Written for a Reader Appreciation Club challenge on y-gallery.
Sasuke sheathed his bow just as a caravan of Khajiit passed him on the opposite side of the road. From the slits in his helmet, he eyed the cat-people warily as they called out to him about their wares. One never knew where their goods come from, and the Khajiit had a reputation for being unrepentant thieves. Unconsciously, he gave a pat to the pouch hanging off his light armor, making sure his coins were all still intact. He was returning from Falkreath, south of Helgen, where he'd heard from passing Imperial soldiers that there would be executions going on today. He was tired after a fortnight's worth of quests and bounties put forth to him by the Jarl of Whiterun. It seemed that every mine, cave, or fort had recently been overrun by various renegade bandits. Not to mention those two giants he had to slay near Bleakwood Basin really put up one hell of a fight. On top of that, the mammoth cheese he'd stolen from their camp must have gone bad because he spent at least two days with such excruciating abdominal pain that he had to pay a passing mage traveling from the college of Winterhold to heal him. Sasuke's father had always been of the opinion that magic was a worthless skill, so he'd never taken the time to learn it, even after his father had been killed by a band of High Elves when he was younger.
Curiously, as he was walking, there was a sudden tremor that shook the ground and, gazing up toward the sky, Sasuke thought he caught a glimpse of -
At that very moment, there was another tremor, much more powerful than the first, and in the distance, a plume of smoke began to form above the town of Helgen. Suddenly, a small platoon of Imperial soldiers appeared, passing by him on the dusty road. They had their shields and swords at the ready. Sasuke could've sworn they had said something about... dragons?
Impossible. Dragons didn't exist, they were only myths - the subject of fairy tales his mother used to tell him.
Yet, his interest was piqued as great balls of fire began to shoot out over the stone wall surrounding the city. Before he knew it, Sasuke was moving at a quicker pace, his Daedric arrows clinking together in his quiver. Villagers were running out of the gates - women and children screaming for their lives, while some men rushed into the fray - one or two armed with only a shovel or pickaxe. Pushing forward - and why not, if it was any sort of beast he should be able to kill it and claim a reward - he could now hear an angry roar. It had been raining throughout the morning, so his boots seemed to be sucked into the very Earth, making it feel like his progress in getting toward the town centre so slow. Soon, he was able to see the walls of the fort, and the sight that befell him caused him to stop in his tracks. Hanging off one of the watchtowers was a ... dragon - with scales as red as any flawless ruby he'd ever seen. It bathed the people and grounds in a spray of fire. There were guards who shot at the beast with arrows, but the dragon used its wings and tail to send them flying. One unlucky soldier was grasped by the dragon's teeth and ripped into two parts.
As the dragon continued to lay waste to the men, some began to run for their lives, leaving Helgen to its fate. But there were a brave few who remained, and Sasuke quickly joined their ranks. They took shelter in the tower as another spray of fire cascaded down upon them. Sasuke searched his pouch for a fire resistant potion, but he'd used his last one when he'd come across a vampire coven near Morthal. He looked to his left, and noticing a locked chest, he decided to try his luck. He grabbed a lockpick and, after only one try, it opened. He searched its content, finding nothing but a few minor healing potions. He took them anyway, and even offered one to the man standing beside him.
"What does it mean?" The man - dressed in the armor of the Stormcloaks - asked him. "Why have the dragons returned?"
They had no time to muse about why when a piercing shriek resounded in the air, shaking the tower.
For unknown reasons, the dragon suddenly collapsed - its forelegs folding beneath its heavy body as it fell on its side, its tail swinging one last time before the body abruptly burst into flames. In the instant that he had looked away, guarding his face from the fire, the dragon's scales began to disintegrate. Ashes filled the air, and when they finally went outside to investigate, there was a lone, blond Nordsman standing beside the beast. The flames surrounded his body but disappeared bit by bit as if he was absorbing the dragon's power. The man's clothes were tattered and a band on his arm indicated that he was a prisoner bearing the mark of execution.
Lucky him. To slaughter such a creature may well grant him pardon, but still there was the question of - how?
The man that Sasuke had met in the tower approached the blond Nord; they shared a few words between them that he was unable to catch. The Nord shook his head and, turning Sasuke's way, seemed to settle his attention upon him. A crowd had started to gather around the decaying dragon - now nothing but bones. Men, women, children, they pointed at the skeleton as if in awe. There were murmurs coming from the crowd, some accusing the Nord of setting the dragon upon them, some calling for his immediate execution. Sasuke didn't hear a single one of them maintain that this man was their savior.
Having been paying more attention to the people, he wasn't prepared when he felt a hand grip his wrist and pull.
"M'not gonna harm ya, I swear. Just go quietly, and I'll explain once we get away from here."
It was the blond Nordsman. He was dressed in dirty, nondescript attire that bared no allegiance to any particular hold or legion. The tunic he wore was made from a lightweight leather hide, so they moved quickly toward the edge of the village, both unencumbered by heavy armor.
"We're bein' followed," the man said, and his breath was as foul as any Falmer's he'd ever encountered, maybe even worse. "Will y'come with me to Riverwood? There's someone I need to meet there."
"What's in it for me?" Sasuke asked. "I won't work for any less than 500."
The man spared him an amused look, his blue eyes as sharp and bright as any sapphire. "Then consider yourself hired."
As they headed north, over the mountains, the already dismal sky took on the color of thick smoke. Far to the East - in the direction of Ivarstead - shafts of sunlight sliced through the thick clouds. But, ahead, as they bypassed the North and Southbound Watches, it only grew gloomier. Rain began to fall and they slipped into the woods to take better cover underneath the branches. Every once in a while, the strange Nordsman would stop to pluck an herb or mushroom. He would tell Sasuke the name - Nightshade, Red Mountain Flower, Nirnroot. He prattled on incessantly about what each could be used for in conjunction with other herbs. Some could restore health, some damage it; some fortified armor or magic; and some could be used to brew lingering poisons.
Having sneaked by the Watches, the only thing to look out for in this area was a cave bear or wolf. If they journeyed too close to the water's edge, he was forced to cut down the occasional Mudcrab, which, again, the strange Nordsman would butcher for its chitin, claiming it was good for stamina.
Sasuke knew nothing of Alchemy. The sole experience he had with it was going into a goods store and buying it from a merchant. Enchantments he could do, at least, because several of his weapons he had stored at his home in Whiterun required certain soul gems in order to be re-energized.
The Nord - Sasuke hadn't bothered to ask his name - seemed confident even though he was without any weapon except a worthless steel dagger he'd pickpocketed off a woman coming out of Helgren. Sasuke couldn't fathom traveling through the holds without at least a good blade or two, shield, decent armor, and an enchanted bow along with some better quality arrows - he preferred Elven, Daedric, or Dwarf-made arrows. Of course, he thought of the 500 gold coins he would be earning simply for escorting this idiot to Riverwood and didn't think this little bit of grunt work was too much of an imposition. In fact, it would give him the funds to improve his home, and he had been eyeing that kitchen set for a while. He was starting to get tired of having to go to the Drunken Huntsman for a simple meal of ale and roasted meat when he could make that himself at home.
"You don't talk a whole lot, do ya?" asked the Nordsman as, once again, he stopped to gather a few stems of a purplish flower that turned out to be Lavender. "S'good for your health. So, do you at least have a name, or should I make one up for ya?"
"You don't need my name," he answered. "I'm only escorting you to Riverwood, and then we will be parting ways."
"Ah, I see. It's funny, though. You don't seem all that concerned to be travelin' alone with a guy who just killed a dragon with his bare hands."
Behind the faceplate of his helmet, Sasuke sneered. "I didn't see such a thing."
The Nord looked up from his cluster of herbs. "Huh? You didn't notice that huge ball of flame bein' sucked inside me and that huge-ass dragon evaporatin' into a pile of ash?"
Sasuke made sure he sheathed his sword before he ended up using it on the Nord. "The part I didn't see was you killing it."
"Wow, you're a piece of work, I can tell that already. Though it makes sense. S'hard to trust people around here these days what with the rebellion and all. By the way, how do you feel about the war?"
Sasuke crossed his arms. "I don't get myself involved in politics. Imperials. Stormcloaks. I don't care who's in charge so long as either side pays me well."
"Fair enough," said the Nord as he pocketed his finds into an apothecary satchel.
There was a lull in the conversation as they began to travel again, and the more Sasuke thought on the events that transpired at Helgren, the more he realized he was somewhat curious as to what had happened. Of course, the fact he'd seen a dragon with his own eyes was already unbelievable enough, but what he'd seen transpire between the dragon and this Nord - was it really something he'd be better off having an answer to?
He decided to start out with a less invasive series of questions so that he could gauge this man better.
"You seem knowledgeable about alchemy ingredients. Are you a trained alchemist?" He asked the Nord.
"Ah, well. I guess you could say that. I was raised by a woman who fancied herself a doctor and all that, so yeah, she showed me a trick or two, and having a few potions on hand is always helpful, am I right? It's cheaper to make m'own at a lab than it is for me to buy 'em at a store. I bet y'have no idea how much of a mark-up some of those vendors put on their goods."
"If you're such an accomplished alchemist, aren't there haggling potions you could make?"
"Yeah, I guess I could, but I noticed y'have some enchanted weapons of your own. You could just as easily enchant some odd piece of jewelry to help barter or whatever. What can I say, I'm a hands on sorta guy, so I wanna make my own potions. Plus, that way I know what's actually in them. I once knew this Argonian in Riften who thought he'd bought some skooma off the black market, when it was actually laced with all sorts of shit that's damaging to your health."
"Riften?" Sasuke asked. "Are you part of the Thief Guild? You pickpocketed that woman earlier."
"Ah, you noticed that?" The Nord grinned at him. "That's a skill anyone has, not that it's much of a skill. Nah. I've interacted with the Guild, but it's not my thing. You're from Whiterun, aren't you? Are you part of the Companions?"
"How did you know I'm from Whiterun?" He asked suspiciously.
"Isn't it obvious? I can smell the scent of the Gildergreen tree on ya, and that grows in only one place. In fact, I hear it just started bloomin' thanks to one particular upstart who's developed a reputation for workin' on his own."
Sasuke said nothing after that. He had no interest in discussing his "reputation" with a stranger, especially one who apparently knew more than his dim-witted appearance presented.
It was after dusk by the time they reached the border of Riverwood, and only one guard passed by that claimed to "know" the Nordsman, but when they continued on their way, the Imperial guard seemed to just turn the other cheek. Sasuke didn't need to know what sort of bounty the Nord had on his head. It wasn't any of his business, but the fact they've come this far without a bounty hunter attacking them meant that it couldn't have been too high, at least not in the hold of Whiterun. Then again, this guy had been marked for execution today.
"Uh, it's just up here. We're meetin' the guy from earlier at the Sleeping Giant Inn. I'd be happy to pay the cost of 10 gold coins if you wanna get a bed for the night. In fact, after I get some information from this guy, I may have another job for you," his eyes gleamed brightly as the flames of a nearby torch reflected in them, "If y'think you're up for it."
Sasuke didn't give him an answer. He wasn't ever reluctant to take on dangerous quests, but this Nord was all kinds of suspicious. It may be more trouble than any price he was willing to shill out. They went inside the inn. It looked the same as any other - one large room with tables flanking either wall. There was a wooden bar up at the front, where customers could buy food or drink or rent a room for the night. The inn only had three, and usually two would already be rented by this time of night.
The Nord, he noticed, kept slightly to the shadows. There were a few men from the village already drinking and eating at a couple of the tables, but the Nord soon dodged quickly to his left and into one of the rooms. Sasuke followed, and the door was shut after he entered. It was, indeed, the same man that had spoken to him earlier in the day, the one who had been beside him in the tower as the dragon attacked. It only occurred to him now that the man wore a pair of shackles on his wrists, the chain having been roughly cut in half by an axe of some kind probably.
"Can he be trusted?" The man asked of Sasuke.
"He's fine, Ralof," replied the Nord. "He doesn't have any interest in our business. So what's this information y'said y'have for me?"
Ralof gave Sasuke one more suspicious look before he passed a folded up piece of paper to the Nord. He unfolded it, read it, and then passed it back to Ralof.
"They really wanna see me?" The Nord asked, shaking his head. "Goddam Greybeards, I knew I'd hear from them after this stupid little incident."
"It's not a little incident," argued Ralof. "It's the return of the dragons, and you're the one destined to stop them!"
"Shh! Do you want everyone to know who I am?" The Nord waved his arms frantically in the air. "People won't leave me alone once they find out I'm the Dragonborn!"
"Dragonborn," Sasuke repeated aloud. "You're... a Dragonborn?"
The Nord shot him a cocky look. "Impressed, eh?"
"Hardly," he replied. "Not that I believe all this anyway."
"Works for me. So, say, Sasuke..."
Sasuke's hand went to the hilt of his sword upon hearing his given name pass from this Nord's lips. The Nord remained in his chair, unfazed, but Ralof had gotten to his feet and pulled a heavy battleaxe that had been hanging from a strap across his shoulder.
"Hey, we're all friends here," said the Nord. "I didn't think it'd freak you out that I knew who you were. It's hard not to. You've got quite a reputation throughout all the holds, and even with that mask and helmet on, I knew who you were the instant I saw you. I'm sure you're thinkin' I've got some sort of underhanded motives, and maybe I do, but what I really need is someone as well-trained in combat as you that can stay by my side for the next fortnight."
"You want me to escort you to High Hrothgar to see the Greybeards?"
Out in the main room of the inn, they could hear a bard start to sing and play his lute. The Nord cringed.
"God, he's awful. Even I could play the lute better than that."
"Naruto," said Ralof. "I've given you the information I was supposed to, but now if you don't mind, I'll need to get going."
"That's fine," said the Nord. "Thanks a lot, Ralof. I'll be sure to let Ulfric know what you've done next time I pass through Windhelm."
As Ralof left, he and Sasuke exchanged distrustful looks, and then he left them alone, shutting the door behind him.
"You're Naruto," Sasuke found himself saying.
"Heh. Yeah. I would've introduced myself, but you didn't wanna give me your name. I believe in a little reciprocity, if y'know what I mean."
"I don't," he said. "You know Ulfric Stormcloak?"
"You could say that." The Nord - Naruto - offered a smile that said there was a lot to this whole situation, and Sasuke, if he had any sense, would leave right now, purchase his kitchen equipment from the Jarl's clerk and be done with it. Yet, a challenge seemed to hang in the air. It annoyed him that Naruto seemed under the impression Sasuke wouldn't take him up on his request. However, if this Nord had a relationship with the man who had killed the High King, the sheer amount of bounty he could make off this quest could allow him to retire at an early age, settle down, have a few kids with some Nordic maid. Then again, he'd always wanted to die like his father - with a sword in his hand.
"So wuddaya say, Sasuke?" Naruto got to his feet, stretching. "We'll spend the night here tonight and then head up to see what the old Greybeards want from me this time. After that, there's another one or two quests I could use your assistance for..."
"And what's in it for me?"
"A shit-ton of money, and I'll let ya keep anything we find along the way. Weapons, armor, jewels, potions, gems. Anything. Promise. You've got my word."
"I don't know what your word means," said Sasuke, "But if there's a fortune in bounty involved, I'm willing to accept the job."
"Good." Naruto held out his hand. "We'll shake on it."
Sasuke stared at the hand. Naruto rolled his eyes.
"It's not like you're gonna catch the rattles from me or somethin' by touchin' my hand," said Naruto.
Against his better judgment, Sasuke shook Naruto's hand.
"Great, now that that's settled, let's go see if there's a room left." Naruto opened the door, but Sasuke caught him by the wrist, stopping him.
"You're an escaped prisoner. Why don't you let me ask for the room? You may have a bounty on your head by the time we wake tomorrow."
Naruto smirked. "What? Worried about me?"
Sasuke shoved past him, went to the barman and requested a room. Unfortunately, there was just the one left, so he had no choice but to take it. Naruto trailed a few steps behind as the barman led them into their room. Once inside, Sasuke shut the door, and then Naruto proceeded to go through every chest, desk, and wardrobe in search of what, Sasuke didn't know.
Shortly after, Naruto began to disrobe and crawl into the bed. Sasuke glared at him from the corner of the room, his light armor still on and weapons strapped to his back.
"What?" asked Naruto. "It's big enough for both of us. I'm sorry that I stink, but it can't be helped for now."
Sasuke decided that because he hadn't had a proper bed for at least a week - he'd been using bedrolls - that this one time (because he was being paid) that he'd share it with Naruto. He took off his armor and put it away in the drawer. The weapons were placed on the weapons' rack. His boots were placed in the chest at the foot of the bed. He decided to sleep with his pouch strapped to the belt around his tunic, and he also left an Orcish dagger tied to his thigh... just in case.
There was a sweet roll sitting on one of the side tables, and Naruto picked it up. He munched loudly on it before offering it to Sasuke.
Sasuke refused it even though his stomach grumbled.
"You should eat," said Naruto. "Might help ya with your stamina."
"My stamina is just fine, thank you. I'll grab something in the morning."
Naruto shrugged. "If you say so. S'not like y'probably couldn't go swipe a cheese wheel or two from off one of those tables."
"I try not to steal everything I come across," replied Sasuke, his brow furrowing in discontent.
"I only steal when I have to," said Naruto. "A guy's gotta live, am I right?"
"Sure, especially when he's the Dragonborn, the savior of the entire world," Sasuke sarcastically retorted as he lay his head on the pillow. The sheets rustled as he settled on the bed, causing it to shake. "Oh what is that?" He asked. "Is it dragons?"
"Ha ha, very funny." Naruto finished his sweet roll and started licking at the tips of his fingers. "Man I love a good sweet roll. They're almost worth killin' for."
"I'm sure people kill for even less."
"Would you?" asked Naruto.
Sasuke had no response to that question, so he simply said good night and rolled to his side.
"Showin' me your back, eh? You're either a fool or completely underestimating me, Sasuke. Or, is it that you might actually trust me?"
"Trust?" Sasuke scoffed. "I wouldn't trust someone I've known only a few hours."
"You seem the type to probably know someone your whole life and not trust them."
"Good, glad we aren't making rash judgments about each other," Sasuke said snidely.
"Hm. Yeah, I'm sorry. I shouldn't presume to know you. I apologize."
It sounded a sincere apology so Sasuke accepted it though he said nothing in return.
"Well, have a restful sleep, Sasuke," said Naruto, and seconds later, the candle on the side table was blown out and soon after, both men were fast asleep.