There was an empty barrel against the high stone wall. Damen dodged the swing of Laurent's sword and ran to it, curled his fingers around the lip and lifted. It was heavier than he'd expected; not empty after all but in fact filled almost half way with rainwater. Too heavy to throw with one arm, and even if he could the sloshing would throw off the arc. He drew it into a skid across the dirt instead, tipping it violently as he did so that the water splashed Laurent almost to his knees before he could sidestep out of the way.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm dressed like a Veretian," Damen grinned back, circling away from the wall so that the fallen barrel lay between them, a few feet of ground on either side. "I may as well fight like one."
Laurent's shock of laughter carried across the training arena, a gift.
They circled each other intently until Damen was standing where Laurent had been a moment earlier, maintaining their distance; the barrel, a strange facsimile of neutral space, remained between them. There was a pause. Laurent took a half-step forward.
"You are not, I think," Laurent panted, "very good at it."
He leapt. Damen staggered back, leather boots slipping in the mud he himself had created. Laurent took advantage of the opening: one foot planted firmly, he lashed out with the other, catching Damen behind the ankle and forcing it out from under him. Damen flung his sword out, careless, but it was too late; he'd already overbalanced. The only thing he could do was twist before he fell so that the brunt of the impact was absorbed by his shoulder, leaving him with his breath if not his dignity.
"Do you yield?"
Laurent came to a stop between his splayed knees. He held his sword out over Damen's sternum where it hovered, immobile. Damen stared at it and felt a sudden, wild compulsion to impale himself on the tip.
He looked up at Laurent. His hair was stuck to his temples, cheeks flushed and damp with sweat.
"Take me," he breathed.
Laurent watched him.
"Do you yield? Say it."
"I yield," Damen said. "Take me."
For a moment Laurent didn't move; his gaze was fixed on Damen's face, searching. Then he nodded once, a single, quick dip of his chin, and stood back. Damen got to his feet.
The walk to the baths was mercifully short; Damen's clothing was soaked through, the tight Veretian laces uniquely constricting.
Laurent paused at the door, fingertips balanced delicately on the handle. He turned to look up at Damen, head tilted. "Would you like," he asked, "to learn the Veretian style?"
"If you would teach me," Damen nodded. "Yes."
That same searching look. "There is far less improvisation than I may have lead you to believe."
That, at least, Damen already knew. "Teach me your way, then, if you'd prefer. I'd like to learn it."
"I doubt it's to your strength."
"Perhaps." A concession. "But would you not let me try?"
The corners of Laurent's mouth softened. Something tender passed between them. Damen leaned in. Laurent turned the handle and stepped away, out of reach.
Like the room itself the bath was small and plain, intended for soldiers fresh from the arena rather than kings. It was not something made for leisure.
"I would have suffered a longer walk," Damen said, but Laurent was already drawing the water; steam curled up in plumes, leaving the air thick. Damen pulled at the muddied laces of his cuff, then said, "I don't have a change of clothes."
"So go naked," Laurent said, with profound disinterest. "Or call a servant."
"Which would you like best?"
Laurent straightened. "Does it make any difference to you?"
"In Akielos, no," Damen said. "But we're in Vere."
"Then call a servant. I wonder," Laurent continued, fingers stilling on the ties at his neck, "whether you thought it through? Your offer."
"Not that one, no," Damen admitted.
"Just that one?"
"Just that one. Turn around," he said, lifting Laurent's hands gently out of the way in order to unfasten the back of his jacket.
The bath, cramped as it was, did not permit lingering easily; Damen persisted despite it, desiring to let soap and steam alike seep into his pores even as his legs protested the tightness with which he held them to his chest. He rested his chin on his knee and breathed in.
Laurent, too, gave no indication of being in any hurry; he had begun to wash Damen's hair, a purely functional gesture that soon, sweetly, devolved into a caress. As objectively unwelcoming as their surroundings were, Damen thought, he could almost doze here.
"Do I exhaust you?" Laurent's chin had come to rest on Damen's other knee.
Damen opened an eye. "Frequently."
He tilted his head and touched Laurent's cheek lightly, a request. Laurent nodded. Damen shifted his weight and leaned in; this time Laurent met him half way, lips softly parted. His hand slid from the back of Damen's head to his knee, reminding him, suddenly, of what Laurent had looked like when he'd stood between them. Damen's breath left him in a rush.
Laurent pulled back and resumed his position at the other end of the bath. "Have you ever," he said slowly, "attempted that style before today?"
Damen blinked at him.
"Your trick with the barrel."
Damen breathed out a laugh and shook his head. "No. Not with a barrel. I've never needed anything but my sword."
Laurent nodded, a self-directed gesture, and began to scrub himself down with a cloth. "Call a servant, will you?" he said, face averted. "You are not the only one in need of clean clothes."
To dress thoroughly for something so inconsequential as the walk from a tucked-away bath by a disused arena to the King's personal quarters seemed absurd, even in the brittle Veretian winter; Damen conceded only to pulling an undershirt over his head and tying his trousers closed. He would discard them again soon enough anyway. Laurent, on the other hand, was meticulous. He was also practised, however; Damen had hardly finished the knot at his waist by the time Laurent was pulling his boots on.
Laurent eyed his bare feet. "You were very worried about appearances a moment ago."
"I was worried about skin," Damen corrected. "I know how your people fear it."
"They're your people, too."
Damen dipped his head. "Yes. As their king, it's my duty to ease them in slowly."
"Is it, now."
"By the time Marlas is furnished half of them will spend their days naked."
Laurent's lips flattened into a thin line, reluctantly amused. "And you?" he asked. "Will you also spurn clothing at Marlas?"
"I'd like to spurn them now."
They walked hand in hand to the King's quarters, which were larger and grander by far than the rooms Laurent had had when Damen had first known him, although similarly appointed: it had not taken Laurent long to assert his taste.
Damen came to a stop by the wide, high bed. The sun had set while they bathed; servants had come and gone, leaving lit lamps in their wake. The fireplace had also been lit, though not for long enough to do more than take the edge off the chill. The tiles were uncomfortably cool under Damen's bare feet.
"Would you like the drapes closed?" Laurent asked, delicate.
Damen looked at him, and then past him. The room seemed never ending, truncated only by open doorways on what, he felt, seemed to have become the distant horizon. He nodded.
Laurent moved around the bed, unfastening ropes which kept thick, richly tapestried drapes tied to each post. It was a kindness, something that would never have occurred to Laurent to do for himself.
He returned to his side just as Damen dropped his shirt carelessly to the floor. They watched each other for a long moment, silent and still, before Laurent set a hand around the back of Damen's neck and brought their mouths together. Just as before it was a slow, soft thing, and just as before it left Damen breathless. He gathered Laurent into his arms, bare skin pressed against heavy brocade; Laurent let him deepen the kiss for only a moment before stepping away, hand slipping between the slightly parted drapes to hold it open.
"On -" Damen stopped. "How would you have me?"
"How would you like?"
"You bested me," Damen said.
Laurent nodded. "On your back," he said. "I want to look at you."
Damen's face felt hot. He did as Laurent said and lay on his back, head tilted towards the small gap that remained through which he could see faint glimpses of Laurent as he undressed. After a minute Laurent appeared again, damp hair now slightly disheveled. He held a small, stoppered bottle. His skin seemed to glow.
It was not the first time Damen had had Laurent above him; he enjoyed watching Laurent take his pleasure, sometimes, exactly how he wanted, and he even enjoyed the strange exercise of self-control it required of him. They knew each other; nothing about this was unfamiliar in its entirety. And yet it took Damen a startlingly long moment to realise what Laurent was asking for when he placed a hand on the side of Damen's thigh.
He parted his legs. Laurent settled between them.
"I hope," Laurent said, "you don't find my inexperience displeasing."
Damen laughed. "I was going to say the same thing to you."
"Well," Laurent said, suddenly dry, "let's set our expectations appropriately, shall we?"
He unstoppered the bottle. Damen couldn't meet his eyes.
Laurent's fingers were slippery when he touched him. It was not, surprisingly, uncomfortable, but nor was it familiar. Laurent, seeming to sense this, worked slow; he massaged gently at muscles coiled tight with nerves until Damen felt himself begin to relax in increments, and the first dip of his long, thin fingers inside lasted only a moment before they once more retreated.
It was not unpleasant.
The next time Laurent pressed in Damen drew his knees up further. Laurent took the gesture as Damen intended it; he stayed inside. Damen let out a slow breath as Laurent's fingers moved in slow, shallow thrusts. It was difficult, suddenly, not to desire more.
Laurent was looking at him. Damen wondered if, in fact, he'd ever looked away.
Laurent withdrew his fingers wordlessly and crawled up the bed until he was above Damen, lips parted and hips cradled between Damen's thighs. Damen nosed along his throat, coaxed him into a kiss. Their mingling breath felt impossibly intimate.
"What would you like?" A whisper. Laurent felt it too.
He knew what Laurent was offering. He also knew that that wasn't what he wanted.
"Take me like this," Damen said, equally hushed.
Laurent nodded and dipped his head for a kiss. Damen closed his eyes; he could feel Laurent shifting his weight, preparing himself. Curious, he ran his fingers over Laurent's pulse and was gratified to find that it was as fast and thunderous as his own.
Laurent's cock pressed against him, wet and blunt.
"If," Laurent began, tentative. Damen shook his head. Laurent let out a breath, amused, and kissed him, but Damen quickly found that he could not reciprocate for long; the slow, infinite slide of Laurent pushing inside, of his own body tensing and relaxing and yielding around him, distracted every ounce of his attention. The moment was endless.
And then it ended. Laurent had stilled; he was inside Damen completely. It was a vulnerable feeling, to be so stretched and full. His skin tingled with new sensation. Damen shifted his hips; the movement of his own fluttering muscles was a strange thing. It felt almost clinging, as if he were holding Laurent inside himself in an embrace.
Laurent himself was stock still, eyes closed and lips parted.
Damen reached up to touch his cheek. "Laurent?"
"I can't," Laurent said, "look at you. I can't look at you when you -" he stopped, breathless.
"Look at me."
"Laurent," he said. He felt tender.
Laurent wrenched his eyes open and glared down at him. Damen smiled, helpless.
Laurent let out a shaky breath. "Don't move."
"I won't move."
"Don't touch me."
"I can't help that part," Damen said.
Laurent's glare intensified. Then, very, very slowly, he lowered himself down until their foreheads were pressed together. Even if it were pitch black Damen would be able to know Laurent's flushed cheeks by their heat alone. They lay there for a moment, still and quiet but for Laurent's breathing which, gradually, started to even out into something resembling steady.
Damen felt the revelation unfurl itself inside his chest, warm and bright: Laurent had been close. It had taken everything in him not to tip over the edge. He had required perfect stillness and long minutes to calm himself back down; the simple fact of being inside Damen had overwhelmed him.
It took every shred of willpower Damen had not to kiss him. He was rewarded when Laurent kissed him instead, lingering at Damen's lips as if he wished never to leave. His hips began to move. It was a careful thing; he could see Laurent testing himself, finding the limits of his own frayed endurance.
Damen found himself hopelessly endeared to discover that Laurent moved much the same way inside him as he did when he was spread across Damen's lap: each stroke was slow and measured, a gentle rocking that let him stay inside almost completely.
"Can I touch you?" Damen whispered.
Laurent nodded. His lips dragged across Damen's cheek as he moved to press his forehead to the pillow, baring the porcelain length of his neck. Damen touched him there with his fingertips, light as a feather; the contact drew a soft sound from the back of Laurent's throat that Damen felt in his cock. It made his hips shift unconsciously, seeking.
Laurent's breath caught. "Touch yourself, also." He sounded strained.
Damen replaced his fingers on Laurent's throat with his lips and slid a hand between their bodies to touch himself as he imagined Laurent would - as Laurent had, in the past: slowly, as Laurent preferred everything in bed, thumb dragging across the head of his cock and fingers holding far more than stroking. His back arched up; Laurent slipped a little way out of him and shoved back in, harder than Damen expected. That Laurent could be rough with him sent a heated thrill down Damen's spine. It made him think of the tip of Laurent's sword against his chest, a confused image that came and fractured and disappeared again in the space of a breath, taking the last of Damen's self-control with it. He felt himself moving, clutching, spilling over his stomach and clenching around Laurent, hard and unyielding inside of him. He barely had the capacity to take it in when Laurent rocked forward one last time and then stilled above him, so abandoned to his own pleasure that each heaving breath carried a little of his voice with it.
They lay there for long, quiet moments that Damen hoped, dizzily, would never end. Laurent's breath was soft in his ear. Damen turned his face, pressing their cheeks together.
"I don't know if I can move." Laurent whispered it like a confession.
"You don't have to."
Laurent nodded. Damen ran a hand down his side. It was a very strange thing to feel Laurent go soft inside of him, and stranger still to feel it when he slipped out. Damen was surprised to experience it as a loss, not unlike the loss he felt when it was he who had to leave Laurent.
Eventually Laurent roused himself enough to roll off him. He lay on his back and stretched enormously. Damen, feeling suddenly exposed, closed his legs.
"Did you find my inexperience displeasing?" It came out quieter than he'd meant it to.
Laurent snorted. "Immensely."
Damen looked at him. Laurent reached over and pushed his hair from his face. His chest felt like it would overflow at any moment.