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Jackie had never been too fond of camping, but that weekend, the peer pressure from her outdoors-obsessed roommates had finally gotten to her. Reluctantly, she had bought a sleeping bag and trekked out into the wilderness (aka the forest just outside of their city) with the female equivalents of Bear Grylls and Les Stroud.

In her opinion, there were many, many downfalls to being in the Great Outdoors. She had to admit, though, that s’mores almost made the experience worth it, and even the food cooked over the campfire had a special quality--like something magical had happened to make it tastier than usual. The air out in the woods was cleaner than in the city, and the trees smelled heavenly. Pitching the tent with her friends had actually been fun and so had gathering wood for the campfire, if not for the pleasant company she had. If she hadn't considered herself such a city slicker, she may have even enjoyed the experience, bugs and all.

She could almost get into camping… if it weren’t for the fact that one generally had to pee outside.

Jackie had tried to avoid it, but the call of nature was stronger than her desire for a clean bathroom. It was the middle of the night when she finally peeked her head outside of the tent and wandered outside in search of a little privacy. She guessed she could count herself lucky since it was basically the middle of nowhere.

After a few uncomfortable but relieving seconds she finished and began the journey back to the tent. She’d definitely need to snuggle up with her roommates for warmth after this. But as she ambled back to their campsite, tired and half-blind with sleep, she began to worry that she was lost.

“Noooo…” she groaned, shutting her eyes and leaning up against a nearby tree. She was way too sleepy to deal with being lost. She heaved a sigh and hugged her thick flannel jacket a little tighter around her shoulders, tucking the roll of toilet paper she’d taken with her into an oversized pocket.

“Jenny,” she called, knowing that the campsite couldn’t be too far away. “Emma? I’m lost,” she tried again, hoping to wake her friends. “I know you’re asleep but you guys should come find me before a bear does!” Actually, was that something she needed to worry about? Were there bears in these parts? “Ugh,” she sighed, rubbing her eyes. This was why she hated camping.

A rustling noise came from her left and she turned, squinting her eyes into the dark of the forest. “Jen?”

More rustling. Those footsteps were too heavy to belong to either of her petite roommates.

“Who’s there?” an accented male voice called.

She froze. This didn’t seem right. Had there been a campsite nearby that she hadn’t noticed? Were there other campers that they hadn’t been aware of? She thought that they were way out in the middle of nowhere, but could they have been trespassing on private property?

“Show yourself,” the voice demanded. A terrifying thought struck her: they could be on private land and this guy could have a gun.

If that was the case, she really didn’t want to spook him. She held up her gloved hands and stepped out from behind the tree. “Look, I’m right here, okay?” she said, squinting as a bright light came into her vision. Was he… carrying a torch? Just what kind of people owned this place? “Um, we’re just camping,” she continued, eyes adjusting slowly to the light change. “We had no idea this was private property. I can go get my friends and we’ll get out of here quick… oh my God, is that a sword?”

The man was, indeed, carrying an actual sword and wearing some kind of armor get-up, and the moment she realized that was the moment she woke up completely. Clearly she had stumbled upon some crazy survivalist compound of some kind. Listening to her instincts, she turned and scrambled away as quickly as she could.

“Stay put!” he ordered. Jackie didn’t listen, choosing instead to dart through the trees on clumsy feet.

The sounds of yelling and more footsteps followed behind her as she ran, but she still held onto the hope that adrenaline could get her farther away, somewhere that had cellphone service so she could call for help.

“After her!” a voice called, and panic swelled inside her chest. She continued running until her lungs burned and her legs felt weak—which, admittedly, didn’t take very long—and finally, when she felt that she had a little distance, she stumbled against a tree, panting.

She could still hear people searching for her, and at this rate they were bound to catch her. Her only hope was the call 911. With shaky fingers she pulled her phone out of her jacket and held down the “on” button.

“C'mon,” she whimpered, cursing the time it took to start up. She’d it turned off earlier to save battery life, but now she was dearly regretting it.

When it finally powered on, she had absolutely no service bars. But this was her only shot. She'd heard from somewhere that 911 worked even without service, and unfortunately for her it was time to put that to the test. Shaky fingers swiped the phone icon and dialed, trying to catch her breath so that she could be coherent in case an operator did pick up.

Fear stabbed through her as an automated voice answered, “I’m sorry, the person you are dialing is out of reach—”

“What was that?”

“Over there!”

They were headed towards her now. Her hands were trembling so much that she dropped her phone in the leaves, but that was the least of her worries now. She crouched down to try and sneak away.

And then she bumped into a tree. Only it wasn’t a tree. It was another guy in armor.

The last thing she saw before her vision went black was the hilt of a sword swinging over her head.

***

He felt tired and dazed as he woke up, blinking the sleep out of his eyes to look around. With a frown, he realized that his hands were bound.

“Hey, you. You’re finally awake,” said the blond Nord who sat right across from him. It appeared that he was a prisoner too, along with a few others. “You tried to cross the border, right? Walked right into that Imperial ambush, same as us. And those thieves over there.”

Bradas peered over at the thieves. One was a brown-haired Nord and the other was a woman who looked like she’d seen better days. It seemed they had tossed her around a little before putting her in binds. One side of her face was bruised and swelling and she was covered in dirt. The rough material of her tunic fit poorly, slipping off her collar and making her look like a mangy degenerate. He frown when he realized that her gaze was locked onto his, a furrow in her brow. He raised an eyebrow and she looked away quickly, embarrassed at being caught staring.

She acted like she’d never seen a Dunmer before. He sneered and looked down at his binds. It was more likely that she hated his race, like many others of her kind. He supposed it didn’t matter now—they were all prisoners.

“Damn you Stormcloaks,” the black-haired thief was saying. “”The empire was nice and lazy. If they hadn’t been looking for you, I could have stolen that horse and been halfway to Hammerfell.” He looked directly at him, now. “You there! You and me—we shouldn’t be here. It’s these Stormcloaks the empire wants.”

“We’re all brothers and sisters in binds, now, thief,” the blond Nord interjected. At that, the young woman sniffed silently and lifted her bound hands to wipe gingerly at her nose.

“Shut up back there!” the previously silent carriage driver groused.

“What’s wrong with him, huh?” the thief asked, ignoring the driver and gesturing at the man across from him. Even Bradas was curious; the Nord man beside him had his hands bound and his mouth muffled by a tightly tied cloth.

“Watch your tongue! You’re speaking to Ulfric Stormcloak, the true High King!”

Bradas was silent. If this was Ulfric Stormcloak captured alongside them…

“Ulfric, the jarl of Windhelm? … You’re the leader of the rebellion. But if they captured you…! Oh Gods, where are they taking us?”

“I don’t know where were going, but Sovngarde awaits,” the Stormcloak said, resigned.

“No, this can’t be happening! This isn’t happening!” The thief finally seemed to connect the dots that Bradas had just moments ago. The pace of his heart quickened--of all the ways he could have died, it had to be at the hands of the Nords at an execution block. He'd made it across the border only to be be killed.

“Hey,” the other Nord said, “What village are you from, horse thief?”

“Why do you care?”

“A Nord’s last thoughts should be of home.”

A short silence settled over their little wagon. The young woman hunched over and covered her eyes, and he knew she was weeping as quietly as she could.

“Rorikstead. I’m… I’m from Rorikstead.”

“General Tallius, sir! The headsman is waiting!” a voice called out, interrupting the solemn moment.

“Good, let’s get this over with!”

The horse thief began praying to the divines and Bradas tuned them all out as his own silent panic began to set in. Were they all really going to die? Thieves and border-crossers beside jarls and rebels?

***

Jackie couldn’t believe what was happening. She had been convinced at first that she was the victim of some sick prank, that maybe some LARPers had taken things way too far. At least, that was the best theory she could come up with when she saw them haul up a blue-gray colored elf guy onto the wagon. But the bumpy carriage ride and the bruise she felt forming on her face drove the point home: it didn’t matter if these were demented cosplayers or not. There was a good chance these people were going to kill her.

“This is Helgen,” the big blond guy said. “I used to be sweet on a girl from here. Wonder if Vilod is still making that mead with juniper berries mixed in… Funny, when I was a boy, Imperial walls and towers used to make me feel so safe.”

And, from the way this guy was waxing poetic, they were going to kill everyone in this wagon, too.

“Who are they, Daddy? Where are they going?” a little boy asked.

“You need to go inside, little cub,” his dad said.

“Why? I wanna watch the soldiers.”

“Get inside the house, now,” he repeated. Jackie felt sick to her stomach. These people had done this before? There were kids here? How did the government not know about this?

“Why are we stopping?” the obnoxious guy beside her asked.

“Why do you think? End of the line.” Jackie sniffled and looked around the little… village, or wherever they were stopped in. “Let’s go. Shouldn’t keep the Gods waiting for us.”

She stood up and forced herself to move off of the wagon, her muscles stiff with fear. She ignored the horse thief’s protests behind her and just focused and getting out without falling down or bumping into anyone—which was a task in itself, because she felt so sick and dizzy from the bruising hit she’d been dealt earlier.

“Step towards the block when we call your name, one at a time!” a bossy lady’s voice called out.

“Empire loves their damn lists,” the grumpy blond muttered.

“Ulfric Stormcloak, Jarl of Windhelm.” one of the male guards said. She watched as the ‘true high king of wherever’ stepped forward.

“It has been an honor, Jarl Ulfric,” the chatty guy said solemnly. She wondered if that was an actual chopping block she saw over yonder…

“Ralof of Riverwood,” the guard read. The blond stepped forward silently, with what she would have identified as dignity if she herself hadn’t been so terrified. They weren’t actually going to execute them, were they? “Lokir of Rorikstead.”

“No! I’m not a rebel!” The man stepped forward, protesting. “You can’t do this!” He hesitated for a second, and then broke out into a run.

“Halt!”

“You’re not gonna kill me!”

“Archers!”

She didn’t even see the arrow flying, just Lokir crumpling to the ground. She stared at him, wide-eyed. Was he dead? Oh God, he was dead…

“Anyone else feel like running?” the female guard asked aggressively.

Jackie felt her bottom lip start to tremble and she fought the tears that threatened to come. She’d been crying all morning and it hadn't helped anything.

“Wait. You there, step forward,” another guard said to the elf on her right. He stepped forward slowly, a deep frown etched onto his face. “Who are you?”

He straightened up when he answered. “Bradas Sarayn,” he replied.

“Another refugee? The Gods really have abandoned your people. Captain. What should we do? He’s not on the list.” For a second, Jackie wondered if they would be set free. They weren’t on the list, so they didn’t have to get killed, right?

“Forget the list. He goes to the block.” What a bitch!

“By your orders, captain.” The male guard looked back at him. “I’m sorry. We’ll make sure to return your remains to Morrowind. Follow the captain, prisoner.” He did as he was told and the guard looked to her. “And your name?”

“J-Jackie Carson?” the answer came out more like a question through her jittering teeth. “I shouldn’t be on there…”

“Follow them,” he gestured toward the group of people gathering around the chopping block. She blinked. How could he brush her off so quickly after he’d been relatively nice to the elf guy? Instead of protesting, though, she allowed herself to be led to stand in the big group awaiting execution. She stood just behind the elf, scared of what was happening next. If she hadn’t just seen someone get shot with an arrow for running away, she just might have tried it herself.

“Ulfric Stormcloak,” a guy addressed the man with a bandana over his mouth, “some here in Helgen call you a hero. But a hero doesn’t use a power like the Voice to murder his king and usurp his throne.” Jackie wanted to scream. What the hell was he talking about? “You started this war, plunged Skyrim into chaos. And now the Empire is going to put you down and restore the peace!”

Suddenly, an eerie echoing noise filled the air. Jackie looked up and around to identify it, but there was nothing in the sky, no clues to discern what it was.

“What was that?” someone asked.

“It’s nothing. Carry on,” another replied.

“Yes, General Tullius!” the female guard said. “Give them their last rites.”

A woman who Jackie assumed was some kind of priestess began to speak. “As we commend your souls to Aetherius, blessings of the Eight Divines upon you…”

“For the love of Talos, shut up and let’s get this over with,” one of her fellow prisoners stepped forward and shut that woman right up.

“… As you wish,” she said, irritated.

The prisoner faced the chopping block and said, “Come on, I haven’t got all morning!” He let himself be guided onto his knees and knelt over the block. “My ancestors are smiling at me, Imperials. Can you say the same?”

A man standing above him raised an axe and…

Jackie dry-heaved.

This was real, this was really real and up close. Her blood roared through her ears and her vision began to darken around the sides. There was blood everywhere, and the man’s head rolled into a little box.

“As fearless in death as he was in life,” Ralof was saying, but she could barely hear him.

“Next, the new one in the rags!” Despite the order, no one moved. Everyone stopped for a moment to listen to the trilling sound that drifted through the air again, this time louder. Jackie couldn’t bring herself to care about what it was.

“There it is again… did you hear that?”

“I said next prisoner,” the woman repeated. Jackie wished she would just shut up. How could she be so heartlessly efficient?

“To the block, prisoner,” the other guard gestured toward the elf guy. “Nice and easy.”

***

Bradas stepped forward, back straight and eyes forward. He’d never been the honorable type, but he would at least try to be right before death. Not to mention the fact that running had already proven impossible.

He caught a glimpse of the girl that had ridden with them—tears filled her wide eyes. He’d never thought that when he died there would be a girl crying for him. He would have laughed if the whole situation hadn’t been so unfair.

The world tilted to the side and he watched the executioner ready his axe. He would have preferred to keep his eyes closed—to not see death coming for him—but before he could he spotted something… strange behind the tower. He couldn’t be sure if it was really what it looked like…

But then it landed on top of the tower and let out a deafening roar, knocking the executioner and everyone else to the ground. He sat there, frozen. Could this actually be happening? Was that an actual dragon?

He stood up clumsily, his vision blurry.

“Hey, you, get up! Come on, the Gods won’t give us another chance!” A voice, one belonging to one of the other prisoners called out as if from a great distance. “This way!”

He blindly followed the man who had been identified as Ralof, stumbling along the way. Being pulled from the brink of death to the frenzy of panic made him slow and stupid, but he forced himself to adjust to the chaos. He would die otherwise.

“You, too, girl! Quickly!” he yelled at the young woman who had been weeping only a moment ago. She was standing as if frozen, staring at the great beast that was laying waste to Helgen, her jaw dropped and eyes wide as dinner plates.

“Come on,” he urged her, reaching out with bound hands and trying to push her along. After a few moments, she stared at him as if in a daze, eyebrows furrowed and fresh tears welling up in her eyes. There was no time to gently pry her from her shock, however. He grabbed her hands and shook. “We must make it to the keep!” he cried, and pulled her along for a moment before she seemed to understand what he was asking of her.

She followed along as closely as she could to him, and they followed Ralof into the keep.

***

Jackie couldn’t help but feel like all the little pieces of her life were falling away and shattering around her.

She felt totally numb as Bradas pulled her along into some kind of tower, or keep, as he had called it. Once inside, Ralof began speaking to the guy in the fur coat.

“Jarl Ulfric! What is that thing? Could the legends be true?”

“Legends don’t burn down villages,” he replied. Another roar split through the air and Jackie jumped. “We need to move, now!”

“Up through the tower, let’s go!” Ralof agreed. Numbly, she followed all the men up the stairs, only to watch that part of the building torn off by that dragon. The person in front of them was ripped from the stairs, his body falling to the ground below like a rag doll. Fire erupted from the dragon's mouth in great throaty bellows that actually sounded like some kind of foreign language.

“See the inn on the other side?” Ralof panted. “Jump through the roof and keep going!”

Jackie couldn’t believe her ears. “What? We can’t,” she said, her voice hoarse. That inn was way too far down and away. They’d break their necks!

“Better than being burned to death,” the elf guy offered with a grim smile.

“Go! We’ll follow when we can!” Ralof looked about ready to push her if she didn’t comply, so she took a deep breath and got ready to jump.

“I’ll go first, you’ll see it can be done,” the pointy-eared man said, and leapt off the tower and into the inn. Forcing herself not to think, she followed suit.

When she landed, a sharp, tingling pain stabbed through her ankles and legs, but she found she could still run.

“Well done!” her fellow prisoner exclaimed. He began running again and she followed, less afraid this time to jump down to another level of the building after him.

Focusing on running with her hands bound and following the elf was difficult but she found that somehow she was able to keep going. With a passing sense of panic she noticed a soldier leading the little kid that had wanted to watch the soldiers through the burning remnants of his village. Before she could think too hard on it, the dragon landed on the ground and spoke once more, fire blasting out of its mouth like some kind of awful demon.

“Gods! Everyone, get back!”

She tried to identify who was yelling but felt herself wrenched backwards and it was all she could do not to stumble and continue running.

“Still alive, prisoners? Keep close to me if you want to stay that way,” a man demanded. He was wearing the same outfits of those who had captured her but beggars couldn’t be choosers at this point. They trailed behind him. He told his friend to take care of the little boy that was crouching behind a ruined house with them and off they went.

“Stay close to the wall!” he yelled as they ran, and she did her best until a huge claw decimated the wall like it was nothing, nearly killing them in the process. They only paused for a second, then continued their quick journey through the burning village, jumping over more dead bodies than she could count. They ran past of group of people who were—and she wasn’t sure what she was seeing, since everything was happening so fast—shooting fire out of their hands? She didn’t have time to look back to see.

The only time they did stop was so that their current guide could have some kind of stand-off with Ralof, who she was relieved to see alive.

“Ralof! You damned traitor, get out of my way!”

“We’re escaping, Hadvar. You’re not stopping us this time!”

“Fine! I hope that dragon takes you all to Sovngarde!” The man who had been guiding them barely spared them a glance as he ran off.

“You! Come on, into the keep!” Ralof yelled, taking off at a sprint. She looked hopelessly between them, and then noticed the elf going in Hadvar’s direction. Without thinking, she followed.

“Quick! I can cut you loose inside the keep,” he promised, ushering them inside.

***

The keep was empty, and terribly quiet compared to the chaos outside. Bradas took a second to catch his breath.

“Looks like we’re the only ones who made it,” Hadvar said, his voice the only thing that cut through the sound of their panting. “Was that really a dragon? The bringers of the End Times?”

His thoughts exactly. Bradas took a few more deep breaths and faced the man, offering his bound hands so that the ropes could be cut.

“We should keep moving. Come here, Let me see if I can get those bindings off.” The large Nord unsheathed his sword and cut away the bindings, and Bradas rubbed his tender wrists.

“Thank you,” he said.

Hadvar shrugged and turned to the young woman that had followed them. “Your turn,” he muttered, cutting her binds as well.

“Thanks,” she said, stretching out her arms and brushing her matted hair away from her face.

“There you go. You two take a look around, there should be plenty of gear to choose from. I’m going to see if I can find something for these burns.”

Bradas looked around the room they were in. It looked like some sort of soldier’s barracks, with chests lining the walls and little bit of food and potions on the shelves. Just perfect for their current needs. The first chest he opened was filled with Imperial armor and weapons.

“I’ll be changing out of these rags, so either take a good look or avert your eyes,” he told the gaping girl who was still lingering behind him. She’d barely said a word since early this morning, and she looked like she’d was having the worst day of her life.

He could sort of relate; it wasn’t every day you saw a dragon. It wasn’t however, the worst day of his life.

Deciding to ignore her for the time being, he quickly stripped off the rags he’d been given by the Imperials and changed into their armor. It was a little loose but it would do until he could find some cash. He picked up an iron sword and gave it a few swings.

“Uh, I don’t think I can… I’ve never, um, used a sword,” a small voice came from behind him. He turned to see her trying to fit armor over her clothes. She was watching him closely, as if he was one of the most fascinating things she’d ever seen.

Strange. Her gaze didn’t quite radiate with hatred like he’d previously assumed.

“No time like the present,” he replied, opening another chest and rummaging through it for another weapon. She was probably the bow and arrow type, but now was no time to be picky. He tossed her an iron sword and watched as she stared at it helplessly.

“Let’s keep moving, that thing is still out there.” Hadvar moved past them quickly and pulled a chain beside a door, causing it to lift open for them.

“You may not be handy with a sword, but now is no time to be picky,” he said to her before following Hadvar.

***

Neither of the men she was following said another word to her the whole time they were navigating whatever castle or keep they were in. It was just as well, because she was completely useless. As an average middle class American girl, she’d never seen so much blood and violence in her entire life.

Her companions raced ahead of her and cut down enemies with surprisingly brutal force. The elf and the other guy made a quick and deadly team—it didn’t even occur to her to worry about them because they were so mercilessly efficient. She trailed behind them awkwardly in her stolen armor, trying not to cut herself with the sword the elf had given to her.

She couldn’t describe the relief she felt when they finally found a way out of the keep through an underground cave—by the way that Hadvar guy was talking, she was half-convinced that they were all going to die in there. They emerged out from the cave and into the open air one at a time, and she took a deep breath.

She almost passed out when Hadvar yelled “Wait!” On instinct she threw herself down onto the ground and waited until the dragon flew overhead with a deafening roar and disappeared into the distance like it had never been there at all.

They all sat there for a moment, crouched down on the cold ground.

“Looks like he’s gone for good this time,” Hadvar said, standing up. “But I don’t think we should stick around to see if he comes back.”

“I’m inclined to agree,” the elf said. Jackie huffed and got herself up on shaky legs.

“Closest town from here is Riverwood. My uncle’s the blacksmith there, I’m sure he’d help you out. It’s probably best if we split up. Good luck, I wouldn’t have made it without your help today.” Hadvar extended his hand toward the other man and they shook.

“Good luck to you as well. If you are heading to Riverwood, I’m sure our paths will cross,” he said in reply.

Hadvar looked to her. “Take heart. You’ve made it out alive today.”

“Sure,” she said, her voice raspy. “Thank you.”

“Travel safely,” he told them before turning and heading off in a light sprint.

Jackie and the elf guy sat in silence for a few moments. She looked up at him and studied his features a little more now that she was up close. His skin was truly an ashy blue color, and his long hair a stark black. It was supposed to be up in a high ponytail she could tell, but today’s events had made it messy. Most surprising of all were his eyes—a dark, almost glowing red. They flickered toward her in what seemed like annoyance.

“Must you stare?”

“Sorry,” she muttered, embarrassed. “Uh, it’s Brady, right?”

He frowned. “Is what Brady?”

“Your name?”

His face softened; he probably felt sorry for her. Well, good. She’d just had the shittiest day of her entire life. “My name is Bradas Sarayn,” he said.

“Jackie Carson,” she introduced herself. “So I’ve never…” she looked helplessly back at the cave entrance.

He seemed to get it. “I surmised as much,” he said, moving closer toward her and reaching a hand toward her bruised face. She jerked away from his touch and he frowned. “It’s only a healing spell. You’re not a Nord, are you? You certainly don’t look it.”

“Healing spell?” she scoffed, eyeing his hand suspiciously. “I wish.” And why would he ask if she was a Nord? What did that even mean?

“Stay still.” She really didn’t have much of a choice, seeing as she was too tired and weak to run away. She wasn’t even going to try after she’d just watched him cut down almost every person they’d come across in the keep.

“Please don’t hurt me,” she breathed, squeezing her eyes shut and hoping that asking nicely would help.

“I won’t,” he said, and grasped her shoulder lightly as he touched her cheek. She opened her eyes and saw that some kind of golden light was pouring from his hand, and she suddenly felt like she had just taken a nice dose of painkillers.

“Is that… How are you doing that?” she asked, sweet relief flooding through her aching skin. She didn’t know what her face looked like, but she’d known it was swelling from the hit that guy in the woods had dealt her. Now, it felt as though all the pain and throbbing was going away, leaving her face feeling light and tingly.

“It won’t heal you completely, but the bruising won’t be as terrible,” he said, ignoring her question and studying her face. “You don’t look like a Nord. Where are you from, Jackie Carson?”

There was that question again. She stared blankly. “Nord? No. I’m American,” she replied, perplexed.

He furrowed his brow and she stared into his blood red eyes. It was a good question he was asking, actually; she would have liked to know where he was from. At this proximity it was clear that he was not wearing make up—that, or he was an expert at applying it. She didn’t know of any contact lenses that could turn eyes that particular shade of glowing red (without looking totally unnatural), and his facial features were sharp and exaggerated. He could cut someone with those cheekbones. Not to mention the thin, pointy ears.

What the hell. She’d seen a dragon today, anything was possible.

“Are you headed to that Riverwood place?” she asked, interrupting the contemplative silence that had settled over them.

“I suppose there is no choice,” he replied, backing away from her and staring off in the direction that Hadvar had run off to. He hoped that the Nord was serious about helping him out—if not, it wouldn’t be the first time he’d been led astray. “I’ll get some supplies and head out. I presume you’re going the same way?”

“Yeah, I think,” she said, her tired eyes scanning the horizon. She looked exhausted, but much better than she had before he’d cast the healing spell. “Is it okay if we walk together?”

“I see no harm in that,” he said, turning his back toward her and beginning the walk down the slight incline. He could hear her fumbling behind him and trying to keep up with his long strides, so he slowed down a little. It was a hassle, but at this point he couldn’t just leave her behind to fend for herself. She clearly had no idea what she was doing.

Interesting, to meet a woman in Skyrim who’d never before held a sword. The world was a dangerous place, and even most nobles knew how to defend themselves. An inquisitive part of him wanted to know more, but there were more urgent things at hand—like the need to reach Riverwood before nightfall.

***

The walk to Riverwood was slow, but it was mostly her fault. She was sort of ashamed at how out of shape she was compared to her pointy-eared companion. His long strides took him swiftly and gracefully through the forest, which felt like it would never end. She had to stop and rest a couple of times, and could tell it was grating on his nerves. He was nice enough not to complain, but that only made her feel worse.

It was evening when they finally came across a river, which smelled and looked heavenly. It was only a moment later that she noticed that they was actually a town right across the water, and she couldn’t help but feel excited. “Is that Riverwood?” she asked, happy at the idea that this torturous walking could finally be coming to an end.

“It seems so,” he said, still feeling hesitant about taking Hadvar up on his offer. Nords were none too welcoming to his kind. Hadvar could have genuine feelings of friendship toward him, but that didn’t mean his uncle would. He peered over at Jackie, who was shakily making her over a rockier part of the road. Perhaps having a human with him would improve his chances of getting help. With a sigh, he held his hand out to help her. Without an ounce of feminine reserve she grabbed on tight and pulled herself across the rest of the rocks without falling.

“Thanks,” she panted, giving him a genuine smile and dropping his hand. “You should win an award for patience. The Great Outdoors isn’t exactly my forte.”

He offered a thin smile, deciding against verbally agreeing.

They walked past a lumber yard and found a dirt road that led to the center of town, where a trading post and a few residences lined the street.

“There aren’t any…” she trailed off when her eyes caught sight of a blacksmith’s forge. Was that for real?

“This must be the place Hadvar was speaking of,” Bradas said before taking hesitant steps toward the front door. “I’m going in. Are you coming?” he asked, raising an eyebrow at her. He would have thought that she’d be eager to get inside, but instead she was just gaping at the forge like she’d never seen one before.

“Yeah… coming,” she said, finally turning away and following him up the steps to the house.

***

It was probably safe to say, at this point, that her hopes of finding a phone to call for help were totally dashed.

Logically, she had known it all along—she’d been hanging out with an elf all day and had seen an actual dragon. She obviously wasn’t in Washington anymore. Though she had come to terms with the fact that magic was apparently real, she wasn’t sure she could take the idea of not being able to get home.

Which actually begged the question: where was she?

To her great relief, they were welcomed warmly inside. She couldn’t really focus on anything after that—Sigrid, Hadvar’s aunt, ushered her to sit on one of the beds and got her a warm bowl of… some kind of stew. She didn’t care what it was at that point. She hadn’t eaten since she’d had a foil dinner last night, so this was like heaven in a bowl. She barely listened as Bradas, Hadvar, and Alvor talked about the dragon. All she could focus on was the fact that she was finally sitting down and resting her aching muscles.

“Have some bread,” Sigrid said kindly, handing her a piece. Jackie grabbed it and stuffed it into her mouth.

“Sowwy,” she said around her mouthful of bread. She swallowed and smiled at the older woman. “Thanks. Sorry to be so rude.”

Sigrid laughed. “Don’t worry. I can see it’s been a while since you’ve eaten.”

Jackie nodded and continued to eat her piece of bread, trying to slow down a little this time. The food was filling up her stomach and making her feel warm and sleepy. She must have visibly slowed down, because Sigrid said, “Why don’t you rest for the night? You can take the bed by the fire,” she said kindly.

“Thank you,” Jackie said, her voice small and tired. She didn’t remember lying down after that. Just darkness and sweet, dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

She rolled over in her sleeping bag, her muscles aching. She knew she'd get a crick in her back from sleeping on the ground! This was why camping was the worst.

Except… she wasn't really all that uncomfortable. She was warm and toasty and all wrapped up in rough blankets. And she wasn't on the ground, either. She was on some kind of hard mattress. She lay still for a few moments, replaying the events of the past 24 hours in her mind.

It was funny how you could wake up in the morning and not remember that everything you knew had been turned upside-down.

"Are you awake?" a young girl's voice asked. Jackie opened her eyes to see a little blond girl standing next to the bed where she lay.

"Yeah," she replied, her voice hoarse.

"Mama told me to tell you there's a bath waiting for you," she said, placing her elbows on the bed right by her face and resting her chin in her hands. "Where are you from?"

Jackie sat up, folds of blankets falling off her body. She didn't remember putting them on… "Washington," she replied distractedly, taking in the house around her.

"I've never heard of that place. Are you an adventurer?"

Jackie laughed, surprising herself. She looked down at the young girl and smiled. "Oh heck no," she said. "What's your name?"

"Dorthe," the little girl replied. "How about you?"

"Jackie. You said there's a bath?" she asked, catching a whiff of herself. Smoke and body odor were not a pretty combination.

"Yes, and a fresh change of clothes, too."

"Wow. Um, thank you," she said, looking down at the rags she'd had to exchange her nice camping clothes for. She wondered what those soldiers had done with her stuff. "Uh, Dorothy?"

"It's Dorthe," the little girl corrected good-naturedly.

"Oh, sorry! Er, Dorthe… I was wondering if maybe…" the question was most likely pointless, but she just had to ask. "Does your family has a telephone?"

As predicted, the little blonde gave her a blank look. "What's that?"

"It's nothing," Jackie said, her heart sinking.

***

The bath she took wasn't particularly warm or relaxing, but it felt amazing anyway. She felt the dirt and sweat and smoke wash off of her body as she scrubbed. She washed her hair as well as she could with the bar of soap she'd been lent, and came out feeling much better. She secretly wished for a blow dryer or a curling iron but she really couldn't complain—she wasn't sure these people even knew what those things were anyway. So she pulled her hair into a loose braid and hoped for the best.

Sigrid had given her some clothes—a long tunic with a belt wrapped around the waist. Although she wished for some pants, Jackie accepted the gift graciously.

"Thanks so much. You've been so nice," she said, feeling almost guilty for taking advantage of Hadvar's family's hospitality.

"It's quite alright," Sigrid said kindly. "I can tell you're a long way from home."

"Yeah, I guess I am…" Jackie replied, fiddling with the belt of her tunic. "So… I don't suppose you could tell me where we are? I mean… where is Riverwood in relation to…" To the state of Washington? To America? To the planet?

"We're apart of Whiterun Hold," the older woman supplied.

"Whiterun?" Jackie asked hopelessly. This wasn't helping at all.

"Whiterun is the closest city to Riverwood," she explained. "And it's not a far walk from here."

"A city, huh?" Jackie was immediately interested. Maybe in a bigger place she would be able to find something like technology or… or some answers in general. Sigrid looked curious.

"Where did you say you were from, Jackie?" she asked, tilting her head and studying her closely. "You don't look like a Nord or even an Imperial…"

Jackie felt her cheeks burn under the scrutiny. People kept asking her that. What did it matter where she was from anyway? "I'm from Cedar Falls, Washington. It's a suburb of Seattle…" That earned her a blank look. "United States of America?" she added. The fact that no one she'd talked to so far had even heard of America caused her gut to churn.

"It must be very far away," Sigrid said. "Why did you come to Skyrim?"

So she was in a country called Skyrim, huh? "I'm… I'm not sure," she said, slowly, wondering if it would be a smart idea to tell her exactly how lost she really was. "I don't… really remember." It was sort of the truth, and it was the only plausible thing she could tell her that wouldn't sound completely crazy. Surprisingly, Sigrid seemed to accept this explanation.

"Perhaps some strange magic brought you here. Maybe one of the Divines," she said with a small smile.

"Magic…" Jackie scoffed, remembering when Bradas had healed her bruised face. Magic is real. She wasn't at all ready to reevaluate her entire worldview, but she didn't really have a choice now, did she? "Do you know a lot about magic?" she asked, thinking that she'd never expected to say that out loud without an ounce of irony.

Sigrid scoffed at this idea. "No, magic is for elves. We Nords have no use for something like that." She seemed to notice that Jackie was genuinely interested, however. "If you are interested in spells, you should go to the College up in Winterhold. Or you can visit the court wizard in Whiterun."

"You said Whiterun's not far from here?"

"Yes, are you planning to go? It may be wiser to stay here in Riverwood until you feel a little better."

Jackie could see her point. Although her previous injuries had been miraculously healed by… magic, or whatever, she still wasn't in any shape to strike out into the woods by herself. Although, there was one person who she had already traveled with… "Um, do you know what happened to the… guy I was with?"

"The elf?" Just hearing it out loud was surreal for her; what kind of place actually had elves for real? It almost freaked her out more than the dragon. "He may or may not still be here in town. Last I saw, he was going to the Riverwood Trader for supplies."

"Where's that?" she asked, wondering what she meant by 'supplies'. Was he going to just take off? Maybe he was going to head for Whiterun too, and she could convince him to let her tag along.

"Just across the street," she informed with a smile. "Are you planning to go to Whiterun soon?"

"Well…" She actually wasn't sure what she was going to do, but Whiterun seemed like a good idea. Especially if this court wizard guy could help her out. Maybe he could figure out a way to send her home? "I guess so," she said reluctantly. "I don't want to overstay my welcome… you guys have been really nice to me. I wish I could pay you back somehow."

"Please don't worry about it," Sigrid laughed. "Feel free to stay as long as you need, Jackie. Any friend of Hadvar's is a friend of ours."

"Thank you," Jackie said, relieved. She didn't intend to stay for long, but the fact that she had a place to stay for a little while was a huge relief.

***

As soon as she was finished getting ready for the day, she made her way over to the Riverwood Trader to see if Bradas was still around. When she went inside, she was greeted by an enthusiastic shopkeeper. "Welcome to the Riverwood Trader! How can I help you?"

"Hi," she responded, her own greeting far less exuberant. She looked around for any sign of her potential companion. It seemed she'd missed him, since the only people in here were the shopkeeper and a woman who was cooking lunch over a fireplace. "I'm looking for my friend, I think he probably came in here."

"What does he look like?" the man asked.

She felt stupid describing him. "Um, he's an elf with dark skin? Long hair, pretty tall?"

"Oh, him," the woman by the fireplace piped up. "He left for Bleak Falls Burrow just a few hours ago. He's going to retrieve our golden dragon claw."

"You have a dragon claw?" Jackie asked with a frown. "An actual dragon claw?"

The shopkeeper looked at her like she was stupid. "No, of course not," he said. "I kept it on display here in the shop and some bandits stole it."

Bandits. Right. Of course there would be bandits here.

"Oh, alright…" she said, disappointed.

"He should be back soon," the woman said, seeming to take pity on her. "A few days, at the most. Maybe you can meet him, then?"

"Yeah, that's true," Jackie said, feeling hopeful again. If she could just kill some time in Riverwood until Bradas came back, she could gain her bearings and make some sort of plan.

***

Bradas Sarayn was no slouch when it came to dealing with bandits and draugr, and Bleak Falls Burrow was overrun with both. At one point he had cut a fellow Dunmer out of a web, only for the man to double-cross him and run away. This wasn't a problem for long, though, and only a few moments later Bradas was kneeling beside his dead body and rummaging through his personal items.

He flipped through the journal he'd recovered from Arvel's body, wondering if recovering a shopkeeper's mantelpiece was really worth all this trouble. He examined the glittering Golden Claw, wondering if he should turn back and return it to Lucan or continue on in search of the treasure Arvel had been after.

It wasn't a difficult decision.

He trekked on, cutting down draugr and searching through burial urns for septims, getting lucky enough to find a few jewels and old potions. He grinned to himself and wiped the sweat from his brow—these would be more than enough to buy himself a room to stay in and a good meal. Then he could take off and enjoy Skyrim without having to deal with people trying to kill him. He'd had enough of that to last a lifetime.

It was these thoughts that he hung onto when he came across the swinging axes. With a deep breath and a short prayer he darted down the narrow corridor past the sharp pendulums and right into some more draugr, which he set on fire without an ounce of grace or finesse.

Bradas continued to fight his way through the Barrow until he finally made it past a puzzle—the solution to which was engraved on the actual claw—and into a large, quiet chamber. Too quiet.

Carefully, he approached the center of the room, where a chest rested in front of a huge… shrine of some sort. He opened the chest to see what lie inside, feeling a strange pulling in his chest while doing do. He ignored it in favor of taking the gold and treasures that rested within, feeling satisfied that this trip had been worth it. He'd never been very attracted to caves or tombs; he hated the dark, damp atmospheres, not to mention the undead that almost always roamed within. But if all ruins had treasures like this, he thought, he might have to reconsider.

After tucking the last of the jewels into his pockets, he shut the treasure chest and turned around to face the curious stone structure behind him. His breath was suddenly sucked from his lungs and his vision blurred. He stumbled forward toward the shrine as if being roughly pulled, a huge, indiscernible sound filling his ears—no, his head—and a bright light swirling around and into him.

FUS!

He fell to his knees when it ended, gasping. What in Oblivion was that?

A cracking sound made him jump to his feet and he turned around to face a huge, angry draugr pulling itself from its tomb.

***

In Riverwood, Jackie had two choices: stress out and worry about how she was going to get home, or try and distract herself with work.

Or both.

For the past two days she had been helping out at the lumber mill, a job for which she was woefully under-qualified. She wasn't ashamed to say that she heavily relied on people's pity for her to get by; she was pretty positive that Gerdur wouldn't have let her work at the mill otherwise. It was a huge change from her work at the beauty salon. She didn't like it, but there wasn't much else she could do. She needed to figure out her money situation… and her living situation… and just about every other situation, actually.

Over the days she spent chopping wood (or trying) and operating the large, industrial cutting machine, she formulated a plan: she was going to wait for Bradas to get back from Bleak Falls Barrow and offer him some money from her lumber mill earnings to take her to Whiterun. There, she would try to see this court wizard guy and ask him to send her back home. She was optimistic about this plan. Magic probably sent her here, and by that logic it should send her back. Then she could put this whole nightmare behind her.

Bradas came back on the third day, looking tired and dirty. She was chopping wood when she saw him walk by without even noticing her, looking like he was either fed up with life or spacing out. She couldn't actually tell… his elven features made him look angry all the time.

Was that racist?

She put down the axe she was using and ran to meet him. "Bradas!" she called, waving her hand in the air. He turned back to see who was calling him, and his dour expression didn't change. She plowed on, despite the feeling that he really didn't want to speak to her. "Hey! How was Bleak Falls Burrow?" she asked cheerfully, looking him over. From up close he looked like he had been crawling through dirt and… there was a spot of blood on his armor. She diligently ignored that.

"It was damp, cold, and filled with draugr," he groused, continuing his walk into town. She ignored his sour mood and fell into step with him.

"What's draugr?" she asked, running a hand through her sweaty hair to try and look like she hadn't just spent all morning clumsily shopping wood.

He gave her a look that couldn't be mistaken for anything but incredulous. "You don't know what draugr are? You really are from far away," he said.

"Sorry," she mumbled, jogging a little to keep up with his long strides. "Um, Bradas, do you have time to talk?"

"Later," he said, stopping in the middle of the road to turn towards the Riverwood Trader.

"Okay? Thanks…" she trailed off, watching as he stomped up the steps to the shop without looking back at her.

She sighed and sat down on one of the barrels by the door, determined not to let him slink out of town without talking to her first. He definitely wasn't the friendliest guy… elf… that she'd ever met. He seemed irritated to even have to be dealing with her at all. But he was the only person she knew besides Sigrid and Alvor's family, and she couldn't live off of them for long. They had been really kind to her, but she could tell that they didn't have a lot. She didn't want to be a burden to them.

She needed to leave Riverwood and Bradas was clearly some type of adventurer-type who could help her. If she could just get him to take her to Whiterun, she would get out of his hair…

***

Bradas left the girl from Helgen outside of the Riverwood Trader, not wanting to deal with her at the moment. He was tired, hungry, and he needed to unload the junk he'd picked up from the cave.

Lucan and Camilla were grateful and he was given a nice sum of gold. He sold off most of the armor and weapons he'd managed to pick up from the bandits, which also proved to be lucrative.

"Come back anytime!" Lucan called as he went out of the shop. Bradas gave a lazy wave and shut the door. Today, he decided, was a day for relaxing. After surviving that nasty ruin, he'd earned it.

Well, after he'd dealt with Jackie, anyway. She was still outside the shop, sitting on a barrel and leaning up against the building. Her eyes were closed and her breathing was shallow. Had she really fallen asleep while waiting for him? A grin tugged at the corners of his lips as he moved closer to look at her.

"Are you really asleep?" he asked aloud, watching with satisfaction as she jumped and hit the back of her head on the hard wall behind her.

"Jesus Christ," she muttered, placing a hand on the sore spot. "It's just you," she breathed.

"Yes, just me," he replied, raising an eyebrow and watching her as she stood up and rubbed her eyes. She really was sort of pathetic, in a lost and confused kind of way. Something about her was completely out of place-he couldn't pinpoint what. She wasn't tall and strong like a Nord, nor was she regal like an Imperial or a Redguard. She didn't have the fine, delicate features of a Breton, or any other elf-blooded human. Her skin was an olive tone and her hair and eyes were dark. She was probably some mish-mash of human races, although that didn't explain her lack of knowledge. Who didn't know what a draugr was?

"I was hoping to talk to you once you got back," she said with a winning smile. So she planned to charm him, did she?

"Oh?"

"Yeah. Um, I need to get to Whiterun." She looked nervous as she pulled a stray piece of hair back and tucked it into her braid. "I was wondering if you would help me. I don't really know the way."

"Why not look at a map?" he asked.

"I don't know how to read maps," she said. He almost laughed until he saw how serious her face was.

"Are you joking?"

Her cheeks turned a brilliant shade of pink and she crossed her arms. "No… but if you help me I could pay you?" It was really more of a question than a statement, but the promise of money caught his interest right away.

"Really? How much?"

"Hm, let's see…" she put a finger on her chin and looked up in thought. "By the end of the day I should have thirty gold pieces from working at the mill. I can give you… like, ten?"

He gazed at her, unimpressed. He'd found at least fifty septims while rummaging through tombs. The dead had more money than she did. "Are you serious?"

"Yeah! I mean it's gold, right? Pretty valuable," she said, pulling out a gold piece and shaking it enticingly.

"A beggar could pay me more," he said, snatching her coin and using his thumb to flip it. She tried to snatch it from the air but he beat her to it and held it above her head.

"You'd steal money from a girl with less money than a beggar?" she asked, frowning. "Huh, I think I see why you were on that cart back there."

"No, thievery is not why I was in Helgen," he said as he tucked the coin into his pocket. She frowned, but didn't say anything more about it. "As a matter of fact, I believe that was your crime."

"I didn't steal anything," she grumbled. "Listen, I just need to get to Whiterun. I can give you fifteen coins, but that's it."

"Don't bother," he sighed, knowing his mind was already made up. He'd take her to Whiterun, but only because he was planning on travelling there anyway to speak with the jarl. "Just be ready in the morning. It should be about a full day's walk to Whiterun if we don't make too many stops," he gave her a significant look, "So it'll most likely take us a day and a half."

"Yes! Thank you!" she said, looking like she wanted to give him a hug. He moved away before she could even think to execute such a plan. "Alright, I've got to get back to the mill and finish out the day. I'll see you in the morning!"

"Yes, the morning," he sighed. It would be a pain, but at least he wouldn't be stuck with her for long. He watched as she ran back to the lumber mill to continue mangling firewood.

He usually travelled alone, but he'd try not to let this weigh on his mind. He was already worried about what had happened in the tomb when he'd come across that shrine with strange writing. Logic told him that all kinds of bizarre things happened in those crypts, and that he should just be thankful he had survived it. It was most likely the remnants of some old curse, nothing else to it—and clearly it hadn't affected him. But worry had settled itself in the back of his mind.

With one last look in her direction he made his way to the inn. He shook his head—he had other things to worry about. He would be sure to get plenty of rest, food, and ale before tomorrow's new adventure.

Chapter Text

“Jackie! Jackie, wake up!” Jackie felt little hands shaking her and she groaned. She opened one eye to see Dorthe, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Why did these people wake up so early? Why did anyone at all wake up before noon? Her sleep schedule was seriously suffering.

“What, what?” she mumbled, placing her arm over her eyes to block out the light.

“Someone is here for you,” Dorthe said urgently. Jackie’s eyes snapped open immediately.

“Bradas!” she exclaimed, sitting up to see him standing in the doorway, looking unimpressed as usual. “Sorry!” she said, hopping out of bed and searching for the boots Sigrid had given her. She gathered up all her things—which wasn’t much—and stumbled to the front door where the elf stood waiting.

“Need I say anything?” he drawled, standing up straight and looking ready to walk out the door.

“Wait—hang on a second,” she said, turning to Dorthe, who was sitting on the bed and looking kind of sad.

“Are you going to come back and visit?” the little girl asked. Jackie knelt in front of her and gave her a smile.

“If I can,” she said, feeling guilty. If all went to plan, she definitely wouldn’t be coming back to visit.

“Okay,” the little girl sighed, seeming a little bummed out. “Have a good trip.”

“Thanks, kiddo,” she said, lightly pinching the little girl’s cheek and standing up. “See you around.” She gave her a smile as she followed Bradas out the door.

Once outside, she saw Sigrid and Alvor working together at the forge. Sigrid looked up and Jackie waved.

“Are you leaving?” the older woman called.

“Yes! Thanks so much for letting me stay with you,” Jackie replied. “I wish I could have paid you or something.”

“We’d be offended if you did,” Alvor said good-naturedly. The burly man cast a glance at Bradas. “Thank you for going to Whiterun for us, friend. May the Divines watch over you in your travels.”

Bradas gave a firm nod and continued walking, and Jackie jogged a little to keep pace behind him.

***

Bradas had been more than a little irritated to find Jackie still sleeping when he swung by Alvor’s home to retrieve her, so he may or may not have taken long, swift strides for the first couple of hours of their trip just to let her stumble along behind him for a bit. It was a little mean-spirited, yes, but highly satisfying.

It was a silent journey so far. He was more than satisfied to walk in peace, and she seemed too tired to strike up a conversation anyway. After a little while he slowed down, feeling that she’d been punished enough, and fell into step beside her. She was yawing and running her fingers through her unruly hair, attempting to braid it so it kept out of her face. She noticed him watching and gave a tired smile.

“I’m not used to waking up early,” she said, scrunching up a lightly freckled nose.

“Clearly,” he said, a smile quirking at some side of his mouth. Jackie Carson was possibly the most hopeless human he’d ever met (and that was truly saying something).

“Thanks again for taking me to Whiterun.”

“What business do you have there? If I may ask,” he said, fixing his eyes on the road ahead. Honestly, he had no idea what a person like her could be doing in Skyrim at all.

“Um, to see the court… wizard,” she replied slowly, as if she were trying to find the correct words. “I think I need… magic or whatever.”

“Magic?” he asked, curious now. What magic could she be talking about? This was the same woman who’d scoffed at the idea of a healing spell. Maybe, in the chaos after the dragon attack, he’d gotten her all wrong. “Are you a student of the craft?”

“Ha-ha, no,” she said, her mouth pulled in a wry smile. “Um, never cast a spell in my whole life.”

Bradas scoffed. Even if they disapproved of its use, even most Nords had used simple spells. “Not even once? You’ve never tried it?” He just couldn’t imagine not using magic—he’d been casting spells and creating enchantments since he was a young elf.

Her cheeks were flushed at his questioning. “Let’s just say I’ve never had an opportunity,” she said with a laugh.

He shook his head, astonished. “Even the most closed-minded of Nords have dabbled in magic, even those who deny it,” he said.

“Well, believe me, I’ve never even… I mean, this is all new to me,” she stammered, looking lost for words. Suddenly it all made sense. It was all new to her… everything. Working. Fighting. Magic.

“Are you some kind of noble?” he asked. Only the most pampered of nobility could be as hopelessly out of touch as she was. Clearly she was someone who’d had everything done for her, never having to hunt or fish or provide for herself. Which begged the question: what was she doing here with him, roughing it in the woods? How had she gotten captured at Helgen?

“A what?” she exclaimed, her eyes going wide.

“A noble. Rich,” he clarified, raising a high eyebrow.

She threw her head back and laughed. “No way! You think I’m rich?”

He grinned to himself. Perhaps she didn’t want to reveal her secret, but it was the only thing that explained it. She was probably the sheltered daughter of some obscure lord, on the run from a court scandal or the like. “Perhaps you’d like to learn some magic now,” he suggested, ignoring her protests. If she didn’t want to tell him her life story, fine. Many didn’t like to speak about the past. But everyone needed to try magic at least once.

“Do you know a lot of magic?” she asked, genuinely curious.

“The Dunmer are especially skilled in the arcane arts,” he said, grinning as he let a spark fly from his palm. Fire had always been a favorite of his. She stared at his hand with a calculating gaze.

“You can heal with magic, too,” she said, remembering when he had mended her face with a touch. She watched his hands carefully to see if the fire was some sort of illusion. At this point, though, she was learning how to suspend her disbelief.

He closed his hand into a fist, extinguishing the flame. “Yes. Although I’m much better at destruction than restoration.”

“Huh. You’ll have to show me how you do it sometime,” she said, not really meaning it. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to do magic anyway—she had no idea how someone could do that without even thinking about it.

Bradas seemed sort of freaked out that she’d never tried it, though. She wondered what he’d say if she told him that most people she knew didn’t even believe in magic unless they were crazy.

“Perhaps we’ll find a spell tome for you to look at,” he said after a little while, deep in thought. “Maybe you could learn a healing spell, especially if you plan to continue travelling after Whiterun.”

She scrunched up her nose. “I won’t need it,” she said, “but thanks anyway.” She saw him give her the side-eye but she ignored him. She was pretty confident that this court wizard guy was her ticket home.

“Perhaps you’re right,” Bradas said. After that, the conversation petered out. They continued to walk for hours in comfortable silence, stopping only to eat and for occasional restroom breaks.

It was evening when Whiterun finally came into their line of sight. Jackie cheered when Bradas told her it was less than an hour’s walk to the gate—mostly because she was dead tired, and also because it had taken less time to reach the city than he had told her before.

“See? It didn’t take a whole day and a half,” she gloated.

“You didn’t make as many stops as I thought you would,” he teased.

They were walking past a barn structure when they saw it: an enormous shape in the distance swinging a club. She would have thought that the figure was closer if not for the shorter people swinging swords and shooting arrows at it.

“What the…”

Bradas held out a hand, stopping her. “Jackie, wait in the barn.”

She squinted her eyes, not sure if she was seeing right or not. Was he really that huge, or was it an optical illusion? A trick of the eye? “Is that a giant?”

“Yes, now get in the barn!” Bradas ordered, glancing back at her and pulling his bow from his back. She’d nearly forgotten how different he was than her, how other he was. He wasn’t human, and he wasn’t from her world. He looked ethereal as his eyes flashed crimson in the dimming evening light. She suddenly felt terrified.

“Go!” he growled, and she finally got moving. She ran into the fragile wooden building, shaking as she watched him run toward the giant and join in the fight.

She still couldn’t believe that she was seeing a giant. A giant. Sure, she’d already seen an elf and even a dragon. But how could this place get any more dangerous? How could a person live in a place like this?

Bradas seemed to be doing quite well from where she was sitting. She watched as he drew arrow after arrow, running circles around the giant and the other fighters. He hit his target every time he fired, moving with a powerful grace she’d only seen in athletes. There was no way she could face down a monster like that—she was filled with fear even seeing it from this far away. And although seeing the giant up close was petrifying… in a way, Bradas was even more fearsome. She’d never thought anyone could run headlong into a fight like that, like they relished the opportunity.

In only a few moments the giant fell, thanks to the efforts of Bradas and the other warriors. He hung around with them for a few minutes, talking. Still shaky from fear and adrenaline, she decided to stay put until he came back for her—what if they turned out to be bad guys? How was she supposed to tell?

Fortunately, they only wanted to talk to Bradas for a minute before walking away towards the keep. She guessed that they probably lived in Whiterun, and were taking care of the giant problem before it made its merry way over past the walls. Bradas waved over to her and she took it as a good time to come out of the barn and see what he wanted.

When she joined him, he seemed to be staring at the giant in deep thought. “Penny for your thoughts?” she asked, avoiding looking at the enormous corpse.

“What?”

“Um, what are thinking so hard about?” she amended, remembering that he wouldn’t know what a penny was.

“Whether or not I should take the toe,” he said, bending over to see what the giant had kept in a knapsack it had been carrying.

“What?”

He looked at her funny and then sighed. “For potions. A giant’s toe is a rare ingredient, but I’m already carrying too much.”

“Oh, my God, that’s so sick,” she said, turning around and hunching over so she wouldn’t have to look at the body and think about it. “That’s seriously so—just no.” She placed her hands on her knees and tried not to puke. Despite being exposed to quite a bit of death in the past few days, she was by no means accustomed to it.

“You have a weak stomach,” he observed with a laugh. “Come on. Whiterun isn’t much further.”

She was eager to get away from the giant’s body so she jogged for a few seconds. He just looked at her with an amused grin and followed.

***

Jackie was panting by the time they reached the top of the stairs to Dragonsreach, and Bradas would have laughed at her if he hadn’t been nervous about speaking to a Nord jarl. He did not expect a warm welcome, especially since he didn’t have the best of news. He had, however, promised Alvor. He owed it to Hadvar, also, who had helped save his life.

“This is where the jarl lives?” Jackie asked.

“Yes,” he replied, staring up at the solid wooden doors.

“Must be a pretty important guy to live in such a big house,” she huffed, still out of breath from the climb.

“Well, your court wizard lives here as well,” he said. “Let’s go in.”

The main hall of Dragonsreach was busy and full of life. There was a great table filled with food and a great hearth with a blazing hot fire. The jarl and his advisors were at the front of the room, talking and debating about something.

The moment they approached the jarl’s throne, he was relieved to spot one of his kinsmen. His relief was short lived, though, because the moment she spotted them she drew her sword. Jackie backed away instantly, eyes wide. He stood his ground, hoping that a fellow Dunmer would at least let him explain himself before trying to cut him to pieces.

“What’s the meaning of this interruption?” she demanded. “The jarl is not receiving visitors.” Her red eyes slid between him and Jackie, suspicious.

“I have news from Helgen about the dragon attack,” he said, his eyes trained on her sword. Her face softened as she lowered it and slid it back into its sheath.

“Well, that explains why the guards let you in. Come on, then, the jarl will want to speak with you personally.” She turned and led them toward the Nord, who sat leaned against the back of his throne, a calculating look on his face as he gazed at them.

“So, you were at Helgen. You saw this dragon with your own eyes?”

“Yes. The dragon destroyed Helgen, and last I saw it was heading this way,” he replied.

The jarl leaned forward in his chair, stunned. “By Ysmir, Irileth was right!” he turned to face his advisor, who was standing beside him. “What do you say now, Proventus? Should we still test the strength of our walls against a dragon?”

Irileth moved to the jarl’s side. “My lord, we should send troops to Riverwood at once,” she said urgently. “It’s in the most immediate danger, if that dragon is lurking in the mountains.”

The advisor, Proventus, stepped in to protest. “The jarl of Falkreath will view that as a provocation, and think that we intend to attack him—”

“Enough,” the jarl growled. “I’ll not stand idly by while a dragon burns my home and slaughters my people! Irileth, send a battalion to Riverwood at once.”

“Yes, my jarl,” Irileth agreed. Proventus looked chagrined and annoyed at the same time.

“If you’ll excuse me, I’ll return to my duties,” he said, stepping aside.

“That would be best,” the jarl sighed. He turned to Bradas. “Well done, Dunmer. You’ve sought me out on your own initiative.”

Bradas gave a nod and stepped back, satisfied that his promise to Alvor had been fulfilled. He turned to Jackie, who had been silent throughout the whole exchange. The only thing left to do was help her find the court wizard and he would be free from all obligations. He’d find a bed, some ale, and finally have some time to work out what he’d do with the rest of his life in Skyrim.

This whole Helgen mess was finally over and he could move on.

The jarl, however, had other plans. “There is another thing you could do for me. Come, let us see Farengar, my court wizard. He has been working day and night and needs some assistance.”

Bradas concealed a sigh. There was always more, wasn’t there?

***

Jackie, for her part, was actually thrilled. She’d been under the impression that gaining an audience with the court wizard would be difficult, and they were off to meet him just like that? Awesome.

This place, Dragonsreach, was amazing—especially in the room where the court wizard worked. Farengar Secret-Fire wore a hooded robe, looking like some kind of magical monk. There were plants and glimmering crystals strewn across the counters, and there was a table with markings and candles all over it. Ancient tomes and several pages of notes were scattered around the room. It was just the sort of room you’d expect a wizard to hang out in.

“So the jarl thinks you can be of use to me. He must be talking about my research into the dragons,” he was saying. “Yes, I could use someone to fetch something for me. And by fetch, I mean delve into a dangerous ruin in search of an ancient stone tablet that may or may not actually be real.”

Bradas raised an arched brow, a deep frown forming on his lips. She imagined he was getting pretty sick of people asking him for favors (which made her feel more than a little guilty). He sighed and closed his eyes for a second, looking irritated and intrigued at the same time, if that were possible.

“All right. Where am I going and what am I fetching?” he asked.

“Straight to the point, hmm?” Farengar said, pleased. “I like that. Leave the details to your betters, eh? Seems you’re a cut above the usual brutes the jarl sends my way.”

Jackie blinked, surprised at the sarcasm. Apparently Farengar was also a wizard of back-handed compliments.

“I’m looking for a tablet called the Dragonstone,” he continued, beckoning Bradas forward to look at a sheet of paper with a drawing on it. “It looks like this. You’ll find it in Bleak Falls Burrow Sanctum.”

Bleak Falls Burrow? Hadn’t Bradas just come from there? In a move that was just about the smoothest thing she’d ever seen, Bradas pulled something from his knapsack and waved it in front of the wizard. “Dragonstone? Do you mean this?” he asked, a smug smile on his face. Jackie covered her mouth with her hand and grinned.

“Yes! How did you get that?” the wizard asked excitedly, taking the stone from the elf and turning it over in his hand.

“So what about my reward?” Bradas asked, destroying the moment in one fell swoop. Jackie sighed.

“Yes, I suppose you’ll get a reward,” Farengar said distractedly, too fascinated by the stone to really pay attention. “Go see the jarl, he should take care of it.”

Bradas turned to her and flashed her a crooked smile. “Your turn,” he murmured as he passed by her on the way to the jarl and his reward. “Good luck, Jackie Carson.”

“Thanks,” she said, in high spirits for the first time in a long time. She was finally going home. “You’re the best, Bradas. Here,” she dug out the coin purse from her pocket and handed it to him. “I won’t need this anymore.”

He looked surprised, but he took it all the same. “You’re sure?”

“Yeah. Take care,” she said, patting his hand and looking into his red eyes. She genuinely hoped he’d make it in this ridiculous world somehow. Thankfully, she wouldn’t have to. Farengar the wizard would definitely help her find a way home, she just knew it.

Before she could even turn around to talk to him though, the other elf, Irileth, came running into the hall. “Farengar, you need to come at once! A dragon has been sighted nearby,” she said urgently. She turned to Bradas and said, “You. You should come too.”

Jackie backed up, feeling like she should fade into the background. She had no desire to get involved with a dragon, and she would have been useless against one, anyway. Helgen was proof of that. Bradas, however, had a scary gleam in his eye, like he wanted to see it again.

Farengar was also ecstatic. “A dragon! How exciting! Where was it seen? What was it doing?” he asked, running toward a breathless Irileth. Jackie just couldn’t understand how everyone was so thrilled about these winged death machines.

“I’d take this a bit more seriously if I were you,” she said. At least someone had the sense to realize this was bad news. “If a dragon decides to attack Whiterun, I don’t know if we can stop it. Let’s go,” she said, gesturing to Bradas.

He looked at her and slapped her coin purse back into her hand. “Take this, just in case,” he said.

“Whoa, you’re going to fight that dragon?” she asked, her eyes wide. “Are you kidding?”

“I’m prepared now,” he assured her, looking pumped up and almost manic. She watched as he ran off behind Irileth, eager to face his death. She felt sick to her stomach at the thought. Why would anyone want to go after something like that right after they’d narrowly escaped it? It didn’t make sense.

She shoved the coins back into her pocket with a frown, waiting for the court wizard to return to his workroom. Once he got back she would talk to him and get him to send her back home. And hopefully, in time, she’d be able to forget all about dragons.

***

She only had to wait for a few minutes before a defeated-looking wizard wandered back into his workroom. She couldn’t imagine why he’d be upset about not “getting” to see a dragon. He simply stepped back inside and picked his Dragonstone up to scan it.

He almost didn’t notice her until she cleared her throat. He jumped a little. “You,” he said, sounding annoyed. “What are you still doing here? Aren’t you with the Dunmer?”

“Uh… I was,” she said, stepping forward. She was unsure of what she was going to say now that she was here. “Actually, I came to Whiterun to see you.”

He sighed and went back to studying the stone Bradas had given him. “You seek audience with the court wizard of Whiterun, eh?” he asked, clearly bored with her company. She ignored his bad manners and continued.

“Yeah, actually. I have a… magic problem and I was told you could help.” He didn’t reply, or give any indication that he was paying attention to her. “Um, I’m not from Skyrim. Or from this world, actually.” He paused and looked up at her, like he was trying to decide if this was interesting or not.

“Is that so?”

“Yeah.”

“If you aren’t from Tamriel, then where are you from?” he asked, sounding like he was speaking to a child with an overactive imagination.

She frowned, determined to make him understand how serious she was. “I’m from Cedar Falls, Washington, United States of America,” she said. “I was camping in the woods with my friends when I got lost in the middle of the night. Then I ran into some Imperial guards and got captured… and now I’m in this place that has dragons and magic and…” she stopped for a moment to take a deep breath, overwhelmed. “Magic doesn’t even exist, and now I’m talking to a wizard.”

Farengar was looking at her, looking slightly intrigued. “Magic doesn’t exist where you’re from?”

“No!” she said, exasperated. “When I got here Bradas healed me? And he made fire come out of his hands?” The statements were more like questions.“That doesn’t happen where I’m from. But then someone said that maybe it was magic that brought me here, so I figured that magic could take me back. So… could you…?”

“You want me to send you back to where you came from?” he asked with a frown, finally setting the stone down and stepping toward her. He looked at her closely, observing her features carefully. “I suppose you do look different. I can’t tell where you’re from by just looking at you. Where did you say you were from?”

“Um… Earth?” she replied awkwardly.

“Is that a country?”

“Er, planet.” Suddenly an idea struck her. “No, wait. Dimension,” she said. She was pretty sure that made more sense.

“Ah, I see,” he said, as if that explained everything. “There are many realms, some that we cannot see or reach. If the story you’re telling is true, then you probably slipped between these realms somehow.”

“Oh. Well… can you help me get back?” Suddenly, her confidence that he could get her back began to falter. By just looking at him, somehow she could tell he was going to say no.

“I’m afraid I don’t have that kind of power,” he told her. “It would all depend on how you got here, anyway. Since we don’t know how or why you’ve been displaced, there’s no way of figuring out how to get you back.”

She felt her heart sink. “But… we can’t even try?”

He looked annoyed. “Magic is a complicated art that can take years… no, lifetimes to master. It’s not as simple as casting a spell and sending you off to a new dimension; it is much more complex than that.”

“Oh,” she said, watching as he turned back to his papers and books to do whatever he was originally going to do before she’d interrupted him. “Well… I guess I’ll just leave now.”

***

Now that she had finally talked to Farengar, she didn’t really know why she had been so convinced he could send her home. She really, truly hadn’t thought of what she would if he couldn’t help her.

She felt numb as she wandered the city of Whiterun looking for an inn or a hotel of some kind. She hadn’t really paid attention when she and Bradas had first walked through, not thinking that she would ever have to find her way around here again.

Finally she came across a place called The Bannered Mare, attracted by the smell of food. She hadn’t realized she was hungry until just now, and although she felt like her life was falling apart she knew she still had to eat.

“How can I help you? Would you like some food or a drink?” the bartender asked her, holding out a glass of amber-colored liquid.

“Actually, yes,” she said, taking out her coin purse. She supposed she was thankful that Bradas had given her money back before running off. She gave the barmaid some gold in exchange for the mead. “Can I also get a room?”

“Sure thing. It’s yours for a day,” she replied, gesturing for her to follow her up the stairs. She showed her to her room and as soon as she left, Jackie shut the door, drank her mead, and ate a piece of bread by the bedside table.

And then she had a nervous breakdown.

What was she going to do?

She had no money, no friends (unless you counted a blood-thirsty elf that was probably not going to let her hang around with him any longer than necessary), and no survival skills. Jackie thought of her family—her stepdad and stepsister. Oh God, what would they do when they realized she was missing? Were they looking for her right now?

And Dad had already lost Mom. What would he do if she was never able to come back?

She tried not to cry too loud or too hard, although it was difficult not to. She’d never felt more helpless or alone in her entire life.

***

Bradas had been invited to drink with the men at the Drunken Huntsman for a job well done after killing the dragon, but he found that he wasn’t in the mood. After speaking to the jarl and being told that he was dragonborn, he much preferred to be alone.

Feeling tired and dirty, he marched over the inn and tried to get a room. There were some soldiers in there celebrating and they raised their flagons to him and tried to get him to drink.

“Not now, thank you,” he said wearily. He turned to the bartender. “I’d like to rent a room,” he told her.

“Sure thing. That’ll be ten gold,” she said, giving him a wary look. He sighed and began to dig the money out of his pocket.

“It’s the room right up the stairs,” she said before going back behind the bar.

“Thank you,” he murmured, exhausted. He just needed a good night’s rest before he even tried to process what had happened at the watch tower. He dragged himself up the stairs in search of the room that was his, and when he found it he fell into the warm blankets and drifted off to sleep right away.

Chapter Text

The next day, Jackie woke up with the hiccups and a pounding headache.

Both were probably from crying herself to sleep last night.

She took a deep breath and held it until the edges of her vision prickled black, and then let it out. Then she hiccupped again.

"Nooooo," she moaned,miserable. What was she going to do now? Besides lying in this bed until someone kicked her out... she had no idea. She'd never before faced a life without options. Somehow she doubted that anyone around here was hurting for a hair stylist.

Jackie sat up slowly, rubbing the sleep from her tender eyes. Life, it seemed, had no intention of cutting her a break, so that meant she'd have to figure out a way to survive in this place. She got up out of bed and straightened her dress, remembering that she hadn't even changed clothes in a couple of days.

‘How pathetic can I get?’

She reached over to look at her coin purse. She had about 19 gold pieces left. She didn't really know how currency worked around here but she was pretty certain that it wouldn't get her very far.

***

The first thing Bradas saw when he finally woke up and wandered down the stairs was a despondent Jackie Carson sitting alone at a table, looking depressed as she munched on some bread and cheese.

Evidently her plan to go home hadn't worked.

He made his way over and sat in the chair across from her, curious to know what had happened. He didn't know the girl very well but it was a shame she hadn't figured out how to get back.

"Morning," she mumbled.

"Good morning," he greeted, eyeing the bottle of mead she had so far left untouched.

"It's a little early, don't you think?" she asked, scooting it toward him. He shrugged and took it in his grasp.

"I'm curious," he said after taking a sip. "You weren't able to make it home. What happened?"

"The guy says he can't send me back." she explained. He noticed that her eyes were puffy and her cheeks were red. "Although he wouldn't even try," she added, her voice laced with a hint of bitterness.

"I'm sorry to hear that," he replied. "Have you any other ideas? You couldn't board a ship to your homeland?" He wondered where she could have come from that required magic to send her back.

"I don't think any ships go where I'm needing to go," she said. He didn't miss the quirk of her lips when she admitted that, like she was in between laughing and crying.

"I see," he said with a hum, not really understanding.

"I do have one idea, but I'm not sure if it'll work," she said. He suddenly had the sinking feeling that she was just about to ask him for a favor. That seemed to be going around lately…

"And that is?"

"I heard there's a magic college around here?"

"Do you mean the College of Winterhold?" he asked, setting down his drink and leaning his chin into his hand. "And it's nowhere close to 'around here'. It's very far away."

"Yeah! So there should be some pretty powerful wizards there, right?" she continued, full of naïve hope.

"… I suppose," he said slowly. It really was sad how little she knew about anything. He vaguely wondered how she was going to survive in Skyrim.

"So… if I could find a way to get there…"

"No, absolutely not," he cut her off before she could even ask the question. There was no way in Oblivion he was going to escort her all the way up to Winterhold, whether he planned on going there already or not.

Her face fell. "You don't even know what I was going to say…"

"I know exactly what you were going to say," he replied, and by the look on her face alone he knew he was right. First it was Alvor, then the bloody Jarl of Whiterun, and now Jackie Carson. This was why he didn't help people out for free—they always wanted more! The pleasant feeling from a good deed always wore off quickly.

"Okay, but why not?" she asked, her lips pulling down into a frown. "I can give you the rest of my gold. It's like… almost twenty gold pieces."

"Septims," he corrected. "And I could find more than that on the street. Save your money," he advised, beginning to stand up. "I have things to do."

"Hey, hey, hold on, just sit back down for one second," she pleaded. It was so pitiful that he actually obliged, feeling the need to explain himself. "Alright, I know I have no money. But I'm seriously stranded here and I need to get home… If there was any way at all to pay you I would!" She looked into his eyes with her own watery ones. "I know I already owe you. But if you could do me just one last favor…"

He scoffed. "I did you a favor yesterday by bringing you out here to Whiterun. And believe me when I tell you I'm doing you a kindness by not taking you out into the wilderness with me." It was harsh, but it was the truth. Moments like this did make him wish he was able to do more, but he simply couldn't.

She blinked the water out of her eyes, confused. "Wait, with you? You mean you're leaving?"

"Of course. Whiterun is no place for me," he replied. Despite the fact that he was actually a thane now, he still knew that he couldn't settle in this Nord city.

"But you're the only person I know," she said, frowning. "Why? Where are you going?"

"I have things to do that I can't do here."

"Like what?" she asked skeptically.

He paused, not sure if he should be honest or not. The truth was that he did plan on making his way over to Winterhold eventually, or at least when he was done with the damn Greybeards. That had been his intention all along in coming to Skyrim. ‘To hell with it,’ he decided. "My goal when entering Skyrim was to find the College of Winterhold. I'll make my way there eventually after I take care of some… business."

Despite her humble begging from earlier, she looked indignant. "What? Why not take me, too?"

"Because you are helpless," he replied, growing impatient. "You'll get yourself killed. Skyrim—No, Tamriel, is no place for a girl like you."

"I resent that. First of all," she said, holding up one finger. "I'm not a girl. I'm a grown woman."

"How many years have you lived, twenty? I'm sixty-eight," he said. "To me, you are a child." She gaped at him and he smirked, satisfied to have taken the wind from her sails. Unfortunately, she was determined to try and convince him.

"Okay, just for the record, I'm twenty-four. And second of all," she said through clenched teeth, trying not to cause a scene. "We managed pretty well yesterday, right? The only thing out there was a freaking giant. Which, after the shock wore off, was sort of believable. I can… Well, I can't fight… but I can learn?"

"You clearly don't know what's out there. Giants, trolls, bears, sabre cats… Not to mention the damned bandits, who'll kill you if you're lucky," he reasoned. "You wouldn't last more than a week."

Jackie let out a sigh and placed both hands on her temples. Sabre cats? Had she died and gone to hell or something? "So what am I supposed to do, languish here in Whiterun while you scamper off to a wizard college?" It took a lot of self-control not to say something about Hogwarts, because she knew the reference would be lost on him anyway.

"First of all, I won't be 'scampering off'," he groused. "And yes, you must languish here in Whiterun. The alternative for you is death."

"I think you're wrong," she replied, crossing her arms. "What do I have to do to convince you to take me? I have to go, it's my only shot at getting home."

"Are you quite certain?" he asked, crossing his arms and mirroring her stance. "You hardly know how you got here in the first place."

"I'm not seeing any better ideas!" she exclaimed, then looking around to see if anyone had noticed her outburst. Thankfully, everyone in the inn was either too tired or too drunk to care what she was doing. "So tell me what it'll take to get you to agree."

Bradas exhaled though his teeth. Part of him wanted to tell her to forget about it… but if she was really willing to pay, then who was he to refuse?

"Five hundred gold," he said after a moment of thought. He highly doubted she'd be able to raise that much anyway. And if she did, well… he won either way, didn't he?

She seemed to falter for a moment, but then finally nodded her head. "Fine. Sounds fair enough… I think." She sounded a tad suspicious.

"It's more than fair," he replied. So, it was sort of a lie, but obviously she didn't know much about Skyrim's currency anyway. She outstretched her hand to shake on the deal and he took it without an ounce of regret. "I'll be coming in and out of Whiterun for the next few weeks," he said, standing up once again to leave. "If you can come up with the Septims in that time I'll take you."

"Deal." Her lips curled up into a brilliant smile, her straight, white teeth glittering in the dim light of the tavern. It was almost a shame that there was no way to raise that kind of money in that short a time… unless she was planning on taking up the life of a vagabond.

"Farewell, Jackie Carson," he said, smiling from thinking of that ridiculous image. "And good luck."

***

Bradas had left Whiterun that morning to… well, do whatever it was he was going to do. She couldn't blame him for not wanting to take her, but she was still sad about it. She knew he didn't owe her anything—in fact, it was really the other way around. She would never have dreamed of pushing for a favor the way she had if she thought there was another way to get home.

But that didn't matter, because now she had a little bit of hope. She realized now that by putting all her eggs in the Farengar basket she had set herself up for failure. But if there was a whole college for magic, then surely someone around there would have some answers for her. And all she needed was five hundred gold pieces, or Septims, or whatever they were called. No problem.

Okay, so maybe her outward confidence about gathering that kind of cash had all just been bravado. But either way she needed to get started on it.

That meant she'd need a job. So she finished her breakfast, washed her face, straightened out her clothes and went out on the town. She may have just been a measly little hairstylist, but surely there was something around here she was suited to do.

She first asked the lady who'd rented her a room if she knew of any work around town, but all that was available was some bounty hunting job—clearly not for her. Hulda was nice enough, though. She promised to keep her ears open for any kind of work that wasn't so dangerous, so Jackie thanked her and took to the streets.

She walked past a few fruit and meat stands, figuring that those businesses were so tiny that they probably didn't need more employees. There was a place called the Drunken Huntsman that also wasn't hiring, which was sort of a relief. It didn't take a genius to figure out what kind of work environment a business of that name would have.

She walked by Belethor's General Goods, which also wasn't hiring—a guy named Sigurd had made that perfectly clear when she'd asked.

So she moved on to a place called Arcadia's Cauldron, where she finally found something to do. The lady who owned it, Arcadia, needed a few ingredients from beyond the wall just outside the city. There was also another woman, Ysolda, who was in need of a mammoth tusk. Jackie had just nodded obligingly as she listened to her request, only internally freaking out at the fact that mammoths were roaming around this place.

"If I find one I'll bring it right to you," she'd said, wondering what else existed in this world that she didn't know about.

 

***

She spent the next few weeks building up a regular schedule—she'd wake up, eat, and wander just outside the walls of the city in search of ingredients for Arcadia. Sometimes, when the crops around the farms sprouted up, she'd pick and sell the vegetables. Then at night she'd return to the apothecary's shop, collect her pay and spend the night at the Bannered Mare.

Almost every day was spent scrounging around for lavender and mountain flowers and trying to catch butterflies. It sounded sort of silly in what she considered a "real-world" context, because it would have been her dream job at age 6. She was also abysmal at catching butterflies, and since she couldn't bear to pull off their wings she kept them in a little satchel to give to Arcadia later.

Jackie kept a few rules for herself when she went outside the city walls, and one of them was to try not to wander more than a hundred yards away.

There was, however, a watchtower not too far from the walls of the city, and one day she found herself curious enough to walk toward it, collecting lavender and mountain flowers in her borrowed basket as she walked. That's where the dragon had showed up, if talk at the Bannered Mare's bar was anything to go by. She'd totally forgotten to ask Bradas about it when she'd last seen him; she'd been too busy begging him to take her along with him.

Despite the brightly shining sun, the tower seemed to loom darker and higher the closer she got. There were scorched patches of ground and burnt plants surrounding it, evidence of the dragon's destruction. She caught sight of some enormous bones and walked closer, amazed.

The skeleton was in the shape of a dragon… but what she didn't understand was how it had already been reduced to bones. Hadn't it only died a few weeks ago? She was no expert on decomposition, but she was pretty sure it took longer than that to turn something into a skeleton.

"Curious about the dragon, are you?" a heavily accented Nord voice asked, causing her to jump a little in surprise. She turned to see a guard standing behind her with one hand on his hip, looking as if he was studying the carcass as well.

"Yeah," she admitted, hugging her arms self-consciously. "Am I not supposed to be hanging around here? Sorry…"

"It's alright," the guard said amiably. "It's incredible. In all my years, I've never seen such a thing."

"How is it all… bones?" she asked. "Were you here when it happened?"

"Yes, I was," he said eagerly, excited at the chance to tell the tale. "It was unbelievable. The dark elf slayed it and absorbed its soul, just like in the ancient legends."

"Who, Bradas?" Jackie asked incredulously. "What do you mean, absorbed its soul?"

"You're not from Skyrim, are you? It's an ancient Nord legend. The Dragonborn is a mortal with the soul of a dragon, blessed with the power of the thu'um."

"Thu'um…"

"A shout," said the guard. "You really are a foreigner."

"Yeah, I know," she sighed, adjusting her basket of lavender. "Well, thanks for the story. I'll be on my way now."

"Stay safe on the road." He said, and she gave a short wave and turned back on the path to the city. She walked along in deep thought.

Of course she had heard the rumors about Bradas. Living above a bar meant she got to hear a lot of gossip, mostly about people she didn't even know. The people who showed up to drink or stay in the inn, particularly soldiers, liked to talk about what was going on in other holds. Skyrim was sort of like a small town, minus the small part.

No one in Whiterun had anything bad to say about Bradas. In fact, the general consensus was that he was a pretty bad-ass fighter, which was something she perceived Nords to admire. She got the impression that people around here didn't like elves, but Bradas seemed to be the exception; every other night she was hearing about how he'd slain the dragon all those nights ago, about he was the Dragonborn.

She didn't really get what that meant, but whatever. She didn't "get" a lot of the things that went on around here.

By the time she reached Arcadia's Cauldron the sun was setting and the door was already locked. She knocked on the door a couple times and heard Arcadia scrambling behind the door to get it open.

"I'm so sorry, Jackie," she said once it was opened. "You were late so I thought you would just come by tomorrow. What do you have for me today?"

Jackie smiled and came in, placing her basket and knapsack on the counter. "No problem. I got distracted looking around outside."

"It's a beautiful view, hm?" Arcadia opened the knapsack and few butterflies fluttered out. "Oh! I should known better!" she exclaimed, expertly grasping the escaped butterflies with gentle hands.

"Sorry," Jackie apologized, trying and failing to catch one of the insects.

"It's quite alright," the other woman said, catching the rest of the bugs with an expertise that Jackie hadn't known was possible. Catching butterflies was hard! How could a person be so good at it?

"I don't like pulling…" Jackie caught a glimpse of Arcadia plucking the wings off the bugs one by one and quickly looked away.

"You have a gentle heart," Arcadia laughed.

"That's a real nice way of calling me a wimp," Jackie laughed, peering over to see if she was finished.

"A wimp?"

"Milk-drinker," she clarified. Unsurprisingly, the first things she'd picked up from Nord culture had been the insults.

"Ah. Well, that's not always a bad thing. Here, your pay." She handed her a pile of gold coins and Jackie took it with a grin.

"Thanks!"

"No, thank you," Arcadia said. "You're saving me a lot of work by going out there."

"Not a problem," Jackie replied. "Well, I'm heading out. Have a good night."

"Good night, Jackie."

***

Jackie sat upright in the bed that had, for all intents and purposes, become hers. She'd never thought that she'd be the type of person to live above a bar… but then again, she never thought she'd get spirited away into some freaky medieval world filled with dragons, either.

She added the coins Arcadia had given her to her little coin purse; her money was actually adding up quite nicely. She'd managed to save up just under three hundred coins in the three and a half weeks she'd been stuck in Whiterun. It had been really difficult, because she'd had to pay for her room and food and get a couple new dresses. She'd really only managed to save up so much because of her tiring trips outside of the city scouring the dirt for flowers and plants to bring to Arcadia. A few times she'd even managed to find a stray knife or sword to sell to Warmaiden's.

She sighed and leaned back on the bed, feeling exhausted. Mikael was downstairs playing the lute, as usual, and tonight was particularly loud. Most evenings were actually kind of peaceful but occasionally everyone would get a wild hair and decide to party. She didn't understand how weekdays worked here, but today must have been a Friday. She sighed again, more loudly, and rolled over under the covers to try and get some sleep.

After a few minutes of listening to loud laughing and drinking, she gave up. She rolled over again and opened her eyes, listening to Mikael sing the same song over and over again.

God, she got it. Ulfric Stormcloak bad, Empire good.

She sat up and decided to go downstairs for a little while. It wasn't like she had a set time to wake up, anyway. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

She was greeted with a flagon of ale the very moment she made it down the stairs. "Here, have an ale on the house," Hulda said with a smile.

"What's the occasion?" she asked, taking a look at the dark liquid and giving it a sniff. It definitely wasn't any alcohol she was used to.

"One of those drunk guards overpaid, insisted that I keep the change," Hulda laughed. She was looking a little tipsy herself. "Why don't you join the party, Jackie?"

Jackie shrugged and raised the flagon. "When in Rome, right?"

Hulda gave her a funny look which she ignored. "Anyway, the soldiers just got back from battle. Stormcloaks."

"Oh, they fought?"

"There's always some kind of skirmish," Hulda informed her. "They met on the road and a fight broke out. They made it out with no casualties."

"Ah. I get it," Jackie lied, completely lacking the energy to talk about battles and fighting. She didn't want to get anyone started on the war stuff, either—it was a pretty touchy subject for most. "Well, that's great news. Guess I'll join the party."

Rather than actually joining the party, though, she just sat herself at a quiet table in the corner. She hadn't actually socialized much since she'd come to Skyrim. Not because she was an anti-social person, but because… well, how would a person like her fit in? The truth was that she had had plenty of friends back home, and even a pretty active social life. She used to go out to bars with her roommates and hang out with her coworkers all the time.

Here, though… she looked out at the people crowded in the bar. Mostly, people thought her odd, even when she attempted to talk to others and fit in.

So she sat in the corner and nursed her harsh beverage, wrinkling her nose with every sip but not stopping. Maybe if she drank enough she'd get sleepy and be able to ignore all this partying. It was strong stuff, or at least stronger than she was used to. After just one cup she was already feeling warm and happy, and just a little less irritated at Mikael's constant lute-strumming.

... Actually, maybe the reason it wasn't bothering her was because he wasn't playing. Jackie finished the flagon of ale and looked around the inn, curious to see what had happened to the noisy bard. She spotted him immediately at the bar, nursing his own beverage and leaning a little too close to Carlotta. Jackie rolled her eyes. Every time poor Carlotta came into the bar, the bard stopped what he was doing to harass her.

Turned out that there were womanizing scumbags in every realm.

Jackie must have been more spaced out than she thought, because before she knew it Hulda came by her table and replaced her empty flagon.

"Oh, geez, Hulda, you don't need to do that," Jackie admonished.

"You're a regular," Hulda said with a smile, sitting down at the chair across from her. "It doesn't hurt to keep a long-staying customer happy. Besides, you never order anything but stew and water."

"Well, if you insist," Jackie said, her resistance pretty low after her first cup. She was actually feeling… not stressed out at the moment, which was a welcome change. Now that she thought of it, she hadn't really allowed herself to have any fun at all since before she came here. "As long as it's free," she added, taking a sip.

"Poor Carlotta," Hulda said after a moment, watching Mikael as he boasted to some soldiers about his sexual prowess. Jackie glanced over at the man in question, who was declaring that he would eventually have Carlotta Valentia as his own. "I don't think he'll ever get that she's serious about rejecting him."

"What a jerk," Jackie said with a frown, looking to see where Carlotta was. She was still in the bar, having moved only to sit at the hearth and act like she wasn't hearing the bard talking about her. She looked incredibly uncomfortable. Mikael obviously didn't care that she could clearly hear him. Ugh, she hated men like that! Guys who just didn't get the hint. It just made her so… so… "You know what? That is not okay," Jackie said, suddenly feeling a bold rush of anger bubble up in her chest.

"What are you going to do?" Hulda asked. Jackie rose out of her seat and brushed some imaginary dust off her dress.

"I'm going to tell Mikael to stop being a creep," she stated boldly, filled with righteous feminine anger.

Hulda, bless her, didn't ask her what a creep was, but said, "How do you mean to do that? He won't even listen to Carlotta."

Jackie didn't know the answer to that. All she knew was that she needed to help a sister in need. She didn't respond to Hulda, but instead marched up to the bar where Mikael was. However, she totally lost her nerve at the last second—she wasn't really going to tell Mikael off. But she could still try to get him to stop talking. "Hey, Mikael, can I make a request?"

The bard in question turned to look at her, poorly concealing his irritation at being interrupted. "Can it wait?"

"No, I really want to hear 'Age of Aggression' again," she said. Oops, she hadn't meant for that to come out so sarcastically. Wow, what was in that ale…?

"I'll play it for you later," he said. Jackie almost lost all of her momentum right at that moment, and was about to turn back and sit in her corner before she caught the look on Carlotta's face. The poor woman was totally miserable. Jackie knew how it felt to be harassed by a totally creep; just about every girl did. There was nothing worse than feeling helpless. Suddenly, her anger and incredulity returned.

"Hey, Mikael? You need to leave Carlotta alone," Jackie said, her voice clear and concise. "Honestly, she obviously doesn't like you. So just back off."

He finally turned toward her and gave her his full attention. "Excuse me?"

Jackie swallowed. "You heard me. Leave her alone," she said, placing her hands on her hips and trying to look authoritative. She vaguely registered that the bar had gone almost totally quiet to watch the two of them, but she was honestly too nervous to worry about making a scene.

"Carlotta put you up to this, didn't she?" he asked.

"Uh…" Jackie cast an apologetic glance at the fruit vendor, who was looking at the two of them with wide eyes.

"I'm sorry, but that fiery widow is mine. She just doesn't know it yet," he stated confidently. Jackie's jaw dropped. She'd known that Mikael thought himself a ladies' man, but this was just totally messed up.

"She's not yours," Jackie replied indignantly. "Stop saying those things about her. She's not into you."

The bard's face changed in an instant from arrogant to angry. "I don't have to take that from you!" he said, and Jackie watched in shock as he curled up a fist and swung it toward her.

Was he really about to punch her?

His fist made contact with her nose and she staggered backwards, totally shocked that he had actually done it. The bar was eerily quiet as she held her hand up to touch her numb nose. She felt warm, wet liquid on her fingers and pulled them back to see a significant stream of blood.

Mikael was looking at her as if he wasn't sure if he should keep going or not—like he couldn't decide if he had won this fight.

Jackie would never know what had propelled her (her, a person who avoided even verbal confrontations) forward to shove Mikael back as hard as she could. Maybe it was the alcohol. Maybe it was righteous fury. Maybe it was the stupid look on his face right after he'd given her a nose-bleed with a punch that hadn't actually hurt all that much.

"A fight!" someone cried, and suddenly the whole bar was in an uproar, people on all sides yelling and cheering and placing bets, excited at the chance to see some physical brutality.

Jackie balled up an unpracticed fist and hit him as hard as she could, missing his jaw but landing a punch on his shoulder. He was hitting her right back, landing more accurate and painful blows. Driven by adrenaline and panic, she fought dirty—she was all nails and knees and elbows, and she even tried to hit him in the groin a few times. She missed, but he'd definitely have some bruises on his thighs.

"Should never have come here!" Mikael grunted, making a swing for her nose again and missing. She took advantage of his wasted momentum and shoved him again, making him stumble. She didn't give him a chance to orient himself, too afraid that she would lose this fight and get the crap beat out of her. Instead, she punched him and slapped him until he became dizzy.

"Give… up!" Her voice didn't sound like her own to her ears, and she kicked and scratched at his crouching form until her finally yelled out in defeat.

"I yield! I yield…!" he panted, and she finally quit hitting him. He sat there, crouched on the floor for a moment before spitting blood out onto the floor. "You know how to throw a punch, I'll give you that," he said, his voice ragged.

She was filled with a sensation she'd never had before, feeling pumped up and victorious and wary all at the same time. "You leave Carlotta alone, or this gets worse!" she warned, feeling warm blood dripping out of her nose. She wiped at it with the sleeve of her dress, not caring if it stained or not.

"On my honor, Carlotta won't have to worry about me ever again," he promised as he stood up.

"Thanks," she said, and then wondered why she was thanking him after she'd just beat him up. "I mean, good!"

He didn't meet her gaze, instead walking toward the door and going outside to lick his wounds.

Then suddenly one of the soldiers let out a loud whooping noise, cheering for her victory. "A cup of ale for the lady!" someone cried, and then before she knew it she was surrounded by drunken bar goers who were patting her back and congratulating her on a good fight. She doubted they even knew what it was about, but she felt warm and fuzzy anyway.

Chapter Text

Jackie woke up that morning with the headache of her life. She’d had hangovers in the past; she was, after all, a twenty-four year old woman who’d attended a few semesters of college. But never before had the post-party headaches been augmented with the pain of a bar brawl.

Real fights definitely weren’t like the movies. She felt like she’d been hit by a truck… Her whole body ached, especially her nose where Mikael had first socked her. She touched her face gently, wondering if it had bruised.

She considered sleeping in, but she knew that a better idea was to get some water. And maybe a hangover cure.

The bar downstairs was silent and empty. Saadia was cleaning up and Hulda was in the other room cooking stew. A few regulars sat in the corner, drinking and speaking silently amongst themselves. The Bannered Mare was, thankfully, its quiet self again.

She sat at the bar and waited for Hulda to finish up in the kitchen before asking for a cup of water. The older woman gave her a knowing smile.

“Headache?”

“Whole body-ache,” Jackie replied. The innkeeper just passed over her water and stew as Jackie slid her a few gold coins for the cost. “Thanks.”

She mentally planned out the rest of her day, even though all she really wanted to do was crawl back into bed. She’d go out and gather ingredients as usual, scavenge for stuff to sell, and avoid Mikael. With a deep sigh she stood up and stretched out, ready to ask Arcadia if there was some kind of hangover potion and face the day.

***

It was late in the afternoon when Bradas wearily walked through the city of Whiterun. He’d just barely caught the female blacksmith at Warmaiden’s to sell the extra armor he’d gotten off of a group of bandits. The new money rested in his pockets, ready to be spent on a meal and a night at the inn.

The last few weeks had been spent jaunting across the fields of Skyrim, seeing the farms and exploring the caves. It would be lying to say that he was focused strictly on business like making it to High Hrothgar… in fact, he hadn’t exactly made it that far yet. He was continually distracted by the brilliant landscape. It reminded him of his younger days, which had been full of exploring the land around his family’s house. He’d had no real obligations, concrete plans, or anyone to answer to. The freedom was intoxicating, and terrible for his productivity.

Life was different now—he was no longer a young elf. Well, as young as he had been, anyway. He had responsibilities now, although that could easily be forgotten while alone in the woods. Now, though, all of his worries were coming back to him. He had yet to do any of the things he’d set out to do. Here in Whiterun he was reminded of the dragons and the whole… Dragonborn… thing. He remembered the favors that some of the people here had asked of him that he hadn’t done yet. And most of all, he remembered the girl from Helgen’s request to take her to Winterhold.

This concern in particular was most pressing because he could see her out of the corner of his eye, walking ‘casually’ behind him and trying not to get caught.

*

As the Dunmer tiredly marched to the Bannered Mare, exhausted out of his wits, a young woman from a distant land was trailing behind him, silently freaking out at his presence and wondering how the hell she was going to get him all of the money he’d asked for.

She was outside the city walls collecting flowers and mourning the future demise of the butterflies she was catching when she saw him trudging up to the city gates. She’d been tempted to greet him—after all, he was the one she was waiting around for, wasn’t he? But what was she even supposed to say?

Ask him how he was and “oh hey would 300 gold work instead of 500?!”

She was pretty sure how that would have gone down with the grumpy-looking Dunmer, and she didn’t want to have that argument anyway. So, rather than catching up and trying to chat with him like a normal human being, she’d followed him, planning to eventually greet him. She just hadn’t worked out how she was going to do that, yet.

After just a couple minutes though, he turned around and looked straight at her with a raised eyebrow.

“Oh, hi, Bradas, I didn’t know you were back in town!” she said, trying to hang onto at least a little bit of her dignity. He gave her a withering look and let her catch up to him.

He sighed heavily, not having the energy to ask what in Oblivion she was doing. “I certainly am,” he said. “Are you going to the Bannered Mare?”

“After I drop this stuff off,” she replied, holding up her basket. “I kind of live there now.”

“That’s good to hear,” he said, actually glad that she’d figured out her living situation. Just because he didn’t want her for a travelling companion didn’t mean he wished her ill.

“How was it out there?” she asked amiably, smiling as if to charm him. He frowned, her desire to join him and go to Winterhold not forgotten.

“Dangerous,” he said, giving her a pointed look.

She deflated with a sigh. “I get it,” she mumbled. “So how long are you going to be in town? I…” She was suddenly interrupted when they heard a commotion near the gate. Both of them turned their heads to see what was going on, along with many others who were out and about town.

“We’re causing no trouble,” a man was saying to a Whiterun city guard. “All we ask is to look for her.”

“Look, you’ve already been told you’re not allowed here,” the guard replied firmly. “Now turn around and go back the way you came.”

“Ridiculous,” he spat angrily.

“We will not allow you within the city limits. Now leave before there is a problem,” the guard repeated in his thick Nord accent. Although the people around them quickly lost interest when the stranger backed off, Jackie and Bradas continued to look on with identical interest.

“What’s that all about?” she asked, watching as the man turned away from the guard in a huff. Instead of heading for the city gate, however, he caught sight of Bradas and began to approach them. She was a little freaked out at the way he walked up to them, so confident that they’d be willing to talk to him. Maybe it was because Bradas obviously wasn’t a Nord, so he looked like a trustworthy person to talk to?

“You there!” the man said to them—or, more accurately, to Bradas. “We are looking for someone in Whiterun and will pay good money for information.”

Jackie was almost embarrassed for the way her companion perked up when money was mentioned. “Who are you looking for?” he asked, all signs of exhaustion suddenly disappearing for the moment.

“A woman—a foreigner in this land.” Jackie knew, logically, that they weren’t talking about her, but she still felt a little freaked out. “Redguard, like us. She is likely not using her true name. We will pay for information regarding her location. We are not welcome here in Whiterun, so we will be in Rorikstead if you learn anything.”

“I’ll let you know if I hear anything,” Bradas promised.

“Why are you looking for this person?” Jackie interjected, feeling slightly suspicious. She knew a few people who were from out of town—Arcadia and Carlotta just to name a few.

“It’s none of your concern,” the man told her. “All you need to know is that we’re paying for information. If that doesn’t interest you, feel free to walk away.” He turned away in a huff, leaving Jackie and Bradas standing alone in the middle of the street.

She frowned as she stared at his back. Something about him… the way he spoke, his facial features… was familiar. Very familiar. She wondered…

***

The pair walked toward the middle of the Plains District in silence, both in deep thought. Bradas’ exhaustion had returned to him in a wave, and he was eager to get to the inn. He was thankful that Jackie was intuitive enough to know that he couldn’t stand to talk—he was simply too tired. She’d only bid him farewell once they’d passed Arcadia’s Cauldron, and made him promise to talk to her before leaving Whiterun again. He’d obliged without even thinking about it.

He practically stumbled into the Bannered Mare and rented a room, wondering which one Jackie was staying in as the innkeeper led him up the stairs.

She slipped from his mind, however, the moment his body hit the bed of his rented room. Sweet, dreamless sleep took him right away.

**

Bradas woke up several hours later. He sat up slowly, wondering what time it was—probably late in the morning, judging by the light in the window.

And then his reverie was interrupted by knocking.

He instantly tensed up, his foggy mind not knowing who was on the other side of the door. He felt for the dagger on his hip out of instinct. “Come in,” he said, his grasp sure and tight.

The door opened slowly to reveal a young woman with an apologetic smile.

“Jackie bloody Carson,” he sighed, releasing the hold on his weapon and groaning. “I should have known it was you.”

“And good morning to you, too,” she said with a smile, not looking offended at his language. She entered the room and closed the door behind her. “Did I wake you up?”

“No, you didn’t,” he said, remaining seated and placing his hands on his knees to stretch out his shoulders. “What did you need?”

“Well I figured I’d talk to you because… well, I was going to out and gather more ingredients, but I didn’t ask you how long you’d be staying in Whiterun last night,” she said, leaning up against the door and lacing her hands in front of her. “I didn’t want to miss you if you were heading out right away.”

“I’m not sure how long,” he relied, running a hand through his long, tangled hair. “Long enough to finish up some business in town. A few days at the most.”

“Cool. Good to know,” she replied, her voice sounding light but the look on her face faraway. He could guess that she was thinking about the money he’d asked her for in exchange for passage to Winterhold. She took a breath and met his gaze with a forced smile. “So. How’s the wilderness?”

He gave a short laugh at that. “It’s been fine. And Whiterun has treated you well, I suppose?”

She gave a small shrug. “It’s been okay,” she replied, looking down at her boots. “I’m just getting used to living in a place like this.”

“You look different,” he said. And it was true. She looked… a part of the place. She seemed more comfortable, at least, in a blue dress with a gray smock. Her hair was plaited skillfully around her crown and he could even see that she’d tucked a tiny flower into one of the braids. She was surprisingly fetching, although he supposed that anything was an improvement from the bruised, dirty, ash-covered girl he’d met at Helgen.

“Ha, thanks,” she said, the corner of her lip twitching upward. “More like I’m not covered in dirt anymore."

“I am, however,” he said, placing his hands on his knees and standing up. He needed to bathe. “A situation I’d like to remedy soon. Was there something else you needed to speak with me about?”

She took a deep breath in and placed a hand in her pocket, taking out a small but heavy coin purse. Oh Gods, she’s actually done it, hasn’t she? She’d actually raised that gold and now she would expect him to take her to Winterhold with him. Damn! A part of him was excited for the money, and the other part dreaded travelling with a companion.

“It’s not all five-hundred,” she said, holding the small sack in her right hand like she was weighing it. “But it’s close! Just two-hundred left…”

He let out a sigh of relief. “No money, no deal,” he said, trying and failing to keep the glee out of his voice. She frowned and shoved her money back into her pocket before taking a step toward him.

“Please, Bradas? I thought maybe we could work something out… Like a payment plan?” she pleaded, looking up at him with dark, imploring eyes. He frowned, unaffected.

“No.”

Her sweet look was quickly replaced by a petulant one. “There’s seriously nothing you want besides money? Come on, I hate being stuck here!”

“Money is the only thing that will get you anywhere with me,” he said, his frown deepening. He wasn’t sure what she meant by that.

“I can do lots of stuff, Bradas. I have skills,” she insisted, her body suddenly becoming a block from the door. “I can gather ingredients for potions. I can do hair,” she pointed to her elaborate braids, “And I can even fight!”

“Ha!”

“No, really!” she protested, placing her hands on her hips. “I got into a fight the other night. And I won.”

“A fight with what, a skeever?” he sneered. He found it hard to believe that a woman like Jackie would even try to get mixed up in a physical altercation—she could barely conquer a steep hill!

“What? No. A guy,” she said, looking at him like he was the fool. “I beat up the bard.”

“Oh, Azura, what did I do to deserve this?” he muttered under his breath, placing his hand on his forehead. “No. I cannot and will not take you with me without the gold. Understand?”

Her shoulders sagged and she sighed, upset that he’d shot her down again. She hadn’t expected him to agree to a payment plan but anything was worth a shot at this point. She knew she was totally getting on his nerves, but she tried one last tactic. “What if I knew something that could get you money?” she asked quietly, not wanting to be heard by anyone who could be standing outside the door.

He looked skeptical. “Keep talking.”

“Remember that guy from last night? The Redguard?”

“Of course I do.”

She took a deep breath, feeling guilty. She didn’t know Saadia very well—the woman kept to herself—but she still felt a little guilty for selling her down the river.

“What are you thinking? Do you know anything?” Bradas asked, snapping her out of her thoughts.

Jackie nodded and placed a finger to her lips. “Shush. Yeah, I know something,” she whispered with a nod.

“You have an idea of who they’re looking for,” he said in a low voice, looking at her as if she would reveal some secret if he stared hard enough. It didn’t escape her notice at how quickly his attitude changed when it came to cash—it was like flipping a switch.

“Maybe…” Jackie said, raising an eyebrow. He was like a hound dog that had caught a scent. “Hey, Bradas, are you a sell-sword?”

“I see you’re learning the vernacular,” he replied with a smirk. “And no, I prefer to think of myself as an… opportunist. I will not do anything for the right price—even I have limits.”

She groaned and covered the bridge of her nose with her hand. Sometimes she wondered what she did to deserve a situation like this—stuck in some screwed-up fantasy world, her only ally a money-hungry Dunmer who was probably a criminal.

“If you do know something, Jackie, we can split the gold,” he offered. “Seventy-thirty.”

“You mean I get seventy percent and you get thirty?” she asked, surprised.

“Of course not,” he said with a quiet chuckle. “You get thirty percent.”

“Ha-ha, nice try,” she said with a snort. “I wasn’t born yesterday.”

“I’d be the one going to Rorikstead to retrieve the bounty,” he said, grinning at her words. I wasn’t born yesterday. He’d never heard that one before, but he liked it. “Fine, then. Sixty-forty.”

“Oh, not even, Bradas!” she hissed under her breath. “Fifty-fifty. That’s if I even decide to tell you what I know!”

“You can’t be serious,” he drawled his voice going back to a normal tone. “That’s far too much. You’re hardly doing anything.”

She looked angry for a second, but the expression was covered up with a saccharine-sweet grin in a flash. “Fine, then. You’re on your own,” she said, holding her hands out in fake surrender. He stepped back to avoid the gesture, only now realizing how close they’d been standing.

“I’ll just find her myself,” Bradas said, annoyed. Where did she get the nerve to ask for fifty percent?

“Good luck, then,” she replied, feeling malicious. “Oh, and by the way, Bradas. If I’m right, I’m going to sabotage you.”

He blinked in surprise. “What?”

“Yeah. You heard me,” she said haughtily, tossing her hair back and crossing her arms. “I’ll chase her out of town before you can even get to her.”

“You will do no such thing,” he said, narrowing his eyes.

“You wanna bet?” She was grinning but her eyes were fierce. “It’s too bad, because I bet that guy would have paid a lot of money for that information. You just had to screw it all up by being a jerk.”

He didn’t know what a jerk was, but he objected to being called one. “We’ll split it fifty-five forty-five. That is my last offer,” he said firmly.

She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes at him. “Fifty-five forty-five,” she said after a long moment, sticking her hand out to shake. Her took her hand and squeezed it a little tighter than necessary to hide his frustration, but she just squeezed right back.

Chapter Text

Jackie couldn’t deny the nervous feeling that settled in the pit of her stomach as she watched Bradas approach Saadia from the corner of the room, nervous that he would do something rash. He’d insisted on speaking to her about the Redguards that were after her. She suspected that he really just wanted to see how much she’d pay to keep him from telling them where she was—former ‘brother-in-chains’ or not, she was beginning to think that he was probably, maybe, definitely some kind of criminal.

She couldn’t hear what he was saying, but there was no denying the stiffness of Saadia’s back and the terror on her face. Jackie felt immediately guilty. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all… she was desperate to get home, but was it worth selling out Saadia?

She was snapped out of her thoughts when a hand knocked on her table to get her attention. She looked up to see Bradas looking at her with his signature raised brow.

“Not getting second thoughts, are you?” he asked, not sounding all that concerned.

“No,” she lied. “How did it go?”

“I’m meeting her upstairs in a few minutes.”

“So it’s her?”

“The very same,” he confirmed, looking pleased. “Well done. I have a feeling that she’ll pay to keep us silent, which means less work for me.”

“Are you going up there by yourself?”

He scoffed and gave her a crooked smile. “Are you worried?”

She rolled her eyes. “Duh. What if she stabs you or something?”

“Your concern is touching, but I wouldn’t think too hard on it,” he replied confidently.

Jackie sighed, remembering the way he’d slain that giant. He was right, Saadia, or whoever she was, was probably no match. “Okay, I get it. Just watch out.”

He gave her another ‘you’re so naïve’ look and turned to head up the stairs. “I’ll be back. Stay here.”

***

Just as Jackie predicted, Saadia pulled a knife on him. He was thoroughly unimpressed.

“You so much as touch me and you’re going to lose fingers,” she said, narrowing her eyes at him. “I mean it! I’ll… I’ll cut you in half!”

He didn’t even draw his own knife in response. “I highly doubt that.”

“So the Alik’r know where I am? What did they offer you, gold? How many are coming?”

“Put that down before you get hurt,” said Bradas. Although he barely saw her as a threat, he still didn’t enjoy knives being pointed at his face. She deflated and brought the dagger down.

“I’m sorry, just… just don’t hurt me. I know you’re not one of them, but you just can’t help them… You can’t let them know I’m here!” She sighed and set her weapon down next to her bed. “Please, will you help me? There’s no one here I can trust.”

Just as he thought. “Perhaps,” he replied, “If there’s money in it.”

“There is,” she confirmed. “I am not the person that the people of Whiterun think I am. My real name is Iman. I am a noble of House Suda in Hammerfell. The men who are looking for me are assassins in the employ of the Aldmeri Dominion. They wish to exchange my blood for gold. I need you to root them out and drive them away before they drag me back to Hammerfell for an execution.”

Bradas thought quietly for a second. That was certainly a surprise… if it was true. He didn’t feel drawn to side with either her or the Alik’r, but when it came to the Aldmeri Dominion… acting against them was worth more than any sum of money.

“How am I supposed to get rid of them?” he asked, strongly considering it.

“They’re mercenaries, only in it for the money. They’re led by a man named Kematu. Get rid of him and the rest will scatter. I don’t dare show my face, lest they recognize me, so you’ll have to find out where they are.”

Of course he would. “Any suggestions as to how I find them?”

“I heard one of them was just arrested trying to trespass into the city. If he’s locked up in the jail, perhaps you can get it out of him.”

He let out a sigh and crossed his arms. Time to visit the prison.

***

Bradas went down the stairs to retrieve Jackie. Normally he wouldn’t let her join him on such a venture, but since they would only be going to the jail beneath Dragonsreach, there was little risk of danger.

“There’s a dungeon?” she asked incredulously, following him as they made their way to the prison.

“Yes, why wouldn’t there be?” he asked. She always said the strangest things. “Are there no prisons in your land?”

“Well, yeah, but we don’t call them dungeons,” she muttered. She struggled to keep up with his long paces so he slowed down a little. “So what do you need me for?”

“You’re getting forty-five percent of the gold, so you’d better earn it,” was all he had to say in reply. He didn’t mention that the presence of a woman might make a man in prison more inclined to talk.

“Oh,” she said. “Um, are we allowed down there? No visiting hours or anything?” He just gave her a look and opened the doors to the dungeon. The guards mostly ignored them in favor of talking to each other, not caring whether or not they had business with one of the prisoners.

Bradas was able to spot which prisoner they needed to talk to right away. He was obviously a Redguard, clad in the Alik’r uniform. He was missing the telling curved sword, but it was clear who he was. He approached the cell, Jackie trailing hesitantly behind him.

“What are you looking at?” the prisoner asked, dark eyes darting between the two of them.

“We’re looking for Kematu,” Bradas said, leaning one arm against the bars. “Where is he hiding?”

“You have a death wish, then?” he responded. “If you now that name, then you know that to meet him would be to meet your death.”

The Dunmer shrugged. “Does that really matter to you?”

The Redguard looked Bradas up and down in appraisal before grinning. “You’re right. It seems we both have needs, friend—perhaps we can help each other out?”

“What is it that you need?” he asked, a sinking feeling telling him that it would require more work than it was worth.

“You pay my way out of here, and I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

“How much is that?” Jackie asked, finally piping up from behind him.

“One hundred gold will secure my release,” the prisoner replied with a smile. “You can afford that, can’t you? I suppose you’d better hope you can. Get that money into the hands of one of these guards and I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

One hundred gold. Damn! Bradas turned away from the bars and walked into the well-lit room away from the hall of cells. Jackie followed him, looking nervous. “Um, so one hundred gold, huh?” she said, wringing her hands. “How do you want to… I mean, I can pitch in, if you want.”

“You’d damn well better,” Bradas quipped, not really angry at her so much as at the prisoner. He should have known that he’d want his bounty paid. He sighed and took some gold out from his pockets. “I’ll pay fifty if you can.”

“Sure,” she said, pulling out her coin purse before hesitating. “Actually…”

Bradas frowned. “What is it?”

“Actually, I think I should pay forty-five, and you should pay fifty-five,” she said.

“What? Absolutely not,” he replied, offended that she’d even suggest such a thing.

“Okay, but you’re already getting more money than me.” She placed a hand on her hip. “See, if I put in fifty gold, that isn’t fair because I’m only getting forty-five percent of the profit, remember?”

He wasn’t sure what was most annoying about that statement—that she was right, or that she was trying and failing to hide a smug grin. “Fine, I’ll pay fifty-five,” he said slowly, holding out his hand and letting her place her share in it. After paying the Alik’r warriors bounty, Bradas returned to the cell and leaned up against the bars once again.

“Your fine’s been paid. Now tell me about Kematu.”

***

“So what’s the plan?” she asked him once they made their way outside. She breathed in the cool air, finding herself relieved to be out of the dungeon. She hadn’t realized it, but being in those damp, dark places reminded her of that day in Helgen when they wandered beneath the keep, wondering if they’d ever find their way out.

“I’m not sure,” he admitted, rubbing the back of his neck and sighing. “Saadia claims that the Alik’r are after her on the behalf of the Aldmeri Dominion. If that’s the case, then I have no problem killing Kematu and his men.”

Jackie’s eyes widened. She’d never thought she’d be in a casual conversation about killing someone before. “Okay. Who’s the Alder—Aldmer…”

“Aldmeri Dominion. It’s… complex. Too much to explain right now. All you need to know is that they are led by the Thalmor,” his voice was bitter. Jackie had a feeling that she’d never quite grasp what was going on in this world.

“That’s okay,” she said, not wanting to make him explain. “So, the Thalmor are bad, right?”

He grinned at the simple explanation. “Yes, that will have to do for now.” They began to walk back toward the Bannered Mare, falling into step together as they spoke.

“So are you going to… kill Kematu, or whoever he is?”

“I’m not sure. There’s always the chance that she’s lying.” Bradas said. He seemed to be going back and forth in his head, debating on what to do. “Perhaps I’ll seek him out and see what he says.”

“What do you want me to do?”

Bradas finally seemed to snap out of his thoughts. “Stay here and keep watch over Saadia. Make sure she doesn’t try to run with our money while I’m distracting the Alik’r,” he said cynically. “I’ll leave now. Swindler’s Den isn’t far, I’ll be able to get there by late evening.”

“Got it. You’ll be okay all by yourself?” she asked. Sure, she had seen Bradas fight, and she had heard enough about him to realize that he was probably some kind of insanely awesome warrior. But it still seemed farfetched to expect him to go into a cave and root out a whole group of assassins.

“Once again, your concern is touching,” he said with a grin. “But unfounded. I’ll be back tomorrow morning. Be ready to collect our gold, and don’t let Saadia out of your sight.”

“Sure,” she said. They stopped in front of the Bannered Mare and he waved her goodbye. “See you tomorrow morning.”

He gave her a short wave and continued on out of the city. She walked into the inn, still a little worried. There was nothing she could really do, though… he could clearly take care of himself, and she was pretty useless in a fight, anyway. She sighed and sat at the bar, resigning herself to the duty of making sure Saadia didn’t skip town before he got back.

***

The next day passed in relative peace. Jackie kept an eye on Saadia instead of going out to gather ingredients, although the woman did very little besides work at the inn. It was painfully boring, and she was about 99 percent sure that Saadia wasn’t going anywhere. She’d thought it would be relaxing to stay in rather than go out and gather stuff to sell, but she just felt restless, wondering when Bradas was going to get back.

If she was really lucky, they’d make bank and she’d be able to get enough money to get to Winterhold. She didn’t let her hopes get too high, though—she didn’t want to have them dashed again.

She sat at the little table outside of her room that overlooked the bar, idly watching as the people of Whiterun went in and out of the inn. She wondered what would happen if she wound up with enough money to pay Bradas—would he want to leave right away? Would he be upset about having to travel with someone so inept at outdoorsy stuff? Would he want her to be able to fight?

Her mind wandered to her tussle with Mikael the other night. He’d been avoiding her ever since, which she appreciated. She’d done pretty well with that… so maybe there was hope for her. She had been bruised up afterward but a potion from Arcadia had really helped with that. She knew would never be able to hold a candle to Bradas (he had, after all, apparently ‘absorbed a dragon’s soul’), but she hoped that she’d be more useful than she had been at Helgen.

But the more she thought about it, the more she realized that she didn’t care as much about being a burden as she did about getting home. Bradas may feel inconvenienced, but… finding a way back to her realm—dimension, world, or whatever—was the number one priority. It was hard to keep that goal in sight when it felt like so much else was going on at the same time, but she had to keep her eye on the prize.

She was so deep in thought that she almost didn’t notice Bradas walk into the inn, crimson eyes scanning all over for her. She gave him a little wave and he returned the gesture with a terse nod of the head, signaling for her to come over to him.

And they say chivalry is dead.

He looked like he wanted her to hurry so she went as quickly as she could to meet him.

“What’s going on?” she asked. Instead of answering her right away, he made his way to the small, secluded kitchen, steering her out the door by her elbow, not roughly but urgently.

“No time to explain,” he said once they had a little privacy and he was sure that no one in the bar could overhear him. “I need you to get Saadia. Tell her that I couldn’t defeat the Alik’r and that they’re coming for her. There’s a horse in the stables waiting for her so she can escape.”

Jackie felt her heart drop. “Oh, no,” she said, eyebrows furrowing. “Is she going to be okay?”

“Yes, she will,” he assured quickly. “Give me a few moments and then lead her to the stables.”

Jackie frowned. “But why? You can’t just get her yourself?”

“Just do it, will you? Time is of the essence.”

“Uh, okay…” she said uncertainly. “Is something going on…?”

Bradas sighed. “I’ll explain everything later, but now is not the time. Will you just trust me and do it?”

“Sure…”

He seemed relieved. “Good. I’ll see you in a few moments. Stay alert.” And with that he departed the kitchen, leaving her with more questions than answers.

What?

There was definitely something weird going on, but in the end she really didn’t have time to analyze. Although she didn’t actually know Bradas very well, she’d have to do as he said and trust him.

***

To be completely honest, Bradas just wanted to kill everyone involved in this mess and move on. Unfortunately for him, that would have been quite difficult at Swindler’s Den when he’d made his deal with Kematu for Saadia. The Alik’r had been hiding out in a bandit’s lair, and he’d had to deal with the miscreants just to wade through a waterfall and get cornered by Kematu and six other Redguards.

Then Kematu had proceeded to tell him that Saadia had been the one in league with the Aldmeri Dominion.

Someone was obviously lying. It was likely they both were.

Either way, Bradas didn’t feel like trying to take on seven assassins at once, so when the Alik’r leader asked him to lure Saadia out so they could capture her, he agreed.

Somewhat.

He resented being used as a pawn in other people’s games.

With his hand on the hilt of his dagger, he walked briskly through the city of Whiterun toward the stables. Jackie wouldn’t be far behind him with Saadia, which would be perfect for what he was about to do.

***

Jackie sprinted behind Saadia, barely able to keep up with the panicking woman ahead of her. As soon as she’d told her that the Alik’r were coming to get her, Saadia had begun to shake.

“What? How? I thought they weren’t allowed within the city! After all this, I have to pick up and leave again?”

“I don’t know… I’m sure Bradas tried, though,” she said helplessly. “I’m really sorry. He said that there’s a horse waiting for you at the stables. And he said you’d be safe.”

The barmaid looked utterly defeated. “If he really thinks this is the only way, I’ll trust him,” she said. “I won’t waste any time.”

Unfortunately for Jackie, she had really meant that. Saadia had thrown off her apron and booked it right out the door, not even bothering to pack up any personal belongings. The woman was a fast runner and she had a hard time keeping up. Instead of yelling for her to slow down, though, she just pushed herself to go faster. Saadia had too many things on her mind to worry about an out-of-shape customer slowing her down.

As soon as they made it outside of the city gates she could see Bradas at the stables, standing calmly next to a man wearing a light tunic and carrying a curved sword. She slowed down, confused. Who was this guy?

Saadia stopped running completely, a totally betrayed look on her face. “What have you done?”

“Oh, come now,” the Redguard said, smiling. “You didn’t expect to manipulate people forever, did you? Your luck had to run out sometime.” Without any warning, he crouched into a fighting stance and raised his hands. Jackie watched, in awe and horror, as a pale green light shot from his hands and swirled around the barmaid. Saadia’s whole body stiffened and fell, straight as board, onto the hard ground.

Jackie yelped and jumped back, covering her mouth with her hands. Was she… dead?

“Now, we’ll take our friend here back to Hammerfell, where she will pay the price for her treason,” the man said, turning to Bradas with a satisfied smile.

“She won’t be harmed?” Bradas asked. Jackie crouched down to check on the paralyzed woman, hands shaking as she tried to check for a pulse. Sure enough, there was one.

“Not on the way back. Once we get there, it’s not up to me,” the man replied. “And as for you… I owe you a portion of the reward, don’t I?”

Bradas graciously accepted payment. Jackie just felt sick—this was all her fault. She never should have sold Saadia out. If she’d known…

“Don’t allow yourself to be fooled by a pretty face,” Kematu was saying. “You’re better than that.”

Bradas smiled. “Of course, friend. Safe travels.”

Everything after that happened so quickly after that it made Jackie’s head spin. The Redguard turned around to pick up Saadia, and suddenly Bradas had reached one long arm out to grasp a handful of hair, wrenching his head back. A sharp knife slid easily across his throat. Bradas shoved the body forward and Kematu landed hard, face-down on the ground.

It was at that moment that Saadia began to move again, standing up with some trouble as Bradas approached her. Jackie watched, hand still covering her mouth in shock, as the Redguard woman turned her angry gaze onto the elf.

“How could you do that to me?” she cried, clumsily pulling a dagger from her waist. Jackie was no expert but it looked like she was still trying to shake off the effects of whatever spell she’d just been under.

Bradas seemed apathetic to her plight, although Jackie could certainly see why she was angry. In fact, she had some questions of her own. “I’ve done nothing to you,” he replied, wiping his blood-covered blade off and placing it back in its sheath. “In fact, I’ve done you a favor.”

Saadia took a few shaky breaths, looking at Kematu’s body and replacing her own blade. “What are you trying to pull?”

“I’ve fulfilled my end of the bargain, haven’t I? The Alik’r won’t bother you anymore.” he asked, his calm almost infuriating. “I believe you owe me something.”

Jackie knew that Bradas was all about the money, but his scrupulousness in this pursuit always managed to surprise her. She watched as Saadia hummed and pulled out a large coin purse and shakily handed it to Bradas, her face a mix between anger, relief, and admiration. “You’re right. It’s a dangerous game you play, warrior… but you have done me a great service.”

***

Bradas waited until Saadia was gone to begin going through Kematu’s pockets. Jackie stayed with him though, presumably to get her share of the gold. Thankfully, there was quite enough to go around. The Dunmer was incredibly pleased to find 250 more Septims on the Alik’r warrior’s person.

“W-wait…” Jackie’s voice was small and timid. He was vaguely aware of her approach. “Maybe we shouldn’t—he’s dead, it isn’t right…”

“He isn’t using it,” Bradas said simply, pocketing the money. He looked up to see her pale, stricken face and felt a surge of pity. He was so accustomed to death that he’d forgotten she wasn’t. He took a few last things and stood up. “We’ve made much more money than I thought we would,” he said, the words meant as a balm. “500 from Kematu, and 500 from Saadia.”

“That’s…” she swallowed and finally turned her face away from the dead man before her. “That’s great. I guess that means I get 450, right?”

He could appreciate her attempt to do business although she was shaken up, but he decided to get moving, anyway. “Let’s go to the inn and talk about it,” he said, stepping over Kematu to stand beside her.

***

Once at the inn, they went up to her room to hash out the payment details. She still seemed shaken up but he was glad to see her talking again. He couldn’t deal with a brooding, distracted girl—he’d much rather not have to bear witness to any moral conundrums.

“450 for you, since we’ve agreed to 45 percent,” he was saying, counting out coins at the small dining table and purposefully avoiding any kind of deep conversation. Thankfully, she seemed to be of a like mind.

“Yeah,” she replied, taking out her own heavy satchel of money and pulling out fifty Septims. “Keep my share. If I give you 50 more and make it an even 500, you’ll take me to Winterhold with you?”

Ah yes, it was just as he’d expected. Bradas held out his hand and took her money. “That was the deal,” he said, too satisfied with his loot to feel upset about having to travel with another person. Not only did he have 1300 extra gold, but there still were gems and weapons to be sold. “We’ll be leaving in two days. You’ll be prepared by then?”

“Yeah, I think so,” she said as she tucked her coin purse back into her pocket. “What do I need?”

“Armor. A weapon, as well,” he said, studying her. She would need something light—not only because she was small, but because she was weak. Heavy armor would only slow her down and get her killed.

“Cool, I guess I can just go to Warmaiden’s and get something,” she said, trying to keep her tone light. It was hard when all she could think about was Kematu lying in the dirt, Bradas kneeling over him and stealing all his belongings. While she could understand that this was a harsh place, she didn’t know if she’d ever get used to seeing so much death.

“I suggest leather armor,” the Dunmer replied casually. “Perhaps a dagger or a one-handed sword.”

She grimaced. “Will I have to use it a lot? I’m not so good with swords…”

“You’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice,” he promised.

She gave a nervous laugh, avoiding his eyes. “Bradas,” she said, looking down at a spot on the dining table where crumbs from a slice of bread lay. “This might be a dumb question, but… is there a lot of killing? I mean, do you run into…”

She didn’t need to elaborate. He felt that stab of pity again as she watched her brush her fingers over imperfections of the wood of the table. He could vaguely remember how he had felt as a boy when he’d seen a corpse for the first time. Most people saw that kind of thing at a young age and the shock and fear wore off quickly over time. He wondered how it must be for her—a grown woman whose first brush with death was so late in life.

She was either very lucky or very unlucky.

“There will be bandits, Jackie,” he said. “And with the civil war here in Skyrim… yes, there will be death.”

“Of course there will,” she sighed, giving him a weary smile.

He stood up, ready to go to his room and get some sleep. “Get some rest. Buy some supplied for yourself with your extra money—a bag, sleeping roll, food, potions. Don’t pack too heavy though, there will be plenty of treasures to pick up on the way.”

She made a face. “Treasures?”

“I don’t intend to make a straight line for Winterhold, Jackie Carson,” he announced. She raised an eyebrow.

“Uh, okay? Why?”

“I have business in High Hrothgar to take care of. Not to mention all the caves and ruins that are scattered across Skyrim. We’ll be scavenging at every opportunity.” His eyes flashed like they did when he talked about money. “You couldn’t imagine how much gold can be found in tombs and burial urns. Jewels, ancient weapons and armor…”

“Burial urns?” she asked, eyebrows knit together in alarm. “You mean you stick your hands in urns for money?”

“Of course. They aren’t using it,” he said, sort of relishing in her shock.

“That’s so gross. And kind of wrong…”

“You can always stay here in Whiterun.”

“No!” she said quickly. “I’m definitely going.”

“Good,” he said, feeling the satisfying weight of gold in his pockets. “We leave in two days. Be ready.”

Chapter Text

Jackie was up bright and early on the day they were supposed to leave, packing up her things and getting ready to go. She’d been so nervous the night before that she’d barely slept, worrying about waking up late or getting hurt—or worse, killed out in the wilderness of Skyrim.

She’d put on the uncomfortable leather armor, appreciating that she at least got to wear pants. Her bag was heavy, but she’d packed as light as she could: a change of clothes, some food, some health potions from Arcadia… and a bow and arrows from Warmaiden’s. Adrianne had urged her to buy a sword as well, so she picked out a light steel one. She had to admit that she felt kind of stupid carrying all these weapons, since she had no idea how to use them. She’d bought a dagger as well, figuring that she’d be able to use that in case the blade was too unwieldy.

There was a knock at the door. “Come in,” she called, positive that she knew who it was. Sure enough, it was Bradas, who looked wide awake and alert—a feat that she had yet to accomplish this early at dawn. She generally liked mornings, but this was a little too early for her taste.

“Are you ready to—” he stopped short, staring at her. She adjusted her armor self-consciously.

“Hey,” she greeted. “I’m pretty much ready, you?”

Instead of replying, he threw his head back and laughed.

“What?” she asked, cheeks flaring up. Bradas just shook his head and looked away, his ashen face turning a slighter bluer color from his laughter.

“You are hopeless,” his voice filled with mirth. “Your armor is on backwards.”

Jackie looked down in alarm. That explained why she was so uncomfortable! “Okay, get out!” she exclaimed, waving her arms awkwardly to shoo him out of her room. He obliged, still chuckling as he shut the door behind him.

Frustrated, she shoved off the armor and threw it on the bed. “Yeah, yeah, laugh it up,” she muttered, too tired and nervous to see the humor in it quite yet. It was sort of comforting to see Bradas so relaxed, though. If he wasn’t anxious about the journey, maybe she should relax, too.

Once she had placed the leather back on correctly, she felt a lot more comfortable.

“Are you decent?” Bradas called from the other side.

“Yeah, come in,” she replied, still flustered. He opened the door and entered, still wearing what she would call a shit-eating grin on his face.

“That’s much better,” he said, red eyes looking her up and down. “And a sword. Good choice.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” she said. “I don’t even know how to use it.”

“I’ll teach you a thing or two if I can,” he offered.

“There’ll be time for that?”

“Yes, plenty,” he said, walking over to her bed to examine what she’d packed. “The road is dangerous but very long. Perhaps we’ll have time for some magic, as well…”

She guessed she should have felt lucky that he was so willing to help her out and teach her some moves, but she had some serious doubts about the magic part. “Maybe,” she said noncommittally.

When he seemed satisfied at all the stuff she’d packed, he turned to her and hummed. “You’ve got the armor on right, mostly. Raise your arms.”

She raised her arms and felt him pulling and adjusting some straps, making the outfit mold a little better to her body.

“There. A better fit means better protection. You should be able to move around without any trouble.”

“Thanks,” she said, getting the feeling that he was enjoying bossing her around. Instead of complaining, though, she took a deep breath and smiled. She was finally taking steps to getting home. Although it was early in the morning, and she was hanging out with an elf who probably thought she was totally incompetent, things were looking pretty good.

***

Before they left the city, Bradas took out a slightly worn map and spread it out on a table for her to see. “We’re right here,” he told her, pointing to the hand-drawn symbol of Whiterun. She tilted her head and watched as he traced a long finger down the path they were taking. “We’ll be passing back through Riverwood and around the mountain. We should be in Ivarstead in about three days, barring any disruptions.”

“Did you draw that map?” she asked, crouching over to get a better look. Some of the towns were labelled, but not in any hand she could read. She knew that any books or maps here had to be hand-written, which boggled her modern mind.

“I purchased it at the Riverwood Trader when we first arrived,” he replied. “Some locations were already there,” he pointed to a few symbols, “but I’ve been adding to it as I travel.”

“Wow,” she said. She couldn’t even read a map, let alone add onto it. He rolled it up and set it snugly in a knapsack.

“From Ivarstead we’ll climb the Seven Thousand Steps to High Hrothgar.” He paused for a second. “You can stay in town while I do that, if you prefer.”

“Maybe I will, seven thousand steps is a lot,” she joked. He just raised an unimpressed eyebrow at her.

“We’ll see when we get there,” he said.

After that, there was a lot of walking.

***

They set a goal to reach Riverwood by nightfall. The stretch of forest between Whiterun and the smaller village was surprisingly peaceful except for the occasional pack of wolves, which were no match for his bow. Bradas skinned them for their pelts, and Jackie watched, looking totally disgusted.

“You have to be nobility,” he said as he handed the pelts to her to carry. She hadn’t outwardly complained, but the faces she was making told him the real story.

“I’m really not,” she insisted. Bradas was pretty sure he knew better—at the very least she had to be from a wealthy family. He wasn’t going to push the issue, though. Like everyone, she was entitled to keep her secrets.

“Shall we stop for lunch?” he asked, feeling hungry. Normally he would just grab food and eat on the go, but now he had another person to consider. He wasn’t sure how long Jackie would last at this rate—she wasn’t complaining but he could see that she was getting worn out.

He was remembering exactly why he didn’t travel with other people—they usually slowed him down. He didn’t let himself worry about it, though—the extra gold in his pocket helped soothe the irritation.

He figured that a short rest and a bite to eat would give them both a little more energy. His companion looked all too happy with the idea.

“That’s the best idea I’ve heard all day,” she said happily, looking around in search for a place to sit. They settled down on the log of a fallen tree and rummaged through their bags to find an easy meal. “Kind of like a picnic,” she said as she took a bite into a slice of bread.

He chuckled as he peeled a tart green apple with a dagger. “That’s one way of looking at it.”

Jackie hummed in response and started eating a cheese slice. “I miss food. Real food, I mean.”

“As opposed to fake food?”

She laughed and covered her full mouth. “No, I mean, like… food from home.”

“Ah,” he replied in understanding. For all of their differences, they had this in common. It had been many years since Bradas had been in Morrowind, but he still hadn’t tasted as hearty a soup or as sweet an ale since he’d left home. “Perhaps you’ll find something that reminds you of home here in Skyrim.”

She shrugged, looking kind of sad. “I could probably just make something, but I’m worried I’ll burn myself over a fire pit,” she admitted.

“I suppose you’re saying that I’ll be doing all the cooking when we make camp?” he asked lightly.

She grinned, flashing her unusually white, straight teeth. “I like a man who can cook.”

After their short lunch they continued on to Riverwood. It was evening when they finally reached the Sleeping Giant Inn, both dragging their feet and exhausted out of their wits.

The Sleeping Giant was different from the Bannered Mare in that there was absolutely no privacy in any of the rooms. It was very utilitarian, with one small bed to a chamber and no doors. Despite all this, it was warm and cozy, the beds beckoning to weary travelers. They each paid for their rooms and ate slowly at the table, feeling the warmth from the fire and growing sleepy.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” Jackie said, standing up once she’d finished her meal. “I’m about to pass out.”

“Good night,” he replied, feeling inclined to do the same. They both fell asleep the moment their bodies hit their respective beds.

***

Jackie woke up feeling sore and achy.

It took a few seconds to realize where she was. She’d gotten so used to sleeping at The Bannered Mare that it was sort of scary to wake up back in Riverwood. She sat up slowly, letting her eyes adjust to the soft light coming through the window. Some part of her had expected Bradas to be shaking her awake, demanding to go right away, so it was a pleasant surprise to be able to wake up on her own.

She didn’t have a watch, but judging by the chill in the air and the slow activity in the bar she figured it was early morning. She wandered out to the counter where Delphine sat, awake and ready to help customers. She borrowed a water bucket from the innkeeper and washed her face with cold water. Bracing herself, she scrubbed her armpits and other sweaty parts of her body, which woke her up fully and made her desperately miss hot showers.

After that she pulled some trousers over her legs and pulled on a loose tunic. Over that went her armor, which she was sort of getting the hang of, and finally, she braided her long hair out of her face.

Wow, was she ready before Bradas? She was kind of proud.

Fully dressed now, she made her way next door to see what Bradas was up to. Hopefully she wouldn’t have to wake him up; she knew from experience that being someone’s alarm clock was not a good way to endear yourself to them.

Luckily he was already sitting up in bed, looking angry at life. His hands were on his knees and his hair was hanging out of its usual tie as he stared at the floor trying to wake up.

“Morning,” she said gently, approaching him as if he was a deer ready to flee. Or a lion getting ready to attack. She didn’t know how he was in the mornings yet, so she figured it was safest to be as quiet and calm as possible.

“Unfortunately,” he muttered darkly. It figured he’d be grumpy in the mornings. She had a feeling that if Bradas lived in her world, he would be one of those people to insist that no one speak to them before their morning coffee.

Speaking of coffee, she would have killed for a continental breakfast. Ah, how she missed America. “You hungry?” she asked, sitting down on the chest in front of his bed and watching as he stretched out.

“I’ll eat on the road,” he replied, sighing heavily and running his hand through his hair. “I see you’re already awake.”

She shrugged. “I just woke up early and couldn’t go back to sleep.”

He examined her for a brief moment. She was all dressed and ready, her face glowing and her hair sweeping back in a graceful braid. She was like morning personified, which, in his current state of exhaustion, was incredibly annoying. “Alright, give me five minutes,” he groused, standing up.

“Sure thing, take your time,” she chirped, swinging her legs off the chest and hopping up. “I’ll grab us some breakfast.”

The Dunmer watched her exit his room and let out yet another tired sigh. Not only was he stuck with a travelling companion, but she was a morning person.

***

Bradas didn’t take long to get ready, and within ten minutes they were on the road, watching Riverwood disappear behind them.

“I suppose I should tell you that there will be bandits when we reach Helgen,” he said, feeling a little more awake. Now was the time to tell her, he decided, while she could prepare.

“What? How do you know?” she asked, a worried frown across her lips.

“Those reprobates are everywhere,” he replied. “Old keeps are always overrun with them. Now that there are no guards, they’re bound to have settled in. You have a dagger?”

“Yeah,” she said, placing her hand on the knife on her waist.

“I assume you don’t know how to use it?” he asked, a smirk on his face. Jackie rolled her eyes.

“I feel like I should state for the record that I’m competent in other things,” she quipped. He motioned for her to take her dagger out of the sheath and she complied, feeling its awkward weight in her right hand.

“I don’t expect you to fight, but you may have to defend yourself,” he said. They had stopped walking completely now, standing and squaring off in the middle of the road. “I prefer the bow and arrow, but I can show you a few things with a knife.”

“Not sure about this,” she mumbled, watching warily as Bradas removed his own dagger, taking hold of it as if he’d been born with it in his hands.

She wasn’t even sure if she was holding hers correctly.

“Loosen your stance, Jackie,” he instructed, demonstrating for her by bending his knees and leaning forward a little. She followed his motions awkwardly. Slowly and carefully he stepped into her personal space with his knife, mock attacking her. “Most opponents will come at you like this—much faster, obviously—so you can use your dominant arm to block the blade.” He used his hand to lift her elbow up and their blades clicked together lightly as if they were in a very slow, very gentle knife fight. “Keep your arms up and your chin tucked to make your neck harder to get to.”

“What if they cut my arms?” she asked, unable to envision herself in an actual dagger fight.

“Better to have your arms cut than your body,” he replied. He stepped away and sheathed his knife. “If you get into a scrape, take the first chance you can to run away.”

“That’s probably what I’d be better at,” she said with a laugh. “What about you?”

He gave her an almost feral grin. “You needn’t worry about me. If we do run into trouble, do exactly as I say. You should be fine as long as you don’t step into the line of fire.”

She nodded, feeling the weight of such a statement heavily. It bummed her out that she was kind of useless in a fight, but she wasn’t in any hurry to prove herself. “Got it,” she said quietly.

***

Bradas usually liked being right, but right now he was just annoyed.

They had trundled along on the road to Helgen, making great time that whole morning. It was late in the afternoon when they were finally in sight of the crumbled, decrepit keep. Just as he had thought, there were signs of bandits everywhere—unkempt fire places, food and scavenged armor lying around, booze sitting in places it had no business being.

He crouched down and padded lightly on his feet, leading Jackie through the ruins of the village. She was a little loud behind him, but it wasn’t enough for the average bandit to hear. They approached the ruined hold quietly, sneaking very slowly to avoid unwanted attention. Two bandits were standing casually just inside the threshold to the courtyard, talking and generally doing a terrible job of keeping watch.

“… said that the kid was mine. That’s ridiculous! That little brat don’t look nothin’ like me…” one of the miscreants was prattling on to the other. Bradas’ lip curled in disgust as he nocked an arrow into his bow, drawing and waiting for just the right moment to strike. Bandits were some of the worst kinds of people, and he was eager to rid the world of a couple.

His arrow flew with marvelous accuracy and hit one of them right in the throat. He heard a gasp from behind him and ignored it in favor of putting an arrow through the arm, and then through the head, of the other bandit.

Still crouching, he moved forward, sharp eyes scanning for more. There were, in fact, several more bandits standing within the outer walls of the keep who had failed to notice their fallen comrades. They didn’t even know of the danger among them. Bradas grinned and nocked another arrow.

***

Jackie was about 100 percent positive that she would never get used to this type of brutality. She watched in fear and awe as Bradas shot bandits one by one, taking them down with a silent ease that was terrifying. It was all happening so fast that she could barely wrap her brain around it.

They hadn’t even seen him coming.

She just crouched behind him, terrified and useless. Bradas stood up and pulled out a sword as one bandit came at him, filled with arrows but undaunted none the less. Easily he cut him down, slicing across the face and through the chest in efficient, powerful movements. Two more men came down from the tower to fight him, but they stood no chance against the Dunmer’s ruthless speed and strength. They went down in a similar fashion to their predecessor, so bloody and quick that Jackie almost couldn’t believe that he preferred to use the bow and arrow.

Before she knew it he’d turned to face her, his blood red eyes flashing. His wild-eyed look sent a spike of terror through her—she knew he was her ally, but she was suddenly reminded that he could probably kill her with the flick of a wrist.

“Stay here,” he ordered, blood still dripping off his sword.

She nodded dumbly and watched as he stalked across the courtyard, checking for any more bandits and waving for her to join him when he was certain they were gone.

“There are probably more within the keep,” he said breathlessly, looking around to see all the damage he’d done. About six or seven bandits now laid dead in the dirt, weapons strewn across the ground. “I’ll go in and see if there’s anything useful inside. You stay out here and gather their weapons to sell. Check their pockets for gold and jewels. Take anything and everything,” he instructed.

“Okay,” she said, feeling slightly sick. She didn’t want to loot dead bodies. It felt… creepy and wrong, but she had a feeling that Bradas wasn’t going to hear any of it.

“Good,” he said brusquely, gripping the handle of his sword almost as if he was eager to find another fight. “Gather as much as you can. We’ll sell what we don’t need.”

Once he was inside the keep, she let herself sit down atop one of the steps, feeling inexplicably exhausted. She gazed out across the sunny courtyard at the corpses Bradas had left behind, and let herself cry.

Sure, it was illogical; from what she knew about bandits, they would have killed them anyway. But all of these people… their lives had ended in just moments. They might have been criminals but they weren’t… evil, were they? They were just… people. Human beings.

Jackie sniffled and wiped away her tears. There wasn’t time to cry right now, although she wanted nothing more than to curl up in a hole somewhere and disappear. She stood up and began to gather all the weapons she could carry as Bradas had told her.

***

The sun was beginning to lower in the sky when he finally exited the keep, his knapsack heavy with foraged items. Jackie was waiting for him on the steps, a small pile of weapons beside her.

“There was plenty of food and gold within the hold,” he said, in a good mood. “You can keep any jewels or gold you found on them.”

“Gee, thanks,” she said flatly, standing up and picking up the items she’d gathered. She wasn’t overly caustic, but she did seem tired. Her eyes were rimmed with red, but he chose not to say anything.

They continued on their trek in silence, easily finding the path that wound to Ivarstead. It wasn’t until the sun began to set that he stopped, peering into the woods by the trail to see if there was a safe place to make camp nearby.

“What’s up?” his companion asked.

“We should set up camp before it gets too dark,” he said, looking up at the sky and holding a few fingers up to count how many hours of light they had left. Perhaps one or two. He turned and set foot off the path, careful to watch out for wolves and bears. They tread through the undergrowth of the forest until they found a small clearing not too far from the trail.

“We’ll make camp here,” he said, setting down his heavy pack with a sigh of relief. She looked equally thrilled to be done for the day. They set up a little tent quickly and lay the bedrolls down a few feet away from each other, and he worked on starting a small fire.

She sighed and laid on her thin bedroll, watching him as he struck two rocks together to make sparks over a pile of dried weeds and wood for kindling. He’d really love lighter fluid, she thought, watching silently as he strategically blew on some barely-burning wood chips to make a more substantial flame. When this failed, he gave up, raised an ashen hand, and set the pile on fire with magic.

“Why didn’t you just do that in the first place?” she asked, watching as the bright flames cast orange light around their little campground.

“It’s a waste of Magicka,” he replied, poking around the fire with a stick to make sure it stayed burning. “I’ll admit that it makes one lazy, as well.”

“If I could do that I wouldn’t even bother with the rocks,” she said with a smile. He chuckled and settled in next to her with a sigh.

“Perhaps you could learn,” he suggested. “Fire is one of the easiest spells to master—well, for a Dunmer, that is.”

“I don’t know,” she mumbled, spacing out a little at the fire.

“You seem reluctant about magic,” he observed, flexing his fingers and feeling the power that he held within his own hand. He was a talented fighter, but his real passion lay in magic—destruction magic in particular.

She sighed as she sat up from her bedroll, tucking her legs beneath her to sit crisscross style. “Only because I’ve never done it before,” she told him. “Where I’m from, nobody does it.”

He scoffed. “Nords say the exact same thing,” he said dismissively. “Treating magic as if it’s something to be ashamed of. Trust me when I tell you that they do it, Jackie Carson, even if they deny it.”

Jackie laughed at that one, surprising him. Her face lit up with a huge smile and she looked away from the fire to look at him. “I don’t think you understand, Bradas,” she said. “Where I’m from, magic doesn’t even exist.”

He blinked in surprise; that was not what he had expected to hear. He’d been under the impression that she was from some noble family, too rich and prideful to allow their daughter to dabble in something so dark and lowly as magic. “A realm without magic,” he said, curious to know more.

“Not as you know it, at least,” she said, looking back at the fire. “I must have gotten here somehow, though. Magic is the only thing that makes sense.”

Bradas didn’t know what to say to that. How strange—a land without magic. He tried to imagine it: no soul gems, no spells, no enchantments. He’d known of other planes and dimensions, of course: the planes of Oblivion… their own plane, Nirn… and many others. But did any of the other planes known to him lack magic?

“I’m beat,” Jackie said, interrupting his thoughts. She was shifting to lie down on her bed roll, doing her best to curl up under the thin covers. “I’m gonna go to bed.”

“I’ll take first watch, then,” he said distractedly, still pondering. “I’ll wake you in a few hours.”

She groaned. “We’re doing watches?”

“Of course,” he said, raising his brow at her. “These parts are dangerous.”

“Mhm, of course,” she muttered, covering her eyes. “Good night then.”

***

It felt like only five minutes had passed when she found herself being shaken awake by a bleary-eyed Bradas. He crawled into his sleeping bag and basically ordered her to take over the watch.

She obeyed grudgingly, exhausted and unaware of how many hours had passed. How did anyone around here tell the time when they had no watches or cell phones? After a few minutes, she finally woke up enough to be alert—the chill in the air certainly helped with that.

To keep herself awake she dug a green apple out of her knapsack—or Bradas’ knapsack, she wasn’t really sure—and began munching on the bitter fruit, hoping that the night would soon come to an end and bring the sun out. She glared over at Bradas, who was already sleeping soundly and silently. Rationally, she knew she was just pulling her weight by keeping watch over the campsite, but being woken up in the middle of the night made her incredibly grumpy. Honestly, she’d wanted to throttle the elf for shaking her awake like that.

Jackie poked at the dwindling fire with a stick as she chewed on her apple, the tartness of the fruit making her jaw clench. Her mind wandered to some other times she’d been woken up in the middle of the night—when her stepsister Coco used to spend the night and wanted to go to party, or when her roommates would get too loud on weeknights. She remembered how upset those times had made her and she smiled—what she wouldn’t give to be dealing with those little problems right now.

A feeling of deep loneliness settled over her as she thought about her friends and her family. She thought of her dad, or rather, her stepdad, who had practically raised her. The aging man had some heart problems, and when her mother had died a few years ago he had sort of fallen apart. His health had gotten really bad after that, and sometimes she had a feeling that the only thing that kept him going was her and her stepsister. She wondered if he was worried about her...

… She shook her head and forced those thoughts away. She was doing everything she could to get back and thinking like that wasn’t going to help.

She heard a soft groan behind her and turned around to see Bradas, who had turned over in his sleep. He was a welcome distraction, even though he was asleep.

She was always sort of intrigued with him because she’d never seen anyone quite like him. His features were so… different that she sometimes found herself watching him from the corner of her eye, just observing something she had never seen before. He was tall and lean, just like an elf out of a fantasy novel, but his ash-colored skin and blood-red eyes were startling. She’d never in her life imagined that someone like him could exist; deadly and scary and sometimes kind.

She was pretty sure he wouldn’t appreciate it if he knew she was ogling, but she couldn’t help it. He was a stark reminder that everything that was happening was real.

She looked away from him with a sigh and settled in for a long night.

Chapter Text

They finally reached Ivarstead after running into two packs of wolves, a bear, and half a day of following a broken path through the forest. As soon as they’d seen the bridge that led to the village, Jackie felt an enormous sense of relief.

“Oh look, civilization,” she said, her voice almost dreamy.

Bradas scoffed, ruining her moment. “Hardly,” he quipped. She rolled her eyes and continued on the path ahead of him, happily taking in all the offerings of the tiny town. She wasn’t going to let his cynicism ruin this for her, especially when she knew there was a soft bed in an inn calling out her name.

“Why don’t you get us rooms at that inn?” he asked.

“Those are the magic words,” she replied with a tired smile. “What are you gonna do?”

“Walk around, speak to some of the villagers. See if we can’t sell our wares.” He wanted to see what some of the people here had to say about the Greybeards. “Take this, will you?” he shouldered off the heavy bag of equipment he carried. Her face fell almost comically, but he didn’t let himself feel too guilty. It was only small ways to the inn, anyway.

“Uh, okay,” she said, taking his heavy bags and slinging it over her shoulder. “Oof. It’s only a couple yards, right?” she said, her voice a little strained. He had to admit that he admired that she didn’t complain as she started a slow march toward the inn.

***

Jackie dropped Bradas’ crap the moment she got in the door of their shared room. Hopefully he’d be okay with the two-bed situation she’d set them up in—it was the cheapest option and he’d ‘forgotten’ to give her cash to pay for his own room.

In the corner where there was the most privacy, Jackie shed her armor to reveal the slightly sweaty men’s clothing underneath, feeling wonderfully free after days of keeping it on. She was probably smelly, but she didn’t care.

She yawned and stretched out on the bed farthest from the door, already beat even though it couldn’t be later than 3 afternoon. She shut her eyes for a few minutes, and before she knew it Bradas was standing over her and shoving her arm with his hand.

She must have dozed off. “Hmm?”

“You’re already asleep?” Bradas was asking, his voice a touch condescending. “It’s not even evening yet.”

“It’s called a nap,” she groused, covering her eyes with the arm he’d been poking at. “Go ‘way.”

“Naps are for children,” he said without disdain. If she didn’t know any better, she’d think he was teasing her.

She opened her eyes and frowned at him. “What were you up to?”

“Not much,” he sighed, looking disappointed. “Asked around town about High Hrothgar. No one knows much about the Greybeards.”

She shrugged, unable to care all that much in her current state of exhaustion. “That makes all of us. Good night.”

“Stay awake, you layabout,” he said, shaking her by the arm once again.

“I swear, if you keep shaking me…” she mumbled, turning over so he would leave her alone. Bradas was taken by surprise by his own laughter.

“Fine, stay asleep,” he said with a grin. “In the meantime, I shall eat dinner without you.”

The noise she made reminded him of a draugr, except far less threatening. “Go. I’ll eat later.”

He laughed and left the room, finally deciding to take mercy on her. The road was hard on her, he supposed, since she wasn’t used to travel like he was. He sat at a table with a rabbit haunch and some ale, enjoying the fire and the music in the empty bar.

***

Jackie slept soundly until the next morning, and when she woke up Bradas was already dressed and ready to go.

“You slept all through yesterday afternoon and last night. I’m not sure if I’m impressed or not,” he said with a raised brow.

“It was worth it,” she said, letting her eyes adjust to the early morning light. Bradas was suddenly standing above her and making her restless.

“I’m heading up the Seven Thousand Steps today,” he said. “Are you going to come with me?”

She sat up and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “Yeah, I’ll come,” she said—and not because she was excited for the cardio. In fact, her reasons for tagging along were not for sport or a sense of adventure. She’d actually considered not going at all, but when she thought about it… She didn’t really trust that the Dunmer wouldn’t run off without her. He’d been a great companion so far, but she’d seen first-hand how unscrupulous he could be.

Jackie was quick to get ready. She washed her face and untangled her hair to put it up in a braid before throwing on her armor. Bradas was sitting on his bed and telling her what he’d found out about Ivarstead while she’d been sleeping.

“There is no blacksmith, so people were happy to take the extra weapons and armor off our hands,” he was saying. “This town is little but a pit stop. Most of the people I spoke to are just farmers and even they want to leave this place. Most of their money comes from travelers on religious pilgrimages.”

“Really?” she asked, surprised. “So people go up there to pray?” She hadn’t heard much about religion here in Skyrim.

“Or meditate,” he supplied. “They leave offerings at their shrine. That sort of thing.”

“Oh… are you going to meditate?” she asked, curious. She highly doubted it; Bradas didn’t seem like the religious type.

“Perhaps,” he murmured, looking distant. Well, that wasn’t what she had expected. She had to wonder why they were climbing these impossible steps in the first place—Bradas hadn’t offered any information regarding that. He’d said he had business with the Greybeards… but he hadn’t shared what, and she hadn’t asked.

She made a note to ask him more about religion in this realm when they had the time. Right now, though, he was beginning to look uncomfortable, so she switched gears. She understood that some people didn’t like talking about spirituality and that kind of thing. “Anything else?” she chirped, hoping to prevent an awkward mood.

“Yes,” he said quickly, glad to be done with the subject. “Be prepared for wolves and bears on those steps. There’s also game—I’ll have you practice with your bow and arrow once we’re up there. There may also be trolls.”

Trolls? Of course! Did the list of monsters never end? “What do trolls look like?” she asked as she tightened the straps of leather to make the armor more comfortable. She was still getting the hang of these old-fashioned buckles.

“Big, monstrous brutes,” Bradas replied. “Sharp teeth, sharp claws, three beady black eyes…”

“Three?” she asked, incredulous. The claws and teeth she could see, but three eyes was excessive. “Gross.”

Her companion grinned, enjoying her disgust. “Their arms are longer than their legs so sometimes they’ll run after you on all fours. They’re stupid, but smart enough to open doors so you can’t just run into a building and hope they lose interest in you,” he continued. Jackie was done dressing by now, and she just stared at him with a disgusted face.

“Uh, let’s just hope we don’t run into one of those,” she said, grabbing her pack and fastening it to her back.

“Sometimes they hunt in pairs,” he informed her.

“It just keeps getting better,” she sighed. He grinned and picked up his own pack.

“Don’t worry, Jackie. They should be no problem. You’ll need to practice fighting, anyway—and trolls are very good practice.”

***

The two of them bought some food and supplies before leaving the inn. They both looked up at the tall mountain that loomed over the village and began walking down the path toward the steps.

On the way there they passed by a dome-like structure that seemed abandoned. “You know,” Bradas said, stopping in front of it. “I hear this barrow is haunted.”

“Really?” she asked, frowning. It didn’t seem out of the realm of possibility, especially with all the things she’d seen in this land so far.

“The people here say that a ghost rattles its chains and warns them away,” he replied, eyeing the door with narrowed eyes.

“Is it true?” she asked.

“Nords are a superstitious people,” he said dismissively, still studying the crumbling building. He looked to her after a second, a smile working its way onto his lips. “I bet there’s gold in these ruins.”

“Oh,” she said, comprehending what he was wanting to do. “But… we’re supposed to go up the mountain,” she protested. She was no expert, but it seemed like a better idea to try and get to Winterhold as soon as possible.

Also, she really didn’t want to find out if ghosts were real or not.

“This will take half a day at most,” he said, taking a step toward the threshold and ignoring her objections. “Besides, the worst thing we can run into is a couple of draugr. Even you could defeat one of those.”

She would have been offended if she didn’t know how terrible she was at fighting. “But… what if it’s actually haunted?” she asked, hoping to dissuade him from this adventure.

He smirked. “Are your people superstitious as well, Jackie?”

“No…”

“Then let’s get on with it,” he said, marching toward the ruins. His tone didn’t leave any room for argument, so she just sighed and followed, hoping that these deviations from their course wouldn’t happen too often.

***

Together they entered the dark, dusty barrow. She covered her mouth to avoid breathing in any of the dirt that was steadily falling from the ceiling. That couldn’t be a good sign.

Bradas crouched down and began his quiet descent down the rickety spiral staircase, trying to be as quiet as possible. It wasn’t easy with Jackie behind him, who was making the stairs creak with every step. He turned around and placed a finger on his lips to signal her to be quiet. She nodded her understanding, eyes wide.

There appeared to be no one in the room at the bottom of the staircase.

“It’s empty,” Jackie whispered.

“So it seems,” he replied, reaching back to take hold of his bow. This place seemed like the perfect breeding grounds for draugr. “Take out a weapon and prepare to fight,” he told her quietly. She obeyed and drew her dagger.

They walked ahead for only a few steps when an airy, raspy voice echoed through the barrow: “Leave this place… leave this place…. leave… leave… leave…”

Jackie’s panicked gasp was more an embarrassing squeak, and if Bradas hadn’t been so focused on making sure there was no danger he would have laughed at her outright. She tugged on his sleeve and pulled him back a little.

“We should go,” she said in a tiny voice, gripping her dagger so tight that her knuckles began to turn white.

“Don’t be a coward,” he replied in a low voice, before turning the corner and searching for any signs of life.

There were no draugr here, although there few a few skeletons leaning up against the wall. He searched their pockets for gold, earning more wide-eyed looks from his companion. They ventured further into the barrow, collecting gold and other treasures as they went along. There were a few traps, which they were thankfully able to avoid. Soon, however, they reached a dead end. A gate stood in the way of their progress, and Bradas set to finding a way through.

“How do we get past these gates?” Jackie asked, leaning into one of the obstructions and sticking her arm through the bars.

“Not still afraid, are you?” he asked, searching for some kind of pull chain or lever.

“Sort of freaked out about that voice, but I’m good,” she replied, her voice a little shaky. He was glad to see her on board with investigating this place, because it was happening whether she liked it or not.

“Good. Ah, here are some levers,” he said, entering a small chamber. It was a riddle: four levers, two on either side of the threshold. Jackie walked over to where he was to look. “How are you at puzzles?”

“What’s the puzzle?” she asked, furrowing her brow.

“Which levers to pull to open the gates.” His eyes darted to either side of the chamber. “It’s a dart trap. If we get it wrong it’ll shoot at us,” he informed her.

“Uh, maybe that’s a sign we should leave…” she said uncertainly.

He scoffed. “They’re most likely just weak poison darts.”

She looked up at him and frowned. “Still sounds like it hurts.”

He rolled his eyes and pulled one of the levers, deciding that there was no better way to see which combination was right. He jumped out of the room quickly, just in case, but no arrows shot out from the holes in the wall. He heard an unseen gate clink somewhere else in the ruins.

He looked to her and nodded his head toward the levers. “Your turn.”

She frowned and stood in front of the levers like he had, studying them carefully. She chose the lever on the far right and pushed it up. She followed his example and jumped out of the way when darts started flying.

“Ow!” she yelped, holding her arm where a dart had landed. He reached out quickly to pull out the offending barb and threw it on the ground.

The effects of the poison were instant. Jackie felt dizzy all of the sudden, and her vision blurred for a few short moments. After only a few seconds she was able to see clearly, although the urge to vomit was pretty overwhelming. She managed to keep it together, and eventually even the nausea wore off.

“Oh,” she breathed, blinking a few times and placing her hand over the little wound the dart had left. “Thanks.”

“Wrong lever,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll try this time.”

Jackie didn’t consider herself a petty person, but she had to admit she was a sort of happy when Bradas got stuck buy two darts before jumping out of the way.

“Damn!” he swore, taking the darts out right away. He leaned over beside her to collect himself for a moment before returning to the levers. “In that case, it must be…” He pulled one last lever and this time, the gates finally opened.

***

It turned out that Shroud Hearth Barrow was being haunted by a real person who just didn’t want anyone else to steal the treasure he was looking for.

“We basically just lived out a Scooby Doo episode,” she told him as she read Wyndelius’ journal.

While he didn’t understand what she meant, he did understand her frustration. He was not completely satisfied with the pathetic amount of gold they’d found. They marched out of the barrow in low spirits toward the inn to speak with Wilhelm.

His mood brightened considerably when the innkeeper gave him a sapphire dragon claw to access more of the ruins. Jackie didn’t share his enthusiasm, putting her hands up and saying that he could go by himself, but he wasn’t having it.

There were most certainly draugr in the depths of that barrow, and it was a perfect opportunity to teach Jackie to fight… not to mention the possibility of finding treasure. He’d need someone to help him carry it all out.

He was really beginning to see the perks of travelling with a companion.

***

Several puzzles, traps, skeletons and draugr later, Jackie was about to lose her mind.

How Bradas could be skeptical about hauntings was totally beyond her.

“I hate this,” she said, fully aware that she sounded incredibly whiny. To be fair, this was her first time ever seeing (and attempting to fight) zombies. As soon as they’d stepped into one of the great halls of the barrow a huge group of the draugr popped right out of their tombs and began to attack. She had tried to use some of the moves that Bradas had taught her, but ultimately wound up stabbing and slashing wildly while hoping for the best. At one point they had been overwhelmed with skeletons and draugr—Even Bradas had looked overwhelmed when she’d tried to find him.

She was pretty sure they had just barely survived. It was easier to fight them than she’d thought, but it was still no picnic. Blood covered her armor from a gash on her arm and a broken nose that Bradas had healed. It didn’t hurt anymore but she was still shaken up.

“Why? Look at all this treasure,” he replied, ignoring her in favor of looting a chest they had found. “Get over here and we’ll split it. I’ll be taking more, of course, since I killed more of them than you did.” He gave her a pointed look.

“Oh, my God,” she groaned. She would have put her face in her hands, but they were covered in her own blood. He was unbelievable. She found it really hard to care about loot when she was standing in a hall filled with bones, not knowing whether or not more were to come. For all she knew, the corpses would be rolling back together and reassembling themselves to fight again—they had already defied death once before.

“Don’t complain. You did quite well against the draugr for someone so inexperienced.” It was an attempt at a compliment, but honestly, she wasn’t feeling it right now.

“Let’s just go,” she replied, drawing out the last word. “I just wanna get back to the inn, wash off all this grime, and go to bed.”

He sighed as if he was the one dealing with an adrenaline-junkie thief. “Fine, if we must,” he said, grabbing the last bit of treasure from the chest and shoving it into his pockets. “Why don’t you take…” he stopped in the middle of his sentence.

“Take what?” she asked, for a moment thinking that he’d just lost track of his thought. He didn’t reply. “Um, Bradas? You wanted me to carry something?” His face had lost its usual overconfident expression and he suddenly looked completely unfocused.

“There is…” he mumbled, turning his head to the side. Fear spiked in her gut. Had he gotten a head injury?

“Are you okay?” she asked softly, waving her hand in front of his face. There was a good chance he’d gotten hit in the head during their fight. He waved her away and started toward the wall. “Just hang on a second and sit down,” she said worriedly.

“Quiet,” he said as he walked. She fell silent and watched him as he moved toward the corner of the room. Some strange wording had begun to glow as he went nearer, and it seemed as though the radiant words themselves were beginning to peel themselves away from the stone and swirl around him.

She watched I fear as he knelt over, looking as though the breath was being sucked from his lungs. She had no idea what was happening and worse, she had no idea how to stop it. “Bradas!” she cried, lunging toward him to—she didn’t know—perhaps pull him away from the swirling light? A gust of wind (coming from where?) began to swirl across the room, blowing so hard that it was almost a struggle to reach him. She was almost afraid of what it could do to her… was this some kind of magic? Had they stumbled into some kind of ancient curse? Anything was possible.

It stopped the moment she placed her hand on her shoulder. Bradas was still kneeling in front of the monument, taking deep breaths and trying to steady himself. She fell to her knees beside him, hand still on his shoulder. “Are you okay?” she asked, strangely out of breath.

There was no sound for a moment but the harsh tenor of their breaths. Finally, he replied, “I’m fine.” He shrugged her hand off his shoulder and stood up. She followed suit, relieved but incredibly confused.

“What was that?” she asked with wide eyes, no longer concerned about the state of her clothes and the stench of the tomb.

“I’ll explain later,” he said, slightly out of breath. If he’d known there was a word wall here, he would have come alone… this Dragonborn business wasn’t secret, but it was a hassle to deal with. At the moment he felt too drained to explain it to Jackie, who was most surely ignorant about the whole thing.

“Okay,” she said, her voice gentle. “Here, let me take something…”

He wouldn’t have assented if he hadn’t felt the familiar drain that came from absorbing souls and learning new words; it wasn’t as tiring as it used to be, but he still felt wiped out. Instead of complaining, he handed her some of the lighter weapons they’d picked up and they found their way out of the barrow.

***

Bradas was quiet and almost… broody as they made their way back to the inn in Ivarstead. Jackie was pretty confused about what had happened underground in the barrow, but she had a feeling that now wasn’t the best time to question him.

Definitely later, though.

Now, he seemed too tired to answer any questions, and as soon as they got into their room he was peeling off his grimy armor and letting it drop to the floor. She grimaced as little specks of dried blood fell to the floor. If this was a nicer hotel they definitely wouldn’t be getting their deposit back.

She began to unbuckle her own armor until she stood free in the loose clothes underneath. “Is there a way to wash this armor?” she asked, thoroughly grossed out by the idea of putting it back on later.

He was already crawling underneath the covers. “River water is the best we’ll do out here,” he mumbled, getting comfortable.

Jackie crossed her arms and watched him fall asleep quickly with a frown. He’d seemed so full of energy just an hour ago and now he was practically passing out on his bed. She sighed and bent over to gather their dirty armor. She wasn’t tired yet and there was still light outside. It wasn’t as warm as it had been in the middle of the day but she would have done just about anything for some clean(ish) clothes. To the river it was.

***

The air outside was mild, but the river itself was freezing. Which was better for getting blood out, she supposed. She rinsed the armor as well as she could, scrubbing with her fingers and then with a smooth rock. It actually seemed to be working, and that made her feel… really accomplished actually. There weren’t many things in this world that she could do, and it was nice to be successful at something whether it had to do with fighting or not.

It was a nice, mundane action, and while she’d never been a big fan of cleaning back home, she appreciated it. It wasn’t killing skeletons or wrestling trolls. It wasn’t magically healing or setting things on fire with your mind. It just… was. It was kind of therapeutic to watch all the blood wash out of the clothes and into the stream.

It took some effort, but she finally finished and wrung out the rough material. It was still a little warm out, and although the sun was starting to dip behind the mountains she didn’t feel like going inside just yet. In fact, the cool water had left her hands wrinkly and clean, and she sort of wondered if it wasn’t too cold to take a quick dip in the river.

Jackie laid out the wet armor on a warm rock before looking all around to make sure no one was around. She quickly stripped off the loose clothes she was wearing and dipped a toe in the water. It was freezing, but she was freaking filthy and she didn’t think she could stand it anymore!

She jumped in to the deeper part of the river and stifled a shriek. She sat down quickly and began to scrub her body, making sure to reach everywhere she could before finishing. Once she had washed as well as she could, she took a deep breath and dunked her greasy head into the water, letting it rinse away all the oil and dirt.

Finally she tore herself out of the water and wiped off the water with her dry clothes before getting clothed again. She was cold but feeling great, invigorated, even. There was nothing like being clean!

***

The next morning, Bradas woke to see his armor at the foot of his bed, cleaned of all blood and dirt. He sat up and peered over to the other side of the room at his companion, who was still sleeping peacefully.

He changed into clean clothes before she could wake up and placed his newly-cleaned armor on, not sure how he felt about the kindness she’d done him by washing it. He supposed he should only feel grateful, but he was suspicious by nature. What reason did Jackie have to do him any favors?

With a frown, the Dunmer walked over to her bed and placed a hand on her arm to wake her. “It’s morning, Jackie,” he said, giving a gentle shake. She rolled over and opened one bleary eye.

“I’m only getting up if we’re actually going up the mountain today,” she muttered. “If you drag me into another tomb I’m going on strike.”

He chuckled, not knowing exactly what she meant but understanding the gist of it. "No more tombs. Today we climb the steps."

Chapter Text

They spent the whole day travelling up, up, up into the mountain. Like Bradas promised, there had been game, and he tried to teach her a little about the bow and arrow with disappointing—but not unexpected—results.

When he found himself getting impatient with her, he reminded himself that this was probably the first time in her whole life she’d ever held a bow.

“Actually there was one semester in high school where our gym teacher taught us,” she said as they travelled up the broken steps.

“Semester?”

“Yeah, uh, half a school year,” she replied, keeping her eyes focused on the ground to keep from tripping.

“Clearly your teacher didn’t know what he was doing.”

“She,” she corrected. “And she wasn’t bad. We had to quit when some student put an arrow through her leg on accident.”

He let out a huff of laughter. When she told stories like that, he had to wonder how she’d made it this far at all. He turned around and watched her struggle up a jagged step. “I didn’t know there were people in your realm more hopeless than you,” he joked, not bothering to help her up.

She laughed once she got to where he was. “It makes me feel a lot better about myself.”

They continued up the steps for the rest of the afternoon. As they climbed higher, the air got thinner and the wind blew colder. Jackie untied her hair and tucked it in into the color of her clothes in an attempt to warm up her ears and neck, and watched, unimpressed, as Bradas trekked on without showing any signs of cold.

When the sun began to lower and touch the horizon, Bradas knew it was about time to stop. He frowned and searched for a spot to camp out as they walked, wishing that it was possible to just push on through the night. That wouldn’t be wise, though—if this chill was any indication of how cold the night would get, he didn’t want to risk it. He much preferred travelling while the sun was up, anyway.

***

They wound up camping out in a little cave a ways from the path. Jackie felt totally depressed as a light flurry of snow began to fall.

“It’s gonna be so cold,” she said sadly, sitting on her bedroll under the tent and rubbing her hands together.

“Don’t be such a milk-drinker,” Bradas said with a smirk as he threw some dry wood in a pile to start a fire. She watched quietly as he started the fire with his magic, like he had a few nights ago.

“I might be a milk-drinker,” she said, crossing her arms and placing her hands in her armpits. “But you can make fire with your hands so you’re not freezing your butt off like me. I think I’m entitled to complain a little.”

“You may be right,” he conceded, scooting under the tent next to her once the fire was at a consistent blaze. “Perhaps now would be a good time to teach you a spell.”

She adjusted herself so she was sitting across from him cross-legged, almost touching his knees with hers. “I don’t think I can do it,” she said, placing her cold fingers on her cheeks to try and warm up. Tired of watching her wiggle her hands around, he reached over, pulled them away from her face, and positioned them palm-down on her knees.

“Anyone can,” he assured. “It’s quite simple.” Bradas lifted his own dark hand and focused until a small flame erupted from his palm. She watched, fascinated, until he closed his hand and distinguished the flame. “My mother was a master pyromancer,” he said, once again channeling his magicka into his hands and letting the heat consume his arms without bursting into flame. “When I was a child I thought I’d never reach her level of skill. It took me a long time to get where she was—fifty years, in fact.”

“That’s not helping my confidence.”

He ignored her and continued. “Fortunately for you, there is no need to become a master. All you need to learn is a simple spell called ‘Flames’.” Jackie tilted her head and he shrugged. “Admittedly not the most creative name.”

“I’ll give it a shot, I guess…” she said reluctantly. “Tell me what to do.”

“Which is your dominant hand?”

She lifted her right hand and he grasped it gently, pulling up the fabric of her sleeve to expose her arm. “Fire will come from your center and trickle down your arm. He traced a blue vein down her wrist and followed the path to the tip of her middle finger. “This will be the path. Pinpoint the warmest part of your body,” he demonstrated by placing one hand over his chest. “And imagine it rushing down your arm.”

She closed her eyes and focused for a few moments, trying to visualize it without feeling like she was participating in a weird relaxation exercise. She wasn’t sure if she was just practicing, or if he expected her to set something on fire right now. “The warmest part of my body?”

“Your heart, most likely.”

“Aw, that’s sweet,” she said, and he rolled his eyes.

“No joking while learning,” he said firmly. “I’m going to cook something. You practice while I’m busy.”

“Ugh.”

He grinned as he stood up, watching her meditate on the ground like some kind of monk. “Be ready to set things ablaze by the time I’m done. You’ll be cooking your own meat.”

She wrinkled her nose. “I hope that’s a joke.”

***

Thankfully, Bradas didn’t expect her to be casting spells right away. They ate in peace, and she offered to take the first watch while he slept. It was a quiet night, and she hated to think of what she would do if something wandered close by or tried to attack. Probably wake up Bradas and make him deal with it.

She kept an eye out on the mountain around the fire, and at the same time tried to visualize the fire Bradas had been talking about. She was pretty positive she wasn’t capable of magic, but she had to wonder—was it possible? Was magic an energy that came from the inside, or was it like a source one could draw from the air around them?

Was there no magic on Earth? Or no magic in the people that lived there?

That question was probably enough to drive her crazy. If there was no magic on Earth, then how did she get here? Were there areas where magic was possible? Were there some people who could do it but kept it secret? No matter the answer, if she did make it home… her life would never be the same. Her entire worldview had been turned on its head and it would probably stay that way forever.

She just couldn’t think about it anymore. She forced herself to forget about it; no answers would come this late at night. Instead, she lifted her eyes to the sky to watch the journey of two foreign moons and trace unfamiliar constellations.

***

The next morning they continued up the mountain. The snowfall from the night before made it more difficult to see the broken steps leading up to High Hrothgar, but they managed to keep to the path by looking out for the etched tablets along the trail. She could barely read the letters on them without her reading glasses (just one more thing she missed from home), so Bradas read them out loud as if he was a long-suffering parent reading yet another bedtime story to his child.

Jackie was an extremely unexperienced adventurer, but she knew that the sound of heavy panting was probably not a good sign. In front of her, Bradas crouched down, wordlessly raising one hand as if to tell her to be as quiet as possible.

They both leaned up against a rock, with Bradas being the only one who could see around it to figure out what was breathing on the other side. She watched as he peeked around the corner, and when his body stiffened she was automatically nervous. He leaned back against the rock and his red eyes slid to lock onto hers.

“Troll,” he mouthed, eyes wide. He was already reaching for his bow. Shakily, she reached for the dagger at her belt, knowing that even with her weapon she was pretty much helpless. His eyes followed her movement as he shook his head.

She removed her hand, eyes questioning.

“Stay,” he whispered, so quiet that she almost couldn’t hear him. “Don’t let it see you. If he comes for you, run.”

Bradas turned away from her, hoping that she would listen to him and stay out of sight. He had heard that trolls sometimes liked to frequent this mountain, but he had hoped not to run into one—especially when he had a complete novice to take care of.

Just his luck.

Thankfully she seemed satisfied to do as he told her. She curled up against a crevice in the rock, making herself as small as possible. He turned his attention to the snow-white troll that was grunting as it trundled along the mountain road, unaware of their presence. If it caught sight of them before he was ready, they’d have big problems on their hands. He was confident in his abilities, but trolls weren’t to be underestimated.

He carefully, quietly, gently nocked an arrow into his bow, wary of making any noise. If he’d had time he would have poisoned the arrow, but it wasn’t likely that they’d go unnoticed for much longer.

The arrow flew through the air and hit its intended target in the back of the neck.

The troll turned slowly, its three eyes unblinking as it zeroed in on the Dunmer who had shot it—and it let out an angry, almost indignant roar. Jackie squeaked.

“Damn!” he swore, jumping up from his crouched position. His arrow hadn’t hurt the troll, but only made it angry. He made a point to run away from where Jackie was hiding; he didn’t want to have to worry about it attacking her while he was trying to kill it.

The beast ran after him, its arms and legs propelling it fast toward him. He managed to fire off a few arrows before it became too close, and he ran and jumped up a few of the rocks on the mountain to avoid its gangly, dangerous limbs.

It roared furiously, beating its hands on the ground before starting after him again. He sent off two more arrows before moving again.

**

Jackie watched in horror as the nightmare version of the abominable snowman thundered after her companion, arrows sticking out of its hide like nothing. Bradas was running and jumping and shooting arrows as quickly as he could, but it didn’t seem to be doing anything to the monster running after him.

Finally Bradas seemed to tire of wasting his arrows and pulled out his sword. She watched as he made a leap off the rock he was standing on to slash at the troll and roll away quickly. She silently cheered for him to prevail, because if he didn’t, well… they’d both be dead.

She wished she wasn’t so helpless.

A flash of fire appeared and she knew that Bradas was performing magic. The troll screamed in pain and took a swing at him, and he only rolled away just in time. Another burst of flame came, and then another. Jackie couldn’t figure out how badly it was hurting the troll, but it had to be bad because it was becoming frenzied, swinging its long arms in wild arcs in an effort to catch the elf.

One look at him confirmed that Bradas was grinning madly through the sweat and dirt he’d been kicking up by rolling around, and she was caught between relief and frustration. Relief, because if he was smiling that meant he probably had the upper hand. Frustration, because he was literally the only person she’d ever met who wanted to get into fights with trolls and dragons.

That feeling passed quickly, though, when one of the monsters arms finally caught him and sent him rolling a ways down the path. Jackie’s stomach lurched as she watched him get up only to get whacked again.

No no no!

She felt sick, worse than she’ ever felt in her whole life. She’d been so sure that Bradas had it under control and now he couldn’t seem to keep on his own two feet. And she couldn’t do anything.

The troll moved forward to crouch over him, seething. Bradas tried once more to twist out of the way or to stab it; she wasn’t sure. But its massive hand knocked the sword out of his grip and pinned him down.

Her mind worked quickly: Bradas had told her to run if she had to, but it was becoming increasingly obvious that she wouldn’t be able to outrun that thing. And she couldn’t let him die without trying… something, so… if she was going to die no matter what, she wanted to at least try to help.

The troll was rearing up, getting ready to deliver another smack to the Dunmer when she jumped out from her hiding spot and yelled. She was too panicked to form any coherent words so she wound up waving her hands and babbling some nonsense. Thankfully, that didn’t matter to the troll, who lifted its head to look at its new opponent.

Then she flung her dagger as hard as she could toward the beast. It didn’t even get close to hitting it, but it made it angry enough to forget about Bradas. It launched off its feet toward her and she began to scramble down the path in terror. It was so fast—she didn’t stand a chance against it.

A powerful clawed hand swiped at her and caused her to tumble down the steps painfully. She tried to keep moving after that but it was nearly impossible; the troll barreled toward her and struck once more. She felt her limbs sprawl out in the freezing snow, although the cold did nothing to numb the pain she was feeling. She felt like a Raggedy Anne doll, limp and out of control of her own body, and everything felt like it was happening in slow motion.

She didn’t wanna die. She really didn’t want to die. This was awful.

She waited for another hit for what felt like an eternity, but it never came.

***

It was bloody and it was messy, but finally Bradas’ blade found its way into the back of the troll’s neck. It fell forward before it could land another blow to the girl in the snow… but Bradas wasn’t sure if it mattered.

He couldn’t tell from his position on the monsters back, but she looked dead.

Shaky from adrenaline, he made his way in the snow toward her. He didn’t bother to pull his sword out of the troll—it wasn’t going anywhere.

“Jackie,” he panted, kneeling down next to her on one knee to feel for a pulse. He felt sick and sticky with guilt. What had he been thinking by bringing her with him? He could have left her—no, he should have left her in Ivarstead.

He waited to feel a pulse, but his hands were so cold and unsteady that he couldn’t find it. What a fool he had been! What was he thinking, dragging her out into the wilderness and risking her life? An innocent life… “Oh, Azura…” he muttered.

A soft groan escaped her lips and he wasted no time. If she was still alive, a healing spell could work. He concentrated all his energy, fighting the shakes that came after a difficult fight. A golden light began to swirl around her. Bones began to click into place and her breathing became steady; fear and guilt gave way to relief.

Jackie’s eyes opened slowly, as if she were waking up from a long nap. The light of his magic was still around her, glowing as she took a breath unimpeded by broken ribs. “That’s nice,” she breathed, sighing in bliss as if she weren’t lying in the snow surrounded by her own blood.

As soon as the spell was finished, Bradas pulled her gently out of the snow.

“Oof.” She cooperated slowly, her limbs heavy as he pulled her from the ground and into a sitting position on a rock. He grabbed a health potion out of his bag and downed it quickly.

“Ah. We made it,” she mumbled, looking drunk. He frowned. She’d never been exposed to this much healing magic before, that much was obvious.

“Focus,” he ordered, feeling the potion slowly work its way through his veins.

“On what?”

“Staying awake. Here.” He handed her a health potion as well and she drank it without even looking at what it was.

“Thanks.” She breathed in and out, her eyes closing and opening slowly as if she were trying to wake herself up. Her voice sounded strange and breathless when she asked, “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” he said with a breathy laugh. For a few long moments he’d been convinced that she was dead, and it’d been all his fault. She almost hadn’t woken up and she was asking if he was alright.

“That hurt, like… worse than anything I’ve ever felt,” she said, smiling to reveal a bloody lip. He was very low on magicka but lifted a hand to mend it anyway. She sighed, leaning forward toward the healing hand, stopping just before her forehead hit his palm. “Then I felt the best I’ve ever…”

“Hush,” he said. He knew the intoxicating feeling of the Healing Hands spell, how it could leave one dazed for a few moments after. He’d performed it on her when they’d first met, but she’d only had a few bruises and cuts to heal then. He was certain that she’d been near death just now, and he’d used most of his magicka reserves to prevent that. He finished and then sat beside her on the edge of the rock, completely worn out.

“’Kay.”

“Why did you do that, Jackie?”

She turned to look at him with half-open brown eyes. “I was pretty sure you were gonna die,” she said, her words slurred. “Got kinda scared for you.”

“I told you to run,” he said, leaning his head back against the rock at their backs. “But I’m glad you didn’t.” She gave him a tired smile in response and shut her eyes.

***

Luckily they were not far from where the graybeards resided. Jackie was fine after a few moments of rest, if not a little bruised—his restoration magic was not as nuanced as his destruction magic, so he hadn’t managed to erase every little cut and contusion. She wasn’t dead, though, which more than made up for it.

He had, of course, collected the fat from the troll, which had nearly made her vomit. A small part of him found it hilarious, even though he had made a vow to be a little kinder to her after she’d almost died.

“It’s a rare ingredient,” he explained as his knife carved out the fat. “You should learn to do this, too. Come here.”

“No way,” she replied, turning her back to him so she wouldn’t have to watch. “Ugh. I just want to get away from it.”

He finished up, smiling to himself. Her disgust was reassuring, proof to him that she was feeling more like herself after having been healed.

***

Jackie’s eyes widened as they reached what had to be the Greybeards’ monastery. It was a huge fortress that looked, in her mind, like a castle with a huge stone staircase leading up to the doors. “I hope they let us in,” she muttered, peering at her companion. He was regarding the monastery with an unimpressed gaze, like he was dreading going in.

“Oh, they’ll let us in,” he sighed, starting up the stairs. “May as well get it over with.”

She frowned and followed him. What was his deal? No matter what, it was at least warmer in there than it was out here.

Bradas took hold of one of the doors and opened it wide without even knocking. A heavenly burst of warm air wafted over them as they entered, and a flurry of snow followed them inside. Jackie pulled the door shut behind her, feeling a little guilty about entering without even letting them know they were there. Then again, her idea of manners was probably different than the norm in Skyrim.

The great hall they had entered was spacious and lit only by a few fireplaces. Monks sat before a stone wall, meditating, or wandered around the monastery on some silent errand. It was strangely quiet, and she suddenly wished she’d asked Bradas a little more about why he needed to come here.

The Dunmer, however, seemed to know exactly what he was doing. One of the monks had spotted them and was walking over, most likely to ask what they were doing. Bradas walked toward him as well, meeting him halfway.

“So,” the monk said, his voice strained and gravelly. “A dragonborn appears, at this moment, at the turning of the age.”

Bradas’ expression was blank, unreadable. Jackie shrunk behind him a little, getting the feeling that whatever was happening, she was not at all a part of it. She remained silent, hoping to be ignored while Bradas did whatever he needed to do.

“I’m answering your summons,” he said stiffly, red eyes trained on the monk before him.

The man looked skeptical, as if he was sizing Bradas up. “We shall see if you truly have the gift. Show us, Dragonborn. Let us taste of your voice.” Every one of the monks was paying attention now, their eyes all trained on him.

“Stand aside, Jackie,” he said, motioning for her to move. Confused, she complied, backing up to stand near the wall.

“Strike us with the power of your voice,” the monk commanded. “It will not hurt us!”

She was well and truly lost, now. Jackie crossed her arms and watched Bradas as he took a deep breath, looking uncertain for the first time since she’d met him. He opened his mouth, and…

“FUS!”

Baskets flew across the room and some of the monks staggered backwards. Jackie could feel its force from where she was, like the wind from a car passing by on the highway.

“Dragonborn, it is you,” said the monk who had greeted them, his voice welcoming and overwhelmed. “Welcome to High Hrothgar.”

***

Jackie had been in this realm for well over a month, but sometimes she still couldn’t believe how her life had turned into a fantasy novel.

She sat patiently and quietly by one of the fireplaces as she watched Bradas learn from the monks. It was amazing and scary all at once; light and energy swirled around him as he learned and shouted, using only his voice to take down translucent target that the monks created. She got comfortable in one of the chairs and observed his every movement, watching the air quiver as he spoke.

It took a long time, but it was not at all boring to watch.

She’d already known that Bradas was kind of a badass—he was a ridiculously good fighter and he knew what he was doing when it came to hunting and surviving out in the wild. Now she was finding out that he apparently had the soul of a dragon, and he had yet another deadly talent. How could a person even be that skilled? How could anyone have that much going for him?

Eventually the monks urged Bradas outside, which seemed like a wise choice considering that the baskets and pottery inside the monastery had been bouncing off the walls with every shout. She followed eagerly, not wanting to miss what was happening next. She knew she wasn’t essential to what was happening but it was still fascinating to see what he could do.

She crossed her arms once they were out in the evening snow, standing clear of Bradas just in case.

“You’re going to learn the Whirlwind shout from Master Borri,” Arngeir said. That strange writing appeared on the ground, drawing Bradas closer and swirling around him. She remembered him becoming worn out in Shroud Hearth Barrow when the same thing had happened, but she wouldn’t have guessed it now.

They all travelled in a group together toward a set of gates. “Now that you have the knowledge of the Whirlwind Sprint, you must demonstrate it. Do as Master Wulfgar does.”

The monk who must have been Master Wulfgar gave Bradas a glance as the gates opened. He opened his mouth and—

Jackie gasped and covered her mouth. His body had practically flown past the gate as it was closing, leaving a slight trail in the snow. Bradas followed suit, performing the shout flawlessly. He walked back toward their little group with Master Wulfgar in tow, looking like the cat that ate the canary. She stared at him, unsure if this was something she should be that impressed by—crazy things had happened here in Skyrim, after all.

By the look on master Arngeir’s face, however, she could see that her amazement was justified. “Your quick mastery of the Thu’um is… astonishing,” he said. “I’d heard stories of the abilitites of the Dragonborn, but to see it for myself…”

“Thank you,” Bradas replied, breathless but smiling. It was a look she’d seen before, that exhilarated look that he got when fighting. “What’s next?”

“Retrieve the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller, our founder, from his tomb in the ancient fane of Ustengrav.” Bradas’ face fell at the mention of going into another tomb. “Remain true to the Way of the Voice, and you will return.”

***

That night the two of them were given a place to sleep by the monks. The monastery was so eerily quiet that she was almost afraid to talk, so instead she focused on getting settled in. They warmed up some stew and split a loaf of bread, eating quietly.

After a few long minutes of eating, she finally spoke. “Can everyone do that?” she asked, her voice low as not to disturb anyone who was potentially trying to sleep.

He took a sip of stew before answering. “No.”

“Have you always been able to do that?”

Bradas sighed. “I haven’t. Had no idea I could before that dragon appeared in Whiterun,” he replied.

“I don’t understand everything going on here,” she admitted, thinking back to when they were in Helgen, being carted off to die. The man across from her—the notorious Ulfric Stormcloak—had his mouth gagged so he wouldn’t be able to shout. “Did that dragon at Helgen come for you?”

“I don’t know,” he said his voice distant and thoughtful.

“It came at an awfully convenient time.”

“I know as much as you do,” he said. “If it was to save me, to kill me… I do not know. This… Dragonborn business,” there was bitterness in his tone, “is too much. I never came to this land to…” He sighed, his voice sounding profoundly tired.

“It’s cool,” she said, not knowing what else to say. “Hey. I’m just glad to be inside next to a warm fire.” She held her hands out to the fireplace and rubbed them together, hoping to chase away the low mood.

“Soon you’ll be able to make your own,” he said, leaning back onto his bedroll with a sigh.

“Ha, maybe.” She watched him as he closed his eyes, seeming to deflate as he relaxed.

“We leave tomorrow morning,” he said, exhausted. “We will make our way to Winterhold. I’ll seek out this Horn of Jurgen Windcaller later…” if ever. She could hear the unspoken words in the tone of his voice.

“Okay,” she said lightly, leaning back to lie on her bedroll as well. “Good night.”

He seemed to fall asleep instantly. She couldn’t blame him. The whole day had been… crazy, to say the least. She took a moment to study him, perplexed. Out of all the people she could have followed in Skyrim, she’d picked the one guy who had the soul of a dragon.

Chapter Text

Going down the mountain was much faster than going up. They started early in the morning and managed to make it to Ivarstead by the time the sun went down. The air wasn’t all that warm, but it felt wonderful after being up in the snowy mountain.

Back in Ivarstead, they found themselves in the same room they’d been in just a few nights before. Jackie had reached a point where she didn’t even care about the dirt and blood that had soaked into the clothes under her armor; they were pretty much irredeemable at this point. She peeled them off as soon as she got a few moments of privacy and threw them away. She used a small bucket of warm water to rinse off the best she could, and she changed into a clean tunic to sleep in.

She crawled into bed, resolving to deal with her nasty armor in the morning.

“I’m going through clothes like crazy out here,” she murmured to herself, closing her eyes. She thought about the clothes that she wore at home… thin, soft garments that would have been utterly destroyed after one day out here. After hiking out in the cold, though, she really missed the thick flannel jacket she’d been wearing the night she was whisked into Skyrim. Not for the first time, she wondered what had happened to it. It had probably been taken by some guard…

“Not already asleep, are you?”

Her eyes fluttered open and she jolted awake, not realizing that she had been dozing. “I was about to be,” she replied, opening her eyes to look at the disturber of her sleep. “Aren’t you tired?”

He scoffed. “Not at all. I’m restless, actually.”

She closed her eyes and hummed. “Sorry there’s nowhere for you to party out here.”

“I’m going to talk to the innkeeper. Would you like a drink?” he asked.

“No thanks,” she mumbled.

Bradas sighed and looked down at her, hands on his hips. Too often he forgot that she was less experienced than he was, and more likely to tire after a day of walking. He could travel all day and still be in the mood for action later that night. She was already rolling away from him and pulling her blankets above her head as if he was some kind of nuisance. “G’night,” she murmured. Her tone was sleepy but firm, as if to tell him to leave her alone to rest.

He huffed a laugh and left her to it. The Dunmer supposed that after three days of mountain climbing and a near-death experience, she was entitled to a bit of rest in a real bed.

He wandered out to the bar, in the mood for a drink whether or not he had company.

“Can I get you a drink, my friend?” the innkeeper asked.

“What do you have?”

“Nord mead and some wine.”

“Mead,” Bradas replied as he slid some gold toward the bartender. Wilhelm slid him a drink and got one for himself.

“It’s a slow night,” he said with a shrug. He grinned before taking a drink from the bottle. “Your woman didn’t want to stay up and drink with you?”

“She’s no woman of mine,” Bradas said before taking a sip. The thought was actually laughable—he and Jackie were hardly compatible.

“Ah, I see,” Wilhelm replied, although the skepticism in his tone told him that he did not see. It wasn’t worth convincing the man otherwise, so he ignored the suggestion.

“I don’t suppose you’ve heard any rumors lately?” he asked.

Wilhelm leaned forward conspiratorially. “I’ve heard of a child in Windhelm who ran away from the orphanage in Riften. He’s cursed.”

“Cursed?” Bradas repeated, interested. He couldn’t care less about an ordinary child, but a cursed one? Anyone would be curious.

“He’s trying to summon the Dark Brotherhood,” the bartender said, shaking his head. Bradas frowned. It was a dark thing, but it didn’t surprise him in the day and age of war.

It did pique his interest, though. He did have plans to make his way toward Windhelm eventually to search for work, and perhaps a friendly face. He’d heard that a number of Dunmer resided there, and he couldn’t deny the desire to see some of his own people. Perhaps he would see this cursed child while he was there.

***

“By the time we get to Winterhold I’m going to be in great shape,” Jackie said as they walked along the road. It was true: she’d never done so much walking in her whole life. It was at least one positive thing that would come out of this ridiculous journey. Maybe she’d even get buff!

“Perhaps your muscles won’t be as soft as they are now,” Bradas commented. She let out an indignant scoff and glared at the back of his head. Sure, she was out of shape, but you didn’t just say that to a person.

“So what is this Windhelm place?” she asked, choosing to ignore the slight and walk a few paces faster to catch up to him.

“A walled city near the Pale,” he answered. “It’s not far from Winterhold. I’d like to stop there and sell some things, perhaps find some work and stock up on supplies.”

She hummed. That all sounded pretty reasonable.

“I hear they’re not too friendly toward the Dunmer, so you shouldn’t stray too far from me,” he said seriously. “Perhaps having a human by my side will help matters.”

“Or they’ll just hate me for hanging around you,” she said with a grin. “I don’t know, it doesn’t seem like anyone’s been too terrible to you so far…” Although she knew that the Nords in Skyrim didn’t like foreigners.

He gave her a wry smile. “People in the wild can’t afford to be terribly picky about who they do business with. If you asked them their true opinion of the Mer, you would see that they don’t favor us.”

“Oh,” she said, not knowing what else to say. She supposed racism existed everywhere—yet another depressing fact that held true in all realms.

“They probably won’t like you much, either,” he continued. “You don’t look like a Nord.”

“It wasn’t all that bad in Whiterun,” she said.

He gave her a meaningful look. “Ulfric Stormcloak is the jarl of Windhelm,” he said.

It took a second for that information to set in. While living in The Bannered Mare she’d heard song after song about killing him and ending the civil war, and she’d overheard countless political arguments (that usually resulted in physical confrontation). She didn’t know very much about the war, but the people who sympathized with the Stormcloaks were extremely proud of their Nordic heritage. There was a chance that the people in Windhelm didn’t take too kindly to foreigners. “Oh. I think I get it.”

“Don’t worry. I don’t plan on staying for long.”

***

It was a six-day walk to Windhelm. Jackie had thought the journey from Whiterun to Ivarstead had been hard, but the new chill in the air made this journey a special brand of miserable. Over the next few days she came to appreciate modern amenities, like gas and electric heating. It wasn’t the first time she’d missed it, and it wouldn’t be the last if Winterhold lived up to its name.

She just piled on the clothing and marched along beside Bradas, who, in true manly-man fashion, acted like the cold didn’t bother him at all. They walked along rough paths, marking the map as they went along and found caves and crumbling towers.

Bradas focused on training Jackie to fight. At night, once they’d built a fire and settled in, he’d drill her on technique: how to hold a dagger, how to swing a sword, how to shoot a bow and arrow. She definitely wasn’t a natural, but after the incident on the mountain he realized that preparing her for conflict was the wisest choice.

***

It was late in the evening when they finally saw the walls of Windhelm rise up in sky, the light there just enough to cast a very faint glow in the clouds hanging over the city.

It was dark when they finally made it through the gates and into the stone walls of Windhelm. Jackie didn’t feel the overwhelming relief she thought they would once they were finally within the city limits. She was happy at the prospect of hot food and a bed, but… everything here felt heavy, tense, and almost sad.

She looked over to Bradas, who also seemed to pick up on the strange mood. “Let’s get to the inn,” he muttered to her, nodding toward the building that sat in the middle of the square.

Jackie nodded and followed him on weary feet. There were people walking the streets still, looking cold and nervous. She drew a little closer to her companion, wondering what everyone was so freaked out about.

There was a little bit of a commotion on the other side of the square, and Jackie and Bradas both turned their heads to look. Two men were standing near a woman—a Dunmer woman, Jackie realized—and hassling her.

“You come here where you’re not wanted, you eat our food, you pollute our city with your stink, and you refuse to help the Stormcloaks!” one of them was saying.

“But we haven’t taken a side because it’s not our fight!” the Dunmer woman tried to reason.

“Hey,” the other man said. “Maye the reason these gray-skins don’t help us is because they’re Imperial spies.”

Gray-skins? Jackie looked at her companion nervously, wondering if he was going to say something. He remained silent but continued to watch, his harsh features unreadable.

“Imperial spies? You can’t be serious!”

“Maybe we’ll pay you a visit tonight. We got ways of finding out what you really are,” one of the men said, leering at her before walking away. The woman stood there for a few moments after they left, looking furious and helpless. Bradas took that opportunity to approach her and Jackie followed.

“Looked like those Nords were giving you trouble,” he said.

The woman scoffed. “Nothing new there. Most of the Nords living in Windhelm don’t care for us, but Rolff is the worst by far. He likes to get drunk and walk around the Gray Quarter yelling insults at us in the small hours of the night. A real charmer, that one.”

“Why would anyone think you’re a spy?” Jackie asked, still reeling from the fact that those guys had been so openly horrible.

The woman sighed. “Some of these Nords will come up with any excuse to despise us. And it isn’t just the Dunmer they hate; they make a target of the Argonians as well. In fact,” she said, looking pointedly at Jackie, “just about anyone who isn’t a Nord is fair game for their bullying.” She turned back to Bradas. “I see you’re new to Windhelm. My name is Suvaris Atheron.”

“I’m Bradas Sarayn,” he replied. “We’re just passing through.”

“Well met,” she replied. “Candlehearth Hall is where most travelers stay, but if you want a good drink and a meal, look for the New Gnisis Corenerclub in the Gray Quarter.”

“I will,” he said, smiling. “Good night, Suvaris.”

If Jackie didn’t know any better, she would have thought that Suvaris was flirting with Bradas. She smirked and decided to keep that one to herself.

***

Things got awkward the moment they walked into the inn and approached the owner.

“Ah, another Dark Elf,” the older blonde said, her smile strained and her gaze on Bradas. “Just what Windhelm needs.”

Jackie’s jaw dropped. There was racism where she was from, but if someone had said something like that at a hotel in Washington they would have been sued in five seconds flat! Bradas ignored her bad attitude and asked for two rooms. Part of her was relieved that there wouldn’t be any confrontation, but… all of this was really not okay. She wished she could be bolder, but the most she could do was give the innkeeper a dirty look as she paid for her room.

She dumped her things off onto her bed before changing out of her armor into a cleaner, more comfortable outfit. She got settled in before going over to see how her Dunmer companion was doing.

She knocked on his door before entering. He was sitting on the bed, looking weary and spacing out at the wall.

“Hey,” she said quietly, shutting the door quietly. She leaned up against it quietly, shutting her eyes for a moment to listen to the clear, loud singing voice that rang throughout the inn.

“We drink to our youth! For the days come and gone! For the Age of Oppression is now nearly done…”

The words were a little different, but the tune was the same. Jackie sighed. “I don’t think I’ll ever get away from that song.”

He gave a wry laugh. “Part of the reason why I prefer to camp outside under the stars. Rarely will you run into a bard in the middle of the wilderness.”

“True enough,” she said. “So… Windhelm kind of sucks so far, am I right?” she joked, offering him a strained smile.

He frowned, his sharp features twisting into an expression of disapproval. “It seems a cloud hangs over the city.”

She frowned and moved to sit on top of the chest next to his bed. “We won’t be staying long anyway, right?”

“No, certainly not. Two days at the most.” Bradas didn’t want to spend any more time in Windhelm than necessary. “We need to stock up on food and supplies and sell our extra equipment.”

“Oh, good,” she said. “My bags are getting heavy.”

“It should fetch us a decent price,” he said thoughtfully, staring at the other side of the room like it would give him the answers. “How much extra armor do you have?”

“A bit,” she replied. “Like, a bunch of fur and leather armor. Plus some weapons I can’t really use…”

“We’ll take them to the market tomorrow and split the profit,” he decided, planning out loud. “There are some errands I’d like to run here, but nothing too time-consuming. After that I’d like to be out of Windhelm as soon as possible. Do you have any objections?”

“No, that’s fine with me,” she said. He finally looked up from where he was staring to face her. It seemed that she was studying him, her dark eyes inquisitive.

“What?”

She blinked. “Um, just wondering if you’re okay, I guess. Outside, I mean, that was pretty… terrible.”

Bradas gave a humorless laugh. “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before. Immigrants aren’t well-received here in Skyrim, particularly the Dunmer.”

“But what that innkeeper said… that was not okay,” she said, lowering her voice as if someone outside would hear. Her lips twisted into a frown, her face suddenly forlorn. “No one should say that. It was wrong and…” She heaved a sigh and leaned her chin on one of the posts of his bed. “What am I even saying? I guess it’s just one more thing our realms have in common,” she sighed.

“I thought there were no Dunmer where you were from,” he said curiously.

She shrugged. “No, but there’s still racism. And nationalism.” Jackie was solemn, looking at him intensely as though she was thinking of things she couldn’t explain.

“Perhaps we should think of happier things,” he suggested, standing up and stretching out. “Like a hot meal and our warm beds.”

She grinned, the grim mood broken. “Sure. Should we get some food?”

***

The next morning she woke up because it was so cold. She lay in bed for a few moments, curled up under the blankets and missing the space heater she’d bought once upon a time to warm up the room she occupied in her old apartment. She daydreamed about her old roommates… the times they’d stayed in for the night to bake cookies and watch Friends, pretending they had been privy to all the events in the 90s rather than little kids.

She hadn’t been gone from her world for three months, and still it seemed like a whole lifetime ago.

Finally, when she could lie still no more, she sat up and tossed the covers aside.

She changed into some men’s breeches and a loose shirt, not willing to wear a dress when it was freezing like this. During the five minutes it took to braid her hair, she reflected on how short her new morning routine was without make up or flat irons. It was kind of nice to simplify things, although there were times when she dearly missed all her tools. Although it had been stressful at times, she missed her job at the salon. It hadn’t been making her rich but she’d really enjoyed it. Now most of her money came from looting bodies. Ugh.

A knock at her door indicated that Bradas was probably awake and ready to inflict himself on the world. “Come in,” she called.

Bradas opened the door and stood in the threshold, his signature frown upon his face.

“Good morning,” she said brightly.

“Is it?” he drawled, obviously still sleepy. She stood up, all ready to go.

“We’re going to the market today, right?”

“That we are. Get your things and we’ll go.”

They made their way outside to the market and hit most of the stalls—the blacksmith, the food vendors, and then a store in the Gray Quarter that Bradas had wanted to check out.

That afternoon, after several errands, they sat on a stone ledge, fresh food in hand. She bit into an apple and chewed as she pondered. The Dunmer named Sadri who owned Sadri’s Used Wares had mentioned something about the Argonian dock workers while chatting with Bradas. “What’s an Argonian?” she asked.

Bradas didn’t know why he was surprised every time she asked a question like that. He supposed that she hadn’t had a chance to see all the races yet, only having lived in Whiterun for a short time. They hadn’t come across too many people in their travels besides bandits, and she tended to avoid looking too closely at them after he cut them down.

“Would you like to see?” he asked. She raised her eyebrows behind her apple. “They work down at the docks.”

“Would that be alright? Or, you know… rude?”

He scoffed. “Rude?”

“Yeah, like, voyeuristic or something?”

He laughed at her—leave it to Jackie to worry about offending everyone. “No. Let’s go to the docks and I’ll show you.”

***

So there were lizard people, apparently.

Jackie did her best to look casual and not like she’d come down to the docks to stare at people. She could hardly believe her eyes—she had thought that Bradas was unusual, but these people were unlike anything she’d ever imagined.

They walked past the workers and sailors and toward the edge of the cold water. Bradas inhaled deeply and exhaled, his breath rising up into the air like smoke as they looked out to the sea. It was quiet where they stood, the sounds of the docks distant and smothered by the clamor of the water against the shore.

“What do you think?” he asked her with a sly smile.

“I just wonder what else I’ve missed,” she said. “Are there other races I didn’t know about?”

“Who do you know of now?”

She thought for a moment. “Dunmer, obviously,” she replied, returning his grin. “Nord, Imperial, Redguard. And I’ve heard of the Khajiit but I’ve never seen them.”

Bradas laughed, his eyes shining as he looked down at her. She knew it was at her expense but it was rare to see such a genuine smile on him. “Yeah, yeah, yuck it up,” she said good-naturedly. “What else is there?”

“Bretons, a human race,” he began once he was finished laughing. “They have elven blood in them.”

“Dark Elves and humans?” she asked, surprised. She hadn’t yet seen anyone who could look like a mixture of those two races, although she wouldn’t know what that would look like, anyway.

He laughed. “Not likely. Some say they have Aldmer ancestors.”

“There are other types of elves?”

“Many. Of course there are the Dunmer. Then Altmer, the High Elves, and the Bosmer, Wood Elves. Not to mention all the dead races.”

“Oh,” was all she had to say. Nirn had an enormous history that she wasn’t sure she’d ever fully grasp.

“Then you have the Orsimer,” he continued, not bothering to give her a more in-depth history lesson.

“Who?”

“Orcs.”

“What?” she asked, visions of Lord-of-the-Rings-style orcs running around Skyrim dancing in her head. “Are you serious?”

“You know of the Orsimer?” he asked, surprised.

“Yeah, I’ve… heard stories,” she said. “There’s books with Orcs.” And movies, but she wasn’t up to explaining movies to him.

“Really?” he said, crossing his arms. “What kinds of stories?”

“Uh, scary ones, I guess,” she replied. “Hey, there’re stories about elves, too.”

That caught his interest. “I thought there were no elves in your realm. How could there be stories of people who don’t exist?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I don’t know. Maybe once upon a time we had some elves kicking around,” she replied with a shrug. At this point, she was sure that anything was possible.

“What tales do they tell?” he asked.

“About elves?”

“Who else?” he asked.

She couldn’t help but wonder if she should keep it to herself. Bradas already had enough of an ego without hearing about that mystical race from the Tolkien novels. “In my realm, elves are tiny little people who bake sweets in trees,” she informed him with a grin.

He narrowed his eyes. “You’re lying,” he said, watching her closely. She placed her hands on her hips and looked out to the sea, avoiding his gaze because it would make her laugh.

“Not lying,” she said. “Some of them live in the North Pole and make toys for kids.”

“I don’t like your realm,” he said, and the laughter she’d been holding back finally escaped. He let himself smile a little. “Come, we should go before it gets too much colder,” he said.

She sighed and wiped away the beginnings of mirthful tears. “You’re right, it’s already freezing. Did you do everything you wanted to do today?”

“Nearly. There was one more thing.”

“What’s that?”

Bradas lowered his voice a little. “I’ve heard rumors,” he said, “of a child in this city who is cursed.”

She looked at him blankly. “A cursed child? Okay…” She’d learned not to be skeptical when it came to paranormal stuff in this realm, but she couldn’t imagine why a kid would be cursed. “Why?”

“He’s trying to summon the Dark Brotherhood,” he informed her.

“Which is…” He sighed in exasperation and she just shrugged in response. He couldn’t expect her to know everything.

“They’re assassins,” he said.

“Oh. Why would a kid need assassins?” she asked, frowning. That seemed… weird.

Bradas was the one to shrug this time. “Strange things happen in times of war.”

“So we’re just gonna go and gawk at some poor kid while he tries to summon assassins.” Somehow, it didn’t seem smart.

Bradas grinned and rolled his shoulders like he was getting ready for a fight. “Have you no sense of curiosity? I’d like to go see.”

Jackie didn’t like the idea, but there was little else for her to do but sit in the tavern and be bored. “Let’s go check it out, I guess,” she replied.

***

They left the docks and entered the city once more, wandering around the upper level in the residential area. Bradas, as usual, already seemed to know where he was going, which made her suspect that he’d been planning this for a while.

She felt a little nervous as they approached a Dunmer woman and a young boy that were hanging out near the home, talking.

“Is it true that Aventus Aretino is performing the Black Sacrament in there?” the boy asked. Jackie frowned. The Black Sacrament? That sounded like some creepy cult stuff.

“Oh, Grimvar, always with the nonsense,” his Dunmer companion answered in the tone of voice that adults used when they wanted to steer a child onto another subject. “No, no, of course not. Those are just tales.”

“Fine!” the precocious boy replied, smiling. “Then I’ll invite him out to play. He lives just right there. I’m going to knock on his door…”

“No, child, wait!” she said quickly. “That boy, that house… they’re cursed.”

“Ha, then I’m right!” he said victoriously. “I knew it. He’s trying to get somebody killed!”

“Alright. I won’t deny it, child. What you heard is true. Aventus Aretino walks a dark path. His actions can lead only to ruin. Now, enough. We will speak no more of this. I am the only friend you need.”

Jackie watched with Bradas as the pair walked away together. She didn’t like the sound of this—what kid wanted to get somebody killed? She looked away from the Dunmer woman and her young charge over to Bradas, who was already trying to get into the house.

“What are you doing?” she asked as he got out a couple of lock-picks and began sticking them into the door handle.

“Hush, not so loud,” he chastised. She looked up nervously to make sure there were no guards in sight.

“That’s illegal,” she said, and then realized how stupid that sounded as soon as it left her mouth. They’d been looting and killing their way through Skyrim and breaking and entering was bothering her? Bradas gave her a look that reflected the absurdity of the statement and continued his lock-picking endeavor.

The door gave way with a faint click and opened wide for them. Bradas entered without hesitation, and she followed as silently as she could, shutting the door behind her.

The house was barren, cold, and empty. Much of the furniture had been removed, and it looked like no one even lived here. Had it not been for the clear chanting echoing throughout the rooms of the small home, Jackie might have even believed that illusion.

“Sweet mother, sweet Mother, send your child unto me. For the sins of the unworthy must be baptized in blood and fear…” Jackie felt a chill go down her spine as the chanting continued. She looked over to her companion, eyes wide.

For the first time ever, Bradas actually looked kind of spooked. Maybe the words themselves were creepy, but hearing them in a child’s voice made it all the worse. The pair followed the sound of chanting until they came across a boy kneeling in a small room, rocking back and forth and hovering over…

A full skeleton. Jackie covered her mouth to stifle a horrified gasp, the shock causing her to take a step back. Bradas stiffened up, his face carefully blank.

Jackie was the first to speak after a few long moments, her voice gentle and tentative. “Hello?” she asked, feeling antsy. She wanted to grab the kid and get him out of here, away from the pile of bone and flesh that he was stooped over.

He whipped around, a large, manic smile on his face. “You’ve come at last! I knew you would!” he cried, his hopeful eyes shining up at Bradas.

The Dark Elf frowned, surveying the entire grisly scene. “Are you alright?” he asked.

“It worked!” Aventus laughed, ignoring the question. “I knew you’d come, I just knew it! I did the Black Sacrament, over and over. With the body, and the… the things. And then you came! An assassin from the Dark Brotherhood!”

“I’m sorry, boy,” he said, his voice firm. “But I’m not who you think I am.”

“Of course you are!” Aventus said desperately, in a way that made Jackie feel sick. “I prayed, and you came, and now you’ll accept my assassination contract!”

“Contract?”

“My mother, she… she died. I… I’m all alone now. So they sent me to that terrible orphanage in Riften. Honorhall,” he spat. “The headmistress is a cruel, evil woman. They call her Grelod the Kind. But she’s not kind. She’s terrible, to all of us,” he explained. “So I ran away, and came here. And performed the Black Sacrament. Now you’re here, and you can kill Grelod the Kind!”

Jackie felt Bradas tug on her sleeve, and she realized that she’d been staring at what looked like human heart. “Let us leave,” he murmured. She followed him out the door, her heart pounding in her chest.

It took a few moments to be able to speak. “… Why is that kid alone?” she asked, feeling a tiny bit hysterical. That had been horrible. “We need to tell… I mean, someone should take him in, why do they let him live all alone?”

Bradas frowned. He wasn’t happy either, but Jackie didn’t seem to understand the way things worked. “And who would take him in, hm? He’s already run away from the orphanage in Riften,” he said. “He’s left the only place he can go. He’s responsible for himself now.”

“That’s not true,” she argued. “Someone should adopt him. Foster care. Or…”

“There are more orphans in Skyrim than there are kind homes for them,” he said. “He’s likely better off on his own than he was in the orphanage. That he made his way here all the way from Riften tells me that he is more than capable of caring for himself.”

“But he’s a kid,” she said, completely at a loss for what to do. If there was no one to take care of him, then there was nothing to be done… and it wasn’t like she, an off-worlder with zero resources, was capable of helping.

“That’s just it,” he said, his eyes harsh and frowning. “He is no longer a child. Come, Jackie. There is nothing to be done.”

***

Bradas left Jackie to her own devices later that night when they got to the inn. She didn’t seem too eager for company, anyway—she’d gone to bed early, claiming that she was too tired to stay up for dinner.

She was entirely too emotional at times, and he didn’t envy her. Jackie was far too soft-hearted, and she wasn’t cut out for life in Skyrim. Sometimes, it was all too obvious that she was brought up in comfort.

He did have to admit to himself, however, that he’d been highly disturbed by the scene in the Aretino home. Bradas knew that young children were capable of incredible feats, but gathering the ingredients necessary for the Black Sacrament was a difficult task if he knew anything about summoning. And travelling so far on his own… It was strange, indeed. He wondered if the child really was cursed.

And would he manage to summon an assassin from the Dark Brotherhood? It was doubtful, if the rumors he’d heard in his lifetime were true. But they had once been a feared organization, and even now people were wary.

Bradas sat in his room, leaned up against the headboard of his tiny bed in deep thought. He was actually tempted to grant Aventus Aretino’s request.

It was a ridiculous idea—taking a child’s contract. There were so many risks, physical and financial. After all, what payment could an orphan really offer? And there was also Jackie, who would surely object to such a detour…

On the other hand, though, he wanted to see Riften. And going to the College now would mean spending a significant amount of time there studying. Was he truly ready for such a commitment? He wanted to explore Skyrim and see what the land had to offer. He liked what he’d seen so far, and he wasn’t quite ready to spend who knows how many years improving his magic techniques.

And if this ‘Grelod the Kind’ was truly as horrible as Aventus claimed, she probably did deserve to die. He could always see her and make a decision.

A trip to Riften wouldn’t put them off course longer than a few extra weeks. Surely Jackie would understand—her realm would be there when she got back.

Chapter Text

That morning, Jackie woke up early and got dressed, ready as ever to get out of Windhelm.

“Things should definitely be lighter,” she muttered to herself as she packed her new items into her bag, picking it up to test out the weight. She was glad they’d sold nearly everything at the market yesterday. Carrying all that armor was probably great cardio, but it was really inconvenient while they were making their way through the wilderness. She found herself hoping that they wouldn’t run into too many more caves with treasure—sure, it made them a lot of money, but hauling it across Skyrim was no fun.

Bradas knocked at her door and entered without waiting for an answer. He looked pleasant for once—not grumpy and tired like he usually was in the morning. “Are you ready to leave?” he asked, leaning up against the threshold.

“Yes!” she replied. She was so ready to get out of this place that had been nothing but racial tension and cursed kids so far. “How long to Winterhold from here?”

“Ah, you see, Jackie... I was thinking, perhaps we shouldn’t go directly to Winterhold quite yet.”

Her face fell. He had the feeling that this news wasn’t going to go over so well, after all. “What about the College?” she asked.

“I think it may be a good idea to travel to Riften. I hear there’s good money to be made…”

Jackie didn’t seem fooled. “Wait a second,” she said, the wheels turning in her head. “… Isn’t that where that orphanage is?”

He nodded. “It just so happens.” By now he was sure that she wasn’t buying it. She tilted her head, her eyes wide and incredulous.

“Are you saying you’re gonna kill that lady?” she asked, lowering her voice. “That’s just like… one of the most irresponsible things—are you seriously going to do that just because a kid asked you to?”

“Will you hush?” he said quickly, moving into her room and closing the door. “Not so loud. And no, not just because some cursed child asked me to.”

“Oh, so you just happened to change your mind about Winterhold after talking to him.”

“I haven’t changed my mind about Winterhold,” he replied quickly. “That’s still my goal, of course. All I’m suggesting is… a detour.”

Jackie studied his face, unable to determine exactly what he was thinking? Why—why would Bradas make that kind of effort for a kid he didn’t know? As far as she knew, he wasn’t the altruistic type… If you considered murdering a random woman ‘altruistic’.

“No way,” she said, crossing her arms and deciding she didn’t care what his motives were. “I don’t want to spend God-knows-how-long on the road just so you can kill some woman—that’s just, just…” She felt herself spiraling into a typical modern girl moment, tempted to throw her hands up and declare that she ‘couldn’t even.’ There were moments where she wondered how exactly she got involved with a guy like Bradas, and this was one of them.

“It wouldn’t take that long,” he said, the perfect picture of calm and collected. Like she was the irrational one. “And it would give you more time to work on your magic.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” she scoffed. What her non-existent magicka had to do with Riften was beyond her, and she got the feeling that Bradas was trying to herd her into going without a fuss.

“I’ve heard that in order to enter the College you must display an aptitude for magic. Have you cast a spell yet, Jackie?”

“What a perfectly timed surprise,” she said, placing her hands on her hips. She suddenly felt fed up with absolutely everything: the length of their journey, the walking, Windhelm, Skyrim, the entire realm… even Bradas, at this point. If it wasn’t helping her get home, it was a part of the problem.

“Perhaps you would be able to enter as my companion without being tested,” he said, switching gears. If her angry body language was anything to go by, he had clearly said the wrong thing. “But you’d have to accompany me. And I intend to visit Riften first.” Although he could very well take off for Riften without giving her a choice, it was easier if she came along willingly.

Jackie’s face was flushed red with anger and she was huffing like a provoked dragon. If he didn’t know how unintimidating she really was, he may have even been worried, because her eyes were locked onto his like an opponent getting ready to attack him. For a wild moment he wondered if that’s what she was actually planning.

After a long, tense moment, she finally took a few breaths and closed her eyes, trying to calm herself. “Okay,” she said, careful to keep her voice calm. Throwing a fit would get her nowhere, and Bradas was sort of her friend. She needed to give him the benefit of the doubt, right?

As if she had a choice.

“How far way is Riften?”

“It will only lengthen our journey by a few weeks. Riften has many work opportunities, too, if the rumors I hear are true,” he answered. “We could always use more money.”

“Ugh,” was her response as she slumped back down on her bed. He watched her closely for signs of agreement.

She sat there for a few moments, rubbing her brow as if she were some sort of long-suffering parent. “Only a few weeks?” she finally asked, looking up at him with tired eyes.

“On my honor,” he promised.

***

When Jackie realized that they were walking in the exact opposite direction of Winterhold, she once again questioned whether or not all of this was a good idea. There was a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach—it felt like every step she took was one step further away from her goal.

She felt angry and helpless at her own pathetic situation. If she was strong enough to brave the wilds of Skyrim on her own, this wouldn’t be an issue. She wouldn’t be subject to the whims of another person (a person, who, at the moment, was proving himself to be super flaky). The unfortunate truth was that she couldn’t do it on her own, and frankly, the idea scared her. She couldn’t fight, read a map, and she barely had a grasp on basic survival skills.

Frustrated, Jackie tightened her grip on the pack she was carrying. In moments like this the imbalance between her and Bradas became frighteningly clear. He was stronger, faster, and had basic control over all their movements. She trusted him (for the most part) and even liked him, but it still made her worry.

The only positive was that they were leaving Windhelm and the cold weather behind. It was still chilly, but the further South they walked the warmer it got. Despite these encouraging details, she just had a bad feeling about straying from their original path.

That night when they made camp, Bradas rolled out his map and showed her where Riften was in the dim firelight.

“Hmm,” was all she had to say, not looking forward to more (and in her opinion, unnecessary) walking.

“Keep your chin up,” he replied, uncharacteristically optimistic. “This gives you more time to practice your magic, as well.”

“Oh, not that again,” she sighed, placing her hand in her chin. She had a feeling he was just being extra nice because he knew she didn’t want to be going in this direction. He hadn’t even made her practice with her dagger. She wondered how long that would last…

“I take it you haven’t made any progress.”

“Not at all,” she replied. “I’m starting to think I can’t do it. Maybe the people in my realm aren’t able to?” She was glad to be distracted from her grim thoughts, although she was having a hard time caring too much about the whole magic thing.

Bradas hummed, thinking. “I don’t know. Perhaps,” he said. “If that is the case, though, how did you travel between planes?”

Jackie just shrugged her shoulders. She’d pondered that very question often since she’d gotten to Skyrim and hadn’t come close to any real answers. “I don’t have any idea,” she said, frowning as she looked into the fire. “It could be anything, like… maybe I got sucked through a wormhole.” She huffed a laugh, knowing that Bradas probably wouldn’t have any idea what that was.

“Perhaps you’ve angered one of the Daedra,” Bradas said with a smirk.

“Huh?” Jackie looked up at her companion with a frown. “What’s a Daedra?”

He actually laughed at the question. “That’s a very long conversation for a different time. I’m too tired to talk about history,” he said, smiling. She laughed.

“Fair enough,” she said. “I can take first watch if you want?”

“I’ll take you up on that.”

***

The next few days went on in a similar fashion. They walked, walked, and then walked some more. Bradas added more locations to his map as they went, exploring abandoned towers and forts and collecting treasures.

They came across many predators and bandits, and Bradas had her fighting more and more. He watched as she slowly began learning to block attacks, and her style began (very gradually) to become more refined—although she was still hacking and slashing.

He supposed they’d have to work on that. Watching her reminded him of himself when he was still learning. Well, not that much, because he was much more coordinated than she was. But she was constantly getting injured, which seemed to be par for the course when learning to wield a weapon. She also became easily frustrated when they practiced, which was a great source of amusement for him on the road.

Bradas resumed the habit of teaching her at night before one of them took the first watch. They would spar and he’d drill her until her technique was adequate. She was nowhere near ready to be taking on experienced enemies, but he would have trusted her to defeat animals like wolves and mean goats.

“Someday I’m going to teach you yoga,” she said one night after he’d sprained her wrist while teaching her a new trick with the dagger. Clearly, it hadn’t worked. “It’d be a much better outlet for your aggression.”

“This isn’t an ‘outlet,’ it’s training,” he said, watching as she rubbed her sore wrist and sat on the ground next to the fire. A sprained wrist was no reason to waste magicka, but she had been fooling with the appendage for so long that it was beginning to annoy him. He sighed and held out his hand. “Give it here.”

She sighed in appreciation as her wrist mended and the swelling went down. “Much better. Thank you.”

“Think nothing of it,” he sighed, sitting across from her and shoving more wood into the flame. “We’re getting close to Riften. We should reach the city by tomorrow afternoon if my map is right.” They were, in fact, camped out next to an empty watchtower not far from Shor’s Stone, a small hovel of a town just north of their destination.

She was quiet for moment, just looking into the fire, and he worried that he’d struck some sort of nerve. The weeks that they’d been travelling had been pleasant, but Riften was a somewhat sensitive topic. She’d made it clear that she didn’t like this little detour, so they avoided the subject to keep the peace. Although it only took a few seconds, he was still relieved when she replied.

“Good,” she said, leaning back until she was flat in the dirt, her hands behind her head as she closed her eyes. Ah, so she was just tired—that’s why her response was so slow. It was pointless to worry about her emotional state, and he felt foolish for studying her every reaction. “I’d kill for some hot food.”

Bradas grinned. “Is my cooking not good enough for you, Jackie?”

“Oh, you call that cooking?” she quipped, flashing him a white smile. The Dunmer dug a red apple out of his bag and flung it at her, smirking when it nearly hit her and she squeaked.

“Hey,” she huffed, sitting up and picking up the bruised fruit. She bit into it, wiping away the juice that wanted to run down her chin. “You have to admit, though, we’re running out of food.”

He nodded as he bit into an apple of his own. It was lucky that they were approaching Riften soon. “We’ll have plenty once we arrive in Riften,” he said around a mouthful. He swallowed his bite and stood up. “Time to get up. We’re not done yet,” he said, placing his hands on his hips. Jackie frowned at him from her position in the dirt.

“What? After you sprained my wrist just now? I thought we were done.”

“Hardly,” he scoffed, placing his hands on his hips. “We only practiced for a few minutes before you got hurt.”

She wrinkled her nose in displeasure. “How about we train tomorrow when we get into the city,” she bargained. “That way I’ll actually be awake and—hey!”

He didn’t listen to her at all, and chose instead to pounce, knocking her out of her sitting position and onto her back in the dirt. Before she could roll over to get up he’d pushed her down and held the blunt side of his knife to her throat.

“Dead,” he said before standing up and brushing his shirt off.

“Are you serious?” she asked, staring up at him with tired eyes from her position on the cold ground.

“Obviously,” he replied, standing up straight and placing a hand on his hip. “You’re a sorry sight, Jackie Carson. When I was much younger than you, my uncle had me waking up in the early mornings to train. No excuses.”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re super tough,” she replied, sitting up and leaning back on her elbows. He frowned down at her, the light from the fire casting strange shadows on his face.

“Do you want to learn or not?”

“Well, yeah, but—oof!” That was all he needed to attack again, using his foot to sweep one of her elbows out from under her and cause her to collapse back onto the ground. Once again his knife was pointed at her.

“Dead once more,” he announced with a smug grin.

She groaned in frustration. “You have an unfair advantage,” she pointed out from her position on the ground. “Also I think you just pick on me because you’re bored.”

“I ‘pick on you’ because you need to learn,” he said flatly, releasing her and finally allowing her to stand. “Although I won’t deny that I’m bored. You’re not a very engaging enemy—” He blocked a clumsy hit to his arm, but found himself pleased that she was finally cooperating. She tried again, curling her hands into fists the way he’d taught her and going for his face—which meant that he’d actually annoyed her.

He laughed as he dodged every hit easily. After only a few moments she stopped, looking winded and breathing hard. “I can’t,” she panted, stooping slightly to place her hands on her knees. “I’m way too tired…”

He approached her, sighing. “You have no stamina,” he complained, his mouth drawn into a frown. Jackie just shrugged.

“Yeah, guess I’m just not feeling it tonight,” she said. “Ugh, can you help me? I think I pulled a muscle…”

He rolled his eyes. “What is it? I’ll help you to your bedroll, but don’t expect me to use healing magic for every little—” He stopped short when he realized what she was up to, but it was too late; Jackie had jumped up from her crouched position and used all her momentum to push him over as hard as she could. He blinked and realized that he had collided to the ground, and she was hovering over him with her knife pointed at his shoulder.

“Dead,” she panted, her knee digging into his leg. He glanced at where her knife was touching his armor.

“I don’t think a knife to the shoulder would kill me,” he said.

She glanced at the position of the dagger, then back up into his eyes. “Well then… maimed,” she amended, curling her lips up in a big smile, her eyes shining with the light of the fire. He began laughing, even though he was winded from her surprise attack.

“I’ll admit, just this once, that you got the best of me,” he said, breathing in as she lifted her weight off his leg and helped him up.

“I can’t believe you fell for such a stupid trick!” she said, laughing so hard her eyes began to water. She placed her dagger back in its sheath, looking at him with the biggest grin he’d seen since they’d left Windhelm.

“Don’t push your luck,” he replied, the warning losing all of its edge in his laughter.

“Ooh, I’m so scared,” she taunted, placing her thumbs on her cheeks and wiggling her fingers in a gesture he’d never seen before. Whatever it meant, he was sure it wasn’t very complimentary.

“Hah, I was going to tell you to take a break,” he said, taking a big step toward her and watching her flounce away. “But now I’M going to maim YOU. Prepare yourself—”

A loud, haunting trill cut through the air, interrupting him and making them both stand on edge. A gust of air and the flapping of huge, deadly wings erased their smiles and silenced their laughter. Jackie looked at him, the color drained from her face—he was sure that he looked no better.

An enormous dragon was gliding towards them, opening its mouth to reveal puffs of flame and smoke. Quickly, Bradas pushed Jackie in a direction perpendicular to its course. He didn’t even need to tell her to run; she was already sprinting.

His bow and arrow were out before he could even think of a strategy, firing arrow after arrow into the beast’s scaly hide. He had to duck and roll out of the way of an angry breath of fire, and in a panic he cast a Frost spell in its direction. It didn’t seem to do much, but Bradas had learned in Whiterun that the only option was to continue attacking until it wore out and landed. It had been easier with several of the city’s guards, but perhaps it was doable on his own if he was light on his feet.

Another swoop and gust of wind—Bradas continued firing without regard to his arrow supply. The dragon roared once more and landed on the ground, focusing its eyes on him and opening its mouth. He ran as quickly as he could to escape its range, flames licking at his heels.

A burst of wind scattered the dirt as the dragon swooped back up, making lazy circles in the air as it no doubt decided how to maim and kill its prey. Bradas took that time to peer around and see where Jackie had run off to.

“Bradas!” He found her right away. She was struggling with the packs they had been carrying, having removed them from their campsite as she ran. A part of him could appreciate the effort, but mostly he wanted her to get out of the area. “Bradas, run!” she yelled.

The dragon began to glide back down and Bradas instantly saw the logic in Jackie’s plea.

So he ran.

His feet carried him swiftly in Jackie’s direction, and in one fluid movement he grabbed his pack out of her arms and urged her to follow. Now unburdened of half of her load, Jackie was able to run faster, following the Dunmer toward the watchtower.

The journey couldn’t have been more than a few hundred yards, but it felt significantly longer than that when a fuming dragon was breathing fire on their heels. When they finally reached the dinky wooden structure, Jackie had a brief moment of panic—were they actually going to try and hide here? Wouldn’t the dragon just burn down the whole building? And where was the damn entrance? Everything was so dark and her adrenaline was pumping too hard to focus and—aha!

As a lick of flame hurtled in the air toward them, she grasped Bradas’ arm and somehow, through a rush of blurred motion, she managed to wrench them both down into the dark entrance of the watchtower. They stumbled through the stone and wood structure into the dark, scraping their hands on the ground as they crouched down to make themselves invisible.

The dragon outside roared, its mighty Thu’um echoing through the air like a hot and deadly sonar. Fire crackled in the air but only the light and heat of it reached them—the sweat on Bradas’ face looked orange and sickly, and utterly terrifying. Jackie tucked her arms and legs in closer to her body and covered her eyes with her hand. She took a deep breath, trying to calm down; at this point all they could do was hide and hope. There was no use in panicking.

Bradas, crouching next to her, was not panicking or worrying about whether or not the dragon could burn down the watchtower to reach them. He tucked in next to his companion, but kept his eyes open, straining to see the beast outside one its fire receded. He listened as its horrible wings clapped in the air, as it shrieked in rage. Rather than stiffening fear, he felt frustrated that he didn’t know how to kill it on his own.

The two of them sat on the bottom level of the watchtower, safe from the dragon’s breath. They waited, listening to the beat of its wings as it flew around and around the tower. And as they waited, the Dark Elf’s frustration slowly turned to calculation—and a dangerous, hot-blooded desire to find a way to defeat such an undefeatable opponent.

***

It was a few hours later when the dragon finally grew bored—or forgot what it was after—and flew away, the swish of the air fading as it glided away. Still, they stayed in the watchtower for the rest of the night. Jackie had eventually curled up at the bottom of the stairs, sleeping with her pack under her head for support, her arms wrapped around her body. Whether it was for warmth or some sense of security, Bradas didn’t know.

He hadn’t slept after the dragon left, filled with too much tension to relax. He sat on the stairs above his human companion, leaning back into the cold hard stone and staring up at the ceiling. There had to be a way to kill those damned dragons—he knew there was. Was it the Thu’um? Was it pure strength? The only reason that the dragon in Whiterun had been slain was because they had attacked it in numbers, and even then it had been close.

It was a long time that he thought, plotted, and designed ways to take down such a monster. So long, in fact, that the light was streaming through the wooden beams of the tower when he finally sat up and cracked his back, and forced himself to put the matter to rest. For now.

Jackie stirred from her position on the floor, cracking open an eye and looking up at him. “Are you up?” her voice cracked, still sleepy.

“Obviously,” he said. “Time to wake up. We’re getting to Riften today if it kills us.”

The brunette at the bottom of the stairs rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and let out a wry laugh. “It just might.”

Chapter Text

It was late in the afternoon when they finally made it to the city. Riften was—well, not one of the nicer towns Jackie had seen since coming to Skyrim. Right off the bat some guard had tried to shake them down for money. She had been incredulous when he tried to get them to pay a ‘visitor’s tax’ (which was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard) but the crooked guard relented when Bradas called him out on it.

Things hadn’t gotten much better once they were inside the gates. She couldn’t believe that she’d thought Whiterun was dirty. Sure, she’d liked it there, but it had been hard to ignore its more… medieval qualities. Riften was all that and more, but with a lot more shady types thrown into the mix. Bradas, however, looked like he was right in his element. Surprise, surprise.

The tavern, of course, was the center of activity. Singing, drinking, and laughing filled the Bee and Barb, and Jackie stuck close to Bradas as he approached an Argonian barmaid and asked for a couple of rooms.

“Two rooms? You sure?” was the skeptical woman’s gruff reply.

“That’s what I said,” Bradas confirmed, one eyebrow raised high.

“Sure thing,” she said, obviously not caring one way or the other. She led the two of them to neighboring rooms and left them to it. Without a second thought Jackie trudged into the closest room and threw her stuff at the foot of the bed, just about ready to toss off her dirty clothes and crawl under the covers.

Bradas disappeared for a moment, presumably putting his things away as well. Jackie slumped down onto the stiff bed and sighed.

She was exhausted.

They’d started walking again early in the morning, and it had become abundantly clear after a few hours that Bradas hadn’t slept at all the night before. She didn’t blame him; a dragon attack was definitely enough to make anyone lose sleep. But she’d quickly discovered that ‘early-morning Bradas’ was not nearly as bad as ‘sleep-deprived’ Bradas. He’d been grumpy and snappy all day, and it had taken quite a bit of self-restraint not to snap back. After all, she hadn’t wanted to go this way in the first place.

She quickly pushed down the resentment about their change of course. She’d already said what she had to say about it ages ago, and picking a fight with her companion wasn’t going to help anything.

“I’d suggest placing your things in the chest by the bed.” She looked up to see the cause of her exasperation leaning on the door frame with his arms crossed. “Bad types out there.”

“Right,” she agreed. “I’ll do it in a second.”

“Good. Tomorrow we’ll go to the market and resupply.”

“Cool. You going to bed now?”

He huffed a weary sigh, but the corner up his mouth was pulled into a tiny smirk. “Not quite yet.”

“Why not?” she asked, not bothering to mask the suspicion in her voice. She’d gotten more sleep than he had last night and she was still beat.

“I’m going to buy a drink.”

“Oh? Well, have fun,” she said, kicking off her boots.

“You’re not coming?”

“You’re crazy,” she laughed as she peeled off her armor to reveal the sweaty clothes underneath. “No. I’m taking a nap. You should, too, since you didn’t even sleep last night.”

He shook his head. “Suit yourself,” he said, turning to leave her to her nap. He quickly shut the door to her room and looked behind him to see if anyone had seen her taking off her armor. People in towns like this weren’t likely to ignore a girl—a very decent-looking girl, if Bradas was being honest—who was throwing off armor without a care. Nothing had been revealed, really, but the Dunmer was well aware of the shady types that hung around places like this. He’d have to watch her back while they stayed here.

He walked to the bar and ordered some ale, tired but still wanting to wind down a little before going to bed. The sun was still out, anyway—it was far too early for sleep. Sure, Jackie had gone to bed, but she slept at every opportunity. He’d never known a person who napped so aggressively. She’d probably be out until the morning, when she’d wake up and drag him out of sleep against his will.

For now, though, he’d enjoy his drink and listen to the crowd of bar-goers have their rowdy fun. He’d speak to the bartender and see if she knew of any work or rumors, and see if he could find a card game.

Also, it wouldn’t hurt to get to know some people in the town… and perhaps see if Grelod the Kind, his whole reason for coming here, would be missed if he really did decide to kill her.

***

It was quiet when Jackie woke up, and for a moment she felt a strong sense of nostalgia for her old room in Whiterun. The mornings there were also peaceful when all the people who’d been partying in the bar below had finally gone home or passed out.

She got up and got ready for the day. Rather than wake Bradas up right away (he was probably deep asleep and hung over, anyway) she asked the barmaid for a bucket of hot water and gave herself the best bath she could within the confines of her small room.

She got dressed, slipped on her lightest leather armor, and delayed the waking of her companion by going for a walk outside. In the bright morning light, Riften looked almost peaceful. Few people were out and about except at the market stalls, and even then they were barely getting set up for the day. It made sense, she supposed, that people didn’t really start their day here until a little later.

The off-worlder bought a slice of bread and some cheese for breakfast from a Dunmer woman operating a food stand. She was leaning over the edge of the marketplace and looking down at the lower level of the city, chewing on her food when a familiar presence leaned next to her.

“Mornin’,” she said, not bothering to swallow before speaking.

“You’re up early, as usual.”

“There’s nothing stopping you from sleeping in.”

“Nothing but an early morning bar fight,” Bradas groused. Jackie wrinkled her nose.

“It is a little early for all that.”

“Not for Riften,” he sighed. He held his hand out and she tore off a piece of bread for him.

“Want some cheese?”

“I couldn’t possibly.”

She rolled her eyes and broke off a piece of cheese.

“You’re too kind.”

Jackie grinned and watched him eat his stolen portion. “So what’s the plan today?”

It turned out they were doing what they always did when they got into a new town. They hit every stall in the market place, buying and selling. She watched Bradas haggle through any means—persuasion, charm, slight intimidation… it was so tedious it almost made her miss the prices at home. Nice things were expensive, but at least you were in and out of the store within a reasonable time.

Bradas seemed perfectly comfortable, though, and she wondered how he’d fare at Macy’s. The thought of her Dunmer friend arguing over prices at the mall brought a smile to her face.

Once they had some extra cash they stocked up on new armor and bought what Bradas called soul gems.

“Whoa. Pretty, but what do we need them for?” she asked. She held a particularly pretty one up before putting it away, watching it gleam and sparkle in the sun. It was a dark midnight purple color, and it reminded her a little bit of a geoid.

“Put that away before someone gets ideas,” he deadpanned, obviously not as impressed by it as she was. “It’s for enchanting. My goodness, I really do have to explain everything to you.” She made a face at him and he grinned. “I’ll show you later. I’m really quite good at it.”

“Of course you are,” she teased, grinning as she gave him the gems. She just hoped that it was a wise purchase. She really didn’t know about buying jewelry instead of more food.

The pair began to stroll back to the Bee and Barb, their loads and moods lighter. Bradas, she could tell, was kind of excited about the enchanting thing.

“Perhaps that’s where your magical talent lies,” he pondered, his steps light beside hers. He stopped at the railing over a bridge and looked over at the lower level of the city. He took out one of the fresh apples they’d bought and cut in it half, handing her a portion before biting into his own.

“You seem pretty determined to get me into magic,” she replied. At this point she had given up any hope of doing anything remotely supernatural. Nights spent meditating on fire had been useless so far, and she wasn’t even sure how to begin studying something she’d once thought fictional.

“Of course I am,” Bradas said, a smile tugging at the corner of his lips. “To live without casting even one spell? Unbelievably strange.”

“Hm, maybe for you,” was her response. She took a bite of apple and turned to look around the marketplace, bored with the lower part of the city that her companion was so interested in. There were more people up here to watch—and people-watching was mostly what she did for entertainment these days. Sometimes she sorely wished that she could still play Temple Run on her smartphone.

Not long after resigning herself to people-watching did she notice the man at the stall closest to them watching them discreetly—at least trying to be discreet, anyway. She accidentally made eye contact and, feeling spectacularly awkward, tried to play it off like she’d just happened to be looking at the potions he was trying to sell.

Big mistake. He began to walk toward them.

“Um, Bradas,” she whispered, trying to figure out a way to get out of what would surely be an uncomfortable social interaction. The Dunmer didn’t look up in time and Jackie almost winced when she heard:

“Never done an honest day’s work in your life for all that coin ya carry, eh, lad?”

“Pardon?” the Dunmer asked, standing up straight and regarding him with scrutinizing crimson eyes.

“I’m saying you’ve got the coin, but you didn’t earn a septim of it yourself honestly. I can tell.” He gave them an easy smile.

Jackie’s eyebrows shot straight up into her hairline. Still gripping the last little bit of apple she had, she tried to do a quick mental inventory—did they, a mismatched pair of weary travelers, look particularly wealthy today?

“My wealth is none of your concern,” Bradas said. Jackie frowned, disturbed partly because this guy was trying to get all up in their business, and partly because he was right. She and Bradas made almost all of their money stealing off corpses. Almost no legitimate work came their way since they were so transient.

“Oh, but that’s where you’re wrong, lad. Wealth is my business. Maye you’d like a taste?”

“Thanks, but we’re kind of busy,” Jackie said, giving the Nord her signature ‘nice-hairstylist’ smile. She made to leave but Bradas wasn’t seeming to get the hint—in fact, he actually looked kind of interested.

“Let’s not be hasty, Jackie,” he said, looking thoughtful. “Tell me more.” She let out a long sigh, totally annoyed and totally not surprised. Even though it was obvious that this guy was bad news, Bradas’ brain stopped working once someone mentioned money.

The stranger gave them a Cheshire smile. “My name is Brynjolf. I’ve got a bit of an errand to perform, but I need a pair of extra hands,” he explained, “and in my line of work, extra hands are well-paid.”

Jackie scoffed. His ‘line of work?’ Was this a bad mob movie? Bradas shot her a ‘don’t mess this up’ look and she rolled her eyes.

“What would this extra pair of hands be doing?” he asked.

“Simple… I’m going to cause a distraction, and you’re going to steal Madesi’s silver ring from a strongbox under his stand,” he pointed to a stand in the market. “Once you have it, I want you to place it in Brand-Shei’s pocket without him noticing.” His finger moved to gesture toward a Dunmer man standing another stall selling his wares.

Jackie gaped at the Nord standing in front of her. “Why would you do something like that?”

“There’s someone who wants to see him put out of business permanently. That’s all you need to know,” Brynjolf dismissed, not put off at all by her skepticism. In fact, he barely seemed to acknowledge her presence—that seemed to be a common theme with the people who approached Bradas for favors.

Bradas was tempted by the offer, but he wanted more details, and by the way Jackie was gaping at his side, he imagined that it wouldn’t go over so well. She was pretty queasy about crime despite the lifestyle she was now involved in. “Perhaps another time,” he offered. Brynjolf grinned as if he had just agreed.

Unfortunately, the human at his side was not fooled, nor was she impressed. She looked up at him with a raised brow and crossed arms.

“Don’t worry, Bradas, I’m getting out of here, anyway. If you need me, I’ll be wherever the potions shop is,” she declared, clearly washing her hands of the whole situation. He gave her a wide grin and she rolled her eyes, already walking away to leave him to it.

***

It was later in the evening when Jackie finally returned to the Bee and Barb carrying a rucksack full of different purchases. She’d grabbed books, food, and potions: ones for health, stamina, and magicka. “Do we have money for so many potions?” Bradas asked, not even sure if it was necessary to keep so many on hand.

“I didn’t pay much for them,” she replied. He watched as she shoved a couple of them into his bag for him. She tucked a few in her pockets as well. “I just bought the herbs and made them.”

“You made them?” He could tell from the slight narrowing of her eyes that he’d asked the wrong question—at least in the wrong tone.

“I don’t know, they could be poison. Only one way to find out,” she chirped.

“I just didn’t know you could make them,” he defended, holding his hands up in surrender.

“Where did you think our potions were coming from?” she laughed.

“When did you have time to learn?”

“I didn’t just do nothing while I was in Whiterun,” she said with a smirk. “I gathered ingredients for Arcadia. She taught me a few things.”

Bradas grinned. He knew that Jackie wasn’t useless—but a lot of times she seemed like such a foreigner. Sometimes, however, she did things that left him pleasantly surprised. “Impressive. Perhaps I’ll keep you around, after all,” he teased.

“Only if I decide to keep you.” She flashed her pearly white teeth and then flushed. “Ugh, I didn’t mean it like that…” she said with a nervous laugh.

Bradas wasn’t sure he understood what she meant, so moved on to more important topics. “Tonight I’m going to the orphanage,” he informed her. As he predicted, she instantly sobered—her smile disappeared and her blush was gone.

“Okay. Are you sure?”

“I’ve asked a bit about Grelod the Kind. Most agree that her name is misleading,” he said.

She sighed and looked up at the ceiling for a few moments, silently asking some kind of higher power to give her… something. Patience? Strength? She’d known that eventually Bradas would want to do something about the Grelod lady… but she’d been ignoring the topic for a while because it had made her so angry.

As much as she didn’t want to be present, she wondered if it was possible to deescalate the situation somehow. They could see if Grelod was really that terrible, or if the young boy in Windhelm was just troubled. And if she really was that bad, perhaps there was a way to talk to her, or let some guards know… there had to be a solution that didn’t mean killing her. And if she knew Bradas, that would be his first resort. “Let me go with you,” she found herself saying.

“If you insist,” he replied with a shrug. She didn’t miss how his hand had wandered to the hilt of his dagger.

***

It was a short walk to the orphanage. The sky was darkening quickly and the air grew cold, as was common in Frostfall. Bradas walked ahead and had Jackie watch out to make sure no guards were following them—although he supposed that they needn’t worry too much in a town like Riften.

Honorhall Orphanage was unlocked, and the pair looked around quickly to make sure that no one saw them entering. The door shut quietly behind them, and the Dunmer strained his ears to listen for people inside. He was not disappointed—a shrill, angry voice sounded from around the corner, and he felt Jackie jump a little behind him at the sudden noise.

“Those who shirk their duties will get an extra beating! Do I make myself clear?”

Bradas moved forward quietly and continued listening.

“Yes, Grelod,” a chorus of young voices replied.

“And one more thing,” the vicious woman declared. “I will hear no more talk of adoption. None of you riff-raff is getting adopted. Ever! Nobody needs you, nobody wants you. That, my darlings, is why you’re here. Why you will always be here, until the day you come of age and get thrown out into that wide, horrible world. Now, what do you all say?”

“We love you Grelod,” the children’s voices sounded in monotone. “Thank you for you kindness.”

Grelod was truly a monster, as the boy had told them, and the angry ball in the pit of his stomach told him that this trip was worth it. A shocked intake of breath sounded from behind him and he glanced at his companion, almost feeling vindicated.

The look on her face surprised him, though. She looked heartbroken and breathless, her empathy acting as a foil for his burning indignation.

“Come with me or stay behind,” he said gently, observing her stricken features. Her dark eyes met his, brown on crimson red, and he could see exactly what she was thinking. She wished for another way… and realized that there was none.

Finally, she relented. “Go ahead,” she murmured.

Jackie watched as he disappeared around the corner into a room unseen. She leaned against the door, feeling sick to her stomach. She was such an idiot. Had she really thought that her presence here would make a difference? Had she truly been foolish enough to believe that this problem could be solved any other way?

Listening to Grelod scream at the kids had made her realize that she was fooling herself. Everyone in town knew about this cruel woman, and no one had lifted a finger to change things. The authorities had done nothing. Jackie hated what Bradas was about to do, but… this wasn’t Cedar Falls, Washington. This wasn’t even planet Earth.

This was Skyrim, and this was how people solved things here.

A soft voice cut through her thoughts and she flinched. “You shouldn’t be in here…” someone was saying. She didn’t hear if Bradas replied or not.

“What do you want? You have no business being in here!” Grelod’s harsh voice carried over to the foyer where Jackie stood, and she took a breath and shut her eyes.

She could hear the smile in Bradas’ voice as he said, “Aventus Aretino says hello.”

“Aretino! Why that little bastard! You tell him I’m coming for him! And that when I find him, it will be the beating of his miserable life!”

Not two seconds passed before the building erupted in horrified screams and sounds of rejoice.

Chapter Text

Jackie opened her eyes to a pounding, terrible headache. She'd awoken to someone's groaning, and realized, after a few seconds of confusion, that it was her own.

She could vaguely perceive that she was lying on a patch of rough grass, and that the ground was damp beneath her. She was dirty and cold, wearing nothing but the thin tunic that she'd been using for sleeping. A wave of nausea overcame her and she dry-heaved into the dirt.

She coughed, trying hard to make her eyes focus. Her vision wavered between doubled and blurry, and the only thing she knew for sure was that she was no longer in her warm room in Riften. There was only dirt, some scattered shrubs, and patches of grimy swamp water.

"Bradas?" she tried to call. Her voice was hoarse and she sounded more like a frog croaking—too quiet for anyone to hear. She took a few deep breaths and tried not to panic. If Jackie knew one thing, it was that panicking would make this situation exponentially worse.

"Okay, get up, get up," she muttered, blinking her eyes a few times and putting her hands out in front of her.

She slowly pushed herself up onto all fours, taking deep breaths and trying to stay focused. "Gotta find Bradas," she instructed herself. Another wave of dizziness washed over her and she weathered it as well as she could, taking deep breaths and preparing to vomit. Once she didn't, however, she continued her journey upward, standing on wobbly legs and watching the world spin around her.

Where was she?

And more importantly, how had she gotten there?

She took a few steps forward, unsure of where she was going until she ran into a hard wooden surface. She leaned into it, glad for something to help her stand.

The sky outside was overcast, but the light still hurt her eyes. So she closed them, hoping that she could clear her head and figure out what the hell was happening.

Little sense could be conjured from memory. Everything was strange and disjointed, but she tried to remember anyway—the last coherent thing she could remember was leaving Honorhall Orphanage after Bradas killed Grelod the Kind.

They had walked back to the Bee and Barb in silence. She remembered being upset, but not at Bradas—she was just confused, sad, and missing home more than ever.

They'd gone to bed… and then… then…

Jackie took a few deep breaths and willed herself to remember. She needed to remember…

So they'd gone to bed. But in the middle of the night she'd been woken up by something out in the bar. She'd wandered outside with the intention of grabbing a snack from the barmaid, and then noticed a light under Bradas' door. She'd hoped he was awake, that maybe he wouldn't mind hanging out with her until she got sleepy again.

Jackie knocked on the door and heard nothing. No sound at all. She got nervous and grabbed her dagger, feeling stupid and paranoid but worried all the same. And when she'd opened the door to his room…

It finally hit her. She could not remember exactly who, but someone who was decidedly not Bradas had been behind the door. Her knife was no help at all, and whoever was in his room had knocked her out cold.

Little bits and pieces of memory surfaced after that, so abstract that she couldn't be positive they weren't fragments of a dream. Waking up occasionally and being fed… something. Some kind of bitter medicine. It felt as though she'd spent days drifting between sleep and consciousness, her muscles aching, her head hurting.

But where was Bradas?

Pressing her hands against the surface that supported her, she finally realized that she was inclined against a door. Shaky hands searched for a handle and found it locked. "Damn it," she whispered, frustrated with how slowly she was making progress. A limp arm gave the door a knock and she pressed her ear up to the wood, listening for any sign of life within. She was able to do little else.

Sure enough, a muffled voice sounded through the wood.

"… there is a slight problem…"

Someone was inside! Maybe someone who could help! Her weak hands tried the handle again to no avail, and she would have screamed in frustration if she'd had the strength.

"A problem?"

Bradas' voice. She could have cried with relief.

"Bradas…" her voice came out as a weak whisper, barely loud enough to hear. He couldn't hear her, but it was so good just to know that he was okay.

"Aretino boy… looking for the Dark Brotherhood," she could hardly hear what they were saying on the other side of the door, but she strained her ears for more. "For me, and my associates. Grelod the Kind was, by all rights, a Dark Brotherhood contract. A kill… that you stole. A kill that you must repay."

Jackie didn't like the sound of that. "You want me to murder someone else."

"If you turn around, you'll notice my guests…" Jackie didn't want to hear any more.

"Shut up," she muttered, leaning back a little and hanging onto the doorknob for support. She needed this door out of the way. With her free hand she searched the pocket of her tunic for anything helpful—lock picks, maybe? She wasn't an expert like Bradas, but he'd taught her a little bit. Unfortunately, there was nothing in her pocket. She had nothing but the clothes on her back. She swore once again and put her ear to the door.

"C'mon, Bradas, open up…"

"… there's a contract on one of them, and that person can't leave this room alive. But which one?" the female voice was saying. "Go on, see if you can figure it out. Make your choice. Make your kill. I just want to observe… and admire."

There was only silence for what felt like a really long time. She felt ill, and she wasn't sure if it was from whatever drugs she'd been given or the fact that they were stuck in some psycho's twisted mind game.

"I'll have no part of this." Bradas' voice was clear as a bell, even through the door. She wanted to laugh; he was choosing no! He wasn't going to do it. That made her happier than she could have ever imagined.

"Now that is a shame." The other voice sounded disappointed. "But what you fail to realize is that you involved yourself when you took Grelod's life. You made your choice. Now it's time to face the consequences of your actions—you don't leave this shack until someone dies."

There was another agonizing silence. She wished she could see inside and figure out what exactly was going on. Was Bradas tied up, drugged out? How many other people were in there with them?

The silence and her thoughts were cut short when a loud, booming noise rattled the entire shack.

"FUS!"

"Bradas!" she yelled, finally finding her voice. She balled her hands into fists and tried pounding on the door again. The sound of knives clashing together and people yelling filled the tiny house.

The fight took forever. She stood there and heard it all, every hit and block and splatter of blood. And then suddenly, it stopped. She quit pounding on the door, her heart dropping to her feet. It had all sounded so brutal—was he okay? A couple of minutes passed by and she was beginning to truly panic. She couldn't hear a thing.

Suddenly, the door pushed open and she fell right over on her butt. Three people she'd never seen in her whole life filed out—two humans and a Khajiit. They each took one look at her and scurried away without a word.

Finally, Bradas exited the shack, looking breathless. He was covered in blood and still holding his dagger. "Jackie," he breathed in surprise. He took no time in helping her stagger into the shack and depositing her onto the floor.

During that time, she finally gathered the wits to ask the important question: "What the hell?"

Bradas only shook his head and made a motion toward the body slumped in the corner. Jackie turned her head to look at the woman she'd heard through the door. She averted his eyes in favor of looking at him. "Are you okay?"

He nodded. "Fine. You?"

"I'll live," she said, her eyes filling up with tears. Despite all that had just happened, her heart was full—was there any way she could express to him how relieved she was that he was okay? That although she was feeling sick and weak and drugged, she couldn't even find it in herself to be upset because she was just so happy they were both alive?

He crouched down next to her, worry etched in his features. "Are you hurt?"

"No," she said, her voice shaky. She gave him a weak smile and lifted her hands to wipe her eyes. "I'm really, really okay."

Bradas watched as she took a few breaths and wiped away a few stray tears. She looked pale, but no worse for the wear. "We were poisoned, I think," he said, finally taking a seat next to her on the cold ground.

"Yeah," she agreed. He took a look at the dead woman in the corner, and then at the living one next to him. He hadn't had time a few moments ago to wonder where she'd wound up, but he was glad—very glad—that she'd been close by.

"How do you feel?"

"Like I have the most brutal hangover of my life," she replied. Despite her words, she looked happy. "And I'll never make fun of you for sleeping in armor ever again."

He laughed despite himself. "You'll feel even better when you see what I have in my pocket." He dug out a single vial of health potion.

"Oh, my potion!" she breathed, smiling even wider. "Will this help with poison?"

"It should. Shall we share?"

"Oh, yes, please."

He took a swig of the little red bottle, leaving a little more than half for his companion to drink—and once she did, the color returned to her face almost instantly.

"Better?"

"Much," she sighed. They sat together on the floor for a few moments, just breathing in and out and letting the health potion work its magic. After what had to be a couple of minutes she turned her head to look at him and said, "So, wanna tell me what this was all about?"

***

When they put their heads together, they were able to get a better idea of what happened. They'd been abducted in the middle of the night and drugged so that Astrid, or the Dark Brotherhood, could initiate Bradas into the secret society. It turned out that by killing Grelod, he'd stolen one of their contracts.

"Bradas, I hate to say it, but…" I told you so! She resisted the urge to say it out loud. They were both miserable enough.

He sighed and shook his head. "Yes, I'm becoming more and more aware now that travelling to Riften was not the wisest choice," he admitted. She just shrugged and left it at that. She'd been angry before, but that resentment was overcome with relief for the time being. She was certain she'd find time to be upset later, but for now she was just... drained.

"So… where are we?"

"That… is a good question," he replied. He dug into a breast pocket and pulled out the wrinkled map they had been travelling by. "Certainly not anywhere near Riften, if the landscape is anything to go by," he muttered. He had a sinking feeling that they were very, very far from their current destination.

"Maybe there's a town nearby," she suggested.

"Perhaps. In the meantime..." He looked up at his companion. Perhaps he hadn't seen it before in all the excitement, but now he was realizing that Jackie was clad in only a worn out tunic. Her shoulders were exposed and he could even see her knees. "Perhaps you can use her armor," he said, gesturing toward Astrid's body.

Jackie frowned, but could see the logic in it. While Bradas made an attempt to find where they were on the map and take a quick inventory of what they had, she worked on undressing the body and wiping away blood spatters. It was gross but necessary, and to be honest, she'd seen way worse in the course of their travels.

She aired out the armor a little and did her best to rub the bloodstains out with dirt from the floor. It was mostly ineffective, but it made her feel a little better about wearing the clothes.

"A note," Bradas announced. Jackie looked up at him as she slipped on the pants of her armor under her tunic.

"What?"

"A note in my pocket. It says, 'We know.'" He crumpled the paper up and tossed it aside. "How foolish. I should have known something would happen."

Jackie only vaguely remembered the courier delivering such a letter. "Don't beat yourself up over it," she said.

She finished getting dressed and sat back beside him, feeling better but still a little dizzy. "How were we supposed to know we'd get kidnapped and dragged out to the middle of nowhere?"

He smirked. "You're surprisingly calm."

"I'm also drugged," she said with a shrug. "I'll have plenty of time to freak out when I recover from whatever they gave me. How are you feeling?"

Bradas sighed and leaned his head back against the wall. "I feel the effects of the poison even now. I'm not sure how I was able to fight her."

"Adrenaline rush," she supplied.

"What?"

"I'll explain later," she promised, closing her eyes and feeling sleep settle over her like a heavy blanket.

***

Both fell asleep there without meaning to. When they woke once again, the sun was peeking through the clouds and warming the abandoned shack. Both were groggy, but the health potion they'd shared had kicked in and sleep had banished some of the fatigue.

Before they left, they took an inventory of what they had: their clothes, one magicka potion, some lavender he didn't remember picking, and his dagger. Jackie had discovered an interesting knife on Astrid's body and some dried meat which they split evenly. The woman also had a number health potions that would likely prove useful over the course of the next few days… days that promised to be rough if they couldn't figure out where they were soon.

"We're nowhere near Riften," he muttered, looking out to the gray swampland that surrounded them.

"Then where…?" Jackie was equally perplexed, and absolutely no help. She couldn't read a map or navigate to save her life. "Well, shit."

He would have laughed had their situation not been so serious. Instead, he unraveled the map once more. Only a few places were named—places they had been to, from Riverwood to Whiterun to Riften, and many places in between. However, the map did contain a few clues. Some marshes and swamp land were marked down in the northwest area, so they were in one of only a few places… places that were very far from Riften.

He was almost afraid to admit how far.

"South," he muttered. "We should head south."

"Lead the way," she said.

So he did. Together, they travelled through the cold swamps, stopping only to drink some water or chew some of their jerky. There were few enemies out, which almost made Bradas nervous. The fog clung to the ground and swirled in the wake of their footsteps.

***

Night fell sooner than either expected. The clouds had covered up the sun all day, so it had been difficult to tell time—not to mention the short nap they'd taken before leaving. He felt completely unsatisfied with their progress, but couldn't deny the wisdom in setting up camp while a good spot was still in sight. They set up a modest camp beside a great rock that blocked the wind and started a fire using rocks and sticks—he wanted to preserve his magicka, especially in a place like this.

"How are you feeling?" Jackie's voice broke the silence.

"Fine," he replied, willing the answer to be true. He felt exhausted and sick, truthfully, but there was no time to dwell on it. There were still things to be done, and they weren't in the clear just yet.

"Just take it easy," she said, digging a piece of dried meat out of her pocket and taking a bite.

"Easier said than done," was his gruff reply. "You're still… very calm. Surely you aren't still feeling the effects of the poison?"

"No, I'm a lot better. Just… resigned, I guess. I think I'll probably freak out later," she said with a laugh. "Are you tired? Maybe you should rest a little… I can take first watch."

"Not tired quite yet," he said with a frown.

"There's not much else we can do," she reasoned. "I guess we could sit around the fire and feel like cowboys with our jerky."

"Cowboys?" he asked. "Who?"

"Cowboys!" she exclaimed, as if remembering something she'd long forgotten. "They used to herd cows. In my land," she clarified.

"Used to? Your cows no longer need herding?" he laughed.

"Not like they used to," she said, her smile bright. It occurred to him that he hadn't really asked what things were like where she was from. All he knew was that they didn't practice magic.

"We aren't herding cows," he pointed out.

"Yeah, but cowboys used to sit around the campfire. In the movies… er, stories," she admitted. "And they ate jerky. Oh, I guess it's kind of a stretch." She poked at the fire a bit, her exuberance gone.

He wasn't quite ready for her to be silent, for the night to come to an end… especially when they'd struggled all day. "Perhaps you should tell me stories of your homeland," he said. "Tell me all about your privileged life as a noble."

That drew the scoff he expected out of her. "I'm not a noble," she corrected.

"It's just a theory," he grinned, "And you've yet to disprove it."

Her smile was back. "What if I told you I was a princess?"

"Now I didn't think you were that noble," he laughed.

"No, seriously," she said, her eyes sparkling in the fire. "I'm a princess. That's my big secret."

"You can't even say that without laughing."

And laugh she did—a light, silly sound. Not sparkling or fey, nor rich and deep. Just real and infectious, enough to make him truly laugh despite his aches and pains. "But for real, though? I'm just a hairstylist. I promise I'm not nobility." She crossed her heart. "My family isn't even super rich or anything. Not to say we aren't lucky!"

"What does your family do?" he asked,

"Well, my dad… step-dad, Ricardo. He was a chef, once upon a time. He had to quit because of the stress. Bad heart," she tapped on her chest a few times. "Now he helps my aunt manage her wedding planning business."

Bradas couldn't help but laugh at the idea. "Planning weddings? What is there to plan?" Weddings seemed a rather simple affair; you showed up and were bound together. It was the actual marriage that was complicated. "First you tell me there are hairstylists, now wedding planners. Is there an excess of unnecessary careers in your land?" He'd never even heard of a 'hair stylist' until he'd met her.

Jackie raised her brow and gave him a smirk. "I don't even have the time to answer that question," she said. "Anyway, it gets complicated. Trust me."

"I shall. Please go on."

"That's what my dad does. My step-sister—his daughter from another marriage—she's a cop. Or training to be one." She observed his blank look. "Basically like a guard."

"A cop," he repeated.

"Almost. I guess she'd be out of the police academy by now…" she murmured, looking rather distant.

"And your mother?"

Jackie's eyebrows rose, like she hadn't expected the question. "She died when I was sixteen. Car accident."

Bradas instantly regretted even asking—he, of all people, should have known better than to pry too deeply. He frowned and looked into the fire, at a loss for what to say.

"Don't worry about it," she said kindly. "You didn't know. And I'm fine with talking about it. My mom was a public defender."

He didn't know what a car was and it was anyone's guess as to what a public defender did. Perhaps her mother was a warrior? Either way, he was done asking. How was it possible to travel with someone for this long and know so little about them? Although to be fair, they had been busy with travelling and fighting.

"What about you?" she asked.

"What about me?"

"Oh, come on," she laughed. "Where are you from? What's your family like?"

"I'm from Morrowind," he replied. "I grew up just outside of Gnaar Mok."

"Does everyone from Morrowind have that accent?"

"What accent?"

"You know what I'm talking about. It's kind of snooty? 'I'm Bradas Sarayn!'" She imitated his voice and dialect so badly that he burst out laughing.

"Should I be offended, Jackie Carson?"

"Absolutely. Maybe next time you'll think twice about making fun of hairstylists," she said with a wink. "And what about your family, Bradas?"

She did not receive an answer to that question. In fact, he barely heard her ask it.

He sat up straight and held up his hand and she instantly fell silent. He'd heard something; he knew it.

And sure enough, after just a second of silent waiting, there was another rustle in the grass beside them. He drew his blade first, and she followed—and the moment the daggers were out, three people jumped out of the darkness and attacked.

***

Jackie was impressed with herself, if she was being honest. Her reaction time had really improved… and that was the only thought she had as she blocked the downswing of a sword with her new knife.

It took all her focus to block the continual sword assault, though, and that concentration very nearly broke when she first got her first hit in. The moment she slashed her opponent, a bright red light swirled from the broken skin, around the knife, and right into her body.

And it felt… really good.

Forcing herself to ignore it while her life was in danger, she took another slash and her assailant dodged. She glanced over to where Bradas was, and saw that there was more red light swirling—she couldn't exactly see where it was coming from, and she had no time to think.

Jab, jab, slash, parry—she could hardly believe she was doing it while it was happening. The woman who was swinging her sword before her actually looked worried, and she held out a hand—

And more red light swirled, but this time it was coming from Jackie, draining her. With a cry she moved forward, quickly and decisively, and jabbed the knife once into the woman's outstretched hand, and then again in the shoulder. Once again, her own red light glowed and she felt strength return. She hesitated for a second, knowing that she hadn't killed her opponent, and not really wanting to. There was a chance she would yield, wasn't there?

"Jackie, finish it!" Bradas' cry came from her right as if he could read her mind even in the midst of battle.

The woman was already standing up, snarling so that her teeth—oh God, sharp, sharp teeth—gleamed in the pale moonlight. Without thinking she rushed forward and made for the throat, like Bradas always taught, and then it was over.

Completely spooked, she pushed down the fear and turned toward Bradas, who had already slain one enemy and was facing down the last.

The red light once again swirled, and Jackie could finally see what it was doing. It was coming from Bradas and funneling into the hand of his opponent. Bradas was still putting up a fight, but looked to be in pain, even as he slashed and twirled with his blood-soaked dagger.

Without another moment of doubt she lunged, watching her weapon carefully as it skewered the man's left arm. The light went to her, into her. She cut once more, focusing on the path of the light rather than the fact that she was stabbing someone, killing them.

She turned away once he fell, not wanting to watch. She'd killed draugr and animals but never anything that looked so human—and she didn't want to think too hard about it while she needed to figure out whether or not her companion was okay.

"Hey!" She rushed to his side as he knelt down on one knee, looking like he was actually about to pass out.

"Hey Bradas, look at me." His eyes looked unfocused and she wished that she had some kind of medical background.

His eyes screwed shut and he muttered something, too quiet to hear. "What is it?" she asked gently, crouching down in front of him and placing her hands on his shoulders.

"Curses," he mumbled. "Gods damn them all! They were vampires," he spat, seeming to come back to himself. Jackie peered over his shoulder at the woman she'd fought. Her teeth…

"Should we move camp?" she asked.

"We must be near their lair. Damn it all!" he hissed, his red eyes glowing in the dark and making him look supremely angry.

"Okay, stay calm," she soothed, moving away from him toward their make-shift camp. She stomped out the waning fire and collected their things. It was easy enough since they didn't have much. Her Dunmer friend moved behind her slowly, as if he couldn't get the strength to keep up. She stepped beside him and placed one of his arms over her shoulder.

"I saw a small cave on the way here," he said, taking her support without protest.

"About two miles back?"

"Whatever that means."

"I know what you're talking about," she said, grabbing his hand and squeezing. "Come on, we can make it."

She had started out with a bizarre amount of energy, which she suspected was due to whatever enchantment was on her stolen knife. However, once they reached the cave, she was absolutely beat. Bradas was probably in the worst condition she'd ever seen him in, and he could barely muster up the strength to heal himself with magic.

When they finally reached their destination she helped him to the ground. Without a word, she began gathering pieces of loose wood to make a fire, and gave him some meat in the hopes that it would speed along the healing process.

He was silent as she struck flint to rock, swearing under her breath each time she failed to make a spark. He would have helped, truly, but now he was too tired, too sick, too... something. He couldn't put his finger on it. His body was hurting all over, every joint felt as though it were swelling. His stomach was aching for food but the meat that she'd given him only made him feel worse.

That poison and those infernal vampires had drained him of his energy. Surely that was what was wrong with him. But he had been injured worse in the past, and he'd never felt so helpless, so childlike.

He dozed off for a moment, and when he awoke the fire was blazing. Jackie had moved to kneel in front of him, concern etched on her tired face. "Bradas?" she asked softly, placing the back of her hand upon his forehead. He was too exhausted to answer; instead, he used his energy to think of his mother, who used to do the same thing to check for fever. "Christ, you're burning up," she gasped.

He found the energy to mutter, "I'm quite cold."

It felt as though he was moving through a dream, heavy and weak, as she pulled him down. He wasn't sure what was happening until his head landed on something soft and he realized that she'd guided him to lie by the fire. His eyes closed once more as an unrelenting drowsiness washed over him.

"Bradas, stay awake," her voice reached him faintly but he opened his eyes nonetheless. "Just for one second, okay?" He could decipher a hint of panic in the plea, so he obeyed for the time being.

"What?" he murmured, wishing for nothing more than to shut his eyes and dream. Why would she deny him that, when she adored her sleep so much?

"Just tell me how you feel-are you nauseated? You said you were cold?"

"Sleepy."

"I know," she said gently. "Stay here, I'm going to get some water."

He was too wiped out to respond that he obviously wasn't going anywhere, and he was asleep before he could tell her not to risk it.

It must have been very early morning, for the sky was still dark but birds began to stir. There was no source of fresh water out in the bog, at least as far as she could see. So she counted her lucky stars that her roommates had once been so enamored with outdoor survival television shows.

Once she remembered exactly what she was supposed to do she set straight to work. She found a tree and began tearing the bark as carefully as she could. It took a few tries to get a piece that she could form into a cone, but necessity and panic made it happen. She gathered some rocks and dirt, wishing that she could find charcoal so she could copy what she'd seen on TV.

When the water soaked into the dirt and made mud, she threw down her cone in frustration. What had made her think she could copy those survivor gurus? They actually knew what they were doing, and she certainly had no clue.

Suddenly she heard a clicking sound from behind her and turned to see a group of three mudcrabs scuttling toward her.

With a disgusted noise she drew her new blade. Of all the times for those nasty clawed pests to bother her...

The crustaceans were making their way toward her in zigzag paths and she rolled her eyes. Of all the monsters she'd encountered in Skyrim, mudcrabs were the stupidest. However...

***

As fortune would have it, the mudcrabs' outer skeletons were durable and didn't burn up in fire. She'd discovered that much when she filled their shells with swamp water and carried them back to the cave to boil.

She would boil water in one shell and pour it into another to cool until she had a good amount of pure-ish lukewarm water. She woke Bradas a few times and encouraged him to drink.

He was too tired or sick to appreciate it though, and would only drink to get her to leave him alone. She tried to talk to him a little more to figure out what was going on, or diagnose him with... something. The flu? A bad cold?

It was no use, though. His temperature would go from hot to cold in an instant. He'd shiver and curl up in the insufficient makeshift blanket she'd given him (her torn up sleeping tunic) in one moment, and in another he would be tearing off his leather armor, trying to press his limbs into the cool dirt of the cave.

The Dunmer was near delirious the entire time. He wouldn't, or couldn't talk to her in coherent sentences, except to tell her to leave him alone and let him rest.

She obliged for the most part, doing her best not to disturb him besides making him drink water and checking his temperature.

Jackie wondered if she should have been panicking. At this point, though, she was so tired that she could hardly feel anything at all. Feeling as though she'd been reduced to her most basic state, she grabbed a lump of mudcrab meat and stuck it in her mouth. She'd roasted them and pulled out their meat before turning them into water bowls. They tasted like crap, and she didn't know if it was just her sub-par campfire cooking or the fact that they weren't actual crabs.

She was starting to get miserable. She looked over at Bradas and frowned, not sure if she should sleep or stay up to make sure he was alright. The heaviness of her head prevailed, though, and she found herself crawling toward her sleeping friend and lying her head on the dirt.

She rolled onto her side and tried to get comfortable. She supposed that her bedroll wasn't that great, but she missed it right now. As a cold breeze floated into the cave and caused Bradas to shiver, she wished desperately for blankets.

Instead of blankets, though, all he had was her. Not an inspiring thought.

With a frown, she scooted close to him, close enough to place her head on the same bundled up shirt that he was lying on. Some of the tension in her neck eased and she sighed. Maybe this arrangement wasn't all that bad.

She placed a gloved hand over his arm and rubbed it a little, hoping that a little friction would help him warm up. At least until his next hot flash.

A little groan escaped his lips and she stopped, keeping her hand still and willing some warmth to seep into his body. He stilled, and his shivering even subsided a little.

Yes! Encouraged, she moved closer still, pressing her chest to his and wrapping her arms around him. She entwined her legs with his, trying to forget about the closeness and focus on the warmth.

Just because they were two adults... cuddling... didn't mean that this was weird or sexual in any way. It was just... necessary. She was not going to let him freeze to death on her watch.

With that thought, she gave him a friendly pat on the back. There. That wasn't so bad.

And then he burrowed his face into her neck as his arms snaked around her. She couldn't help the small squeak that escaped her as his breath tickled her collar bone and her heart began to beat faster.

All trace of drowsiness escaped her for the moment, and her traitorous mind began to wander-when was the last time she'd been held? Or kissed?

Releasing a shaky breath, she shifted away just enough to regain her bearings. She couldn't afford to think about Bradas like that, for so, so many reasons.

Was he attractive? Yes. She'd never met anyone who looked like him, with his dark blueish skin and intense red eyes. But he was shrewd, violent, and probably a little crazy.

He was also from here. Tamriel. It was pointless to get involved with someone here. She planned on returning home no matter what, and it could only end in heartbreak.

The frown that had been on her lips all night deepened. She gazed at his face, his sleepy features that she had actually never seen so close. It was awkward, and maybe even a little creepy, but she stared while she had the chance. His face was slender, like that of many other dark elves she'd seen. His black hair had gotten even longer since they'd met, and right now it fanned out behind him in a messy ponytail. Unfairly long eyelashes fanned out over high cheekbones. She thought she could detect the smallest of dark blue freckles across them, making him look younger.

She began to smile as she thought of him as a young boy. Was he a loud and rambunctious kid? Or serious and dutiful?

Her heart began to ache and her smile faded. Attractive or not, Bradas was truly her friend. It hurt, but she had to admit to herself that they weren't going to be friends forever. In her best case scenario, she was going home... and she'd never see him again.

Another thought to push away. She blinked the tears out of her eyes, realizing that she was exhausted and needed to sleep. She only thought about this depressing stuff when she was too tired.

Jackie shut her eyes and made herself focus on keeping Bradas warm, on trying to be comfortable. Anything but how no matter what she did, whether she stayed in Skyrim or went back home, she would miss something or someone for the rest of her life.

Chapter Text

Warmth.

Sweet, wonderful warmth. It felt like a hearth on a winter day, a cold morning under the covers. He felt languid, loose, like a cat stretching out in the sun. He was reveling in it, delirious with it. He took a deep breath in, the scent of lavender and sweat and steel filling his senses. There was a weight on him like a blanket, and although something like that would normally concern him, he welcomed it. He nuzzled into something soft and supple, warm and alive.

He felt, rather than heard, a soft sigh. A gentle breath on his neck.

And then his blood was set aflame. Every part of his body felt like it was being jabbed with thousands of hot sharp needles, and his skin prickled with gooseflesh. His eyes fluttered open.

It was as though he could not move. Like his body was separate from his mind—he knew he needed to react, to move, but his limbs would not cooperate. How could he? Jackie was holding him—one of her arms was supporting his head and the other rested lightly on his bicep. They were pressed close together, their chests touching. Her legs were twined around his like vines, and she was radiating a sweet warmth that he wished he could drown in.

She smelled… wonderful. How had he never noticed? She smelled of herbs and dirt and something else, something that was purely her. Her skin, her breath… Azura help him, it was almost too much to bear. He was frozen where he was despite the heat shooting through his body. One other smell enticed him—metallic, hot and tantalizing. It was like weapons, swords, the tips of arrows, or a blacksmith's forge. Iron.

He focused his eyes, and for a moment his vision was filled with tanned olive skin and a tangle of dark braids. Bradas inhaled that sweet scent once more, feeling a strange strength… no, not strength. Restlessness.

He shut his eyes again and nuzzled gently into her soft neck, feeling as though he had no control over what he was doing. There was a strong, slow pulse there, in that junction between her shoulder and jaw. She had to be fast asleep, unaware of his touch. If he just turned his head a few inches, his lips would be right there, his teeth would be right above that pulse point...

Bradas' eyes snapped open and he shoved her away in a panic.

He ignored her indignant squawk and stumbled to his feet. No, no, no, this was wrong, so wrong.

"What? What's going on?" she mumbled, eyes tired and unfocused. Her hand went to her dagger and he would have laughed if the situation hadn't been so serious—she thought that he was rousing her because something was threatening them. She had no idea that she was the one truly in danger.

She looked up at him, eyebrows furrowed. He was speechless for a few seconds, trying to think of what to say. How could he tell her that he had been considering how her blood would taste? Wondering if it would really be all that bad?

With some effort she stood up and walked slowly toward him, like he was some deer in the woods. For a second, she really was the picture of a long-suffering companion. With a small sigh, she held her hand out to steady him. "Hey, it's just a dream. Why don't you lie back down? Oh! Or do you want some water while you're up? It's nice and cool…" she cajoled with a placating smile.

"If only this could be a dream," he said, his voice hoarse. Jackie's face fell.

"Wait, you're actually awake?" she questioned.

"Of course I am," he snapped, and then immediately regretted losing his temper. He took a deep breath before continuing: "How long have I been asleep?"

"Just since this morning and half the day," she replied, squinting her eyes as she looked out to the wilderness beyond the cave. "You've been kind of out of it. And, uh, hallucinating, occasionally…" she grimaced. "Are you feeling better?"

He was, but that was the problem. He felt stronger, had more energy… unnatural energy. He tried to think, to put his mind to work, but it was difficult to string thoughts together when she was questioning him, sitting there and looking so earnest and helpful. "We must find a shrine," he finally said.

She blinked. "What?"

"To pray," he said, knowing full well that she was completely confused. "Get ready now, I'll explain as we walk."

***

"Okay, but don't you have to be bitten by a vampire to become one? And then they make you drink their blood."

Judging by the disgusted look on his face, that was wrong. "I don't know where you get ideas like that," he muttered.

"Is your skin burning?" They were out in the sun, after all.

"Not yet," he answered, taking long strides through the swamp land. "This disease takes days to completely take hold. I don't intend to wait that long."

"What's the cure?"

"We can either get a potion or pray at a shrine. We're more likely to come across a shrine out here than a good alchemist."

After that she fell silent, and they continued their forward march with few words. Jackie kept pace with him as well as she could, sensing that he was in a bad mood. She preferred not to deal with him when he got short and snappy like this, so she turned her gaze forward and hoped they reached a town or settlement soon.

***

By the time night fell, all trace of previous illness had disappeared and been replaced by an eerie, unnerving restlessness that was even more powerful than before. Nausea had been replaced by hunger, and his aches had been replaced with raw energy.

Bradas knew the signs and symptoms of Sanguinare Vampiris, but he had never felt them first hand. He felt as though he was an arrow, drawn back far and ready to fire. He could hardly look at Jackie, and didn't even want to talk to her until this was over.

Prickly shame kept creeping into the back of his mind. How could he think of a friend that way? Like a piece of meat rather than a person. A person he was trying to look out for. A person who had stayed up for a good portion of the night to try and see him through a sickness she had never even heard of.

They'd been unnervingly close when he'd awakened. Common sense told him that it was a matter of body heat, but it was… too close, perhaps. He hadn't pushed her away soon enough, and he'd like it too much.

He eyed her discreetly as they walked. The moonlight shone down on her face, allowing him to look upon her features clearly. She was fetching, for a human; even he could admit it. He'd be a fool to deny it, even.

Her hair was soft and smooth, or so he had discovered earlier in the cave, and she'd tied it into her usual crown braid—a style that served to soften her features and make her look… pretty, in an innocent sort of way. Her face had not been touched with pockmarks and she had straight, white teeth that he'd rarely seen in humans. She held little resemblance to any human race that he knew of. Jackie possessed a beauty that seemed exotic, or at least it did to a Dunmer like himself.

With a frown, he reminded himself that he could hardly stand most humans. He wasn't sure he liked living with the knowledge that one could be so… comely. He preferred Dunmer women, but at the moment his addled mind was picking out the endearing things about his human companion.

Companion. Friend. For that reason alone he did not need to be thinking about these things.

Her dark eyes slid to meet his own, and he looked away. The last thing he needed was for her to find out he'd been staring. As if thinking about drinking her blood before wasn't bad enough.

"Look, a light! Do you think it's a village?" The very subject of his thoughts snapped him out of them and he looked up to see that there was, in fact, a faint light just over the hill they were hiking.

"Thank the Gods," he huffed, pushing all of his traitorous thoughts to the back of his mind. There was sure to be a shrine to some god there, he didn't care which. With any luck this nightmare would soon be over.

***

The town they had reached was relatively small, but Jackie was still incredibly happy to see it. She'd been too distracted by Bradas to focus on it, but she had been really, really worried about finding civilization. They had limited supplies and Skyrim was a big, wild place. It could have been much longer before they'd found a village.

Speaking of wild, Bradas was starting to make her jittery with how restless he was. She wanted to tell him to cool it, but she figured he had a right to be a little nervous. Vampirism was a fear across all realms, apparently. Although she was still kind of fuzzy on how praying was going to help.

She hated to disrespect Bradas' beliefs. She had always felt that something was out there—some kind of higher power. She'd grown up Catholic, for Christ's sake. But honestly, praying illnesses away? That sounded like a recipe for disaster. So while Bradas searched for a shrine, she was planning to find an alchemist and convince them to give her a Cure Disease potion.

First, though, they needed to find a place to eat and rest. They trailed through the quiet, sleepy town, keeping their eyes open for any signs of a tavern. They found one in short time.

"An inn," Bradas said, his breath barely visible in the cold air.

"How much money do we have?"

"We have some things to sell," he replied. "Our leftover potions should be enough." He opened the door and they stepped into the warm tavern.

A soft 'oh' escaped her lips as heat from the hearth washed over them. Bradas walked past her and approached the bar, where a weary Redguard tended to food and drink. Jackie rubbed her hands together over the fire a few times before following his lead.

The two of them approached the innkeeper and Jackie wound up being the one to negotiate the price of the room. They sold all but a few potions in exchange for two nights at the Moorside Inn. Jackie got the feeling that the woman helping them felt more than a little sorry for them, and was giving them a bit of a break. Either way, she wasn't going to complain.

"Thanks, miss," she said gratefully. She glanced to her silent companion, who was looking sicker by the minute. "Um, just one more thing—do you know of a shrine we could… pray at, maybe?" The question sounded stupid and she fought the urge to wince. She was trying to best to be flexible here; she'd seen crazy things since coming to Skryim and had learned very quickly to believe in things she previously hadn't.

The innkeeper, Jonna, didn't react as though Jackie had asked a ridiculous question. "There aren't many shrines here in Morthal. But…" she glanced at Bradas for a few more seconds than necessary. The Dunmer frowned and looked right back at her.

"We just want to pray," Jackie interjected, wondering what the innkeeper was thinking. Could she tell that Bradas was sick?

The other woman seemed reluctant, and eyed Bradas with some suspicion. To his credit, he didn't shy away from the scrutiny. "Alright. There is one shrine that I know of for sure. Here in town we don't keep many, but a ways south there's a shrine to Dibella. Don't know if that helps you any."

"It does, thanks," Jackie assured, although on the inside she wasn't so certain.

***

That night they stayed in the same room, in separate beds. Bradas was thankful for that, at least. The last thing he needed was a repeat of earlier that day, but with bloodshed thrown into the mix. He hadn't turned yet, and if the texts he'd read on the subject were right, he still had some time. But an unnatural hunger churned his gut. His thoughts were making dangerous twists and turns despite his efforts to stay distracted.

With a frown he shifted on the hard mattress and tried to get comfortable. It was impossible.

Jackie, for her part, had fallen asleep the moment her head touched the pillow, and for that he felt a little guilty. He didn't know how long he'd been in the throes of illness last night (he'd have to ask later about the hallucinating), but it occurred to him that she had been awake the whole time. She'd barely had any sleep, and it was because of him.

Ah, that was all he needed: more guilt.

Bradas sat up quietly, realizing that sleep was not going to visit him tonight. Rather than continue trying, he stood up and entered the bar to see if any late night drinkers were willing to talk or play some cards.

***

The next day, Jackie was up early. They wasted no time in getting ready for the journey to the shrine and they updated the map, marking the location of the shrine and the abandoned shack.

Morthal. Bradas could hardly believe they had been taken so far off course. From Jackie's quiet, distressed looks he could see that she was feeling the same. They would, no doubt, be talking about it later, but right now they had more urgent matters to attend to.

They walked south, as per the instructions given by the barmaid.

"This is the middle of nowhere," Jackie was complaining, marching dutifully behind him as they made their way over the hills. "Why don't we turn back and I'll make you a potion or something? I'm sure I can get some ingredients together."

"Have you ever even brewed a Cure Disease potion?" he asked, his voice tired. He didn't understand Jackie's objection to prayer—as far as he knew, she hadn't dedicated herself to any particular deity that didn't allow it.

"No," came her voice, which had become much closer than the last time she'd spoken. "Do you need help?"

"No. Just a moment," he panted, slowing down and placing his hands on his knees.

Bradas found himself feeling fragile and aching in one moment, and restless and agitated in the next. He'd go from hot to cold, sick to starving, all in a matter of minutes. And to top it all off, he was thinking about blood—he couldn't be sure if it was due to his turning, or all in his mind. But he could feel his human companion beside him, her heart beating strong as stood before him with a worried frown.

"I just think a potion might be a little more effective than prayer?" she explained, her deep brown eyes shining. That look made him feel as though he'd been punched in the gut. He hated feeling so weak, so feeble. He hated her concerned looks and offers of help. He chaffed at her suggestions, and felt guilty for it because he knew she was just worried.

"A potion that complex requires ingredients we do not have," he finally replied.

"I guess," she sighed, moving ever forward. "I don't see this shrine she was talking about."

"We have a little longer to go," he said, remembering the instructions. According to the innkeeper, there was a shrine to Dibella that the local girls went to in order to pray for luck in love. He found it all very quaint.

Jackie had clearly taken in the information with obvious skepticism, the look on her face the very same as when he'd explained giant spiders to her. She hadn't quite believed him until she'd seen them herself.

"Hey, that looks like something," she said. He felt a little bit of his strength return at the prospect of reaching their destination. Sure enough, there sat a shrine atop a large stone, adorned with flowers and a few septims—offerings to the goddess.

"Yes, this is it," he said, relieved.

Kneeling before the shrine, he plucked a small health potion out of his pocket and set it on the shrine as an offering. "Forgive me, Azura," he sighed. Then he bowed his head and muttered a quiet prayer.

Jackie stayed quiet, trying to be respectful and not so cynical. She may not have been so sure about this, but she still had the decency to be reverent. She even crossed her arms and bowed her head like in church, if not just to have something to do.

She was trying to be open-minded. She really was.

She had no problems with prayer—in fact, she had been sort of a believer before being swept away from home. She respected that people turned to God (or, in this case, one of multiple deities) in times of hardship, and she truly felt that every belief system had a measure of truth and goodness.

But praying diseases away truly crossed her boundaries. She'd seen so many strange things since she'd come here, but this was really pushing it. Sure, it his decision, but… this was too much of a risk.

To put things simply, she knew that a potion would work. Praying to the Divines might not. It was a matter of faith that she wasn't sure she had. She wanted nothing more than to go back to Morthal and search out ingredients to find a way to make a potion that would help.

Jackie watched as he prayed, worry churning her gut. If this didn't work, then what would they do? He was right when he said they didn't have much in the way of money or ingredients.

She couldn't contain her shock when a soft white light surrounded Bradas, swirling gently around his form and the disappearing. With a sigh he stood up and turned toward her, his eyes weary but no longer surrounded by dark circles.

"I think that did the trick," he said, giving his back a stretch. "Perhaps you should try, just in case."

Jackie couldn't respond—she just stared at him, taking silent inventory of every difference between him now and five minutes ago.

He frowned. "It's only a suggestion."

"But…" she finally found her voice, and to his surprise it was shaking. "That's not possible."

Despite being incredibly exhausted, he was curious. "You've been… hesitant about this since we left the inn," he said.

"Yes, because…" she seemed at a loss for words. "You can't just pray sickness away. That's… are you sure you feel better?"

"I'll feel much better after getting some sleep, but yes," he replied, feeling a sudden wave of exhaustion wash over him. "You aren't going to pray at the shrine, then?"

She shook her head, pressing her lips tightly together. "No… I mean, maybe another time."

***

They travelled back to the inn and Bradas made a beeline for his bed. Jackie suspected he'd sleep for a good long while, giving her time to think about what she'd just seen. She laid back in her own bed and stared at the ceiling.

Bradas couldn't comprehend it, but seeing a divine force work like that… it jarred her. Scared her.

The shock she was feeling right now was different to when she'd seen her first dragon, but just as potent. Something about it reached deep within her and shook up her beliefs. Beliefs that were already challenged every day that she was here.

People had spoken of the Divines in her presence. Just listening to people talk was informative; she could even name a few of the Divines. But she'd never imagined that a higher power was actually taking such an obvious role in people's lives.

What about God? The one she had grown up wondering about, the one her family prayed to? Were these deities more or less real? Was the shrine just a magic trick, or was it true celestial power? Did the God of her childhood exist alongside these Divines, working in a separate realm?

It felt like there was no end to her questions, and she wasn't sure she'd ever get a satisfying answer.

Chapter Text

Some time passed and Jackie grew bored of lying in bed. Her brain just felt… tired. Just pondering deep questions of different dimensions and celestial beings had been harder work than trekking across the swamps. But she’d gotten a full night’s rest and waiting around for Bradas to wake up was just plain boring. There had to be something in this town for her to do.

Rather than spend any more time on questions she couldn’t hope to answer, she decided to be productive. She sat up and entered the tavern area, leaving Bradas to sleep.

People milled about in the bar, and Jackie sat in the corner and ate a small bowl of goat stew. People-watching was a nice distraction, and she could hear some of the bar-goers murmuring to each other, gossiping about a house that had burned down recently. She got so distracted eavesdropping that she jumped a little when the bartender approached her.

“Would you like a drink?”

Jackie shook her head. “Not at the moment, but thank you,” she replied with a smile. “Oh, I did have a question though. I know it’s none of my business, but… is there a story behind that burned-down house?”

Jonna knew exactly what she was talking about. “Hroggar’s house? It burned down not too long ago.”

“Oh, that’s really sad. Was everyone okay?”

“Actually, no. His wife and child died in the blaze. The screams woke half the town. Most folk won’t go near it now for fear it’s haunted.”

“Oh.”

“And then Hroggar. Well, he moved in with another woman, Alva, just one day after they died. Suspicious, if you ask me.”

“Whaaat?” Jackie drew out the word, genuinely scandalized. That was definitely shady.

Jonna nodded. “The jarl is real interested in what happened. Might even pay to find out.”

And that was how Jackie found herself in the in Highmoon Hall, waiting anxiously to speak with the jarl. The promise of dearly-needed cash spurred her to action without Bradas, who was clearly too tired to contribute. She figured he needed time to recover, and she surely didn’t need his help with something this simple. Investigating a fire couldn’t be all that difficult, could it?

The jarl was a woman, something that actually pleased her. She was intimidating, sitting lazily upon her throne and waiting for Jackie to speak.

“I heard you want someone to look into that house fire,” she said, trying to sound more confident than she felt.

“Hroggar’s house fire? He lost his wife and daughter in the blaze,” the jarl drawled.

“What does Hroggar say happened?”

“Hroggar claims his wife spilled bear fat in the fire,” the old woman replied. “Many folk seem to think he set the fire himself.”

“Why would he do that to his own family?”

“Lust can make a man do the unthinkable,” she said sagely. “Should you find him guilty or innocent, I will reward you.”

So, with the promise of funds they desperately needed, Jackie set about finding the actual house. Where better place to start than the scene of the crime? She was no detective, but it seemed like common sense.

 

***

Jackie had come to the conclusion that vampires were the worst, and she never wanted to lay eyes on one again.

A seemingly simple task had turned into a tedious (and dangerous) affair. That afternoon she’d gone to the burnt ruins of the house to investigate and found a real, actual ghost—a child ghost. That happened to be humming an eerie tune when she found her.

Everything in Skyrim felt like either a fantasy novel or a horror movie. Both scenarios usually turned out to be equally terrifying.

After that, Jackie had decided that she definitely didn’t want to investigate this all on her own. Luckily, her companion was probably the most fearless person she knew. Once he woke up from his long nap, she informed him that they were to play hide-and-seek with a ghost at midnight.

“Are you bloody joking?” he’d asked, voice rough from sleep.

She only wished. “We get some coin if we can figure out who did it for sure.” Predictably, that had been enough motivation for her mercenary friend.

By the same time the very next day, they’d solved two murders, slain a couple vampires, put a ghost to rest, and gained 200 gold.

“I’m, like, a thousand percent ready to get the hell out of here,” she announced. They were sitting at a table in the tavern, enjoying heaping portions of food that they could now afford.

Bradas’ lips quirked. He seemed to be mostly recovered, to her utter relief. Still, they had places to be, and Jackie was eager to get back on track.

Especially after such a drastic deviation.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” he assured her. “It is only a matter of mapping out our course.”

“And what course is that?”

“We have a few options,” he said, stopping for just a moment to sip some broth. He’d been eating non-stop all day. She was a little worried about spending all the septims they had earned, but she figured he needed food. He hadn’t eaten much since falling ill, after all. “We could walk straight to Winterhold. It would take…” he thought for a moment, “over a month. Six weeks, perhaps.”

“Ugh.” Jackie leaned her chin in her hand and shut her eyes, weary from just thinking about it.

“Or we could go to North to Solitude. If we’re lucky, a ship will agree to take us as far as Yngvild.”

“Where?”

He pulled out the map and showed her. Solitude wasn’t on the way Winterhold, but there was a port. Yngvild was closer to the College, and they would have to walk the rest of the way. However, according to Bradas, it would shorten the journey by at least two weeks. They could spend a good time in Solitude and still get to the College in a shorter time. “And there will be work in Solitude,” he added. “And we’ll need more than a few hundred septims to resupply all we’ve lost.”

“True…” she said. She was still reluctant to travel in any direction that was not leading straight to Winterhold (especially after the disaster that was Riften), but he was right. They were undersupplied and Morthal was not a good place to find work. It was too rural, and any jobs that were available were taken by the folks who lived here. “Okay. Let’s do it,” she agreed.

For a moment Bradas was quiet and pensive. “I truly think this is the fastest way,” he said, his tone suddenly very serious. “From now on, we travel to the College in earnest. I… apologize. I insisted on going to Riften, and we wound up here.”

She was speechless for a second. Jackie wasn’t sure he’d ever heard him sound so… sorry. The sincere moment was over, though, when he tipped his bowl over and finished off his broth with a loud slurp.

“We’re good,” she laughed. “Just… no more detours.”

“Of course not,” he replied, giving her a smirk. “There’s nothing of interest in these parts, at any rate.” He waved his hand as if to indicate the whole village of Morthal and its surroundings.

“Not unless there’s another cursed kid around here,” she muttered. She honestly wouldn’t have been surprised.

***

The next morning saw the beginning of their journey north. They bought enough food for a few days, along with a cheap bow and arrow for Bradas. The loss of their equipment bothered him, mostly because some low-lives in Riften had probably already pilfered their things.

Again, he silently cursed the Dark Brotherhood. Killing for a living he could understand—he practically did it himself. But couldn’t they have at least kidnapped their things (and septims) along with them?

He tried to push his frustration to the back of his mind as they walked, focusing on the map and the sporadic travel conversation that he had with Jackie. Mostly they commiserated about the cold or told stories about worse weather to distract themselves. Walking through the marshes was harder than walking on normal terrain. Jackie made the offhand comment about how huge their legs would be once they finally reached Winterhold and he laughed—and let her know that her legs were scrawny as ever.

“If by ‘scrawny’ you mean ‘muscular,’” she corrected with fake indignation. “I’m not the only one who could bulk up a little, if you know what I mean.”

“I know you don’t mean me,” he quipped, fighting a smile.

Things had more or less returned to normal between them and he was thankful for it. The past few days had been chaotic, to say the least, and being back on the road felt right. The only difference now was that they were much father from Winterhold than they were supposed to be.

Jackie had been surprisingly forgiving about the mess with Riften. He truly did feel guilty about it all, even though she’d dropped the topic entirely. He suspected she was just relived he hadn’t died or become a vampire—he had to admit that he was, too.

But he still felt the cold grip of guilt when he thought about it. The desire for blood and other… carnal things. Things that no decent friend thought about another.

Bradas considered himself a practical man, though. All that was left to do was move on. He’d promised that there would be no more distractions or detours, and that was the best he could do. He knew that wouldn’t be an easy vow to keep, because he knew himself; he’d had an unappeasable wanderlust since he was a young elf and it seemed he hadn’t grown out of it. But he was resolved now not to go back on his word.

***

It took six days of walking before finally arriving in Solitude, and they were surprised to see that a small crowd had congregated in the city square. It was visible right as they entered the gates, and the people gathering were loud and restless.

“I wonder what’s going on,” Jackie said, not truly caring one way or the other. She was tired, dirty, and incredibly happy to have discovered that Solitude was a big city.

Bradas actually was interested, and rather than walk straight to an inn like she would have liked, he led them to join the mass of people. “It seems we’ve arrived just in time. Come, now. You can stay awake for a few more minutes,” he joked.

She wrinkled her nose and gave him a displeased look, but didn’t deny that she was planning on a nap. “Alright,” she sighed, and followed him toward the stone pillar that everyone was gathering around.

“Roggvir,” a loud voice boom from the pillar. “You helped Ulfric Stormcloak escape this city after he murdered High King Torygg.”

Bradas looked down at Jackie and they exchanged looks. He had little doubt that she’d forgotten their ride to Helgen with the leader of the Stormcloak rebellion.

“By opening that gate for Ulfric, you betrayed the people of Solitude,” the speaker continued.

“Traitor!” cried a voice from the crowd.

Roggvir didn’t seem willing to take the accusation lying down, even if his hands were bound. “There was no murder! Ulfric challenged Torygg. He beat the High King in fair combat. Such is our way! Such is the ancient custom of Skyrim, and all Nords!”

There were a few boos from the people surrounding them. Tensions were clearly running high in this city. He wondered why this man hadn’t been executed sooner—it had been months since Ulfric Stormcloak killed the High King.

The man named Roggvir was pushed to his knees in front of the chopping block. Bradas was vaguely aware of Jackie tensing up beside him—she knew what was coming just as well as anyone.

“On this day… I go to Sovngarde,” were the prisoner’s last words. Without any more pretense, the axe went down and became soaked with his blood. The head rolled off the stage and the body slumped. Cheers and jeers filled the air and Bradas felt a hand on his arm and a tug.

He followed Jackie away from the excited crowd, allowing her to pull him until they found a less crowded area. “We don’t need to see that,” she muttered, her face pale. “Let’s get inside.”

 

***

They did as she wished and got a room in the Winking Skeever. Jackie did her best not to think about the gruesome scene they’d just witnessed as they unpacked everything and made a plan for their stay in the city. After all this time, bloodshed was a little easier to handle. But that didn’t mean she had to like it.

“There’s sure to be work here,” Bradas said. “And plenty of places to spend coin.”

“I vote on spending coin first,” she said. “As in, we’re super desperate for clothes. I’ve been wearing this armor for a week.”

She wasn’t exaggerating. She had literally been in the armor since she’d found it, only taking pieces of it off at a time to give herself a quick scrub—though that was hardly sufficient to stay clean. The sleeping tunic she’d been wearing when they were abducted was reduced to shreds, and the two of them had no other clothes.

“I can’t say I disagree,” he said. “We’ll split the coin. You get us some armor and I’ll take care of weapons.” He glanced at the dagger on her belt. “Do you like that blade? It has an interesting enchantment. We could learn it if you’re willing to part with it…”

“Umm, I don’t really want to,” she confessed. She’d grown surprisingly fond of it since grabbing it off Astrid’s body, strange as it was to get attached to a weapon.

“It’s just as well. I’ll learn it from somewhere else,” he said with a shrug. He grinned. “I’ll have to teach you how to charge the enchantment with soul gems.”

“I don’t understand half of what you say,” she sighed, smiling back.

“As if you make any more sense,” he quipped. “Let’s get on with it. Evening will be coming soon and I’d rather take care of everything before the shops close.”

***

The two of them separated for the next few hours. Bradas disappeared into the market, presumably getting himself a more acceptable weapon than what he already had. He’d been frustrated all week with the bow and arrow he’d bought in Morthal.

Boys and their toys, she’d thought.

It had taken a few minutes, but she eventually found a clothing store. And not just any clothing store… a huge, wonderful place with a seemingly endless selection.

The only drawback were the ladies who worked there. They had eyed her with disdain as she browsed the clothing and eyed the jewelry (just for fun). Both were rude and abrasive and seemed totally fed up with their jobs.

So they were basically just typical retail workers.

Jackie made her best guess at Bradas’ size and got him a few sets of light armor. She bought some for herself, along with some casual everyday clothes.

After that she made the typical rounds in the market. She bought some food, ingredients for potions, and even grabbed some soaps and oils for the glorious bath she was planning for herself.

Bradas wasn’t at the inn by the time she got back, so she asked the barkeep for some hot water. It turned out that the place they were staying was swanky enough to house a couple of actual bathtubs.

She could have cried with joy.

 

***

 

It was evening when Bradas finally returned to the inn. He’d found himself with a brand new bow and some arrows, and he was almost itching to try them out on… something dangerous. A bandit or some manner of wild animal would do.

It had been a long, time-consuming process to walk down to the docks and find a ship captain willing to take them to Yngvild, but eventually one of them had agreed. The ship left in three days, and they were to pay the captain 300 gold for passage. It was an outrageous price, in Bradas’ opinion, but it was the best they could do. He’d promised the man his gold and gone on his way.

He’d also picked up a few books of spells on the way back to The Winking Skeever. Now seemed a good time to remember his original goal in coming to Skyrim: to find his way to the College of Winterhold. Proficient as he was in Destruction magic, there was still much to learn.

With a sigh, he sat down on his rented bed and opened up a book about conjuration.

After about half an hour of skimming, the words of the page seemed to blend together in an indiscernible puzzle. How long had it been since he’d focused on academic pursuits? Too long, perhaps. His mother would have been disappointed.

Bradas smirked at the thought, memories of the pyromancing woman coming to him unbidden. As a child he’d been so much more interested in fighting, begging his uncle to teach him to wield a blade or shoot arrows. Hours were spent outside, pretending to cut up Thalmor and shooting at rocks with his practice bow. His mother would open the door and call for him to come inside—to put down his bow and arrow and do some reading.

“What are you reading? Something dirty?” He looked up to see Jackie leaning in the doorway and crossing her arms. She looked completely different, clean and fresh for the first time in weeks. Her face was scrubbed clean and her hair was in a damp braid. She wore a long, loose tunic rolled up at the sleeves, and her calves and feet were bare. The sight was so disarming that he allowed himself to think her fetching, if not for a short moment.

It took a second to answer. “I—no, nothing like that.”

She walked over and looked at the book over his shoulder. She smelled like fresh soap and herbs. “I can’t read it,” she said, squinting her eyes at the text. “It’s totally something raunchy, isn’t it? You’re smiling too much for it to be a normal book.”

He shut the tome and turned to look at her. She was grinning, her eyes twinkling with laughter. “It’s no Lusty Argonian Maid,” he said, watching with pleasure as her eyebrows rose.

“Lusty Argonian Maid?”

“It’s rather infamous. You said you can’t read?”

“Not here, remember? You had to tell me what the plaques on the seven thousand steps said.”

That was right, he remembered. “You’ll have to learn.”

“If not just to find out about this Argonian maid,” she laughed. She slumped down onto the bed that lay across from his. “That’s as good a motivation to learn as any. So what were you actually reading?”

“The Warrior’s Charge. A text on Conjuration,” he told her, holding up the small leather-bound tome.

“And conjuration is…”

“A school of magic.” He huffed a laugh. “You’ve seen me use fire most often—that’s considered to be Destruction magic.”

“Getting ready for college, huh?” She shifted so that she was lying on her side and looking at him with sleepy eyes.

“I thought it best to start now. I’ll have plenty of time on the ship to prepare, but after that we’ll be too busy walking.”

“Oh! You found someone to take us?”

“For a good sum of gold,” he muttered. “But yes, they will take us.”

“Where are we getting the money?”

“We’ll find work here in Solitude.” There were always rich fools willing to part with their gold.

“Sounds like a plan,” she sighed, her voice soft and tired.

“Are you truly going to sleep?” he asked. The sun was setting, but the night was still young.

“Well if you’re gonna be reading…” she mumbled, nestling into the thin blankets of her small bed.

“Good night, then.”

“Night.” And then she was gone, dropping off into sleep with a sigh. She covered most of her face with the blankets, and he could only see her closed eyes and hair sprawled out across the pillow.

He dragged his gaze back to the book in his hands, unwilling to think for too long on the way her eyelashes fanned across her cheeks. With a scoff at himself he opened his book and stared at the words, too wrapped up in his thoughts to fully comprehend then.

Chapter Text

Jackie truly hadn't been to a part of Skyrim she liked more.

Solitude was beautiful. The buildings were tall and sturdy and the streets were paved with well-kept stones. The stalls in the market were filled with fresh fruits, jewels, and potions, and she could tell that Solitude had just about everything a town could need. It was a shame, she thought, that they didn't have longer to enjoy it, and that they spent so much of their time running around performing errands.

The past few days had been non-stop work, but with the two of them combining their efforts, they had made a good sum of cash. Jackie had decided that the best way to make money was how she did it in Whiterun. Farming, ingredient-picking, and potion-making was what she mostly stuck to. Sometimes she found a noble who needed a message delivered across town and didn't want to bother with it themselves.

This method yielded quite a bit more gold than last time, because this time she knew what she was doing—not to mention the amount of money Bradas was racking up on his own. She hadn't seen him much since they decided that splitting up to find money would be the best way to go, but sometimes she spotted him hauling weapons and armor to sell from outside the city.

She suspected that he was picking fights with bandits on the road and then collecting their gear afterward. That made her kind of glad they had split up—one of her least favorite activities was taking the clothes off of dead bodies to resell. For obvious reasons.

It was the last day before they made their sea voyage to a town that Jackie couldn't pronounce. She stood out in the sun, enjoying the warmth of the day before it faded away. They'd made enough gold to pay their way on the ship, so there was little to do now but enjoy what time she had left in Solitude. She dug an apple she'd been saving out of her pocket and sat down on a stone bench.

"Resting on the job, I see."

"Mmm, no?" she denied through a mouthful. She turned to see Bradas, who had conveniently turned up the moment she decided to take a break. He sat down beside her with a sigh, like it was the first time in hours he'd had to relax.

"Not to worry. We have enough gold now for the ship and our journey after," he said, taking out a short dagger and holding his hand out expectantly.

"Use your words," she groused, handing him the apple and rolling her eyes. He smirked and took it, cutting off a chunk that didn't have her teeth marks and handing her the rest.

"Why, thank you."

"Jerk," she huffed, her voice absent of any real irritation. "So, have you ever been on a ship before?"

Bradas nodded, swallowing a bit of tart green apple before replying: "Yes, I have. I must say I'm… not fond of travel by sea."

"Sea sick?" she asked, smirking at the mental image of Bradas leaning over a deck and puking.

Bradas just scoffed, neither confirming nor denying it. "I don't imagine you've been on many ships."

"Sure I have," she said, happy to surprise him a little. "My family went on a cruise when I was fourteen. My sister spent the whole time throwing up."

"You say that with a little too much glee," he said suspiciously.

"I spent half the time holding her hair," she continued, smiling. What had once been an annoying and stressful memory had become a fond one. Time and distance had a way of doing that. Jackie looked at Bradas with a twinkle in her eye. "If you get sick, I promise I'll hold your hair for you, too."

"You most certainly will not."

***

A couple of days passed and they found themselves on a large cargo ship sailing toward Yngvild, an island that had too much snow and too few vowels.

It was a rough three weeks.

The sea and the air grew colder and colder every day. The few times she dared to venture above deck, the air nipped and she saw ice in the water. Shipwrecks littered the small jagged islands they sailed past. The only thing less reassuring than that was Bradas, who was sooner prepared to puke his guts out than offer comforting words.

The seasickness was ridiculous. The cruise she'd been on with her family had been completely different—this boat had no engine and they were completely at the mercy of the winds and the waves. She'd gotten used to it after a few days, but Bradas a landlubber to the core.

She had only teased him about it once, and he'd given her a glare and pointed out that she couldn't skin a rabbit without losing her lunch. He had her on that, she supposed.

The docks of Yngvild were a welcome sight, if not freezing cold and miserable weather-wise. Bradas was eager to get onto solid land, though, and they'd hurried off the ship the moment they could. Their boots crunched in the snow and it took them both a few minutes to get used to the sensation of unmoving ground.

Bradas hadn't seen so much snow since their jaunt up to High Hrothgar. If anything was going to make him second-guess his decision to travel straight to the College, it was the harsh, unrelenting weather. He didn't understand how the Nords could stand it—how they were to withstand it for even a short time.

But withstand it they did, for eight days on foot.

***

Bradas couldn't describe how he felt to see the silhouette of Azura on the mountain, watching over the sleepy town of Winterhold in the early morning hours. How strange and wonderful it was to see the patron to the Dunmer in a land of Nords. He would most certainly be making a visit to that shrine during his time here.

They weren't close to the statue herself, but on the edge of Winterhold she was visible from afar. "Tell me this is Winterhold," Jackie breathed, her breath swirling out of her mouth and disappearing into the still cold air. She was too cold and miserable to appreciate the sight, and he understood that well enough.

"It is," he confirmed, not able to hide his smile. A soft snow fell, different from the harsh blizzards they'd weathered in the past week. The village was crowned in the soft pink light of the rising sun, and the College—it was magnificent. It stood tall on its ledge, dark and formidable.

"Let's go," Jackie said softly, pressing a gloved hand on his shoulder and gently pulling him away from his thoughts.

"Of course." They pressed forward through Winterhold, following a snow-covered path to the College. Jackie asked if they were to stay in the inn and he shook his head. "They should provide beds for us," he told her, "as long as they let us in. Do colleges in your land not do the same?"

"Some of them," she replied, following behind him up a man-made stone slope. "Oh wow. This place is... it's really pretty."

She was right. The College of Winterhold was an old structure, but solidly built. He could vaguely recognize ancient architecture, the patterns and stonework of ancient mages. The path they took to the entrance was long but the path was smooth, weathered down after years of walking.

It didn't take long for them to run into a person waiting on the path. She was an Altmer woman, standing with her arms crossed and a frown on her face.

"Cross the bridge at your own peril," she told them, her voice strong. "The way is dangerous, and the gate will not open. You shall not gain entry!"

Bradas was ready for a fight, so it was probably good when Jackie interjected. "Why are you out here? It's so cold!" The Altmer's face softened just a little.

"I am here to assist those seeking wisdom from the college," she replied. "And if, in the process, my presence helps to deter those who would seek to do harm, then so be it. The more important question is: why are you here?"

"We wish to enter the College," Bradas said.

"Perhaps. But what is it you wish to find within?"

Bradas frowned, not seeing how it was any of her business. Still, he answered: "I'm here to study Destruction Magic."

"I see. That power certainly exists, I assure you. Wield it faithfully, and few can withstand you," she said cryptically, her lips pulled into a smile. "It would seem the College has what you seek. Now the question is, what can you offer the college? Not just anyone is allowed inside. Those wishing to enter must show some degree of skill with magic. A small test, if you will."

Jackie muttered something under her breath and Bradas mentally cursed her procrastination when it came to studying magic. He'd known that something like this would happen, but she'd continued to insist that she wasn't able to learn it. "I'll take your test, then," he said, hoping that his traveling companion might slip past ignored.

"Excellent," the woman said, grinning. "Those interested in Restoration Magic find Healing Hands to be essential. Can you cast it on me? That would prove your skill."

Easy. What were the odds that the test would be something he already knew? With little effort he raised a hand and did as she wished, allowing the soft yellow light to swirl around her.

"Well done, indeed," she said, impressed. "I think you'll be a superb addition to the College. Welcome." She turned her golden eyes to Jackie, who was standing beside him nervously. "And you?"

"I, um, need to see the head of the College," she said, her cheeks coloring even in the cold. "I don't have an appointment but… I need to ask his advice on something magical."

"The Arch Mage? That may prove a more difficult task," she murmured. She turned back toward Bradas. "I'll allow it for now. She'll be your responsibility, apprentice."

"Thank you!" Jackie gushed, smiling despite how nervous and cold she felt.

The Altmer hummed in reply and turned around. "Come. I'll lead you across the bridge. Once you're inside you'll want to speak with Mirabelle Ervine, our Master Wizard. Please, follow me."

***

They spoke with the Master Wizard (Jackie couldn't believe such a title actually existed) and received a tour and some clothes. They'd been told they didn't have to wear them, so Jackie just opted to keep on her warmer furs. Mirabelle placed them in a room together and left them to settle in, letting Bradas know that a class was to begin soon and that he was welcome to attend.

It took them little time to get settled in, since they didn't have much to begin with.

"This is a sweet room," Jackie said, impressed. It was spacious, at least compared to the tiny quarters they'd been given on the ship—and warm, so very warm, compared to the harsh cold that they'd been camping in. There were trunks and dressers to store their things in, and Jackie idly wondered how long they would be here. Would she be sent home easily? Would Bradas have to deal with all her stuff after she left?

That thought felt surprisingly grim. She usually tried not to think too much on those kinds of things, but it was hard when her goal was so close.

"It isn't bad," Bradas agreed, looking through the wardrobe and finding some clothes. His eyes lit up and Jackie could see the triumph that he had to be feeling at finding some free apparel. "We'll have to sell this when we go into town," he muttered, throwing the outfit onto his bed.

"Oh, come on," she protested. "This'll barely get us anything. Besides, you have to go to a class soon, right?"

He peered at her with a wide grin and mischievous eyes. "You do realize what you've just volunteered for, don't you?"

"Ha, fine," she said, snapping up the wrinkled garments and placing them on her bed. "I guess I'll need something to do while you're busy learning. I've also got to figure out how to get an appointment with the Arch Mage…" she murmured.

"You'll be quite busy indeed," he said with a little less good humor. "Jackie, I'm… curious. If you would allow it, I would see the Arch Mage with you."

"Curious? About?"

"Your situation. Travelling between planes."

"Ah. Got it," she said with a nod.

The atmosphere in the room suddenly felt… different. Quiet and awkward. Like it had been when they'd first met and he'd hardly said a word to her—when they'd barely known each other at all. She found she hated the feeling. "Yeah, of course you can come."

***

Jackie sat in the dorm room for a few moments after Bradas left, her heart in her stomach.

This might be it, she realized. It could be only a matter of days before she returned home—maybe even sooner if her luck held out.

She knew there was the possibility that the Arch Mage wouldn't be able to help her. But if there was anyone in Skyrim who could help her find her way home, wouldn't it be the head of a magical college? But she had hoped before, in Whiterun, and had been sorely disappointed. The uncertainty of it all just made her sick.

What if he couldn't send her back home to Earth?

What if he could?

Jackie took a deep breath in, trying to calm down. She just wanted—no, she needed—to know. She hadn't realized how much until just now, when she'd finally reached Winterhold after all this time. It was hard to believe she was actually here after months of roughing it across Skyrim.

The enormity of the situation was finally starting to hit her. She was so close.

She launched up onto her feet, unable to sit still any longer. She needed to get an appointment with the Arch Mage right this moment, and after that she needed to distract herself. She could go to town and sell their extra stuff, and there was always someone who needed help with an errand. She just needed to be doing something that wasn't sitting and worrying.

Throwing her fur jacket back on, she went outside to find the office of the Arch Mage.

***

Bradas returned to the dormitory late that night after a full day of class to see Jackie sitting up in her bed, staring at nothing in particular. Her eyes darted to him when he entered and she gave a small smile.

"How was class?"

"It was…" he sighed, too tired to truly describe it. It was… boring. Academic. But the lessons of the day were still in his mind—he'd learned a little bit of Conjuration magic already, and had quickly realized that this place was where he needed to be if he wanted to continue studying the craft. There were talented, knowledgeable people here.

"I think I get it," Jackie said, wrinkling her nose. "That's why I liked hair school. It only took a year to finish."

"Hair school," he scoffed, unable to imagine a use for such a thing. She raised a brow and he smirked—he was too tired to tease her about her chosen career, but it seemed that he didn't need to say anything at all. "Did you go into town?"

"Yep! Here's your share," she said, tossing him a small coin purse.

He weighed it in his hands for a moment and shoved it away in a pocket. "Nicely done. And… the Arch Mage?"

What little good humor she'd had seemed to fall away at that. He wondered if she had spent all day thinking about it, worrying about whether or not she would be able to go home. "Yeah, I—he'll see me tomorrow afternoon. That's what the Master Wizard told me, anyway."

Bradas sighed and shrugged off his shoes, kicking them under his bed before sitting down beside her on her bed. She turned her head to face him, her lips quirking up. "Do you think you'll be travelling home tomorrow?" he asked.

Jackie shrugged and hugged her knees to her chest. "I don't know. After Whiterun I don't want to get my hopes up. I mean… I kind of put all my eggs in that basket and I wound up really disappointed."

Bradas mulled over her words. He remembered her seeming upset, but he had been focused on other things at the time—he'd just found out he was the Dragonborn, after all.

Jackie hadn't quite been his friend then, but now he found himself regretting his lack of involvement in that affair. "Will you be disappointed if he cannot send you back?" It was a fair question, and a possibility she needed to be prepared for. He still regretted asking it when she met his eyes.

"He can't not send me back," she said softly. "If he can't help me, I don't know what I'll do. I don't belong here."

She was right. She was not the type of person to thrive in the wilds of Skyrim, and he certainly didn't see her faring well in another country like Morrowind or Cyrodiil.

Still… he felt that the words weren't entirely true. Even if she didn't make it home, she could still carve out a life for herself in a big city like Solitude or Whiterun. She could make potions or manage a store for a living. She could belong, if she truly wanted to.

He was surprised to feel a spark of something… not unhappy at that prospect. The idea of Jackie staying in Tamriel was a guilty one, pleasant and traitorous all at once.

She ran her hands over her face. "Can we please talk about something else?" she asked, her voice shaky. "I've been thinking about it all day."

Yes, a change of subject did seem like the right thing. "Have you walked around here yet?" he asked, easily finding another topic.

She laughed a little. "Kind of? I got totally lost looking for someone to help me get an appointment earlier. Everything looks the same in all this snow. Just gray and white."

"I plan on going somewhere warm after this. I've had enough of the snow, myself," he admitted.

"Already planning the next move? You can't stay in one place for very long, huh?"

He grinned. "Why stay in one place when there is so much to see?"

"Good point. We've been all over the map, though," she said. "How long do you think you want to stick around here? No offence, but…"

"And here's where you say something offensive," he quipped. She rolled her eyes.

"But you don't seem like the college type," she finished, her lips quirking with a suppressed grin. "What's your end game? Will you get a degree?"

"I'll stay until I've learned what I want to know. More Destruction Magic, and anything else useful. Why do you ask? Didn't you go to a college?"

"Yeah, but that was before I figured out what I wanted to do. I was kind of… stalling real life," she said. "It took me three semesters before I realized I just wanted to do hair."

"I assure you, I am not 'stalling real life,'" he said, amused.

"You once said that the whole reason you were coming to Skyrim was because of the College," she pointed out. "So what's here that's so special?"

Bradas leaned back with a sigh. "When I was a child, my mother…" he paused and turned his head to look at her. She was paying rapt attention, her big brown eyes shining back up at him. Of all people, Jackie would be the least likely to laugh or scoff at his love for his mother. She wouldn't call him a milk-drinker or some other unintelligent platitude. "She desired for me to come here, like she did before me."

She didn't laugh—instead, her eyes widened and she sat up straight. "Your mom went to school here?"

"It was long ago. It wasn't uncommon for Dunmer to come here to study the Arcane Arts. She was a master pyromancer, and this is where she honed her skills," he muttered, shifting his eyes from her gaze. He was not embarrassed of the woman who raised him, but he rarely spoke of her.

Jackie smiled, for real, for the first time that day. She almost couldn't believe it—Bradas? A mama's boy? That was… really sweet. "How long ago did she come here?" she asked, a million questions wanting to fall out at once. He barely ever talked about himself, and now that he'd given her a little clue she wanted to know more.

Bradas shrugged. "A hundred or so years ago? Perhaps more," he said, unsure.

"You're so old," she laughed. "So she came here and then… what, had you about thirty years later?"

"You humans age so fast that you don't realize how short a time that is," he said with a smirk.

"So she taught you all about magic, and wanted you to come here to learn more," she said fondly.

"Don't get too sentimental," he warned. "It took me a long time to even consider it."

Jackie smirked. She'd be sentimental if she wanted to be. She had more questions—a lot more questions, because she had the feeling that that couldn't be his only reason for leaving Morrowind—but he looked a little embarrassed and she didn't want to push it. For now, the knowledge that Bradas was a big softie for his mom would be more than enough. "Thanks for telling me," she said, her heart feeling lighter.

He just scoffed in reply, a nice ashy blue coloring his cheeks. "It's getting late," he murmured. She only realized how close they'd been sitting—shoulder to shoulder—when he stood up and his warmth disappeared.

"Good night, then," she said, lying down and snuggling under the covers. She doubted that she'd get much sleep, but she would at least try.

***

Jackie was awake before he was—either that, or she hadn't slept at all during the night. When he opened his eyes he saw her sitting straight up in bed, fully clothed and ready for the day.

"Good morning," she greeted softly once she noticed that his eyes were open.

"Did you sleep at all?" he asked, his voice rough with sleep.

"I slept fine," she replied. He was too tired to call her out on her obvious lie, but it didn't really matter—they didn't have to save their energy like they usually did. College life, fortunately, didn't require them to be operating at full physical capacity.

Morning classes came and went, and when he was finished he met her in the main tower, where they walked together in silence to find the Arch Mage's quarters.

He glanced at her face as they walked. She looked pale and nervous—her hands were stuck in her pockets but he imagined that they were shaking. He didn't understand; this was what she had come here for, wasn't it? She should be happy, hopeful that she was close to a way home.

The familiar, cynical part of him rose up and told him that, perhaps, she was correct in being anxious. All of this could have been for nothing. The Arch Mage might tell her that her situation was impossible, and that she was stuck here forever.

Then what would she do?

He wanted, suddenly, to stop and ask her. To make sure that she had a plan, make sure that she knew that she could be in for heartbreak. He nearly placed his hand on her shoulder to get her attention, but by then, she was already opening the door to the Arch Mage's office.

They entered the chamber, and Jackie scanned the room for him. It was a huge room, perfectly fitting for a person she was secretly picturing as Dumbledore. There were old books and papers stacked on desks, and a large, nearly opulent herb garden in the middle of the room. Arcadia would have been out of her mind with jealousy.

The Arch Mage was sitting in the corner, flipping through the pages of some unknown tome. She was a little surprised to see that he was Dunmer, like Bradas. In a land filled to the brim with Nords, it was easy to be surprised by diversity. He looked up at the pair of them as they approached.

"You must be the apprentice from a different world," he said. She wasn't sure if he was teasing her, and she didn't know where to start—did she just jump in and tell him her situation? Or was she supposed to correct him and tell him she wasn't an apprentice?

She must have taken too long to answer, because Bradas was already picking up the slack. "Arch Mage," he greeted, discreetly bumping her shoulder to bring her out of her stupor. "This is Jackie Carson, and I am Bradas Sarayn."

"I am Savos Aren," he said. His eyes fell on Jackie and he gestured for them to follow him to a desk filled with tomes. "The Master Wizard told me about you. You say you have come here from another plane?"

"Um, yes," she replied. Savos pointed to some chairs and they sat across from him as he pulled a few of the books out of the pile. "I don't know where to start," she admitted.

"How about from the beginning?" the man suggested, his red eyes piercing. "Tell me about this place you are from."

Jackie told him what little she could about America—she explained technology as best she could, and a little about her life in Washington. Then came the story of how she found herself in Helgen:

"I… well," she started, taking a deep breath. "I was with a few friends in the woods. We were camping… not because we needed to, just for fun. It was the middle of the night when I stepped out of our tent for a minute. While I was looking for a way back I got lost and ran smack into an Imperial soldier. He threw me onto a wagon with some others and took us to Helgen."

Savos tilted his head to the side. "That's all?"

"What?" she asked, surprised.

"No whirling vortex? No loud noises or bright lights? You weren't experimenting with magic before you arrived?"

"No, no magic. It doesn't even exist where I'm from, it's a fairy tale," she shook her head. "There weren't any bright lights or anything. I just… showed up here, I guess."

"That is… very strange," Savos said, flipping through a book until he reached the page he was looking for. "I've been doing some reading, you see. To reach different planes, one ordinarily needs to create a way in. To simply step into another plane without noticing is highly unusual."

"Nothing like that happened to me. I thought I was being kidnapped," she admitted. "I thought that everyone was wearing a costume, especially when I saw…" her eyes slid to Bradas and he raised his eyebrows. She chose not to finish that particular thought. "I wouldn't have even known I was on a different plane if it hadn't been for the dragon."

"Dragon?" Savos asked with interest. "You were in Helgen when the dragon appeared?"

"Yes…?" she replied, not fully understanding why that was relevant to her story. It was interesting, sure, but it had little to do with her appearance from another dimension.

The Arch Mage shifted his gaze to Bradas. "I have heard rumors about a Dunmer Dragonborn. They say he was in Helgen when the dragon first appeared. He was the one to warn the jarl about the threat to his hold, and the one to slay the beast."

Bradas shifted uncomfortably under Savos' penetrating gaze. "The tales have been… exaggerated," he said. She couldn't believe it. Bradas did tend to get a lot of attention, especially when people found out he was the Dragonborn… but she was the one with the problem here!

"Sir, I… don't see what that has to do with me," she hedged.

"Are you sure? I'm not convinced that it's only a coincidence… You seem to have appeared in Skyrim at the same time as the first Dragonborn in centuries."

"You surely cannot mean that she is here because of me," Bradas said, sitting up straight in his seat.

Jackie found that hard to believe, too. "That doesn't make sense—I'm just a hairdresser!" she sputtered.

"It's only a theory," the Arch Mage said calmly. "I would need to know more to even begin to understand the situation. You could be here for any number of reasons. I suspect meddling Daedra or Divines. I cannot think of anyone else who would have the power to send someone, unwitting, through dimensions."

"Divines?" Jackie asked helplessly. Did he mean Gods and Goddesses like Talos and Dibella? "Why would they do that?"

"That's not for us mortals to know, unfortunately," he said. "But they are the only ones I could think of who could do such a thing. Travel between planes isn't completely unheard of, but it often requires great feats or great sacrifice."

"But I can get back, right?"

The Arch Mage didn't answer right away, and in that small moment of silence Jackie felt her heart drop to her feet.

"I've never heard of a world like yours," he admitted. "A place with no magic. I've many books about the numerous planes, but I've never entered another. Few have."

"So… no," she murmured, eyes dropping to her lap.

"Even if I was to open a portal—and I'm not sure I could—I wouldn't know where to direct it. It would be like a door without a room. And to a place without magic, no less. No, I don't think it would be possible." She heard the sound of a book being closed. "I'm sorry, apprentice. I don't have the answers, and I don't know anyone who does."

Chapter Text

Jackie felt as though a wave of despair was crushing her, smothering her until she couldn’t breathe. The hope she’d held onto all these months slipped away and was replaced by the knowledge that she’d never see her home again. She’d never sit in her father’s house, laugh at her sister’s jokes. She’d never go into work to see the station she’d been so proud of, or use a blow-dryer or eat chocolate or—

“It’s fine—thanks,” she said automatically. Although, really, she wasn’t thankful. She’d just travelled all over Skyrim to be told that there was no one who could help her get home. She felt helpless tears well up in her eyes. She really, really didn’t want to cry in front of a person she’d just met but it was going to happen if she didn’t get out of this office.

She heard Bradas thank the Arch Mage or bid him goodbye—she couldn’t hear, it felt like blood was rushing through her ears. She felt his hand on her shoulder, steering her out of the room and through the building, out the door and into the freezing cold. They were heading toward the Hall of Attainment where the dorms were, and if she’d trusted herself to speak she would have thanked him for getting her out of there.

***

Jackie, once they reached their shared room, sat down on her bed and almost immediately began crying her eyes out. All the stress, the apprehension, all the work… it had all been for nothing.

She was vaguely aware of Bradas sitting awkwardly across from her, looking anywhere but at her. She ignored him. At the moment, his comfort level was really the least of her concerns.

She didn’t think she’d even been this upset or scared when she’d realized she had travelled to another world, because even then there was hope of getting back. Now… she felt as though she was finally being crushed under the weight of all the fears she’d pushed down—where would she go now? What would she do if she was stuck in Tamriel forever? How would she make a living, how would she be able to go on without seeing her family or friends ever again?

She wanted to scream. She was stuck.

And the only person she really knew was an elf who was obviously freaked out and uncomfortable with all the crying. She just couldn’t stop—she didn’t want to stop. If she could have she would have cried louder, or screamed, or thrown something. But all she could do was sob into her hands and hope no one else could hear her.

Bradas shifted so that he was in front of her, placing a tentative hand on her shoulder.

“Jackie…” There was a guilty pang in his chest as he knelt down. He wasn’t good with crying people, least of all women. He wondered if he shouldn’t leave her alone altogether, if she wanted to cry in peace. “Do you want me to leave?” he asked softly.

A hand, wet with tears, reached out and grasped his sleeve. She didn’t have to pull; he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around her.

It was awkward, but there was little else he could offer.

Bradas had seen her cry before. She’d gotten hurt plenty of times during their travels—he’d even been the cause of some tears during training sessions. But this was… different. Worse.

He shifted so that he was sitting in her bed with her, one arm around her shoulders. She curled her knees toward her chest and leaned into him, trying to stifle her crying.

“Sorry,” she muttered, using the rough blanket to wipe her face a little.

He squeezed her shoulder. “Perhaps there is another mage or scholar who would know something,” he suggested quietly. She shook her head.

It was hopeless. She wasn’t being a pessimist, she just knew. The Arch Mage had been the only person who might have known what to do… and he didn’t. And she couldn’t spend her days chasing after people who may or may not know something about portals and alternate planes.

“Speak,” he said softly. “If you wish to search for someone else, we can. Give me time to study here, and then I will follow you.”

Jackie actually laughed at that—not because it was funny, but because it was so nice. “Are you saying that just so I’ll stop crying?” she tried to joke, her voice hoarse.

“Partly,” he teased, causing her to laugh again through her tears.

“You heard him,” she sniffed, wiping at her face with wet hands. “He doesn’t know anyone else that knows more about travelling through different planes. I’ll look,” she assured. “But I… don’t think I can count on getting home anymore.”

Bradas only squeezed her shoulder again.

“What am I going to do?” she asked. “I don’t even have a—a home.” And with that she began to cry again in earnest. She wished she could stop, but she’d held it in for so long in the hopes that things would work out. Her mind wandered to her friends, her dad, her sister… people she would never see again.

Her life there was over, and there was nothing she could do. To those she loved, she was as good as dead.

She felt herself being pulled closer to Bradas, until her face was buried against his shoulder. His free hand gripped her other shoulder and he clasped it before pushing her from him and staring into her eyes.

“You do—you can make a home here, Jackie,” he told her, wishing earnestly that her tears would stop. He was powerless to stop it, this grief, and he hated feeling powerless. Sadness was not a problem he could solve, but a thing that she would have to weather.

He could do nothing but wait.

***

The thing about terrible news was that time still marched on after receiving it. Bradas spent the days studying, reading, writing—all things he enjoyed, but only at his own leisure. Academic study was tedious and difficult but he kept on anyway. If he could spend days out in the harsh cold, hunting and fighting, he could get through his studies.

He attended classes and studied magic, bored out of his mind but still determined. He was learning, after all, achieving what goals he’d had in coming to Skyrim while avoiding what it meant to be the Dragonborn.

Still, time dragged on. Things felt slow, boring. Bradas was old enough to know himself, and his own restlessness, and knew that eventually he would become too stir-crazy to stay. His mind began to wander: where would he go in that inevitable moment? Jackie had become a reliable companion, would she want to go with him? He thought it likely, given that he was the only person she knew. He hadn’t asked her about it; her future seemed to be a subject she wanted to avoid. He had no desire to risk making her cry again, so he wasn’t going to push the subject until he absolutely had to.

The outlander had gotten her hands on a stack of paper and a quill and had taken to drawing or ‘doodling,’ as she called it. She’d either sit quietly in the dorm while he studied, or take walks out in the village alone. Occasionally she would meet with the Arch Mage to talk about her unique situation—he, and some of the other professors, were interested in her apparent dislocation, and she said it was the least she could do for people who were allowing her to stay at the college without attending class.

Otherwise, she avoided the subject of her home completely.

He was content with leaving her be and letting her conduct her own business. If their positions were reversed, he’d have wanted to be left alone.

The nights passed by quietly, empty of laughter or interesting conversation. He hadn’t realized how used to her banter he’d become, and as annoyed as he was to admit it, he missed it.

And damn, was he bored.

After a long day of reading and attending class, he stepped into the room they shared and stomped the snow out of his boots. Jackie was sitting in a pile of blankets, focusing on the paper in front of her, using a book as a solid surface for her drawing. She looked up from the paper she was doodling on and raised her eyebrows.

He peered at her drawings and realized that she wasn’t sketching at all. “What are you writing?” he asked, staring at the unfamiliar script. Neat little lines marched across the paper, an alphabet he had never before seen. Each letter was curved, slanted, curled.

“Just a list,” she replied, tapping the quill on her chin. “Just… things I can do now. Careers.”

This was actually a positive change from the moping of last couple of days, he thought. “What’s on this list?”

“Uhh, well, there’s the obvious hair styling,” she sighed. He looked at her doubtfully. “Oh, ye of little faith. It’s just an option.” She scrunched up her nose.

“Perhaps some noble lady would want a handmaiden,” he said.

“That sounds like so much fun,” she deadpanned. He sat down heavily on his bed across from her and huffed a laugh.

“No, you would not make a good servant,” he agreed with a grin. “What else?”

“Alchemist,” she replied with a hopeful shrug. “But I’m not really great at it like Arcadia. The alchemist in Whiterun I worked for,” she clarified when he gave her a blank look. “I’d probably need to study.”

“Yes,” he hummed. “And read.”

“I can read,” she told him, incensed.

“Not in a language that counts,” he said, eyeing her list. She made an indignant noise and he continued before she could put voice to her thought: “I suppose I could teach you.”

The eyebrows went a little higher. “… I don’t… okay,” she sighed. “Yeah, actually, you’re right,” she agreed, with a little more conviction.

“I’m glad you agree,” he quipped, glad that he wouldn’t have to drag her kicking and screaming. He’d actually expected a little more fight.

She got up out of her bed and dug a pair of pants out of her trunk. “Oh, Azura,” he huffed, looking up at the ceiling and away from her exposed legs. The tunic she wore went down to the middle of her thighs, but it was still a lot of skin. He knew she usually went to bed like that but it surprised him every time. “You didn’t see fit to wear pants today?”

That actually got a smirk out of her, but he didn’t see it. “You know, where I’m from, it’s not that big of a deal.”

It had just slipped out but she regretted saying it.

Where she was from. She wasn’t getting back.

She took a deep breath and attempted to get past the weight of her own stupid statement. “Alright, I’m decent,” she sighed.

“You rarely ever are,” he said with a grin. She rolled her eyes.

“Alright. Let’s read,” she said, mustering up her energy. She wasn’t excited to learn a whole new alphabet, but it was going to be necessary if she was stuck here.

***

Books were lying all around the college—on desks, shelfs, in wardrobes and on top of beds. So finding a one to read wasn’t difficult. The problem was finding books to teach Jackie out of. Most of the books they had access to were highly academic—they were boring and Jackie probably wasn’t rearing to learn about the theory and ethics of healing magic.

He was almost tempted to find a copy of The Lusty Argonian Maid, just for the entertainment value. He discarded that idea as quickly as he’d come up with it. Just the thought of sitting down and reading a tale like that with Jackie made him uncomfortable in ways he didn’t want to address at the moment.

So, over the next few days, Bradas used a bit of her paper and wrote things for her to read himself. He wrote down the alphabet, the names of days and months and seasons, the names of cities and villages they had been to. He taught her how to write her name, his name, the names of people they’d met—anything and everything the two of them could think of.

In return, she showed him some calligraphy. In big, loopy letters, she presented him with their names and wrote out sloppy sentences. He had no reason to retain the information, but it was a way to pass the time—something to focus on besides the monotony of studying.

Tonight she was reading out loud out of a simple text he’d found: Advances in Lockpicking. He sat beside her and peered over each word and she stumbled through the text, picking out each word through squinted eyes.

“‘I am… a good thee… thief. I am… not… such a good… wuh-writer.’ You’re telling me, buddy.” The book in her hands clapped shut and fell the short distance back onto the desk with a whump. She lifted a hand to her brow and pinched her nose. “I don’t remember having this much trouble when I was five,” she muttered.

“Learning as an adult is different, I’m sure,” he said with a shrug. He couldn’t really be too upset when she got frustrated and quit. Learning to fight and learning to read were two very different endeavors, and to him, the physical tasks seemed much easier.

Jackie seemed just about as thrilled about education and academia as he was, but she learned slowly and steadily. “I’m getting a headache,” she complained, leaning back onto her bed and covering her eyes.

“Let’s take a break,” he said.

“Yeah. An eight hour break,” she sighed, turning to gaze up at him from her pillow. “It’s getting late.”

She was right. But the night was still young.

“Perhaps we should go to the tavern in the village,” he suggested. It seemed like ages had passed since he’d been in a tavern and had a good ale—he was so busy studying that those simple pleasures had slipped through the cracks.

Jackie, unfortunately, did not seem as enamored with the idea. “What? Bradas. Don’t you have class tomorrow or something?”

“No, only an expedition into Saarthal,” he said. “Come now, Jackie. Don’t be a milk-drinker.”

She sat up on her elbows and fixed him with a glare. “Are you calling me a baby right now?”

“No, I called you a milk-drinker,” he replied, raising an eyebrow.

She rolled her eyes and sat up all the way, rising to her feet and pulling on some boots. “I can’t believe this is working,” she muttered, pulling her jacket off the pile of clothes on her bed and yanking it on. He grinned.

“Now, let’s go, you milk-drinker,” he said.

“You’re paying for drinks,” she warned.

“Of course.”

“And I’ve had an awful week, so be prepared.”

***

Jackie could tell that Bradas was doing some kind of ‘cheering-up’ thing, but at this point she really didn’t mind. She ate lots of sweet rolls and drank too many cups of wine—forget eating a healthy diet. She was going to eat whatever she wanted right now, and drink until she got sick.

Was it a healthy way of dealing with her depression? Probably not.

“Last time I got really drunk I beat up Mikael,” she told him. They sat in a warm corner of the tavern, surrounded by empty cups, bottles, and a rapidly disappearing jug of wine.

“Who?” he asked.

“The bard in The Bannered Mare. While I was in Whiterun,” she clarified.

“I doubt it,” he said, smirking. “You didn’t even know how to fight then.”

“Tell that to Mikael’s black eye,” she huffed, taking another sip. She was getting past the pleasant side of buzzed and tipping into slightly drunk territory. She took a bite of too-sugary sweet roll to soak up some of the alcohol.

“I’m sure you could take someone now,” he said with a smirk.

“Oh, thanks to you, I suppose,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “‘Cause of your… training or whatever.”

“Yes, thanks to me,” he agreed, faux-haughtily. He laughed a little and took a sip of his ale.

He was kind of a funny, giggly drunk. It was almost contagious, but she knew that if she kept going she was going to get weepy. Being sad and drunk wasn’t a great combination.

“I think I should probably quit while I’m ahead,” she muttered, eyeing the last of the wine. “You’re all happy and I’m gonna get all sad-sack drunk on you.”

“Sad drunk? Please. I thought you were a violent drunk, with the way you were talking,” he teased. He stood up and held out his hand; a rare gesture on his part. “Then allow me to escort you back to the College.”

***

They ambled back to their dorm, entwining their arms to keep from falling in the slippery snow. Bradas suspected that he had possibly imbibed too much wine, but Jackie insisted that he was fine. She was a terrible enabler and had many rational excuses to overindulge at the ready, something he appreciated in a friend.

She was a warm presence beside him in the dark of the night. Something about tangling his arm with hers and dragging her along felt natural. It felt like such a shame when he had to let her go so she could fall into her bed. Her hair had come undone from its braid and fanned out in messy curls around her face.

“We should have read The Lusty Argonian Maid,” he said, just to shock her.

Oh, he was definitely too drunk.

She just snorted in reply. “Whatever. I bet that’s tame compared to the stuff I’ve read.”

“I’m both scandalized and intrigued,” he told her.

“You couldn’t handle it if I told you,” she informed him with a smirk, her deep brown eyes meeting his. Jackie looked up at him from her pillow, pupils wide in the dark. Her cheeks were flushed from the cold and her lips were stained dark red from the wine.

She probably hadn’t meant that how it sounded, he told himself. “You’ll find that little surprises me,” he replied softly, mimicking her playful expression. He realized that he was standing far too close to her bed, looming over her.

She was quiet for what felt like minutes, but could only have been seconds. The tension that he hadn’t even realized was there broke when she finally moved to rub her hands over her face.

“I’m really drunk,” she whispered, peering at him through her fingers. “It’s definitely my bedtime.”

He stepped back until the backs of his knees hit his bed and he sat down. “Right,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“Sleep well, Jackie.”

He fell into his own bed and stared up at the ceiling as he listened to her breathing even out. It was probably a good thing she was going to sleep—he was clearly not sober enough to hold a proper conversation. Trying to talk about The Lusty Argonian Maid while drunk was a bad idea no matter who you were with.

Bradas had to admit, in this inebriated moment, that he was glad to have a friend here. To actually know someone in a place where he’d be otherwise alone. The fact that it was Jackie, who was so unique and entertaining to be around, made it even better.

His feelings about her staying in Skyrim were selfish and probably something he should have been ashamed of. In quiet, vulnerable moments like this, he realized how utterly relieved he was that she hadn’t gone home. How quiet would his nights be without her to talk to—to listen to her go on about ‘hair school’ or alchemy? Without her soft snores in the dark, or her musings about magic?

Some nights he could hear her in her bed, soft, shuddering breaths and wet tears. She wrote her lists in her own language like she was trying to remember every last precious thing about home. She hummed songs that he’d never heard, quietly mulled over distant memories.

She was hurting, he knew. But he couldn’t bring himself to feel all that sorry.

He ran his fingers through his hair, feeling drunk and stupid. He toed off his boots and shouldered his jacket onto the floor, feeling as though he was moving through water.

When it came to her, sometimes he wasn’t sure what he was thinking.

***

As predicted, he woke up with a hangover. Healing magic came to the rescue and he was able to function after using up a bit of mana. Jackie, who was still sleeping, wasn’t going to reap those benefits if she didn’t wake up soon.

“Jackie,” he grumbled, placing a hand on her covered bicep and shaking. Her eyes snapped open and she glared.

“Why are you waking me up?” she asked, her voice gruff with sleep and hangover. For once, he supposed, he was the early riser.

He just sighed and placed a hand on her forehead to cast Healing Hands.

“Oh…” Her eyes slid shut. When they opened once more, they were no longer blood-shot. “Okay, acceptable excuse,” she sighed.

“Come with me to Saarthal,” he said. “It’s been far too long since we’ve delved into old ruins.”

She gave a hollow laughed and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. “You think there’ll be treasure?”

“Without a doubt,” he replied with a grin. “And who else will carry it all for me if you don’t come along?”

Chapter Text

If there was any kind of effective distraction from her depression, Jackie thought, it was the inevitable danger they always seemed to stumble into.

Once inside the Saarthal ruins, they were tasked to find enchanted artifacts that just so happened to be tiny, nearly invisible little rings on the floor. As if flailing around in the dark and having to walk on rotting wooden staircases weren’t enough.

Then, Bradas had pulled an amulet off of a locked door and they were trapped. All parties involved (besides herself, of course) were disturbingly calm about it.

Some of the students looked their way but ultimately ignored them, too consumed in their own explorations. Why, she wondered, did everyone around here love exploring ancient ruined death-traps? “Um, you guys can break down these bars if we can’t find a way out, right?” she asked Tolfdir, leaning against them and seeing how much of her body could fit through.

Tolfdir, the elderly mage that was guiding them, gave her a look of regret that she really didn’t want to interpret.

From behind her, Bradas cast a spell at the door while wearing the amulet and blew down the door. The bars she’d been leaning on hurtled upward and she jumped away from them with an embarrassing squeak.

“It seems we weren’t so trapped, after all,” Bradas said smugly.

“Well, would you look at that,” Tolfdir said, walking toward them to look at the newly-opened passage. “This appears to lead somewhere. Let’s see where it goes.”

She caught Bradas’ eye and gave him a skeptical look. He smirked and turned to follow Tolfdir, who was bound and determined to continue through the dangerous ruin despite the fact that they’d just barely gotten themselves un-trapped.

Not for the first time (and certainly not the last), she thought that her life felt an awful lot like one of those scary movies where the characters kept making dumb decisions.

Still, in for a penny, in for a septim. She followed Bradas and Tolfdir down the dark, dank tunnel.
.

.

Strange things began happening, as they always did, once they reached a small chamber that served as a juncture between tunnels. In the middle of it stood an altar with a few things scattered on top—embalming tools and other useless items. Tolfdir was going on about the history of the ruins and how excited he was to have gotten into the tunnels. Jackie tuned him out, only giving the occasional hum to show that someone was paying attention.

She was considering what would be worth trying to sell when Bradas went absolutely still. Tolfdir didn’t notice for a couple of seconds, but she did right away. She’d been around him long enough to know that Bradas didn’t do still—he was always moving, or at least fidgeting.

“Bradas?” she questioned, reaching a tentative hand to poke his shoulder.

He didn’t react.

“He doesn’t do that often, does he?” Tolfdir asked, seeming more amused than worried. In the corner of her eye, the old man shuddered. “Oh. Oh my…”

They both seemed to be aware of something she wasn’t perceiving. That… probably wasn’t a good thing. “No, this is pretty unusual…” she murmured, waving her hand in front of the Dunmer’s face. She snapped her fingers a couple times—nothing. Bradas maintained his position, red eyes slightly wide and mouth open as if something had surprised him before it froze him.

Oh, no. This wasn’t another ‘dragonborn’ thing, was it?

As soon as the thought crossed her mind, Bradas seemed to snap right out of it. He waved her hand out of his face and gasped, looking at Jackie and Tolfdir with an expression of wild confusion. He blinked a few times, eyes shifting between the two of them.

“I… I swear I felt something rather strange just then,” Tolfdir said, his voice full of wonder. He turned his gaze to Bradas as if he had all the answers. “What just happened?”

Jackie frowned; she hadn’t felt a thing. Maybe it was just a magic thing?

“Some sort of ghost or apparition appeared,” Bradas answered, “it spoke to me.”

“I’m afraid I didn’t see anything. Can you tell me more of what you saw?” the elderly man asked. Bradas glanced at her, eyes curious, and she shrugged.

“It said something about danger ahead,” he said. Jackie sighed. Of course it did. “Something about the Psijic order.”

“The Psijic order? Are you quite sure about that? That’s very odd. And danger ahead? Why, that doesn’t make any sense at all! The Psijics have no connections to these ruins, and no one has seen any of their order in a long time...”

Jackie listened to them talk about the Psijic order—and why didn’t it surprise her that they were contacting Bradas? He seemed to attract attention from everyone and everything, people and apparitions alike. It was truly bizarre.

Tolfdir, despite being the dedicated academic that he was, could not shed any light on why the Psijic order was interested in the elf. So they moved on to what she hoped were more tangible efforts: reaching the end of the tunnels.

At a certain point, Tolfdir urged them ahead, saying he would catch up. They hacked and slashed their way through the undead, solving puzzle after puzzle to move further ahead.

“Now this is more like it,” Bradas muttered as he pulled the chain to a door and arrows flew toward him from the trap.

“You’re a danger junkie,” she accused. Although it really did feel a lot more natural to be exploring dangerous ruins than in did to sit at the college all day. She could almost understand why Bradas liked adventuring so much. He was probably rubbing off on her.

“There are worse things to be addicted to,” he said, flashing her a grin. “You’re just lucky I don’t like skooma.” Jackie sighed—she didn’t have the energy to even ask what that was.

When they finally reached the end of the path, Tolfdir had caught up to them. They opened the last door together and were met with the eerie blue glow of magical light.

“Whoa,” Jackie said breathlessly. It looked like a huge, perfectly round boulder was suspended in the air of a magical aura, lazily spinning and floating in mid-air.

And, as usual, another undead enemy stood before their goal. They charged ahead.
.

.
They exited the ruins and marched victoriously through the snow, dirty, tired, and covered in blood.

It was the most exhilarating thing they’d done since they’d arrived at the college.

Bradas trudged beside his human companion, a crooked grin on his face. “I found some gold and gems, if you’re interested,” he told her.

“Not if you found them in an urn,” she replied, wrinkling her nose. He laughed and slipped his fingers into the crook of her elbow before they could turn toward the college, spinning her so that they were suddenly heading in another direction. “What are we doing?”

“Taking a detour,” he replied. “I’ve been wanting to visit the statue of Azura.”

“Don’t we have to get back to the Arch Mage?” Despite her question, she didn’t slow down or stop following.

“We have time. Are you really so eager to get back?”

She shrugged, grinning. “I guess not. Lead the way.”

The enormous shrine wasn’t far from where they were, and they were bundled sufficiently to make it to the top of the hill. The weather was relatively pleasant, too; for once, there wasn’t an overwhelming flurry of snow.

Azura’s silhouette became more and more visible the closer they got to her statue. He heard Jackie’s intake of breath as they approached, no doubt impressed by the size of it. He’d known it would be an incredible sight—even more so up close.

“So she’s one of the gods?” Jackie asked, her breath floating up into the air.

“She’s the Daedric Prince of Dusk and Dawn,” he informed her, his heart beating just a little harder from Azura’s sheer beauty. He looked away for a moment to see what his companion thought. She was still staring up at the statue, a wrinkle in her brow.

“You mean princ-ess?”

“I suppose,” he said, huffing a laugh. “She’s the patron saint of the Dunmer.”

“Ah. So that’s why you’re always cursing with her name. ‘Azura damn it all,’” she teased.

“I don’t sound like that,” he groused, choosing to turn back to the statue and ignore her poor imitation of him. He also ignored her when she hummed skeptically in response. “What do you think? Worth the trip?”

“Hm. Yeah,” she murmured, lost in thought. They stood and admired the statue for a few quiet moments. “So, I guess all this stuff is real.”

That comment took him off guard. “What do you mean?”

She shrugged, the corners of her lips turning up. “Gods and goddesses. Entities that can bless people or save them, like when you were a vampire...” He didn’t know how many times he’d told her that he hadn’t been a vampire yet, but he could sense that now was not the time to remind her. “… or curse them,” she continued.

“Do you believe you’ve been cursed?” he asked, quickly picking up on the subtext of the conversation. It was possible, he supposed. Although he wasn’t sure that he would say living in Skyrim was a curse, so to speak.

“I don’t know… maybe not,” she admitted, eyes finally falling from the statue to look at him. “I have a lot of theories. You don’t think Azura would do something like that, do you?”

He smirked. “I don’t mean to offend, but I’m sure she has other things to do besides tossing helpless mortals from realm to realm.” That got a laugh out of her.

“You’re probably right. What would a Daedric Princess want with me? Besides, they don’t even exist where I’m from.”

Now that was an interesting thought. Perhaps the Gods of this realm didn’t have dominion over Jackie’s—or their reach was limited. “Hey, I’m cold,” she said, pulling him out of his theories. “Let’s get back.”

.
...
.

They returned to the college, stomping their boots across the courtyard to shake off excess snow. They entered a building that Jackie was getting very familiar with—the Hall of the Elements, where the Arch Mage’s quarters were.

“You head on up,” Jackie told her companion, slipping her gloves off to rub her hands together. “I’m gonna stay down here and warm up a little.”

He gave her a skeptical look. “You’re tired already?”

She nearly threw her wet gloves at him. “Of course I am! We just climbed a small mountain!”

Bradas laughed, his smirk turning into a real smile. “You’d think you’d be used to it by now—unless you weren’t lying before and really are some kind of princess,” he joked.

“Go,” she said, exasperated. She couldn’t believe he remembered that.

“When I come back we’ll find some supper.” He gave her a little wave and disappeared up the stairs. Where did he get all that energy?

She didn’t care at the moment. She moved her weary limbs until she reached the center of one of the great rooms where a cold blue light beamed up into the ceiling. She sat on the steps that led up to it and sighed with relief. She was so tired.

This room was usually full of students practicing their magic, but today it was empty—everyone was still poking away in the Saarthal ruins. For once it was peaceful. The quiet would have been nice if it didn’t let in that nagging sadness she felt all the time these days. It had actually been… refreshing to dig around in the filthy ruins, just because it gave her the chance to think about something other than her hopeless situation.

She never thought she’d prefer wandering tombs.

A pair of footsteps disturbed her temporary peace, and for a second she thought it was Bradas returning. “That was quick,” she remarked, before looking up and seeing that it wasn’t her companion at all.

A tall elf with golden-shimmery skin and white hair gave her a look, walking toward her with two hands behind his back. Ancano, the Altmer who was there to try and advise the Arch Mage, was stalking the halls like he tended to do. He had the usual severe expression on his face—or was that just the way elves looked? “I’m sure you don’t mean me,” he drawled.

He had a bad reputation around the college. She’d managed to avoid him, since she wasn’t really a student or anyone important, but she had certainly overheard his snarky comments to apprentices and professors in the halls. That was stress she wished to avoid.

“Oh, sorry,” she said, sure to be as polite as possible. “I thought you were someone else.”

“Your Dunmer companion,” he deduced.

She gave a non-committal shrug.

“Did I hear something about a… princess, earlier?” he asked, looking her up and down.

“Oh, uh, it’s a joke,” she said awkwardly. “I’m definitely not royalty.”

“The rumor is that you’re not from this realm. For all we know, you could be,” he said. She didn’t catch on that he was joking at first, his tone was so serious. Jackie laughed at the thought.

“Maybe I should tell everyone I am. Maybe I’d get special treatment?”

“A fine plan,” he said, his frown fading into something that looked a little friendlier. “It’s empty in these halls. Shouldn’t you be with the other students in that ruin?”

“Just got back,” she told him.

“Just you?” he asked, curious.

“No, my friend went to speak with the Arch Mage,” she clarified. “I just didn’t want to march up the stairs, to be honest.”

“You found something interesting, if you’re back so early to speak with the Arch Mage,” he guessed.

It was kind of an open secret that Ancano was a spy. Jackie wondered if she should be vague in her answers... but then realized that she was hardly an expert on whatever they had found in the ruins, so it didn’t matter anyway. “Don’t ask me,” she said with a shrug. “Just more magic stuff.”

“What was it, exactly?”

“I don’t know,” she said honestly. “No one did. Just some big… ball, I guess?” she waved her hand in a circular motion and gave up. “I’m really not the one to be asking.”

“Ah, my apologies. I suppose that you wouldn’t know, not being from this realm,” he said, his tone not unkind. “You know, Jackie Carson, you and I are similar... both of us foreigners in Skyrim.”

He was kind of right, she thought, but she felt a little more ‘foreign’ than he was. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense…” she conceded. Except he could get on a ship and sail home. She bit her tongue to keep from saying something overly bitter about it—it’s wasn’t like it was Ancano’s fault she was stranded here.

“It’s… interesting. I’ve never met anyone from another realm before. I’m sure you’ve already spoken to the Arch Mage about it, but I’ve questions about it myself. From an academic standpoint,” he said. “Perhaps you and I could talk over ale at The Frozen Hearth,” he suggested, his severe expression softening just a bit.

She blinked in surprise. “I—ale?” she asked dumbly. A drink invitation from Ancano, of all people?

His mouth twisted into a wry grin. “Unless you have other things to do…”

“Well, I mean, sure. Okay,” she sputtered. Was Ancano looking to be friends? She didn’t have much time to wonder. The sound of footsteps echoed through the empty hall once more, and this time Bradas emerged from the doors.

The macho display that followed was ridiculous enough to make her roll her eyes and scoff: her Dunmer companion gave Ancano a dirty look, while the latter elf straightened up to greet him.

“Dragonborn,” the Altmer sneered.

“Thalmor,” Bradas answered, his voice cold as ice. “Come, Jackie. I need to speak with you.”

“Alright,” she sighed, hauling herself up from her relaxed position. “See you, Ancano.”

Her words seemed to be sucked into a black hole of machismo as Ancano and the Bradas faced off. Ancano addressed the Dunmer sharply: “Not so fast. I have questions for you.”

“And what might those be?”

“You were in Saarthal, yes? It has come to my attention that something was found there.”

Bradas narrowed his eyes. “Perhaps.”

“I know full well that you have; please do not insult my intelligence. Tolfdir is still there now, is he? I shall expect a full report when he returns.”

“How you even know about all this escapes me. It makes a man wonder,” Bradas said, his voice dripping with thinly-veiled disdain.

“Something was discovered in Saarthal that was significant enough that Tolfdir sent a new member of the college, alone, to deliver word. That sounds precisely like the sort of thing that should matter to everyone, especially me.”

Jackie raised her eyebrows and looked toward Bradas, who was silently fuming. “Thank you for your… help,” Ancano continued, waving his hand in dismissal. “You may go now. And Jackie, I’ll be talking to you soon… tonight, perhaps?” He brushed past them both to head toward the Arch Mage’s chambers.

Her eyebrows hiked even further up toward her hairline, and she could almost feel Bradas’ head whip around to look at her in surprise.

Bristling, Bradas placed a light hand on Jackie’s elbow as they walked toward the doors and out to the cold. He didn’t trust the Altmer, and he never had—and now he was speaking to Jackie as though they were… familiar?

Only once they were outside did he trust himself to speak. Instead of telling Jackie that they would have to go to Fellglow Keep, like he intended, he said: “What in Oblivion could you and that Altmer have to talk about?”

Jackie rolled her eyes. “Cool it. He was obviously just trying to get a rise out of you,” she deadpanned, looking thoroughly unimpressed. He found he couldn’t blame her for being annoyed—he knew he sounded like some overly-concerned mother hen, scolding a child about her choice of friends.

“He’s a spy, and everyone knows it,” he muttered as they trudged toward their dorm.

Jackie laughed. “What’s a spy going to get from me?”

He… actually had no response for that question. Jackie, despite her many qualities, had nothing to offer when it came to political intrigue and spy-games.

Even so. It rankled him.

However, he also knew that he couldn’t prevent her from forming other friendships, especially when it seemed that she was to stay in Skyrim for good. Just… was it too much to hope that she wouldn’t make friends with Thalmor trash?

This wasn’t really the time for this line of thought now, though. “I have some news,” he said. “How do you fancy a trip to Whiterun?”

.

...

.

When the sun went down, Jackie left her suspicious Dunmer roommate in their dorm to meet Ancano at the tavern. She grinned to herself. He’d done a pretty terrible job of hiding his trepidation about it.

So she’d gone—with the promise to be careful and never lose sight of her dagger—to enjoy one last night in Winterhold before setting out to Fellglow Keep in the morning.

The tavern was, as always, a warm, pleasant contrast to the freezing cold outside. Ancano was easy to find, sitting alone at one of the long tables on the side of the room. He looked stiff and out of place in his austere robes. It was weird to see him drinking an ale all by himself, rather than skulking around the halls of the college. It was… kind of a depressing sight, actually. She thought of his words earlier that day; they were both foreigners. Maybe she had more in common with him than she’d realized.

She caught his eye and he nodded at her.

Not for the first time, it occurred to her that drinks with Ancano could be really weird and awkward. She forged ahead with a friendly smile and a wave as she approached.

“Good evening,” he greeted, pushing a bottle toward her. She grabbed the neck as she sat next to him, relieved to at least have something to do with her hands in case things got uncomfortable.

“Thanks,” she said, bringing the drink to her lips and taking a little sip.

“Sweet roll?” he offered, pushing the sweet treat toward her. She got the feeling that he was somehow plying her with sweets, but she wasn’t going to complain.

“I won’t say no to a sweet roll,” she said with a smile. “You’re being awfully nice.”

He stiffened up, like being called nice was an insult. “… Thank you,” he said. “For meeting me. I wasn’t sure you would.”

“Well, if you’re buying drinks and sweets,” she shrugged. “What did you want to talk about, Ancano?”

He looked, for a moment, genuinely amiable and curious. “Tell me about your realm.”
.

.
Jackie, after a few drinks, was talking so much that she wondered if Ancano was regretting asking her to tell him stories of her homeland. She’d tried explaining modern technology and politics for a while before giving up, and then just wound up talking about friends and family.

“You miss them,” he stated, gazing at her through sharp eyes. She shrugged and picked at a piece of dirt on her bottle of mead.

“Yeah, of course,” she sighed. “But there’s no point in dwelling on it.” It was still a raw subject—at times she felt fine, and at others the realization that they were lost to her hit hard.

“I apologize,” he said. “Perhaps one day you’ll find a way to return. Magic can be unpredictable.”

“No, it’s alright. Just…” She shrugged, at a loss for words. She’d hashed it out in her own head so many times that it all exhausted her. “Maybe. I just… hate the idea that no one has any way of knowing where I went.”

“I see.”

“My dad is probably worried sick. And my sister is probably going nuts trying to figure out where I went. I know her, she’s the type that would literally try to hunt me down. I don’t know,” she huffed. She was starting to ramble. It was like de ja vu—here she was at this tavern yet again, tipsy and getting ready to cry. She wiped her nose with her sleeve and pushed away her drink. “Ugh. Anyway. I’m sorry. You probably don’t want to hear all that,” she said, taking a deep breath.

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Ancano said. “I know how you feel. I don’t mind hearing about family,” he said. Jackie appreciated the sentiment, but couldn’t help but think that he didn’t really know how it felt to be this far removed from home. If anyone had any ideas of how it was, it was Bradas—no, he had never been displaced in time and space—but he’d been with her pretty much from the beginning.

Suddenly, she felt that she kind of missed him.

“Thanks,” she said. Ancano didn’t get it, but he was still being kind, and that mattered. “I really appreciate it. And thank you for the drinks and sweet rolls too, but I should probably slow down,” she said with a laugh.

Ancano nodded. “Perhaps it is time to go. Shall I accompany you to your dorm?” She shook her head and stood up.

“No, it’s not a long walk,” she said. She wanted time to think on her own. “Unless you were heading that way anyway…”

“Not for a while yet,” he said. “Be careful. And Jackie…” he levelled her with a look so sincere and kind that it made her wonder how people could hate him so much. “You can speak with me anytime. About whatever you like.”

She grinned. “Thank you. That means a lot to me,” she replied, slipping her jacket back on. “Good night, Ancano.”

The walk back to the College was cold but peaceful. The lights were still on in the village and students were out and about the building, so she didn’t have to worry too much about wolves or any other wild animals that liked to attack in the area.

Her thoughts wandered toward her Dunmer companion. It was weird to miss him, since she’d just seen him a few hours ago. Heck, up until recently they’d been together 24/7. Talking with Ancano had been nice, and she was glad to have made a friend—but she still wanted to hang out with the best one she had.

The thought warmed her like with the mead she’d just had. Her best friend, Bradas, who was willing to take her on adventures with him. Her best friend, who was probably waiting up for her in their dorm. A rather attractive best friend, that…

And, okay, she was maybe a little tipsier than she realized. “Gah,” she said aloud, rubbing her hands together against the cold. Bradas was pretty much off-limits. He was, first of all, her best and only true friend. Second, as much as she hated to admit it, she depended on him way too much. She couldn’t let herself crush on him, because it would probably result in heartbreak and a level of clinginess on her part that would just make everyone involved uncomfortable. Thirdly, Bradas didn’t really seem like the kind of guy to settle down, ever.

As a matter of fact, romance in general was a no-go, at least for… years, probably. She didn’t have anything to offer anyone here.

And she hadn’t yet met anyone in Skyrim who was in an interracial relationship, anyway, so it was probably taboo or something. Not that she was going to ask Bradas.

Her cheeks warmed even though no one could hear her thoughts. She was not interested in Bradas. They were friends, good friends who didn’t need to be kissing or… all the other things non-friends did.

“’Non-friends,’” she scoffed. She suddenly lamented how many drinks she’d had tonight. What a dumb mistake!

She reached the doors to the Hall of Attainment and she sighed, taking a moment to compose herself.
.

.
Bradas sat in his bed, leaning up against the wall with a book in his lap. Jackie had gone off to the tavern in the village to meet with the Thalmor. In the spirit of trust and friendship, he’d held his tongue. Well, mostly.

Of course he had warned her not to trust a word that came out of his mouth and not to let her guard down for one second. She’d obviously been amused, though he was deadly serious.

Still, she was an adult. He had no right to tell her what to do, and he didn’t want to, anyway. She was entitled to have friends other than him—even though he wished she would have picked someone besides Ancano.

That Thalmor snake.

He sighed and closed his book, no longer able to pretend he was studying. He rubbed his face with a tired hand. Jackie was probably right about Ancano wanting to get a rise out of him, because it had clearly worked.

It was a troubling thought, that he could get so worked up over what she was doing with her free time. Hadn’t he been so irritated by her when they’d first met? He could barely remember.

He looked up as the doors to the Hall of Attainment opened outside. A slight breeze swept through and footsteps echoed as they approached the dorm room.

“Hey,” Jackie said, trying to stomp the snow out of her boots quietly.

“You’re back,” he said, feeling as though a great weight was lifted now that she was back and safe.

She gave a lopsided grin as she got rid of her shoes and jacket, throwing them into a haphazard pile next to her bed. “Did I interrupt your studying?” she asked, eyes falling on his neglected book.

“Hardly,” he scoffed. “It’s too late to be productive.”

Her face fell. “Oh. Did you wait up for me?”

“No, I… well,” he shrugged. He hadn’t meant for her to feel guilty, but it was true that he’d waited up. “I was simply curious about what the Thalmor would want to speak with you about.”

She chuckled and slipped into her bed without changing her clothes, a testament to how tired she was. “It wasn’t anything sinister,” she said, rolling over onto her side to look at him. “He wanted to know about my home.”

“What about your home?”

She hummed, “Yeah, you know. Politics, technology, how it was to live without magic. That kind of stuff.”

“That’s all?” It seemed… too casual and normal. What would Ancano have to gain by becoming friends with Jackie? What would a spy do with such information?

“He was actually pretty friendly,” she shrugged. “It was nice.”

He didn’t reply right away. Comfortable silence settled over them as she got situated in her blankets, socked feet poking out of the layers.

“Tomorrow morning. Will you be ready to go then?”

She scrunched up her nose. “You could just ask if I’ll be hung-over…”

That actually got a laugh out of him, and she threw a lumpy pillow at him. He caught it with ease. “You won’t be getting this back,” he teased, shoving it behind him.

“Good, don’t want it anyway.” She sighed and plopped her head down onto the hard hay mattress. “Okay. I may be slightly hung over tomorrow.”

“Then we’ll be leaving very, very early.”

“Rude,” she scoffed.

He threw her pillow back at her. “Good night, Jackie. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Chapter Text

When Jackie had first left Whiterun, the weather had been mild. In the short time she’d lived there, she’d been able to go out to harvest potion ingredients without a jacket or shawl. Now, she couldn’t imagine being outside without at least a heavy coat and boots. The journey from the College to Whiterun had been a cold and hard one.

Inside the city was a lot warmer than the wilderness, though. She and Bradas marched to the Bannered Mare and gratefully warmed their hands by the fire. Jackie, who had practically lived there and stayed far longer than Bradas ever had, was amazed—it was as though time hadn’t passed at all since she’d left. Saadia still toiled away in the kitchen, cooking or cleaning or sweeping. Hulda leaned over the bar, speaking to customers or serving them ale. Mikael strummed away at his lute and sang badly. It was almost enough to make her nostalgic.

“Jackie?” Bradas’ voice pulled her out of her thoughts. Her eyes left the blaze of the fire and she squinted at her Dunmer friend.

“Hm?”

“I’m getting us rooms. Are you tired?” His lips were quirked in silent laughter at her. She made a face at him.

“Guess I am,” she muttered, blinking a few times. “Let me get the rooms. Maybe Hulda will give me a deal?”

“By all means,” he said, happy at the thought of saving precious coin. They were running a little low after their long journey—tomorrow they would be able to sell the equipment they’d collected along the way, but for now they were almost broke.

Jackie approached the bar and gave Hulda a smile. “Hello, Hulda,” she greeted.

“Jackie!” the innkeeper said warmly. “You’re back in Whiterun. I wondered if I’d see you again.”

“Well, here I am,” she said cheerfully. “We’re only staying for a short time. I remember a few months ago you gave me a discount…”

The older woman didn’t have to say anything; her unimpressed face gave her the answer.

“Okay, just one room, please,” Jackie sighed, sliding the Septims over the counter. Hulda grinned and took the money. “Some stew and two ales, too.”

“Coming right up,” Hulda nodded. “The room up the stairs is yours until tomorrow.”

Jackie and Bradas tucked in their stew and gulped down the ale, eager to get to bed. They marched up the stairs and packed what they could into a chest to be organized in the morning. What items they couldn’t store, they placed near it in a heap.

Jackie disappeared to get a bucket of hot water to clean up with, and Bradas took the opportunity to peel off his armor in relative privacy. It wasn’t that Jackie hadn’t seen him in his underclothes before—travelling together broke down the barriers of modesty. But he liked to preserve some semblance of decorum.

She returned with a bucket of hot water and shut the door before rummaging through her pack for a bar of soap. “I’m gonna clean up real quick,” she said, shucking off pieces of armor. He sat on the bed and turned away to face the wall.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be super fast,” she promised. He sighed when he heard the sound of grunting and clothes being pulled off.

“Don’t tell me you’re getting naked,” he protested.

She snorted and the water splashed. “Uh… not totally?”

Bradas slumped down onto the small bed with a huff. “You couldn’t wait?”

“Heck no. I haven’t even changed my clothes in… has it been four days?”

It was true; they had travelled hard and the weather had been too cold to change armor without freezing. “I suppose.”

“You should probably wash up, too. It’s kind of a small bed to be cuddling with someone so stinky.”

“Cuddling?” he asked, amused.

“Ah, no, I didn’t mean it like that…” she replied quickly. He knew that, of course—it was just funny to tease her. The water slushed around a little more and he could hear her scrubbing her skin. “But it is a pretty small bed. Not much different than how we’ve been doing it though. Actually, it’s probably a little better.”

They had been huddling together under a small tent for warmth for the last ten days. One person sleeping, and the other sitting up and keeping watch. It wasn’t exactly the same as sleeping together, however.

Bradas sighed once more, thinking back on the one and only time they had shared such a close sleeping space—he’d been out of his mind with sickness and had woken up half-wanting to taste her blood.

“It could be worse,” he agreed.

“Of course it could,” she chirped, her voice accompanied by the rustling of her clothes. “Alright, I’m dressed.” He turned to see her drying her face on a clean cloth and twisting the moisture from her damp hair. She was dressed in soft pants and a tunic, her feet covered up by wool socks.

He moved to the water bucket, figuring that she was right—he was exhausted, but realized now that cleaning up would probably be the considerate thing to do.

The water was a little murky, but he’d dealt with worse. He’d clean up more in the morning, but for now he figured he’d do just enough to not smell.

“Soap?” Jackie’s hand came into view and he took the offered gift.

“If I must,” he said wearily, dipping his hands into the cooling water and scrubbing.

.

.

The bed really was small—big enough for only one person, really.

So he shouldn’t have been shocked to wake up next to Jackie snuggled up behind him. Bradas tried to catalogue the facts as he slowly came into consciousness. They were:

The sun was up.

It was finally the time to explore Fellglow Keep.

And Jackie was practically glued to him in her sleep.

Oh, they really needed to stop doing this.

She snored softly, her breath whispering on the back of his neck and giving him goosebumps despite the fact that she was as warm as a coal under the threadbare blanket. His mind wandered, too tired to truly think straight. He knew he needed to get himself out of this situation, but Jackie was soft, wrapped around him as though they were lovers. How long had it been since he’d taken one? There had been an interesting Dunmer woman before he’d decided to leave for Skyrim, but of course those trysts never lasted.

He wondered, briefly, how it would be with a human woman.

That idea woke him up in more ways than one. Which wasn’t good, seeing as how his platonic companion was currently in very close quarters. Bradas blinked a few times, trying to clear his head and figure out what to do about the human clinging to him.

“Jackie,” he said, voice rough.

“Mm-hm,” she mumbled, as though he’d said something boring and she was just being agreeable. He scoffed and tried to wriggle out of her grip without disturbing her too much—as nice as it was to wake up to a pretty girl clinging to him, he really wasn’t sure his sanity and dignity could persevere if she kept it up. And it was Jackie, for the Daedra’s sake!

Blissfully unaware of his efforts, she sighed and shifted in response, burying her face into his shoulders and gripping the fabric of his shirt.

“Ah-!” he sputtered, jerking at the sudden contact. Jackie released him and he stumbled out of the tiny bed, barely avoiding bumping his head on the nightstand.

“Oh my God!” Jackie exclaimed from above. She poked her head out to check on him, her dark hair wild and falling out of its braid. She was pale, as though she were the one dealing with an uncomfortable morning situation. “Are you okay? What happened?”

“That small, cursed bed, that’s what,” he muttered, any trace of arousal thankfully gone with the panic of falling to the floor.

“Oh, my God, Bradas, I’m so sorry,” she gushed, her voice rough with sleep. “Did I push you off?” Her forehead was wrinkled in concern, and her face was frustratingly innocent. The surge of indignation faded as soon as it had begun.

“No, just a dream, I think,” he lied, truly wishing to forget all about it. How long would they be in Whiterun, he wondered? Surely they could get separate rooms with the gold they got selling their extra equipment? “Perhaps it’s time to get up.”

“Sure,” she said, her voice shaky. She laughed a little, and smoothed her hair with a shaky hand. “I thought we were being attacked or something. You’re awfully jumpy.”

Bradas huffed and sent a silent prayer to the Daedra for patience.

.

.

Fellglow Keep was, in Jackie’s opinion, one of the worst places she’d ever had to march into. And Bradas consistently dragged her into some pretty horrible places.

It wasn’t the actual keep that bothered her, but the people they needed to fight. All of them mages, and all of them… actually people. There was quite a difference between fighting draugr, and fighting living, breathing human beings and elves.

They’d just splashed through a flooded room and snuck up some stairs when enormous arachnids began crawling toward them. Jackie had, maybe with a bit of arrogance, felt like she’d handled them pretty well, until a blast of ice nearly knocked her off her feet and down the stairs. Bradas practically jumped over her to get to the Dunmer apprentice who was casting the spell, deftly avoiding the flurry of snow hurtling at him and running him through with his dagger. It was quick, bloody, and it raised the hairs on the back of her neck.

“Christ,” Jackie muttered, eyes wide and stomach rolling. She picked herself up off the stairs and rubbed the cold spot on her shoulder, averting her eyes from the body Bradas was looting. She’d never gotten hit with a spell like that before.

Not fun.

“Do you need healing?” Bradas panted, trying to keep his voice somewhat quiet while coming down from the rush of the fight.

“I’m alright,” she breathed. “Just a little cold.”

“Gather up those soul gems,” he instructed as he finished pilfering what he could from their fallen enemy. Jackie nodded and searched the room for the gems as Bradas gathered up potions that had been left on the shelf.

They continued through the keep on silent feet. One of Bradas’ hands was gripping his dagger, while the other was encased in flame, having decided that they best way to fight magic was with magic. It lit up his face and made him look murderous, his red eyes glinting with bloodlust. She forced herself to march on after him, knuckles white around her knife.

There was a room with cages—a holding cell or a dungeon, and Bradas made quick work of the mage guarding it. Then he turned his attention to the people in the cages.

“Vampires,” he said, turning to her with a sardonic grin. Jackie frowned—they hadn’t had such good luck with vampires recently. “Shall we let them go?”

Her first instinct was to say yes. They were cooped up, thin and starving in their cells. But that was the issue—starving vampires weren’t going to be good for their health.

“Let us go, and we’ll kill some for you,” one of them bargained, a pale, ashy arm sticking out of the cage. She licked her chapped lips, clearly ready for the action.

“I cannot resist such a deal,” said Bradas, whipping out a few lock picks. “Do what you will with them and go on your way.”

The two of them set to work unlocking the three cages. Jackie got one open, and the woman inside pushed her out of the way to run into the next room. “Out of the way,” she snarled, apparently too focused on her revenge to consider sucking Jackie’s blood. Rude, but ultimately it was great news.

The vampires ran ahead, hungry and clearly unconcerned with subtlety. They fought as a disjointed, blood-hungry group, and made quick work of the mages guarding the room.

.

.

When they finally found Orthorn, the guy who’d supposedly taken the books they were after, he didn’t even have them.

“Where are the books?” Bradas asked, covered in blood and out of breath.

“The… the books?” Orthorn stammered, sounding surprised and… hurt? “Oh, I see. I thought perhaps… well, I thought you’d come for me.”

Jackie and Bradas, in a moment of perfect, exasperated unity, scoffed at the same time. The other man seemed to get the point immediately.

“But yes, the books!” he continued. “The Caller will have them. She’s most interested in one of the volumes. Although not interested enough to keep me from being locked up,” he added bitterly.

If Jackie hadn’t felt so shaky and out of breath from all the fighting they’d just done, she might have pointed out that he’d sort of brought this all on himself when he’d stolen rare books from the college. “You should get yourself to safety,” she suggested instead.

Orthorn looked surprised. “Don’t you two need my help?”

“If you don’t get away from me right now, I’ll kill you myself,” Bradas deadpanned, narrowing his eyes at the Altmer.

“Well, fine! I’ll just save myself, then.”

Bradas snorted with disgust as Orthorn ran to get out of the keep.

“Maybe we should have made him help us clean up his mess,” Jackie half-joked. She was actually surprised that she could keep any sort of levity in such a crappy situation. It probably wasn’t a good sign for her mental health.

“He’d get in the way,” Bradas huffed, eyes scanning the room for any loot they could take. “Though you’re not entirely wrong. Perhaps the vampires will get him.”

“I’m… not really sure if you’re joking.”

“Maybe I am, maybe I’m not,” he said, his eyes gleaming with mirth. “Let’s get going. The sooner we leave, the better.”

.

.

The next half hour was a furious rush of fire and blood. Bradas seemed to have renewed his professed love for fire magic, and even cast a spell that summoned a flame atronach. Jackie had diligently avoided getting in its path. She could only hope that Bradas didn’t get carried away and burn down the entire keep, because things were starting to get a little warm. She was pouring sweat by the time they reached the deepest part of the keep.

They finally stumbled into a large, circular room, where a woman stood directly in the center. Alarm bells went off in the back of her head—this couldn’t be anything besides weird-cult-stuff. Bradas looked tense beside her, like he was thinking the same thing.

“So. You’re the one who barged into my home and laid waste to my projects,” the Caller sneered. “How nice to meet you.”

“We’re here for the books from the college,” Bradas said, cutting straight to the chase. Jackie could already tell that they were in for another fight.

“So you’re just one of Aren’s lackeys? That’s disappointing. You show real promise.”

“I’ll take that as a no, then?”

“You come here, kill my assistants, disrupt my work… You’ve annoyed me, so no, I don’t think I’ll be giving you anything.”

“And what if we asked nicely?” he said, pulling out his dagger. Jackie could once again feel the pull of heat as he prepared a fireball or some other sort of magic. She gripped her own knife and edged away, ready to duck and roll if the spells started flying.

“Oh, now we’re all please and thank you, are we? I’m afraid we’re well beyond pleasantries. I’ll allow you the opportunity to turn around, walk out that door, and never come back. I suggest you move quickly.”

“We’re not leaving without those books,” the Dunmer replied.

“Are you attempting to threaten me? After I’ve been so hospitable? Well, then you won’t be leaving here at all.”

Jackie ducked just in time for the barrage of lightning to hit the wall behind her, feeling the hairs on her arms rise from charge. Bradas answered with fire and a flame atronach—and if Jackie had thought that impressive before, she was terrified by the amount summoned by the Caller. No less than three of the creatures were flurrying around the room, and she was terrified to attack any of them.

A bolt a lighting struck dangerously close, and she scrambled toward a pillar for some cover.

“Jackie!” She whirled around to see Bradas, also taking refuge behind one of the columns. He was nocking a bow, his face the picture of concentration. “Grab the books!”

“Are you serious?” she cried, flinching as a bright burst of light darted between them. Bradas shot an arrow, only for it to burn up in a burst of electricity.

“Ah, maybe the books can wait,” he said, and actually laughed.

“You’re crazy,” she muttered in astonishment, and in that moment she meant it. His addiction to adrenaline could not be healthy. His red eyes gleamed as he took a shot of magicka potion, and he ducked out from his cover to shoot a winter-cold burst of snow at the Caller.

Jackie took a few deep breaths, trying to calm down enough to figure out what to do. After all this time she still wasn’t great to have in a fight, but she at least had the presence of mind to know that she wasn’t going to be safe if she sat still. And as much fun as Bradas was having, he probably needed help.

Without many other options, she drew her own bow and arrow. She was only okay at shooting, but she was actually proficient at making poisons. So, fumbling with her pack, she found some magicka poison and hoped for the best.

It took two tries, but she was able to graze the Caller with an arrow while she was distracted by Bradas. The woman’s head snapped away from him and toward her, her eyes murderous. She raised a hand to cast a spell, and Jackie shot again out of pure panic. To her complete and utter shock, her arrow found its way into the Caller’s right shoulder.

Also to her shock, the arrow didn’t do much besides make her angry.

Jackie jumped for cover once again, but lightning was quicker than she ever could be. In one moment, she was standing and scrambling for the closest pillar; in the next, she was knocked to the ground.

.

.

Once, when she was eight years old, Jackie had gotten it in her head to play with her mother’s hairdryer. But the outlet she’d tried to plug it into had short-circuited, and she’d received a nasty shock.

This was not nearly so pleasant.

She was vaguely aware of her own yelp as she got knocked back to the floor, and the strange, sharp pain in her right shoulder—poetic revenge from the Caller, she guessed—and the booming sound of Bradas’ thu’um bouncing off the walls of the room.

.

.

She closed her eyes, opened them, and saw Bradas crouching over her with glowing hands. She turned her head to see the Caller lying lifeless on the floor a few yards away.

“Did I pass out?” she mumbled, eyes sliding back to focus on Bradas’ concerned face. She felt his healing spell work its way through her veins.

“You did,” he confirmed. “But only for a moment. It’s not as bad as it looks.” Contrary to his words, she could feel that he was overdoing it on the healing. There was that tell-tale drowsiness that came when Healing Hands was applied for too long.

“Okay, that’s enough I think,” she breathed. He was looking guilty, which was annoying—it wasn’t his fault she’d been dumb enough to try and poison a lightning-wielding psycho. “Really, I’m okay.” She gave him a strained smile, but it was true—getting struck by magical lightning hurt, but not nearly as badly as she would have thought.

“We’ll see when we get back into Whiterun.” He offered her a steady hand and she took it, letting him haul her up. “Let’s get the books and leave.”

.

.

Jackie claimed that she felt fine, but Bradas found himself insisting on looking at the damage once they’d returned to the Bannered Mare. Healing Hands was a great tool, but it wasn’t a cure-all—after all, his specialty was in Destruction, not Restoration.

In the evening, the two of them huddled up in their shared room. Jackie hitched her overshirt up and off her shoulder for inspection.

“It’s… not nearly as bad as I’d thought it would be,” Bradas muttered, fingers hovering over the skin. There was damage—she would most certainly be left with a scar—but she was in better shape than he thought she would be. All that was left of her injury was a spot, darker than a bruise, and lines like blood vessels weaving around it until it faded.

“Told you,” she said. “Really, you know me. If it was hurting, I would say something.”

“Yes, you do complain quite a bit, don’t you?”

“You jerk,” she said fondly. “Now can I put my shirt down, or are you not finished ogling me?”

He hadn’t ever gotten a definitive definition of the term ‘ogling,’ but he could certainly guess what it meant. “I’m quite done,” he groused, pulling his hand away and crossing his arms. Nothing was even visible besides her undershirt, anyway. “I’m just surprised you weren’t hurt worse.”

“You healed me, though,” she said, shrugging. “The lightning hurt, but I’ve gotten worse at this point. Remember that troll?”

“I suppose,” he murmured. Perhaps he really was just being a mother hen; Jackie was much more experienced now than she was when they first met. Though perhaps he’d been a little too relaxed about training, lately.

“Besides,” she rolled her shoulders and stretched out a little, “I’m bound to get a couple of scars if I stick around Skyrim.”

Bradas had to agree. It didn’t mean he had to like it. He sighed and sat next to her on the bed, distracted by his thoughts. They’d probably want to wait until she was completely recovered before moving on from Whiterun, and even then—should they really go back out into the wilds of Skyrim while the winter storms raged on?

“Brooding?” Jackie asked, bumping his shoulder with her own. He looked over to see a smirk on her lips, her eyes shining with laughter.

“I don’t brood,” he said, returning her smile. “I was thinking about the winter storms.”

She hummed in understanding. “It’s little cold to be travelling…”

He nodded. They’d seen a storm on its way as they’d walked back to Whiterun from Fellglow Keep. “Perhaps we should wait a short while.”

“I’m in no rush,” Jackie said. And it was true—she really had no ultimate goal these days. What was a few days in Whiterun to her? She was, surprisingly, not feeling too bitter about it.

“We’ll decide tomorrow,” he said, placing his hands on his knees and leveraging himself up to stand. “I’m going to get another room. I’d like my own bed, for once,” he said with a laugh.

“Aw, getting tired of me?” she teased back.

“You’re a bed hog,” he said loftily. “Good night, Jackie.”

“’Night,” she murmured, watching him leave the room to go downstairs. She leaned back in the small bed, grateful to have a little more space for the night.

When she closed her eyes, she found herself thinking about it—the fact that she had nowhere urgent to go, and how... okay she felt about that for now. She did her best to cling to the feeling until she fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Jackie woke up early in the morning, grabbed a quick bite of stew for breakfast, and headed over to Arcadia’s shop while Bradas was still sleeping. He probably wasn’t going to be as interested in potions as she was anyway, and to be completely honest, she needed to interact with another woman. Bradas had probably secured the position of ‘best friend’ months ago, but there was no replacement for quality girl-time.

Arcadia’s face lit up with surprise and delight as soon as she walked through the door. “Jackie! Is that you?”

“Sure is,” she replied cheerfully, sidling up to the counter. “How’ve you been, Arcadia?”

“Very good! Did you ever make it to Winterhold like you wanted?”

“I did,” Jackie confirmed, trying her best not to think too hard about what a disaster the past weeks had been. She tapped her nails on the counter, and had a ridiculous moment where she dearly missed acrylic nails. She pushed the feeling away as best she could. “It looks like I’m going to be in Skyrim for a while, after all.”

The Imperial woman frowned. “I’m sorry, Jackie, truly. But I have to say that I’m not sad to have your company again.”

“Well, it’s not all bad,” she said honestly. There was denying that there would have been people she missed dearly had she somehow found a way home.

Arcadia smiled fondly. “You look well, Jackie. The wilderness hasn’t been unkind to you.”

“Ah, I don’t know about that,” Jackie said with a self-conscious laugh. “Here. I thought I could sell you some ingredients I’ve been picking up along the way…”

“Just like old times,” Arcadia laughed, watching as she took out her ingredients pouch to dump the things she wasn’t sure how to use. “I’ll give you a good price for these since I know you.”

The two chatted for a little while about potions—Arcadia giving tips and Jackie listening. “It’s difficult to find alchemy labs when we’re on the road,” Jackie admitted when asked why she had such an excess of ingredients. “And I’m not an expert. I can make simple health and magicka potions, but I honestly don’t know what half of this stuff does.”

Not to mention the fact that crushing butterfly wings and mountain flowers together wouldn’t do anything but make her look like a serial killer back in her own world.

“I’m surprised,” Arcadia murmured, eyes wandering to the alchemy lab in the corner of the room. “You’re travelling with the Dragonborn, aren’t you?”

Jackie raised an eyebrow. “What does that have to do with anything?” It wasn’t any secret that she was travelling with Bradas, but the alchemist had said that like… like it was a topic of common gossip.

“I’m just surprised that the companion of the illustrious Dragonborn, the Thane of Whiterun, doesn’t have her very own alchemy lab,” the other woman replied. Her lips quirked in a smile that Jackie was sure she didn’t like.

“Thane of Whiterun…?” she repeated, choosing to ignore whatever Arcadia was implying. She hadn’t heard anything about a ‘thane.’

“You didn’t know? He was made Thane when he defeated the dragon outside the city.”

Jackie knew she was missing an essential part of this conversation. “What is a thane?”

***

Bradas awoke to the sound of the door of his room opening and shutting, and the familiar sound of Jackie’s footsteps.

“I’m sure it’s too early,” he mumbled, determined to make the most of his sleep.

“It’s at least 10 o’clock.” He felt the bed dip where she sat. “So, you’re the Thane of Whiterun Hold, huh?”

He cracked an eye open. “… Yes?”

“And you can own property in town.”

Both eyes were now open. She was dressed in leather armor, her hair in its usual style. Her lips were stained like she’d eaten berries for breakfast, and they were set in a smirk. “What of it?” he asked suspiciously.

“And you have a housecarl.”

“Oh, no, not this,” he groaned, sitting up. He had been opposed to the title from the very beginning—what use was a title of nobility to a traveler? In fact, he’d pretty much forgotten about it the moment he’d received it. “I don’t need a title or a house. And I certainly don’t need a housecarl.”

“Oh no, of course not. I’m just surprised that I didn’t know I was travelling around with a noble this whole time,” she said lightly.

“Are you waking me up just to irritate me?” he asked, wishing that he could muster up some energy to sound more annoyed.

She bounced on the bed a little. “That’s not the only reason. Like I said, it’s getting late,” she said. He huffed and leaned back a little under the covers. She was right, it probably was time to get up and figure out their travelling plans for the day. “I also just thought that my Thane could use a wake-up call. Since you’re so fancy…”

He scoffed and turned beneath the covers so that he could place his hands under her body, and playfully shoved her off the bed. She stumbled to her feet, laughing.

.

.

The next few weeks were the first of Morning Star—Jackie called it New Year’s. They took to the road back the way they came, the shortest possible route to Winterhold on foot.

“I’ve been thinking,” she said one night, her face lit up in the dark by the campfire. “It was early May…” she paused, thinking, “Second Seed. It was Second Seed when I was on the camping trip. But there’s no way I’ve been here for a whole eight months.”

“You came in the middle of Sun’s Height,” he corrected, feeding a log into the flames. “I know because it was the same time I crossed the border into Skyrim.”

She pursed her lips. “July. What’s up with that?” she asked, perplexed. “That’s only six months. Why would I leave in May and land here in July?” She stared into the fire, eyebrows drawn together.

“Who knows?” the Dunmer shrugged. He watched the flames flicker in her eyes for a while, wondering if this line of thought would lead to the melancholy she usually tried to avoid. “I can take first watch,” he said, hoping to interrupt her if that was the case.

“No, you go ahead and sleep,” she murmured, finally dragging her gaze from the campfire. “I couldn’t sleep right now if I tried. Give me a book?”

He handed her one of the tomes that they were going to deliver to the college. “Some light reading for you,” he joked, and was rewarded with a laugh. “Why don’t you read it out loud?”

“You want a bedtime story?”

“No,” he scoffed. “But you should practice.”

“You’re a slave-driver,” she groaned, but opened the book up anyway. “Night of Tears,” she began slowly, “by Dranor… Seleth…”

.

.

When they reached Winterhold College, Jackie and Bradas both were surprised to see the giant magical artifact they’d found in Saarthal rotating slowly in the center of the Hall of the Elements.

“I guess they got it back in here, somehow,” Jackie remarked. She wondered how they had pulled that off—probably magic.

“It’s…” Bradas trailed off. She looked away from the big rock to see that his eyes were practically glued to it. “You can see it better in this light. I’m sure I’ve never seen anything like it…”

She turned her gaze toward it once more. It twirled on an axis, like a globe on top of a water fountain. Blue tendrils of… was it magic? swirled around it like a cool flame. “It’s pretty,” she agreed, more focused on his spaced-out look than on the orb. She grinned and gave a gentle prod on his arm, “Want me to return the books myself so you can sit here and admire the big rock?”

He startled a little and looked back down at her. “No. I’ll do it.”

“I’ll wait here,” she said, having no desire to climb a bunch of stairs after their vigorous hike up the college steps. They’d barely shaken the snow off their boots and she wanted a break.

Bradas smirked, as if to say ‘of course you’re not going up the stairs.’ She rolled her eyes at him. “I’ll be back in a moment.” He said fondly. He took one last look at the rock and headed up the stairs with the library books.

Jackie let out a puff of air, exhausted. She watched as Bradas bounded up the stairs with the energy of someone who hadn’t just completed a miserable, freezing-cold journey across Skyrim. It never failed to amaze her.

She supposed that now was as good a time as any to look at the giant glowing orb in the center of the room. She had to admit she was kind of curious; they had just gone a very long way to get some information about it, after all. She took some time to check it out, circling it like a museum exhibit.

She wondered what would happen if she touched it. She’d probably—well, almost definitely—get cursed or something.

Jackie sighed. This was her life now. Magical cursed rocks were now a legitimate concern.

She heard footsteps, and turned to see Tolfdir walking toward her. “If you’re here, I imagine our newest apprentice is nearby,” he said good-naturedly.

“He’s at the library,” she replied.

Tolfdir hummed and stopped a few feet away. “It’s beautiful sight, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is,” she said amiably. “So… what is it?”

“We’re not entirely sure yet. Though it’s always nice to see the young embracing education,” he chuckled. Footsteps echoed from the stairs and the two turned to see Bradas coming back down the stairs. “Ah, there he is.”

“Tolfdir. Just who I was looking for,” Bradas said. “Urag suggested I come see you.”

“Did he now? Does he have information about our wonderful discovery?”

“We found a certain book, Night of Tears.”

“Is that the one about something buried beneath Saarthal?” Tolfdir asked. “Something that Men and Mer fought over? I’ll have to make a point of re-reading it. I don’t recall the details…”

Jackie and Bradas had read it, along with the other books, on the way back to the college. They’d theorized together, debated, wondered if this thing was what the book had mentioned… but it hadn’t really specified. All information at the moment was too vague.

“I just can’t seem to tear myself away, whatever this is,” Tolfdir said, eyes shining as he gazed at the orb. “Its beauty is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. If you two would indulge me for a moment, I thought I might make a few observations…”

Jackie watched, interested, as Tolfdir made historical and scientific observations about a magical object. It was actually kind of… impressive. She hadn’t ever thought about the analytical side of magic.

“… Now I’m not sure you’re quite as attuned as I am, given my extensive years of experience. But can you feel that?” The older man glanced at them with a smile like he was sharing some great secret with them. Jackie wasn’t sure what exactly he meant—she couldn’t feel a thing. “This marvelous object practically radiates magicka!”

Jackie honestly wasn’t sure. She glanced at Bradas, who seemed like he understood exactly what Tolfdir meant. If she wasn’t so pathetically un-magical, she thought, it would have been kind of cool to be a student of magic. Before she could get lost in her Hogwarts fantasies, though, they were interrupted.

Ancano, of all people, strode into the room looking stiff and angry as usual. “I’m afraid I must interrupt,” he said to Tolfdir. “It is urgent that I speak with your associate immediately.”

Bradas stiffened up beside her, and she prepared herself for yet another tense interaction. Bradas and Ancano were like oil and water, it seemed. “What could we possibly have to speak about?”

Tolfdir wasn’t happy, either. “This is most inappropriate. We are involved in serious research here!”

“Yes, I’ve no doubt of its gravity,” Ancano replied, and Jackie couldn’t be sure if he was being serious or sarcastic. “But this is a matter that cannot wait.”

“Well, I’m quite sure I’ve never been interrupted quite this this before. The audacity,” Tolfdir grumbled. He let out a long-suffering sigh and looked back at Bradas. “I suppose we’ll continue this at some later time. When we can avoid interruptions.”

Ancano brushed off the comment, clearly in too much of a hurry to make a snappy comeback. “I need you to come with me immediately,” he told Bradas. “Let’s go.”

Bradas, hackles already up, crossed his arms. “I don’t know what’s going on here.”

“Really? Then allow me to clarify the situation,” the Altmer snapped. “I’d like to know why there’s someone claiming to be from the Psijic Order here at the College. More importantly, I’d like to know why he’s asking for you, specifically. So we’re going to have a little chat with him to find out exactly what it is he wants.”

Ah, there it was, she thought. Jackie supposed that she and Ancano got along okay, but there was no denying how… rude he could sound.

Bradas definitely hadn’t missed it. “What concern is it of yours? Aren’t you just an advisor here?”

“I’ll be the one asking the questions. All you need to know is that the Psijic Order is a rogue organization, believing themselves to be above the law. They have clashed with the Aldmeri Dominion before, and I have no intention of allowing that to happen here.”

They followed without any more protest, though while they were walking, Bradas leaned in to murmur, “They can’t be all bad if they clash with the Dominion.”

***

The moment they got up to the Arch Mage’s office, the monk from the Psijic Order took one look at Bradas and said that there had been a mix-up.

At least, according to everyone else in the room. Bradas knew better.

“There’s been a misunderstanding. Clearly I should not be here.” The monk looked at Bradas, a small smile on his face. “I shall take my leave.”

“What! What trickery is this?” Ancano hissed. “you’re not going anywhere until I find out what you’re up to.”

“I am not ‘up to’ anything. I apologize if I’ve offended you in any way.”

“We will see about this,” the Altmer said suspiciously.

“I’ll be taking my leave now,” the Psijic monk said, bowing his head to the Arch Mage. He disappeared as the rest of the room stood in silence and confusion. Then Ancano rounded on Bradas, furious.

“What is the meaning of this?” he seethed. Bradas sneered; it seemed that all illusions of Thalmor civility were to be forgotten today.

“The meaning of what? It was a simple mistake,” he lied, keeping his voice even. He hated Ancano, but he couldn’t be too harsh—starting a fight here and now when he had so much to do would do no good… as much as he wished that Ancano would give him a good excuse to cast some destruction magic at him.

“I’m not sure what just happened,” the Arch Mage said, dumbstruck. “The Psijic Order here, after all these years, and then… he just leaves. I do hope we didn’t offend him somehow.”

“We didn’t offend anyone. There’s obviously some trick, some secret meaning to this visit,” Ancano said, looking to be at the end of his rope. ‘Yes,’ Bradas thought, hand twitching to the dagger at his side. ‘Give me a reason!’

Jackie cleared her throat. “I don’t know what that was all about, but I’m exhausted. I think that everyone’s under a lot of stress,” she said diplomatically, glancing between the Altmer and Dunmer. “We should all take a break.”

“Young Jackie is right,” the Arch Mage said. “You’ve just finished a long journey. I suggest you go to your dorm and rest. Ancano, stay here and speak with me.”

“We’ll take our leave,” Bradas said, fighting the urge to grin. “Thank you, Arch Mage. Ancano, until we meet again.”

“We will be talking,” the other promised in reply, eyes narrowed.

***

The moment they got into the dorm, Bradas filled Jackie in on exactly what the Psijic monk had told him.

“Augur of Dunlain…” she repeated, sitting on her bed with her hands in her lap. “Okay, that’s actually kind of a relief. I thought that Ancano was having a nervous breakdown or something.”

“He still has no real reason to suspect us of anything,” the Dunmer said irritably, pulling on a warm overshirt and buttoning it up. “He’s paranoid. We’ll have to tread carefully.”

“So we’re really going to find this Augur? What for? Why couldn’t have that guy been more specific?”

“One can only freeze time for so long,” he said with a laugh. “Or at least, that must have been what he did.”

“Okay. So we find the Augur. How?”

Bradas thought for a moment. “Tolfdir might know something.”

.

.

And that was how they found themselves underneath the college the very next day, slinking their way through frozen-over tunnels and killing ice wraiths.

“I’ll never complain about rummaging through warm, above-ground places again,” Jackie complained from behind him.

“You absolutely will,” Bradas countered, stopping to watch her struggle across an icy bridge. Though she would probably be fine, he held out a hand for extra balance. She grabbed it and pulled herself across the rest of the way.

“At least most of the time the ruins we go to aren’t slippery deathtraps,” she managed with a small laugh. She gave his hand a quick squeeze before letting go. “Thanks.”

“Of course.” He gave her a sly smile. “Anyway, don’t complain. We found those ice wraiths…”

“Those teeth had better be really good ingredients, or you’re just a freak who made me pick them out of their corpses,” she griped. He smirked to himself—she’d thought he was having her on when he’d told her that ice wraith teeth were good in potions.

They wound their way through the tunnels, fighting off the occasional draugr. After a while, Jackie piped up. “Um, I think we might be a little lost.”

He frowned. He’d been thinking the same thing, but admitting it out loud made it real. “We’ll be alright. Perhaps through here…”

Providence led them down another tunnel and encountered a locked door. Bradas’ gloved hand jiggled the knob, and when it wouldn’t open he took out his lock-picks and knelt down.

The both of them jumped when a deep, disembodied voice addressed them: “Your perseverance… will only lead… to disappointment.”

They looked at one another, wide-eyed. “Seems like we’re on the right track,” Jackie murmured. She placed her hand on the door and gave it a polite little knock. Bradas gave her an incredulous look and she shrugged. “It’s worth a shot,” she defended.

“Still, you persist!” the voice boomed. “Very well. You may enter!” The door swung open on its own. Jackie thankfully had enough grace not to say anything, but she couldn’t keep from giving him a very smug grin.

As they entered, the Augur appeared. It was a bright, shining ball of light—so blue it was almost blinding. Bradas squinted and held up a hand.

“So you’re the Augur of Dunlain?” he asked.

“I am that which you have been seeking,” the voice told them. It sounded like… an ancient, tired voice. It almost wheezed out its words like they were a struggle to speak, rasping and bouncing off the walls. “Your efforts… are in vain. It has already begun. Those who have sent you… have not told you what they seek. What you seek.”

“I was told to find you.”

“Indeed. And so you have come looking, though… you do not know why. Like others before you… you blindly follow a path to your own destruction.”

“Others?” Bradas asked. He lowered his hand, eyes growing used to the brightness.

“The Thalmor came seeking answers as well, unaware they will be his undoing. Your path… now follows his. Though… you will arrive too late.”

“Thalmor?” Jackie asked. “What Thalmor?”

“The one who calls himself Ancano. He seeks information about the Eye… but what he will find shall be quite different. His path… will cross yours in time. But first… you must find that which you need.”

“What do we need?” Bradas asked, mind racing. Ancano had been there before them. Why?

“You… and those that aid you… wish to know more about the Eye of Magnus. You wish to avoid the disaster of which you are not yet aware. To see through Magnus’ Eye without being blinded, you require… his staff. Events… now spiral quickly… towards the inevitable center, so you must act with haste! Take this knowledge to your Arch Mage.”

Then suddenly, without any warning or goodbye, the blue light disappeared.

“Where did it go?” Jackie asked, awestruck.

Bradas swiped a hand out toward where the light had sat, disturbing the blue remnants of magicka. “It’s gone,” he murmured, eyebrows furrowed.

“It… or he, talked about a disaster,” she said. “Vaguely. I wish he’d been more specific.”

“Perhaps the Arch Mage knows what this all means.”

***

The Arch Mage was impressed with Bradas. So much so that he gave him full blessing to go out and find the Staff of Magnus and return with it if he could. He also gave him a circlet—the Mage’s Circlet, it was called. Jackie held it up in the dim light of their dorm room to admire it.

“Wow,” she said, watching as the smooth blue gems in it sparkled. “Bradas. You are totally the Arch Mage’s favorite student.”

Bradas scoffed and crossed his arms. “I most certainly am not.”

“No, I mean it. You’re the darling of the College,” she said with a grin, placing the circlet atop her head like a girl playing dress-up. He wondered if she could feel the magic of such an item—he certainly had as he’d carried it, before she’d taken it to get a closer look. She didn’t seem like she noticed anything. “I’ve never gotten anything so nice from a teacher.”

“Perhaps you were never as good a student as I am,” he suggested slyly.

“You’re probably right,” she replied with a smirk. She adjusted the circlet so that the top gem sat in line with the center of her forehead, but the part of her hair made it look slightly crooked. He let out a soft laugh.

“That’s a magical circlet, Jackie,” he said, peering over her to see if she looked any different. “Do you feel anything?”

“Other than glamorous?” she asked, giving an exaggerated wink. He rolled his eyes and plucked it right from her head to place in a knapsack.

“Yet more evidence that you’re nobility,” he said with a smug grin.

“Oh no, that would be you, Thane of Whiterun,” she countered. “I still can’t believe you never told me about that.”

“I’d forgotten it entirely, to be honest,” he admitted, sitting down on his bed and taking off his boots. He truly hadn’t been trying to hide it from her—they’d been so busy and he’d gained that title before they had really become friends. “It hasn’t done me much good, anyway.” None of his titles seemed to serve him very well; thief, Dunmer, Thane, Dragonborn… they all seemed to bring him nothing but trouble.

Jackie hummed. “I guess you’re right.” She gave him a shrug before leaning back onto the bed to snuggle under the covers. “Dragons and bandits don’t seem to care if you’re a thane.”

“They really don’t,” he sighed. “Besides. We haven’t spent much time in Whiterun Hold. There isn’t any point in being a thane.”

“Uh, I can think of a couple points,” she muttered from under the blankets. “But I’m too tired to go over them right this minute.”

Bradas huffed a laugh and leaned back into the pillows of his own bed. “Sleep. We’ll make plans in the morning.”

***

Jackie slept for a few hours but woke up in the middle of the night from a stress dream she couldn’t seem to remember.

It wasn’t uncommon to wake up around three or four in the morning. While travelling, she and Bradas took shifts sleeping, so she was used to waking in the middle of the night to take watch. Stress dreams, unfortunately, weren’t uncommon either; she’d been having them since long before her arrival in Skyrim.

She looked over toward Bradas, who was sleeping soundly on his bed—limbs spread out, arms and feet hanging over the edge. At least someone was able to relax.

She could feel her body slowly adjusting to wakefulness despite her best efforts to fall back asleep. After a few minutes she sat up—maybe a walk would help wear her out a little. She slipped on her boots and jacket quietly, careful not to wake her roommate.

It was freezing outside. She watched as her breath blew out into the cold, dry night air. Snow fell peacefully to the ground. It was actually really lovely. She looked up into the night sky, every twinkling star visible.

It was no Milky Way, but it was beautiful nonetheless. She rubbed her ungloved hands together as she stared into the night. She missed her night sky, even if it was hard to see in the city of Cedar Falls, Washington. The constellations, the single moon…

But at least this new sky was pretty. She supposed she’d have plenty of time now to look at it. She sighed and walked in a circle around the courtyard partly to work off her excess energy, and partly to escape her depressing thoughts.

She found herself stopping in front of the doors to The Hall of the Elements, turning her thoughts to the large rock that now resided inside. Or The Eye of Magnus, as they called it. She was struck with the idea to get a closer look; and why not? She was up already anyway. She opened the doors to the building as quietly as she could and slipped inside, the light of the magical object illuminating the way.

It looked… kind of spooky at night. She walked in a circle around it, keeping in pace with its lazy rotation. Even she, without magic of any kind, could admit that it was oddly intriguing in its own way.

A deep voice seemed to come from out of the blue. “Having trouble sleeping?”

She jumped, failing to completely smother a tiny ‘eep!’ “Ancano!” she whisper-cried, placing a hand over her beating heart. “You scared the hell out of me!”

“My apologies,” the Altmer said, raising a brow. “I wasn’t expecting to see you walking about so late at night.”

“I wasn’t expecting to see you either,” she replied. “But I guess that was obvious. You can’t sleep either?”

“I often can’t.” Ancano tilted his head as though studying her. “There’s no fire here. You must be cold.”

Jackie shrugged, not sure how she should act. When someone was angry with Bradas, they were usually angry with her, too. “I’m alright. I was actually just about to go back to bed,” she said carefully. She had somewhat of a rapport with Ancano, but based on his actions lately she wasn’t sure if he’d be feeling too much goodwill toward her.

He stepped toward her. He didn’t seem angry, not like he had the day before. “Don’t let me chase you off,” he said, his smile almost charming. “Can I offer you my coat?”

“No, I’m really alright,” she said quickly, somehow mortified by the idea. “I wouldn’t want you to freeze.”

“If you’re sure,” he said mildly. “I must ask, Jackie. Did you feel… drawn here?”

“I’m… actually not sure what you mean by that,” she said slowly. Ancano gestured to the Eye of Magnus in reply, and it suddenly made sense. She shook her head. “Oh. No, I don’t think so,” she answered, turning her attention to the magical object. “I just thought I’d come look at it while I was waiting to get tired again. It’s… kind of pretty, for a big rock,” she joked.

He didn’t seem to think she was funny. “Rock,” he muttered. He drew closer to her, golden eyes focused on the mysterious magical object. “This… this is more than a rock.”

“So I’ve heard,” she murmured, suddenly clueing in to his weird mood. She frowned and looked up at him. Perhaps it was time to make an excuse and get back to her dorm.

Ancano turned his eyes to her, his gaze intense on her face. “Do you mean to say that you can’t feel it? The magicka radiating from it?”

She flushed under his scrutiny. “No, I don’t think so.”

“No, perhaps you don’t…” he murmured. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end.

“I’m gonna go back to bed,” she said, ducking her head. She may have been relatively new to Skyrim, but she still knew when to listen to the alarm bells in her head. “You get some rest, okay?”

Ancano only hummed in reply, eyes sliding back to stare at the Eye of Magnus. She turned and walked, as quickly as she could without running, back to the dormitories.

Chapter Text

The Ruins of Mzulft.

Yet another location that lacked a sufficient number of vowels, in Jackie’s humble opinion… though she was sure that spelling was going to be the least of their problems when they found the ruins. She’d been much more open to travelling to new places since she had nowhere to go these days, but she still kind of hated the fact that they had to keep risking their necks in old tombs.

She tried her best not to complain too much about it to Bradas, but she just couldn’t help it sometimes:

“You know what? I hate ruins. I don’t understand how people could leave all these dangerous places lying around.”

“As if there are no ruins where you’re from,” he shot back from in front of her. She could hear him trying not to laugh at her complaining, and it made her smile despite her fatigue. He was leading the way up sets of makeshift wooden stairs, weathered from years outside without upkeep. They’d travelled for less than a week and were close to their destination, where they hoped—hoped, but were not guaranteed—to find the Staff of Magnus.

“Not nearly as many,” she told him. “And usually they’re roped off and safe. No poison darts and no traps.” She missed the days before her life was a grittier version of Indiana Jones.

“Then how did your ancient peoples protect their treasures?” he asked.

That was a good question. She was too out of breath to reply anyway, huffing as she followed him up a steep incline.

“I think you’ll be impressed by these ruins, actually,” he said, stopping so that they could both take a breather. They both took a few swigs from their water skins. Jackie didn’t respond for a few moments, just letting herself catch her breath and listen to the wind rustling through the trees. “You haven’t seen many like these ones. I’ve told you of the Dwemer, haven’t I?”

“You have, a little. The architecture is kind of different here,” she admitted. There seemed to be a lot of stone arches that were engraved with intricate carvings—a little bit different than the typical Nord ruins.

“This was a city once—or the outskirts of one,” he told her. “The Dwemer don’t have the kindest of histories, but they knew how to build a city.”

Bradas must have had the gift of perfect timing, Jackie thought, because just as he said that they came upon the top of the hill. The entrance to the city was gorgeous, unlike anything she’d seen in Skyrim so far. Grand carved doors engraved with gold stood surrounded by ornate pillars. The ruins were built seamlessly into the rocks surrounding them… and most curious of all, steam was blowing furiously out of pipes that ran in and out of the stone.

“Oh, my God,” she breathed, the hair rising on the back of her neck. Steam… the kind of steam that came from machines. From industry. She was reminded of early industrial technology back in her world—was it possible that there was something similar to that here in Mzulft? “That steam…”

The Dunmer stood beside her, a pleased grin on his face. “I told you you’d be impressed, didn’t I?” He forged on ahead, gesturing for her to keep up.

.

.

Bradas had been looking forward to showing Jackie some of the more interesting things that Dwemer ruins had to offer—the steam, the machines and the strange metal warriors the dead race had left behind. The Dwemer had once been unmatched in enchanting skill, and the leftovers from their once-mighty society were as incredible as they were strange.

Unfortunately, a dying Synod researcher had put a stop to his plans of peaceful exploration. Cynically, he thought that perhaps he should have known something like this would happen.

“What happened here?” Bradas asked, kneeling down to help the Imperial.

The man gave no clear answer. “Crystal… gone…” he wheezed. “Find… Paratus… in Oculory…”

He summoned some Healing magic, but it was a moment too late. “Damn it all,” he swore.

Jackie knelt down next to him. “What did he say? Is there something back there that’ll kill us?”

“He spoke of a crystal,” Bradas replied, patting down the dead man’s body for clues. “A key,” he said, drawing the object from the dead man’s robes and handing it to her. “Check to see if it goes to that door.”

Jackie took the key and unlocked the great doors easily. “Looks like we’re in luck,” she said. She kept them shut while she waited for Bradas to finish his search.

“… And a journal,” the Dark Elf muttered, skimming through the most recent entries. “He was doing something with a crystal for research.” He flipped the book shut. “It’s no help. But the Synod are clearly doing something dangerous here.” Why would they need the staff of Magnus, he wondered?

Jackie frowned. “I guess it was too much to hope that there wouldn’t be anything besides draugr in here?”

“It appears so,” he confirmed, standing up and joining her at her side. “Let’s see what these ruins have in store for us, shall we?”

***

Mzulft was filled with traps. Spikes, falling boulders, fire—the deeper they went, the more treacherous the ruins became. They tread carefully, watching for dents in the floor and tripwires, fighting spider workers and chaurus infestations.

Dwarven Spheres, however, got an entertaining reaction out of Jackie. When the first one rolled out of its resting place to attack, she yelped and flailed her arms for a moment—to her credit, though, she dodged its attack and countered admirably.

“I think I’m going to be really amazed by all these robots once they’re not attacking us,” she’d told him as they harvested the soul gems out of the limp metal bodies.

“Robots?”

“I think they are,” she said with a kick at the machine. She looked up and wiped sweat off her brow. “Just powered by magic instead of batteries. I’ll tell you more once we’re out of here.”

“I’ll count on it,” he said, intrigued. He’d been looking forward to showing Jackie the strange machines that lived and fought in Dwemer ruins, but the fact that she seemed to recognize them was utterly fascinating.

Was she from a society like the Dwemer’s? He would have to ask her more questions when they had the time.

They made their way through winding underground tunnels, where the earth had begun to take back the crumbling ruins. Bugs, mushrooms, and overgrown ivies crept along the walls; Jackie picked up ingredients where she could, gently setting them in the with the soul gems they were accruing.

Bradas heard, rather than saw, the growl of a creature much larger than a chaurus. He crouched and felt Jackie do the same. He looked at her face and saw the unasked question: What is it? He pressed a finger to his lips in response and she nodded, gripping the dagger at her belt.

That’s when they saw the deathly-pale skin and the hunched gate. “Falmer,” he whispered to her in low tones. He wasn’t sure if she knew of the Falmer yet, or if he’d told her their tragic tale. What he did know was that the cursed elves wouldn’t take kindly to the two of them invading their territory. They would attack mindlessly, without question.

He pulled out his bow and nocked an arrow. Though he was confident at this point of both his and Jackie’s abilities to kill a group of Falmer if they got overwhelmed, he still didn’t want it to come to that. Sniping them from the dark would be the easiest option.

It took fifteen tense minutes to kill them off one by one. When the first went down, and the others couldn’t figure out why, they went into a frenzy. Jackie rustled quietly beside him and he felt something on his back adjust. He was confused for only a second before realizing that she was taking the arrows from his quiver and dipping them in poison, then handing them to him—which was incredibly convenient. It sped up the process of killing off the Falmer before they figured out where the arrows were coming from.

This is what he needed, he thought as he launched an arrow at the last despairing Falmer. An assistant, a partner—(Jackie)—to dip his arrows in poison for him. He could get used to something like that. He felt his chest grow warm and attributed it to the thrill of the kill.

“That’s the last one,” he murmured, turning to look at her.

Jackie’s face was pale and grim. “What were those?”

“Falmer,” he answered, standing up from his crouch and brushing the dirt from his trousers.

“… Mer? As in elves?” she asked, brown eyes going wide.

He thought for a moment. “They were, once,” he answered. “The Dwemer tricked them and poisoned them many years ago. That turned them into…” he waved his hand toward the group of bodies. “That. Sick creatures,” he called them the same as his mother had once, when she’d been teaching him history lessons.

“That’s sad,” she murmured, surveying the damage with hands on her hips.

“It was centuries ago,” he replied. “The Dwemer are gone, now, too.”

“There’s a lot of history I don’t know,” she said resignedly.

“Fighting, reading, and now history lessons,” he said with a grin. “We have work to do, don’t we?”

“I shouldn’t have said anything,” she groaned, lightly tapping his arm as she walked past. “Let’s keep going.”

***

There was an incline and they emerged into a great hall. Jackie was sort of amazed at the beautifully designed walls and pillars that they were surrounded by, but at the same time she felt boxed in. By this point she was too used to the clear and open air, and in here it was dark and musty. Worst of all, she was now paranoid that they’d run into the Falmer again. She shuddered to think of them—it was like seeing several Gollums in real life.

She followed Bradas, who seemed to instinctively know where he was going. They rummaged through chests along the way, which yielded unusual amounts of gold and other treasures. Enchanted jewelry and mysterious keys seemed to be the order of the day.

They were elbow-deep in one of the chests, trying to figure out was worth hauling up to the surface, when she felt a strange, subtle rumbling.

She looked up and stepped away from the treasure chest, quieting her breathing to see if she’d feel it again. It’d been so quiet she wasn’t even sure if she’d felt it…

“What is it?” Bradas asked, not looking up from the treasure chest. He pulled out a key and grinned. “Ah-ha. This should be useful.”

“Shh,” she whispered, placing her finger over her lips. He stilled and looked up, peering at her with curious eyes. Again, she felt the rumble, though it was still very quiet. “Can you hear that?”

Bradas placed a sapphire in his coat pocket, one last bauble before finishing his looting. “I don’t hear anything,” he replied, raising an eyebrow. “Are you—”

Another rumble, much louder this time, interrupted him. Jackie felt goosebumps break out across her neck and arms, eyes widening as her mind ran through all the possibilities. Was this an earthquake? Or worse… “Is this a cave-in?” she asked. Bradas’ eyes went wide.

“Impossible. These ruins have been here for thousands of years. They wouldn’t collapse now.”

“They haven’t collapsed yet,” she corrected, eyes darting around the room. There was no way out; if there was a cave-in, they would die here for sure.

Now wouldn’t that be just their luck?

But after a moment, she saw that the walls weren’t crumbling. That was a good sign, right? She held on to that small piece of hope as the ground shook beneath her feet… and felt that hope shrivel and die as she saw a huge machine roar around the corner shooting deadly hot steam at the two of them.

Jackie hit the floor to avoid the heat, watching with horror as it swung a mighty, sledgehammer-shaped arm at Bradas, who barely dodged it. Steam screamed out from its mouth and from under its metal-plated arms, ratcheting the temperature in the room up several degrees.

Bradas shouted, “FUS!” and clearly he meant business if he was shouting right off the bat. The giant robot staggered back a few feet and she took the opportunity to scramble toward him. He grasped her hand and practically flung her around a corner as the steam bellowed once again from the creature’s mouth.

“Dwarven Centurion!” her Dunmer compatriot breathed, pressing against the wall next to her, still squeezing her hand. She squeezed back, heart pounding in her ears. “I’ve only read about them in—damn!” The steam must have been magical, because it seemed to pass right through the walls. She felt the hot condensation from it creep into her armor and her hair, and Bradas jumped and hissed in pain.

“How do we kill it?!”

Bradas growled and shot a stream of ice-cold magic around the corner and onto the machine. That didn’t seem to do much. He then conjured a Flame Atronach and let it distract the Centurion while he caught his breath and cast Healing Hands on himself.

“Save your magicka,” she said, uncorking one and taking a swig before handing him the rest. He took it all in one gulp and threw the glass onto the ground.

“It’s resistant to magic,” he said in answer to her question. “Arrows won’t do much, either,” he drew his sword. “A hammer would probably be best, but this will have to do. How much potion do you have?”

“Hang on,” she grabbed a handful of his shirt before he rounded the corner to face the Centurion head-on. With a curse, he summoned another Flame Atronach and whirled around.

“What!”

“It’s a robot, right? Does it... it runs on soul gems, right?” She flinched as the Atronach screeched; that was not a good sign.

“Yes! Jackie, if we don’t move it will kill us!”

She tightened her grip on his shirt, mind racing. If soul gems were like batteries… “Can you find the soul gems inside of it? Where would they be?”

“Inside of it… perhaps in its chest or head,” he answered, comprehending what she was saying.

“Take out the soul gems and it should die,” she said quickly. It should be like smashing a computer battery, shouldn’t it? You could crack your phone screen and it could still work, but if you destroyed the battery… “Find where the soul gems are and destroy them!”

“I’m willing to try anything if you take care of my wounds later,” he laughed, ruby-red eyes flashing with delight. If she didn’t know better, she’d think he was flirting—but at this point she was guessing that the call of battle was getting the better of him. She snorted and let go of him to grasp at her bow and arrows.

“Please just try not to get yourself killed,” she muttered, watching him whirl around the corner with his sword out.

“FUS!”

***

It turned out that Jackie really did have the right idea. He quickly found a spot on the beast where it looked like soul gems could reside, and smashed at it with the hilt of his sword at every opportunity. What could have been a grueling fight was only moderately terrible—and Bradas didn’t come out of it as badly as he could have.

He was slightly upset that he’d shattered perfectly good soul gems, however. He glanced at Jackie, who had a look of relief on her face. She tossed him another health potion and he took it as quickly as he could to relive the steam burns on his skin.

“Did it get you?” he asked her, noticing that she wasn’t taking any potions.

“My ‘cower and hide’ fighting style is pretty effective for avoiding injuries,” she joked, face still pale. She kicked at the Dwarven Centurion, which now lie useless on the ground. “Hunk of junk,” she muttered.

“You seemed to know how to kill it, oddly enough.”

“It was kind of a lucky guess,” she confessed. He didn’t know if she was just being modest, or if he’d truly just risked his life on guess-work. He really wasn’t sure he wanted to know. “We have stuff sort of like this. Not big robots, but machines,” she explained, kneeling down to study it. “I’m not a tech expert, but any machine will die if you kill the battery.”

“Battery?” he asked.

“Soul gem,” she amended, looking back up at him with sparkling eyes. “Maybe when we get out of here I can explain it to you better.”

“We’ll have to make it out of here first,” he said with a snort. “Let’s just hope we don’t see any more of these creatures. Look, dead Falmer—the Centurion must have gotten to them before we did.”

The two of them focused their efforts on looting the bodies of dead Falmer, and only stopped once they were sure they’d gotten everything worthwhile. On one of the bodies, Bradas found an interesting-looking crystal. He wasn’t sure if it was valuable, but he placed it in his pocket just in case.

.
..
.

Jackie was thankful for Bradas’ habit of collecting useless keys when they came across a great big locked door. She would have hated trying to sift through a bunch of crap to find it.

That door led to another, which was also locked.

“Damn it,” Jackie panted, winded from the uphill hike it had taken to get there. “Tell me you have another key…”

“I don’t think so. Not for this door,” her Dunmer companion said with a frown. He didn’t look too excited at the prospect of key-hunting, either. He jiggled the handle, and she could tell that he was wondering how hard it would be to just break it down.

She almost jumped for joy when she heard someone rustling around behind the door.

“G-Gavros?” said a frightened voice. “Is that you? I’d almost given up hope. Let me get the door!”

.

.

The door opened to reveal a man dressed in Synod robes, and he was not happy to see them.

“What the—what are you doing here?” he exclaimed, summoning fire into his hands and crouching into a fighting stance. “What have you done with Gavros?”

Jackie could have face-palmed when Bradas said, “Your friend Gavros is dead.” Tactless as usual.

“He was that way when we found him,” Jackie added quickly, resisting the urge to elbow her friend. That was pertinent information when a guy was about to set you on fire.

“It was the Falmer, wasn’t it? Curse them! They’ve ruined everything!” the mystery man ranted, putting away his fire-fists. “If Gavros is gone, there is no hope. He was supposed to return with the crystal… without that, all our efforts are wasted. And you… if you’re here for treasure, or wisdom, I’m afraid you’re wasting your time.”

“What’s this about a crystal?” Bradas questioned.

“It didn’t work the first time!” the man ranted, throwing his hands up in the air. “I tried to tell Gavros, but he wouldn’t listen! ‘No, it won’t be too cold!’ he said! Well I was right, wasn’t I? Focused completely wrong by the time we got there! The cold had warped it! Gavros had to cart it all the way back to Cyrodiil, and left the rest of us to fend off the damned Falmer.”

'Oh good,' Jackie thought. 'He’s crazy.'

Bradas sighed, and in an admirable show of patience, asked, “If we help you find your crystal, will you help us?”

The Synod was, thankfully, willing to cooperate. “I don’t know what sort of help you expect from me, but if you can actually find the crystal I would certainly be grateful.”

“What do you know of the Staff of Magnus?”

“The Staff of Magnus? Well. I’m afraid I can’t help you with that. I’d need the crystal to do anything useful, and I simply don’t have it.” As he explained further, they found out that it was all ‘secret Synod business.’

Jackie and Bradas exchanged a look, and the Dunmer sighed.

“At any rate. I’ve found your crystal,” Bradas said, offering it to the Synod.

“Ha! So you did! That’s wonderful. I was beginning to think that Gavros had gotten himself killed just to spite me.” He cleared his throat. “Well, with the Falmer skulking around, I can’t very well do this on my own. I guess you’ll have to come with me. I’ll explain on the way.”

***

The Oculory was a marvel, and it was even more so when they finally got it to work. Bradas used an ice spell to move the light when they needed it, and Jackie stood above and pressed the buttons until they managed to create an image of a map on the wall.

It was actually a really enlightening experience that Bradas would have enjoyed, until Paratus accused them of coming to sabotage his work. At this point, he was about ready to kill the man and put him out of his misery.

“What are you playing at? Is this some attempt to stall my work?!”

Jackie was suddenly at his side, hand gently weighing down on his sword arm to prevent him from drawing a weapon.

“We didn’t come to stall your work,” she said calmly, releasing Bradas’ arm when it relaxed. He gave her a skeptical look but let her talk, because he was certainly done with trying to reason with this madman.

“Did you know what we were attempting? Are you here to make sure your plan worked, that our efforts have been for nothing?”

“Did something go wrong?” she asked.

It was not the right thing to say. Paratus raised his voice, and Bradas raised his dagger. “Go wrong? Go wrong? Everything is wrong! Everything! Whatever you have at that college has completely interfered with our work here! How did you do it?”

“We truly have no idea what you’re talking about,” Jackie said, her hand once more a stilling weight on his elbow. Paratus didn’t even seem to notice that a knife had been drawn, which was probably a testament to his madness. “We’re just here to explore, that’s all.”

“Either you’re lying to me, or—!” Paratus stopped short and caught his breath. “Or. You have something at your college, don’t you? Something immensely powerful… beyond anything I’d anticipated. What is it?”

“You’re a fool if you think you’ll get an answer to that,” Bradas said. He sheathed his dagger. For the moment.

“So you do have something, then.” The Synod smirked, and Bradas wished that Jackie would just let him stab that arrogant face. “Whether this was intentional or not, it suggests some interesting results.”

“Can you help us find the Staff of Magnus or not?” Bradas was just about done with this game.

“Ah, yes. The Staff of Magnus. Well, even if you are trying to ruin my work, there’s still something to be learned here. Hm. Well, I can’t explain the details. That would be giving away many secrets the Synod have learned over the years. Also… I doubt you’d be able to comprehend the details.”

The Dunmer scoffed. Paratus walked toward the starlight-map to study it, still talking. “What’s important is that all of this work was designed to reveal to us sources of great magical power.” He gave them an uninterpretable look. “Purely to safeguard the Empire, of course.”

“I’m sure,” Bradas sighed, giving Jackie a look. She just shrugged.

“All this work. And yet, in the end, only two locations were revealed to us. One is your College.”

“And the other?”

“The other… well it can only be Labyrinthian.” He whirled around, turning his gaze from the map and onto Bradas. “So, mage from Winterhold, despite your intentions I’ve beaten your little game. I know that you have something at the College that the Synod Council would be very interested in.”

Bradas answered with a smirk of his own. “I have no idea what you could possibly mean.”

The Synod threw up his hands. “Fine! Trudge off to Labyrinthian in search of your staff. I shall return to Cyrodiil and deliver my full report to the Council. This is not over, I assure you!”

Jackie, who seemed magically in tune with his more violent impulses, grasped Bradas’ elbow and prevented him, one last time, from drawing his blade. “Alright, thanks so much!” she said quickly, giving the Dunmer a significant look. He let her steer him away from the infuriating Imperial. “We’ll be leaving now. Be sure to get outside at some point, okay, Paratus? You’ve, uhm, maybe been down here for a little too long.”

.

.

“Should have let me kill him,” Bradas muttered to her as they wove their way toward what he was sure was an exit.

Jackie snorted. “Oh, come on. I don’t ‘let’ you do anything,” she said. He rolled his eyes.

“I’d have never heard the end of it,” he without heat.

She laughed softly. “He’s harmless. And obviously kind of stir-crazy. We were probably the first people he’s seen alive in weeks.”

“All the better reason to put him out of his misery,” he grumbled. She was the one to roll her eyes this time.

“But seriously. Thanks for not killing him,” she said, trying to sound lighthearted but failing. Damn it all, but he always forgot that she wasn’t as used to death as he was, and likely never would be.

What did that say about him? He was so accustomed to blood and death that killing that Synod wouldn’t have meant much to him. Joking about it was easy for a man like him. Jackie, though, was different.

He stopped walking for a second and regarded her in the dim, leftover light, created from powerful enchantments made centuries ago. She stopped too, and turned to look at him with a question in those wide, dark eyes. “What’s up?”

“I’ll still my hand as often as you ask me to,” he said. It was a foolish promise, and he knew he shouldn’t have been making it. “If I can.”

She blinked a few times, uncomprehending. “Oh… you mean…?”

“If you asked me to spare someone, I could. I would try,” he tried to clarify. What was he saying, exactly? He wasn’t even sure.

“Thanks,” she said with a small grin. “That’s actually… really weirdly nice of—”

But before he could hear the rest of what she said, his vision rippled and narrowed, and he found himself in that space between seconds with the Psijic monk who had visited him before.

Chapter Text

It was midday when they reached the College once more, and their plans to go straight to the Arch Mage’s office with their findings were quickly derailed.

Bradas opened the door to the Hall of Elements and had a jarring moment where he realized that not all was how it was supposed to be—like when someone moved the furniture around in a room without telling you. Rather than an open room with the Eye of Magnus in the center, he opened the door to see some kind of barrier blocking the way.

He stopped short and Jackie nearly crashed into him from behind. The Arch Mage and Master Wizard were standing just outside of the barrier, faces bewildered like they had only just discovered it themselves.

“What in the world?” Jackie gasped from beside him.

The ward was mostly opaque, but beyond it he could make out the outline of the Eye of Magnus spinning frantically. He felt the tell-tale charge of magicka in the air, making his head heavy like a sip of fine wine.

“I don’t know,” Mirabelle was saying, keeping her voice admirably steady. “It’s like a ward, but who’s casting it? Ancano? How?”

“That’s Ancano?” he asked, squinting his eyes at the barrier.

“I don’t care what it is, I want it down now!” the headmaster said, frustrated. “I want to know what he’s doing in there!”

“What is going on?”

Savos and Mirabelle turned to face them. “Ancano has somehow locked himself in the hall. He’s up to something, and I intend to put a stop to it,” Savos said. He looked at Bradas. “Help us get through this, will you? We’re throwing everything we can at it!”

“Yes. Jackie—”

“Already backing up,” said the woman in question.

He summoned fire into his hands, as easy as breathing, as Jackie backed up into the door behind them. The charge in the room seemed to multiply as all three mages cast destruction magic at the barrier.

It did not take long for the barrier to wear away once they all began to cast their spells. It disappeared in a flurry of fire, ice, and static, and all four of them ran into the main hall to see Ancano doing something to the Eye. If he had to guess, Bradas thought it seemed like he was casting a lightning spell at it.

Everything seemed to happen in an instant.

“What’s going on? Ancano! Stop this at once, I command you!” Savos’ voice boomed. He began to approach the Altmer, hands out and ready to cast.

“Don’t go near him!” Mirabelle shouted.

Bradas turned to look for Jackie, just to make sure he knew where she was, and caught her gaze for just one second before his vision went white.

.

.

Jackie woke up to a screaming headache.

“Shit,” she swore, her voice catching. For a few painful seconds, she watched the light dance and fade before her eyes. She sat up automatically, unable to even process how she’d been knocked down in the first place.

Concussion. This had to be a concussion.

Placing her hands on her aching head, she had a brief memory of high school—of being on the softball team for two seasons before realizing she hated it. She’d been on her way to practice one day, running late. As soon as she’d made it to the sunny playing field, a stray softball had hit her on the head and she’d gone down. That was about when she’d decided she was done with sports.

Feeling groggy, she let out a laugh. Her mom, the defense lawyer, had chewed out the coach and blown hot air about suing the school. It had been so embarrassing.

A voice brought her out of her foggy memories. “Are you alright?” Jackie blinked a few times to see Mirabelle Ervine sitting across from her, leaning up against the wall. “Can you walk?”

Jackie took in a deep breath and pushed herself up with her hands. Right. There was something bad happening, she needed to help. She staggered up, barely winning the battle against nausea in the process. “Yeah,” she croaked. “I can stand.”

“Good, I need you on your feet. We’re in trouble here,” Mirabelle said. Her voice was firm, but Jackie could hear the fear in it.

“I think I’m okay,” she said, taking in measured breaths. Where was everyone else?

Where was Bradas?

“Ancano is doing something with that thing… the Eye. We can’t stop him! I haven’t seen Savos since the explosion. He must have been blown clear, and he may be injured. I need you to find the Arch Mage, and I need you to do it quickly. Get moving,” she ordered. Her tone brooked no arguments.

Jackie staggered a bit, but found her footing. “I will. But what… what happened? Are you okay?” The other woman looked like she’d been tossed through the ringer, though she was sure she didn’t look any better.

“I’ll be fine,” Mirabelle said, her voice softening. “I just… need a minute to catch my breath. Find Savos…”

“I promise I will,” she replied. Right after she found Bradas. She pulled out two vials of health potion and handed them to the injured Master Wizard. “Please take these. I’ll try to find the Arch Mage as quick as I can,” she promised.

Mirabelle took them, fingers shaking. “Thank you. Please go quickly!”

Jackie nodded and regretted it instantly. She bent over at the waist and vomited—she was sure she was not helping Mirabelle feel better about where she was placing her faith—and stood straight again to gain her bearings.

“Okay,” she muttered, wiping at her mouth and leaning against a pillar. She tried to organize the facts in her head:

Bradas was missing. The Arch Mage was missing. And the Eye of Magnus was surrounded by a swirling blue vortex. Well, she knew for sure that she wasn’t going to touch that problem with a ten-foot pole. In fact, she could barely look at it without wanting to throw up again.

First things first, she’d need to find Bradas. As important as the Arch Mage was, Bradas took priority. She took one last look at Mirabelle before walking around the circular main hall, searching for her Dunmer.

“Bradas, where are you,” she called, finding her voice weak. She looked by the stairwell, behind doors... and had no luck. There was no sign of the Arch Mage, either—where the hell had they gone? Panic began to bloom in her chest.

“Please God, Jesus, anyone,” she muttered, head pounding. She staggered around the corner, mind racing. She was beginning to realize that she was not in good shape, and it was definitely affecting her motor skills. She fumbled with the pack where she kept her potions and found that she’d given Mirabelle most of what she had—only three more vials remained. She took a small stamina potion like a shot, and swallowed half of a weak healing potion.

“Someone?” she murmured, feeling her head spin. The headache was a little better, but not much. “Azura?” she tried. She was supposed to be the Patron Saint of the Dunmer—surely the Daedric Princess could help her find the most important one. “Please help me find him. Please, please,” she prayed. What she lacked in elegance, she made up for with heart. “Let him be alive…”

Her pathetic prayer was interrupted by a soft groan. Her eyes, which she didn’t remember closing, snapped open. She looked into a corner, a crevice, really—and found Bradas shoved up against a wall.

“Thank you,” she breathed, rushing over to him to make sure he was okay. “Hey, hey,” she said, gently nudging him.

“Jackie?” he asked, cracking his eyes open.

“Wake up,” she said softly, placing a hand on his cheek. She fought another wave of nausea and her vision went double—but she was too relieved to care. “You’re okay.”

He blinked, and then his eyes widened. “Jackie,” he said, his voice soft. He placed his hand over hers and drew it away from his face. “Are you… alright? What happened?”

“Big explosion,” she muttered, relishing the feel of his hand. She so wished that he wasn’t wearing gloves. “Got knocked down. Hit our head. I mean my head.”

He nodded as he listened, face grim. She felt the glow of Healing Hands, and was she still talking? She felt like she could hear her own voice but…

“I still have to find the Arch Mage for Mirabelle. She’s hurt,” she told him, finally grasping her own train of thought.

“I can do that,” he told her gently. The world around her moved, rotated so that he was the one standing, and she was the one leaning up against the wall. How did that happen? Bradas continued, “Stay here, Jackie.”

“I can help,” she murmured. He leaned toward her again, so close, and for a stupid moment she thought he was about to kiss her on the forehead. His hand ran through her tangled hair and he prodded at her scalp. “Ow.”

He drew his hand back and looked at it. Her sight was too blurry to see what he was looking at. “Damn it all,” he muttered. “Jackie, stay still—” he administered more Healing Hands, “don’t move. I’ll be back soon—”

She exhaled and the world slipped away.

.

.

Waking up to Jackie’s face covered in blood was not an experience he ever wanted to repeat. Her nose had been bleeding, running over her lips and down her chin and staining her clothes.

Her eyes looked glossy, pupils blown out and impossibly black. For a wild and terrifying moment, it seemed as though he was looking past her eyes and right into her skull. He cast Healing Hands while she babbled about the Arch Mage and Mirabelle, until finally he leaned her up against the wall.

“Ahh, what,” she slurred, “I can help. I can help.”

“Hush,” he said as he took off one glove and felt the back of her head with his bare hand. There was a bump, easily the size of an egg and probably growing larger. And when he brought his hand back, it was wet with her blood.

She’d been standing right in front of the door… her head must have hit it when Ancano activated the Eye. He took a breath and shook his head. Thinking about exactly how her head had gotten cut open was enough to make him feel sick, and he was no stranger to blood.

“Stay still, don’t move,” he told her, fear settling in his chest. He cast Healing Hands once more, knowing that he needed to conserve his magic. He didn’t know what was out there. Jackie fainted, finally, and he laid her onto the ground as gently as he could. This would have to do for now, even if he hated leaving her. “I’ll be back soon,” he swore.

Rage blossomed out of helplessness. He was going to kill Ancano.

***

When he went outside, he was greeted with the sight of his classmates gathered around the limp body of the Arch Mage. Bradas saw that Tolfdir was running toward him.

In the seconds it took for the old man to reach him, he let himself despair over the death of Savos Aren.

“Are you alright? What happened in there?” Tolfdir asked.

“It’s Ancano,” Bradas answered, spitting the Altmer’s name out like a curse. “He’s done something with the Eye.”

“By the Nine… is he responsible for this? The Arch Mage, dead…?” He shook his head. “There’s more. Something’s happened to Winterhold, it must be whatever Ancano did. You need to get out there and make sure it’s safe.”

“Jackie and Mirabelle are still inside,” Bradas said, feeling his rage turn into fire in his veins. His palms burned with magic unleashed. He would set fire to whatever evil that Ancano had caused, happily.

“Quickly, now, quickly!” Tolfdir rushed. “I’ll find them and see if we can’t put a stop to this. Colette!”

“Yes!” the Breton mage said from the crowd.

“Get your healing magic ready,” Tolfdir ordered. He waved Bradas away. “Hurry!”

He didn’t need to be told again.

.

.

When Jackie came to again, she was lying in her bed in their dorm. She opened her eyes and looked at the ceiling for a few seconds, trying to remember what had happened. Ancano had been doing something with the Eye of Magnus and… what else?

“Good, you’re awake,” said a familiar voice. She turned her head to see that Bradas was standing over her bed. He looked like he’d just been outside, his hair damp with melting snow. He looked so relieved that she actually felt kind of bad for getting hurt, however it had happened.

“I, uh,” she said dumbly.

“You don’t remember?”

“Ancano did something to the Eye,” she guessed. “And I woke up here?” She sat up and felt the blood rush out of her head. Bradas was at her side in seconds, pressing a hand down on her shoulder and laying her back.

“Just lie back while you still can. You look pale,” he said softly.

“So do you,” she chuckled, despite feeling a little nervous. She couldn’t hear anyone outside their dorm. Were they the only two people in the building? She turned her head to see bloody towels on the nightstand. “What’s going on?”

“Ancano has used to the Eye to… attack. No one is sure exactly what he’s doing, but it’s not good. He’s been summoning creatures and letting them attack Winterhold. We’ve been fighting them for hours.” He sighed, bone-weary. “The Arch Mage is dead.”

Jackie was almost glad she was lying down now, because it felt as though the floor had dropped out from under her. She hadn’t known the Arch Mage like other students had, but… the news was still a blow.

“So, Ancano really is...” She didn’t want to call Ancano bad, but there was no denying what he’d done. She felt a stab of disappointment that she tried to shove away to examine later. “Did you kill the creatures he summoned?”

He sighed and rubbed his face, shifting the bed. “Yes, they should all be dead. But who knows if more will appear.”

Jackie swallowed. “And what happened to me? How did I get here?”

If Bradas seemed pale before, he was nearly white as a sheet now. “I’m not sure. There was an explosion and you must have hit your head...” He trailed off, avoiding her gaze. It must have been pretty bad, she thought, if he was acting this weird about it.

“I’m alright now,” she assured him. She sat up, and this time he didn’t stop her. “I’ve just got kind of a headache.” And, it turned out, a bit of a nosebleed; that explained the bloody towels, at least. Bradas handed her some cloth and she wiped up her nose.

“Colette Marence healed you as much as she could,” he explained. “But she said you would need more time to heal on your own. Healing Magic can’t do everything.”

“I feel okay really,” Jackie promised, sensing that there was something else wrong. Bradas looked downright miserable—not grumpy or tired, but stressed. Worried. “What’s wrong?”

“I need to find the Staff of Magnus in Labyrinthian. I should have gone a few hours ago but you… I needed to make sure you would wake up,” he admitted. “I can’t take you with me. But I needed to make sure you didn’t die.”

She wished she could argue for him to take her, but with her headache and her current nosebleed, she already understood that this was the only real option. She felt awful, and she’d only slow him down. Not sure what she should say, she found his hand with her own. “You waited for me to wake up just to say goodbye?”

Bradas scoffed and glanced away, but didn’t move his hand. “I’m sure that if I didn’t, I’d never hear the end of it.”

Jackie leaned forward a little to catch his expression. He was trying hard not to smile. “You’re right, you wouldn’t,” she said, giving his hand a tight squeeze.

“I have to go now,” he said quietly, regretfully.

“Help me up, I’ll walk you out.”

Everything was ready for him to go, since they hadn’t even had the time to unpack before disaster struck. It didn’t take long to gather what he needed for the road—some extra coats, food, and a restocking of potions. She accompanied him for the short distance from their dorm to the doors leading outside, but put her hand on the door before he could leave.

“When will you come back?” Jackie asked.

“Within a few days at the latest,” he promised.

“I’m sorry I can’t come with you,” she said softly, looking down at his boots. In any other circumstance she would have put up a fight about it, but she knew she wasn’t in any shape to travel. And, despite the quiet moment they had now, she knew he probably needed to hurry. “I hate it. But I think I’d just slow you down like this.”

He smirked, but she could tell that his heart wasn’t in it. “Probably.”

She scoffed. “Listen, just…” Jackie felt, suddenly, like she didn’t have the words that she wanted to say, and she blamed the concussion. She reached out and wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him close—close enough see the tender skin of his throat up close, close enough to catch the scent of sweat and spice and leather.

He stiffened and she regretted pulling him into a hug without warning. They weren’t really ‘hugging’ friends, were they? She gave him a pat on the back, hoping that would lessen the awkwardness, and got ready to pull away.

“Jackie,” he murmured into her hair, hugging her back at the last moment. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll see you in a few days.”

“Just watch out,” she said, and so what if she closed her eyes and rested her cheek on his chest? She had a head injury, damn it.

She couldn’t lose him.

Her heart was suddenly beating so fast that she felt a little dizzy. “You have got to come back for me,” she murmured into the fabric of his coat.

She felt a long arm wrap around her waist and squeeze. “I will.”

.

.

Watching Bradas march out into the snow without her sucked.

Jackie tried not to think about whether or not it would be the last time she saw him. He’d survived for a pretty long time without her, anyway, right? She tried her best not to worry. With a headache that wouldn’t quite go away and occasional vertigo, she knew that she’d slow him down, anyway.

That night, almost all of the students had gone to bed at around the same time. No one was staying up late to drink at the tavern in the village tonight, it seemed. Jackie settled in for a somber, lonely night. She left the door to her little room open, taking comfort in hearing people move around in the dorms. Though the Hall of Attainment was a little crowded, it was eerily quiet. People were still mourning the sudden death of the Arch Mage.

She should be used to death by now, but when it was someone she knew... it just felt worse. She looked at Bradas’ empty bed. Hopefully he’d be okay. If he died…

“Alright, Jackie,” she muttered to herself. “Let’s not play that game.” She forced herself to turn over and look at the wall. She had a headache and she still felt nauseous, and thinking about how horrible it would be if Bradas died was not going to help.

She just closed her eyes against her headache and tried her best to sleep.

Chapter Text

The next morning brought more bad news. One of the students awakened early to find that the barrier had grown to encompass the entire Hall of Elements, and had roused everyone in alarm. Jackie was awakened to the sound of people getting ready and rushing out the door to look. Despite feeling sore, she dressed quickly and went outside to look at it with the rest of the students.

It looked as though a snow-tornado was surrounding the building, strong and constant. Curious, Jackie scanned the ground and found a good-sized rock in the snow. She backed up a little and chucked the stone at the barrier.

The barrier didn’t just repel the stone; it shattered it with a loud crack.

“By the Nine!” one of the Nord students exclaimed.

“Holy hell,” she agreed, feeling the blood drain from her face. What in the world was Ancano doing in there? What could his endgame even be?

“We need to figure something out quickly,” someone said. All heads turned to look at Mirabelle Ervine, who stood grave and pale before them. “I have some ideas, but I’ll need everyone to do as I say.”

***

There was, fortunately, plenty to distract them while they all waited for Bradas to come back with the Staff of Magnus. Injured as she was, Jackie decided that she wasn’t staying behind just to recover. Instead, she’d do her best to help out, because things at the College were decidedly not good at the moment.

First of all, the barrier that Ancano had constructed with the Eye was powerful, dangerous, and impossible to destroy. After a few attempts at getting past it, it was decided that they needed to focus on more obtainable tasks.

Secondly, the Arch Mage was dead. The mantle of leadership therefore fell to Mirabelle Ervine, with Tolfdir to advise her. According to her, Jackie had apparently helped save Mirabelle right after Ancano had cast his spell. This meant that she kept Jackie at her side and trusted her to help with delicate tasks.
Jackie didn’t remember the previous day’s events very well, and she still felt sick and achy. Still, she was happy for the chance to help out.

Whatever Mirabelle wanted, Jackie would do her best to accomplish. And in the absence of Bradas, who always seemed to get suckered into helping people, it turned out that she was the one who got recruited into speaking with the Jarl of Winterhold about what was going on.

So, after only a few hours of sleep and a lot of potions in her system, Jackie found herself trekking out to visit the small village. Mirabelle sent her with Onmund, who was a mage and a Skyrim native. Perhaps she hoped that a Nord and a non-mage would have an easier time explaining to a distrustful town why a bunch of magical creatures had attacked their village.

Jackie chatted with Onmund on the way down the college steps, talking about anything besides the whirling barrier that was seeming to grow larger and larger by the hour. Conversation petered out as they walked down the snowy steps toward civilization.

“Here we are, city limits,” Jackie said as they approached Winterhold.

“I’m not the only one not looking forward to speaking with the Jarl, right?” Onmund sighed.

“Definitely not,” Jackie confirmed. She wasn’t sure what to expect—she’d only met a few jarls, but from what she’d heard about this one, she could guess that he wasn’t going to be very happy. They stopped in front of the jarl’s longhouse. “Hey, they aren’t going to shoot… stab the messengers, are they? Nords don’t generally do that, right?”

Onmund shrugged. “You never know. This one already doesn’t like us.” He gave her a pat on the shoulder. “Don’t worry if they attack. You’re not at your best, but I am. I’ll have your back if need be.”

Oh no, did that mean he expected her to do all the talking? “Let’s hope it won’t come to that,” she laughed nervously. She took a fortifying breath before turning the handle and stepping inside the longhouse.

***

As they approached the jarl’s chair, she noticed that there were quite a few townspeople already there. It was probably the majority of the town, if she knew anything at all about Winterhold. She supposed they were probably all trying to get answers from the jarl about what had happened yesterday.

As soon as she stepped into the room with Onmund trailing behind her, everyone’s heads turned and they all got quiet.

That only served to make her even more nervous. She’d been hoping for a calm conversation with the jarl, not a public announcement!

“So, they send a mage and a foreigner to explain themselves,” Jarl Korir sneered. “Typical. The College has never cared about our village, and now this happens.”

Jackie felt her stomach flip. Everyone was staring at them now.

She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry, sir. And the College is sorry, too. The Master Wizard just thought that you deserved an explanation…”

The Jarl scoffed. “Damn right, we do!” he said, his heavy Nord accent adding to his indignation. “That College is no good, I’ve always said. So, what does your Master Wizard have to say for himself?”

Jackie tried and failed to let the comment slide. “The master Wizard is a woman,” she corrected before she could stop herself. “And she sent us to explain to you what is going on right now.”

“Man, woman, I don’t care,” the jarl said, curling his lip. “So, spit it out. What did you come here to say?”

Jackie looked over at Onmund, who gave her only a shrug. He obviously wasn’t going to help her out here. Alright, then—she guessed she really was going to be doing all the talking. She took a breath, remembering what Mirabelle had told her to say. “Yesterday, someone activated an unstable magical object without permission. The creatures that attacked your village weren’t summoned on purpose, and the College is willing to pay for any damage they caused.”

The jarl did not look impressed. “And you’re here to bring us this compensation.”

“Well, no,” she said uncomfortably. “Right now we’re just, just assessing the damage. And also…” –oh boy, he was not going to take this next part well— “There’s a chance that everyone in the village might have to. Um. Evacuate.”

That sent the longhouse into an uproar. A few people gasped and invoked the Nine, and others actually yelled. Jackie cringed when the jarl stood up straight out of his seat. “What?!”

With Onmund at her back, staff at the ready, she felt a little safer… though she was pretty sure that Mirabelle would be extremely unhappy if they killed everyone in Winterhold. She mustered all the confidence she could and continued: “Yes. The magical creatures who attacked yesterday aren’t the only concern. There’s a… barrier. It’s dangerous and no one can touch it. It’s getting bigger every hour—”

“Silence!” the jarl growled. Jackie suddenly felt the urge to grab her dagger, but resisted—that was probably just Bradas rubbing off on her. “First the magic from your college turns on us, and now you say we have to leave our village?” he asked incredulously. There were a few hollers from the crowd, as if to punctuate his point.

Jackie looked nervously at Onmund, who was fiddling with his magic staff. The crowd was starting to get agitated, and so was she. Would these people actually attack them just for delivering the message?

“I’m sorry, my jarl, but that’s what I was sent here to tell you,” she said calmly, diplomatically. “It’s a fair warning—”

“Fair warning? I hardly think so!” the jarl interrupted. “This is an outrage!”

“Are you kidding me?” she asked. He did not look happy at her tone, but she swallowed and barreled on: “What’s an outrage is that our Arch Mage is dead and none of you people helped us yesterday!”

The jarl seemed to miss a beat at learning the new information. “I am sorry about your Arch Mage,” he said, “but we have no obligation to the College.”

She stamped her foot. “The students from the college eat and drink at your tavern, shop at your stores, and you didn’t lift a finger to help us.” She was beginning to get legitimately angry now, the more she thought about it. “There was an explosion yesterday, and you didn’t even send anyone to check.”

“And why should we?” Korir said.

“He’s right,” said a townsperson. “What does the college do for us?”

“We don’t owe them anything!”

“The college is the reason for the Great Collapse!” another said. The room began to get loud again, and the jarl sat back down and crossed his arms, like he was content to let the people of Winterhold make his argument for him.

Jackie shook her head—she didn’t know much about the Great Collapse, aside from the fact that it was highly unlikely anyone in this room was even alive when it happened. At this point though, she’d learned that Nords acted like whatever happened to their ancestors acted like it happened directly to them—if a Nord stubbed his toe a thousand years ago, his descendants would probably sing songs about it.

Onmund shifted uncomfortably behind her like he wanted to go, which was completely understandable. Jackie held up a finger for just one more minute and approached the jarl at his chair.

“Like I said, you might have to evacuate Winterhold. You don’t like it, but it’s the truth. But remember this,” she said, voice barely audible over the roar of the crowd. “No one comes through here except people on College business. Your only outside income comes from members of the school, so think hard before you throw them away.”

She turned away and marched out of the longhouse before he could react, Onmund trailing behind her. It was hard not to stomp around in the snow, now that she was all worked up and ready to scream at someone.

No wonder Bradas wanted to kill someone all the time!

“Ugh,” she finally articulated, disgusted. Her head was beginning to hurt again, and she didn’t know if it was from her injuries or because she was so angry. It was just the cherry on top of a terrible situation.

“That… could have gone worse?” Onmund said.

Jackie managed a laugh, even as angry as she was. “Can’t force people to save themselves!” she huffed. “Come on. Let’s get back.”

.

.

About halfway back to their destination, it began to snow. Hard.

“Is this a blizzard?” Jackie asked, surprised. She squinted her eyes, unable to see further than five yards ahead. The weather here could be unpredictable, but Jackie was sure she’d never seen a storm come on so quickly.

“It looks like it,” her companion said. “But it… I don’t think it’s a natural storm…”

“It’s the Eye,” Jackie realized.

“Yes. It must be getting bigger,” Onmund said, having to raise his voice over the howling wind. “We’d better get going!”

“Hang on! Wait!” a voice called, causing them to stop, turn around, and squint their eyes. Two people were following them, making their way through the blizzard to reach them. Jackie waved so they could see her a little better.

“Over here!” she yelled. It turned out that the people following them were villagers from Winterhold—a man and a woman, dressed in battle armor and heavy coats. As they came closer, Jackie realized that it was Dagur and Haran—the owners of the tavern.

“We heard what you said to the jarl back there,” said Haran. “We wanted to see what we could do to help—especially when the storm started.”

Jackie felt her heart grow a lot lighter. “Yes! Please come with us,” she replied.

.

.

By the time they got up the steps, all were dismayed to see that the barrier surrounding The Hall of Elements had grown to swallow up the entire courtyard.

“Christ,” Jackie muttered. Her elation at having a couple people join in to help was almost stamped out by the sight of every member of the college standing outside of the ever-growing vortex, shaking from the cold.

“By the Nine!” Dagur exclaimed. “We had no idea things had gotten this bad!”

Jackie couldn’t even reply without fear of the wind taking her breath away. She could see a little better now that she was standing in the shelter of the college, but the bitter-cold wind was still just as terrible. She could make out the outline of Tolfdir sprinting toward her.

“Jackie and Onmund! You’ve returned with a few extra people,” he said.

“Dagur and Haran from Winterhold,” she confirmed, teeth chattering. “They want to help.”

“Good, good! Talk to Mirabelle, will you? She’ll be glad for the extra hands. She has a plan,” the old man told her. Jackie left the group to find the Master Wizard, who wasn’t too far away—the great barrier didn’t leave a lot of room for people to move around.

Mirabelle was wrapped up in a big coat, hand resting on a staff. She was staring at the barrier, and there were dark bags under her eyes. “What’s going on?” Jackie asked.

The woman turned to Jackie. “I saw that you brought a few people back with you. They want to help?” she asked.

She nodded. “You have a plan?”

The Master Wizard sighed. “I do, but it’s not a good one,” she admitted. “We’re getting desperate. The ward is growing larger as we speak, and if we don’t stop it I’m afraid it will destroy Winterhold.”

“What were you thinking?”

“I can, perhaps, create a hole in the barrier for a very short time,” Mirabelle replied. “I could only hold it long enough to get a few people in.”

Jackie frowned. “Then what?”

“We kill Ancano,” she said gravely.

She hated it… but Jackie could see the logic in it. At this point, it even seemed inevitable. “If we kill him, the spell he’s casting will break, right?”

Mirabelle gripped her staff tighter. “That’s the problem. Sometimes powerful spells take on a life of their own, and even with Ancano dead it may still continue on its course.” She sighed. “I told you it wasn’t a good plan. But it’s all we have.”

It almost felt as though Mirabelle was running the plan by her to see what her opinion was. “I just… I don’t know. I don’t know anything about magic,” Jackie said helplessly. “But if you do open up a hole in the barrier, I’ll do whatever I can to help you.”

The Master Wizard nodded. “Alright. I’m going to do it. I want you with us when we go through,” she said.

Jackie nodded her agreement, heart pounding.

***

Jackie stood with a group of students and the recruits from Winterhold, shaking from the cold and her nerves. Mirabelle was getting ready to punch a hole through the barrier, and all the rest of them could only hope that it wouldn’t backfire horribly. The woman in question was currently uncorking what looked like a powerful magicka potion.

A Khajiit named J’zargo stood next to Jackie, his fur fluttering in the wind. “The magicka required for something like this is quite vast,” he said to her casually. “J’zargo will be surprised if she can actually do it.”

Mirabelle, who apparently had super-hearing, shot a dirty look in their direction.

J’zargo is going to be in trouble if he doesn’t keep his mouth shut, Jackie thought, stomach churning from nervousness. She wished that Bradas were here—she would have felt so much better if he was with them.

Swallowing her fear, she gripped her dagger and watched as the Master Wizard did her work.

It turned out that Mirabelle wasn’t called ‘Master Wizard’ for no reason. Jackie watched, speechless, as the mage raised her staff and her free arm toward the whirling vortex. She almost looked like she was glowing with power as she stepped toward the barrier and tapped on it, almost gently, with the staff.

Like melting snow, a gap formed and opened up, just big enough for someone to duck through. Immediately, the students volunteering to fight began to file in to the other side. Haran and Dagur went ahead of Jackie, who was the second-to-last to run in. She turned around to watch as Mirabelle gracefully slid through behind them.

She released her spell and the gap sealed up instantly, with a sound like a pop punctuating its close. It was eerily quiet inside the barrier without the noise of wind and snow bombarding their ears.

“Alright,” Mirabelle panted, looking pale. “Remember now, we are no longer in class. I don’t want you to risk your lives unnecessarily, but Ancano must be stopped. Is that understood?”

Everyone nodded grimly.

“Good,” she said. “Now everyone, go.”

***

Everything started out completely quiet. All Jackie could hear was the sound of everyone’s footsteps, but it was like listening to a television with the volume turned down. The barrier sealed in sound completely, like they were in a vacuum.

That was when the magical anomalies struck. They looked like little fairy wisps to Jackie, but they bit like rabid dogs. The courtyard erupted into shouting and magic—lightning, fire, and ice flew around so sporadically that Jackie had to work to avoid friendly fire. She slashed and hacked her way through a couple of the little monsters with her dagger. They were moving so fast, though, and a couple of them got in some really nasty bites before the fight was over.

“Were these what attacked the village yesterday?” Jackie asked as soon as the creatures got under control. She knelt over to see if there was anything to harvest from it and came up empty. The creatures left nothing but bite marks. She knew her arms were bleeding, but resolutely ignored them. They’d hurt worse if she looked.

“They swarmed the whole village,” Haran told her, brushing off a piece of magical ice that had landed on her coat.

“Everyone come here, now,” Mirabelle said, her voice echoing in the courtyard. They gathered around her, standing on the steps to the building. “I’m going to go in first,” she told them. “I’m going to talk to Ancano, see if he’ll listen to reason—”

“With all due respect, Master Wizard, that doesn’t seem like a good idea,” said a Dunmer girl. “I mean… What if he kills you in there?”

Mirabelle sighed. “Ancano has been with us for over a year now. He is… he was, one of my colleagues. Perhaps he’ll listen to reason. And if he doesn’t… well.” She gave a weak smile. “I’ll do my best to kill him before he causes more damage.” She turned to open the doors to the Hall of Elements.

“Wait, Mirabelle,” Jackie found herself piping up. “You shouldn’t go alone.” She sheathed her dagger and hopped up the steps to join her. “Ancano’s a friend, or he was, kind of.”

Mirabelle looked weary. “Alright.” She regarded the rest of the group. “The rest of you, stay alert. If we don’t come out soon, it means we’re probably dead.”

.

.

Ancano was not willing to listen to one word either of them had to say.

He didn’t even let them speak. Mirabelle had approached him, hands out to show she wasn’t a threat. She said his name and he gave her a cold, dead-eyed look before waving a lazy hand in her direction. Lighting, unnaturally powerful, rushed from his fingertips and lit up the room. The Breton was down in an instant, letting out a low, pained moan.

Jackie heard herself gasp, feeling a painful surge of static. She was close enough to Mirabelle to reach out and catch her clumsily. She hauled up the limp woman with one arm and adrenaline must have taken care of the rest, because before she knew what she was doing, she found herself stumbling back outside with the mage in her arms.

Without warning, the magical creatures returned in full force. Rather than fight, Jackie held on tighter to Mirabelle, hoping she was still alive. Haran and Dagur saw her, and in a moment of brilliant synchronization, ran toward her to help her carry the dying mage.

“What happened?” Dagur exclaimed, easily lifting the limp Master Wizard into his arms.

“He’s way too powerful, he hit her with a lightning spell,” Jackie rambled. “We’ve got to get out of here. There’s no way—” Before she could finish her sentence, she saw the barrier begin to open up again. Jackie decided that she wasn’t going to analyze it, just thank her lucky stars and run.

“Go, go!” she cried, running alongside Dagur as Haran swiped at the magical creatures with her broadsword.

.

.

It turned out that the barrier had not only opened up; it had disappeared completely. Jackie ushered Dagur into the Hall of Elements, and let him place Mirabelle onto her bed. She couldn’t remember where she slept normally, and Jackie was too panicked to even try to figure it out.

“What happened to her?” Haran asked as Jackie tore off the lid to the barrel where she stored extra potions.

“Struck by a lightning spell,” she said, fingers shaking as she gathered up health potions and dumped them out by the side of the bed. She placed her finger onto Mirabelle’s neck and felt for a pulse. “I’m too shaky for this,” she admitted, and Haran helpfully replaced her.

“There’s a pulse, but it’s faint,” she informed her.

“Can we, can we give her a health potion?” Jackie asked.

“Maybe. Where did the spell strike?” she asked calmly.

“Her upper-body, I think,” Jackie said, confused.

Haran shook her head. “Not yet. Dagur, leave us,” she said. Her husband nodded and ducked out of the room.

“I’ll see if I can help outside,” he said, and shut the door behind him. With the calm of a veteran nurse, the other woman peeled off Mirabelle’s coat. “I’m going to undress her. I’ll need your most powerful health potion, and then a stamina potion if you have one.”

Jackie wondered silently if Haran had been a soldier or a nurse before she was the wife of an innkeeper. Now wasn’t the time to ask questions, though, so she did as she was told as quickly as she could. Haran stripped Mirabelle out of her shirt to reveal a gnarly-looking burn from the lightning spell right in the middle of her chest. It looked incredibly painful, and Jackie shuddered to even imagine how much it hurt.

“Feel for a pulse again,” Haran said, taking a health potion and pouring it over the wound.

Calmer now, Jackie placed her fingers on Mirabelle’s throat and waited. “I don’t feel anything…” she said. Mirabelle didn’t seem to be breathing anymore, either.

The other woman wasn’t disturbed by the news. “Don’t lose hope,” she said, gently blotting potion onto Mirabelle’s pallid, damaged flesh. With tears in threatening to fall, Jackie watched as the skin patched itself together. “Lightning stops the heart. But we can start it again.”

Once the skin on her chest was healed enough, Haran pressed her hands on Mirabelle’s chest and began what Jackie recognized as a version of CPR. She watched, tears falling freely now, hoping for a miracle.

… And then Mirabelle gasped and sputtered, and her eyes fluttered open.

“The stamina potion!” Haran yelled, and Jackie practically shoved the elixir into Mirabelle’s face. Thankfully, the mage took it without question. She was swallowing with some difficulty, but getting it all the same.

“Come on, Mirabelle,” she implored, throwing the glass aside and producing another healing potion. She let Mirabelle slump down back onto the bed, but only after making sure she swallowed every drop. The mage was breathing heavily and wheezing, but she was alive and her heart was beating strong.

“Thank Talos,” Haran breathed, falling to her knees to sit next to Jackie on the floor. “I didn’t know if that would work or not.”

Jackie couldn’t help it; she began to laugh. It bubbled up from inside her chest and poured out of her uncontrollably. Mirabelle groaned miserably from above, but she couldn’t stop.

“You’re absolutely insane,” Mirabelle muttered. Jackie wiped her tears and sat up to look at her.

“Mirabelle, you’re alive!” she cried, grabbing the Breton’s hand and squeezing. Mirabelle was nonplussed about it, apparently, and closed her eyes.

“I’d just like to know why I’m half naked,” she croaked, her voice hoarse from her rough medical treatment. Jackie snorted and laughed until she cried some more.

Chapter Text

It turned out that the barrier lowering was Bradas’ work. Jackie wondered if she’d run past him earlier without noticing. It was entirely possible; once Mirabelle had been struck by lightning, adrenaline had narrowed her vision and left her unable to focus on anything else.

Distracted as she was, as soon as someone yelled that the Dragonborn had returned, she had to see him… and warn him that Ancano was overpowered and willing to kill indiscriminately.

“Will she be okay?” Jackie asked Haran.

“I’ll tend to her. Go,” the Nord said, and Jackie was out the door. She ran, faster than she thought she was capable of, and threw open the doors to the Hall of Elements.

The room was filled to the brim with biting, gnawing magical anomalies. They attacked pretty much the moment she stepped inside, so she had to enter the room swinging.

God, but she was sick of these things! One of them was making its merry way toward Bradas, who had a staff in one hand and was casting fire with the other. She bolted toward it and happily stabbed into it.

“Jackie!” Bradas exclaimed, eyes wide with surprise. “Look out!”

She ducked—she didn’t know what from, but she did it anyway—and wound up dodging a stray lightning bolt. Ancano had evidently stopped whatever he was doing with the Eye of Magnus and turned his full attention to killing them.

“You! How dare you interrupt!” he bellowed, eyes wild. Jackie was at once confused and terrified to see the Altmer come at them with his fists, of all things, and staggered back. What was he doing? No dagger, no sword or magic? It was so disconcerting it actually scared her.

And she was right to be fearful. Bradas used his thu’um on Ancano, and it had almost no effect. The Altmer was filled to the brim with power. Surely it was connected to the Eye of Magnus, which seemed to fill the room with a strong static charge. It felt like lightning was striking right to her.

The next few moments happened so quickly that Jackie barely had time to process it all. Bradas cast spells through the Staff of Magnus, and actually used it to physically strike Ancano when he came too close. Magical anomalies swarmed the room, but Jackie ignored them in favor of attacking the Altmer, who seemed impervious to blade or spell.

One more shout—“FUS RO DAH!” and Ancano was forced back, finally, like he should have been the first time. Bradas was upon him in an instant, and did not hesitate to bring a dagger down through his chest.

Ancano gasped once, twice… and was no more.

Jackie didn’t remember kneeling down, but for some reason she found herself on her knees, panting to catch her breath. Bradas was a beautiful and terrible sight—bruised, ferocious, and covered in Ancano’s blood. For one awful moment she was just so happy that he’d killed their enemy and made it out alive, it was all she could do not to cry.

But suddenly, she couldn’t stand to look. She got to her feet and staggered outside.

.

.

She was just too tired to feel sad—she knew that later, when everything had settled, it would probably sneak up on her. For now, though, she allowed herself to lean on the cold stone outside and watch as everyone came out to the courtyard.

Everything seemed busy now, rather than frantic. Most of the students and a few villagers from Winterhold were already volunteering to help clean up the damage. Jackie heard the doors open and turned her head to look; her Dunmer had finally come outside to see her. She gave him a small, tired smile.

“Bradas,” she breathed. He looked exhausted, but he was a sweet sight for sore eyes. If she hadn’t been so tired, she would have hugged him—as it was, she was saving her energy for the walk back to bed.

“Jackie,” he replied, sounding like he was about to take a nap. He looked down at her upper body. “There’s blood all over your shirt.”

She looked down. Her sleeves were stiff with drying blood, and she remembered that her arms were supposed to be hurting. She’d forgotten all about her injuries when Mirabelle had been struck by lightning. “Well, what do you know,” she grimaced, beginning to feel the pain all over again. “How was Labyrinthian?”

He tapped his fingers on a staff that she was just now noticing. “I got what I came for. And now it’s over,” he sighed.

“Come on, you should rest,” she said.

“No arguments from me,” he murmured, extending his arm. She leaned under it and wrapped an arm around his waist to help support him. She gave him a quick squeeze and looked up.

“Glad you’re back,” she told him softly. He was back. He was safe.

He let her lead the way back into the dorms. “What is the Master Wizard doing in your bed?” he asked.

“I’ll be getting out of your way as soon as possible, don’t you worry,” Mirabelle snarked. The woman had been too tired to get out of bed herself, and Jackie was all too happy to let her recover for a while before kicking her out.

Jackie let Bradas fall into the covers and he promptly passed out. “Just relax,” Jackie murmured. She sat down on the bed next to the Dunmer, light-headed from adrenaline and relief. She was careful not to disturb his already-snoozing form. She graciously ignored the obnoxious, knowing smile Mirabelle gave her from her bed.

.

.

The days that followed Bradas’ fight with Ancano rushed by in a blur. The Eye of Magnus disappeared with the Psijic Order, and the Hall of Elements felt as though someone had opened a window and let in fresh air. There had been a heaviness in the room that no one had noticed until it was gone.

Classes were cancelled for the next few days so that all the students and the campus could recover, and subsequently parties were thrown almost every night. It seemed like the college was in a state of constant celebration, which sort of reminded Jackie of her short time in community college.

Jackie’s head healed over the next few days, and she watched as her Dunmer companion recovered as well. She couldn’t deny how grateful she was that it was all over, but things still felt different. Her heart was heavy from the loss of the Arch Mage… and the loss of Ancano, as well.

They hadn’t really been friends, but still… she felt as though they could have been, had things been different. It was for this reason, she supposed, that she was allowed to inspect his room before his things were cleared out and given away. Tolfdir had told her that the room was going to be cleaned out anyway, and that she was welcome to see if there was anything in there that could be useful to her.

Jackie hadn’t wanted to at first—she didn’t like rifling through the belongings of strangers, and she sure as heck didn’t want to do that to someone she’d known personally. But then it occurred to her that someone needed to sort through his things and see if there was anyone to send them to… and if she didn’t do it, no one would.

When Bradas asked why she was going to the trouble, she explained: “He might have family, or a friend who cared about him. They’ll want to have his stuff.”

Bradas blinked at her from across the dorm room, like it hadn’t even occurred to him. “That’s… very kind of you,” he said after a few moments. “Would you like help?”

She shrugged. “No, I can do it. Thanks, though.” She grinned. “Don’t you have an important appointment with Mirabelle, anyway?”

“Oh yes,” the Dunmer sighed. “I have a feeling I know what it’s about.”

“Have fun,” she teased. He scoffed and promised her a drink at the tavern if they got done before it was too dark.

***

Ancano’s room was tucked away in the depths of the Hall of Attainment, down the stairs and spaced out away from the other faculty rooms. It made sense, she thought—Ancano had seemed like a private person.

Well, now that she thought about it, that was most likely because he’d been a spy.

She placed the key into the doorknob and twisted, feeling a little guilty for making this trip. There was no denying at this point that the Altmer hadn’t been very kind, but it was sad that she—a person who he had barely known—was the only person who cared to go through his things after he died.

Steeling herself, she entered the room. It was very, very sparse. There was just a bed, hastily made, and a desk that looked a little messy. Besides that, there was a dresser filled with what she assumed were Aldmeri Dominion uniforms. She wasn’t very interested in those, so she closed the closet and let them be.

The desk, however, was a different story. It seemed that there had once been some kind of order to the chaos of his papers, but he’d obviously abandoned his system over the past few weeks. In one drawer she found a few journals. If she’d been more proficient with reading the language, she’d have skimmed over all of them. Instead, she picked up what looked to be the latest one.

She opened up the leather-bound book and studied the pages. He seemed to prefer very short sentences, straight-forward descriptions of the day. Each entry was separated by time and date. Slowly, she read what she could.

 

… The Arch Mage continues his daily schedule, very little variation as usual…

… Master Wizard Ervine got a visit from outsiders. More information to follow…

… a few new students today. Likely not anyone of import, more information to follow.

… The Dragonborn is here, evidently as a student. He’s a Dunmer, like the rumors say. Surprising.

… A large orb has been brought to the college, sits in the middle of the Hall of Elements. Will investigate further.

… The Dragonborn has a female companion. She seems willing to talk. Tonight I’m taking her to the village and buying her a drink; could be a possible asset.

 

Jackie had to stop reading at that. Asset. She tried not to let it sting, because… well, a part of her had sort of figured that he wouldn’t hang out with her for no reason. Still, it didn’t feel good to be referred to as an “asset.”

She took a breath, flipped a few pages, and continued reading:

 

… The orb is still here. The longer it sits and spins, the more I can feel its power. They are calling it the Eye of Magnus.

Magicka is everywhere, magnified like I’ve never felt. I know it’s the Eye, I’ve been dreaming of it, when I can sleep. Last night I woke up and felt drawn to it, like I needed to be close to it…

… I know what I must do. The answer came to me in a dream...

 

Jackie sighed and gently shut the journal. She knew that the Eye had somehow driven Ancano mad, but she didn’t want to read it first-hand. It felt wrong, and she regretted giving in to curiosity.

She placed the journal back onto the desk, and picked up what looked like a letter. All it had were instructions, no expressions of friendship or love… just like a memo from employee to employee. She sifted through the letters, slowly and painstakingly. She realized, with a heavy heart, that Ancano had no one. The only correspondence he’d kept was with other members of his order.

She sighed and shuffled the papers into a neat stack on the desk.

What to do with all of these things?

Jackie supposed she’d give the letters to Mirabelle. Ancano had been spying on the College, after all; the new Arch Mage would deserve to know what had been said about them. As for the personal journals…

She really wasn’t sure what to do with them. She suddenly felt like an intruder—what right did she have to be in here? Ancano hadn’t really been her friend, had he? He’d been terrible, near the end, and had almost killed Mirabelle. Was it weird, how sad she felt?

Ancano didn’t have any friends. No family, no lovers… Jackie couldn’t help but feel like that was incredibly sad and unfair.

She took a shuddering breath and wiped her eyes. She’d come down here to figure out what to do with Ancano’s stuff, not to sit and cry. She stood up and gathered the journals. She wrote down the name and address of the colleague that Ancano wrote to the most, and wrote a short letter to them explaining what had happened to him.

She’d send the personal stuff to this person, and the college could do whatever they saw fit with the rest.

Jackie double-checked and made sure she’d gotten everything, and left the room with the door open.

.

.

Bradas had been correct when he guessed what Mirabelle Ervine wanted to speak with him about.

When he reached the office of the Arch Mage—the very same one that Savos Aren used—she asked him to act as her Master Wizard. And as kind as the offer was… he turned her down. That position would require him to settle down in Winterhold, which was something he didn’t want to do. And as reluctant as Tolfdir was to take on the position, the older man was still a better fit.

Besides, after recovering from the rushed trip to and from Labyrinthian and his fight with Ancano, he was feeling restless.

He’d enjoyed his time at the College, at least as much as one could during a crisis. He’d accomplished the goal he’d had when he first arrived in Skyrim. He knew that his mother had once dreamed that he’d come here and learn, and now that her wish was fulfilled, he was ready to move on.

He was ready to get back on the road, perhaps travel a little more. Even before the celebrations had really died down, he found himself daydreaming about going somewhere warmer. Down South, perhaps, or to the East.

Jackie, though, seemed happy. She’d made friends with the new Arch Mage—probably because, despite her claims to the contrary, she’d helped save Mirabelle’s life. He wondered if she would prefer to stay in Winterhold. If he left, would she choose to go with him?

He didn’t like the thought. Seeing her injured and having to leave her behind had been… beyond difficult. If he’d known months ago that he’d grow so hopelessly attached to her, he never would have taken her out of Whiterun.

Rather than really enjoy this rare moment of peace after a terrible ordeal, he could only focus on what a mess he’d gotten himself into. If Jackie did want to… settle down in Winterhold (Azura forbid), would he even be able to leave her behind?

Oh, Daedra help him, he did not want to live in Winterhold. Just the fact that he was even thinking about it disgusted him.

He was sitting on his bed with a book on Conjuration, staring blankly at the page and dreading imaginary futures. Jackie was in her bed under the covers, and he slowly began to realize that she was watching him.

“Are you awake?” he asked, sliding his eyes to look at her. She blinked a few times, seeming to break the spell of anxiety he’d found himself under. He grinned. “Are you staring at me?”

She scoffed. “You haven’t turned the page in like, fifteen minutes.”

“How long have you been watching?”

She wiggled her eyebrows. “Long enough,” she teased. “What’s on your mind?”

He shut the book and set it aside. “Winterhold is… perhaps… not for me.”

“Well, it’s not like we have any major obligations here,” she said. He blinked a few times. Did that mean…? “Where are we going next?”

And just like that, his worries disappeared. Jackie was going with him, and she’d just said it like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Chapter Text

The next day, they spread the map out on the floor of their dorm in an attempt to decide what they should do next. Jackie sat on the floor across from him, chin in hand, studying the map carefully. She then informed him that she actually still couldn’t read maps.

“You’re ridiculous,” he grumbled, and turned the map so that he could look at it at the angle he wanted. “I was thinking somewhere… warmer,” said Bradas. He placed a finger on a location. “Here?”

She leaned over and took a second to sound out the word. “Rif. Ten.” Her eyes widened. “Riften? Um, why?”

“Why not?”

“Of all the places we’ve been to, you pick Riften?” she asked with a laugh. “Okay, how about…” she searched for the letters she was looking for on the map. Her finger lightly traced the map. “Sol-i-tude,” she read, using her fingernail to tap the little word.

“It’s far,” he said, tracing the trail of her finger with his eye.

She frowned. “It is, isn’t it? We can figure out something else.” Her eyes lit up. “We can literally go anywhere.”

“We’ll reach Solitude in time, if that’s where you’d like to go,” he said with a grin. “No matter where we travel, I’ll be happy to get away from all this snow.”

.

.

The thing about getting away from the cold weather was that you had to travel through it first. Bradas and Jackie were not strangers to travelling through the snow, but that didn’t mean they liked it. A few miserable nights were spent in the freezing cold, taking shifts to keep watch over a fire. Worse yet, Bradas seemed to have a renewed love for exploring dank, damp caves, which definitely slowed them down on their journey toward Riften.

After one such cave, they emerged to a dimming evening sky. Rather than continue on in the cold, they decided to make camp right outside the entrance. Bradas lit a fire with the wave of his hand.

“That’s always a neat trick,” Jackie remarked as she fed the flames with dry wood.

“You still haven’t had any luck with magic, have you?” Bradas said, suddenly remembering that he’d once tried to train her to cast fire spells. He’d mostly forgotten about it once she’d begun making progress with the dagger.

“I really haven’t,” she sighed. “Too bad, too. Seven-year old me would have been really happy.”

That brought a smile to his face. “You wanted to do magic when you were a girl?” His mind conjured up endearing images of a young Jackie trying to cast spells.

She scoffed. “I think everyone wants to be magical when they’re kids.”

“That’s true for me, though I’m not sure about everyone,” he said, thinking of many of the Nords he’d encountered.

“Well, you actually are magical,” she said, rubbing her hands by the fire.

“Why, I am, aren’t I?” he answered with a smug grin.

She rolled her eyes and bumped his shoulder with hers. “I mean you can do magic, you jerk. That’s pretty cool.”

“Perhaps you can learn how to enchant,” he said. “You seemed to know how that Dwarven Centurion worked, a few weeks ago. I’ve been meaning to ask you about it.”

She tilted her head. “Ask me about what?”

“You recognized the machines in Mzulft. You called them robots.”

“Oh!” she exclaimed softly, like she was surprised that he remembered. “Yeah. We’ve been so busy that I forgot to tell you about it… huh, where do I start?”

“You have things like that in your world?” he asked carefully, remembering a time that mentioning home to her would cast a shadow across her face. It was still there, that melancholy, but he was glad to see that it had lightened a bit.

“Yeah, we do… kind of. It doesn’t have anything to do with enchanting, though,” she said, placing her hand under her chin. “How would I describe it? It’s so… different from here. I’m worried that I’ll try to explain and you’ll think I’m crazy.”

“It can’t imagine it’s that different,” he laughed. “What machines do you have? How do you bring them to life, if they’re not enchanted?”

“Hmm. Well we have cars, for one thing. They run on gas and electricity, no magic needed.” She sighed wistfully. “If we had a car, we could skip all this walking. You just get in and speed to wherever you want to go.”

He raised an eyebrow. “It sounds like a carriage.”

That drew a laugh from her. “Way better than a carriage! Think about it like this. We only have about another day’s journey to Riften, right?”

“That’s right.”

“If we had a car, we could get there in less than an hour.”

He scoffed. “I don’t know if I believe that.”

“It’s true! Also, we’d have a heater. Which means we wouldn’t be freezing all the time.”

“A heater,” he repeated.

“Yeah, a…” Jackie waved her hands. “I actually don’t really know how they work? But they make your car warm without any fire,” she explained.

He wasn’t sure he believed her that it all worked without magic. “They must be very rare,” he guessed. “Such a machine would be dangerous.”

“Not rare at all. I used to have one before… Oh, I forgot all about it,” she gasped. “I wonder what happened with my car now that I’m gone.”

“You had one?” he asked incredulously. He tried to imagine her climbing into a machine that ran around at dangerous speeds. “How did you control it?”

“Um, a… wheel? I’m not a mechanic, I really couldn’t explain it to you…”

That was the beginning of a long, slightly frustrating conversation. By the time they were ready to fall asleep, Bradas had concluded that she was far better off without dangerous ‘cars’ zipping around and causing havoc.

.

.

Jackie wasn’t the greatest fan of Riften, but she was extremely happy to be in a city again. They had more than enough money for supplies and a week’s stay at the Bee and Barb, and once they sold all their extra junk they’d have even more.

“Mmm, a bed!” she sighed happily as she locked up some of her valuables. She was going to enjoy that tonight. She slumped down onto her single straw mattress, enjoying the warmth of the room.

There were two small beds in the room, but at this point they had no issues with sharing. She was just glad that they didn’t get the same rooms as last time—that would surely have been a bad omen.

She put the thought out of her mind and nestled down into the covers. She dozed off a little until she felt Bradas shaking her shoulder to wake her up.

“Shall we head down to the bar for a drink?” he asked.

She sat up, drowsy. “Sure, why not?”

***

They ate dinner and got a full night’s rest. Their slumber was, thankfully, abduction-free. Jackie woke that morning and dressed before peering over Bradas’ sleeping form.

“Bradas?” she said gently. He didn’t react—nothing but a soft snore. The elf was probably going to sleep for as long as he possibly could, she supposed.

She took the opportunity to go to the market and sell some things she didn’t need. She headed back to the Bee and Barb with her coin purse a little heavier.

“Hello, sera,” a voice seemed to come from the blue. Jackie whirled around to find it. She was surprised to see a Dunmer elf, tall and rugged, leaning on the side of the building. Her mind flashed to several after-school specials she’d seen where the drug dealer came out of the alley to tempt kids into trying ‘dope.’

“Hello…” she replied, crossing her arms over her chest, protecting where her pocket of money was.

“You look like a lady who’d be interested in a discount,” he drawled. She couldn’t help but laugh a little—it really was like an anti-drug PSA.

“I’m fine, thanks,” she said graciously.

“You wouldn’t even want some of the famous Black-Briar Mead?”

“It’s little early for cheap mead, isn’t it?”

“No, no friend, you’ve got it all wrong. I’m selling good mead for cheap… Black-Briar mead. I sell cases of it for half of what the inns and taverns pay through the meadery.”

“Sounds illegal,” she remarked.

“Does that bother you?” he asked.

“I just wouldn’t go telling everyone about it,” she replied, a smile quirking at her lips unbidden.

“I only tell charming girls I find outside the tavern,” he said. She scoffed and felt her face flush. He went on: “Charming, capable young ladies who might have need of an odd-job or two.”

She floundered for a second. “Ah, um, job?”

“All I’d need is someone to deliver the mead to a friend for me. If anyone saw me leaving Riften, they’d get suspicious. But you’re a newcomer, aren’t you? You can come and go without anyone giving you a second thought.”

Oh, now Jackie could see it for what it was—he was trying to charm her into helping him out. “I think septims will get you a little further than flattery will,” she said, cursing her red cheeks. She was still flattered, dang it. But she definitely wasn’t going to consider any ‘odd jobs’ unless she was getting paid.

The elf seemed to approve. “Smart girl. My name is Romlyn Dreth—I work at Black-Briar Meadery just down the road.”

“I’m Jackie Carson,” she greeted. “You really are running a racket, aren’t you? You steal beer from work?”

“Mead, not beer,” he replied, mock-offended. “You’ve never had Black-Briar mead, have you?

“I… don’t think so,” she admitted. “It’s all the same to me.”

He drew back in exaggerated horror. “We must remedy that, mustn’t we?”

“Oh, um, maybe another time,” she said, voice coming out a little squeaky. “Um, you said you wanted a delivery though, right?”

“That’s right,” he said, his body language easy. “You’d take the barrel out to the fishery. My contact will give you something in exchange. You can keep it, in exchange for doing the legwork,” he explained. “Does that sound like something you’d be interested in?”

“I’ll think about it…” she said, thinking that this was definitely a job she should bring Bradas into—just in case this was some kind of scam.

“Good. Let me know when you’re done. Maybe afterward the two of us can get a few drinks for ourselves,” he suggested, and she felt her cheeks burn anew.

“Ahahah, okay,” she stammered, turning away and marching back into the tavern.

***

“Sounds like an easy enough job for one person,” Bradas was murmuring, still lying in bed. His black hair was sprawled over his pillow, his eyes looking a little puffy from sleep. Kinda cute, Jackie thought—though he probably wouldn’t appreciate it very much if she said so.

“Did I mention he was, uh, very friendly?” Not that she hadn’t sort of enjoyed being flirted with—it had been a really long time. Still, one could never know.

“That is unusual for Riften,” he replied sleepily, not getting the point. “Just be careful. Don’t hesitate to kill anyone.”

“This is my life now,” Jackie sighed. “You’re not worried someone will try to kill me? Kidnap me?”

“You’re very strong and brave,” he grumbled, and she narrowed her eyes. “I have no doubt you can take care of yourself…”

“You’re going to be really sorry if I wind up dead in a ditch because you’re too lazy to get up.”

She saw the hint of a smile before he covered his face with the pillow. “Will I?”

.

.

It was later in the day when Bradas awoke with a vague memory of sending Jackie off alone to murder someone at the Fishery. Was that what they’d talked about? He’d been far too exhausted when she’d barged into his room to ask him to tag along.

He didn’t make good decisions when he was sleepy.

Thankfully, he found her out in the common room of the tavern with a bowl of stew and an apple. She was grinning from ear-to-ear as she showed him a little bag of jewels she’d gotten.

“What did you do to get that?” he asked, sitting at the table across from her.

“You don’t remember?”

“Just, ah, refresh my memory,” he hedged.

“I made an illegal booze delivery.” She paused, like she was just realizing something. “Like a bootlegger.”

“That’s what it was,” he sighed. “Good job. I get half the cut, I assume?”

“In your dreams,” she scoffed. He grinned and swiped her apple.

***

Bradas really didn’t think twice about it until later that evening. They’d spent the day outside, running errands and looking for jobs, so the whole thing was far from his mind. That evening, he and Jackie were sitting at a table in the Bee and Bard with a bottle of wine and dinner, discussing drinking games from her culture.

“‘Beer Pong’ sounds awful,” he said. “Why work so hard when you could just drink?”

“Just for fun. I like the one where you a movie and take a drink every time someone says a certain word,” she explained. He gave her a blank look, and she went on: “Okay. It’s like if we had to take a drink every time we heard ‘Age of Aggression.’”

“One could get very, very drunk if that were true,” he muttered. Just that moment, the bard began to sing the very song they hated. Jackie stifled her laughter with her hands.

Another voice he didn’t recognized interrupted them, and seemed to pop the little bubble they had created. “Jackie Carson?” it said, and he looked up to see a Dunmer elf with white hair standing by their table. The man didn’t seem to notice him at all, eyes focused squarely on Jackie.

Well, that was sort of alarming.

“Yes?” Jackie replied with a polite smile, eyes lighting up with recognition. That was a surprise. “Your name was Romlyn, right?”

“That’s right,” he said smoothly. His eyes finally flickered to Bradas. “And who is this?”

“My friend, Bradas Sarayn. He’s usually with me. Bradas, this is the guy I was telling you about earlier, with the mead delivery. Romlyn Dreth.”

Ah, he’d completely forgotten. “Well met, sera,” Dreth said. “I didn’t know you travelled with a Dunmer. How interesting.”

That struck Bradas as an odd thing to say, but perhaps it meant nothing. Or, the more cynical side of him supplied, perhaps the man was wondering if Jackie was interested in Dunmer men. Which—which was a train of thought that Bradas really didn’t want to follow.

“I thought I’d come over and offer to buy you a drink,” said Dreth, seeming not to notice any discomfort. “It’s the least I can do to repay you for your hard work.” Bradas wrinkled his nose as Jackie laughed, a little nervously.

“Sure, I’d love to,” she said. She turned to him. “I’ll be back in a little bit!” she informed him, and followed Romlyn Dreth to the bar. Bradas huffed a laugh, finding himself more amused than anything else.

He was oddly not bothered by it. He could admit that his feelings toward her were complicated, so it was a bit of a surprise when he wasn’t… somewhat jealous. Not that he’d expected to be… but, well.

He poured himself another drink of wine and paid only a little bit of attention to what his companion was doing at the bar. She had a bottle of mead in her hand, and her nose wrinkled when she took a sip. He couldn’t hear what she was talking about with the other Dunmer, but her eyes were lit up and she was obviously having a good time.

Was she flirting? Dreth certainly was.

Bradas found himself wondering if perhaps Jackie wasn’t entirely averse to relationships with other races besides human. She was from a distant land where there were only humans, so the idea would be very strange to her, wouldn’t it? They’d never talked about it—how would one bring up the subject, anyway?

It hadn’t been something he’d ever considered, himself. There was the occasional human-elf couple back home in Morrowind, but it wasn’t too common.

What did it matter? He wasn’t interested in humans like that, anyway.

He scoffed at himself. That was simply not true, was it? He looked over to where Jackie was again and felt his stomach drop when he noticed how close Romlyn was, almost close enough to whisper in her ear.

Ah, there was the jealousy he’d been expecting. Luckily, Jackie pulled away just when the other man got too close. She said something to him—and then, Azura bless her, she was walking back toward their table.

“Hey,” she said, sounding a bit breathless. “I’m done. Are you alright?”

“Yes, why?” he asked, frowning.

“You just look a bit more… I don’t know, broody than usual?” she said.

He scoffed. “I’m not brooding. I’m tired.”

“Me too! We should turn in.”

.

.

Jackie could officially say that she was off her game. She’d felt so awkward talking to a guy who was clearly interested in her that she’d needed an out. That ‘out’ just happened to be heavily implying that Bradas was her boyfriend when Romlyn got a little too close for comfort.

“How about you and I go someplace more private?” Romlyn had suggested, breath tickling her ear.

She’d blinked, smile freezing on her face. “Oh, ah, I really shouldn’t,” she’d replied, instinctively glancing over to where Bradas was sitting. Romlyn had nodded in… understanding?

“Ah, so he’s your lover then?” Jackie was a little embarrassed at the wording, but she knew how to recognize an opportunity when she got one. It’d be way easier to go along with it than to tell him the truth: she wasn’t interested in one-night stands with shady people who might possibly have venereal diseases she’d never heard of.

“Um, well…” she’d shrugged. It wasn’t exactly a confirmation, but it was enough for him to leave her alone.

She was well aware how weird it was, and she was hoping she’d be able to get away with it without having to tell Bradas at some point. He would surely tease her until she died.

Anyway, flirting in this world was… really weird, especially since she hadn’t dated in a long time. Even harmless flirting was a challenge.

The fact that Bradas had been grimacing in the corner the whole time hadn’t helped. She’d gotten the sense that he felt abandoned somehow, although he would never admit it.

What she didn’t expect was for him to ask why she’d bailed out on the guy once they got back to their room. “Why hide away in here? You seemed to be having a good time.” he remarked, sounding so casual that she almost wondered if she’d been wrong—maybe he hadn’t felt abandoned at all.

“I was just getting kind of tired,” she said, and she knew that he knew it was a lie as soon as it came out of her mouth.

“Really?” he drawled.

“No,” she scoffed, crawling under the covers of the bed and closing her eyes. She heard him lie down in his own bed, the mattress creaking in response to his weight. “I just. You know. I haven’t dated or anything in… like, an embarrassingly long time,” she confessed. “It was just awkward to let a guy buy me a drink and try to be funny or interesting. I just wasn’t into it.”

He didn’t reply for a second. She peeked over at him and see if he was asleep. “Dating,” he repeated, as if contemplating the term. “How long is, ah, ‘an embarrassingly long time?’” he finally asked, sounding like he was about to laugh.

“Oh, maybe almost a year?” she said, cheeks burning. Oh, God, was this really a good topic to discuss with Bradas? Was he going to tease her forever? “I mean, at least four months before I got dropped in Skyrim. And I certainly haven’t dated in the six or so months I’ve been here.”

He chuckled and she pulled the blankets over her head. He peered over at the lump of covers and felt the tips of his ears burn. Were they really talking about this? Before he could stop himself, he asked, “So you’re not fond of Romlyn Dreth?”

She poked her head out of the covers. “Not so much,” she admitted. “But I really like that Black-Briar mead.”

He couldn’t help the bark of laughter that bubbled up through his chest. “Is that what it would take to court you? Lots of mead?”

“Oh, I’m not that easy,” she laughed. “Although he does have access to a lot of mead… wait, should I go back out there? I can’t let him get away, what if he’s the one?”

“Don’t even joke,” he groaned through her laughter. “So is there any reason you didn’t court—date—before?”

She sighed, still smiling. He was relieved that the question hadn’t offended her. “Four months before I came here I was just getting out of a really serious relationship. Like… almost got engaged, serious.”

Engaged? Jackie? “What happened?”

“Oh, you know… we were together for a year, and things were really good until they just… weren’t, I guess,” she sighed. “He broke up with me because he wanted to see what else was out there. He said we were too young to really know, that we should experiment… I think he just wanted to see other people. Or he already was.”

“What?” Bradas sat up and narrowed his eyes. He imagined a slightly younger, jilted version of Jackie and it made his heart drop into his stomach. “You were nearly married and he ended it to…” To see other people? He threw Jackie away for some notion that he could do better?

“Oh no, we were more like… engaged-to-be-engaged,” she corrected. “It’s not a big deal! I ate tons of ice cream and cried a lot, but I did get over it,” she added with a reassuring smile.

“Good. He sounds like a fool,” he scoffed.

“You sound just like my sister,” she laughed. “Honestly, he did me a favor. I wouldn’t want to be with someone who wasn’t on the same page I am. And I mean… it feels like a lifetime ago. Even before I came here I was over it. I was even on Tinder.” She paused, “Um, Tinder is like… never mind. But I was open to dating.”

Before today, for some reason, he hadn’t ever even imagined Jackie as a person who had almost been married—or someone who’d had her heart broken.

“What about you?” she interrupted his thoughts. “Ever have any ladies you were interested in? Any, ah, marriage prospects?”

“Ah, no, no marriage prospects,” he scoffed, embarrassed. “Some dalliances, but I never considered marriage.”

“’Dalliances,’” she repeated, smirking. “So you love ‘em and leave ‘em, huh?”

“Sweet Azura, please don’t ever say that again,” he huffed. That phrase sounded too strange coming out of her mouth.

“Oh, come on,” she teased. “Alright, I won’t say it again. So you never thought about getting married? Can I ask why?”

He supposed that since she’d shared something personal with him, it was only fair. “There was one woman I’d thought I could marry. But I was a peasant in Morrowind, a bastard with no name but my mother’s. I’d thought to find my fortune before marrying.”

“Oh. So what happened with the lady?”

Bradas shrugged. “We went our separate ways. I had no desire for marriage, and she had no desire to wait for me.”

“Wow,” she murmured, eyes wide. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. My mother was probably more disappointed than I was,” he confessed. He hadn’t thought about that in a very long time. Now, he could remember it with detached clarity. “I’ve taken many lovers since then.”

She wrinkled her nose. “‘Taken many lovers.’ Ugh. Sweet Azura, never say that again.”

.

.

The next morning, someone who frequented the bar asked them if they were looking for work.

Louis Letrush apparently had some kind of deal to buy a horse from a certain Sibbi Black-Briar, who was trying to weasel his way out of it because he’d gone to jail.

“Black-Briar? Like the mead?” Jackie asked.

“The very same,” Louis said with a nod. “I paid Sibbi half the cost up front, but before he could deliver, Maven had him locked up. Sibbi believes this exempts him from our deal.” The larger man frowned. “It does not.”

So off they went to the town jail.

“So who is Maven?” Jackie asked.

“Maven Black-Briar,” Bradas supplied. “She’s the jarl of Riften and the mother of Sibbi, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Sounds like we’re wandering into some family drama,” she remarked. Regardless, they marched into the jail, with all the authority of people who were supposed to be there. The guard stationed just inside the building stopped them for but a moment.

“Hey, you’re not supposed to be down here,” he said.

“It’s alright, we’re allowed to be here,” Bradas lied. Apparently, confidence was all they needed to convince him to let them through. Jackie suspected that the guard just didn’t care.

They went up the stairs to the holding cells and found Sibbi’s quarters easily—it was the most lavish jail cell Jackie had ever seen. There was a four-poster bed, a dresser, and even a fully-stocked bookshelf. There was even a dinner table filled with food.

“Have you come to gawk at me or is this a social call?” Sibbi groused, his voice just as grating as any stereotypical spoiled rich kid. Jackie’s knee-jerk reaction was to roll her eyes, but somehow she kept it in check.

It didn’t seem to faze Bradas, who just leaned an arm on the bars of the cell, as casual as could be. “We’re here on behalf of Louis Letrush,” he said. “Does that name ring a bell?”

“Ah, let me guess, he wants his horse,” the other man replied. He sounded awfully smug for someone behind bars. “Well, that’s going to be a bit of a problem. You see, I don’t exactly outright ‘own’ Frost.”

Jackie scoffed, now feeling fully disgusted with this guy. “You sold a horse you don’t even own?”

“That is correct,” he said shamelessly. “You see, Frost belongs to the Black-Briar estate… which is technically owned by my mother, Maven. My plan was to take the horse from our lodge and deliver it to Letrush at the stables. Obviously, that didn’t work out as I’d planned.”

Bradas smirked. “I can see that. Well, you don’t want to cross a business partner, do you?”

Sibbi hummed in agreement, like he hadn’t thought of that before. “You’re right. Tell you what. Steal the horse and deliver it, and you can have the second half of the payment.”

Jackie blinked in surprise. She couldn’t believe how easy it was for this guy to sell his mother’s property. Bradas happily accepted the deal after blackmailing Sibbi into giving them the key to the lodge.

.

.

And that was how Jackie found herself participating in what she privately thought of as a heist.

They had snuck onto the property of the Black-Briar lodge (which was, by the way, a very nice place) and were currently creeping around as quiet as could be.

Her Dunmer companion was an expert at sneaking, and it was all she could do to follow his lead without giving them away. She served as the lookout when Bradas began picking the lock to a side door. With just a few quick movements they were in, and snooping around the cellar to search for Frost’s lineage papers.

It was a stressful experience. Jackie sat, as still as she could, and listened to the mercenaries talking to each other upstairs. Bradas took a tour of the cellar, unlocking all the chests and safes. He found the horse’s pedigree papers early on, but of course he felt the need to steal as much as he possibly could.

She watched, growing more and more agitated, as he picked open every lock and stole every bit of gold and jewelry he found.

“Hurry,” she whispered as quietly as she could. He looked up from a strong box and gave what she could only describe as a shit-eating smile. She risked another whisper just to say, “You’re an ass.” Which only made him smile even wider.

She suddenly heard footsteps at the top of the stairs, like someone was pacing up there. She held her breath and readied her dagger.

“… with three bears down, the Orc did frown, and bade the elf goodbye,” A booming voice made her jump. Bradas jerked a little from his lock-picking and gave her a quizzical look. “For none could know, ‘twas not for show, and someone had to die!”

Poetry. The guards were reciting poetry.

And then singing.

“Oh dear fellows, explain! Brothers can you help make it plain, this man’s been doing this for years! Leaving maidens fair in tears…”

“Listen to them, they’re drinking,” Bradas said softly, holding back laughter.

Jackie sighed and rolled her eyes. It was sort of funny, but it didn’t make her any less worried about being caught. By the sound of it, there were enough mercenaries upstairs to overwhelm the two of them, drunk or not.

“… Before the final tune’s been blast, and her first dance with him will be the last!” the drunken guards sang.

Bradas worked diligently on the strongbox, without much luck. She flinched as she heard the sound of a pick break, and he pulled another one out of his pocket to try again. The cacophony of noise and laughter rose upstairs as a male voice upstairs began to sing in a high-pitched imitation of a woman’s voice.

“… which lady do you prefer? Lord Jornibet pointed, ‘her!’” The raucous laughter seemed to boom around the cellar.

Bradas grinned from ear to ear as he worked the lock and whispered along: “See that bosom bob and weave, well-suited for me to love and leave…”

Finally, the lock clicked. He gathered the loot and shoved it into his pockets alongside Frost’s pedigree papers.

***

Stealing the horse was not nearly as easy as stealing his papers, but they managed to pull it off without getting killed. They made it to the stables without getting caught, but a mercenary had spotted them at the worst possible moment.

Bradas swung up onto the horse and dragged Jackie up with him. He hadn’t ridden a horse in a while but the urgency of the matter left him little choice but to jump on and go.

An arrow whizzed past them as they rode, causing Jackie to yelp and hug his torso so tightly he almost wheezed—but other than that, they got away without a hitch. Bradas supposed a bruised sternum was better than an arrow in the face.

Otherwise, the plan went off without a hitch and they were richer for it. The Black-Briars had an abundant amount of wealth, and it’d been his pleasure to steal from them.

They met Letrush in the woods and made the exchange. After he left, Jackie let out a long breath.

“Jesus Christ,” she exclaimed—an expression he found she used often when she was stressed out. “Did you really have to pick every lock in that room? I thought we were going to get caught for sure!” Her cheeks were pink and she placed her hands on them to cool them down. He found the gesture entirely too endearing.

“I considered stealing the horse, but I thought that you might disapprove,” he half-joked. He had thought about it, but ultimately decided that he didn’t have the means or the willingness to take care of it.

“Gee, thanks,” she laughed. “C’mon, let’s get back into town.”

.

.

Night had fallen by the time they made it back to the Bee and Barb. The bar was crowded tonight, with what looked like every bad element in the city. Jackie recognized a few people from the street, including Romlyn Dreth. He looked between her and Bradas and gave her a nod—like an ‘I understand you’re in a relationship and that’s great’ type of nod.

She felt her face heat up and prayed that he wouldn’t mention anything to Bradas about their ‘relationship.’ She’d forgotten all about her lie the night before, and was dearly regretting it now.

Why couldn’t she have just said that no, she wasn’t interested? Why was she such an idiot?

She was distracted by Bradas’ touch on her arm. She looked up, disturbed from her self-effacing thoughts, and saw that he was offering her a bottle.

“Some Black-Briar mead to celebrate our victory?” he suggested, a wry smile on his face.

“I think it’s appropriate,” she agreed as she took the bottle.

They managed to get a table in the corner, despite the crowd. They settled in with a bottle of wine, some bread, and some cheese. “This would actually be kind of a classy meal back home,” she mentioned to Bradas over the low roar of the crowd.

“What?” he asked, unable to hear.

“Never mind!” she said. She held out her empty glass of wine. “Pour me some more?” Maybe it was the relief of getting away from Black-Briar lodge unharmed, or the bad influence of a corrupt city… but she really needed to wind down.

***

Bradas was having a lot of fun buying and drinking wine with Jackie, who had become progressively more cheerful as the night progressed. His spirits were high, too, after the victory of making it out of danger without so much as a scratch.

What a thrill it would be to steal whatever they wanted by day and party by night. Jackie’s contagious laughter filled his ears as the fantasy took shape in his mind: the two of them fighting and marauding for the rest of their days. No more running errands for nobles, no more worrying about being the Dragonborn and all of the things that implied.

“We should join the Thieves’ Guild,” he said, leaning toward her until their shoulders touched. She responded with a light touch on the inside of his elbow and a shrug.

“Do we really need to be in a guild to steal stuff?” she asked, lips red from the wine.

“I like the way you think.” And oh, he must have been a little more than just tipsy if he was thinking about nuzzling the crook of her neck. He cleared his throat and tried to gain his bearings.

“Anyway, would we have to actually live here to do that? God forbid,” she chuckled. “I’m getting kind of giggly, aren’t I?” she realized. “Hey, do you think we’re drinking too much?”

“We are not,” Bradas replied confidently.

“Saying it loud doesn’t make it true,” she said with a crooked grin. It was endearing, actually, and the fact that he was even thinking that was probably a sign that he was getting too deep in his cups. There seemed to be a direct correlation between how much he was drinking and how adorable he found her.

“Alright. One more round and we’ll call it a night,” he said, warmth blooming in his chest. She gave an approving nod and followed him to the counter where the Argonian barmaid was busy serving other customers.

“Some things never change,” Jackie said mournfully, “you can never get the bartender’s attention!”

“Maybe it’s a sign to call it a night,” he said reluctantly, looking over the crowded pub.

“Whatever you want,” she replied, eyes focused on something behind him. “Hey, that guy is looking at us.” She gestured to a person behind him, trying to be subtle but failing.

He turned and found that she was correct. A human man was leaning on the bar, looking like he was appraising them. He didn’t look threatening, though, just interested. He walked toward them with a smile.

“I couldn’t help but notice you two were out of wine,” the mysterious man said, voice friendly. He seemed… oddly trustworthy, for a patron at the Bee and Barb. “I can help you out, free of charge… if you’re looking for a challenge, that is.”

“A challenge, hm?” Bradas grinned.

“A few drinks, a few laughs, and a contest,” the stranger agreed, smile illuminating his features. “What could be better?”

“Ooh, drinking contest?” Jackie asked, eyes lit up with excitement. “What are the stakes?”

“A magic staff,” the man said, eyes twinkling with mirth. “My name is Sam Guevenne. If you beat me, it’s yours for the keeping.”

“You don’t stand a chance, friend,” Bradas replied, bolstered by Jackie’s delighted clap.

“Ha! We’ll see about that. This is a special brew, very strong stuff. Let’s get started,” Sam said, bringing a clouded bottle out from the folds of his robes.

“Yes!” Jackie cheered, cheeks rosy. “Can I be the judge?”

“I like her,” Sam said approvingly. “You get some, too, Lady Judge!”

Sam grinned and poured the alcohol into what looked like a special goblet. It looked like it was made of burnished bronze, with little rubies set into the stem. Very opulent. Bradas vaguely wondered where such a cup had come from, but he found that he didn’t care. Everything suddenly seemed bright and beautiful, like the world was shining.

“I’ll start round one,” Sam was saying. “Down the hatch!” He gulped the drink down like he was born to do it, not even flinching at the taste. “Your turn!”

“Here we go,” the Dunmer said with a grin, taking the cup and downing the drink as best he could. It was strong stuff, but it went down smoothly.

“One down, my friend! One down. Now, some for the lady…” said his opponent. He poured once more and Jackie took a few sips, making a face as she did so.

“Gah! Oh boy,” she muttered, swallowing it down. “What is this, vinegar?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sam laughed. “It’s strong stuff, I told you! Now, another one for me…” He poured and drank one more cup. “How about you?”

“A second drink, easy enough,” Bradas replied. The world was spinning pleasantly by now. He could hear Jackie’s voice cheering for him in the background, like her voice was coming from the end of a tunnel. And what a lovely voice it was—everything was lovely.

Sam laughed and poured the second drink. “So says you. Tell you what, one more and you win the contest!”

A niggling voice in the back of his head warned him that it was too easy, but that voice was easily drowned out. “One more. No problemsh,” he muttered, and took the second drink without hesitation.

“Wow, look at you! You’ve really done it. The staff is yours,” the human said magnanimously.

“Thash grape!” someone said—Bradas thought it might have been Jackie, but it also could have been him. He hardly cared though. By Azura, this was fun!

“You know, you’re a fun person to drink with. I know this great little place where the wine flows like water…”

Chapter Text

“Wake up!”

Jackie’s eyes opened slowly.

“I said wake. Up!”

“Huuuh?” she groaned, moving her head to the side. The world tilted like she was getting off of a roller coaster ride.

“That’s right, it’s time to wake up, you drunken blasphemer!” A woman dressed in a brown robe was standing above her, looking down at her like she was the scum of the earth.

Well, Jackie certainly felt like scum.

“My head hurts,” was all she could think to say.

“Yes, your head hurts and you don’t remember where you are,” the woman snapped. “I’m guessing you also don’t remember coming in here and blathering incoherently about marriage or a goat!”

Jackie struggled to sit up, alarmed. She definitely did not remember doing such a thing.

She continued her lecture: “Which means you also don’t remember losing your temper and throwing trash all over the temple!”

Now that really didn’t sound like her. She rubbed her eyes and blinked a few times. That was when she finally noticed a giant statue of a naked lady… quite a few naked statues, actually.

This was getting more and more surreal by the minute.

“Um…” she peered around, looking for any sign of Bradas. “I’m sorry, but have you seen a Dunmer anywhere? He should be with me…”

The woman – a priestess? – scoffed. “Look. Dibella teaches love and compassion, but that doesn’t mean we’re just going to tell you what you want to know and let you walk away from this.”

“Dibella?” As in the Divine? Jackie looked around a little and realized that she was, in fact, inside of a temple dedicated to Dibella. A large sculpture of the goddess stared down at Jackie, with what looked like pity in her eyes. That might have just been projection, though.

How the hell had she gotten here?

The priestess let out a long-suffering sigh. “Pick up your mess, then apologize. If we think you’re sincere, we’ll consider lending you aid.”

Jackie frowned. What did she mean by ‘we?’ It was only by chance that she looked into the corner and saw a very old woman in robes dozing off in a chair.

Huh.

Well, there was only one thing to do. Feeling very much like a scolded child, she walked around the temple and picked up garbage she didn’t remember throwing. It was so strange—she’d partied before, certainly, but she’d never blacked out.

But here she was. Evidently there was a first time for everything. She cursed her drunk-self for getting garbage everywhere. She’d made a huge mess.

She wondered where Bradas was. He couldn’t be too far, could he?

After scanning the room one last time to make sure she hadn’t missed any trash, she approached the priestess once more. She took a deep breath and tried to look as repentant as possible. “I… am so, so sorry,” she said sincerely. “I never meant to cause any harm. I swear I don’t normally do things like this.”

The woman sighed. “I suppose that’ll do,” she said. “Dibella teaches us forgiveness, after all. Even for a drunkard like you.”

Jackie crossed her arms, slightly miffed. Still, she supposed that if the roles were reversed she’d be just as annoyed. “Is there anything you can tell me? My friend should be around here somewhere. A Dunmer named Bradas?”

“If you’re talking about the elf passed out on the front steps, then yes,” the other woman huffed. Jackie grimaced. Well, at least she knew where he was.

Before she left, though, she needed to know just one last thing. “Also… did I mention anyone named Sam? Do you remember anything I said when I got here?”

“You were ranting when you got here but most of it was slurred. There was something about trying to get married and a… a goat? Maybe you were talking about a dowry. You did say something about Rorikstead… Maybe you should take a look there.”

“Married…?” she muttered. That didn’t ring any bells. Jackie thanked the priestess and walked toward the front door, a little unsteady on her feet. She was pretty certain she wanted to vomit, but she preferred not to do it in the temple.

She had a feeling she was already blacklisted here.

The light outside was blinding, and only served to amplify her headache. She squinted and placed a hand over her eyes. Where was she? This place was definitely not Riften. Perhaps they were in a nearby city?

“Bradas?” she called, her voice rough. She heard a groan and looked down to her right.

There he was, sitting on the ground and leaning against a pillar. She’d seen him injured, tired, covered in dirt and blood… but she was sure she’d never seen him look so disheveled.

He had dark blue bags under his eyes, and his hair had fallen out of its leather tie. The top half of his leather armor was missing, leaving him in a skimpy white tunic for a shirt. His gauntlets were nowhere to be found, and to top it all off, one of his shoes was missing.

It would have been hilarious, but she was sure she didn’t look much better. He caught her gaze, stifled what sounded like a pained laugh, and then winced. Oh yeah, she probably looked terrible.

“Azura, help me,” he groaned, squeezing his eyes shut. “Put me out of my misery.”

“Maybe Dibella is the one to be asking, since I apparently desecrated her temple last night,” Jackie sighed, feeling as miserable as he sounded. “I… Bradas, what happened last night?”

He squinted up at her. “I was hoping you could tell me.”

***

The only good news about their situation was that they both had their money with them, despite their lack of essential clothing. Bradas tried to ignore it, but it was hard to feel respectable walking around missing a shoe and a proper shirt.

After a few minutes of wandering around a city they didn’t recognize, they discovered an inn and bought a single room. Jackie, bless her, was the only one with the will to ask the embarrassing question: “Sir, could you… tell us where we are?”

“Why, this is the Silver-Blood Inn,” he said proudly, his voice too loud. “We have plenty of strong drink and clean rooms.”

Jackie rubbed her eyes, spots of red blooming in her cheeks. “Oh, God, I can’t believe this is happening,” she whimpered, looking close to tears.

Bradas took pity on her. “What we mean is, what city is this?”

The innkeeper frowned and took a better look at them. The Dunmer couldn’t even resent his judgmental gaze; they were a complete mess. “Actually, maybe the two of you should lay off the strong drink,” he joked. “You’re in Markarth. Would you like a room?”

They paid for a single room and sort of staggered in. It had only a single bed, but it was big, and they immediately fell into it at the same time.

“I swear to God I’ll never drink again,” she whimpered. “I’ve said it before but I’m serious this time. Never again.”

“You won’t even drink that Black-Briar mead you love so much?”

“Please,” she grimaced and almost gagged. He thought she was going to actually throw up—if that was the case, he needed to get out of the room. There was no way his stomach would be able to handle it. Fortunately, it seemed to pass. “Don’t remind me.”

He knew she wasn’t going to like what he had to say next, so he said it quickly. “Jackie, we’re in Markarth. Do you realize how far from Riften we are right now?”

She frowned and rubbed her temples. “No, but we can’t be that far. We only had one night of drinking.” Her eyes widened in alarm. “Right?”

“I… think so,” he guessed, although he had literally no memory of the night before. It was just… blank. He remembered drinking with Sam, and then he was waking up outside of the temple in the blazing sun. “Do you remember anything?”

She frowned. “No. Just having a couple drinks… and then that guy took us to… to…” she trailed off. “I don’t know. He invited us somewhere, though, didn’t he?”

“… Yes, I think I remember that.” He shook his head. “We must have been drugged, or he was using some kind of magic.”

“Or both,” she suggested.

He was almost too exhausted to feel angry, but he managed it anyway. What had that man done to them? By the Daedra, he was going to hunt him down and kill him! As soon as he wasn’t on the verge of vomiting!

“Where’s your map? Where are we?”

He patted his pants pockets and found the map. Once again, the majority of their belongings had been left in Riften for the riff-raff to steal, but at least they’d managed to hold onto the map.

With a sigh, he spread it out and pointed to show Jackie how far they had travelled. Her jaw dropped.

“How… how did we get that far? It’s just like last time,” she muttered. She looked at him with wide eyes. “Riften is cursed or something.”

“We haven’t had the best of luck there,” he agreed.

.

.

They spent the next few hours sleeping, and that evening they woke up and found that the inn had a small bathing area—a remnant of ancient Dwemer society, according to the innkeeper. God bless the Dwemer.

Jackie bathed first (and took her time, too, because there was actual hot water). It wasn’t until she was taking her clothes off that she noticed a pretty silver ring in her breast pocket—something she hadn’t noticed before. It was simple and delicate, with little flowers engraved into it. She studied it, wondering where it had come from.

“Huh,” she muttered, trying it on a few fingers. It fit on her ring finger, incidentally, but for the life of her she couldn’t remember where it came from. She shrugged and put it back where she found it before disrobing completely and jumping into a hot bath. She’d examine it and try to figure it out later. It wasn’t a big deal; all kinds of odd things were popping up. Like Bradas’ hair tie, for example: she’d found it wrapped around her ankle like an anklet when she’d gotten undressed.

She scrubbed down and cleaned up quickly, and then set out to the market to find some clothes. Since she was the only one with a complete outfit, the job fell to her. Bradas couldn’t exactly go out without shoes, after all.

While he bathed, she hurried out to buy the supplies before the stalls closed. With any luck, she’d be back before he was done.

Markarth was confusing, and as she navigated all the stairs she cursed their luck. What were the chances that they’d get abducted from Riften again? It also bothered her a great deal that she couldn’t remember anything at all from the night before.

It was… kind of scary, actually. She couldn’t figure out if this Sam guy was some sort of wizard, or if they were truly just that reckless. Why had they let themselves get so drunk? She could only remember feeling so charmed by the man. She’d felt so… content, happy to be where she was in that very moment. There must have been some kind of magic involved.

That was disturbing. But they were here now so she tried to focus on short-term goals. She breathed a sigh of relief when she found that the vendors in the market were still open.

She went from stand to stand, buying some clothes, some food, and some potions ingredients. Hopefully it would be enough to tide them over for a few days while they figured out what to do next. She passed by a jewelry stand and admired some of the wares.

She caught bits and pieces of conversation between the stall vendor and a young woman. “A bit of jewelry for you?” and “Maybe one or two pieces.”

It was just a normal interaction between a customer and a vendor, and she would have ignored it if not for the quick movement she caught in her periphery. The hair on the back of her neck stood straight up and she turned to get a better look. “What—”

“The Reach belongs to the Forsworn!” a man cried, and plunged a dagger right into the young woman’s back. Jackie watched, in complete shock, as her body went limp. The stall vendor yelped, and a few terrified shrieks went up in the square. The killer looked around wildly, making eye contact with Jackie.

She dropped her supplies and drew her own dagger, more out of fear for her own life than out of vengeance for the poor woman. His eyes locked with hers and he growled. “Never should have come here!” he cried, lunging for her. She dodged and swung around to catch him in the shoulder, still shocked that she’d seen such a random display of violence.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw city guards running up. For a moment she thought they’d help her but they just… watched. She was on her own.

The man cried out again and tried to stab her with an upward motion, like he had before with the woman he’d just murdered. She interrupted his swing with her forearm and stabbed him once, then twice, in the chest. Adrenaline pumped through her veins as the enchantments on her weapon lit up and red light swirled out of his body. Horrified, she pushed him away and he fell onto the ground, limp and bleeding out.

“I die for my people,” he said, directing his gaze at the guards who had showed up to watch. “You have stepped on us long enough!”

These were his dying words.

Gasping, she staggered toward the items she’d dropped and picked them up. Several people had run up to see what the commotion was all about.

“Is he one of the Forsworn?” someone asked, panicked.

One of the guard finally stepped forward. “Everyone stay back,” he said, “the Markarth city Guard have this all under control. There are no Forsworn here!”

Under control? Jackie looked up at him, wide-eyed. This was the opposite of under control! Shaking, she clutched her new purchases to her chest. Why hadn’t the guards helped her? How could this have happened?

A voice broke through her thoughts, and she looked up. A man, blond, with a face covered in tattoos, was looking at her with concern. “Gods, a woman attacked right on the streets,” he was saying, shaking his head. “Are you alright? Did you see what happened?”

“I was right there,” Jackie said, trying not to look at the bodies anymore. “He tried to kill me.”

“I’m so sorry. I hope the Eight give you more peace in the future.”

“I… thank you,” she murmured, still feeling shocked. She blinked a few times. “Do, do you know why that just happened?”

“No. I was just getting some fresh air. Had one too many pints at the Silver-Blood Inn. Looks like you took care of him, though,” he said, nodding approvingly at the man she’d just killed. “Oh, here, I think you dropped this. Some kind of note, looks important.” She felt him grasp her hand and place a paper in it.

“I… thanks,” she said. He bid her goodbye and walked away. She turned her attention to the guard that was waving people off, wondering if she was in trouble. He didn’t give her a second glance—he probably didn’t care.

Jackie walked back to the inn, dazed and shaking like a leaf.

.

.

Bradas was still half-naked, covered in but a towel when she door opened without warning. He nearly leaped out of his skin when Jackie abruptly walked in and shut the door.

“By the Daedra, can’t you knock?” he said, trying not to sound as surprised as he really was. “What if I was naked, hm?”

She didn’t reply, just threw their new gear onto the bed and sat down, looking as pale as a ghost. He tightened the towel around his waist.

“Jackie?” he asked, sensing something wrong.

She looked up at him, not really caring about his state of undress. “Some guy just attacked a lady in the market,” she told him, feeling something like panic bubble up in her chest. “He, he, just stabbed her out of nowhere and then came after me.”

“Where is he? Are you hurt?” he asked, looking her over.

“I… I think I’m okay,” she said, blinking down at her hands.

Bradas frowned and looked over to the pile of clothes she’d bought. “Hold on a moment,” he said. She covered her eyes as he shifted through the items and dressed quickly.

She suddenly felt guilty for just barging in on him. She closed her eyes and placed her head in her hands to give him some privacy.

He tapped her shoulder and she looked up to see him wearing just a simple tunic and leggings. His hair was down, long and silky-smooth out of its tie.

He sat beside her, the bed giving a little and tilting her towards him. She leaned on his shoulder and took several deep breaths. His skin was still hot from the bath, she noticed. When was the last time she’d seen him in something besides armor? She rested her head on soft cloth, focusing on the solidness of him.

“What happened?” he asked. She drew away from his shoulder reluctantly and told him the details—how it was all so sudden, how the guards hadn’t helped at all, and about the stranger who had passed her a note right afterward.

She felt like she should feel worse for killing that guy. Maybe she was in still shock, but she didn’t feel guilty that she’d just taken a human life. That was the most disturbing part of the whole situation. He was clearly going to kill her if she didn’t get him first, but still… Wasn’t she supposed to feel bad?

The existential crisis was beginning to hit home. Had she changed so much since she’d gotten here that she didn’t even care? She took a grounding breath. She was dealing with too much right now to deal with that question.

“You did well by killing him,” Bradas said. It was supposed to be reassuring. “The guard didn’t care—you did the only sensible thing.”

She sighed and looked up at the ceiling. “I guess. You have to understand, things like that don’t—where I’m from… I lived in a safe place.” She knew she wasn’t making much sense. “I never thought I’d be okay with killing someone like that, but… I don’t know. I think I’m just… freaking out, a little.”

He said nothing, just let her breath in and out without trying to offer words of comfort. She appreciated the silence. She appreciated that he always seemed to know what to do.

***

Probably about fifteen minutes of silence passed before she could stop her fingers from shaking. Bradas was a solid presence beside her. His hand had was a nice weight on her shoulder. What would she do without him to ground her? She looked at his free hand and wanted to do something stupid, like hold it.

Instead, she cleared her throat and pulled something out of her pocket; the note that the man in the square had given her before she’d left.

“What is that?”

“It’s the note someone handed me in the square,” she supplied. “Here, take a look.”

He took it and read it, his eyebrows drawing together. “‘Meet me at the Shrine of Talos tonight at midnight’?” he read, perplexed. “What could he want with you there?”

“I’m not sure,” she said with a shrug. “I think I want to check it out.”

“What? Are you sure?”

She nodded. “I think so. I mean, I’m kind of curious now,” she admitted. “And. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep very well tonight, anyway.”

“If you think it wise,” he said. “I’ll follow you.”

She gave him a small smile. “Thanks. I knew I could count on you.”

He gave her a nudge and a smile. “Now, if you’re done being sentimental…”

She nudged back, heart feeling a little lighter. “Don’t be rude. I’m the only one in Skyrim willing to carry all your junk around for you.”

Chapter Text

The Shrine of Talos was dimly lit, and had precariously steep stairs that led to a large altar. Bradas trailed behind Jackie, watching her hands skim on the sides of the wall to keep her balance.

His sharp eyes caught sight of a young man—Breton, if his fine features and tattoos were any indication—waiting for them in front of the altar.

“Ah, you came,” he said, crossing his arms. His eyes caught Bradas’, and he gave him a nod. “You brought a friend.”

“Is that a problem?” Jackie asked.

“No, it’s not,” the man said. “I’m just sorry to drag more people into Markarth’s problems… but after that attack in the market, I’m running out of time.” He gave a short, almost imperceptible bow. “My name is Eltrys, by the way.”

“I’m Jackie, and this is Bradas,” she replied.

“Well met, strangers. But I suppose names don’t matter; you’re outsiders, and you’re dangerous-looking. You’ll do.”

“Looking for sell-swords, are you?” Bradas drawled. “In the Shrine of Talos, of all places?”

“No, it’s not like that,” Eltrys said.

“Then what do you mean, ‘we’ll do’?”

“You want answers? Well, so do I. So does everyone in this city. A man goes crazy in the market. Everyone knows he’s a Forsworn agent. Guards do nothing – nothing but clean up the mess,” he said bitterly. “This has been going on for years, and all I’ve been able to find is murder and blood. I need help.”

Bradas placed a hand on Jackie’s arm and bent over to murmur, “I’m not sure we should get involved in city affairs for no reason…” Just loud enough for Eltrys to overhear.

“Real subtle,” Jackie muttered under her breath.

“Please,” the man said. “You find out why that woman was attacked, who’s behind Weylin and the Forsworn, and I’ll pay you for any information you bring me.”

“Alright, we’ll help,” Jackie said. Bradas gave her a satisfied grin; he didn’t mind so long as they were getting paid. “You’ve looked into these murders before?”

“Yes,” Eltrys said, visibly relieved that they were agreeing to help. “It all started when I was a boy. My father owned one of the mines. Rare for anyone who isn’t a Nord. My father was killed. Guards said it was a madman, but everyone knew it was the Forsworn. I’ve been trying to find out why ever since...” He sighed. “I’ve gotten nowhere so far. Then I got married. I have a child of my own on the way… and I swore I was going to give up, for my child’s sake, but it’s like my father’s ghost is haunting me. Asking me ‘why?’ I need to know.”

***

Jackie knew that Bradas’ ‘hesitation’ to get involved in Eltrys’ investigation was just a ploy to get more money. But as they exited the Shrine of Talos to head back to the Silver-Blood Inn, she worried that they were getting involved in something they shouldn’t.

“Seems like something for the authorities to handle,” she remarked, sitting down on the bed and unlacing her boots. “Though I guess they’re the ones covering something up, if Eltrys is right.”

“They probably are,” Bradas said, like it was a well-known fact. “Corruption in guard ranks isn’t uncommon in big cities like this.”

“Should we be messing around with this?”

The Dunmer shrugged. “We’re getting paid. I don’t see why not.”

“I guess you’re right…” She frowned. “We’re outsiders anyway, right? What are they really gonna do to us?”

“Right. And we may as well make money while we spend time in the city.” Bradas seemed confident enough, so she supposed it couldn’t be too big a deal.

Still, she went to sleep that night with a heavy feeling in her gut.

.

.

They began their informal investigation the next day. They separated; Bradas left Jackie to check out the Warrens, and she stayed at the inn to see if she could rustle up any information about Margret, the woman who’d been killed in the square the day before. She figured that the smart thing to do was to ask the innkeeper if he knew anything, then go from there.

“Is there anything I can get you? If not, I’m sure my wife will bellow at me until I can,” he said, voice rising in volume so that his wife across the room could hear. She tried not to react—she did not want to get involved in whatever messed up domestic dispute was happening here.

Cringing inwardly, she put on what she hoped was a charming smile. “Um, yes, actually you can help me. I had questions about a woman named Margret who was staying here…?”

“Ah, yes. Rented the nicest room we had for a month, poor girl.”

“The nicest room?”

“Yes! It’s available now, if you’d like to switch! It’s the one on the top of the stairs.”

Jackie wrinkled her nose. That seemed super tasteless, but maybe she could use it to her advantage. “Hmm, maybe… You say it’s the nicest room? The one we have now is fine, and we’re already paying quite a bit for it…”

“It’s worth the extra coin, I guarantee it! It has a much bigger bed. I’m sure your man would like that…”

Jackie barely contained her eye-roll. “Could I look at the room before I decide?”

“Of course!” he said eagerly. “Here’s the key. You can bring it right back if you decide it’s not for you… but I’m sure it will be.” He gave her a wink and tossed her the key.

She gave him a smile and turned to go up the stairs. She’d have to be quick if she didn’t want to seem like she was snooping. The door to Margret’s room unlocked with a twist of the key and she slipped in, keeping her eyes peeled for anything useful.

The bed wasn’t that much bigger, she noticed with a scoff.

Cautiously, she scanned the shelves and peeked under the bed. There wasn’t anything there besides old dust bunnies. Tamping down on her panic, she slid the bedside drawer open as quietly as possible. There were some loose Septims and a leather-bound book without a title on the cover.

A journal, maybe?

She swiped it and placed it in her shirt before turning to leave the room—and nearly had a heart attack when she saw the innkeeper standing there with a big grin on his face.

“So, what do you think? Cozy enough for two?”

“Oh! I think we’re okay with the room we have now!” she replied nervously. “Thanks for letting me look, though!”

“Are you certain? It’s only five more gold a night…” he tried to tempt her.

“Oh, I, uh… probably shouldn’t spend much more money,” she said, hoping that he’d get the hint and leave her alone.

“Ah, your man might not like it, eh?”

“Ha-ha, you know how it is,” she said with a shrug, face turning red.

“Do I ever,” the man muttered.

His wife piped up from the other side of the inn as if on cue: “Thank you for cleaning, dear! If only your father could be more like you!”

She let out a nervous laugh. “Yeah. Well, what can ya do? Thanks, I had better go…” she slipped past him and retreated into the room she was sharing with Bradas, heart pounding.

She shut the door to the outside world and breathed a sigh of relief. “Jesus,” she muttered, face still flaming. Why did people keep assuming she was ‘with’ Bradas? And why was she pathologically unable to correct their assumptions?

It was going to bite her in the ass one day, she just knew it. But it was just kind of troublesome to correct someone every time they assumed she and Bradas were together.

Because it happened all the time. Divines help her! She knew they went everywhere together but that didn’t mean he was ‘her man.’ She wondered if people made the same mistake when talking to him. If they did, he didn’t mention it.

She found her hand moving to her breast pocket, where a delicate silver ring was currently residing. She played with it through the fabric, deep in thought. She suddenly remembered the priestess at the Temple of Dibella saying she’d been yelling about getting married.

She huffed a laugh. Wouldn’t it be funny if…

Her breath hitched. No. No way. There was no way that could have happened while they’d been black-out drunk, absolutely not!

Jackie groaned and covered her face with her hands. That would be an absolute disaster, but luckily it was unlikely to have happened. Her life wasn’t a stupid romantic comedy. If anything, she was stuck firmly in the medieval fantasy/horror genre. And anyway, she didn’t see herself getting married while drunk, no matter how low her inhibitions might have been. She willed her heart to stop beating so fast as she talked herself down.

The door opened and she nearly jumped three feet into the air. Bradas gave her an inquisitive look before entering and shutting the door behind him.

“What’s got you so jumpy?” he said with a laugh.

“Nothing! I just. Found this book,” she stammered, taking it out of her shirt to give to him. “It was in Margret’s room. I think it looks like a journal but I haven’t read it yet.”

He gave her a funny look and took the journal from her. “I had a run-in with the City Guard,” he said, picking a folded piece of parchment out of his pocket and handing it to her. “Also found this note in Weylin’s room.”

She read the note to herself:

You’ve been chosen to strike fear into the heart of the Nords. Go to the market tomorrow. You will know what to do. -N

“What in the world? Who is ‘N?’” she murmured. So, the man from yesterday had been acting on orders from someone else. “What happened with the guard?”

“I was told to mind my own business. The guard said, specifically, that I ‘didn’t want to know what happens to troublemakers in Markarth.’ S’wit,” he said under his breath.

Her eyes widened. “Are you serious?”

“As serious as can be,” he said with an eyeroll. “As if I were afraid of that fool.”

“That’s… really alarming,” she said, eyebrows raised. “Did he say anything else?”

“No, it’s not, and no, he didn’t.”

She frowned. “I think you have issues with authority.”

He gave her a look, as if to say isn’t that obvious? “Would you like to know what this journal says?”

She bit her lip. Her instincts were telling her they should leave it alone, but now that she knew they weren’t supposed to be poking around… well… “Yeah, just… read it really quick.”

Bradas complied, skimming over the words and picking out the relevant parts. “‘Meeting at the Treasury House today, these people act like they own everything… Thonar Silver-Blood is the younger brother but he’s the one in charge. Makes all the deals, bullies all the land-owners…’” Bradas’ eyes widened. “‘General Tullius is growing impatient?’ Do you know who that is?”

“No?” Jackie replied with a shrug. “Why, is he important?”

“He’s only the General of the Imperial Army,” he laughed.

She rolled her eyes. She supposed that she’d have to figure all that stuff out if she was going to spend the rest of her life in Tamriel, but now wasn’t the time to start. “Go on, what else does she say?”

“She wants to bring him the deed to Cidhna Mine. ‘On my life, I won’t allow a group of Stormcloak sympathizers to own the prison of the most notorious criminals in the reach. Why, is it really that secure…?’” He trailed off, eyes tracing the page back and forth. “She knew she was being watched.”

Jackie pursed her lips, thinking. “So, she was a spy for the Imperials,” she said in a low voice. “I think… we may have bitten off more than we can chew.”

Bradas gave her a sly smile. “I like that turn of phrase.”

***

The next step, they decided, was to visit the Treasury House where Thonar Silver-Blood was. They hopped up the steps to the building, Jackie following behind Bradas. She wasn’t sure what they were going to say to Thonar, but he seemed to have a plan.

The Treasury House, like many of the other buildings in Markarth, was built into stone. It had high ceilings and large, golden metal bars behind what looked like a front desk. There was a frail-looking old woman sitting at a table in the corner, about to doze off. The Treasury House seemed quiet, even peaceful.

(She had a private moment where she realized that a ‘treasury house’ was just Skyrim’s version of a bank; and mentally kicked herself for wondering what it meant earlier.)

The woman at the front desk looked up from a book and blinked at them, like they were entirely out of place here. “The Treasury House is only for patrons of the Silver-Bloods family. I’m afraid I can’t help you.”

“I’m here to see Thonar,” Bradas replied.

“I’m afraid he’s asked not to be disturbed. He has important business.”

“He’s expecting me,” said the Dunmer, smooth as silk. The woman didn’t question it at all.

“Oh, then I’m sorry to keep you. Head right in,” she said mildly. They went left and headed up the stairs, Jackie leading the way. Bradas looked over at her for a second with a smirk, and she rolled her eyes, fighting a smile. Hopefully the lie wouldn’t get them into too much trouble.

Thonar himself did not greet them nearly as politely as the woman at the front desk had. They opened the door and saw him—the man was sitting a table, hunched over some papers. When he noticed them coming into the room, he looked up at them with a sneer.

“What are you doing here? I told them no visitors,” the man snapped.

Jackie was taken aback at his tone. “We’re here to talk about Margret,” she said, surprised.

“The imperial agent?” Jackie’s eyebrows shot straight up into her hairline. “That’s right. I knew. How many dogs is the Empire going to send after me?”

She wasn’t sure how to answer that. “Listen, we just—”

“This is my business,” he interrupted her. “My city. You Empire-lovers should learn to stay out of it. Now get out,” he snarled, waving his hand as if to dismiss an errant child.

She scoffed. “Sorry to interrupt,” she muttered, turning on her heel to leave. She could see Bradas rolling his eyes in her periphery—at least they could make fun of this guy later. She didn’t close the door after herself, hoping it would annoy the self-important jerk. They marched back down the stairs.

Empire-lovers?” Bradas muttered from beside her, apparently incensed that someone would mislabel his political affiliations.

A clamor at the front interrupted Jackie’s irritation. A woman screamed and the sound of a body hitting the floor had them running to the front desk. From behind them, Thonar Silver-Blood was clamoring to get up.

“What! By the Gods, Betrid…!”

Everything after that happened so quickly that it was all Jackie could do to get her hand on her dagger. A blast of fire came toward them, so fast and hot that she could hear the roar of it as it barely missed them. Bradas pulled her down and they slid down the hard stone stairs on their legs to avoid another blast.

She could feel the air cackle as he summoned a flame atronach. One of their opponents waved a hand and a dead body – and where had that come from? – reanimated itself. With a yelp, she rolled away from it as it swung its fists at her. Her stomach rolled as it lurched toward them.

Jackie finally got enough time to draw her dagger, but then had to roll out of the way of yet another fire spell. God, she was starting to hate those!

She leapt up just as Bradas got hit with flame. He dropped to the ground instantly and rolled to put it out, and in the meantime she hacked and slashed at the dead body lurching toward them. It made her stomach roll, but she kept it up until it died once more.

Eyes wide, she looked over to see Bradas, covered in blood and sweat as he stabbed an assailant in the throat. His flame atronach was screeching and burning, making it hot and hard to breathe. It took out the old woman, who suddenly didn’t look so frail anymore. She caught a glimpse of Thonar, who was at the mercy of the other assassin… and as annoying as he was, she couldn’t just let him die.

She acted quickly, before she could lose her nerve. She ran up behind him and stabbed, letting the enchantment of the knife do the work for her. He fell with a wet cry as the red light swirled out of his body and into hers.

Thonar didn’t notice, or didn’t care, that he’d just been saved. When the dust settled, and she could look more closely, she noticed that he was hunched over a body—the one that had been reanimated earlier. The one she’d stabbed bloody. Her heart dropped to the floor.

“My wife—they killed her,” he moaned. Jackie heard the flame atronach burn up into the atmosphere and return to wherever it had come from. Bradas walked over to them, dripping with blood that wasn’t his.

“I…” Jackie stopped. She didn’t know what to say, so it was probably best not to speak at all.

“Damn Madanach!” he swore. “Damn his Forsworn backside!”

Bradas, who was capable of being calculating when she was not, spoke up. “Will you talk now? You know this was the Forsworn. Let us kill them for you.”

“Fine. You want to know what the Forsworn really are? They’re my puppets. I have their ‘king’ rotting in Cidhna Mine.” The man looked at his wife with indescribable anger and grief. “He was supposed to keep them under control.”

“You made a deal with them?” Jackie asked, finally finding her voice.

“When their uprising was crushed, I had Madanach brought to me. He was a wild animal, but a useful one. I offered him a stay from execution if he used his influence to deal with any annoyances that came up.”

“Annoyances,” Bradas repeated.

“Competitors, agents. Idiots,” Thonar ground out. “I let him run his little Forsworn rebellion from inside Cidhna Mine. Now he’s out of control.”

“I can take care of him for you, for a price,” Bradas offered.

This was the wrong thing to say. Thonar looked up at them, his eyes wild. “You already got what you wanted, you damn hound. This is your fault! You and Madanach are animals, and I’ll see you both rot to death in Cidhna Mine for this! Now get out of my house!”

Jackie, already knowing that Bradas’ offer would backfire, moved toward him and took his elbow. “Let’s go,” she murmured.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Jackie woke up from a fitful sleep. She couldn’t stop thinking about Thonar and his threats… and having to kill his dead wife all over again. That was a magic she hadn’t seen much of—necromancy. It freaked her out, to say the very least.

She turned over to peer at Bradas, who was dead to the world on the other side of the bed. He looked peaceful enough. She rolled her eyes and looked up at the ceiling. All this was almost enough to make her wish she could grow accustomed to the bloodshed. Maybe she’d get better sleep.

With a sigh, her eyes closed.

When they opened, she realized that she’d dozed off. She blinked a few times, feeling an absence on the other side of the bed. She rolled over to catch a glimpse of Bradas changing his clothes—he had nothing but smallclothes on, and was searching for a shirt. There was a flash of dark blue skin stretched over lean muscle.

Jackie made herself shut her eyes before she could start staring, but her heart was already racing. Wow, it had been a really long time since she’d seen a guy naked, hadn’t it? And none of them had a body like Bradas – tall, lean, and broad-shouldered… not to mention in super good shape. The little sexually-frustrated part of herself wanted to see more.

It was just… he was so unfairly hot. This felt like more of an objective fact, not necessarily a matter of personal preference. A girl couldn’t be blamed for wanting more than just a peek, right? She felt her cheeks warm up as she tried to remind herself that Bradas was just a friend, and had never indicated any interest beyond that. And that was totally cool, because something like a romantic relationship in Skyrim was probably a terrible idea.

Although at this point she was beginning to forget why

Well now she was awake. She tried to keep her breathing even.

“Good morning,” Bradas chuckled, and she felt her whole face burn up. “Watching me change, were you?”

“You know I wasn’t,” she protested, voice cracking a little. “It’s not my fault you’re an exhibitionist.” She kept her eyes firmly shut.

“I don’t know what that means and I don’t care,” he said. She could practically hear the smirk.

“Um, so listen – once you’re dressed I’d like to talk.”

“Just a moment…” She heard a swish of clothes against skin, then felt a tap on her shoulder. “Alright, I’m as modest as a monk. What did you want to talk about?”

She opened her eyes and sat up, and diligently forced herself not to be sad that he was dressed. She needed to be serious right now. “It’s about this whole… Forsworn thing. Yesterday was a disaster. I think we should… just quit. I mean, I feel terrible for Eltrys, and I know I was the one who wanted to investigate. But I think we’re getting involved in some stuff that’s really dangerous.”

Bradas hummed, ruby eyes wandering to the shelf where they’d placed Margret’s journal. “We’ve already invested so much time, but… perhaps you’re right. Let’s give the man his information and get paid.”

“Right.” Jackie breathed a sigh of relief. “We can give him the journal and wash our hands of this whole mess.”

***

They should have known that it could never be so simple.

Their first mistake was wandering down an ally in their search for Eltrys’ home. A large, angry-looking Nord appeared to block their way. Not a guard, Bradas quickly surmised, but a mercenary. Their eyes locked and Bradas’ guard was instantly up. The man had no visible weapons, but looked like he could fight without them.

“You’ve been digging around where you don’t belong,” the man said with a gravelly voice. “It’s time you learned a lesson.”

“You first,” Bradas growled, and hurtled himself at his would-be attacker.

“Let’s go!” The sellsword leapt right into action. He would have admired it if it hadn’t been action against him.

He didn’t have time to draw a blade right away, so he put up his fists and struck as quickly as he could. He wasn’t an expert at hand-to-hand combat, so he took every opportunity he could to fight dirty – shots to the eyes, ears, groin… anywhere painful that would end the fight fast.

It didn’t end quickly enough for Bradas, however, and he grew tired of dancing around. He took a hit to the ribs and his anger suddenly peaked—he hopped back and drew his knife, watching with satisfaction as the man’s eyes grew wide.

He barreled into the Nord and crowded him into the shadowed ally, dagger pressed up against the flesh of his neck. He supposed he didn’t have the patience for being honorable or sticking to a no-weapons rule.

“I’ve had enough of these games,” he snarled, eyes sliding to check on his companion. “Keep watch,” he barked, and she immediately pressed her back against the wall to look out for guards. He grinned and turned his attention back to the thug who’d just attacked him.

“Talk, or I send you to the Gods.”

The man’s eyes grew hard, but he seemed to accept that cooperating was the best course of action. “I was sent by Nepos the Nose. The old man hands out the orders.”

Bradas pressed the blade a little, and the skin on the man’s neck began to welt. He could feel his heart pumping, and he wanted, badly, to make this sellsword bleed. He grit his teeth. “Go on.”

“He told me to make sure you didn’t get in the way. That’s all I know, I swear!”

“He wants us dead?”

The other man’s eyes darted to Jackie. “He didn’t say anything about the girl. Just you,” he chuckled, despite being held at knifepoint. “You must make an impression, Dunmer.”

Bradas hummed. It made sense. Jackie tended to slip under the radar, most likely because he drew more attention as a Dark Elf.

In this instance, he was grateful. It seemed she was moderately safe from whatever plot was at hand, at least for the moment. Now all he needed to do was take care of the man at the end of his dagger. In this ally, with Jackie keeping watch, he could cut him open without consequence.

He was sorely tempted.

He glanced over at his companion and caught her nervous gaze. His heart, loath as he was to admit it, softened the tiniest bit. It wasn’t really necessary to kill this man, was it?

He looked back at the mercenary. “If I see you again, I’ll kill you.” He pressed his blade and broke the skin to make a point. The sellsword didn’t even react. By the Daedra, he actually admired that!

“Not if you get yourself killed first,” was all he said in the way of goodbye. He released his grip on the other man, and the thug shouldered his way past them with a huff. Jackie watched as he passed, eyes wide.

“Oh, my God,” she whispered harshly once the man was gone. She had one hand on her chest, like she was trying to stop her heart from beating too fast. “Did someone just try to have you killed?”

He scoffed. “They didn’t try hard enough.” He rolled his shoulders and sheathed his dagger. “Why would it shake you up now? This wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Yeah, but it’s probably the first time anyone’s ever done it, like… mob-style,” she huffed, cheeks pink. He tilted his head.

“Mob?”

“Like… the mafia? Oh, I’ll just tell you later,” she sighed, waving her hand.

He shrugged. It was just another one of those unexplainable things, he supposed. Like cars. He didn’t worry about it too much; he had more pressing things on his mind right now, like what to do about this ‘Nepos the Nose.’ “I don’t like this. Why would this ‘Nepos’ send a mercenary after us?”

“Because we’re messing around with stuff that’s none of our business,” Jackie said, crossing her arms. “Bradas… I’m so sorry. This is all my fault.”

That was the last thing he’d expected to hear. “What?”

“We wouldn’t be getting threatened if I’d just ignored Eltrys’ note in the first place,” she said quietly.

He scoffed. “This isn’t your fault. If anyone is to blame, it’s the man who just tried to have us killed.”

“Yeah, but—”

“You did nothing wrong,” he said firmly, placing a hand on her shoulder. “What I care about right now is finding out why this Nepos wanted us dead.”

.

.

Jackie followed Bradas through the winding streets of Markarth, up, up, up the stairs and into the nice part of town. What had started out as a niggling hunch that something was wrong was turning into a tight ball of nerves in her stomach—something was seriously weird in this city and she didn’t want any part of it.

“You know what, I hate Markarth. Don’t you? I wouldn’t be opposed to just picking up and leaving right now?” she tried. It was true, Eltrys and his dead father be damned. She hated to think that way, but the bad vibes were enough to override her guilt.

Her Dunmer companion wouldn’t hear it, though. “Someone just tried to kill me, Jackie,” he said in response, continuing up the stairs undeterred.

“Yeah, but—but maybe…” she struggled to keep up with his long strides. He only walked this fast when he was angry or stressed. “Maybe we should let it go? I don’t think we should mess around with this Nepos guy.”

“He clearly wants to ‘mess’ with us,” he said. Jackie bit the inside of her cheek and sighed. This was a stupid idea, but he was clearly determined. She was no one’s first choice in a fight, but at least he’d have someone to back him up if things went wrong.

She had a strong feeling they would.

They finally reached a house that as built into the stone of the city. It almost blended in with the rest of the architecture, it was so subtle. Without knocking, Bradas took the handle and opened the door. Jackie took a deep breath and followed him in.

There were several people milling about the house. Whether they were servants or family, she couldn’t be sure. One of them, a young woman, immediately noticed them.

“Excuse me. What’s your business here?” she asked, voice hard and suspicious.

“I’m here to see Nepos,” Bradas replied, voice equally stern.

“We haven’t been expecting you, and the old man needs his rest. Come back some other time.”

“Wait!” a tired voice sounded from the common area, just around the corner. “It’s alright, my dear. Send him in.”

“Hmph. Yes, Nepos.” It should have been good news, to be welcome in this house, but it only served to make Jackie’s stomach flip. The woman gave them a nasty look. “You heard him. Go on in.”

The old man was sitting in the corner before a fireplace, a book open in his lap. He was bald, with a gray goatee on his chin. It was almost a wonder that such a nice-looking old guy could have sent someone to kill Bradas.

“I’m sorry about my housekeeper,” he said kindly. “She’s a little protective of me. Now what is it you want?”

Bradas didn’t seem very charmed. “You send a thug after me, and ask why I’d come to see you? I know you’re not that soft-witted, ‘Nepos the Nose.’”

“Ah yes. You’ve proven to be a real bloodhound. Well, you’ve sniffed me out.” He leaned back in his chair with a weary sigh. “I’ve been playing this game for almost twenty years. Sending the young to their deaths, all in the name of the Forsworn. And I’m tired. So tired.”

“Who is behind all this?” the Dunmer asked, narrowing his eyes.

“My king, Madanach. When the uprising fell at the hands of the Nords, they threw him in the mines. I get his messages, and I hand out his orders without question.”

Jackie frowned. “Why would you tell us all this?”

Nepos glanced at her, mouth turned up in what looked like an indulgent smile. “My dear girl, what makes you think you’re getting out of here alive?” Jackie felt Bradas stiffen up beside her, and her own hand moved to her dagger.

A trap. Of course it was a trap!

Nepos went on, “You were seen coming in. The girl at the door is a Forsworn agent masquerading as a maid.”

Jackie turned and saw that the servants – agents – were looking at them now, and drawing their blades. There were at least eight of them.

“You aren’t the first ones to have gotten this far. You won’t be the last.”

Bradas didn’t need to hear anything more from the old man. Acting on instinct, he pulled Jackie by the arm and maneuvered her behind him. He wanted to slit the old man’s throat, but it wasn’t as smart a strategy as getting out of the way and finding a good choke point to force the Forsworn agents through.

He thanked the Daedra for Jackie’s talent at reading his body language. She allowed him to barrel her into a large backroom, and her knife was out and ready in less than a second. Still, as much as she had improved at fighting, he’d need to watch out for her—and with this many opponents at once, it was going to be dangerous.

The Forsworn were, thankfully, somewhat predictable. They seemed to all try to crowd in through the door at once. Bradas felt the pull of magic in the air and knew instinctively what was coming next. One agent was summoning fire to throw at them, just one moment longer and—

Flame magic bloomed from the hands of not one, but two of their foes. Almost gleefully, Bradas shouted, “FUS! ROH!” and watched it blow back in their faces. They all fell over, burning. Everything in the room, weighty objects like plates and paintings and goblets, blew around onto the floor like leaves caught in the wind. The walls shook like an earthquake and shocked screams filled the air. The destruction was glorious.

“Whoa!” Jackie exclaimed from behind him, and he felt a wash of pride despite the danger.

For now, though, he’d have to put away his utter delight at the success of his shout. He lunged for one of the humans still sprawled out on the floor and made quick work of them. Jackie wasn’t far behind, and together they fought through the Forsworn.

***

The fight was intense, but when it was finally over, and his heart was done pounding, he had to admit that it hadn’t been as difficult as he’d feared. The furniture was overturned and there was blood everywhere, but the agents had gone down easily.

Despite their numbers, most of them hadn’t been well-trained or prepared for a fight. Perhaps it was all those comfortable years of playing puppet for the elites of Markarth, Bradas thought with a sneer. This whole city made him sick, and he was ready to be done with it.

“These damned Forsworn,” he swore, flicking blood off his sleeve. It was pointless, since he was practically drenched. “We should get out of here before any guards come sniffing around.”

“That’s usually a good idea when you’ve slaughtered an entire house full of people,” Jackie said, her voice tired. She was pale as a ghost, and for a moment he thought it was just her normal squeamishness. When he looked more closely, though, he could see that she was holding her side.

“Are you hurt?” he asked, striding over to her in just a few steps.

She nodded and leaned heavily on a side table, knocking over a decorative bowl and scoffing as it fell to the floor. She peeled her hand away from her side to reveal blood. She had a deep gash that went straight through her armor and into her flesh. Blood was soaking through her shirts. “Yeah,” she muttered.

“I have you,” he said, summoning what bit of magicka he had. He gently pulled up layers of clothes to reveal the cut in its entirety, a nasty red gash in olive skin.

“I’m gonna be sick,” she rasped, staring.

He rolled his eyes. “Quit looking at it.”

She obeyed, looking straight ahead. “I—ahh,” she hissed as Healing Hands did its work. He was tired and his magic was slow. He guided her, ever so gently, to sit on the desk she was leaning on.

“You what?” he encouraged, hoping that talking would keep her distracted from the pain.

“I wanna leave now,” she murmured.

“Leave… you mean, leave this house?”

“Leave Markarth,” she explained, gritting her teeth. He was weak and Healing Hands was mending her skin a little too slowly. He had to call on his last reserves of magicka to continue the spell.

“You mean you want to leave Markarth? Now?”

She nodded. “Yeah. Forget about Eltrys.”

“What are you saying? What about our payment?” he asked, surprised.

She looked up at him, dark eyes shining. “I have a bad feeling. I really think we should just get out of the city.”

Bradas was silent as he finished the spell to the best of his ability, hands hovering just inches away from her bare skin. She’d have a scar, and it would probably hurt for a few days. He sighed. Hopefully they wouldn’t run into any more trouble after this.

“Don’t worry,” he said gently. “I can go meet Eltrys on my own. You should rest up, anyway. Take some health potions.” He gently pulled her clothes back over her skin, careful not to let his fingers linger for too long.

“Are you sure?” she asked, voice a little less shaky. She gingerly patted her side and winced. “I don’t know. This is… a pretty big mess.” She made a weak gesture around the room full of dead Forsworn.

He looked around and huffed a laugh. “Go back to the inn and get our things ready. We’ll leave tonight. I’ll see Eltrys for payment—we’ll need more money to travel,” he explained at her distressed look. Not to mention that he hated the idea that all this trouble was for nothing.

His human companion fixed him with a frown. “I… okay. If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure.” He grasped her hand and helped her stand up straight, though she probably didn’t need him to. She squeezed his hand once.

He felt his heart skip a beat at the simple gesture, then immediately felt foolish. They were surrounded by dead bodies and in real danger of being caught—now was not the time.

“Alright. Be careful,” she warned, before slipping her hand out of his. “I’ll be waiting for you at the inn. Be fast.”

.

.

Jackie walked to the inn, a hand pressed on her mostly-healed side. Night was falling, and she felt paranoid. She should have insisted that Bradas come back to the inn with her, and she cursed herself for not being a little more stubborn about it.

Still, he did have a point about the money. And he could handle himself, couldn’t he? She reassured herself that he’d join her in no time, and they’d leave this stupid place for good.

Once she got back into their room she took a health potion and ate a slice of bread. Then she got all their things together – they didn’t have much – and she waited.

And waited.

And waited.

She began to pace around their room, worry and paranoia swirling in the pit of her stomach. What was keeping him? What could possibly be taking so long? Times like this made her desperately miss technology. What she wouldn’t give to be able to call or text Bradas to find out where he was!

About two hours passed before she finally decided she needed to go out and look for him. She threw on some undamaged leather armor and headed down the stairs to the pub area.

The bar was surprisingly noisy, and not with the usual raucous drunken laughter. It was more like the sounds a crowd made when something crazy had happened and everyone was still in shock. Frowning, she looked behind the bar and happened to make eye contact with the innkeeper. He gave her a weird, sympathetic look. That… didn’t instill confidence.

She walked over to him, eyebrows drawn together. “What’s going on?” she asked.

He looked around uncomfortably. “Surprised you didn’t know. That man you were with, the elf? Got himself into some trouble.”

Her heart began to pound. “Did… did something happen to him?”

The innkeeper’s wife suddenly piped up, surprising Jackie. “He lost his mind,” she said excitedly. “Killed a man named Eltrys in the Shrine of Talos, and took out a couple of guards when they tried to capture him. They’ll be taking him to the mines, for sure.”

Jackie’s eyes went wide. “The mines?”

“Prison, basically,” the innkeeper said, frowning at his wife. “Don’t sound so thrilled, don’t you know that’s her man you’re talking about?”

“Well how am I supposed to know that?! You never tell me anything!”

Their bickering seemed to fade into the background. Jackie felt as though someone had just dumped a bucket of cold water over her head.

The mines. Bradas was in prison.

***

Jackie spent most of the night having a full-blown panic attack.

The situation was grim: Bradas was imprisoned in Cidhna Mine, a place that apparently was impossible to escape, according to the rumors she had heard. The city guard, or someone… whoever was in charge, had framed him for murdering Margret and Eltrys in cold blood.

She couldn’t help but dwell on how ridiculous that was. She’d seen Margret get murdered right before her very eyes; she’d killed the perpetrator herself. She also highly doubted that Bradas had killed Eltrys. It was possible, she had to admit, if Eltrys had decided to attack him or something… but she knew he wouldn’t have done that unless he was defending himself.

It was outrageous, and worse yet, she was completely powerless to help him.

Jackie felt hopeless tears come to her eyes, thankful for the dark and privacy of the empty room. It was selfish to think, she knew… but if Bradas got stuck in Cidhna Mine forever, she’d be all alone in Markarth.

Alone in Skyrim. Alone in this world.

Chapter Text

Jackie didn’t remember falling asleep, but she found herself waking up the next morning from a night of fitful dreams.

She sat up with a grunt, wiping sleep from her tender eyes. There was a tight ball of stress in the pit of her stomach, but she knew she couldn’t sit in bed and cry anymore. She had to take action, to do something.

“Alright, Jackie,” she muttered to herself, rubbing her temples. “One step at a time.”

She got up and got dressed on autopilot. She needed to figure out some way to help Bradas, but what was she supposed to do? If she had been the one in prison, Bradas would have known some brilliant way to break her out.

Whatever it took, she resolved, she was going to do it. Begging, borrowing, or stealing? Count her in. Even if it meant busting into Cidhna Mine and killing a bunch of guards…! Well, if she was being honest with herself, she probably wasn’t capable of that kind of carnage. Hopefully there were some other, more plausible options.

She finished tying on a gauntlet and left the room, locking the door behind her. First things first, she needed to secure more time at the inn. She went to the innkeeper and paid two weeks ahead. The boisterous man took the money without question and served her breakfast. She forced it down even though she wasn’t hungry – she’d need all her strength today if she was going to figure out a plan.

 

***

 

She brainstormed while she ate. She had spent all night thinking about the things she had going against her, but hadn’t yet counted her blessings. She did have a few advantages, the first being the fact that Bradas was actually innocent. He definitely hadn’t killed Eltrys or Margret.

Secondly, Bradas was the Dragonborn. As much as he hated to talk about it or acknowledge it, it was still true. While she didn’t know exactly what being the Dragonborn meant, she knew that it was pretty important to Nords. There had to be a way to use that, right?

Jackie hummed around a mouthful of apple cabbage stew, the gears in her mind turning. That wasn’t even counting the fact that he was the Thane of Whiterun. Did that hold weight here? She’d surely find out today.

She already had a semblance of a plan, even if she didn’t have much faith in it.

She finished breakfast quickly and left the inn. It was very early, but the sun was shining and people were already out, going about their business. It was a harsh reminder that life was going to go on, even while she was dealing with a crisis. That thought didn’t do anything to improve her mood.

Navigating the convoluted streets without Bradas felt strange. She missed having him by her side, always knowing what the next step was. Not for the first time that day, she wished that she knew what the hell she was doing.

After asking a stall-keeper for directions, she found her way to Understone Keep. It was a coin-toss whether or not the Jarl of Markarth would even give her the time of day, but like her mother used to say: you had to exhaust all of your options before giving up.

Understone Keep was an appropriate name for such an enormous stone building. She almost got lost the moment she stepped inside, but eventually found her way up an impossibly long set of stairs.

She reached the top of the stairs and saw the throne of the jarl. In front of him stood a woman that reminded her lot of Irileth, the Dunmer who protected the jarl of Whiterun. “You,” her voice boomed. “Who are you to approach the Jarl of Markarth?”

“I’m just a traveler,” Jackie greeted. She chose her next words carefully: “I seek an audience with the jarl. I just have a few questions…”

The woman nodded once, as if she’d appraised Jackie’s character in an instant and decided she wasn’t a threat. “Very well. You may approach the Mournful Throne, but watch your words.”

Jackie stepped up and approached the jarl. He didn’t sit up for her, just sat in that throne like he was born in it.

“You speak to Igmund, son of Hrolfdir. Jarl of Markarth,” he told her. She gave an awkward little curtsy, unsure of what the proper protocol was here.

“Jarl. Um, sir. My name is Jackie Carson.” She took a breath and remembered her plan. “I’m a servant of Bradas Sarayn, the Thane of Whiterun and the Dragonborn.”

With a small amount of satisfaction, she watched as the word ‘Dragonborn’ hit home with the other people standing around the throne. The jarl’s eyebrows went up – she took that as a sign that her idea wasn’t complete crap. “Dragonborn, eh? And what could the Dragonborn want, to send his servant to me?”

“I’m afraid there’s been a terrible mistake, my jarl,” she said, deciding that in was in her best interest to schmooze a little. “He’s been taken to Cidhna Mine on false charges.”

Saying this, she realized quickly, might have been a mistake.

“False charges?” he said slowly, eyes narrowing. “And what ‘charges’ could you mean?”

“He’s been accused of murder, sir,” she replied. “Not only accused, but arrested. He had no trial, no proof… they just tossed him in the mines without giving him a chance to defend himself—”

The jarl held up a hand and she stopped talking. “A trial is not required when an outsider attacks the city guard,” the jarl said sternly. “I know of whom you speak. A Dark Elf, yes?”

“That’s right,” she confirmed.

“I was told about him this morning by the captain of the Guard, who saw it all with his own eyes. A man who murdered a citizen, an Imperial woman, and injured city guards belongs in Cidhna Mine. Dragonborn or not, he must answer for his crimes.” Jackie suddenly felt the burn of outrage she’d been fighting all night.

“But, sir, he didn’t – where’s the proof he’s guilty? Besides the word of this guard?” she pleaded. “He deserves a fair trial before getting tossed in prison. Please,” she added, realizing that she was starting to sound a little too confrontational.

The jarl gave her a rueful smile. “Enough. You are a loyal servant, and for that I commend you. But where is your proof that he is innocent?”

She frowned. The justice system in Skyrim, if there was one, was messed up. “The burden of proof is on the accusers, sir.” That was right – she’d picked up some lingo from her defense attorney mother, once upon a time. “But if you gave me time, I could prove to you that he didn’t do it—”

The jarl shook his head. “You must not be from Skyrim, to think in such a way. That’s not how things work in my city.” He shook his head, looking sorry for her. “I suggest you move on. Your loyalty could serve a better master – there are even people here in the keep who would gladly take you on.”

Jackie felt the hope she’d had earlier slip away. It was obvious that she wasn’t going to get anywhere with this guy. Frustration and resignation washed over her and she sighed. “I… thank you. I’ll take my leave.”

She left Understone Keep quickly, tamping down on the urge to swear very loudly. She wondered what Bradas was doing. Did they have him doing hard labor down in the mines while she sat above ground, powerless to save him? She felt her palms itch with the helplessness of it.

“Okay,” she muttered to herself, trying not to think about it. She still had some options, right?

That night, she stayed up late trying to figure out what more she could do.

 

***

 

A week went by.

Jackie was restless as ever. During the day, she talked to people and did little odd jobs for cash. She tried to come up with something clever, thought up schemes that could never work. Every day she hit a new dead end. No one in the city was interested in helping her, even if they knew that the city guard was corrupt.

She’d even gone as far as visiting the entrance to Cidhna Mine. The guards had pretty much just laughed at her when she’d asked if prisoners got visiting hours. No surprise there.

At night she tossed and turned and tried not to imagine what Bradas was going through in prison.

It was late in the evening when she finally sat up in bed, unable to rest and barely able to keep her anxiety at bay. She sniffled and wiped at dry eyes, feeling like she was all out of tears at this point. She was so, so tired, and she hated herself for being so helpless.

Jackie groaned and rubbed her eyes. She shouldn’t dwell on those kinds of late-night thoughts; it was just no use. She could tell she wouldn’t be able to sleep for a while, and the only way to avoid wallowing in misery was to do something.

Maybe a walk would help. The city may have been full of corrupt guards and mercenaries, but the streets were relatively safe.

She got up, got dressed, and started walking.

There was a lot on her mind. She didn’t pay attention to where she was going, just walked and tried to wear herself out.

Poor Bradas, she thought, heart aching. If only he’d been with someone else. Anyone else, really – she was the last person on the planet equipped to orchestrate a rescue. She vaguely wondered if he’d be powerful enough to kill everyone in the mine and escape by himself?

Not that she wanted him to do something like that. (Though she was beginning to get desperate. Would she really blame him if he did such a thing?)

But no, if he’d been capable of escaping on his own he’d have done it already. Which meant she needed to think up a brilliant plan. The issue was that she didn’t have one, and she had literally no one to talk to her or give her advice.

She took a deep breath. There were those tears she’d thought she’d run out of. She wiped at her eyes, thankful that it was dark out and that no one was around. Where was she, anyway?

In front of the Temple of Dibella, it seemed. She scoffed, thinking of the first time she’d been here. On a lark, she opened the door to the temple and let herself in. It wasn’t like there was anything else to do, anyway.

The building was eerily silent. Odd – usually if a place was closed, the doors would be locked. So why wasn’t anyone around?

In fact, the shrine looked totally empty. The only sign of life was that the candles that were all still lit. The light from them cast soft shadows onto the giant statue of Dibella, making the goddess’ face look sympathetic.

Jackie felt a kind of peace from just looking at its beauty.

It was enticingly beautiful, like a sculpture in a museum. She walked toward the statue and reached a hand out to touch the cold stone. Someone had worked long, hard hours to make this, she realized – you couldn’t just manufacture stuff in this world. Her hand skimmed across Dibella’s smooth cheek.

Hadn’t Bradas once prayed to Dibella? When he was turning into a vampire, she’d saved him. Whoever, whatever Dibella was, she had helped.

“I could sure use some divine intervention,” she murmured to herself.

The sound of something dropping on the floor jolted her out of her reverie, and she snapped her hand back from the sculpture. She looked around quickly, suddenly paranoid that a certain priestess was going to pop out and yell at her to leave.

But there was no one to see. After a moment of confusion, she realized that the sound had come from behind a door she hadn’t noticed before.

She suddenly felt very curious. As if compelled, she drifted to it.

There was a reason it was shut, she told herself. But would it really hurt to find out what was behind it? What was the worst that could happen?

So, feeling like a victim in a horror movie, she moved to investigate. She turned the handle to find it locked. Jackie laughed to herself, feeling stupid. All this drama for nothing. But… her hand still hovered over the handle. Alright, trying one more time wouldn’t hurt; Skyrim was full of old, janky doors. for some reason, she decided to try again. It opened with an easy click.

“Huh,” she breathed, an inexplicable thrill running through her. It must have just been jammed for a second.

She padded into a hallway, careful to be quiet. It appeared that there was more to the temple than appeared. She went down some stairs, through another hallway, and came in front of another door. There were voices coming from behind it, but she couldn’t hear what they were saying.

She pressed her ear to the door to listen.

“Oh, Lady Dibella,” she heard, “lead us to your Sybil.”

Sybil. What was a Sybil, she wondered? And, like an idiot, she opened the door to see what was going on.

The moment she did, everyone in the room turned their heads to stare. The exhilaration of her new discovery faded away abruptly, and she realized what a terrible decision she’d just made.

 

***

 

“What are you doing in here?” a woman in robes demanded.

“Oh!” Jackie exclaimed, immediately divining that she was in trouble here. “I, I was just—”

“Did you picklock the door to the Inner Sanctum?” another priestess asked incredulously. Jackie immediately recognized her as the one who’d yelled at her for storming into the temple drunk.

“Oh, God,” she said, wondering why she’d even been poking around here in the first place. Bradas’ habit of exploring everything must have rubbed off on her. “No, I didn’t pick the lock. The door was open.”

“It’s you,” the woman said with a frown. “The drunkard. What are we going to do with you?”

“Nothing! I’ll just leave,” Jackie said quickly. The priestess shook her head.

“Absolutely not. You’ve trespassed, again,” she said. “Stay where you are. The Mother will deal with you.”

“I… that’s really not necessary,” Jackie protested. “I just came in and heard a noise. I thought…” Well, what was she thinking? She was intruding, and in a place that she was already blacklisted. She sighed. The stress of the last week must have been killing brain cells, because she couldn’t think of a single good reason she’d wandered down here. She was going to have to just take her lumps like an adult. “Alright. Who is the Mother?”

“Here she is,” the other woman gestured and Jackie followed her hand. An older woman, a Nord with white hair, was walking toward Jackie with an angry look on her face.

“And just what do you think you’re doing?” the Mother asked, hitting her with a voice that threw her right back to her Catholic school days.

Flushing, she replied, “I was… just curious about the temple. The door was unlocked and I heard people down here… I’m sorry.”

The Mother raised an unforgiving brow. “Unfortunately for you, we don’t allow the uninitiated into the Inner Sanctum. You have committed a breach, and must pay the penalty.”

Penalty?” If Jackie didn’t think she could get any more stressed out before, she was wrong. She was already low on gold, and this would put her out. She sighed in defeat. “What’s the penalty?”

“Normally? A quick death.”

“Jesus Christ,” she muttered. What was the abnormal punishment? A slow death?

“Luckily for you, there are more pressing matters. We could make an example of you, but perhaps you could be put to better use…” The Mother hummed. “The ceremony you so rudely interrupted was the Exalted Protocol of the Dibellan Sybil. I don’t expect you to know what that means.”

Jackie frowned and crossed her arms. She knew she wasn’t the most popular person around this place, but she hated the way they talked to her. “What do you want me to do, then? If I’m so ‘uninitiated?’”

“Recently our Sybil was lost to us. Through the Protocol, we have seen the home of the next Sybil, to the North, in a village pressed against the stone. If you can travel there and retrieve our young Sybil, your transgression will be forgiven.”

“I can’t leave the city,” Jackie refused. She couldn’t leave Bradas. “I can pay you… damages, or whatever,” even though I didn’t break anything, she didn’t say, “but it’s honestly not possible for me to take a trip out to God-knows-where. I’m sorry.”

“Pay us? That’s blasphemy,” another priestess piped up. “We don’t want your money. You can’t pay your way out of a sin!”

“The only other way is death,” the mother said. Jackie felt her hackles rise, but saw that these ladies meant business. There was a certain taste in the air she’d grown accustomed to around Bradas – the feeling of magicka being drawn upon. She was only one person, and she surely wouldn’t be able to defeat them on her own. She took a deep breath and tried to calm herself.

“Fine,” she said. “Where is this place?”

“We believe it to be a village called Karthwasten.”

“How far away is it?”

“A day and a night’s journey on foot. Go North and you’ll find it.”

“What if I get killed on the way there?”

The mother smirked, eyes going to Jackie’s dagger. “You look like you know what to do with that. Do whatever it takes to get our Sybil to us. Go as fast as you can.”

.

.

The next morning, she bought a map from the innkeeper and asked him to mark a few places for her. It was then that she was informed that she was heading right to a village that the Forsworn liked to attack on the regular. In fact, the Forsworn had even taken over a keep nearby.

Just when things couldn’t get worse, Jackie thought bitterly, a bunch of bitchy priestesses sent her on a suicide mission into Forsworn territory.

She listened and nodded as the innkeeper talked to her and sold her provisions at a marked-up price.

Jackie then went up to the room she was renting, pressed her face into a pillow, and screamed.

 

***

 

After having what was becoming her ‘daily meltdown,’ she calmed down enough to think. Things were quickly getting out of hand, if they hadn’t already, but there had to be a way to salvage the situation.

She breathed in and out a few times, trying to clear her mind and think. She was just so frustrated, and just flat-out angry—angry at those priestesses, angry at herself for being so stupid, angry at the jarl. God, she was just so incredibly angry at the entire stupid city of Markarth…

Wait. She opened her eyes, struck by an epiphany.

Angry at the city of Markarth. Who else was angry at Markarth?

A wild thought appeared in her brain, one that she wasn’t sure she could trust. Was it possible that she had something in common with the Forsworn? She didn’t like them one bit, but they were an untapped resource.

It was a crazy idea but… nothing else she’d tried had worked. The city guard was corrupt, the jarl refused to listen to her, and the nobles were all involved in shady dealings with Cidhna Mine. No one was willing to listen to her, and if they did hear her out they didn’t care.

The Forsworn basically operated like terrorists, but no one else was lining up to help her.

She swore under her breath. Was she actually considering going to them for help? She could feasibly travel to the keep that the Forsworn were occupying and try to treat with them. It was dangerous, but she was running out of options.

As a matter of fact… this was probably her only option.

Chapter Text

Traveling alone sucked, Jackie realized as she hit the road. A few hours into her walk, she was both bored and paranoid – bored because there was no one to talk to, and paranoid because there was no one to help her out if she was set upon by bandits.

Or wolves. Or bears. Or Forsworn.

Still, she reminded herself, this was her only option. With every step, she felt more firm in her decision to go to the Forsworn. By the time she made camp fir the night, she’d worked out exactly what she would say to them.

Their king, Madanach, was just a pawn of Thonar Silver-Blood. Thonar had just lost his wife and would probably have no issues with executing Madanach, even if he was helping keep the peace. It would only make sense to orchestrate a jailbreak of some type, right? It was a win-win for everyone.

God, she really hoped so. She poked the small fire she’d made for herself, imagining what would happen if she failed. The Forsworn would probably kill her and eat her for breakfast.

With a sigh, she curled up on her bedroll and watched the fire die down.

 

***

 

The next morning, Jackie continued walking. If she was reading her map right (and she dearly hoped she was), the village she was coming upon was Karthwasten, the place the Dibellan priestesses wanted her to go.

She was tempted to just avoid the village altogether. She was still feeling bitter about being strong-armed into going by those rude priestesses. And really, would they ever really know if she ignored their demands?

Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to blow them off. She was here, anyway, might as well inform someone that their daughter was a… ‘sybil,’ or whatever. If she was lucky, someone here could tell her the exact location of the Forsworn’s keep.

She turned left at a fork and made her way into the village of Karthwasten. There was just the smallest residential area, with only a few houses to stand against the stone. People with pickaxes trailed down the dirt road, going to work at the mine down the road.

“Excuse me?” she said, waving a hand while jogging toward them. A couple of guys walking together stopped and looked at her, puzzled. “Hello, hi,” she breathed, suddenly unsure of what she was going to say. “My name’s Jackie, I’m travelling here from Markarth.”

“And? Can we help you?” one man asked a little rudely.

“You’re not from around here,” the other accused, fixing her with a glare. “We don’t have anything to talk to you about.”

Wow, rude! she thought. “Actually, if you could give me two seconds of your time I’ll get out of your hair,” she said quickly. “I’m looking for a young girl who lives around here.”

One man looked stricken, and the other threw his hands up. “I’m getting out of here. I want nothing to do with this.”

“What?” Jackie muttered.

“Damn it, woman,” the one remaining said. “Are you trying to taunt us?”

“What are you talking about?” she asked.

“My name is Enmon. My daughter, Fjotra, was taken from here,” he said. “The Forsworn descended and… they didn’t touch anything else. Just our little girl.”

Jackie took a quick breath in. This complicated things. “Where did they take her?”

“It was the Forsworn from the Broken Tower,” he said, wiping his nose with a dirty hand. “Why?”

“Your daughter is the only little girl around here?” she asked.

“Not many children around here,” Enmon replied sadly. “Our neighbor has a baby daughter, but she’s the only one around her age. What’s it to you?”

Jackie could hardly believe it. How was it possible that the girl she’d been sent for had just so happened to get kidnapped? And by the people she was trying to get help from, no less! Was this fate, or was it just straight-up stupidity?

“Your daughter is the Sybil of Dibella, or so I’ve been told,” Jackie informed him, inwardly wondering if her life could get any crazier.

“She… really?” Enmon gasped. “I wouldn’t have ever dreamed. Of course, we need her in Markarth, then. I’ll come with you.”

Her eyebrows went straight up into her hairline. “Come with me?”

“To save her,” he clarified.

Jackie wondered if Enmon would have planned to save his daughter if she wasn’t the Sybil. It looked like he was heading off to work another normal day before she’d come along. Regardless of his motivations, she didn’t need him coming with her and messing up her plans, stupid as they were.

“It’s dangerous there,” she said, trying to sound like a person who knew what they were doing. “You should stay.”

“You’re… probably right. Just hurry, please. Who knows what things they’re doing to her.”

Jackie didn’t even want to imagine. She wondered what reason they could possibly have to kidnap a kid, even if she was the Sybil of Dibella. What use could she be to them? Besides… well, Jackie had seen enough news articles about kidnapped kids back in her world to have an idea.

Shit, she thought. If they were really sickos who abducted kids for terrible reasons, she definitely didn’t want their help for anything. Things were getting so complicated, and all she wanted to do was help Bradas get out of jail!

“Alright,” Jackie said, digging her map out of her pocket. “Tell me how to get to the Broken Tower.”

 

***

 

The Broken Tower was just two miles East of the village. As she walked, she wondered how paranoid the Forsworn would be. Would they attack her on sight? She hoped that they wouldn’t, and wondered if she should make some kind of white flag to wave around.

She had officially decided that she really hated the Forsworn. Like, a lot. But if her plan was going to work, she’d need to play nice with them. And now that a young girl’s life was on the line, she’d need to be very, very careful.

Not for the first time, she wished Bradas was by her side. He’d know exactly what to say, what to do. She was basically just winging it.

Her heart ached. She really missed him.

She missed him so much, in fact, that she was risking her life to ally with the freaking Forsworn for him. Was she actually insane? She stopped in the middle of the road for a second to contemplate this question.

“What am I doing?” she asked aloud. “These people are going to kill me.”

Beyond all her fatigue and worry and stress, she had a moment of clarity. She realized that might be a little bit in love with Bradas.

It was more frustrating than anything else. She was too tired to deal with it, and way too stressed. Leave it to her to have a life-changing realization at a time like this. With a sigh, she continued walking. There wasn’t anything to be done about it now.

Thankfully, the tower came into her vision before she could really beat herself up. It was all a moot point if she failed, anyway. Step one would be to save Bradas, and step two would be to… well, she’d figure it out later.

She chose to concentrate on the matter at hand. The tower was tall and jagged, broken just like it was named. There were people dressed in strange armor patrolling the walls of the tower. Those must have been the Forsworn.

She took a deep breath and called upon her courage – or stupidity, whichever one was driving her forward at the moment. Right now she needed to be focused. She thought of all the people that were stronger or smarter than she was—her mother, her sister, Mirabelle Ervine. Bradas. She tried to channel them all.

One deep breath, and she was ready. She threw her hands up in the air and marched forward.

“I’m not an enemy!” she hollered. An arrow flew right past her head. She yelped and tears stung her eyes. Okay, she was officially the stupidest person alive. “I surrender!!” she yelled once more. “I have information for you from Markarth!”

Thankfully, no more arrows flew. A door at the base of the tower opened, and out stalked a big, burly man dressed in strange furs. Jackie gulped and stood absolutely still. He marched toward her, looking like he wanted nothing more than to punch her in the face.

Most notably, he had a huge scar across his chest over his heart. It looked painful, even though the wound seemed mostly healed. She didn’t have much time to wonder about it; he approached her and placed his hand on the hilt of his sword. She stayed frozen, hands still in the air.

“Please don’t use that on me,” she said, trying to sound brave. “I’m here to speak to you. I have information about Madanach.”

The man crowded her, placing rough hands on her sides. Frisking her, she realized, heart pounding. He took her dagger and her bow and arrow, stealing away any line of defense she might have had in this crazy endeavor. He confiscated everything from her potions to provisions, leaving her with nothing but the clothes on her back.

“Magic?” he asked, voice gruff.

“No,” she replied. His hands skimmed her breasts in his search for weapons, and she thought about how nice it would be to stab him in the face.

“Are you an agent of Madanach’s?” he finally took his hands off her.

Now it was time to lie her head off. “Yes, in a way,” she said, sounding a lot braver than she felt. “I need to speak to someone in charge, is that you?”

“Kaie,” he grunted. He grabbed her arm and jerked her along.

“Hey! I came here willingly,” she protested, but he didn’t let go of her. He just dragged her into the keep like a caveman, and it was all she could do to keep up with his quick pace.

He led her through the halls of the keep and into a large banquet hall. A fire was blazing in the corner and there was food scattered over a table. A few people sat at it, looking up from their meals to stare at her. They were all dressed in the same skimpy fur armor, and she wondered how they could fight in such revealing clothing.

To their credit, though, they’d certainly win in a fight against her. And if she screwed up, they’d definitely kill her. She’d never been more aware of the fact that she could die if she took a wrong step.

At the center of the long banquet table sat a young woman. Jackie’s eyes were immediately drawn to her: beautiful and muscular, strong and powerful-looking. Her head was shaved, but she still looked feminine. She was obviously in charge here, and she had the aura of someone who could snap your head with the flick of the wrist.

Someone with a bow and arrow ran into the room and whispered something in her ear. She gazed at Jackie for what felt like a really long time.

“You must be very brave or very stupid,” she finally said, tilting her head. “Farre, let her go.”

The man let her go abruptly. She rubbed her sore bicep. “You must be Kaie,” she said, keeping her voice steady and looking the woman straight in the eyes.

“Indeed, I am,” she replied. “But I don’t know you. And that makes me very nervous.”

“My name is Jackie,” she offered, praying for the confidence needed to pull this off. “You’re right that we don’t know each other, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help each other.”

Kaie grinned, a smile that was more teeth than anything. “Help each other? Oh, no. I don’t think so. You’re not one of ours, and I doubt you know anything about Madanach.” She scoffed. “What kind of agent runs into Forsworn territory screaming about information?”

This scary woman was absolutely right, Jackie thought to herself. She was an idiot. A huge, desperate idiot. “You’re right,” Jackie said with what she hoped was a cool shrug. “I admit this is all unusual, but desperate times call for desperate measures.”

Kaie sat back in her chair and crossed her arms. “Desperate times,” she repeated thoughtfully. “What do you know?”

Here it was: time for the pitch. “You must have heard by now that Thonar Silver-Blood’s wife was killed by one of your people,” she said carefully.

“We have agents everywhere,” Kaie drawled. “Is that the information you had? There are Forsworn agents in Markarth, always watching. What could you possibly tell me that I don’t already know?”

“I know exactly what’s on Thonar’s mind right now,” Jackie said. “I know he’s angry that his wife was killed, and that he wants revenge.”

The Forsworn woman scoffed. “I get the feeling that you didn’t come all the way out here to tell me that Silver-Blood is angry about his wife.” She said the word wife like it meant nothing.

Jackie shook her head. “That’s not all. He’s out for revenge. He wants Madanach dead. He said that he’d see him die in prison for what he did – or for what the Forsworn did. That Madanach is just a pawn that’s outlived his usefulness,” she said. It was an exaggeration, but she needed the Forsworn to believe it. “It seems like Cidhna Mine isn’t the safest place for him, wouldn’t you agree?”

To her utter shock, Farre grabbed her arm again. “Threat?!” he growled, shaking her slightly. Jackie jerked out of his grasp, heart racing.

“No! It’s a warning,” she snapped, anger surging through her body. Kaie held up a hand.

“Peace, Farre. Leave her alone.” The man backed away, and Jackie wished now more than ever that she had her weapons. Kaie addressed Jackie: “Speak clearly. There’s obviously some reason you came all the way here.”

“If there was ever a time to break your king out of Cidhna Mine, it would be now,” Jackie said. “I want to help.”

The woman actually laughed at that. That was… not promising. “Why? What’s in it for you, stranger?”

Jackie rolled her shoulder, feeling the sharp, stinging pain in her arm. “We both want people out of the mines,” she said simply, not wanting to give them too much information about Bradas.

“You can’t enter Cidhna Mine for yourself, so you think you can manipulate the Forsworn into helping you.”

“Wrong,” she said quickly. “My idea could help us both. I can be your way into the city. Thonar Silver-Blood doesn’t have any more use for the Forsworn, so the city guard will be extra careful who they let in now. It would be hard to get a whole group of you in to break into Cidhna Mine.” She gestured to herself. “But they know me. And since I’m on an errand for the Temple of Dibella, they expect me back.”

For the first time, Kaie looked interested. “The Temple of Dibella?”

Jackie actually didn’t know how to bring up the question of the girl they’d kidnapped, but Kaie’s reaction was confirmation that they had her. “That’s right. Normally the guard might not let a whole group of strangers into the city… but if they were doing something important, like bringing the Sybil of Dibella to the temple…”

Kaie caught on quickly. “Hm. A group of people on a holy mission,” she mused.

“Everyone wins,” she explained. “You get a way into the city to save your king, and I get my friend out of the mine. And who knows, maybe while you’re there you’ll get the chance to kill some Nords.” Jackie worried that the last part would be overkill, but it got a great reaction from everyone at the table. There were a few whoops and a couple of people banged their fists on the table. Even Farre, who was still skulking beside her, seemed excited at the promise of blood.

Kaie stood up, still cool as a cucumber. “Come with me. If you’re serious about helping us, there’s something you need to see.”

***

Jackie’s heart was still pounding as she followed Kaie through the corridors of the keep. They wound their way up uneven stairs until they reached a small area with a table and two chairs.

There were two Forsworn warriors sitting there, and it only took a second for Jackie to see that they were guarding a closed door. She had a bad feeling about it… was it a closet? Was that little girl, Fjotra stuck in there?

What the hell was going on here?

“Leave us,” Kaie said with a wave of her hand. The guards got up and obeyed immediately, but not without giving Jackie wary looks.

She stayed quiet, deciding that she’d let Kaie speak first. They listened as the other Forsworn marched down the steps, evidently waiting for them to get further away.

“You must be curious,” Kaie said with a little smirk.

“Just a little.” Jackie crossed her arms and eyed the door. There was the sound of… shuffling, or something, behind it. Jesus Christ, she just knew there was a kid locked in there.

“You say you’re willing to help us get into the city,” the warrior woman began, catching Jackie’s gaze with her own. She looked intense, Jackie thought, stressed out. She hoped she hadn’t been dragged all the up these stairs just to be pushed down them—God only knew she was defenseless right now.

“That’s what I said,” Jackie replied slowly. “What was it you wanted to show me?”

“The Sybil of Dibella,” Kaie admitted. “I didn’t believe it was true, but… we may have her.” She gestured to the door, and confirmed Jackie’s suspicions.

She was speechless for just a second. If she hadn’t been in a life-or-death situation, she might have said something about the immorality of kidnapping children. All she could really say was: “Why?”

The Forsworn woman sighed. It was long-suffering, like a mother who had to deal with too many kids. “Do you know of the Briarhearts?”

“I don’t.”

“The man who brought you in here, Farre. He’s one of them. A man who makes the great sacrifice of becoming a Briarheart warrior dies in the process. His own heart is removed, and replaced with a briar heart.”

Hence the name, Jackie supposed. “Sounds… painful,” she hedged, thinking of the great big scar she’d seen on Farre’s chest.

“It is,” Kaie deadpanned. “Since they are, in a way, undead, they’re closer to the veil. They can see things that the living can’t… Or so some believe.”

“What does this have to do with the Sybil of Dibella?” Jackie asked carefully.

“Farre went crazy about a week ago,” the other woman said as if speaking about a dog. “He wanted to go to Karthwasten, that village down the road. I told him no, but he took a few warriors and went anyway. Guess what he dragged back.” She tilted her head toward the door.

Jackie felt sick to her stomach. “It sounds like Farre isn’t the… easiest person to work with.”

“I almost killed him,” Kaie said with a sneer. “He came back with a child, ranting about how she’d been touched by the Gods. I don’t believe in all that, but enough people here do. And when a Briarheart talks about the Gods, people listen. I couldn’t just kill the little thing.”

And thank God (or Dibella, maybe) that she hadn’t, Jackie thought, trying to keep a straight face. She couldn’t act judgmental right now. “Good thing you didn’t,” she said, trying to sound like she didn’t care one way or the other. “Now we can take her to Markarth and get you into the city.”

“Yes, it seems that Dibella has blessed our mission,” Kaie said, and Jackie couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not. “Because it just so happens that I received a letter from Cidhna Mines a few weeks ago. Madanach is ready to leave, and I’m to bring him armor and weapons. There are ways into the city—underground passages that might not be safe to travel. I was willing to risk it, but a straight path into the city makes things infinitely easier.”

Jackie could hardly believe what she was hearing. Madanach was already wanting out of the mines? Why now, after all these years trapped inside? “Why didn’t he want to leave sooner?” she risked asking.

“The miners have found a Dwemer ruin to escape through,” Kaie said, sounding strangely proud. “Years and years have passed, and there’s finally a way out. King Madanach has finally found a way, and the Forsworn will rise again,” she said fervently.

Jackie frowned. “That’s… good. That makes sense.” Not really, but okay. “So I’ll take the Sybil back to Markarth… and I’ll get you into the city. What then?”

We take the Sybil back to Markarth,” Kaie corrected. “I’ll go with you, and we’ll meet a few chosen people outside of the city. You get us in, and we’ll take it from there.”

“No way,” Jackie objected. “You’re going to the mines, right? I want to come with you.”

Kaie considered this for a moment. “Fine. But you’d better be willing to fight.”

“I’m more than willing.”

“Good,” Kaie smirked. “I already like you. If all goes well… perhaps you can join us.”

That sounded like the worst thing ever. “Maybe, if we all make it out alive,” Jackie replied, trying very hard not to sound as repulsed at the idea as she actually was. “Now, about the Sybil.”

“Yes,” Kaie said. “You and I will take her to Markarth, we’ll take to the road in less than an hour. I have arrangement to make.” She dug something out of her pocket—a key. She tossed it to Jackie. “Here. Get the girl ready. I’ll meet you in the banquet hall before we go.”

Jackie stared at the ancient key in her hand as Kaie marched down the stairs, and tried very hard not to throw up.

She was alive!

With shaking hands, she turned to the locked door and opened it up.

Surely as she’d guessed, there was a little girl sitting in a dark, dank closet. “Are you one of them?” she asked, eyes wide. Jackie lost her breath for a second. Good God, they had left her in a storage closet. She crouched to get on the girl’s level and held out a hand.

“No,” she said quietly, trying her best to sound calm. “Your name is Fjotra, right?” She held out a hand. “My name is Jackie. I’m here to help you, sweetheart.”

Fjotra just instantly took her hand, with all the trust only a child could have. She looked terrified, which made absolute sense for someone who’d been locked in a closet for a week. It broke Jackie’s heart. “Yes, I’m Fjotra. They, they were so mean to me—”

Jackie placed a finger over her lips. “I know. We just have to stay here for a tiny little bit and we’ll leave.”

“Are you taking back to my mother and father?”

Of course that would be where she wanted to go. Back to her parents, who loved her and kept her safe. Jackie hadn’t even considered it, so caught up she was in her scheme to save Bradas. She felt like absolute garbage. “I… can’t,” she admitted. “I was sent here to take you to the Temple of Dibella in Markarth. Do you know where that is?”

Fjotra looked at Jackie, big blue eyes wide and comprehending. It spooked her a little, how clear they were. “Then it’s true what they said? I am touched by the Gods?”

Jackie wasn’t so sure about anything anymore. Anything was possible at this point, wasn’t it? She settled for nodding. “You’re going to be the Sybil of Dibella.”

“I’ve heard stories about the wonders of the great temple in Markarth, but I never dreamed that I would even get to see it,” the girl replied, in awe. She fixed Jackie with a determined, oddly grown-up look. “I am honored to be called for this duty.”

“If I can… I’ll convince her to let us stop by the village to say goodbye to your parents,” Jackie said quietly, overcome with some unidentifiable emotion. The air was heavy and there was a lump in her throat.

“I’d like that,” Fjotra said solemnly.

.

.

As promised, Kaie was ready to leave in under an hour. In that time, Jackie got Fjotra some food—it turned out they’d been feeding her, but just enough. Some small mercy, she’d thought angrily. A great show of generosity from the Forsworn.

Farre was the one to give her weapons and potions back. She thanked him out of habit, even though she really wished she had the skill or power to just kill him. And maybe everyone else in this keep.

Still, she needed to get Fjotra back to Markarth in one piece and make nice with Kaie.

“We should reach the city by tomorrow night,” Jackie said when they got onto the road.

“Sounds good to me. Once we get into Markarth, you can take this whelp to the temple and meet me somewhere.”

“The inn?”

“It matters not to me,” the woman said with a shrug. She changed into some real clothes, thankfully—she’d blend in a lot better.

“Just one more thing…” Jackie hedged. It was a long-shot, but she felt awful and Fjotra was trailing beside her with a hopeful look in her eyes. “It wouldn’t take us long to make a detour back to Karthwasten. It’s only thirty minutes out of our way. Couldn’t we take Fjotra to say goodbye to her parents?”

Kaie scoffed. “It’s a waste of time.”

“Oh, come on,” Jackie said, trying to sound friendly. “It’s just a little while. Markarth will still be standing when we get there.”

That got her a glare. “No detours. I want to get there as soon as possible.” She caught Fjotra’s sad gaze and tipped her head repentantly. “There’s no time to waste in war, young one.”

And that was the end of that. Kaie looked ahead and kept walking, and Jackie looked down at the girl with an apologetic smile. She held her hand out and Fjotra took it.

“I bet you can write your parents a letter when we get there, and they can come visit you,” she said, trying to lift her spirits.

“Really?” she asked.

Jackie shrugged. “You’re the Sybil, so why not?” She fought down a wave of guilt and dug a sweetroll out of her bag. “How about this. You get a piggy-back ride and a sweetroll, and we’ll talk about what you’ll write in your letter. Hop on!”

 

***

 

They walked until dark settled in the sky, and they had no choice but to stop and make camp. Jackie let Fjotra pass out on her bedroll as she built a fire with Kaie, who’d been silent for most of the day. It was really awkward to travel with her, and Jackie dearly missed joking with Bradas.

She was so very tired, too. But she felt beyond uncomfortable with sleeping in front of Kaie. It looked like it would be another sleepless night.

Kaie seemed to feel the same way. The two women sat on opposite sides of the campfire. Jackie sat on the bedroll that Fjotra was curled up on, and Kaie sat alone. The moons passed lazily through the quiet sky, and the air grew colder.

Finally, the Forsworn spoke. “Do you have children?”

It was an unexpected question. Jackie blinked a few times, eyes still focused on the flames. “Uh, no. Why do you ask?”

Kaie nodded toward the sleeping girl. “You’re very kind to her, that’s all.”

“She’s just a kid,” Jackie murmured, still upset that they hadn’t gone to Karthwasten so she could say goodbye to her family.

“You have a soft heart. A mother’s heart,” the other woman said. “I used to be the same way, when I had a child.”

She finally looked into the woman’s face, lit up in harsh firelight. She’d said had, as in the past tense. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.”

Kaie shrugged, and poked the fire with a stick. “I know I seem cruel to you. But this is what we must do to survive.”

Jackie hummed. “I know that Skyrim… Tamriel, isn’t a kind place. But we can at least try to show some humanity, can’t we? Would it really have hurt to take her home for a little bit?”

Kaie shook her head. “It would have taken at least an hour for them to say their goodbyes. And I’d have to watch a mother part with her child. I won’t do that.”

She can’t do that, Jackie interpreted. “Alright.” And with that, she let the matter drop.

.

.

As predicted, Markarth came into sight that next evening as the sun was beginning to set. Fjotra cheered from her position on Jackie’s back.

“Yay,” Jackie said, exhausted and unable to match her enthusiasm. She looked to Kaie. “Where are your people?”

“They should be nearby,” she said. Jackie suddenly heard hoofbeats and turned to look down the road where they were coming from. “Ah, perhaps that’s them.”

One huge horse was walking down the road, flanked by three other people. No one was riding it, because it was carrying a huge load. Food, armor, and weapons, Jackie guessed. Kaie jogged to greet them, but Jackie hung back with Fjotra.

“What are they doing?” the girl whispered into Jackie’s ear.

“Nothing good,” she muttered. She changed the subject. “Hey, aren’t you excited to see the temple?”

Fjotra nodded, but said no more; she was absorbed in watching Kaie talk to the other Forsworn and inspect whatever the work horse was hauling. Jackie caught the glint of a broadsword and sighed. This was a huge mess.

***

They only had a tiny bit of hassle getting into the city, but only because the guard at the gate was enamored with the big horse they were trying to get through.

“What breed of horse is he? He’s huge!” the guard was saying. “What is he carrying?”

“The girl’s possessions,” Kaie answered brusquely.

“And not the girl?” the guard joked, eyeing Fjotra, who was holding Jackie’s hand. “Ha-ha, I see! It’s no problem. Don’t forget to take him by the stables, we don’t want this big boy wandering around the streets!”

“Sure thing,” Jackie said with a pleasant smile.

“Alright now, move along then,” he said, smiling as he let them pass through the gate.

Thank heavens for incompetent guards, Jackie thought. For once, it had worked in her favor.

They walked toward the stables as a group, but Kaie slowed down a few steps to speak with Jackie. “Alright, take this one to the temple,” she said, gesturing toward Fjotra. “Meet us tomorrow morning, before the sun rises.”

“Where?”

Kaie hummed. “I don’t know the city yet.”

“Come to the inn. Silver-Blood Inn,” Jackie clarified. “Isn’t that where you’ll stay the night?”

“No,” Kaie said with a mysterious smile. “I have work to do tonight. I’ll meet you at the inn, as you say.”

“I’ll see you in the morning, then,” she said with a frown. She squeezed Fjotra’s hand and led her away quickly. As tired as she was, she was incredibly happy to be out of the Forsworn’s company, if not for a little while.

She found herself shaking a little as she walked up the steps to the temple. “Markarth is kind of a confusing place, but you’ll get used to it after a while,” she was saying, her own voice sounding distant. Fjotra looked at her strangely, but she kept walking and talking. “There are couriers who hang out around the inn, and they can take letters to your parents anytime.”

“Really?”

“That’s right,” Jackie said. Before she knew it, they were standing in front of the Temple of Dibella. “Oh, here we are.”

.

.

They walked right into the temple, and Jackie led Fjotra through the secret door and into the Inner Sanctum. It was dark out, and there was no one in the shrine to worry about. They were both quiet as they walked down the stairs.

The priestesses in the Inner Sanctum were surprised that Jackie had actually been able to retrieve Fjotra—she couldn’t even be offended at how incredulous they were. She hadn’t thought she’d make it, either.

“I’ve brought your Sybil,” Jackie said softly, patting the girl’s shoulder.

“You… you found her?” the Mother said, eyes wide. She crouched a little to look at Fjotra. “It is her. I can’t believe it.”

Fjotra blushed and stepped toward the Mother. “I’m ready,” she said bravely.

“Let the girl come with me and we can begin her preparation,” the woman said. “I will send word to her family that she is in good hands.”

“And you can write them a letter, right?” Jackie said to Fjotra with a smile. The younger girl was so calm and mature. For someone whose life had just changed drastically, she was doing really well. Maybe that’s why Jackie liked her so much. She knew what it was like to have your life change in an instant.

“Thank you, Miss Jackie,” Fjotra said with a smile.

“Yes, thank you,” the Mother said. “You have truly earned the blessing of Dibella, child. Prostrate yourself before her at her altar, and she will bestow her gift.”

“Gift?” Jackie asked. “I thought I was just paying the penalty…”

“You were. But Dibella rewards good deeds, no matter why you performed them. Go on,” she said.

Fjotra smiled. “Come, I’ll show you how,” she said, moving to grasp Jackie’s hand one last time. Too tired to question it anymore, she let her lead the way through the temple, back up the stairs and into the public shrine.

They stopped in front of the altar. She eyed the fountain of water before her, feeling a bit like a heathen for not realizing what is was before—she’d originally thought it was a decorative fountain.

“Go on,” the Sybil said, eyes sparkling. “Just walk up the stairs, and kneel at the alter. Pray, and then take a drink of water with your hands.”

Jackie gave her a funny look. “How do you know about all this stuff?” she asked. The young girl grinned.

“Mama used to tell me bedtime stories about this temple. She grew up in Markarth before she met Papa,” she explained. “And now I get to live here.” It seemed like the girl really had been meant to be the Sybil of Dibella.

“Okay,” Jackie said, feeling a little delirious. It was probably stress and fatigue, but a feeling of absolute calm washed over her when she kneeled. It just felt so good to finally be off her feet.

“Now pray,” Fjotra instructed gently, suddenly beside her.

Jackie closed her eyes and sighed. What would she pray about? This was her first time praying someone besides God as she knew him (or her?)… and frankly, it made her a little nervous. Even as a somewhat lapsed Catholic, she knew it was very against the rules to pray to other gods.

Well. When in Rome, right? She crossed herself just to be safe, and then prayed:

Dibella, all I ask is for help. Please, please help me get Bradas out of prison.

She cupped the cool water in her hands and drank.

Everything suddenly felt so very peaceful. She’d been so worried about everything and now it felt like she could finally breathe. Jackie was exhausted, but she felt… good. Like everything would be okay. And she just felt… stronger. It was hard to articulate how or why, but she felt different in a good way.

“Oh, you’re crying,” Fjotra said. “Are you okay?”

Jackie wiped at her tears and sniffed. “Yeah, I am. Thank you, Fjotra.”

.

.

That night, Jackie slept better than she had in a week.

Chapter Text

Bradas knew his own strengths and weaknesses, and could be honest enough with himself to know that he would not last very long in prison before going absolutely mad.

He could endure many, many things—beatings, burnings, arrows, knives… the list went on. But he was simply not made to live underground, and the walls of the mines were constantly pressing in on him. There was little food to be had, and the company left a lot to be desired.

Everyone in this mine belonged to the Forsworn. He wanted to kill each and every one of them. He thought of it nearly as often as he worried for Jackie, which was to say a lot.

He woke every day to pick at iron veins until he could barely lift his arms. It was either that or listen to Madanach, who’d taken a special interest in him. It was just his luck, really.

Over the course of a week he’d met the king and his Forsworn thugs, and each had a story of hardship that Bradas could hardly bring himself to care about. Who in this land hadn’t been visited by tragedy? Besides, he was Dunmer; his people’s bad luck was legendary.

The Forsworn just used any excuse they could to justify their killing, especially Madanach.

Still, he ingratiated himself with them, despite his deep-down distaste. He needed to survive, and he was no fool: the only way to make it in Cidhna Mine was to make good with the Forsworn. His goal was to escape, and that wouldn’t happen if he wasn’t alive.

If he died, he’d never see Jackie again. His stomach twisted up in knots when he thought about her, whatever she was doing. He thought of her when he woke up, when he went to sleep. When the sweat dripped down his face as he dug deeper into the mines, he still worried for her.

What was she doing? Was she all alone? Had the guards found her after they’d put him away? These were his thoughts as he drifted awake from a fitful sleep.

That was the worst part of all of this. The not-knowing. Wondering if she was alright. He had a responsibility to her, hadn’t he? It had been long since they’d set out together, but she was still new. He’d resolved to watch out for her then, but that was impossible from prison.

Even worse was that he knew that Madanach had outside contacts, and he could always ask him to track her down. But the less the Forsworn knew about Jackie, the better. Asking about her could put her in danger, and then he’d owe Madanach. He would rather die.

“Dunmer!” A voice pulled him out of his thoughts and his eyes blinked open. Was it morning already? It was hard to tell underground.

“What do you want?” he snapped, glaring at whoever was waking him. It was Braig, who crossed his arms and peered down at him.

“Madanach wants to see you,” he said gruffly.

“Is it even morning yet?”

Braig just shrugged. Bradas narrowed his eyes. The man knew something he didn’t, but wasn’t sharing. Perhaps he was finally going to get killed. “Get up and get moving. Quickly.”

 

***

 

Madanach was hunched over his writing desk when Bradas found him, looking over a worn piece of parchment. “Hello, Bradas,” he said looking up at the Dunmer with a smile.

“You called for me?” he replied, thoroughly unimpressed.

“Yes,” he said, looking a little more energetic than usual. “You’ve been down here for a short time, haven’t you? But you’ve met all my men, and you’ve proven yourself useful.”

“I’d like to think so,” he replied coolly. “What’s this about?”

“Your meddling above ground reminded me of how removed I’ve been from the struggle. My men and I should be in the hills, fighting.”

Bradas felt his heartbeat quicken, but kept a straight face. Did this mean…? “You want to escape the mine?”

“Yes,” Madanach said with an easy smile. “Are you interested?”

Bradas scoffed. The old man was toying with him, but he couldn’t get too upset if it meant leaving this pit. “Of course.”

“Then I’ll need a show of loyalty from you. The last thing I need when I get out of here is a knife in the back.”

The Dunmer crossed his arms, red eyes narrowing. “Go on.”

The Forsworn king smirked and drew something from the pockets of his spun tunic.

Bradas raised an eyebrow. “A shiv,” he said. Madanach chuckled.

“Grisvar the Unlucky,” the man said, holding the shiv out to Bradas in offering.

“He lives up to his name today, it seems.” He took the make-shift knife and tucked it into his shirt.

“He’s a thief and a snitch,” Madanach said. “And he’s outlived his minor usefulness. Take care of him, and we can leave Cidhna Mine for good.”

 

.

.

 

Jackie was up early in the morning, before the sun rose just as Kaie had said. She was filled with energy and a great desire to get into the mines as soon as possible. Today, if she was lucky, was the day she’d see Bradas again.

She was nervous to see him. It was kind of dumb, since they were best friends, but… she’d kind of just had a major realization about her feelings toward him and she hadn’t had time to think about it.

It wasn’t a big deal, right? It didn’t have to be a big deal. She needed to be focused on the task at hand, anyway, not her dumb feelings.

Kaie was lurking around the inn when Jackie found her. The woman was practically an Amazon warrior, and stood out like a sore thumb. She wasn’t even wearing her crazy armor and Jackie could still tell she didn’t belong. Totally inconspicuous. She rolled her eyes.

“The more you pace, the more suspicious you look,” Jackie advised. Maybe she was bold because it was less likely that she’d get her throat slit in the city. Luckily, Kaie wasn’t offended. She even laughed.

“Ah, but it doesn’t matter, now, does it? Come with me.”

The two of them walked toward the lower part of the city, down the stairs and past the Warrens. They only stopped when they reached an old, abandoned ally.

“Where are we going?”

Kaie just gave her a sly grin and started moving the dirt beneath her feet. Jackie squinted her eyes and looked hard at the ground, unable to see what she was doing. It was only when Kaie bent over and pointed that Jackie saw what looked like a hand-hold carved into the stone street.

“Oh, my God,” Jackie muttered, watching as Kaie opened a latch with a victorious expression. She revealed a secret door, and ancient stairs that led into a dark, underground tunnel. “Has this just been sitting in the city forever? Hiding in plain sight?”

“Ancient Dwemer city,” the Forsworn woman offered in explanation.

“So this is what you were doing last night? Looking for these trap doors?”

The other woman nodded. “There are secret passages everywhere. According to Madanach’s intelligence, it should lead us straight to the tunnel that connects to the mine.”

“How did he figure it out?” Jackie asked, amazed despite herself.

“Years of digging and research,” Kaie said, wiping off her hands. “The others have already gone ahead with our equipment. All we need to do now is follow them.”

.

.

Bradas trailed behind the large group of Forsworn warriors, filing together through the tunnels of ancient Dwemer ruins and using bursts of destruction magic when they ran into huge spiders and Dwarven Spheres. It was impossible to use too much flame in the mines, where the air was sparse, but here he was free to do as he wished. He let the magic run wild, not caring if he burned down the whole ruin.

The other prisoners seemed to be of a similar mind. They fought with a ferocity so intense that he was almost glad that he wasn’t the one they were trying to kill. The orc, Borkul the Beast, had once mentioned that the Forsworn were fierce. He could see now how an Orsimer could be impressed.

Still, he wondered, would there be an opportunity to kill Madanach? Because he thought he might enjoy that very much.

He followed the group as they cut through Dwemer machines and ran through the tunnels of the ruins. Besides the occasional fighting, everyone was silent, practically panting for the freedom that beckoned on the surface.

The group slowed and stopped at a juncture between tunnels. Madanach held up a hand, looking around with sharp eyes. “Do you hear that?”

Bradas could indeed hear something, or someone; footsteps echoing through the tunnels. He drew magic near to him, the fire practically begging to be unleashed. The air grew thick with unused magic as everyone prepared to attack.

A woman’s voice cut through the silence. “Hold your fire, friends.”

Madanach waved his hand, a signal for them not to attack. Bradas kept his guard, watching and waiting for a sign of treachery.

Two people came around the corner hauling a large chest and slings around their shoulders. They looked relieved to see the group and set down their loads. Behind them, two more followed. A tall woman with a shaved head… and, of all people, Jackie.

Jackie.

All current thoughts of murdering everyone in the ruin fled the moment he saw her. A thousand different emotions flooded him at once—joy at seeing her face, dismay that she was down here, relief that she was alive… and most of all, utter confusion. How had she come to be here?

And she looked… different, in the dark of the old ruins. Her black hair was in one loose braid, tucked into her collar like she was ready for battle. She looked past him for a moment, dark eyes glittering in the torchlight.

Perhaps it had just been too long since he’d seen her face, but it was a beautiful sight. Her gaze caught his and her lips twitched with a suppressed smile. Even though she was being careful not to give too much away, he could tell that she’d missed him. That was a thought that made his imminent freedom all the sweeter.

She gave him a subtle warning look that he could interpret immediately: Don’t say anything. Bradas was immediately intrigued. What was she doing down here, and what was she planning? Her fingers tapped the enchanted dagger strapped to her waist and her eyebrows rose the tiniest bit, like some kind of secret code.

The only thing that ruined the moment was Madanach’s grating voice echoing off the walls. “Good work!” he was saying, clearly pleased with whatever had been brought to them. He jerked his head and addressed the rest of the group. “Everyone get ready while I have a word with our favorite outsider.”

Bradas only looked away from Jackie when the Forsworn King approached. “I had Kaie recover all the things the Nords stole from you,” he told him, gesturing to the large chest of weapons and armor that had been brought. “You better get ready before we break out into the city.”

The old man dug into the chest himself, and pulled out a strange set of armor. “And take this. It’s blessed with the old magicks.” He winked. “Something to remember me by.”

Bradas scoffed. He could see his old armor sitting in the chest, and he would much prefer that to the strange furs Madanach was offering. “What happens now?” he asked, tearing off his rough-spun prison uniform and changing quickly into his old clothes.

Madanach grinned. “Now? I announce to all of Markarth that I have returned,” he said grandly. “Don’t worry about your name, friend. They’ll know who to blame and fear after today. It’ll take years, but I’ll organize the Forsworn again. We’ll reclaim our land, and then, when power is ours, we’ll have peace. A kingdom. Until then, let me offer you a warning: beware the Forsworn. No place in the Reach is safe from us now.” Madanach turned away and walked toward the door to the surface.

That sounded like Madanach had plans to destroy the city. Bradas wasn’t sure if that even bothered him.

Frankly, the Dunmer didn’t care about Markarth or the Forsworn. And in the end, he didn’t give a damn about Madanach either. What he cared about was freedom, and making sure Jackie was alright. He was simply dying to know how she’d gotten down here, but that would have to be a story for later.

“Who’s this, Kaie?” Madanach was saying, gesturing toward her.

“An asset. She helped us get into the city,” the Forsworn woman said. “Don’t worry, I trust her.”

Now that was alarming. Jackie didn’t say anything, just gave Bradas another look. He took a few long strides to get closer to her as the group made their way to the door. Freedom was just on the other side, but with Jackie here as an apparent ‘asset’ to the Forsworn… Bradas realized that it might get more complicated than that.

Jackie had in fact, slowed down considerably to walk a little closer to him. Her hand rested on her blade like she wanted to draw it. He caught her curious gaze and she tilted her head as if to ask: should we? The dagger slid out from its sheath just the tiniest bit.

He thought about it; it was possible for the two of them to take on this entire group together, wasn’t it? And as much as he hated the city, it really wasn’t a good idea to allow the Forsworn to run amok. Killing them all while they were still in the tunnels wasn’t a bad tactical plan.

Not to mention the fact that he wanted to kill Madanach. And Jackie, who was never bloodthirsty, looked like she wanted to do it too.

He nodded, and without any warning he drew his blade and stabbed Madanach in the back. It seemed fitting. Jackie rushed forward surprisingly fast and stabbed one of the Forsworn in the neck.

“Traitor!” the woman, Kaie, cried.

And suddenly, the small alcove they’d found themselves in burst into a flurry of action.

Jackie was in his periphery, fighting the woman she’d come in with. She dodged out of the way of a stab and answered with an aggressive swipe. She caught Kaie in the shoulder and pushed her down onto the ground, but Bradas was overwhelmed with other opponents before he could see what happened next.

Enough was enough, he decided, and summoned up waves of destruction magic. “FUS! RO!

 

***

 

It was a very, very close fight. Jackie was almost sure that Kaie was going to kill her, and she really didn’t even blame her. This was a betrayal, in Kaie’s eyes, and though she hated her and all the Forsworn did, she didn’t feel great about it.

Still, it was the way it had to be, and on some level Jackie had known it this whole time.

The tunnels were suddenly filled with fire, ice, and electricity, and it was all Jackie could do to avoid getting in its path. So many people were using magic right now that she wasn’t even distinguish who was casting what—and it seemed Kaie was intent on killing Jackie personally.

She was almost stabbed several times before she managed to get Kaie on the ground. She’d intended to end it as quickly as she could—some fuzzy part of her brain was telling her to cut her throat—but the warrior roared and a wall of frost blew up into her face and forced her to roll off.

Jackie somehow rolled into a standing position, which would have been cool if she didn’t get her nose broken at that exact moment. Kaie had come up quick and punched her, which was a shock, because she’d expected to get a knife in the gut.

A sharp, terrible pain blossomed in the center of her face but she tried to ignore it in favor of stabbing the person who’d caused it. She managed to slash an arm – a cheek – a collar bone – and then finally the neck, which was where she’d been aiming in the first place.

“Bitch!” Kaie spat, and that was the last thing she said before falling to the ground.

But there was a lot more fighting to be done. Bradas had downed his fair share, but at least four people were still after him. Jackie felt a rush of adrenaline and fought dirty—there was no way she was losing him now after all this.

She attacked one man from behind and killed him quickly, the swirling light from her dagger almost blinding in the dark of the ruins. Bradas used another shout, and she was so close to one of the people he was aiming for that she nearly got knocked back by it.

Barely keeping steady, she attacked the person nearest to her—and oh wait was that an orc?—and she got another agonizing punch to the nose. He was upon her before she could even think about what a huge mistake she’d just made. Like a rag doll, he picked her up by the collar and flung her into the crumbling wall.

Then another guy was coming toward her. She thought that maybe she’d bitten off more than she could chew. Still, she sat up and kicked at him, catching him in the jaw. That gave her just enough time to find her dagger again and stab. She thanked every deity there was for her enchanted healing knife, because without it she was sure she’d be in a lot more pain.

She staggered back up and saw Bradas taking on the last of them: the orc who had probably just given her whiplash. She tried to calculate how best she could help… but then it was over. The Dunmer used a blast of fire to disorient the warrior before cutting into him. Jackie flinched and looked away. When the adrenaline had finally run its course, everything seemed too gruesome.

And speaking of gruesome, blood was everywhere. All over the floor, the walls, her clothes… her face, even. Her nose was bleeding like crazy, and she suddenly remembered that it hurt. A lot.

Her face was beginning to swell, badly, and it was suddenly hard to speak. “Ahhh, Brabas,” she groaned. She was torn between feeling sad about her face, and so, so happy that he was alive and standing right before her eyes.

“Jackie,” he responded, and was at her side in an instant. One arm wound around her waist and pulled her close, while the other hand hovered around her face.

She could even feel the areas beneath her eyes begin to swell. She was probably crying, but she hurt so much that she really couldn’t tell. All she really knew was that he was about to cast Healing Hands, and that sounded great right about now.

Thankfully he didn’t seem to be out of magicka, and the cartilage in her nose began to heal. It hurt before it felt better, but soon enough the swelling was going down. About forty different kinds of relief ran through her.

He’d healed her when they first met, hadn’t he? This felt so similar. Maybe she was being too sentimental, but her heart swelled at the thought.

“Thanks, I’m sorry,” she murmured, wishing that their reunion didn’t have to be all about him fixing her broken nose.

“It’s alright,” he chuckled. His hand brushed gently over her nose and beneath her eyes, and she was sure her heart skipped a few beats. The moment was ruined when he swiped under her nose with his thumb, like he was trying to clean up the blood. “Your face is a mess.”

She smacked his arm, and then pulled him in close for a hug. “Jesus Christ,” she cried, voice muffled by his chest. He hugged her back with surprising force.

“How did you get down here?” he asked, his breath warming up the top of her head.

“It’s a really long story,” she laughed. She pulled back to soak in his face—he really was a sight for sore eyes. “I’ll tell you when we get out. We have to leave Markarth ASAP.”

“What?” he asked, and she remembered he wouldn’t understand her slang. She must have been deliriously happy to see him, because it was so endearing she nearly cried. All she could do was pull him to her once more for another quick hug.

“Later,” she promised, unable to keep from smiling. “Let’s get out of here.”

 

***

 

Surely enough, their good luck couldn’t last. Bradas felt an indescribable weariness wash over him when they reached the surface only to find Thonar Silver-Blood and a group of guards standing behind him.

“Ah, you’ve made it,” Thonar said, arms crossed.

“Oh, my God,” Jackie groaned quietly. Bradas exhaled, almost too tired to even draw his blade.

“Rest easy,” Thonar said, holding up one hand. “My eyes inside Cidhna Mine tell me that Madanach is dead.”

“How would you know that already?” Bradas asked, eyes narrowing.

He took a long look at their bloody armor, and the blood caked on Jackie’s face. “It isn’t so hard to figure it out by the looks of you.” Thonar looked tired, but he gave them a smug smile all the same. “But really, the Forsworn aren’t the only ones with spies everywhere. When your friend here appeared before the jarl, I thought it wise to keep an eye on her.” The jarl? Bradas turned sharply to look at his companion.

Jackie stiffened beside him. “You knew what I was doing this whole time?”

The Nord laughed. “Oh, no, you kept me guessing. But once I figured it out, I thought it best to let you carry on. See how it all played out. It seems I made the right decision.”

If Bradas was curious before, he was desperate to know now. What in Oblivion had she gotten up to while he was in the mines? “So you’ll let us go?”

Thonar nodded. “You’ve done a great service to the Silver-Blood family. I’ve had the jarl officially pardon you, and taken care of a few other loose ends.”

“Loose ends? But you’re the one who had him arrested in the first place,” Jackie said incredulously.

“And you’ve proven that was the best move I could have made. Oh, don’t look at me like that, you’re free to go, the both of you. Here, how about a little token for your efforts? My family ring. It’s worth a small fortune.”

He took off a large silver ring and flicked it toward them. It flipped through the air and Bradas reached out to catch it. Upon closer inspection, he saw that it did, in fact, bear the Silver-Blood family crest.

Jackie scoffed but said no more. Bradas kept quiet, too—he was too tired to feel very angry.

“Now if you’ll excuse me,” the nobleman sighed, turning to leave. “I have to figure out how we’re going to fill our recently emptied mine.”

Bradas and Jackie watched as Thonar Silver-Blood and his gang of city guards turned their backs and walked away.

***

Despite his ‘pardon,’ Bradas was not eager to stay in Markarth for one second longer than he had to. Jackie seemed to agree, and when they went to the inn, he was pleasantly surprised to see that she had already packed for travel.

It was only when they were outside the gates of Markarth that afternoon that Bradas felt like he could finally take a breath, and believe that he was out of Cidhna Mine.

Chapter Text

That night they camped in a clearing in the forest, away from the road and under a canopy of bare trees. The sun was just barely setting, but they were both too tired to travel for long.

Jackie suggested that Bradas fall asleep early and let her set up camp. He didn’t need to be told twice, and he only felt slightly guilty for letting her do all the work. He’d just gotten out of prison, after all. And it was nice, to just listen to her start a fire and cook dinner.

He dozed off while watching her, and woke up in the dark.

For a very brief moment, he thought he was still in Cidhna Mine.

He jolted up, only to see Jackie sitting on the end of his bedroll with wide eyes. “Good morning,” she joked, even though he could tell he’d startled her. He groaned.

“Azura above,” he breathed, lying back once more to look at the stars. The moons drifted peacefully across the sky, as bright and luminous as ever. It was a stark contrast from the darkness of the mines. He only now noticed that he was covered in blankets that he didn’t remember falling asleep with.

“Nightmare?” Jackie murmured. She had a half-eaten sweetroll on a clean napkin. “I made food.”

“No, not a nightmare,” he said, cursing his weak voice. He sat up again with a grunt, letting the blankets fall over his lap. “What did you make?”

“Well I didn’t make it, exactly. Just heated it up.” She reached for a bowl that was sitting on a rock near the fire. Inside was a slice of spiced beef sandwiched between two slices of bread. “Ooh, it’s still warm,” she sang, as if he needed to be enticed to eat. He took the bowl and set it on his lap.

He took a bite of his sandwich and chewed, thinking. “How long was I asleep?”

“Only a couple hours, maybe?” She shrugged. “It’s alright, you can go back to sleep for a little while longer. I don’t mind keeping watch.” The light from the moons illuminated her sweet smile, and he suddenly remembered how very relieved he was that she was alright. She was here. How many times in the mine had he imagined some terrible end for her? He’d nearly convinced himself she was dead. She may as well have been, for all he could get to her.

“Jackie, I…” He really didn’t know what he wanted to say. Something foolish, probably. He cleared his throat and wiped the sleep out of his eyes. “I’m awake.”

“You can sleep some more after you eat,” she said, digging through her pack until she found a sweetroll. “Here, have this too.”

He reached out and took the treat. “Another sweetroll?”

“I have a couple more. I may have been stress-eating them for the past week or two,” she admitted with a soft laugh.

“Stress-eating?” he asked with a grin. “Am I to believe you didn’t enjoy your stay in Markarth?”

She rolled her eyes. “You have no idea. But I don’t think it was as bad as yours.” She took a bite of her own sweet treat and chewed, looking lost in thought for a second.

“I’m curious to know what you did, to get into the mines alongside a Forsworn,” he said.

“It was… I…” She hummed. “I didn’t really think about how I was going to explain it to you.”

Bradas raised an eyebrow. “You’re making me nervous.”

“Well I mean, we’re here now, aren’t we? So even if I made a couple of… questionable decisions, it all turned out okay in the end,” she hedged.

“Out with it.”

“Fake alliance with the Forsworn,” she said quickly.

“I gathered that much,” he scoffed. “How did you do it? And Thonar mentioned you went to the jarl?”

She shook her head and sighed. “I was so desperate to figure out how to help you. The first thing I did was go to the jarl and tell him you were the Dragonborn—” Bradas couldn’t help but groan. She went on, “… and I told him you were also a thane of Whiterun, so you really shouldn’t be in jail.”

“You tried to convince him I was some kind of noble? Of course it didn’t work,” he laughed, almost embarrassed. He could just imagine Jackie making that appeal, trying in vain to make him out to be much higher class than he was.

“Oh, come on. For all he knew you could be, like, Dunmer royalty,” she said, waving her hand.

“Ah, I think not,” he countered. Poor Jackie had no idea how things worked in Morrowind—even a Nord would know he wasn’t part of a noble house.

“I thought it was foolproof,” she explained with a shrug. “I even told him I was your servant to make it more believable.”

He laughed outright at that. “You, my servant? I hardly think so!”

“Why not? You boss me around enough,” she said with a grin. “Anyway, that obviously didn’t work…”

***

Jackie then proceeded to tell him the strangest story he’d ever heard. Not to mention the most stressful; he was damned near ready to pull out his hair out at the thought of her wandering into dangerous territory to save a kidnapped girl and forge an alliance with the Forsworn.

The Dunmer knew, logically, that all was well. She’d clearly survived the whole affair, he didn’t need to worry over her like some kind of mother hen. But the thought of her wandering into such terrible danger like that bothered him. She’d risked her life, and for what? To save him?

She finished her tale when she got to part where they reunited. “And then you know the rest.” She frowned—he must have had some kind of look on his face because she asked, “Hey, are you alright? Don’t worry, everything’s fine now. We made it.” She nudged him gently with her shoulder.

Jackie had gone a long way for him, and she told the story like… like it was a given that she’d stay by his side and help him. Like of course she’d find a way to help him out of prison.

She could have—and maybe should have—left the city and gone on without him. She was clearly capable.

But she’d stayed and worked tirelessly to get to him. She’d gone to dangerous lengths for him.

“Yes, I’m alright,” he finally said, finally meeting her inquisitive gaze. Jackie was, he realized, his truest and most loyal friend—had he ever known another to go so far for him? Had he been able to rely on the support of another since he’d lived in Gnarr Mok?

She had been such a pest when he’d first met her, but somewhere along the way she’d become irreplaceable. Precious. Who would have known that a scrawny, inexperienced woman from another realm would become such a faithful companion? He wanted to reach out and take her hand; tell her that he didn’t want to be apart from her again.

He was brought to his senses when she suddenly brought her finger to press just below her eye. “Ugh, the eye-twitch,” she groaned.

He leaned close to her and squinted his eyes. “You have an eye-twitch?”

She nodded, eyes watering as she pressed the pads of her fingers against the delicate area beneath. “It’s a stress thing.”

Bradas didn’t know what came over him, but he reached out and grasped her wrist, removing her hand so he could look. Surely enough, in the light of their campfire, he could see it—a tiny little spasm in the corner of her eye.

“Weird, right? Is it really obvious?”

“Only if you’re looking for it,” he murmured. She jumped a little as he pressed the back of his index finger to feel. “This happens often?”

“Only when you’re in jail,” she said. He could tell she was trying to make a joke, but her voice sounded sad. He swiped her cheek with his thumb and withdrew before he made a fool of himself.

“I am tired,” he breathed, even though she didn’t ask.

“Bedtime for you,” she said firmly. “Don’t worry too much about waking up to keep watch. We’ll just start late tomorrow.”

“Oh, really?” he murmured, lips quirking. “And where are we going?”

“Rorikstead?” she suggested.

He blinked a few times, wondering if there was something he was missing. “What? Why Rorikstead, of all places?”

“You haven’t forgotten, have you? We’re trying to find that jerk, Sam.”

It dawned on him slowly. In the chaos of the last two weeks, he had completely forgotten the man. “Ah, yes. This… was all his fault, in a way,” he said slowly.

“That priestess said I was ranting about Rorikstead,” she huffed. Bradas found it funny that Jackie could hold such a grudge against a bunch of priestesses. “So I think that’s where we should start.”

“Alright. Rorikstead it is, then.”

That night Bradas fell asleep with Jackie at his side, sitting up and watching the fire.

.

.

The next few days were kind of an adjustment. She didn’t know about Bradas, but her sleep cycle was messed up. She didn’t complain about it, though—he’d been the one in prison, after all.

Speaking of adjustment, Bradas seemed to be doing alright. He was a little restless at night and she sort of suspected that he was having bad dreams, but she never asked. If he wanted to talk about it, he would.

Honestly, she was just happy to have him back. She would take a thousand sleepless nights over having him in jail any day. It took a lot of self-restraint not to stare at him constantly, just to make sure he was there. They were breaking down their little campsite in the forest a few miles outside of Rorikstead when he caught her doing it.

He spent the rest of the way to the village teasing her without mercy.

“First you pretend to be asleep to watch me change, and now this? I thought you were a lady, Jackie,” he said with barely contained laughter. They were navigating a forest trail covered in big roots. She wished she could trip on one and die.

“Oh, my God. First of all,” she panted, trying her best to keep up with him and his stupid long legs. “I wasn’t watching you change!” And she also couldn’t believe he even remembered that. “Secondly, I was just staring off into space in your general direction. And thirdly, I hate you.”

He just laughed. “Whatever you say,” he replied with a sly smile. She made a show of rolling her eyes.

The forest soon thinned out to reveal the wide, empty planes that seemed common in the Whiterun Hold. “We should be close,” Bradas said.

It was mid-afternoon, and evening would fall by the time they got there. “Let’s sleep at an inn tonight,” Jackie said longingly.

“Shall we get separate rooms?” he suggested, looking down at her with mischievous ruby eyes.

“Hm? Okay.”

“It’s just that I don’t trust you with my virtue,” he laughed. She groaned. She would never live it down.

***

Rorikstead was a very small settlement. There was an inn, a farm, and a couple of houses. They’d traveled through smaller villages, but Bradas could never understand how people could stand to live so far from the city.

The sun was beginning to set, but there were a few people on the farm still working. Bradas tried to figure out if he recognized anything here at all, but his memory of their night with Sam was so shaky. He looked down at Jackie, who was staring out at the landscape with a frown on her face.

“Do you remember this place?” he asked. Her eyes were narrowed, like she was deep in thought.

“Maybe… It looks kinda familiar? Like I saw it in a dream?” She waved at the people working their crops, and they stopped to stare back at them. “Maybe they remember us.”

It seemed her hunch was correct, because as soon as they got a little closer, one of the farmers saw them and squawked.

“You!” he gasped, looking directly at Jackie. She placed a hand on her chest.

“Me?” she asked, eyes wide and innocent.

The Redguard man narrowed his eyes at her, and tightened his grip on his shovel. “You’ve got a lot of nerve showing yourself in this town again. What do you have to say for yourself?!”

“I’m… sorry?” his human companion offered, at a loss.

“Sorry’s not good enough! Not while my Gleda is still out there, alone and afraid! You kidnapped her and sold her to that, to that giant!” The farmer was shaking with outrage.

“Oh,” she said with a grimace. “That sounds bad…”

“You’re damned right it does. I’ll never breed another prize-winning goat like Gleda.”

Bradas had to cover up a snicker with a cough.

“A goat.” The way she said it, so completely confused in the face of the farmer’s anger, was what forced the Dunmer to take a few steps back so he didn’t laugh in the farmer’s face.

“And you!” the farmer said, pointing at him. “You just sat back and let it all happen! Didn’t lift a finger to help my poor Gleda! You even encouraged this drunkard!”

Bradas couldn’t avoid a fit of laughter this time, and Jackie looked utterly mortified. “Sir, we honestly… I’m so sorry!” He didn’t know if she was apologizing for stealing the goat, or for his mirth. “We’ll get her back for you!”

“That’s right. Don’t you even think about coming back to Rorikstead until you get her back from that giant,” he warned.

“Okay, but we sort of need your help,” Jackie said quickly. “I mean, you said a giant and—can you tell us anything about that night?”

“I can—if you get me my goat back!”

“But we need to know,” Jackie tried. The man scoffed.

“You didn’t need to sell Gleda to the giant in the first place. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

Jackie whirled around and gave Bradas a desperate look. “Help me out here!”

Something about being here and thinking about that Daedra-damned goat was making it extremely hard not to laugh (and the fact that laughter was inappropriate right now only made it harder), but he was able to stop in a moment. Gods, he was sure that something about this place was familiar, especially when he imagined Jackie thieving livestock.

He placed his hand on his dagger and gave the irate farmer a smile. “Listen, farmer,” he said, pulling the knife out just a few inches. He had no real intent, but the farmer didn’t know that. “Tell us what you know or you’ll end up like your goat. Perhaps we can find the same giant and sell you? That way you can be together.”

The Redguard’s eyes went big. “Okay, okay! No need for that!” he exclaimed, all his righteous indignation vanishing in an instant. “Most of what she said didn’t make sense, but she left a note. The only bit that I could read said, ‘after repaying Ysolda in Whiterun.’ That’s all I know!”

.

.

“Repay Ysolda for what?” Jackie wondered as they settled into their room in Frostfruit Inn. Bradas evidently hadn’t been serious about getting separate rooms, but they did have separate beds, thankfully. She wasn’t sure she could handle more teasing.

“I don’t know. Remind me who she was, again?”

Jackie sometimes forgot that he didn’t know Whiterun as well as she did. “She’s that really sweet girl who sells stuff at the market?” He gave her a blank look. “She wants mammoth tusks.”

“Ah,” he said, still not comprehending. “Well. Perhaps she’ll have answers for us.”

“Sooo…” she sat down on her bed. “I know I said we were going to get that goat back, but…”

He smirked. “That’s a promise you’ll want to break, Jackie. You do not want to cross a giant. I’m amazed you were able to get close enough to make a deal with him.”

She groaned and put her head in her hands. “I don’t remember doing any of this!”

“Perhaps it was all just drunken appeal. You’re very charming when you drink,” he teased. She felt her cheeks heat up at that.

“Yeah, until I get black-out drunk and destroy property,” she muttered. “Where were you during all this? I feel like I did all these terrible things and you were just… tagging along.”

He shrugged. “I wish I remembered. I’d have loved to watch you charm a giant.”

She laughed and waggled her brows. “Think I could do it again?”

“Perhaps if we get a couple of drinks in you,” he chuckled. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. Suddenly, he looked exhausted to the bone. “I’m going to bathe, and then I’m going to sleep.”

“Fair enough,” she said, studying his face. He had bags under his eyes, and his hair was slightly mussed in its ponytail. It made sense for him to be tired. He hadn’t slept in a decent bed since before he got hauled off to Cidhna Mine. She felt guilty for not noticing sooner. “Do you think they have hot water here? Because if so, I’m taking a bath after you.”

“Milk-drinker,” he accused with a wink. “I’ll let you know.”

***

Bradas had claimed to take a cold bath, but she suspected he was using magic to heat his water. Cheater.

The inn didn’t have hot water running through pipes like Markarth, but the innkeeper’s son was willing to help her fill up the bath with water heated over the fire. She thanked whatever deities were out there and jumped in.

***

Bradas dried off in their shared room, relieved to be able to forgo the armor for one night. He wore it so often that it felt like a second skin, but it was nice to take a break. He dressed in a tunic and leggings and started to settle in for the night.

He was hungry, though. He eyed Jackie’s bag, wondering if she’d notice if he took one of her precious sweetrolls. With a grin, he realized he didn’t care—hopefully she would notice, and he could get her riled up about it.

Oh, who was he kidding? If it really bothered her, he’d buy her a new one. Right now, though, he didn’t feel like bartering with the innkeeper’s son, Erik, who’d been all too eager to help Jackie heat her bath. As if she’d give him a second glance, the soft-wit. He rolled his eyes and got up to open her pack.

The first thing he noticed was that the bag smelled sweet, like sweetrolls and her clothes. Avoiding seeing too many of her personal things, he pulled out a tied-up handkerchief full of the sugary treats. He untied it, plucked one out, and re-tied it.

And then noticed something interesting. The bag she kept her soap in was still here.

Bradas took a bite of sweetroll and thought. If the soap was here, she didn’t have any for her bath, did she? Now that he thought about it, he couldn’t remember if she’d even taken a change of clothes with her.

“Oh, Jackie,” he muttered fondly. He supposed he could do her a favor and bring her the things she’d forgotten. She probably didn’t want to streak across the inn in just a towel.

He gathered her soaps and oils, and grabbed some of the simple clothing he knew she liked to wear to sleep. He threw it all into a basket and left their room. The Dunmer headed toward the room where she was bathing.

On the way there, he saw Erik behind the bar, giving him an odd look. Bradas tilted his head, and if he gave the Nord a suggestive smile before slipping toward the bath… well, no one was going to tell, were they?

***

The bathing room was tucked into the area behind the kitchen, and it was there that Bradas stopped. Self-doubt set in, and he wondered whether he was mistaken—perhaps she already had her things, and he was just being foolish.

But she really did need soap, didn’t she? And a change of clothes?

It was better to be safe than sorry, he rationalized. He shook his head and rapped on the door three times.

He could hear water splashing from the other side. “Yes?” asked a lethargic voice. She sounded like she’d been sleeping. He rolled his eyes; after all they’d been through, she was going to die by drowning in a tub.

“It’s me. You forgot your things.”

“Oh!” There was more splashing, and she swore. “Okay, you can come in,” she called.

“Alright,” he said, taking one last glance around before cracking the door open.

He kept his eyes on the ground to preserve her modesty, and slipped inside. A wave of heat rolled over him.

“Quick! Don’t let all the steam out!” she squeaked. He shut the door and leaned against it, holding one hand up to make sure he couldn’t see her. Jackie scoffed. “Don’t worry, the water is soapy. You can’t see anything.”

He lifted his gaze to see her. Her legs were propped up at the edge of the tub, and her hair was piled high on top of her head in a loose bun. She had a smug grin on her face.

“Oh, Bradas. I thought you didn’t trust me with your ‘virtue.’” She grinned, eyes twinkling. “Looks like you were the pervert all along.”

She was teasing him, he realized dumbly. It was just repayment for earlier that day, when he’d joked that she was after his virtue. But any witty retort flew right from his mind at the sight of bare, creamy shoulders.

“Ah, you had soap?” he asked, unable to think of anything else to say. Opaque water whirled and lapped onto damp olive skin, and only after a few moments was he able to tear away his gaze.

“Yep,” she nodded. Little strands of hair fell out of their bun. “Thanks, though.” Thankfully, she hadn’t seemed to notice his wandering gaze.

He cleared his throat and told himself to stop staring. “And… your clothes?”

“Yeah, I forgot those,” she agreed with a shrug. “I was planning on just pulling on my dirty ones until I got back to the room, though.”

“Ah,” he breathed, wondering where his wits had gone. So it wasn’t even really necessary for him to bring her clothes—she had it handled. “Then I apologize.”

“No, you’re fine! Running back to our room in sweaty clothes is less than ideal. I really appreciate it,” she thanked him. Suddenly she was moving, legs splashing into the tub. She rose from the water until her collarbones peeked out. Almost as if in slow motion, she reached a naked arm up toward him—or, he realized, the basket he held. “Hey, while you’re here, could you hand me that oil?”

Jackie was, somehow, impervious to embarrassment when it came to her own modesty. This was a fact of his life: she wore short nightgowns, skipped out on extra layers, and complained about ‘restrictive clothing.’ Moments like this reminded him that she’d been raised in a much different society.

He took a breath and lowered his eyes once more, searching for the vial she wanted and handing it to her. She took the offering with wrinkled fingers. The contact left his hand warm and damp.

“Thanks! It was nice that you brought me my stuff, even if you did have ulterior motives,” she teased.

He knew she wasn’t serious, but his nerves were already frayed. “I really didn’t intend to intrude,” he huffed.

“No worries,” she said lightly. She shrugged and his eyes followed the movement of water against the slope of her breasts. He blinked, and force his gaze to stay on her face. “You know I don’t even care, right? It’s not like you can actually see anything,” she scoffed. “You know, back where I’m from, people are used to seeing way more than shoulders.”

“I’ve already guessed,” he laughed, then regretted his words. That could easily be taken the wrong way.

She looked up at him with a playful smile, eyes gleaming. She didn’t seem offended at all. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

His cheeks flushed, quite against his will. “You’ve never been overly-modest, compared to the average human.”

“What about Dunmer ladies?” she asked.

Did she really want to have this conversation naked, he wondered? And did he really mind? “I suppose… it depends on the lady,” he drawled. He tried hard to think about the shores of Gnarr Mok rather than stare at the woman in front of him. “Are you saying that women show off their legs and shoulders back where you’re from?

She levelled him an amused look—as if to say ‘oh Bradas, how naïve you are!’ Perhaps it was her current state of undress, but it was oddly appealing. “A little more than just shoulders and legs.”

Bradas leaned against the door, resisting the urge to observe the outline of her body beneath the water. “Is that so?” he asked.

“Mm-hmm,” she hummed, leaning back to rest against the tub. Her knees poked out of the water, and he could see the outline of her thighs. She peered back at him, eyes dark and curious.

It made perfect sense. Jackie had always skirted the line between modesty and shamelessness, simply due to the fact that she didn’t care. He was used to it by now, but that didn’t mean he didn’t notice. There was, he began to realize, something incredibly enticing about that nonchalance.

“Am I making you uncomfortable?” she teased, voice light.

Jackie playfully sunk into the water. He watched, transfixed, as her shoulders disappeared, then her chin, and then her nose. Her eyes smiled, and she looked… lovely. Inviting.

The Dunmer was struck by the sudden wish to get closer. See just how inviting she meant to be. He had to remind himself that it was probably a cultural thing, not intended to be alluring.

And on that note, it was time to leave. “Well, then. I’m off to eat the last of your sweetrolls,” he announced, voice sounding a little loud to his own ears.

Water splashed as she sat up and he quickly turned around. “What? Hey!” she objected.

The Dunmer went out the door before he did something unwise—like give in to the temptation to take a closer look at that soapy water and see just how well it obscured her body.

.

.

Bradas laid back in bed and chewed on his stolen sweetroll. He was, he was beginning to realize, in much deeper trouble than he’d thought.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Jackie discovered that Bradas had, in fact, eaten the last of her sweetrolls. She’d have to make sure he paid her back.

She’d woken up late, feeling drugged by her warm bath the night before. Her Dunmer companion was out at the bar, probably eating breakfast and drinking ale way too early.

With a sigh, she stared into her empty bag of sweets. What was she doing with her life? What was she thinking?

It was time to face it: she’d come on way too strong last night. There was no denying it. All she could do now was bite down on the oncoming sense of humiliation. What an absolute disaster.

Last night when he’d brought her soap, she’d really thought he was just making up excuses to see her naked. Granted, it didn’t seem like something he would normally do, but who was she to pass up such a perfect opportunity?

But then he’d left so abruptly, which made her wonder if she’d been flirting too hard and scared him off… that would mean he wasn’t interested, right? She had completely misread the situation. He didn’t even like human women, did he?

That possibility was probably closer to the truth that she would have liked. He’d only been with Dunmer ladies, or so he’d said. For all she knew, he thought human women were funny-looking.

Regardless of his potential feelings on human ladies, this was all a terrible idea. He was her very best friend, was that a thing she was willing to risk? Not only that, but she’d just barely adjusted to the fact that she was stuck in Tamriel. Adding romance to the equation probably wasn’t smart.

She began to lace her boots, feeling sorry for herself. Here she was, playing relationship-chicken with a guy she’d seen blow fire magic into people’s faces. “Just what mom would have wanted for me,” she muttered.

“Talking to yourself?”

Jackie jumped and looked up to see Bradas, who was leaning on the doorframe, looking untroubled as always. “Um, no?” she replied with a weak smile.

“Some say that’s a sign of madness,” he said with a sly smile.

“I think talking to myself might be the least crazy thing I’ve done this week,” she deadpanned. That drew a laugh out of him.

“Are you ready to leave? I’d like to make it by Whiterun this evening.”

“Five minutes,” she promised. “And I want some sweetrolls to go. You owe me!”

***

On the way out of Rorikstead, Jackie suggested they find the farmer. The man had mentioned that she’d left him a note when she’d kidnapped Gleda, and it occurred to her that reading it might give them some clues about their missing night.

As soon as they approached the Redguard, he gave her the stink-eye. Jackie figured that was fair enough, because she was absolutely planning to renege on her promise to get his goat back.

“Are you going to get my Gleda back now?” he asked.

“Yes, doing that right now,” she lied, feeling slightly guilty. Not guilty enough to mess around with a giant, though. She could see Bradas smirking in her periphery, and prayed that he wouldn’t start laughing again. “I’m just here to ask you one more thing. You said that I left you a note yesterday, right?”

The farmer shrugged. “You did, but it was practically unreadable.”

“Well, I was wondering if I could get it back…”

“You’re not getting anything from me until I get my goat back!”

“Ah, yes,” Bradas said, coming to her rescue. “But you see, we don’t remember where the giant was. She was hoping that she’d written some clues down.”

“Oh. Well if that’s why you were asking, then sure.” He took a second to dig through his pockets before pulling out a worn-out piece of parchment. “Here you go.”

Jackie took it, wrinkling her nose. “Oh, did you… have this with you this whole time?”

That question earned her a glare. “I was going to hold onto it until I figured out how to get Gleda back.”

“Right,” she said slowly, narrowing her eyes. She tucked the note into her breast pocket to read later.

***

They made it half mile down the road before she pulled out the note she’d apparently written. Bradas was in an unusually good mood, and she suspected that it was because he was thinking about her stealing the goat again.

“I’d give all the money in my pocket to remember that night,” he said with a wistful sigh. “Jackie Carson, stealing a goat for… well, whatever you stole it for. Does your letter have clues, or is it really all just nonsense?”

“I was waiting to read it until we got further away from that guy,” she admitted.

“Understandable. I also prefer to avoid men with inappropriate relationships with their goats.”

“Good grief, do you think that’s what his deal is?” she scoffed. It put his outrage into context, that was for sure. “Poor Gleda!”
“Fear not, Jackie. You’ve saved her from his tender mercies,” he teased, eyes watering. He seemed to be on the brink of another laughing fit.

“That’s right. I saved Gleda,” she reasoned, more than happy to watch him giggle hysterically. It almost made this whole mess worth it.

“She is a lucky goat, indeed,” he said, trying to keep it together.

“I mean, I performed a public service.”

“Yes! You’re a hero,” he wheezed, and had to stop in the middle of the road. “Azura help me, I can’t…” he trailed off for a second. She gave him a pat on the back and let him lean on her while he tried to collect himself.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you laugh so hard,” she teased, leaning back into him. He wiped at watery eyes.

“Please just read the letter,” he said breathlessly, leaning over her shoulder to look at the weathered paper. She obliged and unfolded it. “This is your handwriting,” Bradas said, squinting. “But the farmer was right. Your penmanship is terrible.”

“Give me break, I just learned how to write in this language,” she groused. “Anyway, the reason you can’t read most of it was because I wrote in the Roman Alphabet.”

“Your home language?”

“Mm-hmm.” Sheepishly, she added, “Also, my handwriting was really bad.”

“Well, go on. What does it say?”

“Hang on, hang on.” She squinted at the paper, trying to decipher her own drunken chicken-scratch. There was a lot more writing than she’d expected, and a lot of ugly doodles, too. There were sloppily-drawn hearts and… feathers? God, she hated her drunk-self.

Fortunately, she was able to make out what she’d written.

Unfortunately, the content of the letter turned her general good mood into complete and utter mortification. She read to herself:

Dear farmer man,

I’m getting marriiiied! you are formally NOT invited to my special wedding! I’m going ring shopping with my goat money, azura bless you gleda!

Now she’d written in Skyrim’s alphabet: I’ll pay you back after I repay Ysolda…

And then, because she was a mean drunk, she’d written in her home language:

Just kidding, sucker!

P.S. You are ugly and your goat hates you.

Then she’d signed her name with a little heart above the ‘i’.

Her heart stopped.

Oh God. Oh God.

Everything suddenly fell into place, and all of her passing suspicions were confirmed. Breaking into the temple, ranting about a goat and a marriage dowry… the ring she’d found while she was pulling herself together in Markarth.

It occurred to her that she hadn’t explicitly said that she was marrying Bradas, and wasn’t that a terrifying thought? She had to assume it was him, though. Who else would she get married to in all of Skyrim?

Were they really stupid enough to go through with such a thing?

Bradas nudged her shoulder playfully, completely oblivious. “Jackie, you look like you’ve seen a ghost. What does it say?”

She folded the paper slowly, hands shaking, and looked up at him. She couldn’t even speak. Had they done it? Were they married?

But wait… did Skyrim require marriage licenses? (How did marriage here work, anyway?) Surely no one would marry two people who were obviously drunk… would they?

“Jackie?” he asked gently. She blinked, realizing that she’d been silent for at least two minutes straight. “What does it say?”

“We… maybe…” She shook her head, almost physically unable to say it. This was an absolute disaster. These past few weeks may have found her wishing for something a little more than friendship, but this… she was not ready for.

He raised an eyebrow. “Should I be worried?”

“No one would allow two drunk people to get married, would they?” her voice came out in a squeak.

He went stiff, and immediately stopped leaning on her. “What exactly does that letter say?” he asked.

Oh boy, there was no way that she was going to interpret that mess word-for-word. Instead, she gave him the gist. “I said that… I was on my way to get married,” she answered. “And that I was going to buy a ring from Ysolda in Whiterun.”

The Dunmer blinked a few times, a faint blue tinge spreading across his cheeks and to the tips of his ears. Clearly, he was reaching the same conclusion she had. He let out a weak laugh. “Jackie… no. Surely we didn’t… wouldn’t… and no priest would…”

“Yeah, you’re right,” she said, almost pleading. “No responsible person would let us get married, right? We were so drunk.”

Bradas let out a shaky breath. “You’re right. It’s nothing to worry about. And the ring…” His eyes went bright with relief. “There’s no ring! We must not have gone through with it.”

“Ha,” was the only thing she could say. Did she have a surprise for him.

The ring in question was still resting in her shirt pocket. With numb fingers, she fumbled to unbutton the little pocket and present it to him.

***

Bradas was hardly able to react as he stared at the delicate silver in Jackie’s hand. It glinted in the sun, beautiful and intricate. Expensive-looking.

“Does it fit?” was the stupid question he decided on. Jackie’s cheeks turned pink and she nodded. She slipped it onto her left ring finger. She almost never wore jewelry, but it suited her.

“I found it in my pocket when we wound up in Markarth,” she squeaked. “But everything was so mixed up and I honestly didn’t remember where I got it… and it was so pretty that I just… hung onto it.”

“It’s alright,” he breathed. He suddenly realized how very close they were standing. She looked up at him with tears in her eyes, and he could hardly bear it. Even if she had done something wrong—and he really didn’t believe she had—he wouldn’t be able to stay angry at her doe-eyes anyway. Damn it all. “You didn’t know.”

“I really didn’t,” she said quickly. “I thought… y’know, maybe? But then I figured that we’d never do something so stupid.”

Stupid, yes, that’s what it was. Marrying Jackie would certainly be a stupid idea. She was clearly distraught, which was a logical reaction to discovering you may have married someone during a drunken escapade.

It made him feel a little guilty for feeling so… unconcerned.

“I am so sorry for not saying anything sooner,” she was saying. “I just, I was sure that I was just being paranoid because we’d never do something like that…”

Bradas had experienced many hardships throughout his long life: he’d grown up in poverty, and lost his mother as a young adult. He’d been captured, nearly put to death, and then informed that he was the Dragonborn. And only recently he had been imprisoned in a mine, and forced to work day-in and day-out while pretending not to abhor the Forsworn.

Accidentally marrying Jackie just didn’t seem like a big deal.

“Jackie,” he said, unable to keep from smiling. “It’s alright. Don’t cry.”

She huffed and wiped at her eyes. “Okay,” she said, uncertain. “You’re not upset I didn’t say something sooner?”

“What would have been the point? Neither of us know what really happened that night. And I hardly think that it would have made a difference in these past few weeks, anyway,” he said, placing a reassuring arm around her shoulder.

He felt her take a shuddering breath. “You’re being really, uh, cool about all this.”

Bradas gave her a fond smile, and squeezed her shoulder before releasing her. “I can think of much worse fates than being married to you.”

“Ahah,” she breathed. “Thanks?”

“You’re welcome,” he said with a laugh. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll get it sorted out soon.” It occurred to him that Jackie was, perhaps, not thrilled at the prospect of being married to him. Why would she be? She was beautiful by any standard, human or otherwise, and could have her pick of husbands should she be so inclined.

That was not a thought he really wanted to entertain.

“Come, we should start on our way to Whiterun if we want to get there by sundown.”

 

.

.

 

Jackie spent the entire trip trailing behind Bradas, squinting at the back of his head and wondering if she was missing something important. Just when she thought she had an idea of what was going in his head, he turned around and informed her, in so many words, that he was cool with being married to her.

She hadn’t taken the ring off yet, and he didn’t seem to mind. She twirled it on her finger as they walked, thinking.

Did marriage mean something different here than it did back home? Was divorce a thing here in Skyrim? How about annulment? She was reluctant to bring it up with him right now, especially since he seemed to be so relaxed about the whole thing. God, why was he so weird? Was she being weird? Was this a Dunmer thing? Were they just having a serious cultural misunderstanding right now?

She took a breath and tried to relax. This didn’t have to be a huge deal—there was a great chance that they’d just gotten ‘engaged.’ That was something that could be easily be rectified by just not getting married. That was a comforting thought, and actually made her feel a lot better. If Bradas wasn’t concerned, she’d try not to be either.

 

.

.

 

They did manage to make it to Whiterun just after sundown. They bought a cramped room at the Bannered Mare and quietly settled in. There was only a single bed available—which was normally not a big deal. She resolved not to make it weird.

“So,” she said, leaning against a nightstand. “It’s a little late, but I want to try and find Ysolda.”

“Tomorrow,” he groaned, sitting on the bed and unlacing his boots. He sounded exhausted from the journey; they had really booked it to get into town before sundown. She was tired too, though her brain was probably more worn-out than her body. This whole marriage thing had really taken it out of her.

She could admit to herself that she had strong feelings for him, but she definitely wasn’t the kind of girl to get married without at least a couple of dates first.

His voice pulled her out of her brooding. “You’ve been quiet all day. Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I think—I’m fine if you’re fine,” she stammered, unable to look him in the eye. He frowned and she realized that she’d failed at not making it weird. She groaned and covered her cheeks with her hands. “Sorry, I’m just freaking out about the whole marriage thing.”

“It’s fine. Truly, Jackie, there’s nothing to worry about,” he said softly. He offered her a callused hand. They were close enough that she didn’t have to move far to take it. “If we did, ah, get married that night… I would not hold you to a vow you made while you were drunk.”

She gave his hand a squeeze. “I wouldn’t either,” she promised. “I just feel like… we’re so dumb for getting into this stupid situation in the first place.”

“There isn’t any denying that,” the Dunmer mused. He looked down at her hand and smirked. “You didn’t take the ring off.”

“It’s a nice ring,” she joked, unable to hold back a smile. She grasped his hand with both of hers and pulled a little closer, heart full. It was time for a little bit of honestly, at least as much as she could afford without outright confessing she had a thing for him. “Listen, I… you’re my best friend. It’s just that I… I couldn’t stand it if I messed that up somehow.” She swallowed, her voice shaky. “I would do anything not to lose you.”

The Dunmer swiped a thumb across her knuckles, catching on the ring. “You have done more for me than anyone else, Jackie Carson. I will always be your friend.”

“And I’m yours,” she said softly, heart beating quickly. Oh, but she wanted to kiss him.

It was a terrible idea. How many times had she told herself that? It was practically her mantra. But she’d had great luck lately, and terrible ideas had been serving her pretty well.

Before she could talk herself out of it, she bent down and pressed her lips to his. It was chaste, and it didn’t last long—but he smelled so good, and his lips were so perfect. She hadn’t realized how badly she’d missed kissing.

Jackie exhaled and pulled away before he could react. It was better to end it on her own terms rather than be pushed away. “Sorry,” she breathed. If he didn’t want her back—and it was a very real possibility that he didn’t—she’d have to let him know that she really didn’t expect anything from him and hope for the best.

***

Bradas felt her pull back before he even realized what was truly happening. He’d been so busy thinking of what she’d just said—I’m yours—that he almost didn’t realize what was happening when she leaned down and kissed him.

The air was still, the moment quiet.

She was soft, almost careful, in how she kissed him. He’d had his share of liaisons over the years, but no one had ever kissed him so tenderly—as though he was precious, something to be careful with.

And then she was pulling away and apologizing, which was just barely more surprising than the kiss itself.

She made to let go of his hand, but he gently pulled her back. She looked surprised, like she had been expecting rejection—as if he could ever deny her anything.

He let go of her hands, but not so that could retreat. He traced up her arms with his fingers. She held her breath and stayed in place, carefully waiting to see what happened next before moving. His hand brushed against the bare skin of her neck, and stopped to curl around her cheek.

With shaky breath, she placed her own hand over his. He couldn’t help but brush his thumb across her bottom lip.

Her lips parted, brushing against the pad of his thumb. Little blotches of color rose in her cheeks and her eyes went dark. His heart pounded as he realized that she wanted this, wanted him.

“Jackie,” he breathed, the world narrowing so that only they occupied it.

“Bradas,” she answered, breath coming a little faster.

They were done dancing around each other, it seemed—and he only now realized that was what they had been doing all this time. “Is this what you want?” he asked softly.

She just smiled and nipped at his thumb. She was going to kill him. “Yes.”

Mephala,” he swore, and snaked his other arm around her waist to pull her into his lap. She came easily, though both their armor was in the way. This was a problem with an easy solution. He started on his own armor first, since he knew it well, and was down to his undershirt in no time. Then he helped her divest her of her own mail. She was still wearing a tunic and leggings, but it was easier to press her closer with that than with armor.

Once, he would have taken his time. He’d enjoyed that once with past lovers; taking clothes off slowly between kisses. But he just wanted to be closer, to feel just a little more skin. He needed to taste her lips again, as soon as possible.

Jackie slid neatly onto his lap without the leather mail in the way, and she wrapped her arms around his neck in a sweet embrace. “I like you, I like you so much,” she whispered, breath fanning out across his cheeks. The sweetness of it left him breathless, and she took that time to place kisses on his cheek and the corner of his mouth. He grasped her chin gently and tipped it down so he could kiss her more thoroughly.

This second kiss was not so soft. Jackie’s hands were on his cheeks, then winding through his hair and cupping the back of his neck. Her lips were sweeter than he could have imagined, and tasted like the apples they’d shared earlier.

She bit his bottom lip ever so lightly before soothing it with her tongue. “Azura above,” he muttered. He smothered her laugh with another kiss, this time sliding his hands just below her tunic to feel the soft skin of her hips. She gasped into his mouth, and he trailed his hands up her ribs, spreading his fingers out across the hidden expanse of skin.

With what he considered to be a miraculous amount self-control, he withdrew his hands and pulled away to look at her face. He was satisfied to hear a disappointed groan, and it was worth it just to drink her in. Her lips were pink from kissing and her hair was slightly mussed.

“What’s wrong?” she breathed, cheeks flushed. She sighed and pressed her forehead to his, hands grasping at his tunic. “Don’t tell me you just decided this was a bad idea.”

“On the contrary,” he murmured, closing his eyes and breathing her in. Oh, yes, he had wanted this so badly, and had tried so hard not to imagine it. How had he not known that she’d wanted him back? “Tell me how long I’ve been an idiot.”

She laughed, breath fanning across his lips. “Are you asking how long I’ve liked you?”

“Yes,” he breathed, tipping his head up to capture another kiss. She hummed against his lips and he pressed her closer to himself, not caring whether he got an answer.

***

Jackie was sure she could kiss Bradas until she died, and she’d be perfectly alright with that. Would it be tacky, she wondered, to send whoever had taught him how to kiss and set him free a thank-you card? She grinned at the thought and nipped at his bottom lip ever-so-lightly. He gasped a little and she used the opportunity to slide her tongue against his.

Then suddenly there was a knock at the door.

“What the hell,” she whispered miserably, sitting up and pulling away from the kiss. The pathetically sex-deprived part of her brain screamed in protest.

“What!” Bradas hollered, trying to catch his breath. He glanced up at her longingly, looking so unreasonably depressed that she almost laughed—except she was kind of annoyed, too.

“I, uh, have a letter for you?” came the nervous voice from beyond the threshold.

Letter?

“God damn it,” Jackie hissed under her breath. The Dunmer beneath her huffed in agreement. She let go of his shirt and shifted off of his lap awkwardly. “Want me to get the door?”

“You’re going to have to. I’m certainly in no state,” he muttered darkly.

“I’m gonna strangle whoever it is,” she vowed, careful to be quiet enough that only he could hear. Then, in a cheerful voice: “Just a second!”

Jackie quickly straightened her shirt and ran her fingers through her hair. This was as good as it was gonna get.

She opened the door to see a young, blond Nord standing on the other side, looking uncomfortable. “Um, evening, miss. Are you Jackie Carson?”

“Yes,” she said, trying not to sound as impatient as she really felt.

“I have a delivery for you!” he said quickly, digging through a satchel. “You’re really tough to track down, ha-ha. I mean, first I went to Riften, and then suddenly I heard you were in Markarth? You really travel fast, huh?”

Jackie just crossed her arms. “Yeah.”

He cleared his throat. “Anyway! Two letters for you.” He handed her two sealed envelopes, and then just stood at the door awkwardly. Like he was waiting for something.

“So…” she said, feeling more and more annoyed by the second. “Do you… need a tip, or something?” She glanced at Bradas. “Is that the etiquette here?”

Bradas shook his head vehemently.

“It’s customary,” the courier helpfully supplied.

“For God’s sake,” she muttered, walking over to her pack and digging out some gold. She gave him five septims and he smiled.

“Thank you, miss! You and your husband have a good night!"

She was too irritated to correct him—and she wasn’t even sure if he was wrong. “Yeah, have a great night,” she said flatly. The courier turned and left, and it was all Jackie could do not to slam the door. She leaned against the door and sighed heavily. “Thank you so much! Way to ruin the mood,” she muttered, utterly embarrassed.

When she finally gathered her wits and looked over at Bradas, he was gazing at her with intense cerise eyes. His lips were slightly swollen and he was still a little out of breath. He was so gorgeous she wanted to cry.

“So,” she said breathlessly. Did they pick back up from where they left off? Did they DTR? She really didn’t want to try to have a relationship-talk right after a very good make-out session. After some thought, she finally decided on what to say. “What’s next?”

He looked conflicted for a split second, and then his brow smoothed like he had just come to come sort of private conclusion about something.

She gave him a weak smile and shrugged her shoulders. “It’s a little weird, right?”

“It is.” Bradas huffed a laugh and stood up. Before she knew it, he was slipping up next to her and boxing her in near the door. One hand slid around her waist and the other brushed against her neck. Then he leaned in close and threw her for a loop by placing a neat little kiss on her forehead.

“Perhaps… you’d like a proper courtship,” he said softly, playing with the wispy hair at the nape of her neck. She shivered. Was that his way of asking to take things slow?

Jesus Christ. “Sounds great,” she managed, unable to figure out any kind of clever response.

"I’m going to get some supper. Are you coming?”

“Yeah, sure.” She clutched the letters she held in her hand. “I’ll just… read these real quick?” She needed just a moment alone, a break so that she could try and process everything.

He smiled down at her fondly. “Of course."

And with that he slipped away, slinking around her and out the door like a cat. Her Dunmer was halfway down the stairs before she could really wrap her head around what had just happened.

Hadn’t she just been despairing over her unrequited crush on him not twenty-four hours ago? “How clueless am I?” she murmured to herself.

Jackie just took a second to just stand in the room alone, completely bewildered. She looked over at the bed, squeezed her eyes shut, and tried her very best not to hate that innocent courier’s guts.

Chapter Text

Bradas sipped some mead to settle down, waiting for Jackie as she read those thrice-cursed letters upstairs. It was just their luck to be interrupted like that. If that courier hadn’t knocked on the door…

His heart picked up its pace when he thought about it. All fatigue from their journey was replaced with restless energy, and it was going nowhere—not tonight, at least. He couldn’t very well promise a proper courtship and go back on his word the very same night, could he?

Speaking of a ‘proper courtship’—he wasn’t sure exactly how he planned on going about that. He didn’t know what had compelled him make such a promise. Her sweet kisses and his own tender feelings had clouded his mind, and it had just seemed right to say it.

But where to go from here?

He found himself wondering what his mother might have suggested if he asked her about Jackie. Probably something about hurrying up and giving her grandchildren. He rolled his eyes. He was certainly not going to let his mind go there.

He sighed. Jackie had quite a hold on him if he was trying to figure out what his mother would say.

She’d been born an Ashlander, before she left her clan to explore the world. She’d told him once, before her death, that she’d always felt different from them. She’d wanted true freedom, magical knowledge, and perhaps an adventure. She’d gotten all of that, and then returned to Morrowind to live an ordinary life in Gnaar Mok with the settled-mer. Then he was born.

Even estranged from her people, she’d reminded him often of his heritage. Would she have advised him to do things the Ashlander way?

Maybe she wouldn’t even care. She had been adamant that he settle down and find someone. That was why she’d been so angry when he’d let go of Lilith Avelis, the only other woman he’d ever been somewhat serious about.

But all of that was far from the point. Jackie was no Lilith, and she wasn’t a Dunmer, either.

Aside from gift-giving, an Ashlander courtship would be too difficult. The local traditions of the settled people of Morrowind didn’t give him much guidance, either. They usually required the involvement of immediate family, something neither of them had.

What about her people, he wondered? What were her traditions? She’d mentioned that she’d nearly been engaged once; what had that been like? A new thought struck him: what if, in the process of courting her, he crossed some kind of cultural boundary? Some invisible line? There was no way to know what was off-limits.

Cool fingers tapped his shoulder and he startled. Jackie had come down the stairs and bought two bowls of stew without him even noticing. She set a bowl in front of him with an uncertain smile. “Deep in thought?” she teased.

“Perhaps,” he said, returning her smile. She flushed prettily and sat across from him with her stew. She set two envelopes on the table. “What did the letters say?”

“Read for yourself,” she sighed. She tapped the top letter, which bore the seal of the College of Winterhold. Curious, he unfolded it and read:

 

Jackie Carson,

I hope this letter finds you in good health.

I have some news that might intertest you. After you left, I found the old Arch Mage’s notes about you. He had some theories and ideas about how you came to be in Tamriel. Your particular case was of great interest to us, though we had very little time to dedicate to studying it.

We still don’t have many resources to study realm-travelling, but we do have a new apprentice at the college who is an expert in Conjuration Magic. He has taken a keen interest in your story, and wishes to speak with you in order to further his study. Another young mage hoping to make a name for himself, no doubt. He seems to have good intentions, though.

Feel free to ignore him if you like. It may teach him a lesson about hassling me.

Stay safe in your travels, my dear friend. I hope that we meet again. You and Bradas Sarayn are always welcome here in Winterhold. Tolfdir sends his regards.

Yours in friendship,

Mirabelle Ervine

 

He looked back up at her with raised brows. “The other one is a lot shorter,” she said, nudging it toward him. This one said:

 

Most esteemed Mistress (That was a gregarious greeting if he’d ever read one),

My name is Kalas, and I’m an apprentice at the Winterhold College. At the risk of sounding too forward, I have heard much about you and I am very interested in your story. As a student of Conjuration, the idea of travelling between realms interests me greatly.

There’s a chance you could help me greatly with my studies. I would be forever grateful to you if you would answer just a few of my many questions.

At your service,

Kalas

 

He glanced up at her once more, trying to read her face. To be reminded of her home, and their failure to get her back... “Jackie? Are you…”

She waved her hand before he could articulate a question. “It’s fine. Not a big deal, but I guess I’m just not sure how to feel about some random apprentice taking an interest in me?” He gave her a skeptical look; he remembered very well how she had been in the weeks after she realized that there was no going home. She sighed. “Really, I’m fine. I just don’t want to re-hash all of it, ya know?”

He nodded, watching her face closely. “Alright. Will you write back?”

“I’ll write Mirabelle back for sure,” she said. “But this Kalas guy? I’ll think about it…” She shrugged. “It might not hurt to answer his questions. I really am curious about how I got here, even if I’m not going back.”

He had to admit that he was curious, as well. Her world intrigued him, as wild and strange as it seemed. But maybe that was because she intrigued him.

“Anyway,” she said suddenly, eager for a change of subject. “You looked awfully distracted earlier. Anything on your mind?”

“Not really,” he said airily.

“Sure,” she replied. If he’d been close enough, he would have kissed the smirk right off her lips.

“And you? Is there anything on your mind?” he asked, voice low.

“Nope.” She bit her lip to stifle a laugh. He had a feeling she was going to make him regret his promise of a ‘proper courtship.’

.

.

They woke up late in the morning the next day, somewhat tangled together. Jackie found herself in the role of big spoon, but it was probably more because of the size of their tiny bed than anything else.

Still, she was kind of glad she didn’t have to slip away and hope he didn’t notice. At least she hoped not—she still wasn’t sure how they were going to navigate this new thing that they had.

They were really heading into brand-new territory, weren’t they?

Suddenly he was turning over in the bed to face her. For a moment he just gazed at her with sleepy crimson eyes. “Good morning, daelha,” he murmured.

It had been so long since she’d dated that she’d nearly forgotten how hot it was when a guy spoke another language. “What does that mean?” she asked breathlessly. Bradas just smiled and wove his fingers through her hair before capturing her lips in a sweet, sleepy kiss.

She’d also forgotten what it felt like to have someone this close. The comforting weight of a body beside her, arms wrapping around her. She breathed him in and wound her arms around his neck, pressing her chest into his to deepen the kiss.

It ended too soon. With the brush of his nose against hers, he pulled away with a smile.

“And a good morning to you, too,” she breathed. He chuckled and rolled out of bed. “Uh, hey, wanna get back here?”

“Too much to do today, I’m afraid,” he said, looking down at her with an insufferable smirk. “Up, up! We have to find Ysolda, do we not?”

Jackie sighed. She had survived a dragon attack, and she was going to die of sexual frustration.

It suddenly all clicked into place in her drowsy brain; he was teasing her. “Do we really?” She tried to make her voice sound seductive, but she was too tired to pull it off and her voice just sounded like she was coming down with the flu.

“Close your eyes, I’m going to change,” was all he said in reply. She exhaled and pressed her head back into the pillow, covering her eyes with her hands.

So, this was how he was going to play it? Fine. Two could play at that game. As soon as she woke up, she’d come up with something and get back at him.

For now, though… she risked a peek at him through her fingers. He caught her immediately and flung a dirty shirt at her, and she stumbled out of bed laughing.

 

***

 

They got ready for the day and went out to the market. It was back to business as usual, it seemed—Bradas wanted to sell their extra gear at Warmaiden’s while she spoke with Ysolda. They agreed to meet back at The Bannered Mare for lunch and went their separate ways.

It didn’t take long for her to find Ysolda. The merchant was out near one of the stalls, gathering some things in a basket.

“Ysolda!” Jackie called, jogging toward her. “Thank goodness I found you.”

Ysolda didn’t return Jackie’s friendly smile, which didn’t seem like a good sign. “So, you’re finally back,” she said, unimpressed. “Look, I’ve been patient, but you still owe me.”

Jackie grimaced. She supposed she should have been prepared for this. “Oh… how much?”

“It’s not about the money, really… I wouldn’t have given you the wedding ring on credit if you hadn’t been so obviously in love.”

Obviously in love? Jackie felt her cheeks heat up. “Oh?”

“If there isn’t going to be a wedding, the least you can do is give the ring back. It was one of my best pieces.”

“Oh, Ysolda… I’m so sorry. That night was just such a blur,” she said. It was less than a blur, really. The other woman sighed, but the corners of her mouth quirked up.

“Oh, I know. You were so excited, and I guess I got swept up in the romance,” she sighed. “It’s just that you disappeared with the ring and I never heard about it again. I just assumed you called off the wedding.”

Jackie took that as a good sign. If they’d only gotten engaged, this would be easier to fix. “This is going to sound like a weird question, but… do you know what I did after I bought the ring?”

“You went right out to give it to your fiancée! Don’t you even remember where you left her?”

It took a moment for Jackie’s brain to catch up. “Her?” she blurted, eyes going wide.

Ysolda’s brows drew together. “Oh, Jackie. Don’t you remember?”

“Um, could you refresh my memory?”

She narrowed her eyes. “And after you told me this beautiful story of how you met in Witchmist Grove!” she scolded. Jackie couldn’t even believe what she was hearing—she’d gotten engaged to a woman? She wasn’t even attracted to women, why would she do that?

“What, what did I tell you, exactly?” she stammered.

“How could you forget?” the merchant looked extremely disappointed in her. “It was the sweetest story I had ever heard.”

I forgot because I’m human garbage when I’m black-out drunk, she wanted to say. “Go on, please,” Jackie urged.

“It was beautiful,” Ysolda lamented. “You met at the full moon, under the biggest tree in Witchmist Grove, surrounded by fireflies. It was straight out of a storybook.”

Jackie sighed. Well, if nothing else, at least she had game. Who was this woman, she wondered?

“Thanks, Ysolda,” she murmured, glancing down at the ring she was wearing. It wasn’t even for her—it was for this poor girl she’d led on. Still, she really didn’t want to give it back, and she felt irrationally disappointed that she hadn’t married Bradas. Which was stupid, because she definitely wasn’t ready for that.

What was her problem?

She sighed and slipped it off her ring finger. There wasn’t going to be any wedding, and it felt wrong to owe Ysolda. Ysolda’s eyes glimmered in recognition. “You still have it?” she asked.

“Yeah… Here, I don’t think things are going to work out between me and… um, her.” Oh, God, she didn’t even know her name. How trashy was that?

Ysolda seemed to think so, too. “Yes, well, I can see why not,” she sighed. “Thank you. And I am sorry things didn’t work out between you and your lady. You seemed so excited for the wedding. You kept saying it would be a huge ceremony at Morvunskar. You even said you had some magic staff there that would handle all the guests.”

Jackie’s eyes widened. The staff! “Oh, Ysolda… thank you! I really appreciate it, and I’m sorry about all the trouble.”

It looked like she’d have her hands full fixing things, but at least she knew where to go from here.

 

.

.

 

When Bradas returned to The Bannered Mare, he had not expected to see Jackie sitting solemnly on the bed, hands clasped on her lap. The ring was missing from her hand, and she looked like she was about to go to war.

“Do I want to know?” he drawled.

“I really don’t think you do,” she said with a grimace. “First things first though. Please, please don’t be mad at me.”

He raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“Before I tell you what I found out, I just really want you to know that I was black-out drunk. And I know it’s not an excuse… but I don’t remember anything.”

That sounded foreboding, to say the least. He crossed his arms. “Go on.”

She took another deep breath and said it quickly: “So, we didn’t get married.”

Bradas rose his eyebrows. That wasn’t necessarily bad news, and it truly didn’t change very much between them… surely she knew that? “Is that all?”

“No,” she said, voice going up a few octaves. “I got engaged… but not to you.”

That took a second to sink in. Yes, he could see how that might be a problem. “Might I ask who you did get engaged to?”

Tears filled her eyes. “I don’t know,” she said miserably. “Some poor girl, I guess, that ring was for her?”

Yet another surprise. “I wasn’t aware that you liked women, as well.”

“I don’t. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I just like men.” She covered her face with her hands. In quieter voice, she muttered, “I like you.”

Despite the gravity of the situation, he found himself flattered. The tips of his ears warmed up embarrassingly, like he was some sort of young, swooning elven maid. Luckily, Jackie was too wrapped up in self-loathing to notice.

“Shit,” she swore, balling her fist up and tapping her knee. “I have to find this woman and make things right. Let her know there’s not going to be a… a wedding.” Her face flushed in embarrassment. “I can’t believe I got myself into this mess!”

The Dunmer agreed that it was an awkward situation, but wondered if she was making too much of it. She’d only gotten engaged, hadn’t she? “Why not just leave it alone? Surely she’ll get the message if you never return.”

That was the wrong thing to say, evidently. “How could you say that?” she gasped. “You wouldn’t ever do that, would you?”

“Ah, no, of course not,” he backpedaled. He realized, belatedly, that leaving someone at the altar wasn’t something you wanted to suggest to any woman you were trying to impress.

“I couldn’t do that to her… whoever she is,” she said apologetically. She took a deep breath. “Nope. I have to find her, and let her down in person. Like a mature adult.”

He glanced at her hand. “And the ring?” he asked.

“Gave it back to Ysolda,” she mumbled unhappily. “It wasn’t even for me, anyway.”

Bradas couldn’t help it—he grinned. “Disappointed, are we?”

The red flush that spread across her face was satisfying, and lightened the mood. “No,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “I’m totally cool with it. One hundred percent.”

“You look disappointed,” he teased.

“Not even,” she scoffed, fighting back a smile. But just as quickly as it appeared, it was gone. “So, you’re not… upset, or mad, or anything?”

He grinned. “No, I’m not. But you are taking this too seriously, I think.”

“I don’t think so,” she disagreed, eyebrows going up. “First of all, I led on some poor girl and promised to marry her. Second of all, I took a wedding ring out on credit from Ysolda—and that thing wasn’t going to be cheap. Third, I stole a goat—”

Saved a goat,” he corrected, stifling a laugh. She sighed in exasperation.

“Yes! Liberated a goat, whatever. Then, somehow, we went to Markarth and I desecrated the Temple of Dibella! I’m the worst,” she groaned, guilt-struck.

She was being so utterly serious about it that he found himself forcing down another inappropriate laugh. It was like when they’d found out she’d stolen the goat. Just thinking about Jackie proposing to someone, or singing…

Singing. Why did he think that? And why did it seem so familiar?

“Jackie…” he said, grasping for a memory long-forgotten. She sat up straight.

“What?”

“Does this mean anything to you? L… is for the way you look at me?”

She gave him an incredulous look. “What? You know that song?”

“I really don’t think so.”

She seemed to know it instantly. “L, is for the way you look at me,” she recited, quickly going through the tune. “O, is for the only one I see. V, is very very extraordinary. E, is even more than anyone that you adore can…” she trailed off. Her eyes grew wide and she stood up. “I remember something!”

“So do I. Did you… sing this?”

“Yes!” she said excitedly. Then she groaned. “Oh, my God, I used a Nat King Cole song to woo this lady. What is wrong with me?”

Chapter Text

The next morning, they got ready to leave for Witchmist Grove.

Bradas disappeared off to who-knew-where while she got dressed, so it seemed that a morning make-out session was not in the cards for Jackie today. She had to make a concerted effort not to pout about it.

Instead, she took the time alone to write Mirabelle a letter, the gist of which was: I miss you! I’ll try to write more! Thank you!

Then she made out a very short missive to the apprentice named Kalas. It simply read: What are your questions? I’ll help you if I can.

 

.

.

 

As they neared Witchmist Grove, Jackie grew quiet and nervous. Bradas wondered what she planned on saying to this girl she’d proposed to—perhaps she was wondering that, herself. On a rather selfish level, he still didn’t know why they had to bother with all of this.

Jackie had gone along with many of his more foolish ideas, though, so it was only fair that he went along with hers.

“Wow. This place is kind of spooky, huh?” Jackie remarked, bringing him out of his thoughts. She was right; Witchmist Grove was not the romantic spot he’d thought it might be. In fact, it looked like they had wandered into some kind of bog. Fog was rolling on the ground, seeming to grow thicker as they wandered further into the grove.

Why had they even been here while they were drinking, he wondered? “What kind of people even live in a place like this?” he said aloud. She gave him a baffled look and shrugged.

***

After a little bit of walking, Jackie spotted something just beyond the trees. “Look, a cabin,” she said, pointing. She had a strong feeling that this was it—this was where she’d find her ‘fiancée.’

The rickety-looking house was just down the slope from where they were, and they skidded down the hill together. Not only was the house old and run-down, but there were jagged spikes pointing outward surrounding its perimeter. That seemed awfully strange, but she supposed it made sense to protect your house like that in the middle of nowhere.

There was a small set of stairs leading up to the door, Jackie stopped short before they ascended.

It would be really awkward (and kind of uncool) to break off an engagement with him standing right there, wouldn’t it? Jackie bit her lip, feeling guilty. Especially since Bradas was kind of her… something.

Boyfriend? No, that sounded weird. Suitor? No, that was even worse.

Whatever.

“Hey, um. I was thinking, it might be better for me to talk to her by myself,” she said. He rose a skeptical eyebrow.

“Must you?” he drawled. It struck her that he might be kind of jealous. Was it weird if she thought it was kind of cute?

Still, this was serious business. “Yeah, I think it’s best. It’s going to be awkward, ya know? I feel like it’s the nicer thing to do.”

“Alright. I’ll be out here,” he sighed.

“Thanks,” she said, giving him a smile. She braced herself and marched up the stairs.

Time to face the music, she thought, standing up straight and giving the door three gentle knocks.

A raspy voice from within sing-songed, “Come in~!” Bradas frowned at her from the bottom of the stairs, but she just shrugged and opened the door.

“Be right back,” she whispered to him with a thumbs-up.

The inside of the house was dark, the only source of light being the dying fire-pit in the middle of the floor. When her eyes adjusted, the first thing she noticed was that there were feathers everywhere. On the counters, by the fire, swept into the corners on the floor… it was beyond weird. Maybe this mystery lady was a bird enthusiast?

“Okay…” Jackie said slowly, looking around for the person inside. There were potions ingredients everywhere, to the point that whoever this person was might have been a hoarder. “Um, hello?”

“Hello!” a voice rasped from the corner, and Jackie whipped around to look. Standing before her was an old woman who could have accurately been described as a hag. Jackie hated words like that to describe women, but there it was. She was covered in black feathers, and wearing a black dress that had long since turned into a rag. Her hair and eyes were ink-black, and her skin was a deathly pale. Upon closer inspection, she realized that her hands and feet were actually bird-like claws.

“What the hell,” Jackie blurted, eyes going wide.

“Darling!” the woman croaked, a smile on her chapped lips. For God’s sake, the woman’s teeth were even sharp! “I’ve been waiting for you to return, to consummate our love!”

So much for the young woman whose heart she had broken! Jackie’s hair stood straight on end.

“Um, hi, hello, yes,” she stammered. “I mean, no!”

“You can’t resist Moira’s charms,” the hag crooned, stepping closer to Jackie.

The young outworlder took a deep breath. Just because this woman was… well, terrifying, didn’t mean she didn’t deserve respect! Jackie steeled herself. “Um, yes, Moira. I’m actually here because… I’m breaking off our engagement.”

The hag gasped. Jackie soldiered on.

“You are a very wonderful, uh, woman?” Wait, was she actually even human? “And… you have a lot to offer, and you’re going to make someone very happy one day!” she finished in a panicked rush. Moira was walking toward her, a wild look in her eyes.

“What?!” she squawked, and Jackie jumped at the sheer volume of her voice. “You want to leave me for that hussy, Esmerelda, with the dark feathers—don’t you?!”

“I-I assure you, I definitely do not—”

“Well!” Moira rasped, “I won’t let her have you!”

 

***

 

Bradas waited outside like Jackie had asked him to, bored. He was inspecting his nails when he heard a loud thump and a shriek from within the house. Immediately, he was on his guard.

The door to the cottage slammed open, and Jackie fled through it with a yelp. She skipped over the stairs completely, choosing instead to bound over them in a rare display of athleticism.

“Run! Run!” she yelled, and suddenly fire burst through the door.

It looked like Jackie’s ‘fiancée’ wasn’t taking the news very well.

“If I can’t have you, no one can!” an angry voice shrilled, and then a hagraven of all things emerged from beyond the threshold. She was so focused on Jackie that she didn’t even see Bradas standing slack-jawed at the bottom of her stairs.

Jackie had wooed a hagraven.

The creature shrieked and bound on long legs toward Jackie, who led her on a wild chase around the yard. He watched, shocked, wondering if he was dreaming. This definitely seemed like something that would happen in a dream.

“Bradas! For Christ’s sake!” Jackie screamed, scrambling toward him and grasping his arm to get him to move. The hagraven finally noticed him and wailed angrily.

“It’s him, isn’t it?! How dare you!” she accused, pointing a long, gnarled finger at him. “Homewrecker!”

Bradas finally snapped out of it and cast an ice spell directly at her. Jackie scrambled to take out her knife.

She shrieked, fire coming out of her hands as she cast back at him. “You dare!”

The fight that followed was short but ridiculous. The hag didn’t last long, and she screamed the whole time about Jackie’s betrayal. Jackie, on the other hand, apologized the entire time, even as she helped Bradas kill her.

“Azura help me,” Bradas panted. The hagraven lay dead on the ground, and Jackie was kneeling over her looking sad. “Please tell you don’t feel bad about killing that thing.”

“No, I don’t,” she sighed, looking up at him and brushing off her hands. “She tried to kill us first. I just… wow. That didn’t really go how I thought it would.”

“Me neither,” he admitted. He didn’t think he’d ever forget the sight of her jumping down the stairs like that, wild-eyed and terrified. It was really funny, despite the circumstances. “You…” he couldn’t even finish the thought before laughter took him.

“What?” she asked.

“You almost married a hagraven.”

She groaned, and he laughed even harder.

.

.

For the entire time they searched for a place to set up camp (well outside of Witchmist Grove, thank you very much), Jackie had the dubious pleasure of listening to Bradas trying and failing to hold in little snickers. It was cute the first time he’d lost it about the goat, but she was feeling weary after having to kill her ‘fiancée.’

Not that she felt too bad, now that she knew what hagravens were.

“Why didn’t you do anything embarrassing?” she complained. They sat near each other on their bedrolls as they watched some food cook on the campfire. It was a peaceful night, so far, and she hoped it stayed that way.

“Because,” he said haughtily, “I have high standards.”

“Compared to my low standards?” she said flatly, giving him the side-eye.

“Well… you did almost marry a hagraven.”

She heaved a sigh and cast her eyes heavenward. “I am never going to live this down.”

“No, you’re not,” he confirmed with a smug smile. “But in all seriousness, I am a little worried we might be in hagraven territory.”

“Oh, no, really?” she asked.

“Yes. We should be extra careful tonight; we wouldn’t want you to go out and marry one.”

She found a little piece of kindling and flung it at him as hard as she could. He just laughed and swapped it into the fire.

“What’s next? Shall you charm a troll? Perhaps a mudcrab?”

“A Dunmer, actually,” she said with a huff. “But he’s being really obnoxious right now. I might go with the mudcrab, at least they don’t talk back.”

He laughed again, bright and genuine. “Now, let’s not make any hasty decisions.”

“Sorry, my mind’s made up,” she teased. “I’ll be going down to the river tomorrow morning—mmph!”

The Dunmer had swept into her personal space and pressed his lips to hers in a quick kiss. His hand brushed her jaw as he pulled away with a smug smile. “Are you certain about that?”

“Hmm. I don’t know,” she said, looking into his ruby eyes. She snuck her hand to hang onto the gap between his leather armor and the shirt underneath. He was a slippery one, and she didn’t want him to pull away just yet. “I’ll need more information before I make a decision… maybe a couple more kisses will help me make up my mind?”

It was a lame line, but she was gratified when he went for it anyway. She hung onto his armor as he brushed his lips against hers, slow and deliberate. Jackie let him take the lead, her eyes slipping shut as he slid his hand around the back of her neck. His other hand wrapped around her waist and pulled her closer.

She sighed into the kiss, which only served to spur him on. He was such a good kisser, and it was all she could do not to close her eyes and get lost.

She didn’t plan on sitting back and doing nothing, however. Jackie smiled against his mouth and traced her fingers up his neck, and brushed along his pointed ears—and then it was suddenly over. He shuddered and pulled away, still hanging onto her but no longer kissing.

With a surge of panic she wondered if she had just committed some major faux pas—was she not supposed to touch his ears? She’d always wanted to, even when she’d first met him, but maybe that was a boundary she wasn’t supposed to cross.

“I’m so sorry!” she said, removing her hands at once. She placed them awkwardly on his shoulders, since he still hadn’t completely pulled away. “I didn’t even ask, was I not supposed to do that?”

“You may,” he said, his breathing quick. “But just know you’re making this very difficult.”

Now she was completely lost. “What?”

“A… proper courtship. That’s not easy when you touch…” He trailed off.

It finally dawned on her that she hadn’t violated some obscure cultural taboo; she was just getting him going. Nice! She breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh. So… ears. That’s a thing for you?”

“… For most mer, yes.”

“That’s cute,” she said, and he huffed a laugh. She was definitely going to save that information for later. “I don’t see the problem,” she murmured. “Unless… you really do want to take things slow.” They hadn’t really talked about it after their first kiss, and she was regretting that now. She could have kicked herself; just because they were already best friends didn’t mean they were automatically on the same page.

“Perhaps not slow, but…” He sighed and finally looked away, a little smirk on his face. “… Not out in the woods, either.”

“Good point,” she laughed. He was right, making out in the woods when there were wolves and other predators out was a bad idea (and she still wasn’t sure if he was being serious about the hagravens or not). “So, you’re serious about this whole courting thing?”

He frowned. “Did you not think I was?”

If she was being honest, she hadn’t really known. “Well, sure…” she said, choosing her next words carefully. “It’s just that… that kind of thing is pretty rare where I come from.”

Bradas rose his eyebrows. “But you were once engaged.”

She rolled her eyes. There was no better way to kill the mood than to bring up old flames. “Engaged to be engaged,” she corrected. “Are we really going to talk about my ex right now?"

The Dunmer could hardly imagine an engagement (or a near-engagement, as she liked to insist) without any kind of courtship or tradition. He narrowed his eyes, trying to figure out if he was missing something important. “Are you telling me you’ve never been courted? At all?”

Her cheeks flushed red, enough so that he could see them in the light of the campfire. “Uh, no, I don’t think so. Not like you’re thinking…”

“Then how?”

“Oh, Jesus, I don’t know,” she breathed, eyes glancing down at his lips. Her hands were still on his shoulders, and it would have been all too easy for her to lean in and distract him all over again.

Bradas breathed in and out a few times, fighting temptation. As much as he wanted to throw caution to the wind, he also wanted to solve this mystery. He sat up straight and she mercifully removed her hands.

Jackie sighed. “Okay, let me think. Couples in my world hang out, hold hands, kiss…” She gave him a pointed look. “We text… um, write each other letters, I mean. We exchange gifts on holidays and birthdays... go to dances, I guess? Hmm, that’s more for high schoolers, though…” She trailed off and shrugged.

He rolled his eyes. “That can’t be all.”

She laughed. “Okay, pushy! What else… oh, flowers? We exchange flowers and chocolates, especially on Valentine’s Day.”

He raised his eyebrow. “Valentine’s Day?”

“Ooh, yes! Saint Valentine’s Day,” she said, eyes lighting up. “It’s a holiday to celebrate love. It’d be on the fourteenth of Sun’s Dawn. It just so happens that it’s a week before my birthday, which means… meant, that I got a lot of discount chocolate every year.”

“It’s already First Seed,” he pointed out. The lover’s holiday and her birthday had already passed.

“It’s already March?” she asked. She didn’t seem overly-concerned about it.

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I never really know what month it is, these days. I lose track of time without a calendar,” she admitted. “Wow. I guess I turned twenty-five last month.”

Jackie didn’t seem bothered by it at all, but it did remind him that he was about forty years her senior. If he was rounding down. Humans did age faster than elves, but it was still off-putting.

“Are there any other traditions?” he asked, resolutely ignoring that awkward realization.

“Not that I can think of,” she said. She smiled and gave him a playful nudge. “Think of it this way, as long as we’re both comfortable, anything goes. Whatever we do is up to us. It doesn’t have to be complicated.”

It doesn’t have to be complicated. That was a nice thought. Unfortunately, they were a human and a Dunmer living in Skyrim. Worse yet, she was an outworlder and he was the Dragonborn, as much as he hated to think about it. They couldn’t have picked a more complicated situation if they’d tried.

“I can hear you thinking,” she remarked, poking his side. “You know what, there is something I forgot to tell you about. An ancient, time-honored tradition. My forefathers and mothers have performed this ceremony since the beginning of time…”

“You’re being over-dramatic,” he said flatly, enjoying her blustering nonetheless.

“This prestigious rite has been performed for thousands of years,” she said airily, ignoring him and sitting up on her knees. He grew a little concerned when she placed her hands on his shoulders.

“What…”

Her hands flew to his sides and an instant and she tickled him. He was so shocked by it, that for a few moments he let her get the best of him. She used what strength she’d gained from fighting to tackle him to the ground and run her fingers across his stomach and ribs. Jackie laughed and squeezed his knee. “Are you girl-crazy? Eee—!”

Bradas grasped her wrists and flipped her over onto her back. “You little liar,” he panted, trying not to laugh. She smiled up at him.

“Ooh, are you going to punish me?” Bradas rolled his eyes. She was being so obvious, and the worst part was that her ploy would have worked if they weren’t out in the middle of a dangerous forest.

“Yes, I am,” he said. Her eyes grew bright. “You’re taking first watch.”

Her face fell. “Oh, come on.

With his hands still pressing her wrists to the ground, he leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. “Good night, daelha.”

.

.

The next step was to head out toward Morvunskar to see if they could find any trace of Sam. They packed up their things and headed East toward Windhelm. The weather on the way was cold, but it was beginning to warm just slightly.

They spent two days on the road before finally finding it. Morvunskar was an old keep, run-down and decrepit like so many others scattered across Skyrim. It looked like it might have been abandoned, but experience told Bradas that probably wasn’t the case. It was only a matter of figuring out what kind of ruffians had taken it over before going in.

It turned out that the people who had taken over the keep were a group of novice mages.

Many, many novice mages.

Predictably, they were not interested in negotiation. They attacked them on sight, and the next few minutes were spent circling the building to make sure no other mages were waiting to kill them.

“Why does this always happen?” Jackie panted from behind him. “They don’t ever want to talk. We could be in and out so fast without a fight!”

Bradas shrugged and restrung his bow. He hadn’t ever really thought about it. “At least we can take their coin.” She groaned and started searching one of the bodies. “Keep a look out for soul gems,” he told her. She responded to that by giving him a dirty look.

***

The inside of the keep was enormous. They snuck right through the front door and took out mages one-by-one, with arrows dipped in magicka poison. Bradas never was sure when Jackie got up to her potion-brewing, but he appreciated it.

As they went deeper and deeper into Morvunskar Keep, they found all manner of traps and treasures. They stuffed their pockets with gold, jewels, and even took some books that were lying around. Bradas could see why a group of mages might want to be here, though he couldn’t imagine where they’d all come from. Luckily, they were all relatively easy to kill.

They wound through halls, various rooms, and up and down stairs. They fought as they went, until finally there were no mages. Jackie was beside him, breathing hard and swearing.

“What the hell,” she said. “Where’d all these people come from? I don’t get it.”

“Perhaps a guild of mages?” Bradas suggested, rather confused himself. “One that we’ve never heard of…”

“I don’t know, but I don’t think Sam is anywhere here,” she said. “What a waste.”

Bradas eyed a set of stairs. “Let’s see what’s up there, first.” He thought he saw a chest and a few bookshelves, and it would have been a shame to leave them without seeing if there was anything useful.

They marched up the stairs, weary, and found something interesting at the top—far more interesting than any chest of treasure (though he did make a point of opening and perusing its contents).

Before them was a great, flat plane of light, rippling like water. Purple-blue light seemed to come from the middle and swirl outward.

“Whoa,” Jackie said.

“What is it?” Bradas wondered, narrowing his eyes. The light waved and pulsed, as though it was beckoning to them.

“This is the part of the movie where we touch it and get sucked into a wormhole,” she said flatly, fixing him with a wry smile.

“I don’t understand half the things that come out of your mouth,” he replied.

She laughed and waved her hand in front of the light. “Should we?” He grasped her hand and drew her away from it, suddenly nervous.

“Probably not,” he huffed.

“I… actually think we should. Think about it… what if it is a wormhole? Wouldn’t that explain how we hopped around Skyrim so quickly?”

“What in Oblivion is a wormhole?” he asked, still holding her hand.

“Possibly something that’ll take us to Sam…” She tilted her head. “Or suck us into a space and kill us instantly? But we should think positive. I have a good feeling about it, don’t you?”

“Not particularly,” he deadpanned.

“I definitely have a good feeling,” she said confidently. She squeezed his hand and stepped forward into the light, using her momentum to pull him through.

***

It was a pretty big risk to step into a mysterious light, but it was familiar, somehow, so she wasn’t nervous to step through and see what was on the other side. Bradas was right behind her, clinging to her hand and cursing, but following nonetheless.

They found themselves outside in a beautiful forest in the middle of the night. Their feet had landed upon a dirt path that wound its way through the woods, with lanterns hanging from the trees to mark their path forward.

“Wow,” she said softly.

“You’re absolutely insane,” Bradas said. “Thank Azura we didn’t get ‘sucked into space,’ like you said.”

“Would I get you sucked into space? Have a little faith,” she laughed and bumped his shoulder with hers.

“Sometimes I don’t know what you’ll do,” he huffed, adjusting their hands to intertwine their fingers.

She grinned at the sweetness of it. “I think we should follow the lights.”

“There’s no other way forward, so it seems that we must.”

They started walking down the path, hand-in-hand. The soft sound of music beckoned them forward, and the lights grew just a little brighter. The air smelled sweet, like a late summer breeze, and she felt reminded of a party that she’d never been to.

They didn’t have to wait long before finding the source of the music. They came across a lantern-lit clearing, with a table sitting right in the middle. There were people all around it, eating and drinking quietly. It looked like whatever party was going on was winding down.

A familiar man stood up, a wide smile on his face. “Ah, you’re here!” he said merrily. “I was beginning to think you might not make it!”

“It’s you,” Bradas said, astonished.

“Sam?” Jackie exclaimed at the exact same time.

Now that he was standing right in front of them, she couldn’t figure out what she wanted to say. Part of her wanted to yell at him for causing them so much trouble, and the other part… Well, she had to admit that she was sort of drawn to him.

“It took the two of you long enough,” he said, looking between them with twinkling eyes.

“It was quite a trip,” Bradas scoffed.

Jackie looking around the clearing. “Where are we?”

“I thought you might not remember your first trip here. You had a big night. You’ve definitely earned that staff.” To her surprise, Sam seemed to be addressing her.

Jackie placed a hand on her chest. “Me? But… I was just the judge of the contest.”

“Oh, yes, you were,” he agreed. “He may have won the drinking contest,” Sam gestured in Bradas’ direction, “but you. You, outworlder, are something else.”

“Outworlder?” she questioned. “How do you know?”

“Ha! I know many things that man and mer do not,” said Sam, lifting his arms. A burst of blue and purple light swirled around him, and faded quickly to reveal a new, and slightly terrifying form. He looked downright demonic, with horns and pointy armor.

Bradas jumped. “Azura above,” he swore, ruby eyes wide.

“Not Azura,” Sam corrected with a smirk. “My name is Sanguine.”

“Wow,” was all she really had to say to that. She could feel Bradas holding tightly onto her hand, trying to pull her behind him. She didn’t let him; everything was just so surreal that she didn’t feel panicked at all.

“You see, Dragonborn, I really just wanted to encourage you to go out into the world and spread merriment,” Sam—or Sanguine said. He grinned at her. “But you, my dear Jackie, were the real life of the party. I haven’t been so entertained in at least a hundred years!”

“So… this was all just a prank?”

“Just a prank?” the man laughed heartily. “Just a prank! The Daedric Lord of Debauchery does not deal in mere ‘pranks.’ This may have begun as a minor amusement, but it wasn’t long before I realized that you’d make a more interesting bearer of my not-quite-holy-staff.” He winked and produced a long staff out of thin air. He twirled it with a flourish before holding it out to her.

“Oh… um, is this magic?” she asked, letting go of Bradas’ hand and grasping it. It looked delicate, with a rose carved on top of it, but it felt solid in her hands. “Because if it is, I can’t really use it…”

“You most certainly can,” the apparent Daedric Prince disagreed. “Just try it out, why don’t you? Preferably in a very public place.”

“That sounds like a very bad idea,” she deadpanned. Sanguine laughed.

“Do what you will with it, my champion. I trust you to spread debauchery wherever you might go. But now, I think it’s time for you to leave. No fun keeping you locked up here with the staff.”

“Wait!” Jackie said quickly, gripping the staff with both hands. If he was a Daedric Prince with knowledge that ordinary people didn’t have, he would surely have some insight into her situation. Maybe he knew how she’d gotten to Skyrim! “I have some questions!”

“I’m sure you do,” he said, and waved his hand. Reality began to ripple and fade around them, and Jackie stumbled back. The world faded away for a split second, and then—

They were suddenly inside the Bee and Barb.

Jackie whipped around wildly in search of Bradas. Thankfully, he was right there, grasping her arm and staring out at the bar with wide eyes.

“What... what happened?!”

“We’re in Riften,” he said breathlessly.

“Riften,” she repeated, holding the staff close to her body. It was a quiet night in the pub, and no one seemed to have noticed them appearing out of thin air.

Nervous laughter bubbled up out of her chest. “Oh, my God,” she breathed. “Did we just meet a Daedric Prince?”

“Yes,” Bradas said, equally bewildered. “We drank with a Daedric Prince. And he made you his champion.”

Jackie looked at the staff that had been bestowed upon her, still reeling. “What does that even mean?”

“I… don’t really know,” he admitted. “We’re lucky we got away with our lives, let alone an enchanted staff. Mephala!” he swore. He placed an arm around her shoulders and drew her close. “You’re insane, and I blame this all on you. Let’s go get a room.”

“Hey,” she protested, letting him pull her along to approach the innkeeper. “I blame you, for starting that drinking contest in the first place.”

“And what kind of responsible judge are you?” he asked, laughing. “Going off and wooing a hagraven. I don’t think that’s my fault…”

Jackie groaned. “You’re going to bring that up every time we have a disagreement, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” he said, smiling and placing an infuriating kiss on her temple.

Chapter Text

Being in Riften again set Jackie’s teeth on edge. Half of her was afraid of being robbed, and the other half was worried about getting kidnapped for a third time. Thankfully, Bradas was just as wary as she was, and they spent only one night in the town before taking off.

They sold off their extra gear and charted a course toward Windhelm.

“Not sure I like Windhelm very much, either,” Jackie remarked when Bradas suggested it. It felt like forever since they’d passed through the first time, but she distinctly remembered the depressing vibe of the city.

“At least we’ve never been kidnapped from there,” the Dunmer pointed out. “And there’s sure to be work in Windhelm.”

That was true enough, and Windhelm was the closest major town. As paranoid as it felt to think it, anywhere was better than Riften.

.

.

So just like that, they started their journey to the City of Kings. They didn’t run into many major problems at first, though they did seem to run into many more bandits and rouge mages than usual. Bradas found himself wondering where these people had come from – Jackie suggested that the warmer weather was making people crazy. The Dunmer didn’t know if he believed that, but he didn’t have any alternative theories.

Besides the surge of miscreants, though, the trip was mostly peaceful. Bradas found himself stealing glances at Jackie - more than usual, anyway. He was no stranger to pleasure, but intimacy was another thing. Perhaps it had just been a long time since he’d had the company of another, but even small things set his heart racing. The feeling of her brushing against his arm as they made camp, or the squeeze of her hand when she was close enough to get away with it.

It endeared her to him all the more, even though there was no chance of anything more while they were in the dangerous wilderness. He endeavored to focus on the present rather than dwell on what he wished he could do.

Jackie, for her part, seemed a little quieter in general. He often caught her tapping her fingers on the carved wood of the Sanguine Rose. She seemed rightfully wary of the staff she’d received, and kept it tied to her back where it couldn’t cause trouble.

Despite the danger, he was still curious to see what it could do. He especially wanted to know if she could really use it, like the Daedra had claimed. Staff magic was different from hands-on magic for a few different reasons, and when he thought about it, it seemed like it could be possible.

On the last night of their journey, on the outskirts of Windhelm, Bradas brought up the subject. “We should try it,” he said. “I’ll guide you through it. If a Daedra says it’s possible, it must be.”

Jackie hummed, considering. “I don’t know. I’m pretty sure that people from my world can’t do any kind of magic. Also,” she said before he could protest, “This guy is the god of pranks. What if it does something crazy, like turns one of us into a toad?”

That was… an oddly specific situation. Still, she was correct. “Daedric Prince of Debauchery,” he corrected. “And, yes, I suppose it could.”

“He’s obviously a prankster,” she said. “Even if I can make it work, I want to know what it actually does first.”

“I can always use it. Though it is meant for you.”

“Maybe I could just give it to you,” she sighed. “But what if that’s not allowed? What if he comes back to smite me for giving it away? I mean, he’s like, a god, right?” Her eyes widened. “Wait. Can he do that?”

“Well… probably,” Bradas replied. He didn’t know if Sanguine would, but a Daedric Prince certainly could. She covered her eyes and let out a long breath.

“This is bad. Why did he give me the staff? Aren’t you supposed to be the ‘chosen one’ or whatever?”

“You’d rather I take a risk with a mysterious staff?” he gasped, feigning hurt.

“Are you offering? I mean, maybe you should take it… since you’re so strong and tough…”

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” he said with a smirk. She gave an exaggerated pout.

“You’re so mean to…” A loud, echoing cry pierced the air and she trailed off.

“Dragon,” he said, and lunged to cover the light of their fire. It was a futile effort, though; they had already been spotted. They were in an open, arid field. There was nowhere to hide.

Jackie swore. “What do we do?”

“Fight it,” Bradas breathed, suddenly overwhelmed with anticipation. “Run. I’ll stay behind—”

“Are you crazy? I’m not leaving you!”

There was no time to explain that it wasn’t meant as a self-sacrificing gesture. He wanted to fight the beast. He needed to. A great gust of wind from the wings blew past them, and Bradas took his bow and arrow out.

The dragon was enormous. Its mouth opened, and he could see the bright orange glow in its throat, just waiting for breath to propel fire forward. Jackie was scrambling somewhere to his right, whatever words she was saying lost to the sound of blood rushing in his ears.

The dragon’s great voice boomed, and Bradas loosed an arrow. He watched with detached satisfaction as it flew straight into the dragon’s mouth. Fire bloomed like a flower from its mouth and he rolled out of its way.

 

***

 

This wasn’t the first time Jackie had seen a dragon. It wasn’t even the second time. Still, the sight of it filled her with cold terror.

Bradas had told her to run, but even if she’d actually planned on ditching him, there wasn’t anywhere to go. She stumbled when she heard Bradas use his thu’um, and whipped her head around to watch the dragon stagger at the force of it.

She swore and staggered up. It didn’t seem like there was anything she could do – she was subpar with the bow and arrow, and she really didn’t think her puny dagger was going to do much against the tough hide of a dragon.

Bradas, on the other hand, was shooting arrows and dodging flames with the wild kind of grace that only a life-long fighter could achieve. He dodged streams of hot flame and answered with ice spells, shouts, and arrows.

Bradas was the only one of the two of them who had any chance of killing a dragon, and it seemed like he might have even had it handled – until the monster kicked off from the ground once more and escaped into the air.

She jogged toward Bradas, alarmed. “Is it, it is running away?” she asked.

“We’re not that lucky,” he panted in reply. He was covered in sweat. “Where are your poisons?”

“Right!” She fumbled through her bag. “Here, here. Take it all—” She was interrupted by another shriek. The dragon circled in the air a few times and headed back toward them. They scattered as it swooped low, fire spewing out of its mouth. The sparse shrubs and plant life caught fire, and Jackie could only thank the powers above that they weren’t in a dry forest.

The dragon landed on the ground once more, closer to her than she would have wanted, and she took off running as it snapped at her with giant teeth – like a big dog might snap at a tasty-looking bug. Pure adrenaline propelled her away from the blast of flame that followed.

Although she knew she was helpless with the bow and arrow, she drew hers anyway. Bradas had successfully drawn the dragon’s attention away from her, and was continuing his assault – the least she could do was try to get a few hits in. It was easy not to miss the dragon, since it was bigger than a house, and she could only hope that it would eventually serve to slow it down.

It flew away and attacked two more times before Bradas started slamming health and stamina potions like they were going out of style.

“We should run,” she said, beginning to panic. She wasn’t even sure that the dragon could die, not without a bunch of people attacking at once, like at Whiterun Tower.

“There’s nowhere to go,” he said, “All there is to do is kill it!”

“Here it comes!” she yelped. “Take my dagger—” She was barely able to give it to him before more flames came their way. There was a chance that her enchanted dagger could help the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ process go a little faster. Bradas seemed to get it without her having to explain; when she looked back she caught him twirling it in his fingers, thoughtful look on his face.

In the end, what it took was a well-placed ice spell and methodical cutting. The dragon turned to her once more, distracted by her running, and Bradas took the opportunity to run in close and slice it from neck to sternum. Red sparks flew from the dagger, and the monster roared and finally fell. The relief from getting out of the encounter alive was quickly replaced by concern when she realized that Bradas had gotten pinned under the dead body.

After all this, he was going to die from getting crushed.

She ran up to help him get un-pinned. “Jesus Christ,” she swore, leaning up against the corpse so he could roll out from under it. The body was not light by any means, but it was definitely not as heavy as she’d thought. Maybe the bones were hollow, like a bird’s.

After some effort, she was able to move the dragon off of him just enough for him to get away… but he didn’t move. “Come on, Bradas,” she grunted, legs shaking under the weight. He finally rolled over, and she stepped quickly away before she got crushed, too.

He didn’t get up for a moment, and she crouched over him with concern. “Any broken bones?” she asked.

The Dunmer just groaned in reply. He just stared up at her with glassy, uncomprehending eyes. “Concussion,” she decided out loud, doing her very best not to panic. They weren’t terribly far from Windhelm. It wouldn’t be easy, but she could help him there and try to find a healer by sunrise if she needed to.

Suddenly a strong wind swept her off balance and she stumbled, narrowly avoiding falling on him. She flipped onto her back, struggling to keep her eyes open. She realized that this wasn’t any normal wind, but some kind of magic. It swirled around them – around Bradas – and went into him. To her absolute astonishment, the dragon decomposed almost instantly. Only its bones were left behind.

“What the hell,” Jackie breathed. With wide eyes, she watched as Bradas blinked a few times and sat up. His eyes were now clear, and he didn’t look much worse for wear.

“It’s a dragon soul,” he explained, as if that wasn’t complete nonsense.

It was kind of incredible that, after all she’d seen by now, she could still be surprised. She let out a helpless laugh and let her head rest in the dirt.

 

.

.

 

It was an immense relief to get into Windhelm the next afternoon, even if it was still one of the gloomiest places she’d ever been. They stopped at the inn and grabbed the last room available. It was tiny, practically a closet with two beds shoved inside.

Bradas, exhausted, dove into one of the twin beds with a great sigh.

“Finally tired out, huh?” she teased.

“Fighting a dragon will do that to you,” he drawled. He opened his eyes and gave her a lazy look up and down.

“Think you’re too tired to make out?” she asked with a smirk.

He tilted his head. “What’s ‘make out?’”

Jackie sighed and sat down on her bed. “I’ll show you later,” she laughed, feeling sleepy as soon as she sat down in the uncomfortable straw bed. “Right now, I think I need to make up for lost sleep last night…”

He hummed in agreement. “A few hours of sleep.”

 

***

 

A few hours turned into half a day and night of sleep. She woke first, and didn’t bother to rouse him right away. It was early, and he probably needed rest after whatever crazy magic-Dragonborn thing had happened the night before.

Eventually though, he did open his eyes. She was flipping through a spell book she’d found in the bedside drawer when he sat up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

“Good morning. Wow, you’re cute,” she blurted in greeting. She blushed to her ears and covered her face with the book.

“That may be the first time anyone’s ever said so,” he chuckled, voice rough with sleep. She turned her eyes back to the book as he started to get dressed.

“What have you been reading?” he asked after a moment.

Jackie wasn’t actually sure. Her reading skills weren’t exactly the best, and magical theory went right over her head. “Just a book about a Dunmer who snores really loud every night,” she joked.

“Oh, really?” he scoffed. “Are you suggesting I snore?”

He really didn’t, but it was kind of fun to tease him. “Hmm, I guess you wouldn’t know since you sleep through it,” she sighed, suppressing a smile. “You snore so loud that I have to stuff my ears with leaves every night.”

He narrowed his eyes. “You’re teasing me.”

“I’m dead serious,” she said, now unable to keep from laughing. He stepped fully into her side of the room. “You attract all the wild animals and every night I have to – hey-eep!”

Bradas grasped her by the waist and playfully pushed her back onto the straw bed. He wasn’t rough at all, but she went along with it – if he had any plans that involved the bed, she was on board. She tried not to laugh too loudly as he clambered on top of her and tickled her ribs.

“Stop, stop,” she snorted, finding his wrists with her hands to hold him back. She didn’t put up much of a fight as he grasped her hands and pinned them above her head. He hovered above her – very noticeably not letting his body get too close to hers – and looked down at her with a mischievous smile.

“But I thought this was an ancient tradition for your people?” he asked innocently. She felt him adjust so that he could hold her wrists with one hand and brush her sides with the other.

“You…” Her breath came out shakily as the tickling became softer. Her shirt had ridden up just a little, and his fingers skimmed against the bare skin. Just as she began to think yes, we’re finally getting somewhere… he got up and moved away.

“We should get some breakfast,” he said casually. He had what could only be described as a shit-eating grin on his face as he adjusted a gauntlet that had moved out of place.

She literally could have cried, but she tried to stay composed. “You’re totally right,” she said, voice a little squeaky. She sat up and smoothed her messed up hair. “Gotta get some. Uh. Food. And. Stuff.”

Bradas smirked even harder, if that was even possible. “Right,” he drawled.

“Mm-hmm. Right behind you,” you big freaking tease! she didn’t add. He turned to leave the room, and she narrowed her eyes at the doorway.

Two could play at this game.

 

.

.

 

They got up, got dressed, and went out into the bar to grab breakfast. They ate to the sound of the bard belting out an all-too-familiar tune.

“Isn’t it too early for ‘Age of Aggression?’” Jackie muttered under her breath, still grumpy from their tickle-fight from earlier.

“Ah, but this is ‘Age of Oppression,’” Bradas corrected, smiling.

“Oh yeah, huge difference,” she said, rolling her eyes. “So, what’s the plan for today?”

“I thought we could make an effort to get the dragon bones into town. They might fetch a good price.”

“Why would anyone want bones?”

He shrugged. “They’re rare, and they’re hard, too. Hard enough to craft armor.”

Dragon armor. That… actually sounds awesome,” she admitted. “So you’re planning on going back to the dragon carcass and what, dragging it all the way back here?”

“I thought I would have some help…” he replied, giving her a pointed look.

“No offense, but I’m not interested in hauling bones from all the way out there,” she said flatly. “I love money as much as the next guy, but I’m way too tired to do something like that.”

He gave an exaggerated sigh. “I suppose I’ll have to find someone in town and give them a cut.”

“You do that,” she said pleasantly, unfazed by the guilt trip he was trying to lay on her. There was no way she was going to haul heavy dragon bones into the city. He rolled his eyes and bumped her shoulder with his.

“What are you planning on doing today, then?”

“Sell our extra stuff at the market, I guess? Resupply. Want anything?”

“Whatever you get will be fine. Keep an eye out for odd jobs. I suppose I’ll see you later tonight,” he told her. He leaned in close enough to keep his next words private. “I’d kiss you now, but I don’t think these people would like to see a Dunmer kiss a human woman.”

Jackie could feel the blush creep down her neck. He was definitely teasing her on purpose.

“All the more reason to do it,” she murmured in reply. Still, he was probably right. Jackie knew that the town was semi-segregated, and she still wasn’t sure why they hadn’t tried to relegate Bradas to the Grey Quarter yet. They were probably just skating by on the fact that they were travelers, and wouldn’t be staying long.

He pulled back and gave her a gentle smile. It only served to remind her how little kissing they’d actually gotten to since becoming… whatever they were. She was going to have to think of ways to fix that.

 

.

.

 

Bradas left her to run errands in town with a promise to come back later that evening. There was plenty to do without traipsing out to the middle of nowhere to collect bones.

Jackie’s quest to get rid of their extra stuff led her to a pawn shop in the Grey Quarter called Sadri’s Used Wares. At the front desk stood a tall Dunmer – Sadri, she assumed. He took a look at the large pack of weapons and armor she was hauling and gave her a warm smile.

“Come in, come in,” he welcomed her, stepping around the desk to help her set all the gear onto the counter.

“Thanks,” she breathed, returning his friendly smile. “I asked a guard where I could sell some of my extras. They pointed me here…”

“You’ve come to the right place,” he said, eagerly sorting through the pile of weapons and armor. “It’ll take me a moment to price all of this… why don’t you have a look around? I buy and sell just about everything.”

“Sure,” she said. She was content to browse while he picked his way through their pilfered items. This store actually had a great variety of stuff, to her delight. She picked up some food and pair of boots for herself, since hers were beginning to wear. In what felt like very little time, the clerk at the front had some money ready for her.

“Are you looking for anything in particular?” he asked.

“Just looking around,” she said politely, wanting to avoid whatever sales pitch he might have had lined up.

“Trader recently brought in some nice pieces,” he said, leaning over the desk to give her a charming smile. “I could show them to you, if you like.”

“Pieces of what?”

“Jewelry, of course,” he said, not unkindly. “My name is Revyn Sadri. Might I ask your name? Where are you from?”

“I’m Jackie,” she replied. “I’m from… kind of all over the place?” The answer was too long and she didn’t think he wanted the whole story. “I’m just passing through.”

“An adventurer? You don’t look the type, if you don’t mind me saying.”

“Is that a compliment?” she laughed nervously. He smirked and lifted something from behind the counter. It was a wooden box, and he opened it to reveal some pieces of precious jewelry. Although she had no use for them, she couldn’t help but lean over and admire them.

“Yes, it’s a compliment,” he chuckled. “You look like the kind of woman who’d appreciate these.”

Jackie scoffed, even as her cheeks grew warm. He was obviously just trying to charm her into buying stuff, but she wasn’t impervious to compliments. “I really shouldn’t,” she said, eyeing a really pretty circlet despite herself.

“Why don’t you try it on?”

“I’d better not,” she almost squeaked. “It’s very pretty, though. Where did you get these?”

His face seemed to pale a little at the innocent question. “Ah, well, this is a pawn shop. These things come from all over, but I assure you that all my goods are legitimate. That’s more than I can say for some.”

She raised an eyebrow. That was kind of a weird thing to say. “Really. So nothing here is stolen? Nothing at all?”

“Of course nothing in here is stolen! Only a careless, shameful, idiotic fetcher would do something as stupid as to buy pilfered goods…” He trailed off for a few moments, eyes wide. She looked around uncomfortably.

“Oh, by Azura, I’ve made a terrible mistake,” he breathed. “I bought a gold ring, and Viola Giordano has been missing a ring that looks just like it!”

“Oh, wow. That’s… pretty rough,” she said. “I mean… I could return it for you? Maybe in exchange for a discount?” she suggested. She wasn’t being entirely altruistic. A discount might make her feel better about dropping money on some stuff she really didn’t need, like that stupidly pretty circlet.

“It’s not that easy. She’d go to the jarl if she knew I was even remotely involved. You have to get it to her some other way…” He pursed his lips and took a good look at her. “Look, it’s dangerous, but if you sneak the ring back into her house and put it in a dresser or something… I’d make it worth your while.”

A year ago, Jackie wouldn’t have dreamed of breaking into someone’s house. Now she was wondering exactly what he’d be willing to give her if she got the job done. “Worth my while, how?”

“I saw you eyeing that circlet,” he said. “I’ll give you that, and some extra coin. What do you say?”

Well, Bradas had told her to keep an eye out for odd jobs.

 

***

 

Sneaking into this Viola’s house had been ridiculously easy, and almost a little fun. Jackie placed the ring in a dresser by the door and walked out as casually as she could, like she hadn’t just committed a crime. But really, wasn’t she just doing Viola a favor by returning her ring?

Jackie figured she’d have to evaluate her ever-more-flexible moral code sometime soon, but today wasn’t the day. She returned to Revyn, who was so relieved that he happily gave her the circlet and a lot of gold.

“Wow, thank you,” she said graciously. She didn’t think her errand was worth that much, but she wasn’t about to complain.

“No, thank you,” he said once more. “You have no idea how much trouble you’ve saved me.”

“It was no problem at all,” she insisted, fastening her coin purse into her armor. “I’d better get going, though.”

“Of course,” Revyn said. “Azura’s Prophecy always guide you to fortune. And, perhaps, to the New Gnisis Cornerclub later tonight?”

“What’s that?” she asked.

“A place for food and drinks here in the Grey Quarter,” he explained. “Humans don’t often go, but… you’d be with me,” he said with a wink.

“Oh. Oh. I… I’m really flattered, but I have a…” A what? She and Bradas hadn’t really put an official label on things. “I’m seeing someone,” she decided. “Thank you, though.”

“Ah. I see,” he said with a wry smile. “Well, that’s alright. If that doesn’t work out, you’re always welcome to visit.”

“I’ll, I’ll keep that in mind,” she stammered on her way out the door.

 

.

.

 

Bradas returned to the inn later that night covered in dirt and sweat. He was in a bad mood after dealing with the blacksmith and his apprentice – a woman with hard opinions on a war he couldn’t care less about. She’d volunteered to help him with the dragon bones, which meant that he’d gotten a nice earful about how Ulfric Stormcloak was going to free Skyrim.

Like he cared one bit about Skyrim’s foolish civil war.

Still, he managed to stay civil with her until they came back into Windhelm, where he sold the bones for less than they were probably worth. He wasn’t from Skyrim, and he’d never been more aware of that fact than when he was in Windhelm. He had a feeling that he’d have gotten much more gold if he’d been a Nord.

He was eager to see Jackie tonight and make plans to leave as soon as possible.

He found her in their room, leaning against the wall at the head of her bed. She looked up from the book that was open on her lap. “Welcome home,” she quipped.

“Ha,” he replied, scanning the room. It looked like she’d gone to the market and accomplished everything she’d set out to do.

She frowned. “You look… tense.”

“Because I’m exhausted and I’m covered in sweat,” he said flatly. All he wanted right now was a bath and to sleep for three days straight. “I’m going to bathe. Soap?”

Jackie swung her legs over the edge of the bed and dug a pouch out of her pack. “There you go,” she said. She gave him an uncertain smile. “Are you alright?”

“Of course,” he said, softening his voice. “I’ll be done soon. Then we’ll talk about leaving Windhelm?”

“Sure,” she said with a smile. “Take your time.”

 

***

 

Jackie had an ex-boyfriend who really used to get annoyed when she tried to be affectionate when he was upset about something. It wasn’t anything malicious, just an aversion to being touched when he was stressed.

She really, really hoped Bradas wasn’t the same way, because she was currently sneaking into the baths and locking the door behind her.

The Dunmer in question was currently stretched out in a large tub filled with hot, hot water – he’d probably cast some spell on the water, because she didn’t see any signs of magical Dwemer plumbing in here. His long, lean arms rested on either side of the tub, and she had a full view of his chest and shoulders. He was leaning back, long hair damp and tumbling out of the tub behind him.

It was almost impossible to look away. She’d seen him shirtless a few times, but never like this—loose and languid, with steam rolling off his skin.

“Jackie,” he drawled, not bothering to open his eyes.

“Bradas,” she answered with a grin. He cracked one eye open and smirked.

“Is there a reason you’ve snuck into the bath?”

“I just had a quick question…”

“That couldn’t wait until I was done bathing?” he teased, turning his head to give her an inquisitive look.

“No, actually. I thought I’d offer to wash your hair for you.”

He blinked a few times. “What?”

“Wash your hair? I’m a hair stylist, remember?” She took a few steps closer. She was pleased to see that he looked surprised. She could already tell that he wasn’t going to say no.

“I was going to save it for last,” he said, peering at her with those intense ruby-colored eyes. “But you can if you like.”

“It’s been a while since I’ve gotten to really do anything… hair-related,” she said casually. It was a pretty obvious ruse, but whatever. He didn’t look like he was about to call her out on it. “Is there any clean water?”

“A few vases in the corner, there.” He gestured somewhere beyond her left. She looked over to see two ceramic bowls with steam curling out of them. Perfect.

“Alright, just give me a second.” She rolled up the sleeves of her tunic up past her elbows and kicked off her shoes and socks.

“What are you doing?”

“Don’t want to get my feet wet,” she replied.

Bradas didn’t say anything as she stepped behind the tub, out of his line of sight. Warm water poured over his head, soaking his hair and running down the drain in the floor.

He was lucky that the bathtub was raised off the ground a bit, because otherwise his hair would have risked touching the ground. She used a hand to brush through it a little. Not for the first time, she missed the hairbrushes she’d once had at her chair at the salon.

“I think I would have really liked to do your hair when I was still a stylist,” she said, feeling a little more confident now that she had a task to focus on.

“Oh really?” he murmured, eyes closing as she ran her fingers through his thick black tresses. She scratched at his scalp a little with her nails and he sighed. She smiled; no one could resist a head scratch.

“You just have nice, long hair,” she clarified. With a grin, she picked up a bar of soap and lathered up his scalp. She made quick work of the wash and rinsed out the harsh cleanser as fast as she could. She rinsed his hair once more, and carefully combed some fragrant oil through the strands.

His eyes squeezed shut to avoid letting the water get in, and she brushed beads of water of out his face with a gentle touch. Jackie put a little more oil in her hands.

Years ago, at beauty school, the students were supposed to give mini-massages to clients before any service. Using some essential oil, they’d do a quick scalp and shoulder rub. It was something she’d been pretty good at, once upon a time.

She started with his temples and rubbed gently around his pointed ears. She hadn’t forgotten how sensitive they were – her imagination wouldn’t let her. She moved on to use her thumbs to rub up and down the center of his scalp.

“Ah – Jackie,” he breathed, voice rough. “Where did you—learn that?”

“Hair school,” she replied without stopping.

“They teach you this at hair school?”

“Yes,” she laughed. Her fingers travelled down to the base of his skull, rubbing gently.

He just sighed in response. She took it as a signal to keep going. She zoned out a little, allowing muscle memory to take over as she rubbed his scalp and went down, to the sides of his head, and further down still.

It was only natural to go from his scalp to his neck. She used her thumbs once more to press lightly into tense muscle, satisfied as she listened to a sigh escape him.

How long had it been, she wondered, since she’d been this close to a naked man? Or put her hands on one? Jackie let out a breath, trying to keep from shaking. It had been at least a year since she’d been physical with anyone, and that was a tragedy she hoped to amend soon. Tonight, if she was lucky.

“So this is what you did for a living?” he asked, jarring her out of her thoughts.

“A really small part of it.” She pressed her knuckles into the meat of his shoulders and he gasped. The sound made her heart pound a little faster.

“You—” he paused as her hands moved, kneading over the tops of his shoulders. “Are not… bad at this,” he finished, breath a little shallow.

“Not bad?” she teased, slowing down and skimming her fingers over his biceps. “It’s supposed to help you relax.”

“I was supposed to relax?”

Jackie lightened her touch. “I can always stop if you don’t like it…”

“Ah, let’s not make any hasty decisions…”

Gently, she smoothed her hands back up his arms and rubbed her knuckles across his collar bone. She leaned in close and let her lips brush his ear. “I guess I can keep going…” she murmured softly, trailing his hands down his flushed chest.

He was hot. Not just metaphorically, but physically, skin heating through the fabric of her own clothes.

“Don’t tell me this was something you learned in school,” he said breathlessly.

“I didn’t learn this in school, no,” she said, daring to press her lips into the juncture between his neck and shoulder. She wanted to lick the water from his skin, but she wasn’t certain if that would be too much.

Jackie,” he breathed, head rolling back to rest on her shoulder. His hair soaked through her tunic, but staying dry wasn’t exactly a priority right this moment. Her hands slipped down under the water. The angle she was at wouldn’t allow her to reach much further, but just enough to tease…

“What do you like, Bradas?” she murmured, trying to keep from breathing too hard. Her hands pressed flat against the plane of his stomach. “Show me?”

The sound of footsteps outside the door startled them both, and she stopped short. She slid a hand up over his heart to feel the jump of his pulse, strong and quick.

“Someone’s outside,” she whispered.

“I don’t care,” he whispered back, sounding more desperate than she’d ever heard him. “Jackie…”

She pressed a chaste kiss to his cheek and withdrew her hands, sliding them across his bare chest until settling them on his shoulders. She really didn’t want to stop, at all – but the footsteps outside had reminded her of her original goal in coming here, which was to tease him just as badly as he’d been teasing her.

Mission accomplished, she thought gleefully.

“I guess I’d better get out of here before we get caught, huh?” She stood up and wiped her wet hands off on her trousers.

“What?” Bradas breathed, looking up at her with forlorn eyes.

“Enjoy your bath,” she said with a smirk, and quickly gathered her shoes before slipping out the door. If she wasn’t so worked up she might have laughed at the frustrated groan coming from the other side of the door.

She leaned up against the door, trying to get her heartrate down. Jackie knew she’d won this round of whatever game they were playing, but she couldn’t help feeling like she’d actually lost.

Chapter Text

Bradas hissed as he sank back into the cooling bath, fluctuating between being annoyed, elated, and aroused. It was not a favorable combination.

He needed a few minutes to think and let the lukewarm water cool his head. What was he supposed to do now that she’d come in here and whispered in his ear to ‘show her what he liked?’ How was he supposed to court her properly when she did things like that?

She was probably sitting smugly in bed, waiting to see what he’d do next. He entertained the idea of going into their shared room and doing just as she’d asked. He scrubbed his face with his hands and let out a shaky breath. There was nothing he wanted more, but…?

But what was she expecting? Was now the right time, or was it better to wait? There was nothing more risky than treading upon courtship traditions. He’d never been with a human woman before, let alone an actual outworlder.

This was not a fight -- this was not something he could dive into without thinking.

It was difficult to determine the next step, especially when she was so far removed from any traditions familiar to him. If they were in Gnaar Mok, among the settled Dunmer, they’d probably have to go through a long and complicated courtship before getting as close as they already had. Gifts, meeting the family, chaperoned visits – at least that’s what the decent Mer did.

Ah, but he wasn’t quite a decent Mer, was he? A bastard commoner with Ashlander blood had no reason to start acting like a noble.

He knew little of Jackie’s world, but he was sure that she came from noble stock. She may have insisted otherwise, but the signs were all there. Jackie had never fought before coming to Skyrim, had never worked with her hands like peasant women did. She was educated and had enjoyed a good deal of freedom that peasant women did not. A few weeks ago it had made sense to court her as one would a highborn lady, but tonight’s little display had convinced him that it was the wrong approach.

“Mephala,” Bradas groaned. Flings were easy, but he’d never been very decisive when it came to actual romance. The only relationships he’d had were casual, and he always pulled back before they got serious. It was too late to do that with Jackie, and he didn’t want to. He simply couldn’t contemplate it.

He knew a great deal more than she did when it came to fighting and travelling, but in this, she was the one with more experience. She’d been engaged (or ‘engaged to be engaged’) before, to some worthless human back home.

That thought was actually enough to calm him down enough to get out of the bath and dry off. Thinking about Jackie’s ex-paramours was enough to cool his blood, evidently.

Bradas got dressed and walked back to their room, ignoring the glare from the innkeeper as he tracked up the stairs. What would he do when he returned to their room? What should he do?

As he stood outside the door of their shared room, it occurred to him that he was overthinking things. Jackie was… special to him, but she was still a woman like any other.

And if any other woman he was involved with had pulled such a dirty trick, he’d go into that room and give her exactly what she’d asked for. He grinned wickedly as he opened the door.

He wasn’t at all surprised to see Jackie on his bed, but he was surprised to find her fast asleep. There was a mixture of disappointment and relief; it seemed the decision was made for him. She’d probably been planning on something, but he’d taken too long to get out of the bath.

It was… surprisingly endearing. She didn’t even stir when he slipped under the covers next to her. The bed was cramped and warm, but he felt like being close, anyway. He shifted her so that her back was pressed against his chest, and carefully pressed his face to her shoulder.

It was easy not to worry when she was so close, warm and smelling like the soap she used in her hair. They’d had so few opportunities to rest together while they travelled.

Perhaps, he thought as his eyes slipped shut, he needed to trust her when she told him that they could do whatever they wished together. She would understand if he misstepped, wouldn’t she? Jackie was nothing if not understanding.

He was pulled from his thoughts by a little snore, and his chest warmed when she nuzzled closer to him in her sleep. Bradas nuzzled into her hair and sank into a peaceful sleep.

 

***

 

Jackie woke up in a cramped position. It took her a few seconds to realize that she was in Bradas’ bed, and that he was simultaneously spooning her and crushing her into the wall.

“Bradas,” she wheezed. “This bed is too small for the both of us.”

“Really? I’d say it’s the perfect size,” said a surprisingly alert voice from behind her.

“Because you’re not the one getting squished-- oof.” He tightened his arms around her and flipped her, not unlike a ragdoll, so that she was laying on his chest. “There’s another bed in here, you know,” she griped, not really meaning it. He smiled and sat up to place a kiss on her chin.

“But you’re in my bed. What was I supposed to do?” he teased, lifting a hand to brush the hair from her eyes.

She leaned over to give him a chaste kiss on the cheek, wary of morning breath. “Morning,” she murmured. He looked up at her through inky lashes. Pretty eyes, she thought, and inwardly kicked herself for falling asleep so early.

So much for her ‘scheme’ last night. She supposed that kind of thing only worked if you weren’t perpetually tired from travelling.

She sighed and sat up to get off of him, but he kept a firm grip. Somewhere in the back of her sleep-addled mind, Jackie realized that she was seated snugly in his lap, and that an arm was wrapped around her waist to keep her firmly in place.

“Good morning,” he said, voice low. He reached up to pull her messy braid over her shoulder, hand brushing her neck in the process. “It seemed like you had a plan for me last night,” he murmured, heavy-lidded eyes darting to her lips.

//////

“Oh, did it?” she asked, trying not to laugh. “I don’t think I remember anything like that…”

He smirked and unclasped the tie in her hair, deft fingers undoing her braid. Jackie stayed still as he worked, trying to keep her breath steady as she realized how close they were. Was this finally going to happen?

Bradas had been so careful not to push any boundaries, and it looked like she finally had him where she wanted him. Almost.

He continued to play with her hair, smoothing it down and curling the ends around his fingers. It was nice, but not exactly what she was hoping for. She leaned forward and gently pressed her lips to his. Softly. Carefully.

His hands drifted down to the hem of her nightdress, which was already halfway rucked up her thighs.

“What do you like, Jackie?” he asked, fingertips tracing up and down her bare legs. “Show me.”

Some vague realization that he was repeating her own words back to her registered in her mind. She didn’t mind being one-upped in this case, not at all. “Okay,” she breathed, placing her hands over his and guiding them between her legs. In the back of her mind she wondered if this was too much, too fast, but it felt like she’d been waiting for this for forever.

His breath stopped when his fingers didn’t meet any underwear. Jackie felt her cheeks burn as he stared up at her in surprise. “I was waiting for you last night,” she whispered, watching him closely to see how it would go over.

Pretty well, it turned out. “I see,” he murmured, sliding deft fingers to feel her. Jackie curled her hands over his shoulders and let out a shuddering breath. It had been so long, and now it was finally happening -- and then he was slipping away to stroke her inner thighs.

“No, don’t stop--”

“Oh, you wanted more?” he asked, watching her face with an insufferable smirk.

He just couldn’t make it easy, could he? It seemed like he was always hovering on the edge of where she wanted him, never really looking or touching. Only Bradas could keep her balanced between turned-on and annoyed. “Yes, you jerk,” she breathed. “You’ve gotta stop teasing me.”

Bradas tipped her back onto the bed abruptly, hands darting to pin her wrists above her head. “Teasing you?” he growled, rolling his hips against hers and pressing his face into the crook of her neck. His breath came out in hot, maddening puffs. “Have you already forgotten last night, Jackie?”

“Definitely not,” she panted. He was hard against her, and all she could think was that he needed to get his stupid pants off.

“I’ve been trying to woo you properly. You make it impossible,” he said, laughing into her skin.

“You have to know by now that wooing isn't necessary--” she cut off as he nipped at her collar bone.

“Oh, I know. You're not even wearing smallclothes,” he panted, rolling his hips once again. “What kind of lady are you?” He trapped both of her hands above her head with one hand, and slid the other up her night clothes to stroke her thighs.

“You’re so close,” she whimpered, wanting to relish his touch but knowing that he probably had some plan to torture her a little. “Are you trying to get me to beg?”

“No,” he admitted, planting a kiss on her cheek. “But only because I hadn’t thought of it yet. Try it, Jackie, let’s see where it gets you.”

This wasn’t the first time she’d wondered if he was actually, literally evil. “Please,” she breathed, face flushing hot. She never knew what to say in times like this! “Please, I want you to touch me. I want… anything you want, Bradas--”

“Wanton,” he panted, eyes wild. “I like you like this, daelha.” He slid down her body, mouth hot through her flimsy nightdress. “These nightclothes are a torment.”

“Then take ‘em off,” she huffed, pressing her head into the straw mattress. He was exploring far too slowly.

“In a moment,” he promised. She glanced down to see that he was smirking. “Shouldn’t we take our time?”

This was getting ridiculous. “Bradas. I swear to God I’ll throw you off the bed and take care of myself if you don’t hurry up.”

His eyes lit up at the idea, even as he pretended to be offended. “Am I not allowed to admire my new lover?”

“You’re not funny.”

He slid the rest of way down, resting his head on her thigh and placing a kiss there