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slowly learning that life is okay

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Things are different when Tary comes back.

In fairness, Tary stays gone a long time, at least in terms of the breakneck speed at which Vox Machina does everything. By now, they've scattered a bit. Vax is in Zephra, where Keyleth has done the opposite of retiring. Pike goes city to city these days, spreading the worship of Sarenrae with her goliath companion. It's been long enough that there are sometimes letters from Scanlan, attempts to bridge the chasm that opened up when he left.

That leaves Percy and Vex in Whitestone, though neither of them would describe themselves as being left there. They live in Vex's house, mostly, but when Tary returns, they entertain him in the castle. It's what propriety calls for, though Tary's only real credentials are that he is the proclaimed heir of House Darrington and thus very, very rich. It's such that Cassandra sets out the good wine- not the best wine- and does things just formally enough to say they're impressed, but not floored.

After dinner, they sit in one of the drawing rooms, where Vex is getting quietly trashed on apple brandy as Percy and Tary chatter at each other, as easily as if Tary had never left. It really is amazing how well the two of them mesh together; Vex has no doubt that Percy still considers Keyleth his best friend, but the two of them butt heads, their relationship stronger for that interplay. With Percy and Tary, it's like seeing double, and Vex had forgotten how easy it is between them.

It's also kind of exhausting to listen to. Vex drinks more brandy.

"And I think I can have the work done within two months," Tary says, the end of a long discussion about something tinkering-related that Vex didn't follow at all. "Of course, that'll all be after the wedding."

"What wedding?" Percy says.

"I thought I'd told you," Tary says, frowning. "I'm getting married."

Percy lifts his brandy convivially. "Congratulations."

"What's your betrothed like?" Vex asks, with a curiosity that is only a little bit morbid.

Tary shrugs. "I've never met her."

"Excuse me?" Vex says.

"Father picked her out," Tary says, like it's a perfectly normal thing to say. "Supposedly she comes from good stock. I haven't really been keeping track of it, to be honest, though I have to assume her parents are loaded."

Vex is carefully considering how much of a hayseed she wants to sound like at this moment. She knows perfectly well that this is a thing people do, especially people with a lot of money and/or power. It just always seemed so alien, only ever done in books, where the story always ended with one side of the arrangement fleeing to follow their heart instead. On the other hand, knowing it's real doesn't change the wholehearted revulsion she feels at the whole idea of it.

"Hmm," Vex says, which is the lowest level of answer she can muster. Her brandy is suddenly all gone, and she pours herself another ample glass.

"I assume Cassandra is working on a match for you," Tary says to Percy, like Vex is not literally ten feet away and at least nominally involved in this conversation.

"I have some thoughts on that score," Percy says, in a similar fashion, though he sounds amused. Something of Percy and Cassandra's decorum must have rubbed off on Vex, because she doesn't immediately call the both of them out on it. Then again, it might just be pure shock that stops her from doing it.

The conversation goes right on past it, and Vex drinks more brandy and stews quietly. She's mad at herself for not thinking about this sooner. She hasn't had plans that didn't involve Percy since before they were even together. Her future is in Whitestone, just as Percy's is, and it never occurred to her to think that her path and Percy's might diverge. They've rarely spoken about marriage in concrete terms before, but Vex has quietly suspected- and hoped- it might be coming.

But now that she thinks about it, a whole different thing looms over her. The only political power that Vex has is derived from Percy; she's racked up a lot of favors and stalwart allies through her time in Vox Machina, but they're things that don't matter on paper. Slayer of the Frigid Doom makes quite a fun thing to be announced as at a party, but it doesn't come with social status. She's the Baroness of the Third House and nothing more; how many noble daughters even are there that could leapfrog her without lifting a finger?

Vex is still thinking about this when Tary retires; she takes Percy back to his rooms at the castle for raucous sex that doesn't lift the pall, doesn't make her stop thinking about the whole thing. Percy, for his part, seems perfectly contented, like this is affecting him not at all. Vex supposes it must not be. He apparently already knows what's going to happen, who he's going to give himself to to better Whitestone.

Vex has a raging hangover the next morning, but all of her malaise is not due to the frankly impressive amount of brandy she downed. Tary is still there, and Vex makes excuses and lets Percy entertain him, which is probably what both of them wanted anyway. She probably shouldn't be avoiding human interaction, but it's stuck to her like tar, the idea that Percy could marry someone else and enrich Whitestone by doing it. She can't fathom the thought of coming between Percy and his city, but it's gotten to be her city too. If she's not the best choice for both of them, then she has no idea what she'll do.

Short of telling Percy about this whole inner turmoil thing, which she's not ready to do, there's really only one person Vex thinks can help her with this. Cassandra scares her a little, for multiple reasons, though these days those reasons mostly involve how ruthlessly competent she is. Percy is a genius, but Cassandra is the brains of the operation. Percy never really gave her a choice as to whether she wanted her position, but she's damn good at it. If there's anyone who's going to give Vex a straight answer about this, good or bad, without the least bit of sugarcoating, it's Cassandra.

Cassandra is, as she often is, sitting in her study. Her desk is at the far end, positioned so she can stare people down when they come in, though her mood seems to lighten when Vex appears.

"Vex'ahlia," she says warmly. "Has my brother left you all alone in favor of his playmate?"

"Something like that," Vex says. She almost loses her nerve, makes this a light commiseration about Percy and Tary, but she forces herself to push on. "There's something I need to talk to you about."

Cassandra frowns at her tone. "Of course."

"Look, I-" Vex resists the urge to wring her hands, leaving them at her sides instead. "I'm still feeling my way around when it comes to this whole being noble business."

"I don't doubt it," Cassandra says. "I learned as soon as I could talk and I'm still figuring it out."

"I've got it down well enough to realize that you and Percy are valuable commodities," Vex says, which sounds awfully blunt when she says it out loud.

Cassandra laughs. "That's a rather mercenary way to look at it, but not necessarily an inappropriate one."

"I want what's good for Whitestone," Vex says, and it still surprises her sometimes how true that is. "I know Percy- or you- could marry someone for a political deal, and if I'm standing in the way of that, I hope you would do me the courtesy of telling me."

Cassandra looks at her askance. "Did Percy put this idea in your head?"

"Taryon, if we're being honest," Vex says.

Cassandra rolls her eyes. "That was your first mistake."

"I just don't want my relationship with Percy to come before Whitestone's needs, even if that means he needs to marry someone else," Vex says.

"Percival is going to marry you," Cassandra says patiently, like Vex is a child who needs instruction. Vex really doesn't know how she can pull it off when she's so much younger than Vex, but she does.

"That remains to be seen," Vex says, though she feels her stomach flip the way it always does when she thinks about it.

Cassandra sighs. "I know you came to nobility late, but I thought you had worked this out."

"Enlighten me," Vex says.

Cassandra gives her a look that's so like Percy that Vex almost laughs. "There are two sides to this issue," she says. "First, there is the position of the person seeking alliance. There are only so many uses of alliance through marriage per generation. Percy is the head of the de Rolo lineage, but I hold the political sway." She sits back in her chair. "But even I'm a poor choice, because going forward, the de Rolos are to be Whitestone's patrons, not its rulers. A foreign noble would be using up a child to make an alliance that would gain them very little influence on the wider stage of Tal'dorei."

"What's the other side?" Vex asks.

"Percy and I have to choose what offers to make or accept," Cassandra says. "And we're in perfect agreement that any offer by someone who knew all this would absolutely be an attempt at a coup. We don't want to rule Whitestone, but that isn't because Whitestone is undesirable."

"Very clever," Vex says genuinely.

Cassandra snorts. "Percy is ahead of me in birth order, but I was always going to run a noble household."

Vex shakes her head. "I hate to tell you this, but all that doesn't mean I'm going to marry Percy."

"You'd better get used to the idea," Cassandra says, looking at Vex disapprovingly. "Percy marrying another Whitestone noble consolidates our power and leaves no doubt for the naming of our successor. Worst case scenario, people think he titled you specifically to do so, but there are far greater crimes."

"Let me make sure I have this," Vex says; Cassandra has laid it all out very clearly and Vex still feels like she's hopelessly lost. "Percy is going to make a political match, only it's going to be with me."

"I'm not going to put a dagger to your throat and force you to the altar," Cassandra says, "but you can rest assured that I'll revoke your title if you marry someone else."

"Can you do that?" Vex asks warily.

"Watch me," Cassandra says, with that same aristocratic "Fuck you, I'll do as I please and I won't even feel bad about it" tone that Percy has. "I don't see why this is difficult. I thought you liked him."

"Have you explained all this to Percy?" Vex says.

"For all his many faults, no one ever said Percy wasn't clever," Cassandra says. "I wouldn't insult his intelligence by suggesting he hadn't figured all this out. So yes, when he asks you to marry him, it will be with the full knowledge of the political significance of that act." She opens her arms. "Welcome to nobility."

"This is a lot to consider," Vex says, partly to Cassandra and partly to herself.

"I know," Cassandra says kindly. "But you already know how this ends. Don't worry too much about it."

"I wish I had your confidence," Vex replies.

"It's just pattern recognition," Cassandra says. "If you've got one, you can fake the other."

After that, Cassandra ushers Vex out of her office so skillfully that Vex is already in the hallway before she realizes it wasn't her own idea to leave. If this is really going to be a thing, if Vex's life is going to follow this path, perhaps she should spend more time with Cassandra. She's certainly got this down to an art by now.

And yet, Vex is still having trouble comprehending the full weight of her words. Part of Cassandra's skill is in making possibilities seem like certainties, but Vex isn't sure it's all that simple, all a done thing. Cassandra's not wrong in assuming that Percy has already figured all of this out; that much Vex is fairly sure of. That shouldn't bother Vex, but it does. It's ridiculous; first she was worried Percy would marry someone else, and now she's worried about him marrying her. And yet, if he asks, Vex is going to wonder forever if he did it out of love for her or loyalty to Whitestone.

There's only one thing to be done.

Naturally, Vex doesn't do it for over a week. Tary leaves, and things go back to normal. Percy is working on some thoughts regarding the Pale Guard with Jarett, so Vex doesn't see him much during the day. She has her own things to work on, but they don't stop her from thinking about him, about what's gnawing away at her. In the end, it happens at breakfast; Percy is eating a piece of toast, and Vex finds she can't stop staring at him.

Percy notices, finally, and lowers the toast from his mouth. "You said you didn't want the last slice," he says, accusatory, and Vex somehow knows this is the moment.

"Will you marry me?" she asks.

His eyebrows shoot up. "What?"

"You heard me," she says, her heart beating out of her chest.

"I just," he says, floundering. "I didn't expect you to ask. I don't know if things are different in Syngorn or Byroden, but usually-"

"You're leaving me hanging, darling," Vex says, covering her fear with annoyance.

"Of course," Percy says. He smiles widely. "Of course I'll marry you, much to my delight."

"Perfect," she says, kissing him, and her heart feels full to the brim.

"I'm not questioning your judgment, though choosing me would probably be a good reason to do so," he says carefully, "but, while welcome, this is a bit sudden. What brought it on?"

"Oh, you know," Vex says. "Just thought I should-" she clicks her tongue- "lock it down while I had the chance."

"Did you talk to Cassandra about this?" he asks suspiciously.

"No," she lies.

"I think I know the outline of what she said," Percy says, seeing straight through it. "You being a good choice doesn't make my feelings for you less genuine. And if it weren't advantageous for me to marry you, I'd find a way to do it anyway. I'm devoted to Whitestone, but I love you."

"And aren't you lucky you can have us both," Vex says, though it sounds bitchier out loud than it did in her head.

"Enormously lucky," he says, like he heard it the way she meant it, not the way she said it. "We have to start planning. Lavender is the traditional color for your dress, and I was considering whether we should use my crest or yours, since generally the foreign noble uses the one of their birth-"

"Is this how it's going to be for our entire engagement?" she says.

"Probably," Percy says, wincing. "It's possible I've planned this in my head for a long time."

Vex waves a hand at him. "You know how to navigate a noble wedding better than I do, so I'm not opposed to letting the planning fall to you."

"I'll need your input, of course," he says, which sounds a little like an afterthought. "There are several choices of date that might be advantageous, but I really think the only way to do it is to do it in the fall, preferably earlier rather than later, because by Winter's Crest, we'll want to be well-situated for-"

Vex just lets him talk, aware that she has awakened a monster.

And for once, she couldn't be happier about it.