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if somebody loved you, they'd tell you by now

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“Remind me again what we’re doing here.”

Vex peered at Percy over her menu. “Spying on my brother. Obviously.”

Percy sighed. “Remind me again why we’re doing that.”

Vex put the menu down. Across the table, Percy adjusted his glasses. She’d known Percy for over two years now, and he fit well into her circle of friends, but she’d still been a little surprised that he’d agreed to accompany her tonight. Not that she had any other options. Scanlan would’ve held it over her for the rest of her life, asking Grog or Tiberius to be subtle was a venture doomed to failure, and Pike and Keyleth would’ve refused on principle. Percy, on the other hand, was almost as good of a liar as she was, could be trusted to keep secrets, and had flexible enough morals to agree to help her spy on her brother without asking questions.

Well. Too many questions.

“Because,” she said, “I asked him what he was doing tonight, and he said he had a date.” She paused for a moment to allow that to sink in.

Percy blinked. “...and?”

Vex sighed. “And he wouldn’t tell me anything else.”

“So obviously, your next course of action was to stalk him on his date. How did you know to come here, by the way?”

Vex reached into the pocket of her jacket, draped over the back of her chair, and grabbed her phone, leaning across to show Percy the screen. “He booked the reservation online. I forwarded the email to myself.”

“He showed you his email?”

Vex just looked at him. Percy raised his eyebrows. “Ah. Of course not.” He cleared his throat. “And may I ask why you felt the need to include me on this particular adventure?”

Vex shrugged. “In case he catches me. I’ll just say I’m on a date with you. That way I have a reason for being here that isn’t suspicious.”

Percy, having chosen that moment to take a sip of his drink, was just able to catch himself from spewing water across the table at her. “You- I- a date?”

Vex quirked an eyebrow at him. “What? I date. Occasionally.” It was true. She and Jarrett had seen each other casually for a couple months a while back, and her relationship with Zahra had lasted six lovely months before the other woman had amicably broken things off to take a better paying job in Vasselheim. Surely the thought of her pursuing a romance wasn’t all that shocking.

Percy swallowed. “Of course. Of course you do.”

He still looked flustered, for some reason, and Vex would have asked, had she not been distracted by Vax’s entering the restaurant. She quickly held her menu back in front of her face, leaving only her eyes above it to watch as her brother spoke with the host and was led to a table. Seeing her looking, Percy made to turn around. She hissed at him. “Don’t look!"

He rolled his eyes. “I’m sorry, was I about to blow your cover?”

Pursing her lips, Vex closed her menu and leant across the table to smack him with it. “I’m just saying, don’t be obvious about it.” Percy raised his hands in surrender, smiling. She smiled back. “Dick.”

She was still smiling when she glanced over and saw that someone was approaching her brother’s table. A woman, ginger, long flowing skirt. Vax stood up when she reached him, pulled her chair out for her. She sat, sweeping her hair over one shoulder, back from her face-

Vex gaped. This time, Percy really did turn in his seat at her reaction, peering over at the table, where Vax was just sitting down to a date with- “Is that- is that Keyleth?”

Vex didn’t answer. As she watched, Vax sat down and said something. Likely something self-deprecating, because Keyleth frowned and shook her head, placing her hand on top of his on the table. After a moment, he twisted his hand around to grasp hers, squeezing.

Vex looked away, her face flushing. She’d done a lot of stupid shit as a kid, she and her brother both, including trespassing and on one memorable occasion breaking and entering, but this moment, for the first time since running away from her father, made her feel like an intruder.

“Vex?” Percy’s brow was furrowed in concern. “Are you alright?”

She pasted on a smiled, nodded. “I’m fine, darling. Excuse me a moment, won’t you?” She rose and strode from the restaurant, timing her exit so she could walk in step with a passing waiter, keeping him between her and Vax and Keyleth. She could have played off being caught out by Vax and some random date of his, but now…

Slipping out the door, she started down the sidewalk, head down. She wasn’t sure if this was the right direction back to her and Vax’s apartment, but she didn’t care. She kept moving. That was what she did, wasn’t it? When life blindsided her, she picked herself up and kept moving forward. She and her brother both, that’s the way it had always been. Just them against the world.

A chill breeze swept around Vex as she walked. She shivered, wrapping her arms around her chest, then stopped. Her jacket. She groaned. Of course. She turned to head back into the restaurant and stopped just short of running into Percy. “Are you following me?” She could hear the harshness in her voice, but she couldn’t bring herself to apologize.

Percy lifted an arm. She looked and saw her jacket draped over it. “Thought you might want this back,” he said. When she didn’t move, he slowly lifted the jacket from his arm, opening it and wrapping it gently around her shoulders. She pulled it closed, still shivering slightly from the wind. “Are you sure you’re alright?” he asked, his voice tinged with concern. “You left in quite the hurry.”

Vex shrugged, not quite meeting his questioning gaze. “I’m fine.”

She heard him sigh. She opened her mouth, already preparing an excuse, something plausible enough to get a laugh and let him feel comfortable leaving her, since he clearly had better things to do than walk her through an emotional breakdown-

“Do you want to grab some coffee?”

Apparently not.

Vex blinked up at Percy. “What?”

He met her eyes evenly. “Coffee. I know a place a couple blocks over. The owner’s a bit odd, but you look like you could use a pick-me-up.” He paused, adjusting his glasses in a way she recognized as a nervous tic of his. “And honestly, you look like you could use some company as well, and I’m more than happy to provide on that front.”

He held out an arm. After a moment, Vex took it, looping her arm through the crook of his elbow. She really shouldn’t, she knew, but a warm drink sounded lovely, and she knew Percy well enough to know that his offer was sincere, not just made out of pity. And, if she were honest with herself, she’d rather be with him at the moment than alone.

They walked in silence until they reached a- well, Vex tended to think the phrase “hole in the wall” was a bit overused, but it was, in this case, almost literally true. The only thing distinguishing the shop from the surrounding brick was a flickering neon sign, depicting an outline of a steaming cup and the phrase “Black Powder Cafe” written in cursive.

Vex eyed it dubiously. It was not at all the sort of place she could picture Percy frequenting. As if sensing her skepticism, Percy gently bumped her shoulder. “The drinks are better than the decor, I promise.”

He led her to the glass door and opened it, causing a chime to ring through the surprisingly roomy interior. Looking around, she saw three scattered tables, each holding a battered caddy of condiments and utensils, and a pair of booths against the far wall, all illuminated by warm lighting. She had only a moment to look, however, before a door in the back burst open, and out came the strangest man Vex had ever seen in her life. His apron was stained with a number of liquids in varying shades of brown (which she desperately hoped were all coffee), and his white hair stood straight up from his head in a number of tuft. This, combined with his large, thick-rimmed glasses, made him appear less like a coffee shop worker and more like a mad scientist out of a horror film.

“Hello, Viktor,” Percy said. “My friend and I would like a table, if you’d be so kind.”

“A table?” Vex jumped at the man’s voice, which sounded like nothing so much as a prospector from an old West cartoon. His eyes darted around the restaurant, seemingly unnoticing of its emptiness as he considered where to put them. “There!” he announced, pointing a shaking finger at a table that, as far as Vex could tell, seemed no different from the other. “Sit at that one! I’ll be back in a moment with your drinks!” With that he scurried back from whence he came, wheezing slightly as he walked.

Gingerly, Vex walked to the indicated table and sat. “How did you find this place?” she asked as Percy took a seat across from her.

He shrugged. “I couldn’t sleep one night, thought I’d get some fresh air. I went for a walk and ended up here.”

Vex considered him. She and he both knew that his apartment is nowhere near where they were now. “Must’ve been quite a walk,” she said finally.

He smiled wryly. “Must have.”

The door to the back burst open once more, revealing Viktor, holding a steaming cup in each hand. He bustled over to their table and set the cups in front of them. “For you,” he said, nodding to Percy, “and for the lady.” He grinned widely at Vex, revealing several missing teeth. She smiled back, slightly put off at being the focus of such… focused attention.

Percy coughed loudly. “Yes! Thank you, Viktor, we’ll call out if we need anything.” He smiled wanly at Viktor until the man took the hint and retreated back to, presumably, the kitchen, muttering absently under his breath.

Vex gave him a small smile of thanks, then took a sip from her cup. She paused. “Percival? Darling?” He tilted his head inquiringly. “This coffee is terrible.”

He drank from his own cup and winced. “It is, a bit, isn’t it.” He set the cup down gingerly on the table. “Still, the company’s all right.”

Vex, to her horror, actually felt herself flushing. She covered it with a snort. “Yes, I’m sure this is your ideal Friday night. Sitting in a shop drinking horrible coffee with a woman who can’t even-” She cut herself off, took another drink of the horrible coffee before she said to embarrass herself even further.

When she put her cup down, Percy was looking at her consideringly. “Do you want to talk about it?” he asks, after a moment.

She shrugged. “Talk about what?”

Percy gave that the flat disbelief it deserved. “Vex.”

She sighed. “I don’t know, alright? I just-” She shrugged again. “I thought he would have told me, is all.”  She looked at the warm cup held in a loose grip on the table in front of her instead of at Percy. She was afraid, suddenly, that if she were to meet his eyes she’d find pity, and she couldn’t bear that. Not from him. “It’s stupid.”

“I don’t know.” Percy’s voice was measured, deliberately light. “It makes perfect sense to me.”

That startled Vex into looking at him. “Really?”

He nodded. “Certainly. From what you and your brother have told me, you were each the only person the other could depend on for much of your lives. It’s perfectly understandable that the idea of him building connections with other people might come as something of a shock.”

Vex pursed her lips. “Understandable. Still unreasonable.”

Percy smiled wryly. “In my experience, reason often has very little bearing when it comes to family.”

Vex tilted her head. Percy’s words were to her, but his gaze had shifted, as though he was seeing something far away. She didn’t know much about Percy’s family, he didn’t speak about them often, but there was a fondness in his voice that she recognized as having come from experience. “Perhaps,” she said.

They sat for a while, taking reluctant sips from their coffee, until-

“Would it really be so bad?”

Vex frowned. “What?”

Percy looked at her over the top of his glasses. “Vax and Keyleth, together. I can’t imagine Keyleth is the worst choice he could have made in the romance department.”

Vex rolled her eyes. “Keyleth’s lovely. A bit too sunshine and rainbows for my taste, but- ”

“Not what I asked.”

She shot him a sharp look. He took an unrepentant sip of his coffee. She sighed. “No, alright? I’m sure they’ll be perfectly happy and nauseating and all of the other disgusting cliches.” She set her cup on the table with slightly more force than was strictly necessary, rattling the caddy full of ancient-looking sugar packets.

“Not a particular fan of romance, are you?” The question was light, as though he were enquiring after her health or commenting on the weather.

Vex shrugged. “I don’t mind romance. It’s all the gushing and moony-eyed nonsense.” She clasped her hands to her chest and fluttered her eyelashes at him. “Breaking hearts left and right.”

If she didn’t know better, she would swear Percy blushed. “Yes, well,” he said, adjusting his glasses, “I take your point.”

She sighed. “I don’t know,” she said, picking a spoon out of the caddy in front of her and stirring it idly in her cup. “I suppose I just don’t understand it. Things with Jarret were never about romance-” she deliberately ignored Percy’s snort- “-and Zahra and I never really did the dating thing.” She smiled fondly. “Our dates were usually just watching Netflix and fooling around.”

For the second time that night, Percy narrowly avoided spewing liquid across the table. “As- entertaining. As that sounds, your brother and Keyleth are very different people from you and Zahra. Perhaps they enjoy the ‘dating thing’.” His tone told Vex that, were he a different man, the last two words would have involved air quotes.

She snorted. “Well, more power to them, I suppose.” She raised her cup, and Percy clinked his against it. “To my brother and Keyleth,” she said. “May they find eternal happiness and make lots of adorable ginger babies.”

“Here, here,” Percy said dryly. He drank, then set his cup down, running a finger around the rim. “What about you?” he asked.

Vex frowned. “What about me?”

“Nobody caught your eye since Zahra?” It was an innocent enough question, and Vex would almost have taken it as such, were it not for the lingering pinkness at the tips of Percy’s ears.

“Nobody,” she said, suddenly feeling as though she were treading on uneven ground. “If someone had I’d’ve told you, you know that.”

He cleared his throat. “Of course, of course. Nevermind, forget I said anything.”

“Alright,” she said warily, taking a sip of coffee. “What about you, Percival? Has someone taken your interest?” She raised a meaningful eyebrow.

Percy’s eyes widened. “Oh, no. I am not having this conversation with you.”

“No, come on.” She tapped her spoon on the table absently, one of many bad habits her father’s attempts at civilizing her had failed to break. “I’ve just poured my heart out over here, it’s only fair.”

Percy ran a hand over the back of his neck. Vex’s eyes narrowed. “Percy. What is it.” It was not phrased as a question.

He sighed and removed his glasses, pinching the bridge of his nose: a familiar stalling technique. “It’s nothing, Vex. Leave it.”

Percy looked into his coffee rather than meet her eyes. His ears were still bright pink, a flush that Vex would bet was spread across the back of his neck as well. She wracked her brain, trying to recall if she had ever seen Percy acting like this, but came up empty. “Really, Percy, darling, there’s no need to be so cagey.” Suddenly, she sat up, a thought coming to her. “Unless it’s someone I know.”

Percy’s sudden stillness told her she had hit her target. “Oh, it is! Who is it? Pike? Scanlan? Tiberius?” She wrinkled her nose. “Grog?” Percy managed a disbelieving chuckle at that, but he still wouldn’t look at her. She pressed on, a more sombre idea dawning on her. “Is it… Is it my brother? Keyleth?” She reached across the table and covered Percy’s hand with hers. “Is that why you didn’t want to tell me, because you thought I’d be angry now that they’re together? I’m not, Percy, I swear-”

“Vex.” Percy’s voice was low, but it cut through her building head of steam. “I’m not in love with Keyleth. Or your brother.”

Vex huffed in frustration. “Well, you’ll have to help me out then, Percy, because that really only leaves…” She trailed off. Percy finally met her gaze, a resigned expression on his face.

The penny dropped.

“Oh,” she breathed. Without thinking, she pulled her hand back. Percy’s breath caught, and his hands curled around his cup as though he was anchoring himself so as not to reach for her again. Vex sat back in her chair, mind whirling. “How long?” she asked. In her ears, her voice sounded soft and distant, as though it was coming to her from very far away.

Percy sighed. “Do you remember how I was, when we first met?” He still didn’t look at her. “What I was like?”

Vex nodded slowly. “I remember.” In the early days of her friendship, Percy had reminded her of the dogs Keyleth talked about getting in the clinic sometimes, the ones that had come in from the street or from bad homes: wary of touch and contact, on edge, as though constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop and whatever goodness he’d found in life to be stolen away from him. She knew the signs of someone who’d spent time on the run, still saw them in the mirror on her bad days. Percy hadn’t told her what his life had been before he stumbled into their ragtag bunch of misfits, and she hadn’t asked, but she could tell it hadn’t been good.

Percy smiled, barely. “I was jumping at my own shadows in those day, after so long on my own, running from my past. From everything, really. It helped, being around people again. You, all of you, you took me in as your friend without question. I had-” He stopped, pausing as he searched for the right words. “I had forgotten what that was like. The others, they were kind to me, and I’ll never be able to repay them for that, but you-” His eyes flicked up to her face, then away. “You were… different. Welcoming, yes, but you never treated me as though I was… fragile. Or unhinged, or whatever else I might have been. You pulled me out of the darkness I had spent the past years of my life in.” He cleared his throat, turned his cup in his hand. “So, to answer your question, in a very roundabout sort of way, I don’t know how long. Quite a while, I think, even if I didn’t know it.”

Vex considered this. “Why did you never tell me?”

Percy smiled again, this one rueful. “What would you have done if I had? Even after you were… no longer involved with anyone else, I couldn’t imagine you would feel the same, and I valued our friendship too much to jeopardize it.” He chuckled once, bitterly. “Rather a moot point now, I suppose.”

He drained the last of the coffee from his cup, reached in his pocket and pulled out a couple of wrinkled bills. “That should be enough.” He stood, met her eyes long enough to give her a nod and a tight smile. “Good night, Vex.” He turned to the door.

If pressed, Vex couldn’t say why, in that moment, she chose to call after him. “Percy?” He stopped, his back still to her. Slowly, Vex stood and walked to him, gently linking her arm with his once more. She spoke softly, an olive branch and a reassurance. “Walk me home?”

A pause. Percy looked at her, considering. Vex forgot, sometimes, what it was like to be the centre of Percy’s attention. Having the strength of that mind and focus solely directed at her… It sent a shiver down her spine. He didn’t smile, but his face softened from its emotionless mask. “Alright,” he said.

Arm in arm, they left the shop and began the twenty minutes or so back to Vex’s apartment. She could have hailed a cab, or taken a bus, but Vex had always found that walking and being outdoors helped her to settle her thoughts. Usually, she was alone on these excursions, but Percy’s warmth at her side was not unwelcome in the night’s chill.

Vex bit her lip. She ought to speak, she thought, put to rest the doubts that were surely plaguing Percy, but the words would not come to her. What could she say that would be truthful to the swirling mess inside her head at the moment?

As if reading her thoughts, Percy spoke. “I don’t expect anything from you.”

Vex looked over at him, his eyes focused on the ground in front of him. “I know,” she said, and she did know. She knew Percy. It was why she was here, walking with him after dark, instead of letting him leave and taking a cab back by herself. Being with Percy just felt easy, in a way very little in her life ever did.

They understood each other, she thought. Not like she and Vax understood each other, knowing each other down to the bone, to the point where sometimes people thought they shared a mind. What existed between she and Percy was something different: a bond created not by blood, but by common purpose; by choice. She had looked at him when they first met and seen, perhaps, a warped reflection of herself--a her that might have been, without Vax at her side and her friends around her. Until he’d mentioned it tonight, she hadn’t realized how much Percy had changed in the time she’d known him, how much they’d both changed. The Vex of years ago would have laughed at the idea of trusting anyone but her brother. Much of that change was due to her friends, yes, having a group of people to call her own, but…

A sudden pressure on her arm pulled Vex from her thoughts, and she realized Percy had stopped walking. She turned to him, and found him watching her with his brow furrowed. “What?”

“It really doesn’t bother you?”

Vex shrugged. “Should it?” He huffed a disbelieving chuckle, and she stepped forward to take his hand. “Percival, you’re my friend. Nothing’s going to change that, I promise.” An impish grin spread across her face. “And really, darling, who wouldn’t be in love with me?” She tossed her braid over one shoulder, affecting a supermodel pout.

It worked. Percy laughed. “Well, when you put it that way.” He started walking again, hand still held in hers.

They walked in silence for a few more minutes, hands swinging gently between them. Finally, Vex asked the question that had been in the back of her mind since the restaurant. “Is that why you never told me?” Percy’s hand tightened reflexively in hers, but she pressed on. “You thought it would change things between us?”

Percy was quiet for a moment. “That was part of it.”

Vex squeezed his hand, ever so slightly. “What was the rest?”

Percy exhaled sharply. “Really, Vex. It’s not like I was looking forward to being rejected.” He began to pull his hand away.

Vex held on. “Who said anything about being rejected?”

Percy stopped in his tracks. Vex stopped as well, and they stood there on the sidewalk, joined at the hand. “Vex.” Percy’s voice was low, his expression frozen, as though he were trying to prevent himself from hoping. “Please don’t- Don’t say anything just because you think it’s what I want to hear.”

Vex was able to keep herself from rolling her eyes, but it was a near thing. “Percy, when have I ever said anything because it was what someone wanted to hear, least of all you?” She chuckled nervously, bit her lip. Percy was still looking at her. She liked when Percy looked at her, she realized. She liked when Percy did a lot of things. Her mind was whirling with possibilities, but she wanted to be sure of what she felt. She owed it to Percy to be sure, and there was, to her mind, one definitive way of finding out.

She took a step closer, heard his breath hitch. “Can I just-” She reached up with her free hand, let it brush against his cheek. “I want to try something. Alright?” She waited, for seconds and hours and an eternity, until slowly, Percy nodded. Then, almost unable to believe her own daring, Vex leaned forward and pressed her lips to his.

Vex had never thought about what it might be like to kiss Percy. She had never thought about Percy in that way until tonight, until she had stumbled on one of his better-kept secrets and unlocked something inside herself she’d never known existed. Standing here now, she cursed herself for her ignorance, because instead of him pining and her oblivious for months, they could have been doing this. Her hand cupping his cheek, sliding around to twine in his hair, him releasing her hand to wrap both arms around her, his hands splaying against her back as he pulled her closer. His mouth soft and warm against hers, his glasses bumping against her nose, her hand slipping under his coat to press warm against his side, her lips parting on a gasp.

Percy was the first to pull away. His hair stuck up in the back where Vex had mussed it, and his expression looked like nothing so much as that of someone who had just been hit over the head with something very heavy. His breath was uneven, and for one of only a handful of times since their meeting, Vex thought she had really, truly surprised him. He swallowed, wet his lips. “What was that for?” he asked, voice ever so slightly hoarse.

Vex shrugged. “I wanted to see what it was like.”

Percy raised an eyebrow. “And?”

She smiled. “I could get used to it.”

He laughed at that, really laughed. She could still feel the smile on his lips when she took his face in her hands and pulled him for another kiss.

Vex didn’t know how long they continued in that manner, walking and talking and laughing, pausing every so often for a kiss, as though neither of them could quite believe they were allowed to do it. Eventually, however, they reached Vex’s apartment. Judging by the light peeking through the blinds, Vax had beaten her home. She sighed, turned to Percy. He was watching her, his expression soft and fond. “I suppose this is good night.”

“I suppose it is,” he said, one corner of his mouth quirked up. He leant in for a final kiss, then pulled away. “Could we- that is-” He cleared his throat. “I’d quite like to have dinner with you, tomorrow, perhaps?”

“A second date?” She was teasing, but she couldn’t keep the smile off her face.

He smiled back. “Assuming spying on your brother and terrible coffee counts as a first date, yes.”

Unable to help herself, she pressed a kiss to his cheek. “That sounds lovely,” she said. Then, reluctantly, she turned back and let herself into her apartment building. She looked back at the door and saw Percy begin to make his way down the street, an unmistakable spring in his step.

She took the steps to the upper floor in a daze, head dizzy in a way she’d deny fervently if pressed on. Still slightly flushed, she unlocked the door to her apartment and entered. Immediately, she was set upon by Trinket, 130 pounds of fluffy brown mutt slamming into her legs. “Hey, buddy,” she crooned, reaching down to scratch behind his ears. He woofed, his tail wagging feverishly. “Is your uncle still up?”

“In here.” Vax called out from the living room. Vex hung up her coat and kicked off her shoes, then went to join him. He was curled up on the couch, book in hand.

Vex paused next to the couch, hand on her hip. “How was your date?”

Vax smiled. “Good,” he said, as though he couldn’t quite believe it. “It was… really, really good.”

“Good,” Vex said. “Mine, too.”

And with that, she whistled to Trinket and strolled off to her room to turn in for the night, an open-mouthed Vax in her wake.