The Whitestone council filed out of the underground War Room, each member heading toward their errands. Percy stood up, intending to follow, but noticed that Cassandra, alone, had not moved. She remained in her chair, elbows perched on the edge of the table, fingers tented and staring at her hands with a deeply furrowed brow. So instead of joining his compatriots, he returned to his seat. "Cass? Are you all right?"
She took a deep, sighing breath without looking up. "Not really, no."
Percy rested a hand on the tabletop, leaned close to his sister. "What's wrong?"
"What's wrong??" Cassandra dropped her arms, letting her open palms smack against the tabletop, then stared directly at him, her grey eyes snapping. "You lied to me, that's what's wrong. How dare you keep Raishan's true nature from me? You put the safety of everyone in Whitestone at risk."
"Ah." He nodded. "Well, I did warn you that something was up."
She let out a soft snort of derision. "That note was so vague as to be meaningless. How could you think I wasn't already ready for anything?" She shook her head. "You should have told me everything, Percy."
"I was trying to protect you!" Percy straightened up and scrubbed a hand through his hair. "If I'd told you, and Raishan found out--"
"Do you really think I'm so stupid that I would have given the game away?" Cassandra's glare intensified. "I have a little experience with keeping secrets, you know. You should've thought of that."
Percy sighed. "Maybe so. I suppose in the end I don't know you that well."
She leapt to her feet and whirled around to face away from him, into the darkness of the underground chamber. "You know well enough to trust me. You have to trust me! Otherwise I can't trust you, and if I can't trust you--" Her voice broke, and she lowered her head, letting silence fall.
"Well." Percy shrugged. "I've never claimed to be trustworthy. Quite the opposite, in fact. You're better off--"
"Don't you dare tell me that!" Cassandra looked over her shoulder at him, and Percy was startled to see tears brimming in her eyes. "Dammit, Percival. Don't you understand that I have no choice but to trust you? If I can't trust you, then I have no one. No one!" She dashed the back of her hand across her face. "You have your friends in Vox Machina. Friends who would do anything for you, friends who love you. I've got no one like that except for you. Everyone else I've ever loved is gone. You're the only one left." She turned away again, and her next words were almost too quiet to hear. "And believe me, you are not the one I would have chosen."
Percy froze, the truth of her half-whispered words hitting him like a dagger in the back of the neck. "No," he replied, softly, coldly. "I don't suppose you would have."
The silence was absolute, and a chill filled the air between them. Percy was torn between wanting to comfort his sister and never wanting to see her again. She continued to look into the darkness, head hanging low, shoulders trembling. Finally, she raised her chin. "I would like you to go now, please."
"All right." Percy didn't trust himself to say anything further; instead, he turned on his heel and marched away from the table and down the stairs, getting as far away from his sister and the black orb as he could.
Hours passed, as Vox Machina and Allura Vysoren made their preparations to travel to Fort Daxio the next morning. Percy kept his hands busy during that time -- making bullets and cleaning his guns and crafting another exploding arrow for Vex -- but his mind was hard at work, too, going over the conversation with Cassandra, his decisions, worrying at the spots where he had gone wrong. When he finally looked up, he discovered that the sun was down and he'd worked through lunch and dinner both; he set aside his tools and left the workshop for the kitchens. On his way, he passed the door to his father's old office, recently claimed by Cassandra for her use. It was slightly ajar now, and lamplight poured through the opening. He paused, then rapped his knuckles lightly on the frame.
He peered around the door to see her sitting at the giant desk, surrounded by papers, poring over them with an elbow on the surface, a corner of her mouth resting on a clenched fist. It was a pose Percy had seen many times before, in his father, reading over treaties or trade agreements. It had been a signal, this posture, that Frederick de Rolo was deep in thought and not to be disturbed. Percy started to back away, but then Cassandra dropped her hand and looked up. "Come in," she said.
Percy paused, wary. "Are you sure?"
She waved him inside, and he stepped around the door, hands behind his back. "Cassandra..." He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. You're right. I should have trusted you. And henceforth, I will. No more secrets. I promise."
She closed her eyes for a moment with a small nod. "Thank you," she murmured. "That-- means a lot to me." She met his gaze. "And I will be worthy of your promise. You have my word."
"Good." He took a step toward her. "Now, I've promised you honesty. Which means you need to know-- I can't in good conscience ask anyone to trust me. Because I'm not convinced I can be trusted."
Cassandra shook her head. "Percy..."
"Just hear me out," he said, raising a hand. He closed the office door, then walked to the couch on the near wall and sat; she took a chair across from him. "I'm not sure how much you know, or have figured out, about what happened to me after the Briarwoods. Or-- who happened, more specifically."
"You refer to the demon you fought." Cassandra crossed her hands across her lap and leaned forward. "Orthax. He had possessed you. Or your gun. I've never been quite clear which."
"Some of each, I believe," Percy replied. He pulled Animus out of its holster and laid it on the coffee table. "We defeated him, but only for a time. I can't be certain of what happened next, but my best guess is that, once he'd licked his wounds, he sought out Anna Ripley, and together they forged this weapon. Animus, the gun that killed me." He stared at the gun in silence before glancing up to meet Cassandra's eyes. "When I died, he took me. Imprisoned me, tortured me." Her eyes went wide, and her hand slowly rose to cover her mouth, which had fallen slightly open. "If Keyleth hadn't gotten me out of there--" As the horror crept onto her face, Percy had to turn his head away. "Well. I don't want to think about that."
"No," she whispered. "Nor do I. Percy..." He heard her shift forward, felt a hand fall on his shoulder, and when he turned back to her, she was looking straight into his eyes, expression shifted into a deep sadness. "Are you free now? Safe from him?"
"I hope so," he replied with a quick nod. She patted his shoulder, then pulled away. "Once the dragons are taken care of, I may have to take measures to be certain. But I can't worry about that right now, not and do what I need to do." This time he reached out to her, taking her hand in both of his. "The reason I'm telling you this, is that I don't know how that my time with Orthax changed me. I can only feel that it did. For one, I wonder about my decision to attack Raishan back there. How can I be afraid of a dragon when my worst fear has already come true?"
After a long moment, Cassandra stood up, then sat next to him on the couch. She sighed and leaned her head on his shoulder, wrapping a hand in the crook of his elbow. "How did we get ourselves into this?"
Percy turned and planted a soft kiss on her forehead. "A question I ask myself nearly every day." She chuckled, and he ran a hand over her hair, smoothing down the brown curls. "Thank you, Cassandra, for all you do here. You have no idea how much easier I breathe, knowing that you are in Whitestone, keeping the castle and the city safe."
"I could never do it without help."
They sat in companionable silence awhile, until Percy judged it safe to attempt a bit of a jest. "So," he said, "if you could have chosen, who would it have been?"
"Mother," Cassandra replied, without hesitation.
"Heh." Percy shook his head. "You know, I had the same thought? She could fight nearly as well as any of us, but her presence was comforting at the same time."
Cassandra nodded. "If not Mother, then Julius."
"Ah, yes," Percy said. "He did always dote on you."
"Well, not because of that." She lifted her head and caught his eye. "All right, not entirely because of that." Percy laughed, and she smiled. "He was learning to be the next lord of Whitestone. Like Father, but kinder than Father. More approachable." She let out a soft, sad breath. "I wonder every single day what he would do, had this task fallen to him."
"As do I," Percy murmured. He shifted to bring his arm around her shoulders, and she nestled more closely against his side. "That said, I can't imagine him doing much better."
"I miss him." Her words were almost inaudible, and Percy found himself unable to speak in response, the grief filling his throat and closing off any words that might have come; instead, he just closed his eyes and leaned his cheek against the crown of her head, pillowed against her soft hair.
"I'm sorry," Cassandra said, after a long pause. "I shouldn't have snapped at you before. I-- I understand why you wouldn't trust me, after the Briarwoods." Pulling away from his arms, she turned sideways on the sofa, tucking her feet beneath her, and suddenly she looked her age, for possibly the first time in Percy's memory. Percy shifted to face her, resting his elbow against the top of the couch. "But I got angry, and then I got scared. The last time I had someone in my life who felt like a friend, she was grooming me to be a sacrifice to an ancient evil. I know it was fake, that I being manipulated. But something about it felt real. More real than any other connection I'd ever had. At least then I knew my purpose. I knew that someone cared." She flicked her eyes down, then back up. "I know that you care. And that your friends care, at least to a certain extent." The corner of her mouth turned up. "Especially your Vex'alia."
"She's not-- I mean--" Percy felt the warmth creep up his cheeks. "I would hardly claim--"
Cassandra laughed and took his hand again. "I thought you promised not to lie to me?"
He narrowed his eyes, then broke away, a chuckle escaping his lips. "You have me there."
She smiled and patted his arm. "I hope, once things calm down a bit, to have the chance to know her a bit better. But what I wanted to say, is to apologize for my outburst. And especially for suggesting-- for implying--" She paused and bit her lip. "For even the slightest intimation that I'm sorry that you survived. Because I'm not. I'm so happy you're here. Learning that you escaped and lived might be the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me."
Percy leaned forward and kissed her again, a firm kiss to her forehead. "Me too, Cass." He reached out and pulled her into a fierce hug, letting the tears fill his eyes at last. "Me too."