Laurent claimed those lips before the taste of his gasped name could fade from them.
Even with the words that might have followed now silenced, the room was filled with sound. Limbs rustling across the sheets as they both reached to touch each other everywhere. Panting breaths interspersed with moans. The sharp punctuations of slick skin on skin in an unmistakable rhythm. It was all slowly combining towards a crescendo. Laurent strained for that, no less desperate for it even though he'd almost (but never quite) lost count of how many times they'd done this, and many other things besides, since the guests had arrived at Arles Court for the hunting two weeks prior.
Perhaps they'd been a little louder than they ought, but even in retrospect, Laurent couldn't imagine that either of them could really have restrained themselves much more even if they'd tried at that point. No one else kept rooms in this wing of the estate anyway. Laurent had always liked having his own space, and Auguste had happily obliged him, for the house was more than large enough to allow it. There should have been no one to hear them within two hundred feet at least.
The shattering of ceramic against the floor stilled them both and jerked Laurent's gaze in the direction of the door, which was now gaping open where he'd been sure he'd locked it shut. Not even the dimness of the candlelight could conceal the wide and horrified nature of the pair of eyes that Laurent's met. The interloper looked viscerally disgusted at what he was seeing. And he seemed a little panicked, too, if Laurent didn't miss his guess. Laurent had a sharp recollection of how that wasn't a good combination.
If it had been Auguste, Laurent could have just explained. Auguste might not have necessarily understood, but Laurent also knew from experience that his older brother would at least keep Laurent's secrets without exception, regardless of how grave they might be.
If it had been a servant, on the other hand, or perhaps even one of their temporary guests, Laurent could almost certainly have just blackmailed them, or otherwise bargained for their silence. He might have had to considerably lighten his coffers, but Laurent would have paid a steep price – not happily, but definitely without hesitation – if that was what it would take to save them both from inculpation.
Instead, it was Nicaise who saw them. Of everyone currently staying at the estate, Nicaise was the person who Laurent would least have wanted to stumble across this. Laurent knew the moment that he saw the boy's face that there would be no simple discussion or reasoned negotiations, at least not until Nicaise had significantly calmed down.
Nicaise was out the door before Laurent could call out after him. Laurent couldn't even follow until he'd managed to dress somewhat presentably, or he'd risk lending credence to any incriminating words that Nicaise might think to spout before Laurent could stop him.
"Fuck," Laurent said, even as he was extricating himself from the bed and scrambling for his smalls. It took time to layer himself adequately; too much time.
"Laurent. Calm down. He's your brother. Surely he'll keep it to himself."
"He's my brother's ward, actually," Laurent corrected. The contradiction felt sour in his mouth. It made all the difference, though. Not because they didn't recognise each other as family – they were brothers in every way that mattered to Laurent, and he was fairly certain that Nicaise felt the same – but because what had happened before he and Auguste had taken Nicaise in would likely make it a thousand times more difficult for the boy to accept what he'd just seen.
If Laurent was lucky, Nicaise would only have run to Auguste and told him alone of what he'd witnessed by the time Laurent could track him down. If not…
Laurent didn't even have time to complete that thought before his bedroom door opened without Laurent's permission for the second time tonight, with a bang instead of a quiet and unheeded creak this time.
It must have been quite the picture for those now looking in. Laurent's fingers, in the process of doing up his waistcoat, were startled into inaction. His buckskins were probably noticeably creased in a way that could only come from spending time balled up on the floor before being donned again. He hadn't even had a chance to smooth his hair into something resembling its usual order. And on the bed behind him was Damen in all his glory, though Laurent could hear him scrambling to cover himself as best he could. Too late for it to matter. It would be obvious to anyone with eyes and a nose what had been happening in here just minutes before they'd arrived.
Nicaise must have sprinted, Laurent thought, to have reached the gathered guests and roped most of them into following him back here in less time than it took for Laurent to fully right himself. The boy was certainly breathing as heavily as if he'd been running. So were a few of the other onlookers who were peering through the door, though whether that was from physical exertion or the titillation of what was unfolding before them, Laurent couldn't say.
"I told you all!" Nicaise exclaimed. "I said that sodomite was in here forcing himself on my brother! Do you believe me now?"
Laurent blinked, uncomprehending for a moment.
Laurent had assumed that Nicaise would blame him, and perhaps even viciously compare him with that man, for his willingness to take another man into his bed. But perhaps he should have seen this coming, given Nicaise's history, and Laurent's own. Of course this was how Nicaise would choose to reconcile this, given everything.
"You should have your footmen restrain this man until a constable can arrive to deal with him," someone from the small crowd suggested, presumably in Auguste's direction.
The idea of any of the footmen, who were not all that much larger than Laurent in stature, being able to restrain an ex-military man nearly twice their size against his will would have been laughable, if anything about this situation could be considered the slightest bit humorous. But Auguste ordered it even so.
"Laurent," Auguste said softly, reaching for him, clearly trying to be comforting. His voice broke on the word, as if he were barely holding in his emotions. Laurent saw hurt, presumably on Laurent's behalf, in his brother's eyes. That same gaze turned hard and indicting the moment he glanced past Laurent's shoulder. It was clear then that Auguste would be no help for now. Not that Auguste could have done much anyway, with this many witnesses and a messenger probably already being dispatched to fetch the local constables. The evidence of law-breaking was clear enough regardless of what they might say, even if everyone had mistaken Laurent as a victim rather than an eager participant in the crime. It would be no easy feat to get out of this.
Laurent turned. With his back to the hovering group, and only Damen himself able to see Laurent's face, Laurent silently mouthed: Run.
But Damen, noble idiot that he was, shook his head and stood his ground, just as he always did on points of honour. Laurent could only imagine that he was worrying over what might become of Laurent if what seemed to be the currently accepted version of events shifted towards something closer to the truth. Damen wasn't the kind of man to save himself if it meant leaving Laurent behind. And Laurent supposed it wouldn't really save him anyway. At best it would save some portion of his reputation and allow him to be remembered as a sodomite but not a rapist.
Laurent would have done the same, if their positions had been reversed. That didn't make it an easier pill to swallow, or convince Laurent that he shouldn't try to do something to fight this.
With the bedsheet pulled from the mattress and hurriedly wrapped around himself, barely restoring his modesty below the waist, Damen let himself be led out of the room, past Laurent. He did so without a word or a fight, though the footmen still looked visibly worried that he might break free of them at any moment. Auguste's hand on his arm stilled Laurent when he instinctively started to reach out.
The moment Damen was out of view, Laurent returned his attention back to his family, ignoring the gawkers. Auguste looked pained. Beside him, Nicaise looked oddly satisfied. Somehow it didn't seem to Laurent quite like vindication at ensuring the punishment of a man he'd legitimately assumed was hurting his brother.
"What have you done?" Laurent hissed, too low for anyone but Nicaise and perhaps also Auguste to overhear.
"Saved you," Nicaise said emphatically.
No, Laurent thought bitterly, he hadn't. Damen had been the one to do that, more than once. Laurent had never really managed to return the favour to his satisfaction, even though Damen had claimed it was unnecessary. And now Laurent was no longer even sure that he ever could.
Just a friendly reminder that this fic is non-linear, so this chapter is set many months before the first chapter, not after it. Try not to get whiplash from the shift in tone here.
"You're coming to town for the season?" Auguste asked, surprised. "You haven't done that since you were barely fourteen."
"Perhaps, after five years of avoiding it, I've finally tired of having no one but the servants for company for months on end," Laurent pointed out. Though, of course, that wasn't the real reason for the decision.
"You? Tired of being able to read your books in peace for once? I can hardly imagine it. I thought you would have been glad for the chance to be rid of me for a time."
"If you think I don't always miss you terribly when you're gone, you must never have counted how many letters I've sent."
Even given that it was only Auguste who was present to hear him, that was still more unguarded than Laurent usually was comfortable with being about any of the emotions he felt (other than his scorn, with which he was always quite free whenever it was deserved). Auguste, thankfully, seemed pleased by Laurent's admission rather than taken aback by his effusiveness.
"The feeling is mutual," Auguste said. "So you certainly won't hear me arguing against you accompanying me. Though you might regret that decision when you have to go through endless rounds of introductions all over again; I'm sure by now most of society has altogether forgotten that I have a brother, let alone that many of them probably met you formally years ago."
Laurent certainly hoped they'd all forgotten him. When it had been decided he was old enough to start making his mark in society, it hadn't actually been at Auguste's arm that Laurent had been introduced to a great many of the more 'important' gentlemen. Laurent would strongly prefer that no one recalled that and thought to associate him with that time.
To divert the conversation away from the neighbourhood of that topic, Laurent said, "Yes, I'm sure everyone has been too busy speculating about when you'll finally settle down with a wife to be worried about anything else to do with your family life."
"It's a difficult decision!" Auguste defended himself. "There are so many ladies, and how am I to know that I've found the right one until I've met them all? Not that a single one of them will pay me any attention this season, mind you. They'll all flock in your direction once they catch the quickest glimpse of you."
Laurent rolled his eyes. "And then they'll stage a retreat the moment I open my mouth. Everyone always does."
"The right one won't," Auguste said. "She'll fall for your sharp mind rather than recoil from it. I'm positive your perfect match is out there somewhere, just as mine must be."
A distinct image came to mind. Laurent quickly thrust it from his consciousness.
Still, Laurent didn't want some debutante to decide he was her ideal. That would be highly inconvenient, not to mention uncomfortable. He wasn't sure how to convey that to Auguste, who seemed to fancy himself half in love with a new woman every few days, for all that he wasn't actually enamoured enough with any of them for it to ever progress further than admiration from afar and decorous dancing. A man so free with his affections, passing though they may be, wouldn't understand Laurent's aversion to showing a similar regard for women or having them show interest in him. He certainly wouldn't understand the underlying reason.
The family estate, Arles Court, was close enough to town that it only took three days' ride to cover the distance by carriage. Laurent found he enjoyed the early springtime vista of rolling country hills constantly flashing past and the hours with nothing to do but speak to Auguste of everything and nothing all at once. It was comfortable, in its own way, in spite of the slight jolting caused by uneven patches in the roads.
It had been years since Laurent had laid eyes on the townhouse at Acquitart Street. It was probably one of the larger town residences that didn't belong to the peerage, but the whole place could have fit inside Arles Court many dozens of times over. Laurent would have prickled at the idea of sharing such a place had it been with anyone but Auguste. As it was, Auguste knew when to give Laurent as much distance as the space allowed, and Laurent rarely felt much desire to get away from Auguste in particular in the first place, so it was tolerable.
They were quick to settle into a routine. Morning rides in Hyde Park made the process of greeting and shaking hands with the myriad people Auguste introduced him to slightly more bearable, because at least while doing so Laurent could enjoy putting his mare through her paces on the flat paths. Less than a year ago, he'd thought he might never be able to ride her again. Being able to do so was always a pleasure, for all that it automatically tended to make him reflect on that time when perhaps he shouldn't.
Less welcome than the riding was how Auguste always invited Laurent's presence whenever he made afternoon calls or received visitors at the house. There were times when Laurent obliged him, especially if he thought the people involved might be worthy of the effort of building a connection. Many of those meetings, however, were purely social calls with families who Laurent suspected Auguste would have little interest in either if they didn't happen to have pretty daughters. Auguste didn't question it when Laurent gave his excuses in those cases. Neither, notably, did Auguste aim more than a casual inquiry or two in his direction when Laurent sometimes slipped off to make 'calls' of his own without ever inviting Auguste along.
Their evenings were then spent apart even more often than their afternoons, particularly in that first week after their arrival in town. Except for two opera performances, Laurent had no desire to accompany Auguste to his night-time obligations. Laurent could manage a half-hour gathering of six or seven people, or preferably even less, even when the people sometimes turned out to be entirely bland or irritating. Comparatively, an entire ballroom packed with people for hours on end didn't really appeal. That didn't mean that Auguste didn't try to convince him, of course.
"There's a massive ball being thrown tonight in honour of the officers who've just returned," Auguste announced. "It's probably going to be the largest of the season. You might at least come to this one."
"We're celebrating even in the absence of a victory now, are we? And everyone knows that the soldiers and sailors who are most deserving of having an event in their honour are those who come home too injured to attend. Or who don't make it back at all," Laurent pointed out.
"You know, I think you would enjoy a good argument with Captain Akielos one day," Auguste mused. "He'd have a lot to say about all those opinions you have about the running of the military, and about what makes a 'victory'. And he's no less willing to express his opinions than you are. You'd either get along famously or schedule a duel."
"Akielos?" Laurent asked sharply. There surely couldn't have been more than a handful of men in the country who could have borne that specific name, let alone also carrying that exact occupation and rank. It was too large a coincidence not to be the same man.
"Yes. Unusual name, isn't it? Greek, though I understand his family immigrated two generations ago, and he's a proper English gentleman by any standards I've ever cared to acknowledge. I'm hoping to see him at this ball, actually, since it's been a while since last we met. He couldn't be in town last season due to injury, from what I heard."
It was definitely the same man, Laurent accepted, his heart racing at the thought of coming face to face again.
That prospect shouldn't be anything to particularly concern himself with, Laurent considered. Nothing had ever come of their previous time together, so it wasn't as though there was really anything for a subsequent meeting to dredge back up into existence. He might have forgotten meeting Laurent entirely, in fact; just one of many trifling details of his time staying with his friend while he'd recovered. If Laurent met him again now, likely all that would happen was that he would see for himself how pointless it was to hang onto these thoughts that should have grown stale over the course of the year that had passed since then. He might even be able to finally leave those thoughts well behind him.
"Perhaps I will come along just this once," Laurent said. "If only so you can't keep complaining that I came all the way here and still didn't adequately socialise."
"That's the spirit." Auguste clapped him on the back.
The first twenty minutes, while people were still arriving at the ball in droves, was endlessly dull. Laurent's relative disinterest in the endless procession of introductions died away, though, when Auguste said, "Ah, speak of the devil and he shall appear. You remember that I mentioned Captain Akielos to you earlier? I could introduce you if you like, for he's just across the room."
Laurent was silent for a long moment, unable to find his tongue. Eventually, he managed to say, as casually as he could manage, "If you really think it's worth my while."
He followed Auguste, more meekly than he normally would, across the room.
"Akielos!" Auguste greeted happily when they reached him, as if they were the closest of friends reuniting after a long time apart. "I'm glad to see you looking so well-mended. You were missed at the balls and parties last year, let me tell you. The ladies were all particularly desolate in your absence."
"If you try to claim that you let them give me more than a passing thought before you distracted them, then I will be forced to call you a liar, de Vere."
Auguste waved him off. "You know they don't find me half as charming as you. And now I've reduced my odds even further by bringing my very eligible brother along with me to take up all the attention, so between you both, I fear I'm doomed."
"Your brother?" The words were pitched slightly higher than before. His eyes slid away from Auguste, to the side. They widened.
"Yes. Captain Akielos, may I present my younger brother, Mr. de Vere?"
Damen looked as though he was going to say something, perhaps about this not being the first time they'd met. Laurent subtly shook his head.
"Captain Akielos," Laurent greeted shortly. The words felt strange in his mouth when it was a different name than he'd eventually grown used to uttering.
Laurent stayed silent for the space of minutes, while Auguste and Damen exchanged small talk about what they'd been involved in over the past months. Auguste then spotted someone with whom he apparently needed to discuss something business-related.
"Do you mind?" Auguste asked. "I wouldn't like to miss him. He so rarely shows his face at these things, and it's impossible to catch him anywhere else other than the club he likes."
"Not at all," said Damen. "Perhaps without you and I monopolising the conversation together, your brother may be inclined to speak more than a simple greeting to me."
Auguste laughed. Laurent didn't.
Once Auguste was some twenty feet away, Laurent said, quietly enough so as not to be overheard by anyone else over the noise of the room, "You might have mentioned before now that you knew my brother personally rather than just by reputation."
Damen shrugged. "I didn't think it worth mentioning, really. It's so far been mainly a friendship of convenience. He's excellent company at events like these, and we do seem to attend many of the same gatherings during the season. Unlike you, usually. I thought you didn't care for balls. Or social events in general."
"Can't I want to support all the hard work of the high-ranked military commanders who were invited as guests of honour tonight?" Laurent asked dryly.
Damen made a disbelieving sound. "Come now. I know exactly how you feel about the men currently in charge of the military. 'If the chain of command among the officers was decided more by merit and intelligence than the exact commission price paid, then Spain might have been liberated in the first year of the French rule instead of the fifth', I seem to recall you saying."
"That does seem like something I'd suggest," acknowledged Laurent.
"I've forgotten nothing," Laurent said. "I'm merely surprised that you would recall it."
"I'd hardly just forget about someone so determinedly dismantling my chosen career of six years," Damen said. Laurent knew that Damen was proud of his service to their country, so he was perfectly willing to chalk it up to that, right up until the moment that Damen added, in a slightly lower voice, "Especially when the person who said it was you. I've forgotten nothing either."
Laurent felt the blush blooming. He turned his face away from both Damen and the rest of the room for a moment while he got himself under some semblance of control.
In that time, the start of the dancing was finally announced. There were sounds of approval from one group of officers in particular, who all seemed desperate for some slightly closer contact with the gentler sex.
"I imagined you would be eagerly joining the dancing," Laurent said.
"I always keep the start and end of my dance card open, in case I should suddenly meet someone particularly interesting who I didn't expect. It would be a shame to find myself without any time to spare for the most handsome partner in the room."
Laurent scoffed, "That's the sort of attitude that will get you into trouble." He could easily have been referring to Damen's apparent penchant for letting the pretty girl of the moment distract him from using the dancing as an opportunity to make lasting connections. But that wasn't what Laurent had actually meant at all. Damen seemed to know it too.
"Don't worry," Damen said. "I haven't lost my mind in the last year. I still know better than to do anything that might cause a scandal. But I think I'll leave those last few dances free all the same. I wouldn't mind filling the time with conversation instead if you're amenable."
Laurent should tell him no.
"I suppose I could spare a few minutes," was what he said instead.
Damen's smile was ridiculously broad and so bright it was half-blinding. Laurent couldn't look away even so. He hoped there was no one else looking their way, for they would surely have wondered what could have prompted such an expression.
Their discussion moved to easier territory after that, thankfully, and Laurent relaxed a little without even realising it at first. He also found himself flashing back to previous conversations, and quiet moments when they'd been lying side by side in an otherwise empty field rather than standing at the edge of a ballroom with several hundred people packed into it.
Eventually, Damen had to depart to join the dancing after all. He and his chosen partner ended up clear at the opposite end of the dance line, where Laurent couldn't really see them anymore. That should have put them out of Laurent's mind, but it didn't. The woman was blonde and objectively quite beautiful, Laurent thought. Of course she was. And Damen looked at her with a clearly admiring eye that obviously wasn't faked. It had always been clear to Laurent that Damen really did enjoy the company of women in that way. But that being the case, then why…
"Who was that you've been talking to alone for so long, Nephew?"
Laurent tensed. He'd seen Uncle in the crowd earlier, of course, but he'd assumed that he would be able to avoid the man all night without much effort in an attendance this big. That had been before he'd let himself be distracted.
"A retired Army Captain," Laurent replied, his voice even. "One who I understand was actually part of your regiment for a time, Colonel. Perhaps you would already have recognised his face, if you ever bothered to look at anyone ranked below yourself. But heaven forbid you should actually care a whit about anyone in your charge, I suppose," Before he could receive the rebuke that must have been burning the lining of Uncle's throat, Laurent added, "Now I'm afraid you'll have to excuse me, Uncle, for I see some ladies without partners. I fear they outnumber the men this evening. I would be remiss if I didn't do my part to even things up a little, don't you agree?"
Dancing definitely didn't rank high on Laurent's list of things he particularly wanted to do tonight, but almost anything would be better than being trapped in a corner while his uncle tried to get a rise out of him by commenting on things that Laurent staunchly refused to discuss.
Laurent didn't actually go to any of the array of seated women who might have really appreciated being asked to dance. Instead, he picked out one of the ladies whose family Auguste and he had called upon earlier in the week. Auguste was apparently too gentlemanly to follow the gossip, but Laurent had nonetheless overheard some rather interesting speculation even prior to meeting her. On top of that, she seemed to be a woman of wit and very possibly of ambition as well. Laurent could do far worse for a dance partner if he had to have one.
"I didn't take you for an avid dancer, Mr. de Vere," Miss Vannes said, amused.
"I'm not. Neither are you, I think. So we're well matched to help each other fit in better among a crowd where dancing is expected, wouldn't you say?"
Miss Vannes smiled ever so slightly as she looped her hand around Laurent's extended elbow. "You certainly know how to charm a lady."
Between the end of one dance and the start of the next, Laurent happened to notice Damen's attention turn to him as Laurent guided the relatively attractive woman on his arm past Damen and his newest partner. Laurent stood a little taller as he waited for the music to begin.
Set about a month and a half after Laurent and Damen's very first meeting. In these first three chapters, I've now established the main three basic time blocks around which we'll be jumping during this fic.
Any of the previous times that Laurent had remained at the country house while Auguste went to town for the spring, visitors were almost entirely unheard of. In the last two seasons, since Laurent had reached an age where he could take on more responsibility in assisting his brother to run the estate, Laurent had taken calls from a couple of Auguste's tenants so he could address issues that couldn't be easily resolved by Auguste's steward alone. That had been incredibly rare, though, and certainly there were never any of the gentry interested in calling on him in Auguste's absence.
Unless Uncle was in residence. He, of course, made quite the point of visiting the main house as often as he pleased, regardless of whether or not Auguste was in residence himself. Perhaps even more so when he wasn't. Thankfully, that wasn't currently the case. Uncle was in France, much to Laurent's relief.
This year, however, things were so far very different in the time that Auguste had been away from Arles Court. It was rather telling that at this stage the butler, Jord, no longer even asked for Laurent's permission before showing Laurent's guest inside the house. He just announced, "Captain Akielos has arrived to see you. I've shown him into your study."
Jord knew very well that the man was welcome. Everyone in the house knew. Laurent could only be glad that the household staff was properly discreet when it came to discussing family affairs with outsiders, for all that they gossiped almost endlessly among themselves. Laurent would actually rather not know what they whispered to each other about the frequency of the calls. It was almost every day that Jord showed Akielos into Laurent's study, ever since Akielos's injury had healed enough to justify a daily ride across the countryside to see Laurent. Most days, the cook also had to provide a second portion of dinner to be served at the main table along with Laurent's, for Akielos tended to remain at Arles Court for hours on end, well over the usual duration of social calls.
Not that Laurent was complaining at all about how long Akielos spent in his presence. However, he presumed that his servants weren't the only ones remarking on it. Mr. Nikandros, in whose country home Akielos was currently a guest, must also comment on his extended absences from Marlas Park during the days and evenings.
"Does your host know where you keep disappearing to all the time?" Laurent had asked a few days ago.
"I might have mentioned who I was meeting, yes."
"And Nikandros suggested that too much fresh air may be too much for me, at my current stage of healing," Akielos prevaricated, not very convincingly.
"You mean he specifically warned you away from me."
Akielos looked sheepish. "He might have."
"And tell me, do you usually ignore your closest friend, even after he's gone out of his way to shelter you and care for you when you need it?"
"Only when I feel it's warranted."
"So frequently, then."
"He's grown fairly used to it, yes."
Laurent had shaken his head at him, but the action had been somewhat fond, he had to admit.
For a while, Laurent had been more directly privy to Mr. Nikandros's opinions. The only way to see Akielos regularly while his injury had still been too tender for much movement had been for Laurent to visit Marlas Park, which had necessitated weathering Mr. Nikandros's evident disapproval of Laurent's entire being. Laurent was glad to no longer have to see the man's quietly judging eyes or to hear his concerns relayed to Akielos not quite outside Laurent's hearing. Under other circumstances, Laurent might have thrown propriety aside and answered Mr. Nikandros insult for insult, but it was unfair to Auguste to alienate his neighbour that way.
And even apart from that, Laurent had to assume that Mr. Nikandros – as canny as he seemed – might have formulated some very specific ideas about the nature of the new association his friend had formed with his neighbour. Laurent thought he would do well not to alienate a man who might be keeping his secrets, even if it wasn't for Laurent's benefit that Mr. Nikandros was doing so. Best to tread carefully. In fact, that was what he kept having to remind himself about everything to do with Akielos.
Today, when Laurent came to meet him immediately after Jord indicated the man's arrival, Akielos rose from the guest's seat, which was positioned slightly off to the side of Laurent's small study room. They shook hands. Their grips remained joined for much longer than Laurent would otherwise ever voluntarily touch another man, apart from perhaps Auguste.
"You look tired," Laurent commented bluntly.
Wryly, Akielos said, "How did I survive my whole life so far without you offering your unreserved opinions to keep me honest?"
"Oh dear. Do you need me to protect your delicate sensibilities?"
"Delicate," Akielos repeated. "Really."
It was, in fact, the last word Laurent would use to describe Akielos if he weren't speaking in jest. Even when there had been a worrying redness bleeding through onto Akielos's jacket, or when he'd been confined to bed, there was something undeniably solid and robust about the man. It wasn't just because of his size, but that was, of course, remarkable. Laurent couldn't recall ever before having seen anyone who looked like Akielos, or acted much like him either. Not even among his fellow military men. Certainly not among those who could claim the label of 'gentleman', as Akielos could. Within moments of meeting him, Laurent had been confused and intrigued by his rare combination of propriety and coarseness.
Perhaps too intrigued. He still was. The thought of it was disquieting, particularly with Akielos right there looking at Laurent, and presumably waiting for him to speak.
"I fancy a walk on the grounds. You'll accompany me, won't you?" Laurent said. It as much to get himself out of the room, which suddenly seemed a little too small for comfort with Akielos seeming to take up so much of the space and the oxygen, as it was to test whether Akielos looked tired for a reason. Not that Akielos would probably tell Laurent honestly if he wasn't well enough to walk around freely. He was the kind of man who toughed out the pain until it landed him on his back and bleeding, in Laurent's experience.
Laurent had to admit that his own ankle was still slightly tender, but the physician had cleared him, and he'd be fine if he watched his step to avoid any divets. It wasn't at all the same thing, as far as he was concerned.
Akielos agreed readily, just as Laurent expected. They were silent until they were at least a good fifty yards from the house, just in case any of the servants had decided to peek out the windows at them. No need to give them anything additional to trade stories about.
Following the path of that thought, Laurent said, "You won't even have to knock on the door soon enough. My brother's household staff are already almost convinced that you live at Arles Court, you spend so much time here."
"Is that a hint that I should visit less often?"
"No." It was said a little too quickly. "Only an observation that we're playing a rather interesting game, here."
"Is that what it is? A game?"
Laurent almost wished that was all there was to it. If it was just some game or flight of fancy on either of their parts, Laurent could laugh it off as nothing more than a way to fill the loneliness when he was otherwise deprived of company, with Auguste in town for the season. But, certainly on Laurent's part, it went far beyond just whiling away the hours together. He suspected the same was true for Akielos, though he didn't dare try to confirm that unless he was somehow wrong. If he revealed too much of himself, and it caused Akielos to look at him with disgust, the way most people would if they knew enough about Laurent, that surely would hurt Laurent more than Akielos's healing knife wound could ever have pained him.
His attention wandering, Laurent's foot caught an uneven patch of grass. He stumbled slightly. A large hand wrapped around Laurent's arm, steadying.
"Careful," Akielos said. "You don't want to reinjure your ankle, do you?"
It had been the other foot, thankfully. Laurent felt somewhat foolish over what might have been a lucky aversion of disaster, but he wasn't going to admit as much easily.
"I wasn't at any risk of falling," claimed Laurent. He waited a few more moments, then reluctantly shrugged off Akielos's warm hold. "And you're one to talk. If either of us is in any real danger from an existing injury, it certainly isn't me. Don't tell me that it wasn't pain that kept you awake through the night."
"It wasn't." It didn't quite register to Laurent as a lie. "Not the physical kind, at least," amended Akielos.
"Nightmares?" Laurent asked. He could only imagine what Akielos must have seen during his military stints overseas, and what he therefore carried with him into sleep. Unlike Uncle, Captain Akielos wasn't the kind of military man who would have hidden behind lower ranked men while they did all the real fighting. He would have been elbows deep in it.
"Something like that."
Laurent decided not to press further. The two of them talked about many things together, but there were a few things that Laurent knew he'd personally deemed as out of bounds to discuss. Akielos must have topics like that as well, for all that he was generally the most open person, even including Auguste, who Laurent had ever met in his life. It wouldn't be fair for Laurent to force him to talk if he didn't want to.
The rest of the walk passed by with less heavy conversation, and by the time they returned to the house, Laurent felt like he'd worn down a little of the excess energy that had started vibrating through him when he'd been alone in his study with Akielos. Though it didn't help that Akielos now looked like the walk had wiped away some of his weariness and restored his usual liveliness to him. The circles were still under his eyes, obviously, but they did little to detract from the overall impression of him. His eyes themselves seemed bright. There was a slight pinkness of exertion to his cheekbones. And his now wind-swept curls framed his face fetchingly, Laurent noticed, and then chastised himself for noticing.
Despite it only being the two of them eating together, the dinner table was not a quiet affair that evening. Akielos led most of the conversation, but he tended to choose topics that he must have suspected would get a rise out of Laurent, because at his prompting their discussions kept devolving into energetic, though good-natured, arguments. That was what Laurent enjoyed most about Akielos's company. The man wasn't afraid to give us good as he got, even (or especially) when Laurent's tongue grew sharper than most people in society would have tolerated without rising to their feet and making some half-hearted excuse to get away from him. Akielos had never once done that. He'd never seemed to want to be out of Laurent's company at all.
As always, their shared dinner ended sooner than Laurent would have liked. The servants were busying themselves with lighting candles all around, which had Laurent conceding that it was time (past time, really) for his guest to leave.
Laurent would prefer that Akielos didn't have to always ride back to Marlas Park alone after dinner. Even with the start of the summer months a bare week away, by that hour it was beginning to grow dark. Between Akielos's barely-healed knife wound, which still wasn't at the point that it could afford to be jerked by the horse spooking or tripping over something it couldn't see, and the potential for something like what had happened weeks ago to occur again, it might not be entirely safe to travel even the relatively short distance to Marlas Park in the twilight. But Mr. Nikandros would have even more questions than he already must be asking if Laurent frequently invited Akielos to be his guest overnight, as he would like. And the alternative was for Laurent to say goodbye to Akielos an hour or two sooner, and to sit and eat dinner on his own with nothing but the servants popping in and out of the room near-silently to break the solitude. Not long ago, that would have sounded as close to perfection as could be achieved in Auguste's absence. Now…
Well, Akielos was a ridiculously large man, as strong at the horse he rode. He travelled with a sword by his side. Whatever risk there might be, surely it was minimal enough to be justifiable. Akielos certainly seemed to think so, for Laurent had the feeling that he would only leave early if Laurent forced him to. Whether it was for quite the same reason as Laurent or not, he seemed to treasure their time together as well.
It was somewhat usual for the host to see his guest out the door, in most cases, particularly when it wasn't a new acquaintance. That was the butler's job. Laurent accompanied Akielos anyway. They shook hands in farewell just before they parted at the doors of the entrance hall. Laurent surely couldn't have imagined how intentional it seemed when, as they each let go, Akielos's gloved fingertips trailed all the way up Laurent's palm to settle on his wrist for a moment, before his hand fell to his side.
"I'll see you again tomorrow," Akielos promised. He didn't ask if that was agreeable to Laurent. The footman standing nearby, Orlant, probably made a mental note of that so that he could tell the rest of them later how boldly Captain Akielos invited himself to Arles Court. There was little Laurent could do to stem the tide of such talk without making Akielos feel he wasn't welcome after all. That was an impression Laurent definitely wasn't interested in giving off.
So Laurent simply said, "Yes. Tomorrow."
Even that seemed like a long time away, Laurent thought, as he watched Akielos mount his horse and push it into a trot in the direction of his current, but temporary, home.
"You're coming to tonight's ball?" Auguste asked.
Leaning back into the settee, Laurent slightly lowered his book so that he could see his brother's face. "The invitation is issued to you 'and family', isn't it? If they didn't want my presence, they should have specified. Perhaps once they have met me in person, next time they will."
"You always say things like that, but you're perfectly capable of being charming."
"Obviously. But why would I want to be? It's enough effort to show up at all, let alone going out of my way to act nice to people."
"Yet you've voluntarily decided to attend a second ball in the space of three days without me even bringing up the topic of it. If I didn't know better, I'd think someone must have caught your interest the last time."
Some reaction must have shown momentarily on Laurent's face.
Auguste burst into a surprised laugh. "Laurent! What has happened to my supposedly unmoveable little brother? Tell me, was it the lady you danced with for those few songs? Miss Vannes, wasn't it?"
That idea was indeed worth laughing about, but not for the reason Auguste thought. However, Laurent purposely made his denials sound somewhat unconvincing. He hated not being entirely truthful with his brother, but it wasn't actually a lie, Laurent justified. It was Auguste's own fault for jumping to conclusions anyway.
It was certainly better for him to make that particular leap than that to get anywhere near the truth.
Laurent knew that Damen would be present, for he'd mentioned this ball in passing when he'd spoken to Laurent at the last one. However, it took some time to actually spot Damen once they'd arrived. That wasn't because Damen didn't naturally stand out from the crowd. Rather, was practically surrounded by a small crowd, many of them women, and all seemingly vying for a moment of his attention in return for theirs. When Laurent did catch a glimpse of Damen's face through the thick copse of people, he was animated and bright-eyed. Laurent couldn’t blame anyone for seeking proximity when he was like that.
Only when the line of sight between Laurent and Damen was interrupted did Laurent notice there was another familiar face to Damen's left. Compared to a year ago, when Mr. Nikandros had only reluctantly presented himself at Arles Court, and even more reluctantly accepted Laurent into Marlas Park, at first glance the man seemed remarkably open to being sociable tonight, as if he'd been entirely caught up in Damen's sphere. Still, it wasn't until the first dance was announced and the group around them dispersed that Mr. Nikandros seemed to entirely relax. He even let a smile flicker at the corners of his lips when Damen said something that Laurent couldn't hear from this distance. Laurent had never seen Mr. Nikandros look anything but dour before that moment. Perhaps that was because Laurent's mere presence brought that out in him. Or perhaps it was more that Damen brought out his better side. Laurent could certainly empathise with that.
Auguste unknowingly obliged Laurent by making his way to greet the two men, giving Laurent an excuse to accompany him.
Mr. Nikandros greeted Auguste cordially, and Laurent slightly less so, but not to the extent that Auguste seemed to notice the difference. He didn't, however, do much to hide how thoroughly unimpressed he was as he sized Laurent up. Damen looked Laurent over in a very different way. If they weren't in a position to be overheard, Laurent would have scolded him for his lack of subtlety. As it was, Laurent tried to ignore both stares. He was more successful when it came to Mr. Nikandros's.
They couldn't find an opportunity to speak alone at first, though Laurent did meet Damen's eyes many times throughout the first hour of the evening, even when he was persuaded to join the dancing for two songs. Miss Vannes was on his arm for both, which seemed to practically send Auguste into paroxysms of delight. Apparently, it might have had quite a different effect on Damen; for once he wasn't smiling when he found Laurent during a brief intermission from the music.
Crossing his arms over his broad chest, Damen leaned against the wall a couple of feet from where Laurent had hidden himself away in the corner, out of the way. Anyone who wasn't observing closely could have been forgiven for not even realising they were aware of each other's presence, for they were both looking out across the bustling room rather than at each other. But Laurent could somehow feel every ounce of Damen's attention on him all the same.
"You're the talk of the hour, you know."
Laurent regarded Damen with the briefest of sidelong looks. "Am I? I suppose they're complaining about how I would dare to stand off to the side and choose my own company over theirs, given the chance. Imagine preferring thoughtful silence over inane comments about the weather. The scandal of it."
"They were commenting on your dancing, actually."
Laurent scoffed, "Speaking of inane."
"You can't be surprised that they would remark on you dancing twice with the same lady, and not at all with anyone else."
"Perhaps it's you and Miss Jokaste they should be speaking of, then. Three songs so far, wasn't it?"
Not that Laurent was paying attention to such things.
Damen shrugged, drawing Laurent's attention momentarily to the broad shoulder closest to him before he remembered himself. "She's from my neighbourhood, and we've known each other for years." Laurent had the feeling that there was more to it than that, but Damen continued before he could say anything about it. "But I've danced with several other ladies as well and will continue to do so. It's different than you reserving yourself for just one partner across two separate balls. That suggests a particular regard for the lady in question."
Laurent had to tightly rein his expression at Damen's evident jealousy. "You and my brother are two of a kind; both utterly blind to the obvious. Auguste is under the impression that I'm attending this ball specifically so that I might see Miss Vannes."
"And you let him think that?"
"What should I have told him instead?" Then, realising how much of a terrible idea it would be to hear Damen's answer to that, Laurent quickly added, "Never mind. Forget I asked."
"Is that what you really want?" asked Damen. "For me to just forget? Even now?"
It was clear that Damen wasn't just talking about disregarding the question.
As casually as he could manage, Laurent said, "I would think that would be a simple enough task, with so many distractions available to you."
"It's not. Even after nearly a year, I can't stop thinking about you."
Laurent unthinkingly jerked his head around to look at Damen dead-on, stepping back slightly, more to lean against the wall behind him than to put any real distance between them. If anyone was watching at that exact moment, they would surely wonder what had earned that kind of reaction.
"You are absolutely ridiculous," Laurent said. He meant it to come out harsher than it did. "At least lower your voice if you're going to say such things," added Laurent. "Or better yet, don't say them in a place like this at all."
"Where would you prefer me to say them?" Damen asked. "Neither of us are staying alone while we're in town. Privacy is hard to come by."
Laurent should have taken that opportunity to order Damen not to speak of it at all. He was sure the silence that followed instead was incredibly telling.
"You know," Damen said, "I frequent a club in the afternoons most days."
Laurent was quick to say, "I despise clubs. The entire purpose is to spend hours talking to near strangers. I can't imagine anything worse."
"We used to spend hours talking every day," Damen pointed out. "Or are you going to tell me now that you didn't enjoy that?"
Laurent's face felt suddenly warmer. Laurent resisted the urge to tug at his cravat, as if its tightness at his neck were the real problem. "You aren't a stranger. But you also won't be the only person at your club."
"It has private rooms."
Laurent swallowed hard. But no, Damen wouldn't have meant anything like the idea that Laurent's rebellious mind had just supplied. Damen was not the most cautious of men, but he certainly wasn't foolish enough to invite trouble to that extent. And Laurent knew that he preferred the company of women anyway, as a general rule. There would be no reason for his club to be that kind of establishment. Which was just as well, Laurent reminded himself. He'd long since sworn to avoid such places, and to avoid indulging himself that way. Even, or especially, with Damen.
Though Laurent had also decided to stay away from Damen in general, back before Damen had departed from Marlas Park a year ago. He should really adhere to that decision now.
"I have missed our conversations," Laurent admitted.
"Then you'll come along?"
As if it didn't matter to him one way or the other, Laurent said dismissively, "I suppose I might consider it."
It was as good as agreement, and Damen clearly knew it, for he did a poor job of hiding his grin.
Damen was soon after pulled away to dance. Laurent forced himself to do the same, this time with two different ladies, neither of whom was Miss Vannes. It wouldn't do for people to think, as Damen had accused despite certainly being in a position to know better, that Laurent had too much of an interest in her. That sort of thing created public expectations, and then questions when it never ended in the anticipated engagement. The last thing Laurent needed was to have people speculating to each other about why he might not have seriously tried for Miss Vannes's hand.
His partner for the first dance was basically the first unclaimed lady Laurent had laid eyes on. He couldn't even recall her name, though he knew they'd been formally introduced at some point. His second partner, however, wasn't entirely Laurent's own choice. It wasn't entirely decorous for Miss Jokaste to hint so heavily that Laurent should ask for a dance, but Laurent let it slide, holding out his elbow for her to grasp. He couldn't deny that he was curious about her. Anyone who could secure three dances with Damen in just the first half of the night and who had shown such determination to dance with Laurent despite his best efforts to avoid the activity could be interesting enough to hold Laurent's attention for at least the space of a dance.
"I noticed that we have an associate in common," she said.
"Do we?" Laurent asked. "I can't imagine who. I doubt we travel in the same social circles."
"Possibly because, from what I gather, you make a point of having no real social circle at all." Her tone was airy, as if it were nothing more than a light-hearted jest between friends, but her eyes said otherwise. "And yet despite that you seem to have secured Captain Akielos's friendship. I wondered how you managed that."
"Did you want tips on how to get close to him? I don't think I'm the right person to ask, if so. We're barely acquaintances," Laurent lied.
"Really? Only that? How peculiar. The only other gentleman I've ever seen Captain Akielos spend more time speaking with at a ball than he devotes to dancing with any one lady is Mr. Nikandros, who is a lifelong friend of his, as I'm sure you know."
There was something in the way she spoke that suggested every word was carefully sculpted to pry into others' affairs, for all that they might sound pleasant enough to an untrained ear.
Without any inflection, Laurent commented, "I was under the impression that the purpose of this kind of public gathering was, in fact, to meet new people. So I'm not certain I see what's made you so concerned."
"Not concerned. Just curious. There must be something special about you, for you to have so thoroughly caught his eye."
The way she said it made Laurent tense; a physical reaction to feeling as though he was too close to the precipice for comfort. Damen had said that he'd known her for years. How much was she really aware of? It was Laurent's turn to want to narrow his eyes, but he suppressed the urge. Flatly, he said, "I'm sure it must be my charming personality."
Miss Jokaste's smile was thinner than the one Laurent had seen her direct towards Damen. "Perhaps it is. I suppose it's very like him to hold out his hand to the one man in the room who doesn't seem to want his company. He enjoys a challenge."
"Perhaps you might do better to play hard to get rather than making it so obvious how you'd like to secure him as a husband, if that's the case." Perhaps Laurent should have held his tongue, but she'd irked him enough to make that difficult to do.
It surprised Laurent that she hadn't already managed to win Damen over, to be honest. From what Laurent had gathered, she seemed like the kind of woman who could have captured Damen's attention, and she'd clearly had the opportunity to do so, since Damen himself had acknowledged that he'd known her for years. Though potentially, Laurent realised, she might not have been quite this interested until ten months ago, when Damen had returned to take up his new, unexpected inheritance. Perhaps by then it was too late for her.
Damen had still thought of him during those ten months, Laurent remembered. It almost brought a smile to his lips. He suppressed it.
"What a scandalous thing to say," Miss Jokaste said, as if she hadn't been hinting at scandal herself, whether she realised the full extent of it or not. Laurent noted that she didn't actually sound in the least offended by Laurent's comment.
The song ended before Laurent had to respond to that. Laurent bowed in unison with the rest of the men on the floor and even escorted Miss Jokaste back to her seat like the proper gentleman he was supposed to act like. As they walked, Laurent caught Mr. Nikandros looking between the two of them as if he'd just bitten into a lemon. Damen wasn't with him. Presumably, he'd been off dancing himself, and probably still was. There were several dances left before the evening ended. Likely Miss Jokaste would even claim one of them with him.
Laurent didn't quite know how to feel about that. Under other circumstances, he would have admired her boldness. As it was, Laurent hated to think about the kinds of things Damen would unknowingly let slip to a woman like her, not realising that behind her smiles she was hiding sharp teeth.
Laurent wasn't sure that warning Damen would do much good, but he still resolved to bring it up the next time he saw Damen. There was no real question in his mind anymore that there would be a 'next time', or that it would be soon. In fact, Laurent wished that he could have spoken to Damen again that very night. However, that didn't seem like the most intelligent of ideas when he was fairly certain that Miss Jokaste was probably watching for any signs that might confirm whatever impression she had about them.
Laurent found Auguste instead and pretended that by his brother's side was the only place he wanted to be right then.
Laurent was deep in thought, his fingers trailing almost mindlessly across the ivory keys. The music that ensued was a slightly disjointed and melancholy tune, a strange mashing together of half-remembered songs from the days when it had been his mother rather than himself who was most often sitting at the bench in front of the pianoforte. It suited his mood perfectly, for all that it felt melodramatic to think so. But he couldn't help it. He was too cognisant today of the passing time, and of the fact that in another two weeks, things would alter dramatically for the second time in just the last three months of Laurent's life. The last change had been unexpectedly positive. This one, for all that he'd distantly known it would have to come along eventually, was far less welcome.
Even over the volume of the music, Laurent heard the sound of a throat being cleared. Laurent stilled his fingers, plunging the room into abrupt silence. He looked up to see Jord appearing apologetic. Looming over Jord's shoulder, Akielos was watching Laurent with an intrigued expression. Laurent was startled to his feet, as if he'd been caught in a compromising position. In a way, he had been.
"My apologies for the interruption," Jord said. His tone and posture suggested that he expected a verbal flaying at any moment. He'd seen Laurent properly wrathful a few times and likely feared to have that directed at him now.
"Thank you, Jord, you can leave. We have no more need of your services, such as they apparently are today," Laurent said sharply, a dismissal rather than a dismantling.
Jord practically fled out the door.
Akielos shook his head as he walked up alongside the piano. "Don't blame him. He meant to take me to wait for you in your study, as usual, but I heard the music and grew curious."
"I suppose you'll claim that if you take liberties well beyond what I might expect of a guest in my home, I only have myself to blame for not treating you as I would a normal guest in the first place. You'd probably be right. I've left myself with no privacy from you, haven't I."
Truthfully, Laurent wasn't angry about Akielos overstepping his bounds as much as he was mortified that he'd happened to do so at just that moment, when Laurent's emotions were being poured out into the air for anyone to hear.
"You're embarrassed that I heard you," Akielos surmised. "Why? You play very well."
"I shouldn't play at all, especially in front of guests. That's not a gentleman's role." That was what Father had always told him. The piano was for ladies and career entertainers, not gentlemen. If Laurent wanted to be musical in public, he would restrain himself to singing to accompany his mother's playing. As long as Father didn't prevent him from learning and playing at home (though that allowance was more down to Auguste's insistence that it was harmless than Father's desire to indulge Laurent), Laurent had accepted that condition readily enough. It wasn't as if Laurent liked making a public spectacle of himself anyway. Though he wasn't always given a choice on that count. Laurent vividly recalled having to comply with Uncle's frequent commands to sing to entertain him and his colleagues, especially during the last spring that Laurent had spent in town.
Laurent never sang anymore. Not since his voice had broken.
But he did still enjoy playing the piano. At least, he did when it was only, at most, himself and Auguste and the servants in the house. He'd forgotten, somehow, that Akielos was likely to arrive at any minute. No, that wasn't correct. Akielos's imminent presence wasn't something that he ever just forgot about, as much as he always looked forward to it. What he'd failed to recall was that he should be treating Akielos like a stranger to this house, rather than as one of the usual occupants in front of whom Laurent could behave more or less as he liked. Laurent had done a poor job all around recently of being careful not to act in certain ways and disclose details about himself that didn't fit with what was expected of a gentleman. He was lucky that Akielos didn't judge him harshly for it. Though he supposed there was still time yet for the man to change his mind.
Akielos reached out, hooking his fingers lightly around Laurent's wrist just below where the cuff of his jacket had been pushed back for playing. He brought Laurent's hand up between them, looking at it intently, as if he were studying it for future reference. "Why shouldn't you play if you want to, especially in your own home? Just because you're a man? You have more talent than most of the ladies I've ever listened to. And you have a musician's fingers. It would be a waste not to use them to full effect."
Laurent blinked. Surely he had mistaken the suggestiveness to those words.
He brushed it off at the same time as he brushed Akielos's hand away. Laurent pointedly moved towards the library – away from the drawing room, and the pianoforte – in the hopes that they might just forget about the way the afternoon had begun. But the air between them was not as comfortable as usual. Partly it was because Laurent still felt like he was on the back foot. Though it also might have something to do with how Laurent hadn't forgotten their conversation earlier that morning.
"What's wrong? You don't seem like yourself," Akielos said when Laurent was silent for too long, after a long stint of unusually clipped conversation.
Laurent laughed. There was no humour in it. "Most people who've met me would disagree with you. I'm widely known for being taciturn and poor company. Surely Mr. Nikandros has told you that."
"Nikandros has told me many things, a lot of them more conjecture than anything. I don't care about all that. And you know I don't mind if you're quiet, or even if you feel like unleashing some of your more cutting remarks, if it's just that you're in a bad mood. But this seems different. Are you upset with me?"
"Why would I be?" Laurent asked.
"I thought, perhaps, that you might be unhappy that I told you that I'm leaving."
Laurent's heart rate escalated, like an animal seeing a trap door closing while it was still stuck inside. Outwardly, though, he shrugged, as if it didn't matter to him. "I've barely given it a moment's thought."
Akielos shook his head. "Well if you won't be honest, I suppose that falls to me. I'm unhappy about it. I don't want to leave here. To leave you."
Laurent was startled into looking at him searchingly. Given the intensity of his expression and the way he was regarding Laurent, his face so open, this time there was absolutely no mistaking what was underlying his words. Laurent hated that part of him felt glad for the confirmation that he definitely wasn't alone in this after all. Finally. Though too late, really. It might have been better at this stage if he had been left wondering.
"You are too free with your words," Laurent chastised.
"You wouldn't say that if you knew the extent of what I was really thinking."
Laurent thought he did have a fair idea, now. Things had become very clear, very quickly, between the two of them. He felt like he could hardly catch his breath, for it all seemed to him to be moving too fast. But also not fast enough, some part of him thought.
Laurent shook his head. "Not here."
"Laurent…" Akielos said, practically a whisper. Laurent couldn't recall ever having offered his Christian name in any way, so he was surprised Akielos even knew it. The word sent shivers down Laurent's spine.
"Don't," Laurent said. "Don't say my name like that."
Like you're trying to seduce me, Laurent thought but knew better than to say. The walls had ears, and they were already being too open as it was. And even if they were entirely alone, putting it into words made it real. Laurent wasn't sure how to deal with that.
"I can't have this conversation now," Laurent said, and let Akielos think that he only meant because the servants might be around, listening in, rather than because he was almost too overwhelmed to really be able to think, and act, in any rational manner.
"In the morning?" Akielos suggested, and Laurent agreed.
Akielos didn't take too kindly to Laurent sending him away hours earlier than he usually would have, but Laurent really couldn't even look at him just now. Once the man was gone, Laurent ventured out to the stables, not to go for a ride, but just for the sake of clearing his mind by doing something as repetitive as brushing his horse down.
"You're healing up well," Laurent quietly murmured to the mare as she shifted around slightly in the stall, no longer even half as careful of her injured foot as she'd needed to be a few weeks ago. Soon enough it would be her rather than one of Auguste's horses who Laurent would be riding out on into the countryside. But by then, there would no longer be anyone for Laurent to ride out to meet. He pressed his face briefly to the mare's long neck. She whickered. He just breathed.
Laurent didn't want to feel bitter that Akielos had healed even better than Laurent's horse had, to the point that he was now able to travel in a potentially rocky carriage for days on end with the physician's blessing. Laurent should be glad for him. Even apart from anything else, they were friends, weren't they? Laurent didn't know much about friendship, but he did think that no one should begrudge a friend his health. But Akielos hadn't been off base. Laurent was unhappy that it meant he would be leaving. Terribly so. And it seemed Akielos understood why. That only made it worse.
Laurent left the stable behind for the night feeling not much better than when he'd arrived. When he returned in the morning, this time it wasn't to attend to his own mare. One of Auguste's geldings was prepared for him by a stablehand, and Laurent quickly mounted and rode out, just like he did most mornings lately. That trend was hardly suspicious. Laurent had always loved riding.
Laurent and Akielos had taken to spending most mornings together as well as the afternoons, these days. But they always did so away from the house, on Laurent's request. It was one thing to spend long enough on an afternoon social call that it 'necessitated' an invitation to dinner for the sake of politeness. It wasn't the end of the world if the servants relayed that information to Auguste on his return (and Auguste would be the only person they might tell, for they were loyal enough not to talk out of turn to random visitors or servicemen or people down at the markets, or certainly never to Uncle if he was in residence, thankfully). Auguste would probably think nothing of Laurent having invited an injured man to stay in the house for a week, or in continuing to check up on him afterwards, for that was the sort of thing Auguste himself would do. If he heard that Laurent had the same man as a guest most afternoons, Auguste would probably laugh about the man's persistence, that even Laurent's obvious distaste for dealing with people hadn't been enough to get him to stop calling. But to learn that Laurent saw him morning, afternoon and evening almost every day?
The servants wouldn't understand; casual social calls between men just didn't happen in the mornings. It wasn't the done thing. Auguste wouldn't know how to justify it to himself either, if he heard of it. Laurent could hardly explain to himself why he'd let things progress that far. Though now at least he knew for sure why Akielos hadn't grown uncomfortable with how eager Laurent was to spend all their time together and stopped it. The feeling was mutual. That thought filled Laurent with a strange feeling, half-exhilaration and half-dread.
This morning, as on many mornings prior, Laurent and Damen met, each on horseback, about halfway between Arles Court and Marlas Park. At this point, they would usually either ride side by side for a few hours or, more often, steer their horses somewhere away from the road into the fields, where they could tie off the animals and lie on the grass unobserved. Mostly they just talked. About anything. Everything. Sometimes Laurent brought a book with him and read aloud as Akielos listened intently. A few times they had ended up at the nearby lake on mornings that were a little warmer than usual, considering summer had only just begun. Damen had stripped his clothes from his back (and everywhere else) and plunged into the water. Laurent had been too shocked to even react the first time that had happened, though he didn't quite have that excuse the next few times, when he still failed to avert his eyes. Laurent had imagined it was an unselfconsciousness born of sharing tight quarters with other officers during his years of service. Laurent didn't quite share his freeness with his body. When, twice, Laurent let himself be coaxed into the water, he left on his undershirt and drawers, and tried to pretend that the water didn't render them nearly translucent anyway.
There was no such seemingly carefree activity planned for this particular morning, though. They simply headed off into a quiet field together to talk.
"You wish I hadn't said anything," were the first words out of Akielos's mouth.
That was slightly more perceptive than Laurent would have expected of him.
"Yes," Laurent acknowledged. "In the morning, you tell me that you have been cleared to travel back to your home and will be leaving. Then by afternoon, you're teasing me that way. What did you expect?"
"I wasn't mocking you. I'm sorry if that's how it came off."
That wasn't quite what Laurent had meant; he'd been referring of the tease of the idea that there might ever have been something more on offer, under other circumstances.
"You can't have thought that this was one-sided, though, surely," Akielos said.
"Why wouldn't I have? You like women," Laurent said. "You've spoken of that often and freely enough."
"One thing has no bearing on the other. I'm allowed to like both."
"No, you're not," Laurent said. "Some things are not 'allowed', and you know it."
"Well, I've never been very good at doing what I was told I should."
"Be serious," Laurent ordered.
"I am," Akielos insisted. "If I weren't, I would never have said anything."
Laurent turned away slightly, hiding his face. "You shouldn't have regardless."
"I don't like lying, or hiding things."
"What a shame, since we don't have the luxury of being open, do we?"
"Not to other people, maybe. That doesn't mean we have to lie to each other."
"You should really call me Damen," Akielos corrected.
"Yes, that's the perfect way to keep this hidden from others. I'm sure no one will question it for a moment when they hear me treating you with such inexplicable familiarity," Laurent derided.
"I meant in private. Who exactly do you expect to hear us while we're out here like this?" Akielos glanced around the empty field.
"That is a very slippery slope to getting caught."
"Caught at what? We haven't done anything wrong."
Yet. The word hung in the air, silent but present.
"Most people wouldn't see it that way." Laurent climbed to his feet, brushing the grass off his buckskins. "I have to go back to the house."
"Already?" Akielos asked.
"I have to think." Laurent left it unsaid that he couldn't do that with Akielos there.
"I will see you after the lunch hour, then," Akielos said. It was more of a question than it would usually have been.
When Akielos reached out to brush his hand down Laurent's upper back, Laurent thought it was probably only partly to rid him of the bits of grass and dust that Laurent couldn't reach himself. He allowed it anyway. Though he did stop himself, barely, from leaning into it.
"Only if you can remember to act at least somewhat circumspect in front of my household." Laurent wasn't actually convinced that Akielos knew the meaning of the word.
"But out here?" Akielos pressed.
"Out here, I suppose I can call you by your given name," Laurent conceded. Grudgingly, he added, "And I suppose you can also do the same." Not that he'd waited for permission to do that.
"Laurent," Damen said warmly.
Laurent shivered, and covered the movement up by reaching for his horse's reins, untying them.
Laurent couldn't promise anything more of himself than that one concession of closeness, under the circumstances. Even that might be too much.
"Two weeks," Laurent mused aloud. It wasn't long enough, but there was still time.
He didn't wait for Damen's response before he swung into the saddle and pushed the gelding forward in the direction of Arles Court, leaving Damen behind. Watching.
Warnings for CSA definitely in effect for this chapter.
Auguste was often engaged in the afternoons, either voting in Parliament or otherwise making calls on various acquaintances and the families of whichever ladies had caught his attention of late. Laurent, who didn't qualify as a vote-entitled landowner quite yet, had no choice but to sit out the former. And, judging from history, Auguste would undoubtedly shift his interests to a completely different assortment of women before the season even ended, so Laurent couldn't see much point in joining in the latter either. Not without a decent reason.
Laurent did make a few exceptions whenever he knew that the person or family Auguste was calling on had some particular connection to Uncle. Laurent's contributions on those visits tended to be posing subtle questions about that time recently when Colonel de Vere had visited the family's country home, or about how their son enjoyed serving in Colonel's de Vere's regiment. Unfortunately, none of them had so far offered up any information that was overly useful for Laurent's purposes. That would be too simple, he supposed.
Laurent spent many of his other afternoons reading in one of the town house's two relatively tiny but brightly sunlit studies. But there were a few days where he ventured outside, supposed just to stretch his legs. No one really questioned that explanation, thankfully.
Damen had looked so unabashedly delighted the first time he'd seen Laurent step through the door in the main room of his club. The sight of his excitement and his demonstrative smile caused a clenching in Laurent's chest.
Laurent felt like he was giving Damen, and himself, some measure of false hope by seeking him out like that. It was like falling back into old habits, albeit in a different setting. They'd already learned once before how continuing their association despite knowing how it would inevitably have to end only made things harder when that end came. But when Damen looked at Laurent like that, it was difficult to remind himself why it might be a bad idea.
"I wasn't sure you would come," Damen admitted.
"Neither was I." That was a lie. Laurent's mind had been decided more or less from the moment Damen had mentioned the possibility of time alone together away from the public eye.
Slipping together into one of the private club rooms of which Damen had spoken at the ball felt oddly covert, almost as though this were a rendezvous in the kind of upscale molly house the constables had recently started raiding. But there were no locks on the room's door, nor any sign of anything that might pass as even the most makeshift of beds. The rooms were clearly meant for business, not pleasure. If it felt to Laurent as though he was making an incredibly poor life choice, that had nothing to do with the nature of the club and everything to do with how easily Laurent opened himself up to Damen once he was there. Their time was only spent in conversation, but it felt like much more, and not just because it lasted for hours. And every day that they met it grew worse. Or better, depending on the perspective Laurent chose to take.
Yet despite Laurent's concerns that they were allowing themselves to get too close, seeing Damen when they were in privacy and could be less restrained was far easier than navigating the times when they ran into each other at events. Laurent hated knowing that he shouldn't approach Damen even when he was so close.
It was a case in point when he let Auguste drag him along to the biggest polo tournament of the season. Laurent avoided attending the horse racing events of the season with almost the same diligence with which he'd been trying to avoid Uncle's presence since arriving in town. He had trouble standing back and watching whips repeatedly and almost viciously hitting the animals for no reason other than winning pointless races and providing entertainment to the uncaring masses. Seeing that, Laurent would frankly prefer to turn the whips on the offending jockeys and trainers. He found the treatment of the polo ponies comparably more tolerable to witness though.
Laurent had expected to spend his day watching the horses being directed around the field (and mentally remarking on how he could have done a better job if he were the one riding). He instead found his attention mostly drawn by Damen, who was also in attendance in the observation stands. While Auguste was distracted, Laurent moved closer.
Damen didn't seem to notice Laurent's presence. Perhaps that was because, unlike Damen, Laurent didn't stand almost a head taller than the vast majority of the crowd. Or perhaps it was instead that Miss Jokaste was effectively monopolising Damen's attention to the point of practically attaching herself to his arm. Her again. Laurent's jaw clenched for a moment before he caught himself. There were several others in their company, Laurent saw, including Mr. Nikandros, who didn't look pleased. Yet Miss Jokaste was clearly the only one who had made a point of claiming a spot right by Damen's side and drawing him into conversation.
Laurent didn't know why it bothered him so much. It wasn't as though he didn't realise that ultimately Damen had to marry. But something about this particular woman made the hairs on the back of Laurent's neck stand on end.
Laurent mostly kept his eyes trained on the polo game, but his hearing directed towards their group. Even from some yards away, and across the general chatter of the people around them, Laurent could just make out the sound of Damen's voice admitting that polo wasn't really his game anymore, for he now found it difficult to bend sideways while on horseback.
"That's very unfortunate," Miss Jokaste commented, "for I recall you having quite a talent for riding."
She made such a point of bringing up the years in which they'd known each other, Laurent noted. It was as if she thought the reminder of the past should help to endear him to her now. For all Laurent knew, it might work. Laurent knew so little of what comprised their shared past. Clearly, it was enough for Damen to opt to spend quite a bit of time with Miss Jokaste even given the wealth of other options that came with being in society during the season. It was also clearly enough for her to think – or at least hope – that she had some kind of claim on Damen's time.
Miss Jokaste continued, "I hope your injury hasn't stopped you from doing any of those other things you were always so good at." She let that stand for a moment, really far too suggestive for public consumption if she hadn't said it utterly without inflection, before she tempered it by adding, "You can at least still trounce anyone who challenges you to a fencing match, can't you?"
"I have had a few successful sessions at Angelo's since arriving in town, yes," Damen admitted, more modestly than Laurent might have expected.
At first glance, Damen actually didn't seem particularly well-designed for fencing, physically speaking. His large body provided too much area for his opponent to land a blow and made it more difficult for him to be light enough on his feet to make quick precision thrusts or to avoid a riposte. But Laurent had gathered from their discussions that Damen had a serious talent for all kinds of swordplay regardless, fencing included. They hadn't been able to have a match between themselves, for Damen's injury had obviously prevented it. Laurent had nonetheless more than once imagined Damen and himself clashing foils or rapiers in the training salle at Arles Court. He found himself thinking of the possibility again now.
Of course, that could only ever happen if Damen visited Laurent there again at some point in the future. That wasn't a prospect Laurent should really be considering.
Miss Jokaste laughed, a high tittering sound that didn't quite match the low tone with which she'd addressed Laurent when they'd danced. "It's a pity ladies are not allowed inside the fencing parlour so that we could watch your bouts. Perhaps we might arrange a demonstration of your skills at some other venue? I'm sure we could find some gentleman willing to challenge you. Mr. de Vere, perhaps?"
Laurent thought for a moment that Miss Jokaste must have detected his proximity, to have brought his name into it. She didn't even glance in Laurent's direction, though. Her attention seemed to be entirely on Damen.
Damen said, "We were evenly matched before my injury, so I don't doubt that de Vere would wipe the floor with me these days."
"I meant the younger Mr. de Vere, actually," Miss Jokaste corrected. "Or are you suggesting you've duelled with him before?"
"Oh, no. We haven't," Damen said. He seemed to be lost for words for a moment, apparently not having anticipated having to discuss Laurent so openly, with others listening in. Finally, he said, "He doesn't strike me as the type to perform for a crowd."
Laurent didn't hear Miss Jokaste's response to that. His attention was instead drawn by someone else also saying his name, though this time it was directed towards him.
"It's been a while, Mr. de Vere," the young man greeted casually.
It was clear he thought they'd already been introduced to each other. He hadn't been one of the people to whom Auguste had introduced (or re-introduced) his younger brother over the past few weeks. But, Laurent eventually realised, Laurent had certainly made his acquaintance the last time Laurent had been in town for the season. Uncle had established a close association with the Fortaine family around that time, and their youngest son – Aimeric, as Laurent had been allowed to call him when they were thirteen-year-old boys, for Aimeric hadn't liked being referred to as 'the youngest Mr. Fortaine', a reminder that he was just the last in a long line – had been something almost like a friend to Laurent. They might not have necessarily gotten along at any other time, Laurent thought in retrospect, but during that period all Laurent had wanted, other than for Auguste to come and sweep him away, was someone his own age with whom Laurent could at least pretend that things were normal.
Now Laurent had a very different reason other than friendship for allowing the conversation to proceed. The opportunity to cultivate a connection with the son of one of Uncle's main contacts was exactly the sort of thing that had brought Laurent to town in the first place. Aimeric was probably still living in his parents' home, given his age. It was very possible that he knew something of use to Laurent. He seemed willing enough to speak freely, too.
A little too freely for Laurent's tastes, in fact, for the conversation quickly devolved into long spiels about things that Laurent didn't even inquire into, as if Aimeric hadn't been allowed to speak at length about a topic of his choosing in quite some time and was capitalising on the chance. He was the fourth son. It would be no real surprise if he felt he lacked for attention. That had been true back then as well.
Aimeric spoke extensively, with a strange mixture of anticipation and frustration, of his plans to buy a commission within the next year. Laurent didn't even have to purposely bring the conversation around to his uncle's many visits to Aimeric's father. Aimeric actually brought up the topic of Uncle himself, shifting the discussion about military service to ask after Colonel de Vere's health.
"He's alive." More was the pity.
Aimeric looked taken aback. "You don't seem overly concerned for him. I've heard they're on the brink of battle again in France. The danger is significant."
"Not significant enough, apparently, for him to think he should actually be there, despite them likely having need of as many high-ranked officers on the ground as possible. He isn't the kind of man to get his hands dirty and risk himself that way."
"You should consider that a good thing if it means he's safe from harm." There was a pause, then Aimeric asked, a little too casually, "If he is not deployed, does that mean he's in town?"
"Yes," admitted Laurent. "I'm surprised he hasn't visited your family yet. In fact, I'd have expected him to push for your father to offer him an invitation so that he didn't need to dig into his own pockets to cover accommodation while he's in town. Though I'm sure he's probably just found some other soul to leech off."
That seemed to get a barely-concealed reaction from Aimeric. A flush rose high on his cheeks. Indignation, Laurent thought. Or something else? "You're very harsh towards your own family," Aimeric accused. "I don't think you're being quite fair to him. He's an important man. Of course he shouldn't have to bother himself with things like arranging rooms at some common inn. He's too busy for that."
Laurent knew the signs from past experience, from the excuses to the clinging borderline desperation. He remembered how much time Uncle had spent with this man's family. He also remembered the softness of Aimeric's features when he was only a boy of thirteen.
Probingly he said, "Well I'm sure my uncle would be very grateful to you for correcting me in his absence. I'll be sure to mention how you did him such a service the next time I see him."
And there it was: a slight flicker of pleasure at the thought. Laurent hid a grimace at the indication that his hunch was likely right.
At the time, Laurent had believed Uncle when he'd said that he loved Laurent. That that was the reason. Laurent had thought it had only stopped because Laurent had returned to the country house when Auguste did, while Uncle had continued his travels. He'd thought it would start up again when Uncle returned. Dreaded it, but justified it in his mind. Laurent hadn't begun to suspect the lie of it until Uncle had, upon seeing him again, looked on Laurent with disgust and commented negatively on the loss of his youth, and the inches he'd grown, and the recent broadening of his shoulders from how he'd thrown himself into fencing lessons as a form of distraction. Uncle's interest had died away, it had seemed. It had taken Laurent months to fully process what that had all meant. But even then, Laurent had thought he was surely an exception.
It made Laurent sick to think about it.
He wanted more than ever to find something to bring Uncle down. He wished it was as simple as just revealing what Uncle had done. To him. To Aimeric. To others, most likely, Laurent was considering now. But Laurent couldn't do that without admitting his own part in it. Laurent had never wanted Auguste to know. Auguste had done nothing wrong, other than assuming – as any decent man would – that he could trust their only remaining family to look after Laurent when Auguste himself hadn't been in a position to do so. Yet, although he was blameless in Laurent's eyes, Laurent knew that Auguste himself would still feel guilty for putting Laurent in that position. Laurent had no desire to make his brother live with that. Laurent could bear it on his own.
He would just have to continue trying to find another method of dealing with Uncle.
He could hardly even recall what he said or did to wrap the conversation with Aimeric up at that point, so that he wouldn't have to continue to stare into the other man's face and know. If Laurent had spoken up, back then, perhaps Aimeric wouldn't now speak of Laurent's uncle like he wished for even a scrap of the man's attention. Speaking of feeling guilt. Laurent was glad when Aimeric moved away, allowing him some respite from those thoughts.
When Laurent looked around him, it was to find that Damen and his group had disappeared, probably because it was currently an intermission between games. Laurent had lost track of what was going on around him, it seemed. He'd been distracted.
In craning his neck and scanning the crowds, Laurent caught sight of someone looking directly at him.
It wasn't Damen trying to catch Laurent's eye, but a boy. He looked to have snuck away from his family, for there were no signs of anyone paying attention to him or searching for him nearby. He looked vaguely familiar to Laurent, somehow. Laurent must have seen him in passing at some event with his family.
He was standing only a little over ten feet from Laurent, with no one between the two of them, staring Laurent down intently. So it was clear that when the boy opened his mouth as if to say something, it was meant to be addressed to Laurent. However, the boy then seemed to think better of it. He suddenly practically scurried away without a word. Laurent thought to pursue for a brief moment, for something about how the boy's face had looked suggested he'd been going to say something important. But then Laurent recognised that just as Damen hadn't spotted Laurent in the crowd due to Laurent's more average height, there was little to no chance that Laurent could track a child, the top of whose head wouldn't even reach the clavicles of most attendees.
In the distance, Laurent heard the sound of polo teams setting up for the next game. He gave up on looking for the boy, or Damen either, in favour of just tracking down Auguste so that they could watch the match together. He'd had about enough of frustration for one day. He almost wished that he'd insisted on staying home, as he often did when Auguste attended social events.
But Laurent wasn't one to opt for ignorance, given the choice. He'd rather know exactly what he had to contend with. At least then he stood a chance of prevailing.
"What are you doing here?" Govart asked rudely.
"It would appear I'm currently being insulted by a butler," Laurent answered.
"I'm the steward," corrected Govart.
"Are you now? Then why are you answering the door? Force of habit? And for that matter, even if my uncle needed a steward at all, despite having no properties in his own name for someone to manage on his behalf, you would be the last person I would expect him to elevate into that position in his house. Butler was already better than I would have expected of a man like you."
It was clear from the redness of his face that Govart would sincerely have liked to retaliate physically to Laurent's disparaging comments. However, he might have just been smart enough to know how terrible that idea would be. Uncle might be oddly permissive with Govart, from what Laurent had seen over recent years, but the same wouldn't be true of the constables if he assaulted Laurent. Govart managed to keep himself to verbal retorts, even though he must have known that wasn't the type of fight he was ever going to win with Laurent as his opponent. "You haven't been invited, and Colonel de Vere isn't home."
"Yes. You can't have thought it could have escaped my notice that my uncle just recently departed for France, given all the fanfare he insisted upon."
"Then you've wasted your time coming."
"Not at all," said Laurent. "I hardly need my uncle's permission or presence to enter this house. It belongs to my brother, not to him. My uncle is only allowed to live here on my brother's forbearance because he wanted to honour the arrangement our father made." And, more importantly, because Laurent had never been willing to explain to Auguste the reason why Laurent would personally much rather that Uncle didn't spend several weeks or even months per year only a few miles away from the main house where Laurent and Auguste lived.
"That's your brother's business, not yours."
"I have been helping my brother maintain the family lands for two years now." That was true enough. "I'm here on his behalf." That, on the other hand, was mostly a lie. Or rather, Laurent was here to protect his brother's interests, but Auguste didn't know Laurent was making this visit and certainly hadn't sent him as Laurent was heavily implying. Laurent had, in fact, waited for Auguste to leave for town before coming so that Auguste wouldn't ask questions before Laurent had the answers. It would be far easier if Laurent could provide proof so that Auguste didn't question why Laurent had been so willingly suspicious in the first place.
Since Govart didn't know the truth of any of that, he couldn't really continue to refuse Laurent entry, no matter what Uncle might have ordered him to do. He might have still tried to 'accompany' Laurent on his journey through the house to keep an eye on him, but Laurent sardonically said, "I'm sure you must have incredibly important steward work to see to. Don't worry about me. I'm sure I can manage on my own." Govart could hardly argue against that without conceding that his role as steward was purely ornamental.
This house had no particular bad memories attached to it as far as Laurent was concerned, unlike certain places in town that Laurent would probably do his best to avoid. Yet the ostentatious décor that Laurent's eyes encountered everywhere as he walked down the halls gave the place a cloying feeling that absolutely reeked of Uncle. That was enough to make it feel as though the place was filled with bad associations.
By contrast, the study seemed to have retained much of the aesthetic from before Uncle had taken up residence in the house. That was likely because he spent the least amount of time in there. During those months when Laurent had been sent to live with Uncle in town, the study had been one of the few places Laurent could almost be guaranteed peace. Which was not to say that Uncle avoided these types of rooms because he was unintelligent by any stretch of the imagination. He just seemed to prefer socialisation over quiet solitary reflection, probably because it was less entertaining to manipulate books than people.
Uncle must have nonetheless spent time having the household books fabricated to his specifications. Laurent forewent perching in the chair in front of the study desk, knowing that was where Uncle must sit on his rare expeditions into this room, in favour of leaning against the wall as he read over the accounting records. None of them seemed to include the same types of figures that Auguste – and presumably Father before him – had been providing to Uncle. It seemed likely there was some mismanagement of funds going on, but Laurent could find no indication of where the money might be going.
It had been an offhand remark of Auguste's that had made Laurent aware of how Uncle had asked for additional funds beyond the allowance to supplement the low honorarium given out by the Army, which Father had always given him and Auguste had been kind enough to continue. Why shouldn't Auguste provide some extra so that Uncle could replace his military garb, Auguste had asked. Only Uncle's uniform and boots had been the same as ever the last Laurent had seen him, prior to his departure for France. It hadn't even been the first time Uncle had wanted more, Laurent found out. Not by a long shot. He'd probably made up the reasons then as well. Auguste was too generous and credulous, so he'd given Uncle what he'd asked for without compunction. Laurent could see clear as day that Auguste's good nature and desire to do what Father would have wanted was being taken advantage of.
It was the lie of how the money was being used that really intrigued Laurent. Auguste wasn't one to overly care about the money itself, even if he'd known it wasn't going towards Uncle's service in the military. He would probably claim he had plenty enough to go around anyway. Yet Uncle had felt it necessary to deceive him even so. Just what was Uncle trying to hide? The answers weren't in his books. Only more questions. Like why the costs of his household staff were also so high, considering the man only spent a small portion of the year here.
Out of the corner of his eye, Laurent caught a movement at the door. He heard a quick scuffling sound. It was too light-footed by far to be a sign of the hulking Govart spying on him. One of the other servants had grown curious, it seemed. All the better for Laurent. He wouldn't mind questioning them. But by the time he looked out the door and up the hall, there was no sign of who had been there. And Laurent couldn't go actively searching for a servant who might be willing to offer up the information with Govart around. Most of the household staff might have technically been under Auguste's employ rather than Uncle's, but they had to have known that the odds that Auguste would send away servants without pay or references if they didn't answer his or Laurent's questions were far lower than the odds that Uncle would in some way make them regret speaking out of turn, if he knew of it. And there was little doubt he would find out if Govart knew. Govart clearly had some stakes in keeping Uncle's secrets for him. Perhaps that was where some of the unaccounted-for money was going. Not all of it, though, surely. Buying one servant's silence should never cost that much.
Laurent could only plan to return on a day when Govart was out of the house so that the other servants might be slightly more willing to talk openly. It took the better part of a week for that day to come. Orlant, who Laurent had set to watch the house, rode back and told Laurent that Govart had travelled on horseback in the direction of the local village. Laurent was quick to set out on his own horse.
Laurent didn't know how long he would have before Govart returned. Not long enough to make any of the servants talk, it turned out, for he was in the house trying to talk to them for hours without any success. Even in Govart's absence, they seemed to fear reprisal. Laurent wondered whether there were others in their number who reported as readily to Uncle as Govart. That would have explained their reticence. It also made it potentially pointless to continue trying to question these servants in future, whether Govart was away or not. Laurent might be better to try his luck trying to find evidence in town with one of Uncle's many contacts, or even among the owners or employees of the establishments that Uncle tended to frequent while in town. Though Auguste would question Laurent's sudden desire to be part of the season when he had specifically refused to go along with Auguste just a couple of weeks ago.
As Laurent rode back towards the main house, skimming where Auguste's lands gave way to those of the nearby Marlas Park, Laurent considered that he could just tell Auguste to cut Uncle off and be done with it. Even if Laurent withheld the reason, Laurent imagined that Auguste would hear Laurent's sincerity and would ultimately go along with it. That, however, would tell Uncle that he was under suspicion. Laurent wasn't about to give Uncle notice to further hide whatever he'd done if there was some way to take Uncle down, either legally or by blackmailing him, that didn't involve Laurent admitting to what had happened when he was younger. He might barely be able to imagine a future without Uncle in it, but Laurent certainly wanted that if it was on offer. More than anything.
There was a cracking sound, and then another only seconds later, their echoes travelling in their wake across the plains. The horse suddenly jerked out from under Laurent. The near shrieking sounds she made cut through the buzzing that filled Laurent's ears as he started to fall. Laurent's body went one way. The horse went another. Laurent could feel the twist of his ankle in the moment before it thankfully fell free from the stirrup, keeping him from being crushed or dragged. The impact of his side against the ground was bruising, but a split-second assessment suggested nothing hurt badly enough to indicate a break. Laurent's ankle was throbbing, but he could probably stand on it if forced. Doing so would only make him a larger target, easier to hit with a second shot. He was better staying low to the ground unless he could provide a difficult enough moving target to make the assailant unsuccessfully empty however many barrels he still had loaded.
In the distance, Laurent could see his would-be assailant. His first thought was disappointment that it wasn't Govart. Even with a covered face, his body wasn't anywhere near large enough to be Uncle's 'steward'. Pity. Laurent could have counted that as evidence against Uncle and might have been able to get Govart to talk if only to save himself from the law. Besides, Laurent would have bet his life that Govart wasn't the best shot, for he clearly relied too much on his physicality.
Laurent dearly wished Auguste's three-shot pepperbox pistol was tucked into his pocket rather than the small saddlebag that was being slowly taken away from him on the side of the limping horse. Foolish. He should have had more foresight. But he hadn't really expected an all-out attack on their own lands, whether this was a highwayman or, more likely, one of Uncle's men.
Before Laurent could try to crawl after the horse to retrieve the weapon, there was another firing sound. Laurent braced himself, but there was no additional pain. Nor had Laurent seen a muzzle flash from the pistol that was pointing in his direction.
That same pistol dropped from the assailant's hands the moment before the man crumpled to the ground. He seemed to writhe in place from the pain for long moments, but then went still. Laurent almost raised himself up onto his elbows, trying to see over the top of the long grass whether the man was actually dead. It occurred to him, though, that the man hadn't just dropped for no reason. Laurent wasn't necessarily safe yet. He searched the field for whoever had apparently shot the other man. Laurent couldn't see anything alive except his horse.
Then Laurent heard from alarmingly close behind him: "Are you hurt?"
There he was.
Laurent felt sick at the sight of him. Perhaps even more so than he usually would whenever he was in any kind of proximity with him, now that Laurent had reason to suspect that he was most likely still up to those old tricks, just with some other boy now. But Laurent made himself covertly watch the man across the crowd even so, hoping to catch a glimpse of some exchange that would clue him in on whoever Uncle might currently have his eye on.
After his experience at that first ball, Laurent had made sure that what few public events he attended 'happened' to be those from which he was certain Uncle would be absent, or at least where the crowd would be so extensive that Laurent would be able to avoid him with ease. He might be in town primarily for the chance to investigate Uncle's affairs, but it had seemed simpler to do so without Uncle himself getting in the way.
Now, however, Laurent needed to do the opposite. He recalled how Uncle had slowly eased his way into the confidences of the Fortaine family. Laurent thought he would recognise those signs if they were repeating now with a different family. It was also easier to just observe for himself than to try and unobtrusively learn about anything that happened at these parties through the grapevine. Apparently even the most asinine of inquiries was worthy of being remarked upon when it was Laurent doing the questioning, for, as Miss Vannes pointed out, Laurent usually ignored social connections unless there was something potentially interesting about them.
"I overheard you asking after the Fortaine family," Miss Vannes had said on the day when he'd done just that. Her finger was tracing the rim of her wineglass absently, as if she didn't really care about what she was saying, but Laurent could tell that wasn't actually the case. "I thought you would surely have come to me if you wanted to gossip. You must know by now how I enjoy having the chance to verbally knock all these people down a few pegs."
"It was about nothing of consequence," Laurent said. "I simply heard that the Fortaines are throwing a ball later this week and voiced my surprise. They didn't seem to have the desire to go to the effort of hosting such things when I knew them a few years ago."
Miss Vannes said, "You mean they didn't have the finances to do so then. And then suddenly they did. Curious, isn't it?"
The idea that money that Auguste, or Father, had given over to Uncle with good intentions might have been used in exchange for the family's compliance and their silence was sickening, but now that Laurent knew what to look for, it was what made the most sense.
The problem was with proving it. A simple rumour, however true it might be, wouldn't be enough to make Uncle flee, and certainly wouldn't lead to him being imprisoned. He would talk his way out of it. He always did with everything else.
Mr. Fortaine wasn't likely to ever attest to the existence of the 'transaction'. And even if Aimeric himself was ever aware that he'd been bought, he wouldn't admit to it either. He showed every indication of still admiring Colonel de Vere, and of being under the delusion that the man had not just actually cared for him then, but still somehow might despite Aimeric's age making him useless to Laurent's uncle. Laurent would do better to look elsewhere.
Laurent still somehow found himself running into Aimeric almost everywhere he went. And since Laurent wasn't the one engineering that series of supposed coincidences to get information from Aimeric, he had a fairly good idea who was probably trying to do the reverse. That, rather than the information about their resolved monetary issues that Laurent had already figured out without Miss Vannes's help, was why he'd been asking after the Fortaine family: to ascertain whether they'd had recent contact with Uncle, during which Aimeric might just have mentioned that he'd met Laurent and put the idea in Uncle's mind. Setting Laurent's former friend to spy on him was just the sort of thing that would amuse Uncle. There were no indications that Aimeric had seen Uncle, but it still left Laurent feeling uneasy whenever Aimeric tried to push the issue.
"You look annoyed," Damen said when Laurent ducked away from Aimeric one evening in favour of claiming a place beside Damen in the corner, where he was clearly waiting for Laurent.
"That's my default state at these things, in case you haven't noticed," Laurent countered. Or at least it was whenever Laurent wasn't with Damen. When he was by Damen's side like this, 'annoyed' usually fell far short of an accurate descriptor.
"More than usual, then. Was he bothering you?"
"Other than this being the fourth time this week that he's tried to engage me in some deep, meaningful conversation that I didn't ask for, not really."
"That's not so unusual. He probably just wants to be friends."
"Is that really what you think is happening when someone suddenly starts single-mindedly exerting all their efforts towards gaining your attention and holding it? That they're just trying to be friendly?"
Damen frowned. "You're speaking of my relationship with Miss Jokaste."
"Am I? Why would I do that? That's not really my business, is it?"
"Why wouldn't it be? You and I are…"
Damen lapsed into an uncertain silence.
"Yes," Laurent mused, "that about sums it up, doesn't it?"
At this point, Laurent didn't know how to define their association either. It wasn't exactly normal for even close friends to act as they did. To cling onto every moment of supposedly innocent physical contact they could possibly justify within the limits of propriety and sanity. To spend as many afternoons together as they could manage, even if the frequency meant that they were risking having people notice how they kept slipping away together into privacy. Laurent had even opted to disguise himself a few times just so that they could go out in public together without anyone commenting on them spending yet more time in each other's company. There was nothing of usual friendship inherent in that kind of behaviour. But despite all of that, Laurent couldn't call them anything more than friends either. It was obvious what would be between them, if that were possible, but they knew better than to let that happen.
Whatever the two of them were, though, certainly Damen wasn't promised to Laurent. Laurent didn't really have the right to speak up against whatever woman he might choose to pursue. Or allow himself to be pursued by, as the case may be. He'd thought Damen hadn't seemed overly interested in Miss Jokaste at first glance, regardless of the amount of time they spent together, but Damen also showed no signs of gently letting her down the way Laurent would have expected when Miss Jokaste was being so obvious about her own preference for him that people were talking of an engagement being imminent.
"Of course, if it were any of my business," Laurent said, "then I'd point out that for an obviously ambitious woman like Miss Jokaste to be so focused on you in particular, when there are any number of gentlemen of means towards whom she could shift her attentions and win over more quickly and easily, there has to be more at play in her mind than just the usual desire for the financial stability of an advantageous marriage. And I doubt it's a matter of the heart. Or not just that."
Damen looked as though he were going to say something, but then stopped himself. He settled for: "It's complicated."
As if she sensed someone speaking of her (talk of the devil, Laurent thought to himself), Miss Jokaste appeared before them before Laurent could ask what Damen had meant by that.
"So this is where you've escaped to, Captain Akielos," said Miss Jokaste.
Annoyingly, Damen didn't look even half as put-upon by her sudden presence as Laurent felt.
"I'm hardly trying to escape. I was just taking a moment for some refreshment." Damen raised his half-drained wine glass demonstratively. Laurent made no effort to pretend he'd given his own glass more than a glance, or that he would bother doing so at any point before the night drew to a close. He preferred a clear head, especially when Uncle was elsewhere in the room, ready as always to pounce on the first indication of weakness.
"And you're here as well, Mr. de Vere. Again. You attended these events so scarcely earlier in the season that I must admit I'm surprised to see you more often lately. I assumed you would have thought you had better ways to spend your time than this." She gestured demonstratively around the room.
Laurent smiled his fakest version of a pleasantry. Most of the people present wouldn't have known it for what it was. He trusted that she would. "What, better than standing in the corner of a crowded room hoping for the end of the night to come sooner? Perish the thought."
Miss Jokaste's laugh was almost genuine. Almost. "Perhaps you wouldn't be left to stand around feeling so bored if you would only condescend to dance a little more often."
Laurent said, "Yes, I'm aware that I have no one to blame but myself. And I'm equally aware that comment was designed to elicit an offer to dance from either Captain Akielos or myself. I personally have no desire to dance at this moment." He raised his eyebrow at Damen, challenging.
"I'm already promised for the next dance," Damen said after a too-long pause. Even more belatedly, he added, "My apologies." He was a terrible liar, so the attempt at deception was obvious, but it was all the better for it as far as Laurent was concerned.
If she were miffed, she didn't show it in an obvious way. She did, however, make her excuses and slip away from their conversation after only another minute or so of verbally sizing Laurent up (disguised as small talk and gossip). She was probably off to find another partner in an attempt to make Damen jealous. Laurent would wish her luck with that, but, well…
"Turning a lady down with such a blatant falsehood?" Laurent asked, not-so-secretly delighted by it. Damen was a terrible liar, and the attempt at deception was poor, so it wouldn't have been at all lost on Miss Jokaste that Damen had made a barely-veiled excuse for the sole purpose of not having to dance with her.
"As I told you, it's complicated," said Damen. Unfortunately, he then had to go find himself a partner for that dance for which he was supposedly already promised. The attempt at deception might have been a poor one in the first place, but Damen was the kind of man who would at least refuse to further embarrass Miss Jokaste by making it even more obvious. Luckily for him, there was no shortage of ladies willing to take his arm and be led to the floor by his side.
Laurent had only been left standing alone, looking out across the ballroom, for a minute or so before he saw him. Not his uncle this time, though Laurent had searched for and quickly spotted him practically holding court across the room, a large group surrounding him, probably listening to some story of his bravery in battle that held less than a single percentage of actual truth to it. No, this time Laurent caught sight of someone else.
Laurent noticed him first for being the shortest person in the room, even including the youngest of the debutante girls, before Laurent recognised his face as belonging to the boy who had run from him.
He was an oddity among this crowd. Children often attended country balls, but it was far rarer in town during the season, and if they did attend they would stick firmly by their family's side all evening rather than roaming free. The same should have been even truer at a crowded sporting event, where his parents would have been expected to worry for him if he disappeared. Although truthfully Laurent might not have been in the best position to judge; the boy looked to be somewhere around the same age Laurent was when he'd first been dragged along to these kinds of events as if he were old enough that his attendance was expected, and back then Laurent had taken every opportunity he could to slip away from Uncle's side and enjoy his moments of freedom.
That thought gave Laurent pause. It only took him a moment to make the link. The boy wasn't with his parents because they weren't who had brought him along.
Of course it would be easier and more convenient for Uncle to take some friendless boy into his home, or into his rooms at whatever inn he was frequenting while he was in town, than it would be to convince some parents to allow a man access to their son. The world wasn't always the best of places, as Laurent well knew, but it also wasn't made up entirely of men like Mr. Fortaine, who valued finances and connections over family.
Though that still left the question of where the unaccounted-for money was currently going. Laurent couldn't imagine Uncle paying some orphan boy a small fortune for his 'services' when a few times more than the average servant's annual take would probably suffice.
Laurent didn't approach the boy. With Uncle right there in the room, that would probably scare him off even quicker than he'd apparently been spooked at the polo tournament. Laurent would have to bide his time until he could find an opportunity away from Uncle and from anyone who might report back to Uncle. Govart might not be invited to events like this, but Laurent had reason to believe that the brawler-turned-steward wasn't the only person Uncle might have put on his personal payroll to watch Laurent. Or to watch the boy, for that matter. And Laurent equally had reason to suspect such men wouldn't hesitate to earn their pay however necessary.
Laurent wouldn't let that deter him indefinitely, though. If anyone could give him the answers he wanted, he was willing to bet on that boy. And even regardless of that, Laurent had no intention of leaving the boy under Uncle's power for longer than necessary. No one deserved that. Certainly not a child.
Laurent had no intention of letting Uncle continue to get away with that, now that he knew.
"Are you hurt?"
It would have been nice if Laurent could have assumed that the concerned tone of the man behind him, and the fact that he'd stopped Laurent from being shot, meant that he would pose no danger to Laurent. But Laurent was familiar with Blake, and he'd seen it play out in person with his uncle; an enemy could initially appear as an ally. This new interloper might still be nothing better than an opportunistic highwayman, or someone who had ostensibly been in league with Laurent's attacker until he decided that he didn't want to split whatever coin they were expecting to receive for taking Laurent out. So Laurent was careful not to make any sudden moves. He might even now have a gun trained on him.
He slowly rolled over, putting his back to the grass, so that he could look in the direction the voice was coming from.
The man was standing some twenty feet away. Even at that distance, he seemed to loom over Laurent, for he was… large. Very large. That was the only adjective Laurent's usually eloquent mind would initially provide as he looked the man over. And then Laurent found his eyes slowly tracing over him again. Laurent had to make sure he had accurately assessed the threat this giant posed, after all. He was not quite as heavy as Govart, who had until this moment been the largest man Laurent had ever laid eyes upon, but he was just as tall as him, and looked as though he was made of pure smooth muscle where Govart was padded out all over his body by a coating of near-solidified fat. And while Govart had a misshapen appearance not unlike a man who'd had his face kicked in by a horse, Laurent certainly couldn't claim this man had that in common with his Uncle's steward.
Apart from his build, he surprisingly didn't look at all like a thug. He had the natural bearing and wore the kind of high-quality clothing Laurent would expect of any gentleman. And he looked as serene as if Laurent were meeting him at a social gathering reserved for the gentry. Not at all as though he'd just shot to death another human being on a seemingly random hill in the countryside. He was a soldier, Laurent realised from his stance and his composure. Or rather, an officer. That alone wasn't sufficient to recommend his character to Laurent, considering Uncle managed to hold a similar post despite all his faults, but at least it provided a potential explanation other than foul play for his willingness to intercede in a fight that had nothing to do with him. And while the gun he had used to shoot the other man was still in his hand, it was held loosely now, the barrel pointed harmlessly down at the grass. His muscles, though impressively defined, weren't tensed in preparation. Nothing about him suggested he had any intention of attacking.
And that tentative but disarming smile being levelled in Laurent's direction, which was so genuine-looking, was more persuasive than it perhaps should have been.
Laurent could feel the barest of blushes dusting his cheeks just at the sight of the man's open face. Laurent disliked having such an easy tell. Laurent could only hope that, if the man saw it at all, he would just write it off as a consequence of exertion from being thrown from the horse and trying to avoid being shot.
Perhaps thinking that Laurent was too in shock to have heard him the first time, the man said once more, "Are you all right?" He stepped forward, covering the distance in long strides, and held out a hand as if to support Laurent in getting up. Laurent ignored it. He didn't like appearing as though he needed help.
Laurent pushed himself to his feet unassisted. His ankle throbbed enough to make his vision nearly white out the moment he tried putting weight on it. He staggered slightly in place, but said, "I'm perfectly fine," to fend off the man's second attempt to reach for him. He brushed himself off and started limping in the direction of the downed shooter. The other man trailed after him. "Though I would be better," Laurent amended, "if you hadn't killed that criminal before I could question him."
"The punishment for his actions would have been death regardless. All I did was save him a trip to the gallows. And though I'm not sure why you'd think to question him anyway, since you don't exactly look like a constable, I'd wager he wouldn't have had anything to say other than that he was after your valuables. You haven't missed much."
That was probably exactly the story the shooter would have given. Whether it was true or not was a different matter, but if he was in Uncle's employ and had been told to act if Laurent or anyone else came sniffing around, there would be no evidence either way. Uncle wasn't that careless, sadly.
The would-be assailant had had two guns in his possession, Laurent noticed as soon as he got near enough. Given how close together the sound of gunshots had rung in the air, the second almost blending into the echo of the first with no time for the barrels to rotate in between, Laurent assumed he'd fired each gun in quick succession. One of the weapons was still clutched in the man's hand, his grip remaining tight even in death. The other seemed to have fallen to the grass. They were both five-shots. Laurent didn't need to check the barrels to suspect they would all have been loaded, even though that would have negatively affected the pistols' accuracy. Laurent doubted this man would have put himself in a position to have to walk away a failure just because his first attempts were misses.
He hadn't walked away at all, in the end. Not because Laurent had foiled the attempt himself, though. With up to eight bullets unfired, Laurent wouldn't have survived this encounter without the intervention of his unknown helper.
"You're shaking," the helper in question said. "First time being shot at?"
"I don't make it a habit," Laurent said, not quite a proper answer. He didn't mention that the real reason he was shaking was mostly from the pain he was in. He couldn't be sure he hadn't broken something.
Even so, once Laurent had checked the shooter's pockets - which contained nothing at all, let alone any sign that the assailant might have come from Uncle's household, for Laurent was never so lucky - Laurent half-hopped his way over to his mare.
"Easy," Laurent soothed in a low voice as he reached out slowly, trying not to further spook her, until he was running his palms over the horse's neck and heaving side around the edge of the saddle. He hated to leave her here like this even for a few hours, but he didn't have a choice. He fished the pistol out of the saddlebag and stashed it in his pocket, where it should have been all along, just in case a second attempt was made on him before he could arrive home.
The man said, "You need to get off that leg, and that horse needs to do the same. You'll probably get bucked off again for your troubles if you try to ride her home while she's bleeding like that. And you'll have to put her down if you cause her further injury as well. That would be a shame, with such a beautiful animal."
"Obviously I realise that," Laurent said shortly. This man didn't know the half of it. She had been with him since he was twelve, when Auguste had personally picked her out for Laurent and persuaded Father that Laurent was finally tall enough to handle graduating from his pony. Auguste had taught Laurent how to handle her, and how to care for her. She had, in fact, been all the tangible evidence Laurent had really had of Auguste's regard for him during the months after Father's death, when Uncle had whispered lies into Laurent's ear about how he would never abandon Laurent as his brother had. Laurent hadn't found out until later that Auguste had written to him more days than not during that time. Uncle had obviously intercepted the letters. But Uncle hadn't been able to stop Laurent from spending time with the horse, his wet face often buried in her neck.
"I have no intention of losing her. I'll send my brother's men back to take care of her once I get home."
The man frowned at Laurent. "And how will you get there? You're limping too much to make that journey with any ease."
"Yes, well, there's no threat of me being put down over an exacerbated injury," Laurent said. He wasn't about to admit that it was actually a good question. There was no sign of the shooter's horse. It had probably bolted at the sound of gunshots. Nor did this other man seem to have a mount.
"You live at Arles Court?"
"Obviously. This is my land, you might have noticed," Laurent said. "Technically you're trespassing."
"Are you expecting me to apologise for crossing the boundary from Marlas Park so that I could come to your aid when I heard the shots?"
"Are you expecting a thank you in return?" Laurent countered.
"I wouldn't dream of it." His tone was strangely jovial, as if he thought Laurent was joking. That was his mistake.
He sidled up to Laurent's side in almost the exact same way that Auguste's favourite hound did when he wanted his ears scratched, not seeming at all leery of getting so close to an injured horse that wasn't familiar with him. In fact, he ran a hand over the horse's flank. His fingers were larger than Laurent's, but no less careful. Laurent swallowed heavily.
"You've done what you came for," Laurent said. "So feel free to go back to doing… what were you even doing wandering aimlessly around the hills on foot?"
"I'm not leaving you alone out here with a dead body, a lamed horse, and no way to make it that distance on your own before dark."
"I can make it. You underestimate me."
"Even so, I would never leave an acquaintance in a bad position like this."
"Who said we're acquaintances?"
The man sighed. "I'm Captain Akielos. And I assume, since you claim Arles Court as your own, that would make you Mr. de Vere. Though I didn't realise the current master of the estate had a younger family member. There. Now we're no longer strangers."
"I didn't ask for introductions," Laurent said.
"Well, the only time I've carried someone whose name I didn't even know was during battle, when I was trying to drag unconscious bodies from the field. I prefer to avoid the associations."
Laurent didn't have time enough to repeat the word 'carried' quizzically before Captain Akielos lifted him off the ground – without asking Laurent's permission, which Laurent wouldn't have given even if he'd waited for it for a thousand years – into something resembling a bridal carry. It looked like it didn't cost him any effort, as if Laurent were weightless. Laurent felt dizzy. He didn't think it was due to the pain this time. He blamed the sudden change in his body orientation. The blood must be rushing to his head.
"Put me down at once! You're not carrying me off like some Neanderthal."
Laurent carefully considered whether the angle would allow him to knee Captain Akielos in the face. He didn't have the chance to test the theory. Laurent was instead eased down so that he could get his good leg under him. Captain Akielos didn't pull away, though, leaving one massive arm looped around Laurent's upper back, his fingertips coming to rest against Laurent's side, inadvertently tracing over his ribcage through his jacket. Laurent turned his face carefully away from the man so that he couldn't see Laurent's expression. "Then you'll at least lean on me to keep your weight off your bad leg," Captain Akielos demanded.
"Oh I will, will I?"
Still, although Laurent wanted to refuse on principle, he also had no desire to end up crawling through the fields in pain. So Laurent didn't really have much choice at that point but to lean against Captain Akielos the way he was encouraging Laurent's to do, the sides of their bodies pressed flush against each other. Captain Akielos's body heat felt like a brand against him, a constant reminder. Laurent tried not to think about it.
"Let's get you home, then," Captain Akielos said.
It was only a three-mile walk, which Laurent would usually call an easy stroll. This wasn't even close to 'usual'. As Arles Court loomed in the distance, Laurent was coated in sweat from the exertion and pain combined. Counter to the expectations set by Captain Akielos's earlier display of strength, he too seemed like he was having trouble dealing with the extra weight and the awkwardness of supporting Laurent. He seemed to be breathing heavily. His skin looked strangely paler. The previously olive tone of his face had blanched out so that it looked closer like Laurent's.
Laurent narrowed his eyes and stopped walking suddenly. The abrupt change prompted a grunt from Captain Akielos as his body twisted to accommodate Laurent's new position a step behind him. He was favouring one side, Laurent deduced. His jacket was dark to begin with, and the sun was low enough in the sky by then that it was casting significant shadows, but Laurent didn't think he was imagining that the material of Captain Akielos's left side near the bottom of his ribs looked wet. Laurent was fairly certain the effect wasn't attributable to sweat.
"Are you bleeding?" Laurent asked.
"Probably," Captain Akielos grunted.
"Were you hit back there?" There had been two shots, Laurent recalled. He hadn't really bothered to wonder where the other one had ended up, since it hadn't struck him or his horse.
"No. I'm fine."
"Fine? By the look of it, you're about to collapse from blood loss, or shock, or both."
"It isn't that bad," Captain Akielos said dismissively. "It's just an injury I've been carrying for a few weeks. It must have opened back up. It's nothing. It barely even stings."
Everything about his countenance declared him a liar at that moment.
Laurent shook his head, disbelieving. "You absolute idiot. Why would you insist on helping me if you're even more injured than I am? What were you even doing out walking in the first place with an injury like that?" Between dealing with the recoil of firing his pistol, and sweeping Laurent fully off his feet, and twisting his body into awkward positions as he let himself be used as Laurent's oversized walking stick, it was no wonder he'd managed to hurt himself if he'd already carried a wound.
"I was healed enough."
"Obviously you weren't."
Laurent would bet that Captain Akielos was probably the only one who thought he'd been in a position to go wandering on his own. Laurent had met Mr. Nikandros of Marlas Park a few times over the years since the man had moved in. He was the sort of no-nonsense man who would tell this Captain Akielos that he was being a damned fool by pushing himself into being active before he was ready. And that it would only be his own fault if he ended up bleeding out in a field somewhere. Laurent wasn't keen on dealing with a second dead body on their lands today, though.
Thankfully, they were within sight of the stables, so one of the servants soon caught sight of them and alerted the others. Three of them came rushing to Laurent's side, clamouring to ask after his health. Laurent directed two of them to help Captain Akielos instead, since he looked like he might topple over like a downed pine tree at any moment.
Arles Court was a flurry of activity over the next few hours. Laurent's mare was without a source of water, so the stablehands had to be sent to care for her even though it would be dark long before they could return. Another servant was sent to direct the local constables to alert them to the body out in the fields. That actually could have waited until morning as far as Laurent was concerned, but he would prefer that the constables didn't question why Laurent had waited to report the incident, since they would probably conclude he had something to hide. Laurent didn't need to give Uncle that kind of ammunition to latch onto once he'd arrived back into the country. Yet another servant was dispatched to fetch the local surgeon to see to Captain Akielos's wound and, secondarily now, Laurent's injured ankle. The remainder of the household staff scrambled to prepare a room to settle Captain Akielos in until the surgeon could see to him, and to bring boiling water and other necessary supplies to tend to him.
"You don't need to bother yourself like this," Captain Akielos said, a slight slur to his words.
"You don't know when to just be quiet, do you?"
"Mmm. Why would I? I like hearing your voice when you answer."
Laurent blinked, shocked. It probably wasn't meant how it sounded; just because Laurent's thoughts were disposed to run in that direction didn't mean that it was likely by any stretch of the imagination that Captain Akielos's would. He probably wasn't even fully aware of what he was saying anyway. He might be delirious from the pain or the blood loss by now.
Laurent pulled up a chair beside the bed he'd had Orlant and Huet manoeuvre Captain Akielos's bulky form on top of, and propped his injured ankle on the mattress beside Captain Akielos's hip. He waited impatiently. Though he listened to the man's almost nonsensical chatter without complaint because at least it meant Captain Akielos was still well enough to be conscious. Laurent was relieved when the surgeon arrived, though he pretended he didn't care either way.
Laurent grimaced at the sounds Captain Akielos made as Mr. Paschal threaded the wound closed until the bleeding turned sluggish and was covered with a bandage. It would be dangerous to move him for some days yet. The surgeon would arrange for the apothecary in town to send a salve, he said, and if the wound appeared to worsen, or Captain Akielos developed a fever, Laurent should call for a physician with great haste. Otherwise, it would just be a matter of waiting on the body to do its work at healing itself, and it could only do that with uninterrupted rest.
Laurent was reminded then that he would have to send off one more messenger that night, this time to Marlas Park to alert Mr. Nikandros about his guest's whereabouts and condition.
"Yes, yes, I understand," Laurent said in response to Mr. Paschal's pointed comments about not moving his 'guest' prematurely. "I'm hardly about to kick the man out onto the road when he's halfway to death. What do you take me for?"
He flinched as the surgeon shifted his attentions to Laurent, running his fingers over the skin of Laurent's ankle, which looked to have swollen significantly now that it was free of his constricting riding boot. The skin had turned a shade closer to the coals before they were added to the fireplace than his usual paleness.
Mr. Paschal said, reprimanding, "Perhaps I simply remember too well how, when you were all of about five years of age, you were snapping at the other children to 'stop making a production of it' when they were injured rather than showing the slightest bit of compassion. I thought you might still be taking that kind of perspective on these things."
"That was bumped elbows and scraped knees with not even the slightest traces of drawn blood. This is slightly more serious, I think." And Captain Akielos also hadn't started crying uncontrollably over it. He hadn't even let on that he was injured until he was almost to the point of passing out, in fact. The fool.
"I'm glad you realise as much," said Mr. Paschal. "Unfortunately, I'm going to have to give you the same prescription as him: to stay off your feet for a few weeks unless you want to make things far worse. The bones are all straight, but the amount of pain suggests a fracture. I'll splint it for you, but that's not going to give you the ability to walk on it straight away. It'll have to be rest and recuperation for both of you. That's the only solution. Assuming you don't have any need to call on me before then, I'll return in a few days to check on you both." To make sure they were both adhering to his insistence that they rest, Laurent intuited. The lack of trust in that respect was irritating but probably justified. Laurent had better things to do at the moment than remained confined to his rooms. The answers he wanted couldn't be found there.
The one saving grace of his injury might have been that Laurent could use it, and the surgeon's orders to stay off his feet, as an excuse not to have to deal directly with the still-near-stranger who would be parked up in his house for the foreseeable future until he was well enough to be conveyed by carriage back to his actual host. After all, tending to Captain Akielos didn't sound very 'restful' when Laurent generally found dealing with any adult other than Auguste to be utterly exhausting. Under other circumstances, Laurent could have just left the servants to deal with Captain Akielos and pretended the solitude of this house hadn't been disturbed in the interim.
But Laurent could hardly just ignore the man like that for potentially weeks on end. Not after he'd saved Laurent from being shot to death and reinjured himself just so that he could help Laurent get home safely. Laurent didn't like the feeling of being in another man's debt at all, but he admittingly owed him at least his attention. And much more.
Besides, Laurent had a feeling from what he'd seen and heard from the man that the servants alone probably wouldn't be adequate to stop him from hauling himself up and trying to leave before he was ready. That would probably fall to Laurent, who would have to do whatever it took to make sure Captain Akielos didn't tear himself open again. He couldn't repay his debt to a dead man.
Laurent had a bad feeling that Captain Akielos was going to turn out to be a very large inconvenience.
Not really sure how to warn for this one. Implied attempted sexual assault? Accusations of sexual assault? There are consent issues of some description, anyway. Though it's certainly nothing more explicit than what's already been handled in this fic.
The Fortaine family probably considered themselves lucky that they happened to be hosting the first big event after the news of Napoleon's defeat had gone public throughout town. People would think back on where they had been on this night, when the word in everyone's mouths had been 'victory', and they would therefore remember the Fortaines' ball long after the other seasonal parties had faded from their thoughts. It would doubtless be considered quite the coup for anyone who bothered to care about that kind of thing.
Laurent personally didn't care much for the outcome of a battle across the sea, let alone the revelries in reaction to it. Uncle's life wasn't one of the ones that had been at risk, after all, though he doubtless would have escaped unscathed even if he hadn't declared himself on leave months ago and avoided the whole thing. He found that he did have some stake in it, though, because of Damen. Damen outwardly claimed he was glad for the supposed end of fighting. At the same time, he clearly mourned the loss of men in the battle. They were nameless and faceless as of yet, and the extent of the casualties wasn't known, but it would not be a small number. Damen had more than likely known and once fought alongside at least a few of the men who had fallen. He would probably grieve even for those he hadn't known at all, knowing him.
There was scattered worry to be seen elsewhere than in Damen's face, in people whose husbands or fathers or sons had been stationed in France and whose fate was currently unknown. Most of society, however, was celebrating.
Aimeric in particular seemed strangely excited by the whole thing that night. He wouldn't stop talking of the future. Laurent supposed it might have something to do with what had seemed like his reticence to join the military. If the war truly was over this time, there would be active officers downgrading to half-pay as well as a limit placed on the number of new commissions to be purchased. Aimeric might avoid the expectation to secure such a position for himself with the demand for it so low. Though Laurent found it almost as difficult to imagine him dedicating himself to the clergy or practising law or medicine as to picture him coated in mud and blood on the battlefields.
It was much harder to avoid Aimeric when it was his house inside which Laurent was spending the evening. There was a certain expectation of gratitude towards the hosts of a party. Laurent might not care much for public perception of him as long as people stayed clear of the topic of himself and Damen together, but neither was he interested in making enough of a production of determinedly avoiding the youngest Fortaine son for people to wonder why.
Besides, Laurent found that he was intrigued when Aimeric drew him away from the throng of the party into the private areas of the house. Aimeric had shown signs that he would be unwilling or unable to help Laurent in his quest to rid himself of Uncle, yes, but that didn't mean that he might not let something important slip by accident, or that he couldn't change his mind if he'd since encountered Uncle again and finally come to realise just how little the man cared about him.
As Laurent stepped inside what looked to be the drawing room, he only really had time to notice that there was no one else present, including any servants. Then his view was obscured by Aimeric practically launching himself at Laurent. Laurent ended up on his back, with Aimeric on top of him.
He had a moment to wonder whether Aimeric had been sent to kill him. Then Aimeric leaned forward and his lips pressed against Laurent's.
Laurent had only ever been kissed by one other person. This felt just as unwanted as it had then. Perhaps in another lifetime – had they not met at a time that ensured Laurent could only ever associate Aimeric with the worst months of Laurent's life, and had Laurent not been aware that Aimeric was still at least half-obsessed with Laurent's uncle – Laurent might have gone lax as Aimeric's tongue pressed at Laurent's lips as if to pry its way past them, and might even have allowed himself to enjoy the rare experience.
It hadn't really occurred to Laurent that Aimeric might have been seeking out Laurent's company so often for much the same reason that Damen did so. It had seemed most likely at first that Uncle had sent Aimeric to spy on Laurent, because that was the sort of thing Uncle would do. But perhaps the reason for Aimeric's attention was more… well. Not more innocent, but more personal.
That didn't mean that Laurent welcomed it, though.
Laurent jerked his face to the side, though Aimeric's weight on top of him made it difficult to dislodge him and get away entirely. "What are you doing?" Laurent asked.
"Just let me," Aimeric said, almost begging.
No. The expression Aimeric was wearing depicted entirely the wrong kind of desperation to suit this situation. Even if Aimeric was legitimately attracted to Laurent, and if Laurent had been at all interested in Aimeric in turn, Laurent would not have let this progress, because there was something wrong. Laurent could sense it like a bad stench in the air.
Laurent pressed his palms to Aimeric's chest to push him away, but he heard the door behind him creak open before he could manage to get Aimeric off him. Aimeric looked surprised for just a moment. Then his entire countenance changed in the blink of an eye.
"Help!" Aimeric yelped, shoving himself away from Laurent, leaving Laurent sprawled alone on the ground. "He yanked me down on top of him and forced himself on me! He kissed me! Thank goodness you arrived when you did, or this disgusting sodomite would have done more!"
It only took Laurent the space of a moment to realise that this was clearly not a matter of Aimeric being caught in the act and panicking, trying to save himself and his family's reputation however he could, even if that meant throwing Laurent to the wolves. This was intentional. Though Laurent doubted that Aimeric had meant to be discovered so soon. He had probably arranged for some confederate – one of his family's servants, probably – to wander inside the room in a few minutes, presumably to find them in an even more compromising position.
Laurent doubted that Aimeric had intended for it to be Damen who walked in on them, either. Damen must have followed Laurent when he spotted him leaving the main areas in Aimeric's company. Perhaps Damen had feared he would see exactly this kind of tableau when he found them; that he would walk in on Laurent in another man's embrace. As if Laurent wanted any man but Damen himself.
When Laurent met Damen's eyes, though, he saw that Damen looked surprised, but not hurt or betrayed. And though he looked angry, it was only when his eyes slid over to Aimeric, not when he was looking at Laurent.
It was clear that Aimeric thought that he could still salvage this, even if it hadn't worked out quite how he'd planned. He had no reason to think that Damen was any less likely than any of their other guests to be morally outraged by what he'd just happened upon. And he was clearly livid. But it wasn't directed at Laurent, or even the closeness of the two men. What Damen clearly had a problem with was what was coming out of Aimeric's mouth.
"It didn't look to me like Mr. de Vere was the one initiating it," Damen said, his tone too even to not be hiding barely-restrained emotion. His jaw was squared in a way that Laurent knew meant his teeth were gritted.
The door had been closed. Damen couldn't possibly have seen enough to know that for sure, Laurent thought. Yet he obviously didn't need to see evidence of Laurent's innocence to believe in it. The thought warmed Laurent's chest momentarily despite everything that was converging to make him wish he was ice cold and incapable of feeling much of anything at all.
Aimeric spluttered, surprised to have his story questioned. Had he really been paying attention to Laurent these past weeks beyond his desire to set up some closeness between them in preparation for creating this little scene – had he noticed how much time Laurent and Damen spent together, or at all noted the kind of man Damen was – he might have anticipated Damen's reticence to believe the worst of Laurent.
"He threatened me," Aimeric said, trying to shift the story. "I had to go along with it or he would have hurt me. But it was all him."
"Did my Uncle enjoy that kind of desperation?" Laurent asked as he climbed to his feet brushing himself off. "I bet he did."
Across the room, Damen frowned.
If Aimeric hadn't been panicking before, he certainly was now. "I don't… I don't know what you mean."
To Damen, Laurent said, "Go back to the dancing. I can handle this alone."
Rather, he needed to handle this without Damen there. If there was anyone in the entire world that Laurent would wish to risk learning of Laurent's past even less than he wanted Auguste to know of it, it was Damen. Laurent couldn't imagine he could ever look at Laurent the same way again if he knew. Perhaps that would objectively be for the best; they couldn't give in and do anything that would get them in trouble, or be suspected of doing as much, if Damen didn't even want to be in Laurent's presence anymore. But from a more personal perspective, Laurent couldn't stand even the idea of it. Of Damen looking at him and flinching away in disgust.
Damen was reluctant to leave, but an even more stubborn look from Laurent eventually shifted him.
Once Laurent and Aimeric were alone once more, Laurent asked, "Are you really so willing to throw yourself on the proverbial sword just for my uncle's benefit? He wouldn't do the same for you, you know. Forget caring enough for you to make some sacrifice on your behalf; I doubt he even thought of you at all in the last few years until he finally saw you as useful again."
"You don't know what you're talking about."
Laurent scoffed, "I know better than you do, apparently. He has a new boy now, did you know? And he won't have been the first boy since you. Unless my uncle is stopped, there will be another one after him as well. And another, and another. An endless progression of children too young to say no to him, half of whom he probably forgets the moment they leave his bed, assuming they even held his attention while he was there. You're going to ruin your life for that?"
Aimeric face was so distorted with mixed emotions to be barely recognisable. "You're wrong! He doesn't care about them, but I'm different. He said so. I'm going to live with him in his rightful home. He promised."
Laurent narrowed his eyes. "His rightful home? You mean my brother's home?"
"It should have been his," insisted Aimeric.
"Like the Fortaine holdings would have all been yours one day, I suppose, if only yours hadn't been three births too late for that. Unfortunately, that isn't the way the world works."
"I don't need my family's properties anyway," Aimeric claimed.
"No, not if you think you're going to spend a life of luxury in Arles Court. I wonder, did my uncle happen to mention where the current owner of the estate fits into that plan?"
Aimeric pressed his lips together, making his intention to maintain his silence on that obvious. Laurent doubted he even knew, though. He might be integral in the plan to get Laurent out of the way, but there would be no need for him to be apprised of whatever other plans Uncle had. It wasn't as if Uncle would actually be interested in having anything to do with Aimeric once he had what he apparently wanted, after all.
Laurent shook his head, disgusted by the whole thing. "You've stupidly backed yourself into a corner here. All you have is a lie. I have a respected Army Captain who would back up my story that you were the one who forced yourself on me. Of course, it doesn't have to come to that."
"What do you what?" Aimeric asked.
"Don't tell anyone what happened here. Either the real version or your little fabrication. And particularly, don't tell my uncle that you failed in the mission he set for you or I'll make sure you regret it," Laurent warned.
"You were supposed to be my friend," Aimeric protested.
"And then you set me up to be imprisoned for indecency, if not hanged or transported for something worse if you could have progressed it that far. I'd say the friendship's well and truly over, wouldn't you?"
Laurent left Aimeric standing alone in the room as he made his way back to the ball. There were noises dangerously close to sobs echoing around the room, but Laurent refused to look back. He closed the door between them.
The music sounded too loud in Laurent's ears the moment he arrived back at the ball. It was hard to imagine being as carefree or happy right then as the dancing couples spinning around each other.
Across those dancers, Laurent quickly spotted and made a beeline for where Uncle was talking to a group of gentlemen who would probably consider themselves a class above him if not for the military honours 'the renowned Colonel de Vere' had received over the years.
Before Laurent could get to him, and even before he was close enough that Uncle was aware of him coming, Laurent was intercepted.
It was the boy from the polo tournament. The same boy that Laurent was sure Uncle was currently preying upon.
"Whatever you're thinking of doing, don't," the boy warned Laurent. Laurent's determination must have shown. He hated being so obvious. "You won't win. Not here, like this."
"That's very cryptic advice," Laurent remarked impatiently.
"Yeah, well, it's all you're going to get from me."
But in contradiction to his words, Laurent could tell that the boy did want to say more. He didn't stick around long enough to do so, though, taking his chance to disappear into the crowd.
Yet again, Laurent wasn't able to follow him. Though this time it was because Damen appeared at his side, looking concerned. Probably too concerned to be seen by this crowd, who would wonder what had inspired such a depth of emotion between them.
"Are you all right?" Damen asked.
"Of course I am," Laurent said flippantly.
Damen levelled a disbelieving look at him.
"I will be," Laurent amended.
That was the truth. He'd be just fine as soon as he managed to deal with the fact that Uncle apparently had his eyes set on an inheritance that he could never hope to receive as long as Auguste and Laurent remained in his way.
Uncle could send whatever hurdles he liked in Laurent's direction, but Laurent had no intention of letting him in any way target Auguste. Not a chance.
Damen's shoulder brushed against his for a moment, as if by accident. It was the closest they could come to proper contact in this setting. Laurent found it comforting, as brief as it was. And calming.
The boy had actually been right. This wasn't the right place for Laurent to confront his Uncle. Nor was it the time, when Laurent was incensed enough that he might not be thinking entirely clearly.
Every one of these strangers was apparently under the impression that they were being so very helpful, like their presence wasn't hindering Laurent instead. Or, more to the point, they at least wanted to appear like they were being helpful so that they could brag that they'd been integral to the whole thing after the fact. Typical. Even something like this was somehow a matter of status. They would probably bank on the gossip of having been here for this scandal for weeks, if not months.
They buzzed around Laurent like a swarm of flies, making it difficult to breathe freely, never mind to concentrate on coming up with some workable plan to fix this. Or at least to do something to make it slightly less catastrophic than it currently seemed, for Laurent didn't think there was really any way he could just make things go back to how they had been before. Nicaise had seen to that.
These people Laurent barely knew – and who'd never really cared to know Laurent in return past that first greeting when Laurent had proved that he wasn't quite as sweet as his looks might suggest – kept asking if he was all right, voices saturated in counterfeit concern. Someone offered to send a servant into the village to fetch a physician for him, as if Laurent could possibly need such assistance when Damen was so infallibly gentle with him, always, even when Laurent had sometimes thought it would be easier if he weren't. They obviously thought they were reassuring him when they said that he could at least rest a little easier in the knowledge that his 'attacker' wouldn't be allowed get away with it with so many so-called witnesses to attest to the crime. Someone had even taken advantage of Laurent's distraction to drape some kind of blanket over him before he could stop them. Laurent didn't recognise it or know where it had come from. He certainly didn't know what comfort it was supposed to provide, regardless of whether or not he had been subjected to what they thought he had. He shrugged the weight of the thick material off his shoulders.
All these shows of 'concern' were, Laurent was convinced, just unwanted barriers in the way of what Laurent really wanted to be doing now, which was taking Damen's hand and running into the night, never to see these people's condescending faces again. Even Auguste was suddenly looking at Laurent with an expression that Laurent never wanted to have to look at again, as if Laurent were something fragile. Though that wasn't quite enough to make Laurent wish to leave Auguste behind entirely like that, without a word, even to keep Damen safe.
The worst was how pleased Nicaise initially looked with himself, clearly thinking he'd done something worthy of praise. And he was praised for his bravery and quick-wittedness by their guests. But not by Laurent. Every withering look from Laurent seemed to knock another chip off the corner of Nicaise smugness until his expression had morphed into something that was a little easier for Laurent to bear to look at. Though not into the regret he should rightfully have been showing. Not yet, at least.
It took a good twenty minutes before Laurent could get most of them to leave. Auguste hovered, but Laurent must have managed to silently convey his intention to speak to Auguste later instead, because Auguste did eventually depart the room. His steps were slow and tentative as if he expected Laurent to call him back at any moment. Laurent did nothing of the sort.
Nicaise moved to leave as well. Laurent snagged the back of his jacket between his thumb and index finger.
"I don't think we're done here," Laurent hissed, "do you?"
Laurent's grip, if it could even be called that, wouldn't have been enough to stop the boy from walking away by Auguste's sid if he were really determined. Nicaise let himself lag behind anyway. Laurent hoped it wasn't because he wanted an opportunity to boast about what he'd 'accomplished'.
Auguste frowned at the two of them, but shut the door after himself nonetheless, leaving them alone together.
Laurent stared at Nicaise silently until finally Nicaise looked up from where he'd apparently been enthralled with studying the design of the rug on the floor of Laurent's room. Another boy of fourteen might have flinched away from Laurent's glare, but Nicaise had long since forged himself into something stronger than that, just as Laurent had. If he was going to have to deal with Laurent's reaction, he would at least meet it head-on.
"It might have been easier all around if you'd just stabbed an actual knife into my back and been done with it," said Laurent.
"Do you expect me to say sorry?" Nicaise asked. "I won't."
"Of course not. Why would you when you don't even know what it's like to be held accountable for your own actions? I suppose I should be the one to apologise for that. Strangely, though, I find I'm not in the mood to beg your forgiveness."
"Don't," Laurent warned. "Of everything you could have done, why this? Why would you insist on making what Aimeric tried to do to me – what my uncle tried to use Aimeric to do to me – into a reality? Tell me, when I told you about how Aimeric tried to set me up that way, were you already thinking even then about how you could use it as a strategy against me in the future?"
"It wasn't some grand plan. I just… I saw you together and I had to. What else was I supposed to do?"
Laurent scoffed, "You just saw us together and reacted without thinking? Is that what you expect me to believe? I suppose you just happened to come into a part of the house you had no business being in and happened to pick the lock on my door with no idea what you might find on the other side."
"I didn't pick the lock."
"Stole the key, then?"
Nicaise's silence spoke volumes.
"Still want to claim it wasn't premeditated? You engineered this situation."
"I didn't force you to bend over for him in the first place!"
"No," Laurent agreed. "But he didn't force me to either. I think you knew that. And you accused him of that anyway."
"That's what we do, isn't it?" There was a strange quality to his voice that Laurent would almost call desperation. "We protect each other, and cover for each other, no matter what. You did it for me, remember? And aren't you and Auguste always talking about honouring your debts?"
Laurent sneered. "If you think I would consider this repayment for what I did for you back then, you are sorely mistaken. Though I would wager that's just the excuse you want to cling to, not what you actually believe."
"I had to do it, all right?" protested Nicaise. "Maybe you're too fucking blind to see it, but I can. Someone would have found out what you were doing eventually, and then you'd have been for the gallows along with him! I had to stop it before that could happen. I did it for you."
"No. You didn't. You're aren't stupid enough to think I wanted this."
"Yeah, well. Sometimes you just don't know what's best for you."
Laurent recoiled slightly from the memory attached to those last words; from the recollection of all the things that had been done to Laurent with justifications phrased along those same lines. "And wherever did you pick up an idea like that?" Laurent let Nicaise consider that for a moment. He let it sink in. Perhaps at a different time, he would have just left it at that, but he wasn't feeling particularly generous right then. So he added, "You sound exactly like him."
Nicaise was pale. Laurent's barb had struck hard, it seemed, almost like Nicaise's all those months ago. Nicaise looked and sounded his age at that moment, if not even younger. Another man might have deemed him deserving of more gentle treatment because of it. But Laurent remembered being fourteen. He would have known better to do something like this then. Nicaise's youth wasn't sufficient to dispel Laurent's anger.
"Fuck off." It was only a whisper where Nicaise usually projected obscenities like weapons. Nicaise's voice trembled slightly, though with what emotion Laurent couldn't say with any certainty, because apparently he'd been a poor judge of Nicaise from the start.
Laurent walked out of the room, thinking to leave Nicaise behind. Instead, Nicaise emerged from the room practically on Laurent's heels. Though he did so not as if he were following Laurent to try to continue their argument, but simply as though he couldn't stand to be left in there alone just then.
Only Auguste had remained in the hallway leading to Laurent's room, obviously having managed to shoo their guests away to go gossip out in the main areas of the house instead. Auguste was far enough down the hall that Laurent was fairly certain he wouldn't have heard them. Knowing Auguste, he likely would have made a point of not listening in no matter how much he must have wanted to. That was just as well. Ideally, Laurent would prefer to tell Auguste the truth directly, not have him piece it together, probably incorrectly, from snippets of overheard accusations between Laurent and Nicaise.
Ideally, Laurent would have preferred that Auguste never needed to know of this at all.
Auguste looked highly disturbed to see his brother and his ward both looking so upset, each in their different ways. It was the first time Auguste had the opportunity to really see them at odds with each other. They bickered often, yes, but it was mostly good-natured, even if a stranger might view it differently. The tension in the air now, however, was something that no one could mistake.
Though Auguste's discomfort right now could equally have been because he didn't know how to approach Laurent right now given what he thought had happened as because he didn't know how to handle his brother and ward fighting with each other, Laurent realised.
Laurent let Auguste reach out for him, slowly enough to give Laurent the chance to back out of range and avoid the touch if he wanted. Had it been anyone else – other than Damen – Laurent would have done just that, and accompanied his movements with some choice biting words for good measure. But this was Auguste. Laurent did appreciate the intention, even if he wished the reason for it had been different. He let Auguste's hand come to rest on his shoulder and squeeze slightly in an effort to be reassuring.
"No one thinks less of you for this," Auguste claimed.
"You're a terrible liar."
It was yet another reason why Nicaise should have known that he was doing Laurent no favours here. Even Auguste, who insisted on trying to see best in everyone wherever humanly possible, clearly understood that most people wouldn't really care if Laurent was legally culpable or not. They would still judge Laurent for being any part of such supposed immorality. Laurent might not be thrown to the so-called mercy of the law like they intended to do to Damen, but the whispers would still probably follow Laurent around for the rest of his life regardless. Laurent knew the kinds of things these people said behind each other's backs, and how they spoke of the more lurid gossip. Why didn't the room look like Laurent had put up more of a fight if he'd been forced, they would mutter between themselves. Why didn't Laurent call out for help before it could get that far? How could any man just allow that to happen to them?
At best, they'd think Laurent spineless. More likely, they'd always wonder if he was complicit, even if it couldn't be proven.
It was lucky that Laurent had never much cared what people like that thought about him.
"Where are you going?" Auguste asked when Laurent stepped around him, letting Auguste's arm fall limply to his side.
"Where do you think?"
Auguste sighed. "That isn't a good idea. The constables should be arriving to take him soon enough. Just let them deal with him. He'll be punished regardless. Seeking out some kind of personal revenge isn't going to make this any better."
Laurent looked Auguste directly in the eye and, letting him make of it what he would for the moment, said, "That isn't why I want to see him."
There's a warning in place for this chapter. You can click through to the end notes for significant content-related spoilers if you're truly worried, but I honestly don't think it's something that will perturb many people.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Given current events, it was actually unsurprising that Uncle might have Auguste's money and properties in his sights. Where Aimeric might have seen the end of the war as an excuse to avoid seeking out an unwanted military commission, for Uncle it was more likely to be viewed as a herald of the end of whatever influence he'd accrued during his years of 'service'. From what Laurent had been able to piece together, it had been simple enough for a colonel – who was just low enough in rank to avoid being under constant scrutiny but certainly high enough to be able to pick and choose which men were to be sent to the front lines to more than likely die – to secure the patronage of men whose younger sons or brothers were officers in his regiment. If anyone questioned why Laurent held an unflattering view of the Army, they need look no further than the fact that a man like that was allowed to oversee so many lives solely on the merit of the money Laurent's grandfather had paid for Uncle's commission.
But without active battles to fight, Uncle would no longer hold that kind of sway. If he wanted to continue his current activities safe in the knowledge that he could secure the support of influential men who could intervene if Uncle's reputation were ever called into question, he would need money. More money than whatever Auguste was willing to hand over, and certainly more than his reimbursed commission once he retired from his position. Laurent had to stop him before he could make another move – one more successful than setting Aimeric against Laurent – to claim it.
The boy had access to information that Laurent could use against Uncle. Even if Laurent hadn't strongly suspected as much even before he'd heard a single word out of his mouth, the boy's warning at the Fortaines' ball would have made it clear.
It was almost as difficult to find anything out about the boy as about any of Uncle's personal or financial affairs, but the presence of a living breathing human being was more difficult to hide than any back-alley exchange of money. Thankfully, not every servant employed by the inn that Uncle was staying in while he was in town had been paid off to serve as Uncle's spies. At least one of them had been more than willing to tell Laurent all about a boy named Nicaise, who sometimes left and returned to the inn at Colonel de Vere's side, and who often ordered sweets to be brought up to the rooms when he remained behind alone in the afternoons. Presumably that was when Uncle tended to meet with the kind of people in front of whom he wouldn't want to parade his 'ward'.
Laurent considered catching Nicaise alone during one of those times, even though it would mean sacrificing one of his own afternoons alone with Damen, which were seeming increasingly finite in number as the end of the season and their return to their respective country houses fast approached. Those afternoons in the private rooms of the club or out exploring areas of town where they wouldn't be recognised were not what had brought Laurent to town in the first place, Laurent had to remind himself.
But Nicaise probably wouldn't talk if Laurent approached him that way anyway. There would be no incentive for him to even let Laurent inside the rooms. Not when Uncle would surely be told by one of his bought spies that Laurent had been there. If Nicaise were at all smart, he wouldn't want it to look as though there was any chance he'd been cooperating with Laurent.
The ideal strategy was to put him in a position where his best and perhaps only option would be to leave Uncle behind and help Laurent. Such an approach would have been fitting with someone like Govart or even Mr. Fortaine, for whom it would be thoroughly deserved.
This, however, was just a boy, who was presumably innocent by at least some measures of the word. How old was Nicaise when he first caught Uncle's eye? Eleven? Twelve? He couldn't be more than thirteen or fourteen even now. What choice had he ever had in any of this? Laurent didn't want to be the one to take the last of his choices out of his hands. But Laurent wasn't sure he could see another way, especially when they were on a deadline. Uncle's ploy to remove Laurent using Aimeric had only failed because of unexpected outside interference. There was only a week until Auguste and Laurent returned to the relative isolation of Arles Court, where it would be so much easier for Uncle to contrive some situation that would vacate Uncle's path to inheriting the entire family fortune without witnesses or intrusion. If Nicaise knew something that Laurent could use to take care of Uncle before he could make such an attempt, Laurent would know it as well before the week was over.
Laurent would at least make sure Nicaise's needs were attended to afterwards in a way that Uncle never would, Laurent swore to himself. Laurent would ultimately be acting for his benefit as well as Auguste's.
Govart answered the door when Laurent showed up at the door of Uncle's rooms at the inn. He bared his teeth in what he probably thought was a grin. It was decidedly predatory, closer to a leer.
"Laurent," Uncle greeted when Laurent pushed his way past Govart. "What an unexpected pleasure. You'll give us some privacy so that my nephew and I can catch up, won't you, Govart?"
It was almost phrased as a suggestion. Even the least observant man – which might be an apt description of Govart – would have recognised that it wasn't one.
Govart didn't look pleased to be excluded. He never once had in all the years since he'd first taken the position of Uncle's butler, during any of those times when Uncle had made a point of calling on Laurent in private so that he could enjoy Laurent's discomfort. He doubtless wanted to be a part of every scandalous detail of their discussions. There wasn't much he could do about it; Uncle's leniency towards Govart wouldn't extend to offering him access to Uncle's private discussions with Laurent. The door closed with just short of a slam as Govart exited, showcasing his annoyance in a way that no decent servant ever would if they wanted to remain employed. Uncle barely reacted to it.
On the other hand, there was a more obvious reaction behind one of the closed doors, in the form of a small scuffling noise. In a less upscale establishment than anything Uncle would ever voluntarily frequent, it might have been written off as a startled mouse or some other pest. Laurent knew better. It sounded like someone moving closer, spurred to curiosity by Govart's dramatic exit. Perhaps pressing an ear to the door to hear better. Perfect.
Uncle drew Laurent's full attention to himself by asking, with every indication of pleasantness even though they were (almost) alone, "What brings you here this fine day, nephew? I didn't imagine you were interested in visiting, since you've been so diligently avoiding anywhere I've been present for the better part of the last two months."
Laurent folded his arms across his chest. "If you wanted me to actively seek you out, perhaps you shouldn't have arranged to have me attacked the last time I dared set foot under your roof."
"Back to this, are we? You can't still be under the delusion that I somehow, from across the sea, managed to order for you to be harmed. How could you possibly think I would want anything but the best for my beloved nephew?"
Of course Uncle had no intention of admitting to any wrongdoing. It was a good thing, then, that Uncle wasn't really Laurent's intended audience today.
"Delusions?" repeated Laurent. "Interesting. Is it also a delusion that you've been abusing my brother's generosity to keep your bed warmed?"
Uncle's eyes narrowed. "It must be, since I can't imagine what you could mean by that."
"Can't you? Let me make myself clearer, then. I know you've been paying young boys to let you fuck them, and paying off other people who know to keep quiet about it, among other things. I imagine Auguste would cut you off from his money entirely if he knew that was how you were spending it. How will you pay for your boys then?"
"You have been misinformed," Uncle said, sounding unruffled. "I occasionally take pity on children who are down on their luck and give them a chance at a decent future. That's all. I'm sure no one could find anything untoward in that."
"Yes, yes, you're perfectly capable of convincing the world of your apparent beneficence. I'm unfortunately aware of that. Even some of your victims seem convinced that you should be placed on some altar. The youngest son of the Fortaine family, for example. I bet he was just ripe to be persuaded to get me out of the way the moment you so much as deigned to glance in his direction again."
Uncle's face showed no flicker of emotion. "As per usual, you're making things out to be something entirely different from reality. You were always prone to similar flights of fancy when you were younger. But you've been too old for that sort of thing for a while now, don't you think?"
Laurent thought but didn't say: just for that? There were some things that he needed Nicaise to overhear, but not that.
"Speaking of being too old, I've seen your current catamite."
"Have you," Uncle said.
"He's well on his way to being a little ripe for your tastes, isn't he? How long before you're in the market for a replacement? A few months?"
"Significantly less than that, if he's taken it upon himself to sneak around spurring suspicion about me," Uncle said. "Such a shame. I thought he was smarter than that. But I suppose rats will be rats, in the end. And it seems this rat has outlived his usefulness."
It was such a specific phrase: 'outlived' rather than 'outstayed' or something similar. And why not? It made a sick kind of sense to Laurent. With a boy plucked from the streets, who very few people would know to associate with Uncle, it would be easier for Uncle to get men who were already on his payroll to kill and dispose of him than to pay the boy off with the hope that he would never he never return opportunistically looking for more. Laurent wouldn't be surprised if there was already a whole tried-and-true procedure in place for it. If Nicaise wasn't the first who'd been dealt with that way. No wonder Laurent had been unaware it had been happening all these years.
Revulsion licked at Laurent's heart. He even felt a slice of fear, though not on his own behalf. Laurent had meant to get Uncle to dismissively admit that he would be tossing Nicaise unceremoniously back to the streets at any moment, so that Nicaise would have to acknowledge that there was no point in him protecting Uncle's interests any longer. Laurent hadn't at all intended to put Nicaise in a situation where he might not have time to come to Laurent before Uncle had him permanently dispatched.
Laurent had misjudged the situation. Yet again, he'd underestimated Uncle.
"Leave him alone," Laurent warned. "He's just some street child who no one would believe anyway."
Uncle had the gall to laugh. "Exactly. You think anyone would miss him?"
Laurent stared at Uncle silently, judgingly, for a long moment. Before he could find the words to comment on Uncle's disgusting disregard for a child's life, he heard a crunching sound. Uncle crumpled from in front of him, revealing Nicaise standing behind him, the long pole in his hands extended in front of him towards where Uncle had been. Laurent hadn't even heard the door open, or Nicaise's footsteps as he'd entered the room. Obviously Uncle hadn't either.
Nicaise stumbled forward slightly with the momentum of his swing. No, Laurent realised after a moment, he'd been pulled forward as Uncle fell, the weapon nearly yanked from his hand before it came loose at the other end. Laurent swallowed against the sudden bad taste in his mouth.
"Fuck you. You paid good money to bed this rat," Nicaise spat down at the fallen man, "so what does that make you?"
Nicaise's angry expression slowly faded away when he noticed moments after Laurent did that there was a halo of red fanning slowly out around Uncle's head. Uncle himself wasn't moving at all.
Nicaise, wide-eyed, tossed the brass fireplace poker he'd used away from him as if the metal had burned him. It hit the wooden floor with an echoing kind of clang. The hook that curved out to the side near its tip was tinged red.
Nicaise's arms were thin, still without the defined muscles that might come with adulthood. Uncle would have had it no other way, Laurent knew. But some mixture of anger and self-preservation must have leant him strength enough regardless, and the sharp point would have done the rest of the work.
Laurent had hoped to have Uncle imprisoned, or at least to make him flee abroad where Laurent would never have to see or deal with him again. If Laurent had ever let himself dwell on the possibility of something like this happening instead, he would have assumed that he would feel more pleased in this moment, or vindicated, or at the very least relieved that it was over. Instead, he found he mostly felt numb, in body and mind.
Laurent let his breath leave him in a rush, just a little of the tension in his limbs going with it. And then, when he drew in a new lungful of oxygen, he forced himself to think once more. And to plan.
For those who clicked through for warnings: This chapter contains a relatively graphic violent character death. This might perturb people who don't like violence or death of any kind, no matter who it's happening to.
But psst... it's not so bad, it's just the Regent, which should make it a lot more bearable for most people, I assume. Why yes, I've already killed him at the halfway point, both chronologically speaking and otherwise, because fuck him. This isn't his story anyway.
Oh my god, back-to-back chapters in direct chronological order? What is this madness, you may ask. Well, this would be me splitting what started as one scene into two chapters for length and pacing and, yes, for effect. But they still do belong together, so…
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Oh shit," Nicaise said, fearful. "Oh shit, he's…"
"Stop panicking," Laurent instructed.
"I didn't mean to… he just…"
"Nicaise!" Laurent said sharply.
As potential ways to jolt the boy out of his panic went, that one apparently worked to at least some extent. Nicaise's eyes regained some measure of sharpness as they were directed away from the unmoving body, focusing instead on Laurent. "How do you know my name?"
"I make it a point of not allowing anyone to know more about me than I know about them. Though I'll admit that you've so far made it difficult for me," Laurent said. "Perhaps we'll remedy that later. For now, you need to calm down and do as I say."
"Yeah right. Calm? I just fucking killed a man, if you hadn't noticed!"
"Believe me, I noticed. But what you killed was more of a monster than a man, as far as I'm concerned. No one who knew what he was beyond the façade of officer and gentleman would blame you for it." Morally, that was. Legally, it was a different matter. Uncle's oblique threat against Nicaise's life wasn't enough by half to justify it as self-defence. And that was assuming anyone would believe the word of a boy like this in the first place.
Though, Laurent considered thoughtfully, now that he was grown, and without Uncle making his usual apparently-compelling arguments for Laurent being an attention-seeking liar every time Laurent spoke out against him, they might just believe someone like Laurent.
Nicaise said, "No one will care about what he was like, or what my reasons were. It's still murder. I'll hang for this."
"No," decided Laurent. "You won't. No one needs to know it was you."
There was a moment of pause. Of incomprehension.
Suspiciously: "What do you mean?"
"My uncle has been scheming to get me and my brother out of the way so that he could inherit our family fortune and properties, hasn't he? What better way than to try to kill me? And of course I would defend myself."
At least the killing blow had landed on top of Uncle's head rather than at the back of it, so it could be passed off as a frontal defence rather than an attack from behind. And in the absence of Uncle's countering voice, Laurent was more than capable of spinning the circumstances into a story that no one would be able to disprove. Most of it would even be more or less the truth. Or would have been true, had Laurent let events play out instead of trying to head Uncle off before it could come to that.
"But why would you even do that?" Nicaise asked, disbelieving. "Cover for me, I mean. You could just walk away and leave me to my fate. He's gone either way, and I'm nothing to you."
"This is my mess to clean up," said Laurent. Nicaise shouldn't be punished just for doing what Laurent couldn't. Or wouldn't. Laurent wasn't sure which it really was. To be honest, even knowing everything he knew now, Laurent wasn't sure how easily, if at all, he could have done the deed with his own hands. Despite everything, Uncle was family. Or had been. Once. Laurent wouldn't mourn his loss, but that didn't mean he didn't feel guilt and shame on top of what Uncle had already left to him at just the prospect of being the one to bring it about.
Though Laurent supposed he still had been, indirectly. He'd known that Nicaise was creeping around the next room over, listening in. He'd counted on that. Laurent just hadn't quite predicted Nicaise's extreme reaction, or that Uncle would imply in the first place that he would make Nicaise 'disappear'. Laurent wondered whether Uncle had done that before, then wished he hadn't thought of it. Yet more guilt that Laurent could do nothing to erase.
Nicaise frowned. "Well, I don't know if it'll help sell your story at all, but I might as well give it to you now. There's a letter. I took it from Govart when he got drunk and fell asleep before he remembered to kick me out for the night. Govart doesn't know it's missing yet, I don't think, or if he does he'd never admit it."
Laurent felt sick at the implication that Uncle had been passing Nicaise around as he pleased, especially to someone like Govart. At least he'd never done that to Laurent. Nicaise could be right that the letter was in some way damning, for there must have been some reason why Uncle had always let Govart get away with so much over the years, and had placed him in the highest position in his household despite the man's utter lack of manners putting him at odds with Uncle's strong desire to at least appear to be a legitimate gentleman.
"I considered giving it to you before, you know," Nicaise claimed, "but…"
Laurent recalled seeing the boy at the polo tournament before Laurent had known of his connection to Uncle. He'd looked then as though he wanted to approach Laurent but then had decided otherwise.
"But you thought that you might need it as leverage yourself?" Laurent asked.
"But I didn't know for sure what it said, did I?" Nicaise corrected. "You think I ever had the time or money to learn to read? All I know is that Govart was holding something over the Colonel, and he'd hidden that old thing away like his life depended on it. But what if I took it to you and it didn't turn out to be anything that would turn you against him and make you want to help me? I couldn't be sure you wouldn't just have reported to him that I was going around behind his back."
"I didn't need to be convinced to go against him, you know," Laurent said.
Apparently Nicaise hadn't needed convincing either. They'd been dancing around each other unnecessarily, it seemed, when they could have been working together weeks ago.
"Well I know that now," Nicaise said, echoing Laurent's thoughts.
"Go and get the letter. We'll see if it's really worth the paper it's written on."
Laurent only got a few sentences into the missive before his breath caught in his throat. This hadn't been at all what he'd expected to read.
The man who'd written it claimed he had killed Colonel de Vere's brother on the Colonel's orders.
It took Laurent a moment to process the idea.
Although it might have been unexpected, it wasn't unbelievable given what Laurent had lately learned about Uncle. Surely all it would have taken would have been for Father to have tried to cut Uncle off from the family money, or to have uncovered his string of boys just as Laurent had and threatened to report him for it. Perhaps, Laurent thought with a dawning sadness, Father might even have known enough to have interpreted Uncle's attempts to endear himself to Laurent around that time in a very different way than Auguste had. Laurent hadn't been as close to Father as Auguste was by any means, but Father still would not have wilfully stood by while his second son was preyed upon, even if it was by his own family. Father had been flawed in many ways, but he was no Mr. Fortaine.
Even though Laurent hadn't known to look for evidence of that in particular, it was exactly the kind of thing he'd needed and been hoping for to permanently rid himself of Uncle. Ironically, though, it was now evidence that would point to something else entirely if Laurent tried to use it. People would think that Laurent had learned of his father's murder and sought his uncle out for cold-blooded revenge.
"Go and pack up anything you want to take with you," Laurent said, "and then get out of here. No one needs to know you were present for this. I'll take care of it."
"Govart knows I was here," Nicaise pointed out.
"Among other things, Govart has been sticking his cock where it doesn't belong and has made himself an accomplice after the fact to a murder. He's just lost the only man he could have forced to step in and protect him if his transgressions should come to light. I imagine that the moment he learns of his benefactor's death, he will be more interested in running away with his tail between his legs than in contradicting my version of today's events."
Govart should feel lucky that Laurent didn't just frame him for it instead. Laurent had no doubt that Govart had blood on his hands regardless, and probably far more innocent blood than Uncle's. The punishment would likely be fair, even if it wasn't for precisely the right crime. But Laurent would prefer that the world didn't think of Uncle's death as a crime at all. If it couldn't be declared a matter worthy of country-wide celebration, as it rightly should be, then Laurent would at least settle for having it acknowledged as a 'justified' killing. So, let Govart just scurry away like the rat that Uncle had accused Nicaise of being. Laurent would be happy so long as he never had occasion to see him again.
"Where am I supposed to go?" Nicaise asked in the manner of someone who knew he had no place in the world but the one he'd already had to fight to carve for himself, which he'd just lost. Uncle might have been repugnant, but Laurent supposed that he'd given Nicaise a roof over his head and food in his belly for a time. Nicaise wouldn't have ended up with him unless he was otherwise lacking for such things.
"Make yourself scarce for a few hours while I deal with this, and then come to my brother's town house," Laurent instructed. "You know where that is?"
Nicaise rattled off the address and confirmed, "The Colonel spoke of the place more than once."
Probably of how it would soon be his, Laurent thought.
"If you arrive there before I do, tell my brother that Laurent sent you. He'll take you in until I get there and be kind to you." He saw Nicaise's shiver and amended, "Actual kindness, not whatever has masqueraded for it in your life so far. My brother is the best man you'll ever meet. He would never hurt you or touch you. He's untainted by my uncle's sickness."
Nicaise made a disbelieving sound. It would probably take a lot of work to convince him that not everyone would insist on him earning his keep that way, or at all. But despite that, Nicaise made no indication that he didn't intend to follow Laurent's instructions. Why wouldn't he do so at this point? It was easily the best of his few available options.
"And give my brother this." Laurent handed the letter of confession back to Nicaise. Better that he didn't have it on him if the constables searched him when they arrived. "Be sure not to let anyone else see it and make it clear that I said it's for his eyes only."
After Nicaise had gathered his things, but just before he vacated the rooms entirely, Laurent reminded Nicaise, "Make sure you aren't seen, if you can possibly manage it. You supposedly weren't here, remember?"
"You think I can't easily slip past a few distracted servants and whatever lushes are milling around aimlessly in the tavern downstairs? Please. You didn't even see me coming before, did you?"
No. Laurent certainly hadn't.
Laurent waited until Nicaise was well and truly gone before calling a servant to the rooms. He didn't even need to instruct her to call the constables. The volume of her scream at the sight of the body and the blood ensured that someone downstairs would send for them before she could even do so.
There followed several hours of Laurent recounting his mostly-fabricated story over and over, as if the two constables who'd arrived at the scene expected Laurent would be bound to eventually make a mistake if he were actually lying. They finally seemed to decide that, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, Laurent's story seemed to make sense and match what they could see for themselves at the scene. They would continue their inquiries among the inn servants and guests, and anyone else who might be able to shed light on the matter, but none of them would be able to attest to anything but Laurent's presence in the room, which Laurent was hardly denying. And if the servants Laurent had asked about Nicaise mentioned that he'd done so, Laurent doubted the constables would know what to make of that anyway. In the meantime, they released Laurent to return home.
Before he left, Laurent numbly watched the coroner take Uncle's body away. It would be the last time he saw him, Laurent realised. Laurent certainly wasn't going to show up if there was a funeral.
When Laurent finally arrived at the house, it was clear that he'd been held up for long enough that Nicaise had preceded him there. Auguste was paler than Laurent had ever seen him any time other than when Mr. Herode had conveyed the news of Father's death on their hunting trip. Laurent had thought then that it had been the unexpectedness of it more than the death itself that had turned Auguste white with shock then, since he hadn't reacted the same way to Mother's death, which they had known was coming for weeks on end. Laurent imagined the same kind of shock was driving Auguste now as well.
"Where's the boy?" Laurent asked.
"The servants drew him a bath so that he could get cleaned up."
Right. There had probably been splatters of blood on him, Laurent realised. There might even be traces on Laurent as well, though he'd been standing further away. The thought made him feel even more ill than he already had.
"Did you read it?" Auguste asked. "The letter?"
"Nicaise said that Uncle is dead," Auguste said. "Is what the letter says the reason why? I wouldn't blame you."
Of course Auguste thought that. Auguste himself might have been tempted, in the heat of the moment, to avenge their father that way. But Laurent had never felt strongly enough about Father while he was alive for the details of his death to inspire that depth of emotional reaction in him.
"No, that wasn't the reason. The story you'll hear is that it was self-defence," Laurent said. "That Uncle was plotting to kill us for the family fortune, and that I managed to land a blow on him just before he could hurt me."
"The story," Auguste repeated flatly. He never had been much for lying. "And what's the reality?"
"Uncle really did want us out of the way, but I can't be entirely sure he would have stooped all the way to killing us off, and certainly not with his own hands. Not when there were other avenues still available to him." Laurent hesitated for a moment, but he knew that Auguste would need to be aware of what he was about to say if he was going to be able to deal with Nicaise for any amount of time. So Laurent admitted, "But I found out that Uncle had been fucking little boys for years, and covering it up through bribery and, I'm fairly certain, murder. So what do you think really happened?"
Laurent didn't want to lie to his brother, but he also didn't want to prejudice Auguste against Nicaise for having murdered their family member, scum though Uncle might have been. Better to let Auguste draw his own conclusions.
Auguste's inhalation was sharp. His eyes flickered to Laurent's right and slightly upwards, as though he could see through the walls and floor to where Nicaise currently was. He only looked disgusted in a distant way, at least, so that Laurent assumed the feeling was directed only at Uncle rather than at Nicaise for whatever complicity the boy had had in their activities. Auguste was, of course, the kind of man who would do his best not to think worse of Nicaise for what he'd been through.
But no. It wasn't worth thinking about, because it was never going to be put to the test. Auguste didn't need to know anything about Laurent's own experiences of that kind, past or future.
"We didn't know Uncle at all, did we." After a moment, Auguste added, "Or I didn't, at least."
"It doesn't matter anymore, now," Laurent said.
"Doesn't it?" Auguste asked meaningfully.
Laurent refused to question too deeply what he meant.
"No. It's over. Or it will be once we've figured out how to help Nicaise. We'll either take him with us or we'll set him up with funds and a decent life here in town; whichever he prefers. We'll make sure that the case of Uncle's death is completely closed, and then we'll leave this place and go rid the country house of any traces of him. And that will be the end of both the man and his legacy as far as we should be concerned. We'll let him be forgotten."
It wouldn't be that easy in practice, of course, but Laurent wished it could be.
"Yes," Auguste agreed. "If that's what you want."
Laurent had often in his life found himself feeling thankful for the kind of man and brother that Auguste was. But, he thought, perhaps never more so than today.
He would have said something to that effect, but he was interrupted by Jord announcing, "There's a Captain Akielos calling."
It took Laurent off guard. "Show him through to my study," Laurent said without thinking, a habit heavily ingrained from a year earlier and apparently never shaken since.
Jord's widening eyes met Laurent's silently. There was a long pause before he nodded and disappeared, presumably to go direct Damen through as Laurent had ordered.
Laurent remembered himself, and Auguste, a second too late. This wasn't Arles Court a year ago, where Auguste had been absent and therefore had no ability or need to question the reason for or timing of Damen's visits. Even putting everything else aside, it was currently too late in the day for the usual kind of social calls, and Auguste would doubtless remark on that now.
But gossip travelled fast in certain circles, so Laurent presumed that Damen must have heard some version of what had happened a few hours ago and had thrown their usual practices to the wind, like some foolhardy idiot.
"Sequestering him away from me? I hope I'm not the one he's actually here to see, then," Auguste said, looking some combination of puzzled and amused, or as close as he could get to the latter with his current mood being so dim.
"I just thought you wouldn't want to have to deal with company right now," Laurent lied. He was glad he didn't stumble over the words in his haste to correct his unthinking misstep.
"And you do?" Auguste asked.
"It's fine. I know what this visit is about. It'll be brief."
Auguste frowned. "Laurent, you know you don't have to make excuses, right?" For a panicked moment, Laurent thought Auguste knew the truth. Then he added, "You're allowed to invite your own friends around without involving me. I'm not going to feel hurt if I'm excluded."
Laurent tried not to make his sigh of relief at Auguste's incorrect assumption too obvious.
Perhaps Laurent could have friends. But Laurent wasn't allowed to have more than that.
Yet Laurent had barely closed the study door behind him before he was encased in large arms and pressed against a broad chest.
Laurent stiffened for just a moment. They'd never done this. The only time they'd been this close had been when they'd just met, and Damen had been practically (and actually, at one point) carrying him out of necessity. That had been far different than having Damen against him now, his weight and warmth both comforting in a way Laurent hadn't even realised he needed. Laurent found himself leaning into it.
"I heard you were attacked. Are you hurt?" Damen whispered.
"I'm absolutely fine."
Damen pulled away just enough to look Laurent in the eye in a way that proclaimed how easily he'd caught the lie. More easily than he should have. Laurent was usually better at that. Clearly, Laurent was still off his game from earlier.
Or otherwise Damen was just too far under Laurent's guard for Laurent to shield the truth of himself from him anymore.
"You shouldn't have come here like this," Laurent said.
"Of course I should. I'll always come when I know you're in trouble. I wish I could have been there for you against your uncle as well."
Laurent's whole body reacted to those words. He doubted Damen had missed it, as closely in contact as they were.
"You shouldn't say such things."
Because Laurent wanted to believe them. He wanted to pretend that Damen was always going to be there and that there was nothing stopping that from being the case. In reality, they were going to be separated in just a week, and this, right now, was the most they were ever going to be allowed to have. It was already more than they should be doing. What if Auguste came looking for Laurent? He wasn't exactly one to knock before entering a room in his own home. Laurent wasn't sure he wanted to know what Auguste would make of Laurent happily letting himself be dwarfed in another gentleman's arms.
Laurent said, "There's a lot going on right now. You can't stay."
"All right. I just had to know you were fine. I had to see you."
Laurent had to silently admit how much he'd wanted to see Damen as well, though he hadn't been consciously aware of that desire until some unnamed tension had left Laurent the moment he'd seen and touched him. Laurent always wanted to see him, in fact.
"Tomorrow," Laurent promised, knowing Damen would intuit that Laurent meant their usual afternoon meetings.
"I can't wait," Damen said with every indication of absolute genuineness.
Nicaise had returned downstairs and joined Auguste in the drawing room by the time Laurent got back. Apparently Nicaise either only had the one decent outfit or he'd left his clothing behind in Uncle's rooms, for he was now wearing one of Laurent's outfits; too big for him, but closer than anything Auguste or any of the male servants could have offered. They would have to at the very least purchase him some supplies, regardless of whether he wanted to stay with them or not.
Laurent hoped he would stay. It was better, it seemed, to not be alone in times like these.
"Is it over?" Nicaise asked Laurent. He clearly meant to ask whether there would be constables calling because Laurent's story hadn't been sufficient. He didn't say anything more explicit than that, though, suggesting that he didn't want to have to explain who'd really killed Uncle to Auguste any more than Laurent did.
"It's done," Laurent confirmed.
The two of them shared a meaningful look. Laurent was almost entirely certain at that moment that Nicaise would choose to go with them back to Arles Court. Between that and taking responsibility for Uncle's death, at least Laurent was able to do something to make up for how he hadn't been able to stop Uncle from using these boys over the years.
Laurent was glad.
And we're at the halfway point, finally. :) And can we all just marvel at the fact that Laurent, despite his legendary Unquenchable Thirst for Damen, has managed to go over a year before pressing himself all up over that beef for a second time.
For those of you playing along at home trying to track these timelines, don't get too confused. There's a missing scene that chronologically occurs between the last March 1816 chapter I posted and this one. I promise we'll come back to that one later. Don't mind me, I'm just making the non-linearity even more complicated than it needs to be. :D
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Laurent managed to avoid any of the small crowd of guests who were still milling around the halls of Arles Court in a tizzy, willing to stay awake and alert despite the increasingly late hour because they didn't dare miss anything interesting that might unfold before or during the constables taking the now disgraced ex-Army Captain away.
Laurent thankfully managed to catch Auguste alone. Laurent imagined that Auguste wouldn't be much more interested than his brother in dealing with the rubberneckers right now. Not when he was clearly so worried for Laurent. He pulled Auguste into a used room far enough away from everyone else in the house that they wouldn't be overheard.
Of course, Laurent had thought that was true of his own bedroom as well, and look how that had ended.
"Should I be coming up with something to tell the constables when they arrive to excuse Akielos's injuries?" Auguste asked.
"I told you that wasn't why I wanted to see him," Laurent reminded Auguste. "I didn't hurt him."
Not physically, at least. Laurent wasn't sure whether he could make a legitimate claim about the other kind.
Auguste hesitated before saying, "I don't doubt how strong you are, but you can't possibly be as unaffected as you're pretending."
Laurent had never wanted to have to have this conversation, but now that they were in this situation, Laurent wasn't going to hide the truth in favour of letting Auguste believe something worse. Or, at least, Laurent hoped that Auguste would think it would be worse for Laurent to have been forced than for Laurent to have willingly and gladly chosen to go to bed with a man he cared for dearly.
"I'm the opposite of unaffected right now," Laurent confessed.
"I introduced you to him." Auguste sounded guilty.
"You didn't, actually," Laurent said. "I met Damen over a year before you formally introduced us when I went to town with you."
Laurent folded his arms over his chest, standing his ground. As if it were perfectly normal for him to just go about using the Christian name of any gentleman other than his own brother. If he was going to do this and have any hope of Auguste accepting it the way Laurent desperately wanted him to, Laurent couldn't act ashamed, like he'd done something wrong. Even though he knew that, in most everyone's eyes, he had.
"Even if you had been the one to introduce us," Laurent continued gamely, "I'd thank you rather than accept your apology for it. You've done me a great many favours over the years, but that would have been the greatest, as far as I'm concerned. No matter what happens now, I refuse to regret meeting him."
"Oh," Auguste breathed, at least halfway to dazed. "You… You two were… You did actually want it?"
"You've known Captain Akielos for years, haven't you? Has he ever struck you as the kind of man who would do what he's been accused of? I course I wanted it. I've wanted it since practically the day I met him two years ago," Laurent admitted. "Obviously I should have just acted on it then rather than wasting all this time. Holding back obviously did nothing to help us."
Auguste shook his head. "Forgive me. This is the last thing I expected you would ever want." Auguste hesitated for a moment, then added, "After Uncle."
Laurent sucked in a shocked breath. He'd thought, despite everything, that he'd managed to keep it from his brother. But of course Auguste would have wondered, after learning about Nicaise. Of course even Auguste – who would rather believe things like Uncle's abuses didn't happen in the world in the first place – would have come to the right conclusion. Auguste was overly-trusting, and far too good to have ever breathed the same air as Uncle, but that didn't make him stupid. In retrospect, it must have been unbearably obvious.
"You knew?" Laurent asked.
Auguste seemed to deflate. No, then. Clearly he hadn't been entirely certain. Not until Laurent had just foolishly confirmed it for him. But, Laurent supposed, what would be the purpose in hiding anything from his brother at this point? It might as well all come out. If Auguste was going to think badly of Laurent, or pity him, he would already be experiencing those things regardless of whether he knew this as well.
"After Uncle's death, when you told me about Nicaise, I… I didn't want to believe it, but a lot of things suddenly made sense."
Laurent said, "You didn't say anything."
"Nor did you. So I thought I might be wrong in my suspicions. Hoped, for your sake. And if I was correct, it was your right to choose to bring it up or not, wasn't it?"
Laurent was grateful for that. Not that Auguste had to live with his suspicions in silence for months, but that he'd always understood Laurent well enough to know that Laurent wouldn't want to be pushed into discussing something like that. "Thank you."
"Don't," Auguste said. "Don't thank me. I don't deserve that. You might not blame me for what's happened with Akielos, but I left you with Uncle."
"That was never your fault. You didn't know," Laurent said, "and you thought you were doing the right thing for me then."
Laurent had been close to Uncle at the time – by Uncle's design, surely – and so Auguste had naturally thought that Laurent would be better off with Uncle for a while in the aftermath of their father's death. Uncle had dealt with his brother's loss so much better than Auguste had with losing his father (and no wonder, Laurent thought in retrospect). Auguste had hoped Uncle could be there for Laurent better than Auguste could be while he was still trapped deep in his own grief. It should have been true. It wasn't Auguste's fault that it wasn't. That blame would always lay with Uncle alone.
"It isn't that simple."
"It is," Laurent said firmly, "if I say it is. You said it: it's my right to choose how to deal with this. And I choose not to blame you, and to have you not blame yourself."
Auguste shook his head. "Just… did this thing with Captain Akielos happen because of what Uncle did as well? Because you got used to it or something?"
Laurent understood that Auguste was just trying his best to grasp something that was so far outside his realm of experience and understanding. Yet he had to subdue the humourless laugh that threatened to break free from his throat. Wryly, he said, "No. Somehow I don't think that's how it works. It has nothing to do with him. What I have with Damen is as far from that as it's possible to get." He used the present tense. Pointedly so.
"Are you sure?"
"As much as I tried to pretend otherwise, for two years, I've never been so sure of anything. He saved my life before he ever really met me, you know. And then he stopped Uncle from ruining my life again a year later. And no, I'm not suggesting this is some form of repayment for the kindnesses he's shown me either. I just mean that that's the kind of man he is. Someone who'll risk himself even for a stranger, let alone for someone he has a real reason to protect."
Damen was much like Auguste in many ways, which was why the two of them had apparently so casually maintained a friendship without any effort over the years. But what Laurent had with Damen was nothing like the affection he held for Auguste. He'd never thought there could be anything more than that, but he'd apparently been wrong.
Almost pleadingly, Laurent asked, "How could I be expected to not fall for someone who cares for me like that?"
Auguste reached out for him. His hand grasped Laurent's upper arm and squeezed slightly. Comfortingly.
Laurent tried to imagine a future without Auguste being there for him like this. It was almost unthinkable. But worse was the thought of a future without Damen. Auguste would manage without Laurent if it came to that. Damen wouldn't. Couldn't. Not now, under these circumstances, when he was bound for execution or transportation to the colonies for a life of hard labour if Laurent couldn't do something to prevent it.
"Right," Auguste said. "All right. I understand. Or I can learn to. If that's what you want."
It was probably the best Laurent could hope for at the moment. In time, perhaps the idea would grow on Auguste and he would be outright happy for Laurent rather than just accepting as long as Laurent himself was happy. But that assumed that they had time.
"He's the one whose life is on the line this time," Laurent said. "It's my turn to save him. If you're on my side, then I need your help," Laurent said. "We need your help."
Auguste managed a tentative nod. "What can I do?"
The constables came to take Damen away only half an hour later. Laurent watched them take him from the house, amidst tittering and gawking onlookers. At least they would probably all disappear off to bed now that they'd seen the 'criminal' taken away for punishment.
Damen locked eyes with Laurent as he was pushed past him. Laurent made sure that his expression was blank enough not to be read by the dozen or so eyes that must be trained on him then. But he hoped his eyes, at least, conveyed a promise.
This wouldn't be the last time they saw each other. And neither would that take place in the moments before they put a hood over Damen's head and a rope around his neck. Laurent wouldn't let it get that far.
Damen wasn't the only one who was intent on doing whatever it took, no matter the personal cost, to protect what he loved.
Ah Auguste. In his defence here, he's really trying, but he's a product of the times and the culture, so it's going to take him more than an hour or so to properly wrap his head around this.
And now let's all decompress a little from the high-emotion chapters of late. Have something a little more lowkey.
In deference to his injury, Laurent had taken the carriage rather than riding to Uncle's house on what, of course, turned out to be an entirely fruitless mission to try to drag the truth of the attempt on his life out of Govart, or any of Uncle's other household servants. They'd all closed ranks and refused to say a word. Other than Govart's mocking comments about Laurent's 'paranoia', that was. The others probably feared that whatever reprisal they would face if they stepped out of line would be more successful than the attack on Laurent had been.
So although Laurent might have his strong suspicions about the motives of the deceased 'highwayman', it was seeming unlikely that they would ever be proven for sure. Especially since the local constables had spent all of three minutes questioning both Laurent and Captain Akielos about the incident before declaring it self-defence and closing the case entirely. They paid no attention to Laurent's suggestion that it might not have been just a robbery gone wrong. Apparently arranging to have the body removed from Auguste's lands was the full extent of effort they were willing to invest. Laurent wondered if they might be in Uncle's pocket as well. It wouldn't surprise him at all.
Those three hours or so it took for Laurent to make the trip to Uncle's house and back had been the only time he'd spent outside the walls of Arles Court at all over the past two weeks. Laurent would have expected to be going stir-crazy by now. To feel trapped. Especially when there was an unexpected houseguest infringing on his privacy. Laurent could usually be guaranteed his solitude during the season, as even Uncle had better things to do at this time of year than staying in the country. But there wasn't a lot of solitude to be had at the moment.
Somehow, though, it wasn't at all as bad as Laurent might have anticipated. Even after two weeks of being stuck in the house hosting Captain Akielos while the man's injured side slowly improved to the point that he might be able to safely travel without doing himself another mischief, Laurent was not driven to distraction and desperate to have the house back to himself. He was not calling on the physician every day, hoping that this time the man would declare that Captain Akielos was fit to leave. Quite the opposite.
Though Laurent made a point of outwardly complaining quite often. He wouldn't want Captain Akielos to get it into his head that Laurent actually enjoyed his presence. Laurent wasn't sure how convincing he was, considering how Laurent found himself increasingly seeking out a place at Captain Akielos's bedside far more than was necessary, or even justifiable.
Apparently today it was Captain Akielos's turn to seek Laurent out rather than the reverse. He had apparently detoured past the library on his way, for a book was dangling perilously from his fingertips. Laurent tensed slightly to see such disregard for a treasured item, but he said nothing out loud. Captain Akielos knew by now exactly how Laurent felt about books. Laurent was sure he wouldn't let it fall and be damaged no matter how lax his grip might appear to Laurent's eyes.
"Should you really be up and about?" Laurent asked.
"I'm more able to walk than you," Captain Akielos shot back.
It was true that Laurent was having trouble moving around for very long at a time, for the wooden crutch he'd had Orlant fetch from the village quickly grew painful under his arm and was slightly too low for him, so that Laurent had to hunch to use it. Laurent would have called it humiliating to have Captain Akielos see him hobbling around like that, but he supposed it was at least less so than having to use the Captain himself as a makeshift crutch over miles of countryside.
"Hence the fact that I'm not currently walking. This is what we call 'sitting down'," said Laurent facetiously. "I assumed you would be familiar with the concept, but apparently I overestimated, since you're not doing that right now even though you should be. You'll open that wound again if you're not careful, and then I'll never be rid of you."
Captain Akielos didn't look at all disturbed by Laurent's rude remark. It was hardly the first of its kind, after all, and they almost always made the man smile for some reason. "I'm fine. After Nikandros left, I just thought that I might as well take the opportunity to go pick out a book for myself to stave off the boredom during those times when you heartlessly abandon me to my own devices."
Laurent scoffed. Over the past few days, apart from sleeping and having his valet see to dressing him in the mornings and evening, they had rarely been apart for longer than about twenty minutes at a time except while Mr. Nikandros made his daily calls to Arles Court to check on his friend.
"Are you suggesting I'm being remiss in not constantly paying attention to you?"
"I can't claim I wouldn't prefer it if you did."
In an attempt to draw Captain Akielos's attention away from how flustered those few simple words had suddenly made Laurent feel, and to give himself a chance to recover his composure, Laurent reached for the book Captain Akielos was holding.
"Candide?" Laurent asked, surprised, when he turned it over to look at the cover. "I wouldn't have thought you would opt for Voltaire, of all things."
"Because it's banned? I don't hold much stock with the church and its innumerable intolerances."
Laurent tried not to read too much into that.
"To be honest, I chose it mainly because it was pulled from the shelf like it had been recently read," Captain Akielos said. "I thought if it was fresh in your mind, we might discuss it when I'm done."
That assumed that Captain Akielos would remain in Laurent's home long enough to not only complete the tome, but to also probably debate it for hours at length with Laurent. Laurent was fairly certain that he would be healed enough to leave any day now, assuming he wasn't there yet already. Laurent hadn't had anyone check. He hadn't wanted to.
"You're going to go the effort of reading a book in French just because you want an excuse to talk to me?" Laurent asked, almost incredulously. When Laurent picked up a book, it was often for exactly the opposite reason. Besides, they hardly needed a prompt for their discussions. They'd already talked for countless hours without ever seeming to run out of new topics. Laurent had never been able to relate so easily and openly with anyone he'd just met. Or anyone at all other than Auguste, for that matter.
"Why would it be an effort? I can read French. I'm not a savage," Captain Akielos said, in perfect, almost-accentless French. Switching back to English, he added, "I'm fluent in Greek as well. And my German and Latin are better than passable. Just so you know."
"Oh, have I wounded your pride?" Laurent asked with a small smile. "You can relax. I don't believe you're stupid. I'm simply surprised that as a child you would have sat still with a tutor for long enough to learn multiple languages. Even as an adult, you apparently couldn't remain indoors even when it was necessary to heal a serious injury."
Captain Akielos conceded, "It's true that my tutors had to earn their wages by dragging me back to the study several times a day. I preferred to spend my time on sports and riding."
It was odd how much he reminded Laurent of Auguste sometimes. Laurent supposed it was no wonder he found the man's presence so much more tolerable than anyone else's, given that.
"But my father mentioned that if I really intended to become a military officer in a time of ongoing war, it would behove me to speak a few languages. Perhaps he should have stressed the need for Spanish as well. It might have saved me from having to stumble embarrassingly through conversations with locals while I was on deployment there."
"You were that intent on the military, even as a boy?" asked Laurent.
"Yes. I admit it hasn't been quite the grand adventure I thought it would be back then, but I was glad to do my duty to my country. And it was certainly worth it to meet the men who served under me."
"Only the ones under you?" Laurent asked.
Captain Akielos's mouth twisted slightly. "Let's just say I didn't always see eye-to-eye with some of my superiors."
"And I'm sure you found it difficult to hold your tongue about it, didn't you? If they're all like my uncle, I can imagine why," Laurent said.
"Your uncle would be Colonel de Vere, I imagine," Captain Akielos said. There was the slightest edge to his tone.
"You've met him?"
"I served in his regiment for some months before I was transferred to another section that needed a replacement Captain. Not that he probably remembers."
He didn't sound impressed. Laurent found himself more disposed than ever to like this man.
"No," Laurent agreed, "why would he care at all about the men he was sending to die?"
"Yes, you've made it clear you're not overly enamoured with the way the military is run. I assume you're bound for university instead, then?" Captain Akielos said.
Laurent laughed harshly. "In my experience, formal schooling is too slow and cumbersome, not to mention biased, to be bothered with. I would rather spend my money on more books to learn from by myself than waste it on so-called scholars trying to pour their preconceived notions down my throat at less than a quarter of the rate of how quickly I could really learn. Thankfully, my father's foresight and my brother's kind disposition towards me have afforded me with the ability to make such a choice. Auguste has consented to me remaining here until I turn one-and-twenty, at which time I'm set to inherit a parcel of land several counties over. Though I'm considering renting it out and using the income to set myself up elsewhere."
Captain Akielos smiled. "Falmouth, where I'm from, is nice. If you were looking for suggestions."
"I meant somewhere closer to my brother, not even further away. Besides, if Falmouth is so nice, why travel away from there to recover from your injury?"
"You're assuming the injury happened there in the first place," Captain Akielos pointed out.
"So I am. Are you going to claim it happened during your military service? In what battle, exactly, would that have been?"
Captain Akielos hesitated.
"If you're going to attempt to conceal the truth," Laurent said, "at least get your story straight in your own mind first so that you won't immediately give the game away. If you don't want to tell me, just say it isn't my business."
They had only known each other for two weeks, he supposed, for all that it felt like longer. And it wasn't as though Laurent was offering up all his darkest secrets on a platter either.
"No, that's not… It just isn't really my story to tell. There are other people involved. I didn't even tell Nikandros. Though he did still guess, since he knows me and my situation so well."
"You act as if it's embarrassing. Did you engage in a duel while you were drunk, or perhaps get run through by a farmer's pitchfork when you seduced his daughter?"
Captain Akielos said, "I'd like to say that I've never been quite that much of a scoundrel, but perhaps I'm giving myself more credit than I'm due. Nikandros would certainly say so. But no. It's not that kind of story. Though it is still of a personal nature."
Captain Akielos turned away slightly, much the same way Laurent would do if he intended to shield his face so his too-open expression couldn't be read. But then he stilled and let out a muffled grunt. He'd apparently twisted his body further than he should, obviously pulling at the still-healing wound on his side.
Laurent was out of his seat and had crossed the room in a moment. He reached out, almost without thinking, and tugged the bottom of Captain Akielos's shirt and jacket upwards so that he could inspect the bandage. He watched for a moment, but no sign of red blossomed. Then he realised what he'd just done and looked up at Captain Akielos's face. He looked just as surprised as Laurent felt. Though he didn't look disgusted, so Laurent imagined he must not be aware of the thoughts that were now flittering unchecked through Laurent's mind. Laurent let his hands fall away. The only reason he didn't jerk them back as if burned was out of fear that the sharp movement would hurt Captain Akielos even more.
"I should call a physician to check on you," Laurent said, as much to distract himself from the strange territory into which they'd just strayed as anything.
"It's fine. You can see so yourself."
"Still. Besides, if you really haven't reinjured yourself, I'm sure that by now the physician will clear you to travel by carriage the short distance back to Marlas Park. If you're able to wander around the halls and the library," Laurent pointed out, "then you should be fully capable of riding in a carriage over a relatively even road."
"Are you really that eager to be rid of me?" Captain Akielos asked. "I thought we were enjoying each other's company."
"You're supposed to be Mr. Nikandros's guest, not mine," Laurent said. "I know he's missing you, or he wouldn't be on my doorstep most afternoons."
"He's probably enjoying the solitude with me out of the house, actually," Captain Akielos said wryly. "There's no rush on my part."
"And if I wanted my solitude back?" Laurent asked.
"Obviously, in that case, you should have the physician fetched urgently."
There was a long pause. Then Laurent said, "It can wait until tomorrow."
"Or perhaps even the following day?" Captain Akielos suggested.
"I'd advise you not to press your luck."
"I don't take advice often, as Nikandros would tell you. And my luck usually stretches pretty far. I'm here, aren't I?"
Laurent told himself that he was just referring to how he was alive despite the odds.
He handed Captain Akielos the book he'd taken from him earlier. "Here. You might want to hurry up and read this, or you'll run out of time before you leave."
"Or I could just borrow it," Captain Akielos suggested.
"Then I would have to come to Marlas Park to retrieve it."
"Yes," Captain Akielos said, "you would."
This particular arrangement might be over within the next few days if Laurent didn't miss his guess about what the physician would say. But even after only two weeks of knowing him, Laurent could hardly imagine just losing contact with Captain Akielos now.
Laurent swallowed. And he nodded, an implied promise.
When Laurent arrived at the club in the afternoons, Damen was always already there waiting for him. Had anyone who frequented the place regularly actually thought to sit and watch for them, they might have noticed that when Laurent arrived, he would within minutes venture down the hallway that led to the private meeting rooms. If they also had happened to be watching Damen, they might have noticed that he too had made his way down that same hallway in the past half hour, also unaccompanied, and would not emerge again until hours later, within minutes either side of Laurent's departure from the room and the club both.
Of course, the only kind of man Laurent could imagine going out of his way to spy on them that way would have been one Uncle had employed for just such a service. Laurent was never going to have to worry about that again, now. It was a difficult concept to grasp after years of feeling that lurking awareness of an unwanted presence in the background of his life. Even when Uncle hadn't been in attendance, his presence had still been felt. But no more.
Still, even without that particular threat, theirs was an arrangement that carried some risk of suspicion, and they both knew it. Laurent justified it by reminding himself that they weren't technically doing anything wrong in those rooms anyway. There was no law against spending time with another man. As long as they restrained their actions, he told himself, at worst they would receive the kind of derision that some of the ladies whispered about Lady Vannes and her presumed 'tastes'. Though that still wasn't something Laurent would look forward to. He didn't want to harm Auguste's reputation. Or for Auguste himself to look at him with barely-veiled disgust at the knowledge that Laurent would indulge himself that way.
Auguste didn't look at Nicaise that way, true. Since Nicaise's arrival at their town house yesterday, Auguste had been nothing but kind and accommodating to Nicaise, to the point that Nicaise had turned to Laurent with a look in his eyes that silently conveyed the question: is this man fucking serious with this act of his? It would probably take Nicaise quite a while to accept that that was no performance. That was just what Auguste was like. Laurent did hope that understanding might extend to him as well, if it came to it. He wanted to believe the best. But he wasn't an endless optimist like Auguste or Damen, so he acknowledged that he couldn't be sure. The circumstances were different; Nicaise hadn't had much of a choice, while Laurent did.
Though it barely felt like a choice at all, at this stage. Laurent imagined stopping himself from seeing Damen today, or any other day until their separation at the end of the week. Laurent, who had once prided himself on his self-restraint and composure, couldn't even imagine voluntarily holding himself back that way anymore. Bad enough that he had to restrain himself physically. The rest would be too much. He needed this time with Damen, especially today.
Laurent had read descriptions in his books of when people's eyes 'lit up', but he had never seen it embodied in a real person quite like in Damen when Laurent slipped into the club room and shut the door behind him.
"I'm all right," Laurent assured Damen before he could even ask, though his mouth was already open ready to do so. "Just as I told you yesterday."
"I didn't entirely believe you then either, you know," Damen said. "I doubt it's something you can just move on from in a moment."
"I should be able to.
Damen placed his palm on Laurent's shoulder. Laurent could feel the warmth of it even through his layers of clothing. Damen's hand was large enough that it felt engulfing. Pleasantly so. Laurent thought for a wild moment that Damen might use that grasp to pull Laurent against him, as he had yesterday, but the distance between them remained. He tried not to feel disappointed.
"I may not know all the details that specifically led up to it, but based on what I know of the man from the time I spent serving in his regiment, and the fact that I don't believe you would kill a man unless he thoroughly deserved it, the world is not significantly worse off without Colonel de Vere in it."
Laurent agreed, "He wasn't a good man. He deserved to die, if anyone ever has."
Damen nodded, but said, "None of that means you have to be immediately fine with his death, or with your part in it. He was still family, wasn't he? It's complicated when it's family. I understand."
Damen dropped his hand from Laurent's jacket and placed it over his own, though lower, just over his ribcage so that his fingers traced over the top of where Laurent knew there would now be a scar.
"It was my brother who wounded me," Damen admitted.
Laurent found himself practically holding his breath. He had never really expected to hear this story after Damen had initially withheld it from him. He said nothing, not wanting to interrupt.
Damen nonetheless hesitated for a moment, as if rethinking what he'd been going to say. He spoke regardless, the words rushing out of him. "My parents weren't a love match by any stretch of the imagination. So I'm told that my mother didn't object overly much when my father kept another lady, in the way of the French with their mistresses, as long as he adequately kept it a secret from the neighbours. When the lady came to be with child, my mother agreed to go into seclusion herself for the latter half of it so that she could publicly pretend the child was hers afterwards. Father told me she had tried for her own child for many years to no avail, so having a large role in raising a child was something she looked forward to, even if she wouldn't ever be his real mother. And considering she had all but endorsed the relationship, I think she didn't want the child to have to be raised with the stigma of being a bastard; people are so quick to judge any relationship that doesn't fit the mould set out by the church."
"Yes," Laurent agreed quietly. Pointedly.
Damen's expression flickered. His fingers visibly twitched, as if he'd thought to reach out to Laurent again in some kind of solidarity, but he continued the story without shifting. "My father didn't tell me the truth until I was nineteen and about to join the Army. He said there was no need for me to take a commission; that I could inherit his lands. I told him I had no intention of contesting Kastor's claim. He was still my brother, whether we shared a mother or not. I never knew my mother anyway, so it wasn't like I felt resentment towards him or his mother for lessening her position or anything like that. However, apparently my father had confessed Kastor's illegitimacy to his solicitor at some point. After my father died, the solicitor sought out the midwife for proof, and she attested that it wasn't Mrs. Akielos who had delivered a child that day at all. So the inheritance was executed in favour of me, as the next legitimate male heir. Kastor… didn't take kindly to being passed over, shall we say."
"Which is how your injury came about, I presume."
Damen didn't say anything. It would have been redundant anyway.
"Is he dead?" Laurent asked.
Damen shook his head. "Even if I'd been armed at the time, I likely couldn't have plunged my blade into him as he did with me. He was my brother."
Laurent could have no doubts about why Damen had chosen now to share this story. The similarities to some of his own thoughts yesterday were almost uncanny, whether Damen realised the extent of it or not. Laurent hadn't been able to kill Uncle when he should have either. But it wasn't exactly the same situation. Laurent hadn't ever intended to just let Uncle get away with the pain he'd inflicted. He'd just intended the retribution to be in a form other than death at Laurent's hands.
Laurent said, "When a man stabs you, family or not, you don't open your arms and offer the chance to stab you again. You're a fool for allowing him the possibility of coming back and hurting you."
Damen seemed to disagree with the sentiment, but he said nothing of it. Instead, he mentioned, "I'm at no risk of a second attack, never fear. Killing me won't secure him the inheritance he thinks he's due anyway, which he'll have realised now that the rush of his initial anger has had time to pass. And I'm told he's fled to the continent somewhere to avoid prosecution. If he were ever going to return to the country, he would have done so several months ago. If that didn't bring him back, surely nothing will."
Damen didn't elaborate on that last part, but Laurent mentally filed it away as likely being important. The part Laurent did question, though, was: "You're told he's gone? By whom?"
Damen seemed to waver for a moment, but probably knew he'd be caught in it if he lied. He answered, "By Miss Jokaste."
And she would be in a position to know? Interesting.
"I see what you mean when you say that family makes things complicated. Your father did neither of his sons any favours, it seems. Why raise a child for decades as if he were a proper child of the marriage only to undermine that child's position upon his death? No wonder your brother was angry, though he was foolish to direct it at you."
Damen immediately looked defensive. He had rarely talked about his father in the months after he and Laurent had first met, despite talking so openly about a myriad of other topics. Laurent had assumed it was just that the man's death had still been too fresh at the time, but perhaps it had more to do with having his beliefs about the man's character challenged by what had happened after he died.
"I don't think Father meant anyone to know," Damen said. "I think he confessed his extra-marital activities to a friend, who just happened to also be his solicitor, not thinking that it wouldn't be held in the confidence of friendship. Short-sighted, perhaps, but not malicious."
He was ignoring the fact that his father had – almost casually, by the sound of it – offered Damen the inheritance a few years earlier, regardless of how that would have affected his eldest son. Laurent didn't point that out, though, except to say, "That's generous, considering his slip-up nearly got you killed. But I suppose if you'll ignore your brother stabbing you, why wouldn't you do the same when it comes to the person who effectively put the blade in his hand?"
"Have you never forgiven someone for a mistake?" asked Damen.
"No," Laurent said shortly.
"I certainly hope I never do anything to offend you, then."
"I don't imagine you will," Laurent said. "You are a better man than either of them."
"You're basing that on a two-minute narrative about them."
"I'm basing it on the fact that your brother was the type of man to try to kill you for no reason other than jealousy, while you are the type of man who wouldn't make an attempt on him in return despite more than ample provocation. I have spent longer at length with you than I have with almost anyone else in my whole life. I've come to know the kind of man you are. That's all I need to know."
Laurent expected Damen to look either flustered – as Laurent himself would have been if presented with similar comments, even though he would have valiantly tried to hide it – or pleased by that. He didn't anticipate Damen's seriousness as he said, "You know, the fact that you did kill when provoked doesn't make you any less of a good man."
That hadn't been the point Laurent was trying to make at all. But trust Damen to take a compliment and turn it around so that he would have an excuse to basically praise Laurent in turn.
Laurent meant to go along with it. To lie, just as he had been doing for the past twenty-four hours to everyone except Nicaise. He hadn't even told Auguste the full truth. But Laurent couldn't imagine keeping it from Damen, somehow.
"I wasn't actually the one who killed my Uncle," confessed Laurent. "But I probably should have been, long before now, so I took the blame for it happily."
"To protect someone." It wasn't a question.
"Your brother?" asked Damen.
It was a fair assumption. Who other than Auguste would anyone imagine Laurent cared enough about to risk being convicted of a murder he didn't even commit?
Laurent would have done it for Damen as well, in a heartbeat.
Laurent trusted Damen not to tell anyone else of it. So he said, "Yes. My younger brother."
That was what Nicaise was to become to Laurent, if Laurent had anything to say about it. Nicaise had consented to come with them to Arles Court as Auguste's ward – a real ward, not the mockery of the term that Uncle had pressed him into – but that was just in name, for legal purposes. Laurent didn't know that he personally would have survived these past years without the deep fraternal connection he shared with Auguste. He intended for Nicaise to have the same. They might not have a history of two decades spent together as Laurent and Auguste did, but Laurent and Nicaise had shared experience nonetheless. That bond ran deep.
It was clear that Damen was confused, though. "I didn't realise you had a younger brother."
"You didn't realise that Auguste had any brothers at all either until you met me, did you?"
"True. Your family is just full of secrets, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is," Laurent said, perhaps too candidly. "And so is yours, it seems."
"At least we're well-matched," Damen said with a small smile.
Laurent doubted that an outsider would look at Laurent and Damen, or talk to them, and think that was the case. But it was true. There was no one who suited Laurent better.
He strongly suspected there never would be.
The question was: what, under the circumstances, was Laurent supposed to do with that knowledge?
It felt like Laurent was running out of time to figure it out.
"It's been a while since I've seen you," Lazar said. "I almost thought you must have finally given in and gone to town for the season. But then I remembered how stubborn you are and thought I'd ask around instead. Broken ankle, was it? Better you stayed away. Most of the miniature monsters can't be trusted to play gently, injury or no injury." He said the last part affectionately.
"I pay you to run this place. I wasn't aware I was throwing in a further subsidy to cover checking up on me," Laurent said.
"You do also pay me to keep an eye on people. Among other things."
"Not on me."
Lazar shrugged, unbothered. "Yeah, well. It's habit, isn't it? You shouldn't really mind too much. It's rarely a bad thing to have someone who can report back on what people are saying about you, so you can get ahead of the gossip if need be."
"Oh? What else have you heard about me recently, then, aside from the injury?"
"Nothing too terrible, don't worry." For now, the beat of silence said. "Just that you spent a few weeks looking after some fellow who got injured in the same scuffle that ended with your leg hurt." Candidly, he added. "That's more charitable than I'd have expected of you."
Sardonically, Laurent said, "Have you forgotten that I fund and help to run an orphanage?"
Though in truth, Laurent wasn't personally the one funding the place. He didn't have the money to do so on his own quite yet, and even once he came into his inheritance he'd probably be pushing it to sponsor a place this consuming, at least until he'd managed to establish some profitable investments as well. So he'd convinced Auguste to provide the funds on his behalf, starting a little over two years ago. Auguste had done it happily. Of course he had. Auguste would probably throw his money into the streets in wads if he thought that would actually make a lasting difference to the lives of the downtrodden. That was the kind of man he was. He didn't have enough free time, he'd said, to reorganise the orphanage the way Laurent could, or to be as involved in the operation and activities as Laurent (usually, when he hadn't been suffering from a combination of limited mobility and thorough distraction) was, but he could provide his support in other necessary ways. And he trusted Laurent to use his money correctly.
Of course, Auguste apparently believed in Uncle's dedication to doing more or less the same thing, albeit for his own upkeep rather than that of needy children. Auguste trusted too easily. But Laurent wouldn't allow that trust to turn out to be misplaced in his case. He would run the orphanage the best way he possibly could.
It had been soon after Laurent had learned firsthand what might be done to a child who was left unsupervised with someone who wasn't as concerned as they should be with the child's care that Laurent had started to look into how orphaned children who weren't lucky enough to have an older brother to eventually come home to were treated. It was appalling, to say the least. Laurent couldn't help every single one of those near-forgotten children – though Laurent had every intention of at least finding a way to increase the scale of what he could manage – but he could at least help a large percentage of those closest to Arles Court. It had taken three years (and the gaining of a few inches of height and a deepened voice) for Laurent to establish the clout to convince people he could run an orphanage despite his youth and to rid the local Children's Home of its former master. In that time, Laurent had also arranged to purchase the neighbouring buildings so that he could expand the operation to take in additional children, but also so those living there didn't have to live on top of each other, pressed in like too many ribbons into an affluent lady's accessory basket. It was better there now, under Laurent's watch. It could be better still, in time.
"Charity towards children and charity towards adults are different things, though, especially where you're concerned," Lazar said. "You're different with the little rascals. Softer. No one could honestly claim you're soft with other adults without risking being carted off to the asylums for delusions."
Laurent wasn't so sure that was true anymore. At least not when it came to one particular adult. Damen seemed to have chipped away at all of his hard edges over the past couple of months. Not that Lazar needed to know that.
"Speaking of the children, any problems since my last visit?"
Laurent hadn't visited the orphanage as often as he would have liked recently. Or at all, really. Between his injured ankle making travel a hassle and spending almost all his time in company lately, there hadn't seemed to be as much opportunity to spend time with the children as he would usually have set aside. He'd missed them.
He'd have plenty of time for them shortly, he reminded himself. His schedule was about to become a great deal less occupied with other activities.
"Just a little trouble with getting a physician to bother to look at one of the children," Lazar said. "Pompous prick didn't want to treat the girl without a 'medical history', apparently. Said he couldn't possibly recommend anything from the apothecary unless he could be absolutely sure she wasn't already on any medicine, and wouldn't take my word for it that she wasn't. Claimed she could have been sneaking behind my back to see another physician, for all he knew. A four-year-old girl planning a secret rendezvous with a doctor? Sounds like code for 'I don't want to dirty my hands with filthy orphans', if you ask me."
Laurent said, "I imagine you managed to provide him with a very official-looking history to ease his concerns quickly enough."
"Damn right I did. I know that sort of thing is what really puts your coins in my pocket, after all. There's nothing easier to forge than a physician's records. It's all chicken-scratch and self-important bullshit. Anyway, little Georgina managed to get what she needed from the apothecary eventually, and she seems well now. No thanks to that fool doctor."
"I'd suggest another for us to use, but I have yet to meet any physicians of truly decent character in the area," Laurent said. "A surgeon, once, but let's pray none of the children needs his help any time soon."
"Pray?" Lazar laughed. "Have you gone religious on me? I thought you hated the church."
"It's a turn of phrase," Laurent said. The orphanage as it had previously been run had been done so with the tacit approval of those who touted so-called 'Christian charity'. Personal reasons aside, that in itself was enough to disdain the church. But still: "My personal beliefs are not really your business, are they?"
"Fair enough," said Lazar, apparently showing uncharacteristic discretion. Or perhaps just a better-than-usual grasp of priorities, for he continued, "My business is the children, you keep reminding me. Want to see them?"
Laurent didn't dignify that with an answer. Of course he wanted to see them. Even those times when he came for other reasons, Laurent couldn't imagine ever having a bunch of children in need of attention right in front of him and not want to take the time to at least acknowledge them.
"I bet they'll scream when they catch wind that you're here, so you might want to block your ears."
Laurent was at the orphanage for two hours, in the end. He walked out with his clothing and hair significantly more ruffled than he'd been going in. Lazar was right; the children didn't tend to understand the idea of going easy on him. But he was also happier and more relaxed than he'd been in the early hours of the morning, when he'd sent off Huet with a message to Marlas Park.
At least, he was relaxed until he spotted, and was spotted by, Damen.
It was probably only due to the recent infrequency of Laurent's time in the orphanage that Laurent had never run into Damen in the village before. He knew that Damen generally liked to be surrounded by people. On the rare occasion when Damen wasn't at Laurent's home, or riding his horse alongside Laurent's, or half-dozing in a field while the sunlight and Laurent's voice reading whatever book was currently catching his fancy lulled him into a daze, he was often with Nikandros either making calls on the neighbours or visiting the village.
So Laurent should have guessed that Damen would be here this morning, given how Laurent had cancelled their usual morning meeting at the last moment, thereby freeing Damen up to do other things as he pleased. That was what Laurent got for trying to avoid seeing him. He'd wanted to spare himself the pain of it. Instead, he'd just ended up with a potential audience for it.
They stared at each other for a long moment.
"So," Damen said. "Tomorrow."
He sounded almost as reticent to talk about it as Laurent. Fate, if there was such a thing, obviously had other plans. This was not the place for it, however.
His morning visit over, Laurent had been on his way to retrieve his horse and ride back home anyway. He didn't object when Damen went to untie his own massive beast and followed after him. They rode together in silence until they were well past the edge of the village.
"Were you going to say goodbye?" Damen finally asked.
"Of course I was. Not that it will make a difference to anything."
"I still owe you a debt," Laurent said. "How am I supposed to repay it if you leave tomorrow morning, just like that?"
"You don't owe me anything. If you ever did, you more than repaid it by arranging for my housing and care when I was injured." Damen seemed to consider for a long moment, then offered eagerly, "Or, if that's not enough to satisfy your need to restore honour, I would certainly consider us even if you did me the honour of visiting me in Falmouth."
Laurent swallowed. "It's too far away, and my brother wouldn't understand me leaving the moment he is to return after months away anyway. But... Tell me what it's like there."
"The boundary of my father's estate – my estate, now – is less than an hour's ride from the sea. I used to like watching the ships coming in to the harbour when I was a boy. So much so that my father thought I would opt for the Navy, not the Army. Sadly, I soon found out that I get sick as a dog the moment there is more than the gentlest of swells, so I thought it better to restrict my seafaring to only the necessary travel. The land in Falmouth is just as green as it is here, but the prospect is a little nicer here." He looked sideways at Laurent. Laurent didn't think he was just talking about the landscape, somehow.
"You'll remain there, won't you? You won't go back to the military after you've got the management of the estate under control?" Laurent asked.
Laurent would by far prefer to know that Damen was safe at his country house – even if it was far too many miles from where Laurent was – over having to imagine him being sent to France or back to Spain, or wherever else Napoleon next dragged this conflict. Laurent couldn't imagine how anyone dealt with it when people they actually cared for went away to fight, perhaps never to return. It would be very different to having Uncle over there. Laurent could only pray that he got caught up in a battle and didn't make it out the other side, though he knew that would never happen. Unlike Damen, Uncle would never allow himself to be sent anywhere near the real action.
"I do have responsibilities to manage the family estate now," Damen said. "And the physician has cautioned against me running back to the military anyway. My wound has healed well enough for most things, he says, but my range of movement has been impacted."
"You sound regretful that you can't go back to it."
Damen frowned. "I don't see military service the way you do. Would I have preferred that the injury didn't prevent me from returning to my men? Yes. But I can't really regret the injury happening, because without it I would never have come here."
Laurent laughed humourlessly. "Yes, it would have been a terrible shame to have avoided this."
"You don't mean that."
Damen kicked his horse forward abruptly. His knee brushed Laurent's as he passed him. He drew the horse around in front of Laurent's mouth, forcing them both to stop, and making Laurent have to look directly at him rather than off into the distance. Seriously, Damen said, "I can't continue to stay here right now. I have responsibilities to attend to. But if you ask me to return once my estate is properly in order, I will. For as long as I can, as often as I can."
"No," Laurent said, more resolutely than he actually felt. "Nothing good can come of extending this any further. There's no future in it."
"I beg to differ. Our time together, whatever form it's allowed to take, is worthwhile. At least to me."
It was to Laurent as well. That was part of the problem. It would be obvious that Laurent felt that way.
"My uncle will return shortly," Laurent said. "You've met him, so surely you have some concept of how keen his mind is. He makes it his business to know every little detail about my life. It would take him all of a moment to realise the nature of our relationship. And unlike Mr. Nikandros, he won't turn a blind eye to it. He would use it to ruin us both."
"Then come to Falmouth with me," Damen tried again. Begged, really.
Laurent was tempted. So tempted. It was too great a distance for Laurent to see Auguste with any regularity, but that also meant it was far enough from Uncle to be out from under his eye. And the other potential benefits…
Those benefits were limited, Laurent reminded himself. And the risks were too high. Damen made it difficult for him to think clearly, but Laurent had to be logical.
They'd only known each other for a little over three months, for all that it seemed like years. Damen would probably forget him in the same amount of time if Laurent let him go now. Damen had an opportunity to not have to hide and be constantly wary that his secret would be revealed. After all, he liked women, Laurent reminded himself. Unlike Laurent, he could have a normal life. Laurent thought of the orphans. They were the closest Laurent would ever get to a life like that, but that didn't need to be the case for Damen. Laurent would only get in the way of that.
"No," Laurent said, pushing his horse back into motion, steering her around Damen's and forcing him to follow half a length behind. "I have a life here. And you have one there. That's all there is to it."
Damen looked ready to fight over it, but Laurent levelled a quelling look back at him. In the moment before he looked ahead again, Laurent could visibly make out the clenching of Damen's jaw, and the slight grind of his teeth.
"I understand," Damen said flatly.
Laurent didn't think he did, actually, or he would probably have kept arguing. Damen wasn't the kind of man who would accept someone else's sacrifice on his behalf.
"I'll write to you," Damen promised.
"Don't bother," Laurent said. "I won't respond." There was no point if it wasn't a clean break.
Laurent pushed his horse into a trot. For once, Damen didn't immediately match him, instead letting himself lag behind. Good, Laurent thought; made himself think.
"It doesn't have to be like this," Damen called after him.
"It does." How else would either of them move on? It would be a waste of time anyway, Laurent told himself. He didn't need Damen to send him letters. He didn't need Damen at all. He could certainly break off contact entirely and still be fine. Auguste would be back any day now, after all. His company was all Laurent really needed. Laurent had known that for most of his life. He'd just foolishly let himself be convinced otherwise for a time.
"Will you come to Marlas Park to see me off tomorrow, at least?" Damen asked.
Laurent almost said no. This could serve as the last time they saw each other just as well, without Laurent having to actually watch a carriage convey Damen away, possibly never to be seen again. But though he couldn't see them now without either craning his head backward uncomfortably, turning his horse around, or slowing to let Damen catch up – none of which Laurent had any intention of doing – he could nonetheless imagine Damen's eyes. They would be so hopeful in that moment. They would probably also be shadowed with at least a hint of sadness.
"Yes," Laurent agreed. "I'll ride at dawn."
"I'll wait for you," Damen said.
Laurent wanted to hope, for both their sakes, that Damen was only referring to what would happen in the morning and nothing more.
But that wasn't where his thoughts travelled. Just for now, in the privacy of his own mind, he allowed himself that weakness.
Well that turned on a dime, didn't it. I don't know how this chapter that started out with just hanging with Lazar and some kids suddenly turned so knifey. Sorry about that. Had to be done, though.
The constables had dragged their feet before officially closing the case of Uncle's death, which caused their departure to Arles Court to be delayed for two days. It was eventually conceded that Laurent was not under suspicion of wrongdoing and he was declared free to travel, though, so now Laurent, Auguste and Nicaise were set to leave the following day.
Auguste wouldn't hear of Laurent not going and visiting Miss Vannes one last time, so convinced was he that Laurent was interested in marrying her one day and just wouldn't admit it. That would have been more than fine, since Laurent actually did enjoy Miss Vannes's company and didn't mind the opportunity to say goodbye. But Laurent was distracted today, with the deadline on his time in town looming large, and so he was barely paying attention to anything she was saying right up until the moment he heard a familiar name.
"Pardon me," Laurent said, "you mentioned Miss Jokaste?"
Miss Vannes perked up a little. "Oh yes, you know her, don't you? You danced with her once, if I recall. Pity you haven't spent more than the space of a single dance together, since she has intelligence and a vicious sense of humour to match yours. You would probably either get along famously. Or tear each other to pieces. These things can be hard to predict sometimes."
The fact that she didn't suggest even in jest that Laurent and Miss Jokaste could make a great marriage match was highly suggestive that she suspected much the same thing about him as he did about her.
And probably also that Miss Vannes, avid gossip-consumer that she was, likely knew just as well as Laurent did that Miss Jokaste was already intent on marrying someone else.
"I was speaking of her father, actually. He was too ill to travel and see to his duty in Parliament while it was in session this year. Too ill to be likely to see out the year at all, in fact. It's such a shame. And doubly so since I understand his property is entailed away to some distant cousin. You know how these things go."
If her father was close to passing, with his wife and female child to be left potentially destitute, that would, Laurent thought, explain why Miss Jokaste was so overly bold in her pursuit of a husband. But not why she was so set on having one man in particular fill that role. Quite the opposite, in fact. If what she cared about was financial security, she had sufficient beauty and wit to have her pick of quite a few eligible gentlemen who would likely have been far more easily won than Damen. Yet she hadn't even seemed to bother trying for them.
Miss Vannes seemed to agree with that assessment.
"Speaking of his daughter, it looks like she might finally be getting what she's been doggedly working towards all season."
"Oh?" Laurent asked, voice entirely without intonation, though that was not achieved without great effort.
"Yes. You must have seen how entirely she favours Captain Akielos. And now they'll be riding off into the sunset together by week's end, quite literally. With her parents not in town, she's secured herself an escort from her neighbourhood to travel home to the country with her. I'm sure you can imagine who the gentleman in question is. Quite gallant of him, since it isn't particularly safe for a woman to travel alone. But an unmarried man and woman travelling a large distance alone together in a closed-in carriage? It carries certain connotations. And expectations."
"That hardly means he'll marry her," Laurent pointed out.
"True. It wouldn't be the first time her aspirations of marrying someone fell through, if you believe the popular version of events."
"The popular version?" Laurent repeated, suppressing any trace of eagerness from his voice.
"Oh, along with Captain Akielos's injury that kept him from town, it was quite the talk of the season last year. Strange enough that a young lady would debut into society and then choose not to come to town for her first season while her parents made the trip without her. But then there was talk that the reason she didn't come was that she'd suddenly up and run off abroad instead. Everyone decided she must have chased some man she liked the look of back to his home country. I suppose that would explain why she stayed away for simply ages, since she could have had to take the time to try to convince him that her other assets were enough to make up for the lack of a decent dowry if he married her. But having since actually met her, that kind of behaviour strikes me as uncharacteristic."
"Yes," Laurent agreed. "She hardly seems the type to run off to the continent on a whim."
Laurent was, in fact, piecing together a very different mental picture of what the past year and a half might have looked like for Miss Jokaste. It didn't involve a single minute spent outside of England's borders.
It would be pointless to deny to himself that jealousy played a large part in Laurent's ongoing borderline fascination with the matter. But there was also concern that – if what Laurent suspected was true – Miss Jokaste might be able to play on Damen's inimitable sense of honour to make him do something it seemed clear he wasn't interested in doing for his own sake. Laurent disliked the idea of letting that happen, to say the least.
So Laurent decided his and last next morning call of the season should be to the lady herself.
"Well this is a long-overdue conversation, I'm sure," was Miss Jokaste's greeting after Laurent was shown into the drawing room. She sat straight-backed, the very picture of feminine elegance.
"What is it you think we're going to discuss?" Laurent asked.
"Come now. I think we both know why you're here."
"You heard that I'll be travelling back to Falmouth alone with Captain Akielos, and then will of course be spending months on end within an hour's ride of his house. You want to scare me off now, before you're weeks away and can't do much of anything to intervene."
"Even assuming I had any reason to want to keep Captain Akielos and yourself apart, that would suggest I believe you're easily scared."
"And you're under no such delusions?"
"Certainly not. And why would I bother trying to drive you off anyway when you're already going to alter your approach without me personally having to do much of anything to make it happen?"
"Am I really?" asked Miss Jokaste. "Why would I do that?"
"Because holding Captain Akielos's guilt and sense of responsibility over him hasn't worked so far, despite you having had months to work at it. If it's suddenly going to succeed now, it will be because you've pushed hard enough to break him, and I don't think you want to do that, do you?"
"You don't think I'm capable of a little well-placed blackmail to get me what I want?" Miss Jokaste asked.
"I'm sure you are. But aimed at him in particular?"
Miss Jokaste shrugged delicately. "It's true that I would only take such a path if I were planning to be rid of my prospective husband just as soon as I had a male heir to secure his name and fortune. I have no desire to live decades in misery with a man I more or less forced into matrimony. How dreadfully dull. But you're right that I have no desire to see harm come to Captain Akielos, let alone for him to end up dead."
"You speak quite freely of murder," Laurent pointed out.
"Only when I'm speaking to a murderer," Miss Jokaste riposted.
"I was cleared of wrongdoing."
"Oh, I would be too, if I'd killed someone. Assuming anyone even knew I was involved at all. Simple enough to cover these things up when you have a modicum of intelligence at your disposal, isn't it?"
"But you don't want to do that with Captain Akielos," Laurent reminded her. "Which must mean you genuinely care about him. Emotions are sly beasts; they'll sneak their way in despite your best intentions. Especially where a man like that is concerned."
"Speaking from experience?" Miss Jokaste asked archly.
Laurent ignored her in favour of continuing, "But you're not the kind of woman to sacrifice security, privilege and power for love alone, I think."
"Yes, I'm aware of how I'm viewed," Miss Jokaste said. "Cold and unfeeling. Of course I must be the type to prioritise security over emotion. Isn't that about the measure of it?"
"I'm sure that's the consensus," Laurent conceded. "But I personally give you more credit than that. After all, why should you have to choose when you're perfectly capable of just engineering things so that you can have it all? It wasn't their father who whispered in the solicitor's ear about Kastor's illegitimacy, was it?"
Miss Jokaste's smile was thin. "You seem to have a theory. I'm fairly certain I don't have any choice but to listen to it. At least do me the favour of making it entertaining."
"Oh, it's certainly entertaining from my perspective. I'm not so sure about for you."
Miss Jokaste crossed her arms delicately; a challenge.
Laurent was only too happy to answer it this time. "Captain Akielos seems to be under the impression that his brother attacked him out of anger over losing his fortune. But Kastor would surely have known that his best chance at a comfortable future, once he was removed from the line of inheritance, would have been to sit back and let his overly-generous brother portion off enough of his own annual income so that Kastor would probably never have felt the difference in any real way. Instead, he bit the hand that would have fed him."
"I think you're overestimating Kastor's intelligence, which has never been anything to write home about," Miss Jokaste pointed out cruelly.
"I'm sure. After all, I assume it was Kastor who was stupid enough to let the secret slip to you," Laurent said. "Though why wouldn't his tongue be unguarded around you? He was the heir to a fortune, or so you thought, so I'm sure he'd have been one of several men you'd have been stringing along to keep your options open. I imagine he was in love with you, wasn't he? Or at least possessive of you and convinced you'd be married soon enough. So why not confess about his mother. Perhaps he even introduced you to her; I can't be sure of that part since Captain Akielos never mentioned if the woman was still living. Without meaning to, he gave you the opportunity you wanted and needed. It was perfect for you. You could have your cake and eat it too. Just a sly word to the right person and suddenly the brother you actually wanted to marry was also the brother who had just become a man of significant means. Pity Captain Akielos ended up injured for it."
"Dear me," Miss Jokaste said. "You make it sound as though I were some kind of Machiavellian mastermind."
"I wouldn't go quite that far. I think you can only claim the descriptor of 'mastermind' if your plan doesn't go awry."
"Captain Akielos is alive, isn't he?" Miss Jokaste said. "I thought you, of all people, would have counted that a victory."
"But it was a near thing, wasn't it?" Laurent pointed out. "And it wasn't supposed to be. I very much doubt that it was in your plan for him to be stabbed. Perhaps you thought you had enough influence over Kastor to convince him to slink away with his tail between his legs while his brother received everything he thought had been due to him, you included. But Kastor wouldn't go quietly, would he? It had to burn him that it wasn't just his father who seemed to have chosen his brother over him, but you as well. He certainly wasn't going to let his brother have everything without a fight. So Kastor attacked him. He would have killed him too, given the chance. You had to stop him, and quickly. There were only so many means to do that at your disposal." Laurent paused for effect, then asked, "Tell me, is Kastor still alive?"
He was certain he already knew the answer. How did a lady like Miss Jokaste neutralise the threat of a man twice her size? Subterfuge, clearly. Lure him away with a promise that she'd never actually intended to leave him in the first place, take him into her bed to prove her 'unwavering devotion' to him, wait until he fell asleep afterwards, and then slit his throat while he was unaware. Nothing simpler for a woman who didn't balk in the slightest at the mention of killing a man.
Miss Jokaste's smile was sharp. "I can't imagine why you think I would know one way or the other. He'd run off to the continent last I heard."
Just as well it was so easy to cover things up when you were intelligent. Hadn't that been what she'd said?
Laurent offered a similar smile in reply. "Isn't it strange that he took off across the sea not long before you disappeared from the public eye for months on end to travel abroad yourself? Though I doubt you travelled very far at all."
"Well. This has been a charming little fairy-tale," Miss Jokaste said, too flippantly.
"Has it?" Laurent asked. "Then perhaps you can tell it to your son. Or is it a daughter?"
The reaction was slight, but obvious enough to Laurent's trained eye when he was looking for it. Until that moment, she had been varying levels of calm, composed, and even amused. There was definitely no air of humour surrounding her now.
"I can't imagine what you mean," Miss Jokaste said flatly.
"Can't you? Shall we say that I doubt your ailing father is the only family member your mother is currently caring for out in the country."
"Tread carefully, Mr. de Vere," Miss Jokaste warned. "Your secrets are just as scandalous as mine. Perhaps more so."
"I'm perfectly fine with declaring a stalemate if you are," Laurent said. "No need to destroy each other."
"Isn't there?" Miss Jokaste asked. "That entirely depends on how this conversation ends, I think."
Laurent said, "Relax. It doesn't serve me to bring harm to you. And I'd never hurt a child at all, let alone Captain Akielos's niece or nephew."
She said, "You're assuming the child is Kastor's."
Cards on the table finally, he thought. And why not? It wouldn't do her any good to continue denying it. Not with him.
"Of course I am. If there were any chance it was Captain Akielos's, he'd have married you already. And perhaps that was your intention. Perhaps you actually thought through the possibility that Kastor might leave you a little memento of your brief sojourn even before you bedded him. You might have thought to do the same with his brother, so you could pass any possible child off as his. It could have still worked out the way you wanted despite Kastor throwing a temporary wrench in your plans. But Captain Akielos was taken to Marlas Park for months on end at just the wrong time, and by the time he returned you were already 'travelling'. Far too late to sell the lie. Still. Even though he's not the father, he's the only man you can now logically treat as a viable option as far as a husband goes, because he's the only one who might accept you even with a bastard child in your arms. The child is family to him, after all. You had to bank on him feeling a sense of responsibility for it, especially since its existence came about because you were protecting him."
There was the slightest flicker in her expression.
"Oh," Laurent realised, "but he doesn't know that last part, does he?"
So Miss Jokaste had allowed Damen to believe that she'd bedded Kastor because she actually wanted to rather than forcing more guilt onto him, even though she might have been able to use that guilt to get her into the position she wanted. Laurent had to admit that particular omission elevated her in his assessment. But he still had no intention of letting Damen be pressed, subtly or not, into marrying her.
"He isn't going to marry you, I'm afraid. You should have figured that out by now. You thought you'd take the space of the season to try to divert his attention back to you, but it hasn't worked. Continuing on a path that clearly leads nowhere seems like a poor use of your time and efforts, don't you think? Better to shift courses now."
Miss Jokaste made a small noise, halfway in between a hum and a laugh. "Damen was different when he returned from Bedfordshire last year, you know." The use of his Christian name was specific. It was meant to be a barb aimed in Laurent's direction, to prove her own closeness with him, because he'd obviously given her permission to use it at some point over the years, just as he had to Laurent. Laurent had to wonder how close they'd really been back then, before Kastor and before Damen had met Laurent. He was supposed to wonder that, clearly. "I knew immediately that someone had turned his head in a way that no one, even me, had ever managed. But his interest has never remained constant for very long in the past, so I imagined that would be simple enough to recapture his attention once the initial glow of infatuation had time to fade. I assumed he would find when he saw her again in town for the season that she was no different after all than any of a hundred other ladies he'd had his flirtations with other the years. Only it wasn't a 'her' at all, was it?"
Laurent fought to show nothing of his surprise on his face. He'd expected vague insinuations, barely more explicit than what she'd levelled at him the very first time they met, but not a direct reference to it.
Miss Jokaste continued, "Not that that was a problem in itself, you understand. It makes no difference to me where he sows his oats. He can fuck as many men as he likes, or even have an entire parade of degenerates lining up to kneel for him." Miss Jokaste's prim tone was incongruous with her words. "His mother wasn't the only woman capable of being understanding of such things. In fact, I thought it might work out all the better for it. He's the type to want a family, as I'm sure you know. I can offer him that. You can't. And people are less likely to question things if he has a wife and children at home. I thought that you would be practical enough to see the benefit in that. But the poor fool's gone and fallen ridiculously in love with you, and he has neither eyes nor attention for anyone else. He wouldn't dream of treating you as his bit on the side of his marriage, even just for appearances. I can recognise a hopeless cause. But that doesn't mean I'm just going to settle for a life of poverty once my father is gone."
"No one is asking you to," countered Laurent. "In fact, I would have thought a woman like you would actually prefer financial independence over having to be beholden to a husband anyway."
Miss Jokaste narrowed her eyes thoughtfully at him. "You don't have those kinds of funds at your disposal. Your brother is the one who inherited the bulk of your family assets, from what I understand."
So she'd been asking around after him just as he had with her, it seemed. Miss Vannes was right: they were a lot alike, at least in some ways.
"True," Laurent said. "But Captain Akielos has money in abundance. I'm sure he would be more than willing to arrange for his brother's child and the child's mother to receive enough to purchase a property and invest so that you can continue to live comfortably, if you asked for that kind of assistance rather than for him to offer for your hand. And an enterprising woman like you? Well, I imagine you've a mind for things like investments. I wouldn't be surprised if you had more money to your name than Captain Akielos himself by the time your child is old enough to inherit any of it."
"You're assuming I'll be satisfied with living in social disgrace, as a woman who is known to have had a child out of wedlock, as long as I have money?"
"No, I wouldn't expect that of you. Power and privilege are as important to you as security, I should think, from what I have seen and heard of you. But luckily for you, I happen to have a particular contact who can arrange the kind of paperwork you would need to pass yourself off as, say, a widow living off money left in trust by your dearly departed husband. Perfectly respectable, as far as your new neighbours will be concerned. Of course, you'd have to go somewhere where no one already knows you for that to work. You speak French, I assume? I hear the war is over."
"Why would you organise that?" asked Miss Jokaste. "Putting the Channel between Damen and I won't mean that you get to have him, you know. I'm hardly the only thing standing in your way."
"No," Laurent agreed. "And I imagine he'll still marry one day. He'll get to have a relationship he can be open about, and children of his own who he'll adore. But in doing so, he won't be pressured into the decision by other people's actions. That's why I'm willing to arrange this; to give him the choice."
"What if I refuse this 'kind offer' of yours?"
Carelessly, Laurent said, "Well that's your prerogative, isn't it? You can certainly remain here and submit to public censure. Even if you convinced Captain Akielos to marry you, it's too late to legitimise the child. You'd just be making Captain Akielos the subject of scorn as well as yourself. The alternative allows you and your child to lead a very good and respectable life. It's not a difficult decision, is it?"
"I suppose not," Miss Jokaste said.
"Then I wish you a very prosperous carriage ride back to Falmouth. It would seem you and Captain Akielos have much to discuss during the trip. My man will send along your documents soon after you arrive back at your family's country home, I imagine."
"And I suppose I'm not to tell Damen about this little conversation?"
That was a trap if ever Laurent heard one. If he agreed she should keep it secret, that would ensure she talked. Thankfully, Laurent didn't really care either way and said so. He doubted she'd tell Damen, though. It didn't serve her for anyone to know/
All in all, the meeting was over in little over the space of time a typical social call would take, so even the servants in Miss Jokaste's family town house probably weren't aware that they'd been discussing anything of great importance.
That left the remainder of Laurent's afternoon open. The last afternoon before he and his family left town. There was no real question of how Laurent was going to spend it.
"There's no way you could convince your brothers to remain here for a few extra days?" Damen asked soon after Laurent met him.
A few extra days might feel like a stay of execution. Or, more likely, it would just feel like they were painfully drawing out the inevitable. Just like they had been already for the last couple of days, while Laurent had been waiting to hear whether the constables would continue to remain obstinately unwilling to file some paperwork.
"What reason would I give them for that?" asked Laurent.
"I'm sure you could come up with something believable," Damen said.
And take the chance of them – particularly Nicaise – thinking to question it, all for another day or two? This whole thing sometimes seemed like a sad game of risk versus reward, and the balance in this case was certainly in the wrong direction.
"The offer to visit me in Falmouth is still open, then," Damen said. "It always has been, and always will be."
"My brothers need me at home right now," Laurent said. Nicaise would be settling into an entirely new environment, and would probably have difficulty adjusting to the lack of expectation of, to put it bluntly, payment for services. Laurent was hardly about to leave Auguste to deal with that alone. Or to leave Nicaise himself without Laurent's support when he would likely need it most.
"At least tell me I'm allowed to write. I'll send as many letters as there are post carriages out of Falmouth until we can come up with some more permanent solution. We'll find a way."
"Don't," Laurent said. "Don't make me false promises."
"I'm not. I'll keep them," Damen swore.
"You can't –"
Damen interrupted Laurent by reaching out and cupping Laurent's jaw in his large hand, pressing his thumb over Laurent's lips to still them.
"We'll keep them," Damen promised.
Laurent, wide-eyed, let the silence stretch. Damen's thumb skimmed across Laurent's lips as, after several long seconds, he let his hand fall away. Laurent thought for a wild moment that Damen would lean in and chase the path of his thumb with his lips.
Doing so would technically break no laws, and yet Laurent felt it would put them perilously close to that point of no return.
Not that it felt like there was any going back at this point anyway, with Damen so insistent on making promises that Laurent wanted him to keep.
Damen didn't press, though. And Laurent, however much he might have wanted it, knew it was a fool's wish. He held himself back as well.
The rest of the afternoon passed in quiet conversation. With Damen's promise, it felt almost like just another of their afternoon get-togethers rather than the last of them.
Certainly, it was a less fraught parting than their last. Laurent was glad. He wasn't sure how he would have managed going through that a second time.
"Brought a helper along today, did you?" Lazar asked when he caught sight of Laurent and the fact that Laurent wasn't alone today.
Laurent said, "Perhaps. Or he might be a hindrance. It generally depends on what kind of mood he's in."
"Fuck off," Nicaise objected, apparently not caring in the slightest about the dozens of impressionable ears listening in, presuming they could even hear him over their own cheering and shouting. "I didn't make you bring me here, did I? Why did I have to come with you to this madhouse, anyway?" Gingerly, Nicaise pried a clinging toddler off his leg with one hand, only for another even younger girl to take the opportunity to wrap herself around the newly-vacated limb. A boy took to swinging from Nicaise's other arm like a rope. Nicaise gave Laurent a truly scathing glare.
Laurent was usually more successful than this at hiding his emotions. A grin kept sneaking across his face.
Not that Nicaise was the only one being half-swamped by the little wildlings, mind. One of the slightly older boys was trying to use his grip on Laurent's clothing to either scale his body or pull Laurent down onto the ground; Laurent couldn't be sure which. Either way, presumably he was trying to get to the hat that Laurent hadn't had the time to remove before he and Nicaise had been spotted in the doorway and virtually attacked. Indulgently, Laurent conveyed the hat from his own head to cover the boy's curls. It slipped over the boy's eyes as well, but he didn't seem to care, making sounds of triumph as he let Laurent's clothing go and ran off to show his prize to his friends. Laurent would have to recover the hat quickly unless he intended to wear it home covered in spit and dust, at the very least. Though Laurent personally wouldn't be that bothered to lose it. He had ten others just like it, after all, and none of them made him that effortlessly happy.
Perhaps it was for the best Laurent would never have children of his own, since Laurent had so little compunction when it came to rewarding misbehaviour. Adults who wilfully overstepped their bounds would be cut down to size without hesitation, and Laurent would even leave them crying in a ball in the corner if he truly was given cause. Children were different, though. Laurent could hardly imagine having to act as a harsh disciplinarian to innocent young children who only wanted attention or were acting harmlessly overexcited. Just the idea of it brought Father to mind. Or worse, Uncle.
Laurent had no interest in being anything like them, even if it meant the children (rightly) assumed that they could get away with running roughshod over him.
Lazar, as their primary carer, wasn't particularly strict either, as he claimed to prefer 'organised chaos' anyway. But that was precisely why the children liked him so well, and why they all readily followed his lead when it mattered. He might come off as more of a black sheep older brother than a parental figure, and was what Father would have called an incorrigible scoundrel, but what did that matter when he could keep them safe and make them take their baths even when they didn't want to and even help Laurent to get them to sit down and do their studies?
Though Laurent admittedly had to semi-regularly stop Lazar from instilling certain other 'necessary skills' in place of the sums and reading Laurent was trying to teach them.
"We're teaching them to write," Laurent had to remind Lazar during one of the lessons, "not how to forge."
"They're complimentary skills," Lazar said. "I can teach them at the same time."
"If I find you've turned a single one of these children to a life of crime…" He left the threat unspoken. Lazar knew him well enough by then to know what Laurent was capable of. He didn't have to explicitly spell it out.
Lazar laughed, though with a tinge of nervousness. "All right, all right. Reputable learning only. No taking apprentices. Got it."
Today's lesson was on reading, as Laurent told Nicaise.
"You're here because you need to learn as well," he pointed out. "Two birds, one stone, as they say."
"You could teach me how to read at any time without hauling me in here," Nicaise pointed out. "It's not like you don't spend half your life reading anyway." Pointedly, he added, "And writing."
Laurent carefully didn't react to that.
"I could," Laurent conceded. "But you know Auguste is out of the house today, so I'd have to have left you home alone while I was here. I know you'd have spent the day driving the servants half-mad with your destructive attempts to alleviate your boredom, and then spent the evening complaining that I left you behind. Besides, I'm sure it's good for the children to have someone closer to their own age visiting. Look how much they enjoy it."
"Maybe they do, but what about me? Who wants to spend time with a bunch of dumb little children?" Nicaise complained.
Laurent didn't bother mentioning that some of those 'little children' living at the orphanage were only a year or two shy of Nicaise's age. Prior to Laurent taking it over, the orphanage used to kick the children it housed to the streets (or covertly sell them off to coal mines or factories, Laurent thought darkly) the day they turned ten and were apparently considered fully able to survive on their own. That had only been one of the multitudes of changes Laurent had made. Even the oldest of the children who had already been at the orphanage prior to Laurent's takeover were still a year or two at least away from Laurent considering them potentially old enough to leave. Even then, Laurent insisted on personally teaching them skills to give them the best possible chance once they did go out into the world, and he fully intended to help arrange positions as servants or apprentices or any number of other occupations that Lazar assured Laurent he could sweet talk someone into offering for them before setting them loose on the world. It still wasn't a foolproof system, but they would do their best to make it work.
Laurent would have offered to do the same for Nicaise, setting him up with both skills and a position so he'd never have to worry about potentially starving on the streets again, but he knew he wouldn't have to. Auguste was very free with his finances, after all, and there were any number of family properties he'd likely be willing to sign away to support someone he cared for.
Nicaise still wasn't going to avoid learning how to read and write along with the rest, though. It would be good for him in a number of ways, Laurent decided.
The lesson didn't last overly long, since the children's attention tended to fade after an hour at most, especially with the sounds of the youngest children who weren't yet old enough for the lessons providing a distant reminder that they could be off doing something more fun than learning. Not that Laurent himself could understand how anyone could think there was much in the world that was more fun than reading, but he supposed reading was more interesting once it was about more than sounding out letters. They would get there eventually, though.
Laurent and Nicaise remained for a while after the lessons, just playing with the children. Nicaise kept complaining loudly as if it was the worst thing that had ever happened to him, but Laurent noticed that that didn't stop him from letting himself be made a part of the games.
Glancing back pointedly at the front façade of the orphanage as they finally left that afternoon, Nicaise said, "I don't know why you want to bother with all this. It must be expensive to run a place like this at all, let alone making sure they're not all kitted out in rags and are getting food other than gruel. Surely they could manage with less. I did."
Which was an example of why Laurent was so intent on providing these children with something better. Nicaise was whip-smart, yet he probably would never have ended up in a position to use that mind for anything other than devising better ways to pickpocket or scam people without Laurent and Auguste intervening to provide him with a better opportunity. It would have been an incredible waste. Much same could be said for any of the children in the orphanage. They all had their strengths. Laurent just wanted to make sure they could use them. And that they wouldn't be exploited as they did so. That shouldn't be too much to ask.
"It is a lot of money," Laurent said honestly. Not his money at the moment, granted, but one day it would be, once Laurent inherited. "It's worth it to me."
"Why? What do you want to go buying and running a house for a bunch of orphans for when you don't even have one of your own?"
That was a fair question from a boy who'd spent most of his life without the guarantee of a roof over his head, Laurent supposed.
"I do already have a house, in fact," Laurent said. "I simply won't inherit it until I'm one-and-twenty."
Nicaise's head jerked towards Laurent. "You what? That's in less than half a year!"
"So it is."
"So you're just going to, what, pack up and leave?"
"That's generally the lot of a second son, I'm afraid," said Laurent. "I'm just luckier than most in that I have options."
"But what about the orphanage?" Nicaise asked. "You'd just leave those kids?"
Even though Laurent suspected Nicaise wasn't as disdainful of the children in the orphanage as he pretended, Laurent wondered if it was really them they were talking about here at all.
"I'll still help with the orphanage. I have no intention of straying too far," Laurent said, hoping to ease Nicaise's mind. "Besides, someone has to be readily available so that Auguste can complain about your latest antics." As though Auguste honestly ever had a bad word to say about anyone, let alone Nicaise.
"Ha ha," Nicaise said dryly. More seriously, Nicaise said, "But you would miss Arles Court if you left, wouldn't you?"
"I'd miss my brothers, yes."
Nicaise grimaced, in almost the same exaggerated way he would whenever Auguste talked too effusively about whatever lady in the village was currently catching his eye. Almost. But something about it struck Laurent as different than those times. Odd, somehow.
He filed it away for later consideration.
When they arrived home, it seemed that Auguste was still away seeing to business with his solicitor, but Laurent anticipated that he would be back shortly. He hoped so. Laurent had once craved a quiet house, but these days he welcomed more of a bustle of activity, which Nicaise and Auguste were almost always guaranteed to provide. It was a nice distraction. Much like the orphanage. If nothing else, the time spent in the village kept Laurent busy. It limited the hours he would spend with his mind elsewhere. Not that his thoughts didn't sometimes stray even in the middle of a lesson, or a play session, or a meeting working through the current pressing issues with Lazar. But the children were certainly an insistent draw on his attention, and they made it easier divert his thoughts before a brief remembrance mad time to shift into an ache. He was not always so lucky at home.
Perhaps Laurent would have done better to withhold himself more during those last days in town, for now he knew more than he should about what he was missing. He recalled, every sensation crisp in his mind down to the last detail, how Damen's arms had seemed to encompass Laurent's entire body, the size difference between them feeling twice as great when Damen had held him that day in the study. The early winter days at Arles Court seemed all the colder for having to wonder if – or at least when – he might be allowed to have that again.
Simpler to distract himself than to dwell on that.
Laurent didn't usually believe in fate, but it seemed that if it existed it was on his side today, for he found the perfect distraction was already awaiting him at home. He would have barely had time to hand off his hat – if he were actually wearing one, but in the end, Laurent had decided to chance the village gossips griping about him daring to show his uncovered head outdoors rather than heartlessly snatching his hat back from sticky little fingers – before Jord presented him with a letter.
"Another one?" Nicaise asked, exasperated. He tried to snatch it before Laurent could take it from Jord's hand. Laurent was too quick, as always. Nicaise stuck out his tongue. "They'll have to cut down every tree in the country just to keep up with you if you keep this up."
True, it wasn't the first letter Laurent had received in the past five months. Not by a long stretch. Auguste seemed convinced that Laurent had his foot halfway through the church door, ready to be married. Though that was probably because Laurent had heavily implied that the letters might be coming from Miss Vannes when Auguste had asked. It wasn't a lie, precisely. He'd just allowed Auguste to believe as he liked. Auguste wouldn't give up on the idea that Laurent was enamoured with Miss Vannes, and she with him. At least his jests about the frequency with which Laurent could be seen composing his own letters were good-natured.
Nicaise was far more suspicious of the exchange of letters. Laurent had taken to hiding the letters so that they couldn't fall into curious and thieving hands. Laurent's own letters were always as casual and detached as he could make them just in case anyone, Auguste and Nicaise included, caught a glimpse of the words he was committing to paper. But Laurent didn't quite believe that he was overly successful at hiding his true meaning. His feelings bled onto the paper as if they were a wound he couldn't staunch. And Damen's return letters, though never explicit, left no doubt in Laurent's mind that he was experiencing similar difficulties. Auguste might not read too heavily into the prose, but Laurent suspected Nicaise would. Laurent didn't like to think about how Nicaise might react to that revelation, considering everything that had happened.
Laurent would normally have immediately – but trying not to seem like he was in too much of a rush for appearances' sake – disappeared off to his study to read whatever Damen had sent him. However, before he could do so, Laurent noted that although the envelope bore the usual jagged handwriting that must have made Damen's tutors cry when he was younger, it lacked the also-usual marks of having travelled by post.
"Jord," Laurent called out before the butler could disappear. "Who brought this?"
"A servant," Jord said. "I recognised him. I'm pretty sure he works up the way, at Marlas Park."
Laurent's hand reflexively clenched around the letter as his heart sped. Because it might have come from Marlas Park, but it definitely wasn't Mr. Nikandros's handwriting that had pressed 'Mr. Laurent de Vere' into the face of the envelope.
In all of the letters that had come before this one, Damen had never once mentioned the possibility… but no, of course he hadn't. Damen was the type to think it better to arrange a surprise. Laurent was almost amazed he hadn't just shown up at the door of Arles Court himself, sheepish grin in place. That, however, was thankfully the kind of gesture that even Damen must have realised would raise a few eyebrows, even Auguste's had he been home. Especially since it would be the second time this year he would have shown up at their residence unannounced.
It would be far easier to explain away leaving the house for a time than receiving a visitor, at least.
Laurent escaped to his study so that he could confirm his suspicions. He had a feeling that Nicaise's narrowed eyes were on him as he went. He almost didn't care, at that moment.
Eleven weeks, Laurent read, elated. That was how long Damen was to stay with Mr. Nikandros, across Christmas and well into the new year, almost to the end of winter. Mr. Nikandros had business elsewhere in late February once the frost had melted and travel was made simpler, Damen wrote, but until then, he was playing the part of slightly-grudging host. Laurent assumed that last part wasn't because Mr. Nikandros didn't appreciate Damen's presence – how could he, or anyone, not want Damen around – but rather because Mr. Nikandros was obviously canny enough to be aware that he probably wasn't the primary reason Damen had chosen to travel back to this part of the country for the winter. Laurent could practically feel the man's disapproval in the shadows of the words Damen had written about him.
Mr. Nikandros could disapprove all he wanted, as long as he didn't air his grievances to anyone but Damen and Laurent themselves. Or try to actually stop them. Laurent didn't think he'd do either, though. If he were going to, he'd have already done so long ago.
Laurent tried to remain casual about the whole thing. He tried not to make it too obvious that something out of the ordinary had happened. But shortly after Auguste had returned, Laurent was announcing that he was going for a ride to get some air, as if he hadn't just been out on his horse less than an hour ago. Minutes later, he was pressing his mare hard in the direction of Marlas Park.
Given an opportunity to see Damen again, Laurent couldn't stay away for any longer than absolutely necessary, it seemed. He was clearly a fool for ever thinking that he could.
So this was a bit of a bridging chapter, and now we're about to start on the home stretch, dealing solely with the time either side of Damen and Laurent's discovery way back in Chapter 1. So this chapter marks the end of our time in 1814 and 1815. From here on we should just be jumping around early 1816 (and one time in 1817), so you'll probably want to keep an eye on the month more so than the year as your reference point.
Jsyk, I don't actually intend to write anything from the two months between the end of the last chapter and the start of this one, because the only things you need to know are mentioned in this chapter anyway. Sorry if that disappoints anyone. Rest assured that it's basically much the same as what you get during the 1814 timeline, but intensified.
Mr. Nikandros clearly knew far more about what was going on between Damen and Laurent than he evidently wanted to know, to the point that he seemed to have purposely arranged for the servants to leave them entirely to their own devices and generally steer clear of them whenever Laurent was visiting Marlas Park. Yet he had ultimately issued no more than grumbling protests about Laurent continually showing up at his home for weeks and weeks on end. Though that was admittedly only to Laurent's face. Presumably, the number of times Damen had heard something to the tune of 'you need to put an end to that nonsense before you get hurt' numbered in the triple digits by now, if not quadruple.
Since it had been too cold during the majority of the winter months to venture outside for longer than the absolutely necessary travel time to get there, the usual plan for their afternoons together tended to involve curling up in front of one of Marlas Park's vast fireplaces. It was usually as uncomplicated as just reading aloud or talking or Laurent cheating outrageously at cards while Damen somehow never managed to actually catch him at it, though it was more that Damen couldn't find the proof than that he wasn't aware it was happening. Those activities were, however, sometimes punctuated by Damen clasping his larger hands over Laurent's 'for warmth', or Laurent propping his head just above Damen's knee while he read. Nothing that would get them arrested if one of the servants did wander in, certainly, but probably more than enough to set tongues wagging hard enough for the information to make it outside these walls. Laurent didn't trust the servants at Marlas Park like he did the ones at Arles Court.
Laurent cared about the latter prospect less and less, he found. He probably wouldn't care at all, if he could only be sure he could keep Auguste and Nicaise from hearing what was said.
It was finally getting warmer now, though. They could eschew their routine of the past two and a half months in favour of going out riding in the countryside instead, the way they used to in the mornings when Damen had been there the summer before last. The not-quite-springtime air was still crisp, but no longer truly biting; just enough to give Laurent a legitimate excuse for the pinkness of his cheeks when Damen commented on how much he'd missed witnessing Laurent's excellent riding form.
Laurent's pleased flush faded quickly, though, when he recalled that Damen would have to go right back to missing it again.
Along with the slight warming of the days came more easily-travelled roads, which would bring a flurry of change to Marlas Park.
In two days, Mr. Nikandros was to depart to go see to apparently important business elsewhere. Damen had told Laurent that would be happening from the start, of course, but it was seeming a lot more real now than it had eleven weeks ago.
In two days, just hours before his host would depart, Damen was also going to climb into a carriage and be whisked back to Falmouth. Again. Laurent would end up standing there uselessly watching the back of the carriage as it faded far into the distance. Again. Just as he'd done the last time Damen had departed Marlas Park. Or perhaps they would be restricted to a muted goodbye the afternoon before, for this time Laurent could hardly ride out at the crack of dawn to see his 'friend' off without fear of comment from anyone but the servants. Auguste had been highly supportive of the fact that Laurent had finally made a real friend, but even he would have to question Laurent going that far, seemingly unnecessarily. And Nicaise was already commenting on Laurent's recent 'bizarre' behaviour. The fact that Nicaise didn't seem to have already guessed the truth was probably entirely because he had never seen Damen, nor seen Laurent and Damen together. Even without that, though, Nicaise would probably find the right conclusion to leap to if Laurent acted the slightest bit more obvious than he already was.
That might be a chance Laurent would just have to take, though, for Laurent wasn't sure how he would bear knowing that he had missed that one last opportunity to see Damen before their separation.
The reminder of it all muted the mood a little on their way back to Mr. Nikandros's stables after the wind had kicked up and made the prospect of remaining outside with the sun dropping further towards the horizon into a less appetising one. Laurent suspected that Damen knew where Laurent's mind was, and either shared his melancholy or at least wanted to respect it. They didn't ride in silence, but their discussion was serious and quiet rather than, as it often was with Damen, an exchange of laughing and smiles and, yes, far-too-frequent blushes from Laurent.
They arrived back at Marlas Park to a stable that seemed to have emptied of all but the horses themselves. With the dropping temperature, Laurent envisaged the stablehands must have decided it better to retreat inside and be sent back out to deal with Damen's mount once it became a necessity than to wait for potentially hours in the cold just so that they could be there straight away when their master's guest finally returned. Whatever the reason, Laurent found he didn't mind being left alone. Or rather, alone with Damen.
Laurent had intended to head straight back to Arles Court after their ride ended, but he found himself dismounting alongside Damen anyway.
He wasn't quite ready to say goodbye, he found.
That went for more than just this evening.
He'd been trying to tell himself that it would only be a little over two months before they could see each other again. Laurent had already consented to accompany Auguste and Nicaise to town for the season, even though they and Damen would be the only things in the entire god-forsaken city in which Laurent had the slightest bit of real interest.
But it was two months apart now, then perhaps six or seven after the season ended. Four months here, nine months there. They would end up spending more time apart than together. Significantly more, even.
Just the thought of it slowly encased Laurent like a creeping dread.
"I can't do this," Laurent said, as much of a personal realisation as a statement for Damen's benefit.
"Do what?" Damen asked, wary. Perhaps he was worried Laurent would go back to trying to push him away, with the end of their time together once again imminent. As though Laurent could. He was far past that now.
"I can't say goodbye to you again and again."
Damen's worry faded into softness. "You know I don't want that either. It won't always be like this. We'll figure something out. I swear it."
In Laurent's dreams, Damen was always the one to break through the barriers Laurent had so diligently made sure they never quite overstepped. Laurent only went along with it, almost under protest.
Dreams were not the same as reality.
It was Laurent who wrapped his hand around the back of Damen's neck and pulled. Damen seemed to let himself be drawn downwards out of shock initially. His surprise gave way to understanding a split second before Laurent pressed their lips together.
It wasn't like with Aimeric. It wasn't like… with anyone else. Laurent certainly had no desire to pull away and reassert space between them. Quite the opposite. He couldn't seem to get close enough.
Damen, strong though he might be, went remarkably pliant under Laurent's attentions, as if waiting for Laurent to change his mind and pull away. After those long moments of uncertainty passed, though, Damen proved that Laurent's imaginings apparently weren't so far off after all. Damen took firm control of the kiss, and of Laurent's body.
Damen's hands bypassed Laurent's waist, where Laurent had expected them to possibly fall, in favour of the backs of Laurent's thighs. Before Laurent even realised what was going to happen, Damen hoisted Laurent upwards the better part of a foot so he no longer had to hunch down to Laurent's height. And that without breaking the kiss for even a moment. Laurent's legs and free arm wrapped instinctively around Damen to anchor himself, though he doubted Damen would have let him fall even if Laurent let go entirely. It was probably just as well Laurent's legs weren't necessary to support his weight anymore, because Laurent felt as though his knees had probably gone foolishly weak at the ridiculous show of strength. It reminded Laurent for a moment of when Damen had lifted him on the day they'd met. But there were no injuries now to hold either of them back. It was too easy to tell himself that there was nothing to hold them back, even though the distant part of his mind that was still thinking somewhat logically knew that for a lie.
The kisses' slowly increasing desperation directly mirrored Laurent's. He had to force himself not to move his body purposefully against Damen's, though surely Damen was already completely aware of Laurent's reaction to him, given how they were pressed together. Laurent made himself settle for the kissing and the closeness. Just ten minutes ago Laurent would barely have been able to conceive of thinking of kissing Damen as in any way 'settling'. It was more than he ever thought they would have.
It still wasn't enough.
Damen apparently agreed. He broke the kiss so that he could meet Laurent's gaze. "Let me." He was almost begging. "Let us have this to remember."
There was no doubt in Laurent's mind what he was asking for.
Breathless, Laurent warned, "I barely know how to say no to you anymore."
"Then don't," said Damen. "Don't say no."
Laurent was tempted. Too much so. But he unwound his limbs from Damen, and Damen clearly understood, for his disappointment was palpable as he lowered Laurent carefully back down onto his feet. Laurent's legs shook slightly under him, but he managed to steady himself well enough.
"We've already risked discovery as it is. Your host might put up with a great many things," Laurent said, "but I can't say for sure that his stablehands would feel the same if they decided to show their faces while we were… indisposed."
But it wasn't technically a 'no'. It was more like a 'not here'. God help them both.
"Don't go back to Falmouth." It came out too beseeching to really serve as the strict order Laurent had intended.
"I don't want to," Damen said. "But I can't stay here in Nikandros's absence. How would we explain it?"
Clearly, Laurent shouldn't be making such crucial decisions right then, for he found he barely even cared what it would look like, or what they might say about it. Still, he had an at least slightly better alternative to offer.
"Auguste has told me multiple times by now that I'm more than welcome to issue my own invitations to the house if I please. And he's repeatedly mentioned how glad he is about my friendship with you. It so happens that Auguste has invited quite a few of his friends to stay at Arles Court over the next few weeks for the end of winter hunt, since the foxes have been particularly bad this year and are more than abundant enough, he says, for a dozen hunters. He won't dispute it if I invite a friend of my own during that time."
At a glance, Damen would almost blend in as though he'd been one of the initial invitees as far as anyone but the de Vere family themselves were aware. It was perfectly possible to not arouse any worrying suspicions, except of course for Nicaise's ever-present wariness, during that time. Yes, more people meant a higher chance of discovery on the surface, but there wouldn't be more people in the house during all hours of the day and night. Auguste, Nicaise, and all of Auguste's guests would be out hunting during the daylight hours, while a vast array of the servants would be trailing the gentlemen throughout the hunting as well. The house would actually be quieter and emptier during those hours than Laurent could ever recall experiencing. There could be no better time, surely.
Or so Laurent was trying to convince himself. It sounded desperate even to him. But he was kind of desperate at this stage.
"I can't imagine saying no. But I don't particularly look forward to spending days having to stay away from you in favour of hunting among strangers," Damen pointed out.
"Good," Laurent said. "Neither do I. I prefer bigger game when I do hunt anyway, and Auguste knows that. He doesn't expect me to participate. So let the rest of them spend their days out chasing tails through the bushes, while in the meantime we'll have the house to ourselves. It will give us weeks of privacy to come up with something more permanent. Something that won't involve you leaving me behind, or vice versa."
Damen's lips went from an uncertain line into a full-blown smile faster than Laurent's eyes could track. He laughed almost giddily. "I can hardly believe you're serious. But of all the ways you might tease me, I know this isn't one of them. You mean it?"
There was still time to take it back. Laurent knew he probably should. But he was at his breaking point. Beyond it. Almost two years of this, and Laurent couldn't imagine even another two months of biting down on his words and feelings both, trying to hold himself at least partly in reserve from Damen when Laurent had known for some time now that it was all a façade anyway. He was fully committed already. Every word or action that said otherwise was no more than a barely-believable lie. And Laurent would lie to everyone else, even Auguste and Nicaise if necessary. But lying to Damen, even if it was only by implication or omission, was exhausting beyond measure. Too much so to sustain it any longer.
That kiss had felt like startling himself into wakefulness, finally. After having endless frustration and yearning just percolating inside him for two months now – no, for two years – the absence of those negative feelings was practically euphoric. Having gotten a taste of it, Laurent wasn't willing to easily let go of that feeling.
"It is possible, isn't it?" Laurent asked. "To keep ourselves safe without having to be apart? We'd have to be so careful. We'd need to take every possible precaution. When others are around, it would have to be like it was in town; as if we only know each other casually. But we can do that, can't we? We can at least try."
Damen cupped Laurent's cheek in his hand, not as a prelude to kissing him again, but just for the comfort of shared contact. "Of course we can," Damen promised with an absolute surety that couldn't help but be convincing. "Don't worry. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make sure we're protected."
Laurent cupped his own hand over the back of Damen's then shifted so that he could brush his lips so-briefly over Damen's palm; a silent 'thank you'. Then he let their hands both drop and stepped backwards, reaching for his horse's reins.
It was hard to pry himself away, but Laurent had to ride back to Arles Court before the air grew too chill. At least he did so with an implicit promise that he would return for Damen the next day. Laurent treated it as if it were a foregone conclusion that Auguste would agree to Laurent inviting someone to stay with them for weeks with no notice. Laurent couldn't bring himself to imagine any other scenario.
He was right about that, Laurent discovered within the hour. Laurent couldn't claim that Auguste seemed unphased by his request, since he was clearly not expecting it in the slightest, but his reaction quickly altered to being overjoyed that Laurent actually wanted to have someone to spend time with while nearly everyone else was out of the house. Laurent suspected that his brother might have been worried about what would happen when Laurent moved out of Arles Court soon after he reached his majority, and so was taking it as a good sign that Laurent was seemingly starting to open himself up to social connections.
By chance rather than by design, Nicaise was elsewhere when Laurent was discussing their prospective additional houseguest with Auguste. Probably off annoying Orlant, Laurent thought. Nicaise seemed to enjoy making a game out of it, knowing that Orlant would be unable to act on his legendarily short fuse no matter what Nicaise said unless he wanted Auguste to kick him out without references for his troubles. Laurent usually tried to stop it and otherwise distract Nicaise before it went too far, but this evening he was instead rather too busy coordinating many of the other household servants to make preparations for a guest to arrive the following day.
Laurent knew he was only putting off the inevitable by not dealing with Nicaise's response to this today. But he also didn't particularly want to spoil his mood, which was so much higher now than it had been just hours earlier. He hoped that meant that he was making the right decision here.
The following afternoon, Laurent arrived at Marlas Park with one of Auguste's carriages and two servants to load it with Damen's belongings. He was shown inside the house as per usual, but swiftly found himself alone in Mr. Nikandros's presence instead of Damen's.
"This is madness," Mr. Nikandros said. "And I think you know that."
There were a thousand things Laurent wanted to say, most of them biting comments. But whatever else he and Mr. Nikandros might privately think of each other, Laurent knew he owed this man. Mr. Nikandros had been keeping their secrets for nearly two years now. If the only way Laurent could repay that debt was by holding his tongue, he supposed he would have to do so.
"You sent him away once," Mr. Nikandros continued. "You obviously understand that it would be better if you didn't pursue this, for your own sake even if you don't care about his. So why are you letting this happen now?"
"I appreciate that you haven't told anyone what you know, and that you'll continue not to do so because you'd never do something like that to him. I'm glad he has someone like you who wants to protect him, even from himself," Laurent admitted. "But I don't answer to you. And neither does he."
Mr. Nikandros obviously didn't want to just leave it at that, but Damen's arrival, a veritable bounce in his step as he entered the room, didn't give him much choice.
Laurent would have to make sure Damen at least outwardly contained himself by the time they reached Arles Court. Not everything was different now. They still had to guard themselves wherever there would be curious eyes on them. The carriage ride would give Laurent time enough to remind Damen of that.
Laurent thought they were remarkably successful at that, actually. When they walked into Arles Court and Auguste greeted Damen with a rousing welcome and a handshake, Damen looked much as he had whenever he and Laurent had been within feet of each other in the middle of a crowd during the season in town.
Not that any of that seemed to matter to Nicaise. It wasn't clear whether Nicaise suspected the truth at that moment. What was clear from Nicaise's penetrating glare, however, was that Nicaise had had exactly the opposite reaction to meeting Damen as Laurent had.
Despite knowing Damen for only minutes, it was clear that Nicaise already absolutely despised him.
No one other than Auguste even momentarily seemed to question the fact that Laurent demanded to see 'the prisoner' before the constables could arrive to take him away from Arles Court (and from Laurent). Laurent suspected they – just as Auguste seemed to – thought he meant to get some measure of revenge for what Damen had supposedly done to him. Part of him hated them all for freely allowing him to just stroll into that section of the house despite thinking that Laurent was set on assaulting a man when he did. And he doubly hated them for presumably believing that Damen had been tied up or chained down like an animal, for there was no other way a man of Laurent's size could hope to put so much as a scratch on a former Army Captain of Damen's physical stature and strength if Laurent really had meant to 'punish' him.
And these were the people Auguste acknowledged as friends. Laurent disliked having to entertain the thought, but was it really any wonder Laurent had questioned all this time whether he should come clean to Auguste and just hope that his brother understood?
Well, Laurent had almost run out of time to continue putting that off. But he had someone else he was intent on confronting first.
Apparently someone had fetched Damen some of his clothing for decency's sake, for the sheet he'd wrapped haphazardly around himself moments before being escorted from Laurent's room had been discarded in the corner of the otherwise almost-empty room. Damen was back to more or less his usual layers, though they looked more crumpled in places than usual, as if he'd perhaps been reflexively clenching his fists in the fabric. He'd been pacing as well, from what Laurent saw in the instant before Damen turned to the opening door and spotted Laurent slipping into the room with him.
"You shouldn't be here," Damen greeted him.
"No, you shouldn't be here," Laurent said. "But as long as you are, I'm exactly where I should be."
Damen looked as though he wanted to argue against that. Apparently he thought better of it. He restrained himself in favour of reaching out for Laurent. Laurent allowed himself to sag almost bonelessly against Damen's chest and shoulders as Damen's arms circled him, holding him up apparently without effort.
"I'm sorry," Laurent breathed.
A single wooden chair was the sole piece of furniture that had been set aside in the room for Damen's use during the potential hours it might take the constables to rouse themselves in the middle of the night and come for him. Such an item could barely be called a comfort, or even a convenience, but Laurent was still grateful for it as Damen pulled Laurent down with him when he took a seat. It was a relief not to have to hold himself straight-backed, at least for a while.
There was also something to be said for the comforting familiarity of being seated on Damen's lap, his thighs either side of Damen's waist and their faces now even with each other. It was in some ways reminiscent of when Damen had boosted Laurent up to equalise their heights during their very first kiss. In other ways, the position brought to mind the times when Damen had sprawled with his back pressed to Laurent's mattress and, grinning lazily, coaxed Laurent into straddling him and doing most of the work. Damen's thumb reached up to trace gently over Laurent's cheekbone, chasing the pink of the quick blush that rose at the thought. Either way, it was associated with nothing but good memories. Laurent needed that right now.
Damen leaned in press his face into Laurent's neck. For a long moment, he simply breathed heavily, his hot breath puffing against Laurent's skin, raising goosebumps. Laurent shivered when Damen's tongue finally flicked out over Laurent's skin, repeatedly, as if memorising the taste of him along with the scent.
Laurent allowed it. More than allowed it, even though he knew he shouldn't. He should have more self-control than this. He should have learned his lesson earlier that night, if he hadn't already known it. But he just wanted Damen close to him. To have those always-comforting arms around him.
Laurent's breath escaped him in a rush when Damen's lips sealed gently over Laurent's pulse, as if he were measuring their remaining time together in the beats of Laurent's heart. Damen's lips traced patterns in the space under Laurent's jaw. Laurent arched his chest in towards Damen slightly and tilted his head back without thought, providing Damen with as much access as he might like, as long as he would continue that.
Eventually, he found it in himself to gasp, "Stop. This is hardly the time for this."
"This might be the only time," Damen murmured just an inch or so from Laurent's skin. Every puff of air seemed to engrave those words into Laurent's neck. "I don't want my last memory of us together to be about what happened earlier."
"Don't talk like that," Laurent said. "It doesn't have to be your last anything. There are still other options."
"True enough. They might not hang me after all," Damen admitted. "My sentence could just as easily be transportation off to one of the colonies. Though I can't claim I'm hoping for that."
No, Laurent thought, why would he when that would most likely be just a more drawn-out death sentence? He was more likely to die from sickness or malnutrition, or to be beaten to death by the sailors as punishment because they felt personally threatened by the nature of his 'crime', as he was to arrive safely at his destination.
Damen pressed a kiss not to Laurent's neck this time, or even to his lips, but to his cheek, stopping the path of the errant tear that had slipped from the corner of Laurent's eye unbidden. Laurent scrubbed angrily at his skin to erase the evidence of his weakness, even though it also meant erased the feeling of Damen's lips tracing over the salty trail. Damen gently took his hand to stop Laurent before he could scrape his skin raw.
"It's going to be all right."
"Shouldn't I be the one offering false reassurances in this situation?" Laurent asked.
"No. You would never do that. And that's just one of the many reasons why..."
Reasons why what, Laurent wanted to demand to know. He was almost certain he already knew the answer, though.
"How about real reassurances, then?" offered Laurent. "There's still time for you to run. I can make Orlant outside look the other way, and then get you out of here unseen."
Damen's smile was so slight that it was almost non-existent. "And have everyone wonder how and why I suddenly disappeared straight after you came to see me, and then start wondering about other things besides? What good will that do either of us? The last thing I want you is for you to incriminate yourself."
"Why shouldn't I, when this is more my fault than yours anyway? It was my brother who walked in on us and told everyone. It was my rooms, that I'd decided were secure enough to protect us. It was my decision to drag you off for some privacy while everyone else was still awake and inside the house." Laurent had thought that everyone was well-occupied enough not to miss them, and that his rooms were more than private enough and far enough away that the risk was negligible to the point of not mattering, but he should have known better. He should have predicted that Nicaise's suspicions wouldn't end with glaring and trying to insert himself into the situation in public. He should have prepared better. And he hadn't. So: "If anyone should take the punishment for this, it's me."
"That isn't true. And I'm already accused. Everyone saw what proof they needed to believe unequivocally that we'd been in bed together. This isn't a choice between you or me. This is a choice between me going to the gallows alone, as someone who supposedly forced you, or both of us going together, as equal participants. These people have an explanation that they're willing to believe. That explanation leaves you free and alive. So just let the story remain as it is now."
"Let you be branded a rapist when you've only ever shown me all the consideration in the world?" Laurent asked. "What do you take me for?"
"What do I care about what people call me now?" countered Damen. "I have no family left in England to hear the news and be ashamed of me. You'll know the truth. Nikandros will guess as well when he hears of it, though he'll likely still show up at your door to demand a pointless explanation. He probably won't even be surprised to hear it, because he's been warning me that I'm going to get myself hurt by pursuing this. In fact, he'll probably show up at the gallows just to brag that I should have listened to him."
"No, he won't."
"No, he won't," Damen agreed readily enough. "He'd have the right to do so, but he's not that cruel. I think he'll understand why I'm not defending myself against the charges, though. Sodomy is a death sentence on its own regardless, and the evidence of that is fairly irrefutable, with an eyewitness and all the witnesses after the fact. He'll realise that I'd rather be hanged alone as a rapist as well than have you suspended from the rope beside me. I wish you'd realise it as well."
"It's not that simple," Laurent said.
"It is to me. To keep you safe or to damn you? That's probably the simplest choice I've ever had to make in my life."
"There is such a thing as being too self-sacrificing, you know." Laurent pressed his hand just inches over where his own thigh was pressed, at the spot where he (intimately) knew that the scar Damen's half-brother had left behind resided. "But I suppose that you're the man that let your half-brother stab you because you didn't want to raise your sword against him. You're the man who was even considering marrying a woman just so that his child would be properly cared for. It's in your nature to be ridiculous that way."
"You knew about Miss Jokaste?" Damen asked, at least half-stunned.
"Of course I knew. Who do you think convinced her that it was in her best interests to settle for asking you to financially support her emigration to the continent rather than continuing to try to convince you to marry her?"
Perhaps Laurent should be regretting that now, given everything.
"You were jealous," Damen said. It wasn't an accusation. If anything, it sounded fond.
Laurent didn't bother to deny it. Not now. What would be the point anymore? But he did add, "And I wanted to protect you. You aren't the only one who's allowed to want to do that, you know."
Seriously, Damen said, "To want to, yes. But I need you not to actually do it. I need you to let it go.
To let him go. Laurent didn't think for a moment that he could do that. He didn't say so, however. He didn't want this to devolve into a full-blown argument. Just in case.
"I'm happy that you're going to be fine," Damen continued. As if Laurent would really be 'fine' in any sense of the word if Damen died or was sentenced to transportation. "It's the one positive thing about any of it. If you were in here with me for more than just a goodbye… if the constables were coming for you as well… I don't know how I would react. Badly. I'm sure of that much."
Maybe then he would agree to run for it, Laurent thought. He didn't say that either.
Laurent instead finally pushed himself backwards off his perch on Damen's thighs and into a standing position. He missed the contact the moment it was gone.
"Who said this was meant as a goodbye?" Laurent asked. "We promised we were done with those."
He didn't let Damen respond - it wasn't like Laurent didn't know what he would try to say anyway – before he pulled the door open and pushed himself to step out into the hallway, away from Damen.
The door fell shut behind him. Laurent told himself it wasn't a sound of finality.
He waited in the hallway just outside the room Damen was being kept in, hoping to give himself a moment to calm himself before tracking down Auguste.
Orlant, who was standing guard outside the door to make sure that their 'prisoner' wouldn't escape unnoticed, granted Laurent silence and the illusion of privacy for nearly a minute. Eventually, though, Orlant said in a low voice, "You know, there's a couple of us who are just waiting on the word, if you need help with whatever you're going to do."
Laurent looked sidelong at him. "I can't imagine what you mean," he said, his voice tight.
Orlant rolled his eyes. "Come on. We aren't stupid. The way you and he were always together last time, and picked up where you left off when he arrived back here? There's no way it was one-sided, or that he would ever have hurt you like that. I know you're going to want to get him out of this mess however you can. So, I'm telling you that if you need a hand with that, you've got several at your disposal."
It was hardly imaginable that, of all the men in the world, this rough brawler who looked on the surface like he'd never met an emotion he didn't want to punch into submission was somehow more accepting of Laurent's heart than all those self-proclaimed 'progressive' ladies and gentlemen across the house.
Then again, Orlant had put up with hours' worth of Nicaise amusing himself by flinging invective in Orlant's direction, definitely including disparaging comments about Orlant's manhood and where he liked to stick it, without ever taking a swing at the boy. So perhaps Laurent should have guessed his reaction wouldn't be so terrible.
"I haven't even spoken to Auguste yet," Laurent said. "I can't say that he wouldn't object to you assisting with such a thing. You could easily lose your position."
"I don't think so," Orlant claimed. "He doesn't seem the type. Especially when it's about you. And if he did, forget him. We'll get your buddy Lazar to scrounge us up some fake but glowing references and find another household to work in, if he's going to be like that to his own brother."
Laurent swallowed heavily. "Thank you," he said awkwardly, not entirely sure how to handle the unexpected support.
Orlant grunted instead of responding outright, as if that had already been quite a bit more sincerity than he preferred in one evening.
Laurent nodded at Orlant, an acknowledgement. Then he drew in a deep breath, as if he could suck in additional courage along with oxygen, and set out to look for Auguste so he could have the conversation he'd been avoiding for years now.
However, before Laurent could even make it out of the wing of the house that Damen was being kept in, far enough away from the other guests that they apparently felt safe from him, Laurent came up short at the sight of Nicaise, standing in the hallway, blocking Laurent's way out into the other areas of the house.
"Not now, Nicaise," Laurent said flatly. "I've already said and heard everything I can stand tonight when it comes to you."
"It can't wait," Nicaise insisted. "You need to know that you're making a mistake. Whatever you think you're going to do tonight, don't."
"You said that to me once before," Laurent noted. "Back when I didn't even know your name yet. Are you going to at least choose to elaborate this time?"
"Do I actually have to?" The words were plaintive. He looked every inch his age, and innocent because of it. It made this whole night even harder. "I don't want you to go."
Laurent narrowed his eyes in sudden understanding. "Ah. Is that what this was all really about? Not saving me from myself at all, but keeping me here by taking away my main reason to leave."
"You said, when I agreed to come with you and Auguste to the country, that I could rely on you. That you'd be there for me."
"I said we could be there for each other," Laurent corrected pointedly. It wasn't Laurent who hadn't kept up his end of that bargain.
"How were we going to do that once you were half the country away? You said you weren't going to do that. That you'd stay close enough to keep visiting the orphanage, and us, all the time. But I heard you talking to him! You said you'd changed your mind."
It took Laurent no time at all to identify the conversation Nicaise was referring to, because it had been one that had been reverberating around in Laurent's mind for days now, bringing a smile spontaneously to his face at odd moments where usually only Damen's presence could do such a thing. Nicaise had been supposed to be with the rest of them, out hunting, that day. Laurent had to wonder how many other times he'd slipped away to spy on them. He thought of how Nicaise might have actually planned this whole thing, waiting for the time when Laurent would slip up while there were others around, so he could make his accusations in a way that Laurent couldn't just deny and hush up.
Tersely, Laurent said, "Perhaps you should have made sure you eavesdropped on the entire conversation, if you were going to do so at all. But it hardly matters now, does it? You haven't left me with much of a choice."
"Yes I have," Nicaise said. "A really fucking clear one, if only you'd try to see it."
"You might think so. But there's never been another option for me," Laurent said as he pushed past Nicaise and left him behind.
There were nearly three days between Damen's arrival at Arles Court and the arrival of the first of Auguste's guests. Those days were… trying, to say the least. In more ways than one.
Getting even as much as five consecutive minutes alone with Damen during that time was a near impossibility. Auguste considered Damen a friend as well, and he of course thought nothing of spending time with them. Why not, when he had no reason to think it would possibly bother Laurent to have to 'share' Damen? It was strange, almost like they were back in town. Laurent had grown so used to having hours alone with him, with Mr. Nikandros leaving them to themselves for the most part, that it was jarring to go back to having to watch more passively than he would have liked while Damen interacted with others. It was far better than not having Damen there at all, of course. But any time Laurent was in the same room as Damen and another person, he had to constantly monitor his words and his expression and every other little detail that might give something away, which was exhausting to Laurent. It wasn't something that he was used to having to do in the privacy of his own home.
If not for the knowledge that they would shortly have the daylight hours mostly to themselves, being constantly so close and yet somehow more distant than when they'd been sleeping under different roofs would have probably driven Laurent right back to that brink he'd found himself on when Damen had been about to depart. As it was, the arrival of the hunting party – which once would have been a dreaded event, for Laurent hated when people other than Auguste, and more recently Nicaise, took over parts of the house and filled it with their inane chatter and judgmental considerations of Laurent's personality – was something that had prompted unparalleled levels of anticipation in Laurent.
He couldn't wait.
Nicaise, on the other hand, would clearly be willing to wait indefinitely for the invasion of strangers. He didn't seem at all impressed with the idea of spending day after day riding around the grounds of Arles Court and the surrounds with them all. Especially, he'd said, when Laurent wouldn't even be there as well to share in his pain. Nicaise's tone had been flippant when he'd commented on Laurent's prospective absence from the hunting, but Laurent wondered whether there was something more to it. After all, once they were separated for the majority of each day, Nicaise wouldn't be able to keep insisting on claiming every iota of Laurent's attention, as he had so far since Damen's arrival.
Case in point: Auguste was greeting his guests as they arrived and helping them settle in, while Damen, who was well-acquainted with almost all of them from their time spent in society together, had offered to help keep them all entertained. Laurent had slipped away to the library to avoid having to deal with it all until he absolutely had to. Laurent had been specifically looking to spend a quiet afternoon entirely alone, doing nothing more than reading and decompressing after several frustrating days. But Nicaise apparently had other plans, as per usual lately.
Laurent had casually draped himself over the chaise in the library, with a thick book perched on his chest. Nicaise practically knocked the book off when he flopped down beside Laurent uninvited. The chaise couldn't be considered wide by any stretch of the imagination, but somehow Nicaise managed to remain alongside Laurent without falling off the edge of it, though he had to curl into Laurent's side to avoid that fate. Even then, Laurent suspected he still only managed it because his increasingly-gangly limbs had ended up half-splayed over Laurent, anchoring him in place. It couldn't have been comfortable, but Nicaise showed no signs of wanting to shift.
At that moment, he reminded Laurent strongly of the wandering cat Laurent had brought to the house when he was young, which he'd managed to keep for an entire two months before Father realised there was a 'pest' in the house and made Laurent get rid of it (by which Father had meant to dump it back out into the cold, but Laurent had instead had Auguste ride with him into the village so Laurent could convince one of the locals to take the animal in instead). Laurent had liked that cat very much, and enjoyed its silent company, but sometimes it would plop itself down on Laurent's chest so that he couldn't read his book, or wind itself around his feet so he kept nearly tripping over and hurting himself as he tried to walk. So sometimes Laurent had really just wanted the cat to go do its own thing and leave him to do his, and the animal hadn't understood.
Nicaise understood, though. Laurent was certain of that. He was just blithely ignoring Laurent's clearly projected desire for solitude.
"Give that here. I'll read to you," Nicaise demanded. "You keep telling me I need the practice."
"Oh, you mean you actually care about bettering your skills suddenly?" Laurent countered archly. "What about the riding practice you were supposed to do yesterday?" Nicaise managed well enough on a horse at anything up to a slow trot, but he was far from comfortable at a gallop, which was what he was going to experience during the hunting. Despite having been told the importance of getting used to it in advance, Nicaise had nonetheless skived off the lesson Auguste had arranged to give him in favour of acting like Laurent's shadow all day.
"If you wanted me to practice riding, obviously you should have agreed come with us. You're a better rider than Auguste anyway."
Laurent raised an eyebrow. A compliment from Nicaise was a rare thing, even if it was only being given because it suited Nicaise's purposes. "I'm better at fine control and maximising the horse's endurance. Auguste is better at sharp bursts of speed, which is what you need to learn." Not that Auguste was much better than Laurent at anything to do with horses – not like with other things that Auguste excelled at, such as fencing, where the gap between them was much more distinct – but the point still stood.
Nicaise pulled a face. "Whatever. Starting tomorrow, I'm going to be stuck out riding a horse that's too big for me, chasing after a bunch of rabid little pests for days on end, with no real choice in the matter. The least you could do is go along with what I want today."
As if Laurent hadn't already been humouring Nicaise for days now.
It was very clear to Laurent that Nicaise was fishing for an offer to intervene on his behalf; for Laurent to explain to Auguste that Nicaise really wasn't interested in being taught to hunt, and that he should be allowed to remain behind with Laurent. Under different circumstances, Laurent might even have complied, though he wouldn't have enjoyed seeing Auguste's crestfallen face when he realised that Nicaise apparently no more shared his particular interests in physical pursuits than Laurent. As it was, though, it didn't exactly suit Laurent to have Nicaise constantly underfoot in the house alone with himself and Damen.
"You hate reading anyway," Laurent pointed out.
"I hate reading those stupid baby books you make us work through in the orphanage," Nicaise countered.
The books they used during lessons there were far more suited to Nicaise's – and the other children's – current abilities than the dense tome Laurent currently held in his hands, but Laurent knew better than to say so. Nicaise was already being irritating enough without Laurent driving him on by making him mad.
It wasn't that Laurent didn't enjoy spending time with Nicaise, of course, even when Nicaise was being a brat. But it was hard when Laurent for once had someone else whose company he wanted to be in more that Nicaise's.
Nicaise continued to stick close by Laurent's side the rest of the day as well, even into the evening once all fourteen of Auguste's guests had arrived. Laurent didn't enjoy having to play the role of gracious co-host, but it was somewhat unavoidable on their first night in the house, unless he wanted to seriously embarrass Auguste from the outset. Laurent adorned himself with his most convincing fake smile and acted like he actually desired conversation with these people more than he wanted them to get out of his house. Beside him, Nicaise's smile was decidedly less persuasive.
It didn't take a genius to realise that Nicaise was jealous of Laurent's suddenly split attention. Nor did Laurent have to use more than a tiny fraction of his intellect to come to the conclusion that it wasn't Auguste's guests about whom Nicaise was worried. In particular, every time Laurent met Damen's gaze across the room for more than a second, Nicaise (hawk-eyed as he was) almost immediately grimaced.
Laurent couldn't be sure what Nicaise knew, or thought he knew, but it was clear that he wasn't pleased by it. He didn't say anything directly about the source of his displeasure, though, even to Laurent. Laurent wasn't sure whether to find that heartening or even more worrying.
Laurent could only hope that some time apart would help Nicaise calm down about the whole thing.
Laurent woke the following morning to the distant sounds of some two dozen guests and servants clattering around the lower levels of the house, presumably getting ready to head out before the sun could do more than peek above the horizon. The sound, and what it represented, send excitement thrumming through Laurent's veins.
Soon, he told himself. Soon.
He had barely gotten up and dressed, however, before Jord – in a rush, by the look of it, for he was likely about to join the rest of them in heading off – tracked Laurent down and handed him a note.
It was typical that the very morning the house was finally going to empty out but for Laurent and Damen and those couple of the household servants who weren't required for the hunting, Laurent would receive an early morning missive from Lazar.
"I have to go straight to the orphanage to deal with a problem," Laurent informed Damen regretfully as soon as he saw him.
Damen didn't seem as disappointed by that news as Laurent might have expected (and as Laurent found himself feeling). He suggested brightly, "I could come with you."
Damen had expressed quite a bit of interest in the orphanage whenever Laurent spoke of it, just as he did with most things Laurent talked about with any degree of animation. Laurent had thought, from time to time, of inviting Damen to see the place so that he might appreciate Laurent's work, and so that the children would have another outlet for their seemingly endless need for attention. However, lately Laurent usually went to the orphanage with Nicaise. Even before Laurent had seen Nicaise's reaction to Damen with his own eyes, he'd assumed it would be a bad idea to give Nicaise cause to wonder why Laurent would invite this man to come to what was arguably the most important place in Laurent's life.
But, Laurent supposed, since Nicaise was otherwise engaged today… well. The children could always use an extra person to bestow time and attention on them, he justified.
Just as he always did unless there was a true emergency at hand, Laurent insisted on spending a few minutes with the children on arrival rather than ignoring them in favour of going straight to the office to speak with Lazar.
Despite being bombarded with excited children himself, Laurent took moments to watch Damen playing with some of the more rough-and-tumble older boys. They seemed to have taken one look at Damen, who appeared built not to break no matter what they did to him, and claimed him for themselves, like a new toy. Damen didn't seem to mind. He was currently wrestling with them, though obviously with not even close to his full strength. Each 'match' lasted a ridiculously short amount of time before Damen's opponent of the moment ended up pinned.
Between those bouts, Laurent kept catching Damen looking back at Laurent, who was himself by then playing with some of the younger children. Each time that happened, Damen's face seemed to briefly morph into a soft expression that made Laurent's heartbeat speed up. Laurent had to keep quickly clamping down on his reactions with as close to iron control as he could ever manage in Damen's presence. If there was one place he had to be careful not to show anything of his feelings, it was here. There were far too many curious eyes watching.
"You shouldn't look at me that way," Laurent warned, barely loud enough to be heard over the children's delighted exclamations. "Not here, especially. Children are perceptive. And they talk more freely than the worst society gossips you've ever met."
"Sorry," Damen said. He didn't say anything further, but Laurent could almost hear what he was thinking, because it echoed Laurent's thoughts: it was so hard not to.
Laurent finally left the children to rely on Damen and the other orphanage staff and servants so that he could see to whatever had made Lazar call him in. Once Laurent had pressed the door to the office closed behind himself and Lazar to block out some of the noise, Lazar was quick to say, "Hard to imagine anyone actually managed to injure that man."
Laurent frowned slightly. "Excuse me?"
"Greek features and skin? Holds himself like a soldier? Close enough to you to warrant an invitation here, which is no common feat? That's obviously Captain Akielos, the gentleman who stayed with you a couple of summers back because he was too hurt to leave. I figured he'd be back eventually."
"What made you think that?"
Lazar grinned. "Just a feeling."
Laurent immediately regretted asking, and certainly had no interest in pressing for a more specific answer. Not when Lazar was wearing that mischievous expression. It never boded well. So Laurent tried to focus on official business rather than continuing to play into Lazar's need to act as the local rumourmonger.
The issue Lazar had called Laurent in for – a break-in, of all things, as though there could possibly be much of worth to steal in an orphanage – was thankfully less serious than it might have been. No one had been hurt. The children had already been reassured over it, though Laurent insisted that Lazar have the staff continue to keep an eye out to make sure none of them seemed scared about it. Laurent would arrange for the glass to be repaired, and put pressure on the constables to actually investigate it rather than just writing it off as not mattering because it didn't happen in the house of a privileged family. It was simple enough to deal with, anger-inducing though it might be. So Laurent was able to return to the children, and Damen, in less than twenty minutes.
He arrived back to find Damen on the ground under a several-deep pile of children. Apparently that was one way to win a wrestling match against a superior opponent.
Laurent couldn't help it. He smiled. Once he managed to surface from under all the small, squirming bodies, Damen grinned back.
"You're good with them," Damen commented an hour later during the ride back to Arles Court. "The children, I mean. They're lucky to have you."
Damen was good with them as well, Laurent thought. It was a reminder that Damen probably wanted children himself. But Laurent wondered, after seeing him with the orphans, whether Damen might not actually be just as willing as Laurent to care instead for children he hadn't directly fathered. It was a potentially dangerous idea that opened up all manner of possibilities that Laurent hadn't ever allowed himself to really consider before. Even after acknowledging that he couldn't stand for Damen to leave him, Laurent had still assumed that there would be some time in the future where he would have to let Damen go so that Damen could have a proper life. But maybe…
His mind otherwise occupied, Laurent barely paid attention to whatever they must have discussed during the remainder of the ride. He didn't even really recall the time passing, so it was a surprise to him when he found himself in the stables about to dismount from his mare.
Damen had apparently noticed Laurent's mental absence, for when Laurent blinked and looked at him, Damen asked, "Back with us, are you?"
"Thinking," Damen supplied for him. Laurent supposed it was hardly the first time Damen had witnessed Laurent drifting off deep into thought. "About good things I hope."
"Yes," Laurent admitted. "Surprisingly good things."
"About me?" Damen teased.
No one with a modicum of perception could mistake Damen's tone as anything short of flirtation. Laurent tensed slightly, glancing around them nervously.
The stablehands were all out trailing after the hunting party for now, but this was still a public place where anyone might walk in at any moment. There were other servants still on the grounds, or one of the stablehands might have to come back to retrieve something. There was too much risk, even if it was just words that they were sharing here. Laurent might have allowed himself to forget himself momentarily the last time they'd been left alone in a set of stables, but Laurent always learned from his mistakes.
Besides, they had plenty of options for better places to hold this conversation. Or this… whatever this was.
They were finally going to have the privacy that Laurent had so wanted.
Damen followed willingly as Laurent led him back to the house. Eagerly, even. Laurent wished he could claim he didn't know what Damen thought was going to happen once they arrived there. What he himself was expecting as well. There was a mounting feeling of expectation in the air; that this was the time they'd been waiting upon for days, or even longer than that, when they could finally do as they liked without any real need to fear interruption or discovery.
They might have used this time alone to discuss their future in more frank terms than they'd been allowed to under other circumstances. Laurent could have steered Damen to somewhere secluded but still neutral, like his study, where they wouldn't be as likely to be tempted into more than they'd shared there in the past.
He directed Damen to his personal rooms instead. He could pretend all he liked, but it hadn't been just open discussion that he'd been craving for days, weeks, more. He knew Damen felt the same.
They were barely even through the door, Laurent leading the way and Damen following, before Damen's arms came up around Laurent's body from behind. One palm pressed against Laurent's chest, over his heart. The other…
The ball of Damen's hand brushed over the front of Laurent's riding pants. Laurent's breath left him in a shudder. He reached backwards to grab onto Damen's hip for support. His other hand circled up and around Damen's neck. He felt the muscles under his fingers tighten as Damen's shoulders clenched. Laurent's body, on the other hand, felt almost entirely lax. He leaned back against Damen, who seemed glad to have Laurent resting against his chest, his head lolling into the crook of Damen's neck.
Laurent arched first his chest then his hips into the twin points of stimulation as Damen's fingers moved purposefully. Damen made a pleased sound. He was probably smug that he'd managed to break Laurent's tight control so completely.
His fingers eventually shifted to flick at the flap of Laurent's buckskins, no longer content to remain above his layers.
Laurent didn't even realise he meant to speak until the word was out: "Don't…"
He wished he'd said anything but that. It was a word he was too used to speaking in such situations, again and again as if he'd expected it to suddenly be heeded. It didn't belong here, with Damen.
Damen was different. Damen, of course, did heed it. He paused, his entire body including his probing hand going utterly still. He prompted, "Don't?"
Laurent was silent for a long moment. Contemplative.
"If I asked you to stop right now, would you?" Laurent asked. His voice was smaller than he would have liked.
Damen tried to move away, presumably so that he could manoeuvre them so that he could look Laurent in the eye. Laurent clung harder to the places he was holding Damen against his back, keeping it so that Damen couldn't see his expression just then. Laurent wasn't sure he wanted Damen to know whatever Laurent's face must be saying.
"Don't ask. Just answer."
"Of course I would stop if you wanted. I'll do whatever you ask of me. Always. Don't you know that by now?"
Laurent's breath came out shuddering.
"Then don't… don't stop," he managed to get out.
He let himself be turned around, then, so that Damen could kiss him.
Laurent hadn't realised he'd still been holding anything of himself back the last – and only, until now – time this had happened. But this, now, felt more open. And not in the manner of an untreated wound, either, as it had been in the stables of Marlas Park, when he'd had too much and couldn't help but break. Laurent could feel the difference. Last time it had been the desperate act of a man grabbing onto what he couldn't bear to let go. This time he relaxed into Damen, knowing that Damen wasn't going anywhere.
Damen's hands worked at Laurent's cravat without him breaking away to look at what he was doing. Laurent did the same with Damen's jacket. It was strange to have to deal with this sort of thing himself; Laurent was used to relying on his valet. But it was worth the struggle of working those little buttons to eventually get to the point where he could peel the jacket off Damen. The shirt followed minutes later.
Laurent couldn't help himself. He had to pull away so that he could look properly. The last time he'd seen Damen bare-chested, most of Laurent's attention had been diverted to the bandage that had then been wrapped around Damen's middle. Now a scar remained in its place. It was a reminder, but not an overly distracting one. Laurent's eyes were able to slide away from it to take in the rest. And 'the rest' was certainly a lot to take in. Enough to make Laurent's breath short, if the kisses hadn't already.
Damen looked pleased with the way Laurent was staring. He was taking the time to look his fill in return. Laurent didn't think his own pale expanses of skin were much compared to Damen's defined muscles, but he supposed that between the horse riding and the recent fencing lessons with Auguste and Nicaise, he wasn't entirely without tone. Damen didn't seem disappointed, at least.
When Laurent apparently lingered too long at the stage of just looking rather than moving to divest Damen of his pants as well, Damen apparently tired of waiting for Laurent to take the initiative. Though he did project his intentions clearly and move carefully enough to give Laurent the option of stepping backwards out of his reach.
Laurent remained in place. His own hands even reached out.
When he stepped free of the last of his clothing, Laurent found himself gently being pressed backwards. Laurent let himself fall onto his mattress. Damen's gaze suggested it was at least an attractive sprawl. Even on complete display like that, Laurent somehow still didn't feel overexposed. Or rather, Damen didn't make him feel that way.
Damen knelt on the mattress in the space between Laurent's spread knees and leaned forward to bracket Laurent's hips with his hands, effectively trapping him in place.
It made Laurent pause in place, uncertain. It wasn't that he minded Damen taking charge like that. More than he'd assumed he would, and was now finding that he'd been wrong. He wasn't sure what to do with that information. On the very rare occasions when he'd allowed himself to think of this playing out in reality, Laurent had thought that he would want to be the one in control. Fully so. That he would need to be able to moderate what happened so that his boundaries couldn't be crossed. But now that they were here, in this position, Laurent found himself unsure of how he wanted to proceed. For all that he technically knew what to do, the idea of just replaying actions from long ago wasn't appealing.
Damen must have grown concerned with Laurent's sudden shift in responsiveness, for he asked, "Is this the first time you've…"
"No." Laurent wished it could have been. He wished Damen's were the only hands that had ever touched him; that each swipe of his hands wasn't tracing the path of a much less welcome memory. But those hands were chasing those memories away with their touch, Laurent forcibly chose to think of it. Laurent couldn't change the past, but he could focus on the new memories instead. "And you?"
"Many things about this experience are new to me," Damen said. "But not the act itself."
Laurent wondered about that. Briefly thought about Mr. Nikandros, who had seemed to realise from the start what was happening between Damen and Laurent even though most gentlemen wouldn't have even thought to consider the possibility of two men together without some more obvious indicator. But then Laurent was quickly distracted from those thoughts, because Damen shifted his hand to run it down over Laurent's thigh, a strangely soothing motion.
"What do you want?" Damen asked. He was willing to leave it up to Laurent to decide, Laurent realised.
Laurent might not know the specifics of what he would like, but he did know one unassailable fact. The rest he supposed they could work out together.
Laurent answered: "You."
Sorry for ending it there. ;)
It took over a minute of knocking, but the door of the orphanage finally creaked open slightly.
As expected, the suspicious eyes that peeked out through the sliver between the door and doorframe belonged to Lazar. In the dark, Laurent could only barely tell that by the light of the single candle that Lazar held up so that he could identify Laurent in turn. Laurent would bet that, behind the barrier provided by the door, Lazar had a knife in his other hand. It probably would have been a pistol instead if Laurent hadn't refused to allow loaded firearms to be kept in the same building as so many children who were too curious for their own good.
The second Lazar saw it was Laurent, the tension eased from his face and the door swung the rest of the way open.
"I wasn't expecting you to show up until the early hours," Lazar said.
"I'm not here for orphanage business."
"Oh, I know. There was a bit of a commotion earlier just down the road. Apparently, a certain gentleman was fetched from up your way by two constables who were very unhappy to be pulled from their beds and didn't mind loudly making it known. I figured you'd be by trying to sort it soon enough. But you're not going to get anywhere with them tonight. They're probably back in their own homes sleeping now that he's been locked up for the night."
"I'm counting on it."
It took Lazar barely a moment to catch Laurent's meaning. "Ah. Not going to wait to see if you can talk him out of it, hey?"
Laurent shook his head. "He'll have confessed his 'crime' to the constables before they even had time to ask him a question to keep them from also having time to wonder about anyone's involvement but his own. He doesn't know how to hold his tongue, even when his life depends on it. There will be no talking his way out of this, no matter how adept or morally-ambiguous the lawyer may be."
"Then I suppose you must be here looking for some nice little fake identity documents good enough to get across the channel and set up on the continent, where no one will be looking for an absconder."
"If you don't mind," Laurent said, in a way that really meant 'and even if you do'.
It was certainly the hope that no one would go to the effort of looking in the first place. But Laurent had every intention of making it as difficult as possible for Damen to be tracked and recaptured while abroad if someone decided it was worth looking for him to make an example of him. Fresh documents under a different name were the most obvious step, which Lazar thankfully seemed to have grasped. Well, Laurent supposed, why wouldn't he have when this was hardly Lazar's first time setting someone up like this? Laurent doubted it was even the first time he'd done so for someone on the run from the law. Lazar's scruples were... flexible, which was why he'd always been so useful to Laurent.
"All right," Lazar said as he crossed the room towards his office, while Laurent followed. "I figure it should take maybe an hour total; twenty minutes each to make believable papers, plus time for the ink to dry enough that they won't be ruined the second they're put in your pocket."
"Twenty minutes 'each'?" Laurent repeated, questioning.
"Well yeah. For both him and you, obviously."
They really had been more obvious than Laurent had hoped, apparently. Lazar seemed to be in no doubt that of course Laurent was going to run away with Damen once he freed him. And yet still Laurent said, "There's no need for fake documents for myself. I only need his. That should speed things along, shouldn't it?"
Lazar frowned. "Are you sure?"
"Don't worry about it," said Laurent. "I have a plan."
Lazar shrugged. "It's your decision, I guess." He sat down and his desk and lit a few additional candles so that he could get to work.
Laurent's next stop, while he was awaiting the completion of Lazar's task, was Mr. Paschal's house. He was clear across town, but he would still be a better option than any other prospects when it came to this, Laurent thought. Dealing with both the injuries he and Damen had sustained when they'd first met, as well as the issues at the orphanage, had taught Laurent many things about the medical practices of this town. Of the few physicians, surgeons and apothecaries who were local, Mr. Paschal was the only one who didn't appear to be either a hack or an elitist who refused to deal with any problem that didn't promise a bump to his reputation among the wealthy families in the community. He was therefore the only one Laurent might be able to convince to help him without telling anyone he'd seen Laurent tonight.
If nothing else, Laurent had access to a letter addressed to this very man detailing a written confession of his brother's primary role in bringing about the death of Laurent's father. Laurent had long since determined that the killer himself had passed on – killed by Govart, he had to assume, in order for Govart to have got the letter before it could be sent – but Laurent assumed Mr. Paschal would want to protect his brother's memory and his own name. Laurent wasn't above a little blackmail to get what he needed, if it came to that.
Laurent didn't think it would come to that, though. He thought he was fairly apt at reading people, in general, and Mr. Paschal struck him as the kind of man to whom the concept of confidentiality really meant something.
"I require your assistance," Laurent said when the man opened his door, looking bleary.
Mr. Paschal blinked slowly, as if he suspected he was dreaming up Laurent's appearance at his door so late. "Mr. de Vere? Are you injured?"
"No," Laurent said. "But I require something that I believe you'll have in your possession."
Mr. Paschal frowned but allowed Laurent through the door so that he could hear his explanation and his request.
A little over half an hour later, Laurent was back at the orphanage and being handed a small parcel of papers by Lazar. Laurent didn't even bother checking them. Even when it came to something this important, Laurent trusted Lazar.
"There's a man named Pallas who works at the docks up in Dover," said Lazar just before Laurent left. "He's… sympathetic to situations like yours, shall we say. If you track him down and tell him Lazar sent you, he'll set you up with a ship that won't ask any questions and will ask a relatively fair price for their services and silence. Up to you what you arrange on the other end of things, though. I haven't got particularly strong contacts on the continent these days. Ran into a bit of trouble a while back and had to cut ties, you know."
Laurent said, "The other side won't be a problem."
"Yeah, you always were resourceful, from what I saw with this place. Just so you know, you don't have to worry about the children, either," Lazar said. "They'll miss your visits, but you've got a good system up and running here by now. Assuming the bills will still get paid to keep the place afloat in the first place, I'll make sure everything keeps running smoothly."
Even if things had gone far worse, and Auguste had been disgusted by Laurent's actions and come to hate him, Auguste was hardly the type to have abandoned innocent children out of spite just because the orphanage had been Laurent's idea. "You'll be funded, don't worry."
"Safe journeys," Lazar said as they parted, thinking that would be the last time they would see each other.
The local lock-up where Damen had been brought was, as Lazar had pointed out, so close to the orphanage that the sound of Damen's arrival had carried the distance. So it was a matter of less than a minute to creep from the orphanage to the back side of the secured building. Orlant and Jord were already standing under a particular barred window, while Rochert was digging through a bag that seemed to be filled with metal – tools, presumably – clearly trying to be careful enough to make little noise.
Jord spotted Laurent first as he silently approached. "Huet's taken your horse along with an extra one for him to the south-east corner of the village. The animals are already carrying all the belongings you wanted to be packed up," he said quietly.
It was strange to imagine at least four of Auguste's servants volunteering to help him like this, under these circumstances. He'd known most of them for the better part of his life, yes. And for several years running after his parents passed, they had been his only company in Arles Court for months at a time. But he hadn't imagined their loyalty would stretch far enough to not only ignore Laurent's crime, but to collaborate with him in committing a different one as well.
He wasn't quite selfless enough to suggest to them that they were risking more than they should on his behalf, though. He could only be grateful that they were. He couldn't have done this alone.
The window was low enough that even Laurent, as the shortest man present, could comfortably step up to the bars and peer through. At the moment Laurent saw him, Damen had looked torn, as though he didn't know whether or not to be glad or not that there were men who were about to attempt to illegally break him free of his confinement. Spotting Laurent, though, seemed to decide him.
"Go home," Damen demanded in a harsh whisper. "I told you, I don't want you to end up in here with me."
"The point is to get you out here with me, actually," Laurent said flippantly. He looked to Rochert, who was wielding a saw in one hand and a pry bar in the other, and nodded, as much a silent entreaty to ignore Damen's protests as a request to start their work.
"You're going to be caught," Damen said. And he might be correct, Laurent swiftly determined, for the sawing was loud and slow. It was making a dent on the metal, but not cutting the whole way through quickly enough for Laurent's liking, considering the attention he expected the noise would soon draw down on them.
"If you're worried for me, perhaps you would do better to lend a hand to speed things along," Laurent suggested.
Damen gritted his teeth, as if having to bite back unhappy words, but reached forward all the same.
Some combination of the weakening of the metal, the levering force of the pry bar, and – most impressively, as far as Laurent was concerned – Damen's brute strength pulling from the other side – resulted in four of the five bars being ripped away. Despite Damen's prodigious size, it was a large enough gap for him to hoist himself through, though he had to be careful not to cut himself on the jagged metal as he did so.
It was an effort for Laurent to restrain his immediate desire to pushing himself into Damen's arms, relieved, the moment Damen was free, and nothing stood between them. Laurent wasn't entirely sure how far the other men's forbearance for the nature of their relationship went, however. And they also had more pressing matters to attend to.
"As we talked about," Laurent instructed Orlant. "Hide until it's clear, then run. Be careful."
"We aren't going with them?" Damen asked as he watched the other three men scatter. Then his attention was drawn back to Laurent as Laurent first pulled his hat down almost over his eyes, obscuring his more distinctive features from view, then lit a candle and set it in the sill of the ruined window of what had been Damen's cell, illuminating both the signs of the break-in and his and Damen's silhouettes.
"We're taking a different path," said Laurent.
"You're drawing attention to us," Damen said. Laurent wasn't sure whether he meant it as a warning or a realisation.
"I owe the men who helped us a debt, and I won't repay it by allowing them to get caught," Laurent explained. "Better to draw all eyes away from them so they can get away cleanly and quietly. Besides, we could use a little misdirection, because otherwise they might guess which direction you'll immediately head."
"That isn't worth the chance that they're going to see you," Damen complained.
"In this light? All they're going to see is your eye-catchingly massive body and the shadow of someone a lot less distinctive beside you. No one will know it's me."
Damen said, "That only remains true as long as we aren't caught."
"We won't be," Laurent swore. "Not again."
The candle's flame had been burning for less than half a minute before the first shout went up, followed by others.
"Come on," Laurent said. "We have to stay far enough ahead of them to eventually lose them."
The noises from behind them, and the occasional glimpse Laurent got when he glanced back, suggested they were being followed en masse, just as he wanted. It was simple enough, though, to lose them in the winding streets once Laurent believed that Orlant, Jord and Rochert would have had a chance to get out of there. They changed directions entirely, and managed to avoid the people rushing after them as they almost doubled back the way they came, less purposely obtrusive this time.
There was no sign, visual or verbal, of anyone nearby when Laurent was taking the reins of his horse from Huet's patiently-waiting hands. That should mean they had some time before they were once again being pursued in the right direction, assuming the constables would predict where they were heading. They rode hard to hopefully widen the gap.
Though Laurent thought that the constables probably wouldn't guess their exact destination. At least not soon enough to stop them.
Even Damen didn't guess it, apparently, for he said, "We're not going straight back to Arles Court, surely?"
Laurent scoffed, "What do you take me for?"
It wasn't until they veered off that Damen seemed to figure out Laurent's plan.
With Mr. Nikandros out of town and having no way of learning about his friend's plight so quickly, it was unlikely that any suspicion would fall on Marlas Park at all, and certainly not initially. Even if it did, however – if the constables finally came to the conclusion, rightly, that Damen was the kind of man who might have left a positive enough impression on the house's servants during the months he'd stayed there that they might want to help him even without their master's direct orders telling them to do so – then any servants who were missing when the constables arrived to look into the possibility could be easily written off as just being among those servants who were travelling alongside Mr. Nikandros.
When they pulled up outside the house and dismounted, Laurent silently handed Damen a flask so that he could finally rehydrate after the long hours of being imprisoned and then running around and riding without pause. Meanwhile, Laurent himself went to knock on the door. It took some time to get an answer, not surprisingly. The steward, when he was called to the door by the butler, seemed alarmed to receive a visit at such an hour. However, he acted quickly enough, and without question, when Laurent informed him that Captain Akielos needed urgent assistance.
"Of course," the steward said, as if there were no question. Just as Laurent had thought – or at least hoped – he would. His job was to look after Mr. Nikandros's interests in his absence. There could be no servant at Marlas Park who wasn't aware that Mr. Nikandros would have done whatever it took to help his friend if he'd been there himself. They would be praised when Mr. Nikandros found out. It was only Laurent the man would doubtless be cursing over this whole fiasco. And perhaps Damen as well, but less vehemently, no doubt.
While a carriage and horses were prepared, and the servant and who would drive it roused from his bed and prepared as well, Laurent removed the document Lazar had given him for Damen and placed it in one of the bags that was about to be packed into the carriage.
Damen eyed that bag suspiciously, obviously having caught at least a glimpse of the assortment of money and valuables held inside. It was no small amount of transportable wealth. Enough to set up a new, relatively comfortable life, much the way Laurent knew Damen had done for Miss Jokaste and her child not so long ago.
"Did you rob a bank on your way to break me out of prison?" Damen asked, sounding like he was only half-joking.
"Perhaps I should have. I might as well fully embrace the life of crime at this point," Laurent said, amused. "But no, this is Auguste's stash."
Damen looked troubled by that. "You stole from your own brother?"
Laurent gave him an unimpressed look. "I'm willing to do a great many things for you, but that isn't one of them. He gave it to me."
"Knowing what you would do with it?"
Damen said, "You have so many good people in your life who are willing to support you, it seems. It's a pity to leave all that behind. I'm sorry."
Laurent thought of Mr. Nikandros and his staff. It seemed Laurent wasn't the only one who could claim that. But there was a difference.
Laurent smiled sadly. "I'm not going anywhere."
It took Damen a long time to reply to that, as if he had trouble processing it. Eventually: "...What?"
Damen blinked heavily. Then again, even slower. Finally.
It had taken longer than Laurent had thought. He'd started to worry he'd done it wrong, and that this wasn't going to work out after all. Laurent had mentioned the dose would be for a large man, but he hadn't quite dared admit it was for Damen in particular for fear of incriminating himself to Mr. Paschal, so perhaps the man had underestimated quite what Laurent meant by 'large' when suggesting the dosage Laurent should use. It seemed it was still going to be enough, though.
"You might want to sit down," Laurent advised him.
Damen seemed to have trouble turning his full attention to Laurent to question him about what he meant about that. He staggered slightly, grabbing onto the side of the carriage.
"Before you fall down and hurt yourself," Laurent clarified.
"What have you done?" Damen half-slurred. He looked to the empty flask still in his hand. He flung it aside, but clumsily, and too late.
"I wish it didn't have to be this way. But you're so worried about me being caught and punished that I knew you wouldn't just leave without me by choice. So I thought I ought to arrange a little insurance."
"I have to make sure everyone is going to be safe. You understand, don't you? Or at least I hope you will when you can think more clearly. If I disappear along with you, everyone will know I was the one to help you. And they'll know I couldn't have done it alone. Auguste can't lie convincingly to small children who don't know any better, let alone to constables who are actively looking for signs of guilt. The servants who helped are probably no more skilled in that respect. I have to be there to protect them. To make sure that even if anyone suspects I might have helped you, there'll be no proof of it. If all goes to plan and I've put my faith in the right people, no one will even be able to prove I wasn't home at Arles Court all night. And just so you know, you'd only be putting me in more risk if you tried to come back once you wake."
Laurent helped ease Damen downwards as he went shakily to his knees, and then the rest of the way. Laurent scooped his hand around Damen's skull so that it was pillowed when it came to rest against the ground.
"There's a man at the port named Pallas. Tell him Lazar sent you and he'll be discreet and helpful, I'm told. And I understand Miss Jokaste has established herself in a house in Paris," Laurent said. "I'm sure you can find your way there easily enough once you land."
Damen made a noise, hopefully to acknowledge he had heard, though Laurent couldn't honestly begin to guess whether it was meant to be agreement or not. Then his eyes slid shut.
Laurent ran his fingers around through Damen's curls, pushing them back from his face. He wished he could press a quick kiss to Damen's forehead, but there were multiple men buzzing around, and Laurent doubted most of them were as permissive as the master of Marlas Park had always ultimately seemed to be, despite his protests, when it came to this.
"Is he all right?" the steward called out. "Should I be sending for a physician?"
"He's just drugged," Laurent said, as if that wasn't out of the norm in the least. "He might feel sick when he wakes, but otherwise he'll be fine."
The steward seemed no less alarmed by that, but at least he didn't question it when Laurent directed two equally-perturbed servants to load Damen into the carriage. They struggled with the bulk of him, but managed the task well enough in the end.
"Make sure he makes it to the docks at Dover as quickly as possible," Laurent said. "And I'm sure you all understand that if anyone comes asking, this never happened."
The steward answered in the affirmative on behalf of all of them. Laurent hoped they really were intelligent enough that he wouldn't need to worry about them talking. Loyalty aside, they were all complicit now as well. It wouldn't serve them to incriminate themselves. Laurent had little choice at this point other than to rely on that.
Dark as it was, with dawn still hours away, it wouldn't have taken the carriage long to disappear from sight once it started moving. Laurent still didn't wait to see. Partly because he knew he needed to get home to Arles Court as quickly as possible in case the constables came knocking, and partly because he just didn't want to have to watch Damen go.
All of this had happened because Laurent had been trying to avoid having to watch Damen disappear in a carriage without him, knowing that they would be separated. Perhaps Laurent should have let him go weeks ago. Then at least Damen wouldn't have lost practically everything.
When Laurent finally arrived back at Arles Court, with the second now-riderless horse trailing a little behind him, its reins secured to his own mount, it was to find that Orlant had apparently waited for Laurent in the stables. He had probably stayed there to make sure none of the uninvolved servants were wandering around when Laurent arrived as much as to assure Laurent that the four servants that had been part of it had all made it back without being caught. Laurent was grateful for both of those things. The fewer people who knew about this – no matter how loyal they might be – the better.
Orlant also guided Laurent into the house through one of the lesser-used servants' entrances so that his arrival wouldn't be noticed. Laurent arrived back to his room unseen, but that didn't last once he opened the door.
Nicaise was sitting on his bed, Laurent's pillow pulled to his chest. His eyes went wide, as though he'd seen a ghost, when Laurent appeared.
"You came back!" Nicaise exclaimed, shocked but clearly happy, as he leapt to his feet. Laurent held him back from trying to initiate contact with a gesture, his hand outstretched almost defensively. Laurent was barely holding himself together as it was. The last thing he needed was to have to deal with Nicaise yet again tonight. Especially now, when he was physically and emotionally exhausted.
Part of Laurent would have preferred to just turn around and walk away, but it particularly grated on Laurent that Nicaise looked so satisfied that Laurent was here now. That he was clearly thinking that he'd been successful in his endeavour to get Laurent to stick around after all.
"I came back for now," Laurent corrected flatly. "I reach my majority in two months. I'll inherit property and an income of my own, and enough time will have passed that by then this should all have died down and it won't seem like I'm running away. Once that happens, I'm leaving this house."
"Even now?" Nicaise asked. He no longer looked pleased.
"Especially now," Laurent said. "You can't think things could just remain the same after what you did."
"I already told you why I had to," Nicaise said, as if he still believed it was defensible.
"Regardless of why you think you did it…" Laurent sighed. "You know, really caring about someone means wanting him to be happy, and trying to do whatever it takes to make that happen, even if it means you can't be happy along with him. It's certainly not about actively keeping him from what he wants or needs just because that will take him from you. I hope one day you understand the difference."
"And what, you think he cared about you like that, then? He left you behind!"
"No," Laurent said, "he really didn't. And even if he had, rubbing that in my face isn't going to make you look better by comparison, I'm afraid."
Laurent turned and left before Nicaise could try to pointlessly continue the argument. He didn't want to hear it right then. He couldn't.
Since Nicaise had apparently commandeered Laurent's room, and all the guest rooms that were currently habitable – apart from Damen's, which Laurent could hardly spend the night in for obvious reasons – were being used by the actual guests, that left Laurent with only one place he could stay the night without anyone knowing to question it.
It was clear from Auguste's expression when Laurent appeared at his door that he hadn't guessed that Laurent intended to return either. "Did it not work?"
"It worked exactly as I intended," Laurent said tiredly.
"Can I stay with you tonight?" Laurent asked, just the way he had countless times when they'd been younger.
Auguste pushed the door open wider and stood aside, a silent invitation. It was perhaps also an acknowledgement, Laurent thought, that things were not so very different between them than they used to be, despite whatever difficulties Auguste might have with fully grasping the information he'd learned about Laurent tonight.
At least one thing about Laurent's life apparently hadn't altered irrevocably tonight. The rest…
After that night, Laurent had to pretend that he knew nothing about what had happened with 'the escaped prisoner'. It wasn't actually that difficult to be convincing, because Laurent did somehow feel like he was in the dark. The not knowing for sure that Damen had made it to France unscathed was almost comparable to what Laurent had imagined it would be like on his end if Damen were transported as punishment. Except that at least this way Laurent could console himself with the strong hope that, assuming nothing had gone wrong, Damen had a decent life awaiting him on the other end. And that he wasn't halfway across the world, definitely out of Laurent's reach forever.
Eventually, after three weeks with no word, Jord approached Laurent one afternoon with a letter in his hand, looking strangely eager. Laurent knew why the moment he saw the envelope. Jord seemed to have recognised the handwriting just as Laurent had.
Carefully, making sure his hand wasn't shaking in the slightest as a visible show of his excitement, Laurent held his hand out.
Except for the postmark being different, it looked just the same on the outside as any of the letters Laurent had received between summer and winter the previous year. Where all of those letters had been long and sometimes rambling accounts of everything and nothing of great consequence, though, this letter only held two words inside:
The servants had long since learned not to disturb Laurent when he was holed up in the library unless it was regarding some urgent matter. With most of the servants out of the house until the afternoon anyway, it was doubly unlikely they would be disturbed there. And the door to the library was shut and locked, so they would have the warning of a knock on the wood and at least a few seconds to make themselves presentable before answering the door.
Even so, unlike Laurent's room, the library wasn't in a particularly isolated area of the house, so they had to be careful of what might be overheard. Generally, that wasn't a problem, since they really did spend most of their time in there just reading to each other, or talking about things that, out of context, weren't in the least incriminating. But today Damen, laying on the chaise that Laurent preferred, had pulled Laurent down on top of him when Laurent had complained that his usual spot was taken. A peal of laughter had been shocked out of Laurent, which only grew louder when Damen declared their positions an 'ingenious solution', as if it had been anything more than a completely transparent attempt to get Laurent to cuddle up to him. Any servant who heard that uncharacteristic laughter would have to wonder what could possibly be going on in there, for not even Auguste and Nicaise made Laurent react with such open delight.
At least the cause was actually relatively innocent, as much as Laurent being scandalously plastered over Damen possibly could be. They were fully clothed, for one thing. That had become a rarity whenever they were alone lately.
At that point, Laurent should probably have denied Damen his poorly engineered triumph, but instead he'd settled himself into the dips of Damen's body and relaxed against him. Damen would probably have crushed Laurent had their positions been reversed, but Damen gave no impression of discomfort at having the majority of Laurent's weight pressing down on him. For Laurent's part, he could somehow hardly recall the last time he'd been so comfortable. That might have had something to do with Damen radiating just the right amount of warmth to combat the still-crisp late winter air.
Now, an hour later, Laurent's head was resting on Damen's chest while it rose and fell with Damen's breaths as he read Homer aloud to Laurent. The choice of book actually hadn't surprised Laurent much, as he'd long since learned that Damen had a certain fondness for epic tales, though he probably would have preferred them to be presented to him in a play or a song over having to read it in a book, given the choice. Laurent also suspected Damen liked to show off his fluency and near-authentic Greek accent because he liked to remind Laurent occasionally – usually after Laurent made some reference to Damen's too-heavy focus on physical pursuits – that actually, Damen equalled or outstripped Laurent in certain other areas as well. Laurent's tutors had focused more on other languages, so he couldn't quite measure up to Damen's easiness with the language.
He had learned Greek well enough to follow along with the story, if he chose, though. Instead, Laurent was barely paying attention. He would have claimed, if asked, that it was the dual input from Damen's steady heartbeat in one ear and Damen's voice in the other that was lulling him into a daze. In reality, the bigger culprit was more likely the ongoing string of nights they'd filled with things other than sleep, determined to make up for lost time.
Laurent watched absently as Damen trailed the index fingertip of the hand not holding the book repeatedly across Laurent's upper arm. Laurent blamed his tiredness for the fact that it took him a long while to notice that Damen's reading had lapsed into a seemingly thoughtful silence. Laurent blamed Damen's handwriting – apparently bad in every language – for it taking him just as long to recognise that Damen was tracing an actual pattern against Laurent's jacket.
"Is that Greek?" Laurent asked.
"I've been reading to you for over an hour and you're only just now figuring this out?"
Damen was chuckling deeply. The vibrations of it under Laurent's head were strange but pleasant, almost like a cat's contented purr. Laurent lifted his head, though not to escape that feeling, but rather to deliver an unimpressed look towards Damen's face.
"I meant what you're writing."
"Oh. Yes, I suppose it was Greek."
"You suppose?" Laurent repeated disbelievingly. He'd only been mildly intrigued before, but now Damen's sudden reticence had managed to pique his full interest. "It was something embarrassing, wasn't it?"
"It was nothing, really. Just names of places I wanted to go to someday. My name, as well. And yours, though it's hard to know what your name would be in Greek. Lauron, I suppose? Laurentius?"
Laurent's laughter was back again, though quieter this time. "Stop. That's dreadful. And I imagine you were drawing those names in the centre of a heart like a ten-year-old girl dreaming of meeting a wealthy duke who would fall in love with her once she debuted in society."
"I was not!" Damen said, affronted.
"The gentleman doth protest too much."
"Your so-called-Greek pronunciation of my name is terrible," Laurent countered. "Laurentius. Honestly. Why would you even get that in your head? Are you picturing me as one of Homer's characters? I don't think I fit his warrior archetype."
"You could be if you wanted to, I'm sure," Damen said. "Your brother brags about your fencing abilities to me, you know."
"He's being kind. I don't practice enough to be really proficient like he is." Like Damen was, Laurent heard, though he still had yet to see for himself. Perhaps he could convince Auguste and Damen to duel, with Laurent serving as their audience, once Auguste's other guests departed. Presuming Damen was still at Arles Court at that point, though Laurent didn't like to think about what the alternative to that would be.
"I could practice with you, if you liked," Damen offered. "But I wasn't picturing putting a sword in your hand and shipping you off to battle, actually. I was just thinking… You know I never thought that I would inherit my father's wealth. I thought that, once my father passed, I wouldn't have anything tying me here until I got married. So I had it in my head that I would just travel for a while after I left the Army, before settling down. I have family in Greece on my mother's side who I'm led to believe would happily take me in for a time, if for no other reason than so they can chide me over my failure to follow the traditions and that English tinge to my Greek accent. And I could have visited other places along the way easily enough as well. The Army wasn't quite the grand adventure I'd been picturing as a boy, true, but I thought I'd get to have that adventure one day regardless. But when I inherited all the property, I thought that was the end of that; I had responsibilities now. But more recently, I've honestly started to think my steward prefers to be left alone to get on with managing things himself. A few signatures every now and then and he's kicking me back out of my own office, as if I just get in the way. Not that I'm complaining, if it means that I can move around as I please. That being the case, the income only makes the option of travelling easier, really. But I find I'm not really interested in doing it alone anymore."
Laurent pushed himself up until he was sitting back on his heels, looking down seriously at Damen. "Did you just invite me to travel the world with you?"
He expected Damen to laugh about Laurent misinterpreting his meaning. Instead, he was apparently serious. "Not the whole world, obviously. And it doesn't have to be now, even. Just someday. I've never been further away than Spain, and even then, only in uniform. I'd like to see more, with you."
Laurent found he didn't quite know what to say to that initially.
For all that they'd talked about not saying goodbye, and doing whatever it took to make this work somehow, nothing spoken between them before had ever implied such permanence or seriousness as the idea that they would engage in some large undertaking together 'someday' in the future.
Laurent wanted to see this as a durable and immutable thing; to have it not even be in question that they would be in a position to travel the continent together years from now. He wanted it far more than he knew he rightly should, all things considered.
As he let Damen's words, and his earnest expression, process in his mind, Laurent found himself saying, "There's a place in the south of France that my family used to visit when I was a boy. I have a lot of good memories of myself and Auguste, and even of my mother, from the weeks we would spend there. I wouldn't mind visiting there again, with you. On the way to Greece, or wherever else you want to go. If you'd like."
Damen's grin was at least halfway to blinding, but Laurent didn't look away even so.
And until then? Laurent's mind was suddenly racing with options he hadn't fully allowed himself to consider before.
"I always thought I wanted to stay close to Auguste, not to mention the orphanage," said Laurent. "But the orphanage is well-established now. It's at the stage that it would be mostly fine under just Lazar's 'care', I think, with just the occasional visits from me. And as for my brothers, they would have each other now even if I left. I think we could all cope well enough only seeing each other a few times a year." Better than Laurent would cope doing that with Damen, anyway. "I was going to lease out the house I'll inherit in a few months and set up elsewhere anyway. Perhaps 'elsewhere' could be in Falmouth, or at least some an easy distance from there."
Laurent was as much thinking aloud as anything, but there was something to be said for the commitment of saying it to Damen. It made it more real, and more difficult to take it back or pretend he'd never considered it in the first place.
Laurent would have continued speculating about his – their – options, but he was distracted for a moment by a noise at the door, like a scuffle. Damen didn't look overly alarmed, but Laurent was quick to push himself to his feet. There was no knock, though, or any further sounds outside. It must have been just a passing servant, Laurent decided. At least it wasn't like they'd been discussing something that would have sounded particularly illicit, even if someone had been close enough to overhear.
Acting like the momentary interruption hadn't phased him at all, Damen said, "You know, not that I don't appreciate the thought, but there's more reason for you to remain here than for me to be in Falmouth. I told you, my steward is capable. Annual visits would probably suffice to do my part to keep up my properties and investments. I have no family there any longer." Laurent noticed how he sidestepped saying anything directly about the child that Laurent knew Miss Jokaste had just recently relocated to France with her and her mother. Perhaps that had been his last real tie to the place, apart from memories.
Damen added, "And you already know that my closest friend moved from there to this neighbourhood years ago. Nikandros is here. You're here. So I have every reason to purchase or rent something near here myself."
"Come now, there's no need to be too close to Mr. Nikandros," Laurent said, opting for a jest rather than having to show his immediate and honest reaction to Damen's proposal.
"You don't dislike him that much."
"No. But I can't same the same for his feelings about me."
"As much as I appreciate his friendship, it's not his feelings on the matter that are the most important to me here," Damen said pointedly. He waited, clearly expecting Laurent to say something. Apparently, he was going to have to give a serious response after all.
"You would really consider that?"
"I'm more than considering it," Damen said. "Though obviously I don't want to make such a decision without consulting you, since it concerns you as well."
He looked so hopeful. There really was only one answer Laurent could, or wanted to, give.
Laurent stepped forward until his shins were practically pressed to the edge of the chaise. He reached out for Damen's hand. Laurent interlaced their fingers and let that speak for him.
Damen used their joined grip to pull Laurent back down, this time into his lap as he sat up. His lips found Laurent's. Laurent allowed it for a moment – he couldn't quite help himself – before breaking away.
"My room?" Laurent proposed.
"Finally. I thought you'd never ask. You were supposed to grow tired of the book at least an hour ago! I purposely chose one I thought you wouldn't be interested in."
"Since when has reading ever bored me?" And since had any time spent with Damen bored him either?
This was why Damen should leave the subtle strategies to Laurent and stick with the direct approach, Laurent thought.
Though Laurent found that he was glad Damen hadn't done that this one time in particular.
The first thing Auguste said when he saw Laurent for the first time in over a year was: "Since when do you have freckles?"
"I've missed you too, Brother," Laurent said wryly.
"Well obviously I've missed you," said Auguste. "That really goes without saying. I miss you every day that you're gone. Every minute, really. I wish you would come home."
Laurent bestowed an unimpressed look on him.
"To visit," Auguste qualified, though Laurent wasn't completely convinced that Auguste hadn't meant it the other way as well. "I was really hoping you might come soon, actually. In two months, say." He said so very meaningfully.
Laurent had greedily consumed the sight of Auguste when he'd first arrived. Auguste must have done the same to Laurent in turn, for him to so quickly notice every little difference about Laurent down to the tiny smattering of evidence of long hours spent in the sun. Now Laurent found himself looking Auguste over again with an even more discerning eye. Despite the fact that Laurent wouldn't have enjoyed the long distance he'd just travelled to get here, Auguste nonetheless looked like he was bursting from happiness in a fashion that Laurent was far more used to seeing on a different face than his brother's. Laurent didn't think it was just being with Laurent again after the long period of absence that was bringing that emotion out in Auguste.
"Don't tell me you've finally met a woman who can hold your attention for more than the space of a single week."
Laurent would be glad if he had. There had been many reasons why Laurent had remained at Arles Court in the first couple of months after he'd helped free Damen. Laurent had lied convincingly, and coached the others well enough, so that the more official questions had died down within a fortnight. But Laurent would only have cast suspicion on himself all over again had he packed up to leave too soon after Damen's disappearance. Laurent had to keep his name clear for legal and monetary reasons, of course, but even more importantly, Laurent's intention had been not to cast a shadow on Auguste's reputation and his prospects, either. Thankfully, it seemed he'd succeeded well enough in that respect.
"That's a rather cruel assessment of my past," Auguste said. But he was grinning. "She's so different from all those other ladies, though, you have no idea. I can't wait for you to meet her. And she's really looking forward to meeting you as well."
"No doubt she is, since I know you always talk of me like I have no flaws," Laurent said. "I imagine she'll be disappointed with the reality."
"Oh, no," Auguste said. "She knows most everything about you. I personally would have kept some of it a secret until you said it was fine to do otherwise, but then… it, uh, came up in conversation." He meant that Nicaise had purposely brought it up, Laurent deduced; probably testing the woman to see if she was worth Auguste's attention after all. Laurent caught himself regretting that he hadn't witnessed that for himself. The look Auguste's face would have been peerless. "And you can be as disagreeable as you like and I think she'll still adore you, since she gets along remarkably well with… with other people who aren't disposed to be immediately accepting of most strangers."
"You can just say Nicaise's name, you know. I won't break if I hear it."
"I didn't think you would. But you pointedly don't ever mention him in your letters," Auguste pointed out.
"I've never had to forgive anyone who's hurt me before; I've always just been able to hate them unabashedly. It's not a simple matter."
"I know. But I also know you still care about him, under the anger. Maybe if you actually came and saw him, in person, it would be easier."
"You don't need to cajole me. Of course I'll come back for your wedding," Laurent said. Even knowing Nicaise would be there. Laurent wouldn't miss Auguste's happiness for the world. "And, I suppose, if that doesn't go too disastrously," which it wouldn't, because Laurent wouldn't let anything ruin Auguste's day, "then if Nicaise then wants to accompany you the next time you find your way over here, I wouldn't entirely object."
Despite everything, Laurent still considered Nicaise to be his brother. A bond forged under those circumstances, and solidified over the course of many months, couldn't just be completely wiped out in one night. But it could certainly change, and it had. There wasn't any point in Laurent pretending otherwise. But equally, it did no one any good for Laurent to pretend that he didn't wish they could at least try to mend things enough that they might recover something of what they'd once had. Or what Laurent had thought they'd had. He wouldn't know for sure unless they tried.
"You're going to settle down here long-term, then?" Auguste asked. "I thought this might be just another stopover for you. I've lost track of how many different postmarks I've seen on your letters."
"I've only been travelling for a year. No need to act like I've become some kind of a permanent vagabond."
Auguste didn't look particularly reassured. "That isn't the prospect that concerns me. I just wonder what will happen when you stop running."
"I'm not running," Laurent said. "I'm living my life, the best way I can under the circumstances, not running away from it."
"I know. I just…"
"Worry," Laurent concluded for him. "You don't have to. Yes, we're looking to settle somewhere now, but we've actually spent the better part of the month before coming up here in a place down south on the coast, and so far it's been working out. I'm considering buying property there."
"And you don't think people will question it? Two men living together permanently for years on end?"
"Oh, they definitely do," said Laurent, amused. "But to date, they've come up with a string of completely absurd answers, so I'm hardly worried. I believe the current dominant theory is that Damen is hiding a tragic past as a former pirate, of all things. And apparently he saved my life on the high seas and now I'm indebted to him, hence the fact that he's staying with me. I can't imagine how they come up with these things."
Auguste looked at him knowingly.
"I might fail to discourage those kinds of rumours when I hear them," Laurent admitted. An understatement. "They like their scandal. Better their thirst for gossip be pointed in a safer direction. Though it doesn't matter as much here compared with England if they do realise how ridiculous their theories are and revert to suspecting the truth; France has no law against it these days, strictly speaking."
"It might still make things more difficult for you, though," Auguste pointed out.
True enough. Which was why Laurent publicly gave people as little reason to consider the truth as possible. Not that Laurent would have personally cared if they were ostracised and socially derided, if the only consequence of that was Laurent himself not being able to take part in social gatherings. But Damen enjoyed spending time with other people. And Laurent needed cooperation to make and manage the investments that both kept them living in comfort and would ultimately build the finances Laurent needed for other purposes.
After all, he had every intention of starting up an orphanage again, now that they were settling down in one place. Having a child in the house with them the past week had reminded Laurent exactly how much he missed having children around. And there were so many children here left parentless by the war, on top of those who had already been in a such a position before. They needed help. Laurent had no desire to make it harder for himself to do that, either by financially stifling himself or because people wanted to oppose a 'known degenerate' being involved with children. Easier to just maintain their reputations.
Not that Laurent could imagine anyone questioning their ability to care for children if they were treated to the sight Laurent and Auguste witnessed some ten minutes later.
"Sorry it took so long. He kept waking every time I try to set him down, so I eventually just gave up," Damen said quietly as he wandered into the room with a small child cradled carefully in his arms. It wasn't quite a complaint. Laurent suspected Damen had been the one who was reluctant to put the child down rather than the other way around. The boy was two and half years old, and Laurent couldn't imagine for a second that his mother would put up with him still being so clingy he would refuse to sleep on his own at that age. Damen was just coddling him.
But Laurent said nothing on that topic, because it would only result in Damen laughing and calling Laurent out on his hypocrisy.
"Akielos. Good afternoon." If Auguste's greeting was less warm than he might have done so two years ago, then at least it wasn't by much. Auguste was trying hard, Laurent reminded himself.
Laurent saw Auguste take a moment to really process the sight of the sleeping child Damen was holding against his chest. The child bore more than a passing resemblance to Damen. If he were a different man, Auguste might easily have launched into an accusation of infidelity out of indignation on his brother's behalf, or at least directed a pitying look in Laurent's direction.
Instead, Auguste asked, "Did you two steal a baby?"
"Yes. We've embraced the full potential of criminal life," Laurent said sardonically. "Baby stealing was just the logical next step."
"He's my nephew," Damen supplied quickly, apparently fearing Auguste might take Laurent at his word. "The boy and his mother and grandmother keep these apartments. His mother is kind enough to put up with us staying here whenever we're in Paris." With a wry smile, he added, "Though perhaps it isn't entirely out of kindness. I think she enjoys the reversal of making men stay at home minding her child while she's free to go out and socialise."
Laurent personally thought there was far more than free child-minding behind Miss Jokaste's standing invitation to her home. And it wasn't just because technically Damen had paid for the place, either. Laurent had seen her face when Damen had scooped her toddling son up into a hug when they'd first arrived back in Paris days ago. She'd hidden it well, but Laurent recognised the brief flicker of wistfulness when he saw it. In another life…
Not that she was still actively campaigning for a role she knew she was never going to have. In fact, her reaction when Laurent had shown up at her doorstep for the very first time, months after a bedraggled Damen had done the same, hadn't been annoyance or jealousy, but rather: "Finally. He's been a complete miserable wretch. Take him away for a while, will you?"
The only sign that she might still be in any way resentful over Laurent's 'victory' was Laurent's certainty that she was pointedly encouraging her son to call him 'Lolo'. It could be worse, he supposed. Laurent had been called worse than that over the years.
It came as a surprise to Laurent when Auguste said, "I should come back tomorrow, or this evening, when we're not running the risk of waking the child."
Laurent finally noticed that Auguste was eying the sleeping child with more than just a hint of wariness. Auguste was good with children – he certainly had been with Laurent, for as long as Laurent could remember – but now that Laurent came to think of it, he couldn't really recall Auguste dealing with the babies at the orphanage at all. Laurent could imagine why easily enough, now that it was occurring to him to wonder. If Mother's countless retellings of Laurent's tantrums could be believed, Laurent had been an absolute terror until he was old enough to figure out that pretending to be sweet got him what he wanted far better than screaming constantly at the top of his lungs. Perhaps Auguste expected all children that age to be like that whenever they were awake.
Laurent wondered if he should prepare himself to send a condolence rather than a congratulatory letter to Auguste's soon-to-be-wife on the occasion of their first child's birth, if Auguste was going to be a useless disaster around babies. He supposed he could alternatively make her life easier by sending a letter to Lazar instructing him to make sure Auguste was forced to become accustomed to the orphanage's smallest children before then, so he would be better prepared. But that was only if Laurent were feeling nice. Laurent supposed he would wait to meet the woman and decide how much he liked her before he chose.
Either way, Laurent let Auguste off the hook for this afternoon. Laurent and Damen would be in Paris for the next ten days before heading south back to their new likely-home, and Auguste was going to remain for almost that long before heading back to England, and to his soon-to-be-wife, and to Nicaise. There would be plenty of time to accustom Auguste to the idea that whenever they were in Paris, Laurent and Damen pretty much always came as a package with a mostly-hyperactive but otherwise not an overly-difficult child.
Once Auguste departed and left them alone in the house but for a few busy servants and a dozing child, Laurent said to Damen, "Are you really going to carry him around for the whole rest of the afternoon?"
"He won't sleep that long," Damen said. "It's fine. He's not that heavy."
Not by Damen's standards, perhaps. Laurent's arms would probably be nearly insensate by now, if it were him holding up that weight for so long. But that wasn't really Laurent's point anyway.
Careful of the child between them, Laurent pushed himself up onto his toes and pressed a lingering kiss to Damen's lips, curling his fingers into Damen's hair as much to give him a grip to steady himself as because he knew Damen liked the sensation of Laurent's nails raking teasingly against his scalp.
"Sure you don't want to put him down?" Laurent breathed when their lips parted.
"Give me a minute."
Laurent smiled openly, not particularly caring if one of the servants walked past and saw it. It was a far more common sight these days than it had once been, anyway.
Let them see how happy Laurent was.
FINALLY! It's done!
It's been really interesting writing the boys in this time period, because it changes a lot about them as characters, even more in some ways than I think writing them in modern AUs does. Hopefully they still remained recognisably themselves and the differences all felt justified.
At one stage I promised there would be something at least approaching smut towards the end of the fic. As you can see, I have turned out to be a dirty, dirty liar. It just didn't end up feeling right, given the tone of the last couple of chapters. And I'm not a smut for the sake of smut person. At least not in the context of a novel-length fic. It has to serve the story rather than feel like a tag-on for me to bother.
Also, sorry to anyone who believes Auguste would be great with babies/toddlers. I headcanon that he loved baby Laurent more than life itself, but was also initially kind of mortally terrified of him, particularly when Laurent went through his terrible twos. Understandable, I think. XD He's going to be a great dad, but he's going to need to work for it to start with.