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You Don’t Have to be Alone Anymore

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For most people, being in the forest alone at night was a horrible idea. They thought of the woods as a dangerous place, full of terrifying creatures that preyed on the weak and unsuspecting. Nico, however, had come to find a sense of security among the trees.

She had been looking for a place to practice her singing, far from the ears of the townspeople. The night she’d discovered the small clearing, it felt as if some unseen force was driving her there. Like fate’s hand guided her steps. Since then, she’d been sneaking out of town every chance she got.

The first few nights had been a little scary. Nico knew the many tales of people going missing, how the woods were rife with evil, both creature and spirit. The favorite stories of the townsfolk were those of vampires, how their very aura could dominate the minds of innocent maidens and lure them from their beds at night.

Nico had found quite the opposite in the forest. Instead of a sinister evil among the trees, she felt as if someone was watching over her, as if she had a guardian angel. She wasn’t entirely sure there was another presence with her each night, but not long after she’d settled into a routine, she’d begun to feel a sense of safety. Nico had chalked it up to a growing familiarity with the area.

In the past few nights, Nico had started to doubt her reasoning. She swore a faint humming had begun to accompany her song. Being an aspiring songstress, Nico had developed quite the talent for music, learning to adapt her pitch or tone to suit any would-be bard that passed through town. This person, if it even was a person, was a step above her. They’d matched their humming to her singing nearly perfectly, and if it weren’t for the otherwise dead silence of the night, she may never have heard it.

Tonight, Nico had a plan. It wasn’t necessarily the best of plans, but her options were somewhat limited. Despite feeling safe with this individual's presence, there was still the fear of the unknown and she wasn’t exactly eager to go in search of them. Besides, her fans should come to her.

Her plan was a simple one. She would go about her night like normal, practicing her song and moving her body to the music until she was joined by familiar humming. Then, she would abruptly stop her singing, hoping to catch her accompaniment off guard. If it worked and she was right about someone being with her all with her all these nights, she would call out to them. Hopefully they’d be as friendly as they seemed.

Nico slipped out of her home and into the night, pulling her cloak around her. Times like these were the only reason she liked living in the poorer outskirts of town. Castle guards weren’t likely to patrol this area and she appreciated not having to dodge them every night she went out; explaining her midnight outings would be a pain.

A short journey along the familiar path she’d carved out led to her singing sanctuary. Butterflies had taken up residence in her stomach at the thought of attempting to contact the mysterious individual. She had no idea what kind of person would spend nights in the woods and try so hard to avoid detection. Surely they can’t be normal, she thought, but then again she was out here too, so what did that make her?

Part of her was afraid.

Sure, this mystery person had been perfectly pleasant so far, but what if that was all an act - a trick of some vampire or siren to put her at ease while attempting to lure her in for the kill. Hopefully the dagger she’d brought would be enough in that case.

Well, here goes nothing.

Nico began to sing, the enchanting tones of a ballad she’d learned from her mother flowing from her lips. It was a tragic story, one of a young hero finding both glory and victory in battle after battle, quickly rising through the ranks of her organization. Her victories eventually became her downfall though, and she was sent to slay a dangerous foe, her equipment sabotaged by jealous rivals. Instead of ending her journey, however, her enemy offered a different path, a chance at revenge, a chance to strike down those who had betrayed her.

Halfway through the song, the familiar humming joined in, just as in tune with her as usual. Nico put her all into the song, emotion flowing through her and into the night. She hoped such a passionate performance would be enough to lower the guard of her mysterious accompaniment. Just as she was about to reach the climax of her song, she stopped and strained her ears to listen.

The humming had continued for a scant few seconds, separated from Nico’s song. The mystery person had been fast, but not fast enough.

“Hello?” Nico’s called out. “I know you’re there. You can come out, I won’t hurt you.”

The waver in Nico’s voice betrayed the confidence of her words.

Time crawled to a halt, like slow shuffling of the eldery at the town market. Blood rushed in Nico’s ears, fear creeping into her limbs. Had she messed up? Was this mysterious person going to disappear on her?

“I like the sound of your voice. I just want to sing with you.” Nico’s tone was almost pleading as the words rushed out of her mouth.

Again she was met with silence. Had she been hearing things? Maybe there was no one after all and what she’d heard was nothing more than an echo or the sounds of the forest.

The only option left to her now was to go looking. Steeling herself, Nico walked in the direction she thought the humming had been coming from. It was hard to tell their exact location, since the mystery person didn’t project their voice very loudly, but Nico was fairly sure they were situated to the south of her, opposite of the town.

Nico hadn’t even made it halfway to the edge of the clearing when she heard a soft thud, followed by fleeing footsteps. Whoever this person was, they were fast, skittish, and unwilling to meet. Nico wasn’t even sure she could catch them on horseback.

Nico approached where they’d been hiding out, hoping to find some clue about their identity. Unfortunately, the only thing she found were their footprints, starting at the base of a tree. They’d probably been sitting up on one of its branches. Nico climbed up to see what kind of view they had.

Midway up the tree Nico found the most likely spot for her mysterious duet partner. The branch was thick enough to sit comfortably on, and - to Nico’s surprise - had a decent view of the clearing. It wasn’t perfect, as the light of the moon was only so strong, but she was sure she could make out a person in it.

Nico had mixed feelings about this discovery. On one hand, she had to admit that it weirded her out to be watched all this time, but it seemed her song and dance was appreciated and she was flattered to have such a rapt audience.

Whoever it was, they seemed to enjoy her performances. A sprinkle of Nico charm, and a dash of boldness - maybe Nico could coax a real song out of them?

-------

It was a few nights before Nico went out into the woods again. She could blame it on the hustle and bustle of charming the town with her song, but in reality she didn’t really know what to say if she met the mystery person again. Nico finally decided that, should they meet again, she’d apologize for startling them and promise to not approach. Hopefully that would appease their sense of caution.

Tonight Nico followed the same routine as usual: wait until the black of night, slip out of town, and make her way to the clearing. She decided to start by singing and see if her impromptu duet partner joined in before saying anything, if only to save her the embarrassment of talking to herself in the woods.

Her choice of tune tonight was a lively one, the jaunty kind you’d hear at a banquet at a celebration. Nico sang of merriment and joy, moving her body and trying to encapsulate the feelings of her song. She was nearing the end of the tune when humming joined in with her voice. Her lips turned up in a smile, happy that she hadn’t scared them off. Nico finished with a flourish, pirouetting into a sitting position and taking a drink from her metal flask.

Nico closed her eyes, letting the cool water soothe her parched throat. When she finished, she recapped the flash and looked directly at where the mystery person was sitting. “I won’t try to approach you tonight, I promise. In return, will you tell me your name?”

Nico held her gaze, putting on her best sisterly smile and hoping to pose as little threat as possible. A few minutes passed, but instead of discouragement about the lack of response, she felt relief that they hadn't fled like last time. Nico opened her mouth to say something else when another voice cut her off.

“Maki.”

Nico was floored. The revelation that her nighttime companion was a girl was pleasing, but far more important was the sound of her voice. Her voice carried an aura of sophistication, confidence, charisma all wrapped up in a nasally pitch that Nico found utterly attractive. She’d only voiced a single word and Nico was hooked. She had to hear this girl sing. But first, a little flirting was in order.

“Pretty name. It matches your voice.” Nico accompanied her flirting with her trademark smile.

Nico swore she heard a small yelp before hearing footsteps. Had she actually flustered the mystery girl? This was too good. She was going to have fun with this.

---------

The next few weeks were some of the most enjoyable of Nico’s life. Her days were a little dull, as Nico thought her talents wasted performing in a dingy tavern for drunken washouts with no appreciation for music. The number of times she’s been ordered by some slurring soldier to sing the land's battle song alone made her want to puke. The banality of her daily life couldn’t drown out the magic of the nights, however.

Her nighttime routine of sneaking out of town and heading for the secluded sanctuary remained the same. What differed, however, was the way she spent her time there.

Nico kept her distance as she’d promised, but she couldn’t help but feel curious about the other girl. She asked questions sparingly, since Maki was obviously skittish and introverted. The answers she got were always brief and a little awkward, but Nico had learned a few things: Maki was younger than her, liked tomatoes, and was from ‘around’, whatever that meant.

It became clear that Maki wasn’t used to talking to others and Nico often had to pick up the slack in their conversations, but she didn’t mind - she was just happy talking to the girl.

What Maki lacked in willingness to speak, she made up for in ability to listen. Nico felt like she could tell Maki anything, from her frustrations of performing in a tavern to little things like how she’d accidentally cut a hole in her favorite tunic.

Nico still hasn’t asked the questions most important to her, however, but she hoped to change that tonight. Curiosity burned through her as she wondered endlessly if Maki had any experience with music, whether it be singing or playing an instrument. Nico desperately wanted to hear her sing, but that was probably a big ask for someone so shy. She had to start off small.

Nico walked into the clearing like usual, setting down her candlestick in a safe spot and looking towards Maki’s perch.

“Maki? You there?” Two quick taps let her know she was.

“How was your day?” Nico had never gotten more than the usual hum that she’d come to interpret as “good” and didn’t expect more, which is why it was all the more surprising when Maki spoke up.

“Acceptable.”

“Acceptable?” Nico couldn’t help but laugh a little.

“Something funny?” Maki sounded a little miffed.

“Acceptable is a strange way to describe one’s day, is it not?” Nico mused.

A small hum was her only response. Nico decided to press her luck a bit, it was rare to get this many words from Maki so early into the night.

“Regardless, I’m glad to hear it, and your voice as well.” Nico heard a slight intake of breath coming from the perch. She’d hoped she’d made the other girl blush.

Nico closed her eyes, letting the sounds of the forest wash over her and began to sing. The chirping of crickets, the rustle of underbrush, and Maki’s distinct humming all blended together into one harmonious backdrop for her melody. Nico sang of the trees, dryads tending to the forests, nymphs playing wooden flutes as Will-o-Wisps danced in the moonlight. She immersed herself fully in the music. This was her calling, her home.

Nico had no idea how long she’d been singing by the time her song ended and she collapsed against a nearby tree in exhaustion.

“That was beautiful.” Nico almost choked on her water. It was rare enough that Maki spoke unprompted, let alone a compliment. Nico hurried to respond, hoping this might be her chance to charm her way into a duet.

“I think it would be better if you joined me.” She looked toward the perch, giving Maki her most charming smile.

“Maybe someday.”

Well, it wasn’t an outright refusal, so Nico could work with that. The thought of a possible duet fueled Nico to sing through the night, Maki’s hums joining her the entire time.

----------------

It was unusual for Nico to be in high spirits before her nighttime rendezvous with Maki, but today was an exception.

A week ago, Nico had awoken to a pounding on her door. She’d readied her dagger, expecting a drunk or robber, but instead it was a castle guard at her door, holding a letter with the royal seal. The guard ignored Nico’s questions, obstinately holding the letter out until she took it, then walked off without a word.

Butterflies had invaded Nico’s stomach. She’d never had any dealings with the crown and, while they seemed decent enough rulers, she was wary of receiving an unprompted summons. Despite her misgivings, Nico would rather open the letter and get it over with rather than hem and haw, and she quickly tore the seal to reveal the letter’s contents.

Inside was a handwritten message from the princess, inviting Nico to perform at her upcoming wedding.

The princess, inviting Nico to be the sole songstress at her royal wedding. She couldn’t believe it - this was her chance, the opportunity she’d been striving for all this time.

Nico dressed in her finest robes and fanciest shoes, excitement painting her every action as she’d raced for the castle, eager to meet the princess. She’d strode up to the castle walls with an air of confidence, her steps proud and purposeful - like she belonged there.

The princess betrayed every expectation Nico had about royalty. Her very being was light and airy, as if she were a baker’s sweetest confection made human by magic’s touch. She was elegant, graceful, and her eyes held a seemingly permanent twinkle of mischief.

After introductions were made, the princess told Nico she’d heard the songstress perform in the town square while on a carriage ride and knew Nico would be the perfect entertainment for her wedding.

This was the opportunity Nico had been waiting for - the chance to kiss the moldy tavern goodbye and ascend to the upper echelons of society - a place worthy of her talent. Such an important performance meant she would need new music, her old tunes wouldn’t do for royalty.

Nico asked to speak with the princesses betrothed, to get a better idea of their relationship. She’d heard about royal marriages purely for obligation rather than love and, for the sake of her performance, she prayed this wasn’t one of those marriages.

The princess took her to the barracks, where Nico assumed they would gather a personal escort for the journey to meet the other half of this wedding. Instead, the moment they’d entered the yard, the princess shot off faster than any arrow Nico had ever seen and threw herself at one of the knights, shouting her name all the while.

Despite the knight's fierce blush, she seemed used to this behavior, setting her feet and holding out her arms to embrace the peppy princess.

Nico took in the sight with great amusement. The knight was beautiful. Her midnight blue hair rustled in the wind so perfectly, Nico could’ve believed she commanded the air itself. The thing that stood out about her the most, however, were her eyes.

Piercing amber shone like ambrosia, daring anyone to run afoul of her or her beloved. Nico thought the color suited her, for this woman was surely touched by divinity.

She introduced herself to Nico as knight captain of the castle and princess of a neighboring kingdom, this kingdom’s princess clinging to her armor and nuzzling her neck all the while. Nico didn’t even know princesses could be knights, let alone for another kingdom. She’d also never seen royalty acting so lovey dovey nor a knight blush like a maiden, but at least she knew one thing: this marriage wasn’t out of obligation.

Before Nico could get to her questions for the couple, the princess whisked the three of them back into the castle, towards the kitchens. Nico assumed that the princess was going to request some refreshments for their meeting, yet she was proved wrong once again when the princess raced ahead.

Upon catching up to the racing royal, Nico found her with her arms slung around yet another woman, this one wearing a baker’s uniform covered in flour. Despite her slovenly appearance, the baker shone radiantly, her bubbly personality as bright as her sun colored hair. Her sparkling sapphire eyes were just as warm, giving Nico the impression this woman could see right through you with a single look.

Nico wasn’t even mad when she’d been embraced in a flour filled hug too.

True to her appearance, the baker was loud and boisterous, a stark contrast to the calm and stoic knight, whom she’d also wormed into a hug. Nico wasn’t surprised when the princess introduced her as her other bride to be, nor could she help the pang of jealousy she felt at their closeness.

Nico put that aside, though. She had a job to do, songs to create.

Over the next few days, Nico spent every waking moment in the castle, getting to know all three brides as much as possible. She wanted to craft a song for each of them, to immortalize the essence of who they were into music. Then she would create another as a symbol for their union, a blessing for their everlasting love and happiness towards each other.

On the day of the wedding, Nico felt the familiar nervousness of butterflies dancing in her stomach. It was something she’d come to accept as a part of performing, an energy she’d learn to feed off and mold into fuel for her stage magic.

She knew things would go well, as she’d shown each bride the songs she’d made for the other two and their teary-eyed smiles let her know each would be well received.

True to her beliefs, everything had gone perfectly. The audience and more importantly, the brides, had been spellbound by her performance, hanging off her every lyric as if Nico’s songs held the secrets of life itself. When Nico unveiled her final song, her blessing for their eternal happiness, there wasn’t a dry eye in the whole castle.

Nico spent the rest of the wedding singing anything requested of her, dancing a careful line of being entertaining enough for the wedding goers, but not so much that she stole the show. This night wasn’t about her, after all.

Now she was gliding through the forest, headed towards Maki, hoping to spread some leftover wedding cheer to the aloof woman.

“You’re drunk.”

Nico hadn’t even made it a full two paces into the clearing before the accusation was cast at her.

“But I’ve only had a few cups of wine.” And she did only have a few cups. It just happened that those few cups contained the sweetest, strongest alcohol in the land. Wine so strong, it enticed men and women alike from all over the nation to travel thousands of miles for a single sip.

“You reek of alcohol.”

“That’s because everybody else was drunk.” And that was true, everyone else at the wedding was drunk. It also happened to be true that Nico was a little drunk as well, just not as much.

Nico felt warm, light on her feet, free, whereas most everyone else at the wedding had simply passed out. She felt bold, too, and this felt like the perfect night to ask Maki for a duet.

But first, to set the mood.

“I’ll be fine Maki and, if anything happens, you’re here for me, right?” Nico stared down Maki’s perch, really pouring the emotion into her words, honeyed like a siren’s call. Except Nico wasn’t a siren, trying to lure Maki to her death. She was a songstress, trying to do the world a favor by unleashing Maki’s voice.

“I am.”

It was the first time Maki had openly acknowledged any reason for her presence each night. Nico didn’t think that to be the one and only reason she’d come to watch over Nico, but knowing that was part of why Maki was here filled her with an indescribable happiness.

Nico decided to let those feelings flow through her, painting her song and dance in a way that left Maki no choice but to join her. Nico closed her eyes, letting the clearing, the forest - everything - slip away into the void as she focused on her singing. A vision filled her mind, one of her and Maki performing together across the world, from the finest of stages to the humblest of taverns.

It didn’t matter to Nico that she had no idea what Maki even looked like. She felt she knew her regardless, knew the essence of who she was. Nico was thankful the wine had flushed her face red to hide her embarrassment as she delved into this fantasy. It was hard not to fantasize, the romantic aura of a midnight rendezvous in the forest with a mysterious woman like Maki permeating the air. That aura, along with their natural musical chemistry, had little thoughts about what their life together could be like filling Nico’s head at all hours of the day.

Nico twisted and turned in step with her song, with all the grace of a - slightly tipsy - ballerina. She pirouetted and pranced around, letting the music guide her movements, mindful to not get too close to Maki’s perch, lest she break her promise. What she wasn’t mindful of, however, were the large roots growing from a nearby tree.

A jolt of pain seared up her leg when her ankle caught in the root. Nico cried out, throwing her arms in front of her to brace her fall. She hit the ground with a thud and cried out again when something sharp dug into her left palm. A whimper escaped her as she lay face first on the ground. So much for showing the most elegant version of herself to entice Maki to sing.

Before she could roll over and inspect the damage, Nico felt a presence beside her, then two cold - very cold - icy hands grabbed her lower leg.

“Don’t move.”

That was Maki’s voice. It couldn’t have been anyone else since they were alone, but Nico still had trouble believing that Maki, the girl so skittish that she fled when Nico came even remotely close, was beside her.

Nico was frozen stiff, a whirlwind of emotions raging like a storm in her mind. Her thoughts screamed at her to twist around, to catch even the faintest glance of the girl who’d invaded her every thought. Fear rooted her, however. Fear that even the tiniest movement would scare her watchful guardian off. So she laid still, afraid to take even the shallowest of breaths, afraid to do anything that could shatter this dream.

Maki’s hands glided across her skin, from the base of her foot to the joint of her ankle. She felt and prodded Nico’s soft skin, as if her mere touch could diagnose the severity of the injury. She lightly rolled Nico’s ankle in a circular motion, testing for any sign of tension. Her movements were calculated and precise as if she’d had decades of experience doing this.

“It’s not broken.”

Were this a regular doctor, Nico would’ve breathed a sigh of relief. However, Nico was still paralyzed, her thoughts in turmoil. Her mind waged war with itself, waves of desire crashing against the shores of her self restraint.

It was a battle she was winning. That is, until Maki removed her hands from Nico’s leg.

Nico didn’t even have time to think, pure instinct guiding her actions. She rolled over and saw… the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen.

Time froze as Nico took her in. Her skin was a translucent white, more captivating than any pearl Nico had ever seen. Locks of hair spilled from her hood, its color a red so vibrant that not even the ripest of apples nor the most radiant ruby could compare. And her eyes, oh her eyes. All the jewels she’d seen in the princesses palace, crafted by the finest gem cutters in the kingdom, and none came close to the magnificence that were her eyes. It was as if her eyes were forged from the stone of the ancient Amethyste herself.

Nico was certain any being could be charmed by her beauty. She was in love.

Unconsciously, Nico reached out, hoping to caress Maki’s face. That’s when her perfection shattered.

Amethyst transformed into blood red, jagged fangs elongated past perfect lips, and snow white skin became marred by bulging veins. She stared Nico down like she was prey.

Nico recoiled, gripped by fear. Maki snapped out of whatever trance she was in, and held her hands up, trying to show she meant no harm. Nico didn’t get the message and she scurried backwards, leaving her dignity behind.

“Please, wait!”

Nico was already halfway to the edge of the clearing, but she turned to look. A torrent of emotions were splashed across Maki’s face: anger, fear, hurt, but all Nico saw was a face marred by vampirism.

So she did the only thing she could; she ran, ran, ran, racing for home.

The hurt look on Maki’s face haunted her nightmares for days.

--------------------

It was almost a fortnight before Nico mustered up the courage to return to the forest.

Accepting the truth was hard. Maki was a vampire, but she was different from the folklore and legends about her kind. The vampires she’d heard about were terrifying predators of the night, blood sucking demons that hunted humans with a ferocity unmatched by any other creature. Nico had heard tales of entire groups of soldiers, the king’s finest men, massacred and left drained by a single vampire. She’d also heard much more sinister stories from vampire hunters. Stories of castles hidden away in the remote parts of the woods, filled with dozens of thralls, blood slaves to a demon of the night.

But Maki was nothing like that. Maki was shy, skittish, reluctant to let Nico come anywhere close to her and, if it weren’t for Nico’s drunken stupidity, she’d never even know what Maki looked like.

There was a possibility that it could have all been a trick, sure, but what vampire would spend months lulling a single girl into a false sense of security just to kill her off? If what Nico knew of their strength was true, she wouldn’t last five minutes in a fight.

No, killing Nico couldn’t have ever been on Maki’s mind.

Maki seemed lonely and wanted a friend, but was too afraid to seek one out. Instead, she’d silently gotten close enough to just be around Nico during her nighttime performances, settling for the next best thing. Nico was sure Maki had wanted companionship, but was afraid of anyone finding out what she was, afraid they’d flee in fear. And Nico had done just that.

When she realized just how badly she’d screwed up, Nico stayed in bed for a few days, stewing in sorrow.

But Nico wasn’t a girl who would wallow in what-ifs forever. She’d screwed up and she knew that. Now she had to make it right.

She started with a piece of advice her mother had always gave her. If you’ve ever made some mad and need to apologize, she’d always said start by giving them a gift. So Nico started by baking a pie.

Typically, such a delicacy would be far above her meager earnings, but a trip to the castle - and the princess - provided her with the ingredients she needed. Going above and beyond to provide the best entertainment for her wedding doing more for Nico that she would’ve thought.

As for the type of pie… she went with cherry. Partially because cherry was her favorite, but also because they were red, just like blood. She’d hoped to be in good enough graces with Maki to make a joke about it, maybe get a laugh. It was another piece of advice she’d learned from her parents, this one belonging to her father - make a girl smile and she’d open up to you. She hoped that would hold true for her now.

Nico awoke with the sun, devoting her morning to baking in the princesses private kitchen. She finished just after the sun reached its apex, taking the aromatic offering home to cool for its grand reveal later that night. Nico spent the rest of her day working on a second gift - a brand new song, just for Maki.

Nico obsessed over it, desperate to make this song perfect. She spent hour after hour huddled over her small wooden table and scratching a quill to parchment, forgoing food, water, and anything else that would take her away from the music. Nico felt like she’d put her everything into this song, every emotion and every feeling, from the first time she’d called out to Maki to the last time they’d met and the terrible mistake she’d made. She wanted this song to be everything she felt about Maki, vampire and all.

It was dark out when she finished. It was still a few hours until their usual meeting time, so Nico decided to have her first meal of the day and take a short rest. She needed to be at her best for the most important performance of her life, after all.

---------------------

When Nico awoke, it was pitch dark outside. She dressed in her nicer robes, put the pie into a protective wooden box, grabbed a candlestick, and set out into the night.

The journey through the forest was like every other she’d taken. A light breeze tried to fight its way through the trees, critters scurried around in the underbrush, and there was a general calmness in the air. The same couldn’t be said about Nico.

Nervous energy thrashed around in her stomach like waves raging against the hull of a ship in a storm. She couldn’t help but fidget, jumping at every rustle of leaves, every call from a distant animal. Halfway to the clearing and she had to stop, forcing herself to calm down.

The worst thing that can happen is she’s not there, and then you just try again the next night, she told herself. And she would, night after night, until she was reunited with Maki and given the chance to set things right.

Tension filled the air as she stepped into the clearing. Maybe it was just her. She set her box and candlestick down next to a tree that jutted out into the clearing, the same one she’d fallen over last time, and took a deep breath.

“Maki? Are you there?”

Nico wasn’t really expecting a response, but it was worth a try. She’d just have to hope her song would be loud enough to bring Maki to her.

She took slow, uneasy steps into the center of the clearing, heart thumping like a drum. She took breath after breath in an attempt to calm herself down, but it was no use. Her heart continued pounding in her chest, sweat slickening her palms. Resorting to a trick her father had taught her, she harnessed that nervous energy and began to sing.

A shiver cascaded through her body, causing her voice to waver and her arms to shake. Nico ignored it all, focusing on the music, focusing on all the moments she’d spent with Maki. The conversations, the music, the flirting, Nico wielded all those moments like a sword, driving back the doubts in her mind. It was working too, at least until she heard footsteps.

Nico froze, straining her ears. These weren’t the light and agile footsteps Nico expected from Maki. These were the frenzied footfalls of a mad beast honed in on its target, Nico.

A shadow burst through the trees at the edge of clearing and Nico threw herself to the side, her body reacting faster than her mind.

The creature flew past Nico, crashing into a tree on the other side of the clearing. Nico rolled over to get a look at it and her jaw dropped. It had lost control of its speed and smashed into a tree, nearly breaking it in half. Gods only knew what it would have done to her.

She tried her best to make out what it was as it untangled itself from the mass of bark. Its limbs were long and lanky, its movements awkward and unnatural, as if it hadn’t grown into its own skin yet. If Nico didn’t know any better, she would’ve thought it was a boy drunk off his first taste of alcohol, but no boy held that much strength in a frame so thin.

When it freed itself from the now destroyed tree, Nico knew just how much danger she was in.

Glowing red eyes locked onto Nico, filled with murderous intent. Blood dripped from its impossibly long fangs, staining its tunic. It was a vampire, the kind Nico had heard grizzly tales of, the kind that was going to kill her. A stray thought in the back of her mind reminded her that this thing was nothing like Maki. She felt so stupid thinking Maki was any danger to her.

It took slow, measured steps towards Nico. It might have been driven insane with bloodlust, but the primal part of its mind knew when a hunt was over. Nico might have been able to dodge another lunge for her throat, but there was no way she would be able to fight it on her own. It was going to kill her. She knew it, the vampire knew it, even the trees themselves knew it. The only question was how long it wanted to savor the kill.

Another step closer and Nico scrambled to her feet. If she was going to die, it wouldn’t be on her back like a coward. She would die on her feet, fighting till the last breath. Her pride demanded it.

She pulled her dagger and moved slightly to the left. The only chance she had of killing this thing was to stand in front of a tree and hope to dodge the next attack. If the vampire lunged at her full force again, she could plunge her dagger into its neck when it tried to free itself again.

The vampire had crossed half of the clearing now. It was halfway to its kill, halfway to the end of Nico’s life. With every step it took, its features became more clear, more grotesque. Rows of gnarled and twisted teeth filled its mouth, like it had spent years chewing on bark. Its eyes were sunken in, their blood red glow brighter than the moonlight. The stench of blood filled Nico’s nostrils, leaving an acrid tang in her mouth. The vampire readied itself for another lunge and time slowed down for Nico. She’d resolved herself to fight, and she would, but staring down certain death had a certain effect on a girl. She didn’t want to die, not when there were so many things she still wanted to experience.

Nico wished she could’ve seen Maki one last time.

Nico braced herself as the vampire lunged at her, preparing for the end, one way or the other. However, before it could reach her and sink its fangs into her neck, something crashed into it, sending it careening to the other side of the clearing.

Fiery red hair and flawless amethyst eyes filled Nico’s vision. It was Maki. Maki was here for her, her guardian angel.

“Run, Nico.” Maki spared Nico the briefest of glances before she looked back to the feral vampire, her eyes flaring crimson.

Were this any other time, Nico would’ve felt a flutter in her heart at her name coming out of Maki’s perfect mouth.

Nico watched as Maki’s fangs elongated, the nails on her fingers sharpening into claws. The other vampire was already back on its feet, growling at Maki. Unlike with Nico, it didn’t waste any time leaping at Maki, snarling all the while.

Maki spun to the side, swiping her claws across its back. She connected, but only succeeded in tearing its cloak. Before it could catch its footing, Maki raced forwards, aiming for its neck.

Just before she got in range to impale her hand in its neck, the vampire twisted around at an inhuman speed and slashed at Maki’s face. She threw herself sideways, falling to the ground and narrowly avoiding certain death. The vampire followed, jumping on top of her and aiming its claws like spikes at her throat.

Maki jerked her head to the side, dodging one hand and grabbing the other. She tried to kick it off, but it pinned her legs down with its own. She struggled to hold back its assault, her strength already failing her. It seemed to realize this and bared its fangs, poised to sink into her neck.

Nico looked on in horror, fear rooting her. For whatever reason, Maki wasn’t strong enough to fight it off, and it was going to kill her.

Nico was going to watch her die.

The fear of losing Maki snapped Nico to her senses and she sprinted towards her love, dagger at the ready.

Before Nico could plunge her dagger somewhere - anywhere as long as it got off Maki - the vampire leapt up and whirled around, slashing its claws at Nico’s face. She was going too fast, her momentum barreling her into a head on collision with death. All she could do was raise an arm to shield herself.

Razor sharp claws ripped through her flesh, leaving gaping wounds in their wake. Nico screamed, falling back and clutching her damaged arm, blood seeping from the jagged wounds.

With a roar, Maki leapt to her feet and stabbed her clawed hand into the creatures back. It wasn’t phased in the slightest, slinging her arm off and spinning around to claw at her midsection.

The uselessness of her attack surprised Maki, and she wasn’t able to recover her wits in time as the creature's claw shredded across her stomach. She, too, fell back with a cry, slumping against a tree. There was no time to recover, as another strike was made at her head. Maki barely dodged her head to the side, the creature’s hand impaling itself in the bark of the tree. That hand merely served to trap her, however, as fangs sank into her neck.

Her blood curdling scream ripped across the calm summer night, disrupting the peace of the world. Maki brought her hands to its neck, in a desperate attempt to rake along its flesh, but as soon as she dug in, the creature impaled its free hand into her right side. A strangled gasp escaped Maki’s lips, followed by her violently coughing up blood.

Time stopped for Nico. Her brain couldn’t process the sight before her eyes. Maki was injured and bleeding. Maki was in agony as the creature fed off her. Maki was dying.

Nico felt like she was having an out of body experience, like she was in a fever dream. This couldn’t be happening, it wasn’t happening. She was still passed out on her bed after making Maki an apology pie and writing a song for her. None of this was real.

Fangs and claws both sank deeper into Maki’s skin, eliciting another wail of pain. Nico jumped to action. She shrieked, seeing nothing but molten red fury and rushed the vampire.

It once again knew she was coming and retracted itself from Maki, salivating at the opportunity to feast on human blood.

The light was fading for Maki, but she was just lucid enough to see Nico sprinting towards her in a vengeful fury. She knew that as soon as the creature let her go, it would turn on Nico and surely kill her. With the last of her strength, she wrapped her arms around the creature’s midsection, locking her fists together to keep it in place.

The creature jolted, trying to writhe out of Maki’s grasp. But she held on, desperate to protect Nico from certain death. It twisted violently in her hold, eager to free itself to kill Nico. Maki was running on fumes, sheer will fueling her hold on the vampire. She buried her head into its chest in an attempt to protect her neck from its snapping jaws and waited for the end.

Just when her grip was about to fail, she heard a powerful cry from Nico and the vampire stilled. Maki looked up to see the light leave its eyes, Nico’s dagger plunged into its back.

It wailed an eerily human wail, one that reminded Nico that it used to be human, before disintegrating into ashes, scattered into the night by a warm breeze.

For a moment, everything was still. Nico stood in shock as her brain rushed to process that she’d actually killed the monster. Then Maki slid down the tree, slumping at its base and time restarted.

“Maki! Oh Gods, Maki!” Nico frantically dropped to her knees, crawling up to her dying love.

She pressed her hands against the hole in Maki’s side and the gashes on her stomach. It was useless, doing nothing other than staining her hands crimson with Maki’s blood. Reeling back, she ripped off her robes and pressed them against Maki’s wounds, desperate to stop the bleeding. Paid screamed in her mind from her shredded arm, burning and numbing her senses all at once.

It was useless. There were too many wounds and they were too deep. Nico watched helplessly as the light dimmed in Maki’s eyes. Without any other plan she feebly pressed harder, hoping for something, anything, that showed Maki was still with her.

Maki barely stirred, only having enough energy to groan.

Nico let go of her robes, wiping her bloodied hands off on her tunic. She shook at Maki’s uninjured shoulder, trying to force her back to consciousness. When that didn’t work, she slapped Maki’s cheeks.

“Maki!” She shouted, slapping her as hard as she thought was necessary. “Wake up, Maki! Don’t leave me! Please, don’t leave me!”

Nico’s cries were interlaced with wracked sobs. She felt a little relief when Maki stirred awake.

“Nico?” Maki’s voice was slurred, sleepy, fading.

“Maki!” Nico slapped and shook her some more. “Why aren’t you healing? I thought vampires were supposed to be strong? I thought you were supposed to heal quickly!”

Just as she was reeling her hand back for another slap, it was grabbed by Maki. Maki gave a weak smile, before pressing Nico’s hand to her cheek and nuzzling into it.

“You’re warm, Nico.” Her voice was little more than a mumble.

It was the kind of gesture Nico would find utterly adorable, were the situation different. Anger rose to the surface. Anger at that cursed feral vampire, anger at Maki for seemingly giving up instead of answering her, and anger at her stupid self, for reacting like an idiot in the first place all those nights ago.

“Dammit, listen to me!” Nico shook Maki with both hands.”Why aren’t you healing? Why aren’t you trying to save yourself? How do I fix you?”

Nico’s voice rose with each word, her pleading yells shattering the calm of the forest. She didn’t know what to do. Maki was dying and not talking, not telling Nico anything that would help. She frantically wracked her brain for any solution, anything to keep Maki alive.

Then it hit her. Blood. Surely blood would make Maki stronger, make her body start to heal itself - and Nico was ready to give however much was needed.

She ripped her hand out of Maki’s grasp, earning a weak mumble of discontent. Looking around for her dagger, she found it a few paces to her left. As soon as she started to crawl over towards it, her damaged arm gave out and she slumped over in pain. The adrenaline coursing through her numbered her senses to the severity of the wound. Cradling it to her chest, Nico crawled over to the dagger on one hand.

Once she had it in her possession again, she wiped the remaining ashes of the feral vampire in the dirt and cut a sizable piece of her tunic off and wrapped it around her wounds. Her arms shook and her voice whimpered as she tried her hardest to tighten the makeshift bandage enough to staunch some of the bleeding. Blood seeped into the cloth, staining it in an ugly red. It wasn’t much, but at least she wasn’t bleeding all over herself anymore.

When Nico returned to Maki, her breathing had gotten even lighter. There was no time to waste and Nico brought the dagger to her palm. She pressed down hard, ignoring the pangs of pain until she saw red, slashing the dagger down in a straight line. Shuffling forward on her knees, she sat herself in Maki’s lap and cradled her head. She pressed her palm to Maki’s parted mouth, dripping blood between her lips and down her throat.

At first, nothing happened. Nico strained her muscles, willing a few more drops of blood from her cut. Slowly, more of the life saving ichor trickled out. Nico searched Maki’s face, hoping for a sign, anything to show that it wasn’t too late. Maki stirred a little and Nico dug her nails into her palm, desperate to get Maki more blood.

Finally, Maki opened her eyes and, though her gaze was still glassy, she looked at Nico, rather than through her.

“Nico?”

“I’m here, Maki.” Nico cooed. “Everything’s going to be alright, you’ll be okay.”

Maki looked at the hand feeding her and tried to push it away. “That won’t work. Not like that. It’s not enough.”

“Then bite me, dammit. Feed on me if you have to!”

“Need too much.” Maki mumbled. “Could kill you.”

“What am I supposed to do, then?” Nico shook her again, this time out of anger. “Let you die?”

“Better than becoming what I am.”

A chill creeped through Nico. Was dying really better than being a vampire? She knew the caress of vampirism, how it forced the afflicted away from society to transform them into blood sucking monsters. But Maki wasn’t that kind of vampire. Maki had control. Was her life really so terrible that death was a more preferable option than feeding off Nico to save herself?

Well, it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t get to make that choice for me.

“I’ve made my mind up already!” Nico stared Maki down, shaking her again. “You don’t get to choose for me. I’m not giving up on you, so you can’t give up on yourself!”

Maki’s smile was thin, red lips a harsh contrast with ghostly white skin. It was the kind of smile you gave when the reaper came knocking. The kind you gave when you’d accepted death. “And who are you to choose that for me?”

Tears welled in Nico’s eyes. She cursed Maki’s stubbornness, but she didn’t know what else to do, what else to say.

“It’ll be ok Nico.” Maki’s voice was soft, soothing. “Just let me go.”

Every fiber of Nico’s being screamed in rejection to that idea. Maki was giving up and Nico had no idea how to make her fight, make her choose life. She did the only thing that came to mind. She gripped the back of Maki’s head and crashed their lips together.

As far as kisses went, it was awful. Maki’s mouth tasted of blood, her fangs dug into Nico’s lip, and her lips were freezing cold. On top of that, Maki didn’t even move, seemingly frozen stiff. Nico had started to panic, afraid that she’d failed, until finally, finally, Maki started to kiss her back.

Nico ran her tongue along Maki’s mouth, demanding entrance. Maki didn’t fight it, her lips parting enough to allow Nico entry. Nico tried not to focus on the taste of blood, distracting herself by running her tongue along Maki’s fangs. Maki swirled hers around Nico’s and Nico tangled with it briefly, but in the end, she returned to those fascinating fangs.

When they parted for air, Nico let it all spill out. “Don’t give up, please. I love you.”

Maki’s eyes widened and a little bit of hope wormed its way through Nico’s heart, just to be dashed a moment later when Maki shook her head ever so slightly.

“It’s worse than you think.”

Tears welled up in Nico’s eyes. Damn this stupid, stubborn, stunningly beautiful girl. Still, Nico wasn’t going to give up.

She rested her head on Maki’s uninjured shoulder and pressed Maki’s face into her neck.

“You don’t have to be alone anymore.” Nico whispered into Maki’s ear. “I may not know what it’s like to be a vampire, but I do know what it’s like to experience good things in life. I can show you everything you’ve been missing out on. We can share them together. So don’t leave me, please.

Nico angled her head until she felt Maki’s lips against her neck.

“We wouldn’t be able to live among humans.”

“That’s alright. Not enough of them recognized my amazing talent anyway.” Nico felt a soft chuckle against her skin.

“If we’re discovered, they’ll hunt us.”

“We’ll face them together.” Nico’s voice was firm, resolute.

“We’ll have to move often, before people realize we don’t age.”

“That just gives us a good excuse to see the world.”

There was silence as Maki contemplated what to do. Nico just held her and waited, giving her all the time she needed.

Sharp fangs poked at her neck, but didn’t break the skin.

“I’m ready.” Nico kissed the shell of Maki’s ear.

Everything was still, save for the rise and fall of Maki’s breathing and the soft breeze rustling the trees. The pressure on her neck increased, but Maki still hesitated. Nico held her in place, gently pushing Maki’s mouth to her pulse point.

Nico ran her fingers through Maki’s hair, trying to give her that last little bit of encouragement.

“I love you.”

Maki bit down, and the world faded away.