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In her own words...

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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.