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In her own words...

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"Julian!" Verun rocked back on her heels a bit in surprise.

Julian stared at her for a moment, eye wide, before his gaze dropped to the water below. His figure was doused in shadow now that he had moved away from the city lamp, a silhouette framed in moonlight. In his hands he held his mask, gently turning it over as his eye seemed to pick it apart.

"Fancy seeing you here, Verun. Out for a night walk or something? Didn't think one like you would wander so far." He sighed, gaze fixed on the red water again as the moonlight flickered on its surface, turning it crimson. "I was just… thinking. Probably thinking too much at this point really. But life is such a fickle thing, don't you think?"

Verun shifted a bit, not sure how to respond as she sort of shuffled forward. "... Should you be standing so close to the water?"

"Oh, this water? It's perfectly safe- well, as harmless as it can be, at least. It can't do anything to me. People might get sick if they go for a swim, but otherwise…" he sighed, shaking his head. "It's amazing, Verun. They did it! They figured it out, or outlasted it. The plague is over, by some sort of miracle… and, so is my career. Who needs a plague doctor if there is no plague?"

Verun kept her eyes on him, paying rapt attention to the way he talked. He seemed so… sad, mourning something. But he didn't seem to be talking to her, it was like he was working himself up to something with a one-person audience.

"It's like… a Count with no city! Or a barkeep with no drinks." He spread his arms with a flourish, a piece of hair falling in front of his good eye and obscuring it so that Verun was hard pressed to know if he was looking at her or not. It was… very theatrical, everything from the pained look on his face to the grand motions he weaved as he spoke. But then he quieted. "So here I am… throwing away the last piece of a past I can't reclaim. Ah well."

He glanced down at the mask for just a moment before letting it drop, aiming for the red water. But Verun was quicker, moving forward and snatching the mask up before it dropped too far. Julian startled, looking at her with one wide eye.

"Verun, what are you-"

She felt herself blush under his surprised gaze, stepping back with the mask in hand. "Sorry, I just. Think it looks cool?"

He stared at her for a moment longer before letting out an incredulous laugh. "You're an odd one, aren't you Verun? Who'd want a plague mask?"

She blushed harder and looked away, down into the red glass eyes of the mask. "Hush! I just like… collecting interesting things."

"Obviously-"

The two of them froze as the raven from earlier suddenly screeched, nearly flying into them in its frenzy. Julian grabbed her hand and grinned widely at Verun.

"Guards afoot, Verun. Look lively, we'd best make tracks."

And then together they took off along the lip of the aqueduct, following the edge to get to the closest street. The rocks underfoot were slippery from water, unsteady in some places, but Julian was as surefooted as a cat and was able to keep himself steady as they ran. Unfortunately, Verun was not so nimble, and she knew she was holding him back, so she let go of his hand to let him run. But then her foot slipped on one of the wet stones, and she suddenly she was crashing, lurching into the water, crying out to Julian.

She saw him turn back for just a moment before the murky red water engulfed her, making everything go dark. The impact knocked the breath from her lungs, and almost immediately creatures hidden in the dark swarmed around her, one latching onto her as she tried to flail her way to the surface. Her ribs lit up in pain, the feeling of it shocking a scream out of her as she heard Julian above her.

Then his arms were around her wrists, hauling her out of the water with the creature still attached. Verun could barely see, blinking stinging water out of her eyes as she gasped for air, her hands clenched in pain. Julian laid her down, his hand gripping the creature behind the head even as she could see blood running through it's translucent body. His grip made it release its hold on her before he tossed it back into the water. She only caught a glance of razor sharp teeth and shuddered.

 "Okay, up you go, come on." He helped her to her feet, keeping one of her arms slung around his shoulders as his arm wrapped carefully around her waist. "I got you Verun, don't worry."

The two of them slipped and slid their way down the aqueduct and onto the street below, Julian half dragging her along. Verun's legs were shaky at best, going numb as she watched in horrified fascination as her blood ran out of her and down her leg, mixing with the puddles she left as they ran. It would be a morbid sight for someone to find in the morning.

He paused in the shadow of a building, shifting his grip on her. "You okay, can you stand?"

Verun leaned on his shoulder, barely able to keep her fingers wrapped around his arm as her entire body began to shake. Julian scowled and shook his head with a huff. "Of course not, stupid question."

With that he held her up a bit more and continued on his way into the maze of buildings, finding a narrow alleyway to lay her down in. Carefully he rolled back her clothes so he could get to her wound, practiced hands doing their best to do what he could.

"Damn , the bleeding won't stop." For a brief moment he looked desperate, eye wide and terrified as he stared at the gaping wound against the edge of her ribcage. Then he shook his head, pulling his gloves off and laying them down beside her. A murderer’s brand sat stark against his pale skin, immovable and impossible to miss without the gloves. Her body shuddered automatically as he laid an ice-cold hand over the wound, his other hand slipping around the back of her neck. "Just stay still, okay? You'll be fine. Take deep breaths."

Verun let out a short, pained groan and laid her head back against his hand and the cold cobble below. There was a faint tingling sensation that didn't last too long, before the pain disappeared. She took a deep breath, in… and out, and blinked slowly.

"We really have to stop meeting like this," she remarked with the barest hint of a smile.

He laughed shortly, pressing a hand to her forehead. "Well, if you're good enough to joke, you're good enough to sit up. C'mon, let's get you upright."

Verun gave a bit of a groan as he tugged her up into a sitting position, her head spinning for a moment as gentle hands steadied her. He chuckled quietly and brushed a few stray hairs away from her face to study her, making sure she was okay.

"At least you didn't catch me breaking and entering again, huh?" Then his gaze slid past her, back towards the reservoir they had come from. "I must admit, I was surprised you were in the neighborhood. You have some sort of luck, I suppose."

Verun turned to see a cascade of red water infinitely crashing to a small lake below. It was… much taller than she thought it would be. With a nervous "huh" she turned back to him, only to have her eye catch on a magically glowing mark on his throat. The lines of it looked oddly familiar, but she couldn't remember where she would have seen something like it.

Julian saw her staring, giving a dark smile. "Ah, do you recognize your master's handiwork?" As he spoke, blood seeped into his clothing, making him clutch at his side as he grimaced. "This was his last… gift to me. A curse. I can take people's wounds, leave them good as new, but in return I get to experience them for myself. Interesting, yes?" He grunted in pain, leaning over himself as the other hand grabbed at his hair.

Then the blood started running freely down his torso, and he swayed forward with a troubled noise. Verun held out her hands to catch him if needed and he gave her a smile, gritting his teeth. "It's fine, it never lasts for long. Just gotta deal with it for a bit. A curse from a witch who fears commitment. But, I've never been bitten by a vampire eel, so this might be interesting."

"Interesting how?"

Julian let her help peeling away his jacket and shirt to look at the bleeding wound. "Well, fate seems to enjoy coming up with new ways to test the limits of my body, you could say."

"That… does sound interesting."

"Oh, it certainly can be."

Almost a moment too late, they heard the footsteps of the guards once more and scrambled to their feet. Once more Julian took her hand and took off running, the wound not slowing him in the least. He pulled her into another alley, this one more secluded and hidden, pressing the two of them against the wall. His body crushed close with the smell of leather and musk and the tang of blood, and Verun's heart leapt straight up into her throat. The guards ran by, and she prayed that they would simply miss them in the darkness, shrouded by Julian's cloak.

His eyes fixated on the entrance to the alley, holding her close. Verun could see the pain on his face clearly as he grimaced. But then his eye slowly slid to meet hers, and it was like the two of them were caught in each other's gaze.

"Verun-"

Just as he was about to talk, there was a thud at the entrance to the alley, startling both of them out of the moment. Julian huffed and took her hand, shaking his head. "Not the time. Let's go." And then they were running, again, taking twists and turns through the streets to avoid the guards that seemed to be everywhere now. Verun didn't even know why she was running, it wasn't as if she was the one wanted for murder. If she slowed down she could get a carriage ride back to the palace or even back home to her shop…

But glancing at Julian, her grip tightened on his hand even as he hurtled around a corner, almost shaking her off. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a garden with a thick rusted padlock on the gate, having gone decades without maintenance. Automatically she turned towards it, pulling on Julian's arm to lead him. He caught onto her intention quickly and helped her over the gate and into the garden, just in time to avoid the guards within the twisted vines.

The two of them retreated deeper into the garden, Verun interested in all the different kinds of plants she hadn't seen before as Julian inspected the statues that stood among the foliage, slowly being overtaken by vines and other various plants and mosses. It was quiet here, peaceful, almost like another world inside the city.

"Hah! That was some quick thinking, Verun. I like this place. Looks like you have a knack for discovering hidden beauty." He spread his arms wide with a sly smirk. "Makes you wonder how many places have fallen to neglect like this, huh?"

Then Julian grinned and swung his arm around the shoulders of a statue, a grotesque bull with sharp horns. "Why hello there handsome. Verun, what do you think? Dangerous looking creature, isn't it?"

She laughed quietly and stepped closer, shaking her head and putting off his question. "Let me see the bite."

"Ah, are you worried about me, Verun? There's no need, I'll be fine soon enough." He spread his arms a bit too quickly, nearly knocking over the statue. He cursed and quickly steadied it, looking quite embarrassed for a moment as he looked away from her. "But really, I'm fine. It's just a bite, I've come back from more grievous wounds."

Then his attention was broken as his eyes focused on something else, and he stepped forward. "Ah, Verun. Hold still a second…" And he plucked up a flower that had fallen onto her shoulder, leaning down with an irresistible smile to offer the flower to her properly. It glowed blue, delicate swirling designs patterning its petals.

As Verun reached to take it from him, he pulled back for just a moment. "Ah ah ah," he murmured. "You don't know what's in these petals."

Verun gave him a curious look and he smiled devilishly, continuing.

"Deadly starstrand. A drop of poison distilled from the petals could kill a baby in its crib. If used carelessly it could bring down entire kingdoms, kill tyrants and kings, no matter if they're innocent or not." And then he offered the flower again. "Do you still want it?"

"You said the poison had to be distilled, right? So it's alright to touch?" Verun carefully took it from his hand, lifting it to her nose, staring at him over the petals as Julian watched her with some sort of eagerness in his eye. There was something acrid about the smell, like it was a precursor to death already, with an underlying sweet scent of rot.

"Well yes, but I wouldn't advise eating it if I were you. Or licking it." Julian straightened up with a smirk, shrugging. "But you're right, it probably won't kill you like this."

Verun let it drop from her hands, taking a step forward. Julian leaned forward to catch it midair, deftly tucking it behind her ear as he smiled at her. His touched lingered near her cheek for a moment before his hand dropped to her shoulder.

"It sounds like you're not afraid of danger, are you?" Verun raised an eyebrow with a quiet smirk, and Julian chuckled.

"Afraid of danger? Why Verun, why would I be? I live for it… absolutely enchanted by it, honestly."

"So you don't fear pain, either?"

"Not in the least. In my line of work, you can't be afraid of a little pain. I have my limits, just as any other person does, but you could say that I have a rather… intimate knowledge of it."

He said it with such a smug, teasing look that Verun had to do something to tease him back, it made her curious. So she stepped closer and pressed a hand lightly over the wound. He swallowed nervously, then gave a shaky grin.

"Oh, are we dancing now? What uh, what's your poison? Tango, waltz? I've been known to lead a pretty great dance, if I do say so myself." He was rambling, his face slowly turning red as she stepped closer and fully pressed against the bite. It didn't seem lethal in the least, especially as he bit his lip and made a muffled noise in his throat. It almost sounded like a moan, so quiet and embarrassed it was a wonder he hadn't gone up in flames already.

"S-so is that a no to the dance?" He looked at her, desperately, hand sliding from her shoulder to her side as his fingers dug in through her shirt. Did he like the pain? The way he stepped back into the wall and started to slightly slip down with his bottom lip clenched between his teeth suggested yes. "Verun-"

She leaned forward with her lips hovering just above his for a moment before they heard it. Armored footsteps from the guard patrol, again passing by. They paused like that before Verun pushed herself away and Julian latched onto her hand, helping her back over the garden fence and once more leading the way through the streets.

He seemed to know this place well, much better than Verun at least. His footsteps were practiced, quiet as they could be at the speed they were going, until they found a little house with a fenced in yard, chickens wandering the grass. He hopped over the fence and in through the open window, hauling Verun in after him.

Chapter Text

The two of them stood there, breathing hard as Julian's arm stayed wrapped around her waist, until he properly looked around. He had to slouch a little to avoid bumping his head on the rafters. "Mazelinka, dear? Are you home? Sorry to drop in like this, it's the guards…" His voice called quietly in the small home as Verun stared at him.

"Who's Mazelinka? Did we just break in?"

"Well, yes, but-"

"You got some real bad habits, Julian." Verun clicked her tongue in disapproval and he flushed under her scrutiny.

"Mazelinka is a friend of mine, she knows I come in through the window when guards are about." He waved a hand and turned, glancing at the flowers in the windowsill pot, his face falling. "Ah, uh oh. We kind of trampled the dragon's breath."

Verun was about to respond when the front door shuddered, opening with a heave. A small, quick woman took one step inside before her eyes narrowed on Julian.

"Ilya, you slippery boy. Did you come in through the window again?"

Julian straightened up a bit too quickly, smacking his head on the rafters with a wince and a pop in his neck. "Ah, Mazelinka, it's good to see you, such a sight for the sore eye… is that a new shawl?" He leaned down to give a kiss on the cheek, a smile playing on his lips.

"You know it isn't," she said dryly. "I thought you might be around when I saw the guards… and who's this?"

She turned her eyes onto Verun and she smiled in return, nervous about this new stranger.

Julian swept over to Verun to introduce the two of them. "Mazelinka, this is Verun, a… new friend."

"A new friend, ey? Well, welcome in Verun, make yourself comfortable."

She moved on by, letting out a squawk when she saw the state of the yellow flowers in the windowsill, and Julian nearly tripped over himself apologizing. "Ah, Mazelinka, that's my fault, I take full responsibility for it, I just-"

"Don't fit through the door, I know." She sighed deeply and shook her head. "Get that round pot for me, would you?"

He blinked and bobbed his head in a nod, stepping over to a cupboard set in the dirt wall behind him. As the tension of their flight eased, there was a slight sway in his step and when his gaze drifted to Verun he looked… tired, like he was about to fall asleep on his feet. He said that the bite wouldn't last but his gaze looked dazed, unfocused. Verun was no doctor, but she had little bits of miscellaneous medical information and she was pretty sure that could be a sign of blood loss.

As he reached for the cupboard, Verun put her hand over his, leaning close to him. "Hey, stop for a moment. Let me see the bite."

His eye fluttered wide open, staring at her with more focus than he had in the last five minutes. She shuffled him aside and took the pot out of the cupboard, fixing him with a stern glare. "Show me."

"The…? Oh the bite, you want to… see. Right." He gave a quick glance to Mazelinka and unfastened his jacket and lifted up the bloody shirt under that, exposing smooth pale skin where the bite had been. Julian flashed her an unsteady grin. "What do you think, good as new? Amazing, isn't it?"

Verun reached out to brush her fingers against the skin. She could hardly tell where the bite was in the first place, feeling a small shiver as her fingers pressed to his skin.

"Are you impressed? It's your master's handiwork, it shouldn't surprise you too much." He let the fabric drop once more, and Verun shook her head in confusion.

"Julian, I've never seen Asra do something like this. He can heal small wounds, scrapes and bruises and the like, but something like that…?"

"Something like what?" Mazelinka looked over at them with a protective glare. "Ilya, what have you been getting yourself into?"

"Nothing I wouldn't do again, dear." Julian whisked the pot from her hands and took it over to the fire where Mazelinka stood. She rubbed a sprig of dried herb between her fingers and frowned as she sniffed it.

"Damn, worrywort's gone stale. I have more in the garden, if you two will excuse me." She grabbed a small rusty knife and shuffled out the door, leaving the two of them alone once more, at least for a minute.

As soon as she was gone, Julian slumped down onto the counter with a sigh. "Huh. Who knew a bite like that would take so much out of me… not to belittle your bite or anything, I've treated a few dozen before, unfortunately." His gaze hardened as he looked out the window. "You've been the only survivor. And me, I suppose, though I don't really count, do I?"

Verun felt her heart ache for a moment, staring at him. She had to remind herself that he was a doctor, someone dedicated to help and preserve life. Of course he wouldn't have just left her to bleed out in the street, he just wasn't that kind of person. But then… why was he blamed for the murder of the Count?

He shook his head. "They're not actually aggressive, the eels. Just starved. And they wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the… the Count."

Verun knew. Until she asked, she would never find any answers. But seeing this side of him, small moments snatched with a smile, of a hand in her hair, pain on his face even as he grinned… it made her scared to ask, scared to know the truth, if she didn't like it. But she had to know.

"Did you really do it, Julian?" She kept her voice quiet, almost hoping that he wouldn't hear and have to answer.

But he froze, eye fixed on her. Then his gaze dropped to the floor, and she could see his pulse jump at his temple. Then he looked up at the ceiling, anywhere but at her, laughing nervously. "You know, I've been asking myself that question for three years, but it sounds much less irritating when you say it, Verun. Did I do it… would you believe me if I told you the truth, about what I remember from that night? I know I wouldn't. But Verun..."

He leaned over the counter, finally looking at her again with his face half hidden with his fingers as he set his head on his hands. "Did I do it… did I murder the Count? What if I told you I don't remember, any of it? Not even the day before, or the day before that… almost the entire week, I can't remember."

"Ilya, you're barely standing." Mazelinka appeared in the doorway, raising an eyebrow at him. "When's the last time you slept?"

"Ah, I don't need to as much as I used to, not since the curse. You know that, Mazelinka."

"Who says? Your eye is rolling. Curse shmurse, you still need your rest."

He dropped his gaze to the floor, his gaze slowly making its way to Verun's feet and slowly upwards until it reached her face. Mazelinka gave him an unimpressed look. "I'm fine, dear. Haven't felt this good in a while."

She sighed, tossing a handful of sand into the cauldron and stirring it in. "Uh huh. And I'll be very happy for you after you've rested, so go on. Shoo."

"Aw, Mazelinka… just until the soup is done." His gaze still hadn't left Verun's face, wandering like he was fixated. Or maybe he was just very, very tired.

"Just til the soup is ready, hmm? Can you survive that long without her?" She shot a glance over to Verun, making the girl blush.

Julian sighed and blinked slowly, tearing his gaze away from Verun. "I suppose…" his face was also flushed, and he stepped his way towards a curtained off room, sliding his hand into Verun's on his way past. "Don't worry, cutie. I'm leaving you in good company."

And then he slipped away, leaving Verun's cheeks burning. He didn't even seem to realize what he said, his words echoing in her head. With her strongly androgynous looks, she didn't get complimented much, and she certainly wasn't used to it. Mazelinka watched him go, turning back to the pot for a few moments.

"He won't do it. He'll be in there pacing and muttering to himself all night unless he's pinned down." She looked over at Verun with a quietly sly look. "One of us needs to keep an eye on the brew though… hmm. Verun, you want to make sure he lays down, or shall I?"

"I-I'll keep an eye on him," she stuttered. Mazelinka smiled kindly.

"Thank you. Head on back and make sure that boy rests some."

Verun nodded and slipped past Mazelinka, pulling the curtain aside as she joined Julian in the small room. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, his jacket and cloak laid out at the foot of the bed, shirt loose around his shoulders with his gloves beside him.

Verun stepped forward and he stopped, looking up at her with a tired smile. The bags around his eyes seemed darker than normal, or at least darker than what Verun had seen so far. "Ah, did Mazelinka send you to tuck me in? Don't worry, I-I-"

He stuttered to a stop as Verun seated herself in front of him, carefully undoing the clasp of his boots. One by one she pulled them off as he tried to continue speaking. "I know… when my body is beat," he said quietly, laying a hand on her cheek. For a second his eye shone with an absolute adoration, before Verun stood up and sat beside him on the bed. Then he settled back with a slight shrug. "It might take as long as it takes, but it'll heal up regardless. Stab me in the back, and I'll walk it off, but healing takes everything I've got to stitch me back together."

He leaned on her shoulder, his lips just inches away from hers as he spoke. Verun stared at him, almost too close for her eyes to focus on him. For a moment their lips almost, almost- pressed together, but then Mazelinka pushed the curtain aside, a bowl of soup in hand.

She handed the bowl to Julian with a stern look. "Drink. Verun, will you be staying the night as well?"

Julian sputtered as he tasted the soup, drawing back some. "Oh, so it's this soup, huh?"

"I won't just be letting you drive yourself into the ground, Ilya. You're still human, you need rest as much as the rest of us whether you like it or not." He mumbled something in protest and Mazelinka gave a great sigh, taking the bowl and placing it into Verun's hands. "Make sure he drinks, alright? I have a feeling he'll take anything you give him."

"What for? I'm not even tired any mo-" his words broke off into a huge yawn, after which he gave a sheepish look. Mazelinka patted Verun's arm before heading back into the main room, letting the curtain swing shut behind her.

"She makes that soup when I can't sleep, bless her. I don't know what she puts in it, but it always manages to make me sleep. No matter if I'm half in a frenzy, mad out of my mind and beating my wings against the walls."

Verun was pretty sure that she knew at least some of the ingredients in it, and would know more if she had been paying attention as Mazelinka made it. She glanced over the golden liquid as Julian waited patiently for it. Verun could see the tip of his tongue peek out of his mouth, swipe across his lip as he stared at her. That look was expectant, even as his gaze settled very specifically on her lips. She wasn't sure if it was an invitation or if he was truly lost in his own world, but as she set the soup down on the small table near the bed, his eyes stubbornly followed her lips.

So she leaned over, a hand against his cheek leading him as his eyes slid closed and their lips met. A sigh escaped him after that first brush, and suddenly he wrapped his arms around her, pulling Verun closer. She wasn't prepared for the passion of it, Julian murmuring her name against her lips. It was like he was hungry, absolutely ravenous for her touch, his hands sliding up the back of her shirt and making her shudder.

Her fingers twisted into his hair and he let out a quiet groan. "Oh, Verun, Verun… come here, come closer."

And she was pulled over him, thrown off balance as he pulled her closer until they were chest to chest, bodies pressed together as much as they could be like this. But it was overwhelming for her, and Verun pulled him away by the hair, wrenching a hiss of pleasure-pain from him as he stared up at her straddling his lap. She held his head back with the hand in his hair, eyes gliding up the long, long column of his neck that was exposed with his head tilted back like this - even as the sight made her throat go dry. There was a gnawing heat in her belly that made her want to drag her lips and teeth and tongue over that column, wanting to teasing lines into his skin and go lower into the wide V of skin on his chest that his shirt did nothing to hide.

"Hah- I- was, was that too much? What’s wrong, I'm sorry, I can do better, I'll be good."

Verun just continued to stare down at him, and god, he just looked so… so pretty, with his face flushed and eager and pleading. It made her want to see what she could do until he would break. She pressed him back, watching his chest heave as he waited for permission to kiss her again. But she was curious, so she placed a hand on his chest and pushed him down, and he went easily until his back was flat on the bed. He already looked like he was about to break, to beg her for just a few more kisses, a few more moments, but he simply watched her.

"I was told you'd need to be pinned," she murmured with a small smirk.

He blushed, but laughed quietly. "Well hey, if it's you who's pinning me, I'm rather… inclined to stay put." His pun took a moment to register in her mind, and when it did Verun let her head fall to his chest with a groan.

"Julian, that's the woooorst," she whined, making him shake with mostly silent laughter. Then the curtain parted and Mazelinka shook her head.

"Now that's enough, you two." The two of them disentangled themselves under her gaze, blushing, before she threw a sheet over them. "I assume you'll be sleeping with him, Verun, or would you rather sleep in the hidey hole?"

Verun could see Julian's gaze on her, heated yet still gently teasing from his pun. She hummed, tilting her head. "I dunno, maybe I'll take the hidey hole…"

Mazelinka laughed as Julian's expression changed to something like betrayal, but Verun couldn't hide her giggle as he pouted. She patted his knee with a grin.

"Oh fine, you. I'll stay here."

Mazelinka's laugh died down as she grinned. "Well then, I'll leave you two with a goodnight."

"Don't worry Mazelinka, I'll be an absolute gentleman, I promise."

"Verun, hold him to that," she said with a wry look.

"Absolutely. Hold me however you want, Verun."

Mazelinka rolled her eyes, lightly swatting his head as she turned around and walked out, letting the partition close. "And get some sleep already!" She called back, before it fell silent.

"That I can't promise you," Julian murmured, turning back to Verun. She let herself settle beside him, before she grabbed the bowl of untouched soup in her hands. It was a bit cold, so she used a bit of magic to warm her hands and get the soup back to the perfect temperature. He stared up at her, blinking sleepily, but she gently roused him with a hand hooked around his neck to pull him up.

"C'mon, Julian. You need to at least eat, even if you already feel like you're going to pass out."

He huffed a bit and sat up, propping himself up on his elbow as Verun offered the bowl. His eye was mostly closed as he gulped it down quickly, leaving only the dregs of it before he laid back. Then he moved, splaying out his limbs to make some sort of room for her next to him as he waggled his eyebrows. It wasn't enough for her to sleep without having to cuddle up to him and he knew it, though Verun definitely didn't mind, her gaze traveling the length of his body.

"There you go my dear, just enough room for the two of us." He then lifted the sheet for her, and with a sudden bout of jitters she slipped under them.

She turned to meet him, their chests brushing against each other as they breathed, inspecting his eye. He smiled back at her, a hand fiddling with the edge of his own shirt.

"I uh… hope I'm not coming on too strong for you, Verun." He sighed, the noise dreamy and wanting as his hand twitched up, as if to brush over her cheek. "Ohhh, I'd love to make something real with you, such… such a special one, you are."

Verun smiled and pressed forward to brush her lips over his. He responded gently, hand reaching out eagerly before he stopped himself and moved back, much to her disappointment. 

"You could, you know," she answered quietly.

"If we had more time…" his smile dropped into something mournful, an expression that Verun was already familiar with… and already learning to despise. It seemed out of place on his face, a face that was meant to smile and laugh and love. She reached over to brush away the hair around his face and he stiffened, his eye glancing at her nervously.

"Verun…" he murmured, before shaking his head. "Don't mind me, I'm just rambling… must really be exhausted."

Gently, with a shiver in his skin, he drew her closer to press their lips together. It wasn’t as passionate as Verun was expecting it to be based on earlier, but she supposed that he was very tired. But he lingered there, eye searching her face as if he was scared of something, or like he was expecting her to disappear like a too-good-to-be-true dream.

"Goodnight, Verun." He smiled slightly for a moment before moving to turn away, before she stopped him. With a tired, questioning noise he followed Verun's lead, moving his arms and legs where she wanted them, humming in contentment once they settled.

Verun's arm was between his shoulder and the pillow, both of them laying on their sides. Julian's arm was trapped under her, though she was hoping that his arm wouldn’t go too numb. Their other arms were wrapped over each other's backs, and one of Verun's thighs was wedged between Julian's legs. It was comfortable, a sleeping arrangement her and Asra fell asleep in often enough… though with his lankier form, Julian's face ended up perfectly pressed into her chest, making both of them blush. But again, it was comfortable, and Julian clearly couldn't care less about any awkwardness when he had his own exhaustion to worry about.

They hadn't been in that position for more than fifteen seconds before his eye drifted closed and his breathing shifted into patterns of sleep. With barely a thought Verun used her magic to extinguish the candle in the room, and she followed him down into the realms of sleep.

Chapter Text

Verun woke to the sound of the door shutting, her throat dry and her head feeling fuzzy from sleep. Julian was now laying mostly on top of her, on the opposite side that he had fallen asleep on. His chin was slightly digging into her shoulder, facing away from her neck as he gave a tiny, whistling snore. With him still here, Verun assumed that she had heard Mazelinka leaving early, for what she wasn't sure of.

Silently, Verun stared up at the ceiling. She wasn't sure what she should do this early in the morning in a near stranger's house, especially with Julian sleeping so soundly on top of her. The steady rhythm of his breathing nearly lulled her back to sleep, before his breath caught in his throat and he shook for a moment. It took Verun a moment to realize that he wasn't sleeping as soundly as she thought before his body nearly seized up and he let out a quiet, wordless whine.

Verun brought one hand up to brush her fingers through his hair as he whimpered in his sleep, rather obviously having a nightmare. But he thrashed as her fingers touched him, gasping louder now with a terrified sound.

"N-no, please- please, I'll do anything n-not-" he twisted himself into the blankets, his sleeping mind trying to escape a self-made binding. "Stop- please, I beg-"

Then he went crashing to the floor, very nearly taking Verun with him, the twisted fabric pulling at her sleep-rumpled clothing. When he hit the ground his eye opened wide, his chest heaving as his body still continued to attempt to fight his way out. He stared up at Verun like he couldn't remember her, like he was seeing a ghost, before reality returned to him and he relaxed. His breath was still coming in quick, quiet gasps, but he wasn't thrashing around like he had been.

Verun stared down at him, the leg of her pants caught in the twisted blanket that trapped Julian. It had pulled down her bottoms a few inches, exposing just an extra few inches of skin around her hips that his eye just barely glanced over.

Wordlessly she leaned over, pulling her trapped pant leg out before helping to untangle him. She dragged him back into the bed to lay with her once more, feeling the tension in his body while he was so close. He was sweating despite the coolness in the room, and tucked his face into her neck with a shaky sigh.

"Sorry to wake you, Verun," he murmured against her skin, making a warm shiver run through her. "Didn't mean to ruin your sleep like that."

"It's fine." She turned her head just enough to kiss behind his ear, her hand running up and down his spine where she could reach. "Nightmares, hm?"

"Is that what it sounded like?" He smiled as best he could, but even hidden in her neck she knew it was half-assed at best. "No no, my dear Verun, I was having quite the delicious dream, honestly. All sunshine and rainbows and sweet things, you know."

She hummed against his ear, and she felt his eyelashes flutter against her skin. "Uh huh. That's why you were crying for it to stop."

"Well- that's because it was. A nightmare, I mean." Julian pressed his face closer with a quiet huff. "But you know that, of course. It seems silly in the light of day, honestly."

"Doesn't stop it from feeling real when you're having it though." Verun ran a hand through his hair, oh so gently scraping her nails against his scalp to get him to relax.

He cleared his throat a bit. "Well uh, you sound pretty lively. What kept you up?"

"I dunno, just couldn't sleep. Woke up as Mazelinka left." She shrugged and Julian chuckled against her skin.

"Well lucky for you, I have some experience in the field of insomnia. Have you tried lying in bed being consumed by the guilt of every mistake you've ever made? Or pacing for hours until you forget what time it is and the sun is suddenly coming up? Or scribbling down letters you'll never send?... None of those will actually help you sleep, but they'll pass the time." He sighed, his lips pressing firmly to the lightly scarred column of her neck, intent like they were about to start mouthing praises into her skin. "God, I wish we had more time like this. But I'm just being selfish, aren't I?"

Verun longed to turn her head, move his hair away from his eyes and capture his lips with hers. But the way they laid, his head was wedged under hers already with her lips against his ear, and she couldn't do much more to move unless she wanted to kick him off of her… which seemed like a particularly unpleasant idea to her at that moment. "Julian, what's all this talk about time?"

He was silent for some time, before simply skipping over her question. "... Do you believe in forgiveness, Verun? Do you think that even the most heinous deeds could be forgiven, taken back and wiped away from a person's name? Or are there things that people can never come back from?"

Her hand found his, squeezing his chilled hand until it warmed up in hers. Whatever his dream was, it must have scared him pretty badly… this didn't seem much like Julian. He still felt like his entire body was too tightly wound, like the sleep hadn’t done anything but wind him up more. Tension still shook beneath his skin, no matter how hard he tried to stop it or hide it.

She squeezed his hand, taking a deep breath that she hoped would calm him. "You can come back, Julian." She raised his fingers to her lips, kissing his knuckles. Maybe it wasn't the answer that he wanted to hear, or the one she wanted to give, but… seeing him like this, vulnerable, shaken, miserable as he soaked in his own thoughts… he wasn't a murderer, no more than she was. He would never want to hurt anybody. Even if there are some things that really can't be forgiven, if Julian did by some odd chance kill the Count, it's not because he wanted to. There must have been a reason, and a good one at that.

"You can always come back." And she turned her head to kiss his auburn hair again.

"If I could just… remember. Then I would know if what I did was unforgivable." He swallowed painfully.

"And what if it is?" Verun felt a block of some unexplainable emotion settle in her gut, dreading his answer.

 "Then I'll take whatever punishment I deserve. I… I must have done something, the pit in my stomach isn't here for nothing, is it? Something like that doesn't just stick around for no reason." He licked his lips nervously, tongue brushing teasingly against her skin even as the desperate touch in his voice, rough like it was about to break, made it sound like he was going to cry. Then he laughed, pressing his face into the pillow more than her neck. "Gah, I'm sorry for such morbid pillow talk, Verun. It's just… it's just the sleep deprivation talking. Get a few cups of coffee in me and I'll be feeling just fine again."

Verun shook her head and wrapped her arms around him, squeezing tightly enough that a small wheeze escaped him. “Hey, do something for me real fast.”

“Hmmm?” He shifted a little to look at her out of the corner of his eye.

“Take your shirt off,” she said simply, watching as his face so quickly was consumed in a blushing red haze.

“I. Uh. Okay, I guess we’re doing this now, then?” He sat up just enough to pull his loose white shirt over his head, slowly settling between her legs.

“Lay back down on me.” Verun took his hands, pulling him closer as he hesitantly followed her instructions. There was a familiarity about this that made her head ache. Had she done this for someone, before she lost her memories? Was it Asra? Was it someone else that had been lost to her? But as Julian rested his head where it had been before, nestling his nose against her neck, her thoughts calmed. “I need you to relax for me, okay?”

He might’ve grumbled a bit before clearing his throat. His arms were trapped against her sides like he didn’t know what to do with them, making her own movements a bit awkward. But he sighed. “Right… sorry.” His muscles slowly, almost individually relaxed, and Verun had the pleasure to watch the muscles of his back settle underneath his skin. He really was quite muscular, probably from all the running and climbing he did to avoid the authorities.

Her fingertips led the way, trailing down the skin of his back and finding small pockmarks and scars on his skin. Things that happened before he received whatever healing mark he had, she was almost sure of. Faded scars of lashings, cuts of blades, bites from unknown creatures, lines of stitches that Verun was also fairly certain that Julian had given himself. Then her palms pressed to her skin, one of her hands raising up to thread into his hair as the other continued rubbing his back. A deep, rumbling hum echoed through his chest as he relaxed further.

Then she felt his lips against her shoulder shift, like he was about to start speaking.

“Julian… you need to sleep.”

And then the movement against her shoulder turned into a lopsided grin that she could feel, and he let out a slow breath she hadn’t even noticed he was holding. Then he pressed a gentle kiss to her skin in turn, seeming like he was barely aware of his actions once more.

“Thank you, Verun.”

She let her nails glance lightly against his scalp, drawing a relaxed hum out of him once more. “Thank me after you’ve gotten some sleep. I’ll be waiting for it.”

Together they drifted off to sleep once more, Verun tangled under Julian's weight and long limbs, but comfortable.

And she woke up no more than an hour later to feel Julian's weight shift off the bed, obviously trying to be as quiet as he paced back and forth across the wooden floor. Verun was tired, her body still calling for her to sleep, but even just the quiet creaks of the floor kept her up, an unbearable feeling of fierce longing and almost resentment building in her chest until tears pricked her eyes and she let out a small noise.

Julian froze, hearing her tiny but pained call, and hurriedly stepped over to her, crouching by the bed to reach for her hand. "Verun, are you alright?"

Her chest ached, like days of loneliness and longing for just a hand to hold. It was stupid, so stupid, but his pacing reminded her too much of Asra's early morning packing, when he walked back and forth in their shared room trying to remember what he might be forgetting. It reminded her of something hidden from herself, unexplainable but horrifying with its shadows and pain. That noise meant days, weeks, sometimes even a month or two of returning to an empty place with no life inside but herself and the stove salamander. It meant time alone, hurting beyond what she thought should ever have been possible. And it hurt every time, she knew.

She didn't want Julian to leave her again - again? - just a whispered goodbye with an uncertain amount of time before she would see him again. She didn't want to be left alone like she had been.

"Verun?" Julian leaned closer, resting his chin on the edge of the bed as he squeezed her hand, gaze locked onto her troubled eyes. "You alright?"

She turned her face away, wiping the tears away for a minute or two before she could answer. "Yeah… yeah, I'm fine. Just tired."

"Did some nightmares hit you too?" He moved to instead sit on the bed by her belly so that her body slightly curled around him, still holding her hand. "Unfortunately I've seen it turn into an odd sort of chain event, one person having nightmares causing another person to have them as well."

Verun swallowed thickly, tugging on his hand. She wanted affection and physical contact more than anything right now, something to ground her and make sure that Julian wasn't just going to disappear. And he leaned forward, not understanding, a hand propping himself up beside her head as his other hand slipped from hers to brush away the small orange hairs that hung into her face.

“Verun…”

“Come here,” she said, her voice quiet even as it broke. And his eye widened a little before he laid himself down beside her, his feet still bare. She wrapped herself around him, holding on as if he was her last hope to save her from whatever monstrous abyss was opening up in her stomach.

His arm wrapped around her even as his face blushed. “You’re just cuddly, aren’t you?” His voice was teasing, but his eyes still reflected concern, and some weird mysterious source of pain.

Verun couldn’t do much more than give a sad hum and squeeze him tighter for a moment, making him wheeze quietly as her legs nearly crushed his torso where they were wrapped around him. Once he could actually kind of breathe again he squeezed her in a hug as well, albeit much more gently than what she had given.

“Do you wanna talk about it?” Julian whispered to her, the two of them so close now that their lips brushed as he spoke.

Verun closed her eyes. “Not really.”

“Fair enough. I don’t really remember most of my nightmares and I wouldn’t really want to talk about them when I do… but some people find it carthic.”

She hummed, somewhere between the edge of falling asleep and a terror-driven need to stay awake. Her eyes stayed closed but her hand curled into the back of his shirt, tight enough that for a moment she was convinced it was about to tear. “Julian…”

“Yes, my dear?”

“... stay?” Her heart hurt, it wasn’t the first time that she had asked someone to stay only to watch them walk out not a few minutes later.

Julian’s breath caught in his throat, and for a moment Verun was actually kind of scared that he had legitimately stopped breathing. But then his lips met hers, kisses gentle but firm, doing his best to alleviate the painful neediness that she felt. Unknown to him, it only made it worse, for both of them.

“Verun…” He murmured to her when he pulled back again. “I just… I need to go get breakfast, okay? We both need food, especially since uh… since you didn’t eat last night when I did.”

Let it not be said that Verun doesn’t know what logic is, but god damn she did not want to let him go, even for something as… well, logical as breakfast. It sounded good, but what sounded better was being able to cuddle him for most of the day until both their bodies were crying for food.

But eventually she slowly… slowly let her grip on him relax, and he quietly slipped away again, gathering his clothes. He smiled at her as her eyes opened just enough to watch him, and her heart constricted. He was just really pretty, in a way that made her want to reach out again and hold him close and kiss his cheeks and his hair and all the skin she could get to.

Instead she quietly watched, her eyes following his movements until he leaned down to her, fully dressed, and left a kiss on her cheek.

“Sleep, Verun. Breakfast will be coming in just a few.”

She nodded quietly and watched him go out, surrendering to the void of her own tiredness once more.

 

Julian… honestly felt like shit. Leaving the house like that, dancing rather cleverly around Verun’s wishes without making a promise to her, when he knew well that if he did return it would only end in tragedy. His feet moved on their own, first heading towards the Rowdy Raven before he realized. But that place still had fresh memories of her showing up there, an old letter to his sister tucked in her bag.

So instead he turned towards the other home he knew he would always be welcome at. It was farther, giving him time to think. Maybe it would give him enough time to chicken out of it and turn back to somewhere less familiar and try to run.

His hand ran through his hair almost on its own, an anxious habit when he started thinking too much. And he was thinking too much. Julian knew what he had to do, he knew that he couldn’t continue leading Verun like he had been. It wasn’t fair to her, to continue to let him steal hidden nights from her, filled with that sort of affection that he saw in her eyes when he kissed her. He would only break her in the end, and he dreaded above all else having to watch that light in her eyes die.

Besides, there was always the chance that Verun could be caught with him on one of their accidental night excursions and be sentenced to hang alongside him. That thought filled the pit of his stomach with lead, his steps stumbling even as people around him called out to him. He was too caught up in his own mind, his throat tight as he thought of the chance of Verun…

“No, no, I can’t let that happen,” he muttered to himself, his face twisting into a grimacing scowl. “I… fuck, I can’t.”

In no time at all he found himself at the docks, looking at all the different ships tied up along the pier. He found the familiar masts among all the others and headed towards it with a heavy heart, not sure how to confront this.

But soon enough his feet found their way up the gangplank, seeing Mazelinka sitting around with her crew. She looked up as a few of the crew called raucous greetings to him, one eyebrow climbing its way up her forehead.

“Well you’re looking like you just swallowed a gallon of whale piss, what happened? Where’s Verun?”

“She… she’s still at your place, Mazelinka,” Julian said softly, doing his best to smile at her. “She’s still pretty exhausted, think she had a nightmare of some sort before I left.”

The woman narrowed her eyes, waving a well-worn hand at him to get him to follow her. She led the way into the captain’s quarters, shutting the door behind them before rounding on him.

“Ilya, tell me that you don’t plan on simply leaving her sleeping in my bed,” she snapped, a familiar fire in her eyes.

Julian let his eyes slide away from her gaze, arms crossed over his chest. “Mazelinka… I can’t just go on continuing to pretend that this is going to last. I can’t allow it to last, not when it’s so risky.”

“Well, let me just tell you one thing Ilya,” she said, putting a finger to his chest. “That girl is very possibly the best thing you’ve done to yourself since you asked me to smuggle you out of this damn city.”

His lips quirked up into a sort of pained smile. He knew she was right. “Well, you’re not wrong. But that’s why I have to let her go, I can’t have her get dragged down with me. She’s… she’s too good for that, and with how close she is to the Countess right now, it’s putting her in too much danger.”

Mazelinka frowned at him. “You’re stuck on this, aren’t ya?”

“Yeah,” he said simply.

“No way to talk you out?”

“Nope.”

“Well then…” She sighed in some sort of disappointment and shook her head. “At the very least, Ilya, you’re going to do this the right way. No disappearing act, alright? You tell her what’s happening and you tell her why, and if she comes to me asking where you’ve been like she didn’t see you before I come back, I’ll have your ear.”

The thought of it made Julian hesitant, but he knew well that Mazelinka wouldn’t hold back on her word if he did just disappear on Verun. And honestly, her idea was probably better for Verun anyway, he thought. Maybe it would leave her in better shape emotionally if he didn’t just leave her without a word.

So, with a sigh, he nodded. “Will do, my dear.”

Mazelinka nodded firmly, and pushed him towards the door. “Now shoo, you mongrel. Get back to your girl.”

His ears flaming, Julian waved goodbye to the familiar faces on the ship and hurried his way back to Mazelinka’s house… unfortunately forgetting to get breakfast.

 

Verun woke up once more to the noise of birds chirping in the windowsill. She shifted a little, feeling nothing but cold mattress where she hadn’t been laying, and closed her eyes. There was no other noise in the house, but she got to her feet and wandered out into the kitchen to check as well.

No one.

She slumped down at the table, her head in her hands. Julian was gone, and Mazelinka had left in the early morning. Was Julian going to come back at all? Should she even wait to see? It didn’t make sense that he would be gone, things were going well between them last night, right?

Though the more she thought about it, he never actually promised that he would stay. Or that he would be coming back. He said that he was going to get breakfast, but that would have been what, an hour or two before she woke up for the third time? She needed to get outside and feel the sunlight on her skin if she was going to feel any better, get out of Mazelinka’s house and go somewhere more familiar.

She was about to get to her feet when the door opened and Julian ducked in, actually having to lean over some to fit through the short doorway. He straightened up as he saw her, his eyes widening slightly. 

“Oh, Verun, uh- you’re already awake.” His hair was sticking up everywhere, looking slightly damp with sweat, like he had either gotten into a scuffle or he had been running his hand through his hair too much. She honestly wasn’t sure which was more likely for him. “Listen, Verun. We… we need to talk.”

Well, that didn’t sound ominous at all. Nothing good ever came from that phrase. Verun leaned onto her elbows, staring at him expectantly. “Alright then…”

“Good, good, but uh… first, not here. Let’s go to the market, shall we? More places to talk.” He grinned suddenly despite his awkward rambling, waving an arm towards the door and nearly smacking his fingertips against the door frame. “After you, my dear.”

Verun raised an eyebrow and slipped her shoes on, following after Julian as he led her away from the outskirts of the district and deeper into the more shady parts of town, where he seemed to thrive. He kept an arm hooked with hers, a vibrantly curious look stuck on his face as he glanced from her to all the people passing them and back. They eventually emerged from the alleyways that he had led her through into a sidestreet bustling with life, noisy and very, very crowded.

Instead of the neat marketplace by the shop that Verun was used to, it looked like people had just built whatever stalls they needed at the time into the street, making the already crowded lane even smaller as all the traffic was squished closer to the center.

“Verun, about that talk-” Julian started talking as he led her through, eyes darting through the crowd. He stood taller than most, a perfect lookout as he searched for something. “Ah! Sorry, I nearly forgot. First things first. Mazelinka left us a shopping list, in return for us squishing the dragon’s breath last night. Just a few ingredients to pick up.”

He pulled out a scrap of paper, having to untangle his arm from hers to get to it in his pocket. “Pickled tingleberry, charred newt flesh… articulated goosewart. She uses them for her folk remedies. Most effective pep-up soup I’ve ever had. And I’ve had a lot of soup.” He smirked at her, an infinite source of mischief waiting to happen.

Verun recognized those ingredients though, but for her they definitely weren’t for folk remedies. “Does Mazelinka practice magic? Those are all spell ingredients.”

“What? These things? Nonsense, they’re ingredients for medicines! Effective ones, too.”

“Those are definitely magical. We keep some of these at the shop,” she pressed, curious now.

“It’s not magic,” he said, incredulous. “No one chanted nonsense from a fancy but ominous tome. There were no glowing circles and weird runes. No one bled.”

Verun gave him a strange look. Is that what he really thought magic was all about? He looked distinctly uncomfortable with the thought of Mazelinka being able to possibly cast magic. Or maybe he was uncomfortable with the thought that he might have been consuming magical food items?

“Does magic… bother you?” She tilted her head, curious.

“I- uhhhhhh. Of course not.” He was awful at lying. Did he just not want to offend her or something? It wasn’t like he was calling her a bat-shit insane witch or something. “It’s just… I don’t understand it. I never have. But these remedies, I understand. I’ve used some of them myself. You mix things together, chop them up, and they work. Or they don’t, and then you have to find something that does.”

“Well, it might not be this way for everyone. But for me magic is the same as that. Some things work, some things don’t, you just have to find what does. Sometimes you have to change the ingredients that you use, sometimes you have to change the sort of energy you’re putting into something.”

“... where have I heard that before?” He looked thoughtful for a moment before shaking it off. “Ahh, it doesn’t matter. Look at you, knowing things. And me, all I know is that I don’t know.”

Verun snorted and shook her head. “I dunno, Julian. Sometimes you’d be surprised at how little I know.” Was she making a quiet joke about all her missing memories? Absolutely. Was she going to let him know that? Not at all.

He gave her a quirky smirk. “So Verun, about that talk-”

“Jules, that you?? Ain’t seen you in the city fer years, y’old dog! What’re you doin’ here, eh?” A voice called over the din of the marketplace, turning Julian’s attention away again.

“Tilde! Good to see you! How’s the wife, still having those headaches?” His expression lit up in a friendly, familiar grin.

The woman that called out to him scoffed, waving her hand vaguely as she shouldered a sack of leeches. “She’s been just fine. Still talking about moving to Prakra! What use does that do us, they don’t got a leech market there…”

Julian laughed and took Verun’s hand, pulling her further into the crowds of people passing by. Dozens called out to him, shouting greetings and waving as they passed. It seemed like he was a very well-liked character in this part of town, though Verun would’ve already guessed that.

“So, listen. We need to-” Again, Julian tried to get on with what he was saying, when an urchin barreled between the two of them, screeching after a howling dog. They pushed against Verun as they went past, pushing her off balance.

Time slowed for a moment as she fell backwards, straight towards a rickety old cart piled high with fresh fruits that a merchant was trying to sell. Collision with it was unavoidable, even as Verun tried to spin on her heel and catch herself. Instead, she fell face-first into Julian’s chest as he caught her flailing form and had them both stumbling backwards. They hit the old fruit cart, jostling it loose from its precarious perch, and then together they hit the ground.

He let out a breath, holding her close. “Oof. Verun, you alrigh-”

Verun’s face was still pretty heartily planted into Julian’s chest, buried in the scent of leather and musk and a touch of sea salt, though she just barely got the chance to glance up to him as he stared at the wobbling cart with dread. An apple rolled off the pile.

“Ohhhhhh no, that’s going to-”

The apple falls, stopping as it hits Julian’s foot, and then the entire cart topples as Verun was rolled over. Julian laid over her, shielding her body with his own as the cart itself crashed down on them. Even through him she could feel the impact, wincing in empathy. The sound of the rotting boards cracking over his back was enough to tell how hard of a hit that was. He grunted with pain, grimacing as he stared down at her. Once the sound of rolling fruit stopped, he shook what he could off, still holding himself over her.

“Are you alright? Nothing hit you, did it?”

He stood up, pulling her up beside him to dust her off. For a moment he looked like a worried mother hen, eye wide as he quickly checked her over before turning to the mess they had on their hands.

“Well… now, isn’t this a mess. Looks like I’m buying a fruit stand today.” He looked a bit red in the face with that, as he pulled a clinking burlap sack out of one of his many pockets and shuffled through the forgein currency inside. “Uhhhh… do you take Galbradine dubloons? Or Hjallen drakr?”

It looked like he could have a small fortune in the bag, as Verun watched him give over a small handful to the merchant. Then he turned away from the man as the vendor sorted through the various coins, waving a hand as he called into the crowd around them, moving him and Verun out of the way.

“Free fruit everyone! Come get your free fruit!”

A ravenous crowd descended on the fallen fruit stand, and just a few minutes later there was nothing left but a tipped cart and a few cracked boards. Julian led her into a quiet alley and checked her over properly, his gloved hands poking and prodding and squeezing her limbs to make sure nothing was bruised or broken.

“Julian…”

He grumbled a little, not meeting her eyes as his eyes followed his hands. “Mmmmhrmhm, yep? You’re not hurt, are you? Everything still where it should be?”

Verun went silent for a moment, not sure if she could pass up this chance to tease him, just a little. As she went silent Julian looked up in alarm, and she almost burst out laughing. “I mean, almost.”

“What do you mean, almost?”

She leaned forward with the barest hint of a smirk. “Everything is where it should be… except for your lips.”

He still looked highly concerned for a moment until the joke caught up to him, and his hand flew up to smack his forehead as a laugh bubbled out of him. “Verun! Don’t do that to me,” he scolded as he laughed.

She grinned widely, getting caught up in his laughter for a moment. “Well, Doctor Devorak? Are you going to fix this plight of mine?”

Julian’s eyes sparked with a bit of returning mischief, and he looped his arms around her, pulling her close as he leaned his head down teasingly close to hers, just enough that the tips of their noses brushed. “And what will I be paid with, my dear Verun?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She threw her arms around his neck. “Name your price. Do your worst.”

“Ah, but if I don’t do my best, can I really ask you to pay me anything?” His lips drew nearer, curved into an insatiable smirk.

Verun pressed her lips to his for just a moment, the air between them turning heated incredibly quickly. “But then I have an excuse to ask for you to come back, don't I?” She felt a knee nudge its way between her legs, and oh. She didn’t realize they were doing this sort of teasing now.

Julian gave her a wicked grin and slid his hand into her hair, cradling her head as he pressed their lips together, over and over again until they were both gasping for air and still chasing each other’s lips. It was fierce, and addictive, fire just on the other side of cool skin that licked into Verun’s mouth insistently. She welcomed it, the feeling of brick pressing against her back shocking when she had his body pressing against her front. Verun was barely on the tips of her toes as he kept her there, most of her weight held by him.

Her hand gripped into his hair, pulling a soft noise out of his throat as he pushed closer, and again it was overwhelming but here there was no escaping. Between the way her body yearned for his fingers against her skin and the way her heart thumped so hard when he was so close, she couldn’t say no.

His thigh was just close enough that with a slight roll of her body she could grind against it, sending sparks flying through her belly. She felt drunk, incoherent as her body moved seemingly on its own. The encouraging murmurs in her ear drove her crazy, her body nearly twisting out of Julian’s grip as she chased after the high she felt teasing.

But then there was a sudden shout at the entrance of the alleyway, startling the two of them. Their lips finally broke away from each other, glancing towards the source of the shout. A man was standing there, trying to find someone in the crowd, not giving the two of them any mind. Verun didn’t think he even saw them.

Still, her heart was pounding from exhilaration and embarrassment. She was pretty sure Julian was feeling the same as he leaned back a little, letting her down to her feet properly. His hair was again all mussed up, his cheeks flushed and his eye lidded as he looked at her.

“God, you’re just-” She giggled a little, pressing a fist to her mouth.

He gave a soft smile, brushing his thumb over her cheek. “I’m just what?”

“You’re just…” Verun laughed, pressing her face into his chest, pulling his cloak around them. “You’re pretty, goddammit.”

Julian gave a loud laugh, wrapping his arms around her. “You know, I’ve been called a lot of things, but pretty is a new one. At least, in terms of a compliment.”

“I know I’m weird, now hush,” she laughed, her voice muffled in his chest.

They stood there for a moment as their laughter subsided, before Julian ran a hand through her hair. “Anyway, now that your thorough physical check-up is done, uh… jeez, I probably should have let you know that the streets could get kind of rowdy, huh?”

Verun snorted, speaking under her breath. “The streets can get rowdy, uh huh, I’d like to see what you’re like in the sheets.”

Julian’s face went brilliantly red, and he made a rather choked noise. “I- what-?”

“I’d almost say that you seem like a very vanilla partner in bed, but based on any of the stuff that happened last night, I have to say that’s probably wrong.” She grinned evilly, knowing for a fact that she was sending him very off track here, but she adored the way the blush spread from his cheeks to his ears and down his neck too much to stop. Her hand came up, pressing into the bruises she suspected hadn’t quite yet healed on his back from the crash with the cart, and he looked like he choked on whatever sound was about to come out of him.

And with that, she released him completely, leaning against the wall with as innocent of a look as she could manage. Julian took a moment to gather himself again, lips slightly parted as he stared at her.

Then he shook his head, clearing his mind and apparently electing to avoid her commentary entirely. “I-” He coughed, clearing his throat before continuing. “I have a place we could go, if you want. Nice little teahouse, just down the way. We can sit there and… talk. It’s cozy, you’d like it.”

Verun smiled a bit and nodded. “Sounds good. Lead the way.”

He took her hand, leading the two of them away from the market and off, deeper into the city.

Chapter Text

It was a bit of a stroll, but once they reached it Julian eye lit up, nodding towards a tall, narrow building. It looked pretty stylish, if weatherbeaten, and there were no windows to see inside through. There wasn’t even a door that Verun could see, just massive panels of fresco cracked like eggshells, illustrating faded scenes of romance and action. It seemed very much like… a Julian sort of place.

“So, it’s still standing,” he said beside her, an odd look overtaking him. It was happy, melancholy, and almost vaguely confused in a way, like he couldn’t figure out why it was still there. “I used to come here all the time, back in the day. It was an irresistible spot. High ceilings, amazing ambiance, little booths tucked away in the corners… a nice place to come to get away from everything for a bit.”

He gave a grin, nudging her shoulder. “And underground. You could just lounge around for hours, just talking with strangers. And we, uhh… I’ve been meaning to say, we do-”

Together they ducked under the shadow of a rotted beam, down a meandering stairwell to the underground level, where the only apparent entrance was.

“We do need to talk,” he said quietly, glancing at her with another of his melancholy looks.

Verun tried not to frown, with dubious success. Why did they need to talk? She really didn’t like the sound of it, not any more than she did the first few times he had tried to tell her that. She eyed him warily as he pulled open the heavy iron door, bowing with a flourish to welcome her into the building.

“After you my dear.”

Verun stepped in, blinking a few times to adjust her eyes to the dim light. Once she could see more, she raised an eyebrow as the door shut behind Julian. Bright yet faded fabrics hung at odd angles from the ceiling, creating a confusing mass above. A slim walkway wound through a seeming maze of odds and ends, everything from masks to masses of silky cloth with no rhyme or reason to the organization of it.

She glances back at Julian, having to suppress a snort of amusement as he seems to try so hard to be subtle with the way he peeks around corners. There was no need for him to be, if someone just left all of this hanging around. Then Verun heard something. The murmur of oddly lilting conversation, and then the feeling of many people in the building, the energy of it spiking slightly for a moment.

But they hadn’t found anyone yet.

Julian glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, shrugging slightly. “Well… huh. This is very different from the last time I saw it. The tea shop must have gone under… disappointing. They used to serve this smoky tea I haven’t been able to find since.”

Verun let him lead her through, trying to sort through all the odd items she saw. There wasn’t any one thing that seemed to fit together with anything else, just a jumble of shiny, extra, and generally over-the-top things.

“Now it just seems like a… an oddities… artifacts… antiques? Emporium. Just a collection of whatever the hell someone wanted to put in here. How embarrassing. It’s still cozy though, I will say.” One of his hands snakes its way around Verun, finding its way to her hip as his eyebrow raises up, teasing. She almost laughed, until he turned away, his eye widening in curiosity. “Now what do we have here?”

He released her, going to a tall, speckled and dust-covered mirror. Hanging from it was a mask, not unlike the one that Verun had lost in the reservoir when he had attempted to throw it away. But this one instead looked more like a party mask, black with lace trimming the edges. Sitting under the mirror are some boots that somewhat resembles his own, like someone was trying to dress up like him. Verun puts a hand over her lips to hide her smirk.

Julian snatched up the mask, inspecting it closely. He turned it in his hands, tapping it and staring intently at the material. “What’s this? It’s not really a medical mask, is it? We used to stuff the beak with… herbs, camphor, roses… you know, when we had them. I think this one’s just a statement piece, it doesn’t have anything to actually keep the herbs and such in it.” Then he spun it around so it faced him, pausing as if to process its significance.

Verun smiled, leaning her weight onto one leg. “You want to put it on, Jules?”

He froze for a moment, jaw going slack for just a second as he considered the question. “If you’re suggesting that I miss the one I tossed- or at least tried to toss to the eels, before someone decided to throw themselves in,” he teased, “Let me just tell you how much it pains me that you caught me doing that, by the way…”

“I dunno, you seemed alright with the audience with how much you ran your tongue. Almost got us caught by the guards.” Verun grinned back as Julian ran his hand under the beak with a sort of careful detachment, like he didn’t want to show that he actually did miss it.

“Yknow, it doesn’t bother me half as much in black,” he muttered, glancing at her and pointedly ignoring her comment with a smirk. “Maybe I will put it on.”

Verun smirked back, leaning back on her heels. “Well cmon now, don’t keep me waiting.”

Julian chuckled and fastened it on, before letting his arms spread wide as he grinned, showing it off. “Well, it certainly doesn’t smell like any of the herbs that we were using…” He laughed, shaking his head. “Ha, who knew. I didn’t think anybody would wear this for the aesthetic. I may not have contributed much to the world of medicine, but I was making waves in the world of fashion. How does it look?”

With his smirk, it looks mysterious, handsome even, on him. Verun had never seen anyone wear a mask like that for fashion, despite her first impressions of Julian’s. She was still rather disappointed with the fact that she lost his in the reservoir when she had fallen in. The fluid line of the mask cuts across his face, leaving only his lips and chin exposed, accentuating the shadows of his jawline. He hummed curiously at her, but her eyes were stuck tracing the fine lines of his lips, the seam of them where she knew that addiction from earlier still waited.

It must have shown on her face, as his lips stretched into a wider grin. “You think it would be hard to kiss in one of these, my dear?...” He watched her cheeks grow red and let out a low chuckle. “... Imagine kissing with two of them.”

Verun’s eyes moved down to his throat, watching the way it moved as he spoke and chuckled like that. She sidled closer to him, Julian not able to move his head down enough to watch her closely with the beak of the mask in the way. She could feel the faint shiver as her breath washed over his neck, just a second before his ivory skin was caught between her teeth.

His breath caught in his throat, one hand wrapping around her as the other pressed at the back of her neck, encouraging her onwards as he gave a deep hum. “Ahh- that’s more like it. I love it, here.” He pulled at his collar, inviting, and Verun took the chance to dig her teeth in, leaving soft marks that makes his skin go even more pale for just a moment before flushing with color again. All the way up, just underneath his jaw, until she found a sensitive spot to truly dig in.

When she let his skin go, letting her lips press against the mark she had left, she paused to let her tongue quietly flick at the skin there. Then she moved her head away, just to watch it fade and disappear like it had never been there. A little disappointing, but she could work with it.

“Don’t be afraid of leaving marks,” Julian said quietly, as she paused in her work. “Don’t take it personally, but they don’t last long on me. You’ll have to do more than that to leave your mark on meeehhhee~”

His voice shook into silence as Verun leaned up, catching his ear between her teeth. If his ears weren’t already red, they definitely were now, as a bead of blood welled up from where her canine had dug in. She saw him subtly bite his lip, letting out a quiet noise of appreciation.

“Ah- ha, that’s it,” he murmured. “Give me something to remember you by.”

“Remember me by?” Verun raised an eyebrow. It was hard to see his expression with the mask in the way, but he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and whirled her around, disorienting her enough for just a moment to be able to pin her against the mirror, his signature smirk wide and teasing.

“Did I say that?”

It was more the way he said it… Verun didn’t like it, but again, it was hard to tell what he was thinking behind that damn mask. So she pressed a kiss to his throat, insistent, and heard his quiet laughter die in his throat as he again cradled her head in his hand, leaning her up for a kiss.

“Ah, you’re so cute, Verun. I might just melt if I spend any more time with you.” He gently spun them around again to lean his back against the mirror, pulling her close so that she had to put her hands on his chest to keep herself from falling. Verun sighed quietly and again kissed his neck, and he tilted his head, hand weaving into the hair at the back of her head to lead her lips to his throat, where it was most sensitive. “If you’re going to bite… do it along here.”

She could see, she could feel his voice right there, making her lips tingle as she brushed them across his skin. And then his hand guided her up, just behind his ear, her lips making goosebumps appear where they touched. Then he let her go where she may, Verun kissing along the line of his jaw to the tip of his chin before going down along that line that Julian directed her to.

“Heh, you don’t have to be so gen tle-” his voice was cut off as she bit down, his arms cinching her closer to him. She was sure that she was on the verge of drawing blood again, a fervent shiver coursing through Julian. And when her mouth was done there, Julian led her mouth to his, finally, tilting both their heads to fit together out of the way of the mask.

It was gentler than she thought it would be, but it made her head feel light, like she was about to start floating off the ground. It’s like he was trying to keep her there, bound to him with his arms and his lips, letting out a reluctant, frustrated huff when she pulled back just an inch or two.

“... sweet.”

“Sweet?” She raised an eyebrow.

It was hard to tell what he was thinking with the mask, but the way his tongue peeked out of his lips for a moment made it obvious enough. “Too sweet, especially for one as bitter as me, my dear.”

Her cheeks burned, as his fingers tipped her chin up and he smiled, maybe sparking a hint of confidence in her once more. Verun reached up, over his shoulder and past his head, undoing the knot of the cord holding the mask in place. She wanted to see that face again, wanted to kiss him in that breathless way she got to earlier.

“Oh, is something wrong?” He looked surprised as the mask slipped off, toppling over her shoulder and to the floor.

“Is it wrong that I want to see your face?” She smiled, leaning closer to his face, aiming for soft lips. When he had put the mask on, a shadow had come over him. If there was something he wanted to hide from her, he had to do more than just put on a mask.

“Nothing wrong with that, Verun,” he said, pressing his lips to hers for a moment. He held her tightly, obviously enjoying this more now. It was easier anyway, without anything in the way… more natural, the way his tongue slid through her lips, like he was maybe chasing after that sweet taste.

She could almost feel her heartbeat thump in her chest, growing almost out of control in a sweetly gentle way. But when they parted once more, she could feel his laughter there, vibrating in both of their chests.

“It looked odd on me anyway.” He looked at her with a soft smile and kissed her forehead. “This one and my old one. Shame on me, letting something so unpleasant get between the two of us.”

Then his grin faded, and his arms fell away from her. Verun was about to ask why, when a miserable, warbling wail broke through the layers of hanging fabric, startling both of them.

“You heard that?” Julian stared down at her.

“Yeah,” she said, raising an eyebrow. She had to wonder why he had to ask, with the murmuring of the place not entirely… silent. Interestingly, he snatched up the mask and fastened it back over his face as he goes to investigate.

“Humor me and stay close, okay?” He just barely glanced over his shoulder at her, making sure she did in fact stay near him, before taking her hand just in case. Then he held up a finger to his mouth, leather gloves barely creaking.

He led the way forward, through the towering stacks of curiosities, stepping over fallen objects and ducking under drooping decoration in the direction of the continued wailing. A set of heavy velvet curtains hung in front of them, red light filtering through the slight part in them. As they peeked through the gap together, they saw the source of the noise.

Under the tinted spotlight, a man writhed under the covers of a ruined daybed. An actor, telling by the dramatic, mascara-streaked mask and the way his voice carried out over the gathered crowd that was shrouded in partial darkness.

“Wait up in my ROOM?? On my biRTHDAY??” The actor cried out in anguish, thrashing upright for a moment, staring around the room with a wordless wail. “WHAT do you expect me to do all night?? Clomp around in my hooves?? Beg the BUS BOY for TABLE SCRAPS?” Spittle flies from his mouth as he raves, catching the light. “If I can’t DISGUST anyone doing it, what’s the POINT?”

“Oh my god,” Julian mutters gleefully. “That’s fantastic, it sounds just like him.”

“Is that supposed to be the Count?” Verun looked up at Julian as he grinned, struggling to contain his giggles as he watched the show. It seemed like they had stumbled into some sort of dramatic reenactment of the murder, however morbid this might turn out to be. By the sound of the acting, the actor isn’t exactly giving any glamour to the late Count’s behavior.

And, the theater looks to be absolutely packed to the rafters. Even in death, making fun of him seems to be rather popular with the people around here.

“Well, it’s glad to see that the arts are flourishing. A renaissance may have started while I’ve been gone.” Julian finally managed to push his laughter down enough to speak quietly. “But if this is Lucio’s birthday night… then you don’t suppose this is a show about the murd-”

A couple things happened, very quickly. The audience laughed, the curtains starting to close, and a sandbag dropped between the two of them. At the same time, the ankle of Julian’s boot was snagged by a moving rope, dragging him off his feet and into the air, spinning him around like a haphazard kite as he flew over the center of the stage.

Verun grimaced, her eyes squeezing closed nervously, but when they open again she saw Julian suspended upside down over the Lucio actor, his eyes wide behind the mask and too stunned to do anything for a heartbeat… or three.

But then he thrashed, twisting his body up to knock something loose from his boot. It dropped into his hand and Verun could see the flash of a blade as it sliced cleanly through the rope holding him up. Then he fell, straight into the Count’s lap, groaning and splayed out. She had a feeling that if she had been any closer she could have heard his back pop, all the way up and down his spine with his landing.

The actor, for his part, went with the surprise rather smoothly despite the sound of something clattering in the back of the stage that Verun couldn’t see clearly. “Doctor Devorak! Here to cure my boredom.” The actor curled his fingers under the stunned doctor’s chin, tilting his face up with a delighted grin.

The audience shrieked with laughter and applause as Julian looked around, swallowing nervously as he tried to reorient himself in the room. The moment he gets his bearings and looks away from the crowd, Verun can almost feel the smirk on his lips and knows he’s going to go for it. He’s Julian, the theatrical dork that he is, why would he not take this chance?

With a sharp laugh, he rose up onto his knees over the actor. “Mwahahaha, hello my poor, poor patient. The clock strikes thirteen for you tonight.” He pulled the back of his gloves until they snapped back in place. The actor falls back with a gasp, hand held over his chest in false delirium. “I have come to end your suffering. Enjoy that last gasp, it shall be your last.”

“What are you going to do, smother me with your thighs?” The actor’s voice nearly drops into something seductive, hands reaching for Julian’s hips with wiggling fingers.

But then Julian gave a scoff, smacking his hands away. “For the hundredth time, no. Your thirst for even your murderer astounds me, Count.”

It turns into a tussle on the daybed, the audience delighted as feathers fly into the air with the action of the moment. Verun felt a smirk tugging at her lips, even as she shuffled backwards to make sure she was more hidden. After some hair pulling, Lucio’s actor rears backwards, pulling a flimsy tin sword out from behind the bed, taking a fighting stance that is more flashy than practical.

“Fight me properly! Man on man, we’ll see who takes the last gasp!” The actor shouted across the stage to Julian, who tilted his head in amusement.

“Oh Count, you really have lost your head in your unfortunate last days. But if it’s a fight you want, it’s a- oh.” A stagehand appears, tossing him an identically flimsy sword that he catches lightly before continuing. “It’s a- it’s a fight you’ll get! En garde!”

The sound of the two swords wobbling as the two stage fight echo in the rafters, and the crowd goes wild, almost unanimously cheering for Julian- and even if they were none the wiser about his legitimacy, it obviously spurred him on as he spun and hacked at the Count.

“Not bad for a dying man! I might just give you a chance!” The sword flies from the hand of the actor as he stumbled backwards, Julian’s boot planted in his stomach. “... to speak your last words. Choose them carefully, Lucio.”

“Is it money that you want, Doctor? Fine things? We’re friends, aren’t we?” The actor pled up at Julian, his makeup smearing as tears ran down his face. A great performer indeed. “I’m very generous you know, and you- I’ve always liked you best! What’s mine is yours!”

“This might surprise you, but some of us don’t kill for money,” Julian sneered. He swung his sword down in the vicinity of the actor’s neck. “Some of us kill to make up for not doing it sooner.”

As he stared down at the other masked face, Julian brought the point of the sword down, just a few centimeters shy of a killing stroke. A convulsion and a convincing wet gurgle later and the crowd went wild, shaking the bleachers with their screams and applause. Julian stepped back a little, suddenly looking a bit green.

“... Well, what now? I can’t exactly go unpunished for something like this, can I?”

On the other side of the stage, people in mocked-up guard uniforms appear. “Guards, get him! Hang the murderer!”

“... nnnot like that!” Julian gives a great, showy whirl of his cloak and rushes off the stage, chased by the performers. Verun turned and snuck her way back the way they came, hoping that by the time she found her way back to the door Julian would have found his way out as well.

As soon as she was out and up the stairs, Verun found that her legs were shaky, her heart running at a thousand miles per hour as she leaned against the wall. That entire situation went from zero to a hundred very quickly, and even with the entertainment of watching Julian perform she wasn’t… okay with that. So many eyes peering out at her, even just for a moment as they followed Julian, was a shock to her system. She had never been great with people, always too quiet and awkward to really enjoy standing out.

Verun was used to being the one in the background, happy to be forgotten as long as she had her friends. It took her a minute to realize that Julian hadn’t appeared yet. Her thoughts were spinning, barely coherent. Should she go back in and search for him? Did he get caught? Would the people here actually turn him in? Or should she just leave, and hope that he can find her again soon so she knows he’s alright? Would he even bother to let her know? If she was too caught up in work around the palace it would be too risky for him, anyway…

Then he was there, breathing a little harder than normal, maybe a bit disturbed even. “Verun, there you are. What a trip, I’m still one foot in the meta realm.” He gave a little chuckle and grinned at her. “Luckily nobody seemed to realize it was actually me… was the neighborhood always this skeptical? Probably…”

Focusing on her, his grin fell. “Hey, you feeling okay? I know it was a bit of a shock. That wasn’t exactly how I had this planned, so uh… let me try this again.” He took both of her hands and stared at her seriously, his eye shining with sincerety. “Verun. I’d like to head over to the Raven for a bite to eat, if you’d be so forgiving as to join me? My treat, of course, and after that… a… a nice walk down to the docks. How does that sound?”

Verun gave a quiet smile, blinking slowly and clearing her head as she calmed down. A quick squeeze to his hands later, and she nodded as her smile strengthened. “Yeah… yeah sure, that sounds nice.” If it would finally get Julian to actually tell her what’s been on his mind all day, she was up for it. And after a day without breakfast, between all the activity, she was famished.

So he held onto one of her hands, heading off through the winding streets towards the Rowdy Raven. He didn't move as quickly now, taking his sweet time to get there like he was trying to stretch the time they spent together. When they did arrive, it was to find a quiet tavern, the barkeep cleaning mugs and plates alike in preparation of the main dinner rush.

"Heya, Julian. You're here early, who's your friend?"

"Barth, this is Verun. Verun, Barth." Julian smiled as he introduced the two. "I'll just take my regular, if you're good with throwing that together this early. Just the platter should be enough for the two of us." He turned and grinned devilishly at Verun. "Unless my friend here decides that their stomach is feeling needy as well."

Verun shrugged, sticking her tongue out a bit. "I should be fine, I'm a light eater."

"Ah, a woman after mine own heart," Julian sighed, a hand spread over his chest. "Then the one platter will be just fine."

The barkeep snorted in amusement at their exchange and nodded, giving a sly, gap-toothed smirk of their own. "Alright, then. It'll be on the house for tonight, Jules."

"I-" Julian was already reaching for his coin pouch, though his hand froze. "You sure, Barth? What for?"

They waved him off with a low chuckle. "Don't mind it, Jules. Go have your date in peace."

"Oh. Oh- thank you, Barth," he stuttered, leading Verun to the shadowed booth in the back that seemed to be his favorite spot. They sat across from each other, an ill-fitted silence falling over them for a moment.

"So…" Verun paused, but quickly decided that maybe… small talk would be a good option. Simple things that would help her get to know the small details about Julian and who he was. "What's your favorite color?" Then she stopped, inspecting his outfit. "And please, for the love of god do not say black-"

She was cut off as his lips pulled up into an insufferable grin, letting out an already tired groan. "Black as my soul, my dear. Why do you think I'm so pale?"

"Cause you're a ginger vampire, I dunno," she laughed, shaking her head. "You hiss and scratch at your own skin when you get too much sun, maybe. You seem like the type that would blind people if you walked around without a shirt in the sun."

He looked baffled, before his voice rose in laughter at the sudden turnaround. "Hey now-"

"Hey, I'm not saying that I would mind if you walked around without a shirt, honestly. You got a body to show off, Julian." She set her head in her hands and smiled, fluttering her eyelashes jokingly.

That flustered him into stutters, making him lean back in his seat as his eye covertly tried to track where the barkeep was. "Really now? I never knew. I just don't like what the sun does to me, with the burns and all…"

"Mmm, that's fair." She stared at him as the smell of food filled the room, coming from the kitchen in the back. It made her stomach give a howl of hunger, Julian blushing a bit.

"Sorry about that though, I realize that I never did actually… get you breakfast." He shook his head, a ghost of a shadow passing over his face for a moment before he looked up at her. He shook it off and smiled. "So, what's yours?"

"What's my-" She paused and blinked. For a moment she had forgotten her own question to him. "Oh, probably… kind of red? It's a very specific shade that's not quite red, but not quite pink. Sometimes you can see it in the sunset, if you're watching."

He smiled. "Ah, I know that color well. A good choice, honestly. Any color of the sunset is… oddly fulfilling, as I see it."

"Fulfilling is kind of an odd way to put it," Verun stated, smiling. "What does that mean?"

"It means you've survived another day, of course. And it means a night of adventure with good, or at least interesting company ahead." He grinned, leaning one head into his hand as his eye inspected her face, slowly traveling from the broken line of her eyebrow to her amber eyes, down the bridge of a rounded nose and to soft lips below. Then his gaze slowly worked back up to meet hers once more, his smirk lazy and unfairly flirtatious. "And recently my nights have been a touch more interesting than normal."

"Yeah?" Verun murmured a bit, staring back at him. "You should put your foot up on my seat real fast."

"For… why?" Julian looked a little hesitant and confused, but it didn't stop him from raising his foot and placing it down on Verun's seat. She slipped her hand under the table and slid it up to where the latches and buckles were. Through the thick leather she could faintly feel his calves flex, before she quite suddenly made quick work of all the fastening on his boots before simply pulling it off his foot.

His confusion only increased from there as other patrons came in, calling greetings to both Julian and the barkeep as they came in. Verun stood his boot in the corner of her seat against the wall and smirked at his confused face - before she trapped his foot between strong thighs and set about tickling the bottom of it with light brushes of her nails, grinning wickedly. Julian instantly was squirming in his seat, desperately trying to suppress his giggles as he twisted and turned, trying anything to escape her grip. But soon enough loud laughter rang from their corner, gathering a few stares. Thankfully most other people here knew Julian well enough and welcomed the sound of laughter from him, quietly wishing him luck with whoever was able to get him to let loose like that. Verun didn't let him go until Julian's laughter had turned into breathless squeaks of noise, not able to breathe with how hard he was laughing. And when she did release him, he pulled his leg back hard enough that his knee smacked into the bottom of the table, making him yelp in surprise.

Verun laughed at his face, the way his hair fell in the way of his eye somehow making him look like he had just woken up, even as a grin split his features. He stooped in his seat enough to catch up the foot that Verun had resting across the gap under the table. But she was quicker, and pulled her leg away to sit on her foot with a grin.

"I'm afraid you won't have much luck with that, Jules~" she teased, smirking at him.

"Oh? And why not, my dear Verun?" He leaned across the table towards her, the remnants of giggles still puffing from his lips as his throat moved oh so slightly.

"Because, I have almost no feeling in the bottom of my feet," she stated simply, grinning back. She really didn't, though she had no idea why. "There's something kinda wrong with them."

"Hmm. Are you sure? I still want to test." Julian had long enough arms that he could reach over under the table and brush her knees with the very tips of his fingers. Verun laughed and swatted his hands away, pulling her shoe off before presenting him with her foot. She could barely feel anything touch the bottom of it, the brush so light that she wasn't sure if she actually felt it, or if it was imagined. Julian looked surprised, and then interested, and she could feel him maybe press a bit harder for a moment. "That's odd. You can't even feel that?"

"You were actually touching the bottom?" Verun gave a sort of embarrassed smile and shrugged. It felt like he was just giving feather-light brushes.

"Verun, I was even digging my nails in a tiny bit. I know some people that have burned their feet bad enough that they've lost feeling, but there's no scarring around your skin that would suggest that… except for that, I guess." Julian looked confused, and sort of thoughtful as he kept her foot in his lap, fingers brushing up from her foot to her shin. Verun was pretty sure that she knew what scar he was talking about, and let out a slight snort.

"Are you talking about the one kinda near my heel? I know what that's from, it's kinda why I know that I can't feel properly." She grinned a little and leaned forward. "At some point I stepped on a thorn Asra had dropped while he was working on something of his, and I didn't even realize. I only noticed when he started freaking out because I was leaving bloody footprints around the shop."

At that Julian looked a little… green. Ah, a story that actually made the doctor feel a bit squeamish. "That… disturbs me… how did you just not realize?"

"I dunno. Once Asra pointed it out to me it kinda ached, but not much more than that. He even stayed home a few extra days to make sure I wasn't up and walking around when I wasn't supposed to, he was so worried about me." She smiled, her grin softening to something that felt more melancholy than even she was expecting. Julian reached over and tilted her chin up with a sort of reassuring smile, his thumb smoothing across her cheek.

"Well, for a witch with commitment issues, he seems to be pretty committed to you, don't you think?"

Verun was about to answer when the barkeep came over, a platter balanced in one hand with a tankard in the other. They set the platter down first before sliding the tankard over on Julian's side, grinning.

"Your usual, Jules," they said with a gruff sort of tease in their voice. "Eat well, you scoundrel, and stop feeding the dogs in the alley."

Julian laughed and peered into the tankard, his ears looking a bit red as he sniffed it. "Ah, a Salty Bitters. My… usual."

Verun's lips worked up as she stared at the small mountain of food between them, piled high with meats, bread, and some sort of vegetable smothered in brown gravy. It smelled absolutely heavenly in front of her, and she grabbed for one of the forks sticking out of the pile.

Together they devoured nearly everything that was on it, Verun surprising herself with how much she was able to fit down. She was also somewhat surprised to notice that Julian sat back surprisingly soon, stretching with a satisfied sigh. Once Verun was done there were only some of the gravy-smothered vegetable and a few stray pieces of meat that Julian kind of picked at.

"You're not going to eat any more?" She asked, looking at him curiously. "You barely ate."

He grinned a little, waving a hand to dismiss her worry. "It's a curse thing. Haven't had to eat or rest as much as I used to."

Verun hummed as he took a swig of his drink, thinking about how exhausted he always looked But she didn’t think that he liked to talk about it, so she switched the subject, nodding at his tankard. "So, what… is that?"

"Ah, this? It's a Salty Bitters, a house specialty. Never had anything like it outside of the Raven. Wanna try?" He offered it smoothly, and Verun took it with a bit of caution. She had had her fair share of alcohol before, experimenting when Asra was gone, but it had backfired spectacularly when he had found her the next morning, with a hangover like she had taken a hammer to the head.

She raised the drink to her lips, keeping her eyes on Julian as she tipped it back enough for a sip.

And she almost spat the thing back up, choking on what she had managed to get into her mouth. It was strong alcohol, and was indeed salty, and bitter, combining into an absolutely horrid mix of flavors. As soon as she could swallow it down and stop coughing, she shook her head and stared at Julian in some sort of outrage.

"What the fuck is this? How the hell-" another coughing fit overcame her and she wheezed. "How the hell do you drink this?"

Julian laughed, leaning over to take the tankard back. "It's an acquired taste,” he said smoothly.

“No shit.” She stared at it for a moment before impulsively taking another sip. It was just as bad as the first time. As she was sent into another coughing fit, Julian took the tankard back, trying his best to not laugh at her struggles.

Slowly the tavern got more packed, like it had been the first time Verun had met Julian here. It had the same warm, jovial atmosphere that it had before, though she definitely felt more eyes on her than last time. Maybe people knew that she was from the palace now, or maybe it was just because of the way that her and Julian sat together. For his part, Julian didn’t seem to be paying any mind at all to the people around them, focused on her as he swallowed down the drink with hardly a blink.

“Are you sure you should be downing that so quickly?” She looked at him, somewhat concerned.

He smirked, lowering the tankard to the table, the dregs of the drink sloshing around. “I’ll be fine, promise. Got the alcohol tolerance of a drunkard, as some people like to say.”

“Should I be concerned?”

Julian rolled his eyes a little, waving her question off with a smile.

And they kept talking, Verun eventually coaxing Julian to come sit on her side of the table with a threat of throwing his boot into the crowd, and the two of them continued talking and laughing for a while. She found out that he loved coffee, which she had only tried once or twice when Asra had brought the beans back with him from his travels. It was also an acquired taste - something Verun was learning was a trend with Julian - especially as he liked his coffee black, with nothing dulling down the bitter flavor. She also got to hear some stories of his travels around the world, fantastic and sometimes obviously exaggerated fight scenes, though he included his fair share of embarrassing moments as well.

She found herself watching him with a wide, soft grin as he acted out a particularly harrowing scene of him wrestling with an alligator as he tried to get through a swamp to find some sort of treasure, she had already forgotten what. He flailed dramatically, laughter in his eyes, and gave a firm air-kick to the imaginary alligator before he ended his story. Verun leaned on him, pressing her face into his shoulder with a grin.

“You really are quite a wild ride with your stories, aren’t you?” She laughed, her fingers twining with his. He kissed her hair with a slight squeeze to her hand, sighing.

“Should we move on to the docks?” His voice was quiet, and she couldn’t help but hear the sort of dread in his voice.

She hummed quietly. “Mmmmaybe.”

“Why only maybe?” His smile was still there, pressing against her temple as he nudged her head away with his chin. 

“Whhhat if I wanted some alone time with you?” Verun couldn’t help but grin a little. “I like alone time with you.”

He laughed, but slipped out of the booth, motioning her to follow. “Cmon, you. The stars are beautiful this time of night.”

Verun followed, taking the hand offered to her as Julian led her through the crowded tavern, pushing his way through the door as more patrons came in. His steps were sure and languid, not at all like what Verun would have been like if she had been the one that downed that Salty Bitters. In the cool night air his fingertips went cold even through his gloves, and Verun held tighter to him, walking a bit closer.

Once more she got a feeling of… reluctance from him, like he didn’t want to move forward with the next part of this date he had planned, like he didn’t want it to end. Verun felt a little bit of a smile pull at her lips, understanding the sentiment. If she could, she would wish for this night to continue on all the way til morning, able to wake up next to him again… and hopefully not have him disappear for a few hours this time.

Chapter Text

Eventually they reached the beach, thankfully without any run-ins with the guards this night. Julian led the way, letting go of Verun’s hand as he walked along the sand. She watched him, just a few steps ahead of her, his form silhouetted against the moonlight on the water running over the rocky beach. Picturesque.

But she could see a tension there, something that had been building up all day, just waiting to crash down on the both of them. The way his shoulders stayed stiff, the way his gaze subtly avoided looking straight at her. He stopped as he reached a rotting wood pier, glancing back at her with a sad smile that beckoned her forward. He didn’t say anything, the silence broken only by the waves gently lapping at the rocks.

The two of them walked out to the end of the pier, and eventually Julian took a deep breath, the tension finally finding its breaking point. His eye was fixed onto a certain point in the sea, though Verun didn’t know whether to look away from him or not.

“This breeze is nice… it would be a good night for sailing, don’t you think?”

“I wouldn’t know,” she murmured, staring at him still, watching as he shook his head and dropped his gaze to the water at the end of the dock.

“Verun, listen… we uh, we need to talk. We’ve been needing to all day, I’ve just been putting it off. I guess I was just enjoying myself too much to…” He looked at her, face tinged with pink, his expression warring between something pleased and something dreadfully sad.

She bumped his shoulder with her own. “I had fun today too. It was a good date day.” Where he was going with this was a mystery, but he was definitely dancing around something. That made Verun nervous, she didn’t want… whatever this was to ruin the end of her night, even though she had a feeling that it was about to smack her down. But whatever it was, she did have fun with her day.

“Really now?” He smiled, rubbing one of his palms across his cheek. “Even the part where I destroyed a fortune in fruit? Or accidentally crashed a play?”

With a laugh, Verun nodded. “I mean, you did save me from getting smashed by the fruit cart. And the play was oddly hilarious, honestly. That Lucio actor was totally flirting.”

“He was very in character,” Julian stated dryly, though he smirked at the memory.

Verun smiled. It wasn’t often that she got to see things outside of her own neighborhood, so the outing today was, beyond being fun, interesting in many ways and enlightening to a point. “The people seem to love you.”

“They’re good people. Hardworking, dedicated.” He paused, expression darkening into something heartbroken. If Verun had to guess he looked almost scared. “But covering for me is putting them in danger. I know they’d take any chance to get back at the palace, and I can’t fault them for that, but… eventually something is going to happen, and someone will get hurt. I’m a disaster waiting to happen, Verun. And… and I don’t want you to get caught up in that.”

He slowly sank down to sit at the edge of the pier, his legs just long enough that the heels of his boots skimmed over the surface. Verun sat beside him, her shoulder bumping into his. He leaned towards her, almost like he craved to press up against her again, but stayed just far enough away that the edge of his cloak barely brushed her shirt. It hurt to have him so close, yet so desperately far away with that look in his eyes.

He raised his hand to point at a dark mass on the edge of the horizon. “You see that island? It’s called the Lazaret. It’s where the city sent their infected, during the height of the plague. A perfect monument to my failures to all the people I tried to help. Always visible from shore, just enough to haunt the people here, to remind the city of the suffering it went through, the suffering I wasn’t able to stop for the people that now do so much to try to help me. Every death, every body burnt in those pits, is another mark against me. And there are so many… so many marks, Verun.”

Julian sighed, frowning. “I don’t want to drag this out. This… whatever it was, whatever this could have been.”

Her heart dropped into her stomach, and she nearly lunged forward to grab onto him, to hold him tighter, to refuse to let go. But he continued on, not meeting her gaze still, and she was frozen. "It… it has to end, before it's too late for you. I'm going to end up hurting you somehow, I know it. And I-I'm pretty sure this is hurting you now , but I can't risk your life over some time spent with… with a wreck like me."

"You won't hurt me," she said desperately, blinking quickly to keep tears from welling up in her eyes.

"Ohh, Verun. My dear Verun… you're too kind to me. I will absolutely hurt you. It's inevitable, for everyone around me. It's only a matter of time, it's what I do. It's what I've always done." He drooped, head down as he inspected his hands in his lap, a grimacing sneer twisting his features. "I'll be the first to admit my faults, and there are so many. I lose myself time and time again, or maybe this is the real me. Someone who hurts the people closest to me. A failure. I don't even know if I killed the Count, but I know that I could have. I know I have that darkness in me, if something pushes hard enough. Isn't that enough to damn me?"

Verun closed her eyes, desperately trying to clear her head as tears threatened to spill over. He didn’t want her to get hurt, and she understood that, but part of her needed to know for a fact that he wasn’t doing this because he was trying to get rid of her. And it was so hard to get it out past her throat as it closed up, the pressure building as she opened her mouth to speak, staring at him as her vision blurred for a moment.

"Do you want me?"

Her question startled him, his body nearly jerking away into the sea, like her words scorched him. His face was noticeably red even in the moonlight, eyes wide and embarrassed. Not a great start to the answering of her question. "Do I- what? Did you… I must have misheard you." He stumbled through his words, avoiding her gaze as it pierced through him.

"I asked… if you wanted me?"

"Ah, so I didn't misunderstand," he muttered. "That's a strange question to ask when I'm breaking up with you, don't you think? Though I don't know if this can be called a proper breakup, we were never really together… this has just been a night or two stolen together, no matter how pleasant they’ve been."

He leaned back, hesitant to answer as he let his mouth ramble on. He looked like he was about to break any moment, stand and go running off into the darkness, using those long legs to leave her behind. "Do I want you… do I want you? That's such a hard question to answer, Verun. I don’t want to hurt you. I want you to be safe. I want you to stay out of this whole mess. I want… I want you to have a future of your own. It doesn't matter what I want." He trailed off, hands clenching on his lap as his eyes took on a distant look, like he was staring into a void of blackness contained within himself.

"You didn't answer my question, Julian," she insisted. If Verun didn't have to, she didn't want to go into her more aggressively protective mode, but the way he kept talking made her think that maybe she would be forced to.

"Tenacious, aren't you? That's one of the things I like about you, I will say… you’ve kept me moving forward in these last few days, not letting me wallow in my own head so much. You're like this great light that keeps pulling me forward, getting me to take just one step more, and one more. I just can't help myself, you're… magnetizing. If I was a stronger man I think I could make this better, either to stay away or to actually make something good for you… if I wasn't so weak… but I can't, you're just-" he looked up, almost to her, a smile bright and amazed on his face even as his words sounded like he was shattering as he spoke. "You're so amazing, Verun. So much more than I could ever deserve. You're so good, in every way I could ever think of."

But then his face dropped, and he bit hard onto his lip, anguished. "And I… I want you. More than anything. I know it's only been a few days, but it feels like I've known you for years, the way you put me at ease, it's like… like I could just relax. Which is notoriously hard to do, just ask Mazelinka, I just- I can't stop thinking about you. Even- even when you're not there, I always feel like I'm going to turn around and see you through the window, around the corner, somewhere nearby- it's-" he let out a quiet, frustrated shout, rubbing his hands back and forth through his hair and leaving it an absolutely tangled mess.

"That's the problem, Verun. I'm torn in two, and I can't figure out what to do. My mind says that I have to leave, get out of here before it's too late for you and everything falls down on us and I have to see you get hurt, maybe get killed because of me. But my heart is too caught up in what I want, chasing after visions of a future that crumbles to dust before I can even graze my fingers over it- it keeps pulling me back to you even though I know it's wrong for me to. I-I don't even know if I could stay away from you if I tried," he said with a huff of a helpless laugh, staring out at the sparkling sea through his wild strands of hair. "If I let down my guard, would I just end up walking right back to you? How far would I have to go to run from that urge? I can see the path our story would take, so why… why can't I just go? That's what makes me selfish, I just can't let go. Whatever possibilities, whatever futures we could have, I would ruin. Is that worth it for the time spent with me? There's no ending that doesn't end in ruin for you."

Verun didn't think that she could listen to his sob story for much longer. The tension rose in her throat, watching him as he spoke, threatening to strangle the words she tried to give. She didn't know what he could see from her, what futures he saw crumbling down around him, but she wanted so badly to know. She wanted to fix them, help him build something that wouldn't fall down at the first sign of trouble. Maybe that's just what he needed, a fixing hand… but she knew that kind of voice, the one that had already made a decision. So she let the tears streak down her face, wiping them away quickly, hoping he wouldn't see the way she was breaking. 

But he stared at her like she was a glass doll, eyes wide as he tried and failed to wipe away her tears as they continued to fall, only spreading them over her cheeks with the leather of his gloves. And he looked like he was breaking too, hating the way her tears slipped down her face, hating that he was the one that caused them.

"Oh Verun, please don't cry," he said, pleading. That's how he was selfish. "I'm so sorry, my dear, I'm sorry."

That's how he was selfish. Breaking her and asking her not to cry over it, being so nice and tender over it, when she all she wanted was to cling onto him and say his name over and over until it was etched onto her tongue. Her throat was so tight she couldn't speak, couldn't make noise, couldn't even move as her chest shook with silent sobs. She didn't want to be left behind, though that was exactly what was happening, again .

It felt like her chest was turning inside out, her heart exposed for him to stick his medical needles into it and puncture, leaving her to bleed out. It felt like he was tearing the air from her lungs and telling her to run without breathing, asking her to do it for him. It felt like abandonment, the way he looked at her with such devotion and such pain. She missed him already, missed the tenderness she had been stealing with such familiarity from him.

The moment a noise escaped her throat, Julian rocked backwards, like he had been hit. He looked so hurt, scared out of his mind as if he wanted to bolt away but was too tied up to move. "God, I'm so sorry Verun, I just don't know what to do, I'm sorry." He reached out again like he was scared he wasn't allowed to anymore, and Verun reached out to grip onto his jacket. She pulled herself closer, head tucked into the crook of his neck as she let out a soft, warbling whine before her entire body shook in a sob and cut the sound off again. She wanted him closer, she didn't want to be anywhere near him. Conflicting thoughts raged through her head until a loose fist fell onto his chest, a weak excuse of a punch.

"Y-y-yo-u don't ha-ave to leav-e-" She shook her way through her words, trying so hard to get it out. Julian's arms wrapped around her properly and nearly squeezed the breath out of her again. "J-jus-t- just stay?"

He pressed his face into her hair until the force of it hurt, taking deep breaths like he was trying not to cry as well. "I can't, Verun. I can't. Not when it's dangerous for you, I can't- not when I know how dangerous it is for you."

Her chest compressed on its own at that point, pressing her breath back down her throat until she choked on her emotion. But with shaky hands she pulled him down, pressing tear-slick lips to his. "Give me tonight, then. Please. Please," she pleaded, voice stronger as he pressed back against her lips.

"Okay… just a little longer," he murmured. But Verun refused to move away, and Julian didn't want her to, so they drew closer. And then Verun crawled into his lap, and Julian pulled at her with firm hands at the base of her spine, and their kisses turned needy, desperate. Her hand clung to his hair, tugging and gripping and yanking him to where she wanted. And she wanted him everywhere , she wanted him at her neck, at her breasts, mouthing at her thighs and between her legs. But he was so stubbornly far away from everywhere else but her lips, until she pulled away and leaned her head back, finally able to lead him at least to her neck to satisfy the drowning need she had for his touch.

"I want-" her voice broke as his lips met her skin, firm but too gentle now, not enough desperation in his touch. She wanted to be loved, she wanted to be so marked up that she would see the evidence of him on her skin for days. If she had to bleed for that, she didn't care, she wanted it all. But she was scared that Julian would deny her that, if she asked, and her heart would be broken again.

"What- what do you want?" He murmured against her skin, just barely pausing at her neck.

"You," she whispered, voice cracking. "I want you, I want-"

Her voice disintegrated into pants as he leaned into her, pressure in her throat and on her neck, pricks of pain making her voice loose a cry that drifted across the water like a lonely little bird. Then his hands were under her shirt, cool and shaking fingers pressing to her overheated body, tracing over her spine. It was like there were cracks spreading over her skin, breaking, breaking, breaking her with his gentleness. She missed him already, every time his lips left her skin only to move a few centimeters to kiss her again.

Somehow she managed to shrug off the shoulder of her shirt, her mind caught in a loop of I miss you, I miss you, I miss you, until his lips and tongue met the skin there as well, and the hand in his hair pressed him down. She pressed his mouth there, at bone and muscle, until his lip was about to split, and finally he bit down. The pain was greater there, more relevant, but she kept him there until her skin broke, and even then she didn’t let him pull away.

She kept him there until his hands came up, turning the two of them so Julian could push her away, down onto the rotting boards of the dock. His lips were stained with blood and spit, eyes wide as he watched tears again roll down her face. Blood dribbled from her shoulder, but as he raised his hand to the bite mark she snatched at his wrist, pulling him closer to taste the blood on his tongue. There was no need for him to be healing a bite like that, and she didn’t want him to. Verun wanted the reminder, hating the pain but welcoming the way it stung.

When finally she was exhausted enough to let go of him, the moon had long since disappeared over the horizon. Julian laid over her, his jacket unbuttoned and Verun’s arms dug up around him under his shirt. Her own shirt had been pulled up and together they shared the warmth that the nearby water seemed to be trying to snatch away from them, skin pressed to skin all the way up their torsos.

But eventually, with a hand running tenderly over her damp cheek, Julian pulled himself away, buttoning up his jacket again before hauling her up to stand. Verun was exhausted, emotionally and physically, barely able to stumble her way down the docks to keep pace with him, even as his long stride shortened.

“I’ll walk you home,” he murmured, eyes catching on the bite mark just barely visible underneath her shirt. He hitched her shirt up a little before looking away, a pained expression on his face.

Verun followed just half a pace behind him. At this point she didn’t have the will to argue against his hare-brained idea to leave her. If he wanted to just leave, then whatever. Let him. But Verun would follow after him, she would find whatever scraps of memories were left on his things at the castle, or with Mazelinka, or even Portia if she had to. No matter what, Verun wasn’t just going to let him run from this.

“You… being with you, is the first thing I’ve wanted for myself in a long time,” he whispered, just barely loud enough for Verun to hear, almost like he was more talking to himself than anything. It was almost lost within the quiet sounds of their footsteps. But she couldn’t continue the conversation and get such heartbroken responses from him any more than she already had, and he doesn’t go on.

They wander through the quiet streets, and Verun couldn’t tell if they were going a longer way than strictly necessary or not. But eventually they arrived in front of the shop, and Julian stopped in front of the door like he wanted to open it and follow her in.

Instead he turned, glancing at her. His hands didn’t find her this time. Instead he pressed a single kiss to her forehead, giving a tiny smile that didn’t even really try to reach his eyes. “When I came to Vesuvia, I was seeking answers. Finding you… was a special treat, Verun. Thank you… however brief, the time we spent together mattered to me. And I-... I won’t forget it.”

With no more goodbye than that, he turned with a quiet flare of his cloak and disappeared down the small alleys. Verun stood there silently, feeling the throbbing of the bite mark on her shoulder, and waited until she couldn’t hear his footsteps anymore to step inside the shop.

Inside it smelled like cinnamon, and she vaguely watched as a thin stream of smoke spun down the stairs. All the lanterns were lit, and Verun’s heart dropped even as she saw Asra’s form come down the stairs, his fluffy hair peeking around the corner at her with a smile.

“Verun? You back from the palace?” He smiled like he was about to reassure her, until he saw her expression and his own turned worried. “I know that look. What happened?”

Her eyes welled with tears unexpectedly. She had been sure that she was out of tears to cry already, but as Asra stepped forward she buried her face into the soft cloth of his scarf, hands tightening into his shirt as she sniffled. His hands rubbed up and down her back, and he hummed quietly.

He gave her a minute or two to calm down after the initial rush of tears. “Do you want to talk about it?” One of his hands wiped the tears away from her eyes as he fussed over her. His skin was much better for that than Julian’s gloves, a fact that almost made her laugh as she remembered the useless swipes of his leather-bound hands.

“I…” Verun paused, taking a moment to take a deep breath. Knowing a little bit of how Asra viewed Julian, would he even care? Logically she knew that yes, of course he would care that she had her heart broken, and it didn’t matter who it was who did it. But a dark little niggle at the back of her mind told her that he would simply think that she was asking for it, going after Julian. “Asra… Julian just- he left me?”

Asra blinked shortly, before his hands slid down her arms from her shoulders. “He did? You two were…?”

“I don’t know,” Verun whispered, her nose stuffed up. She knew she wasn’t a pretty sight, with her face blotchy and red and her nose undoubtedly dripping. “I don’t- I don’t know.”

“Want to come upstairs and talk about it? I made that tea you like, you look like you could use it right about now.”

With a nod from her, Asra led her up the stairs and to their rickety kitchen table. Verun was stuck in her thoughts, struggling to not break into tears again as her mind drifted to Julian. Did he have someone to talk to about this? She was pretty sure that the whole breakup was just as hard on him. Would he even let himself talk about this to anyone? Would he go to Mazelinka, or try to find Portia?

As Asra sat across from her, he set down a mug near her and Faust curled around his own mug and settled there, napping against the warmth.

“So, what happened?” His gaze looked concerned, but there was a hidden touch of something else there too, like he was a step closer to snapping.

And Verun told him. Everything that had happened, leaving out details here and there only to spare her own pain of the memories of his skin under her hands. The story of finding him at the aqueduct, being chased and led along to Mazelinka’s house, to the next morning and the day that they had together. All leading to the end of the night, at the dock. By the end of it Asra had a look in his eyes, like he knew where all the missing bits and pieces had gone.

He sighed, resting his head in his hand as he wiggled his mug out of Faust’s coils to take a sip before replacing it. “That sounds like Ilya. He took an entire day to end it? Were you two even… together?”

“Again, I don’t even know. That’s what’s… confusing me.” Verun wiped at her eyes, feeling them ache with tiredness. “He made it sound like a breakup, but there was never an official… start, I guess. We just were, and now we aren’t and…”

“Ilya…” Asra said the doctor’s name again, but this time it had a bit of poison behind it, his eyes narrowing with a disturbing amount of anger that Verun hadn’t seen before. “The only thing he loves more than drama is his own suffering. And he’s determined to chase both.”

“That’s not true,” Verun murmured into her mug. “He’s just… he’s hurting, Asra. He hurts so much, and he gets all twisted and tangled in the thoughts in that head of his.”

“Isn’t it true?” The anger in his eyes and his voice lightened, if only marginally, as he focused on her again. “It’s easy to forget when you’re around him. He fills the room with excitement, makes you feel special. And then he finds some way to sabotage it, and when he crashes, he tears everything down with him and can’t seem to understand what he did wrong.” With a swish of his fluffy hair, Asra shakes his head. “I’ve never met someone so dedicated to their own unhappiness as Ilya.”

“Doesn’t he deserve to be happy though?” The way Asra spoke, it made Verun… uncomfortable. She wasn’t used to seeing him like that.

“Don’t you deserve to be as well?” His gaze was steady, before it slid away and he took a sip of tea, sighing. “Ah, you know I can’t tell you what to do, Verun. You’re your own person, you can make your own bad decisions. Just… please,  be careful with him.”

His expression was teasing, yet serious, until his mind skipped track for a moment and his eyes widened. “Oh! That reminds me. Do you still have the deck I gave you?”

Verun nodded, leaning forward to pull the cards out of her pocket. They seemed excited, a hum of energy coming off of them as she placed them down in front of Asra. It’s like they missed him, even during his relatively brief travel trip. She watched as his hand passed over them, and the cards disappeared as his shadow passed over them.

Some tension eased away in his shoulders, and he looked much more relaxed. Like he was relieved of some burden.

“You… you are alright, right? Nothing strange happened with the deck…?”

Verun gave him a small smile, a reassurance. Then he shook his head, clearing his thoughts as he smiled at her.

“You’re home. I’ll make some food before we sleep, alright?”

She nodded, and Asra rose quietly from his seat and left her to stew in her own thoughts. However she was supposed to move forward with the masquerade just around the corner, she knew almost for a fact that she wasn’t done with Julian. No matter how hard he tried to disappear, she was determined to either get him out of the city or to find out what really happened when he supposedly killed the Count. Either way… she wasn’t going to let him go so easily, and if the Countess herself intended to kill Julian, she would find a woeful rage in Verun.

Asra soon returned to the table with a bowl of food in his hand. It looked like a simple bowl of oats and fruit preserves, a favorite of hers when she was upset, especially when Asra made it as thick as he usually did. He hovered over her with a strange sense of anxiety until she raised her hands to eat. Honestly she wasn’t feeling very hungry, still full of the food that her and Julian had gotten at the Rowdy Raven. But it was a comfort food, and she ducked her head over at it to nibble at what she had on her spoon as her shirt slid away from her shoulders just a little.

Then she heard a sharp intake of breath from Asra and she glanced up at him, to see his face darken like storm clouds, his fingers sliding the shoulder of her shirt back more to expose the bite mark that Julian had left. It was no longer bleeding, but it was still plenty red and tender. Feeling his fingers brush over it made it ache for a moment.

“Did he do this?” Asra definitely did not sound happy about it, almost like he was about to go out himself to fight the plague doctor, his calm cracking at the sight of bloodied skin.

Verun slid her shirt back over the mark, letting her hand rest over it. “It doesn’t matter, Asra.”

She was sure that she heard him almost sputter, his hand pulling back. “Verun, I don’t care whether you care for him so much or not, I won’t just let him go around hurting you like this-”

“Asra,” she pressed, her voice calm but firm, fighting away the sharpness that threatened to snap out at him. “It doesn’t matter.”

Out of the corner of her eye she could see him. He looked shocked, hurt, and her heart ached suddenly in her chest as he stood there beside her. The look he pierced her with was almost desperately sad, as Asra struggled with something internally. She didn’t know what to do though, she was already weighed down with her own pain and sadness. What was she supposed to do for him?

The only thing she could do was rest her head against his waist, deflating. For a minute or two neither of them moved or said anything, until Asra raised his hand to run deft fingers through her hair, nails brushing the base of her neck. The feeling of it made her melt like it always did, the feeling of Asra’s magic running over her like a comforting blanket, washing away the tension between them.

“I’m sorry, Verun,” he murmured.

“I am too,” she offered. “I’m just exhausted.”

She could feel the touch of tender amusement that ran through him. “Then let's get to bed, you. With everything that’s been happening it sounds like you need the rest.”

Humming, Verun nodded and let Asra pull her to her feet. She stood only an inch shorter than him, and he surprised her with a light kiss to the tip of her nose as he leaned his head up just a slight bit.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been here, Verun… and I left just as you needed me, didn’t I?” He wrapped her into another hug, letting her lean against him as his sigh ruffled the hair just behind her ear. “Let me know if you need help, alright? I want to be here to help if you need me.”

Verun nodded, wrapping her arms around his waist and pressing her face into his shoulder. “Thank you, Asra.”

With that, he gently walked the two over to the bed, flopping down with her still trapped in his arms and a mischievous smirk light on his lips. It pulled a small smile out of Verun herself, and Asra released her so that she could kick off her shoes and he could pull his shirt off. Then he joined her once more, and the two cuddled together like they usually did. Asra put out the candles in the room with a whisper and in moments Verun was asleep, sinking into a dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

Morning came again, and Asra was already gone with a bowl of breakfast food sitting on the table. Verun didn’t pay too much mind to it for a while, going through her morning routine as she readied the shop to open for the day. She really didn’t want to go back to the palace and have Nadia ask about how her search for Julian had been going. Though maybe, if she could get back to the palace and find something else that would lead her back to him, it would be worth it.

She stopped in her morning routine to get the now-cold bowl of porridge from the table upstairs when there was a loud knock on the door that made her stop, spoon still in her mouth. No one should be at the shop so early unless there was some sort of emergency, and while she was exhausted still from the night before, she put down her bowl and spoon and dragged a hand through her hair to at least somewhat contain the messy locks behind her ear.

“Verun, are you home? It’s me, Portia, we need to talk!”

The Countess’s handmaid called through the door, and Verun almost left her hanging before she dully realized that… well, again, Portia is Julian’s sister. Her concern ramped up significantly from there, thinking that maybe something had happened to the doctor.

So, Verun shuffled over to the door and let her in, standing aside so Portia could step in properly.

“There you are! Whew, I’m glad I was able to catch you before you left.” She caught Verun up in a hug for a second, surprising the other girl. Then she looked around curiously. “Oh, is this what your shop looks like? Look at this place!”

Verun gave a small smile, knowing that Portia was either commenting on the messy state of the shop or just interested in all the magical knick-knacks her and Asra left lying around. She gave her a few moments to poke around, looking at the dried herbs and other spell ingredients around the shop until she cleared her throat quietly.

“Portia, you said we needed to talk?”

“Oh! Sorry Verun, you’re right. Milady wanted me to come check up on you. Um… see how you were doing with… the investigation.” Portia’s expression dropped as Verun’s followed suit. Of course, the one thing that Verun had wanted to avoid today…

“I’m working on it,” she said simply, a note of sourness in her voice. She didn’t want to talk about it, but even past that it probably wasn’t the best to speak about the investigation to anyone anyway.

Portia stared at her, wringing her hands into her sash. “Really? Have you… made any progress?”

“I…” Verun shook her head. How could she get out of this conversation? “I think so.”

“And did you… find him?” Portia’s expression darkened with worry, scared.

Of course. She didn’t know. Verun hadn’t even been able to talk to Portia about anything so far, let alone get to the castle, not after her day with Julian. “Well… yes, for better or worse.”

“I… see…” Portia’s expression turned more confused, but maybe more hopeful. “Ugh! Look, Verun. You know I saw you with him outside the shop a few days ago. And you saw me. It seems like neither of us are in a rush to turn him in. If milady catches him, she’s going to hang him. I’m not about to let that happen to my brother, no matter how dim-witted he wants to be. We have to get him out of the city. That’s the only way he’ll be safe.”

“We?”

“We’re on the same side, aren’t we? I could use your help, Verun. And Ilya could, too.”

Verun looked away, her heart twisting in her chest. “If he’ll even let us help. Do you think he will?”

“Sounds like you’re talking from experience,” Portia said, annoyance in her voice.

“I… I am, I guess. Last night…”

“Last night?”

“He pushed me away. He said he needed to do this alone. I tried to get him to let me stay, but…” Verun shook her head, still-fresh memories whipping her mind into a tumult of emotion.

Portia sighed, the annoyance in her voice more prevalent now. “That sounds like Ilya, alright. Let me guess, he said it was to keep you safe?”

“I take that it’s a recurring theme?”

“He used to do that to me all the time when we were younger. He never let me handle anything… Always shouldering someone else’s burdens, while lamenting how heavy the load is.” She gave a small smile, trying to be reassuring. “I mean, it’s nice to hear he’s still my same brother. And now that I’m older, maybe I can finally help carry that weight. Ilya needs people he can rely on. He might need you , so let’s go find him.”

“Where do we find him?”

“Hmm… I think I know where he might be, or maybe people who might now. Follow me.” With that she hooked her arm into Verun’s, dragging her out of the shop before she was able to protest. The door closed and Verun knew she wasn’t getting in the way of Portia’s adventure, so she left her breakfast inside and put her magical wards up before getting dragged away again.

As Portia led the way through the streets, Verun started to realize that… maybe she recognized the area around here. She was pretty sure that she had seen that building leaning out into the street a few times now, though in this unfamiliar part of the city she was still firmly lost.

It didn’t hit her until they reached it. The Rowdy Raven. It almost made her laugh, thinking that of course Julian would return to his little alcoholic hideaway. Maybe it really wasn’t so hard to find him, even when he didn’t want to be found.

Portia pushed the door open, and they stepped in. The tavern was quiet for now, the evening rush still quite a ways off. The few patrons inside milled about, talking in low murmurs as money changed hands quite suddenly. The bartender looked over and saw Verun, nodding to her silently as they returned to their task of cleaning glasses.

“Trust me, I know my brother. He’d definitely hang at a place called The Rowdy Raven.” Portia gave her a sly wink, stepping through the patrons to get to the bar. But Verun knew better, instead pulling her in the direction of the corner where the booth was left to the shadows just a little more than the others.

Lo and behold, there sat Julian, slumped over with his head in his arms. His long legs stuck out in front of him and out from under the table, almost begging for someone to trip over them. Luckily it seemed like there weren’t any people in the corner to trip over them, as the two girls approached him. There were glasses and tankards covering the table, a flush high on his cheeks that wasn’t from embarrassment.

The two of them stopped a few yards away, just out of earshot as Portia murmured to her. “Ohhh boy. There he is… listen, when he gets like this, what he really needs is a good boot to the ass. You want to deliver it, or should I?”

Verun looked at the other girl for a few moments, debating. As much as she wanted to rant and rave at Julian, she knew she would lose the heat of any anger she felt the moment Julian looked up at her and looked any sort of sad. And Portia seemed to have some experience in this sort of thing, so she nodded thoughtfully.

“You go ahead. I don’t want to be too soft on him.”

Portia snickered quietly and nodded. “Fair enough.”

Then her voice raised, turning as stern as Verun had heard it when the other girl had been reprimanding some lazy servants. “Ilya!! What do you think you’re doing?!”

Julian jumped, nearly spilling the drink that he had in hand. It took a moment for him to focus, his gaze confused and bleary. “Pa… Pasha? Verun…?” His cheeks colored the moment he saw Verun standing slightly behind Portia. “H-Wow did the two of you… where did you come from? How’d you find me?”

His voice was definitely slurring, making Verun feel a touch of concern. She really didn’t like the fact that he was drinking his way into a coma over her.

“It was easy, we just followed the sounds of self-loathing and day drinking,” Portia told him, rolling her eyes. “What are you doing here, Ilya?? Do you want to be caught?”

“Caught??? Here?? Pfffff, nonsense-” Julian laughed, swaying in his seat a little as he waved a hand. “The bird would fly in and cause a racket.”

“And then you would probably waltz right into the waiting arms of the guards, right? Maybe swing them around for a little bit of a dance before they put you in chains?”

Julian frowned sadly, leaning back into his seat until it seemed like he was about to slide right under the table. “If I did get caught, I would deserve it… it’s not safe for either of you to be near me. You… you better go, before you get tangled in my mess.”

“We aren’t going anywhere without you! You’re my brother, I’m already tangled up in your mess, dim-wit. Do you have some kind of death wish, Ilya?” Tears flooded into Portia’s eyes, and Julian leaned forward, desperate to stop the tears.

“Pasha- ohhhhh, no don’t cry, no, don’t-”

“I’ll cry if I want to!” Portia angrily wiped the tears away even as they kept rolling down her cheeks, looking away as her bottom lip trembled. Verun had to give it to her, even while her performance was fueled by legitimate feelings, Portia had a way of making everything just excessive enough to persuade anyone. “You better hold me back, Verun, before I f-fight him!”

“Pasha, I’m sorry, I- ohh, I’m so sorry-” Julian was looking wobbly, and Verun was hit with the distinct epiphany that she was surrounded on both sides by absolute drama lovers, though one was able to control it much better than the other. Maybe she should reconsider her life choices.

“I’ve done nothing but cause you trouble! This is what happens! Where I go, misery follows…”

Yup, drama. Enough that it was fit for the theater.

“That doesn’t mean that you can just give up! You’ll die, Ilya!”

“Maybe I deserve to.” He drooped back into his seat, at risk of sliding under the table again. “Barth… Baaaarth, I need another stein over here… make it another Salty Bitters.”

Verun nudged him over on the bench and plopped down beside him, pinning him with her stern glare. “You stop that moaning, Julian. The last thing you deserve is death.” She pressed a hand to his chest to stop him from speaking. “Portia, would you stop the barkeep from making that drink?”

The other girl nodded and headed to the bar to have a quick word while Julian tried to flail his way around Verun with a wordless whine. It sounded… particularly pathetic while he was drunk like this.

“Verun, why would you do that…” He huffed and draped himself over her, face planted messily along the back of her neck. “Just one more, pleeeaaase.”

“You’re drunk enough, Julian.” Still, Verun shuffled him around a bit so that he dropped his head into her lap. He was drunk enough that he didn’t complain about his long legs getting tangled up in each other as he had to twist around to settle in his new position. “Julian… you might not believe it, but I really do want to help you. I want… well, in simple terms, I do want to spend time with you.”

“Pffff.” His lips flapped loosely as he scoffed. “Even after I hurt you last night, Verun? Don’t be… don’t be foolish. Only a masochist would want to be around me. I’m not good for anyone. A moment with you… it’s not worth all the pain and tears that inevitably follow.”

“Maybe I am just a masochist,” she said, raising an eyebrow at him. “But between you and me, I think the masochist is you.”

He sputtered, throwing his arms up and over his face to cover the way his cheeks burned brighter at her comment. “Hhhhhey. Look. I told you, I have an interesting relationship with pain.”

“In other words, you get off on it.” Verun struggled not to smile as he whined, trying to hide his face in her thighs. For a moment she enjoyed teasing him, even if it was just to momentarily distract him. “Wonder what I could do with that.”

“Ohhhmmm god. Noooooo.” Julian whined into her belly, and Verun could feel his voice better than hear it. She got to watch as his shoulders started going red as well where his loose shirt let her see, his body flushing in embarrassment that the alcohol wasn’t able to stop. Thankfully Portia seemed to be giving them some time to speak alone, Verun didn’t particularly want to scar her with discussion of her brother’s sexual habits.

“Hmm…” Verun ran a hand through his hair, tugging just enough to get his attention. “Maybe I should test some things with you. Figure out what works…” She gave a harder tug, and felt the vibration of some sort of noise running through him. “And what doesn’t.”

But then Portia walked back up, seating herself on the opposite bench where Verun had sat the night before. “Getting back to the previous conversation… Ilya, listen. I know you’re used to doing everything alone, that hasn’t changed since we were kids. But me and Verun are determined, and whether you like it or not we’re not just going to let you throw your life away. We’re here to help, and we’re not leaving until you’re safe. Right Verun?”

Verun nodded, her fingers now simply running through Julian’s hair to maybe help keep him from dropping into his same dramatics as earlier. “She’s right, Jules.”

“... Though really, we should be getting you out of the city, not sitting around here talking.”

“I can’t leave, Pasha… not until I know what I’ve done, for sure.”

Verun honestly wasn’t sure how well Julian could hear his sister’s voice with his head pressed resting on her thighs as it was, but apparently it was well enough as Portia sighed. “Fine. But you have to let us help you. We’re not going to let you do this alone.”

Julian sat up enough to lean forward, his chin on the table as his gaze flicked between the two of them. “... Well. I can’t tell either of you what to do. If you want to be here… I can’t really stop you.”

Portia let out a whoop, throwing a triumphant fist into the air. “Fantastic! I’ll take it. So if we can’t get Julian out of the city yet, what’s the next step?”

Verun nodded, a slight smile on her lips as she watched the two siblings. She kind of wanted to just stay here for the day, make sure Julian was taken care of so that she could just kind of hang out. But they did need a plan if they were going to figure out what Julian’s missing memories were. “What if we got Julian into the palace and into the Count’s room? Maybe that would help jog some memories loose?”

“Good idea, but how will we get him into the palace? It’ll be easy for us, but…” Portia leaned forward, head in her hands. “If someone sees him it’s all over, and the palace is basically the most dangerous place for him possible.”

Leaning back, Verun ran a hand through her hair and hummed. Her mind had been so jumbled up for a while now, it was hard to get her thoughts in order. Especially as Julian picked his head up and leaned closer, raising his hands to her hair and picking through the strands with a strange, drunken focus. She didn’t know what he was doing and she didn’t ask, not moving from her spot until she remembered.

“Well… there is a spell I can use. Something I can disguise him with.”

“What, you mean I’d become another person?” Julian looked surprised and so concerned that it was almost comical. “But who would I become?”

Verun bit her lip, her emotions warring between amusement and concern. If this worked out… Julian might kind of hate her for a while, but there was only one person that would make sense to be traveling into the palace with her and Portia.

“Just… trust me. Let’s go out into the alley, I’ll change you there.”

She helped Julian steady himself as his gangly limbs hauled himself out of the booth, his legs wobbly underneath him. Then Portia led the way out and into the alleyway nearby, Julian clinging onto Verun as he tried his best to keep his balance. The three of them stopped once they were well enough in the shadows to not be spotted from the main street.

Taking a deep breath, Verun focused on simply getting herself gathered. She had never actually attempted this on her own, but she had seen Asra do it several times, and she had what she hoped was a good enough understanding that it would work. Once she was sufficiently focused enough, Verun stooped down to gather a small handful of dirt from the ground.

Then she blew it over Julian, the air rippling with magic as it settled on his skin and his clothing. There was a sort of shimmering effect, and then… gone was Julian, at least for now. There was definite strain on her magic, but she was confident enough that it would hold.

Portia stared for a moment, eyes wide. “Ohhh, who’d you turn him into? He’s… okay, he’s really cute.”

Julian stared at them, amethyst eyes wide. “What? What do I look like?” He glanced around and scrambled to find a puddle, dropping down to his knees to stare at his reflection. Then he froze, before swaying to his feet in such a hurry that Verun steps forward in case she has to catch him.

“Oh my god.” His face was a bit stunned, but after a moment he smirked , and it was definitely still Julian in that familiar body. “I’m definitely too drunk for this.”

Chapter Text

It was odd to see Julian’s personality in Asra’s body, creating an almost disturbing effect for Verun, but it was also amazingly, incredibly, hilarious.

Verun bit her lip and tried not to grin. Thankfully Julian didn’t seem to be too upset with the fact that she had temporarily turned him into Asra. Portia looked at her brother with a curious expression, her gaze sliding over to Verun with a question in her eyes.

“Portia… this is… Asra, my master,” Verun said, having to suppress a sudden cackle at the situation.

“Oh!” Portia’s cheeks colored slightly and she nodded. “Alright. Okay, I can work with that. It should be pretty easy to get him into the castle, then.”

Julian brushed his new white curls out of his face, seeming interested and kind of annoyed with them as he swayed on his feet. His eyes crossed as he glared at said hair. “How does he even deal with this stuff…?”

“Cmon, weirdo,” Verun chuckled, putting her arm through Julian’s and tugging him forward as they walked back out of they alley. “We gotta get going if we want to get in and out of there before dinner starts.”

Honestly she… wasn’t sure if this was the best idea given how wasted Julian was at the moment. But her magic was already cast, and if she had to keep it up for longer than it took to get Julian in and out of the palace Verun knew she would have to take a while to recover from it. And that was time that they just didn’t have before Nadia really started pushing her to find Julian before the Masquerade.

On the way there, Julian did his best to come up with Asra impressions, directed loosely by Verun. With some things he didn’t seem interested in following what she had to say, others he was so lost for direction that she had to show him approximations of the expressions that Asra commonly had, which was… a different experience. Julian’s pace was also relentlessly fast, as if his shorter legs didn’t slow him down in the least, like he was desperate to get to the castle. But thankfully, as they went along Julian slowly fell out of his drunken stupor and sobered up, and his impressions improved greatly by the time they got close to the palace gates.

“How do you suppose he’d be feeling in this moment? Like a lamb, entering the den of wolves… or more like a wolf, ending the den of… vipers. Hmm. He would like that though, he and Faust would fit right in.” He suddenly stopped, the heel of his boot screeching against marble as he turned to Verun, eyes wide and reflecting some sort of pain. “Faust… that is the snake’s name, right? I haven’t forgotten that?”

Verun nodded slowly, somewhat confused. Though it would kind of hinder the illusion of Faust wasn’t there, it also wasn’t too hard to say that Faust had simply hid under her master’s sash like she liked to do around new people.

Julian rubbed his temples, his brow furrowing deeply. “I… I remember that snake. She nearly squeezed the life out of me, once.” Then he turned away, leaving her and Portia in a state of quiet confusion.

He had been having small moments like that ever since the three of them left the Raven, though Verun didn’t know what to make of it. She knew that the two of them had had a falling out at some point, but the waves of amusement and hurt that came from Julian surprised and concerned her. He had kept his distance once he was able to walk sufficiently on his own, but gave her pained, searching looks every once in a while. Like he was trying to understand her, like she was the one that had pushed the two of them apart.

Which, rude.

“So it’s safe to say he would be surprised. When he’s surprised, is he more of a…” He pulled one face before letting it drop again. “Or this?” Again, another face, this time a bit more Asra-ish.

“More like that,” Verun said, amused.

“Hey Ilya,” Portia spoke up, interrupting the two of them. “I know this is gonna be a challenge but… try not to talk too much, okay?”

“Of course not. Asra doesn’t talk much, naturally. Believe me, it’s hard to maintain such an aura of mystery once you open your mouth.”

“Hmm. Maybe he was just quiet around you?” Portia tilted her head a bit, lightly teasing. “You’ve got a real bad habit of doing the talking for everyone, Ilyushka.”

Julian’s eyes met Verun’s for a moment and she shrugged. Honestly Asra did most of the talking between the two of them, filling up their space with talk about the places he had been to and customers that had come in and whatever else occupied his mind at the time, but… well, Verun knew that Asra did get quieter around other people. So she couldn’t really say anything without some sort of bias.

Then the three of them reached the gates of the palace and fell silent around the guards. Portia took a deep breath, holding it for a moment as she set her shoulders, and then shoved the massive gates open for them to pass through. Once through the entrance, she slipped back into her stately handmaid personality, ushering them forward and to the palace. The gate closed on its own behind them, with the somewhat ominous sound of grinding stone.

It took a few minutes to get through the slightly weaving path to the palace itself, but once inside Portia stopped, intrigued. “That’s weird… where is everyone?

They seemed to be in luck, with the palace unusually empty. Julian still seemed stiff, on his guard even in the quiet halls. Portia turned to them with a cheeky grin.

“So, uh… where can I take you first, oh great magicians?”

“The bedroom, of course,” Julian said, throwing a flirtatious glance at Verun. Oddly it made sparks fly in her belly, unexpectedly powerful when that glance was coming from the face of her teacher… even if she had quietly been in love with Asra for at least a year now. But then the moment passed and Julian returned his eyes to his sister. “Bring us to the room where the dark deed was done.”

Portia laughed and turned, leading the two of them through the halls with expert direction. Oddly the dogs weren’t at their usual position at the stairs like they usually were, nowhere to be found as they all walked up the steps to Lucio’s wing. In the dark passageways noises echoed, quiet and haunting enough to make both Verun and Portia feel rather nervous. Julian seemed outright jumpy, his eyes darting to either side as if he was expecting the ghost of Lucio to melt out of the wall and pounce on him.

“Didn’t you say that no one ever comes to these rooms anymore?” His voice was high and tighter than Verun remembered hearing, even if it was technically Asra’s voice.

“Yeah… no one ever has, in the years I’ve been here… not if they don’t have to, at least. And when they do…” Portia pursed her lips, stubbornly trying to ignore the fearful butterflies in her belly. “Let’s just say there are a lot of stories around downstairs. People have heard things. Seen things.”

As they reached the door to Lucio’s former bedroom, a ghostly moan seemed to flicker down from the rafters, making Julian bristle with nerves. Portia cautiously took hold of the door handle, turning it and finding it unlocked. Gently leaning on it…

A crash was heard from inside, and the door swung open. Inside the room was full of activity. Servants were scrubbing all available surfaces, clearing away ash and grime from years of disuse. Massive streaks of the stuff climbed the wall behind the heavy canopy bed, which was untouched by the ash but not so lucky with the dust. Standing beside the bed, eyes wide, was Nadia, staring at the three of them.

In her eyes there was a flicker of recognition as she sees Julian, disguised in Asra’s body. 

“Portia, there you are. Hello, Verun. At last, we are tending to this ruin of a room,” she said, waving a graceful hand to gesture to the bed in particular. “There have been a number of curious accidents so far. Who is this?”

“I-I am the majulian- ah, magician Asra, here to help my apprentice help you. Countess.” His voice was stiff and faltering, yet he didn’t even give Portia a chance to introduce him before he opened his mouth. Verun’s heart started to pound. This was bad. Nadia stepped closer to him, and Verun swears she was taking Julian’s disguise apart with her eyes, piece by piece tearing her magic away.

But then she stopped, reaching her hand out delicately. “Asra… at last, we meet.”

“Ah yes, I’d have offered my help earlier you see but I was on a- uh, quest to open my third ear.”

Verun almost visibly cringed, taking a deep breath and trying to force herself to dissociate if only to get out of having to listen to this awful, awful conversation. She felt like she was about to heat up and explode into a mass of tears and a liquid magma of embarrassment if she had to hear any more.

“No no. I simply thought we might have met before… but you are indeed a stranger to me. Or perhaps my eyes deceive me… it is terribly dim. Perhaps if that lamp was lit?” Her hand raised to a cobwebbed sconce high up on the dusty wall, too high to reach without magic. Verun felt like she was dying. Actually, physically dying on the spot. This scene was something from the theater, not anything that could happen in real life-

“Uh, lamp, what lamp?” Julian’s voice made Verun’s heart break in second-hand embarrassment.

“That lamp,” Verun said quietly, trying to keep her wish of death out of her voice. She probably failed miserably, but who knew at this point? She nudged Julian’s arm as discreetly as she could and he gave a flourish of his arm, eyes on - thankfully - the correct lamp. With just a moment of focus Verun was able to light the lamp on queue.

But it came out as a sudden pop and burst of light, making the lamp shoot sparks. Most of them faded quickly, but two caught on the Count’s portrait on the wall, precisely over the painted figure’s proud eyes.

“Oh my!” Nadia cried, her eyes widening as she watched. Portia snatched a ladder from nearby and rushed past them to take care of it, grabbing a rag from one of the idling servants that had paused to watch the Countess’s new guests.

“It’s fine milady, I got it!” She set the ladder down and scrambled up it, dashing the rag across the burning embers to put them out.

Verun just barely saw it, a shape in the darkest corner forming just a split second before it barreled through the room to crash into the ladder. Her fingers dug into Julian’s arm as the ladder toppled, taking Portia down with it.

“My heavens, Portia!” Nadia rushed forward, just able to catch the falling girl before she crashed to the ground.

“Ahem, so quick! That was a feat of amazing foresight, Countess! Almost as if you saw the future. You may have… abilities. In uh. In magic.” Julian stared, his eyes screaming regret even as his mouth continued moving.

Verun’s fingernails dug into the skin of his arm, wanting to burst into tears on the spot. Maybe if she did she could fein sickness and get the hell out of the palace before she throttled Julian. She had a feeling it would be odd for the Countess to see the apprentice of this supposed duo choking out her master.

Setting Portia down on her feet, Nadia glanced at Julian curiously. “I wonder. Perhaps when I am through here, I shall join you both investigating.”

“In the library! Investigating in the library.” Portia cut in nervously, eyes wide.

“Ah yes, a perfect place to start. I believe you keep the keys, Portia.” Nadia nodded with a small smile.

“I uh… yes, I. Ahem. Follow me, esteemed magicians,” the girl said with a quick bow.

As she led them out, Portia’s eyes glittered with some sort of emotion, and once out the door Julian loses whatever kind of control he had of his Asra facade. He grinned with such an intense air of mischief that it was too familiar for Verun to mistake it as anyone else.

“How was that, my dear Verun?” He reached for her hand, and Verun smacked it away.

“You’re fuckin… dumb.” She watched his expression falter, but then an embarrassed smirk slipped through her annoyance and she shook her head as she tried not to laugh. She was still stressed out of her mind, but… god. Only Julian could have messed up that badly and gotten away with it like he had. It made her wonder just how many of his stories were actually true, give or take a little (or a lot of) embellishment.

Portia led the way back down from the late Count’s wing and through the almost familiar palace halls until they reached the library. Verun felt exhaustion hit - not physical exhaustion, but of the more magical kind - and was able to get her and Julian inside just before the spell broke as the last of the locks ground into place behind them.

As she watched, it was like a ripple of water falling from his head to his toes, exposing Julian’s natural form once again. He blinked, looking down at his hands when they returned to their natural state once again.

“Well, that could have gone worse,” he remarked.

Verun let out a huff of a laugh, shaking her head. “Are you sure? You almost blew your cover with that performance in the Count’s room.”

“I may not know magic, but there’s definitely something going on here. Something beyond my knowledge.” He continued on, ignoring her as his mind fixated on his thoughts. “Luckily for us, we’re at the library. Let’s see what we can learn.”

He gave her a soft smile before the two of them set to work. Julian walked through the stacks and shelves of books as his eye picks through the titles as his gloved fingers slide over the spines. Every once in a while he would find a book out of place or set back onto the shelf in a way that apparently bothered him, as he muttered to himself as he set them straight. At one point he swore viciously enough that Verun whirled around to see if he needed help with whatever had apparently jumped out to attack him. 

“Julian? What was that?”

He looked over at her, scowling. Then he waved his hand, indicating a book that had been placed on the shelf backwards so that the spine was hidden. “Who does that?” He whisper-shouted harshly, clearly deeply aggravated at the careless handling of the books.

It just made Verun smile. Asra did that sometimes when he wasn’t paying attention. Julian must have despised researching with him if he hated it that much. It sent her into a round of quiet giggles as Julian huffed and righted the book, continuing his search. Julian had already grabbed half a dozen books, and Verun wasn’t sure if it was because they were connected to something in his memories or because they had piqued his interest.

“All these books, and I kept going back to the same old…” He blinked. “Just around that corner, I had a desk. It’s coming back to me… it’s close, at the back of my mind. I can just…”

But then his gaze slid to Verun, turning rather bashful and embarrassed as he looked away again. “I guess you’re still mad at me?” Did she really look that angry?

Verun sighed, ruffling her hair a bit. She didn’t want to make him think that he was in trouble or anything. The scene in Lucio’s room was just… stressful. 

“I’m mad at you, yeah. Kinda.”

He sighed, slumping a little. “Of course. Why wouldn’t you be? After I acted so foolishly, wasting your time like that. Wasting my own… look at me. I really should be enjoying my so-called freedom.”

“... That’s what you were doing when we picked you up earlier?” Verun’s voice dropped into annoyance, going almost a full octave or three lower as it hit an almost growl-ish texture. Maybe she was more mad than she thought, after everything that had happened so far. Between Julian dumping her, her and Portia having to find him only to see him drunk off his ass, and then dragging him into the castle where he nearly blew the only cover that kept his neck from the noose… she supposed it was only fair. “It didn’t look like you were enjoying it much.”

The voice drop obviously surprised Julian. It surprised most people when they heard it, anyway, the way her small body didn’t seem capable of such a deep noise, especially compared to her normal voice. He was caught up in surprise and guilt for a moment, just staring at her, before his eye slid away completely and he quickly slipped past her, again focused on something else entirely. The moment of ignorance stung her, but as she turned to follow whatever had caught his attention Verun was forced to let it go for now.

Julian’s desk. It was very much like she had left it the last time she had been at the palace, still cluttered and ultimately unassuming, but… it looked like it had been messed with. Verun saw a few papers with the indecipherable scrawl of Julian’s handwriting covering them, unfamiliar to her eyes.

“There it is, that’s my desk,” Julian murmured, eye wide. He scrambled towards it, seeming to completely forget Verun and the almost-argument they had as he started tearing through it, stacking papers and books alike on the surface of it as he searched frantically through the drawers. There were drawings of various parts of human anatomy, logs written in both his messy scrawl and various other people’s handwriting.

At some point he simply started throwing papers out of the way, letting the parchments flutter to the ground. Verun snatched one out of the air, studying the intricate design drawn out on it. It was a drawing of a beetle, one that she had never seen before. Her eyes were so engrossed in studying the fine lines that she almost completely missed it when Julian goes perfectly still, leaned over and his eyes wide as his hands held up something in his palm.

As she let the drawing drop to the floor, Verun stepped forward, carefully nudging papers out of the way of her foot. In his hand he held a key, a deep red ruby set into oily-looking metal. A tremble ran through him, and he looked frightened, terrified, before he grinned almost maniacally.

“Ah ha! This is it! This is what was calling to me! Don’t ask me how I know, but I know. It’s not any of these old scrawlings. It’s this!” He tossed it up, grinning still as he caught it and slipped it into one of his many pockets with a gleam in his eye. His hands came up, grabbing onto her shoulders with an adoring gaze. His fingers dug slightly into the bite mark on her shoulder, making her twitch as she tried not to flinch away in pain.

He didn’t seem to notice as he sidled closer. “I’m one step closer. If it wasn’t for you, my dear Verun, I’d still be two behind.” He swept her up into a hug, twirling the two of them around, not minding the papers crinkling and tearing under their feet. Then he stopped, the tip of his nose brushing hers as he blushed.

Then a loud screech destroyed the moment, and Julian reacted with trained efficiency of panic as he pulled her away, quickly ushering the two of them into a quiet corner of the library. She was pinned up against the wall as Julian quivered, swallowing harshly as he watched the window. Then he seemed to realize that it wasn’t the warning call of guards that Malak would give, and he visibly forced himself to calm down, taking a slow, deep breath.

Verun felt almost crushed as his chest pressed against hers, and she got to watch with some sort of desperate infatuation as he blushed. Just as he was about to pull away from her, Verun trapped him there with her arms around his waist. It was interesting to note how thin his waist was compared to his broad shoulders, though the shape of his body was usually hidden by layers of leather and billowing white cloth.

“Sorry, just a bird…” But his voice was wrecked, tightened by the invisible tension between the two of them. As he looked down at her, Verun could almost feel the moment that he became hyper aware of all the ways they stood so close, especially with his body now cinched so close to her by her arms. A low groan rumbled at the back of his throat, and Verun leaned forward, wanting suddenly to swallow the noise.

But his voice broke into her thoughts too soon, just as her lips were teasingly close to his own.

“About everything… I’m sorry,” he whispered sadly, staring at her with half a lidded eye, though he avoided her direct gaze. For a moment Verun could see everything about him - the guilt, the nights spent trying to drink away memories, the harrowing loneliness that he tried so hard to shake off time and time again - and her heart ached for him once more. “I don’t know what I was thinking, rejecting you like I did. Temporary madness, you could say… it perhaps goes without saying that I find you… very, very attractive, whether I’m destined to hang or not. And by some miracle, I’d hope that you see something attractive in me too.”

His face was flushed still, and the red seemed to turn darker as he continued speaking, even as his voice turned scornful. “But to what end? I pace, I drink, I tear my hair out. And I still don’t know what to do. Verun… what do you want me to do?”

Finally he looked at her, passion suddenly burning in his red-rimmed eye. He looked so tired, like he hadn’t slept since the two of them laid together in Mazelinka’s home. Verun had a feeling that was the case.

But she had a question to answer, and she didn’t want to leave him hanging. So she leaned up to him until their noses brushed once again, making his breath catch in his throat.

“Kiss me, you fool.”

For a moment his eye went wide in surprise. Verun - jokingly - had a thought of making him bleed if he asked her if he had heard her correctly like he had last time. Ain’t nobody got time for that foolery. But then his lips curled up in a smirk, and his body gently pressed closer.

“If you insist, my dear.”

Then his fingers brushed through the hairs at the back of her head, pulling her closer as his lips nearly crashed into hers. He was needy, almost as much or more than Verun was. The kiss turned heated, ravenous, careless, in just a few moments, each of them needing more.

Verun tugged at his hair and he gave her a delicious moan as every inch of his body responded. His arm wrapped around her, the other still buried in her hair and scrabbling to gain purchase among the short strands. They weren’t long enough to grab and pull with his gloves, but he could clench his fingers together to tug just enough.

And then he tipped her off balance, leaning her so heavily against him that Verun grabbed handfuls of his jacket to hold on. She loved it, the lips pressing to her own in a frenzy of need, the heave of his chest that she could feel under her hands. For a moment she was sure that she could feel the press of his arousal against her hip, but his mouth was too busy with hers to make any noise past a pleased hum.

He felt like he was wound up so tightly, his heart hammering where her fingers gripped like he was about to break under her pressure, shatter into a thousand pieces. Verun’s fingers gently spread over his chest, aiming for comforting but- he leaned back, breaking the contact between them as she gasped like he had burned her by pulling away. She was suddenly hyper aware of her own need, the intense want for his hands on her. But the look he gave her was suffering, like he was about to go off on another rant into the oblivion of his own mind, and she pushed forward.

“Don’t speak,” she said firmly, gently, reaching her hands up to brush her fingertips across his skin. This time the kiss is slower, building more gradually as she pressed closer, closer, until he was forced back and into another corner.

With a short sigh, he took a deep breath and returned the kiss with all the intensity that he could give. This time Verun could definitely feel just how turned on he was, just from the kissing, though it almost seemed forgotten between the two of them. Again, he pulled his head away, separating their lips by millimeters, so close that Verun could feel as he spoke, lips still brushing hers.

“Oh, if we had the time… the things I would do-”

Verun bit at his lip, eliciting a quiet moan from him. “Did I tell you to speak?”

His face turned red, the color chasing down his neck. “No,” he murmured.

Trying to settle into something more commanding but gentle, Verun pulled him forward, pressing a kiss to his parted lips. He let out a slow, shaking sigh and she slid her hand into his hair again, making her mind whip itself into a storm of thoughts. She wondered what she could do to him. The thrill from just him falling silent under her hands and her words made a shiver run up her spine, an interesting high buzz filling her mind, like she was high.

Maybe they should have stopped there. Verun knew keenly the danger of the two of them getting caught - it was Julian’s life at stake, and very possibly her own. But in the quiet, listening to his heavy breathing and the quiet sounds of their kisses, those worries seemed to slip away with alarming ease.

And then he leaned back against his desk, pulling her into his lap without even pausing to breathe. He was tall enough, his legs long enough, to be able to simply sit down without scooching back too terribly far. Papers scattered, and the stack of books Julian had grabbed from the shelves fell to the ground, unnoticed as Verun grinded down onto him. It shocked a moan out of him, as if he hadn’t even realized how hard he was until she did that. His hands gripped onto her hips, helping her rock back and forth until she got into her own rhythm, and then his hands were everywhere, pulling her closer and kissing her harder.

Verun felt heat gathering in her belly, wanting, needing-

But then there was a sound on the other side of the door, and instantly the two of them parted, eyes wild and panicked.

“AH!” It was Portia, sounding like something crawled up her throat. “Milady! Finished up so soon? That’s a surprise!” Her voice was high, almost hysterical.

Then they heard Nadia’s voice, low and soothing, too quiet to be heard. It snapped them both to attention as Julian pulled her into the shadows once again, his chest heaving with something very different than arousal now.