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Chapter Text

It was an accident.

Some vampire thralls were found in Whiterun while we were paying a visit. The guardsmen were no match for those types of creatures, and Dar'Zahyla and I both knew it.

She'd leapt in the way of a vampiric drain spell that was taking its toll on a guard to lash out with her hammer, forcing the thrall back and breaking the spell. It hissed at her baring its fangs—she returned the gesture, ears flattening.

I'd just taken on the other thrall when it happened. I swung my sword, intending to cleave into the thrall’s side, when a wayward guard charged in with sword raised high. My blade clipped him hard in the back, winding him and sending him sprawling to the dust. He rose, furious, just as the thrall disintegrated into dust.

I took a step back, holding my shield before me and keeping my sword raised. The guard looked absolutely murderous. “It was an accident,” I said calmly, ignoring the panic that was beginning to creep into my chest.

“You’re a wanted woman now,” he growled behind his helmet.

“I—”

His sword hit my shield hard, making me stumble back. “By order of the Jarl—” He raised his blade.

And then he went down with a wet crack, slamming down into the dirt. Dar’Zahyla stood over him, warhammer bloodied and fangs bared. “Do not,” she snarled, “touch her.” He didn’t move.

I gaped. Dar’Zahyla, Thane of Whiterun and the last Dragonborn, had slain a guard in broad daylight. With me at her side. “Did—did you just kill—” She looked at me, stunned, just as a second guard shouted at us.

By the gods, we were both wanted women now.

“We have to go,” Dar’Zahyla murmured, seemingly to herself. She turned her gaze back to me, still looking startled with herself. “We have to go.

I couldn’t breathe. Whiterun was my home, had always been my home, and now I was wanted for murder.

“Lydia,” Dar’Zahyla said, grabbing my shoulders and shaking me hard. “Clear your head. We must go. Now.” Her Elsweyrian accent grew thicker in her panic. “Come.”

I couldn’t move. My eyes were fixated on the guards behind her, running towards us. Dar’Zahyla growled and whipped around, unleashing a mighty Thu’um. The guardsmen were thrown back, crumpling into a heap. She turned back to me, shoving me hard to snap me out of it. “We go,” she repeated harshly, “now.”

I stumbled and nodded, blinking several times to clear my head. She half-dragged me out the front gates and around the side, shoving the pair of us into an alcove against the wall. I knew distantly that the alcoves were hard to see from atop the walls, but at the time I was too busy gasping in panic to consider anything more than that I was wanted in my own home.

“Lydia—”

“Oh gods—”

Lydia—”

“Oh gods, what have we done—”

"Look at me," she ordered, holding my face in her hands to force me to meet her gaze. I struggled to breathe normally. "Are you hurt?"

"No."

Dar'Zahyla nodded, relief coloring her features. "Good. They can't see us from here right now, but they will be looking for us. We need to run. Put your sword and shield away."

My mouth worked briefly, soundlessly. "What?"

"You need to be unencumbered," Dar'Zahyla said. "They cannot arrest what they cannot catch. Put them away." She flipped her warhammer back into its holster on her back to prove it. I struggled to sheathe my blade and shield, still half-wheezing.

"My Thane—"

Dar'Zahyla poked her head out of the alcove and growled. "The Nords bring out their bows now," she said, upper lip curled in displeasure. She turned back to me. "Run erratically. Turn frequently." She dragged her finger in a zig-zag through the air. "Do not go in a straight line. They will hobble you. Hey." She grabbed my face against, forcing me to look her in the eye. "We will be fine. Say this."

I forced myself to take a deep breath. "We—we will be fine."

She gently bumped her forehead against mine. "Good. We go. Do not make it easy for them, and they will not take us. If we are separated, meet Dar’Zahyla in Riverwood."

With that, she bolted off. I heard the guards above us shout, and as she said, they began firing. Dar'Zahyla was surprisingly fast for being dressed in heavy armor with a warhammer strapped to her back. She used her tail expertly for balance, making much sharper turns than I'd be able to manage at the speed she was running. True to her word, though, they couldn't pin down a target that erratic. I heard a guard swear as she dove over the side of the building, landing hard and rolling before scampering off again in the direction of Riverwood.

"She's mad!" he huffed, disbelieving.

She was. I could testify to that.

But it worked.

I took a deep breath and bolted after her.

Again I heard shouts and swears as the men, who'd evidently completely forgotten about me, fumbled for their bows—those who were closer merely charged after me with swords drawn.

I tried to follow the Khajiit's advice as best I could, but I was neither as fast nor as limber as she was—a steel arrow lodged itself in my forearm in only minutes. The pain was excruciating, but I didn’t have the time to stop and remove it. I snapped the shaft close to the head and kept running.

The guards eventually gave up, one by one. When the last finally dropped off my trail, I paused to catch my breath and wrap my arm. I gritted my teeth hard as the cloths jostled the arrow in my arm. I needed a healer or something.

I resumed my walk to Riverwood, focusing on the pain in my arm to keep from thinking about anything else.

I didn’t want to think about the fact that I’d accidentally assaulted a guard.

I didn’t want to think about the fact that Dar’Zahyla had intentionally murdered him in return.

I didn’t want to think about how I was wanted, how I had a bounty on my head, how I was an accomplice to murder in my own hometown—

I didn’t want to think at all.

I walked.

With my exhaustion and injury playing off of each other, it was the following morning by the time I’d stumbled into the town of Riverwood. I ignored the stares—I was covered in blood and dust; I was already aware that I looked a wreck—and made for the Sleeping Giant Inn where, presumably, Dar’Zahyla was waiting for me.

I’d underestimated her just a hair.

Nearly the instant I stepped into the inn, she was on me, grabbing me up in a bear hug. I gasped in agony as her arm brushed against the wrapped arrow stump in my bicep and she immediately let me go. Dar’Zahyla looked me over frantically and finally noticed my bandaged arm, blood now soaking through the gauze. “You’re hurt,” she said softly.

I just grunted in agreement.

Dar’Zahyla led me slowly to the room she’d rented, easing me into a seated position on the bed. “This one will help,” she assured me, already gently unwrapping my arm. I grimaced at the sight of the arrowhead buried into my skin. Already the wound was beginning to drain a sickening yellow fluid. I looked away in disgust. Dar’Zahyla gave a sympathetic hiss from between her teeth. “Ah, this is going to be particularly unpleasant, my moon.”

“I know,” I said flatly. She handed me the small block of wood she kept in her small satchel of medical supplies. I wordlessly set the block between my teeth and she gripped the broken shaft of the arrow in her hand.

To her credit, she yanked it straight out in one motion, so it certainly could’ve been more unpleasant. But the lightning bolt of pain that shot up my arm and the nauseating sucking noise the arrowhead made on removal was enough to make my head feel light and my stomach churn.

“There, that is finished,” Dar’Zahyla crooned gently. She brushed a hand against my face and it was then that I noticed my eyes watering terribly. Gods that never got any less painful. “Do you need a moment or would you like Dar’Zahyla to finish more quickly?”

I removed the block from my mouth for only a second: “Just get it over with.”

She inclined her head. “As you wish.”

Dar’Zahyla set the fire iron’s end into the fireplace to heat. She dug through her medical supplies again for a moment before withdrawing a small bottle of red liquid. I dug my teeth into the wood as she briskly washed my wound with the potion; it stung terribly, but that often meant it was working. She placed the now half-empty bottle onto the table and then went to pick up the poker. The end was now glowing a bright red.

She looked apologetically at me. “This will be even more unpleasant.”

By the time she’d completely cauterized the injury, I was certain that I’d left teeth marks in the dark wooden block. She merely praised my bravery and ability to hold still under excruciating pain as she washed the new burn mark with the remainder of the potion. She wrapped the entire thing up again under fresh new bandages.

“There,” Dar’Zahyla said, satisfied. “Khajiit knows this likely will sting for a day or two more, but it will not hurt nearly as much as it did previously, yes?” I didn’t say anything, merely stretching and flexing my arm to see how much range I had before the burn hurt too much. Dar’Zahyla gently laid her hand over my sternum and pushed me back onto the bed. “My moon, you should rest. You have had a long day and night. This one will take the floor; she is in well enough health to do so.”

My mouth felt dry. “My thane…”

She smiled. “Yes?”

There were a lot of things I wanted to say. I wanted to ask if she’d lost her mind. I wanted to ask why she’d killed that guard in cold blood. I wanted to ask what in the world her plans were, now that she’d earned me a wanted title in my own home.

I finally settled on a numb statement of, “You killed that man.”

Her expression darkened. “...This one did not intend to,” she said haltingly. “She put more power behind her strike than she planned. Dar’Zahyla did not seek to kill him, but merely to stop him temporarily. But he struck at you and… Well, this one lost her temper.”

“You call that losing your temper? You killed a man!

Dar’Zahyla frowned. “A man who was attacking you.”

“He would’ve stopped,” I said, feeling angry tears pricking in the corners of my eyes. “If we’d yielded, he would’ve—”

“My moon, please, we can have this discussion at a later time, you are injured…”

“Stop calling me that. My name is Lydia.”

Dar’Zahyla’s ears flattened. Her jaw worked briefly, and then she nodded. “...Lydia. Please. We can discuss this after you have rested.”

“Maybe I don’t want to,” I said, forcing myself into a seated position with my good arm. “Maybe I want to have this discussion right damn now.” My temper was in full swing now, and I didn’t want to wait for this. Waiting would dull my tongue for what needed to be said.

“Lydia,” she said again, pleadingly. She reached for me and I yanked away from her.

“Dar’Zahyla.” The use of her name rather than her title made her pause. “You don’t even understand what the hell you did, do you?”

She took offense to that. “This one protected her companion from a man trying to kill her. Perhaps this is unacceptable behavior among barbaric Nords, but Khajiit tend to consider this common sense!”

“You killed an innocent man,” I stressed, “who didn’t need to die!

“To protect you!” she said, again.

“I don’t need your protection! I can handle myself! Or do all cats presume themselves so much better than everyone else that they constantly stick their muzzles in other people’s affairs?”

Dar’Zahyla was on her feet in an instant. She looked furious, but also unbelievably hurt. Good. Now she was starting to get a taste for how I was feeling. “Do not,” she snarled, each of her razor fangs on display, “call Dar’Zahyla cat.”

I managed to stand without swaying. “Or what?” I shoved her hard with my good arm. “You haven’t even taken a moment to consider how this feels, have you? Being wanted in your own damned home! You haven’t even taken a damned second to consider how that could possibly feel!” I shoved her again, this time biting back the pain of my wounded arm to use both hands.

She grabbed me by the wrists, barely-contained fury in her bright green eyes. “Yes,” she sneered in my face. “What was Dar’Zahyla thinking? What could Khajiit possibly know about being barred from home? As everyone knows, all Khajiit are always welcomed back to Elsweyr. There has never been anything preventing Khajiit from going home to Elsweyr!” She was shouting back at me now. I held my ground, my wrists still caught in her grip.

“That’s different,” I growled, “and you know it. You live in Skyrim now.”

She snapped her fangs in my face, a gesture I only ever saw when she was absolutely enraged. “Oh yes, how could Dar’Zahyla forget how welcoming the Nords have been to Khajiit? Dar’Zahyla has always been altogether welcomed into the holds of Skyrim! Dar’Zahyla is welcomed into every city in Skyrim with opened arms, because the Nords are so much better than Khajiit, yes? Nords gladly allow Khajiit into cities, they are very polite to Elsweyrian caravans, they absolutely do not believe the rumors that Khajiit are thieves and skooma-addicts, yes? And certainly Nords did not begin these rumors! Never even consider this notion, yes?”

I ripped my hands away from her, scowling. “I wish you’d just stayed in Elsweyr, then.”

Her eyes narrowed to slits. “You wish death on this one.”

“Then perhaps that man would’ve still been alive.”

“Ah. The life of a Nord who attacked you is worth more to you than the life of a Khajiit, hm?”

“He was no murderer.”

Dar’Zahyla’s lips curled in distaste. “Very well, then. This one will no longer burden you with the company of a murderer.” She began gathering her things, jamming them brusquely into her bag.

I blinked hard. “What?”

She sneered. “Allow Khajiit to clarify: Dar’Zahyla wishes to see you no longer. She is no longer in need of your intolerance or assistance. This one is leaving, and you are not coming with her.”

My stomach dropped. “You—”

“We are splitting ways. You will come with me no longer. This one refuses to tolerate one who refuses to tolerate Khajiit.”

I felt my voice tremble despite myself. “And where will I go?”

Dar’Zahyla was already at the door, but she stopped and growled at that. She untied her coin purse from her belt and turned to throw it at me. It hit my stomach hard and dropped to the floor. “Is this one still responsible for you after your dismissal?” she snarled. “You are no longer a problem of Dar’Zahyla. Go back to your precious Whiterun and pay the bounty. Stay away from this one. Dar’Zahyla wishes to see you no longer.”

She stormed off without another word.

I dropped back onto the bed. I felt sick and utterly drained, and I couldn’t for the life of me put my finger on exactly why.

Chapter Text

Only days after I’d arrived back at Dragonsreach and paid off the fine, I was missing Dar’Zahyla already.

Before the dragons had returned and the Dragonborn had shown herself, my life had been fairly peaceful. My parents had been killed in a bandit raid before I could even really remember so I had, for the most part, simply occupied myself as a child. I’d been something of a troublemaker up until one of the Whiterun guards had given me a wooden sword and some training exercises to occupy myself with.

I was nearly raised by the guards from then on, and the early “training” had allowed me to find myself in the Jarl’s court earlier than most. And there I’d stayed.

Until, of course, the hopeless Dragonborn had stumbled into the Jarl’s keep.

I remembered my first impression of her easily. It was rare, after all, that a Khajiit was even allowed into the city, let alone Dragonsreach keep. She was a scrawny thing then, covered in dirt and soot from her flight from Helgen and trembling under the weight of armor that she barely fit in. Her accent had been nigh incomprehensible then as she struggled with the Nordic language.

Nonetheless, she’d gotten her warning out, and was directed to Farengar to discuss the dragon incident more thoroughly before stumbling out the door again. The Jarl’s soldiers took up bets on how long it would be before we heard that she’d been killed on the wizard’s fool’s errand.

Naturally, many of us lost a fair amount of money when she returned, with not only the dragonstone but a dragon’s soul burned into her. She was still a scrawny kid from what I could tell, but she held herself… differently.

That didn’t stop me from being altogether incredulous when the Jarl named her Thane and assigned me as her housecarl.

I was a trained soldier. My duty was to protect Whiterun, not keep an eye on some cat who could barely lift her sword. I’d hoped fervently that she’d just go on and leave without speaking to me, but no, as soon as the Jarl was done with her, she made a beeline for me. She was incredibly chatty, asking about the titles and their meanings for several minutes before grinning and requesting that I come with her.

Within days, the dense girl had nearly gotten the pair of us killed multiple times. I was entirely convinced that had I not been with her, she would’ve gotten herself killed.

In a word, I was attached. Whether out of a sense of loyalty to my job or responsibility in just trying to keep my charge from dying a horrible death, I was altogether attached. I would’ve followed my little idiot to the ends of Tamriel, and from the way she spoke, I assumed she would’ve done the same for me, despite how frustrating I found her during our earliest interactions.

Which is why it hurt so much when she dismissed me to return to Whiterun.

I'd hurt her too, yes. That was painfully obvious. I didn't mean to, I don't think, I'd just... I don't know. I was angry, yes, and I spoke out of turn. The guards who'd kept an eye on me as I'd grown up had always warned me about that. I'd never put much stock in it. Nobody had ever taken my temper so personally as to push me away.

Then again, I'd never befriended anyone who wasn't a Nord, either. And Nords didn’t exactly have anyone around who was prejudiced against them. Not anymore, anyway. Or at least not out loud.

Khajiit though… Well. I’d not just crossed the line with her, I’d taken a running leap over it.

There wasn't really any other way to say it.

I ruined it.

I lashed out at my thane, the person I was meant to serve and protect with my life. Gods, even worse, she was the closest thing I had to family anymore and I intentionally hurt her… for what? A man I didn’t know, just because I’d once been raised by others like him? Gods, I wasn’t even sure what the man was actually like. He did, as Dar’Zahyla pointed out, attack me very suddenly after an accidental mis-swing that didn’t even dent his armor.

And I’d hurt my thane for his sake.

I ran a gloved hand over my face, ignoring the Jarl’s curious glance at me. Even worse, I’d hurt her after she’d fussed over me, checking me for wounds and then fixing up the worst one on my arm. Phantom pain tingled in my bicep, and I rubbed my arm where the cauterized wound was healing up nicely. She’d said at the time that it would sting for two or three days. She wasn’t wrong. It hadn’t pained me for twelve days now.

I looked up as Jarl Balgruuf called me over. He asked me again if I’d heard any news of the Dragonborn. I repeated my usual answer: I had not heard anything that he hadn’t.

“Surely she keeps in contact with you?” he asked. “The pair of you were gone together for nearly ten months.”

I shook my head. “The dragonborn has made it abundantly clear that she has no interest in keeping ties with me,” I said. My mouth felt dry just saying it. It wasn’t exactly dishonest, though. She certainly didn’t want anything to do with me anymore. But the reason behind it was entirely my fault.

I wasn’t, of course, wording it like that to the Jarl. It was bad enough that I’d been sent home in disgrace and publicly dragged through the streets of Whiterun to pay the fine at Dragonsreach dungeon. I didn’t need further rumors wondering what I’d done floating around.

That did not, of course, stop people from asking.

“What’s gotten into the dragonborn?” Jarl Balgruuf said. His tone implied that he was merely thinking out loud, but from the way he was keeping an eye on me I knew he was hoping to get answers. “That’s very unusual, to travel with someone for nearly a year, purchase a house with her, and then send her home with no reason.”

“Perhaps there was a reason. She merely didn’t think to tell it to me.”

“Was she in the habit of keeping secrets?”

“...No.”

He merely raised his brows.

“My Jarl, if I knew any further,” I lied through my teeth, “I would certainly tell you. Perhaps she found another companion she preferred to myself and dismissed me as a result.”

Saying that out loud was a punch in the gut. It wasn’t something I’d really considered, but… damn. Seeking out a new companion was in no way out of the realm of possibilities of things she could be doing with the pair of us separated. In fact, the more I thought of it, the more likely it seemed.

I must’ve looked ill at that prospect, because the Jarl advised me to go home and rest. I strongly protested—being alone with my thoughts was the last thing I wanted to do—but he informed me that it was an order, and not up for debate.

I stalked home in a foul mood.

A fortnight later, I still hadn’t heard from her. My anger had long since abated, replaced with a heavy sense of misery that rested on my chest like a stone. A month was an age, and there were a lot of things that could happen in that time.

What if she’d gotten ambushed by bandits and was lying on the side of the road with a slit throat somewhere? What if a sabre cat had mauled her during one of her explorations through the woods? What if she’d taken a misstep in the mountains and was dead and frozen in a valley somewhere? What if—

Gods.

I couldn’t even focus, I was so distracted fretting over the possibilities. I’d hurt her tremendously and now I couldn’t even protect her from the other, more deadly things that were out to do the same.

The thought made me absolutely sick—to the point that Jarl Balgruuf ordered me to either go to the Temple of Kynareth to sort myself out or stay home until I’d recovered. I stayed home and laid in bed, intent on pretending that I didn’t, in fact, feel like crying my damned eyes out.

Chapter Text

“Have you heard the news?” a guard asked me as I fumbled with the Breezehome lock.

I barely spared him a glance; I cared little for the gossip the usual guards had to offer. “Which news?”

“The Dragonborn’s been hauled into Dragonsreach dungeon.”

I very nearly dropped my keys as I whipped around. “What?

“She was wanted, you know,” he said, insufferably smug. “I’m sure you remember that incident.”

My teeth ground together. “You’re sure she’s here?”

“Positive. Saw her ranting and raving as she was dragged down there. Cat’s probably out of her mind on skooma—” I rushed off before he could finish his tirade.

Dar’Zahyla was alive.

But I needed to see her myself.

As I approached Dragonsreach dungeon, I could hear a great deal of arguing behind the door. My chest felt tight.

“—absolutely unbelievable,” I heard a familiar voice snarl. “This is ridiculous and you both know this!” There was a male voice muttering something—a dull thud and a sharp wheeze. I eased the door open.

Dar’Zahyla was on her knees, gasping for breath as a guard bound her hands behind her back. Her armor and weaponry had already been stripped away, leaving her in filthy rags. She looked like a wreck—her fur was slick with blood and dirt, and her eyes were dull and lifeless.

And she was furious.

“This—” she forced out between wheezes “—is how—you treat—your Thane? This—This one is not surprised—that you must—bind your prisoners—to beat them—”

The jailer nodded at the man tying her down. He gave her a hard blow to the head with the pommel of his dagger. She snarled in pain but went still long enough for the guards to force her into a cell and lock it.

My blood was boiling. “What the hell is going on here?” I demanded, stepping entirely into the dungeon. My hands were balled into white-knuckled fists at my sides, itching to beat the two for manhandling my charge.

Dar’Zahyla’s head snapped up as the guards scrambled to attention. “Lydia,” she croaked out. The relief in her voice was nearly palpable. I saw a flurry of sparks behind her back, and then her hands were free from the cloth binding. She had to clutch the bars of the cell door to steady herself enough to stand. “Lydia,” she said again, almost desperate.

I crossed the room to stand in front of her cell. “What happened?

She spat on the ground, blood and saliva. “This one is uncertain. These brutes—” here she snarled at the guards behind me “—saw Khajiit enter Whiterun and immediately set upon Dar’Zahyla despite that her fine has already been paid!” She shouted that at them.

The jailer scoffed and jerked his chin in my direction. “Her fine was paid. Your fine still stands, cat.”

I grit my teeth.

A low growl rumbled in her throat. “The bounty was for us both!” She scowled and turned her attention back to me. “...Khajiit presumes you understand now. This one had no fine to pay and yet she was thrown in here to rot.”

I hesitantly took another step forward to look more closely at her. She looked awful. Her fur was filthy in the way that it got after she spent more time than necessary out in the wilderness, and her face was streaked with blood. Her yellow eyes were dull and lidded. I wasn't sure when she'd last slept a full night.

“Why didn’t you just pay the fine?” I asked softly. That was, after all, what she usually did. She looked pointedly at her coin purse dangling from my belt. My face went warm. I’d forgotten about that. “...I’ll talk to the guards.”

“This one would appreciate it.”

I backed the jailer against the wall with my scowl. “I will ask once before I take this to the Jarl. What the hell were you doing to her?”

He held his hands up before him, defensive. “She was fighting back. By order of the Jarl, we have the right—”

“The right to use force when your life is in danger,” I spat. “She was on her knees and arguing, not fighting! Have you lost what little sense you have left?”

“I—”

“Let her out. Now.”

“She has a fine!”

I slapped some septims onto the desk. “Let her out!

The guards and I turned at the creaking of the cell door. Dar’Zahyla was leaned against the frame to hold herself upright, smirking devilishly at the open door. I could've throttled her.

“Did you pick the lock?” the jailer demanded.

She wiped the blood from her mouth with the back of her hand, still looking exhausted despite her smugness. “This one did no such thing. Perhaps you did not recall to lock the door. Dar’Zahyla is free to go now, yes?”

I helped her out of the cell and to the chest her items were kept in. I didn't trust her to carry her heavy armor when she was obviously so physically drained, so I merely helped her into a set of more comfortable clothes and shouldered her bag myself.

Dar'Zahyla gave a very fake-sounding cough as we left, and the guard nearest stumbled in the same instant. I gave her a suspicious glare. She looked entirely unrepentant.

The trek to Breezehome was a long one, with the way she had to lean on me. She had something of a limp. I'd have to take a look at it when we got back. After she'd gotten cleaned up, of course—I wasn't going to be able to see anything at all with her fur as matted and filthy as it had gotten.

I wasn't sure what to say to her. Fortunately, Dar'Zahyla wasn't in a particularly chatty mood either.

But—she was alive.

"Sit," I told her as soon as we got into Breezehome. She obediently sat down in one of the chairs near the fire pit. I moved to grab the piece of flint I kept close by, but Dar'Zahyla's fingertips glittered scarlet and then the logs in the pit were alight. I gave a soundless "oh."

Dar'Zahyla merely inched her chair closer to the fire, warming her hands.

"When was the last time you ate a proper meal?" I asked suddenly.

She blinked and looked up at me. Her eyes seemed a little clearer now, but she looked uncertain. "Ah..."

"I'll fix something. Stay put." I doubted she had the energy to move, anyway. She looked exhausted to the bone.

I gave her some bread and cheese to take the edge off her hunger while I cooked. I had neither the time, skill, nor ingredients to make anything complex, but fortunately Dar'Zahyla didn't have particularly complex tastes, either. She was entirely satisfied with a simple stew, devouring much of the pot on her own.

She did look a little less awful once she'd eaten.

"Are you feeling alright?" I asked hesitantly.

Dar'Zahyla inclined her head and gave a wry smile. "This one has had better days."

"Are you hurt? You were limping earlier."

She rolled up the leg of her breeches, showing me an ugly scabbed-over wound circling her knee. I winced in sympathy. She told me with some embarrassment that a hidden mudcrab had startled her as she was slogging through a marsh recently. "This one has told everyone else that it was a bear," she added with a small chuckle. "Dar'Zahyla hopes you will continue this story. The real thing is not near so interesting, yes?"

I smiled uncertainly. At least she still had her sense of humor, I supposed. I asked if it was causing her much pain. She just told me that it made walking a little uncomfortable, but other than that, no, it was fine.

The silence between us was horribly uncomfortable. I watched her. She kept her eyes trained on the fire. Tension stretched and then snapped, and I left with a quick excuse to prepare her a bath. After all, her fur was still caked with dust and blood, and I felt sure she wanted to clean up.

My mind raced as I began heating the water. Sure, she seemed fine with me now, but... was she? I'd had well over a month to think over the absolute shit I'd said to her. I'd honestly started to think that she wasn't going to come back at all, and I wouldn't have blamed her. Certainly I was glad she did, but... Well, I wasn't really sure what to expect. Hell, for all I knew, she was still furious with me but hiding it until she was well enough to leave again. It was entirely possible that she'd just returned to Whiterun briefly to get a decent night's sleep and stock up on supplies before she left without me again.

That prospect sounded even more miserable than it would've been had she just never come back.

Once the water had heated to Dar'Zahyla's usual preferences (that is, very hot) I went to help her back to the bathing room. She thanked me for my assistance and then shooed me off.

"I’m leaving for just a moment," I said. “I’ll be back shortly if you need me.”

Dar'Zahyla nodded.

It was late in the day already, but I rushed to Arcadia’s Cauldron just quickly enough to catch her before she closed shop for the day. She looked exhausted at the prospect of another customer, but a request for several healing elixirs and some extra septims for her trouble soothed her enough to give me no trouble. It took longer than I would’ve liked, as she’d only had one of the potions premade, so I had to sit and wait as she brewed the others.

By the time I got back, Dar’Zahyla had already washed up, changed clothes, and promptly fallen asleep in the chair in front of the fire. She did look a great deal better, now that she’d had the opportunity to eat a decent meal and clean herself up.

Her clothes, however, were… something else.

I’d really only ever seen her in heavy armor, and thick woolen Nordic tunics and breeches under that. Very rarely, during special events, she’d reluctantly don Nordic clothing and furs to blend in. She wore, now, something completely different. Her thin tunic was long and asymmetrical, falling to her right knee but left hip, and was outrageously bright compared to the black breeches she wore beneath it. Red, primarily, with black panels down the chest and sleeves. The whole thing was covered in complicated designs brightly embroidered in gold thread.

It looked ridiculous—ostentatious.

But the more I looked at her, the more I decided it suited her much better than the thick, heavy furs of the Nords. With her dark brown fur and black spots and stripes, she stood out even amongst the Khajiit in Skyrim. Her black mane, twisted into braids down her skull to her shoulders, and her affinity for jewelry made her look even more out of place. Even now, she hadn’t removed the gold hoops from her ears or the bangles from her wrists.

I felt suddenly sad for her. It seemed she missed her life in Elsweyr more than she let on.

Dar’Zahyla stirred suddenly, and I jumped. “...Lydia?” She sounded surprised, her voice still rough with sleep.

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” I said, though I wasn’t sure I did.

She yawned, stretching her arms in front of her. “It is fine. This one was dreaming she was still sleeping alone on the roads, so waking was much preferable to that, yes?”

I didn’t say anything, merely crossing the room with potions in hand. I knelt in front of her, requesting that she roll up the leg of her breeches so I could get at her wounded knee. It didn’t look so bad now that she’d cleaned the excess blood and dirt from it, but it still seemed painful. Her calf reflexively spasmed in my grip as I began carefully washing it out with one of the elixirs. “Where did you get these clothes?” I asked to distract her.

Her face was contorted in a grimace, her voice slightly strained. “Dar’Zahyla met with the caravan of Ri’saad on her way to Whiterun. We conversed at length about the state of the political atmosphere in Elsweyr and—” She snarled in Ta’agra when I brushed against her knee too brusquely. “Gods above,” she growled over my apologies.

“You spoke about Elsweyr politics?” I prompted, lightening my touch.

“...Yes. Ri’saad and I both miss our home very much,” she said. She was quiet for a moment and then shook her head, smiling slightly. “He did tell Dar’Zahyla that he had received recently a shipment of garments from Elsweyr, and allowed Dar’Zahyla to be the first to make a purchase. They are nice, yes?"

I hesitated. "They suit you," I said finally. She looked pleased to hear it. "So where have you been since we... parted?"

A lot, as it turned out. Dar'Zahyla cheerfully explained in her halting Nordic about how she'd finally decided she might as well go after the Greybeards' Horn, getting herself lost in Ustengrav for a few days before finally finding that it wasn't even there, then finding herself getting dragged into some business with someone who claimed to be one of the Blades, winding up slaying some other dragon at Kynesgrove—nearly getting herself killed in the process, apparently.

"It grabbed Dar'Zahyla about the stomach," she explained, drawing a finger across her clothed abdomen, "and promptly threw her clear down the mountain! It is fortunate that this one had begun learning the Thu'um feim and was able to make herself ah... spectral just before hitting the ground. Dar'Zahyla learned this Thu'um in Ustengrav, in fact—very lucky, yes?"

"Luck indeed," I muttered, shaking my head as I wrapped her knee. "My Thane, it is a wonder you haven't gotten yourself killed yet."

She laughed. "Particularly without an impudent Nord to chastise me, yes?"

I ducked my head.

Dar'Zahyla just smiled and went on. "This one determined after dealing with this dragon that it might be wise to return to Whiterun. And here I am."

That made me look up. I accidentally made eye contact with her and held it. "Why did you come back?"

"Is this not obvious?"

"I'd like you to say it."

Dar'Zahyla cocked her head slightly. "Naturally, this one returned to retrieve you." Her voice was confused. "Dar'Zahyla is uncertain of whatever other business you believed she may have had in Whiterun."

As relieved as I was to hear that, it wasn't the reaction I'd pictured upon our reintroduction. I'd expected another shouting match, condemnation or at least a heavy dose of ire. Yet here she was, telling me that I was the only reason she'd bothered coming back to Whiterun.

"You came back for me?" I managed, finally, and immediately grimaced at the way it came out. I'd never considered myself soft, but my dense charge seemed to bring it out in me.

Dar'Zahyla's expression settled into something I could only call a smirk. "You seem surprised."

"I am surprised. I thought..."

"Yes?"

"Well, you made it quite clear you wanted nothing to do with me anymore," I said.

Her ears twitched, the hoops in her ears chiming gently against each other, and she raised a brow. "Yes," she said, "as you made it very clear you had no desire to be around Khajiit any longer, no? And yet you ran to Dragonsreach and, ah, 'raised hell' as you say until this one was released."

I felt my face go warm. "I was worried."

"Yes, that was very evident." Dar'Zahyla gave me a wry smile. "So, Khajiit and Nord had an argument, yes? Yet here they both are. A good time to make amends, yes?"

I nodded numbly. "Yes," I echoed.

"Dar'Zahyla is willing to ignore your more... unpleasant statements, provided you do not use them a—"

"I won't," I said before she could properly finish. She looked startled but I pressed on. "I didn't mean any of it. I just—I have a temper, okay? I didn't mean to say any of it, I just started yelling and my mouth got away from me, and I'm so sorry, I really didn't..." Dar'Zahyla still looked perplexed, but now vaguely amused as well. I felt ridiculous now. "I didn't mean it."

"Oh, clearly," Dar'Zahyla said, whiskers twitching as she rested her chin in her hand. She grinned—cocked her head. "My moon, this one was merely to specify that you did not call her by those names anymore. The apology is appreciated, however."

"...You're not mad?" I chanced.

"This one is not pleased that you treated her in such a way," she returned dryly; "however, this is inconsequential if you do not do it again."

"I won't."

She spread her hands, fingers splayed. "Then the past is the past, yes?"

A small smile touched the corner of my mouth. "Yes."

"Then it is decided—we will leave as soon as this one is on her feet again, yes?"

"Certainly, my Thane."