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One Chance

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Cassandra went to the balcony.

The early-morning air was a chill that pressed, insistent, through her light tunic, through the lingering, buoying warmth of the flask she'd downed alone in her room once the danger had passed. Light stretched feebly from the horizon across the city below, dragging long shadows like capes from the backs of the rough-hewn buildings, glinting with unnatural brightness off the few remnants of weatherbeaten whitestone that endured, untouched by the recent destruction and reconstruction alike.

Folding her arms against the cold, she paced in stockinged feet around the periphery of the dark, gleaming stains on the stonework, piecing together the struggle by the smears and spray of droplets, finishing with the smudge of a handprint on the edge of the balcony's railing. Leaning over to look, her stomach tensed and her head spun at the dizzying drop. How they'd survived the fall...


She turned, cold-numbed feet sliding a little on the slick stonework, to see Vex'ahlia standing behind her. She was gripping the edge of the doorframe, white-knuckled fingers clasping the filigree latticework, and for a moment Cassandra saw another hand, for a moment Cassandra saw another presence blocking the doorway, blocking escape. For a moment the drop behind her yawned invitingly.

Only for a moment.

She strode forward, meeting the uncertain smile with one of her own. "I thought you'd all gone to bed. You certainly deserve the rest."

Vex shrugged. There was a careful deliberation to her actions that Cassandra recognized immediately: just a bit beyond tipsy but trying to keep up the appearance of sobriety. "Just needed some air." Releasing her nervous grip on the door, she took a step past Cassandra, frowning at the bloodstains, then turned back, pushing her matted braid out of her eyes. "You look cold, darling. Are you all right?"

Cassandra smiled in response; the expression no longer felt unnatural, but in the cold air she was finding that some of the old stiffness lingered. The now-unblocked doorway was doing a lot to unravel the knots that had been crawling up her spine, and she moved a pace back to reassure herself of its nearness. "How's your brother?"

Another quick glance at the bloodstains, a squaring of her shoulders. "A little embarrassed, I think. And he's still hurt. He didn't look very good when he went off to bed, but hopefully a good night's sleep will do something to dispel that."

"I'm only sorry Whitestone's guards failed so terribly to protect you."

Vex leaned against the stonework of the balcony's railing next to the bloodied handprint, staring off at the city below. "You shouldn't blame yourself, Cassandra, this isn't exactly something you could have foreseen. It would have happened wherever we went. It's not your fault."

"Well, no," Cassandra said. "Actually, in a very real and very legally binding sense, it is precisely my fault as one of the leaders of Whitestone. But I am perfectly happy to offer my apology in a public, legal context without taking on guilt in a private, personal context, if it makes you feel better."

Vex squinted at the horizon, brow furrowing. "Gods, you remind me of your brother sometimes. And believe me, I know exactly how annoying it is to hear that." At Cassandra's silence, Vex drew a hand across her forehead, leaning a little more heavily against the stone. "It's a been a long night and, look, I know we're not around a whole lot, but I just wanted to say, you know, if you ever feel lost or forgotten or... or isolated, I'm happy to talk. I know what that's like. I understand"

The time stretched between them; Cassandra wondered whether Vex thought it was a companionable silence or whether she was just too exhausted and drunk to push past it. Finally, leaning against the latticework doors, Cassandra said, "You fight with a bow."

"And a bear," Vex said, with a smile, then seemed belatedly to register the break in Cassandra's voice, casting a confused glance over her shoulder. "Yes. I fight with a bow."

"Do you use barbed arrows?"

"Sometimes." The moment of realization shuttered Vex's expression. "Cassandra—"

"They're a terrible weapon, used wrongly. You have to pull out the arrows, eventually, and you can't do that without causing more damage. You have to shred your own flesh to save yourself." The ache between her shoulderblades, centered over the pockmarked scarring, pulsed once. Shoulders back, chin high. "I appreciate the thought, but no, I don't think you do understand. Not fully."

"I've been hurt, too," Vex said, defensiveness creeping into her tone, into the tension in her frame. Cassandra recognized in her voice the thrill of unexpected confidence, of honesty, that could only truly emerge in the cold of pre-dawn. "I understand, Cassandra. After all, I died."

"I know. Pike told me, when she was here for a while." Cassandra smiled, felt it pull at the corners of her mouth. "Your brother saved you."

She regretted the barb instantly—cruelty came a little too easily to her, still—when Vex raised both hands to her mouth. But Vex, after a moment, only said with soft intensity, "The guilt is hellish. Knowing he intended to die for me. Knowing there's a part of him that was... that was disappointed when he didn't succeed. For a time, I didn't think we could move past that. Didn't think I could keep pretending everything was all right. If you can forgive Percival for anything, forgive him for sparing you that."

Cassandra forced herself to take a step away from the safety of the open door, toward Vex. "I've forgiven him already." She took a deep breath; a sigh of a laugh chased the exhale. "In a public, legal sense. The private and the personal may have to wait a while longer. It's all right. I have the time, now. We have the time."

Vex glanced again at the blood on the stonework; a shudder ran through her and she rubbed at her arms. "Less time than you think. Trust me. It's dangerous out there. Just be glad you're both around to be awkward and weirdly adversarial with each other. You can deal with the larger picture once the dust settles. One day at a time."

"I am glad," Cassandra said. "That's what hurts. I am so unspeakably happy he's alive. But we've always done things differently in our family, kept that bit of distance. In a strange way, I'm closer to him now, in this second chance, that I ever was before. We'll work things out, in our own time. And I have plenty to keep me busy in the interim." She swiped a hand across her eyes, pushed her hair back over her shoulder. "I appreciate all this, Vex. And I'm sorry I'm not ready to have the talk you want. Some wounds are still a little too raw."

"Believe me, I understand," Vex said again, but the fervor in her voice was undercut by the way her eyes were watering with exhaustion. "Gods, I need to sleep."

"Go ahead," Cassandra said. "Private and public apologies aside, there are some words I need to have with the captain of the guard."

Caught mid-yawn, Vex stared at her. "You're not going to bed? Get some rest, Cassandra. The world will keep turning without you."

Cassandra smiled. "With respect, that's precisely what I'm afraid of."

She watched Vex stumble down the stairs, then turned to the balcony, to the slow writhing fingers of sunlight working their way through the city below. Her city. "Right," she said, softly, resting the smallness of her palm against the smear of blood on white stone. "One day at a time."