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i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

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Sometimes, the universe course-corrects.

It’s for the better, on occasion. This is a rare kindness, since most shifts in fate and magic tend towards disaster first and foremost, as a function of entropy, which, unlike many enterprising magic users will insist, even the divine must give heed to. Yes, most times when the universe changes its mind and twists halfway through the pull of time, tying knots in the strings of fate, it leads to a great redistribution of new headaches, though it always comes undone and is put in order eventually.

But everyone should be given the freedom to change their minds when they realize they’ve done wrong, and fate is no exception.

For example, Percival and Vex’ahlia were not born soulmates.

This is, to some degree, understandable. Upon their births, nobody would have expected them to ever meet each other by normal circumstances, one born in a castle in the farthest northern reach of the continent, and the other in a two-bed hut down in the sweltering, near-tropical south of that same landmass. One was a human, and the other equal parts that and not that. Nobody could be blamed for not expecting them to cross paths, and, perhaps, in lieu of each other, they were assigned others.

Percival Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III was born with the words May I have this dance? Written in beautiful cursive just below his collarbone, ink-black and hidden well by his many layers of clothing as he grew up. Given his position in life, this was quite standard, and welcome, as it ensured that, unlike many less fortunate than him, he would likely be permitted to both marry a soulmate and enter a political union, simultaneously and all-in-one.

Which isn’t something that troubled young Percival, really. Percy was mostly occupied with his books, and his workshop, and very little else.

It should happen, then, that it ends up not mattering much at all, when the de Rolos become, all of one night, very scarce creatures in this world.

When he makes makes a deal, hardly aware of what he is doing, the words under his collarbone are the furthest thing from his mind. What is on his mind is vengeance, is projectiles, and black powder, and a voice, somehow both chilling and blazing furious heat, offering, offering, and himself, inspired, agreeing.

It is only after, in a moment between fugue states, that he looks himself over and finds a young man in the dingy mirror, hardly recognizable, with matted brown hair being pushed back by greying roots, a smooth, childlike chin replaced by an uneven stubble, his glasses sitting on a hooked nose, cracked. Some nobility’s son he makes now. And, on his upper chest, leaner than it had ever been, the full color of his words falls away to muddy grey, the letters hardly defined anymore, like tattoos coming undone with age. When he touches the skin there, finding it bruised and dry, the color flakes off in his fingertips, shedding in uneven splotches and leaving behind it raw, irritated lines.

The letters, though marred, remain, as though only to serve as a reminder for the price he has agreed to pay. For the most part, he doesn’t regret it.

But when he’s chained to the bottom of a cell, dehydrated and maintaining a loose grip on his awareness in streaks and strides alone, he looks down at the words flaking away at his chest, and thinks, for the first time, that it would have been nice, being someone’s. He thinks, at the edge of oblivion, that belonging with someone, building a life with them, could have been nice, and the idea is not soothing, but it is kinder, and so he indulges in it.

And when he prays, to the gods, to the fates, to whatever it is he prays to, for someone, anyone, to come find him, there is a moment he imagines that the mark on his collarbone becomes more prominent. But when he looks again, it is only the light of a door being opened further down the hall, casting a thin sunbeam over him.

Percy had been far enough from the sun, and delirious enough from the cell and the beatings, that when the woman, her face still shrouded in darkness, steps through the doorway and approaches, he can almost believe that the light framing her is her own, like the glow of a torch, or star. She moves further in, the shadow sliding off of her face like a hood pulled back, and she is beautiful. He has never cared for appearances before, vain as he can be, and he thinks that anyone coming through the door with a smile and an open hand would have been beautiful to him, but she is, objectively, ethereal. Her dark hair is pulled back in a braid, her smirk crooked and showing just the faint glint of teeth, her features sharp and well-defined, not caught between human and elf, but of their own entirely, and in the low light, her eyes seem to reflect gold. The bridge of her nose shows signs of having been broken several times before, and the asymmetry, which ought to look unbalanced, is instead utterly disarming.

She, whoever she is, cannot be real. These things simply do not happen, much less happen to him.

But the illusion approaches, unheeding of his certainty in her nonexistence, and speech gathers in her throat. In the moment before she speaks, Percy remembers the words on his chest, just beneath and to the left of his collarbone, and thinks, as a test, that if she says the first words his soulmate was meant to say to him, then he can be fully confident that she is not real. If she says elsewise, then there can at least be doubt.

She says, in an intrigued voice, “Hello there, darling,” then, turning, she calls, “Vax! I found something.”

What he feels, then, is relief that there is at least doubt, that there is at least a chance that this is real, followed by a slight nudge of disappointment he does not yet understand.

When the bear comes through the door, followed by a near-identical male version of his would-be rescuer, that is soon replaced by a wave of humor, and for the first time in quite some time, he finds himself laughing. “Is that a bear?”

The woman (Vex, as he would know her by in the years to come) purses her lips in resigned displeasure, and says, “Why yes, he is a bear.”

If Percy had not already agreed to at least give this hallucination the benefit of doubt, he would have complained that his mind could not even provide a believable fantasy for him to indulge in.

. . .

Unfortunately, much in the same way Hello there, darling, are not the words that comprise Percival’s soulmark, Is that a bear? are not Vex’s.

No, Vex’s are, as far as soulmarks go, fairly unkind.

Fate can be a bitch that way.

While many people have more than one soulmark, and just as many are platonic, like Grog and Pike, who have both marks for each other, and, in Pike’s case, another she keeps closely guarded, Vex and Vax are not born with soulmarks for each other. They never needed them. They’d known each other since long before they could speak, they have no need for words to declare them bound for life.

Vax is born with two, one on each wrist, right beneath where he wears his heart, and Elaina tells him that words on the wrist mean that he’ll make a good first impression, and that having more than one just shows that he’ll have a lot of love to share. When Vex asks, pulling at the sleeve that she’s sewn for her to cover her forearm with, what the foreign lettering that make up her mark mean, Elaina’s face grows somber. Elaina is not an educated woman, but she has always been smart, and quick to learn, and she’s picked up enough elvish over the years. So she sits her daughter, still far too small to be asked to understand this, on her knee, and quietly explains to her what elvish is, what the words mean, and, for the first time, what a slur is.

Superstition says: soulmarks on the wrist mean good first impression; soulmarks on the forearm mean it’s gonna take a little longer. Vex thinks: soulmarks on the forearm mean you should thank the gods that archery vambraces are this long.

She wears the sleeve that her mother made her until it tears and she loses it, at age twelve. Then she uses cloth wrapping, under her gloves, and arm-guards, when she can. Elves are usually busy enough staring at her and her brother’s ears that they don’t pay mind to the fact that Vex’s right arm is never bared from the elbow down, and she keeps it that way. She isn’t ashamed of what she is, but she doesn’t want them seeing it, either, it feels like proving them right. When a boy they share a tutor with tries to tear off the wrapping after class one day, Vax blackens his eye, then gets a broken wrist for his trouble, and the scuffle worsens.

By the time they escape and she can heal them with the spare dregs of magic she can gather, and his stolen healing potion, they’re both panting, and blood is dripping sluggishly down Vex’s lip from a busted nose. It doesn’t hurt, not as much as Vax’s wrist should hurt. He puts his good hand on her shoulder and holds firm, and says, “Anyone who calls you that, doesn’t deserve you, Stubby. Promise me you won’t let anyone call you that.”

“I won’t,” she says, voice weird from the blood leaking down the back of her throat when she tilts her face up to look at him.

“Promise me?”

“I promise, Vax.”

The wounds heal, but they carry the marks-- the slight angle of Vax’s left wrist, the crookedness of Vex’s nose. They change, but they carry the marks. Vex doesn’t let anyone see the words on her arm for a very, very long time.

She does let someone call her that, more than once. It is easier to let them say it than fight every time, like Vax wants her to. She tries to keep that from him, too, so he doesn’t think she’s giving up. Vex loves her brother immensely, and would both kill and die for him without hesitation, but she could write a tome of things she hasn’t told him, to keep him smiling. He’s so full of love, her twin, born with two marks because it could not be contained to one, and she doesn’t want him to lose that just because she got a bad one.

Here is one thing Vex doesn’t tell Vax: she met her soulmate, once.

It was on an especially rainy season, and they were out of coin, but needed a place to stay the night. She’d found them an inn, and asked Vax to stay outside with Trinket while she worked her charm on the place, and she gave him a winning smile as she went, disguising nerves.

The owner of the pub was an elf, broader than most, but not bigger than she could bring down if she needed to. He looked down his nose at her when she approached, and she knew that she was sopping wet, looking more like an urchin begging for scraps than a customer. She had no coin, but she could still cut a deal, she thought. She could trade. There were things she could trade.

Before she could open her mouth, the elf sniffed hard and made a dismissive sweeping motion with his hand. In elvish, he said, “Be on your way, mutt.”

Under her sleeve, Vex’s forearm stung, as though the skin was cut through, and she resisted the urge to sneak a hand through her shirt to rub the words hidden there. She’d traced the shape of the large, block letters written on her arm enough times to recognize them when spoken aloud without checking.

The elf was a fair deal older than her, likely late twenties-early thirties to her seventeen. He wasn’t terrible looking, but he wasn’t handsome either-- he was plain, and it was not improved by his severe expression. That was the thing with fate, it could account for events, but not for time. In ten, fifteen years, this man will have learned the error of his ways, you understand. In ten, fifteen years, they will be more or less the same age, physically, and she will have more gold than he could ever dream of, and he’d be kind, and redeemed by her. This was the original schematic, and while it wasn’t ideal, it was functional. Fate always errs towards functionality, when it can.

But Vex did not have ten, fifteen years to wait for a man to glean redemption from her, nor had the capacity to invest ten, fifteen years in him to make him a halfway decent man. She was seventeen, and tired, and she had mouths to feed and a roof to find shelter under.

So she left. She never learned his name, nor had interest in ever learning. In a way, it was liberating, knowing she never had to worry about meeting her soulmate again.

Considering how little she cares about who sees her naked, it takes a surprisingly long time for the rest of Vox Machina to see her mark. Technically, Grog sees it first, but Grog can’t read, and honestly, never really bothered with the whole “soulmate’s first words” thing. His soulmark is written in Pike’s scrawling handwriting on his shoulder, and he has no interest in reading it anytime soon, knowing well enough already who it refers to. Pike’s own corresponding mark, on her opposite shoulder, is a wilting doodle of a sun. They understand each other just fine.

If Scanlan can read elvish, he doesn’t say anything about it when he catches her putting on her armor, her sleeves folded back to wrap a new cloth around her forearm, intending to finish before he got up and joined her on the last watch of the night. He looks interested in the scripture of it, and she supposes that, if one can’t read the words, they do look rather nice, calligraphic, in a way most elvish is.

Keyleth can read elvish, but she’s still sheltered, as much as she tries, and has grown in a community that does not look down on half-breeds. Sometimes, Vex is envious of her for that. It takes her a few moments to understand the weight of the words, as she watches Vex smear salve over her right hand, the knuckles torn open in a scrap where she could not gather distance enough to use her bow. When she recognizes their implication, she shifts a little closer in her seat, and rests her hand gently over the inseam of Vex’s elbow, petting gently like she’d seen her do with plantlife before, soothing. A peal of respect for the girl unravels in Vex’ahlia’s chest, unfurling like the frond of a fern. There is something to be said about Keyleth, in that she did not let herself be hardened easily. It’s no small thing, remaining soft in a world which kept proving itself to harder and crueler with every passing day.

Pike doesn’t know elvish, but she is perceptive, and she asks, folding herself around Vex’s broken arm mid-repair, “What do these mean?”

She traces a hand briefly over the scripture, and Vex bites down on a shudder, stomach listing unpleasantly. Pike’s small thumb, barely glancing over the letters, feels as though it has gone directly through flesh, and runs against sinew and nerve endings, touching something visceral and internal. She does not intend to pry, Vex thinks, but Pike is a curious woman, and knows how to knuckle down on someone when she has to pull the answer out from their clenched teeth.

When she reads the words aloud, first in elvish then in common, Pike scowls menacingly, as though plotting to find the speaker herself. But instead of going on the warpath quite yet, she goes back to work, mending bone and muscle. The tendons on an archer are delicate, and demand close inspection to make sure they heal back in order, and the way she works her glowing hands over the break is not dissimilar to Scanlan hunched over a lute, carefully tuning the strings to pitch.

Tiberius never sees her soulmark. She does not think he cares much to learn everyone's, occupied as he is with greater things than words.

And that leaves their newest acquisition, Percival, and here is the seed of the issue, which, given time and sunlight, will sprout and germinate.


 

In Vox Machina’s company, Percy finds himself significantly better off in several concrete ways. He’s eating more, for one, and sleeping better. He moves further away from the past, and closer to vengeance. Vox Machina, alongside providing innumerable other services, gets him where he needs to go. He supposes that’s the most he could ask for.

As for the words beneath his collarbone, he keeps them to himself, not so much out a shame out of them, as he’s not especially comfortable stripping down as much of his party seems to be. Most of them keep their soulmarks covered anyway, so no-one minds it especially. Keyleth’s marks are numerous as well as nebulous, as he is given to understand, or at least that’s how she describes them to him, “As changing as the seasons.” She prefers to keep them covered, as, for long-lived creatures as she could stand to be, soulmates are something fate tends to make up on the fly. Scanlan makes no move to hide his, or disguise the fact that the words are Pike’s, despite the fact that she has yet to confirm or deny if hers are his.

Grog… doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

As for the twins, Vax wears his emotions with pride, and though he doesn’t go out of his way to take off his gloves for the world to see, he doesn’t disguise his soulmarks either. And that leaves Vex.

And, well, that leaves Vex.

Though time marches on, and the day she found him at the bottom of the cell is pushed to the back of his mind, the little twinge of confliction still rests in his stomach. She is, after all, one of the most beautiful people he’s ever met, and familiarity brings new admiration, of her perceptiveness, her way with words, a mind sharper and quicker than she allows strangers to recognize. In spare, indulgent moments, Percy stokes a disappointment for what might have been, in a different world. This isn’t love yet, but admiration has its own sway and appeal, and he thinks, in another time, when he would have been a better man, they could have been good to each other. Instead, he sketches designs for a rifle and ignores the peeling, greying words of his soulmark under his coat.

It happens moments after the end of a battle, Vex having pulled him into the natural cover just a few seconds before to crouch beside her. As with most injuries, he doesn’t notice the severity of his wound until after the fight is over, and he is pawing for a handkerchief to clean his glasses with, only to find the front of his shirt growing damp and warm. He paws numbly for a moment, locating the piece of shrapnel embedded between two ribs, before Vex pushes his hands away and pulls him to sit on the ground.

The wound, he notes as she takes off his coat, does not appear life-threatening, but neither is it exactly a crease wound. Sharpshooters that they are, they’re too far from Pike for healing, and when he tilts his head back, vision swaying nauseatingly, her sees her, occupied with healing a much worse gash on Keyleth’s leg. His heartbeat pounds in his ears, and he can’t quite hear what Vex is saying until she forces his attention back on hers, touching the side of his face.

She’s breathtaking as ever, he thinks, though that might be just the shard of debris lodged in his ribs.

One of her hands wraps around the intrusion, and she says, “On three?”

He says, “Wait, on three or after three?”

“After,” she says, and tears it out.

He has a moment to savor the feeling of relief, a pressure in his chest pulling away, before she shoves a hand through his shirt and into the cut, a glow gathering at her fingers. She moves the other hand to his chest, to hold him in place as she casts the spell. Vex’s healing spells tend towards practicality, more than the artistry of Pike’s. She puts her fingertips into the wound, chokes off leaking arteries between her thumb and forefinger.

Percy feels, all at once, a warm, spreading sensation that at first he thinks is the general feeling of wellness which accompanies healing spells, but quickly categorize it as being altogether different. Not necessarily worse, but deeper, and more localized, and coming from further up than his stomach, where Vex pressed her fingers into the flesh wound. He looks down at himself and notices then, her hand brushing over where his collarbone, covering where his shirt was pulled aside, and half-obscuring a tattered soulmark. Looking back up, his eyes meet Vex’s. Her gaze locks him in place.

She doesn’t move her hand until she finishes casting her spell, untangling her fingers from the fabric in a slow, deliberate motion. She doesn’t look at the mark directly, but the state of the decaying letters matter more than the words themselves, sitting in good company in a nest of scarred-over flesh, some marks pebbled and raised, others hardened welts. He opens his mouth to say something, but Vax calls them from the kill, drawing their attention, and Vex pulls him to his feet, holding him stable, and that’s the end of it.

They avoid each other for the next few days-- which is, frankly, quite a difficult thing to do when you’re out adventuring with someone, sharing meals and night shifts keeping watch around the campfire. After a week passes, Percival comes to terms with the concept that she might have just been disgusted enough with the rotting state of it that she wasn’t going to ever mention it again, when they spend the night at a roadside inn outside of Westruun, and as they disperse to each their own rooms for the night, he notices her silently following him to his door. When he turns to ask for her intentions, they speak at the same time.

“Vex? How can I hel-”

“I’m sorry about the-- oh, sorry.”

“--Sorry, I’m--”

They fumble around each other for a few moments longer, before trudging into silence again. All of a sudden, Vex gives an unexpected bark of laughter, shaking her head and wrinkling her nose. She paws back the frayed ends of her braid, pushing them out of her face, and he feels the itch to tuck a loose strand behind her ear, flexing and clenching his hand against the urge. When she looks back at him, she looks sheepish, flushed lightly. “This is not how I wanted to apologize, darling, but I suppose that’s my own fault for waiting for so long.”

“Apologize?”

“You know for the--” she waves generally at his chest, shifting her weight uneasily from foot to foot. Percy doesn’t think he’s ever seen her this caught off guard. “Can I speak with you inside?”

The interior of the room, if anything, only increases the uneasiness. This is not lessened when Vex begins, with no hesitation, to unbuckle her armor and strip layers.

Percy intends to ask her, again, what game she’s playing here, exactly. That’s what he intends to say. What he says is, “Pardon?”

“Equal exchange,” she answers without looking up from where she’s conducting a ruthless attack on the laces of her arm-guards. “You showed me your words, I’ll show you mine. Then we can get it out of our heads, and we never have to think about it ever again.”

He reaches out, as if to stop her, but can’t seem to find a respectful place to rest his hands, and lets the aborted motion drop. He says, “That doesn’t sound very fair.”

Vex removes her vambrace, and throws it uncaringly onto his bed, grasping the edge of a cloth bandage and beginning to unravel it. “Doesn’t it?”

Not to be undone, Percival begins undressing in equal fervor, dropping his coat and undoing the knot of his cravat. “No! You only barely saw half of my mark.”

“Well, I can hardly show you half of a forearm, can I?”

“You ought to at least try.”

She huffs, and rips the remaining covering of her arm clean off, rolling up her sleeve and presenting the forearm in question with a triumphant flourish. At the same time, Percy abandons the remaining buttons, and pulls his shirt over his head, leaving him in an undershirt, glasses knocked askew.

It is at that point, Vex’s arm held up like a sword and Percy’s chest presented like a shield, that the fact that they have just competitively stripped for reasons neither of them entirely understand, and they look at each other for a moment longer before falling into uncoordinated cackling.

They end up sitting on the bed, the inn mattress squashy and cramped enough that they have to sit close together, and show each other the words written on their skin, for once out of their own volition. Percy lets Vex touch his collarbone, testing the textured, leathery marks, once written in such a fine, detailed hand, and she, in turn, lets him trace the elvish lettering with his fingers, quietly mouthing the words to himself.

For a moment, he doesn’t understand. Whitestone did not have an especially large population of elves, and what few half-elves he grew up hearing about were traditionally celebrated as a union between worlds, a mark of coexistence. He understands, both in theory and in practice, that not everyone sees half-elves as good omen. But still, it takes him a moment, tracing the black letters, faintly imprinted in the skin as though branded on, to remember the twins’ father and his downturned expression, his apprehension in approaching his eldest children. He hadn’t used the word, but still it stood between them, a tangible borderline (mutt, Percy reads, unable to reconcile it with the woman it refers to, face unreadable as she focuses on a scratch in the floorboards. When he studied the language, it never seemed as incomprehensible as it did then. Nor as ugly).

The elvish scripture of Vex’s soulmark, he thinks, is only beautiful from afar. The words are well-defined, unlike his decaying mark, but that doesn’t stop him from running his thumb over her skin, imagining he could wipe it clean.

They don’t speak about it, afterwards, but the experience, wordlessly, brings them closer, as all people sharing harmless secrets are. It’s hard to keep track of, they get closer in increments, in degrees measured in fractions, like planets slowly falling to orbit. There is a comfort in knowing, with complete certainty, that you are not someone’s soulmate, a liberation in being able to grow as close as you’d like with no pressure to push or pull. They can sit together, knees knocking together as they talk, going over the day’s events, occasionally trading notes and sketches, finances and records. They find reasons to share watches, find reasons to spend spare moments in conversation.

As soon as he comes across the means to, Percival begins to build his first trick arrow.

And time moves clockwise, onwards and ahead, onwards and ahead.

. . .

In Whitestone, some time later, Vex can see the fraying ends when he moves past her, up the mansion stairs, and follows in close pursuit, maintaining a steady lope after his long, purposeful striding. She aims to help him, but a hunter’s impulses aren’t something to be disregarded, and she keeps track of him steadily, with only a partial resemblance to a wolf following a wounded hart.

It makes sense then, when they step out of sight, that she should lunge for his throat, holding him back with an elbow and pushing him up against the wall with a hand squarely on his chest.

When she asks him how he feels, she doesn’t ask as much as she demands the answers to come from him, as though she could pressure him enough that the words would billow out of him.

“I feel… in control,” he breathes, his face placid and unreadable. “Cruel, but… in control. I’ll let you know when I’m not,”

“I’ll be able to tell,” she says, intending it to sound reassuring, but even to her own ears, it seems like an unsure threat. She sounds as unstable as he looks, and the two of them, sharp and uneven, knock together, like ships listing in a storm. His chest feels hot under her hand, even covered by layers of clothes and armor, and, under her bracer, the forearm beneath his jawline burns. The heat is unwelcome, unlike the first time they’d fumbled, exchanging contact—this time, the warmth is burning, so much that she expects at any moment to smell singed flesh.

“You will,” he says, and, despite the fact that she said it as a threat, he sounds almost hopeful of it, trusting. He wants her to be there when he falls out of orbit and burns, to put an arrow in his throat before he has a chance to put a bullet in their backs.

Here is another thing Vex doesn’t tell Vax (or anyone, for that matter): she is perhaps the most experienced among them when it comes to dealing out mercy killings.

As much as Vax or Grog promise to bring him down if need be, they’re fighters first, not hunters. They’ve both killed, quickly and efficiently, but they’ve never butchered, never held a doe’s (or a bear’s) head back and found the spot in the column of the neck where a knife’s edge could end her suffering before she recognized death’s approach. She thinks, her soulmark tucked so close to his pulse point, of seeing him clearly through a column of smoke in the midst of a rampage, how the arrow would pass through the back of his neck and into his throat, his bright eyes going dull and glassy. She knew any number of ways to euthanize. She did not intend to enact any of them.

Percy exhales, and Vex feels his breath on her face, only realizing now how close she’d gotten, near enough to watch as he carefully wets his cracked lips. She wonders if she brought her mouth to his, if she’d be able to taste the smoke, if his mouth burned as feverish as the rest of him. She wonders, if she held him, would it be enough to keep him in one piece, just for a little while?

She supposes she loves him, this strange, untethered creature.

Which gives her all the more reason to watch him carefully as he walks this path of his. If she is the one to put an arrow in the back of his neck, she ought to also be the one to keep it from ever needing to be loosed. She stays close, keeps him in eyeline, so that, if he descends, she can follow him down.

For the first time, however, Vex considers the possibility that, unlike her, he was not born with his marred mark. His words fit him, at his brightest and most polished, and reveal him, at his most vicious and biting. She tries to imagine what one would have to feed their soul to, to leave their soulmark at such a state, wounded and sloughing off.

She rubs at her wrist, and thinks that there must be worse things in this world to part with.

. . .

When the storm clears, they come away closer. That’s not to say Vex wouldn’t follow Vax if he decides to flee, she would always stay close to her brother, above all else. But she thinks she would miss Percy, if she did. She knows she would. She’d miss the way they speak to each other in quieter moments, the security in joking with someone knowing fully that you’ve shown them most of the weak spots in your armor, assured that they would never exploit them.

And then greater storms come, as they do. Too often, in their lives, they spend months clearing away rubble and ash, only for the next disaster to come before they can even think to rebuild. In the main hall in Emon, as the dragons pour in, Vex considers, for the first time in a long while, the countless dead in a town that has since been struck from every map, in the tropical south end of Tal’Dorei.

A few hours later, Percy reaches for the skull in her hands, and says, “Trust me,” and she does, fool that she is for falling in love with a man whose heart was never for her to know. A few days after that, she dies, ostensibly by his hand.

She dies, and somewhere else, the universe regards the mess of ties that has been made, and considers the path towards untangling the threads of fate.

There are those who say that the threads of fate which lead to soulmates are the Raven Queen’s jurisdiction-- that certain souls are bound together to make them easier to reap. Or, perhaps, to act as tethers in the Astral Sea, after death, like ships bound together, so that they may not be separated. Others say that the Raven Queen doesn’t deal in bonds, only in actions, and not in souls, but in the reaping thereof-- that her powers lie in cartography, in mapping the paths fate takes, not in tying individual destinies to overlap.

However, regardless of which, some entity looks on at the the words on Vex’ahlia’s forearm, as her family urges her back to life, and thinks, well, that’s a shoddy first draft.

She comes back to life gasping, shuddering cold, at the floor of a tomb that is not her own. She’s disoriented, and by the time someone thinks to tell her what happened to her, she’s already been passed from arm to arm several times, like a child.

It takes Grog, kindly blunt as always, to tell her to the truth where everyone else thinks it best to leave her in the darkness. “You fuckin’ died,” he says, and somehow she knows it to be true without question.

It takes her well into the next morning to tell the difference, having passed out as soon as she had the opportunity to take off her armor and lay down. The first thing she notices, stripping off yesterday’s dirtied clothes and examining herself for marks of death, is the fist-sized scar above her left breast, as white as a bleach stain on her dark skin, where the trap’s curse embedded itself. She runs her fingers over it, and it has no texture-- in fact, it notably lacks even the softness of skin, as though the face of something artificial.

Secondly, as she looks down on the arm feeling her new scar, she sees the same texture, like a chemical burn, vaguely in the shape of lettering, across where her soulmark used to be. She raises her other hand and feels for inconsistencies in the flesh, finding it as smooth and textureless as silk, as though someone had carefully unwritten the letters, painted over them with white ink. The vague shape of the letters remained, but without the contrast of the deep-set, black scripture, they became too muddled to read.

Vex takes her hand away and looks at them, remembering Percy’s unmade words, and her stomach drops out for a moment at the thought of what cut had the Raven Queen gleaned from her fate in resurrecting her, until she sees the third and final change.

At the left hand side of her chest, just under the white scar newly formed on her collarbone, lays a small, faintly glinting word, written in gold cursive. Almost instantly, she recognizes the language as common, and hurries to a mirror to examine the words more closely. In the reflection, though reversed, the letters are as legible as they are few, just the three.

Yes, she reads, and it takes her a moment to place the word, the familiar handwriting.

(“...Did you set off a trap? Is that how I died?”

“Yes.”)

How quiet he’d been, afterwards, only willing to relinquish his words one at a time. She cups a hand over the word, small enough to fit in her palm, and under the scar, they seem like the signature of an artist, at the corner of their finished work. She takes her hand away, half-expecting the letters to have vanished, for them to have been an illusion to begin with.

Yes, she reads.

Sometimes, the universe course-corrects.

. . .

After Vex’ahlia’s death and subsequent resurrection, Percival stays close-but-not-too-close to her, which is a very precise unit of distance. He resolves against hovering, much as he wants to most of the time, just in case she suddenly stops breathing again, and at least tries to let her walk a few feet ahead of him at any point in time. This is a difficult habit to form, now that he’s grown used to falling into step with her, to chatter as they walk, but it is made easier by the fact that Vax glares near-literal daggers at the back of his neck every time he forgets to save some distance.

He doesn’t know it, really know it, until he says it, until he looks at her when she goes up to her room to sleep, and her feet stumble against each other in exhaustion (every step repeats the stanza recited by the one before it, alive, alive, alive), that he couldn’t have lived with himself without her. She’s grown into his frame like a tree taking root, and he cannot imagine uprooting her without prying out something visceral and vital from inside him along the way.

He forges a siege arrow.

She smirks at him all the while as he explains his tithe, more weregild than gift, which doesn’t help him keep his distance. “In theory this is a siege arrow-- shattering stones, shattering doors, breaking things that should not be broken--”

“--Breaking hearts left and right?” she quips, winking as she slides the arrow out of his grip.

Percy tries to restrain a blush, and ignores Keyleth eyeing the interaction with undisguised interest. Surely, she’ll needle him about it as soon as they were given the time and privacy. “If that is what you’re after.”

She laughs, then, airly, and he pushes through the bubbling feeling in his chest, trying not to stumble. “It should work,” he continues. “Never forget you’re my favorite, and I’m so sorry.”

And then she takes it with a smile and a kiss on the cheek, both as a thank you and as a greeting, as though they’ve just met again for the first time in a long while-- which, since they were parted by death, he supposes is true by a technicality. He wonders if it should be strange that he knows the warmth of her lips better than he knows other people’s signatures and handshakes.

All that night, he runs over the interaction in his head, and considers a world where he had a soul to give. Would he have offered it in her stead, like her brother did? He suspects, he fears, he might have.

It’s hard not to hover, especially since she doesn’t restrain herself from hovering whenever she can. While he doesn’t approve of the metaphor (or maybe it is how she clutches the broom between her long legs that he doesn’t sit comfortably with), he can’t say he’s surprised, or disappointed in her, either. She’d always seemed to him a bird caught mid-flight, that all her dalliances on earth were momentary, and if she wanted to fly, then she’s long since earned herself some instance of freedom and pleasure in this world.

He’s also never been able to say “no” to her since the day he met her, so take that with a pinch of salt to taste, perhaps.

Though that doesn’t stop him from fussing whenever she gets knocked off mid-flight, or insisting that she not use is strategically too often until he has the chance to adjust it for combat. He has no interest in stopping her from flying, but, if he has some say in the matter, he’d rather she spend her time in the air flying more often than she does plummeting.

He only has the chance to work on the tether and footholds after they handle Craven Edge, and bring Grog back, and, as though to remind him particularly of all the suffering he’s directly caused to his loved ones, Vex comes along, eager to see the adjustments he has in plan.

Without asking, she leaps into the role of assistant, handing him tools and holding down wires and hinges when he needs a second pair of hands. Despite his hesistance, she quickly proves to be one of the best assistants he could hope for, which, in retrospect, of course she is. Vex is the living embodiment of surpassed expectations.

“Dear,” he calls over his shoulder, “will you pass me that drift, to your left?”

“This one?” she says as she passes it along into his hand. She doesn’t move back after her confirms it and thanks her, hooking her chin on his shoulder to watch his progress instead.

“You’re going to get jolted, perching there,” he warns, but she disregards him, only leaning with more weight as he enlarges the notches in the added saddle of the broom, through which he plans to loop the tether.

Percy watches her watch him from the corner of his eye, figuring that she must be standing on the tips of her toes to look over his shoulder, and the thought is endearing almost to the point of distraction. He’s always known her to be lovely, and time and proximity has only made it more noticeable-- with her hair carefully tied back to keep out of their work, her face is fully in the light, and the glow of the forge brings out the gold in her dark eyes. Remembering the blank spot on the List, he thinks that, if, when he decided that the amount of innocents who would be killed by his journey to vengeance was a loss he could stand, he had known her and Grog to to be in the numbers, maybe he would have chosen otherwise. He could never know, but he thinks he might have.

Time passes-- dragons fall.

In a hundred ways, they ought to have died. But, improbably, impossibly, they live.

. . .

Speaking with the Raven Queen, if anything, leaves him feeling even more irredeemable. It takes him some time to clean the blood off, and he is reminded, as he cleans, of the first time he’d been caked in gore, of being pulled from the icy waters onto the hull of a ship. He thinks, coming out of the temple, of the mark rotting on his chest, of something having always been broken and writhing within him, like the rot of a termite-eaten house. He feels as though he’s tacky with blood still, coming back from the temple, despite his clean hands showing no spot to scrub out.

He really ought to have expected that Vex knew where he went, when she passes by him, and says, in a whisper, “You still have a little blood behind your ear.”

Kindly, she doesn’t investigate. He thinks, out of everyone in Vox Machina, he’d probably mind her prying the least-- she’s never failed to offer him the benefit of doubt in sight of his worst decisions, long after he’s lost the right to ask for it. Too often he has allowed the worst him to rub shoulders with her, allowed the fragmented edges to cut her hands, and he ought to turn her away, gather distance once again, but he thinks, at this moment, that he’d like to not be alone for a minute, and he can think of no-one he’d like to walk beside more.

“Do you want to take a walk with me?”

She looks at him for a moment in thought, looking back at where Vax is eyeing them from the table, when she looks back at him, she looks not at his face but at his chest, where she is more or less eye-level. One of her hands rests against the front of her own chest, absentmindedly petting at the fabric of her shirt, as though testing the weight of something an in internal pocket. After a moment’s hesitation, she nods in agreement, and lets him lead on.

They walk without saying a word, arm-in-arm for no reason but for the proximity, Winter’s Crest was not so long ago now, and the chill in the air is still biting enough that the warmth is inviting. They take a tour around the temples, until they reach the Slayer’s Take, and he has to let go of her arm for a moment to make his plans with Zahra.

“...This will help,” he tells the tiefling, passing along his vial of blood, taken from the temple pool, “perhaps they will know what to do with that. But I would like her to have a quiet mark on this city.”

Vex interjects, “Is this for you or for my brother?”

Percy turns to her for a moment, allowing Zahra to examine his offering, and his offer entirely, and notices that she is fumbling with the sleeve of her right arm with her dominant hand. She’d left her vambrace off for this, and a part of him he doesn’t always understand isn’t comfortable with how vulnerable she seems without it. “This is for your brother, so that he can help us. We’re… apparently, all in this together.”

She smiles at that, and leaves her arm alone. A sense of pride covers, for a moment, the broken, rattling sensation in his chest-- but this is instantly pushed to the side as she stands on tiptoes and presses a quick kiss to the side of his face, her cheek just faintly scuffing against his stubble as she pulls away.

He says, “Thank you.” He says it haltingly, unsure of what to do with his hands.

They're not much of a walk back, but they meander, close at hand. They don’t hold each other’s arms, this time, but occasionally, their hands brush as they swing past each other.  “...Tell anyone you’d like where I went, it’s not a secret,” he says, and the words sit heavy and unseeming on his tongue, coming out in unwoven fragments. “I just wasn’t ready to…. I don’t think your brother… I’d hate for him to think I’m competing, I just had some questions.”

“I won’t tell anyone, Percy,” she says, interrupting his struggle for coherence. Her words are direct, but not unkind, and he thanks her quietly between pauses. “Your business is yours,” she continues, then cuts herself off with a smile, her voice liliting up playfully, “and mine, ‘cause I noticed.”

Thanking her for the third time in as many minutes, he says, “Thank you for noticing, and… I’m trying hard not to make it my business, it’s hard to remember sometimes.”

“We’re all family,” she adds, her voice low.

“I know, it’s awful, isn’t it?”

They laugh. They’ve really no reason not to separate, now, but he’s missed this, keeping pace with each other. He thinks they understand each other just fine, and having shared so much with her by now (funds, demons, soulmarks) speaking to her never feels like an inquisition.

Vex stops as they walk by a railing, and leans against it, propping herself against it on her palms and facing the wall rather than the view. He joins her, leaning adjacent to her. She asks, “Percy, how do you feel about fate?”

Scratching at his chest, where his words peel and fade under his clothes, he says, “I won’t pretend to be fond of it, but it has its purpose. It lead me to you. Vox Machina, that is.”

“It did.”

“But no, I’m not especially fond of it. It hasn’t been especially kind or productive to either of us, I suppose.”

“Productive, yes. Kind, not so much.”

Percy pauses at that, and turns to look at her. In their years of knowing each other, he never considered that Vex had already found her counterpart. “Then why-- oh. Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“It… didn’t work out, then.”

She shrugs, and repositions so that her arms were free to wrap around herself. “Never started.”

A dislike for a stranger he never met weighs heavy in his chest. At times, he forgets that Vex, for all her broad smiles, and her winks, wears just as many masks as he, if not more. He looks at her, and she wears another already, a facade of nonchalance that does not reach her eyes, nor her fingers, fumbling restlessly with her sleeves.

“Fate,” she says, “is pleasant enough, darling, when it takes a good path. But it is a path, not the path. I say we give it altogether too much credit. You understand me, right?”

He hums, thinking of the pool in the Raven’s Crest, and looks on, amused, at how well this woman reads him every time, as though peeking over at the hand he’s been dealt before he has a chance to lay his cards down. When he turns to her, she isn’t looking at him, but has moved her gaze upward towards the sky, and he wonders what path she plots for herself in the stars above.

. . .

The Feywild is beautiful. He would have liked to have spent more time able to see it. Keyleth earns his forgiveness, however, with a whisper and a Druidcraft spell, and parades him for until the barkskin fades (if she specifically points out his appearance to Vex in particular, that’s only coincidental, and not at all influenced by some gossip she pressed out of him late one night). He could have altogether done without the abundance of spells cast his way, though.

Which is what leads him to Vex’s room, the night before they head to Syngorn, to find her aggressively polishing her armor, still dressed in thick, protective layers despite the late hour. He notices, quickly, that something seems off about her motions, but is too busy trying to look at her directly without thinking of the long expanse of smooth skin, peppered with faint scars, the worst of it hidden by her breastband across her chest, that he had a chance to see earlier that day as she’d pulled her shirt over her head, before he had he mind to look away.

“Vex,” he announces from his place in the doorway.

She looks up without stopping her scrubbing. “Yes?”

“Little shit put a charm on me.” At that, she stops scrubbing, her eyebrows furrowing. “I felt it wear off, about forty-five minutes ago.”

With dwindling hope, she says, “Before we made the deal with him?”

“...Yes, around the time we made the deal with him.”

She practically throws the piece of armor she’d been polishing onto the bed. “Fuck, Percy! I made the deal because you said it was fine!”

He begins to stutter, feeling an embarrassed flush rise to his face, but she cuts him off with a wave, lowering her voice again, “It’s fine, you didn’t know.” She sighs, “Well.”

“Well. At least now we know that he definitely can’t be trusted.”

She huffs, face darkening in a way he fears revealing to her is much less intimidating than it is endearing, “It’s our own stupid fault, we knew we weren’t supposed to trust anything here.”

“I know… We’ve gotta make sure that Pike doesn’t give him back his… his whistle just yet, and we have to figure--”

Vex says, interjecting, her tone accusatory, “Why did you want to fix his whistle? You just liked him.”

“He was so nice!”

“You just liked him.”

“I mean, he was just so nice.”

She deflates, and wrings her hands, looking distraught. “Damn it. I thought you knew something we didn’t know. I really, really thought you did.”

Always assuming the best of him, he supposes, comes with the disadvantage of being disappointed when he repeatedly fails to measure up. However, he doesn’t say that, but rather takes his coat off, closing the door behind him as he goes to the chair and has in the corner of her room and drapes it over the arm. “I did. Sadly, what I knew was he’s a little shit.” Her frown wanes somewhat-- she likes it when he swears, it sounds strange with his pompous accent. It doesn’t last very long, and the troubled look passes over her face again. He tries, in vain, to bring some levity.  “I just didn’t know until half an hour ago. I hate magic. I hate magic!”

She doesn’t respond, having already gone back to rubbing her fingers over her breastplate, frowning at a dent made when she swooped low on her broom to wrench Grog free during the battle against Kevdak, and hadn’t had a chance to repair yet. “Percy? Change of subject.”

He hums, and moves closer to her from his place near the chair. She sits upright on the bed, gestures airly with her hands to herself, asks, “Would you say I look put together-- well off-- in this armor?”

“In what sense?”

“Well, you come from money, right?”

“Yes.”

It’s a small, nearly imperceptible movement, but, just barely, she shudders. When she speaks again, her voice is even more hesitant than before, and she wipes her hair out of her face with unsteady fingers, “Right! So, um. Do I look like I come from money?”

He takes a moment before coming up with an answer, lets himself look her over again. His look is as appraising as it unnecessary-- he’s come to know her face very well over the past few years. She was, after all, the first friendly face he’d seen, coming out of the darkness. He’s sketched her face a hundred times over in the stretch of time they’d known each other, he could draw her face from memory with his eyes closed. He knows she doesn’t look like nobility, and there’s no hiding that.

She’s better that that, he thinks. In his youth, Percy had never met noblemen who were half as kind as she was, or as cunning. He’d never known royalty who would take a grown bear’s paws to their laps to bandage them, when Trinket is at his fussiest, or ones who try their hardest to fly, despite the countless times they’d fallen down.

And then, part-ways into his inspection, he looks at her, very carefully, and something slow-moving and important slots into place. Oh, he thinks, like a man all at once discovering the epicenter of the universe standing by his side. Oh, there you are.

There are some of things that no marks on one’s body can create, and no organized matter can induce, things that cannot be written in ink or sold by deal, and Percy, feeling all at once small and insignificant in the face of something so large and overwhelming, which he always failed to see until this exact moment, almost flinches at finally recognizing the beast before him, clawing its way out of his chest.

Oh, he thinks, I love you.

He loves her, and she’s waiting for an answer.

“Honestly, dear,” he says, “you’re too happy to look like you come from money.”

She laughs, the sound as sharp as a discordant note on a string, without a trace of humor, her voice trembling. “I don’t believe that.”

“No, it’s-- a sure sign of it is just an abject misery, believe me, I can speak to it.” He walks in a half-circle, gnawing on his words. “Um. You look too much like you, and you don’t look enough like someone you’re supposed to be... If you feel the urge to deeply bullshit, I’d be happy to help you, it’s not hard.”

Hopeful, she says, “No?”

No,” he answers, “it is easy to pretend you come from money. You just have to be a bit of a shit and wear what everybody else is wearing.”

At that moment, he notices that her hand has drifted from rubbing ceaselessly at the dents in her armor to clasping around her lower forearm, above her wrist. The grip, over so many layers, doesn’t seem particularly strong, but the tension in her posture is palpable, her knuckles going white.

Percy approaches, waiting to see she doesn’t pull away before standing by her side. He doesn’t dare touch her arm, but he reaches for her hand, clasped over her one arm-guard, close enough to draw her eye. “Does this have something to do with,” there is no way for him to comfortably broach the subject of her soulmark, and his words slide in his mouth in search of a substitute, “with that city?”

Her grip on her bracer loosens for a moment, then tightens again. Her face is unreadable, but the muscles in her throat tense, and her teeth clench, as though choking something down.

“It does, doesn’t it. Are they…?” He smooths a thumb over the back of her hand, covering the hidden marks of her forearm.

“No,” Vex says, careful in which words she allows to escape her stranglehold, “he’s not there.”

Good, Percy thinks, before he has a chance to think of who else could be waiting there for her. From the day he’d first seen the words on her arm, he had no pity for her counterpart. Any man who’d use slurs against her could be dead in a ditch as far as he is concerned. However, Vex does not seem any calmer for this fact.  He says, “But, someone is.”

She looks at the corner of the wall, nods.

“Who’s there?”

“Well, you know. Everyone,” she says, her voice wavering on the words. “We were judged, growing up and… I don’t look forward to seeing that again.”

There are many things he could say to her, many terrible promises he could pledge in her name-- after all, he’d enlisted his soul for beings far less deserving of it. And once one has begun to make lists, making more is an easy habit to fall into. He could sit up with her all night, drafting ledgers of throats to slit and houses to burn down, names to unwrite from history. It would be effortless to offer her vengeance. And even outside of revenge, there are plans he could make. Plans, he’s good at-- he can plan for her until sunrise.

But right now, Vex rubs viciously at her eyes with the palm of her hand, trying to stem the tears before they fall, and this is more important. She’s more important.

Percy sighs, and comes to sit next to her on the bed, mirroring her posture. She hunches around her midsection, as though hiding a wound, and smothers her crying in short, stifled breaths. “Well.”

She makes a dismissive motion, flashing a smile that did not remotely reach her eyes, “It’s not important, I--”

“Oh, I disagree. I think-- Dear, I think,” he pauses for a breath. “... I think that if you’re worried about them knowing whether or not you’ve made your money, or made your fortune-- I don’t think that’s going to be thing to earn their respect.”

He shifts a little closer on the bed, so that their shoulder brush together. “I think you’re better off, A, with the company that you keep, and B with... the fact that you’re probably just better than most of them.”

She smiles at that-- gives a faint, genuine laugh that knocks the wind out of him. It amazes him, how long he’d been basking in her light without realizing it, only now recognizing the sunlight coming off of her fingertips.

“I’ve known a lot of people with money, and… they are definitely not worth you.”

At first, when Vex doesn’t respond, he worries he went to far, but looking up at her face again, her small smile has not waned, and her eyes, though swollen red, are warm.

“And besides,” he continues, mirroring her smile, “if they have something nice, that makes you feel inferior-- we can just take it.”

Her laughter spills free in an unexpected burst. “I like the way you think.”

“Well, and then they’re just shit without anything, and you’re you, with their stuff.”

He doesn’t catch the endearment in his voice until it has already escaped, and he averts his gaze, looking at his hands. Besides him, Vex sighs, the motion bringing her closer to him, so that they half-leaned against each other. She says, “Thank you, Percy.”

“You’re welcome. I know it doesn’t really help, but…” there are more words to say, he thinks. Words about how fate matters in all ways but this, about how, when he first saw her, for a moment, he thought she was the sun itself, and then he thought she was a dream. There is no way to say them. There are other words, he thinks-- or better said, letters. There are letters (imbedded, permanent, damning) standing between words.

“Will you stay at my side, when we’re there?” she asks, and her voice still catches in her throat, trembling, tentative.

Yes, yes,” he says, not yet knowing the weight of the word, or the meaning of the careful way Vex holds a hand to her chest, cupping something warm beneath the skin. “And-- the outfit works, don’t change it. Keep the hat.”

She snorts, laughing again, the sound warmer and clearer than before. “Alright. Good night.”

Understanding his cue well, Percy rises from the bed and collects his coat, making his unhurried leave. “Good night, do sleep well.”

“We’ll sort out this charmed mess in the morning.”

“I’m sorry for my part in it.”

On the way out, he thinks there would be very little, short of her express command, that could pry her from her side, where death and guilt could not, now that he understands what he understands. His last glance through the door is her, quietly brushing out her hair and unbuckling her armor, the worried lines on her face, for now, abated.

Percy makes some distance between himself and the door before he allows himself to lean against the mansion wall and breathe, the soulmark on his chest stinging in the way of old scars. He allows himself for a moment, to close his eyes, and fantasize of a world where they were born with each other’s words on their bodies. It’s a soft thought, one that he can already see himself revisiting, but it is not an achievable one, and there are some aspects of birth and circumstance that he cannot repair.

There are, however, some that he can, and he thinks of a house in Whitestone, and a ceremony too long gone unfulfilled. There’s a near-burning warmth in the hand which rested over Vex’s soulmark, climbing its way up the radius and ulna, so that it’s felt even up at the turn of his elbow. He ignores it, making up titles in his mind, but he still finds himself struggling to put his arms through the sleeves of his coat when he blindly paws it on.

Percy retreats to his room, but the warmth remains.

. . .

Syngorn is unforgiving. Syldor is as cruel as the last time they saw him, though he would rather they think he’s changed. When the twins huddle together under his gaze, bristling and snapping like cornered wolves, the tension rises electric in the air, a thundershower gathering in the sitting room. Occasionally, some member of either side of the weather front will intervene, attempting to downplay the conflict, but it became apparent, again and again, that there is no room to stand between.

Vox Machina doesn’t know about the twins’ mother-- not in detail. Percival assumed some of the bare bones of their history: they had a mother, and then they didn’t. This is something that most of them are well in verse with. A dragon was involved. A dragon is involved again.

And when it comes to the killers of one's family returning to finish the job, Percy deeply empathizes.

So when Vex and Vax demand explanations for why they were not left to die alongside their mother, it isn’t that he doesn’t understand where they’re coming from. There were many a night in his life where he asked the same question of himself, why have I survived when they did not?

But he is also irreparably biased when it comes to Vex’ahlia, and, for a brief, cold moment he feels some gratitude towards their father for prying them out of their homes before they burned with it. It is, however, a fleeting gratitude.

Syldor’s scowl is eerily familiar and foreign in equal measure. He has Vax’s face, his intensity, and the inner coldness Vex holds taut on her end of the bowstring, nocking an arrow and taking aim. The chill is tangible when he says, “I had hope that you would be worth more, given that you had my blood in your veins, then to waste away in some small hovel.”

(mutt, he does not say, but the word sits hosted alongside them in the drawing room, nosing at the conversation.)

The air breaks around Vex as she tightens up, a bolt of lightning gathering at the heart of a storm. “If I could pull my--” she chokes on a word, before restarting with climbing momentum, “the blood of you from my veins, and give it back I would. I want no part of you.” In her lap, her clenched fists tremble.

Syldor’s does not relent at their accusations, at their distress. When he retreats to his office to write up their admission for meeting the Highwarden, he does so without any indication of kindness. He might love them, Percy understands, or believe that he does, but that does not make them enough in his eyes, not when he already has the family he wanted.

The twins show no envy to their younger sister, and the rest of Vox Machina hastens in their lead to draw her into the fold. She is young, and guiltless in this. But her presence is damning-- for all the battles they’ve won and glory they’ve earned, they will never amount to her, for blood and blood alone. To him, they will always be sub-par.

Percival is not a kind man by nature. He is vain, and bitter, and broken beyond hope for repair. At his best, he can be cruel, and at his worst, destructive to friend and foe alike. It takes some searching for him to find shreds of tenderness left to offer. Cruelty born of care is far beneath what Vex deserves, but if it offers her any mask to hide behind, any value of elevation, or levity, he’ll dig up whatever soft, bleeding corner of him he can find, for her. The title, all things considered, is an easy thing to give.

And he will not deny a selfishness in offering her a home in his home. Percy has no intention of acting on his feelings, but there is little better he can imagine than the guarantee of seeing Vex every day, safe and happy in the nest of a city that would welcome her. Syngorn will not see her value, but Whitestone will be happy to have her.

He passes the scroll back to Syldor, failing to contain a certain joy in his voice, disguised as pedantry. “You’re going to have to amend that one name, just to be fair,” he says, “it’s Lady Vex’ahlia.”

For a chance second, Syldor appears to fumble with the scroll, before turning stony once more. “Lady?”

All last night, Percival rehearsed the words to himself, silently, feeling how the words sat in his mouth until he was satisfied with them. “Lady Vex’ahlia, Baroness of the Third House of Whitestone, and Grandmistress of the Grey Hunt.”

Vex’ahlia, in her corner, sits stock still, before cupping her mouth with a hand. Despite the cover, he knows her face well enough to recognize sheer, disbelieving delight.

Later, when they sweep unceremoniously out of the house, trailed by the sound of swearing and parental disapproval, Vex pounces on him, wrapping her arms around him so that he has to catch her and gradually lower her back to the ground.

She says, breathlessly, “Percival!”

“It’s the gift of smugness, it never goes away.”

Now returned to the ground but not stepping out of the circle of his arms, she stutters, her face falling, “Wait is it real-- was it all just a--”

“No,” he says, quickly looking for any words to bring back the smile she wore just a moment ago, “I, actually it occurs to me that we did kill two of the three barons of Whitestone the last time that we were there.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Scanlan, not so subtly watching them, snort. Keyleth, ever cognizant of every interaction the two of them have, barely tries to smother a satisfied smirk.

The house is in ruins, he remembers, and before it was ruins, it belonged to the enforcers of the Briarwoods. Not much of a home, after all, he supposes, and finds himself apologetic for it. “There’s no house, and there’s no money--”

Keyleth says, “It’s the one Scanlan burnt.”

Percy confirms, “It’s the one Scanlan burnt. And there’s just a crypt, and that’s being used for other things, but--”

Keyleth interjects again, and Percy is beginning to have the feeling that she is trying to coax him along, here. “But you have a title!”

“But you do have a title, at the very least.” The baroness part of the title was a given-- a house and a weighty title to throw around to her heart's content, without much actual burden behind it. The Grey Hunt… he’ll admit was more aspirational than he had any claim to. It fits her regardless, he thinks, but there is a substitution, knowing that his words are not on her forearm, and that his soul is not his to offer, he can give her a different part of his components, a fraction of his legacy, for her to keep. Percy is under no illusion that she would love him back, but he there is an implied I trust you with my life and more in giving her the right of divine protection over his family’s city. “And once a year you have to do something ridiculous.”

Smile returned, Vex lifts her arms from his midsection and cups his face between them. He is familiar with this, but only barely resists melting into them. “Even so, Percy,” she says.

“You’re welcome.”

“I thank you so much.”

“Use it in good health.”

She presses a kiss to his cheek, cupping the other in her palm and drawing his face to her. When she moves away, the corners of their mouths brush together, very faintly, and the contact, brief as it is, draws an electric warmth. He shuffles, adjusting to her absence as she walks away, holding her head higher than before, tries to ignore how, in her arms, he had felt as though he could’ve hidden his face where her throat met her shoulder, and for once be gentle.

And if Keyleth nudges him with an elbow as they walk, a smirk plastered on her face, he’ll pretend to not feel that, either.

. . .

It’s really not an act of forgiveness, the way Vex gathers closer to Percy afterwards-- if there had been any resentment she held to him for what happened, it didn’t bother to stay long. It’s more that the Feywild is a strange place, extraordinary by definition. It’s easy to pretend that rules don’t apply here, when so many do not already. That, if they could make deals with satyrs, win over the approval of ghost bears, try to mediate conflicts between pixies and werewolves, then she could be allowed to play pretend for a little while.

She willfully forgets that, even if his mark was whole and hale, it would still not be her words on his skin, acts as though there were no words that matter but dear and darling, and thank you. Acts as though brushing his hair out of his face when waking him up to join her for a mock tea party is nothing more than innocuous, permissible, even as, at her back, Vax folds his arms and looks on, broody as ever (even through everything, he has not taken to hiding his two soulmate marks like Vex, Pike, and Percy have, and covers his wrists infrequently, wearing his words, as numerous as they are colorful, with pride). She hovers in his doorway before breakfast, mapping out the pillow creases still on his cheek, finding excuses to lengthen the conversation, to hear his voice rough with sleep, his expressions soft and endearing, as though he could be hers.

It’s indulgent. It’s dishonest. It’s silly. For a time, it gives her something to look forward to every day.

It should be, then, that it comes to an end the way it did.

Vex, unfortunately, has experience with being a prey animal, walking into a trap set for you, and pushing into the narrow corridor leading to the main chamber of Saundor’s tree, she can almost feel the snare looping tight around her throat.

Without body yet, he speaks to them in the main hall, “Why do you come here, children of the lost?” His voice seems to churn out of him, as though bubbling out from an internal well of the dark tar. “What purpose brings you to Saundor’s madness and pain?”

Without being named as speaker, Vex senses the weight of something watching her from a distance, and so she says, “We’ve come to help you.”

At the heart of the tree, Saundor unfurls, descends, approaches. His gait seems living, at first, but at closer inspection, there’s something off about it. His head holds too still when he talks, as though fixed in place-- the mass of roots and vines comprising the vast majority of him lead his motion not through the shifting of bone and sinew, but by directed coiling and uncoiling, the friction reduced by an inner lining of slick, black oil. He’s more flora than fauna, but the unpredictable, wet writhing of his movement reads faintly like the twisting, vivisected gut of a still-living thing.

Vex has played the role of prey before, she’s been prey almost as often as she’d been hunter, and so she doesn’t need him to say anything to recognize his attention narrowing on her, a few tattered bonds of pride stopping him from circling her like a hound or leopard. Appealing to that surviving pride, she bows, only barely aware of most of the party following her lead at her periphery. Experience says: a predator is less likely to lunge when it knows it is being watched. She does not take her eyes away.

Predictably, neither does Saundor. “You all come here, but one of you is the reason,” he continues, the sepia glow of his eyes narrowing on her like a searchlight. “You.”

He speaks slowly, deliberately, “Sweet, broken, Vex’ahlia.”

(Vex, wisely, does not turn away from a possible threat, but if she were, she’d see every member of her family currently present stiffen, hackles raised.)

“Unwanted daughter, unproven ally, unneeded soulmate,” he pauses to take a hissing breath. “Selfish and cruel. You drive those who you would call family into danger and death for your own gain. I understand you.”

The face mimics sadness, and there’s an inarguable softening in his expression, though she cannot begin to read its origin. He steps closer, beckoning her to heel. It takes some resolve to keep her from running now, while he hasn’t touched her yet. “You are lost. Without form. Without knowing who you are are, child. Who you are for. You stand shattered by expectation,” he doesn’t gesture at either arm or chest, but the words ring true, regardless. “Presenting an illusion of confidence. Behind it, you’ve never stopped running. You’ve never left that bloodied girl, dagger in hand, body at your feet.”

There are many things Vex hasn’t told Vax, to keep him smiling. There are enough that she could write a tome of things she hasn’t told her family. There is also a significantly thinner book she could write, of things she hasn’t told herself.

This is one such thing, that has been allowed to fester.

There is no smile on Saundor’s face, no gesture towards satisfaction, but she can tell he feels it as much as she has, he snagged his claws on something raw and bleeding.

“You’re a killer, run as you may.”

He steps closer, incrementally. The narrowing distance between them feels all at once crowded and isolating, and Vox Machina seems far away, any sound coming not from directly in front of her muted as though coming through water.

“The tears you cry are not in vain, my sweet,” Saundor says, his voice growing sickly sweet, tempting despite herself, “my dear, Vex’ahlia. You can rise above your trembling destiny, your chosen fate. I have lived a thousand years in a day. I have seen many things. I can grant many gifts.”

For the first time in what feels like it could be hours or no time at all, Vex looks around herself, for allies to cling to. Behind her, her brother’s face is drawn into confusion, worry, Keyleth and Grog’s in disgust. Percy is expressionless, stony-faced, but his hand is moving back, in increments, towards Bad News.

Trinket (and the word in her mind might as well have been my son, or my cub, and the equivalent would’ve rung equally true) is in her necklace. She remembers burying her face in his fur the night she found him, both of them matted with blood, and feeling safe. Foisted back into their shared past, she wants to draw him out and curl around him as best she could, like he was still a baby, find solace in keeping him safe the way she has for the last ten years.

Instead, she chokes out, “Are we still pretending to like this fuck?”

Scanlan, almost sheepish, says, “Nope.”

She turns back to Saundor, hands raised up to her chest, maybe appeasing, mostly defensive. “I don’t want anything you offer.”

He draws closer, but this time, she takes a step back, rejects his presence. “You mistake, my intent, but to understand,” he says, “I see lots of my youth in you.”

He gestures with an open hand at his opposite upper arm, and a line of words appears, fully encircling the limb, each letter glowing one by one, in sequence, then vanishing back into the bark. The writing is runelike, resembling elvish, but not enough to be legible. Once the glow has faded, the letters remain faintly carved into the meat of the vines.

When Saundor turns back to look at her, his face is somber-- stilted, but genuine. “We’re not as different as you may think. You have things I do not. Companionship… I have been without for so very long.”

He breathes the words, and lets them hang, sounding for an instant hungry to his very core, in a deep, resounding way. “And the ones I have let in have hurt me so very deeply.”

Vex’s words leave her abruptly when she speaks, “You’ve been betrayed?”

Saundor hangs in his vines, pitifully. “We all have in some degree, yes.”

“Is that why you are what you are now?”

The yellowed glow of his eyes goes dim, his gaze looking past her and into the middle distance, longingly. “I don’t even remember,” he says. “I just know that I’m alone and she left me there.”

“She? Who is she?”

He nods back into reality with a sigh, focusing. “The memories have faded. I just want someone to understand me, that’s all. Can you understand me?”

“Saundor,” she says, “I understand.”

“Is there trust in you?”

Tilting towards her, stepping closer, he no longer looks like a predator, though neither does he look especially welcoming. His frame has wilted in place, like a fruit rotting on a vine, and he approaches on unsteady limbs. Vex wasn’t lying when she said she understands him, she does. She understands the hollowness of his gaze, the desperate, gnawing hunger pulling him along. She recognizes that, maybe five years in the past, maybe five years in the future, the differences between them would not be as noticeable as she’d like to think.

“You want to be loved,” she says. It is not a question.

“I wish… a bond. A companion once more.” Saundor steps closer, he’s gaining grounds now. He speaks on his exhales, his voice breathy and damp, and with the distance shortening between them, she can almost feel it hot and overbearing against her. “Would you embrace me?”

Vex doesn’t know if she startles visibly, but he continues, with more force, “Would you embrace your rebirth? I could give you so much.”

(In the background, Vox Machina shifts their weight uneasily, Percival making stock of his ammunition in his head. Vax calls for her by her name, but the sound doesn’t carry well here. She tilts her head back towards him, hardly meeting his eyes for a moment before Saundor draws her attention back with plying words.)

“I could give you the means to protect them. Your home.”

Home. And that is what wakes Vex’ahlia up. What home does she have? Emon is under occupation by a tyrant dragon, Syngorn has never wanted her, and Byroden lies in ashes, struck from the map. There are no four walls in this world or any other that would be happy to house her.

But she has her brother, her bear. She has Vox Machina, her family. And, in the hopeful back of her mind, she knows that, just maybe, she could have Whitestone.

These are not foundations easily defended. Isn’t this what they came here for? Aide in protecting their home?

She asks, too quickly, “What would you have in return?”

He reaches for her now, his clawed hand reaching as though to take hers, or to gouge something from her. “Your heart.”

(She does not see Vax practically hissing, the feathers of his armor brustling. She does not see Keyleth’s intentious glower, the distrust in Scanlan’s face, or Grog’s shoulder squaring. Most of all, she doesn't see Percy taking a hesitating step forward, coming to stand just behind her twin brother.

As Saundor speaks, Percival finds himself shaking his head without deciding to, refusing both his words and the situation as a whole. He’s been here before, but he’s never been asked to sit at the sidelines and watch one of the best people he’s ever known make the same mistakes he made. He thinks of getting between them, of taking Vex by the hand, like she’d done for him, remind her that hers is not a soul you feed monsters with. He thinks of taking Vex away, to somewhere safe, so she won’t have to hear any of this anymore. There are a hundred things he could say or do to intervene.

But it isn’t his place to.)

On Vex’s chest, the mark, newly minted, burns as hot as a fresh brand, or, rather, like salt being rubbed into a wound. Vex is used to a stinging discomfort from her last soulmark, the invasive feeling of flesh peeling back around the words, and this is no different, except that she’s never wanted to cover the mark out of an urge to keep it safe. She remembers, the state of Percival’s mark, torn and tattered, and knows better.

So Vex does what she does best: she holds tight to what she has, cups it close to her chest where she can protect it, and disregards all the rest

Quietly, just louder than a whisper, she says, “My heart is someone else’s.”

And, hopelessly, she knows it to be the truth.

. . .

Percival forgets, and Vex tries to hide how personal of a blow that is.

As they walk back to Whitestone city proper, Trinket sways with every step by her side, ducking his head to lick at her hands, or raising it to nudge at her face, her side, pleading with her to look up from the ground for at least a moment. He’s so kind, her cub, and painly perceptive. With the very edge of his teeth, he tugs on the sleeve of her covered right arm, makes a soft, inquisitive sound, and she rubs his brow with her opposite hand.

She wonders sometimes, if he understands the significance of the marks they carry. Bears bear no letters, after all, though she thinks it no different than how she shares no marks with Vax. Some bonds need no words to be clarified.

Nevertheless, he stays close on the walk back, staying by her side when she wants nothing but to sit down and fold her knees up to her chest. It has not been more than a few hours since Saundor, and she already knows she’ll have nightmares about him for a long time, based only on the hollow, gutted feeling in her chest, and this is not really helping her situation.

It’s not the title. When he looks at her now, it is without the warmth he that was in his gaze a few hours before, now replaced with an embarrassed grimace. She knows what Scanlan made him believe, but she cannot help but feel that he is ashamed of her, that he is another on a long list of people who do not want to be associated with a transient.

Percy meets her eyes, but she looks away. She would’ve liked to have more time to pretend.

Dragons take priority. Whitestone takes priority, Her title might be based on lies, now, but this is partially her town, and Vex does not let things that are hers to come to harm. They huddle with the citizens belowground, waiting, and, by Gilmore and Allura’s magic alone, they survive.

Pike, when they find her, hugs Vex first, straining her arms with the weight of her armor. They laugh, breathlessly, happy to have survived yet another close call. It seems that, at this point, they have more close calls than far ones.

She says, bright even through the muck streaked across her face, “Guys! Hi!”

“You did an amazing job with that,” Vex answers.

“That was… mostly him, I’ve never done anything like that before, that was…” she trails off, then picks up on a different thread, “Everything okay in the Feywild? I’m sorry, I lost my connection.” She gestures behind her at the partially made temple of Pelor, her movement dismissive, but artificially so, downplaying her worries. “We had to finish this ritual.”

“No, it’s fine,” Vex says at the same time Vax reassures, “Of course, of course.”

“Hi Pike. Sorry,” Keyleth adds. She hasn’t stopped looking apologetic since the dragons swept over.

“Don’t be. I’m glad you’re all okay.”

“Do you,” Scanlan says, lengthening the word, “remember the Feywild?”

Pike looks suspicious at that, and passes her gaze over the group, just slowly enough that Vex can tell she’s both inspecting them for injuries, and counting heads. “Yeah, we were--”

Grog, from the back, makes a despondent whine. Percy doesn't look much happier.

“He doesn’t remember, Pike.”

“Yeah, apparently we went to the Feywild,” Grog says, “and everyone except me and Percy can remember it.”

“Why is that?”

“Because it’s funnier that way,” Percy says. He looks at his hands, heartbreakingly young and downtrodden. For as long as they’ve known him, Percy has always been a complicated man not easily made happy-- to have him be able to get some measure of his stolen childhood back through this, then lose it, just feels unsporting.

Pike inspects both of them closely, then approaches, preparing a spell in her hands. First, she returns Grog’s memories, to his loud displeasure, then she does the same for Percy, having him kneel down and passing his glasses off to Vex.

Percy kneels at Pike’s urging, lets his vision fall out of focus. He trusts Vex with his spectacles, of course, but that does not make the experience any more enjoyable. He is (perhaps unnervingly) acclimated to having holes in his memories. Losing all but 10 minutes of the Feywild, then, feels less like a work of magic, and more… expected. Like he should’ve known better than to think he would get to keep this.

But then Pike’s fingers touch his temples, a warmth passing from her through him, and he remembers.

He remembers, maybe too much, too fast. He remembers the Feywild, Nala the nymph, and his loss of vision, he remembers Garmelie (Artagan), Syngorn, Syldor’s unyielding coldness, and the twins’ younger sister. He remembers werewolves, pixies, rivers, and crocodiles; he remembers Saundor, looming and yellow-eyed, remembers mocking him alongside Keyleth, to make Vex laugh.

He remembers Vex, and he is overwhelmed.

He’d seen the sketches in his notebook on the way back to Whitestone, he’d noticed the amount of times she appeared, frequent even for him. At the time, he dismissed it, having long since come to terms with the fact that Vex was unquestionably beautiful, and that about one out of every four sketches ended up including her in some capacity. But now, his memory runs in reverse, matching every sketch with a recollection.

The memories come, bright and beautiful, and there are a lot of them. Every time she looked at him, a little bemused smile hidden in the corner of her mouth, every time she leaned over him to wake him up, or lift him to his feet, a few curls escaping from her braid falling against his face. Every tear that escaped down her face despite her best efforts to strangle it, that he had to stop himself from reaching to dry.

He remembers Vex finding him in a field, surrounded by other warm bodies, remembers buying her silence with a title, something twisting in his stomach prying the memory out like a thorn from under the skin, and the space made by its absence is filled with one of her room in the mansion, huddled on her bed like a wounded creature. Sitting by her side, speaking to her more gently than he knew himself to be capable of.

In his mind, handfuls of other moments come to the forefront of his mind-- not forgotten, but maybe now remembered in new light: laying a shard of green glass at her chest and praying, in the same way he prayed in the cell, that she come back; feeling her hand tighten around his through the haze of smoke and feeling inexplicably gentled by it; being swept up in a flying carpet like something out of a storybook, her hair scattered out of its braid and billowing wild; her figure stepping through a doorway, as bright as a sunrise cutting through fog, wearing the first smile he’d seen in weeks.

He loves her, he knows. Furthermore, looking back, he cannot ascertain a time he was by her side and not falling in love with her.

When he opens his eyes again, it feels as though days have passed since he closed them, and the fact that no more than a half a minute’s gone by in the midst of all of these revelations is enough that he has to sit down.

Pike touches his face to draw his attention, and her face is bleary in his sights, but her scoops her up into a hug regardless. He is used to having holes in his memories-- having them returned to him, however, is a rare thing indeed. He tries to thank her, but finds his words failing him,

It only occurs to him that he no longer has his glasses when Pike pleads for their return from Vex’ahlia, and he turns to look in the direction of the sound. He can’t see her face clearly, can’t see any detail of her clearly, but he can hear the tease in her voice when she laughed, and sighed, “Oh, but they’re so fun to look through,” as Pike brings his glasses back to him and deposits them on his face.

There are words he could say, he thinks, worshipful, loving, terrible. There are words he cannot say, guilty, unfated, monstrous. He says neither, or both. He adjusts his glasses on his nose, and says, “They’ll give you a headache.”

When Percy smiles, Vex sees no trace of a grimace in his face, and a pleasant warmth in his eyes, returned.

. . .

With the way things are, they can’t bury Tiberius. Even if they had the time, even if they could afford to draw attention to it, Vex can tell that the ground is frozen solid, the dense, temperate loam unused to such a sudden, dry cold.

Instead, they do their best to tuck him into a little corner in the ice and snow, alongside his books. It seems fitting, that he should die now-- it would be cruel to ask him to live without Draconia.

As she handles Lockheed, she makes note of Keyleth and Percival, huddled together. Percy was the one to find him, and, once, the three of them were their own little group of nobility. It feels a lifetime away, though. He hadn’t been with them through most of fight against K’varn, or the Briarwoods, or through the attack on Emon. He seemed a remnant of a simpler time, now, his death marking the end of everything untouched by the dragons.

Later she’ll tell them she found no words on his body when she let Lockheed say goodbye, and none of them will know Draconic enough to know otherwise. But seeing the half-greeting under a torn edge of his robes, she makes sure to turn the edge over, so it is unseen. It can be a harsh, grating language, dragon tongue, but in her mind, the words read almost melodic, the first opening bars to a song, cut short. She doesn’t finish reading the sentence before covering the words. There’s something nauseating about seeing fate’s strings fall to ashes, and she lets the remaining words go unspoken.

They bury all that remained in a shallow grave, and prepare for yet another hunt.

. . .

There’s a lot to love in Marquet-- after all, it produced both Gilmore and Jarrett, and their quality cannot be denied.

Vex won’t pretend to be the best at cities (Vax won that particular match, though she’ll never admit as much), but compared to Keyleth and Percy, taking every opportunity to fumble an interaction with the excitement of true tourists, and Scanlan, looking to buy drugs from any halfway-suspicious-looking vendor, she felt more like a professional in Ank’harel than she had any right to.

As endearing as it is to watch Percy floundering in the Suncut Bazaar, flushed from both heat and fluster, though, she feels obliged to come to his rescue after spotting a few less so reputable folk leering at him from nearby stands. To those who haven’t seen him mid-rampage, he checks all the boxes for an easy mark, their well-dressed sharpshooter, and Vex knows better than most how many days’ worth of gold can be gleaned from getting him on the line, having run the same gambit on unwary noblemen herself.

Vex hooks her arm around his as she falls into step with him, and he doesn’t hesitate to lean into her side, making as though he’d been waiting for her this entire time. She asks, “What are you looking for, dear?”

He lifts his glasses with his fingers to rub at his eyes, and breathes a familiar sigh. “Beyond just anything interesting, which-- everything is too interesting.”

“It’s very colorful,” she says, looking around them. In the 20 or so years since they’d been taken from it, this climate reminds her most of the near-tropical heat of a Byroden summer, though the dry, arid air was quite a ways off from the sweltering damp of their birthplace. She’d long since gotten accustomed, and found herself preferring, the temperate Emon clime, the expansive Parchwood around Whitestone, but the heat was a welcome reminder, and she would’ve stayed at the bazaar all day, if they had the time.

“A soothsayer of some kind, perhaps,” Percy continues, “it might be a good way to start getting the word out of the sort of things that we’re looking for.”

“And those sort of things are…?”

He recites their list and explains his reasonings behind the search, while she walks him ahead, keeping a lookout for any fortune tellers. She takes, perhaps, a more meandering path than she needs to, Keyleth coming along to join them when they cross her path, but they arrive in short order to an elderly man, seated on a mat in his own private corner of the shade, a deck of cards before him.

As they approach, Percy leans further into her side, smiling at the corner of his mouth as though about to share a secret. He asks her, “Do you mind blowing a little bit of money on this?”

His curiosity infectious, she smiles back. “No, actually.”

She thinks little of how it looks when she drops five gold coins in front of the soothsayer for Percy’s sake, then another five, and a third-- while they have different accounts in her books, they’ve been pooling their funds since the day Percy joined them. She watches his fortune be delivered, doesn’t tell him that the low, conspiratorial tone he’s using is only making him seem more suspicious, not wanting to spoil his fun, and when his fortune has been read, she lingers as he and Keyleth wander ahead. She waits for their conversation to pick up, making sure that they are within earshot and haven't gone too far away, before placing a fourth and final five gold pieces in front of the card reader.

Without opening his snowblind eyes, he says, “You ask for one more question. What do you inquire?”

Vex, all too aware of the weight of Fenthras across her shoulders, asks, “Am I taking the right path?”

The man lays two cards before her, throwing them to land face-up. The card on her right depicts two hands, touching at the very fingertips only, tied together by a series of tangled knots, all strung with a thin, red string. The other shows a mountain range with snowed peaks, a morning sun climbing over the horizon.

The soothsayer speaks slowly, with the faintest trace of a smile on his face, “You’ve walked many paths, and this one has many turns yet… but it leads to unity, and a new dawn.”

After Vex thanks the man, she finds Percy and Keyleth speaking in unusually hushed tones, but she denies her curiosity in reading their lips, likes them their privacy as she joins them.

. . .

It’s not that Vex is happy that Keyleth got kicked out of the casino, per se, but having an excuse to hang off of Percy’s arm, the both of them dressed to the nines, and swagger around as though there were no such things as dragons, is certainly appreciated. Parading like this, pretending to be high rollers out on the town, losing here and winning there, draped across each other, warm with contact, Vex could convince herself, in narrow moments, that if she cornered him against a darkened wall and sank her teeth where his long, pale throat met his shoulder, he’d purr and melt in her hands.

Instead, she reaches up and fluffs at his neatly coiffed hair, enjoying the softness of it and making as though she’d never had the thought of running her fingers through it, or gripping it tight in both hands. “I see you’ve washed since our broom ride.”

“Dear,” he says, chiding. “Is this the most convenient avenue for this conversation?”

“It’s just fun to watch you turn green, darling.”

Wandering off from their last bout with Avandra’s Favor, they meander in search of the next distraction, occupied enough that Vex nearly misses a pair or interested casino-goers beginning to trail after them.

Nearly, of course.

She doesn’t slow her pace, but leans close to Percy, straining to press her face to his shoulder, gangly son of a bitch that he is, and bringing her close enough to speak to him privately, keeping it under the guise of whispering sickly sweet nothings in his ear. “We have some company, I’m afraid. Two gentlemen, not too shabbily dressed. They’ve been trailing us since we came away from the dice game.”

Percy turns towards her, his face brushing against her hair, and for a moment she thinks she can detect a shiver running through him. He says, in the selfsame low voice, “I don’t suppose they’re just muggers, are they?”

“They could be, for all we know. We are carrying a vestige between us, and a whole shit load of rare magical items.”

He doesn’t answer, but she can tell by the sudden tension in his grip that they are thinking of the same thing. She does not say her name aloud, but feels a pang of regret as she tugs him further into the crowd, that she did not put an arrow in Ripley’s throat when she had the chance.

They lose the sight of their pursuers long enough to find an isolated corridor to one of the employee-only sections of the casino, tucking down the hallway and into the nearest door. Beyond the door is what seems to be a large supply closet, large enough for them to stand shoulder-to-shoulder without touching, and packed to the brim with chips, dice, cards, and just-in-case weaponry.

“I don’t think they’ll follow us in here,” Vex says, taking the opportunity to part from his side to catch her breath. Already the air in this room feels uncomfortably hot.

“No, no, I think we’re clear for the moment,” Percy answers. His hands go up to adjust his cravat, which was a pleasant lavender when they entered, but has now looks more off-white, rumpled and damp, the heat not suiting his northern blood in the leasy. She really ought to have talked him into less layers to begin with. “What’s our next step?”

“We might to be able to find an exit, but we should contact the others first. I think Keyleth’s within earring distance, but we can’t be sure Scanlan and Va--” she freezes then, one ear giving a faint, involuntary twitch towards the closet door at the sound of nearing footsteps. “Someone’s coming.”

Percy makes a move to touch his holster, but stops his hand in place. Shooting up a casino is one surefire way to get them out of J’mon’s good graces, much less if they end up killing a hapless employee just doing their job. “Can you tell how many?”

She listens closer, and says, “Just the one. Either they split up, or it’s a guard.”

“Maybe we could--”

The footsteps draw nearer, close enough for her to hear their echo bouncing off of the walls rights outside the door. In a fit of desperation, she lunges for Percy, and grips the front of his shirt in either hand. He makes a startled sound, hushed and brief.

“Darling,” she says, “trust me?”

At that, the apprehension on his countenance relaxes and wanes, though a spot of tension remains. He nods, and allows himself to be held closer, one hand coming to rest over hers., “Always, dear.”

When the door swings open, she thanks all gods who’d be willing to accept this sort of thank-you that the figure standing in the doorway is no more than a casino guard. She does have to strain to see him, though, what with her eyes half-lidded and her head thrown back, but she can probably see better than Percy can at the moment, his face half-buried in her cleavage.

In his favor, he does a very good job playacting a man caught mid-tryst by freezing guiltily in place and darting his eyes about the room madly, but a significant portion of that likely comes from Vex’s heavily-supported theory that he’s a virgin, and this might well be the closest he’s ever been to feeling someone up. As far as that goes, Vex thinks her chest is quite the set to start with, if she might say so herself.

With one hand buried in his hair, and the other pawing at his belt, beside the leg she’d thrown at the last second over his hip, Vex has just enough time to think about keeping Percy there and kicking the guard out, before she has to react.

The guard, in the meantime, fumbles whatever script he had prepared.

“Oh, gods, Tristan!” Vex begins, pushing Percy back. “I knew we should’ve waited until we got back to the inn.”

Percy, looking up at her with wide, painfully blue eyes, says, “Ah?”

Oh, gods, she’s broken him. She’s going to have to have to return him to the rest of Vox Machina afterwards and explain that she’d left the brain of the party practically Feebleminded via boob proximity.

...Would a Greater Restoration fix that, too? Pelor’s balls, she hopes so.

The guard clears his throat, repositions so that he isn’t looking directly at them. “You do not have verification to be in this part of the Luck’s Run. Please,” he says the word a little too earnestly to be intimidating, “gather yourselves and return to the main hall.”

Vex sighs with relief, nudging Percy back to stand away from her at the same time she subtly slides the pistol she half-pulled out of the holster on his belt back into its rightful place. The guard doesn’t take notice, but Percival begins functioning again just in time to cover the holster with the edge of his longcoat, keeping it well hidden. At least he has good reason, cover-wise, to tuck his coat over the front of his trousers.

“Pardon us, good sir,” he says over his shoulder as a parting, catching Vex’s hand in his and walking at a brisk, somewhat panicked pace back out, guiding them directly towards the bar.

Halfway through his drink, which he throws back with all the mannerism of draining a healing potion, grimace and all, he asks her, “Tristan? Really?”

She shrugs. “You could be a Tristan. One of us had to be quick on the draw, darling, and you weren’t playing the part, so don’t despair me for taking creative liberties.”

He snorts, wholly ungraceful. “Please don’t tell your brother about this.”

“Oh, maybe I will, maybe I won’t. Maybe it depends on how you’re planning to buy my silence,” she says, delivering it with a wink.

Percy laughs, and the sound is free and just the slightest bit disoriented. She likes being the cause of it. He proposes, “How about I give you every coin I ever make, from now on, until the day I die?”

“Extending our usual contract, then. You risk having to explain Cass why the Whitestone coffers are under my name alongside yours, you know.”

“I’ve certainly signed away more to worse beings, Vex.” He raises his drink up, and she clinks her own against it in a toast.

“I’ll take it.”

. . .

Ripley comes back.

She comes back to their lives only a handful of days after they’ve entered Ank’harel, though, considering the length of time her victims have been dead, it is more accurate so say that they entered her life, rather than vice versa. It seems inevitable somehow, as sure as the tides coming in. It would be her to come back, when things were looking, for once, to be patching over.

Only this time she has a vestige-- possibly several-- and that changes things.

Percy does not react well. He doesn’t rage, fume, billow smoke like last time, but he degrades, visibly deteriorates like tincture evaporating off an uncorked vial. He shifts restlessly, listing in his seat at the bar when her, her brother, and Keyleth try to gather him in one place for long enough to hold an intervention. He dries under their gazes, and Vex thinks she would stopper the places where he’s started to crack and pour out with her hands, if she knew how to find them.

Vax, as much as he would say he had, hasn’t forgiven Percy yet for the tomb, and him pressing at him from all angles doesn’t help. Her brother’s heart bleeds for the world, so much that fate has made him don it on either wrist for the world to see, but he’s already written Percival off as a lost cause, and Vax spares no compassion for lost causes.

“...Do you know,” Percy says, his head propped up in one palm, “how every now and then I say something just awful?”

In very different tones, both Vax and her hum affirmatively.

“...I love you both very much for that,” he laughs, taking the long way around a thought. “Um. When I think of that terrible person inside of me I see her face. She has a very active imagination-- and she knows how to make these machines--” he euphemizes, looking aside at one holster like he’s afraid to say its name. “And her imagination terrifies me. If you knew that that was me, would you let me live?”

Once, Vex thought of putting an arrow in the back of his neck, through the smoke and fire eating him alive. It would’ve been merciful. But she did not do it then, and she would not do it now.

Vax doesn’t look as certain.

Percy continues, “Has she made ten more of these things? Has she made a hundred? Does she just hand them out to people… Maybe, I don’t know, maybe she’s just running around torturing people’s parents and siblings to death and them handing them a gun and kicking them out into the world just to see what would happen, because it could be funny.”

He doesn’t talk much of his family, or the loss thereof. They know the details, in vague terms: he had a family, and then he didn’t have a family. Ripley was involved. Ripley is involved again.

With a red dragon breathing down the back of their necks, Vex can relate.

“You’re probably right, Percival, she probably is. This is not Lord and Lady Briarwood over again, though,” Vax says, voice hard and controlled.

“Not, it is not,” Percy admits, sounding very pointedly unrelieved by it.

“You are not alone.”

“No, I am not.”

They continue exchanging words stiltedly, as though a mere few weeks ago Vax wasn’t all ready to declare Percy a blood brother or worse, as Keyleth comes back with a round of mead, as well as something stronger for herself.

“...I was just hoping something heavy had fallen on her from a great height, saving the world a few thousand lives.”

Well,” Vex chirps in, Percy humming into his drink with interest in response. “We’re going to be above her, and I do have a broom with the perfect name for the occasion. Maybe we can be the ones to drop something heavy.”

“That’s really what I was hoping.”

Keyleth says, “Oh, I’ve been practicing that, actually! I can be really heavy.”

“That may help. And I-- she is the biggest mistake I’ve made, and I’m horrified by who's paid the price.”

Vax says, almost accusingly, “All the more reason to be the same cold-hearted asshole you’ve been for the past year. Why change now? Get the job done, Percival.”

Vex almost wishes Percy looked distraught at the words, that he’d gone into his pompous self-important mode, switched from one mask to the other. Or that the words had made him determined, or ferocious. Instead, he just looks on, accepting.

After the debate is over, ended by Vax leading a faintly drunken Keyleth away from the bar for fresh air, Vex leans closer. When Percy does not react, she says his name.

He looks up, but only barely. “Yes, dear?”

When she touches the side of his chest, under the left side of his clavicle, he flinches as though burned, but does not take her hand away. Even through the layers of his clothing, he feels feverish. She takes her hand away, unsure herself what she was hoping to accomplish with the gesture, and says, “You’re a better man than you believe.”

He smiles, not quite believing her, she can tell. “Thank you. I accept that compliment.” He sits back in his stool, and looks her up and down. “You as well. You’re a better woman than you believe.”

She scoffs at him, shaking her head, and he reels closer, sounding a great deal lighter than he did a moment ago, though she isn’t sure how much of it is real. “Doesn’t feel good, does it? There you are. No.”

“It doesn’t,” she admits, conceding defeat into the drink she picks up again, “shit.”

“That’s what you get for saying things like that, you terrible person.” He lifts his mug as well, and, without making a toast, clinks the lips of their cups together, sloshing their drinks.

“We’ll get her, Percy,” she says, sombered. “I won’t make pacts with you, but I can promise that much.”

“We will,” he says, and it sounds too much like you will. “It’s the cleanup that I’m more worried about.”

. . .

Before Glintshore, Percy takes the time to revise his letter. He supposes he’s baiting fate by doing so, but, for once, he feels no pull to resist the path he’s taking. He’s aware of the string of fate he’s holding onto, and follows it along, as though hoping it would lead him out of a labyrinth.

And there are things he wants to say.

He copies the words from one draft to another, correcting as he goes. On the parchment, he writes:

            ...if you are reading this, then my travels on this path have come to an end.

(in a little over a day, he’ll stand up and issue his last words to his torturer, and he’ll say, “No matter what happens here, I forgive you. But I cannot let you leave,” knowing every word to be true. And then he will be struck down.)

He writes, Scanlan:

What does he have to say to Scanlan? They have never been close. Never been confidants. Never seen eye-to-eye. But they are, in many ways, cut from different ends of the same cloth. They might never be able to understand each other, but he can find both gratitude and guidance for the man.

(in a little over a day, a gnome will trap his friend’s killer in place, and the woman, exhausted, will know death when it approaches, standing no taller than two feet, six inches. He’ll say, “Percy’s killing you today. Not us.”)

...thank you for destroying my gun. Do not let the weight of life’s consequences crush your bravado, it is your greatest weapon.

He writes, Grog:

Occasionally, when speaking to Grog, Percy will find himself nearly calling him by his older brother’s name, instead. He reminds him of Julius often-- philandering, charismatic, fond of strong drink and a quick fight, and prone to endless bouts of trouble, but a sure and resolute leader above all. Grog, for all his vices, is relayent on his ideals perhaps more so than any of them, and is more full of care than anyone would guess.

(in a little over a day, a goliath will cut down his foe in one powerful strike of an axe, the wound across the navel so deep it will nearly bisect her at the waist. She’ll buckle, but his face will remain stoic, conveying perfect calm.)

...remember that your compassion has brought you this far, not just strength. And, for the record, I would’ve wiped the floor with you that time.

He writes, Vax:

Percy crosses out the previous verse, rewrites it on the new letter sans apology. When he first drafted his letter, after the Raven’s Roost, he mostly wanted there to be some closure, in death. Instead, he tries for levity, urges him not to go and martyr himself like the idiot he is at the first opportunity he has. He understands the double standard in that sentiment, but he is, if nothing else, a hypocrite.

(in a little over a day, a half-elven man will watch as the boy he refused as his protege nearly brings them all to their end, and he’ll rip the artificial arm off of the body of the woman he relinquished him to. I cannot tell you, in exact terms, if he will have learned his lesson.)

...you often remind me of myself, and, yes, I know that is a bit of an insult. Stop indulging your desire to sacrifice, and try being the man these two women seem to think you are. They may actually need you one day.

He writes, Vex:

What does he have to say to Vex? Too much. Not enough. The quill in his hands seems too  fragile, nothing more than a processed feather. It feels like it would not be strong enough to carry the sentiment.

(in a little over day, his soulmate will gather his corpse into her lap, and will deliver two arrows, both hitting true. One will take out his killer’s heart, the other will put out her breath. She will be used to aches and pains from the words marking her, but none like this. None like the tearing sensation as he will lie motionless, to be followed by a complete lack of sensory input, the soulmark going as cold and numb as an amputated limb.

Despite knowing all too well how futile it is, she will cast one healing spell after another, a hand braced against his chest.)

For the time, Percy leaves the section empty.

He writes Keyleth:

Sometimes, he has a hard time imagining Keyleth as aged and wisened, as she will surely be some day. She seems softer than any of them, younger. But every time he thinks that, she shows them all how much her kindness is a choice, and how, beneath it, she is a tempest forged into humanoid form, eager to tear its way out and rain hell. He’s afraid that the world will strip that joy from her, until there is nothing left but the storm. He worries who she’ll be made to become, alone.

(in a little over a day, a second half-elven woman, her face streaked with blood and tears, will tighten a vine around Ripley’s throat, and hold her in place for the slaughter, even as the life begins to drain from her, bit by bit. She will be resolute. Later, she will mop the gore off of her best friend’s corpse, her own wounds not fully coagulated yet, and she will be both as cold as the mountain air, and raging as hot the fires of all the Seven Hells.

Her healing spells will find no purchase here either, try as she might.)

...don’t let the world break you. Learn to forgive it for not living up to your standards. We promise to try harder.

He writes, Pike:

He’ll admit to thinking, more than once, of Pike as the only other adult in their party, of considering her the parent of the group, of the one here to rein them in, save them from themselves. He supposes that it isn’t the most fair thing you can ask of a person. They all ought to do better remembering her as just as much of a mess of a person as the rest of them, and just as breakable. She’s becoming something of their last resort cleric these days, too often, and he hopes, perhaps in vain, that she’ll allow herself something of a fraction of the folly they lend themselves.

(in a day and a night, they’ll bring his body to their gnome, their on-call cleric, the following morning, half-wrapped in a sheet, and she’ll already be awake to receive them. They will all be grim-faced, but perhaps her especially-- face dry, eyes downcast but determined. She’ll see the look on Vex’s face, not so much sullen as it will be completely isolated, as a sailing ship set adrift, and she’ll know, and accept, then, that by the end of the day, she will have to concede defeat-- either to the woman she’s come to think of as family, or to the inevitable end of all life. Without hesitation, she will favor the first option, in every timeline, in every universe.)

...it is wonderful to have you home. You bring everyone closer to their best selves, and I can only imagine what a burden that must be. Allow yourself some vice and failure-- we’ll still love you just the same.

It takes some revisions to write Vex’s passage. There are times, on nights like these, when Percy placates himself with the thought that he has a fair a shot as any at being the one she felt safe giving her heart to, though he knows better than to believe it. It is a lie, but it is far from the first lie that he’s told himself. In the end, however, there’s no good end to this, even if he did confess-- when the universe was drafted into existence, the two of them were not penned to match one another, and nothing can change that. At a best case scenario, whatever they had would be temporary, before something inevitable drives them apart. At worse, he dies tomorrow, and his final words to her will be him burdening her with his emotions. Neither will he allow to come to pass.

For the catharsis, if nothing else, he writes on a separate sheet of parchment, I have loved you since before I thought myself capable of it. This, he burns.

(in a day, a night, and some minutes before an hour, Vex will come to rest a shard of green glass on his chest, innately familiar to her despite the fact that her own ritual was nothing more in her memory than a void, cold and lightless, and a faint, forgotten voice murmuring from afar. And she will kneel beside a corpse, resting on an unfinished table, in an unfinished temple, trying to coax back an unfinished life.

She will hold his hand, that was warm with life hardly a day before, and bring it to the low cut of her neckline, having revealed the one, golden-lettered word. As she will speak, she’ll keep it there, a lifeless hand to a lifeless mark, as flat and without senses as the scar above it. There will be a confession. There will be a kiss.)

He writes, ...you often remind me of myself and that is the highest of compliments. I hope you free yourself of whatever voices haunt you, whatever words hold you down. Also, since I’m gone, you’re the clever one now.

...With eternal gratitude,

Percival of Vox Machina.

. . .

When it can be found, the universe errs towards practicality.

It can lead to mistakes, and often it does-- perfectly suited soulmates who have a calming effect on each other can turn into feedback loops at the sight of tragedy, feeding each other’s destruction, and you’d have to look no further than Lord and Lady Briarwood to see that. There are others who have always been, and always will be, perfect matches, driven into chaos and separation by outside forces and pressures, as is the case with Lady Kima of Vord and Allura Vysoren. And then there are some, chaotic to their foundation, who would be soothed by each other’s presence, but are unlucky enough to want each other and not be fated to intersect, promised to other souls.

And there is no such thing as soulmates between the teeth of a gnawing demon.

In fact, there is very little in the world, when one’s soul is being torn apart. There are no names, or identities, neither forgiveness nor vengeance, no gods of any kind. There is sound, there is pain, and there is the feeling of one’s essence being ground down to nothing, one layer at a time.

Percy sees, after what feels like it could be eons of the unending sawing of teeth across the fibers of being, a hand, or maybe the idea of a hand, casting off the surrounding haze, and the sounds and chaos flit back at the gesture, cowed. Orthax and the force grapple as two dogs on either end of an oxbone, his voice rumbling low from all directions, “No... no, I finally have him. I finally--”

It is a futile struggle, and, with a snap, the tension is relieved.

And then, there is nothing. For a time, Percival stands in the stream, untethered, recalling, in a corner of his mind still resisting the ambient feeling of being dissolved, the pull of the icy river as it dragged him far from Whitestone, and to a fishing vessel. He feels it again, as unmoored as a derelict ship, first feeling lost, then apathetic, and then, in time, not even feeling that.

There’s a voice. It says, with different words, come home.

This is not the first time this voice has called him back when he was lost, and focusing on its familiarity is natural. From somewhere else, there are also voices, soft and pleasant like the chiming of bells, but they are far and getting farther, because someone asked for him, and he has never been able to say no to her. He goes home.

. . .

Vox Machina stands in wait, as they have for hours. Vex hides her face in her brother’s shoulder, afraid of every every second passing, of the verdict to come. Keyleth has been crying on and off since yesterday, but now she holds her breath, standing near Scanlan, his fist pressed white-knuckled against his mouth to muffle his wet breathing. Grog and Pike are near the feet and the head of the broken table, respectively. The silence is overwhelming.

Percy’s chest rises.

It’s a small breath, not at all a gasp, or a pant. His breathing is indistinguishable from that of a sleeping man, as are his features, his face relaxed. Vax rests a hand over him, casting a healing spell, and begins to shake him awake. It takes a moment, but soon Percy huffs a quiet, awakening murmur, his head shifting in place.

For what feels like the first time since their gunslinger hit the ground, Vox Machina breathes freely.

. . .

In the early hours of morning, before dawn, Percy wakes up cradling the fiercest hangover he’d ever shouldered, and crawls to the nearest bath, having woken up in a puddle of his own day-old rot.

He strips his many layers of clothing with slowed motions, finding no strength in his arms. He hadn’t even had the wits about him to take off the clothes he wore when dead, and nearly all of them are unsalvageable. While they didn’t exactly smell of human decay, the acrid reek of spent gunpowder clings to them, his longcoat cloying with the acetonic stink of fresh death. It reminds him too much of being in the dungeons beneath the castle, waiting for Ripley to come back and trying to ignore the smell coming off of the cell where his brothers had been kept. And Pike’s magic is nothing short of miraculous, but there is something unnatural about smelling one’s own decay-- an element of human mortality one should not be privy to.

The bath water runs cold at this hour, with no one to heat it, but his body heat is still rising back from his tenure as a corpse, and his extremities feel blisteringly hot with the rising temperature, so the chill is welcome. It’s only then that he notices the changes-- or rather, the absence.

There is a smudge where his soulmark originally was, not more noticeable than the aftermark of a scab. When he knuckles at it, there’s a definite mass under the skin, but its shape is difficult to make out. The words, as though worn away by the raking of Orthax’s teeth, have but little left of them, no more than a few lines, the corner of a letter. A system of decay gone completed. There’s a moment he regrets it. It would’ve been nice, after all this time, to be someone’s.

He’s tired enough and occupied with enough conflicting thoughts that he doesn’t notice his arm until he’s toweling off, and even then, he passes the streak of teal once without looking, for all it feels natural, spiraling its way down his wrist.

It both catches him off guard and doesn’t-- maybe he doesn’t fully allow himself to believe it’s there, but he recognizes the handwriting before the impact, finds himself smiling at the squashy shorthand endemic to Vex’s ledgers, perfect down to the faintly smudged letters where she would’ve dragged her left hand through the fresh ink. It’s different from the one she employs in professional writing, and seldom does she allow anyone to see it, keeping it relegated to sums and subtractions. He thumbs at the letters, the skin bright and textureless, like fresh skin growing over a burn, and, too tired to think better of it, he worries that if he doesn’t handle it with care, it, too will flake away.

Here are some statistics, more or less accurate: in about nineteen out of twenty universes, he never hears her call him back. In some timelines, he comes back regardless, and they continue to circle around each other endlessly, but in most, he does not.

But in the five percent of universes where he does hear her, he always chooses to come back.

Percy, he reads, I don’t know if you can hear me…

The words don’t extend any further, but he knows, implicitly, both how they continue, and the voice by which they were spoken. He remembers.

. . .

When he wakes again, the viper crawls out from under their beds, and reveals itself.

Or, rather, the viper reveals herself, as Raishan’s green eyes peer out from Assum’s face, offering deals and issuing threats. Vox Machina holds Keyleth back to the best of their ability, but she snarls in their grip, barely restraining herself from lunging directly for the dragon’s throat. In their hold, she roils and bucks while standing in place, so much Percy fears she’s about to buckle out of form and into that of an animal, shifting as a storm throwing itself against a ship.

Raishan says, “...I did not slay a single one of your people,” and he sees the reaction build in Keyleth like a wave cresting. “Thordak’s release destroyed the top of that mountain--”

“Which you did-- you unleashed the mad dog, you bitch!”

In the stretches of skin they can see, her soulmarks, most of which are hardly more than yet-unsettled designs, wordless, write and unwrite themselves, as she holds her own fate alongside the fates of countless others, in the palm of her hands. How heavy a burden it must be, to be so long lived that you’re able to look at your own skin, and see how many opportunities are erased from your future, how small a sample they represent, among the hundreds of potential lives created and erased with each footstep.

It’s difficult to remember how this girl, who laughs when she gets nervous talking to new people, is made of the confines of natural disasters bound down to mortal form, until she roars and spits at a dragon, not an ounce less fearsome. Like an earthquake, she walks in magnitudes.

So, after that, sitting with Vex in the library, pressed together in one seat so as to read the same book together, really has no justifiable reason to have his heart racing nearly just as much.

Her plan is as brazen as it is reckless, as foolhardy as it is brilliant, as much as he can expect from a woman like her. Both, are, inarguably, just as delightful as they are likely to be the death of him. Either way, he’s excited.

The largest of the castle libraries boasts shelves tall enough to demand ladders to reach the books closest to the ceiling, and they readily put to use the wheeled ones left for such a purpose. Vex, for the most part, stays on the ground to scout down below, while he employs the height advantage to reach the further books. That is, until he teeters against the bookshelf in a way that makes her uneasy, and she makes him switch places with her. He’s tired-- of course he’s tired, he’d been dead for a day not a full twenty-four hours ago, and his body was making it very difficult to forget that-- but this falter, in particular, had more to do with the fact that he was having a hard time focusing on the books in front of him without looking at her out of the corner of his eye.

By requirement, he’s bound his arm in cloth to hide his words. His coat had been reduced to scrap fabric, practically, and he didn’t dare try to wear it once he’s peeled it off the night before, for fear of it coming unspooled entirely. Percy made sure that the covering he chose, a white gauze, did not resemble Vex’s vambrace padding, to not draw her attention. She’s perceptive to a fault, and he knows that, if she asks to see what’s underneath, he wouldn’t be able to deny her.

And yet, as soon as he uses that arm to pass a book on fiends in her direction, she grabs at his wrist instead, her eyes focusing fully on the white wrapping underneath his shirtsleeves. “Percy,” she says, and he expected inquiries, curiosity, but he did not expect the way, even though she doesn’t say another word, her eyebrows furrow with concern, and her eyes gloss with moisture.

She thinks he’s hurt, still. In a way, she’s right. Already, he has reached within himself and found places where parts of him have been torn away by the gnashing teeth of a demon. He keeps expecting to turn around and see himself leaving a trail of remnants, sloughing off of him and onto the halls with every step. Percy feels their absence profoundly, yet feels lighter for it, like a wound cauterized. Some parts of him have been left to rot for a long time.

Physically, she is also right. He’s tired, now, despite the electric hum beneath the topmost layer of skin. He’s been tired for a long time, and he wants terribly, for a moment, to lean his weight against her and go back to sleep. He wants ravenously now, more so than before, wants like an animal, to sleep and eat and get the dragons who have taken every corner of their homes out. Wants to press his lips to Vex’s, to see if the faint memory of pressure against his, so distant it may as well be a dream, is accurate.

When he doesn’t answer, and Vex’s grip on his wrist tightens, he wants to hold her hand for a time.

He doesn’t say that, though. He doesn’t say any of it, neither the truth of his words beneath the bandages, nor the lie that he is well. She loves him, and he knows it, but there are things you shouldn’t hold over someone’s head. If she decides to approach him first, he’ll tell her everything, but not before then. He will not use these words against her.

Percy says, “It’s alright, dear. Some things are best left to heal naturally. For the moment,” he presents the book he pulled from the shelf, its title promising, with a one-handed flourish. “Shall we have a look?”

The book proves promising, yielding a startled-sounding intake of breath when he turns the page in her direction to show her the illustration of the goristro. “Well, that’s intimidating,” he says.

“That’s enormous.”

“Yes,” he says, empathetically. “I think the dragon will be pleased.”

Vex gives out one breathless laugh, taking the books from him for a closer to look at the beast, behooved and fiery-eyed. “I hope the dragon kills it.”

“I’m fine either way.”

She’s still tittering anxiously, but there’s a little more humor to the sound now. “Well, that’s helpful.”

He sighs, relieved. “That’s very helpful. Whoever survives…”

“We kill them,” Vex finishes. “No problem.”

There’s a moment neither of them say anything, Vex looking at her boots and him running his fingers across the aged leather of the book’s cover, thinking about reaching up to move the stripe of dark hair that falls across her face back behind her ears. Before he can make up his nerve, she jolts towards the door. “Anyway! I should-- we should probably show everybody what we found.”

“Yes, we should probably, what we’ve-- what we’ve been working on.”

Stumbling on their words, they both make for the doors at the exact time. While the doorways here were built wide and sturdy enough to withstand sieges and winter storms, they aren’t quite able to hold them both at once, and their shoulders knock at the step through. When Percy pulls back to let her through, they only stumble over each others feet more, both of them performing the same stunted leaps away from each other.

“Sorry, sorry,” he begins, more than a little flustered, as she wrings her hands together, “you first.”

“No, sorry, you--”

“No, no, I--”

Vex’s darker skin does not show a blush as clearly as his must, but at this point, even the red flush up to the tips of her ears is evident.

Before they have a chance to compete for which one of them can stumble on their own words furthest, he takes a practiced step back from the doorway, holding back the door for her to pass with a flourish and a half-bow at the waist. It’s been a long time since his etiquette lessons, and almost an equally long time since he’d had to put them to practice around a noblewoman, but if Vex notices how rusty he is, she doesn’t seem to mind at all, smiling brightly as she walks through the doorway, holding her head high, showing the long, elegant line of her neck.

“You made me promise I wouldn’t call you Lord Percival ever again,” she says, her tone so lilting it borders on sing-song, “so I won’t. Thank you, Percy.”

Not beholden to the same standards, Percy says, “It was my pleasure, Lady Vex’ahlia,” if only to see the smile on her face grow even brilliant.

. . .

When last they saw Draconia, the air had grown heavy and dry with cold, and the ground so frozen solid that they had to scrape more than dig in order to make little nook of a grave for their old ally. Now, only a few weeks later, it’s less snowed-in and more frozen over, the wind so sharp and biting that when Vex flew her broom over to the Ravenites the night before, she felt as though it was raking past her face like the teeth of a saw.

She hates the cold. It’s been almost twenty years since she’s lived in the tropical south of Tal’Dorei, but some things just stay in your bones, no matter how much time passes-- and in Vex’s case, cold tolerance is not one such thing. She can tolerate it when she’s moving, either when she’s hiking her way up a mountain after a stag, or starting up a fire in the middle of camp, but standing up to her knees in snow and ice really isn’t the thing to psych her up for a dragon hunt.

The fact that she’s several handfuls into a mound, doing the very thing she’d been trying to avoid for the past few days-- buring Percival

“Dear,” he says from the entrance to his den, only visible from the waist up from where she can see him at the circular door of the sharpshooter hide. The way he crouches with Bad News reminds her vaguely of a hunting blind. She isn’t sure at which end of the ice the hunter is supposed to lie in wait for their prey, but she hopes, maybe in vain, that he’s picked the right side. “You need to go, this’ll have to do.”

“Some cover,” she answers, sneering without intending to, “I can still see you from a yard up.”

He puts a hand at the entrance and draws himself closer to her, so that they’re eye-to-eye. She isn’t used to being taller than him. “Vex’ahlia, you don’t have time.”

She notices his coat sleeve then. She worked all yesterday, while he was sleeping off a resurrection, on that coat. Rinsing out blood and gunpowder that had already settled into the fabric, stitching the holes shut where the bullets and claws rakes passed through the fabric. It had been near unsalvageable, but Elaina hadn’t taught them to give up on something so easily.

Her stitches aren’t as clean or precise as her mother’s hand been, nor as beautiful as Vax’s embroidery, and she can still notice the broad marks of them on his cuff, but they’re strong. They’ll hold.

Percy says, “Vex,” his tone urgent. She thinks he’s close enough to the entrance now that she could so easily lean down to kiss him.

She doesn’t. Instead, she gets back on her broom, looking back at him over her shoulder as she kicks off the ground and to the air. “Stay safe, darling.”

“You as well,” Percy says. The storm picks up around them, loud enough that she can’t hear what he says next, though she can read his lips around the blurring of snow, Please, stay alive.

She won’t make promises, not to him, and not right now, but she will. She knows she will. In part because he asked her too, but also because she wants to. There’s something in the vibrations of Fenthras (she traces the word Cynaeth on the side of the riser, feeling at ease with the language for the first time in years) when she takes it hand, crouching in her own hide opposite that of Percival’s, the feel eager, and her fingers come away burning at the tips despite the cold.

This will not be a massacre, she decides. This’ll be a hunt.

When their mother died, Vax vowed vengeance, but Vex studied. She found her books, her charts. Learned the ways a dragon’s scales fit together to make their body impenetrable, learned the difference between scute and scale, bone and keratin, which she could and couldn’t slide an arrow under, and where she should. Where an arrow could reach where a sword couldn’t, into the wound, between the muscle fibers, inside the organs, the mouth, the brain, the little fragile ligaments that even dragons have, that can be severed quickly and without pain. Wings dislocated, jaws unhinged, blood vessels ruptured, systems stopped-- quickly, like pulling a sow bear’s head back to find the place where her matted fur is soft under the throat, and turning the knife’s edge inwards with your thumb. Vex knows any number of ways to euthanize.

When Vorugal is fleeing, he turns his body sideways in an angle that shows his partially torn-open gut, and her hands work faster than her brain to fire an arrow up that incision, and up into the throat through it. It isn’t vengeance, not for Tiberius, not for her, not for Draconia, or Whitestone. It’s only a hunt, and maybe Vex is deceiving herself, but she thinks Vorugal knows it, too. A hunter taken down by a hunter, as nature would have it. Maybe he’s at peace with that-- Vex would be. Maybe he isn’t.

Like a pheasant with an arrow through its wing, he drops either way.

. . .

Keyleth eyes him from across the forge, as Percy hammers the mask into place, the connection between it and Grog’s horned helmet just about as stable as he could make it. “What,” he says, not a question in his tone.

Wordlessly, she gestures knowingly to the bandage over his arm, having been revealed when he rolled up his sleeves in the heat of the workshop. Her hands are still glowing warm, like heated metal, and he just about smells his arm hair start to singe when she pulls her hands back. “Sorry, sorry, I forgot,” she says. “But my point stands.”

He lowers the mask and his tools, and runs his hand over the bandage. “What’s your point?”

That,” she says, pointing from a distance this time, “is not an injury.”

“How do you know?”

“I saw you during the fight-- you fell on your back, not your front. Plus, I never saw you pick up bandages afterwards. That’s not from Yenk, or Vorugal.”

“Maybe it’s from Ripley.”

“Nah,” she says, shaking her head, “only killing blows scar over big time after death, and that would’ve healed already anyway. No need for a bandage. Unless it isn’t a wound.”

Percy narrows his eyes at her, but she only raises her eyebrows at him. She’s only able to lift both at once, but he can sense that, if she were able to, she would be wiggling them at him, with intent.

He sighs, conceding defeat and beginning to unroll the wrap. “How did you know?”

“You’re my best friend,” she says, “and you seemed happier. It didn’t take much to guess why.”

Her smile drops for a moment when he shows her his words, only to make a triumphant return as the meaning of them sink in, bigger and brighter than the forge in the corner of the room.

“Don’t look so happy,” Percy says, sitting himself down before she can start. “It isn’t a mutual mark. We both know that.”

Keyleth looks like she wants to say something, then thinks better of it. “So what?”

“So what?” He says, “so, Vex might be my soulmate, but I’m not hers. You know what this means.”

She scoffs at him, waving a white-hot hand that hurts a little bit too look at in his direction before dunking both in the bucket of oil in the corner he’d put out to cool the metal. The oil ignites for a moment, but the fire only lasts for a moment before extinguishing itself as she pulls her hands, now cooled and clean, back out. She offers up both of her bared arms in his directions.

Along her hands, from fingertips to shoulders, countless letters, only some in legible languages, and most in a state of slow, constant change, stretch themselves out like animals laying down on their stomachs to cool off in the shade on a hot day, all leisure and easy motion.

“How many soulmates do you think I’ll have, Percy?” She asks. “Five? Twenty? Two hundred? I may live for a thousand years, if nothing kills me, I could have more soulmates than we could sit down and count. Or I could die tomorrow and have none. And all of them, if any, I may only have for a fraction of my life. A little while, compared to everything else. Does that make any of them temporary?”

“Well, no,” he says, “if they didn’t have an impact on you, they wouldn’t be your soulmates.”

“Exactly!” She says, delighted. “So you aren’t Vex’s soulmate. She loves you, and you love her. So you’ll get together, you’ll be happy for a time, and maybe you’ll break up. Maybe something will happen, and you’ll only be someone else’s soulmate years and years in the future. Maybe you’ll never be someone’s soulmate.”

Percy says, “So?”

“So?” She says, “So? So you’ll be happy, for a little while! Just because it won’t last forever, doesn’t make it meaningless. Just because it’s liminal, doesn’t mean it won’t matter.”

He breathes, slowly. “But it will end.”

“And when it does, you’ll be better for having lived through it. That’s life. We’re all just here to brush past each other, make each other’s lives better for as long as we can, and then go. That doesn’t make us temporary.”

Percy shakes his head. “That still doesn’t make me her soulmate. She has hers already.”

Again, Keyleth looks so close to saying something that her face reddens, swallowing a scream that has begun to build itself in her throat. “No,” she says, slowly. There’s an expression in her face he can’t quite read. “But the longer you spend mulling that over, the less time you’ll have together, even if the end is inevitable.”

“You’re saying, just because something is temporary, doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile?”

She takes him by either shoulder, hands still faintly warm. Somewhere behind her eyes, a storm rages. “Percy,” she says, “I’m saying everything is worthwhile because it’s temporary. In the end, that’s the only thing that counts.”

. . .

Compared to a winter in Whitestone, the snow here isn’t nearly as deep as it could be, or falling as heavily. The snowstorms to the high north of the continent front a greater threat than a white dragon’s nest does, and just as often make good on those threats. Percy himself was born during a one said snowstorm, at the lows of winter-- not the strongest, or longest-spanning of the storms on record, not even the hardest one that year, but it had come later in the year than expected, he’d been told, and they hadn’t had the resources at that point that they had before. It had been unseasonably dire, he’s given to understand.

Which is all to say that, when Vex asks him to come along on a walk with her, Percy knows for a fact that he has no justification for why his hands keep shaking, why his tongue seems to lay cold and motionless in his mouth whenever she asks him something, turning her gaze to him. In the faintly blue light refracting off of the snowmelt, her eyes seem dark and warm.

“How are you?” She asks, after a few minutes of walking side-by-side silently. “After dying?”

It doesn’t take long for him to consider his answer, though he fails to remember if anyone had ever asked her the same question, after her death. “I’m trying really hard not to think about it, actually,” he confesses, taking a moment between sentences to sigh. His breath clouds in front of him, visible in the cold. The steam comes away from his mouth in smaller puffs as he laughs. “I don’t know, honestly. There hasn’t been a lot of time to process.”

Vex says, “No, there hasn’t. It’s a lot in a few days.” She fumbles with her hands as she speaks, even though he can tell she’d rather have them in her pockets. The cold’s never suited her, even though she could manage it.

He says, “I would say it would be nice to be going home, except I know what we’re going home to. So there’s going to be no relief.”

“No, not for a while, I don’t think.” It’s a somber subject, and she reacts to it accordingly, though the introspective look she wears isn’t going anywhere.

“That creature,” he says, already feeling himself beginning to trail off, “hanging around.”

“Yes,” she says, small. Percy isn’t sure what draws him back to the thought of Ripley, but it seems that the change in subject is mutual. Too many monsters taking their turns to lurk in their beds, waiting to strike.

“Yeah, death was not pleasant.”

“No,” Vex says, sounding somehow even smaller. She has her hands clasped now, and wrings them together, a motion that looks vaguely painful with her archer’s fingers, arching and pulling them in over-exertive angles, as though looking to snap them. Not for the first time, Percy considers the merits of taking her hands in his own, and holding them for a short while. When next she speaks, she says it all in one breath, as though she has to let it all go at once, “I have to tell you something.”

“Alright,” he says, tentatively. Part of him hopes she’s referring to the ritual, and his left arm burns with sensory input up to the curve of his elbow, in anticipation.

Instead, she twitches her hands (her painfully-wringed hands, the fingernails chewed to the stubs), in the direction of her bow, and says, “Do you know… do you know what Fenthras means?”

Percival de Rolo III speaks a lot of languages. Not nearly as many as she does, but he boasts a fairly wide understanding, and he can grasp at some words that have the same roots as the name, but cannot ascertain what it says, for once. “I don’t, actually,” he admits.

Again, she speaks all in one continues patter, “It comes from the elvish words-- I’m surprised!-- Um. Growth, and protection.”

Percy remembers Saundor’s offer to her, “I could give you the means to protect them,” remembers how, on the way out of Greyskull Keep, she’d walked with her face pointed towards the ground so that they wouldn’t comment on her eyes welling up and leaking, remembers promising her they’d come back, and build it better than they’d left it. Memories before death sometimes feel bleary to him to him at first, as though shown to him from behind a thin sheet of drumhead, stretched taut until translucent-- this is especially the case with Feywild memories, which still feel dreamlike and unreal in the best of days. But this, despite everything, comes back as clear as daylight. He considers asking about it, but only momentarily, before he breaks sideways with a diversion. “I would’ve eventually looked it up,” he says, fumbling when he gets the laugh he was fishing for, “it’s the sort of terribly boring thing that I would do.”

Vex continues, undeterred, “It’s odd that Saundor had it for so long, since he was quite the opposite of that, don’t you think?”

“I…” he says, looking at the forest unveiling ahead of them, to avoid her gaze for a time, “I tend to think that many people exalt the exact opposite of what they are.”

Exalt has some connotations, of course. One falling to their knees at an altar, all benedictions and offerings. While it would take greater miracles to turn Percy into a man of faith, the concept does not seem as alien as it once was, nor half as unappealing.

“Yes. I think,” she trails off, taking the opportunity to look around them, taking stock of their environment. Even at her most introspective, she’s entirely vigilant. “I think he focused for so long… on the betrayal of his soulmate, on all of the horrible things within himself that caused that, that he… became the physical embodiment of it. I think he was trying to do the same to me. And even though I refused him, I could feel those seeds being planted. Self-doubt and loathing echoing in my mind, every night. Reliving every wrong that people and everything I’ve done--”

It would be belittling to stop her right now just to tell her she’s never done anything to earn the adjective horrible. That there is nothing horrible within her to germinate. Percy knows substantial amounts of her, but he doesn’t come close to knowing all of her, and all she’s had to do to stay alive. Vex’ahlia is a woman who wears masks under facades under veneers, and every chance to look past them is a rare gift, and not one given lightly. There is a hunter, beneath it all, who would do what it takes to survive, and he does not fault her for it.

But he does consider telling her, in the near future, if he can, that there is nothing she’s done that is beyond forgiving. Not a damn thing.

However, she’s waiting for his response, so Percy says, “I recently-- I will say, before death-- had a bit of an epiphany. And have been trying-- not always succeeding, but trying-- no to dwell on such things.”

Vex’s face lights up with interest, and she hardly waits for his last words to leave his mouth before speaking, “That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about! In the fight, with Ripley--”

“Yes.”

“...Your last words to her were, “I forgive you”?”

Yes.”

“It-- it was such a surprise.”

“Yes,” he says. What else can he say?

All in a great haste, she pulls Fenthras off her shoulder, resting it sideways over one wrist so as to show him the side of the bow, close to the riser. He recognizes the print before he reads the word itself-- how couldn’t he? The same handwriting is carved up the length of his forearm. He’d recognize it with his eyes closed. “Do you know that word?” She asks, breathless.

This time, he does, though he still brings his hand up to trace the imprint of it. Cynaeth. It’s simple elvish, rudimentary, even. Forgive. No plays on words, no complicated etymologies, it’s a very basic reminder, and he finds himself admiring her for it. There’s a lot of room to hide behind in most abstract concepts. Much less in one as direct as this.

All that comes out of his mouth, though, is an empathic, “Oh.”

Still riding the momentum of her reveal, she gestures with the bow as she says, “I carved this on Fenthras because-- that’s the key isn’t it? It’s the only way to really grow.”

“I think so. I.. I’m trying. It’s the only thing I’ve tried that made any sense so far. And it felt… very liberating. It felt good. It felt perfect.” Percival is no stranger to committing himself to something only to find himself, at the end of the tunnel, all the emptier for it, and this, for once, is a very welcome departure. “And it wasn’t about her, and it wasn’t-- it was just about me. I didn’t say it to make her feel better, I didn’t say it to give her any peace. Uh, and I came to that feeling before running into her. I didn’t know if it would be true when I saw her, but I feel like… so much of my energy had been such a waste.”

She makes a sound as though she’d like to interrupt him, but he can’t seem to make himself stop now, faintly aware that he’s begun to shake his head with the words. “Worse than a waste, it had been twisted in the wrong direction? And it’s too late for a lot of things. There are things that I cannot take back, and things that I have done that will forever be terrible.”

Percy,” she says, stopping him with a hand on his upper arm, and maybe he only draws to a slow stop because it sounds vaguely as though his words have hurt her, and he’s had enough of that for one lifetime.

“--But that’s not the point, I suppose.”

“It isn’t,” she confirms. “Whoever that boy was, who created those things, who suffered such horrors that he felt they were justified?” The hand on his arm tightens its grip, holding him in place. “You have to forgive him too. Because everything you’ve suffered and endured and created in that time, has made you into the person you are now. And you have a brilliant mind.”

And, as fate would have it, her heart.

Her breath shows in white steam around her mouth, despite the steadily rising temperatures, and it serves as a visual indication for how hard she’s breathing. He isn’t sure, but he might be able to tell her pulse, racing, through the grip of her hand on his arm, but she doesn’t keep it there for long enough for him to be sure. “And any darkness that might cloud your vision, on occasion,” Vex says, “the fact that you found it within yourself to forgive her means that it will never overtake you.”

“Thank you, he says. “I would like to think we’re all better than we think we are.” Then, he passes a careful glance around their perimeter, all innocent trees and suspiciously-trodden snow. “Except for your brother, I think he’s just a mess.”

“He’s terrible, isn’t he?”

“Is he in here?”

“Maybe.”

“We shouldn’t have given him that ring.”

Vex laughs, scrubbing at her face with a hand. Then, there’s some silence. Not for the first time, Percy thinks about how quiet he feels by her side, as though he could stay here, and be hers, and be good. He’s not her soulmate, this he knows, but she loves him, and he can’t imagine feeling this way towards anyone else, words on his arm or otherwise.

He thanks her, again, unsure of what else he can say that won’t incriminate him. “I know I have to forgive myself. I’m not quite there yet, but,” she isn’t looking at him at that exact moment, so he takes the chance to look at the faint smile in the corner of her mouth, the laughter still drying on her lips, “I can see a path. I like where we are and what we’re doing. And I… I think we’re the right people in the right place, and the right time.”

Frankly, he himself isn’t really sure what he meant with that.

“I agree,” she says, thankfully, since he’s a little bit at his wit’s end here, “and this engraving,” she gestures to the bow one last time before putting it away, “is a reminder that every time I attack, it’s not out of vengeance.”

“I would be horrified if you were taking yourself too seriously.”

“Never. Did you see the bear I carved on the tree? It was quite lovely.”

“It was quite lovely,” he agrees, rocking back on his heels and trying not to look at her lips too much while she laughed at him. “I don’t know if, if the tree is as happy with it, but I was quite impressed.”

“Thank you,” she says.

He says, “Thank you.”

It would be easy to walk away now, leave things as they are. He isn’t her soulmate, much as he would like to be, rather than some elf in a far-off place, shooing her off like a stray animal. He would be forgiven for retreating now, knowing that anything they could have would be temporary, at least on her end. He couldn’t be blamed for taking the easy way out, staying by her side in the way which was most convenient.

But it’s just as easy, he finds, to turn around halfway through walking away, and fold up his sleeve on his way over, free of the bandage he hadn’t bothered to wrap his soulmark with this morning, and offer it up for her to inspect, as she’d done to him some time before. Seemingly without hesitation, she presses her hand to the mark, feeling for its objective reality, and finding it as real as anything. Her mouth opens, but no words come out, just a sharp intake of breath.

His own breath comes out in a hiss. Her fingers feel as though they’ve gone straight through the skin, to sinew and nerve, and wherever they land, a heat flows through. It’s a strange sensation, one he’s never felt before-- the closest he’d come is when Ripley, when first she had him under her thumb, pressed both hands to the words on his chest, and it felt like his chest cavity had been torn open and made external, as though she’d put her burning hands through him.

This isn’t like that. There’s no instance of invasiveness here. Only a pleasant, warming intimacy, an imposed solitude. It was only her and him now, and he was more than willing to have her touch whatever part of his she wanted, trusting her fully to never exploit that, to never willingly harm him.

After that, maybe a kiss would’ve been redundant. He presses his mouth to hers anyway.

Her lips are chapped from the biting air, his own sloppy by his own admission, out of practice. He could spend the rest of his life writing volumes explaining how much it felt, in the moment, that he belonged right there, and never be able to say it with words worthy enough.

“We’ll talk later,” he promises, retrieving his arm, departing with all the decorum he could muster.

If he has to take the long way around back to the mansion to clear his head, nobody needs to know about it.

. . .

Percy’s arm is burning.

It isn’t the right thing to focus on right now-- in fact, it is the wrongest thing to focus on, the bottom of a long litany of things he shouldn’t be focusing on right now.

But venom is an ugly thing to die from, and looking at Vex, who’d he mechanically turned over onto her side so that she doesn’t choke on her own fluids, he feels as though he’s watching her from a distant. From behind a pane of glass, removed from the situation. For all he’s able to help, he may as well be-- capable only of observing as Vex shook, and shuddered, and went slack.

Even unconscious, she still moves restlessly, through no choice of her own, her head moving from side to side in slow, incognizant patterns, her eyes rolling behind their eyelids, convulsing and sweating through her clothes. All arrhythmic muscle activity, all twitches and instinctive responses as her body spent its last few dregs of energy trying to fight off an infection it couldn’t flush. All he could do was try to keep her still enough so the unconscious motions wouldn’t have her hitting her head on the ground, listen to her breathing as it went from labored, to wheezing, to nigh-imperceptible. He doesn’t remember deciding to rub her back, mop the hair out of her face, but his hands pass over clammy skin without distinct command, of their own volition. Percy stands, remotely, watching himself watch the woman he loves choke on her own saliva, noting how the pit fiend venom seems to be pyretic, not unlike a wyvern’s, wondering if the fever will cause a fatal seizure before the venom has a chance to run its course.

And all he can focus on is that his arm is burning.

He’s seen, in his tenure with Vox Machina, any number of ways to die, very few of them pleasant. But poisoning, and envenomation, seem especially unkind. It’s a slow death, merciless, undignified, without relief, and Vex deserves better than this.

Somehow, Percy thought he’d had time.

Maybe he should’ve learned this lesson back when he’d been trying to put a sword through a dragon’s back, mid-council meeting, but somehow, he’d thought they’d have time. Time enough to speak, time enough that they wouldn’t need to rush this, that they wouldn’t have to speed through this one thing. Stupidly, he’d thought they’d have more time.

He’s occupied enough, scratching numbly at his wrist, that he hardly pays any mind to Keyleth ripping through the doorway, all wings and hellfire, until she pulls Vex to her, a spell gathered at each hand. He only sputters awake, as though returning to his body, when she sits up, still shuddering and shivering, but thanking Keyleth and curling around herself. The veins up her arms and throat are all dark and pronounced, her face wet with sweat and watering eyes. She doesn’t look effortlessly gorgeous, beautiful as she is, just feverish, tired, and desperately alive.

By the time Vex is back on her feet, still a little shaky but more than happy to approach the two latest lost souls who she’s taken under her wing, he’s already forgotten about the pain at his forearm, bleeding bone-deep, doesn’t mind the long, red welts he’s drawn across the letters with his fingernails. He forgets about it until she puts her hand in his, interweaving their fingers together. He focuses on the beating pulse, felt from her hand through to his own, and the rhythm of it reverberates and reverberates, echoing down to the marrow.

They’re going to have to make every moment count.

. . .

It’s hard to explain why some universes differ in the smallest increments, but blame the miniscule changes of time and fate. Blame the weather. Blame the fact that Vex knows almost every card in Percy’s deck, knows his investment as wore it on his wrist, knows exactly what she stands to gain by making a move. Maybe it’s because, for whatever reason, Percy stalls when picking his drinks for a moment too long, and she decides that what won’t come to her, she’ll get to herself, and, in this case, come with.

She does regret not wearing a coat or something over herself when making the long trek down the castle’s stony walls, though. The halls here are a lot windier than she remembered, and she is getting hit with an updraft in a particular angle that is both entirely new, and wholly undesired. But, steadily and stubbornly, she’s making her way up the hallway towards Percy’s room, which she’s damn sure she knows is only a short distance away, no thanks to her ranger’s intuition, which seems to have left her, in this most trying time.

Luckily for her, Percy is much closer than his own bedroom than she originally planned for, as she rounds out an especially sharp corner to come nose-to-nose with him, shuffling over towards her room with one armful of goodies in a bag. They don’t even impact, you know, but, as it would happen, all it takes is coming that near to a collision, then noticing that she’s not wearing anything, for him to gasp, sputter, and noisily drop his grasp on a bag full of, as fate would have it, old expensive alcohol.

Just as soon as his grip slips, he makes a sudden grab for the bag before it can crash to the ground, and only one bottle impacts within the bag, making a distinct thud against the floor, but not the telltale, jingling sound of a bottle smashing against stone. He sighs with relief, then looks back up, and she sees him come to a near miss of dropping the bag all over again.

Dear,” she says, making sure to speak slowly for his sake, “not that I don’t appreciate the slapstick routine, but it is drafty in here.”

“Of course it’s drafty,” he mutters, starting to shuck off his coat one-handed, “it is mid-winter, you’re going to catch your death like this.”

It’s hard to put a coat around someone in a suave way with only one free hand, while blushing up to your ears, but, in the absence of charm, Percy lands somewhere between gallant and affectionate, and, despite having fully planned to perform a naked ambush on him, Vex feels unusually gentled by it. Made softer for it. It really is a horrible thing, to be in love with someone. It never fails to ruin one’s ability to make an emotionless charge towards pleasure, when all you can do in the end is get 3/4ths of the way through a plan before you get sidetracked with all sorts of tender feelings towards your target.

She still intends to fuck him several inches into the mattress, don’t get her wrong-- but she also wants to caress his face, for no particular reason other than she likes his face, and it would feel nice to do so. For no reason other than that she loves this creature, strange and untethered, and all of his sharp, unwieldy angles that she wants to spend the night figuring out how to comfortably sleep around.

He beats her to the whole gentle touching thing when he finishes tucking the corner of his coat around her shoulder, and his hand trails down to her chest, only to stop short before reaching anywhere fun. When he traces the word under a white, fist-sized scar, along her collarbone, he keeps his hand light, with only the very tips of his fingers, like he was reading off scripture. By now, she’s more than used to the internal, invasive feeling of someone pawing at a soulmark, but this isn’t so bad. It’s only a faint touch, after all.

Percy’s mouth moves with his lips closed, rehearsing his question before he finally asks it, trailing off, for all the good his practice did him, “When did this…?”

She laughs, just a little bit, and the motion presses her chest closer to his hand. He keeps it cupped there, and, despite the increased contact, it really isn’t half-bad. A little much to get used to, but she could live with this. “Take a guess,” she says. “When did yours change?”

A dark, guilty look that has no right to show up in the moment passes over his face. This time, she doesn’t restrain the urge to pass a gentle hand over his jawline-- his stubble rasps against her fingers when she cups his face, like she thought it would, and she doesn’t hate it one bit. “Darling?” She says.

Percy stands at attention.

Her room is so much closer than his, only a few steps down the hallway, and into the first open doorway. By the time he closes and locks the door, she’s already all the way done with the first set of buttons, down the length of his vest, and he divests himself of it and several other layers of fabric beneath it in one motion that is as economic as it is ungainly, in the same way he trips when he tries to push both legs of his trousers down and gets tangled, barely catching himself on her shoulder. She laughs at him at the same time she holds him stable, sliding a hand down his front to both help him undress, as well as to size him up. She muffles her sound of approval into his throat, just before his motions slow to an agonizing stop, his face scrunching up in an expression she recognizes from helping him in the workshop. He wears it when he’s standing at his workbench, having set too much in front of himself, finding himself trapped between where he needs to start, and where he knows he ought to finish.

“I don’t,” he says, “I haven’t…”

Vex kisses him-- softly, slowly-- and leads him to lie down at the bed, tells him that they can stop anytime, climbs over him and kisses him again when he tells her, in no uncertain terms, that he wants to keep going.

It would be easy to eke out her pleasure from him, let him lie back and take what she wants, what she’s wanted for a long time coming. She’s done it before, gotten her share, given equal measure, and retreated. But she’s invited him to her bed, now, brought him to slide under her sheets, there will be no slithering out unless she’s interested in sleeping in the hallway. And she finds she wants to treat him gently, now. Wants to savor this for as long as possible. In case this is the last time, she wants to remember the parts of this that aren't so great alongside the good. So she doesn’t rush him, doesn’t let herself rush forward, lets him fumble, asks him how he’s enjoying it, if he needs a moment, lets him ask the same of her.

It’s for both their sakes that he takes to it naturally, and that she’s very good at taking a gentle lead.

At some point, it’s a little hard to keep track now, he presses his mouth to the one word, over her collarbone, mouths along the scar, and she shivers. In response, she does the same to his forearm, lifting it to kiss over each scarred-over bullet hole she finds along the way, and watches when he breathes out, slow and shuddering, when she reaches her own lolling shorthand. Under her, he murmurs, and pleads, and pants-- over him, she thinks the teal of the new words bring out the pale blue of his eyes in the dim light. Distantly, she fails to remember what a soulmark over one’s breast means, in folklore, but recalls something unclear, leaning over the precipice.

Superstition says: to be in love with a soulmate is to have a part of their heart in yours.

She thinks: to love is to press your mouth to someone’s heart, and, despite everything you’ve learned about the high price of kindness, not bite down.

She cups his face, feels his pulse at his jugular, bared and vulnerable for the butcher’s knife, and the beating of his heart is rabbit-fast. Or maybe she’s hearing her own, dancing at her fingertips. They kiss, deep and unhurried, and taste their own atriums and ventricles, unharmed, on each other’s lips.

. . .

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a human noble walks into an elf-owned establishment-- an inn, to be specific, and asks for a room.

It should be noted that this happens only a handful of hours after word of the death of the red dragon sitting over Emon comes out, and also that, with the influx of soldiers and refugees coming from the front line, nearly every inn and lodge from capital to woodlands was full up with tired folks coming from all over. Militia soldiers, Emon guards, civilians, Ashari, families having been wrested from under the city walls before the slaughter began, all looking to get out of the rain, and for a warm place to sleep. Nobility or not, this man did not have his pick of the litter when it came to finding a place to sleep.

Which is how he found himself this inn. It’s half-dilapidated, having been caved partially in after the original attack, some time before, and, despite the ramshackle repairs made over the while between then and now, the rainwater is still pouring in through the holes in the roof in all rooms but a few. The inn’s owned by an elven man you might remember, from some time ago, though time has improved him somewhat. He’s far from learned all he needs to know yet, not quite as open-minded as a fair universe would have him, but he doesn’t turn away half-elves at the door anymore, and, even though he’s learning slowly, he’s learning. Maybe losing a soulmate does that to a person, even though, as far as he knows, he’s never met his before the words rewrote themselves. He’s improved enough, at least, that when a human man comes through the door, as sopping as a wet rag, he doesn’t tell him to be on his way, even though the only room left unoccupied in an inn that’s only operational to act as emergency shelter, is his own.

The human noble you’ve never met, but you’ve heard his words, rotting as they were. Like his host, his soulmark has changed once before, and not recently. He takes his hat off at the door, looking not remotely close to a nobleman, which isn’t helped by the lightness of his wallet, at the moment. He’s out of funds, out of options, out of places to go, but he approaches the clerk with a plaintive smile, hoping that what charm he has left will tide him over, take him where he needs to go.

“You ought to know,” the owner of the inn says, folding his arms, “we only have one room left that’s not currently taking on scores of water.”

The nobleman’s smile, if anything, grows brighter, a twinkle of recognition in his eye. “What room is that?”

The clerk startles, then laughs. “Mine, that would be.”

“...Do I get a discount if I’m willing to take half a bed?”

“Bold,” the elf says. “I like it.”

The universe, as a whole, is a fan of shortcuts and coincidences, having always been a cheaper force than can be appreciated. But this one, I have to admit, seems especially contrived.

Convenient, though. No loose ends.

. . .

Even long after everything, there are nights, like this one, where Percy rolls out of bed, at some ungodly hour in the morning, and, unable to go back to sleep, retreats to the table at the corner of their bedroom to compile himself a list.

Maybe a list isn’t the right thing to call it. He’s lost all affection for the concept years ago now, but it is a longform written document he creates and recreates almost cyclically, whenever the long hours pass over him, when he sees the four walls of their house and thinks them illusory. A more accurate descriptor for what he writes up is a compare-contrast document, though he rarely bothers titling either side of the chart, not wanting to give name to a dream he already fears disturbing.

On the one side, he puts down everything impossible that he’s experienced, these last few handful of years: being rescued, finding his sister, liberating Whitestone, killing a dragon-- killing four ancient dragons, speaking to gods, trapping a lich demigod in another plane, saving the world. Living to retirement.

He glances at the bed, where Vex has yet to wake, curled around herself under the covers. Winter is a difficult season for her, at the best of times, and he does not expect her to be easily roused at this hour of night, as this low of a room temperature, with the hearth in the far wall of the room having long since burned to the embers. But she will wake up soon, that much is inevitable, perceptive as she is even to the low scratches of a quill glancing over paper.

He adds meeting his soulmate to the list. Once, he made an agreement with himself that the circumstances were too convenient, too fated, to be real. Once, he made a point that, if the words on her were written in his hand, spoken by his mouth, none of this could be anything more than a dream. And Percy is trying to be a man of his word.

On the other side of the table, he writes all the reasons for this to be reality. It is significantly more painful to write.

His family is still dead, and will never come back. Sylas is still alive, and is roaming, free of punishment, for all he’s done. Cassandra died, momentarily. Vax is dead, permanently. He’s died, and whatever glance he’s gotten through death’s door had not been kind, only a desolation, stretching long into the horizon.

There’s more to add to either list, and Percy writes until the ink of his quill has run dry, then sits back, finding both sides of his work more or less at an equal tally. He stands at an armistice, either end of the argument more compelling than its opponent. Results inconclusive. Further testing necessary. Better parameters required.

He doesn’t need to turn around in his seat to know that Vex is watching him, the tapetum lucida of her eyes faintly reflecting the bare minimum of light passing through the window, having recognized the shift in her breathing minutes before. Nor does he need her to call him for him to know she wants him back in bed. They’ve both played their parts in this dance before. Yet, he doesn’t come back quite yet, just turns around and watch her prop herself up, the blankets still wrapped around herself like a cloak. Without bright light, her hair spreads over her shoulders, as loose and unrestrained as an inkspill.

Percy moves slowly. There’s a fear, maybe irrational, maybe not, that if he pushes too hard against the confines of the setting, everything will unmake itself, brush off into wisps of smoke. There’s a question, building in his mind, that hasn’t been there before, and he makes it to the corner of the bed, standing there, too awkward and long-limbed to imagine himself ever fitting back under the covers, before it demands to be given voice.

He asks her, quietly, “Do you think we would still have been soulmates, if we hadn’t needed Vox Machina? If we hadn’t been broken?”

There’s a world out there where neither of them had ever needed a resurrection. Where they would’ve stayed with the words given to them by the fates, unaltered by horror and tragedy. Would they have ever found each other, then? Would they even have need to be in each other’s lives, had they never been lost?

It’s an unfair question to ask her to answer so quickly after waking up in the middle of the night, but she only takes a moment to ponder it. “My darling, I think,” she says, her voice low, scratchy from sleep, and she stretches her arms up over her head leisurely, her shoulder popping from an old, long-healed-over injury, the sound of which she knows he doesn’t like. “I think I could find you anywhere.”

She’s right, of course. She’s always right.

“You could,” he says, pulling back the covers, but not getting under them just yet. She lies back down before her can, and he reaches over to play his fingers over a lock of hair, lying unsettled on her shoulder. “You’re an impeccable tracker.”

“I’m not half-bad at spooning, either, you know. If you get back here, I’d be happy to demonstrate.”

Percy does.

After a few moments, right as he’s about to fall back asleep, he rolls over in her arms to look at her from a near proximity, just to get a blurry look at her face, her expression soothed by rest. There’s no light in the room enough to see either of their words, but he thinks, regardless, that the color of her soulmark brings out the gold in her eyes.

“Yes,” he says, for no reason in particular, feeling strangely like a man reading aloud a psalm. “Yes, I think so too.”