A/N: So... it's been a while! I decided to take a break from FanFic for the last few months because things at work have been incredibly stressful and I decided I needed to maintain some semblance of a social life. Unfortunately, despite my love for writing, it's not something that comes to me easily and does tend to take up a lot of my time when I actually do manage to sit down and get any done.
Thankfully the big project my company was dealing with has now finished, so I've de-stressed and found some motivation to sort out a new chapter.
So, anyway, sorry you've had to wait so long for this. And to anyone who's recently reviewed Quietus and hasn't received a response from me - I apologise and I thank you.
The hood was gone.
If Serana thought her eyes deceived her, then her nose did not. The scent of her was unmistakable; rich and warm, powerful. The blood of a dragon.
The vampire stood, speechless. She'd waited for this for so long; had almost resigned herself to the fact that the Dragonborn wasn't going to return. Now she was here, Serana didn't know what to do.
Rella was, for the most part, the same as the vampire remembered her. Two fresh scars marked her features – one beginning at the corner of her left eye, vertical and straight, and the other, shorter and thicker, sat just above her right eyebrow. There was a distinct weariness lurking in the depths of her murky green eyes that hadn't been present before; she seemed… haunted.
The vampire felt a sudden and strong rush of tenderness for her, then, thinking of Rella standing before the World-Eater alone, knowing she might not live to see another sunrise.
Serana ached to reach out and pull her into an embrace, but she was afraid of the way the Dovahkiin might react. What sort of ordeal had she faced in Sovngarde? How far had she had to go to survive the battle?
They were questions she may never get the answers to.
"You found me," Serana finally managed to say, voice tinged with wonderment.
The Dragonborn nodded gently, wearing a small smile. "I knew where to look."
Silence stretched between them, hanging thick in the wintry air. Neither knew what to say to the other in order to overcome the atmosphere. What had been a small, indiscernible crack in their relationship had now become a great, gaping chasm that neither could cross. Could they ever hope to repair it?
Only time would tell.
The vampire was the first to speak again. "You did it," she said, "you defeated Alduin."
The Dovahkiin nodded mutely, averting her gaze. When she spoke again, her tone was quiet, wistful. "And still my fight is not yet over."
Serana watched her with a knitted brow. "If Alduin is gone, then…" She trailed off, her eyes settling on the prone corpse of the exotic – vampiric – stranger. It took only a moment for the realisation to set in. "He's… he's one of them, isn't he?"
Rella's expression darkened and she dipped her head once, firmly. "They're hunting me," she told her. "They have been for some time."
"What do they want with you?"
"I wish I knew."
Although they were no longer linked through their vampiric bond, Serana had spent enough time with Rella to be able to perceive her emotional state. Lassitude clung to every part of her being. It had been just over three months since the night the Dragonborn had fled, and it was clear she hadn't allowed herself any respite. She was punishing herself for what had happened, a self-imposed sentence for her mistake that was beginning to severely wear on her.
"When was the last time you slept?" the vampire asked. "The last time you ate?"
The Dovahkiin shrugged, and offered nothing more.
Serana reached for her hand, but the younger Nord stepped backwards, moving out of range and pulling her cloak tighter around her shoulders. "I'd forgotten how cold it was here," she remarked evenly, moving closer to the waning campfire.
"It's no High Hrothgar, at least," Serana returned smoothly. "Even I felt the cold up there."
Rella grunted something that resembled a hollow laugh, dropping to crouch next to the dying flames and warm her palms. "Sometimes I think I'm more relieved about not having to climb those damned steps again than I am about defeating Alduin."
Serana circled around what was left of the fire to perch on the end of the frosted log, contemplating her next words. The Dovahkiin's attempt at making casual conversation hadn't gone unnoticed, and yet the vampire wasn't certain she could ignore the lingering tension between them. So desperately she wished they could just fall back into their old rhythm, but it was a wish she knew would never come true. Too much had changed, and she feared it was for the worst.
The incident in the Nord ruin had been the turning point. That was when the mostly calm, gently rippling waters had become ferocious waves, swelling into a tempestuous sea. From that moment, everything had shifted. The soft pull of Rella's blood became a relentless tug, as if she'd been tethered by a length of rope, unable to maintain a reliable distance without getting wrenched back again, too close for comfort.
Her solution had been to cut the rope; to completely sever herself from the Dragonborn. It served to save herself from the pain of resisting and to protect Rella from the vicious beast that threatened to emerge from inside her each day they spent together. She'd thought, although it wouldn't be entirely painless, that to break their ties would be relatively simple and there would be no looking back – that after the initial sorrow had abated she would be free from the compulsion.
But what she'd failed to realise, what she'd never truly recognised, was the strength of the other, underlying desire. Despite trying to bury her feelings, not all of them had been laid to rest. Her attraction to Rella had been an almost equally powerful longing, and separating from her had caused it all to come flooding out again.
Serana hadn't believed herself capable of conquering the creature within, had never been able to fully control it. Even now, she was still under its influence – she'd just grown better at ensuring the safety of those around her.
As she sat staring into the cinders, the vampire found herself embroiled in an internal struggle. There was so much she wanted to say, but the fear of scaring Rella away with the intensity of her admissions was an effective silencer. Where before they'd spent nearly every hour of the day travelling together, the three months spent apart seemed like a long time. Serana's feelings hadn't changed, but there was every possibility that Rella's had.
Eventually, the quiet appeared to unsettle the Dragonborn, prompting her to fill it. "Lydia told me you were there that day," she said. "At Dragonsreach, as I was leaving for Sovngarde."
Serana lifted her gaze. "I was."
"She gave me your message."
The vampire waited for her to elaborate, unsure where Rella was going with the exchange.
"I read it just before I went through the portal," she continued, eyes focused on the snow-covered ground.
Still, Serana waited, mind racing. There were so many scenarios that could unfold from this, and many of them frightened her.
"And until that moment," the Dragonborn's voice was edged with sadness as she spoke, "I had been prepared to step into that gateway and never return." Her throat bobbed, and when she finally looked at Serana, she was on the verge of tears. "But after I'd seen those words, I couldn't do it. I realised I was punishing not only myself, but you, too." She rose slowly to her feet, turning away from the older Nord to draw in a long, shaky breath. "I blamed you for the choice that I'd made. I held you responsible for my mistake, and…" Rella met the vampire's gaze again. "I couldn't leave this earth without telling you I was sorry."
Serana stood, and without a moment's hesitation moved to the Dovahkiin and wrapped her in an embrace. "The mistake was mine," she murmured. "I should have been more vigilant. I wasn't there to stop you and I should have been."
The Dragonborn pulled away from her and held her at arm's length. "Serana, don't."
"I failed you."
Rella took the vampire's cheeks in her hands, her tone firm, yet also somehow soft. "You did nothing of the sort." Her gaze fell to Serana's lips.
Serana closed the gap between them. "Rella, I—"
A sound in the distance, a crack akin to that of a branch breaking, echoed across the small basin. The noise immediately set the Dovahkiin on edge and she spun around, drawing the crossbow strapped to her back.
"It was probably just an animal," Serana surmised, although she couldn't be certain. If it was one of them, she wouldn't know it.
"It won't be long before they find me here," Rella muttered. She scanned the distance for quite some time, persisting until she was satisfied they weren't going to get ambushed by the dead man's allies. "I should keep moving."
She pushed past Serana to begin ascending the slope from which she'd arrived.
The vampire easily kept up with the Dovahkiin's brisk pace. "Where will we go?"
Rella stopped and turned to her, expression hard as stone, though not entirely cold. "You're staying here," she answered sternly. "Burn the body and remain close to Gelebor. I'll draw them away – I'm the one they want."
The transformation had come so suddenly that it caught Serana completely off guard, forcing her to grapple with the notion that this Dragonborn was the same one with whom she'd been speaking mere minutes before.
The vampire frowned, shaking her head lightly as if she'd misheard. "What?"
"Burn the body," Rella repeated. "And quickly."
She started to walk away again, but in an instant Serana darted forwards and snatched hold of her wrist. "So that's it, is it?" she questioned angrily, yanking the Dovahkiin around to face her. "You're just going to walk away?"
"Let go, Serana."
"After everything, after all that we've been through… have I come to mean so little to you that I'm not even worth a 'goodbye'?"
Rella's jaw clenched and she shook her head tiredly, trying to wrest herself from the vampire's grip and failing. Her mask had begun to slip. "You mean a great deal to me," she conceded quietly. "Which is why you can't come with me – it's too dangerous."
The vampire slid her fingers from the Dragonborn's wrist to take hold of her hand. To her surprise, Rella allowed the contact. "I'll decide what's too dangerous for me," Serana told her softly. "Not you."
The Dovahkiin's plight was unspoken, her entreating gaze conveying everything her lips could not. Serana was shattering her barriers as quickly as she could erect them, and was pleading with her to stop. "You don't know what these people are capable of."
"I don't," Serana agreed. "But if they are as dangerous as you say, then there is no chance in oblivion I'm letting you fight them alone."
"I don't want to drag you into this," Rella said, but her tone had lost all its conviction. All that was left was regret. "I won't let you get hurt because of me. Not again."
"You're not dragging me into anything I'm not already willing to play a part in," Serana asserted. "You don't have to do this on your own, Rella. Whatever comes, we'll face it together."
The Dragonborn opened her mouth to speak, but before she could offer any further objections, the older Nord carried on.
"This won't mean much," she began, firmly holding Rella's gaze. "But one of the few good things my father taught me was that oaths are not to be broken, and I know you're no stranger to words of honour." Nervousness fluttered through her body, and she paused to collect herself. "If Castle Volkihar still had people who were able to fight, I would command them to follow you into battle without a moment's hesitation." With Rella's hand still clasped in her own, the vampire lowered herself to her knees. "But in their absence, I have only myself to offer."
"Please, let me go on," she interrupted, imploring. "I want to do this."
Rella, respecting the vampire's wishes, said nothing more, but the uncomfortable countenance never departed from her features.
"Rella, last of the Dragonborn: I swear my life to yours," Serana continued, bowing her head and placing a fisted hand over her dormant heart. "Beneath the eyes of the Nine, I vow to be your sword, and be your shield. As the Divines are my witness, I promise to fight for you for as long as I am able."
"And should the situation demand it, I will die for you."