I know what he said. And repeated. Multiple times.
But I can still see the sway in his step. It doesn’t matter how much he likes pretending, I can see he’s hurting. I silently take a deep breath, struggling to find my resolve.
It’s difficult to judge how I should approach Julian. All the stories I’ve heard have been awfully non descriptive, all narrating the outcome even before considering the beginning. Even now, I can’t fathom anybody believing this man to be a murderer.
I promised Asra I’d be careful, but… I can feel it at the bottom of my heart, there’s more to this story than what I was initially told.
I smoothly dip underneath his arm, hoisting it around my shoulders while my other hand curves around his back, welcoming him in.
“Hey, you don’t have to-“
“Don’t even start.”
I know he doesn’t want me to help. It’s useless to argue.
I can feel him straining to avoid leaning on me, but I gently tug and pull as we walk until he finally sags against my side, allowing me to help.
“(MC)-“ I can see the shadow of a blush creeping over his cheeks.
“You helped me. I’m just returning the favour.” I can see him smiling from the corner of my eye. My face flushes in turn, even more so when I feel his hand squeezing my arm. My voice suddenly feels too tight inside my chest. I do my best to speak clearly, and most importantly, avoid his gaze. “Now stop being silly and let’s find somewhere safe.”
“Aye aye boss. This way.” He says, nudging me towards one of the side alleys.
He guides us through a maze of twists and turns. His feet seem to trace so many familiar steps as we walk together.
“You know this place pretty well.”
He cocks his eyebrow, his grin wide. “Not my first time in Vesuvia.” He quickly explains, his eye narrowing at me. “You, instead, look very much like a fish out of water,”
I bite my bottom lip, giving him a sheepish smile in return. “I don’t wander around the city much,”
“Are you scared?” He deepened his voice, almost expecting me to… cower from him?
I bite back a laugh as I shake my head. “Asra said I shouldn’t go alone-“ There’s something colder in his gaze when I mention their name, but it vanishes as quickly as it appeared.
“You must allow me to give you a tour then,” there’s a tinge of pride and mischief in his voice as he continues. “I’m quite the experienced chaperone,”
“Oh? Pray tell. Any interesting places around here?” We reach a crossroad and I quickly glance over both sides of the road. Luckily, there are no onlookers, except for the solitary birds pecking in the streets.
He hums in thought, pointing to a shop at the opposite end of the road. “Well, good ol’ Henry has an excellent collection of antiquities and artefacts, maybe even the magical trinket here and there.” We keep walking and he nudges his head in another direction, gesturing towards the distant buildings he’s referencing.
“Two streets over, and there’s the Amber River, they serve the best ale in the whole town.”
Another turn, another street. We almost stumble into one another and trip, but we rebalance just in time. “And lastly, there’s the Slippery Swan a couple of turns ahead. Never eaten better this side of the country.”
He looks so at peace here, talking about the places he likes.
“That sounds like a lovely plan for a day.”
He holds my gaze, the shadow of a smile curving his mouth upwards. ”Quite the plan indeed.”
His eye darts to my lips, and when I press them together, I see him mimicking my same movement. “Now, if we only had more time-“ his gaze wanders over my features, and I can’t help the cheeky smile that crawl over my lips.
“Like what you see, doctor?” He looks at me with so much fondness, I feel my chest filling with warmth.
“I’d be blind if I didn’t.”
His eye quickly wanders away from me, as if looking for the source of a noise.
“Do you hear that?” It takes me a moment to understand what he’s referring to; but the streets are too quiet, and the guard patrol too armed-to-the-teeth not to make noise.
I nod, my breath strained against my deepening heartbeat. “Trouble.”
His gloved hand closes around mine. “Quickly, this way-”
Our feet thread lightly against the cobblestones. We rush through the many side streets and alleys, until my legs are heavy and my lungs are burning.
I lean over my knees, taking in deep breaths. “I think they’re far enough,“
“Not quite-“ I hear him whisper as he pulls me in a narrow side alley. He looks over his shoulder, and certainly enough I too hear the guards approaching. His fingers are shaking, and I see he’s fidgeting too much. I can almost tell he’s planning a bad idea.
“I- I could get their attention. Just stay here-“
“Are you being serious right now?!” I yank him from his wrist, before he can turn around the corner. It’s almost like he’s praying to get caught.
“You are the worst fugitive I’ve ever heard of!” I undo the knot of the shawl resting on my shoulders and fling it around him, but I need to stand on tip toes to reach his head.
Julian looks ridiculous wrapped as he is now inside the dark cloth, but at least his characteristic, messy, extremely spottable redhead is now tucked and covered.
His face is expressionless, I don’t know whether it’s because of the blood loss or genuine surprise.
His voice is barely a whisper. “You don’t have to do this for me-“
I smile triumphantly – if nervously – at him. “Good thing you don’t tell me what to do then."
His legs tangle awkwardly with mine as we squeeze against the walls, almost holding our breaths. I can see pain flashing over his features as he closes his eye. I lean forward, my hand squeezing gently around his bicep to catch his attention. “Julian-“
His eye snaps open and he presses his index over my lips, shaking his head.
Our stares cross for some interminable moments. He moves his hand to the side, resting it over my shoulder. He looks so pale, I’m afraid he’s going to faint any moment now.
I press forward, circling my arms around his shoulders and pressing my cheek against his chest. He’s so cold, I can feel it even through the- however many layers of clothing he’s wearing.
He welcomes my embrace, almost curling up against me. I conjure a small spell, one of sunny beaches and lazy summers, keeping us warm.
His heart is drumming deeply against my ear. In the cold silent night, our hushed breaths are all I can focus on.
We listen silently as the armoured steps approach and pass us, echoing with the distance.
We wait until they’re completely gone, and I can feel him sighing in relief, his body relaxing against mine. I slowly loosen my arms around him and raise my head, finding his gaze again. Even in the dim light, I can spot the blush on his cheeks. “Thank you.”
He dramatically clears his throat. “I think it’s clear-“ He avoids eye contact, and just as I’m about to wonder whether I overstepped, I realize it’s not really our primary concern.
I can hear him muffling a soft groan as he walks out of the alley. His arm brushes a second too long against his side, and I already know he’s in too much pain to run.
I catch up to him, struggling a bit to keep up with his brisk pace. “We need to slow down.”
“If we do, they’ll catch us.” I step in front of him, and that stops him in his tracks.
“And if we don’t, I’ll have to haul your dumb ass halfway across the city while you’re busy bleeding out.” He opens his mouth, looking for a witty retort; a moment longer passes, and his gaze lowers to the ground as he wordlessly sighs.
His good eye narrows as he looks over me. “so, what’s the plan?”
I don’t know how much magic I have in me to hide us from view. That vampire eel took a good chunk of energy out of me, and Julian isn’t looking in any better shape.
“Rely on improvisation and get out of here?” I shoulder him as we resume walking. He doesn’t look too pleased with the situation, but complies anyway.
It doesn’t take long for us to trip into more patrols. Nadia really isn’t holding anything back to find him.
We manage to tiptoe our way around most of them, but it’s when I realize two royal guards are persistently walking just out of our line of sight, that dread settles in my stomach.
Julian slowly breathes out his question. “You see them too?” I gulp, feeling panic slowly settling in my limbs.
“They’re following us.”
As I’m walking alongside him, Julian briskly turns into another alleyway, correcting my path midway through. “No, this way.” Any time we turn and stray from the path, they are quick to follow. “Keep moving.” Julian seems worried too. It’s not a good look on him.
They force us to keep walking, and as I’m thinking of a way of getting out of here, I hear his frantic whispering. “We’re trapped.”
I meet his gaze, and I can see panic in his eye.
I feel my heart sinking when I realize we’re indeed in a dead end.
I call for my magic and smother the torches out, leaving us alone in the darkness of the alleyway. The moon stands bright in the sky tonight, and I’m not sure it’s dark enough for the guards to ignore us.
“I-I’ve got a plan.”
“It might be stupid-“ my words don’t seem to lessen his eagerness.
“Well, what is it?”
I pass my tongue over my lips as my eyes dart towards the alleyway, making sure to time this more of less correctly. “Just follow my lead?”
He has barely time to nod before I yank him down from his collar, pressing our mouths together. He quickly recovers from the surprise, eagerly kissing back.
I angle his face away from the guards, away from the streets.
The clatter of their armored boots pauses for an interminable amount of time before fading away from us, leaving only breathless pants to fill my ears.
We can stop now. We can totally stop now. He might have not heard them go away, or he’s straying on the side of caution.
I should totally, definitely tell him we can stop, I tell myself, as I angle our faces to deepen the kiss.
The knot on the shawl loosens up, setting a curtain to separate us from the rest of the world. The rest of Vesuvia is gone from my mind as there is just him and me.
He moans softly as he presses more warm kisses against my mouth.
Long fingers cup my waist, holding me against his larger frame.
He’s leaning over me, stray auburn locks brushing against my forehead.
I don’t think I’m ready for this moment to end, but he gives me space, taking in deep breaths.
“(MC)-“ my name dances so beautifully over his trembling lips. Oh, what I’d do to hear him say it over and over again-
The beginning of my sentence gets lost in a mumble “-move this somewhere else?”
He quickly nods his head up and down, auburn curls bouncing at the movement.
“I think I might just know one or five places to lay low,” he gives me his trademark smile and I feel warmth blooming in my chest.
The awkwardness clinging between us lasts but a moment, before he offers me his hand. I slip my palm in his, feeling slender fingers softly squeezing back mine.
“I should let you come up with plans more often,” His tone is sheepish, but his smile certainly is not. I’m at an uncharacteristic loss for words. I look away from him, and I can’t help the smile settling over my lips. “As long as there are less guards involved, I’m in.”
I can feel his gaze on me, and I turn back to meet it. He looks gorgeous in the moonlight.
“You look terribly beautiful tonight.”
His fingers quickly intertwine with mine. “Mm, always the charmer,”
“You say that almost like it’s a bad thing,”
“Perish the thought-“ He stops, taking my other hand in his. “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
It takes me a lot of effort not to get lost in his gaze. That’s when I realize we’re still out in the open, in streets I don’t recognize, and my only guide appears to be lost in… other… thoughts.
“Where are you taking me?” He has to shake his head for a second, snapping out of our little daydream and back to reality.
“There’s- my place. It’s nearby, it will do for tonight.”
We make haste, and a couple of fences and three locked doors later, we’re finally out of the streets.
“Pardon the clutter, I… wasn’t expecting guests.” He mumbles as he lets me in. The apartment itself is a bit small, but I’d bet he’ll prefer describing it as ‘cosy’. It’s surprisingly tidy, but mostly because it’s half empty.
There are three rooms that I can see, two of which are the main entrance, with a big window overlooking the suburbs of Vesuvia, and another one being a messy bedroom.
“Make yourself at home.” He shrugs off his coat, folding it over the back of one of the two chairs standing just next to the table, and doing the same to my shawl that he was still wearing around his neck.
I kick off my boots, but it takes him quite a while to undo his, sitting as he is at the edge of the bed.
I gingerly step inside the bedroom: the furniture is very minimalistic, with a barely used wardrobe, a small leather luggage resting in a corner, a soft looking bed and a desk buried underneath so many scribbled pages I can barely spot the surface.
I approach the desk at a purposefully slow pace, but Julian doesn’t stop me. I peek over some of the notes, but I can barely make out any letters from that chicken scratch. I do spot a small drawing on the side of a page and, after I move that to the side, more and more scribbles at the margins. I can spot a raven, amongst dozens of other seagulls and cranes and owls.
I hear Julian popping one of his boots off, the other one following suit.
I shuffle around the pages, spotting more scribbles around his writing. “Find anything interesting?”
Another raven, and another. “Just admiring the artwork.” And then another scratchy one that vaguely reminds me of Asra’s deck, sending a shiver down my spine.
Mm. I do wonder what Asra will think about this whole ordeal. Will Nadia consider me a traitor? Am I even capable enough to get to the bottom of this mistery?
“Aren’t you scared of being around me?” I ask out loud, slowly turning towards my interlocutor. The window behind him is bathing him in moonlight, and my mood feels lighter already at the sight of him. “This could have been my masterplan all along to capture the fantabolous doctor Devorak.”
He smirks at my remark “Fantabolous?” He chuckles at me, tilting his head to the side. “It will take more than a gorgeous vision like you to scare me off, dear.”
He cocks an eyebrow, his grin only growing wider “Besides, you’re the one running around downtown with a murderer.”
“Are you though?” I can see shock levelling his features at my remark.
I step towards him, leaning from side to side as I speak. “Helping a clumsy stranger out of a barrel, nursing aforementioned stranger from a deadly injury- not to mention the fact that half of the town loves you. With reason.“ I seat myself next to him on the bed. “You don’t look like a murderer to me.”
His gaze drops low, his voice sullen. “You don’t know me much.”
I can’t help but reach for his face, cupping his cheek. I gently stroke my thumb against his cheekbone, softly grazing my nails in between his messy hair. He blinks slowly, gently leaning into my touch.
“No offense, but you do seem like a terrible judge of character yourself.”
My eyes follow the curve of his body, stopping then at the blood soaked spot on his jacket.
“C-can I-“ I press my lips together, feeling a blush warming up my cheeks “May I see the wound?”
He undoes the buttons of his jacket with a soft smile on his face. “Are you worried about me?”
My eyes dart to the side, but the blush creeping up my cheeks speaks for itself. “Well, I’m a healer; this is just… professional curiosity.”
He pulls the shirt out of his pants, revealing the circular bite still marring his porcelain skin. I pause, my fingers hovering above the wounded area. I look for his eye, and he nods back to me, giving me permission.
It’s not bleeding anymore, but the edges of the wound are barely holding closed, and a huge purple bruise runs deep below the skin.
I carefully run my thumb over it, applying the softest of pressure to judge just how bad the cuts are.
I can see him in the corner of my eye, closing his eye and pressing his lips together.
I press my fingerpads gently over it, testing his reactions. He seems too hot and too bothered for this to be just about the pain.
“Is this part of your examination or-“ I open my palm over his side, spreading out the pressure, and I can see him swallowing back a moan.
This is… an interesting reaction, to say the least. But the night has been long, and I don’t feel it in me to toy with him for a while, no matter how entertaining that might be.
He gasps my name when my hand sets on his throat. I brush my thumb against his Adam apple, gently nudging his mark’s magic with my own.
He locks his eye with me, and I can see the prettiest pink blush setting over the tips of his ears.
The magic from his mark flows through my arms. All that it needed was someone more experienced to guide it.
It’s just a moment before the wound completely closes underneath my fingers.
He pants softly, his blush now reaching down his neck.
His hand brushes against mine, feeling around for the wound. “What- what did you do?”
He doesn’t give me time to reply. He brings my hand to his lips, kissing my knuckles. “Thank you.”
“No need to thank me, your mark did most of the work. Mine was just a little pebbler’s trick,”
“Where did you-“ He seems taken aback for a second. He knits his brows, trying to recall, to remember. I’ve seen that expression too much on my own face not to know what it looks like. “I could swear…”
He rests my hand over his chest, and I can feel the pressing thud of his heartbeat against my open palm. “I could swear we’ve met before,” He is stumbling over words, looking as concerned as ever. “I feel like I’ve known you forever. But I don’t recall us ever meeting before yesterday.” And I know I wouldn’t forget, I hear him mumble undertone.
Long fingers brush a stray lock behind my ear. “I don’t know how to explain this, (MC).”
I bask in the feeling of being so close to him. My eyes trail over his mouth, and the way I look at him speaks for itself. “I could swear I’ve kissed you before tonight.”
“Oh~ Care for another try? It might help jostle up some memories-”
I don’t think he believed I would take him up on his offer, but he doesn’t complain when our mouths meet again.
I climb in his lap, feeling his hands steading me at my sides.
The way he’s kissing me almost makes me wonder whether he was holding back before. Now he’s just like a drowning man, desperately reaching for air. His hands run along my back, keeping us close.
The coldness the night left behind evaporates under his touch.
Anytime we separate to take a breath, I can hear him making the softest of noises, mumbling small Nos and More until our mouths meet again.
He cups my cheek, tilting my head against his, his thumb gently stroking against my skin.
We need to part for air, and he moans my name so deliciously I have to stop my hands from reaching for his belt.
He realizes just what kind of shameless expression he was wearing and he drops his head to the crook of my neck. I can feel his warm flushed cheek pressing against my skin.
“See what terrible- terrible things you do to me?” He mumbles, interrupting himself to kiss my collarbone. His breath is hot against my skin. I brush a kiss against his temple, and I feel his arms loosening around me, a soft chuckle vibrating in his chest.
“Should I assume that means you want to stop?”
His head shoots back up, and his flushed face and kiss swollen lips are quite the vision .“Wait- No, I-“ he’s still slightly shaking his head as he looks at me. He closes the gap between our mouths. His lips are warm, tantalizingly soft. “Please- Just a moment longer?”
I lean closer, placing my forehead against his. I take his face in my hands, holding him in place just a moment longer before claiming his mouth again.
I undo the last buttons of his shirt, enough so that I can slip my hands underneath. I softly rake my fingernails against his back, and I can feel him holding back a moan against my mouth.
It doesn’t take much convincing for him to lay on his back, and I follow suit. I undo the last buttons of his shirt, exposing his lean chest.
He pulls me in again, enjoying the closeness. His hand goes to cup around my cheek, while his other arm circles around my waist, holding me in place.
We just lay there to kiss, and nuzzle, and laugh, and for a moment, for a precious, delicious moment, he’s not a wanted man, and I’m not stuck in a morally ambiguous dilemma, and we just are.
I lay next to him, resting my head over his shoulder, my hand soothingly brushing over his chest.
I can feel his fingers gently raking against my scalp, curling and twining in my hair.
I breathe him in, knowing I’ve felt before the combination of salty air, bitter liquor and warm laughter. Just as I’m remembering something, I can feel the familiar painful pressure at my temples, and I reluctantly let the memory I was chasing slip away from my grasp.
I cannot afford to have a debilitating migraine now, not when Julian needs my help more than ever.
I feel his hand tapping my chin, tilting my head towards him. He must’ve spotted my frown. “Are you okay?”
I reassuringly smile at his inquiry.
“Never felt better.”
His gaze softens as he lays back in the mattress, looking at me.
“I’m glad.” He watches amusedly as I stifle a yawn. “We should catch some sleep.”
He sits up, leaving me to rest on the mattress. “I can leave you the bed-“
“Jules-“ I catch his wrist just in time. Tall as he is, he would have been across the room in a couple of strides.
“I don’t mind sharing.”
His eyes wander over the bed. “It’s- rather small,” A sultry expression settles over my face. “I know.”
He definitely looks worried for a good second, but a gentle tug on his wrist is all it takes for him to climb back in bed with me in a tangle of limbs.
The mattress definitely could be larger, but I can’t complain as he curls against me, sighing contented. His chest is warm against my back. His breathing slow and steady.
I can’t regret following him. Asra will surely give me a good earful when this is over, but I truly don’t have it in me to feel sorry for what I did.
“Good night, doctor.”
A very sleepy voice mumbles against my skin. “Nighty night, (MC).”