Eventually they reached the beach, thankfully without any run-ins with the guards this night. Julian led the way, letting go of Verun’s hand as he walked along the sand. She watched him, just a few steps ahead of her, his form silhouetted against the moonlight on the water running over the rocky beach. Picturesque.
But she could see a tension there, something that had been building up all day, just waiting to crash down on the both of them. The way his shoulders stayed stiff, the way his gaze subtly avoided looking straight at her. He stopped as he reached a rotting wood pier, glancing back at her with a sad smile that beckoned her forward. He didn’t say anything, the silence broken only by the waves gently lapping at the rocks.
The two of them walked out to the end of the pier, and eventually Julian took a deep breath, the tension finally finding its breaking point. His eye was fixed onto a certain point in the sea, though Verun didn’t know whether to look away from him or not.
“This breeze is nice… it would be a good night for sailing, don’t you think?”
“I wouldn’t know,” she murmured, staring at him still, watching as he shook his head and dropped his gaze to the water at the end of the dock.
“Verun, listen… we uh, we need to talk. We’ve been needing to all day, I’ve just been putting it off. I guess I was just enjoying myself too much to…” He looked at her, face tinged with pink, his expression warring between something pleased and something dreadfully sad.
She bumped his shoulder with her own. “I had fun today too. It was a good date day.” Where he was going with this was a mystery, but he was definitely dancing around something. That made Verun nervous, she didn’t want… whatever this was to ruin the end of her night, even though she had a feeling that it was about to smack her down. But whatever it was, she did have fun with her day.
“Really now?” He smiled, rubbing one of his palms across his cheek. “Even the part where I destroyed a fortune in fruit? Or accidentally crashed a play?”
With a laugh, Verun nodded. “I mean, you did save me from getting smashed by the fruit cart. And the play was oddly hilarious, honestly. That Lucio actor was totally flirting.”
“He was very in character,” Julian stated dryly, though he smirked at the memory.
Verun smiled. It wasn’t often that she got to see things outside of her own neighborhood, so the outing today was, beyond being fun, interesting in many ways and enlightening to a point. “The people seem to love you.”
“They’re good people. Hardworking, dedicated.” He paused, expression darkening into something heartbroken. If Verun had to guess he looked almost scared. “But covering for me is putting them in danger. I know they’d take any chance to get back at the palace, and I can’t fault them for that, but… eventually something is going to happen, and someone will get hurt. I’m a disaster waiting to happen, Verun. And… and I don’t want you to get caught up in that.”
He slowly sank down to sit at the edge of the pier, his legs just long enough that the heels of his boots skimmed over the surface. Verun sat beside him, her shoulder bumping into his. He leaned towards her, almost like he craved to press up against her again, but stayed just far enough away that the edge of his cloak barely brushed her shirt. It hurt to have him so close, yet so desperately far away with that look in his eyes.
He raised his hand to point at a dark mass on the edge of the horizon. “You see that island? It’s called the Lazaret. It’s where the city sent their infected, during the height of the plague. A perfect monument to my failures to all the people I tried to help. Always visible from shore, just enough to haunt the people here, to remind the city of the suffering it went through, the suffering I wasn’t able to stop for the people that now do so much to try to help me. Every death, every body burnt in those pits, is another mark against me. And there are so many… so many marks, Verun.”
Julian sighed, frowning. “I don’t want to drag this out. This… whatever it was, whatever this could have been.”
Her heart dropped into her stomach, and she nearly lunged forward to grab onto him, to hold him tighter, to refuse to let go. But he continued on, not meeting her gaze still, and she was frozen. "It… it has to end, before it's too late for you. I'm going to end up hurting you somehow, I know it. And I-I'm pretty sure this is hurting you now , but I can't risk your life over some time spent with… with a wreck like me."
"You won't hurt me," she said desperately, blinking quickly to keep tears from welling up in her eyes.
"Ohh, Verun. My dear Verun… you're too kind to me. I will absolutely hurt you. It's inevitable, for everyone around me. It's only a matter of time, it's what I do. It's what I've always done." He drooped, head down as he inspected his hands in his lap, a grimacing sneer twisting his features. "I'll be the first to admit my faults, and there are so many. I lose myself time and time again, or maybe this is the real me. Someone who hurts the people closest to me. A failure. I don't even know if I killed the Count, but I know that I could have. I know I have that darkness in me, if something pushes hard enough. Isn't that enough to damn me?"
Verun closed her eyes, desperately trying to clear her head as tears threatened to spill over. He didn’t want her to get hurt, and she understood that, but part of her needed to know for a fact that he wasn’t doing this because he was trying to get rid of her. And it was so hard to get it out past her throat as it closed up, the pressure building as she opened her mouth to speak, staring at him as her vision blurred for a moment.
"Do you want me?"
Her question startled him, his body nearly jerking away into the sea, like her words scorched him. His face was noticeably red even in the moonlight, eyes wide and embarrassed. Not a great start to the answering of her question. "Do I- what? Did you… I must have misheard you." He stumbled through his words, avoiding her gaze as it pierced through him.
"I asked… if you wanted me?"
"Ah, so I didn't misunderstand," he muttered. "That's a strange question to ask when I'm breaking up with you, don't you think? Though I don't know if this can be called a proper breakup, we were never really together… this has just been a night or two stolen together, no matter how pleasant they’ve been."
He leaned back, hesitant to answer as he let his mouth ramble on. He looked like he was about to break any moment, stand and go running off into the darkness, using those long legs to leave her behind. "Do I want you… do I want you? That's such a hard question to answer, Verun. I don’t want to hurt you. I want you to be safe. I want you to stay out of this whole mess. I want… I want you to have a future of your own. It doesn't matter what I want." He trailed off, hands clenching on his lap as his eyes took on a distant look, like he was staring into a void of blackness contained within himself.
"You didn't answer my question, Julian," she insisted. If Verun didn't have to, she didn't want to go into her more aggressively protective mode, but the way he kept talking made her think that maybe she would be forced to.
"Tenacious, aren't you? That's one of the things I like about you, I will say… you’ve kept me moving forward in these last few days, not letting me wallow in my own head so much. You're like this great light that keeps pulling me forward, getting me to take just one step more, and one more. I just can't help myself, you're… magnetizing. If I was a stronger man I think I could make this better, either to stay away or to actually make something good for you… if I wasn't so weak… but I can't, you're just-" he looked up, almost to her, a smile bright and amazed on his face even as his words sounded like he was shattering as he spoke. "You're so amazing, Verun. So much more than I could ever deserve. You're so good, in every way I could ever think of."
But then his face dropped, and he bit hard onto his lip, anguished. "And I… I want you. More than anything. I know it's only been a few days, but it feels like I've known you for years, the way you put me at ease, it's like… like I could just relax. Which is notoriously hard to do, just ask Mazelinka, I just- I can't stop thinking about you. Even- even when you're not there, I always feel like I'm going to turn around and see you through the window, around the corner, somewhere nearby- it's-" he let out a quiet, frustrated shout, rubbing his hands back and forth through his hair and leaving it an absolutely tangled mess.
"That's the problem, Verun. I'm torn in two, and I can't figure out what to do. My mind says that I have to leave, get out of here before it's too late for you and everything falls down on us and I have to see you get hurt, maybe get killed because of me. But my heart is too caught up in what I want, chasing after visions of a future that crumbles to dust before I can even graze my fingers over it- it keeps pulling me back to you even though I know it's wrong for me to. I-I don't even know if I could stay away from you if I tried," he said with a huff of a helpless laugh, staring out at the sparkling sea through his wild strands of hair. "If I let down my guard, would I just end up walking right back to you? How far would I have to go to run from that urge? I can see the path our story would take, so why… why can't I just go? That's what makes me selfish, I just can't let go. Whatever possibilities, whatever futures we could have, I would ruin. Is that worth it for the time spent with me? There's no ending that doesn't end in ruin for you."
Verun didn't think that she could listen to his sob story for much longer. The tension rose in her throat, watching him as he spoke, threatening to strangle the words she tried to give. She didn't know what he could see from her, what futures he saw crumbling down around him, but she wanted so badly to know. She wanted to fix them, help him build something that wouldn't fall down at the first sign of trouble. Maybe that's just what he needed, a fixing hand… but she knew that kind of voice, the one that had already made a decision. So she let the tears streak down her face, wiping them away quickly, hoping he wouldn't see the way she was breaking.
But he stared at her like she was a glass doll, eyes wide as he tried and failed to wipe away her tears as they continued to fall, only spreading them over her cheeks with the leather of his gloves. And he looked like he was breaking too, hating the way her tears slipped down her face, hating that he was the one that caused them.
"Oh Verun, please don't cry," he said, pleading. That's how he was selfish. "I'm so sorry, my dear, I'm sorry."
That's how he was selfish. Breaking her and asking her not to cry over it, being so nice and tender over it, when she all she wanted was to cling onto him and say his name over and over until it was etched onto her tongue. Her throat was so tight she couldn't speak, couldn't make noise, couldn't even move as her chest shook with silent sobs. She didn't want to be left behind, though that was exactly what was happening, again .
It felt like her chest was turning inside out, her heart exposed for him to stick his medical needles into it and puncture, leaving her to bleed out. It felt like he was tearing the air from her lungs and telling her to run without breathing, asking her to do it for him. It felt like abandonment, the way he looked at her with such devotion and such pain. She missed him already, missed the tenderness she had been stealing with such familiarity from him.
The moment a noise escaped her throat, Julian rocked backwards, like he had been hit. He looked so hurt, scared out of his mind as if he wanted to bolt away but was too tied up to move. "God, I'm so sorry Verun, I just don't know what to do, I'm sorry." He reached out again like he was scared he wasn't allowed to anymore, and Verun reached out to grip onto his jacket. She pulled herself closer, head tucked into the crook of his neck as she let out a soft, warbling whine before her entire body shook in a sob and cut the sound off again. She wanted him closer, she didn't want to be anywhere near him. Conflicting thoughts raged through her head until a loose fist fell onto his chest, a weak excuse of a punch.
"Y-y-yo-u don't ha-ave to leav-e-" She shook her way through her words, trying so hard to get it out. Julian's arms wrapped around her properly and nearly squeezed the breath out of her again. "J-jus-t- just stay?"
He pressed his face into her hair until the force of it hurt, taking deep breaths like he was trying not to cry as well. "I can't, Verun. I can't. Not when it's dangerous for you, I can't- not when I know how dangerous it is for you."
Her chest compressed on its own at that point, pressing her breath back down her throat until she choked on her emotion. But with shaky hands she pulled him down, pressing tear-slick lips to his. "Give me tonight, then. Please. Please," she pleaded, voice stronger as he pressed back against her lips.
"Okay… just a little longer," he murmured. But Verun refused to move away, and Julian didn't want her to, so they drew closer. And then Verun crawled into his lap, and Julian pulled at her with firm hands at the base of her spine, and their kisses turned needy, desperate. Her hand clung to his hair, tugging and gripping and yanking him to where she wanted. And she wanted him everywhere , she wanted him at her neck, at her breasts, mouthing at her thighs and between her legs. But he was so stubbornly far away from everywhere else but her lips, until she pulled away and leaned her head back, finally able to lead him at least to her neck to satisfy the drowning need she had for his touch.
"I want-" her voice broke as his lips met her skin, firm but too gentle now, not enough desperation in his touch. She wanted to be loved, she wanted to be so marked up that she would see the evidence of him on her skin for days. If she had to bleed for that, she didn't care, she wanted it all. But she was scared that Julian would deny her that, if she asked, and her heart would be broken again.
"What- what do you want?" He murmured against her skin, just barely pausing at her neck.
"You," she whispered, voice cracking. "I want you, I want-"
Her voice disintegrated into pants as he leaned into her, pressure in her throat and on her neck, pricks of pain making her voice loose a cry that drifted across the water like a lonely little bird. Then his hands were under her shirt, cool and shaking fingers pressing to her overheated body, tracing over her spine. It was like there were cracks spreading over her skin, breaking, breaking, breaking her with his gentleness. She missed him already, every time his lips left her skin only to move a few centimeters to kiss her again.
Somehow she managed to shrug off the shoulder of her shirt, her mind caught in a loop of I miss you, I miss you, I miss you, until his lips and tongue met the skin there as well, and the hand in his hair pressed him down. She pressed his mouth there, at bone and muscle, until his lip was about to split, and finally he bit down. The pain was greater there, more relevant, but she kept him there until her skin broke, and even then she didn’t let him pull away.
She kept him there until his hands came up, turning the two of them so Julian could push her away, down onto the rotting boards of the dock. His lips were stained with blood and spit, eyes wide as he watched tears again roll down her face. Blood dribbled from her shoulder, but as he raised his hand to the bite mark she snatched at his wrist, pulling him closer to taste the blood on his tongue. There was no need for him to be healing a bite like that, and she didn’t want him to. Verun wanted the reminder, hating the pain but welcoming the way it stung.
When finally she was exhausted enough to let go of him, the moon had long since disappeared over the horizon. Julian laid over her, his jacket unbuttoned and Verun’s arms dug up around him under his shirt. Her own shirt had been pulled up and together they shared the warmth that the nearby water seemed to be trying to snatch away from them, skin pressed to skin all the way up their torsos.
But eventually, with a hand running tenderly over her damp cheek, Julian pulled himself away, buttoning up his jacket again before hauling her up to stand. Verun was exhausted, emotionally and physically, barely able to stumble her way down the docks to keep pace with him, even as his long stride shortened.
“I’ll walk you home,” he murmured, eyes catching on the bite mark just barely visible underneath her shirt. He hitched her shirt up a little before looking away, a pained expression on his face.
Verun followed just half a pace behind him. At this point she didn’t have the will to argue against his hare-brained idea to leave her. If he wanted to just leave, then whatever. Let him. But Verun would follow after him, she would find whatever scraps of memories were left on his things at the castle, or with Mazelinka, or even Portia if she had to. No matter what, Verun wasn’t just going to let him run from this.
“You… being with you, is the first thing I’ve wanted for myself in a long time,” he whispered, just barely loud enough for Verun to hear, almost like he was more talking to himself than anything. It was almost lost within the quiet sounds of their footsteps. But she couldn’t continue the conversation and get such heartbroken responses from him any more than she already had, and he doesn’t go on.
They wander through the quiet streets, and Verun couldn’t tell if they were going a longer way than strictly necessary or not. But eventually they arrived in front of the shop, and Julian stopped in front of the door like he wanted to open it and follow her in.
Instead he turned, glancing at her. His hands didn’t find her this time. Instead he pressed a single kiss to her forehead, giving a tiny smile that didn’t even really try to reach his eyes. “When I came to Vesuvia, I was seeking answers. Finding you… was a special treat, Verun. Thank you… however brief, the time we spent together mattered to me. And I-... I won’t forget it.”
With no more goodbye than that, he turned with a quiet flare of his cloak and disappeared down the small alleys. Verun stood there silently, feeling the throbbing of the bite mark on her shoulder, and waited until she couldn’t hear his footsteps anymore to step inside the shop.
Inside it smelled like cinnamon, and she vaguely watched as a thin stream of smoke spun down the stairs. All the lanterns were lit, and Verun’s heart dropped even as she saw Asra’s form come down the stairs, his fluffy hair peeking around the corner at her with a smile.
“Verun? You back from the palace?” He smiled like he was about to reassure her, until he saw her expression and his own turned worried. “I know that look. What happened?”
Her eyes welled with tears unexpectedly. She had been sure that she was out of tears to cry already, but as Asra stepped forward she buried her face into the soft cloth of his scarf, hands tightening into his shirt as she sniffled. His hands rubbed up and down her back, and he hummed quietly.
He gave her a minute or two to calm down after the initial rush of tears. “Do you want to talk about it?” One of his hands wiped the tears away from her eyes as he fussed over her. His skin was much better for that than Julian’s gloves, a fact that almost made her laugh as she remembered the useless swipes of his leather-bound hands.
“I…” Verun paused, taking a moment to take a deep breath. Knowing a little bit of how Asra viewed Julian, would he even care? Logically she knew that yes, of course he would care that she had her heart broken, and it didn’t matter who it was who did it. But a dark little niggle at the back of her mind told her that he would simply think that she was asking for it, going after Julian. “Asra… Julian just- he left me?”
Asra blinked shortly, before his hands slid down her arms from her shoulders. “He did? You two were…?”
“I don’t know,” Verun whispered, her nose stuffed up. She knew she wasn’t a pretty sight, with her face blotchy and red and her nose undoubtedly dripping. “I don’t- I don’t know.”
“Want to come upstairs and talk about it? I made that tea you like, you look like you could use it right about now.”
With a nod from her, Asra led her up the stairs and to their rickety kitchen table. Verun was stuck in her thoughts, struggling to not break into tears again as her mind drifted to Julian. Did he have someone to talk to about this? She was pretty sure that the whole breakup was just as hard on him. Would he even let himself talk about this to anyone? Would he go to Mazelinka, or try to find Portia?
As Asra sat across from her, he set down a mug near her and Faust curled around his own mug and settled there, napping against the warmth.
“So, what happened?” His gaze looked concerned, but there was a hidden touch of something else there too, like he was a step closer to snapping.
And Verun told him. Everything that had happened, leaving out details here and there only to spare her own pain of the memories of his skin under her hands. The story of finding him at the aqueduct, being chased and led along to Mazelinka’s house, to the next morning and the day that they had together. All leading to the end of the night, at the dock. By the end of it Asra had a look in his eyes, like he knew where all the missing bits and pieces had gone.
He sighed, resting his head in his hand as he wiggled his mug out of Faust’s coils to take a sip before replacing it. “That sounds like Ilya. He took an entire day to end it? Were you two even… together?”
“Again, I don’t even know. That’s what’s… confusing me.” Verun wiped at her eyes, feeling them ache with tiredness. “He made it sound like a breakup, but there was never an official… start, I guess. We just were, and now we aren’t and…”
“Ilya…” Asra said the doctor’s name again, but this time it had a bit of poison behind it, his eyes narrowing with a disturbing amount of anger that Verun hadn’t seen before. “The only thing he loves more than drama is his own suffering. And he’s determined to chase both.”
“That’s not true,” Verun murmured into her mug. “He’s just… he’s hurting, Asra. He hurts so much, and he gets all twisted and tangled in the thoughts in that head of his.”
“Isn’t it true?” The anger in his eyes and his voice lightened, if only marginally, as he focused on her again. “It’s easy to forget when you’re around him. He fills the room with excitement, makes you feel special. And then he finds some way to sabotage it, and when he crashes, he tears everything down with him and can’t seem to understand what he did wrong.” With a swish of his fluffy hair, Asra shakes his head. “I’ve never met someone so dedicated to their own unhappiness as Ilya.”
“Doesn’t he deserve to be happy though?” The way Asra spoke, it made Verun… uncomfortable. She wasn’t used to seeing him like that.
“Don’t you deserve to be as well?” His gaze was steady, before it slid away and he took a sip of tea, sighing. “Ah, you know I can’t tell you what to do, Verun. You’re your own person, you can make your own bad decisions. Just… please, be careful with him.”
His expression was teasing, yet serious, until his mind skipped track for a moment and his eyes widened. “Oh! That reminds me. Do you still have the deck I gave you?”
Verun nodded, leaning forward to pull the cards out of her pocket. They seemed excited, a hum of energy coming off of them as she placed them down in front of Asra. It’s like they missed him, even during his relatively brief travel trip. She watched as his hand passed over them, and the cards disappeared as his shadow passed over them.
Some tension eased away in his shoulders, and he looked much more relaxed. Like he was relieved of some burden.
“You… you are alright, right? Nothing strange happened with the deck…?”
Verun gave him a small smile, a reassurance. Then he shook his head, clearing his thoughts as he smiled at her.
“You’re home. I’ll make some food before we sleep, alright?”
She nodded, and Asra rose quietly from his seat and left her to stew in her own thoughts. However she was supposed to move forward with the masquerade just around the corner, she knew almost for a fact that she wasn’t done with Julian. No matter how hard he tried to disappear, she was determined to either get him out of the city or to find out what really happened when he supposedly killed the Count. Either way… she wasn’t going to let him go so easily, and if the Countess herself intended to kill Julian, she would find a woeful rage in Verun.
Asra soon returned to the table with a bowl of food in his hand. It looked like a simple bowl of oats and fruit preserves, a favorite of hers when she was upset, especially when Asra made it as thick as he usually did. He hovered over her with a strange sense of anxiety until she raised her hands to eat. Honestly she wasn’t feeling very hungry, still full of the food that her and Julian had gotten at the Rowdy Raven. But it was a comfort food, and she ducked her head over at it to nibble at what she had on her spoon as her shirt slid away from her shoulders just a little.
Then she heard a sharp intake of breath from Asra and she glanced up at him, to see his face darken like storm clouds, his fingers sliding the shoulder of her shirt back more to expose the bite mark that Julian had left. It was no longer bleeding, but it was still plenty red and tender. Feeling his fingers brush over it made it ache for a moment.
“Did he do this?” Asra definitely did not sound happy about it, almost like he was about to go out himself to fight the plague doctor, his calm cracking at the sight of bloodied skin.
Verun slid her shirt back over the mark, letting her hand rest over it. “It doesn’t matter, Asra.”
She was sure that she heard him almost sputter, his hand pulling back. “Verun, I don’t care whether you care for him so much or not, I won’t just let him go around hurting you like this-”
“Asra,” she pressed, her voice calm but firm, fighting away the sharpness that threatened to snap out at him. “It doesn’t matter.”
Out of the corner of her eye she could see him. He looked shocked, hurt, and her heart ached suddenly in her chest as he stood there beside her. The look he pierced her with was almost desperately sad, as Asra struggled with something internally. She didn’t know what to do though, she was already weighed down with her own pain and sadness. What was she supposed to do for him?
The only thing she could do was rest her head against his waist, deflating. For a minute or two neither of them moved or said anything, until Asra raised his hand to run deft fingers through her hair, nails brushing the base of her neck. The feeling of it made her melt like it always did, the feeling of Asra’s magic running over her like a comforting blanket, washing away the tension between them.
“I’m sorry, Verun,” he murmured.
“I am too,” she offered. “I’m just exhausted.”
She could feel the touch of tender amusement that ran through him. “Then let's get to bed, you. With everything that’s been happening it sounds like you need the rest.”
Humming, Verun nodded and let Asra pull her to her feet. She stood only an inch shorter than him, and he surprised her with a light kiss to the tip of her nose as he leaned his head up just a slight bit.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been here, Verun… and I left just as you needed me, didn’t I?” He wrapped her into another hug, letting her lean against him as his sigh ruffled the hair just behind her ear. “Let me know if you need help, alright? I want to be here to help if you need me.”
Verun nodded, wrapping her arms around his waist and pressing her face into his shoulder. “Thank you, Asra.”
With that, he gently walked the two over to the bed, flopping down with her still trapped in his arms and a mischievous smirk light on his lips. It pulled a small smile out of Verun herself, and Asra released her so that she could kick off her shoes and he could pull his shirt off. Then he joined her once more, and the two cuddled together like they usually did. Asra put out the candles in the room with a whisper and in moments Verun was asleep, sinking into a dreamless sleep.