The scratching started a week after they left Nesson, Laurent’s pretty face turned down into a frown. The light from the candles in their shared tent played shadows across his skin where it wasn’t laced up in rigid, restrictive clothing.
Damen was rolling back up the map they had been pondering over until the late hours of the night, evening after evening as they drew closer to Acquitart.
Laurent had been on edge for a good portion of the afternoon, sitting straight backed on his horse as they marched south, something tight curling the side of his mouth.
Damen had paid attention to it, as he paid attention to anything that could indicate a dangerous reaction from Laurent, and he paused while rolling away the parchments where they had been taking notes in Laurent’s flowy handwriting next to Damen’s clean, sharp one.
Laurent leaned a hip back against the table and brought a hand up behind his ear, lightly pulling at the hair there before catching himself.
“Attend me,” he said, eyes looking forward and a familiar tension in his shoulders.
Stepping forward felt like uncharted territory. Staying back was outright insubordination. Damen stepped forward, unlacing the front of Laurent’s jacket starting from the ties on his neck, right below his chin, and pulling them open with slightly more practiced movements than when he had first started.
“You’re uncomfortable,” he observed when pulling the heavy clothing from the rigid shoulders didn’t make them relax like it usually did, fine white shirt shifting right above Laurent’s just as fine skin.
“Then you had better behave yourself,” Laurent bit back with no heat, a cool, matter of fact threat.
“Do you think I wouldn’t?” asked Damen, letting the dark blue jacket rest on the back of the chair where its owner had set only a handful of minutes earlier, one knee drawn up and pale blue eyes on the map that spanned the border land, from Acquitart to Delpha.
“Step back,” the order curled, annoyed, in the air between them. Laurent brought his hand behind his ear again. Then: “Do you think I would let you?”
“I think,” Damen started carefully, moving to the little table next to his slave pallet, covering one of the candles to extinguish it, “ You don’t like being uncomfortable.”
That was the truth between them, unadorned for once. Damen moved to extinguish the rest of the candles, leaving only one still burning by Laurent’s bed.
Laurent was staring at him, pulling slightly at his own hair. His eyes were as cold as ever, but his breathing was too carefully controlled, his chest rising and falling under the white shirt, still tightly laced on the front and down his wrists.
It had not been the same, since Nesson-Eloy, Damen’s mind still filled with the sound of a breathless laugh during a rooftop chase, a blue earing as clear and bright in his memory as the view of the sea from the cliffs in Ios.
Lately, he looked at Laurent and he found himself seeing something other than the spoiled Prince he had thought he knew in Arles.
Damen had the scars on his back, newly healed nicely and not pulling anymore thanks to Paschal’s salve, as stark proof that he couldn’t forget the danger that lay beneath the fall of Laurent’s golden hair. Nor should he let himself ignore the poison that spewed from his beautifully shaped mouth, his pink, plump lips so often pulled in tight dissatisfaction.
Carefully, Laurent lowered his hand from his own hair, fingers coming to rest lightly against one of the poles of the tent.
“You don’t strike me as someone who cares much for my comfort,” he said lightly, his long, pale fingers tapping against the pole.
Damen realized, suddenly, what was so unsettling about the picture Laurent painted in that moment, without his jacket but still completely dressed from his tightly laced white shirt to his polished riding boots. Laurent was fidgeting.
“We are riding towards battle,” said Damen. “Your comfort could mean life or death for the men following you.”
“How quaint. Don’t tell me you’re one of those men following me and fearing for your life.” Laurent’s answer was as quick and cutting as expected.
“I promised I would see you safely to the border.”
Laurent snorted. “You are seeing me safely to the border. That is all you have to concern yourself with.”
“Have it your way then,” Damen finally bit back, exasperated. “Whatever it is that has been bothering you, I can’t help you unless you share it with me.”
Laurent’s fingers twitched suddenly, and his brows drew together, furrowing. For a single moment, Damen thought he might have gotten through to him, but then Laurent turned around, his back to Damen and his fingers deftly raising to unlace his own shirt.
“I have no more need of you tonight,” he said, his back still turned.
Damen took the dismissal for what it was, leaving the tent and heading for the little stream by the horses. He washed his face and breathed in, his skin prickling in agitation as he thought of all the ways that this could go wrong because the Prince of Vere kept council only with himself.
Then he walked back to the tent he had to share with the man who had flayed the skin from his back and had then sat on his lap in an inn dressed as a prostitute.
All the candles had been put out and Laurent was already in bed, soft yellow hair the only thing visible from the covers, spread out on the pillow like a crown.
Arriving at Acquitart had been anticlimactic, the fort bare bones compared to the opulence of Chastillion but with enough provisions to feed and sustain a small troop like theirs through a whole season.
Damen took stock of this critically, just as he considered the empty halls and quiet, unassuming household with a new eye. Little tactical advantage, Laurent had said.
It certainly was that and more. He wondered, suddenly, how long Laurent had known that he wouldn’t be able to slither his way out of border duty forever.
Laurent himself had been strange since they’d arrived at his holding, directing his men to the barracks the moment he’d gotten off his horse, throwing the reins at a stableboy and striding across the courtyard with careful steps, coiled with tension.
Laurent had not relaxed since their conversation the night before, the memory of the tent lit in candlelight as distant as Laurent’s voice, sharp and heavy.
Damen watched him go as he slid off his own horse. He thought, briefly, of following him. Again, he thought of Laurent’s strange mood.
He went to find Jord instead.
He made his rounds through the men, talking to some of them and gauging their mood as they unpacked their pallets and took out their small dinners from their travel bags.
The men were glad for the short respite they would get from the road. The barracks were old and a tight fit, but they had cots and walls, and a roof over their head. They had washed out Veretian wine. In the morning they would have fresh breakfast from the fort. Tonight, they had one more night where they could rest and live to see one more day.
Jord was talking to Huet about sentry rotations, the two of them laying out the plan for which poor soul would get first watch on the tower and who would stand guard for the Prince.
“We can also do our men a favor and just leave His Highness to you,” said Jord when he saw Damen approach. “We need the rest, he worked us to the bone and we haven’t even reached out destination yet.”
I’m not sure he’ll want me to stand guard for him, Damen didn’t know how to say.
“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” he said instead after a brief pause that didn’t go unnoticed.
“He’s been in a rotten mood the last few days,” Huet agreed with the unspoken sentiment. “Better that you weather his corrosive tongue than us. Maybe you can fuck it out of him.”
Again, Damen couldn’t say I’m not fucking him, because they wouldn’t believe him, just like they hadn’t believed him every other time he’d said it.
“I doubt anything could curb his corrosive tongue,” he said, not unkindly. “Certainly not hearing you say that.”
Jord gave a short, disbelieving laugh. “No kidding. Think he’s waiting for someone to misstep so he can have an excuse to bite their head off to blow some steam?”
Damen thought of the baths in Arles, and then of Govart and the woman. Laurent was not the kind of person who waited for an opportunity to present itself.
“I better go figure that out then,” he excused himself from the conversation, Huet’s companiable laughter following his steps as he headed towards the fort.
It turned out Laurent’s mood had not, in fact, improved in the hour or so that Damen had spent talking to the troop. He had changed into comfortable travel clothing instead of the sleeping shirt Damen would have expected, and he threw a bundle of cloth at Damen when he entered through the doorway.
“Change into those,” Laurent ordered, fastidiously adjusting his bright hair behind the shell of one ear, as tense as he’d continuously been the last few days.
Damen unwound the bundle in his hand, uncovering dark and sturdy travel clothing.
“Are we going somewhere?” he asked lightly, heading towards the other door in the room that led to the private chamber.
“I am going somewhere,” Laurent specified, turned away from him as Damen started undressing, the line of his back rod straight and his words carefully pronounced. “You are chaperoning.”
“If you need me to punch a hole in a wall again you can just ask,” said Damen, just as carefully pronounced while he changed into the new clothing, his fingers unsure on the unfamiliar lacings. Then, annoyed: “Or you could help with the endless laces of the clothes you gave me.”
Laurent let that sit in the stillness between them for a moment, still turned away, hands clenched at his sides.
“Meet me in the stables,” he finally said, leaving.
Damen wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but it certainly hadn’t been a Vaskian tribe. The Hakkesh had dulled his senses, but the impression of the coupling fires was branded behind his eyelids nonetheless: the warmth of Kashel’s body on top of his that first time; the soft curves of the woman who had gently moved into her friend’s place; the weight of the others a more distant, pleasantly unfocused memory. The smell of ginger roots in the background, smoke and faint light from the fires.
Laurent had been asleep when he stumbled into the tent, and he’d woken up and turned around slowly and sweetly, only half awake, a hand reaching up automatically to scratch the back of his head unconsciously.
He had gone rigid right after, turning towards Damen and carefully stilling his hands in his own lap as he set up. Only to laugh himself silly at Damen’s exhausted figure.
They’d fallen asleep comfortably like that, in each other’s company, something they had gotten used to in the weeks they had spent together, travelling south.
When he woke up in the morning, Damen found his body pleasantly sore from a good, long night of lovemaking.
He only had to turn his head slightly to the side to find Laurent’s stretched out figure still resting next to him, his cupped bright head surrounded by the halo of his yellow hair and his elegant, full mouth frowning in sleep.
He looked as uncomfortable in sleep as he did while awake.
Damen shifted in his spot on the tent, stretching his pleasantly tingling muscles and yawning, which prompted Laurent to let out a soft breath of air as he slowly started rousing, blond eyelashes fluttering as they opened and a small wince crossing his features before he had enough presence of mind to school his expression.
Damen stared at him with a raised eyebrow, wondering if a barely awake Laurent was less likely to react his usual way than a fully alert Laurent. He didn’t get a chance to find out himself, as Laurent beat him to the mark.
“You have that expression on your face,” Laurent said, his cold tone softened by his sleep rough voice. “Ask what you want to ask.”
“You’re still uncomfortable,” Damen, who didn’t really want to know what his expression looked like, finally said. “It’s been three days.”
Laurent was quiet for so long that Damen resolved himself that he wouldn’t answer and started getting up to collect their things for their journey back. Then: “It has.”
Laurent wasn’t looking at him. He had also stood up and he was tying the laces on his wrists himself, more violently then necessary and certainly with more skill than Damen.
“Is it a wound?” Damen prompted, tone as gentle as he could allow himself to be with Laurent.
Laurent paused his fingers briefly, face flushing uncharacteristically. “It’s not a wound,” he admitted slowly, full lips thinned in annoyance.
“Is it something that will impede our plans?” he prompted again, starting to get annoyed himself. Laurent could talk endlessly sometimes, but other times prying words out of him was like convincing a child to let go of a sweetmeat.
“Doubtful,” Laurent finally answered, jaw clenched and clear eyes fixed on a spot on the ground, fingers still stilled on the laces of his second arm.
“Whatever it is,” started Damen, voice as curt and annoyed as he felt. “ Is it worth all this secrecy when we are riding towards a possibly very dangerous situation on the border, fresh out of having survived various assassination attempts from your uncle?”
Laurent’s face turned from lightly pink to red. He breathed in and out carefully, the way he did, Damen had come to realize, when he was recentering himself.
“I believe,” Laurent enunciated calmly. “That Volo might have had lice.”
Damen furrowed his brows. “Volo? The old man from the inn in Nesson?”
“Yes,” confirmed Laurent, face still red and lowered towards the ground, yellow hair falling softly against his elegant features and playing a game of lights and shadows against his cheekbones. Then, with exertion: “The old man whose hat I wore.”
It took a moment for Damen to understand what Laurent was saying, his eyes travelling to the fall of Laurent’s pretty hair around his face, bright as the sun. He knew, from all the times his fingers had brushed against the tips while he attended him, that they felt as soft as they looked.
“Oh,” said Damen, blinking. Then, carefully: “That must be uncomfortable.”
“It is uncomfortable,” Laurent snapped back, his eyes sharp on Damen, daring him to say anything.
He told himself with heroic effort that laughing now would possibly get him killed. He could not decide if this was hilarious retribution or a terrible tragedy.
“There is,” he started, mindful of Laurent’s poisonous, narrowed blue eyes on him. “A very simple solution to this – issue.”
Laurent’s hand rose to touch the tips of his hair instinctually, fingers curling slightly around a blond lock. The flush that had calmed down slightly during the conversation came back with a vengeance, spreading from his cheeks to his normally unblemished, pale neck.
“Unless you would rather stay uncomfortable,” said Damen, lightly.
Laurent turned his face away again, the corners of his mouth downturned. “ No,” he finally accepted. “That would be unwise.”
“I can --,” Damen started, and then stopped, unsure if his offer would be welcomed.
Laurent’s eyes darted towards his face, quick and sharp. “You can, what?” he asked carefully.
Damen paused briefly, gazing at the blond locks and the mouth downturned in a pout that for once made him look as young as he was. “I can take care of it. Once we get back to the fort.”
Laurent’s blue gaze turned calculating, considering his offer. Finally, standing straighter: “Take care of it then.”
They rode back to the fort in silence, Laurent’s shoulders tense with what he was about to lose and Damen’s mind reeling with the thought that he was going to shave Laurent’s head.
Once they reached Laurent’s room, Laurent disappeared behind the door to the side room, coming back a moment later with scissors, a knife and shaving supplies that he carefully placed on his sturdy walnut desk by the ornate bed.
Elegantly, as though he wasn’t about to lose his full head of beautiful hair, he set on the chair in front of the desk, his rigid posture the only thing betraying how uncomfortable he was.
When Damen took a moment too long to start, admiring with some consternation the bright canvas he was about to destroy, Laurent turned around to glare at him. “Well?” he snapped, the light from the midday morning sun shining in his eyes and making his hair paler.
With a nod, Damen reached for the scissors first, sliding the fingers of his left hand through the blond strands that he was probably not going to see again anytime soon.
Laurent’s hair would grow again, as it was bound to do, but Damen planned on being very far away across the border by the time they reached anywhere close to their current length, curling slightly just below his ears.
Carefully, he made the first cut, watching blond locks fall to the floor all around the chair where Laurent set without moving a single inch, facing forwards toward the wall once more and letting Damen’s careful, reverent hands slide through his hair, one lock after the other, and letting them all fall on the floor.
He didn’t know what possessed him to start talking, but the silence was getting heavier and Laurent’s shoulders were not getting any more relaxed.
“You know,” he started, his eyes on the golden threads in front of him conjuring memories from the stories his nursemaids used to tell him when he was younger. “We have a myth. In Akielos, I mean.”
“I assumed it was in Akielos,” said Laurent, as cutting as usual.
Damen counted the answer as a win, hands sliding to the next lock of hair. “They say that every human life is a golden thread. And when the time comes, the Fates, the three Goddesses, cut the thread.”
“Are you telling me fate decided I needed a haircut?”
“No,” huffed out Damen, who had noticed the slightly more playful tone in the other’s voice. “I’m telling you an Akielon myth.”
“Do you have any more myths?” Laurent asked, crossing his long legs and leaning back slightly, his head inclining towards Damen for easier access. “Or do your Gods only talk of death and war?”
So Damen kept talking to him about Akielon legends and myths as he meticulously snipped through his golden threads, one blond lock after the other, their soft texture slipping through his fingers and finding its resting spot on the polished floor between them.
When they were finally finished, Damen having exchanged the scissors for the shaving blade that would take care of any shorter hair left, Laurent had not wanted to look at the end result that Damen had worked so hard to create, sparing one single blank eyed look at his full head of hair now on the floor before leaving to get changed into his everyday clothes.
The skin on the top of his head was as perfectly smooth and pale as the rest of him, his head as perfectly shaped as the rest of his body and round. His eyes looked bigger without the hair, Damen noted, his blond eyelashes and golden brows the only thing framing them.
He came back laced up in his habitual clothing, shining from the tips of his boots to the tip of his now bald head. He didn’t look uncomfortable anymore, but he held himself with a new kind of rigidity, as though daring anyone to say anything about his lost locks.
Airily, he turned towards Damen, “I suppose I owe you my thanks. For the service.” Then, in a different voice altogether: “You must find it incredibly vain that I was bothered by something so silly.”
Damen thought again of Laurent’s pretty hair, which would grow. Then he thought of his beautiful face, and his well-proportioned body. He thought of the way his men talked about him, and about the poisonous words that the court in Arles had not-quite-whispered about their own Prince.
“I don’t think you vain,” Damen admitted, the complete honesty of his words stopping Laurent short. “I think you were forced to lose something that you didn’t want to get rid of.”
Laurent cleared his throat, fingers trying to slip through hair that wasn’t there anymore and instead resting on unmarked skin.
“It’s just hair,” said Laurent, to himself and to Damen. “It will grow.”
“It will grow,” agreed Damen, a slow smile finally escaping from the tight control he’d tried to hold his face under in the last few hours.
A huff of laughter escaped Laurent as well, his whole hand spreading over the hairless curve of his head.
“Serves me right,” Laurent said with a light tone, a small smile playing at the corner of his mouth to substitute the frown that had been there the last few days. “Shouldn’t wear other people’s hats anymore.”
“You might want to invest in your own hat,” suggested Damen, his good humor not subsiding now that he could see Laurent in a new light, both literally and figuratively. “Unless you want to turn from a blond to a redhead under the sun.”
Laurent’s snort was more carefree than he thought he would have ever been allowed to see him. He still held himself as carefully aloof and controlled as always, but there was a stripped back layer that Damen had been allowed to see through after having shaved the other’s head.
Underneath it, he had found Laurent young and sometimes as careless as his age dictated, mirth dancing in his pretty eyes and at the corner of his mouth.
He wondered, suddenly, how many layers he would need to peel back to reveal what was truly underneath.
He wondered if he would want to spend the time to find out.
In the afternoon, as the troop got ready to saddle their horses, Laurent walked out of the fort with his back straight and his shoulders squared. He made his way assuredly towards his own horse, mounting in one swift move.
His bare head shone under the early afternoon light, uncovered and bright like an egg. With calculated gestures, he took a new, feathered hat out and placed it on top of his head, turning to look at Damen and ignoring the shocked silence in the courtyard.
“So I don’t become a redhead,” said Laurent drily in Damen’s direction.
Damen grinned, mounting his own horse.
They rode south.