The dull thumping noise only barely penetrated Keyleth's lingering dreams at first. It took a few seconds to register, for her brain to wake up enough to realise that it was outside her head, and from there figure out what it actually was.
Someone was knocking on her door. At ... At a truly ridiculous time of the morning, even for her, and generally speaking Keyleth was pretty good at mornings. She liked to watch the day dawning if she could. She liked the way her mind seemed to slowly unfurl like a flower as the sun came up. If someone was knocking too early for her, they were knocking too early for just about anybody. Which, usually, meant an emergency.
Frick. Frick frack frickitty frack. Ouch. Okay. Falling out of bed now. Got it.
She was never graceful in the mornings. That was another reason she liked getting up before everyone else. There were less people to see her fall on her face and get things tangled in the bedspread that way. Though after years camping in the wilds with Vox Machina, you'd think she'd have gotten over that particular manifestation of anxiety by now.
You'd think she'd have gotten over most things by now. But, hey. Guess not.
She was a little grumpy this morning. She noticed that. She didn't like unexpected knockings-on-doors at silly hours of the morning when there wasn't supposed to be anything to do and there wasn't supposed to be anything going wrong and nobody was supposed to see her with her hair like squirrels had been nesting in it and her face like she'd walloped it off the floorboards, which she had, and oh, this had better be good. This had better be really good, or Keyleth was going to do something very undruidlike to whoever was on the other side of that door. She fumbled the handle, managed to grasp it with only minor difficulty, and yanked the door open with a snarl of temper that would have better suited Minxie's face than her own. Ooh. If only she'd thought of that a little sooner ...
"... Oh," said the figure dithering in the corridor, with a startled flinch and then a stoop of flustered, nervous apology, his hands fluttering in the air in front of him. "Ah. I, ah. I'm sorry, Keyleth. I didn't think ... I didn't think of the time, I ..."
Keyleth blinked at him. "... Percy?" she asked, entirely bemused.
Percy. In his pajamas. Nothing but his pajamas, and that was an odd sight when there hadn't been assassins or what have you coming out of the walls. He didn't have his gun, though. And he wasn't the right sort of panicked for an attack. That ... whatever she had been expecting, that hadn't been it. His hair was all rumpled, like he'd been pawing his hands through it, and there was ... there was dirt on his feet. His bare feet. Like he'd been wandering around the place in the night. What on earth ...?
"What's wrong?" she asked, straightening up and reaching towards him in concern, her disgruntlement shoved instantly to one side. "Has something happened? Are you all right?"
He twitched. Leaned back from her, shifted on his feet as though considering leaving all of a sudden, his face twisting as he fought briefly with himself. He seemed to try to smooth his expression for a minute, to make it blank and calm, but there was a stark sort of terror in his eyes that all his training in snobbery couldn't cover. He looked at her helplessly, and Keyleth grabbed him instinctively by the arm and tugged him into her room. He seemed to relax a little bit when the door closed behind them, the dull thump of it seeming to release something in him. He sagged against her arm.
"... Okay," Keyleth managed, holding him up with a bit of a stagger and leading him over to her bed, easing him down to sit on the edge among the tangled blankets. "Percy, you're starting to scare me over here. What happened? Do I need to get Pike? What's wrong?"
"... I'm sorry," he said after a little second, very, very quietly. He looked down at his hands, twisted them together. "I, ah. I'm sorry, Keyleth. It's ... I shouldn't have bothered you. I'm all right. I'm not ... I don't need Pike. I'm okay. I'm ... I'm perfectly fine, thank y--"
"You are definitely not fine!" Keyleth snapped back at him immediately, crouching down in front of him so she could peer up into his face. Undiplomatic, probably, but then everyone knew she was never the best at that. He was hurting. She could see him hurting. Right now she gave less than two shits for diplomacy, or for his stupid manners either. She just needed him to tell her what was wrong.
She touched him, trying to be a bit more gentle. She rested her hand very carefully on his knee. He froze, blinking down at her, and Keyleth squeezed reassuringly. "Percy. It's silly o' clock in the morning. It's not even dawn yet, and you look like you've been pacing around all night. Tell me what's wrong. Okay? Just ... tell me, and then we can fix it."
He stared at her for a long second. She would have liked to be able to read him better, to get past that opaque sort of mask he put over his thoughts if never quite successfully over his emotions, but that had always been beyond her. She just had to wait, as always, for him to talk to her instead. She had to wait for him to tell her what was wrong, and hope he was being as honest about it as he could.
"... I, ah," he started at last, swallowing around it, and then bearing down deliberately, that blank, terrible face he wore sometimes, while he seemed to force the rest of the words out as rapidly as he possibly could. "I slept with Vex. Last night. I slept with her. We slept together. We ... We had sex."
Keyleth ... blinked. She just ... She opened her mouth uselessly, absolutely nothing coming out, and he flapped his hands in the air in front of him, sharp little stabs of frustrated terror. She shook herself, caught his hands clumsily in her own, trapped them carefully on his knees between them. He flinched, a bit. He stiffened his shoulders and reared back a little away from her. Keyleth tugged his hands to her chest instead, grimacing in apology.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she said hastily. "I'm sorry, Percy, I just ... That wasn't what I expected. I'm sorry. Just ... give me a second, I'm getting there. I just woke up, you know, I'm not ... very awake yet. I'm sorry."
She smiled queasily up at him, all stiff and uneasy, and he grimaced back more or less in kind. His shoulders softened, though. He leaned back towards her again.
"I didn't know who else to tell," he whispered, turning his hands in hers, fretting them together. "I didn't ... I needed ... I panicked. I don't know why. I panicked and I left and then I ... And Pike, you know the way Pike looks at you, all ... quiet and sorrowful, and I couldn't bear that, and there was no one else, and you ... I mean, I know we don't talk as much anymore, but you ..."
"Hey," Keyleth interrupted, letting go of his hands and coming up out of her crouch to sit beside him and tug him into a hug. She misjudged it slightly, and so did he, stiff as a board and shaking in something like terror, so their heads bumped together a little more forcefully that she would have liked, but they managed it after a second. He leaned into her, hiding his face against her neck. She squeezed his shoulder awkwardly. "It's okay," she said, wondering how on earth she was planning to mean that. "I ... I mean, it's okay. You can talk to me. When it's important, you can always talk to me. I'm not ... I might not be very good at it, but it's okay. It's always okay. You can tell me anything, you know?"
And she meant it. She meant it so much. They had their ups and downs, they fought really dirty, nasty fights sometimes, and she was ... she'd never been the best at being there for people, being able to talk to them, but he was her friend. Her almost-brother. She loved him and she was always going to do the very best she could for him.
"You can tell me," she whispered, leaning over to rest her cheek on top of his head. "I'm sorry, I wasn't awake properly, I didn't mean to scare you away. It's okay. You really can tell me. I don't ... I'm not sure how much I can do, I'm not ... not good at this, but you can tell me. I'll try and make it better if I can."
He made a noise at that, a little creaky sobbing thing, muffled against her throat, and wrapped his arms tight around her waist. She hugged him back. She squeezed him tight, helpless to do much of anything else.
"... I ran away," he said after a while, the words clipped and cold and hidden against her skin. "I ... I waited until she was asleep, and I snuck out. I shouldn't have. I know I shouldn't have. I just ... I couldn't ... I don't know what to do, Keyleth. Something's wrong. I don't know what to do."
... And I do? she thought giddily. Helplessly. She didn't. Earth and fire, she didn't. If she did, things between her and Vax would be a lot, lot easier. She was the last person in the world who knew what to do about things like this. As bad as Percy was, she had to be worse. Or ... Okay. Maybe not. The way he was shaking now, maybe not. But still.
"Was it bad?" she asked eventually, the only thing she could think of, her voice small and tremulous while she rubbed a hand uneasily across his back. "Did you not like it? Was that what was wrong?"
She knew he'd never done it before. It was ... They'd had that in common for a long while. A certain ... inexperience in certain things. There were times when she'd half thought of trying something with him, just because he knew as little as she did, just because they loved each other and they were both inexperienced together and maybe they could have shown each other, tried it, without it hurting too much. It wouldn't have been scary with him.
But then ... then things had gotten in the way, and they'd drifted apart a little bit, and there'd been Kash and then Vax, and she hadn't wanted to complicate things anymore. She'd never loved Percy like that, never loved-loved, and she hadn't wanted to give anyone the wrong idea. She did that enough without even trying. She hadn't wanted to mess things up any further than she already had.
Maybe ... maybe that was a good thing, she thought now, feeling him quiver faintly, breathe unsteadily as he tried to figure it out. Maybe it was a good thing she'd never tried. It looked like it had frightened him badly. It looked like it might have scared him half to death.
"... I don't know," he managed finally, his hands trembling where they rested against her hip. "I don't know. It was ... I don't think it was bad? It was ... It worked okay, and it made Vex happy. She looked ... I liked how she looked. But it was ... I can't remember too much. The ... the end part. Where I ... I can't remember it. I think ... I think I went away a bit in my head? Like I did when ..."
His voice snapped a bit, crumbled away from beneath him, and he rocked forward without seeming to mean to, pressed himself in against her hard enough that she almost toppled backwards into the bed. Keyleth caught herself rapidly. Percy flailed in sudden, shuddering panic at the sensation, lurching away from her, and before she could think about it too much Keyleth caught him, let him see her, and guided them both sideways. She tugged them both down on the bed, face to face, on their sides, their hips twisted and their legs hanging awkwardly off the side. It was probably the clumsiest manoeuvre she'd ever attempted in her life, which was saying something, but oddly Percy seemed to calm because of it. Almost instantly, his breath shuddering back into him with a whoosh. He lay there blinking at her, his ragged breathing dialling back down, his hair white and smushed oddly against her blankets.
"... It felt like Anna," he said, once he was calm enough to do it mostly evenly. It was Keyleth's turn to flinch at that, her turn to flop herself almost off the bed in startled horror, and he caught her quickly. Calmingly, his hands fretting against hers once again. "No, no," he said rapidly. "I didn't mean ... Not like that. I think. I think. I just ..." He trailed off, shook his head, lines of frustration creasing his face, and then he tried again. "It didn't hurt. It wasn't ... it didn't hurt. Vex would never hurt me. But it ..."
He shook his head, helpless, a sparkle of tears lurking at the edges of his eyes, just from fear and pain and pure frustration. There had only been a few times in her life where Keyleth had felt this helpless, and people had died during most of them. It hurt her. It tore at her, the same frustration she could see in him. She reached out and touched his cheek desperately. His skin was clammy. Icy cold.
"It was ... intense," he said, scraping the words together. "That's ... that's all. I think. It was just ... it was intense, and physical, and then I ... went over, with her hands on me, and something ... happened. I don't know. I panicked. I ... went away. Not for long. I came back, and I think ... I don't think she noticed, maybe she did, and I just ... I, um. I washed up. Both of us. And I waited until she was asleep. And then I ..."
Left, Keyleth thought. Paced around the whole night, in his pajamas and his bare feet, dirtying his toes and clutching his head until he couldn't bear it anymore, and then found his way to her door. Hers. Because ... maybe because they'd had that thing in common for so long. Maybe because he thought she, of all of them, might understand.
And she did. She really, really did. She leaned forward, being careful this time, and rested her warm forehead gently against his icy one.
"It's okay," she said, clumsy and fumbling, the words fitting all wrong inside her mouth. "I ... I'm scared too. With Vax. I want it, but I'm scared. I get it. I didn't ... I didn't have a Ripley, but I get it. It's okay, Percy. I think, anyway. It's okay to be scared."
He closed his eyes, the tears slipping silently down his cheeks. "I don't want to hurt her," he whispered. "I don't want to ... I love her. I want her, I want to want her, I want to be able to do this. I didn't think ... I didn't know it would do that. Be like that. I'd hoped ... I sort of hoped that I wouldn't ... mess it up that badly right from the start?"
He laughed a little, a cracked gurgle of a thing, and Keyleth keened softly, rubbing against him, nose to nose, temple to temple. She brought her hands up to cup his face, letting a small, terrified sort of giggle escape her as well.
"I know what you mean," she said, when he opened his eyes and looked at her, only an inch away, tears still shining on his face. "I know, I do know. We are ... We mess things up pretty good, you and me, huh? Best messer-uppers in the world."
He coughed, a huff of air and laughter, and reached over suddenly to pull her into a fierce and desperate sort of hug. Keyleth flailed a bit, ending up half on top of him at the sudden motion, but she did her best to hug him back. It was awkward, she ended up half strangling him trying to get her arm around his neck, but he didn't seem to mind it. He hid his face once more at her throat, his damp cheek cool and weirdly intimate there. She blinked a bit, and curled her arms protectively around his head.
"... I missed you," he said, very softly into her chest. "I know it's my fault. I've missed you a lot. Things used to be ... simple. You remember that? Or simpler, at least. It's all gotten ... so confusing. So ... so tangled and wrong. I don't mean to make it worse. I promise I don't. It just happens. I'm so ... I'm so very sorry ..."
"Please don't," she whispered, tears springing to her own eyes in turn. "Please don't, Percy. It's not you. Not just you. It's all of us. It's me, and you, and the world. I ... We're trying. I know we're trying. It's just ... going wrong. I can't make it stop. I don't know how to make it stop. I'm so scared we're all going to get hurt. To die, or to make it worse, or ... Please don't be sorry. I don't want you to be sorry. I don't want you to be scared. I just ... I want things to get better. I want them to be okay. I don't know how to make that happen."
He chuckled, warm and wet into her skin. "I know," he said, tired and shaking and almost at peace with it. "I don't either. It seems to just get worse every time I poke at it. Or ... Or someone pokes at me. Gods. Gods, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I woke you up. I'm sorry ... I'm sorry I've managed to pull you into another mess."
Keyleth ... leaned up, at that. Got her elbows under her, managed to do it without driving the point of one into his ribs or into his face, and leaned up to range herself above him and look down. He let her go easily, let his arms fall back to either side, blinking up at her in placid, exhausted weariness. He hadn't slept. Of course he hadn't. He looked up at her, her almost-brother, with tears and smudged shadows under his eyes, and something lurched inside her chest. She bit her lip. She took a leaf from his book and thought, for a long second, before she spoke.
"... Does it hurt you?" she asked carefully. "No, Percy, please. Please think. You and Vex. The ... the sex. Does it hurt you? Will it hurt you to try it again? Because I don't think she'd want it, if it did. I know Vax ... I know he wouldn't, if it hurt me. And you ... you wouldn't want me to do it either. Right? You wouldn't want me to make myself do something that hurt me? So ... so please. Please tell me the truth. Are you hurt?"
He looked away. He bit his lip, trembled violently at the question. Nearly ... nearly answer enough in itself. Nearly an answer anyway. But she needed him to say it. She could never read him all that well. She needed to be sure.
"... I don't know," he said at last, quiet enough that she only barely heard him. He squeezed his eyes shut for a second, gathered himself together, and then made himself look back at her. Opened his eyes, forced himself to be as open with her as Percival de Rolo remembered how. "Honestly, Keyleth, I truly don't. I ... I'm scared. That's all I know. What happened with Vex, I didn't ... There were parts of it I liked? It felt good, it did feel good. I do love her. I do trust her. B-But. At the end. I didn't ... I don't know if I could ... Again, I don't know if I could manage it again, I don't ..."
He trailed off, his hands starting to twist again, knotting in the blankets, his breath starting to tighten in his chest. Keyleth shook her head rapidly. "No, it's okay," she said quickly, leaning down to press her lips to his forehead, rub her cheek in panicked instinct across his hair. "I get it, it's okay. It's okay, Percy. I get ... I get that. I can work with that. Please breathe now. It's okay. I promise it's okay."
"... I really don't like this," he said beneath her. Tightly, angrily. Ripe with self-hatred. She knew it. She knew the feeling. She wished neither of them had to. "Or, no. Let's be blunt, shall we? I hate this. I hate it so much, Keyleth. I wish ... I wish. You know?"
"... Yeah," she whispered back, blindly fervent while he looked at her. She tried a smile. It was a crooked sort of a thing, she knew. "I know, Percy. I do."
He ... nodded. After a second. He looked up at her, his eyes bruised and tired, and he nodded. "So you do," he said softly. His mouth twitched, an attempt at a smile of his own. "The, ah. The best messer-uppers in the world, right?"
She laughed, fell down on top of him, giggled at his startled 'oof' and the way his arms came up to steady her regardless. She leaned into him, tucked her head into his throat for once. "I love you, you know?" she murmured, whispered it into his skin. "We're such a pair. I love you so much. What a couple of prizes we are, really."
"Mmm," he agreed, and she thrilled a bit to hear a thread of his normal humour in it. "Someone should talk to the twins about their masochistic streak. I mean, I've always thought that, but this probably takes the cake. Terrible taste they have in partners. Absolutely appalling."
Keyleth grinned into the crook of his shoulder, mostly to keep from crying any more. She waited a bit, then leaned up to stroke his cheek.
"You should get some sleep," she said, only slightly out of the blue. He looked so battered to her still. He looked so worn and so exhausted. "You've been panicking all night, Percy. You need to rest. You ... You can stay here, if you want? I don't think anybody would look for you here. Not, not that I think you need to hide or anything, I'm just ... Um. If you wanted privacy for a while, to um. You know. To recover a bit? You'd be safe here. You could rest with me for a bit if ... if you wanted to?"
Great. Back to stuttering again. Percy just leaned into her, though. He rested his cheek on top of her head. "I'd like that," he murmured, and oh. Oh, he was tired, wasn't he. Worn all the way down to the bone. But not enough to forget ... "I am sorry," he said again, soft and flat. "I really am. And I do love you."
Keyleth swallowed, bit back her tears. "I know," she said, just barely managing it. "I know, Percy. I know."
She got him into bed, after that. Got him up, or at least oriented the right way along the bed, and packed some blankets clumsily around him. Building a nest around him, some strange sort of instinct, and lying down beside him when he reached for her anxiously. Outside the blankets. He didn't notice that, or didn't seem to, anyway. She curled in close until he fell asleep.
And then ... then she left. She snuck away. She shouldn't. She knew that. Not for the same reasons as Percy, though. She wasn't leaving to run away. She was leaving to interfere, and maybe that was worse again. It never ended well. For either of them, it never ended well.
But he was tired, and he was hurt, and she needed to help him. And Vex ... Vex would be hurt too. Whatever Percy thought, Keyleth really doubted that Vex had missed his reaction, if it had been as bad as he implied it was. Maybe she let it go for a while, maybe she didn't want to terrify Percy all the more, but Keyleth really, really doubted that she'd just missed it entirely. So Vex ... maybe needed some help as well. As absolutely terrifying a thought as that was. And Keyleth couldn't, she seriously had no idea what she was planning on doing right now, but she ... she had to at least try. For her almost-brother. For the sister of the man she loved. And, maybe, a little bit, for herself. For the hope that ... that even the world's greatest messer-uppers could manage to salvage something out of at least one of their messes.
She had to do this. She was going to do this. So. Okay. Time ... time to find Vex. Deep breaths, Keyleth. Time to go find Vex.
Hell of a morning this was turning out to be. If it even was morning yet.
Just ... hell of a way to start the day.
Chapter 2: A Talk Beneath The Trees
Keyleth and Vex.
In the end, it turned out Percy had been wrong. Vex hadn't just fallen asleep afterwards, happily oblivious to his little panic attack or his sneaking away in the wake of it. At least, if she had, she hadn't stayed so for very long. Both her and Percy's rooms were empty when Keyleth checked them, and the beds ... Um. The beds didn't exactly look very slept in either. They were cold, anyway. They'd both been empty quite a while. Vex must have ... woken and left not too long after Percy. If she'd ever really been asleep at all.
And, yes, Keyleth had kind of expected that, but the proof didn't help ease her nerves any.
It also left her with a bit of a problem. Namely, where Vex had gone afterwards. She hadn't encountered Percy wandering the halls, Percy wouldn't still think she was asleep if she had, and Percy looked to have been wandering for quite a while before he'd worked up the nerve or the desperation to show up at Keyleth's door. If Vex had slipped out as well, she must have missed him somewhere or ... or deliberately avoided him, gone somewhere a panicking Percy wouldn't think to go. Which ...
Which probably meant outside somewhere. Percy was something of a indoors kind of person under stress. Vex really, really wasn't. If she had noticed Percy panicking, and if she had come away from it hurt or panicking herself, then Keyleth would lay good odds that Vex had headed out into the wilds rather than stay stuck inside and risk a confrontation with him. Or, you know, maybe she'd just wanted air to clear her head either. Peace and quiet to think. Either way, Keyleth thought the ranger would probably have gone outside.
Maybe she just hoped she had. Keyleth rather wanted to head outside and have some air herself right now. Some sunshine, the dawn to help unfurl her brain and ... and let her breathe a little easier. This was not the sort of thing she knew how to handle. This wasn't the kind of thing she wanted to end up in the middle of. Especially not with Vex. But. But.
Percy needed it. Percy needed it really badly. So. Okay.
There was a little wood, more of a copse really, not too far from where they'd set the mansion up for the night. Keyleth had been eyeing it a little herself the evening before. It had looked ... calm. Peaceful. If somebody wanted to get away and have a moment to themselves, it had looked like a nice place to do it. Vex might have gone there. And even if she hadn't, a few minutes to breathe before she came back in to keep looking would do Keyleth a world of good. Percy had worn himself out altogether with worrying. He should sleep for a few hours yet. That meant she had a little bit of time to work with, right?
It was probably very bad of her to be hoping that she wouldn't find Vex for a few minutes yet. It was just ... the longer she spent thinking about it, the more the idea of talking to her, about anything and especially about this, scared the absolute hell out of Keyleth. Vex talking to her about loving Vax had been terrifying enough. Talking to Vex about loving Percy was ...
Well. Probably fair, all things considered, but really not any less terrifying for that.
It seemed there wasn't any getting away from it, though. There was a figure standing under the trees ahead of her, more of a shadow in the sweet post-dawn light, noticeable mostly because of the more solid, looming shape of a bear next to her. Keyleth caught sight of them nearly by accident, looking up to get her bearings after hopping over the small stream at the base of the hill, and she almost slipped and fell right back into that stream at the shock of it. Which would have been perfect, really, but she managed to avoid it. Barely, but she did. The clumsy manoeuvre drew Vex's attention, though. Keyleth felt it, the weight of the ranger's stare like a bolt of lightning up her spine.
Percy, she thought desperately to herself, her fingernails biting into her palms as her hands curled into little fists. Percy, exhausted and terrified and crying in her bed. Now was not the time to be chickening out, Keyleth. Get up there already.
Vex didn't leave, at least. Vex didn't storm away from her. She waited instead, leaning against Trinket in the clear, dappled light under the trees. Keyleth breathed easier despite herself as she stepped in under them. Even with Vex so near, the warmth of the little wood soothed the taut nerves along her spine. She managed to smile tremulously as she came to rest a little way away from Vex. She steadied herself against the cool, solid trunk of a lovely elm.
"... I'm afraid I'm not going to be much for conversation this morning, darling," Vex said, after a very long moment. She wasn't looking at Keyleth. Her eyes were fixed on her own hands, fidgeting in Trinket's fur. Her voice had been very light, but there'd been a creak at the bottom of it, a hint of hidden tears. Oh yes. She hadn't been oblivious to Percy last night at all.
Keyleth bit her lip. "I know," she said. Slowly, carefully, with a lot of things at the bottom of her voice too.
Vex caught them, of course. Vex noticed immediately. She looked up, letting Keyleth see her red eyes and pale cheeks, and caught the knowing trepidation in Keyleth's expression in return. Her expression flickered in the face of it, bits of confusion, anger, a hint of Percy's stark terror flashing across it, before her face settled into a much firmer and better mask than Percy had managed. Apparently cool command made a much better cover than mannered apology.
It didn't quite obscure the concern, though. Or the hurt, either. Keyleth curled back into the elm a little bit. It was a much-needed comfort. Trees were always so much easier than people.
"Percy went to you," Vex said at last, her tone rather flat. "I thought he'd head for his workshop. Work it through, whatever it was. I didn't expect ... I mean, no offense to you, darling, I just ... I'd hoped that if he was going to talk to anyone ..."
She cut herself off. Looked away, looked back to Trinket, focused herself on the warm, forgiving eyes of the bear nudging against her hands. Keyleth ducked her head as well, hiding behind her hair, feeling tears prickling at her eyes. This. This was why she hadn't wanted to have this conversation. She didn't want Vex to hate her. Not even just for Vax's sake. Vex was her friend too, and Keyleth just didn't want to let her down.
But she didn't want to let Percy down either. And, and if she just explained, tried to explain, then maybe ...
"He got scared," she said. Mumbled, really, said to her own feet more than anyone else. She sensed more than saw Vex's attention come back to her. She ignored it, had to ignore it, and forged her way onwards anyway. "I don't ... Um. I'm not ... not sure I should say why, it wasn't ... It isn't my secret? Not that it's a secret, exactly, I just ... He wasn't doing it to hurt you. He's my ... You know he's my ... And we have some things in common, and he needed somebody who knew those things, and I just ... Oh, please, please, I just need to fix this. He's hurt really bad, and, and I know you are too, and I love you both, and I need ..."
She fumbled to a halt, more than a hint of Percy's stark terror in her chest now as well, and Vex appeared abruptly in front of her. Well, not abruptly, really, she'd just moved so quietly and Keyleth hadn't expected her. Vex moved her hand as if to touch her shoulder, draw her out of her panic. It only touched for a fraction of a second, Vex's hand fluttering oddly, but it brought Keyleth's head up. The mask had fractured a bit. Vex looked more than a little panicked herself.
"Hurt?" she asked, very intently and with a high note of alarm. "Hurt how, exactly? Keyleth, I swear to you I didn't ... I swear I didn't ..."
"I know!" Keyleth assured, straightening up and catching Vex's hand, gripping it tight. "No, I know. I didn't mean ... Shit. Okay. Um. You have to bear with me for a minute, okay? I don't ... I don't want to say anything I shouldn't. Can you ... Can you give me a minute to try and explain?"
Because she couldn't ... she couldn't tell Vex everything. She hadn't promised Percy anything, exactly, and maybe Vex knew most of it anyway, but ... it had felt private. What Percy'd told her. It had felt ... really fragile, and private, and not something you should just tell somebody. Percy'd come to her. He was her almost-brother and he'd come to her in blind terror, and that wasn't something you took lightly.
But ... but he would want to explain. He'd said it. He didn't want to hurt Vex. He wouldn't want her to think she'd done anything wrong. And, yes, maybe Keyleth should wait and let him explain that himself, but she wanted ... to give him a lead-in. Vex had come out here all hurt and confused and angry. Percy wasn't ... he'd only barely been able to tell her, and it had been safe to tell Keyleth in a way it wasn't safe to tell Vex. It didn't matter as much with her. She wasn't the one it would affect. She wasn't the one who'd decide if she still wanted to love him afterwards. So. So she wanted ...
Keyleth wanted to give him a better chance. She wanted to make sure Vex would hear him out, and she wanted to make sure that Vex could ... could be gentle in the process. If possible. He really needed gentle right now. She wanted to try and give him that.
She took a deep breath. Vex was watching her, wary and curious and with a look on her face like she almost didn't want to know, but needed to. Keyleth nodded faintly to herself. Okay. Try and get this right.
"He, um. He didn't tell me everything. He wasn't, ah. He wasn't really able. But he told me that ... that last night was your first time? Together. And, um. His ... his first time ever. Um. You. You knew that, right?"
He would have told Vex that, right? She hadn't overstepped already, had she? But no. Vex was nodding. That much at least he'd already told her, or else she'd already guessed.
"I knew," Vex said quietly. "It was a little obvious, darling. Though I had guessed before. He's ... never really shown any interest in anyone, not in all the time he's been with us, and before that ... Well."
Keyleth nodded. "Before that he didn't exactly have much time," she agreed, just as quietly. It felt sort of wrong, to be discussing him this way, horrible and prurient, but she did need a baseline. She needed to give a base for the explanation. "He and I ... We, um. We had that in common for a while. I mean we ... we used to talk about it a bit, before ... Kash. And Vax. And, you know. Things." She flushed, and Vex managed to give her a little smirk. Not entirely caught up in her own head, then, and a lovely choice of targets as usually. But, okay. If it helped ease this along, Keyleth was perfectly fine with that.
"Things," Vex agreed wryly, smiling at her. "Yes. I suppose you are a little more experience than him now, hmm?" She shook her head, enjoying the heat in Keyleth's cheeks, but then she sobered again. Then she seemed to catch up with the idea a bit. "Was that what it was? His first time? I did ... I ..." She struggled, a dull flush in her own cheeks, her expression deeply unhappy. "I wanted it to be good. For him. I did want it to be ..."
She broke off, tears starting in her eyes, and Keyleth hesitated only a little second before leaning forward and tugging her gingerly into a hug. Her heart hurt. It hurt so much. For both of them.
"It wasn't you," she whispered fiercely. "Please, Vex, you have to believe me. It wasn't you. He wanted ... He wanted it too. He told me that. He loves you, and he wanted it too. And it was ... He said it started okay? Good. He said it started good. That's not ... Um. I know that's not ... But it wasn't you. Okay? It really wasn't. It was ... something else."
Vex was quivering faintly in her arms. Standing so stiffly, so rigid and fierce and ready for something bad to happen. Oh, oh, Keyleth wanted to kill Ripley. Very, very painfully. Very slowly. She wanted to track the bitch down and do ... very evil things to her, and that was bad, she knew that, she'd seen what those kinds of feeling had done to Percy before. She'd been terrified by what they'd done to Percy, even without the demon. They all teetered so close to being terrible, to falling all the way over the line, and Keyleth ... she hated it. She hated what it had done to them. She hated what it had done to her. She wanted to hurt Ripley for hurting Percy, hurting Vex, she wanted to hurt her so very, very badly for that, and it terrified her, and she hated every last second of it.
But. But okay. Not the point. Not the point. Try and fix something first, Keyleth. Try and do something good, or at least not terrible, first.
"... What was it, Keyleth?" Vex asked her, thin and hard and with that sliver of something terrible in her as well. "Because you didn't ... you didn't see him. He looked like I'd gutted him for a second. He looked ... like I'd stabbed him and he didn't know why, and it was terrible. It was ... it was terrible. And then he tried to hide it, he tried to pretend, and Percy bloody de Rolo can't pretend to save his life when it comes to things like this, and then he left. He clammed up, and he left me lying there, and he left. After our ... after I'd wanted it to be ..."
She stopped, trembling as violently as Percy had, but with so much more fury in it. Something ripe and thin and bladed, and as brittle as glass. Keyleth flinched, faintly. She found herself tugging Vex closer, holding her tighter purely by instinct. Trying to hold onto her. Trying not to let her fall over the line.
Trying to keep her from flying apart. Percy'd only crumbled. Vex felt ready to shatter.
Keyleth couldn't tell her. She ... she couldn't. It wouldn't help. It couldn't. Vex was angry and she was terrified, how could it help to let her now that for a tiny, tiny second, Percy hadn't been in bed with her, but on a table under Ripley's hands? How could it possibly help to let Vex know that for a fraction of an instant, confused by something he'd never felt before, he'd lost himself momentarily back to his torturer's hands? Not because it had hurt, but because ... because he just didn't have any other frame of reference. Because he'd never done that before, he'd never had anything that intense that was happy, and his stupid, shredded nerves had gotten something horribly, horribly confused as a result. For a moment. Only a moment. But more than enough to shatter the experience entirely.
That ... that couldn't help. It couldn't, it couldn't, and it wasn't her secret besides. But ... but Vex had to know. She had to. Her and Percy ... it made him happy. Keyleth had seen that, she'd seen a look in his eyes that she thought must be in hers when she looked at Vax, and she got that, and she didn't want him to lose it. And he would, if Vex didn't understand. He would if he tried to hide it, or tried to pretend past it, and maybe it wasn't her secret to tell but she didn't know how well he'd be able to explain himself. And he couldn't try again. Sex. Not yet. It would kill him to try again. And she was half afraid he would anyway, that he'd try because he was stupid like that, and if this happened again it would break them both. Her friends. Her family. She couldn't ... she couldn't let that happen.
She just ... if she just gave Vex an idea? If she just gave her something to work with, something so she'd know to be ... to be really really careful? Keyleth had to do something. He couldn't even breathe trying to talk about it. She had to try and fix it somehow.
She ... She stood back. A little bit. She steered Vex back to arms length, enough to look at her, to look into her face and see ... see the shine, the tears and the hurt and the anger. Vex looked at her like she wanted to kill something, to tear something apart if it would only give her some answers, some way to figure out how everything had so suddenly gone so very badly wrong. It was ... a feeling Keyleth knew rather well. It was a feeling she didn't want to. She had to say something. She had to fix this. She knew that.
She started carefully though. She wasn't normally good at it, but this was important. So she started carefully.
"You need to talk to him," she said, wincing a bit at the expression it got her. She shook her head, help Vex's arms fiercely. "I know. I know. And you can't yet, he needs ... he needs time. A little bit of time. That's why I ... I wanted to try and help. To ... to explain some of it, so you'd know to give him that. And ... and to make sure ... Um. He can't ... try again. Not soon. I'm not ... Maybe not ever, I'm not sure. He just ... I'm so sorry, Vex. I'm probably wrong, I'm not doing this right. You just ..."
She stopped again, pulled in a breath again. Vex stared at her. Wide-eyed and still angry and under that alarmed. Dreading and fearful and like her worst predictions were coming true. Keyleth didn't want that either. She didn't want this to break apart. She just didn't want her stupid almost-brother to snap himself in half trying to keep it together either.
So. So explaining. At least the start of an explanation. Even if Percy never forgave her for it afterwards, at least she could keep him from killing himself in the meantime.
"He got confused," she said, fumbling for the words, trying to say it without saying it. "Okay? He hasn't ... It was his first time. He didn't know what it was going to feel like. He did like it. At the start. He did, Vex. But then ... when you saw that, when he looked like that. He got confused. He got the feeling mixed up with another one. Not because it hurt, not because you hurt him, but because ..." Tell or not tell, oh hell. "Because the last thing he'd felt that strongly, the last thing he felt that was even sort of like that, did ... did hurt. A lot. The last person who'd ... made him feel anything as intense as that ..."
She saw it. The moment Vex understood what she was trying to say. What she was trying not to say. She saw the blind and absolute horror that blanked the other woman's face. Her heart plunged into her stomach at the sight, and vaguely she wondered if this was how Percy'd felt when he'd seen her reaction. That lurch of panic he'd shown. She knew what that felt like now. That need to reassure. She slid her hands down Vex's arms to grab her hands, just as Percy had hastily grabbed at hers.
"Ripley," Vex breathed, blankly horrified. "You're telling me that he ... that for second he thought ... that I was ... that I would hurt ..."
"No," Keyleth said. Sharply and forcefully. "No, no, not like that. I thought so too, and he told me it wasn't like that. It wasn't, Vex. I believe him. He ... he tried to explain it to me, and I believe him. He never thought it was you. That ... that was the problem. He forgot. He forgot for a second that it was you, he got caught up and he couldn't keep track, and then he panicked. He said he ... went away for a second. It just ... It just switched something in his mind. The feeling. It just sent him away. It wasn't you. It was not you. It was just ... the thing itself. The ... the feeling. It got ... caught up with something else in his head. With her."
Vex didn't answer for a second. Didn't acknowledge that, didn't do anything. She was breathing like she'd been running for her life, her eyes wide and stunned still. It was ... It was worse than Keyleth. She hadn't been this bad listening to Percy. It had ... it had hurt her, so much, but not like this. But then, Keyleth hadn't been ... been the one in bed with him. She hadn't been the one he'd confused, even briefly, with a woman who'd tortured him.
And, too, Keyleth didn't love him like that. Vex ... looking at her, Keyleth now knew for absolutely sure that Vex did. Love him. The way Keyleth loved Vax. Like she'd cut off a limb before she ever, ever hurt him deliberately, ever in that context.
But she had. Accidently, without ever meaning to, she had. And Keyleth knew, she really did, exactly how utterly horrible a feeling that was.
She reached up. Touched Vex's cheek, the silent tears trickling down them. Like Percy. Battered and exhausted, and by something that should have been so wonderful. Keyleth couldn't bear it. She couldn't do this. It wasn't supposed to be like this. They weren't ... they weren't good people, she knew that, none of them were good people anymore, but surely they didn't deserve this?
"... Please don't cry," she whispered, brushing her thumb compulsively across Vex's cheek. "Please, Vex. You didn't hurt him. You didn't. Someone else did, and you just ... you just got caught in the end of that. He does love you. He really does. I know he does. He doesn't want to lose you. Not for this, not for anything. He came to me because ... because I know what that feels like, you know? Because he needed someone who understood, and I do. I know what it's like. I mess things up, and I don't know what I'm doing, and I love your brother, and I never want to lose him, and I don't know how to stop myself. We keep messing things up, me and Percy. We're like that. And then ... then there's you, both of you, and we can't lose you. We're ... we're so bad at this. I'm sorry. We both are. We just ... We love you. I don't know if it's enough, if it can be, but ... we do. We really do. I'm so sorry."
And no, she wasn't entirely talking about Percy anymore, but at the same time she was. She was. They were ... They really did have so much in common. They were such excellent messer-uppers, her almost-brother and her, they were such perfect messes themselves, and they had ... they had picked such wonderful targets for it. Poor Vex, poor Vax. Percy did have a point. Someone really should talk to them about their masochistic streak.
But Vex ... Vex looked at her there. Something else, something different in her face. Something ... something small, and sad, and kind. Vex smiled at her. Vex reached up in turn and cupped her hand gently over Keyleth's against her cheek.
"If I ever truly thought you were wrong for my brother," she said quietly, "I would have done something to stop it. I wouldn't ever have let you hurt him. Not on purpose. I know he loves you for a reason. The same as I ... the same as I love Percy for a reason. No matter how ... messed up he is, or how messed up he thinks he is. We're not ... We're very selfish people, Keyleth. My brother and I. We can be. We had to be. We had to look out for ourselves and each other first, because no one else was ever going to. Or ... or we thought so, at least. Before. Before all of you. So ... we can be selfish. Enough to want people even when we're not worthy. Even when all we do is hurt them."
And she wasn't really talking about her brother there either, not really, but maybe that didn't matter so much either. She was wrong either way. They weren't the ones who hurt people. Vex and Vax. They weren't the ones who always made things worse.
"You didn't hurt him," she said again, willing Vex to understand. And then, because she had to, because she wasn't here for Vex or for Vax or for herself either, because she was here for Percy, she added: "You just ... Please be patient with him? He's really scared. Don't ... don't tell him I told you, but he is. It hurt him really badly. He wanted ... he wanted it to be good too. For you. He wanted it to be good for you. I ... I don't know if he can do this, Vex. It hurt him. I don't know if this is something he can give you. And he's Percy, so I'm afraid ..."
"You're afraid he's going to try," Vex finished, a little grimly. She nodded. "Don't worry. Don't worry, Keyleth. I don't want to see that again. That look on his face last night. I never want to see that again. I won't let him hurt himself. I won't let him use me to hurt himself. I've had enough of that, I promise you. I don't ... I don't know how this is going to work, I don't know what we're going to do, but I'm not going to let him hurt himself for me. I'm not ready to lose him either. Not yet. Maybe not ever. And certainly not over this. I know ... I know I may give off a certain impression, sometimes, but I do promise you that is not the most important part for me. I'm not my father, to want somebody for that and nothing else. I wouldn't do that to someone, and never to Percy."
Keyleth gaped at her. "I didn't," she started, staring in dismay. "Oh Vex, no, I didn't ... Nobody thinks that. You don't ... Nobody thinks that about you. We don't, we really don't. You're not ... You're more than that, so much more. Everyone knows that."
Vex seemed to stagger slightly there. To blink and to shatter a little bit, startled and hopeful and painfully amazed, and Keyleth's heart broke again. Like for Vax, like for Percy. For Vex now too. Oh, oh, they needed to stop hurting. They needed to stop hurting and getting hurt. Was that too much to ask? Couldn't it just go right, just this once? Couldn't they just ... just have something, something happy, without it going wrong? Just this once.
She knew they didn't deserve it. None of them, though some of them less than others. They weren't good people, she knew that. She just, she wanted it anyway. She just wanted things to get better. Just for a little while.
She smiled a bit. Mildly heartbroken. She smiled and pulled their hands down to just hold them lightly between them once again.
"You, um. You should talk to Percy. Later. He needs to sleep first. And you, you should probably rest first too. But then. You two, you can ... I want you to be happy, Vex. Both of you, I want you to be happy. I want it to work. Percy, I ... I love him. The way you love Vax, I love him. And I love you. I want this to work. I want to help it work for you. If you need anything. Either of you. I know I'm ... I'm probably not the first person you'd think of, I'm not good at this, but ..."
"You're better than you think," Vex interrupted softly. Looking at her, squeezing Keyleth's hands. "Not just about this. You're better than you think in a lot of ways, Keyleth. We're lucky to have you. Not just my brother, or Percy either. We're ... we're all lucky to have you. To have each other. I hope ... I keep hoping that's enough."
... Yes, Keyleth thought. Yes, she knew that feeling too. She knew it exactly.
Vex looked away for a moment. To let Keyleth compose herself, maybe. She looked out down the hill from the trees, out into the morning light, towards the little flicker of arcane light from the mansion's doorway. Out towards Percy. Out towards Vax. Out towards the rest of their family, and all their many messes, and all their hopes to be enough in spite of them. When she looked back, there was a little smile on her face, wry and tired, and full of hope.
"What do you say we head back inside, darling?" she said, tugging Keyleth's hand gently in the air. "I could do with some breakfast, I think. Get myself ready for the day. How about you? Do you think you'd like to join me? And Trinket, of course. My poor darling has been minding me all night. I'm sure he must be absolutely starving as well."
Trinket rumbled in agreement behind them, a low, gentle noise that was much closer than Keyleth had expected, and she looked sideways to find the bear standing close, standing guard, watching over them with his quiet, gentle eyes. For some reason, absolutely no reason at all, tears sprang once more into her eyes. She found herself smiling, brightly and joyously, and crying silently to herself at exactly the same time.
"... You know, I think breakfast is exactly what I need," she said, turning back to smile at Vex, finding both sympathy and understanding in the other woman's eyes. She blinked, and ducked her head hastily again. "Um. I, ah. I'd love to join you, Vex. Thank you."
"... No, darling," Vex said, very softly. She lifted Keyleth's hand, pressed a gentle kiss to her knuckles. "Not thank me. Thank you. For everything, Keyleth. Thank you."
Oh dear, Keyleth thought blindly. Oh dear. She was going to spend this entire morning crying. She could already tell she was.
But at least ... at least from this point on, they would hopefully be happier tears.