A knock pulls Julian from the fuzzy depths of unconsciousness early one Saturday morning. He groans a little, wipes dried spit from the corner of his mouth, and for a moment debates whether or not he should answer the door. His head is pounding, he’s shivering and sweating at the same time, and everything seems to be surrounded by a thick haze. Julian lets his eyes slip closed and groans again. He hasn’t been hit with a flu this bad in ages.
The knock sounds again, a little louder this time. “Coming,” Julian calls, shocked at the hoarseness of his own voice, and wraps a blanket around himself to ward against the cold as he staggers out of bed. He pulls the door open to reveal a head of fluffy white hair, half-covering an unimpressed expression. He does a double take, blinks, and looks again—he’s never seen Asra up before ten, much less at the door to his rooms. But his expression shifts even further into unimpressed territory, bordering on exasperated, and that’s a look Julian immediately recognizes. It’s definitely Asra.
“Asra,” he croaks, frowns at the rawness of his voice, and clears his throat. “Asra,” he tries again, “what…” The sun is barely up. Seeing him framed by the dawn light, shining through his curls like a halo (how ironic), is almost surreal. He passes a hand towards him, wondering if he’s just a delusion brought on by the fever, but connects with solid flesh.
Asra looks down at where Julian’s hand still rests on his shoulder. “What am I doing here?”
“What are you doing up so early?”
Asra pauses for a moment, temporarily confused, before an amused smile pulls at his lips. “Ilya, it’s five in the afternoon. You haven’t been in the library all day. I thought I’d check on you.”
“I haven’t?” Julian blinks. “It’s— I slept all day?” He remembers going to bed sick last night, and then… nothing else, since he had been sleeping all that time, apparently.
Asra shrugs. “You tell me.”
Julian rubs a hand over his face and groans, thinking of all the time he lost. It’s not like plague will cure itself. “Is Valdemar going to kill me, or is Valdemar going to kill m—” His eyes widen as his words catch in his throat on a cough and he nearly doubles over in a fit of them. When he finally straightens, eyes watering, he finds Asra nearly halfway across the hall, hands held in front of him as if to ward off the germs. Which, actually, on second thought, maybe he is. Magic is weird like that—maybe those hands are actually part of a complicated anti-flu ritual, or something. He has literally no idea.
“You’re sick,” Asra says.
Julian rolls his eyes. “I know. I didn’t go through four years of med school in Prakra for nothing.”
The mild, amused look Julian expects to see when they banter has been replaced by a worried frown. Asra strides forward, one hand held out, and Julian takes an automatic step back, and then another, until Asra’s cornered him in the entrance of his rooms. He has to lean into him to reach up and place a dry, cool hand on his forehead. “You have a fever,” he says, “you should rest.”
Julian knows the flush on his cheeks isn’t just from the fever anymore, but he’s hoping that’s what Asra will chalk it up to. “Yeah, I, uh— like I said. Doctor.”
Asra steps back, looking slightly embarrassed. “Right.” He worries his lip in a way that shouldn’t be as attractive as it is. “Well. Have you eaten today?”
“I slept all day, apparently.”
“Hm.” Asra wanders towards the kitchen and starts opening cupboards, seemingly at random. “I haven’t had dinner. I’ll make something.”
“Oh, Asra, don’t tell me you’re worried about me?” Julian teases. He follows him into the kitchen and resists the urge to wrap his arms around Asra’s waist and rest his chin on his head. He’s just the perfect height for that. Julian’s spent more time picturing how well they fit together more than is probably healthy.
“Of course I am,” says Asra frankly. “You’re my…” He trails off, frowning, as he checks the last cupboard. “Do you keep any food around here?”
Julian desperately wants him to finish that thought. He’s his what? Boyfriend? Lover? Fuckbuddy? Colleague? Acquaintance? The labels get worse and worse the longer he thinks about it. He pushes the thought from his mind. “I had some bread somewhere yesterday.”
“We can’t all be master chefs like you,” Julian says lightly. He joins Asra in scouring the kitchen, but by the end they only come up with a handful of vegetables, a few strips of dubious-looking dried meat, and an assortment of old seasonings.
Asra shrugs and drags out a heavy cast-iron pot that Julian didn’t even know he had. “It’s not bad for soup. I’ll get started. You should go back to bed.”
Julian grins. “And let my guardian angel out of my sight so quickly?” He saunters to the counter next to Asra and is just about to press a kiss to his cheek before he remembers himself. “You only just got here.”
Asra tilts his head and gives Julian a look he can’t decipher. “Well, your ‘guardian angel’ should really get started on your food.”
Julian pouts. “Come to bed with me.”
Asra looks away, rolling his eyes. “Not now, Ilya. You’re sick.” Julian can see a teasing grin spread across his face even from his angle. “Can you even get it up while—”
“Not— not that kind of come to bed,” Julian stammers, feeling his face heat even more than it already has with fever. “I mean just— I mean—” Somehow this feels even more embarrassing then asking Asra for sex. “Just. Just bed. That’s it.” Just the two of them pressed together in his narrow bed, the warmth of Asra’s breath on his neck, the soft tickle of his hair. His fingers curl reflexively, remembering the feeling of smooth skin under his hands, the little sleepy sounds Asra made when he was falling asleep against Julian’s chest. That had been a few days ago, now.
Asra shoots him another unreadable look, frowning at him for a few moments. Then he takes Julian’s hand.
Julian jumps. “What—”
“I’ll wake you up when the soup is done,” he says, tugging him towards the bedroom. “Shouldn’t be that long.”
Julian tries to push down the disappointment that curls in his chest and lets himself be led. When they get to the bedroom Asra takes his shoulders and pushes him bodily onto mattress, like that’s the only way to get Julian to sleep, which if he’s being honest, it kind of is. Asra tugs back the covers and presses his chest back until he’s lying down, his hand steady and warm against Julian’s thin sleep shirt.
Something must show on Julian’s face, because his lips quirk into what could be a smile as he tucks the blankets around him. “Sleep, Ilya,” he says and runs his fingers lightly across Julian’s forehead, brushing a few strands of hair out of his face. For a second Julian thinks it’s a caress, a lover’s affectionate gesture, and his heart seizes in his chest with something painfully close to hope.
“Asra—” he begins.
“Yes?” The look on Asra’s face is once again indecipherable.
Julian bites his tongue and schools his expression into something lighter. “Are you suure you don’t want to come to bed and get a piece of this—”
“Sleep,” Asra laughs, and then Julian feels the unique tingling of magic across his skin, weighing down his eyelids, slowing his breathing. His eyes slip shut, the grin drops from his lips. Typical. Asra had just been putting him to sleep.
He barely has it in him to feel disappointed as he drifts into unconsciousness.
Julian wakes up an indiscernible amount of time later, his tongue feeling like sandpaper in his mouth. It’s dark outside, and the room is lit only by a single lantern in the far corner. Asra is curled in the armchair by the window, reading, his face thrown into sharp relief. He looks up from his book as Julian stirs.
“Look who decided to join the realm of the living,” he says wryly. “You were out for a couple hours.”
Julian groans. “And who’s fault was that?” His head protests, but he starts to sit up and swing his legs over the side of the bed before Asra stops him with an impressive glare. Julian raises his arms in mock surrender.
“Get back in bed,” Asra says, “I’ll get the soup.” His book snaps shut and he pads out of the room, not looking to see whether Julian follows his instructions. Julian does.
When Asra reemerges he’s carrying two steaming, mismatched bowls, cradled in a nest of napkins in each hand. He sets one carefully in Julian’s lap, drags the armchair over to the side of the bed with a glance and a spark of magic, and wraps his hands around the other as he sits down. Julian glances down at the golden liquid. It smells divine.
“You’d be a good doctor,” he teases. “Very caring. Very matronly. Like a little mother hen.”
“So like you?” Asra leans back in his chair, trying for nonchalance, although his hand fidgets with his spoon impatiently. “Or are you saying you’re not a good doctor, now? Even after those four years in Prakra? I expected better, to be honest. Nadi’s told me their medicine is very advanced.”
“Ha ha,” says Julian. He twirls his spoon, mirroring Asra, wanting to see how long it takes for him to crack. “You know, I think I might be too shaky not to spill. You might have to feed me, doc.”
Asra looks extremely unimpressed. “Mhm. Too shaky to play around with your spoon, I see.” A beat passes and he frowns, looking from him to the soup and back. “Well?”
Asra bites his lip. “Nothing.” He abandons the spoon in favor of plucking absently at the hem of his shirt. “Are you going to eat?”
Jackpot. “I’m flattered, I didn’t know my opinion mattered to you so much,” he says. “Don’t tell me you’re anxious?”
“For you to eat your soup so I can go home and sleep? Absolutely.”
Julian winces; that hurt a little more than it was probably intended to. “In that case—” He stops as he’s struck by a sudden thought. “Wait. You waited to eat with me?”
“Yeah?” Asra looks at him inquisitively. “You weren’t out for that long.”
Julian turns that over in his mind as he finally scoops up a spoonful of the soup and sips tentatively. “This is— lentils? I didn’t know I had lent—” His eyes go wide as the heat of the soup dissipates, only to be replaced by the searing heat of spice. He swallows with some difficulty and coughs, his mouth on fire. “Oh my god.”
Asra has a fist pressed over his mouth, trying not to laugh and not doing a very good job of it. “Think of it as medicine. It’ll clear your nose.”
“That’s what neti pots are for,” Julian manages, even as he dutifully takes a second spoonful. “Wait. This is why you wanted me to eat so bad?”
Asra laughs, licking his spoon, watching Julian’s reaction between bites. He hasn’t even broken a sweat. “It’s good, right? I got the lentils from my place. And, uh, the little kick is from my place too.”
“ Little kick,” Julian echoes disbelievingly. It is good, to be honest, savory and flavorful and thick. It’s just so goddamn spicy it’s like Asra has transported the fires of hell directly into his mouth.
They eat in silence for a while, punctuated only by Julian’s distressed coughing every few bites. He’s sweating by the time he’s finished, eyes watering, nose running, a complete mess of bodily fluids. Asra just smiles and hands him a tissue before he takes their bowls away, and returns with a cool glass of water. Julian drains it gratefully.
“I take it back. You’re the worst doctor.” He lays back on his pillows, sucking air through his mouth. “Well, at least I’m not congested any more. Do you subject all your patients to this torture?”
“Only the ones I like.” Asra has a teasing smile on his lips as he plucks the empty glass from Julian’s hand. “It’s just an old recipe, you know. Nothing special.”
“Nothing special? It seared my taste buds off.”
Asra shrugs, still smiling. “Not my fault that white boys can’t handle a little heat.”
“You want heat?” Julian takes hold of Asra’s wrist and tugs him towards the bed. Asra half-falls onto the edge with a little oof .
“You should go back to sleep, Ilya,” he laughs.
Julian hums. “Let me show you the heat Nevivon boys can bring.” He laces his fingers with Asra’s, examining the contrast of their skin, then looks back up to meet his eyes. “I think the great and powerful Asra might even like it.”
“Oh?” Asra leans forward, suddenly very close; his breath, scented with spices, flutters across Julian’s skin. “And what kind of heat, exactly, would it be?” His violet eyes are searing in the dim glow of the lamp.
Julian’s brain short-circuits. “I, uh,” he stammers. Shit. It’s not his fault he can never think straight when Asra gets this close. “I—”
Asra chuckles and sits back. “Go to sleep, Ilya.”
Julian finds his voice. “What if I don’t want to?” He raises a brow. “What would you do to make me?”
Asra rolls his eyes and starts to stand. “Sleep. It’s about the closest thing to heaven you can get, take advantage of it while you can.”
“Yes, we all know your thoughts on the matter,” Julian says wryly.
“I’ll see you tomorrow—” Asra pauses as Julian catches his wrist. “Yes?”
“Stay the night.” Even he can hear the pleading note in his voice. He tries for a different tone. “You wouldn’t leave your patient all alone? That’s bad practice, you know.”
Asra rolls his eyes again. “I can’t. Ilya—”
“Stay the night.”
Asra sighs. “I’m not going to fuck you when you’re sick. Besides, you should rest—when you’re better, okay?”
“Not that.” Julian bites his lip. “Just stay the night. There’s room here for the two of us.”
“Please.” It’s not the word he meant to say, but Asra’s expression softens, so it must have worked. He hesitates for a few, long moments, then sighs and sits back down on the bed. He slips his thick knitted socks off, placing them neatly next to his shoes.
Julian’s heart soars even as he gives him a look. “Don’t your feet get cold?”
The corners of Asra’s eyes crinkle in amusement. “No. Do yours?”
“Come in here and find out.”
Asra gives him a suspicious look, but tucks his long limbs neatly under the covers anyway. He lays stiffly, almost as close as he can get to the edge without falling off the bed, his head only halfway on the pillow. Julian hears him let out a long breath.
“Ilya Devorak, if I wake up in the middle of the night with your cold feet up my shirt—”
“When I said stay the night I didn’t mean lay there like a board as far away from me as possible,” Julian interrupts.
Asra’s shoulders slump. He edges towards him, carefully, until their sides are pressed together along the full length of their bodies. Julian finds his hand under the covers.
“Happy?” This close Julian can study the faint smattering of freckles across Asra’s nose, his long pale eyelashes sweeping over his high cheekbones.
“Yes,” says Julian, truthfully. Asra’s hair smells like lemons. He never noticed that before.
Asra glances towards the lamp and it flickers out, and in the sudden dark everything suddenly seems closer, more intimate. Warmth seeps outward from his side, at all the places they touch.
They lay there for a few heavy moments before Julian presses his icy toes to the inside of Asra’s very warm thigh.
Asra shrieks, scrambling away from him, although he’s laughing. “I swear to god, Ilya, I don’t know why I do this for you—” The covers tangle around his legs and he laughs even harder as he struggles to free himself. “You’re awful.”
“No, wait, I’m sorry,” Julian laughs, reaching out for him in the dark. “Come back.”
Asra returns reluctantly to the circle of his arms, his forehead against Julian’s chest. His sides still shake with giggles. “So that’s the ‘heat’ Nevivon boys bring? Cold feet?”
“Oh, no.” Julian relaxes into him, drapes an arm over his waist. “Something much better than that.” His hands find their way under Asra’s shirt and trace lazy circles over his lower back, almost of their own accord. “I mean. Not this, though. Is this okay? I meant like—”
“I know what you meant,” Asra chuckles. “When you get better, right? You can show me then.” To his surprise, he tenses only for a moment before he relaxes into his touch. So Julian keeps going, mesmerized by the slip of silky skin under the pad of his thumb, how warm he is. He feels like he could do this for ages.
Asra hums, a sleepy, contented noise that makes warmth bloom in Julian’s chest. “Goodnight, Ilya,” he says. He lets out a breath and his head falls to the side. Julian lets himself stare at the faint outline of his lips in the darkened room.
“Goodnight,” he echoes. His eyes are already slipping shut automatically, but he struggles against sleep the best he can, waiting for Asra’s breaths to even out. He presses a kiss to the soft curls of hair spilling over his forehead, and then, on second thought, sweeps his bangs aside to kiss his skin. Asra makes another sleepy sound and stirs, noses unconsciously into Julian’s chest. His heart clenches.
Soft words are pushing at his lips, spurred by Asra’s warmth, the fever, the scent of his skin, the dark. “I…”
“Go to sleeeeep , Ilya,” he hears Asra slur against the fabric of his shirt. A lithe arm sneaks around his back, Asra’s legs tangle with his. “Pillows don’t talk.”
“Alright,” Julian murmurs. He hopes, desperately, that Asra will still be here when he wakes up. If only they could do this every night. If only they could be more than whatever this is—be lovers, companions, get out of this nebulous half-stage, fucking and then waking up the next morning with Asra gone, Asra gently shrugging off his arm around his shoulders in public, his puzzled expression when Julian kisses him goodnight. Julian knows he’s hopeless; he’s so enamoured it hurts. If only Asra would tell him, show him, that Julian means something more to him than a friend.
He takes a breath, clutches Asra’s waist tighter, and sleeps.
Julian wakes up the next morning to the sound of Asra’s soft, steady breathing beside him, and for a moment he’s so happy he could burst.
He lays there, staring at the dust motes floating through the morning light streaming in the window (truly morning, this time), even though his arm is falling asleep where Asra lays over it. The covers are soft and heavy over the two of them, and through the walls he can hear faint sounds of the palace already springing to life. Some part of him wishes they could stay like this the whole morning, lying in bed, dozing, curled in towards each other. The other part of him knows Asra won’t.
Asra wakes with a deep inhale a few moments later, blinking against the morning sun. “Hey, Ilya,” he says, raspy from sleep. “Feeling better?” He stretches like a cat, hands above his head, pressing the length of his body against Julian’s. Julian blushes. From the look Asra gives him, he knows it wasn’t an accident.
“I, er.” Julian bites his tongue as Asra finishes his stretch and swings his legs off the bed. “Yes, actually. Much better.” He’s hardly dizzy anymore, and the chills have subsided. His fever must have broken during the night.
“Wonderful.” Asra stands and stretches again, groaning a little, his shirt riding up to expose a strip of smooth golden skin. Julian tries not to stare and fails spectacularly, if the knowing, amused look Asra shoots him is anything to go by. He’s slept in the clothes he was wearing and they’re wrinkled now, but the creases smooth out with a pass of his hand. He straightens the hem of his shirt, then sits back down on the edge of the bed to pull on his shoes. “Well. You’ll be fine on your own now? I guess I’ll get going.”
“Already?” Julian says before he can stop himself, the euphoria of waking up next to him fading quickly. “Wait, Asra—I mean, I think I have coffee here… somewhere. Let me make you something before you go.”
Asra smiles at him and tilts his head. “I’m more of a tea person, to be honest.”
“Tea, then. I’m sure I have tea.”
“Thank you, Ilya,” Asra sighs, “but I’m sure we would have found it last night if you did. I really need to get to the library. I told Nazali I’d meet them.”
“They can wait.” Julian reaches for Asra’s wrist, feels his steady pulse again his palm. “Come back to bed, at least. It’s early. You love sleeping.”
“I can’t.” Asra gently removes Julian’s fingers from his wrist, squeezing them before he lets go. “Another time. You do give very good cuddles.”
Julian feels his shoulders slump. Like Asra ever gives up something he could truly indulge in just to be on time—it’s a flimsy excuse and they both know it. But Julian’s not cruel enough to say that out loud. “Alright. I’ll walk you to the door.”
“No, no, Ilya, stay in bed,” says Asra, “rest some more. I know my way out.”
That stings a little. Because you leave so often without me? he can’t help but think. He frowns and sits forward. “I guess you do. Still, though.” He stands up amid Asra’s protests and takes his arm. “Shall we?”
Asra just smiles ruefully as they walk through Julian’s rooms to the front door. Julian sweeps the door open and bows at the waist theatrically, wanting to see Asra laugh one last time before he leaves. He does.
“No goodbye kiss?” Julian winks roguishly as Asra begins to turn away and is met with a half-bewildered, half-amused expression in return.
“Goodbye kiss?” Asra echoes in confusion. “Uh. If you want.” He presses a chaste kiss to Julian’s cheek, standing on his tiptoes to do so, and then pulls away. “Get better soon, Ilya.”
“Th—uh, thanks,” Julian stutters. He has to resist the urge to press a hand to the spot where Asra’s lips had touched, which is silly, because it’s not like those lips have never done anything dirtier, touched much more intimate places.
“Oh,” says Asra suddenly, stopping midway as he turns to go again. “Wait. Sorry. You were joking?”
Julian blinks. “Ye- uh—yeah? Yes. Absolutely.” He honestly doesn’t know. There’s always a too-sincere undercurrent of want whenever he flirts with Asra.
“Well, then consider it a get-well present,” says Asra, giving him a wink of his own. “See you later, Ilya.”
“Oh.” Julian’s drawn this out as long as physically possible and he still isn’t quite braced for the empty feeling he gets watching Asra leave. “Yes. See you later.”
Once Asra is out of sight Julian gives into the urge and presses a hand to his cheekbone, like some kind of schoolgirl with her first crush. And, honestly, that’s a pretty fair comparison.
He shuts the door and puts himself back to bed. Under the covers it’s still warm from his and Asra’s shared heat, and he sighs, flipping over so his face is buried in the pillow. It smells faintly like the citrus of Asra’s hair, and his chest throbs in response. He feels the absence of the warm, lithe body against his keenly.
He lies there for what feels like hours but must have only been minutes, absorbed in the ache that spreads from his chest down his body. This is ridiculous, he tells himself, like you really expected him to stay? Why did it hurt so much for such a small reason?
Maybe it hurt so much because of that, because it was so small. Maybe leaving in the morning didn’t mean anything to Asra at all. Maybe it was a relief. Maybe he untangled himself from Julian’s clinging grasp and walked down the hallways with a weight lifted from his shoulders—Julian’s weight. The weight that Julian was.
That, the difference in their feelings, is what hurts the most.
And even though the fever’s broken, even though he hardly notices any symptoms, he can’t help but feel worse than he did before Asra even stepped foot in his rooms. His fingers ache in the gaps where Asra’s had fit, it feels unnatural and cold under the covers without another body to fill the space. This emptiness is almost a sickness within itself.
He turns his head into the pillow and sleeps. In his dreams, Asra might stay.