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On many levels, their life has gotten warmer ever since visiting Eastmarch. They’ve come a long way together, growing even closer to each other while traveling through the eastern Skyrim and its wondrous nature. They’ve seen the giant falls of the White River, they’ve seen the golden trees that give the flamed crowns to the highlands of the Rift. The winds appeared warmer despite the high plateau that separated it from Eastmarch. It was a pleasant change to the constant marching in the snow, making even sleeping outside possible again. Perhaps the volcanic activity reached the highlands as well.

The snowy mountaintops around them felt oddly foreign as the Throat of the World rose high over their heads. The lenient climate of the Rift drove away their fear of frostbites, the burden of heavy furs and unpredictable storms. The rich nature offered a lot of eatables throughout the year, allowing them to survive by just the two of them.

Staying away from the city of Riften was a conscious decision. They’ve gotten used to avoiding the main roads by now, which is one reason they’ve faced a surprisingly small amount of obstacles on their way. It’s nearly odd, however the false sense of safety was always at the back of their heads. It reminded them of the broken peace of the civil war, raging somewhere in the periphery. From every word they’ve gathered on their journey, the harsh winter has taken its toll on the troops on both sides, sending the fighting men and women to lick their wounds until spring would touch them again.

In a way, the war didn’t have anything to do with making them move, for their destination lied elsewhere anyway. They’ve headed west after exploring the Rift, towards Whiterun where the difference between the borelean plains of the hold and the ice and snow of the Pale was crystal clear. Traveling up and down the wavy hills of the Whiterun hold, they’ve now seen the beautiful city itself, only to hit the road once again. 

The ultimate destination was set on the far village of Rorikstead at the border of the two holds of the Whiterun and the Reach. The village is what Tyler calls his home. And that’s what it is, however the topic has been strictly avoided as Tyler’s been refusing to talk about it. It’s like the closer they got, the more distressed Tyler seemed to grow. Josh has seen his steps growing shorter and slower, and he was not surprised when the peasant had grabbed his arm, asking them to pull to yet another stop. 

There was a sudden change of plans. The main road long gone, the departure and scarce planning had struck Josh as an odd thing to do, especially now that they were getting close.

The idea was Tyler’s. He had told Josh how he wished to see the great lake of Ilinalta again, the thought seeming to hit him like a horse as soon as one of the crossroad signposts started pointing towards his home village. Even still, Josh had no reason to decline it. They have lived their life as travelers for some time now, it’s not like anyone was particularly waiting for them. Tyler didn’t want any type of leash around his neck, seemingly wishing to go back only when he was ready.

The lake is located on the north side of Falkreath. Enormous indeed, it’s rumored to have an entire shipwreck somewhere in its belly despite being landlocked. With numerous hunter camps dotted along the forested terrain, Josh knows the area well. He used to spend a lot of time here as a young man while he was still learning to become a hunter. 

Tyler on the other hand, he’s been here only once. Josh remembers him telling about his experience during their first night together, having met Tyler after their confrontation in the pine forests of the Pale. With the inn crowded and having no capacity for them, Josh had helped the drunken Tyler and took him with him to a camp near the city of Dawnstar.

It was a stormy cold night, but they managed. Knowing nothing about each other, Tyler had made it clear how he had not seen much outside the fences of his village, but Lake Ilinalta was one of the places that had impressed him. Perhaps it wasn’t as great as he remembered, considering that he didn’t have much to compare to, but Josh was happy to listen to his wish, showing the way like he always did. However the sad look in Tyler’s eyes after getting to stand at its shore again was the thing that grew the final seed of worry in Josh’s mind.

They needed to talk. Indeed, they’ve made it to Lake Ilinalta the day before, and it seems that Tyler’s unnamed anxiety has built a dense wall of silence between them. That’s how it tended to happen; while Tyler undid his thoughts by writing in his diary, Josh did the thinking without paper while moving. He’s swimming right now, washing away the grime of all the traveling they’ve done, and yes, he’s thinking. The cool water is a welcomed feeling along his skin, hugging his body and giving him a long-awaited sense of refresh. Diving into its depths, he sees Tyler putting his most prized possession aside and leaving his spot at the campfire, coming to sit at the lakesite as he surfaces.

And there he sits, looking at Josh’s doings with a pleading look in his eyes that could easily be taken as mute peevishness, but only to those who don’t know him well enough. So Josh spits out water and swims closer, answering to Tyler’s voiceless call for him.

The closer he gets, the clearer it is that Tyler is growing panicked. Josh sees it from his face, the way he avoids his eyes like a rabbit avoiding a hound.

Equally capricious, the lake’s deepness is precipitous of its nature; Josh can swim nearly right in front of him before his feet can even grace the sand and stones of it. His feet scratch against the bottom of the lake, holding his balance. And Josh says, “Tyler. What’s going on?”

If he would get any closer, he’d surely hear Tyler’s heart beat rapidly in his chest. “I don’t know if I’m ready,” Tyler admits with a small voice as his aid, afraid of telling the truth. They’ve come a long way and only for this matter despite having avoided it at the same time. They’ve already taken a lot longer than what it really required to get to Rorikstead, and Tyler fears for his reaction, fears for a frustration, but it’s not anything that Josh could give him. He simply didn’t have any, understanding Tyler’s feelings better than anyone. 

Tyler simply needed more time to think, however he’s avoided even thinking about it ever since getting the letter from his family, and it’s only adding to his anxiety by now.

Yes, the letter. The thing and the words in it are long gone from the physical word, having been burnt as soon as Tyler got the chance. It was an unwanted weight in his pocket, however the burden seemed to pull his head even lower as they spoke. He’s put off the thought as long as he’s been able to, but now the journey is coming to its end. Tyler can’t flee from his thoughts anymore, seemingly upset that he never wrote back to his family.

The pressure is starting to break him. 

“I keep getting dreams about it. Home, I mean, about going back. And it’s... I don’t know. They’re not pleasant dreams most of the time.”

Tyler’s fingers fiddle, sweeping over that weird scar on his palm that Josh has noticed only recently. Seeming to blurt out obvious things only, Josh fixes his position in the languid flow of the lake. “You’re stressed.”

“And why shouldn’t I be?” Tyler presses heatedly. “They said that I’m needed, not missed or wanted. They… they didn’t even use my name.” The fire in his words fades into sadness, putting out the flames at the last part. 

“And you still want to go back? Sometimes I get the picture that they treat you like crap.”

“I have to,” Tyler whispers, his hands loosely clasped together, fingers halting. “I can’t just disappear like this. It’s been too long. And…” Tyler looks at him, his expression changing into something else then. “I want to bring this whole ordeal to an end. Tell them that they might not have a successor in me. It’s quite a thing to digest, right? I have to tell them that so that they understand, and it’s just, I don’t think I have any words.”

“Yeah, I understand that. But sometimes it’s just better to face the issue instead of avoiding it. It’s easier to breathe when you make things happen, you know. No matter when or how you decide to do it. Remember, I’ll be with you.”

“Yeah,” Tyler nods in relief, grateful of hearing these words. He shrugs then. “It’s scary, but I’d love to introduce you to them at the same time. I mean, not in the same sentence, but just… I want to tell them that I’ve found someone I want to share my life with. You won’t even understand how much it means,” Tyler says, and the words bring a careful smile on Josh’s face. If he wasn’t in love, he’d never get to feel what Tyler makes him feel. Not knowing him or suddenly losing him would simply destroy him, making him go through something he simply wouldn’t survive. 

He’ll never let that happen.

Unaware of Josh’s thoughts, Tyler’s look carries more peace in his eyes then. He taps his knees before pulling himself up, marching back to their camp and picking up his sword. Josh watches him go, a bout of confusion washing over him then.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m gonna take a walk around this lake,” Tyler simply says. “And get over my issues. I’ll check the fish trap that was set up last night to see if we caught anything, too.” 

“Want me to come with you?” Josh says and prepares to get up, however stopping when Tyler throws his hand up in a small gesture, walking off already.

“Just enjoy your swim. I know you enjoy some alone-time by yourself as well.” He purses his lips with his eyes squinting, sending an air-kiss his way. Josh pretends to push up from the water in response, catching the wild thing with his mouth before it can escape. His teeth click sharply together, making sure he gets every piece of it.

Tyler smiles at the gesture, disappearing behind the large rocks. Trying to calm his heart, Josh shakes his head before diving back into the murky water, washing off the sappiness that he’s slowly getting used to.

 

*

 

Tyler steps along the bank of Lake Ilinalta, kicking the tiny rocks into the water along the way. Hopping on another grey stone, Tyler peers his surroundings around the vast body of water. He goes through different scenarios, browsing through words.

The lake reflects the blue sky like polished sapphire, a few cirri painting the sunny skies that lure the dragonflies out of hiding. Two moose are drinking on the opposite way from him. Crouching down to hide just to admire them, Tyler watches them get out of the water, shaking off the weight of it. They trot back into the forest carelessly, unknowing of his presence.

Too bad that he’s not after their trail. Knowing that Josh would enjoy seeing them, Tyler is sure to tell him about it later. Josh seemed to always have a story up in his sleeve no matter what animal they would encounter. He’s been to so many places, has seen so many different areas, Tyler can’t help but wonder and eat up every word whenever he curled up against his lover’s side. 

He wants to stay together with him forever. See the world and the places it has to offer, experience the same things as Josh does— and be free. Inheriting his family’s farm would only nail him to the same place for the rest of his life, and he still wouldn’t bring his own descendants to continue in his footsteps— not that he even wanted to bring that burden to anyone anyway. Being in the same situation himself, Tyler wouldn’t want it to anyone. With Zack away with his own family in the Pale, the wheel would break in his time in any case. Sooner or later, Tyler would rather see his family sell the farm and move on to have a secure old age somewhere, in the safety of Whiterun’s city walls, perhaps.

Knowing that it’s not gonna happen, Tyler shoves the thought into the back of his mind, praying that he’ll never let that slip past his lips, or he’ll be beaten into a bloody pulp. His mother and father will die with a mattock in their hands, and Tyler knows it better than anyone.

Tyler clutches his sword handle, carrying on with his task. They set a fish trap late after dusk last night. With the places looking different in the daylight, he can’t quite remember the right spot where they left it. It was somewhere around here. Tyler remembers the simple pier built there and finds it, the serene waves licking against it nearly imperceptibly. So he slows down, looking for the cloth Josh tied on a stick to find the trap.

Soon enough, Tyler sees it peeking out of a bed of reed. Grabbing it and digging up the stick and the rope connected to the trap, Tyler pulls on it leisurely to get it back on the land, making sure it was not getting stuck on anything.

Quieting down, he crouches down to listen to the water sloshing against the bank once more. He tries to calm his nerves. It’s warm in the Falkreath Hold, almost as warm as it is in Rorikstead. He’s happy to walk around in a lighter outfit that doesn’t wear him out by just standing out there; it’s just a simple long-sleeved shirt and a vest fastened with his leather belt, but he likes it. The gentle wind brings a faint pull of smile on his lips, and it makes him think of Josh again, knowing that he’s got his support no matter what, and that’s enough. His family might disown him, cut him off altogether, but he would still have someone who loved him. 

He rubs his face. It’s beyond him, how his emotions dare to go up and down a mountainside, messing his head. Maybe, evading the topic for such a long time was a grave mistake after all, as it seemed to only bring him self-indulged torture. Maybe he was a masochist, a trail he’s picked up somewhere along the way, however this was not a time for self-pity, and Tyler knows it. He has no intention to dwell in it. He’s just nervous, sure, and stressed as Josh had said.

The carriage of his thoughts get interrupted when something wets his pants. Looking confusedly down, the wet rod dribbles water on his lap, soaking the front completely. Hissing at the cool water reaching his skin, Tyler throws the rope aside, trying to swipe the water off. 

It's not much of help as the spots grow only wider. Drying his palm on his thighs hastily, Tyler curses under his breath huskily.

“You. Beating it in the bright daylight like some fucking whoreson?”

The sudden voice startles him. Tyler spins around to follow the source of it, realizing that he’s not alone anymore.

There’s someone standing among the trees on the border of light and shadow behind him, peering at him. Chewing something between their teeth, the sudden intruder cuts the lurking and leaves his spot beside a scraped tree, stepping into view. 

It’s a man, as messed and skinny as the first look of him had given away. His short hair is dry with dust and dirt, sticking out from his ragged headcover that hides his ears. There are holes in his sleeves and holes on his trousers, knees poorly patched as the strings go loose from the corner. His boots look fine compared to his other equipment, which means that he took them from somebody else. Tyler sees the old blood drips all over him, dark but unmistaken for anything else. His eyes fly up, prepared to face the man smirking at him. The loose skin on his hollowed cheeks and unkempt stubble give him a threatening look, not to mention his one and only eye, staring right back at him.

It has a dark demeanor that Tyler can’t quite read yet. Even still, it was clear that he wasn’t just any bypasser.

A bandit. Tyler’s heart tightens its pace. Trying to stay calm, they’ve had a few encounters with these scums, some worse than the others. Thieves, marauders, killers and imposters, this man would easily fuse into their lines, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their dirty way of life.

Tyler glares at the other’s filthy face gravely. “None of your business,” he retorts. “Fuck off.”

He doesn’t turn his back on him. 

The man chuckles, raising his hands as his chest rattles. He steps closer. “Hey, hey…” he temperates all the while. “It’s okay, no need to get so heated. I get it. But just so that you know,” the man with one eye and no front teeth says, “a hard cock is much nicer to cut off.”

The air whistles as the words escape his mouth. Tyler’s not sure if he heard it right. 

“What? ” he goes and gets up, uncertain whether he should pick his sword or not. He takes a hold of the hilt, a warning. “Keep walking or I’ll shove that sword up your ass.”

His bluff is not taken seriously. Getting nothing but laughing in return, Tyler frowns at the unexpected answer.

“You want to take me and my sword like that?”

The words hold him in a tense silence. The man pulls his weapon from its worn-out sheath, making a rusty noise as the two scrape against each other in discord. Tyler eyes him warily, looking for a good stance to face the inevitable. Whatever the troublemaker wanted, he was going to attack him to get it, and Tyler had no other option but to chase him away with force. 

“I don’t need this sword to kick your ass, runt,” the bandit says in an eerily calm voice. His tongue pokes out from the middle like a snake, nearly gracing the blade. The steel peeks out of its prison fully now, the dull color barely greeting its owner’s reflection in return. “Maybe I’ll take yours,” he adds, eye gawking like a wound.

The man takes a quick leap towards him then. He swings his sword in an arc, landing on an empty spot that Tyler leaves behind him. Jumping to the side, Tyler draws his own sword, quickly unsheathing it. He doesn’t have time to do much else before the next attack follows. Better aimed this time, Tyler dodges it strongly before giving back, their swords clashing together. 

The bandit slashes his sword like cutting wood. One after another, the sword doesn’t seem to be a right weapon for him at all. The swings come with an unnecessary wide slashes, earning nothing in return. Instead of concentrating on his own attacks, Tyler resolves to dodge, trying to figure out the terribly ludicrous style that didn’t appear as anything sensible at all. 

If anything, it gives Tyler time to avoid every strike, somehow confusing him even further. Maybe the dirty marauder has plundered it from whichever ditch he happened to sleep in last night, making him believe that he knew how to use it as well. 

However his smile is the worst of all. Truly, the man is smirking like a winner with his smug face all over the place. Mad and mindless, his face is but a stiffened clump of clay smacked on his front, pulled upwards like two harsh strokes of thumbs. His glare is like a hungry beast’s, with not much of roofing to secure it.

The look is already getting on his nerves. He’s not going to waste his time and energy on this guy. Tyler steps back after hitting aside yet another blow, wrapping up his plan. The bandit is missing an eye on the right side of his face. The only thing he needs to do is get to his blind spot, knock him out and tie him up with something. If he can only mislead him quickly enough—

The last and most important part, of course, is not in his favor. It turns against him. With no warning, Tyler’s foot sinks into an empty space behind him. A sudden pothole right beneath his footing sucks his balance out, tripping him backwards in an unexpected turn. Having fallen into the bandit’s planned guiding to the spot, Tyler tries to fix it. However his ankle twists with his full weight leaning against it, and he snarls in pain, unknowing that the worst part was only coming.

The bandit’s face turns serious, and he shows his horrid brawn. Holding the weapon with all he got, the bandit pushes his sword down with his own. Caught off guard and still stumbling, Tyler tries to counter, but his stance makes it difficult, foot slipping on the sloped terrain. 

With a quick motion, the man swings Tyler’s sword aside, jabbing his sharp elbow into his face, hard. The impact breaks his skin and makes him hiss. Like a viper, the man goes to reach out to him. His dirty hand grabs his bare arm the next instant, and Tyler blinks, barely able to tell what he tried to do until his fingers flickered with a blue spark.

He feels a light zap. Shit!

There’s no time for Tyler to react before his body goes rigid under the man’s touch, twisting painfully as an electric current runs through his muscles, the blue light blinding everything for a second.

The first strike shocks his whole system. So bad, that the second one makes him scream.

A stone-hard fist flies into his temple and knocks him off his feet. Facing the harsh dirt, Tyler’s body slams against the ground in an instant, hard as he has absolutely nothing in him to soften the impact. It adds to the blow ruthlessly, holding him in some weird type of paralysis.

Momentarily out of everything, Tyler doesn’t understand what’s going on. The bastard must have used some sort of vile spell on him. Delivering damage directly as they do, the trick discharges from his body, but leaves him terrifyingly numb. 

Tyler lies on the ground with his face bleeding, dazed by the power of the electric current eating up his ability to move. He feels his blood slowly trickle down his face, unable to swipe it off.

He didn’t see that coming. Getting painfully reminded that anyone with enough of a head and determination can learn magic, Tyler remembers why he hated it so much. His fingers twitch beside him, trying to grasp on something that simply wasn’t there anymore; his sword has slipped from his wield, dropped somewhere out of his sight and out of his reach.

He has no way of defending himself. Trying to heave himself up instinctively, the stupor of the post-shocking has him strongly in its grasp, and his arm gives out beneath him. Everything seems to move in slow motion, but Tyler tries, moving the best he could however he’s barely able to lift his heavy body. His vision shifts between a shady blur of colors and total blackness, completely unable to do anything.

The bandit eyes his feeble struggle with amusement. Crouching down next to him, Tyler tenses at the sudden closeness. Facing the other side, he can’t see the man but only feel his presence beside him, not knowing how the scum gazes at the trees and the birds on their branches, singing.

“Pretty day, pretty day…” the scum says in a sing-song voice as he dunks his sword on the ground, leaving it standing there. Tyler grunts at his feet. With a sloppy smile, the skinny thug carefully kicks him onto his back. In the slightly sloped terrain, Tyler goes with ease, and the other follows, stepping over him and sitting on his chest with his knees on both sides of his face, blocking his arms.

The bandit studies his pigeon, gobbing beside them.

“Your real pretty, it annoys me. I bet your going places with those deer’s eyes of yours. Hey, look me in the eye,” he says and swiftly slaps Tyler’s face twice as he was still unfocused. “There you go.”

Tyler is numb, but his insides are lightning. Maybe, the spell takes time before wearing off completely. However it seemed to have no intentions of stopping reigning over him like a storm. His right shoulder is throbbing painfully under the pressure where the bandit’s knee is pressing against him, the uncomfortable tingling spreading wide and wild into his whole body.

He tries to squirm, gasping. He’s not getting anywhere.

The man smirks above him. “Tell you what,” he starts with, moving as if to get comfortable in his position. “I was just going to kill you and take your shit, but I got a better idea. Will you listen to me?”

“Fuck off,” Tyler repeats his words groggily, because it’s all he can do and all he can cough up to get something out. He’s never experienced anything like this. Stripped of everything but his words, Tyler resorts to fight back with the only weapon he has. 

He hears a snort in return at his weak attempt. The bandit leans back, towering over him. “I say we have some fun together,” he decides. Tyler pierces him with a dismayed look. “You’d like that,” he continues, “right?”

It comes out with spit, and the bandit socks him into the stomach, winding him. Tyler gasps, hacks, finally moving yet only forced to curl by the sudden blow. The goon sits on his chest with all his weight then, knocking out the rest of the air. Pressing his knees against Tyler’s head like a set of pliers, the bandit keeps Tyler from struggling, bringing his hand closer to his face. Afraid that he might aim for his eyes, Tyler tries to duck away, but the bony knees are pressing tightly into his skull, and Tyler cries out, squeezing his eyes shut. 

But the man doesn’t want his eyes, no. He grabs his nose instead, pinching his nostrils harshly together. Ears going clogged, Tyler sees through his plan way too late, and the man sets his other hand over his mouth easily.

Tyler’s eyes fly open.

He can’t breathe. 

Tyler panics. With it comes his ability to move again. Like a wave, his limbs start stinging and filling with a will to move again, finding a way to answer to his commands. The weird stagnation is starting to finally wear off, but the earlier bout of pain on his right bites him back at the same time. Unstoppable, the pain seems to grow and spread on his neck, making moving even more difficult. If it wasn’t for the rush forcing him to act, Tyler would pay more attention to it, but he can’t fucking breathe, and the man on top of him had no intention to let him go.

Heart tightening, he tries to push up and buck the man off his body, but the scum is a lot heavier and possesses a good sense of balance. The bandit only guffaws at his feeble struggle and muffled noises, running his tongue over the hole of his missing teeth, sneering, sneering. 

Tyler kicks his knees against the bandit’s back with all the strength he can gather while trying to rip his hand off and over his face. He can only try to find his way out of this hold, but there’s not much he can do. His right arm is not moving and the left one is ripping on the bandit’s own, delivering him no relief.

He’s running out of time. He needs a tool, and his good hand moves to roam the bandit’s belt in distress, hoping to find a dagger, a weapon of any sort to defend himself with as he’d dropped his own.

He gets nothing but an empty scabbard. With a jolt, Tyler remembers the man tucking his only weapon into the soil. His gaze lands on it at the same time. With his face red and eyes threatening to pop out of their sockets, Tyler sees the steely metal glimmer in the sunlight right next to him, so close yet out of his reach, mocking him.

I don’t need this sword to kick your ass.

With a muffled noise, Tyler’s eyes water as his head gets wrenched back like an overripe fruit, and he can’t fight even that. He can’t get himself free, and the world around him softens. His sight starts growing hazed, colors blending together as everything dims into dusk. His hearing fades twice as fast, terrified of how quickly he runs out of strength as his airways had nothing to give him.

He stops kicking his feet, the lack of air making him convulse instead. In his mind, he’s still wildly fighting, however the strength is sapped from him the longer he struggles. 

Twitching, his grasp on the bandit’s hand starts weakening. Tyler’s last sensible thoughts find their form in Josh, trying to hold on, however stepping aside for the fact that he was going to get smothered to death. He’s going to die, and Josh is the one who has to take the word to his family. The thought of going home together shatters into pieces, pounding in a painful pressure swelling around his head. A bubble threatening to pop at any second, Tyler can only let himself crash in this lethal hold, detaching him from the last remnants to put up a fight, vision blacking out.

“Yeahhh,” the bandit hushes him. “Go to sleep.”

Tyler tips over the edge. The man feels it as the flesh underneath him goes limp and stops all resisting at once.

Tyler’s hand drops, falling lifelessly beside him. The villain waits before releasing him, holding back his own breath. His filthy hands leave bruised marks on his reddened skin, only white from the areas where the bandit had clutched him the hardest. They’re ugly to look at, ugly to touch, and the colors blend together with red and blue, creating a swollen mess on his face.

“So, so pretty…” the man frenzies, crying mockingly as he spreads his knees and watches Tyler’s head loll powerlessly to the side. He admires his work for a second, breathing heavily as if to mock the deprived one. Slow, theatrical, the bandit bends down and cups his jaw, whispering into his ear,

“You annoy me so much,” he breathes, “that I’m gonna castrate you and then rape you with your own cock.” 

Tyler doesn’t respond. He’s unconscious.

There’s something about his lax face and the horrid words together that amp the man up. The crud laughs disgustingly, licking Tyler’s ear. “You’d enjoy that, too, wouldn’t you?”

His own words make him go wild. He touches Tyler. “Aye? Now show me your cock, cub.” 

There are footsteps, dry leaves cracking.

“Hey.”

This time, it’s the bandit’s turn to see someone standing behind him. He sees Josh, Josh is behind them now, staring at the breathless man with unreadable look in his eyes.

He has his bow with him, clutching it in his hand with thick veins bulging out of it.

The man eyes him up and down. “What are you looking at?” he grumbles, angry for being interrupted.

Josh stares. “I’m looking at you,” he says with a calm rumble, a mountain made of steam.

The bandit doesn’t know how to answer. Josh looks at Tyler, sees his chest move up and down with the crud still sitting on top of him.

His heart is beating. Shifting his gaze back to the dirty man, Josh gestures to Tyler’s motionless form with his bow, and goes, 

“What do you have here?”

The man thinks he got it then. “Wanna share?” he asks with a pleasant voice and a spark to his eye, reaching between Tyler’s legs again. “He’s still alive and warm, might wake up at any second. We have to be quick. You can fuck his mouth as I take him from behind—“

The man has no time to finish his senseless fantasy as an arrow eats its way deep into his flesh. It goes right through his shoulder. The bandit yells out in a whirl of surprise and pain, throwing his arm behind as he tries to reach for it, but can’t. And Josh, he goes to him, goes for him, tossing his bow on the ground and crossing the distance with a couple cold-determined steps with nothing but killing on his mind.

With a spine-chilling calmness, Josh grabs the filth’s chin from behind and wraps his arm around his neck, shoving his fingers into the man’s one and only eye. It bursts with a squelching noise with bright red crimson coming out of it. The man screams, he screams like a damned and that’s what he is as Josh pushes even deeper than his fingers can go, pulling back before thrusting in again. 

He sees Tyler slowly bleed from his brow where the bandit had jabbed him with his elbow. The slow flow has just reached his closed eyelid, threatening to glue his eyelashes together.

He must pay for everything he’s done. And so he screams, he screams so loudly that the birds see what’s best for them and fly away as the bandit scratches Josh’s arm, crying in abandon as the red oozes over his face like a bloody veil.

It’s not enough. Josh pulls the man up on his feet with force, yanking him by his neck and throwing him to the ground, off and away from Tyler. The damned goes to cup his lost eye, gathering all the blood that comes out with it. Josh steps between them, protecting his other half.

“You’re not laying a single eye on him ever again.”

The man writhes on the dirt with a broken arrow in his back and bloody fingers around his face as Josh wipes his own clean on his sleeve. He sees the bandit trying to use his spell, failing as the pain dooms his concentration. With a blind rage, the bandit channels his fury to run his hands and legs on the ground to find his only weapon in darkness.

Josh picks up his sword with no problem.

“Is this yours?” Josh asks, clanking the blade against a stone. “Come get it.”

The sound attracts the bandit’s attention. “You fucker!” the man wails, his scream spits blood from his mouth.

He gets up, and dashes towards Josh with no plan. He can’t see, and the bumpy way knocks him off his feet. His furious words get replaced with pained whimpers, crawling as if pleading for mercy.

Josh steps sideways like a wolf, eyeing him coldly in return. He breathes deeply, having no pity for him at all. He’s going to end him.

The man gets up, cursing miserably. Josh watches him sway, sees his knees shaking. And the bloody man says, “I yield! Please, I yield.”

Josh can’t believe his ears as he stares at him. “I’m sorry,” he says despite not meaning it. He doesn’t hesitate either. Slow and certain with his words, Josh spits, “I’ll kill animals like you for hurting him.”

The man panics as Josh goes to him, raising his hands to shield his head and throat.

“N-no no no no, no! Wait! Please!”

Josh sees red. There is no waiting.

With a single swing, he slits the bandit’s stomach open and wide. His guts spill out with a wet noise, and Josh is sure that the man pisses himself as he grobes his own insides, feeling them slip from his fingers, gurgling and choking like a drunk swallowing his own vomit.

The crud falls on his knees, kissing the needles on the ground. He’s fallen silent. He’s bleeding out. He’s not going to get up anymore.

Josh’s teeth are showing as he exhales. It’s done. It’s fucking done.

The ugly blade is soaked in blood, the fuller dripping with red. Josh swings it, drawing a bloody line on the ground. He can’t bother to clean it.

Instead, Josh walks past the dead, walks past Tyler, both of them laying on the ground motionless yet one of them is breathing. Josh comes to stand near the border of water. He takes a firm hold of the sword’s hilt with both hands, swinging his body and throwing it into the lake with a snarl.

It spins in the air, and sinks with a loud splash.

He watches the water settle down, swallowing the cursed item. Only then, Josh snaps out of it. He goes to Tyler, crouching beside him. Tyler is fine, as fine as he can be as blacked out and beaten. His chest rises and falls deeply, a sign enough to show that he’ll wake up soon. Josh brushes his unbloodied hand against his hair softly, seeing a litany of new bruises forming on his face. One of the spots is already swelling. It’s gonna be there for a while, and it’s gonna hurt like a troll’s punch.

Wetting a cloth in the cool water, Josh places it on Tyler’s cheek to ease the swelling and wipes off the blood on his brow. Checking their surroundings for beasts before going back to the dead, Josh grabs his ankles, pulling him along the ground to get him out of their sight. A bloody trail stays behind, guts spreading on display for the crows to digest later.

Tyler wakes up when he wakes up. The spruces and the sky greet his bleary eyes in a black and white mess above him, and Tyler blinks, trying to get some sense back to his head. The birds are back, making a racket on the nearby branches with a buzz in his head. One of them leaves their stand, and Tyler flinches as it flies over his head, pulling him out of his haze.

Connecting the pieces, his eyes blink again before finally remembering why he was there. Gasping, his upper body jerks up, however slumping back down as an unbearable weight seemed to want him, pulling him right back. Oblivion fires raging, Tyler’s left hand flies to soothe his shoulder, unsettled as his arm only spasms under his touch like he has no control over it. Putting a careful pressure against it, Tyler holds back a scream, a reminder of the earlier pain that the man delivered him while pressing his knee against it.

It’s the last piece of the puzzle. That man, Tyler remembers heatedly. Where is he? How—

He’s just about to turn his head when he hears someone approaching him from behind. Just as quick, a shadow appears into his vision from the side. Momentarily panicked, Tyler kicks back at the sudden appearance, making a growling noise as the bandit was still there. 

But this bandit says Tyler, and his eyes blink back in response because that’s his name, and Tyler feels a familiar set of hands on him. 

In the whirlwind of confusion, he finds himself face to face with Josh, pulling him back to focus. Staring at each other, Tyler wants to say something and quick, but gets out nothing but a single grunt, tearing out of his mouth as he slumps down in pain. 

He’s sure there’s a spear pierced right through his shoulder, but somehow, Josh fails to see it. “Josh,” Tyler gets out, trying to point it out, but only dropping back down.

“Shit, Tyler.” Josh is the only one to get something cohesive out of his mouth. “That bastard.”

His hair is still damp from his swimming, pulled up into a hasty topknot. Maybe it’s the connection between them, or just a bad thought, but Josh had come after him, clearly knowing that something was going to happen. If it wasn’t for him, who knows what might have happened.

The bandit is nowhere to be found. Even still, Tyler can feel his filthy hands over his face, smothering him. Trying to get a hold of himself, Tyler sets his focus on getting air as it was suddenly getting difficult again, only reminding him of the earlier. There’s a wall in his lungs and it stops the free flow, and Tyler finds his breathing growing shallow, the realization of near death kicking in. 

Equally tense, Josh resolves to give him space, still trying to ground him in reality. “It’s okay love,” he says. “It’s me. You’re safe.”

Tyler nods stunted, having no need to doubt that. His brain was in full alert, somehow unable to calm down. His chest is in a heavy knot. However Josh’s presence starts to untangle it. He has control over it, and he fills himself to the brink, and then again. Josh tells him to take his time, that everything’s alright, but Tyler swallows the hard facts gravely. He’s okay, he’s not okay—

He’s sweating as he finally gets it out, hoarse. “I think my shoulder is dislocated.”

Josh looks at him in disbelief. He pulls his hands back. “What?”

With his eyes squeezing shut, Tyler grunts. He sits up slowly, having to make sure. His teeth grit together as he does— the wet cloth over his face drops into his lap, but he couldn’t care less. Clearly there’s something very wrong, the intensity only growing as he moves; his arm starts slipping the further he sits up, dangling in front of him as if there was nothing to keep it together.

He has bones though— it’s just that his upper arm has popped out of its socket completely. This time Tyler does cry out. He was right, there’s no doubt; the shifting position forces his shoulder to spasm, only adding to the shooting pain. Falling nearly sideways on the ground, he has no way of stopping himself as his arm dangles uselessly beside him. 

Always by his side, Josh catches him before he hits anything. Taking a closer look, he notes something weird on his forearm. Lifting his sleeve higher up to see, Josh winces at the more he sees, and Tyler winces with him.

There’s a burn beneath his sleeve. It’s bright red and bruised, veins scorched and bleeding inside, spreading vaster.

“What in Oblivion is that?” Josh curses, leaning closer but not touching it. The mark is not festering, which is good, but it looks plain awful - painful. Tyler covers it with the cloth, cautious of his arm as there was nothing else for him to do.

“It’s sore all over, I can’t even feel it,” Tyler explains. “That bastard shocked me. The hit must have caused the… the dislocation. Ah, shit…” 

His voice shakes with him. The pain holds him in its grip persistently, seemingly having no right position to soothe it. Tyler presses his face against Josh as his only way of trying to tolerate it. His entire arm is trembling from the tips of his fingers all the way to his shoulder despite he can’t even move it, and Josh does his best to soothe him.

Silent, wordless, there’s no other way for them to process what has happened just yet. With one last shaky breath, Tyler shifts back. Dry leaves and needles stick to his pants as he pulls away, and Josh lets him, staring worriedly at him as Tyler slowly looks around their surroundings.

The bandit is gone. So is his sword. Despite having a guess of what happened, there’s an uneasy feeling spreading in the pit of his stomach.

Josh is moving before he has time to ask, getting up on his feet.

”We can’t just sit here. That wound needs to be checked and your shoulder has to be reset. I wish I could do it myself but I don’t know how to do it properly. We’ll need someone who does or it might cause trouble later,” he says and takes a step, but stops when he hears his name being called.

”Josh,” Tyler says as if he didn’t listen to him at all. Down on the ground, looking up at him, Tyler waits until Josh is looking at him again. And he asks, “where is that guy?” 

His tone is weird, almost unreadable even for his own ears as he observes Josh’s face in the way he knows he hates it. And Josh’s face, it speaks volumes without a word. He sighs, deeply as his gaze drops. He knows what’s to come, he knows how Tyler feels, and speaks honestly.

“I dragged him into the woods,” he says. “Let the wolves gnaw his bones clean.”

“You killed him.”

“Yes. I did,” Josh says, his voice is louder, stopping everything for a second as he looks Tyler in the eye. He breaks their gaze as Tyler shakes his head with a troubled look in his own. 

Josh sighs again.

“I blinded him. It would have been cruel to leave him wandering around the wilderness like that.”

Tyler snorts. 

“I haven’t killed many men,” Josh goes on. “But I don’t hesitate to do it if the opponent is barely a human at all. He was a raper, Tyler. I bet that he has a dozen bounties on his head. If he would have lived, he would have moved on and done the same to somebody else, or worse. I can’t let that happen, so I killed him. There really wasn’t any other option.”

“Gonna collect the reward then? That’s what people do right? Making money off of killing people?” Tyler hisses into his space, only feeding Josh’s perplexity as he didn’t seem to understand Josh’s mindset.

The pain in Josh’s eyes is abysmal.

“No,” he answers finally. He might have trouble making sense of his feelings sometimes, but this was as clear as the sky over their heads. ”Above all, I killed him because he hurt you. There are no words for me to describe what happened in me when I saw him on top of you. I thought you were dead,” Josh states shakingly, and the words startle him, finally listening to him instead of just hearing his words.

The fresh memory is nearly enough to make Josh’s blood boil again, but he holds himself. ”But then I was you breathing,” he continues. ”I decided he didn’t deserve an easy way out of this. It would be the last thing I would ever grant him. It was an instinct that I couldn’t control. Tyler, I just—” he pauses, ”I love you, and I can’t afford to lose you.”

Tyler feels his eyes watering, matching the way Josh’s do as he finally turns to look at him. Forced out by the adrenaline that roils out of him, Tyler starts shaking all over again. Maybe it’s the immerse pain of his shoulder or the heavy realization of what could have happened finally sinking in, but he’s shaking all the same, feeling the strength in his legs draining into the ground.

It’s terrifying. It’s terrifying to know how easy it would be, for someone to break what they have. Speechless and overwhelmed, Tyler knows that he should say something, but falls unable. Drying his eyes on his shoulder the best he can, Tyler understands how his mistake has nearly cost his own life.

But it’s not only about him. Thinking about how Josh feels, Tyler understands how gravely he’s hurt him today, refusing to kill someone who could have easily killed him.

It would have ripped Josh’s heart out. More so, he’s only shown how Josh can’t trust him with his life. If he’ll never be able to kill - if he keeps doing this - it could cost Josh’s life, too. Tyler’s stomach turns, knowing that they’ve been here before. He’s been here before, and the heavy weight of his nature is slowly starting to kill him from the inside.

Taken back, he can almost hear the wind roaring in his ears. Tyler remembers the Wayward Pass, he remembers the freezing cold air and the short sword in his hand, how his rugged breathing scratched his own ears as his lungs filled with the cold. He remembers Josh’s bloodied face and the bandit on top of him, holding him down like some vile pest, ready to kill him after being done with him.

Tyler remembers his rage, he remembers how the surge took over him. He remembers how he held the rugged blade on the thug’s artery, swearing to kill him, and yet—

He couldn’t do it. What ended up happening after that is still giving him nightmares sometimes. There simply was no place for his softness in Skyrim, and Tyler’s insides keep petting his nausea, how he seems to learn his lesson in a hard way every time.

Is killing really the one true way of validating your love? What about dying?

Tyler knows he would die for Josh, but will he ever be able to kill for him if he must? 

Maybe he’ll never live long enough to find out. Today he was lucky, much like all the other times, but what about the other man? What about next time? Why does someone always have to die? No matter how many different angles he tries to take, he can’t understand how letting the man live was harder for Josh to do than killing him.

His thoughts get him so deep in this hole, he doesn't even notice Josh preparing a sling for him. Taking every twist and twinge of pain as a reminder, Tyler submits into the callous truth. If he really wanted to live their life in this wilderness, he had some questions to ask himself.

However now they have to find their way to Falkreath. A city not far from here, Josh deems the direction in his mind without having to second-guess anything. Sometimes Tyler envies him for that. Offering him his hand, Josh smiles somewhat sadly as Tyler stares at him with dark eyes, unknowing of his thoughts. And Tyler takes it, allowing himself to be pulled up.

Momentarily at loss, Tyler eyes his surroundings. Turning around, searching and looking, he’s seemingly lost until he finds what he’s looking for.

Walking past Josh, he goes to his dropped sword on the ground. Picking it up, Tyler sees his mangled reflection on the unsullied blade, greeting him with troubled eyes.

The sight becomes a symbol of his naive nature that screams for a change. Unable to look at himself any more, he tries to sheath his sword, careful to not stab himself in the process. Awkwardly missing the right spot a few times with his left hand before hitting the slot, Tyler slides the sword inside. Despite the sling hugging his arm, his shoulder is still messed up, reminding him of its needs every waking moment. He can barely stand straight.

Two crows are fighting over something a short distance away from him. Tyler recognizes it as a length of intestine. The birds caw as they claw each other. One of them cries furiously, leaping towards the other as the banquet is taken away from it.

Tyler sees them pecking holes into the organ, blood seeping from the tissue. They mangle and rip it, feathers falling off as they tangle. And Tyler watches them, seeing the crows settle their quarrel.

Josh calls for him. Snapping out of his overly flooding thoughts, Tyler regains control of his head and goes to him, doing his best to keep up with his pace.

 

*

 

They never planned to visit Falkreath. Indeed, none of this day was ever planned. Life has its own compass, and it seems to be twisted on their part.

The city was closer than what he anticipated. Having no reason to complain, Tyler tries to push the blurry spots out of his vision by the time they walk through the city gates. Even breathing is hurting him right now, let alone walking. Despite knowing that blacking out really wouldn’t make things any better for him right now, Tyler prays for something to happen, to get any sort of remedy for his pain as it didn’t seem to let go of him.

A dog barks in the distance, mixing with a hammer hitting steel. A few citizens carry on with their tasks on the pebbled streets, but other than that, the place appears empty. The city seems quiet despite the day being young, lighting a suspicion in Josh’s earlier experiences of the city. They see guards on their patrol, it’s nothing new, however the usual pulse of the lively Falkreath seemed to be off.

“This is weird,” Josh says then, scratching his forehead. “I wonder where everyone is.”

Trying to suppress the discomfort that his shoulder causes him, Tyler winces, getting no rest from the constant spasms. Always hearing, always noticing everything, Josh’s hand finds its way on his lower back, holding it there.

“You good?”

“I don’t know, I think I need to sit down really soon...”

“We’re almost there,” Josh says. “Grave Concoctions is right there.”

“The what?” 

At the end of the road between two buildings stands another one. It’s windowless from the front like many other houses in the city, with a thatched roof and smoke rising from the smokestack. Inspecting the house from further away, a woman steps outside in a light armor, putting something in her bag. The open door knocks into the wooden sign that hangs above it, pulling Tyler’s attention to it.

An alchemist’s shop. Of course. The name doesn’t bring much comfort, but so doesn’t his shoulder either, and Tyler gulps and swallows his doubts, forced to follow Josh inside.

If anything, the strong smell would separate an alchemist’s shop from any other. It’s not bad by any means; there are herbs, fresh and dry ones hanging on the walls and shelves, covering nearly everything beneath them. The sight could get anyone’s head spinning, trying to find something particular, however there’s always someone who knew the way, recognizing any ingredient by just a single look at it.

There are old shields hung high up on the walls, the small windows ushering the day light in from the walls on the sides. The rest of the dark corners are taken care of by horn candles, driving away most of the shadows and dark spots.

Even a small garden is planted at the floor by the counter of the shop. Despite the indoor habitat, the dark plants seem to thrive here, giving space for weird mushrooms that glow with blue light in the corner.

”Hello?”

A merchant appears from another room then, holding a bowl of stew in her hand. Seeing Tyler’s arm, she swallows the food in her mouth, putting the small cup down. ”Need something for your arm?”

”It’s dislocated,” Tyler says and sits on a bench without waiting, relieved to be able to cut the walking and having something sturdy finally underneath him now. ”I don’t even know how it could happen.”

The woman frowns. ”It’s your shoulder?” Coming closer, Tyler grunts as she carefully opens the knot on the hastily prepared sling, wanting to inspect it closer. ”Did you fall off a roof or something?” she asks then, having already seen the growing bruises on his face.

“No. I fought someone,” Tyler answers gravely, being forcibly pushed back to the foul memory and how he lost the fight. The sling comes off alongside his vest and shirt, opened and dropped down on the table with Josh’s help. 

Glad that he doesn’t have to rely on his left hand alone, Tyler bites his teeth together. Every movement of removing his clothes drags a saw through him, and it’s no wonder as he finally sees what’s hidden under the garments: his shoulder is visibly deformed, now bruised and nearly swollen around the area where the spasming takes place. Growing unable to look at the damned thing anymore, Tyler’s heart drops again at the merchant’s next words.

”I don’t know how to pop it back to place correctly. I’m an alchemist, not a war hero. I can take the pain away for the time being, but we need someone who knows the way. I don’t want to cause any more damage that’s already been done,” she says and slaps her hands together as if to close the case. She walks to one of the shelves behind her desk, and snatches a small bottle there.

”Who can I get? Any leads?” Josh asks, one foot nearly out of the door already.

She thinks. ”Try Lod. He’s a blacksmith living right by the—”

”I know him. I’ll be right back!” Josh says and then he’s gone, running off, the worry moving his feet faster than anything else ever could.

By the time he’s back, Tyler has a thick layer of ointment spread on the burn on his arm, drinking water as the potion he’s downed to kill the pain proved itself yet another set of rat poison on his tongue.

The man that Tyler assumes is called Lod enters the shop by Josh’s tail. ”Hello, Zaria,” he greets the merchant with a wane smile, wiping his hands on a towel that only seemed to spread the mess around. His hands and face are black with the trails of his smithery, yet his look is honest with work.

Still sitting on the stool, Tyler feels awfully puny next to him, forced to look up at the tall man. Lod definitely has some muscle on him. His hands are like two bear paws, still rubbing together, and the sight makes him nervous. He’s only lacking the claws but the strength remains, and Tyler swallows, knowing that the experience is going to be far from painless no matter how many of these things he downed.

”I heard that there’s a shoulder to reset,” the blacksmith announces at the same time. His voice is less rougher than what he expected, however it doesn’t help with his nerves— with the blue eyes falling on him, Tyler nods in involuntary agreement, unable to hold the eye contact for too long. With a finger pointed at him, the floor groans at the approaching steps. Lod’s heavy boots thump against the wood. ”This one?”

”Please,” Tyler mutters. Knowing that it’s better to get it over with, Tyler remembers Josh’s earlier words, shifting on his stool to give the big guy better access.

”It’s not broken is it?”

”I don’t think so,” Tyler answers, but jumps with a pained sound as Lod brings his smudged hands closer, instincts kicking him right in his balls. 

He didn’t even touch him, and still, his body is already fighting the treatment. Being so awfully close, Lod smells like sweat, smoke and iron, the roughness shining through his every feature. Hearing and feeling Josh stepping on his side, Tyler feels his hand against his back yet again, telling him that there was no way out.

”You have to lie down on the table. It’s better than resetting it from the sitting position,” Lod says frowning, somewhat irritated that he has to deal with his whining.

”The table?” Tyler repeats, aghast. ”I’m not a fucking ham,” he goes and Josh sighs behind him. He’s not being difficult. He’s fucking terrified.

”Trust me, it’ll be less painful this way,” the blacksmith says and goes to the said place, crossing his arms, waiting. Zaria is there, setting furs on the table as if to make it less… festive. 

”Come on, Tyler,” Josh says then. ”It must be done in any case. The sooner, the better,” he concludes and takes a step, gently nudging him from the other shoulder. Bastards. Nords. Blood-thirsty beasts. 

And then there’s Josh and his damn eyes rounding in front of him, the concern shining through despite his otherwise tough looks. Tired of being the one to make him worry, Tyler complies, carefully settling on the long table in the center of the room. Center of the room, center of attention, the scars on his chest lay there for everybody to see. He’s nearly happy as Josh starts talking about something completely indifferent, switching the topic to something else. 

“The city seems awfully quiet,” Josh notes, easily chatting away as Tyler concentrates to keep quiet, his shoulder throbbing to the beat of his words while getting positioned on the table.

“Only inside the gates,” Lod answers. He grabs his forearm without a warning, and moves that invisible saw against his joint. Tyler’s plans of staying quiet fail, groaning loudly at the unexpected. He’s being tortured. ”There was a… tragedy just a few days ago. The people are still shocked about it,” Lod adds restrainedly, a troubled crease between his eyes.

“What tragedy?”

The Nord’s blue eyes turn back to him in dismal, a rare sight on such a hardy man’s face. A moment of silence, Lod says, “You’ll hear about it eventually, if you’re going to stay. I don’t want to ruin your day because of it.”

With a confused look on his face, Josh has no time to start guessing before Tyler interrupts his process. Lod is still holding his arm in the air without caring. The earlier downed potion seems to have dissipated into thin air, or it never worked. Either way, he can’t take it anymore. 

”Hey,” Tyler says the umpteenth time, feeling oddly forgotten as his pleads have fallen on deaf ears. ”H-hey. Can you just—”

”Are you ready then?” Lod asks him, uncaring of his agony. 

”Just do it already,” Tyler spits with his jaws locked together, the blacksmith’s big hand still around his arm. The Nord clearly doesn’t know how to spot the difference between iron and someone living with actual feelings, handling him however he wanted. If he only could, Tyler would punch him already.

“It’s been a while since I’ve done this,” the Nord warns with an even voice, still yakking away. 

“Do it!” Tyler screams out in agony, uncaring of the way his voice breaks as his eyes squeeze tightly shut, teeth shining bare as he pleads for a way out.

”Alright.”

He could never prepare himself. Another grasp to his arm, a twist to the left, and Lod thrusts his shoulder back into place with force. Nearly violent and clear enough for Josh to hear it, the sound makes him cringe while Tyler screams out in pain. His legs raise from the countertop at the force of it, and Tyler gasps for breath with his eyes wide for yet another time that day, head thrown back as Lod’s heavy body was still everywhere around him.

The cramped space makes him horribly dizzy. Tyler tries to find a steady ground beneath him as the table suddenly seemed to sway, starting to tip over. Unable to withstand it, Tyler moves with it, feeling several hands come down to hold him in place, bringing him back on his back.

It doesn’t help. The room is spinning. 

Tyler, he hears Josh’s voice somewhere in the distance, and Tyler feels his grasp decay, unable to hold on. He hears his name being called but has no words to return, the cold sweat gluing him to the spot like a strangling swaddle.

It doesn’t help.

Tyler!

The swaddle wraps over his eyes. He sees black.

 

*

 

“On my entire time being here,” Tyler slurs, “I’ve nearly frozen to death, gotten beaten and my bones broken by this northern goon, then having my flesh mauled by a bear only to… to be burnt and fallen sick with a deadly fever. Now this.” 

Josh says nothing to this, looking nearly apologetic to hear his words.

”Wait,” Tyler blurts, his finger jumping up, pointing condemnly at a cobweb on the ceiling. ”Wait. I forgot the falling. I thought the list felt somewhat short.”

Still nothing, Josh taps his fingers on his lap, trying so hard to come up with an answer despite he doesn’t have to. Tyler sighs. “It’s just… what else is there to come anymore?”

He feels funny after drinking another one of Zaria’s potions, something stronger and powerful as the pain was high enough to make him lose consciousness. Still somewhat dizzy, the ceiling swims over his head like a hand drawing through a pond, and Tyler blinks, wishing it off and away.

There’s a bag of ice resting on top of his shoulder, a set of pillows and furs supporting his arm to make him as comfortable as possible. They’re still at Zaria’s shop, now positioned in a room that resembles a small bedroom. They’re hidden behind a separate wall that Tyler never paid any attention to. They can hear other customers stopping by, giving them the peace to take care of their businesses without drawing any attention by talking. 

Lod is gone, however Josh says the Nord has offered them a place to stay on their visit in Falkreath. Not knowing how the two even knew each other, Tyler has accepted Josh’s news by a single nod of his head, having no energy to complain. He wouldn’t, anyway. The Nords seem hospitable to friends and family, and this type of kindness seemed to be a rarity these days. They’d meet at his house later, as soon as he could move without having to lean his every step on Josh. 

It wouldn’t be too bad, actually. Josh is strong, like a bull. He wouldn’t mind having another reason to nestle in his arms. He loves him so much.

“Thanks, love. You’ll be back on your feet soon enough though. Don’t worry.”

“Oh. Did I talk out loud?”

At that Josh smiles. His eyes squint until he leans down to kiss him. Tyler can see the change in his expression just before closing his eyes, capturing his lips with his own. Short and sweet, Josh lingers over his face to press another against his cheekbone, gently resting their foreheads together. Eyes closed, they have to swallow the given cards yet again, taking a moment to do so.

His shoulder will take weeks to heal, possibly over a month. Not only that, there was no room for swinging a sword or any other tools for a while. His patience will be tested over again. The spring is going to be long, and despite the relatively close distance of Rorikstead, it was not safe to get moving until he was fully healed. The sling was still off, but it’ll come around. Tyler knows it. 

Not sure if he was relieved or disappointed of the change of plans, they have to find a way to be useful around the city. Maybe there will be someone who can offer work for them, something simple that Tyler can do with just one hand.

On the bright side, his healing might not even take too long. It’s not like his arm was broken, and it definitely wasn’t his first time getting injured, yet alone spraining something. They’ll hit the road again. And they’ll make it to Rorikstead, return to his roots, and see where life takes them from there.

The tips of their fingers solve the puzzle between them, tangling together in the way they belong together. Josh’s hands are washed off the blood, now clean and intimate in the way he’s grown so in love with.

He doesn’t want it to be over. Even if he had to question his abilities to live in their world, he didn’t want to be a coward and spend the rest of his life as a farmer. Holding his tongue, Tyler tells nothing about his swirling worries about their future. His questions are heavy and merciless, like a dark wall he simply can’t see past just yet. It stands there waiting, reeking of self-doubt and uncertainty of his own abilities.

Judging by Josh’s kisses, he didn’t see his weakness as a flaw, despite his actions differ greatly from his own. For now he has to trust it. He knows that these difficulties will keep looking for them, feeding off of their struggles, but Tyler’s stomach laid in his brain and conscience, refusing to answer to the madness that the true Skyrim seemed to demand. 

Josh squeezes his hand, unwilling to let go of him. It’s like he always knows what he’s thinking about. His hand is warm, full of reassurement. Tyler drinks it up as much as he can, knowing that there was no point thinking about it now. But the next time will come, inevitably so, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll be ready.

 

*

 

That night, a beaten man gets locked away in the Falkreath Jail. Bloodied and barely clothed, the guards push him into the pit, leaving his hands closely tied.

The dungeon is built over a clogged sewer in a pit, the freezing water standing as high as his knees.

“Fucking murderer. I don’t understand why they’re allowing you to live. You deserve to burn in Oblivion.”

“If you’re hungry, you can drink from that sewage. It’s the only meal you deserve, beast.”

They walk away, slamming the door shut. Silent, bruised and alone, the man lowers himself to soak his hands in the water, looking to soothe the ache that the ropes around his wrist cause on his broken skin.

He lifts his head up to the ceiling, meeting the cramped skylight where the rainwater has come in. 

“Soon…” the prisoner exhales, his shivering breath a white ghost in the moonlight. “Bring him to me.”

 

***