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against the dying of the light

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“Do you know this word?” Percy’s voice is whisper-soft against her hair, in the way he only is this late at night, this absorbed in a book.

“Mm?” She picks her head up from his shoulder sleepily, limbs like syrup as she clings to the precipice between sleep and consciousness.

“This one.” Percy taps under the word again and Keyleth settles her hand on top of his, fingering the flowing Elvish script.

“That’s…” she rests her chin back on Percy’s shoulder. “Have you ever looked at the stars? Just looked and looked and felt so small and so big and just…peaceful? It’s that word.”

“Ah.”

“Timelessness, I think. Or weightlessness. Or…infinity maybe.”

“I think we need to get you to bed.” Percy’s voice sounds very far away.

“You’ve just never looked at the stars right.” As his arm curls around her waist, something painful twinges just left of her spine. “You just need to look at the stars better.”

“All right, dear,” she hears before she slips away completely.

//

She hovers at the door for a moment, doesn’t know Percival well enough yet to barge into his room uninvited. “What are you working on?”

The delicate tools in his hands clatter as they fall. “Ah, well…” he says, reaching to adjust his glasses.

Keyleth steps into the room, tries for her brightest smile. “It looks complicated.”

“It’s very dangerous.” There is more solemnity in his voice than the sentence warrants.

“Can I watch you work?” Her voice is too loud, too bright, bouncing off the walls of the room.

He opens his mouth and she knows he is trying to find the politest way to say no, but she doesn’t know that yet, doesn’t know Percy or his manners or his isolation, so she folds her legs under her, drops her chin in her hands.

There’s a soft, strained pause before Percival closes his mouth and turns back to his work. “Don’t touch anything,” he says, barely loud enough for her to hear.

“Come on…” It’s a year and a half later, and she’s laughing as she runs her fingers over his new bookshelf. “How many times have I watched you work, Percy? It’s not like I’m going to set my hair on fire…again.”

“Just…” Percy stops halfway through his frantic march between the forge and the chests piled in the corner. “I don’t want to deal with a crisis before the workshop’s even fully set up.”

“Fine,” she says as she clips a stack of books with her elbow.

He looks up at her very slowly. “Out.”

“Percy…”

“Out!”

//

They’re sitting on Percy’s cot, the night quietly dipping toward dawn. Keyleth looks up slowly.

“How long have we been sitting here?”

Percy hums. “Hours, I suppose.”

“Hours…”

Keyleth looks back down at her potion-brewing manual, but there’s something she’s forgotten, she’s sure of it. Her brow furrows.

“When did you pick up the books?”

“The books?” He’s still scribbling quietly.

“The books… I knocked down all those books and now…” The ache tugs against her spine. “I think I’ve been sitting here for a long time.”

“And I think it’s time we get you to bed,” he says in his kindest, most indulgent way.

“I’m not tired,” she says, but she’s not sure that’s true. “Percy…” and she reaches out toward him like she’s afraid he’ll slip away.

“Don’t,” he says very quietly.

“We’re not going to hurt you.” The boy behind the bars hasn’t lifted his head, so she keeps her voice low and steady, like she’s talking to a wounded animal.

“Well, I should certainly hope not.” His head snaps up and Keyleth steps back, his piercing blue eyes like a blow to the chest.

“I’m sorry,” she says without thinking.

The boy squints, rests his head back on his knees.

“What’s your name?” she asks softly.

His shoulders tense. There’s a long pause. “Percival.”

“Well, Percival,” she starts, but an inhale catches her all wrong and the pain slices up her back.

The boy’s up to the bars faster than is possible, catching her hands. “Are you all right?”

“No.” There’s something wrong. “No, I…” Something about his matted hair, his crooked glasses, his cold hands wrapped around hers. “This is wrong,” she whispers. “It didn’t happen like this.”

Percy cocks his head and the pain blooms outward. She tries to scream, but it gets caught in her throat and the world is spinning spinning spinning, Percy’s hands in hers as she falls to her knees.

“Careful now,” he warns as she throws up against the side of the tavern.

She sucks in shaky breaths. “I hate Grog.”

“I know.”

“I hate him. I’m gonna fight him or something. Just…” She retches again and the world turns sideways. “You know, just really make him pay.”

“Mhmm.”

Keyleth rocks back onto her knees, coughing as she fumbles to catch Percy’s hand with hers. “Everything’s spinning.”

Percy doesn’t say anything as Keyleth focuses all her attention into settling herself into his lap. “I’m sorry…” Her head collides with his chest far faster than she expected.

“Sorry for what?”

“Just.” She sighs miserably and blindly reaches for his glasses, balancing them on her face with quite a lot of effort. “I don’t get how these help you see.” The world is shimmering and Percy’s face swims before her, laughing or crying or screaming. Keyleth pushes the glasses farther up her nose. “I can’t see. Can you see?” Keyleth seizes Percy’s cheeks, smearing dirt across his face.

“Are you real?” she whispers. “Please tell me you’re real.”

“Keyleth…”

She can’t feel Percy’s legs under her anymore. Maybe she’s floating or maybe Percy’s floating or maybe the stars have all burned out at once. “Please don’t leave me.”

The ache throbs against her spine.

//

“I hate you.” There’s no venom in her voice, it’s too early. She hasn’t learned how to warp her anger into a weapon just yet.

He’s silent, hands folded on the table, expression smooth. She hates that expression. Anticipation or guilt or loathing, all she knows is it follows Percy’s terrible thoughts as predictably as darkness follows the sunset.

“I can’t believe you would-” His hands don’t shake and his gaze doesn’t waver from hers.

“Can’t you?”

And she can, she can, he’s been with them for less than two months and he is only misery and propriety and selfishness. “You-” but her words splutter out, she is too angry for this, Vax will be here soon, words precise as blades and she can tell him that Percival…that he…

“Can’t you ever think before you do things?” she says, because she’s never been good at holding her tongue and Percival’s just sitting there like there’s nothing wrong, like he didn’t just…

Keyleth shakes her head. Percival’s done something terrible, she’s sure of it. He- he said- he thought-

She swallows.

She’s not wrong, she just- if she could only remember-

The door bangs open and her head jerks up from the soot-stained pillows.

“Coffee?” Percy asks and she smiles.

“Mmm… always coffee…” She yawns, reaches out for the mug, but her hands meet cracked ceramic.

“Percy?”

The world shatters. The mug smashes against the floor.

Keyleth screams.

Keyleth can’t scream. She can’t breathe.

Percy’s picking up the pieces. The mug explodes in Keyleth’s palms. The coffee is boiling, hot liquid spilling over their hands. The workshop is spinning. Pain rakes its way across her back.

Percy screams. She can’t breathe.

Are you real? Are you real?

She gasps awake.

“Percy?” She lifts her head up from Vax’s shoulder and for one perfect moment, the nightmare recedes. They are all safe.

Until Allura’s tower crashes around her ears all over again. Their city is burning and here she is, wrapped around Vax, and Percy-

She is so worried about Percy. Why is she so worried about Percy?

//

“I grew up with three sisters, Keyleth. It wounds me that you think I can’t braid hair.”

Keyleth collapses into giggles on the floor because he looks so godsdamned serious and he keeps looking at her like she’s offended his pride. “Okay,” she says finally, sucking in air. “Okay.” But she can’t help it. The laughter bubbles out of her again as she presses her forehead against Percy’s knee.

“Well, if you’re not going to take this seriously…” but he’s already running his fingers through her hair, gathering it up, tugging gently. Keyleth sighs and melts into his fingers.

“Is this what it feels like when you braid Vex’s hair?” she whispers against Vax’s neck.

“Go back to sleep, Keyleth.”

There is something wrong in his voice, something strained or cracking, but she doesn’t know what it is and Percy would know Percy always knows things like that.

//

“I don’t know everything,” he says very quietly. He’s not looking at her, but the words come out perfectly precise.

Keyleth furrows her brow. “Are you real?”

Percy’s eyes meet hers. “I certainly hope not.”

//

The pain is insistent, pounding against her spine.

They’re in Percy’s workshop, books stacked in neat piles. Her hands are splattered with burns.

They’re in one of Whitestone’s libraries. Glass is scattered across the floor.

Her hands are holding Percy’s tools. She pushes her glasses up her nose, turns to where Percy is curled in an armchair, antlers askew.

“I’m dreaming,” she says quietly.

“So you are.”

“I don’t want to wake up.”

The air smells like gunpowder and death. Pain flares against her spine.

Percy reaches for her hands, but the world twists, his fingers fall limp against the brown, twisted glass.

“Percy!”

Someone is screaming, some long, wordless cry.

Keyleth drags herself across the ground, one arm outstretched toward Percy. Healing magic floods into her fingers, but the world goes black, goes bright, goes black again.

Her vision shudders and Percy stands across the field from her, eyes gleaming, cloak crackling blue and white, gun resting heavy in his hand. The shadow curls around his arms.

“This is your fault,” Keyleth whispers as the bullets fly toward her.

Percy laughs and laughs and laughs until the world twists again and he’s falling and Keyleth’s standing across the field from him, choking on shadow, gun clenched in her fist.

“This is your fault!” she screams, pulling the trigger once, twice, three times. She falls to her knees, hands covered in blood, in her blood, in Percy’s blood, in Ripley’s blood.

Percy hands tremble. The bullets sink into him soundlessly.

Orthax laughs. Ripley laughs. Percy screams.

Keyleth can’t scream. She can’t breathe.

The knife slices into her back. Her vision goes dark.

“I forgive you,” Percy says, Keyleth says, “and I cannot let you leave.”

She gasps awake.

Vax’s eyes are bright in the darkness of the mansion. “Are you all right?”

Keyleth eases her head back onto the couch behind her. “It’s nothing.” Vax’s hand settles on her knee. She swallows. “It’s- it’s just my back,” she says, closing her eyes, “…where Kynan stabbed me.”

Vax’s hand freezes.

“Hey…” She lifts her head, tangles a hand in his hair. “It’s not your fault.”

He makes a soft, strained sound. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah…me, too.”

Across from them, a corner of Percy’s coat droops off the edge of the table.

Vax leans his head against her shoulder and one hand comes to rest just left of her spine. “It’s not your fault, Keyleth.”

He sounds like he means it. “I know,” she says, and tries to sound like she means it, too.