Vanessa’s a force of nature.
The base alarms are blaring, flashing blue light cutting through the smoke. The air smells like blood and gunpowder and burnt plastic, oily smoke drifting upwards. She stands like the eye of the hurricane, shirt torn and bloodied up and hair wild, eyes feral, mouth caught in a snarl. Her teeth are sunk into a man’s throat, and with a half human howl she rips-- blood gouts onto her face, her clothes. Her fingers twist into his clothes as she hunches over the body as she drinks.
Axel broadcasts his movements, walks slow, loud. He doesn’t let his gun down. In this state, a bullet might hurt him more than it did her. “Hey, sleeping beauty.”
Her head snaps up with preternatural speed. Her irises are blown wide, her brown eyes nearly black. She tilts her head, suddenly nothing but reptilian calculation.
“He’s, uh, he’s pretty dead. I think he’s gon’ stay that way. You’re good. Come on back now.”
He inched closer, testing the waters. His hands seem to raise of their own volition, leaving the rifle to hang by its strap. Arms outstretched. He can practically hear Doc’s mental screaming. Scar bristled next to him, alert. The way Vanessa is right now, if she wants, they’ll all be dead before they can get a shot off, Scar’s ninja reflexes be damned. They might not turn, but getting ripped apart isn’t going to be fun. Behind him, he can hear Julius shifting his stance, getting ready to run, maybe. At Vanessa, for sure. These days, Axel didn’t know much, but he recognized the type. ‘Cept Doc, ain’t one of ‘em going to run from danger, nah, they ran towards it. Still, even by their standards, he must look pretty damn stupid.
He chances another couple steps. One. Two. “It’s alright.”
Vanessa stares. Blinks. The black seems to bleed from her eyes, her shoulders slumping. She scans the place, her hands, them. Her shoulders begin to shake. “Axel.” She says it like it’s the only thing she’s sure of, like nothing else mattered.
“Yep,” he breathes, his throat suddenly tight. Two more steps. One, two. “That’s me.”
Slowly, she let the corpse tumble to the floor.
Vanessa moves so suddenly, but Scar doesn’t even flinch. Vanessa throws her arms around Axel’s neck and hangs on for dear life. Up close, she burns feverishly hot. Her touch was like a brand. Her forehead against his collarbone, hot, shaking breath fanning out against his chest. He can feel each of her fingers where they press into his skin, bruising points of pain that he can’t bring himself to care about. His left arm brackets her waist when her legs give out, his right holding her across the shoulders. His hand finds its way into her hair, holding her close. He can’t help tucking her head under his own, whispering nothings.
“Hey. Hey. We’re okay. Almost missed the party though.” He looks around again, catalogues the carnage. Sparking wires, broken test tubes, shattered monitors, the bodies. “You did a great job by yourself, as always.”
Vanessa scraped herself together, very slowly, but Axel couldn’t bring himself to mind. Even with the blood on her clothes rapidly becoming blood on his. A base this size, there’s bound to be running water. A heater too, maybe. Somehow, he doesn’t think it’s that important.
Vanessa eases herself out of Axel’s arms, releasing her grip like she did with the dead guy earlier, before throwing herself at Scar, then Julius each. She smiled, but it slipped when she came up short. “Where’s Doc?”
Axel has to tamp down the surprise. He chuckles, before pointing at the tower in the distance. “Keeping an eye out.”
She nods, satisfied, and wipes bloody palms on her bloody jeans.
Scar asks, because she was always the curious one. “What the hell’d they want from you?”
Vanessa actually sighs, like the collective shit of the universe had coalesced above her. “Us. you might wanna sit down.”
Vanessa nods, looking like Scar had voiced her thought exactly. Her lips were set in a thin line. “The only chance we got is if we get to him first.”
And the craziest thing was, Scar looked like she believed her.
Axel and Julius were party to this… insanity. Because that’s what it is. This whacky, Mad Max scavenger hunt. A race for magic goobers, against the forces of vampiric evil, running on fry oil and scavenged gasoline, to see who can wake up Dracula the fastest.
And kill him.
Vanessa had explained that part in great detail. That part was a more “them” thing. If the other guys won, they’d, uh, they’d take over the planet. Rule in eternal darkness. Round up humans to be bred and bled like cattle. Vanessa and Scarlett used as broodmares for all vampire kind.
Vanessa looks at him. “You with us?” She asks like she’s unsure again.
Axel hates that. He doesn’t want to be something she doubts. “Hell yeah.”
She smiles at him, positively beams, and he smiles back.
They’ve said everything that needed to be said, really. They’re okay.
(Scarlett’s started a betting pool. Doc’s contributed what may be the last twix bar on earth, but Julius has developed a fondness for butterfingers and has faith in Vanessa and Axel to work it out.)
(Scarlett hands Doc her kitkats.)
That night, they gear up. Axel debates the virtues of stealing a helicopter.
(He just wants them to think about their mobility. “Do you know how to fly that thing?” He doesn’t have a license, if that’s what Scar’s asking. “No, absolutely not.” Axel doesn’t know when Doc became such a killjoy.)
They settle on an armored truck.
It’s not the most fuel savvy, but it’ll get ‘er done. Axel whoops like a kid on christmas and runs around the base looking for gas and other stuff to keep it going. He fixes up the engine, tricks her out with all the bells and whistles. He names her Rhonda. Everyone tries not to be surprised.
After Axel’s done with Rhonda’s makeover, Vanessa convinces everybody to get some sleep. And God, Axel tries. But every time he closes his eyes, his heartbeat is too loud in his head, and he needs a smoke to get the itching just beneath his skin to stop.
He sneaks off to have his biannual meltdown, because what the shit-- oh my god. For fuck’s-- his hands are shaking so much he can’t work the lighter, and they’re hunting Dracula, because that’s what this nightmare is now. Get it together, motherfucker. Get it the FUCK--
Axel might, and that’s a might, be having a panic attack.
Axel hasn’t slept in weeks, and when he sees Vanessa’s boots coming over, all slow, like Axel’s a wounded animal, he wants to melt into the floor. She crouches into his line of sight, sits next to him with this Look on her face.
He don’t like it.
Axel waves at her with a shaking hand, tries to say, “Hey, sleeping beauty.” He gets kinda halfway before his voice gives up on him.
“Hey,” she replies. It’s so soft.
Axel tries to dig into that. Tries to come back.
They sit shoulder to shoulder for a long time.
And then, “Who’s on watch?”
“Julius,” Van sighs, unimpressed. “They’re fine. You need rest.”
“It’s been a hell of a month.”
“Yeah. At least lie down. Close your eyes for a while.”
Axel takes a deep breath, like he wants to argue, but--
“If you don’t, I’m not letting you drive.”
“You make a good point.”
Axel stands to get back to the cots, and if he wobbles, if his vision starbursts into black and white for a minute, Vanessa doesn’t mind. She easily takes his weight, and Axel might run hot, but Vanessa’s a furnace. If he leans into her and doesn’t do anything but breathe, she doesn’t complain, either. She’s got him.
Eventually, Axel’s in bed. Even a shitty military cot was better than Wanda’s shotgun seat. He lays back, floats away ‘till he’s halfway asleep. The kind of shallow rest where you’re still listening to everything around you. He’s surprised when he feels the bed dip, hears the rustle of cloth as someone slips into the cot with him.
Who is he kidding? He shifts a bit to let her have more space, but Vanessa doesn’t really mind. Inexplicably, the two of them fit perfectly in the tiny bunk, and Axel doesn’t care that his back is pressing into the wall when it’s Vanessa right there with him. She’s warm. She’s here. Human. Which, in hindsight, is setting the bar on the ground, but Axel’s been dead and the other thing, and this definitely beats the alternative.
He doesn’t say anything when Vanessa wraps her arms around his waist, pulls him close. It makes the buzzing in his chest settle. Calm. Their breaths sync up as Vanessa falls deeper into sleep, and he finds himself drifting with her.
Axel wakes with the sun smudging the horizon. He wants to say it was a peaceful thing, but it really wasn’t. His usual nightmare felt the need to spice it up today. He remembers flashes, and honestly, that was enough. There were ferals. He was grown up but Polly wasn’t. When Polly turned around, she was Callie, and the ferals started running. Him too, but he’s slow, like he’s underwater, until he’s not, he’s one of them, and Callie - not Callie - was shrieking as he ripped her to shreds.
He tried to get his breathing under control, and he realized that Vanessa was still curled up with him. Still asleep.
Not dreaming. She’s shaking, muttering her daughter’s name over and over, and something in Axel’s chest seizes up at the thought. She lost her baby. Axel can only imagine how that feels. He thinks of swing sets and empty park benches, and he decides that he can’t.
Slowly, Axel smoothes his hand to her shoulder, whispers low. Hey, hey, hey. It’s okay. It’s me.
Vanessa doesn’t hit him, so Axel counts that as a win. She does start, a whole body jolting as she slams into wakefulness. Axel keeps his touch light, almost hovering over her.
Vanessa’s crying, but she doesn’t pull away.
Axel doesn’t say anything, even when a damp spot starts spreading into his shirt.
He’s got her.
After the shaking subsides, Vanessa nods, small enough that Axel almost missed it, and cleared her throat, almost businesslike. “Sorry about that.”
Axel lets his hand finally rest on Vanessa’s back, thumb sweeping back and forth.
“Nah. We’re good. I was already up.”
Vanessa must be giving him the Look again, but Axel focuses on the sunshine on the wall. It was orange, like all the new daylight after the ash cleared. Vanessa saw through his bullshit since day one, and if she wanted to press, she would. She also knew Axel would return the favor. She didn’t say anything, so she didn’t want to talk. Neither did he. Didn’t think he could.
Vanessa sighed and rested her temple against his collarbone. Checking his pulse, now that he thought about it.
He’d scared the crap out of her, and he knows it’s no one’s fault, but he can’t help feeling bad about it. Vanessa’s lost too much. For Axel, dying again would suck. Mainly because he’d be dead. Death’s boring. But also, he’d be leaving Vanessa behind. Too many people have left Vanessa Seward. He’s not adding to that list anytime soon. Yeah. And maybe that’s a stupid, optimistic view of the world, but Axel’s always been a little stupid. Little crazy, too.
In the present, Vanessa’s hand splayed over his side, just below his ribs. Checking his breathing.
Axel realizes he’s been breathing wrong, shallow, so he slows.
Vanessa nods, and then rearranges herself so that Axel’s arm isn’t pinned anymore. He hadn’t noticed, but it’s suddenly alive with pins and needles, and cold air’s creeping into the space where she was.
Axel takes a gamble and lets it wind around her waist, hand resting easy at her side.
Vanessa relaxes into it, and what she says next is so quiet and raw that he can’t help tightening his grip.
“Life’s shit, and then you die.”
Axel wants to disagree, but he hums instead. His hand starts playing with her hair.
“Sometimes,” he says, all quiet and soft, like he’s winding up to be a contrary son of a bitch. “You come back.”
It gets a laugh out of her. A huff, a smile, buried in Axel’s shirt, but a smile nonetheless.
His heart does this complicated, tumbling somersault in his chest.
“Yeah,” she replies. It’s a heavy word. Relief. Pain. Hope. It’s a lot for such a small sound, but Axel still feels it like a punch to the gut.
“Yeah,” he says back, pulling her closer like they’re in the Fault in Our Stars or something. Goddamn.
Afterwards, they don’t talk much. They watch the sun come up. Axel traces patterns into Vanessa’s skin. Vanessa counts breaths and heartbeats. And normally, there are certain realities about waking up in the morning, but it turns out that awful nightmares about your previous vampirism are really good for that, so it isn’t an issue.
Eventually, Vanessa pats his leg to get him to shift up, and she moves to stand, and Axel wants her to stay.
For a moment, one shining, brilliant, stupid moment, he wanted to kiss her.
That wasn’t an issue either. Wanting to kiss Vanessa Seward isn’t anything new. But this? Morning cuddles? Bed sharing? Personally, Axel fucking loved these developments, but Vanesa hadn’t said anything about anything more than that. Axel got it. People had needs. He, more than anyone, knew the power of a good hug. It’s not exactly something one can scavenge or steal.
So, he smiles, and she smiles too.
When they move out, Axel peels Rhonda out of the gates at breakneck speed, whooping with the gas pedal pressed straight to the floor. Doc shrieks, and Julius is surprisingly shrill for a man his size.
Vanessa and Scar are the only ones laughing with him.
If Axel had anything to say about it, he’d never think about his stint as a blood sucking monster. Turns out, he doesn’t. Vampire metabolism was fast, fast enough that Axel felt it gnawing at him from the inside out. He’s never felt hunger like that in his entire life.
He could see his ribs through his shirt, and he’s cold all the time. Paradoxically, he’s forgetting to eat and drink, but he does appreciate them. The little things. Sunlight, food, sleep, though he’s still Axel Miller, and that last part’s always been kinda tricky.
Scar helps. Scar throws snacks at him, and water bottles too, thankfully only when he isn’t driving. Scar bullies him into sleeping, badgers him with questions, and games of eye spy, and truth or dare, as much as anyone can play truth or dare in a moving military vehicle. She cuffed him when it’s his turn to sleep, her turn to drive, or if he’s not paying attention in conversations.
Scar is prickly and sharp, how most soldiers are after too long on tour. She’s been in this war since she was born, and ain’t that a depressing thought. Scar addressed the apocalypse with a simple, if A then B, if B, then C, philosophy. If Vanessa was a child of prophecy, then she was her sister, and it was her job to help her as much as she could. Simple.
She’s also a ninja.
Axel admires that.
“The first step in any quest is to have fun and be yourself.”
Scar says it while standing with her upper half out of the car.
Doc’s at the wheel, driving at ninety. She looks so done.
Scar has a dirk in one hand, raising the other as a kind of gauge. One, two— thwack. Right between the eyes of a distant feral. Her hair is fluttering in the wind and she smiles, tilting her head in challenge.
The long rifle rested under their seat like an invitation.
Axel exchanged a look with Vanessa, who shrugged with half a smile on her face. He cracked his neck and Scar whistled. He stood, levered himself out of Rhonda, sighted, fired— crack boom.
Scar grinned. “Not bad, soldier boy.”
Axel rolled his eyes, but smiled anyway. “Marine.”
Doc tells them to stop clowning, and that the gunshot probably attracted ferals for a couple klicks at least.
Scar doesn’t flip her off, but Axel can tell she wants to.
They fall into a routine. Stopping for gas. Meals on the go. Change drivers. Sleep. It’s almost like the good old days, before vampire politics and prophecies.
Axel sleeps on a semi-regular basis, which is an improvement. He can’t speak as to the quality of that sleep, but no one objects to his catnaps, so he’s cool. He dozes, one shoulder against the wall, the other leaning into Vanessa’s space. Sometimes, he gets deeper into REM than he bargained for and he wakes half smushed into her shoulder. She doesn’t mind. She winds her arm around his shoulders so she doesn’t cramp and lets him sleep.
Scar and Julius are developing a secret handshake. They practice constantly, and it seems to get more complicated every time Axel looks. From the sound of it, this current iteration has some kind of flying thing, plus a shoulder bump. Scar’s murmuring along, coaching Julius through the motions, and he must be frowning in concentration as they complete each step.
Eventually, they must get it right, because Scar cheers, “Fuck yeah, big guy!” and Julius giggles.
Julius is this marshmallow with a steel core. He’s a real breath of fresh air. He clowns the exact right amount. He’s found the sweet spot-- enough to stay sane in this vampiric shit hole they were living in, but always knowing when to stop. The man could read a room. He picked up on small details that others miss. In this case, he stops mid giggle and taps Doc on the shoulder, and tells her, as polite as one can shout, “to stop the goddamn car!”
Ronda comes to a squealing stop, rounding sideways down the road. Axel’s starts awake, thrown into Vanessa’s side as she’s pressed into the wall, but Julius is already out the door. Scar’s hot on his tail, sword at the ready. Vanessa’s already on edge, ready to kick ass, and Axel wishes he could say the same but it feels like he’s been filled up with cement.
Everyone’s shouting and so much shit is going down, Axel pushes past his grogged up brain fog and at least tries to listen in.
Two girls, surrounded by ferals, Julius and Scar cutting down some of the stragglers from the central horde. The girls are good fighters, nowhere near Scar, but good enough. Their clothes are torn and covered in blood, like they’ve been bitten over and over, but they don’t seem to be turning. In fact, it just pisses them off. They snarl as they rip into the ferals with their swords and bare hands, and damn, if that ain’t familiar.
Before he knows it, the fight is over. The ferals are bloody bodies where they lie, except for some, that push up on their hands and knees and cough up thick, dark blood.
Scar gives the girls a water bottle, to rinse the blood out of their mouths, and Vanessa’s moving before Axel can realize she’s left his side. Like she’s in a dream, or a nightmare. Drifting towards the girls with blood dripping down their chins and the same determined fire in their eyes.
On the ground, the ex-ferals blink up at the strange quartet of Van Helsings with something Axel can only describe as awe.
He spares a glance at Doc, who looks every bit as wrong footed and out of depth as he felt.
Yeah. His sentiments exactly.
Axel is a patchwork of cuts and bites and claw marks. He feels like he could keel over and lie there for the next twelve hours, and honestly? He doesn’t think he’ll be missed.
These were organized, ex-witchy vampire ninjas. It’ll be fine if he nods off for a while. They had something resembling a platoon going on. Having four Van Helsings really helped. Between them and the new recruits, it was a veritable apocalypse girl gang. Axel would feel left out if he gave a shit. As is, his life is already so goddamn weird. It isn’t the strangest thing that’s happened.
He’s the most banged up, too. Van and the girls, barring Scar, healed practically instantly. Scar had her whole body armor going on. Julius was a big guy, and sinking teeth into him took some effort. Doc held up the rear with the fuck off rifle. Axel? He’s the easy target. He’s the dumb marine that brought a gun to a knife fight and was still at a disadvantage, because, goddamn, these things were fast.
Doc fixed what she could. Axel’s grateful he doesn’t have any deep cuts on his face or head. Those were always shit to suture. Doc cleaned out his bites and wrapped what needed wrapping and told him, begged him really, to lie down before he fell down.
And, in fairness, that’s exactly what he’s doing. The girls and Julius were probably going over war plans, discussing how beating Dmitri was going to play out. He heard some of their conversation. Something about a bitch called the oracle, Dracula’s wife, who can see the future. He’s down for whatever they’re doing. He’s more a hindrance than a help. His brain feels like scrambled eggs right now. He can’t even light a cigarette.
Axel wants to laugh. “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”
Vanessa smiles, but it’s sad and half what it’s supposed to be. “Yeah, we do.”
“War waits for no one, I suppose.” He shifts his weight and winces. “Where to next?”
Vanessa pursed her lips. “Me, Scar and Vi are going to deal with the elders. Jack and Doc are going to Triage, seeing how they can help.”
“Well, it seems like they’ve made up their minds. I’m riding in Ronda though. End of discussion.”
Vanessa sighed. “Axel--”
“You’re not allowed to die again.”
The look’s back. “You cut it pretty close.”
“I’m still in the fight.”
“You are.” Vanessa’s hand seems to come up by itself, resting at the back of Axel’s neck.
Axel breathes and melts into it.
“I can’t lose you.”
Axel wants to say something soft and stupid. You won’t. He meant what he said back then. But the stakes were higher now, and he’d almost broken that promise. Axel didn’t do that often, and he saw her point.
He looked at her and hoped it said just that. As it was, his throat had gone tight and the words were balled up in his chest. He let his hand wrap around her wrist and nodded. “Okay, sleeping beauty.”
Vanessa smiled, real this time, and her thumb seemed to move on its own, sweeping back and forth over his skin.
Axel took a deep breath. “Vanessa--”
“Vanessa!” Jack is loud and no nonsense. “Can we go over the plan one more time? I don’t want to mess up.”
Vanessa’s eyes shuttered, but she didn’t move her hand.
Axel squeezed her wrist. “You should go.”
Vanessa did, slowly pulling away. She hesitated, standing there.
Axel nodded. “Go.”
Vanessa moved into his space, pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth.
It’s brief and chaste, but Axel feels it like a gunshot and watches her leave.
When they part ways, Vanessa hugs Julius and Jack the same way she hugs him, tells them all to be safe.
Axel drives and tries to ignore how much it feels like breaking a promise.