Julian Devorak could barely contain his worries.
As a man that once thrived off of unhealthy lifestyles and overworking himself, he was very familiar with the toll these actions took on the human body. When you had been his apprentice during the disastrous Red Plague, he had buried himself in his work. Desperation to find a cure consumed himself. Had he looked after you more, you never would have died. Additionally, if he looked after his own well-being enough, he would not have caught the plague.
However, now the tables have turned. Originally you would nag him on his unhealthy schedule, but now he was having to look after you.
Your work habits hadn’t always been so draining. When Nadia first asked for your assistance in rebuilding Vesuvia, you were bright and eager. Of course, a handful of conditions were required. However, once Julian was pardoned, and Nadia provided housing for the two of you, you were in business. She even promised two days of rest as long as you promised to work hard on the remaining five.
The tasks started off simple. Under both Julian and Asra’s warnings, Nadia was careful not to overwhelm you with too many tasks at once. She would ask for a card reading here, a bit of advisory there—simple. It wasn’t Nadia to blame for all the projects you took on; it was yourself. You had always been selfless and compassionate; that was why Julian loved you, he reminded himself. Once your altruism was out of your hands, there would be no stopping it.
You slept very few hours a night; the causes varied. You may awake with screams that left your throat sore, images of the Devil burnt into your mind. Nightmares were apart of Julian’s routine, but he had been adjusted to them before. Other nights were sleepless from work. “Just one more letter,” you told Julian when he whined for you to join him in bed. “Just one more minute Julian.” Your words were empty, but Julian kept persisting.
Many nights were spent at the small desk in the corner of your quaint cottage, lit by candlelight. Your back was not pleased when you fell asleep at your desk. The days off you received were ignored so you could continue to work. Heavy bags rested under your tired eyes—the ones Julian loved so dearly. Your skin was turning pale and sickly. Constant headaches and waves of nausea hit you with an unseeable end. How could Julian sit idly by and watch the love of his life deteriorate?
Julian couldn’t handle it anymore. He loved you more than a sailor loved the sea. His heart gushed with love at the sight of you. It ached to see you so worn down.
“Love,” Asra told him the day he moved in with you, “is something special. The two of you are a team now, and it requires communication and work to keep your team intact. Please, take care of them, Julian. Love them.”
Julian stared into Asra’s desperate eyes and promised he would.
A tiny bell announced Julian’s arrival as he entered the shop, a wave of nostalgia striking a chord of his heart. Although it hadn’t been long, it felt like it had been years since he last stepped foot in the humble shop.
Faust greeted Julian first, slithering up to him with an appreciative glint in her red eyes. Asra pulled back the dark purple curtains of his shop, poking his head out of the back room.
“Oh, Julian.” Asra’s voice was filled with disbelief, his lips parted slightly. He looked beyond Julian, searching for you.
”They don’t know I’m here,” Julian awkwardly explained.
”Oh.” Julian noticed the tiny frown on Asra’s face, but Asra shook off his disappointment quickly.
He offered a half-smile to Julian. “What can I do for you?”
Julian spilled his guts to Asra as he made a pot of herbal tea. Asra listened patiently and tentatively, head cocked to the side. Faust slithered up Asra’s leg and around his neck, mimicking Asra’s body language as though she was listening.
“That’s a lot to unpack,” Asra admitted, pouring the tea into two handmade cups. He handed one to Julian, sitting across from him at the table.
”You remember them more than I do, Asra,” Julian hoarsely replied, staring into his tea. All of his worries were beginning to bubble in his gut, preparing to surface. He wiped his eye with a gloved thumb, his bottom lip beginning to quiver as his breath hitched. “I don’t know what to do.”
He didn’t like admitting that. He didn’t like not knowing, especially when it came to you.
Julian’s eyes snapped up, meeting Asra’s. Asra offered a comforting smile, though it didn’t meet his eyes. “It will be alright.”
”Aren’t you worried?” Julian retorted.
“Of course I am,” Asra calmly replied. “I always worry about them, Ilya.”
Julian nodded, his throat unbearably tight.
”But I have a few ideas.” Asra stood, rummaging through his cabinets. “This has happened before.”
”Really?” Julian asked incredulously.
Asra nodded. “When I first took them in as my apprentice, they spent all of their time studying and trying to go beyond their physical limitations. They wanted to learn everything they could about magic.”
”They were overworked,” Asra replied simply. “They grew frustrated, which only made things worse. They were sick for a while.”
“It wasn’t very serious,” Asra assured, pulling containers and ingredients out of his cabinets. “But it did set them back in training.”
”I have to do something, Asra.”
Asra stopped rummaging through his cabinets, turning to face Julian. “And you will. You can help me with this.”
When Julian returned to the cottage, you were nowhere in sight. Julian was relieved for once. Julian set the bag of gifts Asra gave him on the circular table in the kitchen area, unpacking each item with care. Your cottage with Julian wasn’t as beautiful as Portia’s, but it was certainly close enough. There was plenty of space outside, where you and Julian planted a small garden the day you moved in. The garden was slowly growing into a gorgeous sight full of vegetables and flowers. Because of all the work you were doing in Vesuvia, Julian had maintained the garden alone. However, he hoped you would be able to help him when it was time to harvest the vegetables.
You typically wouldn’t be home until the moon was high in the sky, but that would not do for Julian. The best way to start helping you was to give you a set work schedule. Julian sent Malak to Nadia’s palace after arriving home, requesting you be sent home earlier from now on. Holding the same concerns as Julian, Nadia obliged, promising that you would be home by sundown that day.
Julian felt like a teenager. Butterflies filled his stomach at the idea of seeing you early. Oh, but he couldn’t be giddy just yet! There was so much to do!
Julian filled a bucket with soapy water, retrieving a sponge. He cleaned the cottage top to bottom for you. He made the bed you once shared with him and fluffed the pillows. He organized all of the documents and books on your desk and emptied your waste bin. The windows and floors were washed until he could see himself in them, and any sight of a weed was plucking from the yard.
When the sun began to set, he unleashed the scent Asra had recommended to him. The cottage was filled with the scent of rosemary as he prepared to make dinner.
When the hinges on the front door squeaked, Julian nearly ran to the door like a hyperactive puppy. His heart soared when you stepped inside.
“You’re home early,” Julian observed, feigning surprise.
Everything about you screamed exhaustion. Your soft hair was sticking out in odd places. Your bags were more apparent than ever. You swayed slightly, like a single gust of wind would knock you off your feet. When your weary eyes met his, you offered him the best smile you could manage. Julian watched your gauche footsteps as you attempted to cross the cottage. “Nadia thinks I’m overworking myself. She wants to change my work hours.”
”She’s right, you know,” Julian gently replied, swooping in to gently guide you to the dinner table. “You’ve been working so hard these past weeks. We’re all worried.”
Julian nodded, lovingly kissing the top of your head before smoothing out your hair. “Nadia, Asra me—everyone. If you don’t take a break every now and again, you could get sick.”
”Have you been talking to Asra?” you asked, squinting your eyes at your lover.
Julian smiled, pecking your cheek before returning to the stove. “Perhaps.”
Your eyebrows squished together. “You’re cooking?”
Julian hummed. “Don’t worry, I know this recipe inside and out. I won’t let it burn.”
Your fingers drummed against the wooden table as your eyes scanned the room. “It’s. . .clean?”
Everything was in perfect shape. All of the dirty clothes were together; every book was on the shelf. Even the air was cleaner, smells of rosemary slowly dulling the ache in your head. “Jules?”
”Is that okay?” Julian asked nervously. “I can move anything you want—”
“It’s beautiful,” you whispered with awe, your lips parted as you continued to observe your home. “I don’t think it’s been this clean in ages! Thank you, Julian.”
Your aura felt more lively as you continued to rave about Julian’s work, from the shiny floors to the cobweb-free corners.
Julian flushed, tugging at the collar of his shirt. “Are—are you sure?”
You turned your head to look at Julian. All the stress and worry that plagued you had dissipated. A bit of color to your skin had returned; your eyes danced as you looked at Julian. You stood with newfound vigor, throwing your arms around Julian.
“Oomph!” Julian caught you with surprise, nearly knocking into the counter beside the stovetop.
“I can’t believe you’ve done all this!” You broke free from the hug, rubbing Julian’s biceps. “You didn’t have to do all of this!”
”The night’s only begun, my dear. Go, go sit down. Dinner is almost ready.”
Just as you were about to sit down, you returned to Julian, wrapping your arms around his neck and pulling his lips down to meet your own. You giggled, rubbing his cheek with your thumb. “I love you.”
Julian did the same, stealing another kiss. “I love you too.”
The sky was nearly dark with stars peppering the sky. Julian lit a candle for the table, then another by the stove.
When dinner was ready, Julian lifted the pot on the stove dramatically, whistling as he poured his cheesy surprise into two bowls. He wrapped his hand into his sleeve, carrying yours to you before retrieving the second bowl. He placed a spoon in each bowl, sitting down across from you. He watched you stir the bowl’s contents, your nose wrinkling as you tilted your head side-to-side. “Careful, it’s hot.”
”What is it?” you asked reluctantly, doing your best to sound polite.
”When I traveled abroad, I learned a lot of quick recipes from different cultures,” Julian explained, resting his chin on his knuckles with a nostalgic gleam in his grey eyes. “One recipe was pasta with cheese sauce; it’s so simple that I couldn’t mess it up.”
You brought a spoonful to your lips, your eyes never leaving Julian as you blew on the food. The spoon slowly met your mouth, and your eyes widened with surprise; the pasta wasn’t bad at all!
“It’s good!” you exclaimed, causing Julian’s lips to curl into a lopsided smile as he bashfully shrunk in his seat. He finished dinner first, quickly rising and washing his dishes before promptly placing them in their cabinet.
“Take your time, darling,” Julian cooed, swooping down to pepper your cheek with gentle kisses. You squirmed and giggled as he rubbed your shoulders. “I’m going to get your bath ready.”
”Julian!” He ignored your protests, leaving you to finish your dinner alone. Once you were done, you filled your bowl with water, leaving it to soak in the sink. You found Julian beside the tub, his shirt set aside. He sat on a short wooden chair beside the bathtub, cheekily grinning.
Your mouth was suddenly as dry as a dessert. There was no reason to be nervous; Julian had seen it all before. Still, after busying yourself with work, it had been a while since the two of you had done anything intimate. You smoothe your clothing, fidgeting with the hem as you slowly undressed. Your eyes met Julian’s as you offered him an uneasy smile. Eye contact broke when he stood, wrapping one arm around your waist and drawing you close to him. His free hand rested on your cheek, his thumb lovingly stroking it.
”It’s alright,” he assured you with a gentle smile. “You don’t need to be nervous.”
You nodded, swallowing the lump in your throat as you expurgated your negative thoughts. Helping you undress, Julian gently guided you into the bathtub before returning to the wooden chair. The warm water made you sigh and lean against the tub’s cool backside.
Grabbing a small cup, Julian shielded your eyes before slowly pouring bath water on top of your hair. He lathered your hair with sweet-smelling shampoo, rubbing your scalp gently. Your eyes fluttered shut as Julian’s fingers kneaded your hair. While the shampoo settled, his fingers danced across your neck, past your collarbone, and to your stiff shoulders. A sweet kiss was pressed against the base of your neck, earning a hum of approval.
When enough time had passed, Julian rinsed your hair and helped you wash your body. While you dried off, he found your bathrobe. The bathrobe was commissioned by Nadia and made in a far off land. Everything about the robe was perfect; Nadia requested the finest silk and had you meticulously measured. Having it in your favorite color was only a bonus. Your fingers grazed your embroidered name before your closed your robe, Julian flashing a devilish grin in your direction before winking. You playfully rolled your eyes.
“I’ll meet you in bed,” he said, stealing a quick kiss.
Julian did not answer as he lightly nudged you towards the bed you shared. You climbed into the queen-sized bed, fluffing and propping up your pillows. Curling up, you patiently awaited Julian’s return with a smile. The sounds of opening and shutting cabinets filled the cottage as you caught glimpses of a scurrying Julian. His fingers curled around his chin as his booted foot tapped against the floor with crossed arms. His auburn brows furrowed. His bottom lip jutted out into a pout.
“Julian,” you sang. His pout faded as his head snapped up to meet your gaze.
He smiled, a curl falling over his eyes. “Just a minute, darling.”
When the tea kettle screeched, Julian poured a single cup, leaving the rest behind. He walked slowly, his large hands shaking as he steadied the tiny clay cup. Lips pressed against your forehead as Julian placed the cup in your hands.
”What is it?” you asked.
”Sleeping tea,” Julian replied. “You’ll sleep soundly all night—no nightmares.”
You blew on the tea until it was suitable to drink, quietly sipping your drink as Julian traces the spines of every book on your shelf. He picked up a thick leather-bound book of parchment, the papers held together by old strings. The bed creaked as he climbed into bed with you, dressed only in his underwear. Gently, your cup was removed from your hands and placed on his own nightstand. You rested your head against his shoulder with a quiet sigh. Your eyes grew heavy as you looked to see what he was reading.
”Your favorite,” he murmured, kissing the top of your head. He read the story aloud, despite you knowing it by heart. It wasn’t long before your eyes closed. He chuckled quietly before closing the book. He tucked you in, wrapping his arms around your waist and pulling you closer. He rested his chin on the top of your head, smiling to himself. “Goodnight, darling.”