Damen wakes to the feeling of a cold compress on his forehead. There’s an ache that wraps around the back of his skull and when he brings a hand up to touch, he’s surprised there’s no vice around his head, because it feels as though there’s one attempting to squeeze his brain out.
He knows it’s going to hurt, but he opens his eyes anyway, blinking against the soft light that’s filtering into the room.
“Ah,” says a voice nearby. “You’re awake again.”
Damen is unaware that he had woken previously. He turns his head, though not enough to disturb the cold poultice, and finds an older gentleman dressed in traditional physician garbs standing next to Nikandros. The sight of Nikandros calms him, knowing that his friend would not allow Damen to fall into the wrong hands.
“What is your name?” Damen asks, directing the question to the physician.
Nikandros and the man share a look.
“I am Paschal,” he replies. “I am the court physician.”
Damen doesn’t recognize him as any court physician he knows.
“You’re new?” he asks and Nikandros answers.
“Yes, but it’s only temporary, Damen” he says. “You fell and hit your head. Paschal is here to help.”
Damen reaches up and touches the poultice again, knowing now that it must be packed with ice to bring down the swelling of the knot on the side of his head.
“Rest,” Paschal tells him. “Just a little longer.”
Damen thinks about arguing, but the pounding of his head is too much and the lure of sleep pulls him down. He blinks slowly at Nikandros and then everything fades.
The next time he wakes, he’s in a comfortable bed that he doesn’t recognize. As he sits up, swinging his legs over the edge of the thick mattress, a servant enters the room carrying a fold of cloth that he suspects is his chiton. He allows the servant to dress him and then dismisses her with a careful flick of his hand.
Left alone, he assesses the damage, prodding at his head with gentle fingers. There’s a slight ache, but nothing as bad as when he woke the first time, and the lump has diminished substantially. It’s obviously enough that Paschal had cleared him to leave the infirmary.
In an effort to figure out where he is, he leaves the bedroom and makes his way down long, unfamiliar hallways. There are fewer windows than in Ios, which makes it darker and less airy, but through the windows there are, he can see snow outside — towering banks of it heaped in the courtyard. It makes him thankful to be inside in the warm.
The next window along affords him a better view of outside, where a cluster of children have begun playing in the snow, building a fortress and defending it with the use of badly-aimed snowballs. Nearby, he sees Nikandros talking with someone covered with furs, their face not visible from within the hood they’re wearing. They appear to be good friends, Nikandros seeming to comfort the other person with a hand on their shoulder.
Damen looks away, not wanting to intrude, and continues walking down the hallway. He requests his own furs by the front entrance and he’s carefully wrapped in them before he ventures outside. Nikandros and his friend are now watching the kids play, which means he feels less like he’s disturbing them when he walks over.
“My friend,” Damen says, earning a bow from Nikandros.
“Exalted,” he says. “I am glad to see you’re awake and feeling well enough to come outside.”
When he lowers his hood, Nikandros’ friend ends up being a young man with hair the color of soft sunshine on a spring morning. The man meets Damen’s gaze, a cold, piercing blue stare that lodges somewhere deep in Damen’s chest. Damen actually finds himself speechless as he observes at the man, taking in his handsome features and the way he holds himself. If Damen didn’t know better, he’d think the man were royalty himself.
“You haven’t introduced us,” Damen complains and Nikandros let out a full bodied sigh as though knowing exactly why Damen wants to be introduced.
“Exalted, this is Laurent de Vere. Laurent, this is King Damianos.”
“Prince Damianos,” Damen corrects. “Though you may call me Damen.”
The man being Veretian explains the sharp features and light skin, but he is a long way from home and he’s sure the last thing Laurent wants is to be surrounded by Akielons.
“Any friend of Nikandros is a friend of mine,” Damen says with a welcoming smile.
“Noted,” Laurent tells him. “I’m sure Nikandros is glad to have introduced us.”
Nikandros’ expression says otherwise.
“Nikandros tells me you took a fall,” Laurent continues. “I hope you are not too hurt.”
Damen shakes his head and offers a reassuring grin.
“Only my pride,” he says and Laurent actually laughs, face crumpling in amusement and Damen’s stomach flips, the expression somehow familiar. He wants to make Laurent laugh forever.
Composing himself, Laurent says, “I am glad. Then you will still be attending the winter ball later?”
Damen blinks and wracks his brain for any memory regarding this so-called ball, but he comes up short.
“Winter ball? Perhaps I hit my head harder than I thought,” he jokes. “I must admit I don’t remember.”
“It has been postponed,” Nikandros says with a look thrown towards Laurent. “We wanted to be sure you were in good health before it was held.”
“I am fine,” Damen says with a dismissive wave. “Let us not disappoint people due to my forgetfulness.”
Nikandros doesn’t appear convinced.
“Perhaps a private ball?” Laurent suggests. “For the prince’s closest advisors.”
Nikandros seems more convinced about that than the initial idea.
“It will be fun,” Damen says.
“Fun,” Nikandros repeats as though never having heard of the word.
“Inform the staff,” Damen tells him to stop him from changing his mind. “Keep it small — less than twenty people. You may decide who comes.”
Nikandros seems to bite his tongue for a moment before eventually saying, “Yes, Exalted.”
He turns and leaves, throwing a final look at Laurent over his shoulder.
“He is stubborn,” Damen says once he’s out of earshot. “Perhaps that is why he is my friend.”
Laurent makes a sound of agreement, rubbing his hands together and blowing a warm breath into them.
“I would offer my gloves if I had any,” Damen says unhelpfully and Laurent shoots him a sidelong glance.
“How about you escort me inside instead,” Laurent suggests, offering his arm for Damen to take.
Damen isn’t about to turn down the opportunity, so he loops Laurent’s arm through his own, and carefully leads the way down the snowy path, back into the palace, strangely feeling as though it’s not the first time he’s done so. Laurent squeezes his arm and warmth spreads through Damen’s body, despite the weather.
Although Laurent excuses himself from Damen’s presence not long after, Damen can’t put him out of his mind for the rest of the afternoon. There’s something about him that draws Damen in and he feels as though anyone who looks at him will know exactly of whom he’s thinking.
In the evening, a servant dresses him in a soft, lightly-dyed chiton and leads the way to a banquet hall with vaulted ceilings and festive decorations spread throughout.
“The staff has outdone themselves,” he says to Nikandros, who finds him only a few moments after he arrives as though waiting for him. “I thought this was meant to be a quiet affair.”
“Try telling them that when Ki–Prince Damianos requests a winter ball.”
Damen grunts in understanding and reaches for the canapés that pass by on a plate. He’s in the middle of a bite of salmon when he spots the elusive Laurent across the room.
He’s in a sky blue chiton of his own, his legs unfathomably long in the short garment. Damen’s mouth practically waters at the sight.
“You could talk to him,” Nikandros suggests blandly, “instead of pining from afar. You might want to swallow first, though.”
“You’re encouraging this now?,” Damen asks after he quickly finishes his mouthful of food.
He stares openly at Laurent who apparently seems to feel his gaze because he turns and meets his eye. He seems impervious to Damen’s attention, though, his expression indifferent and body lax as he sips at a goblet of what appears to be wine.
“I think we are too different,” he says to Nikandros without looking away.
“Too different? When has that ever stopped you?”
Damen finally breaks their stare and glances at Nikandros.
“I think he’s more than just a pretty face,” he teases and Nikandros sighs.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” he mutters. “He could be a good match for you. Try asking for a dance.”
Damen steals another look at Laurent — who’s already staring in return — and feels himself heat at the attention. Bolstered by Nikandros’ advice and an unexplainable arousal, Damen squares himself and nods.
“A dance,” Damen agrees, trying to remember the last time someone made him feel so off-guard. It’s as though he’s a teenager once more with his first crush.
He draws in a steadying breath and then turns and heads in Laurent’s direction. As he watches, Laurent hands his goblet to a passing servant, not for a refill, but as though to clear his hands, almost expecting Damen to ask him to dance. He angles his body towards Damen as he moves closer, seeming to accept Damen’s presence before he even arrives.
“Hello,” Laurent drawls with a practiced laziness.
“Dance with me,” Damen blurts out, circumventing the eloquent greeting he’d actually planned.
The corner of Laurent’s mouth twitches in clear amusement.
“Is that a request or an order?”
“A request,” Damen quickly clarifies. “I didn’t mean to—”
“I like a man who knows what he wants,” Laurent says, suggestion clear in his voice, and Damen feels as though the axis of his world shifts.
Laurent laughs softly, the shape of his smile something that Damen wants to remember forever.
“I like you like this,” Laurent continues. “I can still surprise you.”
Instead of explaining what he means, Laurent steps into Damen’s space and holds his arms out for Damen to take, moving them into a dancing position. When Laurent raises his arms, the chiton lifts temptingly. Damen tries to keep his eyes above Laurent’s waistline. Laurent quirks an eyebrow at him, but doesn’t mention it, just leans into Damen as the music quietly draws them in.
There are others dancing nearby, but with only a few members of court invited, it’s hard not to stand out and it seems as though the entire crowd turns to watch them.
“So much for a private dance,” Laurent murmurs, his mouth temptingly near to Damen’s jaw.
“If you wanted private, you would have said no,” Damen replies and he feels the huff of Laurent’s laugh against his skin.
“We could give them a show,” Laurent suggests, the hand on Damen’s shoulder meandering down to Damen’s waist, where Damen catches it and and sets it back in place.
“I want to do this properly,” Damen explains. “I don’t want them to talk.”
“They will talk anyway,” Laurent points out.
“Especially the prince dancing with a Veretian,” Damen says with a sigh. “Your people are not all bad.”
“Thank you,” Laurent replies blandly. “I will let the kingdom know they have your blessing.”
“I didn’t mean it that way. I only—”
“I know exactly what you meant,” Laurent says reassuringly, his hand moving to Damen’s neck in comfort. “I was teasing.”
“You are—I don’t,” Damen begins, failing to go anywhere at all and Laurent pauses them right where they are as though worried Damen can’t think and dance at the same time. “I don’t want to make mistakes,” Damen admits. “I wish to court you properly.”
He reaches out with one hand to gently touch Laurent’s face, his skin tantalizingly soft. Laurent closes his eyes briefly at the touch as though savoring it.
“Take breakfast with me tomorrow,” Laurent tells him, looking at him once more. “We will start from there.”
“Tomorrow?” Damen questions and then nods in agreement. “Tomorrow.”
He can’t help the way gravity seems to draw him down. His hand is already cupping Laurent’s face and it would be so easy to move in for a kiss, the motion feeling familiar and right.
But a hand on his chest halts him.
“Tomorrow,” Laurent says, staring up at him with eyes bright and full of everything Damen isn’t sure he deserves.
Damen nods and takes a step back, returning Laurent’s space and giving himself time to catch his breath, feeling half-winded from the exchange. Everything in his body seems to scream for Laurent, a feeling he’s never had before. It’s not a crush, Damen thinks. It’s more than that.
Laurent dips his head slightly in a gesture of farewell and Damen watches him leave, the party dissolving around him until he can no longer see Laurent, and then the chatter fades back into his consciousness and a hand lands on his shoulder.
“How did it go?” Nikandros asks and Damen blinks and tries to figure it out for himself.
“I’m going to court him,” Damen admits. “I’m going to marry him.”
Nikandros laughs, not mockingly, but as though he believed it from the beginning and is amused that Damen has only just caught up.
“He will be glad to hear it,” he says and Damen looks at him in hope.
“You think a man like Laurent would want me as a husband?”
Nikandros pauses and looks and Damen fondly. “I think it would take a lot to keep you two apart.”
The feeling of lightness that comes with the words follows Damen, even after the party has long since ended and Damen is tucked into bed with nothing but darkness to keep him company. His body hums in excitement for his breakfast with Laurent and he is glad when sleep quickly sneaks up and draws him under.
Damen wakes with a persistent throbbing in his head. Sitting up makes it worse, but he manages enough to swing his legs over the side of the bed.
He pauses there long enough to make sense of the world and its gentle swaying, which he thinks might just be in his head. His chiton from the night before lay discarded on the floor and Damen knows what he must do.
It starts with him carefully retying the material around his waist and up over one shoulder, and ends with him putting one foot in front of the other, out of the bedroom and into the hallway. He’s never had many opinions on the hallways of the palace before, but now with a tender head, he feels they are far too long to do anyone any good.
By the time he reaches his private dining quarters, he feels marginally better, as though maybe the exertion has done him good. He pushes open the door and finds exactly what he’d been hoping to find.
“Laurent,” he says, and Laurent, who’s sitting in his usual place at the table beside Damen’s own seat, turns and looks at him.
Damen moves before the headache can catch up with him and before he knows it, he’s on a bended knee before Laurent, his hands reaching up to pull Laurent’s face down.
The kiss is urgent and full of things Damen can’t say, and Laurent touches his cheek, the back of his head, the curve of his neck.
“You came back to me,” Laurent says breaking the kiss to meet Damen’s gaze and Damen clutches his shoulder firmly.
“You let me say so many things to you.”
Laurent smiles then, his eyes crinkling in amusement.
“Nikandros tells me you want to marry me.”
Damen sighs and shakes his head, saying, “I will never live it down.”
“We could have had a second wedding,” Laurent tells him. “It would have been good for morale.”
“Where is my wedding band?” Damen asks because his finger has been bare for too long now.
“Paschal has it,” Laurent tells him, carefully touching his jaw. “We were quite worried when you didn’t remember us.”
“Not enough to confine me to bedrest,” Damen says and Laurent scoffs.
“You think you would have stayed in bed? We thought it best to let you rest and take it easy on your own terms.”
Damen thinks they probably made the right choice, but the embarrassment lingers.
“I didn’t know who you were. I tried to court you,” Damen says incredulously and Laurent smiles, softly this time, indulging him.
“You tried to do what you never had the chance to do before. I rather liked it.”
“I still could,” Damen suggests and Laurent tilts his head.
“We’ve been married six years now,” Laurent points out. “I think we’d be putting the cart before the horse.”
Damen knows he must pull an expression of disappointment because Laurent angles his face to stare him in the eyes.
“I think it says enough that you didn’t remember who I was but still chose me,” Laurent tells him. “You could have gone for anyone else, but you came back to me.”
It warms Damen through and he can’t help but smile.
“Love conquers all,” he says, and though Laurent rolls his eyes at the cheesiness, he pulls Damen in for a kiss, one that’s sweet and soft and something Damen has missed in the few days they were separated.
“I missed you,” Laurent murmurs against his mouth and Damen draws him closer.