The memories came back like slow furls of mist on the fields in the morning. Candlelight, a loud, cracking fire in Mellos, and enough sweetness to make his teeth hurt. He recalled thoughts of warm summer air, the scent of flowers and flickering lights of a party below. And Laurent, being courted with all the grace and dignity he deserved.
Damen cast his head down, below him, to where such a party was taking place. The central courtyard of the palace at Ios was lit and bustling. He could smell the spices and char of the meat on the spit and the fruity tang of the wine. Almost everyone held a goblet close to their lips, gleaming gold in the candlelight.
Low boughs of olive trees hung over their heads, blocking Damen from view where he stood alone on an upper balcony. He sought a moment of solitude from the hustle and bustle below. A moment to collect his thoughts and take in the view. These kind of events weren't where Damen excelled at leadership and aristocracy. They were more in the arena of another, more skillfully-tongued king who was disappointingly missing from the events of the evening.
He caught a glimpse of silks and embroidery. Veretians in all their tightly-laced finery flitted between the odd Akielon and Patran. In a moment of quiet joy, Damen listened to the way their voices mixed; the way they switched from one language to the next without pausing for discrimination or hatred.
After the last two years of a hard-earned kingship, and as they rallied to meet more challenges, this small, inconsequential victory was enough to stop his heart and catch his breath.
There was music, soft and quiet like the birds in the trees above. A quartet on a dias below him, with two willowy dancers moving in time.
As the breeze ruffled the hem of his chiton against his leg, he smelled the flowers again. Orange blossom and oleander. Summer was coming once more.
“Shying away from the party already?”
Damen felt his muscles flinch and coil. Then, like molten metal, he felt them slither into total and complete happiness.
He stood in the arched doorway against a pillar. His shoulder was leaning casually against the marble, a familiar and welcome sight. Marks of a long, hard ride were all over Laurent. Dirty riding leathers and unkempt hair, dark at the roots from sweat. Blue eyes were gleaming in the low light of evening; shining at Damen after too long apart.
With a smirk, “It’s not like you to shy away from anything, Damianos.”
Matching casual for casual, Damen forced his body back on the railing, even as he yearned to reach for Laurent. Instead, he used his voice. “I was, missing you, Exalted.”
When they spoke to each other like this, in private, their words were a strange mix of Akielon and Veretian. It would have made his father’s stomach churn, and Nikandros still struggled with it, even though it had been years now.
Damen had said ‘Exalted’ in Akielon, a reflection of an early decision, made long ago.
“We encountered some troubles in Marlas. It delayed us. I sent a messenger.”
“Yes. He arrived just hours ago.”
A flash of annoyance on Laurent’s face and Damen found himself feeling ridiculously charmed. Laurent hated inefficiency, but he hated inefficiency when it left Damen in the dark even more.
“But you are here,” Damen said.
“Yes.” A step forward, then another, until Laurent stopped and gazed at Damen from an arm’s breadth away.
“Have you forgotten how to make love on balconies?” Damen kept his voice low. “I can show you.”
Laurent’s mouth was pulled in a sly smile, the kind that gave him a shallow dimple on his cheek. Damen gripped the marble behind him.
“The smell of the flowers.” A flash of teeth as his smile widened. “They remind me of Lentos. Of that summer. Of courting each other.”
Two painless thumps of Damen’s heart beat against his chest. “Laurent,” was all he could manage. A helpless sigh. That summer had been everything. A test for everything that would come after. A lesson in tenderness, acceptance, and taking it slow. Damen had longed for those kind of languid hours spent with Laurent ever since.
“It’s been a long time since then.” Still, the blonde king refused to move closer.
There were times when this slow game was joyous and wonderful. When, after an evening of wordplay and withheld touches, they retreated to their rooms and made love through the night into morning. Tonight, however, Damen wanted to greet Laurent properly. He wanted no games.
“Will you deprive me all night?” he asked, through his teeth, startled by his own impatience.
Laurent’s brows lowered in amusement. He sighed, as though a request for a kiss was a nuisance. “I am filthy and require a bath, even if I’m not interested in playing King down below. Even if I’d much rather lie in bed with you for the rest of the night. However...obligations be as they are, we should attend the party together.”
With two slow, measured steps, Laurent closed the distance between them, stepping between Damen’s knees. Leather pressed against the skin of Damen’s inner thigh. He inhaled very slowly, and held himself very still. Laurent smelled of horse, and saddle leather. He let his head fall against Laurent’s as his fellow king leaned close. His lips brushed high on Damen’s cheekbone. “Let me court you.”
Damen pulled back enough to watch Laurent’s brilliant blue eyes. They were alight with mischief. “Tonight?”
“But we’re-” Damen struggled to find the right words.
Pale eyebrows arched high. Expectant.
“Committed. For years now.”
“I should leave it to you Akielons to forgo romance after only two years.”
It was a tease but Damen could bear it no longer. He gripped the leather at Laurent’s waist.
“Will you at least kiss me?”
Wordlessly, Laurent leaned in and pressed his warm lips to Damen’s. It was sweet, and slow. Two months without this, without the subtle reminder that Laurent’s vicious lips could also be this soft… He wrapped his arms around the slender waist and pulled Laurent against his chest. He was here. Laurent was here.
It was Laurent that deepened the kiss, opening his mouth to Damen, seemingly as helpless to the moment as Damen was. He kept it brief, and pulled back soon enough, fanning his fingers over both of Damen’s cheeks, and watching him in the way he did sometimes. As though he still couldn’t believe he was real.
Damen watched the indecision war behind his eyes as Laurent wondered if even he could resist making love to Damen at this exact moment.
“See something interesting?” Damen said, wryly.
Laurent turned Damen’s face away and pushed away from him. “I’ll find you below. Prepare to be charmed by my advances.”
He turned on the spot and was gone. Damen required a moment of recovery.
It started with a presence. Like the cool press of the edge of the sword at his side. Laurent stood tall and regal in his blue velvet jacket. His favored golden circlet crowned his damp blonde head, glinting in time with the starburst pin at his shoulder.
The Akielon courtier Damen spoke with turned and bowed low to the King of Vere as he approached. “Exalted,” he said, before rising. “I was told there was trouble in Marlas.”
“Nothing that couldn’t be solved with a discussion, I’m pleased to say. Would you excuse us?”
The courtier bowed to both, with the tips of his fingers touching his opposite shoulder, then backed away to find another conversation.
Damen met Laurent’s eyes and smiled. “You look nice.”
His words seemed to strike a chord, and Laurent’s eyelashes fluttered with pleasure. “It’s not your place to outdo me with words this evening.”
“Very well,” Damen relented, rising to his full height and taking on an aloof posture. This too displeased Laurent. “As you wish.”
“I came over here to request the pleasure of your company tonight, Exalted,” Laurent said, without pause. His voice was firm and assured.
“Have you?” Damen could not help but tease. His lover was ever so sweet when he was earnest.
Laurent, who had previously been focused on the lion pin at Damen’s shoulder, lifted his eyes. The were void of confidence, open and innocent. Even now, at the peak of his manhood and reign as king, their feelings for each other could reduce them to this.
Innocent, like new lovers.
“Yes,” was all he said for a moment. Then, he reached for Damen’s hand and cradled it in his own. “I’ve been looking forward to spending time with you, my lord.”
In terms of being courted, it was unthinkable for Damen to tighten his fingers over Laurent’s, to wordlessly accept this offer without restraint and modesty. However, if there was one person who left Damen helpless to his own body - it was Laurent.
Loosening his grip after the moment of weakness, Damen lowered his head, the way he had seen Erasmus long ago. Bashful and so very pleased. Curls brushed his forehead as he said, “I would be deslighted by your company, Exalted.”
Laurent bowed over their joined hands and pressed his full lips to Damen’s knuckles.
Damen was helpless to it. To the flutter of Laurent’s breath, and the tiny pricks of chapped lips from a long ride against the sensitive skin of his hand.
“May I escort you to the refreshments?” Laurent offered, tucking their joined hands into his elbow and gesturing to the far side of the courtyard where an artfully arranged display of food was waiting.
Damen followed obediently, falling into step with both Laurent and this slight facade. This was a strange role for him to play: Courtable Damainos. He felt flushed and enamored, like a green young man, only he was a king, and a full head taller than the object of his affection. Various eyes followed them across the courtyard as they passed clusters of guests and servants. They too had been deprived of the vicious young king for far too long.
The refreshments table was a tableau of its own. Platters of meats, cheese, fruits and vibrant clay urns of wine. Damen reached for a morsel to offer Laurent, but his eyes widened as Laurent plucked a piece of soft cheese from a plate and held it out to him. This offering was blissfully familiar and wrought with emotion. He felt his chest constrict, and his pulse thump as memories overtook his brain.
Laurent stiff and aloof at a table in Arles, Laurent beautiful and docile at the inn, Laurent daring and lustful at the banquet in Ravenel. And now? Laurent, a king in every way, devoted to Damen with ferocity that still astonished him, and openly showing his sweetness for all to see.
He reached forward and Damen opened his lips. It had been mere minutes, and Damen’s heart was about to burst from his chest. “If you keep this up, I might go mad,” he said, helplessly, breaking character yet again.
Annoyance. “You are hopeless.”
“You’ve already won me,” Damen reminded him with a breathless laugh.
Laurent let a pleased smile flicker across his face, then reached for another piece of cheese. “Indulge me. Let these fools watch.”
Here again was the persistent reminder of the showy Veretian culture that refused to be put out. Was he to make their relationship a spectacle now?
His partner sensed his reluctance. Calmer this time. “There was question of our unity in Marlas. It displeased me, after months away, when all I could think of sometimes was you. Let them see, let them know. Meanwhile, let me indulge you in the pleasantries that you daily bestow on me.”
It left Damen breathless. Rather than answer, he took the cheese from Laurent’s fingers with a slow closing of his lips and a sweep of his tongue. A subtle pink bloomed high on Laurent’s cheeks. The sight of it made Damen’s skin thrum with every beat of his heart.
In return, Damen reached for a cube of charred meat. The spices and oils spread on the tips of his fingers as he offered it to Laurent.
He took hold of Damen’s wrist - never the docile slave, always the controlled aristocrat. What he did with his tongue was incomprehensible and Damen stepped away in desperate response. Without missing a beat, Laurent reached for a tiny, cloth napkin and dabbed his lips, then reached for Damen’s hand to clean the tips of his fingers.
This intimate tending to his needs, it was Laurent lacing himself back up. Even still, he could only be stripped open for so long, before he needed to retreat and collect himself. He lifted his arm and pulled a finger down Damen’s jaw to his chin. A simple caress.
“Wait for me, Exalted,” said Laurent. “I’ll return to you soon.”
It was probably wise to have this interlude apart, even as Damen’s pulse felt tied to his lover across the yard. The wall at his back was cool, and grounding. Moonlight filtered through the olive branches, mixed with the warmer, flickering light of flame. Servants moved past him to replenish the refreshment table with a fresh leg of lamb. Guests followed the tantalizing smell like schools of fish in a pond. As they floated by, he saw Laurent talking to one nobleman after another. The way he held his body - with such authority and yet undeniable interest in what he was listening to. Damen remembered the days when Laurent couldn’t be bothered with the fools in Arles. And now this…
A broad shadow moved before him, blocking his view, and yet Damen smiled. “Brother,” he said, as Nikandros joined him against the wall.
He was a clean and refreshed as Laurent, even after a long ride through the country a mere hour ago. “I heard your trip hit a snag,” Damen remarked.
To his surprise, Nikandros laughed. “Nothing the King of Vere couldn’t handle, I assure you.”
Pride swelled in Damen’s chest.
“What are you doing, Damen?” Nikandros asked.
“With His Highness of Vere. I saw him leading you across the courtyard like a maiden.” His friend was regarding him through a wary, sideways glance.
A laugh escaped Damen’s lips and he tugged at his hair awkwardly. “Courting each other, I suppose.”
Nikandros’ eyebrows bunched together in concern and he gazed down at his sandals.
“What is it?”
His eyes were dark and familiar as he looked at Damen. “The disagreement in Marlas was unjust bigotry. It was about your relationship with the King of Vere. I’ve never seen His Highness so upset.”
Damen watched him, without words.
“He pushed our party hard today. To get here. To see you. I would have argued against it, but there was something so human about it.”
Damen sought Laurent’s narrow frame once more. Taking in the golden hair, broad shoulders and vibrant blue of his jacket. His chest ached.
“Exalted, I dare say he might be right.”
“Yes. Let him lead you tonight. So often it is the other way around. They think he is powerless to you. Which is…” Nikandros broke off with a breathy laugh.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “Anyone who knew you, would know that you’re the one who is powerless most of the time.”
“Watch yourself, friend,” Damen laughed.
The empty threat was ignored, and Nikandros pushed himself off the wall to face Damen. “He’s protecting you tonight, in his own ridiculous way. Let him.”
With a reluctant smile, Nikandros shook his head and bowed casually. “He comes. I’ll leave you.”
As he turned, Laurent appeared beside him with two goblets of wine held aloft by his long, slender fingers. They nodded to each other before Laurent’s gaze fixed back on Damen’s. “Some wine, Exalted?”
Damen bowed his head in thanks.
As he indulged himself in a sip of Akielos’ finest vintage, Laurent’ settled against his side, facing the room as Damen was. He pressed one of his boots flat to the wall, knee jutting forward in a way that was so casual, so Laurent, that Damen had to force back a laugh.
It was a familiar pose; they often stood this way at parties, as the hour grew late and attention had focused off the pair of them. Laurent let his head fall back against Damen’s shoulder, observing the room through thin, slit eyes.
Damen watched the torchlight flicker off his golden eyelashes. He thought about what Nikandros had said, imagined the anger rolling of Laurent. He wasn’t sorry for whoever had received the brunt of it. To others, he imagined that his larger frame made it look like he was more powerful, more dominating. Perhaps he was, in stature only. If they only knew what the young king was capable of; what his mind could do, and how fiercely he could love.
Damen knew what he had promised, to both Laurent and to Nikandros, but he felt a pressing need to be himself for a few more moments. If only to tend to Laurent. His head dropped slightly, to press a soft kiss to the crown of blonde hair. A slow inhale, soap and sandalwood.
“Nikandros said you had a hard ride today,” Damen said, lips brushing over the silken strands of hair. “Are you tired? You don't need to be here for my benefit.”
Laurent sighed, as though being ‘tired’ was far too inconvenient to acknowledge. “I suppose I should be, but right now I’m mostly bored.”
Another sip of wine. “I’m much more entertained at present.”
Laurent hummed a laugh and drank from his own goblet.
Damen studied the lines of his lover, lit from behind by lanterns and candlelight. There was tension, as always, but less. He seemed - content. “How are you?” He asked it as a man, as a partner, as a friend.
In response, Laurent’s head lolled gently against Damen’s shoulder. A quiet acknowledgment of the kindness. “It was a long trip,” he said, softly. Damen could feel the smooth tremor of his voice on his skin. “I'm glad to see you,” said Laurent. “To be back in your company is always a comfort.”
Damen's eyes fell closed and a breath of helpless air escaped his lips. “The pleasure is mine, my lord.”
The tender moment over, Laurent sipped his wine. “I have something for you.”
“A trinket from the road? You shouldn't have.”
Without any motion to move from this favored position, Laurent shook his head. “Not quite.”
He traced the long outline of Laurent’s thigh with his eyes. “Aren’t you going to show me?” Damen gauged the courtyard around them. It wasn’t empty by any means, but it was much quieter. Some guests had left to enjoy hidden pleasures in private rooms throughout the palace. Others were engaged in close conversations. Aside from a few passing glances, it was as though they no longer existed.
“Away from here,” Laurent said, standing to his full height. He relinquished his goblet to a passing servant, and held out his elbow to Damen.
With his wine in one hand, and the crook of Laurent’s arm in the other, Damen followed obediently off the courtyard and down the nearest passageway. They encountered only guards and servants on their brief journey. The sun was long down, and the halls were lit by flickering torches, crackling in the breeze from the sea.
Laurent led them to a small alcove along the southern walls of the palace. The ocean crashed below, spraying cool mist through the open windows and against their skin. Here the marble was darkened with sea lichen and pockmarked from constant spray. Damen tasted the salt on his tongue. “I haven’t been to this end of the palace in ages,” he said absently, trying to catch the whitecaps of the waves through the darkness.
“Really? I come here all the time. I like the fresh air, and the ocean.”
Damen offered him a sweet, doting smile, and touched a knuckle to Laurent’s cheek.
Before he pulled away, Laurent caught his hand. Their fingers linked and skin brushed against skin. Damen’s breath caught roughly in his chest.
Touching. Two months without touching. It had been agony.
Laurent pressed Damen’s fingers to his lips, as though this intimacy was all he would allow himself as they played at courting. He was starved for it. His breathing faltered, and Damen saw the tension in his jaw. In this deserted hallway, this was a gesture fueled by pure emotion, and one that no one would ever see, aside from Damen. That alone was enough to make his heart pound under his skin. Perhaps it was why he guarded their relationship so desperately. He wanted to share this with no one. The secrets and the sweetness.
“My gift,” Laurent said finally, releasing Damen’s hand to reach for the knife at his hip.
“You’re not going to slay me after all this time, are you?” Damen teased. “That would be very disappointing in the scheme of things.”
“Shut up.” There was a smile in his voice. He unhooked the scabbard from his belt and held it out to Damen. “For you.”
He held it out palms up and Damen scanned his eyes over the weapon. Akielon made, Akielon gold. The knife was wide, and curved on one edge - his favored style. He could see the rough edges, forged by hand, and the buttery warm color of the metal. There were gems inlaid. A large, rough-cut ruby surrounded by three small sapphires. They gleamed in the firelight in a way that seemed familiar...
“Are these… Laurent.” His name fell off his lips with his breath. They couldn’t be.
“You deserved this ages ago,” Lauren’t said, “for everything you’ve ever done, everything you are to me, and for all that you’ve done for my country. But I wanted it done right. Perfectly. I wanted to see every piece as it was made, to make sure it was up to standard.”
He motioned for Damen to take it, then pointed with one finger. “Your symbol, and mine here.” The starburst and the lion, merged as one as on their flags, shields and banners. “Your colors, and mine.” Now he pointed to the gems, and as Damen watched, Laurent sunk to remove his own, smaller knife from inside his boot.
He held it up between them so they were parallel. It was more delicate, in the Veretian style. Damen imagined that the blade was etched with intricate lines and shapes. But there was the crest of their kingdom, and instead of three sapphires there was one larger one, and three small rubies.
“And yes,” Laurent said, quietly. “It’s Nicaise’s earring. Better this way, than hidden inside my pocket.”
Damen felt his heart break. His pocket? Even still?
“We should both remember him.” A quiet heartbeat passed, the memory of Nicaise hovering between them. Then it was done, and Laurent buckled his own knife at his hip, where Damen’s had been hidden in plain sight. “What say you? Too much?”
His mouth bobbed open and closed without words. This was surely the finest gift he had ever been given. “I have no words, Exalted.”
The corner of Laurent’s lips twitched. He was pleased.
Damen only wanted one thing. “May I kiss you?” he asked breathlessly.
Laurent’s lashes fluttered. “Sit down.”
Damen laid the knife on the nearest ledge and sat beside it, as Laurent stepped between his legs, towering over him. His hands slid across Damen’s chest, over his shoulders, and into his hair at the back of his neck.
“You’ve often talked often about what could have been. If you had come to Arles as a young man, and asked to court me.”
Damen closed his eyes. In the early days of their relationship he toyed with this thought many times, then abandoned it eventually as they had began to build their future.
“Have you ever considered,” Laurent murmured, “That I often think about that too? If I had arrived in Ios as a young boy, seen you, and pointed like the spoiled child that I was. ‘Him, father. I want him.’”
Now Damen’s eyes opened and he stared up at Laurent.
“You would have wanted me?”
“Ever so much.” Then, at long last, he lowered his head for a kiss.
It was the kiss Damen wanted hours ago, upon his return. Where he could feel their shared heartbeats against their lips, where he could taste the warm sweetness of Laurent’s tongue, and the eagerness repressed deep inside. Only now, there was no repression, as Laurent sighed and deepened the kiss. He took control, and guided Damen’s head the way he wanted it. His fingers wound around the thick curls at the base of Damen’s skull.
Damen was lost to it, grasping Laurent’s slender waist, then looping his arms fully around his hips and tethering him to place. Their shared breath turned frantic. Wet lips slid over his cheek, his brow, then captured his mouth once more for a deep, penetrating kiss. Damen had dreamed of this for weeks.
Their bodies arched around each other, unconsciously seeking total contact. Laurent’s breaths were uneven and fast as they caressed Damen’s damp lower lip. He let out a helpless sigh, before kissing Damen again, and again. Time seemed to fade away, an abstract measurement that had no place in the secluded alcove. Instead, Damen counted the fluttering pulse of Laurent’s heart under his fingers, the feather-light tips of his eyelashes each time they brushed his cheek, the number of kisses Laurent pressed to his jaw and chin, before sucking gently on his neck.
Damen groaned as Laurent lifted his head and opened his eyes. They stared at each other in the flickering torchlight, as the waves crashed below. As often happened, Damen felt as though he was staring at Laurent for the first time. They smiled slowly at each other, as Laurent began tracing his fingers over the panes of Damen’s face.
“Damainos,” he sighed, brushing his thumbs over Damen’s cheeks. “I do love you.”
It set Damen’s heart on fire.
“Won’t you show me?” he teased, playing at being courted again.
“Hmmmm…” Laurent indulged him with another helpless smile before the idea came to him. His voice was different when he said, “I think that can be arranged.”
Then, Damen feared he would fall backwards, through the open window and into the sea, for Laurent was now between his knees.
“I enjoy surprising you, Exalted.” His hands slid up Damen’s thighs, pushing up the fine cotton of his chiton. His thumbs drew lazy circles on the inside of his legs and Damen let his head fall back. Lips pressed to his kneecap, the top of his thigh, where muscle tightened and flexed. He felt hot breath on sensitive skin.
“I see you’re primed and ready.”
Without his eyes open, Damen could only guess what had fueled that comment. “You never play fair,” he lamented with a hiss, as Laurent palmed his arousal.
“When will you learn that I don’t.” Laurent stroked him lazily, fisting the head and pressing with his thumb.
Damen gulped for air. “If someone sees...”
“Let them see,” Laurent said hotly, a hint of distraction.
And then Damen was lost, because Laurent’s mouth was on him, pleasuring him, loving him. His breath came in short gasps, chest rising and deflating helplessly. All the while, Laurent’s hand caressed the sensitive skin on his legs, tender and gentle as ever.
Damen let his arousal wash over him, like warm bath water. He felt the tightening of his skin over his body and the hotness of his breath. Then he fell headfirst into the pleasure. The feel of Laurent’s lips on his cock, his tongue. He imagined Laurent looming over him in their bed in the coming hours, Laurent inside him.
Damen’s voice was a low moan. “Laurent.”
A pause, only to say, “Yes,” in heady Veretian.
When they returned to the courtyard, they found it much as they’d left it. Damen wondered if they could see the sheen of lovemaking on his dark skin, or the flush of pleasure across his chest and cheeks.
“Will you control yourself?” Laurent scolded from his side.
Damen glanced down at him.
“You’re practically shouting that you had me on my knees.”
“If you’ll recall, it was your idea.”
The King of Vere smiled. “I just wanted to make you blush. You turn such a lovely color.”
Damen lowered his eyebrows.
“Come, feed me some grapes and then we can retire.”
Several eyes followed them as Laurent led Damen by the hand to the refreshment table. Damen smiled in spite of himself. Let them see.
As they reached the table, he pulled Laurent’s hand to his lips and kissed the inside of his palm.
“Did you plan this game tonight because you had a gift for me?” He said it with his lips against skin. Laurent’s hands smelled of Damen and he felt arousal stir anew.
Laurent’s eyes were fixed on their hands, perhaps dealing with his own flood of desires. “It played well into one of my existing goals, yes.”
Laughter and another press of lips into Laurent’s hand. “I’m glad you’re home.”
Laurent’s eyes were bright against the backdrop of the night sky. “I am too.”