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Steel and Smoke and Skin

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The first thing Vax noticed about Percival- okay, to be fair, the first things he noticed about Percival were that he was dirty and smelled bad and had white hair. But the first thing he noticed about Percival-of-Vox-Machina, rather than Percival-the-mysterious-prisoner, was the distance he kept from everyone else. Oh, he was cordial enough, always ready with a dry quip or surprisingly deadly assistance in battle, but he wore his coat like armor and shied away from even the friendliest touch. Vax couldn’t understand how anyone could live that way, but he could understand trauma and, considering the state the group found him in, he couldn’t very well begrudge the man his space. He even went so far as to warn his sister to respect the distance Percival seemed so eager to establish between them- she, as she had done in many things, patted him on the cheek before continuing to do as she pleased.

It wasn’t until years later, after their little family had stumbled their way into something delicate, something carefully nameless and yet all the more precious for it, that he paid enough attention to see it. The slight twitch of Percy’s hands toward his own, or his sister’s. The barely-there shift of his weight towards Keyleth when they sat together to read. The way he held himself icy and rigid even during Pike’s healing, his set shoulders betraying how much he wanted to lean into the touch. The fleeting seconds he let himself bask in an embrace before he gently pulled away.

Trauma Vax knew intimately, but self-isolation was a much different beast. He was beginning to think his sister had the right idea all along. And how smug she would be to hear him admit that thought- he must be certain never to speak it aloud. All the same, now that the shape of the matter was clear, he couldn’t very well leave things be. Vax was nothing if not a man of action- and he thought action, rather than words, might serve them all well in this case.

That night, in the safety of Scanlan’s mansion, Vax quietly pulled the rest of their little family together and started to plan, voices soft under the rhythmic ringing of metal on metal from Percy’s workshop.

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Clang.

Percy was not, is not, and will likely never be a good man. He acknowledged that long ago, on a cold night in the woods- and recent events had done nothing to change that truth.

Clang.

He wiped the sweat off his brow and readjusted his grip on his hammer. He swung again in a wide arc, striking true.

Clang.

Metal he understood, metal he deserved. Icy cold and blisteringly hot by turns, inert and yet full of promises of what might be, Percy was not sure whether he saw himself in it’s changeable nature, or his salvation. Perhaps both.

Clang.

Distantly, the tinkling of laughter reached his ears. He smiled, a small, secret thing despite himself. As of late, their makeshift family had shifted, not growing closer, but knitting together in new ways- healing old hurts and finding new ways to fit together. Nights like these were a rare commodity usually spent entangled with each other, laughing, sleeping, or … other close activities that propriety forbade Percy from naming.

Clang.

He rarely, if ever, joined, of course- and then only if coaxed by good alcohol and Pike or Vex (and, on one memorable occasion, Trinket.) The attention he received on those rare occasions made it increasingly difficult to return.

Clang.

Nights of bliss, soft words and comforting embraces were not made for men like Percy. He knew he was a creature of ash and violence, even with his mind rid of Orthax’s influence, and he refused to let his corruption taint the tenuous threads of the new relationship that were being woven around him.

Clang.

Perhaps a true dark, selfish creature would take what it wanted anyway, but before he ever made his first gun, before the Briarwoods and the torture and the smoke, Percival de Rolo was a coward, and a coward he remained under the mask.

Clang-clank.

“Damn it!”

While he contemplated, the sheet of metal he was working had cooled too much, losing it’s cherry glow- his last blow had cracked the piece clean through.

Stupid. He chuckled weakly as he slumped against the wall, sliding his mask back from his face. Laughter from far away echoed him again. He closed his eyes, head lolling against the stone. A tug of wanting pulled at his heart. He steeled himself. Better to let them be, free from under the dark cloud of his own making.

He didn’t know how long he stood there in the waning glow of the forge, hammer slipping to clang against the floor. The metal he had been working was useless now. If he listened closely, he could almost imagine he was upstairs with his- with the rest of them. Music filtered down- apparently Scanlan had thought it time for a song, probably one about his own prowess as a lover to try to lure the others to bed. Percy snorted inelegantly, eyes still firmly closed.

“You know, you make it so easy to sneak up on you that I’m almost insulted.”

Percy’s eyes snapped open and he shifted fully to his feet before registering the voice. Vax stood before him, hands spread in a gesture of surrender and calm. Percy couldn’t determine whether he was mocking him or genuinely trying to calm him- knowing Vax, it was likely a bit of both.

Percy straightened, hastily straightening his work clothes and running a hand through his hair.

“I… apologize?”

Vax smirked, hard edged and feral in the dying light. Percy’s mouth went dry.

“Good. You can make it up to me by coming upstairs.”

Percy’s breath hitched- join them? He couldn’t- he’d only- he didn’t- he dropped his gaze.

“That would be unwise,” he gritted out, teeth clenched against the wanting humming under his skin.

Vax stepped closer, careful and measured.

“Percival.”

Another careful step. Another hitched breath.

“Percival look at me.”

Percy felt his gaze dragged back to meet Vax’s. Vax’s eyes softened fractionally.

“Percival, if you truly do not want to join us, you need only say the word. But-”

And Vax’s hand flew up, quick as only a rogue could be, as if to stop Percy from speaking too hastily. Percy rather thought he was being overestimated- he could not have spoken just then if his life depended on it. Still, he snapped his jaw shut.

“But,” Vax continued, “if you are down here alone because you think you are unwelcome or unworthy, then you must have a lower opinion of me- of all of us- than we thought.”

The words hit Percy like, well, Bad News straight to the chest. He gaped, vaguely aware of protesting noises being forced past his lips. No no no this is all wrong, he must make him see-

Again Vax held up a hand.

“If you think,” he growled, once more a predator eyeing Percy, “for even one moment that me or my sister or Kiki or any one of us would want you to torture yourself down here by yourself, then tell us what we did to fall so far from your esteem.”

“That’s not-,” Percy sighed, adjusting his glasses. Vax allowed him a lengthy pause to find his voice. The forge crackled lightly, down to it’s last breath. Finally, he sighed again.

“The problem, I think you will find, resides on rather the other end of the spectrum.”

Vax’s eyebrow shot up, but it was Percy’s turn to hold up a hand for silence. He leaned back into the solidity of the wall and took a steadying breath.

“I am not unaware that you would welcome my participation in the… physical affection you all share. I cannot in good conscience say that I am not tempted- I will lie to a great many people without a qualm, but I hope that you know that you are not one of them. None of you.”

Here, Percy paused again, fidgeting with his glasses and collecting his thoughts. Vax, as he was wont to do, jumped back in headfirst, impulsively.

“Then what is it, de Rolo?”

Percy flinched away, instinctive. When he dared glance back at Vax, the other man’s face looked softer- and infinitely closer. Percy nearly swallowed his tongue.

“Percival. Percy, please. We miss you. I-,” Vax stumbled over his words. Percy saw his eyes dart to the door, no doubt resisting the temptation to walk away. Percy was almost tempted to let him, and yet, and yet.

“I am not a good man.” It left him all in a rush, his breath stirring Vax’s hair, let loose for the evening. “This thing that I’ve created, the lives I’ve taken-.”

“You’ll have to get in line, buddy. We’re all a bit fucked up, isn’t that what you told me once?”

“But not like this,” he continued, breathless, unable to stem the flow of words. “Never like this. I’m- I still see smoke in my dreams. I can’t scrub it out, and there’s so much anger. I thought it was him, but he’s gone and I can still- and I’m dreading the day you all realize that the cruelty and the rage and the revenge, they’ve never left me, they are me. I’m trying to make something more of myself, but they’re still there and I can’t- I’m not worth- guh!”

Percy choked as Vax’s forearm suddenly pressed like a brand against his throat, pinning him to the wall. Raven hair spilled over Percy’s shoulder as Vax’s face loomed dangerously close. Percy fought not to whimper, acutely aware of the warmth of Vax’s skin on his.

“Do you trust my sister, Percival?”

The question, so casual, took him off guard and he sputtered for a moment, throat working against Vax’s forearm. Finally, he nodded, brow furrowed. Vex? Of course he trusted Vex. Vex was-

“I mean, do you trust her to know the value of the things that are hers?”

Again, Percy nodded, at a loss for words.

Vax smirked and leaned ever closer, his nose brushing Percy’s cheek- earning another hitched breath and an aborted whine, damn him- and whispering, deathly quiet, in Percy’s ear.

“Well, you are ours, Percival. And we do not find you unworthy.”

Percy couldn’t suppress the full body shiver the wracked him as Vax held him there- almost effortlessly, he thought hysterically, as he bit his lip. Vax chuckled lightly, his breath warm on Percy’s neck.

“And I would think,” he continued, “that someone as educated as yourself would know better to argue with the Baroness about the value of her possessions.”

This time, a whine rose unbidden from Percy’s constricted throat. He caught himself nodding without quite knowing what he was agreeing to.

This seemed to satisfy Vax, as he stepped back, leaving Percy to sway, unsteady, caught between begging him to leave and pulling him back in. He missed the contact already, but should he, could he dare-?

“Percival. I can hear you getting all wrapped up in that head of yours again.”

Vax sounded amused, but there was an undercurrent of something that sounded dangerously like hope in his voice. It was that tremor that forced Percy to look at him fully again. Vax stood in front of him, hand carefully outstretched, palm open.

“Come upstairs with me. I should be able to do something about that,” Vax quipped, throwing in a wink his sister would be proud of.

That broke the strange tension in the room and Percy huffed out a silent laugh. He pushed himself gently off the wall and turned to bank the forge fire. With his back still turned- before he lost his nerve- he called back over his shoulder.

“I don’t know- I have an awful lot of thoughts to get wrapped up in. It might be quite the job for one.”

Percy didn’t hear Vax come up behind him, but this time he was expecting it, so he barely jumped when strong arms wrapped around his waist.

“I was hoping you’d say that. Everyone’s upstairs, handsome. We’re just waiting for you.”

Percy turned in his hold, dusting his hands on his trousers. He peered down at Vax through his glasses, pleased to see his pupils dilate from their closeness. Steeling himself, because old habits die hard, he gently took Vax’s wrist and pressed a kiss to the palm of his hand. He heard Vax gasp softly. His own lips felt on fire from just that quick brush, but he couldn’t let himself think too far ahead or he’d retreat back into himself once more, and that was clearly not what Vax wanted. Percy sent an absentminded thought up to Pelor for strength, and straightened.

“And I’m afraid I’ve been terribly rude, making you all wait so long. Please, lead the way and I will be sure to make it up to you.”

Vax immediately reversed their hands, dragging Percy out of the workshop by his wrist. As they passed through the doorway his fingers tightened, as if afraid that Percy would vanish the moment he let go. Percy couldn’t blame him- he felt much the same.

“It’s cute, you know,” Vax said, conversationally, tossing a smirk over his shoulder.

“Hm? Cute?”

Percy was perhaps not paying the most attention, distracted by the feeling of strong fingers circling his wrist, the all-encompassing heat of it.

“Cute how you think you’ll be in charge of any of this. You’ve been denying us for a long time, Percival.”

Vax’s fingers tightened on Percy’s wrist, bordering on painful as he wrenched Percy close once more.

“We intend to enjoy what is ours.”

Percy felt his face flush, glancing between his wrist, Vax’s predatory expression, and the stairway ahead of them in quick succession. His breathing quickened. He licked his lips, fascinated by how Vax’s eyes seemed to follow the action. Encouraged, he caught his bottom lip between his teeth. Vax let out a soft hiss.

“Well, as I said before, lead on.”