Keyleth’s plane shift spell is one that Percy thinks he will never get used to. It’s a sensation not unlike falling; only even with your eyes open you have no idea how far down the ground is. The feeling starts somewhere in the gut and travels outwards, through nerve endings and across sinew. No air exists in the limbo between planes, so trying to take a breath at the wrong moment is agony. Luckily, the spell is over quickly.
They’re back in Whitestone. Sturdy, scuffed stone is under their feet; the central courtyard of the castle encasing them. Percy looks around at his five tired, muddy companions and notices them all starting to break the chain of hands linking them together. To his immediate left, Vax discreetly runs his thumb over the back of Percy’s knuckles before dropping his hand. No one seems to notice.
“Thank you, Keyleth dear,” Vex says.
The rest of the party murmur their thanks too and Percy pats her on the back. It had been touch and go for a moment back there in the Feywild: a hoard of corrupted dryads had chased them from the Shade Murk bog after Vex had removed her new bow. She’d claimed that it was worth it, yelling it over her shoulder whilst they all ran for their lives and dodged arrows. Moments later they realised that there was no outrunning the creatures. They’d found cover and Keyleth had gathered them together to cast her spell.
The quiet of Whitestone is unnerving in comparison.
“I’m gonna go find Pike,” Grog says without preamble.
“Just a moment,” Percy calls out, taking in the state of them all.
Nearly every party member is covered in viscous, foul smelling something. Percy would call it mud, only it’s a little too green and smells like Melora had a bad day and threw together every nasty, natural odour she had at her disposal. Putrid fumes waft over to Percy when the wind changes direction and he finds himself feeling nauseous.
“I’ll send for the servants to run us all hot baths in our usual rooms. It shouldn’t take too long.”
Vax, his hair full of leaves and little bits of twigs, smiles appreciatively. He’s one of the lucky ones, only having the bog water reaching his knees. Scanlan and Grog had been less fortunate, both having fallen face first into the mire. Both seem delighted by the prospect of a bath.
“Will you also be providing people to wash us?” Scanlan asks, a cocky grin in place.
“Yeah,” Grog adds. “Maybe some pretty lady servants.”
Rolling his eyes, Percy turns his back on them both and goes to find a servant.
Less than an hour later, Percy stands in his chambers and starts to button his shirt. His hair is still damp from his bath but otherwise he is dry and clean once again. There is something about bathing that has always made Percy feel like more of a human being. He’d like to think it was something deeper than the idea of washing away sins and impurity, but it’s true that there is an element of catharsis to the task. Percy’s favourite part of bathing, however, always comes at the end when a new fragrance can be applied to the blank slate that is his body.
Today he’s chosen something light that reminds him of summer nights and picking ripened raspberries. It’s a childhood memory of sorts, one that has many deviations. He wonders if Cassie remembers the evenings spent picking the family canes. He hopes she does.
There’s a knock at his door.
“Come in,” Percy calls, having now finished buttoning his shirt.
A servant Percy vaguely remembers as one of the Emon refugees opens the door with a pitcher of water in hand.
“Excuse me, Lord Percival, I’m here to fill the tub.”
Percy glances over at the cast iron tub that sits in the middle of his floor. Trickles of water still pool inside it.
“That won’t be necessary. I’ve already bathed tonight,” he says.
The woman looks over her shoulder and a dark head of hair pops into view.
“You have, but I haven’t,” Vax says.
Taken aback, Percy allows them both into his chambers and the woman busies herself with filling the tub anew. She darts out to refill her pitcher and Percy is suddenly very aware of the open door in his room.
“So. Bathing together. That’s a new step,” Percy says.
Vax doesn’t say anything for a moment, apparently he’s entertaining himself by scoping out the small collection of books Percy keeps in his room. Every now and then he makes a sound of interest. Thankfully, he doesn’t touch anything.
“Call it tit for tat. I’ve seen you naked. I thought I might… repay that debt.”
Percy goes a furious shade of red and checks to make sure no one is in the hallway outside.
“Yes well, much as I am… not opposed to your suggestion,” Oh Pelor above, why is Vax looking at him like that? “I thought we were going to keep this private?”
Shrugging, Vax sticks his hands in his pockets. They squelch and – grimacing – he removes his hands. Percy pretends not to notice.
“If that’s what you want. I trust you don’t mean to keep our relationship a secret forever.”
Vax is joking, but there’s an undercurrent of uncertainty that Percy can sense in his half-smile and the way he won’t meet Percy’s eyes. It had never occurred to him that not
telling their friends about this new dynamic he had with Vax would make Vax feel unwanted.
“Vax,” Percy takes a step towards him but freezes when the serving woman comes back in. “Vax, that won’t be the case.”
“I’d like to think not,” Vax says.
They awkwardly stare at each other as the serving woman fills the tub. Percy wishes they could speak telepathically via their earrings, like Keyleth would insist they could when she got really drunk. Instead they’re forced to wait until the woman leaves.
“Perhaps we should table this conversation?” Percy suggests.
Vax looks at the mostly empty tub and sighs. He nods.
“Until we’re alone,” he agrees.
The next few minutes pass altogether too slowly as the servant fills the tub for Vax, but Percy finds a way to occupy them. Vax expresses interest in one of the two books Percy owns that happens to be written in Elvish. After Percy almost has a heart attack at the thought of Vax getting his dirty hands on it, he offers to read it aloud. Enchanted, Vax requests that he does it in the original Elvish.
He watches now, a soft look about his features, as Percy recites the opening verses of a great ballad. Every so often Percy will trip and fumble with the pronunciation and Vax will quietly correct him, but otherwise he offers no commentary. It’s making Percy rather self-conscious.
“Your bath, m’lord,” says the serving woman.
Bringing Percy out of his little Vax-filled world, he turns to see a piping hot bath ready for use. Thanking the woman, Percy dismisses her and has her close the door.
She’s barely over the threshold before Vax is stripping off his armour and easing himself into the tub. Percy averts his eyes, even as Vax lets out a ridiculously lewd moan. Crying out like a man who had forgotten the feeling of comfort, Vax sinks down in the water until his chin seems to balance on the surface. He smiles up at Percy through heavily hooded eyes.
“I might never leave this tub, Percival,” he warns.
Chuckling, Percy sits himself opposite Vax on his bed, a fond glimmer in his eyes.
“If that’s true, you’ll end up more wrinkled than my great uncle Arlington before the week is over,” he says.
Vax winks at him and tips his head back against the metal. He’s in no hurry to be clean, unlike Percy, who had scrubbed every layer of dirt off himself before the water had cooled. No, Vax is enjoying his little show. Percy, for his part, wishes he hadn’t already bathed.
“Sit up,” Percy says suddenly, an idea forming.
Rising from the bed, Percy finds his glass bottle of soap and carries it over to the tub. If he sits on his desk chair he can reach Vax’s hair without aggravating the muscles of his back and neck. He drags it so that he’s sitting behind Vax and sets the bottle down next to him.
“You hair is full of leaves and burrs, stay still,” Percy says.
Percy works slowly, unsure of whether or not he’s hurting Vax when he has to detangle matted clumps and pick out odds and ends. He shouldn’t be surprised that Vax’s hair brought back half the bog, he does remember the half-elf getting caught on a bush that he tried to sneak through. Why he had chosen that route was beyond Percy, but then he isn’t an experienced rogue.
“There, I think that’s all of it,” Percy says after some time.
A small pile of leaves, burrs and bits of twig now lie beside the tub. Percy can’t bring himself to care.
“I appreciate it,” Vax says.
“As I appreciate you visiting my room tonight.”
Vax fidgets and reaches for the wash rag floating in the tub. He starts to draw it over his arms, mind elsewhere.
Percy takes the empty pitcher the serving woman had left and fills it to the brim. Vax leans forward and allows Percy to tip it over him, his hair flattening under the weight of the water. After a few more pitchers, Percy taps Vax’s shoulder and the half-elf sits upright again.
“I’ve been thinking about what we’re doing. I wondered… what sort of an outcome you’re hoping for?”
It’s a strangely phrased question, but a question nonetheless. Percy fills a palm with soap and begins combing it through Vax’s long hair. He massages the scalp as he does so and allows his mind to wander.
“My intention isn’t for us to keep sneaking into each other’s rooms at night, if that’s what worries you. At some point I would be comfortable with the others knowing.”
Vax twists around to face Percy, a guarded look on his face.
“At some point?”
Giving an apologetic smile, Percy says, “When we know this will last. When we move out of that blissful new love stage and we know this won’t fade away.”
Vax’s expression clears into one of relief, then one of almost pity. “You’re worried that telling them will change things?”
“I’m worried to do anything that might jeopardize what we’re building. I don’t want to lose this, Vax.”
Reaching out, Vax takes Percy’s hand and plants a kiss on the back of it. To his credit, he doesn’t grimace at the soap that he no doubt just tasted.
“We’ll keep our secret a little longer then. Until you’re ready,” Vax promises.
The mood lightens at that and Percy finds that the next few minutes pass pleasantly as he washes Vax’s hair and rinses it clean. He helps Vax out of the tub when both of his legs have gone to sleep and he wraps him in a spare robe from his wardrobe. Then they move to the bed, where they trade stories and jokes and Percy attempts to braid Vax’s hair.
“You really don’t have to,” Vax says, a tone of humour in his voice.
“No, I can do this,” Percy replies.
And do it he does… Sort of. It’s been too long since his sisters had taught him and over the last few years he hadn’t found a reason to practise. Still, Vax humours him and offers him a hair tie when he’s done. Unlike Vex’s signature over the shoulder braid, Percy opted for one thick braid down the centre of Vax’s back. Well. Off centre. He’s out of practise.
“If this is the kind of treatment I get every time I invite myself into your room, I may have to do it more,” Vax jokes.
Percy laughs, a flare of embarrassment running through him as he begins to think he’s overdone it.
“It’s nice to have someone to make a fuss of,” Percy says lamely.
Grinning, Vax says, “It is.”
He leans over and kisses Percy. It’s tender and soft, like most of their kisses. Both Vax and Percy kiss like the other may break at any moment. Or like they might.
Pulling back, Percy gets the thrill of seeing Vax with his eyes still closed for half a second, a look of perfect content on his face. They’re not that far apart now, only inches away from each other.
“I have something for you,” Percy says, suddenly feeling like now is the moment to bring it up.
Vax gives him a curious look. “Percival, if this is how you initiate sex I want it known that you’ll have to do better than that.”
Coughing out a surprised laugh, Percy shakes his head. “No, no. Nothing like that.”
He reaches over to the bedside table and removes something from the drawer there. Palming it, he turns back to Vax and transfers the object to Vax’s cupped hands. Vax starts to pull it to him, but Percy holds tight, hands over Vax’s and this object hidden between their palms.
“What is this?” Vax asks, looking down at their joining.
“You deserve to be courted with all the grace I can offer you,” Percy says. “I don’t know much about Elvish culture and I don’t know which parts of it you chose to practice, but I know how a de Rolo courts his sweetheart.”
Vax smiles at the word ‘sweetheart’. “Keep talking.”
Nerves build in Percy but he pushes through to continue his pre-prepared speech.
“A series of gifts; given at particular intervals and each with a symbolic meaning. The first gift’s meaning is devotion and is offered when courting begins.”
Percy removes his hand and Vax looks down at the thing he’s left holding. He frowns.
“Percival, this is a rock.”
This is Percy’s favourite part, the moment of invention right when nothing becomes something. He finishes his speech.
“This is a pebble from the pool of a creature so beautiful that gazing upon her blinded me. Her appearance could charm anyone, yet she cannot compare to you, Vax. You have also blinded me. You’ve blinded me to the idea of giving anyone but you my heart.”
Vax goes quiet. His thumb runs across the surface of the pebble with such delicacy, such care. Seeing this, Percy no longer worries if he has been too forward. It’s evident that Vax is touched by the gesture, even if he can’t find the words to say so.
After a moment Vax holds the pebble to him and looks up at Percy. He stares at the other man as if what he wants to say is written in Percy’s features and all Vax has to do is decode it. When this doesn’t work, he leans forward for another kiss. Percy reaches for him and winds one arm around Vax’s back, the other rests by his neck.
This time, they don’t pull apart for a while.