„They should have brought Doctor Devorak’s body back from the execution.”
Nadia’s words hit me like a brick. The execution already happened. My gaze darted towards Asra, and I noticed the flash of pain in his eyes. My own chest felt like it was wrapped in a rope that was tightening every second. I knew we were sharing the same thought.
Julian died… He died, and we were not there for him.
My first instinct was to run to the guest wing, where they brought his body, but I took another glance at Asra. I have never seen him like this. His breath was shallow, his eyes were blankly staring into the hallway, and I noticed him sway a little, like his knees were about to give in under him. I reached for his hand, intertwining our fingers together and I reached around his back with my other arm, pulling him into a tight embrace. His entire body was trembling.
„I’ve got you…”
I whispered softly into Asra’s ear as he buried his face in the crook of my neck. We stood like that for a moment, before I freed him from my arms and placed my hand over his heart. I leaned over, resting my forehead against his and he smiled softly at me, but he was still shaking.
„Close your eyes and breathe with me.”
I took a deep breath and watched Asra, as he obeyed. His lids lowered over his lavender eyes, and I felt his chest rise slowly. With every exhale the tension in his shoulders loosened a bit more.
„He will come back, Asra. He promised.”
I was worried too. Was Julian's mark powerful enough to bring him back from the dead? I saw the wound on his hand close right in front of my eyes, but healing was one thing. Escaping death was an entirely different matter. But I knew that right now, I had to be strong for Asra. While he seemed calm when Julian laid out his plan, seeing him so broken made me realize that it was just a disguise. He opened his eyes again and greeted me with a weak smile.
„You’re right, he would be so mad if he didn’t get the chance to tell tales of his resurrection to everyone with ears."
I chuckled under my breath. If Asra could make a little joke like that, then he was ready to go and see him. I placed a soft kiss on his temple and squeezed his hand gently.
„We should get going. Julian might wake up any minute.”
We were not there for him when he died, we should at least be with him when he wakes up.
Asra and I walked to the guest wing in silence. A thousand thoughts haunted my mind. I tried not to think about how many ways Julian's plan to see the Hanged Man could have gone wrong and decided to focus on the memory of his smile. That man was something else. I only met him a few times, yet he was easy to fall for. I could see how he and Asra were a thing once. Asra mumbled something almost inaudibly.
"I hope... No, best not to hope..."
I squeezed his hand once again, and he closed his eyes, taking one more deep breath, to calm himself. We moved past the three guards standing in front of the chamber, paying them no mind as we pushed the door open, bursting into the room.
As the door closed behind us, Asra froze. His gaze was fixed on Julian's body laid on the four-tiered bed. He was still. Quiet. Motionless. It was heartbreaking, seeing him like that. And to see Asra with so much hurt in his eyes was almost unbearable. I wrapped my arm around his shoulder and kissed him on the side of his neck, waking him up from his daze.
"I... I suppose all we can do now is wait..."
Asra muttered and walked towards the bed, to sit beside him. His hand hovered over Julian's chest like he was afraid that he would disappear if he touched him. Finally, he put his palm atop Julian's heart, catching a sharp gasp at the stillness underneath his fingers. I knelt beside the bed and took the sight in. I searched Julian's face for any sign of movement, but he was as still as a painting.
„Asra… You care about him, don’t you?
His face was kindled with a flush of pink as he tried to avert my gaze. I noticed his hand trembling again.
"I... I'm just worried. He sacrificed himself, not knowing if it will even work. If only we had more time... I could have made a personalized gateway to the Hanged Man's realm for him. He wouldn't have to risk everything..."
His words were carefully selected as if he was afraid to let me recognize his true emotions. But I knew him. He was all I knew for the past three years. I saw through his facade when he attempted to hide how he felt about me, and now, I understood the truth about what Julian meant for him.
„You may try to fool yourself, but you can’t fool me.”
I have to say, he had me fooled for a while. His cold demeanor towards Julian was so convincing that for a moment I was sure he hated him. That's why I kept my distance when he came to my life. If Asra thought he was bad news, who was I to question it? But now all the pieces made sense.
Asra remained silent, buried in his own thoughts, gently grazing Julian's chest like he was waiting for the moment his heart would start beating. If he was not going to speak, I might as well continue.
„Before the trial, when the three of us met in the dungeon, and you asked Julian if he wanted to join our hug... I thought you were doing this just to tease him. But that was not entirely true, was it?"
I must admit, seeing Julian flustered like that, when Asra offered for him to join us, was quite entertaining. But it also felt right to give him this kind of affection. To hold him. Like he fitted with us. And somehow I knew that Asra was enjoying it as much as I did.
„I… I was so harsh for him. When we were together… To be honest, I thought being with him was going to be nothing more than a distraction."
Asra leaned over Julian, gently tucking a stray lock of his auburn hair behind his ear.
„But after a while, it changed. I started to feel this... longing when he was not around. And I got scared… I knew he was all in, and if I admitted my feelings, it would be a start of something real.”
He fell silent again, the look on his face was one of regret, affection, and loss. I took his free hand in mine, my thumb caressing his knuckles.
„Would that be so bad?”
I tried to offer him a smile, but he was too lost in his memories to notice. Alas, I was happy that he finally opened up. I didn't want him to think that there are things he should withhold from me. He was my life. My love. My partner. I wanted to know all of him, even the dark parts of his past.
„I didn’t… I couldn’t let it distract me. We were working together, and you know me. If I love someone, I can be… consumed by that feeling. Like the world around us stops spinning. But I had to find a solution. A way to…”
He hesitated, once more dissipated in his thoughts.
„To cure the plague?”
I saw his brows furrow and something about his eyes told me that there was more to the story, but a faint sting in the back of my head ordered me not to push it.
„I couldn’t let that feeling overwhelm me. I had to regain my focus, so I… I pushed him away... And when Lucio died, he disappeared for good. Only to come back three years later and sacrifice himself like the fool that he is. ”
Asra reached to hold Julian's hand, his thumb gently grazing the murderer’s brand. I saw his eyes getting misty. I knelt in front of him and cupped his face in my palms, leaning over to kiss his watery eyelids. I pushed his white hair out of his face and locked my eyes with his.
„You love him, don’t you?"
He looked at me, dumbstruck. I felt his whole body stiffening at my question. He lowered his eyes, like a puppy who was caught eating a shoe.
„N-no, you are my everything... I'm devoted to you, I thought you knew that...”
I caressed his shoulders and placed my fingers under his chin, gently tilting his head so he would look into my eyes once again, our faces just inches apart.
„Asra… I’m not denying your feelings for me. I know you love me. You show how much I mean to you every moment that we're together.”
My lips grazed his, and with his free arm, he pulled me closer, engulfing me in a kiss that carried a thousand words. There wasn't a doubt in my mind that he loved me with everything he's got. We parted for air, and I held my forehead against his. Keeping my eyes closed, I whispered an encouragement.
„But you love him too. Stop trying to fight it.”
We sat like that, holding each other. Breathing together in silence. It might have been a few minutes, it might have been an eternity, but Asra finally pulled back and looked me straight in my eyes. Ready.
"I do... I do love him."
I captured his delicate figure in a warm embrace. I knew it was hard for him to admit it, especially to me. But somehow, I knew that it was like lifting a stone from his shoulders. He slumped in my arms, letting out a long sigh and lacing his fingers with mine.
"But I don't want you to think that it changes how I feel about you. And I don't want you to think you have to be fine with it either."
I tilted my head to the side, to look at Julian's tall build again. A pang of worry surged through my skin. It shouldn't have been that long before he wakes up. Maybe he was not going to come back to us at all? Perhaps this was it?...
I never let the thought of losing him set in my mind before, but it was more and more real now. And the idea of losing Julian before I even got to really know him saddened me to the core of my being. The sharp pain in my chest revealed to me how much I cared about him too. And if Asra was brave enough to admit his feelings, then maybe so should I?
„Asra... I can’t quite place it, but something about him feels… Right. Like we’re connected in a way that I can't yet explain. And as much as I love you, I know that I also have a place for him in my heart. So if you want him in our life, I will love him, as I love you."
Before Asra could say anything, Julian's body started convulsing on the bed. Both of us straightened and we held his arms, trying to steady him. The sight was horrifying, but it also meant... It... It worked!
When he finally opened his eyes, my heart was pounding so hard, I was sure it was going to burst my chest open. My gaze raced between him and Asra. I was overflowed with joy so much, I didn't know how to form a coherent sentence, so I just grinned at them. Julian pushed himself up on his elbows and looked around, his eyelids still heavy.
"Uh... Wow, it sure is crowded here."
Julian's remark and his signature smirk made it real - he was back. He came back to us.
"So, how long was I... Hey, Asra... Are you ok?"
His face changed when he looked at the white-haired magician. Asra sat there, his face unreadable, clearly in shock. He stared at him for a good few seconds, wide eyes locked at him like he’s seen a ghost, before his eyes filled with tears. He launched at him, wrapping his arms around Julian and laying his head on his chest, listening to his heart, beating once again.
„Don’t you ever do anything like that again, Ilya!”
Julian looked startled at the sudden burst of affection from Asra. He searched my eyes hesitantly, holding his arms in the air, unsure if he could wrap them around Asra or not. The sight was endearing. I knew how much he cared for Asra, but he was so considerate, he didn't want to overstep any boundaries.
„It’s ok Julian, we both were so worried.”
He wrapped his arms around Asra and placed his cheek on the fluff of his white hair, with an expression of absolute bliss on his face. His grin was not the usual mischievous smirk, but a genuine, heartwarming smile. He opened his eyes and looked at me invitingly.
I moved closer to them and gently grazed his cheek with my fingers. I leaned over to kiss the corner of his lips. I could practically feel his face flush red even before I opened my eyes. He looked at me earnestly and held my wrist, turning his head to kiss the inside of my palm.
Asra shifted his weight to make room at Julian's side, taking place at his other one.
"Come over to us, his hugs are also amazing."