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Grog is a simple man, yeah? Simple pleasures and all that. Just point him at whoever you want dead and there you go. It’s an easy enough way to live, he figures, as long as he’s got the right people pointing him at the right people. That makes sense, right? Yeah, that makes sense.

What was he saying?

Right, simple. This Briarwoods thing of Percy’s, it’s not simple. It’s gotten everyone all tangled up, like Vax is doing stupider things than usual and Keyleth is confused and Pike isn’t even here, and so you can forgive Grog for feeling out of balance. The right people are still the right people, but he’s not sure where he’s being pointed all of the time anymore.

The point (heh) of this is that he feels kind of bad about almost killing Percy’s sister. Not totally bad, because when he almost killed her she was on some dark shit and she was hurting his friends, but still kind of bad because she’s Percy’s sister and the Briarwoods fucked with her brain or something. Bad shit, that. Grog definitely does not like this feeling, whatever it is.

Was this going anywhere?

Oh yeah. So, like, a few days after they fuck the Briarwoods up and he gets his cool new sword he’s feeling peckish in the middle of the night. And whatever, Percy’s super rich, right, so he can stand having his larder raided a little by one very good friend who has done so much for him in the last few days. So Grog very stealthily sneaks down to the kitchens. He’s earned some Grog Time. Shit’s been fucked up lately.

He’s not expecting anyone to interrupt him, since his friends are all asleep and he’s pretty sure they’ve killed everyone else in Percy’s house, so when someone behind him coughs as he’s halfway through a hunk of meat, he freezes. He turns slowly, one hand reaching for an axe that isn’t there.

Behind him, one hand holding an empty tankard, mouth open and staring, is Cassandra.

Grog stares at her.

She stares at him.

He stares at her.

She blinks. “Um…”

Grog swallows what was in his mouth. “You’re up late,” he says, very casually, with extreme stealth.

Cassandra blinks again, then shakes her head. “Yes, I am. So are you.”

Grog nods, and takes another bite. He thinks for a bit. “You want some ale?”

Cassandra relaxes. “Yes please.”

So there they are, getting drunk together in the kitchen of Whitestone Castle at midnight. Cassandra’s got really good stories about when Percy was a teenager, and she snorts into her mug when he tells her about the cow thing. Grog pours her some more ale, and she slams it back with more force than he was expecting.

“So,” he says, with a bunch of tact or whatever, “why’re you up so late?”

Cassandra presses her lips together. “I could ask you the same thing.”

He shrugs. “I got snacky.”

Cassandra snorts again. “I bet you did,” she says, then sighs. “It’s…hard to explain.”

Grog pours one out for himself. “Try me.”

Cassandra looks down at the table. “It’s kind of embarrassing, really. I just – I keep expecting to wake up to one of them looming over me.”

Grog frowns. “You mean the Briarwoods?” She nods.

“It’s like, I know they’re dead, but I can’t stop feeling like they’re still watching everything I do, and I never used to be able to sleep until I knew where they were so I could be ready but there are too many people in the house now and I won’t be able to hear if they come back for me and I just… I can’t sleep.”

She’s crying. Grog doesn’t know how to deal with crying. Whenever Keyleth cries he just lets one of the others talk to her until she feels better, but none of the others are here, so…

“Yeah, but they are dead, though,” he says. Cassandra looks up at him, confused. He clears his throat and tries again. “What I mean is that me and my friends killed them, and when we kill something it stays dead.” He remembers K'Varn. “Mostly, anyway. And if they come back, we’ll just kill them again.”

Cassandra blinks. “And that’s enough for you? That’s what makes you feel safe?”

Grog shrugs. “Yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t say safe, but yeah. I could,” he pauses to flex, “probably kill them myself, but if I can’t, I know Vox Machina has my back.”

Cassandra chuckles softly to herself. “That must be nice. Having people. I’ve gotten so used to being on my own.”

Grog stands and stretches. “Well, you’re not on your own now, so get used to it.” He picks up his keg. “I’m off to bed. You gonna stay here or…?”

“No,” she says, and stands up as well. “No, I should try to sleep.” She heads towards the door, then pauses. “Thank you, Grog.”

Grog blinks. “What for?”

She smiles. “Not killing me. I appreciate it.”

Grog looks away. “Yeah. Glad I didn’t.”

And he heads up to the stairs and to his room. Only, when he gets there, he sees his axe propped up against the wall. Huh, he thinks to himself, and he sets down his keg and picks it up. Craven Edge is fancy and sexy and very exciting, but his axe he trusts like nothing else. He hefts it over his shoulder and leaves his room, bed untouched.

He walks down the hall until he finds the room that Percy had told them was Cassandra’s. The lights are out inside. The door is open, just a crack, and he peeks through. Inside he can see a mound of blankets on the bed, rising and falling softly. He nods to himself and steps back.

Beside the door there is a bench. He sits and leans back against the wall, propping his axe up beside him. Just like keeping watch, he thinks to himself.

He does the same thing every night for a week. Just in case

Chapter Text

Castle Whitestone, Keyleth decides, could use more green. Because among the other terrible, terrible things the Briarwoods did (like torturing her best friend and killing hundreds of people and summoning a spinning marble of death) they also killed the castle’s gardens.

And she knows it’s stupid, okay? This city is a mess and the upkeep of the castle’s green spaces should be the last thing on her mind, but this feels like a way to reclaim the whole place from the people who destroyed it. She’s been doing her best with the farmland, and the Sun Tree, but those things are for Whitestone. Fixing the gardens, that’s for Percy.

So when Keyleth has a moment, and that isn’t often, but when she does, she goes out into the garden in the back of the castle and digs up weeds. Or she plants some flowers. Or she talks to the grass so it feels like growing. Or sometimes she just sits with her back against one of the trees and thinks about how much everything has changed. Like how Percy actually has a title again. She’s always known in her heart that he was supposed to have one, but now he actually does and it’s kind of weird. And then there’s the whole Vax thing, and she doesn’t even want to think about that. And there’s Cassandra.

Cassandra is…well, Keyleth doesn’t know how Cassandra is. Cassandra’s life has been harder than she could possibly conceive. She only had to deal with the Briarwoods for about two weeks, and it was awful and agonizing and terrifying, so five years must have been unimaginable. So for that reason, Keyleth will say that she doesn’t understand Cassandra. But Keyleth does understand guilt, probably better than any of her friends. So when you look at it that way, Keyleth understands Cassandra very well.

Because all you have to do is look at Cassandra to see that the guilt that she's carrying around with her is large enough to eat her alive.

Keyleth knows the feeling.

And she should do something to help her, but Keyleth isn’t exactly even coping with her own traumas right now. So sue her, she wants to make this goddamn garden nice for Percy and his sister. She can’t undo the past and she can’t take away the burdens they carry now, but she can build them a nice, green place to escape to when the weight that’s been settled on their shoulders gets too heavy to bear.

Today she’s working on some ferns. Keyleth loves ferns, how they’re stronger than they look, how they open to the sun, how they come back spring after spring. There’s a whole patch of them under one of the larger trees, and she’s bent over them, chatting. She’s been telling them about the Sun Tree, and the forests she’s visited, and she’s just gotten some maidenhair to start unfurling itself when she hears a twig break behind her. Instinctively, she pulls her staff close to her chest, whirling around. “I was just–” She freezes when she sees who it is.

“Cassandra!”

The girl in question is frozen behind her, clearly also very surprised to find someone else here. Her eyes, blue as her brother’s, are wide. She’s staring at Keyleth uncomprehendingly.

Keyleth swallows. “I was just, uh, talking…to… your ferns?” She cringes as she speaks. “Um, I know that sounds really, really weird, I'm–”

Cassandra shakes her head. “No, please don’t apologize,” she says (like she can read Keyleth’s mind), “I just didn’t expect anyone else to be out here.” She smiles, almost inwardly. “I didn’t think anyone even knew this garden existed anymore.”

And, oh, that makes Keyleth sad. Because it is a beautiful garden. Or it was. “I kind of just found it? I mean, I was looking for something to do that wasn’t, like, as stressful as the farm stuff, not that I don’t like the farm stuff, but...you know.” She realizes she’s rambling. She clears her throat. Cassandra’s just watching her, looking slightly bemused. She looks like Percy. Keyleth’s heart breaks a little. “What I’m trying to say is that if my garden at home was like this, had had this done to it, I’d want someone to fix it.”

Cassandra sighs and looks around. “It used to be amazing. My siblings and I, we used to try to climb that big tree over there,” she points at an old oak, rotten now, “and one time my brothers Ollie and Ludwig got stuck and our mother had to climb up and carry them down.” She smiles to herself. It fades quickly. “I miss them.”

Keyleth nods. “I miss my mom, sometimes. Well, a lot, actually. She's...not around anymore.”

Cassandra seems surprised at that. “Oh. I didn’t know. I’m–” Keyleth shakes her head.

“Please don't say it. It’s not your fault. I bet you’ve had enough of that too, yeah?” Cassandra shrugs and looks away.

“I am sorry, though,” she says, after a few moments of silence. “Not about your mother, but about everything. I’ve been saying it so much, and people have been telling me that it’s not my fault, but…” she trails off.

“But you feel like it is your fault, or at least your responsibility,” Keyleth says. Cassandra's head turns sharply, like she wasn't expecting that. “You had horrible things done to you, and your actions were a result of that, but they were your actions. And all these people, telling you that you weren’t responsible, that feels kind of disingenuous, right? Like even the worst things you've done don't belong to you.”

Cassandra nods. “Nothing else has belonged to me for a very long time. How…?”

“I’ve felt the same way. About being responsible, I mean. I’ve made mistakes, really bad mistakes. So has Percy. So have Vex, and Vax, and Grog, and especially Scanlan. Those mistakes are things we've done, but not who we are. And I know guilt. It’s okay that you feel responsible. It sucks, but it’s okay.” Keyleth sighs.

“How do you deal with it? The guilt,” Cassandra says, looking away again.

Keyleth laughs at that. “Um, I don’t really? Mostly I try to ignore it, and then it bubbles up at very inconvenient times, and then someone, usually Percy, tells me something about the greyness of morality that doesn’t really make me feel better or resolve the issue at hand, but he’s trying. And that helps, more than anything. That someone tries.”

“Oh,” Cassandra says, her face pensive. She’s silent for a good while longer. “Thank you. It’s nice, that someone else knows.”

Keyleth smiles. “I’m sorry too, you know.”

Cassandra seems taken aback by that. “Why?”

“Because,” Keyleth says, and her stomach twists as she says this, because she feels guilty too. “Because I didn’t trust you, and I was angry and bitter when it seemed like you betrayed us. You had so much you were working against. I knew that, and I was still angry. So I’m sorry too. You don’t deserve that. No you don’t,” she says, because it looks like Cassandra’s going to say something to the contrary. “There are some people who deserve my anger. You aren't one of them.”

 Cassandra nods. They don’t really say much more. Keyleth gets back to work, and Cassandra leaves, and the garden gets a little greener. And Keyleth, when she finishes with the ferns, sits back on her heels and thinks. She thinks about coping, and being angry, and reconciling your past actions with your present self. She thinks about Whitestone, and the weight of a city on the shoulders of two very young people that she’s found herself caring about very much. She thinks about trying.

And when she finishes thinking, she creates some flowers, blue hyacinths and white tulips, fresh and colourful, puts them in a vase, and carries them to Cassandra’s room. She sets them on the side table.  She’ll come back tomorrow, she thinks, and keep them fresh.

Then Keyleth goes to work again, fixing a broken city the best way she knows how, and hoping that it will in turn help fix a couple of broken people.

Chapter Text

Vex needs to get out of Whitestone.

Not that it’s not a lovely city. Vex likes cities, or likes them well enough, but today she feels the call of the forest too strongly to ignore. So, as dawn breaks over the city, Vex pulls on her boots, picks up her bow, and leaves a note for her brother letting him know that she’ll be out of town for the day. She shuts the door to her room silently and makes her way down the stairs.

The castle is asleep in the early light. It is rarely still during the day, what with the rebuilding and the meetings that go on within its walls. But now, it breathes slowly and heavily, along with all its occupants.

Vex runs her fingers along the stone walls. It’s hard, in the morning’s peace, to remember that this is the same place where Percy lost everything. The sunlight spilling lazily through the window lights these same stairs where the Briarwoods walked for five years, dragging their feet through the blood of hundreds. These past days (has it only been days?) have worn her thin. She needs the feeling of moss and spruce beneath her feet, and the smell of cool air in her nose, and Trinket by her side.

In the foyer, she stops. Motes of dust dance in the sunlight like sprites. The air crackles with a kind of magic, not the kind that you cast, but the kind that only occurs when the world feels just a little more right than it did before. Vex takes a deep breath, and lets a smile play across her face. She takes the steps two at a time, and pushes the door slowly open. Outside the air is crisp and fresh, and the sun has just peeked above the mountains. She closes her eyes, feeling its rays brush gently across her cheeks.

“Um,” says a small voice below her, “I don’t mean to be rude, but, are you going somewhere?”

Vex’s eyes snap open. Cassandra is standing there on the step below her, her hands awkwardly clutching a cloak around her shoulders. Her eyes are large and concerned.

Vex blinks. “What are you doing out here?”

Cassandra seems taken aback. “I could ask you the same question,” she says, folding her arms in a very pointed fashion.

That makes Vex smile. “I’m…taking some time for myself, dear.” She raises an eyebrow that clearly indicates your turn.

Cassandra looks down. “I was going to head down to the city, to try and spend some time around the people, but I lost my nerve halfway there. I was just on my way back.”

Vex feels a twinge of sympathy in her gut. She knows very well the fear of judgement. Perhaps that’s what makes her say what she says, or perhaps it’s that Cassandra reminds her so very much of Percy, or perhaps it’s that she’s always had a soft spot for young lost things. But for whatever reason, she extends her hand.

“Do you want to come with me? I'm going to take my bear out for a walk.” she asks. Cassandra tilts her head at the word "bear," but then, to Vex's surprise, she nods.

“I think I would like that.  Very much.”

They find Trinket in the stables, snoozing happily and making the horses very uncomfortable. Cassandra seems apprehensive, but seeing her bear makes Vex's heart light up, and she buries her face in his furry chest.

“Ohhhhhh, buddy, I’m sorry I’ve been ignoring you!” she says, her voice muffled by his bulk. Trinket snorts happily, blowing her hair back. Cassandra also snorts, although hers is quickly followed by her hands slapped over her mouth. Vex grins. Then she leans back and spits. “Trinket, you're so stinky! You need a bath.” That makes Trinket huff. Vex waves Cassandra over, and she approaches, still a little hesitant. 

"Is he...safe?" she asks.

Vex nods. "As long as you aren't a pie." Trinket backs her up and makes his best Innocent Bear face. "Come on."

Together they drag her bear out of the stables, and the castle, and the city, and into the woods. Trinket shakes his fur out, casting dust and hay over both of them. Vex does the same, shaking her hair out of its braid. She doesn’t wear it loose often, but in the woods like this, like she used to be, she likes to feel the wind lift it up and away. She catches Cassandra watching her. “What?” she asks.

Cassandra blinks, like she hadn’t realized what she was doing. “Hmm? Oh, you have lovely hair, that’s all.”

Vex grins at that. “Thank you, darling. You do too.”

Cassandra blushes. “I really don’t.” She reaches up and self-consciously touches her bun. Vex can see the white streaked through it. It’s not as intense as Percy’s, but like him it makes her look older than she is. Vex squints. She can’t be more than eighteen, she thinks. 

Trinket bumps into her legs, breaking her train of thought. She turns and ruffles his ears. “Alright, buddy, let’s get you clean.” To Cassandra she says, “Any rivers near here? Ones that maybe aren’t so busy?”

Cassandra nods. “It’s been years since I’ve been there, but there’s a stream a few miles to the north of here. It’ll be cold though, this close to Winter’s Crest.”

“Oh, that’ll be alright.” Trinket huffs indignantly at that, and Vex laughs. “Don’t tell me a tough guy like you doesn’t want a nice, refreshing, chilly bath, Trinket?” He shakes his whole body in response. “Come on, buddy. I’ll get in with you.” He thinks for a moment, then tilts his head, acquiescing.

Cassandra looks concerned. “You’ll freeze.”

Vex shrugs. “Nonsense, it’s been ages since Trinket and I took a proper dip in a cold river. It’s about time we did. It’ll get us back to our roots. Now,” she says, surveying the trees in front of her, “lead the way, de Rolo.”

Cassandra looks at her like she’s crazy, but she leads anyway. They walk for a while, in silence at first. Vex isn’t the type to push, and so she waits for Cassandra to get the conversation going. And waits. And waits. And, god, the silence starts to feel awkward. But Vex isn’t going to push. So she waits some more. And finally, Cassandra starts asking her questions, about her life, how she found Trinket, how Vox Machina met Percy, where they live. Vex is happy to respond. Cassandra doesn’t say much about herself, but that’s fine. Vex figures that she’s spent a lot of time lately answering questions about herself.

By the time they get to the stream, the sun has risen fully and started to warm the air of the forest. The trees are full of sounds, from birdsong to the burble of water over rocks. They haven’t seen many bigger animals, but the squirrels are watching them with curiosity and apprehension, the way squirrels do everywhere. Vex finds it comforting, in a way. Even with their atrocities, the Briarwoods didn’t ruin this. The forest goes on, regardless of how people hurt each other.

Trinket races ahead of them to the stream, and takes a running leap into the icy water. It splashes out all over, just barely missing them. Trinket seems satisfied with that, and flops down. The water isn’t very high, coming to just above his tummy. He looks at Vex expectantly.

Vex sighs. “Well, I did promise.” She pulls off her coat, tugs her boots up, and strides into the water. It doesn’t quite come to their tops, but it’s a near thing, and she can feel the cold around her calves. She looks back. Cassandra looks horrified. Vex smiles. “D’you want to join us?”

Cassandra shakes her head. “I’d rather avoid hypothermia, thank you.”

Trinket huffs his disapproval, but Vex isn’t the type to push. She just rolls up her sleeves and gets to work.

By the time Trinket is clean to Vex’s standards, the sun is high and Vex is sweating. Even in this weather, when the stream probably starts its day iced over, Bear Bathtime is hot work. There is quite a bit of Trinket, after all, and all of him needs scrubbing. Vex can’t tell if her shirt is more soaked with icy water or her own sweat, but Trinket smells less like a stable and more like a Very Clean Bear. She tells him as much, and he snuffles happily. Then he clambers out of the stream, walks over to where Cassandra is sitting, looks her up and down, and then very deliberately shakes himself dry all over her.

Cassandra makes an indignant gasping sound, but it’s too late. She’s soaked. Trinket looks satisfied, and concludes his gift to her by licking the back of her head, completely ruining her bun. Vex tries to cover her mouth, but she can’t stop the giggles from escaping. Cassandra looks at her, chagrin painted over her face.

‘’M sorry,” Vex says through her laughter. “He’s done that to everyone in Vox Machina, especially my brother.” Trinket affirms this with an amused huff.

Cassandra puts a hand to her head, and pulls it away covered with bear slobber. “Thank you, Trinket, for this wonderful gift,” she says, her sarcasm level rivaling Percy's. Trinket, who lives with Percy, responds by licking her again. Cassandra shudders, and Vex is sent back into hysterics.

“I’m so sorry, Cassandra,” she says, fighting for breath. “It means he thinks you’re part of the family.”

“Please don’t tell me the rest of you do this,” Cassandra says, but she’s smiling now. Vex climbs onto the stream bank and sits next to her. Her hair really is a mess. Vex frowns, thinking, and then reaches over and starts pulling out pins. “What are you doing?” Cassandra asks, but she doesn’t pull away.

“Fixing your hair,” Vex says. “You’ll need to wash this out or it’ll get stiff. Speaking from personal experience, of course.”

Trinket, her hellion bear, responds to that comment by giving Vex one of his slobberiest kisses yet. “Ohhhhhhhh, buddy,” she says, mostly affectionately, “That’s disgusting.” Trinket looks satisfied in response.

When Vex has extracted all of the pins, she hands them to Cassandra, who pockets them. Her hair falls about her shoulders. It’s dark brown and much shorter than Vex’s. The ends are choppy, like she’s cut it quickly and recently. Cassandra runs her fingers through it. They come away sticky with bear spit, and she cringes. Vex tilts her head towards the stream. “Come on!” she says. Cassandra looks hesitant. Vex scoots over to the edge of the bank and kneels by the water. The stream is crystal clear. Vex takes a deep breath, and with one last smile to Cassandra, dunks her head in.

The water is sharply cold, and wakes Vex right up. She opens her eyes. Around her, the water rushes, pulling her hair along with it. Sunlight pierces the surface, catching on the flecks of quartz in the rocks beneath. Vex feels lighter than she has in weeks, like the stream is carrying everything that worries her down and away, leaving her to float on its surface unburdened.

Something beside her makes a sploosh. Vex turns her head upstream to see what. Cassandra has stuck her head underwater as well. Her eyes are closed, and her hair flows free. Vex smiles, and pulls herself up. Her hair clings to her. She wrings it out into the river. After a few moments, Cassandra pops up as well, and gasps for air. She looks at Vex, with an expression that Vex could best describe as half confused, half delighted.

“That was…” she trails off.

“Refreshing?” Vex offers.

Cassandra nods. “Yes. I didn’t expect to like it.”

Vex starts braiding her hair. “Few people do, darling. There’s nothing quite like this. Being out in the world, free from anyone who doesn’t understand you. It’s good.”

Cassandra nods. Her hand goes to the pocket where she stashed her pins. Then she stops. She frowns, pensive, and runs a hand through her hair. “You know, I think I like it down.”

Vex smiles. “I told you, you have lovely hair, darling.”

And Cassandra smiles back. “I suppose I do.”

 

 

Chapter Text

God, Scanlan’s bored.

Not that boring isn’t nice sometimes, like when the alternative is horrible death at the hands of a vampire and a crazy necromancer lady. But Scanlan is the kind of bored where he’s done all the things he usually does in their off-time. He’s been to all two of the Whitestone bars and all one of its brothels, he’s thrown five impromptu concerts, he’s even scribbled out a few little songs, something he hasn’t had time to do for ages. But now they’re two weeks into their stay at Whitestone, and Scanlan is out of things to do.

So he decides to explore the castle. It’s not like anyone would mind, and it’s big enough that thoroughly checking it out will take him at least a few days. And he can’t exactly do much to rebuild the city with Keyleth, or help Percy figure out the new leadership, so he might as well find out some stuff about where he’s been staying. Who knows, he might find some new material for his songs.

He’s on his second day of this quest when he finds the music room. It’s by accident, really. He’s wandering the second floor, pushing in doors and poking around, and he opens this one that’s really creaky, like it hasn’t been opened in years. Its hinges are stiff, but Scanlan will be damned if he lets another door defeat him. He places both hands against the wood and leans his entire weight forward. Slowly, slowly, it eases wider, until it suddenly hits the right spot in its swing and falls open. Scanlan falls too, onto his stomach and the dusty floor. Clouds of grey fly up around him. He picks himself up, coughing, and looks around.

Light peeks in from heavy and faded curtains on the other side of the room. The floor, except for one gnome-sized patch, is thick with grey dust. So too is the piano, which Scanlan has to squint to make out, even with his excellent eyesight. The whole room is filled with instruments and most of them are in terrible shape. There’s a cello leaning against one of the walls with a broken bow at its side, a clarinet that’s fallen off its stand, a flute that clearly hasn’t been properly cleaned in years, a lute with one of its strings broken. And on its side on a table, greyed-out and lonely-looking, is a violin. It’s sized for a human child, and dusty as the others. Scanlan doesn’t know what draws him, but he walks over and picks it up.

It’s light in his hand, clearly very high quality. He plucks one of the strings and cringes at its sound. It’s horribly out of tune. He sighs, and says to himself “Well, that’s just criminal,” and presses his lips together and hums an A. It hangs in the air of the music room like a drop of water slowly crystallizing into a flake of snow. That’s good, he thinks to himself, I should write that down. He plucks the string again, twisting the peg until the A rings true.

“A, D, G, E,” he says to himself. The violin was never his strong point, but it’s a poor bard who can’t remember how to tune his friend’s instruments. The E string is stubborn and sharp, the G sloppy, and the D is slightly too obliging, but it’s a beautiful instrument. When it’s tuned, he lifts it to his shoulder and fits it under his chin. It’s too large for him, but that doesn’t matter. It needs to be played, and he’s here, after all. He raises the bow to the strings and plays the first note of an old, sad song.

Scanlan hasn’t fiddled in ages, and his fingers don’t move fast enough for his liking, but the song is slow and the violin is eager to be played. It seems to like sad songs. He knows the feeling.

He’s so enraptured by the sound that he doesn’t notice his audience at first. He only realizes that she’s there, a slip of a girl leaning against the doorframe, when he lifts the  bow and she starts clapping. Scanlan gives an exaggerated bow in response, which elicits a snorted giggle.

“Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here for an indefinite period of time,” he says, grinning at her. “Tips are both accepted and appreciated.” Cassandra snorts.

“Will the fact that you’re living in my house suffice, as far as tips go?” she says, sounding exactly like Percy, holy shit.

Scanlan nods. “Absolutely. I accept tips of all forms. Including your forgiveness for breaking into your music room, I hope?”

Cassandra smiles at him. “Forgiven, sir. Thank you, actually. I’d almost forgotten this room was here.” She walks over to the curtain and pulls it aside, letting lazy afternoon light spill in and illuminate the instruments. Scanlan sets the violin down on the table, sending up another puff of dust.

“You forgot about all this?” he says, picking up the flute.

Cassandra is quiet for a moment. “We all had an instrument we played. My parents wanted us to be accomplished. The violin was mine. I used to love playing it. After…everything, I didn’t feel like making music anymore. I think I tried not to remember it was here.”

Scanlan cringes inwardly. Of course this place would be full of memories turned bitter by tragedy. He knows exactly how that feels. He sets the flute down. Which dead sibling played that? he thinks to himself, and out loud he says “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking.”

Cassandra sighs. “No, please don’t apologize. I don’t want to forget anymore. I’m glad you found it. It’s been silent here for too long.”

“Yeah,” Scanlan says. “You know, I’ve always thought that instruments are kind of like people. They need to breathe. They die if they’re locked away for too long. But I think we can save these ones.”

“How?” Cassandra says, and sure, she may be humoring him, but she’s just a kid and she deserves a chance to make music again. Scanlan picks up the violin and holds it out to her. She raises her hands in protest. “No, I can’t.”

“Sure you can,” he says.

“No really, it’s been five years, I’m so out of practice,” she says.

“So?” he says, raising an eyebrow. “I’m terrible on the violin, you can’t possibly be worse than me.” She shakes her head.

“I can’t.”

Scanlan looks down at the violin in his hands. “It’s a beautiful instrument. I think it might be one of those things worth saving.”

Cassandra looks away, then looks back, then looks away again. She sighs. “You can’t tell people, alright? I don’t want to have to play for anyone.”

“Okay,” Scanlan says, “I won’t.” Cassandra reaches over and takes the violin out of his hands. It’s far too small for her now, but Scanlan has known enough musicians to know when an instrument is the right one for a person, and this at least used to be the right one for her. She tests the bow on the strings.

A horrible screeching sound erupts from the violin. Cassandra cringes. “Sorry!”

“Don’t worry about it,” Scanlan says, prodding his ear with his finger. She looks unsure. “Just play something. Whatever comes to mind.”

Cassandra tests the bow again, this time on a clear C. It rings through the room, dancing among the dust motes before fading into the sunlight. She plays it again, even stronger this time. Then to a D, then back, then an E, and soon she’s weaving a tune of simple, whole notes and measured scales, steady and paced, the musical equivalent of finding your balance on an icy road. Scanlan closes his eyes and listens.

The tune ends, fading off into the afternoon air. Cassandra inhales sharply. Scanlan opens his eyes and looks at her. She’s rubbing a hand across her eyes, but she’s smiling.

“I think I missed that,” she says.

Scanlan nods. “I think the violin did too.”

Cassandra sighs, then looks at him. “Alright, your turn. Play me something.”

Scanlan bows, producing his flute (from thin air! Actually from a sneaky pocket!) with a flourish. “I always love a willing audience.”

They spend the rest of the day there, trading songs and stories, and Scanlan sharing his considerable expertise. They come back the next day and do the same thing. And the next day, and the next, and before Scanlan knows it, they’ve met for a week, and the kid looks happier than he’s ever seen her, and then, like he always does, he has an idea. It’s risky, he’ll admit, but it just might be something great. And so that evening, after they practice, he sits down and he does something he hasn’t done properly in months. He writes.

Scanlan never talks about it, but he loves composing, absolutely loves it. Mostly he writes silly things, little dirty joke songs for Grog or overwrought tongue-in-cheek romantic nonsense to make Pike laugh. He’s not a serious musician, and that’s mostly fine, but when he has the urge to write something serious, something that really makes you feel, it just doesn’t play right. Real emotions don’t sit well on him. But if he wrote a piece for someone else, maybe, just maybe…

He stays up all night, his pen scratching against vellum, ink staining his fingers and soaking into his cuffs, and when the sun shines into his room, he has the first draft of a sonatina for violin on the table before him. It starts a little slow and a little sad, and builds forward, like a tremor below the earth’s surface, and you’d think that when the faultline bursts it would be into chaos and discordant sound, but it doesn’t. Instead it bursts like the sunrise in double time, opening from minor to major in an unfurling of joy. It’s the music of the opposite of death, an opposite that is not life, but rather resurrection.

(If he’s being honest with himself, it’s the music that he heard when Pike was brought back to them, with hair like the sun on snow and something sad in her eyes.)

It’s too good for him. He could never play it. But Cassandra could. And that’s what he tells her that afternoon in the music room, tired and not proud, per se, but amazed with himself, that he could compose something like this.

She’s quiet.

Scanlan fidgets. He doesn’t like quiet. Quiet gives you too much time to consider. “Say something,” he says. “I really can’t play it, it won’t work if it’s me.”

Cassandra looks at the violin. “If I learn to play this, I'll have to perform it. I didn't want anyone to hear me play.”

Scanlan winces. She had said that, hadn’t she? “I forgot. I’m sorry. You don’t have to–” he starts to say, but she raises a hand to stop him.

“Please. Let me finish,” she says. “I didn’t want to. I thought it would be embarrassing, but on some level I think I also thought that I didn’t deserve to. I didn’t deserve music, not now. I’d lost the right, and if anyone heard me they would know that I was taking something that wasn't mine anymore.”

Scanlan shakes his head. “No one deserves music. Making music doesn’t have to be deserved. It just has to make you happy.”

Cassandra’s head turns towards him. “And you think I have the right to do something that makes me happy?”

The question is clearly weighted and measured, like she's testing him, or testing something at least. Maybe herself. Normally, his answer would be joking. Not right now, though. “I think everyone does. That includes you.” 

Cassandra doesn’t say anything. Instead she picks up the violin, and takes a deep breath. There's a change in her eyes when she looks back at him. If Scanlan were to pick a word, he might say that something in them strengthens. “Maybe…maybe I agree with you, at least a little.” She holds out her hand. “Alright. I’ll try.”

I passed, Scanlan thinks. Or maybe you did. He hands her the sheets. “It’s not done yet, and I might add another instrument. Not sure what, though.”

Cassandra purses her lips. “What about a piano?”

Scanlan sighs. “If only I knew a pianist.”

“You do,” says Cassandra. “My brother.”

Scanlan blinks. “Percy? Plays an instrument? He never told me.” All those hours he could have forced Percy to be his accompanist, wasted. A real tragedy, he thinks to himself. Then he thinks fuck, maybe not the right phrasing.

Cassandra nods. “I expect he’s out of practice too. And he might not want to join us.”

That makes Scanlan smile. “Oh, he’ll join us. I’ve lived with your brother for three years now, and I have spent that time doing exactly one thing.”

“What?” she asks.

“Accumulating blackmail.” He rubs his hands together, only barely mock-plotting. Cassandra laughs, and it’s not a sad laugh at all. It’s bright and explosive, the kind of laugh that only comes from someone who hasn’t laughed often. It’s a nice laugh, from a nice kid.

Scanlan hopes he’ll hear it more often.

Chapter Text

They can’t fucking find Cassandra.

They can’t fucking find Cassandra and all the important Whitestone assholes are freaking out, and Percy is doing the thing where he pretends he’s not freaking out but if you know him then you know that he’s freaking out, and that’s making Keyleth and Vex and Scanlan freak out and Vax cannot deal with Keyleth and Vex and Scanlan freaking out.

And Cassandra is missing.

(Back up, slow down, explain)

Winter’s Crest is a big deal in Whitestone. Well, it’s a big deal everywhere, but Vax thinks it’s a particularly big deal in Whitestone this year for good reason. They haven’t had much to celebrate for a long fucking time.

So this year’s celebration, it’s a big one, and everyone’s been getting involved, from the town council to the innkeepers to the farm-hands to Vax’s family. And Cassandra has been particularly invested in helping out. She’s organized the better part of the festival, which, honestly, was a big fucking surprise, because Vax would have thought she’d have needed some space to not be in charge, to just be a kid and enjoy the holiday, but what the hell, right? Whatever makes her happy. Whatever makes everyone happy.

Except, Vax thinks, he’s not so sure she’s happy. Because Vax is not the most observant of his friends (that title goes to Vex or Keyleth or maybe Pike), but he’s pretty good at knowing where in a room is the best place to hide. There are beats to the ways that people watch each other, and if you’re clever enough, and you know what to look for, you can pass between attention spans and go unnoticed in a full room. He’s done it all his life, going back to when he was a teenager in a new city full of people who thought he was trash just because he wasn’t like them. It’s not an unusual thing.

The unusual thing is that, for the first time in ages, someone else is following the same patterns and hiding in the same lapses. Cassandra has something of the roguish about her, it looks like, because sometimes she moves between spaces in the same way that he does when he’s working, dodging glances like they were arrows. Neither of them always move like that. But the fact that she does makes Vax feel something of a kinship to Percy’s little sister. Not everyone appreciates the technique of going unseen. There’s no problem in avoiding people some of the time.

The problem is when it goes too far, like now, when they can’t fucking find Cassandra.

“I checked in the garden,” says Keyleth, her hair falling out of the elaborate twisted pile of braids that Vex put it into specially for tonight, “she’s not out there.”

(Did Vax explain why it was bad that they can’t find Cassandra right now? Oh, right, see, the city council and Percy and Cassandra have organized a kind of opening ceremony for the festival, and it’s really important that everyone be there, but it’s especially important that Cassandra be there, because the opening act for the entire festival is her and Percy playing some sort of fancy musical piece that Scanlan wrote for them. Apparently, the music was inspired by the struggles of Whitestone and the council thought it would inspire civic pride and unity. Vax is pretty sure Percy only agreed because he thought it would make Cassandra happy. They all thought it would make Cassandra happy. So it’s important.)

(Also, Keyleth looks really pretty, but he’s not going to tell her in case it makes her uncomfortable.)

Percy runs his hand over his face, the way he always does when he’s worried. “Well, maybe Vex will find her in the forest, or maybe she’s out in town already.” He looks tired. Percy’s looked really tired for a long time now, and if Vax is being honest, he doesn’t like it.

“Percy,” Keyleth says, her face sympathetic, “she’s okay. She probably just went on ahead.”

“She would have said something if she had,” says Percy. “And it’s not like her to run off.”

Yeah, Vax thinks. Then something occurs to him. It isn’t like her to run. It’s like her to hide.

“Hey, Freddie,” he says, doing his best to mimic Keyleth’s gentle tone, “I’m gonna go have another look, okay? She might be somewhere in the house.”

“Where?” asks Percy. “We’ve checked everywhere.”

“It’s worth a shot, mate,” says Vax, because he doesn’t want to say you don’t think like someone who knows where to hide. You don’t think like us. Because that’s not fair to Percy. Even if it’s true. Percy nods, his expression resigned, and it’s only because Vax knows Percy that he can see how scared he is that his sister has vanished. He reaches out a hand and pats Percy on the shoulder. “I’ll find her.” And then Vax does what he does best.

He disappears.

Vex is the tracker of the two. Give her a trail and something to hunt, and she’ll turn up something better in a day than Vax could in a week. But Vax doesn’t think like a hunter. He thinks like prey. So he doesn’t track Cassandra. Instead he hides, in every sheltered place he can think of, and as he hops from hidey-hole to hidey-hole he keeps his eyes open for someone sharing his shadow. He goes through the first floor like this, and then the second, and the third, and Cassandra is nowhere, and Vax is starting to get nervous, because what if he’s wrong? What if she’s really gone?

He steps out of the shadows and leans against a wall, next to the window. The window. And just like that it hits him. What’s the best place for sneak thieves like them to cross unseen, after all?

He smiles to himself. “No one ever checks the roofs.”

The window opens easily, and he’s in luck because there is a nice, wide ledge for him to step out onto. Well, relatively wide, anyway, and his dressy boots are not nearly grippy enough for him to be comfortable out here, but good thieves make do, and Vax is a good thief. He doesn’t have any of his fancy climbing gear, but the roof is not far up and he’s done this before. And lucky him, the brickwork is rough enough that there are plenty of handholds. He digs his fingers around one and starts to pull himself up.

The climb is slower going than he’d like, but he makes it up to the roof, and it’s flat enough that he can stand without slipping. He hops to a crouch, and then rises up, turning to survey the area. Twilight is coming on fast, but it’s still light enough that he (and his half-elf eyes) can see across the flat planes of tiling. And sure enough, pressed up against a chimney and curled in on herself, Cassandra is there. She’s looking away from him. Her face is turned instead towards Whitestone.

Vax is careful to walk loudly up behind her. There are times to be quiet, but coming up behind a scared kid isn’t one of them. And she is a kid, isn’t she? For all she tries to act like a grown-up, she’s just a kid, and of course this is too much for her. Of course she’s learned how to hide.

He crouches down next to her. “Mind if I join you?”

She doesn’t look at him, but she also doesn’t flinch away. “No.”

Vax eases down into sitting. Cassandra still doesn’t look at him. She stares silently out over the city. Vax doesn’t say anything. Mainly because he can’t think of anything to say.

Finally he says, “D’you mind if I let your brother know that you’re okay?”

He’s surprised that that’s what causes Cassandra to finally look at him. She looks terrified. “Please don’t tell him where I am!”

Vax puts up his hands. “Woah, there. I won’t tell him anything you don’t want me to. He’s worried, that’s all, and he probably wants to know that you aren’t hurt.”

Cassandra stares at him. She must believe him, because she nods slowly. “I don’t want to scare him.”

Vax reaches up and presses his earring, reaching out to all his family in range. “I found her,” he says, “she’s okay.”

Percy replies almost instantaneously. “She’s okay? Where is she?

“She’s safe, and I’m with her,” Vax says, trying to keep his voice level. “We’ll be back soon. Just trust me.”

Over the earring, Percy sighs. “I trust you.

Vax takes his hand away from the earring. Then, as a second thought, he takes it out of his ear and slips it into his pocket. Cassandra watches him.

“I’m not reporting back on you,” he says by way of explanation. “No one needs to know about this place.”

Cassandra wraps her arms around her knees and doesn’t say anything. Vax stretches his legs out and leans back against the chimney.

“It’s a nice view,” he says.

 Cassandra says nothing.

Vax exhales. “I’d ask you how you found it, but I think it’s pretty obvious.”

This time she laughs. “They never looked up. They would check under my bed and in all the closets, but it never occurred to them that I went up. This was the only place that I had that they didn't know about.”

Vax laughs too. “I used to hide on roofs too. My father was too dignified to even consider climbing up to get me. I got out of a lot of shitty parties that way.” He looks at her. “Is that why you’re up here? Hiding from the party?”

In response, Cassandra pulls her legs even closer to her chest and rests her chin atop her knees. She breathes in and out, the way that Keyleth does when she feels overwhelmed by her anxiety. It dawns on him that she must have taught the tactic to Cassandra, trying to help her. They’ve all been trying so hard to help her.

“I thought I was getting better,” she says, startling Vax. He hadn’t expected her to speak.

“What?” he asks, more out of shock than anything else.

Cassandra rubs her eyes with the back of her hand. “I thought I was getting better. I was getting better. I was talking to people, and I was going out and I was helping with things and I was being responsible and I thought I was feeling better about everything and I didn’t think I’d want to play my violin in front of everyone but I was actually excited and it was so important for everyone, but then I started thinking what if everyone sees me and they remember what I did and then they’ll really hate me and I just…It was too much. I had to get away, I had to and I’m so scared…” she trails off.

Vax, if he is being completely honest with himself, has no idea what to say. But he has to say something. So he says “You’re afraid?”

Cassandra looks down. “Don’t make fun of me.”

“I’m not!” he says, throwing up his hand in front of him. “I swear, I wouldn’t. You’re afraid of something. Maybe I can help you deal with it.”

She scoffs. “I don’t think you can. I don’t think anyone can. And I know you’re all trying, but if I’m back up here then maybe nothing can ever change, and I’ll spend the rest of my life hiding from people so I can’t disappoint them.”

Vax reaches out a hand to touch her shoulder, then retracts it. He sighs. “You know, when Vex and I first left our dad’s house, I didn’t really know what to do. I mean, I knew where we were going, and I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how.”

Cassandra sniffs, which Vax takes as acknowledgement. He continues.

“See, I spent a lot of time when I was younger avoiding my dad. Vex is tougher than me, and she fought with him, but I mostly hid. I learned that in order to stay sane I had to stay out of the way as much as possible. And when we left, I didn’t know how to stop. Sometimes I still don’t know how to stop. I’m what, ten years older than you? It took me years to unlearn those instincts. Give yourself a break. You said you were getting better, yeah?” Cassandra nods at him. “I think you still are. Relapse is not a failure, Cassandra.”

She squeezes her knees. “Everyone is counting on me to be better, though. And it’s not even that important, it’s just music, but I can’t do it. I’ve let them down so badly, and I don't want them to know.”

“You haven’t let me down,” says Vax. “Or Percy, or Vex, or any of us. It’s okay for things to be too much. We just want you to be safe, and if part of being safe is you having somewhere to go, or being able to say when everything is too much, then that’s what you need. ”

Cassandra doesn’t say anything, but her posture has relaxed, slightly. Vax sits with her for a few more minutes, until he’s sure she’s not panicking anymore, and then stands up carefully.

“I’m going back down, if that’s alright with you. I’m gonna tell everyone that you’re okay, and that you aren’t able to play tonight, and you’ll be there when you’re ready and, but I won’t tell anyone about this spot. Sound good?”

Cassandra nods. “Yeah, alright.” She doesn’t get up. Instead, she tugs her coat tighter around her and stretches her legs out in front of her. As Vax starts climbing down to the window, he thinks he hears the sound of humming. It makes him smile as he ducks back through the window. His feet hit the ground, and he steps out of the shadows. As he walks to the foyer where Percy paces, he thinks about hiding places, and the boundaries that he had needed in order to find a way to be seen again. He thinks that he and Cassandra are alike in that way, too. He had needed once what she needs now. He figures he can help her with that. 

Chapter Text

If someone asked Pike if she regretted staying behind in Whitestone while the rest of Vox Machina went off to Marquet, she would probably say “no.”

Okay, she would probably actually say that her feelings on the matter were really complicated. Because on one hand, her family needs her. They always need her, and she always needs them, and it hurts her heart when they’re away from her. She misses them terribly, from her midnight theological debates with Vax to girl’s trips with Keyleth and Vex, and of course she misses everything about Grog. She loves travelling with them, and she loves helping people, and she loves a good brawl, and those are all things she misses out on when she stays behind.

But the thing is, you can’t always be going. Sometimes you need to stay. And right now, Pike feels that need. In some ways, she always feels it. She felt it in Vasselheim, the compulsion to see the recovery of the temple through, or at least as through as she could. And she feels it here now. Whitestone is a community in need of stability. It needs its heroes, yes, but it also needs its mooring points. She can’t leave things here unfinished. She doesn’t want this place to drift away.

Besides, it’s always nice to have a chance to be a cleric. She likes this, this chance to do the spiritual work that Vox Machina doesn’t really need from her. She likes being a source of comfort and counsel for people in need. It’s good work. It means something.

Slowly, she’s getting to know the people of the city. They’re afraid of the dragons, certainly, but they’re also just people, and they have problems that she can help with. Some of them are in mourning, some of them are joyful, some are petty, and some are lost, and she might not be able to save them on her own, but she can help them as they are now. She’s gotten good at spotting when someone will seek her out, but some are a surprise. Cassandra, for example. Cassandra surprises her.

They’ve spoken a few times, mostly light conversation or logistical stuff for the council, but Cassandra hasn’t exactly expressed interest in visiting the little temple to Sarenrae that Pike has been slowly putting together. It’s not a huge deal. Pike has never been much of a missionary. If people need her or her faith, they will come on their own terms. She’s figured that Cassandra is just not the religious type. So she feels she’s a little justified in being startled when she opens the door to the temple one evening and Cassandra is standing there.

“Cassandra,” she says.

“Pike.” Cassandra looks around her and, sounding almost embarrassed, says “May I come in?”

That shakes her sense of surprise. Never let it be said that the granddaughter of Wilhand Trickfoot didn’t know her manners. “Of course,” she says, stepping out of the way.

 The building is candlelit and warm, as it always it. Pike leads Cassandra to the row of chairs at the front of the room and pulls one out to her. “Would you like to sit down?” she asks, claiming one of her own across the aisle.

Cassandra sits, but she sits like she’s afraid she’ll break the chair. Her hands rest in her lap, still twisted up in each other. She takes a deep breath and looks like she’s about to say something. Then she exhales and says nothing.

Pike waits for her to speak. She does this often, waiting for the other person to start the conversation. There is a healing energy in being the first one to speak. It has to come from the person in need. No matter how much anyone else wants them to get better, they have to begin the process for themselves.

Cassandra breathes in and out again, and slowly her hands untwist. Pike sits and waits. She takes the moments of silence and uses them to reach out to Sarenrae and find the comfort of her bond with her goddess. Let me be wise, she thinks, let me help her. Maybe it’s her imagination, but she feels the light in the room grow a little bit warmer and a little bit brighter.

“I’m not sure why I’m here,” Cassandra says, finally. She looks down at her hands.

“You don’t have to have a reason,” says Pike. “Sometimes I come in here just to sit and do nothing.”

Cassandra smiles. “I’m afraid I don’t have much time to sit and do nothing. Whitestone won’t run itself. I shouldn’t be wasting time.”

“It’s not wasting time to need some space for yourself,” Pike says. “If you just need somewhere to be quiet, we can do that here. I’ll leave you alone.”

Cassandra doesn’t say anything back, so Pike assumes that she’s taken her up on the offer of a quiet space. She gets up and starts to tidy the shrine. The morning’s incense has burned down to ash. She dusts it up and replaces it, leaving it unlit for the time being. She smooths the altar cloth and adds fresh water to the vases of flowers that stand around the symbol of the Everlight. She relights the candles that have blown out and replaces the ones that have burned down. Once she’s finished, she takes a step back and admires her work. It’s not nearly as grand a shrine as the ones in Emon and Vasselheim, but it’s clean and it’s nice and it feels holy.

“Can I ask you something?” says Cassandra from behind her. Her voice is quiet and a little unsure.

Pike turns to face her. “That depends, I think. What did you want to ask?”

 “I was wondering…do you ever get mad? When they leave you behind, I mean.”

Pike frowns, pensive. “What do you mean by ‘leave me behind?’”

“I mean when they go off to be heroes and you stay here. Does it ever make you feel angry that they can just do that? Just go off and leave you?” Cassandra folds in on herself as she speaks. The red in her face rises, painting her cheeks with embarrassment or possibly anger.

Pike thinks for a moment. “Sometimes. It’s more complicated than that for me, though. I chose to stay here, because I felt like I had work to do. I’m needed here.  But,” she says, smiling softly, “I don’t think we’re talking about that, really.”

Cassandra looks down. “No. I’m not sure we are.”

Pike nods. “What are we talking about, then?”

Cassandra’s fingers curl and uncurl. “I know I don’t have any right to be angry,” she says. “I owe it to this city to serve it. I’ll spend the rest of my life working for the good of Whitestone, and I think that's what I want.”

“But,” says Pike.

“But,” says Cassandra, “I keep thinking about Percy leaving. Again. And how I have to be in charge and deal with everything and keep everyone safe and happy all on my own. And I feel so…angry. That he gets to leave and I have to stay. It’s not fair. I know that’s childish, but it’s not.” She sits down and folds her hands in her lap. Her face is flushed, although Pike can’t tell with what emotion anymore.

Pike sits down next to her. “Can I tell you something?”

Cassandra nods, her lips pressed into a firm line.

“There's nothing wrong with being the one who stays behind. I don’t regret it. I’ve done it before. And the places I've stayed behind in have been worth it. But sometimes I do resent it when they leave. I understand why they do it. They're needed out there. But they leave, and they do new things and they bond, and I miss out. Sometimes I wish they would wait for me. And sometimes I wish they would stay. ” Pike looks down. She doesn’t often voice these thoughts. It would hurt her family to hear them, she thinks. But hearing them might help Cassandra, and that is worth it. 

Cassandra’s head lifts. “I don't want to be out fighting dragons. I like helping, and I like what I do here. But...I miss my brother. I'm worried that he's running away, not just from Whitestone. From me. And I'm tired of being alone at the head of the city. I want...I want someone to help me. Someone who can be there. I'm afraid he won't  do that. I don't even know how to say that I want that."

"You know, I think that's okay," says Pike. "Despite the dragons, things are starting to feel normal here. People have time to have problems that aren't catastrophic. And when all you know is catastrophe, well, figuring out what it means for things to just go on is hard. That's part of why I'm here, I think. We can all use some stability right now."

They sit quietly for a while. Pike watches the lights of the candles leap and dance and thinks about faraway places and the people she lets go of when she knows she cannot follow them. If she closes her eyes, she can imagine them here with her. She doesn’t know what they would say. Beside her, she hears Cassandra take another deep breath. The she says, “I don’t think I know how to deal with things becoming normal.”

“It’s trickier than it looks,” Pike says. “Not all heroes fight dragons. Some of us put the world back together after the dragons have gone.” She thinks for a moment. “I don’t know if I should be telling you this, but I don’t think Percy knows what to do without a monster to kill. I think he doesn’t know how to deal with ‘normal’ either.”

“No, I don’t think he does.” Cassandra’s brow furrows. “I should talk to him."

"I think that's a good idea," says Pike. "Maybe you can figure out what normal is together. Maybe we all can."

Candlelight dances across the altar and catches on the symbol of Sarenrae, casting shimmering reflections across the temple. “It’s nice,” Cassandra says. “This place.”

“I’m glad you like it,” says Pike. “You can come back whenever you want to. I’ll be here for a while.”

Cassandra laughs softly. “You know, I might just take you up on that.”

The candlelight flickers for another moment, and then steadies. Maybe it’s Pike’s imagination, but it feels like it grows a little bit warmer and a little bit brighter.

Chapter Text

It’s good to be home, Percy thinks, even if the reason he’s home is because he died.

Maybe there’s something sad about how comfortable death has become for all of them. They walked on eggshells around Pike for months after she died, but now they’re all back up on their feet, fighting on against the apocalypse. Normal people would take the time to process their loss and the subsequent resurrection. But then, Percy’s family has never been normal. Or rather, the things that are normal for them would perhaps be the unmaking of anyone else.

He catches them looking at him with odd, soft eyes every now and again, and there are moments of tenderness when he notices fear and loss in their expressions. Pike checks on him gently, taking his pulse and testing his reflexes when she has a second. Scanlan teases him, hiding concern behind jokes like always. Vax slings an arm around his shoulder with a kind of conscious casualness that reminds him of the way they were before the Sunken Tomb. Keyleth hugs him, teary-eyed, whenever she gets the chance. Grog hugs him too, a big, rib-crushing embrace that he finds he’s shockingly grateful for. Vex…Vex smiles at him and ducks her head, and he gets the sense that she’s avoiding him.

(He knows why, of course, he knows why. But what can he say? How can he tell her how he feels?)

Perhaps it is because of the renewed care he feels from his family, or perhaps it is just that Whitestone is home again, for the first time in years. Whatever the reason, he thinks, it is good. Home is good.

There’s just one thing that’s maybe not so good.

He hasn’t talked to Cassandra.

And it’s not that he’s avoiding it, not really. It’s just, things are bad right now in a lot of ways, and he’s very busy, and besides, everyone knows he’s not exactly very good at the things a lord should do, and…

All right, maybe he’s been avoiding it. He just doesn’t want to ruin the careful balance they’ve got right now. So much is hanging on them keeping Whitestone together. On her keeping Whitestone together, and he knows it’s not fair to put all this on her shoulders, but he doesn’t know how to fix it.

He hates it when he can’t fix things. It makes his mind...itch.

It is good to be home, even though the reason is he died, but the longer he spends at home, the more he thinks about how he hasn’t spoken to Cassandra and how he doesn’t know how to solve this one, and the more he gets dragged down into a bit of a half-dread half-guilt funk. And so, as the afternoon turns to evening a day or two after he returns from the dead, Percy finds himself walking down to the graveyard on the edge of town to clear his head.

It’s a tad morbidly ironic, when he thinks about it. He kind of likes that.

Whitestone’s graveyard is centuries old and wonderfully quiet. There is a dirt path that leads up to it, which could have been paved years ago but never has been. The pale headstones come up from the grass like the stumps of long-dead trees. Percy knows that proximity to death makes some people uncomfortable, but he hasn’t felt like that in a long, long time. Perhaps he knows death too well to be put off by its presence.

The afternoon air is crisp and cool around him as he passes the headstones of long-dead relatives and constituents. His feet carry him without thought. They know exactly where he is going. There is a small marble bench below a willow tree that grows near the grave of a woman named Marjorie, who lived a hundred and thirty years ago. It has always been the spot where he does his best thinking. The bench is cracked now, and dirtier than he remembers, but the willow is large and green and its branches trail down and float through the air in the wind. Not everything ended up broken in the time he was away, it seems. That’s somewhat comforting.

He sits on his bench and closes his eyes, breathing in the green and damp and spongey smell of the early spring forest, clearing the scent of blood and gunpowder from his nose. The small, itchy part of his brain that tells him he should be working on a solution flares up, but he tries his best to cover it in pine needles and soft earth. Quiet now, he tells it, we need a clear head if we’re going to solve anything.

He is so focused on trying to calm the itch that he doesn’t hear the soft thud of boots on dirt until it’s too late.

“I thought I’d find you up here,” says a voice from in front of him. He opens his eyes, and there she is.

“Cassandra,” he says. He has dreaded this.

“Percival,” she says back, hands on her hips. “You’ve been avoiding me.”

“I…” he starts, then sighs. “Yes. Yes, I suppose I have.”

“I don’t appreciate that you’ve been avoiding me.” She folds her arms.

Percy raised his eyebrows. “Well, I did die. It’s been a bit of a busy time.” He means it jokingly, but Cassandra’s expression falls, and her folded arms tighten. Instantly, he’s on his feet. “Cass, I—”

“Don’t,” she says, “don’t you dare joke about it.”

Guilt wells up in his stomach. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that.”

(He knows why he said that.)

Cassandra shakes her head. “No, it’s…” she trails off. Her arms relax, and she takes a deep breath. “We need to talk, Percy. We’ve needed to talk for a while now.”

Percy nods. “And we’re going to talk here? In the graveyard?”

“If we have to,” she says. And she sits, looking at him expectantly.

He sits. Around them, the wind lifts the soft green arms of the willow. They dance above the graves, and Percy cannot look at his sister, so he looks at them instead. “What…did you want to say?”

“A lot of things, I think,” Cassandra says. Her voice is slightly halting, but she speaks with a confidence that Percy isn’t sure he’s heard from her in…well, in a good while, anyway. “I’m…that is, I’m…” she takes another deep breath. “I’m not happy with how things are. Between us. About Whitestone. And I promised myself I would tell you when you came home, but…”

“But I came home dead,” he says.

Cassandra exhales. “But you came home dead. And Percy, I thought you were dead for so long. I’d only just gotten you back.”

Percy sighs. “I’m not going to apologize for going after Ripley. It was a more than worthy thing to die for. But,” he says, “I’m sorry it hurt you. Believe me, that was not my intention.”

“I don’t believe it’s ever been your intention to hurt me,” she says. “That doesn’t mean you haven’t.”

And oh, that stings him. He looks down, studying the earth below. Shame prickles along the back of his neck. In the corner of his vision he sees Cassandra’s hands curl and uncurl, the way they always do when she has more to say than she expresses. “I’m sorry,” he manages to say around the lump growing in his throat.

“I know you are. I know you don’t mean it, but you leave, and you keep leaving and I’m so tired of having to do this on my own,” she says. “I’ve hurt you too. I’ve hurt so many people, and I am trying to be better, but I need you. I needed my brother back. But you only came back to me dead.”

Percy shakes his head. “I don’t…I can’t…I want to be here. I want to come home. It’s all I’ve ever wanted for…but I…there’s so much work to do.” His hands fidget with his cuffs of their own volition. His throat feels constricted. He tugs his cravat loose and winds it around his fingers, trying to keep them busy. The itch in the back of his brain that tells him he should be solving this has become a burning rush, pulling him back to the workshop, to the scent of blood and gunpowder and the work that must be done.

A hand touches his shoulder, and finally, finally, Percy turns to face his sister. Her eyes are hemmed in with dark circles, but her hair is mostly down, with only the front few strands braided. He recognizes the style, he thinks. It’s one that Vex does for Vax sometimes. She smiles, and her smile is sad, but it is a different sadness than the one he’s known from her. In the back of his mind, past the rush of solve-save-work-run, he remembers white and blue flowers, an axe outside a door, a duet for violin and piano, the sound of boots on the roof, laughter from the forest and candlelight in the temple, and just like that it all fits together. What his friends, his family, have been doing for his sister.

“They’ve been a better family to you than I have,” he says.

Cassandra’s brow furrows. “What are you talking about?”

“Vox Machina. They’ve been here for you.” He swallows. “I haven’t.”

Cassandra starts to shake her head. “That’s not what I–”

“No, it’s true, I haven’t been here.” He runs his hands through his hair, another nervous tic he’s never quite been able to shake. “I don’t know how. I’ve spent so long living for revenge, I don’t know how to be without it. I never planned past that final shot, and I wasn’t even the one to take it. Cass, I have no idea what I’m supposed to do now. Kill the Briarwoods, kill these dragons, and then what?”

Cassandra regards him, and he has no idea what to call her expression. She turns to look out over the graveyard, and as she does she leans against him. Her head rests on his shoulder, and he feels himself deflate into the contact. She breathes in and out beside him. “I don’t know. I don’t know how to live in a world where I don’t need to be afraid. I need to figure that out. But Percy, one thing I do know is that I want to figure it out with you. And we can’t figure it out together if you won’t stay. So please. Please stay alive. Please come back. Please find out what comes next with me.”

The sun begins to dip below the trees, and the branches of the willow dance in the breeze. Percy lets the cool air fill his lungs, and lets himself taste pine and green smells, not blood and ash. The leaves around them rustle with unseen activity, and the songs of night birds fill the air. Even in the graveyard, he thinks, there is life. Even here, things move forward. “I promise. I’ll try.”

He cannot see her face, but he hears her smile in her voice. “Thank you.”

The windows of Whitestone begin to fill with light as evening settles in. He can almost hear the sounds of life going on. Unafraid, after so long in terror. People, he thinks, have a remarkable way of continuing. They go on. They are all learning a new way to be.

“I love you, Cassandra. I hope you know.”

“I know. I love you too, Percy.”

And here’s the thing. It’s not the answer he’s looking for. It’s not even an answer at all. For now, at least for now, it’s enough.