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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.

Chapter Text

PART III

“Poor Percy,” Whitney says, sympathetically.

“He’s moping,” Cassandra says, far less sympathetically.

“I can hear both of you,” Percival says, annoyance clear in his voice. He glances over his shoulder at them, though truthfully he can’t see much through the mask he’s got pulled over his face. He’d learned his lesson last time he’d inhaled the black powder, and it’s not a lesson he’s interested in revisiting. “Didn’t anyone in this family other than me learn how to bloody knock?

“We did,” Whitney tells him, a little hesitantly; maybe he’d spoken with more annoyance than he’d meant to. “You didn’t answer, and we wanted to make sure you were alright.”

Percival looks down at his work, then looks back over at his sisters. Whitney’s biting her lip with her hands clasped in front of her, and though Cassandra’s got her arms crossed and her shoulders tight Percival knows that she just doesn’t want to be as obvious with her concern. With a sigh he turns away from his workbench and pulls off his mask, running a hand through his hair tiredly. The powder will keep, but their hurt feelings might not.

“Come on, Perc,” Cassandra says, gesturing over her shoulder out the door of the workshop. “You’ve been locked in here for days. You’ve even lost the little bitty tan that you’d sort-of had.”

“I’d had a tan?” he asks curiously, locking the door behind him before following them out into the hallway and up the stairs.

“Sort of,” she stresses. “It was a little there. For a few weeks you’d been slightly less transparent than usual.”

“Great,” he says with little enthusiasm. Whitney comes up beside him and hooks an arm through his, tucking herself against his side, and he lets her with a huff.

“Come along, Percy,” she tells him, voice warm with concern, leading him through the halls towards the kitchens. “I’ve barely seen you at meals for the last week, surely you must need to eat something.”

Truth be told, he’d passed the point of hunger a good while ago though he’s not exactly sure when, pummeling his empty and unhappy stomach into submission through sheer determination. It’s just-- there are things to do, experiments to catch up on, work that he’s put off for the last few months to complete. Vex’ahlia was a lovely distraction but a distraction nonetheless, and he hadn’t realized how behind he’d fallen on his work until she’d left.

Besides, it’s been a week and he hasn’t heard anything from her since his father had received the message that they’d arrived safely, so clearly she’s busy doing whatever it is that she’s doing, and so he can be busy too.

He is not moping, thank you very much.

“He’s moping again,” Cassandra sighs.

“Am not,” he says instantly on reflex, so caught up in his thoughts that he’s not even entirely sure what he’s arguing against, but he typically fundamentally disagrees with anything that Cassandra says anyway.

“Are too,” she argues, glaring at him.

“Am not.”

“Are too!”

“Am not!”

“Oh, Pelor’s rays and mercy,” Whitney says, releasing Percival’s arm to drop her face into her hands. “Will you two stop please? You’re being ridiculous.”

A few moments of silence pass before Percival mutters under his breath, “Am not.” Whitney elbows him in the side.

On their way to the kitchens, they pass Oliver and Ludwig, who are huddled together and whispering under their breaths about something that Percival is quite sure he has no interest in, and when they catch sight of him and the girls they both let out exaggerated gasps and clutch at each other dramatically.

“He lives!” Ludwig cries

“We were so sure you’d finally just snuffed it down there!” Oliver says.

“In fact, we’d already divvied up your things!”

“I’m using your room for storage now and you can’t have it back.”

“I’ll kill the both of you,” Percival threatens, though his heart isn’t entirely in it. He doesn’t really have the energy to deal with them right now, not while also trying to handle the girls.

“Shove off, Oliver,” Whitney says sharply, and Oliver immediately looks contrite, cowed by his twin in a way that no one, not even their father, can replicate.

“Oh, sorry,” Ludwig says, not sounding very sorry at all; he’s received beatings from several siblings across his lifetime but he’s still never learned when to let something go. “I forgot that he was pouting about his girlfriend. Probably they found a better match for her in Syngorn and they’re ending the engagement, probably you haven’t heard from her because she’s so relieved to have washed her hands of you, probably--”

Percival doesn’t get to find out what that last probably would have been, because he punches Ludwig in the face.

See, here’s the thing that Percival’s siblings don’t understand: blacksmithing is hard. It’s physically exhausting, and you handle a lot of heavy equipment, and it’s not a trade that you keep if you aren’t willing to work through the pain in your muscles to get stronger. Percival has never been the sort of man to bulk up, not even when he was a child. While most of the de Rolo children had more than their share of puppy fat, a mark of growing up wealthy and never having to fear for food, Percival always found it difficult to retain the calories he’d intake. It’s why he runs hotter than most people, why he’s so thin-- why his muscles can be so easily hidden under clothing.

Basically, Percival is built.

“My face!” Ludwig shrieks, lifting one hand to staunch the bleeding of his nose, then shrieks even louder when Percival draws him into a headlock.

“Oh man, Percy’s having a go!” Oliver says excitedly, because Percival has never been the type of brother to get into a tussle, not like Julius who used to wrestle with them but always fought dirty. He then jumps on Percival’s back, attempting his own headlock, and instead sending all three of them crashing down to the floor.

Cassandra lets out a battle cry and leaps into the fray as well because, as previously stated, Percival is her favorite. She sinks her teeth into the leg of who she thinks is Oliver, except Percival yelps, and so she moves to a different leg, except Percival yelps again. Then she abandons biting altogether and just starts pulling hair.

“Wow,” Whitney says, from the sidelines and a few safe feet away. “Wow.” Then she runs off to get the one person that can put an end to this mess.

Which is why, nearly two minutes of hair pulling and elbowing and groin-kneeing later, the Lady of Whitestone, Johanna, says sharply, “Percival Fredrickstein von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III,” and immediately all four de Rolo children on the floor scatter away from each other.

“Mother, he--” Ludwig whimpers.

“No,” Johanna says.

“But I--” Percival tries.

“No,” Johanna says.

“He didn’t--” Cassandra huffs.

“No,” Johanna says.

“I didn’t start it this time!” Oliver defends, all in a rush.

Johanna eyes fall on him briefly before shifting back to Percival. One immaculately-plucked eyebrow raises expectantly. “Percival,” she says again, clearly not willing to put up with an argument, and with a defeated sigh Percival heaves himself up off the floor, wipes some blood from his mouth, and follows her as she turns, ignoring the other three children on the ground, and strides down the hall.

Once they’ve turned a corner and are out of earshot, Johanna sighs, the high hold she’d had on her shoulders drooping, and turns to look at her son with a frown. “I’ve never known you to pick fights, Percival. You of all my children have the most patience for your siblings. Whatever did he say that riled you up so?”

“I thought Vesper had the most patience,” Percival mutters, wiping at his mouth again before shoving his hands in his pockets. He thinks he might have split his lip, or bitten the inside of his cheek.

“She pretends to, but I’ve caught her pouring laxatives in teas several times,” Johanna says with a hum. “You’re trying to change the subject, my love.”

Percival grumbles under his breath, too embarrassed to speak. Truthfully, he’s not even entirely sure himself why Ludwig’s jibing had upset him so much, or at least he doesn’t want to think about why. Just-- the idea that Vex’ahlia might find him… lacking in some way-- that she might find someone in Syngorn that’s better--

Johanna sighs again and leads him into her study.

The Lady’s study is much more comfortable than the Lord’s. Though she doesn’t have quite as much on her plate as her husband, Johanna still has many responsibilities, and it would be easy for her to drown in them, to become overwhelmed and cold and unapproachable. Despite this, her study is filled with books of leisure, and a crackling hearth, and several cushy leather chairs that Percival has fond childhood memories of crawling over and hiding under and sleeping in while his mother did her paperwork, though she would always offer an indulgent smile whenever he’d sought to distract her.

She steers him towards one of those very chairs, and after he settles himself in she pulls a handkerchief from one of the pockets of her dress and leans over him, pressing it against his lip.

“I got Ludwig better than this,” he admits, a little guiltily. “You should have offered this to him instead.”

“And yet,” Johanna says mildly, “right now it is my third child and not my sixth that I worry over. I would have you speak your mind, pup. You cause your mother fear.”

Pup. God, he hates that nickname, in the way that he doesn’t actually hate it at all because his mother calls him that, except she has this horrible habit of accidentally doing it in front of visiting dignitaries. (Lord Briarwood had smirked at it when she’d called him that over dinner, which might have lended to him accidentally setting off the sink bomb. Oops.) He can only pray that she never lets it slip in front of Vex’ahlia.

Assuming she even comes back to Whitestone.

Ugh.

“I am… confused,” he admits, taking the handkerchief from her to hold it himself so that she can take a seat as well. “About things. Myself.”

Johanna cocks her head to the side slightly. “Normally when my pup is confused about something he pursues an answer or solution doggedly and without distraction, not scrap with his brothers. I could expect that easily from Oliver, but not from you. What troubles you so terribly?” He stares down into his lap, not meeting her eyes. She’s quiet for long enough that he thinks she may just wait him out, but after a few moments she sighs and leans back in her seat. “Is this about your engagement? It… confuses you?”

He glances up at her briefly before looking away again, his jaw tightening. Johanna waits patiently until he finally speaks, and when he does so his words are slow and carefully chosen. “I had… thought that I could be friends with my fiancée, and that I could live my life, my marriage, content with that friendship. I... wonder now if I could be content with that.”

“Percival,” his mother says, her voice gentle in a way that he doesn’t hear often. She’s a kind woman, and a caring one, but no one could claim her to be the warmest. “I think I understand what you’re telling me.”

“Good,” he tells her, relieved, “because I barely understand it.”

“These feelings that you have are nothing to be ashamed of,” she murmurs, and reaches out to take his hand. He lets her, feeling a little confused but trusting her to know best. “And I’m sure that she will understand as well.”

“Oh, I do hope so,” he sighs, “it would be terribly awkward if she were made uncomfortable by it.”

“Your happiness is what is most important to me,” Johanna says, threading their fingers together. “I had approved of this arrangement with the condition that it be broken off if you seemed unhappy. I thought that the two of you growing closer in the last few weeks would mean it would work out, but it seems like it’s causing you undue stress.”

“It’s just--” He pulls the handkerchief away from his mouth and gestures with it vaguely. “I thought I’d be able to handle it, and maybe I could have before, except now I’m wondering if I’ll be able to manage how I feel without it effecting the agreement that she and I had made to make the whole thing work.”

“I’ll talk to your father about calling off the engagement,” Johanna says soothingly, “and we’ll look into eligible bachelors for you instead.”

Wait.

What?

“Wait,” he says in confusion. “What?”

“I don’t want you to feel trapped in a marriage and thinking that you can’t be true to yourself,” Johanna says, patting his hand and giving him a comforting smile. “I want you to be happy.”

“Mother,” he tries weakly, feeling the grip he has on both her hand and the handkerchief slacken. She doesn’t seem to notice.

“I’m sure Vex’ahlia will understand, and perhaps we can still smooth things over with Syldor should his feathers get ruffled over it. Her twin is male, yes? And I believe he’s unmarried himself.”

“Mother,” he says again, his voice cracking. “I don’t want to marry a man.”

She frowns at him for a moment before squeezing his fingers even harder. “Well, that’s your decision I suppose, but I think your father would be more agreeable to the idea of you with a male partner if the two of you were wed--”

“Holy light and sun,” Percival says, his voice coming out louder than he intends for it to, and he yanks his hand away from her grasp and runs it through his hair. “I don’t want a male partner, I think I like Vex’ahlia. As in, romantically.”

“Oh,” Johanna says, blinking.

“As in, not platonically. Which is how we’d agreed this marriage was going to go. A very platonic, not-romantic partnership where feelings wouldn’t be involved.”

“Oh,” Johanna says, frowning.

“Except now I think I like her, like like her like her, and it makes the entire thing infinitely more complicated than it needs to be, because before we could have just been friend-married until one of us eventually died and I would have been content with that, except now I like her and she’s not here and I can’t even concentrate on my work because I miss her. Because I like her. And it’s horrible.”

Johanna stares at him for a long moment, disbelievingly, before holding up a finger at him as if telling him to hold on. Then, she gets up, walks to her desk, and pulls a large, half-empty decanter of whiskey from the bottom drawer. She takes a glass from the same drawer, pours a few fingers into it, and then downs the entire thing in one gulp. She coughs briefly, then gets another glass and fills both of them up, moving back to her seat with one and handing the other over to Percival.

“Wow,” she says, sipping from her whiskey and then tilting her head up to the ceiling. “And I was so sure that you’d been panicking because you’d realized you were gay.”

“Do I just give off that vibe or something?” Percival asks, a little miserably. He takes a sip of his own drink and immediately gags. Gods, that is some wretched swill.

“Sometimes,” she tells him sympathetically. Then she straightens in her seat with a sigh and looks at him seriously. “Listen, my pup. Contrary to whatever examples you’ve grown up with, caring for your spouse romantically isn’t actually the end of the world. In fact, in most circles, it’s considered perfectly normal, and is in fact encouraged, to have feelings for them.”

“Father says feelings are for peasants,” he says, trying to think of a way to politely tell his mother that her alcohol is terrible.

“Your father has the complex emotional capacity of a snail,” she reminds him, raising an eyebrow. “And despite that, and despite whatever you yourself may think, he does care for me, and I do care for him as well. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have sex with him enough for us to have seven children together.”

Percival scrunches up his nose in disgust and takes a drink from his whiskey before remembering that it’s awful. “I really don’t want to think about this. Please, gods, let’s just move on and forget that this conversation happened.”

“No, we’ll not,” Johanna says firmly, gesturing at him with her glass. “This is important. If you care for this girl, Percival, then is it truly so terrible that you’re marrying her? That is typically the direction that such things go in.”

“Just because I like her doesn’t mean that I love her,” he says, a little defensively, the words coming out shorter and more clipped than he intends for them to. “I don’t know her well enough for that.”

“But you like her, and that makes you want to know her more, and that could lead to love.” Johanna shrugs and sips from her drink again, looking utterly unimpressed with his petulance. “I see no issues here. You’re overthinking things, just like you always do. Perhaps this is just the natural progression of things. It’s a little backwards, yes, but both your brother’s and mine and your father’s marriages were all arranged, and we’re all happy. Usually. Mostly. Except for when Sina forgets to drink the teas that the Keeper makes up for her.”

“Maybe it’ll just go away,” Percival says weakly, staring down into his glass like it might hold the secrets of the universe for him. “Maybe it’ll just fade into nothing while she’s in Syngorn, and I’ll be back to normal by the time she comes back. And then we can just be friends and everything will be copacetic. Yes,” he continues, a bit more strength and enthusiasm to his words, “I’m sure that’s what will happen.”

There’s a knock at the doorway, and after Johanna calls out curiously a servant pokes his head in. “Apologies for interrupting, my Lady, but the young Lord has a message that’s just arrived for him from Syngorn.”

Percival’s already half out of his seat before he freezes and looks back at his mother, who simply watches him, sipping at her drink with a look of mild satisfaction.

“Oh, shut up,” he snaps at her, causing the servant to gasp in surprise, but he doesn’t even wait to see her reaction, and her tinkling laughter carries out of the study and follows him down the hall.

---------

Percival Fredrickstein von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III,

I’ll be completely honest and say that I had to sneak into my father’s study and go through his correspondence and contracts with your father to find out how to spell your full name. It is ridiculous. And I’d thought my name was complicated.

I apologize that it took me nearly a week to send a letter, my brother and I had some catching up to do with our affairs regarding my inheritance of our father’s estate and the legal hoops we had to jump through were both time consuming and exhausting. As it turns out, by marrying me you’ll be given access to my half of his possessions when he dies as well! However, since he’s a full-blooded elf, you and I will both be dead long before that happens, unless I give in to the inevitable urge to kill him in his sleep.

So basically the whole process was entirely useless, but if there’s one thing that stuffy Elves love it’s bureaucracy.

I hope that Whitestone and your family are treating you fairly. Please give the girls my love, and do whatever you like to the boys. I’m ambivalent towards them.

I look forward to a response, and do me a favor and please try not to blow yourself up. Actually, now that I think about it, your death would get me out of this arrangement and is really only beneficial to me. So by all means, blow yourself up.

I’m joking. Please don’t blow yourself up. I’d miss you I’m sure it would be a lot of paperwork that as your fiancée I would have to take care of.

Sincerely,
Vex’ahlia of Syngorn

Percival reads the letter. Then he shoves it under his pillow and stretches across his bed, staring at the ceiling. That lasts for about a minute before he pulls the letter back out and rereads it.

Fuck. He is so screwed.

---------

“So how was Whitestone?” Syldor asks over dinner, which is actually the first thing he’s said to Vex since she and Vax returned a little over a week ago. (When they’d arrived, he’d said, “Took you long enough,” but she thinks that was directed at the carriage driver and not actually at her.)

“Lovely,” Vex says, adopting the polite distance that she typically does when conversing with her father. The two of them have two methods of communication; begrudging tolerance, and screaming. “It was a shame you didn’t join us. How long did it take for the diarrhea to pass?”

“Nearly a week,” he answers, sounding almost impressed. “Nice job on the lobelia, my physicians were afraid the poison would kill me several times. I assume you had your brother measure it out?”

“I have no clue what you’re insinuating, father,” Vex says demurely, delicately sipping from her bowl of soup. “But if it passed within a week, what kept you from arriving belatedly?”

Syldor hums and uses a finger to magically turn a page of his book. Vex feels her teeth grind together and forces them to relax. She hates when he uses magic to do simple, stupid things like that, and he knows it, which is why he does them. “Well I’d already had an excuse to stay home and I didn’t see much reason to meet the boy. It’s not like he’s that important.” Yes, thank you, Father, for stating how unimportant you find the man you’re selling her off to. “Besides, humans always smell like wet dogs to me.”

“I thought the castle was rather grand myself. No wet dog smell anywhere.”

“Yes, well,” he hums, and turns a page again, blue arcane energy sparking from his fingertip. “You’re not a true Elf, I’m not surprised your senses aren’t keen enough to catch it. Your nose is probably so dulled by hanging about that bear all the time, even if your blood wasn’t muddied you likely wouldn’t understand.”

Vex’ahlia grits her teeth and feels the grip on her spoon tighten, the overwhelming urge to dig it into his eye socket and scoop his eye out beginning to build up inside her. Unfortunately, that urge is a common one, and she’s built up a tolerance to it over the years.

God, she can’t wait to go back to Whitestone. How fucking ironic-- she’d been so upset over having the choice of whether or not to leave taken away from her that she’d forgotten how desperately she’s always just wanted to go. If it weren’t for the stipend they received and then sent to Mother, she and Vax would have gotten the hell out of dodge years ago.

Speaking of Mother; she’d received the letter Elaina had written to her in response to the announcement of her engagement and needed to write her own reply back and hopefully quell some of her fears. Elaina’s letter had been full of insults towards Syldor, and threats directed at Percy, and promises to march to Whitestone herself and “give that entitled little prick what-for”.

While Mother calling Percy an entitled little prick when they meet would be hilarious, Vex doesn’t actually want to upset the poor man. She rather likes him, now that the dust has settled.

“Who knows, though,” Syldor continues, turning another goddamn page. His eyes aren’t even moving, he’s literally not reading. He’s doing it for the sole purpose of annoying her. “Maybe being wed to the whelpling will be good for you. Fredrick’s one of the least irritating humans I know, surely he’ll have raised a son who will be strong enough to put even a woman as stubborn as you in your place.”

“Indeed,” Vex says through a tightened jaw. She wishes Vax were here, but he’s disappeared to check out his usual haunts, the caches that he’s got stashed about Syngorn that are filled with little trinkets and small gold hoards, whatever his occasionally sticky fingers have managed to find.

It’s not like he could do much help even if he were present, honestly. Syldor’s opinion of him is equally low. There are some arguments that she knows she will never win, and all the raging in the world won’t fix her father’s backwards arse. Honestly, she’s mostly just given up trying.

She’s tired of it, and it’s never worth the fight.

Besides, in a few months she’ll never have to live in this city again. Of course, she’ll have a brand new set of problems that she’ll have to deal with, but… she figures she’ll cross that bridge when she gets to it.

And what a bridge that will be. God, it’s only been a week, but--

She misses him.

She misses all of them, of course; the entire de Rolos and their easy acceptance of each other, the love that’s obvious even when they’re arguing. Vex had come to Whitestone expecting to hate all of them, this horrible family of human nobles that presumed to buy her just to satisfy her father, but she was astonished to find them be so much more than just a bunch of aristocratic assholes. She misses Vesper’s smiles and Whitney’s giggles, she misses Cassandra’s quick wit and Sina’s dry humor. She even misses the boys, the way Oliver had admired her marksmanship skills so much that he’d asked for advice with his own bow, the way Ludwig had followed Vax around eagerly like a puppy, even the way Julius had always asked Sina for advice on a decision before he signed off on something.

She misses Percy the most of all though, in a way that she’s not entirely comfortable putting words to and isn’t even sure that she could if she were. She misses his curiosity and his willingness to learn, and his eagerness to share something after he’d learned it. She misses the way he’d never dismiss her opinions, not even when they’d first met and he’d still sort of had his head up his arse. She misses being able to wander out of the woods with leaves and twigs stuck to her hair without getting glared at or looked down upon the way her father would; instead, Percy would often just pick them out without even pausing whatever enthusiastic tirade he’d launch into as soon as he’d see her.

Godsdamn. It hasn’t even been two weeks yet. What is wrong with her?

The thing is, Percy wouldn’t even think about ‘putting her in her place’. (Mostly because she’s half-convinced that he’s still a little bit scared of her, which is good. He should be.) The thought likely wouldn’t even cross his mind.

At least, she hopes it wouldn’t. Truthfully she’s only known him a couple months, not long enough to form a solid opinion on him, not long enough to base a marriage off of.

Everything was so much simpler before all of this had happened. Maybe she was always miserable, but at least she always knew what to expect.

“I’m looking forward to seeing who you’ll become with another firm hand to reign you in,” Syldor says mildly, abandoning the show with his book to instead use magic to lift his fork and knife and cut his meat into pieces. “I’ve tried my hardest with you, Vex’ahlia, but I think that you are just predisposed against me because of the poison about your heritage that your mother fed you as a child.” Vex grinds her teeth so hard that her jaw aches and forces herself to remain seated. She cannot give him this satisfaction. “I worried about you getting more in touch with your human half, but perhaps that’s what you need; someone with a simpler mind that you can better understand in a similar position of power over you that I have.”

Nope, nope that’s it. Vex’ahlia slams her hands down on the table and shoves her chair back, lifting one hand to point at him viciously with an accusing finger and fully prepared to tell him that he can shove his position of power right up his tight ass, when a raven lands on the railing of the dining room’s adjoining balcony and caws.

Father and daughter both stop and stare at it. The raven caws again, louder and more petulantly, and lifts one leg with a glare in Vex’s direction. Now that she’s looking, she can see a scroll tied to it, and her stomach plummets before lifting back up so quickly that it nearly makes her sick.

Whitestone uses ravens as messenger birds.

Without a backwards glance she leaves the table and strides towards the balcony, ignoring her father’s sharp noise of rebuke. The raven holds its leg out for her to relieve its burden impatiently, and then takes back off to the sky once she’s collected her prize with a final caw of annoyance, like it’s her fault that it was forced to do its job.

“Excuse me, father,” she says, as evenly as she can, relief and anger both warring within her hard enough that she’s not sure which would win. Either would be damning and just give him more ammunition against her. “My fiancé will be expecting a reply.” And then she sweeps out of the dining room, letter clutched protectively to her chest, as she leaves him to clean up her mess. Or, rather, one of the servants will get it, but she’s too nervous --excited-- to think about that right now.

When she reaches her room and slams and locks the door behind her she lets out a heavy sigh, and then a shriek as she looks up to see her brother silhouetted against her own balcony, the dark shape of him contrasted against the brilliant orange and purple of dusk.

Like most nobles in Syngorn, the estate of Syldor Visaar is almost entirely open to nature; unless the room is an interior one, there’s without fail a side that’s made up of either a balcony with a railing or just a sheer drop-off to the forest floor below. Vex, who’s always felt an intimate connection with nature and the woods, has found this fact to be one of the very few upsides of living with her father. Vax, meanwhile, loves to use this to his advantage to sneak in and out.

“Motherfuck, Vax!” she hisses, holding her chest for an entirely different reason this time, and in fact she quickly hides the letter behind her back and makes a conscious decision to not think about why. “Don’t do that!”

Trinket, who stays in her room the majority of the time because Syldor is a prick who enjoys scaring him with arcane sparks, looks up from his little blanket nest at the foot of her bed. He glances at Vex, glances over at Vax, and then lets out a groan and flops back over like he doesn’t see what the big deal is.

“Sister,” Vax says, smirking at her with the self-assured grin that he gets after a good haul. Vax may harbor as little love for Syngorn as his sister does, but he can’t deny that he loves the city; the open buildings begging to be burgled, the crowds that make it so easy for him to pick a pocket and then slip away without being caught. Syldor may claim her as the troublemaker, but only because she is louder than her brother when upset-- the two of them both have their vices, but truth be told hers are far less self-destructive. “You’re jumpy tonight.” He turns away from the balcony and throws himself across her bed, crossing his hands behind his hand and yawning at the ceiling. “Father get you worked up?”

“You know how he is,” Vex says, feeling a little put out. Vax hasn’t given her grief about Percy since the day they’d left Whitestone, but she’s still not entirely sure how comfortable she is reading a letter from the man in front of him. Then, realizing that she’s had this thought, she frowns through a blush and forces herself to calm down.

It’s just a bloody letter. Why is she letting herself get so worked up?

“Normally you’d be screaming and throwing plates by now,” Vax says, lifting a hand to his face to pick idly at his fingernails. “Can’t have been that bad.”

“We were interrupted,” Vex admits after a moment of contemplating whether or not she should keep the letter hidden. She-- she shouldn’t. It’s just a letter. Not a big deal. Gods. “I received correspondence from Percival.”

There’s a pause before Vax shoots up into a sitting position in one fluid motion, staring at her unblinkingly. “Oh really?” he asks without much inflection.

“Yes,” she says, lifting her chin and trying to appear less affected by the whole thing than she actually is. “Really.”

Then Vax moves again, this time stretching out across his stomach, chin in his hands and feet up in the air. “What’s it say?” he asks, now with all the curiosity of a cat.

“I haven’t read it yet,” she tells him primly, plucking at the wax seal of the de Rolo crest as she does so. She looks down to the letter long enough to see Dear Vex’ahlia before glancing back up; Vax has moved noiselessly to appear in front of her, using his two inch height difference to every advantage, standing on his tiptoes and craning his neck to read it upside down. She shoves him away with an offended huff, and there’s a brief scuffle where he slaps at her and she slaps back before she gives in and lets him slip behind her to read over her shoulder.

It reads:

Dear Vex’ahlia,

I’m sorry that my name bothers you so. If it’s truly so taxing to write and say, then I suppose I must formally grant you permission to call me Percy. Though it is a truly detestable nickname I could not in good conscience ask you to compromise your peace of mind by calling me by my full name. I am strong; I will endure.

I’ll admit that the knowledge that I won’t live long enough to inherit property in Syngorn affects me very little. If the stories you’ve shared concerning your father are even partially true, I don’t think I’d like to own any land that would have been shared with him anyway. That sort of negativity has a habit of seeping into the environment, I’ve heard. Besides, I’ve already got enough on my plate with not being Lord of Whitestone-- I don’t need to not be Lord of something else, too. It’s a terribly exhausting business, having nothing to be in charge of.

The girls are fine, and thank you for your consideration. I recently broke Ludwig’s nose, which is all I have to say of the boys.

I have not, at the time of writing this, blown myself up yet. Obviously I can make no promises regarding possible explosions in the future, but I shall endeavour to try and remain unscathed. It would be embarrassing for you, I’m sure, to explain to future suitors that you’d been widowed before you’d even actually been married. However, if paperwork is your worry then I can assure you that Julius would have to handle that, not you.

Cassandra tells me that I did have a tan, and have since lost it. I attempted to go for a walk outside this afternoon to see if I could perhaps find it again, but instead found that walking alone is dreadfully boring and went back to my workshop to experiment once more. Perhaps the key to my developing a tan, and subsequently not blowing myself up, is having something to focus on while outside walking. Until such a time as you return, however, it is a hypothesis that will remain untested, though I look forward to pursuing the scientific inquiry when you arrive.

With warmest regards,
Percival Fredrickstein von Musel Klos
Percy

Vax hooks his chin over her shoulder and apparently reads it a second time; Vex is staring at the wall and blushing furiously without being entirely certain why. There wasn’t even-- there wasn’t even anything in there to blush about. What the fuck.

There’s slight movement against the fabric of her shirt as Vax tilts his face to glance at her, then back down at the letter. Finally, after having reread it a third time, he tucks his face into her neck and says gently, “You like him, don’t you?”

Oh. Oh, shit. Oh, shit.

Does she?

She read the letter again a second time herself, and this time more thoroughly examines the swooping sensation in her stomach, the fucking-- the fucking butterflies.

“That’s nonsense,” she says weakly, with such a waver in her voice that she doesn’t even convince herself.

“I hypothesize,” Vax murmurs, “that he’s flirting with you. Flirting poorly, but flirting nonetheless.”

“That’s just Percival,” she defends, though the excuse is flimsy. “It’s just how he talks.”

Vax hums noncommittally, then wraps his arms around her middle to pull her into a hug. It’s awkward, the angle not quite right for them to fit together comfortably, but he is the other half of her and there is no wrongness in the way they embrace. “I had my doubts, sister,” he says, quietly, “but if you like him and he likes you, it is not so terrible a thing.”

Vex bites her lip, the grip she has on the letter tightening until she realizes she’s crinkling it and forces herself to relax. “We’re supposed to just be friends,” she says, sounding a bit defeated. “I can’t-- I can’t have feelings for him. It would ruin everything. We had an agreement.”

“Agreements can be modified,” he tells her, voice infinitely soft in a way that she didn’t realize she needed. “Isn’t this better than hating him?”

“No,” she sighs, leaning back against him until he’s holding her up, the way only he is capable of doing. “I was expecting hate. I’d prepared for it. Liking him is much more difficult.”

“And yet,” Vax says, turning her gently so that she’s facing him. She thumps her head hard against his chest. “He’s strong, and so are you, and you will endure.”

“I can’t let him find out,” she mumbles into his shirt. Above her head, where she can’t see, Vax rolls his eyes heavenwards and asks for patience. “It’ll ruin everything. I’ll just have to deal with it until it goes away.”

“Unless he feels the same.”

Vex closes her eyes and burrows her face into his arms. She’s the mud-blooded bastard child of a prick and a washerwoman, with a mouth too quick and smart for her own good; according to her father, that’s all she’s ever been. What a fool Percival would be to have feelings for her.

Percival is many things, but he is not a fool.

---------

Percy,

I thank you for the permission, though if I’m being honest then I’ll admit that I probably would have just called you that anyway regardless. It is not, despite what you might think, a ‘detestable nickname’. I think it’s cute. Yesterday in a conversation with our martial instructor, Vax referred to you as ‘Freddie,’ which I feel is far more offensive. I suppose if you prefer I could call you that, but I assume that we can agree that Percy is the lesser of two evils. Not that I find it evil.

Anyway, tit for tat. You have my own written and formal permission to call me Vex, if you so desire. Vex’ahlia is a bit of a mouthful itself and I suppose that I can only be fair in allowing you to use my nickname if I’m insisting on using yours, which I am.

I’ll also admit that I’m looking forward to returning to Whitestone. I’d forgotten how… oppressive Syngorn can feel at times. It’s odd, but I sometimes find myself slipping into the mentally that the last few months have just been some strange vacation and now I’m back to my normal life, and it causes a feeling akin to vertigo to then remember that by this time next year I’ll be expected to stay in Whitestone for the rest of my days and traveling back to Syngorn will be the vacation. Whitestone made me feel more welcome in two months than Syngorn has in nearly twenty years, though, so I suppose that that would not be so bad a thing.

Please continue not blowing yourself up. Perhaps you should work with something other than black powder? At least until I return to hover anxiously in the background with a bucket of water. Though if you’re fool enough to catch yourself on fire while I watch, I can’t guarantee that I won’t throw the bucket at your head after putting you out. When I return we’ll work on that tan of yours again. For science.

Sincerely,
Vex

---------

Dear Vex’ahlia,

Please tell your brother that if he ever refers to me as such in my presence, I may not be able to contain my projectile vomiting.

That’s not true, I have an excellent constitution, I could absolutely contain it, but that’s beside the point. Please, if you’re going to call me anything, I would much prefer Percy.

On a more serious note, I know that the circumstances of our meeting and the friendship that has developed as a result have been… suspect at best, and forced at worst. I believe ‘pigeonholed’ was a term I’ve heard you use before? Despite this, I have grown quite sincerely fond of you, and even beyond the fact that we are to be wed I would feel remiss if I didn’t tell you that, no matter the direction this arrangement takes us, Whitestone will always be welcoming to you. So long as I live and breathe I will not have my city feel oppressive to anyone, and especially to someone for whom I have grown to care deeply.

That being said, you are not required to stay here ‘for the rest of your days,’ regardless of whatever Julius told you. I will not give you permission to leave as you see fit, simply because you don’t need it. I am not Lord of Whitestone, and my presence is not required for it to run smoothly. There are many places in Tal’Dorei where you can distract me into developing a tan.

I promise to set the black powder aside until you’ve found your way back and can stand ready to throw buckets at my head.

With warmest regards,
Percy

Percival fidgets as he waits for Vesper to finish reading the letter, her eyebrows furrowed as she scans it once, twice, three times.

“Well?” he asks, fingers twitching, desperately to find something to distract him from the anxiety. “Is that too forward? Not forward enough? I’m trying to find happy medium here.”

“Hmm,” Vesper murmurs, tapping a finger to her lips. She’s the only sibling that Percival trusts to read it and give him an honest opinion without making fun of him or telling the others as soon as he’s turned his back. “It’s a little strong, but it’s also sincere, and an appropriate response. She probably didn’t realize how much vulnerability she was showing in her own letter, and this is addressing that vulnerability without blatantly pointing it out.”

She hands it back to him, and he rereads the letter once more himself, trying to imagine how Vex’ahlia would feel if she read it. “If I were you,” Vesper says, with the gentle tone of correction that she used to take when helping him with his studies when they were children, “I might rewrite it, take out the ‘for whom I care deeply’ part. It might be true, but that’s a lot of sentiment for one letter, and the unfortunate nature of the written word is that it will be left for her to interpret as she sees fit. I’d hate to see her get overwhelmed and scared off because you were too eager.”

She reaches out and cups his face in both of her hands, forcing his eyes to meet hers. She’s got that smile that she uses for him, that sweet one that belies the fact that she puts laxative in teas. “You’re doing great, Percy, but perhaps play the cards a little closer to your vest.”

He hesitates before smiling back, just a little nervous one. He’s got no clue what he’s doing and he hates that feeling, the unsurety of it. He much prefers science to emotions. “I’m trying, Vesper,” he says, in a rare moment of weakness. “I’m not entirely sure why, but I’m trying.”

“I know,” she tells him, her voice warm, and her hands tighten on his face as she pulls him down to her level so she can kiss his forehead. “And I’m very proud of you.”

His smile gets a touch brighter before he pulls away. He tucks the letter into his pocket before leaving her bedroom, no doubt to run to his own to rewrite the letter before taking it to the rookery.

When the door shuts behind him, Vesper waits a good half-minute before crossing the room and thumping her fist against her wardrobe. Within seconds Whitney and Cassandra both tumble out in a flurry of limbs.

“Thank gods,” Cassandra gasps, laying flat on her back and gaping up at the ceiling. “She was crushing me in there.”

“Well, you had your elbow in my tit the whole time, so you’ve no room to talk,” Whitney huffs, and Cassandra lets out a bark of laughter.

“With you in there I had no room for anything!”

“Girls,” Vesper says, her voice sharp, and the two sisters on the floor silence themselves. She waits for a long moment, letting the tension of the moment rise, before she grins down at them and puts her hands on her hips. “Percy’s gonna get laid.”

“What!” Cassandra cries.

No!” Whitney says, both disbelieving and delighted. “He’s got two left feet when it comes to her!”

Vesper settles herself on the bed, sitting cross-legged and uncaring about the way it parts her skirts. She’s got no one to appear presentable to. “He’s smooth, girls. Smoother than I think he realizes. I know we agreed to help him out with this, but he might not actually need it.”

“Blasphemy,” Cassandra says, rolling to her feet and scuttling up onto the bed beside her. “He always needs our help. What the hell did the letter say that gave you such an elevated opinion?”

“I can’t describe it,” Vesper tells her with a sigh. “It wasn’t so much the words themselves, but how sincere they were. I wish someone would speak to me with as much sincerity and warmth as that.”

There’s a long moment of silence where all three of them contemplate that, before Whitney sits up on the floor and nudges Cassandra’s knee. “Maybe we need to focus on helping Vesper instead.”

Vesper lets out an irritated huff and reaches over to grab one of the pillows off her bed, and beams Whitney across the head with it.

---------

Vax’ildan’s door slams open, and he startles violently, slicing open the length of his forefinger with the dagger he’d been sharpening. He hisses in pain and grabs at the sheet of his bed to cut off a piece and staunch the bleeding before looking up in time to see Vex’ahlia, her eyes red and rimmed with unshed tears, throw herself bodily across his bed. His heart stops for a moment before picking up at double-speed, and he quickly ties the scrap of fabric around his finger and leans forward over her.

“Sister,” he says anxiously, running his uninjured hand through her hair. She’s utterly unresponsive, her shoulders shaking from the sheer determination she’s mustering up to keep the tears at bay. “Sister, please. What’s wrong, Vex’ahlia?”

“I hate this place,” she says finally, her voice muffled by the sheets but still clearly breaking halfway through. “I hate the way they look at me like I’m worthless and dirt and how he just lets them.”

Vax feels his hands tighten into fists before he forces them to relax; one because he doesn’t want to tug his sister’s hair, and the other because it still stings, the sharp keenness of his dagger cutting deeper than he’d expected. “Do you want to talk about it?” he asks, as gently as he can. Sometimes Vex finds comfort in just crying through her pain, and sometimes she prefers to bury it deep inside where nothing can touch it.

Tonight, she shakes her head and just weeps quietly for a few minutes, the soft sobbing of someone who’s trained themselves not to be too loud in their misery. Vax grits his teeth and, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, goes over the escape route he’s planned for the two of them in the event that he finally snaps and kills their father and they need to make a quick getaway.

After several minutes, the door nudges itself open, Vax having been too distracted to realize that it hadn’t been closed properly, and his head shoots up with a threatening snarl, utterly prepared to attack someone in her defense, but it’s Trinket’s nose that pokes through, snuffling curiously, and then his entire face leans in through the crack in the door.

“Mrrow?” he groans, ears pinned back submissively, and Vax gestures him in with his injured hand, sighing when he realizes it’s bled through the shitty wrapping job. Trinket huffs and then tries to enter the room as quietly as possible, squeezing his bulk through as little of the doorway as he can. (Which is to say, the door is forced fully open and slams against the wall in a way that causes both Vax and the bear to wince.)

Vex seems too caught up in crying to realize that Trinket is there until he waddles forward and rests his great shaggy head on her back, giving a soft worried groan that nonetheless causes the bed to vibrate from the volume.

He nudges her shoulder with his nose once, twice, and then Vex rolls onto her side and pulls herself into a sitting position, sniffling and wiping at her face with a hand. Vax sees her visibly steel herself before forcing a smile, watery and tremulous but still there. “Sorry I left you, darling,” she says with a wavering voice. She pulls his face into her lap and hugs it, fingers scratching beneath his ears, and Trinket rumbles quietly, his eyes closing.

Vax scoots a little closer to them before leaning against her side, and Vex stiffens for a mere moment before pressing against him, resting her head on his shoulder. The three of them sit in silence for a minute, broken only by her occasional sniffs and hiccups, before his finger throbs hard enough and painfully enough that he lets out an involuntary hiss, catching Vex’s attention.

Gods, Vax,” she says, swiping at her eyes again before grabbing his hand and unwrapping it. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“You’re more important,” he tells her, because it’s something that he thinks she both doesn’t hear enough or necessarily believe. She gives a watery scoff before taking a deep shivering breath and closing her eyes. Within seconds her hand glows green with vibrant nature magic, sewing his skin back together as simply as if she’d had a needle and thread. He much prefers this sort of magic over their father’s arcane gifts.

Once he’s healed, he pulls her forward with both hands, bodily wrapping her arms around him and forcing her to lean into his chest. She struggles for a moment before giving a shaky laugh and accepting the treatment, burrowing her face into his shirt. Trinket rumbles and puts one paw on the bed like he’s going to try and join them the way he used to as a cub, but Vax gives him a sharp look and he subsides with a grumpy huff.

They just hold each other for a few minutes, the three of them standing quietly against the evils of the world, before Vex sighs and wipes her nose on his shirt. “Just the usual. I don’t know why I let it bother me. The looks and the whispers. I thought it might get better if I were engaged to a noble, but I think the fact that Percy is human just makes it worse. Someone told me I was watering down good stock.” She goes silent for a second before letting out a mirthless laugh. “And Father just agreed, like the whole thing wasn’t his idea in the first place.”

“I’ll kill them, if you like,” Vax tells her, utterly sincere, but she shakes her head.

“No,” she murmurs, pulling away from him, the worst of the tears having obviously run their course. “They’ll get what’s coming to them, but I won’t have you take the blame for it. I’m sorry I startled you.”

“Maybe,” Vax says, gently pushing a lock of hair out of her damp face, “you being married off and leaving this place is the best thing for you. You’ll never have to come back here if you don’t like.”

“But what if you’re here?” she whispers, not even arguing the idea that being married would be better, which he thinks is telling enough. “What if you’re here, and I’m there?”

He smiles at her, as softly as a man with as many sharp edges as he’s got can, and says with as much sincerity as he can lend his voice, “If you think that anyone-- your husband, our father, the damn Emperor himself-- could keep me from your side, then you’re dumber than I thought you were, stubby.”

She laughs and pushes at his chest without much force, then drops one hand to Trinket’s head to rub his ears, leaning heavily against her brother’s side again and taking the comfort that only a twin can provide.

Vax rests his chin on her forehead, eyes hardening now that she’s not looking. He glares out the open window, and plans.

---------

When Percival nexts receives a letter, he receives not one, but two, and the Syngorn gyrfalcon that delivers them seems very put out by it. It screams at Percival as soon as he’s untied the letters from its leg and then wings its way up to the upper levels of the rookery, hissing and glaring at any ravens that dare to hop towards it curiously as it drinks its fill from one of the bowls of water.

One of the letters is headed with Percy,, and the other is not preceded by any sort of greeting and is instead just one short, blunt paragraph written in a hand he doesn’t recognize. He raises an eyebrow and reads that one first.

having some trouble with a couple little pricks who think its fun to pick on a mutt. the thing about dogs is that if you kick them long enough they eventually bite back. i know you like to play around with explosives. give the girl some teeth.

And, below that, there’s a shitty, five-second doodle of who he can only assume is Vex’ahlia, shooting what he can only assume is a lit stick of dynamite from her bow.

The second eyebrow joins the first, but he shuffles that letter behind the longer one, already predicting how this one is going to read.

Percy,

I’m not entirely sure of the sincerity of your last letter, but I’m going to believe that you were honest because to this point I haven’t been given evidence otherwise. I’m truly grateful for the hospitality that your family and your city both have shown me; if that is the treatment I can expect for the rest of my days then I may not ever leave, and certainly not to come back to Syngorn. The next time I walk through the gates of this city I will consider my hands washed of it, and should you have any diplomatic responsibilities that require your presence here then you can find another wife to join you.

Don’t do that, actually. I think polygamy would just muddy the waters of this strange relationship even more than they already are.

Regardless, I’ll admit that it’s refreshing to find that not every noble I’ll meet is a prick. Or at least, you’re less so of one than other nobles I’ve met. (That was a joke. I don’t think you’re a prick anymore.)

In all honesty, I find myself looking forward to returning to Whitestone far more than I’d expected. Time cannot pass fast enough, in my opinion. Though if I could make one request of you, it would be that you at least attempt to work on your tan in the meantime. The first time I saw you, your skin was so reflective that I thought the glare from the sun would blind me. (That was also a joke. Sort of. It was sort of a joke in the way that I’m not really joking at all.)

I don’t know why you always end these things with some sentiment when just your name would suffice,
Vex

Percival rereads the first short letter, and then the longer one, feeling a sharp anger rearing its head inside him. The implication is damning enough.

He looks up to the gyrfalcon, already calculating weight and distribution and safety, measuring its size compared to that of the ravens.

“Stay there,” he calls up to it; the intelligent bird looks down at the sound of his voice and narrows its eyes. He glares right back, and when he speaks again there’s a hardness to the words that he doesn’t entirely recognize. “I’m sending you back with something delicate.”

---------

Dearest Vex,

I find that scientific curiosity got the best of me, and within less than a fortnight of promising you that I would wait for your return to experiment with black powder again I broke that promise. I sincerely apologize, but inspiration was unexpectedly bestowed upon me.

I also sincerely hope that this package finds its way to you without getting damaged in the delivery, because otherwise you won’t actually be reading this letter and I’ll owe Syngorn a gyrfalcon.

I’ll hope for the best and assume that you’ve received both letter and package unmolested, and explain what exactly it is that you’ve received. It’s simple enough, I assure you, and you won’t need my assistance to work it.

It is, essentially, an arrow. That explodes upon impact.

It does basically what it says on the tin.

I’ve never built something quite like this before, and I’m eager to hear results. I must warn you against, say, shooting it into anyone’s house. While the results would undoubtedly be hilarious, especially if it happened to be the house of someone that you didn’t like, I must caution you that this arrow can cause severe property damage. While it is stable enough to be carried around without setting itself off, I highly recommend that you make every attempt to NOT strike the end with the putty on it against anything solid.

I look forward to your return to Whitestone as well, and am gratified to hear that you find it a safe and comforting place. I can only hope that your opinion doesn’t change over the course of our marriage.

I do it because it’s proper and because I actually do have the warmest regards for you.

Yours,
Percy

There’s a smile on her face that’s so wide it hurts her cheeks, the little bastard, thinks he’s so sly, ugh. Vex looks up from the letter to the gyrfalcon, who looks a little worse for wear and is holding the long, thin package as nervously and delicately as it can. It seems far too eager to hand over her gift, and immediately flies away as soon as she’s secured it, flapping its great wings and absconding rapidly.

She examines the arrow, notes the end that has what can only be black powder-infused putty coating it, and has just carefully it set it to the side when a second bird alights on her balcony, this one being one of the smaller Whitestone ravens. Bemused, she takes this letter as well, and the bird hovers anxiously while she unwraps it.

Dearest Vex,

I really, really hope that you receive this as a second letter and not a first. I instructed the raven to fly a good distance behind the gyrfalcon just in case. I won’t tell you why, because if something happened then it will ruin the surprise, but I urge you to send a reply to this as soon as possible for my own peace of mind.

Percy

Vex grins, then throws a wink at the raven. “Stick around,” she tells it with a smirk. “I’ve got an arrow to shoot and then you can have my reply.”

---------

A drawn bowstring, an explosion, and a mad dash for the Visaar estate that leaves Vex cackling all the way later, and the raven finally gets its reply.

It takes two nervous, anxiety-riddled days for Percival, who’s spent the entire time quietly panicking that he’s possibly just exploded his fiancée, to receive that reply, and when he does he lets out a startled bark of laughter.

PERCY

THAT

WAS

AWESOME

I LOVE YOU DARLING

MORE PLEASE

WITH WAY WARMER REGARDS THAN YOU’LL EVER HAVE,
VEX
!!!

The margins and bottom of the letter are all vandalized with the same shitty sort of doodles that had come with the first of the two letters he’d received last time. They include several of crying Elven ladies, one of a building on fire, and one of whom he once again can only assume is Vex standing on the back of a bear with her bow held above her head triumphantly and a caption underneath that says yay arson!

He’s so bloody pleased with himself that even Fredrick notices that night at dinner and comments on it derisively, but for once Percival can’t find it within himself to care.

---------

Five weeks after the twins arrive in Syngorn, they pack up to leave it once more, and Vex’ahlia has no intention of ever returning. She highly doubts that she’ll spend the rest of her days solely in Whitestone, but she knows that she will not ever be returning here.

She sends a letter to Percy telling him that she’s on the way, and another letter to her mother saying that she’s returning to Whitestone and not to worry about her, and it’s with a brighter smile and a lighter heart than she’s had in weeks that she packs her luggage into the carriage. She’s carrying only a bit more with her now than she brought the first time; there’s not much in the way of material possessions that she feels the need to bring with her. Her wardrobe, her fletching tools, some trinkets that she’s had with her since she’d left Byroden as a child. If she needs anything else then she can find it in Whitestone, she’s sure.

Vax is running late, though, and she and Trinket wait for him at the carriage. She’s patient for the first ten minutes, annoyed for the next ten, and anxious for the next twenty, but eventually a lone dark horse trots forwards from the estate’s stables towards them. She heaves a relieved sigh before calling out, “Took you long enough, brother!”

It isn’t until the horse draws closer that she realizes who’s riding it and abruptly feels sick.

“Alas, no,” says Syldor, drawing up alongside the carriage, his roan charger chomping at the bit nervously as it eyes Trinket, its hooves dancing across the cobblestones.

“Father,” Vex greets with little inflection, trying to keep the confusion out of her voice. “Where’s Vax’ildan?”

“Your brother was, unfortunately, apprehended and was found guilty for several charges of thievery, and then belligerence when accused.” Vex gapes at him in astonishment, already preparing to shove him off the horse and ride it to the city’s prison herself, when Syldor calmly holds up a hand, looking down at her with disdain. “I had the charges waived, but suggested in return that they hold him for a fortnight so that he might learn his lesson.”

“You’re leaving him in jail?” she gasps, her mind racing to try and think of how she can word this to Percy, because she can’t just leave Vax here alone.

“I am,” Syldor confirms, the words sharp and brooking no argument. “And I will accompany you to Whitestone in his stead. Fredrick and I need to further discuss the terms and conditions of our agreement, I would have followed the two of you shortly regardless. Your brother may join us in two weeks when he is released.”

“I’m staying here until he’s free,” she tells him firmly, already beginning to unload her things.

“No,” he says calmly, his eyes sparking with blue arcane energy as he continues, “I Suggest that you get into the carriage and start the journey back to Whitestone.”

And suddenly, at his Suggestion, that seems like the most perfectly reasonable thing to do.

With no further argument, Vex’ahlia climbs back into the carriage and whistles for Trinket, who shifts anxiously as if unsure whether to listen. That’s fine, though, she thinks in a sort of detached way. She doesn’t need him to return to Whitestone. Regardless, after the carriage has gone a good thirty feet down the road Trinket roars and takes off after it at a lope, catching up with ease and circling nervously, occasionally whining and whimpering for attention as if he’s worried about her. She doesn’t understand why; this is obviously the best course of action to take.

Syldor follows at a more sedate pace, keeping his charger towards the back of the procession, and the reason for this is clear when after an hour passes without incident Vex’ahlia blinks, feeling as if a veil has just been pulled off of her head and her vision is cleared, realizes what happened, and starts screaming.

“You bastard!” she shrieks, throwing open the door to the moving carriage. The driver shouts in surprise and the horses pulling it nicker and kick out in response. She draws her bow and looses an arrow at him, but Syldor just waves a hand lazily, knocking it to the side with a gust of wind.

“Calm yourself, Vex’ahlia,” he says, sounding utterly bored with the development. He waves aside another arrow with a sigh.

“You fuck, you fucking fuck!” Vex can hardly catch her breath around the rage that coils and writhes in her chest, how fucking dare he, he’s used magic on his children before, to hold them in place or silence them if he grew tired of listening to them complain, but he’s never used it to control their minds, and the thought of it, how easy it was for him, how completely useless she feels, brings tears to her eyes and she weeps helplessly, pulling herself back into the carriage and curling herself up against the wall.

He took her right to choose; he took her brother; he took her control. What the fuck does she have left for him to take?

The two days it takes for them to travel to Whitestone are spent in silence, her defiance burnt down to a sort of numb, reluctant obedience that she’s unfortunately quite used to from a childhood of constant reprimand. She receives a letter from Percy while on the road, the intelligence of the Whitestone ravens never ceasing to amaze her, and his words are as full of the low key enthusiasm about her return as she’d been expecting but in the presence of her father and as reminded as she is of how this was forced upon her unwillingly, she can’t bring herself to be excited.

She’d been looking forward to this, to seeing Whitestone and him again, and her father ruined it, the way he always does.

And he doesn’t even seem to care.

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

PART IV

Percival’s not entirely sure what he’d been expecting upon Vex’ahlia’s return to Whitestone, but it wasn’t… this.

When she exits the carriage, Vex’ahlia catches his eye for only a brief second before mutely turning to Trinket and attending to him, effectively ignoring Percival as he approaches. Not all of the de Rolos are present for this arrival, only himself and his father, but Vex doesn’t seem eager to look at either of them. He pauses for a moment before continuing forward at a more sedate pace, glancing her up at and down and trying to determine why she looks so tired.

The question is soon answered when an Elven man on a dark roan horse trots through the castle gates, having apparently been following behind the carriage. At the sound of the hooves clomping across the cobblestone, Percival sees Vex’s shoulders tense and tighten up defensively. The Elven man makes eye contact with him for a moment before raising an eyebrow and dismounting, handing the stallion off to a waiting stable hand.

Percival reaches Vex and leans forward, one hand hovering just shy of touching her arm because he’s not sure if she’ll appreciate the contact, and whispers in concern, “Are you quite alright, dear?” She meets his gaze once more and something in her hard eyes seems to soften briefly, though anything she might have said in reply is swallowed by the way Fredrick steps forward and greets the Elven man, hand extended for a shake.

“Syldor,” the Lord of Whitestone says with little warmth is his voice, though the two seem familiar with each other. “Nice of you to finally join us.”

“Yes,” Syldor hums, as if he’s not entirely sure he agrees. “Nice castle. Very… quaint.”

Oh, okay, Percival thinks to himself suddenly. He’s a gigantic, massive dick.

“Vex’ahlia,” Percival says, a bit louder, “there’s been something I’ve been wanting to show you, if you could come with me, please.”

“I’d be delighted,” she says finally, relief obvious in her voice, but then she flinches when the Elf, Syldor, speaks again.

“Nonsense,” he says, with enough authority in his voice that it’s frankly impressive. “I’d like a tour of the Castle, and who better to give it to me than my future son-in-law. Right, daughter?”

Vex sends Percival a harried look, which he then mirrors to Fredrick, who shrugs unhelpfully. Upon seeing this, Vex’s shoulders slump and she stares at the ground, dejected in a way that he’s never seen before. It’s almost… defeated. Percival frowns. This is not at all going how he’d intended for this to go.

“No,” he says finally, slowly, and her head jerks up to stare at him. Syldor’s brows furrow, but Percival finally rests his hand on Vex’s arm and tucks it gently against his own. “Unfortunately, it’s a rather time-sensitive matter, and I require the presence of my fiancée for it immediately. My father will be more than happy to assist you.”

“Percival--” Fredrick starts, sharp with disapproval, but Percival is already leading Vex away.

“Come along, Trinket,” he calls out, whistles over his shoulder as he hurries them off, “you too!”

“Percy,” Vex gasps in surprise, but he doesn’t let go, and in fact just quickens his pace.

“Come on,” he hisses, “before my father gets his wits about him and has a tantrum.”

By the time they’ve entered the castle and wandered down a few halls, no destination in mind beyond putting distance between them, the two of them are nearly in a sprint with Trinket jogging briskly behind them, causing every servant they pass to stop and stare. Finally they pause in a stairwell to catch their breath, and as Percival is looking over his shoulder to make sure his father isn’t chasing them in a rage Vex drops her head against his chest and starts shaking.

“Oh, dear, please don’t,” he pleads weakly, convinced that she’s crying, but when she lifts her head there’s a grin stretched across her face.

“Oh my god,” she giggles, plopping her forehead back onto his front, “I don’t think anyone other than me and Vax has ever told my father no before.” He tenses, finally realizing the close proximity they’re in, but she doesn’t seem to care, just keeps laughing, her arms thrown about him in a hug. He swallows before hesitantly settling his hands at her side, trying not to place them too high or too low. “Hello, dear,” she finally mumbles, her voice coming from somewhere around his left nipple.

Percival huffs and rubs his thumbs against her hips soothingly. “Hello to you too. I think I can see why you were eager to leave Syngorn, if Elves are always like that.”

“Most are,” she says agreeably, making no move to pull away. In fact, it isn’t until he finally allows himself to relax into the hold, heart thumping wildly, that she seems to have an abrupt revelation of how close they are and springs back herself, clearing her throat and smoothing down her clothing. She has trouble meeting his eyes, and he’s sure judging by the heat on his cheeks that he’s blushing horribly.

She stares at the floor and he stares at the wall, and after a few seconds of this he musters up the courage to say haltingly, “I, ah. Missed you.”

“Yeah,” she says, scuffing her toe across the floor. “Me too.”

“Good,” he says.

“Yeah,” she agrees.

Trinket, who’s caught up to them and is waiting for something to happen, rolls his eyes and groans.

“Where’s, ah, Vax’ildan?” Percival asks, half out of genuine curiosity and half because he’s struggling desperately to not voice the thoughts currently going through his head. (You smell like the woods being the chief and foremost, with Wow your shirt feels a lot thinner than it looks being a close second.)

Vex’s expression, which had been flushed with embarrassment but still light with a smile tucking up the corners of her mouth, abruptly falls, and she wraps her arms around her middle defensively. Percival feels, inexplicably, like he should draw her into an embrace again; if she’s trying to hold herself together, then surely he could only be a help rather and a hindrance. “He’s indisposed,” she says, voice flat, “by courtesy of our father. He’ll join us within the next fortnight.”

Percival fidgets awkwardly before offering, “Well, your father seems like a prick.”

She laughs, the sound clearly startled out of her, and when she lifts her eyes to meet his once more they are unbearably fond. “You’re not wrong, dear.”

They stare at each other for a long moment. Vex sways forward just the slightest, tiniest amount, and Percival clasps his hands behind his back determinedly to keep from reaching out for her. They’ve touched before, obviously; they’ve linked arms, held hands when she’s dragged him along behind her to see something exciting and forgotten to let go, and several times he’s leaned over her to pick debris out of her hair when it distracted him away from a conversation. She’d even-- she’d kissed him, before she’d left. Just on the cheek admittedly, but still, it’s more than he’d ever anticipated from this relationship at the start.

Still. The hug from earlier seems like some different, something more. His hands, calloused and clever and quick to remember touch and texture, still feel the shape of her hips, still remember how to settle against her almost perfectly, two puzzle pieces that somehow fit together despite their awkward shapes.

Percival blinks and clears his throat, and the moment passes.

“I should probably, um…” Vex gestures vaguely behind her. “Get my, uh, room set up.”

“Yes,” Percival says with a nod, swallowing heavily and looking away. “A good idea.”

“Um,” Vex starts, then bites her lip. “Thank you, by the way. For that. The thing with my father. I really appreciate it.”

“Always,” he promises, gaze lifting to hers once more. They make eye contact briefly before she turns away, still chewing on her lip. She takes a few steps, then turns back all in a rush and throws her arms around him once more. She holds on for the barest of seconds before pulling away before he can even think to react and leaves without saying a word, dark hair trailing behind her. Trinket looks between the two of them for a moment before following, glancing over his shoulder to Percival as he goes.

Percival stands in the stairwell, shellshocked and slack-jawed but for the smile slowly creeping across his face.

He has an idea, he realizes. A solution to her problem, a way to avoid her father without being obvious about it. His hands finally drop from behind his back, and he snaps his fingers in thought before turning and running off to find Cassandra.

She’s in her room, sharpening her knives, and she looks up curiously when he throws the door open without preamble.

“I need to know your secret passages,” he says, slightly out of breath from the jog to get there.

“Percy, that’s gross, we’re siblings,” she drawls, not missing a beat and still sharpening her dagger even as she stares at him.

Percival stares back at her incomprehensibly before sputtering out, “Not-- not that, you twit! The castle’s passages. I know you’ve mapped out ones the rest of us don’t even know about, and I need to know where they are and where they go.”

“What’s in it for me?” she asks instantly, not even bothering to deny it as her eyes narrow at him. He sighs heavily and goes for his trump card.

“I’ll give you a pouch of black powder to use for whatever you want, no questions asked.”

“Done,” she says without hesitation, and tosses her knife onto her desk, ducking around him as she leaves the room. “Gotta clear some of them out, but I’ll get you a map drawn up.”

Percival blinks, confused, and calls out to her retreating back, “Clear them out of what?

“You don’t want to know!” she shouts over her shoulder, and then disappears around the corner.

He stands there in the hallway staring after her, slightly concerned, before remembering that Vex hugged him willingly and of her own volition and called him dear twice and then he decides that his sister’s right, he doesn’t really want to know after all and walks away with a smile.

---------

Dinner that night is, possibly, even more awkward than it was the first night Vex had ever been in Whitestone, but in an entirely different way. Where on that night Fredrick had said very little and seemed content to watch his third child drown himself in misery and potatoes while his new fiancée made thinly-veiled threats to his intestinal health, now the Lord of Whitestone speaks with more animation than Percival’s ever seen him use (and he’s including the winter that the three youngest de Rolo children had caught the swine flu and Ludwig had the twirls in Fredrick’s office).

Their guest, Syldor, likewise speaks freely, though solely to Fredrick, ignoring everyone else seated at the table, including Johanna who’s attempted to join their conversation several times only to be cut out of it by the Elf, and who now looks like she’s restraining herself from sinking her fork into his jugular.

Vex is just as quiet as she’d been that night, though now she stares at her food with an air of defeat that Percival is familiar with instead of the anger that she’d clung to so hard before. She doesn’t seem very inclined to look up from her meal or make eye contact with any of the de Rolo siblings, let alone Percival-- which is unfortunate, because if she did look up then she’d see the way that all of them, even Julius, keep shooting her looks of concern.

Whitney catches Percival’s eye and gives him a meaningful look; when she’s certain that their father is preoccupied, she tosses a balled-up napkin across the table at him. He snatches it out of the air quickly and draws it into his lap. When he uncrumples the thin cloth, it reads, Whats going on???

He gives himself a quick pat down and then makes an exaggerated shrugging gesture at her when he realizes he doesn’t have a pencil on him. She rolls her eyes, then waits for another opportunity and throws her own at him. It lands in his gravy, and he huffs before wiping it off on his own napkin.

Our guest, he writes back, trying to be vague; if they’re caught then it wouldn’t due to have his honest feelings about the man on paper. When he tosses it back she fumbles the catch and it lands instead in Oliver’s lap. There’s a brief scuffling sound where Percival can only assume that they’re kicking each other under the table before there’s the sharp sound of a throat clearing and both twins freeze, looking up at Fredrick guiltily. Their father glares at them briefly before turning back to his own conversation, and Percival lets out a sigh of relief.

Oliver glances over the messages written on the napkin, then gives Percival a pointed look and mimes writing something. Percival shakes his head with a hard frown. Oliver then mimes stabbing him with a fork. Percival crosses his arms. Oliver reaches out to pick up a biscuit (he wouldn’t dare, he wouldn’t dare, not with an Elven noble here), but while he’s distracted Cassandra, who’s on his other side, snatches the napkin from his grasp. Then she reads over it, and pulls a pencil out from behind her ear and writes a response. She turns to show it to Oliver, who deliberates over it before shrugging and nudging Whitney to read it as well.

While they’re busy, Percival shoots a look at Vex again. She’s still staring at her plate, though she’s now mumbling quietly to Vesper, who looks as though she’s trying unsuccessfully to draw her into conversation. The napkin lands back on his plate again, and he whispers a quiet, “Shit,” when it sinks into the gravy as well. He fishes it out quickly, and looks up once more to see that Vex has glanced up at him, eyebrow raised. Bit my lip, he mouths at her, and after a moment she nods hesitantly and goes back to picking at her food.

Vesper, who’s been watching her, turns and gives Percival a wounded look, the sort of expression she wears when she’s found another stray cat and is begging their mother to let them keep it in the stables. It’s the But mother it’s cold outside and she’ll die in the snow! look that she’s perfected over nearly two decades, and Percival gives her a helpless shrug in response.

When he pulls the napkin open, Cassandra’s message has been scrawled under his. we could probably just kill him it says, startling Percival so hard that he lets out a wheeze, which in turn catches the attention of Julius, who happens to be sitting beside him and who glances down at the napkin curiously. Not trusting Julius, who has a tendency to be a bit of a snitch, Percival wads the napkin up and quickly shoves it into his own mouth, then promptly gags on it.

“You alright, pup?” Johanna says from near the head of the table, looking over at him in concern. Percival winces; Vex’s eyes widen even though she doesn’t look away from her plate and he can see her mouthing the name at her food, a smile tugging at her lips. Ugh, well, fine, he supposes. If it’ll cheer her up a bit now then he can put up with the teasing later.

“Very dry biscuits,” he offers, the words garbled around the mouthful of napkin, and he lifts one hand to cover his face politely.

Julius continues staring at him, eyes narrowing, and Percival holds the napkin in his mouth for as long as he can before trying to subtly spit it down into his lap. As soon as he does, though, Julius’ hand snakes out and yanks it away. Percival stomps down on his foot in retaliation, and Julius kicks him in the shin.

Fredrick clears his throat again, harder this time, and the two oldest de Rolo boys give him appropriately cowed looks until he turns back to his conversation once more. Then Julius reads the messages, eyebrows flying up so high so quickly that Percival’s astonished that they don’t just shoot right off of him. Whitney won’t look at them, just gives her food a guilty stare, but Cassandra meets his eyes defiantly, chin held high. Despite the ridiculousness of the situation, Percival feels a warm pulse of affection for her. That’s his girl.

Julius, still frowning heavily, shuffles in his seat, shoving the desecrated napkin beneath his rear. Then, to Percival’s surprise, he takes his own silk napkin and gestures at Cassandra for the pencil. She stares at him for a long moment, then looks at Percival as if asking for permission. He deliberates briefly before nodding at her, and she slides the pencil across the table and into Julius’ waiting hands.

After a few seconds, Julius elbows him in the side, and Percival glances down at the new napkin. Permanent solution to a temporary problem, it reads.

Percival frowns, then leans towards him. “What are you suggesting?” he murmurs softly, keeping his eyes down at his plate.

“She is to be your wife, yes?” Julius hums back, equally quiet. On his other side, Sina leans forward over the table to watch them suspiciously, and he waves her away, muttering, “I’ll tell you later, sit back.” She huffs but obeys, and then Julius continues under his breath, “And if she is your wife then she is a de Rolo, and that makes her part of our family too.”

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Percival says, and he does, touched in a way that he hadn’t expected to be, “but how does that solve the temporary problem?”

“You love me, right?” Julius asks, and Percival blinks, a little unbalanced by the sudden non sequitur.

“Usually,” he whispers back.

“And if someone hurt me, what would you do?”

“Destroy them,” he answers instantly, and Julius sends him a meaningful glance.

“And I’d do the same for you,” he says, “because you’re my family. We all would, for any of us. That’s what you do for family.”

Then he sits up straight and goes back to his meal with an easy grace that Percival envies, still feeling a little thrown by the conversation himself. When Julius speaks again it’s still quiet, still under his breath, but Percival still hears his words. “Keep her occupied, keep her happy. We’ll handle it.” Then he turns to Sina and whispers something into her ear. Whatever he’s saying takes almost a minute to relay, but Percival sees out of the corner of his eye the way Sina’s face slowly stretches out into a gleeful smile.

Percival blinks down at his plate, an unexpected rush of affection for his older brother filling his heart. “What do you intend to do?” he murmurs once Julius has finished speaking to his wife, picking up his fork once more.

“She is family, and he hurt her,” Julius says with the easy assurance and authority that can be expected of a Lord. “We will destroy him.”

---------

It takes a few days before Cassandra gets him the map of the secret passages, and even with everything carefully marked and noted and labeled Percival still believes that she’s hiding a few from him. That’s fine, though, that’s fine-- he’s got what he needs.

It’s been awful with Vex’s father here; his own father has been utterly unbearable the entire time, as if he feels like he needs to be ten times as snooty as he normally is, to the point where even Johanna, despite her claims to love her husband, can be seen given him disgruntled and vaguely threatening looks every time his back is turned. Syldor is an exquisite example of what happens when someone with the personality of a snake is given too much money and a title, and while Percival has tried his damnedest to keep Vex away from him since they’ve gotten here the man has made it supremely difficult. He demands Percival’s time, claiming that he wants to get to know his future son-in-law, but then uses that time as an excuse to disparage anything and everything he could possibly think to disparage.

The food is too bland, he says. The tea is too strong, he says. The fashion is too gaudy. The castle is too drafty. Does Percival actually intend to make anything of himself or is he just going to tinker for the rest of his life? If he hears Syldor make one more comment about how Vex should wear dresses more, because honestly daughter are you even trying? he might snap and pour black powder down the man’s throat.

It doesn’t give him much opportunity to, in Julius’ words, keep Vex occupied or happy. He still has no idea what his siblings are planning, but he does know that several of them are in on it. They don’t seem inclined to include him in their schemes, but once he stumbles upon them plotting in the library and the sight of Julius, Oliver, Whitney, and Cassandra all huddled together in a corner while Sina plays watchdog sends a completely justified shiver of terror down his spine. He can only be thankful that whatever storm they’re planning to unleash is going to come down on someone else’s head.

Regardless, once he has the map from Cassandra, it’s a small matter of sneaking to Vex’s room early in the morning before the sun’s even risen and knocking at her door quietly.

After a minute passes with no response, he knocks again, a little harder, and shuffles awkwardly outside of it. There’s a patter of footsteps, but it’s not from within her room; Percival freezes like a startled owl when a cleaning servant bustles down the hallway, muttering under her breath but stopping short when she sees him.

They stare at each other for a long moment, then the servant says, with warm amusement in her voice, “Don’t worry, sir, I won’t tell the Lord.”

Percival’s face goes beat red as soon as he realizes the implications of him standing outside his fiancée’s door and he says quickly, stumbling over his words, “I’m not-- we’re not-- it isn’t--”

“It’s alright,” she tells him, hurrying in her steps as she walks past him, hitching the linens she’s carrying up higher in her arms and chortling the entire while. “I remember being young and in love.”

“It’s really not--” he says weakly, but she’s already gone, and then he turns back to the door with a sigh that becomes a yelp halfway in when he sees it’s now open and Vex is leaning against the frame with a look of tired confusion on her face, though she doesn’t necessarily look unhappy to see him.

“Good morning,” he greets her, the blush from earlier intensifying when he sees that all she’s wearing is a large man’s undershirt; likely her brother’s if he had to guess, judging by the deep black dye.

“Mmm,” she murmurs, eyes sliding shut for a few seconds before she forces them open again, standing upright as she does so. “What is it, Percy? What time is it?”

“Early,” he tells the ceiling, determinedly not looking at her, and she huffs.

“No shit. What’s going on?” Then she straightens fully, sounding a bit more awake as she takes in his own attire, the outfit that he wears for outings outside the castle. “Is everything alright?”

“‘S fine,” he says, voice pitched slightly higher than normal. “I just thought-- maybe you’d want to, ah. Run away for a bit.”

“Oh,” she says, sounding confused. Then, “Oh, shit. Gods abov-- sorry, Percy, hold on.” Then the door shuts in his face and he lets out a sigh of relief, resting his forehead against it. Legs, he thinks. Thighs. He didn’t get too terribly good of a look but, uh. It was good enough.

The door opens again and he jerks away from it, and this time when Vex appears in the doorway she’s pulled on the tights that she wears as breeches beneath the shirt and she’s trying to pull her disheveled braid into some semblance of order. “Sorry,” she mumbles, sounding a bit more awake now, “I wasn’t expecting--”

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” he says, reaching out to stop her nervous plucking. He wants her to relax, to get back to that easy comfort she’d had before leaving for Syngorn, to not feel like she has to stress herself to impress him. He’s not her father. “You look lovely.”

She hesitates, then drops her hands and clears her throat. His hand hovers near her for a moment before, steeling his nerves, he tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “You, um,” she says, wringing her hands together and avoiding his eyes, “said something about running away?”

“I did,” he replies. “For an afternoon, at least. If that’s something you’re interested in, then get ready and meet me in the dungeons in fifteen minutes.”

“Why Percival,” she says, a smile in her voice as she finally cuts her eyes up to look at him through her eyelashes. “The dungeons, you say. Kinkier than I’d expected.”

No,” he tells her firmly, shaking a finger at her. “That’s not what I meant and you know it. Now go put some actual clothes on and let’s go before your father catches our scent and hunts us down like a bloodhound.”

She expression falls and she gives a nod, already backing up back into her room. “Right,” she says. “Dungeons. Fifteen minutes.”

“See you soon,” he says, and then steps back to let her shut the door. He hitches up the pack that he’s got slung over one shoulder, then makes his way to the dungeons himself to wait.

No further incidents occur with any of the servants, and while it does take her slightly longer than fifteen minutes to meet back up with him at the entrance to the dungeons he doesn’t hold it against her. She’s got Trinket with her, which-- well, he should have expected it, he supposed. He’s not sure how, but he’ll make it work.

“How often do these get used?” she whispers as the two of them step past cells with half-open doors, kicking up dust as they go. It’s empty, but the atmosphere of the place seems to demand a certain sort of solemn respect.

“Not often,” he murmurs back, consulting his map as he goes. Is it the fourth or fifth cell? Maybe the sixth? Cassandra’s handwriting is awful. “Not for actual prisoners since my father was a child. Before I had my workshop I used to come down here with a stack of books and hide so I could read in peace. Accidentally locked myself in a cell once, spent all afternoon and the better part of an evening shouting for someone, and after that I was a bit too wary of the place for light reading. Probably hasn’t seen much use since.”

It takes a bit of searching, but eventually they find the correct cell with the statue inside of it, the one that Cassandra wrote about, and between the three of them they manage to shove it aside to reveal the opening in the rock wall.

“Wow, that’s dark,” Percival says a little nervously, peering into the tunnel. “I didn’t think to bring a lantern. Uh.”

“I can see just fine,” Vex laughs, and takes his hand, pulling him forward. “Come along, darling, I’ll guide you.”

Percival swallows anxiously, both for the darkness of the tunnel surrounding him and for the way that Vex’s fingers thread through his easily, her fingernails digging lightly into his palms. Trinket lumbers behind them, huffing and puffing as he forces his bulk into the passage.

“Where are we going?” Vex whispers after a few minutes of walking. There’s a giddiness to her voice now, an excitement for the promise of an adventure. He can’t see her face, but she sounds happier than he’s heard her yet since she’d returned.

“You’ll see,” he whispers back, and she scoffs, but her fingers squeeze his gently.

It takes a while before they eventually see light at the end of the tunnel, but it isn’t soon after that the smell of trees and soil starts to drift inwards, curling lazily about them and banishing some of that musty, mildewy smell that’s clung to the tunnel walls. As soon as Vex realizes where they’ve come out at, she laughs brightly and drops his hand, bounding forwards ahead of him, and before he has time to react Trinket shoves him aside, barreling past with a triumphant roar.

Percival comes to the opening in the tunnel and covers his eyes against the morning sun, then smiles at the sight before him. Vex has wasted no time in bending to pull off her shoes, one of them already tossed to the side, and she hops about on one bare foot as she tries to take off the other one without having to sit. Trinket has run to the nearest tree and is scratching his back on it gleefully. The forest stretches out ahead of them for miles, and when Percival turns and looks up curiously, he can see the castle of Whitestone sitting high above on its great hill, watching over them.

Percival,” he hears, and when he turns back to look at Vex she’s far closer than he’d anticipated; he stiffens and tries to demure away only to have his face taken between both her hands. She pulls him down to her height and kisses his jaw, clearly having been aiming for his cheek but missing in her enthusiasm. It’s just as quick and short as the kiss she’d given him at the carriage when she’d left several months ago, but now instead of pulling away her hands drop from his face to his shoulders and curl about them, hugging him close. “Thank you,” she whispers, kissing his face again. When she does drop her grip, it’s only to take his hand in hers once more, and she tugs him forward with a laugh.

“Darling, I’ve spent too long cooped up under my father’s eye,” she says, grinning. “Run with me for a bit?”

“I don’t run,” he argues, smiling nonetheless, pleased that he could please her so. “I get all red in the face and start wheezing, it’s not pretty.”

“We’re in the woods, Percy!” she cries, letting go of his hand and jumping ahead of him. She stops a few yard away and puts her hands on her hips. “The woods don’t care about that!”

“Well, I’m not trying to impress them, it’s not the woods I’m marrying,” he reasons, before realizing how damning a statement that was and blushing horribly. She doesn’t seem to notice, though, so thank the gods for small favors.

“Aren’t you?” she asks, a little cryptically, and then turns and bounds away, calling over her shoulder, “I intend to run until I can’t anymore, and you’re welcome to join me!”

Just like in the tunnel, Trinket runs past Percival, chasing after his master, and Percival takes a moment to glance down at where her boots have been abandoned at the entrance of the tunnel, then looks at his own. He contemplates for a moment, then says, “No, not even for her,” and leaves them on as he breaks into a sprint, determined to catch up.

Vex in the woods is a sight to see; she dodges between trees like a deer, her bare feet barely seeming to touch the forest floor before springing off again. Instead of running until she can’t, she runs until he can’t, and then when he rests against a tree to catch his breath she climbs up it and mocks him good-naturedly from the branches above, the very image of a chattering magpie. She seems content to stay up there, her face turned into the wind and her eyes closed, so he opens the pack he’d brought and digs out a loaf of bread and a block of cheese.

Trinket, who’s been rooting about in the leaves, sniffs at him almost immediately and lumbers forward, eyes wide and beseeching.

“Vex?” Percival calls up, unable to resist those big wet eyes. “Can Trinket have cheese?”

“Not too much!” she shouts back down, and when he looks up she’s hanging upside down off a branch by her knees. “Why, do you have some?”

“There you go, friend,” Percival says, tossing a chunk to the bear. Trinket snaps it out of the air and then flops onto his side, chewing on his treat happily. He’s tearing off another piece when a thump sounds next to him and Vex’ahlia lands back on the ground, sniffing at him just as curiously as her bear had. He laughs and hands her some. “I didn’t have much time before I came to get you, I sort of just grabbed what was readily available from the kitchens. Bread’s fresh, though. Or it was anyway.”

“Give it here, Percy,” she says, smiling, and retrieves a dagger from her belt so that she can cut instead of tear. The two of them pass the bread and cheese back and forth between them, munching quietly, until it’s gone. “Mmm,” she hums afterwards, stretching her legs out and closing her eyes once more. “I could nap.”

“As you like,” he tells her, feeling rather tired himself. It’s still early in the day, but they did get up before the sun rose, and if that’s how she wants to spend the morning then he won’t deny her. He stretches out, shuffling until he’s leaning against Trinket instead of the tree. The bear rumbles, but falls obligingly quiet when Percival sneaks him another piece of cheese.

“Why do I feel like you’ve stolen my bear?” Vex asks; when Percival opens his eyes to look at her, she’s watching them with an expression of tired warmth, her eyes half-shut and a small smile tilting her lips. He swallows and looks away.

“More than enough of him to go around,” he says blithely, turning his face towards the sun, and so he doesn’t see how she crawls forward. He startles briefly when she settles against his side, not entirely leaning on him, but close enough that he feels the warmth of her, the touch of her thigh against his own, the way their shoulders rub together slightly with each breath.

Trinket huffs irritably, but doesn’t move to shake them off, and after nearly a minute of sitting tensely Percival takes a deep breath and forces his muscles to relax when he releases it.

“There we are, darling,” Vex murmurs, her voice soft and sleepy. “Let’s work on that tan of yours.”

---------

A week passes. Two weeks pass. By the time the third week rolls around and Vax’ildan has not arrived, Vex is a nervous mess. She’s sent two letters to Syngorn already with no reply, and while she can tell Percy is trying to keep her mind off her nerves to the best of his abilities she still finds that the majority of her free time is spent fretting.

Her father, surprisingly, has largely stopped demanding her attention. Or, rather, he demands it but is promptly distracted by some member of the de Rolo family. She can only speculate, because Percival refuses to confirm her suspicions, but she’s almost positive that the whole lot of them have decided to wage a psychological war against Syldor.

Julius asks question after question about nobility in Syngorn, only to then completely ignore him when he speaks or misconstrue his answers in the most wildly illogical ways. Oliver accidentally knocks over a bookcase conveniently positioned near the doorway, trapping him in the library with Vesper, who’s tone-deaf, and who takes the opportunity to practice her Celestial loudly and enthusiastically. Cassandra and Ludwig take an entire morning to move every piece of furniture in his guest room four inches to the right. Whitney switches the sugar in his tea tray with salt while his back is turned. Sina, holding the toddler Percival, walks up to Syldor and says, “Here, hold this,” hands him the child, and then walks away. Even Johanna joins in; she retrieves his clothing from the servants after it’s been washed and spends an hour snipping off the dark blue buttons of his cloak and sewing purple ones on instead.

Vex has never seen her father so.. well, vexed. Syldor seems to believe that all of the de Rolo children have some sort of mental deficiency, and where in the beginning he just treated them with a sort of perplexed distain he now avoids them altogether, and thus her by extension, sending harried looks over his shoulder and inspecting each room that he enters, suspicious of everything that’s handed to him.

As amused, and touched, by the entire thing as she is, it still isn’t enough to keep her from worrying about her brother. Two weeks in prison is nothing to sneeze at, and in her heart she carries a great deal of guilt for just leaving him in Syngorn.

Still, Percy is distracting in his own right.

He’s charming, damn him, and she likes him, more than she should, more than they’d agreed to. It’s not fair, not at all; she thinks she’s got a handle on this whole marriage thing and then this bullshit happens. He’s kind, and he’s funny, and he likes her bear, and he doesn’t demand her attention but is always willing enough to give her his own when she wants it. He’s independent and he respects her independence, and he’s bloody attractive and it’s awful.

And he blushes and-- and flirts, sort of, but he’s always done that, even when they’d just met, when they’d made the agreement to be friends and nothing more. She doesn’t know how to react to this. How in the hells is she supposed to be married to this man who she likes so much and not develop feelings for him?

Gods. If only Vax were here. He’d know how to handle this, and he’d laugh himself silly at her conundrum until he saw fit to tell her.

The nights are the worst part. She’s never not shared a room with her brother, not even when the both of them were going through puberty and wanted nothing more than to not look at each other. She’s too used to it, the presence of someone else in the room, the white noise of another’s breathing, the safety and comfort it brings to know that someone she trusts is there to defend her if she needs it, the warmth to know that someone trusts her enough to defend in kind.

More often than not she now spends the nights in Whitestone sleeping with Trinket in his nest of blankets on the floor, too overwhelmed by the emptiness in the room she’d previously shared with her brother to not gravitate towards the nearest living creature.

Three weeks and two days after she returns, she’s in Percival’s workshop, leaning over his shoulder and watching his process for creating those magnificent explosive arrows, when there’s a timid knock on the reinforced door.

She and Percy look at each other curiously. “Are we expecting someone?” she asks, and he shakes his head.

“Not that I know of.” Then, raising his voice, he calls out, “Come in!”

The door creaks open slowly before a servant pokes his head in, looking about him nervously, then says, “Ah, sorry, my Lord, my Lady; but there’s a letter that’s arrived for her from Syngorn. The bird won’t let anyone else retrieve it, though.”

Vex stiffens, then looks down at Percy beseechingly. He meets her eyes and nods at her, making a shooing motion with one hand. “Go on, then. What are you waiting for?”

She smiles at him, knowing as she does so that it looks tight and strained, then swoops down to kiss his forehead before bolting from the room. She’s been doing that more lately, being more affectionate. She can’t help herself, though, it comes naturally to her, she’s always been a tactile person around people she lov-- Nope. Nope, nope, nope. Noooooope.

It takes a few good minutes to get to the rookery, which is housed in a small building on the edge of the castle grounds. She passes her father as she goes, but strangely he doesn’t even look at her, his eyes pointed at the ground where she’s only ever seen him with his chin raised before. Inexplicably, as she turns to glance at him over her shoulder, there’s a whole section of his long, black hair that’s a good three inches shorter than the rest.

She finds out why when she gets to the rookery; Cassandra and Ludwig are hiding there, giggling to themselves, with a lock of black hair tied together with twine being passed between them. Curiosity wars with concern, but because Vex is Vex curiosity wins out, and she hides in the doorway and listens.

“Burn it and see what it smells like,” Ludwig says eagerly.

“What? No. That’s stupid. You’re stupid. It’ll just smell like burnt hair,” Cassandra huffs, holding the hair up to the sunlight to inspect it. “Gods, how do Elves do it? Not a single split end. If I let my hair grow out like that it’d just be a big rat’s nest.”

“Like it isn’t now,” Ludwig mutters under his breath, apparently a little put out that she’d called him stupid. Cassandra elbows him in the side. “Seriously, though, he’s an Elf. Maybe their hair is magical. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t have split ends.”

“We should use it to make a voodoo doll,” Cassandra says decisively, and folds the hair up into a handkerchief to tuck into her pocket.

“I thought we weren’t going to kill him,” he reminds her, a little nervously.

“Not to kill him, you moron. We’ll just poke him. Randomly poke him. While he’s talking to someone, while he’s drinking his tea, while he’s taking a piss. He’ll get so paranoid that he’ll have a breakdown.”

“Whitney says that when he saw her in the hall yesterday he just turned around and went the other way instead of walking past her.”

“Good,” Cassandra snaps, a little viciously. She stands up off the floor of the rookery and starts dusting off her skirts. “He should be afraid of us. Teach him to mess with what’s ours.”

Vex can’t help herself, and asks aloud, “How did you even get a lock of his hair?”

Ludwig and Cassandra both shriek in surprise, Cassandra actually jumping behind her brother and half on top of him, before they both realize it’s her and freeze in place. They look at each other nervously before Cassandra offers, “He was asleep, and I’m sneaky.”

“He’s an Elf,” Vex argues, crossing her arms and raising an eyebrow. “He doesn’t sleep, he trances.”

“She’s very sneaky,” Ludwig says defensively.

“Not that I don’t find this entire thing absolutely hilarious, because I do,” Vex says, leaning against the doorway and blocking their escape, “but may I ask why the lot of you are messing with my father’s head?”

The two siblings exchange glances again, these less nervous and more questioning. Finally, Ludwig shrugs and Cassandra sighs. “A couple years ago,” she starts, “Whitney decided that she really liked this boy, a son of one of the minor nobles in the city, and he decided that he liked her money. So they courted for a bit and it seemed like it was going to get serious, and he actually moved into the castle with us, until she found him with another girl.”

“Oliver wanted to just kill him and be done with it,” Ludwig continues, picking up where she left off seamlessly. It’s an interesting story, Vex supposes, but it doesn’t really offer her an answer. “But Percival said no. He said, we’ll destroy him in a thousand stupid little ways that won’t matter by themselves but that’ll build up.”

“So we did a thousand stupid little things. Stole his hairbrush and let him search for it for an hour before putting it back in the same place. Switched an inkwell he’d just refilled with an empty one while he wasn’t looking. Cut the legs of his pants half an inch shorter every time they were laundered. Start a conversation and then suddenly pretend that he wasn’t there halfway through.”

“By the time he’d left,” Ludwig finishes, “he was convinced that the castle was haunted and he was going crazy.”

“Okay,” Vex says, slowly, her arms still crossed. “But what does that have to do with me?”

Cassandra and Ludwig look at each other askance. “She’s a bit slow, isn’t she?” he mutters.

“That’s alright, Percy’s the smarter half,” Cassandra stage-whispers back, then turns to look at Vex and crosses her own arms, chin tilted up defiantly. “When someone hurts our family, we hurt back.”

“Oh,” Vex says suddenly, her cheeks warming. “Well. I mean, that’s-- well.” Then she swallows and runs a hand through her hair, touched in a way that she’s never been before. Ever since Syldor had taken them from their mother it’d felt like it was her and Vax against the world with no one else to take up their defense. This is… something she wasn’t expecting.

Apparently she has a family now. What a concept.

“Thank you,” she says finally, her voice coming out a bit thicker than she’d anticipated.

“Oh hells,” Cassandra says nervously, at the same time that Ludwig asks weakly, “Oh, dear, you’re not mad at us, are you?”

“No,” Vex says with a laugh, wiping at her eyes. They’re dry, thankfully, though not for lack of emotion. “No, I just-- thanks. I wish my brother were here for this. He loves pranking, he’d probably join you in it.”

Him?” both siblings ask at the same time, Ludwig in astonishment and Cassandra in delight. (Vex thinks that one or both of them might be developing a crush on her brother, gods know that they both sighed over him enough when they were there the first time.)

“Yes,” she says, laughing harder. The mention of her brother reminds her that there’s a letter waiting for her, but even that stress and anxiety seems lessened in the face of what she’s learned. A family. In the beginning she’d expected to hate them all, and now she’s got this. Wow. “He’s actually sent me a letter, though, so…”

“We’ll get out of your hair,” Cassandra tells her, then abruptly begins laughing herself. “Hair! It’s funny, because we cut your father’s hair. What a prick.”

“So we’ve got your permission to keep messing with him?” Ludwig asks, bouncing on the balls of his feet excitedly.

“As much as you want,” Vex says, smiling, and the two of them high-five each other before passing her on the way out the door.

“How do you even make a voodoo doll?” she hears Ludwig say before the door closes behind them.

Vex sighs, dropping her face into her hands. Wow. This whole experience has been surreal. She came convinced that her father had married her off to a stranger just to spite her, and maybe he did, but now she-- she actually cares for her fiancé, and his family, and they all care for her, and now her father’s getting the shit end of it, and really this could not work out any more in her favor, honestly.

Still. There’s the matter of her brother’s incarceration to deal with. She looses another, heavier sigh before whistling sharply. The cawing of the ravens, which had been a constant background noise for the entire conversation, falls silent for a few moments before picking up again, louder; but she has eyes only for the Syngorian gyrfalcon that glides down to her from the rafters above. It alights on her outstretched arm, allows her to remove the message that it still carries, and then flaps its wings and takes off, this time out the great wide window that stays open perpetually so the birds might come and go as they please.

With trembling hands, that quiet fear welling back up within her, Vex opens the letter and reads it.

Sister,

Our father sucks major ass.

She stops reading immediately to sit down and laugh so hard in relief that she tears up. For a solid minute she can’t stop the giggling, but finally she lifts the letter once more and tries again.

Sister,

Our father sucks major ass. I’ve literally just been released from prison, and I say literally very literally; I’m currently outside the jail of Syngorn, using the wall of it to bare down against to write. The jail’s warden is watching me as I do so. Probably because I’m writing as slowly as possible to be obnoxious. I don’t think anyone can blame me, since I’ve spent the last three weeks in here for absolutely no reason.

For once, I didn’t actually steal anything. Shocking, I know. But Vax! I hear you say. You steal things all the time! And yet, in this instance I have been falsely accused. Dear old dad just wanted to keep me here to spite you. Prison food is awful. Our father is awful. Life is awful.

Hopefully not for you, though. Please don’t feel upset that you’re not here, they weren’t letting me see visitors anyway, per our father’s instructions. You would have just had to stay in the city even longer for no reason, and I know how desperately you wanted to return to Whitestone. I’m leaving within the week, so I should arrive there shortly. I hope that your time there has treated you kindly.

Give my love to Percival, and please don’t get pregnant before you actually get married, I think our father’s head might explode.

Actually, that’s a fair enough reason to do it. By all means, get pregnant. Get pregnant right now.

Well, not literally right now, because then you’d be screwing while reading this, and that’s just wrong for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it would mean that Percival’s not keeping your attention very well, which would suck for your love life.

Cheers,
Vax

Vex sets the letter down on the floor and brings her knees up, wrapping her arms around them and hiding her face, stifling her chuckles into her legs. “What an arse,” she murmurs softly, wiping tears out of her eyes. “What an absolute arse.”

She wouldn’t trade him, though. Not for anything.

---------

Three days after receiving the letter from Vax, Trinket decides to camp out the night in the courtyard, and Vex is left alone in her bedroom staring up at the ceiling and struggling to go to sleep.

He does that, sometimes, her big silly bear. She loves him dearly, and he loves her, but he is still a beast at heart and just like she does he can occasionally get stir crazy from staying within the castle too much. She’d join him, but autumn in Whitestone brings a chill to the nights, the promise of a cold and snowy winter, and unlike him she doesn’t have a thick fur coat to keep her warm. So instead she tosses and turns in her bed, which is too big, in her room, which is too empty. There’s no breathing at her side, no warmth of another; without Vax she had trouble sleeping, and now without Trinket it appears she can’t sleep at all.

She curls up and then uncurls almost immediately. She tries to count sheep to no avail. She punches her pillow but can’t find a comfortable position for the life of her.

After nearly an hour of tossing and turning, Vex gives up. She gets out of bed, gets some thick woolen socks and tugs on a shift and some leggings, and then wanders out into the hallway outside her room, relying on the moon through the window shutters and her superior half-Elven eyesight to guide her.

The library is on the opposite end of the castle as her room, but that’s alright, she won’t be sleeping tonight anyway, she’s got time to wander. The halls are quiet around her, her footsteps the only sound that echoes off the stone walls, but when she finally reaches the library, her toes gone cold despite her socks, there’s light spilling out from within, illuminating the hallway through the half-open door.

Vex hesitates outside of it, unsure of whether she wants company at the moment and equally unsure if whoever’s inside will want it either, when she hears a voice muttering from within, the words spoken too quietly for her to catch from this distance but the pitch and cadence utterly familiar. Percival, she thinks, and without a moment’s more of hesitation she slips in silently through the door.

He’s in one of the thick plush chairs by the fireplace, which glows with crackling flames, his bare feet propped up on a cushioned stool close to it. She’s never seen his toes before; it’s amusing, in a strange way that she doesn’t care to give much thought to. She’d never considered toes as intimate, but there you have it. There are books stacked up on the floor beside the chair, and as she watches he yawns heavily, wiping at his eyes afterwards and then bringing the book he’s currently on up closer to his face to better see the letters.

“Bit late for light reading, darling,” she says, as quietly as she can so as not to startle him. It doesn’t seem to help much, because he jumps, glasses knocked askew from the force up it, and blinks up at her owlishly when he’s settled once more. “If you do this on a regular basis it’s no wonder you’ve got bad eyesight. What’s got you so entranced that you ignore sleep for it?”

It takes him a moment to find his voice, as if he’s still having trouble grasping the fact that she’s there, before he says, equally quiet despite the fact that they’re the only two in the library, “Unfortunately, that’s always been a flaw of mine. My parents thought I was simple in the head when I was a child because I’d stare off into space all the time, they didn’t realize until I was three or four that it was because I couldn’t see.”

She grins at him, delighted by this new information, and settles herself in a chair across from him, pulling her knees up and tugging her shift down. Despite the fire her clothing isn’t quite warm enough to stave off the chill, and a shiver races down her spine, causing her teeth to chatter briefly. Winter will be hell, she thinks, especially compared to Syngorn, where the difference in temperature between the seasons is minimal enough to be nonexistent. “How many walls did you walk into, I wonder?”

Percy gives a tired little laugh, taking off his glasses briefly to rub at his eyes. “Not many walls,” he answers, “though I’ll admit that I nearly broke my nose a few times by wandering into signposts and tree saplings. What are you doing up though?”

“I asked first,” she says, smirking into her knees, and she lifts her chin to stick her tongue out at him childishly when he rolls his eyes.

“I was doing an experiment with some residuum from the mines earlier today,” he says, bookmarking his place and then closing the heavy tome in his lap, “and I remembered a book I’d read once that listed its scientific properties and uses in detail.” Then his raps his knuckles against the leather cover with a self-deprecating smile. “Somehow while looking for that I got caught up in reading about the history of Whitestone.”

“Dry reading for a late night,” she observes, resting her cheek on her knees and blinking at him, another shiver striking her.

“History fascinates me,” he admits, sounding a little embarrassed. “You have to know where you’ve been to get to where you’re going, and all that. Your turn, now, if you’d be so kind.”

“Can’t sleep,” she sighs. “Trinket’s out tonight, and it’s too quiet without him.” Too lonely, she thinks but doesn’t say, though she’s sure that he can grasp the implication. When she shudders a third time, Percy frowns and sets his book to the side. She watches curiously, sitting up in her seat, as he heaves himself out of his own chair and grabs the heavy blue coat that he favors during their jaunts in the woods. When he approaches her with it, a warmth blossoms in her stomach that has nothing to do with the hearth, and he lays it over her gently.

“There,” he says, retreating back to his own seat and falling into it with a sigh. “We need to get you some proper clothes before winter hits.”

“Thank you,” she murmurs, wrapping herself up in it. It smells like him, like smoke and hot metal and book dust, and she burrows her face into it briefly and sniffs before remembering that he might be watching. “Sorry,” she offers as an excuse, “my nose had an itch.”

“Give her a jacket and what does she do,” Percy huffs with an even grander roll of his eyes, “she wipes her snot on it.”

“I’m marking my territory,” she says automatically and without thought, and then immediately hides her face in it again so that he can’t see the blush that promptly blooms on her cheeks.

“I rather think that’s what the rings are for, darling,” he says after a moment of silence, his own voice a little strangled. She can feel her blush intensify at the endearment, one that she normally uses but hasn’t yet heard from him, and when she risks a peek up at him he’s opened the book once more and is staring determinately down at it to avoid her eyes.

A few minutes pass in silence that’s still warm for all that it’s incredibly awkward, and Vex curls up further into the chair, pulling the jacket tighter around her. With the crackling of the fire and Percy’s soft, even breaths, she can feel her eyes slipping shut, the sleep that had alluded her earlier beginning to catch up. Still, his last comment sparked her interest, and she clears her throat and forces her eyes open. “Did you know that Elves don’t exchange rings?”

She watches him blink a few times before he looks back up at her and answers, “I did, actually, but I hadn’t remembered until just now. They, ah, tie themselves together, yes?”

“The wrists,” she explains, slipping one hand out from beneath her makeshift blanket and baring her own wrist to him, the soft skin pale in the flickering firelight. “They tie their wrists together when they say their vows and have to stay joined for the entire ceremony.”

“Ah, yes,” he says, a smile in his voice, “I remember. It’s good luck if they can make it through the rest of the ceremony without having to part or cut the ribbon. A fascinating sentiment.”

“I’ve always found the concept of wedding rings to be a bit too… restricting,” she tells him thoughtfully. “Too much like chain links.” There’s another lull in the conversation, and Vex pulls her hand back under the jacket, delighted with the way the fabric traps warmth against her.

“Is that something you’d be interested in, then?” he asks finally, surprising her into opening her eyes and looking at him. When she tilts her head at him curiously he continues, “An Elven wedding ceremony? Tied wrists instead of rings?”

“Our fathers are planning it, remember?” she says dryly, raising an eyebrow. “What interests me likely interests them very little.”

“It’s our bloody wedding,” Percy says, frowning heavily. “If that’s what you want then we’ll make it happen.”

Vex thinks on it for a moment, that warmth in her chest radiating outwards at his words. She does quite like him, she realizes. Rather quite a bit. “No,” she says softly. “I’ve no love for the customs of Elves. Besides, my mother would be delighted beyond words to have me show up after the wedding with a ring on my finger, since she never got one.”

“You do know that she’s invited, right?” he asks hesitantly. They’ve talked about her mother very little, and he doesn’t know many details about her human heritage. Funny how when compared to Elven nobility it tends to get swept under the rug. “She won’t have to wait until afterwards to see it.”

“She’s not sure if her healer will be able to make the journey here with her, and she can’t go by herself in winter,” Vex says unhappily, a deep hurt clutching at her heart. “No doubt my father scheduled it so for that very reason to spite me.”

Percy’s quiet for a long moment before giving an unconvinced hum, though he doesn’t share whatever thoughts he might be having about it with her.

After another few minutes of comfortable silence, broken only by the rasp of paper whenever he turns a page, Vex murmurs softly, feeling herself balancing precariously on the threshold of sleep, “Read your boring history to me, darling?”

Percy snorts and says just as softly, “It’ll be your boring history too, soon enough.” And then he clears his throat and begins reading, and using the gentleness of his voice as a lullaby Vex’ahlia falls asleep.

---------

Vax is due to arrive any day now, and all evidence points to her father preparing to leave, and Percival approaches her at her bench in the courtyard one afternoon, his hands shaking from nerves and staring at her so hard that he’s clearly struggling to maintain eye contact, and says, “I’d had a thought, a-- a solution to your insomnia problem.”

“Oh?” she asks, looking up at him from the arrow she’s fletching. “And what’s that?”

Percy licks his lips, fingers fidgeting, before he clasps his hands behind his back and says all in a rush, “We should practice sleeping together.”

Vex stares at him, then looks down at her arrow, and then looks back up at him. “What?”

“In the same bed,” he says, throat bobbing visibly. “Not-- not, like, with-- fully clothed, of course, and not-- touching, but--”

“Breathe, Percival,” she commands, grinning around the blush that’s surely rising on her cheeks, a mirror to his own flush. “Use your words.”

Percy obediently takes a deep breath and pauses to collect his thoughts before continuing, voice a bit steadier, “You have trouble sleeping alone, and we’re-- we’re to be married, yes?”

“Last I’d checked, yes,” she answers with a bit of a giddy, nervous laugh. Oh, this is awful. Absolutely awful. How could she not love him?

“Then it follows,” he says determinately, clearly catching his stride, “that we would have to share a bed. Not all the time, of course, but-- but sometimes, when there are guests in the castle, if only to keep up appearances. And I personally have never shared a bed with anyone before, so for all I know I might be rubbish at it.”

“Thus, practice?” she asks. Glancing behind him through the doorway leading from the castle to the courtyard, she sees Vesper and Whitney are peeking their heads out to watch, both of them grinning from ear to ear. When she raises an eyebrow at them Vesper lifts a hand and waves jauntily.

“Thus, practice,” he confirms with a relieved sigh, likely thankful that he doesn’t have to explain it any further. “With clothing on, obviously, and I have a large bed, so you can sleep on one side and I can sleep on the other, but it might-- it might help.”

“I kick in my sleep,” she warns him, biting her lip to try and contain her smile.

“Apparently I talk in mine,” he replies, back as straight as if he’s had a rod shoved up it. “So I’ll talk and you can kick me to shut me up.”

“Deal,” she says, offering her hand to shake, and after a moment he takes it, his fingers shaking within hers, and then with a sharp nod he turns and begins to walk away briskly. “Percival!” she calls after he’s gone a few feet, and he stops so suddenly that he stumbles as he turns to look at her over his shoulder, expression anxious. She waits for a moment to let him sweat, then finishes with a wink, “See you tonight.”

While his attention is on her, she sees Whitney give her a thumbs up before the two girls duck back into the castle.

---------

All the pacing and mental pep talks in the world couldn’t prepare Percival for the knock on his door that night, and he actually freezes halfway through the process of tugging off his shirt to change into his sleepwear for a full five seconds before he clears his throat and calls out, voice cracking, “Come in.”

Vex opens the door and pokes her head through, then blinks at him, wide-eyed, as he tosses his shirt into the corner of his room. “Sorry,” he says sheepishly, not meeting her eyes as he pulls on the loose woolen one that he wears to sleep, “you’re a bit earlier than I was expecting.”

“Not like we agreed on a time. Though by all means,” she smirks, slipping fully into his room and shutting the door behind her with a soft, final-sounding click, “don’t stop on my account.”

“Ha ha,” he says mockingly, and then the moment of levity passes and the two of them stare at each other nervously.

She’s been in his room before, of course. Waiting for him to get ready for a hike, bothering him out of bed when she wakes before him and wants attention, hiding quietly from their fathers together. But it’s always been short visits, and never with the same sort of connotation. Now, at night, with only the light of a candle to illuminate them both, it seems different, seems more-- it reminds him abruptly, as certain things occasionally do, that this is the woman that he’s expected to spend the rest of his life with, and that this is the first night of many that they will spend together.

Well. Hopefully, anyway.

“So,” he says.

“So,” she replies.

He swallows. She scuffs the heel of her foot against the floor. While she’s facing away, he takes the opportunity to look her over; she’s still in the clothes she’d worn that day, though the shift that he remembers from a few nights ago in the library is tucked under her arm, and her feet are barefoot and pale against the stone floor.

“You should, um,” he starts, and then gestures to her clothes.

“Yeah,” she agrees after a second, then waits until he starts and turns away abruptly, putting his back to her.

“Sorry,” he says nervously, “I’ll just-- yeah.” He rocks on his heels, staring up at the ceiling and trying to ignore the sound of fabric rustling.

“I’m good,” she tells him after a minute or so, and he barely restrains the urge to look over his shoulder.

“Right. Let’s, um. Yes.” He opens and closes his mouth a few more times, but nothing comes out.

“Bed?” she asks from directly behind him, her voice warm.

“Bed,” he agrees, and then pulls back the sheets and slides into them without looking at her, grabbing the book he’s been reading from off his bedside table and opening it, staring down into it intently as she walks around to the other side and slips in beside him. His throat bobs and he feels his face heat up at the way the mattress dips with the unfamiliar weight. She stretches out, the skin of her legs rasping against the fabric of the sheets, and sighs, settling her head down into the pillow. True to what he’d told her, the bed is big enough that they can maintain a respectable distance, and with this much space between him he can’t feel the heat of her body, which is honestly probably a good thing.

This was a stupid idea, he thinks viciously, and mentally curses Vesper and Whitney for planting it in his head. He should have just left well enough alone, been content with friendship instead of trying to-- to push.

A few minutes pass in silence before she turns on her side to stare at him and props her head up on one hand. “This is weird,” she announces, and he snaps his book shut and looks back at her.

“Oh my gods, I know, right?” He runs a hand through his hair anxiously, tousling it beyond repair, and her face breaks out into a grin. “How do people do this every night?”

“I don’t know, but it’s awful.”

“The most uncomfortable experience of my life to date,” he agrees, “and I’m including when we met and you threatened to poison my tea.”

“Holy shit,” she laughs, hiding her face in her pillow. “I did do that, didn’t I? Sorry about that. I didn’t like you very much then.”

“I didn’t like you either,” he admits, “but it was mostly because I was scared of you.”

“Good,” she snickers, biting her lip. After a moment Percival decides to set his book to the side once more and slide out of his upright position, the two of them lying facing each other perhaps a little less than a foot away. “Hello,” she says once he’s settled.

“Hello,” he hums. “I don’t know what people do when they do this. I’ve never shared a bed with someone before. Are we supposed to talk?”

“I dunno. Usually when I share a bed with someone--” she stops abruptly, setting her jaw and looking embarrassed. It’s-- it’s fine, he knows that she’s got more experience with… that than he does, and he doesn’t care. He reaches out and nudges her shin with his foot, and she jumps away from him with a hiss. “Tits, Percy! Your toes are like icicles.” After a moment of hesitation she speaks again, but only because he moves his foot back towards her threateningly. “Usually one of us leaves, afterwards.”

“Hmm,” he says thoughtfully. “Sounds a little lonely.”

“Sometimes,” she admits quietly, then gently reaches out and pokes him with her own foot. “It doesn’t bother you? That I’ve slept with other people?”

“Should it?” he asks, blinking at her curiously.

“I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t want it to, but--” she stops and thinks for a second before tucking her chin down against her pillow, hugging it to her defensively. “That’s what nobles do, right? Get bothered by that stuff?”

“I’m not,” he says, catching her gaze and holding it, so she knows it’s true. Then he clears his throat and rolls onto his back, away from her sad eyes, and says to the ceiling, “Besides, whoever would leave you afterwards is a fool.”

She blushes, then to cover it up she snorts and pokes at him again, her own toes cold enough to send a shiver up his spine. “What, are you saying you think you could stand to sleep in the same bed with me for the rest of your life?”

“Maybe,” he huffs, “if you eventually stop talking so that I can actually sleep.”

“Hey, now,” she grumbles, jabbing him with her big toe in the back of the thigh. “You’re the one who invited me in here.”

“Regretting it already,” he says glibly, and she heaves a theatrical sigh.

“Well, that didn’t last long. Away I go, then,” and she throws the sheets off, rolling over to climb out of the bed.

Percival nearly gets vertigo by how fast he flips around and grabs at her, fingers catching into the sleeves of her shift. They stare at each other, and a smile slowly crawls across her face. “I knew you couldn’t resist me,” she says, smugly, and he huffs louder as she settles back against the mattress, pulling the sheets up to her chin once more.

“Practice,” he reminds her.

“Practice,” she agrees, snuggling into her pillow, and then yawns widely. “You should read again. It was dreadfully boring, put me to sleep almost immediately. It’s like it was so dull that my brain literally mutinied and knocked itself out in protest.”

Percival rolls his eyes but pulls himself back up into a sitting position obligingly, reaching for his book once more. “You’re lucky I’m not set to be the next Lord, otherwise you’d have to memorize all this yourself. Sina had to learn all of the same history lessons that we did before they’d let her get married to Julius. Important dates, prominent Barons and Baronesses, townspeople of note. That sort of thing. We used to quiz her on stuff in the library. Vesper and I even made up flashcards.”

“Awful,” Vex tells her pillow, eyes already closed. “I’d fail out of marriage. I’ve never been very studious.”

“We’re pretty sure she cheated anyway.”

“Knew I liked her for a reason.” She kicks him, lightly, just a quick jostle to his leg, then commands, “Read.”

Percival opens his book back up with a put-upon sigh and mumbles to himself, “Where’d we leave off…” Then after a moment of finding his place, he begins to read again and Vex’ahlia goes quiet.

Within ten minutes her breathing evens out and her body relaxes into the mattress with a soft, quiet sigh. Percival pauses his reading to watch her; her hair free of her braid and spread out across the pillow, how she curls in towards him, knees tucked up close to her chest. There’s a gentleness in the way she sleeps that hides the whirlwind of her soul, all of the sharp points of her, so like the arrows that she shoots, rounded and tempered in the safety of her dreams.

He feels, suddenly, as if he wants nothing more than to run his fingers through his hair.

“No,” he tells himself firmly, quietly. “That is not for you.” He closes the book and sets it to the side, turning to take off his glasses and blow out the candle. He slips back down under the covers and pulls them up close to his chin. Almost immediately, there’s a yank from behind him as Vex’ahlia tugs them back over to her, pulling them far enough that his feet stick out.

Percival gives a defeated sigh, his toes curling up from the cold. Vex lets out a tremendous snore.

It’s going to be a long night.

---------

When Vex’ahlia wakes, it’s because the sun is shining into her eyes, and when she frowns tiredly and buries her face further into her pillow, it moves.

“Shit,” it says, and then moves again.

Vex growls and tightens her hold on it. She is comfortable, goddamn it, and she doesn’t want to move. “Oh, come on,” her pillow says, apparently attempting to escape. She growls again in warning. If she has to open her eyes she’s going to be very unhappy.

“Why is this my life?” the pillow asks, and when it starts to pry itself out of her grasp she bites it.

“Shit,” it says once more, a bit more subdued, and then settles back down into its spot.

Good, she thinks sleepily, already drifting back into her dreams. She is warm and her bed smells like smoke and hot metal and book dust and her pillow is wide and firm, and she curls into it with a sigh and thinks that this is where she’s supposed to be.

And then, perhaps an hour or so later, she wakes once more, slowly and begrudgingly, and when she finally opens her eyes with great reluctance she discovers that her pillow is not actually a pillow, but is in fact Percival’s chest, and he’s laying on his back and holding his book above his head with one hand so that he can read it.

She must make some soft noise of confusion, because he glances down at her and raises an eyebrow over slightly-crooked glasses. “Good morning,” he says wryly.

“Good morning,” she says, or at least tries to say. Truthfully what comes out is closer to “Nnnnngggg.”

“Quite,” he agrees regardless. “If you’d be so kind, dear, could I have my arm back?”

Vex blinks up at him blearily before it registers that not only is she plastered to him, but the arm that’s not raised above him and holding his book aloft is trapped between their bodies, hand resting lightly on her outer thigh, which she’d apparently thrown over his legs in her sleep.

She contemplates it for a second, her mind working a little slowly through the haze of sleep, then rests her face back on his chest and closes her eyes. “No,” she decides finally, and cuddles in closer.

“Splendid,” Percy says, sounding less than thrilled, but with a blush beginning to rise on his cheeks. “It’s only, my arm fell asleep a while ago, and I can’t feel my fingers anymore.”

“I can feel them,” she mumbles, the words dragged from her kicking and screaming. It’s the deepest sleep she’s gotten in-- well, a while, and she’s none too pleased to have to wake from it. “They’re there.”

He doesn’t say anything to that, and after about a minute it registers in her mind that maybe she should be suspicious of his silence. When she opens her eyes back up, narrowing them against the light, Percy’s watching her with this-- this awful, awful expression of adoration, his eyes as blue as a Byroden summer sky. He clears his throat and looks back up at his book once he’s realized she’s watching him, and Vex hides a soft, sleepy smile in the fabric of his shirt.

If this is what she woke up to every morning for the rest of her life, she supposes she could get used to it.

“I’d call the night a success,” she says after she gives herself a few minutes to properly wake up, her thoughts coming to her a bit faster and clearer.

“I’d agree, if not for the fact that I couldn’t feel my toes for the cold after you stole the covers, and now can’t feel my hand for the vice grip around it,” he says mildly. “Truthfully I can’t turn the pages, so I’ve been reading this same passage for the last half-hour. Honestly, dear, if you could--”

Without releasing his arm, Vex lifts her own and turns the page for him. He sighs heavily.

“Practice makes perfect,” she tells him with a yawn, turning her head to face him, chin settled against his sternum. “If you’re not satisfied with the results then we’ll just have to try again tonight.”

He doesn’t look at her, but the book can’t hide his smile, or the flush across his cheeks. She’s warm, and comfortable, and she feels safe in a way that she can’t assign words to, couldn’t explain if she had a dictionary set in right in front of her.

She’s marrying him, she realizes. She’s known it for months obviously but here in the light of dawn, his heartbeat beneath her cheek, his breath rising in his chest, the warmth of him even through both their clothes, it feels like a revelation, something exciting and new. Perhaps not the best of circumstances, but-- she could love him, she thinks. She could, honestly and without reservation, love him.

So she will.

“It occurs to me,” she murmurs, rolling a decision about in her head before her heart finally makes it for her, “that there’s something else that we’ll be expected to do when we’re married. Besides sleeping in the same bed, that is.”

“What’s that?” he asks, a little distracted by the new page in his book, and so he doesn’t look up until she finally moves, releasing his trapped arm. She reaches up and pulls the book out of his hand, setting it gently to the side, and then rises up over him and presses her lips to his.

He doesn’t react at first, until finally, after a few nervous seconds, his hand lifts and his fingers thread through her hair, as if unsure whether to pull her away or closer. He breathes out hard through his nose, lips unresponsive beneath hers, until she kisses in closer, moving against his mouth, coaxing him into action. This is likely his first kiss, she thinks suddenly, and then presses down harder with a sense of sharp satisfaction. Good. She never learned how to share very well.

Under her guidance, the silent instruction of her lips against his, Percival learns quickly, one kiss becoming two, becoming five, becoming ten, though he pulls away with a shuddering breath when her tongue touches the seam of his mouth. “A-ah,” he gasps, and she presses their foreheads together briefly before dropping her chin back down on his chest.

“What do you think?” she murmurs, an anxiousness in her voice that she’ll never, ever admit to.

“I think,” he answers, his voice pitched deeper than she’s ever heard it, and then clears his throat before continuing, “that I need more practice before I’m satisfied with the results.”

“It does make perfect,” she tells him, grinning, and then they practice for a while. At least, until the feeling comes back in his arm and it starts itching uncontrollably, anyway.