and now, Ancel is rinsing his mouth, gargling the Listerine and spitting it out at the bathroom sink, while the cameraman reviews the footage he recorded, Vannes and Laurent at his shoulder, making comments and notes for the editors to handle in post-production.
He continues to stare, disbelieving, knowing that this is the same scene he's always witnessed after filming, but not quite able to match it to the feeling of being the one who had been filmed, until finally his gaze settles on Laurent. Laurent, who looks entirely too smug about the entire thing. Laurent catches his gaze and smirks, turning back to Vannes and the cameraman before Damen can so much as open his mouth to speak.
The idea that of all people, it's Laurent that has him undone, on video, in front of an entire crew of people, in front of an unknown audience of people who will watch that video, does something strange and twisty to Damen's insides.
He's always thought that Laurent is beautiful, almost unearthly so, and from that perspective, it's not strange that he reacted. But the struggle Damen finds himself fighting is reconciling that kind of beauty with the person he knows Laurent to be: manipulative, commandeering, secretive, and selfish. In all his time in Vere, he has yet to witness Laurent doing something for the good of others, instead of for the good of the bottom line. Even Jokaste, in all her manipulations, had at least made him feel loved, had made him feel like she cared about something more than herself — although the idea that she had cared about anything more than herself was something he doubts more and more as time and distance grows. But Laurent?
He's yet to see even a flash of what he considers humanity.
Damen wonders if some of the detachment stems from their working relationship — that he is Laurent's employee, and Laurent is his boss — but wondering never accomplished anything, so he sets aside those thoughts and focuses on the present.
The emotional war waging within him forces Damen to pick a side, and he chooses what he believes will protect his heart: shoving down any feelings he might have for Laurent, and focusing instead on all the things he dislikes.
Damen subtly rebels against Laurent, as if somehow, by not bending to Laurent's every whim, it will erase the humiliation he felt during that filming. As if, somehow, he can forget how easily just the sound of Laurent's voice brought him to the height of pleasure, and just as easily sent him crumbling, breaking into pieces as he returned to Earth.
He brings the coffee just a smidge too cold to video shoots.
Sometimes spills it on Laurent.
Sometimes just serves it to him scalding hot, with no warning.
Each time he manages to get a reaction on that smug little face, he feels vindicated, that he can make Laurent feel something as well. In all this time, it's the only real emotion he's seen on the man's face. Even if that emotion is anger, and perhaps, hate, it's better that than the weird, sexual pull Damen has felt ever since that shoot, ever present in the back of his mind as he works beside Laurent. Which is ridiculous, of course, because nothing can come of that. Even without his reservations about Laurent's character, Damen has heard nothing but the many rumors that Laurent hasn't dated anyone, ever, as long as anyone can remember, that he's never shown any signs of emotional attachment to anyone but his friends, friends he was most definitely not fucking.
Sometimes Damen wonders if that's what makes him the angriest — that even the idea of Laurent is out of his reach and unattainable, that maybe it's an idea he wants, and like some petulant child, he is throwing a tantrum because he can't have it.
So yes, he'd rather see the raw anger in Laurent's expression than the strange, mesmerizing pull of Laurent's lidded, lazy eyes, pulling him in.
Damen watches Laurent now, waiting, as if somehow he will learn something new, something life-changing, when what he should really be focusing on is coming into work and leaving, and not making any kind of connection with these people around him.
Instead, he finds himself forming an easy friendship with Erasmus, who reminds him so much of one of his employees at Akielos — so bright, and hopeful, and trusting. The others here at Vere don't believe in goodness the way that Erasmus does, and it brings out Damen's protective nature. Erasmus is so quiet, and willing to please, that it will only take a matter of seconds for him to be chewed up and spit back out, broken and destroyed. It seems almost inevitable, as he sees the way the older employees tend to bully him.
But it's watching Erasmus that brings an uncomfortable sense of awareness to Damen. When one of the other actors, Govart, starts screaming at Erasmus for having dropped one of the props, Damen doesn't even have a chance to intervene before Laurent is at Erasmus's side. Laurent shuts down Govart with a single glance and spends a good ten minutes consoling Erasmus while the younger man fights back tears.
He can hardly reconcile the image before him with that of the Laurent he has built in his head.
Then, when Aimeric tries to use his father's influence in the company to excuse himself from some of the more difficult scenes, Damen expects to see the man torn down before him, ripped apart by Laurent's silver tongue.
Instead, he sees Laurent pull Aimeric aside, and in low voices, whisper, nod, point, and somehow, Aimeric is back on set, gazing with newfound respect for Laurent with every chance he can sneak a glance his way. Just as quickly, Laurent returns to work, ever the dictator, as if he hadn't just shown an ounce of kindness, as if he hadn't just shown himself to be the sort of man that Damen could respect.
It's all extremely confusing for Damen's emotions, because all he wants to do is hate this man before him. Instead, he slowly finds that maybe, just maybe, he's formed the wrong impression.
Unfortunately for Erasmus, Laurent's intervention seems to only inspire crueler vindictiveness on Govart's part.
Govart insults Erasmus's appearance, accidentally "trips" him when he's carrying expensive equipment, and finally, Damen finds Erasmus cornered in the breakroom, Govart's hand on Erasmus's hips, Erasmus backed as far into the wall as he can be without physically phasing through it.
"What do you think you're doing?" Damen asks, his voice raised.
He hasn't felt this level of anger since the day Kastor stopped returning his calls. Not even in the days following his filming had he felt this kind of outrage.
But this, right here, is the kind of righteous anger that has always gotten Damen into trouble. Damen, defender of the weak, bearer of righteousness, as Kastor had jokingly called him when they were younger and Damen would start fights at school with the bullies. One of whom had been Kastor.
Govart simply laughs in response. "And what does the ice queen's pet think he is going to do about it?"
Damen's eyes narrow to thin slits, his mouth set into a grim line. "I suspect you and I could settle this easily enough if we took this outside."
Damen expects Govart to release Erasmus at that, but instead, he continues to smile the same smug, self-satisfied smile, as if he isn't scared of Damen at all. Which, from a purely physical standpoint, he should be. Govart might be large, but Damen knows he's larger, that he has the kind of training to cause serious damage. Damen knows how to throw a punch and make it hurt.
"There are rules against fighting. There is an employee handbook, you know." Govart's voice is level, but mocking. It only serves to make Damen's blood boil even further.
"There are rules against sexual harassment too, I'm sure."
Govart waves his free hand, grinding against Erasmus's hips in the same moment, as if mocking Damen's show of bravado. Your pretty words are useless, Govart seems to say. "There are. Vague rules. Besides, little Erasmus likes it, doesn't he? Nothing wrong with a little mutual enjoyment. In this industry, we understand that."
Erasmus looks like he is doing anything but enjoying it, and there's a haunted expression in his eyes as he takes a deep breath and smiles weakly. "He's right. Everything's fine, Damen."
Govart's toothy grin is sickening. "See? You heard the man. Nothing to see here. Move along, little puppy. Back to your master."
Damen doesn't even realize he's balled his hands into tight fists until he feels the burning sensation that he's broken skin on his palm, his nails just long enough to do damage. He starts to lift his arm, ready to throw a punch right here in the break room, but he's stopped by the desperate look on Erasmus's face as he shakes his head just slightly. Though Damen doesn't understand why, the kid is clearly telling him to leave things alone.
He turns on his heels, angry at Govart, at Erasmus, but mostly at himself for not doing what he believes is right and sending Govart to the hospital with a single punch.
Instead, he heads straight to Laurent's office, shutting the door.
Laurent protected Erasmus before. Perhaps he's human enough to do it again.
"You need to fire Govart," Damen announces as he enters Laurent's office, just barely having the presence of mind to check that no one else is inside before he speaks, let alone think about the words coming out of his mouth.
Laurent laughs. "On what grounds?"
"He's harassing Erasmus." Damen frowns. "That's grounds for termination, isn't it?"
Laurent raises a single brow. "And is Erasmus planning to make a formal complaint? We may be a small company, but there's still protocol to follow."
Damen lets out a puff of air in frustration. He's not sure why, but he'd half expected Laurent to immediately rush to the kid's defense, not question Damen. "Isn't it enough to have my testimony?"
Frustratingly, Laurent does not immediately answer, instead, inspecting his nails at length before speaking. "It will be your testimony against Govart and Erasmus."
Laurent's logic confuses him. "Erasmus will corroborate what I say."
"Are you so sure of that?"
Damen opens his mouth to speak, to deny Laurent's accusation, but then remembers Erasmus's haunted expression as he told Damen to leave things alone.
Just how long has this been going on without Erasmus saying anything?
But there's something about that realization that unearths something more sinister, a dark accusation forming in the back of his thoughts. He glares at Laurent. "How long have you known this has been going on?"
Damen sees red. "He's an innocent kid. He doesn't deserve to come into work not feeling safe, not thinking he has anyone he can go to. You need to intervene."
Laurent sets down the pen he's been holding, and the motion is an acknowledgment that the conversation has finally garnered enough of his attention that he is setting aside whatever else he'd been working on before Damen showed up. Laurent stands, slowly, drawing himself up to his full height — which is still not as tall as Damen, yet somehow, he manages to appear powerful and intimidating all the same. It's something in his eyes, Damen thinks absent-mindedly.
"Aren't you a bit too comfortable telling me what to do?" Laurent asks.
Damen's hands form into fists once more, as he tries to maintain control of his emotions. "I know when I'm right."
Laurent takes a deep breath, and holds it, as if deciding what he wants to say next, how he wants to respond to this level of insubordination from Damen. Damen waits for what feels like a millennium, wondering if perhaps this is the moment he gets fired, and thinking that if this is the way he has to go, it's worth it. Worth losing a roof over his head. He's got a car. He could live in that. It can't be that bad, right?
Finally, Laurent lets out the breath, sighing deeply, and his voice is painfully honest, and painfully resigned. "Govart doesn't work for me. He works for my uncle. There's a difference. A very big difference."
"But if you just speak to him —"
Laurent turns an icy glare on Damen then, silencing him immediately. There's something there in that gaze, something unspoken and painful, and it cuts through Damen like a knife. "If I paid you for your advice, you'd have a raise."
It's the condescension of it all that makes Damen lose it.
"For fuck's sake," Damen says, the words rising in his throat, unstoppable, "you are Erasmus's boss, not your damn uncle. Do something."
And with that, Damen turns on his heels, and doesn't come back to the office that day, because if he did, surely someone would be leaving with a black eye.
And it would probably be Laurent.
Damen spends the weekend trying to figure out how to pay his bills without the income he's been earning at Vere. As he thought — it isn't looking great. He's saved some of his paychecks, but hardly enough to cover just one month's rent, which means he probably has a good two or three months before his landlady figures out he doesn't have a plan and evicts him.
He can probably find something else in that time period, even if it might just be flipping burgers at the McDonald's nearby. Minimum wage wouldn't be quite enough, but if there was some sort of employee discount on the food...
Damen sighs. It's harder to imagine flipping burgers than it is being Laurent's assistant.
He tries to avoid thinking about Laurent all weekend, because it clouds his judgment. For some reason, he finds he's unable to be objective where Laurent is involved. One minute he's angry that Laurent has disappointed him, the other, he realizes that in some respect, Laurent is right — if Erasmus won't corroborate what Damen says, and he probably won't, firing one of the Regent's favorite employees is almost certainly career suicide, even if the one doing the firing is the Regent's nephew. Even suggesting that Govart has been forcing himself on Erasmus will be enough to destroy Damen.
But that doesn't change the responsibility Damen feels towards the younger man. He keeps thinking about Erasmus's haunted eyes, and every time he remembers them, another thought tries to form in the back of his mind, only to be interrupted by the sound of a knock at the door, or the grumble of his empty stomach, or a phone call from Nikandros that he sends to voice mail, as he has for the past few months.
Until finally, the thought forms. He's seen those eyes somewhere else.
On someone else.
He returns to work on Monday, showing up to the office early only to be told they'll be shooting on location at the Patras Hotel again. Laurent has already left the office, and Damen is both relieved and frustrated that he will be avoiding that hurdle for a bit longer. And his badge still works to get into the building, which probably means he isn't fired.
Probably. He won't put it past Laurent to fire him publicly for ultimate humiliation.
When he arrives at the hotel, he heads straight to the room where they're filming. Damen spies Laurent immediately, and Laurent notices him at the same time. He can tell by the subtle shift in Laurent's posture — so slight he's sure the others haven't even realized it. Then, Laurent peers up at him, over the script he's holding as if Damen has kept him waiting all day long. With a single arched eyebrow, he asks, "Coffee?" and Damen is out the door again. He lets out a breath of frustration, knowing that the longer he delays talking to Laurent, the more difficult the confrontation becomes.
When he arrives downstairs to fetch Laurent's second cup of coffee for the morning, he notices a new face at the hotel's reception desk.
Then realizes the face isn't so new.
"Erasmus?" he asks.
The younger man's face brightens, and he beckons Damen to come closer. "Sorry," he says, somewhat breathlessly. "It's my first day here, so I can't leave the front desk."
Damen's brows furrow into a deep line as he tries to reason out exactly what Erasmus is doing behind the front desk.
Was Erasmus fired?
Bile starts to rise in his throat as he fears for the worst, trying to reassure himself that Laurent wouldn't, surely not, because the idea that Laurent wouldn't is the part of the reason Damen even bothered coming back to work.
"What are you doing here?" he finally asks.
Erasmus's wide eyes grow even wider. "You didn't hear? I thought… I kind of thought you'd arranged it, actually. We always talked about how I wanted to do something else, and then all of a sudden Laurent was introducing me to Torveld and telling me he had an open position here at the hotel… I just, I just really figured you had something to do with it. I mean, everyone knows Laurent only really listens to you, and it happened right after you saw Govart..."
Damen blinks, then laughs. He thinks about all the times Laurent has told him no. "I don't think that's the case."
Erasmus quirks his head, staring at him for longer than Damen is comfortable. He thinks about the last conversation he had with Laurent, and realizes, that maybe Laurent did listen to him. He just went about it in his own way. "Perhaps you're right," he mutters, after the pause.
Erasmus smiles, brightly, and once again Damen thinks that Erasmus was always too good for this world he and Laurent live in. "Well. I'm happy here, so you can stop worrying about me. I know it's only my first day, but I can tell; I'm better suited for this than pornography. And Torveld has been really kind to me." He smiles ruefully. "So just enjoy working at Vere for once."
Damen doesn't think that's quite right — not the part about Erasmus being better suited as a hotelier, because that is true — but the idea that he should enjoy working at Vere. Because he needs to get back to Akielos. The thought isn't as appealing as it should be. He shakes his head, as if that will somehow clear it of its traitorous thoughts.
Erasmus sighs. "That's exactly what I'm talking about. You pretend that you hate working with Laurent, but you like it, don't you?" Erasmus leans over the counter, resting his head in his hands and again, quirking his head to one side and really looking at Damen. "When he asks your advice, you look so happy in the moment. So just enjoy it, okay?"
Damen thinks Erasmus is off his rocker, but he also doesn't think there's much he can do to convince him otherwise. Especially now that Damen also now extremely late in getting Laurent's coffee and no longer has the time to argue. He waves goodbye, and heads back to the Starbucks in the lobby.
When the scene's a wrap and the last of the staff are trickling out of the hotel room, Damen hangs back, slowly packing up all of Laurent's gear — a notepad, the script, empty coffee cups, his pens and highlighters — not quite realizing that more than waiting to speak to Laurent, he's hoping Laurent will initiate something, say something to explain what happened today.
He doesn't, of course, so when it's just the two of them in the room, Damen blurts out, "What happened to Erasmus?"
Laurent shrugs. "He found a new job."
Damen stares at the man before him, as if staring at him long enough will somehow crack that ice cold exterior he shows the world.
"That was sudden," he says at last.
"Things change," Laurent says, almost whimsically, and Damen can't quite reconcile this man before him — the same one who had insisted there was nothing that could be done to help Erasmus's situation, that Damen needed to step back and let things be.
The man with the same haunted eyes Erasmus had.
"How did he find the job?" Damen asks, pressing. "It seems oddly convenient."
Laurent waves a hand, as if the answer doesn't really matter. "Patras was looking for help. Erasmus caused more trouble than he was worth. I found a solution for both problems."
Damen frowns, staring at the man before him, acting as if for all the world he doesn't care what has happened to Erasmus, and yet knowing, just knowing, that there's something not quite right here. Laurent is a puzzle, and he thinks it's only by taking him apart that he might start to understand the finer details of the man before him. As he continues to look, his gaze unwavering, he notices a muscle tick in Laurent's jaw, and Damen realizes for the first time, that perhaps Erasmus really was right. Perhaps Laurent is not as unaffected by Damen's pleas as he had previously thought.
"Why didn't you tell me any of this on Friday?" he demands. "Why did you let me think you're so afraid of your uncle?"
Laurent looks at him, then, and it's like the mask cracks, just a bit. For once, there's something almost like honesty in his gaze, and against all odds, that one, true honest emotion looks like desperation to Damen.
Desperation to hide what Damen has seen, to lock the hint of fear back behind the facade. Desperation to close that door, to be again the man without feelings Laurent has always tried to be.
"I'm not afraid of my uncle," Laurent says, his voice hollow.
Well that's a lie, Damen thinks.
"If you'd had a plan," he says instead, "even just the start of a plan, you could have told me. I'd have helped you."
Laurent's jaw clenches, and his mask slides slowly back into place. "If I had you would have made a mess of it all."
Damen sighs, not quite sure that's the truth. Has Laurent ever let anyone see what he really has planned? Has Laurent ever trusted someone that much?
"You could have told me once Erasmus was safe, you know. Just to put me out of my misery from worrying about him. Would that have been too much to ask?"
Laurent shrugs, and once again Damen is struck by the urge to push him down, press his hands into the cheap, uncomfortable mattress in the room, the sheets still sticky and messy from today's shoot, to make Laurent just as messy as those sheets are. That maybe, in that moment, Laurent's mask of indifference will be ripped to shreds.
"It didn't seem necessary. You came back anyway, didn't you?"
It's slight, but in his eyes, there's the same sense of something from before.
A bit of hunger.
And it's that something — that little something — that makes Damen think the "to me" is implied.