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Stuck on You

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PART I

It starts, as some stories do, with two men meeting in a tavern in Westruun.

The term tavern is used loosely, though, because when people hear the word tavern they typically think of dirty, bloody floors and tables that seat dirty, bloody men who drink dirty, bloody drinks, and that is not the sort of establishment that these two particular men would ever be caught dead setting foot in. Gentlemen's club would probably be a better and more accurate description, but perhaps without the half-naked women (or occasionally men) that that particular term usually implies.

The half-naked woman (or occasionally men) are probably there, actually, except they're likely in the back rooms that you have to pay extra for, and neither of these men would go to those rooms as one is, if not happily then at least comfortably, married and the other disdains such practices unless they're blonde, human, and cheap.

Regardless, this is how it starts:

With two men meeting in a tavern-gentlemen's club in Westruun.

Fredrickstein Julius von Musel Hinderiks de Rolo II and Syldor of Syngorn are perhaps not friends, and nor are they quite business partners as up to this point they've yet to have their businesses overlap, but when you're grumpy and entitled nobility you tend to run in the same circles as other grumpy and entitled nobles and so the two of them were familiar if not friendly despite the fact one was a human and one was an Elf; grumpiness, entitlement, and especially nobility are unifying traits regardless of race. As Fredrick saw it, better to associate with Elven nobility than the common riffraff on the streets, and as Syldor saw it, at least this particular human wasn't covered in dirt (which is usually but not always another stipulation in his avoiding rooms with half-naked women (or occasionally men)).

Besides, neither of them have tried to have the other killed yet, an unfortunate occurrence among grumpy and entitled nobles, and so in fact their shared indifference to each other actually probably makes them something close to best friends.

"Fredrick," Syldor greets as the man himself steps into the lounging room they typically share. He'd had to kick someone else out to secure it, which sort of lends a bit to the idea that the two of them like each other a bit more than either will let on, but if the staff doesn't mention it then he won't. "You're looking even older than the last time I saw you."

"Syldor," Fredrick greets in turn, settling into one of the plush leather chairs near the hearth, facing him with a sigh. "I see you're just as much of a prick as you were a year ago."

"I can hardly be blamed for the fact that humans are so fragile, can I?" Syldor asks, sending a meaningful glance to the empty glass tumbler on the table between them and the decanter of whiskey that sits directly in the middle of it, equidistance from the both of them.

"I suppose not, and I suppose that you can hardly be blamed for the rudeness that is so common among Elves either." Fredrick clears his throat and sends his own empty tumbler a heavy look.

Neither men move, either to fill their own glass or the other's.

After nearly a minute of staring at their respective glasses, Syldor finally sighs, "Stubborn vermin."

"Bullheaded Elf," Fredrick accuses, and then picks up a bell that also sits on the table and rings it and the two of them watch, unmoving, as within a few seconds one of the help bustles into the room, bows to them both before pouring whiskey into the tumblers, and then leaves.

"Took him long enough," Syldor says, brow furrowed as he sips his drink.

"Quite," Fredrick agrees.

(They are both, as previously stated, very grumpy, very entitled, and very noble.)

Catching up on business should be a relatively short thing, except that the both of them like to be as distant and vague as possible about everything, trading thinly veiled barbs as often as honest information, and so the actual act of catching up only leaves the two of them a bit more confused about the affairs of the other than they were before except that they're both too polite to admit it and too stubborn to accept it, and so they both learn little to nothing but pretend that they've learned everything in the way that nobles tend to do. Conversation between them is comfortably cool and enjoyable to both men despite this, or perhaps because of it; it's nice to shoot the shit with someone on the same social standing as you without having to fear that what you say will bring about a knife in your back later.

Talk, as it tends to do, eventually strays to their respective families, after they've run out of things to be obtuse about.

"How are the twins, then?" Fredrick asks.

"They're bastards and I hate them," Syldor responds, which is his usual answer. "The girl one ran away over the summer and brought a bear back with her. I'd sort of hoped it'd eat her, but alas, my luck regarding the two of them continues to be poor."

"The girl one," Fredrick chortles. "That one's Vex'ahlia, correct?"

"Sure," Syldor says. "We'll go with that."

"How you still get them confused continues to astound me. It's not like you've got seven to keep track of," Fredrick boasts, glad to be able to one-up the Elf, even if it's only in how difficult having multiple children is. "I know the names of all of mine."

"But do you remember which child has which name?" Syldor asks, crossing his arms.

Fredrick shrugs. "I don't need to. When I want a specific one's attention they all respond to Hey You."

"Seven," Syldor says, a little horrified. He can hardly keep up with two troublemakers, much less a whole slew of them. "How do you keep on top of them all?"

"That's what wives are for," Fredrick responds. "Almost one less, though; a fortnight ago the third one set himself and half the library on fire."

"Didn't he set himself on fire last year?" Syldor asks.

"Yes," Fredrick sighs, "and the fifth and sixth children as well. At least, I think it was the fifth and sixth. Several of them were on fire, anyway. They're mostly just numbers at this point."

"The girl one walked out her classes and told me to 'shove it up my arse' when I confronted her," Syldor claims, sensing the turn of the conversation is beginning to become a competition, which he's determined to win.

"The third one made a stink bomb that was accidentally set off during a dinner with some visiting dignitaries. The entire castle smelt so strongly of garlic that Lord Briarwood had to leave lest he get ill," Fredrick grumbles, warming up to the idea of complaining, which is something that nobles often do but rarely so openly or candidly.

"She showed up with the bear to the banquet we threw for Sovereign Uriel and the damn thing ate at the table with us," Syldor growls, temper rising as he remembers the way the beast had plowed noisily through everything that had been put in front of him and half the things on the plates of other people at either side.

"He never leaves his bloody workshop, and when he does I always end up wishing he'd just go back to it."

"She tracks mud and twigs all through the halls!"

"He always smells of smoke and black powder!"

The two of them fall silent after their respective outbursts, stewing angrily in their child-inflicted misery, Syldor having rarely put to voice all his frustrations with the girl one and Fredrick apparently only just having realized how difficult the third one is.

"If I could just ship her off somewhere," Syldor says, glaring into his tumbler, which by now is nearly empty. Pretenses dropped, he pulls the decanter over to him himself and pours his own drink. "She keeps threatening to run away but she always comes back."

"He's always doing things but he never actually does anything," Fredrick says, reaching for the decanter when Syldor is done with it and pouring himself another drink as well. "Now that the first one has an heir and the line is secure he just tinkers all day with no regard for his social life, which wouldn't bother me except that it means he's always home and always underfoot."

"If I could just get her out of my hair," Syldor groans. "Make her someone else's problem."

"If I could just get him out of the castle," Fredrick sighs. "Distract him with something else before he blows it up."

There is a pause.

A long, meaningful pause.

Syldor glances up at Fredrick. Fredrick glances up at Syldor. They stare at each other for a long moment.

"The heir has an heir, you said?" Syldor asks.

"Indeed," Fredrick answers.

"And so any ties that the rest of them make aren't as important?"

"So long as the union is legally binding and is of good standing."

"My family," Syldor informs loftily, "has some of the best standing in Syngorn."

"My good man," Fredrick says, "I believe a mutually beneficial arrangement can be made."

The two of them clink their glasses together, and then settle down to speak seriously of one of the few things that grumpy, entitled nobles truly speak seriously of: business negotiations.

---------

Upon arriving back in Whitestone, Fredrick calls his third child to his side and says gravely, "My son, while I was gone I made arrangements for you to be married."

Percival, who was raised in nobility and has always quietly feared this exact thing his entire life, sets his jaw and nods obediently. "Yes, Father," he says, and then holes himself up in his workshop to drink.

Upon arriving back in Syngorn, Syldor calls the girl child to his side and says gravely, "My daughter, while I was gone I made arrangements for you to be married."

Vex'ahlia throws a chair through a window.

---------

"That is a bear," Percival says the first time he is to meet his intended, except that he's not actually meeting his intended but is instead spying with his brother and sister on one of the outside balconies overlooking the courtyard while his father and mother meet his intended as she arrives. He will be called down to meet her himself afterwards, but Percival thinks that this is something he should probably be mentally prepared for rather than surprised by.

Currently, he's looking at a carriage drawn by a horse and being flanked by a bear. The horse seems nervous. The bear does not. Percival is surprised regardless.

"Wow," Cassandra says, blinking. "You're right. That sure is a bear."

"Surely he doesn't expect me to marry a bear."

"All women are bears," Julius says, and then is punched in the arm by Cassandra. "Ow! Hells, Cassandra. That's going to bruise."

"Good," she says sharply, and then the carriage door opens and all three of them duck down behind the parapet, only the tops of their heads sticking out as they try to see without being seen.

Someone steps out of the carriage.

"That is a man," Percival says, just as confused by this as he was by the bear. "He matches the description perfectly, granted, but that is definitely a man."

"Wow," Cassandra says again, more appreciatively. "Yes he is. Definitely a man. Hello, there."

Above her head, Percival and Julius exchange disgusted looks. She's been so much more... observant... to masculinity since her last birthday. It's horrible.

"Maybe it's Father's way of telling you that he'd still love you if you were in a relationship with a man. He's trying to be accepting," Julius offers with a shrug, and Percival scoffs.

"I've never been in a relationship with anyone, and Father wouldn't love me regardless. Well, it's not terrible, I suppose. I could have sworn he'd used the terms 'she' and 'wife' at some point, but Father is rather backwards and insensitive about everything. If needs must."

Someone else steps out of the carriage.

"Alright," Percival says, "that is a woman. I am so confused."

"They look exactly alike," Cassandra says in delight. "Maybe you're to marry both of them. You've hit the jackpot, brother."

Percival, who's only just barely accepted the fact that he's soon to have a wife that he knows nothing about, pales and swallows nervously at the thought that he might have a husband that he knows nothing about too.

And that's not even mentioning his curiosity and, now rapidly growing, concern regarding the bear.

"Buck up, brother," Julius says helpfully, reaching around Cassandra to nudge Percival in the side, almost knocking him over. "At least life will never be dull."

The man and woman who've stepped out of the carriage converse amongst themselves for a few moments, interrupted briefly by the bear who trundles over to her and nuzzles into her shoulder. She pats it distractly, her expression disgruntled while the man just looks uncomfortable. When the castle door opens out into the courtyard and the Lord and Lady of Whitestone step through to approach them, a few guards following diligently behind, the three siblings on the balcony stand a little straighter above the railing to watch.

"Well they haven't started shouting yet," Julius hums after a moment. "That's a good sign. By the way Father described her, she sounded like a hellion."

"Wait," Percival says, turning to look at him. "What? He told me that she was a perfectly upstanding woman. He said that she was well-educated and a productive member of society."

"Oh, honey," Cassandra says sadly, reaching out to pat his shoulder. "No. I overheard him telling Mother that this is the third carriage we've had to send for her because she keeps sabotaging them."

Percival frowns.

"I've heard that she tried to shoot her father with an arrow when he told her she was getting married," Julius adds.

Percival frowns harder.

"I heard that she sicked the bear on the Whitestone courier they'd sent the official invitation with," Cassandra chirps.

Percival has probably never in his life frowned harder than he is frowning at this moment. Julius and Cassandra share a smirk while he's not looking.

Below, Fredrick shakes hands with the man, and kisses the knuckles of the woman while Johanna watches. Everyone looks supremely uncomfortable but mostly willing to pretend that they're not to make it less so. Fredrick stops at the bear as if unsure how to react, and then finally just gestures towards the castle with a grand sweeping motion, ushering everyone inside. The two half-Elves send each other a look silently once the Lord and Lady have turned their backs before trudging behind them.

"I'm distraught," Percival announces to his siblings in a perfectly reasonable voice. The woman who is to be his wife freezes for a moment before her head swivels to look up at the balcony that they're hiding on, and her eyes meet his for a second before they narrow dangerously. The three of them yelp and duck back down in unison.

A few moments pass in silence.

Finally, Cassandra says, with probably a bit too much cheer, "She's going to eat you alive."

---------

At dinner that night, everyone makes awkward conversation, and it goes thusly:

"I love your hair, Vax'ildan," Vesper says to who Percival thinks is to be his wife.

"Thank you, my sister braided it for me," says the male twin, and Percival blinks down at his plate. Funnily enough, so does Vesper.

Silence. Cassandra asks his fiancée to please pass her a plate of chicken. When the woman --Vex'ahlia? Yes, Vex'ahlia-- leans up, Ludwig, who's seated at her other side and therefore across from Percival, glances down into her seat, presumably at her rear, and then gives Percival a thumbs up. Vax'ildan clears his throat hard, grip tight on the knife he'd been cutting with, and Ludwig straightens up in his seat with a squeak.

More silence. Fredrick and Johanna make small talk with each other, which is about the only sort of talk they typically make with each other anyway. The twins, that being the half-Elf twins and not the de Rolo set of twins, who seem to be conspicuously missing, seem to carry on an entire debate with each other nonverbally, complete with frowns and eyebrow wriggling and scrunching noses. Sina, Julius' wife, catches Percival's eye and mimes hanging herself with her pearl necklace while her husband is preoccupied with cutting up their son's meal into small enough bites for him to eat.

"I'm sorry your father couldn't make it," Vesper tries again, ever the diplomatic one of the bunch. "It's a shame that he wasn't able to meet the rest of the family, it would have been nice to get a proper introduction since we're all going to be getting to know each other better."

Vex'ahlia glances up at Percival, sees that he's looking at her as well, and glares daggers at him. Percival drops his gaze back to his plate with a disturbed shiver. Vax'ildan elbows his sister beneath the table.

"We're sorry as well," he assures Vesper, apparently attempting diplomacy himself. "He became very ill very suddenly and had to bow out of the journey here, I'm afraid."

"Oh no," she says with astonishing sincerity, "I hope not too ill! Should you have stayed there and waited until later to visit?"

"Probably," Vex'ahlia says with the most feeling Percival's heard her put into her words yet. "Our poor father, alone in Syngorn with nobody to care for him! Brother, we should return right away. Immediately. Now."

Percival pushes his food around on his plate halfheartedly. This is already going splendidly, and to think that he only has to deal with it for the rest of his life.

Yay.

"Vex'ahlia," Vax'ildan admonishes, quiet and sharp, and she sits back in her seat with a huff. To Vesper, he continues, "It's not so dire, just some... intestinal problems that would have made the journey uncomfortable."

"He did say the tea he'd had the day before we were to leave tasted funny," Vex'ahlia says, innocently. "I wonder if something had been snuck into it." She catches Percival's gaze again and holds it as she says, "It's funny how common forest weeds and herbs can cause such discomfort."

"Funny," he repeats weakly.

"Funny," she agrees.

Cassandra follows the conversation, head turning to face each person that speaks, and after Vex'ahlia finishes, Percival sees her giving Ludwig an exaggerated wince out of the corner of his eye. While Vax'ildan's attention is on Vesper, Ludwig mouths to Percival, You are so dead.

"Well," Vesper says with a nervous giggle. "Well." And then she grows quiet, shooting Percival an anxious look that makes him think that she agrees with Ludwig's assessment.

Even more silence. Cassandra seems to have mashed her potatoes into goop and appears to be making a volcano with them and her gravy. Percival watches curiously and, oddly, so does Vax'ildan. Julius' son Percival, which is about as confusing as you'd probably imagine it to be, spits up half of his meal onto his front. Vex'ahlia, upon seeing this, looks like she's going to be sick herself.

"If you'll excuse me," she says abruptly, sliding her seat back and away from the table with a screech.

"Vex--!" Vax'ildan shouts after her in concern, but she's already at the great oak doors to the dining hall. When she throws them open, Whitney, Oliver, and a bear topple into the room, having apparently been listening in on the other side.

"Oops," says Whitney.

"Shit," says Oliver.

"Roowrr," says the bear.

"Come on, Trinket," Vex'ahlia says, stepping around the puddle of limbs on the floor without breaking her stride. The bear scrambles to its feet and lopes after her, nearly stepping on Oliver as it goes.

"Please, please excuse us," Vax'ildan says to the assorted de Rolos, and then follows his sister, hopping over the twins on the floor without sparing them a glance.

More bloody fucking silence. Fredrick begins to laugh in a way that starts out in amusement and slowly becomes more sinister. Percival, the younger Percival who's just spit up on himself, begins to wail loudly. Percival, the older Percival who's just been engaged against his will to a woman with a pet bear, wishes it were still socially acceptable at his age to begin wailing as well.

"You're fucked, mate," Oliver says, from the floor.

---------

"Sister, please, calm down."

Vex does another circuit around the room she's been given in the castle, pacing so hard that Vax half-thinks he can feel the vibration of it through the floor even from the bed. Trinket watches his master with concern, his dark wet eyes tracking her progress as she does another lap.

"Don't you fucking tell me to calm down! You're not the one that has to deal with this! Did you see what they expect me to do?" Vex stops and points accusingly to her bedroom door and the hallways beyond, no doubt to where the meal they'd abandoned is being cleaned up. "Wear fancy clothes and-- and make small talk! Forever! For the rest of my life! Have babies! They want me to have babies, Vax!"

"I was present for every conversation you and father had about this," Vax says as patiently as he can, though in his heart he's just as upset about the whole thing as she is. "Not once did he say you were obligated to bare children. Only to wed the son."

"Maybe nobody said it, but I know nobles! You know nobles! They don't say things but they still expect them! And the son, don't even get me started on him, sitting there all smug and cocksure and pleased as punch that he's landed himself a catch like me without having to do any work just because he was born in a bloody castle on a bloody hill."

"I thought he looked rather miserable myself," Vax says, trying to be reasonable. He winces when Vex immediately throws her hands up into the air with a shout.

"That's almost worse! Who the hell does he think he is being so unhappy to be married to me, I'm a fucking delight!"

"As I'm sure you proved to them time and again over the course of the night," Vax tells the ceiling, determining that it doesn't matter what he says or how carefully he words it, it's still going to be the wrong thing. He knows her well enough though to know that she's just overwhelmed and needs some time to vent.

Vex paces a few more laps and then throws herself atop Trinket and burrows her face into his fur. Vax holds his breath, listening to make sure that she's not crying, but her back rises and falls slowly and her shoulders don't shake, though he can see that her fingers tense and dig into the fur hard enough that Trinket gives a worried groan and twists his head around to lick at her hair.

"We could just leave," he says after giving her a minute to collect herself. "Go back to Byroden. Mother would be happy to take us back in."

There's a long moment of silence, then Vex speaks, her voice muffled by Trinket's bulk. "Father would stop supporting us. Even if we both got jobs we couldn't make enough to give to Mother to keep her as comfortable as she is now with the allowance we get from him. If we couldn't afford the healer..." She falls quiet, turning her face in Trinket's fur so that she can look out the open window. The sun has finished setting by now, and night time at Whitestone is beautiful; they have an eastern-facing window and the stars shine bright as fireflies in the sky above, more visible than they ever are in Syngorn, where the lights of the city are reflected back down by the leaves on the trees. Vax follows her gaze and says nothing.

If they couldn't afford the healer, Mother would waste away.

"I could marry him," Vax offers, trying to lighten the mood. Vex lets out a startled bark of laughter. "Then they definitely won't expect children. He's comely enough, I could get used to it."

"How interested do you think he'd be in you?" she giggles, turning to press her back into Trinket's side so she can face her brother. The bear settles further into the floor, mollified by the calm that's returned to his master's voice.

"Please, didn't you get a good look at him? He seems like the passive, agreeable sort that's a little bit desperate, he'd probably take anything he could get."

"Gee," Vex says, deadpan. "Thanks." Another minute or two of silence, this time more comfortable, then she continues, "I didn't, though. Get a good look at him. I was too angry. What's he like?"

"I dunno," Vax answers, lounging more fully against the bed. "Quiet, I guess. Looked about as enthusiastic about this as you are. Spent most of the dinner staring at his food like it was his last meal."

"If I must resign myself then I suppose I should get to know him," Vex says with a sad sort of sigh, like it's some great hassle to marry a rich Lord's boy and live the rest of her life in luxury. "And get used to the idea of living in a castle." Her voice gets hesitant. "Away from the woods." She frowns. "Confined to a schedule." Her fingers twitch against her side as if reaching for her bow. "Having little tea parties or whatever noble ladies do." Her knees tense. "Popping out babi-- Nope. Nope. I can't do it. Nevermind."

She springs to her feet, and within two quick strides she's flung herself out the window and on to the roof of the story below.

Vax's ears twitch to hear her footsteps across the stone shingles, but as in all things, Vex'ahlia is silent in her retreat.

Trinket looks after her, expression confused, and then turns to Vax and cocks his head with a curious groan.

"She'll be back," Vax assures the bear, and then with a heavy sigh stretches out further across the bed.

---------

Meanwhile, Percival is laying across his own bed face down and half-heartedly trying to suffocate himself with his pillow when the door bursts open and all three of his sisters crowd into his room like a particularly nosy swarm of gnats.

"That was fun, wasn't it!" Cassandra says cheerfully, planting herself on Percival's bed beside him and kicking her feet up onto his back.

"Go away," he whines into his pillow.

Whitney settles herself on his other side and runs a hand through his hair in a far less playful show of camaraderie, and under the soothing ministrations Percival feels himself relaxing into the mattress slowly, the tension of the dinner starting to bleed out of him.

"Are you alright, Percy?" she asks gently, using the pet name that Vesper gave him when he was still wearing nappies and has since grown out of, though none of his siblings seem to have noticed.

"'M fine," he mumbles, turning his head away from her direction. At the movement, she stops rubbing his scalp and so he turns it back with a huff.

"It won't be so bad once the dust settles," Vesper says from across the room, and when Percival opens one eye to look for her he can see her silhouette, blurry and unfocused without his glasses, against the window, likely sitting on the windowseat. "Julius and Sina were an arranged marriage, after all, and look at them! Never seen a couple more in love in my life."

"Mother and Father were also arranged," Percival reminds her glumly, bringing his hands up under the pillow to lift it slightly so he can see her better, "and look at them. I think the most meaningful thing I've ever heard Father say to her was 'Oh great another one' after she announced she was pregnant with Cassandra."

"Hold on, what?" Cassandra asks in surprise.

"I mean," Percival says quickly, "He said, 'Oh great! Another one!'"

"Nice job," Whitney says with a sigh.

"Yes," Vesper says with stubborn optimism in her voice, like she can will the world to be kinder if she just hopes really hard at it, "but Father is a bit of a prick, and you are not so big of a prick!"

"Thank you," Percival grumbles, and then buries his face back into the pillow. Whitney sighs harder.

"You're going about this wrong," she says, scratching her nails against the nape of his neck and, entirely unwillingly, he leans into it. "If you go into it with a bad attitude then so will she and you'll just hate each other and you'll both be miserable forever. If you've got to marry someone then you should at least try to love them, and if you can't love them then you should try to be friends with them, and if you can't be friends with them then at least try to tolerate them enough that you don't constantly have the urge to slip poison into their drink."

There is a long moment of silence before Cassandra says with a bit of horrified awe in her voice, "Shit, Whit. That's creepy."

"She already hates me," Percival says with as little of a whine in his voice as he can manage, which is to say he whines a lot. "I made eye contact with her once tonight and I thought she was going to break into my mind and command me to stab myself in the throat with my fork."

"Can she do that?" Cassandra asks curiously. "Is she a magic user?"

Vesper pipes up from the window, "I think I saw her with a bow earlier before dinner, when she and her brother were unpacking their things from the carriage." She pauses. "Oh. Hmm."

"So charm her," Cassandra says, flicking Percival in the side with her hand before being shooed away by a much more compassionate Whitney, who is clearly Percival's favorite sibling (at the moment). "You're charming. Ish. You're not a walking pile of garbage, anyway, which is more than most men can claim."

"Hey, Percival?" Vesper says from the window.

"Get to know her," Whitney says, picking up the same vein of conversation that Cassandra's on, "find out what she likes and dislikes and maybe you'll surprise yourself by actually enjoying her company!"

"Percival," Vesper tries again.

"She's dark-haired and looks like she can beat you up, so I know you're attracted to her, that's definitely your type," Cassandra continues, ignoring Percival's offended grunt.

"Percival."

"Father hasn't even decided when exactly you'll be getting married," Whitney says, her voice becoming more enthused the more she talks, "you can have time to properly court her! Oh, it'll be romantic!"

Percival, who has never courted anyone in his life and whose romantic examples are Mother and Father, who never talk, and Julius and Sina, who talk so much that they get angry with each other and then screw it out, frowns heavily into his pillow.

"Percy!" Vesper half-shouts a little urgently.

"What?" he snaps, a bit overwhelmed by everything.

"Your fiancée just climbed out her window and is running across the roof."

"What?" Percival, Whitney, and Cassandra all say at once.

There is a mad scramble on the bed and Percival, who started from a prone position, is knocked over and climbed on as Cassandra and Whitney both leap towards the window. He pauses to feel around for his glasses and by the time he's found them and shoved them on his face all three of his sisters have crowded around the window to the point where he can't see out of it. When he tries to pull Cassandra, who's the smallest of them, away she kicks him in the shin, causing him to yelp and hop backwards towards the bed once more.

"Maybe it's the boy twin," Whitney says nervously.

"No look, she's got tits, it's definitely her," Cassandra argues.

"Oh, hells," Vesper winces, "she'll be running over the roof to the guard's room soon."

"Why is nobody shooting at her yet?" Cassandra says, crossing her arms. "There's a strange person running across the roofs, they should be shooting at her. We should dock their pay."

"Don't tell them to shoot at Percy's wife!" Whitney admonishes. "That would put such a damper on things! So unromantic!"

"She's not my wife yet," Percival says from the bed, feeling a little bit numb to be honest.

"And she definitely won't be if they shoot her!"

"She also won't be if she runs away." Cassandra leans out the window and shouts, "Guards!"

"Cassandra!" Vesper cries, horrified, and then yells out the window herself, "Don't shoot her!"

"I'm just saying, maybe we need to train them better," Cassandra grumbles. "Oh, wait, there they are."

There's a moment of breathless silence while the girls stare out the window and Percival stares into his hands and contemplates his life choices.

"Man, she's got a mean right hook," Cassandra says after a few seconds. "Look at her go." She glances over her shoulder at Percival. "She could definitely beat you up."

"Please don't push her off the roof, please don't push her off the roof, please don't push her off the roof," Whitney whispers anxiously under her breath.

A pause.

"Well at least they didn't push her off the roof," she says with a sigh.

"Do I even want to know?" Percival asks his knuckles.

"A couple of them tackled her and I think they're hog-tying her," Cassandra says, sounding a little bit impressed. "Nice knot work. Go Captain Howarth."

"You should go over there and help smooth everything out, Percival," Vesper tells him, wringing her hands together. "It's just a misunderstanding. Cold feet. It'll pass."

"Is it bad that I was sort of hoping she'd make it?" he says weakly, and as one all of his sisters turn to look at him.

He must look like as much of an emotional wreck as he feels like, because even Cassandra's face tightens in sympathy.

"Aww, come on, Perc," she says, and goes to sit beside him on the bed. Whitney settles in against his other side and the two of them sandwich him between them, Cassandra with her head on his shoulder and Whitney with her hand back in his hair.

Vesper kneels down in front of him, hands on his knees, and pats his leg gently. "I know it's difficult," she says, her voice soft and soothing and exactly what he didn't realize he needed. "But please, Percy, try to be optimistic. You'll get out of it as much as you put into it."

Asking a duck to bark would probably yield better results than asking Percival to be optimistic, but, well, he supposes he might as well try.

At this point he doesn't have much else to lose.

---------

It's close to noon the next day before Percival manages to catch Vex'ahlia, and when he finally does she's got bruises running up and down her arms, which she crosses defensively upon seeing him.

They're in one of the courtyards, the one closest to the cliffs overlooking the forest below, and she's got her bear with her though her brother isn't anywhere to be seen. She's settled on a bench beneath an awning, and sure enough there's an unstrung bow across her lap that she appears to be oiling with wax.

It's the first time he's actually been alone with her, and he clears his throat nervously and crosses his hands behind his back.

There's a long, awkward moment of silence where they just stare at each other. Percival swallows. Vex'ahlia glares. The bear snores.

"Hello," he says finally. Her eyes narrow.

"Hi," she returns, short and sharp.

"May I sit?" he asks after a moment, gesturing at the bench and hoping the shaking of his hands isn't as obvious as it feels like it is.

She shrugs. "It's your castle."

Yours too, soon, he thinks despite himself, and then swallows again without voicing the thought. He's not sure it'd go over well. "I don't want to intrude."

She stares at him without saying anything for several seconds before heaving a put-upon sigh and uncrossing her arms, folding her hands together in her lap. "No, it's fine. You may sit."

Percival fidgets and then sits.

A minute passes. "So," he says.

"So," she agrees.

A half-minute passes.

"Lovely weather we're having," he says weakly, and Vex'ahlia abruptly lets out another sigh, this one even bigger and more explosive than the last, and turns to him with a heavy frown.

"Let's cut the crap, darling," she says with about as much affection in the pet name as Percival might expect from a wasp, "and talk about what's really going on here."

"Please," he says, relief flooding his voice, "if you know what's going on here then I beg you to tell me because I certainly don't."

"I absolutely don't want to marry you," she tells him with no preamble, "but circumstances being what they are I've been backed into a corner and so this is the option I've been left with."

"I don't blame you," he replies earnestly, "I wouldn't want to marry me either. And no offense, but I don't particularly want to marry you as well."

"Good," she says firmly.

"Good," he nods.

Another minute passes. Vex'ahlia... doesn't relax, not really, but neither does she seem as tense as she did a moment ago. She gives Percival a hard look up and down, and he takes the opportunity to do the same to her.

She is attractive, he'll admit that. Certainly pleasing to look at. And though he's only had a brief half-conversation with her, he doesn't get the impression that she's simple in the head, which is definitely a plus. Probably not as intelligent as he is, but few people are. She's tired, too, a sort of weariness that hangs about her beneath the sharpness of her words and expression, but he knows well enough to not let his guard down. There's a shrewdness to her gaze, a tightness to her jaw, that makes him think that she sees a lot more than she lets on.

He wonders what she sees, looking at him.

Someone who's tired too, likely.

"This wasn't your idea?" she asks finally, a healthy dose of suspicion in her voice. "You didn't-- didn't push for this?"

"Gods, no," he says, as honestly as he can. "I would have been content to live alone forever. This is sort of a wrench in the plan, to be honest."

"And you wouldn't expect anything of me?" she pushes, staring at him intently. "Not love or, or children?"

"So long as you didn't expect anything of me," he answers. "Though I suppose if you do take a, ah, a lover outside of the union I'd like to know about it just so it's not a surprise. Or a mistress," he says, quickly, "I don't judge."

"Speaking of, we don't have to have sex, do we?" she continues, looking a bit ill. "I heard that human nobles require family witnesses on wedding nights."

"Oh, no. No." Percival feels a bit ill himself. "No one in my family has seen me naked since I was capable of putting my own pants on and I'd prefer to keep it that way."

Surprisingly, this startles a laugh out of her, and she looks just as surprised by it as he does. When she continues laughing he starts to chuckle with her, and after a minute of laughter, a great outpouring of nerves that have no other outlet, she finally catches her breath. She keeps watching him with such scrutiny, such assessment in her gaze that it's a little unnerving, and he finds himself glancing away to look at the bear, who's sunning its great bulk in the grass and moaning contently.

"What do you expect out of this?" she asks finally, after nearly two minutes of silence that, while not comfortable, is definitely not as charged with tension as, say, the dinner had been last night.

Percival thinks on what he does expect out of this. He wasn't lying when he'd told her he'd have been content on his own. He's not a man who requires attention or distraction, and while he's never disdained romance nor has he ever felt the urge to pursue it, not even during his teenage years when he'd found men and women alike catching the corners of his eyes. He's always figured that if love were to happen then it would happen, and if it weren't then he would be fine with that.

So he doesn't expect much, he supposes, but still. It would be nice to be civil with one another; just because he won't expect things doesn't mean that the gentry won't, and feasts and balls he's required to attend will require his spouse's attendance as well. He thinks for a moment about what Whitney said last night, plans his words in his head and rolls them about his mouth before finally speaking them.

Slowly, he answers, "I... expect little. Certainly not love, not from you nor from me. I hope that we could be friends. If I am to marry, and it is not to be for love, I would much rather be married to a friend than a..." He pauses, takes a breath as he thinks. "A stranger, I suppose. It's not entirely the word I'm looking for, but--"

"No," she says slowly, "I think I understand what you mean."

Percival figures that's fair enough, because he's not even sure what he means.

Vex'ahlia chews on her bottom lip for a second, one hand drifting upwards as if to play with her braid nervously, before she says all in a rush, like she'll stop herself if she doesn't get it out as quickly as possible, "Sorry I acted like a harpy last night."

He blinks at her a couple times and then attempts a reassuring smile. "It's fine. I understand. I sort of acted like a pillock."

"You kind of did, dear. A harpy and a pillock. We'll be a lovely pair." She holds out a hand expectantly, and it takes him a moment before he realizes what it is that she wants. After another new seconds of hesitation, he takes it and shakes it as if in greeting. "Vex'ahlia," she reintroduces herself. "I promise to try not to hate you, I guess."

"Percival," he replies. "I promise to try not to do things that will make you hate me."

"Only try?" she asks with a raised eyebrow, and he raises his right back.

"I spend a third of my life surrounded by things that very easily catch fire, and probably an eighth of my life actually on fire."

"Definitely not having sex with you then," she says decisively, and that startles a laugh out of him, which brings a laugh out of her again, which causes the bear (who's woken up and has been watching them both quietly the whole time) to roll its eyes.

Neither of them notice.

------------------

PART II

After a week passes with no more incidents, whether it be her trying to escape again or either of them attempting to poison the other, the Lord of Whitestone informs his third born child that he's planning to announce an actual official date for the wedding shortly.

"He seems to think that if one of you isn't dead by the first week then you probably won't kill each other later," Julius says to Percival one morning over breakfast, "which is pure tripe because Sina tried to decapitate me with an urn within a month of our honeymoon."

"It's not my fault that you happened to be walking out from under the balcony just as I was tossing it off, husband," Sina says primly as she spoons porridge into Percival's mouth. (The toddler Percival, not the adult Percival. The naming scheme of Whitestone nobles is wretchedly confusing to everyone involved, including the nobles themselves.) "I cannot predict when you'll decide to walk out from under every balcony that I happen to be tossing urns off of."

"Why are you tossing urns off balconies in the first place?" Julius asks accusingly, gesturing at her with his fork. "Explain that, wife."

"I can't explain why such urges strike me," she replies with a sweet, indulgent smile that makes Percival gulp nervously. "Though I do recall that following that unfortunate incident, I did stop tripping over your boots that you'd leave in the doorway of the bedroom."

"Lesson one of being married," Julius tells Percival with an expression of utmost sincerity, "is to learn to read into subtext."

His fiancée and her brother still eat breakfast alone in their rooms, or out in the courtyard, and for the most part she and Percival just sort of... ignore each other. Or rather, not ignore, because that implies some negative feeling, but beyond a few conversations that have been both chaperoned and enforced by one or more of his gaggle of siblings the two of them don't spend much time together.

Percival, who never had friends growing up because, as far as he was concerned, he spent more than enough time surrounded by people he didn't want to be around anyway so why put himself through the misery, isn't quite sure how to go about actually becoming friends with the woman he's supposed to marry.

Those brief conversations they've had have mostly been in passing and usually with either Whitney giggling or Cassandra smirking or her own brother glaring in the background, and consist mainly of comments like this:

"Fine weather today."

"Yup."

And,

"Did you sleep well?"

"Yup."

And,

"Do you still not hate me?"

"Yup. I mean, nope. I mean... no, Percival, I don't hate you yet."

"Excellent, this is going better than I'd expected."

And it sort of is, surprisingly. She hasn't tried to run away again and she seems intelligent enough that he doesn't have to struggle with the urge to drown her in the barrel of water that he keeps for his forge. If this is what their marriage is going to be like, then it will go swimmingly; he does his thing and she does her thing and they'll both do their own things and ne'er shall the two overlap.

His siblings, however, seem to disagree.

"You're so boring, Percival!" Whitney whines in her favorite I'm being obnoxious but you can't yell at me for it because if you do then I'll tell Mother and then you'll be sorry voice.

"Yes," he says agreeably, and then holds one hand up over his shoulder without looking and wiggles his fingers. "Hand me the tongs, please, if you'd be so kind." After a moment something is dropped into his waiting hand and he makes to lift the metal he's been working on with it before realizing he's been given a hammer instead. When he turns to glare over his shoulder, Whitney sticks her tongue out at him.

"Have you touched her tits yet?" Oliver asks, poking about the little bits and baubles that Percival's left half-finished on one of his work benches. It's only small things; toys for his nephew, pocket watches, a few experiments with smoke bombs and the like. Oliver doesn't go near the flammable or acidic stuff anymore, not since he learned his lesson last summer. (His eyebrows have only just finished growing back in.)

"No," Percival says sharply, setting the hammer to the side and getting up to get the tongs himself, sidestepping around Whitney, who stubbornly doesn't move away from the table that holds his heavier tools. "And I shan't. We're two mature adults who recognize and respect the fact that this is purely political and not emotional or physical."

"Boring!" Whitney cries out, dropping her face into her hands. "So unromantic!"

"Is it because you're a dandy?" Oliver picks up one of the pocket watches and fiddles with the gears for a second, ignoring Percival's grumble of annoyance. "Is that why you don't want to touch her tits?"

"I'm not--" Percival takes a deep inhalation of breath and holds it for a long moment. When he exhales, he forces patience into his voice. Oliver is not his favorite of siblings. "I'm not talking about this with you. It's disrespectful."

There's a long pause where neither of the twins say anything, and then Oliver stage-whispers, "Dandy."

Percival whirls around to glare at him and gestures with his tongs threateningly. "I will kill you, Oliver, and get Cassandra to hide your body in her bloody secret passages! And you know she would, too!" She would. Percival is her favorite.

Oliver mumbles mockingly under his breath before Whitney whaps him upside the head, causing him to let out a high-pitched yelp, and then he crosses his arms and pouts. He also sneaks the watch into his pocket while he think Percival isn't watching, but he is. Percival is always watching.

"You need to talk to her, Percy!" Whitney whines, walking over to him to drape herself across his shoulders and back, leaning into him so heavily that he can't move the tongs to grab his current project. Percival groans in defeat and accepts his fate. He'll just have to nod agreeably until she leaves. "How are the two of you ever going to fall in love if you don't talk to each other? You have to actually talk to develop feelings!"

"Marriage isn't about feelings, Whitney," Percival says, putting the same inflection on the word that he'd use to describe a cowpat. "It's about two people politely tolerating each other until one of them --in this instance likely me-- inevitably blows themselves up."

"You're hopeless," she sighs into his hair. He nods agreeably. "Okay, but Percival, try to consider this: she's being uprooted from her life and leaving behind her home to be forcibly married to someone who plans to, for all intents and purposes, ignore her completely until the day he dies."

"Well, when you put it like that," he says with a wince.

"Her whole life," Whitney continues, her voice lowering dramatically, clearly sensing that she's wearing him down, "her entire family. Any plans she had for the future--"

"Come now, Whitney," he says, feeling a little uncomfortable now. "It's not like I wanted this for her."

"--gone!" She leans against him completely, forcing him to brace himself against the table to prevent her from toppling him over. (Whitney is darling, but she has a fondness for Wildmount chocolate and is not the lightest of his siblings, and Percival himself has been, lovingly, referred to by Vesper as "what would happen if you split a twig in half longways".) "Doomed to be ignored until the end of her days by her deadbeat husband!"

"Deadbeat? Well, I never--"

"Who won't even speak to her! Content to hide in his workshop and pretend that she doesn't exist!"

"Oliver," Percival says desperately, "help me out here."

"Woe be to Vex'ahlia!" Whitney wails into his ear, drowning out anything that Oliver might have said. "Woe be to she whose husband is a dandy!"

"Alright, alright, gods above and below!" Percival finally throws her off, and she allows it with a self-congratulatory giggle. He rounds on her, hands on his hips and brows furrowed, but she looks utterly unfazed. "I'll go and talk to her, happy?"

"Quite," she says with a grin, and Percival throws his hands up in defeat as he stomps from the room.

"What a moron," Oliver says after he's gone, sliding another little trinket into his pocket.

"I know," Whitney agrees, smiling. "He's so easy."

---------

Which is why Vex'ahlia, after hearing a knock on her door, opens it to find Percival outside, a bundle of purple flowers in hand and an expression on his face that suggests he's about to go into battle.

"Heather," she says, cocking her head.

Percival blinks at her, and then says slowly, "...no. Percival. I'm Percival."

She opens her mouth, closes it, and then says equally slowly, as if talking to an invalid, "The plant. It's heather. Nice to know your opinion on my mental capacities, though."

His face flushes instantly as he realizes his mistake, and she leans against the doorway to her room, crossing her arms and raising an eyebrow.

"Is it?" he asks, looking down at the flowers, his voice pitched high in embarrassment. "I didn't know. I just thought they were lovely." And then in one quick, jerky movement he pushes them towards her, not meeting her eyes.

She stays still, letting him stew for a moment, before reaching out with a sigh and taking the flowers from him. The stems are damp from his clammy hands, which she can see even now have a slight tremor to them.

Ugh. They're going to have to talk, aren't they?

"Did you know," she asks, turning back into her room and looking for a place to set the flowers, finally settling upon the bedside table, "that purple heather means beauty and admiration?"

"I did not," he says, clearing his throat. She glances at him over her shoulder and the other eyebrow rises as well, joining its twin. "I just... oh, balls."

"You know, Percival, if you were trying to get me to not hate you, you were doing a much better job before you opened your mouth."

"This is why I don't talk to people," he says with an air of defeat.

And in fact he looks so defeated that Vex sighs and closes her eyes for a brief moment, then asks, "Would you like to take a walk with me, Percival?"

"Sure," he says after a slight pause. "I believe my feet would much prefer walking to being shoved into my mouth."

He clears his throat nervously and offers an elbow to her to take, and after she stares at it for a second she rolls her eyes and takes it, and he leads her down the hall.

After a minute or so of walking, she asks, "So, where are we going?"

"I have no clue," he answers promptly, as if he'd been waiting for her to break the silence. "Walking was your idea, I thought you'd have a destination in mind."

"Let's go visit Trinket," she decides, and begins steering him where she believes the kitchens are. "I don't think you've formally met him yet anyway. He likes to hang out around the cooks."

"Oh, that makes sense," he says lightly, "I'd been wondering why most of the meals I've had in the last week have had hair in them."

"It adds texture," she tells him with a smirk. "Builds character."

"Tell me about yourself," he says suddenly, glancing at her out of the corner of his eye. It sounds practiced, like he's been gearing up for it since the moment she'd opened her door, but there's a genuine curiosity there too buried beneath the stiffness of his presentation. "I find myself realizing that I know very little about my fiancée beyond the fact that she is a half-Elf, has a bear, and apparently knows more about horticulture than I do."

"You seem like the kind of man whose arse gets burnt when someone knows more about something than him," she says, her smirk growing wider, and he gives a self-deprecating shrug.

"I devote my time to the pursuit of knowledge," he admits, "and among my siblings I am definitely considered the most knowledgeable."

"And who is considered the most humble?" she asks, laughing disbelievingly.

"Oh, also me. Definitely me."

He's kind of funny, she thinks to herself. When he's loosened up enough to pull that stick out of his ass anyway.

"Well," she says thoughtfully, "I'm not sure there's much else about your fiancée to tell. I am in fact a half-Elf, I do in fact have a bear, and I have in fact learned about horticulture. Hmm. I love archery, that's something. I like the color blue. I enjoy hiking through the woods. I've got a knack for languages."

"Do you?" he interrupts to ask, interested. As they walk, they pass a couple of the castle's servants who stop briefly to watch before rushing off. "I do as well."

"Can you speak Elvish?"

"I can," he says, and to her delight switches to that language seamlessly as he continues. "If you enjoy archery, have you visited the range that we have set up by the barracks? They can supply you with arrows, or materials to make them if you prefer to fletch your own."

"I haven't," she answers in Elvish as well, "though I'd be very interested to see it. Now, tell me; what can I learn that I haven't yet about my fiancé?"

On the way to the kitchens, she learns several things about her fiancé: he spends most of his time reading, he enjoys taking simple items and "improving" them (which she takes to mean as making them eight times more complicated and flammable than they need to be), and causing explosions. She halfway doesn't believe this last claim, because he seems more like the kind of man that would begin crying if something startled him too suddenly.

Regardless, talking with him is... more interesting than she'd have believed, and despite her reservations about the whole ordeal she supposes that if she has to marry someone against her will, she'd rather them be more interesting than not. He's infuriating sometimes, yes; he thinks too hard about some things and then doesn't think at all about others, to the point where he compliments and insults without intending to in equal measure.

That's fine, though. She'd rather that than a husband who disdained her bloodline or called her a mutt.

Vex wonders, not for the first time, if her mother has received the letter she'd sent yet. She wonders what Elaina thinks of this whole thing.

When they arrive at the kitchens, however, there is no sign of her bear. Percival has to track down the head cook to question her, and they're directed back up to the courtyard where Trinket has apparently been banished.

"I'm sick of it," the head cook tells Percival, hands on her hips. Despite the fact that she's a head shorter than him he still raises his hands defensively. "Bear fur everywhere, in everything! I thought he'd try to eat me if I sent him off but I just couldn't handle it anymore!"

"Calm down, Laina," Percival says, making Vex do a small double take at the name, and then surprises her further by saying, "It adds texture. Builds character."

He catches her eye and she can't help the giggle that escapes.

When they backtrack their way up to the courtyard, her arm still tucked into his elbow, Trinket is laying against the bench she's taken to relaxing in during her free time and pouting.

"Aww, buddy," Vex laughs sympathetically, dropping her hold on Percival to crouch down, grateful that he hadn't expected her to change out of her breeches and into a dress or something, and takes Trinket's face between her hands. "Did they kick you out of the kitchen?"

"Mrowr," Trinket groans mournfully.

"Mrwarr," Vex replies.

Percival looks between the two of them in concern. "Am I to be expected to speak to him that way?" he asks hesitantly, and Vex snickers.

"Only if you like. Trinket, darling, you remember Percival?"

Trinket turns to look at Percival, sniffs at his knees, and then promptly ignores him, twisting his head back into Vex's arms and grunting.

"That went well," Percival says hurriedly. Now that the bear is actually in front of him, he seems a lot less sure about the introduction. "What a lovely chat. Well, I'll be off then."

"Oh no you don't," she laughs, taking hold of his hand and tugging him down on the grass beside her. "If you're marrying me, you're marrying him, too. We're a matched set."

"I'm quite sure that's illegal," he says dryly, but goes obediently enough. As soon as he's settled and is at face level, though, Trinket's gaze snaps back onto him and narrows critically. Beside her, Vex feels Percival stiffen nervously.

After a long moment of silence, Percival says finally, "...rowrr?"

By the time she's finished laughing, Vex's sides feel like they're about to split.

---------

"Percy's got a girlfriend," Whitney singsongs at dinner.

"Technically," Julius says around a mouthful of bread, "he's skipped that stage and gone straight to affianced."

"She is not," Percival cuts in sharply, "my girlfriend. She is my friend. She happens to be a girl. We happen to be engaged."

"Girlfriend," Ludwig agrees, nodding at Whitney from across the table. If Percival were any less mature he'd throw a potato at him.

"I've seen them," Whitney crows triumphantly. "Almost every day for the last week they've been hanging about each other and talking."

"That's not a euphemism for anything," Percival says quickly, "it is literally just talking. You're the one who told me to talk to her. If we're going to be married, we're going to have to talk."

"Not necessarily," Sina says with a shrug, Percival sitting in her lap and burbling happily. (The toddler Percival, not-- look, if context clues indicate that it's the toddler Percival, then it's probably the toddler Percival. Percival did not choose to have his nephew named after him, thank you very much.) "There are tons of other interesting things you can do with your mouth when you're married."

"Or not married," Cassandra says, and nearly all of the siblings turn to look at her in surprise. She pauses, fork hovering just below her mouth, and then shrugs. "Just saying."

"You're going to fall in love and get married and have babies together and live happily ever after and--" Whitney's breathless speech is interrupted by Ludwig, who starts gagging loudly.

"We are not going to fall in love," Percival says, pointing at her with his own fork. Vesper catches Whitney's eyes before rolling her own. "We're going to get married and then we're going to be friends and that's it. And we won't try to kill each other, hopefully, which is really all that I can ask for in a relationship."

"Babies, though," Whitney whines, and Percival points harder.

"I have never had a friend before, so don't ruin this for me," he says, gesturing, "and you lot don't count. You're not my friends, I'm shackled to you by the unfortunate circumstance of blood. If the whole bunch of you choked on your food and carked it tonight I would laugh. I would laugh heartily."

"That's kind of sad, Percy," Vesper says with a frown, and Percival pauses.

"Well, I'd miss you. And Cassandra, I guess. Sometimes Julius." Sina raises an eyebrow. "Definitely Sina." The eyebrow goes down. "And Percival." Percival burbles. "The rest of you can rot."

"And the same to you, prick," Oliver says, raising his glass in a mock-toast.

"Is that beer?" Ludwig asks him with a frown. "How'd you get beer? I want beer."

"Err," Oliver says.

"Babies," Whitney whispers to Vesper.

"Babies," Vesper agrees with a nod.

"I can hear you," Percival says, sighing.

---------

"So," Vax'ildan says.

Percival, who had no clue that his fiancée's brother had arrived, startles and nearly drops his sketchbook in surprise. He scoops it up quickly before turning to look at the other man with a flush.

Vax'ildan is very intimidating, he's found. He smiles and talks readily enough when he's with his sister, and he speaks with cultured grace, but there's always some dark tint beneath the words, and half the time when Percival converses with him he leaves the conversation unsure of whether or not he was being mocked the entire time. The two of them haven't spent really any time alone, any brief interaction they've had has always been in the presence of Vex'ahlia, though Percival isn't sure if that's because she doesn't want them alone or because she feels more comfortable and open around him with her twin there as a buffer.

Right now, she's at the archery range, and he is on the roof of the barracks watching. He'd had a couple ideas; he loves to tinker and, to quote Vex'ahlia herself, "make simple things more complicated than they need to be", and he's been thinking about arrows. Arrows are simple, right? You shoot them and they hit things. Very straightforward.

He could make them better. With more fire. And explosions.

She knows he's there, of course. It's not like he's stalking her. He'd approached her earlier and in a very honest, not-creepy way asked if he could watch her shoot because he had a few things that he wanted to sketch out and watching the subject in question always helped him with that creative spark. He wants to keep the actual arrows themselves a bit of a surprise, because-- because that'd be fun, he thinks, but several times over the last hour Vex'ahlia has lowered her bow and looked over her shoulder at him self-consciously, and he'd waved from his spot on the roof, and she'd waved back, and then she'd start shooting again.

"So," he says in reply, trying to keep his voice even.

Vax'ildan lowers himself to the ground in one quick, smooth movement, like a snake coiling up to strike, and crosses his legs comfortably, hands resting lightly on his knees. Percival hasn't seen many half-Elves before these two, and he's always astonished by how softly they step, how fluidly they move. Watching true Elves in action must be a sight indeed.

Nearly a minute passes in silence, sweat beading nervously on the back of Percival's neck, before he finally determines that Vax'ildan isn't going to speak again and, cautiously, he lifts his sketchbook and pencil up once more. It takes him yet another minute to drop back into the mindset of a tinkerer, an engineer; he's not as familiar with bows and arrows as he is with other weapons, and he can tell from her stance that his initial designs would leave her unbalanced. That's fine, that's fine, rough drafts and first tries are basically throw-aways, he can build on it, distribute the weight a bit better across the shaft...

"So you and my sister," Vax'ildan says abruptly, causing Percival's hand to skitter across the page and dig into the paper, tearing it.

"Pelor's rays," he curses feelingly, and sends an annoyed glance at his future brother-in-law. "Yes, your sister and I, it shouldn't be a surprise at this point. I was literally introduced to the two of you as her intended."

"I love my sister very much, you know," Vax'ildan murmurs, and Percival hears it again, that dark undertone, the one that he hides under manners. "I would do anything to keep her happy."

Percival, who, considering the family he grew up with, has always equated love at its most base level as tolerating someone enough to not kill them, nods. "That's nice," he says, because it is. He's not entirely sure what the point of this is, but it's a good sentiment, he supposes.

"This... arrangement... has the potential to make her very, very unhappy," he continues, and Percival frowns.

"Well, yes, it's marriage. That should be a given."

Vax'ildan stares at him for a long moment, then shifts so that the hem of his shirt lifts, showcasing the wicked-looking dagger that he's got hanging from his belt.

Percival looks at it, then back up to his face, then back down to the dagger, and then raises his shoulders in a shrug.

"You do realize I'm threatening you, right?" Vax'ildan says finally, a hint of incredulousness in his voice.

"Yes," Percival answers. "I'm just not entirely sure why. I've already discussed this with her, neither of us are expecting anything from the other. Though friendship would be nice, and I'd like to think that we've sort of gotten there by now. She punched me yesterday, but she was laughing while she was doing it, which I think makes it okay?"

At this point, Vex'ahlia once again glances over her shoulder and then drops her bow entirely when she sees her brother there. She whirls around to face them and actually takes a few steps forward before Percival lifts a hand and waves to her. After a moment, she lifts her own hand hesitantly and waves back. Vax'ildan doesn't move, just watches them both closely, looking back and forth between them with the slightest bit of confusion in his eyes. Percival makes a shooing, go on motion with his hand and slowly, staring in their direction the entire time, Vex'ahlia picks her bow back up. It takes another thirty seconds before she finally steps back into position, shoulders high and back straight, a lovely stance that Percival admires briefly for the precision of it.

Vax'ildan clears his throat, and Percival looks back at him curiously.

"She requires... different things, than a normal woman," Vax'ildan says, slowly. "Or rather, than a noble woman, I should say. Attention, sometimes. Space when she needs it, which she will often. Trying to leash her is probably the worst thing you can do."

"I feel like I should be writing this down," Percival says dryly, confused by the sudden turn in conversation. Vax'ildan went from threatening him to giving him advice, but he supposes that that's just how his life is going to go from now on.

"I have a vested interest in keeping you alive, because if you piss her off enough then she will kill you, and then she'll be arrested for killing a nobleman and I'll have to break her out of jail and we'll have to go into hiding, which won't be easy because she'll insist on bringing the bear. So I'm mostly just looking out for myself here."

"Very well," he says, not entirely understanding because he spends too much of his time around things that could explode if you sneezed on them wrong to have a strong grasp of self-preservation. He appreciates the advice anyway. "Go on."

"She'll need time alone, and probably time alone in the woods specifically, and it doesn't matter how fond she grows of you, she will occasionally remember that she was forced into this and resent you for it and the best thing that you can do is be quiet and be patient."

"Understandable," Percival agrees. "I can sympathize with that, though the more I get to know her the more agreeable I am to this whole thing. Not the kindest or most fortunate of circumstances, but I do rather enjoy her company and I'd much prefer that than being forcibly married to someone that I can't stand."

Vax'ildan's eyes narrow at him, but Percival's attention quickly returns to Vex'ahlia, who's now focusing more on the speed of her shots rather than the precision of them, loosing arrow after arrow into the target a few dozen yards away. Most of them strike true, if not in the bullseye then just slightly to the side of it, but he's concerned by the way she just grabs at the arrows and shoots nearly instantly. A second quiver, perhaps, to separate his tinkered arrows from her normal ones? So she doesn't accidentally grab an explosive one without meaning to? No, too cumbersome, too confusing...

After half a minute of rapid-fire shooting, a soothingly repetitive motion of notch-aim-release, three arrows hit in the dead center in a row, splitting in half each one that had struck before it, and she lowers her bow with a breathless laugh that Percival can hear even from the roof of the barracks. She puts her hands on her hips to inspect her work, then turns to look at them and laughs harder when he starts clapping politely. She hands off her bow and quiver, nearly empty by now, to a waiting guard, who takes it with a look akin to awe on his face, and starts walking towards the barracks, presumably to join him and her brother on the roof.

"Agreeable, you said?" Vax'ildan says suddenly, quietly, still not having looked away from Percival that entire time.

Percival pauses for a moment, eyes still following Vex'ahlia as she walks towards their vantage point, the way she winces as she stretches her arms out over her head to work the kinks out of her muscles. "Agreeable enough," he affirms decisively. "Better than the alternative, no doubt."

"Hmm," Vax'ildan hums, and then falls silent once more.

Vex'ahlia keeps walking towards where they're perched, ignoring the door to the barracks, and Percival calls out in confusion, "You know that the ladder to the roof is inside, yes?"

"Yes," she replies with a laugh, raising her voice to be heard. When she reaches the wall Percival leans forward over the side of the roof, which is sloped just enough that he has to clutch at a shingle to maintain his balance, and watches her examine it.

"Well now what do you intend to do?" he asks in amusement, and is shortly silenced by the way Vex'ahlia backs up and then takes a running leap at the wall, scaling the fifteen feet up to the roof, her hands and feet finding purchase on the stonework as easily as if there were markers for her to see where to place them. He scoots backwards just in time for her to haul herself up, breathless, to join them on the roof. She grins at him triumphantly, eyes wild and braid in disarray.

"That's what I intend to do," she says, chin raised defiantly.

Percival blinks at her.

Shit. Shit..

"Shows me to never doubt you," he says finally, having to swallow a couple times before the words will come out. What was it that Cassandra had said? Dark-haired and can beat him up? Shit.

"A wise lesson to learn early on for a successful marriage," she agrees, and then winks at him, before turning her attention back to her brother, that giddy smile never dulling. "Did you see, brother? Three in a row in the bullseye, and I wasn't even taking aim!"

"I saw," Vax'ildan lies, his eyes softening as he turns them to his sister. "A good show."

"I'm sore as hell now though," she sighs, grimacing as she lifts an arm to rub at her shoulder. "I haven't had a training session that long in months." She turns to Percival, a glint of curiosity in her eyes, and asks, "Did you see what you needed to see, then? For your mysterious sketchings for your mysterious things?" She leans forwards, eyebrows high as she tries to peer into the sketchbook that still sits open in his lap, and he pulls it close against his chest.

"I did, thank you very much, and you'll not be free of the mystery until I'm done with it," he says, voice cracking slightly towards the end of it, though it's small enough that he hopes she doesn't notice. (From the way one corner of her mouth quirks up in a smirk, he sort of doubts it.) "I must maintain some of my mystique."

"Of course, darling," she says indulgently, yawning halfway through, and then leans against her brother's side, closing her eyes.

While she's not looking, Percival swallows again, hard.

Shit.

---------

About a month after their arrival in Whitestone, the Lord Fredrick announces that the wedding will take place in eight months, four of which will be devoted to preparations, and upon hearing this Vex'ahlia has a mild panic attack and disappears into the woods.

She's careful; she doesn't go immediately or quickly, not so that it looks like she's actually trying to run away. She's taken jaunts away from the castle during her time here before and so no one is terribly surprised when she says she's going to walk down to the city proper just to stretch her legs. Normally she goes with someone, usually her brother, or one or more of the de Rolo girls since they seem to be the only ones actually interested in getting to know her, or occasionally Percival, though dragging him out of the castle is a feat in and of itself, but today she goes alone except for her bear, and halfway down the road to town she just sort of wanders off-path and into the forest.

The smell of tree sap and soil is familiar and welcoming, and not for the first time Vex is thankful for the fact that her fiancé doesn't seem to care too terribly much about her day-to-day wardrobe, though she knows that his mother has eyed her disapprovingly more than once for her breeches and hunting frock. She finds a tree relatively close to the path that's interestingly shaped enough for her to remember it and sheds her boots and socks, stuffing them amongst the roots, and then with a whistle to Trinket she bounds off into the woods, as light-footed as a doe.

She'd had to leave her bow behind unfortunately, bringing it would have caused too much suspicion, so she can't properly hunt and she doesn't know what she'd do with a kill even if she could. Still, she can track, and she does so, finding game trails with spectacular ease and following them, playing games with herself to see how close she can get to deer and rabbits before they notice her and run away, and when she gets bored of that she and Trinket play tag, the two of them loping breathlessly through the forest.

When she finally stops to take a break, resting her back against a sturdy tree by the base of a brook, there's dirt stuck beneath her toenails and ant bites on her ankles and twigs and leaves tugging at her hair and she feels lighter and freer than she has in a good while. Trinket drops to the ground at her side, not quite as winded as her but no doubt just as pleased to have a day of play after several weeks of being confined to the courtyard. She leans against him, face turned towards the sky where the summer sun shines through the leaves on the trees, warming her skin, and closes her eyes.

And she thinks.

Percival is not so bad, for all that he can be a bit stuffy and particular. There are certainly worse people she could be engaged to, truly; his younger brother Ludwig for instance, who is admittedly still in his teenage years but who often uses that excuse to openly ogle her whenever her brother or his brother isn't around. Or she could be (and she shudders at the very thought) engaged to someone like his father, who rarely speaks to his wife and seems to care little for the interests of his children, caring only if they behave themselves, and who so easily marries them off as currency.

Or (and she shudders so hard that Trinket cuddles closer to her as if under the impression she's had a chill) she could be engaged to someone like her father. Cold and impersonal and disparaging and never hiding his disdain for his children and their mother, like it's their fault that he'd bed down with a human peasant.

No, compared to that, Percival with his dry humor and his nervous laughter and his quick tongue that's sometimes too fast for his brain to reign in isn't so terrible a man to marry. She's only known him for a month, perhaps, but he seems kind enough, if a bit of a ponce sometimes, but he is still several years younger than her and he's got time to grow out of it.

It will require some negotiation between the two of them that's a bit more in-depth than 'let's not have sex' and 'we'll agree to not kill each other', what she's willing to put up with and where she can compromise, but she thinks that it could be a successful and, if not completely happy, at least a relatively comfortable marriage. She'd had her doubts at first, but over the last month she's determined at least that much.

Having reached this conclusion, Vex'ahlia stands up and stretches, then meanders her way back to the path, taking her time and leisurely following her own tracks until she reaches the hiding spot she'd chosen for her shoes, shakes a spider out of them before pulling them on, and wanders back up to the castle.

Percival can usually be found either in his library or his workshop, the latter of which she’s never actually been inside of since he’s quick to just leave it altogether rather than invite her in. When she goes looking for him, picking leaves from her braid and crumbling them into her pockets to avoid dirtying the floor, he’s not in the library, though his older brother Julius is.

Julius isn’t a sibling that she’s spent that much time around, since only the female de Rolo children seem at all invested in the engagement of their brother, but he seems kind and good-natured enough, if a little amused at his younger brother’s expense. She knows that, unlike Percival, he’s the one that’s set to inherit the title and all responsibilities that that comes with, and so he spends the majority of his own time handling what affairs of the castle and city that his father doesn’t; apparently this includes detailing the wedding, because while Vex was content to poke her head in and then leave without speaking once realizing that Percival wasn’t there, Julius calls out to her, “Ah, Lady Vex’ahlia? If you have a moment, I’d like to talk about some wedding arrangements with you.”

Vex glances at Trinket, who huffs and raises one thick shoulder in a half-shrug. She shrugs back, decides that the conversation with Percival can be put off another few minutes, and enters the library, taking a seat when Julius gestures at it with a smile.

“You won’t have to worry about most of it,” Julius assures her, “our fathers are working all of that out.”

Great, she doesn’t even get to plan the damn thing, and it’s her bloody wedding. How considerate. Knowing her father, he’ll put her in a big stupid dress just to piss her off.

“But I’m assuming that you’re not going to want to spend the entire wait for it here in Whitestone, so I’m looking to make arrangements in the schedule for you and your brother to return to Syngorn, to put your affairs in order before you come back to settle in for good,” he continues, marking something down on a sheet of paper, not even looking up at her as he speaks.

Something about it rankles her; the words, the way he says them, how he doesn’t even pay attention to her, already scribbling away at his papers, probably taking the initiative to schedule her piss breaks while he’s at it.

“Settle in for good,” she repeats, her voice coming out a bit sharper than she intends for it to, but she finds that she can’t quite bring herself to temper it. Julius blinks down at his paper a couple times before looking back up at her.

“Well, yes,” he says slowly. “That was part of the agreement between your father and mine. You’d stay here in Whitestone with your husband. Or, I suppose, wherever your husband ends up going.” Her face must reflect at least some of the cacophonous storm of her heart, because his own tightens and he says cautiously, “We’re not caging you here, Vex’ahlia. You’re permitted to take leaves as often as you like.”

Permitted,” she growls, “as if I’ve ever needed permission to go anywhere in my life. Well, Lord Julius.” She stands up, ignoring the clattering of her chair as it topples over from the force of her movement. Behind her, Trinket starts rumbling; Julius glances at him over her shoulder nervously. “I’ll tell you, and your father, exactly what I’ve told my father when he tries to tell me what’s permitted, and that’s that you can shove it up your arse!”

With a whirl of her cloak she turns and storms out of the library, brows and lips alike pulled down deeply. Trinket follows hot on her heels with a parting growl of warning to Julius, and the two of them stomp down the hallway.

She could find her brother, though he’s likely to either be in their room or at the barracks practicing his knife throwing, and both of those locations are all the way on the other side of the castle. Besides, he’d just try to calm her down, tell her that she’s overreacting, and maybe she is but right now she just needs to let herself rant for a moment.

Percival’s workshop, on the other hand, is in the same wing of the castle as the library, and if anyone were going to sit there passively and let her vent it would likely be him. The two of them have had several conversations about the unfairness of it all, in truth he’d likely be just as upset about this as she is, and unlike Vax he’d probably join her in her rage.

Decision made, though she tries not to think about why she’d prefer the presence of Percival over Vax at the moment, she descends the stairway that leads to the lower portion of the castle, almost directly under the library itself, where Percival has shown her the location of his workshop if not the actual room itself. Outside of it, oddly enough, Cassandra sits on the stone floor, her back propped up against the wall and feet stretched out in front of her as she reads a book. A bucket of water sits beside her. When Vex and Trinket storm down the stairs in a clatter of bear claws, she glances up curiously, and raises an eyebrow at her no doubt angry expression.

“Which one of them pissed you off?” she says after a moment of looking Vex up and down, dog earing the page that she’s on and snapping her book shut.

“The oldest one,” Vex grumbles. “Is Percival in there?”

“He is,” Cassandra says solemnly. “But I recommend against startling him. He brought the black powder back out.”

“Is that why you’re out here?” Vex asks, curious despite herself. Now that she’s far away from Julius and down here near the workshop, which smells of smoke and metal, a scent she’s come to associate with Percival, she can feel her heart rate lowering, the anger that had flared up so suddenly beginning to subside.

Cassandra taps a fingernail against the bucket of water. “Whitney and I drew straws for it.” She shrugs, flips her book back open, and says with an air of fond exasperation, “Someone has to keep an eye on him, I suppose.”

“What’s the water for?” Vex asks, which is when the explosion happens.

Not that it seems as such to the women in the hall; apparently the door has been reinforced against such things, because they hear only a muffled booming noise, not unlike the sound of someone dropping a very heavy book off of a ladder, and a mild vibration through the floor that causes the door to rattle on its hinges.

“Tits,” Cassandra curses, hauling herself to her feet, abandoning her reading and clutching for the bucket of water even as the door flings itself open and Percival, face and clothing covered in soot and coughing from the smoke that follows him in a great billow out of the room, patting at himself frantically, yelps out, “I’m fine, I’m fine!”

He pauses in his movements when he catches sight of Vex, his blue eyes wide behind cracked glasses. “Oh,” he says, blinking. “Hello.”

Cassandra flings half the bucket of water onto him.

“Dammit all to the hells and back, Cassandra,” he sputters, gasping as he drips water onto the floor, the smoke that had poured through the doorway quickly beginning to subside, “I wasn’t even on fire this time!”

Cassandra stares at him for a long moment and then flings the rest of the water at him.

“You shit!” he shrieks, looking like a soot-smeared drowned rat, and Vex can’t help it, she immediately starts laughing, great heaving guffaws that make her lean against Trinket to hold herself up.

He sends her a pained look that carries so much betrayal in it that she laughs even harder, and Cassandra follows suit after a moment, though her chuckles are much more subdued. After half a minute passes without her mirth subsiding, Percival finally grumbles and turns back into his workshop, apparently to clean up the mess the explosion had made.

“Is this what you get up to down here?” Vex giggles, walking forward to peek in through the doorway. It looks like an average workshop with a forge in the corner, though now one section of the wall is blackened with soot and scorch marks across the stone. The table that had housed whatever caused the explosion is nearly in splinters, broken in half with chunks of wood scattered across the floor. “Whatever sort of tinkerer are you, Percival?”

“Damn, Percy,” Cassandra says as she peeks around Vex to look in as well. Vex has never heard Percival referred to as such, and upon hearing the nickname she begins to laugh once more. Percy. That’s adorable. “How aren’t you on fire? That looks like it should have taken your arm off.”

“I was across the room when it happened,” he huffs, and then abruptly takes in a deep, pained breath that he lets out with a hiss. “Oh, balls,” he murmurs, and when Vex turns to look at him he’s got one hand pressed to his side, where the fabric of his shirt, already saturated and dark with water, begins to grow even darker with blood.

Cassandra, upon seeing this, instantly goes pale and says quickly, “I’ll get a healer.” She leaves immediately without even hesitating, and Percival rolls his eyes as he takes a seat at one of the benches.

“She can’t stand blood,” he says to Vex, who cautiously makes her way over to him, picking across the chunks of wood scattered across the floor. “It’s probably just shrapnel from the table. I’ve got some tweezers on that table over there, be a dear and grab them for me?” She does so and hands them over, eyebrow raised. “Ah, pardon,” he says suddenly, looking at her as if just actually realizing who she is. “I’ll, ah, have to take my shirt off.”

Vex raises the other eyebrow at him, one side of her mouth tilting up in a smirk, and doesn’t move.

Percival waits for another moment for her to do something, but when she doesn’t make to leave he huffs again, harder, and grumbles, “Cheeky.” Then, with a wince as he stretches his injured side, he begins to tug off his shirt.

Oh. Oh, wow.

Wow.

She’d been expecting-- oh, well, she’s not sure what she’d been expecting. He’s as thin as a twig, to the point where a couple time she’s almost expressed concern over it, and while he’s definitely as pale as she’d anticipated she can honestly say that she hadn’t thought he’d have muscles.

“Arms,” she says, feeling a little shellshocked. He’s been hiding this from her the whole time? Damn.

“No,” he says distractedly, trying to pick the splinter that’s lodged itself into his side out with the tweezers. “I think my arms are fine, I believe this is the only one that got me.” He flinches with a hiss, struggling with the tool and the awkward angle that he’s got to work with, and then sends her such a wounded look through his cracked glasses that she immediately feels bad for him.

“Give it here, darling,” she sighs with more drama than she actually feels, softening it with a smile so he knows she’s joking, and takes the tweezers that he offers gratefully. She hesitates for a moment before steeling her nerves, and then places the hand not holding them on his thigh to steady herself as she bends down to examine his side.

It’s big, but not worryingly so; what she’s concerned about is the multitude of considerably smaller splinters that pepper his ribs and stomach, rather than the one large one. It’s just a flesh wound that managed to cut a little too deep, but even with her limited healing she can manage it.

“So,” Percival starts, visibly struggling not to twitch away from her as she begins poking his side. “What brings you down to my neck of the woods?”

Vex stays silent for the amount of time that it takes for her to work out the one big splinter, collecting her thoughts before moving on to the series of smaller ones. “Your brother pissed me off.”

“Oh dear,” he sighs, though he doesn’t seem very surprised by the revelation. “Which one?”

“Cassandra asked the same thing, you know. The older one.”

“Julius?” That, it seems, does surprise him, but apparently not enough to distract him from the situation at hand because when he glances down at her his eyes land on her hand on his thigh and a blush immediately lights up his cheeks and ears. It’s sort of adorable. The thigh is nicely muscled, too. Wow. “Whatever did he do? He’s usually very agreeable.”

“He heavily implied that I had to ask your permission before I go anywhere after we’re married, and am otherwise stuck here in Whitestone.” She looks up at him briefly to gauge his reaction to that, but now it seems like he’s trying to focus on literally anything but her.

“Well, that’s our father talking, not him. If he tried to pull that garbage with Sina she’d castrate him.” He says it so simply, so decisively, that Vex sort of feels bad for ever doubting him. After all, even before they’d attempted honest friendship, Percival’s never acted like he’s entitled to anything from her, least of all her time. “He’s just going through one of his moods where he thinks that’s how a Lord has to act, he doesn’t actually believe it himself, I don’t think. Still, it was very rude, and if you like I’ll make him feel sorry.”

“‘Feel sorry’?” she repeats with a laugh, her hand moving from his thigh to his stomach to hold him still as she pulls little needle-like slivers of wood from his skin. He’s handling the whole thing remarkably well, far better than she’d expected. “Not apologize?”

“He can do that on his own time,” he assures her, still determinedly staring at the wall, his abdominal muscles fluttering nervously beneath her fingers. “My siblings and I are well-adept at the art of pranking. I can sick the girls on him, but I dare say that I’m not a bad hand at it myself, if it pleases you.”

“‘If it pleases me,’” she repeats once more, touched despite herself. “Honestly, Percy.” And then, she closes her eyes and concentrates on how she’d felt that morning, the ground and dirt between her toes, the smell of the trees, the sound of the wind; pulling magic from nature is difficult here in this stone castle, but she was born with that wildness in her, and it takes only a few seconds to call forth the power necessary to heal the shallow cut that’s been slowly weeping blood this whole time.

“Oh, gods, not Percy,” he starts, and then falls silent as her hands begin to glow and his skin knits together under her fingers. He swallows and stares down at where she’s touching him, eyes lifting to hers in surprise when she slowly pulls them away. “Well,” he says weakly.

She rubs her palms together, inexplicably nervous despite herself, and the two of them watch each other for a long moment before his blush deepens and he jerks his head away, hands reaching out for his discarded shirt. While he pulls it back on Vex takes the opportunity to bite her lip and straighten her own clothing. She’d meant it to be a small thing, magic is not terribly rare and surely he’s heard that her father is an accomplished wizard, and yet… And yet. It feels somehow more than she’d intended.

“I like it,” she says abruptly, forcing his gaze back onto her. “Percy. It suits you.”

“Oh, please don’t,” he says weakly, but with a tiny smile nonetheless. “It makes me feel like I’m a child about to be scolded by my sister again.”

“It’s cute,” she argues, feeling the strange tension of the moment pass, and he sighs with a grand roll of his eyes. “Much easier on the tongue, too. I’d very much like to call you that.”

“If it pleases you,” he says once again, a strange sort of fondness to his voice that she’s astonished to find herself blushing to.

“It pleases me,” she decides, and meets his tiny smile with one of her own.

Now kiss,” whispers a voice from the doorway, and both of them jump, startled, and turn to see Cassandra, Whitney, and Vesper have all been lurking near the doorway, watching them with annoyingly smug smirks.

Percival-- Percy-- grabs the tweezers from Vex with surprising speed and flings them at his sisters as hard as he can, scattering the girls with shrieks of laughter.

---------

“It’s the oddest thing,” Sina says the next morning at breakfast, looking utterly serene. “For some reason, my husband went to his study to finish some paperwork last night, and found all of the drawers of his desk filled with bear scat.”

“Very odd indeed,” Percival agrees, not looking up from his nephew as he bounces the boy on his knee.

“No clue how it’d gotten here,” Sina continues, cutting her sausage into smaller bites, eyes stopping on each sibling in order.

Cassandra and Ludwig both glance at each other as soon as she’s passed them over. Did you do it? she mouths, pointing at him with her spoon.

No, he mouths back with a puzzled frown and a shrug.

“Apparently,” Sina murmurs, “he’d upset the Lady Vex’ahlia earlier in the day. She has a bear, doesn’t she, Percival?”

Percival looks up from the toddler for a moment and catches her eyes, then says simply, “Yes, she does. What a coincidence.”

“And yet,” Sina says, spearing a bit of the meat on her fork and holding it aloft critically, “I recall her being at the archery range most of the afternoon and evening, competing with a few of the guards.”

“Can’t have been her then,” he hums, smiling as his nephew burbles happily.

“Who could have done it then, I wonder?” she asks rhetorically, though her eyes narrow upon Percival.

“It is a mystery,” he says with a sigh, not quite hiding the upward tilt of one side of his mouth.

Silence, and then Ludwig whispers, “Percy’s scary.”

---------

Despite the fact that Julius handled the delivery very poorly, Vex actually does want to return to Syngorn, if only because that’s where a reply letter from her mother will be sent. She’d been unsure of where to tell her mother to address letters to during her stay at Whitestone, and besides, there are things she needs to do.

She won’t, of course, accept living in Whitestone without ever leaving for the entirety of her marriage; Percy has lived over two decades without her up to this point, and she doubts that being wed will prevent him from surviving a few months without her every year or so. If it’d been him traveling to live with her in Syngorn she obviously wouldn’t expect him to stay confined to that one city for the rest of his life, and she’s not sure why the Lord de Rolo thought that she’d be any more compliant.

She’s still… not entirely sure what this is going to mean for her brother, whether he’ll be allowed to stay in Whitestone with her or if he’ll be expected to stay in Syngorn even after she’s gone. Even between the two of them discussions regarding the subject have been short and unhappy, neither of them willing to entertain the idea of them being split up.

Be that as it may, a carriage arrives two months into her engagement to take them back to their father, who they’ll stay with for another month or so before returning to wait out the remainder of the time before the wedding in Whitestone. The entire de Rolo family, sans Oliver (who she thinks might be hungover and still asleep), comes to see her off, and while Whitney seems the saddest to see them go, Percy is a close second.

“Travel safely,” he tells her as he helps her step up into the carriage, a glum expression on his face that he’s clearly trying to hide.

“Cheer up, darling,” she says, squeezing his fingers with an encouraging smile. “You act like you’re never going to see me again.”

“I don’t have many friends,” he reminds her. He glances over his shoulder briefly to his siblings. “They don’t count.” (On cue, Ludwig, who is definitely hungover, turns as quickly as he can and retches into a shrubbery while Fredrick laughs unhelpfully.) He shudders and turns away from them quickly. “It’ll be dreadfully boring without you.”

“I’ll write,” she promises with a laugh, making to pull her hand away; he surprises her by tightening his grip, then pulling her closer to brush his lips against her knuckles.

“I look forward to it,” he says quietly, just loud enough for her to hear, and on a whim, before she can think about it too hard, she leans down, bracing her free hand against the door of the carriage, and kisses his cheek.

“As you should,” she says as primly as she can manage to hide the blush creeping across her nose, and then pulls away fully. He lets her go this time, looking far less glum than he had a moment ago, and she shuts the carriage door quickly before she makes any more a fool of herself than she already has.

Once they’ve gone about twenty feet down the road, she looks out the window behind them to see that Percy has been converged upon by two of his sisters, likely Whitney and Vesper, and she smirks to herself before straightening in her seat and facing forwards.

Where her brother happens to be sitting with a disgusted look on his face.

“What?” she says, embarrassment sharpening her voice, and he shrugs with exaggerated casualness.

“Nothing,” he says flippantly, though he still looks slightly ill.

“If you’ve got something to say then just say it,” she huffs, crossing her arms, and Vax mirrors her, looking out the opposite window as she is.

A minute passes in silence, but she just knows he’s gearing up for something. Sure enough, after another minute goes by, he says with enough sincerity that it can only be mockery, “Darling.”

“I call everyone that,” she snaps defensively. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

“No,” he agrees easily, brows high on his face as he stares out the window. “Of course not.”

“Am I not allowed to be friends with him now, Vax?” He doesn’t say anything in reply, just shrugs again, and she lets out a hard breath and throws her hands up into the air. “What, are you jealous? Is that it? Because I enjoy spending time with him?”

“I’m not jealous,” Vax says, jealously.

“Clearly you are,” she argues, then leans out the window and says, “Isn’t he, Trinket?”

Trinket, who probably can’t hear them and likely wouldn’t understand what’s going on even if he could, roars in agreement nonetheless, because he’s a well-trained bear who loves his mummy.

“Three weeks ago,” Vax starts, with enough emotion in his voice that Vex knows he’s been holding this in for a while, “you could hardly stand him, and now you’re kissing cheeks and calling him darling and missing him, you’ve sighed wistfully twice in the last few minutes, Vex’ahlia, what the fuck.”

“I have not sighed wistfully,” she hisses. If she had something to toss at him she would, but all she’s got on her is the broach that Percy’d made for her last week to hold her cloak together, and--

Shit.

Whatever. She still hasn’t sighed.

“I’m just saying,” he continues, a little quieter now, as if he’s trying to reign himself in, “I would be careful. You were suspicious of him at first for a reason.”

Vex licks her lips and considers her words, the way Percy does, the way he sits on them until he’s sure he’s got them all in order. He’s been better about that lately, thinking before he speaks, enough that she’s noticed a difference. She definitely doesn’t want to kill him anymore, not even a little bit.

“I was,” she agrees finally, after a few minutes of tense silence. “You’re right, I was. But I’m not now. He’s kind, and he makes me laugh, and I don’t-- I don’t know that I could love him, but I like him enough that marriage to him would not be so terrible a thing.”

Vax seems to think on that for a moment, eyes still pointed outside the window, and after a few seconds she follows his gaze. By now they’ve descended the road from the castle and are riding through the city proper. Vex hasn’t spent enough time here, she thinks; not enough to be familiar with it, not enough for it to be somewhere she could call home. Not yet.

She’ll have to work on that.

“You don’t know that you could love him?” her brother asks suddenly, and she turns to look at him. He still hasn’t turned away from the window, but she knows better than to think that means he’s not watching. “But… you could be happy?”

Vex thinks about it for a moment, and despite herself she smiles a little. “Yes,” she answers. “I think I could.”

Vax sighs heavily and closes his eyes before turning back to her with an air of defeat. “Then I guess I will be happy for you as well.”

A few minutes pass. Before she can even think to stop herself, Vex looks out the window and sighs, and Vax whips around to point at her accusingly.

Fuck.