Vilkas leant against the door to Jorrvaskr, one hand clenched around the bronze handle, the other flat on the smooth surface of the wood, uncaring if people saw him from below the stairs. The familiar carvings pressed into his forehead as he fought for breath, desperately, in fast, shallow, rasping pants.
The air didn't come, not like he was used to, as if the iron bands adorning and strengthening the old wood of the door were now mounted around his chest. Even with his eyes clenched shut he was unable to force the pictures out of his mind, the black void he had fallen into under Andur's unrelenting gaze still making him feel as if he was falling and falling, nothing but a whirling abyss beneath and around him, and he wanted to scream and flail and plead for something to hold him.
What had this hag done, what evil spell had she released on him? She had shown him nothing he didn't know before, nothing he hadn't put behind himself long ago. It was necessary to leave these things behind, if only to be able to go on. He had always given his best... and more. So many people believed in him. His brother's faith in his strength, Kodlak's trust in his leadership, his siblings and their demands, clients needing him to take care of their petty concerns.
He had always performed, always fulfilled these expectations. No one would do it for him... and when people relied on him, he couldn't afford to show weakness.
What had she done that everything that mattered slipped through his fingers now, dripped away like icicles in spring until nothing was left? What had she done that not only his past looked so futile – so worthless – but his future as well?
Where did this guilt come from? Where was the anger that had kept him going for so long?
Noises from inside reached his ears, laughter and unintelligible words, and he let go of the handle as if it had burned him. More happy faces that would turn into a frown upon seeing him, people scurrying away just to avoid a snarky remark, no one asking him to join into the festival preparations, knowing up front that they'd only get a scowl full of contempt... he couldn't bear this now. Couldn't bear to enter his home.
But there was nowhere else he could go, and as he went on and away, he climbed blindly up to the Skyforge. Not even Eorlund worked these days, no one witnessing the man dragging his feet up the stairs and bracing himself on the edge of the forge, barely recognising the heat flaring up from the glowing coals.
No one but the two people circling around each other with blunt training swords. They only sparred to kill time and to escape the hot, sated air inside for a bit of an outdoor exercise, and Farkas lowered his weapon in the middle of an attack sequence and looked after his brother, a deep frown on his face. Ria followed his gaze, incomprehension and worry in her face.
"What's the matter with him?"
"You know how he is this time of year."
"Yeah. Yelling at us and complaining and bitching around. Cantankerous. Not looking as if he met a ghost."
Farkas shrugged. "Perhaps he has. Sometimes I think he has ghosts in his head." He was used to his brother's erratic moods, and he was still angry with him. Especially as he would have to travel to Darkwater Crossing himself to bring the trinket back. No way he'd keep it, now that he knew what it meant.
But Ria placed her sword on the rack and marched towards the stairs. Vilkas was her shield-brother, after all, even if he was sometimes an ass. He had taught her nearly everything she knew, and now she would look after him.
Farkas reached out for her. "Leave him alone, Ria."
She pressed her lips into a stubborn line, taken aback by his gruffness. "No. It's New Life Festival. He can be obnoxious all he wants, but he will be obnoxious with us."
Reaching the top of the stairs, she stopped dead. Vilkas leant against the wall over the coals, looking as if he would fall into them any moment and didn't care. As if he was preparing to fall.
Something was wrong, and it made her swallow. He looked smaller than usual, and it wasn't because he didn't wear his armour.
"Vilkas," she said lowly, but her hand on his shoulder was strong and her grip firm. And when he turned his head to her, slowly as if every movement hurt, teeth bared in a snarl and with a growl that screamed at her to leave him alone, she didn't shy away. Instead she took him in, saw how his fingers clenched into the cracks in the masonry and the tightly coiled cords of his neck, the darkness in his eyes and the depth of his loneliness, and she pulled him wordlessly into a hug, cupped the back of his head and slung the other arm around his waist.
She was surprised herself that he didn't resist, that he didn't break free and toss her down the stairs.
"Hey," she whispered into his ear, "you okay?"
Vilkas didn't react, but he didn't retreat either, his sweaty face buried in her shoulder, the muscles of his back hard like iron. This girl he had never taken seriously, a whelp he had whipped merciless through his training, more a nuisance than a true shield-sister with her youthful enthusiasm and inexhaustible energy and the ridiculous pride she displayed simply for belonging to them, someone he had always seen as weak, sooner or later just another dead body on Andur's altar – this girl was suddenly there, solid and strong, knowing that he was far from being okay and just holding him.
Catching his fall.
A shudder went through his body, and she felt him relax. And when he lifted his head and made a step backwards, warpaint smeared and tousled hair falling into his face, she removed her hands and took the chains that had bound him with her, and he could breathe again.
He rubbed his hand over his face, breathing deeply, and then his gaze came to rest on the young woman who stood before him, a fist on her hip, watching him... not pitiful like he expected, but full of curiosity, as if she had never seen him before.
Perhaps she hadn't.
"Better?" she asked, and he couldn't help the hesitating smile that curled his lips as he nodded.
"You know..." Ria cocked her head, a giggle in her voice, "if you smiled a bit more often, you could look nearly as good as your brother." And with a grin she turned and hopped down the stairs.
The man who stormed with heavy steps through the hall and down to the living quarters held himself straight, his face emotionless. He wasn't oblivious to the looks that followed him, sidewards glances from his siblings trying to avoid another outbreak of his bad mood, cautious curiosity from the guests that had come to Jorrvaskr to join the Companions for the festival.
No one saw the slight hint of panic in his eyes and how he fought to keep it down.
Only when he neared his quarters, his steps slowed down, and he took a moment to calm himself before he knocked on the door opposite of his own - for the first time in years instead just to barge in.
Farkas' face fell in surprise when he opened the door. "Vilkas?" He narrowed his brows. "What's the matter? Back to being an ass?"
Vilkas clenched his teeth and entered his brother's room. "I want it back," he said roughly.
"The amulet. Where is it?"
"You gave it to me. Not your business any more."
"But she can't have it. The... girl from the Mare."
Farkas chewed on his lip. "I didn't plan to give it to her. What do you need it for?"
His brother swallowed heavily, avoiding his eyes. "Gonna give it back," he said lowly.
Farkas' stare was dumbfounded, then he took a step back until he leant against the bar. "Who are you, and what have you done with my brother?"
The snotty remark coaxed a fleeting grin on Vilkas' face, and suddenly it wasn't so hard any more to admit. "I messed this up, Farkas. And now I'm gonna fix it."
It was quiet for a moment, and then his twin muttered the question that Vilkas had dreaded.
And like so often, Farkas somehow managed to wrap up all the other questions in a single word. Why now? and Why have you never fixed your mess before? and, most importantly, Why did you mess up at all?
"Don't ask. Please."
He had no answers to these questions.
But Farkas saw through him, and he saw the lingering hint of panic in his eyes, the fear of his own courage and the insecurity, and he thought that his brother never looked so vulnerable. "Gonna join you," he said gruffly as he went around the bar and took the trinket out of a drawer. "Wanted to do that anyway. Better to go with you."
But Vilkas squared his shoulders. "No, brother. This is something I have to do alone."
Farkas turned to him, slowly, slung a heavy arm around his twin's shoulders and dangled the pendant in front of his face. "No, you don't," he huffed. "When will you learn? We all know that you can. But you don't have to."
The twins whirled like scalded cats in hectic, frantic activity through Jorrvaskr, ruined the work of days in a matter of minutes and left nothing but confusion and chaos behind, but the Companions who tried to stop them and get an explanation for their behaviour only got a grinning growl.
Farkas plundered Tilma's kitchen, snatched a half-baked turkey from her oven and filled the biggest jars he could find with filling, sauce and vegetables. Several loaves of bread, a whole tray of sweetrolls, some sausages and a ham hanging from the roof as well as some plates and cutlery also vanished in the depths of his saddle bags while Vilkas gathered together blankets, furs and some spare, warm clothes and tied them into tight bundles. And in the end, he removed Torvar's masterpiece from Wuuthrad with a strangely satisfied smile, folded it carefully and stashed it away as well.
And when they stood at the door, ready to leave and heavily laden with bags and knapsacks full to the brim, Vilkas called Ria to him.
"I expect a feast tomorrow," he said sternly, "and I expect you to make it happen."
She looked at him with bright eyes. "You'll be back in time?"
When he nodded, she gave him a beaming smile. "Okay."
"Thank you, sister," he said lowly, and the small smile that quirked his lips was only for her.