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The sky above him is white. Clouds cover the wide expanse of the horizon, and the soft illumination of the sun filters through in faint, yellow bursts. He’s laying, backside down, on the soft and bright green grass of the Westershire Hills, a small series of mounds just south of the Alabaster Sierras.

 

He knows this place; once every year or so the family would gather in two carriages and make the twenty-mile trip to the obscure hummocks. He knows this place; it’s where his father and mother took Julius, Percy, Vesper, and the twins to tell them about their mother’s bloated belly (as if they didn’t already know).

 

(Vesper, still young and naive and unhardened by the world’s terrors, asked, “what will you name it?” and their mother smiled.

 

“If it’s a boy, Erich.”

 

This time Percy himself piped in, curious despite himself. “But mama, what if it’s a girl?”

 

“Cassandra,” was all she said, and Whitney and Oliver—terrors, even at age four—began to clap with approval using each other’s hands, already inseparable (until their next toddler-fight, that was). They gurgled happily, mirrors of each other, and a six-year-old Percy smiled, too.

 

And then, when Cassandra enters the world in all her screaming glory, Percy remembers.)

 

(Some years later, Julius brings them to the same fields to announce his marriage with one Sina Abelsson. Two years following, he brings them again to announce their first nephew who’s name will mimic Percy’s own.

 

Whitestone falls before the youngest Percival learns to walk.)

 

(If any other de Rolos were to be born within the immediate family, there in those soft rolling hills they would’ve been announced.

 

No others are born before the Briarwoods.)

 

He knows this place.

 

His baby sister plays in the field of crabgrass and colorful poppies below him, her chubby frame bouncing as she’s lifted up and down by her own force, impressing her bare feet into the topsoil. Whitney and Oliver surge around her, playing a game of tug-of-war with a small blanket. Ludwig, young and happy and bright, pulls a makeshift cape made of a similar blanket around the whole of his nape, twisting the corners together in an impromptu knot. Loudly, he declares himself king and tackles Julius, whose back is turned as he studies a particularly vibrant wildflower. They both topple to the valley floor and laugh.

 

Percy’s parents are nowhere to be found. This, surprisingly, doesn’t worry him. (Don’t think, don’t worry, something whispers, and he doesn’t.)

 

His eldest sister sits next to his prone form, knees pulled up and eyes soft. Her hands card softly through his hair, a motion that has his breath hitching and head arching towards her touch. As a family of nobility, the sensation of another’s touch is a rare one.

 

Vesper turns her head down, grey eyes matching his. Smiles, softly, and says, “Freddie, you need to wake up now.” And she says it with a sad little smile, a sad little sigh, and a sad little curl of her fingers through his hair. His white (not brown) hair.

 

He frowns, but is not mad or angry or scared. The calm of the world around Percy keeps him docile, like a dream. There could be a war around him and he would be no different, he’s sure of it. It’s like his sister has casted Calm Emotions, but last he checked none of his family were magical.

 

“I don’t want to,” Percy sighs, and he really, really doesn’t. But it’s a soft “no,” the kind of petulancy that comes with being a teenager.

 

She sighs, and the world shimmers a little and her eyes soften. White feather tears pluck off her cheeks and onto the front of her blue-linen dress. They stay there in clusters on her chest, like the natural plume of a bird’s flight feathers.

 

“I know.” It’s all she says, but Percy feels the weight of the rest of her words without having to hear anything. You still need to wake up. Vesper sighs.

 

And he will. He will, just...not right now. Now while he can still hold onto the last remaining threads of his family. The thin, spindly gossamers of his home are soft in his hands and he knows that if he doesn’t clench his hands they’ll slip away.

 

He doesn’t clench his hands. In this dream-like world, he can’t. He can’t be desperate or scared or angry. He’s calm, a serene echo of his truly anxious self.

 

He doesn’t clench his hands, and the world starts to slip away in fragments.

 

Oliver and Whitney collectively freeze, standing stock-still like little figurines.

 

Ludwig runs to seize a semi-distant Julius and they embrace, tight and loving. Percy can see their tiny forms shaking from his perch on the hill.

 

Baby Cassandra looks up at him from the ground, doe-eyed and shaking like a colt in the midsummer wind. Her eyes are dilated, wide and almost completely black with fear, pupils the size of marbles. There’s almost no blue left in them, all the purplish hues shifted towards her décolletage where bruising fades over her frame like a dial turning right. She’s so clearly terrified and she’s looking right at him. (Her braid unties itself, twisting in the wind, white curls webbing through her thatch of unwinding brown.)

 

And it’s with that very acknowledgment that Percy loses the breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. His voice catches itself in his throat as he tries to comfort her, his limbs lock as he tries to move to her, and his heart thrums in his chest like a hummingbird’s. He’s frozen, useless and helpless.

 

He isn’t even scared. He’s not panicking, or breathing shallowly, or remembering vivid events that lead him down a spiral-staircase of horrid memories. (He isn’t.)

 

He’s calm. Something is wrong and he’s calm. His sister is so viscerally scared and he’s sitting on the hill, calm as a dove. He just sits there and stares, eyes locking with his baby sister’s, dark navy melting with the light, powdery blue of Cassandra’s eyes. He can’t move, can’t do anything other than stare this scared little girl he knows better than any other four-year-old.

 

Percy could be stuck there forever, and he wouldn’t even mind. He can’t, not here.

 

And then Vesper’s in front of him and the trance is over, a broken ribbon cut in half by the sharpest shears. Her hands grip his shoulders and she shoves him. He goes down, splayed like one of Whitney’s old dolls on the hill. He hits the ground and barely feels it, his elbows tucked beneath his shoulder blades. It isn’t a hard fall—he hadn’t been properly sitting when he fell, only propped up by his hands in a makeshift half-sit.

 

She locks eyes with him and her dark braided hair brushes his cheek. The sun burns it’s way across the field, bright and burning, and Percy squints his eyes as it illuminates his looming sister.

 

“We’re out of time, Freddie,” she says, voice soft and broken and filled with pain. “I’m sorry.”

 

She’s crying, feathers falling, and a single tear falls from her face to his, sliding down his cheek like a drop of rain on slanted tile. She’s sorry and Cassandra’s scared and he’s fine. He’s perfectly fine.

 

“No you aren’t,” she says, and does it so poignantly the words stick to him like feathers in tar, and oh. His mouth spoke for his brain when he hadn’t meant it to, again.

 

He pauses and tries to come up with a reply, but before he can muster even a word the universe around him blackens.

 

And he wakes, jolting like he’s been electrocuted, sweating and shivering to the point it feels like he’s been drenched in cold, cold water. It’s only a moment later that he realizes he has. Slowly, acutely, his reality starts to set it. And he—god.

 

Oh god.

 

Ripley. The Briarwoods. Everyone. It takes him far too long to remember, and he solely blames his minds’ self preservation—mollycoddling be damned, his dreams were always soft—but once he does it hits him like one of Ripley’s hammers against his chest.

 

It hurts it hurts it hurts and his eyes are burning like they’ve been left open forever but the world around him is still black.

 

He blinks. Nothing changes. Blinks again and it’s the same black, deadened world around him. His eyes go wide and his hands skitter towards his face, slowly reaching past his cheekbones. It takes a moment before he feels it, another for him to process what it is.

 

Scar tissue, thick and ugly, twisting across his face like thorns. It’s—

 

—he can’t—

 

—no.

 

Please, he—

 

—see.

 

He faints, and the world stays black.

Chapter Text

The forest is probably bright. He’s felt the leaves, the budding flowers and the ever-growing flora around him, so he knows it’s nearly spring. The snow is nearly melted, and his bare and blistering feet are grateful beyond belief. The heat of the sun has filtered through the dense fronds of the woodland trees, so he knows it’s day. Perhaps he’s near the place of his dreams, perhaps he’s already there.

 

Perhaps he isn’t. He can’t tell either way. (God, it’s so dark.)

 

What he does know is this: he’s in the forest. “The” forest being a forest, location and depth of which he does not know. He has been in the forest for some time (time is fundamentally different now when the world around him passes like a forgotten dream). Percy knows he has not eaten much since...since. And he knows that human bodies require food. He’s not entirely witless. He understands that if he does not find food soon, he will die.

 

(Her hand moves to his face and She laughs like a viper when he flinches away. She leads a ladle of something putrid towards him and he turns his head and clenches his jaw.

 

The hunger settles deep and low and scant days later She’s hand-feeding him a piece of rotting meat. It’s yellow, nearly green in places and brown in others, and he nearly throws up at the sight. He takes it, beholden and only a little humiliated when she makes him lick Her fingers off.

 

It’s not the only thing She makes him lick.)

 

He knows he needs to eat. He knows this. He knows. And he tries, he really does, but there isn’t much he can do. He can hardly perceive the world around him, let alone manipulate it for his gain. He’s genuinely lucky the world hasn’t come around to manipulate him .

 

(The bloodhounds bark and he’s running, out of breath and with a million miserable aches pounding through him. Slamming into trees from all directions, his shoulder makes a sound like a suction cup and burns like it’s been submerged in acid. He keeps going, even though somewhere along the desperate path he’d lost his sister’s hand.

 

He doesn’t find it again.)

 

(He’s hiding, curled into the smallest ball he can make himself be and muffling his cries as something prowls the woods around him, searching for a meal. His limbs cramp and every part of him is screaming and it takes all that he is to stay quiet and still.)

 

(A bird caws and Percy goes to look up and sees nothing but black. The magpie squawks again and he has a scant second before he feels the bird go for his face, and he flails like a fish out of water. Beak meets eye and he feels something give , and a cool liquid drips down his face like tears.)

 

(Magpies like things that are shiny and new; why they have an interest in him is beyond comprehension.)

 

(He sits, back against a tree, world black and cold, and begs the gods for death. A magpie shrieks in the distance and Percival Fredrickstein von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III cries like the youngest Percy might’ve, dizzy with fear and shoulders shaking over a weight he cannot hope to carry.)

 

(He finds a dead bird, half-decomposed and crawling with insects. It’s fuzzy, and missing chunks, and the meat it does have is slimy and rotten. He chokes it down, bugs and all, and ignores the crunch.)

 

He takes a bated breath.

 

Percy’s fingers are twisted like twine against the stalks of baby flowers. Miniature thorns prick his palms and pull red from his hands. It barely hurts, and he can’t bother to worry himself with the marks. He can’t see them, after all, and it’s so easy to ignore what you can’t see.

 

(He doesn’t see his sister fall. He hears her, distantly, in the crunch of undergrowth when she drops. He hears an arrow whir past his head. He hears Cassandra scream.

 

He hears, but he doesn’t see it.)

 

He’s leaned up against the rough and relentless wood of a tree, curled like a baby against a mother’s chest. He’s so very tired, and a nap isn’t the only thing he’s ready for.

 

(He’s seven and he’s playing tag in the woods with his sisters. He’s found a perfect hiding place, a little hole against the root of a tree, a crannie with just enough give for Percy to wedge his tiny body into it.

 

It takes ten minutes for him to realize he’s stuck. The panic settles in a little after thirty, and the sun sets after half and hour.

 

Two hours later and he’s still there, cramped against the spindly legs of a tree and the harsh soil. (“You’re it,” Whitney calls loftily from the blackness, throat a deep and dripping crimson, red soiling her lilac dress. “You’re always it.”)

 

(Julius finds him in the morning, and it takes his parents’ careful persistence nearly a month before he’ll even look outside.))

 

Percy stands up, suddenly, and a wave of pain follows suit. It racks through his frame, pitching through his whole and dropping down his spine before pinning to his leg with a burning shock. It’s pain so unfathomably intense he can barely feel it. (The bloodhounds bark, and one of them rips through the fabric of his pants and the flesh of his thigh, both tearing just as easily.) He stays up.

 

He can’t stay where he is, not now, not when he’s running from a bloodhound that has his scent. The Briarwoods know his name, his face. She knows his secrets, his hidden lotuses underneath years of mud, his face and voice and eyes .


She knows.

 

(“I know when you’re lying, little de Rolo,” She smiles, lifting a scalpel, and he’s filled with a primal terror.)

 

(“We must not tell lies!” She screeches, moving towards his face. “And you lied, Percival! You lied to me!”

 

“Maybe I’ll take your tongue, just so you stop lying. Would you like that, Percival?” She asks and says his name with a purr. He breathes, heavy against the metal frame he’s pinned to, and closes his eyes. Then, he gives her what she wants.

 

“Yes, mistress,” he whispers, head bowed low against his chest. She laughs airily and trails a hand along his cheek.

 

“Hmm… I want to, Percival. You must know I want to. I lust to give you what you want, darling.” Her breath is hot against his neck as she drapes over him from behind.

 

“I want to, but I don’t think you’ll remember this lesson if that’s all I take. After all, you’ve been very bad today.” She lifts the blade, and in a swift motion she wrenches it into his eye. He screams, and she laughs and pulls it out, licking the blade clean.)

 

(It’s a week later when she takes his other one. It’s in a fit of rage, during a session when she asks questions he doesn’t know the answer to.)

 

He lurches, stumbling to the side of the path he’s halfway-sure he’s on. He pushes his head forwards, and gags. The vomit still spills down his front anyways, and he can feel the tears of —of. There’s too many feelings and circumstances to name. He doesn’t even try.

 

He stumbles, he falls, and his stomach clenches tighter and tighter until he’s sure it’s going to explode, and after he pukes out bile and blood and chunks of flaky meat that he can’t see but can definitely taste, he stumbles back up and keeps walking. Every couple of steps his bad leg will start to give way and he’ll end up right back on the floor, twigs snapping with the fall.

 

He can’t do this.

 

Vesper was strong and smart and witty. She was sharp like a blade and always had a barbed and underhanded comment to go with everything, but she loved fiercely and freely. If she stood where Percy does, would she have blood and vomit and the smell of death spilling around her? Would she have tricked Her into being kinder? Would his family still be alive?

 

Cassandra was —gods, Cassandra. He can’t think about her, he can’t, but his mind won’t stop.

 

(Cassandra broke her hip on her first birthday. She tried to climb a staircase railing and succeeded, dropping the fifteen feet to the ground. The healers we gone, an unexpected family emergency, so she was left with tears and terror and eventually, a purple cast around her waist.

 

For the rest of her life, she never went an inch within that railing.)

 

(“Percy?” a cracked voice calls and he tries to look up but sees only black.

 

“Oh, Percy ,” his baby sister cries in a half-spoken whisper, hands shaking as she unlocks the door to his prison.

 

I’m sorry,” he wants to say.

 

“What are you doing here?” he settles for instead. His voice is cracked and ragged, and he can barely get the needed air through his broken ribs and past his split and bleeding lips.

 

She flinches. He can’t see it, can hardly hear it but he can feel it more than anything else as she tugs her body away from the cage she’s just opened. As though she’s a handler corralling an untamable beast. She breaths, chest rattling like a maraca. He breathes the same way, and he knows what it means.

 

It means they broke his sister, too.

 

There’s a noise. A muted, banging sound comes from above them. His sister jolts, hands pulling away from the place they’d held at the chains on his wrists. A soft, twisted noise escapes her and Percy feels his heart crack.

 

A moment later, and she’s back to the manacles, hands shaking more than his. She picks the lock with their mother’s hairpin and gently pulls the iron shackles away. Percy can’t help but sob as the metal-fused skin around one of the restraints tears. She shushes him and pulls the other cuff off. He bites his tongue to keep from screaming.

 

“We need to go,” his baby sister says, and begins to drag her brother out of Hell.)

 

(Cassandra forgot her name, once, when she was little. She played a game of I-can-jump-more-stairs-than-you with Ludwig and a stable boy and ended jumping fifteen steps and smacking her head against the ground. The healers were gone (again) and she was left with an cantaloupe-sized egg on the side of her face and a memory made of cracks. The healers sooned returned and all was well.

 

(Only Percy knew that she still forgot, sometimes, so for her birthday he made her a bracelet with her entire name looping along the leather.))

 

(She lets go. He’s holding as tight as he can while they stumble through the woods and she lets go of him .)

 

He goes to throw up again but there’s nothing left to puke.

 

(Here, and very nearly only here, will Percival Fredrickstein von Musel Klossowski de Rolo the third admit he needs help. It is a pity, truly, that he is alone, dying, in a forest.)

 

He doesn’t want to get up. He doesn’t , but he can still hear his sisters screaming and he can still see baby Percy’s blood pooling around his split head and despite everything he doesn’t want to die.

 

He gets up.

Chapter Text

The world around him is black. He sees as much, no splotches of colors ever crossing his eyes, no shadows or variations in the dark abyss. He sees nothing, and the world around him feels like fiction. He lives in a black hole. He is a baby condor trapped in an egg.

 

In a world of secrets and discrepancy, he’s horribly and utterly naked.

 

(On Percy’s tenth birthday, Oliver got an infection in his eyes that left him blind and delirious. The healers fixed him up and, for the following week, he was teased relentlessly by a hysterical Ludwig.

 

“I’m just having a chat with the chamberpot!” he’d yell in reference to Oliver’s prior ramblings, and Oliver’s face would redden like a ripe tomato.

 

Percy, for his part, was just mad the illness had delayed his party. “Why couldn’t I have gone blind instead?” he later moaned when Ludwig was allowed to miss his schoolwork in lieu of his needed recovery.

 

This, as he later acknowledged, is justice of the fates.)

 

From the back of his mind, he thinks he might be dreaming. It’s a fair assertion, honestly. He doesn’t remember falling asleep. All he recalls is a dark, encompassing black. It is all there is, merging with the needlessly loud world around him. He’s in his very own bubble amongst the ruins of his whole.

 

And then it isn’t.

 

It’s a faint shift, the blacks turning to greys and the greys to silvers, but it’s a shift and that’s something. Percy’s eyes track it, unfathomably glad for some sort of optical stimulation. He’s so glad he could cry; in fact, he is crying. Well, he thinks he is anyways. At the very least, there’s some sort of fluid dripping from his face. He couldn’t tell you whether it is water or blood or pus. It’s fluid, and the kind of fluid you find from decomposing condor pickings, and that’s something.

 

Then, before he can adjust, his eyes start to scream. The vague pain expected from seeing something after so long of not seeing anything shifts into a throbbing ache, and the ache turns to an obliterating screech. It’s more than he expects, and considering he expects everything, it’s shocking enough to elicit a yelp.

 

(The dog yelped. Curiously, four-year-old Percy yelped back. The dog wagged its tail, and, as usual, yelped. Percy let out another playful bleat. This was their ritual, farmdog and noble’s son, until the then-old dog courageously jumped into a lake to keep three-year-old Cassandra from drowning. The elderly dog had passed days later, and a week after that day, Percy found its body, half-eaten and laying underneath an adolescent condor. He screamed, and it screamed back.)

 

(Percy blanched. He’d made noise, again, when he wasn’t supposed to, and he knew what that meant. He knew, he did, and he was terrified (and honestly starting to run out of teeth). Maybe, perhaps, if she was feeling generous enough, she’d only take one tonight, he had thought.

 

That night, she had taken three.)

 

Percy closes his eyes, and the monochrome monster disappears into a comforting world of black.

 

(A bloodless condor, of all the things the demon had to be.)

 

(Of all the wrongs in being blind, not having to see the ones trying to punish you was the only thing that was right.)

 

“I have a proposition.” There’s a curl on the s, like a hiss, and the words come out like water dripping from an icicle. Each word is say liltingly, hung up like a song left to dry.

 

“I want to help you,” the voice says, and Percy stops in his metaphorical tracks (metaphorical, only because he was already stilled). He pauses, breathes, and tries to get his mind back in running order. Then, he opens his eyes.

 

(When he was six, his mother gave birth to Cassandra on a cold, late-winter night. She screamed and cried for hours, his mother, and the doctors were certain neither party would survive the night, but his tired mother never gave up. Percy, for his part, was ready to go back to sleep, and more angry at the baby for hurting his mother than excited or worried.

 

Percy would take it to his grave that he cried when he got to hold her as she opened her squinty infant eyes.)

 

(He opened his eyes, and nothing changed.)

 

(He opened his eyes, and faced a monster. Her hair is curled and red and brown and Her eyes are made of ice and glass. She’s tall and looming, made broad and narrow simultaneously. She’d be beautiful to look at if Percy didn’t know Her to be a monster.)

 

The beast is made of grey and black. It looks like it’s made of twisted rope, all pooled and knotted together into a hideous monochrome monstrosity. It’s only vaguely humanoid, two arms and two legs and a curved spine, and it reminds him of a doll that Ludwig used to own (although, technically, he’d stolen it from Cassandra and had never looked back). It’s a trash pile of black and broken strings; a condor if ever one did eat itself.

 

“H-how do y-you want to help me, exactly?” Percy knows he sounds like a fool, knows that his voice is beyond rugged and comes out in heaves and gasps, knows that the stutter he’d worked for years to remove as a child has returned, knows that even if this is a dream he cannot speak the way he wants to. He knows, but he’s trying.

 

(He as to try. He can’t not try. If he stays still and grows despondent She grows crueler and They visit more frequently. Knives turn to brands and laughter turns to screaming and there’s less of the pain he hates to remember and more of the agony he can never forget. So yes, he has to try.)

 

(“You aren’t trying hard enough!” his sister had shouted when she tried to show him the basics for the violin. Apparently, his musical aptitude was lacking in regard to string instrument. Who would have thought? Oh, that’s right. Percy would’ve, because the first instrument his mother hired a tutor to teach him to play was a cello. It hadn't ended well.)

 

“You and I want equal things,” it starts, leaning its stringy body forward. “You want them dead and I want their hearts. Together, we can have both, Percival.”

 

Percy knows that this is the voice of a demon, but, for a moment, he thinks the voice belongs to an angel.

 

(“What’s the difference?” he’d once asked his father, and Fredrickstein de Rolo had laughed at his curious son. Behind them both, Percy’s mother looked on fondly as his father spoke.

 

“One’ll try to help you. The other one’ll tell you how to help yourself.” Most of the young, teenage Percy had forgotten, but the rest of him remembered.)

 

“And what would you pro-propose?” he asks, already knowing that he’ll deny it. He can’t fight the Briarwoods—wouldn’t, even if he could—no matter what the demon offers, and he’s certain that’s what this would entail. This demon could offer the revival of his entire family and he’d still say no. He’s not a condor; he won’t eat everything that’s in front of him, not if he knows it’s filled with lead and a painful existence.

 

It’s not like he doesn’t want to say yes. It’s just that, within the last few years, he’s learned. He knows you can’t fight back, not to Her, not to Them, and certainly not to anyone else. He can’t.

 

So when the demon says, “We can make a pact. A deal, if you will. I restore your power, and in return, you establish mine,” he doesn’t even bother to consider it beyond the obligatory “hmm” before he says no.

 

“I’m terribly sorry, but I’m afraid I’ll have to d-decline.” (He almost manages to sound like he isn’t literally shaking in his boots—well, boot, since he’d lost one of them to time and an angry, squawking condor who stubbornly refused to eat anything else.)

 

The demon shakes its crooked head.

 

(She shook her head, smiling languidly. “That was the wrong answer, Percival.”)

 

(The condor tilted its bulbous crown and blinked beady black eyes. It’s face was red, natural pigment and blood merging into a violent crimson. Percy screamed.)

 

“You don’t understand. I can help you!” the demon tries, growing larger in both physique and voice. Out of instinct more than anything else Percy takes a step back, eyes wide.

 

(She hated when he did that. It irked Her to no end that still he tried to run in the smallest of ways. Her solution? Tying him to a table when She really wanted to play.)

 

(The bird took a step forward. Percy took another step back. Then it shrieked and swooped in on its prey and Percy fell.)

 

“Don’t you want to see , boy?” The demon isn’t asking, not really, not when it’s looming over him with face inches away from his own, and throwing black spittle to Percy’s face while it screams. For a single, horrible moment, it isn’t a demon but it’s Her in front of him and Percy bites down a scream of his own.

 

He closes his eyes to the image of blood and swollen bodies.

 

“I do want to see,” he concedes, and doesn’t even realize he’s lying until after it’s been done. “But I c-can’t offer my help, and quite f-frankly, I don’t want yours.” Percy moves a hand, absently, to move the hair he can feel falling over his face away.

 

The demon looks shocked, visibly surprised before the ropes of its face shift over each other to make a neutral countenance. “What?” it seethes and still isn’t asking through jagged, burnt-rope teeth.

 

(This isn’t good this isn’t good this is bad bad bad badbadbADBAD)

 

(The condor breaks his bones; the scientist breaks his bones; who’s to say the demon won’t do the same?)

 

“I-I d—” He needs to explain, to fix, but he’s silenced before he can.

 

“What if I kill you if you say no?”

 

Oh.

 

The demon must be starving if it’s willing to take that bite. And it thinks its being clever, that it’s found a weak point. The mortality debacle of humanity, that’s. Of all the things in the day, this one bar far catches Percy’s humor the most. Internally, he holds back a snort.

 

Percy shrugs.

 

(“Don’t do that, Percy,” his sister whined, throwing her hands in the air and shoving her shoulders down in a mock impression of him before righting herself. “It’s inappropriate.”

 

“Is not.” He raised his chin defensively and pointedly lowered his shoulders.

 

“Is too. It’s slouching, and it’s for fools. Vesper says.” Percy rolled his eyes

 

“It isn’t. It’s shrugging. Momentary slouching; everyone does it. And I’ve told you a million times, Cass . It’s Percival.” (“It’s Percival,” he’d said back when he could stand hearing his name—back when he cared about what each syllable meant—before Ripley ripped it away from him.).)

 

“Go ah-ahead.” He stares into its bloodless face. The demon stares back. (Ripley stares back.) (The condor opens its beak.)

 

“WHY?” it tries, but it still isn’t asking, so Percy doesn’t bother to rush his answer. Instead he waits, all leisure and definitely no terror, before he goes to speak.

 

“You’re n-not the only demon I’m afr-raid of. And to be quite honest, you’ve a t-terrible sales pitch.”

 

The condor swoops down, and Percy’s world fizzles to ebony as the beak snaps shut.

Chapter Text

The universe is made of purple. He, Percy de Rolo, has decided as such, and will not accept criticism. Ever. After all, who can prove him wrong? No one, not in this godsforsaken forest, and because of that, he shall remain steadfast in his belief.

 

He remembers purple. Purple, like the color of Cassandra’s neck when she’d been dragged like a doll through the courtyard as Percy’d been pulled into the nightmare below. Purple, like the skin surrounding the one working eye he’d still had. Purple, like the light reflecting off the wings of ravens. The color is so profound it’s tangible, a sour-sweet taste on his lips. (Or perhaps that’s the pungent trickles of the infection from his eyes.)

 

His eyes are gone, leaving sensitive and empty holes in their place. The surrounding flesh is rotten, sagging and numb. He’d had to tie swathes of cloth around them to keep the bugs and ravens away, and the pain that came with the blood soaked rags scraping against the inside flesh was near unbearable. Still is, mostly.

 

Everything about his situation is unbearable, with varying degrees of horror and disgust. Yet somehow, things like pain and starvation matter less than the small and mundane. The infection in his eyes he can live with, but not the unadulterated shame that came with soiling his own clothes. Nor, in truth, can he handle the dripping matter of the infection, but only the infection itself.

 

And yet, he lives on. For what? The fear of dying? Somehow, the weight of mortality had disappeared when it mattered. Somehow, dying wasn’t quite so scary. So why ? Why was Percy so desperately walking along a trail to no precise destination?

 

He’s trying to gather enough stamina to hold on, but the handle is burning his flesh and he wants nothing more than to let go. To free himself of this pain that he’s been bringing on himself . So why not? Why?

 

("You know this is your fault, Percival." She said, teeth glinting like pearls. "You know I really do hate to do this."

 

The gavel struck the anvil, and Percy can't even try to quiet his screams.)

 

It isn’t as though it’s getting any easier, despite any previous notions of how blindness works. The reality is that he isn’t adjusting at all. There is no acclimation, not gradual understanding of the dark and cold world around him. There’s nothing but an unrestrained terror.

 

(His favorite color was black. (“That’s not a color Percy, it’s a shade.” Percy rolled his eyes and Whitney huffed indignantly with the spite of an overzealous artist.) Irony is a barbed arrow and he is a fool that keeps on pulling, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise when all he comes to see is ebony in its most wretched.)

 

And when you live your life full of fear, so thoroughly consumed with the primal urge to stay alive, something inside you changes. (“Tick-tock, Percival, you’re running out of time.” She grinned, and another part of him flaked away into the unknown.) A fundamental piece of your whole is removed, and a changeling twin is returned in its place. You raise the changeling as your own, as though it is yourself, but you know that something isn’t right. 

 

You know.

 

(When Percy first met Oliver, he screamed. “This is your sister Whitney,” his father’d said, gesturing to the nursing baby on his mother’s breast. Percy had scrunched his nose at the sight, and his father had laughed. He then had turned, grabbing a bundle of cloth with a ridiculous amount of care before turning back to face his curious son.

 

“And this,” he began, voice uncharacteristically soft for a proud and noble leader. Behind his glasses, Fredrick de Rolo’s eyes crinkled like new parchment. “This one is Oliver.”

 

Immediately after Percy looked into his little brother’s brown eyes, he’d started to wail. His father had gone to move forward before he’d remembered his infantile charge and moved back.

 

“What’s wrong Percival?” his father’d tried, and Percy had just continued to wail. His infantile mind had seen Whitney and understood what she was. But the moment he’d seen Not Whitney, an imperfect recreation of this new sister, he’d screamed. His two year old brain had known that this was not his sister, despite their shared appearance. His mind had known that something was wrong, but not what it was.)

 

And at some unnamed point in your life, that knowledge haunts you. You start to see the world around you in a different color. The noises in your head reverberate like the innards of a bell. The people you know so closely seem…different. Everything is off-kilter, and it remains this way.

 

(Something was out there and it was going to kill him. He could hear the twigs snapping in the trees above him and the bushes rustling. A raven squawked in tune with the sound of flapping wings, and Percy laughed for nearly half an hour with a manic jubilancy while he lost the battle of his own mind.)

 

(He woke up and he knew something was wrong. The sun fell off his face at the wrong angle, the leaves were too quiet and the birds too loud. His hands scrambled over his frame, searching for the culprit.

 

It was his leg. The flesh that had been torn from the hounds that had chased him was gaping, massive holes ribbing across the limb. The punctures, larger than they were before, were dripping. He couldn’t feel it.

 

What he could feel was when the raven who’d so kindly been eating away at his leg went for his hand, his arm, his shoulder. He could feel the hollow bones collapsing in his hands as he crushed the bird from skull to stomach. He could, but he couldn’t.)

 

(The sky above him is white and then it’s black and now it’s purple and he can’t feel his leg and

 

he’s going to die here.)

 

(“Where are the others?” Percy asked Cassandra while they stumbled through the dark and cobbled passageways. He heard her take a wheezing breath as they ran and felt the hitch in her step and he knew .

 

“I’m sorry.” He squeezed her hand and tried again. “I’m sorry , Cass. I’m sorry.”

 

She doesn’t answer. They stop talking after that.)

 

(His balance is gone. There are no threads to keep him held upright, no chains to keep him bound. He cannot stand. He cannot walk. He cannot.)

 

And from this, you don’t grow weary or exhausted. You don’t grow at all. In a world of perpetual motion, you are stunted.

 

(“Why can’t I get older than you!” Percival had screamed to his sister from across the hall. “It’s not fair!” Vesper sighed, and next to him, Cassandra looked up curiously at the noise.

 

“It’s not possible, Percy.”)

 

(Cassandra wasn’t getting better. His parents knew. His siblings knew. Everyone knew, even Cassandra. “Am I going to die like this?” Cassandra asked their father one day while she was playing with a doll, and her father took a countenance so stricken even Whitney would’ve lost her tongue. So yes, it was fair to say that everyone knew. But it still wasn’t any easier.

 

(Cassandra, Cassandra, Cassandra. And wasn’t that easier to say, so much more impersonal than Cass?))

 

You remain the same, unless something forces a change.

 

(Of all his siblings, his parents worried the least about Vesper because, more often than not, she was just that: the least. The least accident prone, the least volatile, the least likely to get lost, the least worrying, the least. So it was truly no wonder that Vesper considered herself to be inferior, to be less deserving of attention. Which, in turn, simulated the vast wonder and incredulity that came with the day when her greatest friend returned her feelings.

 

“I . . . I think I’m in love with you, Vesper.” Her friend beyond all other friends, Syfia Koe Alekorna, a dwarvish refugee from the outer eastern reaches of their beloved mountains, told her. It was a small village she came from, Percival knew, as only thirteen villagers had been killed from the plague that had rocked through their town and only forty-seven villagers had remained.

 

Vesper opened her mouth, closed it, and opened it again. Percival, who’d been watching from the nearest corner, saw as Syfia stood, tense, waiting for riposte.

 

“I . . . Syfia, I’m sorry.” Vesper had started to say more, but Syfia cut her off.


“That’s fine, it really is, I get it. I figured you wouldn’t, but I couldn’t not tell you for any longer, see.” And here he had watched as his sister had crumpled, her heart wilting like a flower drenched in poison. Frustration scattered across her face, and her hands clenched together like they were holding on for their lives.

 

“No, wait. Listen, I -”

 

“It’s fine , Vesper. I get it, really.” Syfia said, and it was clear she very much did not get it, because Percival de Rolo knew his sister and he knew her telltale signs of pining. And Percy knew that his sister was horribly in love, but he also knew that Vesper was the wittiest person on the planet until she was caught off guard, in which case she was a little bit of a mess.

 

So when Syfia began to turn away with another muttered apology, it really shouldn’t have surprised Percival when Vesper gave up on her failing words and decided to maker herself known in a different way. Different, which meant grabbing her friends’ shoulder and rather dramatically (and frankly uncharacteristically) turning Syfia around and meeting her mouth to desperate mouth.)

 

("Percival," Ripley breathed out with a groan, shifting in place on Her newfound perch. Percy bit hard against the muscle of his tongue to keep his screams amongst the dying.)

 

(Throughout his life, his siblings had held a sense of predictability. Julius would always play the bagpipes with horrible clanks and screeches, Vesper would always keep her thoughts locked tightly inside a notebook, Oliver and Ludwig would never get along despite their blatant similarities, Whitney would always be covered in oils and paints, and Cassandra would always find a way to make due with what she had (which was, in all fairness, quite a lot). Percy himself held the same predictability in his nature of taking things apart and asking too many questions.

 

But always didn’t mean forever, and when the Briarwoods came it meant no longer.)

 

(He falls. He gets up. He falls. He gets up. He falls. He gets up.)

 

He falls.

 

He doesn’t get up.

 

A boom echoes above him, and the rain that starts to fall mixes harmoniously with his tears. There, against the root of a tree and the thick of a thornbush, the last of the de Rolo’s says goodbye to no one and lets himself fall into the welcoming lull of sleep.

 

(Next to his ear, a raven screams.

 

He doesn’t hear.

 

(The raven’s wings open.

 

He doesn’t see.

 

("Godforsaken?" A voice made of marble asks, tone lilting in a mirth fit for a graveyard from underneath a mask of porcelain.

 

He's dead.)))