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Necessary To Nature Also

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Julian’s body has become accustomed to the rhythm of the caravan. The rattle and creak of the wagon that he shares with Doctor Satrinava as it groans through the dusty red clay of the road. The quiet, omnipresent ache in his joints. The way that his boots exhale a gout of sand when removed every evening when they make camp.

 

Nazali’s rhythm, too, he’s grown familiar with. They’re up at dawn each day, sweeping through the mercenary camps that they pass, bartering sutures and draughts for food and a night by their fire. They stride between tents with single-minded confidence to match that of their occupants, Julian trailing behind them, overlong and overeager.

 

The smell of the sea has been taunting them for hours, beckoning, elusive, beyond what Julian always expects to be just one more dune, one more treeline. Gulls streak by overhead in the cloudless white-blue of midday. Julian turns his face up to their throaty cries, shielding his eyes with one hand.

 

“Almost there.” Nazali notes with a hint of a bemused smile.

 

Julian sighs with relief. A new camp to practice in, a few nights of rest, a chance to wash away the layers of dust that cling heavy in his hair. Nazali is calling something back to the others in their caravan in Prakran. Directions, from the tone of it. They get a few scattered replies and nod, veering the wagon up towards the hilly crest of the road.

 

Julian’s breath hitches in his throat when the sea rears up on the horizon before them, sunsoaked and incandescent. The beach stretches out beneath rolling cliffs, with a swarm of tents dotting the sand. Julian squints to make out the shape of figures in the water, flecks of darkness in the shuddering blue.

 

“If only it were this beautiful on both sides.” Nazali says beside him, “Nothing but ice when you reach the other shore.”

 

He glances at them, “Have you been that far south?”

 

They shake their head, “Someday.”

 

Julian leans back as their wagon begins its winding descent. As they draw closer, he can make out the relaxed chatter of voices on the wind.

 

“There’s, uh. There’s plenty of them down there, huh?” He notes.

 

“A hundred. Perhaps two.” Nazali tells him, “The biggest encampment on the coast. We’ll be busy.”

 

“The busier the better.” Julian grins.

 

“Be careful what you wish for.” Nazali chuckles, “You might feel less enthusiastic if we’re up half the night draining gout.”

 

Julian shrugs, “If that’s what it takes, right?”

 

Nazali offers a soft smile, “If that’s what it takes.”

 

At the bottom of the slope, Nazali guides the wagon to the end of the road, then brings it to a stop. Julian slides down from his seat with a grateful stretch. One of the mercenaries crosses the sand towards them, and Nazali gives Julian a nod.

 

“I’ll see what they need. See if you can find somewhere to set up the tent.” They tell him.

 

“Can do.” Julian says. He swings himself up into the back of the wagon, then clambers back into the sunlight dragging their rucksack behind him.

 

He can feel the searing warmth of the ground beneath him, even through the soles of his boots. Pushed back against the dunes, there’s a copse of tall, scraggly beach fig bushes, and he makes towards their shade through the edge of the encampment. A few shouts from the water nearby draw his eyes.

 

A few of the mercenaries grapple in the surf, trading coarse barbs and bursts of laughter. Julian feels a hint of a smile tugging at his lips. He watches as one, and then another of their number are dragged under the surface of the water, and then, grinning, a lean, sharp-eyed blonde emerges from the foam.

 

Julian feels sudden warmth in his cheeks as he watches him taunt his fallen comrades, the line of his shoulders suggesting a nearly strident confidence. When he pauses and turns back towards the shore, Julian fumbles hastily with the tent pack. Then, he hears a whistle and chances another glance. He barely manages to keep from dropping the rucksack entirely as the man throws a lascivious wink his way. Only Nazali’s hand on his shoulder keeps him from losing his balance. Flushing deeply, he jerks back to face them.

 

“This- here, this is...it’s good, right?” He stammers.

 

Nazali’s eyebrows cant, “Yes. The shade is good.”

 

Julian gives a hasty nod, “Good. Good. I’ll just. Get to work, then.”

 

***

 

The night sky sprawls broad and dauntless over the ocean. With gentle warmth woven into the wind, the fire only needs the barest hints of stoking, and even then only to encourage the strips of hare strung over it to cook. Nazali is at home among the mercenaries without a second thought. Their descriptions of the grievous war wounds they’ve treated prompt no shortage of stories of the ones inflicted by and on the gathered crowd. One grizzled woman produces, without hesitation, her own false eye and passes it to Nazali to examine. Julian cranes his neck to glance over their shoulder.

 

“A fine specimen.” Nazali notes, “Vesuvian?”

 

“Isn’t that where everyone gets their little trinkets nowadays?”

 

Julian knows that it’s him before his eyes have a chance to pick him out at the edge of the firelight. The woman grunts and extends a hand to Nazali for her eye.

 

“‘Spose you’d never know, Montag.” She quips as she fits it back in with her fingers, “No one from the South’s ever bothers with anything nice.”

 

The blonde swaggers into the circle proper, “We already have plenty of nice things.” He shoots back, gesturing to his own face, “We don’t need the extra help like you do.”

 

The woman rolls her eyes, the glass one sliding back into place as she does. Opposite her, Montag finds space for himself on one of the rough-cut palm trunks that surround the fire and begins to break out his mess kit. Julian watches him for a few long moments before he realizes that he’s holding his breath.

 

“Besides-" Montag continues unprompted as he moves towards the fire with his bowl, “Why pride yourself on scars? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? I don’t have any .” As he clips away a few pieces of meat for himself, his eyes finally fall on Julian, and there’s a flicker of wicked delight in them.

 

“You’re a whelp, that’s why.” One of the men perched near him snorts.

 

Montag, bristling, casts a frown back over his shoulder, “I’m twenty. I’m a man.” He says. Then, he turns to Julian, offering a smirk, “You agree, don’t you, doctor?”

 

Julian freezes, heat spreading over his face, “O-Oh, I’m just- I’m not-"

 

“He’s my apprentice.” Nazali supplies. Julian gives them a grateful glance.

 

Montag’s prominent brows lift, “Oh? He must be nobility too, then.”

 

Nazali rolls their eyes, “My position has nothing to do with my work. Julian is an exceptional student.”

 

“Then I’m sure I can take his advice on the subject.” He rises, grinning, to stand above Julian, outstretching his arms, “Well? What do you think?”

 

Julian can hear the drumming of his own pulse in his ears, “Well, eighteen is when people in Nevivon-"

 

“Oh, come off it.” Groans the one-eyed woman, “No one wants to see you strut.”

 

Montag’s lips twist into a petulant sneer as the circle around them erupts into laughter. Huffing, he sinks back into his place on the trunk. Julian swallows and fixes his gaze to his bowl.

 

The conversation around him meanders back towards the exploits of the mercenary band. Julian devotes himself to gnawing on the tough strips of hare to prevent himself from looking elsewhere. A few minutes later, he hears a hiss from across the circle.

 

“What did you do now?” Someone groans.

 

Montag’s voice rises again, “The food is too tough, the stupid knife slipped.”

 

Julian’s eyes flick back up. Montag is frowning at a small gash on the heel of his hand. He sets his bowl down in the sand with a small sniff, then extends his bleeding hand meaningfully towards Nazali and Julian. Beside him, Nazali sighs.

 

“Would you mind?” They ask softly.

 

Julian swallows, “Oh, I- no, of course, I can handle it.” He tells them, rising, “Let’s have a look.”

 

“Aren’t you going to take me to your infirmary tent?” Montag asks, “Isn’t that where your supplies are?”

 

Nazali pinches the bridge of their nose, “Be quick.” They tell him, and then, lower, “And if he tries anything-”

 

Julian tries a rakish grin, cheeks pink nonetheless, “I can handle it.”

 

Nazali arches one brow, but says nothing as they watch him go. As he leaves the circle of firelight, Montag falls into step at his side.

 

“Doctor.” He says, and half of his mouth plucks up into a satisfied smirk.

 

“Not yet. Soon.” Julian tells him.

 

“Then what should I call you?” Montag asks.

 

“Julian.” He replies, “Everyone says it’s easier in Vesuvian than ‘Ilya’.”

 

Montag shrugs, “Well, Jules, it’s a pleasure.” His voice lingers a moment on the last word.

 

Julian stops just outside the medical tent, thankful for the distraction “This is our stop.” He says, drawing back the flap.

 

Montag slides inside. His curious eyes rove over the examination table and trays inside, “What is all this for?”

 

“Oh, this?” Julian shrugs, mock-casual, “Sewing up wounds. Setting bones. Trepanning. Lancing. Amputation. Draining.” He points to each instrument as he speaks, “All of the usual stuff.”

 

Montag wrinkles his nose, “Uch.”

 

“I get it. It’s a lot to stomach. You need a thick skin.” Julian notes, beaming.

 

“Sounds boring.” Montag fires back, “I’d rather do the damage than put anyone back together again.”

 

“Oh, I can fight, too.” Julian supplies.

 

Montag’s lips curl, “Oh? I like a challenge.”

 

Julian feels the air squeeze from his lungs, and turns his attention to searching for antiseptic and gauze, “S-so, uh, your hand-”

 

Montag’s body is behind his, and Julian can feel his arm snake around his waist as Montag leans in to offer him his hand.

 

“Does it look bad?” He asks.

 

Julian freezes, “Uh-”

 

“Is it deep?” Montag continues.

 

One of his hips is pressed against Julian’s ass, and despite the few inches that Julian has on him, Montag’s presence behind him is overpowering in a way that lifts the hairs at the nape of Julian’s neck. He can feel his breath begin to come uneven. He takes his hand gingerly, examining the cut. It’s surprisingly clean and straight for a slipped knife, almost perfectly perpendicular to the skin.

 

“It’s not too bad.” Julian breathes.

 

“That’s a pity. I’d hoped to see some of those ‘exceptional’ skills the Princess was talking about back there.” Montag says as he takes a step back.

 

Julian turns to face him, “They, uh. They prefer ‘Doctor’ as a title.”

 

He can almost hear Montag roll his eyes, “I don’t know why they’re so bashful about it. I’m not.”

 

“You-?”

 

“I’m a Prince in the South.” Montag tells him as Julian begins to clean his wounded palm.

 

Julian pauses to glance up at him, “...Really?”

 

Montag presses his lips together, “Don’t look so surprised. Our nobility are warlords. That’s why I’m here. I’ll claim my throne soon enough.” The fingers of his good hand reach to cradle Julian’s jaw, tilting his face up to meet his eyes, “Then you get to say you knew me way back when. Lucky you.”

 

Julian’s hands stutter to a still. A sly smile spreads across Montag’s face. He runs the pad of his thumb along Julian’s lower lip, and his wounded hand twists in Julian’s grasp to pin his wrist back against the edge of the table. His knuckles rattle against the side of it, and Julian stammers a gasp and bites his lip.

 

“Oh.” Montag’s eyes darken, “You like that.”

 

“Julian?” Nazali’s voice sounds a few steps beyond the tent flap.

 

Montag gives an annoyed groan, and Julian scrambles back against the table when as releases him.

 

“A-Almost done!” He calls back, setting to dabbing away the last smudges of blood from the cut and setting hastily to bandaging it.

 

Nazali draws the flap back and leans in, giving both of them a slow, even glance. Montag smirks. Julian knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that his own face is stained scarlet.

 

“Thanks, Jules.” Montag tells him easily, though his eyes remain on Nazali, “Enjoy your night.” He adds, and his gaze flicks pointedly downward.

 

Julian covers his hips quickly with the remaining length of bandaging, “Er- you- thanks. I mean- you’re welcome! You’re, uh, you’re welcome.”

 

“Oh, I know.” Montag drawls, and then he’s slipping through the tent flap past Nazali, grinning as he goes.

 

***

 

It isn’t until they notice the smeared fingerprints encircling Julian’s wrist that Nazali’s concern gets the better of them. Julian tries thrice to divert their attention before finally insisting that he’s not a teenager anymore and doesn’t need to be parented. When he finally hears their breath even out from their cot, he wriggles free of his own and makes for the infirmary tent.

 

The reflection of the moon is a splash of milk white across the night-blackened waves. The few mercenaries who remain on guard largely ignore him, or nod when he fumbles through a half thought-out explanation about organizing their supplies. By the time he reaches the tent, his pulse is already thrumming.

 

When he takes himself in hand against the exam table, teeth biting down on his shoulder to muffle his panting, it’s with the thought of Montag grinding his heel into his chest in mind. Montag pulling a fistful of his hair. Wrapping his gloved fingers around his throat until the leather creaks and his breath evaporates. He has to stifle a whimpered moan into the sheets when he pulls himself over the brink, knees jerking helplessly up against the table.

 

His legs are still shaking when he makes it back to his tent.



***

 

The air is warm and heavy, even just as the sun begins to crest over the sea. Julian awakens to the sound of chattering voices and the scrape and clatter of armor being donned across the camp. He pushes a handful of hair out of his face and glances towards Nazali’s cot. It’s already neatly made. Julian curses to himself and stumbles to his feet.

 

The sunlight beyond the tent flap is radiant, and Julian splays a hand over his eyes until they adjust to it. As they unblur, he can make out the shapes of the mercenaries buzzing throughout the camp.

 

“What’s going on?” He asks one of them as she laces up her boots at the tent closest to theirs.

 

“Boats closing in just east of here. We’re being paid to keep the territory.” She tells him, then straightens and slings her baldric over one shoulder, “Best to have the high ground when they arrive.”

 

“Jules!”

 

Julian feels a stab of guilt, and can’t quite meet Montag’s eyes as he trots through the sand. Montag hardly notices, flashing his teeth. He slides to a halt in front of him.

 

“Did you hear about the ships?” He asks.

 

Julian nods, “Off to battle, eh?”

 

Montag grins, “Want me to bring you a trophy tonight? Anything you want. Skull, hand, you name it.”

 

Julian flushes, “Shouldn’t you focus on staying safe?”

 

“They’re Bear Clan dreck , ” Montag sniffs, “Maybe I’ll take them left handed to make it more fun.”

 

From the dune line, one of the other mercenaries calls his name. Montag spares a moment’s glance over his shoulder. Then, with a wolfish grin and three strides, he closes the space that separates him and Julian. Julian barely has time to swallow a gasp before Montag is pressing his mouth to his and seizing a handful of Julian’s ass in one palm.

 

The embrace lasts barely long enough for Julian’s pulse to jump into his throat, and then Montag, smirking, is striding off towards the dunes. Julian stares after him until the mercenary at the tent next door gives a small, meaningful cough. Then, cheeks scalding, he flees for the infirmary tent.

 

***

 

The brilliant heat of the day forces him into the shade until well past the time that he and Nazali scrape together supper over the embers of the morning’s cooking fire. He shirt collar clings to his throat, and eventually he undoes it all together to allow the occasional breeze off the water to peel it away from his skin. Save the few patients who were already in need when they arrived and a handful of sentries, the camp is all but deserted. Julian shucks his boots just after sunset to walk the shore.

 

Just beyond the edge of the camp, the coastline winds into a series of small bays. Leaving fleeting footprints in the surf, Julian wanders the length of it until it begins to stretch northeast and upward into a rocky outcropping. His long limbs carry him up the incline with little difficulty. Just before he reaches the top, he can make out the first whiff of smoke. His nose wrinkles, and he presses onward. When he breaks the horizon, a thin plume of black rising into the sky pulls his eye further east. Its origin point is shrouded by dense clumps of palms, but when Julian strains his ears, he swears he can hear distant shouting. Scrambling, he begins to descend onto the beach once more.

 

“Nazali!” He’s panting by the time he reaches the edge of their camp once more.

 

Nazali looks up from the diagrams they have spread out in the sand. Their brows furrow, “What is it?”

 

“They’re going to-” He pauses to gulp a breath, “-they’re going to need us on the field.” He tells him, “Something’s burning.”

 

Nazali is on their feet, “Get the satchels.” They order.

 

Julian nods and darts into the tent. Their field kits, well-stocked, wait tucked beneath the examination table, and Julian shoulders both. Nazali already has a hand outstretched as he pushes back through the flap, and he barely has time to hand it over before they’re on the move.

 

“How far?” They ask him.

 

“Straight up the coast. A mile and a half. Maybe two?” He says.

 

Nazali’s lips thin, and they give a grim nod. Julian struggles to match pace with them as they fall into a determined running gait across the beach. Minutes pass in silence until they reach the craggy slope.

 

“Over this ridge.” Julian gasps, bracing his hands on his knees.

 

“Come on.” He can hear Nazali’s breath tight in their throat, too, but they press on.

 

The opposite side of the elevation is steeper, and Julian, hissing, skins an elbow shimmying down between the rocks. Nazali spares him a moment’s glance.

 

“Fine, I’m fine.” He wheezes. He can hear metal clashing against metal, now, and the voices are more distinct, scattered exclamations of almost-words from just beyond the tree line.

 

His eyes begin to sting when they pass into the palms, smoke hanging thick in the damp air. Julian reaches back to paw a kerchief from his pack and ties it hastily over his nose and mouth. From this close, he can pick out the hiss and crackle of spellwork being flung through the air. He curses beneath his breath.

 

“This one.” Nazali tells him as they near the edge of the grove, and motions to one of the larger trees. They take a knife from their pack, scoring the bark, exposing just a bit of the tree’s flesh to mark it, “Triage is here. Usual procedure. If they can walk, they walk on their own. If they can run, they can help carry others.”

 

“Got it.” Julian nods.

 

They break through the trees, and Julian catches the first glimpse of the fire; a ship, or the skeletal frame of it that remains, has been set ablaze in the bay. The sand is already pitted with ash and crumpled figures. Julian’s eyes scan for motion.

 

Within a few moments, he’s on his knees applying a tourniquet to a wounded mercenary’s leg. The smoke from the ship has set his eyes watering in earnest by the time he’s dragged him back to the marked tree. Nazali is on the opposite side, barking orders to some of the others as they begin wrapping a splinted wrist in strips of rawhide.

 

“Julian!” They call to him, “Edge of the water, at least two or three.”

 

“Already there!” He shouts back as he breaks into a sprint.

 

A spell roars past him as he nears the surf, throwing sand and brilliant blue sparks up into the air. Julian flings himself to the side in a tangle of limbs. A shuddering, exhilarated breath escapes him as he rises once more. He’s just begun to wade along the shore when a flash of blonde catches his eye.

 

The waves brush their fingers over Montag’s slumped frame, then retreat again, each time dragging with them a new flush of red from beneath him. Julian’s eyes widen. He scrambles to crouch beside him, and, with careful hands, rolls him over onto his back. Montag keens at the motion, and Julian’s stomach lurches. Just above the elbow, his left arm is crushed, macerated by what Julian can only guess by the impact must have been a morning star or flail. The sea pulls away another gout of blood as Montag struggles to focus.

 

Julian swallows, “We have to get you out of here.” He tells him, hastily producing a length of cord from his satchel and fixing it, tight, just above the wound, “Can you move?”

 

“Wh-” Montag’s grey eyes are wide, dizzy.

 

“Hold onto me.” Julian says, looping his uninjured arm around his shoulders.

 

He braces himself to rise, but winces nonetheless when Montag lets out an agonized wail and a slurry of profanity into his shoulder when he does. It sputters into a harsh, guttural southern dialect that Julian doesn’t understand as they move, Montag’s legs slow and uncoordinated, toward the shelter of the trees.

 

“-but you’ll fix it, though, you’ll fix it, right?” Montag is stammering by the time they reach it.

 

“Stay here.” Julian tells him as he lowers him into the sand. He can see the survivors on the shore beginning to disengage from one another, the decimated southern forces attempting to make for the dunes.

 

“Jules-” Montag scrabbles for him with his good hand.

 

“I have to help-” Julian says. Montag clings to his shirt, whines his name again. Julian’s throat tightens, “I-” He takes a deep breath and looks helplessly to Montag’s ruined arm.

 

“They’re pulling back.” Nazali skids into a crouch beside them in the sand, “We’ve got to-” They pause at the sight of Montag and level Julian with a knowing glance, “Julian, he might-”

 

“He’s not going to. He’s not” Julian insists, “I’ve- we can-” He drags in another shaky breath.

 

Nazali reaches over to grip his shoulder, “I need you to see who else needs our help. When we get back, we can-” They pause, then set their jaw, “-take care of things.”

 

Julian nods slowly and begins to extricate himself from Montag’s grip.

 

“Jules, no, don’t, Jules, Jules- ” Montag protests. He nearly growls when Julian steps back. Julian can hear him spit something that sounds like ‘hoorenzon’ after him as he makes for the beach once more.

 

“Please just make it back to camp.” He breathes, “Just make it back.”

 

***

 

Julian’s hair is sweat-slick against his temples when the last of the wounded are accounted for and the mercenary band begins to make its way westward. There are blissfully few bodies to be buried, all things considered, but the wounded are numerous and Julian can already tell he and Nazali will be up past dawn tending to them. He’s weaving between the retreating crowd as soon as they’re on the move, keeping tabs on where bleeding needs to be staunched, who is carrying whom. He catches sight of Montag twice, first at a distance as a pale specter stumbling through the dunes, and then later slung over another man’s shoulder. Julian feels his stomach drop at the sight.

 

They make it, weary and smeared with dirt and ash, back to the encampment just as the evening fire is being lit. Julian and Nazali make for the tent without a word, and the wounded begin to filter in along with them. Julian’s brows furrow as his eyes search their ranks. Nazali watches him a moment, then sighs softly.

 

“...You’ll need the bonesaw.” They tell him, “And ether.”

 

Julian swallows, “I know.”

 

“Go on, then.” Nazali orders.

 

Julian sets to work. In between caring for gashes and burns, he begins to array the instruments they’ll need on one of the trays beside the examination table. Saw. Ether and cloth. Cord. Needle and thread. Neat, straight lines. He knows there’ll be no such order after the surgery.

 

Montag is grey-pale when they bring him in, barely awake. His eyes roll back as the mercenary carrying him lays him out on the table. It’s only when Julian begins to cut away the bloodied remnants of his shirt that Montag seems to notice him.

 

“Jules?” He murmurs feverishly.

 

“You’re going to make it.” Julian tells him firmly.

 

“Wh- of course I am.” Montag slurs.

 

Julian offers him a hint of a grin, “I appreciate all your confidence in me.” His smile dims, “We have to- you’re going to have to be asleep.”

 

Montag’s eyelids flutter, and Julian can see his gaze focus on him more intently, “...For what?”

 

Julian draws a steadying breath, “...Surgery.”

 

Blinking, Montag struggles to push himself up with his good arm, “What kind of surgery?” He presses, “...You’re going to fix it, right?”

 

From the other side of the tent, Julian hears Nazali sigh. They wipe their hands on a cloth and cross over to the table.

 

“Julian.” They urge gently, “He’s still losing too much blood. It has to be now.”

 

Montag’s eyes flick between them, “Jules?” There’s a tremulous note creeping into his voice.

 

Julian fists his hands and looks back to him, “Montag. We- we have to- it has to be amputated.”

 

Wide-eyed, Montag mutely shakes his head. Nazali lifts the bottle of ether and removes the cap, swiftly covering the mouth of it with the cloth.

 

“No.” Montag protests, “No, no, no, Jules, you can’t, you h-have to-”

 

Julian winces, “You’re going to bleed out if we don’t.”

 

“He doesn’t have the time to argue.” Nazali says, offering the now-blotted rag to Julian, “I’ll hold him.”

 

“Jules, please-” Montag scrabbles at the table, his breath heightening, but Nazali presses their hands to his shoulders, pinning him back.

 

Julian, heart thudding in his throat, leans forward. Montag seizes when he presses the cloth over his mouth and nose, “Lay still. Breathe.” Julian tells him, and then, softer, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

 

Montag’s eyes find his, pupils constricted, and he bucks weakly in Nazali’s grip. Julian can feel him try to bite him from beneath the cloth. What blood there is left in him rises into his cheeks, leaving them a meager pink with effort. Then, slowly, he begins to still. His chest heaves, and with each gasp, Julian can see his eyelids grow heavier. A minute passes, then another, and then Montag is motionless on the table. Julian leans back to lift the saw.

 

***

 

“I don’t want anything.” Montag drawls, “I’m not hungry.”

 

His fair hair is bedraggled, limp around his face, and has been for the three weeks since the operation. Even when Julian washes it, Montag leaves it untouched, and it drifts in his eyes just as listlessly as he drifts in and out of consciousness.

 

“You have to eat.” Julian insists. His fingers tighten around the bowl of stew in his hands.

 

“Why?” Montag huffs in return, “To keep my strength up? Why bother?”

 

“It’d be a shame to let it go to waste.” Julian says.

 

Montag arches one prominent brow, “My strength, or the stew?”

 

Julian tries a grin, “Why not both?”

 

Montag snorts, “Why either?”

 

Sighing, Julian sinks into the chair beside his cot. Montag hasn’t yet left the tent by more than a few paces, and Julian feels as if his bones have accordingly melded into the shape of the seat. He leans in, setting the stew on the rickety folding table near Montag’s shoulder.

 

“How do you feel?” He asks, “How is the pain?”

 

“How do you think it is?” Montag sniffs, “You cut off my fucking arm.”

 

“Better or worse than yesterday?”

 

Montag’s lips purse, “...Better.”

 

“Let me see.”

 

“No.”

 

Julian pinches the bridge of his nose, “I’m your doctor.”

 

“You’re not a doctor, you’re an apprentice.” Montag counters.

 

“A doctor’s apprentice.” Julian sighs, “We don’t have to do this right now, you know.”

 

“You didn’t have to cut off my fucking arm. ” Montag spits.

 

Julian gapes, “What did you want to do, bleed out in the sand?!” He exclaims.

 

Montag scowls, then turns away from him on the cot, dragging the sheet up over his shoulders. Julian lets his face drop down into one hand. The silence drags out long enough for the steam to stop rising from the bowl of stew.

 

“Please, eat.” Julian finally says.

 

“No.”

 

“I’ll hold the bowl for you.”

 

“I don’t need you to hold the bowl.” Montag snarls, shoving himself upright once more, “I’m not a child.”

 

Julian arches one heavy brow, “Then do it yourself.”

 

Montag gives a displeased hiss, but snatches the bowl off of the tray nonetheless. He rests it on his knees and locks eyes with Julian as he lifts a spoonful to his lips, “See?”

 

“Sure showed me.”

 

Montag wrinkles his nose, “Shut up.”

 

***

 

“Is it warm enough?” Julian asks softly.

 

Montag shudders as the first trickles of water flood from the cloth in Julian’s careful hands down over his shoulder, “Mm.”

 

“Good.” Julian begins to scrub at the sweat that has accumulated along the length of his shoulders in the last day’s heat, swirling the cloth in a basin of clean water in between passes.

 

Montag stiffens beneath his touch, lifting his chin faintly. His gaze flickers between the various trays and tables in the tent, unseeing, anywhere but on Julian. His nostrils flare as he leans in and the end of an auburn curl drifts into his vision.

 

“I don’t know what you even bother doing this for.” Montag sighs.

 

“Wouldn’t you rather be clean?” Julian asks, arching an eyebrow.

 

“It’s not like it’s going to make any difference.”

 

Julian glances at his face, “Any difference…?”

 

Montag purses his lips, “In the way people look at me now. I’m disfigured .”

 

“I don’t know, I certainly don’t mind looking.” Julian’s lips quirk just a hint.

 

Montag’s eyes snap to him, narrowing, “Don’t make fun of me.”

 

Julian blinks, “I’m not.”

 

“Oh?” Montag snorts, sneering, “This is what you want?” He moves as if to outstretch both arms, head tilting emphatically towards his left side and eyebrows lifting.

 

Julian blushes, “W-Well, you’re still-"

 

Montag shifts, lips twitching, “Still what?”

 

“I mean, that is-" Julian moves to cover his stammering with a rakish grin, “I hardly think it was your only blessing.”

 

Montag watches him for a long moment. One corner of his mouth pricks up, “And what else would you say is one of my blessings, Jules?”

 

Julian’s hands pause with the washcloth, fidgeting, “E-Er-"

 

“God, are you always this easy to break down?” Montag jeers, the first time Julian has heard him laugh since before the beach, “Or is it just me?” He leans back, smirking, and some of the brash slant returns to his shoulders, “Do my hair next.”

 

With a quiet sigh of relief, Julian gives a small mock-salute, “Yes, sir.” He’s just beginning to card his fingers through it when Montag speaks up again.

 

“You know, Jules, I think I like it when you say that.”

 

Julian freezes, breath hitching, “...Say what?”

 

Montag looks back over his shoulder, “‘Yes’. ‘Sir’. Both.” He tilts his head back, allowing Julian to begin attending to his hair, “You should say them more often.”

 

“I, uh-”

 

“Come on, Jules.” Montag huffs.

 

“Er…’yes, sir’?” Julian supplies.

 

Montag reaches back, and his hand spreads over Julian’s knee, “See? There’s a good boy.”

 

Julian swallows a ragged breath. Then, Montag’s thumbnail digs into the inside of his thigh, and Julian can’t bite back the sudden, low thrum of a groan in his throat.

 

“Oh, Jules. ” Montag lilts, “It really is just like I thought, isn’t it?”

 

Beneath Montag’s punishing grip, Julian can feel his pulse quickening with every mounting second of torment, “Hnh?”

 

“You like pain.” Montag says simply, and lets his nail scrape further along the line of Julian’s thigh. One of Julian’s hands fists in his hair, and he laughs, “Nevermind, you love pain.”

 

“I- that is-” Julian strains.

 

“Tell me to hurt you.” Montag orders.

 

A pang of want pierces Julian’s resolve as easily as if it were paper, “Oh my god, please do.”

 

Montag shifts to let his legs hand over the side of the cot, positioned between Julian’s. His hand flits up off of Julian’s knee, only to anchor itself along his jaw, thumb locked beneath his chin, tilting his head up to expose his throat.

 

“Now beg me to.” Montag tells him.

 

Oh .” Julian’s voice sounds miles away in his own ears, minute. He’s already panting. The cloth slips from his fingers, “P-...Please, Montag, I- please . I’ll do whatever you want, just- just hurt me. Please.”

 

Montag’s fingers creep back into his hair, and then his fist is like a vice in Julian’s wild curls. Julian makes a gutted, animal sound and goes slack in his grasp. The eager cruelty in Montag’s laugh sets his blood vibrating just beneath the skin.

 

“Get on your knees.” Montag commands, “I wanna’ choke you on my cock.”

 

Julian’s eyes widen. Already, it’s so much, too much of exactly what he’s touched himself to for years, the ache, the rough handling. His own cock is beginning to leak against his thigh. He falls to his knees without protest.

 

Montag releases him to fumble with the laces on his breeches. Julian reaches up to help him, but Montag swats his hands away with a hiss. Julian leans his cheek helplessly on his thigh as he waits for him to undo them, his mouth already watering.

 

“Your own fault you have to wait.” Montag sniffs.

 

Julian merely whimpers in reply. Finally, Montag’s fingers find purchase enough to free himself. The sight of him shoves a shudder through Julian’s body.

 

Montag’s hand returns to his hair, cinched into it with just as much vicious glee as before, “What are you waiting for?” He demands.

 

Julian needs no further prompting. He drags his tongue up along the underside of Montag’s cock, relishes the moan that it earns him in return. Montag twists his hand to wrangle him upward.

 

Suck it.” He orders, and then his cock is shoved down Julian’s throat and there’s no other option.

 

Julian hollows his cheeks around him, lets out a blissful exhalation through his nose. The greedy way that Montag fucks him, uses him, makes his consciousness itself a malleable thing. For a time - Julian has no idea how long - Montag is all there is, the delectable taste of him, the way he stretches his lips where they’re joined, the brush of fine gold hair against Julian’s cheek when he swallows him down. Julian slides worshipful hands up along Montag’s flanks, and in return Montag fucks his throat so raw that even Julian’s shattered groans are painful in their own right.

 

When the heel of his boot comes to rest between Julian’s legs, Julian feels the bottom drop out of his stomach. He convulses, defenseless, and ruts up against it as Montag grinds down into him, bucks fervently into the abuse. His eyes fall shut, and the sensation is all that remains. Julian is electric with it.

 

There’s no warning when Montag comes, only his fingers bracing themselves at the nape of Julian’s neck, fixing him in place. With a satisfied groan, he empties himself utterly into him, setting Julian sputtering, swallowing over and over to clear his throat. He’s close, so close, behind him, and all it takes is a twist of Montag’s heel to send him hurtling over the edge. He bows forward between his legs, gasping for air with Montag’s hand still wrenched in his hair, as he wrings himself out against him.

 

They’re both panting as Montag tucks himself back into his breeches, then pats the cot, “Come here.”

 

Julian, limbs feeble, crawls up beside him. Montag slings his arm around his shoulders, and Julian’s face seeks out the hollow of his neck, long body curling in to match his.

 

“Bet you wish I had both hands now.” Montag drawls.

 

“You know, it’s funny, I still just really prefer you alive.” Julian slurs.

 

Montag yawns beside his temple, “Schlampe.”

 

***

Chapter Text

Seven years later

 

Julian cranes his neck to take in the palace’s full height and whistles quietly to himself. Even Mazelinka’s stories, enthralling as they were, couldn’t have captured the elegance of the white stone and stained glass blazing in the morning sunlight. That he’s been summoned here at all - that his little clinic just outside the flooded district has garnered any notice whatsoever - would have been enough. But the idea of taking up residence here, the stipend for materials alone...a testament to the direness of the Red Plague, he supposes, that they would be desperate enough to turn to someone like him.

 

The bridge is bustling with what Julian can only assume are other doctors or - there are some fairly eclectic choices of clothing - arcane healers.

 

“Hell of a workplace.” One of the women beside him muses.

 

“You should see Milova.” Julian grins back, “Worked out of an artificial grotto for almost a month, once.”

 

He’s half of the way through a story about attending to a drenched, particularly rude noblewoman when a murmur rustles through the crowd. Glancing up, he can see what he expects must be the Countess and her retinue descending the palace stairs. Her posture, strict but somehow effortless, is even more elegant than Julian would have ascribed her from the numerous descriptions he’s heard, and her purple hair trails behind her in the wind like the veiled hush of twilight. A handful of her Courtiers follow in her wake. Julian sees no sign of the Count himself, but if all of the rumors are true, imagines that he’s probably better for it.

 

One of the Courtiers still wears a surgical mask over their face, the apron of their smock speckled with brown-red smudges that Julian knows at once are blood. Their eyes sweep over the gathered crowd as the group arrives on the bridge, and their head tilts curiously to one side.

 

“Esteemed guests.” The Countess begins, “Please, allow me to thank you for offering up your time and effort with all of Vesuvia at heart. You will excuse me for spending so little time with you this afternoon, but I trust that all of you understand that your work here is of the utmost importance. As such, I will allow the task of acquainting you with your workspaces and quarters to fall to the members of my Court. But please, know that I look forward to becoming better acquainted with each of you as you settle in.”

 

As she inclines her head and takes her leave, the assembled are gradually parceled out to their guides. Julian moves to step forward at a call for medical personnel, but finds one of his ankles suddenly gripped tight and stumbles. When he glances down, the sunlight is scattered in delicate pinpoints over the lavender scales of a snake. He gives a startled exclamation, but freezes as its coils tighten.

 

“Faust?” A shock of soft white curls appears through the crowd. Their owner quickly kneels at Julian’s side as he spots the snake, “Faust, no, no squeezing.”

 

Julian stares for a moment, “You two. Uh. Know each other, huh?”

 

A soft smile spreads over his lips as the snake trails obediently up over his arm and into his colorful vest. “She’s my familiar.” He says, and offers Julian a hand, “I’m Asra.”

 

Julian takes it to stagger back to his feet, “Julian.”

 

Asra’s eyebrows cant, “You don’t sound Vesuvian.”

 

“Ah-" Julian blushes, “Well, it’s Ilya, but no one here can pronounce it.”

 

Another quiet smile, “I’ll try my best.”

 

Julian’s lips part to reply, but the call for doctors is raised again, and he instead gives Asra a quick grin before trotting off after the group of them as they begin to file up the stairs. The head doctor - Quaestor Valdemar, their name had been attached to the summons Julian had received - walks at a quick, measured clip, and within minutes they’re winding through the stunning palace halls.

 

“-with actual specimens.... patients.” They’re saying as Julian catches up to them.

 

“Sorry, what was that?” Julian asks.

 

They glance back -almost too far back, somehow- over their shoulder at him, “Ah. I was just noting that, due to its urgency, our work is carried out primarily with active carriers of the Red Plague.” They note, “How very lucky we are.”

 

“Er...I guess?”

 

“Cadavers are so much less interesting.” Valdemar adds, “Considerably less responsive.”

 

“I mean, it’s probably harder when they’re dead.” Julian chuckles nervously.

 

Valdemar clasps their hands together, red eyes lighting, “Yes, precisely! You understand.” Before Julian can qualify the statement, they’ve fallen into step with him, “Which one are you?”

 

“Oh, I uh. Julian Devorak.” He replies.

 

Valdemar considers for a moment, “...069, correct?”

 

“I’m not quite sure…?”

 

“You have a clinic in the south of the city. Primary research is in bleeding?” Valdemar continues.

 

Julian gives a small nod, “Guilty as charged.”

 

“I certainly hope not.”

 

“Hope I’m not…?”

 

“Guilty.” Valdemar sighs, “A terrible hindrance for a professional.”

 

“Oh. I mean, I-"

 

Further along the corridor, there’s a shattering of glass, and a servant stumbles out of an elegantly carved door, covering their head hastily.

 

“Ah.” Valdemar meets the tips of their fingers just above their breastbone as the crystal stopper of a decanter careens out past the fleeing servant, “The Consul is in.”

 

“-perfectly impudent-" Julian hears a voice sneering before he sees the man step out into the hall, fingers tight around a glass of wine and lips pursed.

 

“Consul Valerius.” Valdemar greets him.

 

Valerius takes a long, thin breath through his nose, “...Quaestor.” He says tightly, schooling his features passive once more. He glances over the group in the hall, unimpressed, “...Et al.”

 

“I was just getting ready to show our new medical staff to their offices.” Valdemar notes.

 

Valerius’s nostrils flare, “I see.” He reconsiders them a moment, “...I’m certain the Count will be most grateful for their no-doubt diligent research in regards to a cure.”

 

Julian curiosity escapes him before he has a chance to stop it, “The Count has the Plague?”

 

Eyes flashing, Valerius zeros his gaze on him. Julian shrinks beneath it. Valerius holds his eyes as he draws a slow sip of wine.

 

“The Count is nothing if not immensely persistent.” He finally declares over the rim of the glass.

 

There’s a murmur from the collected doctors, and Valdemar clears their throat, “Shall we proceed, then?”

 

They usher them towards a heavy door that, when drawn back, reveals a staircase hewn from stone. Valdemar holds the door as they each descend.

 

***

 

Sunlight is beginning to pour through the gauzy curtains in his room when a knock stirs Julian into waking.

 

“Hnhh?” He slurs as he shoves the wild curls from his eyes and stretches.

 

One of the palace servants peeks into the room, “Doctor Devorak?”

 

He pushes himself upright and offers a sleepy grin, “The one and only.”

 

The servant smiles, “The Count and Countess have requested your presence at morning tea. To become better acquainted with their new staff. ” He tells him.

 

Julian blinks, “Oh. Uh- just me? Is there some kind of- do I need to wear anything special, or-?”

 

Chuckling, the servant shakes his head, “No, no. I believe they’ll be taking tea with a small group. You needn’t worry. I trust that you’re RSVPing in the affirmative?”

 

“Oh! Yes. Yes, of course.” Julian nods.

 

“I’ll let her know. They’ll see you in the sitting room at your convenience.”

 

With that, he slips from the room. Julian crawls from the bed to stumble into his clothing. He rakes his hands back through his hair a few times in the mirror, an overall useless gesture - it simply springs back into place. He rolls his eyes and plucks his jacket from the chair it’s hung over.

 

In the light of morning, the halls of the palace gleam, floor to ceiling, with resplendent elegance. Julian whistles beneath his breath as he makes his way towards the sitting room. The heels of his boots clack against the immaculate floor all the way.

 

There’s already a small group gathered when a servant ushers him through the double doors. Julian recognizes the Countess, her long fingers already wrapped around the handle of a delicate porcelain teacup, sitting beside the white-haired magician from the bridge, whose snake is still coiled around one arm. By the bay windows, the Consul is perched on a handsome loveseat. His gray robes are immaculate, and his gold-eyed gaze flicks scornfully over Julian’s disheveled clothing.

 

None of them hold his attention for more than a moment, because seated at the Consul’s side, opulent in white and furs, with a golden alchemical prosthetic in place of his lost left arm, is Montag. Julian freezes.

 

“Wh-”

 

The servant who drew back the doors for him inclines her head to make introductions, “Doctor Devorak. Consul Valerius, Asra Alnazar, and of course, Count Lucio and Countess Nadia of Vesuvia.”

 

The name keeps Julian from speaking up. His brows furrow. It can’t- he looks exactly like him, although considerably better-groomed.

 

“Please, Doctor, do have a seat.” The Countess motions to a chair at her side.

 

Julian sinks down into it, “Er- thank you.”

 

“Oh, we met earlier.” Asra notes as he does, and his lips form a quiet smile, “Faust was curious about you.”

 

As if on cue, the snake lifts her head to peer up at him. Julian gives a small, nervous laugh.

 

“Can it- can she understand you?”

 

Asra nods, “Of course.”

 

“She’s his familiar, of course she can.”

 

It’s the first time Julian has heard his voice in seven years. The hint of a southern accent has vanished entirely, but the timbre is the same. Julian turns to look at him once more and feels heat begin to blaze in his cheeks as soon as he does. Does he- does he not remember any of it? He wonders, then, how many others there had been for him. Dozens, probably. Of course. He’d been- he’d been absolutely foolish to think that just because he’d been his first, it had meant the same to him. Anything to him. Stupid. Just...stupid.

 

“I’m, uh. I’m not much for magic.” Julian replies. His voice is small in his throat.

 

“No, you came with Valdemar yesterday.” Valierus notes, “I can’t imagine they would personally employ a witch.”

 

Julian sees Asra’s brows cant, but it’s the Countess who speaks up first, “Luckily, it is the Count and I who employ all of the new researchers at the palace.”

 

Valerius looks to her, unamused, “Of course, Countess.”

 

Lucio grins, “And you.” There’s marked affection in the jab. Julian swallows.

 

“How lucky indeed.” Valerius deadpans.

 

“Don’t be a stick in the mud in front of our new friends.” Lucio sniffs.

 

There it is. There’s no doubt left in Julian’s mind, now, not with that little huff. In spite of himself, a hint of a smile tugs at the corner of his mouth.

 

“Afraid the jig is up, there.” He says, “I’ve already had the pleasure of marveling at the Consul’s excellent decanter aim.” He tells him. He’s halfway through miming a throwing motion when his elbow unseats a small tray of tea sandwiches from the side table. He goes scarlet immediately, “O-Oh! Er-”

 

Valerius arches one brow, “Well, then.”

 

Julian falls to his knees to begin plucking up the cucumbers scattered over the carpet, “Sorry, s-sorry!” He scrabbles for a piece of bread and finds himself beside one polished boot. Swallowing, he manages a glance up.

 

Something flashes in Lucio’s eyes. Then, a broad grin splits his lips, “... Jules ?” He laughs.

 

Julian goes still, nearly losing his grip on the food collected in his palms, “...Uh. Hello, there.”

 

The golden hand is at his chin instantly, bringing his face up so that Lucio can inspect it.

 

“It is you.” He smirks, “I thought you looked familiar.”

 

“It’s been a while.” Julian notes.

 

Nadia cocks her head, “You two know one another?”

 

Julian takes the opportunity to scramble to his feet when Lucio glances to her.

 

“Oh, I have Jules to ‘thank’ for all this. ” He tells her, wiggling his clawed hand.

 

Asra blinks, “He…?”

 

“I’m a doctor, it was an amputation.” Julian blurts.

 

Lucio rolls his eyes, “Always so insistent , aren’t you?”

 

Julian sees Valerius’s nostrils flare, and then he’s leveling a pointed glance his way. Julian shrinks beneath it. Lucio leans back in his seat, heedless.

 

“Where have you been?” He asks.

 

“I should be asking you the same thing. Your Excellency.” He adds with a small grin.

 

Lucio laughs happily, “Here, doing what I was born to do, obviously.”

 

Julian catches Nadia rolling her eyes for just a fraction of a moment before her countenance smooths. Valerius’s posture stiffens, and he takes a deep pull from his glass of wine.

 

“Asra.” Nadia turns to him, “You were telling us about your travels in Nopal, I believe?”

 

Julian’s shoulders sag with relief. It’s short lived; he can still feel the eyes of both men on the loveseat resting on him. Suddenly, he’s not entirely certain what it is that he usually does with his own hands - leaves them on his knees? At his sides? They feel unwieldy beneath the scrutiny, and he fidgets with them in his lap. When the servant finally brings a teacup for him to occupy them, he gives her an immensely grateful glance.

 

***

 

When the invitation to breakfast on the veranda arrives the next morning, Julian has barely slept. The sheets have become a whirlwind around his body, and he hopes - prays - that the servant who brings the news assumes he’s just a messy sleeper. He dresses with greater attention this time, although he can hardly call any of his clothing flattering; most of it is perpetually sea-starched. His hair remains as disobedient as ever.

 

The table, white wrought iron, is set for four when he arrives. Thus far, the only other occupant is the Countess. She tilts her head minutely in greeting and motions to the seat across from hers.

 

“Doctor Devorak.”

 

“Countess.” He bows, then sinks into the chair, “I’m flattered to be blessed with your company twice in a row.”

 

“As pleasant as it is, I must confess that the invitation came from my husband.” She tells him. Her eyes measure his face for a reaction, and Julian can’t keep from flushing, “...You must have been well acquainted.” She continues.

 

“We, uh-” He stumbles, “He was- I was stationed at his camp for a few weeks.”

 

“Oh?” Nadia pours a hint of milk into her tea, swirling it with a teaspoon as she watches him, “Fast friends, then.”

 

Julian is still struggling for anything more than a stunted nod when Valerius and Lucio appear on the staircase leading down to the veranda, accompanied by two enormous white sighthounds. The dogs bound ahead of them, and Lucio coos affections at them as he follows them down. Valerius, although his posture remains perfect, descends somewhat gingerly behind. Julian can see his eyes narrow when he catches sight of him.

 

“Beloved.” Nadia says, although her voice is cool.

 

“Morning, Noddy.” Lucio greets her. His gauntleted hand moves to cup her cheek, and he presses a kiss to her temple before dropping down in the seat to her left.

 

Nadia smooths her hair and nods to Valerius, “Consul.”

 

“Your Excellency.” He replies simply, then perches delicately in the remaining chair. Julian swears that the motion brings a hint of color to his cheeks for just a moment.

 

Lucio aims a grin towards Nadia, “Sleep well?” He asks.

 

Julian nearly chokes on a sip of coffee. His gaze flicks between the two of them over the rim of his cup. Nadia bristles, her lips pursing.

 

“Quite.” She says simply.

 

“Oh, me, too.” Lucio replies. Valerius’s brows cant, and Lucio smirks, “What?”

 

Valerius merely gives an exasperated sigh and settles into preparing a cup of tea.

 

“Doctor Devorak.” Nadia begins, “I trust that your accommodations are to your liking?”

 

“They’re fantastic.” Julian agrees, thankful for the shift in conversation, “And the medical facilities! Really, I-”

 

There’s a clatter of metal against stone, and Lucio lets out a small, “Oops!” Julian glances down to see a fallen teaspoon at his feet.

 

“Get that for me, would you, Jules?” Lucio drawls.

 

Nadia gives him a withering gaze, “We have servants to-”

 

Julian is already halfway under the table, although he pauses as he hears her speak, “...Oh. Uh. Should I-?”

 

“No, get it.” Lucio insists.

 

Julian sucks in a breath and plucks up the spoon. Lucio offers a hand for it, straight down, giving him no space to rise. Beneath the table, one booted calf brackets him in against the leg of a chair. He flushes and meekly hands over the teaspoon. Lucio offers it over one shoulder towards one of the staff, and they bustle it away, only to replace it moments later with a clean one. Julian waits expectantly to be released.

 

“Doctor?” Nadia questions.

 

“Uh. J- just a minute?”

 

Valerius’s hand fishes beneath the table. After a moment, he finds Lucio’s knee and pulls it aside. Julian scrambles to his feet, only to find Lucio smirking at him above the table. Nadia looks between them and sighs.

 

“Perhaps you would care to tell us more about your work, Doctor.” Valerius says pointedly.

 

“Neither of you are any fun.” Lucio sniffs.

 

***

 

The summons to the Count’s wing that evening still comes half as a surprise, in spite of the minute hope that has lingered in Julian’s chest throughout the course of the day. He fruitlessly rakes his fingers back through his hair in the bedroom mirror. It takes several minutes of traversing the winding palace halls to bring him to the landing of the wing. Sprawled across it are the two white hounds, and perched on the stairs above them, to Julian’s surprise, is Valerius. His nose wrinkles at the sight of Julian.

 

“What a surprise.” He drawls, “You actually came.”

 

Julian pauses, “You-” He sucks in a deep breath, “...He didn’t invite me, did he? You did. You just wanted to see if I’d- … if I’d-”

 

Valerius rolls his eyes, cutting him off, “Do you honestly think I’d resort to such infantile methods if I wanted to humiliate you? Besides, you’re hardly subtle about it.”

 

“Then...he did invite me?” Julian tries.

 

It earns him a short sniff of laughter in reply, “My, I’ve never known him to be taken with the desperate sort.”

 

Julian frowns, flushing, “With all of them in the palace, it’s funny that you’ve never looked in a mirror, then.”

 

Valerius bristles, and his grip tightens on the wine glass between his fingers, “Charming. I hope for both of our sakes you know how to put that quick tongue to better use.”

 

“Excuse me?” Julian gapes.

 

“Surely you don’t think you’re the only one he’s invited to his chambers this evening?” A wry smirk crosses Valerius’s lips.

 

“You mean he-”

 

“Do you object?” Valerius quips, “Shall I tell him that you refuse his invitation?”

 

“I-” Julian purses his lips. He takes a step back, and Valerius laughs as Julian’s gaze takes him in anew - his sharp jaw, his long, elegant hands, the lush slant of his mouth, “...No.”

 

Valerius’s eyes narrow, and he huffs a short sigh through his nose, “How tiresome. Come along, then.”

 

“Hey!” Julian protests as he follows him up the stairs from the landing.

 

“You’re going to have to be considerably more articulate than that if you hope to impress.” Valerius muses.

 

The dim light from the magically fueled torches in Lucio’s wing casts the entire hallway in a warm red glow. Valerius, without pause, makes for the glass double doors at the end of it that lead out onto the balcony. As Julian trots after him, he catches a glimpse of a few of the other rooms along the way: a lavish sitting room with striking tapestries stretching the length of the walls, a deep inset bath with glistening gold fixtures, and near the end of the hall, a bedroom with an opulent four-poster bed, canopied in red. The hall itself is lined with portraits, and each portrait is flanked by twin scones to ensure better viewing.

 

“He, uh. He doesn’t skimp on the decor, does he?” Julian says.

 

“Why on earth would he have to?” Valerius replies simply, and then his hand is on the knob and he’s drawing back the balcony door.

 

Lucio is reclining at a small table set with a set of cordial glasses and a variety of ornate bottles filled with dark liquid, “Did you two get lost?” He chuckles.

 

“It would be difficult, when one is so intimately familiar with the way.” Valerius shoots back as he takes the seat on Lucio’s right.

 

Lucio’s face splits into a grin, “Come on, Jules, don’t be shy. Sit down, have a nightcap with us.”

 

“I could never be so rude as to turn down such a gracious invitation.” Julian says, and mirrors the expression as best he can as he sinks into the final chair.

 

Lucio plucks up one of the glasses between his clawed fingertips. Valerius eyes the labels on the bottles, then lifts one and offers it to him. Lucio’s eyebrows cant at the clear liquid within it.

 

“Grappa? Really?” He laughs, “You wanna’ ruin him so fast?”

 

Julian’s mouth is open to explain that of course he can handle his grappa, he’s been a pirate (technically) and they should have seen him seaside when Valerius sniffs, “I was under the impression that that duty was to rest on your shoulders this evening.”

 

“E-Er-” Julian stammers, looking between them, “Y-You-?”

 

Lucio arches one dark brow, “...What, did you come up here expecting tea?”

 

Julian scrabbles for words, “No, I- you-”

 

Lucio sets the glass down, reaches across the table to graze claw tips beneath Julian’s chin, “Oh, did you think I forgot what you’re like ?”

 

Biting his lip to stifle a whimper, Julian exhales a shaky breath through his nose, “...Doesn’t. Seem like it.”

 

“My drink, Lucio.” Valerius drawls.

 

Lucio turns his way with a pout, “Spoil sport.”

 

“He’s not going to last like that. Look at him, he’s already squirming.” Valerius shoots back archly.

 

Lucio, lips quirked with delight, returns his gaze to Julian, and Julian, for his part, freezes in his seat for just a moment before he can’t keep his thighs from shifting once more. He feels heat rise in his cheeks when Lucio laughs again.

 

“You’re right!” He says to Valerius as he uncorks the bottle. The sharp, bitter aroma strikes Julian’s senses a moment later as Lucio pours a glass and offers it to Valerius.

 

“I can hardly imagine that’s a surprise anymore.” Valerius muses. A thin smile curves his lips as Lucio huffs in protest. He takes the glass and drains it without a second thought, barely flinches as he sets it down, “Much better.”

 

Julian can’t keep from whistling. A flicker of bemusement tugs at Valerius’s lips. Lucio fills another of the glasses and extends it towards Julian.

 

“Go on. Show us what you’ve got.” He goads.

 

Tugging it from his fingers, Julian leans back to take a belt from it. He can feel Lucio’s eyes on his throat. It burns, keen-edged, as he swallows. He can’t help but wince as the heat of it blossoms in his chest.

 

Valerius shrugs minutely, “Not the last thing I’ll best him at this evening, I suppose.”

 

Lucio’s brows cant, and he grins, “Oh?”

 

“You’re perfectly aware of my skillset, I needn’t expound.”

 

“Hmmm...sounds like a challenge to me, Jules.” Lucio teases.

 

“It. Uh. It looks like you’ve got me at a disadvantage here.” Julian’s voice catches in his throat a moment, “Maybe you could j-just...just tell me what to do.” He finally offers.

 

“Oh? Perhaps some guidance is in order.” Valerius says, and he rises to slip behind Lucio. One set of long fingers winds down the Count’s shoulder to his chest. They disappear beneath the fabric of his shirt, and Lucio’s breath hitches.

 

“That’s playing dirty.” Lucio sighs.

 

“All’s fair, as they say.”

 

Lucio reaches up to loop a hand loosely around his braided hair, beginning to wind him closer, “Mmm, love or war?”

 

“Both. Neither.” Valerius purrs. His lips fall to the nape of Lucio’s neck.

 

“Well?” Lucio watches Julian expectantly.

 

“Not yet.” Valerius’s eyes flick to Julian as he moves to get to his feet, “Watch, first.”

 

“Oh, you’re the worst.” Lucio coos pleasedly.

 

Julian nearly whines. His hands fidget on his knees as he returns to his chair.

 

“Did you want to make it easier for him?” Valerius questions. Julian can see goosebumps rise on Lucio’s arms at the proximity of his lips to his throat.

 

“You’re suggesting what I hope you’re suggesting?”

 

“Kindness and cruelty are so often intertwined.”

 

Julian watches, perplexed, as Lucio slips back into the hallway. He can hear a rustling in the bedroom before Lucio returns with his metal hand curled around a wound length of jute. Julian’s stomach drops, and against his thigh, he feels his cock twitch.

 

“...Oh.” He breathes.

 

There’s a extraordinary railing along the edge of the balcony. The knots that Lucio works the rope into are no less gilded than its ironwork. He spreads Julian’s long arms wide against it. With every twist that secures him there, Julian feels another tight parcel of thought and worry drop from his mind until, when he’s held fast, he’s left as a weightless, shapeless form made up purely of sensation.

 

“Not too tight?” Lucio asks as he steps back to examine his work.

 

“No,” Julian breathes, “It’s good. It’s...it’s really good.”

 

Lucio chuckles, and Valerius finally rises from the table behind him. When Lucio turns, he pulls him to himself by the brooch of his cape. His mouth is greedy, almost possessive, against his. Julian shudders and flushes. One of Valerius’s thighs slips between Lucio’s, and Julian is treated to his first familiar moan. He has to swallow down his own in response.

 

There’s an aching but unhurried familiarity to the way that they move against one another. Valerius breathes into him like water, bites at his lips, and Lucio’s hands seek out the clasps of his robes and undo them easily, second nature. Beneath them, the moon paints out silk-smooth peaks and valleys on Valerius’s skin. There are already fading bruises in the hollow of his genteel throat, and Lucio’s teeth waste no time in worrying new life into one of them. Over his shoulder, Valerius throws a small smirk Julian’s way. Julian, helpless, bites at his bottom lip and twists against his bonds when Lucio draws back to lean against the railing just out of his reach.

 

“Nice view, huh?” He grins. His clawed gauntlet glints as he beckons Valerius closer.

 

Valerius allows his robes to drop behind him as he steps towards him. Lucio’s smirk widens, and he pulls him to himself. Valerius gives a scolding hiss as he seizes a handful of his ass.

 

“What in the world has given you the idea that you can treat me like some sort of common tavern slut?” He sneers.

 

Lucio lifts his chin, challenging, “What do you think, Consul?”

 

Valerius watches him for a long moment, and then a slow, chilly smile works across his lips, “Present company.”

 

Lucio gives a bark of surprised laughter. Julian prays that it covers the minute whimper that threatens to work its way past his lips, the way that his thighs tense instinctively, but Lucio nearly coos.

 

“Oh, Jules. ” He purrs, “Even better. You two will get along so well.”

 

“Are you asking me to deride your little whore?” Valerius quirks one brow. Something jerks in Julian’s chest and he lets out a shuddering breath.

 

“Me?” Lucio asks, mock-innocent, “You’re gonna’ have to ask him, not me, Val, he’s the slut.”

 

“As much as I could cite evidence arguing the contrary-” Valerius trails off as Lucio’s lips press into an indignant pout, “I suppose I’ll indulge you.”

 

“Duh.”

 

Valerius wrinkles his nose at the term, but turns to look down on Julian nonetheless, “Well?”

 

“...Well?” Julian repeats, voice already hoarse with need.

 

“Weren’t you listening to the Count?” Valerius sniffs. He tilts his head into Lucio’s palm as Lucio’s fingers weave into the loose hair above his braid.

 

“Ooh, you never call me that when we-”

 

“And I never will, if you ruin it now.”

 

“Tch, fine.”

 

“As I was saying.” Valerius continues pointedly, although his cheek presses against Lucio’s hand, “Are you asking me to describe to you, in detail, precisely what I think of you?”

 

Julian swallows as his pulse rushes in his ears, “...P-...Please.”

 

“I’m certain that you understand that I intend to do so while otherwise occupied with the clear object of your affection.”

 

Whining, Julian strains against the rope, “ Hhhn-

 

Lucio, laughing, hooks a hand in the crook of one of Valerius’s knees and lifts it to his waist. Valerius’s gaze snaps to him.



“With proper preparation , you beast.” He huffs.

 

“Picky, picky.” Lucio sighs. He retreats back into the bedroom, grumbling.

 

Valerius turns to Julian once more, lips pursed, “Look at you. You truly are desperate, aren’t you?”

 

Julian’s breath is heavy. There’s a slick growing against the front of his breeches where his cock is leaking in earnest, now, “I mean, uh. He was. Right. About the view.” He offers.

 

Valerius sets a hand on one hip, “Please. You’d let anyone have you, in this state.” He taunts, “How many of your mongrel shipmates have used you?”

 

“Oh God.” Julian whimpers. His moves to lift his hips, to arch back, but the rope holds fast.

 

When Lucio returns, it’s with a small bottle of oil, and a sheer robe that leaves little to the imagination, “Look at you.” He snickers, “You’re killing him.”

 

“I’m merely aware of his natural state.” Valerius tells him. Lucio pushes him back into position against the rail, and Valerius gives a tight gasp as he brings slicked fingers back over his entrance, “ Nnh- really, Lucio, how many dozens of men do you think he’d had before you had him?”

 

“None.” Julian blurts out, then goes scarlet.

 

Above him, both of them pause. Lucio regains his voice first.

 

“...I was your first?” He asks gleefully, “Weren’t you, like, nineteen?”

 

“I’m a quick study.” Julian pants.

 

“Clearly.”

 

“Focus.” Valerius demands.

 

“What was it you liked to say so much, Jules?” Lucio grins, “‘Yes, sir’?”

 

With that, his fingers are pressing against Valerius in earnest, breaching his body’s tightness, and Valerius’s breath grows ragged for a moment. Julian is a howling chasm of want, ache. He writhes in the grip of the rope surrounding him, and beneath it, trails of angry red begin to bloom in his pale skin. The friction of it only drags a mournful groan up from his chest. His thighs are quaking, now, and as Valerius begins to work himself back against Lucio’s motions, Julian’s own hips jerk in time.

 

“F-Fuck-” He’s gasping, “Please, please-”

 

“Listen to him, Lucio.” Valerius presses on, his voice ground low by the weight of his growing arousal, “So obscene.” Then, his arms rising up around Lucio’s shoulders, one hand closing around a fistful of golden blonde, “ More.

 

Lucio gives a struck little groan. Drawing his fingers back, he maneuvers one leg up to his waist once more. This time, Valerius merely takes a slow breath and arches into his touch. Julian’s pulse thunders in his ears as he reaches down to free Lucio from the robe. His body is as lean and muscular as Julian remembers. Valerius shifts to align them, and, with a pleased shove of his hips, Lucio sheaths himself inside of him. Valerius merely exhales with satisfaction; it’s Julian who moans and thrashes in earnest.

 

“Oh god, oh god…” He whimpers. His eyes are glassy, stung wet with frustration.

 

“He’s going to cry.” Valerius chuckles breathlessly.

 

Lucio rakes his teeth along the side of his neck, “Bet you like that, huh?”

 

“Not nearly as much as he does.”

 

Julian chokes back an agonized whine. Valerius’s hands link at the nape of Lucio’s neck to allow him greater purchase, and he holds himself against him as Lucio begins to fuck him in earnest. Julian watches the way his thrusts punch quiet gasps up from Valerius’s throat with naked, yearning want. The way that Lucio’s fingers dig into his thigh, the clear tenor of his pleased groans, the flush of his skin. Julian is starving, starving.

 

“Fuck me.” He’s begging, barely aware of it, “Please, Montag, please fuck me, I c-can’t-”

 

Montag? ” Valerius echoes, bemused.

 

“Uch, don’t.” Lucio hisses.

 

“Some kind of squalid woodland bandit, to be sure.” He teases. Lucio drags him closer, drives into him to the hilt, and Valerius gives a fragmented cry.

 

“I’m your Count. ” Lucio insists.

 

“Call yourself whatever you want, just keep moving.” Valerius pants. Julian can see precome beading at the tip of his cock.

 

“Or what?” Lucio taunts.

 

Valerius fixes him with a sharp gaze. He lifts his chin a fraction of an inch, and Julian sees the muscles in his stomach tense. Lucio chokes and curses.

 

Fuck-

 

“That’s the idea.” Valerius grits.

 

Arching him back deeper against the rail, Lucio pounds into him with renewed eagerness. Julian nearly sobs, ruts the air the hair’s breadth that his bindings will allow. He can hear Valerius’s breath coming quicker, uneven. His nails dig into the taut flesh of Lucio’s back, and his other leg rises up to Lucio’s waist to lock his body against his.

 

“Don’t stop.” He demands in a hiss.

 

“Oh, not gonna’.” Lucio’s chest is heaving, pinkened with effort and arousal.

 

Valerius bites his lip, and his brow creases with concentration. His forehead comes to rest against Lucio’s cheek. Lucio pants out a soft laugh. Julian’s wrists are rubbed raw, now, and still he thrashes.

 

“You think he’s gonna’ come?” Lucio murmurs with a flash of teeth.

 

“I don’t care.” Valerius says, “H-He’s just a-a- hh- ... hhn-

 

His toes curl behind Lucio’s back as he spends himself with a gored cry over the plane of Lucio’s middle. Julian feels his stomach flutter as his own body threatens, untouched, to crest the precipice of climax. He squirms, chases the sensation with lips pinched, drawing gasping, stilted breaths through his nose.

 

“Nononono-” He whimpers as it evades him, “ Fuck. Oh god, please-

 

Valerius shudders, oversensitive, on Lucio’s cock, mouthing at the spot just beneath his ear, “At least we have someone to clean you up.”

 

Julian freezes and turns his eyes hopefully to Lucio’s face, “Please.” He supplies immediately.

 

“Oh?” Lucio draws back, golden arm still supporting Valerius as he sinks shakily to his feet.

 

“Wh-whatever you want.” Julian begs, “Anything, anything, break me, use me, I-I-”

 

“Can’t you see what a miserable slut he is?” Valerius is smoothing Lucio’s tousled hair into place.

 

“Kinda like it, honestly.”

 

Valerius worries at his bottom lip with his teeth, “Honestly, you have such plebian taste sometimes.”

 

“Does that mean you don’t wanna’ watch?” Lucio asks.

 

Rolling his eyes, Valerius retrieves Lucio’s discarded robe and shrugs it over his own shoulders, “I suppose I could be pressed to.” He sighs.

 

“I mean-” Lucio runs a hand down over his slicked stomach, “-it’s your come.”

 

Julian shudders.

 

“Details, details.” Valerius sniffs.

 

“I-I-” Julian’s voice is soft, cheeks dark. He shivers and presses on, “...I’ll swallow it for you.” He tries.

 

Valerius’s eyes finally land on him, eyebrows canting, “Will you, then?”

 

Julian feels himself color down his throat, over his ears. He’s going to have to burn these pants for the way he’s dripping in them. Slowly, he nods. Lucio steps in front of him, and Julian’s breath disappears.

 

Please. ” He implores, struggling to crane his neck towards him.

 

Lucio sets one hand on the rail and leans toward him, tauntingly close. Julian can smell the sex on him, and just below his spattered midsection, his cock is still swollen and dripping. Julian’s tongue flicks out to graze just beneath his bellybutton, comes back sweat-salty and bitter. He gives a shivering sigh of pleasure and sucks at the taste in his mouth until there’s no trace of it left.

 

“Please, more…” He breathes as Lucio lifts his hips just out of his reach, “I c-can’t- I can’t wait any longer, it h-hurts.”

 

Lucio’s clawed hand threads itself into his hair. Julian cries out as he yanks him arched, but falls silent immediately when Lucio offers himself to him, instead lathing his tongue in broad stripes over his stomach.

 

His eyes, heavy lidded with pleasure, flick to Valerius for a fraction of a moment,

“Y-you’re so good,” He pants, “I l- hnh- I love i-it…”

 

“What about me ?” Lucio asks.

 

“O-Oh my god.” Julian stammers between licks, “Please, please, what do you want me to do? Tell me what you want, I’ll- you can-”

 

Lucio kneels to level him with his gaze, “What if I wanna’ fuck you, too?”

 

God, yes.

 

Practiced fingers begin to work the knots securing Julian to the railing open. Julian drops his forehead onto Lucio’s shoulder, babbles helplessly against it, a litany of ‘ please ’ and ‘ hard, so hard, ’  and finally ‘ M-M-...Lucio… ”.

 

“Gimme the bottle.” Lucio says, reaching a hand towards Valerius.

 

With his other arm, he hauls Julian to his feet. Julian clings to the railing to stay upright as Lucio turns him to face it. Behind him, he can hear Lucio slicking his cock with fresh oil, and then a hand it rucking his pants down.

 

“You’re just going to-?” Valerius asks.

 

“Say it again.” Lucio grunts beside Julian’s ear.

 

“L-...Lucio…” Julian exhales.

 

The blunt head of Lucio’s cock is pressing at his entrance. Julian gasps. His fingers curl on the rail, “O-Oh god, oh my god-” And then he’s pushing into him, splitting him, and Julian is wailing at the stretch and burn of it, “ Fuck. Fuckfuck fuck!

 

Lucio’s hands are at his hips, now, holding him still. Julian’s body jerks beneath them, helpless to do anything but take, take , and the way that Lucio invades his body is heedless of his struggle.

 

“Do you think everyone in the gardens can hear you?” Lucio groans softly.

 

“Do you think everyone in Vesuvia can hear him?” Valerius huffs.

 

“Again.” Lucio demands.

 

Julian keens his name, and then Lucio is inside him, all the way inside, buried in him, impaling him on his length, Julian’s body clutching him. By the time he forces him into rhythm, Julian’s limbs are quaking. His legs barely support him any longer.

 

“God, god, Lucio-! ” He howls.

 

Lucio’s gauntleted hand digs into his left hip, and Julian feels a trickle up blood spring up beneath his fingers. He has to clench his jaw to keep from coming. The heat pooled in his stomach is stifling. His bangs drift in his eyes, too tear-blurred to focus.

 

“Please,” He begs, “Lucio, please, fuck, c-c-...come in me....”

 

There’s a sudden, aching burn at the nape of his neck. Lucio’s teeth are clamped in his flesh, merciless. Julian imagines him shaking him like an animal, thrashing his powerless body back and forth.

 

Ohgod-

 

He can’t help himself any longer. The desperation in his gut finally boils over, and he’s coming so hard that his jerking knees rattle up against the rail. He loses his balance in earnest, and Lucio’s grip is all that’s keeping him anchored. The muscles inside of him tighten, clamp down, and then Lucio is spilling, too, hot inside him, and Julian is sobbing with pleasure and wailing his name out over the railing with wanton abandon.

 

Julian’s heartbeat is a dull roar in his ears. As he comes down, he can feel himself being lifted, his long limbs gathered into an angular bundle. His temple rests against Lucio’s chest.

 

“-so I can take a bath?” Lucio is saying, distant in Julian’s ears.

 

“Ugh, really?.” Valerius replies.

 

“Come on.”

 

Fine.

 

He tumbles between them. Valerius grunts and shifts him so he’s over his shoulder. Julian slurs a pained moan.

 

“Hush.” Valerius chides.

 

It’s only a few steps to the bedroom, and when they reach it, Valerius splays him over the bed. Julian, shaking, struggles to crawl beneath the covers. Valerius sinks down beside him and tugs them up over both of them.

 

“I-Is he coming back?” Julian asks.

 

“Who knows?”

 

Even with his long legs stretched to the very foot of his bed, Julian feels suddenly and acutely small. He clambors for one of the pillows, burying his face into it with a shaky sigh. Valerius watches him for a moment, then relents, pulling his back up against his chest. Julian gives a thankful groan before sleep overtakes him.