The upper levels of the College of Winterhold were unpopular with staff and students alike. It may have been something to do with the fact that there was no shelter from the searing cold wind and the snow that felt like being hit with sheets of ice. For that reason, it was one of Ancano's favourite places to go when he wanted to be alone. He warded the cold with a combination of many layers of clothing and a lifetime of learning to not react to external stimuli.
But today it seemed that he would not be allowed his alone time. On the far side, someone was repeatedly casting fireballs. Poorly. One of the students, no doubt. This would not have particularly bothered Ancano had the apprentice mage not been cursing savagely.
Ancano sighed, intending to turn straight around and go back inside. But curiosity caused him to stay and watch for a few moments. The student continued casting fireballs and Ancano realised that he was cursing at himself. This was not something Ancano needed to concern himself with, but the way the student was practising in such a counterproductive way irritated him. He may as well have been casting the fireballs at himself.
Ancano consulted his mental list of students as he walked towards him. This one was a dunmer. Rather unremarkable, reddish hair. Not one who had took Ancano's interest before, but he made a note to learn everyone's names wherever he was posted, just in case any of them turned out to be important, despite appearances to the contrary.
"Dreyelam Lerlvel, care to enlighten me as to what you are doing?"
The fireball the student had been forming fizzled out and he looked up, startled. "Oh, um... practising, sir."
Ancano's lip twitched. No-one had addressed him with such formality in a long time. "Practising, is it?" he said, putting him hands on his hips. "I was led to believe most students arrive at the college able to cast a basic fireball."
Dreyelam dropped his eyes to the floor. "I'm trying to learn to dual cast."
"Better to learn the basics first before attempting something beyond your ability."
Dreyelam twisted his hands in his robes. "I'm the only one who still can't do it."
Ancano shook his head. "It is little wonder when this is the way you practise. Expending so much energy shouting self-deprecating remarks is hardly going to be of any help. Is this what they teach you here?"
"You should know, you watch our classes," Dreyelam shot, then appeared to think better of it. "Our teachers are good, it's not their fault. I'm just- I've never been very good at destruction magic."
"Yet you persist."
Dreyelam shuffled his feet, looking ashamed.
"Whether this shows stupidity or dedication, only time will tell." Ancano turned and drew his hands into his chest, then pushed them outwards and threw out a continuous stream of flame. Then he turned back to Dreyelam. "That is what you wish to learn?"
The dunmer nodded. He moved his arms, mimicking the motion Ancano had just done. A tiny crackle of flames appeared, and immediately extinguished. He sighed.
"Stand up straight," Ancano commanded, walking behind Dreyelam. He put his hands on the dunmer's shoulders. "Relax," he said in a tone that was admittedly not very relaxing. Dreyelam's muscles seemed to tense even more underneath Ancano's hands, and he pressed down. "Relax," he repeated. "Remember your breathing. Put your arms up higher. No. Not like that!" Ancano sighed, and physically moved the dunmer's arms into position.
After a few attempts, Dreyelam managed to shoot flame from both hands simultaneously for a moment. Then he gasped for breath and put his hands on his knees for support.
Ancano clapped slowly, and started walking away. Any more and the dunmer was going to collapse in exhaustion. If that was what he wished, Ancano would not judge him, but he did not want to be involved.
Ancano crossed to the far wall and looked out at the sea. The visibility was not good today, but he could still make out some distant features of the landscape.
"Do you think I'll get better with practise?" Dreyelam was once again beside him.
"I am not one of your teachers," Ancano said, now severely regretting getting involved.
"But you're here to check they're doing their jobs right, aren't you?"
Ancano frowned. "Not precisely, no."
"Then what are you doing here?"
"I have my reasons."
Ancano shot him a look. "None of your concern."
"I was only trying to make conversation."
"Do not be mistaken, I was not attempting to befriend you. I was merely providing criticism on your terrible form."
Dreyelam sighed, and rested his hands on the wall. Ancano had expected him to storm off. He wished to walk away himself, but by this point it had become almost like giving away territory.
"Do you ever get lonely?" Dreyelam asked.
Ancano tried to concentrate on tracing the outline of the visible distant landscape. Despite himself, he found himself considering the question. Not many people here were worth talking to. The Arch-Mage was suitable company, but Savos Aren has his whims and his favourites, and at the moment Ancano was not among them. And there was Mirabelle, but she was so stubborn that their conversations would quickly turn to arguments. He could write letters to old acquaintances, but he had to be so careful about what he included in them that it was scarcely worth bothering.
"I often see you standing or sitting alone," the dunmer persisted.
"The Thalmor are not the most popular around here."
"Maybe people just need to give you a chance. I could keep you company. If you want?"
Ancano's expression must have been harsh, because Dreyelam's hopeful look suddenly turned to fear. "Sorry. Just a thought." He sighed. "I'm lonely. I mean, sometimes. I haven't been here for very long, but..." he trailed off.
Ancano realised that Dreyelam's arm was resting against his own. It was such a casual gesture, but it was one Ancano was unaccustomed to, especially here. He moved away slowly, even though this meant the loss of a wind break. He felt noticeably colder.
"Do you miss home?"
Dreyelam was seemingly not going to give up. Ancano almost laughed. The dunmer must be lonely if he was attempting to strike up a friendship with him, the universally hated Thalmor agent. Unless this was the latest in the college's attempts to uncover his secrets.
"It's cold here," Dreyelam said, shivering and pulling up the hood of his robe. "I miss my family. What's left of them, anyway."
Ancano studied Dreyelam's expression. Nothing in what he had said was throwing up any red flags. The dunmer might be foolish and rather pathetic, but he was seemingly honest.
Ancano considered it. Did he miss home? "I miss the familiarity of the Summerset Isles," he said, looking out over the sea. "Even after all these years, everything here is strange."
"Yes! That's exactly how I feel! I thought I'd find my place here. Things weren't good in Morrowind, but my people were there." Dreyelam hung his head. "Maybe I don't belong here."
"Nobody belongs anywhere. You have to carve out your own place in the world, even if it means you have to fight a lot of people to do it." Ancano surprised himself at his sudden passion. He turned to go, but unbelievably, the dunmer had grabbed hold of his sleeve.
"Do you think I should just give up?"
Ancano frowned. He didn't know what sort of person Dreyelam was projecting on him, but he was ill equipped to fill that role. He answered with the only tool at his disposal, logic. "If I was in your position, I would stop wasting time on something I had no talent for."
The dunmer gaped at him and his red eyes looked watery. Probably from the wind. He moved his lips but no words came out. Ancano yanked his sleeve out of his grasp and stalked off, feeling even more unsettled than he had when he stepped out onto the roof. He made a mental note to avoid this particular student in future. He had no time for the emotionally unstable. The dunmer had rattled him, and he didn't like that.