Keith leaned against the doorframe, raking a hand through his tangled, unruly hair, ripping out several knots and letting them fall to the floor where they tumbled across the hardwood, swept to the corners of the room by the overhead fan. He crossed his arms over his chest, watching impassively as Shiro drank his fill.
In macabre parody of the Pietà, Shiro bent over the struggling athlete in the center of the bed, drinking his fill of blood. The body convulsed; a flailing arm nearly struck him in the face. Shifting his grip, he caught the wrist and squeezed, crushing the delicate bones with his gauntlet. It would all be over soon enough.
While Keith found himself objectively ambivalent to the plight of the youth, the longer he watched, the more incensed he became. Their bed was for two things and only two things: sleeping and sex. That sanctity should have been inviolate. They had agreed live meals were only to be taken in the bathroom on plastic sheeting, as there was no proper dining room in the small flat and the heavy duty polyethylene was much easier to dispose of than grout was to clean. This act was at once criminally uncivilized and patently inconsiderate.
It happened all the time.
The vein at the center of Keith’s forehead pulsed and throbbed. A low growl issued forth from his diaphragm, and he clenched his jaw tight to keep himself in check, grinding his teeth.
He squeezed his eyes shut as he inhaled and exhaled then inhaled again. “Shiro,” Keith began, careful to keep his voice level, “how many times have I asked you not to eat in bed?”
Looking up at him, Shiro blinked, running his tongue along his bottom lip before pointing to the stacks of pizza boxes, neatly piled on the shipping crates that had been a regular obstacle to navigating the small room since they’d moved in six months prior. The crates were filled with antique Japanese lanterns, an Edo era equivalent to the 18th-century European vampire’s proclivity toward gothic candelabra.
“Downsizing,” he had called it, taken with the idea of minimal living and Scandinavian design principles. Not particularly sentimental over material things, Keith had indulgently complied. Shiro, on the other hand, had locked most of his possessions away in several secure, climate-controlled storage units downtown, claiming that he was giving up his lavish lifestyle and would be selling his collections through some pretentious, high-end auction house.
“I’m not like other vampires.”
“Pizza boxes are not the same as human husks.” The heat rose in his face and hands. “The majority population, the human population, takes issue with this sort of thing.” He turned to the window, blackout curtains opened wide and the luminous waxing gibbous moon staring them down from where it hung suspended in the night sky, ever a cruel mistress.
Shiro scoffed. “Double standard.”
“No. I don’t eat people in bed.”
“I don’t eat people.”
“Technicality and you know it.”
“I was hungry. You weren’t here. I’d been waiting all night.” A healthy pink already bloomed in Shiro’s cheeks. “What were you doing anyway?”
“You know, stuff.” He’d dug up some bones, roughhoused with the local dogs, chased the neighbor’s cat up a tree, pissed in a garden, rolled in the dirt, and howled at the moon. Not in that order. In other words, the usual.
Keith nodded. “I’m hungry.” Watching Shiro feed had reminded his stomach he hadn’t had dinner.
Shiro shook his head, mouth parting in a devious grin. “Come on.” His expression softened and he scooted over to give Keith some room, patting the duvet beside him before allowing his metal arm to dematerialize. “I have a star quarterback from the high school football team right here, freshly killed, just for you. It’s still warm.”
“It wasn’t ‘just for me.’ You drank all the blood.” Keith replied in petulant accusation. “You know, maybe I don’t always want to eat your seconds like some cast-off bottom feeder. Just because I can eat it doesn’t make me obligated. I don’t want it. I want a pizza.” Even though the cheese always upset his stomach and there was never enough protein, he loved the salty, savory flavors and fresh, warm crust. He tried not to drool at the thought.
“I wish you wouldn’t eat pizza so often. There’s way too much garlic, and unless you brush your teeth, I always end up with a rash.”
“I don’t know how. There’s no garlic on Hawaiian pizza,” Keith retorted. “Besides, you don’t have to kiss me.”
He stretched, rocking forward on the balls of his feet and pulling his elbows behind his head to crack his shoulders, first one then the other. Padding off to the kitchen, he remembered a flyer received in the mail a few days earlier from a new pizza parlor nearby. They offered free all-night delivery.
Someone, probably Shiro, had tossed it into the recycling. Fortunately, it was easy to find.
Keith called the number.
After five rings, a gruff, groggy voice answered. “Pizza My Heart.”
“I need a pizza.”
Shiro had followed him out, listening to the phone call, reaching out with one cold, white hand to pull him in. Keith rested his head against Shiro’s rock-hard breast. Fingers stroked his hair, feather light as they trailed over his shoulder and down his back.
The clerk cleared her throat into the receiver. “Okay. What kind of pizza do you need?”
“Hawaiian with extra garlic.” A smile spread across his face, not bothering to disguise the sharp set of fangs biting into his bottom lip as he looked up to meet dark eyes. Shiro groaned, pushing Keith away and throwing his hand up in disgust before sauntering away into the living room.
“It doesn’t come with garlic,” she drawled. “It’ll be an extra charge for the garlic and then another charge for the extra garlic.”
“That’s fine. Is the pizza shaped like a heart?”
“What do you mean? It’s just a pizza. Of course, it doesn’t come in the shape of a heart.”
“Your establishment is called Pizza My Heart. I want it heart-shaped.”
“One sec.” She must have been holding her hand over the receiver because the sound was muffled, but Keith could just make out, “Hey, Hunk. This asshole on the phone wants a heart-shaped pizza.”
Keith nearly laughed out loud and decided he already liked this place. Hopefully, the product was as good as the entertainment. “I heard you.”
She ignored him. From somewhere in the background, a man’s voice replied, “You shouldn’t talk about our customers like that, Pidge.”
“You gonna do it or not?” the clerk snapped back. She sounded both irritated and exhausted. After a moment, she said to Keith, “Yeah, we’ll do it. One heart-shaped Hawaiian pizza with extra, extra garlic coming right up. Where do you live?”
He told her.
“Got it. You’ll have your pizza in about an hour. Mister-?”
“Yeah, okay. That wasn’t necessary. Thanks for your business.”
Before Keith could answer, the clerk hung up. She hadn’t even given him the total.
Setting his phone down, Keith glanced over at Shiro reclining on the chaise, a tasteless monstrosity with overstuffed crimson brocade upholstery and gold braid trim with tassels at each of the legs. “Shiro?”
Keith threw himself bodily onto the sofa and propped his filthy, bare feet up on the black lacquered novelty coffin table.
“Shiro?” Keith repeated, his tone demanding a response.
“Yes?” This time he shifted his gaze to Keith.
“Will you get the body out of our bed before my pizza arrives?”
“Everybody needs a second chance ohhhhh! You wanna Pizza My Heart!” Lance sang, bouncing forward in his seat. Altering the lyrics to Loverboy’s Working for the Weekend, he swept his hand over the steering wheel. In his excitement, the car swerved dangerously to one side before he caught himself. “You better start from the start!”
Static suddenly filled the speakers as the engine choked and gagged. Lance cursed, bashing his fist hard against the dash above the dying radio. His tires spun out of the turn, squealing off the main road and drifting through the gravel onto a dark, unpaved street. Churned up stones clattered and plinked against the undercarriage; an Oort cloud of dust billowed in its wake, providing coverage for the burst of exhaust that exploded from the muffler with a pop and release. Holding his breath, Lance frantically downshifted to slow his forward momentum.
The gears ground and the old Ford Probe bucked and rattled, threatening to give up the ghost at any moment.
“Sorry babe.” With a heavy sigh, he patted the cracked vinyl. “It’s not your fault.” At his caress, music crackled from the blown-out speakers, and he exhaled in relief.
He had one final delivery to make, and then he was calling it for the night. Hopefully, he’d find the place soon, but squinting out the foggy windows, he could hardly see a thing. Annoyed, he turned the crank on the door, yet, even with the window rolled down, it was difficult to make out which apartment he was looking for. There were suspiciously few streetlights in this part of town, and his pop-up headlights remained permanently stuck in a cheeky wink. Only one porch light was still on at this hour. Glancing over at the post-it on the pizza carrier, he confirmed the address. This had to be the place.
Lance checked his watch as he pulled up and parked. He sure hoped Mr. Kogane appreciated having his pizza delivered at 3:36 am.
Grabbing the large pizza, he made his way along the crumbling concrete to the peeling burgundy-painted door revealing the steel sheeting below. One of the brass unit numbers was missing, but someone had helpfully drawn in a “1” before the remaining numerals “6” and “9”.
He stepped up to the covered porch, onto a Halloween themed doormat emblazoned with the phrase, “Dead Inside” surrounded by bats. It was an accurate description of how Lance currently felt. Smothering a yawn in the shoulder of his tired, stained polo, he jabbed at the doorbell a few times with one sharp knuckle and waited.
The night was almost too quiet, and here he was practically in the middle of nowhere. He twisted around to check his car, not even fifty feet away. Why had he left his phone in it? Hunk always told him to make sure he had his phone on his person. Just in case, although Lance couldn’t think of a single situation where he’d ever been in any real danger while on the job. There was the old lady in the woods who danced naked in the moonlight, kind of odd, but harmless. And if the temporal anomaly appearing at the outskirts of town every now and then decided to arrive and swallow him up, well, he was fairly sure his phone plan didn’t cover transdimensional calling. This was an apartment complex, an ordinary residential community. It would be fine. He would be fine.
After about half a minute of waiting, he knocked, rapping hard against the door. Slowly, it swung open and a man peered down at him, brushing a distinguished white forelock away from his face into the salt and pepper of his close-cropped hair.
Lance wasn’t used to that. At six foot one, he was more accustomed to people looking up.
Inhaling sharply, the air whistled through his teeth as he met the hard face with inky dark eyes bearing him down. A droplet of pinkish sweat trickled down from the man’s temple and dripped onto a dressing gown that wasn’t even trying to conceal a powerful physique.
Something about the way the man was looking at him with a studied calm, the way he slowly raised one heavy, chiseled brow made Lance feel particularly uncomfortable as if he were a side of meat being sized up for a meal.
The hair at the nape of his neck prickled and a shiver coursed the length of his spine with an electric jolt. Blood pulsed through his temples with the hammering of his heart, railing for release.
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, realizing that he’d been staring with his mouth open and tried to cover for himself by cracking his jaw. “Pizza My Heart,” he squeaked, clearing his throat and shoving the pizza box into the man’s single ashen hand. “Uh, enjoy your pizza!” He pivoted a full about-face and didn’t look back as he bolted toward his car.
Shiro watched longingly as the tasty bite scampered away, but Keith had been explicitly clear. Under no circumstance was he to make a meal of the pizza courier.
Understandably, Keith was annoyed that they’d been blacklisted by every other pizza delivery in town. It was entirely Shiro’s fault, and both of them knew it. Easy prey with front door delivery was hard to resist, and Shiro had taken advantage of it a few too many times.
The scent of the courier’s blood had him sweating his earlier meal from every pore in his frigid form, and it had taken a great deal of will and mental fortitude to ignore the metallic and tantalizingly sweet, tangy scent.
“Are you listening to me?” Keith asked, emerging from the bathroom, head tilted to one side as he flicked the gore from his cheek and licked clean the blood from the back of his hand. Tired of waiting, he had started munching on Shiro’s earlier meal.
After all that fuss, too.
“Hey, I’m asking you a question.”
Keith’s voice called him to attention, and he dipped his chin once in acknowledgment.
“How much was the Pizza?”
Shiro raised his shoulders then dropped them. “Who knows? It shoved this at me and ran off.”
Keith relieved him of the pizza box, “Guess I get a free pizza.” He held it up, pressed the brown cardboard against the side of his face, and breathed in deeply.
“It smelled really, really good.” The bloodlust got him every single time.
“This pizza smells really, really good.”
“It smells like garlic.” Shiro reached into a pocket for his handkerchief to cover his nose and mouth. If he expired from allergies, it would be all Keith’s fault, and he’d make sure Keith never forgot it. Well, maybe.
“Was it male?”
Shiro nodded. Keith knew him too well.
Keith had already opened the lid and was busy trying to figure out how to shove two pieces into his mouth at once. A dollop of cheese dripped onto his bare chest, followed by a plop of tomato sauce right into the trail of black hair below his navel.
Wolves. A wolf could turn a delicate repast into a barbaric orgy of gluttonous consummation. Keith had this down to a science. He scooped up the dribbles and shoved his fingers wholesale into his mouth. Nothing was ever wasted. Although how, Shiro wondered, with his small, compact frame, could he possibly devour the whole thing in addition to whatever portion of the quarterback he’d just eaten?
Another five minutes and three-quarters of the pizza was gone. The corner of Keith’s mouth twitched knowingly. “You still can’t eat it, I mean, him,” he added, speaking with his mouth full. “This pizza is delicious.”
“Stuff it, Shiro. I don’t want to hear another word about you flying into the sun’s roiling corona and exploding into space dust or whatever.” Keith scratched his head vigorously, flakes of dander scattering fresh snowfall over his shoulders. As usual, Shiro was at it again.
“I don’t know if you realize this,” he continued, “but the moon is always full in space. It’s a sphere.” Picking out a tiny insect, Keith examined it thoughtfully for longer than was necessary before popping it into his mouth and crushing its carapace between his teeth.
“I bought more flea and tick shampoo for you. It’s in the bathroom.” Shiro was an expert at changing the subject.
Glaring at him, Keith scowled, “I don’t have fleas.”
“You were gone for a week, who knows what you might have picked up. Do you even know where you went?”
“No. Why do you always ask? It’s my fucking moon time. I can’t remember, and if I could, I probably wouldn’t want to anyway.” His voice cracked in indignation, and he closed his mouth immediately. His scalp still itched as did other parts of him, but he didn’t want to have that discussion. Later, probably after Shiro had gone to sleep, he’d have to douse himself in chemicals.
“Good grief. Keith, calm down and watch your language. I was being facetious.”
He’d missed the intonation, which was almost more upsetting, and he clenched his fists tight, nails digging into his palms so hard his own blood trickled out between his knuckles. “Calm down? Me? We don’t just have those blackout curtains for you, you know. You’re the one who opened the damned window during the full moon.”
Shiro stammered, taken aback by the building rage, eyes wide, struck full force by the earthy-fresh scent of Keith’s blood. “I-I was just thinking about flying again. I miss being able to fly.” The witch in the woods had Shiro’s arm, and whatever she’d done to preserve it, he was unable to dissolve it and replace his missing limb. It meant that in his bat form, he was likewise missing a wing and he couldn’t just create a mechanical one when most of his energy went into the shape-shift.
“Well tough shit.” Keith watched Shiro’s face fall and immediately felt bad for being so hard on him. He spread his fingers wide to lick up the blood. “Look, you know I will go with you whenever you want to confront-” he stopped.
Shiro drew his lips to a thin line and shook his head. He was fully capable of exercising self-control but watched with almost desperate famine as Keith cleaned up his hands.
Keith ignored it, squeezing himself onto the chaise between Shiro and the armrest. He rubbed Shiro’s back and massive shoulders before squeezing him tight. “Whenever you’re ready just let me know.”
Receiving no response aside from the shudder of Shiro’s nerves as he collected himself, Keith shifted, scanning the small space. The living room was mostly put together. An old oil portrait still rested against the wall across from where they sat, but it was the last piece they needed to place. The ornament at the corners of the gilded frame remained carefully padded and protected from the move, but the painted image was fully visible. The painted figures clung to the brink of propriety as if having been caught off-guard, captured in a singular fleeting moment. They sat so closely together, their intimacy betrayed by the proximity of their bodies, the way their weights shifted toward each other, the intake of Keith’s breath through parted lips, and Shiro’s hand poised as if reaching for his face or perhaps retreating from it.
They had sat for a portrait only the once. Shiro had dragged him out east to an artist’s studio in Philadelphia. Keith hadn’t wanted to go, he didn’t need a fancy picture, but Shiro had convinced him to stay just long enough for Mr. Sully to capture the intense ennui of their youthful immortality and the rapacious, preternatural hunger burning in their eyes. The candlelight cast shadows from which Shiro emerged, wan as spectral mist against Keith’s cherry lips and the warm flush in his cheeks.
“I’m going to hang that portrait.” Keith glanced at Shiro. “Do you like it there? I think it would look better over the fireplace.”
“You’d look amazing anywhere.” Shiro reached over to finger the identification tags on Keith’s collar. The collar had been Keith’s idea and worked well enough. If he found himself out and about, and needed to get home fast, all he had to do was find someone who wasn’t afraid of an enormous black “dog” and pretend to be lost. His vaccination dates were current, and Shiro’s phone number was on the back side of his name tag.
Keith pulled Shiro’s hand away and guided it around his back, shifting closer. “We. We’d look good over the mantel, or in front of it…” he trailed off, urging Shiro to kiss him, pliant and supple as they came together.
Pausing for Keith to catch his breath, Shiro reached into a pocket and passed over something rumpled and red hanging off one finger. “Will you at least put some clothes on first?”
Taking the garment between his thumb and forefinger, Keith shook it out and sniffed it delicately. “I see somebody was raiding my hamper again.”
“You were gone, I was lonely, and no one had done the laundry yet.”
“You know,” Keith said, slipping his feet into the thong and standing to adjust himself. “This does not count as clothing.”
Assessing the goods, Shiro gestured for Keith to turn around. “Yes it does,” was all he had to offer as Keith took his hand and drove his palm down. At the line of the thong, Shiro pulled away abruptly, ashamed.
“Shiro.” Keith found it hard to disguise his hurt. They’d been playing like this for years. Just thinking about Shiro was enough to turn him on. In contrast, if Shiro hadn’t fed enough; he wasn’t going to be able to perform. Then again, that’s what the snacks tied up in the bathroom were for.
Easing himself to his feet, Shiro stood back and surveyed the room, picking his blood pint off the side table and sipping at it through the straw haphazardly skewered through the center. “I think you’re right about the portrait.”
Keith pretended he hadn’t heard. It was the second time that night Shiro had deflected. “Why don’t you eat something?” he suggested, but Shiro’s expression told him it was better to leave the subject alone for a while. Instead, he scrounged the toolbox from behind the sofa, where it had been collecting dust since they’d moved in. Pulling the side table over, he stood on tiptoe in front of the faux fireplace, measuring and checking his marks with a level before hammering in a set of picture florets.
Shiro took the protective corners off the frame while Keith worked and once finished, hung the portrait on the wall. He stared at it pensively, his eyes following the elegant brushwork and the well-defined contours. Tearing his eyes away, he asked, “Will you help me put up the lanterns?”
“Of course.” Anything to get rid of those crates in the bedroom.
After setting the hooks into the ceiling, Keith sat on the bed while Shiro hung the lanterns individually. Small battery-powered tea lights cast a muted glow through the rice paper screening, illuminating the path around the bed.
“We should buy the lights you can sync to an app,” Keith suggested.
“That’s a good idea,” Shiro replied.
Despite having needled Shiro incessantly about the crates over the previous months, he did like the lanterns. Their glow was like the comfort of stars, strung up against a vast, velvet sky. He could do without the moon any time, but the grounding of the firmament always made him feel safe. It was constant with a regular shift, and even if the stars were moving apart and together, it happened over great stretches of measurable time.
He was still too young to know what to expect with the passage of millennia. He wondered how long he would live and what the sky might look like in a theoretical future at which point he might cease to exist.
Keith felt warm, and his stomach hurt. He didn’t remember when he’d last eaten or how long he’d been gone before when he’d come home. Hauling himself to his feet, he made his way back out to the living room.
“I’m going to order a pizza.”
“When everything I’ll ever do I’ll do for you.” Lance smacked his thigh in time with the drums, singing along with Roxette, “And I go la la la la la.” He jerked his chin and hand to a sharp pause before continuing with a power fist, “Unnf!”
Like last time, the only porch light still on was the one at his destination, and he steeled himself for another heart-throbbing confrontation with the customer who lived there. Pidge had told him to make sure he returned with payment. He repeated Hunk’s reprimand aloud, “I’m not running a bar, and we don’t keep tabs for strangers.”
Fine. Well, maybe Pidge should stop being lazy and start taking credit cards over the phone, though to be fair, she claimed it was insecure. Someone might have tapped their line.
A pizza parlor? Yeah right. Paranoia of the first degree.
He grabbed the large Hawaiian pizza with extra, extra garlic and made his way up the path to the door. Voices came through the open window. Two as far as he could tell, and they were arguing over something. Lance paused to listen.
“I’m trying to pare down the amount of junk we have in this place, and you’re not helping. We don’t need this,” the man paused, “this coffin table! It’s so tacky.”
“Look, I’ve told you I don’t know how many times, marry me, and we can ditch the novelty coffin table.” The second speaker’s irritation rode the edge of something volatile. Maybe Lance would be wise to ring the bell and leave the pizza on the porch.
“We have rules! My coven mistress-”
Coven mistress? It sounded to Lance like something out of those porny vampire novels he used to read in high school. Now that he was thinking about it, didn’t Wiccans have covens? Maybe this guy was a witch? Or, he supposed, would a better term be warlock? He didn’t really know anything about it.
“Fuck your coven mistress, Shiro. Fuck the rules. I want you to marry me!” The hurt in his tone carried through the anger of his words. “You know, I don’t even know what I’m still doing with you.”
“Is that all you have to say?”
That one must be Keith. So the big, pale guy who ordered pizza wanted this other guy, who was probably part of some cult, to marry him. Got it. Lance tried to peek in the windows but couldn’t see through the drawn curtains. Not that it was any of his business.
Tapping the doorbell, Lance released his breath, quickly covering his surprise when a different person answered the door.
The first thing Lance noticed was the man’s long, thick, unkempt hair that hung halfway down his back and over his shoulders as if he’d emerged from a veil of pitch, black and glossy as an oil slick.
He was decidedly lean and sinewy with probably less than an ounce of fat on him. He wore practically nothing except a garment Lance wanted to identify as a push-up thong that left very little to the imagination and a black leather collar. Violet eyes scanned him head to toe, eyes that held the breadth of the cosmos in their stare, something vast, unknown, eternal, and very much alive. Lance could almost feel the heat radiate off his pale skin, and he was pale, though not nearly as much as the other man had been. There was a softness to him that Lance found attractive, but it wasn’t physical, nothing about him was physically soft. It was more like something at the edges, a slight drift into another plane of reality altogether, one just as solid but floating unhinged and disconnected. He couldn’t quite name it.
Looking up, the man licked his lips and chewed at the corner of his mouth with one unusually long canine as he edged slightly forward, audibly breathing. A distinctly feral gesture.
It caught Lance off-guard and left him just a little uneasy.
Glancing inside, he spotted the man who had greeted him last time sprawled languidly on a chaise longue and examining his manicure with practiced disinterest.
He wondered if he’d interrupted something intimate. That was what was going on here, right?
“Hey!” Red thong snapped his fingers twice in Lance’s face. “Is that my pizza?”
This was definitely Mr. Kogane. Keith. Cheeks puffed in thought, Lance pulled away, eyes back on the underwear, mentally relieving him of the eye-catching garment if it could even be called such.
“Hello. Earth to-” From under furrowed brows, Keith narrowed his eyes, scrutinizing the name badge pinned to the pocket of Lance’s work shirt. “Lance? Eyes up here,” he gestured to his face.
He looked up, noticing the nametag on Keith’s collar, wondering how he’d missed that.
“Uh, yeah.” His palms began to sweat, and he shoved the pizza box at Keith. Despite the humidity, the fingers that lightly brushed the back of Lance’s hand were rough and very dry. Nails, sharp and almost claw-like, dug into the cardboard. Hesitant for only a fraction of a second, Lance decided he couldn’t be there any longer. He felt as he’d fallen under a spell of scrutiny, and he needed to get away as fast as he could. “Thanksforyourbusinesshopeyouenjoythepizzabye!” he mumbled, turning and walking swiftly back to his car.
Keith watched him go, glancing at the four twenties on the side table intended to pay for this pizza and the previous one with a tip for the delivery.
“You know, Shiro,” he said quietly, closing the door as he retreated inside, “that pizza courier does smell pretty good.”
“I told you,” he looked up from his hand. “He’d be such a tasty bite.”
Lance reminded himself that he had to get paid. Hunk had looked him dead in the eyes with a grim warning. “If you say you forgot one more time-”
He wasn’t going to think about that right now.
“Strut on a line, it’s discord and rhyme, I howl and I whine I’m after you. Mouth is alive, all running inside, and I’m hungry like the woooolf,” Lance chanted as he walked up the path toward apartment 169, skipping and swaying to his modified rap version of Duran Duran.
He stopped about halfway to the door.
Waiting for him on the porch of the now familiar unit was a gigantic black dog, at least he assumed it was a dog. It looked like a wolf with long, shaggy fur, clumped and matted. Eyes squeezed shut, it rested its head on extremely large folded paws, beneath one of which were pinned several bills. His pizza money.
The dog whined a wheezy moan as it opened its great golden eyes then randomly licked a foot, its pink tongue nearly as wide as its paw. It watched him, huffed, then whined again.
Something stirred at its back, something that when it hopped off in a flutter, Lance was able to identify as a fat bat. It stood over a foot high and was missing over half of its right wing, the delicate flesh torn through, ravaged and twisted around the remaining small bones as it stretched. The bat was entirely black with a tuft of white on its chest, like an elegant ascot, and it groomed itself fastidiously with its remaining clawed wing, propped upright against the door and eyeing Lance.
Louisiana wildlife. All of it was oversized and overgrown; the climate encouraged it. Walking up to the porch, he addressed the dog sprawled in front of the doormat and blocking his path. “Uhm, do you think I might ring the bell?”
The dog barked, one loud, abrupt whoof, but he couldn’t tell if it was anger or affirmation. Lance had never had a dog, and while he had to admit this one didn’t seem particularly ferocious, he suspected it could be. He’d also just seen its mouthful of teeth, and while he was not familiar with standard canine dentition, he was certain this particular dog was equipped with extra fangs.
Slowly it blinked and he realized he’d been staring. It was wearing Keith’s collar, or maybe the collar actually belonged to the dog, but then why would it say “Keith” on it, unless of course, the dog was named after Keith?
Was puppy play was their thing?
The dog raised itself to its full height. Head at the level of Lance’s shoulder, it was at least as tall as a Great Dane and sturdy-looking despite the condition of its coat. In the dog’s defense, maybe it, no he, the dog was definitely male and definitely not neutered, wasn’t able to groom himself very well. Did dogs groom themselves? Lance didn’t know.
He wondered how he’d managed to miss the fact that this couple owned a dog that was the size of an adult person. He reached out toward the doorbell but received a rough, wet nose beneath his wrist before the dog gently took his hand in mouth to pull him away.
His heart raced, expecting the jaws to snap shut at any moment.
“Good dog. Heh.” Lance frowned. It was all he could do to keep a level head while slowly extracting himself from the dog’s lead to set the pizza box on the porch with the oversized bat nearby, hopping erratically around and screeching. The dog huffed at the bat, nuzzling it with his coal black nose and somehow convincing it to cease its obnoxious outburst before returning to the pile of bills and barking again at Lance, tilting his head in question. Lance hesitated but decided he was not going to continue to risk his own safety for the sake of his job. It wasn’t like Hunk would fire his best friend, right? He took off back to his Probe.
Checking the rearview as he drove away, Lance saw that the dog had settled down again, the bat resting comfortably between those large front paws.
In a miasma of smoke and dust, Shiro poofed back to his natural form sitting cross-legged on the doormat in his robe and slippers. He brushed the grit off his shoulders as the air cleared, tendrils of smoke diffusing and wafting away on the wind. Daubing at the pink droplets of perspiration collected on his brow with a handkerchief, he finally relaxed against the door.
Keith rolled over languidly, fur dissipating into his body, all of him filthy, his hair a mess and hanging off over the edge of the porch. He drew his knees up, one foot against the doorframe and one hand lazily scratching at his belly. Patting around with his other hand, he found the wad of cash and handed it to Shiro.
“Looks like he didn’t want to be paid. Again.”
Shiro took it, carefully counted the six twenties and slipped the bills into an inside pocket. “I’m not surprised. You were making him uncomfortable.”
“Nonsense. I was on my very best behavior. You, on the other hand, with all that scrowling and flapping-”
Shiro held up his hand for silence.
Keith rolled his eyes and shook his head.
“How is that car even running?” Shiro asked, a rumble of smoke puffing from the muffler as it turned the corner onto the main road. With a flick of his wrist, a glass filled with jewel-like red liquid floated through the open window. He took it in hand and sipped.
Keith glanced up at him. “Duct tape and a prayer,” he yawned, mouth wide and stretching his arms out over his head, fingers curled.
“No.” Shiro shook his head vigorously, swirling the contents of his glass and watching the legs trickle back down the inside. “It’s something else. I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
Was it? Now that he was thinking about it, it was something of a miracle that pizza delivery boy hadn’t yet been eaten by anyone in town. His scent was delightfully appealing. Keith’s mouth watered as he pondered the frenetic ecstasy of tearing out Lance’s jugular, lapping the warm, crimson fluid, crunching the tiny phalanges of each digit between his teeth and sucking out the marrow. Heat built in his loins, tingling through his limbs, a pool of saliva on his tongue slid down his throat, dripping along his spine and leaking drop by precious garnet drop into his gut. He needed to cease his fantasizing before it sent him over the edge. What had Shiro been saying just now? Oh right. “Just be careful with that finger. You only have four.”
“And a thumb.” Shiro playfully nudged Keith’s knee with his elbow.
Keith sat up slowly and scooted over next to Shiro so that their shoulders touched. Grabbing the pizza box sent fireflies scattering into the night, a burst of golden sparks, leading his gaze up to the stars.
They enjoyed a silence under the dim porch light, the waning moon somewhere behind them and the bougainvillea climbing up the rotting porch that framed their evening.
“You’re right, you know,” Shiro said as Keith stuffed half a folded slice of pizza into his mouth, open as wide as he could manage. “We shouldn’t eat the tasty bite, but damn, I mean, darn,” he corrected himself, “does he smell good.”
Resting his head on Shiro’s shoulder, Keith chewed and swallowed. “I know.”
Lance had been thinking about them for days, Keith and the big guy. Shiro? Yeah, that sounded right. There was the matter of the “coffin table”, the gigantic dog, the strange bat. He had so many questions, and his piqued interest was at odds with good sense telling him to stay far, far away from that apartment.
He just wanted to talk. Talking could lead to friendship, friendship to… to other things.
He stopped himself there. The thought only made him more depressed.
He flung his head back against the top of the headrest and stared at the mostly detached fabric ceiling lining the interior of his car. He’d stapled it back up in a few places, but that would only hold for so long until the foam deteriorated and the whole thing collapsed, most likely while he was in the middle of a delivery.
Maybe when Hunk’s business took off, he could get a raise.
Maybe instead, he could get a different job.
It had been a rough six years, but he’d managed to get his performing arts degree and that should have been good enough to land him something.
Should have. If the stock market hadn’t collapsed, he was pretty sure he wouldn’t be delivering pizzas.
Then again, everyone in his graduating class was either working in a movie theater or a restaurant except for that one guy who’d landed a sweet deal with the CIA. Why couldn’t that guy have been him? He was smart. He had potential.
He needed to stop thinking about that.
“It’s now or never!” Jon Bon Jovi crooned from the speakers, effectively reminding him that life was too short for maybes and what-ifs.
“Shut up, JJ,” Lance muttered, the sustain terminated abruptly when he cut the engine, the car shuddering to stillness in front of the dilapidated building.
He grabbed the pizza box and headed for the door. Hopefully, they wouldn’t keep him waiting; he was tired.
Several long seconds after ringing the bell, the door opened just a crack. Violet eyes studied him through the narrow fissure before it opened farther.
Keith picked at his teeth with the point of a dagger, running a steady hand through his hair and pushing his too-long bangs away from his face. Lance hadn’t remembered him having quite so much hair. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. Keith’s brows were definitely thicker, and the dense fur of his tar-dark treasure trail visible beneath the thin white t-shirt.
As Keith reached over to the side table for cash already set-aside, Lance made the snap decision to seize the opportunity. In a fit of recklessness and overcome by curiosity, he shoved his way inside.
Almost immediately, Keith stopped him with the flat of a palm against his chest, expression unreadable.
Lance’s heart danced in its cage. He didn’t know how Keith had managed to be at once behind and before him, but something wasn’t right. Everything about this had been a terrible misjudgment, and he needed to abort this mission right now.
“What do you think are you doing.” Keith’s shrewd eyes narrowed to slits in scrutinizing assessment.
Sweeping one hand over the pizza box in presentation, Lance replied, “Delivering your pizza, of course.” He needed to leave the way he’d come, projecting confidence and finesse.
Clawing at Lance’s polo, Keith curled his fingers around the crucifix beneath the fabric. The veins on the back of his hand stood out blue, a wash of anoxic blood coursing up his arm like lightning, and his pale skin stretched white over his joints. “You’re wearing silver.”
“Technically,” Lance gasped, “but it’s gold plated-”
“You need to leave.” Keith turned, waving the dagger toward the chaise. “Shiro!” he called, stabbing the blade directly into the side table next to the door, burying the tip into the wood and letting go as it wobbled to a standstill.
“Keiiiiith!” Shiro whined, “My precious table!” He fixed on the dagger, setting down his paper and rousing himself from the chaise. “Do you know how much that cost?”
“The pizza courier, Shiro.”
Shiro ambled over, shoving his hands deep into his pockets and rocking back on his heels. Through the vacant pools of his eyes, he looked down his nose at Lance, the cause of this sudden turmoil. Shiro scanned him as he stood there, lingering at his neck. Reaching out, he took Lance’s wrist in his false hand.
“Hey, hey now!” Lance tried to pull away, but the grip only tightened, icy cold and hard as metal around his arm while the one at his chest was almost too hot. He tried to pull away again.
Keith shook his head in solemn warning. “Shiro, I think he’s scared.”
No, I am not. Sweat dripped down his torso from his armpits inside his shirt and he could feel the beads of moisture forming around his hairline. The indignity of it ate at him, more so than the fear. Who were these people, thinking they could treat him like this anyway?
Who was he, barging into their home?
He didn’t move, heart pounding faster as he glanced from Keith to Shiro and then at the hand gripping his shirt. That might be a problem. Not to mention, he was fairly certain Keith was salivating. Call it a hunch, but he wasn’t sure that had anything to do with the pizza.
“Well?” Shiro turned to Keith, still holding on to Lance.
“He’s wearing silver.”
Silver? What was this even?
Glancing at Keith’s hand, Shiro followed the spreading discoloration with his eyes. The darkened blue-violet stained Keith’s flesh from the tips of his fingers coursing up his forearm. “Ugh!” Shiro hissed, dropping Lance’s arm in alarm. “Yeah, I can see that. Get that out of here!”
Keith took the pizza box and marshaled Lance toward the open door, backing him quickly through and out onto the porch with a swift shove. “No silver next time, got it?”
Lance nodded. He was positive Keith hadn’t blinked once since he’d barged into the apartment, the intense, predatory stare still gauging. Keith’s fingertips were blackened in necrotic decay, the skin wrinkling tightly around the sinews and tendons.
“It really fucking hurts,” Keith added, leaning in and pulling Lance back toward him as he spoke, his tone dangerously low. He finally pushed Lance away, slamming the door shut, and throwing the bolt.
Lance needed to rethink his strategy.
He’d also forgotten to get payment. Again. Pidge and Hunk were going to murder him if Keith and Shiro didn’t first.
“Language, Keith,” Shiro called dully from the living room.
“It does though! It really fu- It hurts.” He amended his statement, rubbing at his palm with the ball of his thumb to get the blood flowing and flexing his fingers.
Shiro put his newspaper down again, reaching for him. “Come here. Let me see.”
Keith approached, stopping about two feet away and holding out his hand. “It’s fine.”
Shiro took it in his own, leaning forward. “No it’s not, but it will be. Why did you have to go and make a big deal out of it? All you had to do was send him right back out again. He probably always wears that thing and you just happened to touch it through his shirt. You wouldn’t have even noticed if you hadn’t laid your hand on him.”
“Are you defending him now? I didn’t invite him in, and I will not tolerate a human poisoning us in our own home.”
Shiro leveled his gaze at Keith. “All I’m saying is that he didn’t mean anything by it. It’s not like he showed up with a pistol and a magazine full of silver bullets.”
“That still doesn’t make it acceptable.” Keith wiped his mouth on the shoulder of his t-shirt and turned his head to the pizza box on the side table next to the dagger, tip still embedded in the wood. “I’m hungry.”
“You’re always hungry.”
“Well, yes, but you know,” Keith continued, stepping in, pressing his good palm against Shiro’s breast as he climbed onto the chaise to straddle his lap. “If you were to perhaps help me with that I might not be quite so hungry all of the time.” His mouth turned up in a small smile and he bumped foreheads with Shiro. Keith walked his fingers up Shiro’s sternum then combed them through his hair, nails scraping against his scalp.
Shiro hummed, lifting his mouth to meet the expectant kiss, strings of saliva stretching between them as they parted. “I-” his face fell.
“You’re going to be the death of me. You know that, Mister Silver?”
Brightening at the bad play on the meaning of his name, Shiro bent his head and nuzzled Keith’s neck planting kisses soft against the flesh. “Believe me it will be a good death.”
Goosebumps prickled over his skin at the velvety chill of those lips. “There are snacks in the bathroom.” Keith murmured before running his tongue up along the conch of Shiro’s ear.
Shiro pulled him closer. Reaching under the grubby t-shirt, he drifted his hand over the contours of Keith’s body as if committing it to memory for the very first time.
Memory Keith knew was foolproof, but the gesture was one instilled with affection, and time only solidified the comfort he felt in those hands. He reached down to the knot at the waist of Shiro’s dressing gown.
“How about I eat?” He said it like it was his own suggestion.
Keith reached beneath the fabric to run a finger along the rise of Shiro’s cock. “May I watch?” he asked, ready to abandon his pizza for a much better meal.
By some stroke of fortune, Lance was still alive, having survived the wrath of Pidge and Hunk’s stern disappointment. They just didn’t understand, at least not really. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be paid. Weird things kept happening that were well outside the realm of his control. Apparently, Pidge had mentioned it when they’d called in their order because the phrase of the evening was, “Your tasty bite never takes the cash.”
Tasty bite? Did that mean they wanted him? Wanted wanted him? In that way? After the way he’d been marched out of the apartment the last time he’d delivered, he wasn’t sure he wanted to go back.
“Come on now, touch me babe!” he sang along with Jim Morrison in terrible faux baritone. “Can’t you see that I am not afraid?”
Nope, he was definitely still scared. It had taken him several days to admit that, but when he finally had, he’d felt marginally better. He’d been the one in the wrong anyway.
He hung his cross on the rearview mirror, grabbed the pizza box, and with a deep breath, stalked toward the door.
This was the first time he’d arrived without the porch light on to guide him. As usual, the window had been left open wide, no screen, although while he would have expected moths and insects to be drawn toward the light inside, none were. When he rang the bell, the plastic button cracked beneath his finger. He hoped no one would notice, and he waited impatiently before the knob finally turned and the door creaked wearily in.
Startled by the appearance of the person standing before him, Lance realized too late that he hadn’t recognized Keith. Then again, he had never seen Keith in any state except barely dressed, unkempt, and unwashed. This version was striking in a completely new way, hair trimmed to a tight taper at the nape of his neck and faded to where his bangs were combed back from his face, over-gelled in compensation for the swampy humidity. His crisp white dress shirt stretched taut over his solid chest with the first three buttons left undone, revealing a gold chain around his neck. In a manner seemingly foreign to his typically slovenly appearance, he had tucked the shirt into fitted black slacks that hugged his hips and the curve of his ass. He remained notably barefoot.
Keith seemed like someone who had a hard time dealing with a required routine but was somehow bound inextricably to it. That might have been what it was Lance found so intriguing. He tilted his head as if about to say something, absently twisting one of his jeweled earrings between thumb and forefinger. Several rings adorned his fingers, and Lance had a sneaking suspicion that these might have been gifts from Shiro. Shiro seemed like he appreciated nice things, and right now Keith looked unequivocally expensive.
Now was his chance. “Hi!” Lance began, extending his empty hand. “The name’s Lance.”
Keith glanced at it distastefully. “Yeah, I know.”
Blinking, Lance put on his best manufactured grin. “You remembered!”
“It hasn’t left your name tag.” Keith slowly let out his breath, dropping his hands to his sides. Shoulders slumped, he turned around, heading toward the chaise. “You can come in if you’d like,” his voice nearly indistinct as he sank onto the cushions. Propping his elbows on his knees, he rested his chin on the heel on his palm and stared blankly at the empty wall space between the windows.
Not entirely sure what to make of the situation and considering the last time he’d entered the apartment he’d practically been assaulted, Lance hesitated.
With a slight tilt of his head, Keith said, “I’m inviting you in. It’s okay. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
He supposed he did, and he got the impression that the invitation part was somehow important, but past general pleasantries and politeness, he was not entirely sure why.
“I, uh, no silver.”
“I didn’t ask,” Keith snapped, clear vexation and warning in his tone.
“Okay. I didn’t mean-”
“Yeah, I know.”
Tentatively, Lance stepped through the door, toed off his Chucks beside the door, and sat down on the edge of the sofa, placing the pizza box on the coffin table, a tawdry, low-brow centerpiece mismatched to the rest of the decor. Clasping his hands together in his lap, he waited.
A hush descended upon them.
Crickets sang outside the window. Somewhere off in the distance a frog croaked, although it could have been the mockingbird echoing the internalized helpless futility settling around him the longer he remained. He quickly pushed that thought aside as he was struck full force by the immense wrongness he was sensing.
“So, uh” Lance began, “where’s Shiro?”
“With his coven mistress, where else would he be?”
The biting sarcasm and vehemence of Keith’s delivery weren't lost, even on Lance, but he was unsure of how to navigate this conversation. Not to mention, he still didn’t know what a coven mistress was. “I don’t follow. Is that a normal thing for him?”
“Yes, and no,” Keith replied.
Oh boy, okay, I’ll listen. I can be a good listener. Go on.
Closing his eyes, Keith took a deep breath. “I mean,” he continued, pinching his sinuses as he lifted his heavy-lashed lids, “it doesn’t happen all that often, but when she asks him to go, he never refuses. Why can’t he ever say, “No?” Why can’t I be more important than her just once? What’s she got on him that I don’t? I just,” his voice issued forth, a strained and halting refrain, “I can’t help think that one day she’ll ask him to make a choice and he’ll leave me.” He blurted the words out then promptly shut his mouth, having said too much.
“Why would he do that though? He lives here. You guys had moving crates and stuff, you argue about furniture! Why-”
Keith stared at him.
“Look, if he leaves you, that’s his loss.” He didn’t get it. Why would Shiro leave Keith anyway? The man was gorgeous, even if his hygiene was questionable and sense of style borderline dreadful.
Oh right. Beauty isn’t everything.
Well, nobody’s perfect.
Sitting up, Keith groaned. “Shiro can barely take care of himself. He always forgets his cape, he refuses to enthrall his food, so it’s always trying to run off, he eats in bed, and he cuts his hair with a Flowbee.”
That explained a lot, well no, actually, it didn’t.
Lance made a pitch at recovery. “Okay, well I don’t know anything about this coven mistress business, but Shiro always comes back, right? Has he ever not come back?”
“Well, there you go.” Lance was feeling bolder now that Keith had opened up to him; he wasn’t so scary aside from that weird silver thing.
Keith glared at him, eyes dark beneath sculpted brows. He leaned over and flipped up the lid of the pizza box. “Are you going to help me eat this pizza?”
“I don’t like pineapple on pizza.”
“More for me then.”
It was true, though he’d needed to hear it rationalized from someone else. Shiro would be back, and in all fairness, Allura had never kept him longer than two weeks.
Keith felt a twinge of guilt for making the tasty bite listen to him whine about Shiro. Anyone able to put up with that should, in his opinion, be nominated for sainthood. Conceptually he was on board, although he did not believe in institutionalized religion and by extension, saints.
He realized that he was trying to make friends with the best smelling meal he’d ever met waking or dreaming.
Who makes friends with their food? Not that Keith was going to eat Lance, but humans were prey, and he was undeniably human.
He let Lance babble on about nothing in particular while he contemplated that thought. There was so much to admire about the courier that had nothing to do with his appeal as a sack of blood and meat: his chestnut hair, the healthy glow of his tawny skin. Lance was tall and limber, if not entirely filled out. There was some promise in his figure. If he made it a few more years, he’d be a damn fine specimen.
His scent was no longer so poignant or unnerving.
It was possible Keith was becoming used to Lance, the freshness of youth and his clear eyes, the wandering blue of the Mississippi river delta. He wondered if Shiro had noticed that?
Outside, a dog bayed through the bleak emptiness of the new moon, and he rushed to the window to answer, leaning over the back of the sofa and hanging out into the still night air. It was unavoidable and irresistible. He replied a long deep howl.
Startled, Lance tried to scoot out of the way, “What are you-”
Looking down at him, Keith immediately grabbed him by the shirt collar and pulled him up. “Come on. Say something back,” he whispered, breathily into Lance’s ear. It had been a very long time since he’d been this close with a human he wasn’t planning to devour. If he listened, he could hear Lance’s heart, much slower than his own and feel the heat of sweaty, sticky flesh.
The calling beckoned and Keith’s attention diverted; he answered again. The entire neighborhood came alive with their voices, a chorus of confessions in the dark. “I told them I had a guest tonight. You should say hello.” He elbowed Lance in encouragement, “Go on.”
Taking a deep breath, Lance released his cry, “Aooooooooo!”
Without thinking, Keith reached over and rubbed his back. It was a commendable first try.
Within moments, a Golden Retriever came loping down the road, stopping to sit outside the window, head cocked and ears pricked in query. Keith waved, excitement on his face as the dog pawed at the ground. Another few minutes and several more showed up. He knew all of them by name, their given names and their soul names.
Keith led the cry, with Lance and the dogs joining in until one of the neighbors turned on the lights and screamed at the eerie congregation on the lawn, dispersing the pack with several shots of a handgun into the night.
He sank into the sofa beside Lance, feeling a little better at least.
“Wait. Where’s your dog?” Lance asked, suddenly sitting up and looking around the room.
Keith yawned. “What dog?”
“The big one that looks like a wolf.”
“I don’t have a dog.”
Lance scratched his head. “No-no-no, you definitely have a dog. I saw it. It’s huge. It has extra teeth. It took my hand inside its great, gaping maw and-”
Keith quirked a brow, feigning boredom, though in truth he wanted to laugh.
The mask of confusion that crossed Lance’s face could have been peeled off by hand. Furrows of thought cut chasms across his forehead as he warily studied Keith. “It was wearing your collar!”
“I don’t have a dog,” Keith repeated slowly, meeting his eyes. Resting back against the cushions, he folded his arms over his chest, letting his words sink in.
The look Lance laid on him was at once dumbfounded annoyance and pure disbelief.
Later, Keith tossed the pizza box into the recycling, realizing that Lance had left again without taking payment.
“I really need to pay for these pizzas,” he said aloud to no one.
“What are you looking at?” Lance asked, peering over Pidge’s shoulder.
She sighed loudly with aggravated exhaustion, her concentration broken. Popping the pen out of her mouth, she swiveled around in her seat and slid the newspaper across the counter toward him. “Alien Werewolf Arrives on Earth in 1841,” she read the headline aloud.
“The National Enquirer?” Lance’s brow furrowed, eyes narrowed as he scanned the article. “You know this is just fake news? Werewolves and extraterrestrials don’t exist.” After a moment, he added, “Extraterrestrial werewolves don’t either.”
“They don’t?” She reached out with her index finger and flicked the cross dangling from Lance’s neck. “Prove it.”
“You can’t prove a negative,” Hunk boomed from the kitchen. Something crashed and clattered to the linoleum tile.
“Yeah, Pidge,” Lance smiled smugly, “Prove that they do.”
“Don’t goad, you’ll regret it,” Hunk yelled back.
Lance closed his eyes and rolled his head. “All right, alien werewolves.”
Frowning, Pidge gently coaxed the tabloid back from Lance’s perusal and began to read. “Records uncovered in Roswell, New Mexico - blah, blah, blah,” she flipped a few pages, “Here, where they talk about the photographer. One of her ancestors found a stash of studio copies of her work, and in it was this close-up picture of wolves lined up along a desert ridge.” She pointed to the printed picture. “It says it’s a daguerreotype and the date is 1842. I did a little research and this was before they figured out how to reduce the long exposure time. Imagine trying to get, what,” she counted, “nine wolves and a pup to stand still for about a minute and a half.”
“Sure, but what’s the point?”
“The register entry for this image labels it as a family portrait for a close friend, but get this: there were no family portraits in the pictures found. This photag didn’t do family portraits. Anyway, it looks like someone dug around a little and found mention of some 1841 lunar event that happened out there. I need to finish the rest of the article since I’m not sure how we get from “lunar event” to werewolves, but it looks promising. I’ll have to check it out later.” By checking it out, she meant contacting the author and possibly researching the subject further. Everything cryptozoological piqued her fancy, and she considered herself something of an expert on the local wildlife. She was convinced at least one werewolf resided locally. She pondered that briefly, concluding that it had to do with their social nature and relative prevalence. They could integrate practically anywhere, only bound, as it were, to the full moon.
Frequent reports went out of a giant wolf prowling the edge of town from dusk through dawn. Too many students from the local high school and community college had gone missing without a trace.
“Oh. Okay.” Lance leaned over the counter beside her, chin resting on his arms as he watched her grab the nearest pen and make some notes on a Post-it, pushing the pen across the square in neat, precise rows.
“Are you bored?” she asked, not looking up from her task.
“It’s kind of dead tonight.” Hunk emerged covered in flour. He peeled off the plastic gloves and tossed them in the trashcan before wiping the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. “Did you see the notice?”
“Yes,” Pidge replied, plucking off the Post-it and smacking it on the newspaper before passing it over to him, as she had previously with Lance.
“What notice?” Lance picked his head up, cracking his neck and stretching his long legs.
“The one about 6660 Silver Pointe Row, Apartment 169.” He eyed Lance grimly. “I got this memo from Pizza Hut that they’ve lost two drivers delivering to that address. Two. I don’t even have two drivers!” He threw his arms wide in exasperation.
Lance had to duck to avoid the tabloid in his hand. “What do you mean ‘lost?’”
“Lost as in did not return.” Cocking a brow, Hunk turned his attention to the article again, then passed it back. “Cool! Western werewolves.”
Pidge folded her paper and set it aside on the counter. She’d show it to him again later.
Hunk continued, “And it’s not just Pizza Hut. Apparently, every other pizza shop in town has lost a driver delivering to that address as well.”
Lance rolled his eyes. “You’ve got to be joking. I mean, you haven’t ‘lost’ me yet,” his fingers formed quotes in the air around the word, “and I’ve delivered how many pizzas to that place? Those guys are,” he paused, considering, “unique, but definitely not serial killers.”
“Do you know that? I mean, how can you be sure? Remember, you can only prove a positive.” She grinned. Actually, it was a bit of a philosophic simplification of logic, but the reality was you could never tell, and even though the police hadn’t found any evidence tying them to any of the disappearances, there was something very strange when every other pizza place around was saying not to deliver to a particular residence. The question she had was why pizza delivery staff?
The door swung in, and the string of bells tied to the handle chimed and rattled against the glass. All of them turned to look at the slender, dark-haired figure pushing his way inside.
“Shhh! This is the guy!” Lance flapped his hands for silence.
“Which one?” Hunk asked, quickly looking from the person at the door to Lance and then over to Pidge.
Never taking her eyes off the customer, she thought he might vanish if she looked away, the muscles in his arms and legs tensed with his every movement. Pidge murmured in a small voice. “Have you been listening to Lance these past few months? There’s only Keith or beef. From the look of him, this one’s probably Keith.”
In the center of the small vestibule, he stood unshod, wearing a threadbare t-shirt with the graphic worn off from over laundering and athletic compression shorts that hugged his narrow hips and shapely thighs. A brown-red smear like war paint had dried across one cheek, and a dollop of something almost visceral remained crusted at his earlobe. He scratched his head, hair curling at his shoulders in a shaggy mullet. At his chest, in a front backpack-style baby carrier, rested a rather large bat, curled serenely against him, swaddled tightly with a pilled gray fleece.
Pidge’s brows launched toward the ceiling. Her working hypothesis that the inhabitants of that apartment were other than human might very well be correct after all.
“Hey.” Keith raised a hand to Lance, eyeing his crucifix.
Pidge had heard all about the silver incident.
The bat yawned and nuzzled against Keith while he gently stroked its head.
“How did your hair grow out that fast?” Lance blurted out before anyone else could respond, knee bouncing against the counter.
Keith raked his bangs back from his eyes with his fingers. “Huh? Oh. Yeah, I guess it does grow kind of fast.”
“It’s only been seven days! My hair grows maybe half an inch a month!” Lance insisted, trying to digest but clearly unable to make sense out of it. “That,” he extended both hands out sharply, palms up as if in presentation, “is at least half a foot in a week!”
Before Keith could reply, Pidge interrupted. “No shoes, no service.” She took up her pen again and used it as a pointer, gesturing to Keith’s feet. Tapping the end against her lips, she waited for a reply.
Leveling her like a challenge to surmount, Keith approached the counter. “I owe you for five pizzas. Do you want to be paid or not?”
The fact that he had extra canines hadn’t been lost on Pidge. She assumed he let her notice on purpose; he wasn’t making an effort to hide it though she suspected he probably could have if he tried. She was too lazy to search through months of orders and hoped she remembered correctly. Excessive hair growth, fangs. She filed it all away. If he was a werewolf, she hoped she might eventually have the opportunity to speak with him on a more personal level, for science, of course, and providing he didn’t eat Lance. After a moment’s consideration, she decided she would probably still want to talk to him regardless. “Five large heart-shaped Hawaiian pizzas with garlic and extra garlic.”
“Mmmhmm,” he nodded.
The ancient adding machine printed the ticket as she punched in the numbers, the mechanical grating of its miniature dot matrix printer filling the space with its cacophonic din. Hunk insisted on keeping a printed record despite the fact that she could add just as well in her head. “That’ll be $102.34 with tax.” She hauled the ledger up from under the counter and slammed it down upon the smooth, worn surface, riffling the pages until she reached the end and jotted down the details, stapling in the receipt.
One hand protectively around the bat, Keith shifted his weight to reach into the waistband pocket at his back, producing a money clip. He peeled off a hundred and a five, set the cash on the counter, and slid it across to Pidge. “Keep the change.”
Keith returned the clip to his pocket and turned his attention back to the napping bat, holding it close as he turned to leave.
Lance reached out, fingertips brushing his sleeve. “Hold it.”
Keith froze, slowly turning his head to the side, “Yes?” Pidge would have sworn his ears perked ever so slightly, but she couldn’t tell for all that hair.
“Do I get my tips?”
That took some nerve. Pidge made a mental note to commend him for it later.
Keith scrutinized him keenly, the overhead fluorescent bulbs reflecting bright white off his dark eyes. “You never took payment; I thought you didn’t want any”
Pidge snorted, this guy was funny. Lance puffed his cheeks, trying to decide what to say next.
“Here.” Keith produced a bill and shoved it at him.
Taking the money, Lance tucked it away inside his jacket. Pidge was certain she saw a Franklin.
Five deliveries, twenty dollar tip per delivery, that kind of payout added up.
“Holy crow, that’s the bat!” Lance said suddenly, pointing at the baby carrier, half in wonder, half in alarm.
Pidge smacked her forehead and elbowed her friend in jest. “Don’t tell me you just noticed the bat?”
“Well…” he trailed off, watching Keith smile fondly at the sleeping creature nestled up against him.
Hunk edged forward for a better view. “That’s a real bat!” he interrupted, completely taken aback, “I thought it was fake.”
“I saw that bat outside their apartment,” Lance explained. Then to Keith, he said, “I didn’t know it was your pet.”
Carefully choosing his words, Keith replied. “He’s not my bat; nobody owns him. You people have such a strange concept of possession and your relationship to the world.”
Confusion gripped Lance’s features, and this time, Pidge nearly did laugh aloud. Of course, no one owned that bat. It made perfect sense.
“It doesn’t have a disease or anything, does it?” Hunk asked. “You should probably take it outside.”
Keith blinked slowly, exhaling clear frustration. “He’s not diseased; he’s just sleepy. He fed earlier, and he’s had a rough few weeks, so he’ll probably be out for awhile. He’s been a little disoriented, though. I just couldn’t leave him at home.”
“Are you sure you don’t own this bat?” Apparently, Keith’s first response hadn’t been good enough for Lance.
“Can I touch him?” Pidge pushed the adding machine aside, angling for a better look.
“No, he bites.” Pursing his lips peevishly, Keith adjusted the batpack and bent to kiss the creature’s tiny furry head. “Anyway, I need to get going. Thanks for always delivering a tasty bite,” he winked at Lance, “I really appreciate it.”
He hailed Hunk a two-fingered salute, then dropped his hand and nodded once to Pidge. “See you.” With that, he turned and left, Hunk shaking his head, Lance’s mouth agape, and Pidge gauging slyly through her lenses.
She shoved her glasses up the bridge of her nose with the butt of her pen. “That, my friends,” she motioned to the door through which Keith had just departed, “that was a werewolf.”
“Oh, come on, Pidge. Just because he’s hairy doesn’t mean he’s a werewolf. You shouldn’t go making assumptions about people.”
She glanced down at the article she’d been reading earlier. “‘Tasty bite?’ Besides, he’s not exactly what I’d call hairy unless you’re talking about the fact that his hair grows unnaturally fast? Apart from that, oh, let’s see, he has fangs, he was hardly wearing clothes, he had blood and raw meat smeared across his face. That guy is definitely a werewolf.”
“Werewolves aren’t real,” Lance shot back.
“Look, he’s for sure a breather so he couldn’t have been a vampire, but-”
Cutting her off, Lance jabbed his finger right below her collarbones, other hand at his hip, ready to rebut. “Whoa, whoa now, how did we get on the topic of vampires?”
“The bat?” she posited as she swatted his hand away, her tangible derision dripping like honey.
“Okay, he’s eccentric. So what? Everybody’s got something. You’re an expert on creatures that don’t exist. He talks to dogs, takes care of the local wildlife, and has a coffin-shaped coffee table. It’s no different.” Lance backed off, gripping the edge of the counter as he leaned back, indignantly.
He didn’t get it.
“No, I mean, that bat is a vampire.”
Hunk raised his hand, “Regardless of whether the guy’s a werewolf or a vampire or the vampire is a bat the werewolf wears, or whatever, I really don’t think you should be going out there anymore, Lance. Those notices are kind of alarming. We have the right to refuse service to anyone-”
“But Hunk,” Lance cut him off, “if I don’t do it, who else is going to deliver Keith’s pizza?”
Pidge gave up, reaching for her tabloid. It was going to be a long night.
“-Doin’ the werewolves of London. I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic’s, and his hair was perfec-” Lance shut his mouth and squinted, reading the license plate on the silver Silverado parked directly in front of the path. “ Whaaaa?”
3WF MOON. “Three wolf moon,” he read. At least the owner of the truck had a sense of humor.
Maybe Pidge was right. Maybe a werewolf did live here. It had to be Shiro. It just had to be. Although, Keith was the one with the collar. Could it be both? Or perhaps it really was just a puppy play thing, though if it was, he imagined it wasn’t remotely tame or sweet and probably involved a lot of teeth. There was also the matter of the dog; the dog that Keith refused to acknowledge even existed. Where even was the dog?
All of this was too confusing.
Doubt over his ability to discern fantasy from reality had begun to set in, however, what he did know was that in this present tense reality, he needed to stop pondering the existence of unlikely immortals and get his deliveries wrapped up for the night.
He double checked himself for silver.
This time, however, when he rang the bell, someone new answered. This man was taller than Shiro, robust, swarthy, and wearing a sweatshirt with the hood pulled up and over most of his face, enveloping it in shadow. He stared out over Lance’s head, catchlights glinting in his eyes, then glanced down at him before pushing the door shut again.
“Antok! That’s my pizza!”
The man called Antok stopped himself before closing the door completely, holding it ajar.
Lance pushed against it until he could squeeze the box through without tilting it too much and although he didn’t need to, he sucked in his gut and shimmied in before Antok could shut him out. “One heart-shaped Hawaiian pizza with extra, extra garlic.”
Antok plucked it from Lance’s grip, not even looking at him, opened the lid, sniffed, and groaned. “Extra, extra garlic? Is that really necessary?”
Keith ignored Lance, “Yeah, it is.”
Antok shook his head. “I don’t know how you can stand to eat this garbage.”
“Hey now!” Lance cried, indignantly, “I’ll have you know my very best friend crafted this pizza with his two hands. Not only is it made with the finest ingredients available out here in the dregs of the old bayou but it is imbued with love, the essence of a true culinarian, and a desire to make people smile. This is Pizza My Heart from our heart to yours!”
Antok sniffed at the pizza again, lip curled in disgust.
From the kitchen emerged a second extremely tall figure, but shorter than Antok, long silver braid trailing down over his burly shoulder and around his neck like a noose. He halted in his tracks, assessing Lance with jaundiced eyes. “Why is your dinner walking around like that?”
“He’s letting it air before he eats it, aren’t you, Keith?” Antok interrupted, setting the pizza box on top of the coffin table. He sniffed the air several times, slowly turning his head toward Lance.
Keith immediately grabbed Lance by the wrist, pulling him in so suddenly he nearly lost his balance. He had a feeling, an awful feeling, the man was talking about eating him, and not in the sort of figurative way that left him safe and warm with a tingle inside that started in his groin and spread through his core, out to his limbs, and the tip of his nose. He glanced at the door, but Antok, stood stalwart before it, a sentinel guarding the exit.
Antok ran his tongue over his teeth, keeping a steady watch on Lance. “May I have a taste?”
Keith put himself directly between them. “No.”
“Just a finger, or perhaps a toe? I haven’t met a morsel this intoxicating in decades.”
“I said no. You wouldn’t eat Shiro’s dinner, would you?”
“Hold it. Timeout,” Lance struggled to pry his wrist from the iron vise of Keith’s grip. “Morsel? Shiro’s dinner? I am nobody’s meal, thank you very much. Unless it’s the kind where-“
“Why is it talking?” braid narrowed his eyes at Lance.
Keith pressed his face into Lance’s hair, pretending to breathe in deeply and squeezing him harder. “Shut the fuck up.”
He stopped trying to free himself. His hand prickled with numbness, and tears of desperate frustration welled in his eyes. He’d been so sure that this place was safe, that Hunk was wrong, and that all Keith and Shiro wanted was a late night snack, a pizza kind of snack. Now he was convinced he was going to be the late night snack, and he certainly wasn’t paid sufficiently for the kind of distress he was presently being forced to endure.
Life was hard enough already.
“And where is that vampire?” braid asked.
“None of your business.” Keith retorted, dragging Lance down the short hall where he opened the bedroom door and roughly shoved him in.
Very quietly, Lance slid down the back of the door until his butt hit the hardwood floor. He needed to think, but the snippets of conversation he could still hear distracted him.
“I am so disappointed in you.” It was braid. “When are you going to wise up? That vampire has been nothing but trouble since you met it.”
“What do you want, Kolivan?” Keith asked. “I’m sure you didn’t drive all the way from New Mexico just to be insulting.”
“What do you expect me to do? Keith, you’re my only son. You never pick up the phone. How am I supposed to know you’re even alive if I don’t periodically come check on you?”
“He hasn’t been eating well,” Antok remarked, and Lance could hear the vague sound of cabinets opening and closing as if someone were rifling the contents of the kitchen. “Look at this? What is this?”
“Vienna Sausages and they’re yummy. Put it back, Uncle.”
“Keith, are you even listening to me?” Kolivan’s tone fell deadly flat.
“I’m trying not to.”
“You are still a member of my pack, young wolf.”
The floorboards creaked with each heavy footfall. Lance thought he heard a scuffling of boots and feet and the loud thud of someone hitting a wall. A loud guttural cry rang out through the small apartment. He couldn’t tell who had made the sound.
“Get your filthy hands off me!” Keith growled.
Lance held his head between his knees and laced his fingers across the back of his neck.
“Look, It’s been what, almost one hundred and fifty years? If that vampire hasn’t committed to you yet, he isn’t going to. I’m worried about you and coming here seeing you like this isn’t helping. I only want the best for you. I want to see you happy. I want to know you’re not hungry. I want you to have a pack of your own someday. I want-”
“Ughhhhhhh!” Keith groaned. “What about me? What about what I want? This is my life, not yours!”
Lance gave up trying to follow. Lifting his head, he wiped his nose on his sleeve. From his station, he faced the open window, curtains opened wide, light from the waning crescent of the moon streaming in through the glass. If he escaped through the window, someone might see him making his way to his car. He could easily slip out, but what was the risk, and how safe was it to stay here? Were there more of them outside? He doubted Keith would have put him in a room with such a visible exit if the intention was to save him for later.
It wasn’t a joke.
Eating him for dinner was not a joke.
How dare they assume he was free for consumption!
It must be true then. Keith was a werewolf and Shiro a vampire. He was still having a hard time believing they had ever intended to eat him. Mostly because they would have already. He thought back to the first time he’d delivered to this apartment, remembering the chilling fear he’d felt for what seemed to be no particularly good reason. Had that been his gut instinct telling him to flee? He had certainly never thought it would come to this.
Feeling somewhat dejected and less than resigned to the possibility of being eaten, hopefully not alive, Lance hauled himself up off the floor and planked face-first onto the bed. His stomach hurt, the sting of bile welling up the back of his throat. He gulped it back down.
If this was where it ended, he might as well make the most of it. Apparently, he wasn’t too young or too beautiful to die. He smelled right, and everyone wanted a piece of him. Just not in the way he would have liked. Sniffling, he buried his face in the pillow and drew his legs up, curling tightly into himself and choking back a sob.
“Me too, Lance. Me too.”
Shiro’s voice next to him, muffled by the bedding, shook him to his core, and he jumped, realizing that the shadow beside him was, in fact, a prone, lifeless body in the dark. There wasn’t any warmth coming from his skin, and until he’d spoken, Lance hadn’t realized he was even there. He certainly hadn’t moved and probably hadn’t breathed.
Shiro was, for lack of a more succinct descriptor, dead.
“I didn’t see you,” Lance weakly attempted to recover, slipping off the bed and edging toward the window.
“Of course you didn’t,” came the reply. “No one ever does. I’m like,” he paused, the overhead fan clicking with each revolution, “furniture.”
“Whoa, dude. That’s pathetic.”
No more so than himself, crying over the prospect of becoming dinner rather than trying to do anything about it.
On second thought, it was worse. Lance leaned back against the sill, trying to sneak a look across the lawn to see if anyone was outside casing the place. He could run and run fast, but he didn’t know what advantages the werewolves might have. Shiro, at least in this state of despair was hardly a threat. He shoved his hands into the depths of his pockets, pretending he wasn’t ready to launch himself out and tear across the lawn at any moment.
What are you doing hiding in bed with the lights out while you have company anyway? “You know they’re talking about you? You left Keith to defend your honor against what, his dad and uncle? I mean sure they’re huge and intimidating, but you need to stop acting like a limp fish.”
“I’m a Pisces.”
This was supposed to be a vampire, this great lump of a man balled up under the comforter, practically trembling with what amounted to emotional paralysis? Tentatively, Lance reached out and patted his shoulder, as solid and cold as he’d expected. He quickly pulled his hand away again. “So you just let them treat you like carp?”
“Did you just make a fish pun?”
“Did you just ask me if I made a joke?” Lance glared at him in the dark.
Shiro grunted and pulled the comforter up over his head. Lance doubted Shiro registered him as food, at least at present.
“You know, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t treat you that way if they thought you were serious about Keith. I heard braid, er, Kolivan? He said you were together for a hundred fifty years, that’s a-“
“It’s one hundred fifty-one years, five months and ten days. Thirty-five of those were leap years, and we met on the fourteenth of June, so that makes-“
“Shiro.” Lance cut him off, “That’s a very long time.”
From the other side of the door, Lance could vaguely make out, “Why are you still with that corpse!”
Shiro shrank farther down into his cocoon. He’d heard it too.
“Why do you think!” Keith yelled in return, and something shattered against a nearby wall.
Finally, unable to bear any more, Shiro kicked the covers off, rousing himself from the comfort of the nest he’d built of bedding.
Opening the door, Shiro poked his head out.
“Go on!” Lance urged, “Stand up for yourself! Don’t let them talk about you like that. Corpses don’t have agency, and they certainly don’t have feelings. Unless I’m mistaken, you are capable of both.”
Shiro smacked his palms to his cheeks and ran them down the sides of his face in mental preparation. He stepped out, not bothering to shut the door behind him while Lance stayed put beside the window, not wanting to be noticed.
He watched as Shiro approached Kolivan.
“Good evening, Ko-”
Keith’s lip was bleeding, and his ponytail half slipped out in a snarl at his shoulders. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, the rosy blush of a bruise blossoming along his cheekbone. He turned away from Shiro, crossing his arms and tossing his fringe out of his eyes.
Conversely, not a single hair on Kolivan’s head was out of place, but he rolled down the sleeves of his plaid, covering what looked like a crescent of punctures on his arm. He looked Shiro straight in the eyes.
“Woke the dead.”
Ignoring Shiro, Kolivan and Keith resumed their bickering.
Lance steeled his resolve. These people needed to work out their own problems. If he was going to get home, he’d better make a break for it. Quietly, he hoisted himself up and out, sprinting to his car as soon as his feet connected to solid ground.
As he slid in behind the wheel, he realized he’d once again forgotten to get paid for the pizza.
Shiro stared at Keith’s phone, plugged into the single kitchen outlet.
Almost at his wit’s end, he found himself in the clutches of a lonely and miserable ennui. He’d filled Kolivan’s voicemail with messages. He’d tried Antok. He’d located every single member of Kolivan’s pack and called all of them several times daily. Would someone please tell him where Keith was? Please? Where were they? A week was normal, two weeks stretching it, but two months was downright outrageous. They had disappeared as if plucked from this very plane of existence. All evidence of their lives remained, but no one knew where they might have gone.
Usually, Keith went back to the den when his pack came, an expansive desert ranch in the middle of nowhere. Shiro traveled out several times in case anyone was there, but the home sat unoccupied in an empty land. The soothing hum of electricity was the only sound for miles. He couldn’t break in, well, he could have, but he was bound by the rules, and the rules expressly prohibited entering a home uninvited. He could stand at the doors and outside the windows all day but crossing the threshold without a formal invitation was painfully impolite, and Shiro held himself to higher standards than that.
He needed someone to talk to. Considering this a moment, he realized that if he ordered a pizza, Lance would deliver it. Friendship, or some semblance thereof, and he supposed it was more like a therapy hotline, was at his beck and call. Picking up his phone, he navigated to the browser. He needed the number of that pizza parlor Keith liked, but couldn’t remember the name. Fortunately, one of the boxes was still in the recycling bin, simultaneously reminding him that he hadn’t taken out the trash or recycling in at least eight weeks and that the establishment was called “Pizza My Heart.”
He assumed it was supposed to be funny.
The number was on the box. He dialed it.
“Pizza My Heart,” came the weary whine from the other end.
Shiro was put on speaker.
Rarely did he place phone calls, and he struggled with his new smartphone, wishing he could go back to the old Nokia brick he’d used for over a decade. Navigating the conversation suddenly caught him off-guard, and he tried to remember exactly how Keith did it, but his nerves got the better of him. “Uhm, good evening.”
“You may dispense with the pleasantries. What do you want?”
“We sell a variety of pizzas.”
“Yeah, uhm, and my, uh-“ What exactly did he call Keith anyway? Boyfriend wasn’t quite right, partner sounded too impersonal, lover only touched on one aspect of it. The person who reminds me that I still have a heart. “My SO always buys them from you.”
From somewhere farther away, a second voice yelled, “Thank him.”
“We appreciate your business. What kind of pizza you want?”
“Whatever kind it is you send here, but without the garlic.” The name was right on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t quite grasp it.
“Where’s here? You’re not in my caller ID.”
“Oh. Well, what kind of pizza do you prefer?” That seemed like a safe question. It wasn’t like he was going to eat the pizza.
“Onions, black olives, and sausage.”
“Okay. I want that.”
“Sure thing. What size?”
“That’ll be $17.50. What’s your address, Mister?”
“Shirogane. It’s 6660 Silver Pointe Row-”
After a shuffling of papers, he heard a muffled, “Lance! You’re taking a pizza over to the vampire.”
“Don’t you mean the werewolf?” Lance called back.
“Nope, the vampire,” she took her hand off the speaker.
Shiro hoped this wouldn’t become an issue. Keith would be devastated if Pizza My Heart stopped delivering.
Provided, of course, Keith ever came home.
“It’ll be about forty-five minutes. That okay?”
Lost as he was in thought, Shiro nearly slid out of his chair, startled by her voice. “Yeah, sure. That’s fine,” he leaned back in relief as he hung up, hoping Lance liked onion, black olive, and whatever type of pizza it was he’d just ordered.
“Turn around briiiiiight eyyyyyes. Every now and then I fall apaaaaaaart,” Lance sang in shrill falsetto right along with Bonnie Tyler as he eased in the clutch to brake as he parked, jostling the stick, stuck in first for the second time that day. He cut the engine and reached over for the pizza box.
It had been over two months since he’d delivered here, and here he’d thought that they’d never call again after the delivery where he’d nearly ended up an appetizer for Keith’s relations. To be fair, he wasn’t sure he’d want to come back, but he missed the strange deliveries. It made those evenings just a little less mundane.
For whatever reason, Shiro had ordered this pizza, and the sausage, green pepper, and onion concoction Pidge had suggested was a very far deviation from Keith’s predictably heart-shaped Hawaiian with extra, extra garlic.
When Shiro opened the door, he seemed a shadow of his usual self with a broken bearing and bloodshot eyes. His coarse hair fell long and thick, well past his shoulders. Upon seeing Lance, however, he brightened and stepped aside with a flourishing sweep of his hand.
“Please do come in?”
It was couched as a request, but the imploring tone bespoke a need for immediate companionship. Despite being presently convinced that Shiro was, in fact, a vampire, he’d never laid a hand on Lance in malice, except perhaps for the silver incident, but that was a mistake and didn’t count. Even blood-sucking creatures of the night needed friends.
“Uh, sure,” he shrugged, immediately stopped by the gauntlet, holding out a handful of cash in a fist of delicately jointed digits. Lance took it as he handed over the pizza and counted the bills before stuffing them into his wallet, payment for this one and the last plus a healthy tip. He wished these people would order pizza more often.
Thinking about them, he noticed one was conspicuously absent, “Where’s Keith?”
Not only had Keith not ordered the pizza, he just wasn’t there. The coffin table still stood in the center of the living area, and the neon fuchsia bat light remained mounted on the wall between the two windows. The black leather collar and the money clip Lance recognized from when Keith had come to the store to pay up were sitting on the side table.
With a fall of his shoulders, Shiro scuffed his way across the carpet in pristine black trainers, setting the pizza box on the coffin table. He was wearing a velour tracksuit, that judging from the strangely musty smell and rumpled appearance he might have been wearing for several days.
Shiro melted into the cushion of his chaise, planting his face into a throw pillow.
What was he now, relationship counselor?
“Keith ran off,” Shiro mumbled. “He’s been gone two full moon cycles.”
“Wait a sec., what do you mean, ‘ran off?’” Lance settled himself on the sofa. He couldn’t imagine Keith just up and leaving. While Keith could be irascible and kind of mean, Lance was certain he absolutely adored Shiro.
Shiro grunted and grumbled something unintelligible into the pillow.
“I can’t hear you if you don’t talk to me.”
Sitting up slowly, Shiro wiped his face with his palm. He pointed to the pizza box. “That’s for you,” he swallowed hard and rubbed at his nose, “Lance.”
Lance swelled at the sound of his name, even if it wasn’t the first time Shiro had used it, the gesture was a sort of confirmation. You don’t name your food. Noticing that Shiro was eagerly waiting, he opened the lid and tried not to cringe.
So many onions.
So very many onions.
He started picking them off a slice and waited for Shiro to resume.
“Why isn’t it heart-shaped?”
“It doesn’t come that way.”
Shiro really had no clue.
“It’s a special order.”
“Huh. I didn’t realize Keith got them that way on purpose.”
“Maybe you should pay more attention.”
Shiro did not dignify that with a reply. “Keith’s father and uncle stayed for about a week, and then they all ran off with the full moon. I think Kolivan does it on purpose. If werewolves don’t see the full moon, they don’t get moon sick.”
Lance nodded, taking a bite of his now onion-free pizza. This much he followed.
Shiro continued. “So they left, and a few days later, the Silverado was gone too-“
“Three wolf moon?”
“Moon Moon,” Shiro nodded affirmation, sitting up and reaching under the chaise for a box of Kleenex. He blew his nose hard, bloody snot staining the tissue and his hand. Without getting a new one, he daubed at the watery pink tears welling at the corners of his eyes, smearing the blood across his face. “I guess he finally came to his senses and went back to his pack. Who’d want to spend eternity with a cold, empty-”
Lance took the pizza slice out of his mouth, interrupting what he feared might be the beginning of a lengthy monologue. “Okay, now drama queen, you need to tone it down-”
“I always knew this was going to happen someday.” Shiro blew his nose again and sniffled, sliding down against the armrest until his head hit the pillow and the back of his jacket was rucked up beneath his arms.
Biting off another mouthful, Lance continued, “Shiro, stop. Just stop. You’re working yourself up. You didn’t have an argument or anything, right?”
“No. The last argument we had was over that table.” He pointed to the novelty coffin table.
“Keith thinks the world of you. You must know that. The only thing he even might dislike just a little is that terrible haircut you usually sport.” Keith might not have been that explicit, but Lance had no doubt it was true. Looking at Shiro now, he wondered if someone had sabotaged the Flowbee or if this was just the result of personal neglect. He knew from Pidge’s nightly ramblings that vampires tended to exist in the state they died in, so Shiro had likely worn his hair long when he’d been turned.
Pathetically moaning into the crook of his elbow, Shiro rolled over, face to the wall.
“Let’s be real here, I’m not sure whatever you’ve got going on right now is much better, it’s kind of 90s goth metal, but maybe that’s what you’re going for?” Lance went on before he could be interrupted, “It’s not important. Here’s the thing I still don’t get: why won’t you marry him? You care, so what’s the hang-up?”
“We have rules.” Shiro’s shoulders shook, the quaver resounding through his voice. My coven mistress-“
“Screw your coven mistress.”
“Language, Lance!” he chastised. “Anyway, it’s just a symbol.”
Leaning back against the leather cushions, Lance made himself comfortable. “Symbol of commitment, but hey, what do I know, I’m just the ‘tasty bite.’” He stretched his legs out, resting his feet on the coffin table, scratched his stomach, and ripped off another morsel of the pizza slice with his teeth, side-eyeing Shiro in a dare he was certain he’d win.
Shiro forced himself up off the chaise as soon as he heard the creak of the bedroom window sliding upward and the soft thud of feet hitting the hardwood floor. He ran, reminding himself to slow down and open the door so that he wouldn’t have to pay a fee for having the entire thing replaced should he have sped right through it by mistake.
There, in the center of the bed, lay Keith, having collapsed into fetal position, covered in the flesh of the earth, blood caked and dried on his hands and face, grit beneath his nails, and snarls in his long hair. He’d visibly lost weight, and the remains of his clothes were no more than tattered rags clinging to his frame.
Where have you been?
Right then, Shiro knew he had a heart because he could feel it hurting. He stumbled forward with overwhelming relief and joy. Few good things had ever happened to Takashi Shirogane, but this was the most important one, right here.
Life wasn’t worth living, not even the afterlife was worth living if he had to continue this journey without Keith. He knew how pathetic that would have made him sound had he voiced the thought, but it was a truth he’d also needed to come to terms with.
Keith looked spent as if all the weight of the world had been resting on his shoulders and he’d finally been relieved, yet for all his strength and will and stamina, he was no Titan.
Gently, Shiro lay beside him, pushing one arm beneath and wrapping the other around his chest, face pressed into his back, false fingers curled in the fabric of his shirt. Overwhelming relief washed over him and unable to keep himself in check. He buried his face in Keith’s hair, gut-wrenching tears wracking his entire being.
When he was finally able to compose himself, he froze up. Words refused to form on his tongue, and all he could say was, “It’s good to have you back.”
“Fuck you,” Keith rasped, coughing into the comforter.
Shiro only held him tighter.
Lance scanned through the radio stations again, but all he was able to receive was static with the exception of a single AM station where a male voice graveled out something through the crackle that sounded distinctly like, “Hiya, Chuck,” whatever that was supposed to mean.
He didn’t know anyone named Chuck, but if he did, he’d have suggested a week-long vacation somewhere far, far away.
Pidge had said earlier that the disturbance in the airwaves likely had something to do with the rift that had opened up just outside of town. He glanced over at the ominously churning clouds through the blackness of the new moon and the wraiths of haze emanating from the violet glow of the anomaly like the hands of lesser gods reaching for the world. The portal would most likely close up again in about a day or so. No big deal.
He needed to finish up his deliveries, get himself out of this twilight zone, go home, and get some sleep. By some streak of misfortune, Shiro had discovered his number and had subsequently taken to calling him at all odd hours of the night to soliloquize over the meaning of life, the repression of death, and various other standard fare vampire problems.
He hadn’t had a solid sleep in over a week, and it was starting to wear on him.
When Pidge had sent him off with the order for 169, she’d said it was for the werewolf, and he breathed some relief knowing that whatever had happened, Keith was back.
Pizza in hand, he rang the bell and waited. Keith opened the door, abnormally fresh and clean, but gaunt despite the high wash of color in his face.
“Hey, Lance.” Keith took the pizza and handed him two twenties.
“It’s been a while.”
Shiro waved from where he sat cross-legged, in black and gray athletic wear, his hair still long and looped into a bun. Lance waved back.
“We’re having rom-com night. Wanna join us?” Shiro asked.
“What are you watching?” Lance asked, gripping the doorframe and leaning inside. Two new pictures had been set in a double fold frame beneath the painted portrait on the mantel. On the left was the image he’d seen printed in Pidge’s tabloid with the 9-member wolf pack plus one tiny pup. The companion piece was modern, but otherwise nearly the same, only the pup was no longer a pup but had come into his own as a giant black wolf, still several hands smaller than the rest of his gray-coated pack. He recognized that wolf.
Away from a residential porch and without a collar, there was no mistaking it for a dog.
“Terminator 2,” Keith answered, interrupting his thought process.
“Uhm,” Lance paused, wondering why Keith and Shiro would consider a movie about a boy and his robot bodyguard to be a romantic comedy, but he’d also caught a glimpse of the popcorn bowl, the stack of medical blood bags, and the two boxes of tissues sitting on the coffin table. “Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll take a rain check.”
With the door still open, Keith’s gaze immediately traveled to the turbid haze in the distance. He reached for Lance’s shoulder but stopped before touching him, changing his mind and letting his hand fall to his side. “Just be safe out there.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Lance replied. “I’ll be fine.” He would, of course, but was touched by the sincere concern for his well-being.
Shiro parked the car out front. He’d take it back to the garage later, but before they went in, there was one more thing he needed to do.
Keith hummed, taking his hand off the door and turning to look at Shiro.
“I-” his voice faltered, and he shifted uncomfortably, eyes darting away. He couldn’t do it. Why hadn’t anyone told him this was going to be so hard. What was he afraid of? He’d wanted to do this for so long. It had to be just so.
Reaching up, Keith rubbed Shiro’s shoulder. “What is it?”
He cherished that face, the little frown, the glassy, violet eyes looking up at him full of fresh concern and something else.
Shiro knew exactly what that something else was. He felt that way too, had since the day their paths first crossed.
Reaching under the seat, he pulled out the box he’d hidden there earlier that evening. He was sure it hadn’t exactly been hidden. Keith’s sense of smell was far superior to his, but he’d played along superbly. He was still playing, the slight tremor of anxious excitement in his hand told Shiro that much.
The night was clear, and silence filled the open air while stars glittered through the windshield.
He could do this.
“Keith,” he began again, swallowing hard, but the lump in his throat remained,“I love you.”
“I love you too.” Shifting, Keith reached up to draw him into a kiss, but Shiro pulled away.
“I- will you-” Shiro didn’t breathe, but the gesture was a leftover part of a life he’d been torn from several hundred years ago, and he inhaled deeply, filling his unused lungs with a shudder of stale air. He opened the black leather ring box, revealing the contents within. “Will you marry me?”
“Hey, little sister shot gun!” Lance sang, firing finger pistols into the night, driving with his knees for the duration of the line. “It’s a nice day to start again, come on, it’s a nice day for a-” he smacked the dash, “white wedding.”
Maybe something interesting would happen tonight. Reaching his destination, he pulled up behind a pristine black Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith drophead coupe with the tag, STRIGOI.
For a brief moment, Lance’s heart dropped into his stomach. How appropriate. He didn’t think he could deal with delivering another pizza to this place during a family gathering, but something about the fuzzy pink bats dangling from the rearview mirror and the woven bat throw stuffed partially into the back window told him this vehicle might very well belong to the inhabitants of apartment 169.
Keith answered the door in slacks and an undershirt, a gold wolf’s head bolo tie hanging loosely around his neck. Eyes fixed hungrily on the pizza box, he brushed his shaggy fringe out of his face.
Something caught Lance’s eye as he handed it over.
On his left hand, Keith wore a gold and silver-colored woven band with tiny inset diamonds on the band and a larger cut rock, an engagement ring if ever Lance had seen one.
Following Lance’s gaze, Keith thrust it out to him. “Titanium, gold, and a colorless, flawless, one-carat diamond. Isn’t it gaudy?”
“Well…” It was the first time he’d paid any attention to how delicate Keith’s hands were, and he wasn’t sure whether to agree or not. Over half a joint was taken up by the ring.
“It is, you can say so,” Keith whispered, pressing the cash toward Lance.
Lance jammed the bills into his back pocket as he shook his head, genuinely pleased. He wondered how much of a role he’d played in this culmination of a one hundred fifty-one year-long romance. If they’d made it that long, they stood a chance of making it through eternity. While he was certain marriage wouldn’t change the dynamic of the relationship, it took uncertainty out of the equation.
The corners of Keith’s mouth ticked up in a small smile as he brought the pizza box up to his face and inhaled with obvious pleasure.
Lance scanned the small apartment from where he stood, wondering where Shiro might be. The coffin table remained as the decorative centerpiece to the eclectic design scheme he was beginning to think of as contemporary macabre. No one had removed it yet. He didn’t think marital status would actually have any bearing on the fate of the table. Keith liked it, so Shiro tolerated it.
Shiro walked out of the kitchen and stopped when he spotted Lance in the doorway. He wore a tailored black suit with gray accents, dressed for an evening out. He’d cut his hair again, but it was combed back from his face, and by the look of it, Lance suspected he’d seen a barber. “Hello, Lance. Won’t you come in?”
There it was, the invitation. “Sure,” of course, he did. “But I gotta know, why haven’t you eaten me?”
Keith tore his eyes away from his pizza to meet Shiro’s. Unspoken words passed between them, greater than longing or a simple exchange.
Shiro shrugged. “We like you,” he finally answered.
“And,” Keith began, in smug satisfaction, “we’d really like it if you’d join our den.”