It wasn't supposed to be this way.
No matter how much she tried, Vex couldn't keep that thought out of her head. It had been six months, six long months, yet sometimes it felt like barely even a moment had passed. Like it was still that horrible day where everything had changed, her entire world collapsing around her in an instant.
"Where are the others?"
Vex's eyes burned for a moment, but she quickly blinked away the tears. She couldn't afford to let herself start crying again. She'd learned months ago that once she let herself start then she wouldn't be able to stop. And that's not what Whitestone needed from her, not now.
They needed her to be strong. Lady Vex'ahlia, Baroness of the Third House of Whitestone. Grand Mistress of the Grey Hunt. Champion of Pelor. Wife of—
No. She flinched, mentally correcting herself. She was nobody's wife, not any longer. Widow. The word she needed to use was widow.
It still didn't feel real sometimes, that he was gone. That they were gone. She knew that all of them would have said the price was one they were willing to pay, considering what the stakes had been, but that didn't make it hurt any less.
Six months ago, her life had been perfect. She'd had her husband, her brother, her family. And now her life was shattered, so many people she cared about dead and the ones who were still alive scattered around the world like dust in the wind, and she was trying to pick up the pieces. For better or for worse, she had to keep going.
Vex studied her reflection in the mirror critically. The dark circles under her eyes were mostly hidden under a thin layer of powder. It wouldn't fool anyone who knew her extremely well, but there were very few of them in Whitestone. Hells, there were very few of them in all of Tal'Dorei, if she was honest. Not any longer.
Besides, it was the normal people of the city who she needed to stay strong for, the ones who looked at her in awe when they thought she couldn't see them and tended to hold her up on a pedestal. They were the ones who mattered. All it would do was hurt them if they could see the real her. It was better to hide behind a mask.
Cassandra had taught her that within the first week.
Vex eyed her warily for a moment and carefully set down her mug of tea. She didn't particularly care for the taste, but it had been one of Percy's favorites. The memories that the smell brought back was more than worth the slightly bitter aftertaste that it left in her mouth every time she drank it.
"I'd assumed as much," Vex said carefully, still eying her former sister-in-law. "Is it going to be very different than last year's?"
The mid-summer festival the year before had been almost overwhelming, the first one the city had held since before the Briarwoods had come, and everyone had gone overboard when it came to the celebration. Vex's memories of it were honestly somewhat vague. She hadn't had any particular role to play in it, and an entire day of wine and sweets and stolen kisses had made the details fade in her mind.
Percy had asked her to marry him that night, as the two of them had stumbled into her mostly-finished home, drunk on wine and lust and love. That part she would never forget.
Cassandra glanced up from her papers, an expression flickering across her face that Vex couldn't quite interpret before it was gone. Then she nodded. "Yes and no," she said, her eyes darting back to the papers she'd been reading. "They want to have a memorial ceremony. For my brother and everyone else who was lost."
Vex wrapped her hands around her mug, letting the warmth seep into her skin. "A memorial ceremony," she repeated. She tried to keep her voice calm, but judging by the slight grimace that Cassandra didn't quite hide, she suspected she hadn't succeeded. "It's been six months. Why do they want to have another ceremony now?"
For a moment, she didn't think Cassandra was going to answer. Then the younger woman sighed, and for just an instant her mask cracked. Vex forgot how young she was sometimes, how much she'd lost in such a short amount of time.
"It's traditional," Cassandra said, a tiny waver in her voice. Then she closed her eyes, taking in a deep breath, and the moment of weakness was over. When she opened her eyes again, the heartbroken twenty-year-old was gone, replaced by a hardened ruler who looked like she'd been carved out of stone.
Vex squeezed her mug a little tighter.
"It's traditional," Cassandra repeated, and this time her voice was firm. "Surely you remember the memorial ceremony that was held at last year's festival? For those lost thanks to the Briarwoods and their actions?"
There was a tiny hesitation when she said "their actions," so small that Vex expected no one else would have picked up on it. Vex knew better. There was still a part of Cassandra that regretted her part in the Briarwood's destruction of Whitestone, and there always would be.
Vex knew all about that kind of regret.
"Well then," Vex said, her voice not nearly as firm as Cassandra's. "If it's a Whitestone tradition, that's all there is to it."
Cassandra tilted her head, like she was trying to pull Vex's actual thoughts on the matter from her head. It reminded her so much of Percy that it took Vex's breath away.
"I should get going," Vex said, hurriedly standing up. She almost dumped the remainder of her tea in her lap in her rush. "I should go check on the bakery. I promised Keyleth that I'd—"
She trailed off abruptly, the last conversation she'd had with Keyleth flashing into her head without any warning.
Keyleth didn't even try to hide the tears in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Vex, but I need some time. I love you, you know that I love you, but you look... you look so much like him. Can I please have some time?"
"Vex'ahlia?" Cassandra half stood up from her chair. She looked almost worried, emotions slipping through her usually carefully placed mask again. "Are you feeling well?"
Vex cleared her throat. "Sorry," she said, her voice a bit hoarser than she liked hearing it. "I promised Keyleth that I'd make sure the bakery kept running even without us seeing to the day-to-day things. I should go check on it."
Then she turned and all but fled the room, not even glancing over her shoulder as she did so.
At the time, she'd thought it was the cruelest twist of fate. Looking back, she wondered if maybe it wasn't fate interfering in a completely different way. She would have done anything to bring him back. Anything. But the amount of magic it would have taken to bring him back from nothing was beyond even those who might have preyed on her grief.
Not for the first time, Vex couldn't help but think she understood Delilah Briarwood's actions and where the motivation for them had come from. I broke the world for us.
In another world, Vex might have done the same.
Her hand tightened around the quill she was holding, so hard that she heard it crack just a little. She immediately loosened her grip, trying to calm her breathing. She still had a few scars on her hand from the time she'd punched her mirror, a month or so after everything had happened; the last thing she needed was to try and remove shards of a quill from her skin as well.
She forced herself to go back to writing, not even entirely aware of what she was saying. It didn't matter. It was the act of putting words on paper that was important, a mostly mindless activity that would help her stop thinking about other things at least for a while.
Someone knocked on the front door.
Vex looked up from the letter she'd been writing to Taryon, a mess of "I miss him." and "I miss you." and "When do you think you can you manage a visit?" that she was probably going to burn like most of the others she'd attempted to write over the past few months. She couldn't remember the last time someone had come to visit her. There were a few servants who she'd hired to come by during the day to help with cleaning and such, but she'd gotten used to spending her evenings alone.
She glanced at the window. The curtains were pulled shut, but not a hint of light was showing under or above them. It had to be late.
There was another knock on the door, this one a bit harder than the previous one.
"Coming!" Vex called out, standing up from the small desk she'd been sitting at and stretching. Her back popped a bit, a sure sign that she'd lost track of time.
Her footsteps echoed slightly as she made her way down the hallway towards the door. She still wasn't quite used to how quiet it was in her home now, without anyone to share it with her.
There was yet another knock on the door.
"Calm down!" Vex shouted, a hint of irritation in her voice as she made her way up to the door and started unbolting it. "I said that I was—"
Cassandra was standing on the other side of the door, her face pale and dark shadows under her eyes.
Vex swallowed the rest of her words.
"Cassandra?" she asked, blinking in her surprise. "What are you doing here?"
Her eyes flickered past Cassandra into the shadows, where she could see a hint of movement. Guards, no doubt, following the Lady of Whitestone from a distance to make certain nothing happened to her.
"May I come in?" Cassandra asked, her voice as calm and steady as it had ever been.
Her hands were shaking like a leaf in the wind.
"Of course," Vex said, trying to hide her confusion behind formality as she stepped aside so that Cassandra could come inside. She glanced at the suspiciously Trish-shaped shadow and nodded before stepping inside and closing the door behind her.
Vex stood there frozen for a long moment. Then her brain kicked in and she hurriedly sat down beside Cassandra.
"Hey, hey," she said, as soothingly as she could. She hesitated just a second before tentatively putting her arm around Cassandra in a half-hug.
Cassandra made a pained sound and then turned towards her, wrapping her arms around Vex in a tight hug as she buried her face against her chest.
Vex froze, more in shock than anything else, before she hugged Cassandra back.
A thousand empty platitudes rushed through her mind, and she discarded all of them within seconds. She knew from personal experience that there were some things words wouldn't make better, so she didn't even try. She just made a few soothing sounds and let her cry against her chest.
And if her own eyes teared up a bit, well, no one had to know.
Vex wasn't certain how much time passed. Seconds, minutes, hours. All she knew was that eventually, after what felt like a lifetime, Cassandra's body finally shopped shaking.
"I'm sorry," Cassandra said quietly as she finally pulled away from Vex. She was clearly trying to slip back into her public persona, but it wasn't working as well as she'd probably intended considering her eyes were red and her voice was raw. "I hadn't intended to—"
She trailed off somewhat awkwardly.
Vex smiled. "Hey, it's fine," she said as gently as she could. "We're family."
That same expression Vex had seen earlier flashed across Cassandra's face again, and it almost broke Vex's heart that after all this time she still didn't know the other woman well enough to decipher it. Cassandra didn't say anything, though, she just looked down at her lap.
The two of them sat there in silence for a moment. It was a comfortable one, at least at first, but Vex could feel it slowly starting to turn awkward. "Want to talk about it?" she asked.
Cassandra hesitated, and for an instant Vex knew she was going to refuse. And then she surprised her.
"I've been having dreams," she said quietly. She pointedly didn't look at Vex when she spoke, but it didn't matter. Vex didn't need to see her face to hear the pain in her voice.
Vex sighed. "I assume you mean nightmares?"
Cassandra nodded. Her hand reached up to rub her chest, and Vex flinched. For just a second, she could see an arrow protruding out of Cassandra's skin, two small armored bodies lying cold and still on the floor of a dark cavern.
For the first time, Vex couldn't help but wonder if the castle was as quiet at night as her own home was. If Cassandra's nights were as haunted as hers, memories of what used to have been colliding with what was now.
"Want to stay here for the night?" Vex asked.
That same unreadable expression flashed across Cassandra's face again. "It wouldn't be proper," she said.
Vex raised her eyebrows. "We're family," she repeated again. "I don't think anyone would mind."
Cassandra opened her mouth as if to argue some more. Then she abruptly closed it and instead just let out an exhausted-sounding sigh. "Do you know what?" she asked quietly. "I think you may be right."
"I'm always right," Vex said cheekily, and Cassandra let out a soft huff of laughter.
Cassandra was as prim and proper in her sleep as she was when she was awake. Vex had halfway expected her to be like Percy, who had sprawled out like a child the moment he closed his eyes. Like with many other things, though, she was nothing like him in that regard.
In some ways, it made it easier. As much as she missed him, Vex wanted to think of Cassandra as being her own person, not just an extension of her brother. She was a smart, talented woman in her own right, and it wasn't fair to her to compare her to anyone else.
Cassandra had been a lifesaver for Vex over the last few months. She'd helped her pick up the pieces of her past life and put them together into something new. Vex knew damn well that things wouldn't have gone nearly as smoothly for her without Cassandra's help, and she would forever be thankful to her for it.
Beside her, Cassandra whimpered. It was quiet, so soft that Vex would have thought it was her imagination if she hadn't been listening for it. But in the stillness of the room, it stood out.
"You're fine," Vex said quietly, shifting so that she could put an arm around Cassandra. It was somewhat awkward, thanks to the angle, but it still worked.
Beside her, Cassandra went quiet again. Her breathing was still slow and steady, a sure sign that she hadn't actually woken up.
Cassandra rolled over slightly, shifting in her sleep so that her face was turned toward Vex instead of away from her.
Vex felt her breath catch in her throat.
Cassandra's face was smooth in sleep, the faint wrinkles around her eyes that were always there when she was awake gone for once. She looked younger than Vex was used to seeing her, more like the young woman she actually was. Her hair was spread out around her on the pillow, and in the dim light the shock of white running through it was almost invisible.
Somehow, in the almost two years since they had met, Vex had never noticed just how beautiful she was.
Another whimper slipped out of Cassandra's mouth, and before she quite realized what she was doing Vex leaned over and pressed a quick kiss on her forehead. It was quick and mostly innocent, a reassurance more than anything else, but a burst of something unexpected flared through Vex's entire body as her lips met Cassandra's skin.
For just a moment, a part of her wondered what it would be like to do this forever. To have Cassandra by her side, keeping her company night and day so that neither of them had to be alone.
Cassandra shifted slightly, her eyes flickering open. "Vex?"
"Go back to sleep," Vex said quietly. She let her eyes drift over Cassandra's face, truly noticing the dark circles under her eyes for the first time. Just how long had she been having nightmares that kept her awake at night?
"Will you be here in the morning?" Cassandra asked drowsily, clearly still half-asleep. Her eyes flickered shut again, her breathing evening out almost immediately.
Vex froze for an instant, a pang running through her chest as she remembered asking Percy that same question, the first night they had shared a bed. It had been under significantly less chaste circumstances, admittedly, but still.
With a tired smile, she pressed another kiss against Cassandra's forehead. This time, the other woman didn't stir.
"Of course I will," Vex whispered, so quietly that it was barely more than a breath of air. "Where else would I be?"