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Beyond The End of the Stars

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Laurent was sprawled across the throne with all the insult and contempt that he was capable of, which, of course, was considerable. One of his legs was draped over the arm of it, his boot tapping insolently against the side. He smiled as he looked at Damen. The smile was not pleasant.

Damen knew that there should be some semblance of normal reactions in his head, that he should be angry, or insulted, or nervous. He should be worried that Laurent and Nikandros were in the same room; that one or both of them might be in danger from the other. He should be wondering how Laurent had bargained or slithered or tricked his way into an enemy camp, right into the king's own command tent.

And yet, with grudging fondness, Damen's only coherent thought was, Of course Laurent would find a way to sit on my own throne before I even knew it was here.

He didn't let himself examine the bright flood of joy that had pooled in his chest at the sight of Laurent. He forced himself to remember that their last interaction had been far from ideal, and reminded himself that there was no chance that the next few minutes weren't going to be extremely uncomfortable, at best.

Laurent spoke into the hard silence. "You know, I'd heard of Akielon hospitality, but I must say, I'm disappointed. I've been here for at least half an hour and no one has even offered me a drink."

Damen chanced a glance at Nikandros. He had to, absurdly, force himself not to laugh; Nikandros was apparently so angry he couldn't speak, his jaw clenched, his face red. He looked like he had been punched. Which, to be fair, he might as well have been. Laurent had that effect on people.

He closed his eyes briefly, preparing himself for the disaster that was about to occur, and which he had no power to stop. Looking back to Laurent, whose eyes had never left him, Damen spoke. "Nikandros, it would seem that I have no choice but to introduce you. This is Laurent, the Prince of Vere."

Damen looked over to Nikandros, whose expression was changing as he watched. He saw him glance at Damen's slave cuffs, then back at Laurent, who was smirking faintly back at him, challenge glittering in his eyes. Damen could almost hear Nikandros piecing things together, guessing the truth. He took in the golden hair, the fair skin, the blue eyes. Then Nikandros turned to look at Damen, his face warring between exasperation and disgust.

"You didn't. Tell me you didn't."

"I--"

Laurent interrupted before Damen could even begin to form his explanation.

"Oh, did he not tell you, Nikandros? And here I thought you two were close friends. Didn't you wonder who Kastor sent Damianos to? You surely didn't think he would be sent to some lowly aristocrat." His eyes turned back to Damen, holding his gaze. "No. Nothing but royalty for the rightful King of Akielos, Damianos Prince-Killer. Why not send him to the brother of the prince who died to give him that name? It has a certain...circularity to it, don't you think?"

All trace of amusement at Laurent's audacity was struck down with those bitter words. Damen wanted to walk up to Laurent, to get it all out in the open. He wanted to push until Laurent opened up to him, to find out whether there was any hope of forgiveness. He wanted to break through the sarcasm and the insults to what must lie underneath. But he couldn't. Not with Nikandros here.

Laurent pulled his leg off the arm of the throne and leaned forward, his head tilted in mock thoughtfulness.

"Shall I tell you what your prince is like in bed, Nikandros? He is not nearly so composed, I can assure you." He paused. "Would you like to know what it takes to make him beg?"

Damen caught Nikandros roughly around the arm as he started angrily towards Laurent, holding him back. He kept his eyes trained on Laurent.

"That's enough, Laurent," he said quietly but firmly. Under the surface, his heart was beating bruises into his ribs. "This is between you and me. Leave Nikandros out of it."

"Oh, that reminds me," Laurent said, turning his attention to Nikandros. "I hope that you don't mind that I rescheduled our meeting. Under the circumstances, this just worked better for me. I do apologize for the inconvenience."

Damen's grip on Nikandros loosened as he tried to process what Laurent was saying. No, he must have misheard. There was no reality in which Nikandros, Kyros of Delpha, and Laurent, Prince of Vere, were allies. Then Damen remembered back to the morning after he had found Laurent under the stars, to a messenger riding up to Laurent, to Laurent's brief nod before the messenger departed. He could feel the shock on his own face.

Laurent had been watching Damen's reaction to this news. "Oh, I do truly love being the only one in the room who knows the full picture," he said, smiling smugly from his perch.

"If you think that our alliance will stand after such insult--" Nikandros began, fury contorting his voice.

"I think you'll find that our alliance will stand." Laurent rose from the throne, graceful and dangerous. He descended down the dais, coming to stand mere feet in front of Damen, his cold regard holding them both where they were. "I think, Nikandros, that you'll find that your prince--your king--will ask you to stand by my side. Am I right, Damianos?"

Damen stood looking back at Laurent, and wanted to say no. He wanted to tell Laurent that he had his own battle to fight, his own throne to win. He wanted to care nothing for Laurent and his plight against his uncle, for Vere and the men who fought for it. He opened his mouth to tell Laurent that he could find other allies to throw precisely-aimed insults at.

What he said instead was, "Nikandros, I need to speak to Laurent." His voice had a new note of command in it, one that could not be disobeyed. "Alone."

*****

Nikandros had been loathe to leave Damen and Laurent alone. He had flat refused at first, his glance straying to the slave cuffs. His implication had been clear.

"Don't worry, his honor is safe with me," Laurent had drawled. "At least, what's left of it."

"Laurent." Damen had warned, putting his fingers to his temple, rubbing a spot that was beginning to throb. It was too early for this. "Nikandros, leave us. That's an order. I was in his company for months. I think I can manage one conversation."

Laurent smiled at Nikandros, looking positively menacing. Nikandros glared back before turning to Damen. "A snake who has laid inert in the grass may choose to strike whenever he likes. You would do well to remember that, even if he does have....certain features that seem to incapacitate you beyond all reason."

With one last poisonous look at Laurent, Nikandros strode from the tent, leaving Damen alone with Laurent.

Laurent looked at Damen, saying nothing. His expression was unreadable, any emotion perfectly locked down beneath the iron gates of his will. So many thoughts ran through Damen's head, so many things he wanted to say.

"I'm sorry I left."

Laurent laughed without humor. "Did you think I didn't expect it? From the first moment in Arles, you've been looking for your out. You were always going to leave. "

"I was going to come back." Damen's voice was soft. "I just needed some time to think, but...I was always going to come back."

Laurent's jaw twitched, the only movement in his face. "And why would you think I wanted you to come back?"

Damen searched Laurent's face. He stepped, carefully, one pace forward, closing the gap between them, and felt a trickle of satisfaction as he saw a flicker of emotion on Laurent's face before he closed it off again. Damen's eyes moved down from Laurent's eyes to his mouth.

"For the same reason I wanted to come back," Damen said, his voice low.

"You presume much, if you think that I would ever harbor feelings for my brother's killer," Laurent said coldly, but his eyes had strayed to Damen's mouth too.

"Do I? So all of the advice I gave you to help you beat your uncle, all of our hours together, the thin tendrils of trust we built...you'll stand there and tell me that it was all a lie?" Damen tried not to show how much he cared about the answer. "It was truth to me," he said after a moment.

"Truth," Laurent said with venom, and Damen saw that his face was even paler than normal, his body tense and rigid. "Tell me the truth, then, Damen. When I had you chained on your knees in front of my court, did you care for me then? Or was it after the whip? Or maybe you have been lying to yourself for so long that you don't know what truth is anymore."

Damen shook his head. "Stop it. That won't work on me. I know you, Laurent. You can try to hurt me all you want, but I'm not leaving."

Laurent was no longer hiding his emotions. His breathing was shallow, and Damen saw that one of his hands was clenched into a fist at his side. "You killed my brother. What do you think will happen, I will forget that and we'll fight side by side and then perhaps we can fuck later?" Laurent's face was all sharp angles, aimed to wound. "I was glad when I heard that your own brother had taken everything from you. I wanted to see your face when you realized that you had lost it all. Because that's what you did to me, when you killed him. You took everything from me."

Damen let that wash over him. He let it hurt, all the more because Laurent was hurting too. Then he reminded himself that this was what Laurent did; he threw out whatever would be the most painful to the person he was talking to, a distraction so he could avoid admitting anything that could be used as weakness.

"Do you think I was thinking of a thirteen year old boy when I went to meet your brother that day?" Damen said, pushing back. "It was war, and he was my enemy. It was that simple."

Laurent stared at him, looking like he had been struck. Then, abruptly, he turned from Damen and strode to the table, leaning on both hands, steadying himself. Without looking back, he said, "Simple. My brother's death was simple to you."

"Laurent, that's not--" Damen began.

"No." The word was a weapon, burying itself into Damen's chest. "Please, tell me how simple it was when you cut him down. How was it done? What simple maneuver did you use?" Laurent still had his back to Damen. "Was it simple when the sword slid into his body? When his breath started to come in sharp gasps?" Laurent flung himself around, facing Damen. Pain was etched in the ice of his gaze. Damen felt something shatter in him at the sight.

"Tell me, Damen. When you looked at him as the life fled his eyes, did you think to yourself, 'Well, at least it was simple'?"

Damen took a helpless step forward, searching for words, needing to bridge the distance that spread between them like a gaping wound. He needed Laurent to understand, he needed to find the words that would heal this. But he couldn't. There were no words that would fix this. He took another step forward, opening his mouth to say something, anything.

"Don't. Don't come near me. Don't tell me you care for me." Laurent's chest was heaving.

Damen looked at him. He held Laurent's gaze purposefully for a moment before saying, quietly, "I do care for you, Laurent. I can't change what happened in Marlas. I can't give Auguste back to you, no matter how much I wish I could. But I can change what happens next. Ask me to, and I give you my word that I will be by your side when you face your uncle."

Laurent looked back at him, and for once, his face was raw with emotion. Damen waited.

When they came, the words were shaky and forced. "Get out." Laurent turned back to brace himself on the table, his head bowed.

Damen didn't point out that it was his tent, and Laurent couldn't order him to leave--couldn't order him to do anything, anymore. He was no longer a slave. He didn't tell Laurent that the collar and cuffs were merely decoration now. It didn't matter.

The words had pierced every fiber of Damen's being. He had told Laurent that he wouldn't leave, but he had pushed too far. If he didn't go now, he might never be able to salvage whatever they had left. Damen swore to himself that he would do whatever it took to find his way back to Laurent.

He stood for a moment, fighting every urge that told him to go to Laurent, to turn him around, to cup his face in both hands and stay until the walls broke down. Then, forcing himself to move against the bitter pain that had flooded the very air of the tent, he turned and he left.