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A Winter's Tale

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It's all the thief's fault.

Jon saw him for the first time just outside of Dragon Bridge. The boy had on light boots, a hood that didn't quite manage to hold in his curly hair, and gloves that glowed with an enchantment, and he walked close and quiet. "If you pick my pockets," Jon had said without breaking stride, "I'll slit your throat."

The thief veered off the path into tall grasses and jogged out of sight.

He thought he saw the thief sneaking out of a home in Whiterun a few days later, something gold and bejeweled catching the light briefly before it was tucked into his satchel and he slipped off into the shadows. The odds of it being the same boy seemed slim at the time - Skyrim has never had a shortage of criminal activity. When he went to The Bannered Mare that night, though, Jon caught sight of matted blond curls and green-tinged leather gloves, and he knew.

"Isn't there some way to make a deal?" the thief said, and the Redguard woman in front of him crossed her arms and sneered.

"Of course," she said. "The deal is that you give me two septims, and I'll give you the mead."

The thief groaned, and Jon took the seat next to him and calmly ordered Nord mead and a sweet roll.

In his peripheral vision, Jon could see the thief sizing him up, his fingers drumming idly against the counter. Finally, the thief spoke.

"Any chance you'd buy a weary traveler some mead, friend?"

Jon tore off a piece of his sweet roll, laid it in his mouth, and chewed thoroughly. "Perhaps we could make a deal."

"A deal?" the thief asked, sitting up straighter and smiling. "By the Nine, there are reasonable people in this town! We can definitely make a deal."

"Skills?"

"What?"

Jon looked at him straight on then. "Your skills. What do you have to offer in exchange for my gold?"

The thief grinned. "I'm very handy with smithing. If you've got materials, I can make just about anything. I could teach you, if you'd prefer."

Sipping his mead, Jon said, "And?"

"If you need a follower to watch your back, I know enough restoration magic to get by, and my archery skills are fine."

"Anything else?"

The thief's smile faltered, and he peered around the Inn warily before leaning in and whispering, "I'm good at... procuring rare goods. Tell me the mark, and it'll be yours, I swear it."

"I've decided," Jon said. He sat back, and the thief did likewise, holding out his hand.

"Yes? What are the terms?"

"My terms," Jon said loudly, and he slammed his empty bottle down on the bar, "are that I don't make deals with thieves." He stood, headed towards the innkeeper, ready to buy a room for the night, and didn't look back.

Jon woke up in his rented bed the next morning with his pockets and pack emptied, save for an empty mead bottle and a note that read, "I accept your deal."

It was lucky, for some definition of the word, that the thief had left Jon his sword and that this had happened in Whiterun - there were plenty of bounties to be claimed, many of them not far from town, and Brent and Duncan were willing to take a break from their hunting to help him. They cleared out three bandit dens before he felt secure traveling again, and even then, he still had far fewer septims in his pocket than he'd set out with. It was enough, though, and he'd already wasted two weeks trying to fix what the thief had done, so he sucked up his pride and bought a carriage ride to Windhelm.

Jon was groggy when the carriage rumbled to a stop. There was a splinter in his right thigh, giving him an awkward limp as he made his way towards the Palace of the Kings, and running his hands over his hair only managed to dislodge hay. He cut a poor figure and he knew it, and he wasn't surprised when Ulfric Stormcloak looked at him skeptically and turned the final verdict over to his second-in-command, Galmar Stone-Fist.

A test, Galmar decided. To prove he was more than he appeared to be, to prove he wasn't a milkdrinker with foolish dreams of glory, to prove he deserved to be a Stormcloak.

They sent him out under orders to go far north, above Winterhold, and to kill an ice wraith and bring back its essence. Jon nodded slowly and swallowed his tongue. This wasn't how he thought enlisting would go. To be honest, he wasn't even sure he would be capable of the task they'd asked of him.

It was the first time Jon had ever failed at something he really wanted, and it was all the thief's fault.

It's that thought that took him first to Candlehearth Hall, then onward to the New Gnisis Cornerclub after a barmaiden with a wicked smile told him that was where he'd find real drinks worth the price. It's that thought that kept him moving down into the Gray Quarter, his feet cold in his boots and his heart cold under the stares he was getting. And it's that thought that makes him flash furious when he steps inside the Cornerclub and hears a horribly familiar laugh.

"My heart!" the thief sings, throwing one arm around a bewildered dark elf and raising a bottle with his other. "My favorite drinking buddy! To Malthyr!"

"To Malthyr," a few other patrons chime in.

Jon waits.

It's not exactly easy to get lost in a room full of dark elves when you're an Imperial, but that doesn't stop Jon from trying. He can't seem to get any closer to the thief without drawing odd stares, though, so instead he sticks close to the wall, ambles as lightly as he can towards the bar, and asks for a bottle of Honningbrew. The vendor sneers at him a little, but takes his gold just the same.

Jon takes a sip, takes another, then swallows slow and asks, "Who's the loudmouth over there?"

"A Nord," the vendor says, his red eyes steady and sharp. "And you are?"

Jon raises his free hand in surrender. "I mean no harm. Just curious."

"Best to leave that at the door."

At the other end of the bar, the thief is flicking a candlelight spell to life between his fingers and snuffing it out in quick repetition.

Jon tips his bottle towards the vendor and slides away.

He's barely taken two steps when the thief spots him and his face goes pale. Smiling tightly, Jon tips his head towards the unlit room behind the bar and waits until the thief springs back into motion, murmuring in low tones to the crowd around him and slipping out of their grasp, to head over there as well.

As soon as they're hidden, away from the warmth and din of life, the thief shoves him against the wall and hisses, "What now, filth?!"

"Filth?" Jon coughs. "I'd watch your tongue unless you want the whole of Windhelm to hear of your 'skills', thief."

"I don't understand," the thief says, low and almost dangerous if his voice weren't reedy with emotion. "How did I wrong you?"

"You stole all of my valuables!"

"You outed me as a thief!" The thief grinds his knuckles in against where Jon's collarbone meets his shoulder. It doesn't sting quite as much as the words do. "I'd done nothing to you, and you made me a wanted man throughout Whiterun hold. Was I supposed to let that go unanswered?"

"You're a thief," Jon says weakly, fury ebbing away into nauseous knots.

"I'm sorry that I wasn't born a privileged Imperial like you, with a white-gold spoon in my mouth," the thief spits.

"That's... there are always other ways."

The thief draws back then, drops his hand and his eyes and Jon can just barely make out the sad twist of his mouth through shadow. "Easy to say, Imperial."

"Look," Jon says, and he stops to piece together his words carefully before he lets them fly. "I'd like to hire you."

"A deal?" The thief laughs bitterly. "I'm in no rush to make any deals with you again."

"Not a deal - a hiring. I'll give you half the gold now, half when we're done."

"I'm not for sale," the thief says. He turns towards the doorway, and Jon catches his arm.

"A deal, then," Jon says. "This is your hometown, right? You're drinking with dark elves who have every right to hate a Nord, but they don't. In fact, the barkeep wouldn't even tell me your name. Whiterun is one thing; you can duck out of there and leave the bounty behind."

Torchlight pulses in from the front room, tracing the young, round edge of the thief's face and leaving his features almost erased in the darkness. His throat bobs. "Say it."

Jon sighs, but he does. "Help me, and no one in this town will know you're a criminal."

"And if I don't, they will," the thief says, and Jon doesn't argue.

Jon pays both of their tabs before they leave.

They're sitting in the back of a carriage, on opposite sides and avoiding each other's eyes, when Jon asks, "What's your name?"

"'Thief' has worked for you this long. Why change?"

"It doesn't... it doesn't feel right." It's late enough that the sky's dark and the icy ground stands out in stark contrast, everything growing impossibly whiter as the carriage moves on until even the wind seems like an opaque curtain of snow. Jon pulls at his own elbows, draws himself in tighter. "I'm sorry."

The thief looks at him from under his hood, then shrugs it off and grins into the cold air. "Nothing quite like Morning Star - best time of the year, especially in a place like Winterhold. Looking to freeze that Imperial blood?"

"My mother's a Nord," Jon snaps.

The thief snorts. "Then I guess you take after your father."

"Judging from your mouth, you must take after a troll," Jon snaps, and for the first time, the thief looks at him with pure delight.

"So there is a personality in there! Tell me, blackmailer, what should I call you?"

"Jon," he says shortly, "and I'm not blackmailing you. I promised you gold, and you'll have it."

"Jon," the thief says, dropping his voice to a dopey rumble and smirking up at him. "You promised me half the gold before we go, and I've yet to see a septim."

"I..." Jon sighs. "Fine. What's your price?"

"1000 gold."

Jon glares. "I could hire an actual sell-sword for half of that."

The thief shrugs. "Fine. 500 gold."

"500 gold," Jon says, "but not until the job's finished, and you tell me your name."

"100 up front," the thief says, and he waits until Jon's fished the money out of his pocket, grumbling all the while, and pressed it into his palm before he adds, "It's Kane."

The thief's hand is cool, nearly indistinguishable from the gold beneath Jon's fingertips. "Kane," Jon repeats.

"Jon," Kane says, then he pulls away, pocketing the gold, and leans back against the rough side of the carriage. "Now tell me: what's waiting for us in Winterhold?"

--------

Jon didn't mean to fall asleep. His exhaustion must've taken over, though, because one moment he's blinking up at the moons, watching teal aurora sway behind the visual crackle of snow and wondering exactly what he's gotten himself into, and the next there's pressure on his arm shaking him awake and the thief's face is all he can see.

"We're here," Kane says.

Winterhold is smaller than Jon imagined; the Mage's College is huge and imposing, perched high on its cliff like a raptor, but the actual town is bent, scarred, and worn, sagging under snow and years of near desolation. There's an inn, though, and that's all Jon really needs the town for. Jon pats his pockets, compares the swell of glass bottles and the rustle of dried food to his mental inventory, and Kane rolls his eyes.

"I didn't take anything."

"Didn't think you did," Jon mutters. "Are you ready to go, or do you need to buy supplies?"

"Ready whenever you are," Kane says, and Jon nods at him, turns away from civilization and towards the rocky coast, and starts to walk.

They move without talking for a long time, and Jon's thankful. It's hard enough to keep his feet underneath him when every drift hides uneven terrain and the soft rolls of snow are rapidly giving way to wet ice. On top of that, he needs to stay alert if he doesn't want to walk right into a frost troll. Kane's a little more useful than he expected in that regard; his eyes are quick, spotting sabre cats and ice wolves long before they themselves have been noticed. The times they can't manage to sneak by undetected, Kane falls back in a flash, arrows already flying, nipping neatly past Jon's sword and into wild flesh. It's a surprisingly good rhythm.

When they hit the first sign of open sea, chunky islands and ice floes intermingling as far as Jon can see into the mist, he stops. "Why are you a thief?"

Kane's fingers pause where they were running over his bowstring. "What do you mean?"

"You sold yourself short," Jon says, "back in Whiterun. You could be a sell-sword easily; any adventurer would be glad to have you watching his back."

Kane smirks. "Are you glad I'm watching your back?"

"Whatever you want to call it," Jon says solemnly, "I'm grateful for your help."

Kane tips his head down, letting his hood fall forward enough to hide his face save for the grim slash of his mouth. "I'm guessing you've never walked on ice floes before," Kane says. "Follow my lead."

Kane moves deftly on the ice. It's a fast enough pace that Jon can barely keep up, planting his feet straight down carefully where the ice glows matte. They reach a small island, and Jon looks around. "I don't think this is it."

"How can you tell?"

"No standing stone," Jon says. "Galmar told me to find the Serpent Stone and kill an ice wraith there, but... I don't see it."

"Wait, Galmar?" Kane steps closer and peers up at Jon. "Galmar Stone-Fist?"

"Yes?"

"Why are you... are you a Stormcloak?"

"No," Jon says, "not yet."

"Oh for..." Kane slides his bow back into its holster. "This is what we're out here for? So you can prove your worth to a bunch of narrow-minded bullies?"

"They're better than the Legion!" Jon snaps. "What sort of Nord are you, anyway, to side against your own people?"

"I'm not against the Nords," Kane shouts back, "and I'm not for the Legion."

"Then what are you for?"

"Survival," Kane says. "I'm for not dying and leaving those who rely on me behind."

Kane spins around, scans the horizon, then takes off again, skipping light across swaying ice.

"Is that why you're a thief?" Jon says, struggling to keep his breath and his balance, and he knows he should be quiet, but he can't. "Because you have people who rely on you?"

"Bandits," Kane says without slowing or looking back, "kill and are killed. Sell-swords kill and are killed. Soldiers kill and are killed. But thieves." He stumbles to a stop and looks back at Jon with tired, drooping eyes. "If you're a good thief, they never even know you're there."

They're moving again before Jon can think of something to say. He skids, tilting the floe they're on, and Kane grabs him by the elbow and hauls him upright before pressing onward. "So you do," Jon says, his arm and his face warm. "You have people who rely on you. Children?"

"Family," Kane says shortly. "That's all you need to know."

The longing in Kane's voice there echoes deep into Jon's gut. He thinks of his parents dawdling in Falkreath, swords and staffs tucked away in their wardrobe, and his brother up at the Bard's College in Solitude, and he doesn't think of where he's stepping.

Suddenly, the ground is gone and everything's shock cold and dark.

By the time Jon realizes he's underwater, there are hands flailing towards him. He grabs on.

Shimmying back onto firm ice is a blur, but it happens, and then Jon's laying flat on his back, coughing and flexing numb joints. "Talos guide me," Kane gasps. "Are you okay?"

Jon tries to talk and finds himself coughing until his throat aches. He's still wheezing when Kane grabs his hand and wrestles his fingers apart.

"Here," Kane says, "put this on. Come on, Jon, put the ring on."

Everything seems too pale, washed out in smears of white, and Jon can't really feel what he's doing, but he tries to relax and let Kane move him. Then his lungs are soothed, like he's been taking in nothing but thin winter air. He blinks down at the ring wedged on his middle finger.

"It's enchanted," Kane says. "Water-breathing. You can wear it until we're done."

"Thank you," Jon says. His windpipe is still raw, but his skin is waking up again, and he pushes himself to his feet without too much wobbling.

"Are you okay? Should we stop?"

Jon shakes his head. "No, let's just this done with. The sooner I can get to a firepit, the better."

Kane tugs at his lower lip with his teeth. "We could head back now. I'm sure there's a merchant somewhere between here and Windhelm that could sell us ice wraith essence."

"That's not... I'm supposed to go to the Serpent Stone and-"

"I know," Kane says. "I know that's what you're supposed to do, but there's no way they'd know if you didn't. An ice wraith's an ice wraith, Jon."

Jon sets his jaw. "I'd know."

"Of course," Kane grumbles, and his face is tight and thoughtful, but his feet start picking over the floes again, so Jon doesn't say anything else.

The next time they reach an island (which also shows no signs of wraiths, but does give them a small pack of ice wolves to contend with), Kane grabs him by the wrist and says, "What if we killed one somewhere else?"

"Kane," Jon says, "Galmar specifically said-"

"Galmar said you needed to be tested, right?" Kane cuts in. "How is this not a test? You've come all the way out here, and you're going to kill an ice wraith. Why does it matter where exactly we find it?"

It's tempting to argue, just for the sake of not giving in, but Kane has a point - if the purpose of this is to test his mettle, then he's succeeded already by making this journey at all. All he needs now is physical proof.

"Okay."

"Seriously, Jon, I don't... wait."

Jon chuckles. "You heard right."

Kane doesn't answer that verbally; he just smiles and starts to head back to real ground.

Though it feels awkward to dart towards odd noises in the distance instead of away from them, Jonny guesses that a test of his abilities shouldn't be comfortable and rote. The first battle they run into is against a horker; the second, a snow bear. On the third try they find an ice wraith, but it slips away from them before either can deal a killing blow. By the time they find another ice wraith (Kane's certain he can identify them sight-unseen by the treble slice of their floating movements), Jon has a plan.

"Kane," he says, low, "stick with ranged attacks. No daggers this time."

"Are you sure?" Kane asks, and it's a more apt question than he could possibly know.

"Yes," Jon lies, "I'm sure."

Jon waits until Kane's crept into position, uphill from the wraith and with it between them, before he sheathes his sword and lets the fire simmering under his skin lap out.

The first time Jon summoned a flame atronach, it hurt. He wasn't ready for the flames that balled up in his palms or for the heat coming off of the atronach herself, and he stared so hard into the twisting orange-red that licked where a human would have flesh that his eyes stung for a day afterwards. He hadn't known how to get rid of her, either, so he'd waited, praying that no one would come out and catch what he'd done. He didn't do any magic again for months. Every time after that had been easier, like stretching a fatigued muscle, an ache that meant effort more than injury. When he summons her this time, it feels like coming home.

Kane sucks in a loud breath and his hand freezes in midair, halfway to his quiver. It passes quickly, though, and then there are arrows pelting the ice wraith's ridged body and the atronach raises her arm and tosses fireballs underhand. Jon shakes out his hands, focuses hard, presses his palms out in front of him, and lets the flames burst free.

It's over quickly after that. The ice wraith ducks free near the end, twisting away from Jon's spell and towards the woods, but it's no match for the combined efforts of an archer and an atronach. It bursts into a cloud of dusty snow, and all that's left is to search the remains.

"Here," Kane says, "let me." He lifts up one arced rib of ice, tilting the tip against the mouth of a short, stout bottle, and Jon watches the essence flow quicksilver out of ice and into glass. Kane corks the bottle one-handed and holds it out. "This is it."

Jon takes it, looks at the frosted blue glass and the neatly written label, and frowns. "This is it."

With a crack, Kane wrenches a fang loose from the twisted remains. "Yeah, that's it. Mind if I keep these?"

"Go ahead."

Kane goes back to work, levering a ruby out with his dagger before digging in after a few gold, and Jon rubs his thumb over the bottle.

He doesn't ask about it until they're halfway back to Winterhold.

"I keep a lot of bottles on me," Kane says with a shrug. "Just lucky that I had a proper one for ice wraith essence ready to use."

"But why do you keep bottles?" Jon asks.

Kane runs his fingers under the strap of his satchel, shifting it up by an inch, and exhales. "How about this: I'll make you a deal."

Jon stops. "A deal?"

"Sure," Kane says, and he slows his steps and spins to walk backwards. "I'll tell you why I carry bottles," he knocks his knuckles against his bag, "and why I wanted the fangs, and you tell me where you learned magic like that."

"I taught myself," Jon blurts before he can think.

"Really?"

"Yeah, I." Jon starts walking again, quick enough to rejoin Kane's side. "Once, when I was much younger, my brother and I wanted to have a fishing competition, but our usual pond was frozen over."

"That's what saws are for," Kane snickers.

"I know that, ass," Jon says. "The ice was awful, though. It was too thick to punch through, but too thin to saw through without collapsing the whole surface."

"So you summoned a creature to help?"

"I used flames to help," Jon says. "How in the world would summoning help anything?"

"Hey," Kane says, "your childhood, not mine."

"That's why you only know restoration spells," Jon snorts. "At least you can't hurt anyone if you mess up those."

"Very nice."

"Of course."

They fall silent for a minute, then Kane says softly, "It's true, though."

Jon glances at him and sees nothing but focus. "What is?"

"I only know restoration spells. Well, I know a few alteration and illusion things too, but nothing... not like..." Kane rubs his face hard, knocking his hood askew. "I tried a conjuration spell once when I was little, but it... it didn't work out."

"What did you-"

"Raise Zombie," Kane says.

Jon doesn't push any further.

They're back in Winterhold, idling outside The Frozen Hearth, before Jon gets up the nerve to say, "You didn't tell me about the bottles."

Whatever had been haunting Kane's face blows free at that, and the smile he turns on Jon is warmer than the inn's glowing windows. "My sister wants to be an alchemist," he says, thick with pride. "I scavenge ingredients for her whenever I can."

They knock the snow off their boots and head inside.

"My dad's an alchemist," Jon says, and Kane looks at him with wide eyes.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah," Jon continues. "That's how he met my mom, actually. She used to be a sell-sword, and whenever she had a job near Bruma, she'd go to him for supplies."

"That's great," Kane says, and it sounds sincere. Jon waves him off towards a table and goes to the counter to buy a room. If he also picks up two bottles of mead, well. He has ice wraith essence in his pocket; there's nothing wrong with celebrating a job well done.

Kane takes the bottle offered to him with a grin. He sucks down a long pull, laughs around the neck, and says merrily, "Any chance your dad wants an apprentice? Jacqueline's a good girl, I promise."

"She'd have to go to Falkreath," Jon says with a shrug.

"Don't test me," Kane says, shrugging back and wrinkling his nose. "My dad's a carriage driver; he could take her just about anywhere."

"I'll ask him," Jon chuckles. The strange part is, he thinks he actually will.

Once they're warm with fire and alcohol, snug enough that Kane is humming The Dragonborn Comes as he sways on his feet, Jon directs them back towards their room. Jon's eyes fix on the lone bed and his face and his palms go clammy. "I didn't," Jon starts, pauses to swallow down a belch. "I can rent you your own room."

Kane looks at him like he's sprouted horns. "What?"

"If you don't, uh. Want to be bedmates."

"I have three sisters, Jon," Kane says. "I'm used to sleeping close."

Jon is too - he's been on more than a few hunts, and he knows that it's only logical to keep your allies close when you're at your most vulnerable. Granted, he's never actually shared a bedroll, not like Brent and Duncan often do, or a bed with anyone besides his brother. Kane's already nestling under the covers, though, and somehow, the thought of joining him doesn't sound bad.

"We walk to Windhelm tomorrow, right?" Kane whispers. "I don't have to go to The Palace of the Kings with you, do I? I know I'm supposed to follow you until you're a Stormcloak, but-"

"About that," Jon whispers back. He rocks his head to the side and finds Kane's pale eyes already watching him. "I've been thinking about doing more traveling."

Kane blinks slowly. "That's a good idea. Once you're a soldier, your life isn't yours anymore."

"Right."

"I bet you'd be a great sell-sword. Follow in your mother's footsteps."

"What about you?" Jon says. "What are you going to do?"

Kane's gaze jitters, flicking from Jon's left eye to his right, and he licks his lips. "I was planning on taking a carriage from Windhelm down to Riften for some business. I wouldn't mind walking, though. If I had someone with me."

It's too much; Jon closes his eyes. "A follower?"

"A companion," Kane's voice rolls, and then there are cool fingers resting on Jon's wrist beneath the covers.

"400 gold," Jon says. "That's my price."

"400 gold," Kane says. "I'm pretty sure that's how much my current employer owes me."

Jon smiles. "What a coincidence."

Kane tangles their fingers together. "We'll call it even."

Jon thinks about stoking embers in his palm, lets the heat breathe, lets it rise up until Kane's skin feels just as warm as his own. "Even," Jon agrees. "Sounds like a good deal."