Two pairs of white eyes stare out from the darkness of the stairwell in Scanlan's Magnificent Mansion. The aasimar children have tucked themselves away in the darkest corner of the pocket plane, and for those first awkward minutes after the Pit Fiend disinegrates, they say nothing, nothing at all. In the market they spoke Common in whispers, perfectly, beautifully, quietly trembling, so their silence is not for lack of understanding. Vex calls for them, and there is no reply. At her side, Percy slips into Celestial, hoping the language itself will be a small comfort. He doubts his own voice, and speaks flustered, off-key, flushed at the thought of fumbling the language of angels.
But it works, it works like a charm, like the boys think divine words can't be used to deceive. They unfold from their corner, and Vex and Percy approach them together. She picks apart their collars, their manacles; he asks questions, but keeps them mundane, for their sake and for his. His vocabulary is imperfect, and he fears overreaching, and simple questions are a good way to keep a prisoner sane.
When they are freed, they ask questions of their own: Where they will go? Who will take them in? Vex plans to bring them to Whitestone, which does not surprise him. It twists a little knot of tension in his shoulder when he thinks of Cassandra and her ever-growing burdens, but like so many others they have nowhere else to turn.
What does surprise him is the question they ask next; the younger brother inches forward with the words, "And you will be there too?"
Percy pauses. Vex is kicking the chains towards the door, wearing a curious little smile, not looking at him. He is not the person their guests usually gravitate towards, and the attention is discomfiting. “Not at first,” he says - and this time in Common, so Vex can catch him if he stumbles. “Once our fight is over, I’ll return to Whitestone.”
“Are there more aasimar in Whitestone?” the child asks. His elder brother gives a nervous look leftward, and then towards Vex, and then back at Percy, considering.
“None that I’ve met.”
“Then how did you come to be there?”
He pulls back, almost a flinch, and finally realizes the confounded source of the questions. They've mistaken Percy for one of their own, another angel chained to the material plane. He can hardly imagine a more ironic misconception. “It’s the hair, isn’t it?” he says, raking it back with a self-conscious hand. Theirs is thin, white, and gently curled, like his. “It didn’t start this way. I’m afraid I'm only human, as disappointing as that is.”
“No,” the second child says. His brother heaves a short sigh, a none-too-subtle cue to shut it. He's judicious, and must have saved them beatings from their crueler masters, but the stubborn younger brother presses on; “You speak our tongue.”
“Humbly, and inadequately,” Percy says, with a lopsided grin. “I learned it from books, not from aasimar.”
“You know it in a way that cannot be taught. In your voice, it sings.”
Hard to say, looking at those moonlike eyes, whether he's listening to a celestial edict or a petulant child. It's perplexing. Vex leans in from the lighted archway, watching with no intent to interrupt. Percy turns away from them and pleads with her instead. “I’m human. I’ve always been human.”
Vex looks back, and he can see the idea infecting her, her curiosity captured. “Say something else," she says. "What’s – I don't know, what's “brown bear” in Celestial?”
The phrase makes him laugh, bewildered, and he translates. She repeats the words, but they do not ring and carry through the air the way they should; they fall thin and flat and featherless against the cobblestone floor. Her accent, in short, is awful. “Not quite,” he says. “More like-"
An awe-filled smile grows on her face before he can speak, and he falters, gripping a hand to his throat. He coughs. “I suppose I could teach you, if you've the inclination. It should come with practice.”
A lie, he realizes - the first words he'd learned in the tongue, the de Rolo family words, stultus sapiens non vilet illa arbor videt - they sang from the first time he said them.
The brothers are both staring, now, the elder looking intrigued despite himself. Percy glances back just long enough to notice, and with a huff, ends the conversation: “I’m sorry. No matter how good a mimic I make, I'm not what you think I am.”
Vex brings the aasimar to Whitestone, with Percy the obedient translator in tow. Cassandra meets with them for a discussion, overwhelmed as she is, about what can be done for the boys. Before either of them can truly speak, Vex - nervous, impassioned - launches into a defense she must have practiced on the journey. The aasimar are trained to serve and they will be an asset, not a burden. They can help Laina feed the soldiers, maintain the castle - and once Thordak falls, they will have the chance to be children, because she, she herself (and here both de Rolos raise their brows in shock) will adopt them if she needs to. A proper Baroness could handle a pair of half-grown wards, surely. She'll have tithes enough to support two sons, and if not, the dragon hoards shall do.
Percy cannot conceive of a person strong enough to refuse Vex in such a mood. She is a fierce and furious protector of the creatures she claims as hers. Indeed, Cassandra does not turn her down. In fact, she seems to agree. She holds out her hand, a placating gesture, and adds, “I like the idea. People might think Whitestone has the favour of the gods."
A clinical assessment, but she looks excited, and childishly so. Real angels, in her castle.
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Vex adds, exhilarated by her victory. Percy feels those dark eyes on him, senses the coy curve of her smile.
Once the meeting is adjourned, Percy flees to the Whitestone workshop. Vex doesn't ask for his excuses, happy to make all the introductions for her aasimar. She needs to settle them in first-hand, and he - he needs to think. Think of something else, of anything else but the question that has been stirring inside him since the Celestial children mistook him for a cousin.
For a few satisfying hours, his work occupies his attention. He makes enough bullets to bury Kynan's entire firearm corps up to the neck, and that task is complete an hour or so before Vex comes to find him. He is sketching, by then: half-formed ideas, half-filled formulas. She pulls a stool up to the workshop bench, and purposefully, pointedly, says absolutely nothing. He can see her eyes painting a halo over his head, imagining him robed in white with moonlike eyes and glittering feathers. Of course she’d like him even better if he could fly.
“You’re acquiring more troublesome trinkets by the day, Baroness,” he scolds. It is a gentle reprimand; she takes it with a sheepish smile.
“I couldn’t leave them there,” she says. "Could you?"
"Most people would have, I think. It was quite a risk you took."
"You said you were proud of me," she protests, with a nudge of her foot.
"I was. I am," he corrects. Abandoning a half-formed contraption mid-design, he starts the loose, long lines of a grappling arrow further down the page. He's displeased with all his ideas so far - his shoulders are cramping after sitting so long, and his sketches look tense. "You're really going to adopt them?"
“My mother raised Vax and I on her own. I can handle it.”
“You won’t be alone,” he says. He coughs – the word alone has a Celestial root, and it comes out chiming against the walls of the workshop. He rubs his throat, and stretches his aching shoulders. “If you think I'd leave you to raise them by yourself, you’ve got another thing coming,” he continues, steadier. “And that thing is a proper manor for your Barony, for a start.”
“A start?” she repeats, scooting her chair closer across the stones. Vex tilts her head, and her black hair spills over the workshop table.
He wonders if she decides to smile like that - if she means to make it so devastating and irresistible. The expression alone is worth a pause. Turning the charcoal over and over between his fingers, he thinks a moment, and settles on, “You’ll have me. You always will." And, like a seal on his proclamation, he risks a swift kiss to her forehead.
She curls up, hiding her blush and her smile in her folded arms, giving his chair a cheeky nudge with her foot. “And you'll promise me that, darling?”
“Well, you’re a regular guardian angel–“
“-Oh, don't you start with that,” he interrupts, and she’s already chuckling. "It's ridiculous." Vex rises up to him, smooth as a shadow, and props her chin on his shoulder. Percy can feel her wild hair, soft, brushing just above the line of his jaw. She's in the way, a little, but he works onward anyway, slightly stilted. For a few long minutes, there is pleasant, sleepy silence, broken by the hiss of the forge, the scratch of the charcoal, Vex's little shifts and sighs. He lets her rest on him as long as he can bear it, just until the point of her chin starts to dig in. He nudges her away, gently, and she settles back on the table, halfway to dozing. The warmth of this room has made her drowsy. The heat seeps into everything he touches, in different ways. Vex, the pages of the sketchbook, the clothes against his skin, the air drenching him with muggy weight-
The ache in his shoulder does not fade with time, or with her departure. It worsens and worsens, and he starts chewing on the inside of his lip to distract himself with a different flavour of pain. Vex pulls him out of it, for only a moment, when she slinks up to his forearm and winds her slender hands around it, stealing it for her pillow.
Gentle, foolish, frustrating Baroness, collecting all the broken things she comes across. He starts thinking of her angel-blooded children, of their glacier-white eyes and the way their voices ring like bells. And of the way they asked him, so innocently and so desperately, for a kinship he had no means to provide.
And of the pieces of his life that still don't fit, of every day he spent wandering with Vox Machina, looking for a home that eternally felt elsewhere. Of Vax manifesting his wings, the black feathers erupting in the sunset sky of the Feywild, and of the horrible ache that created in his heart - his envious heart, he realizes, his jealous heart. And of every night he wasted in the walls of Whitestone as a child, devouring books about the other planes, but far more often staring out the library window and picturing them, or hunting for traces of their existence in the patterns of the stars and snow-
He pushes his chair back from the workbench, far enough that he can prop his elbows on his knees and grip his head, as if trying to steady his spinning mind. The motion startles Vex awake, and he can feel her staring.The burning through his shoulders – he can’t ignore it anymore, and he can't ignore the patterns that emerge all on their own, all the years of evidence, and he still doesn’t quite believe it until his interminably curious mind asks But what if-?
And apparently, that’s enough.
“Holy fuck, Percy – your back –"
Some unknown reflex, unused before that very moment, screws the muscles in his shoulder tight, like the building tension of a torture rack. He slumps downward out of the chair, and his knees hit soot-stained stone. An angry pulse of pain shoots down the back of his ribs, and he curls forward, and he claws at the buttons on his shirt, aching, burning, and as his breaths come in short and sudden gasps he feels Vex’s hands steady his. With her guidance he strips the shirt and Vex shrieks, releases him, recoils, vanishes from his perception. He feels something living inside him, far more solid and real than Orthax ever was, feels it strain, stretch, and burst out of the flesh of his shoulder – a tendril of cartilage and flesh, thick and crooked. He’s aching too hard, and breathing too little, to properly scream, but it hurts. It doesn’t just sting like a sword wound or a gunshot, it aches, in a bone-deep and ancient way. The pain is cacophonous: tearing noises of tendons and skin, a splatter of fluid hitting the ground, and a distant gasp from Vex as a parallel pain fires through his left side. Liquid drips down his shoulders, drops between his fingers where they're splayed on the ground, and it is red blood in places and black oil in others, and blurred in his unfocused gaze. He feels the right – limb? – tug free of his flank, sloughing away the skin there, but the left struggles fruitlessly, conjoined to his ribs, flexing with his panicked breath.
The heat begins to subside. The transformation ends there, incomplete, and he shudders, reviled by the sudden strangeness of his own body. Slime and oil are trickling down his shoulders and he worries he might melt into nothing. It hurts, it hurts - he cowers-
“Percy – darling – “ Fingernails scrape his jaw and steady his head, tilting it upwards. Vex is all he can see, just her face, her eyes, her expression dark and serious but unafraid. “Can you hear me?”
He looks at her. Breathes out. His voice echoes and sings, but it is ragged, all the tones discordant. “What am I? What is this?”
“I don't know, I don't know - do you think-?"
He pauses, hunting for the answer. It is obvious, but he still cannot conceive of it. He has even been warned – told that he was always broken, Percival, a warped image of what he was supposed to be. Gods and angels have recognized him, and now has he seen fit to recognize himself. "They knew," he mumbles. "The aasimar. I'm-"
He can't finish. She murmurs, "Are you alright? Should I -"
When her voice falters too, she presses her hands to his shoulders, reaching for the wounds on his back. Vex wants to heal him, perhaps, but he wonders if that would erase this change entirely and that thought reviles him, not in a place of thought but somewhere lower down, somewhere base and bestial, and that convinces him at last that this is all real.
"No, no-" he stammers, and when Vex starts to let go, he palms forward through the blood and oil and presses into her hands. She holds him.
"They look like wings," She whispers, and then dryly adds, "Sort of."
He can only imagine, looking at his warped shadow on the ground, feeling the hot oil and slime coagulating on his skin, what he must look like. He's nauseous still, but far too empty to be sick. All the energy and weight has been sucked out of him. "Well, what do I do with 'sort of'?" he asks, halfway between desperate and angry.
She reaches up, and pulls something free of the grimy morass behind him – it pricks at his nerves a bit, like someone yanking out a hair, but it hardly compares to the ache in his splitting spine. Vex shows him a feather, partway black and partway white, its edges dripping with oil. “You’ve got a few of these,” she says. “Maybe they’ll grow in?”
He has sensation in his new limbs – wings, he supposes – and he folds them against his back like a proper cowering creature. “But I’m hideous for now, I suppose?” he jokes.
“Just a bit greasy,” Vex says, smiling. “I don’t really mind.”
She swipes the feather clean on her pants, and tucks it behind her ear, with the others. It makes a handsome accent, and he smiles despite himself, his arms trembling from shoulders to fingertips. It's ridiculous, ridiculous that he's been nearly shorn in two by his own bones and all he can think is how adorable she is, with the feather and the blinding smile.
He must look half-insane, because Vex gives a pitying look and hauls him forward, and she runs her hands through his hair over and over and over until he shuts his eyes, until his heart slows down, until his breathing steadies. He doesn't let himself think of what it means at first, and soon he feels like himself again - soon, sooner than should be possible, but Vex has a talent for calming scared animals.
For a few weeks, the truth is nothing but a heavy, awkward secret between them both. Vex helps him bind the bastard wings to his shoulders so he can fight without losing his balance. The oil bleeds through his shirts, and he burns the ruined clothing in his workshop. The fabric hardly smells any worse than what he usually makes. Lucky for them both, Cabal's Ruin repels the secretions, and hides the curving shapes well enough. Eventually, Percy can move quick and fluid and unobstructed, and the wings heal relatively undisturbed. His left side bothers him the most, where the skin morphs into sleek plumes and then back to skin. He thinks he feels that wingtip inside him still, scraping against him with every breath like it has punctured straight through to his lungs.
Even if the feathers free themselves, he won't exactly fling himself from the nearest tower. The wings are awfully skeletal, oil-doused where they are plumed at all, and they feel far too sludgy to fly. At first he thinks he will carry the inky, contorted wings forever as they are, but they grow stronger, grow lighter, fill in, fill out, increment by tiny increment, and he grows stronger carrying them. Slow progress is fine by him, especially once the dragons are no longer knocking at the door and he has the luxury of time. He has waited twenty-three years to know this about himself, and he will wait a little longer.
On a night after Thordak falls, Vex takes him to bed with her, and while they are together she hitches her hand under the unbound wing and runs her fingers down the feathers folded into his ribs. The gestures are - so far from the most important thing about that night, but - she doesn’t mind - she doesn't mind him like this - she might even like the strangeness of it. He is thrilled, and captivated by the pleasure, until he sees dark flecks of his oil drop on her skin and thinks, with a sting, that she has refused one monster for another: a fallen fey for an amnesiac celestial.
She locks her ankles together around him, she laughs between her frantic kisses, she tangles the grease into her hair with her own trembling fingers. Dear, delightful Vex never lets him feel unwanted for long. And anyway, they promised to forgive themselves for all their strangeness, and when his freed wing beats forward and lashes against the outside of her thigh, she lets out a terribly satisfied gasp. He looses a halfway-hysterical giggle into the hollow of her throat, thinking, we’re a lot alike, you and I.
The left wing bursts free from his side as he's crawling out of bed the next morning, leaving an inky lash across her sheets. This time, there's no blood. While he twists around to inspect it, Vex rolls over, gives a short laugh, and says, “Cool.”
In the end, the truth doesn’t change much. He spends a little more time with Vex’s adopted children, his fellow celestials. It doesn't take long to realize stubborn, haughty, irritating-as-hell Cassandra is far more his sister than those untainted creatures. The aasimar are no more his kin than the clouds they were plucked from. He knows where he stands instead. Whitestone is not in his blood, perhaps, but it is where his fate delivered him. He has nearly died a half-dozen times (and died properly once, for good measure) in its defense, and he still aches for the lost de Rolos, and he still hoards his memories of them. Vox Machina has taught him that family is far more a product of experience than lineage. Learning of his heritage has only proven them right a second time.
Still, the wondering keeps him awake at night (and with the wings, sleeping has become an acrobatic feat all on its own). The "fallen" part is nothing new. Conveniently enough, he's come to terms with that already. It's the "celestial" part that breeds his questions. Should that angelic blood mean something more to him? Are there visions to come? More transformations? Does a disappointed deity await his return, or had he been abandoned from the start? Are the wings a trial, a punishment, an accident? The questions, the questions are endless.
But he's always liked questions more than answers. Answers are deadening; questions keep a curious mind alive.
He confesses everything to Cassandra - refusing to show her, to spare her the horror of the half-made wings - and she tells him, frowning, that she'll be damned before she'll be the last de Rolo. He's her brother regardless. Percy doesn't comment of the many, many ironies of that, only hugs her straight to his chest. She can't see his cracking composure that way, but she might have sensed it. She's careful, ever so careful, when she hugs him back, her hands curling slowly into the fabric of his cloak.
It takes time, as all things do – but his wells of oil and vitriol, at last, run dry.
He is in Whitestone with Vex, and they are rebuilding. Her manor is a skeleton, the beams of the first-floor walls and sloping roof halfway risen, construction halted after a late spring snow. It is nighttime, but they have lamplight from the street beyond and moonlight from above. He is leaning against Vex’s shoulder and she is cradling him with one arm. Their breath is visible; Vex’s alternates with his. Snowflakes alight on their knees, their shoulders, their meandering hands, and melt into dark little blotches. Perhaps it is cold out here, then. He can't really say, cozy as they are.
“Is it too late for me to throw something extra in to the floor plan?” she asks airily, her thumb running along the seam of his cloak. Her tone is deceptive. He senses a long, twisting trail of questions ahead.
“That depends on what it is."
“I might need a bigger basement.”
“Well, wine,” she starts. “Expensive-ass bottles of wine.”
“Of course. And perhaps a steel vault, for your dragon hoard?” He growls the words out in a passable Thordak voice. Her imitations are far better than his (and she knows it), so with her other hand she tugs him close against her, and she hisses. Her breath creates a pale curl in the wintry air. A little black-and-blue dragon, breathing frost across his shoulder. Percy chuckles, and lets himself be hoarded.
“Of course," she repeats, pressing a hard kiss to his temple. "And then a workshop, next to that.”
He pauses. Turns his head, looks up at her, and finds Vex smiling like she’s been caught stealing. “What kind of workshop?”
“Your kind of workshop, obviously,” she says. Her cheeks are pink. The showboat smile fades, after a time, into something honest and small. “I love you,” she continues. “So I want to put a place for you here. Is that too much?”
After a moment of taking her in, he gives her a gentle smile, and says, "No. I’m touched, really.”
“Well,” she blusters, all business. “You deserve all the happy endings we can muster, I think.”
Percy turns away and leans back, resting his head against her slender shoulder. It’s fun to be shorter than her for a change, though he’s had to sit a full step lower on the unfinished stairs to accomplish it. “If I do, it’s all your fault,” he teases. “You all but made me human again.”
“You’re not human,” she reminds him, kissing the top of his head. Into his hair, she murmurs, “If I’d done my job right, I’d have made you divine.”
He feels light. Weightless. All her words sound musical and sweet. Percy stands, moving gently out of Vex's grasp. He sheds Cabal’s Ruin and starts on the buttons of his shirt beneath. He can feel the wings arching, flinching, billowing against their bindings.
“What’s all this, now?” she asks, amused.
“I think you’ve done just fine,” he says. He speaks quietly, but even he can hear how his voice is ringing from the half-made rafters.
She stands and joins him, taking his hand and leading them further into the house, half-burnt and half-built. He comes to a stop in what will be the living room, one day, and removes the shirt, the bandage underneath. Vex holds the salvageable clothes folded over her forearms and lets the rest fall, watching him. In his mind, there is nothing but a cautious hope and a stray, wandering phrase; I have passed through fire.
He opens his wings wide. A slight patter, like falling rain, as the oil drips from his wings. The cold leeches into his naked skin, and with a shortened breath he asks, “How do they look, now?”
Vex does not answer. She reaches forward, and trails a gentle touch down the left-hand wing. He shivers, and snorts. It feels almost exactly like someone running their fingers through his hair. Another splattering noise, this one louder, as a handful of oil hits the ground. “Oh, darling –“ she breathes, sounding teary. For the next few minutes, she works in silence, mesmerized, running her fingers through the feathers over and over-
He resolves not to look until she is finished, angling the wings slightly back, watching the snowfall on the living room floor.
She pulls away a pace when she is finished, and sees him complete. The wings are smoke-black at the shoulders, but they brighten along their length, and at the tips they are white as snow. They hiss as they stretch wide and flutter, shaking free the last of the oil. His eyes are shut, and when they open they are bright and pupiless and blue, watching her. It is her Percival, still narrow and awkward and pale, but eerily glorious. For a moment, she is terrified that he will rise into the sky, right then, and vanish. She wants to run to him and hold him here, pin him to the earth, but he does not look like a thing to be touched. Too strange, too unearthly. More a vision than a lover.
“Lovely,” she mutters, squeezing the clothes tight to her chest. “They're lovely.”
“Oh,” he says. And then, “Good. Good.”
Vex looks like she wants to cry. He can't guess the reason exactly, but the pause between them feels so monumental, marking an event of proper magnitude. He - doesn't want that, not now. He just wants - he shrugs, gives a sheepish smile and raises his arms to cover his chest. “Give my damn cloak back, would you? Bloody freezing out here.”
With a watery laugh, his gentle Baroness bows, and shakes her head. Then she rushes forward, whipping the cloak open and tackling him with it, nearly knocking them both down before his wings beat, in reflex, to steady them. He nuzzles into the cloak, into her, and she wraps him in it, trapping his arms. He laughs, and lets himself be hoarded. The sound of his Celestial voice trails upward, sweet and light and free.