Cassandra watches the way that her brother’s hand curls around Vex’ahlia’s shoulders, a smile that she doesn’t know if she has ever seen before snaking its way onto his lips; she quickly glances back down to the table. The love and the joy between them is so thick anyone could choke on it. There must be something deeply wrong with Cassandra if that is her reaction to something like love.
It didn’t use to be.
Vex’ahlia responds in kind to Percival, until Keyleth walks into the dining room and her smile quickly drops. The familiar shared grief that surrounds both their eyes reappears. Vex’ahlia squeezes Percival’s hand, then moves to make some room for Keyleth, pushing a plate towards her. Keyleth sinks down into the chair, reluctantly accepting the food that Vex’ahlia glances down at and then back to her with purpose—Keyleth’s appetite has dropped considerably in the short weeks since Vax’ildan’s death, and part of Vex’ahlia’s grieving process appears to be making sure that Keyleth doesn’t waste away.
Percival bites down on his lower lip—a sign of frustration that Cassandra has been familiar with since birth—and one that he shared with Vesper. He scrapes the remains of his eggs onto a piece of toast before pushing himself away from the table, shoving his glasses further up his nose.
“I’m going to work in my lab,” he says, to no one in particular. Or, perhaps to all of them. He drops a kiss to the top of Keyleth’s head as he passes her by, shooting another loaded look to Vex’ahlia as he goes. Cassandra sips at her coffee while Keyleth and Vex’ahlia speak to each other in low tones.
It’s intensely strange to have them all here again. Part of Cassandra is grateful to have the company; grateful for the way that Percival is taking on leadership roles that have been making Cassandra want to scream at the top of her lungs for the last year and a half. He’s taken on a great deal of the slack, though she knows that he never wanted any of it, no more than Cassandra ever did. Neither of them was prepared for it—it was always supposed to be Julius and Vesper. Cassandra can’t help but feel they would have done a much better job of it, but, Cassandra and Percival are the only de Rolos left, it’s not as though either of them has any choice in the matter.
Well—Cassandra glances up at Vex’ahlia again—she supposes they aren’t technically the only de Rolos anymore.
Percival avoids her.
Cassandra doesn’t think it is even something he’s aware that he is doing; he’s always warm if awkward whenever they interact, as if he doesn’t know what to make of her anymore. She can tell that an apology is constantly on the tip of his tongue, like the time that he broke her doll when he tried to take it apart and see how it worked. It never walked correctly again—it always wobbled and jerked in a way that was deeply creepy for a small porcelain thing with its arms open wide. Cassandra threw it at his head a few days later, and Vesper helped her hold a funeral before they set it aflame in the woods down by the river.
Percy tried to apologize to her for weeks after. Cassandra knew it, despite being a petulant six-year-old with a grudge, she could see the guilt wafting off of his sinewy twelve-year-old shoulders all the way from across the room. It took the combined efforts of the twins and Vesper’s exasperation to finally wrench the words out of Percival’s mouth and allow them to fall on Cassandra’s ears—after nearly a solid month of his avoidance and hesitation.
It was only about a doll, then.
Now, he is trying to find a way to apologize for leaving her for dead. Cassandra imagines that it will take him quite a while, this time around. It doesn’t make his avoidance and awkwardness any easier to bear in the meantime, no matter how much she tries.
Vex’ahlia is kind, but Cassandra doesn’t know what to make of her. She’s not sure what her role is in Whitestone is anymore. Some of her siblings were always going to marry, she knew that there would eventually be more people added to their family this way but—
It was never supposed to be like this. It was never supposed to be Cassandra and Percival scrambling to fix things, to hold a full conversation with one another, to learn how to accept these people that Percival loves so deeply, but Cassandra—
No one is trying to purposefully leave her out of things. She knows this, but, it keeps on happening anyway.
Cassandra walks into a room and Vox Machina are clustered together in a familiar huddle, their words stopping short at the sight of her. It happens every time, no matter what combination she finds them in—Grog and the gnomes, Vex’ahlia and her brother, Keyleth and Pike, it doesn’t matter, they always go quiet and formal. It becomes a waiting game until Cassandra leaves the room and they can speak freely and comfortably again.
Grog doesn’t speak to her apart from the odd comment here or there that more often than not leaves Cassandra blushing with embarrassment or confused.
Scanlan is no better, and Cassandra does her level best to avoid him rather than the other way around. She remembers the haunted and hard look on her brother’s face the night after Scanlan left. Though it has been well over a year since that night, and Percival seems content and happy with Scanlan. Cassandra cannot find anything to relate to him with that holds a conversation for more than a minute at best.
Pike is the easiest. She doesn’t seem to have any expectations of Cassandra, or of what their relationship should or should not be. She obviously isn’t as familiar with Cassandra as she is with the rest of Vox Machina, but somehow, Cassandra still feels like she treats her with something almost resembling that same familiarity anyhow.
Keyleth is actually the easiest after Pike—despite the way that she occasionally bursts into tears or throws fireballs at the walls. Greif and anger, Cassandra can understand. They are not things that she is afraid of or feels the need to avoid. Once or twice, she and Keyleth have gone on walks in the woods together and end up laying out in the grass in silence. Listening to the sounds of the forest and watching the clouds roll by. It is impossibly nice. It’s only ever awkward when Keyleth tries to talk and make conversations that she is obviously struggling to uphold. Cassandra is aware that this isn’t necessarily a new aspect of her grief, it’s just Keyleth being awkward about making friends. Cassandra is touched enough to see that she is trying.
Vex’ahlia is the hardest. Because Percival married her. Because she’s now a part of Cassandra’s family, and Cassandra doesn’t know her well at all. Because she’s grieving for her brother in a way that Cassandra both understands and does not. Because she reminds Cassandra of Vesper.
Because Percival lights up around her, becomes unburdened, and Cassandra hates him for it—just a little.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Cassandra says, backing away from Vex’ahlia. “I didn’t think anyone was…” Vex’ahlia swipes at the tears falling from her eyes and Cassandra swallows thickly. “I’ll leave you alone,” she says, nearly tripping on a log as she goes.
Vex’ahlia jumps out and catches her from falling into the dirt. Her grip is tight but not painful. “Are you alright darling?” she asks. Cassandra tries not to make too much of the endearment—it falls out of Vex’ahlia’s mouth often enough, but Cassandra can’t remember a time where it was directed towards her. It’s surprising in its assumed familiarity. The last person to call her that was Delilah Briarwood. “Oh,” Vex’ahlia looks horrified and Cassandra realizes that she has gone and said that out loud. “I’m sorry Cassandra. I didn’t mean to—”
“No, it’s fine,” she says quickly, gently pulling herself out of Vex’ahlia’s grasp and stepping backwards carefully this time. “I just… thought of it,” she says, feeling idiotic. “I didn’t mean to say it,” she admits. “I’m sorry again for intruding. I didn’t know anyone else knew about this spot.”
“Oh, is it yours?” Vex’ahlia looks genuinely apologetic now and Cassandra only feels worse.
“No, it’s just a part of the forest.”
“Your family’s forest,” Vex’ahlia teases.
“Yours too, now,” Cassandra counters, not even thinking about it. There appears to be a lot of that going on so far today. Cassandra is well off her game. Vex’ahlia’s eyes widen slightly before she catches herself.
“Cassandra… I’m not, trying to… replace any—”
“It’s fine,” she says, quickly cutting Vex’ahlia off. It’s the wrong thing to say. Her eyes look wounded, and now it’s Cassandra’s fault, not the Raven Queen’s, not the universe—but Cassandra. She scrambles to cover it. “I only meant to assure you that…” she stalls. Saying: I’m not angry that my brother married you, would technically be a lie. Or, at least nothing more than a half-truth. A part of her is angry. A part of her is furious with him for doing this without giving her any bit of warning beforehand. For not including her at all. The only reason Cassandra is able to stand to be in the same room with him at the moment is the knowledge that he didn’t tell any of his friends either. This isn’t something that he only cut Cassandra out of—Percival and Vex’ahlia cut out everyone from this moment but each other. Spontaneous declarations of love and imminent danger and suddenly, Cassandra has a sister-in-law.
She’s furious, but she doesn’t think that she is allowed to be.
“You’re angry,” Vex’ahlia discerns.
“Not at you,” Cassandra says, truthfully.
Cassandra swallows and does not answer. Though, her silence is a kind of an answer to Vex’ahlia in of itself.
“Cass, darling.” Her voice does the same thing Vesper’s used to do, goes firm and coaxing all at once—the perfect imitation of their mother—and it makes Cassandra’s stomach churn, bile rising in her throat. Vex’ahlia reaches for her, and Cassandra turns on her heel, and flees.
Once, when Cassandra was around eleven or so, her parents held a ball.
There was some grand victory being rewarded to some of their soldiers. Cassandra was too young to be told any of the details. The only thing that mattered to her at the time was that there was to be a party, and all of Whitestone was invited. Peasants and nobles alike. Cassandra dressed for the occasion with Vesper and Whitney, giggling as Whitney gently brushed some pink blush onto her cheeks and scowling at Oliver’s teasing.
“Why are you even in here?”
Oliver merely pointed at his twin and continued to fuss with his tie.
“Ignore him,” Whitney said, sticking her tongue out at her twin. He responded in kind, then groaned and flopped down onto Vesper’s bed, announcing that he would simply go tieless and Father would have to get over it. “You’re ridiculous,” Whitney told him, tugging him upwards and messing about with his tie until it looked lopsided, but like it likely wouldn’t fall apart when he tried to dance.
Vesper came up behind Cassandra, dropping a kiss to her cheek and smiling into the mirror. She was eighteen and stunning—brimming with excitement but trying to contain herself and appear mature. “Are you excited?” she whispered.
Cassandra nodded, turning around. “Will you dance with me?”
“Of course,” Vesper held out her hand and swung it back and forth. Whitney and Oliver were cursing, and Vesper tugged Cassandra along with her, voice turning into their mother’s as she separated them and fixed Oliver’s tie.
Cassandra walked over to answer the series of rehearsed knocks on the door, grinning up at her brother. “You look terrible Lu.”
“I hate parties,” he grumbled, pushing his way inside and tugging at his clothes. Borrowed from Percy. The two of them shared a tall and lanky build, Ludwig newly so and still awkward in his limbs, confused whenever he bumped into things.
“When have you been to one other than Winter’s Crest? No one ever lets us go to parties, we’re too young.”
“We were too young,” Lu complained. “I wish we were still.”
“You are,” Percy announced smartly, half a step behind Lu.
“Leave him alone,” Vesper scolded, finishing Oliver’s tie. “Where’s Julius?”
“Talking with Father and some other nobles,” Percy said. He shook out his shoulders, a nervous gesture Cassandra had seen him do many a time before going to speak to their parents’ acquaintances. “Let’s get this over with.”
Cassandra pushed him, getting a grin out of him and laughter from the rest of her siblings. “Come dance with me,” she demanded. “After I dance with Vesper.”
“It’s a deal,” Percy grinned and held his arm out for her to take.
Cassandra danced with every one of her siblings, even Lu allowed himself to be tugged onto the floor eventually. Whitney flirted with soldiers until Father noticed and told her to go back with her friends. Oliver spilled red wine onto a baroness. Julius was the picture-perfect heir, making the rounds gallantly and charming everyone. Lu stuck close to Cassandra, grumbling in her ear until Mother tugged him into a dance and coaxed a smile onto his face. Percy ate, drank, and fussed with an invention at the table for half of the night, smiling whenever he was interrupted but immediately going back to the materials in his hands. Vesper, just as charming and poised as Julius, made the rounds and never stopped beaming. When she pulled Cassandra onto the dance floor, her cheeks were pink without the blush.
“Cass darling,” she whispered, “I’m having a marvelous time, how about you?”
“The best,” Cassandra agreed. “Ollie gave me a sip of his wine.” Vesper’s eyes widened and before she pulled out of Cassandra’s arms to yank their brother’s hair Cassandra quickly added, “It was horrible. He said it would be.”
“Hum,” Vesper’s eyes narrowed but she spun Cassandra around with the music and smiled.
Cassandra ended the night falling asleep into Lu’s shoulder, squeezed in between him and Percy. Her father carried her to bed, even though she was technically too old and woke up long enough to tell him so. He smiled at her fondly, tucked her in and disagreed with her kindly. Cassandra could still hear the music as she closed her eyes.
The next ball was nearly two and a half years later. Cassandra’s father didn’t tuck her in that night. It ended with Cassandra alone, thirteen years old and shivering in the woods. Multiple arrows sticking painfully into her chest as she fell down into the cold dirt, watching as Percy ran, and ran, and ran.
Cassandra could still hear music as she closed her eyes.
Cassandra got used to having Vox Machina be around in the year after they defeated the Chroma Conclave.
Keyleth and Vax’ildan spent more time in Zephrah and Syngorn than they did in Whitestone. Pike and Grog traveled together and stayed in Whitestone occasionally. Scanlan was long gone with Kaylie. It was really Taryon and Vex’ahlia who were around consistently. Daily.
Though the two of them shared a small house outside of the castle, near their bakery, and Percival spent most of his time either in his lab or with them.
It wasn’t as though Cassandra never saw them. It wasn’t as though progress wasn’t made. It just seems that… since Vecna. Since Cassandra was…
Things are more strained than ever. Any progress that Cassandra and Percival were inching towards has gone and left Whitestone completely. And now, Vex’ahlia is his wife, not a girlfriend who lives outside of the castle with her best friend.
It feels like a childish thing for Cassandra to be angry about, and she’s trying not to show it, but it doesn’t appear that she is doing an ample job of it.
Percival is generally hard to find, these days, but Cassandra decides to start where people aren’t, and works backwards.
He’s startled when she slips into the library behind him. She always did know the chambers of Whitestone better than any of them. It’s the only reason that she—
Cassandra pushes that thought down, as she has suppressed so many over the last six and a half years. Instead, she opens her mouth and says, “You’ve been avoiding me.”
“I… it’s not that…” Percival sighs, looking all of nineteen once more, save for the color of his hair. “Yes,” he admits. “I’m sorry about that.”
“Well, cut it out,” Cassandra says. “It’s rather annoying and it’s making all of your friends act strangely around me and that is even more annoying.”
“I should never have left you,” he croaks out, at the same time that Vex’ahlia rounds the corner saying, “I found the book, Percy—oh.”
The silence that falls in the wake of this pronouncement is awkward, thick as snow and deafening. Cassandra cannot help watch Percival’s face, as his expression flickers from uncertain and then to pained stillness again. She turns away before she can find Vex’ahlia looking between the both of them.
Percival doesn’t call after her, doesn’t chase her. It’s not how their relationship ever worked before, it doesn’t surprise Cassandra that that fact remains. The de Rolos were a loving family, but physical affection came about rarely and purposefully. Fredrickstein never knew how to connect with his children in that way, and Johanna did her best but was always scrambling to fit in as a commoner brought into the life of a noble.
The point is, Cassandra is unsurprised that her brother doesn’t chase after her, but she is shocked to find Vex’ahlia half a step at her heels.
She turns sharply, ducking into a hidden chamber that she used to play hide and seek from Lu, used to sneak out to the village when the Briarwoods weren’t looking. She shakes and curls into a ball and then Vex’ahlia is crouching down in front of her, hands hesitating before reaching out and cupping her cheeks.
Cassandra is unsurprised that Percival doesn’t chase after her, but she forgot, that Vex’ahlia is a huntress. Of course, she is able to follow Cassandra into these chambers.
“I’m sorry,” Cassandra says, and then she is shaking uncontrollably, an unearthly, undulating cry pours out of her; it sucks up all the air inside of the small chamber and rings off the walls like the rattling of soldier’s spears before a battle. It claws its way through both their skulls and Vex’ahlia turns her face away, jaw clenched tight.
But her hands never once let go of Cassandra.
In fact, they pull her closer. Vex’ahlia wraps herself around Cassandra and holds her tightly, making shushing noises as she rubs at the skin on Cassandra’s arms. Cassandra doesn’t know how long the two of them sit there in that chamber, only that her body aches from being crouched in that position when she finally moves to stretch out.
“I shouldn’t be furious at him. I wasn’t—before,” Cassandra says.
Something softens in Vex’ahlia’s expression. She moves from Cassandra’s side to sit in front of her again, her eyes boring into Cassandra’s in a way that should be uncomfortable, but isn’t.
“I’m not even…” she sucks in a slow breath, trying to make sense of her thoughts. “It’s not about him leaving me,” she says. “Not then.” She can feel the arrows; the scars on her stomach and chest pulse with a dull ache. “I forgave him for that already.”
“Did you?” Vex’ahlia asks, no judgment in her words.
“I thought I had.”
“What do you think you’re angry about now dar—” Vex’ahlia cuts the endearment off before she finishes, likely remembering Cassandra’s reaction to it the last time they spoke.
Cassandra tucks her knees up to her chest. She must look much younger than nineteen in this moment. The same age that Percy was when he ran, shaking and crying at the sight of the arrows that had lodged their way into her chest. The blood seeping into the dirt. Her blood. Their parents’ blood. Julius’ blood. Vesper’s. The twins’. Lu’s. He thought that Cassandra was dead. If he had tried to drag her body along with him then they likely both would have been caught. Maybe the Briarwoods would still be here now, ruling over Whitestone. Percy would never have met Vox Machina, never would have met Vex’ahlia.
“He left me,” Cassandra says. “Not in the woods,” she clarifies. “I forgave him for that. But then he came back and he… still left. He has a new family now, and I’m not a part of it.”
Vex’ahlia reacts viscerally at her words, as if Cassandra has gone off and taken a swing at her. A pained hiss echoes from the entry to the chamber and Cassandra knows that Percival has heard her words as well.
Apparently, her big brother did come looking for her after all.
“Cass—” he says, choking on her name. Cassandra wants to run, but Percy is blocking the entrance and Vex’ahlia is blocking the length of the tunnel. She’ll have to push her way through one of them to get away, and Cassandra doesn’t think that she has the strength anymore. She doesn’t get the chance to test it regardless, because suddenly Percy is right in front of her as well, pushing her closer to Vex’ahlia in the process, grasping for her shoulders. “I never,” he swallows thickly. “That’s not true Cass. I’ve been an absolute asshole, but that’s not true. I was trying to give you space and I shouldn’t… gods Vex, you were right.”
“I usually am,” Vex’ahlia teases, though her voice sounds a bit raw.
“I was a bit of a prat and a coward,” Percy says, directing his words at Cassandra, but pressing himself into his wife. One of her hands leaves Cassandra’s and loops around his arm. Percy very briefly clutches at Cassandra’s wrist, his knuckles shockingly white. The three of them are connected for a brief moment—the last of the de Rolos, and the newest member of the family—and then his touch is gone again.
“Be more specific,” Cassandra demands. “You’re often a bit of a prat.”
He laughs, deep and bright, and for a moment she has her brother back fully. He was never her favorite—that was always Lu and Vesper—but she loved him fiercely, once. She didn’t even know how much until he was gone. Gone, then back again.
“I didn’t know how to apologize for leaving you that night,” he explains. “Then I didn’t know how to apologize for leaving you with the responsibility of taking care of Whitestone. Then I didn’t know how to apologize for your life being used as a way to hurt me.”
Vex’ahlia’s hand on Cassandra’s arm stills. She knows, that Vex’ahlia was the one who dealt the blow which killed her in the tower that day. She also knows that Vex’ahlia has nightmares about it still—Pike let it slip a few days ago over breakfast.
“You could start by having a proper conversation with me,” Cassandra says, a bit of a bite to her words.
“That’s what I said,” Vex’ahlia says, looking pointedly at Percy. “Vax used to avoid difficult conversations too. It was impossibly tiring.”
Her face grows pained and Cassandra watches Percy grip her hand tightly.
“Brothers can be like that,” Cassandra says, itching to remove the sad look from her face. Despite not knowing what to make of her, Cassandra has never been confused about what her brother sees in Vex’ahlia. She is stunning, inside and out.
Vex’ahlia smiles at her, there’s a quiet kind of understanding in her eyes, and the hand that is grasped around Cassandra’s arm squeezes, once. “They can,” she says, soft.
“I’ll do better,” Percy promises. “Will you stop running away from me?”
“You have been avoiding me,” Cassandra counters, sounding all of thirteen again.
“You’ve both been avoiding each other,” Vex’ahlia says, exasperated. “It’s very tiring for everyone involved who loves you.”
Cassandra assumes that she is talking to Percy, and she is surprised when Vex’ahlia reaches up and taps underneath her chin. Her eyebrows raise once and Cassandra swallows her words, nodding. Percy is beaming beside her and Cassandra rolls her eyes and shoves him before she bursts into tears again.
He falls backwards, laughing. “Vex, get her,” he calls, and before Cassandra can do anything, Vex’ahlia has tackled her into the floor, the both of them landing partially on top of Percy. A pile of the Lord and Ladies of Whitestone, looking nothing more like a pack of children wrestling, carefree, if only for a moment.
“Stop!” Vex’ahlia hollers, once Percy and Cassandra team up to tickle her sides. She’s gasping with laughter and swatting at the two of them wildly. Percy grins at Cassandra wryly and something that was pressing on her chest for the last few years loosens. They’re not okay, not yet, but for the first time in the last year or so, Cassandra feels like they might be soon.
Vex’ahlia clutches at them both, using their weight to pull herself up into a standing position. Or, as much as they can get into a standing position in this chamber.
“I never knew this was here,” Percy says, grumbling as he half crawls back towards the entrance.
“There are a lot of things about Whitestone that are secretive.”
He turns, studying her. “And you know about all of them, don’t you?” he looks proud.
Cassandra balks underneath his gaze. Shrugging in response. “Some of them. Lu and I played hide and seek in here.” It feels strange to talk about him, and from the stiffness in Percy’s shoulder’s, it feels just as strange to for him to hear it.
Instead of going quiet on her again, Percy smiles. It’s stiff, it doesn’t quite work, but it’s genuine. “I always wondered why Vesper constantly asked where the two of you had disappeared to.” He turns to Vex’ahlia. “I swear, if she and Vax had ever teamed up, we would quite literally never have been able to find either of them again.”
Cassandra waits for Vex’ahlia to cringe at the mention of her brother, instead, she smiles. Reaching up, she gently pushes one of the white strands that has fallen back behind Cassandra’s ear. “We might have dodged a bullet there.” Her eyes go a little far away for a moment, as if she is looking somewhere behind Cassandra’s shoulder. Looking for a face that matches her own, that has always been there. Cassandra understands her in that moment. She watches as Vex sucks in a breath, forces her smile wider, and makes purposeful eye contact with Cassandra. It’s something that Cassandra herself has done many times before.
Without allowing herself the time to second guess it, Cassandra reaches out and slips her palm into Vex’s. She can see her brother doing the same on the opposite side, and Vex’s shoulders shake up and down for a brief moment before she pulls the two of them along as they crawl out of the chamber. The last of the de Rolos, hand in hand, in hand.
Cassandra hears music as they walk through the halls of Whitestone, and for the first time in a long while, her scars do not ache.