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Haunted, Hoping

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In the quiet of the mansion’s workshop, Percy made a final, thorough check of Bad News. The gun was in perfect working order, the barrel aligned, the scope calibrated, and every part of it cleaned to gleaming. An expertly maintained weapon, and one hundred percent battle ready. As it had been some thirty minutes ago, when he had last done what he’d told himself was a final, thorough check, before starting another round of maintenance on every other weapon he owned. He had tested and re-tested all of them, planned and re-planned, made as much ammunition as he could with the materials he had on hand, and still it wasn’t enough, it would never be enough, there had to be something more he could do…

A soft, cool voice washed over his feverish thoughts. “Do you have any idea what time it is, darling?”

He must have been deeply absorbed in his work if that voice that some part of him was always listening for could startle him so. Vex could move almost as silently as her brother when she chose to, but it seemed that she rarely did so around Percy, as if she always wanted him to know she was there. Her distinct footfalls should have caught his attention the moment she stepped into the room. This time, though, she had crept up on him like a specter, looking no less ethereal for the fluffy robe wrapped around her or the steaming mug she clutched to her chest. Or the massive bear that followed her. The two of them leaned on the doorframe, watching him, and Percy had the feeling Vex had been watching him for a while before she’d finally spoken.

He made a show of looking around the windowless room, the diffuse light that came from everywhere and nowhere, before giving her a tired and ironic smile. “Do you?”

“I know it’s late,” Vex returned, stepping deeper into the workshop on bare feet. Percy held out a hand, about to warn her to watch her step, but the mansion’s servants had clearly been working around him, clearing the floor of the debris that usually surrounded his workbench after a long night. She found a similarly clean patch nearby to him on the work table and perched on the edge of it, with Trinket breaking off from her to poke around the corners of the workshop for interesting smells. “Late enough that you should be sleeping.”

He wasn’t so oblivious to the passage of time that he didn’t know that much, at least. He should be sleeping, and there was no question that he needed sleep. He always needed sleep. ‘Sleep-deprived’ had been his baseline state for so long that he barely even noticed it anymore. But even so, these past few days had pushed him to new levels of exhaustion. The wounds on his soul were healing slowly, the toll that death had taken on his body and mind still being paid. And he continued to borrow against that debt, resisting rest and stillness, far too aware of the passage of precious time whenever he paused. Still, her words brought his weariness to the fore, and he put the gun down, removing his glasses and rubbing at his face. “So should you,” he pointed out.

Vex shrugged. “Yes, and at least I’m making an effort to do so,” she said, raising the mug. Seen this closely, she did look like she’d been trying to sleep, her eyes weary and her hair tousled. “I made myself stop working at a reasonable hour. You , on the other hand…” She brushed a hand across his cheek, wiping the soot off her fingers with a nearby rag. “There is such a thing as over-preparing, darling. We’re going to find you passed out down here come morning, drooling all over the table and with bits of metal stuck to your face. And don’t try to tell me we wouldn’t; it wouldn’t be the first time.”

Percy made a halfhearted sound of protest at her touch, as pleasant as it always was. Vex was no stranger to dirt, of course, but at the moment she looked so soft and clean that it seemed a shame for her not to enjoy staying that way for a while. Still, he made no effort to hide his smile as he looked up at her, chin on his hand. “How fortunate that I have you here to safeguard my dignity.”

As if on cue, Trinket chose that moment to finish his circuit of the room and come up to Percy’s other side. The bear shoved his head under Percy’s arm, demanding ear-scratches and repaying them with a long swipe of his tongue up Percy’s face. “That’s exactly it,” Vex said, giggling. “We’d hate to see you undignified. You know better, Trinket!” she added as an afterthought. “Your uncle is teaching you terrible habits.”

“It’s all right,” Percy said with a mild grumble, taking the rag from Vex’s apologetic hand and scrubbing away the worst of the slimy mess. Disgusting as Trinket’s display of affection was, it was still a display of affection, and of late Percy was beginning to realize just how valuable those were. But he couldn’t help adding a smug little “Serves you right” to the bear, who was now grumbling and smacking his lips, trying to rid his mouth of the grime he’d licked off Percy’s face.

“Oh, don’t scold him,” Vex protested, as if she hadn’t been scolding him herself just moments earlier. “Not after he told me to come looking for you. He sniffed out that someone else was out of bed, and he was worried.”

“Were you, now?” Percy raised his hands to scratch Trinket’s head again, digging his fingers into the thick fur and enjoying the resultant pleased growl. “You are a thoughtful bear. But you don’t need to worry about me, old boy.”

“We all know that’s not true.”

Vex’s voice was low and abruptly somber, and Percy returned his attention to her with some surprise. Her earlier lightness was in shadow now, eyes locked on him quiet soft concern. “Percy… are you certain you’re all right?”

His fingers tightened on Trinket’s skin, an involuntary tensing that was fortunately not enough to cause the bear any discomfort. “I am… as all right as can be expected,” he said, which wasn’t an answer and they both knew it. “I’m tired,” he admitted when her face showed no satisfaction with this response. “I have been through a great deal in a relatively short time, and I know that the end is not yet in sight, and I’m afraid of everything that might go wrong tomorrow and in the days after. But that’s true of everyone in this mansion, and there’s little enough to be done about it right now.” He tried to ignore the emphatic way Vex was shaking her head. “Frankly, I’m surprised that you’re the only one wandering the halls tonight.”

“You can’t act as though we’re all suffering from the same troubles tonight,” Vex argued, still quiet. Percy noticed now that her hands were clenched around her mug in the same way that his were clenched in Trinket’s fur. He almost reached out to take it from her before she cracked it. “You were dead ,” she breathed, her voice cracking.

As were you, and not so long ago as you act , Percy returned silently, closing his eyes against the memory, the blaze of guilt that somehow managed to overshadow the very long list of all the other sins he’d committed in his life. Just because it wasn’t recent didn’t mean it didn’t still echo for all of them. He averted his eyes just long enough to regain his composure, making a show of placing his hands over Trinket’s ears as he did so. “Not in front of the boy; he worries enough already,” he said, hoping the weak joke would chase some of the haunted look from Vex’s eyes. It didn’t. “Yes, I died,” he said matter-of-factly, as if it was an event that hardly merited a mention. “And you brought me back, for which I don’t believe I ever properly thanked you. There’s only so much I can fear about the future when I’ve already come back from the worst by the grace of the people I’ll be facing it with.”

To his great surprise, Vex’s shoulders hunched not with pain, but with something that looked more like shyness. “You’re here,” she mumbled, not looking at him. “That’s all the thanks we need.”

Percy drew back from Trinket to fidget with his tools again. “Yes, well,” he said, and then let the rest of whatever that sentence was going to be taper off. After all this time, all he had been through with these people, it still surprised him sometimes how deeply they all cared for him. Especially this particular person, this woman who was like sunlight itself, whose smile was as gently healing as any cleric’s touch. As he found himself doing more and more often lately, he allowed himself a short and silent moment to simply sit and adore her. You’re the one who brought me back, you know.

He didn’t realize he’d said it aloud until Vex made a sound of protest. “I helped ,” she said, taking a hurried sip of her tea. “But Pike and Keyleth did the real heavy lifting.”

“They brought me back to this world and this body, as I understand it,” Percy agreed, trying not to show how startled he was by his own slip of the tongue. This was… well, it wasn’t quite the conversation he wasn’t ready to have with her yet, but it was possibly a precursor to it. And he wasn’t entirely ready to have this one, either, but here it was. He pressed on. “But you’re the one who brought me back to myself .”

Vex’s brow furrowed, the rest of her body paradoxically relaxing as her curiosity overcame that sudden awkwardness. “I don’t understand.”

“No, and no doubt I’m making a mess of explaining it,” Percy said. He ran a hand through his hair, remembering too late that it was still streaked with dirt, and sighed. “It’s… there’s quite a lot I don’t remember about the entire experience, and what I do remember I’m still sifting through. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to explain all of it.” Or willing to , he added silently – truly silently, this time – and bowed his head over his folded hands. “But when Keyleth freed me from Orthax, for a time there wasn’t much left of me. I was just a scrap of consciousness, with no concept or context for the rest of existence. I didn’t know who I was, or what I was, or if anything else had ever existed aside from the void I was drifting in. I only knew that I had just been saved from something far worse, and that this was more calm and quiet than I had experienced in a very long time. I would have been content to stay where I was forever, or until something else came along to collect me.” He took a deep breath and looked up at Vex once more, his heart constricting at the expression on her face, the glimmer of tears at the corners of her eyes. Another man, one better at this than he, would probably have comforted her by taking her hand or touching her cheek. All he could do was keep talking, carrying her past this memory into the one that he now held so close to his heart. “And then there was a voice.”

If he hadn’t spent so much time studying Vex’s every movement and every line of her face, Percy might have missed the way her eyes widened, the sudden and startled inhale. It was enough to stop him for a moment, to leave him waiting to see what she might have to say about this or what else she might give away. When it became clear that the answer was ‘nothing’ – Vex’ahlia gave no secrets away for free, not even to him – he continued, pretending he hadn’t noticed. “I had no idea what it was saying; I was too far gone for that.” Now he pretended he hadn’t noticed the way she relaxed when he said that. “But I knew the voice, and I knew it was speaking to me. And that was when I realized that there was a ‘me’ to be spoken to, that I existed . That voice brought an entire world along with it, something bright and shining beyond that void I floated in, and I knew I had once been part of it and could be again. And I…”

He hesitated. He wasn’t going to tell her about the battle that had ensued then. She didn’t need to know how desperately part of him had fought to stay in the cold quiet of that void, how fiercely it had dragged against the spark of life in him that yearned for light and love and family despite knowing the pain it would inevitably bring. “I wanted to be part of it again,” he finally said. It was true, and she needed to know it was true. She just didn’t need to know how difficult a conclusion it had been to come to. “There’s credit to be shared for bringing me back, and be assured that the others have not escaped my gratitude. But you’re the reason there was something to bring back at all.”

Vex brushed away tears, making no effort to disguise the gesture, and reached her hand out to fold it over one of his. “I’m glad, then. That you weren’t too far away for me to reach.” He voice was choked, thick with emotion that she brushed aside with the ease of long practice.

He should turn his hand over so that he was actively holding hers. He should pull her in, bring her fingers to his lips, assure her that there was no hell deep enough to keep her voice from him. If ever there was a time to tell her everything that had been in his heart for so long…

Purple-black smoke curled around the edges of his mind. No. Not now. Possibly never . A familiar warning, his own wiser nature reminding him of the damage he was capable of doing if he forgot himself. It was familiar, but so much quieter than it had once been. A whisper, an echo of the roar that had once accompanied every cautious overture he’d attempted towards her. The choking fog that had pressed the weight of a thousand sins down around that spark of feeling was dissipating, slowly burning away in the warmth of a new dawn.

Not now , Percy agreed with that old and warning voice, turning his thoughts towards the light visible past the smoke. But not never, either. Just not yet .

I love you. I have loved you for a very long time. One day I intend to be worthy of telling you so . He let the thought form fully, the words resonating through his entire body. He had no fear of this thought coming through out loud; he’d said the words so often in his head that it was a reflex action to block their path to his mouth. “Thank you, darling,” he murmured, these words a poor substitute but enough for now.

Vex gave a tiny, weak laugh, slowly working her way back to the usual blithe demeanor she adopted when trying to glide past serious conversations. “I would say ‘any time,’ but I don’t want to encourage you to repeat that little performance.”

“Believe me, I have no intention of doing so,” Percy assured her, feeling his own conviction in that statement far more firmly than he had in a good while. An ironic chuckle as he brought the conversation full circle. “Hence the over-preparing,” he said, slipping his hand away from hers to gesture to the crowded workbench. A sigh as he pinched the bridge of his nose. “We’re fighting a bloody dragon tomorrow. Another one. And something we’re going to try and drag up from the Abyss.  I still can’t believe this is the plan we all agreed to.”

Vex pulled a face. “I had almost managed a full five minutes of not thinking about that, thank you.”

“Yes, so had I,” Percy said with a wry look. “But it’s a bit difficult to put out of one’s mind entirely, isn’t it?” He let out a puff of air. “Still,” he added, only a bit sarcastic, “I suppose being haunted by tomorrow is a nice change of pace from being haunted by yesterday. Dread isn’t much better than regret, but at least it brings with it the option of planning, of anticipating, of…”

“Hoping?” Vex offered softly. There was a contemplative tone in her voice, as if she was trying on the word for herself as much as offering it up to him. She met his eyes with a fleeting smile. “I know it sounds trite.”

“Not at all.” Percy was equally quiet, not wanting to intrude on a thought that she clearly wasn’t ready to share just yet. “I think after all we’ve seen and done, it would be foolish to discount the value of hope.” He met her smile with his own, equally fleeting, a moment of connection he tried to warn himself not to read too much into. “Lately, there are moments when it seems I cannot help but hope.”

A new warmth seemed to flicker in the air between them, a soft light in Vex’s eyes. “‘I cannot help but hope,’” she echoed. “I think, sometimes, I know what you mean.”

Now something in her face made Percy’s breath catch. The light was still there, a gentle affection as she looked at him, but the way she had suddenly begun to study him was quietly intense, a look that reminded him of the way she searched for tracks in the forest. Quiet and alert, taking in everything and waiting for some subtle shift of light or air – or possibly just of perspective – to snap the scene into place and reveal its secrets to her. He tensed mentally, wanting to draw back from that look and what it might uncover. What was she looking for? And would it really be a bad thing if she were to find it? He had kept so much from all of them for so long, and from her especially. If he truly wanted to move forward and break away from the past, his own secrecy should surely be the first thing to go. “Is something wrong, darling?”

The intensity faded, her face still thoughtful but without the earlier probing look. He had broken into her reverie and disrupted her tracking, and despite his new resolve to be more open with her he felt only relief. “No, nothing’s wrong,” she assured him. “I’m just… thinking.” When he raised an eyebrow, inviting her to elaborate, she shook her head. “Just thoughts for now,” she said. “No words to share them with just yet.” She shot him a teasing look. “We can’t all reach enlightenment as quickly as you.”

Percy barked a short laugh. “Not so much ‘enlightened’ as ‘experiencing brief bursts of optimism in between the brooding,’” he said. “But I’m working on it.”

“A shame,” Vex said. “Brooding is a good look on you.” She tilted her head, and Percy wasn’t sure when she’d moved, shifting her weight to bring herself much closer to him than she’d started out. “But I think hopeful could be, too.”

He let himself lean in, narrowing the gap between them even further. “I would certainly like to find out.”

My heart is someone else’s .

The words that had been chasing themselves through Percy’s head since he’d first heard them rose to the surface again, a sudden wedge of ice breaking through the warmth that had been building between the two of them. He must have flinched somehow despite himself, because Vex suddenly caught herself and drew back, covering the motion by reaching for her tea again. His almost instinctive desire to apologize, to say something that would make her feel better and tell her that his sudden reaction wasn’t her fault, was quashed by the worry that she’d ask exactly what he was reacting to.

He bit back a sigh. It really wasn’t her fault. He was the one who didn’t have the nerve to just ask her what she’d meant by that statement, to take the risk of knowing whether or not she’d been saying what he so dearly wished she had. It wasn’t outside of the realm of possibility, he’d told himself so many times; he knew beyond a doubt that she at least cared for him deeply, far more deeply than he deserved. (And far more deeply than was safe for her, though even as he had that thought the light seemed to fight its way through again, that feeling that he was not the man he once was and that the future could be different.) But he was also acutely aware of how easy it would be to misinterpret innocent affection through the lens of his own adoration, to see love where only fondness existed, and his new and fragile optimism quailed at the thought of just how wrong he might be.

Percy leaned back in his chair, eyes closed. “I am very tired,” he offered by way of some sort of explanation or apology. It felt like conceding defeat.

“I imagine there’s a solution to that,” Vex said, equal parts sweetness and irony. She gave a gentle sigh as she touched his wrist. “I know I’ve got no room to talk, wandering around like a lost soul in the middle of the night, but you really should sleep, darling. Especially…” She bit her lip, obviously not wanting to finish that sentence. “Especially in your condition,” she finally said. “You’re still recovering.”

“Believe me, I am well aware of that,” Percy returned. And then, because he felt he owed her some sort of honesty after the turn this conversation had taken, he raised his head again to face her. “And I grow even more aware of it every time I try to close my eyes.”

He saw comprehension hit her, a wave of sympathy and worry that softened into a nod of understanding. All of them would probably understand this particular problem, he imagined, as much as they’d all deny it. They were all afraid of something, and all of them telling themselves that since they were afraid together they weren’t allowed to admit that the fear still affected them. Feel free to tell them you’re sweating, but don’t actually let them see it, because it would be, what? Demoralizing to the rest of the group? Undignified? Or just shameful, no matter how hard it might be to imagine the people you cared about judging you for it? Percy didn’t know where the feeling came from, but it was… well, truth be told it was a familiar feeling, given his upbringing.

Percy …” Vex murmured, and he flinched. That was the source of the need to hold back. That soft voice, so heavy with concern that was going to turn to pity at any moment. “I should have figured as much,” she said with a soft exhale. No pity, just something warm and companionable that fretted but didn’t imply weakness. We’ve all been there , her smile said, the admission that it seemed none of them was willing to make. I’ve been there . “After everything… well, of course there would be nightmares, wouldn’t there?” She paused, her brow furrowing with a sudden and terrible thought. “And you’re sure that’s all they are? Just bad dreams?”

He marveled at how deftly she’d cut to the heart of his own terrible thoughts. “I believe so,” he said, “but whether I believe it because I have any sort of evidence or because I have to believe it to keep going, I’m not sure.” He leaned his head back, closing his eyes and trying to find the words. “I do feel far… freer than I have in a very long time.” Unconsciously he touched his chest as he took a deep breath. It felt like the air itself had more room to move, his lungs no longer constrained by a pressure that had constricted him for so long he’d stopped noticing it. “Something has lifted. I don’t know if everything has, or if it ever will.”

“Are you going to tell me yet again that we shouldn’t trust you?”

He looked up at Vex’s suddenly impatient face, feeling the silent sigh that always seemed to come from her when he repeated his old warnings, and found that he couldn’t help smiling. “No, I don’t believe I am.” He didn’t think he would ever be able to trust himself, but he could, perhaps, accept her faith as the gift it was. “I will yield to trusting your judgement.”

“Good plan.” Vex tossed her head lightly. “I am the clever one, after all.” Her phrasing caught Percy’s ear, but she pressed on before he could wonder at it. “And while you’re trusting me, darling, please trust me with your troubles. Dreams or no, they clearly have a hold on you. Even memories have teeth.”

“I certainly can’t disagree with that.” There had definitely been teeth. Much of what he recalled about his death was blurry and uncertain, but there had quite definitely been teeth. “I do appreciate the concern,” he said wearily. “But in this case, there truly is nothing anyone else can do to help.”

“What about just being there for you?” Vex asked, and she sounded unexpectedly uncertain. “When you were…” She took a deep breath. “When you were gone, we all… well, none of us wanted to leave you to sleep alone. Just in case of… just in case, I suppose. So you wouldn’t be alone with whatever it was you were facing.”

“Yes, I did hear about that,” Percy said. It had been a muddled account, an inexplicable comment from Grog about blanket forts leading to an explanation that hadn’t really explained anything. He shifted in his chair, trying not to show his discomfort with the idea of the rest of them keeping vigil over him. It was moving in its way, another reminder that he was loved here and his loss had been keenly felt, but it was also a distressing thought. I’m hardly worth the worrying . He almost said it out loud, just to hear her protest it.

From the way Vex ducked her head, some of his feeling must have come through, though apparently she’d interpreted it more like confusion. “Maybe it was a crazy idea,” she conceded. “But leaving you alone just wouldn’t have felt right. And it still doesn’t. I want you to have someone to look out for you.”

Trinket had butted himself up against Percy again while his mother was talking, whether on his own or moved by her concern Percy didn’t know. He buried his hands in the dense fur again. “Are you offering to lend me your therapy bear?” he asked. He had to admit it was an attractive idea; he could see the appeal of the warm and reassuring presence against a darkness that seemed to reach out to him from every angle, including the ones inside his own head. He bent forward and let Trinket’s forehead press against his. “I certainly wouldn’t mind your company, old boy.”

“What about my company?”

Vex said it so quietly that Percy wouldn’t have been sure he’d heard it were it not for the jolt that went through him, tensing up his neck and shoulders. He was grateful he’d turned away before she spoke, terrified now that if he turned back, the shock and confusion he was sure were clear across his face wouldn’t be enough to conceal the other emotions involved. He had no intention at this moment to express the degree to which he wouldn’t mind passing a night in her company, and even less inclination to even hint at the amount of time and mental energy he’d devoted to thinking about it. Surely she hadn’t meant… “Sorry?” he asked, carefully casual, relieved when his voice didn’t jump an octave as he’d expected it to.

“I know,” Vex fluttered, sounding so worried and apologetic that he had to turn around in surprise, and was instantly dismayed by her expression. “I’m overstepping myself in every possible way and I’m sorry, but I can’t stand the thought of you reliving any fraction of what you’ve already suffered and not having someone there to tell you that you’re safe and everything is all right.” She took a sharp breath, her voice wavering. “And I’m not much keener on the thought of waking up in the middle of the night and wondering whether or not you’re really here.”

Soot and grime be damned, Vex reached out again and threw her arms around Percy. And soot and grime be damned, he let her. The full upper-body strength of an archer wrapped around him, fierce and protective and lovely, and the embrace made his heart flutter even more than her previous words. “It’s all right, darling,” he murmured, the words practically a reflex. He patted her hair awkwardly with a hand he hoped was mostly clean, uncertain of exactly how to react and not daring to do anything that might push her away.

There was a weak laugh against his shoulder. “You see? That’s what I’m supposed to say.”

“And I am sure you’d be far more comforting at it than I am.” Percy sighed as he allowed himself to relax against her. “I’m right here,” he whispered. “I’m going to stay right here.”

“See that you do.” Vex’s voice was reassuringly obstinate, free of its earlier wobble, and startlingly low and close to his ear. There was no request she could make that Percy could imagine denying if she said it like that.

“I don’t believe it’s possible for you to overstep yourself with me,” he murmured, and thought for a moment that she flinched before holding him tighter. He drew back just far enough to look at her face, concerned for what he might have said or done to distress her, but her tender expression never wavered. He ran a tentative hand over her jaw, brushing away the smear her embrace had left, and she sighed and leaned into his hand. “I don’t want to say this wrongly,” he said, certain that he was going to anyway, “but I… I would also rather not wake up alone. Not caught as I am between the past and the future, and unlikely to know in which one I’ve found myself when I wake.”

With a nod, Vex tilted her chin up and kissed his forehead. “Then wherever you are in the morning, I’ll be there with you.” She released him with graceful reluctance and rose to her feet. “Come on, then. There’s nothing down here that can’t be cleaned up in the morning.”

Percy would usually have argued with a statement like that, at least where his own workshop was concerned, but he knew better tonight. He was being offered the opportunity to stop before he sank back into something new, and to do so in the company of the most important person in his little world. “Or that won’t get cleaned up for me, whether I request it or not,” he added, casting an eye to the spectral servant who’d been silently bustling about edges of the walls with a broom since he’d come down here. “Just give me a moment to collect everything that’s actually mine.”

Vex instantly leapt to his assistance, sorting and gathering tools and weaponry alike, and Percy carefully slid Animus out of her reach. He trusted his own creations, at least to some extent, and he trusted Vex to handle them without harming herself, but that particular bastard was still an unknown quantity as far as he was concerned. When he had tucked the gun away safely and turned his attention back to her and discovered that she’d left little still to do. His little portable tool kit had been almost completely packed, everything laid neatly in its proper pocket with the same care he would have taken. “You’ve been watching me work,” he said with some admiration.

Vex gave a playful shrug. “I’m very observant,” she said. A wink. “And you’re very observable.” Any awkward and sputtering response Percy might have made to that was mercifully cut off when she moved on to helping him collect his ammunition. “Gods, Percy, just how much did you make ?”

“Enough, I hope,” he said grimly. He flashed her a look of apology. “No new arrows, I’m afraid; that was a bit beyond me tonight.”

“Then you’ll just have to do something extra special for me next time, won’t you?” Vex pressed the bundle of small items into his arms, slinging Bad News over her own shoulder as she would her bow. It suited her, carrying something that deadly with such graceful unconcern, and Percy toyed briefly with the thought of teaching her to use it one day. One day, when we’re safer. When I’m safer . “Come on, then,” Vex said again, this time directing the words behind him.

The nudge at Percy’s back was probably a gentle one, at least by bear standards, but it still nearly pushed him back off his feet. “Yes, of course we’re all going,” he said. He was never sure exactly how much Trinket understood – more than anyone but Vex credited him for, no doubt – but whatever else he might grasp about the current conversation, he knew that Vex had told him to follow and thus he would follow. It was a sentiment Percy could get behind.

The three of them made their way up the stairs in a close knot, none of them wanting to get too far from the others, but it wasn’t until they were past the foyer and on their way to the rooms that Percy realized that not all of Vex’s closeness seemed to be about emotional comfort. She was huddled in on herself in the robe, which hadn’t registered to him as something strange at first, but… “Are you cold , darling?”

She looked surprised at the question, as if it was only now occurring to her that there was something unusual about that. A moment while she formulated an answer. “Only on the inside,” she said. She shrugged, giving him a faint smile. “I know that it’s the perfect temperature in here, because it’s always the perfect temperature in the mansion. But I also know just what’s waiting for us outside the door. It’s like… I can’t imagine the cold not seeping in through the cracks, so since there are no cracks in the walls for it to get through it’s getting in through the cracks in my mind.” She shivered just a little, then made an irritated noise. “Not that knowing it’s all in my head makes it stop,” she added.

Percy nodded. That was a feeling he knew all too well. He let his fingertips brush against hers briefly. “Then let’s get you somewhere you can bundle up properly.”

The bedroom Percy had claimed was already lit when he opened the door, a lantern on the bedside table giving off a soft glow that seemed somehow to be the source of the low ambient light that filled the room. The room itself had gradually tailored itself to Percy as he used it, and it seemed to understand that he needed more light than the rest of the mansion’s regular guests, whether because he was invariably up late writing or reading at the desk it had provided him or because it just took pity on the limitations of his human vision. Whatever the reason, it lent the place a feeling of homey comfort that was a relief after being alone with his thoughts in the basement for so long. The rest of the furnishings were similarly welcoming in their personalization: that small table near the bed for his glasses and for scribbling down middle-of-the-night ideas, the shelf along the wall that perfectly accommodated his various weaponry, the coat hooks to either side, the bed…

The bed. There was a touch of Scanlan in everything else about the room – mostly in the unnecessary decorative flourishes carved into every surface and the flashes of purple and gold on all of the fixtures – but, unsurprisingly, nowhere was that more obvious than in the bed. Draped in luxurious fabric, probably large enough to accommodate the entire group, and clearly the focal point of the room, it seemed to be staring at Percy and asking him some very pointed questions. He shook his head to clear it of that thought, silently cursing himself for it. For whatever reason, he’d somehow thought that having Vex’ahlia blithely follow him into his bedroom wasn’t going to set his heart hammering and his nerves shaking. Regardless of the circumstances, whatever he already understood about what was and wasn’t going to happen tonight – he hoped he understood what was and wasn’t going to happen tonight – a horrible thrill of panic mixed with anticipation shot through him.

It wasn’t helped when Vex spoke, apparently unruffled by the circumstances. “Which side of the bed do you sleep on?”

There was time for an awkward and sputtering response now . “I… don’t think I really have a preference,” Percy finally managed. It wasn’t as if he shared his bed with anyone else often enough to make a habit of picking one or the other.

The look she gave him made him worry that his sudden discomfort was audible, and that she wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. “I’m certain we can work out how to accommodate each other,” she said, stepping all the way into the room and looking to him for guidance on where to put her burdens down. She shrugged Bad News off onto its appropriate shelf, and before he could protest or even turn his back for the sake of propriety she followed up by shrugging off the soot-stained robe as well. Percy ducked his head, averting his eyes, but not so quickly that he didn’t catch a flash of color that reassured him that he didn’t have to.

The nightgown underneath Vex’s robe was, from what Percy had heard, more than she usually preferred to wear at night – he guessed she had thrown it on as another barrier against the cold, for what little good it would actually offer – but there was still little enough there to give him pause. The fine violet fabric dipped low at the neck and rose high at the hem, and in between it hugged her with a bit too much familiarity. He looked away again, far too quickly to seem casual about it, and she rolled her eyes in good humor, giving a little laugh. “Compliments of a mansion furnished by Scanlan Shorthalt,” she said, which was all the explanation that was necessary. “We’ll make ourselves comfortable,” she said, indicating herself and Trinket. “I imagine you’ll want to clean up first.”

“Now that you mention it,” he agreed dryly. More than anything, though, he wanted a moment away from her, away from this all-too-intimate situation that he was fully aware he had no one but himself to blame for. True, it had been Vex’s idea, but it wasn’t as if she knew this was something that would set his mind and his heart in turmoil. The members of their little family were accustomed to unusual and too-close sleeping arrangements in varying configurations and quarters, and even with his personal space issues Percy himself scarcely batted an eye at them anymore. But it was different when it was just him and Vex. Always, and in all ways, everything was different when it was just him and Vex.

He sighed as he retreated to the little washroom that opened off his suite, pausing at the wardrobe on the way to dig up his own pajamas. Once safely ensconced inside, with  the door closed behind him, he wasted little time in stripping to the waist and letting all his other cares disperse for a moment in the face of a basin of hot water and soap.

Let the others call him fussy, with varying degrees of affection, but he would give up all the other comfort and security the mansion provided before he’d give up the ability to end every day feeling clean . The world was just easier to face when he knew he could wash away some of the evidence of the misery it had inflicted on all of them. Even what passed for good days lately left them all covered in dirt and sweat, and the darker days – of which there had been far too many – added their own layers of blood and tears that he practically scrubbed his skin raw to escape.

The bear drool is a change of pace, at least , he thought to himself, a smile managing to cut its way through his dark thoughts as he scrubbed the remnants of Trinket’s adoration from his hair. No blood tonight, whatever tomorrow might bring. They would face the darkness as it came, but until then there was no sense in turning away the peace and affection that was being offered to him here and now, even if its source was currently making him feel like a nervous, gangly adolescent.

That certainty lasted about as long as the hot water did. The last of the day’s grime sluiced away down the drain – Percy had long since given up on ever getting a good answer about where it all drained away to – and with his mind no longer occupied the reality of the current situation came nagging back to him. With his face pressed into a towel, he let out a long and quiet sigh. I have fought dragons and beholders. I have endured torture. I have faced down the people who killed my family. I have battled the darkness within my own soul and won. I have broken free of death itself. I can pass an innocent night in the company of the woman I love without somehow ruining everything . It was a reasonable thought to have, one of the calm, sensible, intelligent thoughts he prided himself on. It was not, it seemed, a thought that he could force himself to believe.

Frustrated afresh, it was with a tiny growl and more force than was necessary that he dried his hair, leaving it in even more disarray than had become its usual state lately. Coward , he scolded himself, the old self-recrimination so familiar it had practically become an endearment. And that was the crux of it, wasn’t it? For all he might tell himself that long practice would keep him from tipping his hand in regards to his feelings for Vex, there was so much else he was at risk of revealing. She who thought him better than he was, braver than he was, had offered up her presence here tonight to give him strength should he need it, and now he could think of nothing worse than the possibility of actually needing it. It was something he really should have thought of earlier, but honestly, it wasn’t as if he was exactly known for his tendency to think these things through.

Another sigh as he accepted that he was as clean as he was going to get without a full soak (which was liable to end in him falling asleep in the tub) and traded the rest of his clothes for his pajamas. If he stayed in here much longer, Vex was likely to worry that he had fallen asleep in the tub and organize a rescue mission. He opened the door back into the main bedroom.

The light was still on. The bed was still there, slightly rumpled and looking even more inviting now that the hot water had reminded him just how tired he was. And still empty. Vex was nowhere to be seen. There was, however, a dark and furry hummock visible just over the edge of the bed, making the familiar sighing sounds of a sleepy bear.

Trinket mumbled a greeting as Percy rounded the bed, and Vex smiled from where she lay nestled against the bear’s belly, wrapped in a pilfered blanket. “This is the side where all the light is,” she said. “You may not know which side of the bed you sleep on, but this room has figured it out.”

Percy sat on the edge of the bed, looking down on her. “I’m always the last to know these things about myself, it seems.” He folded his hands and returned the smile. It was impossible not to smile at how cozy she looked, and he had to admit to a little swell of relief at seeing her so settled in, dispelling that last bit of concern that he’d misread her intentions in coming here. Mostly relief, but not without a twinge of regret for something he knew better than to seek but didn’t know better than to want. “Why did you…?” he started, and then found himself unable to finish the question. Why did you ask which side of the bed is mine if you weren’t planning to take the other? There was no way to ask it without sounding like he was asking quite a lot more. “Are you two quite comfortable?”

They sighed in tandem, and Vex patted Trinket’s foreleg. “Best spot in the house,” she said, letting loose a jaw-cracking yawn. “I suppose that’s enough out of me for the night,” she added.

“Out of both of us,” Percy agreed. It was with considerable reluctance that he took his eyes off her long enough to lie down himself and settle in, falling into his habitual position on his side, facing the table, the door, and her. He did have a preferred side of the bed, which he doubtless could have told her if he hadn’t been so blindsided by the apparent context of the question. He reached towards the table to lay down his glasses and turn out the light. “Get some sleep, my dear.”

She had closed her eyes, but now one cracked back open. “Only if you promise to do the same.”

“I promise.”

“Good.” She put her hand out, intercepting his and holding it for a moment. Her voice went very soft and very serious. “I’m right here, if you need me.”

He drew a surprised breath as he suddenly understood her insistence on getting the sleeping arrangements just right. Lying as close to the bed as she was, her upper body elevated by Trinket’s bulk, she hadn’t needed to move at all in order to reach him. Which meant that it would be equally easy for him to make a grab for her hand in the middle of the night, should he wake in need of the reassurance. He squeezed her hand and for a moment he contemplated the logistics of sleeping like this, fingers entwined with hers. “I know, darling,” he finally said as he let her go. “Thank you. Goodnight.” He reached again for the lamp on the table, extinguishing its flame and taking the sourceless ambient light with it.

“‘Night, Percy,” came the mumbled reply, Vex sounding like she was half asleep already. Another little sigh and a rustle of fabric as she lay her head down, and then the only sound in the darkness was her breath.

Percy thought he might be holding his own breath, just to hear hers better. This had been a terrible idea. It was going to leave him even more twisted up over her than he already was, and he didn’t care. She was here, and she was here for his sake because she cared about him, whatever that might mean to her. Enjoy the feeling of being near her, and leave the rest for some time after their current situation was resolved.

If their current situation was resolved. That little voice of grim pragmatism would not be silenced entirely, but he could banish it to a lonely and echoing corner of his mind where it would be drowned out by Vex’s breathing. (And Trinket’s, of course, far louder to the ears but barely audible to the part of Percy that was actually listening.) There will always be time to worry later, even if there is time for nothing else , he reminded himself. For tonight, I cannot help but hope .

*

The scream that ripped Vex out of sleep was thin and wild, a sound both terrible and familiar. It wasn’t a sound she’d ever heard from Percy before, but over the years she’d grown accustomed enough to hearing her brother scream in his sleep that she knew how to recognize it. It was distinct from a scream of physical pain or waking terror, and far worse than either because it meant someone she loved was being attacked from the inside by an enemy she knew she couldn’t fight. Which didn’t stop her from bolting upright when she heard it, her heart hammering and her blood roaring to leap into the fray. She stretched out, reaching for Percy’s hand and drawing back in confusion when it wasn’t where she’d expected it to be.

It took a moment or two for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, and she mumbled an apology to Trinket as she jabbed a foot in his ribs on her way to a standing position. She could just make out a human silhouette in the bedclothes, a tightly-wrapped figure with hunched shoulders and his back facing her. It shouldn’t have surprised her if she’d actually been thinking about the situation, rather than trying hard to avoid thinking too much about being in Percy’s room. She’d positioned herself at his side as if she were backing up her brother, whose first instinct would have been to reach for her hand when the terror closed in on him. But for Percy, who had been isolated for so long before they met him – and for so long after, even if he didn’t have to be – his first response was to hide.

He was curled in on himself, his lanky body clenched like a fist. The scream had apparently been a one-off, but Vex could still hear him panting, the shallow, panicked breaths interspersed with wounded-animal whimpers that didn’t have enough air behind them to turn into sobs.

Okay, then. A wounded animal was something Vex knew how to approach. “Percy,” she murmured, pitching her voice so low it was barely audible over his breathing. “Percy, it’s all right. You’re safe. I’m right here.” She continued the stream of quiet reassurances as she eased herself onto the bed, slowly and cautiously enough that it barely shifted under her weight.

The panting slowed, if only marginally. Vex kept talking, kept inching closer to him, watching him carefully. There was no physical reaction, no recognition of her presence even when she pulled herself up so she was sitting directly at his back. He was shaking , she realized at this distance, trembling like someone in the grip of a fever. Still moving with slow delicacy, she laid the barest touch against his shoulder.

A flinch, a gasp, a tiny cry, but before she could pull away there was also a hand on her wrist, holding her in a bone-crushing grip. She suppressed a startled sound of her own. Even in sleep Percy’s reaction time was disconcerting, and she could only hope that he was conscious enough to stop and assess the situation before trying to attack. Defending herself from a friend she was trying to help wasn’t how Vex had intended to spend her night, and oh gods, did he still sleep with a gun under his pillow?

If he did, he didn’t reach for it now. He didn’t make any sort of move, in fact, and between one frenzied heartbeat and the next Vex realized that he wasn’t pinning down an attacker so much as he was clinging to a lifeline. She had promised her hand would be there if he needed it, and he was taking her up on that offer, if more forcefully than she would have liked. “Not so tightly, darling,” she said, resting her hand more firmly on his shoulder and giving it a little squeeze. She brushed her free hand over his hair. “I promise I won’t slip away that easily.”

Percy made a small and helpless sound that made her heart ache as he loosened his grip, his hand sliding down to clutch at hers far less aggressively. His body tilted backwards, leaning towards hers and stopping just short of touching her, needing reassurance but not quite willing to seek it. “That’s right,” she murmured, closing that last little gap so his head rested on her knee. “It’s all right. I’ve got you.”

She didn’t know just how long she sat there, stroking Percy’s hair and continuing to whisper to him until she’d practically hypnotized herself. Gradually, she felt the terror lose its grip on him, felt the shaking stop and his breathing slowly return to normal. The knot he had tied himself into collapsed and he slumped against her with a little sigh, finally starting to sink back into real, honest sleep. Vex breathed out a muzzy, tender sigh of her own. “Get some rest, darling.” She gently let his head fall back to the pillow and began to draw away, bending to kiss his temple as she did so. “We both need it.”

The hand that rested on hers had become so soft that she had almost forgotten it was there, but now the grip tightened once again. Not a grab of desperation this time but a gentle tug, holding her by request rather than by force. Stay . The word was as clear as if Percy had whispered it in Vex’s ear, and just as hard to resist as such a request would have been.

This was the worst possible idea. She had thought that inviting herself up to his room was the worst possible idea, but no. She was a proud member of Vox Machina; she should know by now that there was always a worse idea waiting in the wings. There was always something else waiting to break her heart just that little bit more. It wasn’t as if he knew what he was asking, or how close it was to what she wanted him to ask, and even if he did, would she really have been able to begrudge him in this situation? Whatever else he was or could be, he was a friend in need asking for a little comfort. She wasn’t going to refuse him just to save herself the sting of having him so close and yet so far. “As if I would turn down the opportunity to crawl into bed with you,” she said softly, turning the honest truth into a joke as she had grown so accustomed to doing with him.

She stayed at his back as she worked her way under the blankets to lay down beside him. It was tempting to move to his other side, so tempting to position herself where he could put his arms around her if he felt the need, but she wasn’t going to be quite that cruel to herself. Staying where she was would be enough, and too much, and nowhere near enough, all at the same time.

Her brooding was interrupted by a loud exhale that sent a gust of warm air over the back of her neck as one side of the bed dipped slightly. Trinket sighed again when she turned to look at him, resting his chin on the edge of the bed and giving her the mournful look of a bear who had just realized his sleeping companion had abandoned him. Vex let out a silent laugh. That’s right, dear. Keep things in perspective for me . She reached a hand out and beckoned to him. “Come on up; there’s plenty of room and I’m sure neither of us would mind a little extra company.” And maybe I’ll feel less like I’m taking advantage .

Trinket didn’t have to be asked twice. For all his lumbering bulk he was surprisingly delicate as he pulled himself up onto the bed, knowing that such an invitation was always dependent on his ability to share without pushing everyone else around. Still, the bed rocked and shifted as he settled himself at their feet, and Vex put a steadying hand on Percy’s shoulder again in the hopes of deflecting any kind of startled reaction. The bear curled up and draped his head over Percy’s lower legs in a protective gesture that would have made Vex jealous if it didn’t ease her mind so much. “Good boy. Keep him safe.”

And for all she kept telling herself she wouldn’t get too close, she found herself unable to resist wrapping her arms around Percy and hugging him as tightly as she could for a few moments. When she loosened her grip she felt his entire body make the final collapse into true and restful sleep and, with her head pressed against his back, she gratefully followed him.

*

It was morning. How she could tell inside the mansion Vex was never quite sure, but some quality of the light or the sound or perhaps just the feel of the air here was enough to mimic the passage of time in the world outside and tell her that it was time to wake up. She felt the dawn clearly, and just as clearly she resisted it, nestling closer to the warm back curled up beside her and breathing in a pleasantly familiar scent. There was no reason to wake up now, no reason to leave this bed and face the world. Not when she was finally exactly where she wanted to be. She pulled herself in close against Percy, pressing a kiss just behind his ear before settling her head against his shoulder. He didn’t stir, which was understandable, considering…

Considering the rough night he had . The events of the previous night unfolded from Vex’s memory, the context of exactly how she’d wound up in Percy’s bed coming back to her with a jolt. The contentment that had suffused her upon waking evaporated, leaving in its place something low and hollow. She had told herself so insistently that she would be fine in the morning, that the ache of almost wouldn’t haunt her, that she had made herself believe it, and now she was paying the price.

She should move. At the very least, she should stop clinging to Percy and feeling like every second she spent there was going to make eventually pulling away even worse. But it felt so right to be there with him, so utterly perfect that she was almost angry at the unfairness of it. And even aside from that, he had asked her to stay. She would torture herself with getting almost what she wanted, if only because he’d asked her to.

She sighed again, more solemnly this time, as she tried to turn her thoughts away from her own self-indulgent misery. It was, as they had so eloquently reminded each other last night, when the world seemed warmer and safer, time to look to the future, to hope instead of regretting. Vex spent a good thirty seconds of optimism before remembering that the future currently held an ancient white dragon. A tiny, quiet sound of despair. Was nothing in her life ever going to be simple again?

The answer was evidently ‘not any time soon,’ because that was the moment Percy chose to start waking up. A slow breath, a drowsy mumble, and he stretched out, tipping his shoulders back, leaning more thoroughly into Vex’s embrace. She froze instinctively and absurdly, as if she was trying to escape the notice of a passing guard. For a moment she half convinced herself that if she was still and silent enough he might not know she was there, saving everyone a great deal of discomfort and awkwardness.

The hand that had gripped hers so tightly last night reached up again, this time drawing a slow caress down the arm she’d wrapped around Percy’s shoulders until his fingers entwined with hers. No chance of going unnoticed, then. She remained still and silent, barely breathing, as he brought her hand to his cheek and nuzzled it as though he might kiss it. He sighed, and there was a softness to it that Vex recognized all too well. It was the same feeling that had run through her when she was half awake, the warmth and contentment and rightness of being where she was before full consciousness corrected her pleasant half-dream.

She wondered where Percy thought he was right now.

The same feeling, and with the same short lifespan to it. It was only a few long seconds before he froze as she had. Vex could imagine his eyes snapping open, wildly darting about in what must have been to him absolute darkness for some clue as to where he was and what was happening. “Good morning,” she said quietly, because someone had to say something eventually.

She felt him take a slow, centering breath as he released her hand, folding his own against his chest. The tension in his body was worried and wary, but not fearful. “There’s a bear on my legs,” he said finally. The bear in question whuffed and rolled over, hoping someone would scratch his belly.

Vex was vaguely aware that she hadn’t moved, and even more vaguely aware that she should. “Yes there is,” she said. When the obvious follow-up question didn’t come, she answered it anyway. “He was worried about you again.”

“Good man.” Percy’s voice was flat and distracted, a tone Vex recognized as I am trying very hard to seem unperturbed while I figure out what’s going on . He cleared his throat. “This is quite possibly the worst thing to say in this situation, but I am… not entirely sure how we got here.”

Vex chose her words carefully. She knew from experience that you were screaming in your sleep was an unsettling thing to hear upon waking. “You were sleeping… quite poorly. Trinket wasn’t the only one who was worried.”

He took her meaning well enough. “Oh.” For the first time, he began to draw away from her. “If I’m not entirely disoriented, I believe we established that the light is on what is currently your side?”

He was radiating discomfort now, that old stiffness that he had only mostly left behind over the years. For good reason, Vex would admit, but when compared to that brief moment of cozy perfection just before it was still jarring. “Yes, right.” She scrambled away from him, reaching for the lamp on the table. It was a fair distance away; the three of them had migrated to the very center of the bed in the night like shipwreck survivors on a raft trying to keep clear of the edges. The unusually clear and steady light rose up at her touch, illuminating the room without being so abruptly bright as to make her flinch. The light fell first on a little wooden box on the table, and without really thinking about it Vex opened it and handed Percy his glasses.

He took them from her without any particular acknowledgement, letting them hang loose in his hand as he folded it back over his knees. He was sitting up with his legs folded to his chest, a less extreme version of the ball he’d been curled up in during his nightmares, shoulders hunched in wary defensiveness. Eventually he brought his other hand up to his face, closing his eyes and breathing slowly. Leaving the new distance between them, Vex carefully avoided noticing the ragged nature of a few of those breaths.

Watching him regain his composure as full consciousness washed over him was even more unsettling than seeing him lose it had been, and it was a sharp reminder that she was an intruder here. The voice in her head that kept telling her to leave was even more insistent now, and now it was ordering her to apologize on her way out. She continued to ignore it, unsure if she was doing so because it was the voice of fear that she wasn’t going to allow to control her or because she was too afraid to follow its sensible advice. He had asked her to stay, and she would do so until he changed his mind.

The space between them felt tangible and deliberate, Percy having drawn himself away from her just enough to be noticeable. It was an impulse Vex recognized, the need to step away from someone without actually stepping away from them. She remembered it clearly from the days when it was just her and Vax, hiding in the forests together and pretending to each other that they weren’t scared. It was such a regular occurrence for one of them to wake the other up by screaming or sobbing or just quietly panicking that it had become a grim running joke, with halfhearted arguments about whose turn it was tonight. Vax was always comforting, and there was always that first moment on waking when she needed him desperately, needed the other half of her heart wrapped around her the way she did for him when it was his turn, but… well, she knew what Percy was feeling right now. Desperate, and hating the desperation even more than the original blow. Don’t leave me, but don’t look at me .

After another moment or so of this, Percy shook his head. Still folded in on himself, he uncovered his face and turned it to her with a faint smile. “I am being a terribly ungracious host,” he said. “Not that I’m entirely sure of what etiquette dictates the duties of a host to be in this situation. A terrible gap in my education.” He leaned forward to dig his long and graceful fingers into Trinket’s fur, which Trinket no doubt thought was exactly the duty of a host in this situation.

Vex smiled back, probably just as faintly. She wanted to offer him some words of comfort, some reassuring reminder that she would never think less of him just because she’d seen him vulnerable. She bit down on the words, knowing they wouldn’t have the desired effect. They never had on her. “I’m sure I can accept the blame for any breach,” she said. “I did impose my company on you.”

Percy let out a little breath of laughter, a shy and fluttering sound. He brushed his sleep-tousled hair out of his face, and for the first time Vex noticed how much better he looked than he had last night. There were still shadows under his eyes, and something hollow in his face, but now he merely looked like a man who’d had a rough night, rather than one who’d cheated death. She fought back the desire to reach across the bed and smooth his hair down, aware that she’d have done so without hesitation if they were in almost any other situation. “How are you feeling?” she finally asked.

He rested his chin on his arm. “Contemplative,” he said. “And… perhaps a little self-conscious.” A tilt to his head so he was looking at her sideways, with an awkward expression that was nevertheless more inviting than she would have expected. Finding the mad and self-deprecating humor in the situation, as he so often did. “Although I imagine that’s not the sort of answer you’re looking for, is it?”

No, but that was an answer in itself. Still rough enough to dodge the subject, but in a good enough place to admit that he was dodging it. That was something , at least. His warmth went some way to bridging that horrible distance between them, and Vex risked inching closer and touching the hand that was petting Trinket. She was rewarded with what she’d come to think of as Percy’s Oh? All right, then , expression, the look of someone who wasn’t quite sure how he’d come to be in the current situation but was nevertheless more than happy to go along with it. It was the look he got every time she hugged him or kissed his cheek or showed him any real affection at all, as if it was a pleasant surprise every time. As if he was so mired in his own troubles – of which he had more than his share, in his defense – that he hadn’t even noticed how often it happened. “There’s no point in being self-conscious around me, darling,” she said lightly, unable to resist a little wink. “There are far too few secrets between us by now.”

There was tender irony to Percy’s laugh, though he didn’t follow it with words. Vex could feel him soften beside her, and for a moment she held out the fleeting hope that he might move closer as she had, letting his shoulder and side rest against hers. When he didn’t move, she sighed internally, unsurprised. This was the way it always was with them. He enjoyed her little intimacies, even seemed to welcome them, but he never seemed to be willing to reach out himself. He didn’t think of her the way she thought about him, and that was just something she was going to have to accept. Eventually.

She could feel him wrestling with himself now, trying to say something. “I am better than I could be, I know that,” he finally managed. “Last night was… well, you know, don’t you? You were there. There was darkness, and there was pain, and there was terror. And then there was a voice.” He turned to smile at her now, his entire face gone soft and adoring, a look that she had never seen him turn on anyone else, a look that made it harder to tell herself that she was exaggerating or misinterpreting his affection for her. Shy and cautious, the hand that was brushing against hers reached out to take it, letting their fingers entwine. His voice was equally soft. “It would seem you have a gift for bringing me back. Thank you.”

Vex squeezed his hand tightly, saying nothing. Will you stay, then, since I brought you back? The gentleness of him, this unexpected touch, seemed to wait for an answer. She should hug him. She should wrap her arms around him, she should kiss him, she should…

I should have told you. It’s yours .

Should was a complicated word. “I’m glad you’re back,” she said quietly. That at least she could repeat where she knew he could hear it.

The silence stretched almost to the breaking point. Vex felt like she was holding her breath, waiting for some kind of sign, some push that would spur her to action because watching him die and return to life had somehow not been push enough. She had been so vividly reminded that there was no guarantee of a tomorrow for any of them, and yet she continued to act as if she had all the time in the world to get her own act together. And yet… Not now , she told herself. Someday, perhaps, if there is some kind of sign, but not now .

The only sign at the moment was a questioning grumble. Two people had now stopped petting Trinket, and to his mind that meant that something had gone wrong somewhere. Vex didn’t need a spell to recognize the look on his face, an expression that clearly said you’ve been awake long enough for it to be breakfast time now .

It was enough to break whatever spell was holding her frozen, and it seemed to shake something loose in Percy as well. “Yes, thank you to you, too,” he muttered, giving Trinket a solid pat behind the ears. He made a coughing sound that might have been nervous laughter, and he released Vex’s hand in the same slow, measured way he had when he had woken up and realized where he was. Color rose in his face, and he ducked his head away from her. Embarrassed , Vex realized. Not the hard, angry feeling of disgrace he’d shown on having his weakness witnessed, but something as soft and shy as his voice had become. There’s someone in my bed, and I don’t know how to react to that .

Vex very carefully hid her smile. Put Percy in a social situation where there were very specific rules and even more specific ways to break them and he was the most unbearably, insufferably smooth and charming person she had ever met, but in pretty much any situation he didn’t have a script for he became ridiculously easy to fluster. It was a failing that all of them had enjoyed teasing him over at some point, with impatience and disdain that had slowly evolved into affectionate amusement at one more odd little quirk from a member of their odd little family. Even losing her damned fool heart to him wasn’t going to be enough to make Vex stop finding that entertaining any time soon. It was almost enough to make her forget that she was just as disoriented by the situation and how to react, if for very different reasons.

Finally, reluctantly, she took pity on both of them. “I think we should go,” she forced herself to say. She echoed his uncomfortable laugh-cough. “Busy day ahead. Lots to prepare. Or over-prepare.”

“Quite.” She could see Percy latching onto the lifeline and the escape route from this conversation that neither of them actually seemed to want to end. “You know I don’t wish to drive you out, of course, but perhaps… sooner may be better than later? Before the others all begin waking up?”

Are you that embarrassed to be seen with me? Vex was tempted to joke, if only to see what color he would turn. “I suspect you’re right,” she said aloud.

“I’ve enjoyed your company, truly,” Percy pressed on, begging her pardon for offense she hadn’t taken. “But you…” Another breathy laugh, less nervous and more resigned now. “You know how they are. How all of us are, truly. Somebody’s going to get exactly the wrong idea and run with it, and none of us need that on top of everything else.”

“You’re not wrong,” Vex said, and if it came out a little ruefully he didn’t seem to notice. As far as she was concerned, the only problem with their friends getting exactly the wrong idea would be that it was the wrong idea. Let them talk, if only there was something for them to talk about .

Actually putting her feet on the floor felt like breaking something, popping some thin and tenuous bubble that let the rest of the world in. Vex felt suddenly graceless, entirely too conscious of the stiffness in her body from curling it around Percy’s and the disgraceful early-morning state of her hair. She smoothed down the worst of it with her hand, stealing a glance back at the bed and hoping Percy hadn’t noticed her disarray. Not that he ever would, or at least she knew he wouldn’t care if he did. Percy, who had seen her worry about looking put-together and had waved it away, who had told her that the people who might care about such things weren’t worth her.

Percy, who was currently stumbling out of bed behind her, struggling to disentangle himself from the bedclothes and from Trinket’s affections. He looked just as rumpled as she did, tugging at the neck of his pajamas and finally putting his glasses back on. In a moment of complete unfairness from the universe, he managed to make being a complete mess look endearing, perhaps even a bit alluring. He rounded the bed towards her, keeping a conversational but comfortable distance. The smile he turned on her now was the usual one he wore when they were playing around, not the strange combination of shyness and sincerity he’d looked at her with just moments ago. His uncertainty was gone, which made Vex pause to wonder what he’d really been uncertain about to begin with. “I’ve not grown entirely uncouth, no matter how hard you people have tried,” he said. “And even if it would be counterproductive to actually walk you home, I can at least accompany you to the door.”

Insufferably charming , Vex thought, perfectly content to suffer through it nevertheless. The fact that the door was perhaps ten feet away at the outside was irrelevant. “Such a gentleman,” she said, inviting him to fall into step beside her as she stepped forward, Trinket instantly at her other side.

“A baroness should expect nothing less,” he told her, leaning in fondly. “She will often end up with less, granted, but it’s good to keep expectations high.”

Vex beamed, unable to suppress the little rush of glee that rose up every time he was the one to bring up her title. “I’m going to make you regret that someday, you know.”

The smile didn’t waver. “I know.”

Vex hesitated at the threshold, and beside her she felt Percy do the same. There should have been more time, a longer space to linger between the bed and the door. It was a silly thought, of course; it wasn’t like there was anything here to regret the loss of, and this wasn’t even a goodbye. They would see each other again in the short time it would take for them both to make themselves presentable and clamber down to breakfast to regroup with the others. All of them together, not just her and Percy. It would be a more… appropriate gathering. Less tempting. Safer.

Percy reached past her, his hand going towards the hook on the wall. He took down the robe she’d worn the previous night and held it out to her, blushing faintly. “It’s still going to be cold outside,” he said.

Right. Safer except for the dragon waiting for them in the frozen wasteland outside. Funny how she’d allowed herself to forget that for a moment. Vex took the robe from him and held it, remembering the spectral chill that had plagued her when she’d wandered away from her room. When the word she’d so painstakingly carved into Fenthras had echoed hollowly in the empty air and felt like a weight she shouldn’t have tried to carry. Before he’d reminded that, in a way, she wasn’t carrying it alone. She folded the robe over her arm. “Not so cold as it was before,” she said. “You’ve done quite a bit to warm me up.”

She had chosen her words carefully, and was rewarded with the sight of a deeper pink coloring Percy’s ears. It was a cheap victory, perhaps, but it was still enough to make her smile and feel a little more normal about the whole situation. She gave his hand one last squeeze. “I’ll see you shortly, darling,” she said, and opened the door.

The catch had barely loosed itself before Trinket shouldered past her, poking his nose out of the door first and making a thorough check of the hall before giving her an all-clear grunt. “Good boy,” Vex murmured, patting his shoulder. There were times when Trinket was surprisingly conscious of the need for discretion, though she wondered if he had any understanding of the reasons behind it.

Behind her, Percy murmured something that sounded like agreement, or might have been I look forward to it . Vex glanced over her shoulder at him as she made her way back to her own room, catching the soft fondness in his face before he startled at her attention like a man who realized he’d been caught staring. He flicked an eyebrow at her as he ducked his head, an admission of guilt, and she couldn’t resist responding with a grin and another wink. If he was going to watch her back, she was grateful for that. And if he was just enjoying watching her walk away, she wasn’t going to complain about that, either.

The hall remained empty and Vex made it back to her own room undisturbed, with no difficult questions to answer. Not bothering with the light, she flopped down on her bed with a heavy sigh and indulged in a moment of dramatics. “Why does everything have to be so bloody complicated ,” she groaned at the ceiling. The ceiling declined to answer. She sat up again after only a minute or two of brooding, head too full of everything else that was wrong with her world to linger on this old affliction. “I know, dear,” she said to Trinket, who was watching her with an all-too-familiar look of Mom’s being weird again . She held his face between her hands and pressed her forehead against his. “Come on, then; let’s go kill something evil. That will be…” She almost said ‘less complicated’ before she remembered exactly who she would be fighting alongside and what kind of plans they’d already made. “Well, it’ll still be complicated. But a kind of complicated that makes more sense.”

A calm descended over her as she washed and dressed, the cool intensity of purpose that preceded a battle. A banked fire, waiting to be called down and unleash its wrath in a rain of burning, cleansing fury. She gripped Fenthras tightly, its weight already familiar and reassuring.

And reminding. The freshly-carved letters just above the grip seemed to glow, a firm reminder of the new resolution she’d made, the change she was driving herself towards. It was going to be a long road getting there, apparently. “Working on it,” she promised herself aloud, trying to shake the anger and send it back to where it had come from. She touched the broom she’d already slung over her shoulder. Death From Above in one hand and Forgive in the other, and her in the middle learning to balance them. Percy would appreciate the poetry of that, and the irony of his having inspired both.

I forgive you, but I cannot let you leave .

She should have shown him her handiwork last night, when she was being restless and he was being optimistic.

Another should . This one would be easier to rectify, though, she told herself, vowing that she would do so as soon as they had a private moment that wasn’t on the cusp of a battle for their lives. If she could give him nothing else, she could give him her gratitude. And maybe that would be enough for her.

For now, I cannot help but hope .