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It seems like a simple thing. If you pretend it's a process, a thing to be tinkered with, you see each step as a small one. The outcome however is far more predictable, though you've weighed each of them in your mind a hundred times.

It's only a hand, you tell yourself. One hand, five slender fingers. You've seen them thousands of times in these past years. They've hidden tears and laughter, they've cradled your gifts, your face, and been darkened by your blood. There's a link there and you feel it trembling, your own hand moving in time with your quivering, unsettled breaths.

Hands are both very simple and very complex machines, both hard and soft, capable of both comfort and harm. And yet her hand rests there unbothered, taking up space as though it belongs. You want to believe that it does. Though it's not her that feels out of place, it's you. It's you that's the problem. Even know, with your inability to even reach out to a hand that's already touching you. She could find a place anywhere. And most nights you doubt your own hands and eyes, wondering when she'll vanish into mist and shadows, and memories.

You know your own hands. Fingertips calloused and stained, steadiest with a gun in them and weakest now in the quiet and dead of night. Without your gloves, they feel strange, too bare, too vulnerable. You hide your hands as easily as you hide everything about yourself, no matter the reasons or logic. You're guarded, you tell yourself, and for good reason. It has always made more sense to hold yourself back from things, to keep yourself separate. Even now… even still.

"Darling," she asks, "are you alright?" Her voice is a low whisper, her words half-slurred by sleep.

I don't know.

"Percy, dear?" More awake now. She's stirring in your silence and you tally it up among all the other things you've ruined.

Her endearments strike true as any arrow though she uses them far more liberally. Like her brother she has a name for everyone; it's sweet until you know it's not. That even her enemies are darlings. She is not sparing with her words or her kindnesses when they are false. It's one of the most dangerous things about her, the way she can lure a person towards friendship. You've managed to turn this over and over too, cautious of her sincerity. She could bring far stronger men than you to their knees with just a sweetly spoken 'darling' and a wink.

Maybe you should worry about your knees more often.

"Percival."

You hear the warning there. You can feel the weight of her gaze on you as much as you can see the lines etched into her face from it, without turning so much as a hair in her direction. Another tally mark for the times she's turned that look on you. The weight of her judgement is difficult to bear, though you do so almost proudly. Whether pleased or not, her gaze is on you.

What you do not want is for her to move, for her to take her hand away. So you answer.
"I'm alright."

And that's not the wrong thing to say, even if it's not exactly the right one either. Things are better now, aren't they? Your opportunities for comparison are limited, but maybe if there's any kind of thing close to good in your life, it's Vex'ahlia. Vex, and her pale, slender hands. Vex, and her calloused fingertips. Vex, and her endearments, her greedy heart, greedy and somehow tender too. Too tender by far. Especially where you're concerned.

You've done nothing to earn the right to such a heart. You've lied and deceived, you've been too cunning for your own good and just as greedy. Greedier maybe, though even you must admit that it's difficult to know that for sure. And you're pretty sure that trying out the math to prove out which is true is the sort of thing that crazy people do. Not people with the opportunity for something nearly-good with someone like Vex'ahlia.

Her hand moves and a part of you must mourn the loss of it, just as you've mourned the loss of her. Vax should've punched me harder. You'd deserved far more of his anger than he showed you. Far worse punishment too. Perhaps if he'd hit you harder, made you bleed, made it hurt again, you would've stayed away. Maybe she would've stayed away. You watched your friends struggle to bring her back from the death you sent her to and what did you have to offer? What could you give her when she returned but more of the same.

"You're not alright dear. You're shaking."

Her hand returns and it comes down on yours, softly. Her fingers curl over yours and she lets her hand rest there, unmoving again. She sees better than you do in the dark, you remember. And you sigh, resigned to being caught out. Awake and afraid at your own shadow.

"I'm alright, now," you say. There's stress on the word 'now' when you say it, and it almost sounds convincing that way. You do feel better, now. Now while she's awake. Now with her hand on yours. Now with her eyes on you. Vex sees better in the darkness than you do and the though calms you. As if by her wakefulness she keeps the darkness at bay. The shadows are safer when you know Vex can find you in them.

"The dreams?"

"I would've had to be asleep," you answer. It's too honest to say so, you think, and want to take the words back.

"Percy…" You hear as much as you feel her sigh. You expect a scolding but without another word she presses against your shoulder and kisses your cheek. She's warm, the kind of warmth that radiates out from her like an embrace. The kind of warm that makes you colder for feeling it when she pulls back.

You smile a little, knowing she can see it. She kisses your cheek again. The blankets rustle as she shifts her feet beneath them. Her toes, somehow cold despite the warmth of the rest of her, press against your ankle. You gasp at the sensation and she chuckles.

"Try to sleep," she says. "Come on." Her hand moves again and you feel her turn, her arm coming around your chest. "Come on, Percival." She pulls you in, urges you to turn towards her. You do, eyes readjusting in the dark to the faint outline of her as you try to settle in.

She kisses your nose. "Long day tomorrow," she says. "Might as well try to rest up at least. I need you well-rested."

As you arrange yourself to attempt and sleep, you feel the weight of her hand come to rest on your hip. You stare at the dark outline of Vex'ahlia, hear the settling of her breath, you can feel the outline of that hand as though it's pressing into you. The weight her hand of it isn't oppressive, it's not too warm nor too cool. There's a sliver of air between where your hip ends and her hand is her hand, but it's too small a space for you to sense. The sense of her hand there against you is like putting on your gloves in the morning. You feel them, take notice of them moment by moment until you've stopped without even realizing it.

The rhythm of sleep takes her breath and she's warm. Whatever time passes does so without notice as you listen to her sleep. Her fingers stir in her sleep and in your own fading moments before sleep, you catch them. The steps seem simple now, how the palm of your hand covers the back of her hand. Your thumb interlocks with hers, the tips of your fingers barely grazing her wrist.

And as the shadows settle in around you, edging into the darkness of sleep, you try not to think about what it cost you to get here. Or how much you'd give up to be able to stay. You try not to think about the ways you'll mess it all up. You don't focus on the things you've ruined, can ruin, have yet to ruin. Instead you focus on the simplicity of the steps. On her breath. On your own. Just this feels like a monumental achievement. You don't know if it's supposed to feel this way, or whether it's good or bad that it does. But in the dark, in the quiet, with the simple pressure of her hand on your hip and your hand on hers, the tightness in your chest and behind your eyes eases.