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call me friend (but keep me closer)

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They win Marlas.

Of course they win Marlas, the sun setting over bloodied earth, the screams of dying men seeping through the dirt and dust like water through fingers. They win Marlas as their men’s strength begins to wane, fatigue and desperation guiding their swords and their shields, the Veretians stubbornly hiding behind their forts and walls.

The Veretian King dies, and they win Marlas.

Damen would often remember Crown Prince Auguste of Vere in the years to come. The man he might have met on the field as an equal in another life, the golden Prince of Vere. The newly crowned King who watched his father die in battle and gained a throne and a war. A throne and a devastating loss at once, the death of the King looming over the bowed heads of the Veretian soldiers, like an omen. Winning Marlas had been easy afterwards, their army crumbling under the Akielon wrath as their soldiers mourned in grief. The fate of those born into royalty, to lose and gain everything in the span of a single moment.

A royal death during battle was a sign. Years later, Laurent’s features soft with sleep beside Damen, he would think of that as well. He would pull Laurent closer, face buried in the crook of his shoulder and breathing in his omega’s scent mixed with his own. He would think about how their destinies had intertwined that day at Marlas and the world had changed for the both of them.

They did not hear news of King Aleron’s death right away. They saw the Veretians give up slowly, one inch of land at a time. But Akielos had always been a belligerent country. The skirmishes between kyroi and city-states had fine tuned them to battle strategy and victory, before Theomedes had exerted his power and called them all to take a knee. The Akielon army knew how to press an advantage when they saw one.

It had been a quick battle afterwards, their blades soaked in the scarlet blood of their enemy until they had the Veretian Princes at their mercy.

Or, amended Damen, staring at the two blonde heads dragged into the war-council tent, the new King and the omega Prince of Vere.

The Veretian King was an alpha, proud and golden in torchlight, staring at Theomedes with the surety and regality of someone who held the future of a country in his hands and a crown on his head. He was young, not even thirty summers yet, but his blue eyes and clenched jaw held wisdom and sincerity as he spoke with the enemy King about surrender and war reparations.

A chair was pulled up for him as he deliberated on the treaty he would have no choice but to sign, his army decimated and his family newly in mourning.

His younger brother, but eighteen summers, set rigidly to the side. His elegant, smooth features were downturned into a frown as he kept quiet and ignored the stares he could surely feel on his skin. Damen’s own eyes couldn't help but wander back to him every now and again, the fall of his luminous blond hair, his beautiful mouth, and his bloodstained armor.

The omega Prince had fought as well. Damen couldn't smell his scent even in the tightly fitted tent, so he must have been on suppressants. A smart choice, in the middle of a military campaign. The collar around his neck indicated he was not mated yet.

The collar was where Theomedes’ eyes finally fell. “Your brother is not mated,” he stated in Veretian, the language they had been conducting their negotiations in. His face was set in displeasure as he spread his hands atop the precarious table that had been put up between the two Kings as they deliberated.

“No, he is not,” King Auguste agreed carefully and candidly, his eyes darting to his brother’s tense shape for but a moment before fixing themselves on Theomedes once more.

“You are not mated either. Or married. You have no other heirs,” his father prompted, his annoyance growing.

“No,” the King of Vere said again, his voice tight even to Damen’s ears, loud in the crowded tent. “My brother Prince Laurent is my heir for the time being.”

Leaning back in his seat, Theomedes let his eyes rest purposefully on the Omega Prince.

The Prince bristled, clearly annoyed, but stayed quiet, knowing better than to interrupt the conversation between two Kings unless prompted. Damen’s eyes fell on his long pale fingers, twisted around the edges of his blood soaked tunic so tightly that the tips were white from strain.

“You could very easily marry him to someone who could promise you an army. He’s young, and pretty enough,” King Theomedes did not seem happy about Prince Laurent being pretty enough. “The moment you sign this contract, you could ride back to your lavish throne and ornate halls and pen a letter to someone who can help you break this treaty and run over my lands by promising them your brother’s hand in marriage.”

Standing still behind his father, Damen inhaled sharply. Veretians were wily and untrustworthy. They lied and cheated their way to victory. They had broken parley at Santpelier, nothing would stop them from doing it again.

At the words, Prince Laurent paled considerably, but King Auguste flushed in anger. “You invade our lands, kill our people, plan to sell our children into slavery and attack us on the eve of our King’s funeral rites. You have no shame and no honor and you insult me to my face? I would never sell my brother.”

Damen’s hand went to the pommel of his sword, eyes narrowing. He noticed pale gold moving in the periphery of his vision and he turned sharply to the younger Prince. He had shifted towards his brother, gaze darting around the room in horror and taking stock of how outnumbered they were, how dangerous their situation was. It was clear he wanted to say something, but he refrained himself, clutching at his own hands.

“A Veretian speaking of honour,” his father snorted humorlessly. “You have none. You have no right to mention it to us when your countrymen fight like cowards and serpents, not a shred of decency in their bones. Dying like pigs is what they deserved.”

The atmosphere in the tent changed, alpha pheromones permeating the air and shifting it towards something darker and unpleasant. Damen hissed in agreement as voices broke out, agreeing with King Theomedes and glaring angrily at the Veretians in the tent, both the last remaining members of the royal family and the single guard they had at their backs, who was shifting uncomfortably under the scrutiny.

Prince Launrent was staring at his brother, still as white as a sheet. He might have been on suppressants, but he was still the only omega in the room. He must have been overwhelmed by the number of people who meant him and his brother harm. Damen noticed that the guard was paying attention to the Prince and not the King.

With another quick glance at his brother, King Auguste composed himself. The color was still high on his cheeks, betraying his anger, but when he answered his voice was calm. “Nothing I say will convince you otherwise.” It was not a question, a simple statement of fact.

His father inclined his head in a rare show of agreement. “No,” he said. “Nothing you say will convince me you are not simply waiting for the first opportunity to betray us.”

Pulling back and exhaling slowly, the Veretian King stared at Theomedes. “What is it that you want, exactly.”

With a quick order, the Veretian guard was slaughtered under the shocked gazes of the young King and Prince. Shock turned to horror on the King’s face, as easy to read as a clear summer day in Ios, as he choked out “Laurent” under his breath and went to stand up.

The younger Prince had been pushed down to his knees. One of the Akielon soldiers held a knife to his throat. Damen saw him swallow, his face ashen but completely blank. He had to admire the courage the other was demonstrating in his precarious position.

“Auguste, don’t,” he enunciated clearly and as calmly as he could manage in his current predicament.

The struggle on King Auguste’s face was evident when he slowly sat down again, forcing himself to turn towards King Theomedes. “What do you want."

His father rested his hand on his palm, unperturbed by the disrespectful tone of the other even as a murmur of malcontent spread through the gathered men. “I could simply kill the both of you and take everything from Ios to Arles.”

“The North will never follow you.” A statement.

“You’re right, they will not follow me. I would have to raze your whole country to the ground first. I will if the need arises. But I don’t want to. I will give you a generous offer instead. You had better think about the answer you will give me. That is, unless you want your line to end tonight.”

King Auguste’s lips were almost white from how tightly he was pressing them together. Finally, he gave a jerky nod.

“I will let the both of you live,” his father offered with a sharp smile. “And you will be allowed to return to your own capital to rule your own Country once the reparation decisions are finalized.” He gestured distractedly at the papers spread around their makeshift deliberation table.

“But I cannot trust you. Or your brother,” he added with a sidelong glance at the Prince who was still kneeling properly and primly, a thin line of blood drawn from the blade at his neck. “You will not promise him to someone who has an army they can give you to march against Akielos. You will not get a chance, because he will be married into my family. Your brother’s life will be a good incentive to keep you from straying.” The last part was added with a scoff of distrust.

Damen would not disagree with his father publicly, but he was not sure how he felt about the offer. His stare landed on the young Prince again, whose brilliant blue eyes had turned sharply to Damen at Theomedes’ words, his shoulders pulling back slightly and holding himself rigidly straight.

He was beautiful, certainly. The eyes of every man in the tent had been following the omega’s graceful shape since the beginning. But he was also Veretian, and Damen did not make it a habit to bed snakes.

King Auguste didn’t seem to appreciate the offer either, for his hands twitched where they rested on the table and his body seemed to sing with the need to get up and stand in front of his brother. “You cannot mean to tell me you would trust my brother on your throne with your son. And as it were, I am not in the market of selling my only living relative.”

“Ah,” Theomedes said. “But you misunderstand me. Your blood will never sit on my throne. I would never let your brother marry my heir. I have two sons.”

Damen jumped in surprise, turning his stare to his father in shock. He wanted to marry the Prince of Vere to Kastor? His brother did not like Veretians any better than Damen did, as was clear by the displeasure on his face as he remarked “Father!” while he strode closer to the center of the tent.

Darting a quick glance at the Veretians, he noticed their repulsed faces. Veretians harbored an illogical amount of hatred for bastards, he remembered. Kastor would not have an easy marriage.

Kastor was stopped by a single cold look from their father, but the Veretian King was already leaning forward in his seat, his face once more flaming red under the soft, golden cascade of his blond locks. He had exerted an admirable control over his scent up until that point, but the anger and aversion took hold of him and his presence filled the tent, dominating and all encompassing.

Damen was not going to let another alpha threaten the territory that his men had won with blood and sweat. He ground his teeth in irritation and pushed back against the other’s pheromones when he saw his soldiers fidget, his own displeasure settling in the air around them like a heavy blanket.

He felt the blond King’s eyes dart curtly to him before resting on his father once more. Prince Laurent had not flinched at the display. He had maintained his perfect posture and blank expression, carefully refusing to look at Kastor. Damen wondered if his pulse would be rabbit fast under all that composure, or if he had ice in his veins.

Regaining control of his senses, King Auguste said through gritted teeth “Do you think I will let you disrespect my family like this? You have no right -”

He was interrupted by his brother’s soft but firm voice. “Auguste.”

Still trembling with fury, the Veretian King shook his head. “No.”

His father’s nonchalant “Then you both die,” was followed by Prince Laurent’s quieter but more insistent “Auguste”.

“No, Laurent,” the King snapped, his eyes never leaving Theomedes’ face. “I will not let them disrespect you like this.”

“I am not going to give you this chance twice, King Auguste,” his father stated calmly, leaning back on his seat. “You should take it. My man still has a knife to your brother’s throat.”

King Auguste twitched, making as if to turn around to look at his brother, but thought better of it at the last moment and stayed rooted to his spot, unyielding. Prince Laurent was looking at his brother, something soft curling the corners of his mouth. “Auguste,” he called once more. “It’s alright.”

Finally, the golden King sighed, a low sound dragged from the recesses of his very being, something wounded in the downturn of his suddenly dropped shoulders. Closing his eyes, he accepted the offer, and the royal family of Vere lived to see another day.

They rode to Akielos three days later, long enough for the Prince to gather his household and enough people to allow the illusion of safety in enemy territory. Damen had been present when the two brothers had said their goodbyes, King Auguste’s face carved in stone as he wrapped his arms around the younger one, his gaze lost into the distance and his jaw tight with displeasure.

Prince Laurent had extricated himself gently before mounting atop his beautiful horse in one fluid motion, his dark skirts split in the middle and covering leather riding breeches, as was the fashion for young, active omegas. His hair, braided into a tight crown around his head, shone like pearls under the sunlight as they rode south.

His brother’s engagement to Prince Laurent had been a public affair in the halls of Marlas, surrounded as they were by Akielon and Veretian nobility alike, but the wedding itself took place in Ios, festive and arranged for a royal celebration, white and resplendent where she sat on the cliffs, one fall away from the deep blue Ellosean Sea.

Kastor did not warm up to his betrothed during their fortnight ride from Marlas to Ios. Admittedly, the omega had kept to himself for the most part, surrounded by his own people and laced up from throat to fine wrists to shiny riding boots.

Damen knew of the stigma against bastards in Veretian nobility, and he wondered how much of the Prince’s coldness towards Kastor was due to propriety and how much was because of his genuine dislike of the other alpha. Well, he had not known Kastor long, admittedly. They would learn to get along as in any other political marriage.

The wedding itself was lavish and loud, perhaps in deference to Veretian taste, something no one minded overly much after realizing that Akielos had not only won the war decisively, they had also humiliated the Veretian royal family by gaining the omega Prince of Vere, rumored to be as beautiful and cold as a winter morning.

Prince Laurent entered the ceremony Hall accompanied by his guards and his omegas in waiting, every inch of his skin covered in a gown of white silks with golden trims. His beautiful blond hair, normally pulled into tight braids, had been left to gently fall around his face and down his back in soft waves, the gems intricately woven in his locks shining in the sun as brightly as the rest of him.

Damen had not exchanged more than a few words with the omega as they travelled south with the whole might of their army at their backs, but he could admit to himself that his elegant beauty was heart stopping. Kastor would have to watch his back. A beautiful snake was still a snake.

The temple had been decorated in reds and golds, the colors of the Akielon royal family as stipulated by the Gods. The reminder could not have been clearer, even more so when the High Priest prompted the Prince of Vere to shed the dark blue cloak of his family from his shoulders to exchange it for the blood red one Kastor draped him in. Prince Laurent did not remove his collar.

Kastor took his omega’s hand afterwards, leading him away and towards the banquet prepared in their honor. The Prince of Vere, now Prince Consort of Akielos, sat tightly and rigidly, eating little and drinking less, smiling politely at the well wishes directed his way and answering with well pronounced, accented Akielon to the curious words surrounding him.

“Welcome to our family, Prince Laurent,” Damen said pointedly from where he was sitting, close to the newly wedded couple as per protocol. He disliked Veretians, they were untrustworthy and prone to treachery, but the Prince was alone and surrounded by people who did not like him or any of his countrymen. Damen had no reason to further complicate his staying. “And many happy years to come for the both of you.”

Kastor did not seem pleased by the well wishes, and he downed his second cup of the night. Prince Laurent, though, turned towards Damen with another polite smile, bringing his own cup to his lips after a quick glance at Kastor. “Thank you, Your Highness. May the years in front of us bring prosperity for Akielos.” He did not say And for Vere, but Damen heard it in the sudden silence that stretched between them.

The evening dragged on slowly, music and dancing soon overpowered by loud, drunken laughter. Damen himself matched his brother drink for drink, soon joined in by their generals and the Kyroi in attendance. His brother’s new omega finished his first cup of wine and switched to watered down cider afterwards, the drink sweet and warm in deference to the cool, early spring night.

Finally, as the celebrations started to slowly die down and the Hall was filled with more drunk people than sober, Kastor stood. He swayed on the spot with a groan, a barking snort making the blond Prince jump slightly as he stared at his husband with a blank expression. “I believe I have had more than enough to drink. I should go show my omega what this wedding has gained him,” he said as his hand fell heavily on his consort’s shoulder.

The roaring laughter that followed was shared by everyone except the young Prince, who simply stood and took his alpha’s hand with pale, slim fingers. He adjusted his gown with his other hand, but his expression remained closed off and unaffected.

Damen’s thoughts were a little hazy from the alcohol, the room overwarm and his vision swaying slightly as though looking through glass. He frowned in discontentment. The Prince of Vere was far away from home, but he could have tried to be a little more sociable. He was part of their royal family now. Dismayed, he watched his brother and his new husband leave the Hall hand in hand, still followed by laughter and whistling.

The celebrations simmered down slowly afterwards, the guests growing either too drunk or too sleepy. His father had retired soon after the new royal couple, the years and his age almost evident in his gait.

Damen shared one more drink with Makedon, their northern general, and refused a second. He had learned that lesson young. He was pleasantly inebriated and he had no intention of becoming incapacitated.

Finally, he made his way back to his quarters in the dark, neatly bypassing slumbering guests on his way and lovers hiding behind alcoves. He strode towards the Northern Wing of the palace, the royal Wing, and let his eyes slide towards the doors leading to Kastor’s rooms, right next to the new ones assigned to the Veretian Prince, when a noise caught his attention.

One of Prince Laurent’s servants was exiting the quarters in a hurry, her skirt gathered in her hands as she marched away in a rush, her mouth pulled down in a tight, angry frown. Her hair was disheveled and her cheeks were red with exertion as she stopped in front of one of the Veretian guards standing in the hallway, murmuring in quick, hushed Veretian.

Damen wondered distractedly about the situation, but the call of his bed was louder than Veretian dramas under his roof. He continued on down the corridor until he reached his own rooms. There, he let Lykaios help him out of his chiton before collapsing on his bed, thoughts of Veretians and weddings far away from his mind as sleep claimed him.

The following days were quiet as the court slowly recuperated from a night of excesses and drinking, their good humor at a royal wedding slightly dampened by splitting headaches and rolling stomachs.

Damen did not see Prince Laurent at all for almost a whole week, nor his retinue. Kastor emerged from his bedchambers grinning and as in good spirits as Damen had ever seen him lately, though the latter could have been attributed to the sly remarks of the court as they congratulated him on his wondrous union to the beautiful Veretian.

When Damen finally saw the omega again, he looked just as carefully polished as always. He had not abandoned his uncomfortable, overlaced clothing, and every inch of his skin was still covered in heavy, dark fabric. He was still elusive and quiet, and rarely graced them with his presence, his posture perfect and his face blank, Kastor’s hand resting on the small of his back every time they were out in public together.

The eyes of the court had been solely focused on the blond since his arrival, his looks and coloring a novelty, most of all after their win at Marlas. But as the Prince kept to himself and stayed out of the public eye as much as possible, the public eye also stopped focusing on him so intently.

The general consensus of the court became that the omega was shy, something evidently confirmed by Kastor himself, who soon got over the enjoyment of having a young, beautiful omega in his bed and started complaining about his husband’s inadequacies.

“If I hadn’t known he was a virgin on our wedding night, I could have certainly figured it out for myself,” he had once commented to Damen in displeasure during training. Damen, who still did not know anything about his brother’s omega except the fact that he was beautiful and apparently painfully shy, nodded along to what his brother was saying, commiserating his fate with him.

It wasn’t as though an inexperienced husband would be a problem for Kastor anyways. As a member of the royal family, he had more than enough slaves or other partners willing to warm his bed at night if he didn’t want to share it with the Veretian. And Kastor did take advantage of all his other options, enthusiastically so.

Kastor being distracted from his marital bed also, strangely enough, coincided with Prince Laurent leaving his chambers more often. He was still quiet for the most part, silently observant as Damen saw him strolling through the white walls of Ios with curious eyes.

Stubbornly, even as spring blossomed around them and the days started getting hotter, he refused to shed his Veretian clothing. He still preferred wearing breeches, a split skirt for riding atop them, as overly elaborate and decorated as his jackets.

That was how Damen found him one day, a month after the wedding. The Prince was sitting on an old blanket spread on the ground in a corner of Egeria’s Garden, the one his mother had personally planned. It was separated from the rest of the palace gardens, a short walk of cobblestones from the East Wing followed by an arch of wildflowers at the entrance. The garden sat on top of the cliff, gentle sea breeze cooling the air and tall orange trees offering shade in a bed of violets and primroses.

Prince Laurent startled when he heard Damen approaching. The book he was reading snapped shut as he stood quickly from where he’d been leaning against a tree trunk.

“Your, Highness,” he started carefully, his brows furrowed. “I did not expect to meet you here.” Nestled in shadows and alone, he looked somehow softer than he’d ever been in Damen’s presence, the rosy tint of his cheeks a sign of his embarrassment at having been caught.

“I figured as much,” Damen said goodnaturedly with a careless gesture of his hand. “Please, sit. I did not mean to pull you away from your book. I simply was not expecting anyone in my mother’s garden.”

The Prince’s flush deepened as he sat down once more on the little blanket, his legs folded at the knees, the book resting atop his lap. “I apologize. It is quiet here. I can sit the day away and read, or simply enjoy the view. I did not realize. That is, I did not know it was your mother’s garden, I will not intrude again.”

“Don’t,” Damen shook his head with a small smile, sitting on the ground and leaning back on his hands. He spread his fingers in the grass, feeling the smooth green of full blown spring on his palms. “You’re not intruding, Your Highness. This garden is open to any member of the royal family, though admittedly no one except me wanders over here, and even I do not come as often as I maybe should.”

His mother had designed these gardens for peace and tranquility. Damen, who had never met her since she had died giving birth to him, had always been too active a child to be able to fully appreciate the calmness that the garden evoked, but he thought the breeze from the sea underneath them would be the closest he would ever come to knowing his mother.

“Please,” he added for good measure. “Don’t let me stop you from enjoying this part of the gardens. They were meant to be visited more often than they have been in the past.”

Prince Laurent looked at him with careful consideration before nodding once and relaxing back against the orange tree he had been leaning against. With one last glance at Damen, he went back to his book, as poised as ever.

Damen laid back on the tall grass, his arms behind his back as he stared at the sliver of sky peaking through the foliage, as bright as the Prince’s eyes, the air smelling sweetly of blooming flowers. He thought he could hear the whisper of his mother’s ghost with every turn of the page and with every trembling leaf on a branch.

They spent the afternoon in companionable silence broken sometimes by delicate, lilting questions from the Veretian Prince or pointed, honest ones from Damen. They talked about the book the Prince was reading, an Akielon epic; they talked about Akielon architecture and how it compared to Veretian art, about how different the foods they had grown up with were, about how hot the days would soon get.

“You will soon need lighter clothing,” Damen teased with a glance at the Prince’s jacket, laced down to his wrists.

“I’m sure I can withstand some heat, Your Highness,” the tone was light and carefree, a laugh hiding somewhere behind that cool façade. “Not all of us feel the need to go around with a handkerchief tied around the waist for clothing.”

“This handkerchief will save me from a heat stroke in another month or so,” Damen said, raising up on one elbow and resting his cheek on his hand. “And you may call me Damen. We are family, after all.”

Surprised, the Prince smiled a real smile, sweet and tender. “Damen, then. You may call me by my given name as well.”

“Well, Laurent,” Damen said, his responding smile open and sincere. “I believe this to be the start of a great friendship.”

“Friends,” Laurent hummed, surprised. “Is that what we are?”

“We will be.” Damen would make sure of it.

Their friendship progressed quickly, between lazy afternoons in Egeria’s Garden and long rides along the coastline. Damen discovered soon enough that the one thing that could compete with Laurent’s love for books was his love of horses. The beautiful bay he had ridden south with had been a gift from his brother, broken in by King Auguste when Laurent had been only a boy, following his brother around in awe.

Damen had caught a glimpse, in Marlas, of how close the two brothers were. Listening to Laurent speak about his brother so freely, he suddenly realized how devastatingly they had shattered the royal family of Vere by forcing King Auguste to send his young, unmated brother south.

Their blossoming friendship had not gone unnoticed by the court, least of all by Kastor. His brother had stopped him one day after one of their rides, a few weeks after they had started spending time together, his face a thundercloud. He had demanded to know what was going on between his brother and his omega, and Damen wondered how far the rumors had twisted their relationship.

“Brother,” he started with shocked honesty. “I would never disrespect you or Laurent that way. We are friends. He is alone in a foreign country that was his enemy only a scant few months ago, and he is surprisingly good company for a Veretian.”

“Well, he is not good company to me, is he?”

“Maybe the two of you simply share different interests. It is perfectly normal.”

And it was. Perfectly normal, that is. Laurent needed a friend, and Damen didn’t mind being his friend. He had not lied when he’d told Kastor that Laurent was good company. Damen enjoyed spending time with him. He even enjoyed the blond's dry, cutting humor and his clever remarks.

He brought the matter up with Laurent the day after Kastor had fought with him. Laurent had refused to go riding that day, and he was sitting rigidly on a soft cushion in their garden, quieter than normal and a little more jumpy. Damen wondered if Kastor had fought with him as well.

“Oh Damen,” Laurent said softly with an exasperated exhale. “Don’t worry about it. Leave Kastor to me.”

So Damen left Kastor to Laurent. He had come to realize, in the time they had spent together, that the court had been wrong when they had called Laurent shy. Or, at least, they had not been completely right. Laurent was reserved, yes. And he enjoyed quiet time away from crowds. But he also had an uncanny ability to mold himself into any situation, as adaptable as clay.

Damen tried not to contemplate too much about the fact that such distinctively Veretian traits were not as infuriating as they had once been. Laurent was sweet and kind, when he wanted to be. This Damen was intimately familiar with from the time they had been wandering around the streets of Ios.

It had been Laurent’s idea, the glint in his eye promising mischief as he pulled out two long cloaks after tying their horses in a clearing right outside the city limits, his beautiful hair covered by a big feathered hat.

“I want to know what the city feels like. How normal people live. What they think, what they feel.” His smile had been so disarmingly open that Damen could have never refused him.

So they had donned their disguises, and they had strolled around the streets of the lower town covered in heavy cloaks and giggling like children. Damen had never thought about how entire portions of his subjects lived, and the discovery had been a revelation as well as a lesson in humility.

In the end, they had come out of the ordeal richer in knowledge and poorer in coin, as Laurent had gifted whatever gold they had brought with them to the street urchins who had been running underfoot the whole time, dirty and whip thin. Their amazed, awestruck eyes had been a sight Damen would not easily forget.

Damen and Laurent had been friends for more than a month when, inevitably, something changed. The two of them had not spent any time together the previous day, Laurent too engrossed in a package he had received from Arles. As they sat in comfortable silence under the shade of Laurent’s favorite orange tree, the omega showed him what had been in the package.

“They were forged in Patran steel,” the blond murmured reverently, one long finger stroking the clean, luminous blade of one of the two long daggers he had been gifted by his brother, the hilt washed in golden light, small sapphires climbing up one side to the pommel.

“Why did your brother send you daggers?” Damen asked, a little offended. They were more than capable of protecting Laurent in Ios.

But Laurent either did not pay attention to his sulking tone, or he didn’t notice it. “I’d imagine for my name day.”

“Wait,” Damen sat up, suddenly more concerned with something more important. “Your name day? It is coming up?” He knew vaguely that Laurent had been born in late spring, as the days got warmer and led into summer.

“Yes. At the end of the week.”

“I see,” Damen frowned, lost in thought, his mind whirling with ideas and possibilities. “It will be nineteen summers, will it not?”

Still distracted, Laurent nodded.

After that conversation, Damen prepared everything carefully and meticulously. He thought about embarking Kastor in his plans (Laurent was his husband after all), but he dismissed the idea almost immediately. Kastor’s disposition towards their friendship had not sweetened any. If possible, it had soured further. He looked thunderous every time he saw them together, though Laurent didn’t seem overly concerned.

With that in mind, he went about his plan on his own. He enlisted the help of the cook first before penning a letter to the Kyros of Isthima, whose library rivaled that of Ios and contained knowledge lost to dust and disuse, waiting to be picked up once more by quick, pale fingers. Finally, he sent a rider and a skeleton household to the Summer Palace to air the rooms, change the linens and prepare the stables and the gardens.

The morning of Laurent’s name day dawned bright and early. The royal family shared a meal in the dining room, the coolest room in their wing. It was a necessity, most of all in the summer when the early afternoon brought smoldering heat outside of the cool marble walls and crystalline floors of the palace.

When the last platter came, Laurent stared at it in shock from where he was sitting between Kastor and Damen. Desserts in Akielos usually consisted of honeyed nuts and fruit.

In the time they had spent together in his mother’s garden, Damen had noticed how often Laurent’s gaze fell on the oranges atop his head with longing. The cake he had asked the cook to make was a masterpiece covered in honey and caramelized oranges, sweet enough to make Damen’s stomach clench, but just to Laurent’s tastes, as he knew it would be.

The look of astonishment on Laurent’s face was worth enduring his father’s confused, slightly disapproving frown and the angry downturn of Kastor’s mouth. Kastor would be easy enough to appease when he revealed his other present.

“I have a book for you as well. The servants left it in your rooms. I asked for it to be brought over from Isthima. They have the vastest library in the continent and I demanded the most obscure and unknown book they had in their possession.”

The joke fell into silence, the blond still staring at him with rapidly blinking eyes. He tried to talk twice, his mouth hanging open slightly before he finally choked out “Thank you. This means a lot to me.”

“Yes, Damen, thank you for thinking of my omega,” drawled Kastor, and Laurent teared his gaze away from Damen to stare at the cake in front of him.

Damen felt his smile freeze slightly on his face. Unsure about his own reaction and the tumultuous feelings in his chest, he continued. “Of course. He is part of the family. I have a third gift as well, for the both of you.”

Laurent’s head shot up once more at that, his features schooled into perfect blankness. Kastor’s arm sneaked behind the back of Laurent’s chair, open palm coming to rest on his shoulder. “Is that so, brother?”

“Yes, I have sent the servants ahead to prepare the Summer Palace for the two of you. You can retreat there for a few days, enjoy the warm weather before it becomes unbearable.” The last part was directed at Laurent with a small smile, trying to regain his footing after whatever misstep had brought them here.

Maybe he should have talked to Laurent first about the gifts. He thought he knew him well after how much time they had spent in each other’s company, but after all they had only really known each other for a few months.

Finally, Laurent turned to look at Damen properly, the tips of his fingers coming to rest lightly on the back of Kastor’s hand, still on his shoulder. The smile he offered did not reach his blue eyes, as clear as the view from Egeria’s Garden, where the sky met the sea. “Thank you, Damen. They were all very well thought out gifts. I appreciate your friendship greatly.”

And Laurent’s face might have still been frozen in that mask of detached politeness, but the words were soft and sincere. Damen realized, an uncomfortable feeling pooling in his belly, that he would have done anything to see one of Laurent’s true, open smiles in that moment.

The realization granted him a sleepless night even more than his father’s words later that evening, after he had been summoned to the King’s study. “You are too close to the little Veretian snakes. They are not to be trusted, son”. Damen let himself think, quietly and only in the recesses of his mind, that he was not so sure about that anymore.

The week passed slowly between training with his men and listening to council meetings where his father’s voice would dominate imposingly above all others. Theomedes-Exalted was not the young, impressive alpha he had once been, but he was still not to be taken lightly. Damen had spent so long trying to emulate him that disagreeing with him on something as fundamentally acknowledged as the fact that Veretians are not to be trusted felt like a betrayal in and of itself.

Suddenly, he missed Nikandros. They had been together for years, growing from boys into men under the same roof. He had not realized how quiet the palace could be because Laurent had been a constant presence that filled his days with unexpected sunshine. But without Laurent and with Nikandros newly appointed Kyros of Delpha, the days dragged onto each other snail paced.

He found himself waiting excitedly for when Laurent and his brother would be back from the Summer Palace. He did not expect the messenger that rode in the day before they were meant to come back, stating that Prince Laurent had not been feeling well and they would return a few days later than expected.

The unsettling feeling in his stomach only grew when court gossip gathered the news and spread it to the wind like seeds. The whispering stirred delight as speculation grew on whether they would soon welcome a new royal into the palace.

Damen certainly would have wished both his brother and his friend good fortune and a happy marriage, but every time he thought about the prospective child, he was unnerved, something that only a few rounds in the arena with a proficient soldier could distract him from.

It was around that time that he met the Lady Jokaste of Aegina, the omega as beautifully poised and elegant as Laurent. She was the oldest daughter of a minor general, and she had travelled to Ios for her first season away from home, enjoying the view almost as much as the company.

Her sharp mind and cutting tongue reminded him so distinctly of Laurent that the days before his arrival became bearable once more, focused as he was on his own duties as Crown Prince and welcoming Lady Jokaste to court. Her gaze, piercing and strangely curious, made him uncomfortable sometimes, but her wit more than made up for how her blue eyes followed him in confusion.

Finally, Kastor and Laurent rode back to Ios with their retinue. Kastor’s mood had not improved much, his face a thundercloud as he rode ahead and let his husband trail behind at a calmer pace. Laurent himself did not give any emotions away, his posture as perfect as ever on his bay mare, every inch of his skin covered in strictly laced dark blue and gold clothing.

They met that afternoon in Egeria’s Garden, and the warm breeze of late spring in southern Akielos managed to finally unwind the omega’s tight shoulders as he settled against his favored orange tree, the book Damen had gifted him for his name day sitting unopened beside him as they talked.

He had changed from the split skirts he preferred into a full gown, his shape disappearing under multiple layers of fabric. Damen was sure he must have been boiling alive under so much heavy clothing, but Laurent simply undid the laces holding his jacket closed on his wrists, the material falling apart to reveal a fine undershirt and even finer, blue-veined skin.

Suddenly, Damen remembered the rumors that had been spreading in court about the arrival of a new royal baby. Uncomfortably, he tried to broach the subject as delicately as he could. From the arched brows and the teasing light in the clear blue eyes, he was not successful.

“I’m not with child, Damen,” Laurent assured him with a little smirk. “I can safely promise you that.”

“Oh,” Damen said, flushing slightly at how pleased he sounded. “I mean, that is-,” he coughed, trying to hide his embarrassment. “Thank you for letting me know, Laurent.”

Saying the other’s name still felt transgressive, the consonants heavy on his tongue like honey and just as sweet, his Veretian carefully polished but with a clear Akielon lilt. The delight he felt at being able to say his given name paled in front of the contentment he could feel from Laurent every time he called him by it, the satisfaction obvious in the softening of his full, beautiful mouth as his smile softened into something kinder.

“Did you like the book,” Damen asked to distract himself from the sudden pain in his chest, his eyes falling to the heavy tome still sitting by Laurent’s side.

The blond gathered it into his hands and stroked the cover lovingly, a touch he seemed to reserve for books and horses. “I did. I didn't bring it with me to the Summer Palace, I didn’t wish to risk anything happening to it, but I started it the night before I rode out and I find it fascinating. I had not realized how much knowledge had been forbidden during the Dark Age before Artes became one kingdom. So many things we know and take for granted were a cause for execution at the time. It certainly gives us a new perspective.”

Laurent could talk like that sometimes, Damen knew. Endlessly and without barriers, his thoughts and his excitement trembling in the air between them before melting into soft happiness as the afternoon dissolved into early evening, the sun slowly sinking over the Ellosean Sea behind them. Damen thought he would throw himself on an enemy’s sword just to let Laurent keep talking so openly.

After that day, the pain in his chest did not lessen when he was in Laurent’s presence. He felt the court’s disappointment at the lack of a royal child like a punch in the gut, their words so cutting and disrespectful that he found himself turning on them with reprimand, his anger burning quick like a match and leaving him feeling empty and confused.

Laurent did not seem to care about what the court had to say about him, and he went about his days like he always did, with the notable exemption that now he could often be seen in the company of Lady Jokaste, their blonde heads in similarly complicated braids and their arms interlocked.

Lady Jokaste had stopped giving Damen confused looks, and she had instead started looking at him with a new, knowing light in her clever eyes. Damen, who had never had any instinct for what went on in an omega’s mind, brought it up to Laurent once during one of their rides along the coastline, their horses trotting along on the sand side by side.

“Oh, Damen,” Laurent laughed as he spurred his horse ahead in front of Damen’s, turning his head to look at him with a sweet smile, his hair in two tight braids down his back. “She simply realized something. You’ll have to forgive her. Omegas like me and Lady Jokaste are used to certain behaviors, most of all from alphas. Sometimes, the unusual is unexpected.”

Damen was not sure what behaviors Laurent was referring to, but he did not think he had ever led the lady along during any of their conversations. He said as much, his mind whirling with possibilities and the memories of every interaction they had shared since she had showed up at court.

With a sigh, Laurent pulled the reins of his horse, stopping in front of Damen. “No, you did not. And that is the point. She was not expecting you any more than I was.” The last part was shared with a note of sadness, the breeze of early summer playing with a lock of blond hair escaping from one of the braids and caressing Laurent’s refined features.

Damen almost spurred his horse forward. He almost leaned down, the foot of distance between them unbearable. He almost took Laurent’s hands in his own shaking ones. He almost answered, their eyes interlocking and breaking open a world of possibilities, realities that he could have never imagined.

The hole in his chest widened into a chasm when he stepped back, the gap between them growing enough that he could fill his lungs with air once more. Looking back towards the palace where they had left their guards behind, he counted to ten in Akielon in his mind.

It was only when they were close enough to see the walls and the cobblestone road leading up to them that Damen dared to stop once more, his hands holding onto his reins. “We will start training for the Summer Games tomorrow,” he started as an offering. “You should come see us.”

As much time as they had spent together during that season, as well as he thought he knew Laurent, he still did not know how the blond would react. When Laurent nodded, he felt his blood rush from his head all the way to the tips of his fingers, still wound tightly around the reins.

Whatever tomorrow would bring, he could sleep contentedly in his bed tonight with the knowledge that the omega would be there the day after.

And Laurent did show up, out of his heavy layers of clothing and into training breeches, his white shirt laced from throat to wrists and his hair pulled up in complicated braids around his head.

Damen wondered if he would join their training, but he simply stood to the side and watched as his men went from archery to spear throwing to short sword. Finally, after the trident throw, two slaves brought in the oil for wrestling, Damen’s most favored sport.

Cheerfully, Damen followed the example of the other men who would train in the discipline and unpinned the lion from his chiton, letting it fall to the ground where it was picked up and carried away. Stepping up to the oil, he reached in with both hands and spread it across his skin evenly, his movements practiced.

With a wink in Laurent’s direction, who was sitting pink cheeked and frozen outside of the rink, he stepped inside and he went about the arduous business of schooling his disciples on the delicate art of wrestling.

He corrected one of his soldiers’ hold on a smooth thigh, or he showed them which were the correct muscles to be used for an advanced move that had his opponent on the ground in less than three minutes, his arms straining in enjoyable effort and the grin on his face radiant.

When it was over, he offered his soldiers’ encouragement and guidance, letting a servant towel him down of the dirt and residual oil and pin a clean chiton in place on his shoulder.

With steady steps he walked towards where Laurent was now standing from his chair, not having moved from his position and still pink cheeked under the late morning sun.

“Laurent,” he called with a grin. “What do you think of my men? Are they as well trained as northerners?”

As always, Laurent rose to the challenge with a small smirk. “I’m not sure, Your Highness. Are they? Maybe you should fight a northerner to compare.”

“And do you have a northerner I can fight, hiding behind you?”

“There’s me,” Laurent said pointedly, his pale eyebrows raised in a new challenge that Damen had walked right into.

“Are you trained in wrestling, Prince Laurent?” asked Damen with some degree of consternation. He almost expected to receive an affirmative answer from the infuriating, unpredictable man in front of him.

“No, I am not. But I am trained in sword fighting.”

And he was, as it turned out, well trained in sword fighting. If Damen had been anyone else, the sheer surprise of how genuinely striking Laurent was with a sword in his hands might have lost him the match, the blond’s movements precise and well trained.

Their steels met, over and over again, Laurent’s fine form twisting out from underneath Damen's steady, powerful hits. His style was Veretian and exquisite, his wrists twisting expertly to avoid the stronger strikes.

Damen could not help but think about their first meeting, in that tent in Marlas, and how Laurent had been donned in his own blood-soaked armor. And again, only weeks prior, when he had received Patran knives for his name day.

The blond omega parried and avoided when he could, and he jumped out of the way with quick footwork when necessary. He was good and fast, and pinning him down was proving to be more of a challenge than Damen could have ever expected, the warm feeling in his chest spreading down to his stomach and all the way up to his face, his eyes burning with the enjoyment he was feeling.

When he finally had Laurent on his back in the dirt, his sword kicked off to the side and his chest rising and falling under the fine linen of his shirt, Damen felt like something had finally shifted between the two of them. It might have been Laurent’s euphoric smile as they fought, or the color high on his cheeks. It might have even been inevitable, their friendship slowly tickling down to this moment. Damen could not pull himself from the precipice this time. He was already falling.

Once his eyes started resting on Laurent, they didn't stop. The fall of his hair the rare times he saw them down became maddening, and he found himself jealous of anyone Laurent touched. He wanted those pale, gracious hands to rest on his shoulders. He wanted to twist his own fingers around a lock of hair to feel if it was as soft as it looked. He wanted, and yearned, and burned inside with the shame of desiring his brother’s omega.

That was also when he started noticing the bruises for the first time. He didn’t know if he was paying attention more, or if Laurent was simply unlacing the restrictive clothing due to the unbearable heat that greeted them as they ventured well into summer. Once Damen saw them for the first time, he couldn't stop his attention from falling there.

There were old, yellowing bruises on Laurent’s pale neck one day, something Damen asked about only to be rebuffed curtly with excuses about clumsiness and falling. He had never before known Laurent to be clumsy.

He saw them again a few days later, wrapped around Laurent’s delicate wrists and more recent. His concern was met, once again, with dismissiveness. But Damen couldn’t let this go, his concern burning hotly in his gut.

“Laurent,” he asked with barely concealed anger. “If someone is hurting you, you need to let me know. I will take care of it myself. I would never let you get hurt. It is treason to raise a hand on a member of the royal family, punishable by death.”

Eyes wide in wonderment, Laurent simply stared at him before pulling himself to his knees by Damen’s side and taking his hands in his own, the contrast of their skin more evident than ever.

“Oh, Damen,” said Laurent in the same soft, sad tone he sometimes used around him. “No one is hurting me. I simply bruise easily. My delicate skin was not made for rough Akielon weather.”

The joke fell flat in the silence between them, Damen’s mind lost in the blue of Laurent’s eyes as he squeezed his hands tightly between his own larger ones, bringing them to his lips and kissing the back of each palm. “Promise me,” he asked desperately. “Promise me you will come to me if something is wrong.”

Something complicated passed over Laurent’s face, the corner of his mouth trembling and his long lashes lowering over his eyes. Suddenly, Damen knew without a shadow of a doubt that Laurent was about to lie to him. “I promise.”

Unable to express the abyss in his chest, he let one of Laurent’s hands go, only to raise his own palm to lay against the omega’s cheek. He stroked the fine bone with the tip of his thumb and felt the other rest the full weight of his head on Damen’s hand, eyes falling closed.

“I wish I could believe you.”

“I wish you could believe me, too.”

When Laurent’s eyes fluttered open once more, the sorrow in the small space between them shifted, months of friendship and repressed feelings leading up to that moment.

Damen felt Laurent’s breath hitch when his thumb stroked gently down his cheek, coming to rest on the corner of his full mouth in reverence. His eyes fell there when he saw Laurent’s pink lips part at the contact, the fragile moment between them stretching in desperate flight as finally, finally, he laid a soft kiss where he most wanted to.

The first, barely there kiss was soon followed by deeper, slower ones as Laurent sobbed his assent into his mouth, his arms interlocking behind Damen’s neck and their chests pressed together. Damen’s own hands fell to Laurent’s waist, holding onto the fabric there as though lost at sea.

The sun shined through the leaves as they kissed in his mother’s garden, fear and shame coloring the edges of their need with desperation. Thoughts of Kastor and of his father were too far to contemplate when he had Laurent warm and pliant in his hands.

It was Laurent who pulled away first, leaving a last lingering kiss on Damen’s lips and blinking up at him with a tear-streaked face, shaking in his arms. “I-,” his voice broke, and he swallowed before continuing. “I can’t lose you, Damen. I will lose my mind if I lose you.”

Nosing at Laurent’s jaw, he placed a light kiss behind his ear. “You won’t lose me.”

In the days that followed, he felt as though everyone could read his betrayal on his skin. He tossed in his bed at night, wondering if this was what his father had meant when he’d said that Veretians were not to be trusted. Had he known how easy it would be to betray his own family for a Veretian?

But any thoughts of his father and brother could not hope to compete with having Laurent pliant and willing in his arms when they were alone. The omega’s behavior did not change much when they were in public, but once alone his swift hands would pull Damen down into a bruising kiss, and Damen would be lost at sea once more, Laurent’s name on his lips the only thing keeping him afloat.

With their new, small intimacies, stolen away in secret passages and in Egeria’s Garden, came also the knowledge of new bruises on Laurent’s body. They had not gone beyond kissing, but every time he managed to raise his hands to Laurent’s clothing to expose more flesh by unlacing him with stumbling, inexperienced fingers, he would inevitably discover more blemished, bruised skin.

The bruises were many, and in varying stages of healing. Every time his eyes landed on them, Laurent would insistently pull his mind away with soft kisses and feather light touches, his mouth becoming the center of Damen’s universe.

Damen was sure that no one knew about their illicit relationship, but every time he saw Kastor scowl in Damen and Laurent’s direction or his father frown in disappointment, he couldn’t help but feel as though his actions were written on his skin.

The only one who genuinely seemed to have caught on was Lady Jokaste, her stare pointed and her smile open and knowing. Admittedly, Damen was not sure if Lady Jokaste had figured it out on her own or if Laurent had told her. After almost two seasons in Ios, Damen and Lady Jokaste were still the only two friends Laurent seemed to have made.

It was also Lady Jokaste who finally opened Damen’s eyes about what had actually been going on with Laurent. She pulled him aside one day, her smile coquettish and honeyed as she pretended to whisper sweet nothings to him under the watchful eyes of the court.

She told him that Laurent would wait for him in his own private baths at sunset.

Excitement and dread pooled low in his stomach when he made his way to Laurent’s baths, as they often did when he thought of the omega that resided in his mind at every waking moment as well as in his dreams.

It was only when he opened the heavy wooden doors that he realized that Laurent had not, in fact, been waiting for him. The omega was alone in the pool, hot steam curling from the water to the high ceiling, his hair pinned up hastily and curling slightly at the ends from the heat. Some stray wet locks stuck to his cheeks and long neck.

Laurent turned around in shock from where he was floating, his forearms resting crossed on the edge of the pool and his chin on top of them, his back exposed to the air and to Damen’s view where he stood frozen by the door.

With a choked sound, Laurent submerged himself almost completely under the surface, his head the only remaining visible part of him. His eyes darted around the room in a panic as he pushed as far away from the door (and Damen) as possible.

“Damen,” he started, shocked. “What are you doing here? These are my private baths.” His shock was quickly turning to anger. “You think because I let you kiss me and touch me it gives you the right to march in uninvited in the one place in this whole country that is mine alone? Where no one can enter without my permission? How dare you-,”

But Damen could not process Laurent’s anger when his horrified mind was too busy thinking of the expanse of Laurent’s skin before he had submerged himself to hide from Damen’s view.

He raised one hand to halt the omega’s rambling, his mouth falling open in outrage. He could still see every single bruise on Laurent’s exposed back and arms, the finger shaped hold, the open palm, the one that looked unmistakably like a kick close to his spine.

“Who,” he asked in a dead voice. “ Who did this to you.”

The roaring in his ears was deafening, but he did not dare breath too loud for fear of spooking Laurent, who had retreated to the farthest corner of the pool and was hugging himself, his watchful gaze not leaving Damen’s bulky form still standing by the open door.

Cautiously, Damen closed the door behind him and walked to the edge of the pool, sitting cross legged and waiting for Laurent’s next move. Every instinct in his body was screaming at him to wave through water to reach him, but Laurent’s wide blue eyes kept him rooted on the spot. Any touch would not be appreciated at the moment, he knew.

When he realized that Damen would not be moving from his spot, neither to come closer nor to leave, Laurent exhaled slowly, his arms finally falling away from his own shoulders in the makeshift hug he had gathered himself into in the corner of the pool. Still watchful, he walked to the edge treading water on his way until he pulled himself out.

Damen had a clear view of his naked body for the first time, but whatever enjoyment he might have imagined gaining from it if Laurent ever allowed him this, was suffocated by the battlefield that the omega’s pale, lithe form had become. The bruises followed a pattern of violence down Laurent’s back and around his hips, on his long thighs.

Swiftly, Laurent found his robe and covered himself, his back still turned to Damen and his shoulders tense. Once his skin was hidden from view once more, he didn’t seem to know what to do with himself, standing in the middle of the baths and staring ahead.

“Laurent,” Damen tried to prompt gently, his anger still vivid between them.

“Damen,” the other sighed unhappily, finally turning around. “There is nothing you can do.” His voice sounded sad, but his face was tilted to the side in a kind expression.

“I am the Crown Prince. It is treason to lay a hand on a member of the royal family.”

Laurent looked at him almost pityingly. “Not for another member of the royal family.”

And suddenly, a million little moments connected themselves in Damen’s mind to paint a horrifying picture. He had grown up admiring Kastor and wanting to be him. Slowly, as his brother pulled away from him, he had learned to become his own man. Never in his life had he considered that his brother was not the kind of alpha Damen should ever aspire to be.

“How long has this been going on?” His throat was dry, the words choked out as though from a dark cave, betrayal and rage twisting inside of him and willing him to push up and go. To leave these baths and break Kastor’s face open until he felt a fraction of the pain Laurent must have been feeling all these months, because Damen knew exactly how long this had been going on.

“Since the beginning.”

Damen could not help the wounded sound that escaped his mouth then. “Laurent,” he said in regret. “I will burn the ground he stands on.” It was a promise as much as it was a prayer.

“You will do no such thing.” Sharp and dangerous.

“Laurent.” Damen looked at him. The sleeves of his robe fell down to his last knuckles as he padded softly with bare feet until he loomed over Damen’s still sitting form.

“No, Damen.” He crouched down, his bruised knees on the floor. He ignored Damen’s noise of protest, taking his face in his fine boned hands and pressing a chaste kiss on his lips. Their foreheads pressed together. “I’m a foreign prince. You fighting your brother for how he treats his own omega would cause a political disaster.”

He was right. Damen knew he was right. He did not have to like it, though. Desperately, he trailed burning kisses to the edge of Laurent’s mouth, chasing his anguish down the pale column of his exposed throat all the way to his pulse point, beating furiously.

“What can I do. Tell me what I can do to help you, I cannot see you hurt, it wretches me.”

The hitching of Laurent’s breath could have been a repressed sob or a repressed moan, the omega’s face hiding in the crook of Damen’s neck. When he talked, his voice was as composed as ever. “Just keep making love to me the way you always do. I can’t lose you.”

It was an echo of the words they had shared so long ago, in his mother’s garden, Laurent newly sweet in his hands like a discovery as their lips met for the first time. Damen found Laurent’s mouth with his own once more, and set about the business of loving him tenderly.

He could feel his own behavior change around Kastor in the days that followed. Laurent’s watchful gaze on him was annoyed every time he was curt with his own brother, and Lady Jokaste had taken to staring at him with curious, intelligent eyes.

His father’s disapproval weighted on his shoulders like a blanket, but he could not bring himself to answer it. He knew that if he opened that can of worms, he would never be able to close it again.

He tried to avoid bumping into his family when he could, his thoughts thunderclouds every time he saw Kastor’s arm wrapped around Laurent’s waist. What he had once, naively, thought sweetly romantic behavior on his brother’s side, he now recognized as overbearing possessiveness.

His unhappiness with the ordeal shined through sometimes, his words more cutting and his face unable to conceal his unhappiness every time he subtly tried to raise the issue in front of his father. Talking to Kastor had not borne any fruits.

“What are you implying, brother,” Kastor had once asked, dangerously, when Damen had offhandedly mentioned how in full blown summer, Laurent was still covered from neck to wrists to toes.

Damen kept reminding himself that Laurent had been right, they could not afford to risk a political scandal that might take down both royal families of Vere and Akielos. That knowledge did not help any when Kastor stood in front of him, arrogantly assured of his own power over his omega.

“Maybe you should focus more on finding your own consort instead of thinking about mine.”

It would be so easy to break Kastor’s neck in that moment. Laurent would be safe and nothing would hurt him again if Damen had any say in it. Stepping down had never felt more like losing as in that second.

His father’s words had not held Kastor’s contempt, but they had been likewise disinterested when Damen had brought up his concerns on how Kastor had been treating Laurent.

“Kastor can deal with his own omega however he sees fit. I will not be losing any sleep because a son of Vere is not being treated with gloves, and neither should you, Damianos.” Damen did not remember his father’s tone being this stern and unapproachable since he’d been but a child, hyperactive and troublesome. “We do not concern ourselves with Veretians. They are untrustworthy and dishonorable. Your little blond friend might have turned your head but you will realize soon enough what is most important.”

His only respite in those uncomfortable, infuriating days was Laurent’s smile when they were alone, his warm mouth and welcoming arms, his bright head bathed in sunlight as summer slowly reached its inevitable end. They had never pushed themselves past achingly tender kisses and desperate embraces, the illicit nature of their relationship a constant dark cloud in every interaction they shared.

Then one day Laurent rode in on his graceful horse after a leisurely morning stroll out of the city. His seat was as perfect as it had ever been when riding. His hair fell down in soft, loose waves on his shoulder, uncharacteristically down from his usually severe updos.

The golden locks looked resplendent where they rested above the intricate, golden chest piece of his dress, tightly laced in white and ivory filaments down to his elbows, his forearms bare and beautifully shaped all the way to his thin wrists. His golden skirt split when he dismounted, revealing the white breeches underneath.

With the sky high above their heads, blue and endless, Laurent’s beauty was heart stopping, a shining light that Damen was drawn to like a moth to the flame. His smile, beatific and all-knowing, was as radiant as the rest of his form when he turned to look at Damen. Desperately, Damen wanted him.

His eyes could not help but rest on Laurent during the day. He wanted him when he saw him eating, honeyed cheese dripping from his fingers as his pink tongue darted out to lick them. He wanted him when he saw him strolling the palace with his omegas in waiting and Lady Jokaste, both blonde heads lowered one next to the other in confabulation. He wanted him when he found him sitting on the edge of the fountain, his pretty skirts wrinkled as he fed the fish.

And he wanted him, hopelessness in every fingertipped touch he left on burning skin, as they held each other in Egeria’s Garden, surrounded by green bushes, the sea one drop away from their interlocked bodies. Secrets flickered between them, untold.

“Come to my rooms tonight.” A reverent whisper on pink lips. “After the moon rises. Kastor will be gone on patrol long before evening falls. Come to my rooms tonight, Damen.”

Damen could never refuse Laurent anything. Least of all when he had him yielding in his arms.

Unlike the time in the baths, Laurent was waiting for him. The omega’s guards had not spared Damen a second glance, moving out of the way instantly and opening the double doors for him. Laurent was waiting for him on the sofa, still in his golden dress. His yellow hair had been brushed out and it fell down his back, his gleaming shape in stark contrast to the lightly illuminated room.

“Hello, lover.” Laurent spoke Veretian, as he hadn’t since his first few months in Ios. Then, his accent had been heavy when he tried to speak Akielon, and his speech slow and careful.

Veretian words to accompany his Veretian antechamber, candles smelling of lilies and orange blossoms resting on flat surfaces, decorative cushions surrounding Laurent on the little couch.

Helpless, Damen was drawn forward, his knees shaking like an inexperienced youth when he finally found himself in front of Laurent, sinking to the floor and resting his head on a golden-covered lap. He felt Laurent's fingers slide through his curls, sure with the expertise of someone who had offered Damen endless gentle, soft touches in the past season alone.

The chuckles that Laurent pressed on the top of Damen’s bent head was exasperated, fond. The fingers trailed lower, finding the back of Damen’s neck and rubbing in slow, circular motions with his thumb.

Tentative, Damen let his own hand wrap around Laurent’s booted ankle, pressing his nose harder in the lace in front of him, inhaling. He wanted everything Laurent gave him. He wanted to bask in his scent and in the sweet tenderness of his love until he could finally feel whole once more.

“Anything you want.” Broken, glass on uncut skin. He would hurt himself a thousand times over if it meant Laurent’s happiness.

Laurent hummed, his other hand resting on Damen’s cheek and lifting his face. “What if I want you.”

“You have me.” A thousand times over. To Tartarus and back. In any way that mattered. Laurent had him.

They were kissing then, Damen raising up from his kneeling position, his mouth bright hot against Laurent’s and his hand wandering from his exposed throat to his hips, pushing him down against the countless cushions and claiming his lips.

He let one hand caress the top of Laurent’s thigh, sliding down to his knee and pushing it to the side, spreading Laurent’s legs enough to settle between them. With his whole weight bearing down on the omega, he heard his breath hitch, his body curving against Damen’s in a slow, sweet movement.

Trailing biting kisses down the pale throat in front of him, he let himself enjoy the inevitable response of Laurent’s body, his breathing fast and shallow, his fingers lingering on the expanse of Damen’s back before coming to rest on the lion pin holding together his clothes. With a quick tug, the pin was on the floor, soon followed by the white cotton of his chiton.

“I’ve wanted to do that since I saw you wrestling.” Breezy, full of laughter.

“Really. Did you want me back then as well?” A little pleased, playful.

“Of course I did,” Laurent gasped when Damen’s teeth scraped his collarbone before gently nibbling his pulse point, trailing back to pepper short, close-mouthed kisses on the blond’s face and lips, basking in his unrestrained laughter. “I have thought of your body on top of mine since we first kissed, in your mother’s garden.”

Laurent’s mouth found his again, insistent and scalding hot, unavoidable.

Suddenly, Damen needed to see the expanse of his skin bared, Laurent’s body open and willing. He started with the laces closing the bust of his jacket, pulling them free one by one, slowly and without expertise, until the expanse of Laurent’s chest was his for the viewing. His pink nipples were roused and surrounded by the flush that started from the tips of Laurent’s cheeks and spread all the way down to his chest.

He trailed his soft kisses down the white skin exposed to him, giving special, tender attention to the still healing bruises, his anger soothed by Laurent’s deft fingers on his shoulders, Laurent's helpless movements underneath his hands when he rolled a pert nipple between his lips.

The skirt was easier to unlace than the jacket had been, falling open deftly under his hands, soon followed by the breeches in a disorderly pile on the floor. Finally, Laurent was gloriously nude beneath him, his shallow breathing and blown pupils an arrow straight to Damen’s heart.

“I want you.” Desperate, soft.

“You can have me.” A promise and a curse all in one.

Damen could have Laurent, because Laurent allowed him to. He left one more lingering kiss on Laurent’s neck, right above where the collar covered his mating bond. Laurent’s jackets were usually tall necked enough that they covered the collar. Exposed as Laurent was of every artifice, his collar was exposed as well.

Brushing it gently, Damen kissed the collar itself, right where the bond would be. “You did not let Kastor mate you.”

The first signs of rigidity of the night passed through Laurent’s body before he carefully, methodically, forced himself to relax. “It’s my choice who gets close to my mating bond.”

“It is your choice.” Damen agreed quietly, pushing a stray lock of blond hair from Laurent’s forehead, his piercing eyes wide and blue.

“I would have let you.” A breathy confession, vulnerable in the trembling air between them. “Had it been you. I would have let you mate me.”

Damen’s expression must have crumbled, something open and twisted shining through the pain in his chest, because Laurent’s gentle hands cradled his face in worship. “You can have me.”

And Damen did. In one fluid motion he stood up with Laurent in his arms, the omega’s arms and legs holding on for dear life and the blond laughing breathlessly as he was carried from the antechamber all the way to the room where his bed stood imposing in the middle of it, in the Akielon fashion.

Damen lowered him gently on top of the covers. His hands, his mouth, his eyes. Every inch of his body was singing with the need to be closer, skin to skin, until he could not distinguish himself from Laurent anymore, their bodies moving in perfect alignment like one.

He found Laurent hot and wanting, the heat between his legs sweet and welcoming as he explored him with his fingers first, his long thighs spreading in invitation and holding Damen captive between them. They were kissing, bruising, heady kisses that left them both breathless as Damen aligned himself with Laurent’s opening.

The first, easy slide was like coming home, Laurent’s quiet, soft sounds as familiar as his own mind. Their mouths were clashing again, open and breathing heavily, the slow thrust of Damen’s hips between Laurent’s open legs too much to contemplate with simple words.

Damen’s eyes did not move from Laurent’s as he pushed him down into the covers, claiming him and loving every part of his body, their movements growing desperate with the need for release. The small, throaty moans that escaped Laurent’s lips were something he would remember forever.

He slowed his caresses when he felt Laurent drawing closer, his body strung tight and his head thrown back, mouth falling open in a silky “Oh” as he came, his walls squeezing around Damen and his back arching off the bed in a sinuous arch.

Damen chased his own release into Laurent’s pliant arms, spilling inside of him with a choked off sound under Laurent’s sweet encouragements and his deft fingers curling around Damen’s hair.

In the aftermath, as they held each other and breathed, Laurent’s scent intoxicating and his body languid and pliable, Damen realized he could not tell him that he would burn his own kingdom down for him. He held him a little closer instead.

In the weeks that followed, they learned each other’s bodies anew. It seemed that once Laurent had had a taste of what it felt like to be loved, he could not have enough of it. Damen, who could not remember a time when he had not wanted Laurent since they had become friends all those months ago, had frankly no complaints about the matter.

He felt love drunk and exhilarated, his hands going to the omega’s hips or waist or neck every time they were alone. He wanted to take him in every corner of his palace, lay claim to him as utterly as he could lay claim to Akielos.

They made love on the beach, the experience hilarious and uncomfortable as sand stuck to places it was not meant to stick. Damen pressed Laurent up against the wall of his own chambers, his arms the only thing holding him up as he offered him his bared soul. He pushed him down on the hay in the stables one day, the smell of horses and Laurent’s breathless panting surrounding him.

And he had him where it all started, in Egeria’s Garden, Laurent’s full gown, a deep Akielon red, spread out around the both of them when he settled himself in Damen lap, Damen buried to the hilt inside of him. The rolling sea and Laurent’s favorite orange tree were their only witnesses.

Their relationship bloomed in secret, stolen moments buried deep down only to be pulled out when they were alone, their touches and their love a sign of devotion they saved only for each other. One touch, one look from Laurent and Damen would have given up everything just to see the omega offer a true smile, unadorned and free.

As summer turned into autumn, stifling heat slowly gave way to colder days. He had never been happier. He had never felt more lost.

As the trees started shedding their leaves and the night got longer, the eyes of the court turned, once more insistent, to Laurent’s empty womb. The whispers started following him around the halls, cruel and intrusive.

“He brought a curse upon us.”

“Why has he not conceived yet.”

“He weakened the semen of our royal family.”

“Vere has sent us a barren Prince.”

Fuming inside, Damen could do nothing but watch helplessly as Laurent walked through the fire on his own. He stayed by his side as much as he could, and he felt stupidly grateful to Lady Jokaste when she took his place by Laurent’s side and led him through the whispers and the glares, head held high.

“Keep walking, You Highness.” Side by side, blond heads drawn together in solidarity.

Had his own mother’s continuous miscarriages been accompanied by the brutal words of their people? The people they were meant to serve as Kings and Queens? As Princes?

“Words don’t hurt Damen,” said Laurent one night, the two of them half dressed in Damen’s chambers after a hurried round of lovemaking that had had him pulling down Laurent’s breeches, leaving his skirt in place before pulling him into his own unclothed lap.

“They can’t do anything to me with only words. They wish they could.”

Laurent’s prediction, though, did not turn out to be entirely accurate.

It came to a head as the season finally started dwindling down to its unavoidable end, Ios too far south for snow to fall but the wind from the sea bringing in the unmistakable chill of winter. The talk of the court had finally reached his father’s ear.

They sat in council, surrounded by nobles and generals, and the King listened to the grievances that his people had to bring to his attention.

“Exalted,” one of the minor nobles from Isthima finally started, voicing what everyone had been thinking. “There is another matter we feel should be brought to your attention.”

“Speak plainly, Proteus,” his father’s voice reverberated through the room, Damen standing tall beside the throne, dread pooling in his stomach. He had a feeling he knew what troubled Proteus. From Kastor’s dark, suspicious eyes when they landed on Laurent, his brother also knew what was coming.

“Exalted, It has been three seasons,” he started tentatively, encouraged by the murmur rising in the room.

Damen could see Laurent’s shoulders hunch up in defense, his eyes narrowing and his pretty mouth in a thin line. “Three seasons since what.” The omega’s voice was cold and to the point, feigning calmness.

“Exalted,” repeated for the third time the noble. “The people. They are concerned.”

“Concerned about what.” Laurent’s voice had become more cutting, dangerously sharp.

With one word, Theomedes stopped Laurent in his tracks, ignoring the blond’s furious expression and turning back to the beta in front of him, prompting him for an explanation.

“The Prince of Vere has not conceived yet. We simply want to make sure that the royal line continues.”

Laurent’s scoff was loud in Damen’s resounding ears, his anger coloring his cheeks in faint pink. “Concerned for the royal line, I see. I have been here for less than a year and I am already being treated like used goods, ready to be discarded for the next best option. ‘Prince of Vere’, as though I am not part of the Akielon royal family now, bought and paid for as well. No line need continue with me unless you want the line of a bastard sitting on your throne-”

Laurent’s acerbic tone was cut short by Kastor’s hand falling on his shoulder and squeezing tightly, the smile frozen on his face a promise of things to come.

Laurent paled and shut his mouth, but he did not retract his words under the judging gazes of the council, he simply held his head high.

Damen could not watch this anymore. “Proteus. You have no right to speak to Prince Laurent thusly. He is part of the royal family of Akielos and you will treat him as such.”

“Your Highness,” a different voice interrupted, a female alpha. Rhea, Kyros of Thrace. “I mean no disrespect, but we can all see the sway he has on you. A snake has infiltrated Akielos and I fear for our future.”

Damen’s blood was boiling, hot and deafening under his skin. “You dare imply We would let ourselves be swayed? We are Akielos.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” Proteus was quick to interrupt. “We would never imply anything but. We simply have Akielos’ best interests at heart.”

“And what would be in the best interests of Akielos, Proteus?” Acidic and to the point. Perhaps Damen had picked up more than he thought he had from Laurent.

“The fact of the matter is that Prince Laurent has not conceived. It has been almost a year.”

“Prince Laurent will conceive when he conceives. It took my mother years of trying before she finally had me.”

“You Highness,” Rhea interjected again, her eyes scanning Laurent’s beautiful face and his pretty, tightly laced body. “We knew your mother was capable of conceiving, however difficult it was for a female alpha. We know close to nothing about the Veretian Prince.”

“The Veretian Prince,” Laurent found his voice once more, rising from his seat despite Kastor’s tight grip on his shoulder. “The Veretian Prince will be treated with respect as his status commands, you don’t need to know-”

Again, he was interrupted by King Theomedes’ sharp order, silence falling in the hall as all eyes turned towards his father’s imposing form on the throne.

“However much I dislike agreeing with Veretians, he is right in that he will be treated with respect, as his status demands.”

“Father,” said Kastor, rising to his feet and sliding an arm behind Laurent’s back. Laurent stood stoically rigid by his side. “I’m sure we all wish to sooth our people’s worries. What can we do to make this right?” He might have even sounded sincere if Damen could not see from his position how tightly his fingers were digging in Laurent’s side, the tips white from exertion.

“Kastor,” he warned, taking a step closer with tight lips, the quick dart of Laurent’s eyes stopping him short.

“You heard what they said, brother. The people are concerned about my dearest omega not being able to conceive. What would reassure them, do you think?”

“We have physicians,” Proteus jumped in. “They could check. Make sure there is nothing physically wrong with His Highness.”

His father leaned back, clearly interested in the idea. Kastor’s cold gaze rested on Laurent, something dark flashing in his eyes. “Yes. Maybe my omega could see one of our physicians. Maybe they will be able to tell me why you are not with child yet. It is certainly not for a lack of trying.”

Under the scrutiny, Laurent held his head high and his jaw clenched. “I can have my physician examine me, if that is what-”

“No,” Kastor interrupted. “Maybe you should have one of our physicians check. After all, you are Akielon now, dear husband.”

Paler than Damen had ever seen him, Laurent waited obediently for Theomedes’ verdict, almost swaying when it was decided that an Akielon physician would check his health the following morning.

Damen saw him leave the hall in a daze, a flurry of dark blue skirts following in his wake. Concerned, he followed him out and all the way to his quarters.

Laurent sprinted inside as though chased, his breathing uneven and his trembling hands pulling at the laces holding his corset tied on his back.

Smoothly, Damen pushed the pale, shaking hands out of the way, unlacing the corset and leaving it to the side before turning Laurent in his arms and pulling him closer, one hand cradling the back of the omega’s head against his chest.

“Laurent,” he murmured, waiting for the tremors to subside. Shocked, he heard the first sob at the same time he felt Laurent’s hands come up once more to twist in the fabric of his white chiton, the omega working himself up into a panic.

“Damen. Oh Gods, Damen, what have I done? I am ruined.” His words were almost unintelligible, muffled as they were by Damen’s chest.

Shushing him, Damen pulled him gently to the sofa, letting him curl in his lap and wrapping his arms around him. He let him ramble on, confused and feeling like he was missing something, the full picture of what was happening escaping him.

He told the blond as much when his sobs slowed down, his wet face turned away and half covered by the hair that had escaped from the pin to fall in his eyes.

Letting his face drop on his hands, Laurent pulled away and stood up. “Damen, I did something terrible, and now my brother will pay for it.” The last word was broken by another sob.

Damen followed Laurent, stopping in his tracks when the other shook his head and started pacing back and forth, the back of one of his hands resting on his downturned mouth, his face red with crying and wet with tears.

“Sweetheart. Tell me how to help you. I don’t know what’s happening.”

Finally, Laurent shook his head and stopped in front of Damen, resting his hands on the alpha’s chest. “I did something terrible Damen. They were right to mistrust me, in the council meeting.” He stopped, a humorless laugh escaping him. “They were right.”

“Right about what? I don’t understand.”

“You wouldn’t understand. Of course you wouldn’t understand, you have no instinct for deception. Lady Jokaste would have figured it out by now.”

“Laurent.” It was a warning as much as it was a prayer.

“Oh, Damen. I was never going to bring Kastor’s child into the world. Not after the liberties he took with my body. I took steps to ensure that I wouldn’t.”

Steps? Damen was as confused as he had been at the beginning of this conversation, staring at the top of Laurent’s bright head where it still rested on his chest, his shoulders shaking underneath of Damen’s hands.

“I was so stupid,” the blond whispered, hiding his face away from sight. “So, so stupid. And tomorrow the physician will find out that I have been taking Moon Tea to ensure Kastor would not force a child on me. Because I could not do the one duty I was dragged here to complete, I will have dragged both of our countries back into war and caused my brother’s death.”

Laurent’s voice crumbled at the end, defeated, and fresh sobs wracked his body. Damen could do nothing else but hold him close, whispering words of comfort in his ear and caressing his back with heavy hands.

His mind was reeling with the new information. The part of him that was in pain every time he saw Laurent hurting was screaming at him to find a solution, to go out and fix this, because his omega needed him. This mess had been going on long enough. He had already accepted that he would give anything for Laurent’s smile.

Once the decision was made, he felt a weight lift off his shoulders, the load that had been gathering for months now as he tried to navigate the reality he had found himself in. The new world he had come to accept had Laurent in it, in any way, shape or form that Laurent would have him.

Damen had always been a man of action. Sitting in the background and letting their combined bad decisions happen had been a burden that he should have never accepted to carry. If he’d been a better man, he would have set Laurent free from Kastor after that night in the baths, Laurent’s skin a canvas of black and blues.

He waited patiently until Laurent had calmed down once more, rocking him tenderly long after his tears had dried, his lips pressed to the crown of the omega's head and whispering soft reassurances against his hair.

“It will be alright, sweetheart.”

“I don’t see how,” Laurent at last said roughly, exhausted and defeated. “The war will start again and this time your father will raze my country to the ground and kill my brother.”

“He won’t,” Damen promised, as sure as he’d ever been about anything in his life. “I will make sure of it.”

Trust me, he wanted to say but couldn’t. Laurent’s trust had been broken too many times. Damen would have to show him that he would be safe from now on. That no one would ever hurt him again.

With that in mind, he pulled him out of his quarters, his hand still wrapped around Laurent’s smaller, fine boned one. He pulled him along under the shocked, scandalized stares of the court, Laurent’s hissed unhappiness at their public proximity an afterthought as he made his way towards where the council, his father and his brother would reconvene for the afternoon meeting.

“What is one more scandal,” he told Laurent as he placed a kiss on his knuckles and continued on his way, the omega too shocked to keep complaining as he let himself be pulled along, cheeks red and still tear strained. Recomposing himself, he furiously wiped the tears away with the back of his free hand and kept walking with his chin held high.

When they finally reached the council room, Damen wasted no time with knocking. He stepped inside proudly, levelling a heavy look on all the heads that had suddenly turned his way, caught in the middle of the discussion.

His brother’s eyes fell on where Damen’s hand was still wrapped around Laurent’s. His face twisted in anger and he took a step forward, dismayed. “What is the meaning of this, brother? I thought we had already reached an understanding.”

Kastor’s advance was halted by his father’s booming voice in the council chamber. “Yes, Damianos. I am curious to find out what is going on as well. I thought we had settled this.”

“Father,” started Damen, ignoring Kastor and stepping closer to his father’s raised throne. “New information has come to my attention, and I have come to the realization that I cannot keep quiet anymore.”

“Damen,” Laurent hissed beside him.

Damen did not turn to him, squeezing his limp hand, Laurent’s fingers cold and motionless in between his.

His father’s curious gaze dropped to their conjoined hands before darting from Laurent’s face to Damen’s. “Is that so,” he hummed. It did not sound like a question.

“Father,” interjected Kastor, the curl of his mouth displeased. “You cannot be condoning this. We already settled the matter. My omega will be checked by a physician tomorrow.”

“It is a different matter that I wish to bring to the attention of the court today, Kastor.” He enjoyed the momentary look of confusion on his brother’s face almost as much as he enjoyed the stifled response of Laurent’s body besides his.

“I should have done this the moment the matter was brought to my attention, and I will not easily forgive myself for not doing it sooner. Kastor, son of Theomedes and brother of mine. I have known for some time now that you have not been treating your omega with the grace and courtesy he deserves.”

Laurent’s “Damen" was more urgent now, more desperate as he tried to tag Damen's arm to stop him. “Don’t, please.”

He wished he could find a way to silently reach out inside of Laurent’s mind, his own open for the picking. He wanted his thoughts and his feelings to be as open between them as the sea breeze in Egeria’s Garden, dancing between their heaving chests.

“If it pleases your omega, I would challenge you for his hand and for the honor to court him.” Finally, he turned to Laurent, gathering both of his trembling hands into his and placing a soft kiss on each of his palms. He hoped his eyes could convey everything that his mouth couldn’t.

Laurent was as beautiful as Damen had ever seen him, even with his red cheeks and moist eyes, his lips parted and quivering, unable to say the words he so dearly wanted exposed in the truth between them. “I-,” he stumbled, unable to continue. He swallowed, his limpid eyes on Damen’s.

Kastor’s snort of contempt caught his attention, though he did not release the hold he had on Laurent’s hands.

“My whore of a husband bats his pretty blond eyelashes at you one time and you are smitten, brother. This is nonsense.”

“Don’t call him a-,” Damen’s indignant words were cut off by the shake of Laurent’s head. In his distress, his complicatedly pinned hair had half fallen down and he had not fixed them yet, letting them frame the elegant lines of his face.

Tenderly, Damen pushed a blond lock behind the perfect shell of one ear. “Do not disrespect him in my presence, Kastor. You have not treated him well.”

“He’s Veretian,” Kastor barked. “And he’s my omega. I can do with him as I please.”

“That is enough,” his father’s voice had not become any less intimidating in his old age. “A formal challenge has been issued. Prince Laurent, do you accept this challenge?” He did not sound happy, his heavy gaze resting on the three of them displeased. He did not have a choice. Damen had issued a challenge, and Laurent had to choose if he would allow Damen to fight his alpha for his hand.

Damen’s attention was caught by Laurent once more like a moth to the flame. “Let me,” he begged. “Let me love you the way you deserve.”

Laurent’s hesitancy was palpable, his walls wavering as he strained visibly between what he wanted and what he thought he should say. Finally, he closed his eyes and exhaled, surrendering.

“Alright,” he said with a nod, a hysterical laugh tugged from the pits of his desperation. “Alright, fight for me.”

And so Damen stepped forward, surrounded by the nobles of Akielos and under the watchful eyes of his father and of the Gods, and challenged his brother to combat.

It happened in the courtyard, their men gathering like flies to watch, incense and candles burning low in honor of the sacred rite.

Damen knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that he would not lose.

And he didn’t. Kastor’s movements were forged in fury, his parries angry and his attacks violent. He had trained with Kastor since he was a child. He had admired him and striven to grow up like him. He had learned at his brother’s side how to fight.

Now, with the knowledge that Laurent’s happiness was the gift at the end of the road that led to victory, he did not let the history between them fool him. He blocked and fought with everything he had, his strokes powerful and precise, his technique as flawless as it had ever been.

It was over faster than he could have predicted, Kastor’s best years as a swordsman at the tail end of their prime and Damen’s strength in battle unparalleled in his twenty-four summers of life.

Afterwards, as Kastor was helped up and someone wrapped a cloth around the bleeding wound on his forearm, Damen realized that his relationship with his brother would never recover from this.

His father’s unhappy frown was disheartening as well when he was summoned to his chambers afterwards. Somewhere along the way, during this past year, their thoughts had diverged on crucial matters.

Damen had been raised in his father’s image, his mother’s ghost as distant as ever for a child who had grown up surrounded by alphas.

He had tried to make his father proud. He realized that he might have failed.

“Damianos.” His father sounded tired, leaning on the table with both his hands. “I warned you. I warned you to be careful with the Veretian Prince. I told you they are untrustworthy and wily. And now his pretty hair and fair skin has turned you against your own brother.”

“Father,” Damen started, and then stopped, too much emotion stuck at the end of his throat.

“The affair was public. We cannot take it back. You will have to live with the choice you have made.” A huff. “Turns out the sons of Vere will rule two countries after all.”

Damen remembered the few, precious times that Laurent had mentioned King Auguste, his tenderness and love transparent on his beautiful face. He was not sure having the sons of Vere sitting on two thrones would be the tragedy his father predicted.

“I love him,” he said simply past the lump he could still feel blocking his words.

“I know you do, Damianos,” his father sighed, his shoulders suddenly dropping. “You have always loved too dearly. Mark my words, your love will blind you to the truth one day.”

“He loves me too,” he insisted, because he could not leave his father’s presence without trying to make him understand.

The softness in his father’s eyes disappeared. “That will remain to be seen.”

“He does. Kastor was not treating him right. Even so, he would have never wanted to see me fight my brother. He tried to keep me from doing it.”

“Whatever the Prince of Vere is thinking, Damianos, is for the Prince of Vere to know, and for the Prince of Vere only.”

“He’s a Prince of Akielos now. He has been for months. He deserved better than the treatment we reserved for him.”

His father grumbled something under his breath. Damen knew this would not be the last time they talked about this.

After he was dismissed, he went in search of Laurent. He found him in the stables, brushing his mare’s mane and lost in thought.

He jumped when he felt Damen’s strong arms wrap around him from behind, before turning around and wrapping his own around Damen’s neck, accepting the kiss the alpha gave him with easy surrender.

Damen laughed giddily against Laurent’s open mouth, drunk on the ability to do this openly, in front of everyone.

“This is strange,” agreed the omega in delight.

“I should have done this months ago.” Another kiss, hot and insistent.

“We risked so much,” murmured Laurent in between kisses, breathily.

“Marry me.” His hands were everywhere, sliding across Laurent’s back and all the way down to Laurent’s curves and thighs.

“I thought that was already part of the deal.” Another laugh, carefree, victorious.

“You should invite your brother.” He felt Laurent freeze in his arms, drawing back to stare into his wide, amazed blue eyes.

“Perhaps it is time for our two countries to rekindle relationships.” Perhaps he would not be exactly the kind of king his father had been, but he would rule the best way he knew how to. With Laurent by his side.

And it was all worth it when Laurent dragged him all the way to his new rooms, comfortably closer to Damen's, kicking the heavy doors closed before pushing Damen down on his bed and climbing on top of him. Doing this in the light of day was heady, something they were not used to.

Soon enough, they were both bared. Damen rolled Laurent on his back, his full weight resting on him and holding him down against the mattress the way he knew Laurent liked.

He drunk in the way the other was panting and writhing beneath him, his body surrendering and opening up for the first slow slide of Damen’s member inside of him, Laurent’s walls hot and tight all around, Laurent’s mouth insistent on Damen’s.

He made love to him slowly, pushing in with steady, unhurried strokes, Laurent’s moans and grunts filling the room alongside Damen’s own panting breaths.

“Everything I have, Laurent. Everything I have is yours. I have wanted you for so long.”

Laurent came with a small cry, his head thrown back, his throat exposed but for his collar.

Damen chased his own release into the omega’s body, at home.

Things did not immediately become easier. The court was not happy about how things had gone down, though they did not dare say anything. A formal challenge was protected by the Gods. Opposing it was treason.

Still, he couldn't help but overhear the court’s displeasure, their gossip acidic and insistent, their unhappiness veered mostly towards Laurent.

He had made his position very clear, and he had let his people know that no unkind words would be accepted about his betrothed. He had even punished the people he had caught bad mouthing the omega. He knew that if the words had reached him, they had reached Laurent ten times over.

He brought it up one day, upset. He was laying in his own bed, Laurent warm and pliable in his arms, as he always was after lovemaking.

“Let them talk,” Laurent advised. “I have never been happier in Ios than I am now.”

And he was, it dawned on Damen suddenly. He had seen Laurent happy before, and he had seen him enjoying his day or his company. But he had never before seen the openness of his smile when he greeted him publicly, or the headiness of his bright head resting on Damen’s shoulder at dinner.

Still, the days leading up to the royal wedding had not been easy, the heavy judgement and the unflattering words of people who thought they knew everything about their relationship weighing on Damen’s mind.

He didn’t know how to convince people, his father included, that Laurent loved him dearly. Not when they thought they had witnessed him jump from one brother to the other to gain a throne.

Despite this, Damen decided he could be content and settle for his court showing Laurent a fraction of respect for a start. Or at least avoid all the unflattering, sometimes downright insulting words they reserved for him.

When the wedding came in early winter, it arrived with the Veretian contingent, golden King Auguste at their head.

He was present to see the two brother’s reunite, a flurry of words and sorrow as they hugged. Damen wondered if, in another word, him and Kastor could have shared a similar bond, or if it had always been fated for the two of them to be at odds with each other.

He did not see King Auguste much in the days that followed, the sons of Vere sequestered away in their own little corner of the world to catch up. He knew Laurent had shown his brother all of his favorite places in Akielos, from the beach to Egeria’s Garden to the small market in the lower town.

He also knew that his father and King Auguste had had their own private conversation about future relationships between Vere and Akielos, a legacy that would soon be passed down to Damen.

He might have resented not being present during the talk if it weren’t for how full his hands were with Laurent and his excitement. It seemed the omega had a hand in everything that was going on in the palace lately, the servants working themselves into a panic to please their new, beautiful Exousia.

He hadn’t expected King Auguste to find him, but perhaps he should have. They had their conversation in the same place where everything with Laurent had started, his mother’s garden. Most of the trees had lost their leaves under the chill of winter in Akielos, the ground wet and the sound of the roaring sea deafening.

It was open and welcoming, the baring of two kindred souls who had too much in common, thoughts of Laurent’s happiness shared in the space between them.

He learned that Auguste was thinking of marrying now that the issues with Akielos were starting to settle down. Now that he didn’t have to worry as much about Laurent’s fate, he didn’t say but he surely thought.

“Thank you,” the blond alpha said in the end, meaning much more than their simple conversation.

“I have to be the one who thanks you,” admitted Damen ruefully. “He changed my life. Thank you for being so important to him. His happiness is all I want.”

They walked back to the palace side by side, a promise of things to come.

Laurent found them afterwards, stressed but elated by all his plans coming along into a perfectly painted picture for the wedding. Damen could not mind completing his assigned tasks of the day when Laurent pressed a quick kiss to his lips.

And so the preparations continued, until the ceremony finally came.

Damen watched Laurent walk in amazed. The omega was dressed in Akielon red, his gowns heavy but simply decorated, the color as bright as blood on Laurent’s fine skin. His hair was down in yellow ringlets. He looked like a god among mortals.

Damen had eyes only for him throughout the whole ceremony, their hands clasped together and their gazes interlocked. He yearned for the moment they would be announced to be one under the eyes of the Gods.

As the moment drew closer, anticipation pooled in his stomach, hot and heavy, his smile of adoration surely blinding where it drunk in Laurent’s features like a starving man.

But when the moment came, the High Priest did not offer them a knife to join the blood on their palms, and he did not proceed to tie their forearms together. Instead, he turned to Laurent and bowed his head.

Laurent’s deft fingers went to the clasp closing the collar around his neck, under the astonishment of the whole party. Damen’s own mind had stopped working, his breath caught deep in his chest, somewhere close to his heart where it hurt to exist.

Laurent was really doing this. For an omega to let an alpha mate them, they had to show a great deal of trust. For him to do this publicly, in front of a whole assembly of gathered nobles and dignitaries, it was terrifying.

When Laurent’s throat was entirely bared, Damen’s eyes went to his mating gland immediately, his breathing shallow and heavy as he reverently caressed the omega’s cheek with the pad of his thumb.

“I did say I would have let you, if it had been you,” Laurent whispered secretly, only for the two of them to hear.

Damen was unable to imagine how much strength Laurent had mustered to allow this, the baring of his vulnerable soul for everyone to see. He cupped the other’s face between his open palms, aware of the gift he was being given, freely and without artifice.

The Hall was still shocked in silence when Damen lowered his mouth to Laurent’s neck, his lips brushing against the gland in a soft kiss. Laurent’s breath hitched, his hands interwoven between Damen’s locks, as they often were when they were intimate.

Slowly, Damen sunk his teeth in, claiming Laurent as utterly and completely as Damen had been claimed.

Just like that, they were one under the eyes of the Gods and his watchful court.

Things did not improve immediately, the distrust towards Veretians too deeply ingrained in Akielon traditions and culture. But slowly, one day at a time after the mating ceremony, the court’s treatment of his omega started to change.

The insults dwindled down. The stares became more circumspect and less outright hostile. Even his father’s admonishments had slowly stopped.

For an omega, letting an alpha bite them publicly implied a deep rooted level of trust that was not commonly found in political matches anymore. Perhaps, the voices shifted their focus. Perhaps it was love.

Damen could have very easily told them it was love from the beginning, if someone had bothered to ask. As it was, Akielos was finally getting used to their new, Veretian Exousia.

The only thing on Damen’s mind now was that he could wake up with Laurent nuzzling in his arms every morning, his throat bare and claimed. He could fall asleep every night holding Laurent closer until their bodies, like their souls, became one.

And in full blown spring, when Laurent’s belly started growing with new life, the court finally stopped talking, the prospect of a new royal blanketing Ios in unadorned happiness.

The new gossip in Ios was about whether it would be a boy or a girl, and Alpha or an Omega. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on the matter. Even Laurent.

“I hope they share your kindness and your spirit.”

Damen, who only cared if his mate and his child were healthy and happy, couldn’t help but tease. “I hope they have your beautiful hair.”

He drew Laurent closer to his side, then. Placing a kiss on the crown of said hair, he drifted. His hands cradled the warm expanse of Laurent’s belly, Laurent’s back pressed against Damen’s chest where they were laying on a blanket in Egeria’s Garden. Damen’s own back rested against their favored orange tree.

In the quiet, the baby kicked, a small flutter, against the palm of Damen’s hand.