Middas, 6:28 PM, 11th of Sun's Dawn, 4E 202

The Throat of the World

For a time, Paarthurnax had desired to leave this summit and explore Skyrim. Perhaps one day he still would. But now, with the revelations he was slowly unraveling, the dragon found himself in the singular situation of desiring to remain where he was. This was not typical meditation. It was not a denial of his thirst for domination. But Paarthurnax now balanced it with something he still did not entirely understand. In his best description, it was what the Way of the Voice should have felt like.

It was no longer an inconvenience to remain here as a hub of communication for his kind. In fact, for the moment, it was entirely acceptable. Paarthurnax did not particularly mind being alone here. The Throat of the World was a peaceful place in which to contemplate the trait of empathy. It was not exclusive to mortals. It never had been.

For the longest time, he had believed that the mind of a dragon consisted of nothing but an insatiable need for power. It was simply in their blood to think this way, he had supposed. It was their nature. And this was true of mortals as well—they desired power, and often they would inflict great costs upon themselves and others to obtain it. But the total lack of empathy demonstrated by most dragons seemed to be less of a physical absolute, and more of a cultural artifact. The product of living and serving under Alduin's rule. It was he who decided that universal ambition and distrust would be the dragons' way of life. Akatosh had not written it in stone.

This left him with the question of how his numerous subordinates would ever be convinced to think differently. They did not spend all of their time in deep thought as he did. He would simply have to think on these matters in their stead. With this in mind, Paarthurnax was content to study himself, to listen to his thoughts, and to look for patterns to make use of. His solitude suited him well.

Thus, it was truly a shock when a very familiar voice reached his ears.

"Paarthurnax."

The dragon turned his head to the voice's source. There, in the middle of the icy plateau before the peak, stood a man in golden armor.

This was the one who had changed everything. Certainly, his greatest accomplishment was in defeating Alduin. Saving the world from annihilation was difficult to surpass. Still, this was not a true change. Alduin had threatened the balance of the world, and the Dragonborn had corrected it. This did nothing more than maintain the way things were.

No, there was more than that one act of heroism. Paarthurnax had met the Dragonborn, and his entire life had changed. Simply through their first discussions, this mortal man had sent him on this slow but sure journey of thought, starting in the misery of the Way of the Voice, and ending… In an unknown place.

And for some reason, this life-changing mortal had come to visit him now, in person. There was no known precedent. His arrival was a complete surprise.

"Dovahkiin," he responded simply, before taking flight and making a gentle descent to the same surface.

"It's been a while," the Dragonborn said.

"Indeed it has. What brings you here?"

"It's been a while," he repeated. "Do you know what I've been doing?"

"I know that a mage unit above the ruin of Labyrinthian was destroyed. I also know that one of your men was captured and recovered. That is all, Dovahkiin."

The Dragonborn moved to sit down on one of the flatter rocks, then removed his helmet and set it down by himself. He said nothing, but simply lowered his head and frowned.

This was wrong. Paarthurnax did not know what the mortal's mind dwelled upon, but this was not how he had ever acted. The Dragonborn was a confident, active presence. He never wasted a moment.

"Dovahkiin?" the dragon said again, moving to rest directly before him.

The man shook his head slowly. "Uh…" He then looked up at Paarthurnax, still frowning. "I found Vulthuryol."

That name was familiar. One of Alduin's lesser lieutenants, he recalled. The World-Eater had raised only a fraction of the dragons in Skyrim from their resting places. Vulthuryol must have been one of the many he had missed. "Vulthuryol," he repeated. "Where?"

"Blackreach, believe it or not. He was hiding down there this whole time. And, uh… The Daedric Prince of Knowledge wanted what the Dwemer had put in his head."

Paarthurnax knew instantly what had become of his former colleague. He was no novice to the ways of the Daedra. "I see," he said gravely. "I wonder why he needed your attention."

"I had to wake him up, bring him where Hermaeus Mora could find him, and hold him still. It wasn't difficult. The Dragonrend shout brought him down just like any other." The Dragonborn got through that part quickly, as though he had rehearsed it. From here, his words came slowly, haltingly.

"Still, it took… Days, for it to actually… Happen, I guess. I wasn't there for when it happened, but… We, uh… My soldiers and I, we had to hold him for days. And while we had him, the Thalmor attacked. There were thousands of them. They… They killed almost everyone in Alftand. But Hermaeus Mora stopped them, so… That's good? I guess?"

The Dragonborn had soldiers. That would explain the fate of the elves at Labyrinthian, then. The notion of holding Vulthuryol captive meant little to Paarthurnax. It reminded him only vaguely of Numinex's fate. In that instance, the imprisonment had been for many years, not days. He felt nothing about it.

Neither did the portion involving Hermaeus Mora matter greatly to him. Dealing with Daedric Princes was a naturally dangerous affair, but he was sure the Dragonborn knew this, and it sounded like the deal had been completed.

The news that thousands of soldiers of the Thalmor had passed right beneath the dragons' notice, however, was quite concerning. If this was what the Dragonborn had come to report, it was good of him indeed. Unnecessary for him to come all this way himself when he could simply summon Odahviing once more, but still good.

In accordance with the variances of Paarthurnax's reaction, he responded only to the matter of the attack. "That is concerning, Dovahkiin. I will do what I can to tighten our surveillance."

"Thanks." The Dragonborn's voice came with no great conviction. He sighed loudly and ran his armored fingers through his hair. "I don't… I don't know. We came so, so close to losing. I actually got poisoned by an assassin, right before the attack, I nearly died."

"It is lucky, then, that a Daedric Prince took such keen interest in you," Paarthurnax said mildly. The danger of this past encounter did not concern him greatly. Obviously, the Dragonborn had survived.

The man paused for a few seconds before answering. "Hm… Actually… I wouldn't call it lucky."

"Why not, Dovahkiin?"

This time, he paused for far longer. He rested his forehead in his hands for a little while, then looked up at the dragon silently. Something about him looked pained, like he was having trouble speaking. But eventually, speak he did.

"You know," he said, "I never actually killed Ulfric Stormcloak."

This sentence took a moment to process. It was true that the Dragonborn had never said so to him, but it had been implied. It was common knowledge.

There needed to be more to the matter. "Feel free to explain that."

"Well, uh…" The Dragonborn put his head back in his hands for a little while, then raised it again. "All right. Here's what I did. I went to Windhelm, this was right before I talked to you… Wow, I can't believe I'm actually talking about this."

"Go on, Dovahkiin."

"Right. I went to Windhelm, to the Palace of the Kings, and this was in the middle of the night, I just snuck into Ulfric's room and convinced him to come with me. We put a false body in his clothes, and I burned the whole thing to ash with a shout. And then I put him on Odahviing's back, sent… Odahviing swore to secrecy, by the way, I'm guessing he didn't tell you his part in this… Sent them to Skuldafn. The same place Odahviing took me, to confront Alduin. The portal to Sovngarde was still active. And that's where he is right now."

This was surprisingly simple for Paarthurnax to understand. It was a mere usage of deceit, nothing new for a dragon. "How did you convince him?"

"Oh, that was really simple, I just showed him the Thalmor dossier about him. The original, not one of the copies Tullius produced. And, uh… So he went up to Sovngarde, which I guess he could've done in death too, but I didn't want him dead."

"What did you want, Dovahkiin?"

"Well, some people here in Tamriel are sensitive to things in other planes of existence. You take the Psijic Order, for example. They'd hear what someone in Sovngarde had to say. And Ulfric's a charismatic sort of guy, too. Persuasive. So I just… Had Ulfric tell them to pull some strings on my behalf, basically. And… There, you have the reason why I'm not dead."

The nature of the Dragonborn's plan remained easy to grasp. Harder was the state of the Dragonborn's mind. There was no purpose in Paarthurnax knowing about this. He did not need to. In fact, no one did.

Odahviing had done well with keeping the Dragonborn's secret. Deference to power was a truly effective means of control. With him silent, there was no one left to explain what had actually happened. Paarthurnax could see the logic in falsifying Ulfric's death—if it were anything like the way dragons worked, his armies would convert to the Dragonborn's allegiance far more easily if they believed their previous leader no longer lived. This only worked, however, if the secret remained intact. The Dragonborn would tell no one who did not need to know. Still, he had just told Paarthurnax, for no reason. Just as he had come to visit the Throat of the World for no reason.

The man had gone silent once more. He was looking up at Paarthurnax expectantly.

"Your planning is sound," Paarthurnax said. "Still, I am unsure what I can do for you."

"Well, you know, you're the… You're the only, uh…" The Dragonborn rubbed his eyes.

"Dovahkiin?"

Some time went by in uneasy silence. The man seemed like he did not want to be here after all.

"I don't want to be doing any of this. All this fighting, and killing, and… I don't like it. I definitely didn't like it with Vulthuryol. You know, he reminded me of you, he'd been down there this whole time, and I had to lock him up like, like a beast for slaughter, and…"

He faltered, showing a look of pain once again. "I don't… I mean, I wish I could say that's the worst thing I've done. The worst thing I'm going to do. I don't want to do any of this, I just have to, and I'm trying to just… I never even wanted…"

The Dragonborn's words dissolved. He began to say something more, but instead, he started simply sobbing. His face contorted with grief, and tears rolled unchecked down his cheeks. His hands laid limply in his lap.

This was nothing like Paarthurnax had ever seen before. He did not understand the depth of the mortal's pain, but looking at him now, the dragon felt some part of that pain himself. It simply hurt to watch.

He did not know what to do with this. There must have been some way for him to make the Dragonborn return to normal. How did mortals even do this?

"Dovahkiin… No… No…" Paarthurnax trailed off. He had never had to work with this in his life. What sort of thing would comfort a person? What could he offer?

He crawled the rest of the way up to the Dragonborn where he sat, and, taking care not to misplace the spikes on his lower jaw, laid the end of his snout right in the mortal's lap. A cold, hard pair of metal-covered arms embraced what little of him they could. He could even feel a head resting on his nose.

Paarthurnax truly did not know what was going on. There was a spontaneous visit, and now the Dragonborn's composure had broken. The weeping continued for some period of time. It felt terribly long. At this moment, this culmination of all things past, Paarthurnax simply wanted for the Dragonborn to be well again, and nothing more. But this was all he could do.

Eventually, the Dragonborn's breath had returned to some stability. He whispered something indistinct. After a moment, he lifted his head and tried again. "You're the only one," he said, quietly. "You're the only… There's this… This whole big world, full of people to save, and I've never loved any of them. You're the only one."

And once again, the Dragonborn had changed everything. Was it truly so difficult for him to find anyone to open himself to in this manner? Paarthurnax wondered what it was like to be him.

To have a great duty, for one. The duty of protecting this world. The Dragonborn seemed to have taken it to heart. He never showed the slightest sign of a life outside his efforts to save Skyrim. Paarthurnax had not asked for one, of course, but in this way, the mortal was as bluntly devoted as the dragon had ever been.

For another, to have many, many secrets. To most, the Dragonborn was a mystery, nearly a myth. He seemed to try to keep it that way. He was such a powerful person. In a world filled with those who wanted power themselves, everyone would want to use him to their own ends. Everyone he met would have something to try to take from him.

In a single moment, Paarthurnax felt as though he had opened his eyes for the first time. He finally understood. He understood why the Dragonborn had come to visit him today. He understood why, months ago, the Dragonborn had ended their meeting with a silent gesture of touch. This was a man who was surrounded by people, yet entirely alone. He must have been so desperate to find someone, anyone, who would allow him to trust them. Someone who would do so, without turning against him, or taking advantage of him.

It was difficult to say how Paarthurnax felt about this. No one had ever treated him with such… Intimate value. It was not the way of dragons. But he remembered what Odahviing had said of the idea of love. A state of such closeness between beings that without one, the other would feel as though a part of them were missing.

To the Dragonborn, Paarthurnax had been missing for months. He should not have wondered why the mortal had come to visit—he should have wondered why he had taken so long to do it.

Rather suddenly, something additional occurred to him. Something he should have been saying. This mortal had journeyed all this way to tell him the truth of himself, in person, because he trusted no one else with it. That deserved an answer.

And also, there was… More, to respond to. The dragon withdrew from the metallic embrace and settled back on the ice.

"Dovahkiin," he said, softly. "If there were ever a single truly good person in the world, it would be you. Over the years, I have seen more mortals than I care to count. Some heroes, some… Not. Some who were ready to sacrifice their lives for their cause, to die in battle. I have never encountered any who were so willing to sacrifice their identity as well."

The Dragonborn looked puzzled. "Thank you. I think."

But there was more to say. Now, Paarthurnax's words came with some difficulty. "I once told you, Dovahkiin… That your defeat of Alduin was not the last that you would write upon the currents of Time. And while I have remained here, atop this mountain, you have continued to make a truly impressive legacy for yourself. But… You have had an… Effect, which I did not anticipate. I had never thought that the mortal would teach the mentor, but you did."

He did not ask what he had taught Paarthurnax. Perhaps he already knew.

Empathy was a priceless thing, the dragon had learned. He was certainly glad the Dragonborn had offered him an understanding of the way of thought. It meant more now than it ever had.

The Dragonborn loved Paarthurnax. He had never asked anything of the mortal, never tried to use him for any personal goal. He had simply done what he thought was right to do, treating the Dragonborn as he had.

And in doing so, Paarthurnax had filled a part of him that he had not even known was empty. It had made him complete in a sorely needed way, and now, imagining life without his companion seemed painfully incomplete in comparison.

This, Paarthurnax knew because it was how he felt himself.

"Thank you, Dovahkiin," he finally said. He could scarcely believe that he was going to say what he intended to next. But the Dragonborn had told him the truth. He would be wise to return the gesture. "I have never desired to take anything from you, but you have… Given me something, of your own will. Something I never anticipated any dovah would have."

The Dragonborn nodded slowly. "Right. What something?"

Paarthurnax did not know what the future held. More likely than not, it would be filled with threats he had never anticipated. And the Dragonborn might or might not even be alive to face them. But here, now, Paarthurnax could not bring himself to leave the present moment. All he had to do was speak his mind.

"That, Dovahkiin, is very simple. You… Have made me able to love you in return."

And so the two of them remained. For the dragon and Dragonborn alike, the world was no longer something to face alone. This moment would not be everlasting, but it mattered little. The challenges that Time would bring were so, so far away.

This concludes The Currents of Time.

Thank you for reading my story. You guys made this whole thing possible. (On that note, if this is the only chapter you've looked at, I recommend starting at the actual start.)

Special thanks to Kyt, for starting this idea in the first place, and HugsForPenguin, for giving me the blessing of feedback in abundance.

And if you still want more, don't worry. A sequel is on its way.