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pumping sunlight for blood

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For the first time in a long, long time, Nandor was alone. 

 

As the train pulled slowly out of the station, he stared at the shrinking image of Guillermo’s abandoned suitcase, dark eyes fixed on the spot long after the platform vanished into murky night, its fluorescent lights fading like the last dregs of hope in Nandor’s constricting chest. 

 

He drew his backpack more tightly to his shoulders, squeezing his hands into fists on the straps. Something unfamiliar and sharp was trailing its claws along his insides, snagging on the raw vulnerability in his stomach. As much as a man of his stature feasibly could, Nandor curled in on himself in the seat, hair falling in a sheet around his face. His throat was clenched in a vice grip around a lump that tasted an awful lot like panic, lodged sticky and unmoving in his throat. 

 

Guillermo… didn’t come. 

 

Guillermo didn’t come. 

 

It felt like a nightmare, like something Nandor would soon wake to escape from, jolting up in his coffin and thwacking his forehead against the lid. But it wasn’t a nightmare, it was the stark, unyielding present – and Nandor was trapped in it, alone, on a train heading for a world that had carried on changing long after he had stopped minding its progress. A hapless, infernal time-traveller with a Jansport and no companions, more forlorn than the smallest bloodthirsty duckling in the vast expanse of unfeeling space...

 

“Is everything alright, sir?”

 

Nandor startled, head jerking up to meet the nervous gaze of a young train attendant, who likewise flinched at the sudden movement. They stared wordlessly at each other for a beat. Nandor shook himself internally, clenching his hands impossibly tighter as he drew his torso up imperiously. 

 

“Everything is o-akay,” he gruffed with more force than necessary, glaring at the quailing attendant. He raised his chin. “And also, I am just fine on my own. I prefer it, actually. I am not a duck.”

 

The attendant nodded fervently, shuffling backwards. “I’m, uh, sure you aren’t. Er, you do. That is, you, uh… just let me know if you need anything!” 

 

The train car door slid closed hurriedly. 

 

Nandor huffed, settling back in his chair with a determined grimace. That’s right. So what if he was alone? So what if his… if Guillermo didn’t come? He was Nandor the Relentless, for hell’s sake. He was no stranger to unknown travels, to long rides in the night, to striding into foreign lands and making them his own. He was ruthless, resilient, powerful. He would be fine without any of them; least of all Guillermo de la Cruz, with his quick hands and shining eyes and fierce protectiveness. Guillermo, the man who could match his blows in combat and still brush his hair without tangling it, the man who always watched over him, the man who always came back for him, the man who promised to come home with him, and yet tonight of all nights, the man who did not... No, no, no. Best not to think too hard on that. He was Nandor the Relentless, and he didn’t need Guillermo, and that was that.

 

...Right?



*****

 

Guillermo was seasick. 

 

Even inside the dark claustrophobia of the coffin nested in the nailed crate, he could feel the moment the boat launched into open water. The swoop in his belly made him dizzy and nauseous, accelerating his panicked breathing even more. His hands clawed uselessly at the solid wood of the coffin lid, muscles seizing up in panic. I’m going to die, he thought with rising hysteria, vision going spotty with hyperventilation. I’m going to throw up, pass out, and suffocate on my own vomit in Lazlo’s coffin. I’ll never be a fucking vampire, I’ll never come back to Staten Island, I’ll never bring us all back together, I’ll never see Nandor… 

 

His racing thoughts froze, crystallizing on the last image he had of Nandor, kneeling at the foot of his coffin and smiling up at Guillermo. I’m kidding, Guillermo, he said, with mirth in his eyes, the gentleness of his words still new and stilted in their shifting dynamic. I will take your bag for you.  

 

Nandor, who huffed and grumbled while concealing a smile, tugging Guillermo’s luggage behind him as he nodded at Guillermo and the Cravensworths. Safe passage, he intoned solemnly to the vampiric pair, but his eyes slid shyly over to meet Guillermo’s, filled with childish apprehension and excitement for their own impending adventure. Guillermo grinned helplessly at that expression, breathless with his own sense of incredulity and aching fondness. I’ll meet you at the station, he promised, impulsively reaching out to squeeze Nandor’s wrist. Nandor quirked an eyebrow, but nodded, inclining his head like they were sharing a secret. Yes. See you at the station. 



Tears blurred Guillermo’s vision as he stared up at the coffin lid. He forced his breathing to slow, curled his raw hands into fists, and stilled the tide of despair threatening to engulf him. 

 

I can’t die here.

 

Guillermo squeezed his eyes shut. He pleaded with the blood of Van Helsing, begging to once again borrow its now-familiar power, vivid despite dilution; but he didn’t stop there. He thought of the strength of his mother, the skills she had taught him to survive. The flinted persistence of de la Cruz and of all the other names that lineage subsumed, concentrating into a small sun in his blood, a sun beating rebelliously against the frigid fangs of the American east coast. He drew his own light all around himself like a cloak, and in his heart, he struck a match to the mountainous kindling of 11 years of devotion. 

 

Nandor is waiting for me. 



He opened his mouth, and screamed with all his might. 



*****



Why didn’t he come?



Nandor stood in the shadow of the drawn hotel curtains, brushing the thick fabric with his fingertips. Outside his homeland lay beneath the blazing sun, so changed by the passage of time that he could scarcely recognize it. The language, too, had evolved, so that even the tattered words he could dimly recall had been transfigured beyond recognition, forcing him into the grand irony of approaching his own kingdom with the halting, borrowed tongue of a tourist, murmured shamefully under the cover of night. 

 

But… there were some things that had not changed. Everywhere he saw the faces of cousins, brothers in arms, advisors and loved ones long gone. They lived in the shape of strangers’ noses, the slope of their jaws, the depth of their eyes. The hustle and bustle of the people here still marched to the same rhythm Nandor could remember from his youth, as if the old tempo had been preserved beneath the modern melody. 

 

And though the smells were more acrid with pollution than he remembered, that, too, could not wholly conceal one enduring scent under all of them, the same smell of the soil in his battered backpack. It was the smell of the land, beckoning him back like a mother calling her child in from the doorway. Nandor wondered if the earth here hungered for him, if it knew the body it had been cheated of had returned at long last. Because by rights, his body should be the soil here. His bones should be mouldering with time and burial, his flesh long recycled into the footpaths of the modern mortals above. Instead he roamed the surface still, and whether maternal or famishing, the land could not accept him. He was condemned. He was alone. 



But why didn’t he come?

 

Nandor had pointedly avoided thinking the question on every mode of transport that had brought him here, every grueling train, plane, bus, rickshaw. He had numbed his mind to wondering as he skulked through unfamiliar alleyways, hunting the rude tourists, sparing the polite ones, slipping through checkpoints and border clearances as a cold mist under cover of dusk. He had intended to see much more of the modern world before returning to Al Quolanudar, but he found that he could not remember any of the travel arrangements besides this final intended destination. Nandor and… he had planned this part out so meticulously, even Nandor’s vague memory and uncertain navigation of the neoteric was enough to get him here. And here he had been, for just shy of two days, with the banks of the river Tigris just barely visible in the distance (or they would be, if it were nighttime and Nandor could draw back the curtain), and though he should be sleeping the daylight away in the narrow hotel bed… he could no longer hide from the damnable question. 

 

Why didn’t Guillermo come?

 

The more he pondered it, the deeper the yawning pit in his chest became, the sharper the clawing in his stomach. He pored over his last few weeks with Guillermo over and over, the last few months, the last few years. He could not deny that he did not treat Guillermo as the man deserved; that time and time again he had hurt him, belittled him, vented his own frustrations, driven him off. If history had any footnote to spare Nandor the Relentless, it was that he did not have much in the way of a conscience; but still his insides twisted with reluctant guilt as he was forced to confront the reality of his own behavior towards his ex-familiar. 

 

But… that couldn’t be all, could it? Guillermo was not the sort of man to skirt confrontation when needed (a trait Nandor privately relished), and they had literally fought their problems out several times now, including just before Nandor extended this intimate invitation. Not only that, but Nandor really had been trying . Ever since the incident at the Theatre, he had determined to hold Guillermo in greater respect and care, clumsy though the process was; and he knew the observant human had noticed. Though the request for Guillermo to join him in travel and in eternity had been somewhat spur of the moment, it had been heartfelt. Nandor meant it, and Guillermo wanted it. Didn’t he…?

 

Nandor’s heavy brow furrowed even further as he drew away from the window, sitting heavily on the rickety bed. Had he entirely misread Guillermo’s desires? Did the man not want to be a vampire anymore? Or, perhaps, did he just not want to be… around Nandor anymore?

 

Nandor groaned aloud, scrubbing a hand across his eyes. He despised this, this torturous, confounding parsing out of thoughts and fears and feelings . Why did it matter so much what Guillermo thought, or did, or felt? Why did Nandor still feel the way Guillermo’s warm hand clasped around his wrist in their last moment outside the house on Staten Island, the way his brown eyes looked up at him in the night, wide with wonder and warm with promise? Why did it matter? Why did it hurt ?

 

Nandor moaned again dramatically, scowling at the wall clock. Soon the sun would set, and he could leave this suffocating room, forget his useless ruminations, and lose himself to the murmur of the land. He could prowl this strange rendition of his country and stop the hearts of those who were not worthy of it, forgetting for a while that there was one heart that was not his to command, no matter how he wished it – a heart far away, pumping sunlight for blood. 

 

*****

 

Guillermo gulped raggedly. 

 

The screaming had served its purpose in drawing the attention of some of the freighters aboveboard, who hurried towards the cargo hold in search of what could possibly be making such an unearthly noise through flooring-thick layers of insulated steel. Because it truly was unearthly – vampires could go into a kind of suspended sleep during long transport, not to the degree of a super slumber, but more akin to hibernation – yet Guillermo’s supernaturally enhanced voice was so piercing that it had startled Nadja awake. Across the hold and secured in her own snugly boxed coffin, she growled a muffled, 

 

“What the fuck? Gizmo?”  

 

To which Guillermo paused just long enough to yell at a more normal volume,

Lazlo-tricked-me-into-his-coffin-but-I-need-to-get-out-and-go-after-Nandor-sorry-Nadja ,” 

 

just before the stomping of the freighters alerted them both to the imminent descent of spooked sailors below deck. Nadja hissed out a hurried, “Fine! Be careful! Piggish boys, all of you,” after which Guillermo promptly resumed his shrieking. 

 

“Is someone out there? Help! Please, I’m trapped in this box!”

 

“Over here? I think it’s this one. What the hell is going on?!”

 

Moments later, Guillermo could hear the splintering of wood as someone took a crowbar to the lid of the crate. Tensing his muscles for exactly the right moment, Guillermo slammed open the top of the coffin, springing out of the box and popping his fists in the faces of each of the three sailors surrounding the crate. 

 

“Sorry! So sorry!” he yelped as they all crumpled to the ground, out cold. He scanned the room hurriedly, relaxing momentarily when he didn’t see anyone else in the vicinity quite yet. He ran for the stairs, briefly rapping on Nadja’s crate as he did.

 

“I’m going! Sorry again! There should be people from the council waiting for you in England. Don’t kill Lazlo, I’m sure he had a good reason not to come. Good luck!”

 

He didn’t wait to hear Nadja’s grumbled reply as he stole up the stairs, readying his cross knuckle dusters as he did so. While they wouldn’t add any supernatural bite to a fight with a mortal, they would still spare Guillermo’s fists, which were already raw from the earlier confrontation. His precaution was rewarded when he stepped above deck, where another group of several sailors was peering down into the stairwell in apprehension, perhaps vacillating on following the other three down to investigate the horrible noise. Guillermo clocked the one in the middle to clear a way through, calling more apologies over his shoulder as he sprinted across the deck towards the survival rafts. 

 

“I’m reeeeallly sorry!”

 

He shouted as he leapt into the nearest raft on suspension, yanked a wooden stake from the inside holster of his trenchcoat, and let it fly for the release lever. The last thing he saw as he plunged off the side of the ship was the dumbfounded faces of the sailors still standing with the crumpled one between them, too flabbergasted to move or respond. The raft hit the water with a violent splash, and Guillermo snatched up the oars, desperately trying to orient himself. He was flooded with relief when he saw that the boat had not yet made it too far from the loading dock; he could still see the shorelights in the distance. With all of the practice rowing his vampires up the channel on their occasional outings to Manhattan, he could easily make it back to land within an hour or so. From there he could speed back over to the train station and grab a ticket bound for the international airport, though he knew he would still be at least half a day behind Nandor if the vampire had boarded a plane – and given the frequently melodramatic bent of Nandor’s nature, Guillermo was quite certain he had. The tricky part was predicting where Nandor would go; they had planned a few starting places, but really, their itinerary was meant to be pretty footloose at the beginning. This was to be a world tour, after all. Without Guillermo by his side, where would Nandor venture first…?

 

But Guillermo didn’t have to wonder for long. He grimaced with mixed chagrin and consolation as he briefly released one oar to pat his coat pocket, which crinkled with the sound of many documents. Yes, he was the one with all of the travel papers; he hadn’t quite trusted Nandor’s organization to hand them over with his suitcase. Which meant, there was only one place Nandor was likely to remember the directions for.  

 

Guillermo sighed, fixing his eyes resolutely on the lights of Staten Island. 

 

Right. Land, Train, Plane. 

 

He couldn’t catch the same flight as Nandor, but Guillermo hoped flights to Iran weren’t too infrequent. 

 

*****

 

The moon was full.

 

It shone on the reflection of the water, refracting pale rays of light along the mica-flecked banks of the river. Nandor sat beneath a date palm, long fingers idly brushing across the sand, unseeing gaze fixed on the rippling current. His stomach was full of the blood of a crass caucasian man who had been dressed in ridiculously clean fatigues, but even the satisfaction of removing him from the streets did not quell the ache in Nandor’s bones. So he had sought out the river, at last, trying and failing not to think of the person he had intended to show it to. This place, too, had preserved a certain familiarity despite the march of time, and it comforted and wounded Nandor’s soiled soul in equal parts. Things he thought he’d long forgotten whispered at the edges of his mind in sensory snatches: fresh hoofprints in the shimmering sand, the gush of a sticky date in a gritty mouth, the coolness of the river on chafed thighs and burned cheeks. He felt like he was slowly, slowly sinking into the ground, each ghostly memory drawing him like grasping skeletal hands into the riverbank. Distantly, Nandor felt his mouth twist in a humorless grin. The land was hungry for him, after all. 

 

But before he could relinquish himself to it, his keen senses picked up yet more familiar repetitions, these ones not of the distant past, but of the precious recency. The first sound was footfalls on sand, rushing rapidly in his direction. While he was more used to those same footfalls on creaky floorboards, there was no mistaking their particular heft and speed. 

 

The next sound was the rapid pounding of a human heart; but again, this one had a rhythm not quite like any other. If Nandor had known what to call them, he might say it had the resonance of a tambora or a bombo criollo, deep and warm and thrumming, a call and response with every beat. 

 

I’m here, the heartbeat said, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here. Are you there?

 

“I’m here,” Nandor rasped in a cracked voice, stumbling upwards and whirling around. “I’m over here. Where are you, Guiller–”

 

A small but dense force rocketed into him, and were Nandor a slighter man, he would have been bowled right into the river. As it was he stumbled back a few paces on the gritty riverbank, just managing to steady himself as his arms wrapped reflexively around the avenging angel of inertia clinging with alarming constriction around his middle, as though afraid of being pried off. Nandor stooped as much as he could in the vice grip to peer urgently into the panting human’s face, desperate to read the emotion there. Even as his own feelings flashed wildly through astonishment, joy, resentment, uncertainty, and a longing so strong it could immolate him from the inside out… Nandor needed to see what Guillermo was feeling.

 

The human’s face was flushed, damp with sweat and something else. Tears, Nandor realized, tracking the wetness to Guillermo’s red nose and bloodshot eyes. His curly hair was an utter mess, glasses askew, patchy stubble prickling against Nandor’s silk vest. He looked like he hadn’t slept at all in the time they’d been apart – actually, Nandor had no idea how Guillermo had gotten here so quickly from wherever he’d been, so that was probably true – and his lips were a wreck of worrying, chapped, bitten and swollen. Nandor couldn’t ever remember seeing something so breathtaking, which was further enhanced by the sudden, certain realization: It was an accident. Somehow, Guillermo accidently missed their meeting. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be here. He had clearly halfway killed himself trying to catch up to Nandor, mysteriously predicting exactly where to find him. Nandor felt the tremble of Guillermo’s straining muscles, and without a second thought he scooped him up, holding Guillermo in his arms so their faces were level. Guillermo gaped at him for a moment, then drew a deep gasping breath to explain. 

 

“Ma–Nandor, I… I’m so sorry, please don’t be mad, I didn’t mean to miss you at the station, Lazlo nailed me in his coffin and I had to sneak off the ship and then I didn’t know when the next flight was, and I stayed overnight in the airport but then it got delayed because of a storm, and I couldn’t stop worrying about if you were okay and what you must think of me, and by the time I–”

 

Nandor pressed his face up against Guillermo’s, running his nose along his cheek and breathing in deeply. Guillermo smelled like sweat, and seawater, and public transport; but mostly he smelled like home, even more than the whispering land all around them. Guillermo stiffened in his arms as Nandor brought a hand up to stroke through Guillermo’s tangled curls, gently tipping back the man’s head as he nosed along his jaw. His other arm continued to support Guillermo’s weight as he slowly sank them both to the ground, Guillermo nestled in his lap. Guillermo’s pulse was racing impossibly faster, though the human had fallen still and silent. Nandor squeezed him tightly to his chest and darted out his tongue to lick roughly against Guillermo’s neck, which finally elicited a strangled squeak.

 

“N-Nandor…?”

 

Nandor hummed low in his chest and drew back with great reluctance, salt and sunlight on his tongue. Right, right. Human beings talked about these things. He cleared the nervous lump in his throat, and met Guillermo’s boggled gaze as sincerely as he could.

 

“Guillermo. I, ah… apologize. Not just for this moment, but for many other moments between us. There are countless things I have to make up for,” he winced, briefly darting his eyes away in shame, “but I hope… I hope that by your arrival here, you mean to allow me the chance to try,” he trailed off lamely, once again watching Guillermo’s face for his reaction. The small human’s expression went through a rapid and complicated choreography of emotions, but it finally settled on something tired, affectionate, and just a little disappointed. Guillermo gave a small smile and drew back infinitesimally. He patted Nandor’s shoulder. 

 

“Sure. Of course. No, yeah, it’s alright, Nandor. Don’t worry about it,” he mumbled in what was probably meant to be a cavalier tone, averting his eyes and adjusting his glasses more laboriously than necessary. Nandor frowned, frustrated. Not with Guillermo, but with his own damnable attempts to communicate. He squeezed Guillermo back again insistently, summoning up every ounce of warlord courage he possessed. Guillermo was too clever, too strong, too good an opponent. Nandor’s only recourse… was total surrender. No shield, no armor, just the truth on a platter. 

 

“Guillermo de la Cruz, I love you more than any other I have loved in my long life and undeath. I have never met anyone as brave or as noble, and I feel like I am empty when you are gone. I am not worthy to ask this of you, but ask I must: Please join me in eternity, not just as fellow vampires, but as partners. If, er, if you also wish to do that. With me.”

 

Nandor swallowed, closed his eyes, and waited to be struck down.

 

For a few moments, the only sound was the quiet rushing of the river behind them, the rustling of the palms on the banks. Nandor felt rather than saw the full-body blush of the human in his arms, radiating a rapidly flaring warmth into every point of contact with Nandor’s body, as if he were wrapped around a tiny star. He hesitantly cracked open his eyes to peek at Guillermo’s face. Tears were falling from his eyes, again, but his mouth was forming a watery smile, raw and trembling. The smile grew as he choked out a soggy laugh, hiccuping in the desert night. Nandor felt the human’s arms snake around his neck as Guillermo finally returned Nandor’s embrace. 

 

“Okay,” Guillermo whispered, and kissed him.