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Critmas 2019 Ficlet Compilation

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It wasn’t that Grog didn’t like spending time with the gnomes—far from it, he treasured every extended stay in Westruun, every moment with his best buddies, Pike and Scanlan. He was even coming to appreciate Kaylie, on the rare occasions their visits overlapped.

It was just…

It was just that, sometimes, Grog got bored. The goliath barbarian was neither bred, born, nor raised for a peaceful life, and while Vasselheim’s Trail Forge and Slayer’s Take provided a chance to stretch his legs when all the learnin’ and studyin’ got to be too much, Westruun offered no such alternatives.

Still, for the most part, he was content to spend the time in his former hometown shadowing one or both of his best buds, and they knew him well enough to keep him busy. But sometimes, Pike’s duties as a cleric took her to the temple, or to homes in town, to those in need of her aid, her presence. And sometimes, she asked Scanlan to come with her, a request he rarely (if ever) refused. (After one mess of an afternoon that took nearly a week to smooth over, they learned that some places it did not do to also bring their goliath friend.) The gnomes always did their best not to leave him alone, but sometimes circumstances were beyond their control.

Grog knew it wasn’t their fault. Grog knew Pike and Scanlan would be home soon. Grog didn’t really mind spending the afternoon with Kaylie.

Grog was also bored out of his skull.

And apparently, he wasn’t the only one: “Do they expect us to sit on our arses all day until they come back?” Kaylie grumbled about an hour after the other two gnomes had left. “Oy, Big Beard—you grew up here, yeah?”

Grog shrugged. “A little bit.”

“So, what’s the best pub in this place—you know: one of those dives a bard can earn some coin then break some noses? I need a scrap.”

Thinking and remembering weren’t his strong suits, but certain impressions lingered. “Dere was one, but the fights aren’t so good now. It’s like no one even tries anymore.” Grog scowled, and Kaylie’s expression mirrored his.

“Ah, all the bumpkins ‘round here have probably realized it’s just going to end with them getting’ their arses handed to them.” Kaylie flopped dramatically onto a couch. “It’s no fun winnin’ if they don’t try.”

He knew there was a reason he liked the gnomes in this—in his—family.

“Wanna go kill somethin’ in the forest?” he offered, and a grin bordering on feral was the encouraging response that he received.

 


At first, everything went great. There weren’t too many beasts about that would dare ti attack the hulking goliath, but the gnomish bard had already been skilled with illusions even before she’d resumed her studies in Emon, and it was almost as much fun seeing which baits worked as fighting the creatures that took them.

Almost.

Grog had spent so much time lately fighting solo, and a part of him had almost forgotten what it felt like to be supported by a bard in battle. Not that Kaylie’s style was identical to her father’s—she was actually a lot more hands-on with her blade, in addition to her quick wit and personal twist on her spells.

The fights weren’t really challenging—it’s not like wolves, bears, and wild cats were particularly clever tacticians—and Grog didn’t bother with his Titanstone Knuckles, or even his rage. He’d fought a god—how could mere animals hurt him?

By taking advantage of his distraction, apparently.

But really—one stray bite that actually managed to take a small chunk of flesh out of his lower abdomen was hardly a matter for concern. It was embarrassing, more than anything else, so after bashing that forest cat’s skull in, Grog didn’t ask Kaylie for any healing, or if she thought they should head back.

If anything, Grog pushed himself harder to cover the pang of shame for having let so weak an enemy past his guard, and for all of their recent bonding, Kaylie did not yet know him well enough to realize that all was not well wit the barbarian.

So they kept hunting, kept fighting, and grog kept ignoring his bleeding wound, counting on his inhuman strength and stamina and a coming night’s rest to carry him through. But fighting easy fights for hours on end is a very different thing from taking on a dangerous foe in a comparatively short, desperate battle; and by the time the sun was going down and Kaylie announced she was out of spells, Grog was feeling not-so-great: sluggish and a little dizzy.

Still, he was covering it well enough, and Kaylie was distracted enough by the buzz of adrenaline and her own chatter that they made it almost all the way back to the house before the young gnome looked up at him and asked, “Hey, Big Beard—you alright? You’re even quieter than normal.”

Grog paused, considering his answer, but was spared having to find one by the arrival of Pike and Scanlan.

“And what have you two been up to—” the cleric began, only to cut herself off. “Grog! You’re bleeding—How old is that—” Again, Pike was her own interruption, scurrying over and inspecting the bite for herself. “Grog, this is hours old—why haven’t you cleaned it at least and put something over it?”

Kaylie paled beside him, finally noticing what the other woman had seen right away. “Oh, fuck. And I’m all out of spells—”

“So are we,” her father replied with a grimace as the four of them pushed their way inside. “There were a lot of people that needed help today. Still, he’s not dying, and bandages and the like do exist.”

 


So that was how, not an hour alter, Grog found himself sitting on the living room floor, wounds cleaned and bound, trying his hardest not to sulk or pout from embarrassment.

But, honestly, it felt kinda nice to be fussed over by all three gnomes, particularly when one of them got the idea to create and camp in a pillow fort in the living room all together, and then Scanlan brought in snacks, and the whole evening turned into something lighthearted and cozy that made Grog feel like he was glowing form the inside out.

Technically, Grog lived in Vasselheim for now. But this, this right here:

…This would always be his home.

Chapter Text

Twilight deepened over and around the city of Emon, the last of the soft glow giving way to the darkness of a late summer night. It promised to be a glorious evening, with a taste of autumn all but there on the edge of the breeze, just enough to break the lazy heat and make it feel more like an embrace than a smothering presence.

All of this was completely lost on the four men hovering in the shadows just across from the temple of Ioun.

“I just want it on the record, before all of this goes to shit—because we all know that it will—that robbing a temple is not only colossally stupid, but also a wonderfully terrible way of pissing off the very people who are building us a keep for saving the city.”

The largest figure didn’t even spare a glance for the blue-coated man bringing up the rear. “It’s not robbing if they said we could take it, right? Besides: it’s for Pike.”

Percy swallowed against the same image he knew to be springing to all their minds: their sweet gnomish friend bisected in the claws of a demon; later restored to life, but unmistakably altered—her hair now as white as his own from her trauma, and a set to her shoulders, jaw, and eyes that screamed, ‘never again.’

She’d been gone for nearly six months now—gone to sea to get stronger, she’d said—and the sting of what was almost a permanent parting nearly stilled the tinkerer’s remaining reluctance.

Nearly.

“Grog, Scanlan—are you absolutely sure that they said you could just ‘take it’?”

“I’m sorry, but did you just offer to barter for a priceless holy relic?” The robed attendant seemed to be trying his best to look down his nose at the goliath who towered above him by well over a foot.

Scanlan watched his friend completely miss the disbelief and scorn in the other man’s tone, so satisfied to have finally found something in one of the temples that could help their absent cleric—and, admittedly, this Mace of Disruption was pretty badass-looking and -sounding.

“Why? D’you want gold? I got gold, too, but I thought it’d be fairer to trade a weapon for a weapon.”

Grog started to reach for a different pouch, only to be brought up short by the attendant’s sharp retort. “Absolutely not! The mace is not for sale, trade, borrow, or barter! No!”

Grog frowned, and Scanlan began to wonder if he’d have to step in soon to prevent some kind of violence. “But—but you’re not usin’ it. What good’s a weapon just hangin’ on a wall?” The goliath folded his arms and nodded, point made.

“The only way you’re getting that mace is taking it from the vault like a common sneak-thief. And I’d love to see you try and get past our defenses.”

Scanlan was ready—waiting—for Grog to turn to him and ask him to convince the man to reconsider, so it was with no little amount of shock that the gnome bard watched his larger friend nod, turn, and leave without a word of protest, leaving him to scramble afterward.

 

“Essentially? Yes,” Scanlan answered. But Percival felt none of his misgivings allayed, and continued to regret having let the ‘act first, think later’ trio drag him out of his workshop and away from his current project.

Vax clapped a hand on the human’s shoulder. “If it makes you feel any better, we’re not going to fight or hurt any of the attendants inside—we didn’t even bring weapons.”

Somehow, that wasn’t reassuring.


Turns out, their first challenge (the closed main gates and open courtyard in front of the main temple building) was no challenge at all: Scanlan took point, knocked politely, and asked the temple guard who answered if there was any way for four late-night petitioners to be allowed to enter and offer prayers to the Knowing Mistress?

In short order, they were all ushered inside, right into the main atrium area, dimly and solemnly lit by torches and braziers, to join a handful of other, more honest seekers of Ioun’s aid (including a few that seemed to be students of the Lyceum, doubtless begging for any last-minute assistance before a coming exam) and found themselves left almost entirely to themselves.

From there, it fell to Vax, whose preliminary reconnaissance the day before had revealed the small side door from this area that they would need to pass through, since all relics had, indeed, been taken to the vault for the night—including the precious Mace of Disruption. At first, he slipped off on his own to see to the old, stubborn lock, trusting the others to follow the advice he’d given in a crash-course on stealth and infiltration when they came after him.

Besides—what harm could there be in scouting ahead?

In truth, they caught up to him before he’d gone any sort of distance at all,  as the small, darkened corridor between the sanctum and the vault was nearly more trap than hallway, and though Vax was absolutely positive that he’d found and adequately disarmed all of them, the amount of time and focus the effort had taken left the half-elf both exhausted and wired by the time they reached the vault door and its unmistakably magical lock.

“Just… give me a moment, and I’ll get it open,” he muttered, leaning against a perfectly safe (he’d checked) portion of the wall, trying to collect his frazzled nerves: surely most, if not all of their—his—luck had been spent getting them all this far unseen and unscathed.

Percy, despite his initial reluctance, was intrigued by the Celestial engravings around the door. “You may not have too, Vax. These aren’t enchantments, per se.”

Scanlan frowned—all he could see was gibberish that was glowing faintly, and that had never boded well for the S.H.I.T.’s—Vox Machina. Damn. *That’s never going to stick, is it?* “Well, wise guy, what are they, then?”

“Riddles,” came the reply as Percy read all three again, ignoring Grog’s groan. “/I speak without a mouth and hear without ears. I have no body, but come alive with the wind. What am I?/” He read aloud, but still in Celestial—partly because it was a fun—or, at least, beautiful—language to speak aloud, partly to practice with a language he didn’t get to use often, but mostly because it would annoy the others (at least, Scanlan and Vax) to be left out, and he had not entirely forgotten what it was like to be a brother.

“I’m sorry—what?” the gnome snapped, but Percival ignored him, certain he’d read this one before…

*…Ah! That’s right!* “/An echo,/”  he answered in Celestial, and the first line of writing glowed brighter. He felt the others take a step away, but confident in his own intelligence, he moved his attention to the next line. “/You measure my life in hours, and I serve you by expiring. I’m quick when I’m thin and slow when I’m fat. The wind is my enemy./”

 “Care to fill the rest of us in, Percy?”

This one he had read before—he knew it. “/A candle./” The riddle began to glow as well, and Percy felt a little disappointed that the others couldn’t fully realize just how clever he was being—but not disappointed enough to switch to Common. “/I have cities, but no houses; I have mountains, but no trees; I have rivers but no fish. What am I?/”

“Seriously: any time now.”

“/A map./” The third and final line glowed as well, and the vault door began to swing ponderously outward. Percy stepped to one side, bowed and gestured the others to the vault—

—and promptly got tackled by a tawny-furred creature that burst forth, pinning him to the ground.

“Fuck! Is that a real lion?” Not exactly helpful, but probably as useful as Vax was going to be in this situation, given that they were all unarmed!

Golden eyes bored into his, far too intelligent for a mere animal. “/Your accent is insultingly terrible, boy./”

“Yes and no!” Percy yelped from underneath the Celestial Lion, but Grog wasn’t listening any more.

They were close—so close—to getting his buddy an awesome weapon that was just perfect for her. She’d come back, and he’d give it to her, and he’d tell her that she was strong, she’d always been strong, and they knew that she would and could fight for herself—and win—and they’d always be there for her—he’d always be there—and nobody but nobody was going to take her away from them again!

While the other three watched, wide-eyed, the goliath barbarian gave a wordless roar of rage, charged the beast and knocked it clear off of the fallen human. Gold and grey—and red—tangled and intertwined as Grog fought the guardian bare-handed, grappling it and shrugging off it’s claws and teeth like they were nothing as the lion let out a roar in counterpoint to his own.

The fight was brief, and not nearly as brutal as it first had looked—both seeking to subdue the other rather than kill, out of some unspoken respect—and, in a few, chaotic moments, Grog had the guardian pinned and restrained.

“/Impressive…I…yield…/” it panted, then vanished.

For a moment, they all started at the empty space, then, as one, the four darted into the vault. The mace was visible, no further locks or traps separated them form their prize—or any other treasures…

Scanlan found his hand snagged by the rogue before it was halfway to an eye-poppingly large amethyst pendant. “The mace. Nothing more,” Vax’ildan insisted, ignoring grumbles about ‘my favorite color’ and ‘deserve a reward’.

Grog lifted the Mace of Disruption—oddly small, in his grasp, but perfectly gnome-sized—with uncharacteristic reverence and turned to go, only to find the vault door now blocked by none other than Arbiter Bram himself, along with a dozen or more temple officials of various ranks.

“I am sure there is a reasonable, logical story behind this apparent robbery of a holy vault—yes?”


Much later, after they’d been escorted to Bram’s study, after Scanlan and Percy had tag-teamed a (hopefully)placating explanation, after the original attendant had been summoned, after the poor man had to confirm that yes, that was what he had said, but no, that wasn’t what he had meant—of course not!—Bram finally got his laughter under control. (Well, mostly. He would still occasionally snort his way into a coughing fit that sounded suspiciously like snickering.)

“Well, friend,” Bram said to the unfortunate attendant, not even bothering with keeping a straight face, “it seems that this honest man was merely taking you at your word and accepting your challenge.”

“But, Arbiter Bram—I never—I wouldn’t—This wasn’t—”

Bram held up a hand, forestalling further stammering. “Consider this a lesson in saying no more—or less—than what you mean. And, if these good men could outline exactly where our security failed so that we may better protect ourselves against future invasions, I feel inclined to let them keep their prize.”

They thanked him, all ignoring the spluttering protests from behind them, then all but Grog put in their helpful pieces while the barbarian busied himself inspecting their—no, Pike’s—prize.


At last, the four were escorted out into the late-night darkness; though Bram did pull Scanlan aside for one more brief exchange.

“Call it feeling or instinct, Mr. Shorthalt, but I think there might be a place among us for a man of your wit.”

Scanlan couldn’t suppress his surprised, derisive laugh. “A servant of Ioun—me? Come on, Bram, I thought your lot were supposed to be the smart ones.”

He scampered out after his friends, resolved to think no more on Bram’s temporary lapse of sanity and frankly ridiculous assessment…

…And he didn’t, for several years yet.

Chapter Text

He didn’t start out as a superhero.

Oh, sure—Grog had superpowers, his strength and general durability were unmistakably inhuman, just like Vax’s speed, Vex’s aim, Keyleth’s ability to change form, Pike’s to heal, Scanlan’s to warp reality with his music, whatever that dark shadow was that Percy couldn’t always hide, (and none of them believed that Taryon could build his machines and devices on ‘mildly above average’ smarts alone).

And, yes, Grog fought alongside the rest of Vox Machina, as the city’s newest and flashiest team of heroes repelled all manners of threats the police and army were unprepared or ill-suited to face. In fact, he was usually the first of them to charge in, when either talking failed or he simply grew too bored/impatient with it.

But Grog had not started this journey, had not gotten to this point, by pursuing some grand, heroic ideal. And some days, he is honest enough to admit that there is no altruism that drives him, even now. He no longer only fights because fighting is fun (though, it is), but his reason is still arguably a selfish one.

…And sometimes, a villain is unlucky enough to find it…


The fight was not going well for Vox Machina: Doty had been taken out unexpectedly early, and Taryon was now either down as well, or hiding (it wasn’t that the inventor wasn’t useful in a fight, it was just that he was very squishy and very cowardly.) Vax hadn’t heard Scanlan’s voice in a while, which didn’t bode well, and the dark smoke that’d begun to wisp out of Percy’s sniper nest when things had started to go south had abruptly to cease a moment or two ago.

Panting, trying desperately to ignore the pain of a doubtlessly broken leg, Vax crouched over the unconscious form of his sister, praying that he’d managed to pull her far enough out of sight and out of the way of the still-unfolding battle.

The speedster could just see and hear the last standing members of their team: Grog roaring and punching on one side, Kiki in her tiger form snarling and slashing on the other as the two of them flanked Pike, trying to protect the healer as she raced desperately towards downed teammates.

Then, the fucking teleporter—the one that kept turning this fight against them—appeared just behind the trio, and Vax couldn’t see what happened next, only that Keyleth toppled, tiger melting back into a red-haired girl sprawled, unmoving, on the pavement, and that, when the teleporter disappeared once more, he took Pike with him.

Instinctively, Vax’ildan lurched to his feet, but the broken limb would bear no weight, sending him unceremoniously to the uncaring ground, a scream of equal parts blinding agony and helpless rage tearing itself unbidden from his throat.

He tasted blood and felt consciousness slipping away, but as the darkness claimed him, he heard a different cry of rage dwarf his shout, and dared to hope that this wasn’t as lost a cause as it seemed.


Grog felt unstoppable—he felt unkillable; he felt like he had doubled in size, like he had increased in size, like the enemies around him were mere ants compared to his titanic power.

But, mostly, Grog felt angry.

His normal battle-rage had at least some joy or thrill to it as he did one of his favorite things—hit people/things—but this was nothing but burning, seething, driving wrath that hollowed him out of any other thought than destroying the motherfuckers who dared to hurt or take his friends.

His family.

Terrified observers agreed afterward: the only thing that seemed to distinguish which faction of the following bloodbath was/were the hero(es) was that the lone, screaming behemoth of a man managed, even in his seemingly blind fury, to not further injure any of his downed teammates, even as he tore their enemies apart (literally, in the case of the one who’d attempted to kidnap the white-haired healer).


The tired, tattered team eventually managed to drag themselves back to their hideout/lair and tend to their wounds, especially Grog’s—he’d taken so many hits at the end, bloody and battered, it was a seeming miracle he had lived.

They all stayed pretty close to each other that evening, as they often did after such close calls, muttering their thanks and murmuring reassurances to his half-delirious calls for them, all the while planning how to keep the predatory press and panicking public away from him until the situation blew fully over.

They’d look out for him, like he did for them.


He didn’t start out as a superhero…

…But Grog would always fight for these people, because they were his.

Chapter Text

It had been a long fucking day, and Pike was exhausted.

Selfishly, the gnome cleric felt it unfair that her position as one of the most prominent clerics of Seranrae—her champion, even—as well as all she’d done and been through to earn it, was apparently not enough to let her take specific days of her choice (say, significant and/or painful anniversaries) completely off.

But the plain-spoken, sensible part of her mind reminded her that many petitioners came to whichever temple of Seranrae she was overseeing precisely because of her reputation—some from quite a distance, at great personal risk and/or cost. And then her tender heart would chime in, and whatever memories that were clamoring for her attention, however distracted or exhausted she felt, however many spells she’d already cast that day, Pike couldn’t bring herself to turn away the truly hurting, seeking, lost, or desperate.

And so, she pushed herself all the way to the end of this long, fucking day, trying to hold to the truth and memory of all the good she’d done for so many people.


Scanlan could already tell it was going to be one of those days, even before Pike returned home that evening.

Truthfully, he’d expected it might be before she’d even left—his wife tended to subconsciously push herself even closer to her limits on anniversaries of deaths and setbacks. And this one, the one he personally thought of as the ‘beginning of the end,’ always hit her hardest: though they were ultimately granted a few days’ reprieve, this was the day Vax’s final death had…happened? Started? Whichever.

The knowledge of what this day was, and how it would sit on Pike weighed deep in his stomach, but gave him the whole day to prepare, at least. Kaylie was at school in Emon and Grog was in Vasselheim studying (a concept Scanlan still struggled to get his head around), so the couple would have the evening and house to themselves.

With all that in mind, Scanlan set about gathering everything he would need—even running out for a few things not in the house.


The house was warm as she stepped inside, settling around her like a cloak, but most of Pike’s attention was on the flickering amber glow filtering out of the dining area, bringing to mind a table lit by way too many candles.

*Oh, Sweet Seranrae. Please, no—I can’t: not tonight.*

But, instead of Scanlan’s attempt at a fancy, romantic dinner (silver and candlesticks and white tablecloth and ethereal music), she found a table simply set, the two seats closest to the lively fire—the source of the glow she had seen—pulled out, and the smell of something warm, rich, and hearty (something heavenly) wafting from the kitchen.

Scanlan appeared in the kitchen doorway, wearing an apron and bearing what seemed to be a casserole dish in oven mitt-clad hands. Upon seeing her, he swiftly deposited the dish on the table, discarding the mitts, and crossed to her, pulling her into a long, gentle, quiet embrace.

“You made dinner—yourself?” she murmured at last, her words partially muffled in his shoulder. Both gnomes could and did cook, but tended to use magical shortcuts most evenings.

He laughed a little, gently leading her to the gloriously warm chair, letting her sit before he gave a little bow. “Of course I did—and as long as you don’t go into the kitchen at all tonight, I will stand by the claim that I did it all without making any kind of a mess. Now, sit here a moment, and I will bring out the rest!”

He vanished into the kitchen (which would doubtlessly by cleaned by some arcane trick or other overnight), there was a barely-audible hiss—he’d left the oven mitts on the table—but very quickly brought out the remining food.

The dishes were rustic: plain, homemade, simple, and hearty, and not a one of them would’ve passed Kaylie’s inspection for healthy, meat-less meals.

They were perfect.

The two gnomes talked a little over the meal—Pike laughing at some silly joke her husband made, Scanlan listening to one of the day’s better stories—but most of it was passed in comfortable, contented silence.

As were most of the evening hours afterward: the two gnomes together on a couch in front of a different fire, wrapped in each other’s arms, a soft blanket, and the dozy contentedness of being completely at ease.

Pike fell asleep first, and Scanlan continued holding her, even as a slight clatter of dishes told him that his summoned unseen servants were at work in the kitchen and dining room, clearing and cleaning.

But his attention was on the woman in his arms, studying every detail of her sleeping face, assuring himself that the day had released its chilling hold on her, at least for another year.

And Pike dozed on, smiling in her half-asleep state as she rested in the arms of the man who’d known exactly the sort of evening that she’d both needed and unknowingly wanted after today.

Chapter Text

It’s never good when the healer goes down.

The S.H.I.T.s had only been together for a few moths—were just setting out to see what the world held beyond Westruun and Stilben—but they’d already learned the taste of fear that came with that truth. Normally, though, there was at least a potion or a healing word or something to bring Pike Trickfoot back enough for her to heal herself (if she could be convinced to do so, rather than heal somebody else).

But this time…

This time wasn’t so simple. This time, it wasn’t an injury that laid the dark-haired gnome so low, that had made her grow quiet and listless for a few days before leaving her semi-conscious in one of the tavern rooms they’d taken the night before. This time, there was no wound to close; no bleeding gash to stitch shut; no potion, poultice, or spell that would aid them. This time, Pike was merely sick.

(Merely sick—like a fever high enough to render their cleric so helpless were a simple or mundane matter, and not their terrifying current reality.)

There was no talk of pushing on, of doing anything but staying in this way point of a town until Pike was better, and doing everything in their (limited) power to ensure that that happened. For once, Vex didn’t hesitate to open up the precious party funds (and her own purse, when the others weren’t looking) to cover their unexpectedly extended stay.

 

*Her chest hurt, her lings burned, and her whole body screamed for air, but though she was coughing too much and too hard to breathe—sometimes nearly knocking herself off of the bed with the violence of the fit—she couldn’t seem to dislodge whatever had settled in her lungs, coated her throat, and blocked every sinus in her head. Gods, if only she could breathe!*

 

They all stayed near her, orbited closely around their friend, bringing what aid or solace they could in what quickly came to resemble shifts or turns at watch, but Grog never left her side. Through the dreary days and dark nights, the goliath kept vigil at the gnome’s bedside, showing a tender care the others had not seen from him before—helping her to sit up and eat on the few occasions she could, helplessly rubbing her back during her terrible coughing fits, or simply being a large, comforting, and familiar presence at her side through the whole ordeal.

 

*Pike was trained in medicine both mundane and magical, thus she knew how important it was to stay hydrated, keep her electrolytes up, and generally fuel her body to fight this infectious menace.

She also knew there was no way to keep anything—solid or liquid—down for long enough to actually do her any good.*

 

It happened to be Percival who was in the room with Pike and Grog when the cleric finally lost the battle to keep down what little food and drink they’d managed to get into her at that point (the last food she’s be able to manage until the worst passed, as it would turn out). They had little enough warning before Pike dove in a desperate scramble for the edge of the bed. She didn’t make it out of bed herself, but at least cleared the edge before the heaves began. It was terrifying to watch the violent spasms that threatened to throw her off of the bed and onto the floor as well—and may have, had it not been for Grog’s quick grab and steadying hand—as her stomach seemingly turned itself inside out to rid itself of any and all contents.

The retching became dry heaves that subsided at long, merciful last, though Pike’s tiny whimper as he eased her back into a comfortable position in bed nearly broke Grog’s heart.

Once she was settled, he turned to see to the floor, half-expecting the human to have fled the room once things started getting messy, but found to his surprise that, not only was Percy still there, but he’d also managed to acquire a water bucket and rags (though he had taken off his fancy coat and set it well away from the area that needed to be cleaned). Wordlessly, the two set to their unpleasant task. Percy disappeared soon after they had finished (Scanlan scurrying in to take his place), but the fact that he had stayed raised the strange, often-quiet noble in the barbarian’s regard.

 

*Everything hurt—Oh, Seranrae, why did she hurt so much? She didn’t remember any battles, no injury she could picture would cause this throbbing, pounding ache that seemed to radiate out from her center to every limb, every extremity, every finger and toe.

She was miserable.*

 

It was just so wrong to see Pike Trickfoot like this: sweaty, listless, and curled up on herself, dwarfed by the human-sized bed and the lack of her usual energy and light that made it impossible to think of her as ‘small’. Scanlan tried to swallow back his fear at the sight, pasting on a facsimile of his usual carefree smile. (If it’s not alright, act like it is until it is.)

If Pike was awake, he would joke with her, mouth and mind both going a million miles an hour as he desperately tried to bring a smile to her blue eyes, if not her haggard face. When she slept—fitful, restless, but at least it was sleep—he pulled out his lute and plucked gently at the strings, improvising a gentle (hopefully) soothing tune so far from his usual wheelhouse, in desperate hope that it just might help, if only a little.

 

*She wanted to cry out—to ask the world to stop! Only knowing how much such a scream would hurt her throat and ears kept it unvoiced, but that restraint didn’t—couldn’t—change the fact that everything was too loud, too bright, too much!*

 

Scanlan had worn himself out trying to soothe Pike once they realized that her increased sensitivity to light and sound had rendered almost everything painful for the trembling cleric. When the others finally forced him to rest, it was Vax’ildan who next joined Grog, next did what he could to bring some comfort to their gnomish friend.

As a rogue, Vax was far more used to using various poisons and tricks to harm or to kill, but now he was wracking his brain as he dug through his bag, looking for something, anything that would dull her pain, if not take it away outright. Still, he hesitated to try almost anything out of fear of making things worse.

But he refused to leave her side without having tried to do something, and having been trained on how to slip through the shadows, how to deepen them, pockets of light to avoid or to cover, Vax set about darkening the room and dampening whatever sounds that he could—not to let an intruder in, but to keep out anything that was bringing Pike pain.

 

*She was supposed to be strong, to be the one to comfort and acre, the gentle touch, the healer. But she hurt, she couldn’t breathe she couldn’t control her stomach, she felt sick, and she couldn’t keep up her strength any more.

She just wanted it all to stop!*

 

Pike was crying.

There was something so wrong about that, but given everything that her body was putting her through, it was hardly surprising. Still, knowing that didn’t make it any easier to bear hearing her whimpers and sobs, the gnome so far out of it, so unaware, that there were no attempts to muffle her cries or hold back her tears.

Vex’ahlia was at the bedside now: heart twisted in knots as she did what little she could: bringing cool, wet cloths to the flushed, fevered, and now tear-streaked face; gently combing sweat-drenched hair out of Pike’s face with what she hoped was a gentle touch. It was the lullaby, though, that caught the ranger off-guard: a simple tune, and half-remembered lyrics she could just pull form an early memory—her mother’s attempt to calm or soothe a small, half-elf girl. Was she sick, injured, or merely upset? Who knew, but if the peasant’s song brought some comfort to her friend, then Vex didn’t mind dredging it out of the past.

 

*She wasn’t sure where the inn had gone—or where her friends were. She was alone—or was she surrounded? It was dark—or was everything on fire? There was nothing, there was everything; there was no up or down, but she was falling—

She cried out for Willhand, for Grog—for someone.*

 

The way-stop town barely had anything more than the inn and a supply store, but that didn’t stop Tiberius from tearing through every establishment in a desperate attempt to find something, anything that might contain a spell or scrap of information that could do something to help. The worse things got, the more frantic the dragonborn sorcerer grew, refusing to believe there wasn’t something he could do, some spell that would help. There had to be something he could find, there had to be a trick he could pull, there had to be something he could contribute, there had to…there had to…

 

*The delirium had broken—mercifully—but she didn’t feel better for that. The fever still burned, if a little lower, her stomach still churned and would accept nothing into it, and each breath was still a fight.

A fight she now feared she might lose—there was hardly any strength in her body to move, her pounding head light with dehydration and lack of food.

How much longer could she last?*

 

Since Pike had first gotten sick, Keyleth had been seeking or—in desperation—growing various herbal cures she remembered form Zephrah, but the poor druid was nearing the end of what she could draw on, pulling out what she could to minimize symptoms and pain and (perhaps most importantly) getting Pike to eat and keep down at least one goodberry a day. She couldn’t go on much longer this way, but at least it was keeping Pike alive, buying them time.

(Exactly how much time was a question none of them wanted to ask—or know the answer to.)

 

Mercifully, though, the ordeal did end after a few days, with one weakened, unsteady, and shaky but living gnome making her way slowly down the stairs to the tavern portion of the inn, where she was immediately swarmed by all of her teammates in an emotional group hug.

 

It’s never good when the healer goes down, and none of the S.H.I.T.s are about to let it happen again…

Ever.

Chapter Text

Pike Trickfoot has been at the temple for as long as anyone in the town can remember—always there, always helping, always calm, always good. And, for the most part, she is. Really, she likes helping and protecting people, and she loves being liked. But sometimes…

…Sometimes, she just has to get away.

Sometimes, she has to slip into the shadows as night falls, letting darkness cloak her as she sheds her illusory disguise. Sometimes, she has to leave the city and its people behind as she charges her way into the forest, stone wings beating. For sometimes, they are waiting for her, there.

Vox Machina—the S.H.I.T.s—whatever they call themselves, they are her friends, ones who have never shied away from twisted face or form, or shuddered whenever they brushed against the gargoyle’s rough, rock-like exterior. They know and accept her true self, as she knows and loves them for theirs:

Grog, her first and oldest friend is physically altered by the light of a full moon, but under the large werewolf hide, still has the same fierce and loyal heart that had brought them together. The one called Scanlan is always strangely difficult to describe afterwards, as if perceptions of him shift and alter from person to person (even moment to moment), but his voice proves utterly unforgettable, the siren’s song worming into one’s mind and staying (a comfort or boost to his friends, but they have seen it destroy the sanity of many a would-be attacker).

Then there are the twins, Vex’ahlia and Vax’ildan, skin-changers capable of blending in anywhere, but cast out of any semblance of a home for failing to fit in. But here, among others deemed ‘freak’, ‘monster’, or ‘unnatural’, they have learned, in time, to relax their guards and shed their masks, assuming for the first time in perhaps years their true forms, lithe and inhuman but theirs and their own. A flash of red hair beside the two reveals Keyleth taking shape. Where the dryad’s tree was rooted, she never has said, but her honest naivete regarding the so-called ‘normal’ world seems to indicate someplace removed, deep in the untouched heart of the forest, but on the nights that they gather, she is adamant that her place is with them.

Far less ‘natural’ (but no less one of them) is Percival. They have no name for what he is now, and a shadow crosses his face if any ask what, if anything, he had been before—but clear enough were the scars and seams that spoke of a torturous becoming of being cut into, torn apart and pieced back together again over and over and over again (and a silent agreement runs through all the others that, should the perpetrator reveal themselves, Percy will not face them alone). Tary’s life had ended before he ever crossed their paths, but the ghost has learned to animate and possess otherwise lifeless objects and joins them, wielding borrowed strength and a gifted—if unusual—mind.

These are Pike’s friends, these are her people, these are her pack. And though duty pulls her back time and again to the town and the temple, every time that they pass, every time that they call to her to run with them again, she comes. Oh, how eagerly, how joyfully she comes!

Because sometimes, you just have to run free.

Chapter Text

When he dreams, he hears those words again.

Worse: when he dreams, he says those words again—dagger-sharp and dripping with venom, flung with force and vitriol, intended to wound, to cause pain, and to carve an irreparable gulf between him and them. He had meant them, at the time, reeling from pain of his own and confusion, disorientation, and a overwhelming sense of loss and being lost.

Regret followed soon enough, even then, but in those dreams that regret is immediate, the part of his mind that knows what comes after screaming silently, helplessly, for this shade of his past self to stop, or to soften the blow with a kinder parting.

But the anger redoubles, and words grow worse than even the ones that were said, once. Some nights, they cut away at his friends until they wither away into shadows, other times, the echoes of them that night shout back, make him leave, tell him not to come back. (Sometimes, they threaten to kill him if he tries, and the night that Vax is the one to say that nearly breaks him).

Other nights, the scene is different: not a memory, but a possibility. He packs his bags and leaves again, abandoning Pike, and Grog, and Kaylie again, leaving them like he’s left them all before, sometimes with sharp words of anger, sometimes with causal tone and flippant attitude, sometimes with cold, indifferent silence to their tears and pleas.

He has done it before, the dark and traitorous part of his mind whispers, haunting him. How dare he promise that he will never do it again? It would be so easy—wouldn’t it—to slip back into that person again—wouldn’t it?

Scanlan wakes in tears, the nights he dreams those dreams. In many ways they haunt him worse than the ones that make him relive their past battles—even the two that killed him, or the last one, for it is far harder to face the pain that he caused—or could cause—than the wounds he received.

Old instincts would have him try to suppress the sobs, hastily reconstruct his ever-smiling mask, but his wife knows him better than that (and always seems to know and wake when it happens again), and holds him wordlessly in the dark, never asking, never pressing—and somehow, that is what makes him tell her, confessing at last what he is truly afraid of, what haunts him most.

Kaylie is visiting the night that he tells Pike—and Grog is, too—and Pike drags them all out of bed and into the living room, and as much as part of Scanlan screams to cover, to hide, to lie or laugh it off, it sounds, in tat hour, too close to that voice in his dreams. So instead, he holds them close, apologizes again for all he’s done to them, promises to never be that person again. They tell him that they know—that they believe him—that they, too, want this family that they’ve built to last. And there, in that huddle they slip one-by-one into sleep’s embrace.


Sometimes, when he sleeps, he hears those words again.

But when he wakes, all he says is ‘I love you’, and he lets the truth of it wash away the taste of bitter lies and venom.

Chapter Text

Before Scanlan Shorthalt met this crazy bunch of weirdos that would become his family, he had everything figured out. Well, mostly he figured out that life was pointless and random, but still—when it came to people, Scanlan knew what he was doing. He especially excelled at talking his way into (and, when necessary, out of) any bed that struck his fancy.

Then came along a goliath, three half-elves, a dragonborn, a human, and another gnome, and, over the next few years, everything the bard thought that he knew was dismantled piece-by-piece, then reassembled into something so different, but so much more solid and real. And, oh, how much more it hurt than simply skating by, but joy so much more real than anything else came along as well, inextricably bound up in the pain. He watched a family be built around him, realized that he was a part of it, found a daughter and tripped clumsily into being a father, and, suddenly, almost nothing he knew about love was ringing true any longer.

Even—especially—romantic love: Keyleth and Vax’s bond was forged in a time of darkness, grief, confusion, and groping for paths lost and found, but something strong and real and bigger than words, indescribable, shone through it all, for the brief time they had, before it was swallowed in a flurry of raven feathers and snowdrops. Even then, it did not die, and the remnant left behind was again pain and light, dark and beauty mingled in a way that mere surface living could never have maintained.

Or there was Percy and Vex, who both fled and fought their pain with tooth, nail, and fire, sometimes slipping into darkness if that’s what it took to not be weak. And they both found not only strength in each other, but light as well, and a reason to be better, along with an assurance that they were enough. Somewhere, somehow, the two rebels had found a love that couldn’t be permanently killed any more than either of them seemingly could, and in it and each other they found fuel to keep fighting against (and sometimes for) the world that had taken so much from both of them, but given them this.

Eventually, Scanlan had taken all that he had seen to heart, and began to pull back from an initially shallow pursuit of Pike Trickfoot, only to find that there was something deeper behind it after all. But surely all he’d done and wasted made him undeserving of a second thought from her. Yet, he eventually came to know first-hand that it was jot pain or darkness that’d birthed or founded either of the other two couples, but the honesty they’d been pushed to by those circumstances. Honesty, and careful handling of everything that was stripped raw and exposed—and a focus on the other and what they entrusted. Terrifying? Yes, but if they do the same for you, then both of you are sheltered by the other, and this new thing beginning, born of the two, can grow and bring it its own mingled joy and pain the deeper and deeper into it and the further along in life you go—and that’s what love is.

...

Before Scanlan Shorthalt met this crazy bunch of weirdos that would become his family, he didn’t really know anything at all.

Chapter Text

You ever have one of those shows where everything just goes wrong? One of those shows you’re convinced is trying to take the title of ‘cursed show’ from the Scottish play? Well, the touring cast of The Mystery of Edwin Drood certainly was.

Or, more specifically, Scanlan Shorthalt—the actor portraying the perpetually-drunk undertaker, Durdles—was. It started when the buses accidentally left him behind at the first rest stop (and the fact that it happened two more times over the next three months didn’t help matters), and continued with falling sick, misplacing props (Vax’ildan, one of the company’s stagehands, had saved his ass on that one), tripping over scenery in the backstage dark (that one wasn’t his fault, and it was impressive to see Grog, that theatre’s deck chief, and Keyleth, one of the company’s two Assistant Stage Managers—ASM’s—go on the warpath to find out who’d left it there without charging the glow tape on it), and with technical troubles during last night’s rehearsal in the new theatre (only during his scene, of course) that resulted in a blackout and terrible microphone feedback. (Percival, the tech booth operator for that house, got it fixed quickly, but still…)

All of this flitted back through his mind in the moment of time between realizing he was losing his balance, tipping off the stage, and landing in the first row of (mercifully empty—it was final brush-ups) seats.

The next thing that crossed his mind was fuck, his leg hurt! And that was about the time the rest of the cast, crew, and theatre staff were flocking around. There were questions, voices, faces—an argument of some kind to his left—but he focused on the two nearest: Vax, who he’d come to know pretty well over the last few months, and Keyleth, who he was pretty sure was now romantically involved with his friend in some way.

The red-haired woman was examining the throbbing limb, and Scanlan could read expressions well enough to know that whatever she was seeing and/or thinking wasn’t very good. “Kima,” she called, and the other ASM turned to listen, “I-I think we should get this looked at, just in case. I mean, I don’t think it’s broken, but the sooner we know if we’ve got to pull someone else in for a show or two, the better.”

“Good call,” Kima nodded, and Scanlan tried to ignore the twist in his gut at the thought of anyone taking his place, even for a night or two (especially if it was that idiot Tary-something-or-other: the one who never noticed when he missed the bus!). “You let Allie know, and I’ll try to find the nearest hospital and someone who can drive us there.”

The two ASM’s split up, and Allura, the Stage Manager, wangled order in about the time it took Kima to find Vex’ahlia, Vax’s twin sister and that theatre’s House Manager, and beg, borrow, or else barter a ride from her.

Vax volunteered to go with, but really, he truly was needed back at the theatre, since rehearsal would go on. And the drive wasn’t that long—especially compared to the wait to actually be seen. It was during that wait that Scanlan noticed the odd looks they were getting, and, at first, he was confused. Sure, Vex was a lot more put-together (she wore make up and jewelry to a rehearsal for fuck’s sake) than most behind-the-scene’s people he had met, but it wasn’t like she was dressed super-formally, even compared to his—oh.

Oh.

It was then that he realized, in their rush to get him seen by an actual medical professional, that it hadn’t occurred to anyone to have him change out of his (purposefully) battered, distressed, and unmistakably Victorian-style costume. Oops.

*Gilmore’s gonna be pissed.* Their Wardrobe Manager may have been more laid-back than some in his field, but there were still some cardinal sins that it did not do to commit when it came to that domain.

Eventually, he was helped back to an examination room, and even the pain, distraction, and worry couldn’t keep him from noticing that the young nurse with the strikingly white hair was very attractive. He immediately set about trying to charm this Pike girl with his best weapon—humor (as it would be difficult to pull anything else off convincingly when dressed as a Dickensian town drunk).

It actually seemed to be working—or at least, she was laughing, which is always a good start—and it crossed Scanlan’s mind that maybe this show (or at least, this night) wasn’t so cursed after all.

Chapter Text

The Darrington family fortune being what it was (that is to say: nonexistent), and improvements Taryon had planned for Doty had to spaced out—generally put on hold until the Darrington Brigade finished a job for more-than-decent pay (turns out his somewhat-fanciful idea was actually a high-risk but definitely interesting way of generating supplementary income).

But, at last, the inventor had the time, materials, and resources to pursue his latest inspiration—a Doty that could cast spells!

Well, not exactly. The construct may have been powered by arcane means, but that didn’t mean that it had any way of expelling that energy, much less shaping it into even a cantrip. But even the first Doty had been capable of utilizing any of his brilliant, spell-loaded items, if given them and instructed to do so. Surely it wasn’t too far of a leap to conceive of building a few of those items into the actual construct and teaching it when and how to trigger them. Right?

In an attempt to practice the new practicality that he’d urged his family to adopt (and which he was still unused to, himself) Taryon opted to cannibalize his beloved Helm of Brilliance for its magical gems, rather than invest in new items on top of the alteration to Doty. (Unprecedented generosity, but far less impressive when one realized he was essentially giving from himself to himself.) As an added bonus, all of those gems worked into Doty’s metal frame really would make an impression, especially in bright sunlight.

Unfortunately, the construct never emerged into said sunlight—upon first being powered up and instructed to test one of its new abilities, it attempted to do precisely that. Unfortunately, in his excitement, Taryon forgot to specify which gem to trigger (Or, perhaps, the arcane surge would’ve triggered them all simultaneously anyway) and the resulting multi-spell blast was both impressive and devastating.

Fortunately, Tary had learned from past tinkering…incidents…and not only reinforced his laboratory, but also wore the latest protective gear when at work. Sadly, the least-protected thing in the workshop was Doty itself—the construct now all over the space, but not recognizably so (or, well, recognizable at all, really).

After a moment (and a few breaths to prove to/remind himself that he could) Taryon removed his shaded work-goggles and slowly began gathering the far-flung pieces into a pile, to see what he had to work with when he rebuilt Doty…again…

*This is getting expensive…Perhaps I need to explore some smaller-scale options…*

And maybe he would. Someday.

Eventually.

Chapter Text

There was much that could’ve been said in Taryon’s defense: Winter’s Crest was not typically celebrated in Wildemount, so he had very little experience with what sort of gifts were traditionally exchanged, not mention the Darrington family had not been known for their generosity before the changes he’d dragged them into, so he likely had little to no experience with the giving of gifts of any sort; and at the (misguided) heart of it all, he was trying to do something special for his dear (only) friends, Vox Machina.

Still, the fact remains that he somehow thought it a good idea to send them each a copy of his book. (Autographed!)


Percy—

In a way, it was rather like watching an explosion in slow-motion (or the typical unraveling of any of their plans). Having worked alongside Tary probably the most out of anyone in Vox Machina, Percival wasn’t as surprised by his…unique perspective on the recorded events, but he couldn’t help fearing the inevitable wave of fury that would doubtlessly come when his wife finished her copy.

 

Keyleth—

He meant well.

The Ashari leader kept repeating the phrase to herself as a sort of mantra the further into the story (‘Based on true events’—he had the gall to write that?) that she got. Fury eventually gave way to resignation, then something vaguely akin to amusement, by the end.

(Though he didn’t say a word, her father did note it was one of her first smiles—and rages—since her return to Vesrah; the beginning of healing—or the next step, at least—coming from a very unexpected place, but nevertheless welcome.)

 

Grog and Scanlan—

Whose book is this?”

“I dunno.”

“Ah, don’t worry, Big Guy—you’ll get the hang of reading eventually. …More ale? Right, stupid question.”

“That’s okay: We can’t all be geniuses.”

“Then I defer to your illustrious wisdom, O Grand Poohbah.”

 

Pike—

There was nothing to do but laugh—and it was a good, long laugh. She was already out of breath, and she was only two chapters in! And he’d even gotten the names right. What an awesome book! (She’d still give him hell for it, so it was two laughs in one—even better!)

 

Vex’ahlia—

She padded into the library on bare feet, relaxed at this late hour. Percy looked up from his seat, noted the lack of a certain novel in her hands, and dared to ask, “Finished it, then?”

“Yep,” came the causal, half-distracted answer as she scanned the shelves for something.

Percy waited, curiosity simmering in the silence until it finally boiled over. “And?”

“And what?”

“What did you…think?” It wasn’t that he necessarily liked seeing her angry, it was just that this lack of reaction was worryingly out of character.

Vex blinked, finally focusing fully on her husband. “Not much, to be perfectly honest—but it filled an hour or two.”

“No…surprising characterizations?”

“Hardly,” she sniffed, completely matter-of-fact, as she found and selected what she’d been seeking, then turned to go. She did pause at the doorway, adding her afterthought:

“I did help him edit it, after all.”

Chapter Text

Most people crossing the Lucidian Ocean—for business or for pleasure—would not be happy to see what was so clearly a pirate ship approaching their vessel, but young Taryon Darrington had never claimed to be ‘most people’. It was like he was being dropped right into the middle of one of his favorite adventure stories: a far more exciting prospect than the boarding school his father had selected for the final two years of his education.

Not that the crew appreciated the excitement as the ship was boarded, and though the pirates numbered only seven, it became immediately clear that they were in charge of how this encounter would go. They disarmed and bound the crew, took most of the valuable cargo, then paused, staring at the well-dressed young idiot grinning like a madman.

A tall, dark-haired woman marched up to him, looked him up and down. “Come from money, darling?”

Taryon nodded, still grinning, as a red-haired woman frowned over her crewmate’s shoulder. “I don’t know if it’s worth it, Vex. Ransom negotiations get complicated, and that’s a big target we’d be painting on us.”

“Time to go!” called a shorter, dark-haired man darting for the smaller, faster vessel.

The two women turned to follow, and no one seemed to notice Taryon had run after them until the pirate ship was already pulling away. For a moment, it seemed like the crew of the Vox Machina was seriously considering throwing him overboard, but once he mentioned not being a strong swimmer, they relented (albeit, with great reluctance).

“What on earth even possessed you to come charging after us?” The one apparently called Percival—Percy—demanded. “Surely you weren’t thinking of re-taking the cargo on your own?”

Tary shook his head, still grinning. “Oh, I don’t care about that stuff—I’ve just always want to be a pirate! And I’m here now, so—”

“No,” roughly half-a-dozen voices chorused in unison.


Still, they weren’t exactly near enough to any ports to simply drop him off, so the captain’s (at least, he assumed the woman called Vex’ahlia was the captain—this crew was surprisingly lax when it came to things like rank) idea of ransoming him back to his family was put into motion. After all, if they had to feed him, they may as well get something out of it—right?

In the entire maritime history of that region, there has likely never been a captive so eager and a crew so reluctant, before or since, but Taryon didn’t let that get him down. In fact, it became almost immediately clear to Vex, Percy, and the rest that very little did (or, if it did, he didn’t show it or apparently dwell on it). No matter what task he was given, or how badly he failed at it (seriously—had this kid worked ever?) Taryon seemed excited beyond belief to simply be doing something different.

Obviously, they hated his guts.


As it turned out, the ocean had more adventures in store than just pirates—sea monsters were real, too!

Vax’ildan, up in the crow’s nest (as per usual) spied the tentacles first and sounded the alarm. Percy disappeared down into what passed as a gun deck on the small ship (only one cannon, but only one person to fire it, so it worked). Vax swung down to the deck while Vex scrambled up to take her brother’s place above, bow already in hand, while the rest of the crew set about trying to maneuver the Vox Machina away, weapons in hand, should the worse come.

Tary ran towards the side of the ship nearest the beast, reaching one hand into his ever-present satchel.

Vax, ever the lookout, spotted him first. “Kid, get below—get out of the fucking way!”

“I can help!” he insisted with all the confidence of an untested warrior.

Vax grabbed his shoulder and spun him towards the hatch that led below decks. “No, you can’t. Go!”

Taryon stumbled forward a few feet, then heard the first cannon blast. Surely Percy would appreciate his help—right? They’d had so many good talks about how the other man could improve the cannon and various other weapon ideas that he had had!

Percy was too busy—hands too full defending his home and family—to bark at Taryon to leave, and that was all the invitation that he needed. Miraculously, in those first few frantic moments, he managed to not get underfoot, and was at least helpful in reloading the canon, the weapon having been designed for use by more than one person, after all.

Most of the upper deck was out of their view, but both saw the gigantic tentacle surge out of the water, felt it impact above, heard Keyleth and Vax shout, “Vex’ahlia!” followed by a smaller, but still-sickening ‘thud’ almost directly above them.

The two froze for a moment, Percy gone pale, when Taryon looked out and saw a singular, impossibly large, yellow eye peer back.

The ship was moving away, but not fast enough—someone just had to buy them a few more seconds, keep another tentacle attack from landing, then they would be clear. Tary leapt to the gun port, pulling from his satchel a weapon of his own design (and decoration)—and unholy hybrid of hand-crossbow and pistol that didn’t need to exist, except in his mind—and firing at the baleful yellow eye.

Against all odds, it hit its mark without exploding in his hands, and a muffled, inhuman shriek resonated beneath the waves as the creature recoiled instinctively, allowing them the chance to escape that they needed, and they took it.


Soon after, Taryon found himself dropped off at the port he’d originally launched from, a recovered Vex’ahlia (merely bruised and battered from her fall) deciding to forego a ransom, just this once. (She claimed it was to be rid of him that much quicker, but he knew that he was winning them over).

It was a friendlier parting than one may have expected, given initial circumstances, though any reluctance was still admittedly one-sided.


Most people who travel the sea only infrequently (say, when being sent on family business to certain contacts) rarely encounter a single pirate ship—much less the same one twice—but again, Taryon Darrington was adamantly not ‘most people’. A quick assessment of the vessel he was currently aboard and her crew left him convinced that the seven aboard the Vox Machina would quickly seize control, and he was quite happy to be proved correct.

Happier, certainly, than they seemed to be to see him, but at least outright hostility had been replaced by something akin to mingled surprise and resignation (and father claimed that his ‘people skills’ were ‘lacking’).

Once again, he ended up aboard their ship without them really being sure how or why he was there, but at least this time, they let him help out more (and actually taught him about the ship so that he’d break fewer things).

He even surprised them a little when he started offering business advice and suggesting potential contacts for off-loading pilfered goods and potentially being hired as free-lance smugglers.

Somewhat reluctantly, Taryon admitted what he’d learned about the ‘family business’—once he’d been dragged in too deep to escape with clean hands. And it wouldn’t have been too bad—he rushed to clarify, given his audience—except for the way that his father ran things (and the family): assuming that his own son would have to be bullied or blackmailed into helping, or his utter indifference to innocents harmed by his harsher practices. (The contact Taryon suggested being the least cut-throat in that regard—there was running a business, then there was crushing the rest of the world under your heel, and as naïve as his father thought it—and often called it, to his face—Tary really didn’t have the stomach for the latter.)

Apparently, ‘daddy issues’ was the code phrase for inclusion aboard the Vox Machina, and the others eventually began to share their own disparate and unlikely paths to the sea: unwanted twin bastards of one lord; an orphaned and displaced member of another once-noble family (now usurped); a once-sheltered girl rocked by the world, once it was encountered for the first time; a drifter who never said ‘no’ to the next adventure, only to putting down roots; and a pair of best friends outcast for each other’s sake.

Openness bred honesty that bore vulnerability, and as the voyage stretched and meandered, Taryon found himself revealing more the more he learned, culminating in a drunken evening with Percival and Vex’ahlia—his two closest friends aboard. The conversation turned to romance, and Tary found himself, for the first time since it all unfolded, speaking of Lawrence, his once-school mate and only other friend, who had started to become something more after they both left school, only for it all to end when Howaardt found out.

“I don’t know what he did,” Tary admitted, trying not to see the sympathetic and outraged expressions in his periphery, knowing how close he was to breaking down. “I just know that he was angry—and that I haven’t seen Lawrence since.”

“Fuck,” Vex’ahlia spat, somehow managing to convey her entire reaction to the tale in a single word and its delivery.

Tary nodded, hoping it wasn’t too obvious that he was swallowing back a flood of tears. “Pretty much.”


Mostly, over those months, the eight of them darted from raid to smuggling gig without too much excitement (aside from that which they generated themselves—the best kind, in his opinion). But when the larger, dark-and-red ship appeared on the horizon, the tension was palpable.

“Hotis.” Vex’ahlia spat the name like it was a curse, and her brother’s hand rose unconsciously to his abdomen, reaching for a phantom blade.

The Rakshasa bore down on the smaller vessel, seemingly unaware that, this time, this crew had decided that they were tired of running, tired of looking over their shoulder.

Tired of Captain Hotis remaining alive.

The battle was long and brutal, as the eight of them worked together, focusing on bottlenecking the larger boarding party at the gangplank, making full use of their experience fighting as a unit and of having not one but two snipers top the masts (Percy having opted not to trap himself below, but to maintain a visual on the whole fight). Taryon was closer than he liked to the front of the battle (being far more comfortable fighting at range), but felt confident, flanked as he was by Grog, Pike, and Scanlan on one side and Vax and Keyleth on the other.

Then Captain Hotis sprang aboard their ship, moving with an almost-feline agility, despite his imposing size, and with a single saber-strike he knocked Tary to the deck. As he lay there, chest gashed open, poison from the blade already attacking his system, he saw the pirate glance between Vax and Pike before focusing on the smaller, less-imposing target.

He was poisoned, bleeding, and had no angle for any sort of effective attack, so Tary did the only thing he could: kick out and trip Hotis, causing him to stumble and leaving him off-guard and open to Grog’s fight-finishing axe strike.


Hotis’ now-leaderless crew had withdrawn, leaving the crew of the Vox Machina to recovery and repairs. Even Tary, by far the worst injured, was eventually up and about again, and if he was moving slower as he healed, his enthusiasm remained nevertheless undampened.

That is, until word reached them regarding the Darrington family’s latest troubles.

In an odd reversal of the previous parting, it was an adamant (if, admittedly, reluctant) Taryon insisting that he needed to return home while his friends (he could call them that, now) tried to argue him out of it.

But however much he wanted to stay with them—the first family he’d had that actually felt like a family—he knew that the things that he’d learned from them and these past few months as one of them could help his blood family, if he could only get his father to listen…


…He couldn’t.

As hard as he tried, all of Taryon’s new-found (and, for once, truly-earned) confidence melted  in the face of his father’s alternating blazing wrath and frigid ruthlessness, and he found himself bullied and belittled until he cowed and caved to agreeing to a pre-arranged marriage with the heiress of a rich family.

(Some things cut deeper than even a pirate’s poisoned blade—and hurt worse.)


Most people crossing the ocean on their way to their wedding do not spend the entire voyage scanning the horizon for a pirate ship—much less a specific pirate ship—hoping against hope that it would appear; most people don’t begin trembling with excitement, grinning but almost rooted to the spot when it does; most people do not start running for the railing even before the gangplank is fully extended; and most people certainly don’t dare to hope that this miracle appeared specifically in search of them; but, well—

(Oh, gods: there was an eighth person on deck and it was Lawrence—he’d know him anywhere, and he was grinning and waving and beckoning Tary to join them like it hadn’t been years since they were separated—and Vex’ahlia, captain in all but title, was at the other end of the gangplank, winking at him even as she held out her hand.

“Well, darling—aren’t you coming?”)

—well, Taryon Darrington has never been most people, has he?

Chapter Text

Snow.

Fucking snow.

Vex’ahlia could grant that the white blanked currently coating every branch, stone, and inch of ground was pretty—if from a distance and in a limited amount, but did there have to be so damn much of it?

The twins were just a few months into yet another phase of their lives—this one, this self-imposed exile, the first that they chose for themselves—and had just turned their backs on the rubble of the last place they’d truly considered home, now a grave for the only family they had besides the one beside them, when the first few flakes began to fall.

*And they haven’t stopped since,* Vex grumbled silently during her shift at watch, glaring at the offending weather from the meager shelter of the rockfall they’d set up camp behind. They’d managed a small fire, but little more, and Vex couldn’t understand how Vax was sleeping so soundly, wrapped in a plain cloak verging on ragged after months of wear and use.

If the storm continued, they’d be stuck here in this gods-forsaken corner of Exandria until the drifts deigned to melt—a thought that almost made Vex’ahlia scream, except that it seemed cruel to wake her brother when it was painfully obvious how exhausted he’d been lately (he wouldn’t complain, but she knew he was no woodsman cut out for prolonged wilderness survival).

*We’ll get to another town soon, brother,* She promised in the privacy of her thoughts. *And after that? Well, you may say that we don’t know where we’ll end up, but I do: someplace rich and warm where it doesn’t ever fucking snow!*


Snow.

Again.

It was not as much a constant in this phase of her life (at least, not as much as her friends and, of course, Vax), but it always circled back to remind her how out of her depth she was.

There was the hunt for Rimefang—the first time she wasn’t working with Vax, when their group had been torn in half and thrown together with fucking strangers—and then, in the fight itself, she had panicked and embarrassed herself by spending most of the battle running away—and she was the one who’d been going on about specializing in hunting dragons, and how helpful had she been when Scanlan and Percy (oh, and Lyra and Zahra, too) were nearly killed?

Not. Very.

Not long after that was the expedition (for lack of a better word) to Whitestone, which was grey and frozen, as oppressed by the weather as by the Briarwoods, it seemed at the time. Of course, most of their—her—attention had been on the battles they’d leapt between, trying to save Percy’s surviving sister, and the darkness so insidiously seizing hold of Percival, but the weather had been the perfect backdrop for the helpless feeling she’d frantically fighting back (or, at least, trying desperately to ignore) at every setback and every purposeful cruelty the human inflicted—and for the nagging question in the back of her mind: was this darkness taking control, or was it merely being released?

(There are some answers she really doesn’t want.)

And now she’s here, in a snow-filled canyon, awaiting the arrival of yet another white dragon, far older and more terrible than Rimefang ever lived to be, the grave of Tiberius only a few miles away, their only hope for survival, much less victory, hanging between a goristro and the promise of a dragon bearing the title ‘the Diseased Deceiver’. She knew her own sniper’s nest was too hastily assembled to afford her much in the way of visual or physical cover, but, for the moment, she was concerned more with the other, better-built vantage point, and the recently deceased-then-returned Percy it hid. Would it hold?

They were about to find out.

And here came the snow…Again.


Snow.

Another snowfall.

Vex’ahlia looked up from her book and out the window she was leaning against as she lounged comfortably on the window seat (not the softest seat in castle’s library, but nevertheless one of her favorites). By this, her third winter in Whitestone—the first since Vecna—the white flurries that would grow to full falls, eventually banking up and driving (and keeping) everyone inside for days on end were no surprise, but sometimes, like now, she still found herself watching it happen.

She heard Percival approach behind her, even before she saw his shock of white hair reflected in the window, but she didn’t move as he came up and put his arms around her. She leaned back into him, resting against his chest as she savored the embrace.

If this was her life, now, some how she found that she really didn’t mind another snowfall.

Chapter Text

It was stupid, really.

Gods, it sounded so fucking foolish to lay it out, but the inescapable fact was, after fighting dragons, demons, and a god—and wining—it was so hard to treat anything on these little ‘escape trips’ with Percival as any sort of real threat. And thus, the temptation was to plan a little more casually, fight a little more recklessly, and guard and gauge spell slots a little less vigorously.

It was pure arrogance—no other word for it—the same fault that had so doomed and damned them the first time they’d fought Vecna. Oh, how they had paid for that flaw—then and later.

But it seems they hadn’t learned.


How bad could one beast be? Surely it would be a simple matter to take care of this farming community’s latest trouble on their way to meet up with Pike, Scanlan, and Grog to trounce some bandits harassing a small town not far from Westruun. Sure, they didn’t have much more to go on than that it was dark-furred, taller than a man, bipedal but completely animalistic, but with Vex’ahlia’s tracking and hunting skills, well-honed even before the Grey Hunt was a whisper in her ear, surely the two of them could handle this quickly.

And it hadn’t taken them the full day to find its den, for him to get a little height and better angle in one tree, for her to find an area with a variety of cover (bush, rock, and trunk) for her to dart behind and between. And the fight was quick—but so was the creature.

It was on him in a flurry of claws, teeth, fur, and rancid breath faster than Percy was ready for. He hadn’t bothered with his Silence trick, so had given away his position form the first shot, assuming he was high enough in the tree to be out of its reach.

He wasn’t.

It gave a terrific leap (though it was tall enough that it didn’t actually have to jump all that far to reach him), powerful jaws clamping down onto his right arm and pulling sharply downward, snapping both forearm bones with sickening ease. Percy barely had time for a garbled cry at the burning agony of the break as Animus dropped (and so did he). He landed on his back, any and all air driven from his lungs, no time (or place) to move with the creature still snarling over him, onslaught not yet finished.

One massive paw, bearing cruel, jagged claws nearly the length of the human’s fingers, swung down, somehow missing his armor and digging into his lower abdomen, then dragged through, carving ragged, deep wounds that immediately began gushing blood—too much blood. The other clawed arm sliced a downward arc, catching at his forehead and pulling down his face—into his eyes—and then everything was dark and pain and the lingering sell and taste of his own blood.

It all happened so quickly—even though she was nocking her first arrow as the beast turned its head in the direction of her husband, the entire devastating attack happened in the time it took Vex’ahlia to fire three times.

All three hit, and the creature staggered even as it loomed over the bloodied, blue-coated form (andwhyisn’themovingohgodsPercywhatisgoingonwhatishapppening), but all the ranger saw was red as she broke cover, firing again, screaming curses in every language she knew to draw attention from the fallen human. Trinket also rushed in, his roar answering her distress, pinning the larger creature as it was distracted by the second volley and ripping out its throat.

Vex barely registered the end of the fight—besides that it had ended—as she ran to Percy, taking in his current state.

Though she’d seen him in far worse conditions—she’d seen him dead, riddled with bullet holes and demon-inflicted gashes, or else eviscerated by a dragon’s claws and dashed against a cavern floor, dead twice in front of her—but in its own way, this was as bad, maybe worse, because he was clearly not just alive but also awake as he shifted, tried to move and get away, still frantic, but she could hear the noises of pain he was trying to swallow back and hide and he was in pain and focusVexgodsdamnityou’renothelplessyoucanhelphimjustbreathegodsdamnit.

Breathe.

A gentle hand on his uninjured arm as she knelt over him, whispered assurances that the fight was over, she was there, then a rapid assessment of the injuries: the three jagged tears through his stomach were bleeding profusely and would need immediate attention; the bite on his arm wasn’t bleeding nearly as much, but there was no denying or overlooking the severity of the double-break, even if it hadn’t been Percy’s dominant arm; then there were the three ragged gashes down his face that must’ve knocked his glasses somewhere she couldn’t see but that really didn’t matter at the moment because just a glance at the ruined eyes and Percy’s expression told her that he was now just as unable to see with them as without.

Percy could hear her murmuring quietly, could feel her kneeling over him, tried to hold on to her presence as an anchor even as he coughed and choked on his own blood, the movement sending wave after wave of agony through his damaged gut, and he couldn’t help the low moan of pain that slipped out. Yes, he’d faced worse creatures, been dealt worse injuries that had and hadn’t killed him, but he was still human at the end of the day, and this hurt, especially his arm and stomach at every little movement, and gods, he still couldn’t see and he knew why, he could feel the gashes and the blood, and this was so much worse than the curse in the Feywild—which was so easy to fix, in the end—

In his panicked lapse, Percy must’ve missed Vex muttering the beginning of her Cure Wounds spell, but he was jerked back to the present by one of her hands coming to rest near the bleeding tears across his torso. Before he could unconsciously flinch from the touch, the healing spell took hold, targeting the most dangerous wounds first, beginning to seal them from the inside out. Beginning—but not finishing—and this time, he heard Vex start the incantation, only to break off and begin swearing.

“What—” he started to ask, only to being coughing and choking again. The answer came to him almost before his breath did, as it occurred to him how many times Vex had cast one spell or another that day as they walked—as casual and carefree with her magic as they’d been with the whole damn endeavor.

She was out of spells for the day.

“Just breathe, Percy, dear,” Vex murmured, but though her tone remained calm, he could hear the catch in her voice. “That’s a little better, at least. But I’m still going to have to bind them up for now; just until we reach Pike.”

That made sense—they were only a few hours form Westruun, and therefore only a few hours from their cleric friend and guaranteed help. Having that hope—that plan—made it easier to stay calm, to stay present, even through the agony that was bandaging his abdomen, trying to keep the wounds from tearing open wider when he stood or walked. Vex worked quickly, thank the gods, moving with the practiced ease of someone who’d gone years before having access to magical healing.

Vex wanted to take the time to see to all of his injuries—wanted to do more than a rough dressing and clearing the blood away from his nose and mouth—wanted this all fixed right now—but right now, the best thing she could do for Percy was to get him to someone who could actually help. So, despite the insidious voice whispering in her mind that he probably shouldn’t move, Vex helped Percy stumble upright, tried to brace him as he swayed, unsteady, tried not to worry that his already-pale skin was now chalk-white and slick with sweat now mingling with the blood streaks.

She held Percy on his right, as Trinket moved without prompting to brace the human’s left side, and she tried not to jostle the broken arm that Percy now cradled in his left, tried not to let the little grunts and groans Percy couldn’t quite stop stab into her core. They had to keep going; they had to get to Westruun; they had to press on…


…They had to stop.

It took led than an hour to make it agonizingly clear that there was no way they could keep up a pace that would get them to Westruun before nightfall, and even riding on Trinket (which they’d tried after just a handful of halting, torturous steps) jostled and rattled too much, threatening to re-open what little healing Vex had managed. So, she made the call to stop, carefully eased Percy back onto the ground, leaning against a visibly concerned Trinket, and set about setting up a rough camp for the night.

Percy listened to her go about the tasks that were still second nature to her (the thought crossing his slightly-delirious mind that she might still be able to say that she had lived more than half of her life out-of-doors), tried to gauge the size of what he assumed was a clearing by listening to his wife cross and re-cross the space—tried anything to keep his attention diverted from…well, everything at this point.

He moved slightly, trying to ease pressure on his stomach wounds, only to cause broken bones to shift against each other, and couldn’t entirely choke back the involuntary cry at the white-hot lance of pain that stabbed up his arm and down to the rest of his body.

The next thing he knew, Vex was there, and he could feel her hands on his uninjured shoulder, on his face, and leaned into the touch, trying to seek what comfort he could just from her being there.

“I was hoping that it could be healed before—It’s a bad break—I don’t want to make it worse—But Percy, darling—I-I think I need to set that, or it’s going to keep moving and keep hurting…”

It was wrong to hear her so uncertain, but he knew why and gods this was going to hurt, but he also knew she was right: the break had to be immobilized, if only for the night.

“Do it, Vex’ahlia,” he hissed out between gritted teeth, ears straining for any indication of when it would come as he heard her gather the necessary supplies.

It didn’t take long to get what she needed and return to kneel beside Percy again, and Vex took a deep breath before starting. Gods, she hadn’t felt this helpless in years—when and how had she grown so reliant on magic?

One more deep breath, a whispered “I’m sorry,” then Vex shut everything out and set and splinted the arm as quickly as she could without doing a poor job. *It just has to hold for the night—this will all be better in the morning.*

While her self-control lasted, there was a little more she could do that would help, so she did. First was checking the stomach lacerations for further damage. Mercifully, her one Cure Wounds spell had managed to repair any deeper injury to internal organs, but he’d still lost a lot of blood, and any movement of any kind—even deep enough breathing—could cause muscles to pull and aggravate the tears. This time, she took the time to fully clean the wounds, pulling out what few medicinal herbs she had with her (they really had gotten so arrogant lately, hadn’t they?), trying to find something to numb the pain or reduce inflammation as she re-bound the wounds with fresh bandages and reminded herself it would just be one night.

That done, she could turn her full attention to the claw damage to his face. The three shallower gashes ran from forehead to chin, spaced far enough apart to not break his nose or the like, but not having missed his eyes. Stomach churning at the grisly sight (somehow that was the injury that was throwing her the most?) Vex kept repeating to herself that all would be fixed in the morning—like the whole of this ill-advised day had never happened.

Her hands were trembling against his face, and gods he wanted to be more useful, more helpful than just half-siting here, and not make her do everything, and not scare her like this, but he couldn’t see, couldn’t move without lighting a wildfire in his abdomen, and his arm was useless, and why had he been so stupid

“How bad?” he forced out, trying to pull himself out of spiraling thoughts, to stay grounded in a reality that he continuously found himself slipping away from in the haze of pain and dark.

She tried to laugh, tried to sound unconcerned. “It’s nothing Pike and I can’t fix, darling.” She leaned forward, kissed his forehead, and he reached clumsily up with his left arm,  trying to say without the words that weren’t coming at the moment that he needed her there, needed to feel her, needed her to anchor him against the panic and the dark and the irrational but inescapable voice asking what would happen if his sight couldn’t be restored—what if Pike couldn’t, for some unknowable reason?

Bless her, she understood—or else simply needed this just as much to fight back her own panic—but she grabbed his hand in both of hers, sitting as close as possible without risk of jostling him and starting a whole new cycle of agony. It wasn’t nearly as close as he wanted, but Percy did understand (would have done the same if—gods forbid—their situations had been reversed) and she didn’t let go, and that was so much better than being alone in the dark and the pain and being unable to move…

Percy slowly drifted off in a clearly far-from-restful sleep, and Vex started running one hand through his hair over and over and over in an attempt to help calm both of them. Trinket was a warm presence at her back, curled protectively around the both of them, and clearly on alert, on watch, but Vex knew there’d be little to no sleep for her that night. She wouldn’t be able to, and so long as she rested (not the same thing as sleep, she could attest to that) enough to regain her magic, it wouldn’t matter anyway.

Percy began to shift slightly in some dream and, afraid he would wake himself back up by jostling arm or other injuries too much, she adjusted her position slightly so that his head was in her lap, one of her hands on his left shoulder, the other still running through his hair. “Sh, darling, sh. It’s alright.” Ignoring how much it wasn’t, at the moment, she leaned over and kissed his forehead, breathing a sigh of relief as he lay still once more.

Percy slipped into deeper dreams once more, but found no relief there. Though he’d never admitted it before, falling asleep while badly injured or in great pain almost guaranteed nightmares that dragged him back through his worst moments: his time being tortured by Ripley after having watched most of his family be slaughtered in front of him, or the agonizing rending of Orthax tearing into his very soul over and over and over again after his first death. But this time, as he slipped back and forth between agonies, there was no end, no release, no relief—no Cassandra appearing to break him out, no Vex’ahlia calling him back to the rest of Vox Machina—only unending pain and cruel laughter.

He came fully awake at one point, but disoriented, blind, and still in pain. He was crying out—maybe wordless, or maybe ‘no’ or ‘stop’, he couldn’t say, afterwards—and Vex must’ve been trying to keep him from thrashing about too much in the last few moments, but all that he registered was that someone was restraining him, pushing him down. He tried to twist away, get away, make it stop, but then everything hurt and someone was screaming (dimly, a disconnected part of his brain informed him that someone was him) and the hands were back, but they were gentle, they weren’t hurting him, and there was a voice—

“—rcy? Percy, dear, it was a dream. Just a dream—just a dream, darling. I know it hurts, and I wish I could help; just a few hours more, Percy, then I promise I’ll make this better—please!”

Gods they were a mess—so much for the legendary heroes of Exandria, Conquerors of the Conclave and Vanquishers of Vecna. Still, he managed to slow his breathing and lay back down; he was not ready to face sleep (and the accompanying dreams) again, but at least laying still meant everything didn’t hurt quite so damn much…

Slowly, his exhausted body pulled his unwilling mind back to sleep, mercifully dreamless, at least for the moment…


Vex was half-dozing when morning came, but came fully alert as the first red rays of a raising sun stabbed into her eyes. She sat up and, without even bothering to wake Percival, reached down and began casting Cure Wounds.

Unseen, the gashes to his abdomen began to seal first, as the magic prioritized the worst injuries. Another casting, and she watched, half-fascinated, half-sickened as she could see the bones of his arm shift and knit themselves back together—mercifully painless, thanks to the healing magics, but unsettling to see, nevertheless. Finally, she cupped one hand on his cheek, lay the other on his forehead, and murmured the spell one more time, praying it would be enough—that all would be well…

The claw-wounds on his face rapidly sealed, disappearing without a trace of scarring, but as Percy woke at last, all it took was one look to know—

—He still couldn’t see.

“Vex?” he muttered drowsily, already sounding so much better than yesterday, when pain-filled tension and blood had all but choked out his voice.

She swallowed, then forced a smile he couldn’t see. “I’m here, darling. And almost finished, too. One moment…” Pointless as she now knew it to be, Vex’ahlia lay a hand on either side of her husband’s ruined eyes and cast the spell one more time, praying to Pelor—to all the gods—that the impossible would occur.

It didn’t.

Her magic could knit flesh back together, stop bleeding and soothe pain, but the damage that took Percival’s sight from him went deeper than she was able to fix.

Percy must’ve felt the spell begin, then run its course with no effect, must’ve felt her hands start to tremble as she pulled them back. Sitting up quickly, catching them in his own, he kept her from pulling away, he pulled her closer and Vex let him, let the last of the previous day’s coiled tension melt out of her as they held each other in the gathering dawn.

They’d figure this out—they wouldn’t give up.


The few hours’ walk through the woods to Westruun couldn’t really be called ‘easy’ for him, given the sheer amount of tripping hazards alone, but was so much better than the day before, as he was now pain-free and no longer bleeding profusely. And with Vex’ahlia holding him from one side, guiding him, and the reassuring bulk of Trinket pressing into the other, he at least didn’t have to worry about running into anything.

And he didn’t really have to worry about his eyes, either—right? After all, Pike had fixed them before, in the Feywild, and with a spell that wasn’t Cure Wounds. This was probably something like what happened with Vax’s foot after the lava incident: requiring a combination of different spells, as well as time and patience, to heal.

*And what if it doesn’t?* a vicious whisper demanded from the back of his mind.

Then…Then…Then they would adjust—they’d adapt. It wouldn’t be the end of the world—he knew the others would help him figure it out: he’d still have Vex and Cassandra, and Keyleth, Pike, and even Scanlan and Grog…It’d be fine…It’d be fine…It’d be fine…

“It’s going to be okay.”

Bless Pike Trickfoot and her calming presence; her gentle tone that never seemed to scold or belittle them, even for needlessly reckless choices that put them in unwarranted danger and blew up in their faces; her strength of presence that made it impossible to doubt her assurances; her magic that warmed, relaxed, and restored.

He blinked as vision returned, blurry without his glasses but blessedly there, his gaze instinctively seeking Vex’ahlia, to reassure and to be reassured. A small hand on his arm brought his attention down to Pike as she pressed something into his hands.

“I got these back from Grog yesterday. I thought it might be good to have a spare pair on hand, in case something went wrong with the bandit fight. Call it a gut feeling.”

Bless Pike Trickfoot.


It was stupid, really.

Stupid, Reckless, arrogant, and so avoidable if they’d only just been careful. Only time would tell if the lesson had finally taken hold, but careful had never really been Vox Machina’s way—not for a single one of them, however much a certain brother of hers had been scolded and blamed, singled out for that ‘flaw’.

And, if she was honest, Vex had to admit that they never had, and, in the long run, never would rely on caution, only luck—for as long as that luck would hold.

Chapter Text

College finals week may be miserable—but at least misery loves company.

Well, that might not be the best way to phrase the sentiment, but regardless: if Vex’ahlia had to undergo yet another all-night cram session, at least it wouldn’t be a solitary one.

With now almost four full semesters of school under their belts, the oddly mis-matched friend group (that’d taken the name the S.H.I.T.s for one of those stupid Freshman Orientation games and never bothered to change it) had this almost down to the routine: since the girls generally had the most space in their triple, they usually played host while the others brought the junk food that passed for ‘brain food’ and/or ‘the will to live’ by that point in the semester.

They all had their own preferred study positions and habits: sprawled across the couch/beds/floor, nested in the pile of blankets and pillows semi-seriously dubbed ‘the place of tears’, or perched on the windowsill, and/or any other available piece of furniture; notes, laptops, and the bowls of chips and popcorn would be passed and showed freely (or, at least, with joking bickering and bartering), resting between the sodas, pizza boxes, and takeout containers (after the first of these sessions, the girls instituted a rule that no one could leave before at least all the trash was disposed of).

It was miraculous, and more than a little surprising, that their little group had stuck together past the first few months, much less into and through the next school year, though they did have their own little advantages in that regard: Vex, Pike, and Keyleth were roommates, of course, and Vex’s twin brother, Vax’ildan, had roomed with Percy last year, while Pike’s childhood best friend, Grog, had roomed with Scanlan.

Things had been a little different this year: Pike and Scanlan had gotten together over the summer; Vax and Keyleth had discovered some unexpected chemistry when paired up for an assignment and were now dating; Vex and Percy had joined the student-run activity board, and used their combined influence and skills to get enough of their ideas through that they realized just how well they worked together, in addition to thinking each other hot from day one, and now were also an item. Then there’d been the rooming switch-up—through a mistake by the school, Percy had ended up in a single room instead of with Vax again, leaving Vax to scramble for a new room, thankfully managing to land in a triple with Grog and Scanlan.

And, to top it all off, halfway through the last semester, the school had dumped another roommate on Percy after all—Taryon had rubbed most of them the wrong way at first, but reluctant pity became hesitant sympathy became begrudging acceptance and now, at the end of the year, he was likely about a week's worth of finals hell away from being considered a friend on par with the rest (especially as he, too, joined in these all-nighters)

Who knew what changes the next two years would bring—the possibility of all chipping in and renting a place off-campus together had been raised and certainly had its appeal; the heavy-science majors (Percy and Tary—Engineering; Pike—Pre-Med; Vex and Keyleth—Environmental Science, double majoring in Business and Philosophy, respectively) knew their already considerable workloads were about to increase by magnitudes; Vax and Scanlan would soon have to face the question of just what they intended to do with their Religious Studies and Musical Performance Arts degrees, respectively; Grog would have to grow increasingly careful regarding on-field injuries in order to keep his professional draft possibilities alive, even as the pressure on him to actively contribute to the team’s wins increased with his seniority on the team—yes, who knew, when they couldn’t even say what the coming week would bring?

But, at the very least, if any of them had a nervous/tearful breakdown, they were at least in a room full of people who understood exactly what they were going through.

Chapter Text

Things had been…quiet, these last few months.

Percy really couldn’t put any other word to the time—‘pleasant’ did apply to some, sure, most notably the private, secret wedding; ‘busy’, perhaps, in part, when the various projects were considered; and maybe ‘calm’, since the biggest events were no more notable than the opening of a bakery—but the quiet was the all-encompassing impression.

So, naturally, when a chance came to take an adventuring job, he jumped on it.


Allura had reached out with the council’s request: a former student of the Lyceum—a once-promising battle mage recruited after impressing in the battle to retake Emon but kicked out after it became clear that he only sought power as a means and excuse to indulge an impulse towards cruelty—had terrorized the city for weeks, and, upon being driven out, had taken hold of a ruined temple in the middle of a swamp too near Emon for comfort.

It was a mission with a certain amount of importance, sure (it never did to leave someone that cruel, creative, and powerful with time to experiment and learn), but not one that would require every current member of Vox Machina; Percy felt confident that he, Keyleth, and the twins would be more than enough to handle on drop-out wizard.


At first, the main difficulty in reaching their quarry was the swamp surrounding the ruins, and the less-than-friendly animals and plants that lived there and answered to no one’s will.

Once upon a time, they would’ve struggled to pass, but with Vex’ahlia barely hesitating to choose their path, and with the barest flicker of Keyleth’s magic and influence encouraging all denizens of that place to leave them be or let them pass unhindered, what once would’ve been deadly dangers were reduced to mild inconveniences.

Upon reaching the once-abandoned ruins, they discovered just how the mage had been occupying his time since taking up residence: each of the twisting, illogical, and confusing passages was replete with mechanical and impossibly complex death-traps.

But months of downtime had not dulled Vax’ildan’s instinct for when things were not as they should be, even as they had given Percival much more of an opportunity to work on mechanical devices and clockwork pieces, since there was less of a demand for weapons maintenance and upgrades. It was odd, at first, to work beside the other man in this area, especially with a certain secret all but fighting to be shared, but they found their rhythm soon enough, clearing the path.


As expected, the mage tried to fight them when they reached him at last.

Tried.

But though his innate skill for combat magic, demonstrated in the battle against Thordak, had gained him a place in the Lyceum, he had not received much in the way of training before his unceremonious dismissal. Team Half-Elf (+1 Human), had barely any ‘formal’ training, but years of having to survive on their wits and what skills they managed to teach themselves. They had passed through (dragon) fire, faced down a kraken, been to the hells and back, and each knew that they did not fight alone.

Percy and Vex hung back, firing from out of the mage’s range, Vax darting in and out with wings and Whisper, harrying he other man with sneak attacks and smite, and, all the while, Keyleth, transformed into a beholder thanks to a spell and a flash of inspiration, kept most of the magical attacks neutralized even as she attempted ray after ray, as if seeing just what they would/could do.

Unsurprisingly, the fight did not last long.


Later, after their return to Whitestone, after retreating to the privacy of their room, Vex turned to him with a look that somehow pierced all his masks and illusions: his soul, once bared, forever hers to read. “Darling, why so quiet?”

“How long?” he asked, deciding not to lie tonight, not to her. “How long—how much of this until we snap? Until its too quiet too much and we become—”

She stopped him with an embrace and a kiss. “Never,” she insisted as she pulled back. “Allura told us that he’d always been that cruel. That wasn’t just power and boredom—that was what someone like him chose to do with it.” Satisfied, she turned away.

Percy, however, knew the darkness within him too well to be completely at ease. He did, however, think himself clever enough to avoid any pitfall he could at least see coming. The obvious solution was to not let himself grow bored—to take little adventures and side-jobs whenever the quiet became too much, then to return and enjoy the benefits of peace until the next time it began to chafe.

For now, though, there was a Winter’s Crest reunion and vacation to plan.

Chapter Text

Vex’ahlia slipped quietly through the halls of Castle Whitestone, not announcing her return from her latest excursion with the newest members of the Grey Hunt—not yet. None of the children—or Percival—seemed to be out in the halls, leaving her an idea of just where they might be.

And, if she was right, she didn’t want to spoil it.


When the children were younger, this room had been their nursery; now that they were old enough to sleep in their own rooms, it’d been converted to a play room of sorts; eventually, it would become a school room or study of some kind.

For now, it was any place in the world that they wanted it to be.

Percy never ceased to be amazed by the ability of his five children to create a whole world of their own, adventures drawn from the stories that they never ceased begging for, but, in this space, bearing an undeniable mark all their own: a reality of the unreal, of playtime and dreams; he never stopped feeling the catch in his chest when a small hand slipped into his, tugging him along, urging him to join in and go one these adventures with them.

He knew these days couldn’t last—how fast the children would grow, how soon the real world would intrude on this, their world. As much as he promised himself over and over that they would not know the pains and horrors that both their parents had been forced to live through, he knew that these dark/practical/pessimistic thoughts, if overly dwelt on, could distract him to the point that the little joys of the present slipped past, unsavored.

And that was not something he was about to let happen.


Vex smiled from her hidden vantage point, just outside the room. She was half a second away form joining in the game, but she wanted this image of her family this happy and carefree to be preserved in her memory forever. How far had she and Percy come from the days that they were both privately convinced that this was out of their reach, undeserved.

But here they were, with the family that they’d fought for, built, and treasured above everything else.

Chapter Text

The Inter-Planetary Alliance was not yet as unified or organized as proponents had hoped when the various space-faring races of the Exandrian cluster of Solar Systems had moved from suspicious side-eyeing (metaphorically speaking) to tentative affiliation, but steps were being taken to promote peaceful cooperation, even as the bureaucrats worked out what this alliance would be legally, politically, and logistically.

The Allied Corps of Explorers was one such step—while each world would (for now) maintain its own space program for trade, travel, and defense (though already technology was beginning to be shared), this new fleet and its associated Academy would be a joint venture primarily functioning for exploration, communication, and relief efforts. In a few years, the first graduating class of the ACE Academy would take their place in the fleet, cementing it into what it was conceived of (presumably). For now, though, the Corps was manned by veterans of various fleets from across the Alliance.

Some ships floundered in the face of clashing protocol, habits, and traditions, but others found a strange intermingling of the same that worked, and a precious few of those found something in that blend that became something more altogether: the very essence of what optimists believed the Alliance could be, in time.

The CSS* Vox Machina was the best-known example of these.

 

(*Original intent to designate the fleet ships as Allied Space Ships was understandably not upheld and changed to Corps Space Ships—though jokes did linger)


Any of the crew could tell you that the atmosphere on the ship was set by the core officers and trickled down as everyone else aboard followed their example even more than their orders.

That core group (dubbed the Super-High-Intensity-Team by those both baffled and impressed by the goings on/results of any conference between the eight of them) behaved more as a collaborative group of peers, rather than a chain of command, most days, which seemed a great relief to Keyleth, possibly the most reluctant captain in the history of any space-faring people.

She was an Ashari—from the Ashari Coalition, four planets that’d perhaps once been colonies that lost contact with their home worlds, and welcomed newcomers regardless of planetary origin, and now boasted a unique, blended culture and predisposition for cooperation, and thus were deemed ideal officers to lead this new fleet, at least until the current Academy students graduated. Keyleth often struggled with feeling as though she had not earned her authority, but if the others had to occasionally push her to more confidently play the part of leader, she was at least not so convinced of her own infallibility that she wouldn’t seek out and honestly consider their counsel and advice (as well as that of her First Officer, Kima de Vord, though the two had come to that trust by way of initial conflict).

The twins, Vex’ahlia and Vax’ildan, the Chief Navigator and Chief Helmsman, respectively, came from the much-less welcoming world of Syngorn; but while their own blended heritage (part human) had left them outcasts on their home world, making them have to fight twice as hard to have their talents recognized by Syngorn’s fleet, it made them ideal candidates for officer positions with the ACE—a fact that had been quite the bitter pill for their father to swallow, they admitted with smirks of hard-won triumph. (To say nothing of all the accolades they’d earned since joining: here, at least, merit mattered.)

Scanlan Shorthalt rounded out the half of the S.H.I.T.s most commonly found on the bridge of the Vox Machina, and while the people of his home world stood the shortest of any of the races in the Alliance, nobody aboard the ship would call their Chief Communications Officer’s personality anything but ‘large’ (something all quickly learned could be both benefit and detriment, depending on the situation at hand).

Pike Trickfoot, Chief Medical Officer, hailed from the same home world as Scanlan, but her strength of self was displayed not in wild antics and fearless humor, but a quiet, gentle, altogether calming presence that belied her small frame and led many aboard to seek her guidance on matters beyond physical health.

Many in the Alliance were still wary of the Goliaths, a physically intimidating and almost ruthlessly competitive people, often (unfairly) considered to be not as technologically advanced as the rest of the peoples of the Exandrian star cluster. But Grog Strongjaw, Chief Security Officer, never let others’ opinions of him matter much, ever since being rescued by Pike’s first vessel many years ago, soon joining its crew and later the corps in order to stay by the side of the woman who saved him and became his closest friend.

A relative newcomer—assigned to the Vox Machina several months after her maiden voyage—had unexpectedly (eventually) found himself considered as ‘one of the S.H.I.T.s’. Taryon Darrington, Chief Science Officer, was a bit strange and more than a little difficult to get along with, sometimes—but then, they were honest enough to admit that the same was true of themselves and most of their crew, as well. Besides, he (somehow) did an excellent job at his post, so they put up with the boastful human’s eccentricities.

Head of Engineering, Percival de Rolo, was also human, and got on surprisingly well with Tary (the two could bounce some truly terrifying ideas off of each other, when left alone). And if Percy sometimes overestimated his own ingenuity, there was nevertheless absolutely no question regarding his competency, or his devotion to the others and their ship.

It was that possessive loyalty that lest to the hidden workshop area in the back corner of Engineering, out of sight of and never spoken of to anyone else on the ship.

He hadn’t even told the other S.H.I.T.s—because the Corps was conceived of as a peaceable force to be sent on strictly non-military missions, the ship’s available weaponry was minimal, intended for emergency use only. Percival thought that stupid, so, like any other mechanical or design flaw, he refused to let it go unfixed.

So, in his few spare moments, he built handheld weapons for Grog’s team in case of any hostile encounters on any strange planetoid or (heavens forbid) aboard the Vox Machina itself, kept for the first time they would be needed. And he designed innocuous ‘upgrades’ to ship systems, with buried code that would allow him to turn ship functions into defensive (and offensive) capabilities, if and when a hostile vessel was encountered. And all in secret, in case any of his more duty-conscious crewmates would feel obligated to report his activities, and to keep his friends free of responsibilities, should they be discovered.

But though he took precautions, Percy was entirely convinced that the path he was on was the correct one, regulations and consequences be damned. He was not the only one of them who knew first-hand that darker forces existed in these star systems that were neither enticed by for frightened of the Alliance—there was a reason, after all, why Keyleth had been forced into to her position of power while still so young; why the twins had no home on their mother’s world after their father’s rejection; why Scanlan had been a lone traveler before the Corps; why Grog was half-dead when Pike found him, all those years ago—but he was, arguably, the most altered by his experience.

And so, while most of the ship slept, or when his friends were busy and he was not, Percy slipped into the dark and the secret and designed and built terrible, terrible things. For this was the truth that he held at his core, deeper even than the trust in his own mind and judgement: even if it damned his career, his reputation, or even his soul, he would not lose another home, another family.

Chapter Text

Keyleth stepped inside the Slayer’s Cake for the first time in months and felt the tension and stress of ‘playing leader’ (as she still thought of it) melt away as the warm air and sweet scents surrounded her. Years—maybe decades—later, she would grow more comfortable with the mantle of the Voice of the Tempest, but the Ashari druid doubted it would ever feel as comfortable as this life she had (found? built? stumbled into?) for herself.

Not that she was always comfortable in it, either (physically or emotionally) she reminded herself: remembering dragons, demons, a kraken, fighting to be heard, having her calls doubted (or doubting them herself), and wondering if she belonged at all. But, at the very least, she knew she could be herself, all of herself, with Vox Machina: magically adept but socially fumbling; uncertain in speech, but able to take the forms of the elements themselves; she was ‘sweet’ and ‘gentle’ to them, yes, but they had seen her when she was not, and accepted her all the same.

But there’d be time enough for gloomy thoughts later—this was a vacation!

Well, technically they had a few days before the Winter’s Crest Ball, then they would all go to Dalen’s Closet for a vacation, but she and Vax had made it a point to leave a few days early so that they’d have some time in Whitestone for little things, like holiday baking.

*We’ll be back in Vesrah soon enough—what’s a few extra days?*

Vex and Percy were already at work under Pike’s watchful supervision, and Keyleth scampered into the kitchen to join them while Vax took a seat beside Grog, ready to add his opinion as co-taste-tester.

“Percy’s with Cassandra, planning something for the ball,” Vex put in before Keyleth could even ask. “He’ll join us as soon as he can. In the meantime, there’s a nut pie recipe that I’ve been dying to try out.”

Keyleth blinked. “Uh, how do we make that fit the theme?” They hadn’t initially set out to make every treat’s name a pun on either themselves or their adventures, but once the pattern had been set, it just felt wrong to break it.

“Darling, any one who fights four ancient dragons, goes to the nine hells in search of one particular, specific demon, and faces up to a kraken—all of their own free will—well, ‘nuts’ is one of the kindest words, to be perfectly honest.”

“Fair point.”

With that, they set to work in the sugar-thick air, and a more than physical warmth wrapped around them all (even Percy, when he finally arrived), setting to rest whatever worries or stresses had been worn inside.

Yes, she may live in Vesrah, now, but these people were still, and would always be, her home.

Chapter Text

*How on earth are you supposed to act when it’s your last night?*

Okay, so maybe that thought was a little melodramatic: Keyleth wasn’t going to die in the morning, she was just going to leave. Her home. For the first time ever. To travel a world she’d never seen. To accomplish a mission she wasn’t ready for. Without knowing when (if) she would ever return.

So, yeah—kinda felt a little like dying. Or, at least, like she was going to.

Well, dwelling on the journey to come wouldn’t change a single thing about it, and it wasn’t like she could talk herself out of it, she had no choice in the matter: she was supposed to be the next Voice of the Tempest, so she had to complete her Aramenté. Tomorrow. Everything she’d been trained for, schooled for, and still somehow felt unprepared for, would begin tomorrow. Or end.

*That’s not a helpful thought, Keyleth. Focus on helpful thoughts.*

Only, she didn’t have many of those left. She’d already packed and re-packed her travel bags too many times, there wasn’t a single piece of equipment uninspected or spell in her repertoire she hadn’t practiced, and she’d stared at the map until she could see it perfectly with her eyes closed (and still, she didn’t know exactly where she was supposed to find the other Ashari tribes). There was nothing left to do until the morning.

When she would leave.

Oh, gods—was this really happening?

Keyleth could feel the panic settling in, and while she still wasn’t exactly sure how a future leader about to embark on a noble journey to prepare them for their destiny was supposed to behave, she was still pretty sure that ‘panic’ wasn’t one of the options in that picture.

With that in mind (and because she still found herself feeling more comfortable in any skin other than her own), the young druid did the only thing she could think of to calm herself down: she transformed into a dog, paced her room for a bit, then circled her bed a few times and flopped down.

It was easier to fall asleep this way, she knew from experience. She also knew that she’d change back in a few hours, but it’d never woken her up before, and what were a few sore muscles from a strange sleeping position in exchange for actually getting sufficient rest the night before the biggest day of her life?

*Biggest. Not last, biggest. No—

first.*

Chapter Text

Look, it’s not that Keyleth didn’t know that she was sheltered: that not everywhere in the city (let alone the world) was like the walled garden she’d lived in with her family, with its wide open spaces for running through, nooks to hide in, and the sweet old lady who laid out food (and blanket-lined boxes, in winter) for the family of cats in her yard.

It was just that the ginger-furred tabby kitten was unprepared for how different the outside world was from what she’d known before she decided to go off and explore the rest of the city.

She hadn’t known how big everything would be, especially compared to her small frame, or how loud. Or how fast everything moved, or how many things she’d have to run or hide from, or how hard it would be to find enough to eat, or a safe place to sleep—

Keyleth knew beyond any doubt that she’d be dead if she hadn’t found them.

It’d started with a pair of nearly-identical black cats—Vex’ahlia and Vax’ildan—who’d let her tag along after them (admittedly with great initial reluctance). Maybe they weren’t as friendly as her family, but they knew how to live on these streets and in these alleys, and she learned a lot by watching and imitating them. (Later—much later—she would learn that they were abandoned to this life by a family who thought the two black cats born in the littler were ‘bad luck’ and not worth the keeping.)

Keyleth had been frightened of Grog, the giant, mastiff-like dog, when she first ran into him. But before she and the twins could bolt, a tiny mutt named Scanlan scampered out from behind the much-larger and much-slower dog, and proposed a bizarre cooperative alliance. (Initially, they’d agreed only to keep Grog form growing angry, but they quickly learned there was a lot less they had to be afraid of with his massive bulk always guarding them.)

Scanlan, it seemed, had spent most of his life without home or family; and later, when they met Pike, the little pom-cross that was Gog’s ‘best buddy’, they learned the story of the night when she found the grey-furred behemoth on the streets, torn to bloody shreds, but lucky to escape the dog-fighting ring alive.

(And later even than that, when they met some of Pike’s littermates, Keyleth learned that bad or mean humans weren’t the only things there were to run away from.) 

Percival was a white-furred ghost of a cat when they first found him. Keyleth felt an odd sort of kinship with the former housecat, soon growing close as he began to open up to them, despite stark differences in personality. She always thought that there was a strange, ominous darkness to him, only later learning that he no longer had a house not because his family, his people, had thrown him out, but because they’d been murdered by other humans.

(Every day, she learned again how sheltered she truly had been.)

There was no denying how a strange a group they were, so when a doubtlessly lost, boundlessly energetic, and hopelessly naïve poodle raced up to them, said that his name was Taryon Darrington, and asked if he could join them, the group’s response was pretty much a resigned, ‘why the hell not?’.

Yes, Keyleth had learned a lot since leaving the garden—not just how good she had it and how difficult it would be to go back, even if she could find the way, but also so much more about family and loyalty and how to be strong than she ever would’ve if she’d never left, never met the other seven…

…the rest of her pack.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t that Vax was never serious, it was just that, barring life-or-death situations (that is to say, battle), the half-elf rogue didn’t see much point in taking life seriously. At least, not anymore.  Not since leaving Syngorn and its pressure to conform (all the while being told that, however hard he tried, he would never truly be welcome), not since seeing the burning rubble of the last place he’d truly called home, then turning his back on it.

If that was what was behind him, what could be ahead that was worth taking seriously?


Vex’ahlia was well-used to her brother’s antics at this point, but their new-found allies (friends?) were only just beginning to realize how much of a prankster Vax’ildan truly was.

It seemed like a normal enough morning when they first awoke in their roadside camp: Vax had taken the final watch alone, nudged his sister awake as the sun rose, then made some light excuse and vanished into the woods.

Only Vex knew that tell for what it was.

Grog was the first to discover what had happened, staring in dumbfounded silence at the battle axe he was pretty sure had not been bright pink the night before; Keyleth tentatively reached out and poked her green-and-orange striped staff, coming away with wet paint on her fingers. Scanlan cackled at the purple polka dots now covering the outside of his shawm (strangely, it fit his aesthetic even more, now); Pike’s shield now had a red heart painted across the front of it, and Percy’s pistol was now a shade of yellow so bright it practically glowed (which clashed horribly with his blue coat).

As one, the group turned to the ranger, who was calmly inspecting the string on her paint-free bow.

Vex’ahlia looked up, smirking a little. “He knows better than to try that on me.

…A second time.”

Chapter Text

It’s easy enough to say that ‘Vax really should’ve known better’.

Easy enough to criticize what could be seen as reckless, impulsive, or stupid; easy enough to chide the young rogue for constantly darting into danger when one or two hits were enough to lay him low; easy enough to point out that his brazen charges ignored the fact that the strength of his skill set lay in remaining unseen before he struck.

Easy enough, sure: but only if you completely ignore who Vax’ildan was.


Vax’ildan was not a stupid man, but if his sister or their friends were in danger, he was not afraid to do a stupid thing—like charge head-on towards a powerful mage who they’d apparently angered, but were unprepared to fight. He wasn’t sure what he hoped to accomplish, beyond being enough of a distraction for the rest of the S.H.I.T.s to flee—it wasn’t like his dagger would do much real damage—but if there was a chance, he had to try.

For some unknown reason (perhaps he didn’t want to waste time ‘swatting flies’) the gods were merciful[ish], and the mage decided it would be enough of a lesson for the fumbling amateurs to leave with one of their own, rather than slaughter the whole party. Whatever his reasoning, the brass-and-gold-robed figure seized the charging rogue by one arm and the opposite shoulder before teleporting away in a sickening wrench of arcane energy.


To his credit, Vax tried to fight: it was pretty well-known that mages of any sort or power level don’t take physical hits all that well. The half-elf struggled, stabbed, kicked, and even bit, all before his vision even cleared from the transport spell, but mages who have survived long enough to become powerful know how to defend themselves, especially against low-level rogues.

The daggers were wrenched from his hands and he was thrown bodily to the floor—dark stone, matching the walls and ceiling of this room, a part of his mind had time to notice. Before he could spring to his feet and continue to fight (or attempt to flee), a bolt of electricity slammed into his back, lancing and burning its way through his whole body.

Vax jerked and twisted, trying to get away from the pain, but he could barely move as the searing, shocking, stabbing energy kept pouring into him without break or pause. Every muscle tensed and spasmed, unable to relax, and he tasted blood as his clenched jaw caught the edge of his tongue and couldn’t release it. He couldn’t see past the blinding white of pure agony; couldn’t hear anything but the roaring of blood in his ears and the sickening crackle of the lightning; couldn’t even scream as his lungs were unable to draw in any breath.

Abruptly, the barrage ended, and Vax gulped for air, panting in ragged breaths even s his over-wrought muscles still refused to relax.

The mage stooped, elven features coming into view as he examined his victim dispassionately.

(The twins, never inclined to be polite to any ‘full elves’ that sneered at them, had made some muttered comment that the man had taken issue with—and things had escalated form there.)

“And ill-mannered othlir. Hardly surprising. But why didn’t someone drown you when they had the chance?”

*They tried; they died,* Vax wanted to snap into that fucker’s face, but his jaw still couldn’t unclench, even as the blood began to fill his mouth. He couldn’t even spit it at his tormentor, had to simply glare his hatred and defiance, but the other man seemed to get the message.

He sneered down at the still-trembling rogue, body still wracked with spasms that were slow to lessen or ease, then his hands shot out and seized the younger man’s throat, wrapping completely around.

Vax felt control slowly returning to his limbs, dared to hope he could throw the mage off—it wasn’t like he was gripping hard enough to caught off air at all, the hold didn’t feel too tight or seem secu—

Then the hands began to burn like a torch fire being held right against his skin, then hotter—hotter—cooking the flesh beneath, searing it; at last the scream he hadn’t managed before, under the lightning assault, was torn from Vax’s half-destroyed throat. He jerked back fruitlessly, head slamming into the floor he was still lying on hard enough for his vision to flash white for a second, but he couldn’t break the grip, couldn’t escape the biting, tearing heat and the taunting laughter and, oh gods, the smell

Then the hands were gone, the heat was gone, and Vax instinctively curled in on himself as he lay there, two still-smoldering handprints burned into the flesh of his throat as a cruel mockery of some kind of a collar,  wishing he could muffle or silence the gasping groans of pain he knew were verging too close to sobs for his pride to bear.

“Not so bold now, othlir? Beginning to realize your place in the world?” Vax tried to drag himself to his hands and knees, but a foot on his back forced him face-down once more. “I really don’t have time for this—now that my research if finally coming along. But…Well, I have been told by professionals that I ought to more frequently...how did they put it? ‘Vent my stress’. For health reasons, you understand. This is nothing personal, othlir.”

A swift kick below his ribs drove the air from Vax’ildan’s lungs and threw him onto his back, cracking his head yet again against the stone. Then the lightning was back, this time thudding into his abdomen before burrowing its white-hot lances into every inch of his body. It burned, too, but somehow different from the fire: almost claw-like, digging into his gut and forcing his stomach to expel all contents, even as his jaw had clamped shut again.

He seized and choked as the bile and more filled his mouth, even as the lightning and the spasms kept coming. Vax tried to force his mouth open (dignity be dammed, he was going to die if he choked), but the best he managed was getting his lips to part and allowing what little could to dribble past clenched teeth.

Finally, the lightning ceased, and Vax summoned all his will to release the choking and get some air

Another taunting chuckle rang in his ears as he wretched and spat, a careless foot nudging him over until he toppled into the puddle, the mess soaking into his sweat-drenched tunic.

“As satisfying as that is, I don’t think it is quite what was meant… Ah, I have a thought.”

There was a ‘pop’ and a ‘crackle’, the smell of ozone and smoke together, and from the corner of his eye, Vax saw a string of fire coil itself around a rope of electricity, spiraling out from the mage’s hand and forming—

Oh, gods.

*That’s a whip.*

He had no time to react, no time to brace or prepare before the burning bolt lashed out, snapping across his back, burning through cloth and searing through flesh. He cried out, but the arcane construct had already been withdrawn and was striking again—this time higher, on the shoulders—and again—lower, on the back of his thighs—the barrage ever increasing in fervor and intensity.

The mage was evidently unused to handling a melee weapon that required skill to target accurately, but so long as it landed somewhere on the half-elf’s form (and it always did) it was enough for him; Vax flailed and thrashed, trying to get enough strength to and control over his limbs to get away from the onslaught, but his body was too exhausted by what it had already been put through; between the two, there was hardly a part of the half-elf’s body that hadn’t felt the searing bite of the arcane lash by the time that the mage stood over the burned and bloodied, but still-living form, breathing hard, but still smiling.

He crouched, one knee deliberately pressing his weight onto the younger man’s torn and burned chest, reveling a little in the moan that was almost a whimper—the othlir’s brave façade cracking farther. He grabbed the rogue’s chin with one hand, needing almost no strength at all to keep him from pulling away. The other hand reached out, palm over one ear, fingers just cupping behind the head. “Yes. That was fun.” He shifted the hand on the chin up, now covering the mouth, thumb and fingers digging into the cheeks a little as he once again set his hands ablaze.

Vax had no leverage, no strength left to fight the other man off, just pain and heat and the smell of his own cooking flesh and burning hair and darkness pushing at the corners of his vision but refusing to take over and steal him away from this torture

At last the fire over his ear, over his mouth, was taken away, and the boulder was lifted off of his chest, and he was able to gasp in and choke on breaths past burned lips, down a ruined throat to his lungs, stuck in a chest full of broken glass.

Through hazy vision, he saw a brass-and-gold-robed figure turn and walk away, snapping its fingers, heard through his one good ear: “Yes, I think I will keep it. One of the cells downstairs. Alive. Just.”

Then unseen hands were seizing his arms, his legs, his torso, dragging him down stairs after stairs after stairs, knocking him into walls or floor without care, then dragging him into a glorified cage—metal bars from stone floor to ceiling on three sides—and throwing him bodily against the one stone wall.

He lay on the bare stone floor, waiting for unconsciousness to spare him from the lingering, all-encompassing pain, when the unseen hands forced the mouth of a glass bottle between his teeth. Vax choked and startled, but about half of the weak healing potion (enough to keep him alive and awake but do little else for him) trickled down his throat, anchoring him in the agony of existing.


After a few hours that felt like an eternity to the remaining S.H.I.T.s (and their missing rogue) the party found the tower of the mage who’d taken Vax—just in time to see the hated figure step into a carriage bound for town and a day’s business (their first stroke of luck since the whole debacle started).

Vex growled in her throat, reaching for an arrow, but Percy stayed her hand. “If your brother is in there, this may be our only chance to get him out.”

It killed her not to kill him, but she let him go (later, when they found Vax, she wished a hundred times over that she hadn’t).

It was difficult, infiltrating the tower of a powerful mage without the party member best suited for finding traps, unlocking doors, and generally passing unseen, but they managed at last to find the dungeon, the cell, and the bloody, battered, but breathing body within.

Vex’s breath caught in her throat and her vision tunneled—nothing existed outside of herself, her brother’s slumped form, and the damn cage door separating them. No longer caring about subtlety, now that Vax’s condition was at least partially visible, the others pulled Vex aside just long enough for Grog to crush the lock, then there was no holding her back.

Her ears—her head—felt stuffed full of cotton as she took in the horrible state her twin had been left in: the seared lacerations that seemed to cover nearly every inch of him, the forked burns on his back and his abdomen that spread worryingly across the front and back of his torso, the sickening burns that couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than handprints (and oh, how that made her anger burn and her stomach churn) over his left ear, his mouth, around his neck, and the glaze of agony covering his open eyes—he was awake, though how aware of the change in circumstance was impossible to say.

“Pike—” Vex choked out, unable to manage any other words as she reached out for Vax, only to hesitate—could she even touch him, assure him that she was there and his ordeal was over, without adding to his pain? Finally, she grasped on of his hands in her own (seemingly the least injured, but pulled protectively against his chest, as if shielding his torso against further attack), jaw clenching as she saw the torn and bloodied fingertips, like Vax had dug or scrambled against stone in his attempt to escape his torment.

Pike was kneeling beside her now, already murmuring a healing spell between her tears and what may have been a prayer, and someone (probably Keyleth) was behind her, trembling hand on her shoulder, but all Vex focused on was watching wounds rapidly heal and vanish, the terrible gashes beginning to close without scarring, and the sudden release of tension from Vax’s semi-conscious form as the all-encompassing pain finally lessened.

Then his head lolled back, eyes closing, and Vex start forward, heart pounding in her ears.

“Vex’ahlia, he’s alright,” Pike whispered in a hoarse voice but gentle tone. “He’s just unconscious—this is actually good; he is stable, and now he’s finally able to rest. He’s going to be okay; I promise.”

“Can we move him? I’d rather he—well, any of us—not be here when that fucking bastard comes back,” Percy spoke up from somewhere behind the huddled cluster.

Pike hesitated, worrying her lower lip. “If we’re careful—he’s not fully healed. I know we have to, but we need to focus on getting him somewhere safe as quickly as possible. There’s more that I can—I should—do.”

Vex tried to lift him, but though her brother was comparatively light, she still wasn’t strong enough; Grog wordlessly stepped in and picked up the rogue with no sign of strain and an uncharacteristically worried expression. “Please, careful!” Vex urged needlessly, unable to look away from the limp, still-injured form.

“Let’s move,” Scanlan urged in a voice too taught and somber to come from so colorful a figure.


The inn was small, the town rustic, and the surrounding countryside unimpressive: hopefully nowhere the mage would think to look for them, if he deigned to give chase at all.

They settled their still-unconscious rogue into a room, and Pike immediately began to pour her whole day’s worth of spells into her healing. Keyleth and Scanlan were waiting just out in the hall to do the same, if called upon, and as Vex say beside her brother, his hand in hers, she resolved to learn what healing magic she could as soon as she could: she hated feeling this utterly useless when her twin was in such dire need.

The spidery burns and fiery gashes faded away altogether with no sign they’d ever been there, and even the horrible handprints gradually grew less, into reddish shadows of themselves before Pike sat back, sweat-drenched and visibly exhausted. “He needs rest now, most of all,” she muttered dazedly.

“So do you,” Vex insisted, finding her voice at last. “I’ll stay with him, and I’ll get Kiki if he needs any more healing tonight for some reason. You should sleep... …and thank you,”  she added in a trembling whisper.

Pike lay a hand on her shoulder in response, before staggering out of the room. “I’ll be back in the morning.”


When Vax came to at last, exhausted and disoriented but blessedly pain-free, the first things he saw were the concerned faces of his sister and Pike, and between that and the feeling of blankets over him, the momentary panic he’d felt upon waking faded. It was over, he was safe.

Then, a terrified thought: “The others—where—”

“In their rooms—or downstairs,” Pike broke in, one comforting hand on his shoulder even as the other reflexively checked his forehead and cheeks for a fever—though, thanks to her magic, there was little enough reason to worry about infection. “I’m sure they’ll be in to see you as soon as they hear you’re awake—then they’ll probably crash themselves.” Pike glanced to the side before admitting in a small voice: “I don’t think any of us slept well last night.”

Slowly he pushed upright until he was sitting up more in the bed, Vex moving wordlessly to help him. He grabbed her hand for a moment, took in the dark circles under her eyes and the unshed tears brimming in Pike’s. “I’m sorry,” he said to both, voice still rough from the previous day’s screams.

Pike surged forward, catching him in as big a hug as her diminutive frame would allow, her tear-filled voice muffled in his shoulder. “Don’t scare us like that again!”

The only answer he made was to hug the dark-haired gnome as tightly as his stiff muscles would allow.


Pike eventually left to rest up after casting a few final healing spells (ensuring that no trace of even scarring remained of what he’d been put through—at least, physically), but Vex remained, still silent, as the next two visitors stepped in.

Grog shuffled awkwardly in place, clearly at a loss for words after asking how Vax was feeling and being told, “Better, but slow.”

A half-dozen weak jokes flitted through the bard’s agile mind at that, but in the face of yesterday’s near-tragedy, Scanlan couldn’t quite find the will to voice them. Still, he wasn’t the sort to let a gloomy atmosphere linger, so even as his gaze flicked over the unusually lethargic rogue, trying to assess his true condition, he launched into a mocking, exaggerated diatribe relating all the back-woods ‘country-isms’ the town had demonstrated in the few short hours the party had spent in it so far.

Far from his strongest showing, it earned little more than a smile and a weak (too weak) chuckle from his audience, but at least it cut the present tension, and the gratitude in the half-elf’s eyes—for what he was doing as much for what (little) he had done—though acknowledged with a slight nod, was the kind best not spoken aloud or of, at least if you asked Scanlan Shorthalt.


Vax was feeling a little stronger by the time Percy and Keyleth stopped by—the druid a fidgety, rambling bundle of nerves, the human even quieter than normal with just a hint of something dark behind his eyes.

As Keyleth fumbled and chattered, Vax found himself smiling at her fondly, even if he couldn’t shake the guilt he felt at so obviously frightening the girl. He couldn’t really get a word in edgewise, but it didn’t matter—he still wasn’t feeling up to speaking, and the only thing he could think of saying was the same apology over and over again—he found that he didn’t mind listening.

Through it all, Percy remained standing, remained silent, with a worryingly blank expression, and Vax was abruptly reminded of when they’d first found the human: locked in a forgotten cell, beaten half to death and left to starve the rest of the way in the cold, damp, and dark. He never spoke of what’d passed before, how he’d gotten there, but it was clear to read from his current stance that Vax’s ordeal had hit very near to something very painful for him to recall.


Eventually, the twins were the only ones left in the room.

Vax’ildan glanced at his sister—who’d said maybe a dozen words since he had woken up—then shifted over as much as he could, patting the empty space beside him. “Come here, Stubby.”

Vex’ahlia did not need to be told twice, though she did ease herself down beside him with far more care than usual, and left a little space between them. Realizing that his own twin was afraid of hurting him nearly broke him, but instead of saying anything, he reached out and pulled her against his side. At the unspoken invitation, she turned, burying her head in his shoulder and, for the first time since he’d been taken, letting herself cry.

For as long as it took all tears to be spent, neither half-elf spoke; they simply held each other and let the fact that the other was right there be enough.

“I thought I’d lost you.”

Vex’s tear-choked words broke the silence at last, and, floodgates now open, she kept speaking. “I thought this was the time I wouldn’t get there in time. That it took us too long to find him. That—that I was alone.”

Vax said nothing, but held her tighter, resting his cheek against the top of her head.

“Imagine if it were me,” Vex continued, and took the sudden stiff stillness that came over her brother as evidence he had pictured her perspective. “Imagine if you were the one left behind, wondering. I know I can’t ask you to never rush in like that, but maybe, sometimes, imagine if it were me, and find a different way?”

Again, Vax held his tongue and clung tighter to his sister, unable to tell her where his mind had jumped at her words: that he’d not imagined himself in her shoes, but her in his—Vex’ahlia as the one taken by the mage, tortured by the mage, put through every torment, humiliation, and agony that he’d endured—and the thought nearly broke him. Because, the truth was, he did picture these reversed scenarios every time he ran himself into trouble like this…

…It was why he did it.

*Better me than her.*

Chapter Text

Honestly, Vax’ildan hadn’t meant to do anything other than look when he went into the pet store late that Saturday afternoon. Sure, he intended to get a pet eventually—which was why he was there at all—after all, with Vex now moving in with Percy and taking Trinket, her bear of a dog, with her, the apartment was pretty empty. But as impulsive as Vax generally was, he knew this was not a decision to rush, especially as he had no idea where to even start.

So, yeah: he was just going to look today, but then a cute red-haired girl (Keyleth, according to her name tag) came up to him with a smile and a somewhat awkward manner, and asked if there was anything she could help him with, and Vax found himself explaining the whole situation: his sister moving out but not wanting him to just be alone in the apartment; no one else in their friend group needing either a new place to live or a roommate (besides: it was a nice apartment he’d rather not leave); and already missing have a little (well, not little, in Trinket’s case) creature around to take care of.

Vax was internally kicking himself for oversharing, but Keyleth was nodding as she listened, brow furrowed slightly. “Did you have a particular type of pet in mind? And do you work most of the day—would they be alone a lot?”

“I... I work nights, actually. So, I am home most of the day, but sleep most of the morning, at least. So maybe something more nocturnal?” Vax could only pray he didn’t sound too stupid.

Keyleth hesitated. “But it’d still be alone most of the night, yeah? Maybe something most active at dusk and dawn, when you’d be around?”

Vax blinked, having no idea what kind of creature she might be talking about. “Like some kind of reptile?”

“Well, there are some!” Keyleth chirped, brightening immediately. “Most people pass them over in favor of more popular pets, but snakes and lizards are amazing in their own way! Like any animal, you’ve got to know what they need and put in the time and effort to take care of them—but would you like to see our reptiles?”

Well, he hadn’t until now, but the more he thought about it, he did like the idea of taking care of something other people would reject. Projecting much? “Lead the way!”

She did, introducing him to and telling him about the personality and needs of lizard after lizard and snake after snake, and Vax had to fight to focus on all the information she was giving him. Any earlier hesitation or awkwardness was mostly gone in her excitement over her (apparently) favored subject, one she was unmistakably knowledgeable about.

Then Keyleth picked up one small little brown snake, and Vax could’ve sworn the little guy was smiling at him, stretching out towards him.

“Hey there, Simon,” he muttered without thinking, holding out his hand. Simon stretched out, bumping his fingers slightly with his snout, before resting his head lightly on them.

Keyleth grinned at the two, letting the moment last a bit longer before placing the newly-dubbed ‘Simon’ back down. “So, should we go over what you’ll need to know to take care of this little guy?”

“Absolutely,” he replied, looking up. Sure, he’d just come in to look, but Vax had never been one to hold on to any plan religiously.


“So, you went in to get some ideas, and ended up with a snake?” Vex leaned against the counter, watching her boyfriend and her brother work together to set up quite the impressive snake habitat. Percy technically worked for his family’s company (where they had met), but his real interest was his ‘side business’ of tinkering, repairing, and innovating, and Vax had asked for his help with this project, determined to have the best possible set up for his new pet.

“Pretty much. Once everything’s ready here, I can go pick up Simon.”

“How cute was she?” Vex watched as her brother’s ears turned bright red. “Vax, you’re hopeless. Did you get her number, at least?”

Vax darted one glance back at her, but looked away before replying. “I didn’t want her to think that I got a pet just to have an excuse to ask her out.”

Only partially?” Percy asked, testing the heat lamp. “He’s that worried about her opinion—I think this could be serious.”

Vax was beginning to wish that he’d asked that Tary kid who sometimes worked with Percy now for his help, rather than subject himself to this double-dose of sibling teasing.


That night, Vax found it a little hard to concentrate at work, but as he was the only living person in the building (through a long, convoluted series of events, he’d been hired on as a sort of night watch/caretaker of a funeral home/cemetery) there really wasn’t anybody to call him out on his distraction.

Tomorrow afternoon, after he woke up, he’d go to pick up Simon and take him home, and he could only hope that Keyleth would be there again—it would be Saturday, around the same time, so there was a good chance of it, but that didn’t stop him from wondering, worrying, and running a half-dozen potential conversations through his head.


He didn’t get a chance—while Keyleth was there the next day, she was busy helping a young family pick out the perfect toys for their new grey-and-black striped kitten ("Minxie!" the children seemed to be calling it), and a different employee helped him get everything together to bring Simon home.

Swallowing his disappointment, he managed to muster a smile when he caught her eye on the way out, and she did wave, but still—

Not how he’d hoped it would go.


“You got a snake to impress a girl?” Scanlan shook his head—sure, Vax’d pulled some pretty stupid stunts in their college years, but this?

Vax looked up from Simon, who was curled around his forearm, chin resting on his palm. “No, I got a snake because I decided that I wanted one. I…just also happened to develop a crush on a girl that works at that particular pet shop.”

“Well, I think it’s sweet.” Pike, Scanlan’s girlfriend, mock-scowled at the theatre manager from her place beside Vax, then ran a finger along the top of Simon’s head. “And she sounds nice. Besides, it’s not like you’ll never get the chance to talk to her again, right? You’ll have to keep buying food for Simon, after all.”

Vax brightened, glad that he’d invited the two of them over for dinner after all (well, also, they didn’t see enough of each other these days—it was a shame Grog had been forced to cancel when one of the clubs he was a bouncer for had called him in last-minute). “Yeah, that’s true!”

“Well, if things go well, bring her by the café for coffee or lunch or something—you know I’ll make it special.”

“Pickle, you’re the best,” he grinned, then hugged her with the arm not currently adorned by a snake.

She winked at him, grinning. “Of course I am, String Bean.”


Keyleth was…stressed, to say the least. Her coworkers kept disappearing on breaks or taking up tasks in the back that left her the only one available to deal with customers for the past few hours. It wasn’t that she didn’t like people, per se, and no one had been overly rude or harsh (so far), but it was a lot, and she was still so new to this job—

She heard the door open and turned around, hoping her smile didn’t seem too forced or fake, especially when she recognized the dark-haired young man who’d just entered.

Vax’ildan had been one of the first customers—or people, really—to not get frustrated with her rambles, and he’d actually seemed to be listening to her, and seeing her as a person, more than just ‘that random store worker’. (She hadn’t been working retail long, and that was already depressingly rare.)

Maybe that was why, when he asked if it was a bad time—if she was alright—she gave him the honest answer, rather than the scripted one: “Sometimes people can be a lot—you know?”

“Yeah, I do. That’s one of the things I like about my job, honestly—no people. Any social interaction is on my time, on more equal terms. I can come back later, if—”

“No! No—it’s alright. I’m off soon anyway. So, I can stick it out a bit longer.” Keyleth honestly couldn’t say which of them she was trying to convince.

Vax shuffled a bit and—bless him—still looked a bit concerned. “Do you want someone to be ‘the bad guy’ and chew the others out for leaving you on your own? ‘Cause that’s pretty shitty…”

“No, no: I know I need to do that myself. I’m just—well, working out the ‘script’, you know? Finding the right words and best way to put it.”

“Well, if you want to run ideas by someone over coffee or something, once you get off of work, there’s a café not far form here that a friend of mine runs,” Vax offered with a small, crooked smile.

Keyleth blinked. “Are—are you asking me out?”

“Well, trying to. But only if you’re interested! I don’t want to press, but I was hoping—”

It was weird, but not unpleasant, to be on this end of a fumbling ramble. “I get off at three. What café?”


Yes, Vax had only planned on going in to look, that afternoon…

…Eh, plans are for the unimaginative.