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Beyond The End of the Stars

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A long, low table was brought to the dais, along with plates and platters of food and goblets of wine. Below them, the men settled in to a night of feasting and drinking. The tension that had been present since the two camps had merged was still tangible, but like a sword whose blade has been dragged through the sand, the sharpness was gone. The light in the pavilion was warm and golden, casting everything into hazy comfort. Even Laurent's fine edges were softened by the glow.

Damen watched the crowd, finding faces that he recognized here and there. His eyes caught on the familiar figure of Nikandros, and, with a slight jolt, Damen recognized the man he was talking to as Jord. Nikandros' head was tilted slightly, something he had done since boyhood, a tell that he was genuinely interested in the conversation. There was a tiny furrow of concentration between Jord's eyebrows. Both men were smiling.

Damen experienced the rather disconcerting feeling of having lived two lives which were now colliding, becoming inextricably linked, whether he liked it or not.

"I should warn Jord that Nikandros comes with a bite," Laurent commented idly, and Damen looked over to find that Laurent had followed his gaze to the pair and was watching them with vague interest. "It would be a shame for a man as trusting as him to walk into that blindly. He might not walk away with all of his limbs."

Damen couldn't hold back a low bark of a laugh. "I wonder what that would be like," he said pointedly. "I certainly would have appreciated a warning to keep my hands to myself before you tricked me into the baths."

Laurent was still watching Jord and Nikandros. "Tricked? You had plenty of warnings. You were just too stubborn to heed them. And I didn't force your hands lower than they should have been." He looked over at Damen. "That, I think, was all you."

Damen felt a rush of heat as he thought back to that particular moment. He didn't deny Laurent's statement.

Leaning forward, Damen poured a goblet of water for Laurent, handing it over, before pouring wine for himself. Laurent looked at the water for a moment, before looking over at Damen and asking, "No wine?"

Damen raised his eyebrows. "You don't drink." Amending himself, he said, "Besides that first night. Since then, I've never seen you touch alcohol."

Laurent looked at him for a long time before saying, "I...Most people don't notice that." His expression was unreadable.

"I would say that I've spent rather more time with you than most people," Damen said wryly. "Would you like some wine?"

"No,, thank you. Water will do."

Curiosity pricked at Damen, but he held himself back. Tonight felt like it held the possibility of openness, and he didn't want to waste it. He had other questions that he wanted answered. Damen gathered a handful of grapes, carefully picking off the stems before popping them in his mouth, letting the sounds of the crowd drift between them as he gathered his thoughts. Though Damen was looking out over the crowd, he was constantly aware of Laurent's presence next to him.

After a few moments of silence, Damen turned his attention back to Laurent. "Can I ask you something?"

"I can't imagine you would be able to restrain yourself even if I said no," Laurent said, tearing a small corner off a piece of bread and raising it delicately to his lips. Damen found himself following the movement.

Laurent looked at him expectantly. "Anytime, Damen. Surely you didn't forget how to speak in the last thirty seconds."

Damen mentally shook himself, glaring briefly at Laurent before steeling himself. There had been many conversations where Damen had tried to discover more about who Laurent was, but it felt so much different now that he was doing it as himself. It felt more dangerous. It felt more exhilarating.

"Was the story you told me true? The one about the stars? About you and..." Damen hesitated. He didn't want Laurent to lock himself back up and retreat. They stood on fragile ground.

Laurent's jaw twitched. Damen prepared himself for the verbal assault that was sure to follow. But instead, when Laurent opened his mouth to speak, his voice was quiet and tentative. "Auguste. can say his name."

Damen's pulse beat furiously at his throat. He had a tight feeling in his chest, a dull throb of pain mixed with a sharp stab of joy, because this small allowance felt like a gift. No, more than that—from Laurent, it felt like the beginning of forgiveness.

He forced the emotion from his throat as much as he could, but there was still a slight tremor in his voice when he said, "The story of you and Auguste. Was it real?"

Laurent was watching him, his eyebrows drawn just slightly together. Damen resisted the urge to reach out and smooth the tiny furrow between them with his thumb.

"Yes. It was real." He swallowed, a small gesture, but on Laurent it said everything. "He was...I don't know that I ever would have gotten any sleep without that. I used to be terrified to go back to bed, knowing that the nightmares would take me again. But Auguste...he made those nights bearable. I would close my eyes and I would repeat the names of the constellations he had shown me that night, committing them to memory. It still took me hours, but eventually, the repetition would lull me into sleep."

Laurent took a slow drink from his goblet, gazing unseeingly out over the crowd.

“After he...when he was gone, it never quite seemed as effective. Now, I look back on those nightmares and they seem...not insignificant, but simpler. Demons and monsters—they're more terrifying when they become real. When my nightmares come now, true nightmares that I could never have imagined as a's easier to just stay awake.”

Damen remembered the long nights spent poring over maps, the times Laurent never returned to the tent. Ruefully, he realized that he had unconsciously assumed that Laurent didn't need sleep, that he was above it. How foolish of him. Hadn't he learned, better than anyone, that Laurent was just as human as the rest of them? Perhaps he was more ruthless, perhaps he had secrets—but the same blood flowed through his veins. The ice the men talked about was nothing but a shell.

He wanted so badly to ask what form Laurent's nightmares took, what brought him such terror that he would rather spend his days exhausted, but Damen knew he had to go slow. He sensed that even this tiny piece of truth had cost Laurent to tell him, that it was more than he had told anyone else. There was more that he wasn't saying, but now wasn't the time to push too deep.This Laurent was as lovely and skittish as a stag in the woods, and if Damen wasn't careful not to startle him, he would flee.

Laurent continued, not looking at Damen. "It's not the same as it was those nights with him, but when I need a distraction, when I can't think, I go look at the stars. They don't change. They're the same ones he showed me. They're absolute. If I don't look anywhere but the sky, I could be eleven again. He could be standing next to me." Laurent was silent a moment, then he turned back to Damen, a small, self-deprecating smile on his face. "Childish, I know. So, yes. The story was true."

Childish—Damen thought it was anything but. To hold on to something innocent and good, to not let the hardness of the world destroy it, that was an act of defiance, a choice that not everyone was strong enough to make. Piece by piece he was understanding what had made Laurent, and each new revelation felt precious to him. What Damen really wanted to do was reach out and run his fingers over Laurent's skin, to hold him, to kiss him. He had no defense against this newfound candor. Instead, he looked out over the crowd.

"In Ios, from the cliffs, the view is uninterrupted. You can stand there and listen to the sea beat on the rocks, and the sky almost shimmers with stars. They are so bright, so numerous, you feel like you could reach out and rake your hand through them like sand. It's like nothing else I've seen elsewhere, to stand there and glimpse such vast endlessness in two different forms, meeting before your eyes." He glanced over to Laurent. "You would like it there, I think."

Laurent was silent for a time. "Then maybe one day I will see it," he said finally. "It sounds...beautiful."

When he said it, he was looking at Damen, and Damen was looking back, unable to separate the blue of Laurent's eyes from the sound of the word "beautiful."