Irina slowly became aware that she was shivering cold. She moved her arm to adjust her blanket and immediately regretted it. She clenched her teeth and moaned at the sharp pain that shot through her shoulder and back.
"Rest easy, lass," she heard Brynjolf's voice close beside her.
She blinked her eyes open and quickly squinted them shut again, turning her head away from the bright sunlight.
"What happened?" she groaned. "Where are we?"
"We're in the mountains, somewhere north of Irkngthand I think. We've been here since last night."
She felt his hand touch her forehead lightly, then her cheek. "How are you feeling? You gave us quite a scare there for a while."
"I feel horrible," Irina admitted, trying to recall the events that left her in such a state. She couldn't remember much.
"I don't blame you," Brynjolf said. "Mercer gave you quite a beating, and then you nearly drowned."
Irina blinked her eyes a few times. "I nearly drowned?" she said in surprise. Her eyes finally began to adjust to the light and she focused them on Brynjolf, who was sitting beside her bedroll, looking down at her with a slight crease of concern in his brow.
"Aye. Do you remember any of it?"
She shook her head. "I just remember killing Mercer. Everything after that's kinda blurry."
"The important thing is we made it out alive, but Mercer didn't."
Irina glanced around, noticing a campfire burning heartily a few feet away, although its warmth felt negligible in the bitter cold. A white blanket of frozen snow surrounded their camp on all sides. Above them the dark branches of a pine tree swayed in the slight breeze.
"Where's Karliah?" Irina asked when she realized the Dunmer woman was not there with them.
"She went to find our horses," Brynjolf replied. "If we're to have any hope of getting you back to civilization we're going to need them." He glanced over his shoulder. "She should be back soon, she's been gone for hours."
"I'm freezing," Irina muttered.
"Sorry, lass, I wish there was more I could do. But those blankets you have are the only ones we brought with us, and all our food is in the saddlebags, otherwise I'd make you a hot stew."
"One of your vegetable stews sounds so good right now. Maybe when Karliah gets back."
"Count on it."
He gave her a gentle smile, and Irina was surprised by the sincerity and tenderness in his gaze. She'd seen hints of that look in his eyes before, but nothing of that magnitude. For a moment she couldn't look away.
His gaze remained unbroken for much longer than necessary before he finally glanced away, looking at the dancing flames instead. He suddenly grew hesitant and slightly uncomfortable.
"Irina…there's something." He paused and rubbed the stubble on his jaw, apparently trying to find some difficult words.
Irina watched him intently, more than curious. It wasn't often that Brynjolf looked so serious. "What is it?" she asked.
He sighed. "I need to tell you something…something I should have told you a long time ago. I—"
The sound of a horse whinnying interrupted him and he stood abruptly, almost as if he were relieved. Irina was disappointed.
"Karliah, I was starting to wonder if something happened to you."
Karliah entered the camp riding a horse and leading one more. "It was a lot farther than I had anticipated," she explained. "And the horses were not where we left them; it took me a while to track them down."
"Seems you didn't find one of them," he remarked.
"I found it. Wolves got to it first." She slid to the ground and tied the horses to the tree, then came to stand beside the fire to warm up. "Irina, glad to see you awake. How are you?"
"I've been better," she admitted. "But I've also been worse. Looking forward to getting someplace warm though."
"Now that you're awake we can move out," Brynjolf decided. "We need to get back to the Guild and get things back in order. There's a lot of work to be done."
"What was it you wanted to tell me, Bryn?" Irina asked.
He shook his head. "I'll tell you later. We should get you something to eat and then get on the road—we've only a few hours of daylight left. I suppose I'll let you ladies ride. Walking never did me any harm."
"But you can ride with me," Irina blurted. "I mean, I wouldn't mind if you did. We'd make better time, and it's such a long walk back to Riften."
Brynjolf gave her an almost gratified smile. "Well, lass, I appreciate it." He bowed with a flourish before turning to retrieve supplies from the saddlebags.
They mutually agreed there wasn't enough time to make a stew, so Irina settled for some bread and dried meat. While it didn't do much to warm her up, it did feel good to have something in her stomach. She realized the last time she'd eaten was the morning before they got to Irkngthand, over twenty-four hours ago.
It took some doing to get Irina onto the horse once they were ready to go because it was extremely painful to pull herself into the saddle. But with a leg up from Brynjolf she managed, and soon they were on their way.
For the first leg of their journey Irina couldn't stop thinking about what Brynjolf wanted to tell her. Had he been keeping a secret from her? She couldn't imagine what it could be, and not knowing nearly drove her crazy. She asked him again to tell her what he wanted to say, but again he said he'd tell her later. She realized he didn't want to talk about it in front of Karliah, and that just made Irina even more curious.
Since they had only a few hours of daylight left they made it only as far as Windhelm by sunset. They decided to get rooms at the inn for the night rather than pushing on until total darkness and making camp on the road. They were all very tired and cold, and the idea of a hot meal and warm bed for one night was too enticing to pass up.
Not to mention, Irina wanted to visit a healer to help alleviate her discomfort. So that was the first thing she did while the others went to the inn. Windhelm didn't have a mage healer, since there was no Temple of Kynareth. However, it did have a Temple of Talos, and the priests there were able to give her a potion for the pain and some topical medicines to speed up the healing of her wounds.
Feeling considerably better, she returned to the inn where the three of them enjoyed a hot meal and warm drinks. By the time they decided to retire for the evening, Irina was finally starting to feel thawed out and more like herself. She was just turning back the blankets on her bed when there was a knock at her door.
"Who is it?" she called softly.
Her heart began pounding faster and her fingers began to tremble. Why, she wasn't sure. But she did feel a strong anticipation of something, and that both excited and frightened her.
She opened the door wide enough to frame her face. "Yes?" she asked, trying to act casual.
"Lass, I know it's late, but…may I come in for a moment?"
"For a moment," she agreed, opening the door wider and standing aside so he could enter. Then she closed the door and turned to face him.
He rubbed his hand over his jaw and scratched his head, glancing around the room, as if he might find the words he was looking for written on the walls. Irina had never seen Brynjolf nervous before, but that is definitely what was going on.
"Bryn, is something wrong?" she finally asked.
"Wrong?" He shook his head. "No, nothing's wrong. Why?"
She spread her hands and chuckled lightly. "You're just acting kind of strange. You've been wanting to tell me something very secretive all day, and now you're standing there all nervous, I just assumed something must be wrong—something you would rather not tell me?"
He let out a shaky breath. "Oh, lass. I want to tell you—I've wanted to tell you for a long time, and I should have. I've just been stubborn, and stupid. And I only hope I haven't lost my chance."
Irina frowned, not daring to presume she knew what he was talking about, but she had a pretty good idea, and it made her very aware of her heart and how fast it was beating.
"Your chance?" she asked, her voice nearly a whisper. "For what?"
"For winning you," he replied, his voice just as soft. He cupped her cheek with his hand, stroking it gently with his thumb.
Her first instinct was to rebuff his advances, since she'd grown tired of them over the months, and she had thought he'd finally gotten a clue and given up. However, as he gazed into her eyes she saw more tenderness and sincerity there than she'd ever seen in him before, and it gave her pause.
His finger pressed against her lips, cutting off her words.
"Hear me out, lass. This isn't some kind of game or innuendo. For maybe the first time in my life I'm being serious about this."
She remained silent, deciding to let him say what was on his heart.
He rubbed the back of his neck and sat down on the edge of the bed. He didn't stay there long, however, jumping to his feet again and pacing the room as he apparently gathered his thoughts—or maybe his courage.
"When Mercer returned from Snow Veil Sanctum with news of your death, I…" He swallowed thickly and turned to face her. "I about died. I couldn't believe you were gone, just like that."
"I had wondered if he told you," Irina said softly. "I wanted to return or at least send word I was still alive, but I couldn't risk Mercer finding out."
"I understand," Brynjolf assured. "It was a good move, exactly what I would have expected you to do."
"I'm sorry you had to believe that lie."
"Don't apologize, lass. I didn't believe it for long. I went to Snow Veil and found evidence that you were still alive."
Irina's eyebrows arched in surprise. "You went all the way to Snow Veil Sanctum? Why?"
"I had to know for sure. Mercer said he just left you lying there. At least I wanted to give you a proper burial if he was in fact telling the truth."
"I can't believe you did that. To go all that way just to bury me."
"Irina, if there was even the slightest chance that you were still alive…He said you'd been shot by an arrow. You've survived such a thing before. I couldn't rest until I knew for sure."
Irina just stared at him in amazement, not sure what to think about that.
"I came so close to losing you," he continued. "And then, in Irkngthand, you almost died again. But this time I was there…I saw it happen. I held you in my arms and you weren't breathing. I swear I wanted to die right then. I realized that life would not be worth living without you in it, lass."
He cupped her face with both his hands and looked intently into her eyes.
"I love you, Irina. I have for a long time, I was just too much of a coward to admit it."
Irina's eyes began to sting as tears welled up. She blinked and they spilled over, running down her cheeks to be wiped away by Brynjolf's thumbs. He gazed at her expectantly, but for a moment Irina was speechless, trying to comprehend everything he'd just said—words she thought she'd never hear him say.
"What does that…what does that mean?" she finally asked, her voice catching in her throat. She realized that was probably not what he was hoping to hear come out of her mouth, but she was still wary—she couldn't help it.
However, he didn't seem to mind, and the corner of his mouth turned up in a slight smile.
"It means that I want you in my life, lass. For as long as you'll have me."
"For real?" Irina squeaked. She couldn't believe this was happening!
"For real. I only regret that it took almost losing you to make me realize what a foolish idiot I've been. I only hope you can forgive me."
Irina let out a soft sob as she threw her arms around his neck, choosing to ignore the pain in her shoulder. His arms went around her waist and he buried his face in the crook of her neck.
"I forgive you," she whispered against his ear.
He pulled back just enough to press his lips to hers in a slow, tender kiss. A few more tears trailed down Irina's cheeks, and after a moment she suddenly laughed as all the feelings of anger and betrayal over the last couple months drained away, replaced with a sense of deep contentment and joy that she had not felt in a long time.
Brynjolf pulled away, looking perplexed but amused. "What's so funny?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Nothing. I'm just happy."
He grinned, then kissed her again, pulling her close, as if afraid of letting her go. She wrapped her arms around his neck, threading her fingers through his hair. As her passion began to build she realized that she didn't want him to go back to his room for the night.
She pulled away from their kiss to catch her breath and rested her forehead against his.
"Do you think they'd give you a refund if you don't use your room tonight?" she asked.
He grinned and gave her another quick kiss. "I could find out. But even if they don't, I won't consider it a great loss."
Irina giggled, then squealed in surprise when he picked her up into his arms and carried her to the bed. She didn't know what kind of future lay in store for her, or what it would mean for the two of them. But for now, she refused to worry about it. For now, the two of them were all that mattered. For now, the world could wait.
A/N: Sorry that was such a short chapter, everyone. But I think it was a sweet one, and the one you've all been waiting for me thinks, lol. I'd love to know what you think of it, so please leave me a comment. See you in the next one. :-)