The Rowdy Raven looked just as he'd left it, if a little cleaner, with even a few familiar faces among the bustling patronage despite there being a much longer gap between visits this time. Malak croaked and hopped off his shoulder as he entered, automatically taking up his old post as though he'd never been at sea.
It was already occupied by a younger raven, raucously shrieking at its elder while he simply preened his feathers.
"Why if it isn't Julian goddamn Devorak!"
That was his only warning before Julian was lifted clean off the floor in the most welcoming, crushing bear hug he'd received in his life, the bar filled with warm laughter and a few cheers from those familiar faces as Barth finally set him back down on solid ground.
"Last I heard you was dead, Devorak!" A weighty clap of his hand against his back, nearly bowling him over. "Where the hell have you been?"
Julian grinned. "We just pulled into port, restocking our supplies and checking up on old friends before heading back to Nevivon for the wedding."
"What wedding? Your wedding??”
Julian only grinned wider, straightening to his full height with pride.
“You're getting hitched ?!"
"After years of asking, I finally said yes."
"Well I'll be damned, I never thought I'd live to see the day. C'mon, this round's on the house, you're gonna need all the help you can get." Another volley of laughter, and he decided to let the implied dig at his magician's spousal clutches slide. What was important was that he knew there was no leash -- that is, socially.
The grin on the other man's face faltered, and without warning he pulled Julian towards the bar by the shoulder in a clear bid for privacy, leaning up to whisper in his ear.
"Unfortunately I can't secure your usual spot. A suspicious type's taken up residence in it. I don't know where he came from but I don't like it."
Barth craned his neck around Julian's shoulder to throw a suspicious glance towards the booth. The former doctor followed his gaze, perhaps a bit less discreet than he should be.
"I thought we were all suspicious types here," He said with an attempt at a grin, which also faltered.
The booth was indeed occupied, by someone who looked like they belonged in the wilds of the South more than South End. They were wearing thick furs, obscuring most of their body as they were hunched over the table, though it was easy to tell that body hardly filled the space beneath. A skull of some kind of animal he couldn't identify obscured their face, shaggy gold and silver hair that probably hadn't seen a brush in years spilling out from the braincase and settling across broad shoulders like a mangy waterfall.
What gave him pause was the fact that the skull seemed to be fashioned into a mask in the likeness of the Devil Arcana, the same dark patterns and onyx double horns as the creature's representation on Asra's card, before they had sealed him away. There was no mistaking it. He felt a sense of unease, a certainty that it wasn't simply a bad fashion choice by the traveling magician's former client.
"We are but he gives me the creeps, alright." The bartender sniffed. "I woulda kicked him out already except he keeps ordering drinks for everyone n' I don't know if he plans to pay for it. He probably don't even know what money is."
There was a small armada of empty plates and equally empty tankards scattered across the table in front of the stranger, and he was drinking another one as if it was the last he'd ever have, white knuckles wrapped in dirty bandages, the hint of ugly purple scarring along pale skin.
"Do you want me to handle him?" Julian kept his voice low, reaching for the sword now kept buckled to his hip and realizing he'd left it on the ship.
Barth startled, looking at him like he'd grown an extra head. "Put that backbone away, boy, I just wanted you to know you're gonna have to find a different seat. I'll figure out what to do with him."
They both nearly jumped out of their skin as the painted skull swung towards them, attention clearly attracted by the staring. He said nothing, but waved at Julian in a disjointed beckoning motion.
It looked like he was beckoning both of them, but that same certainty said it was just him.
Against his better judgment, Julian slowly approached the corner booth, warily settling into the seat across from the stranger as he felt awkwardly hovering beside him might not be as well received. Closer to him he could see the hint of unfocused silver eyes and a crooked grin behind the mask, both of which struck him with unwanted familiarity like the markings on the skull.
"I realize I haven't been here in some time, but this is my seat." He said evenly.
The other man shrugged. "Tss, finders keepers. What was it you liked, again? Salty Bitters? Two of those, please."
After a moment he set the tankard down, curling trembling fingers around the edge of the skull, slowly, almost reluctantly easing it off of his head, letting it rest on the table by the wall with its eye holes facing towards the bar like an eerie painted sentinel. His skin crawled, feeling as though it was watching him.
The face beneath the mask was weathered and a bit gaunt with age and malnutrition, but there was no doubt of the identity, especially given the sharp black wings drawn beneath both haggard eyes.
"Wh-- you ?!" Julian hissed. Distantly he heard Malak let out one short squawk in alarm. "How the hell did you get out?!"
He was supposed to be aimlessly wandering the magical realms for eternity, or something to that effect according to his spouse to be. He was definitely not supposed to be in Vesuvia, in South End, in the Rowdy Raven, in his booth, grinning like a cat that just finished off the cream.
"Oh, Jules. Is that any way to greet an old friend?"
Something inside him snapped.
"We are NOT friends."
The former Count looked genuinely surprised by this statement, somehow.
"We're not? But I thought--" It took him a few seconds to reconfigure, tone much less cocksure confident. "You stayed in my house, you played games with me, you drank with me-- I thought the other stuff was water under the bridge, now. Especially now."
"Friends don't give friends the Red Plague."
It fell from his mouth like a stone, and Lucio flinched back accordingly.
"Yeah, well, friends don't abandon friends on their deathbed to go on holiday." He tried to recover with a pout.
A small pang of guilt flickered through him, easily quashed by reminding himself that this bastard had done so much worse. "Then you agree. We aren't friends."
"That's not what I--"
"I was your doctor and you were my patient, nothing more, nothing less. Anything you might have read into it is not my fault, I was simply trying to be a decent person, something you still don't understand."
Lucio opened his mouth, then closed it again, sinking back into his furs as the Bitters arrived, not noticing the sidelong glance from the bartender before he left.
Some perverse part of him enjoyed how the once confident Count was shrinking back from him, and he allowed himself to indulge in it, if only for a moment. A terrible thought of breaking taboo and calling the guards on him rose up in his mind, of throwing him to the wolves while he was weak and confused. Then again, no one else would be able to trust him in the Raven again if he did that.
Least of all himself.
"... you never liked me, did you." The older man said quietly, and that guilt came right back, unprepared for the sudden clarity. "None of you did. I saw it and I ignored it because you're supposed to like me. I never had any friends in that stupid Palace, did I?"
He pushed his glass of Salty Bitters towards Julian untouched, not looking up from the table.
"You don't know what it's like, Jules. Being alone. Not the kind of alone you get in that-- that fucking hellscape. Time is wrong. Everything wants you dead. Every one wants you gone, and they have the power to back it up."
Julian said nothing, finding his eye drawn to the scarring, realizing there was more than what was on his arm.
"And, most fun part, the whole place is designed to fuck with your head!" Lucio laughed, short and harsh, a sound that reminded him of rattling bones. "I don't remember how I got out, and there's a big possibility I never did! This could just as easily be an illusion by something that wants to tear out my soul and take my body for a skin suit!"
More broken, deranged laughter, dropping back against the booth with a harsh thump of his head on the hardwood. People were starting to look over, or at least being more open about looking. He suddenly wondered if anyone else recognized his table mate, as grizzled and greasy as he currently was, and if they'd try turning him in for whatever bounty Nadia had placed on his head. He didn’t have friends here, either.
He opened his mouth with the intent to shush him at the very least, but was distracted by both scarred flesh and weathered gold arms suddenly and very clumsily lashing out to grab his own. The grip was firm, almost painful, as if he expected him to vanish if he loosened it.
Lucio was staring at him with all the manic intensity of a man who has not been drunk in some time and now had an epiphany on the verge of blackout. "Jules, Jules, listen. I know I did some stuff. And I'm-- I didn't do some other stuff I probably should have, when I was trapped and before that."
Slight pause, gold arm slipping free of its prey to press against his temple, trying to gather what thoughts hadn’t been scattered by the liquor. He glanced towards the skull and shuddered.
"I am still mad you trapped me in a net n' took my body n’ left me to die in those realms-- but that's not the point.” Nevermind that it hadn’t been Julian himself that had done any of that, although it wasn’t clear if he remembered that right now, or cared. “Maybe-- maybe we weren't friends. But we can be friends now , can't we?"
His lips stretched into the most pathetic hopeful smile Julian had ever seen, desperation in his eyes. It physically hurt to look at him, and it only got worse when he apparently took too long to react, the trembling grip on his wrist faltering like the smile.
"... can't we?"
The former doctor took a risk by continuing to not answer, instead turning his attention back to his drink. Hopefully his expression was pensive enough that Lucio might understand he was thinking, not ignoring -- and hopefully it was more pensive than whatever inscrutable cocktail of emotion was swarming inside his skull like wasps.
Before, the burn of memory was still fresh, still bitter. He wanted him to suffer. But time had passed since he’d stared the bastard down at the Devil’s gate, and it was even longer since he’d had to deal with his mistakes firsthand.
He’d moved on, or so he thought. He had a life now. He had a ship and a crew and an upcoming marriage.
All Lucio had was scars and memories. He had nowhere and no one and had obviously latched onto the first familiar face he’d seen in a dog’s age, likely the only one that would give him the chance to sit down and talk like this.
He felt bad for feeling bad for him. He wasn’t sure if it would be crueler to tell him there was no place for him in his life, either, or to allow him to continue hoping.
“... please tell me you didn’t break out of the magical realms specifically to ask me to be your friend.” Julian said after a long moment.
A softer, wheezier sort of chuckle. “Would it help my case if I did?”
“I’m afraid not. On this side of the gate, we call that ‘obsessive behavior’.”
The former Count finally released him to reach over for the skull, pulling it down over his face again with practiced ease, putting up a more physical barrier between their scattered emotions. “We don’t have to be friends. I can be-- what are you now? Pirate captain?”
“.. is there a second mate? What do you call the person in charge of stabbing people on command? I can do that.”
“I don’t think the position of ‘Chief Stabber’ is one that exists, but I’ll have to run it by the captain.” Damn it, Devorak. Stop giving him hope. “I mean-- on the off-chance they don’t shoot down the idea of having you aboard at all. Considering the last time you met them.”
Lucio tilted his head to peer into the tankard through the skull’s eyes, and though he couldn’t see the pout he could hear it in his voice. “The thief that got my body? Excellent. Brilliant. Did Noddy manage to join up too? Or that other magician? Am I missing anybody else in the list of ‘people that want me dead’ that lines up with ‘people that know I’m not dead’?”
“Mazelinka and Pasha are there.”
Not to mention, it wasn’t much of a secret that he wasn’t dead. He kind of made a big show of it at that Masquerade.
“I don’t know who the hell those people are but I expected you’d add some names.” A flash of something like fear in his eyes, what he could see of them. “.... Noddy didn’t really--?”
Despite himself, Julian laughed. “Don’t worry - last I heard, Nadia was still Countess of Vesuvia. If she’s gone and become a ruthless pirate queen in my absence, I haven’t met her at sea just yet.”
“It’d definitely suit her.”
They both shared a wistful sigh at the prospect of Nadia terrorizing the seven seas.
A brief moment of silence elapsed, in which the former doctor finally pulled the second Bitters towards himself. “... she won’t like it if she finds out you’re here, you know.”
There was a flinch, as expected - and then another crooked, cocksure grin.
“ If , Jules. If she finds out.” The grin faltered, eyes slowly widening with horror behind the mask as he seemed to allow himself to look at the proverbial elephant in the room. “.. she won’t find out, will she? You aren’t going to-- you were a fugitive, too, you wouldn’t. Would you?”
“... I still don’t know, to tell you the truth. I should.”
Lucio immediately quailed from him, once again looking as if he was trying to hide in his furs.
“You should be the one with that mark, you know. The one it took me three years to clear up. Hell, some might think you also deserve the same fate I got to match.” He wasn’t entirely sure if Nadia would hang him, exactly, but it wasn’t a far stretch of the imagination.
The former Count said nothing, only shivered, scarred hand coming up to rub at his neck. He realized he was just tormenting him at this point, and after a moment of deliberation pushed the glass of Bitters back towards him as a peace offering, feeling that much worse when he flinched away from it like he expected it to hurt him.
“You’re safe here. For now. It’s a bit of a faux pas to rat on your fellow ne’er-do-well in this part of town, after all.”
“... but you would do it otherwise.”
His voice was quiet and hurt, clear and genuine betrayal in his eyes, not unlike being told they weren’t friends. He’d fully trusted him, he realized, or at least as much as Lucio could trust, and it was being shattered.
Julian was learning all sorts of unwanted things tonight.
"I never realized you hated me that much, Jules." The painted skull swung back towards the bar, shadows thankfully obscuring wounded eyes, flesh arm raising up in a shaky little wave. “Can I have more of that stuff I was drinking earlier? And can you make it extra strong?”
Barth grunted and nudged a larger, rougher looking fellow, likely the new bouncer, towards their booth. “I was actually hopin’ we could have some words about that, sir. You been doin’ an awful lot of drinkin’ and not much payin’.”
“Oh.” Lucio lowered his arm and tilted his head. “Put it on my tab, then.”
“You don’t have a tab.”
“... put it on Jules’ tab. I’m sure he’s got one. Don’t you, Jules?”
Julian nearly choked on his drink, throwing a half-hearted glare at his companion when his lungs had finally regained their land legs. The bouncer gazed down at the both of them, stone-faced, and for a moment he felt like he was three feet tall.
Despite his earlier frightened deer act, the other man seemed completely unphased by this, perhaps too blitzed to realize the danger.
“Don’t bring him into this, he’s a valued customer.” Came the gruff reply from the bar. “You, on the other hand, seem to be a freeloader.”
He wasn’t wrong.
“I have money. Somewhere. Probably.”
“Somewhere ain’t gonna cut it.”
“I had an assload of money. I could buy this stupid bar out from under you.” Lucio sniffed, indignant. “Your drinks aren’t even good.”
Julian felt like he was watching a carriage wreck in slow motion, gilded wheels bouncing off a brick wall and pirouetting into oblivion, horses of good sense bounding into the woods somewhere.
He felt himself move towards the other two men, too slow to be of any help to either of them, just as the bouncer laid one rough hand on the older man’s shoulder with all the weight and finality of a judge’s gavel, digging thick fingers into his furs in preparation for lifting him out of his seat.
In an instant Lucio’s posture changed, going completely rigid beneath the hand, a flicker of something primal in his eyes behind the mask, reminding Julian of a trapped animal. He twisted in his furs like a cat slipping in its own skin, golden arm swiftly lashing out towards the bouncer’s face, claws tearing his cheek wide open before he had a chance to react.
The taller man immediately released him and staggered back, grabbing at his own face, blood pouring between his fingers and down his neck.
“ Don’t fucking touch me! ” The former Count snarled, still standing, hitching up his bloodied metal arm as though he intended to strike again.
Hushed, horrified whispers rippled through the Raven around him, and Julian very clearly heard Lucio’s name among them. His face may have been obscured, but the arm was a dead giveaway.
He must have heard them, too, because he hesitated, stepping back as if he suddenly realized what he just did.
Other men were rising from their seats and advancing towards him, some barehanded, some bearing weapons, one bringing an empty bottle. The trapped animal look was still in his eyes, flickering across the bar and then landing on Julian, staring at him as though he was trying to judge if he was also a threat.
Lucio wasn’t angry, he was scared. He was a cornered animal.
He was also outmatched, if only in sheer numbers, and he knew it.
Someone lunged for him and he immediately bolted, leaping up on top of the table near the window and headbutting it with his mask to break it open, hurling himself outside before anyone else managed to get close.
Against his better judgment, Julian immediately leapt to his feet and started towards the window with the intent to follow, or at least get a glimpse of where he might have gone - only to be stopped by a weighty hand on HIS shoulder.
“Don’t worry about it, Devorak,” Barth sighed. “We’ll catch him sooner or later, or the guards will. Either way, he ain’t got no friends here.”
That’s what I’m worried about , he almost said, but swallowed the words like bitter alcohol as he made his way towards the still-bleeding bouncer. Hopefully he hadn’t left all of his supplies on the ship, or he was going to have to improvise.
“Here, let me take a look at that.”
Through the corner of his eye, he saw Malak hop off his post and soar out the broken window.