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Star Power

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Akielos members Jokaste White and Kastor Vasileus made for quite the cozy couple when spotted in Soho this week! It's the first public sighting of Jo's bling since the couple announced their engagement three weeks ago—and boy is it worth the wait. Is that a rock or a private island?
Damen Vasileus, Kastor's brother—and Jo's former beau—has still made no public statement about the relationship or the fate of the trio's band. This may be the end of the road for Grammy-winner Akielos. If anything can kill that juggernaut, it's probably one band member jilting another for his brother!

—TMZ, 4/28/17

*

 Stars against the sky were never bright like you
I had to shield my eyes against a light like you
Caught me by surprise the night I first saw you
I was tongue-tied, you were rude
And I knew that I was screwed

— "Love at First Sight," from the Warrior EP by Akielos

 

"I already told you, I'm not taking the part." Laurent did not so much as look at the script his uncle was attempting to place in his hand.

Uncle, of course, had no interest in whether Laurent wanted what he was giving him. "It's exactly the part you need right now. Sweet and cute and harmless."

"It's high school. I'm done playing teenagers."

"What a joke. You know any actor with sense keeps playing teenagers as long as they can possibly get away with it."

"No matter how stupid they look."

"Once the bloom is off the rose, there's no getting it back. The curse of age may not hit the male of the species as hard as the female in this industry, but it's still—"

"I'm only twenty years old."

"Exactly! And as smooth and pretty as any sixteen-year-old."

"Oh, do you really think so, Uncle?" Laurent said sweetly. "Certain previous comments of yours have hinted otherwise."

It was possibly the most daring thing he'd ever said to his uncle, skirting this subject in the full hearing of the limo driver, and Laurent felt a bit lightheaded as he waited for his uncle to react.

If he'd hoped to fluster him, though, Laurent should have remembered that the man was incapable of shame. Uncle Reggie, as the entertainment industry knew him—though Laurent was the only one with actual claim to call him that—merely gazed at him steadily, and if some ugly light far behind his eyes hinted anger at being called out, only Laurent could have seen it.

"In a world where 24-year-old 'teenagers' are more the norm than not, you would have absolutely no trouble with believability in the part," Uncle said, voice only slightly clipped.

"It's such a shame I don't still look the way I did when I was thirteen," Laurent said, hardly able to believe he was speaking the words. "What was it you said then? That I was the most beautiful boy you'd ever seen?"

Had the driver's glance in the mirror been a bit… startled? The limo jerked a bit as it stopped at a red light, as if the driver almost hadn't seen it in time.

Uncle's voice was stone now. "It's always a shame when a sweet child grows up into a difficult and petulant young man like yourself. It's not unusual for a former 'child star' to turn out as an unbearable brat, but I admit I thought I'd raised you better."

"You didn't raise me at all, Uncle."

"You act as though I'm refusing to let you grow up, but you may recall that against my better judgment I let you take Black Powder, and look how that's turned out—"

"All the preliminary reviews are raving."

"I'm talking about your own reputation, now that you've proven you can't conduct yourself as an adult on the set."

"She was the one who couldn't conduct herself—" Laurent bit his tongue, knowing too late that he'd made a mistake.

Uncle, of course, never missed a chance to go for blood. "Oh, she started it, is that your defense? You and every other kindergartener on the playground? Yes, Laurent, you are clearly mature beyond your years."

The lightheadedness had not gone away, had in fact progressed to a sort of buzzing in his ears. Laurent entertained a brief fantasy of climbing through the sun roof and screaming the truth about his uncle to every person they passed. He half-believed no one would hear the words, even if he shattered eardrums with them. It was as if a force field surrounded his uncle, one that warped the reality around him to suit his wishes.

"We'll discuss the role tomorrow," Uncle said, blithely assuming that there was something left to discuss. "Don't worry about it now. It won't do to walk into the Met Gala looking as if we've been quarreling. The last thing you need is another public argument, after all." He sighed heavily. "I hope you understand, Laurent, that however much we disagree, I have only your best interests at heart." He reached over and squeezed Laurent's knee.

It was hard to describe the white-out scream that flashed across Laurent's senses. In the grip of it, Laurent opened the door behind him, half-fell out onto the sidewalk, and slammed the door on his uncle's shocked face.

The light had changed, and the limo pulled away before Uncle could come after him. Laurent gulped air, rubbed shaking hands against his trouser legs, and began walking in the other direction.

***

It was probably rude for Damen to be on the phone while Charls, the renowned French designer, got him dressed for the Gala, but Damen needed the emotional support.

"You're a big boy," Nikandros said, his voice on the speakerphone echoing slightly throughout the shiny hotel dressing room. "You can do this."

"But they're going to be there," Damen said, the words a growl between clenched teeth. He raised his arms obediently so Charls's scurrying staff could get his shirt off.

"Yep," Nik said, "and if they have the balls to show up, you'd better have them too."

Damen groaned. "I wish you were going with me."

"Yeah, well, I didn't pay absurd and irresponsible amounts of money to get in, and I'm pretty sure that as your mere manager I wouldn't be cool enough to rate a ticket anyway."

The stylists were half-buckling, half-sewing him into a leather tunic covered in gold trim and artistic scarring. It went over one shoulder, leaving most of his chest bare, and Damen jumped a little as Charls began dusting the exposed skin with powder. "Stop tickling my nipple!"

"Is this a bad time?" Nikandros said dryly.

"I wish."

"We don't want you looking washed out for the cameras, Lamen," Charls said cheerfully.

"It's Damen. And that's really not usually a problem with my skin tone." Damen sighed, seeing Charls's minions approaching with the enormous headpiece that made up the outfit's coup de grace. "I should get those gold contact lenses in before you put that thing over my head. Nik?"

"Text me when you get home and we'll overanalyze everything your evil ex and douchebag brother say to you tonight."

"You're a pal," Damen said, and tapped to hang up the phone.

He stood before one of the dressing room's many mirrors, once his costume was finally complete, and considered the effect. Maybe costume was the wrong word, but after all the Gala was supposed to celebrate the Costume Institute, and Damen's was going to be one of the more outlandish outfits there. As much as he disliked the process of getting dressed, he had to admit he loved the result.

The Met Gala had a jungle theme this year—phrased more pretentiously than that, of course, but Damen had no doubt that people would just take it as an excuse to dress up as animals. He had chosen a lion, which Charls had pulled a lot of Grecian ideas into; a warrior tunic and red cloak, topped by a massive mane falling from a golden lion's-face headpiece. Damen looked like a cross between Hercules and the White Witch of Narnia, but it worked.

It was going to be the devil to drive in, though, Damen thought as he disentangled himself from Charls and called for the hotel to bring his car around. Most people would be arriving at the Gala in limousines, but he wasn't about to hitch a ride with Jo and Kastor in the one they'd scheduled as a group, and anyway the Met was only a few blocks from his hotel. There'd be valet parking, surely.

Would Jo and Kastor be cuddled up in the back of their limo, taking pictures of themselves together, laughing and sipping champagne?

Shake it off, he told himself as he got behind the wheel of his Lexus convertible. Eyes on the road, Damen.

After all, like Nikandros had said, he was a big boy. Furthermore, he was going to be the bigger man. He had nothing to be ashamed of, and if Kastor (or Jo, though that was less likely) tried to start something with him, they would only make themselves look bad. If there was going to be a stink at the Met Gala tonight, it wouldn't be because of Damen.

In the midst of these very mature thoughts, with the brilliant New York night flowing through his hair maybe a little faster than it should, Damen's phone pinged in the passenger seat. A Twitter post from Jokaste's account.

He knew better than to pick it up while driving, he would freely admit that later. Tapping to see the post was the split-second decision of a distracted mind.

'It's hard to hide it in this dress,' read the tweet, 'so I might as well make it public. No champagne for me tonight!'

The words were attached to a close-up shot of Jokaste's distinctly rounded belly.

The next thing Damen knew, the steering wheel jolted out of his grip, the car thumped up and over something—please God not a person—a gas pump reared into his line of sight, and Damen yanked at the wheel, spinning the car in the opposite direction.

With a bone-shattering crunch, the car came to a stop, the hood accordioned against a street light.

Damen's breath was very loud in his ears. He couldn't hear anything else. Slowly, dizzy and stunned, he pulled his face free of the white billows of the airbag. Smoke was spilling around the edges of his car's crumpled hood. Someone was shouting. Light overhead was moving, shadows swinging wildly around their origin points, like a sunrise in fast forward.

"Move, you idiot!" A hand clamped around his wrist, another got a handful of his tunic, and Damen yelped as he was pulled out of the car and dumped onto the ground.

Just in time for the street light to finish its downward arc, shattering his windshield and crushing most of the driver's seat.

A long moment of silence, while Damen blinked at the smoking remains of his car. Then he tore his eyes away, toward the stranger that had saved him, and opened his mouth to say thank you—but no sound came out.

He knew the face of the gorgeous young man standing over him, the one who had just saved his life and was now staring down at him with dry exasperation as he sat on his butt on the ground. Damen had last seen him smoking a cigarette in a French café—on a movie screen.

"You're Laurent de Vere," said Damen's mouth without his permission. "The movie star."

The man smiled as falsely as Damen had ever seen on a human face, speaking down at Damen as if he were four years old. "And what's your name, sweetheart?"

Damen's brain had flatlined; he didn't answer.

"Did you hit your head?" Laurent's perfect alabaster brow wrinkled. "Or are you having a stroke? Is that why you wrecked the car?"

"No," Damen managed. "That was because…" He gestured inarticulately with the phone that was somehow, miraculously, still in his hand.

Laurent de Vere's lip curled in unmistakable disgust. "You were on your phone? You miserable piece of excrement. Do you know you could have killed someone?"

"Did I? Did I hurt anybody?" Damen hauled himself to his feet, looking around. It looked like he had merely jumped a curb into a gas station parking lot. There were curious onlookers gathering, but no one was screaming or bleeding.

"No," Laurent de Vere said, just as the billowing smoke under the hood of the car erupted into flame.

 

Several minutes of confusion later, Damen gazed sorrowfully at his blackened car, as the quick-thinking gas station manager continued to deploy his fire extinguisher at anything that looked like it might consider flaring up again.

"Well, good luck with all this," Laurent de Vere said. "I have a Gala to attend, preferably before the authorities get here."

"Yeah," Damen said, "that sounds like a good—wait, gala? The Met Gala? That's where I'm going!"

Laurent looked taken aback, then looked Damen up and down with new eyes. "Wait, are you—you're Damianos. Of Akielos." He finally looked as boggled as Damen had felt all along.

"Call me Damen." He held out his hand. "I've already texted for a cab—and a tow—let me give you a ride? It's the least I can do, seeing as how I owe you my life."

"I suppose that could be useful," Laurent murmured. He reached for Damen's outstretched hand, only to draw back again with a start. "You're bleeding."

"Oh." Now that he was looking at a hand covered in blood, Damen could feel a hint of pain in his wrist. How had that happened? Flying glass? "Let me just… get that cleaned up…"

By the time Damen came out of the gas station bathroom, cleaned and bandaged, he half-believed Laurent would be gone. Truth be told, he half-believed Laurent was a hallucination to begin with, product of a steering wheel to the forehead. But he was still there, bent over to speak with the driver of assumedly-their-cab, and wasn't that a nice view.

"Speak of the devil," Laurent said, and opened the back door with a distinctly sarcastic flourish. "Your carriage awaits."

"The Met?" the cabbie asked, catching Damen's eye in the mirror. Damen nodded as Laurent slid in beside him, and they were off, just as red and blue lights came into view somewhere far behind them.

 

They rode in silence, Damen straightening his mane and watching Laurent from the corner of his eye. If Damen was a lion, Laurent was apparently a snake—serpents of thick gold embroidery curled across a black jacket, echoed by gold bracelets, gold-trimmed boots, and a gold ourobouros pendant. Even Laurent's distinctive blonde hair was arranged in serpentine coils. Damen thought there must be extensions involved; the last he'd seen of Laurent de Vere, his hair was only shoulder-length.

"Were you… headed to the Gala on foot?" Damen asked at last. "That's unconventional."

"I try to keep people guessing," Laurent shrugged. "That's rather ugly." He jerked his chin toward the bandage on Damen's wrist. It had been the biggest one in the gas station first aid kit, but it was already proving insufficient, blood darkening the material.

Damen swore under his breath, rubbing uselessly at the injury. "That's just what I need, to walk into a public event featuring my ex-fiancee while looking like I tried to slit my wrists."

Looking as if he might already regret what he was saying, Laurent pulled a thick golden bracelet off his wrist. "This might cover it."

Damen felt his eyebrows rise. Laurent de Vere seldom appeared in public without that bracelet; Damen had seen more than one tabloid article speculating as to why, though he didn't think Laurent had ever answered the question. If he was lending it out so lightly, perhaps it was nothing so mysterious after all, just a fashion statement.

"Thanks," Damen said, and took the bracelet. It was a tight fit, but it did conceal the bandage. "This is a big improvement. Really, thank you."

Laurent gave him a thin smile. "Another favor you owe me, then."

"Yeah, I guess you basically own me now, don't you? Since you saved my life."

Laurent tilted his head a little more thoughtfully than Damen found quite comfortable. "I suppose I do."

 

They were some of the last to file into the Gala, but that did nothing to keep the photographers from losing their minds at the sight of Laurent, ever their darling. Damen attracted his share of attention, too, including shouted questions about Jokaste and Akielos that he pretended not to hear. He made sure his lion's mane was on straight, and snarled obligingly at some of the less obnoxious photogs before following Laurent through the door. It wasn't until they were inside the event that Damen realized he and Laurent had more or less walked the red carpet together, a statement he hadn't meant to make. Hopefully he hadn't annoyed Laurent too badly.

Once inside, Damen tried to distance himself from Laurent. Sharing a cab and a car accident did not make them friends, and Laurent de Vere was known for refusing to tolerate hangers-on or even fans who presumed upon his company. Somehow, though, the press of the crowd seemed to steer them back to each other. He rather thought Laurent was displeased by it, but he concealed it well enough for good manners, at least. Only once did Damen have to explain his proximity to an acquaintance of Laurent's with an awkward joke about having run into each other on their way in.

The Gala was, of course, an incredible display of fashion and glamour. Akielos's rise had been meteoric, once it ever got started, and one of the disadvantages of that was that Damen had had little opportunity to get used to Hollywood before he found himself smack in the middle of it. Damen felt fortunate that he'd grown up attending important business soirees with his parents, and was somewhat inured to the sparkle and sweep, even surrounded by faces—like Laurent's—that he'd only ever seen on-screen. It was still a bit surreal to realize he was making small-talk about costumery with Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence. And Laurent de Vere.

The red carpet portion of the evening was winding down, staffers appearing to usher the guests into the event proper, during which cell phones were strongly discouraged. Damen took a moment to check his phone—rather spooking himself with a second look at Jokaste's pregnancy tweet—and found, to his surprise, a series of texts from Nikandros.

Damen, did you start dating Laurent de Vere sometime in the last half-hour?

Dude, I'm serious, because TMZ kinda thinks you did. Is that really his bracelet?

You looked great on the carpet btw but wtf is going on

I assume you heard about Jo's baby, please try not to freak out

Is that what this is? You freaking out about Jo? You and Laurent already have a ship name.

It's Lamen which is about as awful as you deserve.

Damen stifled a hysterical laugh. Beside him, Laurent raised an eyebrow, and leaned closer to murmur in his ear.

"Are you always glued to your phone, Damianos, or only when driving and attending formal events? At least here you are merely rude, and not causing dismemberment or property damage."

"Sorry," Damen said, swiftly tucking the phone away again. The last thing he wanted was for Laurent to see those texts. He was probably going to be furious when he heard about the rumors tomorrow, and Damen wanted to be safely far away.

Belatedly, he noticed that Laurent had called him Damianos. Only his father called him that, if Damen could help it. Where had Laurent even heard that name?

Then they were headed into the Gala, with no more time to discuss it.

 

Seating was, of course, assigned, and Damen realized that his band's implosion had probably caused the organizers a last-minute panic. But they had pulled through; Damen only just caught sight of his brother and ex-fiancee on the other side of the room as he was shown to the table furthest from them. He and Laurent were, to his surprisingly painful dismay, separated—but not as far as they could have been. Only a few tables away, Damen found he could easily meet Laurent's eye over the heads of the intervening guests. Unfortunately Laurent, meeting his in return, did not seem as pleased by the realization.

Or perhaps he was merely displeased by the people he was seated by; Damen squinted at the middle-aged man to Laurent's right, trying to figure out where he recognized him from. He had dark hair, a neat beard, noticeably piercing blue eyes even from this distance, not unlike Laurent's. It was that family resemblance that made the name click into place. Uncle Reggie, Laurent's manager and actual uncle. The fact that Damen had heard of him at all probably meant he was a Hollywood powerhouse. Why hadn't he and Laurent arrived together? From the stiff way Laurent held himself, refusing to answer the man's quiet remarks or even look in his direction, you would hardly have thought they knew each other, but Damen's understanding was that Laurent—among several other rising young actors—owed his entire career to Uncle Reggie.

Soon enough, Damen was distracted by the dinner, conversation with his seatmates—all connections worth making, and interesting people to boot—and the beginning of the event's entertainment. Yet he found himself continually glancing Laurent's way, as if checking on him. Not that he needed assistance; his left seatmate, a well-known rapper in a leopard-print gown, looked to be wrapped around his finger, and everyone else at the table was equally charmed. Except his uncle, whose expression of neutral geniality was… almost unsettlingly even, giving way to neither laughter nor frowns, no matter what happened around him.

Eventually, the evening drew to a close. People left their seats, drifted into the next room for a final drink or tidbit of dessert, and from thence, Damen assumed, home. Or perhaps off to an after-party somewhere, but personally he'd had enough for the night.

That was where Damen found himself faced, at last, by Kastor and Jo.

There were always a few who ignored the theme, especially men; his brother was obviously among them, wearing a fine but unexceptional tuxedo. Jokaste, however, was luminous in a brilliant blue number obviously inspired by the morpho butterfly of the Amazon, with a silky shawl around her shoulders in the shape of butterfly wings. With Kastor's arm around her waist, she stood in conversation with—was that Benedict Cumberbatch?—who bowed over her hand, then exclaimed over the diamond ring he found there, tilting it so that it flashed in the light. Jo's other hand rested, perhaps unconsciously, on the gentle swell of her belly. Kastor caught Damen's gaze, tightened his arm around Jokaste, and bent to kiss her ear without ever breaking eye contact.

"I suppose you'll need an address to return my bracelet to," said a voice at Damen's elbow, and in a surge of pure jealous spite, Damen pulled Laurent close to his side.

"There you are, sweetheart," he said, a little too loudly. "I was starting to worry."

Laurent went stiff as a mannequin under his arm, but did not, as Damen half-expected, take a knife to him on the spot. Damen had the pleasure of seeing his brother's eyes widen, and Jokaste stop mid-word to look toward his voice, her mouth dropping open. Uncle Reggie, drifting by, was already eyeing Laurent with some disfavor; at Damen's words, he looked every bit as boggled as Jo and Kas.

"Run along, Uncle," Laurent called. "Like I said, I won't be needing the car."

Uncle Reggie continued standing there several beats longer than could be considered graceful, and their little tableau was definitely drawing attention. Damen even thought he saw one person snap a phone pic. Then Reggie pasted a bland smile onto his face and continued out the door. Kastor and Jo made a flustered attempt to resume their conversation with Cumberbatch.

Laurent got a vicious sharp-nailed grip on Damen's arm, and hauled him into one of several alcoves scattered about the room, obscured by the long fronds of a possibly-artificial weeping willow.

"What," Laurent said, his voice arctic and precise, "was that?"

"That," Damen replied, "was a stupid and impulsive attempt to shock my brother and—"

"—ex-fiancee. Of course. Why me?"

"Well." Damen felt his face heat. "You were handy. But you're also very much my type, which lent the moment a certain verisimilitude. I'm sorry, it was dumb—though you do seem to have gotten something out of it as well."

"An opportunity to needle my uncle is not to be missed," Laurent said, almost absently. He was examining Damen's face with narrowed eyes. "And, in fact, this presents an opportunity for… something beyond needling."

"Like what?"

Instead of answering, Laurent held out his hand, as if for a handshake. "I accept your proposition. This arrangement has benefits for the both of us."

"What?" Damen stared at the proffered hand. "Proposition? No! I didn't mean—it was a stupid idea, I'm sorry I did it, let's just never speak again—"

Laurent raised an eyebrow, and his hand snaked forward to seize Damen's wrist, the cut there pinching painfully under the gold bracelet. "I own you now, remember?"

"I…" But really, the idea had its appeal. As a middle finger to Jo and Kas, it served nicely, and he couldn't say he hated the idea of the gossip rags crowing about how he'd traded up. If the price was having to get cuddly with a man as gorgeous as Laurent de Vere, he could pay that without flinching. "Well, I guess…"

At that moment, a photographer—one Damen had to assume had snuck in through the exit, and would soon pay in blood for it—stuck his head into their half-secluded alcove. Laurent rose onto his toes and kissed Damen full on the mouth just in time for the flash.

Chapter Text

the-gossipmonger: but Laurent isn't gay! Is he??? could i have missed that somehow????

madamdevere: he pretty much just doesn't date?? i mean, apparently he does now, but he hasn't dated since Elle Fanning in 2012.

noblebloodmagic: #a certain faction of his fandom has always insisted he was still pining over her #all this time #which i always knew was bullshit OF COURSE ITS BULLSHIT DID YOU REALLY THINK A MAN AS PRETTY AS LAURENT DE VERE WAS GONNA BE STRAIGHT [tears emoji]

akielos-lover: the one i'm worried about is damen, he just broke up with jo like a month ago, and now he's dating her male twin? look at him! from the back i thought it was her! damen, honey, i am literally begging you to get therapy. BEGGING.

*

Is it wind, is it gravity
That drives the restless waves
Pushes them forward, pulls them away
Why do the waters roar
Reach out, reach out for more
(I walk the beach in moonlight, remembering the sun)
We crash upon the shore, we crash upon the shore
—"Beach Song," from Epicurious by Akielos

 

Damen might have been tempted to write off the whole interlude—Laurent de Vere rescuing him like a white knight, escorting him to a gala, kissing him behind a weeping willow—as a dream. Really, it was embarrassing to think his subconscious would even come up with something so shameless and far-fetched. But there was photographic evidence, which of course was all over the internet within hours, followed by legions of fans hounding him for answers. Along with his best friend.

"I don't know what to tell you, Nik," Damen said, not for the first time that day. "He asked for my phone number, but he hasn't called. I don't have his."

"You didn't ask for it?"

"I didn't have a chance. Apparently he arranged cars for us during dinner, but—not the same car. He rode off into the night in a white limousine."

"After tickling your tonsils for no apparent reason."

"Oh, he had a reason. Riling up his uncle, if nothing else, though I'm not sure what stake his uncle has in his romantic relationships anyway."

Nikandros grunted, moving about in Damen's kitchen like he owned it. To be fair, he probably spent more time there than Damen did. The cook hadn't come in this week, so the fridge held little more than condiments and beer, but Nikandros had managed to put together a sandwich. "Uncle Reggie has a rep as a control freak, so there's a viable explanation right there. Oh, crap, this guy's not underage, is he?"

"No! He's twenty years old." Damen had checked Laurent's IMDB just to be sure, since the last character he'd seen Laurent play had, in fact, been a teenager. An age gap of five years wasn't that unseemly, was it? "Now hush, I have to talk to these people about my car."

By the time he did finally hear from Laurent, it was nearly midnight. Nikandros had long since gone home, Charls had reclaimed his costume, the car was out of impound and on its way to the body shop, and Damen was climbing into bed—when his text chime went off. Unfamiliar number.

Meet me at Chastillon Beach tomorrow, 10 am. We'll talk specifics.

Damen debated leaving it unanswered until morning, out of spite, but realized he didn't actually know whether it was Laurent or some deranged fan who had gotten his number. 'Is this Laurent?' would probably get a 'yes' whether it was true or not, so Damen tried another tack.

Can I assume this is my new owner?

A long pause, and then, just as Damen was turning out his bedside lamp: Yes. I hope your slit wrist is healing well.

Proof enough. Damen saved the number as 'Snake Boy' and went to bed.

 

Chastillon Beach was rocky and wild, picturesque but not well-suited for swimming. Damen, in red shorts and a tanktop, was willing to take a dip anytime and anywhere, but he doubted that was what Laurent had in mind. Especially not if that was him, in the distance—Damen could just make out a blonde figure in an impeccably stylish straw hat. He supposed Laurent had to worry about sunburn a lot more than Damen did.

Getting out of his car in the oddly empty parking area (his other car, obviously, the SUV), Damen was greeted by a short, stocky man in khakis and sunglasses, who could not have more obviously been a bodyguard.

"Mr. Vasileus," the man said with a bow of his head. "I'll take you to Mr. de Vere."

Damen followed obediently, scanning the all-but-empty beach. "Do we have you to thank for the solitude we seem likely to enjoy?"

The bodyguard flashed a brief grin. "Mr. de Vere takes his privacy very seriously."

Laurent was walking toward them as they approached, accompanied by another, taller bodyguard. The beach was a good look for Laurent; his ponytailed hair gleamed and rippled in the sun, and his eyes looked all the bluer for the sky and sea they reflected. Damen couldn't help feeling amused that Laurent de Vere in beach-casual still involved boat shoes, silver stud earrings, and several thin necklaces. He wasn't a fashion darling for nothing, Damen supposed.

"Good morning," Damen called, but before he could finish the words, Laurent's face brightened and he threw himself into Damen's arms. "What," Damen began, but Laurent kissed his cheek and whispered, "Photographers."

Fat lot of good the bodyguards were doing, then! "I'll run them off," Damen said, scowling and scanning the nearby rocks. Had that been a glint of sunlight off a camera?

"No, I told them to be here." Laurent's expression of delight, wholly unmatched by his voice, had not wavered as he pulled back and ran his hands down Damen's shoulders. "Anonymously, of course. We need PDA photos, that's a very important part of a story like this. Smile, will you? Imagine I'm someone you like."

"You're the actor, not me," Damen said, but made a valiant attempt at a smile. It was no effort at all to curl a hand around Laurent's slender hip. After a moment he ducked his head under the brim of the hat to kiss the tip of Laurent's nose, and was certain he heard a shutter click somewhere.

"Walk with me." Laurent took Damen's hand and turned back the way he had come, keeping to the sand far clear of the waves. "By the way, this is Jord and Orlant, you'll likely be seeing a lot of them."

Damen nodded warily at both bodyguards, wondering which was which as they fell behind him and Laurent. "Do you feel you're in danger here?"

"Probably not, but there are certainly people in the world who don't like me, and the ones who do can be even more alarming. Don't you have that problem? A world-famous rock star like yourself?" His voice was sugary, his expression just a little bit arch.

"My building has very good security. And anyway I prefer to take care of myself." He knew how to do it, too—Damen had studied hand-to-hand combat since his childhood, a hobby rather more practical than his friends' video games and shot glass collections. "My father put bodyguards on me now and then, as a kid. I hated having someone watching my every move. I like to perform, yes, but performances end eventually."

Laurent made a thoughtful noise. "Ah, yes, your father. Theo Vasileus, the great business tycoon. I imagine having him in the wings didn't hurt your band's chances of success."

Laurent had been researching him. Damen abruptly wished he'd done more of the same than looking up his age. "My father thought the band was a waste of time, we got no particular support from him. Akielos made it on talent."

"How comforting to think so." Laurent turned toward Damen and sighed. "You really can't control your expression at all, can you? You look so disgruntled. Clearly I will have to cheer you up."

He moved closer, pressing his body against Damen's and winding his arms around Damen's neck. It… wasn't a sensation Damen could ignore, and he made no attempt to keep from sliding his arms around Laurent. He was warm and shapely, lean muscle shifting under Damen's hands as Laurent tilted his head and pressed kisses against Damen's chin, and jaw, and lips…

It was very pleasant, but Laurent was acting. He was a good actor; Damen had always thought so, and several awards committees agreed. He had no doubt the photographs were coming out wonderfully. But Damen was close enough to see the cracks in the performance, the way Laurent's breath remained calm and pupils small in the sunlight. Damen couldn't say it was a hardship, kissing and cuddling a gorgeous movie star, but he wished it felt less like hiring a prostitute.

After a minute, Laurent stepped back, took off his hat and dropped it onto Damen's head, where it sat comically small atop his thick curls. The act was whimsical enough to get a genuine laugh out of Damen, who swept the hat off and swooped back in for another kiss. Those did feel nice, after all, even if they were more like a daydream of a kiss than the reality.

"That should do it," Laurent said after a minute, sounding satisfied. "Gentlemen, time to send our friends packing."

Jord and Orlant stalked off toward the rocks that likely hid the photographers, leaving Laurent and Damen alone.

"I thought you might want this back," Damen said, reaching for Laurent's heavy gold bracelet on his wrist. The cut beneath it still bore a bandage, but a much smaller and thinner one, not noticeable from a distance.

Laurent hissed, pulling Damen's hand away from the bracelet. "Are you mad? Keep that on. You live in that, now. It's our token of affection. Don't go out in public without it. Don't go to the bathroom without it."

Damen spread his hands in surrender. "Fine, fine. Are you sure? I thought it was a special thing to you."

"It is," Laurent said coldly, "and I expect it back in perfect condition when we break up."

"Can't wait," Damen muttered, and counted his lucky stars that he'd waited until the photographers were—probably—leaving before he brought it up.

Laurent had regained control of himself, once again strolling casually at his side with a falsely pleasant expression. "So you don't keep bodyguards," he said. "You make few public statements, outside of an active but casual Twitter and Instagram. You give very few interviews alone, and let your bandmates do most of the talking in group interviews. Do you even have a publicist?"

It was less that he let Jo and Kastor do the talking, and more that he couldn't get a word in edgewise, but he supposed the effect was the same. "Akielos does have a publicist, but she, ah…"

"Ah," Laurent said in a tone of enlightenment. "She threw her hat in with the other two."

"Yeah. I got to keep Nik, though—our manager. We've been friends since grade school." Over Laurent's shoulder, Damen could see a trio of camera-laden persons fleeing from Jord and Orlant. "Anyway I always hated the public-relations circus. A man's actions, and an artist's art, should speak for themselves."

"That," Laurent said, "is adorable, and does a great deal to explain your current situation."

Damen narrowed his eyes, certain that he had just been insulted somehow.

"In that case," Laurent said, picking up a stray branch and swooping it back and forth ahead of them, "how does Damianos 'PR-is-dirty' Vasileus feel about a fake dating stunt?"

Damen grunted uncomfortably. "We need to talk about what we're each going to get out of this."

"You get to make Jokaste jealous," Laurent said immediately, "and repair the blow she dealt to your public virility. You also get a PR distraction from your legal battles over the band, which you seem to find personally embarrassing, though not for any reason I can see."

Damen grunted again. He did find the legal battle embarrassing; he felt duped, hoodwinked, and horribly betrayed. The agreement between the three of them had always been that the name of the band, and all the rights connected to that, would remain with the majority—i.e. two out of three—if they ever split up. Damen had thought that was fair, thought it was unlikely to ever matter anyway, but sure, it could happen that one of the others would want to pursue something else after a while. It had never occurred to him that the two people he loved most in the world would gang up against him to scuttle his career and steal his band. Akielos had been his idea, his project, driven by his determination and his choices; he couldn't believe that his own brother wouldn't acknowledge that.

There were other issues, things about song royalties—they all had input on lyrics and melody on most of the songs—but Damen was leaving all that up to Nikandros and the lawyers. He didn't care about money. This was about the future of Akielos.

"Fine, we know what I want," he said eventually. "What about you? I assume you need some good publicity after the spitting incident." Damen hadn't heard the entire recording of Laurent's screaming rant on the set of his latest movie, but hardly anyone could escape knowing that Laurent had spat on his female co-star at the end of it.

"That's one factor, certainly," Laurent said, smooth and unconcerned. "You're an excellent choice of boyfriend, where that's concerned. You have a reputation as unusually honest and decent, as Hollywood types go. If you see something in me, there must be something there to see."

Damen felt a little sick.

"I also feel that a serious relationship will help shift me, in the public eye, from child star to serious actor," Laurent continued. His eyes flicked in some brief communication to Jord and Orlant as they rejoined them, then returned to swishing his branch.

"I don't know that that's necessary," Damen shrugged. "You've always been a serious actor. I remember you in The Golden Crown; you were what, thirteen? Stole the entire thing."

"Everyone remembers The Golden Crown. And the Noble Blood movies. I'm good at historicals." He said it with neither humility nor triumph. "But I'm tired of playing angsty teenagers in them. Black Powder was my best chance at opening a new market for myself, more meaningful roles. Losing my temper on set may have ruined that." He swished the branch again. "I have to be more careful."

"Or you could just, you know, be nicer to people."

Laurent gave him a look of such blank incomprehension that Damen actually felt a chill.

"Perhaps you haven't heard," Laurent said, "but I'm a cast-iron bitch. The reputation is well-deserved. But nothing softens someone's reputation like them falling in love." He suddenly stepped up to Damen, tangling his hands in the tanktop to pull him down and touch their foreheads together, his smile soft and beautiful. A flash went off in the shadow of a nearby rock formation.

"Jord," Laurent called, "tear that photographer to pieces."

Damen watched in some alarm as the shorter bodyguard jogged around the rock formation, caught the photographer as he tried to make a run for it, and shoved him back against the rock, pulling his equipment from his hands.

"Um," Damen said, wondering at what point he should intervene, but before he could make up his mind, he could see the photog making a show of deleting his pictures. Jord manhandled him a little more, just for form's sake, and let him go.

"We'll need some photographs of our own," Damen realized aloud. "For my Instagram. Ask anyone, I'd never date someone for real without plastering them all over my social media." He'd deleted only a few pictures of Jokaste before realizing it would take the better part of an ice age to get them all. He even still had pictures of Erasmus here and there. "And you'll need to talk about me, too. Twitter or whatever."

Laurent frowned. "I think I do have a Twitter. My uncle runs it. I don't know the password."

"We'll set you up one of your own, then. Once I link to it, there'll be no question it's really you."

They sought shade, settling under a sun-faded cabana, and spent a surprisingly companionable few minutes crowded around their phones. Soon Laurent was established on Twitter as @laurent_de_vere, as opposed to the rather chilly promotional account @laurentdevere, and they had both posted a few photos—close-ups of their faces in the cabana shade, their linked hands in the sunlight, a few cozy full-body shots that a bemused Orlant took for them. By the time the third one was posted, the first two were already pulling in frenzied responses.

That was when Laurent's uncle showed up.

"Sir," one of the bodyguards said, gesturing to the approaching figures—two men and a young boy. Only the boy was actually dressed for the beach, in a teal zip-up bodysuit. Uncle Reggie looked like the caricature of a rich retiree in a white polo, khakis, and a flat cap. The third figure, Damen realized in some exasperation, had to be another bodyguard, this one in an unforgiving dark suit that made Laurent look like quite the softie for putting his men in shirtsleeves. Uncle Reggie was carrying a picnic basket.

"Ah, Laurent! I wondered if you might be here, your favorite beach and all. Nicky and I had the urge for a picnic. Please, join us!" He swanned right into their cabana and started laying out a tablecloth.

"Sorry, sir," Uncle Reggie's bodyguard muttered to Laurent, which surprised Damen.

"Don't worry, Lazar, I was expecting as much," Laurent replied, which surprised him even more. "Damen, may I introduce you to my uncle, Reginald de Vere, and my cousin Nicaise."

"I'm not your cousin," the boy said waspishly.

"You are, in fact, since my uncle has legally adopted you," Laurent said serenely. "Uncle, Nicaise, this is Damen."

Damen found himself staring at Nicaise. At second glance he looked older than Damen had initially thought, closer to thirteen than ten. He was a pretty child—dark curls, big blue eyes, a delicate elfin face—but nothing Damen would have stared at, except that he looked familiar.

"Oh!" Damen said after a second. "Nicky Pettit! You were in that horror movie, with the haunted orphanage."

For a moment the boy's sullen expression lifted, perhaps pleased to be recognized; unfortunately Damen's mouth was still moving.

"Ugh, I hated that movie. What was your father thinking, letting you be in something so gruesome at your age?"

Nicaise's mouth fell open in an expression of outrage reminiscent of Damen's grandmother when one of her coupons was declined, his eyes blazing.

Laurent tried, unsuccessfully, to hide a smile behind a hand. "Now you've done it," he murmured to Damen. "He doesn't even know what to be offended about first."

Damen frowned, bewildered. "Didn't you see it, Laurent? The poor kid was beheaded. He made for the meanest, creepiest ghost I've ever seen. I would never want a child to see that, much less be part of it. You were terrifying, Nicky, I'll give you that."

"Nicaise," the boy corrected, frosty and precise.

"Lunch is served!" Uncle Reggie sounded as jovial as if the argument around him wasn't happening at all. "Everybody, have a seat, see how much we can eat before the flies carry it off, hm?"

Damen instinctively moved toward the food, which actually looked very good—barbecue sandwiches and coleslaw. Laurent took a seat at the picnic table as stiffly as he might have done at a royal dinner, and his uncle claimed the seat beside him before Damen could, actually jostling Damen's arm in his hurry to do so. Damen bit back an annoyed comment; he suspected that picking a fight with Uncle Reggie would do no one any good. Instead he stepped around the table and sat down next to a glaring Nicaise.

"Here you are," Uncle Reggie said, placing a sandwich on a plate before Laurent.

"I am capable of feeding myself, Uncle."

"Oh, are you? When did that happen?" It might have passed for avuncular ribbing, except that neither of them smiled. "Eat, Laurent, I can tell you need it. You should take better care of yourself."

Damen glanced awkwardly between them and took a bite of his sandwich. Sadly not as good as it looked.

"We still need to discuss that offer from Fox," Uncle Reggie said. "I told them you were still thinking it over, but they're really quite impatient—"

"Oh, that," Laurent said. Long, graceful fingers were picking at his sandwich apathetically. "I called them this morning and declined."

Uncle Reggie went very still.

"I did tell you I didn't want it, Uncle," Laurent said.

"You don't know what you want. You never have." He and Laurent had locked eyes in some kind of contest that Damen was just as glad he wasn't competing in.

Awkwardly, both wanting and not wanting to break the silence, Damen reached past Nicaise for a bag of potato chips. And recoiled with a yelp when the boy stabbed his fork into Damen's arm, apparently with all the strength in his slender childish body.

Laurent and Uncle Reggie both looked at Damen, who was clutching at his arm. It was bleeding.

"Nicky, really," said Uncle, without any particular censure. Laurent, the psychopath, just looked amused. "Come, Mr. Vasileus, I'm sure there's a first aid kit in the car. Lazar always thinks ahead."

Damen wasn't at all certain he wanted to be separated from the herd like that, but there was an alarming amount of blood seeping up between his fingers. Reluctantly, he let Uncle Reggie lead him over the sand back to the parking area.

Sure enough, there was a first aid kit in the trunk of the gleaming white Dodge Charger now occupying—in the huge empty lot—the space directly next to Damen's SUV.

"Of course I can't pass up the opportunity to talk to you alone, Damen, about your intentions," Uncle Reggie said as he began washing off the wound. "You have to understand, Laurent is like a son to me. I raised him from the age of thirteen, when his parents were killed in a car accident."

"Oh… that must have been difficult."

"Yes, he can indeed be very difficult," Uncle Reggie said, somewhat mistaking Damen's meaning. "But we're family, and for a long time, we were all each other had. Even now—I have Nicaise, but it's different." He shook his head, pulling a bandage out of the kit. "I do so miss the boy Laurent used to be. So sweet, so affectionate. Perhaps it's Hollywood that got to him, but he's… not like that now."

Despite himself, Damen felt himself soften a bit toward the man. "I don't think he's so bad, really," he said, unsure if he meant it or not.

"You can't be expected to see it, I suppose, but Laurent has been acting more and more erratic. Impulsive, reckless, pushing away the people who care about him and—forgive me—throwing himself into the arms of strangers. I'm very worried about him." He was quiet a moment, focused on bandaging Damen's arm. "But who knows, perhaps you'll be good for him. Someone older, more stable, more level-headed. Someone who can keep him from doing anything too foolish, hm? Do you think you can do that for me?"

Damen hesitated. "I intend to do my best by Laurent, sir. But whatever I do will be for him, not for you."

Uncle Reggie's eyebrows rose, and he looked grudgingly impressed. "Fair enough. But don't be afraid to call me, Damen. Here." He fished a card out of the back pocket of his khakis. "That's my personal number. I can't trust Laurent to seek help when he needs it, but I hope you'll do it on his behalf."

Frowning, Damen took the card. "What kind of help are you expecting him to need?"

"With Laurent?" Uncle Reggie sighed heavily. "One never knows."

 

When they returned to the cabana, they found Laurent snapping more photos—first of Nicaise, posing dramatically on the picnic table, then slinging his arm around the boy's shoulders to get a selfie of them together. Nicaise was smiling, possibly despite himself; it changed his face, made him look brighter and softer, and Damen found he somehow couldn't begrudge Laurent's camaraderie with the boy who had shoved a fork halfway through his arm. Even if he wasn't in any hurry to socialize with the kid himself.

"Damen, I see you've survived my uncle," Laurent said. "Come get in the pictures with us."

"Um, sure. Do you want…?" Unthinking, he gestured at Uncle Reggie.

"No, I do not," Laurent said immediately, without looking at his uncle. Awkwardly, while Uncle Reggie finished his lunch in the background, Damen joined Laurent and Nicaise's impromptu photoshoot.

Afterward, Nicaise insisted on going into the water, so Laurent and Damen strolled along the edge of the surf, supervising him in the rough waves. Laurent reached for Damen's hand—for Uncle Reggie's benefit, Damen supposed.

"You and your uncle seem… at odds," Damen said at last.

"In all things, yes."

"He said he was all that was left of your family."

Laurent bristled, his hand tightening painfully. "You don't know what you're talking about."

"My brother just stole my fiancee. I do have some idea of what complicated families are like. But Kastor is still my brother, and Reggie is still your uncle, who raised you—"

Laurent jerked his hand away. "Nicaise is a dozen times more family to me than my uncle, and he's as likely to swear at me as smile. Do not imagine, Damianos, that you understand anything about my family. And for heaven's sake, don't trust my uncle any further than you can throw him." He eyed Damen's biceps a moment. "Than most people could throw him, anyway."

"And how far should I trust you?" Damen turned to Laurent with a slow grin—and grabbed. Laurent tried to dodge, but it was too late; he could only kick and squawk as Damen threw him over his shoulder. "As far as I can throw you? Shall we test how far that is?"

"Put me down, you insufferable beast!" Laurent's voice was high and loud, and broken up by laughter that he was trying, and failing, to suppress. "Hey, my hat!" The straw hat had fallen off and was rolling away over the sand, nudged along by the wind.

Nicaise, doubtless attracted by the scent of mischief, dashed up out of the waves and grabbed the hat. He jammed it onto his own head and ran back into the water, cackling maniacally.

"Nicaise, you traitor!" After a few more moments of struggle, Laurent abruptly straightened, an absurd move that nearly threw off Damen's balance. "Wait, what time is it?"

"Seriously?" Damen shifted Laurent's weight on his shoulder and managed to pull out his phone. "About eleven thirty."

"We need to go. We have an appointment for horseback riding."

"We do?"

Laurent shouted, "Nicaise, want to go horseback riding with us?"

Nicaise flipped both middle fingers. "No interest in hanging out with big smelly animals. Or horses either."

Damen returned the obscene gesture, which perversely seemed to please the boy, and set Laurent down. "Are there more photographers waiting for us at this new adventure?"

"Of course," Laurent said with a grin, and waved a hand to collect Jord and Orlant.

Laurent took another barbecue sandwich from the picnic table as they passed, and left without saying goodbye to his uncle.

 

The stable wasn't far away—in fact, Damen was almost certain they were only a mile or so down the same beach, and probably could have walked instead of taking Damen's car (Laurent hadn't brought one; Damen could only assume he'd risen directly from the sea foam). But it had made a nice excuse to ditch Uncle Reggie, and considering that they were supposed to be on a date, Damen didn't object to that.

The people at the stable had clearly seen Laurent before, often enough that having a movie star as a customer had lost its novelty. Even more surprisingly, they seemed to like him, though he was only stiffly polite in return. They eyed Damen curiously, but asked no gauche questions, though the youngest staff member's eyes went huge with recognition. Damen winked at her and was a little afraid she'd pass out.

"I got you a kiddie ride," Laurent said as they approached the two horses awaiting them, "since I wasn't sure if you'd ever ridden before."

"Oh, I'm experienced at riding. Pretty familiar with horses, too."

The young girl staffer made a tiny "eep" noise; Laurent only gave him a withering look. He swung himself up into the saddle of the bay mare, who pranced a little, clearly eager to run.

Damen was, in fact, very familiar with horseback riding; his family were exactly that sort of rich people, he supposed. He didn't need the placid, resigned gray gelding picked out for him. He did feel very rusty, though, next to Laurent, who was a picture of liquid grace and easy competence on the bay mare, already circling him as he got settled in the saddle.

"Race you to the water," Laurent said, and shot off down a path that didn't even obviously lead to the beach, Damen and his kiddie ride trailing behind despite all he could do to urge the gelding on.

The trail did lead to the beach, and soon both horses were kicking up splashes of water at the edge of the surf. Laurent rode circles around him, shouting encouragement to his delighted horse, and it was the most genuine and happy Damen had seen him look all day.

At first Damen was on edge, waiting for the photographers, but none appeared. Were they unusually good at hiding, or had they failed to follow up on this particular tip? Maybe the bodyguards (trailing far behind them on foot) had done too good a job of running them off last time, and they weren't risking another appearance.

Then he glanced back toward the stable, and saw no less than three employees with their phones pointed Laurent's direction.

"Uh, Laurent?" he called, pointing.

Laurent rode in close enough to speak without shouting. "I told you there'd be photos."

"Yeah, but…" Damen wasn't even sure what he was objecting to. The breach in professionalism, perhaps. Didn't Laurent feel betrayed, having people he was comfortable and friendly with sell him out like this?

"One day only, they get to take pictures of us and sell them wherever they want," Laurent said. "If they do it again, I'll sue their establishment into the ground. Come on, let's give them a money shot." He sidled his horse closer and leaned over; Damen cooperated cheerfully with the kiss, and managed to slip in a bit of tongue—which, to his surprise, made Laurent jerk back, his cheeks reddening. He rode off at a gallop before Damen could ask if something was wrong.

When Damen caught up with Laurent, far enough down the beach to avoid the cameras, he managed to snag his sleeve and pull him to a stop. "Laurent!"

"Yes?" The face Laurent turned to him was no longer red or flustered at all, only coolly impatient.

Damen narrowed his eyes. "There's a very important question we haven't addressed at all."

"Oh?"

"Are you even gay?"

Laurent shrugged. "Probably."

"Probably…?"

"Well, I'm definitely not into girls."

Damen couldn't stop himself. "Ha! I knew the thing with Elle Fanning was fake."

"My uncle's idea. Elle and I both hated it and actually barely saw each other. But you're in no position to throw stones about exploring one's sexuality, Damen. You wrote an entire album about your bisexual crisis."

"There was no crisis. Or if there was, it was about Jokaste, not about being bi." It was a little irritating that Akielos's first album with a major label, Epicurious, was so widely misinterpreted, but the amount of fanmail Damen got from LGBT fans saying what it meant to them made it hard to mind too much. "Anyway, I didn't have much choice about coming out."

"Ah, yes. Outed via nude photo leak. The glamour of celebrity life."

"I think it did me a lot more good than harm, in the end. I guess it's true what they say, no such thing as bad publicity." He arched an eyebrow at Laurent. "Unless you spit on someone, maybe."

"One wonders if your boyfriend was able to be so sanguine about it."

Damen grimaced. Damen had already broken up with Erasmus and gone back to Jo by the time the photos came out. Erasmus didn't take his calls or return his messages when Damen tried to contact him, which Damen supposed was fair enough, but it meant he had no idea how things had gone for the poor guy. Considering his conservative religious family, probably not well.

"What I was getting at," Damen said, "is that this, you and me, isn't just going to be a relationship, it's going to be you coming out. When you're not even sure if you're gay. Are you sure you want to do that?"

"I have a fairly large following in the LGBT community, especially since being cast in Freaks." It was a comic book movie about people with superpowers; that the superpowers were a metaphor for queerness was an open secret, or at least a popular interpretation. "Fan blogs on Tumblr and so on. I think I can count on their support."

Damen found himself giving Laurent a once-over from head to toe. Yeah, I just bet you have a large gay following. He cleared his throat and looked away. "Well, shockingly, I don't have all day to devote to horseback rides on the beach. I have to go soon. But Freaks is still filming, isn't it?"

"Yes—not today, thank heaven."

"So I should probably visit you on the set. That's good boyfriend stuff, right?"

Laurent frowned, as if it hadn't occurred to him that dating Damen might mean actually spending time with him outside of photo ops, but nodded. "Yes. And the Black Powder premiere is coming, you should accompany me to that. I'll be in touch."

"Not if I'm in touch with you first, sweetheart." Damen lifted his phone, showing Laurent the contact page where he was listed as Snake Boy, and managed to snap a pic of his outraged expression before riding off toward the stable.

*

"Well, you've gained approximately eight quadrillion new Insta followers," Nikandros said, raising an eyebrow at his phone. "And I gotta say, Snake Boy photographs well. He sure sounds like an ice-cold piece of work, though. What is it with you and blondes with bad personalities?" This last was muttered low enough that Damen could pretend not to hear it.

"Pass me another beer," Damen said, eyeing his own phone with disfavor. Supposedly, he and Nik were watching a hockey game; it was probably some symptom of modern life that they were both paying more attention to their phones than the TV screen. Nikandros tossed him the beer, and Damen nearly fumbled it, distracted by the text message that was just popping up.

"That was smooth," Nik said. "Who are you texting so passionately? Snake Boy?"

"I wish," Damen replied absently, which was… an odd response, really. "No. It's Kastor."

"Oh, really. And what does he have to say?"

Damen cleared his throat and read. "'Didn't take you long to replace Jo. Have you taken it up the butt yet?' The conversation has gone downhill from there."

"Why are you even replying? Don't engage with the dick."

"He's my brother."

"That makes this worse, not better."

Damen growled down at his phone, which had just lit up with a message from Jokaste. 'We're at dinner with my parents. Please, for the love of God, stop texting him back for just one hour. You know he'll never let you have the last word.' Another message on its heels—'My parents liked you better, if that helps any.'

It was blatant flattery and manipulation, and part of Damen was infuriated that she could even talk to him without dying of shame. The other part of him was also infuriated, because he already knew he was going to do what she asked.

He turned off his phone and chucked it across the room, where it buried itself in a bean bag. "I'm going to my room for a while, Nik. Stay and watch the game, I'll be out again later."

"Sure," Nikandros said neutrally, not looking up from the TV. It was his version of saying 'You're acting weird but I'm gonna give you space for it.' Which was part of what made Nik such a good friend.

Damen stomped into his bedroom and picked up one of his guitars. Playing always helped clear his head; he wandered through a handful of random notes and chords before his hands settled into "Beach Song" from Epicurious. He supposed that was inevitable.

He remembered trying to write that song; he'd intended it to be happy and fun, and while the melody was, the lyrics really weren't. They'd never released it as a single, but it always got a good reaction at shows. He'd written it in the aftermath of his breakup with Jokaste—the first breakup, the one before Erasmus—and while it wasn't directly about that, really, those feelings of raw sadness and desolation had made their way into the lyrics.

Damen knew he'd be better off writing new stuff than futzing around with the old, both psychologically and practically—he would need new material to have any hope of salvaging his career—but he didn't feel like writing about Jo right now, and he doubted he'd be able to focus on anything else.

Write about fake-dating a movie star who doesn't seem to like you much, he thought with a wry smile. Watch the fans try to interpret that one.

It was a dumb idea, and a bit reckless if anyone ever figured it out, but somehow that only made his brain latch onto it all the harder. Within half an hour he had a whole chorus written for something he thought he might title "The Emperor's Beck and Call," and he felt oddly better about his life.

The gold bracelet on his wrist kept throwing him off, though, as he tried to play. Damen narrowed his eyes at it. Thick and chunky as it was, he couldn't help feeling the bracelet looked better on him than it ever had on delicate Laurent. Maybe it was some kind of family heirloom? A starburst shape was carved on it, and inside that, the name de Vere in fancy, flowing script. It did look as though it might be very old.

You live in it now, Laurent had said, and I own you, remember?

Hmm. Two could play at that game.

Chapter Text

Of course not everyone on set got along.

Haha, no, definitely not.

Is there anything you'd like to say about Laurent de Vere?

Look, I know it's unprofessional to bash your co-stars, but I think most everyone's heard what he said, what he did. I don't think I'm the unprofessional one for calling a spade a spade.

Has he apologized to you?

Not even a little. I'd be shocked if he did. He's a fantastic actor, I have to admit, but I wish he'd just… decide to play the role of a better person? But working with impossible jerks is part of the industry, I guess.

—excerpt from Hollywood Reporter interview with Cassie Bayles

*

And forever's an overused word
We'll try it Hamlet style
Tomorrow and tomorrow, babe
For good, for keeps, for a while

And beloved's an old-fashioned phrase
For the person one adores
I don't sound cool or hip, my love
But I'm yours, I'm yours, I'm yours

—"Love Notes," from Sword & Shield by Akielos

 

Damen had been to a red carpet movie premiere once before—a not-half-bad teen drama that used an Akielos song on the soundtrack—but that had been at home in New York. Black Powder was apparently going full traditional and premiering at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, which meant six hours on a plane with Laurent.

"So, Laurent de Vere doesn't have a private jet?" Not that their first-class accommodations were in any way uncomfortable, Damen thought as he settled into his faux-leather recliner, but he wasn't about to pass up the chance to tease.

Laurent glanced up irritably from his book—not phone, not e-reader, but actual book, heavy enough to double as a weapon. "Uncle Reggie has a private jet. I'm sure he's caught on by now that I'm not boarding it with him."

"Especially if he's checking his social media," Damen murmured, raising an eyebrow as a giggling, red-cheeked woman in the next aisle snapped a surreptitious photo.

Laurent sighed a bit, subtly enough that probably only Damen noticed, and pasted on a dreamy smile. He pressed a kiss to Damen's knuckles before twining their hands, and the woman across the aisle audibly gasped.

"Speaking of fans," Damen said, "aren't we going to be cutting our arrival a little close?"

Laurent frowned. "The screening doesn't start until six. Are you worried about having enough time to freshen up at the hotel? Frankly I was wondering if you planned to stay in your rumpled jeans and T-shirt for the event."

"What? No, I brought a tux." Come to think of it, though—"What about you? No groomer, no stylist? Or are they meeting you at the hotel?"

"While I'm sure my uncle's groomer would be happy to help, I don't want anyone in their party to know where I'm staying. So no, I'll be dressing myself."

Damen raised an eyebrow. "Jokaste always said that only geniuses and morons dressed themselves for red carpet events. I know which one I am," it wasn't genius, "but which are you?"

"I guess we'll find out."

"Where'd you get the clothes? Bought off the rack?"

Laurent gave him a withering look. "The designer lent it to me for the occasion, just as usual—and as for putting it on, well, I have you to help me with that." He actually batted his eyelashes.

Damen shook his head. "Okay, well, that might be faster than dealing with a stylist team, which brings me back to my original point. We'll need to dress and eat, and that doesn't leave us a lot of time for red carpet interviews or fan interaction."

"Fan interaction," Laurent repeated.

"Laurent." Damen leaned forward, pressing Laurent's hand between both of his, and spoke very slowly. "The people you will see behind barricades lining the red carpet? They're called fans. They like you. They've probably waited hours to see you, and they're the reason you have a career."

Laurent's voice went dry. "How odd. My uncle always says he's the reason I have a career."

"He's a liar. Without the fans, you have jack squat." Damen reached out and tweaked Laurent's nose, oh-so-affectionately. The woman across the aisle was still taking pictures, though a flight attendant, bustling their way with a fixed smile, seemed primed to put a stop to it. "You said you wanted to soften your image; this is how. Smile, joke, sign a few things, let them take a selfie with you. Then you can go inside, leaving a dozen people who are going to tell everyone they know how sweet and amazing you are."

Laurent rolled his eyes. "I'm not a child, Damen. I know how to charm a room when I decide to."

"Good. Decide to."

The flight attendant had, with impeccable politeness, bullied the other passenger into putting away her phone. Damen nodded appreciation to the attendant as she departed, then waved at the passenger, who blushed mightily and half-disappeared beneath her airline blanket.

Laurent, looking oddly thoughtful, had not reclaimed his hand. "My uncle's always spoken of 'the rabble' in derogatory terms, but you're not wrong. It doesn't matter how brilliant an actor you are if no one wants to watch you perform."

"Congratulations on passing Hollywood 101," said Damen.

Laurent rolled his eyes and pulled his hand away. "I have a book to finish."

"You have fun with that," Damen said, shaking his head and pulling out his phone.

Laurent snorted beside him.

"What?" When Laurent didn't answer, Damen folded his arms and turned to face him. "Seriously, what? That's not the first time you've sneered at my phone. You were enjoying yours just fine at the beach, so you're not a Luddite. Is it just me and my phone you somehow object to?"

Laurent looked him up and down, as if debating whether to answer, before finally saying, "Thickheaded egotists like you with your phones, yes. You get people killed."

"If you're talking about wrecking my car, I didn't hurt anybody but myself—"

"By sheer stupid luck. You could just as easily have killed someone, or several someones, or wiped out an entire family. Because, what, Twitter couldn't wait another ten minutes?"

Laurent looked as agitated as Damen had ever seen him, eyes hot and mouth twisted with disgust. Alarmed and a little stung, Damen would have liked to snap back—but there was clearly more going on here than he knew. He's been acting more and more erratic, Uncle Reggie had said. Whatever Laurent needed, it probably wasn't an argument.

"You're right," Damen said instead, because it was conciliatory and because it was true. "I screwed up, and all I can do is thank God it wasn't worse. I'm sorry."

"Why are you apologizing to me? You didn't run over me."

But he could have, Damen thought with a chill. He'd been so close by; that thump under Damen's car could as easily have been Laurent instead of the curb. "What I mean to communicate," he said carefully, "is a general regret for my actions. You're the one calling me out for them, so you're the one I'm expressing that regret to."

Laurent seemed unsure how to react to that. He flicked a glance at the woman across the aisle, who was pretending not to watch them, and let Damen put an arm around him, resting his head on Damen's shoulder.

"I have no forgiveness to offer you," he said after a minute. "If that's what you're expecting."

Damen sighed. "I would never expect that from you."

"Good."

Still nestled against Damen's shoulder—which was surprisingly nice—Laurent opened his book. After a minute, Damen, who after all was not driving the airplane, turned back to his phone, and the wonderland of time-wasters therein.

He had forgotten to charge it the night before. Damen groaned as the screen went dark in his hand.

Beside him, Laurent smiled without looking up. "Should have brought a book."

*

It didn't take Damen long to change into his tuxedo—charcoal pinstripe, excellently tailored; it was comfortable, appropriate and flattering and that was the end of his interest in it—and before long he found himself wandering over to the other dressing room, and Laurent.

Who was in his underwear, fighting with a white dress shirt.

"I thought you were a big boy who could dress himself."

"Shut up." Laurent had the shirt mostly on, though unbuttoned; what seemed to have stymied him were the cuff buttons. He was scrabbling and twisting at his wrist in a way that reminded Damen of a dog chasing his tail. Damen leaned against the doorway and watched in open amusement as Laurent swore under his breath with mounting viciousness—then suddenly turned and thrust his hand out at Damen. "You do it, then, if you're so much more competent!"

"Oh." Damen felt oddly uncertain as he stepped closer; all he could think of, for a moment, was Jokaste. Helping her dress for big events, doing up zippers and clasping necklaces—a sweet note of intimacy, domesticity, in the midst of high glamour.

Laurent's hand was palm-up, fingers lightly curled; the pose was lazy and elegant, beckoning and mocking in equal measure. Delicate veins showed blue through the pale skin of his wrist.

Damen, annoyed at his own hesitation, took the offered hand and began addressing the buttons. They quickly proved more difficult than he'd expected, tiny and slippery, with buttonholes a little too small and far apart.

"'A big boy who can dress himself,'" Laurent echoed. "But perhaps 'big' is the problem. The rest of you is almost too musclebound to move, why not your fingers?"

"I'll be glad to stop bothering you with my assistance."

"You haven't been of any assistance yet." Nevertheless, he stopped talking, only watching intently as Damen did finally manage the buttons on one wrist, and reached for the other. The motion of lifting his arm made the shirt fall open a little more, and Damen had to stop pretending not to notice Laurent's chest—slender and smooth and surprisingly muscular, one cute pink nipple peeking out the edge of the shirt.

Damen managed to flick his gaze up, away from Laurent's chest, only for it to catch on Laurent's eyes instead. They were fixed on him steadily, expressionless, perhaps angry, perhaps—not.

Damen swallowed, looking away, and fumbled another button.

This was a mistake. All of it, being here with Laurent, agreeing to this crazy fake-relationship plan. Leveraging his reputation, his integrity—for what, a chance to spit in Jokaste's face? Was that really the person he was? Even if they brought this off perfectly, Laurent was going to get a lot more out of it than Damen.

But Laurent had saved his life. He didn't entertain the notion that Laurent actually did 'own' him now, but if Damen really was a man of honor and integrity, he had to acknowledge that he owed the man a debt. A big enough debt to pretend to like him for a little while in front of some cameras.

If asked, he would have said that reaching for the front of the shirt, doing the buttons there, was meant as a comment on Laurent's competence. But Laurent didn't ask.

 

They arrived at the Chinese Theatre with plenty of time to cozy up to fans. Damen insisted on doing that first, before answering any questions from the journalists lined up along the carpet.

"Let's start there," he said, grinning and pointing to a group holding up a sign that read, WE SHIP LAMEN!

During the next several minutes, a girl in a tube top asked Damen to sign her chest, which he cheerfully did; another had him sign her copy of Epicurious, and a possibly-genderfluid person in a mohawk gave some sort of formal blessing to Damen and Laurent's blossoming love, which Damen found surprisingly moving. A starry-eyed boy asked permission to write fanfic about them, to which Damen could only stammer in reply, but Laurent, to his surprise, smiled broadly and said, "Only if I'm topping."

A few steps down, Damen posed for selfies with a young couple who said Akielos had brought them together, while Laurent admired a gray-haired woman's fanart of Laurent as the Marquis de Lafayette, his character in the premiering movie. He signed the art, and then gave her a flourishing bow and kiss to the hand. Damen hoped the poor woman wouldn't faint.

"There, see?" he whispered to Laurent as they extricated themselves from the general melee, Damen reaching back to touch a few outstretched hands. "That wasn't too bad."

"That woman's a very talented artist, I wonder if she sells prints," was Laurent's only reply.

Once they were on the red carpet proper, the cameras started flashing. This part, Laurent was comfortable with; he raised his chin, put a hand on his hip, spun a little to show off his long tan coat with its trail of dark butterflies down the front. The long coat, gloves, and ponytail (held with a jeweled pin that glittered madly in the flashbulbs) gave Laurent an appropriate air of the colonial.

"Who are you wearing?" someone inevitably called out.

"Alexander McQueen," Laurent answered, which if Damen recalled correctly was a favorite of his, along with a number of obscure Korean designers. Not that Damen paid a lot of attention, but he got bored at dentists' offices like anyone, didn't he?

"What about you, Damen?" the reporter called, which shouldn't have been a surprise.

"Uh, not sure," he answered. "I've had this thing for ages."

Laurent glared at him in what looked like genuine outrage, but other questions were coming now as they made their way down the carpet, holding hands.

"Laurent, what was the most challenging part of this role for you?"

"Lafayette's energy. He didn't have an off button. It's hard to keep that up."

"Did you do your own stunts?"

"Wherever possible. For one or two shots the director insisted on letting the experts take over."

"In this highly-charged political atmosphere, what do think this film is telling us about the Founding Fathers' legacy?"

Damen, fielding questions of his own, didn't get to hear Laurent's answer to that one.

"So you really are dating Laurent?" asked someone from—OK Magazine, he thought.

"Yes," Damen said, releasing Laurent's hand in order to show off his bracelet. "It's kind of sudden, but pretty great so far."

"What's he like as a boyfriend?"

"Oh, he's…" A nightmare would be the honest answer, but he was supposed to be softening Laurent's image. "He's really quite sweet. A total romantic."

"Really?" He could almost see the reporter's heart melting.

A few feet away, someone was asking Laurent, "So are you coming out? Are you gay?"

"Right now I'm more interested in Damen than in labels," Laurent said, "but gay is close enough."

"How does Jokaste feel about this, Damen?" the OK reporter asked.

"I really don't care," Damen said, then waved pleasantly and moved on to the next press group.

Someone from a charity blog was asking Laurent about what causes he supported—the ASPCA and a horse rescue, to Damen's surprise—when a young man cut in line, shoved a camera in Damen's face, and shouted, "Is Jokaste White's baby yours?"

Damen stopped in his tracks. "What?"

"According to the official announcement, she's 20 weeks along," the reporter said gleefully. "That's several weeks before you two broke up, at least officially. Is the baby yours or Kastor's?"

"I," Damen said, and stopped, because holy shit. Holy shit. "I guess you'd have to ask her that," he said at last, knowing his face was providing as dramatic a reaction as the press could have asked for and helpless to stop it.

Laurent appeared at his side, sliding an arm around his waist. "Sweetheart?"

"Let's go." Damen tried to hustle them into the theatre, but they weren't done being ambushed for the night.

Cassie Bayles, recipient of Laurent's on-set wrath followed by his saliva, looked incredible in something black and slinky with a slit high up her thigh. Dark hair was piled elegantly on her head and an embarrassment of jewels shimmered from her neck and ears. She turned as they approached, and her smile became a little frozen.

"Laurent!" she said. "And here I was wondering if you'd make it to the premiere at all. You've bothered with so little else for this film."

Laurent's smile was equally chilly. "I think Cassie is referring to the fact that, due to my filming schedule for Freaks, I was excused from much of the promotional touring for Black Powder. An unfortunate necessity. Cassie, this is Damen—"

"—Vasileus, yes, I do actually keep track of what's happening around me. A pleasure, Damen." She extended her hand, as if for a kiss, not a handshake; Damen managed an ambiguous sort of hand-press.

"In any case, Cassie, let's not pretend you missed me," Laurent said. The tension in his body had doubled; Damen looked longingly toward the theatre entrance.

"Oh, Laurent, I think dispensing with the polite fictions would be a dangerous move," Cassie said, still smiling. "Honestly you should be grateful I'm willing to bite my tongue and get this over—"

Damen couldn't help a swell of outrage. "Bite your tongue? You haven't been doing much of that. I saw your interview with Hollywood Reporter. Not sure someone who calls a co-star an 'impossible jerk' can claim to be the bigger person."

"I can't claim to be the bigger person?" Cassie stepped closer, bright-lipsticked mouth falling open in outrage. She jabbed a finger into Laurent's chest. "You spat on me!"

A crescendo of murmurs and camera-flashes from the crowd around them.

Laurent took a step of his own, going toe-to-toe with her. When he spoke, his voice was just as loud as hers had been, but flat and calm. "You killed your horse."

The red carpet fell, for just a moment, into utter shocked silence.

Then, behind them, a flurry of activity; Damen glanced back to see Uncle Reggie stepping out of a limousine. It was time and past to get Laurent out of here. He took his alleged boyfriend's elbow in a grip of iron and steered him into the safety of the theatre before anything else could go wrong.

 

They found their seats, and Damen, at least, took a moment to examine the gifts left there—the chocolates and water bottle were generic enough, but the Founding Fathers bobbleheads, tote bag with Washington crossing the Delaware, and old-fashioned shaving kit with straight razor were clearly themed to match the movie. Laurent gave them barely a glance, but Damen thought he could be forgiven for being too shaken to appreciate movie swag.

"What happened with the horse?" Damen leaned down to murmur, but Laurent waved him off with a curt, "Later."

Damen had barely gotten seated when he saw Uncle Reggie and another man—about Laurent's age, wearing a dramatic scarlet shirt with his tux, with glossy dark hair pulled into a tiny man-bun—coming down the aisle toward them. Damen's glance at the seats to either side of himself and Laurent showed they were assigned to Uncle Reggie and someone named Aimeric Fortaine.

Laurent swore under his breath. "Switch places with me." Then he got up and… left.

No, Damen realized after a moment; he was preparing to go on stage with the rest of the cast for the film's introduction. Several other actors and Black Powder's director were converging on the same spot.

Damen took Laurent's seat, as ordered, so that Laurent would be sitting next to Aimeric instead of Uncle Reggie. Neither of the approaching men looked thrilled about this, but took their seats as assigned.

"I seem to have just missed something significant outside," Uncle Reggie murmured. "Care to catch me up?"

"I'm sure it's on YouTube already," Damen said.

Then the lights were dimming, the cast trooping onstage to gather around the director, who shared a few words about the film. Damen paid it little attention, instead watching Laurent. He'd managed to position himself as far away from Cassie Bayles as possible, which was doubtless a win for everyone. You would never have known he was tense by the carefree smile on his face, but Damen could see it in his shoulders, the tilt of his head. The idea that Damen was learning to parse Laurent's body language was strangely satisfying.

Laurent returned to his seat the long way, climbing over the dozen people beside Aimeric rather than the three next to his uncle. Aimeric gave him a dirty look as he passed, but if Laurent noticed, he gave no sign. Damen squeezed Laurent's hand as he settled into his seat, which seemed to nearly startle Laurent into standing up again. Was he so unaccustomed to being reassured?

Then the movie started, the whole crowd cheering as the lights went down and the screen brightened, and within moments, Damen found himself too caught up in the film to pay attention to its audience.

Black Powder was… good. Compelling, clear, with high tension, complex characters, and a surprising amount of humor (some of it quite dark). Damen couldn't speak to its level of historical accuracy, the Revolutionary War not being high on his list of interests, but it certainly worked as a film.

And Laurent was incredible in it. His Lafayette was clever, charming, and endearingly shameless. He vibrated with energy, and quite frankly he had all the best lines. He even had some surprising moments of deep feeling and distress, particularly at the climax, when his mentor, George Washington, appeared to be wounded. While not the main character, he looked likely to be the audience favorite, judging from the laughter and cheers around them. It was difficult for Damen to connect Lafayette to the young man sitting beside him—which he supposed was another testament to Laurent's skill. The man on the screen was not Laurent de Vere pretending to be the Marquis de Lafayette; it was simply Lafayette himself.

Seeing Cassie Bayles on the screen so soon after their unpleasant encounter was jarring, but while she was no Laurent, she did disappear into the character of Lucy Knox well enough to avoid ruining the movie. He found he could like Lucy despite the person playing her.

At one point Damen glanced toward Laurent—would he be entranced or embarrassed at the sight of his own performance?—only to find Laurent watching him instead, as if Damen's reactions were much more interesting than the movie. It was unsettling, but he quickly ignored it in favor of returning his attention to the story.

Two and a half hours later, the end credits rolled, and Damen joined in with the audience's wild applause, feeling like he'd been through a wringer.

"You liked it," Laurent said, the words not quite a question as the lights came back on. He was still watching Damen's face carefully.

"Are you kidding? You're going to win an Oscar for this. The movie was fantastic, and you—you were mesmerizing."

Laurent smiled, a tiny flicker of a thing that seemed to be as much surprise as happiness, brightening his face for a single moment before vanishing again.

"Well, Laurent," said Uncle Reggie, leaning past Damen as if he weren't there, "perhaps this film will not be the blow to your reputation we had feared. Though of course it's hard to predict public reaction. There are several key moments I'd love to discuss with you—the two of you are coming to the afterparty, I hope?"

The smile Laurent gave his uncle looked nothing at all like the one Damen had glimpsed so briefly. "Of course, Uncle."

 

They traveled separately, at Laurent's insistence that he managed to make look like Damen's insistence. Damen half-expected Uncle Reggie to be hiding behind a potted plant when they arrived, waiting to ambush them in the hotel foyer, but he was nowhere in sight. Of course, he could easily be inside the ballroom; approaching the doors, Damen could only make out shifting blue-and-purple light, and movement building on a dance floor, where a DJ on a dais ruled over all. Thumping music leaked out incongruously into the bright and tasteful corridor.

Perhaps Uncle Reggie wasn't here yet, but someone else was—someone Damen would not have expected in a thousand years.

"Erasmus!"

"Damen!" Incredibly, Erasmus actually looked happy to see him, if a little gobsmacked. "Oh my goodness! How are you doing?" He spread his arms, perhaps subconsciously, but clearly welcoming a hug; with only a slight hesitation, Damen supplied it.

"I'm—all right, I'm fine, and you look well!" The last time Damen had seen Erasmus, he was weeping into the too-long sleeves of a sweater as Damen told him, halting and miserable, that they were over, that he and Jo were getting back together. The memory had always been painful; now it was appalling to think he had hurt someone as sweet as Erasmus over Jo. But Erasmus really did look well; his hazel eyes were bright, sandy curls cut short and fashionable. His suit was an unconventional rust-and-cream that flattered his coloring exceedingly. "What are you up to these days?" Damen asked, as that seemed more polite than What are you doing here?

"Oh… this and that." Erasmus's cheeks colored, his gaze dropping, and Damen felt his own smile slip. Erasmus was adorably easy to embarrass, but this was different—something more like ashamed.

"Champagne, as requested!" The man who glided all the way into Erasmus's personal space, pressing a champagne flute into his hand and a kiss against his temple, was easily old enough to be his father. Not bad looking—tall, broad-shouldered, his silver-threaded beard a note of frank masculinity in an otherwise restrained presentation—but twice Erasmus's age, at least. Damen felt something in his chest that might have been a growl, but to his surprise, Erasmus had visibly perked up at the man's approach.

"Torveld, I've run into some old friends."

"Oh?" The older man's eyes widened at the sight of Damen. "…Oh. And—oh!" This as he obviously recognized Laurent. "Well. It doesn't get much more awkward than this, I suppose. All the same, it's lovely to see you."

"Of course it is," Laurent said smoothly, reaching to shake the man's hand. "Torveld, it's been too long. This is my boyfriend, Damen Vasileus, who of course already knows Erasmus."

"That's right." Erasmus seemed relieved to have standard pleasantries to cling to. "Congratulations to you and Damen, sir! You're a very lucky man."

"So I'm quickly learning," Laurent said. "Damen, Torveld Torgeirsson is a studio exec for Paramount. We've worked together before."

"And by 'worked together,' Laurent means that I asked him out and he turned me down," Torveld said with a sheepish half-smile. "Not that I blame him. And after all, if he'd said yes, I wouldn't have Erasmus now." He pulled the younger man closer, and Erasmus looked up at him adoringly.

Damen tried not to bristle. He certainly had no right to be jealous, but it was more than that; the idea of guileless, trusting Erasmus with a rich and powerful older man was a bit alarming in its premise. "Erasmus, I wonder if you could, uh, show me where the men's room is? This place is huge, it might take me all night to find it."

Neither Laurent nor Torveld looked fooled—or especially pleased—by this ploy, but oh well, Damen had never been a subtle man. It worked, anyway; Erasmus happily led Damen off toward a side corridor.

"I'm fine, Damen," Erasmus murmured as soon as they were alone around a corner.

"You're dating some rich old perv for his money. What happened?" He pulled Erasmus gently by the arm, turning him to face him. "I tried to call you after the pictures got out. What happened? Did you lose your job?"

Erasmus looked almost amused, as if Damen were being very silly. "Of course I lost my job, Damen. I was blackballed from the entire religious chorale industry.  You think the Voices of Saint Cecilia is going to keep me on after they've seen me in fuzzy handcuffs with a man's cock in my mouth?"

That was… strong language, from Erasmus. Damen felt himself blushing, as if embarrassed by proxy.

"And my family threw me out," Erasmus continued. "So yes, I'm letting Torveld take care of me. He's very kind to me, Damen. He treats me—" Erasmus paused, swallowed, blinked away sudden tears. "He treats me wonderfully."

"And what does he ask in return?"

"Nothing I'm not willing to give. Happy to give."

"So you're his... his, uh…"

Erasmus crossed his arms. "I believe the term you're looking for is 'sugar baby.'"

Damen scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Well, you don't have to be. Okay? You want to leave him, you give me a call, day or night. I'll help you with whatever you need."

Erasmus smiled tremulously, and reached out to touch Damen's chest, briefly, wistfully. "You're a good man, Damen."

"I agree." Laurent's voice was perfectly pleasant, but Erasmus jumped back from Damen as if burned. "I was afraid you'd gotten lost, darling." Laurent eeled an arm through Damen's and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Erasmus, I think your honey is wanting to introduce you to some people."

"Of course, I should get back." Cheeks burning, Erasmus turned to go.

Laurent, to Damen's surprise, caught Erasmus's arm before he could leave. "It really has been nice to see you again, Erasmus. I'm glad you're doing well."

Looking a bit reassured, Erasmus ducked his head and scurried off.

"All right, what am I missing?" Damen asked as soon as he was gone.

Laurent shrugged. "Torveld prefers younger men. Nothing unseemly, not like—not like that. He just enjoys being able to… take care of someone."

"So, what, he's some kind of predator?"

"No, or only by the most ungenerous assessment. He tends to pursue the vulnerable, yes, but out of a genuine desire to help them. It may be a sort of kink for him, but all the same, help them he does. Your Erasmus is lucky to have found him." Laurent hesitated. "I introduced them, actually."

"And how did that happen?"

"I ran into Erasmus at a jazz club. I… recognized him from the pictures." He glanced warily at Damen. "The internet rather shoved those in my face, I wouldn't have sought them out. Anyway, I knew he was down on his luck and exactly Torveld's type, and I was tired of Torveld chasing me."

Torveld, who pursued those in need of help, had been chasing Laurent.

"Well, it seems to have worked out for him," Damen said reluctantly. "At least for the time being."

"And speaking of time," Laurent linked their arms, "we should get back into the fray before we're missed."

Entering the hotel ballroom, the noise and chaos were like a blow, but no worse than a hundred clubs Damen had been to. It was Laurent who winced, almost too briefly to notice. The floor, Damen noticed, was a wavering, distorted checkerboard pattern; that was going to be fun for the inebriated.

Speaking of which. Damen steered them toward the bar, where he snagged himself some kind of bacon-wrapped appetizer and a shot of tequila.

"And what'll you have, Mr. de Vere?" asked the bartender, a lovely woman in dreadlocks.

"What have you got without alcohol?" Laurent replied, and accepted a Coke.

"Ladies and gentlemen, a party animal," Damen said. He had to half-shout over the music, but at least it was too loud for anyone to eavesdrop. "Seriously? You're not driving. And you could stand to loosen up."

"I'm underage," Laurent said curtly, sipping the Coke.

"I don't think they're checking."

"I don't drink," Laurent snapped.

Wow. Okay. "More for me," Damen said with a shrug. "Any run-in with an ex calls for a drink, in my opinion." He tapped the bar for another shot—and realized Laurent was looking at him with that thoughtful laser-focus he got when he was giving something all his attention. "What?"

"Did you mean what you told Erasmus? That he could call on you for help?"

"Of course I did. Erasmus is a—what's the term? Precious cinnamon roll? You'd have to be one cold-hearted monster not to help him."

"And yet you broke up with him."

"Not because he did anything wrong. It was just… well, it was Jo, mostly. She has a way of making everyone else seem boring." Damen stared moodily into the depths of his second shot, then tossed it back grimly. "Though perhaps only in the way that wrecking your car makes the rest of your commute look boring."

"Wreck a lot of cars, do you?"

Damen flipped him the bird and asked for a beer.

They hadn't escaped notice at the bar; a few of Laurent's co-stars approached and exchanged pleasantries, a few other acquaintances, even one or two people Damen knew. Hollywood was a small world. Damen decided against a fourth drink and ate some more instead, pressing a shrimp on Laurent as well.

"Your uncle says you don't take care of yourself," Damen said. "If I'm hungry, you probably are too."

"Don't," Laurent said, "quote my uncle at me."

"Fine, I'll quote my stepmother at you. 'Eat what you're given and be grateful.'"

Laurent rolled his eyes, but ate the shrimp. With one eyebrow arched, hair escaping his ponytail in the whirling blue and purple lights of the club, he looked exquisite, like a fairy prince in the lights of Underhill.

"Hold still a sec," Damen said, and pulled out his phone.

When he realized Damen was taking pictures, Laurent's expression shifted, becoming resigned and almost amused. That looked even better.

"And a few of us together," Damen said, turning the phone and snuggling up to Laurent's side. He got a few really nice shots of Laurent looking fondly exasperated while Damen grinned and nuzzled his cheek—and then Laurent brushed against the padded box in his jacket pocket.

"What's that?" Laurent asked. "It's a bit high to say you're happy to see me."

"I'll show you soon." Damen had actually almost forgotten his plan for the evening; now was as good a time as any. "Fancy a spin on the dance floor?" he asked, sweeping an arm to indicate the chaotic crowd moving across the warped checkerboard.

"Must we?" Laurent said.

Before Damen could press his case, Uncle Reggie and his young companion found them.

"I was wondering if you'd stood us up," Reggie said pleasantly as he appeared at Laurent's elbow and nearly made him choke on his soda.

"Oh, Uncle, you know I've never left you wanting," Laurent said. If Damen didn't know better, he would think that was a longing glance he'd just given Damen's half-empty beer. "Damen, I don't think you've been properly introduced to Aimeric. He's another member of my uncle's stable of young actors. We're working together on Freaks. Quite a coup for Uncle Reggie, getting us both into that."

The pretty young man-bun-wearer stepped forward to shake Damen's hand. "A pleasure," he said, "to meet the special someone who could steal Laurent's frozen heart."

"It sort of fell into my lap, really," Damen said. "I've found it warms up nicely there."

This time Laurent did choke on his soda. Damen patted his back as he coughed.

"I spent the ride over here looking up horse-related stories from the set of Black Powder," Aimeric said, his voice suddenly over-loud as the music changed to a slow song. "Nothing turned up. So what's this about Cassie Bayles killing a horse?"

Several people nearby were listening intently. Damen saw Laurent's eyes slide toward them, and away again, his expression never changing.

"Cassie told the director she was an experienced horsewoman," he said. "The first day we started filming, I could tell that was a lie, or at least a profound exaggeration. I tried to give her advice, but she brushed me off." He took a long swallow from his Coke. "They needed her horse to do a very tricky jump on slippery terrain. Wanted to put in a stunt rider. Cassie assured them she could handle it, no problem. Instead she broke two of her horse's legs. He had to be put down. That's why I cursed her out. That's why I spat on her."

Aimeric looked appalled. "Why didn't you say so?"

"Because," Uncle Reggie answered before Laurent could, "the source of the conflict is not nearly as important as Laurent's inappropriate behavior in the course of it. A mud-slinging contest would do no one's reputation any good. I advised—strongly advised—Laurent to issue an apology to Miss Bayles, but in the face of his refusal to do that, I decided a complete lack of response was the only option. Ignore it and hope it goes away."

Damen stared at the man. He was no PR expert, but that sounded to him like a horrifyingly bad idea. If he didn't know better, he'd think Uncle Reggie was trying to torpedo his nephew's career.

"Of course, Laurent has always been funny about horses," Uncle Reggie continued. "You'll notice he even refers to himself as belonging to my stable. But in the end, you know, one horse is much like another. It can be replaced." He clapped a hand on Aimeric's shoulder. "Let's get you a drink, boy, you've had a long day! It was an eventful flight from New York, it's a shame you missed it, Laurent, but let me tell you…"

Damen quickly lost track of whatever anecdote Reggie was telling. He had no particular desire to be near the man, and anyway, he had a plan to enact. Right now, after Laurent had finally gotten his own side of the Cassie Bayles story out there in some measure (the eavesdroppers were already on their phones), was probably the perfect time for it. Laurent would know that, and still hate it, and Damen couldn't wait to see that expression on his face.

"Laurent, let's dance," he said, butting right in over Uncle Reggie's voice.

"I would love to," Laurent said without hesitation, and took Damen's arm as they entered the fray on the dance floor.

He could almost feel Laurent's brow furrowing as Damen continued pulling him along, not stopping to dance, merely pushing through the crowd. Damen led him all the way to the middle, where the DJ dais rose above the rest of the floor, and up the steps.

"Damen, what exactly are you—"

"Come on!"

Up and onto the dais, where Damen appropriated the mic from the irritated DJ. "Ladies and gentlemen! May I have your attention! Ladies and gentlemen, eyes up here!"

A significant number of eyes turned their way. The DJ, admitting defeat, tapered off the music, and now they were the center of attention.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Damen said, "I haven't known Laurent de Vere for very long. But the very first night we met, he gave me something special, something he'd… never given anyone else. Something he'd been saving for the right person." He held up his hand, gold gleaming. "I'm talking about his bracelet, of course."

Laughter from the crowd. Laurent's smile was fixed and his nails on Damen's other wrist were going to break the skin any second.

"He asked me to wear it always, so he'd be with me even when we're apart. But while I've got Laurent on my arm wherever I go, what does Laurent have? Look at his wrist, doesn't it look empty without his bracelet? I could never leave my sweetheart naked and lonely like this." He pulled the velvet box out of his jacket pocket, and went to one knee in front of Laurent—who looked like his eyes might pop right out of his skull. "So… wear this for me, Laurent, as I wear yours for you. Be mine as I am yours."

The bracelet in the box was gold, very similar in design to the one Damen wore. Instead of a starburst, it bore the shape of a lion's head, in callback to Damen's Gala costume, and beneath it, Damen's initials.

Laurent pulled off a glove and undid the cuff buttons he and Damen had fought so hard with, baring his wrist. Of course he did, since it was either that or burn every bit of the good publicity he'd worked so hard to drum up. Damen, grinning broadly, slipped the bracelet onto him, and bent to kiss his palm. Laurent twitched and pulled his hand away, but it was easily disguised in the motion of Damen getting to his feet and taking Laurent in his arms.

The crowd was going wild, camera flashes turning the dim room into a sea of sparkles.

"This is a win for both of us," Damen whispered, far away from the microphone, as he stepped forward and began peppering Laurent's stunned face with kisses. "And now we're even."

One good proper kiss, and Damen lifted the microphone again to say, "It's okay to cry, baby, I know it's overwhelming."

"I'm going to get you for this," Laurent hissed, but weirdly enough he didn't sound angry, and his fiercely delighted smile didn't look fake at all.

Chapter Text

[YouTube video containing poor-quality camera phone footage of Damen giving bracelet to Laurent.]
"Damen Vasileus basically proposing to Laurent de Vere at Black Powder after party!!!"
Posted by xXsquee-loveXx
Published May 12, 2017
Most of you guys already know that I won tickets to the Black Powder premiere and afterparty CONSIDERING I HAVEN'T SHUT ABOUT IT FOR WEEKS but as excited as I already was, nothing could have prepared me for THIS!!!!! I'm still working on trying to transcribe everything they said, it was hard to hear and also every time I watch the video I faint so that makes it difficult!!!!!

Top comments:
JennyGreenteeth:
This is the most romantic thing I've ever seen in my life.
madamdevere: Our Lolo looks so happy! I srsly dont care what else happens as long as he's happy
testing123: I keep hearing what a jerk LdV is but it's hard to believe when you see something like this. I don't figure you can be that big a jerk and still have Damen Vasileus look at you like that. Or if you can then clearly I am living my life the wrong way!

Intotheblackhole: omg guys this is just a publicity stunt, they are so fake, there's no way they're dating for real. Larent looks like hed rather be anywher else and Damen's just tryin to stick it to Jo White. THIS COMMENT HAS RECEIVED TOO MANY NEGATIVE VOTES

*

You know I can't believe you when you're putting on a show
It's a beautiful performance played by someone I don't know
I'd really like to have a look at what's behind the mask
You don't have to take it off—a little peek is all I ask

— "Face Value," from Epicurious by Akielos

 

The morning after his return from L.A., Damen let himself sleep in, still recovering from the unspeakably late night after the premiere. By the time he and Laurent had gotten back to their hotel room, Damen was too tired to feel awkward about sharing the bed (looking back, he was even pretty sure he'd fallen asleep on Laurent's shoulder in the car) and when he'd woken, Laurent was already gone, leaving a note about unexpectedly needing an earlier flight but here was Damen's ticket. Since then he hadn't heard from Laurent directly, but he'd liked a photo on Damen's Instagram—the fairy-lord shot from the afterparty.

It was probably time to get up now, Damen thought, squinting at the brilliant sunlight through his bedroom window, but he didn't have any obligations today. Nikandros had ordered him to stay home and write music, and he'd promised to… try, at least. But he needed to ease into the day, first.

He picked up his phone and pulled it off the charge cord. Somewhat to his surprise, he had post alerts from Laurent's Twitter—a few pleasantries about the premiere and how pleased he was to have worked with so many talented people on Black Powder, a few words of gratitude for the support of his fans and his wonderful boyfriend, Damen. That was shocking enough—Laurent calling him wonderful—but it was the tweet after that that made Damen sit up in bed and rub his eyes.

A fan had tweeted him about Cassie Bayles.

Is it true Cassie killed a horse? Is that why you hate her?

To be fair, Laurent had replied, Cassie meant no harm to the horse. Incompetence, not malice. Not sure it matters to the horse, though. Yes, thats why I hate her.

Damen let out a low whistle. He'd wanted Laurent to put the truth out there, but what had happened to showing a softer, gentler side of Laurent's personality? Did he just honestly not know how?

Before Damen could decide whether to text Laurent about it or just let him handle the fallout of his own actions, an incoming text took over the screen. From Pallas, of all people—Damen hadn't seen him in a couple years now, though they'd been pretty tight in college, fellow musicians cheerfully competing for local performance opportunities.

Holy crap, dude, are you having a kid? said the text, accompanied by a link to a soundbite from the red carpet—the reporter asking Damen if Jokaste's baby was his.

Damen had been trying not to think about that.

He didn't answer Pallas's text, instead flopping back onto his pillow and staring at the ceiling. If the reporter was right, if Jo was twenty weeks along… then either the baby was his, or she and Kastor had been knocking boots a lot longer than he thought. Was she lying then, or lying now? Why lie at all? If she was done with him, if she wanted Kastor instead, why hadn't she just said so? Though he supposed she had, eventually. What, did she need a side-by-side comparison before she could make up her mind? Was Kastor better in bed, was that what it boiled down to?

Not likely, snarked a little voice in the back of his head, which was probably all kinds of arrogant. But Damen had always made a point of pleasing his partners, finding all the little ways to drive them crazy. Erasmus liked to be dominated, yet treasured; Jokaste liked to be in charge, to play games; a dozen shorter flings or one-night stands had liked when Damen did this, or that, and the night wasn't over until he figured out what. Damen put forth effort, he paid attention. And Kastor—well, it wasn't like Damen could know for sure. But considering what some of Kastor's departing girlfriends had written on the mirror or carved into the side of his car, Damen theorized that Kastor had never quite gotten the knack of that.

But at the end of the day, Damen guessed it didn't really matter that much why Jo had chosen his brother over him. The heart wanted what it wanted and all that. What mattered a whole lot more was whether Damen was going to be a father.

Maybe it shouldn't matter. If the baby wasn't his son or daughter, it would be his niece or nephew; Damen would be involved in its life either way. Likewise, the kid would doubtless live with Jokaste and her husband—ugh, what a horrible thought—most of the time either way. What difference did it make?

But he had to admit to himself that it made a big, big difference. And after another moment of staring at the ceiling, trying to breathe past the knot in his throat, he had to admit that he desperately wanted the baby to be his. Even though it would be messy and painful and terrible, trying to co-parent with Jokaste and Kastor, he wanted that child to be his.

He picked up the phone again, started a text to Jokaste—and couldn't get past the first word. Less, really; he typed a dozen first words, and deleted them all. He couldn't just ask, Is the baby mine? If she were going to tell the truth about it that easily, she'd have done so already. What was there to say? Finding out for sure, he realized, was probably going to involve lawyers and blood tests.

He started a text to his father instead.

I might need a lawyer, he typed, and then deleted. I need to talk to you. No—he deleted that, too. Honestly, it wasn't fair to put his father in the middle of this. Theo Vasileus loved both of his sons equally (however much Kastor liked to moan about favoritism when he didn't get his way) and a father couldn't be expected to take sides in his sons' insane love triangle. It was just that Damen was used to coming to his father with his problems, used to depending on his advice and guidance. Despite Theo's insistence that his band was a silly idea, Damen and his father had always been close.

I want to be a good father, like you, Damen wanted to say. I want that chance to love someone like you've always loved me. It was funny, Damen supposed, that on some level he always thought of his father as the only parent he'd ever known. He'd had a stepmother, certainly—in some ways Minnie had been around all his life, even before his mother died—but, well. Minnie had never been terribly interested in mothering Damen. Speaking of playing favorites.

"This is useless," Damen announced to the empty room. "Talking to my father won't solve anything. Talking to Jokaste won't solve anything."

It didn't feel like anything would solve anything.

Damen had learned there was only one thing to do when he felt like that. He got up and put on his workout clothes.

 

The housecleaning staff had kept any dust from gathering in Damen's little home gym, one of the first things he'd splurged on when Akielos hit it big. Damen's extroverted nature and preference for combat training kept him working out in a more social manner, usually, but he liked having the option of doing it at home. Damen managed to force himself through at least a short warm-up with the jump rope before attacking the punching bag, so he wouldn't injure himself in his enthusiasm. It didn't take him long to work up a sweat, channeling all the thoughts he didn't want to think and all the feelings he didn't want to feel into his shoulders and fists and the occasional kick.

When his phone rang—a call, not a text—he was tempted to ignore it. There wasn't a single person he felt like talking to right now. But it was probably Nik, making sure he was out of bed; if he didn't answer, his best friend might actually come over, and that would be even worse. Panting, Damen wiped sweat from his eyes and picked up the phone.

It wasn't Nik. It was Laurent.

Damen swallowed and thought all over again of letting it go to voicemail. But after a moment, he thumbed the button that would answer the call.

"Yeah?"

"'Yeah'?" repeated Laurent's voice in a snide drawl. "My darling, I can't tell you how cherished I feel when you're always so glad to hear my voice."

"It means a lot to know you appreciate me," Damen retorted. "What do you want, Laurent?"

Laurent hesitated in replying, just long enough for Damen to regret his sarcasm and wonder if something was wrong.

"I'd appreciate your presence at a clean-up effort," Laurent said at last. "House fire. I anticipate a lot of manual labor, the kind of thing you're good at."

Damen suppressed a groan. The last thing he felt like doing right now was performing for cameras, helping Laurent look good—but manual labor sounded pretty appealing, to be honest, and he assumed they really would be helping the victims of the house fire, even if it was all for publicity. "Fine. Where should I meet you?"

"I'll text you the address of my apartment. Wear something you can work in. And don't forget your bracelet."

"Back at you, darling," Damen said, and hung up.

 

Laurent lived in Greenwich Village, fortunately not terribly far from Damen's condo in the Meatpacking District. The building was a high-rise, and one of the gaudiest, most overblown architectural mistakes Damen thought he'd ever seen, scrollwork and wrought iron and nonsense. He felt his lip curl in disgust, already wanting to go back to his condo with its clean, square lines and straight white furniture. He'd had visitors call his place cold, before, but Damen disagreed. It was open, it was fresh and light, with elegance in its simplicity.

Jo had loved it.

Damen shook his head, hard, and stepped inside the pretentious building. He wasn't here to judge Laurent's taste, and anyway, his own apartment within the building might be done very differently.

But when the doorman sent Damen up, and he stepped out of the elevator into Laurent's home, it was even worse. The foyer had a marble floor and crystal chandelier, with some kind of spiky, avant-garde statue that didn't match the rest of it at all. And it was messy. At least two pairs of muddy shoes were scattered over the marble, with a scarf flung across the spiky statue. A glass bowl collected keys by the door, atop a rickety table that might have come from IKEA; the bowl was already chipped and cracked in several places from careless use.

So not only was Laurent a tasteless decorator and show-off, but he didn't even take care of his valuable things. Spoiled, careless brat. Why was Damen spending time in his company, again?

"Laurent," he called, but heard no answer, or even any rustle of movement. "Laurent!"

Ugh.

The entryway fed him down a hallway, where another, equally ill-advised statue, this one roughly humanoid, was wearing Laurent's straw hat from the beach. The hallway opened out into a sitting room that was nearly Victorian in its overcrowded, overdecorated glory.

"Good thing I'm not claustrophobic," Damen muttered, dodging around overstuffed furniture with tassels. Tassels. Here, too, Laurent showed his true colors—the mahogany coffee table bore multiple water rings, and books and papers sat in haphazard piles. Another hat perched atop a lampshade. There were cigarette butts on the Persian rug.

Wait—did Laurent even smoke?

There was artwork on the walls, but Damen could see very little of it. Most of the paintings had been taped over with posters and prints—Starry Night, horses of middling quality, even some unidentifiable thing done by a child in crayon. On some sort of flat-topped sculpture doubling as a side table, someone had been using a heavy bottle of wine to crack pecans.

"Laurent!" he called again, and when there was still no response, he started opening doors.

The first door led to a bathroom, hilariously overdone with sconce lighting, mosaic walls, a hot tub and a shower stall big enough for six. The sink was a riot of beauty products and tools—tipped over, left open, piled on each other. Interestingly, they seemed to be gathering dust. Didn't Laurent have a cleaning service at all?

Opening the next door was almost like stepping into a different house.

Laurent's bedroom suffered from the same architectural choices as the rest of the apartment—though the skylight actually wasn't a bad touch—but Laurent seemed to have done everything he could to cancel them out. The place was neat and clean and stripped down to a degree that approached unsettling. Display nooks sat empty, the wide bed bore a single pillow and blanket—even extraneous light fixtures had been disassembled, leaving bare wires and empty sockets. The only décor were a few piles of books, none of them shelved. It was, Damen thought, as if Laurent had torn out everything he hated, but didn't know what to replace it with.

"Laurent?"

This time there was a response—a startled gasp followed by a muffled crash. Damen followed the sound into a little dressing room off of the bedroom, where Laurent was fighting his way free of a rack of clothes. Damen extended a hand, but Laurent shook him off.

"I didn't mean to surprise you," Damen said, trying not to laugh. "Weren't you expecting me? The doorman was."

"Yes," Laurent said irritably, "obviously I was expecting you, I invited you, I was just—lost in thought, I suppose. Is that what you're wearing?"

"Is that what you're wearing?" A T-shirt and jean shorts was perfectly appropriate for the hot, dirty work of a house fire cleanup, Damen thought. Okay, the T-shirt was bright orange and had the Akielos logo on it, but if Laurent thought that was gauche, well, so was helping someone solely in order to get credit for it. Meanwhile, Laurent was wearing long sleeves. The material was thin, but it still seemed like a bad idea. "You're going to roast."

"Better than sunburn." Laurent pushed past him, leaving the clothes he'd knocked down in a pile on the floor, and took a seat on the edge of the bed to lace up his boots. There was only one chair in the room, and it was full of books; Damen remained standing.

"Did you do your hair yourself?" Damen couldn't help asking. Laurent's golden locks were drawn back into a tight French braid, which it was barely long enough to sustain. Damen couldn't imagine that doing that behind your own head was easy.

"Do you see anyone else here to help me?" Laurent said with a snort.

"Speaking of which, where are your bodyguards?"

"They won't be necessary today."

Damen wasn't sure why they'd be less necessary today than at the beach, but he wasn't about to bemoan their absence. "Where are we headed? I can drive if you want."

Laurent, finishing up his boots, stared distantly down at his own hands for a moment. "That might be best."

Clouds moved, high above them, and sunlight suddenly streamed through the skylight. It fell across Laurent like a halo, turning his eyelashes to gold and highlighting the faded pink flowers on his shirt. He seemed, for a moment, as beautiful and immutably alone as a statue on a pedestal. Then the light faded, and he was just a young man in a weirdly desolate bedroom inside a gaudy apartment.

"You got any sunblock in that pile of nonsense in your bathroom?" Damen asked.

Laurent blinked, as if confused, then seemed to remember. "Ah, yes. The performative art piece. I don't know, but of course I do have some in the master bath. I'll put it on in the car. Let's go."

 

As Damen was putting on his seatbelt, Laurent tapped his shoulder and held out his hand.

"Phone."

"What?"

"Give me your phone."

Damen raised an eyebrow. "You need to make a call?"

Laurent glared at him. "I don't fancy meeting any curbs or streetlamps along the way."

Damen rolled his eyes, but handed over the phone. "It's locked to my thumb-print. Just so you don't get any ideas."

"What, afraid I might leak more naked pictures of you?"

Damen tossed him a grin as they pulled into traffic. "Baby, darling, light of my life, if you want to see my body all you have to do is ask."

Laurent, interestingly, looked away and did not reply. Were his cheeks a little pink?

Damen raised an eyebrow, but decided not to push it. "So where are we going?"

Laurent pointed at the navigation screen, on which he had already entered the address, looking at Damen like he was an idiot.

"Yes, but why there? Whose house is this? Why are we cleaning it up? Hey—was anybody hurt?" If there was any chance of them having to pull someone's charred body out of the wreckage, Damen didn't think he could handle that.

"No one was hurt."

Damen relaxed. "Thank God."

That… seemed to throw Laurent for a moment, as if he hadn't expected Damen to care. But he moved on. "The house belongs to an old family friend, actually. Herode, my father's lawyer. It caught fire two days ago—electrical short, perhaps. There's still a lot going on with the police and the insurance companies and so on. Herode and his family are trying to recover what they can of their personal effects before it rains or the place gets looted."

"Looted? Who loots somebody's burned-out house?"

"Plenty of people. Herode is a wealthy man; I'm sure there are valuables in the rubble. Herode's less concerned about those, however, than about his family keepsakes and his granddaughter's toys. He's a good man."

Damen had to pay attention to the navigation screen for a few minutes after that; they were headed out of town, toward the suburbs. "So this guy is a family friend? He's okay with us coming? I don't think I'd want a bunch of strangers around at a time like this." Or photographers…

"I haven't seen him for a long time," Laurent said, looking out the window rather than at Damen, "but I'm hardly a stranger. Technically Herode is my godfather. If things had… worked out differently… he might have taken me in, instead of my uncle, when my family died."

A very close family friend, then. Damen wondered why it was that Laurent hadn't seen him in so long. Did Herode not get along with Uncle Reggie? Or maybe Herode didn't get along with Laurent. No one else seemed to.

They arrived at the sort of place that would call itself "a modest estate," as if there were anything modest about having an estate. There was a sign at the end of the drive naming the place Breteau, and even Damen's family weren't pretentious enough to name their houses. (Yes, multiple houses. Just because Damen had grown up in it didn't mean it wasn't pretentious.)

All the same, the house itself had been fairly modest, judging by what was left of it—a two-story family home, not a party mansion. Now it was only a blackened skeleton, walls stud showing like ribs, with rubble heaped around it.

A wine-red minivan was parked a safe distance from the house, and climbing out of it were an old man, a middle-aged couple, and a little girl. Herode and his family, one assumed.

Damen looked around again, more carefully, as he parked the car and got out, but even on second look, he didn't see any kind of news team. No cameras, no vans, not even anyone with a clipboard and a mic. Huh.

"Gimme back my phone," Damen said, catching the back of Laurent's collar as he tried to leave his seat.

Laurent tossed the phone over his shoulder at him, muttering about where Damen could shove it, and slammed the door behind him.

Laurent looked tense as he approached Herode's family. He usually did, of course, but this was slightly different; self-conscious, Damen realized, perhaps even nervous, and that wasn't a tension Damen had seen in him before.

"Herode, it's good to see you," Laurent said stiffly—but his words were nearly swallowed by the old man's shout of joy as he threw his arms around him.

"Laurent! Oh, my boy, you've grown so tall!" Herode cupped Laurent's face in his aged hands, his eyes watering. "I can't tell you how glad I am to have you here."

Laurent actually seemed to be at a loss for words. Damen was tempted to take a video.

"I'm sorry it couldn't be under better circumstances," Laurent managed at last.

"Your presence makes the circumstances better," Herode said firmly. "I don't know if you remember my daughter Genovot, this is her husband and—Brittany, wait for us!"

The little girl, perhaps nine years old, had clearly decided to skip the introductions and was making her way toward the shell of the house. "I want my horses," she said, voice grim, and did not turn back.

The woman, Genovot, sighed and followed after her, husband at her heels. "We'll get her. Take your time, Dad."

"Herode, this is," Laurent swallowed, "my boyfriend, Damen. I hope you don't mind my bringing him. I thought he might be useful."

"My goodness, you do look like a useful fellow, Damen." Herode pumped Damen's hand cheerfully. "Boyfriend, is it? I didn't know whether to believe the tabloids. Congratulations to you both! Any loved one of Laurent's is a loved one of mine."

Once again, Laurent seemed to be caught flat-footed. "You follow the tabloids?"

"A hard habit to break, after a career in Hollywood. But mostly I follow you, Laurent. I've seen all your movies—amazing, just amazing. Well, all right, not all of the movies were to my taste, but you were always amazing in them. Your parents, your brother, they would all be so proud."

Laurent turned abruptly away, toward the house. "We should get started. It'll get hot soon."

"Laurent?" Herode stepped after him, touched his arm hesitantly. "I'm sorry I didn't stay in touch, lad. Your uncle said you didn't want to see anybody, so I tried to give you space, and then it had been so long… I should have tried harder."

Laurent laughed, a single bark of sound that was all irony without mirth. "My uncle told me you never called… I shouldn't be surprised." He gave his head a brisk shake, regaining steely control of his expression. "We really should get started."

Then he was marching off toward the burned house, where Brittany and her parents were already poking through wreckage. Damen would have liked to catch up with him, but Herode was wobbling on the uneven ground; he offered the old man his arm instead.

"I hope you'll take good care of that boy," Herode murmured, watching Laurent with a profoundly disturbed expression. "It's high time someone did."

"Yes, sir," Damen said, "I'm starting to agree with you."

 

The closer they got to the house, the more upsetting Damen found it. True, no one had died—but this was a family's home, the walls that had sheltered them, the floors their child had learned to walk on, and all the little things they had gathered around themselves for comfort and beauty and memory of the past. All gone, reduced to black bones and tumbled pieces, destroyed by water if nothing else as the firefighters tried to stop the flames.

"This is such a shame, sir," Damen said, eyes scanning the devastation. A few yards away, Herode's daughter was trying to comfort her husband, who was holding the charred remains of some item he clearly recognized. "What can I do to help?"

"There's only a few things we're specifically trying to retrieve," Herode said. "A safe from my office, if we can find it, since that part of the house collapsed. Genovot's computer hard drive, it has a lot of photos. The family silver—it was my grandmother's. And Brittany's toy horses. Anything of Brittany's that we can salvage."

Damen looked around for Laurent, and found him putting on a dust mask and helping Brittany do the same. They were both pointing and gesturing toward one area of the house, probably discussing the location of her room.

"Here, put this on," Herode was saying, handing Damen a dust mask of his own. "The silver would be in the kitchen, right through here. Watch your head."

The inside of the house was even more depressing, scorched destruction vying with peculiar pockets of undamaged tile, wallpaper or furniture. The glass-fronted cabinet holding the silver had fallen forward, and Damen had to carefully turn it over, with the charred wood threatening to crumble in his hands. Underneath it, amidst a sea of broken glass, they found not only the silver but a variety of other knick-knacks—music boxes, china figurines—protected from the flames by the cabinet and mostly intact. Damen carefully picked them out of the glass and handed them to Herode to wrap in newspaper and pack into a canvas bag.

"I can't believe all these little things survived," Herode said, sounding a little choked up. "This music box was a wedding present from my father to my mother. And this here, this is one of those Russian nesting dolls—Laurent's mother brought that back for me from a trip."

Damen pounced on the opportunity. "So you've known Laurent's family a long time?"

"Oh yes—I introduced Aleron and Hennike." He turned the peanut-shaped doll in his hand, his voice a little raspy behind his dust mask. "So many years ago… Everything changes, doesn't it? You know it will, but you never expect it when it happens."

"What… what was it that happened? To them?"

Herode shot him a knowing glance. "Laurent doesn't talk about it, I take it? They were in a car accident. Aleron and Hennike had both gone to pick up Auguste from the airport—I wish it had happened on the way there, rather than the way back, Laurent could have had his brother at least… Another driver was paying attention to his cell phone rather than the road. Plowed right into them, and pushed the car off an embankment."

Damen was struck dumb. It's a wonder he can stand to even look at me.

"I tried to get custody of Laurent," Herode said quietly, "based on his parents' wishes. But the courts don't always pay attention to that. There's such a strong preference for giving a child to his family."

Damen chewed his lip. "Reggie said he and Laurent used to be very close. But that lately he's been… acting strange. Pushing away his loved ones."

"Pushing away his uncle, at least," Herode said. "Reaching out to you, instead, and to me, when he heard about… this misfortune. Is that really so strange?"

"Maybe not," Damen said.

 

Genovot came to talk to her father about something, and Damen slipped off to find Laurent.

Sunlight filled the burned-out corner that, judging by the number of toy and tiny-furniture remnants, had once been Brittany's bedroom. More likely, Damen realized, her bedroom had been on the second story, and this was where its contents had landed when the floor collapsed. The little girl had pulled off her dust mask, and her face was a mess of tear-streaked soot as she sat on a pile of broken boards, clutching the rather nightmarish figure of a burned wooden horse.

Laurent was crouched in front of Brittany, his own mask pulled down and flakes of ash in his hair. He was gesturing, murmuring—then he reached out and pulled a coin from Brittany's ear.

She narrowed her eyes, distracted from crying, if not exactly wonderstruck. "I've seen that trick before."

"For good reason," Laurent said. "It's a classic. You can't go wrong with the classics. What about this one?" He rolled the coin in his fingers for a moment, then skimmed one hand against the other, fast enough to make a noise, and the coin was gone.

"It's up your sleeve," Brittany said scornfully.

"Is it?" Laurent shook out his sleeves; no coin.

Frowning fiercely, Brittany felt along Laurent's arms, his hands, even between his fingers. "Okay, where'd it go?"

"If I told you, it would spoil the magic."

"Tell me how you did it. Please? I want to learn how to do that!"

"You would become apprentice to the great magician? Well, then, if you insist." Laurent glanced up at Damen, and his gaze zeroed in on the phone in his hands. Damen, who had turned on the camera as soon as Laurent pulled the coin from Brittany's ear, just smiled and waved.

"The secrets of my art are not for public consumption," Laurent said sternly, and shuffled so that his back was to Damen.

Damen chuckled and stopped recording. By the time Laurent was done showing Brittany the magic trick, he had the video uploaded to Instagram. "Friends lost their home to a fire. Sweet Laurent helping them clean up, comforting little Brittany."

"What are you doing, Damen?" Laurent asked suspiciously, looking up from where Brittany was clumsily practicing the trick.

"I figured someone should document you being genuinely nice," Damen said, "since there's no one else around to do it." He raised an eyebrow pointedly, looking around for the photographers that weren't there.

Laurent flushed a little, under streaks of soot. "I… I was afraid you might not come. If you didn't think it was, you know. Part of the... thing."

"I'm sure you don't realize how insulting that is."

Brittany dropped the coin and fumbled it up out of the ashes at Damen's feet. In the process, she glanced up at Damen, and really looked at him for the first time since his arrival.

Her face went white, and she screamed.

Damen's first instinct was to step toward her—was she hurt? Was she falling through the floor? But she scrambled away from him, still screaming. He backed off, and let Laurent, wide-eyed and wary, get between them.

Her parents had come running. "Brittany! What's going on? Is she hurt?"

"I don't think so," Laurent said. "Something's frightened her. I don't know."

"It's him," Brittany cried, pointing at Damen. "It was him, Mommy, it was him, he was the man!"

"What man?" Damen said, bewildered.

"The man who set the fire!" Brittany let Genovot pick her up, trembling and sobbing, glaring over her mother's shoulder at Damen.

Brittany's parents were looking at Damen rather narrowly. "Who are you again?" the father asked.

"Damen Vasileus. Laurent's boyfriend." Damen had seldom been so confused. "I didn't set any fire. My god, why would I do that? I don't even know you guys! I wouldn't set anyone's house on fire!"

"Of course you didn't," Herode said, putting a hand on Damen's shoulder. "Brittany, darling, these men are our friends."

"But I saw him!"

Genovot, after giving Damen a hard-eyed and very thorough once-over, relaxed slightly. "It's not him, baby. He does look a lot like him, but it isn't him. They just look a lot alike."

Brittany gulped and wiped at her face, still glaring, but with less certainty. "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure."

"The fire started Friday night, didn't you say?" Laurent said softly to Herode. "Damen was with me in Los Angeles. It couldn't have been him."

"I never thought it was," Herode assured him, but looked relieved nonetheless.

"I think perhaps we're done for today," Brittany's father said.

"Since you found the safe," Herode said, "I would love these two strong-backed fellows to help unearth it, before we go. Why don't you two finish gathering Brittany's things, while we do that, and then head on to the car?"

Damen was happy to be ushered off toward the other end of the house, the family watching his retreat with wary eyes.

"Brittany and Genovot were here when the fire started," Herode murmured as they picked their way carefully across the strong places of the floor. "There was a strange man in the house—they only caught a glimpse of him. They're supposed to work with a sketch artist tomorrow."

"I thought it was an electrical short," Damen said, with an accusatory glance at Laurent.

"We're playing it a bit close to our chests," Herode said sheepishly. "On the recommendation of the police. Right now this man may not know he was seen, and we want to keep it that way."

He led them to the safe, which was just visible under a pile of collapsed beams.

"This may take some doing," Laurent said, walking a thoughtful circle around the situation.

Damen shrugged. "I'll lift the beams up, you two pull the safe out. Tell me if anything starts to shift around, we don't want to cause a collapse." Without further ado, he stepped forward, wedged his shoulder under the beam that most of the others were piled on, and lifted.

Laurent stared up at him, mouth a little bit open.

"Any time now," Damen said, knowing his smile was more than a little smug.

Laurent and Herode pushed and pulled at the safe until they were red and panting, but without result. It was too heavy, and there was a broken floorboard beneath that was trapping it in place.

"Of course it's the contents I need, not the safe itself," Herode said. "Damen, can you hold that up long enough for me to get it open?"

Damen made a thoughtful noise. He hated to admit it, but he was starting to feel the burn. He looked around and, very carefully, dragged the beams a couple of feet away, setting them down on top of another pile of debris—which collapsed under the weight in a spray of ash. Fortunately, the damage stopped there, without endangering the rest of the room.

Laurent was staring again. For a moment, he seemed about to speak, but then didn't.

Herode knelt before the uncovered safe, wiped soot from the combination lock with his shirt-tail, and got it open. Inside were papers, mostly, along with some keys, a jewel box, and what looked like a small external hard drive.

Herode frowned. "There should be more here. There's…" He combed through the items, stacking them in a box Laurent handed him. "There's a few flash drives missing. And several file folders."

"What's in them?" Damen asked.

Herode shook his head. "I'm not sure, off the top of my head. But the police are going to be interested to hear it."

 

Herode gave Laurent a hug, and Damen a hearty handshake, as they parted in the driveway. Brittany stared out the window of the minivan at him; Damen hesitantly gave her a little wave, but she turned away. It looked like she was showing her mother her new coin trick.

Damen pulled his grimy shirt off as he climbed into the car, using it to wipe soot off his face, and folded all the mess to the inside before dropping it in the back seat. To his intense pleasure, Laurent was staring again.

"Feel free to follow my lead," Damen said. "It'll spare my upholstery."

Laurent just shook his head, turning his gaze—with some difficulty—away from Damen's bare chest and out the window.

Damen debated whether to say something to Laurent about what he'd learned from Herode, about the loss of his family. Debated whether to ask him about his falling-out with his uncle. Debated asking why he'd wanted Damen here today enough to lure him out with false assumptions. But the answer to that one, at least, didn't seem too complicated; Laurent was nervous about meeting his godfather again after so long, and wanted moral support.

He considered Damen moral support. Damen was surprised, and touched, and more than a little sad, because shouldn't Laurent have someone in his life closer than a fake boyfriend of a couple of weeks?

Gold gleamed through an oily layer of soot on Laurent's wrist, sending light dancing across the roof of the car every time he moved his hand. Every now and then, it crossed paths with the similar reflection from Damen's bracelet, a peculiar imitation of a touch.

In the end, Damen said none of the things he was thinking. Laurent rested his head against the window and fell asleep, rumpled and dirty and beautiful with his hair falling down around his face.

 

"We're here," Damen said, parking illegally in front of Laurent's apartment building. Laurent woke with a start and a confused little groan, rubbing his eyes and thereby spreading the smudges on his face. It was kind of adorable.

Damen came around the car and opened the door for him, helping him up with an exaggerated condescension that turned his help into a joke so Laurent would accept it. That was a trick Damen had learned with Kastor; his brother literally wouldn't admit he needed help if his bone was sticking out of his arm. Anyway, Laurent groggily let Damen walk him up the stairs to the door of the apartment building.

"I can take it from here," Laurent said then, gently unwinding his arm from Damen's.

"Okay," Damen said. "I could come up, though. I don't have any plans."

"I do." Laurent hesitated. "But… thank you. For driving. For coming. For all of it."

"Any time."

They were standing very close together. Laurent had a black smudge on his nose, and Damen wanted to touch it. He wanted to do more than that.

Laurent's gaze dropped, almost imperceptibly, from Damen's eyes to his lips.

Damen leaned forward, almost unconsciously, and Laurent—leaned back.

"I'll see you later, Damen," he said, and went inside.

That was disappointing, Damen thought as he turned back toward the car. And a little confusing, because they'd kissed plenty of times before. Why had Laurent shied away from it this time?

Because this would have been a real kiss. There was no one to document it, no one to keep score. It would have been solely between them, kissing because they wanted to. And Laurent knew it, felt it, even if he wasn't ready to go for it yet.

Maybe that wasn't so disappointing after all.

Chapter Text

Laurent de Vere: Ready to Get Freak-y

The actor is excited about his "first adult role"

Posted May 15, 2017

The highly-anticipated movie adaptation of acclaimed graphic novel series Freaks has faced a lot of challenges, including two director changes and at least one all-new script. But one piece of good news, according to most fans, has been the casting of Noble Blood star Laurent de Vere as one of the series' most beloved characters, Frankie Walsh.

"Frankie is not most people's idea of a good mentor," says de Vere, "including his own. He's barely keeping his own demons in check, and he's not looking to take responsibility for anyone else. But the fate of these kids who are like him falls in his lap, and he has the chance to give them the help no one ever gave him."

De Vere's success has mostly come by way of historical films like The Golden Crown, Noble Blood I & II, and the upcoming Black Powder—and teen dramas like Bread & Butter or 2013's modern Othello. De Vere is now twenty years old; does he consider this science-fiction story, where he plays the oldest character rather than the youngest, the beginning of a new direction?

"I do, in fact," the actor says. "In some ways it started with Black Powder, which might be the most serious film I've ever done. But while I loved being Lafayette, he was still the young upstart, going to war mostly for kicks. In some ways Frankie is my first adult role, the first time I've played someone who's truly taking responsibility for himself and for those who need him, just because it's the right thing to do. It's also the first time I've played someone who's actually older than me—Frankie's supposed to be 25—instead of younger. That feels appropriate."

Freaks is currently slated for release in April 2018.

—interview with Entertainment Weekly

*

The club's too loud for talking but our hands are interlocking
And I think we're saying everything we really need to say
You're brushing up against me like you're trying to convince me
And when I kiss you on the shoulder you don't try to move away
Now my hands are on your hips and you're looking at my lips
And we're communicating, baby, this is quite the Q & A

—"Body Language" from Sword & Shield by Akielos

 

When planning his visit to Laurent on the Freaks set, Damen had been surprised at how late Laurent wanted him to come.

"It's not a nine-to-five job," Laurent had said with his usual hint of impatience. "Whatever shots you need to get that day, you stay until you've gotten them. Action scenes are the worst, I don't anticipate we'll be finished before ten o'clock. Unless you want to hang out at the set all day, which I assure you you do not, then driving me home will involve showing up no earlier than nine."

"All right then, nine," Damen said, throwing his hands up in surrender, though of course Laurent couldn't see it over the phone. "Can we still count on paps being around at that hour? I'd hate to waste our time on a publicity stunt without publicity." He made sure to inject that last sentence with teasing good humor, but he wasn't sure how well it came across, since Laurent's reaction was a displeased huff of air.

"It won't be wasted. I have no ulterior motives this time, Damianos."

"Last time was fun, actually," Damen said. "I mean… to the extent that anything involving a house fire is fun. Anyway. I could bring you coffee?"

"I'll text you my order," Laurent said, haughty princess that he was, and hung up.

Whether by Laurent's doing or not (it wasn't terribly uncommon for paparazzi to follow Damen around), a few shady figures with cameras dogged Damen's steps from the moment he left his condo that evening. He walked to the nearest Starbucks, picked up Laurent's insanely-complicated coffee order, and had a cab pick him up there. The paps followed it, on motorcycles, all the way to the studio.

They were doing green screen, Laurent had said, which meant they were inside, always a plus during the summer. Damen followed Laurent's directions until he found himself in a huge room full of cameras, booms, lights, scurrying people of all sorts—and an entirely real-looking stone and steel bridge, arching over nothing and surrounded by walls of neon green.

"Aimeric, Em, I want you more aggressive on this take," called a bald man in a tall chair, assumedly the director. "You're done with this nonsense, you're ready for blood. Really ramp it up for me. Got it?"

"Got it," chorused two of the actors. Damen recognized Aimeric Fortaine from the Black Powder premiere, but barely—here he was decked out in some kind of gleaming armor, his hair loose and wild. He swished an implausibly large sword back and forth, snarling to himself; working up the proper aggressive mindset, Damen supposed. The woman beside him was—wait, that was Emilia Clarke. Wow, how about that?

After only a moment of distracted staring, Damen turned his gaze away, scanning for Laurent amongst the crowd of actors and swarming makeup artists. There was a cherubic little black girl, Hispanic boys that looked like twins, a blonde girl with an alarming gash across her eye that a makeup artist was delicately adjusting…

There he was. Laurent stood head and shoulders above most of his young co-stars, wearing a glittering velvet catsuit of midnight blue. His hair was loose except for one slender braid on the side; a woman, laughing at something Laurent had said, disentangled a sapphire earring from the golden waves. One of the twin boys ran up to them, chattering excitedly and showing them something in his hand. Laurent, looking impressed, gave the kid a fist-bump.

He certainly wasn't spitting on anybody here.

Damen tried to catch Laurent's eye, holding up the coffee, but Laurent didn't look his way; the director had come over to speak to him and the kids briefly. Before Damen knew it, they were filming again.

A couple of extras crept shyly up to Damen and asked for autographs, which he granted with as much panache as he could while keeping one eye on Laurent. The scene seemed to involve Laurent's character shouting and pleading with some many-headed monster. You would never have thought, from his performance, that he was acting against a variety of sticks and green balls; emotion radiated from him in near-visible waves. Damen moved around the edge of the set, trying to get a better view through the flock of cameras circling Laurent at various distances.

"I won't let you hurt anyone else. You're right, I can't change what's done, and I've let you go unchecked too long. But no longer." Laurent cast a hand out at the monster, assumedly using Frankie's telepathic powers, and the monster reacted, thrashing and recoiling. Laurent cried out and shifted his stance, as if the thing had fought back somehow; Damen couldn't find it in him to doubt that Frankie's powers were real, and hurting them both.

It was mesmerizing. What space did Laurent go to, in his head, to do this? Was he seeing the green balls at all, or was he seeing the monster? And of course he was not reacting in any way to the booms and cameras, the other world of idle watchers and dashing workers just out of frame. Damen was no stranger to performing, but when he gave a show, the idea was to connect to the people around him, not block them out or pretend they were something else. He wasn't even sure it was healthy to be able to do that so completely, but it was still incredible to watch. Which was probably Laurent in summary.

And speaking of being incredible to watch, the way that catsuit hugged Laurent's figure deserved an Oscar all on its own. What was this movie going to be rated again?

Laurent, turning to address another of the monster's heads, caught sight of Damen—and flubbed a line. For a solid second, he just stood there, looking at Damen, a completely unexpected smile blooming across his face.

The director swore into his megaphone. "Really, Laurent?"

Laurent shook himself, took a few steps back to his previous position on the bridge. "Sorry."

Aimeric groaned. "Some of us want to go home before midnight."

The little black girl, ranged with the other kids behind Laurent on the bridge, put her hands on her hips. "Then some of us shouldn't have flubbed eight takes in a row this afternoon, huh, Amy?"

"Don't call me that—"

"Children, really." Laurent adjusted his position again. "Pick it up from 'I won't let you hurt anyone'?"

"Yeah, that'll do," the director said, and they resumed.

Cringing a little at the problem he'd involuntarily caused, Damen stepped back a little and took a swallow from his own cooling coffee.

From the corner of his eye, he could see the paparazzi who had followed him getting escorted out of the building, still sneaking a few desperate shots in Damen's direction. At this angle they probably had Laurent in the background, too. It was clear Damen was Visiting Him On Set, so, mission accomplished.

They filmed another take, and got all the way through it this time. Laurent and the children defeated the monster (or so Damen interpreted all the shouting and leaping around in front of the green screen), and just as Laurent—or rather, Frankie Walsh—was pulling himself upright, shaking and bloodied, two more figures arrived. Aimeric and Emilia Clarke swooped in on wires, and they had obviously taken the director's desire for aggression seriously. They crowded around Laurent, weapons drawn, expressions fierce, and Aimeric started punctuating his lines with shoves against Laurent's chest. Panting and exhausted from the fight, Laurent tried to be conciliatory, though anger glittered in his eyes. The moment he resisted a shove, throwing Aimeric's hands off of him, Aimeric backhanded him across the face. Laurent cried out and tumbled down the steps of the bridge.

Damen surged forward, rage and concern mingling into a single flash of heat through his body.

The children rushed past Laurent to stand between him and Aimeric, the little black girl shouting what might have been a spell or battle cry.

"Cut!" called the director. "Fantastic, that was absolutely fantastic! Let's get some blood on Laurent's lip for the shot where Miguel helps him up."

It was part of the scene. Laurent wasn't actually hurt. Damen forced himself to take a deep breath and let the tension out of his shoulders.

"Aimeric, that was perfect," the director was saying.

"It was." Laurent was gingerly poking at his cheek as the makeup artist tried to apply fake blood to his lip. "How very Method, using your genuine dislike of me to power the character. I approve. How does the quote go? 'Strike me down in all your hatred, and your journey toward the Dark Side will be complete'!"

Muffled snickers drifted across the set; Aimeric sneered at Laurent, the expression probably much less attractive than he thought it was.

Blood successfully applied, they filmed the brief shot of Miguel helping Frankie to his feet, Laurent seamlessly transitioning from wise-cracking actor back to strained and injured character. After a few takes of that (why, Damen wondered, was it so important to get just the right take of that two-second bit?), they had a breather while the director walked Emilia Clarke and the little girl through their upcoming fight.

Laurent walked over to Damen, a flirtatious feline quality to his stroll that made Damen's mouth dry out, and took his coffee from Damen's hand.

"Ugh," he said after one sip.

"What, did I get your order wrong?"

"No, it's gone cold." He sipped again, more thoughtfully. "You actually did get the order right."

"You sure? Here, let me taste it." Damen tipped Laurent's chin up and leaned in for a kiss.

He'd given this some thought, last night, and the conclusion he'd reached was that he liked Laurent, and really wanted to kiss him for real. That was as far as he'd gotten in terms of introspection, but that was far enough for now. If Laurent only wanted performance kisses, that was fine. Damen was going to give him the performance kisses of his life. Call it verisimilitude; he was going to kiss Laurent exactly the way he would if they were dating for real.

Nudging his coffee cup into Laurent's free hand, Damen used both his own hands to cradle and surround Laurent's face—and went all in. Nothing forceful or demanding, just warm slow enthusiasm, lavishing Laurent's lips with the tender affection they deserved.

He felt Laurent go through several stages of reaction. Cool acceptance, a startled stiffening when he realized this was no quick smooch just for show, then stoically deciding to play along… a stoicism that began to fray, melt at the edges, Laurent leaning—almost falling—forward into the kiss, returning it with tiny hesitant movements that were nothing like his usual polished imitation kisses. Damen felt the two cups of coffee press against his shirt, as if Laurent would have liked to grab him if his hands weren't full.

Then Damen took it, apparently, a little too far; the tip of his tongue teased at Laurent's lips, trying to nudge them open, and Laurent stepped back with a gasp. A crying shame, but Damen made no attempt to stop him.

A chorus of "oooh's" was rising from kids on the set behind Laurent; one of the makeup artists wolf-whistled. Laurent flipped her off without looking, making her cackle.

"Come now, Damen, not in front of the children," he said, rather coldly—but his cheeks were pink, eyes dilated, and when he turned to face the man who was approaching them, he actually swayed a little on his feet.

Damen made no attempt to not feel smug about that.

"Is this gentleman bothering you, sir?" The approaching man wore a suit and sunglasses, and looked familiar to Damen; ah, Uncle Reggie's bodyguard from the beach, Lazar.

"Will you shoo him off if I say yes?" Laurent took another step away from Damen and sipped his coffee, prompting another grimace.

Lazar made a show of checking out Damen's biceps. "Let me just call for backup first. Maybe air support."

Laurent chuckled. "Fortunately, Lazar, it's not my body you're here to guard."

"True, sir, but since Jord is, er, handling my duties, I thought I might as well return the favor." Lazar jerked his head toward the other side of the set, where Jord, Laurent's shorter bodyguard, was bringing Aimeric a bottle of water.

Laurent rolled his eyes. "You are here to spy on me, and Jord is here to swoon over Amy. Is there no one without an ulterior motive?"

"Unlikely, sir. Shall I tell your uncle you discovered tongue today, sir, or leave it at a more general 'inappropriate public display'?"

"Sloppy and inappropriate public display should be sufficient."

Damen was still watching Jord and Aimeric. "So that's Jord's type, huh, young and haughty? Frightening lapse of judgment for a bodyguard."

"Oh, Aimeric's not so bad," Laurent said dismissively. "My uncle encourages the worst in him, just as he does with everyone. Mostly Aimeric is just screamingly jealous of the attention I get from Uncle. It's one of the great ironies of my life."

Jord stood so stiff and formal, Damen wouldn't have guessed he was talking to a crush, except for the redness in his cheeks. He said something to Aimeric, clapping him on the shoulder, and Aimeric looked at him hesitantly, suddenly bashful and soft, completely unlike himself. How about that.

"All right, folks, we've got an equipment issue," came a call from the set. "I'm calling it a night. Go get some sleep."

The children cheered; Damen hoped they had not actually been here all day, as he was pretty sure that was illegal, but clearly they'd been here longer than they wanted to. Laurent, whom Damen suspected of having a deep fondness for hats, hooked the panama fedora off Damen's head and dropped it onto his own at a rakish angle.

"Take me out to dinner?"

"I could eat," Damen said, and gave Laurent his arm to escort him out of the studio, pretending not to see the grinning production assistant recording them on his phone.

*

"This is where you want to get dinner?" Damen said, staring through the windshield at the flashing neon sign above the… restaurant couldn't be the right word. 'Greasy spoon' was closer.

"Are you too good for this establishment, Damen?" Laurent asked, straight-faced. "Does it violate your rockstar aesthetic? Offend your capitalist-princeling sensibilities?"

"Says the man whose apartment looks like the Baroque period threw up in a Khardashian's handbag."

Laurent, to his surprise, laughed merrily. "Oh, it's terrible, isn't it? And I've done what I could to make it worse. You should see Uncle's face any time he comes over—although now that I've changed the locks, I could probably do something about the décor…"

"Wait, is that what you meant when you said 'performative art'? All of that is just to irritate your uncle?"

"He chose the apartment. Decorated and furnished it himself. Bestowed it upon me, without permitting my input at any stage in the process. I couldn't bring myself to actually take a dump on the rug, but I figure cigarette butts are close."

Damen wasn't sure he'd ever seen Laurent in such an open, lighthearted mood. A good day at work, he supposed. "What would you actually want your apartment to look like, then?"

Laurent hesitated, shrugged. "Not that, anyway." He turned and hopped out of the car, and Damen hurried to follow.

Laurent had changed out of his catsuit, unfortunately, but the replacement outfit—grey button-up, black and grey scarf (despite the warm night), black leather jacket and, most importantly, black leather pants—gave Damen little enough to complain about. Something blue flashed as Laurent looked over his shoulder, impatient for Damen to catch up.

"You forgot an earring," Damen said, reaching out to rub the bright blue stones—sapphires? probably not real ones—dangling from his earlobe.

"Ah?" Laurent's fingers brushed his as he reached for the earring. "So I did. Well, it's not as if Frankie doesn't follow me home anyway."

"Yeah, you were pretty intense on set," Damen said, opening the diner door for them. "Do you always get so into your characters?"

"That's the point of acting."

There was a long bar inside, with red-cushioned stools, but Laurent steered them to a booth instead, pausing to brush crumbs out of the faux-leather seat. Springs groaned and poked at Damen's thighs as they sat.

"What can I get you gentlemen?" asked a young waitress, her perky service voice clearly failing her at the end of a long shift. She showed no sign of recognizing them. Damen supposed no one expected Laurent de Vere and Damen Vasileus to show up in their diner in the middle of the night. For the moment, they were just Mr. Messy Blond Bun With Scarf and Mr. White Shorts With Unnecessary Hat.

"Coffee, please," said Laurent.

"Me, too," Damen said. The waitress handed them slightly sticky laminated menus and bustled off. "You were saying something about the point of acting?" Damen nudged, looking over the menu.

"Yes." Laurent looked rather distracted by the menu options before him. "The point of acting is to be someone else. I learned that when I was thirteen. Prince Henry had his share of problems, but they weren't my problems."

Prince Henry, Laurent's character in The Golden Crown, his first big role—almost his first role of any kind. That couldn't have been long after his family died, Damen realized.

"Plus, Henry was a stunning and intolerable brat," Damen said. "That was probably fun to play with."

"Mm. I channeled a lot of things through Henry." Laurent was still gazing raptly at the menu. "What are you going to order?"

Damen considered. It was all very heavy food—bacon, butter, steak. For some reason people always expected him to go for that kind of thing, because he was big and muscular, but really he was quite a veggie fan. "Maybe one of these melts. You?"

"They have all-day breakfast!" Laurent sounded delighted. "Everything's fried or covered in cheese or both. Look at this! What won't they put on a hash brown?"

The waitress reappeared with their coffees, and to Damen's shock, Laurent proceeded to order hash browns with everything, a waffle with strawberries, sausage, cheesy eggs, grits, toast, and a large hot chocolate with whipped cream.

"And the fried mozzarella appetizer," he added.

"Sure thing. And you, sir?" the waitress asked, completely unfazed.

"Tuna melt," Damen said, "and a defibrillator for when my friend has a heart attack."

"We're fresh out of those. Interest you in a slice of pie instead?"

"Key lime," Damen sighed.

"Pie sounds excellent," Laurent said. "Apple for me."

"Coming right up."

Damen watched Laurent consideringly as he handed in the menus and sat back to fidget as they waited for their food. "Uncle keeps you on a short leash, huh? What, baked chicken and sprouts seven days a week?"

Tension crept into Laurent's jawline before he visibly willed it away. "It's nothing unusual. My looks are the tools of my trade. I also forgot to eat on set today, I often do."

It had to have been twelve hours since he'd eaten, then, or even fourteen. "You're going to make yourself sick, dumping all this grease into your system."

"How fortunate that you have a hat for me to vomit into."

Damen set the hat carefully out of Laurent's reach. "Barfing man in diner: a role I'd rather you didn't play."

Laurent laughed, adding sugar and creamer to his coffee. "No, I'd never play anything so close to my real life. I want to act, not just… be filmed. I prefer my characters to be as different from me as possible."

"Isn't it easier to play characters you have more in common with?"

"Maybe for some actors. Not for me." More creamer, more sugar; his coffee was barely beige. "The point is to… disappear. To be someone else. I can't disappear into myself."

Damen opened his mouth, perhaps to point out how sad and disturbing that was, but the first wave of Laurent's food had just arrived. Instead of speaking, Damen was reduced to open-mouthed staring. It was like watching a school of piranhas tear into a basket of fried mozzarella. Damen reached for one of the cheese sticks, wondering if Laurent would object—or bite his hand—but instead he motioned for Damen to take it.

"Try it, it's amazing," he said through a full mouth.

It was amazing. Damen ate a second one, and then they were gone.

"But enough about me, darling," Laurent said, wiping his mouth delicately. "Tell me about your day."

"My day," Damen grumbled, belatedly noticing the delivery of his tuna melt and taking a bite. "My day was frustrating. Lots of lawyers. My former bandmates are out for blood, and my own legal team is a little frustrated that I'm… not." Not to mention he'd spent most of the 'negotiations' struggling to tear his eyes away from Jokaste's swollen belly. She'd pretended not to notice.

"And why aren't you out for blood?"         

Damen spread his hands, annoyed. Why did no one seem to understand this? "He's my brother. And she's my…"

"What?" Laurent cocked his head. "What is she to you, now?"

"I don't know. But I can't pretend she's not something."

Laurent nodded thoughtfully, digging into his scrambled eggs. "And she—they—are fighting the terms of whatever contract you all had?"

Damen winced. "We didn't… really have a contract… Don't look at me like that!"

"You're like a child," Laurent said, rubbing his temple as if Damen were giving him a headache. "What did you do, pinky-swear?"

"It was my brother and the woman I loved! Why would we need a contract?"

"I doubt your label accepted pinky-swears."

"No, of course not. We have a contract with them. But between the three of us, internally, things are a lot less clear." Damen took an aggressive bite from his tuna melt.

"As anyone could have told you they would be. Idiot."

"It's not idiotic to trust your family."

Laurent looked at him for a long, almost expressionless moment. "Genetic similarity is not the same thing as love."

Damen made a noncommittal noise. He reached his fork across the table and snagged a bit of Laurent's strawberry-topped waffle. "Mmm. Wow, that's really good."

"It's so kind of you to test my food for me."

"You're so welcome, Laurent, and you'll be glad to know the strawberries are definitely not poisoned. Here." He plucked one off the top of the waffle, complete with its little bed of whipped cream, and lifted it toward Laurent's mouth.

Something like a smile danced at the corners of Laurent's mouth; he rolled his eyes, but leaned forward and took the strawberry from Damen's fingers, lips just barely brushing Damen's skin. Which was all kinds of distracting.

Though not quite enough to keep them from seeing a flash go off across the street.

"Ugh, really?" Damen said, while Laurent peered narrow-eyed into the darkness.

"It's those same ones security kicked off the set earlier," Laurent said. "Must have waited for us."

Perhaps emboldened by the knowledge that they'd already been made, two figures darted across the street and directly up to the diner window, cameras clicking away. One looked Damen right in the eye and gave him a cheery thumbs-up, gesturing toward Laurent as if urging him to go on back to what he was doing. Damen gave him the finger.

"For the record, I did not summon these," Laurent said casually. "I was depending on techs and extras with cell phones."

"Great, so they're even less likely to—what are you doing?"

"Packing up to go." Laurent looked up from where he was wrapping sausages and toast in napkins. "Help yourself, I'm clearly not going to finish." He stuffed fully half the waffle into his mouth and reached for the hot chocolate to wash it down.

Bemused, Damen took another mouthful of waffle. "We could get a to-go box…"

"Too unwieldy." Laurent stuffed the napkin-wrapped tidbits in his jacket pockets and drained the hot chocolate, leaving a tiny dab of whipped cream on the tip of his nose. Then, counting off a considerable stack of bills onto the table, he arched an eyebrow at Damen, his smile mischievous. "Are you ready for a game of hide and seek?"

 

They passed through a storage room and out the back door of the diner before the paparazzi could react, but Damen could hear cursing and scuffing of shoes around the corner even as the door closed behind them. It wouldn't take the paps long to catch up. Damen followed Laurent's lead, dashing down one alley that crossed with another—

—and then dead-ended.

"They saw us turn down this way, Laurent—Laurent!"

Laurent, he saw with disbelief, was climbing the fire escape of the dingy little shop beside them. "Come on, then!" he hissed down at Damen. "Or do you think the weight of your massive thews would break it?"

"Not if it's already supporting your massive ego," Damen shot back, and threw himself up onto the fire escape after him.

He had just caught up with Laurent on a landing when the paps turned the corner into the dead-end alley. They both froze, Laurent's eyes dancing, Damen holding his breath.

"Didn't they come this way? I thought I saw them!"

"No, I definitely saw them, it had to have been right here."

One photographer pulled out a flashlight with a beam that could have sent messages to outer space. It swept over walls and trash cans and the edge of the fire escape—

With a surge of alarm, Damen dragged Laurent out of the path of the light, half-consciously pulling him tight to his chest.

"Hey, maybe they squeezed through here?"

The flashlight beam swung around to a missing plank in the fence blocking off the alley. "De Vere, maybe, but the other guy?"

"Yeah, you're right, that giant animal's not getting through anything smaller than a garage door."

Laurent was shaking against Damen's chest—with laughter, he realized, tiny silent gasps that had the entire fire escape rattling right on the edge of audibility.

"Shhh!"

"Giant… animal…"

"Shhh!"

"They must have gone the other way," said one of the exasperated paps, and they ran out of the alley.

Damen barely had time to think that he really ought to stop holding Laurent against his chest now before Laurent swarmed past him up the rest of the fire escape.

"Laurent? They've gone away, why are you still…" Damen followed him onto the roof, where they could see the paparazzi's flashlight beam bouncing around just below them.

"That wasn't much of a game," Laurent said, and picked up an empty paint can.

"Laurent—"

And dropped it over the side, where it landed with a catastrophic shock of noise.

Paparazzi jumped, swore, clutched their chests; one fell on his butt. And pointed up at them.

"Look! They're on the roof!"

They ran.

 

They kept to the rooftops for a while, leaping across multi-story chasms that made Damen's heart stutter, their pursuers keeping pace from the street but never given enough time to climb up after them. Laurent exchanged taunts and obscene gestures with them, even posing for a photograph against the white wall of a rooftop shed, before apparently making up his mind to lose them in earnest. Damen's hat flew off somewhere along the way, which Laurent was definitely going to pay to replace. He was sorely tempted to throw the man over his shoulder and haul him back to the car. Did Laurent have a destination in mind? Did he even know where they were? Damen didn't.

"I think we've shaken them off," Laurent said at last.

Damen shook his head. "Not for long. They're right down there."

"Ah?" Laurent narrowed his eyes, then led the way unexpectedly down another fire escape to the ground and opened a side door. "Time for a change of venue, then."

"Here? What is this… place..."

It was a strip club, and not an upscale one. Beneath the dim purple light, everything was dingy and battered, and no one seemed to have been watching the door where they came in. The crowd was thick and loud, though, so the place had to be doing something right. The music was terrible, in Damen's professional opinion, but the girls on the stages and tables were giving it their all, and a fine job they were doing of it.

"Let's find a seat." Laurent had to half-shout over the music, yet he still sounded as casual and unconcerned as if they had stepped into his grandmother's parlor. He grabbed Damen's hand and pulled him through the crowd toward one of the few empty booths.

Damen glanced behind them, and saw the side door open, their pursuers' heads poking in.

"Laurent," he called, and pointed.

Laurent slapped Damen's hand down with a hiss, then shoved him into the nearest empty seat and climbed into his lap.

Damen could do nothing but stare as Laurent whipped off his jacket and shirt, leaving only the scarf to obscure the obvious difference between himself and the other dancers. The movement dislodged his hair from its precarious bun, and he ran his hands through it, arms over his head, letting hair fall through his fingers.

Damen had the dim idea of asking what was going on, but words had completely deserted him.

Laurent had already found the beat of the music—music that seemed a lot less terrible with Laurent dancing to it. The sway of his hips worked its way through his whole body, slow and graceful, reminding Damen of a mermaid somehow. The sapphire earring swayed too, twinkling in the lurid light, completely arresting for reasons Damen couldn't articulate.

Laurent's eyes were closed, as if he were lost in the music, even as he bent to run his hands up and down Damen's chest, arms, and the sides of his face, still moving with the music, up and down, side to side. Every bit of Damen's skin was alive and tingling and he knew he probably looked like he'd been whacked with a two-by-four. His hands slid up Laurent's thighs to his waist—

And Laurent slapped them away, pinning them to the seat on either side. "Don't touch me," he said in a voice like the crack of a whip, his eyes open now and locked with Damen's.

Damen swallowed. "Okay," he managed, barely breathing.

Slowly, Laurent trailed his fingers back up Damen's arms, watching him mistrustfully. Damen was sorely tempted to move his hands, just so Laurent would pin them down again—but Laurent didn't look to be joking around about this. He kept his hands down.

Laurent leaned in closer, still watching Damen's eyes, and wrapped his arms around Damen's neck. Damen could feel Laurent's breath on his face, and then Laurent slid upward, his throat and collarbone a mesmerizing expanse of creamy skin scant inches away, ready to be kissed or bitten—

"They're gone," Laurent said, coming down again to rest his weight on Damen's thighs, which were happy to take it.

"Who?" Damen said, before remembering—the paparazzi.

Laurent shot him an exasperated look, earring swinging. "Try to think with your big head, Damen."

"You'll have to be more specific," Damen said with a crooked smile.

Laurent rolled his eyes and pulled him to his feet. Around them, several club attendees were looking at them oddly; Laurent paid them no attention whatsoever as he put his jacket back on over his bare chest.

"Say, can I get one of those dances?" a nearby man called.

"You can't afford me," Laurent replied, and stalked toward the front door of the club.

Outside, they took perhaps twenty photographer-free steps in the direction of the diner and Damen's car, before the rain began.

*

"My place is closest," Damen said as the doors of the SUV finally closed between them and the rain. Laurent in the passenger seat, wet hands struggling with the seatbelt, was as water-sleak as a seal; Damen didn't figure it looked as good on him. He dashed water-logged curls out of his eyes and cranked the car.

"Your place, then," Laurent said, flinching and turning off the air conditioner that had switched on with the engine. "Before we both die of pneumonia."

It was a silent drive; conversation would have taken too much effort, over the pounding rain, and Laurent's earlier high spirits seemed to have been, well, dampened. Damen had had worse silences, though. This one didn't teem with words and the debate over whether to say them; it just sat quietly in the car with them, catching its breath.

The silence broke when they stepped out of the elevator into Damen's condo.

"This is nice," was the only thing Laurent said, but he was looking around the place like Dorothy stepping into Oz.

The walls were almost entirely glass, dark now and covered in rain, but Damen could still see city lights through the waves and ripples. Turning on the overhead lights would destroy that, blocking the view with their own reflections, but there was enough ambient light coming in from the bedroom to make out the rest of the room; square white couches, hard-angled steel lamps, glass tables, the metal joists that divided the glass walls like frames.

"I like it," Laurent said after a minute, "a lot. It's very… clean."

"It has to be," Damen said, moving off toward the bedroom. "The slightest bit of clutter throws off the whole aesthetic. But that's probably good for me."

"Forces you to clean up after yourself?"

"Forces me to hire a cleaning service," Damen said with a grin. "The shower's this way. You can go first."

"That wall isn't glass, I hope."

"What, you don't want the entire city of New York to see your naked backside? You know you'll end up doing a nude scene eventually."

"I will not," Laurent said emphatically, but with little heat, since the bathroom was now visible—an interior room with four solid walls.

"Towels are in that cabinet. Toss me one, I'll dry off a bit before I cause a slip hazard."

With Laurent closed into the bathroom and the shower running, Damen took off his sopping clothes, dried off with the towel, and changed into dry sweatpants and a tank top. Then, trying to avoid his own cold, wet footprints, he padded into the kitchen to make hot chocolate. Apparently Laurent liked that, and they could both stand to have something warm.

Assuming he had hot chocolate somewhere. And two clean mugs. And hadn't he bought whipped cream sometime? Was the milk still good?

He had, in fact, located a box of Swiss Miss and two probably-clean mugs (one was definitely clean, he'd give Laurent that one) and had just about decided that the milk smelled okay when he heard Laurent's footsteps enter the kitchen. He turned around.

Laurent was flushed from the shower, damp-haired and clean-smelling, and wearing nothing but a white V-neck sweater of Damen's, barely mid-thigh and threatening to fall off one shoulder.

Damen dropped the milk.

"Oh, crap—"

"I didn't mean to startle you—"

"No, it's fine, everything's fine—"

"I think you're just spreading it around." Trying not to laugh, Laurent put a hand on Damen's arm, bringing him to stillness. "I'll clean this up if you'll go find me some pants. I'm not putting wet leather back on."

No. Denied. No pants for you. Damen cleared his throat. "Sure thing. There's paper towels right there. I'll—I'll be right back."

When he did come back, bearing a pair of elastic-waist yoga pants that might not fall off Laurent's smaller hips, it was to find Laurent on his knees on the kitchen floor, getting up the last of the milk. The sweater was even shorter in that position. Damen closed his eyes and prayed for strength.

"There." Laurent got to his feet. "It's still going to be a sticky disaster until you take some kind of cleaning fluid to it, but it's not a puddle everywhere."

Unlike me. "Thanks. You go put these on and I'll finish making the cocoa. With water, I guess."

Cocoa accomplished, he found Laurent sitting outside, of all places. The broad stone balcony was well-shielded from rain, if still chilly, and Laurent was curled on the wicker-frame couch with a lantern flickering warm rosy light from the table beside him. It was some kind of battery-powered thing left over from a party, but it still made for a nice ambience.

"Let me get us a blanket," Damen said, setting both mugs on the table. When he came back from pulling the top blanket straight off of his bed, Laurent was sipping his cocoa and staring into the distance.

"The idea was to warm up, you know," Damen said, tucking the blanket around them both. "Not sit in the cold with wet hair."

Laurent blinked and shook his head, reverie breaking. "This is an astonishing view. I couldn't pass it up."

"Can you pass up hypothermia?" Damen reached around behind Laurent for his own mug.

Laurent just smiled at him, a soft expression that Damen wasn't sure he'd seen on him before, and leaned against his shoulder, knees drawn up to his chest.

For a few surprisingly companionable minutes, they just watched the rain on the Hudson River, their sheltered corner growing slowly warmer in the light of the fake lantern.

"You should google yourself," Laurent said eventually.

"Is this the new euphemism?"

Laurent dug an elbow into his side. "Do it."

"Okay…" Damen set aside his almost-empty mug and pulled out his phone.

"Sort the results by most recent. There, see it?"

Damen shook his head. "News travels fast." There were already four sites of varying respectability running the newest photos of himself and Laurent. "'Akielos lead singer visits new honey on set,'" he read aloud. "'Laurent keeping Damen on tight leash? Rockstar delivers coffee to set of Freaks.' I like this one—'Getting their Freak on!' Oh, then they had to get homophobic with it."

"I've seen worse."

"I don't doubt it. I suggest you don't go looking for it, though. There's nothing of value down that hole." Damen swiped past the photos of their liplock and found one where they were simply standing together, talking to Lazar. "Huh."

"What?"

"Just… we look happy."

The words were impulsive and ill-thought-out, but Laurent remained relaxed beside him. After a very long pause, Laurent said, "We do."

Another long silence. Laurent set aside his empty mug and pulled out his napkin-wrapped leftovers from the diner. Where had he been keeping those?

"Were you and Jokaste happy?"

Damen almost asked him to repeat himself, the words were so low and quiet. But he didn't really want to hear the question again. It took him several minutes to decide what, and whether, to answer.

"I thought we were," he said at last. "At the time. Looking back… maybe not. Obviously something was going on that I didn't know about."

"Do you miss her?"

A long, painful breath. "Not as much as I thought I would." Time for a subject change. "Speaking of her, um. Day after tomorrow is the monthly Vasileus family dinner. Jo and Kas are both going to be there. My dad and stepmother are determined it's going to be… I don't know. That we're all going to make nice and pretend none of us are actively stabbing each other in the back."

Laurent let out a low whistle. "Any chance you can get conveniently ill? Scarlet fever, perhaps, or an emergency appendectomy."

"I wish," Damen said with a huff of laughter. "But I'm reluctant to cede them the territory. He's my father, too, and I want to eat dinner with him."

"I'm glad to hear you're willing to fight back for something."

"Did you miss the lawyers I've been complaining about? If I weren't fighting them for Akielos, I'd be having some much more restful brunches." He cleared his throat. "Anyway, I'm allowed to bring a plus-one."

Laurent went very still next to him. "Oh. Well, that's… only fair. Part of the deal was making Jokaste jealous."

Which she certainly would be, but Damen was startled to realize he hadn't thought of that at all. He'd only been thinking that he would like to have someone on his side, someone looking out for him. And that he trusted Laurent to be that person.

"So yes, of course I'll go with you."

"Thank you," Damen said. "Can I have some of that sausage?"

"Mooch," Laurent said, and held out half of it. He went very still again when Damen simply leaned forward and ate it out of Laurent's hand.

"Speaking of family," Damen said, "have you heard from Herode?"

"Yes, in fact. Nothing of consequence—the investigation is ongoing, they're looking for an apartment while they rebuild the house, that sort of thing—but it's… nice to hear from him."

Damen smiled, relieved. Now that Herode had his godson back in his life, he looked unlikely to let him get away. Good.

Laurent had opened his mouth to say something else, but a burst of light from beneath the blanket cut him off. Laurent drew out his phone, its buzz inaudible over the rain. On the screen was the word Uncle, with no picture.

Laurent immediately turned to a marble statue of a man, expressionless, only a flicker of throat as he swallowed betraying any feeling.

Do not imagine, Damianos, that you understand anything about my family, Laurent had said once. And for heaven's sake, don't trust my uncle. The uncle who had, failing some other explanation, lied to Laurent about whether Herode made any effort to contact his orphaned godson.

Laurent shouldn't look like he was facing the gallows when a supposedly loving relation called him.

Damen pulled the phone gently from his hand, giving him plenty of time to protest, and pressed Ignore.

"It could be an emergency," Laurent said faintly. "Something with Nicaise."

"Then he'll leave a message."

They waited. No message.

Laurent's marble body slowly returned to flesh, and he relaxed against Damen's side. Damen dared to slip an arm around his shoulders, which he permitted without comment. Damen's hand came to rest against the gold bracelet on Laurent's wrist.

"Sing something," Laurent said.

"And what would my lord like to hear?" Damen said, amused.

"The cheesiest, most shamelessly sentimental song you know."

"Hmm, I have quite a catalog of those." Damen thought a moment, fingers brushing absently back and forth along Laurent's wrist, before letting his voice out, soft and undecorated.

"When you're weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes, I'll dry them all
I'm on your side, oh, when times get rough
And friends just can't be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down…"

Damen had performed for sold-out stadiums of screaming people. He'd had women of all ages throw their underwear on stage, seen grown men trample each other for his autograph. Critics had described his voice as 'caramel by candlelight,' 'the power of a rampaging bull, restrained just for you,' and 'the warm purr of your dad's lullabies as sung by that boy your parents warned you about.' He wasn't sure Akielos had ever given a concert where no one fainted.

Laurent murmured "Adequate," snuggling in closer to Damen's side to watch the rain, and he thought it might be his favorite audience reaction of all time.

Chapter Text

Laurent de Vere's Magical Softer Side? Damen Vasileus Shares Video of His Boyfriend Comforting Crying Child

A little girl named Brittany is going viral this week after getting a glimpse of the softer side of actor Laurent de Vere. More often in the news lately for his feuds with co-stars, de Vere is shown comforting and distracting the crying child in a video posted by Akielos frontman Damen Vasileus.

"Friends lost their home to a fire," Vasileus wrote alongside the video, in which de Vere teaches the little girl a magic trick. "Sweet Laurent helping them clean up, comforting little Brittany."

                                                   

[3.3m views – 8,212 comments]

The child, shown in what seems to be the wreckage of her family home, has not been identified beyond her first name. "Her family is having a terrible time and the last thing I want is to violate their privacy," said Vasileus, in response to fans' requests. When fans asked for a way to donate to the family, he set up a gofundme, which he has since stated will be donated to the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign per the family's wishes.

Vasileus and de Vere, dating since the beginning of the month, have been making frequent appearances in each other's social media.

—ET Online, 5/18/17

*

Life goes up and life goes down
But some things stay the same
When you share blood, a past, a home
A band, a life, a name
There's some things solid in this world
Much sturdier than fame
The people who will guard your back
And help you play the game

—"Brothers in Arms" from the Warrior EP by Akielos

 

It was always a little too easy to get carried away during phone interviews. Somehow, when Damen was in the safety of his own home talking to a disembodied voice, it was hard to remember that everything he said was going to be in print (or pixels) all over the world the next day.

Maybe that wasn't such a bad thing when the woman from Hollywood Reporter asked about the band; he'd probably been too tight-lipped about all that so far. "When three people's lives have been as intertwined as mine, Jo's, and Kastor's, it takes a while to sort everything out," was surely a diplomatic enough thing to say. "Akielos is important to all of us; no one wants to let it go, but too much has happened for us to continue performing together. So it's a tough situation."

"Does the baby make it tougher?" asked the interviewer.

"I'm not prepared to make any kind of statement on that topic," Damen said firmly.

She gave a resigned sort of huff, then perked up again. "Well, what about Laurent de Vere? Is he making things more complicated?"

"Not at all. Laurent's been great. I don't know what I'd do without him." They were automatic words, the kind of thing he'd rehearsed saying to keep the charade going. It felt a little gross leaving his mouth. He cast around in his mind for something true to say, something real. "I know the way he comes across to people, but he's—he's actually very sweet."

"Sweet, huh? I always heard you preferred spicy."

"Well, he's that, too." Damen laughed, and shivered a little as he remembered a sapphire earring swaying, Laurent dancing in his lap. "I mean, have you seen him? In person, I mean; the screen doesn't even do him justice. We're talking the kind of beauty men would clash swords and burn cities for."

"How poetic!" And quotable, Damen could practically hear her say, and wondered if he was laying it on a little thick.

"Hazards of dating a songwriter," he said, and managed to bring the interview to a close.

*

"Wait, you're taking him to the family dinner? For the love of—Why are you even going to the family dinner?" Nikandros had to shout over the sound of the gym shower. "You could barely handle running into Jo and Kas at the Met and now you're going to spend a whole evening at the same table?"

Damen turned to admire his new bruises in the mirror; Nikandros hadn't pulled his punches in the boxing ring. Damen would have kicked him in the nuts if he tried. "We have to figure out how to coexist sometime, Nik."

"No. You don't." Nikandros shut off the water. "When one's brother poaches one's fiancee, he gives up any right to coexist with one in any way. Likewise one's fiancee, having left one for one's brother, cannot expect to ever again inhabit the same room—"

"Would you stop calling me 'one'?"

"You're right, you are definitely Number Two in this situation, in every possible meaning of the term."

"Poop jokes. That's mature."

Nikandros shoved the shower curtain open with a shriek of metal rings and stomped past Damen to his locker. "Well you know what, Damen, one doesn't have to be mature all the time. Sometimes one has every right to scream and fight and refuse to make nice with the people who have hurt and are still hurting him."

"Nik…" Damen ran his hands through his wet curls. "My dad's expecting his first grandchild. He wants to celebrate that. He deserves to celebrate that. And he told me I didn't have to come, but I want to. I'm not going to let them bully me out of my own family."

Nikandros was quiet, but clearly working up to saying more, as he toweled off and started dressing. "You are going into a lion's den, Damen. Not one of them is truly going to be on your side, not even your dad, not this time."

"I know. That's why I'm taking Laurent." He threw a dirty sock at Nik. "Stop with the look. You don't know him."

"Do you? I mean it. Do you have any idea what kind of reputation this guy has? I'm pretty sure he has to sleep under a heat lamp."

"His reputation is largely managed by his uncle, and there's… weirdness going on there."

"Weirdness? What do you mean by that?"

"I don't know. But frankly, dude, if I'm picking up on it, it must be pretty intense."

"…Point."

"And you know what, all else aside, we have an arrangement, and he has no reason to switch sides on me." Damen pulled a shirt over his head, realized it was inside out, took it off again. "So he's coming to dinner, and he's going to be my moral support when Kas does his best to skewer me. Or were you wanting to come instead?"

Nikandros grimaced. "If you needed me, man, you know I'd be there for you. But I can't promise your brother wouldn't come away with a broken nose."

"Not the drama I need. Thanks for the offer, though."

Nikandros, now dressed though with water still sparkling in his beard, stepped closer and gently punched Damen in the shoulder. "Hey, I'm happy to wade in and screw up your life any time, but you don't usually need my help. How's that new material coming?"

"Not as fast as you want it, I'm sure, but it's coming," Damen shrugged. He'd actually managed to turn The Emperor's Beck and Call into something that wouldn't be absurd on an album, and he had pieces of several other things, though it was hard to know whether all, or any, of them would coalesce into full songs. "It's hard to focus sometimes, you know?" The condo was so empty…

"Especially when you're spending all your time with a new boyfriend."

Damen felt himself smile. "No, he's… if anything, he's helping. Giving me something else to think about."

"The fake boyfriend is the new muse." Nikandros raised his hands, brushing off Damen's protests. "Hey, whatever works. I hope it doesn't bite you in the butt, that's all."

"We haven't tried that sort of thing yet."

"You're disgusting, Damen Vasileus." Nik smacked Damen in the face with his wet towel, and left the locker room.

*

When his interview ran the next day, Damen was startled to see himself quoted as saying Laurent had "the kind of body men would clash swords and burn cities for." That was a bit… less poetic, in his opinion. But it was probably a genuine mishearing, not worth making a fuss over.

Or so he thought, until he got a call from Laurent.

"I don't appreciate having my legs spread for the entire readership of Hollywood Reporter," Laurent spat without so much as a hello.

"What?"

"When does the auction for my virginity begin? Am I to be permitted to bid?"

"Whoa, whoa, Laurent!" Damen put aside the guitar he'd been noodling around on. "First of all, she misheard me—it was supposed to be beauty, not body, which is at least a little classier—"

"Oh, I'm sure you would never sell me cheaply."

"I didn't sell you at all! It was a compliment!"

"Perhaps some people find it flattering to have every tabloid-reader in the country paw over their body in their minds. I don't."

"Laurent—"

"Perhaps some people don't mind the implication that they are a prize to be fought over and handed off to the winner. I don't."

"I didn't mean it that way!"

"If I permit you to see me, touch me, give you access to my privacy in any way, that is hardly permission for you to share that access with a thousand of your closest friends!"

"Laurent, please!" Damen drew breath to apologize, or at least, he hoped that's what was about to come out his mouth. He had to admit that the words 'you're an actor, people objectify you all the time, you put your own body on display as a career choice' were also churning around in his brain. But whether Laurent was being irrational right now wasn't the point; he obviously felt hurt and betrayed by what Damen had said, and apologizing for that had to be the next step.

But it was too late. The phone at his ear gave a little disconnect chime as Laurent hung up on him.

Laurent didn't respond to texts or calls the rest of the day, not even when Damen asked if he was still coming to the family dinner that night. Finally Damen just texted him the address of the restaurant and said he hoped he'd see him soon.

*

Damen sat in his car outside the restaurant, gathering his nerve. Ios was a jewel in his father's crown, widely regarded as one of the finest Mediterranean restaurants in the world, and a frequent choice for their family dinners. Damen had always loved it almost as much as his father did, but today, looking up at the grand white columns and amber lights around the entrance, it felt strangely like infiltrating an enemy fort. The lion's den, Nikandros had called it.

He hadn't spoken to his brother or Jokaste in person, much, since everything went down. Most communication had gone through lawyers, or Nik, or his father… but there was no getting away from them now.

The valet waiting to take his car was beginning to look uncomfortable. Damen took one last moment to check his phone; no word from Laurent. He got out and let the valet take his car.

"Good evening, sir! Right this way," the hostess said as soon as he entered—all the staff knew the family by now—and led him through the maze of potted olive trees, gigantic clay jugs, chunks of stone masonry, and white-clothed tables, past the aquarium and up the stairs to the private dining room they'd reserved.

Hushed conversations, clinking dishes and the faint strains of traditional Greek music drifted up to the balcony where their table sat, stretching out rather too long for six people. Except for Laurent, he was the last to arrive; either that, or Laurent's absence, or who knew what else, made Damen's stepmother's mouth thin as she glanced up at him. She was seated at Theo's right hand, with Kastor beside her, and then Jo. The other side of the table was empty, apparently left for Damen and Laurent.

It was Jokaste that Damen's eyes snagged on as he walked toward his seat. She wore a white cocktail dress that shimmered with crystals, hair loose and flowing; she had gained just enough weight to glow like some kind of fertility goddess. She smiled at him, tiny and warm and a little rueful. Sorry about all this, the smile seemed to say. As if the situation were an inconvenience that she would make up to him later. Beside her, Kastor did not smile, only looked balefully at Damen through his eyelashes—the same sulky expression Damen had seen a hundred times, when Kastor had been caught doing something wrong and was about to double down on his mistake instead of learning from it. He put a hand in Jokaste's lap, grabbing either her hand or her thigh; she turned to him with a scolding yet indulgent smile, as if to a misbehaving puppy.

It was all Damen could do not to turn and leave the room. He forced himself to take a seat instead, at his father's left hand.

"Weren't you bringing a friend, Damen?" Minnie said.

"Boyfriend," Damen corrected. They'd been through this already when he was dating Erasmus; his stepmother would never be so gauche as to openly reject his orientation, but she certainly did her best to minimize and ignore it. He suspected it was more that she disapproved generally of everything Damen did than that she had any actual feelings about homosexuality. Still, he wondered what she would say about the 'experimental' shenanigans Kastor had gotten up to in college. "Laurent's… been delayed. He's not sure if he'll be able to make it after all. He said not to wait on him." He opened his menu, desperate for something to look at, but his father touched his arm.

"I'm so glad you could make it, son. Kastor was just telling us about, er…" It seemed to occur to Theo belatedly that whatever Kastor had been saying was not something Damen would want to hear. What, after all, could they talk about? The wedding? The baby? The band?

"We were complaining about the housing market," Jokaste said smoothly, "in time-honored New Yorker fashion. But that's a tired old subject. Damen, I hear you got to visit a movie set recently. Was that interesting?"

Was Jokaste following him in the tabloids? Damen wasn't sure what to make of that idea. But he managed to come up with a few remarks about the filming, which, after all, had been interesting to watch. Some zombie-form of a conversation limped into being.

And then the hostess brought someone else to the door.

Damen, glancing up in wild hope, had a moment's extreme confusion at the appearance of a wild-haired, wild-bearded old man instead of Laurent. Uncle Mack.

"And here we all are!" Uncle Mack boomed, grinning like a Cheshire cat, then turned to the hostess who had escorted him. "Get us started with some griva, won't you, dear? I think we're all going to need it."

"Of course, sir," she said with an uncertain look at Theo, and hurried off.

"Uncle Makedon," Theo said as neutrally as he could seem to manage. "What a surprise."

Uncle Mack waved a hand. "Yes, I know I seldom make it to these shindigs, but you did say I had a standing invitation. Ah, it's so good to see everyone!" He plopped into the seat beside Damen.

"Begging your pardon, sir," Damen said. "That's my boyfriend's seat. You'll need to move down one."

Uncle Mack's eyebrows rose, but he moved down. "Oh, your boyfriend is coming too! You see, Theo, I couldn't miss this dinner for the world."

Theo rubbed at his temple without replying. Damen wasn't sure how to feel, personally; Uncle Mack treating his relatives' lives like a soap opera wasn't exactly new, and at least with him here, a certain amount of liveliness was assured. If Laurent did come, he realized with a small sliver of glee, he was going to hate Uncle Mack.

A waiter arrived with glasses and a bottle of griva, the traditional reeking rotgut that no one actually liked except Makedon. "Are we still waiting on anyone, Mr. Vasileus, or would you like to order?"

"We should wait a few minutes for Mr. de Vere."

"If he deigns to show his face," Minnie muttered.

Damen set down his menu a bit more forcefully than he intended. "Laurent is coming as a favor to me, Minnie. I'll thank you to treat him with all the courtesy due to a guest."

"Of course, Damianos," Minnie said with a tight smile. "There's just… so many guests tonight. I suppose I was expecting a smaller family gathering." Her eyes flicked to Uncle Mack—and then Jokaste.

Well. So his stepmother wasn't a fan of Jo and Kastor's relationship either. Not that she'd been especially warm to Jo when she was Damen's fiancee, but she'd tolerated her without particular malice. Damen would have liked to believe Minnie disliked Jokaste for hurting him, but it was more likely that she simply didn't think Jo was good enough for her darling baby.

"So it's a boyfriend for Damen now," Uncle Mack said. "Jokaste, whatever did you do to put our boy here off women? Other than the complete and utter betrayal thing." He poured himself a full glass of griva.

Jokaste looked down at her menu, cheeks burning. Kastor put an arm around her.

"Old man, you'd better stay out of things that don't concern you," Kastor growled.

"Kastor," Theo said warningly.

"What, he gets to say whatever he wants but I have to be polite?"

Why had Damen come to this dinner? Would it really be the end of the world if he crawled under the table and escaped?

"Mr. de Vere, sir," said the hostess at the doorway, and everyone stopped talking and looked up.

"Laurent. There you are." Damen felt a wash of warm relief—that Laurent had forgiven him, to some extent at least, and that he now had an ally on the premises. He stood and pulled Laurent's chair out for him.

"Here I am." Laurent was usually dressed to the nines, but tonight he'd outdone himself. Damen had told him to expect 'casual elegant, heavy on the elegant' and worried about how (accurately) stuffy that made his family sound. Now he felt underdressed, not because Laurent looked any more formal than he did—Laurent hadn't even worn a jacket—he simply looked better. Damen couldn't have named a brand for his shoes or charcoal-gray trousers, but they carried that intangible aura of extreme quality, and his silk shirt, rich blue with a pattern of gold fleur-de-lis, was fancier than anything Damen owned. It complemented the gold bracelet nicely. Around his neck was something closer to a cravat than a tie, bordered in gold, and his long hair was styled in that perfect balance of sleek and soft and wind-tossed, like—well, like a movie star.

Instead of taking the proffered seat, Laurent stepped into Damen's space as easily as if he lived there, one casually possessive hand on his chest, and gave him a kiss, a little too long and intense to pass as mere affectionate greeting. Damen felt his face heat, and tried not to swallow audibly as Laurent pulled back and took his seat.

"My apologies for the delay," he said airily, and made no further excuse, giving the room a cool once-over that made Kastor's face darken and Minnie's mouth stiffen. Jokaste, to Damen's intense pleasure, looked extremely unhappy indeed.

"No worries, Laurent, we're just happy you could make it," Damen said. "Allow me to introduce my father, Theo Vasileus; my stepmother; my uncle Makedon; and of course my brother Kastor and… his fiancee, Jokaste White."

"A pleasure," Laurent said, rising to shake hands all around. "I've heard so much about you all." His smile was polished and charming, and fell noticeably off his face when he got to Kastor and Jo.

"As we have about you," Jokaste murmured, "assuming we've been reading the papers."

"Didn't hear a word from Damen himself on that subject," Theo said, a little grumpily, "until he asked to bring you to dinner. I guess a father has to get used to his sons going out on their own, making their own choices." It was Kastor he glanced at then, not Damen.

The waiter had reappeared. "What can I get everyone to drink?"

A smattering of orders—tea, soda, a Shirley Temple for pregnant Jo and water with lemon for Laurent. Which was just unnecessarily austere, even for an underage non-drinker, but Damen found it oddly endearing.

"How old are you, anyway? Twelve?" Kastor said to Laurent as soon as the waiter had gone. "I didn't peg Damen for that type, but I guess you never can tell."

Laurent's face went… oddly white, at that, a stronger reaction than the stupid comment called for.

"I mean, you sure you don't want chocolate milk? They might even bring you some crayons," Kastor continued.

"He's twenty years old," Damen began, but Laurent cut him off.

"It's good that you're already thinking like a father, Kastor. How lucky for you that you look the part, too. The wrinkles, the gray hair—very distinguished."

Kastor looked like he'd been kicked in the stomach. He reached up to touch his hair, caught himself and put his hand down. Jokaste was either eating her napkin or trying very hard not to laugh.

Laurent picked up his menu, visibly dropping Kastor from his attention. "What can you recommend for me, Damen? Since a tiny child like me can't be expected to order for myself."

"The cheese-stuffed zucchini flowers are a favorite of mine," Damen answered, pointing it out on the menu. Minnie was glaring at Laurent; Damen was a little afraid to glance at his father's reaction.

Uncle Mack looked vastly entertained, draining his glass of griva and topping it up again. Once everyone had ordered and the waiter gone away, Mack reached for the other glasses as well. "A toast! Come, everyone, toast!"

Theo's face brightened. "Yes, a toast! We have a lot to celebrate at this gathering. New, uh—new love in the lives of both my sons, and of course, the baby."

"I won't be drinking," Jokaste murmured.

"Of course, of course," Theo said. "Raise your glass all the same. Everyone, raise your glass! Sorry about the griva, but after all, it is tradition!"

Damen cleared his throat awkwardly, glancing at Laurent. He doesn't drink wasn't likely to go over well with his father. They might have better luck with He's underage, but Theo had been sneaking Damen griva and beer since he was in seventh grade.

Theo had already noticed the hesitation, Laurent's hand tentative on the stem of his glass. His expression darkened at this hint that Laurent was unwilling to drink a toast to his family.

To Damen's surprise, before he could intervene, Laurent's hand firmed. He met Theo's eyes and lifted the glass.

Theo smiled in approval. "A toast to my first grandchild!"

"And so he will be, whichever way the paternity suit turns out," Uncle Mack said cheerfully, and tossed back his griva to the sound of Kastor sputtering.

Drinking griva was a lot like drinking dog urine and motor oil; Damen, well accustomed, swallowed his with only a slight wince, and waited, napkin and water at the ready, for Laurent's inevitable coughing fit.

Laurent made a tiny choking noise in his throat, his shoulders spasming, but he didn't cough. He went very stiff and still, and swallowed, and dabbed his mouth delicately before accepting the water Damen held out.

"What an unusual flavor," he said, his voice only a tiny bit hoarse.

Everyone had, of course, been watching intently, anticipating his reaction. Kastor and Mack looked disappointed, but Theo laughed heartily, smacking a fist against the table.

"A man after all! I congratulate you, Mr. de Vere, on possessing an iron pair of balls. You'll find this stuff goes down better the second time. You should have seen Damen the first time he tried it! You would have thought I'd set his hair on fire." Theo launched into a well-worn rendition of the tale of 12-year-old Damen's first cup of griva, to which everyone only half-attended.

"You don't have to drink," Damen murmured, when Laurent picked up his glass again.

"I do," Laurent answered, "if I'm going to impress your family, which is what I agreed to do. When I make a deal, I hold up my end." He took another, hefty swallow, which made his eyes tear up and prompted Uncle Mack to drum on the table in congratulations.

Family stories continued to be a theme, Damen ducking his head sheepishly as Theo and Minnie related some of the hijinks he and Kastor had gotten up to as children. Laurent, now on his second cup of griva thanks to Uncle Mack's enthusiastic refills, raised an eyebrow at the tale of Damen swearing a blue streak when he broke a toe during the school play, and actually laughed at the image of little Damen jumping off the roof with a blanket-cape and an umbrella.

"Lucky boy only broke a leg and two ribs," Theo said. "That thick skull probably kept him alive."

"That was Kastor's doing!" Damen protested. "He had me convinced the umbrella would let me fly, like Mary Poppins!"

"I didn't think you'd actually do it!" Kastor could hardly speak for laughing.

"Didn't you?" Laurent said, oddly thoughtful. "If Damen was four, you'd have been, hm, ten or eleven. Old enough to understand that jumping off a roof can be fatal."

There was a very brief, very awkward silence. Jokaste's eyes tracked sideways to Kastor uneasily.

"Oh, it was all in good fun, boys will be boys," Minnie said, waving a dismissive hand. "Kastor himself always loved jumping off of things. Look, I've got a picture of him learning to hang glide, I don't know how I survived that stress and worry…" She pulled out her wallet and flipped through the dozen or so photos in their clear sleeves, removing one to slide across the table. "Look, there's my brave boy!"

"Oh, I remember that!" Damen smiled down at the photo, sliding it along for Laurent to see. He and Kastor were standing together in a field in the photo, Damen cheering as Kastor prepared for his first take-off. They'd been about seven and thirteen.

"Goodness, the family resemblance was even stronger when you were children," Laurent said. "That was one of the first things I noticed when I saw you together, how much alike you look."

"They both take after their old man," Theo said proudly.

"Resemblances can be such funny things," Laurent said. "Damen and I just recently met someone who would have sworn she'd seen Damen before. It wasn't him, of course, but it must have been someone who looked a great deal like him." He was looking very steadily at Kastor, who flushed and shifted uncomfortably, looking almost alarmed.

Damen frowned. Laurent had to be talking about Brittany. What an odd thing to bring up.

"I guess we know what the baby'll look like, then," Uncle Mack said, "either way, hm?"

Jokaste, picking up the photo to look at it, fumbled it in her fingers. It fluttered to the floor, dodging her attempts to catch it. She made an exasperated noise and tried to lean down for it, grunting as her belly got in the way.

"Here, let me," Laurent said quickly, and left his seat to pick it up for her. Damen found it a little odd that, instead of returning to his seat, Laurent pulled up the chair next to Jo and started talking to her, but his father was asking him about his car; he turned his attention to explaining that yes, it was still in the shop, and yes, it was going to be very expensive to fix. Then Uncle Mack bumped him while walking by to get to Minnie, who wanted to show him more pictures from her wallet, and made Damen half his drink on the tablecloth. By the time he had that mopped up and could turn his ear, as subtly as possible, to Jo and Laurent's conversation, he couldn't keep his mouth from dropping open.

"And he doesn't have to worry about getting me knocked up," Laurent was saying, pleasantly and very, very quietly, "so that opens up ever so many possibilities. I'd love to compare notes, actually, and see whether he's always been as… adventurous as he is now."

Jokaste, to Damen's surprise, smiled serenely. "See, now I know you've never slept with him."

"Oh? Why is that?"

"You'd never be able to talk about it so lightly. Not you, frigid little virgin that you are. I know what he's like in bed, and you—it would break you."

Laurent snorted. "What, because I can't handle the sheer force of his virility?"

"Oh, no, I mean quite the opposite." Jokaste's voice dropped so low that Damen could only follow by watching her mouth intently. "All that power and strength dedicated entirely to your pleasure, gentle as a worshipper at the altar?" She looked Laurent up and down. "No, you'd be crying before he ever got your clothes off."

Laurent's cheeks bore high red spots now, perhaps from alcohol, perhaps—not. He leaned closer to Jo. "You know what, you're right. I am a virgin. Which means I am no man's hand-me-down, passed from one brother to the next like a pair of boots."

That was when Jokaste threw her drink in his face.

The room erupted in exclamations of alarm, and a bark of startled laughter from Mack. Damen found himself standing, already handing his napkin to Laurent and gathering more. He didn't have it in him to glare at Jokaste, after what Laurent had said to her, but he wasn't about to cheer her on, either.

"Oh, no, I'm so sorry," Jokaste said, with just enough plausible sincerity in her voice that no one could call her out on it. "I'm so clumsy these days—did you know pregnancy affects your joints? It's the funniest thing." She sat back and drained the last few drops from her glass as Damen came around the table and helped Laurent clean up.

Laurent's cravat was soaked; he pulled it off and laid it out on the table. He seemed very calm, even cheerful about the whole thing, rising up on his toes to peck Damen on the cheek as Damen dabbed grenadine off his face.

"What on earth did you say to my girl?" Kastor demanded, leaning across Jokaste to glare at Laurent.

"Oh, my remark was thoroughly inappropriate, I don't blame her a bit," Laurent said with a toothy smile. Damen began leading him around the other end of the table, back to his own seat and, most importantly, away from Kastor.

Too late. Kas was getting up, putting a possessive hand on Jokaste's shoulder. "Baby, you want me to pound this shrimp into the dirt?"

"That won't be necessary, Kas," Jo said, putting her hand over his. "Come on, let's sit down and not ruin dinner for your parents."

But the parents in question were distracted, Theo on his cell phone and relaying something from the phone to Minnie, who was writing it down. Theo always made an effort to be mentally present for these gatherings, but he was a very busy man; sometimes things intruded.

"Sit down," Jo said again, and Kastor let himself be coaxed back into his seat. Damen, pulling Laurent's chair out for him, really wished the two were not directly across from each other.

They were saved, for the moment, by the arrival of the food, which looked and smelled good enough to distract even Uncle Mack from the entertainment unfolding before him. Everyone began to eat, and it looked like conversation might turn toward praise and critique of the food, leaving more dangerous topics behind.

Unfortunately, Theo chose that moment to excuse himself.

"I've got to take a moment for this phone call. I do apologize. Please, eat, I'll be back momentarily."

With his father out of the room, Kastor was off the leash, and by the faint stir of tension through the room, all of them knew it. Minnie would never criticize her precious boy, and Mack would only reach for the popcorn.

"I want to know what you said to my girl," Kastor repeated, jaw set mulishly.

"Ask her, then, if you can get her to repeat it."

"It's not important, Kas, let's just eat—"

"Um… hello…?" A young black girl appeared in the doorway of their dining room, maybe sixteen and radiating nervous excitement.

"Oh, now what?" Kastor tossed a rolled napkin, heavy with silverware, across the room to smash into the wall. "Who the fuck are you?"

The girl jumped, eyes going wide. "I—I'm sorry—I'm a huge Akielos fan. I thought m-maybe—I'm sorry to bother you—"

Kastor rolled his eyes and threw his hands in the air, turning away.

"I'm sorry," the girl whispered, and turned to slink away.

She'd had no right to creep into their family dinner, but still, Damen couldn't stand for this to be her encounter with a band she loved. He left his seat. "Hey, kiddo, wait up. Uh, do you have something you want signed?"

She shakily held out a white cloth napkin, clearly brought from her own table.

"Sure thing," Damen said. "Anyone have a pen…?"

Jokaste appeared at his shoulder, holding out a sharpie. "Turn around, sweetie, we'll use your back to write on, how's that?"

The girl turned around, smiling shakily and looking like she might faint. Jo scribbled her first name on the napkin in her usual dramatic block letters; Damen followed with DAMEN V, and shot a look over his shoulder at Kastor. He sneered and rolled his eyes again, but to Damen's surprise, crossed the room and added his own signature to the napkin, bigger than either of theirs and running over Damen's a bit.

"Thank you," the girl whispered, on the verge of tears, "thank you so much," and clattered down the stairs so fast Damen kept watch on her in case she fell.

When he returned to his seat, he found Laurent looking at him thoughtfully.

"What?"

"Nothing."

They had barely all settled back into their seats again when the waiter stepped in, bearing new drinks and a bright smile. "How is everything? Good?"

Kastor, who had been sneering and picking at his plate of pasta and octopus, threw down his fork. "No, it's not good! This is the most overcooked pile of dog feces I've ever seen on a plate!"

"You plate a lot of dog feces, do you?" Laurent said, and Kastor turned to him with a snarl.

"Stay out of this, pretty boy!"

"I'm so sorry to hear the dish isn't to your liking, Mr. Vasileus—"

"Not to my liking? This dish is a disgrace to my family's restaurant! I don't know how you can speak to me after setting this defilement in front of me and expecting me to eat it! Who hired you? Were they having a stroke at the time? Do you—"

"I'm curious, Kastor," Laurent broke in lazily, "whether you understand the basic fact that the waiter and the cook are two different people? Or are you one of those idiots who think all service personnel join a hive-mind and surrender human citizenship in exchange for their paychecks?" He looked up from his plate to give Kastor a kind smile. Damen felt as if he ought to intervene, but Laurent didn't give him time to interrupt. "I have more news for you, Kastor. Your teachers didn't live at school, your parents have in fact had sex, and the Easter bunny isn't real." He reached across the table and patted Kastor's hand benevolently; Kastor snatched it back. "There, now that your childhood is over, you can commence to speaking to the waiter like a rational man, instead of an overtired kindergartener."

Kastor stood up, his chair screeching behind him. Jokaste flinched. "I've had enough of you, babyface. Let's take this outside."

Laurent laughed. "If you want to fight, have your people talk to my people, we'll set something up. In the meantime, I have a dinner to eat. This is beautifully cooked, sir, give my compliments to the chef," he said to the waiter.

Kastor slammed his hands onto the table, but let the waiter scurry out of the room with his plate without further haranguing.

"It's a shame neither of you boys is interested in the family business," Mack said cheerfully, into the ensuing silence. "I know Theo is still hoping one of his sons might show interest in being heir to what he's built."

As if they hadn't had multiple family shouting matches on precisely this topic. Damen struggled to bite his tongue.

Kastor did not. "If the old man thinks his office full of paperwork can compete with being a rockstar, I'll leave him to his delusions."

"Fair, fair," Mack nodded. "As long as the whole rockstar thing lasts, of course. Fame is notoriously fickle, and it looks by no means certain that you'll both have music careers this time next year."

Kastor's face darkened. "Well, that might be true, but it won't be me that's left out in the cold. Me and Jo get Akielos, that was our agreement fair and square. Damen's just a sore loser, he always was."

"I always was?" Damen knew his brother was baiting him, he knew that, but he still—"I'm sorry, which of us got thrown off the lacrosse team for having tantrums any time a scrimmage didn't go your way?"

"Oh, of course, I forgot, you're the perfect brother. Well, if you're so great, you can just go make yourself your own career!"

"I did! It's called Akielos!"

"We made Akielos together! I have just as much right to it as you."

"You never did half as much work for the band as I did—or as Jo did, for that matter. You skipped practices, you got drunk at gigs, we had to drag you through every last thing—" Damen's tight throat stopped him, because these were words he'd never said to anyone. He'd wanted his brother to be part of Akielos, wanted them to be partners so badly, he'd never admitted to himself that Akielos might be better off without Kastor.

Laurent's cool drawl filled in the gap left by Damen's sudden silence. "Yes, I was just trying to remember what it was you contributed to the band, Kastor? Ah, yes—backup vocals."

Kastor gritted his teeth. "And bassist."

Laurent burst out laughing. And Kastor tried to come at him over the table.

Jo and Minnie grabbed Kastor's shoulders. Everyone was shouting. Damen shoved himself in front of Laurent, who looked amused and had not so much as tensed in his seat. Uncle Mack shouted nonspecific encouragement to the room, stealing bread off Theo's plate.

"I'm fine, I'm fine, let me go!" Kastor threw off his mother and fiancee's restraining arms and stalked out of the room.

Jokaste took a long sip of her drink, her knuckles white.

"I hope you're ready to be a single mother of two," Laurent said, very softly. "One of whom will demand sex occasionally and is big enough to throw you through a wall."

"You did your best to provoke him," Jokaste said.

"I didn't have to try very hard."

Theo stepped back into the dining room then, tucking his phone into his pocket and calling jovially, "All right then, let's eat!"—just in time for Jokaste, suddenly clutching her rounded belly, to lean over into the empty chair beside her and throw up.

Damen caught the eye of the returning waiter and whispered, "I'd like a to-go box."

*

Laurent's speech was still perfectly clear, his manner so unchanged from its usual chilly crispness that Damen didn't realize how hard the alcohol was hitting him until he tried to rise, holding his own takeout box, and nearly fell to the floor.

"Whoa!" Damen held Laurent's arm while he got his feet back under him. "You okay?"

"I'm very well, thank you," Laurent said primly, his eyes not quite focusing.

Uh-huh. Damen wasn't sure how Laurent had gotten to the restaurant—probably he hadn't driven, he'd never mentioned having a car—but he certainly wasn't in any shape to drive now.

"I'll take you home," Damen said, not daring to make it a suggestion. He wanted both of them gone before the vomit clean-up was concluded and conversation had a chance to resume.

"If you like," Laurent said gravely, holding onto Damen with white-knuckle strength as they descended the stairs outside the dining room. His movements were graceful but very, very slow. How much griva had he had? At least two glasses, to Damen's couple of swallows—and he clearly lacked Damen's years of built-up alcohol tolerance.

Between the two of them, they got Laurent outside and buckled into the passenger seat of Damen's SUV.

"I think you're getting more drunk by the minute," Damen said as they pulled out into traffic, not sure if Laurent would take laughter as a mortal insult. "Still digesting."

"Ah," Laurent said. "Perhaps the fun part of the experience is yet to come, then. That would be lovely." Both takeout boxes were balanced in his lap; he stared at them intently, as if the force of his gaze could keep them from falling over.

Conversation lapsed; only after an uncertain few minutes did Damen gather the wherewithal to say, "Thank you for coming, Laurent. I… wasn't sure you would."

"We had a deal," Laurent said. "I keep my word." He closed his eyes and leaned back against the headrest. "Though you have little reason to thank me, after the scene I caused."

"You caused? I think you mean my brother caused."

"Jokaste's right, I provoked him," Laurent said. "I wanted to… poke him. Nettle, that's the word. Nettle the douchebag." This last was said with a fierce vehemence better suited to more profane insults, and Damen couldn't help laughing.

"Yeah, he always was a bit of that."

"I wanted… I came to be… impressive. Impress your ex, impress your father. Loved ones. I was supposed to be…" He waved his hands, endangering the takeout boxes. "Glittering, clever, put them in their place. Show them all. You don't need them." He looked very intently at Damen. "You don't need them, Damen."

Damen wasn't sure how to respond. "No?"

"No. But you want them. Want them to love you."

Completely unexpectedly, Damen felt his throat go a little tight. "They're my family. Even Jo—we've known each other so long and, well, she's going to be my sister-in-law. They're my family, of course I want them to love me." And there'd been a time, not very long ago, when he hadn't doubted that they did. Now, thinking of them one by one, he wondered. Had Jo ever really loved him? Kastor, so resentful and jealous—had he ever loved his obnoxious little brother? Minnie, who'd raised him from infancy—had she ever loved him?

"Your brother's older than you," Laurent said. "Your stepmother's son?"

"Yes," Damen said, knowing what was coming.

Laurent was frowning. "I know I had a lot of griva, but that doesn't make sense."

Damen sighed. "Minnie was Dad's piece on the side, okay? For years and years. I don't know if my mom ever knew about her, or about Kas. She and Dad had a really hard time having children, I can't imagine how it would feel finding out he had a kid with someone else… I hope she didn't know. Anyway, she died when I was just a baby, and Dad married Minnie a few months later."

Laurent said nothing for a long time, just watched Damen intently as he drove.

"I wonder what's worse, really," Laurent said finally. "Losing your mother or just not having one."

Damen didn't look away from the road. "Yeah, I've wondered that, too."

 

Laurent's apartment was a surprise. Damen dimly remembered Laurent saying that he was going to make some changes, now that his uncle no longer had a key—which, messed up families seemed to be the theme of the day—and apparently he had meant it. The spiky sculpture in the foyer was gone, replaced by a Grecian-style lady with child; a surprising choice, but one that matched the marble-and-glass of the room much better. The floor was clean, too, and the chipped catchall bowl replaced with a key hook.

"Isn't she pretty?" Laurent mumbled as they passed the statue. His speech was finally beginning to go. "I don't put my hats on her. My hats go here!" He waved his hand at another change as they passed it—an ornate hatrack replacing the sculpture in the hallway, bearing a bewildering array of hats. Some Damen was sure he could and did wear in public; others were hard to imagine on any head that wasn't at a Renaissance Faire.

Which gave him an idea, actually. Was Pallas still performing with the Tin Tankard Troubadours?

Laurent distracted him from the question by trying to drag him toward a chair as they passed through the sitting room. This area had been almost completely cleaned out, even the walls now bare except for a single very intricate and colorful abstract. The only furniture was a lamp and a couple of surprisingly elegant wicker rocking chairs. Laurent was trying to sink down into one.

"No, Laurent, you need to go to bed, not sleep in a chair," Damen said, hauling him up again.

"I just want to rest a moment…"

"You can rest in bed. We're almost there."

Laurent sighed heavily and let Damen tow him toward the bedroom.

Here, too, there were changes; the books that had littered the room were tucked neatly onto shelves, and a tray of tiny cacti huddled on the windowsill. Trust Laurent to decorate with something prickly. In contrast, though, the lonely-looking bed with its single pillow and blanket was now a sumptuous pile of fluffy pillows and silky blue covers. Laurent had decided to permit himself some comfort after all.

Beside the bed was a new lamp—no, Damen realized as he reached to turn it on, a lantern, almost identical to the one on his balcony. The one that had covered them with a rosy glow while they watched the rain and drank hot cocoa, Laurent leaning into Damen's side as he sang.

Damen tried not to read too much into that. Laurent liked the lantern, that was all.

"All right, into the bed with you." He pulled down the covers.

"Have to get this off…" Laurent was pulling ineffectually at the buttons of his silk shirt, still stained with Jokaste's Shirley Temple. He growled in frustration. "Why are these buttons so tiny? Help me." He turned and all but shoved his chest into Damen's hands.

"Uh. Okay." Damen undid a button, and another, his fingers skimming the thin white undershirt Laurent wore beneath the silk. It was warm from his skin.

"I left my food in your car," Laurent said.

"I'll just put it in my fridge. That way you'll have to come over and eat it."

"Oh," Laurent said, soft and surprised—by the invitation? Did he doubt that Damen enjoyed his company?

Laurent was watching Damen's hands as they went down, button by button. His own hands were in fists at his sides, and Damen became aware that the drunken looseness of his posture was drawing back up into tension again. When he reached the end of the buttons, and glanced up at Laurent's face, his eyes were closed.

"Laurent, are you all right?"

"Yes," Laurent said, very precisely. He pulled the unbuttoned shirt off his shoulders, struggled briefly to get it over his bracelet, and tossed it over the nearest chair. Then he looked at Damen again, starting somewhere near his feet and dragging his eyes up to Damen's face. He seemed about to say something—but abruptly sat down instead, bouncing slightly on the bed, and held out his foot, apparently to have the boot removed.

Amusement and annoyance chased each other through Damen's chest, along with something else he didn't examine too closely. Amusement won, and he knelt to pull off one shiny boot, then the other, his hand lingering on Laurent's calf in a way he felt helpless to prevent.

He was startled to feel a hand, soft and shy, barely skimming his hair. Glancing up brought him face-to-face with—well, not Laurent's face.

"Get up," Laurent said. "You don't—you don't have to stay down there."

"I never thought I did," Damen said. Once he was standing again, he wasn't sure he liked how much he suddenly towered over Laurent, who was wrinkling the bedspread in one fist.

Apparently Laurent didn't like it either; he stood, inserting himself all the way into Damen's space, so much that Damen could feel the heat of his skin, could feel the brush of his chest as he breathed. Damen himself wasn't breathing at all, waiting for what Laurent would do.

Which was to raise a hand to Damen's chest, resting it delicately over his heart. He spoke with slow, determined clarity, even as he swayed a little on his feet.

"I like you. I like you a lot. And I shouldn't."

"Why not?"

"Because you're just like… him. Govart. Something Govart." Laurent frowned. "First name… Doesn't deserve a first name. He killed my mother. My father. My brother. All of them. And you're just like him—careless, stupid. You know he didn't have a scratch on him? Killed a whole family and didn't have a scratch."

I'm not like him, Damen wanted to say, but the cell phone in his pocket was suddenly very heavy. He knew it was sheer luck that he hadn't killed anybody, in that single moment of thoughtless distraction, sheer luck he hadn't killed Laurent himself. The thought was so painful that Damen found himself touching Laurent before he knew it, cupping his face in one hand.

"Not the whole family," he said. "You lived. I'm glad you lived."

Laurent closed his eyes. "I was supposed to go with them, that day. Uncle insisted on taking me to this audition that I wasn't even suited for. He throws it in my face sometimes—how I'd be dead if it weren't for him. I was supposed to go with them. I was supposed to go with my family." His breath caught and he shook his head. "I don't want to think, I don't want to think. Come to bed with me." His grip tightened on Damen's shirt, pulled him closer—

Damen managed to turn his head, take the kiss on his cheekbone. "I can't, Laurent."

"Why not?" Laurent was trembling against him, a stark contrast to the icy anger in his voice.

"Because you're drunk. You probably wouldn't want this if you were sober."

"Yes, I do," Laurent breathed, but the words seemed to mollify him. He laughed a little, puffs of air against Damen's neck. "But you… of course you won't. Take advantage. Not you. Why do you have to be so much better than I want you to be?"

How was he supposed to react to that? Damen said nothing, but wrapped his arms around Laurent, supporting him when he swayed again.

"Why do people like being drunk?" Laurent said, plaintive, almost child-like. "I don't think I like it."

"You'll feel better in the morning," Damen said. "If your hangover's not too bad."

"Fine." Laurent released him and sank down onto the bed, pushing his legs under the covers. "But… stay? Not…" He gestured wordlessly. "Just stay."

"I'll stay until you're asleep."

"Good." Laurent pulled him down into the bed, but didn't burrow into him the way Damen had expected. He kept nearly a foot of empty space between them, except for his hand, reaching out to lace his fingers with Damen's. Their matched bracelets gleamed in the lantern-light.

When Laurent was asleep, hair spilled across the pillow and gold-tipped eyelashes fluttering minutely in some dream, Damen put a glass of water and some aspirin on the bedside table, and left before the temptation to stay could get the better of him.

Chapter Text

"It's hard to have a relationship in the spotlight. There's already so much self-consciousness, nervousness, and doubt when you're trying to date somebody, the last thing you need is an audience picking apart your every move. And a lot of times that audience—fans, journalists, whatever—they don't do it to be mean. They're just curious. But it's like you're taking this crowd of avid onlookers with you on every date, all of them calling out advice and criticism of everything you do—and everything the other person does! It's hard for anyone to fall in love that way."

—excerpt from 2015 interview with Damen Vasileus on Dallas radio station Star 102.1

*

They used to call me Peg-Leg and it caused me lots of grief
They thought I was a pirate, they thought I was a thief
One day a lassie asked me, "which one of them is wood?"
I told her "I don't know, my lass, I think all three of 'em's good"
Now they call me Jolly Roger, that's a name that suits me fine
I found her buried treasure, and she had a lovely time

—"Shiver Me Timbers," from Sword & Shield by Akielos

 

A flurry of texts confirmed that Pallas was, indeed, still with the Tin Tankard Troubadours, and that they were currently performing every weekend at the New York Renaissance Faire.

You and Nik should come!!! Pallas sent, along with a photo of himself in striped hose and a doublet, doing some kind of contortion with his butt in the air. You know you want some of this.

How can I resist, Damen sent back with a snort.

When he texted Laurent about it, he was surprised to get, not a return text, but a FaceTime call.

"I'm babysitting," Laurent said as soon as Damen put him on the screen. "Poor child gets jealous if I'm on the phone too much. There, Nicky, now you can participate in the conversation, too."

"Stick it in your eye, Laurent," said Nicaise, staring deep into his own phone.

Laurent pulled Nicaise's chair closer to his own so that they were both in-frame. "What were you saying, Damen, about your friend's concert?"

"Well, not exactly a concert," Damen said. "Sort of a comedy show, at the Renaissance Faire."

"Seriously?" Nicaise looked up, glaring at Damen as if he'd suggested attending a baby-roasting.

"Ren Faire! I've always wanted to go there," Laurent said, with enough brightness to his eyes that Damen wasn't sure whether he was teasing Nicaise, or completely sincere.

"I knew it," Nicaise said, "I knew you were secretly a nerd. I could smell it on you."

"I shall have to adjust my deodorant," Laurent said serenely. "We are, of course, going in costume."

"Of course," Damen said.

Nicaise slumped over, making retching sounds.

"So," Damen said, "pick you up Saturday morning, nine o'clock? They open at ten."

"Will we be back in town by five?" Nicaise sounded disgusted and resigned, but the screen of his phone had gone dark without him noticing. "Uncle Reggie's taking me to this very important dinner thing."

Laurent smirked into the camera. Damen winked at him.

"Yeah," he said, ever so casually. "I'm sure we can manage that."

*

On Saturday morning, Damen pulled up in front of Laurent's apartment building, texted Laurent to come down, and turned to Nikandros in the passenger seat. "You're in my boyfriend's spot."

"Seriously?" Nik grumbled under his breath, slamming doors as he slid into the back. "What happened to the bro code?"

"Think of it this way. Do you really want your back to Laurent?"

"Point."

The door to the building was already opening. Out came Laurent, resplendent in something with lots of ruffles and laces, a prop sword (at least he assumed it was a prop), and most eye-catchingly, a big feathery cavalier hat.

Well, no. The hat was eye-catching, but the way the buckskin breeches hugged his backside and thighs was even more amazing.

Behind him, Nicaise was dressed in a gauzy white tunic and monarch butterfly wings that he was going to have to take off to get in the car. Something sparkled on his ears; earrings of a sort, large jewelry pieces that clipped over his ears and brought them to false-but-beautiful elfin points.

The third man behind them was a surprise, though the dark suit and sunglasses made his purpose very obvious. Reggie's blond bodyguard—Lazarus? Lazar. Damen couldn't help wondering if Uncle Reggie really thought his boys needed protection, or if it was just a way to keep tabs on them.

Laurent opened the passenger door and swept off the feathered hat in a deep bow. "Good morrow, sirrah! May we trouble thee for a ride in thy carriage?"

Damen plucked his tricorn pirate's hat from the dashboard and put it on his head. "That depends on how ye plan to pay for it, ye great landlubber!"

Laurent's eyes sparkled. "I'm quite certain we can work something out," he said, climbing into the seat and then past it, long enough to plant a quick kiss on Damen's cheek.

"Perhaps we can, at that. Hark, now, what's all this foolery?" An argument had erupted in the vicinity of the backseat.

"You work for me, and I'm telling you to sit in the middle!" Nicaise sounded indignant.

Lazar had his arms crossed. "I work for your uncle—"

"Supposedly. Don't think I don't know you and Laurent have something on the side."

"—and in any case it's common sense for you to sit in the middle, you're the smallest."

"What do you and Laurent have on the side?" Nikandros was scowling.

"Nothing! Not like that."

"Don't take this badly, Laz, but you're not my type," Laurent drawled.

"Apparently your type is giant dirty pirates," Nicaise sniffed.

"Correct. Nicaise, we're blocking traffic. I'll buy you ice cream if you'll just get in."

Nicaise only crossed his arms and glared at Lazar.

Lazar threw his hands up in defeat. "Will you buy me ice cream?"

"Of course," Laurent said, and finally they were all in the car.

"Keep those wings down where I can see," Damen said as he pulled into traffic. "And everybody better be wearing a seatbelt."

"Yes, mother," Nicaise muttered.

"We're in this car because he wrecked the other one," Laurent said.

Nicaise put on his seatbelt. Then he leaned over Lazar to peer intently at Nikandros. "Who are you?"

"That's my best friend and manager, Nikandros," Damen said. "Nik, meet Nic."

"Twinsies," Laurent said brightly.

"'If you can read this, my invisibility cloak isn't working,'" Nicaise read from Nik's T-shirt. "This is your idea of a costume?"

"Yep," Nikandros said. "For Halloween I was thinking I'd fix up that invisibility cloak, drape it over myself and go as Damen's brain."

Damen made a shocked noise, glaring at Nik in the mirror; Nik gave a cheerful little wave.

Nicaise was laughing. "If I can get ahold of one of those, I can go as Laurent's heart!"

"Hold on, does this make Damen the Scarecrow, and Laurent the Tin Man?" Lazar said. "Who's the Cowardly Lion?"

"Damen was dressed as a lion the first time I met him," Laurent said. "I'm sure he could double up."

"If we're going to talk about cowards," Damen said, "I have this old home video of Nikandros—"

"You wouldn't."

"—running from a lizard—"

"Shut up!"

"—and literally peeing his pants in terror—"

"I was four years old!"

"Such an adorable little coward."

"This," Nikandros said, "from the boy who tried to hide a bone sticking out of his arm because he was so afraid of getting a shot if he went to the doctor."

"Hey, shots suck, okay? That was a completely logical choice on my part."

"Laurent's afraid of bugs," Nicaise said gleefully.

"I'm not afraid of them."

"He found a fly in his coffee last week and threw it across the room. Coffee everywhere."

"I object to having a filthy little disease-vector in my drink. Hardly irrational."

"Laurent's afraid of bu-ugs," Nicaise singsonged, reaching up to make crawly fingers on the side of Laurent's neck. Laurent turned around and swatted at him, provoking shrieks of laughter. Nikandros gave Nicaise a high five.

"I'm happy our friends are getting along so well," Damen said dryly to Laurent.

"Our alleged friends."

"You know, that bit about the coffee cup reminds me," Lazar said gleefully, "of that time on the set of that artsy French film, when Laurent dropped a dollar in a hobo's cup—"

Laurent groaned.

"—and it turned out to be Robert Pattinson, his co-star, just trying to enjoy a morning coffee—"

"It's not as if you recognized him either!"

"Yeah, but I didn't ruin his coffee!"

"You tried to give him money?" Damen felt a warm spot in his chest. "Laurent, that's really sweet."

"Oh, yes," Nicaise said, "Laurent loves to descend from on high and spread his largesse on the peons. I'm sure it gets lonely at the top of Mount Ego."

Laurent grumbled under his breath. "You know, Lazar, they say an honest man is one who stays bought."

"You should already know I'm a mercenary, sir," Lazar said with a wide grin. "Anyway, I'm just glad it's not me Nicaise is tormenting for once."

"Your turn will come back around," Nicaise said serenely. "In the meantime, can we get some tunes up in here?"

"I have just the thing," Laurent said, and, to Damen's shock, pulled a very familiar CD case out of his bag. On the cover, a blood-spattered sword gleamed on a silk cushion, haloed in white light, over the word Warrior.

"Holy crap, that's us," Damen said. "Akielos. That's our first EP."

"If this is anything like me watching myself in an old movie," Laurent said, sliding the disc into Damen's player, "it's going to be excruciating for you."

Damen groaned. Nikandros was laughing and pounding the back of Damen's seat.

"Shh, I want to hear!" Nicaise leaned past Lazar to smack Nik on the arm.

The production values on the EP were actually not bad at all, and the guitar bit that opened the first song still sounded good. It wasn't until Damen's voice flowed from the speakers, a bit reedy with youth and trying way too hard to sound growly and dramatic, that Damen considered running the car into a ditch.

"So this was before the singing lessons, huh?" Nicaise said.

"Nikandros, please eject that child from my car."

"Welp, time to go, squirt." Nik rolled down his window and reached for Nicaise, who shrieked and fought him off with the butterfly wings. Lazar, caught in the middle, tried to curl into a ball.

"Some bodyguard you are! Protect me!"

Laurent, Damen realized, was staring ahead with a distant expression, tapping the armrest with one finger and mouthing the lyrics.

"You know this song," Damen said, stunned.

"I know this entire album," Laurent said. "I haven't listened to it in… a very long time. I didn't think I'd remember it so well."

"You couldn't have been, what, ten when it came out?"

"Twelve. I'm not that much younger than you."

It was more that producing the EP felt like much longer ago. "I think my entire reality is bending. You were an Akielos fan at age twelve?"

Laurent's next words seemed to hurt on their way out. "My brother was."

Oh.

"This disc was his. He listened to it over and over. He said you guys had a lot of potential."

Damen, gaping, forced his gaze back to the road. The song changed, Jokaste's silvery voice taking the lead. Bickering continued unabated in the back.

"That's how you knew my full name," Damen realized aloud. "I'm listed as Damianos in the liner notes of this album. It's Damen in all the others."

Laurent didn't seem to have heard him. "Auguste would have been so excited to meet you. I think he would have liked you."

Damen bit his lip. "You two were really close, huh?"

"He was a lot older than me. It would have been easy for him to ignore me. Instead, he carried me around everywhere. He never treated me like an inconvenience, or even like a child, more like a friend who happened to be little… a best friend." He wiped his eyes irritably, his face trying its best to turn to stone and unable to manage it. "I didn't expect it to affect me this way. I'm sorry."

"You have nothing to apologize for." I wish I had a brother like that, he thought, but didn't say, because this wasn't about him. "Do you want to turn it off? I don't—I don't want you to be sad." A lame thing to say, but the truth.

"Maybe after this song," Laurent murmured.

"Okay." Hesitantly, Damen reached for Laurent's hand, which was clenching the fabric of his pants. Laurent took a deep breath, and allowed it, his fingers uncomfortably tight. Damen didn't mind.

"Did somebody step on this lady's foot? Is that why she won't stop screaming?" Nicaise called.

"Like you'd know good music if it slapped you in the face," Nikandros said.

"I think it is slapping me in the face."

"Yeah? Does it feel like this?" Nik tried to reach past Lazar and swat at Nicaise.

"Give my client some space, sir."

"Oh, now I'm your client, now that I'm armed—"

"Put that fork down! Where did you get that?"

"Kids, don't make me turn this car around," Damen said, and all three of them stuck their tongues out at him.

Laurent laughed, his hand in Damen's relaxing just a little bit. No longer clutching, just holding on.

*

Through an entryway of Old Europe architecture—latticed beams and whitewashed walls, hung with welcoming banners—they crossed the threshold of the New York Renaissance Faire.

Though the place had barely opened, there was hustle and bustle in every direction. Patrons and staff were hard to differentiate at a glance, almost everyone dressed for the setting, some quite extravagantly; Nikandros stuck out in his jeans and T-shirt, not to mention Lazar in his suit. Folk were juggling, selling wares, dancing and singing and playing—music was everywhere, Damen entranced as they passed drummers, pipers, fiddlers, lutists, and singing voices on all sides.

"A pleasure to all the senses, is it not?" Laurent said beside him, apparently in character, though he was looking around like a child at a candy store. "What do you suppose is the source of that excellent smell?"

"Pretzels," Damen said, pointing out a cart. "Big, warm, soft pretzels! One for each of us, please," he told the proprietor, reaching for his wallet.

Laurent demurred. "I'll have the candied orange slices."

There followed a short, silent battle over who was going to let the other pay for the orange slices while Lazar and Nicaise bickered in the background.

"Nicaise, stop licking off the salt, you're going to make yourself sick."

"Okay."

"You're still doing it!"

"Yep."

"How about you let me pay and then you let me eat some of them?" Damen said.

"So I lose twice." Laurent scowled, but let him pay, and then extended an orange slice for him to eat.

Damen, maintaining eye contact, took hold of Laurent's wrist and ate the orange slice out of his hand, with as much slow, delicate lip-to-hand touching as he could manage. He heard Laurent's throat click as he swallowed.

Nicaise and Nikandros both started gagging theatrically. Laurent threw an orange slice at them.

They continued past a colorful variety of little shopfronts and booths, mostly selling clothing and food, but Damen urged everyone along; he wanted to see the sights before spending more money. They didn't make it far, however, before falling in with a little group of fairies—lovely young women in wings and delicate face-paint, bedecked with leaves and flowers. They cooed over Nicaise's costume and welcomed him to their ranks; the boy looked almost drunk with happiness, and Laurent didn't hesitate before paying for the flower crown they offered him. It took some effort to draw him away.

"I wonder if we'll be recognized," Damen murmured to Laurent as they entered a section of the Faire holding games and contests.

"I may have been already," Laurent said, pulling a bit of paper from his pocket. One of the fairies had given him her number.

Damen laughed. "No one has to know you're famous to know you're cute, Laurent." It felt perfectly natural for him to punctuate the remark with a quick peck to Laurent's lips, which seemed to startle him. Was he blushing or getting sunburned already?

"Hey, archery," Nikandros called out. "Come on, little twin, let's test the strength of those arms."

They might very well not be recognized—no one would expect to find a celebrity under Laurent's feathered hat, Nicaise's flower crown or Damen's piratical breeches, vest and tricorn. They might be just fine, and if not, they had Nik and Lazar to run interference.

It wasn't until halfway through the archery contest that Damen remembered that he and Laurent were fake-dating for publicity and probably ought to be courting recognition. Laurent, he noted, hadn't mentioned it either.

Meanwhile, Laurent was blowing them all away at archery, his dull-tipped kiddie arrows thudding into the centers of the targets when everyone else's mostly bounced off or went wide.

"I took lessons," he explained. "Thought I was going to be in this Robin Hood movie. That fell through, I ended up in Tumbleweed instead."

"Tumbleweed?" Damen said. "Huh, I forgot you were in that! Of course, you were the young gorgeous gunfighter. Didn't you die?"

"My favorite scene," Nicaise said, his last arrow skimming the edge of the target and burying itself in the grass.

Next up was the Test O'Strength, which Damen won handily, to a chorus of cheers from Nikandros and playful boos from everyone else. And then—

"Is that a camel?" Nicaise said in a hushed, almost reverent voice.

"It is," Laurent said, just as stunned. "Damen, we are about to ride a camel."

Lazar insisted he could only ride with Nicaise, or watch from the sidelines; being trapped on the animal while his client was vulnerable on the open ground was a violation of his duties. Nicaise curled his lip at the idea of riding pillion with his bodyguard and let him stay. Nikandros, however, did not escape so easily.

"Awww, is widdle twin scared of the big funny horsey?" Nicaise taunted, trying to push Nik ahead of him in line.

"If I wanted a huge, filthy monster between my legs, I'd just go out with Damen."

"Holy crap, Nik, you can't talk like that in front of the kid!"

"The kid's heard worse."

"You have no idea," Nicaise said cheerfully, and bounced with joy, like a much younger child, as the camel's handler handed him up into the saddle.

"I must take some offense at you, sir," said the handler to Nikandros in a false but charming British accent. "I keep my camels very clean. If your friend can't bathe himself, that's no reflection on my majestic animals."

"Why does everyone hate me today?" Damen opined.

"Don't be so sad, Damen." Laurent sidled into his arms. "I have no objection at all to… camel rides."

Damen buried his face in his hands. "I don't know how you people can talk this way in front of a child."

Nicaise flipped him the bird.

Damen and Laurent took their turn on the camel together, and Damen had to admit riding the unusual beast was an interesting experience—but not as interesting as the sensation of sitting behind Laurent in the saddle, his chest flush against Laurent's back, thighs pressed together.

"What was that about camel rides?" Damen said, winding his arms around Laurent's waist.

"Down, boy," Laurent said lazily, leaning his head back against Damen's shoulder. "Not in front of the children."

After the camel, Damen dragged everyone through a tour of some—not all, not close to all—of the musicians playing the Faire. They admired horn and flute players, Irish penny whistles, and a beautiful harpist who sang Alfred Noyes's "The Highwayman," which was an anachronism but one that suited the atmosphere. They argued for several minutes about the highwayman's death and whether it was romantic or stupid—the Nick twins ganging up against Damen to argue for stupid, and Laurent very unexpectedly taking Damen's side.

"But how ungrateful," Nikandros said indignantly, "for him to get himself killed right after Bess died to save him!"

"It's not about gratitude," Laurent said, cool almost to blankness. "It's not about anything that logical. I'm not saying it was the best thing for him to do, but if you can't understand it, I have to question whether you've ever loved anyone."

Another surprise; it was Nicaise who changed the subject, talking ruthlessly over Nikandros until he gave up on the topic.

They were all fascinated by a hammered dulcimer, and danced to the efforts of a Scottish fiddler, and were briefly adopted by a group of pirates performing sea shanties—one of whom recognized Damen, his eyes going wide. Damen winked and put a finger to his lips, shushing him; the young pirate nodded eagerly, and kept his realization to himself. Damen found a discreet moment to take a selfie with him and sign his pirate hat.

Damen had never given any particular thought to medieval or Renaissance music styles before. Now, surrounded by the deceptive complexity, vibrancy, bawdy humor and sometimes distinctly odd beauty of it, he kept trying to think of ways to incorporate it into his own sound. No, Akielos probably didn't need a member who played the hurdy-gurdy, but a bit of fiddle and dulcimer might not land badly at all…

Nicaise begged for food at every fried meat stall or dessert shop they passed, out of what sounded more like reflex than any urgent desire—but Laurent seemed inclined to indulge him, and he did owe Lazar ice cream, as the bodyguard mentioned pointedly at every opportunity. (Laurent's favorite ice cream flavor, Damen noted with interest when they finally stopped for some, was chocolate peanut butter. He seemed to have quite the sweet tooth.)

Only a few minutes later, Laurent was breaking out his wallet again, this time to get Nicaise apple cider and roasted nuts. "Didn't the kid bring any pocket money of his own?" Damen murmured. "Goodness knows he's earning a living."

"I doubt it. Uncle Reggie keeps a tight hand on the purse strings," Laurent said. "I had to beg on my knees for the slightest bit of cash, up to the day I turned eighteen and started opening secret bank accounts. Look, face painting!"

In the end, only Nicaise and Lazar actually got their faces painted—a few graceful, delicate dots and swirls for Nicaise, a screaming bird over fully two-thirds of his face for Lazar. Here again they were recognized, this time Nicaise and Laurent, who provided selfies and signatures on various body parts.

"Oh my gosh, it's so cute that you two hang out," said one buxom wench in a green corset. "Aren't you, like, stepbrothers or something?"

"Cousins," Laurent said.

"Adopted," Nicaise added. "We share zero genetic similarity. Thank God."

"That's funny," said one of the other face painters, a chubby man in a kilt, "since you actually do look alike."

He was right, Damen realized. Laurent and Nicaise shared the same delicate sort of features, slim build and bright blue eyes. They could have passed for being related, without question. Laurent had probably looked much like a blond Nicaise when he was thirteen. What an odd coincidence, that Uncle Reggie would adopt a son so much like his nephew.

Why did that thought make him feel a little queasy?

They watched a pair of trained rats doing tricks, while arguing over which rat looked the most like which of their companions. They watched a juggler, whom Nicaise had to be bodily restrained from poking, just to see if he would drop anything. They did "unicorn rides" on a white horse with a horn affixed to its bridle, waiting in line behind a whole party of pre-teen girls in princess outfits who looked ready to swoon. Damen almost made a virginity joke to Laurent, then remembered he wasn't supposed to have overheard that comment to Jokaste.

"Surprised it's tolerating us at all, huh?" Nicaise murmured to Laurent, and Damen was surprised to see all the color drain from Laurent's face.

"What do you mean by that?" Laurent said, and grabbed Nicaise's arm when he shrugged and moved away. "Nicaise! Tell me what you mean by that."

"Oh, you know," Nicaise waved a hand, "boys! Unicorns always like girls better, right?"

"Right," Laurent said after a moment, releasing Nicaise's arm. "Yes. We're lucky this one is so easy-going." But by the look on his face, he wasn't at all convinced that was what Nicaise had meant—and looking at Nicaise's expression, Damen wasn't convinced either. Though what in the world could he mean, that would make Laurent so upset?

Laurent remained a little on edge for the next several minutes, until he was finally distracted by a tiny bookshop, where he bought an incredibly expensive blank book, its intricately tooled leather cover inset with gems. Trust Laurent to go straight for the books.

"What are you going to write in here?" Damen asked, running his finger over the cover.

"My diary, of course," Laurent said dryly. "'Went on ridiculous date with camel today. Looked splendid in blue hat. Spent too much money on ungrateful cousin. Still not king.'"

Damen guffawed. "Were we expecting to be king sometime soon?"

"Of course. Any day now. Aren't you?"

"Hey," Nikandros called from behind them, "guys, you have got to check this out."

'This' turned out to be a fortune-teller's booth, with a bright-eyed elderly lady in layers of multicolored shawls and an actual crystal ball on the table before her.

"Good morning, young sirs!" she called out, her accent noticeably better than the camel handler's. "The spirits are speaking to me very loudly this day, and they have much to say to you! Please, come closer to Mother Moonwise!"

Damen happily stepped forward, but stopped when Laurent hung back. "Laurent?"

"I'm not sure I want to know."

"About your future?" Damen cocked his head. Are you that afraid of what it might be? "I mean, you know it's fake, right?"

"Of course." Laurent fidgeted sheepishly with his hair, pulling it over his shoulder. "It's been a good day. I'd rather not… think beyond it, just now."

"All right. You can just wait here, I guess?" The others were already congregating around the booth, waving them over.

"No, I'll come. Just don't push me to participate."

"Sure." He took Laurent's hand, an awkward attempt at comfort, and they crossed the walkway to the fortune teller.

"Ahhh," Mother Moonwise said, her voice creaking, as she took both Damen's hands. "The spirits swirl very happily around this young man! I see music in your soul, young fellow."

You feel guitar calluses on my fingers, you mean, Damen thought, grinning. Either that or she recognized him, but she was pretty nonchalant about it, if so.

"You seek to unite your melody with that of another, hmm? You wish to make sweet harmony?" she continued, grinning broadly, and Damen felt himself blushing. He couldn't help a sideways glance at Laurent. The old lady cackled. "Take heart, young man, I do see harmony in your future! Be wise and patient, and it shall be yours. Oh, what's that? I hear the spirits. They—have a message for you—" She screwed up her face, as if listening intently. "Use protection! All right now, who's next?"

Nikandros, near tears of laughter, elbowed Damen aside and gave the lady his hands.

"Ahhh, I see you are a strong man, you have withstood many trials."

"You hearing this, buddy?" Nik said, looking pointedly at Damen. "Many trials."

"You have withstood them bravely! But will there be an end to them?" Mother Moonwise screwed up her face again before declaring cheerily, "No. No, there will not. You will suffer greatly. But never fear! For you also the spirits have a special message! Listen closely." She pulled Nik's head down close to her mouth. "Don't take any wooden nickels. Next!"

"My turn, my turn!" Nicaise was bouncing with excitement. His hands looked so tiny and pale in the fortune teller's weathered ones that Damen took a surreptitious picture.

"I see that though you are only a tiny baby," the old lady said, "you have the soul of a tiger."

Nicaise preened, color blooming in his cheeks. "Soul of a tiger, guys. Remember that next time you call me a child."

"Yes, your soul is quite terrifying," Mother Moonwise said solemnly. "Be careful whom you choose to bite, hmm, little tiger? Your bite is fearsome, be certain it lands only where it is deserved. But where it is deserved," she jabbed a long finger into his face, making his eyes cross, "bite hard!"

"Yes, ma'am," Nicaise said breathlessly. "I will. I do. What about the spirits? What do they have to say to me?"

"Nothing, dear, you scared them all away. Your aura is too fierce for them. And what of you, my child?" She gave Laurent a toothless grin, extending a hand.

Damen, opening his mouth to make some excuse for Laurent, was surprised to see Laurent stepping forward.

"Good morrow to thee, grandmother," he said, sweeping off his hat and giving her a bow.

She chortled in delight. "A lad with manners! Yes indeed, a great favorite amongst the spirits art thou. And a powerful message have they for you, they crowd all about us now—no, no, don't look, you'll scare them away." She settled her hands around Laurent's. "The spirits, they have watched your many struggles. They have seen the darkest shadows of your past. But yours is not a darkened soul, e'en though it be in darkness. And so they speak to me these words, gifts to you from the great beyond…" She leaned close and stage-whispered, "Nice hat."

*

They made their way toward the area where Pallas and the Tin Tankard Troubadours would be performing, carrying cups of lemonade and turkey legs. Nicaise was starting to get a little pink—another similarity to Laurent; they were both fair and prone to sunburn—so against his strident protests, Laurent bought him a wide-brimmed hat and transferred the flower crown to Lazar, who wore it stoically with his sunglasses and suit.

Progress was slow, their party stopping to appreciate almost every performance they passed; belly dancers, a puppet show, a comic nun duo that had them in stitches. Laurent especially lingered at a magic show, his mouth moving silently as his hands tried to imitate those of the magician. Damen took another picture, capturing Laurent's fascinated expression—and then his mild exasperation as he tried to take Damen's phone away. He hadn't taken nearly as many pictures as he ought to, actually. After that he took several, and even had Nicaise switch back to his flower crown long enough for a close-up.

Finally they reached the stage where the Tin Tankard Troubadours were set up, and with good timing—it looked like they were just beginning a show. Pallas was one of two men and two women occupying the stage, all in hats, hose, pantaloons or skirts that were likely too bright and whimsically patterned to be period-accurate.

"Old buddy, old Pal!" Damen called, cupping his hands to his mouth for volume, and waved when Pallas turned at the sound of their old joke. Pallas waved back, looking as if the sight of them had just made his day; he even tugged the sleeves of his nearest companions to point them out. Damen waved some more as they took seats as close to the stage as they could get.

The Troubadours' act turned out to be something like a variety show, equal parts sly comedy, acrobatics, sleight of hand, and musical performance. More than once, a song escaped comic interruption long enough to be performed in earnest, or very nearly, and Damen found himself impressed. It wasn't as if he didn't know Pallas was genuinely talented, but he'd grown as an artist since Damen heard him last, and—well, it was possible Damen had been arrogantly assuming that one only became a Ren Faire singer if they couldn't make it in a "real" career. He was definitely wrong.

Right now the other male Troubadour, older and a bit grey, was picking a fight with Pallas, both of them trading convoluted insults while the women egged them on, surreptitiously placing bets on who would win the inevitable duel.

"Have at thee, then, scoundrel!" Pallas cried. "I do challenge thee to combat! Will you not fight like a man?"

"Me?" the other man squeaked. "Not in the least!"

"You refuse my challenge, then, coward?"

"Indeed not! Since I am challenged, and my health forbids me to answer it—" this with an aside to the audience, "it's a heart condition, you see—I like for it to keep beating," then raising his voice again, "—I am permitted to name a champion!" The older Troubadour looked out over the crowd, considering. Several folks had raised their hands to volunteer. "You, there, the muscle-bound giant with the piratical air! You would serve my purposes nicely. Will you not help out an old man?"

He was pointing straight at Damen. Damen raised an eyebrow at Pallas, who only grinned and gestured him to come up. Laughing, Damen stood.

Laurent caught his arm. "Are you actually going up there?"

"Would you have me turn coward and disgrace myself?" Damen winked at him. "A kiss for luck, my darling?"

"I'll tell you what you can kiss," Laurent muttered.

"Maybe later." Damen was pretty sure he knew what was up. Pallas had always fancied himself a good wrestler—which he was, for a hobbyist—but he'd never been able to beat Damen. Nor, Damen thought, raising his chin, would he now.

Up on stage, Damen bowed and flexed for the audience while the Troubadours kept up some kind of introductory patter. He surrendered his hat and, at the coy urging of one of the ladies, his vest and shirt, for safekeeping during the fight. Someone in the front row gasped and started whispering furiously to his friends, all of them breaking out their phones. Damen caught the words "Vasileus" and "Akielos;" he smiled and blew the group a kiss.

Pallas removed his own hat, a big green tasseled beret, and took up a stance, his grin all teeth and challenge. One of the ladies dropped a handkerchief as a signal to begin, and they leaped at each other with simultaneous dramatic roars.

Damen could have beaten him faster than he did, but principles of friendship and audience pleasure made him stretch it out. Pallas had not grown as a wrestler the way he had as a singer, but the contortionist aspect of the show had apparently improved his muscle tone, if not his technique. He was always going to lose, but he didn't embarrass himself, and there was more than one spot of impact that Damen was pretty sure he would feel in the morning.

Finally Damen got a shoulder under Pallas's torso, flipped him over and slammed him down, with more flourish than force—only to realize he'd misjudged their distance from the edge. With a yelp, Pallas rolled off the stage.

And landed in the arms of bodyguard Lazar.

Damen was less lucky. A hopeless and much-too-late attempt to pull back the throw cost him his balance, and he tumbled after Pallas, nearly landing on top of him.

After a dazed, pinwheeling moment, Damen became aware that he was on his back on the ground, with half a dozen wide-eyed faces above him.

"Move," came Laurent's voice, and a couple of those faces abruptly vanished, shoved away so Laurent could kneel down beside him. "Damen? Can you hear me? Don't get up! Can you—I said don't get up!"

"I'm fine," Damen groaned, sitting up with a hand to his head. Laurent's hands were on him, poking and prodding for injuries. That was nice.

"You're an idiot," Laurent said.

"Yeah. Where's Pallas, he okay?"

"I'm good," Pallas said, and Damen looked over to see him still more or less in Lazar's arms, the two of them seemingly unable to look away from each other. Lazar had lost his sunglasses somewhere but still had the flower crown.

One of the lady Troubadours crouched on the edge of the stage. "We've called for a medic. Pal, can you climb back up here for just a sec and we'll wind down the show?"

"Oh, uh, sure…" Pallas tore himself away from Lazar, who gave him a lazy, wolfish smile as he handed him up onto the stage, like a gentleman helping a lady into a carriage.

"Did you hit your head? You landed on your arm, can you move this arm?" Laurent was saying.

"Laurent, I am fine." Damen propped himself against the side of the stage, where the Troubadours were bowing and collecting applause. He nestled a hand against the side of Laurent's pale, frowning face. "I had the breath knocked out of me, that's all. I'm okay."

"Bumbles bounce," Nicaise said from behind Laurent; Damen looked up to see Nikandros with a hand on the boy's shoulder, as if he'd had to hold him back.

"Don't do that kind of thing, please, Damen," Nikandros said. "I don't fancy being out of a job."

The audience was filtering out, now; some of the last to leave were the little gaggle of Akielos fans, one of whom still had a camera going. Damen finally shooed them off with a wave and a reassuring murmur.

The medic came—a man in period clothes that included a hat shaped like a loaf of bread—and scolded Pallas and Damen roundly for doing unchoreographed combat on an unpadded stage.

"It's lucky for you and for the Faire's legal team," he said, with a glower at Pallas, "that you've come out of this with only a goose-egg and some bruises, Mr. Vasileus."

"That and the blow to my pride, I guess," Damen said, "since it's sure to be all over the internet by nightfall."

"You deserve it," Laurent said, and pressed the medic's ice pack gently to the side of Damen's head. Damen thought of the cacti on the windowsill, Laurent decorating with prickles, and smiled.

Pallas, cleared by the medic, was back at staring into Lazar's eyes, smiling crookedly. "Clearly I should keep you around as a safety net at all my shows."

"Clearly you should," Lazar said, his own smile lazy and confident.

Nicaise rolled his eyes. "Just get his number, Laz, and spare the rest of us your courtship display."

"A wise young man," Lazar said, pulled a sharpie from his breast pocket and unbuttoned a portion of his shirt. "If you would?"

A couple of the other Troubadours started ever-so-innocently playing a bawdy love song. Pallas, gone scarlet all the way down the V of his collar, wrote his name and number in sharpie on Lazar's chest.

"All right, now, let's get out of these folks' hair and let them prepare for their next show," Damen said. "Other than the danger to my life, by the way, I really enjoyed it."

Pallas grinned. "Yeah? Really?"

"Really! Your whole troupe is good, but," he glanced around and leaned closer, "you're the best of the bunch."

Pallas's smile went wry. "Too bad Akielos isn't hiring, huh?"

"Well, now," Damen said thoughtfully, "let me get back to you on that."

 

Making an attempt to return to carefree fun, they wandered on to the next act down the lane—a falconry demonstration. A man and woman were showing off a variety of birds of prey, discussing their care and their skills and their birdish personalities.

"A falcon is never going to warm up to you the same way a dog or cat does," the man said, stroking the breast of the beautiful golden-brown bird on his arm. "They're not mammals. Their social structures, the way they think, it's just totally different. In the wild they're very solitary. Even after many years together, a falcon will never love you—but she can grow to respect you and trust you. It's hard, time-consuming work, but earning the trust of such a fierce, powerful, beautiful creature—it's a very rewarding experience. You can see here how Nina is letting me hold her, stroke her, she'll let me take food away from her, she'll even let me put a hood over her head, I'll demonstrate that very briefly—there, see? She won't put up with that from just anyone, but she puts up with it from me because she's learned that I know how to take care of her, that I'll never hurt her, that when she's with me she's safe and doesn't have to worry."

Damen, still holding an ice pack to his head, watched the gorgeous falcon fly from one handler to the other, graceful and sharp-eyed. Beside him, Laurent let their shoulders brush as he shifted his weight, and returned the grip tightly when Damen took his hand.

*

Damen eventually surrendered to the pull of the shopping, and soon they were all laden with purchases—knives and gloves for Nikandros, earrings and decorated goblets for Laurent, sacks of clothes and jewelry and a tiny henna kit for Nicaise, and for Damen himself, a lute and pipe and something called a gemshorn. By the time they were done with that and attending the joust (where Laurent, Nikandros and Nicaise each seemed to be merely cheering for whomever the other was not), it was time to get Nicaise home to dress for his "important dinner thing" with Uncle Reggie.

"I'm going to head out with them," Nikandros said as Nic and Lazar climbed into their Uber outside the Faire's entryway. "I've got a few errands to run, and that way I don't get stuck as third wheel on the 'Lamen' love-bicycle."

"'Tis a shame to see the back of thee, sirrah, and not a knife in it yet," Laurent said pleasantly. "Yet the wheel of the year is but half-turned! There shall be time for all our pleasures in the days to come."

"It's been real, Snake Boy," Nikandros said, and closed the car door.

Nicaise waved from the back glass as the car pulled away; they waved back and, after having their stamped hands duly examined, went back inside the Faire.

"I think Nikandros likes you," Damen said.

"I should hate, then, to see a man he hated," Laurent said. "But if thou speak'st aright, I am glad on it. Every man knows that to woo a lover is to woo that lover's dearest intimates as well."

"I would rather you didn't 'woo' Nikandros."

Laurent chuckled, leaning closer and tipping his face up, to see out from under the hat. "Jealousy? And what need of that, when I am here alone with thee?"

"Just you, me, and Shakespeare, apparently." Damen pulled him closer, settling his hands comfortably on Laurent's waist. "But yeah, it's not terrible finally having you to myself."

"Dost thou? Or is it I that have thee?"

Laurent was winding his arms around Damen's neck, their chests almost touching, and Damen couldn't look away from his eyes, from the easy playful expression on his face. "And if you do have me, what do you plan to do with me?"

Before Laurent could answer, Damen's eyes tracked sideways, suddenly aware of a woman very obviously filming them with her phone.

"Oh," she said—squeaked, really—when she realized she'd been made. "Sorry. Didn't mean to disturb you."

"Invite him over," called another woman, part of a small group a few yards away. When the phone-holder dithered, her friend laughed and came up to join her.

"Your Majesty," the friend said with a deep curtsey, "might we poor players impose on your kindness for the space of a song? This maiden here has thirty years this very day, and 'twould be the greatest gift you might grant her!"

"You don't have to!" the birthday girl squeaked, her voice going scarlet.

"'Your Majesty'?" Damen repeated, bemused.

"Is not 'Vasileus' a name for kings?"

It was, and Damen wondered whether these ladies were hardcore fans, or if she just happened to speak Greek.

Laurent was looking at him with one eyebrow raised. "Well, Your Majesty, these ladies have addressed both your soft heart and your vanity. Can you resist them?"

"Certainly not," Damen said, shaking his head. "All right, we'll join you for one song."

The ladies excitedly led them over to the rest of their group, who were lounged under a tree, perhaps taking a break from performing.

"Does this make you my consort?" Damen murmured, linking his arm with Laurent's as they walked.

Laurent sniffed. "I'm a king, remember? Ruler of a rival nation, perhaps. You are pursuing a treaty with me and thus attempting to win my favor."

Damen winked. "I might be pursuing more than a treaty."

"You might be sent home empty-handed," Laurent returned dryly, but he kept his arm through Damen's.

Damen savored the idea for a moment, as the little medieval band got themselves arranged and calmed down enough to play. He and Laurent as kings of rival nations, Damen seeking to end a war, perhaps, turn their peoples from enemies to allies. He would bring gifts, offer concessions, speak to Laurent with the most excruciating courtesy, while Laurent returned his sharp-tongued judgement on all of it—and yet did not send Damen away, so clearly he saw something there he liked…

Sound broke his reverie, the players setting up their instruments—drums, pipes, a lute and something that might be a psaltery.

"Mind if we record it?" one member said shyly, indicating a camera and tripod.

"That's fine. What are we singing?"

The birthday girl, still red-faced, said, "Well, um, Scarborough Fair is kind of a favorite?"

"Sounds good to me," Damen said, and the musicians began to play the intro to the song. Damen had no idea if any of the players normally sang, but today they stuck to their instruments, giving him the spotlight.

"Are you going to Scarborough Fair
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
He once was a true love of mine."

He found he had chosen to go with male pronouns for the 'true love' of the song without really thinking about it, partly because his bisexual ass could do that whenever he wanted, and partly because he was there with Laurent. A moment later he thought he should have used female pronouns and dedicated the song—which was, under all the beautiful melody, a middle finger to an ex—to Jokaste. But it was too late now, and probably just as well.

"Tell him to make me a cambric shirt—"
"On the side of a hill in the deep forest green—"

Damen almost faltered in surprise when he heard Laurent joining in, soft and surprisingly sweet, adding the "Canticle" part from the famous Simon & Garfunkel version. Of course that wasn't written until the 1960s, by no means an original part of the song, but Damen figured he wasn't the only one who was so accustomed to it that the song sounded strange without it.

"Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
—Tracing a sparrow on snow-crested ground—
Without no seams or needlework
—Blankets and bedclothes, a child of the mountain—
Then he'll be a true love of mine
—Sleeps unaware of the clarion call—"

Laurent's voice might not be super-star caliber, Damen thought, but he was more than good enough to be a pleasure to the ear. A pleasure to all the senses, wasn't that what he'd said earlier? And his timing was perfect, which was actually quite difficult with "Canticle." Somewhere along the line, if only alone in his room, Laurent had practiced this.

"Tell him to find me an acre of land
—On the side of a hill in a sprinkling of leaves—
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
—Washes the grave with silvery tears—
Between the salt water and the sea strand
—A soldier cleans and polishes a gun—
Then he'll be a true love of mine."

Hadn't the fortune-teller had made some kind of crack about he and Laurent making harmony together? Damen might owe her an apology for laughing. It felt like a very long time since he had sung with someone whose company he truly enjoyed, someone he trusted to carry their end. And he hadn't even asked it of Laurent. He'd jumped in of his own volition.

"Tell him to reap it in a sickle of leather
—War bellows, blazing in scarlet battalions—
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
—Generals order their soldiers to kill—
And gather it all in a bunch of heather
—And to fight for a cause they've long ago forgotten—
Then he'll be a true love of mine."

Laurent's part faded out in the last verse, and Damen sang alone to the accompaniment of the really-quite-good musicians—but it didn't feel like singing alone, not with Laurent warm and close beside him, watching his face as he sang, one hand resting lightly on Damen's wrist and the bracelet there.

"Are you going to Scarborough Fair
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
He once was a true love of mine."

The notes trailed off, and after a moment of appreciative silence, the musicians—and the small crowd that had gathered around them—applauded heartily. Overcome by excitement, the drum player raised his voice above the noise.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Damen Vasileus of Akielos!"

"And Laurent de Vere!" the piper added.

The crowd perked up noticeably, and moved in a little tighter around them; Damen tried not to grimace. He would have really, really preferred they hadn't done that. The birthday girl and her friend gave them apologetic looks.

It took several minutes to get free of the crowd, doing selfies and signings as they went. Damen started to think maybe a bodyguard wasn't a terrible idea after all. One of the last stragglers, in the midst of having his scabbard signed, invited the two of them to dinner with him and his husband.

"That's very kind of you," Laurent said, actually sounding as if he meant it. "But it's been a long day, and I'd rather just spend some time with my boyfriend, if you don't mind."

It was probably just the nearest excuse, Damen told himself, and couldn't help the warm feeling in his chest anyway.

"We should probably go," Damen said as they finally got free of the gathered fans.

"I agree. We'll have admirers on our heels from now on. That was fun, though." Laurent glanced at Damen, and away again. "I hope I didn't overstep—I felt strange just standing there in silence."

"It was wonderful. You were wonderful."

Laurent continued looking away, his face hidden by the feathered hat.

"I was thinking," Damen added, steering them toward the exit, "that we could go to my place. Eat those leftovers from Ios."

"All I have to eat at my place is spaghetti-os," Laurent said, "so I suppose we might as well."

 

As they climbed into the SUV, Damen took his phone from his pocket and handed it to Laurent.

"What," Laurent said, "tired of carrying its vast weight?"

"Well, I did take a lot of pictures today, makes sense that it's gotten heavy." Damen grinned. "No, I thought you might feel safer running interference between me and the great irresistible screen while I drive."

"You'd be new levels of stupid to drive-text right in front of me," Laurent said, "but we musn't underestimate you, I suppose." He tucked the phone away.

As they pulled out of the parking lot, Damen ventured, "You don't seem to be mad about it anymore, but—just in case it was bothering you, I really am sorry about what I said to Hollywood Reporter. I had no idea you would find it… hurtful." To be frank, he still wasn't sure exactly what Laurent had found objectionable about it, but he was sorry regardless.

Laurent drew a careful breath. "I find it… uncomfortable, sometimes, being praised for my appearance. It's one thing from fans, strangers, even journalists. Somehow it's different coming from…" He seemed at a loss for words, which was worthy of making a note in the calendar. "To know that someone is looking at me—me, not the public persona, not the image on the screen—and thinking of me that way is… startling." He wet his lips, and clarified, "Invasive."

Dismayed, Damen struggled for a response. He didn't want to be a creeper, desperately wanting Laurent when Laurent did not want to be wanted. All his shy, cautious hopes for them felt crushed under disappointment and even a sort of grief.

"But I've had time to grow used to the idea, now," Laurent continued, not looking at Damen. "I know you well enough to know that you don't… mean it in the way that would bother me most." Abruptly, he turned to face him, eyes intent. "You see me as an equal."

Damen blinked. "Of course I do. What else would you be?"

"A toy," Laurent said. "A… tool, to be used. A pet, to be stroked and pampered and then discarded."

Damen found himself staring at Laurent in horror, and had to tear his gaze away to focus on the road. "Laurent," he said carefully, "I hope you know that if anyone has treated you that way, it is a judgment—the worst possible judgment—against them, not you."

"I do know that," Laurent said, "in my better moments. What I mean to say is that you did not deserve the harshness of the reaction I gave you, and for that I'm sorry."

Damen waved a hand. "I'm a big boy. I can take a few hits."

"We should test that sometime," Laurent said, a smile lurking in the corner of his mouth. "So long as you promise not to throw me off a stage."

"Oh, that part's inevitable. The only question is whether I'll fall on top of you after."

Laurent laughed. "A dire fate indeed!" He was fiddling with the lacy ruffles of his shirtfront—disentangling a flower, Damen realized, that was caught there, perhaps fallen from Nicaise's crown. Laurent reached out and tucked the half-wilted white bloom behind Damen's ear. "But not, perhaps, the direst."

Damen smiled, and hoped he wasn't blushing, and felt his hopes revive just a bit.

Chapter Text

Ice ice baby! Pregnant Jokaste White keeps cool during East Village baby-shopping excursion

Jokaste White's baby bump is growing by the day! The 25-year-old Akielos singer and keyboardist cooled down with an ice cream in NYC's East Village yesterday, apparently in the midst of a baby shopping spree. Sporting an adorable polka-dot sundress and sunglasses that would have made Jackie O jealous, everyone's favorite rock soprano was surrounded by bags from Pink Olive, Little Moony, and Ibiza Kids when she was spotted taking a break at Morgenstern's Finest Ice Cream.

Never one to lose her cool in public, Jokaste seemed unconcerned by the ongoing battle for ownership of rock band Akielos, which splintered in April—when Jo ended her relationship with frontman Damen Vasileus and became engaged to his brother, fellow band member Kastor Vasileus. All official announcements have indicated Kastor as the father of the baby, but rumors are flying that Damen wants a paternity test! No wonder Jokaste needs an ice cream break.

—Daily Mail, 5/26/17

Newest comment: Holy crap, is that a bruise on her face?

*

It's not that complicated
Though it sure can be a mess
Hold me, baby, just tonight
I don't care about the rest
Touch me, baby, just like that
I want your skin on mine
Claim me, baby, call the shots
Put me on Cloud Nine

—"Cloud Nine," from Epicurious by Akielos

 

This time, instead of darkness and rain, they had a view of the sunset over the Hudson, every surface of Damen's condo painted gold and orange and pink. The zucchini flowers hadn't reheated especially well, but they were both eating them anyway, sitting across from each other at Damen's marble-topped dining table. Scuffing his foot forward to touch Laurent's felt very daring, even if Laurent's only reaction was a glance up at him through golden lashes.

"You managed not to burn yourself," Damen said, gesturing at Laurent's cheeks, undamaged by the sun.

"No, our friends delivered all the burns," Laurent replied.

"Alleged friends!" Damen laughed. "Your baby cousin is a handful. Where did your uncle find him?"

"Foster care. A talent scout saw him at a school play." Laurent fiddled with his fork. "His foster parents couldn't wait to unload him."

Damen winced. "That's rough. Still, talk about a rags-to-riches story."

Laurent raised an eyebrow at him. "Whereas other celebrities have more of a riches-to-riches story."

"I've had my own problems. Suffering in golden shoes is still suffering," Damen said primly. "Speaking of which, my entire body is starting to protest its encounter with the ground earlier. I probably have some aspirin somewhere…" He twisted around in the chair, trying to rub at a knot in his back—and froze in shock as Laurent rose from his seat, came around behind him, and started massaging his shoulders.

"Oh," Damen said, trying not to whimper as Laurent bore down on exactly the right spot. "Oh. Laurent, you are an angel and a gift."

"I bet you say that to all the boys."

"And girls. I'm equal-opportunity that way."

He could hear a smile in Laurent's voice. "Yes, and I'm sure you've had quite a few of those equal opportunities. How do you normally go about it?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean… dating. Courting. How," he hesitated a moment, though his hands on Damen's shoulders never paused, "how might you have gone about it with me, if things had been different?"

Damen made a thoughtful noise. "We might still have met at the Gala. I would have asked you to dance. You would have told me to eff off, but who knows, I could have charmed you."

"Hmm. Unlikely. Try again."

It was hard to think through the delightful tingles traveling down Damen's back and shoulders, but he tried his best. "All right. I see you from afar, across the glittering expanse of the Gala, but can't get close enough to speak to you. Entranced by your beauty and your sparkling wit—as practiced on others who were unfortunate enough to get closer—I become determined to court you. I write you a letter professing my love—"

"Ah, fan mail. I've certainly never received propositions that way."

Damen huffed. "Fine, then. We meet in high school. I'm not even out yet, but the moment I see you, I know I'm about to be. I sit behind you in algebra, and don't learn a single thing, too mesmerized by the way the light hits your hair, the way you hold your pencil, the way you don't seem to pay attention but always know the answers when the teacher calls on you."

Laurent made a pleased sound. "And how would you ask me out?"

"Oh, I'd be far too terrified to ask you out. I'd send poor long-suffering Nikandros to talk to you first."

"And when he came back licking his wounds, none the wiser about my feelings?"

"Then I would approach with gifts. Flowers—no, flowers are too obvious, what if you don't like boys? Something more subtle, so we can both save face if you turn me down. A book. You're always reading, so I buy the sequel to the book you've been reading this week, and when I give it to you I ask if you'd like to go to the dance with me."

"And what would we do together, if you took me to the dance?" Was it Damen's imagination, or did Laurent sound a little wistful?

"Well, I'd pick you up at your house, charm your parents. Open doors for you, help you in and out of the car—trying my best to treat you right, awfully heteronormative because at that age I only knew how to treat a girl date. Guys don't always appreciate chivalry the same way. But you might forgive me. You might even enjoy being fussed over a little."

"Mm. Tell me more about how you'd fuss over me."

"Bring you punch and cookies. Walk around touching the small of your back. Make up some kind of excuse to kiss your hand." He was drawing on a lot of high school memories, but more the memory of desires than events. He'd frequently been too nervous and embarrassed to lavish his dates with the kind of gestures he would have liked. "And when we danced together I would try to leave a respectful distance between us and not crowd you… but it would be really hard."

Laurent wasn't rubbing his back anymore. Instead he had draped his arms around Damen's shoulders, leaning against him with their cheeks almost touching. Damen could feel Laurent's hair, silky against the side of his face. "And what if I didn't want that respectful distance? What if I kept moving closer and closer to you?"

"Then," Damen swallowed, "during the last slow song of the night, I might work up the nerve to kiss you."

Laurent's heartbeat was hammering against his back. His voice was low, breath brushing Damen's ear. "And just how would you kiss me, if we were really dating?"

Damen turned his head and pressed their lips together.

It was only the softest brush of a kiss at first, hampered by the angle and by Damen's caution. He didn't want this to be an ambush. But Laurent did not draw back; he didn't rush to deepen the kiss, but he let it proceed, tilting into it, his mouth soft and responsive. After a moment, Damen turned a little in his seat, making it easier, and pressed a little harder, just a little, one hand coming up to rest against Laurent's cheek.

It was already obvious to Damen that this kiss was not like any of the others. Laurent knew how to kiss for a camera, something glossy and perfect and pretty. This, kissing for the pleasure of it, he did not quite know how to do. The artlessness of it, experimental and shy, was beautiful to Damen. It matched the Laurent he had come to know in coin tricks and feathered hats and decorative prickles. They kept kissing, light and warm and tender, one of Damen's hands trapped against the chair and the other stroking the side of Laurent's face—not enough, not enough, but the very restraint of it was sweet somehow. Damen had never thought of himself as a patient man, but now he felt that, for this, for Laurent, he could be patient forever.

But he didn't have to be, because in the space of a breath, Laurent slid around the chair and into Damen's lap.

The table screeched a little as Laurent's hip shoved it out of the way. The sound covered Damen's gasp as he instinctively turned his body to better receive Laurent's, wrapping his arms around him. For a visceral moment he remembered the strip club, and Laurent pinning his hands down, telling him not to touch—but Laurent wasn't objecting to being touched now. In fact he seemed to be arching into it, his own arms around Damen's neck, before he bent down and they were kissing again. Deep now, but slow, thoroughness over speed. After a while, Damen let his mouth wander down Laurent's jawline to his throat.

Laurent gasped, the sound shaky, and pulled back just a bit.

"This might be a little intense for the school dance," he said. Just how intense Laurent's feelings were—well, in their current position, it could not fail to be noticed. Damen felt a little smug about it, and also a kind of delighted awe, that he had gotten Laurent into this condition.

"We can stop," Damen said, surprised by how rough his voice sounded. Laurent wasn't the only one in a… condition. "If you want."

"Or?"

Damen swallowed. "Or, you could… stay. And we could, um—only if you want—"

"I want you to show me," Laurent said, putting a finger on Damen's lips. His eyes were closed, his cheeks red in the sunset light. "How it could be. If we were really dating, if we were really in love. Show me."

That if tore a hole as it landed, but Damen ignored it. Instead he stood, lifting Laurent with little effort and less that he let show, and carried him to the bedroom.

The sunset was reaching its peak of color, filling the room with something like firelight but steadier. The blanket on the bed was the same one they had wrapped around themselves on the balcony. If they ruined it tonight, at least it would go out in a blaze of glory.

Laurent held on like a constrictor when Damen tried to drop him on the bed, which resulted in Damen overbalancing and landing on top of him.

"Like I said, having you fall on me is not the direst of fates," Laurent said, grinning and winding himself all the tighter around him.

"If you let me up," Damen said in between kisses and nibbles to Laurent's mouth and throat and collarbone, "I can get these inconvenient clothes off you."

"Can you? I'm not convinced."

Damen, released, set about with a will to prove him wrong—only to find that Laurent's ruffled Renaissance shirt was held on with an incomprehensible collection of clasps and laces. "How attached are you to this thing?" Damen asked through a mouthful of Laurent's shoulder, the shirt forced aside enough to expose new skin.

"Don't you dare damage this shirt," Laurent said breathlessly.

Laughter and a growl of frustration mingled in Damen's mouth. "As you wish, Your Highness." He pulled at the laces. And tangled them. And pulled from a different direction. And tangled them worse.

"Seriously?"

"You want to help me out?" Damen asked.

"No."

Damen nipped his collarbone. "Just stand up."

Laurent made an unhappy sound, but got to his feet beside the bed, letting gold light spill over the shirt. Now that Damen could see better, he made short work of it, and soon had the shirt over Laurent's head and tossed on the floor.

Boots and breeches followed, and then Damen's clothes, and finally they were both wearing nothing but the sunset. And a pair of gold bracelets.

Laurent was still standing by the bed. He was trembling, Damen realized when he put his arms around him, a subtle vibration under the skin. Damen remembered what Jokaste had said—"You'd be crying before he ever got your clothes off."

"Are you all right?" he murmured, nuzzling Laurent's cheek.

"Stunned," Laurent said archly. "I admit, I thought the pictures were photoshopped." His hand ghosted lightly over Damen's cock. Damen's laugh came out a little strangled.

"Well, don't worry, it won't bite. It likes you."

Laurent made a thoughtful hmm and gave it a light tug, pulling Damen forward a step. They were touching now all the way down their fronts, Laurent's hardness flush against his own. Damen ran his hands slowly up and down Laurent's ribs and back, savoring the warmth of his skin, mouthing soft kisses down his temple and jaw. Laurent wound his arms around Damen's shoulders, and pulled him down onto the bed.

Laurent had told Jo he was a virgin. That tracked in some ways, Damen thought as they continued kissing and touching, and in some ways—didn't, but he couldn't articulate why. He wasn't shy, exactly, touching Damen without hesitation, but he seemed so surprised every time Damen found a spot that Laurent seemed to like (on the side of his throat, one nipple, the inside of his thigh) and lavished attention there. It was like Laurent knew full well how to please a lover in bed, he just didn't know how to be pleased in return.

If he has been with anyone before, then they certainly weren't any good.

Finally Damen dared brush a finger against the place he most wanted access to. Laurent flinched, his entrance drawing up even tighter—then made a visible attempt to relax, nodding when Damen looked up at his face.

"Are you sure?" Damen said. "I don't want anything you don't want."

"If you do anything I don't want," Laurent said, in that arctic diamond voice, his face beautifully sweaty and kiss-flushed, "rest assured I will let you know. Please proceed."

Proceed. Damen might actually be in love with this high-handed prick.

The nightstand yielded a bottle of lubricant, but nothing else. With an exasperated sound, Damen got up and began searching the room.

Laurent propped himself up on his arms, frowning fiercely. "This is you proceeding?"

"Mother Moonwise said to use protection!"

"Is her opinion your biggest concern right now?" Laurent got up, caught Damen as he walked by, and kissed him soundly. "I don't care about that. I trust you."

"Do you trust Kastor? 'Cause I'm an idiot and haven't been tested since breaking up with Jo."

"…Where else can we look?"

They did finally find a box of condoms in the bathroom, and raced each other back to the bed, where they spent some very enjoyable minutes fully restoring the mood. Damen had a moment's dizzy disbelief that this was actually happening, that Laurent was in his bed, kissing and touching him, wanting him—not as a publicity stunt, not to improve his reputation, but genuinely wanting him. Only now did Damen fully admit how badly he wanted Laurent, too, and had from the first, even before he actually liked Laurent. He was glad it hadn't happened then, in some explosion of hate-sparks. This, here, now, was so much better than that.

He moved a slicked-up finger to start opening Laurent up. This time, Laurent not only flinched, but grabbed Damen's wrist, in something like reflexive panic.

"Laurent," Damen said softly. "It's all right. We can stop completely, or we can do this another way. However you want it."

"You would roll over for me?" Laurent said, in frank disbelief, almost mocking. His chest was rising and falling, rapid and harsh.

"Of course I would." He never had before, actually—that was mostly luck in the preferences of his partners, but he hadn't sought it out, either. That didn't mean he refused. For Laurent, he realized, he wouldn't hesitate. "Do you want me to?"

Laurent blinked, swallowed, took this in. "No," he said at last. "No, I want it—this way. I want it to be you. I know I'm being… difficult. Irrational. I know you have no reason to hurt me. We're friends, aren't we?"

"Friends?" It would have been easy to find the word disappointing, but honestly, Damen was honored Laurent would say even that much aloud. "Yes, we are. And furthermore, Laurent," he rearranged himself over Laurent's body, wrapped one of Laurent's hands around the bracelet on his wrist, "I'm yours, remember? I'm all yours."

Laurent stared at the bracelet, his breath steadying as his fingers traced it. After a moment, he leaned forward and kissed Damen's wrist, just outside the band of gold. Then he took Damen's other hand and placed it back between his legs. "Do it. I'm ready."

Damen did as he was bid, prepared to stop again at the first hesitation—but there wasn't one. Laurent was very quiet, as lovers went, his responses subtle and restrained, but they were all positive. Damen collected every tiny gasp and shiver like jewels, and felt like an outright hero when Laurent got off first, though Damen was right behind him.

He didn't mean to fall asleep, had intended to make sure Laurent was properly cuddled and sated and secure, but the next thing he knew he was waking up.

The room was dark, stars and moon glittering through the glass, and Laurent was asleep, tangled up in his arms. They were under the blankets now, and a moment's examination showed that Laurent had cleaned them both up—whether out of consideration or fastidiousness, Damen couldn't guess, but saw as a virtue either way.

He hadn't set an alarm for the morning, Damen realized, and he had yet another meeting with lawyers at 10:00. Reluctantly, he disentangled himself from Laurent and began poking through the piles of clothes on the floor.

Laurent didn't so much stir as jolt awake, going stiff in the bed with his eyes wide and gleaming.

"It's just me, sorry," Damen said. "Looking for my phone, I have to set an alarm…"

"Oh," Laurent said. "Yes, me too. I have a flight to California in the morning, for filming."

Damen made a petulant, disappointed sound before he could stop himself. "When will you be back?"

"I'm not sure. But we'll work something out." Was he smiling? It was hard to tell, in the dark. He'd gotten out of bed to join the hunt for cell phones, and that at least was a clear and lovely view in the moonlight.

When both their phones were set and placed on either side of the bed, they crawled effortlessly back into each other's arms. It was Laurent, to Damen's delighted surprise, who made the first overture to go further, pressing a line of kisses across Damen's throat."Since we're awake anyway," Damen murmured, hands wandering, "I guess I'm not totally opposed to indulging my insatiable boyfriend."

"Yes, I can see it's a burden for you," Laurent said, rolling his hips against the evidence of Damen's interest.

They gave it another go, Damen kissing his way down Laurent's body to its most important point—and despite his restrained responses, it was immediately obvious no one had ever given Laurent his mouth before. Absolutely criminal, but Damen was pleased to give him an introduction to the practice. Laurent didn't make a sound until the very end, but that one—high and desperate and finally un-self-conscious—was worth the wait.

Afterward, Laurent tried to clean up again, but since his limbs didn't seem to be entirely working, Damen just laughed and pushed him back down while he took care of it. They'd used protection again; Mother Moonwise would be proud.

"But you haven't," Laurent said, "I mean, you still—and I'm not—I don't do that, I'm not going to…do…"

"Now I know exactly what it takes to scramble that tongue of yours," Damen said smugly, bending to kiss Laurent's stammering mouth. "Your hand will be fine. Honestly, any part of you would be fine."

And it was, fine and more than fine and wonderful.

 

When Damen woke again, his alarm hadn't gone off yet; he was able to drift to consciousness like something pulled up through molasses. Early morning sun filled the room, but gently, curling around the edges of the building to reach them. Between wrestling, a bad fall, and last night's exertions, Damen's body ached, but the discomfort amused him more than anything else as he rose to visit the bathroom.

On his return, he found that the ivory form of Laurent had rolled into the warm place Damen left in the bed, face buried in Damen's pillow. The sight left Damen smiling and stupid. He picked up his phone and took a picture. He'd delete it later if Laurent wanted—but he really hoped Laurent would let him keep it. Maybe make it his lock screen.

Crawling carefully back into bed, on what had been Laurent's side, since his own was taken, Damen caught sight of Laurent's phone on the nightstand. Suddenly curious to see how he was listed in Laurent's contacts—Laurent was still in his as Snake Boy—Damen texted a heart emoji to his number, and watched Laurent's screen light up.

The contact picture was a still from Disney's Robin Hood, Damen saw as he picked up the phone. Richard the Lionheart drawn as an actual lion. The name that popped up beside it was not Richard, however, but its shorter form—Dick.

Damen struggled to contain his laughter enough not to wake Laurent. He didn't mean to make any attempt to unlock the phone, but hit something by accident as he set it back down, and heard the sound of a photo being taken. Laurent had one of those picture-taking security apps, apparently. Whoops. That was going to be awkward.

He didn't even have time to burrow down into the covers after that before his own phone began to ring in his hand. Hissing exasperated obscenities under his breath, Damen left the bed and stepped into the bathroom to answer.

Later, he would wonder why he answered at all, especially since it was an unknown number. At the time it just seemed the quickest way to shut up the ringtone. He seemed to make a lot of mistakes when it came to phones.

"Hello?"

"Damen! I'm so glad I caught you," said the jovial and vaguely familiar voice of an older man. "I've been trying to reach Laurent, is he there with you?"

Damen frowned. "Is this Uncle Reggie?"

"Didn't put me into your phone, eh, even after I gave you my card? Well, it's of little import; I didn't call to talk to you. I need to speak with my nephew."

"Well, sadly, you can't."

"I just want to know how he's doing." Uncle Reggie's voice did a passable impression of concern. "He won't talk to me. I'm worried about him."

Despite himself, Damen unbent enough to say, "He's doing fine. In fact, I would venture to say he's as happy right now as he's ever been." Arrogant, Laurent would doubtless call him, but the evidence—Laurent's boneless relaxation—spoke for itself.

"Oh, so you did finally take him to bed? That must have been interesting."

Any sympathy Damen might have been feeling evaporated. "What on earth do you mean by that?"

"I know my nephew, that's all."

"I'm guessing not as well as you think you do."

"Educate me, then. Tell me all about him."

Damen huffed a sarcastic laugh. "Oh, you'd love that, wouldn't you? You know, it took me a while, but I've figured out what it is you want from me, why you keep trying to get me on your side. You'd like for me to be your pipeline, right? Feeding you information about Laurent's activities, feelings, decisions. In return, you have a lot to offer me. Make my legal troubles go away, give me back Akielos. Isn't that the kind of arrangement you had in mind?"

It wasn't Uncle Reggie who answered, at least not that Damen heard at all. Laurent stood in the half-open bathroom door, his expression as utterly blank as Damen had ever seen it, his voice like a frozen wasteland. "I guess the sex was just a fun extra, is that it?"

Damen ended the call without another thought, half-dropping the phone on the sink. "Laurent—Laurent, wait!"

Laurent was already on the other side of the room, struggling into the unlaced costume shirt. "There's nothing to wait for."

"Are you kidding me? I'm not sure how much of that you heard, but—"

"I heard enough. First you're trying to get into my phone, then you're giving information to my uncle."

"You don't know what you're talking about!"

Laurent tied the breeches with jerky motions, leaving them uneven and messy. It was perhaps the only clumsy thing he'd ever seen Laurent do. "I'm sure my uncle made it sound harmless. Like you were helping me, even. Maybe you're like Cassie Bayles, incompetent more than malicious. Does it matter to the horse?"

"Laurent, I'm not doing whatever it is you think I'm doing—"

"Then again, maybe I'm not giving you enough credit. If you've been in an arrangement with my uncle all this time, then clearly you're better at dishonesty than I thought. Maybe it was you instead of Kastor after all, stealing papers and setting fires—"

"Kastor? Setting fires? What are you talking about? Hey!" He caught Laurent's arm as he turned away from Damen's approach. "Are you talking about Herode's house? Do you seriously think my brother was involved in that?"

Laurent snatched his arm away. "I figured he was in collusion with my uncle, but clearly I had the wrong brother."

"Are you delusional?" Damen was dimly aware that he was shouting. "Are you having some kind of mental break? This is paranoid, this is crazy—where are you going?"

Laurent, half-dressed, tangle-haired, had picked up his boots and hat and was marching toward the front door. "Uncle always said no one would believe me, that they'd call me crazy. I guess he was right. He's always right."

"Laurent!" Damen hurried to catch up, instinctively put himself between Laurent and the door—froze as Laurent looked up at him with eyes like ice. Ice with maybe a little fear behind it, that a large shouting man was getting between him and the exit.

Damen stepped aside.

Laurent grabbed the doorknob. "I guess this would be embarrassing for you," he said, "a date running off the morning after, unable to bear the sight of you. Good thing we're not really dating, isn't it?"

He opened the door, and was across the foyer and in an elevator before Damen could say a word.

Damen snatched up and stepped into the nearest pair of sweatpants, and rushed after him. The elevator was gone, of course. The second one didn't open immediately when he slapped the button. He ran for the stairs.

He reached the ground-floor lobby of his building, chest heaving and legs aching, to see no trace of Laurent—no, there he was, a flash of sun on bright hair outside the glass doors. Though dimly aware there were people around, Damen was already shoving the door open before he realized he was stepping into a storm of paparazzi.

"Did you spend the night here, Laurent?"

"What's that on your neck?"

"Is he a good lay?"

"Laurent, look over here!"

"Smile for the camera!"

"Is this your first gay sex experience?"

"What's with the hat?"

Laurent had his head down, trying to push through them. Damen couldn't imagine he'd ever been caught in public in such a state of deshabille before.

"Laurent, come back inside," he called desperately. "There's no need for this!"

Immediately, all the cameras were pointed in his direction, and the excitement of the crowd kicked up a notch, or three.

"Damen! Did you two have a fight?"

"Laurent, are you trying to get away from him? Are you afraid of him?"

"Nice pecs, Damen! Flex for us?"

Laurent had frozen in place, but didn't turn around. Damen pushed through the paps and put a hand on his shoulder; he jerked away from it.

"Laurent, please, let's talk about this—"

"Talk about what, Damen?" Laurent snapped, spinning to face him. "Your mediocre bed performance? Your inability to satisfy either man or woman? Your general dishonesty and completely unjustified self-assurance? How about your looming insignificance in the entertainment industry?"

Damen fell back a step, feeling as if he ought to have a physical wound to clutch. "I don't understand why you're saying all this. I know it's not how you really feel."

"I want my bracelet back." Laurent grabbed his wrist.

Damen pulled it away. "No!"

Laurent grabbed again, this time with nails, his face white with rage. "This was my father's, and his father's, and should have been my brother's but it's mine, it's mine and I want it back."

Lightheaded and clumsy, Damen fumbled the bracelet off his wrist, faintly aware of the clicking of cameras all around them. Laurent was taking his off, too.

"Don't," Damen said. "I don't want it back."

"Pawn it," Laurent said, throwing it at his feet with a ringing sound. Then he turned away and walked straight into traffic without a pause. A taxi screeched to a stop; he climbed inside and was gone.

Chapter Text

the-gossipmonger:

Re-posting some of the photos here on Tumblr just in case lawyers get them taken down from TMZ! Obviously this is from yesterday's Lamen Sidewalk Breakdown (or Breakup, rather!) and omg guys, just omg, can you believe. This is the drama that I live for. Look at this beautiful, beautiful trainwreck.

[photo][photo]
[photo][photo]

And here's a link to the video [x]

jennygreenteeth: How does Laurent still look that gorgeous while snarling? When I get mad I just get all red and puffy and weird-looking.

madamdevere: omg he needs every possible hug. look at him. how could anyone hurt my baby like this. #team laurent #team punch damen in the face

noblebloodmagic: Laurent de Vere is a grown man and frankly I am disappointed in his behavior. You have a fight with your boyfriend, you don't immediately throw him to the wolves. In the video you can hear him saying stuff like 'your mediocre bed performance.' That's just not cool. I don't know what Damen did, I assume Laurent has good reason to be mad at him, but handle it like an adult, dude.

akielos-lover: EXACTLY, OMG LAURENT IS BEING SO CRUEL TO MY BOY HERE. YOU CAN DO BETTER, DAMEN. SOOO MUCH BETTER. #team damen

squeeee-love: i hate this so much, you guys, i am literally crying. i shipped them so hard. i would have sworn they were really in love. i was rooting for them so hard. maybe they really were fake all along.

intotheblackhole: ok I know I was one of the ones calling them fake but uhhhh they both look genuinely upset here. I mean granted LdV is an actor so who knows about him, but Damen looks absolutely gutted and from what I hear he is no good at pretending anything. Watching this video felt like watching the crushing of a soul.

*

Sometimes you try your hardest
And you still don't win the game
Sometimes the dream remains a dream
Sometimes you really are to blame

Sometimes the bad keeps getting worse
And even the good goes bad
Sometimes the one you want remains
The best you never had

—"Never Had" from Sword & Shield by Akielos

 

"Stop looking at it," Nikandros said. "I'm serious. I sure don't want to see it. Close the tab."

Damen scrubbed a hand through his hair and took one last look at the TMZ article. "Damen and Laurent EXPLOSIVE PUBLIC SHOWDOWN!" screamed the headline, plastered over a photo of them from the beach, split down the middle as if torn. He'd already read the article three times, but certain phrases still jumped out at him—"half-naked and shouting," "de Vere's first gay relationship," "silence from both parties' social media," "yet another failed relationship for Damen Vasileus." At the bottom were a handful of photos labeled Happier Times—he and Laurent walking the red carpet together at the Met Gala, holding hands at the Black Powder premiere, kissing on the set of Freaks.

Nikandros turned Damen's laptop around and closed it.

"At least that one's got the facts straight," Damen said. Other gossip rags were speculating wildly or just spewing outright lies—Damen was begging Jokaste to take him back, Damen had cheated on Laurent with her, Laurent had cheated on him with her, Laurent had had a gay freakout, or had discovered Damen was only using him for publicity. This last was supported by a comment from an "anonymous source close to the situation" who claimed Damen had hoped for legal help from Laurent's uncle—and another that painted him as a fame-grubbing leech who had allegedly leaked his own nudes last year. That last one was the reason there was a broken lamp on the floor.

"Which Twitter team is winning?" he asked. Earlier, the top ten trending tags had included #Lamen, #LamenBreakup, #TeamDamen and #TeamLaurent.

"Stop it. You have to get dressed," Nik said. "The suits were surprisingly understanding about you standing them up yesterday—"

"I'm guessing they saw the video."

"—but you can't do that to them twice."

Damen put his face in his hands. "I can't, Nik. Just call them now and cancel."

"Look, I know, I know this sucks, but things still have to be done, this can't be put off—"

"Then you go. You're my manager, right? Go manage."

Nik crossed his arms. "And you'll actually abide by whatever I authorize on your behalf?"

"Yes. Pinky swear." Anything to get you out of here. That was unfair, Nikandros was trying his best to be a good friend. It wasn't his fault that Damen couldn't stand anyone's company right now.

"Fine," Nikandros sighed. "Promise me you'll eat something while I'm gone."

"Pinky swear," Damen repeated, and tried to remember if there was any food in the house.

When Nik had gone, Damen started pacing the condo, snarling at himself when he realized he was touching his wrist, looking for his bracelet. Every inch of his home seemed to have Laurent imprinted on it—the lantern on the balcony, the blanket on the bed, the dining room chair where he'd climbed into Damen's lap—and he'd only been here twice. It was funny, Jo had lived here with him for months, but nothing seemed to bear her mark in the same way. Honestly, they hadn't been here at the same time as much as he'd expected when she moved in.

He couldn't do anything about Laurent. He was probably in California; either way he wasn't answering Damen's calls or texts. There was no way to shake Laurent by the shoulders the way he wanted and make him listen. The other, even more appealing option was to track down Uncle Reggie and throw him off the top of a building, but Nik would be pretty mad if he did that. So no, he couldn't do anything about Laurent.

He could do something about Jo.

His stomach clenched as he dialed her number—still under his first speed-dial button, and that really needed to change, but to what?—and he half-hoped she wouldn't answer. But she did, her voice as cool and calm as ever.

"Hello, Damen."

"I finally counted back twenty weeks from the Black Powder premiere," he said. He could have done it at any time. It wasn't until last night, at a sleepless 2:30 in the morning, with his brain a spinning chaos, that he'd gathered the wit and nerve and clear-headedness. "I was in London. The baby's not mine."

"I never said it was," Jokaste said. "Though I thought very, very hard about saying it was."

Damen sat down on the couch, staring down at his feet instead of at his obscenely expensive view. "You slept with Kas before you ever broke up with me."

Jokaste drew a long breath, in and out. "We'd just had that awful fight over Skype. I was so mad at you, and I missed you, and I missed things being good between us—which they hadn't been in a while, though I'm not sure you noticed."

He hadn't. He could see it better now, looking backward, but no, at the time he hadn't seen any pattern to their 'occasional' fights.

"I felt… very rejected and alone. And there was Kastor, who I'm sure you never noticed had been in love with me for years. Or at least thought he was, because he thinks everything you have is better than what he has. And Kas was so, so ready to comfort me and soothe my poor ego… I hope you don't think I'm making excuses for myself. I'm not."

"There's no excuse you could make."

"I know. And I knew, the minute it happened, that if you ever found out, that would be it for us. Completely. Forever. You might forgive me for straying, but not with Kas." Her voice changed, grew a little more strained. He felt almost like he could see her, rubbing a hand over her face, weariness fraying her composure just the slightest bit. "Maybe that's part of why I did it. I don't know. But it was supposed to be a one-time thing. You weren't supposed to ever know.

"And then I found out I was pregnant."

"And you thought about saying it was mine."

"Sometimes I still wish I had. But in the end, we can all do math. You didn't come home from London until I was six weeks along. Kastor would have figured it out even if you didn't, and he would never have kept quiet. So you see, losing you was a done deal. There was no way to keep you. But I could keep Kastor, and I could keep Akielos." Her voice lost some of its coolness. "It wasn't a matter of hurting you, Damen. It was a matter of limiting my losses."

Even if it meant leaving me with nothing. But you were always going to look out for yourself first. In my heart, I always knew that about you. He thought about Laurent, shooting his own career in the foot over a mistreated horse. Helping an old man sort the wreckage of his home. Teaching a child a magic trick.

"The baby's a boy, according to the ultrasound," Jokaste said. "Kastor's thrilled. I was hoping for a girl, but it… doesn't matter to me as much as I thought it would. He's beautiful."

"They say parenthood is our last, best chance to grow up," Damen said dryly. "Maybe it'll work."

"Let's hope." She hesitated. Damen could hear the pause in her breath, imagine the uncertain expression on her face. "I saw the video. Of you and Laurent."

"You and everyone else."

"You do know how to pick 'em, don't you?"

"I'm sure a therapist could help me explore my attraction to vicious blondes. What's your point?"

"Up until then, I didn't buy you two at all. You've never been a good actor. I was certain you were faking it."

"Yeah, well, so were we."

Jo laughed—first in surprise, then again in full-throated amusement. "Oh, dear. Yes, that is exactly the kind of thing that would happen to you. Whatever did you do to upset him so badly?"

"Jo, we're not friends again yet. We're not doing the relationship-advice thing, unless you're ready to hear me tell you to leave Kastor."

"Mmm," she said thoughtfully, which was not exactly a no. When she spoke again, her voice had hardened, though Damen didn't think her displeasure was aimed at him. "Speaking of Kastor, you should know he's the one who's been telling the tabloids you leaked your own nudes."

Damen closed his eyes, jaw clenching. "I don't know why I'm surprised."

"I used to hide that kind of thing from you. Things Kastor did. I think maybe that wasn't a favor to you after all." Before Damen could respond to that, she continued, "Anyway, I have to go."

"Right."

But neither of them hung up.

"Damen," she said after a moment, her voice hardly above a whisper. "I'm sorry the baby isn't yours."

Damen blinked, hard, several times—then gave up and let the tears fall. "Yeah. Me too."

He hung up the phone.

*

Laurent was supposed to be in California.

He'd missed his flight, thoroughly, not even remembering it until hours after it departed, while he sat in the back of a cab and told the driver to "Just go. Anywhere. Just keep going." There had already been a passenger in the back when he got in; he'd given her a hundred dollars to get out at the next red light and not try to talk to him or take his picture. She'd closed her mouth and taken the money.

He told the director that he was sick, too sick to fly, so very sorry. Whether the man actually believed him, he couldn't say—probably not once the video hit the web—but he pretended he did. Laurent had made extremely sure that he was a dream to work with up 'til this point, and he was cashing in that good will now.

So instead of flying to California, he had gone home, sat on the marble floor in front of the mother-and-child statue in his foyer, and cried. A humiliating lapse, but at least no one had been there to witness it.

Sitting on the side of the bed now, watching the darkness lift after a sleepless night, he put his father's bracelet back on. It felt too heavy now, didn't fit as well as the one Damen had given him. His body was sore in embarrassing places, and there were marks on his throat—one on his collarbone that he pressed on now until the pain made his eyes water.

He couldn't think. Everything hurt and he couldn't think. He had to be smarter than his uncle, he couldn't ever take a break from that, but his uncle had won and he couldn't think.

His phone had the time as 4:53 am. He'd had it silenced for the last eighteen hours or so; he had texts and missed calls from Aimeric, Nicaise, Jord, his uncle.

And Damen. Richard the Lionheart. Dick. Laurent threw the phone against the wall and heard the screen shatter.

He shouldn't care. He and Damen had had a business arrangement, that was all. Access to Uncle Reggie's power and influence were probably the main reason Damen took the deal. It wasn't as if Laurent himself had that much to offer.

He said we were friends, Laurent thought, and knew it to be the complaint of a naïve child, one that had never been deceived before. He hadn't been that child in a very long time. Idiot.

He should have known better. Should have known that nothing in his life would remain untouched by his uncle. Should have known that people like Damen—what Damen appeared to be—didn't really exist, especially not in Hollywood. He would learn from this. He would never let it happen again, never trust anyone so easily again. Never.

Though even now he couldn't pinpoint where he'd gone wrong. It wasn't like he'd trusted Damen lightly. He'd considered the evidence very carefully, evidence that indicated Damen was honest and kind, that Damen liked him. He'd thought Damen liked him.

At least now you know what all the fuss is about, he thought, blackly amused. He'd never understood before why so many people—not just people like his uncle, good people—were so strongly motivated by sex. Obviously his own experiences with it hadn't been ideal, but still, he was familiar enough with the physical sensations. He'd thought he knew what it was like.

Wrong. He hadn't had any idea. If—the way it had been with Damen—if that was what it was usually like, then it was no mystery why people would do insane things to get it. Clash swords and burn cities.

The chime of an arriving text sounded. He crossed the room to his shattered phone and stomped it, until he had to hobble over to the bed and pull broken pieces out of his heel.

After that, with the sun fully up and streaming through the skylight, the sleep that had eluded him all night crept up on him from behind. He fell asleep with bits of bloody glass still scattered on the bed.

 

The sound of the doorman's intercom woke him, sometime in the early afternoon, jolted from a dead sleep that left him groggy and disoriented.

"Mr. de Vere, there's a man here to see you that claims to be an old friend…" The doorman sounded very doubtful.

"Probably a reporter. He can leave or he can be drawn and quartered, your choice." Laurent clicked off the intercom and staggered to the bathroom.

Splashing water on his face did little to help his light-headed daze, but did make him realize he was desperately thirsty. He'd had nothing to eat or drink in, what… 36 hours?

A glass of water left him feeling better, but a hunt for food turned up nothing more appetizing than a jar of pickles and some moldy bread.

He took a deep breath, tried to pull himself together. There was a bodega on the corner where they didn't make a big deal about him. If the doorman let him out the back, he might get there without being recognized.

Or maybe some reporter would try to mess with him, and he'd finally have an outlet for the endless scream that kept vibrating under his skin.

Laurent never left the house without giving careful thought to how he was presenting himself, and he seldom dressed to be inconspicuous. The best idea would probably have been a big, sloppy T-shirt and baseball cap, but he wasn't certain he owned anything like that—and even if he did, his entire being rebelled against the idea. He didn't want to look sloppy and hunted and sad. He wanted to look so meticulously put together that no one could doubt he was in complete control of the situation.

The shirt he chose involved black straps that felt good to draw down tight against his skin. Holding him together. The trousers were likewise tight, and pinched uncomfortably in the crotch, which was probably what he deserved. The black gloves were going to be far too hot for the weather but he didn't care; like the straps, the confinement felt reassuring. All in all, it wasn't inconspicuous, but once he tucked his hair up into a newsboy cap and got his eyes behind a pair of huge pink-tinted sunglasses, at least he didn't look immediately like Laurent de Vere.

"Watch your step out there, sir," the doorman said as he let him out the back exit. "There's paparazzi all over the front of the building. And that man from earlier wasn't happy to be turned away, he may be hanging around."

"Thank you. I'll keep my eyes open."

He didn't, though; he had to admit that, later. There were so many distractions—his dizzy hunger, the glare of the sunlight, the worry of recognition, the weight of the too-heavy bracelet he'd forgotten to hide, the pain in his heel every time he took a step, the wretched sick feeling in his stomach that had nothing to do with food and everything to do with Damen Vasileus.

So he wasn't watching his surroundings, and he was taken completely by surprise by the man who darted out of an alley and grabbed him from behind.

"Where is it?" the man snarled, dragging Laurent back into the alley with a knife against his ribs. Hot alcohol-tinted breath blasted into Laurent's ear. "And where's the boy? I know you have them!"

"What boy?" Too utterly confused to resist, Laurent barely managed to turn his face to the side before the man slammed him against the wall.

"Reggie's boy! We know he came to you, he'd have nowhere else to go. He brought it to you. Where is it?"

Nicaise. Feeling suddenly cold to his bones, Laurent kicked blindly behind him—got lucky, hitting the man hard in the shin, and used the moment of bellowing distraction to twist out of the man's grasp.

He'd accidentally turned further into the alley, though, instead of away, and was facing a dead end. He spun to face the man before he could attack him from behind again—

—and froze in shock.

He hadn't seen Govart in seven years, since the day he was arrested for vehicular manslaughter. His uncle hadn't thought attending the trial would be good for Laurent, one of the few 'parenting' decisions he might have done right. Still, the face of the man who killed his family was not one Laurent was likely to forget. He looked remarkably the same—stocky, bearded, disheveled, violent.

But it couldn't be him. People's minds played tricks on them with this kind of thing, and there was no reason in the world for Govart to ever appear in his life again. This man couldn't be Govart.

"Who are you?" Laurent said, holding himself ready to fight, flee, whatever it took.

The man chuckled, knife gleaming in his hand, and took a lazy step forward. "I think you know who I am. And you know what I want."

"You're supposed to be in prison."

Govart cocked his head, as if genuinely surprised. "Is that what Reggie told you? I never served a day. Probation," he sneered. "That really cramped my style. But I've paid my debt to society, and now I've got other debts owed to me. You better hand over that flash drive the boy brought you."

"The only way I'm giving you anything," Laurent said, "is by ramming it up your ass."

He made a run for the end of the alley, because it was the only thing he could do. Govart caught him, of course—tackled him to the ground, heavy and stinking.

Laurent, who had started taking self-defense courses as soon as he had his own money, because no one was ever going to pin him down and hurt him again, smiled as he got his fingers around the knife.

*

In the elevator, headed downstairs to the building's pool, Damen found himself cornered by a reporter. What publication she was with or how she'd gotten in, he couldn't say; she didn't even seem to be looking for him, but was certainly delighted to have found him.

"So what happened between you and Laurent de Vere?" she said, blatantly recording him on her phone.

"I have no comment."

"Is it true that you cheated on him?"

"No."

"Is it true that you stole money from him?"

"No."

"Is it true that you're bad in bed?"

"You'd have to ask him."

"I think he's made his opinion clear. What would you like to say to him about that?"

"Whatever it is, I'll say it to him, not you."

"Did you hurt him during sex? We hear you're quite rough."

"What?" He knew better than to give her that much of a reaction, but it was too late. He bit back his first instinct, which was to ask if Laurent had said that, both because it was too close to engaging with the reporter and because there was no way on Earth Laurent had said that. "No. I don't hurt people—no."

"Is it because you're the father of Jokaste White's baby? Does Laurent hate kids?"

"Laurent likes kids, and anyway I'm not the father."

"Is it true that—"

"Look, no matter what you say, even if you happen to be right, I'm going to deny it, so save your breath."

The woman's gleeful smile didn't falter. "So I'm right about something?"

"No."

"This is your second major break-up in the last year. Is it a drug problem?"

"No."

"Are you going to try to get Laurent back?"

Damen brushed a hand against the weight of Laurent's bracelet in his pocket. "Yes. I am."

His phone rang. Another unknown number, and hadn't that gotten him in enough trouble, but it was better than talking to the reporter. "Hello?"

"Thank God," said an unfamiliar voice. "This is Jord, Laurent's bodyguard, do you remember me? Is Laurent there with you?"

"Are you kidding me?"

"No? Look, I can't get ahold of Laurent and it's an emergency—"

"And you think he's answering my calls?" The reporter was inching closer, trying to hear. Damen put out a hand and glared to keep her back.

"He always answers your calls," Jord said, matter-of-fact and confused.

"You're a bit out of the loop, Jord." Which was extremely strange, wasn't it, when Jord's job was to look after Laurent? "What's the emergency? Is someone hurt?"

"Um," Jord said, his voice wavering, and Damen realized abruptly that the man was on the verge of tears, "I'm not sure. Aimeric is locked in the bathroom with at least three different methods of killing himself, and I don't think he's done anything yet but he will if I call the police, and the only person he'll talk to is Laurent."

This was so far from anything Damen had expected to hear that he just gaped at the phone.

"Is that Laurent on the phone?" the reporter asked. "Is he hurt? Who's hurt, Damen?"

"Would you shut up?" Damen snapped.

"He's probably at his apartment and just not answering his phone," Jord was saying. "Orlant is in California, because unlike some people he didn't miss his flight, and Lazar can't get away from Uncle Reggie right now—someone robbed the guy or something and he's freaking out. Please, can you just go find Laurent? Aimeric is… This could end really badly. Please."

The elevator finally stopped at the ground floor. Damen darted out as the doors opened, turning not toward the pool but the garage.

He didn't owe anything in particular to Aimeric or Jord. Perhaps this was just a jerk's excuse to impose himself on an ex who obviously did not want to see him. But someone's life might be at stake, and… it was one thing for Laurent not to answer Damen's calls, but his own bodyguard?

"I'll find him," Damen said, and hung up the phone.

 

Damen found Laurent before he even reached his glittering mistake of an apartment building—saw him on the sidewalk two blocks away from it, feeling his way along a wall with blood on his face and shirt. Damen slammed on the brakes, parked semi-legally along the nearest stretch of sidewalk, and leaped out of the car.

"Laurent?"

Laurent didn't try to run away; as stiffly as he was standing, Damen thought he might not be capable of it. He had his eyes closed, as if gathering strength, but opened them when Damen approached, crossing his arms over his chest and lounging with studied casualness against the wall. People on the sidewalk were doing double-takes as they passed, possibly recognizing him, definitely seeing the blood.

"Well, if it isn't my boyfriend," Laurent drawled.

"Laurent, are you hurt? What happened?" He looked even worse on closer examination. Blood was smeared down one side of his face in what might be a handprint, and seeping in two places through the torn remains of his shirt. His hair hung loose and tangled, and he was all over grimy and scuffed, as if he'd been rolling on the ground.

"I'm fine," Laurent said. "Though it's none of your concern either way."

"Of course it's my concern! Laurent, you're bleeding—"

"Don't touch me," Laurent snapped, jerking away when Damen reached for him. The movement unbalanced his casual lounge, and he staggered, tried to catch himself against the wall—would have fallen, except that Damen caught him.

"I get that you don't want me here," Damen said. "But you are seriously hurt. You either let me help you, or I call for an ambulance right now. It's up to you."

Laurent hissed between his teeth, but stopped fighting and let Damen's arm remain around him. That felt better than it had any right to. "The bodega on the corner. They know me there, and they'll have a first aid kit."

Damen helped him along the sidewalk, as much as Laurent would let him. "What happened? Were you in an accident?"

Laurent's smile was a downright lupine show of teeth. "A fight. You should see the other guy."

Damen's eyes widened. "Is he alive?" he asked, more than half a joke.

"For now," was not the response he expected. "He'll be better off if someone finds him soon, but I didn't cut his throat. That was the closest I could come to righteousness today."

When they reached the bodega, the wide-eyed proprietor let them into a tiny storage room and brought the first aid kit, along with, at Laurent's request, orange juice and a hot dog.

"The dizziness is due to hypoglycemia more than blood loss," Laurent said matter-of-factly. "I'll be fine once I've eaten."

"A hot dog isn't going to make you stop bleeding. How do you get this shirt off?" The criss-crossing black straps seemed specifically designed to stymie his hands.

Laurent huffed a laugh. "You always have such trouble with that."

They made the mutual mistake of letting their eyes meet, and the wash of memory was almost more than Damen could bear. In that moment, there was nothing he wouldn't have traded to go back, less than a day before—

Laurent looked away. "Just tear it off. It's ruined anyway."

"In a broom closet, tearing off your clothes. Nice way to spend an afternoon." He took the shirt in both hands, ripped it neatly in half, and pulled away the pieces.

Laurent had enough blood left to blush. That was encouraging.

Really, Damen thought as he began to clean and bandage the wounds, it had looked worse than it was. Two cuts on the left side of his torso, messy but not deep. The blood on Laurent's face, he found when he cleaned it carefully away, was not from any wound there; probably his attacker's blood, then. Other than that, Laurent had only a few scrapes and bruises.

"Who did this to you? A mugger?"

"I don't wish to discuss it," Laurent said. "It will have to be dealt with, and soon, but—not yet." He turned away and gulped down the last of his orange juice.

"I guess that's up to you," Damen said reluctantly. "As it happens, I did come find you for a reason." He told Laurent about Jord's phone call.

Laurent combed fingers through his hair, looking as close to overwhelmed as Damen had ever seen him. "Aimeric is having a crisis, Nicaise is apparently missing, and I've been…" He gestured down at himself. "Not a great day for my uncle's stable."

"Or your uncle, either. Jord said something about him being robbed."

Damen wasn't sure exactly what thoughts were clicking into place behind Laurent's eyes, but they seemed to be disturbing ones. "I think I should talk to Aimeric."

 

Aimeric and Jord had a room at the Pierre, and Damen had a lot of questions about that, but this wasn't the time to ask them. When Jord opened the door and saw Laurent—in torn dress pants and a hot pink tank top from the bodega—it was clear he was holding back a lot of questions as well, but he waved them inside.

"Thank you for coming, Mr. de Vere," Jord said, and Damen wondered if he were clinging to etiquette for lack of anything else to cling to. He was clearly dressed for a day off, in a grey V-neck and jeans, which made him look like an entirely different person than the bodyguard Damen had encountered before. He led them through the richly-appointed hotel room to the bathroom door. "Aimeric is in there. He has a variety of pills, and a razor, and I heard him fill the tub a few hours ago. He was still responding to me until about ten minutes ago; he won't talk to me now, but I think he's still moving around in there."

"Have you contacted anyone else for help?" Laurent asked, pressing his ear against the door.

"No. Maybe I should have, but he begged me not to, swore he'd hurt himself if I did." Jord rubbed his face, looking exhausted.

"Aimeric," Laurent called through the door. "You wanted to talk to me, here I am."

There was no answer. No sound of motion at all.

"Aimeric?" Jord shouted, and pounded on the door. Nothing.

"Screw this," Damen said, and kicked in the door.

The bathroom was huge, and beautiful, and its central feature was a large soaking tub—where Aimeric lay motionless in a pool of scarlet up to his chin.

Jord and Laurent rushed past Damen and were already dragging Aimeric out of the water before he could react.

"Towels," Laurent snapped, pointing at a pile of them beneath the sink. Damen spilled them onto the floor to lay Aimeric across, followed by smaller hand-towels to wrap around his freely-bleeding wrists.

Jord was talking, a barely-coherent stream of words composed equally of swearing and endearments, pleading and demands, partly at Aimeric and partly at God. The terror in his voice was physically painful to hear.

"Aimeric," Laurent said loudly, and delivered a brisk, businesslike slap to his cheek.

Aimeric flinched and groaned. Jord began to cry.

 

Once Aimeric was fully conscious, dried off and wrapped in a robe with layers of towels still tight around his wrists, Damen carried him to the bed; everyone seemed to silently agree that staying in the room with the bloody tub would do no good for anyone's state of mind.

"You need a hospital," Jord said, sitting beside Aimeric on the bed with his arms around him.

Aimeric, looking wet and small and much younger than nineteen, shivered and huddled into Jord's—his boyfriend's?—arms. "No. No hospital. It'd be all over the tabloids in an hour."

A couple days ago, Damen would have thought that was a stupid reason to risk one's life. He found he could sympathize a lot more, now.

"We'll call the concierge," Laurent said, his tone brooking no argument. "I'm sure they'll know a doctor willing to make a house call."

"You may need a blood transfusion," Jord said.

Aimeric hesitated, then nodded.

"Jord, go make the call please," Laurent said.

Jord looked at him, startled and indignant, a clear I'm a little busy here in his gaze.

"I want to speak with Aimeric alone," Laurent said. "I think he might prefer that, too."

Another hesitant nod from Aimeric. Looking pained, Jord kissed his forehead, then reluctantly disentangled from him and stepped into the next room to use the phone.

Damen moved toward the door as well, only for Laurent's voice to stop him.

"I'd prefer for Damen to stay, if you don't mind."

"Sure," Aimeric said dully. "It doesn't matter."

Laurent wanted him to stay? He'd pulled up a chair to the side of the bed, and sat as elegant and regal there as ever, torn pants and tank top and all. Yet his eyes, when he looked up at Damen, did not match that body language. Laurent was shaken, and didn't want to be left alone with this frightened boy.

Damen pulled up a second chair, sitting close enough to Laurent for their knees to touch. Laurent let them.

"All right, Aimeric," Laurent said. "You wanted to talk to me, and here I am."

Aimeric, still watching the direction Jord had gone, didn't respond.

"Aimeric," Laurent said again, stern and cool. "Why did you want to talk to me?"

Still facing away, Aimeric spoke, hardly above a whisper. "Because your name was on the list."

"What list?"

"The one Nicky found."

"Nicaise?" The subliminal hum in Laurent's body heightened, his bare shoulders tensing. "What are you talking about, what did he find?"

Aimeric gestured weakly, seemed to be trying to gather his thoughts, his words. "Okay, so, I've been staying at Uncle Reggie's the last couple nights? While my place was frickin' fumigated? And this morning I caught Nicaise going through Uncle Reggie's stuff. I started to tell him off for it, but then he showed me what he found."

"Which was?"

"A list of names. Handwritten, old paper—not like centuries but definitely a few years. Your name was right at the top. Mine further down. And a bunch of others. All boys Uncle Reggie worked with in some way, back when I was a kid. Before that, even. Nicky, he said he heard Uncle Reggie talking about it with some other guy. They swiped the list from your dad's old lawyer. The old man never knew what it meant, but Nicky, he said it was a list of all of... of Uncle's boys. Boys like me. And him. Did you know?" A bit of fire returned to Aimeric's features, angry and hurting. "Did you know there were others? He always told me I was the only one. That he loved me. That I was special. I think he told Nicky that, too, only Nicky wasn’t fool enough to believe him." He sagged back against the pillows again. "I believed him."

Damen became aware of his own hands on his face, covering his nose and mouth as if he were breathing into a bag. Surely Aimeric wasn't saying… surely Damen was misinterpreting something.

"You still believed him? Even after he stopped having sex with you?" Laurent's voice was clipped, cold, expressionless—but the rest of him was white and trembling, drawing in on himself. His knee pulled away from Damen's.

"Relationships evolve," Aimeric said woodenly.

Laurent shook his head, swallowing hard. "Where is Nicaise now?"

"I don't know. He took the list, and some other stuff—a flashdrive, a key—and he bugged out."

"And you got yourself a hotel room to kill yourself in."

"We already had the hotel room." Jord was standing in the doorway, arms crossed, chin raised as if daring Laurent to comment on it. "We both had a few days off, and thought…" He trailed off, rubbing his face again. "Aims, what if I hadn't gotten here early? What would I have found?"

Aimeric's stony expression dissolved into abrupt tears. "I'm sorry, Jord. I'm sorry, I'm sorry—"

Jord rushed to the bed and pulled Aimeric into his arms.

"Let's give them a moment," Laurent said, rising from his chair. He passed Damen without touching him, walking not into the sitting room but back into the bathroom. Damen followed.

The bathroom door, thanks to Damen, wouldn't stay closed by itself; Laurent leaned against it, chest heaving, staring unseeing at the bathtub full of blood. He didn't respond when Damen said his name. After a few moments, he slid down to the hard floor, knees drawn up against his chest.

"Your name was on the list," Damen said, softly, feeling sick.

"Nicaise," Laurent said. "All this time. And I didn't know. How could I not know?"

Damen didn't have an answer for that.

"I actually asked him once," Laurent said. "Uncle. He said of course not. That what we had was special, that he'd never felt that way about anyone else. I think he thought I was jealous." He shuddered. "I wasn't. I'm not as big a fool as Aimeric. But fool enough to believe him. I can't believe I believed him." Laurent's fingernails were digging into his own shoulders, threatening to draw blood. Damen, kneeling in front of him, reached out and hesitantly pulled them away.

Laurent gave a choking sob. "You can still touch me? I can barely stand to touch myself." It was Damen's skin the nails bit into now. He didn't flinch, only cupped Laurent's cheek in one hand.

"What do you need from me?" Damen said, the only thing he could think to say. "Whatever you need, it's yours."

Laurent took a few deep breaths, still gripping Damen's wrists, his eyes closed as he tried to calm himself, to think. "What kind of arrangement do you have with my uncle? I don't care what it is, just tell me the truth."

"There's no arrangement. There never was. I was in the process of telling your uncle to stuff himself when you interrupted."

Laurent stared at him, drawing a shaky breath. "I really want to believe you." He sounded as if that might be the worst part of his entire day.

"How about if I help you track him down and beat him to a pulp? Would that convince you?"

Laurent half-laughed, brief and wet but beautiful, and shook his head. He released Damen's wrists, only to tangle their fingers together instead. "No. The one we need to track down is Nicaise. My uncle will be looking for him, and we have to find him first."

Chapter Text

JOKASTE WHITE VS. LAURENT DE VERE: Who Did It Better?

Laurent de Vere and Jokaste White have a lot of similarities these days—romantic entanglements with the same man, similar reputations for coldness and spite, and even what some have called an eerie physical resemblance! Here at Us Weekly we couldn't resist the chance to compare these two stars and ask—Who Did It Better?

(1) Feuding with Colleagues! Back in February, photographer Albert Heston made waves by tweeting unflattering (and sometimes hilarious) shots of Jokaste, a sort of blooper reel from her Glamour magazine shoot. The ensuing Twitter fight reached epic proportions. Heston apologized in the end; Jokaste didn't accept it, but she did let the conflict die.

[Twitter screenshots]

In contrast, Laurent's most famous feud—with co-star Cassie Bayles—took place largely IRL, reaching the world's ears through a production assistant's surreptitious audio recording. Laurent was rocketed to the wrong sort of fame for insulting, cursing at and even spitting on the unlucky Miss Bayles—

[embedded link to audio]

—only for the truth to come out earlier this month. Laurent's claims that Cassie had earned his ire by causing the death of a horse on the set of Black Powder were substantiated by cast and crew members, such as this extra who came forward to defend Laurent last week.

[embedded video]

Winner? We're giving this one to Laurent. From "outrageous jerk" to "outraged defender of animals" is too big a turnaround to ignore!

(2) Braids and Sparkles! Jokaste and Laurent's resemblance is highlighted in these shots from the 2016 Grammys and 2017 Academy Awards, respectively, where each sported intricate braided hairstyles and—yes, that is the very same Oscar de la Renta sequined jacket!

[photos]

Winner? Jo wore it first and best—sorry, Lolo!

(3) Dumping Damen Vasileus! After years of on-again off-again, Jokaste and Damen got engaged last August. Jo not only pulled the plug on the relationship only six months later, but immediately got engaged again—to Damen's brother, Kastor! Now expecting Kastor's baby, Jokaste could hardly have stomped her former beloved's heart more thoroughly.

[photo of Jokaste holding hands with Damen] [photo of Jokaste holding hands with Kastor]
These were taken one week apart. We are not kidding.

Then again, at least Jokaste didn't dump Damen in front of a dozen cameras! Two days ago, Laurent de Vere did just that, ending a whirlwind courtship that took the Internet by storm. During an apparent Walk of Shame outside Damen's apartment building, Laurent insulted his now-ex's integrity, personality, career, and "bed performance" (!!!) on film for the world to see.

[photos]

Winner? It's a tie! Lolo and Jo have both achieved new levels of scandal with their shocking behavior. Keep it classy, guys!

*

When I'm weak, I keep the strength
Just to cling to you
You bind my wounds, you hold me up, you shield me from the storm
And when you're weak, you turn to me
I'm always there for you
I'll have your back, I'll fight the fight, I'll keep you safe and warm

—"Troubled Times," from Epicurious by Akielos

 

"Call Nicaise, see where he is," Damen said as they left Aimeric in the care of Jord and whatever doctor the concierge had summoned.

"I can't," Laurent said, a muscle jumping in his jaw. "My phone is broken. I dropped it."

"Use mine, then," Damen said, handing it over and pushing the elevator button for the parking garage.

"Nicaise doesn't pick up unknown numbers, not since a stalker incident last year. He even filters his texts."

Damen made a frustrated noise. "Whose number would he answer? Lazar?"

"Maybe, but Lazar's too risky if he's stuck at Uncle's side."

"Jord?"

"Maybe. I'll have him try." Laurent dialed Jord's number on Damen's phone.

By the time Laurent got off the phone with Jord, they had reached Damen's car.

"We'll try my place," Laurent said. "Surely he would at least try to go there, although he can't get in. I haven't given him the new key yet." The implication was clear in his haunted expression—if only he'd done that one little thing, Nicaise might well be safe and sound inside Laurent's apartment.

"Hey," Damen said, pausing to look Laurent in the eye before pulling into traffic. "None of this is your fault. You understand that, right? Not Nicaise, not Aimeric, none of it."

"Can you go any faster?" Laurent said.

They made it to Laurent's apartment in record time, but there was no sign of Nicaise in or around it. Laurent took the opportunity to throw a white button-up over the tank top and pick up his phone—but it was beyond any hope of making a call.

"You… dropped it," Damen said, staring at the phone's mangled remains.

"With prejudice," Laurent admitted.

Damen chose not to ask about the bloody glass on the bed.

The doorman hadn't seen Nicaise, but the shift had changed since Laurent left; he made the man call up his predecessor.

"Oh, the kid you have over so much? Yeah, he did come by. Not long after you left."

Damen, leaning in close to hear, saw Laurent's knuckles go white on the telephone. "Where is he now?"

"I don't know, sir. You weren't home and he didn't have a key, so he left. Didn't say where he was going. Asked for a bus map."

 Laurent hung up and began to pace the lobby.

"Doesn't he have any friends, other kids he might have gone to?" Damen asked.

"He doesn't get on well with other kids. He doesn't get on well with people, period."

Damen's phone rang. "Jord! Did you get in touch with Nicaise?"

"No, he hasn't answered. But I did hear from Lazar. Uncle Reggie managed to track Nicaise's phone—they're headed for somewhere in Chelsea."

"Chelsea?" Damen smacked the wall in a surge of epiphany. There was one person Nicaise got on well with. "Nikandros lives in Chelsea."

 

Damen had to turn on his headlights as they hauled tail to Nik's Chelsea townhouse; for all that it was barely 4:00, the sky was dark and thick with clouds, threatening rain threatening any moment. That was just what they needed.

"—and if you hear from Nicaise, let us know, and for heaven's sake don't let my uncle near him." Laurent ended his second voicemail to Nikandros with the vicious jab of a button.

"He's probably still talking to the lawyers," Damen sighed. "He's far too polite to check his phone during a meeting."

A text arrived with a tiny chime; Laurent opened it and swore.

"What is it?"

"Jord screenshotted a text from Lazar. It says, 'Uncle ditched me, he has a fucking piano wire, I don't know what's going down but I'm calling the police.'"

Damen hit the accelerator and began weaving faster through traffic.

 

Nik's townhouse was a picturesque little thing, cream-colored with bay windows and arched doorways. Through the fitful spatters of rain, it was immediately obvious that no one was home; there wasn't a single light on. Damen pulled into what was probably Nik's paid-for parking spot, and Laurent leaped from the car before it even came to a full stop.

Stairs led from the sidewalk to the door; Damen caught up with Laurent poking through the bit of garden next to them. "Did you find something?"

Laurent held up an empty Red Vines bag. "Nicaise's favorite. Not proof, but I'm willing to bet he's been here."

Damen turned in a slow circle, surveying their surroundings. "He might wait in the park," he said, pointing across the street, where paths wound through trees and greenery.

"If so, he'll be seeking shelter soon," Laurent said, jerking his chin at the sky. The rain was worsening by the minute. "We'd better hurry."

They jogged across the street, and agreed to split up with no further communication than a glance and a gesture. The park was all but deserted, a few stragglers still gathering up picnics and volleyballs, holding newspapers over their heads. Damen kept his eyes peeled for a thirteen-year-old boy alone.

There—could that be him? Through a curtain of rain, he saw a slight figure in a panda T-shirt and black bomber jacket, sitting on a bench. Damen waved at the boy, who cocked his head and stood up, moving toward him.

"Laurent," Damen called over his shoulder. "Laurent! I think I found him!"

Through the trees, a couple paths away, a blond head going rapidly dark with water turned and hurried his direction. Damen didn't wait, jogging toward Nicaise, but Laurent caught up quickly.

"That's him, I know that jacket," Laurent said, and relaxed a little—

Just as Uncle Reggie, unmistakable with his dark beard and retiree's figure, darted out of the shadows behind the boy and grabbed him with something around his throat.

"Nicaise!"

Damen wasn't sure which of them shouted it, but the sound didn't seem to travel far through the pouring rain. They were both running, cutting the corners of the paths and splashing in puddles, straining to see where the two of them had gone.

"There!" Laurent cried, pointing.

Reggie, whom Damen could only assume didn't know he'd been seen, was dragging Nicaise into a niche behind a statue. Nicaise was fighting, scrabbling at his throat—and then, from one step to the next, stopped fighting, hands falling limp.

Damen and Laurent reached the pair of them at almost the same moment, and tackled them to the ground. Damen punched Reggie in the face, twice, three times, the shock of impact opening the man's hands while Laurent pulled Nicaise away from him. Damen could only spare a glance—but lightning flashed, illuminating the blood pouring from Nicaise's throat. With a roar of rage, Damen turned back to Reggie, who was thrashing and trying to get away. A few more blows to the face put a stop to that, and a jab to the kidney for good measure. Damen flipped Reggie onto his stomach in the mud and knelt with all his weight on the man's back, both arms yanked up behind him.

Reggie was shouting something, garbled by rain and mud and probably broken teeth. What little crowd there had been in the park was quickly gathering around in alarm.

"Call 911," Laurent barked at the nearest bystander, a black woman watching with both hands over her mouth. She nodded frantically and pulled out her phone. Other phones were coming out as well.

"I'm a doctor, let me through!" A man pushed through the crowd and joined Laurent at Nicaise's side. Damen did a double-take, recognizing the bread-loaf-hat medic from the Renaissance Faire. New York could be a small town sometimes. "You need to maintain an airway. Keep pressure here. You there, hold that umbrella over us." Laurent was pressing his white button-up, rapidly soaking through with red, to Nicaise's throat. There was blood all over his hands. "Child, can you hear me? Can you breathe?" the doctor asked.

Nicaise inhaled, a strained, frantic, whistling sound. His eyes were huge, face pale, body writhing in panic while Laurent and the doctor tried to hold him still. Something was clutched in his hand, something he was trying to shove into Laurent's grip. Damen, making sure Reggie was securely pinned down, reached out to take it, since Laurent couldn't.

It was another Red Vines bag, emptied of candy and filled with something else. A flash drive, a key, a folded paper.

"We've got it, Nicaise," Damen said. "Look, I'm putting it in my shirt so it won't get wet. We know how important it is, and we've got it."

The boy seemed to relax a little, still gasping and choking on every breath.

"I'm here, Nicaise, I'm right here," Laurent said. "I'm not going to let you die."

They heard sirens, and then saw lights, and finally an ambulance pulled up to the nearest curb, two paramedics with loud, authoritative voices swooping in with equipment and bandages and oxygen. They swarmed around Nicaise, displacing Laurent, who stepped back with blood-spattered arms tight around himself. The wet streaks on his face might, perhaps, have been rain.

"Did you see that?" Damen said to Uncle Reggie. "The evidence he stole from you? We have it, and we're going to use it to destroy you."

"It won't stick," Reggie said, grinning fiercely through bloodied teeth. "Nothing ever sticks to me. Isn't that right, Laurent? It never has before, has it?"

Laurent stepped closer, looking down at his uncle expressionlessly.

Reggie's smile broadened. "You'll never be free of me, boy, and I'll make you wish you hadn't tried. Do you know how many powerful people I have dancing to my tune? Do you think there's anyone you can really trust? You think your boyfriend here isn't in my pocket? You think he hasn't been giving me what I wanted all along?"

Damen opened his mouth on a hot protest—but Laurent just smiled, cold and serene, and said, "I don't believe you, Uncle. Not anymore."

Police cars were pulling up to the scene now, as the paramedics loaded Nicaise into the ambulance. Laurent hurried over to them.

"Are you family?" one of the paramedics asked.

Nicaise struggled out of his oxygen mask. "Yes! He's my cousin. He's my family."

"Get in, then."

Laurent climbed into the ambulance, looking back at Damen as the doors closed between them.

Then they were gone, and police were shouting at Damen to put up his hands.

*

Damen had been answering questions at the police station for an hour when Herode arrived, apparently sent by Laurent. As legal counsel went, he turned out to be of limited use, as the police quickly cottoned on that he was involved in all this, too. Soon they were simply being questioned together.

Herode confirmed that the list and key, which probably belonged to a safety deposit box but had never been identified, were stolen from his safe. Laurent's father had given them to Herode for safekeeping just days before he was killed.

"I came across them again a few weeks ago," Herode said. "It had always bothered me, not knowing what they meant. I knew they were important to Aleron, I felt certain he meant for me to do something with them, but I never knew what. So I called Reggie and asked if he knew anything about them. He said no."

"And then a week later," the detective questioning them said grimly, "your safe was robbed and your house burned down."

Herode nodded, equally grim.

The flash drive, surprisingly, was not from Herode's safe. Damen was reluctant to hand it over—suppose it disappeared into an evidence locker and never returned, thanks to the many powerful friends Uncle Reggie claimed to have? But the police made it clear he had no choice.

They brought it back into the interrogation room a short time later, to his surprise, plugged into a laptop.

"All it contains is this audio file," the detective said. "We need to know if you recognize the voices on it."

"That's definitely Reggie," Herode murmured as one voice began to speak—initiating a phone call, it sounded like.

"I hear you're the man for solving problems, Govart," Reggie said in the recording. Damen tensed, recognizing the name.

"That's what I'm known for," the other voice said smugly. "What kind of problem can I solve for you, Mr. de Vere?"

"The problem of my brother. Let's say his wife and oldest son, as well. They may know too much, and they'd certainly be an obstacle for me in other ways."

"I don't offer group rates."

"We can discuss payment in person. First, I need to know you can make it look like an accident. There can't be any question of foul play."

"That'll cost you extra. But yeah, I can definitely meet your needs."

The detective, perhaps responding to Damen and Herode's shocked and sickened expressions, paused the playback.

"He killed them?" Herode said, head in his hands. "All of them? I can't—I can't believe—"

"Any idea," said the detective, "where we can find this Govart?"

Dead in an alley? Damen thought, and said aloud, "All I know is he tried to attack Laurent earlier today. He did not come out on top."

That was the point at which they dragged Laurent away from Nicaise's bedside and started questioning him as well.

 

It was long after nightfall before they were permitted to leave the police station—and by "permitted," Damen strongly suspected Laurent simply decided he'd had enough and left the room, collecting Damen along the way. Herode chose to stay.

They kept their heads down and ignored a few news crews on their way to the car, where Lazar was in the driver's seat.

"Nicaise is still stable, sir," he said as he pulled away from the curb. "Nikandros is with him."

"Thank you, Lazar," Laurent said, calm and proper as ever. "Take us to the hospital, please."

Laurent was a mess, still damp from the rain and speckled with blood. He'd replaced the pink tank top with an I <3 NYC T-shirt, perhaps from the hospital gift shop, but still wore the black dress pants, which were now muddy as well as torn. His hair was pulled back in an untidy tail, eyes shadowed, and there was a bruise coming up on his cheek. Damen wanted to touch him so badly it hurt.

"You look terrible," Laurent said, and pressed a gentle fingertip to Damen's chin, which stung. Did he have a cut there?

"I feel terrible," Damen said, which was true. He was hungry and tired, and he'd busted his knuckles open on Reggie's face. Cautiously, he eased an arm around Laurent's shoulders. "Are you all right?"

Laurent closed his eyes, and slowly, slowly relaxed against him, as if he had to guide himself through the process, remembering the steps.

"The list of names," he said. "It's in my brother's handwriting."

Damen frowned. "Not your father's?"

"No. It looks like Auguste was helping my father gather evidence. Whatever they knew, I don't think they'd told my mother yet—she's the one who let Uncle take me to the audition that day. I wonder, if she hadn't, would Uncle have changed his plans? Or just killed me, too?"

Only one person could answer that, and Damen wasn't interested in anything he had to say. He drew Laurent in closer, stroking his hair.

"The police say there'd been allegations against my uncle before, but they never went anywhere. I'm sure my father didn't believe them. Until he did. Something tipped him off—Uncle's behavior toward me, perhaps. I remember my father suddenly canceling a couple of outings I was supposed to have with Uncle, shortly before… before."

"Your father—and brother—were going to turn him in."

"So they had to go," Laurent said. "And my mother, too, for good measure. No one left to interfere with Uncle getting custody of me."

"Except Herode. He said he tried."

"He tried." Laurent turned his face into Damen's hand, so that he was stroking Laurent's cheek instead of his hair. "In some other version of the world, perhaps he succeeded, and none of this happened."

"But Herode didn't have that recording," Damen said, "of the phone call between Reggie and Govart. Where did it come from?"

 

"Oh, that," Nicaise said, doing a passable imitation of flippancy despite his weak and raspy voice. He looked even smaller than usual in the hospital bed, throat bandaged and arm hooked up to a bag of blood. "Uncle had me steal it from Govart when he lent me out to him for a weekend."

Dead silence in the hospital room greeted this breezy announcement. Nikandros looked distinctly ill.

"He'd been holding it over Uncle's head for years, getting money out of him," Nicaise continued. "When it went missing, Uncle probably thought Govart had stolen it back."

"Leading to a furious phone call to Govart," Laurent said. "Which led to Govart jumping me in an alley, trying to get his leverage back."

"Govart jumped you?" Nicaise's eyes glittered maliciously. "Did you hurt him bad? I hope you hurt him real bad."

"I did," Laurent said lightly.

"Did they ever find him?" Damen asked. "I know the police were looking."

"Yes," Laurent said. "He's handcuffed to a hospital bed. Not this hospital," he added when Nicaise tensed, and touched his hand briefly. "You're safe here, Nicaise. You should get some rest. Your body needs it."

"I'm fine," Nicaise grumbled, his eyes drifting closed.

"You need rest, too," Nikandros said. "Both of you."

"I'm not going to leave him alone here," Laurent murmured.

"Of course not. I'll stay."

Laurent looked surprised. "There's no reason you should—"

"Should what? Hang out with a hurt friend? It's not what I'd call a punishment. And I'm not the one who spent the day tackling evildoers and getting grilled by the cops. Damen, go home, and take your pet snake with you."

 

They had the hospital elevator to themselves. Laurent took his hair down, combed it with his fingers, put it up again more neatly. Damen stood close enough that Laurent's arm brushed him every time he moved.

"You told your uncle you didn't believe him," Damen said, when a few seconds had passed with no more noise than the beep of passing floors.

Laurent glanced sideways at him. Nodded. Made no other response.

Damen shifted his feet. "I realize I've got to be pretty low on your list of priorities right now. I don't… expect anything from you. I just want to know if we're okay." Is it okay to talk to you, touch you, offer you what you need…?

"If it weren't for you," Laurent said, "Nicaise would be dead. Aimeric would be dead. My uncle would have won, and that would have killed me sooner or later." He reached for Damen's hand, interlaced their fingers. "Yes, we're okay."

 

They walked out of the hospital into an ocean of flashbulbs.

"Laurent, is it true your uncle's been arrested?"

"Laurent, are you being charged with a crime?"

"Is Nicky Pettit in there? Is he injured?"

"Are you injured, Laurent?"

"Damen, tell us what's going on!"

"Are the sexual abuse allegations true?"

"Are you two back together?"

Damen looked at his scabbed, aching knuckles and wondered how many more faces he could get away with breaking today.

"Laurent, were you raped? Is that why you're gay?"

Damen actually took a step toward the one who said that, fists clenched, but the man's eyes widened with glee instead of fear.

"Laurent, did Damen hurt you?" he continued. "Is that why you're at the hospital? Is he threatening you? Should we call the police?"

"If I'm threatening anyone, it isn't Laurent," Damen growled, but Laurent hooked an arm through his and steered him away.

"Lazar's on his way with the car," Laurent said.

"Well, he isn't here yet, and I'd love to tell him my opinion of that." The hubbub was increasing, paparazzi pressing in closer. One jostled Laurent, making him wince, and Damen had had enough. He lifted Laurent onto the wide ledge of the nearby fountain, and climbed up after him.

"If you were hoping to draw less attention to us, I don't think it worked," Laurent said, looking down at the crowd spread before them, still shouting out questions and taking pictures.

"At least now if they try to touch us, I can step on their fingers and claim it was an accident."

Laurent chuckled. "My protector."

"Someone should be," Damen muttered. "You don't need a bunch of vultures watching your every move, not right now."

Laurent smiled, and put his arms around Damen's neck. "Let them watch," he murmured, lips brushing Damen's ear. "I want them to. I want everyone to see."

Damen swallowed. "See what?"

Laurent kissed him, and Damen wound his arms tight around him and lost himself completely in the joy and sweetness of Laurent's mouth against his. The crowd was losing its mind, cheering and shouting and laughing and whistling, but it was a distant and irrelevant thing.

Laurent pulled back, flushed and breathless, and said, "I would really like my bracelet back."

The sky was still dark and cloudy beyond the lights of the hospital, and Damen thought it might be because the sun and all the stars were inside him right now. He went down on one knee—carefully, on the edge of the fountain—and brought out the bracelet he'd had in his pocket all day.

Laurent took the chunky heirloom gold off his wrist, and let Damen replace it with his. Then Laurent knelt down as well, his face soft and smiling and on the edge of tears, and put his own bracelet on Damen.

It was all so obviously staged that the tabloids spent three months insisting their relationship was fake.

Chapter Text

We've been at odds so often, sword to sword upon the field
And love we've both been injured, but I think we're almost healed
At last we call the cease-fire and we cross the no man's land
We're walking off the battlefield together, hand in hand

Take the sentries from the towers, there's no borders now to guard
Send healers to the wounded, we can kiss away the scars
Beat the weapons into ploughshares, burn the chariots for fuel
My love, the war is over, just one kingdom now to rule.

—"One Kingdom," from the upcoming album The Summer Palace by Akielos

*

JULY

Alleged Murderer and Child Molester 'Uncle Reggie' Found Dead in Jail Cell

by Anne Marshall, July 24, 2017

Influential Hollywood talent agent Reginald de Vere, known to the entertainment industry as 'Uncle Reggie,' was found dead in his cell at Otis Bantum Correctional Center on Riker's Island early this morning. Though the death is still under investigation, preliminary findings indicate that he may have overdosed on contraband barbiturates.

De Vere, facing trial for three counts of murder, one count of attempted murder, and a variety of charges involving the sexual abuse of minors, was denied bail as he was considered both a flight risk and a danger to the community. A great deal of the evidence against him on the sexual abuse charges was discovered in a safety deposit box kept by his brother, whom he allegedly murdered in order to silence him. Since the initial charges, many other victims have also come forward accusing him of similar abuses. De Vere entered a plea of "not guilty" on May 31st and his trial was scheduled to begin today at 2:30 p.m.

Recently referred to by comedian Jimmy Fallon as "the Harvey Weinstein of little boys," de Vere was the establishing force behind the careers of a number of young actors, such as Aimeric Fortaine, Ancel Jones, Nicky Pettit, and his own nephew Laurent de Vere—all of whom he is now suspected of abusing.

De Vere's family could not be reached for comment, but Aimeric Fortaine made a statement on Twitter in which he called Reginald de Vere's death "a gift from God."

The New York Times

*

AUGUST

It was the kind of place, in the kind of area, where a couple of celebrities could have coffee and expect everyone to keep their cool. Maybe a surreptitious phone shot, as long as it was discreet. Still, people were bound to at least notice when Laurent de Vere walked into their coffee shop.

He swept off his sunglasses, adjusted the satchel on his shoulder, and looked nowhere but at the man whose window-side table he was about to join.

"Oh," someone whispered as he walked by, "that must be Damen over there."

Laurent lifted his lip a bit. Mistaking Kastor for Damen was like taking pyrite for gold. The thought spurred him to raise his voice a bit more than he would have, as he approached the table.

"Kastor! Fancy meeting you here."

Kastor looked up from the picked-over remains of his sandwich and blinked in confusion as Laurent sat down across from him.

"Expecting a different blonde, I know," Laurent said. "She's not coming. And she won't be home when you get there, either. The bruises on her arms are fading, but the one on her stomach is still nice and vivid. In any case, it was your stunt with the shattered glass above the crib that was the last straw."

Kastor bristled, face reddening. "Wha—What are you—That was an accident, and no business of yours in any case!"

Laurent shrugged lazily. "Jokaste feels differently. In fact, she feels that you shouldn't be near a child ever again. But your son will be well cared for, once she's done cleaning you out for child support."

"Oh, we'll see about that!" Kastor made to rise, but Laurent grabbed his wrist, the grip pinching enough that Kastor stopped in surprise.

"My point," Laurent said pleasantly, "is that you couldn't pay her to be in a band with you anymore. She's dropping her claim to Akielos, and so are you."

"Am I?" Kastor said, belligerent and amused.

"Yes," Laurent said, "unless you want every gossip rag in the country to know how you've treated your fiancee and your newborn son. Not to mention the little fact that you leaked your own brother's nudes."

Kastor froze in place, eyes shifting nervously—proof enough of guilt if Laurent had needed it. "How could you possibly—"

"Jokaste told me. She was very free with secrets like that, as I helped her pack. I also know—through entirely different channels—what you did to my father's kindly old lawyer and his family. Which of you approached the other, I wonder, you or my uncle? I bet my uncle came to you, trying to get a lever on Damen when he suddenly appeared in my life. Was it a sort of strangers-on-a-train scenario, you do his dirty work and he does yours? He promised you Akielos, I'm sure." Laurent kept his smile wintry. "Didn't deliver, though, did he?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"No? Well, the courts will figure it out. Fire seldom destroys as much evidence as people think it will. They found fingerprints all over the inside of that safe."

Kastor's face went ashen. He gritted his teeth. "Fine. Your boyfriend gets the band."

"Oh, no, you misunderstand me. That's already settled by the matter of the nudes. I won't be denying Herode and his family justice for the destruction of their home. Erasmus deserves justice, too—but he'd find a legal debacle embarrassing. We'll be making it up to him in other ways. Ah, here they are. Sooner than I expected."

"What? Who?"

"The nice men who are coming to arrest you." Laurent stood and rearranged his satchel.

Kastor, spinning toward the window, could easily see the two police cars disgorging officers onto the sidewalk—all of them moving as if they didn't need a fight, but weren't opposed to it, either. Kastor looked wildly around the coffee shop, where there were a lot of wide eyes, a few visible phones, and no one offering him help.

"Is my brother behind this?" Kastor demanded. "He is, isn't he—"

"Your brother is entirely above this kind of thing, and you know it. Fortunately for him, I am not." Laurent moved toward the door.

"You ice-queen bastard, this isn't over!" Kastor snarled.

"I think you'll find it is." Laurent blew a kiss over his shoulder as he left, stepping neatly out of the way of the police as they entered.

*

SEPTEMBER

Akielos: "No More Drama! We're All About the Music."

I meet the band at Damen Vasileus's condo, a glass-and-metal construction with an astounding view of the Hudson River. Damen and his bandmates are sprawled over white leather couches, noodling around with their instruments, but they all stand to greet me.

Spirits are high in the group; there's a lot of chatter and good-natured ribbing as we get down to business, Damen trying to get them all pointed in the same direction. It's clear they all get along well, which is a nice change for Akielos.

The band has had a huge transition in the last year, losing two of its original three members, and gaining three replacements. While ex-members Jokaste White and Kastor Vasileus try to establish solo careers, the new Akielos, steered by long-time frontman and remaining original member Damen Vasileus, is working on a new album, tentatively titled "The Summer Palace."

"It's a new sound, to an extent," says Damen, which seems inevitable given the amount of new blood. This album will be "gentler in some ways," he says, "but more intense—it goes deeper, and on some tracks it even goes harder, but with more purpose than before. I went through the wringer this last year or so, and came out the other side, and all four of us have had those experiences. All of that went into the album. It's about the storm, and then the calm after the storm."

"I feel like the old albums, they got your blood moving, but this one gets your heart beating, if that makes sense." This interjection is from new member Pallas Laskaris. Sitting on the floor in a striped henley and hipster glasses, he informs me that he and Damen are old friends who reconnected at an opportune time, and that his unusual instrumental skills are part of what makes the sound of "The Summer Palace" new and different—he plays the lute, guitar, ocarina and hurdy-gurdy.

Another new member, Vannes (no last name—or perhaps no first name), calls herself "the token girl" of the group, and Damen sheepishly agrees.

"The other two were shoo-ins, and happened to be guys, so we did look specifically for a female drummer," he says. "Didn't want the band to be a total sausage party. My boyfriend actually brought Vannes to our attention, they'd worked together before, and I tell ya, I knew she was it during the first audition. Fantastic drummer, this lady."

Said 'boyfriend' being, one assumes, actor Laurent de Vere, whose romance with Damen made headlines during the band's reorganization. What work de Vere might have done with a black-leather-clad drummer with a bubblegum-pink undercut remains unanswered.

Vannes is, surprisingly, not the group's soprano singer—she's firmly alto. The highest register belongs to their youngest member, Erasmus Goldenbloom, a bashful boy in a pink crop-top who blushes when the others make dirty jokes. He seems to be everyone's new baby brother, subject to hair-tousles and affectionate teasing. He plays keyboard and violin, and even gives me a demonstration of the latter—a tune that goes from sweet to shredding at the flick of a wrist. Clearly Erasmus didn't get in on connections alone, but he does have a history with Damen. Does Laurent de Vere have a problem with Damen working with his ex?

"No, I don't," says the man himself—Laurent de Vere, passing through the room with a basket of laundry. "Damen's earned my trust many times over."

"Not to mention Erasmus is terrified of Laurent's wrath," jokes Pallas. Erasmus, blushing again, does not contradict.

"There is to be no more drama in the band," Damen declares in fatherly tones. "No cheating, no love triangles, none of that. Akielos has had enough drama. Now we're all about the music."

"The Summer Palace" is slated for released in early December.

Rolling Stone Magazine, September 2nd, 2017

*

OCTOBER

"I still can't believe you wouldn't shell out for movers," Nicaise said as the elevator doors opened, disgorging him, Laurent, Damen, and the boxes they carried into Laurent's apartment.

"You don't have enough stuff to qualify for movers," Laurent snorted, kicking aside the pair of Nicaise's shoes that had gotten left in the foyer.

Damen wasn't so sure about that. Nicaise had more clothes than any human being could possibly need, not to mention video games, anime collections, skating and surfing equipment—and he was pretty sure the box he carried now was filled solely with nail polish. True, everything had fit in one truck… but now it had to all fit in what used to be Laurent's office.

"I think you just like watching your boyfriend do heavy lifting," Nicaise grumbled. "You spent half of last weekend drooling over his biceps, that's for sure. And hey, yeah, did I mention this is the second weekend in a row that I get to spend doing manual labor?"

"You've guessed my secret," Laurent said, smiling. He brushed a kiss against the bunched muscles of Damen's shoulder as he passed, scooting ahead to open the bedroom door. "Or maybe I think the manual labor will be good for you. Build character."

"I'm an actor. I make a living from having character." Nicaise stepped into his new bedroom and turned in a circle, looking woebegone. "This stupid room gets smaller every time I look at it."

"Yes, I put the walls on tracks for precisely that effect. One morning you'll wake up with the doorknob up your nose." Laurent set his box down in a corner.

"Your place is almost as small as Jord's. Why on God's green earth did Aimeric want to move into that golf divot?"

"Because Jord's in it," Damen said. "You want everything over here, or you gonna sort as we go? That might make unpacking easier on you."

"I have to unpack my own stuff too? Ugh, fine, put that one over there. But what I mean is, why didn't both of them move into Aimeric's place? It was way nicer."

"Well, since Aimeric is taking a break from acting, he may not have enough income to keep his old place," Laurent said.

Nicaise considered this, nodded thoughtfully. "Poverty will be good for Aimeric. Help him build character."

Damen snorted, moving back toward the elevator. "Isn't Aimeric an actor, too? Making a living from character?"

"Um, yeah, I guess, in the way that Brussels sprouts are technically food."

Laurent shoved lazily at Nicaise's head as he passed it. "You're a Brussels sprout."

"That doesn't even make sense!"

It didn't escape Damen's notice that for all his grumbling, Nicaise did not even once, as they trekked back and forth, mention wanting his old room back, or say they should have kept the house where he lived with Uncle Reggie. Nicaise and Laurent had inherited Reggie's estate; Laurent had put Nicaise's half in a trust, and divided his own among a handful of charities for survivors of child sexual abuse. Damen included his gift to Aimeric in that category, too.

On their next trip, Damen tripped over a chair rocker, and the box he held tumbled over the floor and burst open. Books spilled in all directions, including a heavy and well-used binder.

"Careful, you giant oaf!" Nicaise ran past Damen, dropping his own box on the couch, and began gathering up the books, looking them over for damage and muttering curses on Damen's lineage. The binder's rings had popped open, and he struggled to get all its pages back inside—pages of Pokémon cards. Damen chuckled under his breath and began gathering up the nearest books.

Graphic novels, he realized. Special edition omnibus copies of Freaks.

"Well, well," he said, grinning at Nicaise. "Taking an interest in Laurent's movie after all?"

Nicaise scowled and snatched the books away. "Just because Laurent's in something doesn't make it automatically terrible. Just increases the odds."

"You know, no one's actually going to think less of you if you admit to liking people."

"I don't like people." Nicaise glanced surreptitiously toward Laurent, who was propping the bedroom door open and pretending not to listen. "Just, you know, some individual people are not as bad as others. You're pretty awful, though," he added, looking at Damen again.

"I'm sure I am," Damen said cheerfully, and finished packing the books back into the box.

"Hey, these too." Nicaise handed up the ones he still held as Damen stood.

The motion exposed, for a startling moment, the fading red scars on Nicaise's throat. He was self-conscious about them, Damen knew—he'd caught Nicaise looking in the mirror at them once, tracing the red lines with his fingers—but Damen had no doubt the make-up artists would make quick work of them when he started filming his next gig. Which was in a month, if he remembered correctly, some sweet family dramedy whose deciding advantage was that it was filming in New York. Nicaise, unexpectedly, hadn't protested that restriction. Everyone wanted to stay close to home for a while.

Home. Looking around Laurent's apartment, Damen thought it really was starting to look like a home. Laurent had filled in the living room furniture—elegant minimalism with occasional splashes of brilliant color or interesting texture, a sprawling sectional couch that Damen had cause to know was very comfortable—and bought some plants. The essentials from his former office now occupied one corner of the dining area, and the kitchen actually showed signs of use. Certainly Laurent's bedroom now held happier memories than it used to.

He set the box of books down in Nicaise's quickly-filling room, and straightened to find Laurent slipping arms around his waist.

"Aimeric doesn't mind the smaller place, you know," Laurent murmured. "He hated the apartment Uncle picked out for him, just like I did."

"You did," Damen said, kissing Laurent's temple. "But now it's your place." It could be our place, remained unspoken. Or my place could be our place. I know you like it there. But could his place be Nicaise's place? Damen was thrilled and relieved that Laurent had gotten custody of him, but it did throw a wrench into the idea of moving in together. Nicaise needed stability, needed to land somewhere safe and stay there, not unpack his room just in time to pack it up again to move in with Damen.

Plus, Laurent was still learning how to build his own home, his own life. Damen wanted to be part of that, a big part, but he didn't want anything to even remotely smack of Laurent moving from one cage to another.

"It is my place," Laurent said thoughtfully. "But you have a key."

"And I never leave home without it." He kissed Laurent's temple again, then forehead and eyebrow and cheekbone, swift ticklish kisses to make him giggle—not that Laurent would ever admit it was a giggle.

"While you guys were up here being gross, I got another load of stuff," Nicaise said from the doorway.

"Is that a guitar?" Damen said, reluctantly letting go of Laurent as Nicaise pushed past him with a large, distinctively-shaped case. "I didn't know you played."

"I don't," Nicaise said. "I was supposed to get lessons. My former guardian wasn't great at keeping promises." He didn't look up from where he was trying to balance the guitar on top of a box in a corner.

"I could teach you," Damen said. "I mean, guitar is kind of what I do."

 "Really?" Nicaise looked startled.

"Yeah, you know, kinda goes with the rock band thing—"

Nicaise rolled his eyes. "I mean, you'd really teach me? I've been trying to learn from YouTube, which, I mean, it's something…"

"Kind of the way Brussels sprouts are food?" Damen laughed. "Yeah, really, I'll teach you."

"I guess I might be able to stand you long enough for a few lessons."

Laurent hissed a word under his breath that he wouldn't be allowed to say in his next movie. "We've got to go, Nicaise, or we'll be late for your therapist."

"Our therapist. Don't pretend you're any less screwed up than me."

"Wouldn't dream of it, but your appointment is earlier."

"Go on ahead," Damen said. "I'll get the rest of the stuff out of the truck. It's not that much more."

"Don't drop anything," Nicaise said. "Anything else, I mean."

"You can bill me," Damen said dryly.

They rode the elevator down together, Nicaise teasing Laurent mercilessly about going out in public in shorts.

"The paps are gonna get an eyeful, I don't think they've ever seen legs that pale before, probably break their cameras—"

"Have some respect for your father," Damen said, giving Nicaise a theatrical shove.

"What? Ew! No! What?"

"Well, legal guardian anyway."

"You are not my father," Nicaise said to Laurent. "Brother, maybe. I mean, I guess legally we are, like, closer than cousins now. I can deal with brother. I am never calling you dad."

"Brother," Laurent repeated, glowing with one of his rarest, realest smiles as they reached the ground floor. "Yeah, I can deal with that, too."

*

NOVEMBER

Laurent de Vere Gets 'Lovey-Dovey' with Real-Life Boyfriend in Akielos Music Video

by Jill Rothman, 11/20/2017

After a tumultuous year wherein the band had more drama than music, Akielos released a new single, "One Kingdom," just last week—and has already seen it become a chart-topper. Today, after weeks of teasing, the "One Kingdom" music video hits the public eye.

Shot on the California coast and featuring imagery of beaches, gardens and mock-Grecian architecture, the video centers on frontman Damen Vasileus and Freaks star Laurent de Vere, in what appears to be a celebration of their real-life romance.

During filming, band member Pallas Laskaris playfully tweeted, "These two are so lovey-dovey, it's disgusting," along with a behind-the-scenes snapshot of Vasileus and de Vere cuddling on a bench.

"The song is about making peace, about letting love win out over anger," Vasileus told MTV News. "So we wanted the video to have this very tender, loving, peaceful atmosphere, and our director really knocked it out of the park."

The director is credited as Tom Patras, which is widely rumored to be a pseudonym for Torveld Torgeirsson, a Paramount executive who got his start as a film director in the 1980s. Torgeirsson has been romantically linked with Akielos member Erasmus Goldenbloom.

Asked about the experience of filming a music video with his significant other, de Vere stated, "It was incredible, making something beautiful with someone I love. Mostly we were just being ourselves with cameras around. Very relaxing and just… beautiful. It was very beautiful there."

Check out the video below!

*

DECEMBER