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with luck, it might even snow for us

Chapter Text

There were many things Laurent disliked about the house in Kempt. He disliked the front door which was a garish thing, blood red in color and littered with gold decoration. The knocker on it weighed enough that actual effort had to be put behind lifting it, and its handle was embedded in a plate detailed with botanical flourishes and intricate beading. He disliked the rugs that lay in the hallways and at the center of many of the individual rooms, each one similar in color and styling, but many holding horrid patterns that took away from the natural beautiful hardwood floors below. He disliked the crown moulding on the bannisters and on the corner blocks of the walls and even lining the cabinets in the kitchen. It was busy and distracting and took away from the rich colors of the walls, the dark blue of the dining room a favorite of Laurent’s.

But the thing Laurent disliked the most about the house in Kempt was its size. No one needed a house this big, he had thought repeatedly over the years, and each time he thought it his conviction in its existence as fact grew. The entire house was ostentatious, what with its two kitchens, seven full baths and two half-baths, seven bedrooms, and a slew of other rooms equaling to eleven. It hadn’t been so bad until Aleron and Hennike, Laurent’s parents, decided an entire wing needed to be added to the house for a recreational room to include pool and billiards and drinking and cards, more bedrooms, and just space, as if owning more space meant something.

For Laurent, all that space seemed to only justify the excuse for housekeepers that Hennike could talk to her friends about and cooks that Aleron could criticize for overcooking the meat in some way.

Despite all its flaws, the house did have its charms, however sparse. There were things Laurent wished he could physically pick up and transfer to a new house altogether for they were wonderful things, things like the family library lined with endless shelves of books belonging mostly to himself and his father. Laurent had his own bookshelves in his bedroom, of course, but most of his books were housed in the library, their spines much different than the spines of Aleron’s law books from all across the Continent. The library once had been furnished with squeaky leather seats and a couch, none of it warm or comfortable, and Laurent had come as close to begging as he ever had in his life in order to get something he could actually enjoy; he had argued that his father already had a squeaky leather chair in the office he spent most of his time in and it was unnecessary to have that same thing here. Miraculously, his wish had been granted for the library now had a chair large enough to sink into and a soft couch by the window where Laurent could tuck his legs underneath himself as he read.

There was the kitchen that was, objectively, beautiful too. Laurent didn’t do much cooking, but the kitchen on the main floor made him wish he did for its marble countertops, subtle backsplash, and its overall open design made Laurent want to utilize the space for more than brewing tea and coffee. Occasionally he made use of it, but for the most part it was occupied by their cooks who brought to life meals they always wanted to pair with wines from the wine cellar and that Laurent always took with water instead.

But if he had to name a favorite place in the house, it wouldn’t be any of those rooms, nor even his own bedroom. No, Laurent’s favorite place, and the most redeemable quality of the house in Kempt, was the sitting room. It’s function was precisely as boring as it sounded, for it was a room intended for intimate gatherings. There was no television for distraction, no technology of any kind to bring with it unnecessary light, and there were just enough comfortable seats for a handful of people to sit in whilst they conversersed. None of those things were the best part though. All those things paled in comparison to the fireplace that was centered on the main wine-colored wall.

A fireplace may not seem like something that would delight most twenty-year-olds, but Laurent wasn’t most twenty-year-olds and the fireplace was truly a piece of art. It was simplistic, far more than most things in this Kemptian-Veretian hybrid, and it was nearly Akielon for it was made of an off-white gypsum stone found usually in the northern parts of Akielos. The gypsum had a natural shine and when a fire was roaring it seemed to shimmer in a way that made one not wish to look away from it. The shelf of the mantel was long, holding on it a clock that belonged to Hennike’s mother and two white vases that matched the stone itself. In the spring and summer, the housekeepers put within those vases freshly cut flowers, but with the cold outside they stayed empty; Laurent liked it that way.

Kemptian winters were notorious for their cold and their blankets of snow and the house was far too large and far too windowed to stay warm for long. That’s why the sitting room, with its comfortable seating and lovely fireplace, was Laurent’s favorite. He couldn’t recall the number of times he had fallen asleep in front of the fire, the flames making his skin warm to the touch and his mind sleepy, and when he was younger he would sleep all through the night in the room, waking up only when the sun rose and reflected too harshly off of the white encasing the outside world.

These last few years, Laurent hadn’t had near as much time to enjoy the fireplace. Off at university, his fall semester didn’t end until long after snow had fallen in Kempt, and he would come home for but two weeks’ time before heading back, leaving behind his reading spot by the window in the library and the fireplace in the sitting room.

This year was going to be different though. Laurent had just graduated from the University of Arran, a Veretian university far too close to Arles, where Laurent had been born, and he was to be home until his graduate program began in mid-January. He made it home to Kempt just in time to witness the first snowfall at the end of November, and now, a week later, he was awaiting more snow and endless hours in front of the fireplace.

In fact, the sitting room was where he was going to this very moment. The sun had set an hour ago and a chill had come over the house, leaving Laurent shivering in his own bedroom. With a huff, as though concerned he would be able to see his own breath leave his mouth, Laurent had stood from his bed, abandoned his laptop, and made his way down the hallway. Down the stairs, his fingers trailed the bannister, the wood underneath white paint cold to the touch, and he traced a ridge in the design all the way down to the bottom, all the way until the bannister gave way to the newel post, a gaudy post with starbursts carved into it. As soon as his feet stepped off the last step, Laurent felt the cold of the floor seep through his socks and he wasn’t above admitting he hurried on a little faster, crossing the entryway and ignoring the garish blood red door before finally coming to the entrance of the sitting room.

A gust of welcome heat was the first thing he noticed as he stood in the arched entrance. It sunk into his bones, thawing them from where they were almost always a bit frozen, and he couldn’t not sigh at the feeling. Then, quietly, from one of the tall-backed chairs directly in front of the flames came a quiet voice that sounded fond and ever-so sleepy. “Me too.”

From just behind the sangria drenched velvet of the chair Laurent caught a flash of blonde hair, its hue warmer than normal from the roaring of the red-tinged flames. Laurent silently padded across the room, his socks giving him no traction on the sleek surface, and it was then he got sight of his mother nestled into the chair, a long white blanket covering her legs and her hands moving steadily with a pair of knitting needles. She looked utterly content, a serene, small smile on her face as she pulled blue thread after blue thread through and through. “You must be freezing, darling.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Laurent told her and, without any hesitation, he gently, boyishly, lowered himself to the floor near her feet, pulling the excess of the blanket over his own legs. “I’m much better already though.”

Laurent had inherited a kind of cold-blooded trait from his mother. Well, he had inherited much from her, such as his blond hair, his easy ability to flush red, and her love of horse riding, but their shared state of constant cold was one he thought of most for it had a dreadful kind of impact.

Neither one thought it necessary to say anything further right now. The crackling of the wood sounded almost like rain, and the sound brought with it a kind of peace. Hennike’s focus on her knitting never faltered and Laurent watched her with a bored fascination that befitted a task that took so much patience. Soon he came to realize what she was making. In the curve of the blue, Laurent could see a hat forming. It wasn’t a hat for a grown person, but a tiny hat meant to fit snugly on the head of a baby, protecting its sparsely haired skull and tiny ears from freezing in such weather as today’s weather. Laurent leaned forward ever so slightly.

“Are they having a boy?” he asked softly, not wanting to even disturb the air.

“They still haven’t decided to find out,” Hennike said. “Somehow they’ve managed to wait and I think they now believe it to be pointless to not see that through to the end given that she’s due in a month’s time. But I have no doubt that, at the very least, the precious thing has quite a good shot at being born with the bluest of eyes.”

That was true. The DeVere family as a whole was nothing but blue-eyed fiends. Laurent was fairly certain they had all had blue eyes since the beginning of time. Auguste and Laurent both had been gifted with their father’s blue eyes, the blue of the clear nighttime sky back at the border, in Marlas, whilst their mother had blue eyes the color closer to the blue-hued ice covered ponds and lakes here in Kempt. Victoire, Auguste’s wife, was also from Kempt — even if her dark hair betrayed that sometimes — and her eyes were similar to Hennike’s, though they almost had a green tone to them, as if she couldn’t decide if she was from the forest or the waters.

Laurent settled more comfortably under the blanket, settled in against the side of Hennike’s cushioned chair, and let the silence fall naturally over them once more. Then a new sound joined the crackling of the fire and it was a sound Laurent recognized immediately. Hennike was humming, a lullaby she used to hum to Laurent when he was a baby. Between that and the fire, he felt his eyes grow heavy and, sleepily, he blinked up at her. “How excited are you?”

“For which part?” she asked back. “All my family being home together for the first time in what feels like ages, or for a new baby?”

“All of it.”

“I can’t quite put it into words.” She held the hat out for inspection, turning it once as though it would bring to light something in need of fixing. “And I’m nervous, for reasons that seem ridiculous, and all I can think about is how I fear I’ve lost my knitting skills. I haven’t knitted anything since you were a boy.”

“I think it looks nice. Though, if you want my thoughts, you definitely need to add one of those soft little pom-poms to the top.”

“Oh, do I?” Hennike asked with a laugh.

“Yes. A white one, I believe. Everyone looks cute with one of those flopping around on the top of their heads,” Laurent said.

“Then consider it done.”

She knitted some more, the hat coming evermore into shape, and Laurent yawned. He saw out of the corner of his eyes her smile indulgently at him, saw her set down the hat, then felt her touch on his cheek. Somehow her hands were still cool.

“How excited are you?” she threw the question back at him.

“For which part?” he asked, throwing her own question back too.

“All of it.”

Laurent thought then of Auguste and Victoire, and, possibly most important, her almost nine-month-round stomach. The reality of that, of knowing Auguste was soon to be a father, was building a family of his own and growing a beard like their own father’s, seemed impossible, and it seemed more impossible, and terrifying, that Laurent was going to be an uncle. Then he thought of having a holiday with his brother for the first time in a while, and having a holiday that didn’t end with an imminent dread of heading back to Vere, was an entirely different kind of excitement.

He gave his mother a small smile, one near identical to her own.

Every now and again, one of them would interject something into the silence. Laurent brought up the gifts he had long gotten for Auguste and Victoire and Hennike brought up the meal she had asked the cooks to have put together for their arrival tomorrow, and neither of their voices ever got louder than something soft-spoken. Peace was steadfast, if only for a while. Laurent tried to not think about how peace with Hennike was short lived, of how it only existed when she didn’t have a drink in hand.

Dreadfully, it all came to a stop when Aleron, Al, got home. Their only warning to his arrival was the turning of the key in the front door’s lock before it was pushed open, allowing snow and cold wind to sweep through the open space as if manifested by an unnatural presence. Both Laurent and his mother clenched their teeth as their skin turned to gooseflesh and the dichotomy of the fire in front of their faces and the air from the outdoors at their back became too much.

“Shut the door!” Hennike whined loud enough to be heard across the room, her graceful neck craning around the side of the chair to glare at her husband.

“Gods,” Aleron started, ignoring her and instead shaking off his scarf as though it was suddenly unbearable, “you two are going to burn the house to the ground, aren’t you?”

“At least we’d be warm,” Laurent said. Aleron shot him a look.

They both heard more than saw Aleron stomp the snow off of his boots, and Laurent ended up turning to fully watch as his father shucked his long coat and hung it on the coat rack by the door. Snow was stuck in his darker hair, making it look more gray than it actually was, and as he approached Laurent caught a whiff of the familiar stench of brandy. Hennike noticed it too.

“You didn’t drive back, did you?” she asked as he leaned down to press a kiss to her cheek. When he pulled back, he rebuffed her question with an eye roll first.

“Hennike, dear, Paschal lives two houses down. I didn’t even drive there, let alone drive back.”

That seemed to appease her, and she settled back fully as she had been only minutes before, the hat near-complete and so small in her hands. Aleron moved and sat in the open chair next to Hennike, falling into it with a groan, and she turned her eyes to him.

“And how is Paschal?” she asked as if he didn’t have dinner with Paschal every week.

Paschal was an old friend of Aleron’s, one he had met through the company (the company otherwise known as the bane of Laurent’s existence) and had lost touch with when they were both still but boys. As if intended, as if fate, they ended up both retiring in this same area of Kempt, running into each other at the ski lodge where many affluent gentlemen frequented and they had spent the last several years catching up on everything. Though Paschal had left the company to pursue medicine instead, there were foundational things they had in common all these years later.

Normally Aleron would have answered Hennike’s inquiry with something akin to, “His right knee is still giving him fits, but he’s doing just fine otherwise,” or, “The man keeps trying to sell me on Patran wine and I simply won’t have it, it’s as though he was born without taste buds,” but tonight he seemed different than normal and so a normal answer clearly wasn’t going to suffice.

Intrinsically, Aleron wasn’t a man that showcased much more emotion than distaste. It was his personality, this reservation, and he always had managed to pretend that wasn’t who he was when doing business. In fact, in the instances when Laurent had seen his father in a business situation, he was uncertain who the man even was because it most definitely wasn’t his father. But right now, whatever emotion Aleron was externalizing seemed genuine and not actually a show whatsoever, for it wasn’t something that would be obvious to an outsider’s eye. It was a thrumming kind of energy, an excitement that spoke of an event’s occurrence, and Laurent couldn’t not quirk an eyebrow as he concluded his father was trying very hard to repress a smile.

“Paschal is fine. He got an interesting phone call tonight,” Aleron said slowly, as if debating the words were the right ones to say.

“Oh?” Hennike set the hat down in her lap. “A good call? Or a bad one?”

“Good,” Aleron said. His eyes then flicked to Laurent still sitting on the floor underneath part of the blanket. “It’s actually something I’d like to speak with you about.”

Now it was Laurent’s turn to punctuate his response with an eye roll. “You’re horrible at subtlety. I see where Auguste gets that from.”

Hennike laughed because she knew it was true and Aleron continued his normal discerning stare until Laurent reluctantly pushed himself up to his feet, dusted off his pants, and retreated back to the cold of his bedroom. Time passed slowly then, and it wasn’t until Laurent heard his father’s voice somewhere in the foyer, loud and obnoxious whilst taking a phone call of his own that he braved the downstairs once more. His father’s office door was just shutting as Laurent walked by and Laurent found his mother moved to the kitchen, her hands around a bottle of deep red wine, its liquid pouring slowly into a glass.

“You know,” Laurent started, “one day I am going to be an actual adult and you will have to have actual adult conversations with me.”

“No one here thinks you’re not an adult, darling. I’m excited to say that your father actually has a big surprise lined up for you and your brother.”

“A surprise?”

“Yes.”

“For me?”

A hum of agreement.

“And Auguste?”

“Yes, darling.”

A moment of silence, then, “That’s not very Aleron of him.”

Now it was Hennike’s turn to shoot him a look. No admonishment or anything followed though because, like before, she knew he was right.

The rest of the evening went by uneventfully. Hennike drank her standard two glasses of wine, Aleron didn’t leave his office until near midnight, and Laurent curled back up in front of the fire, allowing his mind to wander. Right before he fell asleep there, he thought of Auguste, and of Victoire, and of the baby that terrified him more than anything else ever had.

Because of where he chose to sleep, he was woken up ungodly early by the rising of the sun. The fire had died sometime in the night and he was frozen to his core, his teeth clenched to keep from chattering, his fingers numb, and his body subconsciously folded into the smallest possible ball in an attempt to conserve warmth. Slowly, whilst squinting away the fluorescent brightness of the combination of snow and sun out the window, Laurent stretched out his legs then his arms, and he did so delicately like he thought either would snap like an icicle falling from its hanging position on a roof’s edge.

Noises were coming from the kitchen and Laurent followed them, intent on warming his hands and his stomach with a hot cup of coffee. A clock on the wall told him it was just after six in the morning and that was enough to tell him that the noises in the kitchen were not coming from either of his parents. Sure enough, standing there at the stove was Orlant, one of their cooks and, luckily for Laurent, the one that made the best coffee. He knew Laurent preferred pourovers, the coffee free of oils and crisp on the tongue, and if Laurent’s mouth near began to water at the sight of a cup already on the counter, Orlant didn’t need to know.

Orlant was an interesting figure. He was perhaps a year older than Auguste, so quite young, and especially in comparison with the DeVere family’s other cooks and housekeepers, and he looked a rough sort, fairly muscled and his nose looked like it had been broken once or twice. He’d been cooking in the mornings for the DeVeres since they moved here to Kempt and Laurent liked him.

“Morning, sir,” Orlant said, looking at Laurent quickly before going back to the food sauteing in the pan in his hand.

“Morning,” Laurent greeted. His voice was quiet, like it hadn’t been used in some time and like the cold had muffled it, and he cleared his throat before speaking again. “Is this for me?” he asked, pointing to the cup of steaming coffee.

“Yep. Saw you in front of the dead fire this morning, figured the sun would wake you up sooner or later,” Orlant said with a smile.

Part of the reason Laurent liked Orlant was that he seemed to relish in the sounds of the kitchen, of the stirring of a pot, of the spoon hitting a cup’s sides, the rhythm of cutting vegetables on a wooden cutting board, of the sizzle of meat in oil. He didn’t try to fake conversation and instead let things be; Laurent leaned a hip against the counter and did his own kind of relishing. His was over the warmth of the coffee that brought life back first to his hands, then lips, mouth, and lastly his stomach which slowly began to warm him from the inside out.

Orlant lifted the pan from the stove and walked over to the baking sheet which held eight flat pieces of puff pastry. Gently he spooned the mixture — which turned out to be apples drenched in cinnamon and sugar and cooked down into a syrup — onto the center of each piece. The pan was set back on the stove to cool and Orlant methodically began to fold the puff pastry dough in half, wetting the edges to keep them tight, then brushing each one with a beaten egg for the perfect rise and glossy shine.

“Making enough for Auguste and Victoire,” Orlant said as he placed the trays into the oven. “I feel like time is moving too fast if Auguste is going to be a father within a month. It seems like only yesterday that I was starting here and you weren’t even a teenager and Auguste was still…” he trailed.

“Wild?”

“That’s a good word for him then.”

“Yes, thank the gods he got all that out of his system before he impregnated anyone,” Laurent said. Orlant laughed, the sound loud and nice.

After a few minutes, Laurent could hear the faint sputtering of the syrup from the apples as it leaked out of the pastries, and he finished his coffee before bidding Orlant a goodbye for now. A hot shower helped to thaw him out the rest of the way, and he thought of his mother’s lullaby that she used to sing to him, that she would sing to the baby no doubt, and as he toweled his hair to a dampness and pulled on a green sweater he thought of how much everything was changing. He thought of how he felt incredibly stuck.

He could now hear his parents in the kitchen and determined it was best to avoid them for an extended period of time right now. His feet instead took him to the library where he plucked a book from the third shelf, a familiar book with a well-worn spine and faded lettering on the side, and he lounged across the reading nook onset by the window, a blanket over his lap and a welcome distractor in his hands.

Laurent couldn’t recall the last time he actually read a book for fun. Actually, he could. It had been over the summer and he read exactly one book for enjoyment before submitting himself willingly beneath the endless waves of work required of a double-majoring undergraduate intent on graduating early. But now that he was in limbo awaiting the start of his graduate program, reading for fun was a possibility and as he turned the first page he sank down into the pillows of the nook like any tension in him melted away with the familiarity of such a story.

In all honesty, Laurent didn’t mean to read as long as he did. He thought he would read for an hour or two, but it was amazing how far he could get in a novel when not stopping every paragraph or so to make a note or to analyze the purpose of a particular word order, and just as he was nearing the midway point of the book, the squeak of the gate to their driveway opening brought him out of the world he had traveled to and back to reality.

“Laurent, they’re here!” his mother yelled from somewhere nearby and out the window he could make out his brother’s face through the windshield. The book shut with a snap.

Hennike’s heels were loud on the hardwood of the foyer and Aleron was already out the door by the time Laurent joined them. It was chaotic in the way arrivals so typically were, excitement a tangible thing in the air and the first thing that caught Laurent off-guard was his brother exiting the car and hurrying to the other side, an uncharacteristically large smile on his face. The second thing that caught Laurent off-guard was the struggled emergence of Victoire from the passenger side seat.

When Laurent had first met Victoire, he had been in those imperative stages of puberty and Victoire had been an enigma of a woman, a foundational change in Auguste’s life, and had been lovely from the curled ends of her brown hair to the modest heels on her feet. She hadn’t aged much in the last five, six, years, her face young and bright, but her waist which had once been tiny enough for Auguste to wrap both hands around and them almost meet was rounded and large, so much to the point Laurent knew she hadn’t seen her own feet in quite some time.

Victoire near waddled as she walked and Auguste’s large smile never dropped, his eyes never left her, and his hand never moved from where it was stationed at her lower back.

“Oh goodness,” Hennike breathed, emotion heavy in those two words.

Aleron was holding a hand out for Victoire to grab and she did so with a panted, “Thank you,” and Aleron and Auguste looked at one another over her shoulder, Aleron smiling in a way Laurent was stock with seeing him smile at Auguste.

The two of them helped Victoire up the stairs and Hennike was there to meet her. Then the specific kind of disarray that came from everyone wanting to hug each other happened. Laurent fell somewhat to the side, watching as Hennike cupped Victoire’s face, then delicately placed her hands on the protruding stomach before going back up to cup her face again, watching as Aleron and Auguste did the very fast DeVere-men hug before falling into their chatter, no doubt about the company, and it seemed it would stay that way until Auguste put a hand on his father’s shoulder, said something quickly, and turned his never-fading smile onto Laurent.

Before Laurent could even smile back, he was being crushed against his brother’s chest in a bone-breaking hug.

Auguste was taller than him so the strands of sandy colored hair escaping the bun he had haphazardly thrown his hair into sometime during the drive tickled at Laurent’s nose. Laurent didn’t let that bother him though; instead he managed to free his arms from where they had gotten trapped between their bodies and hugged Auguste back almost as hard.

“How was your drive?” he asked after a moment, the words muffled into the shoulder of Auguste’s jacket.

“It was fine except we had to stop every ten minutes because someone had to pee,” Auguste said. His voice had a waver to it, like he was trying to hold back a laugh. Victoire’s distinct scoff sounded out into the air.

“I’m terribly sorry,” she started, her tone implying anything but truth was behind what she was saying. “How about you carry the ginormous child growing inside of me and practicing its kicking on my kidneys and bladder.”

When Auguste let Laurent go, Laurent finally got a good look at Victoire’s irritated expression that didn’t budge even as Auguste tried to make certain she was aware it was only a joke.

“I don’t care.” She put a hand on Laurent’s wrist and proceeded to do just as Auguste had and crushed him to her. Unlike how it had been with Auguste, Victoire was shorter than Laurent by two or so inches and her pregnant belly made it hard to properly hug her back. “Hello, my favorite DeVere,” she said to him, ignoring Auguste’s petulant ‘Hey!’

“Hi,” Laurent said back simply. She squeezed at his shoulder once before pulling back.

Laurent was going to comment on Victoire’s dress, mention how they were nearly twinning, her green sweater material almost the same shade as Laurent’s sweater. Then he decided to comment on how truly happy he was to see them both, but his mother beat him to saying anything, ushering them all the way inside with words that were followed by the visible cold air.

“We’ll send someone out to get your bags later,” she said, pulling Victoire back toward her and through the house. “Come in, come in! Let’s get you freshened up, you must be exhausted after the drive.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Auguste said. Like their father the day before, he stomped the snow off of his boots. “We stopped and saw Victoire’s parents since they’re on our way here and that gave us a nice break.”

“How are your parents? I hope your mother’s feeling better,” Aleron said, taking Victoire’s coat from her.

“She is, thank you. It turns out there is an age where doing a triathlon does get awfully strenuous on the body. I hope this makes her focus on her actual health from here on out because I don’t know if my father can stomach her getting injured like that again,” Victoire said. Her hand was steady and resting on her stomach, and it seemed to be a thing she wasn’t aware of anymore. Hennike was, however, and the sight must have been enough to send her into an overwhelming state of emotion once more for she started a second round of hugs just as Aleron got the door finally shut.

“You have no idea how much I’ve been looking forward to this,” she said, petting at the back of Auguste’s head and gently pulling on his earring with a quick look of disapproval. Auguste looked at Laurent and everything felt right.

“You must have been too excited,” Auguste started, attempting to disentangle his mother’s hands from his hair, “because you haven’t even gotten the house decorated for the holidays yet!” He had the nerve to look mock-scandalized, mouth open in shock, but no part of what he said was supposed to cause the reaction it did. Aleron’s face took on a particular kind of angry, the kind he did his best to keep behind Hennike’s back because it was reserved for when she was in a mood of any sort, and Hennike’s face dropped, the motion of it sudden and devastating. Auguste did his best to backtrack, and tried harder when Victoire slapped his arm. “No, Mom, it was a joke —”

“You’re right,” Hennike said, the two words breathy like she couldn’t believe the atrocity she had committed. “It’s December. It’s December already. I’ve lost track of the time I’ve —”

When she got like this, Hennike could go on and on. She’d been this way as long as either of the boys could remember, and, for reasons unknown. Laurent was a bit better at handling it. Of course, even he knew she’d remember all this sometime after dinner when she had her standard two glasses of wine in her again, but right now the mention of their interior designer would do just fine to calm her.

“It’s fine, Mom. We’ll do everything as we always do. That means all you have to do today is place a call to Vannes. She handles the rest and it will be utterly Veretian by the time it’s done.”

“You know Vannes will jump at the challenge to get this house decorated in a few days’ time,” Auguste agreed.

“Yes,” Aleron interjected, all three of them for once on the same page, “I think you should give the young lady a call now so it’s not hanging over your head.”

Hennike nodded once. “And we must get it done before —” Then she stopped herself.

“Before what?” Auguste asked, prodding.

“Nothing,” she said, and Aleron cleared his throat.

“They have a surprise for us,” Laurent deadpanned.

“Oh, I want in on it!” said Victoire. “They’re both impossible to think of good gifts for so I am not above tagging my name onto someone else’s idea.”

“A surprise?” Auguste quirked an eyebrow, mirroring Laurent’s near-constant expression.

“Yes, and it’s going to stay a surprise,” Aleron said, and then he lifted a hand to Auguste’s shoulder and lifted the other like as to shoo the rest of them away. “Let’s allow your mother to call the designers, let your wife rest from the trip, and you and I go talk the company.”

“That is a wonderful idea,” Hennike agreed. “I’ll get Orlant to get everyone refreshments and go place that call.”

Auguste followed their father down the hall and Laurent watched them until he couldn’t anymore, as the door had shut to keep all conversation of the company from being disturbed, and Hennike followed just seconds after, walking to the kitchen first before disappearing down the hall and into the library.

“Place your bet now,” Laurent started, angling toward Victoire, “on how much of Auguste’s time my father will occupy.”

“Laurent, be more understanding,” Victoire said, and had Laurent not known her as he did he would believe her serious. “You’re not part of the company, so truly your presence would be a waste of air.”

Victoire said the company like an old timey actress who most definitely smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. It was a proper way to refer to the thing Laurent attributed to being the bane of his existence, but was more recognizable as Artesian Affairs, the continental political relations company that had been Aleron’s reason for living since he had been a teen. Artesian Affairs was what had the DeVeres moving around so often in Laurent’s youth and Laurent knew that if someone were to ask his father what his proudest day was, he wouldn’t say the day Laurent was born in addition to the day Auguste was born, but just the day Auguste was born, for Auguste followed in his footsteps.

As Victoire dragged him to the kitchen, saying something about getting in there before Hennike tried to make anything herbal, he stuffed down the bitterness that had arisen with each new word that had left Aleron’s mouth. A beat, two, and a reminder that his issues weren’t with Auguste but his father instead, and Laurent could almost make himself forget that he was purposefully left out of time with his brother because their career paths had diverged greatly.

“Don’t look so put out,” Victoire said as she climbed her way into a seat at the counter. They could both hear Hennike on the phone. “Neither one of us has to sit there and listen to them ramble. Let me tell you, I’m sick of talk about Auguste’s work. If I didn’t love the man, I would have long found a way to rip out his vocal chords.”

“Is that you talking or the hormones?” Laurent asked, standing on the other side of the counter of her in order to lean down on it. Orlant wasn’t in the kitchen, probably off doing something Hennike had bid of him before she had disappeared into the office (and no doubt because she forgot that just a moment ago she was going to ask him to gather up refreshments), and their voices echoed off of the pristine white cabinets and marbled counters.

Victoire scoffed audibly and pulled at the stretch of dress across her stomach. “I’ll have you know I don’t need hormones to make me slightly hostile.”

“And you sound so proud.”

“I am. It’s the Kemptian in me. We grow up in such cold that we make up for it all with fiery personalities.”

“So that explains why I clash so greatly with my father.”

“No, that’s just because you’re a bitch.” Victoire smiled so wide as she said that, and then it softened into something fond. “I missed you.”

Her hand was on his then, her fingers slightly swollen with baby weight, and her skin was cool like his mother’s, like his, and never one good with sentiment from the heart, Laurent only turned his hand over to intertwine their fingers.

“I’m sorry we missed your graduation,” she added in after a beat, her voice much more quiet.

“Victoire,” Laurent started, the tone of his voice a near exhaustion from this clearly not being the first discussion on this matter, “I mean this as unoffensively as possible, but you’re swelled up like a balloon. I completely understand and it’s more than alright. Just make it to my grad school one, okay? I don’t know if I can bear my father’s uninterested gaze that long on my lonesome again.”

“We won’t miss it for the world. And maybe we can find a way to leave Al on the side of the road or something on our way.”

While Laurent had been awaiting time with Auguste, time with Victoire was always wonderful. She truly was the sister he never had, and if he were being honest, she was the only one who showed him unconditional support in every way. Since his youth, near every word out of his mouth had been followed by a sigh from his father. Wishing to read in the garden instead of joining the other boys on the grass for sports? A sigh. Wearing headphones whilst Aleron conversed about the company? A sigh. Liking men in the place of women, or perhaps just not liking women at all? A sigh.

His mother did mean well, but she lived her life the way expected of a woman of her status and that meant there was more time gallivanting at parties and organizing philanthropy events in place of actually being a mother. So often was she at a loss as to what was going on in either of her sons’ lives beyond the obvious that both had learned long ago two very important things: always explain in great detail, even if explanations have been given in the past, and always do one’s best to prevent one of her anxiety-ridden fits from occurring.

And Auguste...well, Laurent loved him, he did, and Auguste loved him in return. But after Auguste disappeared out of his life, their lives, for so long, it even as recently as now felt like coming to know a stranger at times.

Victoire was one of those incredible people that felt like, upon first meeting, one had known their entire life. So now, in the kitchen, whilst Aleron took up all of Auguste’s time and Hennike ushered Vannes, their interior designer, into the house after her hurried drive over, Victoire and Laurent talked. They talked of anything and everything, but obviously of the most relevant of things. Victoire asked of Laurent’s upcoming schooling and he told her that yes, he was going back to Marlas for it, and yes, he was excited (“Can’t you tell by my enthusiastic smile?”), and yes, he already had several professors he had been in contact with who had read his work and seemed quite pleased to work with him in the near future, and no, no one else really knew what all was going on. Laurent asked of the baby and Victoire’s back-to-work plans and yes, she not-so-secretly hoped it was a boy for the baby’s sake only, and yes, she wanted to return back to work mostly out of spite after her boss suggested Auguste made enough money for the two, soon to be three, of them, and yes, pregnancy was a bitch and men were weak, and no, she didn’t want to do it all right away again.

The talking continued and finally Hennike, her blonde hair now frazzled at the hairline, emerged from the library with Vannes in tow, the designer familiar enough with Laurent to throw him a look that said ‘What the fuck?’ behind Hennike who was explaining to everyone in hearing distance that she wanted blue and silver for this year’s holiday, blue for the ice and snow, and silver, but ‘gods above, what were they to do about their gold ornamentation?

“Gods,” Victoire sighed with a laugh, knocking her shoulder into Laurent’s own now that he’d moved over to sit beside her. “How do you put up with your parents? I mean, I love them, and more specifically I love that they decided to have sex at least twice so I have your brother and you —”

“Gross.”

“— but, seriously. You need to move out.”

“I sort of am. I’ll be going to Marlas in January, in case you’ve forgotten in the last hour,” Laurent said.

“No, I haven’t forgotten. But you’ll be back for the summers and holidays, yes?”

“Probably not the summers, but the holidays are sort of a requirement. Auguste is married and he still has to attend holidays. Well, now he does.”

Suddenly, with vigor and energy and a manic look alight in her eyes, Victoire snapped her fingers.

“That’s what you need! You need to get married.”

“Are you trying to sound like my mother?”

“Never say those words to me again. But that’s what you need! You need married so you have a reason to stay out of this house, and you need a person that supports you in the way your parents don’t, and —” She stopped herself and Laurent felt her stare boring through his skin. “I love you, you know. I can’t tell you how often your brother and I talk about you, about how proud we are of you, and I also can’t tell you in words how wonderful it is to be in love. I want that for you because you deserve it.”

Laurent detested conversations that veered this direction. He and love had never seemed to meet properly in his life, so talk of it always felt stilted and awkward, like the introductions to strangers at a party that was already too loud, and yet he knew Victoire of all people didn’t mean a word of it maliciously. It left him sitting there, expression unchanging and mind whirring with responses and questions he would never actually voice aloud.

Victoire snapped the tension, another one of her many talents.

“Plus I need you to begin to have an invigorating sex life so I can live vicariously through it. Auguste and I hardly have time for sex and nowadays when we do have the time, I feel like hell, so we’re both just —”

“I absolutely did not need to know that,” Laurent said vacantly, his mouth twisting unpleasantly as Victoire cackled.

Eventually, or an eternity later, the others began to join them. First was Auguste, who had escaped the office because their father had gotten a call, then Hennike who seemed less frazzled but still on the recovery end of the events earlier, and finally Aleron who was pointing at a bill with confusion on his face.

“It’s never been this much,” he said without preamble, the beginning statement a reference to the paper in hand holding the fancy heading script of Vannes’ interior design. “Did she up her prices? She’s not that good.”

“No, she didn’t up her prices,” started Hennike. “I did it because —” Once again, just like earlier, she cut herself off.

Auguste’s arm was around Victoire’s shoulders, his hand down and resting on the crook of her elbow. Occasionally he shifted just so and his hand found the roundness of her stomach.

“Mom, your annual holiday party isn’t exactly a surprise. Hence the ‘annual.’”

Laurent pressed his forehead to Victoire’s shoulder. “How did I forget about the annual holiday party?” he muttered into her thick sweater dress.

“I don’t know, considering it’s annual,” she muttered back, petting at his head once in consolation. Auguste shot them both a warm look.

Aleron and Hennike were shooting each other their own looks while that was going on, the conversation of it concise until Hennike said aloud, “Maybe we should just tell them now.”

Aleron hummed. “I suppose.”

“That way, we can spend dinner planning and talking. We can get the initial excitement over with,” Hennike continued, as if Aleron hadn’t agreed and as if she had to prove that this was a good idea.

“Wait, let us guess,” Auguste said, elbowing Laurent. Laurent glared at him for dragging this out.

“One guess each,” Hennike said, utterly indulging her oldest.

“Vere has reintroduced a monarchy and since we have royal blood we have to travel there and fight to the death for the throne.”

“You’ve hired yet again more people in poverty to hold the guise of ‘maid’ or ‘servant’ so we don’t get arrested for praciticing in the archaic and horrid practice of slavery.”

Aleron let out a breath of air between clenched teeth.

“Hennike, tell your sons —”

“The Vallis family is coming to stay with us for the holidays!”

Hennike exclaimed the news, her voice too loud as she did so, but it prevented Aleron from snarling as he so often did when the boys, particularly Laurent, said things that annoyed him, and the exclamation brought everyone, and all talk, to a halt.

The surprise was intended for Auguste and Laurent so all eyes turned on them the moment it was realized what Hennike said. Aleron, Hennike, and Victoire all appeared to be waiting with baited breath, Victoire’s more out of her lack of knowledge on the situation, but Laurent felt struck dumb. He stole a glance at Auguste, hoping to maybe imitate Auguste’s joy in some way, but Auguste looked just as he felt: confused.

“Who is the Vallis family?” Auguste voiced after an awkward minute of a pause.

Both Aleron and Hennike’s faces dropped.

“You remember the Vallis’!” Hennike said as if that was an unmitigated truth. Auguste looked to Laurent in the same way Laurent had looked to him, and the two quirked a brow as if to silently ask the other, ‘Do you remember the Vallis’?’

A vein visibly throbbed on Aleron’s forehead.

“You remember them,” Aleron repeated his wife. “They were our neighbors.”

“We’ve lived in four houses since I was born,” Laurent said. “You’re going to need to be more specific.”

“In Marlas.”

Auguste’s eyes squinted as he thought, then opened wide, as if it dawned on him suddenly as a bolt of lightning hitting the earth. “The Akielon family?”

***

Marlas
August 2nd
Fifteen Years Ago

Auguste wasn’t talking to him.

Auguste wasn’t talking to anyone, actually. The headphones attached to his Walkman were tangled and looked as if they were pinching his ears, but neither thing seemed to be a bother. He was too busy staring out the window, his arms crossed over his chest, his jaw set, and he was probably daydreaming of being anywhere but in this very car.

So Laurent, feet dangling far above the floorboards, read his favorite book through every bump on the road, every stop they eased or slammed into, every passing car and truck, even the ones with blaring horns.

He was nearing the end of the book, most of the pages held tight in his left hand as opposed to his right, when the car came to a stop and, this time, didn’t quickly start back. The lack of motion brought him out of his reading-stupefied haze to look up. Auguste had slumped more in his seat, his butt almost off of the edge, as if the sight of their new house brought on something akin to revulsion.

Laurent, six years of age and his brother’s biggest fan, wanted to be as angry about their move as Auguste was. He had tried, throwing a tiny tantrum as his father loaded up a case of his toys and books into the moving truck the day earlier, but it was harder now that they were here because the house looked warm and there was a pond he could spot behind it, its water bright in the warm sun, and most excitedly was a house nearby with a stable in its yard and a white-nosed horse snout peeking from its entrance.

“We’re here, darlings,” Hennike spoke quietly from the front seat, as though worried one or both of them had been asleep. “All of our stuff is in the house already, still in boxes of course.” If Auguste slumped down any further he’d be sitting on the floorboards.

Slowly the four of them emerged from the car, stretching their limbs from their locked positions during the journey, and Laurent wanted to run inside, wanted to see his new bedroom, wanted to get out his toys and beg his mother to take him to see the horse, but he stopped himself abruptly. Auguste was leaning on the car’s closed passenger-side back door, a sigh caught in his chest. Aleron was talking to him in hushed tones.

“Come on, darling,” his mother said, her hand gentle on his tiny shoulder. “Let’s go see your room and start getting you settled.”

Laurent helped his mother get his room’s basics ready. He helped her put on his sheets and his pillows on the bed that had been placed there by movers, told her where he wished his bookshelf to be dragged to, helped her pull the curtains onto the curtain rod, and eventually all that was really left was putting away his clothes and toys. Because he was quite mature, she told him, she thought that he could handle that himself, and she left to go work on other parts of the house, the fine plates and bowls calling to her and begging to be put back on display. Only once did Laurent hear Auguste and it was his stomping feet followed by the slam of a door.

Some time passed, Laurent honing in to hear for Auguste, wondering if he should go say a simple hello so Auguste knew Laurent didn’t mind if Auguste was angry, but he kept pulling out toys and books instead, all of them put in very specific places, until he was startled by the ringing of the doorbell.

Involuntarily a little gasp left him at the unexpected sound, and he waited with his breath held as if he were playing hide and seek and the seeker was getting near, listening to his mother’s footsteps and muffled talk with whoever was there. Then came the inevitable, “Auguste! Laurent! Come down here!”

Auguste’s door remained closed, silent on the other side, and Laurent paused there with a tiny fist raised to knock before their mother’s voice called out again.

At the front door was a woman with a bright smile, strong shoulders, and the longest hair Laurent had ever seen. It fell down far below her waist, brushing the middle of her thighs. There was color tied into it in the form of a long silk ribbon, its yellow looking like it belonged there naturally despite her dark skin, eyes, and hair, each a different shade of brown that blended so seamlessly together, like a gradient of bronze hues when hit by different levels of sunlight. She was holding a tray of something in her hand, something that distinctly smelled of honey, but the most eye-catching thing were the three men behind her. The one clearly her husband was intimidating, his chest a barrel, his beard dark, and next to him on the left was a man almost equal in his height, but younger and not quite sporting a full beard, but in its place a scowl that would give Auguste’s current sour expression a run for its money. To the older man’s right was a younger boy, youthful and lanky, and not near as obviously put out by this as the other was; or maybe he was better at hiding it underneath the wild curls covering half of his sight with how they fell over his forehead.

“This is my youngest, Laurent,” Hennike introduced him, gently pulling him forward and into the doorway. She cast a worried look up the staircase Laurent had just descended. “I apologize. I don’t know if my oldest will be down. He’s cross with us for moving him before his final year of school.”

“That just gives us more time to meet Laurent then,” said the woman kindly, and her voice was low and washed over Laurent pleasantly. She bent down, closer to him, and said three separate things one after the other as though each was equally as important as the last. “My name is Hypermenestra. This is my husband, Theo, that is my oldest, Kastor, and my youngest, Damen.” She pointed to the expected men accordingly, and her husband gave him a nice smile, and her youngest gave a wave. “This is baklava and, if you like it, you’ll need to come over with your family for I make it every other week.” Then she said, a sort of awe that was often reserved for children in her voice, “Gods, your eyes are blue like the ocean of home. And as large as the ocean too.”

“Father says my eyes are as big as billiard balls,” Laurent said seriously, and everyone laughed as though he was very funny.

No one saw Auguste the rest of the day, but Laurent went to bed that first night in their new house in Marlas with warm honey smooth down his throat and the promise of more for as long as he wished.

***

“She’s already lost it once today,” Auguste started with a mumble, “so I’m going to guess we don’t even have until noon tomorrow before she loses it again.”

Dinner had ended some time ago, Auguste’s favorite, but some of its goodness was lost with Aleron and Hennike’s visible frustration that Auguste and Laurent were not near as excited about the Vallis family visiting as they were.

“You went to school with Damen!” Aleron had ground out, his grip on his fork tight, after Auguste had once more said something about not knowing the Vallis’.

“For a year,” Auguste had started. “And a year fifteen years ago. He’s a few years younger than me too, right?”

“Two years, I believe.”

“Fifteen years ago? Oh good, that means I was,” Laurent had pretended to count on his fingers, “six when I met them.”

Aleron had tried to salvage the conversation. “You might not remember them well, but both of Theo’s sons are part of the company. It will be good for you to make connections.”

He had, of course, only been addressing Auguste, but the statement drew a full body reaction from Laurent who was normally very controlled. “Wonderful holiday, everyone. I absolutely cannot wait to have five people talking nothing but the company until I inevitably die from my brain physically rotting inside of my skull.”

Victoire had hid a laugh behind her hand at that, and the conversation came to a stilted halt, Aleron retiring quickly after to his office and Hennike following with worried fluttering fingers.

“No doubt we can expect the lists sooner than later,” Laurent said presently in response to Auguste’s statement about their mother.

“Lists?” Victoire inquired.

“Every time mother has some event coming up that puts her in a fit, she creates these endlessly long lists with things to do and hands them out with shaky hands as though we can get all hundred items accomplished in a day’s time,” Auguste explained.

“It’s never simple things like dust or vacuum the rugs. It’s things like ‘reshingle the roof’ or ‘tear up the garden and plant entirely new flowers and yes, in the dead of winter.’”

If Auguste had actually placed money, he would have won. The next morning, whilst eating breakfast together, Hennike came to the table, robe flitting behind her and eyes wide, and handed out sheets of paper to Aleron, Auguste, and Laurent. Aleron never stopped reading the newspaper long in his hands already, but Auguste and Laurent shared a look before glancing down at their own.

Polish the floors
Install new furnace
Plan a month’s worth of meals
     - Give to the cooks
Rent the ski lodge
Embroider the pillows in both upstairs’ guest bedrooms
Restock liquor cabinet
Add another room to the new wing - talk about w/ Al...

And so on.

“Mom, when are the Vallis’ supposed to be here?” Auguste asked warily.

“In five days’ time.”

“We don’t need a new furnace,” Laurent said. “And I don’t think it’s physically possible to add another room to the new wing in five days’ time.”

“I can help do things too,” Victoire started. “That will give you guys an extra set of hands and —”

At once, all four DeVeres said:

“You will do no such thing!”

“Victoire, you’re pregnant.”

“Baby, that’s not happening.”

“No.”

Victoire threw her hands to her sides in defeat. “Gods above, I’m not an invalid.”

“You’re not, but there is no reason you need to exert yourself. We have plenty of time —”

“And we’re not actually going to do half of the shit on this list.”

“— and we have plenty of people to help. Don’t worry yourself with it.”

“Mom,” Auguste interjected, “you do know we’re not going to do half of the stuff on this list, right? Please, can you just accept that now so it’s not a big deal the hour before they get here?”

Hennike’s voice sounded small as she responded. “But the house would be so much better if we did all of that.”

“We can always plan some of those things for after the holidays. Since the Vallis’ will probably only be wandering the main rooms, such as the kitchen, sitting room, Father’s office, and whatnot we can focus on those and leave the rest for basic cleaning,” Laurent tried to helpfully provide.

The paper in Aleron’s hands folded down, giving them all the first full look of his face all morning and he was wearing the patented DeVere quirked eyebrow, his mouth pulled into a frown. “What do you mean they’ll only be wandering the main rooms?”

“I’m not having a stroke, am I? Those are the rooms we use the most, yes?”

If possible, Aleron’s frown was pulled even deeper at the words. “Yes,” he said slowly, “but as they’ll be staying with us, they’ll be in the guest rooms as well.”

In the most comical of ways, the room fell yet again to a halt, just as it had when Aleron and Hennike first mentioned the Vallis’, only this time Auguste blinked once, twice, three times, and hit his elbow hard on the edge of the table whilst Laurent sat statue-still, fingers twisting in the soft material of his sweatshirt.

“Wait,” Auguste started.

“When you said staying with us —” Laurent said simultaneously.

“They’re staying here? As in staying-staying here? As in sleeping in the beds here? As in morning, noon, and night staying here?”

Another pause in the room.

“Are they poor? Can they not afford a place to stay while in Kempt?”

The vein was visibly throbbing in Aleron’s head again. “They could buy half of Kempt if they wished to.”

“Then for gods’ sake, why are they staying here?” Laurent asked, feeling woozy suddenly.

Despite everything about this home and the chaos that came with living in it alongside his father and mother, there was a comfort in being here, in being unapologetically himself. It was something he had fought long for as well and the thought of other people being here every second, of having to wear a face at all times, sounded exhausting and, to be frank, impossible.

“Because we thought it would be,” Aleron trailed.

“Fun!” Hennike finished. “It will be fun. Your father and Theo were such good friends back in the day and it was only the distance as they both transferred that brought on a change. And Hypermenestra and I mingled so often in the events around Marlas that we became near inseparable at one point. I know things were different for the both of you then, with Auguste heading off to university not even a year after the move and Laurent being so young, but that’s all changed now. Kastor and Damen sound like charming young men that you could both very much befriend.”

The revelation that the Vallis’ were staying in their home for the near entirety of their stay, a whole three weeks no less, changed Auguste and Laurent’s view of the list. Though a new furnace and an entire room addition was still out of the question, the other things felt important suddenly as if impressing these people they didn’t truly know was life or death. Luckily for everyone, Aleron seemed to conclude the same thing and decided that calling in people to polish the floors and prepare the house in all its vastness to be immaculate was necessary.

The four DeVeres were still busy, however. Hennike’s nerves were alight, and it felt as if each time anyone saw her she looked more unraveled than the last time. Luckily for them all she spent much of the next days out of the house, reluctantly trusting the cleaning crews to take care of the home and using the time to go into town with attendants with her at the market, at the florist to arrange for fresh flowers in all the rooms during the Vallis’ entire stay, at the ski lodge arranging some kind of event, and at Vannes’ studio to prep for the actual holiday party she threw every year in competition with Loyse Marcantel, a woman two streets over with a house full of wild boys and a husband that thought quite highly of himself in the town.

Aleron stayed in his office, something that wasn’t out of the ordinary, but when passing the room in the hall anyone could catch on to conversations with people he was associated with thanks to the company, and there was no guarantee, but it sounded as if he was trying to arrange a get-together of sorts for them all once Theo Vallis arrived.

That left Auguste and Laurent (and Victoire, though if she was caught ever was immediately stopped) to do the other things, the things Hennike forgot to take into account, such as food needed for the days before the Vallis’ arrived, such as making the guest rooms not look entirely unlived in, such as making sure the guest bathrooms were equipped with towels and other necessities for a long-time visit.

The only good part of it all was that, the night before the Vallis family was set to arrive, Aleron and Hennike had gone to bed at their usual time, Victoire had gone to bed feeling albeit nauseous, and that meant Auguste and Laurent were together to talk for the first time since Auguste had stepped out of his car.

They were in the sitting room, for that was where Auguste had found Laurent warming his cold hands by the fire, and both were lounging in the tall-backed chairs, Auguste sitting as one should and Laurent splaying across his own, his right foot perched up on the armrest closest to Auguste.

“So much for a family holiday,” Auguste said, speaking toward the fire. “I was looking forward to it, even with the craziness that I knew would ensue.”

Laurent didn’t say anything, only hummed, and he was staring into the fire too, allowing the warmth to make his face so hot that the skin felt tight. When he didn’t properly respond, Auguste poked the foot perched on the chair. Laurent didn’t react. Then Auguste scratched at Laurent’s foot, his blunt nails scraping the fabric of Laurent’s sock, the sound of that drowning in the crackling of the fire, and Laurent jolted at the feeling and pulled his leg back and out of reach.

“Stop that, weirdo,” Laurent said, and he leaned over the same armrest to smack Auguste’s shoulder none-too-lightly.

“Ow! You’re not ten anymore, that actually hurts now.”

“Please,” Laurent scoffed, “you weren’t even around when I was ten. I could have hurt you then too.”

It wasn’t meant to sound the way it did; but it did sound that way. Both of them felt the way the words added a chill to the room despite the fire still blazing, both of them felt the way it addressed the one thing they didn’t talk about because neither knew how. They looked at each other, Laurent’s mouth partially open as if to say something, but no words came out.

“At least we’ve had the last few years together with just us. Mom and dad can’t take that away, I suppose.”

And just like that, they were back to not addressing it.

“I wouldn’t put it above them to try,” Laurent said. Then he pulled a face, as if what he just thought suddenly hit a nerve that wouldn’t allow him to not voice his irritation, and began, “You know, they could have done something half-normal, something families do, like invite our distant cousins that we see once every five years or someone even remotely blood related. But instead they invite some family we lived next to one time in our multitude of moves.”

Auguste smiled and turned back to face the fire. “Yeah, you’d think if they would invite anyone they would have invited the Crespins. They had a son around my age that I spent a decent amount of time with, and I always thought Father and Mr. Crespin got along.”

“You must not have heard. The Crespins disowned their son.”

“What?” Auguste pushed himself to sit up fully, his eyes wide.

“Yes, apparently Berenger running away with a stripper from Varenne wasn’t in their plan for him.”

“A stripper?” Auguste repeated, his jaw going slack with amused shock.

“A redhead. It was quite the scandal,” Laurent said.

Auguste sat back again. “Berenger with a stripper. Didn’t see that one coming. Then again, I don’t think anyone saw me becoming a father just after thirty either.”

“Life is unpredictable in that way,” Laurent agreed. “But you seem to be doing just fine with that. I bet Berenger is doing just fine with his stripper too.”

“Probably more than fine,” Auguste said with a waggle of his brows before dodging another hit from Laurent.

It got quiet after that, both thinking about the serious things that had been brought up in their conversation thus far. Laurent looked away from the fire eventually, opting to look at Auguste’s profile instead. The stubble on his face was a shade or two darker than the hair atop his head, and it made him look older, more refined even. But looking beyond that, Laurent could still see the brother he had idolized in his youth, could still see the face of the man that had shown up on the doorstep of this very house years ago with sorrow in his eyes and hope in his voice.

“Are you ready to be a father?” he asked his brother, still watching his face.

“Don’t think there’s much to do now if I wasn’t,” Auguste said.

“That’s not an answer and that’s not what I meant.”

It was Auguste’s turn to look at him and there, where the sorrow had been, was something Laurent couldn’t place as one specific thing. It was like a stone of opal, a stone that had so many colors, but they were feelings instead of color, each one playing off of the other, each one indistinct and obvious all at once.

“Yes,” then, “no.” He laughed, the sound almost self-deprecating. “Victoire said that it’s normal that I feel so...but I wish I could confidently say yes. I wish I felt more than prepared to welcome a baby into my life, to dedicate my soul to it. But I’m fucking terrified, Laurent.”

Comforting words weren’t often heard in the Devere household. Laurent wanted to say something to ease his brother’s mind, wanted to give him something tangible to hold onto until Victoire had the baby, until Auguste was drowning in devotion and love too much to worry about his insecurity. But instead all Laurent said was, “Thank the gods Victoire’s there to cover you.”

He wasn’t sure what he expected of Auguste’s reaction at the statement said lightly, but it certainly wasn’t the melting of tension from his shoulders nor the blissful smile on his face.

“Thank the gods indeed,” he said, and just like that he appeared settled and fine, as though the mere mention of Victoire’s name was enough to ease all anxiety away. “I recommend falling in love. And doing so soon so you have near all your youth to spend with them. It’s such an unmatched feeling.”

“I think it’s probably that way as the feeling is reciprocated,” Laurent said.

“Probably,” Auguste agreed. “I still recommend it.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Laurent said, doing his best to not let Auguste see the eyeroll that accompanied the words that left him.

“Speaking of love,” Auguste started, standing to stretch his arms high over his head, “I’m going to go check on her and get some rest before we begin the welcoming party tomorrow. You going to sleep soon?”

“Yeah, I’ll go soon.”

“Alright. Goodnight, Laurent.”

“Goodnight, Auguste.”

***

Marlas
September 14th
Fifteen Years Ago

The DeVeres had been in Marlas for just over a month when they first heard Auguste’s true laughter again.

The sound was so unexpected, so sudden, that Hennike whipped around from where she was standing at the bar — making one of her late afternoon cocktails — and some of the liquid sloshed over the sides of the crystal glass in her hand, drenching the pearl ring on her hand in vodka.

Laurent, sitting at the dining table with markers in one hand and the corner of his coloring book in the other, looked up with a stare of consternation that had him making a large mark with green marker far outside of the lines. He frowned at it briefly, lips puffed in a pout, for it made the carousel on the page look quite silly; but the repetition of Auguste’s laughter, the brightness that followed with it, drove away the pout. He looked up again.

Auguste was barreling inside the front door, his shoulders knocking at the frame, and he appeared to be fighting someone. Only, they mustn’t have been fighting because Auguste was laughing. The both of them, Auguste and the other person, looked a mess, their hair both long and tangled in front of their faces, and Hennike, realizing they were wrestling as boys often did, relaxed.

“One of you is going to get hurt!” she called out, wiping at the sides of her glass with a dish towel used for decoration purposes only.

Somehow, both boys’ shoulders managed to wedge in beyond the rigid door frame and they stumbled into the foyer with a lack of grace. Their rowdiness made a painting on the left wall shake. But after fumbling in, they calmed down, their laughter taking on something more like giggles.

The other boy was one of their neighbors, one that Hypermenestra, who made the best baklava in the world and who had promised to make some kourabiedes during the holidays just for Laurent, had introduced. Damen. Somehow his hair had gotten significantly longer in the month since the DeVeres had arrived in Marlas, his curls wild and untamable. Still, even they couldn’t take away from the brightness of the smile on his face and when he responded to Hennike; his voice was at the point fifteen-year-old boys’ voices were right when it would soon develop into something low and rumbly. In other words, right now it was fairly high in pitch, broken out of childhood but still awaiting that final push to being a man.

“Sorry, Mrs. DeVere,” and he said it so charmingly that Hennike couldn’t not beam at him, a hand moving to splay on her own hip as she took in Auguste’s equally as tussled strands of hair.

“And what has you two all riled up?” she asked.

Auguste shot a look at Damen, then his mother, then back to Damen before he said, in a voice that was happy yet meek, “Some of the guys at school invited me to play rugby after school. It was fun.”

Damen, unaware that Auguste had told his mother something quite innocent in such a quiet voice because he didn’t want to admit this move hadn’t been as bad as he had initially thought, chimed in after that. “There are a few of us that like to play before the season starts, making sure we’re all up on the plays and everything. I’m trying to convince Auguste to try out.”

Hennike’s smile was fond as she looked at her oldest who looked a little bashful at the mention. “Are you going to try out, darling?”

“I don’t know.”

“I want to try out,” Laurent said, his own voice not near as bashful as Auguste’s. All the attention in the room turned to him for the first time and he slid off of the dining chair to patter his way over to Auguste. “Can I play with you?”

Both Auguste and Damen laughed, and even Hennike let out an amused sound as she turned back to her drink. Auguste, seventeen and as tall as their father, bent down to heft Laurent into his arms. This close to Auguste’s face, Laurent could make out the brown freckle placed right at the end of his left eyebrow.

“I think you’re a little too small to be playing rugby with the big boys quite yet,” Auguste said, and he petted down an unruly part of Laurent’s hair. The pout returned to Laurent’s face at that, his bottom lip puffing, his child cheeks getting rounder.

“I’m not that little,” he said. Now his voice sounded as meek as Auguste’s had.

“You can come to every game and learn though!” said Damen to Laurent’s left. “And I’ll play with you and Auguste out in our yards.”

Laurent hadn’t been up close with any of the Vallis’, as Laurent had learned them to be called, except for Hypermenestra, and that only because she came over to chat with his mother, the two of them sipping on spritzers while it was still the season for them. Damen’s face was friendly and he looked at Laurent the way Auguste did, like Laurent wasn’t just a child too incapable of doing much of anything. There was gold near the pupils of his brown eyes.

“Yeah,” Auguste agreed, pulling Laurent a little closer as he started to slip in his grip. “Damen and I will teach you everything we know and then, when the time comes for you to try out, you’ll be ready. Sound like a plan?”

“Yeah.”

***

“Aleron, please change into a nicer shirt,” Hennike pleaded, her hands so shaky she couldn’t get the clasp of her diamond bracelet shut.

“What’s wrong with this one?” he gruffed, the newspaper back in his hand like it was every morning.

“It’s hideous. Please change. You have that lovely deep red shirt I got you during the holidays last year, or you could wear blue as that’s the decoration of this year, or —”

It was the day the Vallis’ were set to arrive and Hennike was going on about everything, because nothing was perfect yet in her eyes, including Aleron’s terrible shirt.

Vannes’ interior design team had been in and out of the DeVere household the last five days, working at an absolute nonstop pace. The gold and the red that Hennike had been terribly worried of clashing with her desired blue and silver holiday colors had been taken care of accordingly, the design team going as far as to get an entire new front door put on the hinges, this one a rich navy with a silver lock and handle. The old one was put in the DeVeres’ storage container on the other side of town, ready to be placed back come the new year. Beyond the ridding of the red and gold, the house was a holiday wonderland, postcard-worthy just as Hennike liked it.

The bannister of the ornate staircase was glittering with silvery lights, the cords twisted around the wood and hidden in greenery, making the lights look like sparkling snowflakes delicately placed to draw attention just so. In the sitting room was a ginormous tree, its presence eye-catching and attention-holding, the ornaments on it bulbous and silver as well, their shiny surfaces reflecting the lights interspersed in the trees’ branches. Around the tree was a blue skirt, the fabric velvet and vivid and worthy of being the cloak of a royal instead, and already placed upon it were gift boxes, ones that both Auguste and Laurent knew all too well to be decorative and full of nothing but air. In uniformity, all the rugs in the house had been replaced with the same kind of deep blue as the tree’s skirt, and there were more lights all throughout the multitude of rooms, twinkling and cozy.

Hennike had made certain that one of their cooks would be present early to bake fresh croissants, their existence for two reasons, one being so the Vallis’ had something wonderful upon arrival to help hold them over until the extravagant dinner was ready, and the second being so the house smelled like a bakeshop, adding to the cozy nature of the holiday decoration. Luckily for Hennike as well, a fresh snow had fallen overnight. It hadn’t been a major snowfall, less than an inch all over the ground, but it was enough to hide the gray slush that came with snow left for a long time and brought a freshness to the whole sight of their home.

But still, she wasn’t entirely happy with everything. The tall-backed chairs in the sitting room were still there and still very much red, but Aleron had put his foot down on getting rid of those and Laurent had silently backed up that notion. Auguste had told her in as nice a way as possible that snowman candle warmers looked a little tacky and she had almost cried, so now there were no candle warmers or holders around until the new ones she had ordered arrived in another two days’ time. And don’t even get her started on the drink cart she had wanted so badly to get that was out of stock.

“If I change, will you not speak anything about it the rest of the day?” Aleron asked her.

“Cross my heart!” she promised, giddy with getting her way, and he sighed in the way that expressed his horrible irritation at it all, folded his paper, and began his walk back toward their bedroom to change, Hennike rubbing his shoulders once as a thank you of sorts.

“If she tries to make me change, I’ll simply stay in my room the rest of the day,” Laurent said quietly to Auguste. The two of them were at the breakfast bar Laurent and Victoire had spent so much time at the first day she had arrived, drinking coffee and doing their best not to make direct eye contact with their mother should she think of something to say.

“She won’t make you change,” Auguste said. “You’re wearing a shirt she bought for you. If anything she’ll come over in front of all of them when they arrive and pinch your cheeks like you’re a baby and point out just how adorable you are.”

Laurent grimaced. “You’re right. I should go change into something hideous then.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” Hennike said, and she was so close to them in an instant that it was scary. “I love that shirt.”

It was a nice shirt. Or perhaps sweater would be a more appropriate term, despite it being of a thin material, for it was a turtleneck. It was fitted, clinging to the lithe planes of Laurent’s frame, and its color, an ivory white, looked wintry and wonderful in contrast to the taupe colored corduroy pants that accentuated his waist. His blond hair brushed at his shoulders, the neck of his shirt paired with the length of the strands framing his face like the piece of art it was. Yes, it was a nice shirt that looked even nicer on him.

“When are they supposed to get here, Mother?” Auguste asked. The attention, however brief it had been, shifted from Laurent to the situation at hand.

“Any time. Is Victoire up?”

“I am,” came Victoire’s familiar voice from behind them and, sure enough, there she was, her arms drowning in a large and flowing dark blue cardigan. “Sorry. The baby wanted its mother to be quite nauseous this morning.”

“Are you alright?” Auguste asked, alert immediately.

“Oh, I’m fine. Nothing I haven’t dealt with.” She walked forward, kissed Laurent on the cheek, then Auguste, and settled awkwardly into the chair at Auguste’s left.

Everyone was opening their mouths to ask Victoire what they could do for her, Auguste wanting to ask her if she needed to go rest, Laurent wanting to ask her if she wanted some tea, Hennike wanting to ask her if something small to eat would help settle her, when one of their usual staff, an old man named Arnoul, came shuffling in.

“The Vallis’ family has arrived, ma’am.”

One had to be in the room whenever something was about to occur to truly understand the energy Hennike radiated. Like it had happened with the snapping of fingers, Hennike’s expression went from concerned for Victoire to utterly panicked. Her eyes widened, almost comically so, her pupils getting eerily small, and her mouth pulled down at the corners, sharpening her lips and elongating her face. Then, quietly at first, came her voice.

“Aleron.” Then, louder, overreacted, “Aleron! They’re here, Aleron, please hurry. Oh gods.”

Auguste and Laurent shared a look, the kind of look siblings shared that made at least one have to cover their face to avoid laughing outright, and it was when Laurent was attempting to disguise said laugh as a cough that Aleron came from the hallway the bedroom was located in, looking disgruntled in a deep blue button-down.

“Aleron, they’re here,” Hennike said again.

“So I heard.” He adjusted the cuff on his right sleeve. “Let’s go then.”

The five of them — Aleron, Hennike, Auguste, Victoire, and Laurent — followed Arnoul, Auguste keeping a steadying hand on Victoire’s lower back, and with a flourish the front door opened, letting in the Kemptian cold and making way for the two people standing on the other side of it.

Theo Vallis was just as he had been fifteen years ago when the Vallis’ had first introduced themselves to the DeVeres in Marlas. He was tall, broad, barrel-chested, had a pair of dark brown eyes over a nose with a broad tip that tapered upward, and a wide, close-mouthed smile. His hair, dark and waved, was a lot shorter than it had been that time in the past and a lot grayer too; it paired well with the lines by his eyes that indicated lots of time spent laughing. Laurent remembered, as if from a dream tucked away, that Theo had a booming laugh.

Hypermenestra was not, however, just as she had been fifteen years ago. No, Hypermenestra had, in the last decade and a half, become more refined than she had been then, her beauty only enhanced by the time that had gone by, her eyes even kinder than they had been the day she had leaned down into Laurent’s six-year-old vicinity to tell him to come over for baklava every other week for that’s when she made it. He had a rushing memory of honey at the sight of her over his brother’s shoulder.

In the polite way adults did, greetings were exchanged quickly and with excitement overextended, but Laurent recognized his mother’s genunuity as she ushered them inside, saying something barely heard over the shuffling of feet about not freezing their guests to death. Inside, in the foyer, it was much easier to get proper greetings across and Auguste, Laurent, and Victoire stood to the side and watched Hennike and Hypermenestra hug each other, both being careful of the other’s hair, and pull back as if to examine one another, each going on about how beautiful the other was, throwing compliments around as if they had to get them all in now and not over a three week long period. In contrast, Aleron and Theo gave each other manly shoulder-claps, and, like men seemed to do, Theo was looking up and around, saying something about the woodwork of the house and Aleron, hands in his front pockets, agreed about the craftsmanship.

“And your boys!” Hypermenestra exclaimed out suddenly, bringing the conversations occurring to a halt and all eyes turned to Auguste, Laurent, and Victoire before Victoire shoved the two in front of her as that’s where the focus had turned. Hypermenestra walked forward, pulling Auguste then Laurent into a hug, an it was when she pulled back from Laurent that her face changed. Her eyes got near-misty, head tilted, and she said, her voice quiet now, “By the gods, you’ve grown into something spectacular. Look at you.”

Unused to attention from entire rooms when his family was involved, Laurent didn’t know what to say. He gave her a smile, a small one that felt awkward on his face, and she sniffed once. “Oh, I’m sorry.” She turned back to Auguste. “And you! Gods. Your brother I saw as a child, and whilst you may not have been a child, you certainly weren’t on route to be a father yet.”

Auguste, much better with attention, ran with it in stride and smiled before giving Victoire his elbow. “I definitely wasn’t on route, no. This woman right here, my wonderful wife, Victoire, is the reason I’m not in a complete state of consternation about it now.”

Victoire was introduced, Theo coming forward to greet her versus her trying to waddle to him, and Laurent could see in Hypermenestra’s eyes that same look his mother had when she looked at Victoire, as if she wanted to kidnap her and put her own motherly instincts to work caring for Victoire while Victoire’s body readied to give birth.

“What about your boys, Theo?” Aleron asked, changing to subject. “I thought they were coming along with you.”

“They’ll be here. Both of them got caught up with work. You know how that is,” Theo said.

“Don’t I,” Aleron said back, and they laughed like it was an inside joke.

“Kastor’s been doing a lot of work with the Patran embassy and the border issues there. Damianos is doing a lot, but his primary work has been with the Akielon military bases along the Elosean Sea. There are four of them and he's been flying back and forth between them. When we had told him he needed to make his way up here to Kempt, he was in Isthima, and when we called him just last night he was at the base in Mellos.”

“He’s working the military bases? All of them?” Aleron looked and sounded impressed. “How old is he?”

“Twenty-nine.”

“That’s quite a feat for someone so young.”

“Aleron,” Hennike interrupted. “If you two are going to talk business straight away, perhaps it’d be best done in your office.”

“Only if Auguste comes along with us,” Theo said, already taking a step to follow Aleron’s movement. “I want to hear about what you’re doing with the company as well. I see big things for you three boys’ futures.”

“Are you —” Auguste started, talking to Victoire, but she cut him off before he could finish the question.

“I’m fine. Go. Talk business and all things boring so you can get it out of your system early.”

“You’re the best,” Auguste said. He gave her a kiss on her cheek.

“While they’re gone talking, I want to show you the new wing and get your opinion on that extension I was telling you about last week,” Hennike said to Hypermenestra.

“Yes, of course! It sounded like such a great idea over the phone, but I’m dying to see it in person,” Hypermenestra said.

“Are you going to come along?” Hennike asked Victoire and Laurent.

“I would but,” Victoire started, then hesitated. “I’m going to give my feet a rest for a while longer.”

“Are you sure you’re alright?” Concern was back in Hennike’s voice like it had never left, but Victoire waved her off.

“I’m fine.”

“I’ll stay here with her,” Laurent offered up and Victoire beamed at him.

“My boys should be here relatively soon,” Hypermenestra said. “They’re both in Kempt now, but I don’t know where and I don’t know if they’re awake quite yet. But if they arrive whilst we’re all away, just call for us.”

“Sure.”

As Hennike and Hypermenestra disappeared down the far hallway, their heels clicking behind them, Laurent caught their conversation, heard the, “That boy of yours! You must be holding back boys and girls alike with a stick,” and Victoire cackled directly into his ear.

“Beautiful Laurent,” she sing-songed, arm hooking around his.

“Stop that.”

“A stunner. A heartbreaker. A —”

“You’re insufferable.”

“Help me get off my feet and I’ll stop.”

She didn’t stop her sing-songing until Laurent helped ease her to sit in one of the still-red chairs in the sitting room, but the relief on her back, or her feet, or both had her quieting down, as if the talking was just a distraction from how uncomfortable she was.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” Laurent echoed his mother.

“Yes. Growing a life inside of you for nearly a year isn’t exactly an easy thing to do, you know.”

“Never thought it was.” He couldn’t sit down yet. “Let me at least get you tea.”

Victoire winced for the first time since she had arrived as she pushed herself into a more comfortable sitting position on the chair and, reluctantly, she met Laurent’s eyes. “Silver needle, if you guys have it. Please.”

In the kitchen, Laurent could hear and see his mother again. She was down at the far far end of the wing, hands motioning wildly at the current wall there as though telling Hypermenestra to imagine that wall knocked down and extended past the garden they could see from the window. Hypermenestra was nodding, as if completely back in step with Hennike’s quirks, and Laurent shook his head before putting water in the kettle for tea.

Hennike, ever thorough, had also replaced all of their dishware to go along with their colors for the season, so the gold-rimmed glasses and bowls were gone. The mugs, meant for coffees, teas, hot cocoa, and probably even eggnog at some point, were blue and tinged with silver like stars in a nighttime sky. The plates and bowls and serving dishes in the cabinets were simply white and Laurent could only imagine the multitude of centerpieces for the table Hennike had commissioned.

After the tea was finished steeping, Laurent picked up the two mugs he had gotten out, ignored his mother’s squeal as she ran to show Hypermenestra something in the recreational room, and went back to where Victoire was sprawled more awkwardly than before in a chair. She had one arm behind her and underneath her lower back, as though giving her lumbar support she was lacking, the other arm over her head and across the back of the chair. One leg was extended all the way out, her heel on the floor and the rest of her foot not, and the other leg was bent at the knee at an acute kind of angle.

“You look painful. How are you sitting like that?” Laurent asked, gently placing the steaming mug of tea on the table beside her.

“Babies are magical creatures that turn one’s body unrecognizable at times,” Victoire huffed. She was trying to sit up straight again. She cradled the mug in her hands and Laurent didn’t comment on the swelling of her fingers, so significant it made her rings on her hand look quite tight. “That seemed like a rushed welcoming.”

“I didn’t think it was surprising. Mother and Father are clearly more interested in their reunion with the Vallis’ than Auguste and I are.”

“Mrs. Vallis —”

“Hypermenestra.”

“Hypermenestra seemed quite excited to see you.”

“I think it was the excitement relatives feel at family reunions. I wouldn’t know from personal experience, but I’ve heard all the horror stories of relatives coming up to the children at events like that and going on and on. She knew me when I was six and quite obsessed with sweets. It was probably like meeting me for the very first time,” Laurent said.

“You’re still obsessed with sweets.”

“Very true, but I’m a bit more controlled now.”

“So you don’t know their sons at all?” she asked.

Laurent gave a small shrug before taking a sip of his tea. “Not really. Damen, as we knew him, was fifteen when we moved to Marlas. I was six. Not exactly compatible ages for friendship. Auguste and him hung out some, but Auguste went off to university a year later so they never got close. And I don’t even think Auguste or I either met the oldest, Kastor. And if we did, it was once, maybe twice. He’s a decent amount older than Auguste, let alone me.”

As if on cue, as if knowing Laurent and Victoire were talking about the Vallis boys, a car pulled into the DeVeres’ extensively large driveway, parking directly in front of the fountain in the center. It was a taxi, its bright sign glowing even in the sunlight, and Victoire had her neck craned and sticking out as if that would make the person sitting inside clear. The two of them waited a moment, watching and waiting to see if someone would emerge. No one did.

“I’ll go get Hypermenestra,” Laurent said, pushing himself to stand up again.

“Go greet them yourself,” Victoire protested. “Then you can avoid your mother following and causing a scene that won’t stop for an hour.”

“But that means I have to talk and lead them inside and —”

“Laurent.”

He gave her a wary look. “Fine. But when I inevitably make it weird and my father expresses his ongoing disappointment in me, you’re going to hear it.”

“Put on your best smile!” Victoire called after him as he walked out the front door.

The front steps were slick with ice and snow, and Laurent held tight to the railing as he descended, refusing to make a scene of his own. Instinctually his arms came around his body as if he could hold in the heat that was being taken by the cold air. The taxi was still running, its engine loud, and Laurent couldn’t make out the figure inside the darkened windows. He stood there a beat, then two, then debated knocking on said window, when the door flung open and a man came out.

Man was the only word to describe the person. Laurent had been caught up in Hennike and Hypermenestra’s continuous references to ‘boys’ that, though he logically knew the two Vallis’ being waited upon were adults, his mind didn’t supply that definition yet. But the person stepping out of the car was most definitely a man, and an older one at that. He had to be nearing forty and dressed like he was on his way to the office in the next hour.

He looked exactly like his father too. Kastor, Laurent deduced because of the age assumption, was tall, perhaps even taller than Theo, and broad-shouldered. He had his father’s nose and eyes exact in color but more hooded like Hypermenestra’s, and his hair was reminiscent of Theo’s back in Marlas fifteen years ago. The most significant difference was that Kastor’s mouth was set in a firm scowl that somehow deepened as he took in the snow surrounding them in every way.

“Kastor, yes?” Laurent asked, his brain forgoing a hello. Kastor shut the door to the taxi behind him before he gave Laurent even a look. It was a look Laurent wasn’t used to getting from strangers, but more so his family; it was a look that said Kastor was studying him. Thinking more on it, Laurent wondered if it was a thing people from the company did, something learned in their training. That would explain why he bristled at the feeling of those eyes on him.

“Yes,” Kastor said simply. He walked back to the trunk of the taxi, pulled out his bags, and gave a curt wave to the driver as if he couldn’t stomach standing there any longer. A squishing sound filled the air as the taxi drove off, its tires spinning in mountains of wet, blackened snow. “Is my father here yet?”

Laurent nodded. His teeth were starting to chatter.

Without another word, Kastor began toward the house and Laurent, noting with obviousness that their meeting had been colder than the weather outside, allowed him to get ahead to avoid any more unnecessary conversation. Kastor hadn’t even let him introduce himself, didn’t ask who he was. Inside, Kastor kicked snow off of his boots and got as much outside the door as he could. Arnoul was there to greet them, the old man attempting to take Kastor’s bags. Laurent watched with a bit of amusement as Kastor took in Arnoul’s fragile looking frame and did his best to decline.

“I’d prefer to settle my own things in, thank you,” he said succinctly, and Arnoul acquiesced, stepping aside and announcing he would, at the very least, escort Kastor to his rooms so he didn’t get lost.

“Your father is in my father’s study. I’m sure Arnoul can show you where if you’d like to go there after you settle your things,” Laurent said. Kastor was already halfway up the shimmering staircase when he said it and the man turned around, perhaps as if seeing Laurent for the first time, and tipped his head in acknowledgment.

“Well, he’s going to be a boatload of fun, isn’t he?” Victoire asked loudly from the sitting room. Laurent shushed her.

“He might be able to hear you. Don’t you know anything about the Veretian way?”

“As I’m not Veretian, apparently no.”

“Auguste was never very good at it so that might be why. Veretians don’t believe in saying awful things in someone’s vicinity. We’re sickly sweet to people’s faces and then we annihilate their entire existence behind their back before they realize what hit them.”

“You’re not sickly sweet,” Victoire scoffed. “Not when you don’t want to be, anyway.”

“Yes, that’s the Kemptian in me, clearly,” Laurent said, giving Victoire a pointed look.

“Oh, don’t blame us Kemptians for you being a bitch,” she said and Laurent actually laughed at that. It made Victoire smile with all her teeth showing, and between that and her general pregnancy glow, she was riveting. “Besides, your mother isn’t a bitch so I think that’s just all you.”

Laurent snorted. “She’s not a bitch but she’s…”

“She’s something.”

“That’s a word for it. Would you ever allow her to watch the baby when it’s born?”

“Gods above. No,” Victoire said. Her hand curled around the most protruding part of her stomach as though she could protect the baby from Hennike’s sometimes questionable lifestyle choices. “I have this fear she’d mistake water for vodka and vice versa and put it in the bottle, or that she’d forget the baby was sitting in a laundry basket and dump the entire thing in the wash, not giving it a second look. I don’t know how you and your brother got out of here unscathed.”

“I mean, neither one of us is entirely mentally stable,” Laurent pointed out, not mostly serious.

“I meant physically. You’re both horribly fucked up in the head, that was always unsalvageable.”

Laurent was about to make a quip about Victoire willingly procreating with Auguste knowing he was fucked up in the head, when another taxi with an almost identical, unmistakable light atop it pulled into the driveway. Its tires were in nearly the same imprint as the taxi before it. Like when Kastor arrived, both Laurent and Victoire stopped talking and waited instead to see if someone would emerge. This time, however, someone did.

Damen, as the process of elimination told them, had to practically fold himself to prevent from hitting his head on the car’s frame, but when he finally stood to full height, it was impossible to not take in everything about him.

Like there was between Auguste and Laurent, there was a significant age difference between Kastor and Damen. Where Kastor was forty and showing it in his face (though Laurent already theorized that Kastor, no doubt, would look younger if he smiled once), Damen was full of a youthful zeal, something showcased in the simple way he walked, the way he held himself as he chatted amicably with the cab driver from the open window, and it paired well with his lightly stubbled face; he had, apparently, not deemed the beard his father and brother bore as necessary quite yet in his life. Unlike Theo and Kastor as well, Damen’s hair was curled, each singular curl distinguished. They weren’t tightly coiled curls, no, but they were curls nonetheless and it made him look more boyish where everything else, like the breadth of his shoulders, the taper of his waist, and the very obviously well-worked muscles of his thighs displaying underneath a basic pair of jeans, screamed man.

“Well would you look at that,” Victoire said, her voice pitched low. “That’s going to be a real nice addition for the holidays.”

Laurent was always good at schooling his face into something expressionless and he was grateful for the skill now. He hoped Victoire didn’t see him swallow. “Aren’t you married?” he asked rhetorically. Like his face, his voice gave nothing away.

“I’m married, not dead,” she said. “Don’t roll your eyes. Look at him and tell me that’s not at least miniscule-y attractive to you.” She was pointing out the window just as Damen was hefting his bags from the trunk. He lifted them like they were nothing. Logic told Laurent that he didn’t actually know if the bags were heavy or not, but the heat it spread throughout his stomach wasn’t listening to that logic.

“Where’s Arnoul at? I’m still cold from going outside last time, I don’t want to do it again.”

“Yes, I’m sure that’s the reason.” Then she said, “Go out there. Maybe when you get back in, he can warm you up.”

“You’re disgusting,” Laurent said, his head turned toward the staircase Arnoul still hadn’t descended since escorting Kastor up there. Outside, the taxi drove away, its tires doing the same thing the first taxi’s tires had done, squelching and whirring on the blackened snow. Laurent sighed heavily through his nose. “I’ll be back.”

A large chunk of snow that must have been stuck to Kastor’s boot before he had shaken it off was directly in front of the door and Laurent sidestepped it, barely. He focused on his footing as he walked down the front steps because they were still slick with ice, so it wasn’t until he was safely on the ground that he looked up.

Damen was standing there, his eyes focused on one of the barren trees in the left side of the yard. The branches, though holding no leaves, were heavy with snow and it was beginning to shake off with the small gusts of wind, falling like a fresh snowfall from the sky onto the ground below. Where Kastor had looked studious when he looked at Laurent and at everything around them, Damen looked intrigued. His mouth was slightly parted, leaving the breath that left between his lips frosty in the frigid air.

“We just had a snowfall yesterday.”

Laurent hadn’t meant to say it; or maybe he did. It seemed like a better segway than a simple hello or anything else.

The sentence got Damen’s attention from the tree though, and suddenly he was looking at Laurent.

Up close, Laurent could conclude that Damen didn’t look anything like his father and brother. His nose was straight, the bridge the same in width where Theo and Kastor’s tapered upward, his mouth fuller — or perhaps just not drawn down in a scowl — and his eyes darker. He was definitely taller too, standing a whole head above Laurent who felt suddenly quite young and quite small again, and his smile, when it happened, was knee-weakening and big, just like the rest of him.

Unlike how it had been with Kastor, whom Laurent had never really met all those years ago in Marlas, Laurent had memories of Damen, however brief, that made this suddenly feel quit uncanny, like someone meeting someone else for the first time and discovering they were incredibly close with a friend from a distant past.

Like before, Laurent brought his arms around his middle as if to keep in the heat the cold was trying to take. It was easier to focus on that, on the cold, than on Damen’s dark eyes on him.

“I haven’t had a welcoming this pretty since my best friend’s bachelor party.”

There weren’t many instances in life where Laurent felt speechless. Sure, he kept his mouth shut moreso than not given his father’s reactions to most things he said, his mother’s fluttering attention span, and his brother’s disinterest, but he had much to say, always. But right now, at that, Laurent’s mind felt mindnumblingly blank, even if only for a moment.

Then it all came back to him.

“I do suppose I’m taller now,” was all he said and then he waited, allowing that to seep its way across the cold and into Damen’s head. The wide, knee-weakening smile on Damen’s face fell slightly, as if at first to make sense of whatever had just been Laurent’s response. Then those dark eyes widened.

“Laurent?” he asked, his voice falling off at the end.

Laurent nodded.

“Shit.” Purposefully, Damen breathed out, fogging his face with the cold air as if creating a shield. “Shit, I’m sorry. I just didn’t expect…” His voice fell off again. “You look great.”

“Well, I’m not six anymore so that’s probably the biggest change,” Laurent said, his arms still around his middle.

“Yeah,” Damen laughed a little, “that’s definitely a big part of it.”

Though the silence that followed was only ten seconds long, it felt like an eternity of just standing there, the feeling making Laurent want to crawl out of his skin.

“We should go inside and get out of the cold,” Laurent said when it became unbearable.

“Right. Yeah, of course.”

Back to the door, Laurent felt hyper-aware of Damen walking behind him. Too late did it occur to him that he should have maybe offered to help with bags, but they were walking in now, Damen’s boots loudly knocking on the steps to get off the snow as they all did each time they entered the house. As if timed to make Laurent question everything, Arnoul was coming down the stairs just as the two of them were getting inside the door.

Laurent could see Victoire in the sitting room craning around the chair, the sight hysterical given he could make out her round stomach with the way she was turned. She mouthed, ‘You two going to go warm up?’ and Laurent ignored her with ease.

“Mr. Kastor Vallis has taken the bedroom on this floor instead of the one upstairs,” Arnoul informed them. “The back patio entrance within the main floor’s bedroom will be better for him as he smokes.”

Laurent couldn’t help but wrinkle his nose at that, but before he could say something Victoire was waddling in, a specifically pitched ‘Hi!’ having already left her mouth before she was even fully standing.

“Hi!” she repeated, hand coming out to Damen. “I’m Victoire.”

“I’m Damen,” Damen said, taking in Victoire in all her glow and he beamed at her. “You must be Auguste’s wife. Congratulations!” Then he took the hand she had extended out to him and kissed it, the brush of his lips feather-soft and Victoire had the audacity to giggle.

“Thank you,” she said, still giggling. “We’re all thrilled to have you all here for the holidays.”

“If anything, it’ll help prepare you for the bigger holidays you’ll be having in a few years,” Damen said.

“Auguste wants an entire sports team of children I think,” Victoire started with an exaggerated grimace. “He’s lucky he’s getting the one right now.”

Damen laughed at that, that booming laugh Laurent vaguely remembered from the Vallis household as a whole. Only now Damen’s laugh specifically was deeper. Much deeper. It took them getting inside for Laurent to realize just how it felt to be so close to it, like being swept over by honey that had melted in hot tea.

“Would you like me to get your bags, Mr. Vallis?” Arnoul interrupted. Like his brother, Damen took in the fragile sight of Arnoul’s thin-boned arms and declined quite quickly.

“I’ve got my bags, but I wouldn’t mind being shown the room,” he said, hefting the bags up a little higher from where they had fallen during the conversation.

“Your father and brother are in my father’s study,” Laurent repeated the same information, with the addition of Kastor of course. “It’s on the main floor, but I’m sure Arnoul can show you where that is as well.”

“Thank you,” Damen said. “Auguste is in there as well?”

“Sadly,” Victoire murmured.

“And are neither of you coming?” Damen asked.

“Gods, no,” Victoire said.

“We’ve not been invited, you see,” said Laurent. “But my father is persistent you and Auguste reconnect in order to expand your network.”

“That’s a shame you two won’t be there. But, then again, it sounds like we’re all going to have plenty of time to get to know each other.”

Patiently, Damen let Arnoul lead him up the stairs. Victoire was better this time at watching her volume and at waiting until Damen was out of sight for a moment before saying. “He’s a sight, isn’t he? And charming too.”

Laurent snorted. “Yes, if you think that making an ambiguous, yet equally obvious, implication that I’m somehow a stripper is charming, then sure, he’s charming.”

He had said it because it was truth, but also because he thought it would make Victoire wrinkle her nose the same way Laurent had when Arnoul mentioned Kastor smoked. But instead of that kind of reaction, Victoire tilted her head and asked quietly, “Wait, what?”

“I walked out there and the first thing he says isn’t a hello or even a harmless comment about the weather. Instead he said, ‘I haven’t had a welcoming this pretty since my best friend’s bachelor party,’ as if that’s not implying me to be considered the same as the strippers that were littering the place in their barely-there clothing. And I don’t even understand that, because I’m practically covered everywhere minus my face —”

“He said that?” Victoire asked for clarification, her voice a little louder.

“Yes.”

“Oh.” A pause, then, “Oh. Oh, I can work with this.”

Dread worked its way into Laurent’s bones the same way cold did.

“Victoire, we do not need a repeat of my first year at the university.”

“My cousin meant well, he just —”

“He was awful. You know he was awful.”

Victoire groaned, her head falling back. “Okay, Søren was bad. But Damen is…” Laurent couldn’t tell if she was pausing for dramatic effect or not. “Unbelievably hot.”

“Damen’s been in the house for literally four minutes. Give him more time, he’ll prove himself to be like everyone else.”

Victoire made a sound. “You’re just jealous he kissed my hand.”

“That’s it. You caught me.”

***

Marlas
July 30th
14 Years Ago

With a trembling hand, Hennike dabbed the tissue to her eyes. She did so delicately as to not disturb her makeup, but some still came off on the stark white paper, blackened now with mascara from her lower lashes.

“But Ios is so far away,” she repeated for what had to be the twentieth time. “Can’t you stay closer to us? Or at least closer to Vere?”

The DeVeres had been in Marlas for nearly a year now, and despite Auguste making a handful of friends, he hadn’t quite found his happiness since the move. The rugby team had fallen through given Auguste’s late entrance to the school and ever since that news had broken, he’d spent more nights moping in his room than doing anything else. Now, at the end of his schooling, he was preparing for the next step: university. Several of his friends from the school back in Arles were going to Ios for university and, if the rumors were true, the beach parties there were unmatched.

But best of all, it was away from the name DeVere.

“Mom, first semester tuition has already been paid and everything,” Auguste said, and he did nothing to mask the irritation he felt. “It’s done.”

“But —”

“Hennike, let it go. If the boy wants to make things harder on himself, let him. Perhaps it will teach him a lesson,” Aleron said.

It wasn’t easy for Aleron to say such things. Auguste was his oldest, his golden star, and his joy, the one meant to carry on the family name with pride. But now —

Aleron couldn’t think about it, so he simply didn’t.

Holding back a retort, Auguste turned on a heel and marched out of the dining room and back to his breezy bedroom to continue to pack. This had all come up because Auguste dropped the bomb that he was moving a month early to enjoy the rest of the summer in Ios. Hennike had expected more time with her son, Aleron had thought to change Auguste’s mind in that time, and Laurent...

Too busy shoving clothes into the array of suitcases Auguste had found, he didn’t even see Laurent, tiny and seven years old and holding confusion between his brows, standing in the doorway. In fact, Auguste didn’t pay attention at all until he heard, in a quiet voice, “Why are you leaving, Auguste?”

Auguste shouldn’t have looked up. Laurent had an ability unlike any other with his big blue eyes. It was the only thing about Laurent that seemed to bring out a sense of paternal care in their father.

“I’m going to school, Laurent,” Auguste said, looking back down again.

“But why?”

“Because I have to."

“But why are you going so far away?”

“Because it’s the school I want to go to.”

“But Mother says there are schools closer. You could —”

“I don’t want to, Laurent!” Auguste said, the force the statement emphasized as he slammed his laptop charger into his suitcase. “I want to be as far away from here as possible. I don’t want anything to do with this family, I’m done. Everything has been picked out for me, lined up with expectations impossible to meet and I’m done.”

Since he had learned to walk and talk, Laurent had been a quiet boy. But the silence now, even when Auguste wasn’t looking at him to see what made it so different than usual, was painful. It was only broken by the soft pattering of Laurent’s feet on the floor as he left from standing in the doorway.

***

Marlas
October 26th
14 Years Ago

“Can we call Auguste?”

That was the first thing Laurent asked after walking in the door from school. He still had his backpack on and everything, but there was a determination in the question as if the answer of ‘No’ simply would not suffice.

“Why, darling?” Hennike asked back.

“Because I haven’t talked to him in forever. It’s been at least,” he began to count on his fingers, “fifteen days. That’s more than two weeks!”

Hennike didn’t want to tell him. She herself was still struggling with the fact that Auguste hadn’t answered a single one of her phone calls in those two weeks. In fact, the only time he had answered since the semester actually started was in early October and it had been because somebody else had picked up the phone and handed it to Auguste.

“Sure, darling, we can try. But I can’t promise he’ll pick up. He’s quite busy with classes.”

Laurent bounded over to the phone, impatiently waiting for Hennike to join him. With reluctance she stood from the sofa and joined him at the phone. He was on his tiptoes as if standing taller and closer to the receiver would get him to Auguste faster and Hennike, with a ball of dread in her stomach, dialed the number and waited.

It rang. It rang. It rang. It rang. And it kept ringing. Then, with a low beep, it went to voicemail.

“Hi, this is Auguste. I’m not in my dorm. Leave a message and I’ll call you back.”

Hennike didn’t — couldn’t — bother.

“He must be out, Laurent.”

It made her want to cry. The holidays would be here before they knew it and Auguste might not be here, and Hennike would be inconsolable, Aleron would be so angry, and Laurent —

“That’s okay. Can I get on the computer and email him? My teacher says my spelling has gotten better.”

Laurent was young enough, innocent enough, to not think the worst yet.

“Of course.”

***

Ios
October 26th
14 Years Ago

Auguste had no idea where he was.

The party had started on Stewart Street, at the usual place, but then the police had broken it up and it had moved. Auguste had joined the rest of the group in stumbling to the new destination, but he had gotten sidetracked by another party with a big game of beer pong going on in the front yard. Now he was lost and his head was fuzzy with too many shots.

It didn’t stop him from doing more though.

Things had escalated beyond normal shots and Auguste found himself doing body shots off of a girl he’d met precisely thirty seconds earlier with g-string straps showing at the top of her hips and long dark hair nearly down to her waist.

He wasn’t going to make it back to his dorm room tonight.

***

The rest of the day leading up to dinner was the definition of awkward. It became apparent that the Vallis family had catching up of their own to do before they would be ready to catch up with the DeVeres. Hypermenestra was absolutely overcome with both Kastor and Damen being here and Victoire had overheard the woman tell Hennike that it had been almost two years since the family had sat down for a dinner together.

“What kind of hell have our parents put us in the middle of?” Auguste had asked, a kind of incredulous laugh in his voice. The three of them — Auguste, Victoire, and Laurent — had been eavesdropping since Auguste’s exit from the ever-intimidating office.

“I don’t have time for other people’s family drama,” Laurent had started in agreement. “I barely have time for our own family drama.”

“It felt incredibly cold in there the moment Damen entered and not because of the snow outside,” Auguste had said.

“Leave it alone, you two. Give them a chance to settle in before you start jumping to wild conclusions.”

“Honey,” Auguste had said, addressing Victoire then, “I love you, but all you do is jump to conclusions. I’m allowed to one time.”

At one point, nearish noon, Kastor had retreated from the office to the room he was staying in, leaving Aleron, Theo, and Damen alone. Theo’s booming laugh followed by Damen’s similar one echoed throughout the house at various intervals.

When Auguste and Victoire got bored with the eavesdropping and decided to grab lunch at a small place down the street, Laurent took that as opportunity to retreat to his room. Disregarding the sitting room, his bedroom was his favorite place. It was littered with books, his newest ones Patran literature from the years 1000-1600 Post-Artesian (P.A.) and his older ones fiction books he’d had since he was a young teen, books that shaped everything, books that provided an escape from the name DeVere. But the books were about the only things in the room that were Laurent.

Hennike, the interior design dreamer with big ideas Vannes made reality, hadn’t allowed for the boys to have many toys or anything growing up given how horribly toys clashed with her mixture of Kemptian-Veretian home decor. That hadn’t changed as they had grown. In fact, it had gotten even more strict, the saying of, “It’s time to start acting like an adult!” being told to them both starting when they turned but thirteen.

It had made childhood a little off-putting, watching other kids in those younger days of school bringing toys for show-and-tell or talking about the gifts they received, but Laurent had grown used to it and it didn’t bother him now. It made his room with its high ceiling, dark floors, beige walls, and large arched window all the more cozy in lamp light.

He grabbed one of the older Patran books, this one with yellowed pages, binding that was in a questionable state, and faded Patran writing on the cover that said ‘Poetry from Bazal’ and a subscript of ‘For the Royal Family,’ and lounged across his bed. For hours he didn’t hear a sound in the house, his room far enough away from the kitchens, the office, the new wing his mother was obsessed with, that there wasn’t a fear of hearing it either. But, as all good things must come to an end, his mother did come into his room some time later, no knock or anything, to say, “Dress nice for dinner tonight. It will be ready at our usual time.”

Laurent bristled. “I have to dress nice for dinner in the house? Is this how it’s going to be the entire time they’re here?”

“Yes and yes. They are our guests, Laurent! We need to look nice out of respect,” Hennike admonished.

The unspoken words there were actually ‘How else am I supposed to show them how wonderful we are if we do not always look camera-ready?’

“Fine. I’ll be down soon.”

Down the hall was Auguste and Victoire’s room, and they must have returned from their outing because Laurent could hear Auguste asking his mother the same thing he had. When she left, going back down the stairs, he then heard Auguste groan and begin to, none too gently, go through his closet for something worthy of wearing to dinner.

Laurent picked out a new sweater, a nice blue one (to compliment his mother’s theme for the house) with cuffed sleeves and a Peter-Pan collar, and finished it off with a simple pair of pants, ones that ended above his ankles in the Veretian style both of his parents preferred. When he was dressed, he took in a deep breath before opening his bedroom door; every part of him was dreading small talk and conversation that would ultimately lead to the company, as everything with his father always did.

As soon as the door was opened, the smell from dinner besieged Laurent’s senses. It was divine and clearly going to be excessive. The dread solidified a little more. Laurent sent a silent prayer to the prophet of Kempt and the god of Vere that it wouldn’t be a twelve course traditional Veretian meal.

There was chatter in the dining room already occurring and when Laurent walked through the threshold, it was Hypermenestra again that seemed truly happy to see him.

“Laurent! There you are,” she started, coming forward and placing both of her hands on his shoulders. “I’ve hardly seen you since we arrived.”

Her enthusiastic greeting had turned all eyes in the room on him and that meant everyone but Auguste and Victoire. If Victoire were here, she would say something humorous, something like, “Ever since Laurent found out the DeVere family is descended from royalty, he’s started limiting his presence with people as to not overwhelm them with his grace,” and everyone would laugh. But Laurent didn’t know what to say so he said a half-truth instead, purposefully avoiding eye contact with everyone else in the room.

“I got caught up in schoolwork. I didn’t mean to disappear for so long,” he said.

“Well,” she started, and she was leading him toward the table that was in the process of being set, “that means I’m simply going to ask you everything over dinner. You, especially, have had so much happen since you moved from Marlas.”

Laurent was saved from responding to that with the appearance of Auguste and Victoire and Victoire’s hysterical delivery of, “Sorry we’re late. This,” she pointed to her baby bump, “makes getting dressed a challenge every time and I got a dress stuck in a terribly embarrassing way. Auguste had to fish me out of it. It was a mess.”

Like she knew to save him, the mention of a baby got Hennike and Hypermenestra both cooing after her as they had earlier and they kept it up even as everyone began to go to their seats. The cooing got even worse when Auguste pulled out Victoire’s chair for her.

“Does he do that all the time, or is he behaving exceptionally well because there’s company?” Hypermenestra asked lightheartedly.

“I whipped him into shape years ago,” Victoire said, and she demurely took the folded cloth napkin on the table and placed it over her lap — which was predominantly baby bump now.

“That’s not far from the truth,” Auguste said, taking his across from her and smiling wide.

The table they were sitting at was incredibly long. Like the largeness of the house, Laurent never understood why they had a table quite this big when dinner wasn’t eaten together more than a handful of times a year and, when they did eat together, there were only three of them most of the time. On a normal day, as the table sat there unused, there were ten available seats and room to squeeze in six more if needed. Arnoul and the others had taken away all the unnecessary chairs for the dinner, however, leaving a chair at each head of the table, four chairs on one side, and three on the other. Naturally, Aleron and Theo took the seats at the heads of the table, their wives on their rights. Hennike’s seat was next to Victoire, the both of them actually the ones sitting across from Auguste and Laurent realized then that he was going to be sitting next to Kastor, who was sitting on his own father’s left, and across from Damen who was seated next to Auguste. It wasn’t ideal. It put him in the middle of everything and he wanted to reach out to Auguste, tell him how much better he would be in this position and don’t you want to sit next to your wife? But it was too late now.

“You didn’t have to plan this for us, Al,” Theo said as everyone settled in.

Aleron’s host voice in response was nauseating and Laurent’s pointed ignoring of it gave him actual time to take in everyone at the table. His mother’s dress was, in fashion, excessive. It shimmered as she moved, the sleeves of it long and not belonging to a woman that spent time doing much of anything. Victoire had color-coordinated herself and Auguste, her new dress’ gray hues complimented by the blue shawl she wore and went quite nice with Auguste’s gray tie and navy blue pants. Aleron and Auguste could’ve been clones in that moment if Auguste had taken on their father’s coloring as opposed to their mother’s, his outfit eerily similar, as well as the awful beard he was attempting to grow.

Then there were the Vallis’. Kastor might as well have been at a funeral, his black suit and perpetual scowl not at all screaming dinner party. Theo and Hypermenestra were both bundled up a little more; Laurent thought back on what he remembered of the Vallis’ and remembered vividly then how much Hypermenestra would complain when the weather in Marlas began to change. “Not a place in Akielos gets as cold as it does here,” she would say, shivering in the chair she always sat in when she was over. Their outfits were nice as well, both complemented by jewelry that seemed unnecessary, and Theo’s sweater made him look almost grandfatherly, though Laurent had a suspicion he would not like to be told that. Damen was dressed like Kastor if Kastor had ditched the jacket and opted for a smile. Thought there were other differences. For instance, Damen had ditched not only the suit jacket, but the tie as well, making the whole look more casual; or maybe the casualness of it came from his unbuttoned buttons at the top of the shirt, exposing his neck and briefest beginning of chest hair.

Laurent was mindlessly adjusting his silverware and plate just as the first course began to be served. It was a small bowl of soup, a creamy vegetable bisque that was there to warm everyone’s stomachs and set the tone of the winter comforts of this meal. Alongside it came the drinks, a deep red wine being poured for everyone (but Victoire) that signified to Laurent his mother had, in fact, requested the cooks make the lamb, and a glass of sparkling water as a palette cleanser.

As food was being set on the table, the room was unnervingly silent. The only sounds were that of the waitstaffs’ feet moving about the floor, the quiet fabric sound of napkins being unfolded, and the musical clinking of fine china and glass.

Aleron cleared his throat, speaking again, and bringing forth a rush of relief, as if everyone would now be given permission to speak.

“Before we begin, I would like to make a toast,” he started. With a ringed hand, he raised up his wine and said, “To Theomedes Vallis for his retirement from, and his long-standing loyalty to, Artesian Affairs. May your gods shower you with all the blessings you deserve as the man you have become.”

Theo tipped his glass in recognition as everyone, especially Hypermenestra, applauded him. Victoire, whilst clapping, elbowed Laurent subtly and Laurent held back a grin. He knew what she was thinking, knew she was saying in her head Artesian Affairs in such a heavy accent that it was almost unrecognizable as words.

Given the toast, it was no surprise that the time between the first course and second courses was spent talking about the company. Theo gave a rousing retelling of his last case he worked, something involving Akielos’ farming provinces and Patran provinces bordering them and something about surveyors and a few other things Laurent didn’t care enough about to give his attention to. Instead of listening to Kastor’s chiming in of, “And just think, Father, what could have happened had they put Makedon on that case,” and Theo’s booming laugh and, “Can you imagine? The mess that would have caused,” Laurent focused on the condensation on the glass of water next to his wine, on Victoire’s familiar elbow bumping into his own, on the bob of Damen’s throat as he drank.

Up close and not allowing his mouth to move faster than his brain, Damen looked a lot like what Laurent remembered. Sure, time had done its job, aging him appropriately, but there were aspects of that boy next door so evident in him that Laurent felt a sense of deja vu. It was impossible to pinpoint what it was exactly; it could have been the boyish smile he still had, one that made him look younger when it lit up his whole face, or it could have been the dimple on his left cheek that was deep enough to hold half of the wine in his cup, or it could have been his eyes that were just as warm as Laurent remembered. In a strange way it was a comfort having some kind of affinity in the midst of all the newness, of the clawing need Laurent had felt since he had finished university to get away.

The second course, a simply creation of canapes made of puff pastry, ricotta, thinly sliced pears, walnuts, and prosciutto, was brought out on large decorative serving trays and placed on the table in two places so everyone could get their hands on at least one, and the conversation continued on, but away from Theo and toward the other members of Artesian Affairs who were active in their practice.

“Kastor, Damen,” Aleron started, wiping his hand fastidiously on the napkin at his right, “your father told me a little of what you’re both doing and I must say, I’m intrigued.”

Kastor nodded in acknowledgment and Damen gave a short and polite “Thank you.”

Aleron continued on. “Damen, you’re working with the military bases? That’s impressive for someone your age.”

“Thank you,” Damen said again.

“Which bases are you working with specifically? Back in my day, before the boys were both born, I did some work with the Veretian bases at the border, places like Ravenal and even Marlas.”

“Well, Delpha is the big one, the one that really gets you on the map, but I’m not there. Yet. I’m working more on the coast of the Ellosean Sea, looking at….”

Laurent’s attention switched from Damen’s familiarity to Kastor’s unfamiliarity. Though Damen was the one talking, Kastor was the one who was fascinating in that moment. At the first direct mention of Damen, or more specifically the first direct exclusion of Kastor, the man bristled, his funeral-appropriate expression deepening. It wasn’t a subtle thing either and Laurent, sitting next to him, felt it like one feels the change in the air before a strike of lightning. It was almost as if he embraced the way he was feeling, or like he wore it the way someone wore a comfortable and old pair of shoes. His profile to Laurent’s right sported a clenched jaw and Theo’s nose and it was impossible not to imagine the bared teeth his entire being insinuated.

The tension only seemed to grow when Theo, raptly listening to Damen speaking as if he hadn’t ever heard any of this before, chimed in, his praises grandiose, and Laurent couldn’t not look around to see if anyone else was noticing. Of course they weren’t though; his mother was motioning to one of their waitstaff for more wine and everyone else was listening to Damen whose smile got unbelievably more charming as he talked about how he was approached for his promotion not six months ago.

“...it’s when I was working with Mr. Zervas that it happened because he —”

“Mr. Zervas?” Auguste asked, mouth curling up into a smile. “He’s who I first worked for when I was interning at the University of Ios.”

Damen’s smile back was blinding. “He’s the best, isn’t he?”

“Taught me everything I needed to know —”

“— about the military,” both Damen and Auguste said at the same time.

“Yeah,” Damen continued, “if it wasn’t for him, I never would have been prepared for everything needed at the bases. But now, only six months in, I’ve gotten my first proposals back to the Akielon Kyroi for approval. And we all know how the Kyroi can be.”

“That we do,” Theo said with a scoff at just the mention of Akielos’ current political delegation.

“When I was first working through only Vere, Mr. Zervas had me sending so much back to the Veretian members and those assholes threw out the first four. They didn’t even bother sending them back, they literally threw them out,” Auguste said.

“Sounds typically Veretian to me,” Kastor mumbled just loud enough to be heard, and it shifted everyone’s attention in the way Laurent’s attention had shifted earlier.

If Damen was bothered by all eyes in the room moving toward Kastor, he didn’t show it like his brother did. But there was something there on his face, something that twisted the charisma so easily displayed into something more subdued that Laurent was faced with the sudden impossible task of deciding which Vallis brother was displaying a more interesting set of emotion.

“Kastor’s work with Akielon and Patran unification has been going quite well,” Hypermenestra added over the instantaneous awkward.

“Yes, you should hear what he had to deal with in regard to Patran’s dear king, Torgier,” Theo said. “That man is enough to drive anyone mental.”

Like magic, Kastor’s shoulders seemed to fall into a more natural place as he told of his numerous interactions with the fiddly Patran king. All of this took place during the setting and eating of the third course, a seasonal salad with a sweet honey balsamic dressing that brought back flavor notes of the pear that had been on the canapes.

By the time the entree came out, the lamb on the plate beautifully pink and drowning in a deep red wine sauce, nearly everyone was talking over one another, conversations centered around, but of course, the company. Kastor’s issues with the conversation never floated back to the surface, nor were they acknowledged, and Damen’s smile became blinding once more as he and Auguste turned toward each other to share stories of their shared experience of working under Mr. Zervas. Aleron, Theo, and Kastor were nearly yelling across the table at one another, discussing similarities and differences in their first years at the company compared to the latter years, and Hennike, Hypermenestra, and Victoire were lamenting in how this job took up all of their husbands’ time without fail and thank the gods two of the three of them are retired and, “You’ll be fine, Victoire. It does calm down after the first ten years there. Let him get further established.”

The lamb on Laurent’s plate was good. There was a richness in it, in the herbs it had marinated in, in the way the wine sauce felt its way to the back part of his tongue, in the plating of it which looked as good, if not better, than any upper class establishment could provide. It wasn’t good enough, however, to hold his attention in the way he hoped it would, away from the conversations taking place all around him.

He wished desperately to have his phone or a book or the opportunity to leave and, if he had been fast enough, he truly could have probably slipped away from the table unnoticed.

But he waited too long. The cooks and waitstaff were topping off wine and removing unnecessary plates when Hypermenestra asked, over the clinking of glass, “Laurent, when do you plan on joining the others at work?”

She asked it so politely that Laurent couldn’t be mad, even if he felt his blood turn cold as attention shifted again, this time to him.

Hypermenestra couldn’t have known that Aleron would, at such a simple question, down the remainder of his drink in one gulp as though the quick addition of more alcohol would make this conversation easier. Hypermenestra couldn’t have known that Hennike too would down the remainder of her drink and motion quite quickly for another, her shoulders squaring and preparing for the inevitable. Hypermenestra couldn’t have known that Auguste and Victoire would share near-panicked looks across the table from one another.

The Vallis’, for their part, looked inquisitive, as though assessing a new recruit for weaknesses and strengths. Laurent desperately wanted to wilt away and out of everyone’s line of vision. He swallowed.

“Laurent, bless his soul, actually cares about my sanity,” Victoire said before Laurent could even open his mouth. “I told him that Auguste already bores me to tears with his arbitrary stories about the company and I simply couldn’t take another. I told Laurent so, told him I’d kill over if I had to hear about one more meeting getting delayed because governments, as a whole, are nothing but a bunch of self-righteous pricks.”

Victoire’s explanation only seemed to cause more confusion.

“So you’re not joining the company at all?” Kastor asked for clarification after a pause, and his gaze was burning on Laurent’s profile. Laurent swallowed again.

“I very much doubt my degrees in literature and history will do much good in the field of international political affairs.”

Not even trying to hide it, Aleron, facing Theo, raised both of his brows and flicked a look Laurent’s way that said, without saying so, “Do you see what I mean?” And Theo mimicked the look, his response, “You were right,” obvious in the downturned corners of his mouth.

“What do you want to do then?” Damen asked.

His voice broke through the sudden blood rush in Laurent’s head, causing Laurent to look up from his tight-gripped fork to familiar brown eyes. The way he asked was the opposite of how Laurent’s own father had asked the same question years ago (“What do you want to do then?” Aleron had asked snidely, shoving none-to-gently the paperweight on his desk. “You’ll ruin the name DeVere.”), but genuine in its accompanied head tilt that had dark brown curls tumbling over to one side.

Laurent knew if he spoke, his father would chime in eventually with everything horribly wrong with Laurent’s plan. But maybe if Laurent could speak first, could get enough of his hopes spilled out, the Vallis’ could see and could tell Aleron —

“I want to teach,” Laurent began, “at the university level. I want to not only teach though. I want to create my own curriculum that could, perhaps, develop to become a major.” Aleron’s stare was deathly in its intention, but Laurent carried on. “Growing up with Artesian Affairs as my background has made me familiar with the catastrophic problems the countries face due to hostility between citizens. But history tells us this was not always the case. It was, after all, one kingdom once.”

Aleron cleared his throat. “Laurent.”

“I’ve spent the last few years fascinated with what literature tells us. In my classes, literature is divided by countries, but the times overlap and the similarities are infinite. While I doubt I can bring about world peace or anything, I truly do believe that if there was a curriculum or, at a minimum, an access to classes that focused on our similarities instead of our causes of war or our betterness as individual countries, we could once again be unified on a front. And it could extend so far beyond literature. Think of all modes of art, think of paintings and theater, they’re so —”

“Laurent.”

Steel entered Aleron’s voice, cutting viciously through Laurent’s words. It was enough to snap Laurent’s jaw closed with an audible click. But steel apparently didn’t deter Damen whatsoever.

“You came up with this theory all on your own?” he asked, brown eyes wide and the dimple in his left cheek deep.

“I’m sure I’m not the first to think of it,” Laurent said, a little quieter, “but from what I’ve gathered in research and conversations with professors, I would be the first to pursue it to this degree. It’s why I’m going for my master’s so quickly.”

“And how quickly do you think you could actually start teaching about it? It sounds like a long-game,” Damen said.

“It is a long-game. I might not be able to begin fully teaching it for decades, all things considered. But it’s not impossible,” Laurent explained. Damen’s smile, at him, was enough to make the blood rush in his head again.

“I don’t think it’s impossible either. You sound far too determined for it to be.”

Laurent didn’t say anything to that. But if he bit back the beginnings of his own smile, no one needed to know. The words, like Damen’s eyes, carried a warmth in them that settled against him nicely, that went better with the wine than the lamb had.

Of course, moments of silence, however brief, allowed for Aleron to get his own words in and as quickly as the warmth came, it was gone.

“He’s also far too stubborn to see what an outrageous idea it is. Dreaming,” Aleron started to say one of his favorite admonishments toward Laurent, “is for children. It’s about time he grew up.”

The insult was impudent.

What wasn’t, however, was Aleron having someone who so vehemently, and audibly, agreed.

“Yes,” Theo began, leaning back into the dining room chair. “Perhaps when you’re ready for a true career you can get a secretarial position at Artesian’s Kemptian base. It’s decent pay and I’m sure with your degree in all things bookish and writing centered they would be happy to have you.”

It was Theo’s words that finally got a reaction out of Laurent. It was an involuntary reaction, but he felt it, felt the flush work its way up his chest and over his cheeks until it burned the tips of his ears so badly that he almost went to scratch at them to alleviate the pain.

“Father,” came Damen’s voice once more, its quality the same kind of steel Aleron’s had been, but it wasn’t enough this time to bring forth any grounding for Laurent.

As if very far away suddenly, Laurent faintly heard Theo say, “It’s good advice, Damen. Everyone needs a plan in case their first direction leads them astray.”

“That’s no reason to —”

“May I be excused?” Laurent asked, but it went by unheard.

“Universities are fickle things. What about the future when things begin to shift back toward vocational trades instead of academics?”

“There will always be people in school! The idea that there wouldn’t be is absurd.”

“If a person wants to —”

“May I be excused?” Laurent asked again, louder this time, and he felt Victoire’s hand on his elbow then, felt her fingernails dig in the skin of his forearm.

The arguments continued, Laurent’s question going unanswered, and he couldn’t sit there anymore. With as much gentleness as he could muster, he pushed himself away from the table, trying not to garner anymore attention. For the first time since this started, Auguste was fighting for his eyes and he ignored it so pointedly, ignored Victoire’s tightening grip that gave way when he finally stood.

The house, in all of its grandeur, made things echo, and as Laurent walked away, head high and jaw clenched, he could hear clearly the continuation of words that were interspersed with Hennike’s too loud gasp after spilling her latest glass of wine all over the white tablecloth.

***

On a normal day in the DeVere house, Laurent had free reign of each floor after ten in the evening or so. It was by this point that Aleron went to bed so he could get up early in the habit he’d been in since his earliest days with the company, and Hennike, usually wine or vodka or sherry-sleepy, was passed out on the couch or miraculously in her bedroom. But, as nothing at this moment was how it usually was, there was no anticipating what Laurent was going to find when he finally emerged from his bedroom.

At the first hesitant cracking open of his door, Laurent didn’t hear anything that signified a congregation was meeting anywhere in the house. It was still, and quiet. The lights twinkling on the stairway bannister were the only lights on in the hallway, the holiday warmth of them seeping into Laurent’s bedroom ever so slowly. It was about now that Laurent would take over the sitting room, huddled and warm and content with the silence. It was about now that he would sometimes call Auguste on the phone to talk, neither one of them keen on having conversations in their parents’ earshot. It was about now that Laurent would sometimes dream about his own home with its own sitting room that wasn’t surrounded with the tension of this house and the weighed disappointment of his father’s never-wavering gaze.

Laurent double-backed into his room to grab an armful of his books and his laptop to spread out in front of the fireplace when a knock, so unexpected, had him drop the largest tome in his hand nearly on his foot.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” said Damen from the doorway. Unlike Laurent, Damen had changed from his dinner clothes into something far more comfortable looking. Black sweatpants that cinched at the bottom showed off the ridiculous socks he was wearing (were those gingerbread men on them?) and a long-sleeved blue shirt protected his Akielon aversion to all things cold. He looked, for lack of a better word, cozy. It was far too intimate a look for someone Laurent felt so unacquainted with.

“Hello,” Laurent said lamely after a beat. He bent down to pick up the book he had just dropped: ‘Veretian Short Stories: An Anthology’ and subscript ‘900-1200 P.A.

“Hi,” Damen said back.

“Do you —” Laurent looked around, “do you need something?”

“No! I was in the room down the hall when I heard your door open.”

Laurent looked around again, paused like a deer in the headlights. “Okay.”

Damen took a step closer to the door, his socked (gingerbread men-socked) feet right on the imaginary line between Laurent’s bedroom and the hallway. Then he took a step back. “Sorry, let me start over,” Damen said, and he sounded almost flustered. “I was going to come up here right after dinner, but I didn’t want to overstep so I’ve sort of been….listening for when you did come back out.”

“Okay….” Laurent repeated, and trailed.

“What I meant to say,” Damen tried again, huffing out a breath between his teeth, “is that I was waiting so I could apologize for what happened at dinner.”

“Oh.”

Laurent felt stupid whenever he was at a loss for words. It didn’t happen often, hence why he was so unaccustomed to the feeling, but when it did it left him feeling like he had to mentally scramble for something, anything, that would allow him to refind his footing. In many cases, given the common passive aggressive hostility of the house, it meant he got mean.

“Oh,” he started once more. “I wasn’t aware you had done anything requiring an apology.”

There was now a dumbfounded look on Damen’s face. Laurent felt more stable. “I didn’t,” he said slowly, “but the whole situation —”

“Was as normal as any other dinner I have ever had with my family. Please don’t come in here, a full stranger, and begin to attempt to fix the problems that exist in these walls. You have no idea what you’re getting into.”

“But my father —” Damen tried.

“Is as much as a prick as my father. It’s not surprising. All those company men have always been that way,” Laurent snapped.

It was around this moment in conversation that whoever Laurent was talking to did one of two things: they either quit talking altogether, for their fury couldn’t be put into words, or they rose to the bait, angry and biting and faltering, for Laurent was quicker in every feasible way.

“Well, I’m not that way,” Damen said, and he said it so simply and so calmly that it felt like, out of nowhere, a bucket of cold water had been poured over Laurent’s head. “And I’m sorry both of our fathers apparently are. It’s not right.”

The silence was a heavy thing. Damen appeared to be waiting, waiting to see if Laurent would respond with malice or if he would talk as people do, and Laurent felt dizzy with his attempt to make sense of Damen’s words, felt overwhelmed at the straightforwardness of them. The books in his arms were incredibly heavy.

When it became discernable Laurent wasn’t going to say anything, Damen took another step back. “I won’t keep you. You look like you have plenty to do.” He took yet another step back, then one more, then he paused. The twinkling lights on the bannister were behind him, blurring his edges. “For what it’s worth, my brother and I didn’t plan on this. We haven’t seen each other in two years. The last thing either of us wanted to do was meet for the first time in that long of a time at a house owned by people who have been nothing but a name to us for a decade. But our parents insisted. And instead of lamenting the parties I was supposed to be attending, I’m going to try and make the best of this. If you’d like to do the same, let me know. We shouldn’t all have to feel lonely surrounded by so many people.”

This time, he didn’t wait for Laurent to respond. Laurent heard his footsteps on the stairs, heard the first sign of life in the house as Hypermenestra and Hennike both, tipsily and immediately and loudly, dragged him into their conversation that must be occurring in the kitchen.

Glued to the spot he’d been in since Damen had shown up at the door, Laurent could see a sliver of the outside. Directly out his window was a large tree branch, one that used to frighten him when he was younger for it, in the active imagination of a child, looked like a hand reaching out for him in his sleep. Sometimes it even knocked against the glass, scraping and scratching. Right now, the branch was barren and covered in snow. Tiny icicles dripped down, frozen in time, and during the daylight hours Laurent could see tiny footprints in the snow from squirrels and straggling birds. But that wasn’t what drew his attention.

A light from one of the patio terraces was on. It casted shadows into the garden, now desolate and snow-covered, of someone walking, pacing. Laurent inched closer. Kastor, who had taken the bedroom on the main floor, was outside and on the phone. His breath was leaving his mouth like a dragon, smouldering and quick and near identical to the smoke rising from his cigarette.

Two years, Damen had said.

Damen.

Laurent hadn’t anticipated today in any way. He hadn’t anticipated dinner going as badly as it had, hadn’t anticipated the suffocating loneliness it had brought, hadn’t anticipated Damen’s, dare he say it, earnestness.

From anyone else, those words would have come across as a ruse, as a con, as a some kind of deceit. But they didn’t from Damen, and Laurent knew for a fact Damen couldn’t lie to save his life. He remembered the football thrown through a window and Damen and Auguste’s attempts at lying before they both broke in seconds, the truth spilling like the glass on the carpet. No minds for deception, those two.

Just as Laurent’s thoughts flitted toward memories of his brother, he heard his brother’s name shouted, but muffled, from the room down the hall.

“Auguste!” Victoire yelled.

Laurent had heard her yell that before under very different, and horrifying engrained in Laurent’s mind, circumstances that led to Victoire’s holiday gift to Laurent of noise cancelling headphones, given with an unashamed grin.

This wasn’t that kind of yell though, thank the gods.

“Auguste!” she yelled again. When she yelled a third time, Laurent abandoned his books and his laptop, knowing fully well he wasn’t going to get anything done tonight anyway, and wandered down the hallway to where Victoire was still yelling inside her and Auguste’s room, each new iteration of ‘Auguste’ displaying more of his displeasure.

“I’m not Auguste, but I might be able to help. As long as it’s not anything weird,” Laurent announced from outside the door and he could practically feel Victoire’s eyes rolling.

“Get in here,” she demanded impatiently.

Inside, she was lying on the large canopied bed, her head up and supported by a stack of pillows and her stomach so large it nearly rose above her eye-level. She looked horribly uncomfortable and frustrated and she said so as soon as the door closed.

“What am I doing on this fine evening?” she asked rhetorically. “Why, I am creating the miracle of life. And what is your brother doing? Drinking gasoline-stenched brandy with his father as they talk work as though that’s not all they talk about all the time.”

Laurent watched, with a quirked eyebrow, as Victoire tried to push herself into a sitting position using her elbows. She huffed out a frustrated sigh when she couldn’t quite get herself up.

“Rough night?” Laurent asked.

“Not as rough as yours, all things considered,” Victoire started, serious now, “but yes. Your possible niece-or-nephew is being a pain. I can’t wait for the day I can drop them off with you for the evening.”

Victoire had done this a few times, talk about the baby not simply as her child but as its relation to Laurent. When she said it, Laurent understood Auguste’s terror at becoming a father; Laurent wasn’t ready to be an uncle and that was the easy job. Despite the nervousness it always it provoked, it also provoked a joy, something soft and unthinkable. Laurent sat on the edge of the bed next to her.

“Kicking up a storm,” Victoire murmured, looking down at her belly, and then she was grabbing Laurent’s hand and placing it right where the little kicks could be felt. Laurent smiled for the first time in hours.

“Mother said Auguste kicked a lot as well,” he said, a sort of awe in his voice.

“Lucky me,” Victoire said. She shifted again. “I don’t suppose you would mind doing me a favor, would you? All these kicks to my spleen mean I won’t be able to sleep for a few hours and my dear husband is nowhere in sight.”

“What do you need?”

“A cup of tea?” she asked, lips in a pout. “The blueberry rooibos tea?”

Laurent stood. “Sure. I’ll be right back.”

“Gods, I should have married you instead,” Victoire said with an exaggerated sigh. Laurent wrinkled his nose.

“I don’t think that would work out in the way you’d hope.”

In all his reverence at getting to feel the life of his soon-to-be niece-or-nephew, Laurent had forgotten about his mother drinking in the kitchen, this time with company, company that included Hypermenestra who was proving to be too invested for Laurent’s own good and Damen who had witnessed the more callous side of Laurent’s personality only minutes ago. He could hear them, a little louder now, and he desperately wanted to turn around and tell Victoire that he would simply go get Auguste to do her bidding instead. But as the door fell shut again behind him, he took in a breath and walked, quietly approaching the kitchen through the dining room entrance.

Hennike and Hypermenestra were seated at the breakfast bar Laurent and Victoire so often frequented. Hennike, in typical fashion, had one leg crossed over the other and was leaning back in the chair, her head thrown in a laugh and her glass of whatever spirits were tempting that evening precariously in her loose hand. She was laughing at something Damen had said, Damen who was standing on the other side of the marble counter, elbows resting and smile charming. Hypermenestra had her lips pursed in an amused attempt to hold back a laugh like Hennike’s, but she appeared to be weakening at every moment, her shoulder beginning to give into the giggling.

At first, no one appeared to notice him, and Laurent would have been completely content with that. But he had to move beyond the threshold eventually and it was his first step into the kitchen itself, and the subtlest shift of the floorboards beneath his feet, that had his own mother immediately saying to him, as if nothing had happened earlier, “Darling, you must hear the story Damen just told us.” Then she turned to Damen. “Start at the part where you decided to hide in the laundry chute.”

Unlike Hennike, Hypermenestra sobered at Laurent’s appearance, her eyes searching his face, trying to catch his gaze. Luckily for him, he was an expert at avoidance.

“If it can be told in three minutes, then by all means. But your other son is a useless husband so I’m fetching Victoire some tea.”

Avoiding Hypermenestra was proving to be more difficult with every passing second, but only because turning away from her meant facing Damen. In the time between him being outside of Laurent’s door and Laurent visiting Victoure, the man had rolled the sleeves of his shirt up, bare forearms pressed into the marble. The gold swirls in the counter’s surface complemented the warmth of his skin, the warmth of his eyes that were, in that moment, unreadable to Laurent.

He quickly began making the tea.

He started with the kettle, filling it with water, and getting it on the stove, before grabbing a mug, Kemptian-made glass, and reaching into another cabinet for the infuser (decorated with real crystal, but of course) and the tea itself. Blueberry rooibos tea was a pretty tea, the color of the tea leaves themselves a reddish-brown and decorated with dried purple blueberries and pink hibiscus flowers. While Laurent was doing all that, the other three kept talking, save for Damen looking once over his shoulder where Laurent was, hidden in the shadows and away from the continued conversation.

“I just can’t believe you did such a thing,” Hennike said, laughing once more, Laurent’s interruption already forgotten.

“Honestly,” Hypermenestra started, “I still prefer that over what he and Kastor both did about twenty years ago.”

“You’ve got to stop holding onto things from twenty years ago,” Damen said, head dropping, but the smile evident in his voice.

“It was a nightmare!”

“I was nine!” Damen laughed. “I think Kastor, who was nineteen and a whole adult, is far more to blame for that.”

Hypermenestra sighed in accepted defeat. “You’ve got me there.” She looked at Hennike. “Kastor’s always been antagonistic.”

“I remember. When he was off at school you told me all the things he did to get a rise out of you,” Hennike said. She took another drink.

“Not limited to actually stabbing me,” Damen said.

“Oh, hush! That was hardly a cut,” Hypermenestra said.

“I had to get stitches!” Damen said back.

“Only two,” Hypermenestra said, and now she was laughing too, if at nothing but the ridiculousness of it all.

“And now look at them,” Hennike said. She gestured her glass toward Damen. “This one is rising to the top with every passing second, and is quite handsome while doing so, and Kastor, like my Auguste, is about to be a father and —”

Hennike could ramble when she had drunk this much, and she continued on, entirely unaware of how Hypermenestra and Damen both tensed. Laurent saw it first in Damen, that broad back and matching shoulders facing him and going rigid. Then he saw Hypermenestra, her eyes flicking to Damen with nothing but worry.

The kettle screamed.

“We meant to tell you,” she said quietly and Hennike, too caught up in herself, didn’t seem to notice the horrid shift the room had taken whatsoever, didn’t even seem to hear Hypermenestra’s words.

Laurent watched as Damen’s shoulders, solid and unmoving in their tautness, stood up to full height. Hypermenestra stood as he did, already walking around the counter to intercept him, her touch soft on his arm.

“Please don’t do anything,” she started, a desperation in her voice. “Not now. I promise we’ll all talk and —”

“I’m not doing anything. It’s late. I’m going to bed.”

Just as Damen was exiting the room in the same direction Laurent had come in, Hennike seemed to pick up that something had just happened. She turned blurry eyes to Hypermenestra. “Did I say something?”

Upstairs, scalding cup of tea in hand, Laurent couldn’t not peer down the hallway at the room he knew Damen was staying in. The door was decidedly shut and there appeared to be no light coming from underneath. Inexplicably, Laurent was half tempted to knock, to reciprocate the strange thoughts Damen had given him, but decided against it.

Victoire was as Laurent had left her, half propped up on the bed, grumpy expression in place, and she threw a pillow as soon as he walked in. Laurent barely avoided spilling the tea all over his hand.

“What is your problem?” he asked, and she cackled.

“I thought you were Auguste,” she said between laughs.

“I almost burned my hand,” Laurent said, pausing to let the liquid in the glass quit sloshing near the rim. “How would I have written my groundbreaking piece on the similarities between Akielon and Patran poetry subsequent the first crowned kings of those specific kingdoms following the destruction of the Artesian Empire with burns all over my hand?”

He sat the tea on the nightstand closest to Victoire and she reached over with steady hands to grab it. After one careful sip, she pulled a face and gave Laurent a horrified look.

“It’s quite strong,” she said.

“I may have over-brewed it by a minute or three,” Laurent said as explanation.

“I thought you were taking your sweet time.”

“In my defense, there was a scene downstairs that didn’t involve me so I had to watch what happened.”

Victoire immediately perked up, sitting straighter and more alert than she had been the whole evening. “Drama? And I missed it? Tell me everything.”

“I’m not entirely certain what it is,” Laurent started, “but Mother mentioned Kastor was about to become a father, just like Auguste, and Damen tensed like a man awaiting a punch. Hypermenestra tried to talk to him, but he went straight to bed.”

“He didn’t know? Seems odd that he wouldn’t know his brother was about to become a father,” Victoire said, picking up her tea again.

“Not that odd when you consider they haven’t seen each other in two years,” Laurent said.

“They haven’t seen each other in two years? I just thought they hadn’t seen a lot of each other in two years,” Victoire said, and Laurent knew she was thinking of the conversation she had eavesdropped on in those earliest hours of the Vallis’ visiting, Hypermenestra overcome with emotion at having her family together again.

“According to Damen, they haven’t seen each other at all in two years.”

“And when did he tell you this?”

“Before I came in here the first time, he —” Laurent stopped himself. “What?”

Victoire had a viciously evil look on her face, one seen on children that pushed other children off the swingset on the playground.

“Oh, nothing,” she said in a sing-song voice.

“What?”

“He was very taken with you at dinner. I don’t think he looked away from you for more than a minute at a time.”

His entire life, Laurent had had control over everything except his skin’s ability to go bright red whenever he was embarrassed or flustered. He hated it, truly, for its betrayal was often the only thing that gave any of these thoughts away. Right now was no deviation.

“I don’t think anyone could,” Laurent argued, “given the way dinner went.”

Victoire ignored him. “So explain what happened. I know you said before you came in here the first time, but you’ve been in your room all night.”

“He came by my room to —”

A gasp. “A gentleman came to your room with no chaperone? Not a gentleman at all then.”

“— apologize for how dinner went.”

The vicious smile on Victoire’s face softened then, though the glint in her eyes failed to vanish. “That was kind of him.”

“I suppose.”

“Laurent…” Victoire settled back into the pillows. “I, too, am sorry about dinner.”

“You didn’t do anything,” Laurent said.

“Well, I should have done something. We all should have. I will forever not be infuriated that your father doesn’t see how brilliant you are. In all sincerity, I am glad that Damen already seems to. You need all the people in your corner telling you the truth for once.”

Laurent, sitting on the edge of the bed, pulled one leg up to rest his chin on his knee. They sat quiet for a moment. Then Victoire said, “Maybe whatever has dear Damen upset can be resolved with him having a nice shoulder to cry on. You could go in there and —”

“I’m begging you to not finish that sentence.”

“He looks like he’d be fun, Laurent, don’t deny it. You also need all the fun because this lack of self-confidence has prevented you from getting laid and I have already told you I need to live vicariously through your sex life. I’ve told you this once since I got here.”

“Yes, clearly your inadequate sex life is wearing on you.”

Before she could respond, the bedroom door opened and in walked Auguste. The collar of his shirt was loose, the tie long gone, and, so similarly to their mother, his eyes were blurry with drink. It took him a second to make sense of the room. Then, “Why is there a pillow on the floor?”

“I threw it at your brother, thinking it was you,” Victoire said. Auguste’s eyes widened.

“Why’re you trying to throw pillows at me?”

“Because you’re not here to tend to my every need. I’m getting ready to birth your child,” Victoire grumbled, her voice taking on the same notes of irritation it had had when Laurent had walked in the first time.

“Our child,” Auguste corrected, and he shoved his shoes off of his feet, only stumbling a little, “and I will get you whatever you need. Say the word.”

“No need. Laurent already did. I’m divorcing you and marrying him instead.”

That brought about a snort. “I don’t think you’re his type.”

Victoire sagged against the pillows. “As life goes.”

“What do you say, little brother?” Auguste asked, smile wide. “Going to steal my wife from me?”

“Wouldn’t be hard with the shoddy way you treat her,” Laurent said. He leaned back against Victoire’s blanketed legs. She ran a hand through his hair once, twice, three times.

“If I wasn’t as drunk as I am, those would be fighting words. A duel,” Auguste said, and he puffed his chest in joke bravado.

“I would pay so much money to watch you try to fight in this state,” Laurent said.

Auguste laughed. “Father’s got a heavy hand when it comes to pouring drinks.”

“Almost as heavy as his opinions,” Laurent said. “Did they continue figuring out my future for me, him and Theo? Or am I so insignificant that I wasn’t brought up again?”

Victoire’s fingers fiddled with the ends of his hair then, twisting the fine strands gently. Auguste sighed, head falling back between his shoulder blades. Laurent wished quite suddenly he didn’t say anything.

“They didn’t talk about it again, Laurent,” Auguste said quietly.

“I would also pay money on a bet that Father did lament how great both of Theo’s sons are and how he doesn’t have that.” Laurent couldn’t stop talking.

Auguste didn’t say anything.

“We should all get some rest,” Victoire said after a beat, her voice barely above a whisper. Laurent felt chastised then, felt like a child.

In the hallway, Damen’s door was still firmly shut. Auguste shut his own not a second after Laurent was out of the room.

***

Chastillion
December 3rd
Ten Years Ago

Laurent hated the house in Chastillion. He hated that it was all gray, every part of it. He hated that his bedroom was once a bedroom the prince would stay in when he visited Chastillion in the days of old. He hated that it was so ancient and drafty, leaving Laurent’s fingertips cold all the time. He hated that the front door, reinforced steel to keep out invaders and looters after the fall of the kingdoms, was so heavy.

“Laurent, get the door!” his mother yelled from somewhere else in the house and Laurent huffed out a breath.

“I’m trying,” he called back. Only eleven years old, and fairly small for his age, the door proved much harder to pull open than it should have been. With one final hard tug though, the metal gave and creaked open.

In all honesty, Laurent hadn’t even thought about who was knocking. He had been so focused on trying to open the door, of trying not to have to ask for help, that further contemplation hadn’t occurred to him. He certainly wasn’t expecting it to be his brother.

Like something out of a dream, Auguste stood on the other side of the door, smile unsure and facial hair patchy.

He looked….sturdier than he had the last time he’d been around. A year ago, right around the holidays, he had been thin, so unlike the athlete he was, and it had sent the entire DeVere household into shambles, Hennike begging her doctor to up her own medication and Aleron threatening to have Auguste institutionalized if he insisted on acting crazy.

“Hi,” Auguste said, and there was a smile on his face, a sad one, as he looked Laurent up and down. “You’ve gotten so much taller, Laurent.”

Before Laurent could choke out his own hello, could transform his own face into something with a readable expression, Hennike turned the corner.

“Laurent, who is —” She stopped, her Loubiton heels almost lifting off of the ground. Then she dropped the vase in her hands and it shattered onto the ground in a million pieces. “Auguste? My darling, is that you?”

“Hi, Mother,” Auguste said. His smile, whilst still sad, perked a little, and it all but turned jubilant when Hennike jumped over the glass shards and pulled her oldest into her arms, crying incomprehensibly into his shoulder.

Laurent, hand still on the door, watched them, feeling detached from it all.

As Hennike dragged Auguste inside, ran her hands over his shoulders, his face, as if checking for injury or sickness, Laurent went to hide in his room. He had learned things were often easier that way, out of sight and out of mind. But unlike normal, it didn’t last that long.

There was a knock on the door not but an hour or so later, quiet and hesitant so definitely not his mother, and Auguste was there, eyes downcast.

“Can I come in?” he asked, learning against the doorframe and Laurent shrugged in attempted indifference, his knees coming a little closer to his chest.

Auguste’s weight on the bed shifted the pillows just enough that one toppled over. Its fabric rustling and moving was the only sound for a moment. Then Auguste, without looking at him, but instead taking in the room that was Laurent’s, said, “You have a lot of books.”

A few years ago, when Laurent was much more naive than he was at the ripe age of eleven, Laurent would have taken the invitation to talk about all of his favorite books and stories. He had dreamed more than once of such an opportunity, to tell Auguste about the adventures of the mythical dragon riders, the magical world in the caves of Ver-Tal, the love story between the warrior prince of Akielos and the second son of Vere, or the queen that united the kingdoms despite raging war. But now he didn’t want to say anything about the stories he loved.

“Why are you here?” he asked instead.

“What?” Auguste asked back.

“Why are you here? Last time you were here you came just to tell us you never wanted to come and see us again.”

If possible, Auguste’s expression darkened, saddened, even more pronounced than it had been at the door. For a while he didn’t say anything and Laurent didn’t say anything either. Then, moving slowly, Auguste moved to sit against the headboard, shoulder pressed into Laurent’s tiny shoulder.

“There’s a girl,” Auguste started, and it was the last thing Laurent expected him to say. He turned, blond tendrils whipping around his face as he took in his brother’s scratchy facial hair, took in the somber turn of his mouth. “I met her a few months ago. She’s —” he stopped himself, then laughed, the sound incredulous and near-wild. “She’s everything. She’s sweet until she doesn’t want to be and she’s smart and she speaks her mind and she’s so far out of my league it’s insane. And yet she talks to me and she says she wants to let me love her and, even crazier, wants to love me back. But she said I have to get my shit together.”

Dark gold eyebrows furrowed together on Laurent’s tiny face. “That’s why you’re here?”

“Laurent,” Auguste said. It was the most pleading of sounds. “Laurent, I should have been here a long time ago. I should have been here to see you grow up and the fact that I wasn’t is something I’m going to have to deal with. But I promise you, Laurent, I promise you I’m going to be here. From now until forever, it’s me and you. Okay?”

With the same kind of hesitancy as his earlier knock, Auguste extended his hand to Laurent to hold. Laurent looked at it, looked at the lines on Auguste’s palm, looked at the blunt underside of his fingernails. Then he asked, voice barely above a whisper, “Auguste?”

“Yeah?”

“I want to meet her.”

Auguste’s hand was warm.

***

Laurent woke up before the cooks arrived.

Though he was alone in his room the remainder of the night, Laurent had found it difficult to sleep. There was a strange feeling of unfamiliar people sleeping just rooms away. That, paired alongside the general events of, but not limited to, a humiliating dinner and an awareness of how little his presence was generally wanted as well as a whirring brain of contemplation, made him restless, sleepless, and in dire need of coffee.

Like it was most mornings in the dead of winter, the house was wintry with cold. The windows were cloudy with frost, condensation barely forming on the other side quite yet, and the floors were so cold that it went through Laurent’s socks and froze his feet. But none of it mattered, not when there was coffee to be made, not when there was peace, and he was huddled up in a yellow sweatshirt anyway, one that read ‘University of Arran’ on it in white lettering.

As much as he truly did like the cooks his family hired, he genuinely enjoyed the stillness of the kitchen that didn’t have his mother in there making drinks too. The counters were pristine, the dishes put away, and Laurent felt a silent joy in the fact that he was going to be able to make a pour over in this tranquility.

Pour overs were methodical. It was science in every step. The weighing, measuring, pre-warming, the bloom, the pour. Laurent’s favorite device was the Chemex, its vase-like structure beautiful and its filter thicker, made for pulling out most of the oils from the coffee grounds. First came the warming of the kettle, reminiscent of last night’s tea making. Then came the pre-warming of the Chemex, the hot water poured over the filter to take away the paper taste, to slide down the sides of the Chemex’s base and settle at the bottom, the steam rising and keeping the glass warm. Then came the measuring of the coffee beans, twenty-four grams, before pouring it into the coffee grinder, a white immaculate thing that ground beans into a course texture within seconds.

After the grinding was supposed to be the draining of the water in the Chemex before replacing the filter and pouring in the grounds. But a creak of the stairs made him pause.

Damen looked like he was frozen, his arms stuck to his sides. Like Laurent, he paused and the two of them looked across the way at one another, Laurent not ready for human interaction quite yet and Damen seemingly trying to thaw his jaw enough to open it and talk.

“And now look at them. This one is rising to the top with every passing second, and is quite handsome while doing so, and Kastor, like my Auguste, is about to be a father and —”

“We meant to tell you.”

“Please don’t do anything. Not now. I promise we’ll all talk and —”

“I’m not doing anything. It’s late. I’m going to bed.”

“Do you drink coffee?” Laurent asked. Damen nodded vigorously. He was still wearing those gingerbread men socks.

Laurent measured out another twenty-four grams of coffee and ground it just the same. Then he went about the rest of the steps, pouring out the water pre-warming the Chemex, replacing its filter, and pouring in the grounds. While he was doing so, Damen managed to shuffle his way over to the counter. Then he said, “I’m afraid hypothermia may have taken my fingers and toes.”

A small smile crossed Laurent’s face at that, though he wasn’t sure if Damen could see it as his head was angled down, watching the scale as he began to pour water, just enough to cover all the grounds in order to let them bloom.

“Welcome to Kempt,” Laurent said.

While the coffee grounds bloomed, for just a minute or so, Laurent took some of the hot water and filled two mugs to the brim, pre-warming them the same as he had the Chemex. Then he began to pour the water over the bloomed grounds, his hand steady and eyes on the scale; he needed it to get to 700 grams.

“Is it always like this in the morning?” Damen asked. His eyes were sleepy still, heavy and dark and flicking between Laurent and the brewing coffee.

Laurent hummed. “Normally the cooks are up and at work in the kitchen. They start the fireplace as well and it’s quick to warm up the house. But the both of us are up before they’ve arrived so…”

“Fire place?” Damen started, waking up just a little more at the idea of warmth. “I never saw a fireplace.”

The coffee was going to take another few minutes to brew. “I’ll show you. Then we can light the fire so your poor Akielon blood can thaw.”

The wood had already been placed in the pit of the fireplace, ready for a quick morning lighting, and within just seconds a small fire was started underneath the bottom log, in the embers of yesterday. Damen let out a sigh.

“Thank the gods,” and then he huddled as close as possible to the rising flames without catching his clothes.

“I’ll bring the coffee in here,” Laurent said, amused as he watched Damen hold out his hands then snatch them away, the rushing heat a little too much.

There wasn’t time to think was all Laurent could feel as he padded back to the kitchen.

“For what it’s worth, my brother and I didn’t plan on this. We haven’t seen each other in two years. The last thing either of us wanted to do was meet for the first time in that long of a time at a house owned by people who have been nothing but a name to us for a decade. But our parents insisted. And instead of lamenting the parties I was supposed to be attending, I’m going to try and make the best of this. If you’d like to do the same, let me know. We shouldn’t all have to feel lonely surrounded by so many people.”

He came back and gave Damen one of the cups before falling into one of the tall-backed chairs, one foot tucked underneath himself.

“I wasn’t sure if you wanted any sugar or cream. There’s some in there on the counter if you’d like,” Laurent said.

“Black is great. Thank you.”

Damen stayed up by the fire, the mug and its steaming coffee held close to his chest. Every passing second he appeared to loosen up more. And Laurent, despite everything, couldn’t not watch as limbs appeared longer, Damen’s shoulders no longer held in like that would conserve warmth, his height reaching its full potential once more. It was like watching a flower blossom in spring.

“This is good coffee,” Damen said, facing the flames that were growing steadily and controlled. “It almost tastes Akielon.”

“Close. It’s Patran.”

“Where’d you get your hands on Patran coffee up here?”

“I didn’t get it here. A —” Laurent paused, remembering Torveld, a PhD candidate at Arran who, for all intents and purposes, showered Laurent in gifts like the courting rituals of old. “A friend from university gave it to me.”

Damen was facing him now. He raised his mug in mock salute.

“Kudos to your friend on their taste then. No offense, but you northern countries can’t grow coffee for shit.”

He smiled when he said it, the comment a friendly dig, and Laurent hated him for how good he was at talking to strangers. Laurent snorted, the action a graceful exhalation of air from his nose. It made Damen’s smile bigger.

It would have been easy to fall into a, shockingly comfortable, silence then, to allow the crackling of the flames do all the talking. But Laurent had been up all night thinking and now wasn’t the time to keep doing that.

Don’t think, he told himself, and don’t let the conversation lapse.

“I’m sorry about yesterday,” Laurent said then and he immediately took another sip of his coffee. “You were being kind and I tried to dismiss that because of my own anger.”

If possible, Damen’s smile somehow got even bigger again. “Laurent,” he started, and his voice quieted on the second half of Laurent’s name, “it’s fine. And understandable.”

“That doesn’t make it right. Those conversations, that tone, should be reserved for my father, not for you.”

Warm enough to move, Damen took the available chair next to Laurent. He rested his elbows on his knees, his coffee held between both hands. Then he shook his head and, of all things, laughed a little.

“I don’t think yesterday went the way anybody was expecting it to go,” Damen said.

“I honestly didn’t have any concrete thoughts about it,” Laurent said, and he sunk further into the chair’s cushions. “I just thought it'd be uncomfortably awkward. I was right, only it was more than just that.”

“I had thoughts about it.”

“Did you now?”

“I thought my parents would stage an intervention between me and my brother within seconds of walking in the door. I thought things would maybe feel the way they did when I was fifteen. I thought the house would be smaller.”

That got a far less graceful snort from Laurent. “Please tell that to my mother and father. Tell them how much more sense it would make for two soon-to-be empty nesters to have a moderately sized house, especially considering the both of them use the same four rooms.”

“If I told them that, I’d be a hypocrite considering the size of my parents’ place in Ios,” Damen said. “Of course, nobody was ever going to convince them to not get a house that big, not when my father has spent most of his life talking about his dream “palace that overlooks the sea.””

“Our parents truly are birds of a feather,” Laurent mumbled.

“In more ways than one. I never expected my father’s cruelty, especially to a stranger.”

“Is that truly the first time you’ve seen that side of him?” Laurent asked skeptically.

“Yes,” Damen said. “He’s always been so supportive of both me and Kastor. To say what he said….I know I apologized yesterday, but it doesn’t feel like enough.”

“Your father has always supported you and your brother because you pursued careers with Artesian Affairs. If it had been anything else, if it had been anything like what I’m trying to do, I’m sure you would have been on the receiving end of that more than once in your life,” said Laurent.

It was Damen’s turn to pause before responding, and he paused just long enough that Laurent had time to barrel through and continue on, had time to change the direction before things got away from him, from them, and they were interrupted by the cooks, by Victoire waking up because of the baby.

“You said something else yesterday, something other than an unnecessary apology,” Laurent started and Damen cocked his head far too endearingly for a man nearing thirty. “You said that you were going to try to make the best of this,” he motioned around them, “even though you had many other things in mind.” Damen nodded. “It’s going to be a little difficult to do that when you’re the only one actually trying.”

“That’s why I invited you to join me,” Damen said.

“Well,” Laurent trailed, “I think I’d like to.”

If possible, Damen’s head cocked even further, his eyes widening at the same time. “You would?”

Laurent had thought about it all night. It had plagued him since gingerbread men socks, since the kitchen, since “We meant to tell you,” since “I’m going to bed,” since the guest bedroom door had closed and not opened again until an ungodly hour this morning.

Holidays, as long as he could remember, were spent anticipating dread. The feeling had faded the older Laurent had gotten in the way something chronic sometimes seemed lessened as it was the standard. This was the second time things were different; the first was when Victoire became a constant in their life. But even then, she was so inherently part of Auguste and together they were their own family, whether or not Laurent was there. This might be the only year to —

“In case the events of last night didn’t make it obvious, I’m not exactly the most popular amongst my family. Somehow my very existence leads to arguments. I’ve tried to accommodate. I’m sure there are instances I could have done better, but the fact of the matter is that things are not working out the way they’re going. So, instead of sticking with the routine that’s been in place, instead of allowing my parents to be the only ones having a good time, I accept your invitation to do whatever it is that pleases me. And you, I suppose, as it was your idea.”

“Thank you for keeping me in mind,” Damen said, but he was smiling brilliantly, a rejuvenation of the soul from this morning’s cold melancholy. “I’m glad it resonated with you enough to reconsider.”

“Well, it’s not something I’ve necessarily not thought of before. But I’ve never had someone that wanted to do it as badly as I did,” said Laurent. “I will confess, in my contemplation last night, I did begin to wonder why it is you want to do this so badly. You seem to fit in quite well with our fathers and brothers. Company men, all of you.”

“If you know anything about the company,” Damen started, “it is that nothing is ever quite as it seems there.” He paused then and looked as if he were going to keep going. But instead he took a deep breath, one that filled the entirety of his chest, before saying, “If we’re going to make the best of this situation, we should probably create a game plan. Things to do. Preferably things out of the house given the company.”

Laurent raised a brow. “I assumed you already had a plan. Or at least ideas for one.”

“I sort of did. Do. But I don’t know Kempt well enough.”

“Ah, so that’s why you actually asked me. You needed a guide,” Laurent said. Damen looked ready to dispute him, both eyes taking on something akin to panic, but Laurent stopped him with a raising of his hand. “I’m kidding. But you did make it sound like you’ve kind of done this before.”

“In a way, I suppose. Things in my life,” he trailed, but picked back up quickly, “got kind of bizarre two years ago. And I desperately wanted to let it get the best of me. I was so angry at it all. But a friend of mine called me an idiot and spent the next few weeks making me do things I enjoyed and making me do new things too. It didn’t make the bad shit disappear, but it made it easier to step back and breathe. This situation isn’t quite that bad for me. I think it is for you though.”

This time, Laurent didn’t get a chance to respond. The front door opened with the rattling of a key and in came Orlant, bundled head to toe and carrying a bowl underneath his arm, the plastic wrap on top tightly sealed. He didn’t appear to see Laurent and Damen at first, too busy making certain he wasn’t dragging in snow, but when he looked up his eyebrows immediately furrowed together, eyes darting between Laurent and the fire and Damen.

“You’re not supposed to do my job for me,” Orlant said after a minute.

“You were slacking,” said Laurent.

Orlant bowed. “Forgive me for not being up while the wolves are still running in the Northern Steppes.” He looked at Damen then, and quickly at the fire then back. “I’m Orlant. I hope your family likes cinnamon rolls.”

“I don’t think there’s many people that don’t like cinnamon rolls,” Damen said back and Orlant grinned. It made his crooked nose even more uneven. He kept the grin in place as his eyebrows rose a little in exaggerated concern.

“Laurent, want to show me where your mother hid the damn sifter?”

Laurent, ever controlled, didn’t react to the strange question, but followed Orlant dutifully to the kitchen whilst Damen stayed warm near the fire. Orlant knew where the sifter was. They both were aware of that.

“So,” Orlant started, setting the bowl of risen dough on the counter, “that’s one of the Vallis’?”

“Damen. The youngest son. He’s around Auguste’s age,” Laurent said. Orlant hummed.

“You two know each other well? Your mother said you all hadn’t seen them in quite some time.”

“I knew him at one point. But I wasn’t even in double-digits.” Laurent tilted his head downward, looking at Orlant with suspicion. “Why?”

Orlant had that look on his face, the same one he had when Auguste and Victoire had first came home and whispered not to serve alcohol with Victoire’s dinner because she was pregnant, the same one he had when more gifts from Torveld had arrived at the front door with bows and letters attached. But he only shook his head. “Nothing.”

“Don’t do that,” Laurent said, demanded. “Speak your mind, Orlant, or I’ll tell my father of the time you let the steaks spoil and, in a panic, used plant-based meat to serve as his dinner.”

“You wouldn’t. You’re not that cruel.”

“You know I am.”

A deep sigh. Then, “You two looked….at ease. That’s all.”

Laurent glowered. “I’m leaving. I shouldn’t have even asked.”

“You did though!”

“Hurry up and make cinnamon rolls. They don’t require you to open your mouth,” Laurent said over his shoulder, ignoring the fact that he could feel Orlant’s crooked-nose grin.

Back in the sitting room, Damen was standing again by the fire, his eyes trained on the outside. The sun was slowly starting to rise, reflecting off of the white snow and making it shimmer in tones of deep blue and the starting of purple. He looked unsure, staring out at the snow, like there was something out there he couldn’t quite make out.

“I promise there’s nothing lurking in the snow banks except for dead grass,” Laurent said as he took his seat again.

Damen smiled. “I didn’t think there was.” He set his coffee cup on the mantle. “No, it reminds me of Akielos a little. The sunrise reflects on the snow similarly to how it reflects on the ocean. There are differences. The ocean moves and gives the light life. But they both sparkle.”

“Akielos is responsible for all the great oceanic tales of sirens and sea monsters. Sometimes, when I’m reading, I wonder if Akielos almost has too much life.” Laurent settled more against the armrest. “Of course, one could argue too much life is better than no life, like Kempt’s desolate frozen wasteland and the stories of slow despair.”

“Don’t underestimate the snow. I’ve never seen it before and I like it. There’s a quiet beauty about it,” Damen said with a smile. He was looking at Laurent now.

“Yes, until it turns gray and lingers like the stench of death in the air.”

“You’re not snow’s biggest fan, I take it?”

Laurent shrugged. “I’m fond of it. I just hate what it represents. Snow means my mother’s parties and my father coming home smelling of cigars and burnt coffee and being assessed by all of their acquaintances who they know through Artesian Affairs and the socialite wives of all the men in Artesian Affairs.”

“Well, we’re about to change that,” Damen said, and he sat down. “My father will be up soon as he’s always an early riser so we should probably talk about the plan.”

“Don’t get too ahead of yourself. You haven’t heard my mother’s plan yet and whatever we come up with will have to be adjusted accordingly,” Laurent said.

“Your mother’s plan?”

“Hennike comes up with very detailed plans to get through the holidays. There are endless gatherings to attend, town events necessary to go to in order to keep up our high class status, family traditions to take part of, and, most importantly the three largest parties of the year: the Marcantel’s, the Mayor’s, and my mother’s very own that will be hosted here. Some of those won’t be that difficult to get around, but some will be required.”

“And she’s going to tell us about this….?” Damen trailed.

“She’s going to type it out and hand us each a calendar,” Laurent said pointedly. Damen stared. “Yeah.”

“Oh.”

“I would say you’ll get used to it, but considering this will probably be the only year you all allow yourselves to get wrapped in a DeVere nightmare, you probably won’t. And, to be quite honest, I’m not used to it and I’ve been dealing with it my whole life.”

Damen gave a half-hearted laugh and then his face pulled into a nearly pained smile as he asked Laurent quietly, like suddenly the house could hear them, “She does this every year?”

“Every year. Without fail. She’ll list the time each event starts and everything.”

“I’m concerned.”

Laurent mimicked Damen’s pained smile. “You should be.”

“Well, that’s okay. You said she’ll hand it out today?” Damen asked.

“Probably. I’m surprised she hasn’t yet, but my father probably begged her to let you all be in the house longer than ten minutes before bombarding you with calendars and schedules to keep.”

Their time had run out. A creak of the wood floor (a creak Hennike would be panicking to fix once made aware) had both of their heads turning and Damen said, not missing a beat, “My father is up. He must have smelled the cinnamon rolls.”

“We can reconvene later today. It should be relatively easy once my mother gets distracted by gods-know what,” Laurent said.

Then, like the creak had broken a spell, things felt too intimate. Coffee alone all morning in front of the fire, the sock-clad pattering of feet, the hushed tones, the stillness of the morning air. Laurent didn’t know why his face was choosing to redden now.

The feeling only intensified when Damen smiled at him while he stood, the smile deep and bringing attention to that damned dimple. “Thank you for the coffee. And for agreeing to partner up with me on this makeshift plan of fun. I hope it’ll live up to the expectation.”

The first thing Laurent heard as Damen exited the room was Damen’s good morning to his father followed immediately by, “Why did you bring those socks? You’re a grown man, Damianos.”

***

Laurent had been right on the money about the calendar.

After breakfast, a breakfast in which everyone woke up at different times and poor Orlant had to make two different kinds of tea, three different coffees, and two batches of cinnamon rolls, Hennike had made an announcement in typical Hennike fashion. She had used her spoon to knock on the side of her cup of tea three times while clearing her throat in too high of a tone before asking for all eyes on her. Then she had said, oversized sleeves of her sweater swinging, “As we are all here, I ask for you to stay a moment longer so that I can go over the schedule of the next weeks with you,” before she was gone, heels tapping, to retrieve the calendars so artfully printed.

Laurent looked up to find Damen looking at him knowingly and it was enough to make him smile, the inside nature of the look warmer than the cinnamon rolls and coffee in his stomach. He had kept his head down until his mother came back, a stack of laminated (gods, she laminated them this year) paper in her hand. She walked the perimeter of the table, ignoring, or entirely unaware of Aleron’s pulsing vein at his hairline or Hypermenestra’s confused brows, handing each person a sheet until all that was left was the singular one in her hand.

On the top of the paper was the month, ‘December’ written out in fancy script and surrounded by glittering branches ended with holly, and below that was the actual calendar, intimidatingly with many of the days filled.

“Today is, of course, the eleventh of December, meaning we have exactly two weeks until the holiday. And, as you can see, there is so much for us to do before that time!”

Laurent terribly wished, in that moment, that he could record this, record the settling reality everyone here was experiencing, a reflection of the way Laurent felt while at this house at all times. There was a grimace of some sort on nearly everyone’s face, all except Hypermenestra who seemed to be taking on the emotion of attempted understanding instead. Kastor looked downright nauseous.

“As it’s Friday, Aleron will be going to go to his cigar aficionado club, which I know he’s been dying to show you, Theo. And I’m sure that if Auguste, Kastor, and Damen wished to attend as well they’d be more than welcome. So many of the men there are Artesian legends. Then, this Sunday, the annual tree lighting ceremony is taking place downtown and we DeVeres haven’t missed a single one since we moved here!” She ignored Auguste’s protested, “Hey, I haven’t!”

“Then on the fifteenth there’s a ten day countdown event also downtown. But after that, things get,” Hennike giggled, “a little wild. The Marcantel’s holiday party is on the eighteenth and my own holiday party will be on the twentieth. Of course, after that is the mayor’s holiday party on the twenty-fourth, one that will go well into the night of our holiday, and before we know it, we’ll be opening gifts and hosting a fabulous dinner. There are a few smaller things in between all that, such as my luncheon event on the fourteenth and Victoire’s baby shower on the twenty-second, but the big parties and events are all highlighted in silver so you can’t possibly miss them.”

There was, of course, a general feeling of horror then. Hennike continued on.

“Any questions? I take it you all brought party clothes, yes?”

“Not enough that I won’t be repeating an outfit once or three times,” Hypermenestra laughed nervously.

“That simply won’t do,” Hennike said gravely. Then her face brightened. “That gives us all the reason to go shopping today! Yes, I’m going to take you and Victoire out. After all, the new glowing mother-to-be needs some maternity dresses and you need something Kemptian and beautiful!”

Hypermenestra smiled at Victoire, the smile all teeth and with a familiar kind of uncertainty behind her eyes, but Victoire only laughed.

“I could do with a maternity dress, if I’m being honest. I swear my stomach has doubled in size in the last three weeks,” Victoire said.

“It’ll be perfect! The men can all go to the aficionado club, we can go shopping, and Laurent can….” Hennike trailed.

“Enjoy the peace and quiet he’s always saying he doesn’t get enough of?” Aleron provided.

Laurent’s smile was sharp. “Father, you do listen when I talk.”

Aleron breathed a breath just strong enough to be noticeable. Damen hid a laugh behind his new cup of coffee.

“Actually,” Damen started as a quick recovery, the first part of the word coming out too high, “I’m going to stay behind. I’ve never been a cigar man.”

“But you smoke,” Theo said.

“Yeah, I smoke for the sole purpose of being able to take smoke breaks. That’s why I smoke cheap menthols. They’re disgusting and don’t put a dent in my bank. Cigars are too high-class for me.”

“Going to stay behind and watch snow melt?” Kastor asked. Damen smirked.

“Actually I was going to call some clients and wish them happy holidays personally. Give that networking the extra touch, you know? Better than a card,” Damen said, and Kastor visibly clenched his jaw as their father said aloud, “Good work, son.”

“Then it’s settled!” Hennike said. “Cigars, shopping, networking, and whatever Laurent’s heart desires. Are there any questions? Any concerns? Any requests?”

“Would it matter if there were?” Theo mumbled to Aleron, but he wasn’t heard over Victoire lecturing Auguste about becoming a smoker.

“I don’t care how many men around you are smoking, I’m not going to tolerate it,” she was saying. “You can sleep on the sofa the rest of your life if that’s the case.”

“Victoire, honey, I have no intention of taking smoking up as a habit.”

“You better not.”

***

Chastillion to Kempt
8-9-ish Years Ago
A Time Spanning Several Months, if Not a Year or More

Auguste called Laurent every Tuesday and every Saturday from there on out. On Tuesday, he’d call after dinner and on Saturday he’d call in the morning when Laurent was still half-attached to the idea of sleeping. They would talk about everything, but mostly of Laurent, and it was in those days, weeks, months, year or so, that Auguste discovered that his little brother was one of the most amazing people on the entire planet.

He was whip-smart and growing smarter with each passing day. Auguste was ninety-percent certain he could give anyone Auguste knew a run for their money on general knowledge, and was one hundred percent certain he could best anyone anywhere in certain subjects.

For the first time in a terribly long time, Auguste was desperate to visit home, to see his too-smart little brother grow up, to make up for the time he had missed. But Auguste was trying to make up for the time he had missed in….well, everything else too. Home would have to wait.

It was easy, however, with Victoire at his side. She was a steady guide in a world resting on crashing waves and, like magic it seemed, by the end of the year things were calming.

The calm must have been palpable, even through a phone, because the next time Auguste called Laurent, Laurent, with his voice starting to break, couldn’t not ask, “When are you going to come see us?” The ‘see me’ was implied.

“Soon,” Auguste said, though he hadn’t thought about it all that much.

The “Really?” Laurent asked came out almost as a squeak and Auguste felt his chest clench at the sound, at the thrumming excitement underneath that one word and suddenly, with conviction he hadn’t felt before that swam through his veins like a drug in its suddenness, said, with all sincerity, “Yes, absolutely!”

“Are you going to bring your girlfriend?”

The thrumming stuttered, for only a moment. “I’ll talk to her, but I’d like for her to come.”

“Me too.”

Victoire, of course, of course, of course, wanted to come along. She’d been dying to meet Laurent since she learned of his existence, since she first laid eyes on a photo of him in Auguste’s arms some decade earlier, and the moment he asked, she was ready to run and pack a bag for the trip.

It took a few days to work out time off from work, to work out if he should show up as a surprise instead of as a planned event, to work out what to do, what to say. He agonized over Victoire coming, wanting it to be painless for her, her meeting of the DeVeres.

“I don’t think you understand,” Auguste said whilst in the car on their drive there a few weeks later. “My parents can be a lot.”

“So can the entire population of Kempt,” Victoire said dismissively. “And, not to sound insensitive or anything, because I truly do want to meet the people that created you, but I am far more interested in meeting your brother. I have a feeling he and I are going to be best friends.”

Like most things in life, Victoire was right. The initial meetings had been somewhat uncomfortable, what with Auguste’s still strained relationship with his family and with Hennike’s over exuberance at everything and with Laurent’s shyness. In fact, by the end of dinner that first night, Auguste was pretty sure it was a disaster and he could count down the hours until Victoire ended things with him.

But then —

“You’ve got quite the collection,” Victoire said. Auguste could hear her through the wall. They were, a little awkwardly, staying in the bedroom that had been saved as “Auguste’s room” which was, of course, the room right next to Laurent. She must have, on her way from the kitchen to the bedrooms, stopped in where Laurent was, no doubt, reading.

“I like them,” Laurent said, voice quiet. He was talking about all of his books.

“Do you have a favorite?”

“No. There are too many.”

Victoire hummed thoughtfully. Pressing an ear closer to the wall, Auguste listened for what one of them would say next. For a moment, there wasn’t any sound, but then came the muffled shift of bedsprings. She must have sat down.

In true Laurent expectation, Auguste readied for Laurent to start talking about whatever book he was reading at this very moment. Auguste had experienced it firsthand for the last year via phone calls, Laurent’s rambles that could go on forever about any detail held within the pages of the novel currently occupying his thoughts.

“Auguste said you’re the reason he came here and started calling again,” Laurent said instead.

“Well,” Victoire started, and the bedsprings made another noise as she assumingly shifted once more. “Part of the reason. He really missed you. He just...didn’t know how to start talking again.”

There was a small huff of air. “He said you were one of the best things to ever happen to him. He said that a lot on the phone actually.”

“Did he?” Victoire laughed.

Laurent hummed an affirmative.

“At least once a week,” Laurent said. “I think you’re the best thing to happen to me too. You gave me my brother back.”

It was a gut-punch, a fist that forced its way through Auguste’s sternum until it could hold his heart. There was a desperation clawing at him, to comfort the boy that had been left behind by his own selfishness, and he left the room in a hurry, arriving at once at the threshold to Laurent’s book-invested space.

Laurent and Victoire were sitting on the bed, Victoire’s arms around his tiny twelve-year-old shoulders, his face at her collar. Over his head, Victoire smiled at him and Auguste, for maybe the first time in his entire life, felt an overwhelming sense of happiness at the sight of them.

***

Aleron, Theo, Auguste, and Kastor left the house around six that evening, just after dinner and just before the sun set too low in the sky. Kastor had walked out first, a cigarette already in his mouth as if preparing for the countless cigars he’d be smoking in half an hour, and Auguste had given both Laurent and Victoire an apologetic look, as if being doted upon as the golden boy was a hardship he couldn’t bare for a few hours. Not fifteen minutes later Hennike, Hypermenestra, and Victoire had left too, but not before Laurent practically shoved Victoire out the door as she sing-songed, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” whilst staring at Damen’s broad shoulders across the room.

And then they were alone. Damen and Laurent.

Like this morning, it felt too intimate, only now the feeling was immediate. Laurent’s footsteps on the floor were too loud. So was his breathing. Damen gave him a big smile when they met at the newly cleaned dining table they had been sitting at not even an hour earlier for dinner.

“Small victories,” Damen said, pulling out one of the chairs and sliding into it. He kept his legs spread around the seat, slouched like he was comfortable with this, like he couldn’t tell the breath was stuck deep behind Laurent’s lungs. “No one said anything rude at dinner this time.”

“That’s because that would have required them to talk about something other than their glory days in the company.”

“Luckily for us,” Damen started, “we don’t have to hear about any of that the rest of the night. Because that’s all anyone is going to talk about at the club.”

“No, instead we get to talk about this,” Laurent said, and he placed one of Hennike’s calendars between the both of them on the table.

The calendar hadn’t lost its ridiculousness in the last hours, but its usefulness as a tool for Damen and Laurent’s successful avoidance of all things suffocating had grown. For the first time in Laurent’s life, his mother’s anal retentiveness for the appearance of perfection was working out in his favor. She had been correct in what she said was highlighted, but there was so much more too. The big events were highlighted in silver, but all the start times of the events were made significant with green the color of holly leaves. Smaller events, like the town’s holiday market, were highlighted in blue, a pastel blue reminiscent of ice and Hennike’s own eyes.

Laurent didn’t move his hand fast enough from the calendar’s edge because when Damen went to move it closer to himself, their fingers brushed. It was only a second, maybe two, but it was enough for Laurent to note how warm Damen’s hand was in comparison to his own.

He didn’t mean to snatch his hand away like the warmth had been burning, but he did. His heart skipped a beat in his chest as he waited for Damen to say something about it, to pull a face, to look at Laurent like he was a child because he suddenly felt like one. But if Damen noticed, he didn’t give anything away. His eyes were focused on the calendar, scanning the events leading all the way to the holiday.

December

11th: Cigar Club

12th: Blank

13th: Tree Lighting Ceremony

14th: Ladies’ Luncheon

15th: Ten Day Countdown Event

16th: Blank

17th: Catering Meeting

18th: Marcantels’ Holiday Party

19th: Last Day Preparations for OUR Party

20th: DeVere Annual Holiday Party!

21st: Clean Up & Prepare for Baby Shower

22nd: Victoire’s Baby Shower

23rd: Blank

24th: Mayor’s Holiday Eve Party

25th: ~Holiday!~

“Some of these seem vague,” Damen said after a minute. “What does ‘preparations’ really mean?”

“Well, you’ve seen how my mother laminates monthly events, so take from that what you will,” Laurent provided as explanation, letting Damen fill in the rest of the blanks there.

“Okay, yeah, that makes sense. What about these other days, like the fourteenth? Are we going to have to sneak away from a ladies’ luncheon?”

“Not necessarily, but as our mothers will be out, I’d anticipate our fathers trying to have some kind of networking event. And you will have to have a good enough reason to get away. That’s where things get complicated, Damen,” Laurent said. “If you were more of a fuck up, like myself, this would be relatively easy.”

Laurent felt Damen’s eyes move from the calendar to his face, and the fear Damen was looking at him like he was a child was quickly back. But when he met those brown eyes, there wasn’t anything malicious behind them at all; instead they looked at him — not with pity, but with something like devastation. Laurent couldn’t think about what that meant.

“I can give a basic rundown of other events I know of,” Laurent started instead, his voice too loud initially, “but if you’re planning on attending any parties I’m afraid we’ll have to research as I’m not exactly aware of them all.”

“I’m not really planning on anything,” Damen said.

Laurent’s eyebrows furrowed. “But that’s exactly why we’re —”

“I wanted to plan how to get away from some of these things,” Damen said with a grin. “I don’t much care what we do, just as long as it’s not sitting at stuffy events and being around my brother all day.”

“Oh.”

Damen was looking at him again, this time utterly amused.

“Did you think we were going to sit down and plan out each day by the hour?”

“Well,” Laurent said, fumbled, his face turning red-hot. It somehow got even redder, even hotter, when Damen laughed, the base of the sound felt in Laurent’s stomach.

“I think you’re a tad more like your mother than you’d care to admit.”

Laurent’s first instinct was to scowl. But at Damen’s ever-growing grin and the inescapable heat of his face, he found laughing won out against his instincts and he laughed too.

“Gods, don’t tell me that,” Laurent managed to say between laughs. “It’s one of my many fears come to life.”

“I think it's actually pretty charming,” Damen said. Then his grin turned into a bitten down expression, like he hadn't meant to say that at all (and Laurent couldn't think about that either) and he continued quickly with a deep breath that brought his chest high. His fingers pulled the calendar close once more.

“So, tell me what we can expect at a tree lighting ceremony.”