The first time Damen had shown up along Laurent's walking route to school in the morning (waiting several blocks from Laurent's house, probably in the hope that the household staff wouldn't alert Laurent's father that Theomedes's son, of all people, had been at his door), Laurent took one look at him and said, "No."
"No. I read on the way to school in the mornings. I don't have time for you."
Damen shrugged. "You don't have to talk to me. I can just walk beside you and make sure you don't step out in front of a moving vehicle because your nose is too far in your book to notice it coming."
"What on earth could be in that for you?"
"Half an hour in your company."
"My silent company, while I'm ignoring you," Laurent reminded him.
Although, Laurent considered, most people probably would have said that was the only form of Laurent's presence that they could actually tolerate.
Damen didn't seem to be deterred.
Laurent might have continued to argue if he actually believed that Damen was the type to listen to reasoned logic. Instead, he decided not to waste his breath and went back to his book, not stopping Damen from trailing along beside him.
Annoyingly, Laurent found that he could barely pay attention to the words on the page throughout the walk, so hyperaware was he of Damen being so close to him, their arms nearly brushing as Damen's swung carelessly by his sides. At least the book gave Laurent an excuse not to actually look at Damen and embarrass himself completely when his face inevitably reddened.
That afternoon, Damen met Laurent at the school's front gate and looked poised to fall into step beside him again, clearly intending to walk Laurent back home as well.
"You're going to make a habit of this, aren't you?" Laurent sighed even as he was already opening his book back up at the bookmarked page.
"If you don't mind."
Laurent could easily have said he did mind. He wondered whether that would have been the end of it. Would Damen actually comply with what Laurent said he wanted? It was hard to imagine; no one else ever did.
Laurent didn't bother testing that out, in the end. He let his silence act as a tacit 'do whatever you like', as if he didn't care.
Damen eventually commented, "If you're really busy enough that you need to multi-task by reading while walking, wouldn't it be easier to drive to and from school so the trip only took a fraction of the time? I could give you a lift."
Most of the other boys in the higher grades who drove to school seemed to think that owning a car should make them irresistible. So Laurent was slightly surprised that Damen didn't take that as the perfect opportunity to brag, thinking that might win him some points with Laurent.
"No," Laurent said. "I like walking."
Laurent didn't elaborate on why he might want to extend his absence from his house as long as was justifiable. Or why he might want to distract himself with a book so that his mind couldn't wander to other things as he walked.
There were things that no one, especially Damen, ever needed to know about him.
Damen was waiting for Laurent again. Part of Laurent could still hardly believe that Damen hadn't yet grown tired of wasting his time like this, but there he was just around the corner from Laurent's house every day, without fail.
There was something oddly nice about being able to slip away from the dark silence of the house and almost immediately have the course of his entire day shifted for the better by being confronted with Damen's smile, and spending nearly an hour in the presence of his all around bright and accepting disposition. It was something of a reminder of how things had been before. When he'd still had Auguste. Perhaps the similarities that Laurent had been slowly realising existed between Damen and his brother were why Laurent found himself actually enjoying Damen's company in the mornings and afternoons. It was even kind of a shame that all that their direct interaction when they walked together was always limited. Which was at Laurent's initial insistence, to be fair, but still; Laurent would have thought that someone as stubborn as Damen seemed to be would have at least tried to push Laurent into proper conversation in the weeks since they'd started doing this.
Today, as Damen walked by his side, probably looking to everyone that saw them more like Laurent's bodyguard than… whatever he actually was to Laurent, Laurent decided that he was going to have to be the one to speak up. He looked up from his book for once and said, "Are you going to say something, or are you just going to silently stare at me like a stalker every day until you graduate?"
Damen's sceptical expression clearly said that Laurent couldn't really complain when he was the one who'd brought about that state of affairs in the first place. His mouth, on the other hand, (probably wisely) only said, "I like looking at you. What's wrong with that?"
Was he trying to flirt? Laurent didn't want to make a fool of himself by assuming and then finding out he was wrong. The thought of Damen laughing at Laurent's apparent naïvety made his stomach feel unsettled.
"You could always look at me too, if you liked," Damen said.
"Don't flatter yourself," Laurent said without really thinking it through. That sort of thing was his automatic reaction whenever he was in a situation like this, but the circumstances here were drastically different than usual for him. He regretted the words the moment they were out.
"I wouldn't have to flatter myself if you would do it for me."
"You're so –"
"Charming? Or perhaps aggravating beyond belief?" Damen suggested. "Impossible to ignore? So attractive you can barely restrain yourself from pushing me behind the nearest bush and having your way with me? Stop me when I get it right."
Laurent was hardly about to admit that the correct answer was E: all of the above. Especially when it was so obvious that Damen was treating the idea like a complete joke.
"If you're going to be like that, then see if I bother going out of my way to talk to you again," Laurent said.
"Aw. And here I thought we were making progress. At this rate we might have even been making honest-to-god regular eye contact in a month or two, and acting like we've met each other in front of our classmates by the year's end."
Laurent glared, then went back to staring at his book without taking in a word. He could tell Damen was still looking at him, almost like he was studying Laurent.
"I'm sorry," Damen said more softly a minute later. "I shouldn't have made you uncomfortable. I'm just used to being able to joke around about this stuff. My friend Nikandros just tells me to shut up whenever he thinks I've said something stupid or offensive, and then we can move on from it. You should do that too."
Because Laurent was also his friend? Was that the implication?
"Shut up," Laurent tested it out.
Out of the corner of his eye, Laurent caught Damen smiling as if Laurent had done something particularly pleasing.
Maybe this actually was a proper friendship, then.
Laurent had been distracted enough that he didn't recognise that someone was leaning over him until he felt the warmth of someone's breathing right on the back of his neck. Laurent turned around far enough to see that it was Govart who was leaning in towards him, and to get an unfortunate noseful of that fetid breath. Laurent instinctively pushed away, just barely managing to duck out of Govart's reach before the moron could breach that last remaining distance between them and actually touch him. Govart may be comically larger than Laurent, and accordingly stronger as well, but that also made him slower and less agile than Laurent by far.
Laurent said, "You have poor oral hygiene. You should look into that."
"What?" Govart asked blankly, as if he legitimately hadn't understood. Given Laurent's ongoing difficulties with getting him to grasp how not interested Laurent was in him, Laurent had to consider that perhaps Govart really couldn't understand anything but the plainest of language. So Laurent said very clearly, "Your breath is disgusting and I don't want it, or you, anywhere near me."
Laurent's muscles were coiled, ready for him to make a run for it if Govart reacted badly to the insult and tried to swing his fist at Laurent in retaliation, which seemed to be Govart's go-to response to anything he didn't like.
Instead, Govart just straight-up ignored Laurent's words, and his distaste. It wasn't a failure in communication, then; Govart just really didn't care that Laurent didn't want anything to do with him. That was actually worse.
"That's an awfully heavy-looking bag you've got there," Govart observed. "I could give you a hand with that. And with other things you need an extra pair of hands for."
Laurent wondered how long it had taken Govart to come up with that… well, Laurent didn't even know whether it even deserved to be called a pick-up line.
"I'm fine," Laurent dismissed him.
"You sure are."
Perhaps Damen caught that expression, or saw Laurent's clearly discomforted body language, for Laurent spotted Damen approaching him with haste from down the hallway even though he never normally tried to come up to Laurent while they were actually inside the school. There was an obviously concerned expression creasing his face.
"Honestly, I don't need your help," Laurent insisted when Govart tried to grab the strap of Laurent's bag. "That's why I keep him around."
Laurent promptly shoved the bag full of books into Damen's chest the moment Damen drew close enough. Having his arms fully occupied ought to at least give Damen a moment's pause before he could stupidly get himself suspended by starting a fistfight if (or when, to be honest) Govart opened his mouth again and said something ridiculous and provocative. Damen elicited a slight 'oof' sound when the bag hit him, though Laurent suspected that was just a sign of the unexpectedness of it, not an indication that the weight of the bag caused any strain for him. Damen probably could have lifted Laurent and Laurent's books without breaking a sweat. Though that thought only made Laurent imagine what it would look like if there were a sheen of sweat glistening over Damen's bulging muscles as he held Laurent aloft, his arms tight and supportive around him.
No, Laurent told himself firmly, he needed to not think like that. It wouldn't lead anywhere.
Govart glared at Damen, as if the interruption of his presence was the reason why Laurent was shying away from Govart. Laurent didn't see Damen's answering expression, but he imagined it must have been sufficiently threatening, for Govart apparently decided to not push his luck. Though he did leer at Laurent one last time before he went. Laurent could practically feel Damen tensing up beside him.
Once Govart was stalking away, Laurent distracted Damen from following him and making it into a bigger issue than it needed to be by saying, "It occurs to me seeing you like this now that I should always make you carry my stuff. You're the ideal pack mule. Strong. Always around. Kind of an ass."
"You wound me," Damen said, not sounding particularly hurt.
"Though to be clear, I can carry my bag myself. I'm not lazy or weak. I'm just delegating."
"No arguments here. You're definitely not weak if you've managed to not keel over under this weight all the other times I've seen you lugging your books around. I've lifted lighter loads than this at the gym."
And there went Laurent's rebellious imagination again, picturing Damen in form-fitting clothing made even clingier by sweat, his muscles rhythmically tensing as he worked out.
Laurent was proud that he managed to recover himself enough to say without tripping over his own tongue: "Some of us come to school to learn, not just to make a nuisance of ourselves and to… socialise."
Damen raised his eyebrows. "'Socialising'? Is that what you call this?"
"What else should I call it?"
"I have a suggestion. How about 'dating'?"
"Walking near each other and making the occasional suggestive remark doesn't amount to dating," Laurent pointed out.
"Why not? It could be. If you'd let me hold your hand as we walked. And possibly even let me kiss you goodbye sometimes. And maybe we could actually, you know, exchange more than a few sentences of conversation per week. Sorry to tell you, but one-off insults and forced silence aren't the best way to attract and keep someone's interest."
Weren't they? Then what exactly had kept Damen coming back to insistently hang around Laurent like this?
"I don't date," Laurent said. And that was true. Whatever else Laurent might have done, it was nothing that could be termed 'dating'. And certainly nothing like whatever weird thing was happening between himself and Damen.
"I know. But that doesn't mean you can never start, does it," said Damen.
Damen held out his hand in offer. In front of everyone else in the hall, Laurent realised. There would be no pretending it hadn't happened.
Laurent slid his hand into Damen's. The sensation of their palms pressing together was only a slight distraction from the embarrassment of how profusely Laurent was blushing.
"Fine," Laurent said. "I suppose we can call it dating. If you really insist."
Damen grinned triumphantly.
It's such a pity (or I think so, anyway) that I can't be bothered writing a Nikandros PoV on this, because it would seriously be the funniest part of this story. You just know that Damen tells him Every. Single. Detail of his interactions with Laurent, and also moans about how Laurent doesn't acknowledge his existence when they're at school, and barely does even when they're out of it. Meanwhile, Nikandros is so done listening to this shit.