2021-07-22: Comfort in Darkness

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  • Log: Comfort in Darkness
  • Cast: Xander Lovell, Neriah Parringer
  • Where: Zoara Badlands (Xander's Kelpie Lake)
  • Date: July 22, 2021
  • Summary: Neriah finds Xander in his loneliest hours to comfort him, and he finds himself surprisingly grateful for her presence.

<Pose Tracker> Xander Lovell has posed.

A desert lake, waters still and dark, once flanked in sand and the meekest of shrubbery. But now crimson flowers have taken to the shores. It began small -- only a single patch -- and grew to overtake the perimeter in brambles and bright blooms that seem to glow in the moonlight.

They flourished from even the few sacrifices made to them. But the Fang who did it lingers like a ghost. Like Cereza, and like Lindow, perhaps his presence inspires them further. His emotions. His soul. He doesn't know. Right now, he doesn't care.

If Xander means to keep himself from being discovered, this is an exceptionally poor way to do it. But maybe that's what he wants. Let them come. Keep fighting. Go until he can't. Feed the Fangs. Nourish the garden. A whole town at once, or as many people over time. He still doesn't understand it, how one was ever better than the other.

It's all going to feel the same in the end.

He sits on the edge of the lake where the flowers are thickest, leaning against his own knees and staring blankly at the water. His hair's even more disheveled than usual, and his mantle's missing with his shirt hanging halfway off of his shoulder. Some of the thorned vines coil around his arms, as if he'd been sitting here for ages.

<Pose Tracker> Neriah Parringer has posed.

"You look like you've been going through a hard time."

The voice is quiet, but clear, with a subtle echo to it, and it comes with a growing glitter of light across the water - white infused with red. It compliments the flowers entirely too well.

Neriah's standing just above the water, only one booted toe in contact with the surface - just enough to cause a slow, perfectly symmetrical ripple to radiate out from her position. The outfit she picked is somewhere between the ecclesiastical, the sorcerous and the revealing - red and white cloaks that spill around her shoulders, boots that race most of the way up her thighs, a gold circlet that looks vaguely papal, and a main outfit that could generously be described as armour and more accurately as a crosswork of straps and metal parts designed mainly to preserve her modesty.

"What's wrong, Xander?" Neriah smiles faintly and holds her hand out to the disheveled young man on the shore, a hint of sadness behind her eyes. "I hate to see you this sad. Tell me what's wrong and maybe I can help you, okay?"

<Pose Tracker> Xander Lovell has posed.

The faintest glimmer of recognition hits Xander's eye with the sound of the voice. Normally, he'd be reaching for a dagger right now, but it's a voice he knows, and a presence that doesn't call his blood lust. He glances up at her, her visage one of elegance and care, and his the result of succumbing to feral instinct and neglect.

It's with an empty gaze that he looks at her hand. The gesture to reach back is empty and automatic, vines pulled taut with the motion of his arm as he stops just shy of her fingers. He should have done this before, he thinks. Why is he doing it now?

They don't have friends, he insisted. But Xander's gaze finally focuses on Neriah, and somewhere he knows he doesn't know what he'd label her beside a kind of friend, after a fashion. ...And that he's got Riley to thank for that makes something sting in all the numbness he's been trying to cultivate.

Xander curls his fingers in.

"...I think you've got enough to worry about without adding me to the list," he says.

<Pose Tracker> Neriah Parringer has posed.

Even if the word 'friend' is hard to reach for, there is at least one thing that's clear. Neriah's one of the few people in the world who could ever truly understand the shared burden - the demand of something unfathomably dark, yet inextricably bound to oneself. They're part of the same paradigm, one way or the other.

When he reaches, Neriah floats forward just a little. Her long fingers curl over Xander's closed hand when he curls his fingers in, her touch gentle, and she settles to the edge of the lake with a soundless tap of high-arched bootheels.

"I worry about you quite a bit, actually." Her tone is soft and underlaid by a gentle smile. "I know it's hard for you to accept, but I like you. And as much as there's a lot to do now, I do wonder how you're doing. How you're making out in this world."

Neriah sinks to her knees, a patch of light among the sullen garden. Her other hand comes up to enclose Xander's in a two-handed clasp. She's got gloves on, but they're lacy and fingerless, lending her touch a softness. For just a moment, she bows her head.

When her eyes come up again, she's bitten her lower lip gently. "Something happened with Riley, didn't it? It's alright... you can tell me. I'll keep your secrets between the two of us."

<Pose Tracker> Xander Lovell has posed.

It's not fair what happened to her, Xander always thought. And there's something tempting in the way she sees the world -- and sees Valmar's power. Sometimes Xander looks at all these life-fed flowers over the dying Filgaia and wonders if her words don't contain fragments of truth. Or maybe he just hopes they do, because it would be an alternative to the inevitable.

Xander sucks in a sharp breath with Neriah's touch, like she'd stabbed him instead. But he doesn't pull away. Maybe he doesn't deserve it, but maybe there's a lot nobody ever deserved, and deserving never mattered. Neriah's worry is as unfathomable as her finding him likable, but so is everything else.

He still finds it hard to look directly at her. Xander and eye contact never got along. But at the mention of Riley's name, he glances at her, hesitating. Secrets... that isn't the problem. Xander sighs. "... We... had a fight," he says, finally.

Then that sullen look gains some bite to it, his eye narrowing and his lips curled in enough of a snarl to show a fang. "Or I should say he tried to get me killed in a fight."

<Pose Tracker> Neriah Parringer has posed.

Her touch is the softest of stabs. Her fingers caress like silk razor blades over his knuckles. She bows her head a moment, her curls brushing against her cheeks.

When she looks up again, it's to look into his face. Neriah bites gently down to her lower lip and exhales as Xander begins to explain what happened. That glance gives him a look at the flicker of surprise that dances behind her eyes at the talk of what happened.

Not just a fight, but a betrayal. "Tried to get you killed? What happened? It wasn't just some kind of misunderstanding, was it...?"

She squeezes her hands snugly around Xander's, then relaxes them slightly, her shoulders sagging a little beneath the open draperies of her overrobes. They're trimmed in gold and look for all the world like something she must've picked up in St. Heim.

"Were things breaking down between you two?" she asks in a quieter voice. "I know it can be hard... carrying around a part of Valmar. Especially having to share that experience with someone else. It strained my relationships even with people who didn't share one... I can see how it would make things hard for two."

<Pose Tracker> Xander Lovell has posed.

It hurts, feeling anything at all. Feeling gentleness most of all.

But Neriah's reached out and she's dragged him back up to remembering to be alive again. Emotions swirl again, and like they so often do, they latch onto that spark of anger because the heat is easier to deal with than the cold. He's never caught on to how he quickly he risks burning through it.

He looks to his hand in hers and takes another breath. Some of that anger settles with her words. Xander was someone without a part, once, when Riley was. How difficult it was for them then, how difficult now... And Neriah, her whole life of that. It sobers him.

"The curse made it into his throat," Xander begins to explain. "He couldn't speak. He could barely eat or drink. Sometimes, he couldn't breathe. It was... It was killing him." Xander grits his teeth, and his hand reflexively grips back on hers.

"I... wanted to satiate the Fangs enough for him to rest. I found a small settlement. I know he didn't want me to do it, but he agreed to support me." It's absurd, saying it out loud, but even aware of it, Xander speaks without any remorse. It's what he had to do. He'd resolved himself to it a year ago.

"...But he went behind my back -- he almost died running off on his own, claiming some other stupid lie I believed -- and tipped off some Drifters to meet us there to stop me. To kill me. ...To kill us."

Xander's throat starts to hurt saying so many words at once, dry and tight. He breathes in a little more ragged for it. It feels foolish, telling Neriah this much. But she's asking -- and he hasn't got much left to protect.

<Pose Tracker> Neriah Parringer has posed.

Neriah presses her lips together in a tight line as Xander explains the predicament Riley found himself in. The progression of the curse - and the lengths Xander went through to do something about it.

The fate of the settlement leads her to look off to one side with a soft sigh. Her gaze turns back to the young man. "I remember the first time it drove me to those lengths," she murmurs. "It was a town called Three Cucco Spring. When it was over, I wanted to die."

Neriah tilts her head to one side with a faint smile, sad, but laced with understanding. "I think there's a time where we all just... want it to end. Maybe that's what he was trying to do. To set up a situation where some Drifters would come along and just... end it all. But the truth is...." She squeezes Xander's hands again.

"...it's never that easy," she admits in a more muted tone. "What changed for me is when I went through a period like that. After I killed everyone in that town, I tried as hard as I could to just... bottle the darkness up. To only let a little of it out when I needed it."

Her eyes darken a shade as she looks up to the sky. "...and all it got me was Id punching me in the face and just about breaking every bone I had. That's when I realized that I wasn't controlling anything. I was trying to run from something that was a part of me. So I just... embraced it. Learned to let it be a part of me. And things started to get better."

Neriah shrugs, robes rippling subtly. "Maybe the same thing's going through Riley's mind. It doesn't excuse what he did. But maybe he's still trying to escape it."

<Pose Tracker> Xander Lovell has posed.

Xander jerks his head up and stares at Neriah. Three Cucco Spring. Not a place he knows, but one Neriah did. When it was over, I wanted to die.

Cereza.

"Neriah --" He says her name with uncharacteristic softness, realizing how much of a mirror he's looking into. And while he growls and snaps, and while Riley jokes and laughs it off, Neriah has her own gentle smiles and dignified demeanor. Something to bury it all a little bit under.

He goes quiet as she speaks, and stays that way for a few moments after she's done.

"...This wasn't going to be my first." Xander's expression wavers with the admission. "He was afraid I would want to disappear again." Shattering his stupid, soft heart, as Riley put it. And Riley had explained that. But Xander had taken for granted how deep that fear was. "Or maybe he didn't want to accept that I could handle it now. That I... could embrace it now."

Xander closes his eye with that. Another heavy thought that's been clawing into Xander lately... that Riley doesn't quite realize who he's dealing with any more. That he only loves a shadow he hasn't figured out he won't get back.

"He does love running." Xander sighs. "This wouldn't be the first time he got scared and tried to throw everything away."

<Pose Tracker> Neriah Parringer has posed.

Neriah brushes her thumb along the back of Xander's hand. Whatever sharpness that tough might've carried may seem a little softer now. She has her moments of indignity - anyone who's ever seen her in the morning can attest to that - but the weight of controlling the Papacy has forced her to grow up just a little faster than she might've.

"I know it sounds crass to say it gets easier," she says with a rueful smile. "But it gets easier. The urges become a part of you. And as much as you won't want them to, trying to fight them will only make things harder."

As much as Xander leaves things unsaid, there's a part of Neriah that can flip through the pages of him - can at least get a peek at that stupid soft heart. The flowers were a giveaway. A beautiful, blood-stained fingerprint left by the young man's sadness on the world itself.

The temptation to hug him is awfully strong. Neriah just nods, biting gently down to her lower lip for a moment.

"It's hard on you both." Understatement of the century right there.

"If you like," she ventures, "I can try to talk to him for you. You two love each other very much. I don't know how much I can help... but I hate to see you two driven apart."

<Pose Tracker> Xander Lovell has posed.

It is softer, and Xander's tension eases out of him. Even the embers of anger he tried to clutch to go to a quiet smolder instead of threatening to flare until they turn to ash and leave him cold.

It's been a while since friends. It's been since, well, Cereza. When the curse took him, and everything he and Riley grew up with was devoured in that darkness. ...And if Xander ever had to, he'd do it again, he thinks. Because there was only ever one other option, and it was an option so intolerable that it would have felt like the greater sin.

It gets easier.

"It was never as hard as it should have been," Xander admits. "Not after the first time. Because... he was there. Because if I could get us even five more minutes together..." Xander huffs a breath of an almost laugh. "I thought he felt the same way." Before this conversation, the idea Riley didn't felt like a death sentence. Now... "I wonder how I make it easier for him."

That's always been the struggle, but he wasn't looking from the right angles, was he?

Without Riley here to tease him, Neriah pointing out how Xander feels doesn't have nearly the same level of bristling indignation. Only his cheeks redden for it with his eye darting bashfully away. "Not that I'd stop you, but I'm not about to ask you to get in the middle of this mess. It --" Xander's shyness multiplies. "...It was nice enough of you to... come find me."

<Pose Tracker> Neriah Parringer has posed.

Neriah closes her eyes for a moment as a thought occurs to her: It may not be something Xander can control. The decision has to come from within.

It's all the more important that she talk to Riley. Losing part of the Fangs is one thing - the cold, pragmatic concern, the churning of the Mind of Valmar through her own thoughts. The rest of it is entirely Neriah's. He's a nice guy, and he understands what it's like - and he's in a situation just like hers.

Not for the first time, she wonders whatever happened to that tear-stained letter she wrote to Riesenlied. How that girl would have reacted to all this.

When Neriah looks up again, she curls tender fingers, sliding them into the spaces between Xander's to weave her hand with his. "Sometimes it helps to talk to someone who gets where you are, right?" she offers with a crooked, sad sort of smile. "I've been where you've been. It's a tough road. Maybe all Riley needs is someone to talk to who understands it, but who isn't so close to it. Whatever happened, I have to believe that he still loves you. Even if he's trying to run away from things right now."

Her smile grows a little softer. "Hey... you're my friend, Xander. Of course I'd come find you."

<Pose Tracker> Xander Lovell has posed.

Xander looks against to their hands, passive when her fingers tangle with his, but eventually giving a small squeeze into them. His hands have always been cold, and maybe that's why everyone else's always feel so warm.

There's no escaping this. He keeps wishing there were, and hope drags him back down every time. Neriah's been where they've been, step for step. Not a vague parallel, someone who understands in theory, but someone who was there. He wants so badly to believe her. That it gets easier -- for him, for Riley. Because the only other option is some inevitable, horrible and hopeless end.

"Right," he says, unable to make eye contact again. Whenever Xander closes his eye, the memory of Riley pleading with him in the river comes unprompted. But in Xander's own fear for the betrayal, he couldn't see Riley's. "I... hope he's not eating too many weird things off of the ground right now."

Friend.

"...I still meant what I said, about lending you a hand if you needed it," Xander says. "Don't forget that."

<Pose Tracker> Neriah Parringer has posed.

Neriah's hands are, actually, a little warm - and soft. You'd never know they're hands that have killed more people than anyone should ever kill, or that one of them at least is infused with the Claw of Valmar.

The tangle may be loose, but the thought is clear. There's no escaping this - the situation, at least. The clasp of hands is another matter, and she begins to release it with a quiet nod. The sadness behind Xander's eyes is clear enough, but it seems lessened, for the moment.

There's only one way to lessen it in the next, she decides. Find Riley.

"If he's eating anything yucky, I'll paddle his bottom for you. I promise."

Definitely friend.

When Xander makes that offer, it brings a blush to Neriah's face as she straightens again. "Thank you, Xander. I'm still getting things organized up at the church, but I'm almost ready to start putting pieces together. When I'm sure of what's next, I'll invite you over. It'll be nice. You'll love the decor."

neriah that is the holiest centre in granasity you're talking about

<Pose Tracker> Xander Lovell has posed.

Their hands part, but the warmth still lingers, and that promise of hers finally manages to win a smile from Xander, small and subdued as it is. "He'll deserve it. Oh, but --" Xander looks around, then reaches into his pouch to bring up a small pouch. He offers it to Neriah. "Antidotes. Just in case." They look like small, round hard candies. These ones taste like pineapple. "Or keep them for yourself if he's not making himself sick."

If Neriah decides that Riley is not so sick he requires an antidotes and that he deserves to suffer so she can have extra candy, that is entirely her business and Xander's at peace with the possibility.

"Then I'll be there," Xander says. And this time he isn't making stipulations about needing kills or how as long as it serves his goals too, what-not or so-forth. He owes her a favor. Or, rather... he owes her friendship, and this is what that looks like between friends who have been thrust onto the same dark path.

That's fine, he thinks.

...And he probably will love the decor.