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our own hands against our hearts

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Technically, they’re not supposed to have beer (or alcohol of any sort) at the community center, but it’s late enough on a weekday that Vex doesn’t think anybody will care. Zahra’s eyes actually gleam when she brings out the growlers, and Grog claps her on the shoulder hard enough that she staggers a tiny bit.

After the beer is poured and they’ve all had a chance to properly appreciate it, Zahra claps her hands to get everybody’s attention. They start to drift towards the circle of chairs, copies of the play in hand. Vex sits next to the actor playing Benedick. They’re going to spend a lot of time together over the next few months, so she might as well start getting to know him now. It would, of course, help if she could remember his name.

“Excuse me,” she says.

He turns his head. “Yes?” He would stand out anywhere with that head of white hair, especially on someone that young, but combined with those round glasses and that jawline, he’s a looker. Too serious for her tastes though.

“I’m terribly sorry, darling, but I forgot your name.” She’s only met him once, at auditions. It’s perfectly understandable.

“Nothing to be sorry about.” He pauses for a second, thinking. “Call me Percy.”

“I’ll call you whatever you’d like, of course, but that seems to imply it’s not your given name?”

He smiles then, amused. It transforms his entire face, makes him look like somebody capable of having fun. “Well, aren’t you clever? To be precise, it is a shortening.”

“If I may ask, what’s the long form?”

He clears his throat. “Percival Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III.” He smirks, just a little, and she’s glad he’s not pretentious about it, at least.

She bursts out laughing, because she can’t help herself. “I apologize. That was terribly rude of me.”

“It was, but I forgive you.” His playful tone takes away any rebuke the words may have had. “In return, I require something from you.”

“And what would that be?”

“Your name. You weren’t the only one who was introduced to far too many people at auditions and forgot.”

She puts out her hand. “Vex’ahlia. But you can call me Vex, if you want.”

Percy shakes it. “It is lovely to meet you again, Vex’ahlia.” Something must show on her face, because his smile grows sly. “You said ‘if I want’. What’s the point of having such a lovely name if not to say?”

Before she can respond to this, Zahra calls for the read-through to start. It is halting at first, given few people have looked at any Shakespeare since high school or college. But it becomes more fluid and natural as everybody gets used to the rhythms and vocabulary. In the same way, they become more comfortable with their characters, inhabiting them more deeply than at the beginning of the evening. Benedick makes his public declaration of love, and Beatrice accepts.

“Peace! I will stop your mouth,” he says, blushing, but makes no move towards her. It is a little odd, considering he’s been perfectly comfortable with Benedick’s other gestures of affection, but maybe that’s not a barrier he wants to cross in a read-through. She ignores the momentary disappointment it brings up, as the play is done very soon afterward. Vex says goodbye to Percy and the others, and makes her way to the door, where Vax is already waiting.

They walk towards the car for a little while before Vax speaks up. “Having some boy trouble, Beatrice?” he teases.

“Don’t look so smug. I saw how red you turned when Hero kissed you.” Keyleth only pecked him on the cheek, but it is more than enough ammunition to wield against her brother.

His silence is all the answer she needs. “I didn’t mean anything by it. If you like her, go for it.”

“Only if you can snare your Benedick,” Vax replies. She must look scandalized, because he grins. “Too close to the mark?”

“I’m not answering that.” He’s pretty, has a sense of humor, and more charm than anybody his age should. That doesn’t mean it will lead anywhere.

He shrugs. “Suit yourself.”

A couple nights later, she dreams of eyeglasses and lips curved in smiles that welcome her into the joke. In the morning, she rolls over and thinks well, fuck. Vax does not need to know about this, or she’ll never hear the end of it.

--

Vex takes a sip of wine, and is very pleased that Percy has excellent taste. It’s rich and heady, with a hint of spice that lingers on the tongue. It is a well-deserved reward for the hours of work they put in today, practicing some of Beatrice and Benedick’s more emotional scenes together. The transitions between the first declaration of love, Beatrice’s despair, and the extraction of the promise to kill Claudio are tricky to navigate, and she is grateful that Zahra suggested they put in the extra time.

Percy looks at her from the other end of the couch, thoughtful. Neither of them have said much tonight, all worded out from earlier, but there’s something about his expression that makes her think he wants to. She wonders when she became well-versed enough with him to know this.

“Spit it out,” she says. He smiles, because he thinks her directness is refreshing. (He told her so once, and she wonders if he knew she’s spent years hearing people say the opposite.)

“I was just thinking it’s been a long time since I’ve been comfortable enough with someone to just sit.”

“Oh?” She’s surprised he volunteered anything about himself, the way he sidesteps most personal questions whenever the cast and crew spends time together outside of rehearsal. At first she thought he was being affected and mysterious, but something flickers in his eyes whenever he dissembles charmingly or puts forth an amusingly obvious untruth. Vex assumes he has his reasons, and if he wants to disclose them, she’s happy to wait until he’s ready.

“I’m sure you’ve noticed I never talk about my family.” She did, and wondered at the occasional wistfulness whenever he sees her and Vax together.

“I came from a very large one. Three brothers, two sisters, our parents. You would think that with that many people, it would be difficult to be quiet. Of course sometimes it was, but some of my most treasured memories are of all of us in the library or living room, just doing our own things, together.”

“Did something happen to them?” She asks as gently as she knows how.

“There was a terrible accident.” His voice becomes distant, clinical, and she wants to reach out, but she doesn’t.

“Oh darling, I’m so sorry.” She settles for moving a little bit closer. He does not pull away.

He toys with his glass, avoiding her gaze. “It happened, and there was nothing I could do about it. What I can do is allow myself space and time to move on.”

“And have you?”

He takes a gulp of wine and tips his head back onto the couch cushions. “Can one really ever move on from such a thing? But the play, and everybody in it, has helped more than I ever imagined it could.”

She does reach out now, and places her hand over his. “I’m glad to hear it.”

He looks at where their hands lay together, and she thinks he’s going to move it away, but instead he raises her hand to his lips, just brushing her knuckles. The motion is familiar, given it is what Benedick does before departing to confront Claudio. The same solemnity from their practice earlier is present, but there is a tenderness to it now that makes something in her chest shift and ache.

He sighs and drops her hand. “I apologize. The wine appears to have made me maudlin and overdramatic.”

“We can use that.” She says lightly.

He smiles, a wry twist of the lips. “I doubt Zahra would go for it, but we can always ask.”

A yawn overtakes him, and Percy glances at the clock. “It is terribly late, and you should be getting home. I'll call you a cab.”

When it arrives, he walks her to the vehicle. Before she gets in, he makes a motion, aborted at the last moment, like he wanted to touch her. It is then she discovers she wished he would have.

“Good night, Vex'ahlia,” he finally says. “Sleep well.”

“You too.” The door closes, and she leans against it until she is home.

The house is dark. Vax must still be out with Keyleth, who he's been spending increasing amounts of time with. She's happy for him, honestly, but it would have been nice to come home to somebody.

Trinket, her Bernese mountain dog, is waiting at the door when she opens it, and she smiles. At least he's still here. He follows her over to the couch and lays his head on her lap. She scratches his head for a moment and then stops, still trying to process the night’s events. He whuffs quietly, concerned.

“Nothing's wrong, buddy, just your mother being foolish.” He makes a sniffy noise that would probably be skeptical coming from a human.

With great and deliberate effort, she gets off the couch. “Come on, let's go to bed.” She sleeps dreamlessly and wakes up to gray morning light, still feeling that ache in her chest.

--

Vex gasps when she steps into the theater. It is one thing to rehearse and figure out blocking on the stage as the set slowly rises around her, and another entirely to see it dressed up and lit properly. (She’ll have to give her compliments to Allura and Pike when she sees them.)

“Lovely, isn’t it?” Percy murmurs next to her. She was so entranced by the sight of the stage she hadn’t even noticed him approach.

“It really is.” Since that night at his apartment, they step carefully around each other. On stage, they bicker and flirt and fall in love the same as always. In her personal life, Vex is resigned to her longing, and hopes she’s being adult about it as she can.

Percy takes a deep breath, bracing himself for the task ahead. “This is our last chance to get it right before everybody sees. Are you ready?” She nods, and they head backstage.

Everybody’s months of work have paid off, and this rehearsal feels solid and coherent in a way that others have not. Maybe it’s finally performing in the costumes, the lighting and sound being where it should, or the energy of knowing how close they are to opening night. In any case, it's all terribly emotional, and maybe Vex gets a little swept into Beatrice’s story. She flings herself at the base of the altar where Hero and Claudio were to be married, weeping. Benedick attempts to console her, and she leans her head against his shoulder.

"I was about to protest I loved you," she says.

"And do it with all thy heart," he replies.

“I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.” She’s crying openly now, much more than the stage tears she normally summons. Benedick looks genuinely astonished, wonder dawning across his face.

Before he leans in for his kiss, he brushes a tear from her cheek. This is nothing they blocked in advance, and it is surprising enough she melts into it, trembling a little. His mouth is open and soft, and she breathes him in, for just a moment, before they break apart.

There is a pause in the house and on the stage, noticeable only because it has never been there before. Quickly, they come back to themselves and the play, and wrap the scene.

Off stage, she pulls Percy aside. He still looks bewildered, and his cheeks are bright beneath his stage makeup.

"What happened?"

"I got a little swept up and maybe I improvised--do you not want me to that?" She’s not sure how it’s possible, but his flush actually deepens.

"Percival." He blinks at the use of his full name. "We've been stage kissing for months. I know what that feels like. Don't bullshit me."

“I owe you that much, at least.” He leans against a wall, as if it will provide him moral support as well as physical. “You know about my family. What happened. Since then, it has been... difficult to form meaningful connections to others. Every time I want to reach out, I am reminded of all the things--people--I have lost.” He looks a little more diminished than before, stripped of Benedick’s bravado and pomp, and once again, she wants to reach out.

“You said it was better now. Here, with the cast and crew.” She’s seen him share conspiratorial whispers with Keyleth, their heads tilted together. He doesn’t get defensive the way he used to when Vax gives him shit, now that he knows that it’s meant in affection and concern.

He laughs, a little sadly. “Better is not the same as healed.” He looks at her now. “You have become very dear to me, Vex. And were I not a coward, I would have told you a long time before. I’m sorry.”

Something in her chest lightens, a weight she’d learned to ignore suddenly gone. “Oh, Percy.” She folds him into a hug carefully, mindful of her makeup. She feels his arms circle around, the lean of his body into hers. “You’re not a coward. You’re trying to protect yourself from getting hurt.”

“My ability to tell the difference is very poor, then.” he says. He straightens then, his expression sober. “I won’t lie to you, I’m a mess. I understand if you want nothing to do with me in that way. But I want to try, if you’re willing.”

Vex tugs him down then, trying to pour every bit of feeling she has into her kiss. It’s been a long time coming, and she intends to make it count. Percy makes a noise, low and keen, and pulls her against him. His hands are warm enough that she can feel them through her dress, and it makes her want them everywhere.

A very pointed cough makes them jump apart guiltily. It’s Kima, the stage manager. “Hate to interrupt, lovebirds, but your last scene’s coming up. You’d best get ready.”

Percy smiles at Vex, still a little dazed, but happier than she’s ever seen him. She reaches for his hand and squeezes it. They can and will continue this later.

After what seems like the longest round of notes Zahra’s ever given, Vex slips into the hallway. She passes Keyleth, and the other woman gives her a thumbs up. Vex stops, and squashes the impulse to hide her face in her hands. It seems the word is out.

“Hey. You have fun. I’ll let Vax know not to expect you back tonight.” She grins, and pushes Vex towards the parking lot.

As soon as the door to Percy’s apartment closes, they are of one mind, a trail of clothing and kisses both sharp and tender marking their passage to the bedroom. He lays down on the bed and reaches for her, a small tremble in his hand. She curls her fingers around his, brings them up to her mouth.

“I just want you to know, it’s been a long time since--well. I admit I’m a bit out of practice, so--”

She stops his mouth with a kiss. “Darling, we can go as fast or as slow as you like.”

At this, he pulls her on top of him, a considering look on his face that makes the curl of heat in her belly roar into a fire. “Can we try both and I can tell you what I like better?”

“Of course, but I expect a full and detailed comparison afterwards.” His hands move on her then, and suddenly a comparison doesn’t seem quite so important at all.

--

She wakes up, and turns to see Percy next to her, still asleep. There is a softness to him now, a vulnerability that he keeps hidden away otherwise. A bit of hair falls into his face, and she brushes it away as gently as she can. His eyes open, and he squints a little bit.

“You’re still here.” There’s a bit of surprise in his voice, but also something else: wonder, maybe, or the hope of something new.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“A night that lovely had to have been a dream.” He smirks, and she punches him in the shoulder. Not enough to hurt, but enough that he’ll feel it.

“You’re a shit, but at least you’re a clever one.” She lays down again, pillowing her head on his shoulder. (Not the one she hit. She’s not that mean.) They stay like that for a while, Percy quiet enough that she thinks he’s fallen asleep again.

“I meant it though,” he says finally, startling her out of a half-lull. “It was wonderful.”

She kisses his forehead. “You can have as many as you like in the future. But probably not tonight, because we’ll be at the opening night party.”

He groans. “There is that. Until last night, it would have been the most important thing.”

She looks at the clock on his nightstand. “We still have a little time today.”

He grins, kissing her lazy and slow. “Then we should make the most of it.”

--

Because they are somewhat professional, the rest of the cast and crew don’t remark on Vex and Percy arriving together. Vax does glare daggers at Percy though, and she has a feeling there will be an interesting conversation at the party tonight.

Opening night goes as well as they could have dreamed. The audience laughs in all the right places and wolf-whistles at the kisses. The curtain call is loud for everybody, but the applause roars when Vex and Percy step back out. She puts her hand in his, smiling, and they take a well-deserved bow, together.