She did come back, and the world didn't end.
He heard it from Torvar, of all people, who'd heard it from a friend in the city guard, who'd heard it from Jarl Balgruuf. Less important than who he'd heard it from was who he hadn't heard it from. Word about town was that the Dragonborn had returned to Whiterun about two weeks after she'd left, but another week after her supposed return, and she still hadn't darkened the doors of Jorrvaskr.
Ria told Vilkas during a training session that the Harbinger was staying at her house in the Plains District—a house which Vilkas hadn't even known existed. Vilkas thought about trying to find the house (it wasn't like Whiterun was that big), but an instinct to protect his pride held him back. If she didn't want to talk to him, then that was that. She knew where he was.
It stung. The day Ria told him about the house in the Plains District, Vilkas took off the Amulet of Mara he'd been wearing ever since Alba had left for High Hrothgar. That felt even worse, though, so the next day he put the Amulet back on and tried not to think about it too much.
A fortnight after the Dragonborn's return to Whiterun, Vilkas ran into Lydia in the market on his way back from a hunt. He didn't know Lydia well, but he knew she was Alba's housecarl. They exchanged pleasantries, both knowing the answers Vilkas really wanted.
"How is she doing?" he asked Lydia in front of Fralia Gray-Mane's cart.
There was no question who he was talking about. Lydia sighed and shrugged her shoulders.
"She's well enough, I suppose. She was injured pretty badly, and it took some doing to get her down from High Hrothgar in one piece, but Danica's been helping with the healing."
"Is she recovered?"
"More or less. The physical stuff is pretty much fine, but I think she's… tired. She just wants to rest."
A sinking feeling built in Vilkas's stomach. It made sense that Alba wanted a break from the world that had demanded so much of her. He just hadn't thought that he might be a part of that world she needed some distance from. His expression must have given his thoughts away, because Lydia's expression turned pitying. How mortifying.
"She'll come around. Just give her some time."
"Aye. My thanks, Lydia."
Eventually Alba did come back to Jorrvaskr. It was Ria's birthday, and Ria had gone to visit Alba several times in her home to convince her to attend the feast Tilma was planning to mark the occasion. Vilkas didn't quite believe she would really show up, but right as the party was getting into full swing, Alba walked through the front doors. She looked a bit pale, and a tad on the skinny side, but otherwise normal. The most surprising thing about her appearance was that she did not wear her mask.
"Hey! Look who decided to show her face!" Ria exclaimed from her seat at the end of the table. She stood and raised her mug high, carelessly letting some of the amber liquid slosh over the sides.
"Let's welcome back our Harbinger, Companions!"
"To the Harbinger!" added Torvar.
All of the Companions raised their glasses and expressed their support and enthusiasm for Alba's return, Vilkas included. If anyone noticed the slight tension held in his thick eyebrows, nobody said anything. The warpaint helped with that sort of thing.
Several people made comments of surprise or delight at seeing Alba's face for the first time, but for whatever reason it didn't seem as big a deal to them as Vilkas thought it would be. Alba took a seat across the long table from Vilkas, next to Ria, and the festivities continued.
"She's pretty, isn't she?" Farkas said about an hour later, when they were both further along in their cups.
"Hmm?" Vilkas asked, looking up from his drink for the first time in a while.
"Alba. She's pretty under her mask," Farkas said, blunt as ever.
Vilkas nodded in agreement.
I knew that before anyone else did.
The words almost came out of his mouth before he stuffed then back inside, unwilling to let his petty sense of entitlement show.
"She's been gone for a while. I'm glad she's back," Farkas said.
"Me too," Vilkas said, though a small part of him doubted his words. If this was what it would be like from now on, he'd almost rather he didn't see her again. Almost.
After Ria's birthday, Alba starting coming back to Jorrvaskr almost every day. She slipped easily back into the role of Harbinger, coordinating jobs that came to the Companions, representing them to the Jarl, and mentoring the newer members. Vilkas didn't talk to her that first night at the feast, but he did talk to her the next day. She remained maskless, like the previous night, but she also didn't talk to Vilkas about anything personal, didn't share her confidences with him like she had before. It seemed now that death was no longer imminent, she didn't feel the need to share that side of herself with him.
Vilkas told himself, over and over again, that that was fine. Alba was still a capable Harbinger and a supportive friend. He'd been there for her under extraordinary circumstances, but now those circumstances had ended. She didn't need him in the way she'd needed him before. It was as simple as that.
Still Vilkas brooded. He started finding reasons to be outside of Jorrvaskr, especially when Alba was staying in the Harbinger's quarters. When they did speak, he found himself cutting the conversations as short as possible, worried that the creeping anger he felt towards her might seep out and damage their relationship. Logically, he knew his avoidance was already damaging their relationship, but at least that was a slow corrosion instead of what might be an explosive event if he lost his temper. Alba noticed—of course she did—but she didn't push him on it. She just started to get a sad look in her eyes whenever her gaze fell on him.
In the world outside of Vilkas's inner turmoil, the war raged on. As the weeks passed, news of the Imperials' and the Stormcloaks' various victories and defeats moved through Whiterun like a brisk breeze. Jarl Barlgruuf, through a combination of Nord stubbornness and luck, managed to keep Whiterun largely unallied, but Vilkas knew that could not last forever.
Alba's fame as Dragonborn had also spread throughout Skyrim, and it seemed every day a new emissary from either Windhelm or Solitude appeared at the steps of Jorrvaskr to seek audience with her, undoubtedly to plead the cases of their respective factions. Alba had never wanted anything to do with either side of the civil war, but as each day more and more blood was spilt, the pressure to pick a side was mounting. Vilkas could see it in the lines of her face. He worried privately that if things got any worse, Alba's mask might come back on and never come off.
The sun was high in the sky, and sweat trickled down Vilkas's back underneath his armor as he demonstrated an exercise for Ria meant to strengthen her horizontal swing. Ria attempted the maneuver for what felt like the millionth time that day, but the weight of her sword knocked her off balance and she tripped over her feet, cursing as she staggered to regain her footing.
"Again!" Vilkas barked, the heat of the unusually warm day adding to his impatience.
"No!" Ria said, throwing her greatsword on the ground. "I can barely lift the sword past my waist anymore. I need a break."
Vilkas huffed and threw up his arms.
"Fine. But pick up that sword. Only a foolish snowback mistreats her equipment."
Surprised to have got her way, Ria picked up the sword without further complaint and put it on a weapon rack by the tables, sitting down next to Vilkas on one of the more shaded benches. Vilkas took a sip of the water Tilma had left out for them and glared out over the practice field, the welcomed break only slightly easing his poor mood.
Ria took a long drink from her own cup, then set it down with a thud on the table. She always seemed to have so much energy whenever she wasn't training. Vilkas frowned.
"So…" she said, drawing the word out as she leaned towards Vilkas, "I heard some gossip about Alba. Want to hear?"
Vilkas's frown deeped.
"Come on, why do you always have to be such a killjoy? I'm going to tell you anyway."
Vilkas let out a sigh that could cause an avalanche, but some morbid, masochistic curiosity kept him seated.
"There's this guy from Markarth who's come to visit her once or twice in Whiterun. His name is Argis, and he's really tall and big with beautiful red hair—a proper Nord. And then there's this other guy—some Imperial mage or other from Riften. I can't remember his name, but he also has a nice face. If you ask me, Argis is the better catch, but there's no accounting for taste."
"I don't think the Harbinger would approve of you spreading rumors about her personal life," Vilkas said gruffly, forcing himself not to think through the faces of the visitors he'd seen pass through Whiterun in the past few months. Had either of these men been among them? What did it matter if he'd met either of them before?
"I don't think she minds much, considering she's the one who told me about them in the first place," Ria said with a healthy roll of the eyes.
Vilkas rose to his feet abruptly.
"That's enough for today. If we continue any longer you'll be too sore tomorrow to do anything useful."
"What?" Ria asked with surprise, but not displeasure.
"You heard me."
Vilkas marched back into Jorrvaskr for a proper drink, but as he went his keen ears still picked up what Ria muttered under her breath.
"Jealousy is such an ugly thing."
Vilkas nearly spun in place to confront Ria for her offhand comment, but he knew that would only make her case for her. His steps halted for a moment, but he forced himself to keep walking, taking long slow breaths as he made his way into the hall and poured himself a drink.
The unexpected voice startled Vilkas, and he nearly dropped his tankard. He carefully set the tankard down and turned to meet Alba, forcing himself to look her in the eyes.
"I need to speak with you. Meet me in my quarters?"
Vilkas nodded his assent, then moved to follow Alba into the living quarters. As he walked behind her, he did his best to empty his mind. He didn't want Alba to get even a whiff of his conversation with Ria earlier.
Alba settled into one of the chairs in the Harbinger's quarters, and Vilkas sat across from her. It was the most stiff and awkward he'd felt in this room in years, and a tiny part of him resented Alba for making him feel that way in a place as important to his formative years as Kodlak's old rooms. He let that thought slip away, too.
"I know you haven't been happy with me lately," Alba said. Her hands were folded calmly in her lap, but Vilkas could see the crease in her forehead deepening.
Vilkas started to form a response, but before the undoubtedly weak protest could even leave his mouth, Alba held up her hand to stop him.
"You don't have to tell me why, but I know it's true. I'm sure there are any number of things I've done wrong in the past few months. I'm aware of my many imperfections."
Here she let a slight grimace form on her face.
"But regardless of all that, I'm asking you to… to please look past whatever it is that has you upset. I think it likely that I will become involved in this war one way or another, and I don't think I can do it without you. I need you as an advisor, as an equal, and as a friend."
Vilkas took in the earnest, open expression on Alba's face, and realized for the first time how much his behavior these last months must have hurt her. He'd been selfish. It was true that she'd wounded his pride when she hadn't come to see him after her return from Sovngarde, but friends were supposed to forgive each other these kinds of slights. He should have been especially understanding, considering what she had just gone through in order to save all of Tamriel.
"I am sorry, Alba. I let my own problems come between us. Of course I will do whatever I can to support you."
Relief washed over Alba's face, and she smiled her warm, genuine smile.
"I am glad to hear that. I ask right now in particular, because I have begun meeting with Jarl Balgruuf to plan how to safeguard Whiterun. I would like you to attend those meetings as well, if that's alright."
The request did give Vilkas pause, as it was coming dangerously close to breaking the Companions' tradition of not becoming involved in politics. Still, Alba had said she was limiting the meetings to conversations regarding the protection of Whiterun. That was something Vilkas could do.
"Yes, I can attend the meetings with you."
They began meeting every Sundas with Balgruuf, Irileth, and Proventus Avenicci. Their conversations sometimes veered towards alliances with one side of the war or another, but Vilkas always refocused the conversations on the defense of Whiterun. The more conversations they had, however, the more Vilkas realized that the Jarl, and probably Alba, could not remain neutral forever. The Companions as an organization might be able to stay out of it, but the pressure on Balgruuf and Alba was too great. Upon coming to this realization, Vilkas decided within himself that though the Companions would remain neutral, he would do whatever he could to help Alba as a friend, no matter the course she chose. She deserved that from him.
Vilkas also worked hard over this time period to repair his relationship with Alba, and it seemed to be working. Things didn't return to how they had been before—neither the personal and intimate connection of the night before her journey to Sovngarde, nor the intense but distant devotion he'd held for her when she'd still worn her mask. Instead, they reached a new, happy medium. They were friends, true and honest friends, for probably the first time.
One night Vilkas returned home after a lengthy job tracking an escaped fugitive to find a dusty tome titled Fall of the Snow Prince on his bed. He flipped curiously through the book, some skimming revealing it to be an account of a battle between the ancient Nords and the Snow Elves in Solstheim. Intrigued, Vilkas set the book down and crossed the hallway to Farkas's room.
"Farkas, did you get me a book?"
Farkas looked up from the dagger he was sharpening as he sat on his bed and gave his brother a confused look.
"No. That was Alba."
Alba must have found it when she and Farkas had gone to clear out an abandoned fort several days earlier, though where Alba would have found such an old and clearly valuable book amongst a rabble of bandits was beyond Vilkas. She somehow always seemed to attract rare oddities.
"Oh. ...Do you know why?"
"Because she knows you like books? She said this book mentioned Ysgramor, and you might like that."
"Oh. My thanks, brother."
Farkas grunted in response, and returned to his dagger. Vilkas wandered back to his room, his mind following his meandering feet. It felt good that Alba had thought to bring this book back for him, especially amidst all the turmoil vying for her attention. It made him want to do something for her in return, but it was hard to think what.
Vilkas read the book late into the night, fascinated by the descriptions of his ancestors and their conflict with the Snow Elves. The next day, he happened upon a caravan of Khajiit traders just outside of the city walls. Vilkas normally ignored them when they passed through Whiterun, but this time he approached the group, striking up a conversation with the one who seemed most likely to be selling something interesting.
He looked through the trader's wares, considering the random assortment of armor, alchemical ingredients, and knick-knacks until something caught his eye. It was a writing set composed of several beautiful quills, a fine seal with sealing wax, and an inkwell of high-quality midnight-colored ink. Alba didn't normally bother with this sort of thing, but Vilkas knew that she was well-educated and used to be a tutor. Perhaps it would be relaxing to indulge in a former interest?
He purchased the writing set from the Khajiit and returned to Jorrvaskr, immediately heading to Alba's rooms to leave her the set before he could convince himself not to. He scrawled a quick note thanking her for the book and set it on top of the writing set on her desk, then beat a hasty retreat before anyone caught him in such a sentimental act.
The next day, he found a piece of fine parchment paper on his own desk, the paper inscribed with handwriting more elegant than he had ever seen before. For the first time it really hit Vilkas that Alba truly had lived the life of a wealthy noblewoman. Her life now seemed so far from that distant past.
Thank you for your gift! Perhaps I shall start writing again, though I don't know that I have anything to say worth reading. This is a beautiful set, and I shall cherish it.
Vilkas couldn't help but grin as he read the note. He folded it carefully and put it in the end table next to his bed, in the same drawer that he kept his journal and the letters he'd saved from Jergen.
Alba wasn't the only friend Vilkas gained over those weeks. Throughout the course of their meetings with the Jarl, Vilkas developed a grudging respect and fond affection for the elf Irileth. He had never expected it, but her gruff ways and undying loyalty suited his own personality almost too well, rendering any resistance towards their eventual friendship futile.
One night, after a particularly long and gruelling debate between Avenicci and Balgruuf regarding allying more fully with the Empire, Vilkas proposed a friendly spar with Irileth to work off some of the tension. As the war intensified, the Companions had begun staying closer to Whiterun, both to avoid conflict and to be available to protect civilians if Whiterun was attacked, and it meant that Vilkas hadn't been in a good fight in a while. Irileth grinned at the idea.
"Let's see if the Companions live up to their reputation," she said.
Proventus claimed no interest in a brawl, but both Balgruuf and Alba expressed curiosity at who would win, even making bets on their own champions.
"I fought beside Irileth for years, and I know of no fiercer warrior," Balgruuf said as they made their way to the Great Porch.
"You haven't seen Vilkas in battle, my Jarl. I've never seen man nor mer with greater battle spirit," Alba countered.
Vilkas smirked to himself, trying not to show how much her praise pleased him.
They reached the porch and drew their weapons while Balgruuf laid out the rules of the spar.
"Let's not maim anyone here. Soft blows—the first to make a hit to the torso wins."
Vilkas grinned, the feeling of his sword hilt in his hands and a worthy opponent before him feeding his spirit.
Irileth pounced, her steel shortsword flashing in the firelight, and Vilkas was barely able to lift his greatsword in time to block. She fought like the wind, her movements swift and terrible, and Vilkas hadn't been challenged like this in some time. The challenge gave him energy, invigorating his movements and empowering his attacks, and each of her blows he returned in equal measure.
Irileth and Vilkas were quite evenly matched, and the fight went on for some time. It was bliss, to feel the rush of battle, to respect one's opponent, to test one's mettle. Even as Vilkas's muscles grew tired and his steps slowed from exhaustion, his heart sang. He was enjoying the match so much that it took a moment for him to register the pain when a glancing blow off of one of his pauldrons slid off the metal guard and sank into his shoulder.
He gasped as the pain finally translated in his brain and he staggered backwards.
"It looks like the match goes to Irileth," Balgruuf said, the smug satisfaction as clear in his voice as if he had won the bout himself. "You owe me some coin, Dragonborn."
"That was well-fought, Companion," Irileth said, sheeting her sword and stretching her hand out to shake Vilkas's. "I do not doubt that were we to spar again, I might not be the victor."
Vilkas shook Irileth's hand quickly, then pressed that same hand onto his shoulder, which was already beginning to ooze blood.
"Likewise," he said, his voice tense with pain.
"Ok, this was fun and all, but Vilkas is clearly injured. Vilkas, let's get you to Danica, then we can head home, alright?"
The wound hurt, but it wouldn't be too bad after Danica saw to it, and Vilkas didn't really mind losing. One often learned more from a loss than a victory, after all, and the fight had been close. Still, he didn't much like losing either battles or blood in front of Alba. He gritted his teeth and tried to downplay the gash.
"I'll be fine. Irileth, thank you for a good fight. We should spar again some time."
He nodded his respect to Irileth, then turned to leave, hand still gripping his wounded shoulder. Alba promised to pay Balgruuf for the bet later, then accompanied Vilkas out of Dragonsreach and straight to the Temple of Kynareth, where Danica predictably tsk tsked at the foolhardy Companions before helping Vilkas out of his armor to take a look at his injury. She was halfway through getting his undershirt over his head when Vilkas remembered that he was still wearing the Amulet of Mara under his clothes. His muscles stiffened, but there wasn't much he could do about it now.
Danica didn't mention the Amulet, though she did maneuver the chain around his head and set the amulet on top of his undershirt so it wouldn't be in the way. She poured water on the wound, then rubbed a stinging salve on it before wrapping it up. As Danica worked, Vilkas's eyes found Alba's. She returned his gaze with an intense, searching look, her brow furrowed in consternation. Vilkas looked away.
Danica finished dressing the wound, then performed a healing spell on Vilkas that took any residual pain away.
"That should do it. You should be fine by tomorrow, but try not to let these kinds of things happen," she chided. "Healing magic can only do so much. The body knows when it's being mistreated, you know."
Vilkas made the necessary penitent comments as he re-dressed himself, and he and Alba walked under the boughs of the Gildergreen and back to Jorrvaskr. Vilkas said goodnight to her when he reached his quarters, and she continued on to her own, with neither party commenting on either Vilkas's injury or his choice in jewelry.
Nina: I'm glad you liked this kiss :) I'm always a little nervous about writing kisses! I also just can't help but write sweet scenes. And I agree that Aela is kind of scary. I felt lots of peer pressure from her to become a werewolf, even just as a player! I hope you liked this latest chapter, and thank you for reviewing!