By the time Serana rejoins the reception, lips moist and senses heightened from feeding on a willing body in the Ratway Warrens, the guests have progressed past the time-honoured Nord tradition of drinking themselves under the table to dancing. Where tables previously lined the centre of the Temple, they've been pushed aside to create a space in the centre now filled with people making merry. (In a weird twist of fate, Serana spots Isran joining in, with Gunmar in tow).
Contrary to what she's used to, this era's style involved a lot of…clapping. Though there are slow dancers nearer to the walls, and moving in a way that Serana finds much familiar. Less clapping and hopping, definitely.
What strikes Serana is the merriment of everything - in the flavours her nose picks on and the burst of colours of the decorations. This wedding's theme is white, with bundles of tundra cotton adorning from tables to even the bride herself, a stalk or two worn over her ear.
The newlyweds are stunning, Serana realises with a smile. Amazing what unbridled joy can do for one - outshining the dark circles under their eyes, and their smiles. Goodness, their smiles. They speak of the unfathomable struggles standing between them before this day. Paradoxically, the harshest of times creates the capacity for boundless joy, because without being ground to the finest of bonedust, one cannot truly appreciate the better parts of life. At least, that's what Serana's been told, and she's still trying to accept that.
Serana thinks of approaching the couple at their table, the visage of Mara looming protectively over them. Then, dread blooms in her chest.
She sees a lady in a red dress, the shade matching her maroon locks twisted into a sidebraid. Leaning against the wall on the way to the couple, a tankard dangling off her fingers. Hidden partly by the shadows of the corner, which Serana suspects to be intentional. It's somewhere she can't be seen or heard.
Almost as joy at seeing her flares in Serana's chest, it's quashed by the familiar vice of misery and hurt.
Yet, her body betrays her. Her feet, who carry herself closer to Elisbeth. Her brain, which registers horror the moment she utters a greeting.
If Elisbeth's annoyed by her presence, she doesn't show. Instead, she continues watching the crowd over the rim of her tankard, grey-eyed gaze steady. "Why are you here?"
"Because Aenas invited me. If I'm not mistaken, that means I'm allowed to be here."
"I'd almost forgotten how barbed your tongue could be."
"Oh, my tongue can do more than that," Serana snarks, feeling her blood rise. "You'd know."
Immediately, Serana regrets her words, but it's response she can't recall. Curse her haywire emotions. Her back stiffens, herself bracing for a scathing reply, censure, anything resembling the rejection she's used to when it comes to raised voices - especially her own.
Instead, an unsettlingly blank look settles on Elisbeth's gaunt features. "Do I?"
"Only if you stopped running from your problems."
There's a certain wistfulness about their back-and-forth: on one hand, Serana's ecstatic that Elisbeth hasn't fled nor ignored her completely despite her snarky responses. On another, they're acting as if all they'd been are bitter rivals.
Serana is sick of grieving for the living. "Elisbeth, look at me."
Strangely enough, Elisbeth does, with a slight tilt of her head. But Serana can't miss the way Elisbeth flinches oh-so-slightly at the mention of her name.
She can't pretend to remain unaffected by Elisbeth's infuriating indifference, because her mere presence in close quarters already stirs reactions Serana that she wants to wish away; things magnified to her heightened senses. Her blood-addled senses.
Elisbeth's eyes widen on seeing Serana's face. "You've been crying."
On her lips, Serana reads an are you alright?
It's a sudden concern that Serana ignores. This isn't the time. Now, she's livid. "Why do you keep fighting me?"
"You're a vampire." Elisbeth's eyes flash in warning, previous care and warmth scrubbed clean. "And I'm a vampire hunter. That's all we can be."
They slaughtered your entire family too, Serana recalls. A tale told in moonlight, meant to intimidate and deter rather than bond.
But Serana's still here.
"Then forgive me, if all I see is someone who acts contrary to her trappings of priesthood."
Serana senses it before she sees it happen before her. First, static pricks at her skin. Then, Elisbeth's hands fizzle with sparks; white-hot and leaving a hint of superheated metal in the air.
To her credit, Elisbeth doesn't drop the tankard she holds. But her expression mirrors her unintentional magical discharge as she whirls on Serana with jaw clenched so tight her neck tendons bulge from her skin.
"Don't you dare. Don't you dare mess with my thoughts."
"But I'm not." Serana's sickened at how plaintive she sounds. At how the helplessness creeps in, whispering at her to simply give up. To flee. "I'm not fabricating my memories or my feelings. I cannot, because of who and what I am. You of all people know this. Yet, you accuse me of warping your perc-"
Elisbeth holds up a hand; Serana quietens. (She hates how pliant she is to Elisbeth's whims.) The Vigilant's gaze darts behind Serana before she snaps her fingers. Wetness cascades down Serana's neck, but it's gone as soon as she feels it.
It's a muffle spell.
"Fine," Elisbeth growls, dragging Serana's attention back. "So spill, then."
Why is she even considering this? Confessing her deepest feelings, baring her soul to the one person who'll gleefully rip it to shreds with a stubby dagger and a maniacal grin as her own heart aches. There is nothing but pain for her down this route.
Yet, she does it anyway.
"Whenever I think of you, I think of the Vigilant who saved me instead of leaving me to die." Curse her heady dizziness. Curse her naive inner child thinking that the price of love is pain, when she clearly deserves better than someone responsible for her misery. "I think of the woman who cares more than she lets on. Someone who aligns herself with those who'd sooner see the tip of a sword than an offered hand. Why? Because she can see past their exteriors. She sees the personhood that others miss, and she breaks bones just to protect that."
"Y-" Elisbeth starts, but falls silent at Serana's stricken expression; proud shoulders drooping immediately.
"You violently act out when people see you for you. I thought you let me in that night, finally trusted me enough to see you, and- and-"
You broke my heart.
By now, wetness trails down her cheeks - tears Serana believed were denied to vampires. Feelings Serana believed she could no longer experience, when the ritual that granted her vampirism poisoned her innocence and reforged it into so. Much. Shame.
They surge from places unknown to overwhelm her like a wave, these inner sensations enough to leave her on the verge of choking. It's been a year, but the wounds are fresh: her terror at Elisbeth leaving, her inexplicable guilt at Elisbeth's rejection. It mingles with the unresolved anguish towards her parents, and Serana suddenly decides she can't handle this.
But feelings? Feelings defy reality. It has her craving the touch of a human sworn to kill her on sight. A love that's doomed from the start, but one she clings to like the scraps of affection tossed her way.
Love. So that's what it is - the name to feelings that have caused Serana equal parts misery and ecstasy.
Silly her, thinking filth like her can ever deserve Mara's embrace.
Silly her, romanticising love; willingly blind to how love can't simply fix anything it touches.
It stops there - a voice silenced by the slamming of a door behind Serana, her black cloak billowing in her wake.
Weddings are occasions of merriment, but Serana finds herself fleeing one for the second time tonight.