Julian arrives at the shop expecting absolutely nothing.
He isn't quite sure what drove him there. This particular tarot reader isn't like most - Julian walks around town quite a lot, often to allow the loud noises of the market to drown out the voices inside his own head, and while he has seen numerous pamphlets advertising someone or other that can bring the love of your life to you in three days, he has never once seen anything showcasing the abilities of the magician they call Asra.
He heard of Asra through rumors, through stories friends and acquaintances tell him about this young man who can display your entire life in a handful of pretty cards. One of his most skeptical friends left the shop shaken and impressed, saying "the session is worth every penny". Julian scoffed and said they were just searching for some kind of explanation about why life is as shitty as it is.
Now, here he is. Again, he has no idea why he's here. He was idly strolling around, taking random curves and shortcuts, and was truly surprised when faced with the simple, wooden door in front of him.
He considers the situation. He doesn't want to go back home now, and his boyfriend told him he wouldn't be available during the afternoon. The day is hauntingly hot, and it's not like he has anywhere else to go.
Might as well, he decides, and raises his hand to knock. He tries not to deny himself new experiences.
The door opens before he can so much as brush the wood, and he takes a step back instinctively as he is faced with Asra's soft, distant smile.
"Good afternoon," Asra says. His eyes glint with a very foreign color in the unforgiving sunlight. Julian thinks it would be worth the payment just to gaze into those eyes for a few more minutes. "How can I help you?"
It's polite and professional and he has a single dimple on his left cheek and Julian is feverishly distracted. And sweating under his coat. He wants to get inside and see if he can manage to drag out some genuine reactions from Asra.
"Hello," he drawls out, pushes his hair back just to have something to do with his hands. Sharply, brought from some temporarily distant corner of his mind, he remembers he has a boyfriend, but it's not like this ethereal, gorgeous magician would give him the time of the day for anything else other than a formal interaction, and besides, he just wants something beautiful to look at for an hour or so. He winces internally. It's too hot, he can't think like this. "I'm here for a reading."
"Yes, I figured," Asra's smile is gorgeously mysterious. "Come on in, please."
Inside the shop, the air is cool and the lights are dimmed enough to diminish Julian's awful heat-induced headache. It relaxes him immediately - he can feel his shoulders dropping. Asra appears almost amused at this.
The room they're in, though, arises Julian's suspicion. It's filled with wind chimes, candles, purple fabrics draped over tables with random signs engraved on them. It looks exactly like he expected a tarot reader's working environment to look like. His skepticism nudges at his brain; but his focus is snatched away by the pretty sound of Asra chuckling.
"You don't appreciate the place, I assume," he muses. "How would you like somewhere...simpler?"
Julian has no time to answer before Asra places a gentle hand on his shoulder and guides him to the back of the shop, through another wooden door, inside a room with bare, grey walls, and nothing but a single table and two chairs in the center. The lighting here is soft, yellow and easy on the eyes.
"You can do a reading here?" Julian asks, and he knows it sounds mocking, but he was taken aback by the sudden change of rooms. Asra doesn't seem to mind - in fact, nothing seems to affect him much.
"I can do a reading anywhere. All I need is a flat surface, a tarot deck, and an open mind."
"Then why the room with all that shit in it?"
A smile tugs at the corner of Asra's lips again. "Some people are comforted by it. Makes them feel protected, watched over. And a few of those things are useful for my work. Some people, like you, feel repulsed. It makes no particular difference for me, but I must confess I'm fonder of the simplicity."
Julian doesn't answer. He doesn't want to give Asra any kind of information, as a way of testing just how efficient those cards are. Asra chuckles once more and leaves the room for a second.
"It's okay if you don't want to chat," he calls out from outside. "I just need you to answer a few things."
He comes back with a handful of different tarot decks, closes the door behind himself softly, and places all the boxes on top of the table, gesturing for Julian to sit down as well.
"Firstly, can you tell me your name?"
Asra tsks as he straightens the decks in a line. "Let us be honest with each other. I need your real name, I'm afraid. I know you're a skeptic about this whole thing, but at least play by my rules."
Julian blushes in embarrassment. He has no idea how his lie - as natural as breathing at this point, sometimes he forgets his own God-given name what with how seldom he uses it - could've been figured out so casually. Asra's sharp eyes are focused on him, not judging, but vaguely disappointed.
"I'm sorry, I just - don't go much by my real name anymore. I'm Ilya. Ilya Devorak."
"Now, that's better, isn't it? Ilya Devorak - a beautiful name, if I may say so - here goes my second request - would you like to pick a deck?"
Julian almost says no, it makes no difference either way, but he's starting to feel like he stepped into something here. Maybe it does make a difference. Either way, he figures, it can't hurt to choose. He touches with the tip of his fingers the deck that's farthest on the left, a black and white one, far less sumptuous than the other ones. Asra's mysterious smile comes back as he sees Julian's choice.
"Thank you." he takes the other decks, piles them up and places them with care on the floor beside his chair. After that, he takes the deck Julian appointed to him, and shuffles it with a practiced ease. His fingers are quick and nimble. "Interesting choice. May I ask why?"
Julian shrugs. "It's beautiful."
"A good reason as any. Third question, why did you come here? Anything in your mind?"
"Nothing in particular. Just curious."
Asra never loses his soft grin as he places the pile of cards in front of Julian. "You're not giving me much to work with, Ilya Devorak. But it's okay. I love a challenge. Let's make this about you, then. You look like a rational, smart man who likes learning about things - want me to walk you through everything?"
"Very well. I'll need you to take your right hand and part the cards in the middle, making two smaller piles. One uses their right hand when the reading is about themselves, and their left hand when it's about others. So that's a difference you'll notice if you end up asking me about someone else during this session. So, if you'd be so kind..."
Julian obeys - makes two piles of about the same height. Asra takes them, reverses one and places one on top of the other before spreading the cards, face down, on the table. The back of all of them is decorated with a single eye, that stares at Julian mercilessly. It makes him feel like something of importance is happening in this small, grey room.
"Now," Asra continues with his soothing voice, "pick ten cards for me. Don't turn them yet, just hand them to me."
"Do I need to feel them or hover my fingers over them until I feel an itch or anything?"
"If it makes you feel better, sure," Asra teases. Julian doesn't want to give him the satisfaction, so he just picks ten cards at random, without thinking too much about it.
Asra takes them and carefully assigns to each one a place, working through the chosen spread. "The spread I'm using is the celtic cross. Every one of these cards will answer a specific question or take a specific meaning for you, dr. Devorak. Remember, this reading is for you."
Julian doesn't ask how Asra knows he's a doctor. He assumes he heard about it somewhere. He's not sure he's ready to consider any other options.
The spread seems complex: two cards making a cross in the middle, surrounded by four other cards, plus four cards in a vertical line to the side. Asra turns the first one.
Three people stand close to each other, each one raising a cup towards the sky. "Three of cups," Asra explains, a small frown between his eyebrows, "...reversed. This first card is the primary focus of this spread."
He says nothing more for a moment. The tension in the room makes Julian tense up again.
"Tell me something, dr. Devorak. Your boyfriend - where is he right now?"
Julian raises his eyebrows as a way of disguising how surprised he is at Asra's question. "At - at work. Why do you ask?"
"Listen, I'm usually not wrong, nor do I intend to be, but - this card. I almost wish I was wrong, for your sake. Three of cups reversed is a bad card for people in relationships. Your boyfriend is cheating on you. I'm sorry."
Julian told himself, before he entered Asra's shop, that he wouldn't believe all the things the tarot reader had to say to him. Still, the moment he hears the meaning of the card, something mean and filthy runs down his spine. He feels in his bones the truth of that statement - it forces him to take a sharp breath and close his eyes for a second.
Not the place , he thinks to himself fiercely, trying to fight back the surge of awful, awful clarity running through his brain. Not the place.
But then again, if not here, then where?
A soft touch on his hand. He opens his eyes. Unclenches his hand, which he had unconsciously made into a fist. Asra is looking at him with sad eyes, the tips of his fingers placed on top of Julian's knuckles.
"Do you need a moment?" Asra asks. His tone is the gentlest Julian has ever heard in his life.
He does. "Let's continue," he says.
"Very well. To the second card, then."
Asra turns the card.
It makes Julian's eyes itch with unshed tears. Rationally, he knows he has no evidence of anything, he knows there's absolutely no reason for him to be so affected by this, but some deeper part of his soul is reacting to this magician and his shop and his cards.
"Nine of wands. Also reversed."
"They look trapped," Julian comments. He hears how heartbroken he sounds.
"They are. You are. This card is the obstacle, the challenge crossing through your life. You feel trapped, dr. Devorak... and terribly lonely. Do you isolate yourself very often?"
Julian doesn't answer.
The third, fourth, fifth and sixth cards are flipped over, shining a black and white severe light on the first half of the celtic cross.
Asra takes a deep breath. "The cards, in this spread, will show us what's the present focus of both your conscious and your subconscious mind. Your subconscious, or the root of the situation, is the reversed three of wands. You feel trapped, in the nine of wands, and you feel like you've wasted your time throughout your life. You feel disappointed, and a failure. You're frustrated, but you hardly notice it because that's how your emotions work nearly always."
"And my conscious?"
"Death, reversed. You know there's something important about to happen in your life, something that will change everything, but you think you'll take the wrong steps towards it." Asra taps lightly at the card with one finger. "You don't think very highly of yourself, do you?"
No answer to that. Julian isn't used to being looked at with such compassion. He glances away.
"In this particular spread," Asra goes on, "some of the cards tell a story, in this specific order: fourth, first, second and sixth cards. For you, we have strength in your past. You were brave, dr. Devorak."
"Ilya, please." he can't stand the professional distance anymore. This feels too intimate. It's nearly too much, and also not enough.
Asra nods gracefully before continuing. "You were brave and strong, Ilya. Things probably made more sense to you back then." he rests his head in his hand. "What happened?"
Julian jerks his chin at the sad little cross in the middle. "Didn't you just tell me?"
"Not the first time someone stabs you in the back, is it?"
"Which means I'm used to it. And the sixth card?"
Asra steals a glance at said card. He threads his fingers together, clears his throat. For the first time, he sounds hesitant. "Well. This is the Magician."
"What does it mean?"
Their eyes meet. There's an entire universe of colorful, magical, unexplainable things swimming inside Asra's irises. He comes from somewhere else entirely, somewhere Julian's sad, ordinary, frustrating life could never understand. He looks at the motionless, monochrome magician staring mysteriously at him for a second before analyzing Asra again.
"I get it," Julian says weakly.
"No. I'm just not blind."
There's a distinct edge to Asra's voice that sounds akin to wonder. "Indeed, you are not. Ready for the last four cards?"
"I already managed this far. Show me."
Seventh, eighth, ninth card. Asra points at the bottom one, a man who hangs by his feet on a tree, with a face that's resigned and almost emotionless. "This is you."
"Oh, is it?"
"What you bring to this spread, to this moment. The things that walk around with you wherever you go. The hanged man, reversed. You're a martyr, but not by choice. You sacrificed so much, in exchange for so little. You're indecisive, and lost, and you hang by the feet attached to an amazingly heavy burden from your past that you simply can't figure out how to let go of."
It's all too much. It's too specific and every single one of Asra's words feels like a piercing blade through his bones, a drop of perception on his veins. He doesn't pay attention to the eighth and ninth cards, there's only so much sadness a human can stand to hear, specially when it's so directly and thoroughly about themselves.
The tenth card, however, makes Asra take a sharp breath through his nose, and snatches back Julian's focus.
The Lovers. Upright, even.
Asra seems to take a second to regain his professional composure. "Well, Ilya. Your final outcome looks bright."
"I don't think I have to ask what that means."
"It means exactly what you're thinking, I'd guess. Just so I know, do you happen to be a gemini?"
"No, a pisces. Why?"
"Gemini is the sign associated with this card." Asra taps it idly.
"But why did you ask?"
He bites at his lower lip a bit before managing to answer. "I'm a gemini. I asked because the card could be associated to you, instead of me. But it could be just a coincidence. It's happened before."
"Yeah, could be."
It's not , they both think.
"This is it for this spread," Asra says. "What else can I do for you?"
Julian is not particularly known for his good, mature decisions. His throat is still tight with unshed tears, his fingers are itching with want. He drags a hand on his face, shuts his eyes. "There is something I want to know, yes."
"Oh, what is it?"
"How forward would you find me if I said I wanted a spread about you?"
Asra lets out a surprised little chuckle. "Very forward, Ilya. Also a very unique request. Why?"
"I'm tired of hearing about how sad and useless I am. I'm familiar with that concept. I want to know about you."
Asra ponders it for a bit before gathering the cards on the table and putting them away in favor of a different deck he positions between himself and Julian. "If you want to do this, then I'm picking the deck and the spread. But you get to pick the cards."
"I'm in no position to make demands here." Julian analyzes the deck as Asra shuffles it - it's colorful and vivid, the corners touched by age and a lot of handling, but also strangely somber. As if it's something too personal to be touched or seen by just anyone. Julian starts to feel bad about his request, and is about to take it back when Asra places the pile closer to him.
"This one is much smaller," he comments.
"We're only doing the major arcana for this spread. Now, as I explained before, with your left hand, part it in half."
Julian obeys and watches as Asra puts the two piles together again and spreads the cards on the table. "Just one card for now. Go ahead, Ilya. It's okay. I'm also quite curious about the result."
Unlike the first spread, Julian takes his time with choosing the cards. It feels more serious, somehow, more intimate. At last he picks one and hands it over to Asra, who flips it over and smiles as soon as he sees it.
"You're heavily intuitive," he says. Julian is still reeling from the coincidence.
"What is this one?"
"This card is my significator. The one I use on most readings for myself."
It does resemble him, Julian figures, something about the expression or the eyes or the energy. He is slightly breathless.
"Two more, Ilya. This is a three-card spread."
Julian nods in silence and carefully picks two cards.
Asra turns them over.
" What the actual fuck?", Julian exclaims, pushing his chair back.
Asra, on the other hand, is leaning forward, a focused look on his face as he stares at the reversed Hanged Man and the Lovers. When he's done studying them, he leans back and sighs, folds his hands like a barrier. "You did ask to see it. I suppose I should've realized it before. This particular deck tends to be...quite straightforward." he looks up at Julian, the corners of his mouth tilted downwards a bit. "Is that result so repulsing?"
Julian forces himself to relax again, if only to avoid seeing that hurt look on Asra's face. The fear of rejection. It breaks his heart. It breaks his heart.
Oh, God, what are they doing.
They barely know each other.
But the cards - the magic -
He heard about soulmates before. Is this what it feels like?
Before he can think too deeply about it, before he can run away in panic like he so often tends to do, before he can run his tongue and ruin it in some way, he walks up to Asra, bends down and kisses him.
Lips like silk, careful and soft and almost afraid. Asra raises his hands, lets them hover for a moment before touching Julian's face and bringing him closer.
Julian wants to make this longer and deeper and filthier but he doesn't. He holds Asra's wrists, kisses him and only backs away when he does.
That soft smile again. It looks enchanting, and slightly less mysterious, happier. It knocks Julian's breath away.
"I don't want to go," he says, softly, sounding like a child.
Asra traces his cheekbone with his thumb. It's an affectionate gesture - Julian is so starved he leans into the touch. "It's okay, Ilya. You have things to take care of. Go, and come back."
Julian leaves the shop owing a first date, with the whisper of Asra saying next time, I'll do a reading about us .