Vex can hear her brother's heavy breathing as he returns to their camp after a long night and day gone. He's wincing; she can tell he's trying to be stoic, but she knows his movements, that stiffer posture.
The fear and anger she's been damming up since he left with barely a warning suddenly flood through her. She says, "What did you do?" and then she sees his stricken face. Worry burns her.
Stumbling carelessly in his rush, he throws his arms around her, and she finds her face in the hood of his cloak. It smells scorched.
She twists her hands in his cloak and says again, softer: "Dear Vax. What did you do?"
Breath hot in her hair, he shudders against her. "I'm all right. You're all right. Everything's - we're going to be fine."
"Brother…" She wraps her arms around him in return, smoothing her palms over his back. He tenses and cries out in pain, and she draws back as if she felt the sting herself. "You're hurt!"
He's silent, then, "Yes." There's strain in his voice. Was he screaming? Gods. "Will you -"
Vex's hands are already busy with the ties of his cloak, carefully lifting away from his body, feeling for his belt over his tunic. "Are you bleeding? You could have said -"
"Don't you darling me!"
He lifts his hands to cup her face and she grabs his wrists, breathing heavily and ready to fight if he tries to stop her. His brow is furrowed and his mouth is sad. "Burn salve?"
She goes to get it out of her pack. "You're lucky I keep this on hand," she says when she finds the small crock, and turns to see her brother uncloaked, gingerly lifting his shirt over his head. Between his pale shoulder blades is an angry bubbling burn, red and black. Vex gasps involuntarily and nearly drops the salve.
"Makes me look tough, right?" Vax jokes weakly.
"Don't." Her voice chokes as she nears him. Her brother lifts his arms and crosses them before his face, bracing himself against a tree trunk. Lightly, light as a feather, she touches her fingertips to his sides, far from the burn; she smoothes her hands under his shoulder blades.
He shivers in the cool night air. "How bad?" he murmurs.
"It'll scar." She scoops the cool salve up with her fingers. The herbal smell covers that smoky aroma, and the worse burnt flesh. "But of course it will. This is a brand. Who - who did this?"
Vax is silent.
"Your gang? Is this some sort of initiation? Are they punish-"
"I'm either with them or against them, Vex'ahlia. And we can't - I can't afford to be against them."
She grabs the flesh of his waist with her other hand and digs her nails in; he lets out a soft whine. "Hold still." He obeys, still shivering, and she applies the salve to his burn. She knows from experience that it will sting, and he knows too. He doesn't move, or make a sound, just the hiss between his teeth.
When she's finished, she presses her lips to the nape of her brother's neck. His shoulders shake, and though she isn't touching his burn, though he should be feeling some relief by now, he lets out a dry sob, once, twice.
"Darling," Vex says, and she ducks around to his side to peer more closely at him. "Is there more?" This isn't like him. She touches his shoulder, his elbow, but his face remains hidden against his forearms.
He takes a deep shuddering breath. "No," he says. "That's all."
"Look at me," she says, dragging his arm down. "How can I believe you if you don't look at me?"
So he does, and meets her gaze. There are sympathetic tears at the corners of her eyes, and she wishes she had the anger back, because all she can think of now is all he won't tell her or listen to her about, and all she can't save him from, and how it will go on and on…
"See?" Vax says, pulling her into his embrace again, trapping her arms against his chest. "That's all. I promise." He drops a kiss on her hair, then, breath warm, on her ear. "Thank you," he says.
Vex breathes deeply, and the grip of fear lets her go.
A week later, the brand is a shiny pink shape on his back that she touches while they bathe in the river. He slows his swim, and when he turns to look at her his smile has nearly gone; the only trace of it left looks brittle to her.
"You let these people mark you," she says. "Don't I get a claim?"
He reaches out to touch her hair. It drifts loose in the water, undone and weightless. "Every mark I bear is your claim."
Fussing, she wipes a dark lock from his brow. "What does that even mean?"
His hand slips onto her shoulder. She feels his fingers brush the side of her neck. In his eyes she recognizes the look: words are no longer enough.
"Is my claim on you when you are wounded?"
They lie on their cloaks spread over the forest floor. Vex is curled around her brother's back, chin at his shoulder, their mingled hair a dark halo pooled above their heads. At her question, he turns his head back toward her, and her nose presses against his cheekbone. His breath smells sweet.
"Or is it when you are healed?" She tilts her head so that her lips brush against his cheek.
"Why do you ask this of me?" His voice shows pain again and though it distresses her to hear his distress, still she relishes it. All his feeling, when she cannot let her own loose.
She strokes between his shoulder blades, meaning to soothe, but he wrenches away, turning, to face her; his hand slips warm onto her waist. She says, "You ask so much of me, when you leave."
His hands cup her face, now, and his sweet breath is in her mouth, his lips soft and fleeting on hers. Vex aches.
"What mark can there be," he asks, "without pain, or scar?"
She kisses the corner of his mouth, takes his wrists and rolls on top of him, mouthing in his ear: "If that is all there is, I still want that hold on you."
He shudders and comes undone beneath her.
She comes to him on the battlements that night after the dragons arrive.
"How did you find me?" Vax looks up at his sister from where he sits, his back against the whitestone, looking out towards the fires of ravaged Emon. The clouds are feather-thin, glowing soft with enough moonlight for only half-elven twins to see each other's faces by.
"I know a few things about stealth now," she says. "But normally I let you hide, while we're at home."
His mouth quirks up on one side, but her intent look intimidates him out of the smile.
"Why didn't you tell me about your brand? When it happened. I asked you."
"I was protecting you."
"We could have left the city."
"I… it wasn't an option for me, then."
"It was an option!"
"Sister." His face shows his pain. "How can I fix this?"
She hesitates. Then, demanding, "Tell me everything."
"I've told you all I know."
"You…" Her anger deflates. "That can't be all."
He cants forward from where he sits, and he's at her feet, kneeling, resting his forehead against her knee. "Take it from me." Her hand is on his smooth dark head, resting for balance.
"I can't -"
"I don't mind the pain." Down his hair to the middle of his back, she slides her hand, feeling horror at his words as she rests over where the brand lies. "Not from you."
She strokes the spot and he shudders. "You said, all your marks were for me. This is what you meant. This - you took it to save me." Her voice quavers, and is it anger? Fear?
He turns his face into her thigh.
"I didn't want that," she says.
"I know." She feels his hot breath gust over her knee. "I know what you want. Please." He looks up to her from where he begs. "Mark me."
She bites, hard, a circle of bruise-red crescents around the brand, and harder still until Vax has to muffle his own choked moans.
"You said you didn't mind the pain," she says, nails digging into his half-bared hips.
"This isn't -" He nearly whimpers, face half turned into her mattress. "I don't." His shirt is off, and her boots are left on the floor. His back bared to her, he cannot move, pinned as she straddles his hips. "I want to see you," he whispers.
She gets up to stand at her bedside table. Only her bare feet lie in the patch of moonlight from the window.
"Please," he says, for the millionth time that night. To please him, to please her - it is the same, or so she thinks, or so she desperately hopes. She trusts him, still.
She strikes her flint and lights the candle at her bedside. They are lit by its small yellow glow. "On your back."
He rolls without letting her out of his sight, face to her.
She straddles his hips once again, feeling his arousal against her. A small exhalation of breath escapes her, and he flushes, his eyes closing in shame.
"Shh, shh. Look at me." She rests a palm on his chest, strokes to soothe. "You said you wanted to, I want you to. Be here with me."
Tightly gripping, his hands are on her thighs, and she's the one who feels vulnerable now, still clothed but thinking of how, if her legs were bare, she would feel his calluses on her skin, she would feel -
"Yes," he says, and opens his eyes again, and she comes to her senses, and sees again the candle, its brass holder in her hand. "I'll never leave you," he says.
"I won't let you." The flame shines wet off the wax puddling beneath it. "To seal the deal..." With a tilt of her wrist, several drops of liquid hot wax fall onto Vax's chest. He hisses as his back arches, fingers digging into her legs, teeth clenched.
Down his chest, his belly, until they both have tears in their eyes, a trail of quickly cooling drops of wax. Vex peels the hot puddles off delicately and sees the red skin beneath, feels her brother's chest rise and fall as he pants for breath beneath her hands.
The marks don't last.
When Keyleth burns the brand from Vax's back, Vex feels his scream in her teeth, watches him snap her arrow in his gnashing. When she reaches out to touch him, he flinches violently away, like a wounded animal. It hurts. She holds him anyhow.
I won't let you leave me, Vex thinks, and casts a healing word.
"Don't worry," she says, bitter. The air is acrid with his burnt flesh. "You'll keep your scar."