Percival was awake again.
Vex narrowed her eyes, but she didn't look in his direction even though she suspected it was too dark for him to notice if she did. Especially since he wasn't wearing his glasses, as far as she knew. She could hear him shifting in his bedroll, his breathing too fast for even a nightmare. There wasn't a doubt in her mind that he wasn't sleeping.
He'd been traveling with them for less than a week, and she was starting to wonder if the man ever slept. Oh, he did a decent job of covering for it, but there was no hiding the dark smudges under his eyes or the way his hands trembled more often than they stayed still. So far, it hadn't seriously affected his ability to fight using the odd weapon that he preferred, the one that he'd been more than a little reluctant to even let them see, but Vex knew enough about sleepless nights to be well aware that wouldn't be the case forever
It was going to get him killed at this rate. And possibly some of them along with him, depending on how things went.
"Damn it," she muttered quietly.
She barely knew the man. He'd been fairly quiet since they'd rescued him from that cell, listening more than talking. They hadn't asked many questions about his past or what had led him to the situation that they'd found him in, and he hadn't offered many answers.
Still, nothing was going to change unless someone made an effort. And it clearly wasn't going to be him, not based on what she'd seen over the past five days.
Vex reluctantly took a deep breath and glanced over her shoulder, towards the edge of camp where he'd set up his bedroll. "If you're not going to sleep, darling, then you might as well join me."
Her voice was carefully pitched, just loud enough to reach Percival without disturbing the rest of their little group of misfits. She saw him go still, the ever-constant shifting that had drawn her attention to him in the first place immediately ceasing. For a long moment, she thought he was going to ignore her and pretend to be asleep after all, and if he did... well, she wasn't going to press him.
Then, very slowly, Percival pushed himself up into a sitting position. He fumbled with something at his side before putting on his glasses and glancing her way.
She just sat there and waited patiently, her gaze focused on him. The campfire was still lit, although the flames had died down quite a bit in the four hours since the others had gone to bed and watches had started. It was enough that he would be able to see her, though, even with his weaker human eyesight.
After a long moment or two, Percival stood up and walked her way. His appearance was more casual than she was used to seeing, his jacket and overshirt both gone. With his feet bare and hair mussed from his attempt to sleep, in nothing but trousers and an undershirt, he looked much younger despite the color of his hair.
For the first time, Vex couldn't help but think that he was probably several years younger than her and Vax. Hells, he was probably younger than all of them.
Silently, Vex patted the empty space beside her on the fallen tree she was sitting on. He hesitated for a second, clearly reluctant to take her up on her obvious invitation, before sitting down.
"How did you know I was awake?" Percival asked quietly.
Vex glanced at him and raised her eyebrows. "I'm on watch," she said lightly. "What kind of guard would I be if I couldn't tell whether or not someone is awake?"
The corner of his mouth twitched a little, as if he was trying to hold back a smile. "Grog didn't seem to notice."
"Yes, well, some of us like to know that we're being attacked before a dire wolf is gnawing on our arm in the middle of camp," Vex shot back, not even trying to hide her own smile.
To her surprise, Percival let out a quiet bark of laughter. He seemed almost as shocked as her at his reaction, a rueful smile appearing on his face. "That doesn't sound like a hypothetical to me."
Vex winked at him. "There's a reason that we usually let Grog take the first watch, when at least a few of us are likely to still be awake for part of it."
Shaking his head, Percival glanced away from her. She could still see the corners of his mouth turned upwards, though, even from the side.
They sat there for several minutes in silence, and Vex was surprised how comfortable it felt. Not nearly as awkward as she'd been expecting, all things considered.
Still. Whether he liked it or not, the man needed to get some sleep. For all of their sakes.
"Nightmares?" Vex asked casually.
Beside her, Percival stiffened. He cleared his throat rather awkwardly and very pointedly didn't look towards her. "Was it that obvious?"
Vex almost reached out to part him on the arm, but she held herself back at the last moment. She didn't think it would go over particularly well just then, not with him looking like he was ready to bolt at any moment. Instead she just gave a quiet laugh.
"Yeah, well, you get used to recognizing them after a while," she said, as gently as she could.
In his defense, Percival tried to laugh as well. It was clearly forced, though, not anything like the one she had startled out of him just a few minutes earlier.
Vex tentatively reached out to touch his arm, still halfway expecting him to bolt. He stiffened at the touch, but he didn't pull away.
"You need to get some sleep," she said softly. "Don't think I didn't notice that you missed more of those goblins than you hit earlier today."
Percival opened his mouth as if he was about to argue. Then he closed it, a defeated look appearing on his face as he turned his gaze toward the slowly dying fire. He reached up to run his fingers through his hair, messing it up even more than it already was. "Believe me, I'm well aware of that fact."
Vex bit her lip for a second, not entirely certain how to reply to that. Still, in for a copper...
She slid down off of the log she was sitting on, resting her back against it instead. Then she patted her lap. "Come on, why don't you try again?"
He stared at her as if she had just announced she was eloping with Scanlan.
"Like I said, I've seen enough nightmares to recognize the signs," Vex said patiently. Or, at least, as patiently as she could. It had never exactly been one of her strong points. "Why not give it a try? It works for my brother."
Percival stared at her for another long moment before letting out a rather louder-than-required sigh. "I suppose it couldn't hurt," he agreed, sliding off of the log as well.
Vex stared at him expectantly.
To her surprise, he flushed a little at her gaze. Then, with more reluctance than she felt was necessarily needed, he laid himself out on the ground and rested his head in her lap.
He lasted almost a minute before he started to sit up again.
Vex reached down and rested her hand on his shoulder. She didn't put any pressure against it. He could still sit up if he wanted.
Percival stilled again.
"Ten minutes," she said. "Give it ten minutes."
Judging by the look on his face, he wanted nothing more than to sit up then and there. But instead he nodded, with more than a little reluctance. "Ten minutes," he agreed. "It's a deal."
Vex couldn't help but grin at his wording. She did like deals, after all. Then she reached down and carded his fingers through his hair, relishing the surprised look on his face a bit more than she probably should have.
The tension on his face faded after another minute or two, as he slowly relaxed. Five minutes later, his breathing had evened out, his face relaxing as he slipped into sleep.
Vax was going to tease her mercilessly when he woke up for his watch, but she couldn't help but think it would be worth it. Their little group was a family, or at least that's what her brother kept claiming lately. They were supposed to watch out for each other.
That's what families did.
As Vex slowly came back to consciousness, she immediately regretted it. Her body felt as if it was on fire, as if she was burning up from the inside. She choked back a sob, her vision blurring in and out of focus as she opened her eyes and stared at the rock ceiling above her.
A familiar voice said her name, but she couldn't for the life of her recognize who it was. Not just then, at least. The entirely of her attention was focused on the pain rushing through her, and she could feel tears welling up in the corners of her eyes.
"Vex, can you hear me? Vex'ahlia?"
The voice was back, an air of panic to it, and something that looked suspiciously like a face flashed in her mind. Before she could focus in on it and figure out exactly who it was, though, someone touched her on the shoulder. It felt like a hot poker, sending flames running through her.
She screamed, and the world went black again.
Someone leaned over her, a familiar face appearing in her line of sight. Percy's eyes were wide, and there were dark circles under them as if he hadn't slept in days. But that didn't make sense. Why would he look like he hadn't been sleeping? It had been months since nightmares had woken him up every night.
Vex furrowed her brow. "Percy?" she asked. Or, at least, she tried to ask. Her voice was inaudible even to her, both her mouth and throat drier than she ever remembered them being.
Percy pressed his hand against the side of her face, resting it against her cheek. It felt blessedly cool against her flushed skin.
"Shh," he said quietly, pulling his hand away after a moment. "Let me get you some water."
If she'd been able to talk just then, Vex suspected she would have announced to him then and there her undying love. She'd never thought that water could sound better than gold, but at that moment it sounded like the most priceless thing in the world.
The waterskin that Percy pressed to her chapped lips felt rough against them, and the water in it was warm and had a slightly musty taste. She'd never tasted anything so delicious in her life.
Unconsciousness pulled her back under before she could tell him as much.
That was the first thing that Vex noticed as she woke up, blinking in confusion up at the stone ceiling of some type of cave or cavern. Her thoughts were murky and disjointed, and she felt uncomfortably warm as if she had a fever. Had she been ill?
Shaking her head slightly, trying to clear her thoughts, Vex lifted her head just enough to see whose head she felt resting against her thigh. The first thing she saw was a shock of white hair, and her eyes went wide.
Frowning, Vex took a moment to study Percy's still form. He was sleeping restlessly, dark circles under his eyes making it clear that he hadn't gotten enough rest in at least a few days. He looked more unkempt than she had seen him in ages, dust covering him and a few tears visible in his jacket, his glasses still on his face as if he hadn't even meant to fall asleep. One of the frames was noticeably cracked.
She also couldn't help but notice that none of the others seemed to be around. Not even her brother.
What had happened?
Vex took a deep breath, trying to force her somewhat muddled thoughts to coalesce into something helpful. They'd been in cave, that much she remembered, trying to find some type of creature that had attacked some children from a nearby town. A scorpion. It was some type of giant scorpion-like being, that's what they had found. And then— then—
The memories were blurry, more like a dream, but they were there if she focused hard enough. She remembered Keyleth holding up her hand, her eyes narrowed with concentration as she attempted a new spell that she'd been learning. And then something had gone wrong, the cave's ceiling and walls cracking around them. She remembered running, pulling up the rear as the others rushed off in front of her. Percy had glanced back at her, his eyes going wide as he'd yelled her name.
And she remembered a sharp, stabbing pain in the back of her shoulder.
Oh. Oh, fuck.
Vex took a deep breath and pulled her gaze away from Percy, instead letting it drift over their surroundings. She almost immediately wished that she hadn't. There was a pile of rocks in front of them and behind them, the walls of the cave to the left and the right.
They were trapped. Oh gods, they were trapped, and judging by Percy's appearance they'd been here for at least a few days.
She must have made some type of noise, because Percy suddenly stirred and opened his eyes. They went wide when he met her gaze.
"Vex?" he asked, all but shoving himself up into a sitting position.
Vex gave him a weak grin. "On a scale of one to ten, just how fucked are we?"
Percy wrapped his arms around her in a tight hug.
She went utterly still, her mind going blank for a second. Percy didn't hug. Oh, if someone hugged him, he'd hug back. But he wasn't the one to initiate them. Never. Not once in the eight months that she'd known him.
"That bad, huh?" she asked after much too long of a pause, trying to keep her voice light. She wasn't entirely sure if she succeeded or not.
Percy's face was much too serious as he pulled away, his gaze focused on her face. "I was starting to think you weren't going to wake up," he said quietly. "The poison in your system was—" He trailed off, grimacing. An almost apologetic look appeared on his face. "I'm not much of a healer."
Vex smiled at him. "I'm alive," she said. "You can't be that bad of one."
She'd hoped her levity would coax a smile out of him. If anything, his expression grew even more shuttered.
Oh, well. There was always next time. Hopefully.
"How long has it been?" she asked.
Percy gave her what was probably supposed to be a reassuring smile. He kind of sucked at looking reassuring, though, so it came across more like a cross between a grimace and constipation. "Almost three days," he said. Then he nodded at the pile of stones behind them. "I've been hearing more and more sounds somewhere in the distance, so I think the others are digging their way in. It's just taking some time."
Vex took in a breath and then released it. It wasn't the worst news, but it was far from being the best either.
Still, they were alive. And there was no way in all of the hells that the others wouldn't come for them.
"You could have kept going," Vex said softly, in a voice that was barely more than a whisper. "I remember bringing up the rear. You could have kept running, and you would have made it out with the others."
She had no idea how to read the look that Percy shot her.
"That wasn't going to happen," he said firmly, shaking his head. Then he reached for one of the waterskins resting nearby. "Come on, you probably need some more water."
Despite the fact that the Briarwoods were gone, Whitestone Castle still reminded Vex of walking through a cemetery.
It was late, and she knew that she should be in bed. Or, if not, that she should have joined the others when they had slipped out in search of drinks. Neither was all that appealing, though, not considering everything that had happened over the past few weeks.
Shaking her head, Vex slipped back out of the room she'd been exploring. It had been almost empty, whatever it had been five years ago long forgotten by anyone other than perhaps Cassandra and Percy. And gods knew she wasn't going to ask either of them what it had been back then.
She silently made her way down the hallway, towards the next door.
Vex wasn't entirely certain why she had decided to explore the castle, slipping through unlocked doors and practicing her less-than-expert skills at picking locks on the ones that weren't as easy to enter. She hadn't found anything of note, but for some reason she kept moving forward.
The next door was locked, one of the first ones in some time that had been, and it took Vex several minutes to manage to get it open. She grinned in triumph when the lock finally gave way, pushing the door open and slipping inside.
Her grin immediately faded.
Unlike most of the others she had entered, this room wasn't bare. It had clearly been a bedroom once upon a time, although a layer of dust covered everything in it.
An open chest was sitting on the far wall, piled high with children's toys.
Vex let her gaze drift over the room carefully, taking in everything. The room was ornately decorated, which she supposed was to be expected. It was clearly the room of a child, though, or at least someone who had just been leaving childhood behind.
Five years. Percy would have been, what, nineteen? Twenty? And he'd had four younger siblings. She'd never really thought about it, but how young would some of them have been? How young had Cassandra been? Or the brother who this room had belonged to? They would have still been children, when the Briarwoods had attacked.
Vex spun around, her hands automatically going for the bow she wasn't even wearing.
In the doorway, Percy smiled at her. It faded a bit as his gaze drifted past her, moving over the room she was standing in.
"Sorry," Vex said quietly, shuffling a bit. "I wasn't expecting to find anything that was still—"
She trailed off, not quite certain how to finish.
"It's fine, Vex," Percy said, although he sounded a bit distracted. "I wasn't expecting to find any rooms that were untouched either."
After a moment's pause, Percy walked in the room, heading in her direction. He kept walking once he reached her, though, instead heading for the chest of toys that she had noticed. With a shaking hand, he reached down and picked up an odd contraption from the top of the stack, a mess of wires and gears that she hadn't even noticed.
If his eyes looked suspiciously bright when he glanced up at her, Vex pointedly ignored it.
"I made this," he said softly. "For my brother, Ludwig. Just a few days before everything happened." His mouth twisted into a weak smile. "He swore that he was too old for toys, but when I tried to take it back he threw such a tantrum."
Percy's voice cracked a little, and he took a deep breath. Then he carefully put it back down where he'd found it.
The two of them stood there in silence for a moment. Percy clearly trying to compose himself, and Vex unable to think of a single thing to say for once.
"It's getting late," Vex said softly, once Percy looked like he at least mostly had himself under control again. "I'll stop opening random doors and try to get to bed."
Percy's head snapped in his direction. "No."
Vex raised her eyebrows.
Flushing a little, Percy cleared his throat. "I mean, don't stop unless you truly want to," he said. "I don't mind if you want to explore some more."
"Really?" Vex asked, a bit skeptically.
Percy glanced behind him at the chest again. "Really," he said softly. "In fact, I might come with you." He hesitated slightly. "If you don't mind the company."
"Most of the rooms I've found have been empty so far," Vex said gently. "This is the first one that hasn't been stripped."
Percy grimaced, but he didn't look surprised. "I expected as much," he said. "But there's still a chance that there might be some others that were left as they were."
Vex nodded. "Yes, there is," she agreed.
She stood there for a moment, studying him. He still looked like the same Percy that she known for going on two years now, for the most part. The last few weeks had clearly taken a toll on him, although for the better or the worse she wasn't entirely certain. There was something in his eyes that she hadn't noticed before, though, and – while she wasn't entirely certain what it was or how to read it – for some reason she felt like it would be wrong to snuff it out.
"Shall we?" Vex asked, holding out her arm.
Percy stared at her, startled. Then his mouth twisted into an amused smirk, and in front of her eyes he transformed into the smug bastard that she knew and loved.
"Of course, my lady," he said, giving her a half-bow before taking her arm.
Vex couldn't help but smile as they walked out of the room, heading down the hallway toward the next door. She wasn't had absolutely no idea what they were going to find, but they were going to find out together. For now, that was all that they had.
It had to be enough.
Gods, she hoped it was enough.
Percy was ignoring her.
Vex wasn't an idiot. She was well aware that things had changed between them after she had died and been brought back. Vax blamed Percy for what had happened. Hells, Percy blamed Percy for what had happened. Sometimes it felt like the only person who didn't blame him was her, and she'd been the one who had been killed in the first place.
Men. Sometimes she wondered why she kept putting up with them.
Shaking her head, Vex twirled the siege arrow that Percy had given her between her fingers, getting a feel for its weight even though she had no intentions on using it any time soon. Her booted feet dangled over the edge of the wall she was sitting on, the cool night breeze blowing her hair.
A part of her, a large part, wanted to go stomping down to Percy's workshop down in the bowels of Whitestone Castle and force him to talk with her. She knew him well enough to know that wouldn't do a damn thing, though, other than get his back up and make things worse.
He was a stubborn bastard. That was part of what she loved about him, after all. If only it didn't make her want to strangle him as well.
Vex closed her eyes and took in a deep breath.
The air smelled like snow, which wasn't all that surprising considering where Whitestone was located. She honestly thought that she'd seen more snow over the past few months than she had in her entire life previously, despite them not spending more than a few days in the city at a time ever since the dragons had attacked.
Behind her, a door creaked open.
Vex's eyes snapped open, but she very pointedly stayed still. She listened carefully as footsteps made their way towards her, narrowing her eyes as she tried to place them.
There were only two people who'd come looking for her up here, in the middle of the night. And her brother knew better, most of the time at least.
"Hello Percy," Vex called out. "I thought you didn't like heights."
There was a long pause behind her. "I'd ask how you knew it was me," Percy said dryly, "but I'm almost afraid to ask."
Vex couldn't help but grin, even though she knew he couldn't see her face. She quickly forced her expression back into a serious one before glancing over her shoulder so that she could see him.
Percy was dressed much more lightly than she was, his jacket missing and his shirt sleeves rolled halfway up his arms. He didn't seem to be affected by the cold at all, despite the freezing wind that had constantly blown Vex's hair in every direction ever since she had slipped up here.
She knew the moment he noticed the arrow in her hand. His eyes widened, just a little, and a shadow flickered across his face so quickly that she wouldn't have seen it if she hadn't been specifically looking for it.
An evening of unbridled guilt. That's what he had called it, when she'd first asked what it was. Part of her wanted to go ahead and use the damn thing, so that she'd stop seeing expressions like that on his face. She wasn't that selfish, though, not yet. They were in the middle of a war, and she needed every potential boon she could get.
Who knew? Maybe it would be the difference between life and death one of these days.
"What are you doing up here, Vex?" Percy asked, a hint of honest to gods curiosity in his voice as he walked over and sat down beside her on the floor.
Vex noticed that, unlike her, he didn't dangle his feet off the edge. In fact, he stayed several feet away from the edge, clearly not wanting to risk drawing any closer to it.
It was rather endearing, actually.
"Thinking," Vex said brightly, glancing over at him with a wink.
Percy shot her a fond, if somewhat exasperated, look at that. "About anything in particular?" he asked.
Vex shrugged and twirled the arrow between her fingers again, not even looking at it as she did. Percy's face was much more interesting to look at.
It was also turning a rather amusing shade of red.
"Can you not do that?" he asked, sounding a bit strangled. "Please?"
Vex grinned. "What?" she asked teasingly, twirling it again. "Worried I'll drop it and blow us up?"
Percy opened his mouth. Then he snapped it shut. He'd been about to say "yes," she knew that he had, and he'd thought better at the last second.
Shaking her head, Vex took pity on him and put the arrow down beside her. Then she gave him a rather pointed look of her own. "What are you doing up here?" she asked.
"Thinking," Percy shot back in the exact same tone that Vex had replied to him in.
Vex narrowed her eyes.
Percy managed to keep a straight face for a whole ten seconds before he couldn't hold back a smile any longer. "Looking for you," he admitted. "You weren't in your room, so I headed to the highest place I could think of."
"You know me too well," Vex said, shooting him a smile.
He smiled back.
They sat there in companionable silence for a moment before Vex broke. "Was there any particular reason you were looking for me?" she asked. She gave him a hopeful look. "Do you have another present for me? I'd love another present."
Percy chuckled, a fond look on his face. It faded after a moment into one that was a bit more serious, a hint of self-deprecation in his eyes that sent a shiver down Vex's spine. "Sometimes I think you might know me too well as well."
"That's what friends are for, right?" Vex asked lightly.
There was a beat or two of silence. Then Percy nodded. "I suppose you're right," he agreed. Then he glanced at her, the corners of his mouth quirking back upwards into a smile. "That, and making explosive arrows."
Vex grinned and leaned in to press a quick kiss against his cheek. "That's why I love you."
Something flashed across Percy's face that she couldn't quite read, there and gone before she had a chance to really take a close look at it. "Does that mean we can go back inside now?" he asked, almost plaintively. "Away from the rooftop and very long falls?"
"Whatever you want, darling," Vex said brightly. "Whatever you want."
"We should try to get some sleep," Vex whispered quietly, pressing a kiss against Percy's bare shoulder as she snuggled a bit closer to him in the bed. "Tomorrow's going to be a long day."
Percy looked over at her, his gaze a bit unfocused. She wasn't entirely certain if it was because of the alcohol, the sex, or his lack of glasses, but she couldn't help but find it somewhat adorable.
"I love you," he said softly. "You know that, don't you?"
Vex smiled at him and pressed another kiss against his shoulder. Then she shifted so that she could press one against his cheek instead, reminiscent of the ones she'd been given him for years but with an entirely different meaning behind it.
"The last hour or so definitely gave me that impression, yes," she said lightly.
Percy gave him a Look. It was so much of a Look, that she could practically see the capital L at the beginning of it. "Vex'ahlia."
She reached up and pressed her finger against his lips, cutting him off before he could say anything. "I know," she said softly. "You know that I do too, right?"
His eyes were twinkling with amusement as she pulled her finger away from his lips. "That you love yourself?" he asked teasingly. "Yes, the thought had crossed my mind once or—"
This time, she shut him up with her lips instead. He cut off with startled sound as she practically threw herself on top of him, straddling his waist so that she could get to the right angle to kiss him.
As kisses went, it wasn't the most heated one that they had shared. It was slow and languid, a clear promise of more to come if the universe decided to give them the time.
She only broke it with some reluctance.
"I love you too," Vex whispered against his lips, barely loud enough for him to hear it.
Then she rolled off of him, beside him again rather than on top of him.
Neither of them said anything for a long moment, simply basking in the silence. Then Percy sighed. "We really should sleep."
"We should," Vex agreed, glancing over at him.
Percy was staring up at the ceiling, a troubled look on his face. Vex didn't ask what was wrong. She didn't need to ask. This time tomorrow, for all they knew, one or both of them might be dead.
There was a part of her, a very selfish part, that hoped she wouldn't be the one left alone if the worst were to happen. She'd died once, after all. She wasn't scared of it, not anymore.
But... she'd also seen the aftermath of her dying. And she didn't want Percy to have to live with that again, especially not now. After everything that had happened since then.
"Are you scared?" she asked softly.
There was silence for a long moment, and she thought that maybe he wasn't going to answer. Then Percy let out a heavy sigh. "Terrified."
Vex didn't look at him. She didn't want to see his face, because she suspected she'd be able to read it like a book if she did. She didn't want to know what about the coming day scared him so much, whether it was the fact that they were going up against a dragon or something else entirely.
She fumbled for his hand, clasping it tightly once she found it.
Percy squeezed hers back in return. "Go to sleep, Vex."
Vex took in a shaky breath. Then she let it out. "Will you be here in the morning?"
There was another long pause. The Percy chuckled and shifted so that he could press a kiss against her forehead. "Where else would I be?" he asked, as if the thought of leaving had never even crossed his mind.
Who knew? Maybe it hadn't.
Vex squeezed his hand again, an ache in her chest that she didn't quite know how to define making its presence known. "I'm not sure if I can sleep," she admitted. "Not tonight."
Percy kissed her again, this one on her cheek. His stubble scraped against her skin a little. "Ten minutes," he said, a hint of drowsiness in his voice. "Give it ten minutes."
It took a moment or two for Vex to realize the importance of those words. The corners of her mouth twisted upwards before she even knew that she was smiling.
"Ten minutes," she repeated, squeezing his hand again. "It's a deal."