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re-crown the creation

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 It was a quiet and unremarkable morning on Staten Island, a morning much like any other. The curtains were shut, the candles were out, and the house was silent. Two undead lovers lay, sleepy-but-not-yet-asleep, embracing each other in the pitch black darkness of their shared coffin while the world outside their door began to wake.

 "Guillermooo?"

 Even with Guillermo in his arms, Nandor struggled to break the habit of calling for his partner as if he were busy in another room.

 "I'm right here, Ma — Nandor."

 Even with Nandor in his arms, Guillermo struggled to break the habit of referring to his partner by his former title.

 "I have been having a very serious thought."

 Guillermo bit his bottom lip only to wince at the unexpected pain. He was still getting used to having a pair of fangs in his mouth at all times. Some old habits were harmless, but biting his lip wasn’t one of them.

 “What’s bothering you, nene? Maybe talking will help.”

 Nandor sighed, preparing himself to speak. He was still reluctant to discuss his private thoughts, but his communication skills had been improving thanks to Guillermo. He knew that if he kept his feelings locked away, they would end up eating him alive, so he would rather just get it over with.

 Besides, Nandor trusted Guillermo. He really did. This was the first time he could remember being able to confide in someone with his deepest, darkest thoughts. The first time since Jahan, that is, but Jahan was a horse. He’d been a great listener, but his responses could’ve used some improvement.

 “I have been thinking about… my own mortality,” Nandor began, voice laden with hesitation. “I know I am — we are vampires, immortal creatures with infinite powers and all, but no one can live forever, right? Not even a vampire. Everyone has to die someday.”

 Guillermo nodded in the darkness.

 “When I was a human, I was told that death is not the end of life. It’s temporary. Dying is only one part of a big cycle of reincarnation. You’re born, you live, you die, and then you’re reborn into another body based on the karma you earned, and so on, for the rest of eternity. Well, unless you earn enough good karma to be released from the cycle. But the thought of that has always… not scared me, of course, but it has made me very uncomfortable. Most people in Al Quolanudar wanted to be released from the cycle, but I would rather just keep living and trying again. That is one of the many reasons why I did so much slaughtering and pillaging, you see. It’s very difficult to earn good karma if you’re always slaughtering and pillaging.”

 “Sure, I guess,” Guillermo chuckled softly, rubbing slow circles over Nandor’s back with the pad of his thumb.

 “I found the cycle of reincarnation very comforting,” Nandor continued. “As a vampire and a fearless warrior, I have no reason to be afraid of anything. But even if I did feel a teeny tiny bit afraid once every couple of centuries, I could always comfort myself knowing that, if I died, I would simply reincarnate into another creature. Of course, I would probably have to start at the bottom of the caste system thanks to being a nightwalking monster who preys on the blood of other human beings, but who cares, right? I am Nandor the Relentless! I cannot be squashed, even if I am a teeny tiny little snail.”

 Guillermo smiled. He loved it when his Nandor worked himself into sounding all high and mighty. It was a ridiculous display, much like that of a desperate peacock, but it made Guillermo’s chest swell with pride all the same. In his eyes, Nandor was still the same great leader from centuries past, and Guillermo was his dedicated army of one. He would follow Nandor anywhere, even to the ends of the earth.

 Nandor cleared his throat before finishing, dragging Guillermo out of his lovestruck reverie.

 “That is why I became depressed when I found out that none of it is real. Because of The Big Bang Theory.”

 Guillermo blinked in shock as he attempted to process the last few words that had just come out of his partner’s mouth. He remembered Nandor’s fascination with the slot machine in Atlantic City, but that had only been a slot machine, right? Certainly, a game designed to eat people’s quarters couldn’t have contained any snarky, atheistic quips to give a 700-going-on-800-year-old vampire an existential crisis… Right?

 “The what now?”

 “I said that I became depressed because of The Big Bang Theory. What are you not understanding?”

 “Sorry, do you mean the TV show?” Guilermo asked incredulously.

 “I was thinking of the slot machine, but yes.”

 Suddenly, Guillermo remembered all the time that he had spent apart from the rest of the group during their trip to Atlantic City, flying overseas to collect ancestral soil. He had told Colin Robinson to look after Nandor while he was away, but he hadn’t expected the strange little man to actually listen to him. Perhaps Colin Robinson had, indeed, followed Guillermo’s instruction, and perhaps Nandor’s time spent with Colin Robinson had led to a very strange conversation.

 “Nandor… How did you find out about The Big Bang Theory being… well, more than just the name of a comedy franchise?”

 “Colin Robinson told me that it had something to do with the creation of the universe,” Nandor explained solemnly.

 Unfortunately, Guillermo’s suspicion had been correct.

 “I did not understand most of what he was saying,” Nandor admitted as he continued, “I still cannot see how the Earth is supposed to be floating around the universe without any giant elephants or turtles to hold it in place. It’s so heavy, with all these people and animals and trees on it!”

 The ancient warlord let out a deep sigh of frustration before continuing.

 “But I do understand the part that matters. All of the things I was taught as a child — none of them are real. There is no such thing as karma or reincarnation. Everything is meaningless. When you die, you die forever. And that makes me — I will admit it. It makes me afraid. I do not wish to stop existing. I do not wish for there to be a world without Nandor the Relentless.”

 Guillermo felt as though his cold, dead heart were breaking. What had Colin Robinson done? It might have been true that Nandor’s understanding of the universe was likely… outdated, but there was no reason why possibilities such as reincarnation had to be ruled out. After all, ghosts exist, so there must be some kind of spiritual plane out there, right? Besides, Guillermo could’ve sworn he’d overheard Nadja saying something about an ex-lover reincarnating at some point, but the memory was fuzzy now.

 “Ay, cariño… You don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe it’s true. Maybe the origin stories you were taught as a kid have been disproven. But that doesn’t mean everything was a lie! You can’t prove that reincarnation exists, but you can’t disprove it either, right? There’s so little we know about the brain and how it works!”

 Silence filled the coffin. Guillermo found himself thankful for the fact that he no longer had a heartbeat, because he knew damn well that, if he still did, the sound of it would be like roaring thunder. He just wanted Nandor to feel better, but this topic was encroaching on sensitive territory.

 “Guillermo…” Nandor drawled after a long pause, considering his words carefully. “It sounds like you have spent a lot of time thinking about this before.”

 Guillermo fought the urge to roll over and give his partner the silent treatment, or even flee the coffin. He could feel his hands balling into fists against his will, fingernails digging into his palms, knuckles digging into the cold body beside him. He was a vampire now. He had no reason to be afraid of anything. Especially considering his immunity to the religious iconography that most vampires found fatal.

 And yet, Guillermo feared.

 “I… I did a lot of research about this stuff in high school,” Guillermo began to explain with great hesitation. “I was raised Catholic, you know. It never really… sat well with me.”

 With a deep breath, Guillermo attempted to calm his nerves.

 “I was always looking for proof that it was all wrong. The Catholicism, I mean. That my mamá was just misguided. That there was a better explanation for all the problems in the world. That I — that I didn’t have to feel guilty about everything all the time.”

 Guillermo chuckled awkwardly.

 “I was kind of obsessed with these dumb athiest blogs and YouTube channels that were always trying to disprove the Bible —”

 Predictably, Nandor hissed at the mention of the holy text.

 “Sorry, you get the idea. I was obsessed with that sort of thing. But I could never shake the idea that there was no way to really disprove everything, you know? I wanted to believe that science held all the answers, but that’s just not true. There’s so much we don’t know about the world. Scientists don’t know about vampires or werewolves or ghosts. I’m a fucking vampire and there’s still a bunch of shit I don’t know!”

 By the time Guillermo had finished speaking, Nandor’s eyebrows were drawn in confusion.

 “You were — you wanted to believe that everything you were taught… was wrong?”

 Guillermo inhaled sharply.

 “I did, yeah. Back then, it was comforting to think that I would just stop existing when I died. It was way better than the fuckin’ alternative, anyway.”

 As soon as the words left his mouth, Guillermo found himself laughing at his own morbidity. God, this was so fucked. He was so fucked.

 "Tell me about that."

 Guillermo hesitated, remembering all the times Nandor had used such polite language before ignoring him and trampling all over his words. It still made his heart sting a little. But that Nandor had grown into a better person — a better vampire — someone who would at least hear Guillermo out. He was safe here. They were safe here. He could speak.

 "I know that, scientifically speaking —"

 "Yes, yes. The 'science' that Colin Robinson told me about."

 "Right. That. Scientifically speaking, hell can't be real, or — at the very least — it can't be a real physical place. It could exist on a spiritual plane, but there’s no way to really prove —"

 "Hell is supposed to be a real place?!?"

 Deeply exhaling, Guillermo couldn't help but imagine the air puffing out of his nostrils like steam in a cartoon. He wasn't sure which of Nandor's traits were more frustrating: his habit of interrupting or his lack of knowledge about any concepts unrelated to him. Either way, Guillermo had to remind himself that this was all just Nandor's way of being invested.

 "Yeah, it is," Guillermo finally responded with a miserable chuckle. "I grew up with so many horror stories about fire and brimstone and gnashing of teeth."

 Nandor bared his fangs and hissed quietly, a familiar sign of disgust. It made Guillermo feel a little better. Only a little, but a little could go a long way.

 "Yeesh... Did they tell you that you were going to this place?"

 Guillermo froze. It suddenly occurred to him that he had never spoken about this with anyone before. His very few friends from high school knew about the religious trauma, but they only knew enough to scratch the surface. It was terrifying, exposing these ugly memories for the first time. He still wanted to turn away, to run, to seal his lips and never open them again.

 Instead, Guillermo found the determination to speak and carried on.

 "Yeah. They did. Well, not me specifically. I was a good kid. But there were always threats, like, 'Oh, if you get a tattoo, you're going to hell. Don't associate with those drug addicts, they're going to hell. Look at that gay man on TV, he's —'"

 Guillermo's voice cracked.

 "'He's going to hell.'"

 Nandor remained silent for a while, holding his tongue as the weight of each word sank into him.

 "They told you... you would go to hell for being homosexual?"

 Guillermo's voice was very small when he eventually worked up the courage to respond.

 "Yeah. They did."

 Nandor cleared his throat. He had always been terrible at comforting others, but he would be damned if he didn't at least try. Well, apparently, some would say that he’d been damned for a long time, but what did they know?

 "Well, that's just stupid. Back in my day, it was normal for men to explore each other’s bodies. I bet even the Jeebus man was homosexual! What are they going to do, send the Jeebus man to hell?"

 Nandor paused, waiting for Guillermo to laugh, but his laughter never came. Instead, Nandor only heard the sound of quiet, embarrassed sniffling.

 "Oh, Guillermo. My sweet, strong Guillermo."

 Nandor held Guillermo tight, digging his nails through scratchy fabric into the soft rolls of Guillermo’s waist. He pulled Guillermo closer and closer, close enough that the latter's face was smashed against the former's chest. Hopefully, close enough for Guillermo to feel the love pouring out of Nandor’s cold, dead heart. All the ancient warlord could feel was something damp soaking into the front of his blouse, but he paid it no mind.

 "There is no such thing as hell, remember? It's like Colin Robinson said — about science and The Big Bang Theory and —"

 "I know," Guillermo mumbled into Nandor's chest, voice wobbly through his tears. "I know. I've done all the research. But I still have nightmares. I still find myself feeling... ashamed, like I'm confessing to some horrible crime, when I talk about my sexuality."

 "Guillermo, my love."

 Nandor's words might have reached Guillermo's ears, but they were drowned out by a current of anxious thoughts. Guillermo felt like he was suffocating. He pulled away to breathe, only to remember that he didn't have to breathe anymore. The realization made him feel a little delirious. Before he could stop himself, he had begun to laugh uncontrollably, shaking from the force of his own voice as tears rolled down his cheeks.

 Was he laughing in anger? Pain? Fear? He wasn't sure, but it felt good, anyway.

 "The worst part is — the worst part is — I've killed people! I've killed hundreds and hundreds at this point, both humans and vampires! Why don't I feel guilty about that anymore?! Just, you know, having sex with men!"

 Nandor twitched with discomfort, every muscle in his undead body going completely stiff. Concerned and overwhelmed with a sudden rush of panic, Guillermo pulled away. Even for a vampire, it was nearly impossible to see anything in the pitch black darkness of a coffin, but he still strained his eyes to make out Nandor’s expression, anyway.

 "You are having sex with other men?" Nandor finally blurted.

 Guillermo blinked in shock before his face cracked into a messy, tearful grin.

 "No," Guillermo chuckled. Apparently, Nandor's stupidity was all he needed to come down from his emotional high. "No, just you, nene."

 As quickly as Nandor had stiffened, he relaxed again, letting out a very relieved sigh.

 "Oh. That is good. If you were having sex with other men, I would be killing them. You are mine, after all."

 "Right," Guillermo sniffled, snuggling back into Nandor's embrace. "I'm yours."

 With a satisfied nod, Nandor moved his hand to the back of Guillermo's head and began to ruffle his hair. He tangled his fingers in the soft curls, letting the pads of fingertips gently graze Guillermo's scalp. It was an act of possession and an act of love.

 Suddenly, Nandor found himself feeling braver than usual. Not brave in the way that makes you charge into battle, but brave in the way that makes you face the newfound realizations blooming in your chest. There was something he needed to share, and with the topic of mortality on his mind, he had every intention of making the most of the present moment.

 "I know it is not the same, but... In Al Quolanudar, it was normal for men to have sexual relations with each other. But it was not normal — or even legal — for men to marry each other. At best, it was seen as shameful for a grown man to be romantically adjoined to another man. At worst, you could be killed. I never killed anyone for that sort of thing, because... you know. Yeesh. But still. When I first heard about men getting married to each other here in the ‘YOU-SAH’ —”

 “U.S.A.”

 “Yes, as I was saying. I thought the whole idea was very strange at first. It seemed unnatural."

 Guillermo swallowed loudly, gripping Nandor's blouse a little tighter.

 "...And then I realized that I was only feeling that way because of the way I was raised. Because of the way things were in my day. And, you know, because gay marriage has been a very recent development."

 Nandor paused, bracing himself for what he was about to say. He tried to take a deep breath, but he could feel his jaw clenching against his will. Why did this have to be so difficult?

 "I still felt a great amount of confusion... when I realized that my... feelings for you... are romantic... and... not just friendly. But I... I am very happy to be romantically adjoined to you now, even though we are both grown men. You are the only... person... in my 800 years of living... who has really made me feel happy this way."

 By the time Nandor finished speaking, his voice had trailed off into such strangled mumbling that it would've been nearly impossible for any human to make out what he was actually saying. Fortunately, Guillermo was no longer a human. Enhanced hearing certainly had its perks when your partner was emotionally constipated.

 "Okay, that is done! I do not wish to talk about my feelings anymore!"

 Guillermo relaxed, nestling deeper into his partner’s embrace. His eyes were still a little misty, but the tears were no longer those of fear — or any other adverse emotion, for that matter. These were tears of happiness.

 "You know, if we were to be reincarnated," Guillermo began, voice heavy with emotion. "I would find you. I don't know how, but I would find you. I would keep finding you."

 "Even if I were no longer a sexy vampire?"

 Guillermo snorted. "Unfortunately, yes."

 Nandor made a strange sound in the back of his throat that almost sounded like a cat purring.

 "Well, if the weird Cath-ah-lick horror movie version of hell is real, I would charge out of that place and pillage anyone who got in my way! And I would take you with me, of course."

 At this point, Guillermo was shamelessly giggling.

 "I think I would be better at, um, pillaging demons or whatever. You know, with the slayer powers and all."

 "Be quiet, Guillermo. You are not the one with centuries of experience as a great leader and fearless warrior."

 Guillermo rolled his eyes.

 "Anyway!" Nandor continued, undeterred by his partner's sleepy boasting. "We would break out of the shackles of hell and make our own afterlife, just for the two of us!"

 "Our own afterlife..."

 After a dreamy sigh, Guillermo found himself lost in a rather depressing thought.

 "...And if there is no afterlife?"

 Nandor cleared his throat, as he usually would before making a serious proclamation.

 "Then I'm happy to have spent the best years of my long, long life with you, Guillermo de la Cruz."

 Each word out of Nandor’s mouth was spoken with absolute certainty, in a solemn voice both tender and low. It was like honey dripping from his lips. Was Guillermo dreaming? It felt like he was dreaming, but perhaps Nandor's words were just that sweet.

 The newly turned vampire was so tired, he could feel the weight of sleep pulling at his eyelids, but he needed to say one last thing before drifting off.

 "Nandor… My Nandor… I love you too."

 Nandor smiled childishly. I love you? That was not what he'd said, but he supposed it was what he'd meant.

 Gently, with unrelenting affection, Nandor pressed a kiss to the crown of Guillermo's head. Guillermo's skin was as cold as any vampire's skin, but the feeling that bloomed when Nandor's lips made contact was anything but cold. As that feeling enveloped them, a shared pulse within both of their lifeless hearts, the two lovers succumbed to their own tiredness and drifted off to sleep.