At first she was glad to find Ulfric sleeping. She didn’t want to have to explain why she was so angry. It would probably only make things worse, maybe even reignite his jealousy and make him question the bond she and Farkas shared again. It just… It wasn’t like that, or maybe it was and Ulfric had every reason to be jealous. It was clearly like that with Farkas, and try as she might for years to deny it, it had always been so. He’d told her enough times to her face how he’d felt about her, that she’d chosen the wrong brother and maybe he was finally starting to hate her because she hadn’t returned those feelings when she still had the chance. Would it have been the same in time if Vilkas had lived? Would he have grown to resent his own twin the same way he resented Ulfric?
There was no denying she and Farkas were stronger together than she had ever been alone, than she’d ever been with anyone else, and she’d had plenty of companions in her travels. Mages, mercenaries, housecarls, shield-brothers and sisters, husbands… But no matter who she fought beside, the only person who’d ever felt as if he actually belonged at her side had been Farkas.
Laying down next to Ulfric, she thought to let him sleep, but instead found herself reaching out to touch his face. Her lover, her mate, the father of her child. Ulfric may not have started with her heart when he’d drawn her to him like a magnet, just as he seemed to draw in everything around him, but he’d quickly carved his way into it.
Farkas had almost scoffed at her when she’d last been there, saying, “Of course you do,” when she’d told him she loved her husband, but it was true. Ulfric had shown her things no one else in Nirn ever could have, shared things with her neither of them had ever shared with another living soul. He’d planted the seed of life in her belly and a part of him had grown inside her. How could she not love him? But on the other hand, any man could have filled her belly with a baby—even Farkas. Gods only knew how hard Vilkas had tried to put a child in her, only to look down in sorrow every time her moons’ blood came.
But it hadn’t been any man. It had been Ulfric, and how could Farkas, who claimed he only wanted what was best for her, only wanted her to be happy, not see that in his own way Ulfric made her happy. Yes, with every moment of happiness he’d brought her, there had also been insufferable pain. The first stirring of life in her womb had taken her breath away, and the last image she held of her son in her mind broke her heart. It was always Ulfric, holding that tiny little life in his giant hands so gently, eyes lit up with warmth and excitement as he said, “Blood of my blood.” Even as she hated him for sending their son away, she had loved him so much then.
The tangling of her fingers into his hair stirred him, but before he could mutter and fall back into sleep’s embrace, she kissed him and rolled him slowly onto his back. Climbing up to sit on his hips, her hands quickly worked at the loose ties of the shirt he’d fallen asleep in until she could wrench it open and lower kisses across the soft hair that covered his scarred chest. Instantly she felt the soft, sleeping giant between his legs harden and rise against the fabric that separated them, and he sat up with her still there in his lap, his passion quickly ignited, his body ready to burn with hers.
Reaching behind her, he gathered the folds of her dress and drew it up over her head so fast she thought she heard it tear. He tossed it to the floor at the foot of the bed and then pulled her back into him, kissing her again and again. She sighed, delighted as his soft mouth trailed along the stretched curve of her neck, the bristling hairs of his beard following after and creating a delicious sensation that always made her want him more.
She let him dominate her completely. Rolling her onto her back as he rose above her to finish undressing, he came down hard, crashing over her like an avalanche. She could count on both hands, and still have fingers left over, the number of times they’d made love since Hundr was born, but every single one of them had been pure, raw emotion—as if both of them feared it might be the last time they got to touch each other.
But she could feel her mind dangerously wandering every time she closed her eyes and buried her face into his hard shoulder. Flashes of forbidden thought touching at the edges like tingling fingertips. Farkas… She had toyed with thoughts of him long ago, before she even really understood the things a man and a woman did together, when she’d first come to Whiterun and she’d overheard him telling Aela he thought she was pretty. And later when they’d been holed up in the abandoned tower outside Bleak Falls Barrow, before her heart recognized its yearning for his brother. She still remembered thinking Farkas was exactly the kind of man her father would have wanted her to spend the rest of her life with. Again during the war, when Vilkas was gone and she was so broken and alone while they camped beneath the stars and Ulfric had already begun playing games with her emotions. She’d pushed those thoughts away, into a dark part of herself clearly marked NEVER, but every time she saw him, his eyes he seemed to whisper ALWAYS. As if he would stand beside her until the end of days, waiting for her to open up a place in her heart for him.
And there was no denying a part of her yearned for him whenever they weren’t together. She’d always thought it was just because she’d grown so used to him being there with her; he was like an extension of her, another sword arm, another heart… Now she questioned that longing. Was there more to it than familiarity? No, it couldn’t be. She refused to believe it, but as Ulfric drove himself deeper and deeper into her with such vigor it almost hurt, her tricky mind let her believe for a moment it was someone else making love to her. The raw emotion and fervent passion she answered every one of his downward strokes with destructive, as she asked herself, what would it be like? Would it be strange and wrong, or perfect and right?
Either way, she would never know. She would never betray Ulfric. He was her husband, and she’d taken a vow before Mara. She loved him…
Of course you do…
She could almost hear him mumbling those forlorn words, as if following her heart had been a purposeful betrayal to him. Why hadn’t she followed it to him?
Opportunities for such privacy and comfort had become so rare that Ulfric drew it out as long as he could hold himself back, and then he held on even longer. She could see it was almost painful for him to deny himself, but he continued to make her whimper and cry out again and again before he finally let himself go, filling her with the warmth of his seed before shuddering. Chills danced across his pale skin and he dropped down to lay atop her, still buried inside her. Her eyes stung with unshed tears, her conflicted heart filled with guilt and longing as she brought her arms around him and held him there with her.
She did love Ulfric. He was her husband, her heart. Farkas was her best friend. It had to be natural to feel that close to someone she had spent so much time with, to be at least a little curious. Didn’t it?
“Woman,” he growled into the crook of her neck, laughing and lifting his head to kiss her before he rolled over onto the other side of the bed with a hearty, contented sigh. “How go things with your brother?”
She was quiet for a moment, startled by that often uncanny knack he seemed to have for speaking words that coincided with her train of thought. Or maybe it was just her guilty conscience looming over her like a specter. She had never thought about another man while he was making love to her; never fantasized that he as Vilkas. Had he felt it somehow? Did he know?
She was being paranoid. She hadn’t done anything wrong. So she’d thought about Farkas. It wasn’t as if she would ever carry out those fantasies. “Not well,” she finally said, sitting up and drawing the blankets up over her chest. “He is still troubled by his dreams.” Just another strange thing they seemed to have in common. “I think he’s spent too much time brooding up at Jorrvaskr. I invited him to travel with us, as you suggested, but he refused me.”
“Hm—” He glanced back over his shoulder at her. “I assume because of me?”
“He says there is no room for him in my life anymore.”
She actually heard lament in his words when he turned back around to look at her, lifting a hand to rest on her shoulder, the other raising to draw her chin up. “I am sorry I created this rift between you, my heart. I know how close the two of you once were, and I can’t help but feeling…” His words trailed off into genuine regret. “Perhaps if I talk to him and apologize?”
“No!” She spoke too quickly, and at first she thought that might give him insight into her hidden thoughts, but he just chuckled a little.
“I understand, and you are probably right.”
“Maybe it is best if I just let him go,” she said, releasing it outwardly, but inside she tucked it all deep down and buried it—forever. “That part of my life is over now. It’s been over, and holding onto him… it just seems to bring us both more pain than anything else.”
“You should never let go of the people you love, Luthien.” She was surprised to hear him say that, glancing up at him again with wrinkled brow. She would have expected him to agree with her, calling it a wise decision. Maybe the Ulfric she’d known a few months ago would have told her that, but the man he’d become in their travels together was so very different. “Especially not your family and even more, especially not when such uncertain times lay at our feet. I was wrong to try and keep you only for myself. I know that now.”
“You really are the man I need you to be.” She lifted her hand to his cheek and he nestled into her palm, kissing her wrist tenderly as he closed his eyes. “I will give him more time. Come back if I can after we go to Sky Haven Temple.”
“Is it wise to wait, when you don’t know what awaits you there?”
“I just… I can’t now.”
“You will do what you feel is right,” he said, lifting his eyes to hers again. “You’ve made me hungry,” he changed the subject, rising from the bed. “Let’s eat.”
That night exhaustion finally claimed her. She’d barely slept at all on the road from Riften, but as she sat near the fire listening to Ulfric talk nostalgically about his childhood, she could feel sleep drawing at her like a doomed specter. Normally, she loved to listen to the stories of his youth, but several times she’d nodded off, his words trailing into the hollow echo inside her head until he finally insisted she go to bed and promised he would join her as soon as he finished his mead.
She fell into bed and slept hard. So hard she couldn’t escape the cycle of dreams that ran her through the same failed fight with Alduin over and again until she finally bolted awake just before dawn. Ulfric still snored beside her and didn’t move when she crawled out of bed. Drawing the blankets back up over him, she quietly dressed and then crept down the stairs. She built the fire back up to warm the chill from the air so he would wake to a warm house and then she drew her cloak around, heading for the door.
It had been a long time since she’d watched the sun rise over Dragonsreach. Sometimes, just after they were married, she and Vilkas would lay awake all night talking, or arguing—as they were prone to do if she’d been away too long. On the verge of sleep, he would nudge her and say, “Let’s go watch the sun come up.” And bundled in the same blanket, Vilkas standing behind her with his arms around her, the two of them stood on the landing in front of the door watching the sun rise over the mountains behind Dragonsreach. Leaning his face in close to hers, he would always mutter with the same astonishment, “It is so beautiful,” and then he’d kiss her cheek, nuzzling his cold nose against her skin.
She’d never known anything like that with Ulfric, but she didn’t resent him for it. Both men were great thinkers, introspective minds, but the things Ulfric appreciated were so different. He was learning how to speak to her woman’s heart, something she’d never imagined he would do.
Reaching for the door handle and pulling it open, Farkas nearly tumbled into the house, startling a gasp from her as she stepped back and watched him catch himself as if he’d fallen asleep propped against the door. He sat up quick and turned over his shoulder to look at her almost sheepishly. Damn him and those innocent eyes, staring up at her apologetically and saying things with his quiet heart that he would never say with words. Always…
“’Bout time you got up. Been sitting out here all night waiting for you,” Farkas explained, picking himself up and dusting off his backside as she slipped through the door and closed it behind her. He was wearing the dragon armor they had once made with Eorlund, using the scales of the first dragon they’d slain together. “So, when we leavin’?”
“Ulfric is still sleeping.” She crossed her arms, regarding him curiously. “I thought you said there was no place for you in my life anymore?”
Shrugging his broad shoulders upward, he cocked his head, hair and braids falling across his face when he did. “Look, I’m dumb, okay. I know that, and I know was a big jerk yesterday. I’m really sorry.”
“You’re not dumb,” she sighed. She hated how easily he fell back on that insult, had always fallen back on it because it was what everyone had told him all his life. Everyone but her. “You were kind of a jerk, though,” she agreed, arms still crossed. “But I meant what I said. I need good strong warriors beside me, not little boys with grudges against each other who are going to distract me from what I need to do.” She had enough distractions inside her own mind to tide her over until the End of Days.
“No grudges,” he promised, crossing his fingertip over the heart beneath his breastplate.
“All right,” she nodded, lowering her arms. “It’s good to have you back, shield-brother.” She stepped up to embrace him, holding him tighter than she should have, heart quickening as she moved back before it could speed up anymore. “What made you change your mind?”
Shrugging up his shoulder, he said, “He gets to be king. He gets the girl… I can’t let him have all the glory.” He grinned a little to let her know he was only joking. “Now, go wake up that old man and let’s go kick some dragon ass.”