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on cresting waves

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Let us then meet midway and exchange kisses
on the cresting waves before returning both
of us to the towns from which we came.
Little enough, still it is more than nothing.

- Hero to Leander, Ovid’s Heroides

***

‘How are you feeling?’ Auguste asked, his voice slightly monotonous as he sipped loudly on a glass of wine, where he was lounging on a chaise in the window.

Laurent sat, perfectly still, waiting for the makeup artist to move away with her unnecessarily huge brush before he answered. ‘Like this was a mistake.’

‘Yeah, you can’t say that,’ the producer piped up mildly, where she was sitting on a spare chair, legs crossed as she tapped something out on her phone.

Auguste grinned, hiding his laugh in another sip of his drink. ‘I know you lost a bet, Laurent, but I didn’t think you’d actually take it this far.’

Laurent swatted the makeup artist away for a second, turning towards Auguste in a rage. ‘And you’re just telling me this now? What the fuck?’

‘It’s too late for you to pull out,’ the producer said.

‘I don’t care about that,’ Laurent hissed, turning back and allowing the powdering of his face to continue.

‘Good, we’re going to film in a moment, so put on your big boy pants and a nice big smile for me, okay?’ the producer stood, slipping her phone into her pocket and ducking into a side room.

‘For what it’s worth, I’m sorry,’ Auguste said, raising his wine towards his brother. ‘Here’s hoping they paired you with someone hot.’

‘Here’s hoping they paired me with someone I can get rid of easily,’ Laurent muttered.

‘Alright,’ the producer announced, appearing with a small package in her hands, going over to the table beside the couch Jord was napping on and arranging it nicely beside a decorative ice bucket. ‘We’re going to get some generic footage of you chatting with your friends –’

‘He’s my brother,’ Auguste and Laurent said at the same time.

‘And then we’ll have you open the gift from your husband,’ the producer continued, like they hadn’t even spoken. ‘If it’s jewellery, you’re going to wear it to the ceremony, otherwise we’ll just cut it from the final edit. Please don’t say you think this was a mistake. Nervous is good, excited is better, keep it light and fluffy. Yes?’

Laurent rolled his eyes. ‘Yes.’

‘Great, we’re rolling,’ she said, going behind the cameraman and watching with interest.

‘How are you feeling?’ Auguste asked again, amused.

‘Nervous,’ Laurent said. It wasn’t a lie, he was nervous. He was about to be “married” to a complete stranger for the entertainment of others. A “social experiment”. This wasn’t an experiment. There was no science in this. He didn’t think. Probably not. Hopefully not. He didn’t want to be tested on.

‘Excited?’ Auguste prodded – oh, he was playing his part very well.

Laurent hummed. ‘I can’t tell. I think so. I’m just worried about who they’ll have paired me with.’

‘Yeah, you’re not everyone’s cup of tea,’ Auguste nodded. ‘What’s that over there?’

Laurent pretended to be interested as he turned to where Auguste was nodding – the gift from his “husband”. ‘I don’t know, what is that?’ Laurent said, sounding a little too fake even to his ears. He picked up the box and took the card from beside it, reading the neat block letters aloud, as the producer probably wanted. ‘“To my husband, I hope this token is your colour. I’m excited to take this journey with you, and can’t wait for it to begin. See you at the altar.”’

‘How romantic,’ Jord said, turning his head to where Laurent was standing. ‘What’s in the box?’

Laurent frowned and put the card down, then tugged lightly on the white ribbon surrounding the black box. He pulled the lid off and tilted his head. ‘Oh.’

‘What is it?’

Laurent was careful to show nothing on his face as he took out the thin golden band. He inspected the pattern around it, an old Akielon pattern – a meander, that was the word. Had they paired him with an Akielon?

‘What is it?’ the producer repeated for Jord, pulling Laurent from his thoughts.

‘It’s a bracelet. Gold. Very nice,’ Laurent added softly, slipping it onto his wrist without thinking about it too much.

‘Yeah, it is,’ Auguste said, coming to inspect it and turning it around on Laurent’s wrist, glancing up at him. ‘You’ll be okay,’ he muttered. ‘Don’t worry.’

‘I know,’ Laurent replied. ‘This was a terrible, shitty forfeit, Auguste.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Too late now.’

‘Yeah, can you stop muttering? Thanks,’ the producer said, eyebrow raised. ‘Anyway, we’ve stopped for now, got some earlier. We’re leaving in five. Your husband will be there already.’

‘Great. Let’s get me… committed.’

***

‘Nervous?’

‘Stop asking me that,’ Laurent said, shooting a glance to his brother as he clamped his hand on his own thigh to stop it from bouncing.

‘You’ll be fine,’ Aleron said, jumping in, before his sons could start sparring with words again. ‘Vannes said the order was Jord, Auguste, then us.’

‘Who’s Vannes?’

‘The producer,’ Aleron said, sighing loudly, looking out the window for the signal from Vannes to open the door and let Jord and Auguste out.

‘You’ll be fine,’ Auguste said, slapping Laurent’s knee, before he and Jord left.

‘Can everyone stop saying that?’ Laurent said, slapping him back. ‘Go make sure my husband is like. Whatever.’

‘Human?’

‘Preferably.’

‘Sure. I’ll shoot you the signal if he’s not.’

‘What’s the signal?’

‘Finger guns, probably,’ Auguste said, swinging himself out after Jord.

‘I hate him,’ Laurent muttered, as Auguste shut the door again.

‘He’s got your best interests at heart,’ Aleron said diplomatically.

‘You know I’m only here because I lost a bet, right?’

‘You could’ve pulled out, Laurent,’ Aleron chided. ‘You can’t always blame your brother for getting yourself into these messes.’

‘But they’re usually his fault!’

‘Laurent, hush, we’re getting out now. Where’s your mother?’

‘Wherever Vannes put her, I assume.’

‘Oh, she’s outside already,’ Aleron turned to Laurent before opening the door. ‘Do I need to say it again?’

‘That I’ll be fine?’ Laurent shook his head, and patted his hair automatically to make sure it hadn’t budged from the tight braid someone had put it in this morning. ‘No. I think everyone’s made sure it’s been drummed in already.’

‘Okay then. Let’s go.’

Laurent nodded, and followed his father out the car.

‘You look beautiful,’ Hennike said in Veretian, linking her arm through Laurent’s as he came to stand between his parents. ‘You’re nervous. Don’t be.’

‘I’ve heard that a lot today,’ Laurent sighed.

‘But not from your mother,’ Hennike said, a twinkle in her eye. ‘Honey, everything will be alright.’

‘Well, if it’s not, I’m going to murder Auguste.’

‘That would get some ratings,’ Aleron mused on his other side. ‘But please don’t murder my son.’

‘Please don’t talk about murder!’ Vannes shouted from beside the cameraman. ‘When you get to the carpet, pause for a moment for your partner to turn around, so walk! We’re rolling!’

‘Ready?’ Aleron asked.

‘No.’

‘Perfect,’ Hennike said, before she and Aleron exchanged a glance, and started walking, pulling Laurent between them.

It was a weirdly long walk from the car. The path wound around shrubs and rose bushes, past trees and views to the vineyard beyond, and Laurent could feel his hands shaking the closer they got to the carpeted edge of the aisle. The set dressers had done a nice job – nothing he would’ve chosen, he didn’t really care too much for outdoor weddings, because he hated the wind shifting everything and having to yell to be heard by everyone.

But, aesthetically, he could appreciate it. The sun was close to setting, at least, so that would give them some nice “wedding” photos during the golden hour. However, they were at a vineyard, which, why they’d put him in an outdoor wedding at a vineyard was beyond him. But whatever. It was objectively nice, but wouldn’t have been his first choice.

‘Laurent, wait,’ Hennike murmured, as their toes hit the edge of the carpeting. ‘Breathe.’

Laurent curled his hands into fists to stop them from shaking and stared down at his shoes for a few moments as he tried to swallow in some air.

‘Laurent,’ Aleron said gently, ‘Vannes wants us to move.’

‘Vannes can get fucked,’ Laurent muttered, exhaling and lifting his head determinedly.

He looked down the short aisle, to where Jord and Auguste were already standing at the left in front of the altar. Auguste gave him a short nod and an encouraging smile, and Laurent’s eyes drifted to the other side of the altar, where three tall Akielons stood.

Laurent assumed the one not facing him was his husband, and just when he didn’t think he was going to, he turned around and beamed at him, and –

Oh.

Oh no.

Laurent was in trouble.

Chapter Text

He was… beautiful. There really wasn’t another word that came to mind as Laurent walked slowly down the aisle with his parents towards the man he’d been paired with. Tall with his dark hair pulled into a bun on the crown of his head, and a stark white grin splitting his beautiful olive skin. The all-black suit cut a severe figure, but his loose stance and open face made Laurent simultaneously relax and even more nervous.

‘You’ll be fine,’ Aleron said once more, as they came to the front row of seats. He clasped Laurent’s forearm with a small nod, and took his place.

‘He’s cute,’ Hennike winked, hugging Laurent for a moment, before sitting with her husband.

Laurent pursed his lips and took the two steps up to the altar to face his husband.

‘Hi,’ Laurent’s husband said softly, holding out a hand for him. ‘I’m Damianos. You can call me Damen.’

‘Laurent,’ he replied, taking Damen’s hand and ignoring how he was still shaking. ‘You can call me Laurent.’

‘Laurent,’ Damen repeated. ‘Veretian?’

‘Akielon?’

‘Guilty,’ Damen grinned. ‘Should we get this party started?’

‘We don’t have much of a choice,’ Laurent muttered, carefully extracting his hand from Damen’s. ‘Let’s do it.’

The celebrant nodded and smiled, then launched into her generic not-a-wedding speech.

Through all of it, Damen kept his eyes on Laurent, with a more serious expression as it came closer to their vows.

Hennike was right. He was… cute. Maybe. Not cute. Handsome. Attractive. Beautiful. And he was with Laurent. He wondered if that would be a disappointment to his new husband. Laurent certainly wasn’t disappointed, but at the same time, he knew this wouldn’t be the simple cut-and-run he’d expected. He was only here for a dare, not a relationship. Laurent didn’t care that much about dating.

It seemed like he didn’t care much about anything today. Not relationships, not the setting for his “wedding”, not even really for his half of the guest list. The producers had taken one look at his sorry-ass list of friends and family, and plucked anyone he’d even thought about in the past two years to attend.

‘And now,’ the celebrant said, interrupting Laurent’s thoughts, ‘Damen will read his vows.’

Damen smiled, turning back to his best man, who handed him a stack of cards. ‘To my husband,’ Damen began, glancing up to Laurent. ‘I want you to know that while we may not know each other right now, I want nothing more than for that to change. I want to know your dreams and fears, and I want to be there with you through it all. I promise to listen to you, and do everything I can to make this ride as smooth as I can. Thank you for taking a chance on this experiment, a chance on me, and I can’t wait for our journey together to begin.’

‘Thank you, Damen,’ the celebrant nodded. ‘Laurent?’

Laurent turned back to Auguste, who handed him his own stack of cards. Half of them were blank. ‘I want to start by warning you,’ Laurent said, trying not to sound too much like he was speaking through gritted teeth. ‘I’m not an easy person to deal with, but here, today, I promise to try to change that. I promise to try, to open myself to you and to new experiences, to trust you, and to at least pretend I’m not always right. I promise to be the best person I can in this relationship, and to give it my all.’

‘Thank you, Laurent. Rings?’

Damen’s best man stepped forward at the same time as Auguste, as they held out a box each. Laurent stopped paying as much attention right about there, as the celebrant said more generic lines, and they slipped the rings on each other’s fingers and said I do.

‘I pronounce you married, and you may kiss!’ the celebrant said, grinning as she clutched the book in her hands.

Damen studied Laurent’s face for a moment, and whatever he saw there led him to a quick decision. He leaned forward and kissed Laurent’s cheek, drawing back with a wink.

Laurent blushed a little as Damen took his hand and pulled them down the aisle out towards where Vannes was gesturing wildly for them to head towards the grape vines, then making exaggerated photography movements. Photos, then.

‘This is pretty crazy, huh? How are you doing with everything?’ Damen asked as they followed Vannes to where a photographer was waiting. They weren’t being filmed currently, but Damen hadn’t let go of his hand.

‘I wish everyone would stop asking me that,’ Laurent muttered. ‘If I wasn’t okay, you’d know.’

‘That’s kinda why…’ Damen looked at him for a moment, and ended his sentence there. ‘This producer is fun, huh?’

‘Vannes,’ Laurent sighed. ‘She’s been up my ass the whole day.’

‘I think that’s her job.’

Laurent took a conscious breath and switched to Veretian. ‘She should at least have asked me out first.’

Damen snorted, looking sheepish as Laurent turned to him. ‘Sorry.’

‘Alright, boys, filming,’ Vannes said, stopping at the beginning of the rows of vines. ‘Let’s get some shots. Laurent, try not to look like you’re going to murder someone. Let’s start with Dami– Damian–’

‘Damen is fine,’ Damen said, his tone suggesting it wasn’t the first time he’d been through this.

Vannes sighed in relief. ‘Great. Damen, pick Laurent up. Try to look happy.’

‘Are you okay with that?’

Laurent raised his brows in surprise at Damen’s barely accented Veretian. ‘You speak –’

‘Yes. Are you okay with me picking you up?’

Laurent nodded, carefully looping an arm around Damen’s neck, as a strong arm went under his knees, and another came up to support his back. ‘Oh,’ Laurent squeaked, as he was hefted into the air.

‘That’s good!’ the photographer said encouragingly, continuing to snap photos. ‘A bit more enthusiasm and joy, yeah?’

‘Any more enthusiasm and I’ll fucking explode,’ Laurent muttered darkly, and heard Damen cough to cover a laugh behind him.

‘Laurent, you look like you’re being tortured!’ Vannes cried. ‘Come on, just get some nice shots, please?’

‘Put me down,’ Laurent said, not waiting for an answer and kicking out of Damen’s arms. ‘They want romance, we should give them romance.’

Damen frowned a little, but put his hands cautiously on Laurent’s hips, waiting to follow Laurent’s cue. ‘What do you want me to do?’

‘Just look at me like you’re in love.’

Damen nodded, and while nothing really changed in his expression or posture, Lauren could feel the shift in his energy or… something. Something had changed.

Laurent nodded and smiled, putting on one of his carefully practiced expressions. He gazed up at Damen and tried very much not to think about the phrase “lost in your eyes”, because that might’ve been a little bit what it felt like looking at Damen, but it would also definitely make him laugh without fail.

‘Perfect!’ Vannes said. ‘Let’s have a kiss, yeah?’

‘Wow,’ Damen murmured. ‘Rude of her to invite herself into our wedding photos.’

Laurent grinned and burst into laughter, leaning his head on Damen’s chest for a second, before he looked back up. A kiss. He could do that. Probably. Vannes likely wouldn’t let them go without one.

‘Kiss?’ Damen asked.

Laurent nodded again, and bit his lip as Damen lifted one of his hands to gently cup Laurent’s cheek, rubbing his thumb lightly over his cheekbone, before he leaned down and kissed him.

It was slow, sweet, simple. Something just for show, and Laurent heard the camera click a few times, before Damen pulled back.

‘Great!’ Vannes said, looking genuinely pleased. ‘We’ll move down to by the lake, then it’s time for the reception.’

Laurent sighed and carefully extracted himself from Damen. ‘We should…’

Damen cleared his throat and nodded. ‘Let’s go.’

***

It wasn’t going as bad as Laurent thought it would, really. Damen was nice, and there was the added bonus that he spoke Veretian, as well as the common tongue. Vannes either didn’t seem to know what they were saying or didn’t care enough to make them stop their running commentary of things.

The rest of the photos, Laurent had to admit, were quite nice. The setting sun reflected off the lake, and the photographer showed them some of the shots he’d taken. It looked like Laurent was smitten. He didn’t know if that meant he was a good actor or absolutely fucked, but either way – he was beginning to like Damen.

Vannes kept shooting him looks, like he was acting too cold, so he was trying to be warm towards Damen, accepting his easy gestures of affection – a hand held, or on his hip, or the small of his back – without complaint.

They were well into the reception by now, and Damen was certainly playing his part well for the cameras. Or maybe he was just… like this. He was offering Laurent food, having picked the ripest raspberry from on top of his cheesecake and held it out to him, apparently having noticed Laurent had eaten all of his already. He was also currently talking across him to converse loudly with Auguste at Laurent’s right.

He had an easy arm around Laurent’s shoulders, and Laurent had even allowed himself to lean into Damen’s side, trying and failing to speak with Damen’s best man, who he’d yet to be introduced to.

The best man was clearly waiting for Damen to stop to breathe, and quickly jumped in, muttering at him in Akielon, which made Damen blink.

‘Oh, yeah, sure,’ Damen said, standing abruptly. ‘Laurent, swap seats with me for a sec.’

‘He’s useless,’ the best man said, as Laurent slid over to Damen’s vacated chair.

‘It’s okay,’ Laurent said, jolting a little in surprise when Damen’s arm reappeared on his shoulders, as he continued his discussion with Auguste. ‘Laurent. You are?’

‘Nikandros,’ best man said, holding out a hand. ‘You can call me Nik.’

‘Nik,’ Laurent shook his hand. Gods, did all Akielons have such large hands? Fuck. ‘Good to meet you.’

‘You too. How –’

‘Please don’t ask me how my day has been going.’

Nik grinned. ‘Oh, Damen’s gonna have fun with you.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘You know what I mean.’

Laurent narrowed his eyes and ignored the comment, moving on swiftly. ‘How long have you known Damen for?’

‘Pretty much our entire lives. Our parents are friends,’ Nik shrugged, sipping his beer. ‘He’s a good guy, so whatever you think about him right now, don’t let that rule you.’

‘Noted,’ Laurent said. ‘He seems very… nice.’

‘He is. You, though. You seem…’

‘Thanks,’ Laurent said drily. ‘Who’s the other groomsman?’

‘Damen’s older brother, Kastor. Bit of a messy situation there. Wouldn’t ask. Who’re yours?’

Laurent raised an eyebrow at the comment about Kastor, but didn’t ask him to elaborate. ‘My brother, Auguste, and my friend, Jord.’

Nik hummed. ‘He’s hot.’

‘He’s straight.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘No,’ Laurent sighed, ‘but I don’t think he is, either.’

‘I’m sure it would get some ratings if I were to hook up with your brother,’ Nik murmured conspiratorially in Veretian.

‘Honestly, is Veretian the national language of Akielos as well?’

‘I’m from Delpha,’ Nik shrugged. ‘I know plenty of languages. Many of which I’m sure I could use to seduce your brother.’

‘I… sure. Okay.’

‘You should take Damen to meet your parents,’ Nik suggested, ‘maybe let me slide on over there to…’

‘Auguste?’

‘Auguste, that’s right.’

Laurent rolled his eyes and stood, tugging on Damen’s shirt. ‘Come with me.’

‘Where are we going?’ Damen asked distractedly, standing without much thought.

‘To meet my parents,’ Laurent said. ‘Your friend wants to hit on my brother.’

Damen grinned as Nik hopped down their open chairs and leaned an elbow on the table, as he introduced himself to a blushing Auguste. ‘So, your parents, right?’

‘Yes,’ Laurent said, leading him through the tables to where his parents were sitting. ‘Aleron and Hennike,’ he said, waving a hand to his parents, who looked up in confusion at their names, ‘Damen.’

‘Damen,’ Aleron stood to shake Damen’s hand, looking him up and down with a short nod. ‘What are your intentions towards my son?’

Damen blinked, his mouth gaping a little.

‘He’s joking,’ Hennike said, shooting her husband a look, as she hugged Damen. ‘Welcome to the family.’

‘Great, you’ve met, we’re leaving now,’ Laurent said, tugging Damen’s hand to no effect, as he stayed rooted to the spot. ‘Damen, can we –’

‘So, what do you do?’ Aleron asked, ignoring his son.

‘I’m an architect, actually,’ Damen said proudly.

‘Oh, really? That’s a good, respectable job. Maybe we’ll have you work on some –’

‘I think Vannes wants us to dance,’ Laurent interrupted, pulling Damen towards the dancefloor with far less hesitation than before. They’d already had their first dance (not as bad as Laurent expected – Damen was actually a good dancer) and were due to leave their reception in about half an hour.

He couldn’t wait to leave.

***

‘Do you want to share the bed, or –’

‘No offence,’ Laurent said, loosening his tie. ‘But no.’

‘Okay, cool, no problem,’ Damen shrugged. ‘I don’t mind sleeping on the couch, so I’ll let you have the bed.’

Laurent frowned a little but nodded. He wasn’t saying he wanted the bed, but he definitely wasn’t going to turn it down. No doubt, the producers would’ve chosen somewhere with terrible, shitty couches, just to encourage them to sleep in the same bed. He felt kind of bad for Damen, looking at the couch – mostly because it was too short for Laurent to sleep comfortably on, let alone his enormous Akielon husband.

‘Try to be a little more attentive to each other,’ Vannes suggested, from where she and the cameraman were perched in the doorway watching them interact. ‘The wedding night is very important for bonding and setting things up for the rest of the experiment.’

Laurent gave her a tight smile and approached Damen. ‘Stop,’ he said, batting his hands away from his tie. He was – somehow – going about it the wrong way, and making it even tighter. ‘Let me.’

Damen huffed but let Laurent remove it. ‘I’m not used to your fancy Veretian knots.’

Laurent hummed and tossed the tie away. ‘I’m sure you’re capable of doing the rest.’

‘I’m sure I am,’ Damen sighed. He went to the side of the bed where his things were and started sorting through for a pair of pyjama pants, which he threw onto the bed, before he started to unceremoniously strip from his suit, dropping the waistcoat on a chair and moving to unbutton his shirt.

At the first sign of skin, Laurent made a quiet squeak, and retreated to the bathroom to change his own suit out for a loose shirt and shorts. He waited a conceivable length of time for Damen to have left the bedroom, but when he got out, Damen was still standing there, hands on his hips, Vannes and the cameraman behind him.

Oh, good. They waited for him.

‘A good night kiss please, Laurent,’ Vannes said.

‘But I’m not married to you,’ Laurent said, before he could stop himself. He dumped his clothes on his suitcase and ignored Damen’s giggles. ‘Alright, husband.’

‘Alright, husband,’ Damen grinned. ‘I don’t blame you for kicking me to the couch. That bed looks way too small for both of us.’

They both glanced to the king-sized bed and Laurent hummed. ‘I’m glad you understand. Sleep well.’

‘Sleep well.’

‘No!’ Vannes interrupted, as Damen turned for the couch. ‘Kiss!’

‘For fuck’s sake,’ Laurent muttered, striding across the room and going up to his toes to peck Damen’s lips. ‘Now, get out of my room.’

Damen raised an eyebrow and ducked down for another, slightly more lingering kiss. ‘Yes, sir.’

Vannes groaned, and waved her hand. ‘Whatever. Get into bed and couch.’

Laurent carefully reached back to take Damen’s hand off his hip – which, when had that got there? – and climbed into bed, snuggling under the fluffy covers. He heard Damen get under the blanket he’d taken to the couch, and then the lights went out, and the front door shut.

This felt very much like a parent turning off a child’s light after catching them awake past their bedtime. Laurent didn’t like it.

***

Laurent was still awake.

It was nearing 3am, after Vannes had left around one, finally having all the shots she wanted, and Laurent was still fucking awake.

He didn’t know what it was, but he felt kind of like his insides were buzzing. The day had been long, it had been a lot, and he was so damn tired, but he couldn’t sleep. He kind of just… wanted to talk. That was unlike him.

‘Are you…’ Laurent stopped and sighed, then rolled to his other side.

‘Yeah,’ Damen answered. ‘I’m awake.’

‘Have you been able to sleep?’

‘Nope.’

It occurred to Laurent, rather suddenly, that he and Damen were alone now. No crew, no friends or family, just the two of them. He didn’t know what to say.

‘What are your family like?’ Damen asked. ‘You only let me meet them briefly.’

Not the question Laurent would’ve liked to start with, but sure. ‘My mother is… from Kempt.’

Laurent heard Damen laugh quietly. ‘Is that her entire personality?’

‘No, she’s… she’s the strongest woman I know. She’s very kind, and thoughtful, and she always knows the right thing to say to me.’

‘Your father?’

‘Are you trying to work out if I have daddy issues?’

Damen made a considering noise. ‘Do you?’

‘No.’

‘Then you have nothing to worry about.’

Laurent sighed and sat up in bed, facing the direction of the couch. ‘If you’re going to make me talk, can you at least come over here so I can talk quieter?’

‘Hey, you started this,’ Damen said, but Laurent heard him get off the couch and slowly make his way toward the bed. There was a loud crunch, followed by an: ‘Ow, fuck.’

Laurent bit his lip to stop from laughing. ‘That sounded like it hurt,’ he said, voice slow and a little shaky as he held it back.

‘It did,’ Damen muttered, apparently walking into the bed, if the jolt to the mattress was any indication. ‘Oh, well, at least that one was soft. Can I get in the bed?’

‘If you have to, just don’t touch me.’

‘Sure thing.’ The covers were pulled back, and the other side of the bed dipped under Damen’s weight. ‘Damn, this is comfy.’

Laurent hummed. ‘Tell me about your family.’ He’d talked to them a little more than Damen had talked to his parents, but he couldn’t quite figure everything out. ‘Your brother and your mother have a very…’

‘Weird relationship?’ Damen filled in. ‘Yeah, story of my life. My mom is my dad’s second wife. Kastor’s mom was his first.’

‘Oh. I shouldn’t have asked, I’m sorry.’

‘It’s fine. Wanna know something worse?’

‘Worse?’

‘The woman Kastor was with? Jokaste? The blonde?’

‘Yeah?’

‘She’s my ex.’

Laurent frowned. ‘She’s with your brother?’

‘Yep,’ Damen popped the P. ‘She cheated on me with my brother.’

‘Wow.’ Laurent didn’t know what else to say.

‘Yep,’ Damen said again. ‘But uh, that wasn’t the question, was it? My family. My dad was always a little strict, but he’s good. He has good intentions. My mom, too. She’s my favourite person in the world, and I’d probably be a little lost without her.’

‘She seems nice.’

‘She likes you.’

‘That’s… good.’

‘I do, too,’ Damen added softly. ‘If that helps.’

‘Oh,’ Laurent said awkwardly. ‘Thanks. What’s your favourite colour?’

Damen huffed, and Laurent felt the bed dip as Damen rolled to his side. Thankfully, he didn’t fight the dismissal. ‘Red. Not bright red, like a dark red. Ruby. You?’

‘I like dark blues and forest green. Favourite animal?’

‘I’m partial to eagles. Let me guess, you’re a cat person?’

‘Nope, horses. Though I do like cats. Cats, not pussies.’ Laurent mentally slapped himself.

Damen barked a startled laugh. ‘Are you picking on me because I’ve had girlfriends? Laurent, that’s not very nice. You can’t tell me you’re a gold star gay.’

‘Yep. Never even looked at a woman below the chin.’

‘Wow, that’s dedication.’

Laurent shrugged as well as he could and moved on. ‘Favourite food?’

Damen sighed longingly. ‘Bread.’

‘Bread?’

‘Bread. So simple, yet so refined.’

‘I’ll accept that.’

Damen was quiet for a moment. ‘What’s your job? I haven’t managed to find out.’

Laurent smiled into the darkness. ‘I want you to guess.’

‘Male model,’ Damen said immediately. ‘Horse trainer. Dolphin trainer?’

‘Nope, no, and no.’

‘Do you work with children?’

‘Occasionally.’

‘So not like, a teacher?’

‘Not really.’

Damen hummed and Laurent could almost feel the sound in his chest. ‘I give up. What do you do?’

‘I’m an historian.’

There was a pause. ‘You’re what?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Wow. Did not see that one coming.’

‘I’m also a writer, kind of. I write history books. Nonfiction,’ Laurent clarified.

‘Gods, I married a nerd,’ Damen said, laughing gently. ‘Can I sleep here?’

‘I suppose.’

‘Okay,’ Damen wiggled a little under the covers, keeping strictly to his side of the bed. ‘Night.’

‘Goodnight,’ Laurent said after a few moments, but it was too late. Damen was already snoring.

Chapter Text

‘You ever been to Vask?’ Damen asked, as he went across to the balcony and looked out over the rolling hills around them.

‘A few times,’ Laurent said, ducking into the bathroom to dump his toiletries on the sink. ‘Have you?’

‘Once, when I was younger. My father came here on business and brought me with him. I don’t remember much.’

‘Vask is nice this time of year.’

‘Okay, enough pleasantries,’ Vannes interrupted, where she was standing with the cameraman (Aimeric, Laurent had learned) in the doorway. ‘Time to do something.’

‘We got here like twenty minutes ago,’ Damen protested.

‘Yeah, so do something. Make out or go for a walk or something.’

‘A walk where?’

‘Figure it out!’

Damen rolled his eyes and held his hand out to Laurent. ‘Feel like exploring a forbidden forest?’

‘Is that an innuendo?’ Laurent asked, warily taking Damen’s hand anyway. ‘Because I’m telling you right now, if you just take me to the bed, I’ll be disappointed.’

‘You liked when I was in bed with you last night,’ Damen winked.

Laurent narrowed his eyes and pretended he wasn’t blushing. They hadn’t talked about last night, or how they’d woken up this morning, with Laurent’s head on Damen’s chest, and one of Damen’s arms around his waist. They’d parted quickly, and Laurent had vanished into the bathroom.

‘In bed together?’ Vannes asked. ‘Let’s talk about that.’

‘Let’s not,’ Laurent said flatly. ‘I was promised a forest.’

Damen grinned and headed for the door, waiting politely for Vannes and Aimeric to move so they could go find a forest. It shouldn’t be too hard. They had been dropped off at a mountain retreat in the Vaskian wilderness for the week and told to bond. (That producer’s accent made it sound a little like he’d said bone, to which Damen had frowned and said, “You want us to bone?” and the producer had smirked and replied, “No pressure, but we do need ratings.”)

Past Vannes and Aimeric was nothing much but trees. There was a covered path that linked Damen and Laurent’s cabin to the retreat’s main buildings, but other than that, there was just a small open area, and the forest beyond. Neat signs pointed the way around the resort, and toward paths to follow through the trees.

‘We’re not really dressed for the occasion,’ Damen said, even as he and Laurent made their way over the clearing.

Laurent hummed and looked to his slacks and Damen’s sweatpants. ‘I don’t think Vannes cares.’

‘She’d probably prefer we stayed inside and had a heart to heart in there instead,’ Damen agreed, shooting a glance over his shoulder to Vannes and Aimeric following them.

‘Well we have to at least go look at nature. Make it seem like we have personalities or something.’

‘I have a personality.’

‘Do you?’

‘Do you?’

Laurent pursed his lips to keep from smiling. ‘Barely.’

Damen sighed and flexed the arm not attached to Laurent at the hand. ‘All I have is muscle.’

‘Yes, well. At least you’ve got that.’

‘Sit on that log!’ Vannes called from behind them. ‘Go talk about your plans for the future together!’

‘She’s going to drive me mad,’ Laurent muttered, going to the log Vannes pointed out, barely inside the forest and definitely damp from the chill air. ‘This log is wet, Vannes!’

‘I don’t care!’

‘Let’s just get it done and we can go,’ Damen murmured, sitting down and ignoring the gentle squelch from under him.

Laurent made a noise of disgust and sat beside him. ‘So.’

‘So,’ Damen echoed. ‘Where do you live? I think that’s the first hurdle.’

‘I live in Arles. Most of my work is in the old royal library, quite far from anywhere in Akielos.’

Damen nodded, looking down to their still joined hands. ‘I live in Ios.’

‘Oh. That’s…’

‘Far, yeah. I suppose I can move, given that my work is a little less restrictive than yours. Unless you’d be open to move to Ios?’

Laurent hummed, thinking how ridiculous it was to discuss moving cities to be with someone he’d known less than 48 hours. This was all supposed to be temporary. ‘I don’t know, and at this point, I don’t think I should put a definite answer on it.’

‘I get that.’

‘Ask Damen about kids!’ Vannes suggested, a look in her eye that made Laurent frown.

‘What about kids?’ Laurent asked slowly, looking to Damen. There was something simmering under the surface there, and Laurent didn’t know if he liked it.

‘My, uh. You know how I told you about my ex? Who’s with my brother?’

‘Yes.’

‘She’s pregnant.’

‘I did notice, yes.’

‘She…’ Damen took a deep breath. He clearly didn’t want to be talking about this. ‘She –’

‘No,’ Laurent interrupted. ‘I know where this is going and I’m not going to let them use this to stir drama.’

‘You have to,’ Vannes shrugged. ‘It’s what’s been decided.’

‘You cannot make either of us say anything, and I won’t let you pull someone else into this drama and paint them as a villain. How did you even find that out?’

Vannes tilted her head. ‘Social media, honey. If you’re not going to talk about it, you can talk about something else.’

Laurent turned back to Damen, waiting for him to school his features into something a little less panicked. ‘Are you ready?’

‘Yes,’ Damen nodded. ‘What was your last relationship like? I think we’ve been over mine.’

‘It didn’t… last,’ Laurent said vaguely. ‘I don’t date people.’

‘You don’t date people?’

Laurent smiled ruefully. ‘Shocking, isn’t it?’

‘A little, yeah. Why not?’

‘I told you. I’m difficult.’

‘You don’t seem too difficult to me. Just a little… closed off.’

‘And let me guess, you’ll be the crowbar to pry me open, huh?’

Damen shrugged. ‘Maybe. I think you’re just a little cold and unused to people in general. I don’t want to psychoanalyse anything –’

‘Then don’t,’ Laurent said, a warning in his eyes. ‘Later, you and I are going to have a conversation.’

‘Great!’ Vannes said. ‘Now, storm off back to the room, Laurent.’

‘Not hard,’ Laurent muttered, taking his hand from Damen’s and standing to brush off the bits of log stuck to his ass. He headed back the way they’d come, going directly to their room without a backwards glance.

It was a pity. He’d been looking forward to walking through the forest, but somehow Vannes knew just what to get them talking about to stir drama between himself and Damen.

He had to admit – she was good at her job.

***

‘Well?’ Vannes said, watching as Laurent went to the room. ‘Are you going to go after him?’

Damen sighed and stretched his legs in front of him, looking up through the trees. ‘Nope.’

‘Too bad, that was a pathetic conversation. Go poke him for more.’

‘I really don’t want to. Things are already awkward and now they’re strained, and I don’t want to push him.’

‘Good thing it’s not up to you,’ Vannes smiled genially. ‘Go after him.’

Damen took a breath and pushed himself off the log to go after Laurent. This was the opposite of what he’d come here for. Love was one thing, being forced to go with the whims of someone with only drama in mind was quite another.

And Damen liked Laurent. Maybe. He hadn’t been disappointed yesterday when he turned around to see him at the other end of the aisle. He hadn’t been disappointed with the conversation last night, and he had very much enjoyed waking up with him in his arms. Things were very tentative between them, and Damen didn’t want to break what they had before they even had anything, but it seemed he was destined to. Fucking Vannes.

Reaching the door, Damen decided the best way to go about it was to knock. He was all too aware of Vannes and Aimeric following him. ‘Laurent?’

He almost didn’t think Laurent would let him in, but there was the gentle noise of the door unlocking, and it opened a crack. ‘What.’

‘You know what.’

Laurent opened the door and shot a look over Damen’s shoulder, a warning to Vannes and Aimeric. They were two days into the experiment, and he was already painting himself as a… well. As a bit of a bitch. A drama queen.

‘I’m sorry,’ Damen said, as soon as the door was closed behind him. ‘I didn’t want to –’

‘I know,’ Laurent sat on the arm of the couch. ‘It’s not your fault. Vannes is too good at her job.’

‘We need to have a united front here. We can’t let her drive wedges between us before we’re even an us.’

‘We will talk later,’ Laurent murmured. ‘Yes?’

‘Yes,’ Damen gave him a small smile. He liked how Laurent had taken to speaking Veretian to him when he didn’t want Vannes to hear or know things. It was nice being able to rebel, even in such a small way. ‘Wanna take that walk now?’

‘Sure, but try to keep the conversation light, not about why I do or do not date. Deal?’

‘Deal. And thank you for… before.’

‘Tonight?’

‘Tonight,’ Damen stuck a hand out to him. ‘Walk, take two.’

Laurent laughed lightly at his terrible joke and took his hand. ‘Take two.’

‘Later,’ Vannes said, arms crossed as Damen and Laurent left the cabin again. ‘We’re going to have a conversation I don’t think you’re going to like.’

‘Looks like a lot of conversations are going to be had later,’ Damen sighed. ‘We’re going for a walk. Do you need to –’

‘You know you can’t speak without a camera present,’ Vannes waved her hand towards the trees. ‘Hurry up and walk. I’m freezing my ass off here.’

‘Any particular topic you want us to talk about?’ Laurent asked, not bothering to turn back to face Vannes as he and Damen set off across the clearing. Again.

‘Talk about the experiment. Your feelings so far, thoughts about each other.’

‘Great,’ Laurent said, and Damen tried not to feel too hurt as Laurent carefully extracted his hand from Damen’s. ‘How are you feeling about everything?’

Damen shrugged, tucking his own hands into the front pocket of his hoodie. A nice, natural move. ‘It’s been wild, hasn’t it? A bit weird, but I suppose we’ll get used to it. You?’

‘It’s been overwhelming, in some ways. I usually spend my days in my study or a library, so yesterday was a little out of my comfort zone.’

‘Do you like the gift I got you?’ Damen asked. Neither of them had mentioned it yet, but he knew Laurent was wearing it. He’d woken up to the sun glinting off it where Laurent’s arm was over his chest.

‘I do. I never thanked you for it, but it was very thoughtful, and it put me a little at ease, honestly.’

‘It did?’

Laurent nodded. ‘It reminded me there was someone going through the same feelings as me, so even if we don’t work out, we have that shared experience.’

Damen smiled and nudged him with his elbow as they reached the forest path. ‘I have a matching one. Shared experience, shared jewellery.’

Laurent frowned, and Damen wondered if he hadn’t realised. ‘Can I ask you something?’ he said quietly.

‘Of course.’ Damen could hear the hesitance in Laurent’s voice, like he almost didn’t want to ask the question he had in mind. When he spoke, Damen nearly missed it.

‘Were you disappointed you got me?’

Damen paused and put a hand on Laurent’s arm to stop him, too. ‘Why would you think that?’

Laurent shrugged, and the vulnerability Damen thought he’d heard had vanished, leaving a carefully blank slate on Laurent’s face. ‘I’ve seen your ex. I know you date girls, but you got me, and I’m me.’

‘Are you asking if I’m disappointed I was assigned you because of your personality or because you’re a man?’

‘Both.’

‘I don’t care that you’re male,’ Damen said softly, ‘and I have no problem with your personality. I was matched with you for a reason, and I’m not disappointed in any way at all.’

‘Did you put you were interested in both men and women on your form?’

‘I…’ Damen took his hand from Laurent’s arm, thinking maybe he’d left it to linger there too long. The moment he did, he saw something shutter in Laurent’s eyes, and he wondered if he shouldn’t have removed it. ‘I asked to be matched with a male.’

‘Why?’

Damen knew Laurent had probably worked out why. He’d realised where their earlier conversation about Jokaste and Kastor was going, and he’d put a stop to it then and there, risking the wrath of Vannes. ‘I think you can work it out.’

Laurent studied his face for a moment and nodded. ‘Yeah. Was that the only reason you asked for a husband?’

‘Are you asking me if I’m actually straight and just experimenting?’

‘Are you?’

‘No. I’m very bi.’

‘Oh. So you’ve –’

‘Been with guys?’ Damen huffed and started walking again, idly following the path through the trees. ‘Yes.’

Laurent made a small noise, one Damen didn’t quite know how to decipher. ‘Do you have a preference, though?’

‘Laurent, if you’re trying to make me admit I don’t like you, you’re going to have a very hard time,’ Damen said drily. ‘I have nothing against you, no reservations of any kind. Right now, I’m with you, and that’s that. Okay?’

Laurent made the same noise and looked up to the sky. ‘I think it’s going to rain.’

Damen let out a level breath, choosing not to make a big deal of Laurent ignoring the question. ‘I think it’s going to rain, too. Let me ask you something, now.’

‘I suppose.’

‘Were you disappointed you got me?’

Laurent cleared his throat and didn’t speak. That pretty much told Damen everything he needed to know.

‘Oh,’ Damen said. ‘Okay.’

‘It’s –’ Laurent shut his mouth again with an audible click. ‘It’s not what you think.’

‘Then what is it? Is it because I’m bi? Is it because I’m Akielon?’

‘No!’ Laurent said, his eyes wide with horror at the suggestion. ‘No, Damen, of course not. You’re – you’re very… attractive, and I don’t care you’re bi and from almost as far as you can get from Arles. I just, I didn’t want –’

‘Didn’t want what?’ Damen asked, grimacing towards the clouds as a fat drop of rain landed on his cheek.

‘I didn’t want to get attached.’

‘This is great stuff, guys!’ Vannes interrupted. ‘But we need to go back before it starts raining properly and the camera gets drenched.’

Damen turned to her and he saw her visibly balk at whatever expression was on his face. He didn’t know what it was, because he didn’t even know how he felt right now. ‘You can go back, I need a minute or two with Laurent.’

‘No, you don’t. This is a conversation we need to get, boys.’

‘I thought we said we weren’t going to let her divide us,’ Laurent said quietly.

‘Give me, right now, five words or less why I shouldn’t be mad about this.’

‘I lost a bet,’ Laurent blurted.

Damen blinked. ‘You –’

‘Veretian, Damen.’

‘You came on here because you lost a bet?’

‘Yes.’

‘Boys!’ Vannes said, now holding her jacket over the camera as she and Aimeric headed back along the path towards the cabins. ‘Inside!’

‘Fuck,’ Damen muttered. ‘Later.’

‘I know.’

***

‘Before we leave you for the night,’ Vannes said, legs crossed as she sat opposite Damen and Laurent in one of the armchairs in their cabin, ‘I know you don’t like me.’

‘What?’ Damen said, adding a laugh that came out sounding far too fake and nervous, even to his own ears. ‘What gives you that impression?’

‘You speak Veretian so I can’t understand what you’re saying. You openly defy me and refuse to film things. It’s not even been a week.’

‘Maybe because this is a relationship that could potentially go somewhere, and you seem intent on stirring as much shit between us as you can?’ Damen shrugged. ‘Just a thought.’

‘Look, I know it sucks, okay?’ Vannes sighed. ‘I hate this job. I don’t like making people throw accusations and hurt at each other, but if you don’t cooperate with me, then you’re going to get someone much worse. There needs to be some drama to keep viewers invested, and you two need to play along, even if you don’t want to.’

‘We just don’t want all our dirty laundry flying around for everyone to see,’ Laurent said. ‘Is that a crime?’

‘In this industry, yes.’

‘Well –’

‘Keep whatever witty retort you have lined up,’ Vannes rolled her eyes. ‘I know some things need to be kept secret, I promise I get that. But you can’t keep everything to yourself, or there’ll be no interest in you. I suggest you take advantage of the night to set some boundaries, but make sure they’re wide, or you’re going to destroy each other on tape, and the editors will use it. Clear?’

Damen and Laurent exchanged a look. They knew they had stuff to work out tonight. Damen especially was interested in why the fuck Laurent was here.

‘Clear,’ Laurent said, standing and heading to open the door pointedly. ‘See you in the morning.’

Vannes stood and narrowed her eyes at them. ‘Tomorrow, be better prepared for this. Remember to use the camera we’ve left you.’

‘Yes, Mom,’ Damen muttered.

Vannes ignored them as she left, and Laurent shut the door behind her. ‘Time to talk?’

‘Time to talk,’ Damen said, nodding to Laurent’s vacated spot on the couch. ‘You can start by telling me about this bet.’

‘Simply put, my brother said if I lost to him at poker, I had to audition for this show. I never lose. That time I did. I auditioned, and here we are,’ Laurent sighed, running a hand through his loose hair and rubbing his neck. ‘He only told me yesterday morning I didn’t have to take it this far.’

‘Your brother sounds like a dick,’ Damen said lightly.

‘Only sometimes.’

‘I’m assuming you didn’t want to come on here,’ Damen asked, stretching out to rest his feet on the edge of the table in front of them. ‘You said you didn’t want to get attached.’

Laurent nodded. ‘I wanted to get through this as fast as possible. Make my partner hate me, then quit as soon as we could. I don’t… I don’t think that’s going to happen now.’

‘Why, because I like you?’

‘Apparently.’

Damen hummed. ‘I won’t force you to like me. I’m here for love, as cliché as it is, but if you decide you don’t want to be with me, I won’t try to make you stay and change your mind. Give me the word, and I’ll drop out with you.’

‘Really?’

‘I can’t make you like me, Laurent. If you – if you say you don’t want to be with me, like if we have a safe word or something, I’ll put down a no at the commitment ceremony and you can be free of me and this… show.’

‘“It’s not a show, it’s an experiment,”’ Laurent said, rolling his eyes as he mocked what Vannes had already told them four times. ‘I don’t think they’ll let us do that.’

‘They can’t force us to stay,’ Damen shrugged. ‘If you don’t want to be here, then I won’t make you, either.’

‘Look, I’ll…’ Laurent paused, pulling his leg up onto the couch next to Damen. ‘I meant what I said in my vows, or I guess I mean them now. You seem like a good guy –’

‘Wow, thanks.’

‘So, I’ll try,’ Laurent finished, ignoring Damen’s interruption. ‘I know I’m difficult, but I don’t want to waste your time. I’ll try.’

Damen nodded. He didn’t really know Laurent all that well, and he liked what he’d seen so far, but he wasn’t a sadist. He wasn’t going to force Laurent to stay here with him, where they’d both end up resenting each other if things didn’t work out. Now knowing Laurent hadn’t wanted to be here in the first place but hearing him say he’d give it a shot – that meant more to Damen than he’d thought it would. ‘You said earlier that you don’t date.’

‘I don’t, no.’

‘Can I ask why?’

Laurent laughed quietly, leaning into the couch and resting his head on the back of it. ‘I’m a bitch, apparently. I tried dating a few times, but it always ended with them being disappointed or angry at what I did or didn’t do. Eventually I just decided it was easier for me to pull back and focus on my career and my research. I figured if I ever wanted love, it would find me at the right time.’

‘Do you think –’ Do you think you could love me? Damen stopped. No. He wasn’t going to ask that. He didn’t want to push Laurent. ‘Okay.’

‘So that’s cleared up,’ Laurent tilted his head and watched Damen for a moment. ‘Jokaste cheated on you with your brother and got pregnant?’

Damen pursed his lips and looked over Laurent’s shoulder out to the balcony. Through the glass of the wall and doors, he could see the rain giving way to sleet, and he wondered if it would snow.

‘Damen?’

Damen sighed and pulled his eyes back to Laurent. ‘Yeah,’ he said, keeping his voice carefully neutral. ‘She doesn’t know who the father is. The producers want to use it – the baby – for drama and to make us fight because I didn’t tell you.’

‘It’s not any of my business,’ Laurent said, surprising Damen a little. ‘Obviously, you maybe having a baby on the way is… certainly something. I don’t know why they think this would harm any relationship we form, because it’s been one day. I don’t –’

‘They were going to make me wait to tell you until later in the show. I think the plan was to wait until we started being affectionate or whatever, and then drop it on you like a bombshell.’

Laurent hummed. ‘How far is she?’

‘About seven months.’

‘When did you break up?’

‘About six and a half months ago.’

‘So that’s why you put yourself down for a husband?’ Laurent asked quietly. ‘So you wouldn’t have to go through that again?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe. When I filled out that form, I was so mad at her, what she’d done to me. I didn’t even know about the baby at the time, I just…’

‘I understand. We can stop talking about it.’

Damen nodded. He’d had time to process the whole thing with Jokaste, but he didn’t want this show to paint her as a villain, no matter how much she’d hurt him. ‘Was there anything else we needed to talk about?’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Cool.’ Damen stood and went over to the small camera Vannes and Aimeric had left on the table. ‘Guess we should use this, or they’ll insist on watching us until we fall asleep.’

‘What if I have an exhibitionist kink?’

Damen paused and looked over to Laurent, still sitting on the couch, face unreadable. ‘Do you?’

‘I’m Veretian, it’s in my blood,’ Laurent said, raising an eyebrow. ‘But no, not… currently.’

‘I like how that’s open for negotiation.’

‘Do you have an exhibitionist kink?’ Laurent asked, right as Damen turned the camera on and started filming.

‘No, I don’t. I’m Akielon, that’s in my blood.’

Laurent laughed and went over to the glass wall. ‘I think it’s snowing.’

‘Is it?’

‘Yeah, it’s – shit, thanks,’ Laurent said, as Damen thrust the recording camera into his hands. ‘What, you’ve never seen snow before?’ he asked, as Damen pulled open the balcony door and stood outside under the porch to watch the flakes fall.

‘I have,’ Damen said, sticking his arm out into the light flurry. ‘But not for years. Ios doesn’t get snow.’

‘It’s been raining too much for it to stay, so don’t get too excited,’ Laurent said, from where he was standing with the camera inside the cabin.

‘Me? Excited?’ Damen scoffed, leaning over the balcony with his face to the sky, mouth open to catch snowflakes on his tongue. ‘You can’t say you’re not excited about it.’

‘I live in Arles. That’s in the north of Vere. We get snow every year like clockwork, Damen.’

‘Have you ever been to Ios?’

‘A couple of times when I was younger. I don’t remember too much.’

Damen sighed and stuck his head back again. ‘I wonder what you’d be like in the heat.’

‘It would be a disaster, probably.’

‘A hot mess, would you say?’

Laurent rolled his eyes good naturedly. ‘Terrible joke.’

Damen just grinned.

***

‘So we’ve just woken up,’ Damen said, holding the little camera above himself and Laurent in bed. Laurent had carefully put some distance between them before allowing Damen to film or even acknowledge he was there, but had squeezed himself back into frame as Vannes would no doubt want him to. ‘And I was right! The snow stayed!’

‘Which means we’re now probably going to be trapped in here all day, or be forced to make a snowman together, or – Gods forbid – be forced to go to the spa and have people massage us,’ Laurent shuddered.

‘Oh yeah,’ Damen agreed seriously. ‘Nothing says torture like a massage.’

‘Exactly,’ Laurent nodded, taking the camera from Damen as he quickly shoved himself into a hoodie and shoes to go outside. ‘What an absolute child,’ Laurent muttered, turning the camera to where Damen had his hands shoved into the snow and was flinging fistfuls around on the balcony.

‘Come outside!’ Damen said, sticking his head back in the cabin for a moment. ‘Please? And I’ll fend off any and all offers of massages.’

‘Fine!’ Laurent rolled out of bed and wrapped a blanket around himself from the back of the couch, slipping on a pair of shoes as well, before he grabbed the camera again and joined Damen on the balcony. He could see his breath in the air. ‘Fuck, it’s cold.’

‘Isn’t it great?’ Damen enthused. ‘I love snow.’

‘Come live in Arles for a bit and you won’t.’

‘Is that an offer?’ Damen asked, making a couple of balls in the snow on the small table on the balcony. He stacked them and poked his finger into the top one to make a mouth and two eyes. ‘Look, I made you!’

‘It’s very small, Damen.’

‘And?’

‘Hold this,’ Laurent held out the camera and shuffled through the channel Damen had made to get to the table. With some impressive coordination (he thought) to keep the blanket around himself, he made some snowballs of his own, stacking them with the biggest and medium sized balls swapped around. ‘There.’

‘I don’t think you’re very good at this, Laurent,’ Damen said, eyeing it critically. ‘The head’s in the right place, but the other two –’

‘It’s you,’ Laurent interrupted, ‘and obviously, because you’re a giant animal, the big one goes there for your shoulders.’

Damen narrowed his eyes at Laurent as he used his finger to carve the eyes and smile into the tiny head. ‘You think you’re funny.’

‘Am I wrong?’

‘I didn’t say that.’

‘It’s because I’m right.’

‘Good morning!’ interrupted Vannes, who had opened their front door to yell at them. ‘My boys, where are you?’

Damen and Laurent exchanged a look, like they weren’t on the other side of a wall made entirely of glass. ‘Vannes, what do you want?’ Damen asked.

‘Time to film!’

‘We’re – Vannes, we’re using the camera.’

‘Good, great, but big camera time,’ she said, standing at the door to the balcony and narrowing her eyes at them. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Uh –’

‘I’m sure you have eyes, Vannes,’ Laurent said, pulling his blanket closer around himself. ‘What hoops are you planning to make us jump through today?’

Vannes raised an eyebrow, unimpressed. ‘Some cute stuff in the snow, maybe a sled ride or whatever super cheesy romantic stuff this place has to offer. Maybe skiing.’

‘I’ve never been skiing,’ Damen frowned, ‘so could that not be an option?’

Laurent sighed. ‘You really shouldn’t have –’

‘I’ll check if they have skis or slopes here,’ Vannes said brightly. ‘Back up plan is just snowball fight and hot chocolate, maybe a steamy session in the sauna.’

‘Sounds super,’ Damen said, shivering and poking Laurent in the back. ‘In.’

‘Well, I’ll leave you to it,’ Vannes said. ‘We’ll be back for you in about an hour. Have some breakfast and get ready for snow!’

‘I don’t know about Laurent, but I’m not prepared for snow.’

‘Meaning?’

‘Meaning it’s like, the middle of spring, and I was expecting warm weather?’

Vannes narrowed her eyes like she thought it might be a trick. ‘Fine. Wrap up as warm as you can, we’ll stick to a romantic walk in the snow, a fight, then to the spa.’

‘No massages,’ Damen said quickly.

‘No massages?’

‘No massages.’

‘Ugh, whatever,’ Vannes said, making her way back to the front door, calling out over her shoulder, ‘One hour!’

‘Thank you,’ Laurent said quietly, after she’d left.

‘No problem,’ Damen said, finally shutting the balcony door, and going over to check the front was locked. ‘What do you have against massages?’

‘I don’t like being touched by strangers.’

Damen consciously took a small step from Laurent and toed his shoes off. ‘I’m going to have a hot shower. You don’t want to join?’

‘No, thank you.’

‘Okay, no problem. Breakfast?’

‘I can wait for you to get back.’

‘Nah, just get me some pancakes or whatever,’ Damen said, pulling his hoodie back off and heading to the bathroom. ‘I’ll save you some water!’

Laurent nodded as he watched Damen go. He might not have wanted to come on this show, but while he was here, he was sure as hell going to take advantage of the view.

***

By the time they finally left the Vaskian mountains, Damen and Laurent had engaged in three snowball fights, two romantic cuddling sessions by an open fire with hot chocolate in their frozen hands, and had experienced the spa. No massages, but Vannes had insisted on at least having a facial to give the illusion of a bonding experience at the hands of some encouraging Vaskian women. (They’d offered him and Damen a suspicious drink, but Laurent had just enough Vaskian under his belt to understand exactly what it was – and they did not need any… aids, thank you, mysterious Vaskian spa attendants.)

As they packed up their stuff to head to the show-mandated apartment in Marlas, Laurent knew this was when the heavy work would have to begin. So far, he and Damen had been stuck with just Vannes and Aimeric, but now they would be at the mercy of a whole team of producers and cameramen, and be subject to dinner parties and group counselling sessions with the other couples and panel of “relationship experts”. He’d have to start saying yes or no to whether he wanted to stay with Damen.

Next week, he’d be given the option to leave and go home. A few days ago he would’ve jumped at the thought of that, but now, he wasn’t so sure.