Vex throws the front door open with her shoulder. It groans like a wounded creature. The noise ruptures the quiet of the hall, and the stares of a score of refugees scrape down her back. She ignores them, caught in her own tempest of anger. Their plans to destroy the conclave are set, but they are vague and far-fetched and she hates the moments before plans become actions. That's usually the time when her brother decides to be an imbecile and needlessly risk his life, or when Grog starts frothing at the mouth and charging ahead unsupervised, or when some other trick of fate derails their strategy. She strides through the courtyard, stomping over the dragon's claw-furrows in the grass and the mucky, bloody puddles where its frozen victims had begun to melt. If only she were more like Keyleth – someone who could wave her hand and knit the sundered earth together. No, her magic is simpler and smaller. Minor wounds, multiple arrows, ash and dust. Nothing much compared to the woman who moonlights as a tiger and conjures fire in her palms.
Each new thought makes her angry, scalding her on the way past. That insidious, poisonous skull, her foolish brother, Percy and Grog's stupid spat and their complete disregard for her safety, even Keyleth's shrill attempt to hold them all together - it's all such bullshit. Worthless time-wasting, when there are dragons to be slain. Vex slings her bow from her back, draws an arrow from her quiver, and swings it up towards a banner fluttering from the guard tower. A good shot could hit one of those brass rings linking the banner to its crossbar. Straight through the loop, regardless of the slight easterly wind. She happens to be a very good shot.
As she draws the bowstring taut, she catches sight of a figure pacing on the upper battlements. Blue coat, white hair. Percy. He glances up, outwards, to the north - not at the city, but over it, beyond it – perhaps all the way to Whitestone, where his heart is truly buried. Vex lowers her bow, the string growing slack. Percy turns back to his path, muttering to himself, hands folded behind his back. At this distance, the wind whisks the sound away, but Percival's elocution is comparable to most nobility: he enunciates so well, even when mumbling, that she can read everything he says. Hoping to speak with you about – no. Wanted to ask you if – to say that I’m – to apologize for – yes, start with that.
Drafting some kind of confession, then. He turns away from her, and that ends her eavesdropping. Regardless, it's none of her business. Just as fluidly as before, she nocks the arrow. Brass ring, like a carnival. She and Percy had played this game at Winter’s-Crest once, hadn’t they? Feels like years, though she couldn't hope to count them. She fires. She strikes true, and the brass ring bursts open. The bolt shatters upon impact with the stone. She watches it fall in splinters.
Vex looks back up at the battlements. She shouts back, over the wind, “Thank you, Percival.”
He draws Ripley's revolver. Lately his attacks have been a little clumsy – getting used to the touch of a new instrument, so she imagines. He pauses, scoping out his target before raising the gun. He follows the same principles as she does, as all good marksmen do: breathe in to aim, fire on the exhale. His posture straightens, his breath freezes full in his chest, and Vex looks to the banner just in time to see another ring fly apart, this time with a percussive metal bang.
The gun-smoke swirls around him. Vex holds her breath. Sometimes she still expects the black tendrils to cling to his skin, to snake back over his shoulders and under his eyelids. The wind whisks the whorls away, Percy stock-still in their midst. He inspects the banner, now hanging crooked after their twinned shots. “I had a better angle,” he calls down.
“Don’t sell yourself short, darling,” she replies.
Percy sweeps his coat back and holsters the gun. “Would you join me?” he calls. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”
Even as she’s planning the best way to phrase her refusal, she answers, “Of course.”
When she reaches the battlements, Percy has taken a seat on their edge, feet dangling over the courtyard. His coat flares out over the walkway, and she sits squarely on the fabric. Better that than the chilly, abrasive stones beneath her. A bemused smirk crosses Percy’s face, but he doesn’t seem to mind otherwise. “So, Percival,” she says. “What's on your mind?”
Silence. He has this habit of taking horrendously long pauses before he speaks. Sometimes she can follow the life of an entire thought in his changing expression, watching as it sprouts, grows, blooms and dies, without Percy saying anything at all. His cheeks are pink, slightly windstruck. With their proximity she can see him biting the inside of his lip, chewing over the phrasing of his question. “Well,” he says (finally), “I wanted to apologize.”
Vex tilts her head. “What for?”
“That whole wish-upon-a-skull debacle,” he sighs. He does look ashamed, all furrowed brows and downcast eyes. “It was entirely my fault. The last thing I wanted was to put you in harm’s way.”
She's trying not to think about it. They have bigger problems, looming problems. Just below her feet, their wall casts a shadow over a lingering swath of frost, one that webs through the garden and halfway up the stonework. As furious as that whole scenario has made her, she does not want to start another fight. They can't afford one. “It's alright," she responds, unconvincingly. "Everyone’s lost right now.”
“I only hope I haven’t sacrificed what little trust I had earned.”
Vex doesn’t look up. The fur collar of Percy's new coat sheds, and there are a few coppery strands sticking to the fabric. She brushes them off, flicks them from the wall, and watches them float down to earth. She doesn't have an answer for that. Trust is no simple currency, not the way he frames it. It has its facets, like any other concept. Should a dragon swoop down from the sky - not an irrational supposition, at the moment - she would certainly trust Percy to fight with her. She trusts his quick mind and his clever shots, but that same ingenuity makes it harder to trust him elsewhere. In his black-shadowed workshop, for instance, when he winked at her and asked for her blind faith, even as he ran his thumb over the bone-white ridges of the stolen skull. Sometimes he seems too clever to be trustworthy. He weaves his words like snares. Only when everything stands in his favour will he reveal the punchline, the coup, the reversal – who’s at the bottom of the List. It is worse, so much worse now, to see that dark sparkle of cunning in his eyes, and know she can't blame it on Orthrax anymore.
Now there's a terrible thought. “Skull hasn’t brought back your smokey-shadow friend, has he?” she asks, and he laughs, short, behind closed lips.
“No, no,” he reassures her. "Though it is disconcerting to know I'll never be free of that decision."
"You'll never be free of any of your decisions," she replies, her voice dark. "No one ever is. Look at Allura, and look at the rest of us."
A very, very long pause. Percy stares, blue eyes brighter than the dimming sky, at a distant target. At last, he says, “Thordak is the dragon on your List, isn’t he?”
Vex presses her fingers to her lips – and they’re cold, both cold, it’s so bloody cold on this little wall, and she can hardly feel it. Instead she drowns in the scent of smoke and charred bodies, the memories she’s been stomaching for fifteen years. What a clever way to ask the question. She hopes Percy’s proud of himself, sitting there smugly as the shadows of the darkest day of her childhood, and all the nightmarish hours of troubled sleep since, course back into her mind. Teeth grit, jaw clenched, she answers, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I understand. I only want you to listen, anyway.”
He has one chance. Vex nods, looking down at the garden again. The wind picks up for a moment, a swift slap of cool air that whips her hair across her face. She rakes it back, and waits, her knees bouncing impatiently, for Percy to get his lecture off his chest.
Percy begins, “You don’t need to follow my advice, and you certainly shouldn’t follow my example – but I do understand something of what you’re feeling. I know the kind of mistakes people can make in your circumstance.”
She nods. She's had this thought a few times - aside from her brother, Percy might be the only person who could ever understand her goals. Years of obsessive study and planning: the tension between needing to confront her nemesis and the sting of fear. It is part of why she was so intent on helping him in Whitestone - she could see her own struggle so clearly reflected in Percy's. That sympathy blunts her impatience and softens her rage, and she stops fidgeting. She mutters, “I'm not about to take out any demon contracts, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”
Percy rolls his eyes, and takes his glasses off. Something to fiddle with - he turns them over and over in his left hand as he talks. “No, I don’t worry for that," he says. "I worry you’ll do something like what you tried at the Briarwoods' Ziggurat.”
Another memory, one that seems illogically distant. How can she forget exactly how it felt for Delilah’s spell to strike her chest, when that had nearly killed her, when that was barely a week ago? How can that fight be fuzzy, when she remembers her mother’s charred house so vividly she expects to see smudged charcoal on her fingers?
Percy adds, somewhat jokingly, “I think your brother’s reckless streak is rubbing off on you.”
“So talk to him, then,” Vex retaliates.
“I can, if that’s what you wish.”
He looks at her earnestly, eyes gentle, no refusal or defiance. Like he’s waiting to be commanded. Vex repeats, “If that’s what I wish?”
Percy thinks. She watches the process, the conclusion – and it comes to his face as a melancholy smile, one that appears and vanishes with equal swiftness. She notes the strange details his glasses had been hiding; a slight groove on the bridge of his nose, where the frames usually fit; the purplish veins under his eyes, marking his chronic sleeplessness.
He leans forward, and touches the back of her hand with his fingertips. Her shoulders draw up with an intake of breath, and she freezes. This is unfamiliar, unprecedented. Percy gives her a wary look. His eyes shine bright and stark without the glasses to mute them. Vex's heart beats quick in her mouth and so she can say nothing, unable to voice the sudden surges of longing and panic spinning together inside her. He waits, searching her face, for her refusal. It does not come. Percy seems surprised at himself, uncertain, in limbo. The touch is an anomaly: something his rehearsals have not predicted. “Vex," he says, voice wavering, "You have pulled me from some very dark places. I aim to return the favour.”
“It wasn’t only me," she answers, barely more than a breath out. "Everyone fought for you.”
“They fought for me," he concedes. "But whenever I was on the verge of losing myself, it was always your voice I heard through the smoke. Always.”
He traces a smooth wave over her skin - looking down again, observing his experiment. Vex turns her hand over, aligning their palms. Their fingers unfurl, mirror, weave together, and close tight, intertwined. The glove rasps over her skin, the singular noise in the fleeting quiet. The warmth of his hand bleeds through the leather. Steady and low, he finishes, “Anything you need, Vex'ahlia. I've got you.”
Vex trembles. The damned skull, Percy’s demons, Trinket frozen halfway to death, her brother disappearing for days and falling in love and getting himself killed – she trawls back through her memory to everyone she’s been trying to help, everyone she’s been fighting to keep safe. And damned if it hasn’t been a perfect distraction from her own fears. She hasn’t had to think of Thordak or her mother or her vengeance in so long. Now there are corpses in her yard, too many to bury in a day, and dragons in her city, and aching darkness in her mind. She shuts her eyes, trying to lose herself in the numbing wind and the gentle heat in her captured hand, and she admits, “I’m so scared, Percy.”
“I know, darling,” he says, and his fingers tense. She squeezes back. "Believe me, I know." He sounds wounded, and her heart breaks for them both.
As her breathing slows, he strokes the curve of her thumb with his. She realizes that there is no strategy here on Percival's part, no rhetorical snare. He's sincerely grateful.
But for what? There had been no other option in Whitestone. Losing Percy to that demon, that would have been - intolerable. Impossible. It made sense to think about him all the time: he was in so much danger, hunted by enemies within and without at every second, and she needed to keep him safe. She needed to stay vigilant, and stay worried, and reach out the second it looked like the demon would overwhelm his will.
It's over. Orthrax is gone. Their problems are different, bigger, darker, elsewhere. And yet Percy has not released her. He remains a vivid, constant light in her thoughts, a singular factor in every decision. She doesn't want to ask why - the answer is obvious, and stupid, and it can't be true, not now, at the worst of times - she's horrified, she's grateful, she's dizzy - the dragons and the demons, the fear and the vengeance, the excuses and the denial, they vanish into her heartbeat, into their hands - swept away by a single moment of revelation, a shock like she's fallen from the wall and into the endless air -
She loves him. She loves him and he, as if he already knows, has made a vow to keep her safe.
She opens her eyes. Percy's watching her already, expression intense but patient. They have certainly been this close before, but the proximity feels different. They are not just close, but focused. Fixed on each other. She nods, and he smiles - slight, small, and crooked. Oh, damn it - he does know. Of course he does.
Maybe they don’t need to say it aloud, maybe not yet. If they need to put a name to this, if they need another promise beyond what they have, the words will crystallize in time. With the world in such a state, it's time they might not have, but time Vex is willing to give, all the same. She will not push him, and he will not speak, would never speak, until he has crafted the perfect thing to say. For now, she can only love him wordlessly, and hope that her trust is not misplaced.
Eventually, she sees the clouds returning to his thoughts, sees the omens on the horizon, and he says, “I swear on the graves of the de Rolos that you will watch that dragon die.”
Vex sidles closer, and presses their shoulders together. “Alright," she answers. "And you’ll be there when I do.”
“Yes. I will.”
They wait on the wall, side by side, and watch the sky grow dark together.