Chapter 1: Yet
Serana can't take it.
She can't take the merriment of the ceremony - no ill-will to the wedded couple, of course - when her own heart aches from heartache she never quite recovered from. Ironic, really. She's a vampire, a creature of the night and un-death, the blood in her veins more ice than liquid.
Yet, something warm and alive seized her that night when everything fell apart; the night of teeth and lips and frenzied thrusts with slicked fingers with the last woman Serana thought she'd fall for. The woman, whose maroon locks bleed as red as the blood that drips from Serana's fangs after feeding.
And now, Serana tries her best to numb the want in her loins with the frigid chill of the Skyrim evening, perching on the highest point of Riften's skyline - the tallest spires of Mistveil Keep. It's been a year, an entire year to the day, but.
Because despite all sense, she still loved a sworn vampire hunter.
Elisbeth can't take it.
She can't take the absurdity of her predicament - despite what they've been through, how can she breathe the same air as her? A vampire in a Temple of the Divines? Keeper Eondril would choke on his frothed saliva, if he were here. But Cyrodiil beckoned for the Vigil's yearly meets, and he'd left weeks ago.
That Aenas even invited her had set Elisbeth off the moment she heard the suggestion months ago. Though she deferred to his wishes, the thought of it left her gut churning. Not that Elisbeth even expected her to come - Serana had expressed how temples of the Divines unnerved her years ago, back when Harkon was on the cusp of blotting out the sky.
Yes, Serana still ran jobs for the Dawnguard, but Elisbeth hadn't chanced upon her during operations or in Fort Dawnguard itself; not since that night. Serana was avoiding her, and herself for her, because they didn't keep normal hours. They were intrinsically different, human and vampire, yet they stalked the same darkness that terrifies creatures of the light.
Elisbeth isn't sad. She can't be heartbroken over a union naturally doomed, or one she cares little about. Instead, she's furious; in her stiffened back, and her fists jammed under crossed arms over her chest.
Because despite all sense, she still loved a creature whose kind made her an orphan and drove her to the brink of madness.
Chapter 2: Anguish
A concerned third party intervenes. Elisbeth, as usual, receives it poorly. Serana doesn't, being the more stable of the two.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Serana hears her landing on the roof, noise muffled by her cloth shoes and supernatural reflexes.
"There's a roaring party in the Temple's courtyard and you're here, mooning?"
Serana snorts at the pun. "Jalissa, I'm sure you didn't leap to the highest surface of Riften by accident."
The Vigilant grins, wide enough for her fangs to shine in the moonlight. "Indeed."
Serana dips her head with a sigh. She'd wanted to be alone with her thoughts, examining them in the privacy of solitude as she lay on the roof, the brick tiles jutting into her back. She tells herself it's because of the view and the breeze that skitters across her skin, but vampires don't feel the way the living do.
Truth be told, Serana hasn't truly felt in the days following that night.
There's the rustling of cloth as Jalissa folds the hem of her dress under her legs, as she sits cross-legged upon snow-capped roof. She finds some stars in the sky to admire, and she does that in silence.
Undemanding. It's Jalissa's unconditional respect for her boundaries that Serana has come to appreciate about the Vigilant, when she's used to being disregarded and talked over. Especially by those who supposedly love her.
She can simply request to be alone and Jalissa will leave without another word. Yet, Serana hasn't. Some part of her wonders about the advice a fellow vampire can give, especially one considered kin to Serana's current source of misery.
Perhaps that's why she turns to the Vigilant beside her with a question. "Are you checking up on me? I appreciate the thought, but I'm alright. You should be enjoying yourself at the reception, not keeping me company."
Jalissa smiles. "Honestly? I'd rather be here. They're trying to outdrink each other now and it's racuous enough to give me a headache. Sometimes I wished I wasn't hypersensitive to everything in typical vampire fashion, but…"
"How are the dampening techniques working for you? We can work on it now, if you've nothing else to do."
"Thank you, friend. But I doubt that's what you want to do."
Something about Jalissa's tone gives Serana pause, her immediate response left unvoiced. She tells herself she's flicking snow off the cloth of her pants because she hasn't the faintest to respond to that, but if Serana's being honest, it's to avoid Jalissa's knowing look. The one where her dimples show, and her eyes twinkle just as they did before vampirism shrouded her irises in crimson. Only faintly, like any other vampire, but crimson nonetheless.
Despite being a vampire too, it unsettles Serana. Vampirism only amplifies mannerisms and thoughts that have existed prior.
"You're right," Serana sighs. No point dodging the question, not when Jalissa's offered her a nice segue. "I think you already know what's been bugging me. Or who."
"Let me guess - it's a certain Imperial with a scowl sharp enough to rip dragonscale."
"That obvious, huh," Serana deadpans. She supposes it is. Elisbeth confides in Jalissa, so what are the odds that Jalissa doesn't already know all the sordid details?
That only makes her cheeks burn hotter with sudden shame - and Serana can't place the reason for it. Even better, Serana doesn't think she should be the one ridden with guilt.
"I know you think Liz told me everything, but thing is…she didn't. What I managed to wrangle from her was that it didn't end well. Nothing more. Starts growling like a dragon if I push."
Oh, Elisbeth. "She left. Whatever we had, it didn't work out. I thought-" Serana stops, confused by the lump in her throat which she swallows down. It goes down painfully. She shakes her head, as if shaking off unwanted feelings creeping in. "I thought we understood each other, from what little she told me during our travels."
Of being alone with their respective horrors, and having those who mattered - those sworn to protect them - leave.
One by one.
"Does it matter, Jalissa? She left." The unexpected bite in her words leaves Jalissa flinching, and Serana herself blinks. Blinks at the terror still attached to that memory, because it reminds her of every instance her own parents rejected her.
And that declaration drains Serana, enough for her to curl into herself with her head between her knees.
"That's all to it," she says, and it's muffled against her robes. So are her tears streaking down her face; tears she finally finds it in her numbed heart to let loose.
Jalissa's arm slings itself around Serana's shoulder soon after. Serana flinches at first, but then melts completely into the Vigilant's embrace. Because she's safe. Jalissa is safe. She's not- back there, back then: the ritual that began it all.
This isn't how Serana imagines her night to unfold.
Jalissa has a sinking suspicion as to Elisbeth's whereabouts when she doesn't find her making merry at the reception - and for the surly woman, that means hovering near the mead caskets with a tankard in hand.
Not that Elisbeth's the type to make merry, even. She's someone who'll help you exterminate a coven of vampires more readily than attend a function out of simple courtesy.
Thank Mara that Elisbeth is more agreeable to those she treasured. That Elisbeth actually wanted - aside from just being willing - to wear a dress instead of her robes was surprising.
Outside, Jalissa feels the cold pressing down on her the moment she closes the doors behind her. It's the height of the famed Skyrim winter now, with snowfall as high as one's ankles and chill deep enough to freeze off noses within an hour, even in the warmest corner of the province. Jalissa used to pile on layers of furs herself just to bear with the chill, and not even the winds.
Yet, Elisbeth wears as little as her, a vampire numbed to all but pain, as she leans on the wall to Jalissa's left. No extra furs, no overcoats, nothing - just her pipe in hand, with the sleeves of her red dress rolled up to her elbows. Exhaling tobacco smoke as if it isn't bitterly cold out here.
If she hears Jalissa approach, she doesn't show it.
"People don't usually hide away during a wedding, Liz. Unless they're upset about something."
Elisbeth's scowl deepens. "I'm not upset."
"Why are you here?"
"I cannot spend time with someone important to me? Liz, I thought we were inseparable. Isn't my presence inoffensive to your delicate sensibilities?"
"Stubby, j- stop it. Not tonight." Elisbeth grips her pipe, knuckles as pale as the snow blanketing the gravestones. "Especially not tonight."
Jalissa sidles closer to her - but not too close. Not when Elisbeth's blood runs hot in her veins; sweet, sweet blood that isn't hers to take. The very idea of feeding on humans still reviles Jalissa, no matter how willing her feeders are. "It's Serana, isn't it?"
Elisbeth's reply is the tremble of her lips. Jalissa wishes it was from the cold, but she's certain Elisbeth's enchanted her outfit somehow, the way mages do.
"You're not really angry, aren't you? Liz, I know you. Fury's useful, grief isn't. And I know enough of you that you'd rather self-sabotage than face the possibility of that eventuality occurring."
"Speak in Tamrielic, Stubbs."
"Stop deflecting, Liz."
It happens fast. One moment, Elisbeth brings her pipe to her mouth for a puff. In another, she flings it away to nowhere in particular - but Jalissa snatches it out of the air, before it's buried under snow.
"Liz…" Jalissa cautions, pushing away from the wall to face Elisbeth. Her vampiric senses are bombarded by sensations unseen to the living. Elisbeth's heartbeat bangs against Jalissa's ears, and her radiating heat - Divines, her fury - that rolls off her like water makes Jalissa sweat even at this temperature. "I went too far. You weren't ready to discuss it, but I pushed you. So now, you're furious."
If Elisbeth had been ready to explode then, she isn't now. Her shoulders ease off the tightness of a taut bowstring, but remain taut nonetheless.
Jalissa offers the pipe. Elisbeth swipes it from Jalissa's hand with her usual scowl. But the hard angles of her face soften.
"I'm not furious at you," Elisbeth says, eyes darting everywhere but at Jalissa. Jalissa doesn't comment, doesn't move even, and that agitates Elisbeth enough for her to lean against the wall and watch the graveyard again. Waiting for Jalissa's judgement through her reply.
Always assuming the worst of others.
Elisbeth's emotional scars have always, always pierced deep. But apparently not deep enough to talk to a Priestess of Kynareth about it.
"I know," Jalissa says. There's no ill-will; she knows Elisbeth's just lashing out the only way she knows. So she lays a comforting hand on Elisbeth's shoulder, tentative, moving to rub her arm gently when she relaxes into her touch. Simple touches that communicate presence, without the need for words.
"I'm furious at her." Not Serana. Her. "How dare she ghost into my life despite me making it clear that I don't want her here? But I don't understand why I care so much. I don't understand why it still hurts so much."
Jalissa notes the way Elisbeth's lips curl around the consonants of her words; even more so for hurt. Because nothing else in her mannerisms betray emotion, mannerisms too used to feigning apathy but in actuality, covering up bottomless emotionality. Because most of her life, Elisbeth couldn't express it without being hurt or punished for it.
So Jalissa understands, the way Elisbeth dances around truths she surely knows. This is a woman who has defeated Vampire Lords, Thalmor Justiciars, and Dark Brotherhood assassins. And if they've heard right from the Oculatus, the leader of Skyrim's cell too. Mere luck or favour of the Divines isn't enough to defeat such antagonists.
But Jalissa doesn't have to be cruel.
She tries her best to say it kindly. "You don't understand why, or you don't want to understand why?"
Silence. Just the faint crinkling of leaves moved by the slight breeze.
But Jalissa doesn't have to let her waste an opportunity at reconciliation.
"Elisbeth, are you scared of love?"
The pause stretches long enough, filled by the silence of the restful dead around them. Jalissa begins to think Elisbeth won't answer, not when her heartbeat's no different than before the question, not even when she holds her pipe between two fingers with enough faux disinterest to rival a Hold guard after pocketing a pouch of gold to look the other way.
But Elisbeth answers, a tremble in her whisper.
"No. Only of losing it."
oh yes, that last line was a reference right there, but the question is: where's it from? (the film's awesome btw)
Chapter 3: Confusion
Elisbeth offers mixed signals due to her inability to healthily communicate - let alone her feelings. Serana is, as the chapter title suggests, thoroughly confused.
FYI: Elisbeth is related to the Dragonborn. Aurelia Elisbeth Marcisio and Aenas Valerius Marcisio - cousins. Who've only recently met. And have ... history. But such backstory is explored in another fic that i haven't gotten around to completing. it's been 5 years. why am i not surprised.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Serana starts finding bottles of blood in her pack a few days out of Riften as they journey to Dexion's supposed Ancestor Glade; a scrawled dot near Falkreath on the map Aenas holds. The bottles are a thoughtful gesture, because it saves her the trouble of hunting for animals to regenerate quickly. Thankfully too, given their increasingly frequent encounters with vampires and their thralls. Sent by her father, no doubt.
It's not just any old blood, but blood like those blood potions all over Castle Volkihar. Just a sip is sufficient to knit flesh and replenish her strength; something that necessitated a day's sleep in a hardwood coffin.
"Hey, thanks for the bottled blood," she says one morning, when they're packing up around the embers of a dying fire.
To her surprise, Aenas quirks a brow in confusion. "Bottled blood? That's morbid, Serana. Though I'll unconditionally support you if you're thinking of opening a bar for vampires."
She looks up the moment it makes sense, and Elisbeth's watching them, as suspected. Elisbeth, the other person well-acquainted with alchemy in their merry band of three.
Fitting, really. Serana's been slipping potions into Elisbeth's pack too, ever since she stumbled on the Vigilant's struggle with magicka addiction. Given their relative animosity, mostly on Elisbeth's part, Serana wonders how Elisbeth didn't slay her there and then. Addictions are a touchy, embarrassing topic, and Elisbeth's the epitome of a prideful Imperial.
Thanks, Serana mouths, and Elisbeth rolls her eyes.
"As much as I hate it, you're needed alive," Elisbeth scowls, before walking off.
Serana doesn't miss the slight curl of her lips.
Serana's heart pounds like a drum even before the door slams open.
(She loathes how she's learnt to fear stomped footsteps in her direction as a sign of impending, inescapable violence.)
When it does, banging against the wall, her heartbeats fade into the greater mass of sensations threatening to overwhelm her. For one, her mind is still struggling to wrap around the sights and smells of the previous hour. The scene she stumbled into in search of rats.
"Serana," Aenas pants as he leans against the doorframe, terror etched on his face. "You need to stop her. I can't- I'm not strong enough."
She's out of control, is what the younger Marcisio leaves unsaid.
No. Serana wishes this isn't so. Centuries of existence should've shown her all Tamriel has to offer - both gruesome and gladdening - but Elisbeth?
Elisbeth is terrifying. Not in a flying rage, but chilling, calculated revenge; cold like ice wraith teeth sinking itself into skin.
It's precisely what she's doing to the Vigilant who sold out the Order to Clan Volkihar.
"She's hanging him off the ceiling on those…hooks, Serana, I-" Aenas bites down a sob, wipes the sudden tears with the back of his hand. "I don't want to lose her to rage but I can't reach her. She's not listening to me."
"What makes you think she'll listen to me?" Serana, a vampire. Serana, the female scion to the very clan that ordered the annihilation of all Vigilants in Skyrim. The Vigilants whom Elisbeth considered her only family.
There is no way Elisbeth will listen to any hint of suggestion from her tonight.
Strands of damp hair fall past his eyebrows, but Aenas keeps his gaze steady on Serana; piercing in its sudden clarity. "She does."
In the cellar of an abandoned mansion, shrieks shudder against the walls of stone. But the walls don't have ears. The suffering of a Nord goes unseen and unheard by the world, as row after row of teeth hook into his skin.
An indignity witnessed only by the woman with the maroon locks, with dead eyes and a deader expression on her face.
She twirls a chain between her finger as she perches on a table's edge, gazing at the Nord drifting between hazy consciousness and shock. His face is - frozen, somehow, torn between a scream and a sob.
Snick, snick. Snick, snick. The rhythm of patient death. Snick, snick.
This is what Serana sees when she creaks the door open. It's not the chill or the stench that has her bile rising, but the sight. Not because of the Nord, bared to the world with flakes of ice on his skin and missing a few…extremities, currently littering the floor a few feet below him in a pool of curdled blood. But Elisbeth, completely blasé - as if contemplating what shade of dye to use instead of deciding which limb to pull off next.
There's stilted silence between them, as if the same teeth are digging into her skin, before Serana gathers the voice to speak. "Elisbeth."
Snick, snick. "You won't change my mind."
"I-" Serana can think of nothing but the thudding in her chest. How when it comes to Elisbeth, her astute sense of others vanishes to leave utter confusion. "I'm not. I don't know why I'm here anyway, even after I told Aenas that you won't listen, least of all to me. But you're better than this, Elisbeth. This isn't you."
Elisbeth barks a laugh, and the chain in her hands drop to the floor in a clang. She laughs so heartily, so chillingly tickled that Serana walks up to her in sheer horror.
There's flecks of blood on her face like she's been caught too close to a spray of blood, Serana notices.
"This isn't me?" Another chortle. "By Stendarr, you really think so? I knew you were naive, but this naive? Foolish girl."
"I'd rather foolish than barbaric."
Serana can't deny it. Elisbeth's barb stings.
"Barbaric?" Elisbeth grins, eyes glinting from the candlelight. "You haven't seen barbaric."
Before Serana can move, Elisbeth snaps her fingers.
A shout rings out, but Serana realises with a chill that it's a cry from the Nord that's hoarse, as if… as if he's been screaming too long his vocal cords have long lost the ability to vary in pitch.
Serana watches in horror as Elisbeth waves a hand and enlarges the teeth hooked into the Nord; big enough that the tips of the teeth pierce through his skin, framing his collarbones like a grotesque finish line. And that's just a pair of ice wraith teeth out of the many on his back. The many more that a simple alteration spell can transform into untold pain.
Not once does the Nord turn quiet: the groans simply dovetails into haggard breaths, and Serana can't understand how he hasn't passed out from the cold and the pressure and the pain.
But Elisbeth isn't done. She goes up to him and twists the tooth. Once. Twice. Thrice-
Her smile widens the louder he groans, and that's enough.
Rage wells up inside Serana like lava and she moves-
-tackling Elisbeth to the stone floor, and the Nord becomes mercifully silent.
"Get. Off. Me." Elisbeth roars, and Serana scrambles to her feet.
"Ever wondered how they would feel seeing you like this? Like a mindless beast?"
Elisbeth flinches as if struck, before her expression is wiped clean like a blank slate. The first time her expression isn't humour or utter blankness, ever since Serana walked in.
There's a tingle in the air that isn't previously there.
"A Nord is as good as their honour, but he sold his for septims. Septims, Serana. He deserves Oblivion! Death is a mercy for him. And if the Nine won't, I will."
"Will killing him bring them back? Will they?"
Elisbeth rises to her feet oh-so-slowly, fists balled so tightly that Serana smells fresh blood tinge the air; blood the deepest crimson that drips down Elisbeth's fingers.
"How dare you. How dare you-"
Serana dodges Elisbeth's blows easily, sidestepping and ducking clumsy blows fuelled by unspeakable rage. When Elisbeth oversteps, Serana strikes with a jab to Elisbeth's jaw.
The Vigilant reels, cupping her jaw, but she doesn't retaliate. Instead, she looks at Serana with a gaze sharp enough to saw through dragonbone.
"I thought you'd understand," Elisbeth hisses through bloodied teeth. "The rage. The hunger that won't be sated without blood. Guess I'm wrong. You're just like like the rest of the s'wits."
"I know the hunger," Serana bristles, a flash of shame she quashes by biting her tongue. Can't Elisbeth see that she's on her side? "But not like this. Losing your humanity isn't worth it, not when you're far better than those I've known."
Serana needs only think of Harkon. Her clan.
A beat, then Serana holds out a hand. "Trust me."
Elisbeth slaps her hand away with a scowl. "You want me to stop? Fine. You want to let him go, nurse him to health with your nonexistent Restoration skills? Fine."
Serana gasps when Elisbeth grabs her by the neck, fingers digging painfully into the sides of her neck. "But I will find him again, and I will kill him."
Elisbeth drops her and stalks off, slamming the door in her wake.
Of all things to hurt, it isn't Serana's neck or body. But beneath the haziness of adrenaline, her chest aches from the obvious grief that bleeds into Elisbeth's chaotic behaviours.
And Serana has a part in that.
She looks up to the sound of Aenas's voice, away from her bloodied hands that only recently cupped her head and hid her face.
"I don't know what you did, but the Nord's gone."
Dead. All because Serana couldn't do more than cut him down before fleeing straight to her makeshift room. Centuries of existence in her bones, but still an immeasurably frightened child within the protective confines of her mind.
"Elisbeth?" Serana croaks.
"She's gone too. Along with her pouch of herbs and salves."
Elisbeth returns in the dead of night, when Aenas's asleep in the hall and Serana watching over his sleeping form on a bedroll.
Serana doesn't look away from the flames of the fireplace. "Thank you."
"It wasn't for you," Elisbeth snarls.
Serana doesn't answer, not until Elisbeth stomps up to the upper level - but without the grumbling Serana expects of her.
"It was never about me."
Serana admits they entered Volkihar's chapel buoyed by their recent successes, despite insurmountable odds. Thinking that defying Snow Elves, history, and an entire castle of ancient vampires meant they could overcome anything Nirn could place in their way.
But Harkon isn't the Volkihar patriarch for no reason.
He faces off a least a handful of Dawnguard warriors; not all of them human, some more than human. Yet, he smacks away the werewolves like straw dolls, and floats unyielding in the face of Aenas' Shouts. And then, he animates gargoyles and rips out skeletons buried in the walls, sending them careening into the living with a chilling guffaw.
It's a battle that the Dawnguard are slowly losing, even with Auriel's bow in Aenas' grasp. Serana sees the bodies slumped over debris and tastes the slick of blood in the air, enough for doubt to creep into her being.
But that's before a gargoyle slams into her as the room explodes in shining light.
She's flung against a wall and lands with an ugly crack on stone. Again, there's the piercing ringing in her ears. But this time, she's weakened by the sunburst explosions of sunhallowed arrows; the heat and fire searing her skin. When she moves, she feels her skin break. When she opens her eyes, she sees blood - far too much blood on her skin.
Her vision spotting, she scrabbles for a blood potion affixed to her belt - and grasps nothing.
Nothing. Just as her chest clenches from the realisation that this might be the end.
Amidst the ugly shrieking of cast magic and ear-splitting explosions, Serana hears footfalls, coming closer and stopping beside her. She turns her head, the effort agonising, to see a familiar - welcome - face.
Elisbeth squats beside Serana and shoves her wrist in Serana's face. "Quick. Before his abominations reach us."
"No. No," Serana croaks immediately. She can never accept this. Elisbeth's definitely not thought this decision through; she can't possibly offer herself when her hate for vampires yet clogs her veins. "I can't."
"Would you rather die? Just take it." Elisbeth looks up to swing the flat edge of her bound axe at an incoming skeleton, smashing it to pieces. When Serana still hasn't moved, Elisbeth snarls. "Serana."
Perhaps it's the viciousness of her tone. Perhaps it's the primal desire to survive that has Serana's fangs popping out.
In a blink, she bites into Elisbeth's wrist. Blood fills her mouth, and despite the harrowing mortality of the situation, something in Serana stirs - something…confusing.
She liked it.
And that's enough for Serana to withdraw.
Serana comes to with her senses more lucid than before. Heartbeats thud against her eardrums, magical energy sizzles against her skin. The scars that crisscrossed her skin have disappeared. So have the blood. She stands with the tingle of power in her fists, fixing her gaze on Harkon by Molag Bal's altar - but not before reaching for Elisbeth, still squatting on the floor.
"You okay?" She asks, but Elisbeth seems dazed. Her usual swarthy skin is shades lighter - not as fair as Serana's porcelain skin, but close enough for Serana to worry.
"In a while," Elisbeth huffs. She presses a glowing hand to her wrist, healing it as she backs herself against the wall. Sweat beads her brow, and her eyes - there's something about her eyes that Serana can't place. They're dilated from the rush of feeding, but Serana can't shake off the feeling it's because of something else.
"What are you waiting for?" Elisbeth rasps, gaze averted. "Kill him."
And they all do.
Serana guesses she should feel relieved, staring at her father's ashes piled on the floor. He's gone. Skyrim won't be threatened by vampires like he wanted, and those that remained can continue living in the shadows, away from the attention of the living.
But there's something that unsettles her, no matter how long she stands vigil over the aftermath of Harkon's reckoning.
Why does Elisbeth's blood send shivers of pleasure down her spine?
the goal was never when
it was only you
Chapter 4: Frustration
things start to fall apart. messily.
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.
Chapter 5: Submission
Elisbeth's compulsion to be a martyr flares up - fatally. Serana starts to realise.
you know what happens when characters have an annoying martyr streak, right?
that's right. S U F F E R
References a certain quest in the Vigilant mod for PC. It's a great mod, do check it out here
The assassin takes them all by surprise.
There isn't any reason to think otherwise. On their way to Windhelm to answer Jorleif's summons, they chance upon a Vigilant some ways off from the city, their mission to investigate a cave rumoured to shelter vampires. Of course, being the bleeding heart he is, Aenas agrees immediately. So, despite the thought of wading through more waterlogged cave systems, they reluctantly trail after Aenas.
True enough, there are vampires. Not established enough to be a coven, but numerous enough to be a future threat. And like all vampire hunters, they dispatch them efficiently - a stake through the heart while they're in deep sleep of the day, a fireball for those vigilant enough to stir upon their arrival. Silver-tipped arrows from their new Vigilant friend for any still alive.
In all respects, it's a straightforward mission with a straightforward end. Within an hour, they stoke the embers of the roasting spit in preparation for a hearty meal and settle in the furniture strewn around, as if vampire bodies don't lie cold nearby.
They don't expect their fellow Vigilant to stake Serana in the heart.
He's whittling a new stake from a wayward trunk he'd sawn off from a tree in the cavern, blade of his knife glinting like silver. Then, when Serana's distracted by the popping of burning firewood with her back to him, he strikes.
But Serana doesn't die.
She's pushed aside in the last moment as the stake sinks into Elisbeth's side instead.
Aenas shoots to his feet with his greatsword in hand as Elisbeth collapses with a grunt, the bowl she holds tumbling to the floor, but Serana's the one who electrocutes the rogue Vigilant to a crisp.
Before the body even lands on the floor, Serana rips his head off with her bare hands for good measure. Her hands shake violently, but it slips her attention scattered by the rush of how she'd been a moment away from death.
When she turns, she sees Aenas propping Elisbeth up on a mossy rock, helping her keep the stake steady. It juts out out Elisbeth's body, jerking in time to her breaths. Already, Elisbeth's hands sputter with the glow of Restoration magic, but sweat beads her brow and face twisted in pain by the mere effort, the herb smell of a healing potion lathered all around her wound doing little help.
Aenas hovers close to Elisbeth, his trembling hands on her stained red. Serana can't tell if its salve or blood in her panic. His expression tells all - he's worried, and rightfully so, Serana thinks. Elisbeth's a few bottles of blood away from shock and eventual death.
And she's already blacking out.
She hurries to Elisbeth's side, heart definitely not banging about in her ribcage, to augment the increasingly-pale woman's effort at healing. Serana clasps hands over Elisbeth's own and presses down around her wound; shaking her or slapping her cheek when Elisbeth's eyes flit dangerously closed. Like drawing from a dry well, Serana struggles to summon magic meant to heal instead of maim.
The minutes drag by, all three of them save Elisbeth transfixed by the blood gushing from the wound. Serana's perceptions fogs over from the roaring in her ears, herself wondering if this is how it'll end. When Elisbeth doesn't open her eyes again, her lifeblood poured out of her to soak the earth.
"No, no, No!" Aenas's cry draws Serana back. To the blood dribbling through her fingers. To the knitted skin beneath, and the stake lying forgotten close by - out of Elisbeth's left side.
But Elisbeth's eyes are closed.
Serana whimpers, mouth shaped in a quiet no.
Then, it opens.
Aenas sucks in a breath.
Elisbeth's gaze, mercifully clear, drags to her along the corner of her eyes. "Thanks," she says, voice cracking like splintered wood - but there's no mistaking the steel within.
Serana hasn't an answer to that, mind a scrambled mess of relief - and anger. "Just-" she bites back a cry "-don't do that again."
"Thank the Divines," Aenas sighs as he leans back, now seated on the floor. His blocky shoulders shudder from the sheer relief. "Almost thought that was it. Talos."
Elisbeth smirks. "Not like this."
Her face is as pale as Serana's, but the defiant spark is back, like like it should be.
Elisbeth, in fact, does do that again.
From their travels together, Serana assumes Aenas to be the one out of the Marcisio cousins to engage in reckless heroics. Given his history of charging at dragons, greatsword held high and a Thu'um from his throat, Serana expects no less. The Dragonborn talks of the thrill of battle, but as she tells him in her usual deadpan, it's because he hasn't been chewed out by a dragon yet.
But this time, there are no heroics from the unconscious warrior slung limp across Serana's shoulder. Blood dribbles from the long gashes on his torso, the sturdy Dawnguard mail ripped through - all because an ancient vampire had gotten too close and sent him sailing through the air with a vicious swipe of its claws. Elisbeth had spotted it too late to shout a warning, and Serana couldn't summon a bolt of lightning in time.
"Jump!" Elisbeth's warning breaks through Serana's brooding, and Serana leaps over the pothole that would've tripped her up and smashed Aenas's skull on landing. Their environment isn't helping - looming walls and darkened streets of a Windhelm the world above had ceased to remember seemingly pressing down on them, adding on to the despair clinging thick on Serana's skin even through her sleeves. Death and dust linger in the stagnant air, but that's nothing Serana isn't used to. Though, if Elisbeth's panting is any sign, the Vigilant's living lungs are struggling to breathe through the dust.
Serana hopes the wound in Elisbeth's side hasn't ripped itself open again. "You alright?"
"Have to!" Elisbeth yells over her shoulder, and that's that.
They turn corners and streak past raging bonfires in search of an exit, but Serana feels as if they've passed this set of stairs at least twice now. The growls of ancient vampires shake the air and she knows their time is running out. Defeating Lamae Bal had sapped their strength and injured Aenas to his current state. To make things worse, the ground had rumbled beneath their feet then; one that usually followed the dragging of stone across a surface.
There's no denying it - Lamae's second death has awakened something else. And that something else is the current horde of vampires hunting them down.
"I swear the doorway to the slums is around here!" Elisbeth curses, skidding to a halt. Her magelight spell illuminates more of the floor than Serana wishes for, even if her vampiric sight allows her to see clearly in the dark. There's blood and bones, sticking out from squelchy earth she hesitates to term as mud.
"I know," Serana reassures. She can't miss the familiar panic in Elisbeth's tone. "Catch your breath. I'll see if I can sense anything."
Elisbeth nods wordlessly as she sways to her stuttered breathing. Her soiled Vigilant robes hang limply off her frame, looking nothing like the regal embodiment of Stendarr's will.
Serana shuts her eyes and focuses on her senses, pushing out of her head the weight of Aenas on her back and the distant roars of their pursuers. She tries to discern the ebbs in the air for a clue to their whereabouts-
-and feels it in the wisp of a draft to her right.
She opens her eyes and sees a passageway in the corner, almost hidden by the stairway leading down.
"Elisbeth," Serana calls out, and the Imperial nods in understanding.
Serana heads off with Elisbeth in tow, sliding along corners and ducking into side corridors in search of the elusive draft she feels. From time to time, she feels Elisbeth blast away errant vampires behind them, but there's a growing pit in her stomach - that despite their efforts, the stream of vampires is unceasing.
After what feels like forever, Serana feels more than a weak hint of a breeze, only to arrive in front of a locked gate.
She kicks the lock - once, twice, thrice - before it smashes open to hang on its last good hinge. Beyond it lies a small alcove with barrels and chests pushed into a corner. Opposite that, is the statue of a crucified woman.
Their way out.
"Elisbeth, it's-" Serana's chest seizes as she spins on her heel.
Elisbeth isn't right behind her. Elisbeth is a distance back and battering away a swarm of vampires with only spells and her bound axe.
It's something a lone Vigilant can't handle.
"Just go!" Elisbeth yells over the clanging of battle. "I'll hold them off. Get him to safety."
"No. Not when you need help!"
Serana slides Aenas to the floor before sprinting to the gateway-
-and jumps at the vampire that bars her way, hand raised and crackling with red energy.
Her world slows. Serana hears her breath hitch. The vampire snaps its fingers-
-and Serana's world explodes as she staggers from the impact. When the fire clears, the entryway is free of vampires, but Elisbeth's still holding off a horde. Her hand, fizzing with the dying embers of a flame spell, outstretched towards Serana.
Even from afar, Elisbeth's face is as clear as water.
Elisbeth shakes her head slowly; usual scowl missing, and replaced with a rueful half-smile. If Serana's hearing isn't still ringing from the explosion, Elisbeth murmurs a quiet sorry then.
Before Serana can react, slabs of stone crumble in front of the entryway, keeping the vampires out and Serana in.
"No." A scream rips from Serana's throat. "No!"
She pounds on the rock with her fists, grunting as she tries to dislodge the rocks blocking the entryway - to Elisbeth - but they're simply massive.
This isn't an accidental rockfall. Serana knows who caused this and why. But that doesn't make it hurt any less.
She slings Aenas over her shoulders once more, a weight suddenly heavier than before, before she unlocks the statue with a drop of her blood from the cuts on her arms.
Sounds of battle still quake the stillness of the underground, even as Serana ascends the passageway towards fresh air; sounds that remind her of someone she's leaving behind.
Sounds that ring louder than the grief mangling her insides.
There's fresh blood dripping onto the snow after they clamber out of the well outside of Windhelm, but Serana doesn't realise where it comes from till she wipes her face with her hand.
Reflected on the glossy blade of Aenas' greatsword is her face, with trails of blood from her eyes.
The next few hours pass in a whirl.
Jorleif visits them in the Hall of the Dead the moment word reaches him, even if that means waking hours before dawn to the guard pounding a fist on his bedchamber's door. Once there, Helgird leads him to a bedridden Dragonborn and Vigilant seated beside him, and dread settles in his gut.
"Elisbeth?" He says, oddly quiet, and Serana swallows.
She doesn't reply.
He understands immediately. "I'm sorry."
They're paid handsomely for their work, though Serana knows there's more septims than previously agreed in the bags he hands over. (An amount that'll surely vanish should he spot the fangs pressing into her lips.) Aenas has yet to wake, wound still bleeding due to the corrupting nature of vampire claws, and there's no chance in Nirn that Serana can descend again into Windhelm's depths to search for Elisbeth. She needs help, but the Hold guards aren't prepared for such foes.
So she waits, torn between despair and anger in a dizzying concoction that stumps her. Requesting reinforcements from Fort Dawnguard by messenger pigeon feels like facing down Vyrthur again, and scrying unthinkable if she doesn't want want to collapse from the sheer effort required.
But she manages to pen down a letter, even if it takes her the entire night. And she knows she can't put off feeding for much longer.
Because her bloodlust hasn't spiked for some reason. Her all-consuming urge on the heels of exhaustion, dampened by something infinitely worse.
Her self-loathing for letting Elisbeth die.
Help reaches within a day.
Jalissa barges into the Hall, stomping down the stairs like a mammoth that Serana can hear from miles away, frenzied steps scattering snow all over the grimy stone floor. Serana rises from her chair when Jalissa walks through the doorway, and they all but throw themselves into a hug - arms encircled tight, as if letting go would make them fade away.
"I'm so sorry," Jalissa whispers in Serana's ear, bear-hug so tight Serana's head nestles snug in the crook of Jalissa's neck; her steady heartbeat beating against Serana's skin. It's comforting. "I'm so sorry you had to experience this."
"I'm sorry," Serana mumbles into Jalissa's fur cloak. "For-"
"No. Whatever Elisbeth did, she did it. Not you." Jalissa pulls back to stare down at the shorter woman, gloved hands still clutching Serana's arms. "You are not to blame."
"I could've been faster," Serana laments, despising the way her voice cracks. "I co-"
"No. You couldn't have, once Elisbeth's set her mind to something." Jalissa shushes Serana's protest with a finger on her lips. "I love her too. I love her like the waves lapping the coast, but Elisbeth's one of the best Vigilants you'll ever meet because she knows what matters. Because you can't match her tenacity one she decides on what she wants. And if that means sacrificing herself so you both could live, so be it."
Serana thinks of a response, but comes up with nothing - stumped completely by Jalissa's earnestness. Despite her instinctive need to remain petulantly in denial, Serana agrees with everything the Breton has said.
But what Serana feels isn't what she thinks, and that's why she can't bear to smile. Why, despite being centuries older than everyone in Windhelm, she looks to a mortal for answers. "But it still hurts."
"I never said it doesn't, dear," Jalissa murmurs. Instantly, she pulls Serana into another hug, resting her chin on the vampire's head while rubbing her back. "Never said it doesn't."
It's been a long time Serana's been held like this, so she sinks wholly into Jalissa's presence. Nevermind the hard lines of her armour buckles jutting into her skin, or the dampness of a snow-covered fur cloak; Jalissa's firm embrace from muscled arms convey a degree of security and sincerity that Serana doesn't remember receiving from- anyone, so she selfishly clings to the Vigilant as if that can stave off the hurricane whirling her.
It doesn't, but it helps.
When she opens her eyes, she spots Helgird standing by the doorway, looking distinctly uncomfortable; the way people do when intruding on a private moment.
"The guards are looking for you people," Helgird explains, sheepish, as Serana and Jalissa pull away. "Says there's something you might want to see. The Jarl's steward said so."
Serana goes rigid.
"Did they say why?" Jalissa replies when Serana doesn't.
Helgird shrugs. "I'm only telling you what I heard. Best if you both were off then - I'll watch over the young man."
Even before Helgird's done speaking, Serana bolts to the Palace of Kings, leaving a bemused Jalissa in her wake. Not that Serana even realises - her world narrows to a singular thought the moment it clicks.
It's foolish hope, but Serana latches on to any she can get.
The double doors bang open, startling the Palace guards enough for them to draw their swords. Seeing the familiar woman in red and black robes stride in, followed by a new face in iconic Dawnguard mail, they relax.
The steward looks up from his meal at the long table, face breaking into a wide grin as they approach. "Good, you're here. Come with me."
With that, he stands and heads for the stairs leading up.
"What's happening?" Serana asks. She's confused - expecting nervousness, fear even, only to be confronted with a joyful steward. Deep down, she isn't truly confused - but it's a dangerous, vulnerable feeling she quashes quickly.
Still, the hope. That doesn't flicker out too easily.
"You'll see." Jorleif leaves the door open behind him and the two of them follow.
Up the stairs and turning corners, they pass by bedrooms and bookshelves unfamiliar to Serana; a different wing than the one they crossed the other day to Windhelm's underground.
"Wonder where he's taking us," Jalissa finally speaks up from behind Serana. "I'm still tired from the journey here, but I can swing my quarterstaff if it comes to that."
"I don't know, Jalissa. Somehow, this feels different."
"Maybe you're right." Serana hears the smile rather than sees it. Not like she can, since they're struggling to catch up with Jorleif's long strides.
At last, Jorleif stops at a door right at the end of the corridor. He moves to open the door, but hesitates; looking to Serana with raised brows, a silent question of readiness.
Serana nods - not that she's aware of why he's asking.
Jorleif turns the knob and opens the door.
What she sees has Serana's stomach emptied from under her.
"Elisbeth!" Jalissa gasps from behind her, before shoving past to beeline for the double bed in the middle of the room.
Serana stays rooted to her spot. She blinks a few times, convinced that it's a corpse lying undisturbed on bountiful furs, the soft firelight of the hearth playing up signs of life on a cold body. Just how did Elisbeth survive?
"One of the dockworkers pulled her out of the water some hours ago," Jorleif answers, coming to stand beside Serana. "Neetrenaza, was it? Spotted her floating face down by the ships. A group of them brought her here and made quite a ruckus at the Palace gate." He folds his arms with a chuckle. "Those scaleskins all look the same to me, though."
Serana bristles at the subtle jab. "Actually, they're unique individuals, if you bothered getting to know them."
"Ah." Jorleif shrinks back. He coughs. "Well, I guess they do. I'll leave you to it, then."
Serana glares at his retreating back before heading to Elisbeth's bedside, footfalls painfully heavy and slow.
Jalissa has taken to squeezing the life out of Elisbeth's hands, her attention squarely on the unmoving woman.
Serana can't shake off the surrealness of what she sees. Though bruises and cuts discolour most of Elisbeth's skin not hidden under bandages or her tunic, Elisbeth's frame lacks the usual agitation that Serana can fool herself into thinking that she's looking at a corpse.
She sits at the foot of the bed, not once looking away from Elisbeth's sleeping form. Her hands yearn to touch her - just to reassure herself that she's there - but her hands remain pressed to the straw mattress. There's always an inexplicable hesitance around Elisbeth that confuses Serana, because aren't they past that? Aren't they more than that?
But Serana's never been sure about Elisbeth. Even after months of travelling together, Elisbeth remains a puzzle; liable to a meltdown if Serana missteps.
That's how the three of them remain, as the candles on the mantle whittles with the passing of hours.
Sometime during the night, Jalissa leaves to check on Aenas back in the Hall. And sleep, definitely, looking at how the Breton struggles to keep her eyes open. Not that Jalissa announces that last part - Serana guesses all Vigilants have a stubborn streak to them. For an Order hounded by Daedric forces with the occasional burnt-down headquarters, Serana guesses they have to.
That leaves Serana in an empty, spacious bedchamber furnished for royalty. But of all places to relax, Serana drags the high-backed chair by the fireplace to Elisbeth's bedside and makes herself comfortable.
At some point, she must've fallen asleep, because the next time she wakes, Elisbeth is watching her through half-lidded eyes.
"If you're here, then I'm in Coldharbour," she rasps, eyes roving the length of the room she can see. "I didn't expect it to be so comfortable."
"No, silly," Serana chuckles, moving to stretch out the kinks in her joints that crack obnoxiously in the silence. "You're still alive."
Elisbeth's eyes widen, before she winces from the bruises on her eyelids. "I- succeeded? Thank Stendarr."
Her breath rattles as she exhales, face pinched in pain.
Serana reaches out on instinct but Elisbeth shakes her head, a silent it's nothing. As fast as it comes, Elisbeth sinks back on the bed, looking less bothered than before.
Serana watches her, realising that it's a pleasant way to spend the entire night. Elisbeth drifts between wakefulness and sleep, far from squirming under Serana's acid yellow eyes gleaming in the dark. Almost as if she feels safe in Serana's presence.
A vampire's company.
"Why, though?" Serana asks, aware that she's likely to get an evasive answer from Elisbeth anyway. "Why did you do it?"
"Only way to convince you to leave me," Elisbeth answers, utterly blasé; at that moment scratching at some itch on her collarbone. It's a small movement, but Serana's distracted by it nonetheless. "Anyway, it's done. And it worked."
Oh, Serana wants to know, like the reason behind her hot flashes whenever she's around Elisbeth.
But perhaps now isn't the best time.
Instead, she lets her expression soften as she gingerly holds Elisbeth's hand in hers, feeling the tenderness of flesh subjected to excessive spellcasting in so short a time. An effort any regular Vigilant might balk at, and for someone already grappling with voices in her head urging her to surrender to familiar - destructive - habits of magicka addiction?
Serana gives her an encouraging squeeze. "I'm glad you're alive."
Elisbeth looks away, distinctly uncomfortable. "I too."
But she squeezes back.
Chapter 6: Arbitration
the lydia/dragonborn tag finally makes an appearance, jalissa's quality time gets interrupted by - no prizes for guessing - our champion scowler.
it's been a while! school got really hectic these few weeks and its been a struggle just to exist and make it thru the day, so thanks for sticking around.
"See them around, love?"
Lydia shakes her head. "I think they left through the back door. Heard it slam a while ago."
"I think they argued." Aenas tenses, youthful features now strained. "By Talos, when do they not?"
With a heavy heart, Lydia watches him stab the meats on his plate halfheartedly, leaving holes all over flesh. Then, a clang as he drops his fork on his food. "Should I-"
"No." She wraps a reassuring hand on his shoulder and bumps shoulders with him. "Give them some time. And-" Lydia feels presumptuous to suggest this to Elisbeth's kin, of all people, but she smacks away the unease like the Nord she is "-they can take care of themselves. Maybe not each other, but themselves."
Aenas grunts his agreement. "Maybe inviting her had been a mistake."
"My sweet, you're not responsible for how people behave. I didn't expect Elisbeth to agree when you suggested it then, but she did. Her look of horror, though."
"I wasn't willing to just- stand by and watch them waste something they share." Aenas glances at Lydia, the woman steadily matching his gaze. There's nothing but adoration there, and Lydia feels her breath catch. "Not when I knew what they were about to lose."
Lydia pulls Aenas close before kissing him, overcome by a sudden wave of affection for her love. They don't devolve into teeth and tongue - Talos, manners are important! - but they don't break away for a while.
"Aenas Valerius Marcisio, don't ever change. Otherwise I'll regret ever falling for an Imperial, and I'll be the laughing stock of Whiterun."
"Honestly? When they challenge you, I'm certain you'll best them all and successfully defend your honour. What can't my darling do with a big shield and biceps as big as the Gildergreen's trunk?"
Lydia guffaws at the metaphor.
Chuckling, he adjusts the flowers in her hair with a tenderness he reserves for orphans - and those dear to him. "I mean it, Lydia. I'd be thankful even if you tackled me to the ground and shattered my teeth, because it'd mean we're still together. Of course, please don't actually hurt me, because that's not healthy for the both of us."
Lydia's hairs stand on end at Aenas's gesture, herself feeling the warmth of amusement ripple in her chest. Again, she mutters nothing but reverence. "Never change, my sweet."
"I won't," Aenas promises, and they clasp hands tight under the table; a simple gesture unseen to all.
Being a newly-turned vampire, Jalissa still has difficulty familiarising herself with the perks of being a creature of the night. It's been a year or two since the attack on Fort Dawnguard that cost her her mortality, but for vampires, it's like a blink of an eye for their bodies.
Really, there isn't any other reason as to why she'd leave a feast, not when High Rock cheeses are on offer, if not to escape the overstimulation of her vampire-enhanced senses. It's giving her a massive migraine that a bit of air can alleviate, but what she's enjoying now far exceeds the shallow relief of mere space.
"You don't have to, dear," Jalissa chuckles, leaning into her lover's chest as she rubs soothing circles on Jalissa's temples.
"Too bad I want to," she rumbles back in her baritone of a voice. Then, she brushes her chapped lips against Jalissa's earlobe, making the Breton shiver. "Anything for my darling."
Sure, they're sitting on a bench near Riften's marketplace and definitely scandalising the Hold guard patrolling the area - who's nowhere to be seen - but Jalissa's head pounds like a hammer on anvil and curling in a coffin isn't going to cure it. Despite what Elisbeth thinks, having fun in the process won't place a bounty on her head.
She inhales, taking in her lover's unique scent of cinnamon, wheat and something…wolfish, beneath it all. It's intoxicating. "What would I do without you, Izzy?"
"Still be your usual, dashing self, obviously. You don't need me to be perfect."
"But I need you to be better. Something about nipping on my heels to keep me on my toes."
"Hey." Izzanah's fingers poke painfully into Jalissa's temples as she startles with a low growl. "Not- not in public."
You don't know who might be watching or listening, Izzanah told her once. Better assume there is.
One slip - one slip of a tongue was all it took for her to be carted to the Silver Hand, bound and gagged like a bundle of hay. Izzanah's silent on what happened to her during her captivity, but the faded brands on her skin tell Jalissa enough. All she knows is how the Redguard escaped when the Hand's fort was assaulted by Stormcloaks one day, before she staggered bruised and bleeding past Fort Dawnguard's gates - into the sentry's arms.
Jalissa may never completely comprehend the terror, but she can do everything in her power to make Izzanah feel safe around her.
"Sorry. I'll try again." Jalissa mock-coughs for levity, but places a comforting hand on Izzy's wrist - an unspoken I understand, and I'm sorry. She feels the werewolf relax at her touch. "How can I not fall for my hero?"
"Jal, you sap." Crimson blooms on the Redguard's face. She ducks her gaze and bites her full lips. "Stop it."
"Oh, don't try to act stoic. I know you love it." Jalissa playfully flicks a finger on Izzanah's chubby cheek, dragging it along the frizzy hairs framing her jaw; hairs that Izzanah's ashamed about, given the teasing she weathers for such unladylike features. Unbelievably, sometimes from fellow Dawnguard members too. Whenever that happens, all Jalissa does is to bare her fangs with a hiss, and the teasing ceases immediately.
Jalissa brushes away the snow dusting Izzanah's nose, before planting a kiss on her lips. "There. A good luck kiss for my hero."
"I don't need a good luck kiss when I have you."
"I-" Stendarr, just when Jalissa thinks she's figured out Izzanah, her lover surprises her with something far more heartwarming. Two years and they're still learning about each other with the wide-eyed wonder of children; unspoiled, innocent readings of the world.
The fang-tickling catch? She's lost count of how often they've repeated this conversation with each other.
No wonder Elisbeth's prone to gagging just by lingering in their presence - like she had, just shy over two hours ago, before heading straight for the mead barrels. Apparently, behaving crassly syrupy is far less common in Skyrim than once believed. Or at least, to Elisbeth the surly, affection-starved Vigilant. Not that Jalissa blames her for it.
"Shh." Izzanah simply cradles Jalissa tight against her chest. "Whatever you say, know that I understand."
Jalissa sinks into Izzanah's embrace with a sigh, perfectly content with spending the hours lying against the rock-solid presence of her beloved. As a vampire, the cold doesn't bother her like it used to - and having a wolf for a lover, it means being able to stay out in ridiculous weather like tonight, snowfall as high as their ankles. There's nothing like the steady thump-thump of a heartbeat on her back without the accompanying haze of bloodlust. Something about lycan blood just puts her vampiric senses off, and that leaves her with one less thing to worry about, unlike being around other mortals. She's enough cursed blood inside her, anyway.
Izzanah toys with Jalissa's wiry, black locks falling freely around her shoulders, outside their usual braid twisted around her head. Some things even High Rock cheese can't compete with, and that's the deft fingerwork of a crossbow-wielding ranger.
Not just for innocent hair-twirling, the thought surfaces, and Jalissa giggles.
"What are you laughing at?"
"Have I mentioned how I'm honoured by how much you spoil me? I can die happy."
"Jal, you're already dead."
"Well, a woman can dream." Especially one excommunicated for fraternising with heathens. The thought balances on Jalissa's lips, a sentiment an inclination away from tumbling out as words, but she spots something enough to jerk her out of her bliss.
"Elisbeth," Jalissa whistles through gritted teeth. "She's leaving the reception?"
"Go." A nudge from the Redguard, and a kiss pressed to Jalissa's hair. Not a hint of jealousy nor irritation in that gesture - for that, Jalissa's glad. Not everyone believes that Elisbeth's nothing but an errant sibling to her. "I'll be waiting."
But Stendarr, whoever knew a kiss could help with releasing the tension in her shoulders.
They part with simple touches: Jalissa intertwining fingers with Izzanah's sinewy ones, before sliding out of her grasp with a smile.
A promise of forever.
Minutes later, she finds herself banging on the door to Elisbeth's room in the Bee and Barb.
"Hello?" She hollers at the non-response. "Anyone in? Wait, don't be an ass, Liz. I saw you enter."
A muffled sentence comes from behind the closed door.
"Can't hear you, Liz. As much as I'd love to, vampire hearing is just sharper than your average mortal, not remotely on par with the Nine."
The door swings open to reveal a scowling woman, gaunt features stretched impossibly tight over the angles of her face. Eyes speak more about someone than they'd care to say, and Elisbeth's gray ones speak of panic and fear.
Whatever irritation Jalissa feels towards Elisbeth ebbs away, with age-old worry replacing it.
"What happened?" Jalissa asks, voice dropping to a murmur. It escapes her that for once, Elisbeth hasn't a tart response to volley back.
Instead of a reply, Elisbeth leaves Jalissa at the door and heads back inside. Perplexed, Jalissa trails after her, noting the nervous energy clinging to Elisbeth in her jerky movements, as she rifles through her possessions in search of something.
What is she after? Even worse, what has the veteran Vigilant so spooked?
There's something frantic about Elisbeth this moment that Jalissa can't explain away, not even if the aroma of mead soaks her dress. "Liz?"
Elisbeth doesn't get drunk. Or rather, she doesn't allow herself to be intoxicated enough to be numbed out and defenseless.
"My cloak." Elisbeth upturns her backpack and its contents spill out in a cascade of items, bouncing as they land on the straw of her bed. Jalissa can only stay rooted to the spot, watching in horror at Elisbeth's nonchalance at creating a mess in a tavern room. "See it anywhere?"
"And why would you need one?" Jalissa helps open cupboards and drawers in search of Elisbeth's elusive cloak. At least then, she won't have to look at the debris-laden battlefield Elisbeth sees fit to call a bedroom. So what if she's a dandy for caring about personal hygiene? These Nords… "Aren't your clothes enchanted?"
"It's not for me. And it's not about keeping warm."
Jalissa feels her heart race. Those few words: the implications of a non-answer. It's barely midnight the last she glanced at a notched candle, and the night's already packed with enough mini-crises to demand at least a barrel of aged wine to blunt the stabbing pain of her migraine.
"Divines, Liz. What happened?" Jalissa slams the cupboard doors hard enough for it to rattle the floorboards. "No. What did you do?"
Elisbeth lets out a hiss. "I didn't do anything. Didn't do anything she didn't already do."
Almighty Stendarr, Jalissa groans to herself, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. Of course it'd concern Serana.
"And shut it, Stubby. There's nothing you can say that I haven't already said to myself."
"That's reassuring," Jalissa deadpans, but she believes Elisbeth - her staccato-ed heartbeat tolling like church bells to Jalissa's senses speaks more than Elisbeth would ever reveal. On a hunch, she unlatches the chest at the foot of Elisbeth's bed. Lo and behold, therein lies the elusive fur cloak dear to Elisbeth. Folded nicely too, as the topmost item on a haphazard stack of spellbooks.
Jalissa picks it up and runs a hand through the fur, enjoying the texture of sabrecat hair against her impossibly-smooth skin. A gift, from none other than a certain vampire; alabaster skin and a regal bearing, far stiffer than Jalissa herself can ever manage. Then, she holds the cloak out to Elisbeth; something the maroon-haired woman accepts with visible relief.
But Jalissa doesn't let go of it. Not yet. "Tell me."
Elisbeth's eyes dart all over; too flighty for her to claim indifference. First, to the cloak, then Jalissa's unflinching green-eyed gaze tinged with acid yellow. Finally, back to the cloak, her fingers curling into the lush furs.
"I went too far. And-" she releases a haggard sigh. "I might truly lose her. Strange, because this is what I craved all along, yet-"
Jalissa folds the cloak over Elisbeth's hands and pushes it toward her, just to coax her to look up from her hands. She does, and finds herself staring at the face of a stranger.
Eyes dull, chin tucked close to her neck. Gaze downcast, lines etched deep into skin. A picture of sorrow, if Elisbeth even is capable of showing such emotions.
"Yet all I can feel is agonising disquiet. Like knives making little, endless cuts on my heart. Not deep enough to scar, but deep enough to bleed."
Because you love her, you scuttlehead. It's glaring to Jalissa like sunlight on her skin, but Elisbeth…
Elisbeth isn't the best example of a well-adjusted survivor orphaned by a family massacre.
A few weeks after they first met, Jalissa told Elisbeth her maroon locks were a gorgeous sight, but the Imperial answered flatly, fingers unconsciously curled into tight balls.
It reminds me of who I lost, and how they were taken from me.
Well, not really. Jalissa wished Elisbeth had been more forthcoming, rather than putting her through a painstaking process of piecing together morsels of information dropped in conversation over the years. What Elisbeth had said instead was something less poetic.
Don't ever say that to me again.
"And you're just going to-" Jalissa gestures wildly, words failing her for a moment "-bribe her with a cloak? I think the lady has more self-respect than that, Liz."
Elisbeth bristles at the barb, but otherwise leaves it be. She fidgets instead, clearly mulling over something. "Far from it."
This side of Elisbeth makes Jalissa's neck hairs stand on end - not that the Breton frightens easily, and especially so after she turned. It's a level of coolheadedness and- stability, that Jalissa remembers only to have appeared once before - when Elisbeth bends her intellect towards exacting sadistic revenge to those on her vengeance list.
"I will fix this. I will do what I failed to the moment I failed her."
"And what on Nirn is that?" Jalissa swallows down the unexplainable fear bobbing in her throat; the fear that she's about to do something drastic to avert a disaster.
Elisbeth stares Jalissa right to the bone. "Stay."
Chapter 7: Damnation
this is the scene that forced me to write an entire fic just to give it the plot it deserves. hope it's worth the wait, heh.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There's a blizzard outside, wind and snow pounding against the walls of the cabin Serana's forced to call home these few days. The weather's been this way for weeks, unusual even for winter in the mountainous highlands around Dawnstar. As a vampire, the cold doesn't freeze Serana's insides like it does for humans or werewolves, but even she finds herself edging towards the roaring flames of the hearth.
She wishes it's because a woollen sweater over her cotton tunic can't ward off the chill, but that's wishful thinking. Like before, they're just lingering habits of a mortal now bereft of mortality.
It's in such unease that nudges Serana on alert when she hears boots stomping up the stairs. The door bangs open soon after, letting in a gust of ice-cold wind that shuffles around the cabin.
Serana looks up from her dusty tomes to face her visitor without lightning sparkling from her hands, familiar with the footsteps of someone unaccustomed to stealth.
A smile breaks wide on her face. "You came."
"You're sloppy. I could pick up your trail a few hours out." Elisbeth drops the knapsack of supplies on a long table before heading to the hearth to warm herself, palms outstretched towards the fire.
"That's because you're a vampire hunter. You're trained to do that."
Elisbeth snorts. "Incidentally, your pursuers are vampire hunters too."
"Obviously they're not as good as you." Serana pads over to the hearth, hands tucked under her biceps. There's a nervous buzzing in her feet that she feels the need to walk off. "I haven't had visitors since Aenas the other day, so having to fend off wayward hunters would've been entertaining, at least. Compared to just sitting on my hands, stuck in this cabin."
Elisbeth rolls her eyes with a sigh. "This is serious, Serana."
"Who said I wasn't being serious?"
"You-" Elisbeth's expression contorts with anger - why? - but it's fleeting. It's always fleeting for the Vigilant who exercises a steel-clad grip over her emotions. Elisbeth dashes away her feelings with a shake of her head. "Stop being childish. It reflects poorly on you."
"Stop treating me like glass, then," Serana snaps, voice rising. "I can take care of myself. What infuriates me is that you still do so despite being aware of this!"
Serana's clueless to the source of her vehemence. What she does know, is how closer she is to Elisbeth now - drawn like a starving vampire to sweet, pulsing blood in the veins of the living. Blood that caresses her senses like a lover's touch, due to Elisbeth's elevated heartbeat and general agitation.
This is unlike her. But so is Elisbeth, when she'd shoved her wrist in Serana's face, aski- begging her to drink as debris rained all around them in Volkihar's chapel. Serana hasn't thought of the Imperial the same since she tasted her on her tongue; precious blood slaking her thirst thrice over. Nor has Elisbeth, once she thinks about it. And if she really concentrates, she can't recall when Elisbeth's vehemence towards her tempered into…tolerance.
"You're a fool for thinking that I'll break a promise to Aenas."
You'd protect me even without a promise, Serana knows, but she bites her tongue on that. "Aenas doesn't treat me like a child incapable of fending for myself. Half the time I wonder if you even trust m-"
"I trust you." Elisbeth resolutely stares at the hearth's flames, her jaw set. "Otherwise I'd have slit your throat long ago."
"Oh, but that's not all, isn't it? Elisbeth, I know you. Trust doesn't come easy to you, let alone for filth like me."
Unexpectedly, Elisbeth flinches at the descriptor. She also mumbles something that Serana fails to hear in her surprise.
Serana stalks closer to Elisbeth, brows hooked in annoyance. "Oh, so now you'd rather stay quiet?"
"I said I was sorry for calling you that, like I did those months ago." Elisbeth shifts on her feet, torn between moving away or staying put. In the end, she grinds her jaw. "I don't use that word anymore. Not even 'bloodsucker'. Aren't we past this?"
"Yes." Serana bites out, hard enough to make her teeth chatter. "We are. I just- I just have a question." She watches Elisbeth scowl, drawn to how the firelight plays off the severe angles of her face. If the Imperial has any disagreements, it isn't voiced. Serana doesn't shift her gaze away as she asks, "Why do you trust me?"
"Because Aenas trusts you and I trust him."
Again, Elisbeth's expression is masked - albeit sourly, unlike the goggle-eyed look favoured by Aenas. Again, her eyes are fixed on the flames, as if wishing for them to incinerate her right there right then. Just for this unpleasant interrogation to end.
Serana feels her blood race in her ears, as if fanned by the fire. Dealing with Elisbeth is just- infuriating. "Stop lying."
"Stop asking me silly questions, then."
"And why can't you answer me?" Serana challenges. "Got something to hide?"
"I don't-" Serana flinches as Elisbeth knocks against the cooking pot by the hearth "-have something to hide." Instead of healing it, Elisbeth examines the growing bruise on her hand with a hiss.
"Then why are you agitated?"
"I'm not agitated!"
"Could've sworn t-"
With a roar, Elisbeth slams Serana against the wall hard enough to rattle the cabinets; forearm shoved lengthwise across Serana's throat and body pinned against hers. Foreheads inches from touching, howling wind of outside ambient noise to their ragged breathing.
Little more than a hairsbreadths separates them; the distance too close to not feel the heaving of each other's chest despite the layers of cloth between them. Despite her terror - thrill? - at being trapped, Serana watches the gamut of emotions Elisbeth cycles through. First, of bared-teeth fury. Then wide-eyed horror, with an apology on her lips.
Elisbeth's chokehold slackens - barely - but Serana grabs her collar and yanks her closer, Elisbeth's arms falling limp to her sides. They're nose to nose now, each breath inhaled smelling of each other; Elisbeth's reminding her of crisp pine cones in winter. Hers must reek of blood, but Elisbeth's far from sickened. In fact, she looks dazed.
If Serana's being honest, it's stoking something inside her, just like how Elisbeth's presence has always inspired a confusing, overwhelming wave of emotion that leaves her more than breathless, once the moment passes. Feelings inside her she'd once thought impossible upon her undeath.
It's the height of Skyrim's winter, but sweat drips down Serana's brow like trails of lava.
"I want you," Serana selfishly admits, fangs flexing dangerously. She forces them back in with a jerk of her jaw before pressing herself into the tantalising tautness of Elisbeth's muscled body, gaze boring into Elisbeth; deluding herself into thinking contact can create connection.
The Vigilant's breath quickens; her eyes flickering dark.
I want you. Serana hasn't dared verbalise it till now, smothering the idle fancy whenever it wisps to life because it's too much for her. For them. It'll complicate whatever it is between them and Serana isn't sure she wants to plunge into that unthinkable unknown. Not when she isn't certain of Elisbeth's feelings, even if Elisbeth's proven it a million times over. (Has she?)
But tonight, there are only bodies in heat in a cabin burrowed in a forgotten corner of Skyrim.
Serana's breath ghosts on Elisbeth's lips, coaxing a moan from now-parted lips. A moan that Serana takes as cue to kiss Elisbeth, gently at first - with enough space for the Vigilant to shove her off and lodge a dagger between her ribs.
But Elisbeth doesn't.
Elisbeth dives into the kiss. Her teeth bite into lips and hands rake through Serana's hair with a ferocity that frightens Serana enough to make her legs shake, but the Vigilant props her on her feet. Wedges a thigh between Serana's legs, grinding her hips against Serana's enough for the vampire to shudder from the arousal. From the fear of being hurt, from being powerless to resist.
"Elisbeth, I-" Serana's cut off by the pleasure spiking through her system. Every touch is scorching - hands roving to slip under Serana's tunic to dig into skin, nails pressed hard enough to draw blood; before those fingers drag agonisingly closer to her chest and promise more.
Never in Serana's wildest dreams does Elisbeth reciprocate - let alone like this - and Serana drowns in the hazy bliss with a cry.
It's the first of many that night, and it's a while before they make their way to the double bed to their right.
When Serana blinks awakes, the first thing she notices is the throbbing ache in her bones. It's a welcome feeling still strange to a body quick to regeneration.
She doesn't do more than rustle the sheets as she rolls to her side, not even exhale at the sudden tenderness of her joints. She's glad she does. Someone's perched on the edge of the bed, back towards Serana and long fingers curled around a smoking pipe. But there's no mistaking the shoulder-length locks, their maroon hue as intense as the visceral spectacle splayed across Elisbeth's bare back - red welts tracing skin mottled by scars and bones jutting through skin.
Heat flashes on her skin. Her handiwork.
It takes all of Serana's self-control not to reach out; to run her fingers over those bumps and ridges, because this moment is overwhelmingly surreal. Never had Serana expected Elisbeth to actually give in to desire, to vulnerability, despite their diverging loyalties and the merciless wounds they inflict on each other. So she basks in the utter domesticity of this moment, committing the sensations to memory.
(But maybe, it's precisely because it hurts that makes their touch electric.)
Serana doesn't know how long she's been watching. Just that at some point, Elisbeth reaches for her clothes strewn on the floor and begins to pull them on, piece by piece; as if to lengthen the moment. Regardless, she's enthralled by how Elisbeth's muscles and skin deliciously stretch over bone.
But desire soon hardens to fear. Frankly, the silence is stifling. Serana can't bear but to watch like prey in the clawed clutches of a vampire, as Elisbeth twists her hair into functional braids. Thin ones, one on each side of her head; enough to keep her hair out of her face. A Nordic style Serana taught her one snowy night by the campfire.
Elisbeth can't possibly have missed the abject lack of steady breathing, of Serana's signs of slumber. Elisbeth's wound tighter than catgut on a lute, and agonisingly so - not even sleep can ease her weariness, so she turns to potions to stave off the inescapable exhaustion.
Why doesn't Elisbeth acknowledge the silence?
"You're going to leave?" Serana blurts when Elisbeth stands. "Just like that?"
Don't leave me. The thought bounces in Serana's head - first as a whisper, then as a plea. Carrying like voices in a cavernous hall.
"Yes." Then, Elisbeth turns around, busying herself with wrapping strips of worn leather around her hands. Covering more of her skin, and more of herself. "This was a mistake."
Those four words. Only a sheet shrouds Serana's body from the world, her being too drained from their exertions to dress decent before succumbing to sleep. But those four words mangle more of her heart than Elisbeth's previous barbs.
"Say something." Elisbeth's tone is plaintive, regret morphing to terror. "Please."
There's a strange hollowness in Serana's chest as she sits up, leaving an empty cavern where she thinks her heart should be - if she still has one. Try as she might, she can't summon tears. Only the gnawing sense of nothingness resides in her bones, and that robs her of the ability to speak. So all she does is wrap the sheet tighter around her shivering, naked body. Maybe it shows on her face, the unspeakable sensations inside her, herself a hollowed husk awaiting a fate unknown to her.
Elisbeth waits, waits with fingers twitching with jittery energy, but Serana doesn't react. Doesn't give her anything to act on. Not a cry, not even a slap - and Serana's unresponsiveness is akin to dipping herself in molten metal. A pain that seeps into every crevice of her body.
So Elisbeth does as she's always done: flee as fast as her feet carry her.
And Serana does as she's always done: watch helplessly as those who matter abandon her once more.
i appeared in your arms
as if i had been born there
you'd never let me go
but i don't know what i believe anymore
Chapter 8: Salvation
Elisbeth meets Serana in Riften's graveyard.
so this is it. been a wild ride, and im heartened if you've stuck around till now. meant to publish everything by femslash feb, so apologies for the delay. school has been terrible lol
there's a bring me the horizon reference somewhere in this fic, so a hi-5 in advance if you spot it
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Riften winters have a certain beauty to them, Serana's come to realise. Other than the dreary stone walls of Fort Dawnguard, she's been around often enough to call Riften home if she isn't traversing the province on behalf of the order.
But today, there's a certain sadness to the way snow drifts down from the sky; collecting on the gravestones sticking out of the snow-covered ground. Perhaps it's because of where Serana sits, on the steps of a coffin important enough to be housed under a roof. Candlelight surrounds her, but not a moment passes when she considers snuffing the flames with her bare hands. Just to feel something; anything to displace the crushing weight lodged in her chest.
She sits there watching the snow fall.
Soon, a new scent matches the crisp freshness of snow. Stale tobacco and the nutty sweetness of ale. Scents that raise the hair at the back of her neck, but not her instinct to run.
It's- Serana can't bear the thought of doing anything, anymore. So she waits with bated breath, thudding heart in her throat. Waiting for Elisbeth to find her mooning by her lonesome like the piteous, lovelorn maiden she is. If Elisbeth's feeling generous today, then she'll rub that into her face with more jagged words - no different than slicing up her flesh.
And Serana's willing to let her do it. Hasn't she always?
Footsteps crunch closer, pausing outside the tomb. A cloaked figure steps into view at the doorway - but barely. Just a head and a foot, as if fearful of exposing more.
Serana desperately wants to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
"Can I come in?" Elisbeth's stuttered breaths are resonant in the quiet.
A beat. Then, Serana nods. The barest of movements, more eyes than head. More reflex than rational thought.
Elisbeth sits beside her, folding her dress carefully under her knees to keep it from creasing. Serana knows it's to avoid speaking - Elisbeth hasn't an ounce of propriety in her. Blood and dirt over the sting of freshly laundered dresses, a dancer's footing for battle over couplets in a Jarl's longhouse. Serana's seen them all during their travels together.
(Another stab of silver to the heart. They know each other so well, and yet.)
Indeed, they avoid speaking, as they have. Because it's one to talk, and it's another to speak - without pretenses, without judgement. For how long, Serana loses track. Instead, she watches as snow drapes the grass like a thick blanket. But what's an hour to a few years? What's a few years to a vampire?
Elisbeth radiates heat in the cold, body heat peculiar to the living, and Serana is content to bask in it; bringing back sensations of that night that she fences in at the back of her mind. For all its hurt, it still comforts. However dysfunctional, however distant, it still is a moment of connection.
"Serana, I- I wanted to apologise. For before." For everything? "I was behaving like an ass."
It's sincere. Serana's tempted to accept it with a smile for the chance to speak to her again. Like friends. But-
"Aren't you tired of this?" Serana's chest heaves as she dips her head, staring at the cracks between the tiles. Perhaps it's time.
"Tired of what?"
"This cycle. Of apology and hurt." Serana digs her soles into stone. "Because I am, Elisbeth. I'm exhausted from holding on to goodness I see from you, only to be disappointed by how you demean me. Half the time I'm treading lightly around you and- it's confusing. It's draining. And so aggravating, because it feels like you're slighting my intelligence - me - just by glancing in my direction."
"I want things to be like before, Elisbeth. When we were friends. When we could just- talk, without spiralling into another argument."
"Don't we now?"
"This isn't healthy and you know it. Friends don't tear into each other for sport, nor do they sleep with each other and just leave!"
In that dizzying rush of emotion, Serana feels her eyes change; from passably human to visibly vampiric. A blink later, it passes, and the interior of the crypt comes into focus again.
She doesn't mean to shout. She doesn't mean to make the candle flames gutter out with her voice and plunge the crypt into blackness, lit only by the pale moonlight filtering in through the open doorway.
But it's better than throttling the woman beside her; the woman capable of unleashing raging desire in her deadened body right now and anytime else. Serana cannot touch her when a maelstrom of feelings whirls inside her, lest it becomes a replay of that night. This time, with clarity of mind and agonising hindsight, she cannot do it. Not to Elisbeth, nor to herself.
They both deserve so much better than this facsimile of love.
Elisbeth swallows. "I know."
"That's all you have to say for yourself?"
"Serana, what do you want me to say? That your feelings are mutual? Where every moment around you doesn't pass without me restraining my affection for you? Because I can't." Elisbeth's voice cracks, together with her stoic exterior. "I can't. Can't give you false hope when I'm like this. I'd hoped- hoped like a smitten milk-drinker that the love bards sang about could save us from ourselves, from our pasts that continue to haunt us - but whenever I see you, I- I-" Her face twists, a picture of anguish. Elisbeth doesn't complete the thought. "No. I was a fool."
She's crying, Serana realises. Her eyes glimmer in the moonlight from tears yearning to break free, save a single trail of dampness running down her cheek. And even then, Serana watches as it crystallises to ice. Seeing the Imperial like this - it stings Serana's cheek like a slap that Serana recoils from - but no. She hugs herself tight enough for her bones to feel the squeeze, hoping to harden her resolve. No.
"I only regret that it took laying with you for me to realise. That like a Dremora, I broke your heart to see how broken mine was. And for that, you can despise me till the Alik'r freezes over."
Serana snaps. "You're shutting me out like you've always done. I'm right here, Elisbeth. Right here."
Again, Elisbeth hesitates, her breath misting in the cold. "I know."
Again, the infuriating non-answer. Incensed, Serana shoots to her feet, but a hand grips her wrist.
"Don't leave," Elisbeth pleads, eyes wide. Even in the dark, there's no mistaking the flicker of panic there. "Please."
Serana may be a bloodthirsty parasite preying on the living, but she hasn't the heart to leave Elisbeth like this. While she rips her hand out of Elisbeth's grasp, she sits beside her again - but this time, with a frown. Wondering if she's better off leaving the Imperial where she is and out of her life.
She hasn't been doing fine after that night, but. She's managed, especially with the assignments she handles for the Dawnguard.
She has to.
"I ruined it, I admit." Elisbeth voice quivers, but she steadies herself by stiffening her back. "First with giving in, and then the utter silence. I've always shut you out because I thought - think - you're better off without me. I have history, Serana, and I don't want to hurt you again because of it. I'm a vile, loathsome pile of cattle crap who can't be what you need - I'm the one you fear becoming, the beast ruled by bloodlust. Can't you just stay away?"
Can't you see I'll only drag you down with me?
"You don't get to decide that," Serana retorts. Impulsively, she shifts in her seat - but the fight in her fizzles out at the sight of the Imperial. Serana stops short of reaching for her cheek; wanting to kiss away the frown and tuck those wiry maroon strands behind the curve of Elisbeth's ear, but Serana cringes at such unbidden thoughts. Now isn't the time for such gestures - she's supposed to be livid. "You fucking don't," she snarls again, but it lacks the ferocity of before.
"Yes, I don't." Elisbeth rubs her eyes with a fist. Slowly. Tiredly. "But I do. I don't understand how you can love me when I'll gleefully dismember every vampire I see for what they've done to my family. When I knock myself out with bottles of potions just for a night's uninterrupted sleep. Just to live with myself and the horrors I've committed for a piteous illusion of righteousness."
Serana thinks of the charred bodies, the blood spurting out of slit throats. Bodies mangled beyond recognition to become sacks of meat, and they dangle like choice cuts from hooks in the ceiling.
Some of them in Stendarr's name.
"Because I share your pain. Because I know who you are in spite of it." Serana answers immediately, surprising even herself with her sincerity. "Is it so strange that I love you as you are?"
How you deserve the love you deny yourself?
It's strange, how she doesn't shirk from love. Strange how she, too, used to eschew Mara's benevolence, thinking herself undeserving by nature. But that's until she realised that love isn't about deservedness. One accepts the love they think they deserve, but that doesn't stop others from loving them.
Above all, love is freely given, and Serana's fortuitous enough to bask in its warmth. Its comfort. And maybe, that's what has kept her from careening into an existence powered only by the singular desire to kill.
Without Stendarr, Elisbeth sees herself as nothing.
"You're lying." Elisbeth's smile is brittle as she matches Serana's gaze; where Serana looks away, unable to face the emotions reflected at her. Of derision, yet shy hope - her words more half-hearted than accusatory. "You're drunk. I can smell the blood on your breath, under the spiced wine. You could never love a monster."
"That makes two of us," Serana shrugs. She doesn't feel a fog clouding her senses; it isn't a strain to hear how the wind whistles in an empty graveyard, how Elisbeth's trying her damndest to still her trembling hands by bunching them into the folds of her dress. "But here we are."
To that, Elisbeth is silent. And the night drags on.
A breeze picks up, carrying the chill with it. Serana shivers from the rippling on her skin, then crosses her arms tightly on her chest to stave off the cold.
No. Out of habit.
"Here." Elisbeth shrugs off her cloak and holds it out. "Take mine."
Skeptical, Serana gives her a once-over; taking in the collar of her dress that exposes collarbones, the rolled-up sleeves on veiny arms, and the thin pair of leather boots peeking from under the hem of the dress. Curious, she asks, "Heat enchantment?"
Elisbeth nods. So Serana takes the cloak with a grateful smile and wraps herself in it, revelling in the texture of sabrecat fur. Obviously, it's a peace offering from the Vigilant, and perhaps a shield from prickly topics - but regardless of her intentions, Elisbeth's earnestness has Serana smiling to herself.
It's endearing, these unassuming moments of humanity Elisbeth initiates; when ranks and titles fade meaningless to the moment of now. It's what Serana loves about her.
"What are we doing?" Elisbeth wonders aloud, looking at nowhere in particular. She's taken to drumming her fingers on the steps, fingers bare and uncovered by strips of leather. It's a rhythm that Serana spaces out to.
"Wondering if love is worth the heartache it brings." Serana's mood turns rueful. "Wondering if it's worth trying again instead of letting go."
Feeling a thrill down her spine, Serana looks up again to see Elisbeth watch her with an indiscernible look.
Serana is transfixed. Elisbeth raises a shaking hand, then curls her fingers around the curve of Serana's jaw to cup her cheeks; a touch that has Serana shivering. Gently, Elisbeth pulls Serana closer, until Serana can see the flecks of black in her irises.
Elisbeth's hands are warm - so very warm against her skin - and Serana closes her eyes, sinking into the sensation of calloused skin with a soft moan. Elisbeth's touch tingles; the touch of a pyromancer.
"I want this," Elisbeth breathes, hoarse. Serana's breath hitches. "Despite my past. Despite my honour. And despite everything, I want you."
"As do I." Serana opens her eyes to meet gray ones; as opaque as the woman they belong to. "But I want all of you. Even the parts that make you wish you were dead."
Almost on cue, Elisbeth flinches. Serana covers her hands with hers, fearing that she'll lurch away if Serana doesn't stop her.
"I know I can't possibly solve all your problems, but you don't have do it alone. I want to help you, Elisbeth. Like how I want to face my own terrors. But you have to let me." Finally, Serana leans into the Imperial's forehead. Finally, she accepts that this isn't her choice, but Elisbeth's. And that even if Elisbeth refuses, it's not her fault.
Finally, Serana delivers the ultimatum years overdue. "Otherwise, I can't bear to do this again."
"I have dreaded those words ever since my unforgivable mistake," Elisbeth murmurs, fingers still stroking the curve of Serana's jawbone. The softest Serana's known her to be. "But it's what I deserve. I hurt you deeply, and you speak true. But I can't."
Elisbeth's wit is acerbic; Alik'r-dry, but Serana can't muster a chuckle for that. Not even a hum of mirth.
Sometimes, there's freedom in surrender, Serana muses, as she tunes out all sensations to numb herself to what will come. Sometimes, there's also misery in taking things as they come. And sometimes, all they can do is to deal with the fallout as best they can.
Even if isn't what her heart yearns to hear.
"I can't." Elisbeth says like a whisper of a whisper, and Serana feels the ground under her disappear.
Her lower lip trembles. Her ears buzz. And she stays absolutely, deathly still.
"I can only stay."
Serana's eyes snap open.
"It terrifies me to not assume the worst of everyone, Serana. The suffering I weathered, the barbarism I exacted - if everyone and everything is a threat, they can't hurt me. Because I've hardened my heart and closed myself off to the world."
"Even to affection freely offered."
Elisbeth tries to smile, only to grimace; teeth like shards, and her jaw struggling to bite them back together. "I can only promise more heartache, even as I try to loosen my grip on my anger."
Serana can't help but release a strained huff; breathless from the revelation. "Sometimes, that's all we can do."
Elisbeth makes a noise resembling a giggle; uncharacteristic of the grizzled vampire hunter she claims to be, but that's the last Serana hears before Elisbeth kisses her.
There's a smile behind it, soft but chapped lips on Serana's blood-painted ones. It reminds her of flame-crackled wood and chilling despair, but Serana senses nothing but her - her hair, her smell, her warmth - as she hooks her hands around the back of Elisbeth's neck, while Elisbeth's hands trail down her fur-covered shoulders and then her arms, tugging at the sleeves.
They pull away with ragged breaths and swollen lips, but Serana's insides melt at the reverence in Elisbeth's hawkish gaze; searching Serana's face for signs that this fantasy is about to fall apart.
"This is real." Serana smiles, caressing the nape of Elisbeth's neck in reassurance. "For as long as we will it so."
Elisbeth opens her mouth to speak, but nothing tumbles out. She laughs and ducks her gaze, a tinge of pink colouring her cheeks. "I- You're just-" a swallow "-beautiful. I always meant to tell you, but…"
But I wasn't brave enough.
Serana feels herself blush, too. "You too."
Of all things, they laugh like a pair of blushing maidens, even if it's nearing midnight in a graveyard. And in that moment, they aren't creatures divided by loyalties and morality. They're just lovers giddy with the freedom to love each other, drunk from the hope of a future together.
A promise of forever.
"Shall we move elsewhere?" Elisbeth asks once they're sober, not quite looking at Serana. Almost as if she's embarrassed by the very request. "We might be, um, interrupted here."
This is the side of Elisbeth that Serana clings to like a mage to magicka. Like a prism, Elisbeth reflects anything but herself; the person who feels and desires as deep as the Dwemer cities below - unchanged at her core, against any manner of calamity Tamriel can toss in her path. Only… buried under caustic words and walls of fire.
"I can teleport us to someplace quiet," Serana says, thinking of the towering walls of Fort Dawnguard. But she leans closer to drawl her words, letting her breath tickle Elisbeth's ear. "Do we really have to?"
Elisbeth shudders. She turns to Serana with a salacious smile and flicks her tongue on Serana's lips; drawing out a sharp inhale. "I like your thinking."
Serana casts a muffle spell when Elisbeth mutters an incantation for invisibility.
"Playing it dangerous, are we?" Serana pushes herself off the steps to backtrack towards the wall.
"I'm a vampire hunter and you're a vampire," Elisbeth says as she stands, closing in on Serana with swift steps. "What else can we be?"
Again, Elisbeth backs Serana into a wall. Again, Serana flushes just from the thought of squirming under the only person she trusts herself with. Where her body doesn't go rigid like a plank, let alone lash out against nonexistent assailants in the throes of fear.
Serana does none of that.
Instead, she moans as Elisbeth slips a hand under her tunic, the belt clattering to the floor. "Fire," she gasps out, hands finding a home splayed across Elisbeth's back. "Not to burn. Just hot en-" she gasps as Elisbeth grabs her bottom "-enough to warm."
Elisbeth silences her with a kiss and a finger in her loins.
i'm scratching at my skin
to take my mind off the absence we created
the lines blur together like the veins in my arms
and i wish i wasn't so alone
you're the difference between hell and home