They barely spoke at all on the way back to Whiterun, and for that Vilkas was doubly glad. Not only was he dealing with enough guilt over what they’d done to sink a ship, he had a brutal hangover that made every part of his body feel like he’d been dropped into some Dwemer contraption and wrung raw. What little restless sleep he managed before the sun came up did nothing to refresh him and the greatest part of him just wanted to fall into his own bed at Jorrvaskr and put the whole thing out of his mind.
Ria seemed mildly chipper as they traveled, despite how cold he’d been to her. At least he hadn’t destroyed her completely. He supposed he should be grateful for that, but he could never let what happened between them happen again. She deserved better, someone who actually cared for her and loved her. He cared for her, but not in the way she wanted him to. He could never give her that and it wasn’t fair to lie to her.
When they came through the gates just around noon it seemed the gods would rather punish him than allow him to just crawl into bed and forget for a few hours. The front door to Breezehome hung wide open. His brother leaned against the frame, a pair of long white, freckled arms locked around his thick waist. Head lowered and eyes closed, he was talking to her in whispers and when she turned her head into her shoulder Vilkas saw the clear tracks of tears dripping down her cheeks as she nodded to whatever he was saying. He reached up and gripped her chin to steer her eyes back to meet his and then he kissed the tip of her nose with such sweetness the words Ria said to him the night before came flashing back to mind.
He really cares about her.
Luthien opened her eyes to look at Farkas and then she saw them approaching out of the corner of her eye. Stepping back quickly, she loosened her arms to wipe away all traces of fragility until there was no sign at all she’d been in any kind of pain. She said something to Farkas and he turned around, his whole face lighting up when he saw his brother.
“I’ve been on the lookout for you all day. We came to Jorrvaskr this morning to see if you might have any jobs, but Torvar said you never came home last night. Where’ve you been?”
“I had business in Falkreath,” he said stiffly, trying to keep his gaze from wandering toward her. But it was impossible not to look at her.
She seemed so sad, so broken and yet her pride would never let it show. She smiled when she met his gaze, a kind enough gesture and then she patted Farkas on the arm and ducked back into the house.
Farkas stepped off the doorstep and came toward them, and then Ria started up the hill. The last thing he needed was to be alone with his brother feeling the way he did—betrayed, defeated—and for a silent, scowling moment he stared after her with cold, narrow eyes. He shouldn’t have expected her to stay, not even knowing what she knew. She had her own heart to guard, and from him no less.
“What did you need, Farkas?”
“Lu’s having a really rough time of things.” Farkas shook his head and crossed his arms, a heavy lock of hair falling into his face that he quickly reached up to tuck behind his ear before recrossing his arms. “When I found her, she was barely there at all.”
His temper began to flare as he imagined himself gripping the man’s shoulders and slamming him back into the house and screaming, and you took advantage of her!
“It’s been a constant struggle to give her some kind of comfort or relief or something, but I don’t know what to do, you know. You remember how it was after we took the blood. She can’t sleep, can’t sit still, but most of all she can’t deal with all the guilt.”
At first Vilkas didn’t know why he was telling him about it, but then he remembered his brother had no idea. He really was completely unaware that Vilkas had feelings for her, that seeing them together had destroyed some part of him that would probably never heal. The thought of her suffering in that way was almost more than he could stand, but even more was the knowledge that his brother had no idea how to get her through it.
If only she’d come to him first… All of it could have been avoided.
“She should sit down and talk with the Harbinger.”
“She went to see Kodlak this morning and the old man did everything he could to put her mind at ease, but she just feels so bad about it all. Skjor, the Silver Hand…”
He watched his brother’s brow furrow with a heaviness of mind completely uncharacteristic of him. Her pain was breaking him too; Vilkas could feel it swelling to boiling point inside the man.
He really cares for her.
“Kodlak thought if she threw herself back into work it would help take her mind off of… well everything.”
Nodding his head, he only heard those words on the surface. “I’ll have to look through my resources when I get back to Jorrvaskr. See if I can find something to keep her busy.”
“Thank you, Vilkas.” There was genuine gratitude when he stepped forward and embraced his brother, his large heavy arms coming around him and squeezing him close. “I knew I could count on you.”
Which was more than he could say were the shoe on the other foot. “You… you’re welcome.”
“Hey, do you want to come inside, check out the place? It’s a nice house. Small, but cozy…” He stepped back and lowered his arms at his sides. “We’re still putting everything in order, but it already feels like home.”
“I…” His mind scrambled for an excuse. He didn’t want to walk through the place where they would live together, didn’t want to see her in that element. Not ever, if he could help it. “I actually have a lot of things to do. I’m leaving tomorrow morning on a hunting trip and I have loose ends to tie up before I go. Jobs to find for Luthien. Perhaps some other time.”
The idea had come to him on the fly, but it felt like the perfect escape from his troubles. A distant land, the peaceful calm of the hunt to take his mind off of things and put some space between him and Ria before he found himself tempted to bury his sorrows inside her again. What he’d done with her the night before had been selfish and wrong, and now that his head was clear (save for the dull throb of hangover,) he realized he couldn’t let it happen ever again. Vilkas was not that kind of man.
“A hunting trip?” Farkas turned his head curiously. “I thought you gave up hunting.”
“Not that kind of hunting,” he assured him. “I’m heading to Hammerfell for a few weeks to hunt fennec.”
“Oh,” he nodded. “Okay. Do you want me to come with you?”
“No.” He didn’t want anyone to come with him. He just wanted to be alone, to give himself some time away from the familiarity of it all until he could come to terms with it. “No. You have a new wife who needs you far more than I do. I’ll be all right by myself.”
“You should take a shield-sibling at least.”
“Perhaps I should, but this is a trip I need to make alone.” Before his brother could hound him anymore, he took another step back and said. “I should get going. Head up to Jorrvaskr and see what work I can find for Luthien, let Kodlak and Aela know I’m leaving.”
“Don’t worry, Vilkas,” he called after him. “We’ll hold the mead hall down in your absence.”
“I’ve no doubt you will. I will leave the task list on the table in my room. Come and pick it up tomorrow.”
“Be safe, brother. I hear those warriors in Hammerfell have curved swords.” He let those words resonate for a moment before repeating, “Curved swords.”
It was a joke they’d shared since they were eight years old, but instead of laughing Vilkas nodded once, and then returned his focus to the feet beneath him.
Jorrvaskr was empty when he pushed through the doors, and loathe as he was to admit it, he was grateful. He had no desire to face Ria, to firmly tell her that staying away from him was the best thing for both of them. Even though she’d said she knew he didn’t love her, he didn’t want to give her hope for something that would never be. He wasn’t a man who could settle, just fall into a fabricated life and spend the rest of his days pretending.
He would suffer solitude before he lived that kind of lie.
He headed downstairs to his room and stripped out of his armor, and then he flopped down on his bed with a disgruntled sigh. Closing his eyes did very little to ward off the pounding agony of exhaustion and dehydration. Even worse was that in the darkness of his own mind he could see only her. Only Luthien, his brother’s wife, with tears dripping down her face, suffering the forlorn sorrow that now lived inside her and enduring the unmistakable taint of the blood that would haunt her for the rest of her days.
Gods, what he wouldn’t give for another chance to make it all right for her. To turn back the hands of time just a few weeks so he could take her aside the night they’d named her Companion and tell her to stay away from Skjor, to avoid him at all costs because the gift he offered would only bring her pain. And then he could tell her how sorry he was for all the harsh things he’d said. He never meant to make her feel like anything less than what she was: a beautiful, strong, independent warrior he would have been glad to fight beside the rest of his days, that he would have been proud to call her shield-sister, lover, friend.
He knew better. He could never take any of it back, never say the right words because someone else had already said them. The gods didn’t offer second chances; a man was expected to live out his life the best he could and find contentment with the choices he made.
Rolling onto his side in the bed, Vilkas curled into himself and let it all wash over him. Anger, sorrow, regret, grief. He had no choice but to accept it. She would never be his, never look to him for comfort and solace from her grief. She would never wrap her arms around him and rest her head against his shoulder while he consoled her, never lay beside him in the dark and whisper that she loved him too. He would never be the fire that made her burn.
And who the Void was he to say Farkas didn’t deserve her. At least his brother had the balls to stand up and claim her. To make a choice Vilkas himself had been too craven and proud to make.
He really cares about her.
Swallowing hard against the ache of grief that constricted his throat, he resigned himself to that truth. Even he could not deny the tenderness he’d seen in Farkas’s touch, the utter devotion to her as he whispered whatever words he spoke to comfort her. He knew his brother had a big heart, and he hoped for his sake the man remained steadfast in his loving commitment to her happiness because brother or not, if Farkas ever hurt her he would kill him.
He drifted in and out of restless sleep until a the gentle rap of knuckles on the wood of his door brought him back to the moment. Half-seated in the bed he called out, “Who is it?”
“It’s me,” Ria told him. “I think we should talk.”
Lying back against the pillow, he exhaled dread and said, “Come in.”
She entered quietly, closed the door behind her and walked over to pull the chair out from the desk on the other side of the room. Without invitation, she sat down and rested her elbows on her knees as she leaned forward to look at him.
“I wanted to make sure you were okay. Coming back here today, seeing them together like that… You looked so… hurt.”
“You were right,” he shrugged as he sat up. “He really does care about her.”
“I didn’t say that to hurt you, you know.”
“It’s just… I wanted to comfort you, to be the one you fell back on in your time of need and I realize now that probably wasn’t the smartest way to go about being a friend.”
“You think?” he couldn’t stop the biting sarcasm, it was always there and he regretted it every time he unleashed it without thinking.
“I really do think so.” She pretended not to notice, or maybe she really didn’t notice. Ria was a simple woman who tended to see only the best in people no matter how they treated her—even him. “I know you don’t love me,” she said sadly.
“Ria, there can never be anything between us.”
“I know that too, Vilkas.” She nodded slowly, the corners of her mouth lifting into a sad smile. “Last night… I don’t know, I guess I just figured why not? It was probably the only way I’d ever know for sure if there could ever be anything between us.”
They were silent for a long time, and then she reached across the space between them to curl her fingers around his wrist. He couldn’t look at her, didn’t know what he could say.
“I’m going to go away for a couple of weeks. It will give us both some space, some time to get over…”
“Oh, I don’t want to get over this, Vilkas. Believe it or not, I’m okay with it.” He was surprised by how casually she said those words. “It hurts when you realize someone you love will never feel the same way, but my heart will heal. Mostly I just don’t want this whole thing to ruin our friendship.”
Friendship. After the cold way in which he’d treated her she still wanted to be his friend. Even if he couldn’t find it in his heart to love her the way she needed to be loved, he couldn’t deny she was an exceptional woman. Someday she was going to make someone very happy.
Before he could say anything she squeezed his arm and then patted it as she rose from the chair. “I know you’re hurting right now, but I promise you’ll heal too. You just need time.” She bent then and kissed him on the cheek, nothing sexual. Just a sweet gesture to let him know that if he ever needed a friend, she was there. Backing out of the room, she waved gently and said, “Come and see me when you get back from wherever it is you’re going. Maybe we can go out hunting together.”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “Okay.”
Vilkas hitched the heavy pack on his back, the shield clanging against his armor before falling into tune with every step.
“Heading out?” Toki, the guard at the gate stepped out to open the city gates for him.
“Aye,” he nodded and glanced back over his shoulder toward Breezehome.
The house was dark and silent, save for the dull glow of an oil lamp and a single shadow in the upstairs window. For a moment he just stared at her, wondered if she could see him. He imagined she could, felt as if he were staring into her soul and then another shadow appeared behind hers, a pair of arms came around her to draw her away from her restlessness and back to bed.
She turned away and so did Vilkas, shifting his pack again and heading out the gates.
“Good hunting, Companion.” Toki said when he passed through.
He didn’t look back but met the open road with eager feet that promised to carry him far away his brother and the woman that would never be his.